Summary: Voldemort's final defeat does not mean Harry Potter's troubles are over; far from it. In the aftermath of war, he returns to a Hogwarts that is fractured and divided, but this is no break that can be fixed with a spell. New owls, fading scars, surprising alliances-- and along the way, the hardest task of all, to live with it..
Author's Notes: An enormous thank you to Reena, who got me through this fic and all others, and kept me in fandom for the past six years.
The trees lining one side of Grimmauld Place were in full bloom that summer. Less than two months before, the weather had been damp and dour on the best days, but May had brought whole weeks of sun, sluicing through the streets. Now, at the tail-end of July, the first rays of morning sifted through the flourishing trees, puddled in the gutters, and slipped through the windowpanes of number twelve, chasing out the night's shadows. Most of the house's inhabitants were asleep, so the only one who noticed the advent of dawn was a boy with tousled black hair and a lightning bolt scar, who was staring, eyes wide open, at the ceiling.
It was Harry Potter's birthday, and he couldn't sleep.
He had been eighteen years old for five hours now. Drowsy birdsong drifted through the open window, while the just-rising sun turned to gold the room's pale gray walls, as well as the inhabitants of the Muggle pictures pasted there. It was just the sort of muggy morning that, less than two months ago, Harry had never thought he would live to see again.
He was sleeping in Sirius's room, and in the morning light he could make out the single magical picture stuck to the wall: Peter had sidled out, as if he knew he wasn't wanted, but Remus was dozing on James's shoulder and Sirius was tickling him with a quill he had produced from one of his pockets. Despite the prickle of grief that reared even now at the sight of the boys, Harry grinned at the look on Sirius's face.
On the table beside Harry's bed lay a thick stack of newspapers, a good two thirds of which contained an article on him. Atop these was The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, which had been the first book on hand when Harry had grasped for one to shut up Ginny's singing birthday card: he could see it now, peeking out between the pages, but had no desire to play it again this early in the morning.
Next to the table, there was a chair draped with Harry's dress robes from the previous night's Order of Merlin ceremony, and beside them on the floor, the sizeable velvet case containing his medal. Mrs. Weasley had seized Ron's with the aim of putting it in Gringotts at once, while the Ministry was keeping Hermione's safe until she returned from Australia.
Harry wasn't sure what to do with his. He had a feeling that he had some negotiating to do with the Gringotts' goblins before he could return to his vault.
He had meant to go at once, but as the summer months wore on, memorials and funerals had consumed his days. Besides, as everyone kept reassuring him, there was time now. There was nothing but time.
None of that explained why he could not sleep, Harry knew, rolling over and staring once more at the ceiling. For nearly a year he had run on adrenaline and desperation, on and on through the forests, hunting for Horcruxes and hunted himself, and now, when he had only to sleep and wake up in the morning, eat breakfasts and cheer on the Cannons, the task seemed, at times, insurmountable. If Kingsley had only asked him to help track down the last Death Eaters . . . or perhaps to round up the Dementors still lingering in particularly dismal corners of London . . .
He finally dozed off watching Sirius poke his feather up James's nostrils, and when he woke again, the room was yellow-warm with sunlight and he could hear Ron clumping up the stairs to wake him for breakfast.
Harry had scarcely sat down at the kitchen table before the first owl swooped in, its talons clutching an acid green card that landed in Harry's lap and exploded into a fizzle of orange sparks that spelled out HAPPY BIRTHDAY! The display was so explosive that the owl took off at once, its feathers singed, and the card's envelope flew clear across the room to hit Ron in the chest.
'George?' Harry guessed, eyeing the last few sparks with trepidation.
'No, some witch named Janice,' Ron said, examining the envelope. 'Probably a Weasley product, though, you reckon? Oh, look out, here comes another-- '
In the next half hour, twenty-six owls arrived, some laden with cards, others with packages. A wizard who called himself Gerald Trufflebloom had sent a self-portrait, and someone named Ingrid Ballywallis had shipped over a lopsided cake. Harry even received a sizeable box of chocolate Snitches from Romilda Vane, which Ron chucked hastily in the bin.
'I don't want any of this,' Harry said, gesturing at the pile of Acid Pops, Cockroach Clusters, and sparkling turquoise robes from a witch in Surrey who said they would offset his eyes. 'I don't know any of these people!'
'You'd think they would at least keep up with your favorite sweets,' Ron added, eye on the Acid Pops. 'I could do with a few nice chocolates.' He cast a longing gaze at the tin from Romilda, though clearly knew better than to touch them.
'But I don't want anything,' Harry insisted. 'I don't want presents from people I don't even know!'
'Sure? That Gerald looks to be a handsome fellow,' Ron snorted. He tossed the rolled-up Prophet towards Harry. 'Here, have the paper, at least. Could they have made your face any bigger?'
Harry winced; the headline story, HARRY POTTER TURNS EIGHTEEN IN WORLD FREE OF WAR, took up the entire area above the fold, and from the looks of it, continued on the next page. He firmly turned it facedown and began reading the story on the opposite side, which happened to be an advice column by Sylvia Saturn.
Ron was immersed in the Daily Prophet's morning crossword and Harry in the news section when the doorbell clanged and someone stumbled in, knocking over the troll-leg stand beside the door with a crash. For one stunned second, Harry almost called out to Tonks, before realizing it could not possibly be her.
'Sorry,' a voice called out, 'here, here, you take him-- '
Moments later, a tall woman glided down the narrow stone stairs into the basement kitchen, all traces of her daughter's clumsiness gone. 'Harry,' Andromeda Tonks said warmly. 'I'm so sorry. We meant to arrive earlier but Teddy made such a mess this morning that it took near an hour to tidy up.'
'I shouldn't worry, I'm sure they only just woke up,' someone said with amusement behind Andromeda-- someone familiar, and before Harry could even push his chair back, Ron was on his feet.
'Ron, Harry!' she beamed, coming into view with Teddy in her arms. Ron made an awkward rush toward her, only to find his way blocked by Andromeda, and then he was drawn up short by Teddy's presence. To Harry's grand amusement, he settled for patting her on the shoulder.
'I've got him now,' said Andromeda, scooping her grandson out of Hermione's grasp. Her arms free, Hermione flung them around Ron, who cleared his throat embarrassedly as Hermione moved to Harry and swept him into a hug as well.
'Oh, it's so good to be back,' Hermione exclaimed. 'Harry, happy birthday!'
'Thanks,' Harry said, grinning as Ron continued to hover near Hermione's shoulder. 'Welcome home. Though I thought you weren't coming over until just before the party?'
'It's already noon,' Hermione informed them, smothering a smile. 'Honestly, did you boys do nothing but sleep while I was gone?'
'We got our Order of Merlin medals,' Ron protested, flopping into a chair at last. 'And we went to two Chudley games.'
Hermione raised an eyebrow. 'A worthwhile use of your time, I'm sure. Oh, here, Andromeda, I'll take Teddy, I've missed him.'
The older woman smiled. 'Would you? He's been quite the handful this morning. Actually, if you'll take him, I might have a walk around. It's been some time since I've got a good look at the place.'
As Andromeda left the kitchen, Hermione turned to the boys. 'Speaking of old haunts, we've letters from Hogwarts. They were waiting outside. Here, have a look.' One arm still clutching Teddy, she rummaged around in her bag with the other, producing three fat envelopes. Harry took one and slid his finger under the seal.
He read aloud:
Dear Mr. Potter,
We are pleased to inform you of the official re-opening of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Due to the events of last year, you are invited to return for the completion of your N.E.W.T. level curriculum. Each House has been expanded to accommodate the additional students.
Term begins on 1 September. Please notify me of your decision no later than 15 August.
He looked up. Though Hermione had not yet opened her letter, she did not look surprised.
'I don't understand,' Harry said. When he thought of Hogwarts, he could see only the bloodstained rubble, whole staircases cracked down the middle, walls with enormous holes blasted through them. He felt as if someone had done a Freezing Charm on his insides. 'How can it re-open? It'll take years to rebuild, even with magic.'
'But it's regenerative, of course,' Hermione said.
Ron goggled. 'It's what?'
'Just as Hogwarts is prepared to defend itself in times of need, it's spelled to heal itself,' Hermione explained. By her tone, she considered this fact obvious. 'Of course, it needs assistance, but I imagine Professor McGonagall and the other teachers have been spending the summer doing just that. It was Helga Hufflepuff's biggest contribution to the building of Hogwarts. She was always very good at earth-related spells, it's what Hufflepuff is known for. I read about it in Hogwarts, A History.'
'Of course you did,' Ron muttered. After thinking for a moment, he added hopefully, 'No chance of Gringotts being regenerative too, is there?'
Hermione looked guilt-stricken. 'No. For the most part, goblin magic only extends to elements found in the earth, like metals and precious stones. To do anything else, they'd, well, they'd need wands.'
The three of them exchanged glances, recalling their less-than-friendly parting with Griphook. Hermione opened her mouth, and Harry knew she was about to ask if he had talked to Neville about the Sword of Gryffindor in her absence. Luckily, at that moment a steaming platter soared toward the table, Kreacher trotting behind it with another tray, this one bearing tea.
'Just in time, I'm starving,' Ron exclaimed. 'Oh, is that bacon? Excellent.'
'You haven't changed a bit,' Hermione said affectionately.
Harry, who was not hungry, absently took a piece of toast and dropped it onto his plate.
He had not, of course, talked to Neville; while he found it unbearable to do nothing all summer, it was equally unbearable to do the little tasks that were now all there were. Besides, he did not venture out of 12 Grimmauld Place and the Burrow very often. He and Ron had visited Diagon Alley the week before and nearly been mobbed by a crowd of witches.
'It's like a regular house here, now, Hermione,' Ron said around a mouthful of breakfast, at the same moment helping himself to the pan of bacon. 'Breakfast every day, and fresh curtains, and the sun's actually shining, it's like-- '
'Like Voldemort is dead?' Hermione finished.
Harry frowned down at the toast on his plate, only half-remembering putting it there. He jolted awake some nights from dreams of another Horcrux, or with the idea that he was lost somewhere in the forest, the war still going on. From the way Ron often woke by sitting bolt upright and looking around, and the way Hermione's wand leapt to her hand at any loud noise or sudden movement, Harry knew he wasn't alone.
A bell tolled in the distance and Teddy started to cry. Harry watched as his hair darkened from light brown to black, then into tufts of blue.
'Wish you could use Silencio on babies,' Ron grumbled, but when Hermione sent him a sharp look, he said, 'All right, fine, give him here.' To everyone's surprise, Ron had turned out to be Teddy's favorite. Sure enough, the minute he found himself in Ron's freckled arms, the crying stopped. 'As long as he doesn't spit up on me like last time.'
Harry snickered. 'You'd make a good father.'
'Yeah, how about I get through N.E.W.T.s first.'
Hermione's eyes immediately took on that dangerous light they knew all too well. 'N.E.W.T.s!' she exclaimed. 'I'd nearly forgot, I have to start revising right away! If we're going back for seventh year, they're only a year away, and I'm so behind!'
'But you made that brilliant bag of yours,' Ron argued. 'And you saved my life after I splinched myself, and you got us out of Luna's house safely, and you helped Harry with finding the Horcruxes and the Hallows and fighting the Death Eaters, and, all of it! You even memory charmed your parents! That should count for something, shouldn't it?'
'Yes, yes, but I've forgot the verdict of Elfrida Clagg's thirteenth ruling on states of Being! And I haven't thought about Arithmancy in months!'
Ron's mouth twitched. 'I have a feeling Vector will understand.'
It was only the shock of Ron remembering the Arithmancy professor's name that halted Hermione's panic.
'Are we, then?' Harry said before she could regain her momentum. He still felt as if he had a block of ice in his stomach. 'Going back?'
'I am, of course,' Hermione answered at once. 'I've done a lot of thinking while on holiday, and I'd like to go into a career with the Ministry. My main interest is now in prison reform, though of course I think the treatment of anyone who isn't a wand-carrier is appalling. Regardless, I'm convinced that the best route to reform is to push for it from the inside, and to work at the Ministry, I'll need all the N.E.W.T.s I can get.'
'Suppose I'll go back, too,' Ron said in a glum voice, quite obviously torn between the spending the year with Hermione and not having to return to lessons. 'Anyway, Mum'll make me, I can just hear her now.'
'Well, a good education is nothing to sneer at,' Hermione said, ignoring the look Ron gave her. 'Harry, what about you?'
He frowned. 'I suppose I should. I talked to Gawain Robards last night. He's the head of the Auror office, and he mentioned becoming an Auror. He said I'd be an automatic choice if I came back with the required N.E.W.T.s.'
'But Harry, that's fantastic!' Hermione exclaimed. 'Of course you should be an Auror!'
'I'd like to be,' Harry mumbled. Robards had seemed an amiable man, with hair almost as helpless as Harry's own. 'We need the likes of you,' he'd said.
Now, Harry shrugged. 'I don't know, Hermione. It doesn't feel right. It just isn't the same-- '
'Well, it won't be the same,' Hermione interrupted briskly. 'That much is obvious. Even with an extra year present, the number of students missing will be dreadful. And we can't look at Hogwarts quite the same, not after what happened there, can we? It will take some adjusting, that's been a fact from the start. I don't think, however, that any of this is good reason to avoid it, not when we all need N.E.W.T.s to move on with our careers.'
'Careers?' Ron echoed. 'You're the only one with a, a career in mind!'
Hermione rolled her eyes. 'Of course, you'd rather watch Quidditch every day, would you? Well, Harry's got a career.'
'I didn't say that,' Harry muttered. 'Besides, Ron, Robards mentioned you. Said he'd take all of us if we got the required N.E.W.T.s. You, too, Hermione.'
'Well, being an Auror certainly isn't the only path to success in the Ministry,' Hermione hmph-ed. 'Regardless, that settles it, doesn't it? Oh, please, Harry, you must come back with us! I don't think I could bear Hogwarts without you.'
'And Hermione and I would kill each other in about a week,' Ron put in, grinning. In his lap, Teddy had fallen asleep, hair halfway between blue and black. 'Come on, we need you, mate.'
Harry's mind had been occupied with the dismal thought of Ron and Hermione cozied up together all over Hogwarts with no room for him, but now he thought of living with Hermione in the tent while Ron was absent, and remembered how much he had missed Ron's presence. He gave a reluctant grin back. 'I do have to find a new place. And I suppose it's only a year.'
'Perfect,' Hermione cried, flinging her arms around him again. 'Well, we ought to write back to Professor McGonagall straightaway. And we'll need our books, of course.'
'I'll need a lot more than that,' Harry muttered, recalling with a sinking feeling that he had left most of his school things at Privet Drive before departing. Returning to Hogwarts after the war had been the furthest thing from his mind; he had barely dared to hope that he would survive.
'We'll go next week,' Hermione announced with an air of finality. 'There's a book I have to ask at Flourish & Blotts about, in any case. I started to read it in Australia but then I had to return it to the library. It was called Bars and Barriers: Prison Reform from Bedlam to Azkaban-- '
'You had to have done something in Australia besides read books,' Ron said doubtfully.
Hermione sniffed. 'Of course I did. We went to the beach and out sightseeing. I went out by myself a lot, actually. There's a lovely open-air wizard's market near where my parents were living. I asked them to come but they didn't want to go.'
'How are they?' asked Harry. 'They were happy to see you?'
'Well, yes, I suppose,' Hermione said. 'They were, well, angry at first, but obviously they were glad that I was alive and that I'd come and found them.'
'Angry?' Ron echoed, looking quite angry himself on Hermione's behalf. 'Why?'
'Well, how would you feel if someone rearranged your memories without asking you first?' Hermione said. She looked down and her hair hid whatever emotion crossed her face. 'Without any way to fight back or tell them to stop, and when it was your own daughter who wanted you to forget her and move halfway around the world . . .'
'Oh,' said Ron, one arm still absently curled around Teddy, 'yeah, maybe that, that makes sense.'
'They were just shocked.' Hermione shrugged. 'I don't think they ever realized just how much you can do with magic, how really powerful and scary it can be.'
The three of them were silent for a minute. Harry did not know what his two best friends were thinking, but he would guess that it had something to do with Voldemort. He swallowed; there was a strange feeling in his stomach, a small ache, like he was hollowed out.
After the battle had ended, he had slept for sixteen hours, and when he'd woken he felt empty somehow. He had tried to ignore the feeling, push it away, but at odd times, like when accepting his Order of Merlin the night before, it came back.
'Well, what have the two of you been doing?' Hermione asked at last, her voice forced and bright. 'Surely not just Quidditch, Ron?'
'We hung Phineas's portrait back up. Harry's been looking for a flat since Andromeda's taking the house to raise Teddy in.'
'She wants me to stay here too,' Harry added, for Hermione looked affronted. 'But I'd rather live somewhere else. Somewhere small in London.'
'Sirius did give his house to you,' Hermione said, her tone gently probing. 'Are you sure you want to give it up? You don't have to give your house to Teddy just because he hasn't got-- '
'I want to,' Harry said forcefully. 'It's not because of his parents anyway, it isn't.'
Hermione was still looking at him with her eyebrows drawn together in that anxious way of hers, like a caricature of herself, and he shrugged.
'I'm going to see if Andromeda wants any breakfast,' Harry said, pushing back his chair with a clatter. He could feel both Hermione's and Ron's eyes on him as he slipped out of the kitchen and up the stairs, but he didn't turn around.
As he crossed through the front hall, Mrs. Black's portrait was silent, the curtains drawn.
Harry tiptoed past anyway.
Number twelve Grimmauld Place had come alive again; Kreacher had even gone so far as to polish the plaques of house-elf heads until they gleamed in the guttering light. More often than not, Harry found a steaming cup of tea waiting for him when he ventured into the kitchen, and he scarcely had to think of a warm bath before Kreacher had drawn it for him. This was nothing in comparison to Andromeda, however; the House of Black had taken to her immediately, like a wand returned to its master.
Harry found her up in the drawing room, where the light seeped through the windows and he could hear the bells from a cathedral nearby. She was dressed like a Muggle, in jeans and an old jumper, and she made a strange picture sitting there beside the peeling wallpaper, a cigarette in hand.
'To think I used to hate this house,' she said when she saw him, tapping ash into what he was sure used to be a family heirloom.
'You don't hate it now?'
Andromeda shrugged; she stroked the arm of her rocking chair without thinking. 'I'm one of the only Blacks left. I think it's figured that out. We're growing on each other.'
Harry eyed the chair, whose small creaks sound almost like purring. 'If you say so.'
'I hope you don't mind,' Andromeda said, gesturing to her cigarette. 'It's a newly acquired habit. Ted's fault, really. I used to scold him for it, so he had packs hidden all over the house. I've been finding them everywhere. I took it up and now I can't quit. Strange justice, I suppose.'
Harry shrugged. In the shadows sometimes, Andromeda still looked like Bellatrix, but here she was in a swathe of cold sunshine and she only looked age-lined, old. 'Kreacher's made breakfast, do you want some?'
'I'll be down in a moment. Let me finish my cigarette. Bad for babies, you know.' She took a drag and looked out through the windowpanes, now gleaming from Kreacher's attentions. 'I can't believe I'm raising another child. Alone, too.'
From the other room, Harry could hear Teddy gurgling. He couldn't imagine Remus on a broom, and anyone who met Tonks knew she was dead clumsy on her best days. Still, when Teddy was old enough to walk, Harry planned to take him to as many Quidditch matches as Andromeda would allow.
'Not really alone,' he told her.
She gave him a brief smile as she stubbed out her cigarette and stood, palms smoothing over her thighs. 'Thank you, Harry. For the house, too.'
'I'm happier without it,' Harry said. 'I don't need it. And it's your house by right, you're just as much of a Black as any of them.'
'Are you sure?'
'Yeah,' Harry said. 'Besides, Sirius would have approved. He always said you were his favorite cousin.'
'Did he?' Andromeda murmured. 'He never told me that.' She tucked her arm around his; he caught a flash of Bellatrix in her profile, and then she smiled. 'All right, let's go eat.'
Halfway through the afternoon, the remaining guests began to arrive for what Mrs. Weasley had promised would be a modest party. She was the first, with Ginny in tow, but Harry barely had a minute to greet them before Hagrid appeared in the door, sporting his great coat even in the summer heat.
'Happy birthday, Harry!' he exclaimed, knocking Harry's breath out of him with one clap on the back. 'Go' yeh somethin' special. Though' yeh migh' need one, headin' back ter Hogwarts an' all.'
'News travels fast,' Harry said ruefully, glancing at Hermione.
'Well, o' course we all wan' ter see yeh back, Harry,' Hagrid boomed, 'an' you, Hermione, an' Ron too! Professor McGonagall told me straightaway.'
With that, he began to rummage through his coat's many pockets, in the process pulling out four keys, a suspiciously lumpy package wrapped in brown paper, a collection of rock cakes that looked as if they'd been in there since Christmas, a chipped old teapot, and a handful of owl treats. After dumping several balls of twine and a dirty pamphlet titled Fun with Fertilizers on the table, he finally pulled out a small brown owl; blinking, it gave a soft little hoot.
'He's no Hedwig but yeh don' see the likes o' her every day,' Hagrid muttered, dumping the little owl on the table in the foyer and turning around to beam at Harry. 'Well? Do yeh like 'im?'
'He's-- he's great, Hagrid,' Harry said, grinning back.
'Well, seein' as I got yeh Hedwig, an' I was with yeh when she was hit-- dead shame, tha' was, good owl-- anyway, I knew yeh needed one.' And he began putting the many contents of his coat back into his pockets, then stopped and fished something else out. 'Oh, come ter think o' it, he brough' this fer yeh, this morning.'
Harry picked up the small package. Taped on the front was a card covered with posies, the likes of which he had seen Aunt Petunia using for as long as he could remember. Inside were the words:
Now you are of age. Happy birthday and good-bye.
Beneath them, Dudley had scrawled in the cursive of an eight year old, Happy birthday. From Dudley.
The package contained a polyester tie-- a considerable step up, for the Dursleys-- and half a melted chocolate bar, undoubtedly Dudley's contribution.
'Smart owl,' a deep voice said as someone clapped Harry on the shoulder. He looked up to see Bill Weasley, Fleur at his side. 'Happy birthday, Harry!'
'Hey, thanks,' Harry said, grinning. 'I didn't see you come in.'
'Yeah, Luna and Dean came with us, they're just outside,' Bill said. 'Here, let's go into the kitchen. You can open our present there.'
He had a new set of dress robes from Bill and Fleur, a handful of other birthday cards, and an enormous tin of homemade treacle tart from Mrs. Weasley. Luna had drawn him a card that depicted him, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville, Dean and Luna herself, all smiling and riding on the back of what might have been a sleeping dragon or a Crumple-Horned Snorkack. Neville appeared to be eating a Dirigible Plum.
He also received an envelope from Mrs. Creevey, holding a letter that she seemed to have cried on more than once and a handful of glossy photographs. Harry did not want to look at them, but he did anyway: they were of him, and his friends, and other people from Gryffindor, people whose names he didn't know but thought he should. He looked at them until he felt sick, because he realized that it had been two months and he still didn't know if Parvati Patil was alive or dead.
'Living,' Ron said vaguely when Harry leaned over to ask. 'Staying with Lavender, I think. Sad, isn't it? About Lavender?'
'Yeah,' Harry said. He knew about Lavender, at least: he still remembered her being carried out of Hogwarts by one of the centaurs, her body bloody from Fenrir Greyback's teeth. 'Have you seen her?'
Ron glanced down at his hands, big and freckled, dirt under the nails. 'I've been meaning to go,' he muttered. 'I just haven't got around to it, you know, things have been hectic, haven't they?'
'Sure,' said Harry. He did not think he sounded all that convincing, but Mrs. Weasley arrived in the doorway with the cake then, and there was no more time for dwelling on Lavender or how things might have been.
Near the end of the party, Neville arrived, the Sword of Gryffindor slung over his shoulder like it was any old object. Harry went down to let him in and wisely led Neville into the empty basement kitchen instead of the chaotic room upstairs.
'I've been meaning to bring it round,' Neville said, dumping the sword on the kitchen table with a clatter.
'It's not mine.'
'But Hermione said Dumbledore gave it to you,' Neville frowned. War hero he might have been, but his belief in Hermione Granger's ability to be right was absolute. 'It was in his will, she said.'
'I know, but it belongs to the goblins.' Harry sighed: he had received a ten-page letter from Hermione during her time in Australia, her cramped scribble arguing fervently that he needed to return the sword at once. 'I told Griphook-- he's a goblin-- I told him he could have it. I think I ought to give it over willingly.'
Neville ran a hand through his hair. 'But the next time a Gryffindor in need puts on the Sorting Hat, won't it just disappear again?'
Harry looked at the glittering rubies in the sword's hilt, out of place on the crumb-covered table in the dingy sunlight. He thought of its weight in his hand for the first time, when he was only twelve years old, face-to-face with a dead boy and his pet monster. He felt ancient.
'Let's hope that's a long time from now,' he said. 'Come on upstairs, there's still cake.'
'All right. Happy birthday, by the way.'
Harry shared a grin with him. 'You, too. Hey, are you going back to Hogwarts?'
'Would my gran have it any way else?' Neville shrugged as they climbed the stairs. 'Dunno what else I'd do, so why not. You?'
'Hermione says we've got to go,' Harry agreed. 'Besides, I want to be an Auror, and you need five N.E.W.T.s for that.'
'An Auror, really? I never thought of it, but Gran thinks I ought to try. We'll see how I do on N.E.W.T.s, I suppose.' At the doorway, Neville shook his head in amusement. 'You know, it's the oddest thing, being famous. Professor Slughorn keeps owling me. He won't give up. Seems he wants me back in his Slug Club, after all.'
Harry laughed. 'Caught on at last, has he?'
Neville shrugged. His hair was getting long, and he had a few scars remaining, ones no magic would quite take away. They all had them. 'Yeah,' Neville said. 'I suppose so.'
After the cake had been demolished, a significant amount of it to reappear in Teddy's hair, Fleur cleared her throat and declared, 'Zees ees a very good time for us to make our announcement! Bill and I are pleased to tell you zat we are pregnant!'
'We?' Bill said indignantly.
'I 'ave told you, 'aving a child ees a joint endeavor,' Fleur sniffed. 'We are doing zis togezzer! As promised, if ze child ees a boy, we will be naming 'im Frederick-- '
'Frederick?' George echoed.
'-- and if ze child ees a girl, she will be named Victoire.'
'Ooh, that's pretty,' Hermione exclaimed. 'There was a Victoire who once served on the International Confederation of Wizards, did you know? In the eighteenth century. I read about it in Famous Witches of the Wizarding World.'
Fleur sniffed. 'Zat was my muzzer's great great great aunt.'
At Harry's side, Ginny snickered and leaned against him, a soft pressure against his arm. He put his hand on her back and it felt unfamiliar, but she smiled up at him and everything was warm, then, surrounded by friends who had lived and Ginny's skin hot against his palm. He did not feel empty or hollow at all.
The party went on so late that only Harry's head drooping onto the table brought it to a close as Mrs. Weasley leapt to her feet, exclaiming, 'The poor boy's exhausted, he should rest, it's late and Arthur, you've a big day tomorrow . . .'
Harry bore her fussing patiently; even now, she thought of him as fragile, someone who needed to rest, always that word, rest. She hurried most of the guests out the door, even Ginny, who made a truly terrible face behind her mother's back. Andromeda was the last to leave, Teddy bundled up in her arms, and finally only Harry, Ron and Hermione were left.
'Well, happy birthday, mate,' Ron said, pounding him on the back. 'If nobody minds, I'll just nip into the kitchen, see if Kreacher has any leftovers of that cake . . .'
Hermione squeezed Harry's shoulder affectionately. 'Did you have a good birthday?'
Yeah,' Harry said, 'yeah, it was great.'
On his way to bed, when he splashed water on his face in the upstairs toilet, the tap tried to snap at his fingers and he snatched them away in shock. Behind his mirror reflection, he could see the window's thick panes of glass, gleaming from Kreacher's attentions. The tub stood on feet so clawed they could rip out someone's heart.
It was no place to raise a baby. Harry looked at the tub again, the way the tile was chipping, the claw feet, and he thought of Fenrir Greyback, and then of Remus, as he walked down the hall.
Wide awake, he gazed at the picture of the Marauders until the shadows grew too dark to see.
It was still early when Harry arrived in Diagon Alley the Friday next, though when he pushed open the silver doors of Gringotts, its vast hall was bustling. There was no sign that a dragon had broken through from underground only months before, and business, if anything, seemed to be up; goblins hurried to and fro across the lobby with wizards and witches trailing in their wake.
Harry thought about entering Gringotts for the first time, and the way his mouth had dropped open at the sight. He had never even heard of a goblin, much less a Wizarding bank, and the lobby of Gringotts had bowled him over.
As if on cue, Harry looked down to find Griphook standing beside him.
'Well,' said Griphook, a speculative and rather unpleasant smile twisting his face as he gazed up at Harry. 'We meet again, Harry Potter. I was wondering when you would appear.'
Harry pressed at his hair nervously. 'Yeah, I've been meaning to come and see you.'
'Er,' said Harry. 'Look, there was a lot of damage to Gringotts that we honestly didn't mean to cause-- '
The goblin nodded, unimpressed. 'At least twelve vaults were heavily damaged, with minor damage to thirty others. The reconstruction to the tunnels was substantial, not to mention the cost of the dragon you stole, and the value of the treasure taken.'
Harry opened his mouth and shut it again. While he had never flaunted or misused the money his parents left for him, he had always taken it for granted. Sirius, too, had left him a good deal, but Harry wasn't sure it would pay for a dragon, much less for Gringotts.
'I,' he muttered. 'The Weasleys-- Ron, I mean-- and Hermione, they shouldn't have to pay. I'll take care of it. Whatever I need to do.'
'Whatever you need to do,' Griphook repeated, in a slow tone that Harry didn't like. 'You have already broken one promise you made to a goblin, Harry Potter, and here you are offering another? Your word is as good as leprechaun gold to me.'
'Those were different circumstances,' Harry argued. 'I keep my promises. I swear I'll pay Gringotts back.'
Griphook stared at him for a long minute. Across the grand lobby, Harry heard several people gasping his name and he was sure they were pointing, but he paid them no mind. Finally, Griphook's mouth twisted into a small, savage grin.
'The sword will be repayment enough.' His eyes glittered. 'That is, if you do plan to uphold the deal you have already broken once.'
'Of course I do,' Harry exclaimed. He pulled the sword from Hermione's bag, lent to him for this occasion, and handed it to Griphook. 'I always intended to give this to you.'
Griphook stroked the blade's handle with his long fingers, the rubies glittering in his grasp. 'You intended for me to believe you would give it to me at once, when your true plan was to wait until it served your purposes to do so,' he corrected. 'To some, there is no difference, but I do not think you are one of those wizards, Harry Potter. The kind who, in the end, care not what happens to others, as long as it is on behalf of the greater good . . .'
Harry swallowed. 'Hermione said that the goblins gave the sword to Godric as a gift.'
'The goblins had little choice, once Godric Gryffindor took the blade from Ragnuk the First,' Griphook said softly. 'In Gryffindor's time, he was well-respected, even among our kind. He was allowed to keep it, as a gift of sorts. They believed he would return it when he was through.'
Harry frowned. 'He probably just wanted to make sure that Hogwarts was protected.'
'The arrogance of wand-carriers!' Griphook hissed. 'Assuming that they know best how all things can be used, even the magic which they do not possess! The enslavement of house-elves . . . thieving goblin-made treasure . . .'
Harry pressed at his hair again. 'Yeah,' he said at last. He was thinking of Godric, but for some reason, his dad's was the face that kept swimming before him. 'Yeah, sometimes we can be a little arrogant.'
To his surprise, Griphook let out a sharp gritty laugh, like rocks scraping together. 'You are an interesting wizard, Harry Potter,' he said. 'You ought to know that we found Travers.'
'Why, you told him to hide,' Griphook said slyly. 'Do you not remember? On the day we broke into Gringotts, there was a Dark wizard you put under the Imperius curse, and when he was no longer useful to you, I believe you commanded him to hide.'
Harry could barely croak out, 'What happened to him?'
'Dead, of course,' said Griphook. He was smiling, a bloodthirsty little smirk. 'We were distracted by your escape, and the repairs to the nearby vaults took over a month. By the time we searched for him, he was little more than skin and bones, the worms had taken him.' He raised his long, tapered fingers and twisted his beard between them. 'What was that phrase, again? Oh, yes, for a greater good . . .'
'I'm going to be sick,' Harry said, and tottered out into the sunlit Diagon Alley without a single Galleon in his pocket. By the time he had recovered enough to re-enter Gringotts, Griphook was nowhere to be seen, and the sword had vanished with him.
Harry went with another goblin to retrieve his money and left the bank quietly.
Diagon Alley was bustling again, the Ministry's UNDESIRABLE NUMBER ONE posters replaced overnight by ads for new broomsticks, the latest robes. Ollivander's was still closed, though the lights were on; Harry imagined the strange old man inside his premises, working silent and alone to re-open. The only visible sign remaining from the war was Florean Fortescue's old shop; all the windows were broken, and on one of the boards nailed across the door, he saw hasty graffiti of a skull and the words-- probably scrawled by a different person-- Trust Harry Potter.
'Look!' someone screamed as Harry was crossing the street. 'Look, that's Harry Potter! Hey, Harry! Harry, over here!'
Not for the first time, Harry wished he had brought his Invisiblity Cloak along, despite Hermione's admonitions that it was not to be used lightly. Ducking his head, he gave thanks for the close proximity of the neon window display of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes and dashed for the door.
Stumbling inside, Harry almost tripped over Ginny, Ron and George, standing and talking by a display of funny hats. At his clumsy entrance, Ginny glanced over at Harry and grinned.
Harry grinned back: he hadn't seen Ginny since his birthday, and with all the guests, they hadn't been able to snatch a moment alone together. Even now, Mrs. Weasley was watching them, and the instant she realized they were staring at one another, she said loudly, 'Ginny, come over here and look at this!'
Ginny shot Ron a filthy look and disappeared behind a large display of Shield Cloaks to see what her mother was pointing at. At the beginning of the summer, Mrs. Weasley had stumbled across Ron and Hermione kissing passionately in Ron's bedroom and henceforth kept a much stronger eye out for trouble.
It made for quite the interesting month, as Ginny was nothing if not keen on flaunting her mother's decrees. This resulted in a lot of kissing in closets and beside beds instead of in them, and once Ginny exasperatedly joked that she might as well Polyjuice into Hermione just to get him alone. At one point they'd been ensconced in a broom cupboard with his hands up her shirt, when Mrs. Weasley had given up calling their names and begun opening doors at random. Harry Apparated downstairs and Ginny made up an excuse about looking for Crookshanks, though not much could explain how short of breath she was. It was about as far as they had got, and from what it looked like, they weren't about to get any further.
'All right, mate?' Ron said, and Harry realized he was flushing at the memory of Ginny, body warm and pliant against his.
'Sure,' he said quickly, and to distract them both he plunged his hand into a display of small ivory candies, one of which bit him hard enough to draw blood. 'Ow, what the hell are those?'
'Candy fangs,' Ron said; he looked proud. 'They bite if you aren't careful. Good, eh? It was my idea, I got it from the basilisk. George said it was brilliant.'
'Yeah,' Harry said, nursing his stung finger. 'Sounds it.'
'So did you give up the sword?' Ron continued. 'Hermione said you would.'
Harry nodded; he did not feel much like discussing it. 'Yeah, I did. Though Neville says it'll probably just pop out of the hat if someone needs it, but don't tell Hermione that. Hey, did you hear that Neville's going back to Hogwarts too?'
Ron looked cheered by this and gingerly popped one of the candy fangs in his mouth. 'Seamus too, I think. I suppose it won't be too bad. Lav's not going, though.'
'I went to see her yesterday,' Ron shrugged. 'Should have gone before, really. She said no one's come to see her but Parvati.'
A prickle of guilt started in Harry's stomach, though he had never been close with Lavender. 'How was it?'
'Really awful,' Ron said truthfully. He wiped his mouth with a shudder. 'The bite isn't even that bad, it's only the bottom part of her face, you know. But she broke her back in the fall. I didn't-- I didn't know it would be like that.'
Harry hadn't either.
The rest of their shopping went by without a hitch, and by the time they arrived back at the Burrow, they were too exhausted to make the last Apparition to 12 Grimmauld Place. Ron turned on a Quidditch match on the wireless while Mrs. Weasley bustled around the kitchen, reminding Harry suddenly of Kreacher at his most attentive, multiple pots of food and chopping knives at his command. 'It smells great, Mrs. Weasley,' he said, and she came right over to him and gave him a fond kiss on the forehead. It had been months, and still people hugged one another too long before leaving, or urgently whispered, 'Keep safe,' before realizing there was no longer the same danger.
Harry glanced around the kitchen: the nine-handed clock was working again, and everyone's hand was set at Home or Work except for one, which pointed steadfastly at Deceased. He noticed that Mrs. Weasley had hung the clock half in shadow.
'How's the game?' Mr. Weasley asked cheerily when he came stomping in the door after work, Percy half a step behind him. He had gray hair at his temples, now, fine lines of stress around his mouth.
'Brilliant,' said Harry.
As they ate, neither he nor Ron mentioned going hungry in the woods, with only wild mushrooms for food. Harry had three helpings of Mrs. Weasley's steak and kidney pie. Ron had five.
The end of August turned scorching, and in the heatwave, the days sped by. Their last evening arrived in a bustle of preparing their trunks and scrambling to clean, and before he knew it, Harry was sitting outside the Burrow with Hermione, watching the sun go down. Everything drifted quietly: the threadbare sheets drying over the garden like sails; Crookshanks stealing around the hedges after a gnome; Celestina Warbeck warbling, oh, come and stir my cauldron; birds rising from the trees.
'Hogwarts tomorrow,' Harry said.
Hermione patted him on the knee; they were all subdued about the return, even her, though she had let out a small exclamation of pleasure upon receiving her Head Girl badge. 'It'll be all right, Harry. I know it won't be the same, but no one expects it to be like before the war.'
'Easy for you to say. Everyone's forgetting.'
'No they aren't,' Hermione insisted. 'We aren't. Mum keeps ringing me, but by the time I answer, she's forgot what she wanted to ask. Sometimes I wake up and I think Ron's arm around me is somebody attacking, and I shove him off before I can wake up properly, which makes him start fighting because he thinks I'm an attacker. Have you seen how many casseroles Molly sends Andromeda?'
'I don't-- casseroles?'
'Bellatrix,' said Hermione.
Harry frowned at his knees.
'No one is going to forget,' Hermione continued. 'Not those of us who were there. Nineteen years from now, thirty-two, sixty if we live that long. We'll still remember. But we can't stay there. It doesn't do any good for anybody, least of all the dead.'
'I know,' Harry admitted. 'Every time I see Teddy, he looks older. By the time I'm comfortable holding him, he'll be too big for it.'
'He can sit on your lap,' Hermione teased.
Ron, who had wandered out onto the stoop behind them, stood there with his hands in his pockets, casting an obscenely long shadow across the garden.
'I just don't know what to do,' Harry said. 'We're going back to Hogwarts, and it'll just be-- Charms and Quidditch and-- '
'It's a little scary, isn't it?' Hermione said. She linked her arm in his.
'What,' said Ron, 'Quidditch?'
Hermione smiled. 'For me, yes, but that's not what I meant. We were living with one purpose for so long. Now anything could happen. It's a good thing, but it's harder.'
'Yeah,' Harry said, 'maybe.'
'Well, we're with you whatever happens, mate.'
'Yeah.' Harry looked up at Ron in the dusk and gave him a grateful grin. 'I know.'
King's Cross station was bustling that warm September morning, and with a delayed start from the Burrow, there was no time to casually lean through the barrier; Harry raced through after Ginny, who had an armful of snarling Crookshanks and did not look happy about it.
As the steam from the train billowed over Platform Nine and Three Quarters, Harry glanced around to see a few familiar faces: Dean Thomas was already on the train, waving, with Luna Lovegood beside him, and down the platform, Neville's grandmother was lecturing him about something or other. Harry's friends were not the only ones who had noticed him, however. As he passed, more than one cluster of students stopped their conversations altogether, some outright pointing. Harry was sure he heard one mother exclaim, 'Well, I feel better now, you're sure to be safe with Harry Potter still at Hogwarts!' A small girl who was surely someone's sister, still too young to be a first year, stared at Harry with her mouth hanging open.
'Are you famous or something?' Ginny said, rolling her eyes. 'Honestly, you'd think you were one of Luna's Snorkacks for the way they're staring.'
'Oh, look who's talking,' Ron snickered. 'I seem to remember you staring quite a bit before you'd met Harry.'
Ginny flushed. 'That was different. Come on, Harry, let's go find a compartment.'
'Be careful!' Mrs. Weasley shouted after them, giving Harry one last squeeze around the shoulders. 'Ginny, owl us straightaway when you get to Hogwarts!'
Ginny did not bother responding, instead muttering to Harry, 'I'll make Ron do it, he is Head Boy after all.'
They boarded the train together, waving to Ron and Hermione, who disappeared towards the front. Ginny took Harry's hand the minute they were out of Mrs. Weasley's sight and pulled him towards the end of the train and into an empty compartment.
The Hogwarts Express was hissing steam and all over the platform, families were calling out good-byes and last minute advice, but somehow everything seemed too quiet. After their frantic arrival and the bustle of boarding, not to mention a summer of hurried encounters, it was strange to be sitting across from Ginny in an empty compartment, and from the way she was fidgeting, Ginny seemed to find it strange too.
The train's last whistle sounded, and Ginny said in the following silence, 'Oh, this is stupid.' She gave Harry an impish smile, stood up, and plopped down on his lap.
Harry said, 'What are you doing?'
She did not answer, probably because this was a stupid question.
Ginny was wearing a thin sundress and the way she was straddling his lap, there was only the fabric of his hand-me-down jeans and the crotch of her knickers between them. He slid a tentative hand over her thigh, thumb tickling the crease where her hip jutted: he thought he felt lace against the pad of his thumb and his breath hitched.
'Harry,' she whispered; she smelled like soap and clean laundry and the flowery scent of her shampoo. At once-- he could only feel relieved-- it was easy again, and he was kissing her, hands on her hips, her red hair falling down around them--
The compartment door crashed open.
Ginny toppled off Harry's lap and barely managed to keep herself from falling onto floor. Dean stood in the doorway, looking a mixture of embarrassed and annoyed.
'There you are,' Luna said absently behind him. 'We thought you might not be coming back.'
'Hi, Luna,' Ginny said, smoothing her dress over her knees as she settled back onto a seat. She shot Dean a far less friendly look. 'Hey, Dean.'
She was still blushing several moments later, while Luna talked at length about wrackspurts and their extraordinary properties, which were yet unproven as none had ever been caught. For his part, Dean busied himself with a football magazine, avoiding Harry's gaze.
At last, Ron came in and collapsed on the seat beside Harry. 'I tell you, these first years,' he said. 'Twitchy little buggers, I swear they've all got a thousand of George's jokes in their pockets. I ought to give them all detention now.'
Hermione slid open the compartment door, carrying a towering stack of Cauldron Cakes and several packages of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. 'You can't give preemptive detention, Ronald,' she said. 'Honestly, did you learn nothing as a Prefect?'
'I learned how many kinds of foam are in the Prefects' bathroom,' Ron offered, though his speech was somewhat garbled from the handful of Every Flavor beans he'd jammed in his mouth. 'Eurgh, I think that was bratwurst. Here, Harry, take some.'
Harry absently took a handful of them as he listened to Luna chatter. She was now talking about Freshwater Plimpies, or was it a vacation she had taken with her mother to seek them out? He felt so tired all of the sudden, like swimming in water with all his clothes on. And he had the sneaking suspicion that what he thought was peppermint was actually mashed potato.
Harry shut his eyes, the roar of his friends' voices around him. It was only for a minute. And perhaps everyone had a point, perhaps he really did need to rest . . .
When he woke again, it was night, the lights of the Hogsmeade station blinding them through the window. Harry rubbed his eyes. If he squinted, he thought he could see the thestrals, tossing their skeletal heads as they waited for passengers. He wondered how many students could see them now.
It wasn't until Harry was seated at the Gryffindor table that evening that he realized that Draco Malfoy was nowhere to be seen. Aside from the previous year, when Harry had not returned, there had never been a year when Malfoy had not sought him out on the train.
He was about to turn around and look for the Slytherin when Hermione exclaimed, 'Shh, the Sorting's about to begin!'
Flitwick, who had apparently been appointed Deputy Headmaster, tottered up to the stool with the Sorting Hat in hand; the Hat, while still intact, was charred from Voldemort's fire and as it had already been dirty and patched, it looked very much the worse for wear. Meanwhile, Flitwick was so short that he had to use a charm to levitate the Hat onto the stool. This done, he stood back and beamed, and a moment later, the Hat's brim split open and it began to sing.
Oh, you may have seen a lot of hats
But there's no hat quite like me,
I look deep inside your head
And decide where you should be!
Ever since children came to learn
With good Hogwarts to guide them,
The founders split them into four
And chose me to divide them.
Good Hufflepuff took those who were
Most loyal, just, and fair;
Her House was home to any
Who, hard-working, toiled there;
While Ravenclaw, who valued wit,
Chose the brightest and the best;
To her went those sharpest in mind
The smart, the cleverest.
Now, Gryffindor favored the brave
The mighty and the true.
He chose the proud, the strong of heart
To learn the things he knew.
And Slytherin, last of the lot
Filled his House with great ambition;
The cunning and the pure of blood
Were the ones to gain admission.
And so the Houses lived and learned
Both quartered and yet whole,
But peace turned stale, friendships were lost
Fear and fury took their toll,
Friend turned to foe, the school was split
They dueled instead of learned:
Differences turned to blows
And old Slytherin was spurned.
One early morn, he left the school
And ever since that break
The fighting calmed, but split we stayed.
We have not learned from their mistake.
Beware the dangers of neglect
Exclusion and disdain;
Divided, Hogwarts still could fall
And my work will be in vain--
For I am here to Sort you
But I worry that it's wrong,
For I'm to split you, not unite you
Now let's see where you belong.
There was silence in the Great Hall, then a smattering of applause. 'Blimey,' said Ron. 'You'd think it'd be happy that You-Know-Who was defeated, wouldn't you?'
Harry shrugged. 'Maybe the Hat's confused. Voldemort did almost incinerate it, right?'
'Be quiet!' Hermione hissed. 'I want to listen!'
Ron rolled his eyes. 'You'd think she's never seen a Sorting before.'
But up near the dais, Flitwick squeaked, 'Abercrombie, Melania!' and scarcely did the tiny girl clamber onto the stool before the Sorting Hat shouted, 'GRYFFINDOR!' All around Harry, the students erupted in cheers; Harry could see Euan Abercrombie several chairs away, pounding on the table and looking pleased.
Harry sat in a daze as 'Alderton, Edgar' and 'Bagnold, Basil' were Sorted, clapping without thinking. He had stood there that morning as the Great Hall filled with sun and it had all seemed so unreal: everyone had wanted to touch him, hug him, whisper his name, and then they had wanted to tell him about the dead, the lost ones. Now, as Flitwick read off the names, it seemed inconceivable that Hogwarts had been a burial ground only moths before. Life had gone on, there were funerals and sandwiches and post in the morning . . .
'Gudgeon, Gideon' went to Hufflepuff and Harry frowned down the table, only half-listening as the names were called. Beside him, Ron and Seamus were snickering over a magazine fold-out as 'MacDonald, Evan' trotted over to Ravenclaw amidst cheering . . . 'North, Elladora' went to Slytherin . . .
At last, 'Wiggleworth, Stephen' ran to Hufflepuff, and the instant the Hufflepuff table stopped clapping, Hermione's hand shot across the table and gripped Harry by the wrist.
'What is it?' he said, badly startled.
'There were three Slytherins sorted,' Hermione whispered, stunned. 'Only three!'
'What's the matter with that?' Ron demanded, finally distracted from the magazine Seamus was showing him under the table. 'Who needs more of them, anyway?'
'Well, that's just it,' Hermione said, a funny sort of expression on her face. 'Turn around.'
Harry had to stand up to see over the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs. Once he did, his mouth dropped open.
Apart from the three first years, the Slytherin table was empty.
Harry sat back down. 'Maybe they're late,' he ventured as the tables filled with food, though he did not for a minute believe his own words. Now that he looked around, he could see handfuls of students missing from the other tables as well, empty seats where there had not been gaps before. Over at Ravenclaw, Lisa Turpin was crying into Anthony Goldstein's shoulder. Harry did not see many other Ravenclaws he recognized.
It was not Hogwarts, not the Hogwarts he had known, not really; it was all different.
'Good riddance, I say,' Ron shrugged, biting into a chicken leg with gusto. 'If they don't want to be here, we don't have to put up with them!'
'When you talk with your mouth full, Ronald, I can see everything you're eating,' Hermione said primly. 'Besides, didn't you hear the Sorting Hat this year? Not to mention what it said the last two years we were in school?'
Harry and Ron stared at her. After a minute, Harry offered, 'Unity, something about working together.'
'In fifth year, it said,' and Hermione closed her eyes for a moment, as if to better remember, then recited, 'And never since the founders four were whittled down to three, have the four houses been united as they were once meant to be. Remember? And it said, We must unite inside her or we'll crumble from within. Didn't you hear it this year? Don't you see?'
Ron, still vigorously chewing a mouthful of chicken, garbled, 'See what?'
'Slytherin left!' Hermione exclaimed, sounding anguished. 'Of the founders, Slytherin left one day and never returned, and ever since then, the school hasn't been the same, that's what the Sorting Hat was trying to tell us. It said we had to work together and unite against the threat outside or we'd just be helping, remember? Voldemort sowed dissent and division, just like he split his soul, and the opposite is uniting-- '
'I sort of think uniting with the Slytherins would have been helping him, actually,' Ron said with a grimace.
'But what the Sorting Hat said,' Hermione persisted, 'it said we'd crumble from within, and that's just what we're doing, an entire House has disappeared!'
'Oh, who cares,' Ron said. 'You-Know-Who is gone, Hermione. We don't have to worry about it anymore! Besides, you don't see anyone else caring, do you?'
But Harry, looking around, found that this was not entirely true: McGonagall, Sprout, and Slughorn were involved in a furious conversation at the head table, and every couple seconds, Slughorn would look toward Slytherin, as if he had just been mistaken and it would be full of students upon a second glance.
'Of course,' Hermione whispered, having followed Harry's gaze, 'he's their Head of House, but there are only three people there!'
'Ron has a point,' Harry said as he helped himself to the bowl of mashed potatoes. 'No one stopped them from coming. It was their choice.'
'We have not learned from their mistake,' Hermione said meaningfully. It took Harry a second to realize that she was quoting the Sorting Hat.
Ron rolled his eyes. 'You do realize you're parroting the words of a hat.'
'You ought to care about this!' Hermione exclaimed, rounding on him. 'You're Head Boy! Didn't you read the letter that came with your badge? It's our job to look out for the welfare of the students at Hogwarts! That includes Slytherin, you know!'
'Bit hard to look out for them when there aren't any,' Ron said with a grin. Harry had to stifle a smile.
'Oh, the two of you, you'll see,' Hermione retorted. She had not touched her food, and now she was tapping the end of her fork agitatedly against the table. 'I swear I've read about another case like this. Three years ago, Nick told us that this has happened before. Was it in sixteen ninety . . . no, that was something else . . . perhaps . . . oh, hang on, I've got to look in the library!'
And she leapt to her feet, fork still in hand. Both boys looked at her in alarm.
'But 'er-my-nee,' Ron said urgently, mouth full, 'yawgh hea gwa!'
Hermione looked a cross between revolted and amused. 'Sorry?'
Ron gave a tremendous swallow and repeated, 'You're Head Girl! We're supposed to help the Prefects lead the first-years to their houses at the end of the feast!'
'So you did read the letter,' Hermione said, pleased in spite of herself. 'Well, you're Head Boy, after all. I think you're perfectly qualified to handle the Prefects without me. And I'll just be in the library, Ron. You can send your Patronus if anything gets out of hand.'
But before she could leave the table, Professor McGonagall came down the aisle towards them, seizing Seamus Finnigan's dirty magazine and Vanishing it without slowing her pace at all. She stopped beside Hermione.
'Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, I need to speak with the both of you at once,' she said, ignoring Seamus's strangled cries of protest. 'In the Entrance Hall, if you please.'
Harry was already rising to his feet.
'Potter, you are neither Head Boy nor Head Girl, and unless you have changed your name in the past two hours-- '
'They'll tell me what it is anyway,' he said, using an excuse he'd heard Ginny employ many times.
She glared at him but finally sighed. 'As you will, Mr. Potter, come along.'
They followed her out of the hubbub of the Great Hall and through the doors; once they were shut, it was silent, shadows stretching across the stone. Harry thought he could hear the wind whistling outside the heavy castle doors.
'I shall make this quick,' McGonagall began. 'As the three of you have no doubt noticed, Slytherin House appears to be empty, with only three first-years Sorted and no returning students.'
'And the Sorting Hat,' Hermione put in eagerly. 'The war is over, but it still said-- '
'Indeed, Miss Granger. I'm afraid it could be as dire as the Hat, overdramatic as it is, warned us. The first-years are requesting to be re-Sorted. We believe that this is impossible, nor do we wish to do so, but with the climate as it is these days . . .'
She trailed off, glancing at the doors to the castle, almost as if she expected Dumbledore to burst through them with a foolproof solution.
'Well,' McGonagall finally sighed, 'we may be forced to close Slytherin altogether.'
'What?' Hermione exclaimed. 'But there have always been four houses! You can't just get rid of one!'
'It is not we who are at fault,' McGonagall said severely, her mouth a thin line of disapproval. 'I agree with you, Miss Granger, but it seems Slytherin House has decided to absent itself from the school. Each of them had letters just as you had. It was their own choice not to attend.'
