"Come and get your post, boy, it's not going to float up there by itself!"
Harry frowned. He never got any post except by owl – who would send him anything via Muggle post? Sighing, he got off the bed and walked out into the corridor, then downstairs. From the living room came the blare of the television and the muffled voices of his aunt and uncle. He walked inside, casting a sidelong glance at the screen.
The Dursleys were watching a programme about bodybuilders – it was Dudley's newest obsession. He had built up quite a bit of bulk thanks to boxing and managed to shed most of his puppy fat. Now he spent all his free time watching bodybuilding videos, at least when he wasn't out with his thuggish friends.
The banner at the bottom of the screen announced that it was some sort of international bodybuilders' championship. A large, tanned man in a pair of swimming trunks was showing off his sinewy, knotty body on a podium. He flashed a dazzling smile at the unseen audience and struck a pose, linking his hands together in front of his chest and bending forward so his biceps tensed.
Harry watched with a measure of fascination as the lights in the studio played across the man's sculpted chest and thighs. He felt an uncomfortable tightness in his pants and froze, horrified. His heartbeat quickened and his mouth went dry. Harry felt warmth spread across his chest and creep up his neck – oh God. Watching the bodybuilder was turning him on.
He became dimly aware of the Dursleys falling silent and tore his gaze away from the screen, feeling self-conscious and exposed. He was glad he was wearing Dudley's old clothes: the overlarge T-shirt would obscure his now-obvious hard-on.
"Well?" growled Uncle Vernon. "What're you standing there for, boy? Your letter's on the kitchen counter."
Harry nodded and hurried to leave the room. When he walked into his room upstairs, he shut the door carefully, walked over to the window and tore open the plain white envelope.
The letter was from Colin and Dennis Creevey's mother, Catherine. She had sent it by Muggle post because she didn't trust owls. In the letter, she thanked Harry for being a "good influence" on her sons. What that was supposed to mean, Harry didn't know, but he had to admit it was a nice change to be thanked for being a good influence after last year's smear campaign by the Daily Prophet.
Harry stuffed the letter with the rest of his post and flopped down onto his bed. When he closed his eyes, he recalled an image of the bodybuilder he'd just seen on the telly. Harry opened his eyes and sat up, frowning. Why had he reacted the way he had? He liked girls. Well, one girl, to be exact, but still.
Harry leant his head against the headboard and closed his eyes again. Like many times in the past several weeks, he wished desperately that he could write to Sirius. Sirius would have known the answer, but Sirius was gone, and Harry was alone. He sighed. He would give anything to have someone to talk to. Well no, that wasn't right. He would give anything to have Sirius back.
He couldn't even celebrate the lifting of Umbridge's Quidditch ban properly – the letter from the Department of Magical Games and Sports had arrived a week ago, and all Harry could do was write to Ron and Hermione about it. They'd both been thrilled for him, but it seemed almost matter-of-fact – everyone had assumed that Harry wouldn't really be banned for life.
Harry looked at the calendar on his wall, where he marked the days until another year at Hogwarts started: there were still far too many days to go. Ron had said that Harry could go and stay at the Burrow with him, but Harry had refused. He didn't want to put the Weasleys at risk.
Voldemort wanted to kill Harry and he would come after him anywhere – except here, where his mother's blood still remained. One good thing about living with the Dursleys was that Voldemort couldn't reach Harry here, not even in his dreams. The Dursleys themselves had mostly left Harry alone. He didn't even mind that Aunt Petunia insisted he do the bulk of the housework if he wanted her to keep putting food in front of him.
Harry slid back down on his bed and closed his eyes.
It was going to be a long summer.
Harry awoke with a start, to a sharp rapping noise on his window. An owl he didn't recognise was fluttering outside, an oversized parcel suspended from its legs. He'd forgotten to leave the window open the night before.
"You poor thing," said Harry. He opened the window and relieved the owl of its burden, then let it into Hedwig's cage, where the bird helped itself to some water. The parcel was addressed to Harry. He blinked in surprise, then remembered what day it was. A piece of parchment fluttered from the top of the package as he unfastened the length of rope that held it together.
Happy birthday! Ron and I would like to take you out tonight. Will you meet us at the Leaky Cauldron at seven?
Love from Hermione
Harry put down the letter and rubbed his eyes. He'd have to make it to the Leaky Cauldron