Hermione opened her mouth, but at a stern look from McGonagall, she shut it again.
'In the meantime,' McGonagall continued in her clipped tone, 'as you are Head Boy and Head Girl, I must ask the two of you to keep an eye out for trouble. Professor Slughorn will, of course, be watching out for the first-years in his House, but one can never be too cautious. We ought to focus on the bonds that strengthen and unite us, to make Hogwarts whole again.'
Ron and Hermione both nodded, though Hermione with a bit more enthusiasm, Harry thought.
'Very well, you may go back to the feast,' McGonagall said, her eyes sweeping over the three of them. She pulled open the door as she passed through, letting out a wide beam of light, the sound of chattering voices and, to everyone's surprise, Ginny.
'What's going on?' she said curiously. 'The three of you just left.'
'It's nothing,' Ron said at once.
Ginny scowled. 'It isn't nothing! I know it's about Slytherin, I'm not stupid.' She began to say something else, when at that moment, the front doors creaked open and admitted a stocky figure, hunched over and bundled up against the wind, though nothing could hide the shock of red hair.
'. . . Charlie?' Ron exclaimed. 'What are you doing here?'
Charlie Weasley gave them a cheerful salute as they hurried towards him. 'Didn't anyone tell you? I'm a bit late, it's nasty weather outside. Anyway, I'm the Defense teacher this year!'
'You?' Ron said. Ginny shrieked in excitement and threw her arms around Charlie, bundled up as he was.
'Yeah, well, McGonagall wanted Bill,' he shrugged, removing both Ginny and his cloak. 'He was Head Boy and all, got all the N.E.W.T.s, you know. But with Fleur and the baby on the way, he couldn't. I'd planned on heading straight back to Romania, but she made a good case-- do it for Hogwarts, only a year, good pay, all that. I'm closer to Mum and Dad this way, too, and can look out for you lot.'
'We don't need watching!' Ginny said hotly, but when he ruffled her hair she beamed up at him. Harry remembered that Charlie had always been her favorite. Or had it been Bill? He couldn't recall.
'And I'm the Head of Gryffindor House,' Charlie added; this time Ron actually punched his fist in the air. 'Can't have anybody else stealing our Quidditch glory, now can I?'
'But there isn't going to be any Quidditch,' Hermione interposed.
Charlie, Ron, Harry and Ginny stared at her in horror. She stared right back.
'Oh, honestly, doesn't anyone see sense? Without Slytherin and with so many other students gone, it just isn't possible. I'm surprised no one has realized that. Besides, McGonagall just said we should focus our energy on working together to rebuild Hogwarts and the bonds that hold it together, instead of competing against one another. I happen to agree.'
'You wouldn't if you played Quidditch!' Ginny argued.
Harry and Ron were busy exchanging looks of dismay. Even Charlie groaned dismally, 'No Quidditch . . .'
'They'll figure out a way!' Ron exclaimed. 'That unity rubbish aside, McGonagall's as big of a Quidditch fan as they come, she just doesn't like to show it! She'll make it happen, I'm sure of it!'
Hermione sniffed and muttered something that sounded very much like, 'You'll see.'
As they re-entered the hall, Harry glanced at the Slytherin table and the first-years seated there: two small girls, both dark-haired, and an even smaller boy, huddled between them. When they caught him looking, all three stared back with such wide eyes, it was as if Harry was preparing to cast the Cruciatus Curse on all of them.
'Don't look too hardy, do they?' Ron said as they sat down. 'I swear we were never that small, I'd've remembered being the size of a gnome. You, though, when I met you on the train, you were a bit on the small side . . .'
Harry thought of his first day at Hogwarts and looked across the table where Nearly-Headless Nick was floating, eyeing Hermione's spotted dick with an expression of jealousy.
'Nick,' he said. 'Hey, Nick. If Slytherin is gone, will the Bloody Baron go too?'
'Preposterous!' exclaimed Nearly-Headless Nick, affronted. 'The Baron has been here almost as long as Hogwarts has!'
Harry remembered the tale of Helena Ravenclaw and frowned. He had an image of the Bloody Baron gliding towards the Hogwarts gates, his translucent chains trailing behind him.
'Besides,' Nick added, 'with the Baron gone, no one could keep Peeves in line.'
Across from Harry, Hermione looked disapproving. 'That's the least of our worries,' she said. 'This is a serious concern, Sir Nicholas! How would you feel if your whole house disappeared?'
'My house is not Slytherin,' Nick said delicately, and with that, he rose from the table and glided off through the wall.
The news seemed to have spread; all up and down Gryffindor, Harry could hear conversations about Slytherin's absence sparking up. At one point, a tall blonde girl he didn't recognize declared, 'Excuse me if I'm not that fussed. Slytherin left. Maybe they don't deserve to come back.' All around her, heads were nodding in agreement.
Hermione looked anguished, but no one else seemed to agree on the gravity of the problem. Even Ron was tired of the topic. In between bites of pudding, he exclaimed, 'Enough about Slytherin, they aren't even here! Good riddance! And with Charlie, it's got to be the best year ever. I can't believe my own brother didn't tell me he was teaching here!' He glanced at the Head Table and his mouth fell open. 'Hey, Harry, who's that sitting next to him? Is that Penelope?'
'Penelope Clearwater, of course,' Hermione said without a pause. 'She was Percy's girlfriend at Hogwarts, but they split up when Percy started work at the Ministry. She must be the replacement Transfiguration teacher.'
Harry exchanged looks with Ron. He did not understand how Hermione managed to keep track of all her knowledge and simultaneously recall all the gossip Hogwarts had seen for the past eight years. She did not seem in the mood to hold her breadth of knowledge over their heads, however; all her attention was focused on Slytherin, with an occasional glance to Professor McGonagall at the head table.
As the feast wound down, McGonagall directed the students to their respective houses, and the hall once again filled with students running every which way, Prefects yelling after them. For a brief second, it reminded Harry of the last battle, and he had to look away for a moment, the flames of the thousands of bobbing candles blurring in his vision.
Hermione and Ron had to stay in the Great Hall to supervise the exodus of students, and Harry stayed with them, feeling as if it would be a very boring year indeed if he had to keep following the Head Boy and Head Girl around all day. Ginny stuck around as well, chattering to Charlie, though when the Hall was nearly empty she came over to them and slipped her hand into Harry's own. He glanced down at her, surprised but pleased.
'It's going to be a good year,' she said, beaming back at him. 'Charlie for Defense and I like Penelope too, even though she's split with Percy she's really nice . . .'
'Wins her points in my book, really,' Ron added.
They trooped up to Gryffindor together, marveling at how changed the castle was from the time they saw it last. Ginny seemed delighted with the repair, pointing out places where there had been holes or where the ceiling had caved in, but to Harry it was a strange sort of amnesia, as if the battle had never been. Hermione seemed to think so too, for she frowned the whole walk up.
At last they reached the portrait hole and Ron uttered the password, but Hermione pulled them back before they could follow Ginny through the entrance, nearly yanking Harry's robe clean off his shoulder. 'I've been thinking,' she hissed. 'We have to do something.'
'Do something,' Ron repeated. He was eyeing the warmth of the common room. 'About what?'
'About Slytherin!' Hermione whispered. 'They probably just don't want to come back because they don't think they're welcome, but if we talked to some of them, convinced them that if they don't return, Slytherin will close-- '
'Are you mental?' Ron demanded. 'Hogwarts is better than ever with no Slytherins! No Malfoy, strutting around with his goons!'
'Yes,' Hermione said, as if she had only heard one word, 'Malfoy, exactly! We have to talk to Malfoy!'
'She is mental,' Ron concluded, making a face at Harry.
'Now see here, I haven't got the time to hang around all night,' the Fat Lady harrumphed before Hermione could start in again. 'Honestly, you students! Are you coming in or staying out?'
'Out,' Hermione said stubbornly, and the portrait hole swung closed. 'Listen, you two. We may not like Slytherin, but this is bigger than we are, it's bigger than us and Malfoy, don't you get it? This could forever change Hogwarts!'
Harry frowned; he knew her penchant for dramatic pronouncements all too well. 'All right, but Hermione, even if we do decide we want Slytherin back-- which I don't,' he added, seeing Ron's mouth fall open in surprise. 'But what are we supposed to do? Send an owl? Ask Kreacher to deliver a message?'
'Floo,' Hermione said simply.
'Flooing isn't allowed!' Ron interrupted. 'Not out of the castle. You should know that, it's in the rules.'
'I do know that,' Hermione said, flashing a triumphant smile. 'That's why Harry's going to use his Invisibility Cloak and wait until everyone has gone upstairs. Harry, remember those wards I taught you? If you do them on the empty common room, you'll know if anyone's coming.'
'It has to be you. Please, Harry, you know it does. Ron and I are Head Boy and Head Girl, we can't go around breaking rules!'
'So you want me to break them for you,' Harry said dryly.
Hermione rubbed her hands together in a brisk motion. 'Well, yes, and Malfoy might listen to you. Ron or I wouldn't stand a chance.'
'Malfoy?' Harry echoed. 'I thought you were joking! You're asking me to have a cozy little firechat with Malfoy?'
Hermione raised her eyebrows. 'Yes, I am.'
'Why Malfoy? Why not-- ' Harry found he could not think of any other Slytherins aside from Goyle and Pansy Parkinson, neither of whom seemed more appealing choices. Finally, he ventured, 'That Zabini bloke. What about him?'
'I heard he's finishing school in Italy, he moved there with his mother,' Hermione said. At both boys' looks, she rolled her eyes. 'What? It was in the Prophet.'
'And er, that other one,' Harry said. 'Tall, dark hair?'
Ron suggested, 'Theodore Nott?'
'That's the one,' Harry said, relieved. He didn't know a thing about Nott, but he was willing to bet his Firebolt that Nott would prove less trying than Malfoy.
'He's at Durmstrang, he was last year, too,' Hermione answered. 'His mother wanted him out of the fray after what happened to his dad.'
Ron stared. 'How do you know this stuff?'
'I overheard Pansy Parkinson and Tracey Davis talking at the end of sixth year,' Hermione shrugged. 'He left straightaway, didn't even wait for Dunbledore's funeral.'
'Coward,' Ron pronounced.
'But not a Death Eater,' Harry said. 'Which Malfoy definitely is. Couldn't I just-- '
'It would take weeks for your owl to get to Durmstrang, I should know,' Hermione replied. 'Two weeks is the shortest time I've ever received a letter from Viktor, and that's in the best weather. And,' she added as Harry opened his mouth, 'Harry Potter, you are certainly not Apparating there! Do you know how many transfer points, not to mention national borders, that you would have to cross? There are permits, authorizations. It'd take several more weeks just to get the paperwork sorted!'
Harry clenched his teeth. 'Fine,' he said. 'Malfoy, then. I'll do it after everyone goes to bed. But don't you dare blame me when he won't come back.'
Hermione, who had got her way, merely smiled.
They tromped inside the common room at last, Ron still sulking over the mention of Viktor Krum's weighty letters. Hermione went off to tend to the first-years overcome by homesickness, though her Cheering Charms were so strong that two girls giggled without stopping for the next five minutes.
An hour later, Harry was sitting on his bed, clothes spread out around him. Dean and Seamus were fast asleep, while one swift look at the Marauder's Map assured Harry that Neville was not in Gryffindor Tower. Ron sat cross-legged on his own bed, absently stealing the light out of the lamp beside his bed and then flicking it back with one click of the Deluminator.
'Look, mate, you don't have to do this,' Ron said. 'I don't blame you if you don't want to. I don't want that git coming back here. She's a bit mad is all, she'll get over it as soon as she has another project to work on, house elves or goblin rights . . .'
Harry sighed. 'No, Ron,' he said. 'Hermione's right. I have to do it. At least see what's going on.'
'I still think the whole lot're more trouble than they're worth,' Ron said doubtfully. 'But good luck, Harry. You'll need it.'
'Thanks,' Harry said, doubtful himself, and slipped out down the stairs.
The common room was empty and still, the only sound the crackle of the fire. Though it was only the first night, he saw things littered around already: someone's ink-stained Transfiguration text, a broken chess piece, a handful of Exploding Snap cards. Over by the window, someone's toad was hopping from sill to sill as if hoping for escape. The fire was still going merrily, though in the dark the flames cast long shadows on the walls.
Kneeling down on the hearth, Harry took a deep breath. Then he gritted his teeth and tossed a handful of Floo powder into the fireplace, where it flared an eerie, spitting green.
'Malfoy Manor,' he said clearly and stuck his head in.
When Harry's head stopped spinning, he found himself staring at the wall opposite the fireplace, which was papered a fading green. The room was not one he recognized, and it was more empty than he expected: the wallpaper was paler in some places and not in others, as if large paintings had been only recently removed, and in the corner, a bookcase stood half-empty, the remaining tomes toppled over on one another.
Harry was just about to call out Malfoy's name in the vain hope someone might hear him when he heard the faint sound of voices arguing, growing nearer.
'-- don't think I haven't noticed what's gone missing, the figurines, the twelfth century vase collection-- '
'You know as well as I do that someone has to get this family back on its feet,' the second voice, a feminine one, responded. They were getting louder; Harry could hear footsteps. 'You've seen all the Ministry owls-- '
'-- but the portrait Great Great Aunt Theodora-- and the rest of Father's books, surely the price they'll fetch won't be worth the-- Potter?'
He looked up: Draco Malfoy was standing there in shock, one hand gripping the doorknob. He looked flabbergasted, but after all their years at school together, Harry easily recognized the expression replacing the shock on Malfoy's face as one of dawning fury.
'Potter,' Malfoy repeated icily, 'I don't know what your head is doing in my fireplace, but if you know what's good for you, you'll get it out. Now.'
Undeterred, Harry demanded, 'Why aren't you at Hogwarts?'
'I don't see how it's any of your business,' Malfoy snapped. He glanced over his shoulder, but Narcissa Malfoy had already disappeared down the hall.
'I mean it, Malfoy, where the hell have you been? No one's in Slytherin, and Professor McGonagall says it's really dire.'
Malfoy looked as if trying to decide upon something, and then he whipped out his mother's wand from his pocket. 'Aguamenti!' he shouted, and immediately Harry was drenched in water, green flames spitting in his ears. The next thing he knew, Malfoy had hurled a book at his head, nearly taking off his glasses.
'Get out,' Malfoy was shouting, 'get out!'
Coughing and spluttering, Harry withdrew and went spinning back to the Gryffindor common room.
In the morning, Harry coaxed his owl over with a handful of owl treats-- in contrast to Hedwig, and certainly to Pigwidgeon, he was rather shy-- and gave him a scribbled letter, which said merely,
Malfoy, we need to talk. I'm coming to the Manor tonight.
'Malfoy Manor,' Harry advised the little owl, who hooted softly and gave Harry's thumb an affectionate nibble. 'Make sure you get it to Draco Malfoy, all right?' He had always been sure that Hedwig understood him, but now he realized how foolish that was. 'Go on, then,' he said, as his owl hooted once more and shifted on the windowsill.
'Oh, and watch out for peacocks,' Harry added. 'Er, see you soon.'
He had been trying to come up with a name for the little creature for a month now, but nothing seemed to stick. Ginny had offered at least forty suggestions, though recently he'd asked her to stop-- only because she looked hurt each time he dismissed one.
By the time Harry made it to the Great Hall, he barely had time to grab his schedule and a piece of toast before Hermione tugged him and Ron off down the corridor.
Their first class was Charms: Flitwick spent most of the time reciting several examples of the most advanced charms they would be discussing that year, including memory modification and erasure, duplication charms, and more complex charms, like the Protean Charm, and others that Flitwick said were too complex to learn but whose theory could be studied. 'Can anyone think of an example?'
Hermione's hand shot up before Flitwick had finished his question. He beamed at her. 'Yes, Miss Granger?'
'The Fidelius Charm,' she said promptly.
'Very good!' squeaked Flitwick, so excited that he nearly toppled off his perch.
After class, Hermione lingered to discuss an extra-credit essay involving the theory of time-lapse spells, Time-Turners, and Gubraithan fire, which was so above Harry's and Ron's heads that they hurried off without her.
'Do you reckon we'll have to try those memory charms on each other?' Ron said, loosening his tie as they walked back to Gryffindor.
Harry frowned. 'I hope not.' He could not think of anything worse than having his memory manipulated; it was more terrible than Legilimency, the thought of someone messing about in his head. For a brief second, Harry wondered if Occlumency could be employed against memory charms, and he was so pleased with himself for thinking up a Hermione-level question that he did not hear what Ron said.
'I said, how'd it go with Malfoy last night?'
'Not very well,' Harry admitted. 'He, um, threw books at me until I left.'
Ron snickered. 'Well, no one can fault you for trying. More than I would have done.'
In Transfiguration, they began discussing invisibility; Penelope, wearing wire spectacles and looking determined to follow in McGonagall's footsteps as best she could, set them at work copying notes about the difference between Invisibility and Vanishing spells. Potions was equally demanding. By the time they arrived in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom that afternoon, Harry's schoolbag felt as if it had been hit with a charm to turn all his books to bricks. At his side, Ron was lamenting at length on their decision to return to Hogwarts.
When Charlie strode in, however, the whole class sat up straighter. Defense had always been Harry's favorite subject, but across the aisle, it looked as if even mild-mannered Hannah Abbott had gained a new appreciation for the course. Charlie glanced up at their attentive faces, as if he had forgot they were there, and flashed them all an easy grin. In the back of the room, someone giggled.
Charlie was not wearing robes, like everyone else, but what appeared to be dragonhide trousers and a white linen shirt, with his sleeves rolled up. Even after a year in Britain, his forearms were tanned gold.
'I suppose I ought to give you a speech about the importance of N.E.W.T.s,' Charlie began, earning a sharp nod of approval from Hermione. Then he continued, 'But my twin brothers, two of the best wizards I ever knew, didn't take their N.E.W.T.s, and it didn't make them any less brave. One of them died fighting the Dark Arts in May.'
Hermione's hand was poised over her parchment, ink slowly dripping from the tip, but she was not writing; she was frowning at Charlie, unsure where he was going.
'What I'm saying,' Charlie shrugged, 'is that you don't need an O in Defense Against the Dark Arts to fight them. Harry Potter hasn't even taken his N.E.W.T.s yet, and he defeated You-Know-Who with a first year spell. I know many of you fought in the Battle of Hogwarts last year, too, without a N.E.W.T. to your name.'
Harry heard Hermione make the small noise of frustration that meant she had reached her breaking point, and her hand shot in the air. Charlie raised an eyebrow.
'I'm sorry, Professor Weasley,' she said, at which Charlie outright grinned, 'but while I happen to agree that you don't need a N.E.W.T. to stand up to the Dark Arts, you can't be saying that N.E.W.T.s aren't important . . . ?'
'Oh, no, I'm not,' Charlie said quickly. He winked at her. 'I mean, they get you good jobs and stuff.'
Hermione's mouth dropped open, but she seemed to have set off a wave of questions; before she could respond, Seamus waved his hand around from where he was seated in the back row.
'Professor,' he called out, 'I heard you were the best Seeker Gryffindor's ever had, until Harry!'
Charlie laughed. 'I won't lie, I was good,' he said. 'And so is Harry. But Harry and I have never played against each other in a real match, so how can you say which one of us is better? One day we'll have to have a tournament and then you'll know for sure.'
At least half the class cheered at this, Harry and Ron included. For her part, Hermione almost snapped her quill in half.
The rest of the classroom appeared completely charmed by Charlie, however: even Hannah Abbott raised her hand. When Charlie called on her, she asked shyly, 'Did you really work with dragons in Romania?'
'I did!' Charlie exclaimed; it was obvious that he liked nothing better than to talk about them. 'They're magnificent. I help train them. All of you probably remember the Triwizard Tournament, don't you? I helped bring in the four dragons for the first task. Job's a bit rough, sometimes, you've got to be quick on your feet and handy with some burn salve, but they're brilliant, really. My favorites are the Chinese Fireballs. Gryffindor colors, you know!'
To his horrified amusement, Harry glanced sideways and found Hannah Abbott diligently copying down likes Chinese Fireballs on her parchment.
'What's the worst burn you've ever had?' someone called out from behind Harry, just as someone else shouted, 'Have you ever ridden on one?'
Charlie was clearly in his element. 'One question at a time!'
'Do you really have a tattoo?' Dean Thomas yelled.
Charlie let out a bark of surprised laughter. 'Sure do,' he said. 'Want to see?' And he lifted up his shirt without preamble and pointed to the small dragon pacing back and forth just above his left hip. It let out a small puff of flame as they watched, the fire licking across Charlie's toned stomach.
Hermione looked so horrified that Harry almost covered her eyes.
'What kind of lesson was that?' she burst out the minute she left the classroom, still clutching her bedraggled quill in one hand and a roll of blank parchment in the other; it was perhaps the first class ever that Hermione had left without taking a single note. She was so apoplectic that she was incapable of forming whole sentences. 'It was-- rubbish-- and showing off like that-- inappropriate-- '
'That's my brother you're talking about!' Ron said hotly as he caught up to them.
'Mine too,' Ginny put in, appearing in their midst. 'What's going on?'
'She's insulting Charlie!'
'I'm not insulting him, I just don't think his lesson was very good,' Hermione snapped. 'Dragons and-- broomsticks-- oh, honestly, you boys-- '
'What do you think he should have talked about?' Ron demanded.
'Well, we should be learning more wandless magic, and two-part defensive spells, and Patronuses for those who can't yet. I heard there's a whole section on our N.E.W.T.s about healing charms!'
'He was just giving an introduction, it was the first class,' Harry suggested, trying in vain to smooth over the situation. 'I'm sure he'll get to all that stuff really soon.'
Just then two fourth year girls passed by, peering into the classroom to catch a glimpse of Charlie. They hurried away giggling, one whispering, 'I heard he has a tattoo . . .'
Hermione made such a noise of disgust that a nearby slumbering portrait woke with a start and glanced around in alarm. 'This is ridiculous,' she said waspishly. 'It's like Lockhart all over again.'
Harry couldn't help snorting. 'Yeah, I seem to remember that Lockhart made quite the impression on you.'
'Oh, Professor Lockhart, I've read all your books,' Ron simpered breathlessly in imitation, though Harry thought he sounded more like Lavender than Hermione. Apparently this did not matter to Hermione, for she stalked off in a huff while Harry, Ron, and Ginny were still laughing.
When she had gone, Ron shook his head. 'I don't know what she's on about. That was a great lesson.'
'Well, we didn't learn much,' Harry pointed out, loath as he was to side against his best friend. 'And he didn't talk about the Dark Arts very much.' In fact, a rousing portion of the class had been devoted to whether the Caerphilly Catapults were on an upswing this season, but he hated to mention it, for he had shouted down Seamus just as loudly as Ron.
'Well, it's like you said, it was only the first class,' Ron argued. 'Right, Gin?'
Ginny shrugged. 'As long as you pass your N.E.W.T.s. Hey, Harry, don't you have a free period now? Flitwick's cancelled Charms because some fourth-year blew half the classroom up. Want to go down to the lake?'
'I can't,' Harry said, without thinking. 'I have to go find McGonagall.'
Ron frowned. 'Her, why?'
'It was Hermione's idea,' Harry said glumly. 'She thinks I should get permission from McGonagall to go to Malfoy Manor. She says I didn't try hard enough.'
'Oh, why should you?' Ron demanded. 'That git threw books at you! If she wants Malfoy back at Hogwarts so badly, she ought to go herself.'
'I don't want to make her go,' Harry said a bit guiltily, already leading Ron off towards McGonagall's office. 'Oh, yeah, bye, Gin. See you at dinner. Anyway, after what happened last year, I thought maybe she wouldn't want to go back there-- '
Ron shook his head emphatically. 'Well, of course she shouldn't go, Harry,' he said, as if he had been saying this for days and Harry was only just now catching up. 'No, no, you've got to go, Hermione can't go at all, absolutely not!'
Harry patted him on the shoulder. 'Right, then, I have to go talk to McGonagall.'
At half past seven that evening, Harry stood outside the gates of Hogwarts, raised his wand, and carefully made a half-turn into thin air. When the decompressed feeling of Apparating dissipated, he found himself standing in a quiet country lane, gasping for breath. As Harry expected, the wrought-iron gate before him twisted into a face, which hissed, 'State your purpose!'
'I'm here to see Draco Malfoy,' Harry said loudly. 'I need to talk to him.'
Far off, there was the burbling of a fountain, the sinking sun. Then the gate swung open and he was admitted.
Hands in his pockets, Harry trudged up the lane bordered with hedges and up the gravel drive, then the broad stone steps. If he had heard that he would voluntarily return to this place only a year ago, he never would have believed it. He took a deep breath and raised a fist to knock, but before he could, the door swung open and Draco Malfoy's pale face appeared in the gloom.
'Oh, it's you,' Malfoy said, as if they had just run into one another in the Prefects' bath. 'Well, come on, then.'
His tone was more clipped and polite than Harry had ever heard it, and he shut the door so quickly that Harry had to dart inside.
Malfoy led Harry through the hallway lined with portraits, all of whom whispered and pointed, and down another hall whose marble floors were so polished that Harry could almost see his reflection. He expected to go to the drawing room he remembered, or the study where they had had their firechat, but Malfoy headed to a smaller room, papered in a blue and gold pattern that reminded Harry of peacocks. A small but merry fire was going in the little fireplace, and the diamond-paned windows were polished to a gleam. A large white quill hovered above the desk and its clutter of papers, as if awaiting orders; Malfoy waved his hand and it whisked itself into a drawer.
'So,' Malfoy said, when he turned and leaned against the desk. He was wearing dark gray robes that buttoned up to his neck and fell to his ankles, but he still looked thin and wan, and he was not polite any longer, but staring at Harry with a pinched expression. 'What do you want?'
There was no sense in wasting time; to say that he and Malfoy had never been much for small talk would be a grand understatement.
'If you don't come back to Hogwarts,' Harry said, 'they're going to get rid of Slytherin.'
He was rather gratified at the way Malfoy's mouth dropped open.
'No one's there,' Harry elaborated. 'No one came back, and the Sorting Hat only put three kids in Slytherin this year. McGonagall says they want to be re-Sorted. Hufflepuff offered to take them.'
'Hufflepuff?' repeated Malfoy slowly. He sounded half-witted.
'And that's what you came here for,' Malfoy continued, his voice rising in pitch as he kept on. 'You're asking me to return to Hogwarts so I can be the only Slytherin in Slytherin House? Aside from three eleven year olds who are deserting to Hufflepuff?'
'Well, what did you think I came here for?' Harry said, irritated. 'This isn't a social call, Malfoy.'
'But why me?'
'We couldn't think of anyone else to ask,' Harry admitted. 'I suggested Zabini but Hermione said he's in Italy with his mother.'
Malfoy muttered something about going abroad at once; Harry ignored him.
'This isn't a joke, Malfoy. I mean it. Why aren't you at Hogwarts?'
'I don't feel like it.'
'I don't believe you.'
'I don't care!'
Harry took a step forward, prompting Malfoy to cross his arms over his skinny chest as if in protection; his nostrils flared like a nervous thestral. 'Malfoy,' Harry said. 'Come back to Hogwarts.'
'Yeah? What do I get?'
'You get the dungeons to yourself,' Harry offered.
Malfoy snorted. 'I'd rather stay here.'
Harry opened his mouth, but he could not think of a good reason Malfoy would want to return and shut it again. If he were in Malfoy's position, he wouldn't exactly relish a lonely year in Slytherin with no friends and plenty of enemies.
Then again, Harry would never be in Malfoy's position.
Glancing sideways, Harry frowned at the desk littered with newspapers and old letters. Aside from one envelope with the Ministry seal, all the letters were addressed to
Mr. D. Malfoy
The Blue Bedroom
and bore Hogwarts' seal on the back. None of them were opened, and for an instant Harry recalled being eleven and having 4 Privet Drive flooded with owls. It seemed so long ago that it was as if it had happened to someone else, and he was only visiting the memory in a Pensieve.
'Think about it, Malfoy,' he said after a second. 'Come on. I know you still need your N.E.W.T.s. I'm surprised you even passed sixth year.'
Malfoy narrowed his eyes. 'I don't care about my N.E.W.T.s. I don't see why you do.'
'I don't want Slytherin to leave the school.'
Malfoy stared at him, disbelieving. 'You hate Slytherin.'
Harry's jaw was set. 'Doesn't mean I want it to disappear.'
He glanced at the desk again: now that he thought of it, several of the newspapers lying scattered on the desk were recent and had his face on them, headlines blaring HARRY POTTER TRIUMPHS OVER HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED and SAVIOR OF WIZARDING WORLD TO RECEIVE ORDER OF MERLIN. This one in particular seemed to have made Malfoy so incensed that half the article was ripped clean away.
'Is there a reason you're still here?' Malfoy demanded. He followed Harry's gaze and quickly swept the clutter of papers into a pile, which he shoved under a thick book. It looked like the Defense book they had used in sixth year. 'I've already said no, Potter, so if you're waiting around for me to offer you a spot of tea, you're rather more stupid than I thought.'
'One day you're going to have kids,' Harry said. 'They're going to go to Hogwarts. I never took you for the father of a Gryffindor or a Hufflepuff, but maybe I was wrong-- '
'I'll send them to Durmstrang,' Malfoy said. His mouth twitched.
'There were four founders,' Harry insisted. 'Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, Godric Gryffindor, and Salazar Slytherin. There should be four houses. If you come back, Slytherin will stay. Next year there will be new first years. People will return.'
'I don't want to go!' Malfoy hissed. He sounded like a spoiled child. 'You can't make me!'
'I'm not trying to make you,' Harry said exasperatedly. 'Malfoy, I'm not marching you back to Hogwarts at wandpoint, I'm just trying to convince you that you'd be helping out your House.'
But at the word wandpoint, Malfoy had gone white, and Harry remembered in a rush just how recently Malfoy had been made to do things against his will. 'So that's it,' he said, quiet. 'You only do things when people threaten you and hold your family hostage, right? When you can pretend you don't have a choice?'
'I didn't have a choice!' Malfoy snarled.
'Oh, yes, you did,' Harry said. 'Every day you did. You're the one who stayed in this house with Voldemort and tortured people on his command, you always wanted to be a Death Eater.'
'It wasn't exactly a holiday, Potter!'
'Other people had to choose, too,' Harry said hotly. What was it Dumbledore had said once? The choice between what is right and what is easy. But he remembered, in the same instant, that Malfoy had made certain choices: he had not killed Dumbledore when he had the chance, and that night at Malfoy Manor, he had not given Harry away, even though Harry had strong suspicions that Malfoy had recognized him.
'What choice?' Malfoy sneered. He had obviously been expecting this from the minute Harry set foot in the Manor, and it was like striking a pool of oil with a match. 'I'm telling you, Potter, I hadn't got options, everyone I cared about-- '
'You could have come to us.'
'Oh, could I have? Yes, after Dumbledore was killed, after I ran from the scene, is that when? You would have welcomed me with open arms, is that what you're telling me?'
Harry said through gritted teeth, 'I wouldn't have turned you away.'
'And what exactly was supposed to convey that?' Malfoy said tightly. 'I must have missed those owls you sent-- oh, or those times at school when you made it clear that you, what did you say, wouldn't turn me away-- yes, I must have been blind, not to see that you might not cheer if I died-- '
'I'm the one who saved you from the Fiendfyre! And that Death Eater!'
Malfoy scoffed. 'Don't tell me you're waiting for a thank you card.'
'Well, I didn't want you to die!'
Tilting his head, Malfoy's mouth quirked downwards in a sour line. 'Yeah,' he said, almost soft, 'I never did thank you for the flowers you sent up after nearly killing me in that bathroom. Thanks tremendously, Potter. Except-- wait-- '
'I was busy,' Harry defended himself, though he couldn't help but recall that what had kept him so occupied were those long walks and stolen kisses with Ginny. He shook it off: he had not felt guilty then, and he refused to start now. 'The whole school was talking about whether you were all right anyway. Pansy Parkinson would tell anyone who listened about your painful recovery.'
'And that's what matters,' Malfoy said, 'that it turned out all right?' His head was bowed; he didn't even look up. 'No, you know what, Potter, I'm not doing this. Get out of my house. I'm finished with Hogwarts and I'm finished with you.'
'Well, I'm not finished with you!' Harry snapped, then paused, because he wasn't entirely sure that was what he had meant to say. 'I just mean, Hogwarts needs Slytherin.'
'Oh, now you need us,' Malfoy said, his eyes glittering. He was looking at Harry now, and he took several steps forward until they were almost touching, his mouth an ugly, angry shape. 'Now that you, what, need to fill a quota of despicable wizards who are just tolerable enough to be allowed to live, and of course you thought of me first, because I'm not bad enough to be dangerous, I'm just petty and cruel enough to fit your mold?' He was standing so close and speaking so furiously that a few flecks of his spit actually landed on Harry.
'Maybe that is what I mean!' Harry shouted. 'I have good reason to think so, don't I? You're the one who's acting the coward!'
Malfoy's mouth dropped open. 'You-- dare-- '
'You run from things that scare you, Malfoy, you always have. It's no different now, running away from Hogwarts!'
'I'm not running, you simpleton,' Malfoy snarled. 'I happen to think of it as assessing the situation and doing what's best for me. Slytherins take care of themselves, which is probably why there isn't a single one in Hogwarts, because we all know that setting foot in that castle is suicide!'
'Taking care of yourself, is that what you call it?' Harry said softly. 'How's that been working out for you, Malfoy?'
He seized the other boy by the wrist and shoved up his sleeve before Malfoy could twist out of his grasp. The Dark Mark was still there, like a black bruise, the snake flickering over Malfoy's thin pulse.
'It hasn't disappeared,' Harry said. He was almost surprised.
'No.' Malfoy stared back at him, his expression creased between curiosity and annoyance. He didn't jerk his wrist away. 'I'm not that lucky.'
'It hasn't got anything to do with luck,' Harry said. 'You know Dumbledore offered you protection.'
A shadow crossed Malfoy's face and he finally pulled his wrist from Harry's grasp. 'No one wants anything without a price,' he said. 'As if I would have been any less expendable to your side. As if you'd have protected me-- or worse, my father!-- if it came down to it.'
'Dumbledore would have,' Harry said with certainty.
'He took away Slytherin's victory in first year!'
Harry blinked. It took him a moment to recall what Malfoy was ranting about. 'Wait, you're still upset about the House Cup?' he demanded at last. 'From eight years ago?'
Malfoy's chin was stuck out belligerently. 'Yes.'
The more it came back to him, the angrier Harry got. 'Gryffindor deserved that win, Malfoy! Ron and Hermione and I beat all seven tasks to take back the Sorcerer's Stone and prevent Voldemort from becoming immortal! Don't you think that's a little more important than a handful of points you got from sucking up to teachers all year?'
'Well, how were we supposed to know you were telling the truth?' Malfoy demanded. 'You were Harry Potter, you were full of exaggerated, self-important stories!'
'I was not!'
Malfoy stared at him. 'Everything comes at a price,' he repeated. 'How was I to know I could trust the old man? Better the bad lot you know than the bad lot you don't, right?'
'Wrong,' Harry said stiffly. 'We would have protected you. Dumbledore would have, and I would have, too.'
'Oh, it's all well and good to retroactively promise,' Malfoy snapped. 'I don't believe you, Potter, but it doesn't matter. I did what I did and I'm alive, and so are my parents, so no, I don't take it back. Is that what you wanted to know? Is that why you're still nosing about my house? Because you can leave any time.'
Harry rolled his eyes; he knew that Hermione meant well, but this was altogether more trouble than it was worth. 'Come back to Hogwarts, Malfoy.'
'What else do you have to do?' Harry demanded. 'You aren't exactly swimming in job offers, and from the look and sound of it, you aren't swimming in money either. I heard you and your mum arguing about pawning off your old things-- '
'And what are you doing?' Harry inquired. 'Polishing your broomstick? Ripping up newspapers with my face on them? You have to get on with your life sometime.'
Malfoy's mouth went tight. 'And what makes you think I want to spend the next ten months at that despicable joke of an institution? I've had enough of that filthy old school to last me several centuries.'
'It won't be like last year,' Harry said quietly. When Malfoy said nothing and he could think of nothing else to say either, they stood there in a stalemate. After a minute, Harry sighed.
'Look, I still have your wand. I brought it to give back to you.'
'Well, give it over, then,' said Malfoy.
Harry took the wand out and handed it to him. As he did, he noticed the fine, thin scars on Malfoy's forehead and left cheek, one sharp line of white crossing his cheekbone. Shocked, Harry realized they must be from the chandelier shards that fell during his escape from Malfoy Manor. Just under Malfoy's collarbone, where his shirt peeked open beneath his robes, Harry could see the beginning of another scar, this one a raised, silver welt.
'I expect to see you at breakfast tomorrow,' Harry said. 'At the Slytherin table, like I have all six years I've been there. You can even fling porridge at me if you want.'
Malfoy's lip might have twitched; it was neither a yes nor a no. He sneered, 'What happened to your owl, anyway? The white one?'
'She died,' Harry said, turning to let himself out. 'I'll see you at Hogwarts.'
By the time that morning arrived, a gray gloom, Harry was convinced that Malfoy would never return to Hogwarts, and that his visit had been in vain.
'You'll just have to try harder,' Hermione suggested, infuriatingly calm, as they walked to breakfast. 'Oh, Harry, don't look like that, it's important! I know he's unpleasant, but we've got to-- what is it?'
'Oi!' Ron said, halting so suddenly that Hermione ran right into him. 'It's Malfoy!'
And it was. He was slouched over the Slytherin table, glowering at the rest of the hall, the three first-years in a line like ducklings next to him. He had his wand in hand and looked as if he'd hex the first person to take the smallest step in his direction.
Hermione did a little jig right there in the doorway.
'Oh, I'm so happy!' she exclaimed. Her tone of voice was one reserved for getting better than full marks on an exam or completing a particularly difficult research problem. 'Look, Slughorn's beaming, the little first-years seem much better, oh, it's all such a good start!'
'When we're happy to see Malfoy, something is wrong,' Ron groaned.
'Ron, it's important that he's here! Well done, Harry. Now if you two can manage not to antagonize him . . .'
'I can live with him, the great stupid git,' Ron said bitterly, after Hermione gave him a pointed look. 'But I still think I ought to be able to punch him another couple times.'
'Ron,' Hermione warned.
'Fine, as long as we don't have to get friendly with him.'
Harry noticed that Ron sat with his back to the Slytherin table that morning, and from the way he was sitting, he seemed to be trying to block Hermione's view of it as well.
Malfoy did not appear in any of their morning classes that day, but when Harry entered Potions in the afternoon, Malfoy was seated at the front set of desks, his books neatly stacked on the table. Slughorn was standing beside him, rummaging through the largest box of crystallized pineapple Harry had ever seen.
'Oho!' Slughorn exclaimed; he was bouncing on the balls of his feet, so pleased with Malfoy's bribery that he was in an unusually good mood. 'Harry, my boy! Draco and I were just conversing about Quidditch, I had no idea the two of you were both Seekers for your Houses! Well, I knew about you, of course, who doesn't know about the youngest Seeker in a century-- '
Malfoy shot Harry a filthy look, but an instant later he was beaming up at Slughorn again, looking for all the world as if Slughorn were his long-time idol. 'What are we working on today, Professor?' Malfoy asked as Harry dumped his things on a desk further away. 'I did so enjoy your lessons last year, and I'm looking forward to repeating some of them, I'm sure there's always more to learn from you-- '
'I see he's wasted no time,' Hermione said, sitting down beside Harry. 'Honestly, he's one of four students in Professor Slughorn's house, you'd think he'd be an automatic favorite.'
'Slughorn's always been wary of Death Eaters, though,' Ron put in as he dumped his books on the table. In the resulting avalanche of parchment from the cover of his Potions text, Hermione's ink nearly spilled all over, and would have if Harry's Seeker senses had not kicked in and he caught it halfway to the ground. 'Thanks, mate. Anyway, Malfoy probably feels as if he's got extra work to do.'
They all looked at him: across the room, Malfoy was saying, 'I couldn't pass up the opportunity to work for another year under such an accomplished Potions master as yourself-- '
Ron rolled his eyes. 'Never been much for subtlety, has he? But Slughorn's eating it right up. Though I suppose he'd eat anything up, really-- '
'Says the boy who ate six full plates of food at the feast last week,' Hermione snorted. 'Oh, hush, the lesson's starting.'
They spent the class period working on a three-part restorative draught, which was neither overly challenging or overly interesting, at least in its beginning stages. Even without the aid of the Prince's book-- he still couldn't think of it as Snape's-- Harry managed an adequate flask, and tidied up his workstation feeling pleased.
On the way out of class, Malfoy tried to trip him, sending Harry stumbling straight into Hannah Abbott, who squeaked. 'Sorry,' Harry muttered. 'Hey, Malfoy! Get back here!'
He seized Malfoy by the arm of his robes. 'What are you playing at? As temporary as it might be, I'm actually glad to see you here.'
'This isn't because of you,' Malfoy hissed, 'and it certainly isn't for you. My mother wanted me here and I owe her. That's the only reason I'm at this wretched indignity of a school.'
'You owe me, too, I saved your life twice,' Harry could not help but add.
Malfoy's eyes were slitted. 'Drop dead, Potter.'
'I don't think I will, thanks.'
'Well, get away from me!'
'You're the one who accosted me,' Harry said, rolling his eyes. 'Fine, Malfoy. Welcome back.'
He watched the other boy go: Malfoy was wearing his uniform, but anyone could see the expensive gold watch circling his wrist when he moved his hands, and he smelled as if he were wearing cologne. As he walked, his back was ramrod straight.
Harry understood, after a fashion; he had never been the sort to care about expensive tastes, but he knew what it was like to keep up appearances. Malfoy might not be received warmly at Hogwarts, but he would act like he could care less.
In a way, Harry welcomed Malfoy's thinly veiled façade. It meant he could pretend, at least for a while, that you could go home again.
Slughorn was not the only Professor that Malfoy seemed to be wooing; in the next few weeks, Harry overheard him praising Penelope for her outstanding lessons, telling Professor Sprout that he had always been interested in the healing properties of the common shrub, and even laughing the loudest at all of Charlie's jokes. Harry noticed, however, that there were no beribboned boxes of chocolates or crystallized fruit with the Malfoy seal littering Charlie's desk.
'Knows he won't stand for bribery,' Ron said, when Harry brought it up as they stood in their usual corner of the courtyard. After a minute he added judiciously, 'It serves him right, you know, I hope Charlie gives him a T! After all those years of his jibes about our family.'
'Charlie doesn't seem to mind special treatment, actually,' Hermione said, leaning against a pillar. 'Malfoy would be wasting his time buying chocolates, since all the girls are doing it. Asking for extra lessons, and thanking him with sweets and flowers and things. Haven't you been in his office lately? It's overflowing.'
'All the girls?' Ron said darkly.
Hermione rolled her eyes. 'Oh, use your head for a change, Ron, do I look like I need extra lessons? Honestly, he's your own brother.'
'He couldn't be up to something?' Ron wondered out loud, turning his thoughts back to Malfoy. Just then, from across the courtyard, Ginny came hurrying up to them, and they all fell silent. 'We were just talking about,' Hermione said swiftly, 'oh, um-- '
'Quidditch!' Harry exclaimed at the same time Ron said, 'How George is getting along,' and Hermione added,
'Er, with . . . Quidditch and all.'
It could not have been more obvious that they had not been talking about Quidditch but something else entirely, and from the look on Ginny's face, she knew it.
'I'll be in Gryffindor Tower if you want to talk,' she said pointedly in Harry's direction, and sparing a glare for Ron, she stomped off into the castle.
Hermione seized Harry by the arm at once and hissed, 'Go after her!'
He hadn't planned to follow, but at Hermione's insistence, he hurried off, catching up to her on the second floor staircase. Though he drew level, she didn't slow her furious pace. 'Gin,' Harry called. 'Ginny, I'm sorry. Will you hold on a second? Come on-- '
She spun around. 'Don't try and lie, I know you were talking about Malfoy! Why couldn't you tell me?'
Harry paused. For the life of him, he could not think of a reason.
'I,' he stammered, 'I suppose it's habit, we used to use that corner of the courtyard all the time, to talk about things with Voldemort.'
'And you never included me then and you won't now,' Ginny concluded, spinning on her heel and storming off once again. When she got to the portrait hole, she spat out the password and clambered inside the instant the Fat Lady swung open. She was in such a hurry that she almost tripped, and Harry reached out without thinking to steady her arm.
'Don't push me,' Ginny snapped at once. 'What do you think, I can't climb through a portrait hole myself? Because I couldn't possibly be allowed to listen in on your secrets with Ron and Hermione, not after years of hanging out with you three, even fighting alongside you-- '
They were in the common room now, and several fourth years were sitting by the fire, their eyes on Harry and Ginny.
'Gin, not here-- '
'No, I am doing this here, because I don't really fancy spending more time with you right now!' Ginny exclaimed. 'You want to have this argument? Fine, let's have it. I thought things would be different now, after the war, but they aren't, they haven't been for months!'
But Ginny had got her start, and much like Mrs. Weasley, she was not keen on being interrupted. 'You wouldn't even let me do anything last year, you wouldn't even talk to me because you thought I'd be in danger, but you didn't care when it came to Ron and Hermione, no, they could do what they liked! I'm tired of you treating me the same way my whole family treats me, Harry, like I can't handle myself!'
'I know you can handle yourself!' Harry shouted. 'You're brilliant at defense and everyone knows your Bat-Bogey Hex is-- '
Ginny scowled. 'Oh, and that's why you like me, I suppose, because my Bat-Bogey Hex is up to your standards?'
'I like you for lots of other reasons!' Harry said heatedly. 'You're funny and smart and a really good Quidditch player and you don't treat me like-- ' Once again, at least ten people in the common room were listening with interest to their argument. 'Ginny, please. Can't we do this upstairs?'
'You can do whatever you like upstairs,' Ginny snapped. 'I'm leaving.' And with that, she stomped back out of the portrait hole. Harry heard the Fat Lady muttering about insolent students who thought she had nothing better to do than swing open and shut all day, and then Ginny was gone.
'Tough luck,' a burly fourth-year across the room called out, nodding at Harry when he looked over in surprise. 'Have you split up, then?'
'Definitely not,' Harry snapped. The other boy sounded far too eager to merely be concerned. 'She's still-- I mean, we're still together.'
He had almost said, she's still mine.
The fourth-year shrugged and went back to his conversation as Harry made his way across the room to a chair by the window. The day was still a brilliant, unfair blue, and if he peered closely, he could make out two figures that looked like Ron and Hermione, sitting by the lake. He watched for several moments to see if Ginny would appear and join them, but she was nowhere to be seen.
It wasn't fair, Harry thought. He was the one who had slept in the dirt and watched Hermione grow thinner and thinner. He was the one who'd walked toward death and laid Dobby's small body in the earth. He was the one who had heard Hermione's screams echo through Malfoy Manor. He had been there and she hadn't. And on those long, frigid nights he lay awake listening to Hermione pretending to sleep, both of them ignoring the absence of Ron's rattling snores, he had thought of Ginny and her sleepy, sunlit smile, those secret days the spring before. He had thought, after, after.
Now, staring down at the wood-grain table covered in scribbled initials and quill-marks, he wasn't quite sure what that meant.
An hour later, when the common room had emptied for dinner, he was still sitting there. When she marched through the portrait hole, Ginny didn't look surprised. She walked straight up to him, as if she were holding a certain number of words and had to deposit them into his lap before she lost one and they ceased to make sense.
'Hi-- ?' said Harry.
Ginny wasted no time.
'Listen,' she said. 'Mum once told me that if you could see the worst in someone and still like them, you knew it was love. Well, I love you, Harry. And maybe you don't realize what you're doing, but I do.'
He said, 'Doing what?'
'Coming back to me,' said Ginny, and her eyes might have been wet for a moment, but she turned her head away from him to blink, and when she looked back, she wasn't crying. 'Pretending you want to, I mean. This isn't just about me, Harry. I can tell you feel-- '
Things had been awkward, but Harry had expected that, or rather, Hermione had expected that and told him so.
'I think we could have been good,' Ginny said, sounding subdued. 'Really, I do. But your heart isn't in it now. You leave me out and you say you're trying but you aren't, not the way you would-- you did-- before.'
'I don't know what you want from me,' Harry said frankly.
'I don't,' Ginny said; the small set of her mouth looked hurt. 'I don't want anything from you.'
'What d'you mean?'
'We aren't working, this isn't working,' she snapped. 'It's been like this since last year, you running off to do whatever you like, and leaving me to wonder what's going on and if you're all right, and when you'll tell me what's going on. I thought it'd be different after the war but it isn't, you're still keeping secrets. You don't think I can handle anything, you don't want me to be part of it.'
'That isn't true,' Harry exclaimed. 'Ginny, why would you think that? Of course I want you to be, to be involved, I do.'
'You didn't let me fight at Hogwarts,' Ginny countered. 'You knew I could have. Do you have any idea how that felt, to have you tell me I was too young and too unprepared, when you'd let everyone else?'
'Your mum wouldn't have let you anyway.'
'I looked at you,' Ginny said doggedly. 'In the Room of Requirement, I looked at you, I as good as asked you to take my side. And you didn't.'
Harry remembered Ginny's look of betrayal all too well.
'I wanted you to be safe,' he said lamely.
'You fought Voldemort when you were eleven!'
'Ginny, I was worried about you, can you blame me? I cared about you, I just wanted you to be safe-- '
'That's so selfish!' Ginny snapped. 'I love you for it, Harry, that you're always so determined to protect everyone, but what if I don't want you to protect me? You don't talk to me, you don't include me, you think you're keeping me safe but you're just keeping me out!'
Harry frowned. What was love if not protection? Wasn't that his mother's spell?
But he thought again of Dumbledore and the betrayal he had felt just after Christmas, sitting in the too-empty tent with only Hermione at his side, the heavy weight of Rita Skeeter's book on his lap.
'Love is trust, too,' Ginny said, as if she had read his mind. 'And, and equality, okay, I don't want to be my mum. Well, maybe someday, but I'd like to play professional Quidditch, and I'm not going to keep changing everything just for you, Harry.'
'I'm not stopping you from playing professional Quidditch!' exclaimed Harry, who thought Ginny would make a brilliant Quidditch player. He remembered talking to her once about Gwenog Jones and the Harpies. 'I-- how could you think I would-- '
'Not on purpose,' Ginny said impatiently. 'But what if I asked you, what if I said, could you wait a few years, could you consult me about some things you do, you never even asked me what I thought of you coming back to Hogwarts! You don't include me as part of your life!'
'You are a part of my life,' Harry said, dumbfounded at how she could think anything else.
'That's just it,' she said. 'A part of your life, that's right. I'm a small compartment and I don't get to be part of anything else. Am I supposed to be grateful to get a portion of you? I barely saw you all summer.'
'That's because your mum-- '
'-- and when I did see you, we were always in cupboards or hiding in bushes-- '
'Your mum-- '
'Maybe I didn't want to be kissing all the time!' Ginny shouted. 'Maybe I had things I needed to talk about, too! Maybe I wanted to tell you what I went through last year, if you wouldn't bother to tell me about you, but all you wanted to do was pretend it hadn't happened, you couldn't even talk about Fred, my brother-- '
'I didn't know how to talk about it,' Harry said honestly. 'I don't.'
'You do with Ron and Hermione.'
Before he could stop himself, Harry blurted out, 'Well, they were there.'
'And where were you at Hogwarts?' Ginny yelled. 'What did you think I was doing, I was fighting my own war, and it's hard for me too, don't you think it's just as bad? With Fred and Tonks and with-- with Michael, how do you think I felt, seeing him lying there in that h-heap of bodies-- '
Harry said, 'Michael Corner?'
Ginny stared at him.
'I didn't,' Harry continued, aware that he was blundering terribly but somehow unable to stop the words coming out of his mouth. 'I didn't know.'
When Ginny finally spoke her voice was low and angry, but she wasn't crying. 'Of course you didn't. Why would you? And why would it ever occur to you that I might care? That Michael wanted me when you wouldn't give me the time of day, that he was my first boyfriend, and I had to see him just l-lying there, looking right th-through me!'
Now that Harry thought about it, he remembered Michael's name being read off at the memorial service, and Ginny squeezing his hand tight. At the time he had not made the connection . . . he had been caught up in his own thoughts . . .
'I'm sorry,' Harry said.
'I know you had enough to be going on with,' Ginny told him. 'I didn't want to be like everyone else, demanding that you listen to me and my memories, but I thought you would want to talk about it someday, that you'd come to me and want to talk about it. Everyone lost, Harry, and if we don't talk about it how are we ever going to get past it?'
He stared at her. He wanted to tell her that he did want to talk about it, but to Ron and Hermione, and with Ginny he did not want to think about the past and all they had been through. She was the future to him, the long days he had scarcely let himself imagine when in the middle of a war. He thought of her for an instant, the way she had looked bent over the battlefield. Harry had wanted to go to her and have her lead him away, promise him all sorts of things that were not death or Voldemort, but he had not been able to choose her then. She was not the war, the terrible things he had done and known, she was everything else.
'What do you even see when you look at me?' Ginny said hoarsely. 'I thought you wanted-- I thought it would be different after the war, but you keep so much from me, it's like there's this wall between us.'
He had no idea what to tell her.
'Gin,' Harry said finally. 'I'll try harder, okay? We can talk about anything you want, we'll try it however you want it to be.'
She looked at him with tears on her cheeks. 'Harry, we have been trying. I've been trying. And I think-- ' She faltered. 'I think you need to decide if you really want to be with me, because you aren't acting like it right now. And I need to sort out what I want. Because it isn't this.'
'You mean break up?'
Ginny actually laughed, though it sounded more like a sob. 'I-- I suppose I do,' she said. 'I've been trying to tell you for so long-- '
'So why didn't you?'
'Because you were always with Ron and Hermione!' Ginny exclaimed. 'And we were being followed around by my mum, and then you were running off to visit Draco Malfoy without a word to me.'
Harry gave a startled laugh. 'You're jealous of Malfoy?'
'No, I'm.' She looked down. 'I shouldn't have to hear from Neville that you were at Malfoy Manor fetching him back to Hogwarts, and I shouldn't have to always be running around wondering where you are, and I shouldn't have to feel like the fourth wheel when you and Ron and Hermione are all chattering on about things you've never told me. And you shouldn't have to, to remember to try to include me!'
Harry stared at her for a very long time and finally he said, 'I love you?'
Her eyes filled with tears. 'I wish I believed you.'
'What does that even mean?' Harry exclaimed. 'What are you saying? I-- it's not like-- I don't go around saying it to loads of people, I've never even said it to you-- '
'Well, brilliant time to start,' Ginny said sarcastically.
'You don't act like it!' Ginny snapped. 'All right? That's what I was going to say. That you can say that but you don't act like it and I don't believe you really do.'
They stared at one another.
'Look, I'm not saying forever,' Ginny relented; her voice did sound hoarse, as if she were holding in tears, and for some absurd reason, this gave Harry hope. 'I just think that maybe we-- we need to-- take some time. And space. Both of us.'
'Fine,' he said at last. 'If you think-- fine. Have as much space as you like.'
He left the room without looking back.
He was not even sure where he was going, only walking, going somewhere. He reached the familiar seventh floor corridor and strode angrily back and forth in front of the stretch of wall until a door appeared, and it wasn't until he flung it open that he registered what he had been thinking, a place to hide, a place to hide . . .
It was the Room of Hidden Things, only there was nothing there but the remnants of Crabbe's Fiendfyre, cold soot blowing like so much dust in little eddies on the floor. With the room empty Harry could finally see how large it was: with its vaulted ceiling, it rivaled the Great Hall in size. This was not the kind of room he had wanted at all. He had thought of a small place, a warm and familiar place.
But what the Room of Requirement had given him was this, so perhaps he had wanted it after all. Harry sat down against the wall with a sigh and stared across the empty, endless floor, now burned black.
He did love her, Harry thought furiously, how dare she say he didn't? He loved the little wisps of hair at the back of her neck, tiny red curls just starting to grow in, like a secret no one else knew. He loved that she had big feet like all the Weasleys did, but wasn't embarrassed. Once, in a game of pick-up Quidditch at the Burrow, a Bludger had smashed right into her face, but she'd kept playing even though blood was streaming from her nose; it wasn't until after the Snitch was caught (by Harry) that she let anyone heal her. And he loved the way her whole face crinkled up when she laughed. He pictured her for an instant, sitting on the floor playing with Crookshanks, soft red hair falling into her face as she looked up at him.
The thought of the small gasps she made when he put his hand round her breast while kissing her, and the idea that she'd never make those sounds for him again, sent something unpleasant knifing through his stomach.
And worse still, her hard blazing look, the one she'd cast at him just before he kissed her for the first time . . . if that, which he had always thought of as somehow his, were no longer meant for him either . . .
He sat for a long time in the dark room, getting soot all over his trousers, staring blankly where thousands of treasures had once rested, what was now just empty space.
At breakfast that morning, he had an owl from Kingsley, not on Ministry parchment but a small scroll of his own. It said simply, Harry, tap this with your wand and say my name. When Harry did so, the real letter unfurled, though it was not much longer.
Lucius Malfoy's trial is next Friday. My sources tell me that he's planning on pleading the Imperius Curse. If this is the case, would you be willing to testify against him? Minerva has agreed to let you out of lessons.
Let me know.
He leaned over and slipped the parchment to Hermione and Ron; down the table, Ginny frowned at her porridge but did not look at him.
'What do you think?'
Hermione shrugged. 'He's scum, Harry, we've always known that. The Imperius Curse, what rubbish.'
'It did get him off last time,' Ron pointed out sourly.
'Yes, but this time we've got Harry, and Kingsley as Minister! He hasn't a chance. He'd be better off pleading guilty and hoping for a minimal sentence. I don't know how he thinks he'll get away with this.'
Harry took the letter from Kingsley back and crammed it in his pocket. 'Then you think I should testify.'
'Of course you're going to testify,' Ron exclaimed. 'Get the slimy bastard what he deserves, aren't you?'
Hermione stood up and shouldered her bag. 'I've to go to the library before class, I'll meet you later. Anyway, Harry, it's up to you. You're the one Kingsley owled. It's your choice.'
'Full of advice when you don't want it, nothing when you do,' Ron muttered to Harry as Hermione strode off toward the doors. 'Come on, I left my Charms book in the common room, I've got to walk back. Anyway, if you ask me, Lucius Malfoy deserves a one-way ticket to Azkaban. If you go and tell the truth, they'll see that.'
Harry shrugged. 'Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.'
They passed by Malfoy at the doors of the Great Hall, looking oddly out of place without Crabbe and Goyle on either side of him. Catching Harry watching, he sneered, 'Hurry along, Potty.' From the way he was leering, he seemed to have forgot everything, acting as if they were in fourth year again, daring each other to duels.
'Shove off,' Harry muttered.
'I will if you'll control your little sidekicks,' Malfoy said venomously. 'Granger tried to make friends yesterday. You ought to keep your Mudblood on a leash.'
'Don't talk about her like that,' Ron snarled.
'I'll talk about her however I like,' Malfoy spat back. 'Pity my aunt never finished her off when she had the chance. We had to clean the carpet, you know, can't be having her filthy blood under our feet-- '
'I hear your father's being tried,' Harry blurted before he could regain his temper. The way Malfoy's face instantly went white sent a satisfying rush of adrenaline surging through him. 'Me, I'm hoping it's the Kiss.'
Malfoy was trembling all over. 'That isn't funny, Potter!'
Even Ron looked faintly shocked as Malfoy stormed away.
For once, Harry was glad that Hermione was not around, for the last thing he needed was a lecture on keeping his temper, even if she might be right.
He sighed. Malfoy, too, was right, after a fashion. It wasn't funny at all.
That afternoon, Hermione found him in the common room, staring out onto the grounds. She said gently, 'How are you feeling?'
'Confused,' Harry muttered.
Hermione nodded. 'Well, that's understandable. You both have a history, and it's not easy to let something like that go. If you want to let it go, that is.'
Harry frowned. 'I think he deserves to die, if that's what you mean. But I don't want any more people to die, even if it is Malfoy's dad.'
To his shock, Hermione laughed. 'Oh,' she said. 'Oh, Harry. The trial.'
He eyed her suspiciously. 'What did you think I was talking about?'
'Well, Ginny,' Hermione said. 'She told me what happened after you left breakfast this morning. But anyway, what about Malfoy?'
'I don't know.' Harry glared at his hands. 'The war is supposed to be over, I thought we were through! And now all these funerals and ceremonies and trials and, I thought it would be simple, why can't it be more simple?'
'Because it can't be,' Hermione said. 'This isn't a cut-and-dried war, Harry, it's politics and cleaning up and reconstructing a world that was corrupt to start out, it's never going to be easy.'
Harry sighed. 'I don't see why everything can't be regenerative like Hogwarts.'
'Even Hogwarts didn't grow back overnight.'
He buried his head in his hands. 'If I testify, I know it'll be enough to sway the Wizengamot, they'll sentence him for sure. But I can't not testify, I hate Lucius Malfoy, he's a rotten scumbag who worked for Voldemort and he tried to kill my girlfr-- er, Ginny. And he-- '
'Loved his son,' Hermione said, 'and has a son who loves him, right?'
Harry frowned. 'If only he would plead guilty. Do you think they'll use Veritaserum?'
'I doubt that. The Malfoy name may be dirtied, but Lucius Malfoy still has enough truck with high-ranking Ministry officials to keep himself from that.' Her eyes narrowed, the way they did when she was thinking. 'Why don't you write to him? Tell him that you'll testify, you'll use a Pensieve, if he even thinks of pulling the Imperius excuse. If he owns up to it on his own, you'll stay out of it.'
'As if he'd make a deal like that.'
'He might.' Hermione shrugged. 'It was only an idea.'
'Malfoy's mum might, actually,' Harry remembered, thinking of the cool pressure of her hands as she felt for his pulse. 'She was definitely willing to negotiate when it was Malfoy. But-- isn't it-- playing dirty?'
'It's not about heroics, Harry,' Hermione said, soft. 'Sometimes it's got to be about politics and being practical. Letting people get on with their lives.'
'But I don't want it to be like that,' Harry muttered. 'Politics, I mean.' Too much lately had been wordgames, things that had been said or not been said, false claims, mistakes in the past. He thought of Ginny saying, I don't believe you. You don't act like it.
'Well,' Hermione said in her no-nonsense way, 'I wouldn't blame you a bit if you didn't testify. Enough people have died, there's been enough war. But I wouldn't blame you if you wanted justice. After everything.'
Pity my aunt never finished her off, Harry heard Malfoy say.
'So you don't know either,' he said, managing a smile, even though the flutter of Hermione's hand as she pushed her hair away from her face-- so Hermione, calm and alive-- made something twist in his stomach, almost like missing her, though she was right there.
She put her hand on his shoulder, smiling back at him. 'I don't know everything, you know.'
'I know. I was just hoping you'd have some perspective.'
Hermione bit her lip. 'During the war, I would have said that he deserved it, that he deserved to suffer for the things he had done, the people he hurt. But now I don't know. There's been so much war, and if it's always about vengeance, it will just be a cycle. Look at the state of Slytherin now. If all it is is us hurting each other, well.' She squeezed his shoulder, the sun spilt all around them. 'I think we need a change, and I think taking a step towards that change is a brave thing.'
'So you think I should write a letter.'
She flashed him a smile. 'I think I have to go to the library. I'll see you later, all right? Good luck.'
'Wait,' Harry said, laughing. 'Where are you always running off to these days? I know it's N.E.W.T. year, but this seems more like SPEW. Don't tell me you're starting a support group for lonely Slytherins or something.'
Hermione snorted. 'No, nothing like that. I'm just doing some research for someone, that's all. I'll see you, Harry.'
He smiled as the portrait swung shut behind her; they were each growing up, in their own ways. He shook his head, and then he pulled out a scrap of parchment and began to write.
Luna was sitting near the lake when Harry went out to send his owl; he went over to her, where she was sprawled with her feet in the shallows.
'Hi, Harry,' she said. 'How's your owl?'
Harry shrugged. 'Fine, he's sweet.' He was more affectionate by far than Hedwig, or rather, he didn't take out his moods on Harry the way Hedwig did, but it only made Harry miss Hedwig more. As his new owl flapped away with Harry's letter, Harry frowned, remembering how just seeing her white form circling above the trees used to put a smile on his face. 'He still needs a name.'
'You should call him Algernon,' Luna suggested. At Harry's confused look, she added, 'He was Hedwig's lover, you know. We learned about it in History of Magic class.'
'Oh?' Harry said, prodding a clump of grass with the toe of his trainer. It was oddly unsurprising that Luna paid attention to Binns in her dreamlike way, snatching up bits of information here and there. He wondered if Hermione would be impressed or irritated.
'Yes,' Luna said vaguely, 'they loved each other very much. It was a bit tragic, really. She was married to a duke, but she was really in love with Algernon, it's all over the history books. Not the Muggle ones, though, they all think she's a saint.'
Harry glanced out across the water. 'Luna, have you ever been in love?'
She looked at him curiously, as if love were a place she had always considered going on holiday. 'It sounds nice,' she said. 'My dad always said that love was a special kind of magic. Why? Do you want to be?'
It was a funny, frank question; most people would ask, 'Are you?' or 'Were you?' But Luna was not most people.
'I don't know,' he told her. 'I think I was. I thought I was.'
He had never told Ginny as much, but he supposed he was, he had to be, didn't he? To be with her, those long days in the sun, wasn't that love? It was not as if Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches had a lot to say about this.
There was a day that spring of sixth year where they had spent the whole afternoon right here, where he and Luna were now. Small fish had skimmed past their ankles in the shallows, and her hair was like dark eels in the murky water. That night in the common room she'd sat between his legs and he'd pressed his face into her hair, then coughed and said, 'You smell like swamp water,' and she'd swatted him on the knee, and he'd swatted her back, and she'd laughed up in his face.
He wondered what his father had felt for his mother, and what Snape had felt, too. How would he react if Ginny married someone else, someone he had always hated? For an instant, Draco Malfoy came to mind and he had to smile at the idea of Ginny married to Malfoy. It was far too ridiculous to compare. Yet he thought of the anguish in Snape's eyes on that hilltop, and the bitter surety with which he had said, 'Always . . .'
'I think you'll figure it out,' Luna said honestly. She had her feet stuck out in front of her, long toes wriggling in the shallows.
'Er,' Harry said. 'Thanks. What are you doing out here by yourself anyway?'
Luna beamed at him. 'I'm looking for the giant squid. Daddy told me that when he was at Hogwarts, the squid gave him a special fish that gave him extra brain power.'
'Well, I think you're already smart enough,' Harry said. 'I don't think you need a, a special fish, I think you're brilliant.'
'Do you?' Luna said, genuinely surprised.
'Sure. You know lots of things I don't know about.'
In his mind, he thought, like Blibbering Humdingers, and grinned.
When he went back to Gryffindor Tower, it was nearing dusk, and he found Ginny sitting by the window, poring over a stack of notes in Hermione's handwriting.
'Hi,' he said.
She looked up, fingertip holding her place halfway through Hermione's tidy scrawl. 'Hi.'
'Can I sit here?'
She moved her books and he sat down. 'Where is everyone?'
'If you mean Ron and Hermione, they're upstairs,' Ginny said evasively. 'In your dormitory. Um. You know.'
They sat in silence for a minute, Harry thinking of the way Ron and Hermione both flushed and stumbled around in embarrassment every time he caught them kissing. Ron was always flustered but protective, and Hermione exclaimed several times that she had to go to the library, hurrying off with pink cheeks.
'I thought that would be us,' he said finally.
Ginny looked up. Her eyebrows were raised. 'Snogging in the seventh year boys' dormitory?'
'No, I mean.' Harry made a vague gesture. 'Well, maybe. But you know what I mean. Being together. Getting married after school, having a family.'
'Ron and Hermione aren't exactly rushing to the altar.'
'Oh, you've seen them, they will someday,' Harry said. 'I just, I mean, I thought I loved you.'
Ginny's look was sharp. 'You thought?'
'I don't know!' He flattened his hair despairingly. 'Isn't that what you said? That we needed some time to, to think things through?' When she didn't answer, he scowled at the tabletop. 'It shouldn't be this hard, it isn't fair! After everything-- '
She reached across the table to squeeze his hand and his throat seized up. 'Harry, just because the war is over doesn't mean things are easy now, things are just.' Ginny laughed a little. 'A regular kind of difficult, I suppose.'
It had been naďve, perhaps, to think that the aftermath would be all sunlit days, all walks by the lake and stolen hours in corners of the Hogwarts grounds, Ginny warm and soft next to him.
'Yeah,' Harry muttered. He had never broken up with someone before, not like this; with Cho, things had just disintegrated. He had no idea how it should go.
'So that's it, then?' he said. 'We'll just, we'll see?'
Ginny looked fierce and sad, and she said very fast, 'I don't want to say this but I have to. I have to because I'll regret it if I don't. I'm not waiting around for you. I'm not that kind of girl, Harry, I don't want to be. If it happens, all right, but I'm so tired of waiting, and if something comes along, I won't-- I'm not holding myself back.'
'I'm not asking you to,' Harry said, though he thought the words sounded a bit strained.
She gave him her saddest smile and he wondered when she had grown up; looking at her now, she did look older, no longer a girl, not his best friend's younger sister. She was the same Ginny-- his Ginny, he'd thought-- with the smattering of freckles across her nose like spilt cinnamon and her warm brown eyes, but for a moment she looked like a stranger.
'I do love you,' she said, and then she squeezed his hand one more time and let go.
They looked at each other. Finally, Harry tried, 'So, um, what are you working on in Charms right now? Luna said you have an exam on Friday.'
Ginny gave a strangled laugh. 'Yeah,' she said. 'Yeah, we have an exam on the Confundus Charm. I was here for the lessons last year so it shouldn't be too difficult.'
'Oh.' Harry cast desperately for something else to say, but the only thing he could think about was Cormac McLaggen at Keeper tryouts in his sixth year, and he didn't think Hermione would look favorably on his use of her rule-breaking as a conversation starter. 'Um, handy charms, aren't they? For, I mean, if you want to confuse someone. I used one when we broke into Gringotts.'
At a sniffle from Ginny, Harry looked up in surprise: a tear ran down her cheek, and she wiped it away furiously. He had never seen her cry like that, and it startled him.
'I'm sorry,' she said, biting her lip. 'I just can't do this right now, I can't. I'll see you tomorrow, all right?'
'I'll be fine tomorrow,' she said firmly, blinking back tears, and then turned away and hurried up the stairs before he could say another word.
The morning of Lucius Malfoy's trial dawned slow and foggy. On his way down to the Hogwarts gates, Harry could barely see in front of him, and almost didn't notice the two figures strolling the grounds until he nearly stumbled across them.
He ducked swiftly behind a stand of shrubbery, peering out as two red-heads passed by.
'-- you remember how mad Bill was for Lucy, we all thought they'd be nauseating and call each other 'baby' forever and have little slobbering children in no time,' Charlie was saying, hands thrust in his pockets. 'Now look, he and Fleur are having a kid, and they're as happy as could be.'
'So what?' Ginny said furiously. She was bundled up in a jumper three sizes too big for her. 'Mum and Dad met at Hogwarts, didn't they? They're happy, aren't they? And they went through the war together, too!'
'But Mum and Dad aren't the same as they were at Hogwarts,' Charlie said. 'They've, you know, changed together. Though they're just as bad as Bill sometimes, to hear Dad, he calls Mum "Mollywobbles," did you know? It's enough to put me off my supper.'
'Nothing puts you off food,' Ginny retorted. 'And I think Mum and Dad are sweet. Anyway, how can you change with someone when they don't let you in?'
'Dunno,' said Charlie, hands still stuck in his pockets, kicking a pebble off into the foggy morning. It came perilously close to striking Harry in the knee. 'You're asking the wrong brother, to be honest. Well, all right, I'm better than Percy, I hope, and maybe even Ron, but I haven't got the best record-- '
They passed away up towards the school, voices fading, and Harry realized with a panicked glance at his watch that he was almost late. He tore down through the school grounds until he reached the gate, and then he Apparated off to London.
When Harry reached the familiar phone booth that served as the visitor's entrance to the Ministry of Magic, he informed the disembodied voice that he had arrived to see Lucius Malfoy get what he deserved. Accordingly, when his badge toppled out, it read, Harry Potter, Seeker of Justice. He blinked at it for a moment, embarrassed, then pinned it on anyway.
The courtroom was packed when he slipped inside, and from what he could tell, few friends of the Malfoys were there. It was dangerous to be associated with a known Death Eater, he supposed, as he scanned the crowd. Even among the throng, Harry could see Draco Malfoy and his mother in the front row; both were dressed in somber colors, and Malfoy's pale hair was slicked back so that it gleamed in the light. Harry stared at their stiff backs and almost felt sorry, until Lucius Malfoy was led out.
For an instant, Harry had the idea of approaching them, perhaps asking Narcissa Malfoy if she had received his letter. But before he could even attempt to squeeze through the packed rows, the court was called to order.
Ten minutes in, to everyone's shock, Lucius Malfoy pleaded guilty to every charge without looking up once, and ten minutes later it was over. A collective outcry went up when the sentence was declared-- twenty years in Azkaban-- and the witch next to Harry actually uttered a stream of curses he would have expected only from Ron. In the hubbub, she seized him by the wrist.
'He deserves to be Kissed,' she snarled, nails digging into his arm. 'Harry Potter, do something, why didn't you testify, why didn't you tell them-- despicable-- deserves to die-- '
'I,' Harry choked out, 'excuse me, I have to go.'
Before he could pull his arm from her grasp, she gasped up in his face, 'Kill him, do it, they won't arrest you, you'll be a hero, do it now-- '
'I have to go,' Harry repeated, and tore away from her.
He thrust his way through the agitated crowd, though he was stopped multiple times, once by a red-faced, tall man who seized him by the throat and repeated the first witch's desperate request. 'He killed my wife,' the man shouted, 'killed her right in front of our children! This is no kind of justice, where murderers walk free!'
'Ought to kill his family, see how he likes it,' someone snarled right in Harry's ear.
When he finally got to the door, Harry was breathing hard; his stomach felt like it was deflating, curling in on itself. The witch's words were ringing in his ears. Why didn't you testify?
You'll be a hero . . .
They won't arrest you . . .
He thought of his childish scrawl on the old piece of parchment, how it had looked as his owl carried it off. In that moment, with Ginny on his mind, he had thought he was doing the right thing, walking the line in between. But who was he, to choose? Who was he, to let Lucius Malfoy off with twenty years in Azkaban, or to see him die at the hands of the Muggle-born who had once been his victims?
There was a noise behind Harry in the quiet hallway, the sound of the door snicking open and the brief roar from inside before it slid shut again. Harry turned.
Malfoy was standing there, flushed and scowling; it looked as if someone had spit on him, from the slimy patch on the shoulder of his robes. He was dressed as if he had just returned from a funeral: his robes were buttoned high around his neck, and the sleeves covered the expanse from elbow to wrist that Harry knew drew most people's curious eyes. His mouth tried to work itself into a sneer, but could not quite manage the task.
Ought to kill his family, Harry remembered, and remembered too that he did not want more people to die, people who were fathers and husbands.
'He deserved worse,' Harry said softly. 'You know that as well as I do.'
Malfoy stared at him. 'I believe the mob inside agrees with you,' he said, his tone clipped but not impolite; for once in his life, Malfoy did not rise to the bait. His shoulders were hunched in a miserable shape. 'Forgive me if I'm not surprised.'
'It's only twenty years,' Harry said before he could help himself. The dark robes made Malfoy look small, and Harry had the absurd and fleeting impulse to comfort him.
'Twenty years,' Malfoy echoed.
In twenty years, Harry would be older than Sirius or Remus or even Snape, come to think of it, had ever been. He might be married, with kids of his own. He tried not to think about how long and yet how short of a time it was.
The hall was quiet, though they could both hear the muffled shouts from inside. 'It won't be as bad now,' Harry said. 'They aren't bringing the Dementors back.'
Hermione had read several Muggle books on prison reform while on holiday in Australia and was now obsessively discussing probationary options and visitor arrangements. She had already written reams of parchment to the Ministry arguing against reinstating the Dementors as guardians of the wizard prison and she was advocating heavily for smaller prisons with less dire conditions for more petty crimes.
Harry shrugged. 'There's a chance for probation at ten anyway, and . . .'
He trailed off. Malfoy just looked at him.
'My mother told me what you did.'
Harry said, 'What?'
'You didn't have to do that,' Malfoy drawled reluctantly. His eyes were sharp and gray in the hallway.
Harry stared; he thought Malfoy would be angry no matter the outcome, but now he remembered the blind fear in Malfoy's eyes as they'd raced by in Hogwarts, and the way his mum had whispered his name with her fingers trembling over Harry's pulse. Perhaps Malfoy knew now that there were much worse things than prison.
'He deserves to live with it,' Harry said, thinking of something Dumbledore had once said.
'Try for remorse, that sort of thing?' Malfoy asked sharply, and Harry knew he had been there in the Great Hall with everyone else.
'If you like.' Harry stuck his hands in his pockets. Beside them, out of sight, was the black door to the Department of Mysteries-- for all Dumbledore's explanations, damned if he understood any better about love-- and then the lifts to the Atrium, and beyond, the streets of London, the foggy corridors of buildings and the pale blue daylight.
'Look, I'll see you at school,' he said.
Malfoy's mouth went thin. 'See you.'
Harry barely made it to Herbology that afternoon before Hermione pounced and began to interrogate him about Lucius Malfoy's trial. They were in the greenhouses and everyone was sweating in the heat: Harry's fringe stuck to his forehead, and Hermione fanned herself with her Herbology textbook. Everything smelled like dirt in the streaming sun, sleepy and slow. All this was offset, of course, by the urgency in Hermione's tone.
'Twenty years? Really? Oh, Harry-- and he really admitted he had been acting of his own accord?'
Harry shrugged. 'Mrs. Malfoy might have forced him into it. He didn't look too keen on confessing. But he did.'
'Then she knows what's best for her family,' Hermione said. Her tone was approving. 'Speaking of, how was Malfoy? Did you see him?'
'Oh, come off it, it's only Malfoy,' Ron snapped before Harry could answer. At the other end of the greenhouse, Professor Sprout looked up, and Ron lowered his voice to a vehement whisper. 'I mean it, Hermione, I've had enough of this, it's always Malfoy this, Malfoy that, is Malfoy enjoying his breakfast, doesn't Malfoy look handsome today, do you think Malfoy's marks in Charms are satisfactory! It's like sixth year all over again!'
'That was different,' Harry said hastily. 'I don't-- I thought he was up to something, and I was right, I never cared about his breakfast, okay?'
Ron waved a hand and nearly knocked over a slumbering Blackthorn Bush. 'Either way, I get enough of Malfoy in classes, I don't want to be talking about him every four seconds.'
'Oh, very well, Ron,' Hermione sniffed. 'Anyway, Harry, you ought to talk to Kingsley now and let him know what you want to do from here on out.'
'What do you mean?'
'Now that you've been seen at one trial, they'll expect you at every one,' Hermione said. 'If Kingsley doesn't invite you to testify, every victim and victim's family member will be bombarding you with owls, begging you to make an appearance.'
Harry thought of the witch beside him who had seized him by the arm and shuddered. 'No,' he said. 'I don't, I don't want to go to every trial and sit there and judge people and have to decide-- '
'Then you ought to owl Kingsley,' Hermione concluded. 'Let him know that this was a special case, and you don't want to know anything about the rest of the trials. Professor McGonagall can probably arrange to have your mail blocked as well, just in case. It's a simple Sorting spell.'
She looked up to see Harry and Ron staring back at her in a mixture of gratitude and baffled amusement. 'I don't know what we'd do without you,' Harry grinned. 'How do you know all this stuff?'
'I read,' Hermione said, flushed and pleased despite herself. 'And I listen. It's not that hard, boys.'
'Speak for yourself,' Ron grumbled.
'Oh, and by the way,' Hermione murmured, 'speaking of listening, Harry, I'd look out if I were you. I heard Romilda Vane in the common room this morning, talking about your break-up with Ginny. I know you think it's ridiculous, but you're a war hero, you're famous, and now that you're single, you're quite the catch. There will be thousands of witches after you, and not all of them are, well, all that scrupulous.'
Harry choked. 'Thousands?'
Hermione raised her eyebrows in that you'll see expression. 'I'm only saying, take care what you eat and drink, double-check your post, things like that.'
'Sixth year all over again,' Ron muttered once more.
'Worse,' Hermione said. 'Now he doesn't come with the attached danger of Voldemort. So watch your back, Harry.'
Harry rolled his eyes. 'All right.' He thought it more likely that danger would come in the form of an escaped Death Eater or an enraged family member of someone on trial, rather than a teenage girl with a love potion, but he said nothing.
Later that afternoon, he was attempting work with Ron in the library, head drooping over their Potions text, when Ron nudged him in the ribs. Four or five tables away, Malfoy had stopped Penelope in the aisle and seemed to be engaging in more blatant flattery.
'You're the best Transfiguration professor we've ever had,' Malfoy was saying sycophantically; unlucky for him, Professor McGonagall passed by at that very moment.
'Is that so, Mr. Malfoy?' she inquired, sharp amusement in her tone when he leapt back from Penelope as if caught at something far more forbidden. 'I recall hearing the same statement just after I gave you a D on your human transfiguration essay. I do hope Professor Clearwater is having better success.'
'Um, excuse me, Draco.' Penelope blushed and hurried on her way after Professor McGonagall, calling, 'Actually, Minerva, I had a question about the recent legislature on cross-gender Transfiguration-- '
With Penelope gone, Malfoy gathered his things at his leisure; finally, shouldering his bag, he passed by Harry and Ron and lingered.
'Shove off, Malfoy,' Ron said. 'We get enough of you at Prefects meetings.'
Malfoy raised an eyebrow. 'Forgot what it's like putting up with people you hate, Weasley?'
'We don't hate you,' Harry said impatiently.
'Yeah, we just think you're an annoying slimy git,' Ron added.
Malfoy, always easy to set off, narrowed his eyes. 'Where's your Mudblood?' he taunted. 'I thought there was something different. Of course, you're probably used to the stench of dirty blood by now, Weasel.' He made a suggestive hand gesture that nearly had Ron leaping out of his seat.
'I take it back, I do hate you,' Harry said as he held down a struggling Ron. 'Go the hell away, Malfoy.'
Malfoy sneered but didn't need telling twice.
When Ron finally calmed down, he gave a heavy sigh. 'Bloody git, I don't even know why he came back. Where is Hermione, anyway? She said she'd meet us here half an hour ago.'
As if on cue, Hermione's voice rang out behind them. 'Oh, Harry, you're featured in Wand-erful Wizards!' she exclaimed, dumping a leather-bound text that had to be at least two thousand pages thick onto the table. Both Harry and Ron stared up at her.
'What have you got that for?' Ron finally asked.
'Research for Charlie,' Hermione replied, beaming. 'I've been helping him plan lessons. Haven't you noticed how much better they've been? I went to talk to him at the beginning of the year and he asked for my help-- '
'He doesn't need your help, Hermione!'
'He really appreciates it, actually,' she retorted, stung. 'He's the one who asked me! Next week we're doing life-threatening duels and wand lore, and he also finds it really interesting.'
'Charlie's the Professor,' Ron retorted. 'Just because you're a know-it-all-- '
'I am not, Ronald,' Hermione said shrilly. 'Just because you don't know anything!' And with that she snatched the book off the table, hugged it in her arms, and marched away into the shelves.
Ron threw Harry a guilty look. 'Suppose she's not coming to Hagrid's, then.'
They had planned to go down to see Hagrid at the end of lessons that day, but Hermione stormed off to Gryffindor after Defense, so Ron and Harry only shrugged and made their way out of the castle. The fog from that morning had cleared, leaving the sky a cold blue, the day poised on the edge of autumn. Hagrid beamed at them when he opened the door.
'Knew yeh'd show up eventually,' he said, gruffly pleased. ''Come in for a cuppa? Yeh're in luck, Charlie's here havin' a spot o' tea as well-- gets a bit tirin', I expec', havin' ter put up with Professor Slughorn all the time-- '
'Forces me full of crystallized pineapple,' Charlie added from inside. 'Yeurgh, I hate the stuff. Hagrid, your rock cakes are better.'
Harry and Ron exchanged glances; both of them had been offered Hagrid's cakes on multiple occasions, and once Harry was sure he had come close to losing a tooth.
'Haven't seen you about so much, little brother,' Charlie said; he was rocking his chair on its back two legs, feet propped up on the table, actually gnawing on one of Hagrid's pastries. 'Been busy, have you?'
'Something like that.' Ron scowled at the sight of Charlie, evidently reminded of his argument with Hermione.
'Class was good today,' Harry offered as they sat down, just as Hagrid plunked a plate of lumpy stoat sandwiches in front of them. 'Hermione says we've got wand duels coming up soon.'
'Naturally of interest to you,' Charlie said, nodding at Harry. 'Should be good. And everybody seems to be getting on all right. I'm worried about that Draco Malfoy, though. He's been underperforming. Doesn't seem as if his heart is in it, does it?'
Ron had leaned his own chair on its back two legs in an effort to imitate Charlie, and at this, his chair slammed back onto all fours so loudly that Fang shot out from under the table and began to bark. 'Shut yer trap, yeh mad dog,' Hagrid shouted, flapping a hand at Fang, who slunk back under the table with a whine.
'Malfoy doesn't have a heart,' Ron put in when the barking ceased. 'Are you mental, Charlie? Who cares?'
'Just because he's a Slytherin doesn't mean I should sit back and watch him fail,' Charlie argued. 'Besides, aren't you the one who convinced him to come back? Hermione said you went to his house, Harry-- '
'Now hang on jus' a mo',' said Hagrid in alarm. 'I told yeh, Harry, ain' a wizard who wen' bad who wasn' in Slytherin! Yeh've got it all wrong. Here's a chance ter clear out the viper's nest, with You-Know-Who wen' all his followers-- '
'They're just kids,' Harry said, wondering how he had become Slytherin's staunchest defendant over night. It was a thankless sort of task, as Malfoy conveniently reminded him at every opportunity.
'Like we were,' Charlie put in, patting Hagrid's solid shoulder. Across the room, the tea kettle began to whistle, and Hagrid lumbered to his feet to pull it off the fire. With a wink while Hagrid's back was turned, Charlie slipped half his stoat sandwich under the table, and shortly Harry heard the unmistakable slobbering noises that meant Fang was gobbling it up.
'These sandwiches are delicious,' Ron said unconvincingly in Hagrid's direction. 'Look, Charlie, if you don't want Hermione's help, you've got to tell her, or she'll end up planning your whole year, you don't know how she gets sometimes!'
'I don't mind,' Charlie shrugged. 'She's a sweet girl, Ron, you're lucky there.'
'She's not being all that sweet right now,' Ron grumbled. 'Got the temper of a Hippogriff.'
Charlie winked in Harry's direction. 'Romance, eh?'
Harry was reminded all too clearly of the conversation he had overheard that morning. Charlie did not seem too miffed at him, but he still felt a squirm of guilt in the pit of his stomach. 'I don't,' he muttered, 'I don't know all that much about it.'
Charlie guffawed. 'Nor do I, to tell you the truth. And Hagrid certainly doesn't, do you? Haven't seen Madame Maxine around in months. Well, cheers, boys.'
Dusk was falling when they left Hagrid's, trudging up the grounds to Hogwarts, which spilled warm pools of light out onto the lawn. Ron had his hands in his pockets, striding absently along, and Harry had to jog to keep up with Ron's long legs. They hurried along in silence.
'You know, I thought we were grown-up,' Harry said at last, when they were nearly to the doors. He had been thinking about the conversation they'd had with Hagrid, and the way adults still seemed to tell him what to do, rest or testify or leave the whole lot of Slytherin alone. He shrugged. 'On our own, in the woods, you know.'
Ron snorted. 'You want to spend the rest of your life eating cold fish in the Forest of Dean?'
'No, but we did it ourselves, we had to do it all on our own.'
'Yeah, and now I never want to go camping ever again,' Ron said fervently. 'Life lessons and all, but don't you think real life is a bit more-- '
'Well, I was going to say fun,' Ron said, 'but if you like. Seriously, mate, what did you think, you were going to be hunting Dark wizards forever? Even being an Auror, it's going on patrols and investigating bad leads and stuff like that. I suppose you never listened to those radio programs like Dirk Daring, Defeater of the Dark and Auror Hour, but it isn't all chasing around You-Know-Who and, and saving children.'
He sounded like a stuttering version of Hermione, and Harry had to grin ruefully at her affect on Ron. 'So what you're saying, you're saying I need other life skills than foraging for berries,' he said. 'And erecting a camp tent.'
'Yeah,' Ron said, 'stuff like that.'
He was not looking quite at Harry. They had stopped in the doorway, trapped in between the cool evening and the golden light of Hogwarts.
'What d'you mean, stuff like that?'
'Well, you're not quite Lockhart, are you?' Ron suggested, to Harry's grand bewilderment. He had no idea where Gilderoy Lockhart came into the picture. Ron blundered on, 'I mean, you haven't got the best luck with-- with girls?'
Something sank in Harry's stomach.
'I do all right,' he muttered.
'Yeah, with Cho crying all over the place and you and my sister being on and off every time I turn around.'
'Oh, yeah, please enlighten me, Won-Won.'
Ron turned red. 'Don't remind me. I'm only saying, maybe you need to have a go at a relationship that isn't-- '
Disastrous, Harry finished in his head.
Ron was giving him an odd look. '-- second best to You-Know-Who.'
'You think me and Ginny called it off too soon.'
'I think if Hermione told me we were quits, I'd tell her we bloody well weren't, and she'd have to do better than that troll McLaggen to get me to lay off,' Ron said matter-of-factly. 'Sure, we have our rows, and we can both be pigheaded at times-- '
'At times?' Harry grinned.
Ron made a rude gesture. 'The point is, I'd win her back, Harry, no matter what it took, because I love her, all right? And I've never known you to back down from anything, you're the most pigheaded of all of us, to tell the truth. You know the way you are when you get an idea, nothing and nobody can talk you out of it.'
Harry grudgingly admitted that this was true.
'So,' Ron said, and faltered, 'so why're you acting like there's nothing you can do? Just rolling over and letting Ginny say you're finished?'
'If she doesn't want to be with me, I'm not going to very well make her!'
'But she does, obviously,' said Ron; it was beginning to make Harry uncomfortable, how Ron was quite suddenly the sensible one of them. 'She wanted you to say that you wouldn't let her go, that the two of you would work it out, that she was too important to just let her run off like that. But you did, Harry, you acted like it was nothing to you, what kind of message does that send?'
He wasn't sure when Ron became the expert on girls, but it was disconcerting, to say the least. 'Did Hermione tell you this?'
'No, Charlie did. Look, we're both worried about our baby sister. If you don't want to be with her, bloody well make it clear so she can move on, and I'll punch you and we can get through it, all right? And if you do, well. You aren't much acting like it, are you?'
Harry thought about the firm set of Ginny's mouth and the way he had sat there in the Room of Requirement, furious and hollow and not having any idea how to fix it. He knew how to fight and he knew how to defend but he had never been one for fixing things, he was not clever and quick like Malfoy with his Vanishing Cabinet or Hermione with her back-up plans and capacious bags. He wasn't even any good at healing spells.
He said without thinking, 'I suppose I'm used to people leaving.'
Ron's face immediately went from stony to sorry.
'No, I didn't mean that,' Harry said quickly. 'Well, I did, but it's no excuse. Look, forget it. Let's go eat.'
As they trooped into dinner, Ron nearly tripped over two first-years dueling with fake wands in the aisle between the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables. 'Geroff,' Ron shouted as one ran straight into him; he got an arm around the boy's midsection and bodily hauled him onto a bench.
'Hey, I'm not in Gryffindor!' the first-year squeaked. He freed himself from Ron's grasp and tore off in the direction of Ravenclaw.
'Bloody hell,' Ron grumbled. 'I feel ancient. Here I am with my shoulder splinch-wound acting up and these kids are tumbling everywhere.'
Harry grinned. He liked the first years; it was nice to hear their laughter ringing through the halls, children who hadn't been there during the terror of the year before, whose years at Hogwarts were free of Voldemort. 'Where's Hermione?' he began to ask, when Ron shoved him into a seat beside Seamus.
'Look out, Romilda's coming,' he said out the corner of his mouth, flanking Harry on the other side.
'Hi, Harry,' she trilled, putting a friendly hand on his shoulder and making him wonder if love potions could be transmitted by skin contact. Hermione really did have him paranoid.
'Hey, Romilda,' he said reluctantly. 'Um, have a good dinner. See you later.'
She waved and carried on up the table, and Ron rolled his eyes. 'You break up with your girlfriend and scores of witches are after you. Hermione and I get in a fight and all I get is Fang's slobber all over my robes.'
Harry snickered. 'I think Neville's got the luck of all of us, really.' He nodded towards the other end of the table, where Neville was surrounded by three sixth year girls, all listening raptly to some story or other he was telling.
Ron shook his head. 'Probably just telling them how he was dropped on his head as a baby and they're lapping it up. Anyway, Harry.' He lowered his voice. 'I mean it, all right? You should talk to her. Ginny, I mean. Give it another go. You love her, don't you?'
All of the sudden, Harry's bite of pumpkin pasty was not going down so easily. 'Yeah,' he managed after a minute. 'Yeah, I, yeah.'
'There you have it, then,' said Ron, and returned to his plate.
Harry ran into Ginny that night after dinner, headed out of the Gryffindor common room just as he was headed in. She was wearing a brown Weasley jumper with a G embroidered in the middle, and her hair shone in the firelight.
'Hi, Harry,' she said, smiling up at him. 'How are you?'
'All right.' He stuck his hands in his pockets. 'Er, you?'
'I'm fine,' said Ginny.
'That's good.' Harry scuffed the toe of his trainer against the carpet. Though they probably weren't, he felt certain that every first-year in Gryffindor was sitting by the fire, goggling at them. 'Look,' he said, then had nothing to follow it. 'I'm glad you're, er. Having a good time of it.'
Ginny looked at him as if he'd sustained substantial brain damage since the time they dated.
'But I have to go,' Harry finished quickly. 'I was just on my way, um, upstairs. Left a book there.'
Ginny hesitated, and then she blurted out, 'Do you want to go for a walk? We haven't talked in a while-- '
Harry looked at her: there was an eager light in her eyes, that warm clear brown, and where it had once been easy, he could not think of a single thing to say to her. Without Quidditch practice, he had no easy fallback, and she was looking at him so expectantly.
The things she had said to him that night had fallen between them like a heavy curtain. It might as well have been the ragged veil in the Department of Mysteries for how impossible Harry found it to cross back over.
He couldn't do it, not right then. He couldn't.
'I told Hermione I'd meet her,' he lied. 'N.E.W.T.s, you know.'
Ginny flashed him a stalwart smile. 'Yeah, N.E.W.T.s. I'll see you around, Harry.'
'Wait,' he said. She turned, face already lighting up. 'Um, maybe you and me and Ron could go flying this weekend. And Charlie, too, if he wants.'
'Yeah,' Ginny said. It was all too obvious that she had been hoping for something else. 'Sure. Bye, Harry.'
Malfoy, at least, acted the same as he always had, though if anything Harry saw him less. When he did, Malfoy strutted by sneering, shoving him or spitting out a snide remark, though once or twice, Harry saw Malfoy with Penelope in the courtyard, their heads together, poring over notes or an old book. They were perched on a bench one mid-morning while Harry, Ron and Hermione were standing in their usual corner, and Ron scowled in their direction.
'What's he doing with her?'
'Honestly, she's one of the few here to show him kindness, can you blame him for wanting to spend time with her?' Hermione said. The two had made up days ago, though she still seemed snippy from time to time. 'Oh, shh, I think she heard us-- '
Penelope had heard something, at least, for she spotted them and came over. 'How are you three?' she said, smiling. Her dark, curly hair hung past her shoulders; she was pink-cheeked and beaming in the cold. She was not the sort of witch Harry would pick out as Malfoy's type, if he had ever given thought to the matter.
'He's trouble,' Ron said before Hermione could drag him away, 'Malfoy, he was a bloody Death Eater, I wouldn't trust him!'
'Trouble?' Penelope echoed. 'It's sweet of you to look out for me, Ron, but I'm not stupid, I know who Draco is. I also know that he can be a perfect gentleman. There was nothing amiss when I dined at Malfoy Manor last week, and his mother is a lovely woman.'
'You had dinner at his house?' Ron gaped; even Hermione looked startled.
'Oh, yes, there's this lovely terrace, with lights hanging everywhere, and the gardens are just beautiful. Shame about his family, isn't it?'
'A shame?' Ron exploded. 'Hermione was tortured in that house! The Malfoys tried to shut us up in their cellar!'
But Penelope had already walked away, humming to herself. Ron turned on Harry and Hermione.
'He's seducing her!' he said in horror. 'That-- that-- I know Percy's a bit of a git sometimes, but Malfoy-- '
Harry was unconvinced: the thought of Malfoy seducing anyone was laughable. From the look on Hermione's face, she seemed to agree.
'Oh, you see how he acts around teachers when he needs something from them, Ron. He's just trying to get on her good side. Besides, he's probably glad, I'm sure he's grateful that someone treats him decently, and he wanted to thank her with dinner.'
'I think he could be a bit more thankful to us,' Ron muttered.
'It can't be easy to be in his position right now,' Hermione continued on. 'And you certainly aren't helping.'
'I meant that we saved his life!' Ron exclaimed. 'Don't get me wrong, I don't want to have dinner at Malfoy's house-- '
'I think we've all had quite enough of Malfoy's house,' Hermione said delicately.
Ron flung his hands up. 'Exactly! That's it! We all know what happened there, and now you want to be friends with the ferret?'
'Well,' Harry put in reluctantly, 'he didn't exactly participate. I mean, he didn't give us away, after all, and he really just stood there looking scared, holding our wands.'
'He has the Dark Mark!' Ron yelped. 'Come on, Harry, you were the one who wouldn't leave it alone sixth year, you kept going on and on about how evil and dangerous Malfoy was!'
'Well, he didn't turn out to be, did he?' Hermione said practically. 'He turned out to be a scared kid who got in over his head and couldn't kill people half as easily as he thought he could. And now he's here, by himself, and I'm sure he's grateful for Penelope's kindness. Perhaps we could all take a lesson from her.'
Ron muttered something under his breath, shooting Harry a betrayed look. Harry, in turn, glanced guiltily at Hermione. He was only being truthful. And perhaps Hermione was right, perhaps she did have a point. Circumstances were different now.
The next day, Malfoy suggested that Harry's mother had been having it off with Sirius in dog form behind James's back.
'That's it,' Harry snarled, and punched Malfoy full in the mouth.
When he arrived in the common room a good ten minutes later, Hermione took one look at his face and began rummaging in her bag for the bottle of dittany she always had on hand; after their trials in the forest, she kept it around, Voldemort or no Voldemort. 'Daub this around your eye,' she fussed. 'It should help the swelling. Harry-- '
'Don't say it.'
She had that look about her that suggested she knew he wouldn't like what she had to say, but needed to tell him regardless. 'I only think you're letting your emotions get in the way of behaving more reasonably. Like a, um, grown-up.'
He glared at her. 'You think I'm immature.'
'No! Well, not really, it's just.' Of all things, she sounded apologetic. 'You can't just punch everybody who disagrees with you, Harry, or, or hex them, that's even worse, and I know Malfoy gets to you like nobody else but-- '
'He does not!' Harry seethed. 'He does not get to me!'
Hermione shot him a skeptical look.
'Fine, but not any more than anybody else, he's just an annoying little nuisance-- '
'Whom you saw fit to punch in the face,' Hermione finished pointedly.
'How do you know I punched him? I'm the one with the black eye!'
Again she eyed him with skepticism. 'Harry, please don't insult my intelligence, I've been your friend for going on eight years now, and I've had to hold you and Ron back from assaulting Malfoy on more than one occasion.'
'You slapped him,' Harry pointed out, though a second later he remembered that Hermione had been all of thirteen at the time.
Indeed, she said, 'I was thirteen years old. And I don't regret it. He was a stuck-up, awful person who was going around laughing at other people's pain and he deserved it. Don't you think this is a little different?'
'How?' Harry demanded. 'He's still stuck-up, and awful, and he laughs at other people all the time!'
'But he knows a great deal more about the world now, I should think,' Hermione sighed. 'As do you, I hope. He's only reacting to you the way he did in third year because that's the way you're reacting to him. You can't tell me that the Draco Malfoy who teased you about fainting on the Hogwarts Express is the same Draco Malfoy whose father is in Azkaban, who was tortured and blackmailed by Voldemort, who is, at this very minute, going to school in a place where not a single person likes him-- '
'You like him,' Harry said sourly. 'You're acting like it well enough.'
'I like you,' Hermione said, giving him a pointed little frown. 'And I don't think it's healthy for you to be punching Malfoy all over the school, provoked or no. If he gets to you that badly, Harry, just avoid him, won't you?'
'I'll avoid him if he avoids me,' Harry began to retort, when the portrait hole swung open to admit Ron, covered in leaves and panting.
'Getting-- windy,' he managed, flopping into a chair by the fire. 'Filch made me do my detention behind the greenhouses, I've been pulling monster weeds for hours.'
'It's your fault, you're the one who was caught with fireworks while in lessons,' said Hermione in a highly unsympathetic tone. 'That you filched from a third year, no less! Besides, how does it look, the Head Boy getting detention? You are supposed to set a shining example for the rest of the school, Ronald.'
'I am setting a shining example,' said Ron, 'of knowing good magic when I see it. And also keeping down my brother's competition. Harry, what happened to you, mate? You look like you got in a fight with Crookshanks and then ran into the Whomping Willow.'
'Close,' Harry said. 'Malfoy.'
'Git,' said Ron without a pause.
For her part, Hermione sniffed, apparently fed up with both of them, and settled back in her chair with Numerology and Gramatica.
That night, Harry dreamed that he was in Defense Against the Dark Arts and Charlie was standing before him, his shirt off, the little dragon bared for all to see. 'This is your exam,' Charlie intoned in his dream. 'Go through that door, Harry Potter.'
In the dream, Harry's hands were sweating. He pushed open the dark door and found himself in that bathroom, Malfoy twitching and pale on the flooded tile, his whole face screwed up in fear. 'I'm going to die,' he whimpered, 'I'm going to die! Potter, help!'
Harry said roughly, 'I can't.'
'Fix it!' Malfoy cried. 'Fix it, Potter, or I'll die!'
His blood was pouring out and Harry could not remember a single healing spell that Charlie had taught them. Episkey was for minor wounds and he could not recall the spell for burns, perhaps it started with a C? Or was it a G? If only Snape would come. But no, Snape would not come, Snape was dead . . .
'Potter,' Malfoy begged, begged, and then Harry woke up.
It turned out to be a portent of sorts: the next day, he rounded the corner from the Charms corridor and came across Malfoy cornered like a snarling cat, surrounded by several other students. Harry recognized some of them. His first instinct was to turn away, but then he recalled the expression of pure panic on Malfoy's face in his dream and did not. 'Hey!' he said loudly.
Malfoy took the opportunity and shoved Harry hard in the chest, pushing past him and disappearing around the corner.
'What's going on?' Harry demanded.
'He's got to pay,' said one boy angrily; Harry didn't recognize him.
'Yeah, we'd be better off without his kind!' another boy piped up. It was plain that they had all recognized Harry, and yet he spoke up anyway.
Harry thought for a second of the bruises he saw around Malfoy's wrist in Potions. 'He didn't kill anyone,' he said. 'How can you-- it wasn't Draco-- '
'You don't know that!' someone else shouted. Harry was startled to see that it was Justin Finch-Fletchley. 'It was his family! And his friends! They're all rotten, they're all like him! How dare he show his face here-- '
'I asked him to come!' Harry exclaimed. 'If you're blaming anybody, blame me! What do you mean, how dare he?' He stared: he had always considered Justin a reasonable fellow.
'I hate him!' Justin said, trembling all over. 'Strutting around the school when-- when Ernie's just lying there in the ground!'
Harry said, 'Oh.'
Justin's eyes were glassy with unshed tears. 'Ernie was my best mate, you know,' he continued forcefully. 'A first rate Hufflepuff, he was! We sat together on the train the very first day, and he shared his sandwiches with me, and he told me it wouldn't make any difference that my parents were Muggle-born, he'd make sure of it. He promised me we'd stick together! And he told me he was going to be Head Boy, it was always his dream, you know!'
Harry thought, if it had been Ron, and felt a little kindlier towards Justin.
'Yeah,' Lisa Turpin chimed in. 'Every morning I have to get up and look at Mandy's empty bed. Professor Flitwick said we weren't allowed to Banish furniture that belongs to the school but I'm thinking of trying anyway, it's bad enough that I keep finding her things in my trunk.'
These people had died, Harry remembered. Michael Corner too, and Fred, and more. He had thought about how the Weasleys felt, missing their son, but he had given no thought to any friends Fred might have had, besides George. What about Oliver Wood, or Angelina Johnson?
He felt someone touch his arm and looked up in surprise to see Hermione. When she pulled him away from them, he didn't resist.
'Harry,' she said quietly, Ron standing tall beside her. 'It's not your fault. They all chose it. You didn't make anyone fight. And they knew the stakes just as well as we did.'
'But people like Tonks-- '
'Came back of her own accord,' Hermione said.
'And Dobby-- '
'He was a free elf,' Hermione finished. 'You said so yourself. He didn't come because you ordered him, Harry. He chose to save us, and to save you. He did the most free thing of all, really. He had a choice.'
Harry swallowed. She was right, as usual. They had all had choices. He and Ron and Hermione and Dobby and Tonks, even Ernie Macmillan.
And Malfoy had too.
Harry had not forced him into anything. He had come back to Hogwarts of his own accord. He had even said that it was for his mum, not for Harry at all. And if he had to answer for the choices he had made . . .
Well, that was not Harry's fault.
As the days turned colder, Harry found himself wrapped up in the familiar pattern of Hogwarts. By the time October swept through and the leaves began to turn and fall, it was no longer strange to be back. The main reminders of how different this year was were the missing students and the Slytherin table, which was rarely frequented by its four House members. Harry glanced over from time to time, but he always looked away. Why should he care where Malfoy was eating breakfast?
He was walking back from the library with Ron one evening-- they had left Hermione behind, poring over her notes for the fifth time-- when Ron gave a start. ''S cold,' he muttered. 'Wait a second-- '
The two of them turned and saw a familiar gloomy expression hovering behind them. 'Myrtle?' Harry exclaimed. He had never seen Myrtle outside a toilet or the lake.
'Yes, it's me,' Myrtle said mournfully. She waggled her fingers at him. 'There's a horrible scene in a second floor toilet. Oooh, it's terrible. Come and see, he looks dreadful.'
'He? Who?' Harry frowned as he recalled the few people Myrtle knew and it dawned on him. 'Malfoy?'
'Dreadful,' Myrtle echoed. 'Here, I'll show you.' And she swooped right through the wall.
They found him just inside the second floor loo, clutching his ribs, blood trickling from his mouth. After a second, Harry realized that his left leg was not bent the way it should have been. When he caught Harry looking, Malfoy managed, 'Familiar, Potter?'
'Our unfortunate habit of meeting here.'
Ron rolled his eyes, even as Harry was pulling out his wand. He said wryly, 'You have no idea how much I wish we could just leave you here.'
'Why don't you?' Malfoy spat out. His voice was uneven.
'Nice to know you'd return the favor,' Harry said, then sent a pale shape streaking off up the corridor. Across the room, Myrtle was floating, looking almost regretful that she had alerted them to Malfoy's presence; Harry knew she would be all too pleased to have a fellow ghost to share her toilet.
'So it's true,' Malfoy said, suppressing a whimper. 'The Order did use Patronuses to communicate.'
Harry snorted. 'The war is over, Malfoy.'
'I'm just saying, it's a good thing I never switched to your side,' Malfoy added, sounding more than a little delirious from the pain. 'Never could produce a Patronus. Wouldn't have made the cut.'
Beside Harry, Ron gave a strangled, incredulous laugh.
'Madam Pomfrey's coming,' Harry said, 'okay, Malfoy? Malfoy?' but Malfoy had already blacked out.
Harry had been in the hospital wing so many times that when he stepped inside, hours later, he inhaled the acrid scent of salve and Cleaning Solution with familiarity. If he concentrated, he could catch a faint whiff of chocolate as well. His plan was to sneak in, make sure that Malfoy was all right, hope he was asleep, and then sneak out if that were the case. Malfoy's eyes were indeed shut, but Harry's plan at an unobtrusive retreat was foiled when he backed right into a cart Madam Pomfrey had left in the middle of the room.
Malfoy's eyes snapped open and they flicked immediately to Harry. 'Potter? What are you doing here?'
Harry tried not to look like he had been planning on leaving. 'Er, I stopped by to make sure you're all right.'
'I'm fine,' Malfoy bit out, and any thought Harry had held about getting a thank you died a swift death. 'Well, Potter? You can go now.'
Instead, Harry took a step closer, looking down at Malfoy for what felt like the first time. He was trembling there under the covers: still drained and pale, all bones and angles. After a long silence, Harry said, 'You don't, um. Come to meals very often.'
Malfoy said nothing.
'One of the house-elves told me he's been bringing you food.'
Malfoy was still silent.
'Look,' Harry said. 'I'm sorry. For what it's worth. I didn't know it would be this bad. I didn't know what I was asking of you.'
'Yes, you did!' Malfoy hissed; suddenly he was looking at Harry, his eyes blazing. 'All that you said was a lie, you just wanted to see me humiliated even more, take another beating!'
'What? Malfoy, no, that's not-- '
'My mother wanted me to go anyway,' Malfoy continued, his tone bitter. 'I was underfoot, she wants to get on with managing her affairs. It's miserable here but there's nowhere better.'
Harry realized that he had been so caught up in Ginny and other things that he had forgotten just how isolated Malfoy was, how friendless. All Malfoy's tormenting had actually overshadowed the fact that all Malfoy had were three tiny first-years who followed him around like ducklings.
'I haven't seen you much,' Harry tried. 'You seem like you're keeping busy.'
Malfoy laughed, a humorless noise. 'Yes, between my chess games with the Bloody Baron and helping Slughorn sort through his Potions ingredients while he prattles on about you, my schedule's just so full up-- '
Harry swallowed. 'Aren't you revising for N.E.W.T.s?'
'Oh, who cares, Potter?' Malfoy was staring intently out the window, not meeting his eyes. 'If I got twenty N.E.W.T.s, the Ministry still wouldn't take me on.'
He had apparently abandoned any pretense of pride around Harry; Malfoy looked genuinely miserable.
Harry said, 'How are the little Slytherins getting on?'
Malfoy's lip curled. 'Scared of their own shadows. You think they'd go to Slughorn for some comfort but no, it's me they want to wipe their noses for them, go over their homework, their nightmares. Though I did train the boy one to filch the Hufflepuffs' post when they aren't looking-- '
'Malfoy!' Harry said, scandalized. He wasn't sure which part appalled him more, the fact that Malfoy was taking post from the Hufflepuffs or that he referred to the male first year as 'the boy one.'
Malfoy snorted. 'Well, one of them is all right. The tallest girl, Elladora, she's the toughest. She got in a fistfight with a fifth year last week.'
'What, a fifteen year old?' Harry exclaimed. 'She's only eleven!'
'He started it.'
'He came out with two black eyes and a split lip,' Malfoy said proudly. 'Of course, he broke her arm, but it's all right now.' He said this last in a tone that was almost Snape-like.
Harry frowned. 'What do you mean, it's all right now?'
'Well, as Slytherin's eldest member, naturally I had to have a conversation with him. It's my duty as Prefect to enforce order, Potter, surely you know that. We . . . settled things to my satisfaction.'
'I'm still waiting for the details.'
'I may have hexed his face full of acne,' Malfoy shrugged, sounding for all the world as if it had been an accident. 'It might have spelled BULLY. Maybe.'
Harry gaped. 'You stole that idea from Hermione,' he accused. He felt it was rather rich of Malfoy to be calling other people bullies.
'What kind of brute attacks an eleven year old girl?' Malfoy demanded. 'Slytherin stands up for its own!'
'Okay, okay. I'm just suggesting that perhaps you let McGonagall know next time, instead of taking charge.'
'Yes, you've always set such a shining example,' Malfoy said sweetly. 'Going to the teachers for everything. Besides, I've told Slughorn, and by now I've given him twice his weight in crystallized pineapple, he's keeping a watch. Of course, no one can be everywhere.' Malfoy made a vague gesture towards his leg.
'I'm sorry,' Harry said. He began to say, 'You don't deserve-- ' but then he stopped, because he didn't know what he thought Malfoy did deserve. A father in prison? A permanent Dark Mark?
'What will you do?' Harry asked at last. Malfoy's face was away from him, staring at the window on the other end of the infirmary. 'After Hogwarts? If you aren't going to work for the Ministry.'
Malfoy made a noncommittal noise. 'Help my mother redecorate, I suppose. Get my portrait done. I'd like to visit France. Maybe I'll buy a Quidditch team.'
'Wow,' said Harry, whose immediate dreams were much less grandiose. He glanced out the window, where the sky was nearing black; somewhere out there was a ring lying in the dust, an old car in a forest, the vast mirror of the lake. Hogwarts was as much of a home as Harry had ever known; it held more history for him than 4 Privet Drive. He stuck his hands in his pockets.
'I miss Quidditch,' he said honestly. 'Don't you? Everything feels different without it.'
Malfoy flicked his gaze away. 'I didn't play much the last few years.'
'But you would have,' Harry pushed. 'You would have, if Voldemort hadn't-- '
'Don't,' Malfoy said abruptly; Harry was so taken aback that he stopped speaking altogether. The way Malfoy's arm was positioned, Harry could see the dark splotch peeking out from the sleeve of his pajama top. It might have been his imagination, but it looked lighter.
After a short second, Malfoy said, 'Harper was rubbish, obviously, he wasn't worth the Galleons I paid him.'
'Rubbish at lying, too,' Harry said, grinning. 'He admitted right out that you bribed him into playing. What, Malfoy, am I too intimidating of a Seeker that no Slytherin wants to play against me?'
'Shut up,' Malfoy said, without much heat. 'Didn't want to witness the freak show that was Weasley's Keeping is more like it.'
'Oh, you were the one out there conducting your pathetic song,' Harry retorted. 'Speaking of which, you never wrote a song about me, Malfoy, should I be hurt?'
'How do you know I didn't?' said Malfoy. Harry rolled his eyes.
'Yes, I'm sure it's a vast improvement to have me thinking you wrote scores of songs about me down there in your dungeon.'
'Excuse me, I was crafty,' Malfoy muttered. 'Not obsessed. Scores, Potter, really. No need to remind us all just how inflated your ego is.'
'Oh, I beg to differ. You've been all over the Prophet for eight years running.'
'I don't have any control over that,' Harry argued.
'You could have.'
Harry spluttered. 'I don't-- I wouldn't do that, it's dishonest!'
Malfoy smirked. 'Damned if you do, damned if you don't.' After a second, his smirk faded and he was just looking at Harry, speculative. 'Potter,' he said. 'Look, I suppose we're even now. One bathroom incident for the next.'
He was half in shadow, the moonlight striping across his face; he had a thin nose, and a thin frown, and thin white scars crossing his cheek. The way his lazy drawl slurred syllables was atrocious. His arms had been bony wrapped around Harry as they flew from the Room of Requirement, and it had hurt.
'Yeah,' Harry said. 'Yeah, okay.' After a moment, he added, 'Good night, Malfoy.'
He let himself out of the hospital wing and walked back to Gryffindor alone.
Malfoy returned to classes a day later, slipping out into the hallway during lunch, as if hoping no one would see. Unfortunately for him, Harry was waiting, a brown paper package under one arm.
'What've you got there?' Malfoy demanded, immediately suspecting some kind of trick.
Harry shrugged. 'A present?'
If anything, this only made Malfoy more suspicious.
'Look,' Harry said, 'just open it, okay? Here, take it.' And he shoved the parcel at Malfoy, who handled it for a moment as if it might contain dragon dung. At last, with one final look at Harry, he undid the wrapping. He was left holding a small mirror, which he stared down at in confusion.
'Is this some kind of hint, Potter?'
Harry rolled his eyes. 'It's part of a set. I have the other one, or what's left of it. Someone gave it to me, once, so I could ask him for help if I needed. Well, you said you can't do a Patronus, so I thought if something happened like it did last night, if you need to contact me-- '
'If I need your help, you mean,' Malfoy said, lip curling.
'If you need to contact me,' Harry repeated. 'Look, Malfoy, if I had used this mirror the way it was meant to be used, my godfather might still be alive. Just keep it, will you?'
'I don't need you!'
'Take the mirror,' Harry said impatiently. 'I was thinking about what you said, all right. About how I did this, convinced you to come back, just to humiliate you. That's not what I meant, but maybe I haven't been-- ' He shrugged. 'You know, doing my part.'
'I wasn't aware we'd struck up a bargain,' Malfoy sneered.
Harry glared at him. 'Will you hear me out? I know it hasn't been easy for you, coming back, and we sort of just left you to it. I wanted you to have this in case you need to contact somebody. That's all.'
'Thanks ever so for your Gryffindor protection,' Malfoy drawled, handling the mirror as if it might bite him. 'Whatever would I do without you.'
'I don't mean it like that, Malfoy! I'm trying to help!'
Malfoy glowered. 'We don't need your help. I don't know what kind of idea got in your head last night, Potter, but whatever it is, I prefer you as far away from me as possible, and as far away from Slytherin.'
'Hey, speaking of Slytherin,' Harry interrupted, ignoring Malfoy's splutter at being cut off. 'I was thinking. Why don't you owl your friends? Talk to them, tell them it's not so bad-- ' He hesitated as Malfoy snorted. 'Fine, that it wouldn't be so bad if you were all here together. I'll owl them, if you want. Promise that we're-- '
'That we're what?' Malfoy echoed. 'Friendly? In your dreams, Potter. Now if you don't mind, as scintillating as this has been, I have a class to attend.'
Harry watched him stalk off in amusement.
He'd taken the mirror with him.
Two days later, on a cool, still-light evening, Harry was restlessly reading his Transfiguration textbook when the late sun glinted off the mirror shard on his nightstand. He picked it up. After a minute of debating, he looked in the mirror and said, 'Draco Malfoy?'
There was a pause and then Malfoy appeared on the other side, only half his face visible, one suspicious gray eye. 'What do you want?' he demanded.
Harry grinned. 'Want to go flying?'
It was an odd kind of outing; they didn't speak once, just circled the pitch together, until the threat of clouds became a cloudcover, and it began to rain too hard for flying. At last, Harry shouted, 'Enough, I'm going in!'
By the time they reached the ground, the pitch had turned to mud and they slogged up to Hogwarts together, too preoccupied with the mud to speak. It was only when they reached the entrance that they looked at one another, both splattered with dirt and rain-soaked, panting in the sudden quiet.
'Well,' said Harry.
Malfoy gave him a wary smile. 'See you around, Potter,' he said, and without another word, disappeared down toward the dungeons.
When Harry reached the breakfast table the next morning, Hermione was chattering at full speed about the present loopholes in magical law and its unbalanced treatment of non-wizards. 'Buckbeak's trial was absolutely rigged,' she was lecturing at a still half-asleep Ron, as Harry settled in beside them. 'Oh, good morning, Harry. Your trial was rigged too, remember? It's appalling, how easily the Wizengamot is influenced by the Ministry, it's just not fair at all!'
'Bit early for politics,' Neville said mildly as he sat down across the table. 'Morning, Hermione.'
'Morning, Neville,' she responded, taking a swift bite of her egg before starting off again. 'I haven't even started on the lack of process for non-wizards to take their claims to court! What about goblins who feel that their treasure has been stolen? Or house-elves who have been mistreated, there's no laws at all in the books on cases like these, most of the time they're dismissed or just sent right back to their masters! Why, look at Dobby!'
'Slow down,' Ron muttered to his plate of toast. 'What are you about to do, become Supreme Mugwump?'
'I'm only saying, there's a great deal of reform needed, and the sooner the better. There aren't any wizards or witches in place who'll stand up for the rights of non-wizards, is the problem, or precious few! Why, that absolute brute Macnair worked in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, that ought to tell you a bit about the Ministry's priorities, don't you think, Harry?'
He was taken aback as she turned on him. 'Um,' he said. 'I think you're acting a bit strange, Hermione, to tell you the truth. Why are you acting so jumpy?'
'Because I care about the welfare of all magical beings,' Hermione said, rather unconvincingly. She exchanged a glance with Ron, who looked down at his plate.
'You tell him,' Ron muttered after a second, when no one else spoke. 'Come on, Hermione, we might as well tell him or he'll have to find out from someone else.'
'I can't see why I have to be the one to tell him,' Hermione said out the side of her mouth to Ron, though Harry heard every word.
'Tell me what?'
She sighed. 'Ginny and Dean got back together. Last night. They were-- '
'He doesn't have to know the details, Hermione,' Ron interrupted. He was carefully avoiding Harry's gaze.
'I,' Harry said, hollowed out inside. 'It's fine, Ron. She said she wasn't going to wait, I didn't expect anything.'
'Well, there you go,' Ron said. 'Sorry, Harry, but you weren't with her, were you? You weren't treating her very nicely, and you haven't even been spending all that much time with her.'
Ginny and Dean came down to breakfast, then, and stopped cold at the sight of Harry. After a second, Ginny offered Harry a small smile, and then followed Dean over to a seat at the other end of the table.
'That's that, then,' Ron said, a bit too cheerful to be believed. 'Here, Harry, have some pumpkin juice.'
'And toast,' Hermione put in, sliding a piece onto his plate. 'Have you ever read Eleanor Wilfred's treatise on the difference between beasts and beings? It's a fascinating read, she spent years in various communities, including the merfolk, and she's written an entire volume on the classification of ghosts-- '
Try as they might to distract him, Harry's friends could not stop his gaze from sliding over to the other end of the table, where Ginny and Dean were laughing. She looked happy, Harry thought. He wasn't sure if this made him feel better or worse.
'-- corporeal, but the Minister at the time wanted to use a classification system based on encounters with death, so that they would be cast in with Inferi and sometimes the victims of the Dementor's Kiss-- '
Harry looked glumly at the end of the table. Though he knew it would only enrage him, he wished Hermione had told him how the reunion had happened. Probably, he thought bitterly, when he was out flying with Malfoy. It figured as much.
At the end of breakfast, just as he was following Ron and Hermione out into the hallway, Ginny dashed over and caught him by the arm.
'Harry,' she said. 'Are you okay?'
'Brilliant,' he said woodenly.
She looked sad for an instant. 'Well, it's not like you made an effort! I thought we were breaking up to make sure we wanted to be together, Harry, but then you didn't even talk to me, you had even less time-- '
'That doesn't make any sense,' Harry exclaimed. 'Who breaks up to stay together? If you want to stay with someone, you should stay, no matter what!'
Ginny sighed. 'I just,' she said. 'He kissed me, and I wasn't thinking, and I wanted to, so I did, all right? It's not as if you were there, as if you're ever there. You didn't even seem to care.'
'I care,' Harry said after a second.
'Do you?' Ginny looked at him square in the face. Finally she leaned up and kissed him on the cheek; he smelled her flowery perfume for a moment, her familiar warm touch. 'I'm sorry,' she said, and squeezed his hand, and then she went away.
Hermione was in the common room when Harry caught up with her; she had at least three rolls of parchment beside her and was scribbling away. He leaned over her, frowning.
'What are you doing?'
'Writing letters to the Ministry, of course,' Hermione said busily. When Harry sat on the arm of her chair, she patted him on the hand. 'How are you feeling?'
He thought for a second. 'Annoyed.'
Hermione laughed before she could help it. 'Anything else?'
'I don't know. I thought this would all be easier, somehow.'
Hermione frowned. 'You're only seventeen, Harry. I know it was hard to think about life after the war, but that doesn't mean that everything will stay the same forever. People do change. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone meets the love of their life on the Hogwarts Express.'
'You did,' Harry said, as Hermione went pink. 'My mum and dad did.'
'Remus and Tonks didn't,' Hermione countered. 'Bill and Fleur didn't. Harry, I'm not trying to belittle what you had with Ginny, but lots of people date around, some date scores of people before they find someone.'
'I don't want to date scores of people,' Harry muttered. 'I don't want to date anybody right now.'
'Fine then. In the meantime, maybe you need something to take your mind off it,' Hermione suggested, bright as could be.
Harry snorted. 'Like what? You, of all people, know I don't exactly have loads of hobbies. Do you think I should join the Gobstones Club? Ask Flitwick for an extracurricular project, like you?'
'I think you should do something you like and enjoy,' Hermione said impatiently.
'But that's only Quidditch.'
She smiled. 'Exactly.'
The next day in Potions, Malfoy jumped when Harry sat down next to him.
'What do you want?' he demanded.
Harry grinned. 'Want to start an Inter-House Quidditch league? Not for the House Cup or anything, just an intramural sort of thing. You could be captain, and me, and we'd have to get two others. We could find out who would be interested and pick teams.'
Malfoy eyed him with skepticism. 'To start a club you need an advisor.'
Thinking of the way Charlie's eyes glowed when they got into Quidditch debates in class, Harry grinned more. 'I think I know just the person.'
'This is just another ploy to include me, isn't it,' said Malfoy. From the way he spoke, it was plain he meant the phrase include me in quotations. 'I've had enough of your charity, Potter, so excuse me if I don't leap at the chance to take part in your games-- '
'And you call me the self-centered one,' Harry muttered. 'Believe it or not, Malfoy, this is actually for me. I'm bored. I miss Quidditch. You may not admit it, but I know you do too.'
Malfoy blinked a couple times. Then he said, 'I could be captain?'
'I said so, didn't I?'
'Fine, then,' Malfoy drawled at last. 'I'll join your little club if you like, is that what you want me to say? Now run along, Potter, class is about to start.'
'I think I'll sit here, actually,' said Harry, feeling a bit rebellious.
He regretted this choice wholeheartedly when halfway through Potions, the contents of his cauldron were turning puce, while even Malfoy's potion was a deep, glowing purple. At the last minute, he was frantically adding more of everything in the hopes that it would stabilize the potion, while Malfoy tidied his station with a prim little smirk on his face.
'Harry, my boy, I must say you're off today,' Slughorn said when he came around, shaking his head in disappointment. By this point, Malfoy looked on the verge of choking with laughter, and Harry whirled on him.
'You sabotaged my potion!'
'Not my fault if you can't keep your eyes on your cauldron,' Malfoy said loftily. 'And if I recall correctly, you're the one who insisted on sitting next to me.' He slung his bag over his shoulder and smirked at Harry's side of the desk, which was still a mess. 'See you around, Scarhead.'
By Saturday, Harry was still sore about the Potions incident, and he glared at Malfoy all through the Quidditch trials; only the thought of Quidditch, and the look on Malfoy's face when Harry grasped the Snitch from just under his nose, kept him from tripping the other boy as he strutted past.
After the first round, it was clear to Harry that the best choices for captains were a boisterous Hufflepuff named Owen Cauldwell, and Demelza Robins from Gryffindor. With no small amount of arguing, he finally got Malfoy to agree. A second round of trials commenced, and then they settled on the ground to choose teams.
Demelza got first pick, Malfoy second, Harry third, Owen fourth. To Harry's shock, Demelza immediately shouted, 'Ginny Weasley, Chaser!' She gave Harry a wink as Ginny trotted up to them.
'Thanks, Demelza,' Ginny said breathlessly, smiling as she took her place behind the other girl. 'Sorry, Harry, it's only fair.'
'Yeah, yeah,' Harry grumbled; he knew how well Ginny flew and had been looking forward to working with her again. He would also be lying if he said he didn't have thoughts of Ginny and Dean winding up on opposing teams and breaking up in the ensuing rivalry. 'Go on, then, Malfoy.'
Malfoy scanned the assembled and eventually picked Evan Dobbs, a muscular fourth year from Ravenclaw, as his first Beater; Harry picked Ron, and Owen his house-mate Eleanor Branstone as Chaser. By the time they had finished, Harry had assembled a fair team, if not the best: he had Ron as Keeper, a Hufflepuff named Roger and a sixth year Gryffindor as Beaters, and three Chasers all from Ravenclaw. Demelza had snatched up Dean Thomas, and to Harry's surprise, Malfoy had taken Jimmy Peakes, the broad-chested Gryffindor who had played Beater during Harry's sixth year.
'We'll trade off matches, of course,' Demelza said briskly; she reminded Harry a bit of Hermione. 'We're a bit late in the season for starting, but if we follow the regular year's schedule of games, we should have no problem. So let's see, Harry and Draco, you can start off, then Owen and Draco, then me and Harry, then me and Owen, then Owen and Harry, then me and Draco. How's that sound? Since it's almost November, we'll play the first game this weekend, and go on from there.'
They all nodded in agreement and set off to tell their teams.
It was only when he was halfway across the pitch that Harry realized that meant he was playing Malfoy that Saturday.
The day of the match dawned clear and cold, the sky of the Great Hall a brilliant blue overhead as they ate breakfast. Ron's leg was jiggling nervously under the table, but aside from that, there was little sign of the upcoming match. Harry realized he had got used to Ginny's morning chatter before they headed off for the pitch, and he missed her easygoing cheer to temper her brother's nerves.
'I'm worried about the Ravenclaws,' Harry confided as they walked toward the Quidditch locker rooms. 'We've only had three practices to prepare, and they haven't been trained on our strategies.'
'On the upside, Malfoy's only had a week, too, and he has no other Slytherins,' Ron pointed out. 'Come on, let's go trounce him.'
Harry grinned. 'Just like old times.'
Malfoy, of course, showed up wearing his Potter Stinks badge. The other time it flashed:
You're despicable,' Ron said when he saw it. 'Where did you even find that?'
'Are you joking?' Malfoy said. 'As if I would throw out something I put so much time into making.' On the other side of his chest, he'd pinned the Weasley Is Our King badge.
For an odd reason, Harry thought of Dudley and his habit of breaking things when furious. Now that he thought about it, Malfoy did seem like the sort to ferociously protect his own belongings. Yeah, he'd break other people's things before he broke his own.
When they shook hands before taking to the air, Harry gripped Malfoy's hand too hard and Malfoy gripped just as hard back.
'I'm going to enjoy winning this,' Harry said.
Malfoy flashed his badge at Harry, who resolutely ignored him.
Professor McGonagall had agreed to announce the match, and donned her tartan cloak in honor of the occasion. She was nowhere near as partial a commentator as Lee Jordan, or as hilarious as Luna, but she was shrewd and accurate with her narration of the plays. Only four goals were scored, however, by the time Harry caught the Snitch in one hand, at least a meter in front of Malfoy's grasping fingers.
'A bit off your game today?' Harry called back to the other boy, feeling the whirring gold wings flutter against his palm and the surge of joy that came with their capture. He could hear the stands erupt in cheers as McGonagall called the catch; she herself sounded jubilant.
Malfoy's face, on the other hand, was so contorted with rage that Harry would have taken a step back, had he not been on a broom, high in the air. Before either of them could say a word, Malfoy wheeled about and headed down to meet his teammates.
Stranger still, however, was the way Malfoy reappeared moments later, his pale face emerging from the cheering students packed in all around Harry. For the barest instant, they looked at one another, and Malfoy seemed to have composed himself; all rancor had disappeared. If anything, he looked resigned.
'Good game,' Malfoy said mildly, and then he disappeared back into the crowd.
Though a multi-House team had won the match, the Gryffindor common room was the one bedecked in streamers and full of stolen bottles of Butterbeer. The portrait hole was swung temporarily open, and on the couch by the fireplace, Ron and Hermione were snogging; Hermione was usually against public displays of affection, but she seemed so carried away that she didn't so much mind.
For his part, he could only take so much; the celebrations were still underway when he crept out of Gryffindor Tower, safely wrapped in his Invisibility Cloak. The corridors, in comparison, were cool and silent, and he made his way down to the dungeons with little trouble.
He had to knock multiple times. At last, Malfoy's voice came from behind the door. 'Is that you, Potter? What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be snogging some little Gryffindor up in your tower, or have they all fainted in awe of your daring victory?'
'I don't want much to do with girls right now,' Harry scowled.
Behind the door, Malfoy sniggered.
'Oh, shut up and let me in,' Harry said. 'Come on, it's not as if anybody else is around.'
Malfoy grumbled for a moment or two, but he eventually pulled the large stone door open. The common room had not changed much since Harry had visited in second year, though a large fire roared in the grate, and it was not nearly as cold and forbidding as he recalled.
Without so much as glancing back at Harry, Malfoy resettled on the largest couch. 'So,' he said. 'What do you want?'
'Nothing,' said Harry. 'To, er-- '
'Be a sore winner,' Malfoy finished, 'watch me lick my wounds, obviously.'
'Obviously,' Harry said, rolling his eyes.
There was a long silence, during which time Harry cast around the room for any possible topic of conversation. At last his eyes fell on Malfoy's wand, lying on the table in the crease of a book. 'How's your wand? You're still using your mum's, I see.'
'Hers works better,' Malfoy shrugged. 'Hey, speaking of wands. This Elder Wand. If I was the true master, don't I deserve to see it? If you don't want it, shouldn't I have it?'
Harry looked at him and saw the eager light in his eyes, that power-hungry edge Malfoy was never quite able to hide.
'It's hidden,' he said flatly. 'There are only three living people who know its location and none of them are going to tell. It's destructive, Malfoy, it causes war and bloodshed wherever it goes. You should know better by now than to wish for something like that.'
'Dumbledore had it,' Malfoy pointed out. 'It was his wand for years.'
'You aren't Dumbledore.'
Malfoy looked at him for a moment, his lips pressed together, and then he exhaled. 'I know you were there,' he muttered. 'On the tower that night he died. Snape told me. He saw both broomsticks and he knew about your Invisibility Cloak, and then you were chasing us, it only made sense.'
Harry frowned; as they had dashed away that night, Snape had shouted things at Harry, things that now, in retrospect, sounded like advice. He had promised Dumbledore to protect Harry, just as he had made an Unbreakable Vow to protect Draco. And neither of them had known.
At last, Harry asked, 'Did you talk to Snape? When he was Headmaster, did you see him a lot?'
For some reason, Malfoy looked annoyed. 'I didn't see much of anyone, last year. Lessons were rubbish and no one really cared what we Slytherins did. I used to go to the Room of Hidden Things, but then Longbottom and his lot started hiding in there, and I couldn't get in anymore.'
Harry said, 'Oh.' He had not thought about that possibility. 'What else did you do?'
Malfoy's face, surprisingly, went pink. 'I wrote you a couple letters,' he mumbled.
'You did what?' Harry blinked, flabbergasted. 'To me? About what?'
'About nothing, Potter.' When Harry only waited, Malfoy sighed loudly. 'Asking where you were, why you weren't at school, I don't know! They weren't real letters, all right? Shut up about it.'
'Okay,' Harry said. He was imagining Malfoy lost in those endless shelves of objects, aisle after aisle. All of it gone now, burned away.
They sat in silence for a while, Harry gazing around the room: there were several guttering white candles on the table, shaped like serpents, and a thick stack of books that all seemed to be Malfoy's. Through the windows, which opened directly onto the lake, Harry saw a school of green, glowing fish swim by.
'Lunar fish,' Malfoy said, as if reading Harry's mind.
'They breed according to the cycles of the moon. Their scales are used in Wolfsbane Potion, but they're poisonous otherwise. Nice, though, aren't they? Pansy used to love them.'
They both watched the little phosphorescent fish swim by the windows. Malfoy's expression was closed, the green lake light washing over his pointed features, making him look sicklier than usual. For a fleeting moment, Harry thought of what the Sorting Hat had said, and imagined what it might have been like, if this common room had been his, if he had spent the past seven years reading beside the white serpent candles, watching lunar fish swim by with Pansy Parkinson.
'You miss her,' Harry said quietly.
For some unfathomable reason, Malfoy looked angry. 'It doesn't matter what I miss, Potter.'
'But you were friends,' Harry persisted. 'Weren't you? Doesn't it get lonely down here? Don't you wish your friends were here?'
'It doesn't matter,' Malfoy repeated, now frowning outright. 'You still haven't answered my first question, anyway. What are you doing here? What are you playing at? Quidditch and-- bothering me-- '
Harry shrugged. 'Hermione and Ron have been kissing a lot,' he said, ignoring Malfoy's strangled noise of disgust. 'Ernie Macmillan's parents sent me a ten page letter telling me all about his life the other day. Cho keeps asking me if I want to meet up, just for a coffee. I went by Cedric's grave just before school started, I thought I should. I told him it was over. I told him that Voldemort was finished, that he didn't die in vain. And his headstone, it says, it says, loyal to the last-- '
Malfoy's voice was shrill. 'I don't care, Potter.'
Harry said, 'Right. That's what I mean.'
'In other words, you want to assuage your guilt,' Malfoy said sharply. 'Do you think it's going to make you feel any better, is that what this is, you dogging me everywhere?'
'That's not why-- ' Harry started, but the words got stuck.
'Oh? You haven't wanted anything to do with me for seven years and now you think we can be chums? Now that Weasley's dropped you since he's got Granger hanging off him all the time?'
'That's not why!' Harry repeated. 'We're not-- I just, you aren't exactly socializing with all of Hogwarts, there's hardly anyone in Slytherin, and I thought-- '
'That you were doing me a favor.'
'No, I-- '
'Thought I needed a hero-- '
'I do not think that!' Harry exclaimed. 'I'm not trying to be Slytherin's hero!'
'Yes you are,' Malfoy shot back. 'You pity us, pity me-- '
'I'd pity anybody who Voldemort threatened and forced into torturing people!'
'Well, I don't want your pity, Potter,' Malfoy snapped, his sharp features pink with fury. 'You've got the wrong idea if you think I'll be grateful, think maybe I'll be your friend now, is that it? I'm not sorry, Potter! I didn't want to do it but I wasn't wrong! I'm here, aren't I?'
'Because of me and Snape and your mum,' Harry retorted. 'Real smart, Malfoy. Take some initiative for once, won't you? You're better than somebody's pawn.'
Malfoy sneered. 'Not everyone can be a Gryffindor. The brave, the worthy, the oh so virtuous-- '
'Right,' Harry said coldly. 'What's that they all say? Oh, yeah. The time came to fight and Slytherin ran.'
'Oh, don't play high and mighty, you would have sold us out the same way,' Malfoy hissed. 'If the Dark Lord had announced that he wouldn't kill anyone if you'd only hand over all the Slytherins, you would have been marching us out of those doors, and not a single student would have stood on our side!'
'I wouldn't have sold you out. I had the chance and I didn't. Aberforth told me to keep you as hostages, but I refused. If you wanted to leave, it was your choice. I don't regret it.'
They stared at each other for a second, Malfoy looking as if Harry had two heads. 'I wondered, you know,' he commented finally. 'It's what I would have done, keeping people back.'
'You wanted to go,' Harry said. 'It wouldn't have been right, holding you against your wishes. I don't like people being used.'
'Mighty Gryffindor, protector of the small,' Malfoy snarled softly.
Harry shrugged. 'We could have done better. Given you reason to believe we'd, you know, treat you decently, like you said. I never gave a second thought. In fifth year Hermione was on about Inter-House unity but we never listened to her.'
'Oh, I'm sure Granger was positively eager to unite with us,' Malfoy drawled.
'She would have been, if you'd have made an effort, instead of lining up behind Umbridge,' Harry snapped right back, temper flaring again. 'Malfoy, I want Slytherin House to stay part of Hogwarts, or I never would have come to you in the first place. But don't you dare blame everyone else for the reason it's in danger of disappearing.'
'Please,' Malfoy spat. 'I know what you're doing down here, Potter, you thought you'd feel a bit better about yourself if you saw how empty Slytherin was, right? Or you were tired of listening to Granger shriek about house-elves, yeah, you're so bored with your golden life that you decided to come pick a fight with me-- '
'I have not got a golden life!' Harry sputtered. 'And it isn't like that, I've said! I thought you might want company since you haven't got many housemates this year.'
'Poor Slytherin, the outcast house,' Malfoy said sneeringly.
'And whose fault is that?'
Malfoy's eyes flared. 'You think this is new?' he exclaimed. 'It was there before the war, it's been like this for centuries!'
Harry thought of himself at eleven years old, whispering, Not Slytherin. Anything but Slytherin.
'It's not like that,' Harry said uncertainly.
'You don't understand,' Malfoy snarled. 'You were never a Slytherin, and on top of it, you're the great Harry Potter, everyone was tripping over themselves to be your friend from the instant you got to Hogwarts!'
'Even you, I recall,' Harry said before he could help it.
Malfoy's expression immediately turned furious. 'Yes, poor precious Potter, he's so famous that his friend quota is all full up-- '
'You made fun of Ron!' Harry said heatedly. 'What did you think I was going to do? You were a brat, Malfoy, I wasn't about to-- '
'Legilimens!' Malfoy shouted, catching Harry entirely off guard as memories swarmed him: Hermione was prodding an unappetizing lump of fish in the tent . . . he was lowering Dobby's small body into the dirt . . . Sirius arcing backwards and then Dumblefore, his body in an identical curve, poised in the air for a bare second before falling out of sight . . .
With effort, Harry exclaimed, 'Protego!' and suddenly he was inundated with Malfoy's memories, an image of Narcissa Malfoy's cool lips on his forehead . . . Malfoy as a very small blonde boy riding a horse with what looked to be a tiny Pansy Parkinson behind him . . . Voldemort punishing Narcissa while Malfoy cried, 'No, no' . . . Harry, Snitch still in hand, sinking his fist into Malfoy's stomach on the Quidditch pitch . . .
And then it was over and they were staring at each other, panting hard.
'I thought you were,' Malfoy spat, 'that you had it so easy. In sixth year, everyone just thought you were the greatest, and you got to play Quidditch and go to Slughorn's parties and swagger around the castle-- '
'Me, swagger?' Harry exclaimed. 'You were the one swaggering around for years, mocking me and my friends!'
'Will you shut up, Potter? I'm trying to make a point.' After a second, Malfoy said, 'I just, I was trying to fix the cabinet and I didn't have time to do anything, and there you were sauntering around like a celebrity while my whole family was in danger.'
'So was I!' Harry yelled, 'and my friends and their families, too! You were the one who nearly killed Ron, you ought to know how it was! Listen, I don't want to be celebrated more than anybody else but I did those things, Malfoy, I destroyed Voldemort's Horcruxes and I defeated him, I did those things, it wasn't easy.'
'I KNOW,' Malfoy bellowed. 'Will you let me finish? I saw you sixth year and everybody was fawning over you and acting like you were so precious and special-- '
'So?' Harry said dangerously.
'So maybe I get that it wasn't always so easy for you,' Malfoy shouted. 'I saw you at the Manor, and at Hogwarts, and-- fine. I get it, all right, Potter?'
They stared at each other.
'Um,' Harry said. The retort he had been ready to yell felt knocked clean out of him. At last, he managed, 'Thanks?'
Malfoy seemed to think that Harry was mocking him, because he snarled, 'Shut up!'
Harry blinked at the other boy, at the rage still darkening his features. Could it be that Malfoy, who had always hated Harry for what he'd considered unjust rewards and special treatment, hated him even more because it was deserved all along?
It was not as if Harry could not sympathize; he hated being wrong, it was true. He had not been able to face what he had done to Malfoy in that bathroom, had scarcely been able to think about it. It was easier to blame the Half-Blood Prince . . . to blame Malfoy for stoking his anger . . .
'I'm sorry,' Harry said. He thought of the bald panic on Malfoy's face as the blood came spurting out, his fingers like white spiders scrabbling at his chest. 'For Sectumsempra.'
Malfoy stared back, his thin lips pressed together, and at last he nodded. Then he raised an eyebrow. 'Going to stop there? Aren't you sorry for punching me in fifth year?'
Harry grinned. 'Let me think. No, no, I'm not sorry for that. You deserved that.'
'Well, I'm not sorry for stomping on your face,' Malfoy retorted.
At that moment, dark-haired Elladora crept in the door, careful not to let the door fall shut with a dull bang; then she turned and nearly jumped out if her skin, shocked enough to see Malfoy standing there, not to mention Harry.
'Elladora!' Malfoy said, scandalized. 'At this hour?'
Her face fell; she obviously idolized him. 'Draco, I'm-- '
He scowled at her and Harry almost stepped in, so crushed was her expression. 'Ella,' Malfoy said, 'what did I tell you the first rule of Slytherin was?'
She bit her lip. 'Don't apologize.'
'That's right. What were you out doing?'
'Getting Conrad into trouble,' she admitted; when Malfoy raised an impressed eyebrow, she glowed. 'I let slip to him that Basil and I were sneaking out to the Forbidden Forest and then all I had to do was tip Filch off.'
'And you got that troll Benjy Towler a week in detention during the Quidditch match,' Malfoy crowed, every bit as pleased as Crookshanks was when he caught a mouse. 'Potter, this girl is a natural. Got the brute to tackle her and then feigned a broken wrist, tears and all. They were fake, of course, she takes after me, that way.'
'I remember,' Harry muttered. 'You whined for weeks after getting slashed by Buckbeak, making everybody do your work for you.'
'Like you've never taken ill,' Malfoy shot back. He flung a hand to his forehead and moaned dramatically, 'Oh, the Dementors, I'm so scared I could just faint!'
Elladora was looking at Malfoy as if he were everything she wanted to be. Harry was suddenly very worried for Slytherin.
'-- my scar,' Malfoy was mock-whimpering, 'it hurts so much-- '
He looked ridiculous. Harry couldn't help but snort. 'No, I'm definitely not sorry I punched you. Look, Malfoy, I should go. I'll, er, see you.' He glanced at Elladora and felt that the chaos of Slytherin under Malfoy's influence needed some sort of order. 'And she broke curfew.'
Malfoy laughed outright. 'You filthy hypocrite, you're breaking curfew right now.'
Harry remembered this and flushed.
'All for me,' Malfoy continued on. 'Potter, I'm touched.'
'Yes, in the head,' said Harry, snickering, and Malfoy made a face at him, because they both had the maturity of first-years. Elladora gave them a look that said exactly that.
'Good night,' Harry added, in a vain attempt at recovering his dignity, and went out into the chill of the hall.
The next morning, Harry woke to a thin sheet of ice on the lake and a sky portending snow. Beside his bed, Ron was shivering as he leaned out the window wearing only his pajamas, peering down at the grounds.
'What's going on?'
'First-years,' Ron said, shaking his head; his hair was still tousled from sleep. 'Down by the lake trying to walk on the ice. I think one of them fell in. Pomfrey's down there. Oh, there's Hermione, I suppose I ought to go too . . .?' He said this in an inquiring tone, waiting for Harry to reassure him he might as well stay in the warmth of the dormitory.
'I'm sure Hermione has it under control,' Harry began, but just then, Ron gave a small cheer and slammed the window shut with one last gust of cold air and the first couple snowflakes.
'McGonagall's shown up,' he said triumphantly. 'She'll handle it, I'd only be in the way.'
'What eleven year old gets up at this hour anyhow?' Neville wondered from his own bed, his words a sleep-slurred mumble. 'Breakfast isn't for another twenty minutes.'
'Bet it's those Slytherins,' Ron said darkly. 'Which means Malfoy should be stomping around out there dealing with them, not us! Head Boy or not, it's a Slytherin concern.'
Harry was sure he'd seen a yellow and black scarf on at least one of the small figures, but he held his tongue.
By the time lunch rolled around, a steady flurry of snowflakes had begun, leaving most of Hogwarts dreaming their way through lessons with thoughts of hot chocolate and snowball fights. Charlie tried to teach them a hex to turn each other into snowballs, but the entire lesson failed, save for the hysterical four minutes in which Seamus transformed Dean's trousers into snow, which fell in clumps around his feet. Hermione spent the entire lesson muttering under her breath, though no one could be sure if she was whispering spells or complaints.
On Harry's way up to Gryffindor Tower after Defense, he ran smack into Jimmy Peakes, who was carrying Harry's small brown owl.
'There you are,' Jimmy said, hurrying forward. The little owl hooted in excitement at seeing Harry and nestled right into his hand. Jimmy added, 'Found him outside the window of the Gryffindor common room, bobbing around. I think the snow has him disoriented. Anyway, Romilda said he was yours.'
'He is,' Harry muttered. 'I ought to give him a proper name one of these days. Algernon just isn't sticking. Anyway, thanks, Jimmy. How're you getting on?'
'Fine,' Jimmy shrugged. 'Can't complain. Oh, hey, Draco!' The blonde Slytherin was passing through and glanced up at Jimmy's shout. 'Hey, have we got practice tonight? What with the snow and all?'
'Snow or no snow, it's at six o' clock,' Malfoy said. He flashed what might have almost been a smile. 'Do try to be on time for once, will you?'
'Um,' Harry said, 'hey, Malfoy.'
Malfoy eyed him and for a split second, Harry thought he wasn't going to say anything, and then he replied, 'Hey yourself, Potter,' before strutting off down the hall.
Jimmy stuck his hands in his pockets. 'Look, I know you've always hated each other-- '
'What?' Harry said. 'I mean, I wouldn't quite-- '
'I only got on Gryffindor's Quidditch team because you and the Weasley twins attacked him,' Jimmy reminded him.
'Anyway, he's not a bad bloke, all said and done. Oh, I know what they say, but for all that he was a Death Eater-- '
Harry had to swallow a snort; anyone who heard Jimmy say, for all that he was a Death Eater, would not be likely to give him a chance to explain himself. He frowned. 'But you were the one who complained for days about being on Malfoy's team.'
Jimmy blushed. 'Oh, well, that's only because I wanted to be on Demelza's. You know. I thought she might give me a chance then. Brilliant girl, isn't she?'
'Yeah, she's great,' Harry said, distracted. 'Have a good practice, will you? Thanks again for my owl.'
'No problem,' said Jimmy, giving Harry a cheerful wave as he sauntered off.
The rest of November and much of December passed in a blur of revision and exams, so that by the time the holidays approached, most of the castle was going stir-crazy, eager to leave. On the nights he couldn't sleep, which were many, Harry had taken to roaming the castle in his Invisibility Cloak, slipping through charmed doorways and up and down moving stairs. While he approached the Slytherin door several times, he never got as far as knocking, only retreated to the Great Hall and headed somewhere else.
The night before the holidays, however, Harry came across Malfoy himself, doing rounds on the third floor. He crept up. When he prodded Malfoy hard in the shoulder, Malfoy jumped so much his feet left the ground.
'Who's there?' he whimpered.
Harry laughed outright; he couldn't help it. After he yanked off the cloak, the look on Malfoy's face only made him laugh harder. When he was finally through, Harry managed, 'Want to go to Hogsmeade?'
Malfoy's eyebrows jumped. 'Are you mad? Right now?'
'Yeah,' Harry said easily. 'Or what, are you too much of a priss to break a rule or two?'
'You're just trying to get me in trouble,' Malfoy whined.
Harry rolled his eyes. 'And you're paranoid. Look, Ron and Hermione are snogging, and Ginny's off with Dean.'
'And I'm next in line?' Malfoy demanded, managing to sound both affronted and pleased all in one breath. 'Well, sorry to burst your pleasant haze of popularity, Potter, but as I find your company entirely nauseating-- '
'I'll buy you a drink,' Harry said impatiently. 'And you can come under the cloak if you're scared.'
From the way Malfoy's gaze flickered to the cloak in Harry's hand, he found this an offer too tempting to refuse. 'I'm not scared,' he spat.
Harry grinned. 'Come on, then.'
They went to the Hog's Head to avoid recognition; Harry had a notion that Aberforth wouldn't report them, and besides, it was worth it for the look of horror that crossed Malfoy's face as soon as they set foot in the bar.
'We're drinking here?' he said loudly. 'This filth hole? Are you trying to poison me, Potter?'
'Shut up,' Harry said; he waved at Aberforth, who shook a blackened rag at him in what Harry took for a return hello. 'What do you want? Butterbeer?'
'If you're making me sit in this grime, I'm having Firewhisky,' said Malfoy, who was busy doing a Scourgify on his chair. Before Harry could say a thing, two glasses of the stuff flew over the bar and landed on their table with a flick of Aberforth's wand. Harry thought the gruff old man might have winked, but it could have been his imagination.
Malfoy tried to Scourgify the table as well, but aside from a few dust particles jumping halfheartedly off the surface, it stayed as beer-sticky and dirty as it had ever been. Harry was not sure whether to attribute this to the Hog's Head and its inherent grime, or the fact that Malfoy was pants at cleaning charms.
'My father's dungeons are nicer than this place,' Malfoy complained.
'I know, I've been there,' said Harry, which shut Malfoy up at once. He shrugged off Malfoy's shuttered look; he hadn't invited Malfoy along just to argue with him, after all. 'Well, cheers.'
'Cheers,' Malfoy said sourly, tipping his glass to his mouth and swallowing half the liquid. Harry took a much smaller sip, and he still coughed as it burned its way down.
They spent a good portion of the evening arguing about Demelza's odd strategy of training each of her players in multiple positions, and the merits of the Chudley Cannons, which Harry insisted were many, and which Malfoy insisted were nonexistent. It went with surprising ease, save for a brief moment in which Malfoy slipped up.
'My father-- ' Malfoy began, and stopped.
Harry looked at him, at the wan and unhappy expression on his face. It was possible that Malfoy had learned the lesson Harry had learned with Sirius's death: parents and adults did not make you safe.
Harry ordered both of them another round of drinks.
'You know, I liked him,' admitted Malfoy, when it was nearly dawn. He stared at the dirty table between them and frowned. 'I shouldn't have liked him.'
Harry frowned too; he was not nearly as drunk as Malfoy, but the last person he could remember discussing was Joey Jenkins, who played for the Chudley Cannons.
'The werewolf,' Malfoy said, as if it pained him to speak Remus's name, even now, and any other night Harry would have guessed that he thought himself too pure to associate with a beast like Remus Lupin, but now he wondered if it might not be the other way around.
'Oh. I liked him too,' Harry said unnecessarily.
'He gave me chocolate once. Chocolate, Potter.'
'No,' Malfoy said. 'He came to my house, sixth year Easter holidays. Tagging after Greyback all shabby and cut up like he always used to look, and my father hated them there; beasts, he called them, he didn't want them around. There were Dementors, too. I never could cast a Patronus. Some people think we shouldn't need them.'
'Not need Patronuses?' Harry said stupidly. Across the table, Malfoy turned his head as if shrugging off the subject, and the dirty light of the bar made sad shapes of his profile; he wasn't pretty, or handsome, or anything like. That was Ginny, whose hair went red-gold in the sunlight, who always smelled like flowers. Malfoy was too sharp for that. Then Harry wondered just why he was pondering Malfoy's attractiveness and shook his head; perhaps he had had more Firewhisky than he thought.
'He gave me chocolate,' Malfoy reminisced, as if Harry was not even there. 'On his way out. A whole bar of it, just stuck it in my pocket when nobody was looking. I ate all of it in about five minutes and it even helped, that was the worst part, that I felt less scared for a little while. God, I hated him for a month, for that.'
Harry found that he could not say Me too to this statement as well, and couldn't think of anything to replace it. Eventually, he came up with, 'I didn't know.'
'Anybody with half a brain could see he wasn't the Dark Lord's creature,' Malfoy went on. 'Anyone who'd known him before, anyway. He tried to make it out like he was violent, like he was like Greyback, and some of them believed him. What a laugh. Lupin, like Greyback! He couldn't even kill that rabid crup in third year. I think he knew I knew. I never told anyone. Not even my mother.'
'I,' Harry said, when Malfoy paused.
'It was stupid. I thought it was a secret, that I was saving his life, something grand like that.' Malfoy's eyes narrowed, but not at Harry, at the bar, as if he could see his own reflection in the tabletop. 'I thought. Well. It's different than I thought, saving somebody's life.'
'Lot of things are.'
'I would have sold him out in the end,' Malfoy muttered. 'If it would have done us any good. But no one ever asked, so it wasn't-- and he didn't even hesitate. When he took the curse Dolohov meant for me. He should have hesitated, Potter. I would've.'
'You still saved something,' Harry insisted.
Malfoy looked away. 'Yeah. Myself.'
When they got up to leave, Harry asked, 'Did you know it was me, that one time, at your house? When my face was all swollen? You said you couldn't tell-- '
Malfoy snorted. 'I could recognize you anywhere, Potter, even if your fat head was twice its usual size.'
Harry grinned despite himself. 'I thought so. Well, there you go, you saved my life there, didn't you? So we're even.'
'I don't think that counts.'
'Then forget the stupid debt,' Harry said. 'Or shall I step into oncoming traffic so you can push me out of the way?'
'I'm not dying for you,' Malfoy said disdainfully.
Harry dropped a couple of coins on the table and stood up. 'Good.'
Enough people had already.
The last day of the term came and went without event, and before they knew it, Harry hugged Hermione and Ron good-bye at King's Cross Station and sent them off to their respective parents. Andromeda was there waiting for him, Teddy's arms around her neck, and he was surprised how glad he felt to see her. She looked equally glad to see him, for she dumped Teddy's heavy weight into his arms as soon as he approached.
'He'll be two stone in no time,' she sighed, tapping Harry's trunk with her wand until it zoomed to a manageable size. 'Come on, I've a car waiting.'
The best thing about Andromeda and her wholesale adoption of Harry into her life was her knowledgeable navigation of both magical and Muggle worlds; she had Harry's things in the trunk and Teddy in his carseat with three or four muttered spells, but she leaned on the car horn and swore with the best of London's drivers. By the time they reached Grimmauld Place, Harry was beginning to worry for Teddy's vocabulary.
'I've had Kreacher make up Sirius's room,' she said when they were once again standing in the entranceway; it was still a gloomy hall, but it smelled less of mold and more like wood smoke and tea, two scents Harry was beginning to associate with home, even if it were a temporary one. 'I hope that's all right.'
'It's perfect,' Harry said. 'It's what I want, really. Can I help with dinner?'
'Kreacher insisted on making a steak and kidney pie,' Andromeda shrugged. 'He said it was one of your favorites. Are you hungry? We can eat now, if you'll go wash up.'
It was not a family-- it couldn't be-- but it was close enough, and when he entered the front room and saw the small fir tree covered in ribbons sitting beside the old china cabinet, Harry outright grinned. There were several packages already piled beneath it, more than one with his name on, and he resolved to buy Andromeda a nice gift when he was in Diagon Alley.
Dinner was a small affair, cut short by Teddy falling asleep, head drooping without warning into his pile of peas. Harry offered to give him a bath and put him to bed, which he did with little resistance on Teddy's part, and afterward he was so tired he opted for bed himself.
It wasn't a family, and it wasn't a home. It was enough, though, more than enough. He fell asleep still smiling.
The next morning he left Andromeda and Teddy struggling over the best way to eat porridge-- with a spoon versus smeared all over one's face, hands, nightshirt and table-- and Flooed to Diagon Alley, where he had agreed to meet Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson. 'I don't see why you need me there,' he'd argued when Malfoy had brought it up, 'won't I just make things worse?' But Malfoy had insisted and Harry, ever a man of his word, did want to follow through on his concern for Slytherin House. No matter how surreal it felt.
He spotted Malfoy instantly as he emerged onto the streets of Diagon Alley proper; that ramrod straight posture and sick-pale white hair could belong to no one else. But before Malfoy could reach him, a stocky, dark-haired girl approached from the other direction, bearing down on Harry with a furious expression on her face.
'Pansy,' Malfoy called out, and her head swiveled to see Malfoy.
She took one look at him and blanched.
'Potter,' she snarled. 'What on earth have you been doing to him?'
Harry looked at Malfoy and saw him anew: a dark bruise was blooming on his cheekbone where he'd stumbled into the wall on the way back to Hogwarts after drinking, and he was still limping from the broken leg (though Harry thought he was playing it up for Pansy, since he had flown in the Quidditch match just fine). His ribs still showed under certain shirts and on the whole he looked wan and worried, almost like he had sixth year, as if something was hounding him.
'I haven't done a thing,' Harry exclaimed. 'Well, the bruise is possibly my fault, I did let him walk into that wall . . .'
'The truth comes out,' Malfoy said, nodding. 'Harry Potter, savior of the world, can't spare a hand to guide a slightly tipsy Slytherin.'
'You were drunk, Malfoy.'
'Partially inebriated, I prefer-- '
Pansy interrupted by throwing her arms around Malfoy, who made a small noise of surprise. 'Drunk or not,' she said, 'Draco, I think you look like shit.'
'Charming as ever,' Malfoy said with a grimace. 'Remind me again why I wanted to see you so badly? Much less tempt you back to Hogwarts?'
'Hogwarts?' Pansy echoed. She looked about as happy as if she'd just swallowed a mouthful of Stinksap. 'That's what this is about? Is that why he's here?' She pointed an accusing finger at Harry, and he was reminded of her similar gesture in the Great Hall at the beginning of the Battle of Hogwarts. 'Draco,' Pansy said, 'Draco, Draco, you know I can't go back there. It's bad enough with my brother, don't you see? How can you stand it there? Why are you wasting your time when you could be-- '
'Shh,' Malfoy said, sharp and sudden. Pansy had not stopped clinging to him, and he hadn't pulled away. 'Potter, give us a minute, will you? Go loiter somewhere else.'
Harry rolled his eyes. 'Fine,' he said. 'I'll be in Quality Quidditch.'
'Well, there's a surprise,' Malfoy drawled. He led Pansy towards one of the brightly colored umbrellas, all of which seemed to have Heating Charms on them, from the circles of melted snow beneath their shade. If Harry didn't know better, he would think that Pansy was crying.
Even if she was, he thought as he turned towards the Quidditch shop, he supposed it was none of his business.
Nearly half an hour later, Harry was gazing at the most expensive broomstick care kit they had when Malfoy and Pansy reappeared, Pansy's eyes unmistakably red-rimmed. Before he could say a thing, she seized him by the arm and dragged him behind a large display of Wimbourne Wasp figurines.
'Potter,' she said urgently. 'I didn't mean it, you have to know that, all right? It wasn't personal, I don't know you at all!'
He frowned. 'What, that jibe about me abusing Malfoy?'
'No, you absolute idiot, last year! You know what I shouted, everyone knows it, and then you almost died!'
'Actually, I sort of did die,' Harry said, realizing a moment too late that this might be considered what Hermione called 'unhelpful information.' Judging from the way Pansy's nails dug deeper furrows in his arm, she thought so too.
'I'm,' she said. 'I can't sleep sometimes, thinking about it. I didn't want you to die, I just thought. My friends were in danger, I was scared, we were all scared, and if it came down to the people I loved or some-- some near stranger who was never once nice to anyone I knew-- '
'What?' Harry said; he didn't blame her, but this was a bit too far. 'How can you say that? I'm nice! I'm a nice person!'
'You laughed when Draco was bounced around by that horrible Moody imposter in fourth year!' Pansy accused. 'And you set a snake on Justin Finch-Fletchley, you framed all my friends' parents and you nearly killed Draco when you ripped his chest open with that spell!'
'I did not set a snake on Justin!' Harry managed. 'And I didn't mean-- the ferret thing was funny-- '
'Draco was hurt!' Pansy screeched. 'When have you ever been nice to him, when have you ever tried to be nice to any of us?'
'Oh, you're not nice!' Harry retorted. 'Almost getting Hagrid fired, laughing at Hermione, making fun of people for the blood they were born with, something they can't help and doesn't make a bit of difference!'
Pansy stared at him. 'Fine,' she said at last, sounding as if it were a struggle. 'Potter, I'm-- sorry. I didn't really-- mean it.'
'Well,' Harry said, then took a deep breath. Wasn't Hermione always telling him he was too stubborn by far? 'I'm sorry too. For, for not being nice.'
'Thank you,' Pansy said with dignity. She actually reached out and shook his hand. 'Now with any luck, I'll never have to talk to you again.'
'Er,' Harry said, 'you too?'
'Also, your jumper is hideous,' she added triumphantly, just before she flounced off.
When Harry emerged from the shop, Malfoy too was nowhere to be seen. Down the street, two witches began to stride towards him with the unmistakable determination of autograph seekers. He quickly ducked away towards the Three Broomsticks, and on homeward.
They went to the Burrow for Christmas Eve. The house was a-bustle with Teddy shouting, George's explosions ('It was Fred's idea, Mum, I swear'), and a very pregnant and very bossy Fleur. In one room, Arthur and Andromeda were talking about Ministry politics, while Hermione looked on. Ron and Bill were playing chess by the fire, while Ginny was curled up beside them with Crookshanks on her lap. Everyone seemed cozy and content, until Harry went into the kitchen for a glass of water and found all the counters covered with busy pots and pans, but no Mrs. Weasley.
'Hello?' he called. 'Um, Mrs. Weasley, are you there?'
'In here, Harry,' she wavered from around the corner, and he ducked into their tiny scullery in surprise, the door falling shut behind him.
Molly Weasley was sitting in the dim little room on a stool, clutching her apron strings and crying.
'Are you all right?' Harry said at once. 'Should I get, um, Mr. Weasley's just in the other room, or Bill, d'you want-- ?'
'Oh, please don't,' Mrs. Weasley said tearfully. 'Especially not Arthur, and Bill, they're all having such a nice time. I'll be fine, Harry, why don't you go and join the party again?'
He stared at her. 'But what's the matter? Is it-- '
'Yes, yes, I just can't stop thinking about him! He always loved big parties like this, all these people to tell about his new j-jokes, and maybe nobody else can tell but I can feel that he's missing, it just feels different.'
'I think people can tell,' Harry said, helpless, unsure what else to say. 'I can.'
'Sometimes I still set too many places at the table,' Mrs. Weasley confessed, dabbing at her cheeks with a large white handkerchief. 'I always bought things in twos, you know. All their r-robes, and their Christmas presents . . .'
She looked off, staring at nothing Harry could see.
'I made him a jumper,' she sobbed. 'I-- bought too much yarn, you see, out of habit, and I just hate the thought of him getting c-cold, wherever he is now-- oh!' She buried her face as a fresh wave of tears hit her. 'Harry, dear,' she managed to sniffle, 'you shouldn't have to see me like this, I'm so sorry . . .'
'It's okay, Mrs. Weasley,' he said awkwardly. 'It's fine.'
'And poor George, I'm forever surprised to see him alone and it only makes it so much worse for him, how everybody's always looking at him and-- w-waiting-- '
The door flung open and Ginny was framed there in the light from the kitchen. 'Mum!' she said, surprised. 'Oh, Harry-- look, Mum, I'm just going to take Harry and get him to help me shell the peas.'
'Yes, yes,' Mrs. Weasley sniffled, 'that's fine, Ginny, dear.'
'I'm sorry about her,' Ginny said as she led the way into the other room. 'This time of year, you know, it's hard.'
'Yeah,' Harry said. 'It's okay, really. I understand.'
She tucked her arm in his and they went into the roar of the other room. Now Hermione and Charlie were having a rousing discussion of the place dragons held in the mind of the Ministry, and their use in Gringotts defenses; when he heard the name Gringotts, Bill jumped into the fray as well, until the warbling tones of Celestina Warbeck were entirely drowned out by their voices. Fleur looked pleased at this.
Mrs. Weasley had recovered by dinner, in which they all ate more food than they could possibly digest and everyone made countless toasts, to Fred and Remus and Tonks and the living. Percy got quite drunk and began suggesting toasts to things like Auto-Sorting Inboxes, which no one cheered for except Hermione.
After dinner, they all listened to carols on the wireless and sat by the fire, everyone's heads slowly drooping. Even Mrs. Weasley looked content, Harry thought, sitting beside Bill and talking at length about baby clothes.
As for Harry, he was sitting beside the fire when Arthur Weasley engaged him in an hour-long discussion of airplanes and whether he'd ever been inside one. 'Haven't, sorry,' Harry shrugged. 'Dudley did once, the Dursleys all went to New York City for Christmas one year.'
He remembered that holiday quite clearly; Mrs. Figg's pudding had contained a few stray cat hairs, and his clothes smelled of cabbage for weeks afterwards, but he got to sleep as late as he wanted and there was a fat slice of fruitcake at Christmas dinner just for him.
This Christmas, though, was better.
The next day Harry woke late and was descending to lunch when the doorbell clanged, loud as ever, from the front hall. He went down to see what the commotion was, though as he passed the portrait of Sirius's mother, the curtains whisked open and she began to shout.
'Filthy scum!' Mrs. Black screeched from her portrait. 'Half-breeds, Muggle-lovers, dirty, filthy blood traitors-- '
To Harry's shock, a serene blonde woman stepped out of the shadows, her mouth in an expression of distaste and her profile near-identical to Andromeda's. 'Auntie Walburga,' Narcissa Malfoy said calmly, ignoring Mrs. Black's squawk of surprise. 'That is enough.'
Mrs. Black stared at her, eyes bulging.
'Little Teddy's father saved my son's life,' Mrs. Malfoy continued. 'Like it or not, Teddy and Draco are the last remaining Blacks of our line. They are the future of this family.'
Mrs. Black was still gaping.
'And as for Andromeda,' Mrs. Malfoy finished, 'she is my sister. So again I say, that is enough.'
Andromeda passed by Harry on the stairs then, and she exclaimed, 'Cissy?'
'Yes, it's me,' said Narcissa, a rare smile changing her face; it was shocking, how different she looked with a pleasant expression. 'The holidays are about family, as mother always used to remind us, and I thought Draco should see his ancestral home. You don't mind?'
'Of course not,' Andromeda said, hurrying past Harry to greet the other woman. 'You're always welcome here. Oh, I've missed you!'
They embraced, one of them-- probably Andromeda-- giving a little sob. 'It's been so long, Cissy,' she said. 'I thought we'd never see one another again, and I didn't dare talk to you at the Battle of Hogwarts, everything was mixed up and I was so distracted, my daughter, you know-- '
'We're here now,' Narcissa said with a delicate shrug of her shoulder. She glanced around the dark entranceway, running one slim finger across the paneling. 'You know, I always loved this house. We used to spend all the holidays here, remember?'
'Not the summer hols that one year,' Andromeda said. 'Sirius wasn't at that year's Christmas but no one had said a thing, remember? I tried to ask our mother where he was, but Regulus kicked me so hard I had a bruise for weeks.'
'I was sorry about that,' Narcissa murmured, glancing over her shoulder at Harry, who scowled right back. 'When he died. I told Bella, I told her-- '
'He was always my favorite cousin.'
A smile flickered over Narcissa's face. 'Mine too. He used to flirt with me all the time, when I was at Hogwarts and him still waiting to go. He was all of ten.'
Andromeda raised an eyebrow. 'I think Bella liked him best too,' she admitted. 'At least in the early years.'
'Always,' Narcissa said. 'God knows why. She cried when he was sorted into Gryffindor. She made me promise never to tell.'
'I suppose promises don't keep after-- '
'I shouldn't think so,' Narcissa said mildly.
In the other room, Teddy began to bawl and Narcissa looked startled. 'A baby? I thought Nymphadora was your only child.'
'She was,' Andromeda said. 'Teddy is hers and-- '
'Ah,' Narcissa said delicately. 'The werewolf, yes, I heard. I see you brought her up well.'
Andromeda pursed her lips. 'That werewolf died saving your son's life,' she said coolly, 'so I suppose I did.'
'What about me?' said someone else, and then the door swung open again and Malfoy stepped into view. He nearly toppled over the umbrella stand made of a troll leg and backed away in horror. 'Sorry, Mother, I lost the address for a moment. What kind of dusty old crypt is this?'
'Our ancestral home,' Narcissa Malfoy answered. 'Come inside, Draco, and say hello to my sister Andromeda.'
'Hello,' Malfoy said in a bored tone. 'You must be the blood traitor who gave birth to a Metamorphmagus.'
Andromeda, to Harry's surprise, sounded amused rather than offended. 'That's one way to put it, I suppose.'
'I wish I had been a Metamorphmagus,' continued Malfoy musingly. 'Mother, why couldn't you have passed down the Metamorphmagus genes of the family? I certainly wouldn't have wasted them on a werewolf.'
Andromeda smiled. 'Cissy, your son is quite . . . charming.'
'That's one way to put it,' Narcissa echoed. 'Might we go upstairs now? This entranceway has always been given to mold.'
As they followed Andromeda up the stairs, Malfoy stepped forward and saw Harry, standing on the next landing.
'Hey,' Harry said uneasily.
Malfoy spared him a glance. 'Hi, Potter.'
'What are you doing here?'
'What do you think?' Malfoy grimaced. 'Haven't you heard, Potter, we're like family now. And move aside, this is my ancestral home.' He passed so close by Harry on the stairs that their arms brushed.
'What? But it's my house,' Harry exclaimed at Malfoy's back. He scrambled after him. 'Hey! Sirius gave it to me!'
He caught up with the other three just in time to hear Andromeda say happily, 'Why, of course you'll stay for dinner! We wouldn't have it any other way.'
They ate Christmas dinner on old mismatched dishes-- Narcissa Malfoy nearly fainted when she heard what had happened to the china-- though they did not eat in the kitchen but in the dining room on the ground floor, with its forbidding dresser and heavy curtains. There were two courses and three utensils more than Harry expected, and his wineglass kept leaving dark rings on the fine tablecloth that embarrassed him until Teddy flung a spoonful of mashed potatoes on the floor and another in Narcissa Malfoy's hair.
Malfoy laughed so hard he almost knocked over the wine himself. Dinner was better after that.
After the meal, Malfoy poked through the house, nosing into old desk drawers and excavating small trinkets from the cabinets, until Harry got so bored with following him that he went upstairs to fetch the book Hermione had lent him about healing charms. On his way up from the kitchen, he heard voices and stopped.
Andromeda and Narcissa were in the drawing room with all the windows open, snow blustering in over the sill. From the looks of it, Andromeda was teaching her sister how to smoke. Over Narcissa's coughs, she exclaimed, 'You're doing it all wrong . . .'
Harry grinned and continued on his way.
Malfoy was inside the bedroom on the second floor landing. Harry paused to listen and frowned. Was he talking to Phineas? He pushed the door open.
'-- did the smart thing, boy,' Phineas was saying when Harry entered the room. 'Now, Severus Snape, now there was a headmaster, the best Headmaster Hogwarts has seen in years! Since myself, of course, but regardless, who could say what his plans were?'
'But,' Malfoy began, apparently unaware of Harry's presence.
'But nothing,' Phineas replied. 'You're a clever boy, you did the right thing, and here you are. It isn't your fault someone else chose to sacrifice themselves on your behalf! If you do all right by the little one, all will-- is that Potter, Harry Potter? Nosing about in other people's business again, are you?'
Malfoy spun around, but instead of the fury Harry expected, he only looked exhausted. 'Potter,' he said. 'Eavesdropping on me again, are you?'
'Yeah, I can't seem to stop following you around,' Harry said sarcastically. 'What are you talking to him for? Are you-- about Remus? And Teddy?'
Malfoy looked at him for a second, and then he said, for once without a trace of disdain or superiority, 'He's got no parents! Theodore, I mean, he hasn't got parents, who's going to buy him his first racing broom and send him sweets at Hogwarts and take him on holidays if he's got no parents?'
'You mean like I had?' Harry said pointedly, gratified when Malfoy's head flew up in surprise. He added, 'And, and I will.'
'Well,' Malfoy said, belligerent, as if it were some kind of contest, 'so will I! I owe him!" It was said in the sort of tone someone might say, 'He owes me!'
'He has Andromeda and the Weasleys, too,' Harry pointed out. 'It isn't the same, I know that better than anyone, but it's something.'
Malfoy threw him a curious look, then stuck his hands in his pockets. 'Fine,' he said. 'Bye, Professor Black. Come on, Potter, where's my mother got to?'
Harry bit his lip. 'I think Andromeda might've got your mum addicted to cigarettes.'
'Cigarwhatsits?' said Malfoy. He sounded like Uncle Vernon when he ran up against a Wizarding word.
'They've got tobacco in them,' Harry said. 'I don't know, you roll them up and light one end on fire.'
'Oh,' Malfoy said. 'Yeah, Malcolm Baddock used to do that, until Snape gave him permanent detention for setting his bed hangings on fire by accident. You can't open any windows in Slytherin, see, they're all under water.'
'I know,' said Harry, 'lunar fish, remember?'
Malfoy was silent for a moment, and then he nodded.
'Er,' Harry said. 'Fancy a game of chess while we wait for your mum?'
'Fine,' said Malfoy.
It was the most silent game of chess Harry had ever played, but it wasn't awful. Malfoy won and lorded it over Harry for at least ten minutes, until Harry pointed out that he'd won every Quidditch match to date, and Malfoy fell into an indignant silence.
All in all, the visit was not as bad as Harry had expected.
Then, later that night, Malfoy flooed back.
Harry was half-asleep already, listening to the small sounds that the House of Black made at night, creaking floorboards and rattling pipes, when there was a much louder creak and his door swung open. He had his wand in hand and pointed at the imposter within a second, which was when Malfoy muttered, 'It's only me, Potter.'
'What are you doing here?' Harry demanded, heart going triple-time. 'I thought you were, I don't know!'
'A Death Eater?' Malfoy said sardonically. 'Ten points to Gryffindor for a correct answer.'
'That's not funny,' Harry muttered. 'What do you want?'
But Malfoy seemed intent on taking his time; his gaze swung around the room, landing on the near-empty jar of beetle eyes balanced precariously on a stack of wrinkled old essays, the duvet kicked half off the bed, the chair with uneven legs piled so high and haphazard with clothes that it could have been a stool or a settee for all Malfoy knew. On the wall beside the picture of the Marauders hung a peeling Cannons poster, so faded that the players' robes were more yellow than orange, and one corner was ripped clean off.
'I can see you weren't expecting company,' Malfoy said, lips pressed thin in disdain.
'What are you doing here?'
Malfoy flushed. 'Better than being startled by you in my own house, Potter, I thought I'd pre-empt one of your surprise visits.'
'Oh, I certainly believe that.'
'Fine, I'll leave then,' Malfoy snapped. 'Here I was, busy feeling sorry for you, bored and alone on Christmas.'
'Yeah, yeah, I get it, you pity me,' Harry said, rolling his eyes. 'Sit down, Malfoy. You're right, I'm bored and wide awake.'
Malfoy held up his bag, which clinked. 'I brought alcohol.'
'Christmas last year was terrible,' Malfoy said an hour later, sprawled on a couch in the drawing room with a half-empty bottle in hand. 'Aunt Bella tried to make me kill someone, and the-- the Dark Lord wasn't there but Fenrir Greyback was-- '
Harry thought of the idea of Voldemort celebrating Christmas, perhaps with a bunch of mistletoe and a Weasley jumper or two, and he would have laughed, if it had not been so morbid: he knew exactly where Voldemort had been, last Christmas.
'I almost got eaten by a giant snake that was hiding in somebody's dead body,' he said flatly. 'And I saw my parents' graves, and I broke my wand. You're right, it was awful.'
They sat there in silence for a minute.
'Why did you stay?' Harry asked. 'If it was so terrible, why did you stay?'
'Where was there to go?'
'We've already been over this, the Order would have taken you.'
'And we've already been over the fact that I don't believe you!'
'We would have,' Harry insisted. 'We would have, Malfoy. Will you pass the Firewhisky?'
Malfoy did, and they sat in speculative silence for a moment. Harry took a large swig and then he said,
'Do you miss him? Your dad?'
Malfoy stared. 'Would you?'
'Well,' Harry said. 'Well, yeah.'
'He's there because of me,' said Malfoy fiercely. 'Because of me, because he was trying to protect me, because he wanted the best for me!'
'You'll see him again,' Harry shrugged. 'A long time from now, but it's still something.'
'If I live that long,' Malfoy said.
Harry thought that was a strange, morbid sort of comment to make.
'You will,' he said. He passed the bottle back to Malfoy, who took it gratefully.
After another hour, Malfoy was lying down on the couch, the empty bottle cradled in his arms, and Harry had moved to sit on the floor. He thought birds might be chirping outside, but perhaps that was his imagination; it was still dark, after all. What had they been talking about? Was it Azkaban-- or death sentences--
'I was scared to die,' Malfoy said, interrupting Harry's thoughts. He was looking out the window rather than at Harry, but the admission still startled Harry, drunk though Malfoy was.
'It's not so bad,' Harry shrugged, smiling ruefully at Malfoy's incredulous look. He thought of the forest and how it had felt, for that one moment, with his parents and Sirius and Remus all around him, Ron and Hermione and Ginny on his mind. 'Sometimes it's worth it.'
'Like my father, I suppose,' Malfoy snapped.
'No, not people who deserve to die,' Harry said. 'Things worthy dying for. It's different.'
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
He would see them again, he knew. There were, after all, worse things than death. Dumbledore had always known that. And indeed, as long as he remembered them, they would never quite leave the world of the living, not while he loved them.
Harry thought of Malfoy's pale, drawn face as he emerged from talking to Phineas. He looked down. 'Remus said something to me once,' Harry said. 'It was after he died-- '
'You talked to the werewolf after he died?' Malfoy echoed.
'I had this stone,' Harry said. 'The Resurrection Stone.'
'You had what? As in, The Tales of Beedle the Bard? The Hallows? Are you joking?' Malfoy peered at him as if he were a new species altogether, not unlike the Blast-Ended Skrewts. 'Who are you, Potter?' he demanded. 'You had all three of the Deathly Hallows-- the real Hallows-- and you threw them away?'
'I didn't need them,' Harry said simply. 'They don't help, Malfoy, not the way you think they would. The Resurrection Stone doesn't bring anyone back from the dead, not the way you'd want. It doesn't do to sit around with the dead anyway. Not if you aren't living. Dumbledore said something like that to me in first year, when he caught me looking at the Mirror of Erised.'
'The Mirror of what?' Malfoy echoed, still looking as if Harry were speaking in Parseltongue. 'Never mind, I'm obviously unenlightened about the grand adventures of The Boy Who Lived-- '
'No, listen. It shows you your heart's desire,' Harry shrugged. 'I saw my parents. All I wanted to do was to go and look at them, you see? But it wasn't like really being with them, it wasn't doing me any good.'
Malfoy frowned but said nothing.
'I know they're there,' Harry said. 'I've heard them, and I've seen them, and I'll see them again someday, won't I?'
'You've seen dead people?' Malfoy exclaimed, with a surprising amount of hysteria for someone who had grown up in a world well-acquainted with ghosts.
'Yeah,' Harry said. But he did not know how to explain the ragged veil in the Department of Mysteries or the arcing fall Sirius had taken through it, nor the way his parents had circled him in that cold graveyard and again in the Forbidden Forest, whispering their love and encouragement.
'I'll tell you someday,' he said wearily. 'Anyway, what Remus said, he told me he was trying to make a world in which Teddy could live a happier life. That's what I meant.'
He thought of Regulus for a moment and hoped that, wherever they were, he and Sirius were reunited; he had an image of them, like a flash of Legilimency, their dark heads bent together in a dusty old room, and then it swept away.
Malfoy's mouth was working and he finally said, 'But the werewolf didn't die defeating You-Know-Who. He died protecting-- protecting me.'
'Then he thought you were worth it,' Harry said. 'You've got to live with that.'
Near the end of the holidays, the Grangers had Harry over for dinner, complete with sugar-free after dinner mints. Mr. Granger made a lot of jokes about forgetting where he put his glasses.
'Old age, happens to the best of us,' he winked.
Harry, who had read enough about residual effects from Memory-Altering Charms, looked at Hermione's sad smile with her charmed-straight teeth and mouthed, 'I'm sorry.' She gave him a one-shouldered shrug and got up to help her mother with the dishes.
'I didn't know,' he said to her later. He gripped her arm. 'Hermione-- '
'It doesn't matter,' Hermione said. She gave him a smile, a little crooked, still brave. 'Mum says my teeth are atrocious, you know. I've got two cavities. Of all the things I packed in that bag of mine, I only brought one tube of toothpaste.'
'Didn't seem important at the time, I suppose.'
Hermione laughed. 'Dad says dental hygiene is always important.'
When he got home, Harry began to re-pack his trunk in preparation for returning to Hogwarts the next day. He was juggling a stack of Martin Miggs the Mad Muggle comics Ron had lent him, and a very worn copy of Flying with the Cannons, when Andromeda came across him.
'Here, let me help,' she said. She advanced into the room, raised her wand, and said imperiously, 'Pack!'
All of Harry's things soared into the air in a flurry of activity: the socks paired themselves up and flew to their proper places, the books stacked themselves by size, and Harry's shirts were folded so crisply they looked newly store-bought. Handfuls of old sweet wrappers and broken quills dove towards the dustbin, which coughed a little at the sudden deluge.
'Wow,' Harry said when it was done and the lid of his trunk snapped smartly shut. 'Tonks did that for me once, but it wasn't nearly as effective.'
Andromeda looked fond. 'No, she wasn't the most organized of witches, my Dora.'
Harry remembered Tonks once turning her hair brown-- a rare shift, since she preferred outrageous pinks and blues-- and how different she had looked. He now thought she'd looked just like her mother.
No one's forgetting, Hermione had said, a long time ago now. And they weren't. But they were living, too.
'Keep safe,' Andromeda said when he left in the morning, one hand on his arm, that old echo of the parting everyone had once whispered during the war, so afraid they would never see one another again. She gave him a smile in the morning sun. 'Be well.'
'You too,' said Harry. He looked over his shoulder at the battered old door of 12 Grimmauld Place, which did not look quite as forbidding as it once had. Then he stepped away, and the house, and Andromeda, vanished from sight.
After the holidays, Pansy Parkinson returned to Hogwarts, flouncing into a Defense lesson as if she were only a minute or two late for class. 'She didn't have to bring a whole mass of them,' Ron grumbled over dinner, when it was plain that Pansy had not come alone. Slytherin had nearly doubled in size, with the introduction of two boys whom Hermione identified as Graham Pritchard and Alistair Harper, as well as Astoria and Daphne Greengrass.
'We want more Slytherins to return,' Hermione reminded him in exasperation. 'That is the goal, Ron.'
'I liked it when there were only four of them,' Ron muttered.
Harry looked over at the Slytherin table through a gap in a crowd of Ravenclaws; Malfoy was surrounded by his returned housemates, flanked on all sides, and as Harry watched, Malfoy laughed cautiously at something that was said.
Harry scowled. While he saw the sense in Hermione's argument, he agreed with Ron; he had liked the state of Slytherin before.
Meanwhile, Pansy began acknowledging him every time she saw him, perhaps out of guilt or in some odd kind of mockery; it always sounded derisive, the way she sneered out his surname, usually as she plowed past him with Daphne Greengrass following in her wake.
He, like Ron, had to remind himself that they had asked the Slytherins to return.
Parvati had come back too, climbing through the portrait hole one day with a small smile and her trunk floating behind her; she had been mobbed by the Gryffindors at once, and even Hermione gave her a glad little hug. 'How's Lavender?' Ron asked her.
'She's doing fine.' Parvati smiled. 'I told her I'd owl her at once, I'll say hello for you.'
Gryffindor was rowdy that night, and Harry found himself slipping out of the room without a second thought, welcoming the cool silence of the corridor. It wasn't until he was halfway to Slytherin that he realized he'd left his cloak behind.
As if on cue, Malfoy came around the corner just then, and when he caught sight of Harry, he actually almost smiled. 'Potter,' he said. 'What are you doing down here?'
Harry blinked; it could have been the eerie shadows of Hogwarts' corridors at night, but Harry felt Malfoy was standing oddly close to him. He backed up a little.
'Or should I say,' added Malfoy, his tone sharper, smirking now, 'what are you doing creeping about after hours? I am a Prefect, you know.'
I was coming to see you, Harry was about to say, before realizing just how ridiculous that sounded. Malfoy was right, what was he playing at? More Slytherins had come back, and Malfoy didn't need him any longer. He had no reason to care what Malfoy did with himself, and no need to pity the other boy, either.
'I was just going to find Parvati, she's been stuck at the library with Hermione for hours catching up on last term's work.'
Malfoy was still smirking. 'Yes, I expect it's hard for her, being around the stench of-- ' Malfoy sputtered to a halt, then; Harry had just cast Silencio on him. His mouth worked silently for a minute, and then he shoved Harry hard.
'What? I'm tired of you badmouthing my friends!'
Malfoy yelled something but no sound came out. Harry had to hold him off while he struggled against him, shouting silently.
When the spell wore off, Malfoy squawked, 'Lord, Potter, you've gotten to the point where you can't even listen to people who won't agree with you!'
'Yeah, I don't agree with your nasty, bigoted names, you've got that right,' Harry retorted.
'Mudblood,' said Malfoy defiantly. 'Mudblood, Mudblood, Mud-- '
Harry shoved him against the wall and Malfoy tried to knee him in the crotch. They struggled until they were both lying there on the stone floor, bruised and wincing, short of breath.
'Clever, though,' Malfoy admitted; he was wheezing a little. 'Silencing Charm. I ought to use it on Ella when she gets going, you should hear that girl chatter-- '
Harry clenched his teeth. It was clear that to Malfoy, it was all just a game. 'Don't say that word, Malfoy.'
'Don't tell me what to do, Potter,' Malfoy echoed mockingly.
Harry stared at him in disbelief.
'Don't talk to me,' he said, cold. 'Ever. We're through, Malfoy, I'm through with this.'
He strode away while Malfoy was still struggling to his feet.
Moments later in the common room, Hermione gasped when she saw him. 'Harry, you've got a black eye, what happened?'
'I, um, ran into a suit of armor,' Harry invented wildly, though he had no idea why he was protecting Malfoy from the wrath of his friends when Malfoy had, in fact, just insulted them.
'Come here,' Hermione said impatiently, touched her wand to his swollen eye. 'Oh, honestly! You boys!'
Two days later, Malfoy seized him and dragged him behind the small stone statue of Gregory the Gullible. 'Are you ignoring me?'
Harry stared at him. 'Why do you care?'
'I don't!' said Malfoy sharply.
'Great, neither do I,' Harry snapped, shifting his bag into a better position on his shoulder. He was about to step out into the corridor again when he realized that he wanted Malfoy to apologize.
'Just walk away from him, Harry,' he could practically hear Hermione admonish in his head. 'He isn't worth it. Let it go.'
But then, when had he been one to let anything go?
'Potter,' Malfoy whined. 'Was it those pictures in the Prophet?'
Harry almost dropped his bag. 'What?'
'The Prophet,' Malfoy said impatiently. 'Didn't you see it? Here.' And he yanked that day's newspaper from his bag and thrust it at Harry's chest. It was folded to page six where, indeed, there were several grainy pictures of Harry standing beside Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson in Diagon Alley, along with a small article entitled, HARRY POTTER'S DALLIANCES WITH DANGEROUS DEATH EATERS! As he watched, the letters zoomed around the page and then reassembled, the word DANGEROUS trembling as if it wanted to burst off the newsprint.
'What the hell is this? Did you do this?'
'Me?' Malfoy exclaimed. 'Why would I want to be pictured with you in the paper? I expect it's hard for you to get it through your fat head, but not everyone cares about your stupid famous name.'
Harry studied the picture again; it was possible that it had been Pansy, but she had seemed so surprised at Harry's presence that it was doubtful. Someone else, then. He would not put it past Rita Skeeter to have him followed.
'In any case, it wasn't me, Potter, so you can snap out of your little tantrum,' Malfoy said loudly.
Harry stared at him. 'Are you-- it had nothing to do with this! Malfoy, you called Hermione the M-word! I'm not hanging around with anybody who uses language like that, and I don't think Andromeda will like your kind hanging around Teddy, either.'
Malfoy's brows drew together. 'My kind?'
'Yeah,' Harry said furiously, 'your kind, who think you're better than anybody who hasn't got pure blood! Well let me tell you, Malfoy, Hermione's always been worth ten of you! She's better and smarter and cleverer. And braver, and nobler, and kinder-- '
'How many more adjectives do you have up that sleeve of yours?' Malfoy spat. 'Surely I'm richer? At least my hair doesn't look like a bird's nest.'
'Shut up,' Harry said raggedly. 'You can't just go around saying those things! I can't believe-- after all this, what you went through in the war-- '
'This has nothing to do with the war,' Malfoy responded, a certain mocking note to the way he said the war in echo of Harry. 'If you didn't notice, the Dark Lord wasn't exactly torturing my family because they had Muggle blood.'
'Well, he had,' Harry retorted. 'And he was still torturing lots of other families because they were Muggle-born!'
'It's just a word, Potter.'
Harry was breathing harder and Malfoy actually looked scared. 'It's not just a word,' he hissed. 'It's part of something bigger, Malfoy, god, you're not fourteen years old any more, don't you know that? What happened under Voldemort, the Muggle-born Registration Committee, the persecution of them last year!' He thought about Mrs. Cattermole and realized he was trembling. 'Tearing-- whole families apart-- '
'Why should I care?' Malfoy demanded. 'I don't know anyone who would be at risk.'
Harry wanted to clock him and had to clench his fists around the sleeves of his robes to keep himself from doing just that. 'Are you blind? What about Teddy? And you–' He paused. 'You know me.'
Malfoy looked skeptical. 'You aren't Muggle-born.'
'My mum was,' Harry retorted. 'Besides, if Voldemort's supporters rose up again, don't you think I'd be their number one target?'
Malfoy's lip curled. 'I suppose I'd have to thank them,' he drawled. He wasn't looking at Harry, the way he did when he was not telling the truth.
So Harry pushed. 'And Teddy? You'd be happy to see him killed, is that right?'
'Nobody would-- ' Malfoy looked indignant. 'He's only a baby!'
'So was I,' Harry said. 'So was Neville when his parents were tortured. It doesn't make you safe.'
But from the look on Malfoy's face, he reckoned Malfoy knew that.
'Anyway,' Malfoy said loftily, without a word of apology-- though not a word of defense, either-- 'I'll have you know that Muggle-borns aren't getting half the terrible treatment we Slytherins are, these days.'
Harry rolled his eyes. 'Please, Slytherin brought that on itself.'
'By not worshipping at your feet?' Malfoy sneered.
'By following Voldemort and killing people!'
Malfoy stilled. 'I didn't. I didn't kill anybody.'
'You might as well have!' Harry snapped. 'Like there's such a difference, Malfoy! You tortured people, and I'm sure you, you helped other people get killed, capturing them or keeping them in your family's dungeon.'
'So what?' Malfoy demanded. 'Oh, thank you, perfect Potter, for your moral proclamations-- '
'I did it too,' Harry said, before Malfoy could get carried away again. 'I'm not proud of it.'
Malfoy blinked a couple times.
'Also,' said Harry, 'speaking of that news article, you ought to get more Slytherins back. What's Goyle doing? Or,' he was grasping at straws here, 'that one, er, Darcy Jarvis?'
'Tracey Davis?' Malfoy interpreted, one eyebrow arched. 'She won't come back, she doesn't care about N.E.W.T.s. She's training to be a hairdresser.'
'Goyle, then,' Harry pressed. 'Or someone else, there were a lot of you! Come on, keep trying. I'll help. I'll help if you stop saying that word.'
Malfoy stared at him balefully, his gaze slitted. At last, he muttered, 'No promises.'
'Fine,' Harry said, 'no promises. But I mean what I said.'
The snow fell hard that night, and for the three days following, so that by the time the weekend arrived, the weather was ripe for a snowball fight. Half of Gryffindor trooped down to the grounds that Saturday morning and let loose, shrieking and laughing, and for an instant, it was like any other year, a snowy morning and the promise of a warm fire after.
Harry was so caught up in bombarding Ron and Seamus with snowballs and ducking their return volleys that he didn't notice Ginny creeping up on him until she pounced: there was snow in his hair, down the back of his jumper, and when he whirled on her, she even got some in his mouth. She was red-cheeked; when he dove after her, she giggled and scrambled away.
He caught up with her just before the grounds sloped down towards the lake and they wrestled in the snow for a minute before Ginny panted, breathless for laughing, 'I'll let you win if we can sneak up on Ron together,' and Harry said,
'Oh, let me win, will you?'
'Yeah,' Ginny said impishly, 'and if you don't agree, I'll put snow down your trousers.'
She was lying under him, one arm braced against his chest, the other wielding a handful of snow; her red hair spilled out against the snow-covered ground. Her grin faded a little as she caught him looking and in turn realized the position they were in. He could almost see her eyes turning sad.
'Well,' she said, 'that was fun while it lasted.'
They rolled to their feet, both covered in snow. Ginny tried in vain to brush it out of her hair and gave him a half-smile that, though forced, stuck around. 'Race you back to the rest of them,' she offered. 'First one to take down Ron wins?'
He thought about reaching out for her, taking her hand, maybe. It would be so easy to slide into the people they had been, even for an afternoon.
'Yeah,' Harry said, 'you're on.'
He let her win, but only so he could pelt Ron with snowballs while he was distracted; afterwards he and Ron teamed up against Ginny until Dean came to her rescue and pummeled them both with snow. While Harry and Ron were still shaking it out of their collars, Dean swept Ginny up in his arms and swung her around, giggling.
'-- so-- sodding-- wet,' Ron was muttering. 'Oi, put my sister down!'
Dean laughed and promptly dumped Ginny in a snowdrift, which she kicked up at him, still laughing. 'Come on,' Dean shouted, giving her a hand up and narrowly missing a handful of snow in the face because of it. He sputtered. 'All right, truce? The house elves are bringing hot chocolate to Gryffindor Tower, and I want some.'
'Me too,' Harry said, trying to avoid looking at Ginny and Dean but unable to help it. Now that they were both standing, Ginny was leaning against him, her hands sneaking under his layers of clothing for warmth. As Harry watched, Dean pressed a snowy kiss to the top of her head.
Ron gave Harry a look that clearly said, That could have been you. Perhaps it even said, That should have been you.
But it's not, Harry thought as he stomped the snow off his trainers.
He could live with that.
January hurried by that year, blustery and wet, and by the time February crept in, the talk of the entire school was on Slughorn's Valentine's party and the Hogsmeade weekend that followed. Harry had invitations from ten girls before he could even think about asking someone. He began to explain that he had decided to go alone, though this only made it worse; everyone, including Professor Slughorn himself, seemed to have an opinion on whom Harry should take instead.
'I'd go with you if not for Ron, just to save you the trouble,' Hermione offered, patting him sympathetically on the arm. 'You ought to just pick somebody, Harry, it doesn't mean you're bonded for life. Why not Parvati?'
'Yeah, after all the fun we had at the Yule Ball together,' Harry snorted. 'It's fine, Hermione, I'm just going to go by myself.'
This did not mean anyone let up, however; somehow the girls of Hogwarts, perhaps taking a cue from the fact that he was closest to no-nonsense Hermione and headstrong Ginny, thought that he only needed to be bullied into a relationship, and were determined to argue their way into a date. He was in the middle of a lecture from Sir Cadogan, of all people, about the virtues of Orla Quirke, when he heard footsteps and turned toward them gratefully. It was Malfoy, though most of his attention remained on the box of chocolates he was picking through.
'Package from your mother?' Harry asked.
'Obviously,' said Malfoy. He chose a chocolate at last and popped it in his mouth. 'With my father in Azkaban, his bank accounts transferred to her. She likes having control of the family finances, it suits her. These are from Paris.'
'She sent you chocolates from France?'
Malfoy nodded. 'Far better quality than Honeydukes, though I expect you wouldn't know the difference, would you. Want one, Potter?'
Harry rolled his eyes. 'Sure.'
'Too bad.' The smirk on Malfoy's face was so smug Harry felt like knocking the whole box out of his hands. 'I only give my sweets to those who deserve them.'
'You're such a prat, Malfoy,' Harry said, annoyed despite himself.
Malfoy just stood there fishing through his chocolates. He took an exaggerated bite out of another and made an unnecessary noise of appreciation. 'So,' he said, when he'd swallowed. 'Word has it you haven't got a date to Slughorn's party.'
'Don't you have anything better to do than stand around eating chocolates and gossiping like a girl?'
Malfoy flushed but said, 'You haven't got one, have you? Perhaps you should try a bit harder, Potter, I'm sure someone would be willing to suffer your company. Moaning Myrtle, maybe . . . I hear that fat toad Eloise Midgen hasn't got anybody to take her . . .'
'Eloise is nice,' Harry said automatically; to his recollection, he had never exchanged a word with this Eloise Midgen in his life. 'Look, I don't want to go with anybody, so sod off. Who're you taking, anyway?'
'Pansy,' Malfoy shrugged. 'I told Astoria Greengrass I'd take her, but I think Pansy gave her food poisoning last night.'
'Over you?' Harry exclaimed. He found it hard to believe that even with Slytherin as decimated as it was, girls were squabbling over Malfoy as they might his box of expensive chocolates. 'Is, er, Parkinson your girlfriend, then?'
'Of course not. She's been keen on Blaise for ages.'
'Zabini?' Harry frowned. 'Really? But isn't he-- '
'Oh, he's not interested,' Malfoy said dismissively. 'I think he's betrothed to some Italian heiress, though we'll see how long that lasts.'
'You, though,' Harry pushed on. 'Are you dating that Greengrass girl, then? What's her name?'
'There are two of them, Potter,' Malfoy drawled, looking amused. 'Honestly, do you pay attention to anything that isn't dressed up in red and gold? But no, I am not dating either.'
Harry said, 'And-- Penelope?'
Malfoy's expression clouded in confusion, and then he gave a start of recognition and laughed, a sort of uncontrolled ha! 'Professor Clearwater? Good lord, Potter, really? A professor?'
'I don't know,' Harry said, embarrassed. 'How should I know what you, you're interested in?'
Malfoy stared at him for what seemed longer than necessary, but whatever it was, he shook it off. 'I like Penelope,' he said at last. 'She was kind to me when no one else was. But I don't have designs on her, Potter.'
'I didn't say you did,' Harry muttered. Malfoy was looking at him again, and he fidgeted under the scrutiny. 'Well, um, good, then. I'll see you at the party?'
'See you,' Malfoy echoed.
Harry ran into him again that Friday night, headed up to Slughorn's office with Pansy on his arm. 'What are you doing all the way over here, Potter, lurking around?'
'I'm sick of everyone bothering me about not having a date,' Harry shrugged. 'I thought I'd take the long way up.'
'Not having a date is better than taking Loony Lovegood like you did in sixth year,' Pansy snickered. She was wearing a dress that looked as if the maker had wrapped her several times in pink tissue. 'What, wise up and decide she's a little too batty?'
'Hey, I like Luna,' Harry protested. 'Besides, she's going with Neville.'
'She's his date?' Pansy let out a hooting laugh. 'And wait, Largebottom stole her from you?'
'Loads of girls wanted to go with him,' Harry argued. After Neville's actions the year before, plenty of students viewed him as something of a hero. Only last week, after Harry had turned a girl down, he'd watched her walk across the room to Neville and ask him a second later.
'Well, I wouldn't be caught dead next to that lump,' Pansy declared, then eyed Harry with some trepidation. 'Not that I want him dead,' she added hastily. 'So what, Potter, you couldn't find a date after Loony turned you down? Little Astoria Greengrass is still looking for a partner. That is, if she's not still retching in the loo.'
'I didn't want to go with anybody,' Harry repeated for what felt like the four hundredth time. He was sure that he had even overheard Nearly Headless Nick and the Gray Lady gossiping about his lack of a partner as he walked to dinner the day before.
'Besides, who are you to talk?' put in Malfoy, the most unlikely ally, as he prodded Pansy in the side. When Harry looked confused, Malfoy smirked. 'Pansy used to have it bad for Macmillan.'
Pansy shrieked. 'Shut up! I did not!'
'She did,' Malfoy confided, nodding seriously at Harry. 'Fifth year. It was revolting. She'd put on so much perfume before the Prefects meetings that everyone thought Slytherin was infested with Dungbombs, and I had to sit there watching her drool at him across the table . . .'
'You're vile,' Pansy said, kicking Malfoy sharply in the ankle. 'Honestly, I said one word, once, and everyone had to go and make a fuss.'
'You thought he was dreamy,' Malfoy drawled.
'I did not!'
'I don't see what's so terrible about liking Ernie,' Harry said. 'He was nice.'
'He was a Hufflepuff,' said Malfoy.
'Shut your mouth, at least Potter approves,' Pansy said triumphantly. 'Oh, what am I saying? You're Potter.'
'And Ernie's dead,' said Malfoy, then looked sorry when both Harry and Pansy ceased laughing.
'Anyway, if we're rehashing our sordid pasts, Draco, you're the one who was turned down spectacularly by Padma Patil in fourth year,' Pansy said. She turned to Harry, apparently having decided that she could be friendly enough for an evening. 'It was the talk of all the fourth year Slytherins for days. He swaggered right up to her, of course, and told her-- told her-- she was going to the ball with him.'
'That did not happen!' Malfoy spluttered. 'Pansy, that's enough, really-- '
She winked at Harry; he wondered if she had perhaps nipped a shot or two of Firewhisky before leaving Slytherin. 'Yes,' Pansy continued gleefully, 'imagine Draco's horror when she said she was going with Ron Weasley-- '
'You liked Padma?' Harry frowned.
'No,' Malfoy said while Pansy hooted.
'He had charts,' she snickered. 'Which girl he should take, who would be the best.'
'But he went with you?'
'Yes, after his first choice, some Beauxbatons twit, turned him down, and Padma informed him she was going with a Weasley.' Pansy looked thoughtful. 'At least I beat out Daphne, she was sixth on the list.'
'Who were fourth and fifth?' Harry asked, but Malfoy shot Pansy a poisonous look and said,
'It's none of your business, Potter. Besides, we've arrived, so excuse me, I'm off to forget the pleasant memories you've just stirred.'
He vanished inside Slughorn's rooms and Pansy promptly seized Harry by the elbow.
'You want to know?'
He gave her a look and pried her elbow from his grip. 'I . . . suppose?'
'Some other bint from Beauxbatons and that Ravenclaw you were drooling over, Chang,' Pansy whispered. 'Honestly, I think his father helped draw up the list, I never even saw Draco talking to those French girls. Probably why the little bitch laughed in his face when he asked her.'
Harry didn't know why he felt torn between laughing and commiserating. It had been four years ago. How could it have been so long? He thought about Malfoy in fourth year, so pale and splotchy with anger, all angles and jeering laughter. He was forever flashing his Potter Stinks badge all over. He had been turned into a ferret then, Harry remembered.
'And you still went with him after he asked two other girls?' asked Harry, who did not know much about romance but knew enough.
Pansy gave a self-deprecating laugh. 'No one else asked me and I wanted to go,' she shrugged. 'Besides, I couldn't let him look the fool, going alone, either. Come on, are you coming into the party or what?'
Inside, Slughorn spotted him at once, pushing through the crowds to grasp him by the hand. 'Harry, Harry, my boy!' Slughorn greeted him jovially. 'So good to see you, so pleased you could come! After all those practices that kept you away in sixth year, and of course, your string of detentions-- '
Beside Slughorn, Malfoy snorted. 'Potter gets more detentions than anybody,' he said snidely, perhaps still smarting from the reminder of fourth year. 'Oh yes, he doesn't believe that rules apply to him. Thinks he can just flaunt any one he likes-- '
'Bit of a daredevil, are you, Harry?' Slughorn said, beaming like he might at a precocious child. 'Now, Draco, he just likes a bit of adventure, is all. I remember when I taught Myron Wagtail-- lead singer of The Weird Sisters, that is-- years and years ago. Now there was one who liked trouble!'
'He had a dragon!' Malfoy said; Harry thought he detected a hint of desperation in Malfoy's voice. 'In first year! I saw him!'
'Oho,' said Slughorn, not put off in the least, 'a dragon? You don't say! Useful creatures, those are, particularly when young. The price a box of scales would fetch, why, it'd pay my salary for months . . .' He trailed off dreamily, then had the audacity to wink at Harry. 'Going into the trading business, are you, Harry? If you know the right people, it can be lucrative! You know, I found Vincent Jewkes in the Department of International Magical Cooperation his very first job, he's always sure to put in a good word for me. I'll invite him to our next little get together, shall I?'
'I'm not that interested in trading,' Harry said quickly.
'Yes, Potter hopes to be an Auror,' Malfoy snorted. It could not have been plainer that he viewed these aspirations with derision, yet Slughorn brightened at once.
'An Auror!' he exclaimed. 'Why, Harry! You never told me that! Gawain Robards and I are old friends, the very oldest! How utterly delightful, I'll have to drop him an owl.'
'We met once,' Harry shrugged. 'He told me that if I got the required N.E.W.T.s he'd accept me into the training program.'
'He did, did he!' Slughorn chortled. 'Splendid!'
Malfoy was near grinding his teeth. 'Potter almost killed me,' he bit out. 'He used this horrible spell that ripped my chest open-- there was blood everywhere, Professor-- '
Slughorn actually chuckled out loud. 'Don't know your own limits, do you, Harry? It's not every day a powerful wizard like you comes along. Well, I'm sure you didn't mean it.'
'Oh, he meant it,' Malfoy said.
'Just like you meant the curse you were throwing at me!' Harry yelped. He was not stupid enough to tell a teacher just what Malfoy had attempted, but it was fresh in his mind. 'I was acting in self-defense!'
'Boys, boys,' said Slughorn, shaking his great gleaming head fondly. His silver moustache twitched. 'These childish fights are best put behind us. It is the alliances we make that count, yes? Philbert Deverill-- he's the manager of Puddlemere United, you know-- well, we were quite at odds once, he thought I supported the Tornadoes! Wouldn't speak to me for years! And it didn't do either of us a bit of good. Of course, I don't play favorites in Quidditch, I've so many friends in the league. Though I don't suppose Gwenog-- that's Gwenog Jones of the Harpies-- would be pleased to hear it, she's always fancied the Harpies as my top team. Quite the temper she has, you know.'
He trailed off into fond memories, muttering, then started up again. 'Why, Gwenog was a fine student as well, quite the Potions mistress herself, she was! Between her and your mother, Harry, I've seen some fine women at a cauldron in my time, that I have, that I have. But Harry, Harry, I've noticed that your marks are slipping this year . . .'
Harry thought with some regret of the book he had left in the Room of Requirement, now lost forever to the Fiendfyre, its original owner just as beyond reach. 'I've been, um, distracted, Professor.'
'Have you?' Slughorn said, peering at Harry. 'Yes, yes, a bit lovesick, are you? I've seen young Miss Weasley around the castle with whats-his-name, Dave-- '
'Dean,' Harry supplied.
'That's it. Well, you musn't let it get the best of you, Harry! I daresay there will be many young ladies clamoring for your attention, as famous as you are. Ah, youth.'
'Potter's not really much of a ladies man,' Malfoy snickered.
'Looking for the right girl, is that it?' Slughorn asked, giving Harry a pat on the shoulder. 'Smart, my boy, very smart. You won't be having any of those tabloid scandals, now will you? Dear Rita, of course, she does like a good story. A bit of a wild card, she is, but she always kept me up on the latest news.'
Malfoy's eyes lit up. 'Did you read her June 1991 obituary on Arcturus Black?'
Slughorn beamed indulgently. 'My boy, I am the very anonymous tip she mentions in that piece. I daresay my connections are often put to good use when an old friend calls in a favor.'
'You were reading Rita Skeeter before you were old enough for Hogwarts?' Harry said skeptically.
Malfoy was beaming, so pleased was he to finally find a topic he could discuss with Slughorn. 'My mother likes her. Says she's a bit crude, of course, it's only to be expected, but she does have a certain style.'
Disgusted, Harry left the two of them exclaiming over 'darling Rita' and found Ron sulking by the punch bowl.
'What's up?' he said. 'Why're you looking like that? Where's Hermione?'
Ron glared around the room and then he muttered, 'She spends more time with him than she does with me!'
'Who?' Harry said, baffled. His gaze flew to where Hermione was standing, chatting with Professor Flitwick. He found it incomprehensible that Ron could be jealous of Flitwick; apart from that moment, Harry hadn't seen Hermione speak to him outside of class since the beginning of the year. 'You can't mean-- '
'I mean Charlie!' Ron burst out. 'Every weekend it's Charlie this, Charlie that, and if she isn't working on his lesson plans with him, they're talking about bloody dragons! I thought she hated dragons! But oh, if it's got to do with the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, then it's brilliant, then it's the most interesting thing she's ever heard.'
'Ron,' Harry said urgently. 'You can't think she-- likes him? She's in love with you. He's your brother. She's just trying to be nice-- '
'Well, she's a ruddy lot nicer to him than she is to me!' Ron snapped.
'They aren't even talking right now,' Harry said; Charlie was deep in conversation with Luna, who had live butterflies alight in her hair. 'And I'm sure Hermione would rather be with her boyfriend than talking about Protean Charms with Flitwick. Go on, go rescue her.'
Ron looked slightly mollified. 'You think so?'
'Of course I think so,' Harry said, shaking his head. 'Go on. Besides, why would Hermione want Charlie when she could have you?'
'Because he works with dragons?' Ron said doubtfully. 'And he's older and has a fang earring and a tattoo?'
'Hermione doesn't care about any of that,' Harry insisted. 'She's known you forever. Also, you're taller.'
Ron brightened; he might have even stood a bit straighter. 'I am, aren't I? Charlie's a bit on the short side, always has been, really.'
'Well, there you go,' Harry said. 'Here, I think I'm leaving, I don't want to get trapped into another conversation with Slughorn, he keeps trying to talk about my romantic prospects. See you back in Gryffindor?'
Ron gave him a wave. 'See you.'
As Harry headed for the door, a hand caught at his elbow and he almost ducked away, in an attempt to avoid Slughorn, but the hand tightened, and it turned out to only be Malfoy, who slipped through the crowds after Harry and out the door.
Harry fully expected him to hold forth on the brilliance of Slughorn, but when the door shut, he just leaned against the wall, heaving a sigh.
'I don't know how you stand it.'
'Slughorn!' said Malfoy. 'Listening to him, it's worse than Binns except that all the stories are about him! Though I don't expect you mind, he's positively drooling over you.'
'You're the one groveling around,' Harry pointed out. 'What, are you leaving already?'
'You are,' Malfoy retorted. 'Besides, I've had enough. Pansy's having the time of her life in there, swanning around with all Slughorn's special guests, I ought to leave her to it. She likes to think she'll catch a man that way.'
Harry frowned. 'The handsome one, Victor whats-his-name, he isn't Pureblood, you know.'
Malfoy quirked an eyebrow. 'And?'
'Slytherin?' Harry said. 'Hates all Muggle-born? Full of Purebloods? Ring a bell?'
'It isn't,' Malfoy interrupted.
'Elladora's a half-blood,' Malfoy said. 'Didn't you hear?'
'It must be horrible for her,' Harry exclaimed without thinking, then remembered there were only a handful of Slytherins to give her trouble.
Malfoy shrugged a shoulder. 'She loves it, she has enough Slytherin pride for the entire House. She turned all her clothes green and everything. Not a bad girl, really.'
From what he had heard, Harry thought her a bit mad.
'Going to Hogsmeade tomorrow?' Malfoy said when they reached the bottom of the staircase, the point where Harry turned off towards Gryffindor.
'Suppose so,' Harry shrugged. 'I told Cho I'd meet her for a coffee.'
Malfoy's mouth went sour at once. 'Cho Chang? She's still alive?'
Harry scowled. 'What kind of question is that? Of course she's still alive, she was at the Hogwarts memorial service. She plays on the reserve team for the Appleby Arrows now.'
'Oh,' said Malfoy sneeringly. 'Well, enjoy your revolting little date.'
'I-- will?' Harry said. 'Do you not like Cho?'
'What did she ever do to you? Beat you at Quidditch, I suppose? Spill ink on you when we were first years?' Malfoy was funny with his grudges; he still hadn't forgiven Professor Flitwick for telling him he was mispronouncing his spells, back in second year, and he would often rattle off slights that fellow students had apparently done him, though to Harry most of them sounded like accidents and mistakes.
'Never mind,' said Malfoy stiffly. 'See you around, Potter.'
The next morning, Harry trooped out of Hogwarts with Ginny, Dean, Hermione and Ron, the five of them bundled up against the weather and headed toward Hogsmeade. Halfway there, Harry realized uncomfortably that his companions had split into couples, and both couples were holding hands.
'Do you want to come to the Three Broomsticks with us?' Hermione asked.
'Oh,' Harry said, both relieved and embarrassed to have an excuse, 'I'm, well, I'm meeting Cho, actually.'
'Cho?' Hermione said in surprise. Ron was the only one Harry had told, and then only because Ron had seen the owl lying on Harry's bedside table. Harry had assumed he would have told Hermione, but apparently he had been wrong.
'Er,' he muttered. 'Yeah?'
Ginny left off her conversation with Dean, something about the time she had stolen Alecto Carrow's wand, and stared at Harry in shock. The look on her face was not unlike the look Malfoy had borne upon hearing the same news.
'Why are you meeting her?' Ginny said, her tone making perfectly clear what she thought of that.
'Probably because everyone else is busy pairing off,' Harry snapped. 'Excuse me if I don't want to watch you lot staring at each other and holding hands all day.'
This had the intended effect, for Ron and Hermione unclasped hands guiltily, and Ginny loudly returned to her conversation. At the same time, Hermione began talking about legal reform for domestic disputes involving house-elves, so enthusiastically that Harry was quite glad to leave her with Ron and dart off to Madam Puddifoot's.
Cho was waiting for him there, Cho who was older and thinner and a little bit quieter, but who still pinked up when he took her arm and smiled at him shyly from behind her coffee cup. Their table was covered in confetti, and Harry thought back to where they had sat three years ago, though to Harry it felt more like a decade.
'I was kind of,' Harry said halfway through, one hand going instinctively to flatten his hair. 'Immature, or. You know.'
Cho snorted. 'Yes, I know.'
'It was a bad time,' Harry tried again.
'It was always going to be, I suppose,' Cho said. She gave him a forgiving smile. 'You're with Ginny now, aren't you? Ginny Weasley?'
'No, I'm. It didn't work out between us.'
'I'm sorry,' Cho said, and she looked like she meant it. 'You seemed to . . . well, I know you cared about her. And she really liked you, Harry. What happened? Oh, never mind, I'm prying, I always do this.'
'It's okay,' Harry muttered, though his face was hot. 'Nothing happened. We just took some time, and.' He didn't finish.
'Oh,' said Cho. She frowned sympathetically and reached across the table to squeeze Harry's hand. Her cool fingers stayed wrapped around Harry's for several minutes after that, and Harry squeezed back. It was nice.
After far too long of a silence, Harry said, 'Are you still with that bloke? Roger Davies, was it?'
'Roger, no, definitely not. We sort of split up last year, during the war, you know? I wanted to help you, I kept saying we should, and he kept saying we needed to shift our alliances because it looked like You-Know-Who was going to win.' At Harry's incredulous look, Cho said hurriedly, 'Harry, you have to understand, they had the Ministry, they had everything, and Potterwatch kept saying there was hope, but Marietta's mother-- '
'Oh, Marietta's mother,' Harry snapped, fervently recalling the outcome the last time he, Cho, and Marietta's mother were all involved in a situation. 'If more people were helping maybe it would have seemed like we were winning faster,' he added, a bit miffed.
'Oh, well, I wanted to,' said Cho. 'And I did, and loads of people did, at Hogwarts. No one really knew how to help you, except to believe in you, and,' here she flushed pink, 'I've always believed in you, Harry. Even my seventh year, when you wouldn't talk to me.'
'You were avoiding me too,' Harry said defensively, and Cho's expression softened.
'I know. I'm sorry. We've been so mixed up.' And here she squeezed his hand again.
'How's-- how's practices?' he asked after a long moment in which Cho did nothing but stare at their entwined fingers. On the back of Harry's hand, the faint scars of I must not tell lies were visible. 'Do you like playing professionally?'
Somehow, this question seemed the right one. Cho began to rattle on about the Arrows and her reserve position and he knew that, while Cho was very nice, he could never love her the way he'd loved Ginny, and he could certainly never talk to her the way he talked to Ron or Hermione. Or Malfoy, for that matter, though he hated to think about the tears Cho might shed at being compared to Draco Malfoy and coming up short.
'-- and the other day,' Cho was saying, 'Frederick lent me his new bottle of Fleetwood's Premier Pole Polish, it's called Liquid Silk, and you wouldn't believe how smooth the glide is after that. Plus the grip is better, because it's designed to enhance the magic worked into the handle, which combines wood fiber technology with slow-release shine spells in the anti-jinx varnish-- I might go into broom technologies when I'm too old for the league, they're really interesting-- anyway, he lent me his polish and I accidentally swapped it with Harriet's shampoo-- '
Hermione was right, Harry realized in a panicked flash, he did only like Quidditch players. No wonder so many giggling girls had turned up for Quidditch tryouts sixth year.
Not Viktor Krum, though, Harry thought, and almost laughed, that was more Hermione's arena . . .
Cho saw him smiling and must have thought it was due to her story, because she looked pleased.
She kissed him on her way to Apparate and he let her, one hand sliding up her back smooth as any broomstick handle rubbed with Fleetwood's Premier Pole Polish, tangling in her hair. She was soft and pretty and not all that interesting, and after they kissed Harry smiled apologetically and Cho said, 'I know,' in her sad way, and Apparated.
Harry went back to Hogwarts and found Ginny sitting on Dean's lap in front of the fire and Ron and Hermione having a blazing row over a table by the window. Harry thought he caught Charlie's name once or twice and winced. Neither of them looked up at his entrance, so he went upstairs without a word and lay on his bed until everyone went down for dinner and the whole of Gryffindor tower was quiet.
Life went on, unbelievably. Everyone and everything sank back into disagreements and incantations, self-darning socks and new owls, old girlfriends.
It was hard to believe from this side of the war, but he had thought it would be different.
The next morning, Harry's friends were not speaking to one another. Hermione was sitting at one end of Gryffindor table amongst a crowd of first years, her nose in a book; every one of them looked terrified to be in her immediate presence and they were all eating breakfast in petrified silence. Caught up in her reading-- or, more likely, her fury-- Hermione paid them no attention.
At the other end of the table, Ron sat talking so boisterously to Seamus and Dean that Harry thought Malfoy, sitting at the opposite end of the Great Hall, could hear him loud and clear. At Harry's appearance, Ron slammed his hand on the table.
'Harry!' he shouted. 'So glad to see you! Beautiful day, isn't it?'
'Er,' Harry said. 'It's not bad.'
Ron spent the rest of the meal discussing how happy he was, with occasional mutters about how complicated women were. Harry nodded several times in a show of support.
As for Hermione, he found her in the library after breakfast, sulking over yet another book. Before Harry could even finish asking her how she was, she started in, exclaiming, 'Honestly, he's suspicious of everything! How am I supposed to ever do anything? If that's what he thinks of me, maybe I should go take up with his brother!'
'You don't mean that,' Harry said, horrified. He had been appalled that Hermione had considered Zacharias Smith in sixth year, but surely . . .
'Well, no, of course I don't,' Hermione conceded; she sighed. 'I wouldn't, you know that. But Ron doesn't! Apparently he thinks I'm such a, a hussy, that I'd just leap into anybody's arms!'
'I don't,' Harry tried, 'he doesn't think that, Hermione. He's just worried about losing you.'
'Well, if he isn't careful, he will,' Hermione snapped. 'Anyway, do you want to study for our Charms exam? I had Flitwick replicate several copies of previous year's exams for me to practice on.'
Harry winced; he had no desire to pore over old Charms exams all day. 'I can't, I have to meet-- ' he began; he was about to say Ron, but at Hermione's look of fury, he swiftly changed his mind. 'Malfoy. We need to rearrange the Quidditch schedule.'
'Fine,' Hermione said crisply. 'If you run into Ron, tell him I won't speak to him.'
Out in the hallway, Harry pulled out the Marauder's Map from his pocket and examined it. Malfoy was in Classroom Eleven by himself, and he seemed to be pacing. When Harry arrived at last and prodded the door open, he realized Malfoy was practicing. His sleeves were rolled up past his elbows, and when Harry looked more closely, he noticed that Malfoy's Dark Mark had faded so much that it now resembled nothing more than a shadow.
'Expecto Patronum!' Malfoy shouted, drawing Harry's attention back away from the Mark. A shapeless white mist floated out of his wand.
'Not bad,' Harry commented. Malfoy whirled around in alarm. He was so startled he dropped his wand altogether, and if Harry didn't know better, he'd think Malfoy was blushing.
'You really need to stop spying on me, Potter.'
Harry shrugged. 'And you need to try harder. It's a tough spell, you need to really concentrate, and really mean it.'
'I do mean it,' Malfoy said irritably as he retrieved his wand. 'Why would I be doing the spell if I didn't mean it?'
'Yeah, but this is different,' Harry said. 'It's like. Well, it's like the Unforgivable Curses, but the other way around. You can cast one of those, and want it to happen, but it still won't, not unless you mean it, unless all of you wants it to happen. If you hesitate, or doubt, then it won't be as effective.'
'Yeah,' Malfoy said. He'd gone pale while Harry was speaking, and his fingers were white where they clutched his wand. 'I, I know that.'
It had been so easy, at the time, that was what had scared Harry later. That he had done it without thinking. That he hadn't hesitated, hadn't thought twice.
'I did it too,' he said. 'And worse. You know, I always thought the Imperius Curse was the least of them. But I mean, Travers. How long was he stuck in a crack in the wall? I didn't even realize it, I didn't think. Griphook said they found him dead.'
'I had the Imperius Curse on Madam Rosmerta,' Malfoy muttered. 'For weeks at a time, I had to do it. And Crucio, I did that.'
'Oh, you think you're so bad,' Harry said. 'I've done the Cruciatus Curse too, on one of the Carrows.'
He thought of Malfoy the way he had looked through Voldemort's mind, pale and trembling. And Malfoy, clutching at the sink with white fingers, his ugly sobs echoing off the tile. Harry had not known the extent of the damage he could do that day, either. It was like Hermione's parents, he thought; all they had known of magic were the tricks Hermione could do, levitation charms, turning pincushions into hedgehogs. They had not known that she could wipe every memory they had of her, that with magic people could control others' minds, could kill.
He had known from the first, he supposed; some of the first words Hagrid had said to him concerned the truth about his parents' deaths. But it was different when you were the one behind the wand.
'Do you regret it?' Malfoy said.
It was an odd kind of question, Harry thought; he had never thought of it that way.
Finally, he said, 'No. We won the war. There shouldn't have been so much-- people shouldn't have died. But no, I don't regret it.'
Malfoy smirked. 'How Slytherin of you, Potter. The ends justify the means. For the greater good.'
'No!' Harry snapped. 'Where did you hear that? That's not-- I'm not-- '
'My father has it on a plaque in his library,' Malfoy frowned. 'What is it, Potter, you look as if you've just seen the Dark Lord.'
Harry swallowed and something in his throat stuck. 'It's different,' he said with difficulty. 'I don't mean it like, like whatever it takes is necessary. I don't think people are expendable, or that they're-- that their lives don't matter!'
'Not the paragon of light everybody thinks, eh, Potter?'
'I never said I was,' Harry said darkly. He wasn't a Slytherin. He wasn't like Grindelwald, or Voldemort, he didn't think about a grand purpose that justified the war, he only wanted to live and to keep others from being killed or harassed under Voldemort's reign. He had done what he had needed to do. Perhaps it wasn't nice, the reality of it, but he did not think it was wrong.
'Harry Potter's secret dark side,' Malfoy drawled. He made it sound like a front-page headline of the Daily Prophet. 'I ought to owl Rita, she always likes to be the first one with a scandal.'
Of course Malfoy called her Rita, Harry thought, repulsed.
'For the record,' Malfoy said too lightly, 'I don't regret what I did either. I've told you that.'
'But you were living with Voldemort, he was torturing you!' Harry burst out. 'I saw you, Malfoy, when I was in his head, and that time we were at the Manor, I know you were unhappy with it!'
'I had my reasons!' Malfoy snarled. 'What was the alternative? It did save my family, barely but it did! You think I'm like you, Potter? Trying to save people, the people who're important to me?'
Harry blinked. 'You weren't?'
'I was,' Malfoy said. 'But you, you had a line you wouldn't cross. You won't cross. I know you do. I don't have a line.'
Harry stared right back at him. 'You didn't kill Dumbledore. You didn't give us away at your house.'
'Stop trying to redeem me, Potter!' Malfoy hissed. 'If you make me out to be good enough, you can reconcile talking to me, is that it? Tell yourself it's all right? Well, I did what I had to, and I would have done more, and I'm not ashamed of it. My family and I are alive, aren't we? So if I had to do it over, I'd take the outcome I know!'
'No,' Harry said. 'You got lucky. Because of Remus. And because of me and Ron and Hermione. Because I was there on that tower and because you didn't acknowledge us at your house and because we-- because I didn't want you to die. It's not Voldemort who let you live, Malfoy, it was our side after all.'
'And,' Harry added, though it didn't matter, 'if we had to do it over. I'd protect you. And Remus and Tonks and everybody, they would too. If you had come to us, maybe they'd still be alive, maybe Teddy would have parents.'
Malfoy looked at him and did not say anything, his eyes strange, unreadable, gray and alive.
'So think about that,' Harry said, and went out of the room quietly. Malfoy didn't follow.
Harry's days were divided as they always were when Hermione and Ron were having a row; he ate meals with Ron and sat in the library with Hermione, flew with Ron and sat through Defense between the two of them. Ron's birthday had been the hardest, as he naturally felt Harry should spend the day with him, while Hermione insisted that everyone else would be celebrating Ron's birthday, and therefore, Harry should keep her company in the meantime. Each of them wanted his continual companionship, and he was actually relieved to catch a moment alone.
One blustery day in March, he managed to escape Hermione's detailed revision plans and made his way to meet with Professor McGonagall, who was supervising the seventh year Gryffindor career counseling sessions.
'Not Charlie?' Harry asked, when he was seated in the tartan-patterned chair before her desk.
'Would you rather Professor Weasley, Mr. Potter?' McGonagall asked dryly. 'I've given him this year's seventh years for counseling, and taken all of you off his hands. Technically, you're in your eighth year. It's a special case.'
Harry fidgeted. After a moment, she prodded, 'And what would you like to do with your life, Mr. Potter? I believe that the last time we spoke, we discussed your ambitions of being an Auror.'
'Yeah,' Harry said. 'Yeah, um, I'd like that. Gawain Robards, Mr. Robards, he said they'd take me if I came with the right N.E.W.T.s.'
'Five of them, yes,' McGonagall nodded. 'And the aptitude tests, of course, though I daresay you'll pass those with flying colors. Loath as I am to admit it, I haven't much more advice to give you. Work hard in your last few months, and I'm sure you will do well. Oh, and your last few Transfiguration essays have been wanting. That conclusion on the last was appalling. Do try a bit harder next time.'
'You've been reading them?' Harry exclaimed.
If anything, McGonagall was blushing. 'Professor Clearwater stops by for my opinion from time to time, yes,' she said crisply. 'Now mind you keep your marks up, Potter.'
'I'll do my best,' Harry said, standing and shouldering his bag. 'Um, thanks.'
'Yes,' said McGonagall, 'yes, well, it's been a pleasure. No, that isn't accurate, it's been wretched and tiring at times, but I must say I'm pleased to see you standing here before me, still alive and-- well, anyway, Potter, you've done Gryffindor proud.'
At the last, she'd ducked her head and was rummaging in her desk. 'Professor?' Harry said, tentatively and rather tactlessly. 'Are you crying?'
'Of course I am not crying, Potter,' McGonagall snapped. 'I merely have an eyelash in my eye. Now run along, won't you?'
Smiling, Harry did.
On his way back to Gryffindor Tower, he passed Malfoy, heading toward an empty classroom. 'Practicing again?' Harry asked, trailing after him with curiosity. 'What are you working so hard on?'
'Spells,' Malfoy said vaguely. 'What do you want, Potter? What are you doing, popping up everywhere?'
'Oh, obviously I have nothing better to do than follow you around,' Harry replied, rolling his eyes. 'Stop being so paranoid. I was just at my counseling session with McGonagall. Have you done yours?'
'Just now,' shrugged Malfoy. 'With Slughorn. Took near an hour, too, with all his talk of this Ministry official and that Quidditch player, on and on, I thought I was about to go deaf.'
Harry set his bag down on a desk and leaned back against it. 'Well? Did you figure something out?'
Malfoy made a noncommittal hum.
'I want to be an Auror,' Harry offered. 'Come on, you had to have come up with something.'
'It doesn't matter,' Malfoy snapped. 'I won't get it, what's the use in talking about it?'
'You might,' Harry insisted. 'You might get it, just tell me what it is. D'you want to be an Auror too?'
Malfoy eyed him with derision. 'Well, I certainly don't now.'
'Do you want to be a dragon tamer?' The look on Malfoy's face was priceless. 'Um, I don't know, a cursebreaker? Er, the Minister of Magic? A professor?' With each suggestion, Malfoy's expression grew more and more incredulous.
'Stop, Potter,' he said at last. 'Look, it doesn't matter, I've said I don't want to talk about it.'
'I'm not going to tell,' Harry exclaimed. 'And I'm not going to make fun of you.'
Malfoy mumbled something. After Harry's impatient look, he said louder, 'I'd like to be an Unspeakable, all right, now shut up about it.'
'You?' Harry said, with more incredulity than he meant to show. Malfoy's expression immediately went sour.
'Yes, so what? I'm good at fiddling with things.'
'And you can't keep your mouth shut about anything,' Harry pointed out. 'The minute you were doing something interesting you'd be blabbing it all over, bragging about how great you are.'
Malfoy still looked pinched and annoyed. 'I didn't tell anyone about the cabinet.'
'And anyone paying attention knew you were up to something,' Harry snorted. 'Please, you're the worst person at keeping secrets.'
Malfoy ignored this. 'How'd you know where I was, anyway? That time, in the Room of Hidden Things? I've always wondered.'
Harry debated for a moment before reaching in his bag. Malfoy had, after all, told him something of a secret, and he'd responded by deriding Malfoy about his inability. He owed him.
'I have this map,' he explained. 'Here, I'll show you.'
He knelt down on the floor and began unfolding the map, its familiar corners, the worn creases from years of use. As the parchment was spread out, Hogwarts' walls and staircases unfurled before them, footsteps appearing room by room. Malfoy could not keep the eagerness off his face as he stared down at the map.
'This is all of Hogwarts?' Malfoy breathed. 'Every room, every entrance? If I had only had this in sixth year-- it would have been so easy-- '
'All the better that you didn't, then,' Harry snapped, pulling him back to the present. 'Honestly, Malfoy.'
'Right,' Malfoy said, remembering himself. 'Anyway, where did you get this? And there's Pansy, down in the kitchens-- ha, I knew she was sneaking down there, she can't get enough of those little chocolate cakes-- I mean it, Potter, where did you get this?'
'My dad made it,' Harry answered, a proud grin breaking out on his face. 'My dad and Sirius and Remus.' There was a long pause, in which Malfoy's expression shifted rapidly from awed to calculatedly unimpressed, and Harry added, 'Er, Peter Pettigrew, too. He helped.'
Malfoy didn't answer, however; he was staring down at the map, as if he couldn't get enough. Harry was sure that Malfoy was calculating its use as a tool, but he couldn't muster any disgust; he was pleased that someone appreciated its value.
'There's Pritchard in the common room,' Malfoy was muttering. 'And Slughorn, meeting with Daphne.'
Harry looked down at his own side of the map, where a cluster of names were centered in Gryffindor Tower, and several others in nearby classrooms or on the stairs. He spotted Hermione, her little dot unmoving in the library. Just where he'd left her, he thought fondly.
Then he looked at Gryffindor Tower again, and blinked.
There were two people in the Gryffindor boys' dormitory, and one was Dean Thomas, but, as Harry realized with a start, the other was Ginny.
It was another several seconds when Harry realized that Ginny and Dean had been dating for nearly four months, far longer than Harry and Ginny had that first spring, and were in the dormitory alone. The full realization came as a detached sort of shock, sweeping over him slowly. He had not thought of her for weeks now, not since Christmas even, where before swift memories of her nimble fingers or her mischievous smile would come unbidden. But the thought of her, in his dormitory, with Dean . . .
'Potter,' Malfoy said curiously, 'what are you staring at?'
'Nothing,' Harry exclaimed, tugging the map back toward him. He made to fold it over, but Malfoy yanked his half of the map back, trying to peer at whatever Harry had seen. In an attempt to cover up Gryffindor Tower, Harry ended up half-sprawled on top of it, and in the ensuing scuffle, Malfoy ended up half-sprawled on top of him.
'The Weasel girl and the Muggle,' Malfoy drawled, apparently having caught the right glimpse over Harry's shoulder. 'Sordid goings-on in Gryffindor Tower, are there? What, Potter, are you embarrassed? The future Mrs. Potter busy dallying with another-- possibly even in your bed-- '
'They are nowhere near my bed!' Harry said hotly, though as he said it, he could not help but imagine Ginny, splayed on Dean's lap over Harry's pillows, red hair spilling everywhere. He could not tell if the sharp ache in his stomach was anger or jealousy.
Then Malfoy's leg shifted without warning and something gut-wrenching and electric shot straight to Harry's cock, at the exact moment Malfoy exclaimed, 'Potter, are you-- '
'Don't,' Harry groaned, by which he first meant, don't mention it, and then further, 'Malfoy, don't move, I mean it.'
'Really?' Malfoy said, and then he did move, and Harry made a whimpering noise he wasn't aware he could. There was a split-second moment in which Harry couldn't tell if Malfoy were pressed up against him on purpose or on accident, Malfoy's face turned away from him-- a crinkle of paper and then Harry shifted, barely conscious of what he was doing, so that their bodies collided, Malfoy's thigh flush up against Harry's, and Malfoy was hard, he was sucking in a sharp hiss of a breath--
'Get-- off,' Malfoy huffed, rolling off Harry in a hurry.
It was all Harry could do to sit up, his cock throbbing; he felt feverish, flushed and shivering both; the palms of his hands on the map were sticky with sweat, and he looked down in a daze at the little dots, the letters spelling out GINNY WEASLEY, which did not seem quite as important any longer--
'Don't touch me or I'll stop,' was Malfoy's only warning, and then he'd shoved Harry backwards again, and yanked up his robes.
Harry gasped and the noise sounded harsh and terrible in the quiet room, but Malfoy was already fumbling open the button on Harry's trousers and drawing down the zipper. His fingers pulled out Harry's cock, now fully hard and purpling with arousal, and when Malfoy's hand gripped around it and slid upwards, they both watched as a drop of pre-come dribbled out the slit.
'Can't,' Malfoy started, plainly trying to disguise the hitch in his breathing and failing miserably, 'can't have you going back to-- Gryffindor like this, can we, Potter-- '
Malfoy rubbed his thumb across the tip, Harry gasping the whole time. He stared disbelieving at the part in Malfoy's hair as he bent over Harry's crotch, the fingers of Malfoy's other hand clenched around Harry's thigh.
And Malfoy, Malfoy, wrapped his hot fist around Harry's dick and his gaze flew up to lock with Harry's. His mouth was wet and swollen where he had kept licking his lips and he whispered, 'Want to come?'
'Yes,' Harry groaned, 'God, Malfoy-- ' His toes were curling in his trainers, chest heaving for breath.
Harry's throat made a noise he hadn't known himself capable of, shooting right into Malfoy's tight fist and spilling over his knuckles, and for an instant the world went dizzyingly black and it was a miracle, Harry thought, that he didn't collapse bonelessly on the floor right then and there. He felt as dazed as if he'd just taken a Bludger to the head.
When Harry finally opened his eyes, he saw Malfoy wiping his hand on the ground, the expression on his face unreadable. A slow flush was rising in Harry's face, his clothes were in sweaty disarray, and for all the times he had been caught unprepared in Potions or covered in Stinksap, Harry didn't think he had ever been more embarrassed. The loud zip when he did up his trousers sounded somehow obscene.
'Er,' he said, completely red, 'do you want me to-- '
Malfoy looked over at him and his mouth twitched at the corner, though Harry couldn't tell if it was in amusement, annoyance or disgust. 'No, I don't want you to, Potter,' he said, then added sharply, 'Don't read anything into this.'
'I wasn't-- I wouldn't,' Harry said quickly, 'I mean, me either-- '
'Good,' Malfoy said. He stood up, brushed off his trousers, and then he swept out of the room in a hurry.
After a dazed moment, Harry glanced at the Marauder's Map still lying recklessly open on the ground. From the look of it, Malfoy was in a toilet only two corridors away, and his little dot was not moving much at all. Something squirmed in Harry's chest at the thought of Malfoy, trousers around his knees, desperately fisting his cock in a stall so close by. Though if that were the case, he couldn't see why Malfoy had not let Harry return the favor.
Maybe he just had to go to the bathroom, a small voice reminded Harry. And anyway, why do you care if he's wanking?
Harry didn't know.
For the first time in weeks, Harry's mind was not on Hermione's and Ron's argument when he entered the common room that night, so for a moment he barely registered the way they were curled up on the couch together.
'Hi, Harry,' Hermione said, mistaking his bewildered look for exasperation. She had the grace to look embarrassed. 'Um, we've made up. We're sorry for the past few weeks, it can't have been easy.'
'Yeah,' Ron said, 'sorry, mate.'
'Right,' Harry muttered. It was plain that, no matter how pleased they were to see him, they wanted to spend the evening together. 'I'll leave you to it,' he said, and went over to sit by the window. For a brief second, he wished they were still at odds, if only so one of them could distract him from thinking about Malfoy-- Malfoy's hands and the deft way they'd drawn his cock out-- Malfoy's sharp intake of breath--
In the next three days, Harry found it surprisingly easy to avoid Malfoy, quite possibly because Malfoy was avoiding him. It was easy to rush out of Potions beside Hermione, or sit at the opposite side of the room in Charms, or go down to breakfast early, so that not only did Harry not have to bump into Malfoy over meals, he did not even have to see him. Harry did not even have to try that hard.
It was avoiding thoughts of Malfoy that was the infinitely more difficult task.
He still thought about Malfoy, when rushing out of Potions or dozing off in Charms, and even over breakfast, which was the ultimate problem. He'd given up and wanked over it, but this only made it worse, as he thought about what had happened about twice as much as before. He was about at the point of finding Malfoy and demanding answers when Ginny came in the common room, gave him a nervous smile, and sat down beside him.
'Hey,' she said. 'Want to go for a walk?'
'Sure,' Harry said, grateful for the distraction. He felt a pang of guilt for how surprised and pleased Ginny looked.
It was cold but there was little breeze, and they huddled beneath a tree by the lake. The water was a murky gray, the surface shivering, and Ginny put her head against his shoulder. 'I like winter,' she said, smiling up at him. She was wearing mittens undoubtedly knitted by Mrs. Weasley, and her cheeks were pink with cold.
Before Harry knew what he was doing, he said in an unexpected rush, 'Something happened with Malfoy. And me, I mean. We, um.'
Ginny peered up at him, and then she frowned and peered closer, and said, 'What?'
'Uh,' Harry said. He made a vague sweeping gesture. 'You know.'
'No, I don't know,' Ginny was in the middle of saying, when she glanced again at his face and her eyes widened, and she said, 'Oh. Oh.'
Harry avoided her gaze. 'It just-- happened, and then-- '
'You liked it,' she said astutely. There was a long pause. 'Oh my God, I can't believe I'm talking about this with you, Harry. This is. I don't know, it's weird, all right, it's-- when? Where?'
Reddening, Harry muttered, 'It doesn't matter where. A couple days ago.'
'A couple days ago,' Ginny repeated. She gave him a look somewhere between hurt and shock and amusement, and after several seconds, burst out laughing. 'Seriously,' she said. 'Malfoy? Really?'
Harry shrugged. They stood in silence for a minute, neither looking at the other. Ginny fiddled with the edge of her left mitten, where a string was trailing.
'So, boys,' she commented at last. 'That's a new thing, is it?'
'Of course it is,' Harry said, affronted. 'Don't you think I'd have told you-- that you would have heard-- '
'I don't know,' Ginny said pointedly. 'You don't tell me all that much.'
'Well, I've told you this, and I haven't told Ron and Hermione,' Harry muttered.
Ginny raised an eyebrow; she still looked a mix between hurt and amused. 'So they get all the, the war stuff, and all of that, and I get your sexual crises-- '
'It's not-- don't call it that,' Harry said crossly.
He had thought more than he liked to admit about what had happened in that classroom, and the way Malfoy had stood in a hurry and strode out the door. For several enjoyable minutes, Harry had wondered if perhaps Malfoy was deformed, or humiliatingly small, and that was why he had been insistent that Harry could not return the favor. Afer all, Harry knew blokes who wanked together; Seamus's sessions were practically a nightly ritual, and once Harry had come across the Weasley twins masturbating in their bedroom, lying on their separate beds. George-- or had it been Fred?-- had actually winked and invited Harry to join them, then laughed when Harry stumbled from the room in a hurry.
Now, Ginny said, 'So do you think you, you're like that, then?'
'No,' Harry said quickly. 'I mean. Do you? Think so?'
'Well, it would have explained a thing or two,' said Ginny. 'I don't know, Harry, you always seemed to be, er, interested.'
'Yeah, okay, enough,' Harry muttered. 'Sorry, I know this isn't exactly the conversation you expected, going for a walk-- '
'No, it isn't really,' Ginny admitted. Then she gave a little snort and said again, 'Really, Malfoy? I never would have pegged him as the sort, though now that I think about it, I'm not so surprised. So, er. What are you going to do about it?'
'Nothing,' Harry said firmly. 'I'm not doing anything about it.'
This resolution lasted approximately fourteen hours, at which point he ran into Malfoy near the Charms corridor.
'Malfoy,' he called out without thinking.
'What do you want, Potter?'
Harry stared at him. He had to remember what had happened, didn't he? Wouldn't he? He was fidgeting, and did not meet Harry's eyes.
'Potter,' Malfoy said again, mockingly slow. 'What-- do-- you-- want?'
At a loss for words, Harry did the next best thing: he seized Malfoy by the robes and clumsily shoved a leg in between his. Malfoy scrabbled against him but let out a sharp gasp of breath.
Beside them, a portrait let out a loud cough. 'Good sirs,' the man said tremulously. 'Excuse me! G-good sirs!'
'I'll suck it for you,' Harry said in his ear and Malfoy outright groaned, at which point Harry remembered his hypothesis on Malfoy's deformed dick and fervently regretted the offer he had just made, as well as his overall penchant for reckless behavior. At least, Harry thought, from the way Malfoy was grinding up against his thigh, he certainly had something down there, and it didn't feel abnormally small, either. He was pleased until a second later he recalled that he might want the exact opposite, if Malfoy were going to stick it in Harry's mouth.
'Given this a lot of-- thought, have you-- Potter?' Malfoy managed.
Harry shoved his hips back at Malfoy's. The stone scraped against his knuckles but he didn't much care. 'So what if I have?' he breathed. 'I bet you have.'
Malfoy's eyes darted quickly away. Harry took this as a yes.
'Oh, honestly!' the man in the portrait harrumphed, sounding eerily like Hermione on one of her rages. When Harry and Malfoy did not even look up, he stalked out of his frame and fled from picture to picture until he'd left the hall altogether.
'Not here,' Malfoy hissed, pushing Harry off him with some effort. 'Stop humping me, Potter, for god's sakes. Come on.'
Harry stared as Malfoy walked down the corridor and gestured towards the loo there, then inside. When Harry hurried after him, his footsteps rang loud in the hallway, a sharp and shameful sound. He thought about leaving for one terrible second, and then he pushed the door open.
It was empty aside from the two of them and the instant he entered, Malfoy seized him by the sleeve and pulled him into a stall, locking the door behind them. Harry stood there, breathing hard, unpleasantly aware that he was still quite turned on.
'So,' Malfoy commented. It was a small stall; he was already too close.
'So,' Harry repeated. 'So what?'
'So, I suppose you owe me,' said Malfoy, leaning back against the locked stall door with an affected nonchalance. He was even smirking a little. 'Well, Potter?'
Harry stared at him.
'I said all right, didn't I?' Malfoy added irritably, and to emphasize his point, he undid the fastenings on his robes, fumbled open his belt buckle, yanked open the row of buttons on his trousers, and pulled his reddening prick out from his underpants, squeezing it as he did so. It was not deformed at all, rather similar to Harry's, a bit more slender. He made a strange picture, lounging against the door with his cock clenched in one hand, and Harry had half a mind to leave him there without touching him at all.
'Well?' said Malfoy.
'Shut up,' said Harry, pushing Malfoy's hand away and clambering to his knees on the tile floor. One of his trainers was bumping up against the base of the toilet and he could feel his laces dragging in a puddle of water, wet and cold against his ankle.
At the last moment, Malfoy squeaked out, 'Do you know what you're doing?'
'No,' Harry said, reckless as ever, and then he leaned forward and put his lips around the head of Malfoy's cock, tongue flicking out experimentally. He caught a slimy dribble of precome on his tongue and drew back in surprise at the unfamiliar taste.
Malfoy must have caught his expression because he snapped, 'Something the matter, Potter?'
Harry did not reply, aside from giving Malfoy's cock a squeeze, and leaning forward again with his mouth. The taste made him grimace and he didn't get it very far in, but it didn't seem to matter, from the way Malfoy was breathing. It was all Harry could do to keep hold as the other boy's hips jerked forward.
Malfoy's breathy moans came faster and then he groaned, 'I'm going to-- ' and Harry backed off at once, rubbing at his mouth with the back of his hand as Malfoy's cock twitched and he came all over his belly, some of it spurting on his shirttails. He stood there for a minute, eyes shut, knees trembling, as Harry got to his feet.
He was trembling, too, so turned on he was almost dizzy.
'I'm not touching you,' Malfoy snapped.
'Fine,' Harry shot back. 'I didn't ask you to. Leave, if you want.'
But Malfoy didn't leave; he just stood there, arms folded, and waited. After a moment, Harry looked away from him and slid a cupped hand over his hard-on, which was obviously straining against the fabric. He rubbed faster through the material but couldn't suppress a little groan of frustration.
'You can take it out,' said Malfoy, sounding amused.
Harry scowled but there was no denying that he wanted it. When he yanked down his trousers, there was a damp, slimy spot on his pants. After a moment, he sat down and Malfoy sat down too, watching him curiously.
Harry leaned his head back, rubbing his thumb over the slit in a smear of precome and then worked his fist around his cock, lapsing into a rhythm. His jaw felt sore, his mouth still strange and sticky though he'd backed off before Malfoy had come. He had his gaze trained on his knees, but out of the corner of his eye he could still see Malfoy's expensive shoes and the cuff of his trousers. When he could not help the huff of breath he let out as he jerked his fist faster, Malfoy chuckled.
Harry looked up in irritation through his messy fringe. Malfoy was staring right at him.
'Enjoying the show?' he gritted, and to his delight, Malfoy turned pink, though he didn't look away.
'Fine,' Malfoy said all at once, shoving Harry's hand away and ignoring Harry's small sound of protest. 'Move, Potter.'
'I don't-- ' Harry said blankly, and then Malfoy was on his hands and knees between Harry's legs and it hurt for a second, when Malfoy leaned hard on Harry's legs, and then his mouth was descending on Harry's cock, which twitched so badly Harry was not sure how he kept from coming right then and there.
Malfoy's mouth was slippery and hot and to Harry's embarrassment, he could hear himself groaning.
'I'm,' he choked out, and though Malfoy pulled off with an obscene sucking noise, his fist still stroked Harry off through it, languid and slow. Finally, Malfoy rubbed his hand on the leg of Harry's trousers, smearing a wet sticky swipe across the fabric, and stood up. The sound of his shoes on the tile echoed in the empty room.
Malfoy looked down at him for a long moment: Harry was still panting, he felt sweaty and disoriented.
'Now we're even,' said Malfoy, his expression shuttered, and then he turned and pushed his way out of the stall.
For the first time, Harry did not mind feeling left out just after Ron and Hermione made up. It was actually a positive situation, as far as Harry could tell, as the two of them were wrapped up in one another, so much so that neither noticed just how many suspicious looks Ginny was sending him from across the common room, or how distracted Harry was.
'Tough luck, mate,' was all Ron said, in fact, when Harry was paired with Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson for a Potions project the next day. Ron himself was working with Hermione and Padma Patil, and could not keep the pleased grin off his face.
As for Hermione, she had overheard the small groan of frustration that Harry'd let out at the news, and she patted him on the knee.
'I thought the two of you were getting along better lately?' she asked. 'Of course, that Parkinson, she's a cow, but at least Malfoy's good at Potions-- '
He's good at more than that, Harry thought, and hoped he wasn't flushing. 'Yeah, it'll be fine,' he muttered. 'Here, go on without me after class, I ought to talk to him about it.'
'Please tell me the topic of your project by the next class period,' Slughorn boomed, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. 'Now I'll leave you to it. Don't be afraid to be ambitious, boys and girls! The best Potions students are those who surprise me!'
With that, he winked in Harry's direction and dismissed the class.
Malfoy took an exasperatingly long time cleaning his Potions things, so that by the time he gathered his bag and strode out of the classroom, even Slughorn had gone. When Malfoy did not look surprised to see Harry dawdling outside the classroom door, Harry realized it might have been calculated.
'We have to talk about our project,' Harry started in, determined to stay on topic. 'Slughorn said we can do anything in Chapter Fifteen.'
'Antidotes,' Malfoy replied without a pause. He wasn't looking at Harry at all. 'Pansy and I already decided.'
Normally, Harry would argue, merely for the sake of disagreeing with Malfoy, but he didn't bother today. He began, 'Do you-- '
'Yeah,' breathed Malfoy, so eagerly that Harry blinked in confusion. He had been about to ask, 'Do you want to go to see Slughorn, then?' and was thrown off course.
'Look, I don't have time for this,' Harry said tiredly.
Malfoy, to his fury, only blinked. 'What do you mean?'
'I mean, I don't want to play games!'
'Who's playing games, Potter?' Malfoy's eyes flickered across Harry's face and he let out a horrified little laugh. 'Good lord. This isn't what you think, all right? It's-- it's a mutually beneficial arrangement. That's all. Since obviously the smallest Weasley is too preoccupied to spread her legs for you at the moment, and I-- '
'And you what?' said Harry curiously, choosing to ignore Malfoy's crude comment about Ginny.
Malfoy flushed. 'Have you seen the state of Slytherin these days?'
As usual with Malfoy, it was crystal clear when he was hiding something, but Harry let it go for the time being. 'Fine, fair enough,' he said. 'So that's it, then? You'll get me off if I'll get you off, that sort of thing?'
'Shut up!' Malfoy hissed at once, jerking his head around in panic. 'Lord, Potter, were you planning on telling the whole school? Do you want Peeves to hear?'
'Why, do you?' Harry grinned. 'Will you calm down? There's no one around.'
'Portraits talk!' Malfoy retorted, his tone close to a whine. 'This creepy castle has ears, I swear it! The ghosts-- and the queer old gargoyles-- '
Harry took the opportunity of Malfoy squawking to move in on his territory; he leaned in close to Malfoy's ear and muttered, 'Maybe if you could keep it down when I've got your prick in my mouth, there wouldn't be anything to hear.'
Right on cue, Malfoy flushed all over. 'You're one to talk,' he scoffed. 'You and your-- infuriating little noises-- '
'Yeah, what would you prefer,' said Harry, and not quite knowing what came over him, mock-groaned hotly in the other boy's ear, 'Oh, Malfoy, yeah, like that . . .'
'You're sick,' Malfoy huffed, scrabbling at Harry's shoulder to push him away, though Harry had heard the hissing intake of breath Malfoy had drawn just before. Never one to be pushed around by Malfoy, Harry pushed right back and Malfoy made a disgusted noise. 'Ugh, and you're hard, too.'
'So are you,' Harry retorted, before the heel of his hand even found its way to the bulge in Malfoy's trousers.
Malfoy actually smiled, one of those strange and complicated little smirks; Harry had never seen him this close up. 'Yeah,' he said, 'so how about that mutually beneficial arrangement, Potter?'
At the moment, it suited Harry just fine.
Spring came cautiously to Hogwarts; the world filled with the acrid mineral smell of the season, thawing mud and the peeled, raw blue sky. The snow sank away to reveal the bare-armed trees, and rainstorms rolled across the lake near-nightly. Malfoy's fingers were perpetually cold when they sneaked beneath the hem of Harry's untucked shirt. Harry yelped every time.
'Keep it down, Potter,' Malfoy would hiss, right on cue, and sometimes he even went so far as smothering Harry's mouth with his hand. His fingers usually smelled of Potions ingredients and once Harry licked at his palm until Malfoy tore his hand away and snarled, 'Get your tongue away from me,' though his heavy breathing belied everything he said.
Malfoy was funny about being touched. Sometimes he would flare up if Harry so much as bumped against him and other times, carefully avoiding Harry's eyes, he'd slip a hand down between them before they'd barely got started.
They met in abandoned classrooms and bathrooms, and occasionally the Room of Requirement, so often that Harry was forced to make up several one-on-one Quidditch practice sessions with Archie Gallhorn, the fifth year Ravenclaw who played Chaser for Harry's team, to throw off Ron and Hermione.
He didn't know what Malfoy told his friends. He never asked.
On an unseasonably warm night that month, they were ensconced in a broom cupboard near the Entrance Hall, Harry's gaze fixed on the cobwebs at eye-level while Malfoy rustled around on his knees, complaining loudly about the dust. Malfoy could whisper things in Harry's ear when they bumped into each other in the halls without anyone the wiser, but the instant he began to complain, it was like a habit: his voice carried as if he'd done a Sonorous charm.
'Shh, you're the one who always wants to be so quiet,' Harry muttered, nudging Malfoy in the shoulder with his knee to get on with it. His trousers were hanging open and threatening to slip off his hips, and he'd be lying if he said the presence of Malfoy's mouth mere centimeters from his dick wasn't turning him on.
'Ugh,' said Malfoy, scowling at the floor, and he nearly bumped Harry's cock with his nose.
'Malfoy,' Harry groaned. 'Come on. I didn't meet you here to listen to you whine.'
The cupboard was dirty; the floor was dusty, the corners cobwebbed. It smelled of rotting wood and cleaning potion, and a faint hint of Malfoy's cologne, but the instant Malfoy wrapped his hand around Harry's prick and leaned forward with his mouth, Harry forgot any complaint he had. 'God,' he choked out, tangling his fingers in Malfoy's hair despite the sound of angry protest Malfoy made. The noise sent his throat vibrating and Harry groaned in appreciation. 'Fuck, Malfoy. Do that again.'
The other boy made a considering noise, and then he began humming and Harry nearly spasmed and came right then, though the moment was slightly ruined when he recognized the melody as 'Weasley Is Our King' and shoved at Malfoy's shoulder in annoyance.
'Can't you pick another song?'
Malfoy pulled off with a slurping noise that made a coil of embarrassment tighten in Harry's stomach. 'I like this one,' he insisted, mouth wet and swollen. 'What would you prefer, the Hogwarts song?'
'To a song insulting my best friend, yeah,' Harry started, but then Malfoy leaned in again and he stopped complaining. The only light was the Lumos issuing from Malfoy's wand, resting on a sealed box, and Harry shut his eyes against the spell-light and thrust shallowly into Malfoy's mouth until Malfoy choked and Harry came hard all over his hand.
'A little warning next time,' Malfoy snapped, getting to his feet with spots of color in his cheeks and an indignant look on his face. Then he smirked. 'Also, you have cobwebs in your hair.'
'So do you,' Harry retorted, though Malfoy didn't. He re-fastened his trousers and pushed open the door, letting in a sliver of candlelight from the hall outside. 'Go on, it's cramped enough in here as it is.'
'Must feel familiar,' Malfoy snitted, and Harry shoved him, though without much rancor.
The Lumos from Malfoy's wand spilled out into the Entrance Hall, and the light bounced off the hourglasses of points standing there. Slytherin was last, as it had the fewest students to receive points-- and, Harry thought privately, because Malfoy incurred the wrath of one professor or another more often than not, despite his best sycophantic efforts-- and Gryffindor next. Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, to Harry's dismay, were neck and neck.
'Disgusting,' Malfoy commented beside him. 'A Hufflepuff House Cup? Ravenclaw I can stand, but Hufflepuff? The thought of the Great Hall bedecked in black and yellow is enough to make me vomit.'
'Hufflepuff's okay,' Harry argued. 'Owen's all right, isn't he?'
'No,' Malfoy said shortly, with no explanation. He stuck his hands in his pockets, the Lumos extinguished, and began walking off toward the stairs that led down to the Slytherin dungeons.
'See you at breakfast,' Harry called despite himself, and then immediately felt like an overeager girl and scowled.
No one was awake in Gryffindor when he arrived back in the Tower; even the Fat Lady was snoring, and he had to shout at her several times before she woke with a start. Inside, the room was dim and silent, though after scanning it once, Harry realized there was a familiar figure slumped on a table by the window.
'Hermione?' he said softly. 'Are you awake?'
There were bluebell flames in a little bowl beside her. She was curled up around her notes as if someone might come and filch them away at any moment. Harry smiled and touched her shoulder. 'Hermione?'
She sat up with a start, pushing her hair out of her face. 'Oh, Harry, I must have fallen asleep. I was just reviewing some of my notes for Potions in case Slughorn gives us a surprise exam tomorrow . . .'
'Which he never has done, so I can see why you would think he would,' Harry said, amused. 'It's nearly one in the morning, Hermione, you should go to bed.'
Hermione yawned in sleepy agreement as he helped her gather up her books. But at the stairs, she turned and fixed him with a suspicious look: as far as he knew, only Professor McGonagall and Hermione could manage to look so severe while still half-asleep.
'What are you doing up at this hour?'
'I fancied a walk,' said Harry; it was, after all, not a complete lie. 'See you in the morning, Hermione.'
She still looked suspicious. 'Night.'
'Want me to suck it?'
It was the next evening, and they were in the Room of Requirement, a rare but welcome change from the cramped cupboards and bathroom stalls all over Hogwarts. Malfoy inhaled, his eyes trained on a spot somewhere to the left of Harry's head, and he finally said crabbily, 'Yes.'
Harry grinned. The rest of the time Malfoy acted as if he could care less what Harry did with his mouth, that it was in fact an inconvenience he bore only for Harry's sake, but there was always this moment: when he looked away, face flushed, and admitted that yes, he did want Harry to.
'Are you sure?' Harry queried. 'You don't sound sure.'
'I said yes, Potter!'
Harry almost laughed; he pinked up so perfectly every time.
He never bothered asking if Harry wanted it, instead smirking as if it were all too obvious that Harry did, though occasionally he would pull off in the middle with an obscene sucking noise and demand, 'Good?' and Harry would nod shakily. If this weren't enough, Malfoy would wait, and wait, until Harry exclaimed, 'Yes, yes, it's fucking good, Malfoy, okay?'
Afterwards, Harry flopped onto his back, breathing still ragged, to button up his shirt.
'Do you want me to be the girl Weasel?' Malfoy said. He said it so casually that Harry stopped straightening his clothes and stared.
'You know, the little one,' Malfoy shrugged. 'Red hair, freckles, the one you snogged all over school in sixth year. Ring a bell?'
'I know who you're talking about,' Harry said impatiently. 'But, what d'you-- '
This apparently gave Malfoy the wrong impression, because he exclaimed, 'No Polyjuice Potion, absolutely not! I'm not-- growing-- breasts-- '
'I don't want you to Polyjuice into Ginny!' Harry said violently. 'What the hell? Why would you think that?'
'It might stop your pining,' Malfoy drawled. 'The look you get when Thomas comes around with her on his arm, it's obvious.'
'It is not,' Harry exclaimed. 'I'm not, what did you say, pining, I don't even miss her!' This was not exactly true, as there were many days when he did, but there were just as many days when he didn’t think of it at all.
'Ginny and I are through,' Harry clarified. 'I don't want to be with her, and I definitely don't want to be with you-as-her.'
'Oh,' Malfoy said. He looked odd, perhaps even pleased, if Harry didn't know better. 'Well, fine then.'
'Yeah,' Harry said. 'Fine. So, um, I'll see you later?'
'See you,' said Malfoy.
When Harry slumped in through the portrait hole ten minutes later, he had a bruise on his left knee from where he'd hit it, maneuvering around with Malfoy. He was still thinking about the ragged noise Malfoy had made just before coming-- all splayed out on the dingy mattress the Room of Requirement had provided, more naked than Harry had ever seen him. They usually fumbled still half-dressed while standing or sitting in private corners, never lying down. Perhaps that was why Harry'd expected pillows and bed hangings but it wasn't like that, it was sordid and kept to vacant toilets, hallway corners, and maybe the Room knew that. Malfoy had been lying there, tie loose, trousers down around his knees, all mussed up there on a bare, ragged old mattress, and the very juxtaposition made Harry want to keep him there, squirming and panting, 'Potter, don't stop, don't stop-- '
Harry groaned under his breath; the thought was enough to guarantee another wank before bed. Then he saw the shape of someone by the fire-- he'd thought the common room was empty-- and nearly tripped over a chair leg.
'Who's there?' He was glad, in retrospect, that he hadn't leaned back against the wall and had it off right there.
'Hey,' said Ginny. Now that he took a step closer, he could see the glint of the fire on her red hair. She had Crookshanks on her lap and when he reached the couch beside her, she gave him a quizzical look. 'You're out late. With Malfoy?'
'Shh!' Harry hissed. 'No! I was just, you know. Taking a walk.'
'Okay,' Ginny said. 'Assuming that I believed that, which I don't, because you've been trying to lie to me for years and you're rubbish at it, did you have a good time?'
'Walking?' Harry said pointedly. 'Yeah. It was a nice walk.'
Ginny took a deep breath, as if she were preparing to say something, and then she blurted out, 'Harry, I've been waiting a long time to say this. I think Malfoy's rotten, okay, I think he's horrible, but I don't think he deserves this.'
'What?' Harry said, startled. 'I don't-- '
'I know you're upset about me and Dean,' Ginny said. 'And maybe you like boys too, which is fine, and it's good that you realized that. But,' she wavered, then pressed on. 'Even Malfoy doesn't deserve to be used for, for sex.'
Harry's mouth dropped open. 'He started it!' he exclaimed. 'I never-- I'm not using him!' He struggled to recall Malfoy's words. 'It's a mutually beneficial arrangement.'
'Well, I think it's kind of mean, Harry, to be honest,' Ginny said frankly. 'I think it's, it's rude, is what it is. I would never want anybody to do that with me and I think it's terrible that you would do that to anybody. I don't think that's the sort of person I want to be with, anyway.'
'Yeah, I think you've made it clear you don't want to be with me,' Harry snapped.
'Oh, and you'd take me back?' Ginny demanded. 'That's even worse, Harry, that he's just-- what, a substitute-- '
Harry thought about Malfoy asking, 'Do you want me to be her?' and flushed. Ginny must have noticed, because her eyes narrowed.
'It's mutual, okay, he doesn't care either,' Harry said. 'He doesn't even like me as a person, right? I mean, it's Malfoy-- '
'And that makes it okay?' Ginny demanded. 'I think, I think it's terrible. I thought I knew what kind of person you were, Harry, but maybe I didn't after all.'
'Oh, it's not like he cares!'
'Yeah? How do you know?'
Harry stared at her incredulously. 'Because he's Malfoy?'
'Well, I don't think that justifies treating him as an, an object,' Ginny said, her voice shrill. 'For your gratification. It's sick and it's not. It's not nice.'
Of all things, Pansy Parkinson's words flooded back to Harry, and he thought, startled, that he wasn't all that nice. He was good, and brave, but perhaps Pansy was right, he had never been nice.
'You should get a real girlfriend,' Ginny said. 'Or a boyfriend, I don't care. But someone who cares about you, Harry, someone you actually like, someone you're going to spend time with instead of sneaking around late at night and lying about going on walks-- '
'I had a real girlfriend,' Harry retorted, 'and now she's dating somebody else.'
'Oh, you can stop playing the pity card any time you want,' Ginny snapped. 'We both know you didn't really want to be with me, Harry, I gave you plenty of chances and you didn't take any of them. I'm sorry we didn't work out and I still like you, I can't help but like you-- '
'I,' Harry began.
'But,' Ginny barreled on, 'I think it's clear now that it was never going to work, so I'm trying to move on, and I refuse to feel bad about it. What did you want me to do, mope around the common room and wait for you to notice me again? You weren't going to, Harry, you know deep down that you weren't! So stop acting like I betrayed you because I didn't do a thing wrong, and I'm sick of feeling guilty for something I didn't do!'
Harry tried to remember that what he once loved about Ginny was that she would not let him have his way but would stand up to him if she felt the need, but right now he only felt a prickle of annoyance start behind his eyes, a throb he was sure would turn into a headache any minute now.
'I'm trying to move on,' said Ginny, 'and I think you should too. For real, Harry, not whatever sick arrangement you've got going with Malfoy. I happen to think that Cho Chang is a girly little crybaby but if you want to date her-- '
'I don't want to date Cho!'
'Then find someone you do want to date,' Ginny fired back. 'What about Parvati? Or Padma, I like Padma.'
'I am not dating Parvati or Padma Patil,' Harry said firmly.
'Well, I don't exactly want to play matchmaker for you, Harry, do you think this is easy for me? But there's got to be someone,' Ginny exclaimed. 'I feel like I drove you into some kind of terrible situation, all right, using Malfoy for sex, I mean, someone you don't even care about!'
'You didn't drive me to this!'
'One minute you want me to feel guilty and the next you claim I've got nothing to do with it,' Ginny said, rolling her eyes. 'Fine, I'm only saying. I think it's wrong, all right, I think that even Malfoy deserves somebody who likes him and wants to be in a real relationship, not a convenient arrangement, and I thought you were.' She swallowed. 'I thought you were better than that.'
'Maybe I'm not who you thought I was,' Harry said bitterly.
Ginny stared at him for a prolonged moment, and then she turned away; even her eyes darkened. 'Maybe you aren't,' she agreed. 'We'll see.'
And with that, she ascended the stairs to the girls' dormitories, leaving Harry alone with a sleeping Crookshanks and the dying fire.
He went to Slytherin the next day. Astoria Greengrass pulled open the door with her wand drawn; she prodded him in the chest with it, demanding, 'What's your business here?'
'It's only Potter,' Elladora's small voice called from inside. 'Let him in, he wants to see Draco.'
'Only Potter,' someone echoed with a derisive snort, and Harry smiled despite himself; Pansy was the only one who laughed like that. 'What have we become? Why, in my day, Harry Potter was the last person who could cross through that door.'
'You're just jealous because I have visitors and you don't,' came Malfoy's voice, and then he stepped into view. 'Potter, what do you want?'
Harry looked at him; from this distance, Malfoy looked meticulous, so carefully composed. The secret was that up close, Malfoy was not like that at all. He had small spots around his jaw that he missed while shaving, a thumbnail he worried at, and sometimes his tie was knotted wrong, as if he had got too impatient and left it as it was. This was how Harry liked him best, and he wasn't sure if he'd ever get Malfoy like that again, up close in a corner or behind a stall door.
'Potter,' Malfoy snapped again. 'Did you come down here just to look at me or have you something to say?'
'Um,' Harry said. For some reason, his stomach was in knots. 'I have something to say.'
Malfoy's voice lowered significantly. 'Not the king of euphemisms, are you? Do you need to tell me in private?'
At the word private, Malfoy's mouth quirked a little; he had such soft-looking lips, it was ridiculous, they were like a girl's. For an instant, Harry wanted nothing more than to slam him against the doorframe of the Slytherin common room and lick them until Malfoy shuddered and moaned.
'Not in private,' Harry said. 'No, I can't-- tell you things in private any more.'
'Oh?' said Malfoy. His eyes were a curious color, the kind of nauseous gray the sky turns just before a tornado. 'Are we getting confused, Potter, or are you honestly telling me, me, that you're through with this arrangement?'
Harry heard the danger in Malfoy's voice and steeled himself. 'You know how it is,' he muttered. 'There's somebody who. Who.' He had to stop there.
Malfoy, however, was glowing with a strange mix of effusive, furious smugness that only he could manage. 'What, Potter,' he smirked. 'Got yourself a girlfriend, have you?'
'Something like,' Harry said. What he had was an ex-girlfriend who might never be his girlfriend again, but who seemed hell-bent on looking out for Malfoy's welfare, of all things. Of course, there was no reason Malfoy needed to know this.
Malfoy inspected his nails. 'Good,' he drawled. 'I was getting tired of being pushed around by some scrawny, underdeveloped Gryffindor-- '
'You didn't exactly mind,' Harry snapped.
'Oh, don't flatter yourself,' Malfoy scoffed. 'You were there, that's about all you had going for you. And for the record, you were rubbish at it, Pansy's better by far.'
'Fine,' Harry said, conveniently forgetting that he was the one calling it off in the first place. 'Go have Pansy get you off, then, if that's what you think!'
'I will,' said Malfoy furiously, and he slammed the stone door in Harry's face.
They did not speak for three days, until Malfoy sat down next to him in Potions without warning and demanded, 'What're you getting Teddy for his birthday?'
Harry blinked. 'What?'
'Your godson? The Metamorphmagus? What are you getting him for his birthday?'
'Why?' Harry narrowed his eyes. 'What are you getting him?'
'I asked you first,' Malfoy retorted.
Harry rolled his eyes; it was obvious that Malfoy considered this yet another competition between them. 'I haven't decided yet,' he lied.
'Well, my present will be better.'
'It's not a contest,' Harry said exasperatedly. 'Where have you been, anyway?'
'What do you mean, where've I been? I'm in your classes, Potter, I eat meals at the same time you do every day. I haven't gone anywhere.'
'Yeah, I know.' Harry studied the cover of his Potions text. Now that he thought about it, he and Malfoy had been meeting in bathrooms and empty corridors so often that it had come to feel like a habit, but prior to their fumblings, they hadn't exactly hung around in each other's common rooms every night. He admitted, 'I got used to seeing you a lot.'
'Well, surely you're keeping busy with your little girlfriend,' Malfoy drawled.
Harry blinked. 'Are you jealous?'
Malfoy's eyes widened. 'Are you mad? No, Potter, I'm not jealous of whichever poor girl has got your cock crammed down her throat.'
Harry felt heat rush into his face and, infuriatingly, his cock twitched with interest at the recent memory of Malfoy, on his knees, just like that. Perhaps it was a sign that he had been spending too much time getting off with Malfoy. He could barely remember his old fantasies about Ginny; they were all consumed by the reality of Malfoy's skinny fingers and his reluctantly eager tongue. Ginny was right, he realized, he ought to get a real girlfriend. Especially as Malfoy already thought he had one.
'Yeah,' Malfoy was busy sneering, 'she probably creams her knickers at the very idea that the great Harry Potter's got his-- '
'Ahem,' Hermione said behind them, startling Malfoy so much that he toppled onto the floor with a squeak.
'Hermione!' Harry yelped, sure his face was now bright red. 'Malfoy was just asking me about, um, the restorative properties of, of armadillo bile!'
'Of course,' Malfoy said smoothly, picking himself up and brushing off his robes. 'Because its use in Wit-Sharpening Potion is characteristic of its use as an enhancer, and I thought Potter might have an idea, since he needs a Wit-Sharpening Potion the most of all.'
Hermione eyed them both with skepticism. 'That makes very little sense,' she said, 'and what's more, the armadillo bile in Wit-Sharpening Potions reacts very specifically with the dried Billywig sting. Malfoy, you ought to know that.'
'I do,' Malfoy said. 'I wanted to know if Potter knew that.'
He cast a disgusted look in Harry's direction and added, 'By the way, my present will be the best of all and Teddy will like me the most of all. There's no use fighting it, Potter, I'll be winning this one. Leave it to the natural Blacks, will you?'
'It's not a contest!' Harry yelled after him as Malfoy departed for another seat across the aisle. The worst part was, Harry was still turned on, and his cock was rubbing against the seam of his jeans in a most distracting manner. And all he could think about was seizing Malfoy by the ear, dragging him into the hall, and thrusting up against him, Ginny be damned.
'What's going on?' Hermione said as she sat down in the seat Malfoy had just vacated. 'Are you all right?'
Harry resisted the urge to bury his head in his hands and groan. 'Yeah, Hermione, I'm fine.'
With N.E.W.T.s approaching, Harry knew he should be focusing on anything and everything but romance, but Ginny's words rang in his head repeatedly throughout the weeks following, and the apologetically righteous looks she kept sending him did nothing to help. For a second, he even considered going on a date with Romilda, though the thought was extremely short-lived. Demelza Robins even asked him to Hogsmeade, and looked decidedly put off when he suggested she go with Jimmy Peakes instead.
He didn't go to Hogsmeade, nor did Ron or Hermione; as it was nearing the end of the year, Hermione insisted that they spend every waking minute revising for their N.E.W.T.s. This meant more time in the library than Harry had ever known.
One evening, he was staring off into space as Hermione read out a list of Potions ingredients when he caught sight of Malfoy, leaning back in his chair at a table not so far away, a girl Harry thought might be Astoria Greengrass draped all over him. As Harry watched, she leaned down to whisper in his ear, and Malfoy glanced up at her with one of his slow smiles. He looked pleased and Harry wanted to throttle him.
The library was no place for goings-on like the sort Malfoy and that Greengrass girl were up to. Harry cast a scandalized look at Hermione, expecting agreement; no one took the sanctity of the library more seriously than Hermione, save perhaps Madam Pince.
She was smiling over at them fondly. 'I'm glad Malfoy has his friends back,' she mused. 'He looks happier, doesn't he?'
In Harry's opinion, he looked altogether too smug, like Crookshanks after catching a mouse, and the way he refused to meet Harry's eyes made it worse. 'Sure,' Harry muttered. 'I'm going over there.'
Hermione blinked. 'Why? Do you need to talk to him?'
'Quidditch,' Harry agreed quickly, 'we need to plan, um, the next match.'
'But isn't it between Demelza and Owen?'
'Schedule switch,' Harry muttered. Across the room, Astoria Greengrass had her fingers in Malfoy's hair. From Harry's distance, Malfoy looked surprised but not altogether displeased.
'Do you have to bother him now?' Hermione pressed. 'Really, Harry, he seems to be having something of an, an intimate moment. Can't it wait?'
But just then, Malfoy got out of his seat, whispered something to Astoria, and sauntered over in their direction.
'Fine, I'll leave you to it, then,' Hermione said, and disappeared in the shelves. Harry was both grateful and disappointed that she'd gone.
Malfoy stalked up to him. 'Stop staring, Potter, it's ungentlemanly,' he drawled.
'As if you'd know anything about that, Malfoy.'
'Oh, just because you don't know a thing about romance.' Malfoy arched an eyebrow. 'Couldn't even keep a Weasley around, and everyone knows they'll take any scraps that are thrown to them.'
'Shut your mouth about Ginny,' Harry snapped, then glanced over his shoulder at Madam Pince, who was scowling a warning at him. He lowered his voice. 'I mean it, I'm sick of you insulting the Weasleys!'
'You can't blame the girl, of course,' Malfoy carried on loudly, ignoring Harry's demands and Pince's angry looks. 'There she was, thinking you were finally returning her lifelong affections, and then you dropped her without a thought.'
'I didn't-- that's not what happened,' Harry stammered. 'You don't know anything about it, Malfoy, sod off! Ginny and I had a, a more complicated-- '
Malfoy sneered. 'It's not complicated, Potter. She wanted you to fight for her, to refuse to let go, and you sat back and let her waltz away like she could be replaced with a snap of your fingers.'
'What, with you?' Harry demanded in a harsh whisper, never one to let things lie. 'Because what do you know about it, Malfoy? Who've you ever cared about?'
'Oh, I don’t know, my parents,' Malfoy said savagely. Not for the first time, Harry wished he could see what was going on in Malfoy's mind; one second he was calm and lecturing, the next a snarling cat with his back to the wall. He spat out, 'And Pansy and Crabbe and Goyle because they were mine, Potter, to protect no matter how ruthless I had to be, and they would do the same for me, they would!'
Harry thought about Crabbe's face covered in sweat from the flames, expression twisted in panic. 'Um,' he said, quiet. 'I didn't mean that you didn't. What's got into you, Malfoy?'
'You can't just fix on people and then drop them when you get tired of them!' Malfoy barreled on. 'Just because it suits you-- '
'I don't do that!' Harry protested. He didn't; he couldn't stand the idea. 'I don't do that, Malfoy, I would never!'
'The Weasley girl,' Malfoy pointed out. 'Chang. Hmm. Loony Lovegood.'
'Luna and I are friends!'
Malfoy shrugged. 'When it's convenient.'
'Oh, you use people all the time,' Harry said scathingly. 'You used Crabbe and Goyle, too, don't play innocent.'
'We were using each other,' Malfoy gritted. 'Everyone else I don't care about, so it doesn't matter.'
There was a long silence, and then Harry challenged, 'You used me.'
Something flashed on Malfoy's face, like a cloud across the sun, so brief Harry could not tell what it meant. 'Sure,' Malfoy said casually. 'But I don't care about you, Potter.'
'Well, I don't care about you either,' Harry said, just as Madam Pince swooped down at them and screeched,
'Enough shouting in my library! Out, you hooligans, get out!'
Harry didn't look back to see if Malfoy would follow him. He just gathered up his books and went.
April approached, warm and wet, and it seemed that the more Harry tried to avoid Malfoy, the more often he was there. Every other corridor Harry walked down, he passed a classroom in which Malfoy was crouched, practicing some spell or another.
'What are you doing?' he finally demanded, leaning in and making Malfoy jerk in surprise.
'Potter,' he said, mouth sour. 'You again. What do you want?'
'I want to know why you're haunting Classroom Eleven,' Harry said, stepping fully inside the door. 'Are you behind in Defense or something?'
Malfoy shrugged. 'I'm practicing.'
Before Harry realized what he was saying, he asked, 'Do you need a practice partner?'
'No,' Malfoy retorted at once. 'And if I did, I certainly wouldn't pick you. I'd prefer someone who won't hex me, thanks.'
'I wouldn't,' Harry said. 'I don't want to-- hex you. I mean it, Malfoy, how are you? We don't, we haven't talked. What are you doing for Easter hols?'
'I don't know,' Malfoy muttered, annoyed. 'I haven't decided.'
'I'm going to the shore,' Harry said, though this information had been unsolicited. 'I've never been, not properly. It's in Tinworth, in Cornwall, which Hermione says is a place where wizarding families congregate.'
'Malcolm Baddock lives there,' Malfoy said offhandedly. 'I went, once, for dinner. The whole house smelled of fish, it was revolting.'
'That's nice,' said Harry, whose mind was already racing ahead. 'Hang on, will you? I'll be right back.'
He ignored Malfoy's indignant splutter and raced off. He was rather pleased when, twenty minutes later, he found Malfoy still waiting, though he looked decidedly annoyed about the whole matter.
Before he could speak, however, Harry blurted, 'Want to come to the shore with me?'
Malfoy's jaw dropped. 'Is that a joke?'
'No,' said Harry, a bit put off. 'I mean, I know we aren't friends, or, but it doesn't have to be like that, you can meet up with Malcolm and get him to come back to Hogwarts, and we won't have to spend time together, it'll just be, you know. A mutual destination.'
It could have been Harry's imagination, but Malfoy might have flushed the tiniest bit at the word 'mutual.'
'Malcolm Baddock is not going to come back to Hogwarts,' he insisted after a moment. 'The term's half over anyway, there's little point. And he hates Hogwarts.'
'So do you,' Harry pointed out. 'It's worth a try, isn't it?'
'No,' said Malfoy.
'I thought we agreed that any more Slytherins made a difference! And where else do you have to go? You don't even have plans and it's in three days.'
'I could have plans.'
'Yeah, you could come to Tinworth,' Harry said. 'Come on, it could be fun. Think of it like visiting Malcolm Baddock, and I just happen to be going to the same place for a couple of days.'
Malfoy said nothing, which Harry knew meant he was considering it.
'Unless you'd rather stay here,' Harry put in. 'You know, wander the empty school alone, hang out with Peeves and the Bloody Baron-- '
'I've had quite enough of the Bloody Baron to last me several decades,' Malfoy said icily. 'Fine, Potter, all right, I'll go.'
'Really?' Harry exclaimed. 'You-- really?'
'Yes,' Malfoy snapped, looking as if he regretted it already.
Harry grinned. 'Good,' he said. 'Owl Malcolm. I'll see you tomorrow.'
It was only at the door that he turned around.
'Oh,' Harry added mischievously, 'and Ron and Hermione are coming. I told you that part, right?'
The inn that Bill and Fleur had recommended was a tiny establishment, so small that Harry, Malfoy and Ron could barely all fit on the stairs together. Malfoy was still complaining about not getting his own room when Hermione came back from speaking with the owner, a dark look on her face.
'I know that look,' Ron muttered to Harry. 'I don't know what's coming, but it isn't good.'
She drew even with them, still frowning. 'Look,' she said, with the air of getting the news over as quickly as possible. 'They're almost full for the night, it's lucky we got a space at all. They can only spare one room.'
'One room?' Malfoy hissed, but before he could continue, Hermione added,
'And only two beds.'
Malfoy's eyes flicked between Hermione and Ron and said immediately, 'I get Potter.'
'Well, it isn't as if we want to sleep with you either,' Ron snapped. 'Sorry, Harry.'
Harry's mouth quirked. 'It's fine, Ron,' he said.
Then they went inside.
The room was so small there was no space to Engorge the beds, and the chest of drawers was jostled up against the window to make a narrow space to walk in. Malfoy drawled, 'Remind me again why I chose to sleep in a hovel with three people I hate instead of returning to the Manor to go on holiday with my mother?'
'I have no idea,' Ron muttered.
Unsurprisingly, they were very small beds.
Harry hadn't been this close to Malfoy since they had last touched, and now, lying horizontally beside him, he realized just how pointy Draco Malfoy was. One of Malfoy's knees was digging into Harry's thigh, his shoulder was a hard uncomfortable angle in Harry's side, and when Harry shifted to get away from Malfoy, he almost toppled off the bed. In the attempt to right himself, he ran straight into Malfoy's hip.
'Get off me!'
In response, Harry shoved him, and Malfoy shoved back, to the point where they both almost fell off and had to clutch at one another to stay on the mattress.
'Your elbow's in my eye,' Harry snapped, and then Malfoy really did put his elbow in Harry's eye, and Harry yelled, 'Ow, Malfoy!'
'Sorry,' Malfoy said, not at all contritely, 'but your enormous knees are digging into my thighs, and I'm going to have permanent bruises, so excuse me if there isn't a lot of room for my elbows elsewhere.'
'No one has permanent bruises,' Harry muttered, turning on his side with his back to the bundle of bones that Malfoy apparently was, full of sharp, pointy ends that kept finding the soft places under Harry's ribs and on the backs of his knees and digging in with a vengeance. After a minute, when Malfoy settled against him and it got too uncomfortable to bear, he shoved his elbow back and hit something fleshy that yelped.
'That was my stomach,' said Malfoy.
Harry said mildly, 'Sorry, I didn't mean to hit you, there was just something in my back and I was trying to shift-- '
'Shut up and go to sleep,' Malfoy hissed.
'You shut up and go to sleep!'
'I'm trying,' Malfoy bit out. 'If you'd get off me, perhaps I'd have an easier time of it!'
'If you'd get off me-- '
'Both of you, shut up,' Hermione's voice floated over from the next bed. 'If I don't get any sleep because of you arguing all night, I'm going to be very cross in the morning. Harry, you know what I'm like when I don't get my sleep.'
'I do,' Harry said fervently. 'Sorry, Hermione.'
'And I'm sorry,' Malfoy said, sweet as could be, 'that you, Potter, were born with shoulders the size of a gorilla, and therefore there is no room for one of mine in this bed, much less the rest of my body.'
'I thought you said I was scrawny!' Harry exclaimed. 'And, and, underdeveloped!'
'With the shoulders of a gorilla,' Malfoy maintained. 'You're a freak, Potter, that's the only explanation.'
'Malfoy, I'm warning you,' Hermione said, and Malfoy quieted at last. 'Good night, boys.'
'Night, Hermione,' Harry said. Malfoy elbowed him sharply in that region just below his underarm, where it hurt so much he almost shouted, but he did manage to knee Malfoy in the stomach before rolling over with his back to Malfoy again.
In the morning, no one was awake, and it took Harry a moment to realize he was still lying half-entangled with Malfoy beside him. In the effort it took to disengage his limbs, he jostled Malfoy, who made a sleepy noise and rolled over.
Malfoy yawned, one of his legs sliding over Harry's as he stretched, and then he turned his head the other way and found Harry staring at him. He yelped in surprise and from the other bed, Harry heard Ron turn over, though an instant later his loud snoring started up again.
'Lord, Potter, what are you doing?' Malfoy whispered, breath coming a little fast from the shock. 'Watching me, were you?'
'I was not,' Harry replied, though he had been. 'I just couldn't get back to sleep.'
'So you were staring at me.'
'I was staring in that direction,' Harry said lamely. 'Shut up anyway, I've only been awake a couple of minutes.'
Malfoy seemed mollified by that, for some reason, and stretched again, his ankle knocking against Harry's. It seemed less terrible this morning that his pointy limbs were all over the bed, and Harry almost grinned, knocking his ankle back against Malfoy's in what was supposed to be a teasing manner. Somehow it turned into him rubbing his ankle against Malfoy's, which was weird, and made Malfoy freeze immediately.
'Shut up,' Harry said again, and then, his eyes flickered up and locked with Malfoy's, and Malfoy, seeming not to realize what he was doing, wet his lower lip with his tongue. He looked uncertain and his eyes were beginning to narrow, the way they always did when he was shutting down, and for no reason this made Harry's stomach flood with panic.
So he kissed him.
'Ugh!' Malfoy shoved him away at once, hissing, 'Potter, you've got morning breath, that's disgusting,' but Harry caught him by the wrist and held on until Malfoy looked at him again.
'So've you,' Harry said determinedly, 'and I'm going to kiss you now.'
Malfoy didn't say anything, but he didn't resist either, when Harry drew his chin closer and brought their mouths together. After a second or so, Malfoy's mouth opened under his. Early morning light was streaming through the curtains, and it was not at all rough like Harry expected; Malfoy kissed hesitantly, warm and slow. It was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time: Ginny had always tasted faintly of the peppermint lip gloss she used, to the point where even Peppermint Humbugs reminded Harry of her, but Malfoy only tasted like spit and sleep. His tongue was swiping at the underside of Harry's, persistent little strokes that were making Harry's whole body wake up, and it felt a bit like someone had just taken off a Disillusionment Charm, warm shivers running straight down his spine. Malfoy seemed to think so too, because he made a contented sound against Harry's mouth; his hand crept up and traced over the shell of Harry's ear, fingers tugging gently at his hair . . .
In the next bed, Ron gave a loud snort, and Harry and Malfoy leapt apart.
'I'm,' Harry said loudly, 'I'm going to go check for-- for the Daily Prophet-- '
'-- got to get a drink of water,' said Malfoy, 'right away-- '
'Whazat?' Ron said then, struggling to sit up, ruining any chance Harry had to say anything more. 'It's so bright,' Ron grumbled, 'what're you doing up so early, it's like seven in the morning, we haven't got to be up at all-- '
'Couldn't sleep,' Harry said quickly; Malfoy had already left the room still wearing his pajamas. 'I'm going to find some breakfast, I'll be back in a bit, okay?'
'Fine by me,' said Ron, flopping back onto the bed and elbowing Hermione in the process.
'Me too, Harry,' she said sleepily, and crawled right out of bed and into the bed Harry and Malfoy had shared. 'Ron keeps jostling me, this is better. See you later.'
In the next moment, they were both snoring. Harry smiled at his reflection in the mirror as he passed-- 'Comb your hair!' it shrilled, 'is that your idea of presentable?'-- and went out to find Malfoy.
They went to the beach later, the three of them, Hermione barefoot and the full sky, their robes flapping in the wind. Hermione devised a kite from a transfigured scrap of parchment and a thread she picked from the sleeve of her robe and engorged. It dived through the air like a dancing bird and Ron picked up Hermione and swung her, shrieking, in a circle. Harry held the kite. The color of the sky reminded him of Malfoy, that bruised, determined gray.
'Malfoy kissed me,' Harry said over lunch. Ron choked on a piece of chicken and had to be rescued by a sharp thump on the back from Hermione. His eyes were streaming when he recovered.
'Sorry,' Harry said. 'I guess I mean, I kissed Malfoy.'
Ron had nothing to choke on this time, but he still made a sort of strangled, croaking sound.
'Are you going to do it again?' Hermione said. She was eyeing Harry knowingly; he thought she'd overheard more than she'd admitted, that one Potions class.
Harry frowned. 'I don't know.'
To everyone's relief, the innkeeper approached Hermione just before dinner, whispered something, and departed. 'He says there are more rooms,' Hermione explained, shrugging. She was giving Harry a rather pointed look, which he ignored. 'Harry, why don't you and Malfoy take the other room, and Ron and I will stay in the old one? Here's the key.'
She slid it across the table and before he could take it, Malfoy's hand shot out and seized it. 'I'll have that, Potter,' he drawled importantly, tucking it into a pocket of his robes.
Harry shifted his leg to the left until his knee jostled Malfoy's; to his delight, Malfoy's elbow jerked in surprise and slopped gravy all over the table.
Ron pulled him aside after dinner.
'Harry,' he muttered, 'do you-- what are you doing with Malfoy?'
Harry could feel his face going red, but he didn't lie to Ron, he just didn't. 'We're,' he said. 'It's a mutual-- getting off sort of-- arrangement.'
'You do know there are loads of girls who would date you.' Ron's voice lowered dangerously. 'There's my sister, for one.'
'If you haven't noticed, she's with Dean.'
'Yeah, since you chucked her at the beginning of the year!'
'Ginny and I are over,' Harry said. 'For good. We really are. You know that, Ron.'
'Well, there are other girls.'
'Yeah, I'm not really interested in them,' Harry muttered.
To his surprise, Ron's face cleared at once. 'Well, that's easy enough,' he declared. 'Charlie likes blokes!'
Harry blinked, his train of thought momentarily derailed. 'What? But you were jealous-- with Hermione-- '
Ron shrugged. 'Well, Mum always thought it was a phase. Charlie's never said. He talks about it with Bill and maybe Gin but the twins used to tease him so he never brought it up much. I'm only saying, he might still.'
'And he's our professor,' Harry countered. 'Anyway, Ron, I don't want to fool around with Charlie.'
Ron eyed him. 'But you do with Malfoy.'
Harry swallowed a couple times. 'Yeah,' he said. 'Yeah, I do.'
Ron studied Harry for a long minute. At last, he said, 'Fine. You know what you're doing, Harry. As long as-- are you sure he's not diseased?'
'Uh,' said Harry, 'no?'
'Fine then,' Ron said, but as Harry moved towards the stairs, Ron pulled him back.
'Is it really small?' he asked hopefully.
Harry almost choked laughing. 'No,' he said. 'It's, I don't know, average. Like mine.'
'So I'm bigger, then,' Ron said. When Harry nodded, he looked absurdly satisfied.
Harry shoved him playfully at the stairs. 'Go on, I'll see you in the morning.'
It was different, seeing Malfoy with Ron and Hermione aware. Both of them gave him suspicious looks every time he entered or exited the common room alone, and Ron developed an odd habit of quirking his eyebrows at Harry whenever Malfoy's name was mentioned, whether it was by Professor Flitwick or Seamus Finnigan.
As for Malfoy's friends, Pansy gave him an interested look every time she passed him in the hallway. He had a sneaking suspicion that Malfoy had told her, but then again, Ginny probably gave Malfoy a similar look-- perhaps with more loathing-- when she saw him, so he supposed it was fair. She certainly gave Harry a look or two, so he was sure that either Hermione or Ron had let something slip.
Several nights after school had resumed, after everyone else had gone up to bed, he went over to her.
'Look,' he said stiffly when she looked up from her book. 'It's not, I'm not using him. It's not anything like that.'
Ginny didn't even blink. 'Oh, what's it like, then?'
Harry studied his hands. He had a bruise near his left shoulder blade where Malfoy had shoved him too hard into a doorframe, and when he leaned back a certain way, he could feel it, a strangely pleasant ache. 'Maybe I like him,' he ventured.
There was a pause.
'You like him,' Ginny repeated flatly. 'Malfoy.'
'I don't know,' Harry flared up, 'maybe I do!'
'Malfoy?' Ginny said again. 'To be honest, Harry, I'm a little insulted.'
He looked at her blankly. 'What are you talking about?'
She laughed and he remembered that Ginny could be cruel sometimes. 'Well,' she said, still looking at him incredulously, 'I can't believe that you're replacing me with Draco Malfoy. Remember what happened less than a year ago, Harry? Hermione was tortured at his house? He was one of You-Know-Who's biggest fans and he has the Dark Mark to prove it?
'It's disappeared,' Harry said before he could help himself.
'Oh, and I suppose that means all his past has disappeared too?'
'He's just,' Harry muttered. 'Look, you don't understand.'
'He hasn't been cursing you, has he?' Ginny's eyes were frank and brown, but her earnest concern enraged Harry. 'Does he have you under some kind of love potion?'
'Love potion?' Harry echoed. 'You were the one telling me I was using him, and now you're telling me that he's manipulating me with potions?'
Ginny pressed her lips together and for a second she actually resembled her mother. 'Maybe he is using you! I just don't think it's healthy, Harry, however you choose to spin it. Maybe it's the Imperius Curse.'
'Why would you think he'd use the Imperius Curse on me?' Harry demanded. 'Because he's a Slytherin? Oh, come on!'
'I'm only saying,' Ginny called, but Harry was already on the stairs.
Up in the dormitory, Ron was pulling his pajama top on, frowning at a spot on his chin in the mirror. Without preamble, Harry said, 'Ron, about Malfoy, do you think I'm-- '
'-- mental?' Ron finished. 'Well, yeah, Harry, what kind of sane person would let Malfoy put his slimy hands down their trousers? But if you're happy,' he added doubtfully. 'Are you sure he isn't using weird potions on you?'
Harry snorted. 'This is Malfoy we're talking about,' he said. 'Not the most subtle bloke, is he? A cursed necklace? Poisoned mead?'
'Yeah, that almost killed me,' Ron said and Harry sobered. 'Anyway, I think he's a slimy git, but if you're fine with it, have at it.'
Then he lowered his voice. 'All the same, good for you, Hermione won't-- '
'That's enough,' Harry said hurriedly. The last thing he wanted to discuss was what his two best friends did, or didn't do, in bed. 'Um, thanks, Ron.'
He had never stopped to consider how his best friend might react, were he to find out that Harry liked blokes and was having it off with the worst of them, since it had never been an option Harry had considered. He was not sure how he, himself, would have reacted, faced with a similar admission.
'I mean it,' Harry said. 'Thanks.'
'Also, I'll hex him if he does anything to you,' Ron put in, perhaps a bit too eager. 'I don't know how to turn people into ferrets but I'll bet Hermione can figure it out!'
Harry laughed. 'I'll keep that in mind,' he said.
April passed by in what seemed a heartbeat, between Quidditch and Malfoy and the neverending stream of work they were assigned. Before anyone knew it, least of all Harry, it was May.
The morning of 2 May dawned clear and peaceful, birdsong everywhere. They all woke early despite it being a Sunday, pulling on their best robes and trooping down to the Great Hall in a hush. Ron, in his nerves, kept clicking the Deluminator, whisking the light from the torches and then sending them fleeing back, making everyone in the vicinity jump in surprise.
'Hi,' Hermione said, slipping in beside Harry just as they reached the doors; she slid her hand in his and squeezed. 'Sleep all right?'
'All right.' His smile was crooked. 'Ron's a bit jittery, you should go see him.'
She squeezed his hand again and moved forward to take Ron's.
In the Great Hall, the enchanted ceiling showed a clear and calm morning, sunlight streaming in the windows and illuminating the dust motes dancing in the air. The only sounds were hundreds of feet tromping to the benches, and an occasional whisper between friends. At last, when everyone was sorted, Professor McGonagall stood.
'Good morning,' she said seriously. 'Breakfast will begin momentarily. But first, I have a few words to say. Will everyone please stand?'
The hall was filled with noise as benches were pushed around and people jostled, and then it was silent again, a sea of students in black robes standing and facing their Headmistress.
'One year ago,' said McGonagall, 'I stood in this very hall and watched my students make hard choices. I watched them, and their families, fight and fall in resistance to a dark wizard, the likes of whom Hogwarts has not seen for many, many years. I watched you. All of you, who have survived, and your friends and loved ones, who have given their lives so that we may continue on mornings like these, to wake up to the sun and keep learning and teaching one another.'
Over at the Hufflepuff table, Hannah Abbott gave a loud sniffle.
'We did not fight Voldemort-- ' There was a gasp, and McGonagall looked sternly through her spectacles at the crowd. 'We did not fight Voldemort merely to defeat an evil wizard and those he had at his command. We did so in resistance to his power, of course, but also the power of his ideas, his convictions and his beliefs. As long as Hogwarts has stood, it has welcomed all students within its walls. Those who were born from the longest lineages of wizardkind, those who live in the Muggle world, and those who have never heard of magic in their lives. This school does not stand in the purpose of keeping others out. Our doors are open. They will stay open.'
Her eyes swept the crowd and she continued, 'One year ago, it was a clear morning just like this one, full of sunshine, and hope. This day, this morning, is for us, we who have survived. But it is also for them. We must never forget what was sacrificed on the second of May last year, and how easily, how easily, such a thing could happen again. This is for those who died there, so that we might learn from our mistakes.'
Head held high, McGonagall unrolled a piece of parchment and began to read off the names of those who died in the Battle of Hogwarts, one year ago.
Harry heard Michael Corner's name this time.
When McGonagall finished, she bowed her head. 'And finally,' she said hoarsely, 'this is for Albus Dumbledore, the bravest and best Headmaster that Hogwarts has ever known.'
The clapping began slowly, and then Seamus Finnigan let out a hoarse cheer, and the noise continued until people were stomping their feet and banging on the tables, half of them with tears streaming down their faces. In the chaos, someone squeezed Harry's hand and he thought, Hermione, but when he looked over, it was Ginny.
'Harry, I'm sorry,' she whispered, leaning close, tears trembling on her eyelashes.
He put his arms around her and kissed her on the forehead, more instinct than anything else. 'I am too,' he said. 'Me too.'
When at last the clamor died down, McGonagall cleared her throat. 'It is Sunday, so there are no classes,' she announced. 'You are free to do as you wish, but I ask you to spare a moment to remember, and to honor those who are not in our midst today. Raise a glass to them. Tell their stories. Cry, and laugh, and remember.' She reached up to adjust her spectacles, and Harry suspected quite strongly that she also dashed a tear from her eye. 'All of you,' she said. 'All of you here, today. Thank you.'
The hall erupted in ragged cheers again, and though full platters of food appeared on the long tables, no one paid any mind; they were all hugging one another, some crying, some simply relieved. More than one person came up to Harry wanting to shake his hand or clutch him round the shoulders, whispering, 'Thank you. Harry, thank you.'
For once, he found he didn't really mind.
Breakfast lasted at least three hours that morning; no one seemed inclined to leave, so they sat there together, eating and drinking and talking. There was a half hour period in which the entire Gryffindor table got caught up in memories of Fred, and Harry found himself laughing too much to feel hollow. 'The first time I met him, he and George were threatening to send Gin a toilet seat,' he remembered, grinning at Ron. 'Your mum was furious.'
Ron chuckled. 'They did, too, did you know? I was with them in the Owlery when the Howler came. Bloody awful. I don't think those owls came back for days.'
Ginny was sitting across the table, half in Dean's lap, but when Harry looked over at her, she smiled. 'Once, Fred filched a bunch of George's dirty magazines and hid them in Percy's trunk just before Mum went up to tidy the room,' she giggled. 'Percy was furious, and the worst thing was, he thought they were Charlie's, he tried to Owl them back to him.'
'How come I never saw these magazines?' Ron demanded as everyone around them burst out laughing. 'If they're such a family hand-me-down-- '
'You wouldn't've liked them, they had boys together,' Ginny said cheekily as Ron turned scarlet. 'That's why Percy thought they were Charlie's.'
'Yes, imagine getting a package like that from Perce,' Charlie said from over Ron's shoulder, making Ron jump. 'No letter of explanation either, just a bundle of porn from my stodgy little brother. Hey, I thought I'd come down and reminisce a bit too, can I sit?'
They made room for him and conversation turned to Remus, and then Colin. Dennis Creevey burst into tears at least four times, but he kept on grinning in between.
At last most of Gryffindor departed, and aside from a few small clusters of students gathered up and down the table, it was just Harry and Hermione and Ron.
'I'm,' Harry said. Something stuck in his throat. 'The two of you. I couldn't have done it-- '
'We know, mate,' Ron muttered, rolling his eyes. 'You've only tried to say it six thousand times by now. We wanted to, and we couldn't have done it without you, either.'
Hermione's lip trembled, and all of the sudden she sprang on both of them, wrapping her arms around them tightly. 'You boys!' she sniffled. 'Look how far you've come, you could hardly shake hands after your row in fourth year, and now you're communicating like adults!'
Harry and Ron looked at one another, bemused, under the assault of Hermione's hugging.
'She makes it sound as if she thought we'd never,' Ron muttered, shaking his head at Harry.
'Oh, please, I was the one you had running all over the castle delivering witless insults to each other.' She wiped her eyes and tried to imitate Ron: 'Go and tell Harry that I'm not speaking to him. What, you already did? Tell him again. And tell him I don't care if he's not speaking to me! What? He said I was rubbish as a friend? Well he's rubbish! Go and tell him that!'
Harry snorted. 'You mean like you two had me doing, a month or two ago?'
Ron waved a dismissive hand. 'That's different. We weren't dating.'
'Might as well have been, for how huffy you both got,' Hermione snickered, and they both swatted at her knee. 'Besides, Mister I'm Going to Run Away and Leave You Both In The Forest To Starve-- '
'In the past,' Ron said swiftly, as if hoping to avoid an age-old argument of Hermione's. 'I came back, didn't I?'
'You did,' Hermione conceded, resting her head on his shoulder. After a moment, she sighed. 'Snape was brave, wasn't he? After all of it?'
Harry glanced up at the head table, where Professor McGonagall seemed lost in thoughts of her own. He had seen Snape there, his first night at Hogwarts, and Snape's eyes had pierced straight into his mind; Harry had plunged into instant dislike from that moment on.
'Yeah,' he said. 'Yeah, he really was.'
Over at the Slytherin table, Pansy Parkinson and Daphne Greengrass were the only ones in sight, both looking determined to stand their ground. When Harry left Ron and Hermione and began moving towards them, however, Pansy paled.
'Oh, no, you don't,' she said before Harry could even open his mouth. 'I've already been spat on by half of Hogwarts this morning, I changed robes twice, so don't you come over here and shake your high and mighty finger at me-- '
'I,' Harry said. 'I was just coming over to say hi.'
Pansy and Daphne eyed him skeptically.
'And to,' Harry shrugged, 'to say that I'm sorry. About Cra-- ' He remembered just in time and amended, 'Vincent. And everybody else. You don't have to leave.'
'We were just talking about him, you know,' Pansy said, her tone a fraction warmer. 'Vince. He had this hopeless crush on Tracey, remember? Everyone knew about it, he always carried her books for her and cut up her Potions ingredients.'
'Asked her to the Yule Ball, too,' Daphne put in. 'She went with Nott, though, didn't she?'
Pansy smirked. 'Oh, did she. Right up to the Astronomy Tower and everything, she had those bite marks on her neck for days. Poor Vince just moped around and she never even realized.'
'What, she knew,' Daphne said. 'I always thought she'd have gone for him, too, if not for her own stupid crush on Draco.'
Increasingly alienated by this conversation, and even more convinced that Slytherin was the most incestuous house of all, Harry seized on this point and exclaimed, 'Yeah, have you seen Malfoy?'
'Probably back in the common room,' Daphne shrugged. 'He left after Justin Finch-Fletchley threatened us with a fork.'
'What!' said Harry. 'I'll-- I told him already, I'll talk to him-- '
'Yes, God forbid Finch-Fletchley waves some cutlery around,' Pansy drawled. 'Calm down, Potter. I know you're always looking for the next innocent kitten to save, but Slytherin House isn't it, all right? Also, did you know that a muscle in your jaw twitches when you get angry like that?'
'No,' Harry said annoyedly. 'Is Malfoy okay?'
Pansy rolled her eyes. 'He's fine. Honestly, it was only a Hufflepuff.'
Harry gritted his teeth. 'No, I mean because of today. Being what it is and all. Has he talked to his mother?'
'Why don't you ask him yourself,' Pansy said, which would have been innocuous if not for the sidelong look she gave him. Harry glanced at Daphne and from the way she raised a delicate eyebrow, he knew she'd caught on. He was sure his face was crimson.
'I don't-- '
'Password's hippocampus. Tonight after eight, say.' Pansy took a look at his face and snorted. 'Or don't, but if you do, bring that handy cloak of yours. Draco told me about it.'
'He told you?' Harry exclaimed. 'He had no right to do that!'
He showed up without his cloak to be rebellious. Pansy was sitting in the common room, playing chess with the Bloody Baron, and she gave him a cheerful wave.
It was odd, and not all that welcome, the way that Pansy seemed to have appointed herself as the guardian of Malfoy's relationships. (Not that, Harry added privately, he was in some kind of relationship with Malfoy, because that certainly wasn't the case.) She found him after classes and in the halls just to slip him the Slytherin password, she began delivering messages from Malfoy, and oddest of all, she always seemed about to tell him something, when she would shake her head and just say, 'You'd better be there, Potter.'
The last straw was on Malfoy's birthday, when she dragged him out of breakfast at the Gryffindor table just to wag a finger in his face and demand he make an appearance that night.
'Yeah, it's his birthday,' Harry said tiredly. 'I get it.'
Pansy looked at him, her mouth set in a concentrated line, almost as if she were asking him a question without words. If she were, however, he couldn't understand it.
'So,' he said at last. 'I'll, uh, I'll stop by tonight. All right?'
She blinked. 'Yeah, fine,' she said finally. 'See you around, Potter.'
'Pansy's been acting weird,' Harry said that night, leaning against the back of the door to Malfoy's dormitory, empty but for him. When Malfoy did not look all that interested in Pansy's behavior, normal or otherwise, Harry shrugged. 'I don't know, she's your friend. Did you have a good birthday?'
'Not particularly, no.'
Harry rolled his eyes. 'Glad to see you're in a good mood,' he said. 'Whatever it is, it'll be fine. Come on, come here.'
Malfoy frowned at him, but he picked his way across the room anyway, then stood fidgeting there.
'Hey,' Harry said. 'So, happy birthday, then.'
'Yes, happy birthday to me,' Malfoy said sourly. 'What a splendid day.'
'Maybe tomorrow will be better,' Harry suggested. He took a step closer to Malfoy, close enough that he could have reached out and taken him by the shoulders, if he had wanted to, but Malfoy was not looking at him.
'Er,' Harry said, after several seconds. 'Do you still want to-- ?'
Malfoy gave a curt nod.
'You're sure?' Harry pressed. 'You've just been acting, I don't know, distracted, and you don't seem all that-- interested.'
'I'm interested, Potter,' Malfoy muttered, then flushed in the gloom.
Harry grinned. 'Well, I should hope so,' he said. 'So? Are you going to take your trousers off, Malfoy?'
'I'm not taking them off until you take yours off,' Malfoy said, a bit shrilly, and Harry could have laughed: it was so like him to be suspicious, to the very last.
The clatter of Harry's belt buckle on the floor made a shameful noise; his trousers were an old pair of Dudley's and the minute he undid the button, they slid down his legs. He was left standing there in only his underpants and a worn old t-shirt that had once been Ron's, something accidentally traded in the Quidditch locker room and never returned. Malfoy was staring at him in the green gloom and Harry thought for a second of how knobbly his knees were.
'So?' Harry said; his voice came out surer than he expected. 'Your turn, isn't it?'
Malfoy drew his shirt over his head and unconsciously started to fold it before Harry stepped forward and yanked it away. 'Leave it,' Harry muttered. Malfoy's skin was warm under his splayed hand, the ridges of his ribs and the heartbeat Harry found when his palm skidded upwards. There was scarring, too, and Harry ran his fingers over it.
'Feeling-- contrite, Potter?' Malfoy's breath huffed out slow, his voice a little funny.
'Not really,' Harry said, grinning as he leaned in. 'Are you going to get your trousers down, or do I have to do it for you?'
Malfoy did, and his pants with them; he stood there and for an instant Harry just looked at him, thin and scarred in the eerie light. Harry had seen all his dorm mates naked more times than he could count and his Quidditch mates more than that, but he had never stood and looked like this. Malfoy had long, thin toes and skinny legs and a dark blonde tangle of hair around his cock, which was dark with arousal; he was thin all around, sharp elbows and collarbones, his chin pointed in a sort of challenge as he stared right back.
'What are you doing, Potter?' Malfoy demanded. 'Stop-- staring at me!'
Malfoy's sheets smelled like him, and Harry found a thin blonde hair on the pillowcase; he had a second to brush it off the bed before Malfoy settled on top of him, heavier than expected for how skinny he was. Malfoy's elbow jabbed straight into Harry's shoulder and he had to suppress a groan of pain.
It was slow and strange, not like usual; they were swimming in shadows, Malfoy's hair a tickle against Harry's cheek, his breathing a quiet rasp in the silence. 'I like you like this,' Harry said, on impulse. Malfoy gave a little start but said nothing; he seemed to be waiting for Harry to direct them, simply sitting there, blinking at Harry in the gloom.
Malfoy had Sirius's eyes. He wondered why he had never noticed that before.
Malfoy put his hand on Harry's cheek, then, and Harry turned into it, mouthing at Malfoy's palm, nipping at the pads of his fingers. It thrilled him that Malfoy had a spot of ink on his knuckles, a hang-nail on his left thumb. Then Malfoy pulled him back into a kiss, wet and desperate, and Harry gave in and rolled them over, pushing Malfoy down onto the bed. Harry landed sprawled mostly on top of him.
'Oof,' wheezed Malfoy. 'Lord, Potter, someone needs to lay off the treacle pudding.'
It surprised Harry so thoroughly that Malfoy knew his favorite dessert that he could not muster a response. Then Malfoy blinked up at him, and Harry leaned back down; for a brief, electrifying second, their cocks bounced against each other, making both of them hiss in a breath. It was indelicate and graceless and Harry buried his face in Malfoy's shoulder when he came, Malfoy still breathing unevenly in his ear.
They were silent for a long time, after, and then Harry laughed very quietly and teased, 'Sure you don't want me to Polyjuice into Penelope?'
Malfoy choked. 'I didn't know you were into wearing girls' clothes, Potter. I ought to alert the papers.'
'Oh, you're the one who made your sidekicks turn into little girls, I'd say you're the perverted one.'
'A fact for which Goyle will never forgive me,' Malfoy sighed. Then he said, carefully, 'If you haven't noticed, Potter, I'm not exactly chasing after Penelope Clearwater.' When Harry opened his mouth, Malfoy continued, 'Besides, Weasley seconds, how revolting.'
'Hey, I dated Ginny, you know,' Harry protested. 'What about me?'
'I try to forget,' Malfoy said with a grimace. He studied Harry with his pale gray gaze, so like Sirius's. Finally he said, 'I suppose you're an exception.'
He said it in the way one might say, 'You're a flesh-eating slug,' and still Harry grinned.
'Good,' he said after a moment.
He shut his eyes and was asleep in minutes.
In the middle of the night, or rather, the night moving towards morning, Harry woke disoriented. When he turned to look at Malfoy, his eyes were open and Harry struggled to sit up, but Malfoy made a shushing noise.
'Go back to sleep,' he muttered. 'I can't, it's fine.'
Harry moved closer, though; everything was out of focus without his glasses. He eventually collided with Malfoy's warm limbs and tried to make sense of them, tracing a hand down his arm, thumb wrapping around his wrist. Malfoy turned his face into Harry's shoulder and Harry skimmed his hand up Malfoy's back, feeling him shudder gently at the touch. He looked all mussed now, hair rumpled from sleep and pajama top askew, and Harry was sure he was not much better. When he slipped his fingers through Malfoy's hair, Malfoy made a small noise that was almost contented.
'C'mere,' Harry whispered, and hauled Malfoy closer to him, brought their mouths together. They were both warm and sleepy and it was easy then, Malfoy's tongue pulling his into a lazy sort of kiss, Harry's left hand curled round the nape of Malfoy's neck, rubbing slow circles there. Malfoy sighed into his mouth and Harry pulled him closer.
They kissed drowsily until Harry dropped off into sleep again, he could not remember when. In the morning, when he woke, the room was empty and the curtains were hanging open leaking lake-tinted sun all over Malfoy's bed, but Malfoy was gone.
It was dinner by the time Harry began to worry.
At first, he had thought Malfoy had only gone off somewhere without telling him, as he was wont to do, the Owlery or to drop in on Penelope, but he didn't appear in a single class that day, and when Harry asked Pansy, she only shook her head and hurried away. He was about to go ask in the hospital wing when Hermione came flying through the portrait hole, her hair a tangle. She looked as if she'd run all the way there.
'Oh, Harry,' she panted, 'I'm so glad you're here! I couldn't tell you until now, I just couldn't!'
He frowned. 'Tell me what?'
'It's Malfoy,' she said. 'He's been sentenced.'
'Sentenced?' Harry echoed, temporarily losing track of just what that word meant. 'What-- what do you mean, he's been sentenced?'
'Oh, Harry, he was going to be on trial, the date's been set since August at least! I only found out last month when I was researching magical law.'
'Last month?' Harry repeated dangerously. 'You've known for a month? What do you mean, a trial, like with the Wizengamot, at the Ministry, that kind of trial? How could you not tell me? What do you mean, you couldn't?'
'I couldn't,' Hermione insisted, distraught. 'I tried, Harry, but he didn't want me to-- '
'Oh, since when have you cared what Malfoy wanted?'
'I couldn't,' Hermione repeated. 'Honestly, Harry. Malfoy knew some kind of spell, I've studied it a lot, trying to break it, but it's really good. I think it's related to Silencio, it's some kind of curse that prevents the speaker from conveying certain information. I tried to write it down, tried to show you the newspaper-- '
Harry remembered the way that Pansy had once shaken her head and said, 'I can't,' which he had thought strange at the time. Now he wondered if Malfoy had done the same to her.
'-- some kind of unspeakable curse,' Hermione was saying, 'I don't know, it wasn't in any book I could find.'
'But that's barbaric,' Ron said. He'd come up when Harry was not paying attention and now stood there, frowning.
'I did as much to Kreacher, two years ago,' Harry retorted. For a brief second, he thought to himself that perhaps Malfoy would make a good Unspeakable after all. That was, if he lived that long. 'Anyhow, Hermione, you can tell me now, right? The spell's wore off?'
'Yes, I think once he was sentenced,' Hermione said hastily. 'I wanted to tell you, believe me, I did-- '
'And I still don't get why he wouldn't want me to know, but it doesn't matter, Hermione, tell me what you found.'
Her face had gone pale, as if she'd forgot just what she was supposed to tell him in the bustle of explaining the spell, and only now remembered. Ron gripped her arm. 'What is it?'
'What, it can't be worse than Lucius Malfoy, can it?' said Harry blithely. 'He was just a teenager, I mean, when he almost killed Dumbledore he was still sixteen, doesn't that mean–'
'It's what I've been telling you!' Hermione burst out. ''These aren't fair trials! They want a scapegoat for Dumbledore's death, you know how emotions were running high after the one year memorial, I think Elphias Doge is behind it-- '
'Worse than Lucius Malfoy?' Harry said, heart thudding.
Hermione took one look at him, hid her face and whispered, 'The Dementor's Kiss.'
'What?' Harry demanded; even Ron looked pale. 'But nobody's been-- you said they weren't using Dementors!'
'They aren't, not to guard Azkaban, but they're still using them for things like this. More controlled situations, they're calling them. Oh, didn't I keep telling you, I've been writing all these letters-- and I think it's happening quickly, the Ministry likes to wrap their dirty business up as fast as possible-- '
'But Malfoy?' Harry said. 'He's-- I don't understand.'
'Oh, Pansy Parkinson's brother was Kissed last week,' Hermione said fitfully, and Harry remembered seeing her crying at breakfast and only now wondered why. 'And Rowle before him, there haven't been many. Most of the worst Death Eaters were killed, after all, and the others were given life sentences, but there are a couple families who won't make a fuss, they can't, the Malfoys have sunk really low and the Ministry really wants the Manor-- and nobody would testify for Draco-- '
'I would have,' Harry nearly shouted. 'Hermione, I was there on the tower! And last year, at Malfoy Manor, and I saw him being forced by Voldemort to do his bidding, Voldemort kept threatening to use the Cruciatus Curse on him if he didn't use it on the others! And Lucius, if there was a Malfoy who deserved to be sentenced, why not him, why Draco?'
Hermione pursed her lips. 'Maybe Doge let Lucius go because he saw you at the trial, and you didn't make a move to condemn him?'
'That doesn't make any sense,' Harry snapped in frustration.
'There have been whispers that Draco's even worse than his father, that, you know, he had his parents under Imperius the whole time,' Hermione said apologetically. 'And hanging around with you, people think he's trying to influence you, manipulate you. So I'm not so sure you could have testified on his behalf, they might've just assumed he had tampered your memory.'
'Tampered my memory?' Harry repeated incredulously. Then he remembered that even Ginny had thought Malfoy was using a love potion.
'Someone in the Ministry really wanted him, I think,' Hermione said, still sounding apologetic for some reason. 'Maybe they had a kid here when he let the Death Eaters in, I don't know. Oh, Harry, it's like I said, Doge is out for blood. And nobody wants to stick up for anyone who might have been a Death Eater, or even a Slytherin really, you know the climate right now, no one wants to be seen associating with them in case people think they're guilty too.'
'Because they're cowards!' Harry shouted. 'Because they, they think it's all right to let more people die, for the good of society or a, a peaceful future-- '
'You've seen how paranoid the Ministry is,' Hermione said. 'Not many people are seen as trustworthy these days. Doge is one of the few, he's a known friend of Dumbledore and he's been a special advisor to the Wizengamot for years. It's a well-known fact that the Chief Warlock is in his pocket.'
'Well-known to who?' Harry demanded. 'Hermione, the rest of us don't read these obscure books on law, I don't even know who the Chief Warlock is!'
Hermione was near tears. 'Harry, I'm sorry, it's horrible-- '
'We just got Slytherin back,' Harry said, and his voice sounded cold and furious, but he didn't care, even when Hermione looked scared and Ron taken aback. 'We can't let this happen! Not now. Not Malfoy.'
'Maybe he didn't tell you for a reason,' Ron ventured. 'If Malfoy didn't want you to know-- '
Harry whirled on his best friend. 'So I should leave him there to die, is that it? Get his soul sucked out of him? Is that what you'd do?'
'All right, we'll help him,' Ron said, holding his hands up. 'It was just an idea.'
'We'll Apparate right now, come on,' Harry said, his mind already racing to the next step, and the next. 'We'll go to Azkaban and make sure-- '
'Be sensible,' Hermione implored. 'There are Anti-Apparition Wards for miles around Azkaban, and we can't create a Portkey unless we've been there. Oh, Harry, we don't even know if he's there, they could be doing it at the Ministry, anywhere.'
Ron frowned. 'We could go to Kingsley,' he suggested. 'He's an all-right bloke, he's always been on our side, he could bend the rules a little.'
'Bend the rules?' Hermione echoed. 'Ron Weasley, he's the Minister of Magic! He's the highest ruling authority in Wizarding Britain! The Minister of Magic cannot just break laws willy-nilly, and he most certainly cannot bend them to aid wanted criminals!' She saw Harry's face and said quickly, 'I mean, that's how the Ministry views Malfoy, is what I meant.'
'Maybe you wouldn't bend the rules,' Ron argued. 'I would, and I'll bet Kingsley would!'
'We'll go to Azkaban on thestrals,' Harry disagreed, 'and if Malfoy's not there, we'll go to the Ministry. Or I can go to Azkaban, and you two can go to the Ministry-- '
'No one's going to Azkaban, Harry,' Hermione snapped. 'It's hours away, and it's a harebrained scheme to begin with. We have to be reasonable about this.'
Ron scowled. 'Where do you think we should go, then? Just sit around here and write letters?'
'No,' Hermione said primly. 'I think we should go see Elphias Doge.'
'You mean the one who sentenced him in the first place?'
'If we make Elphias see reason,' Hermione explained, 'he can change the verdict, he has half the Wizengamot eating from his hand already. And I've read up on cases he's been involved in. He's not as scrupulous as one might think.'
There was silence in the room as Harry gritted his teeth, wanting only to act, find a thestral and take to the sky, do something. Ron looked equally committed to his own plan.
'I still say Kingsley-- '
'He's the Minister of Magic!' Hermione interrupted, as if this were all the argument she needed. 'As for you, Harry, don't you remember the last time we all tore off on thestrals to go save someone?'
It had been years now since Sirius had taken one last step backward and arced away through the veil, years of more danger and more deaths, and yet this caught Harry off guard, like a surprise punch. 'Of course I remember, Hermione,' he said coldly. 'Did you think I'd forget?'
'N-no,' she said, 'I just. Sorry, Harry, I only meant that we shouldn't be reckless about this.'
'Look,' said Ron. 'I think we should split up, it's the smart thing to do. If-- '
He hesitated. Harry said, 'What?'
Ron looked at Harry and said, flat-out, 'Are you really sure he's worth all this trouble, mate?'
Harry glared back, so furious at someone that for a moment it was at Ron.
'Yeah,' he said raggedly, 'yeah, Ron, okay?'
'Okay,' Ron said. He offered Harry a wary grin. 'Okay. Just checking. I'll go get the Deluminator, it might come in handy. And then I'm going to see Kingsley. He likes my dad, and he always keeps late work hours, Dad says. You two can go somewhere else.'
'Kingsley is not going to break the law,' Hermione muttered as they all trudged up to the boys' dormitory, which was also thankfully empty. 'Honestly, Ron. Oh, Harry, get your Invisibility Cloak, we might need it.'
As Harry fumbled through his trunk for his cloak, something shining caught his eye, and he grabbed for it with a gasp.
'Hermione!' he exclaimed. 'Sirius's mirror! I gave the other half to Malfoy months ago!'
'Worth a try,' she said, as Ron gave them a thumbs up and dashed down the stairs again. Under her breath, she whispered, 'The Minister of Magic, really!'
Harry's palms were sweating as he cradled the shard of glass, and it almost slipped out of his hand twice. 'Draco Malfoy,' he said loudly. 'Draco Malfoy! Malfoy, are you there? Come on, Malfoy, where are you?'
No matter how he tried, the mirror was unresponsive, and he dropped the shard back into his trunk. Now that one of their plans, no matter how small, had fallen through, the idea of tearing off to Azkaban seemed crazy at best.
'Shall we, er, go, then?' Hermione said tentatively.
His heart was still thundering but he felt deflated. 'I don't-- do you really think it'll make a difference? Going to Doge?'
'We have to try,' Hermione shrugged. 'Do you have a better plan?'
'No,' Harry admitted, though he didn't take a step toward the door. If only there were something certain he could do, but he had no ideas, he could barely think.
His eyes fell on The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, which he had set aside when cleaning out his trunk that morning. What would Dumbledore have done?
'Harry,' Hermione moaned, 'we're running out of time!'
'Doge, then,' he said. 'Come on, how do we get there?'
'Oh, his house is Unplottable, I already checked,' Hermione said. Harry was sure his face visibly fell, and yet in answer, Hermione beamed at him. 'But I think I have an idea.'
Ten minutes later, Harry was still gripping Hermione's hand from the Side-Along Apparition, creeping along beside her down a dark corridor. 'Where are we?' he hissed. 'Is this his house?'
'Shh,' Hermione admonished. She crept forward several more steps, then said a small 'Aha!' to herself, and pushed open a door to their right. Harry heard a loud whirring sound, undercut by a strange skritch, skritch.
'Where are we?' he demanded again. His mind was rapidly conjuring images of Blibbering Humdingers and Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, or whatever else might cause such a noise.
'You'll see,' Hermione said-- she even sounded a bit triumphant-- and pulled him forward into the room.
Cubicles lay before them in a room more vast than the Great Hall, and in each of them, rolls of parchment were flying and quills were scribbling away, though there were no witches or wizards to be seen. The quills were the noise Harry had heard. And the whirring--
'Oh, it's beautiful,' Hermione breathed, directing Harry's gaze to their left, where the biggest printing press he had ever seen was busily churning out leaflets.
'This is the Daily Prophet office,' Harry said in bewilderment, looking at her. 'Aside from, uh, a personal treat for you, why exactly are we here?'
'Well, we want information, don't we?' Hermione said, still with that smug air about her. 'Come on!'
She pulled him through aisle after aisle, past whizzing quills and self-sorting photographs, and one lanky wizard who had fallen asleep at his desk with his hat still on. 'Somewhere,' Hermione was muttering, 'somewhere, oh, it's got to be-- oh!'
There was a loud shriek as they collided with someone rushing in the other direction. Harry automatically reached out to steady the other person, while Hermione exclaimed, 'Sorry!'
The other person turned out to be a girl wearing a large balaclava, who leapt back from the both of them as if stung. Their collision, however, had caused her balaclava to come loose, and he found himself staring in utter shock at Marietta Edgecombe.
'You?' Hermione said in genuine incredulity.
Marietta burst into tears.
Five minutes later, she was sitting on a nearby desk, dabbing at her face with a handkerchief. 'I can't work,' she wailed, glaring at Hermione in between each sniff. 'I can't do anything, it's terrible! I'm writing an advice column for the Prophet under the name Sylvia Saturn, but I can only come here at night, the others don't like to look at me or they tease me for covering up my face!'
'I'm so sorry,' said Hermione, before Harry could say a word. 'Please owl me. Please. I'll take the spell off. There's got to be a way, I'll find one. I'm so sorry, Marietta, promise me you'll owl?'
Marietta gave her a look of utter disgust. 'I'm a Ravenclaw,' she snarled. 'Don't you think I've looked everywhere? After the best mediwitches in Britain, you think you can snap your fingers and fix it?'
'I did the spell, you know that makes a difference,' Hermione insisted. Her voice was nothing like Harry had ever heard it: she was speaking so quietly she might have been whispering. 'Please let me try.'
At last, Marietta nodded.
Hermione grasped Harry's arm and stumbled away, pulling him with her behind an empty cubicle where several spell-checking quills were running simultaneously over a long scroll of parchment. She was gripping his arm so tightly he almost fell over.
'We did the right thing,' she hissed; she was white. 'We did, didn't we?'
'Yeah,' Harry said. 'Yeah, Hermione, we did.'
He had never seen Hermione uncertain about anything, for when she was right, she was always right. She looked so pale and terrible, the way she always got when her parents forgot something or someone mentioned what had happened when Bellatrix had kept her in the drawing room at Malfoy Manor.
'Hey,' Harry said softly. 'You didn't mean to hurt anyone. You couldn't have known.'
'I should have!' She looked furious with herself. 'We all should have, we were so-- self-centered-- '
'I was, sure,' said Harry. 'You, not so much. Hermione, you've been thinking about other people for as long as I've known you. The first time I saw you, you were going around the train asking after Neville's toad, remember?'
She smiled faintly in spite of herself. 'I suppose I do remember that.'
'Besides,' he said, squeezing her hand, 'it isn't too late. Marietta will owl you, like she said. You can change it.'
'No, not everything,' Harry admitted. 'But some things.'
Hermione gave him a wavery smile. 'Yes. Which is why we have to go see Rita Skeeter. Right now.'
Rita Skeeter's office was clear on the other side of the grand room of cubicles, with glass walls and several photographs of herself, posing with various celebrities. Harry was sickened to see a framed article on himself, from the Triwizard Tournament. The Rita in the photo gave him an exaggerated wink and he turned away.
'I know it's got to be here somewhere,' Hermione muttered, turning in a circle as she surveyed the office. 'Oh, this can't possibly work, but-- Accio addresses!'
Miraculously, a small tin of cards flew out from Rita's top desk drawer, narrowly missed her crocodile-skin chair, and landed neatly in Hermione's outstretched hand.
'I didn't think it would be that easy,' Hermione said. 'Oh, well, here, help me look for anything about Doge.'
They found it within a minute, helpfully filed beneath the letter D, and Hermione held it out to Harry, her hand trembling a little. She looked out of place, standing there in her school uniform on Rita Skeeter's eye-assaulting green carpet, and it occurred to Harry for the first time that they were definitely trespassing.
'You should go, Harry,' Hermione said. 'Here.'
He gave her a quizzical look. 'Aren't you coming? Do you-- ' He could not blame her, he supposed, not if he truly thought about it, but it still hurt to swallow as he asked, 'You don't want to help get Malfoy?'
She gave him an exasperated, if fond smile. 'I think I ought to go find Ron and Kingsley,' she said. 'If anyone can convince the Minister of Magic to break the rules, it's me. I'll see you back at Hogwarts, all right?'
On impulse, he went to her and kissed her on the cheek, and her bushy hair got in his mouth. 'See you soon,' he whispered, and while it wasn't so dangerous, he didn't think, while there was little chance anything could happen, he still added, 'Keep safe, and Ron too.'
'We will,' Hermione said. She squeezed his hand, then spun on her heel and Apparated.
A moment later, the office was empty, and the only sign anything had been amiss was a pile of notecards on the floor.
Doge was in bed when Harry found him.
Harry wished he hadn't been; it was so much easier to loathe a man looking smart in dress robes, striding through the halls of the Ministry, than an elderly white-haired wizard, wearing striped pajamas. His hands shook as he reached for the lamp, and then he saw Harry and gasped.
'It's about Draco Malfoy,' Harry said.
It was harder still when Doge refused to hear a word before marching him into the kitchen and setting him up with a cup of tea and a little plate of biscuits, shaped like smiling flowers. The man's hands trembled as he poured the tea, but not a drop spilled, and he carried it over to Harry with a smile.
'Now tell me about young Malfoy,' Doge said, in his high-pitched wheeze. 'It's a pleasure to see you again, my dear boy! We met so briefly at that wedding, and you in disguise the whole time!'
Harry glared down at the biscuits and said, 'Malfoy doesn't deserve to die.'
'Ah,' said Doge. He stirred his tea carefully with a small silver spoon and then returned it, as if he had all the time in the world, to the table. 'Ah, yes. Now, Harry, it's a very complicated matter, you see, it's not like war at all, where one must make a split-second decision that will decide whether another person lives or dies. It isn't about leniency, my boy, or dare I say forgiveness-- '
'What's it about, then?' Harry demanded.
'Why, justice,' Doge said, surprised. 'Pardon me if I wax poetic for a moment, but there is a balance of the act and the punishment, and the worse the act, or even acts, the worse the punishment. It's quite simple, you see, and with enough time to judge the balance fairly and level-headedly, I daresay it works out for the best!'
'This isn't for the best!' Harry exploded. 'You don't know Draco, no one there did, they only heard the accusations, but I know better, I was there and I'll testify again, you have to give him another chance! You only heard one side of the story!'
'Harry, Harry, you must understand,' wheezed Doge, and for that moment, pajamas or no pajamas, he reminded Harry of no one so much as Cornelius Fudge. 'Young Draco was a Death Eater, a killer-- '
'He wasn't a killer,' Harry snarled. 'You're the killer, you're the one who sent him to his death! Thought you'd go after the young, the weak, is that it? Skip over Lucius Malfoy, the one with some influence, and get him where it hurts? You know who else went after kids? Do you? Fenrir Greyback!'
He wasn't aware that he had pulled his wand, but when he blinked, it was extended at Doge's throat.
The old wizard whimpered. 'It was for the greater good, Harry! You must understand!'
'Oh, I understand,' Harry said coldly.
Once, he had thought being a Gryffindor made you great. Yet Gryffindor was only the first choice, and you had to keep choosing, there was no guarantee. Slytherin did not make you evil any more than Hufflepuff made you quiet and obedient, or Ravenclaw witty.
'Let's be reasonable, my dear boy,' Doge pleaded. 'The war is over, and the people of Britain deserve to feel safe in their homes, to go on in peace without these reminders of what was.'
'I don't agree,' Harry said curtly. 'I don't want people forgetting. I think people should know what happened, and how easy it is for it to happen again, and that it isn't as simple as condemning everyone with a skull and snake on their arm!'
'You think the Death Eaters should walk free?' Doge said, his tone sharpening, as it had when he spoke to the Weasleys' Aunt Muriel at the wedding so long ago. Harry could just see the headline now: 'CHOSEN ONE' UNLEASHES FORMER DEATH EATERS ON HAPLESS CITIZENS! 'You think they deserve to live in the free and just society that we have all worked so hard to make and protect, that we fought for, while they worked to destroy it? The great Albus Dumbledore himself, whom we both so loved and revered, died to protect this world and those in it-- '
'But the world isn't divided into good people and Death Eaters,' Harry said, as Sirius had, once. 'And also,' he had to smile at this, for Hermione's sake, 'I'm not so sure I'd describe the Wizarding world as free and just, and I'm not so sure Dumbledore would have either.'
Doge inclined his head, perhaps not quite the stupid man Harry had thought him once. 'Be that as it may, we are in a time of peace. Surely we should put the past behind us, Harry? Put it away?'
Harry glanced down at his hand, where he could see the faint traces of I must not tell lies, and he absently reached up to touch his forehead. 'Not everything can be put away,' he said. 'I don't think everything should be.'
He was still holding his wand at Doge's throat, and he inched it a little nearer. 'I don't think we really are in a time of peace,' Harry added. 'People are still dying. You just sentenced a boy to the Dementors. I don't think that's very peaceable, do you?'
Doge eyed Harry's wand, holly and phoenix feather, which since the May before had worked like a dream. 'Now, now, Harry, you wouldn't-- we have an understanding, don't we, I was an old friend of Dumbledore's and of course, any student Dumbledore treasured is dear to me as well-- '
'Yeah,' Harry said. 'Dumbledore. You know, I was with him when he died.' Doge gasped at this, but Harry barreled on. 'That's right. So was Draco, come to think. And do you know what Dumbledore did, with Draco's wand at his throat, when he could barely stand up? He offered Draco a second chance.'
'Such a giving wizard,' Doge babbled, 'he was always so-- so dedicated to seeing the best in everyone-- '
'He never got that second chance,' Harry said, prodding his wand a little closer to make his point. 'He got chased out of Hogwarts and he had to work for Voldemort to protect his family. Oh, come off it, he's dead,' Harry snapped, for Doge had started violently at Voldemort's name. 'My point is, Draco deserves a second chance now, and I'd say Dumbledore would think so too.'
'Well,' said Doge feebly. 'Well, now, Harry, I do see your point, though I don't think you quite understand the way our justice system works-- '
'You mean, the way it's corrupt and full of bias?' Harry said at once. 'I think you pushed for Draco's sentence, I think you're the one responsible for him getting the verdict he did, that's what I think.'
Doge frowned. 'I did it for Albus,' he admitted at last. 'For what it's worth, I-- I was blinded by love, I only wanted revenge for my oldest, dearest friend. I'm sorry, Harry, I must say, I didn't know you felt this passionately about his sentence, I thought you'd be glad to see Dumbledore's murderer face the justice he deserves.'
'He didn't kill Dumbledore,' Harry said; his voice sounded very distant. 'I did. With a potion Dumbledore made me feed him. And even if I hadn't, it was Snape who killed him, everyone knows that. It wasn't Draco.'
'That is,' said Doge, 'that is, well, I suppose he is not a murderer, but a Death Eater, yes, that cannot be denied.'
'Five years in prison, then,' Harry snapped. 'Come on, it isn't that difficult, you already said you saw my point, you can intervene! You can demand a re-trial, it's why I came to you, I know you have-- ' What was it Hermione had said? 'You've got the Chief Warlock in your pocket-- '
Elphias Doge stared at him.
'But Harry,' he said, with his trembling hands, his feeble smile that looked almost crafty where the light made odd shadows. 'Harry, It's too late already. Draco Malfoy was Kissed at sundown.'
When Harry arrived back at Hogwarts, the moon was high over the trees and the castle silent. Everywhere was still as he trudged up to Gryffindor, through when he stepped through the portrait hole, he found Ron and Hermione awake and still bickering.
'Kingsley can't intervene wit the Wizengamot,' Hermione was arguing loudly. 'He said so, I said so, isn't that enough?'
'But Fudge did it!' Ron exclaimed.
'Well, for better or for worse, Kingsley refuses to abuse his powers as Minister,' Hermione sighed. 'Ron, did-- oh, Harry! Harry, what's happened? You look-- didn't you find Doge?'
'Yeah,' Harry said hollowly. 'But it doesn't matter. We were too late.'
Hermione's hand flew to her mouth. 'Oh, Harry,' she said. 'Harry, I'm so sorry.' She wrapped her arms around him, tight enough to suffocate, and for an instant it was all he wanted, until he really did feel as if he were suffocating. Ron thumped him on the back several times, his expression rueful.
'I,' he said. 'Look, I'll be honest, I never liked him, but he didn't deserve it.'
'Yeah,' Harry said. He couldn't say more. 'Yeah.'
They sat up with him for as long as they could, more or less in silence. Hermione dropped off first, her bushy head pillowed on her arms, and less than half an hour later, Ron murmured sleepily, 'Only for a minute,' and dropped off as well.
Harry sat, staring out the window. Even if he wanted it, he didn't think sleep would come.
Malfoy was dead. Surprised though he might have been to hear it only six months earlier, to Harry that was nothing close to all right. And it was terrible, calling it a Kiss, when he was sure it was nothing like kissing.
That was the last time he had seen Malfoy. Kissing him. Of all things, Ginny's words echoed in his head-- even Malfoy doesn't deserve to be used for, for sex--
And Malfoy was nobody like Ron or Hermione, someone whose death would tear out his stomach, the empty open wound he'd felt gaping inside after Dobby had taken the knife on his behalf. All at once they all came back to him, Sirius and then Dumbledore's crumpled body, even Hedwig, he had not even had time to look at her before the jet of light hit her . . . and Moody, who had died protecting him, as they all had . . .
Harry had not felt it like this in months, perhaps in years, for Dumbledore had told him to steady on and he had closed up obligingly. He had had a job to do. And now, sitting in the common room with Ron snoring and Hermione fast asleep with her head on the table, he wanted to scream, howl as loud as he could. He could feel it building inside him, and yet he couldn't move, couldn't even rise from his chair.
So many had died, senselessly, Fred still grinning, Ernie Macmillan, even Mandy Brocklehurst, when he could not remember if he had ever said a word to her. It was horrible, he could not grasp the magnitude, would not ever. He had looked at the piles of dead in that room and cared only about his own because he could not stand to care about more, he could not bear it. Remus and Tonks, Fred, Colin, wasn't it enough, wasn't it?
He did not know if it was any comfort that Malfoy had not died for Harry, had not died for anything close. It was worse, perhaps, that Harry had thought he could protect Malfoy, only to find that he couldn't.
More people weren't supposed to die. Not even Lucius Malfoy, and yet Draco himself had taken the fall.
Then Harry recalled that Malfoy was not really dead, he was a body without a soul, as good as an Inferi. That was even worse.
And they had not been friends, really. Malfoy had not seen fit to tell Harry about his trial. Harry did not even know his favorite color, or if he had truly flown into a helicopter when he was young, or whom else he had kissed.
Senselessly, Harry wondered if Pansy knew, and what she would say if he asked her. Then he thought about Pansy, sobbing in the Slytherin dungeons, in an empty dormitory, and he felt worse.
He put his head down, resting on his arms, but it was much longer before he fell asleep.
The sun was filtering in the windows when Harry woke, neck sore, back aching. He could hear birdsong somewhere, and glancing beside him, he saw Hermione and Ron, still asleep but holding hands across the table. He smiled, and that's when he remembered about Malfoy, and stopped.
The progress of dawn across the Hogwarts grounds was a slow one, and when Harry went to the window, he still saw stars in the sky, though it had lightened considerably. The day already promised to be clear and lovely, the sort of day for picnics by the lake and long hours of revision in the sun, and it disgusted Harry. He went to wheel around, to go up to his dormitory, when some kind of movement caught his eye. Harry turned back.
There, straggling up across the still-shadowed grounds, past Hagrid's small hut, came a hunched and shivering figure.
It was unmistakably Malfoy.
Only when he reached the entrance doors did it register to Harry that Hermione and Ron were level with him, panting and gasping, 'Is it Malfoy? What is it? What's going on?' He could not answer, only dash out into the early morning, the dew on the grass soaking his trainers. It wasn't until he drew up beside Malfoy that he stopped running, though the momentum as he seized Malfoy by the arms almost knocked the both of them over.
'. . . alive?' Ron said, gasping for breath. 'Um-- Malfoy-- good to see-- you-- '
'I thought,' Harry said, 'I thought,' and then Malfoy flung him off, his tone abrupt and stinging as he snapped,
'Get off me! Get away from me!'
'We thought you were dead,' Hermione exclaimed. Though she wasn't flinging her arms around Malfoy or sobbing uncontrollably as she sometimes did, she sounded as worried as she ever had been about Ron or Harry himself, and Harry loved her for it.
'Hermione,' he said. 'Do you have a bottle?'
'No,' she said, flustered and sorry, 'I didn't think-- '
'I've got one,' Ron interrupted, scowling when Hermione gaped at him. 'No need to look so surprised. Hang on.' He fumbled inside the bag he was carrying with a loud rumbling noise.
'Hey, that's my bag!' Hermione exclaimed. 'The one that holds everything!'
Ron turned crimson. 'Might've borrowed it and transfigured it,' he muttered. 'What? It's dead useful! Okay . . . Accio bottle!'
He could not bear to look at Malfoy or he didn't know what he would do, he could not trust himself. First things first, and then he would coax Malfoy down from whatever fury he was in, then they would talk. There was time.
Harry put his wand to his temple and began to siphon away memories: the Astronomy Tower that night . . . his dreams of Voldemort ordering a petrified Malfoy to perform the Cruciatus Curse . . . Malfoy in the bathroom whispering, 'He'll kill my whole family' . . . Malfoy at the Manor turning away from Harry . . .
When he finished, he yanked a scrap piece of parchment out of his pocket, a very old and well-laundered receipt from who-knows-when, and said, 'A quill, Ron?'
Dutifully, Ron produced a self-inking quill from the bag, looking quite pleased at being the prepared member of the Trio for once in his life.
I hope this is all the evidence you need Give it to the Chief Warlock. I'll testify if I need to. Malfoy is with me and I won't let the Dementors have him. He deserves a fair trial.
After a moment's thought, he squeezed in a Thanks just before his name.
'Ron? Can you get my owl and have her take this to Kingsley right away?' Ron nodded and took the parchment from him. 'And Hermione, will you tell Professor McGonagall what's happened?'
'Of course I will, Harry,' she said. 'I'll go right now.'
'Okay,' Harry said. He spared a grateful smile to both of his friends and then turned, at last, to Malfoy, who would still not look at him. 'You come with me.'
They went to the Room of Requirement.
The room it provided was nothing that Harry had ever seen, but he liked its peaceful atmosphere; it was full of armchairs, and the windows were made of stained glass, though he couldn't tell what the pictures were supposed to portray. The early morning light through the glass cast a wash of green across Malfoy's face and Harry thought of the Slytherin lake water light, and simultaneously the long shadows and secret rooms of 12 Grimmauld Place.
As prepared as ever, the room has thoughtfully provided a pitcher of water and two glasses, and Malfoy busied himself pouring a glass with his back to Harry. When that was done, he turned around but deliberately stayed back, several long strides away.
'What are you, what's the matter?' Harry said, though he was sure whatever Malfoy had just been through, it was probably a near-death encounter, and the shock was not all that surprising. 'Are you all right?'
Malfoy's hand was shaking with the finest tremors, Harry could tell because the water in the glass was trembling. He advanced towards Malfoy; why, he didn't know, but he wanted to do something, shove him or shake him or just hold on.
'Potter,' Malfoy said. His voice sounded strangled, shrill. 'What are you doing. Potter.'
'I thought you were dead!' Harry shouted, the relief of saying it an enormous rush. 'Do you have any idea how scared I was? How awful-- '
'I don't care,' Malfoy said, his voice that cold and distant drawl Harry only fully remembered now. 'Get away from me, Potter, I don't care how awful it was for you, it doesn't matter!'
Harry stared. 'What's wrong with you? Why won't you tell me what's going on? Why are you angry at me, I'm the one who thought you were dead, who didn't even know what was happening!'
'You weren't there,' Malfoy blurted and then stared so hard at the opposite wall Harry thought he might be trying to wandlessly jinx it.
It took him a moment to even decipher what Malfoy was talking about; so much had happened in the past twenty-four hours that he could barely recall it all. Bewildered, he said at last, 'You never told me the trial was happening. You deliberately cursed Hermione just to keep me from knowing! What do you expect, of course I didn't come!'
Malfoy stayed silent.
'I didn't know!' Harry insisted. 'God, Malfoy, I would have come, all right? Why didn't you just ask me to be there? Why'd you take so many precautions to insure that I didn't know, why did you-- that Unspeakable spell, it's awful, why did you do that?'
They stared at one another, Malfoy like a cornered animal. 'That's the point!' he snarled at last. 'You don't have to tell someone!'
Harry blinked. 'I was supposed to know?'
'I thought you did know!' Malfoy said savagely. 'You knew about my father's trial. I thought you could tell, that you knew-- I haven't been eating, or sleeping really, even Pansy noticed and she never notices anyone besides herself-- '
'I thought you were just being,' Harry said, 'I don't know. Your usual self.'
'Oh, of course, I usually skip meals and lie awake nights and think about death all the time,' Malfoy snapped. 'That makes perfect sense, Potter!'
A week or so before, Harry remembered, he had come across Malfoy in the library, his pale head drooping on a book; Harry had put his hand on Malfoy's shoulder for a second, clumsy and brief. It was true that Malfoy had been up nights-- revising, Harry had assumed-- and Harry'd said, easily, 'Worried?' Malfoy had thrown him a pinched look and Harry had said, a little amused, 'Hey, it'll turn out all right.'
He felt sick now, realizing that Malfoy must have taken that for a kind of promise that Harry would be there to make sure of it.
'I thought you had nerves about the exams,' Harry said weakly. 'And the anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts was rough, it was rough for everyone.'
Malfoy scoffed. 'Bad memories? N.E.W.T.s? Since when have I cared about school? Potter, it was in the Prophet, I don't know how you couldn't have seen-- '
'I stopped getting the paper once Rita Skeeter started her sensationalist obituary series,' Harry grumbled; after the claims she made about Remus Lupin's former porn career in the bestiality magazine Bared, not to mention Tonks's cocaine peddling, he had cancelled his subscription.
'I love that section,' said Malfoy, momentarily distracted.
'The point is, I didn't know,' Harry said. 'If I had known, I would have been there. All right? God, Malfoy, why didn't you just tell me? Or let Hermione tell me, you didn't even have to do anything, you could have just let me find out. You didn't have to, to try and keep it from me, when you wanted me to know about it! That makes no sense!'
'It doesn't have to make sense,' Malfoy snapped, and Harry was about to explain, in great detail, how unutterably frustrating Malfoy could be, when he stopped. And sniffed.
'Um,' Harry said. 'Malfoy? Why do you smell like chocolate?'
Malfoy scowled. 'No reason.'
'No, you do,' Harry insisted. 'I don't know what it is, now I can't stop smelling it, did you coat yourself in chocolate or something?'
He had been joking, but Malfoy actually flushed. 'I may have,' he admitted, 'taken a bath with chocolate-scented shampoo. And eaten several . . . er, lots of it. I had Kreacher bring it to me, he checks up on me from time to time.'
'He does what?' Harry said, and then the rest of the words registered and he exclaimed, 'You did what?'
'It helps with the Dementors,' Malfoy shrugged. 'Right? That's what Lupin always said. I couldn't have done a Patronus otherwise, there were so many of them.'
'So you took a bath in chocolate,' Harry interrupted, slightly hysterical. It was such a Malfoy thing to do that he couldn't speak. 'Because Lupin told you chocolate helps with, with Dementors. How did you even have a wand?' He could not believe that Malfoy, who did a mediocre Patronus at best, had done it wandlessly.
'When they came to get me at Hogwarts,' Malfoy said. 'I hid my own wand on me yesterday.'
'You got your wand past trained Aurors?' Harry said skeptically.
'They didn't expect me to have two. And I had help.'
Harry blinked. 'From whom? Pansy?'
'Kreacher and Myrtle.'
'Moaning Myrtle?' Harry echoed. 'And Kreacher?' At Malfoy's annoyed look, he shrugged. 'Well, I suppose I defeated Tom Riddle in second year with the Sorting Hat and Fawkes. I don't see why a ghost and a house-elf and a bathtub of chocolate should be any different.'
'It wasn't a bathtub of chocolate,' Malfoy said irritably. He did not seem so white-faced or furious any longer, at least. He wasn't smiling, but he wasn't trembling either, and he definitely wasn't a soulless body.
'It's still a lot of chocolate,' Harry said, his mouth twitching. Chocolate was easier to discuss than Dementors, or trials, or escapes from prison. 'Don't you feel sick or something? From eating all of it?'
'Now that you mention it,' Malfoy said, as if it had just occurred to him, wavering on his feet. Harry wasted no time pushing him back into the armchair that appeared, then sat down in his own.
They were quiet for a minute, in a room that smelled of chocolate and was washed over in green light.
'Malfoy,' Harry said softly, at last, and was gratified when Malfoy finally looked up at him. 'Why didn't you tell me you were being tried?'
'I told you, I thought you knew.'
'Why would I have known?'
'You knew about my father's trial,' Malfoy said, all sharp. 'When you didn't show up I figured that, that it didn't matter to you.'
Harry narrowed his eyes. 'After everything this year, after what happened? After I came to you, after I've told you time and time again that I would have protected you if you'd have just come to me at the end of sixth year-- I would have, why don't you believe me?'
Malfoy slumped. 'I know you would have, you're like Lupin, you think that people are basically-- worth it.'
'You are worth it,' Harry said, frowning.
Malfoy was almost startled into a laugh. 'I know that,' he said, and gave another half-laugh. 'I know that. Good lord, Potter, I'm not suffering from a case of low self-esteem. It's just that-- you rarely think so.'
'You,' Malfoy repeated, waving his hand in an amorphous gesture. 'You, Lupin, Weasley, Gryffindor House, Albus Dumbledore, what-have-you-- '
'It's not an us and them situation,' Harry insisted. 'I'm not part of some big group who's always on the side of popular opinion-- I mean, look how many times Hogwarts turned against me, no one would even talk to me when they thought I had it out for Muggle-borns in second year-- '
'Oh, please, like you had it so hard, sometimes your public was against you!'
'You're the one who wouldn't explain, Harry exclaimed. 'If you had just told me, Malfoy, or asked somebody else for help, I don't know, Penelope or, or Slughorn-- '
'You don't understand,' Malfoy said disgustedly.
'That's what you do in Slytherin,' Malfoy hissed. 'You look out for yourself, and the people who are important and who will look out for you, and you look out for Slytherin House, because it's what you've got. Okay? And having you as Slytherin's champion this year, it's ridiculous-- '
'I wasn't trying to be a champion! I just cared about-- '
'Maybe I didn't want you to care, I don't need you!' Malfoy almost shouted. 'We don't need you!'
'I know,' Harry said after a minute. 'But it's like I said. Hogwarts needs you.'
Malfoy gave him a sharp, searching look.
'Besides,' Harry said, starting to smile, 'I hate to break it to you, but Hogwarts is almost over. No one outside of Hogwarts is going to care what House you were in.'
'Oh please, people do.'
'Not the people I know,' Harry said staunchly. 'Not me.'
'But that doesn't change a thing,' Malfoy said. 'It isn't just Slytherin. I tortured people-- I tried to kill-- '
'Me too,' Harry said.
'You don't get it, Potter! It's different for you, they'll forgive you anything you did in the name of justice, any Unforgivable, anything, it's not like that for me!'
'Whose side are you on?' Harry said, smiling. 'Do you want me to turn you over to the Ministry and let the Dementors have another go?'
'I don't need your protection,' Malfoy snapped.
'No you don't, you did it yourself tonight,' Harry shrugged. 'I just wanted to help you because that's what, um, friends do for each other.'
'Excuse me?' Malfoy blinked. 'We aren't friends, Potter,' he said at last, pronouncing the word as if it were poisonous.
Harry shrugged. 'Fine, then, people who don't want each other dead, does that do?'
'I tortured people,' Malfoy said lowly. 'I'm not good like your precious Gryffindors. You still exist in this fantasy world where I'm nice really, I've secretly got a whole passel of Hufflepuffs that I like-- '
'I don't think you have a bunch of secret Hufflepuff friends,' Harry said, grinning now. 'God, Malfoy, you've been tormenting me every opportunity you got for the past seven and a half years. If I don't know how horrible you can be, who does?'
Malfoy looked at him and then, finally, finally smiled, even if it was a pinched and tentative one. 'Unbelievable, Potter, but you just made a point.'
Harry shrugged. 'It happens on occasion.'
What do you even see when you look at me? Ginny had asked him once.
He looked at Malfoy, this scarred and angled boy with ribs that still stuck out and a faded white skull scar on his wrist, who had thrust out his hand on the train as if Harry's friendship had been his right, who had blundered ever since. He could never seem to do a thing right; he was prickly on his best days. They had been in school together for nearly half Harry's life and unfathomably, the thought of the next year without Malfoy made something contract in his chest. He did not understand how Malfoy had become someone he wanted to keep seeing, but he had.
'Sometimes you need to do it yourself,' Harry said. 'True. Hiding behind other people doesn't make you safe. It makes you a coward. But you also don't need to go it alone. That's not bravery either.'
There was no answer, and finally Harry asked, 'Why'd you come back to Hogwarts?'
Malfoy looked bewildered. 'I don't know,' he said honestly. 'I couldn't have gone to the Manor. I didn't know how to get to Snape's house.'
Harry smirked. As loath as Malfoy would be to admit it, Hogwarts was a sort of home to him, too.
'Don't get any ideas,' Malfoy said, cottoning on immediately. 'I hate this despicable castle, I do, Potter! I loathe it here, it's second-rate at best and overrun with Muggles and werewolves-- '
'Shut up,' Harry said, and unbelievably, Malfoy did. He even almost smiled.
It wasn't quite the same beaming smile he was wearing when Harry saved him from the Death Eater during the Battle of Hogwarts, but it was a miniature version, and that was enough. Malfoy, so sharp and sure, and that little smile. It looked strange on him. Harry liked it.
Far later, after Pansy and the other Slytherins had been alerted, and Harry had written a note to Professor McGonagall both ordering her and begging her not to turn Malfoy over to Ministry authorities, they were alone again, this time in the Slytherin dormitories. It was nearly breakfast time, by Harry's estimation, the sun streaming in through the water-windows.
'You ought to go to class,' Malfoy said, pulling off his robe at last, kicking off his shoes. His forearms were bare, and Harry looked at the expanse of skin, pale and white, the very slight scar of a skull if one looked close enough.
'I'm not going to class,' Harry said. 'I'm, um. I could stay here for a while, maybe. If you promise not to skip out in the morning like last time.'
'It is the morning, Potter,' Malfoy drawled, crawling into bed with his trousers still on, his shirt only half-unbuttoned. 'And don't get any ideas, I can hardly keep my eyes open.'
'You should sleep,' Harry said, clambering onto the bed beside Malfoy, who gave him an irritated look but did not shove him off. 'I'll just, um, be here. Don't mind me. Go to sleep.'
Malfoy made an agreeable noise and rolled over.
Mere minutes later, he seemed to be on the verge of drifting off when Harry poked him in the shoulder and he grunted in annoyance.
'What's your favorite color?'
'Blue,' Malfoy mumbled into his pillow. 'Now leave me alone.'
'I like green but blue's my favorite, always has been,' said Malfoy. 'What are you, doing up compatibility charts?'
Harry looked over at Malfoy's tousled head, turned away from him; the collar of his shirt was tucked up, and Harry reached out without thinking and smoothed it back into place. 'How many people have you kissed?'
'Hmm, four. Jealous?'
Harry gave him a little shove. 'No. Who're the other three?'
'Pansy, Tracey and Astoria Greengrass,' Malfoy slurred sleepily. 'Do you have insomnia? Is this some post-traumatic sort of thing? Because I can tell you right now-- '
'Oh, shut up,' said Harry. 'Did you really crash into a helicopter on your broom when you were nine, or were you just making that up?'
Malfoy turned his head, fixing slitted gray eyes on Harry. 'What are you on about? I'm trying to sleep, Potter, I just had a harrowing encounter with a horde of Dementors and nearly died and now I'm exhausted and you want to talk about helicoptics?'
'Helicopters,' Harry corrected, and grinned. 'So you were making it up, then.' He leaned in and kissed him, and at that moment, it was the easiest thing in the world.
Several hours later, Harry woke to the vision of a silvery lynx, floating before him in the room.
'Potter,' Kingsley's deep voice boomed out. 'You have proven that insufficient evidence was provided, and the Ministry has granted Mr. Malfoy a re-trial. Ministry authorities will contact Mr. Malfoy soon.'
With that, the lynx bounded away into air.
Kingsley's voice must have woken Malfoy, as he sat up, blinking several times.
'Our esteemed Minister of Magic, I take it,' he drawled, not sounding particularly grateful.
'Yeah,' Harry said, 'yeah, but that's really good news, Malfoy! It'll be better this time! I'll testify, and Hermione will, and Ron, and I bet Penelope would, and lots of people!'
'Yeah,' Malfoy said, still not sounding very enthused. He rolled out of bed and went to stand by the window, peering out into the depths of the lake. It was still sunny-- afternoon, Harry guessed, though he didn't know.
'What now?' Harry demanded, staring at Malfoy's back. 'Were you expecting a full pardon or something? At least you don't have Aurors chasing you everywhere.'
Still looking out at the lake, Malfoy finally muttered, 'I expect you want a thank you, then?'
'What? No you don't have to thank me,' Harry said. At Malfoy's irritated look, all lit up by the window, Harry shook his head. 'I'm not being noble, Malfoy, I mean it. All of that was your doing. I didn't change the past. I just showed them what I'd seen.'
Malfoy gave a shaky laugh. 'I suppose I'm lucky that you were in the right places at the right times.'
'Yeah, I suppose.' Harry grinned. 'Do I get a reward?'
Malfoy looked disgusted. 'I'm not your replacement Weasley, Potter. We have an arrangement, that's all.'
'I know,' Harry said, smiling; Malfoy was starting to sound a bit shrill.
Harry rolled to his feet and went to him, stepped forward till they were nearly touching. He braced one arm against the window, got the other around Malfoy's waist. Malfoy almost resisted for a moment, then relaxed, and let Harry lean in-- ridiculous, Harry thought, like we're lovers or something. When Harry trailed a finger up the raised silver scar on his chest, Malfoy shuddered against him.
'Shh,' Harry said. He thought about how difficult Malfoy was, how scarred and complicated and terrible, and how sometimes Harry himself was more of all of those things when around Malfoy.
It could not possibly work. It could only end badly.
They stood there, half in light, and for some reason, Malfoy began humming, low and then louder.
'That better not be "Weasley Is Our King,"' Harry warned.
Malfoy's lips curled, barely managing the echo of his usual smirk. Harry found he didn't mind it. 'It's the song I'm writing about my daring victory,' Malfoy said. 'About how great I am. I saved myself! Singlehandedly. There were hordes of Dementors but I did it.'
'With a bathtub full of chocolate,' Harry said.
'Yes, I'll give the werewolf proper credit,' Malfoy said absently. 'Though nothing rhymes with werewolf except for Rolf, and Rolf Scamander and I aren't friends-- '
'You could always use his name,' Harry suggested.
'Remus's.' At Malfoy's scandalized look, Harry gave up. 'Am I going to be in this song of yours?'
'Excuse me, you've already got the world singing your praises,' Malfoy sniffed. 'Can't get enough, can you, Potter? I always knew you were a fame addict. You always want more.'
'Yeah, I do,' Harry said, and got his arms around Malfoy and his face in Malfoy's neck. He smelled like soap and chocolate and something uniquely Malfoy, somehow sweet and sharp. 'I do always want more.'
He left Slytherin that evening, after insuring that Malfoy had food from the kitchens and that Pansy would not suffocate him with hugs. It was a warm night, and even at that hour, plenty of students dotted the grounds, so that the halls were dim and full of echoes. He liked Hogwarts like that, just as much as he liked it in bustling daylight, and as Harry climbed the stairs to Gryffindor, he put his hand on the stone wall. He couldn't feel anything, not a soft thrum of magic or any kind of spark, just cold stone against his palm. It made him smile anyway.
Helga Hufflepuff, it seemed, had been an exceedingly smart woman.
A moment later, he went to push through the portrait hole when it swung open and Ginny emerged, laughing at something from a conversation she was leaving behind. The light from inside was warm on her hair, that burnished red-gold. When she turned and caught sight of him, however, she raised both eyebrows.
'Long day, was it?'
'It's a long story,' Harry said. Then he smiled at her. 'Listen, I'll tell you later. Want to go for a walk around the lake after lunch tomorrow?'
'Can't,' she said. 'I have a Charms exam, and then Dean and I are going flying. After dinner?'
Harry grinned. 'Sure.'
'Okay, I'll meet you by the doors.' She put her hand on his arm as she passed. 'You look happy, Harry. I'm glad.'
He caught her hand and squeezed it. He had wanted so much with her, but perhaps it had not been her that he had wanted at all, not in the end. Perhaps he would always wonder what it might have been like. He might have loved her, in a different world; perhaps he even loved her a bit in this one.
'I am too,' he said; they shared a last smile, and then she went through the portrait hole and away from him.
A week later, their exams began.
Hermione had taken her bag back from Ron and was using it to lug around more books than Harry had read in his lifetime. Every two minutes or so, she would shoot her hand in the bag and Summon two or three, then frantically flip through them until she reassured herself that she was right. More than once, she almost caught Harry or Ron's hand with the books as she slammed them open on the table.
'Good idea, coming back for another year,' Ron said sarcastically at the end of the theory portion of their Transfiguration N.E.W.T. Hermione was feverishly paging through two books at once to check her answers and paid them no mind.
'Do you think she can really read two books at the same time?' Harry whispered to Ron, grinning.
Ron laughed. 'If anyone can, it'd be Hermione,' he said. He was grinning too, but if anything, he looked proud.
On the last morning of their exams, Harry was sitting at breakfast with Ron and Hermione when the post came. The Daily Prophet nearly landed in his porridge-- he'd taken out a subscription again, after what he had missed the last time-- and then his own small brown owl came fluttering down to his plate, hooting happily as Harry offered him the crusts from his toast.
'Hey, Sal,' he said. 'What've you got for me?'
'Ooh, have you thought of a name for him?' Hermione asked eagerly from across the table, looking up from her detailed drawings for Herbology.
Harry shrugged. 'I suppose. Ginny helped, she really likes naming things. We thought we could call him Salazar, you know, since it's kind of fitting. A historical name just like Hedwig's, and after this year, well. And Gin said it can be Sal, for short.'
'That's awfully symbolic for you, Harry Potter,' Hermione teased. 'No, I think it's a lovely name. Here, it looks like he's got a letter for you, too.'
It was more like a bulky scrap of parchment than a letter, but Harry unfurled it anyway. As he did so, a Chocolate Frog fell out. He sat it absently beside his plate and began to scan the paper.
Once you asked for some of my chocolates. As the stuff now makes me want to vomit, I suppose I can spare a Frog or two. I shall most likely dump the rest off the top of the Astronomy Tower tonight. Professor Sinistra tells me it won't be in use at ten o'clock, so I ought to do it then.
Harry rolled his eyes. If Malfoy stopped speaking in code one day, he thought he'd drop dead of shock.
To retaliate, he'd taken to being as horrifyingly open as possible: it made Malfoy splutter and turn an indignant, embarrassed pink every single time.
Malfoy, he started to write on the same scrap of parchment, just below the other boy's initials. I'll be there at 10. I'm looking forward t
'Who are you writing to, Harry?' Hermione asked innocently, peering over his shoulder. Harry slammed his hand over the parchment, getting several sticky jam fingerprints all over Malfoy's scrawl in the process. When he looked up, Hermione was shaking with suppressed laughter.
'We all know you're writing love notes to Malfoy,' Ron said disgustedly from across the table as he smeared an obscene amount of marmalade on his toast. 'It's a bit obvious, you get this revolting look, just like-- '
He made a face, one that looked an appalling lot like Fleur when she mooned over Bill.
'I do not look like that!' Harry exclaimed. When Ron only snickered, Harry kicked him under the table. 'Hermione, come on, I don't!'
'All right, you don't,' she conceded. 'Though you do have a kind of Malfoy look. We can always tell when you're thinking about him because you start to look sort of confused and wistful and eager all at once.'
'Oh, shut up,' Harry muttered. 'I do not! It's not like that, we're just-- '
'Sending each other letters over breakfast,' Hermione said shrewdly. 'Staying out past curfew, meeting up all over the castle, skipping revision time to disappear to who-knows-where . . .'
'You even sat next to each other in Potions last week,' Ron put in.
Harry could not believe that Ron had the gall to gang up on him like this. 'That was-- we both came in late and there were no other seats!'
He wisely did not mention just why they both were late.
'Speaking of which, the portrait of Eldred the Elder told me yesterday of a very interesting spectacle he witnessed down the easternmost fifth floor corridor,' Hermione giggled, then patted Harry on the knee as he spluttered. 'Oh, Harry, we're only teasing you because we're happy for you.'
'Yeah, even if it is with Ferret-Face over there.'
Harry grinned reluctantly and, to ignore their pleased looks, tore open his Chocolate Frog and broke off a piece.
'I still think that's barbaric,' Hermione said delicately. 'Honestly, they move and everything!'
'Honestly,' Ron mimicked, 'it's not a chocolate house-elf, keep your knickers on. Here, Harry, what's the card? I'm still looking for Agrippa.'
'Dumbledore,' Harry said, flipping the card over and peering at the white-haired old wizard, beaming up at him. He noticed that beneath Dumbledore's picture, the words now read FORMER HEADMASTER OF HOGWARTS, DECEASED. As Harry watched, Dumbledore made as if to sidle out of the picture, then seemed to think better of it and repositioned himself in the frame. He gave Harry a little wave, and his eye seemed to twinkle.
'At this rate, I'll never get Agrippa,' Ron groaned. 'Mind you, I don't pay much attention to Chocolate Frog cards these days, but I'm only saying, if it happened to come along-- '
'Well, while you're busy collecting cards for children, Ron, I've got an announcement,' Hermione said as she fluffed her newspaper importantly. 'I've decided what I'm doing with my life.'
'Oh, is that all?'
'Well, I'd like a career in magical law,' Hermione said, then glanced at them, as if she expected them to be surprised. When neither was, she carried on. 'Someone ought to be fighting the system we have, it's outdated and oppressive, all these ridiculous laws that hinder unity instead of promote it! But first I think I'd like to work in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Charlie picked me up an application last week, and Professor McGonagall promised to serve as a reference.'
She smoothed out a roll of parchment that was nearly as long as their Transfiguration exam, filled from margin to margin in Hermione's tidy scrawl. Harry peered at it. Question 5 read, 'Which figure in the history of the Wizarding World do you look up to the most?' Hermione had written nearly twelve inches on what appeared to be a tie between Artemisia Lufkin and Pierre Bonaccord. Near the bottom, he saw his own name and blinked.
'Why've you got me on here?'
'Well, it's obvious, isn't it? You're a great wizard, Harry. I look up to you.'
'Yes, you. And Ron,' she added, smiling at her boyfriend, who looked mollified. 'And I think you'd both make wonderful Aurors.'
'Really? You think we should be Aurors?'
Yes,' Hermione said seriously. 'Because-- because it isn't over. There will always be evil in the world. Maybe not the Voldemort kind, maybe just the human kind, like Umbridge, but we've still got to fight it.'
Harry looked around, the sun on his shoulders making him feel both tired and warm: they were sitting in the Great Hall, where he had defeated Voldemort over a year ago now, where the fierce sun had struck the windows gold that morning, like a new world had begun. But had it?
Every day you had a choice, he had said to Malfoy, a very long time ago.
He didn't know for certain, but he had an idea that next year, the Sorting Hat's song might be a little less dire.
It was something.
He looked down at the card sitting next to his plate. 'Dumbledore once said we had to keep fighting,' Harry remembered. 'That it could never be quite eradicated, but if we kept on, perhaps it could be kept at bay.'
Hermione smiled. 'Exactly. So, well, that's what I want to do.'
'Change the whole wizarding world,' Harry teased her. 'Is that all?'
'I know it'll take time,' Hermione said, 'but it's like you said, we have to keep fighting, even refusing to sit by or surrender can make a difference. I learned that from you, Harry.'
'And I'll help,' Ron put in.
Hermione flung her arms around him.
'As long as it's not called HURL,' he added rapidly, the words muffled by her hair. 'Help the Underprivileged-- '
Hermione drew back and hit him on the arm.
'Charming girl,' Ron told Harry, 'she's so well-tempered . . .'
Harry glanced around the busy hall, suddenly aware of just how long he had eaten breakfast there without a thought. It still reminded him of the casualties the last battle had claimed, but now, glancing at the staff table, Harry thought most of Snape. The way he had looked at Harry the very first night at Hogwarts, black eyes piercing, as if he were combing through Harry's mind . . .
He had left no one behind, had left nothing to anyone, in fact, save the bottle of memories he had granted Harry. They were all gone now, Snape and the woman he had loved and her husband and his best friends, even Dumbledore was gone. Harry, and Teddy, and Malfoy too, they were the ones who were left.
Remus, all of them, they had died trying to make a better, happier world.
Harry set his jaw. They wouldn't have died in vain.
On their way out, Harry spotted Malfoy in the throng of students and said to his friends, 'Look, I'll catch up with you later.'
Hermione flashed him a knowing smile and Ron mimed vomiting behind a tapestry of angry trolls. Harry gave him an answering shove in the back and they went off laughing.
He caught up to Malfoy near the front doors and reached out without thinking: Malfoy flung around the instant Harry's hand touched his wrist, and then his expression fled from outrage to surprise to annoyance.
'Hi,' Harry said.
Malfoy gave him a look that Harry knew he usually reserved for first year Hufflepuffs. Harry pressed on anyway. 'What are you doing right now?'
'Not attending to you in a broom closet,' Malfoy said, looking pleased with himself when Harry's grin turned rueful. 'I was going to study by the lake, if you must know. Pansy spilled potion all over my copy of Sprout's index of healing herbs, she's only just now given me a new one.'
'Oh,' said Harry. He stuck his hands in his pockets. 'Well, can I come?'
Malfoy eyed him for a second. At last, he sighed dramatically, 'If you must.'
For an instant, Harry felt the familiar thread of annoyance at Malfoy's inability to say anything outright. Then he touched the scrap of parchment in his pocket beside the Chocolate Frog card and his irritation faded. He followed Malfoy toward the doors.
'The Astronomy Tower, huh?' he said casually.
Malfoy turned pink.
'Very original,' Harry snorted. Students had been snogging there since, he wagered, Godric Gryffindor's time.
'Oh, go there a lot, do you?' Malfoy drawled. He sounded downright sour.
Harry laughed. 'What are you, jealous? No, I've never been up there with anybody.'
He had, of course, been there for other reasons. It had been the Astronomy Tower where Harry had handed off a dragon to friends of Charlie Weasley and nearly been caught by Malfoy himself; even worse, where Dumbledore, at the tail end of sixth year, had met his demise, which may not have been at Malfoy's wand but was in Malfoy's presence . . .
'Well, are we going to meet there or not?' said Malfoy snottily. 'I obviously have plenty of other things to be doing with my time.'
Harry rolled his eyes. 'I'll be there,' he said. His shoulder bumped hard with Malfoy's and he realized that it was because Malfoy had ever so slightly inched towards him, as if hoping they might collide. Harry knocked against him harder and grinned.
Soon they would finish their exams, climb on the train, and leave Hogwarts for good. And after that, who could say?
His hand closed around the little Chocolate Frog card in his pocket, and then he followed Malfoy out into the sunlight.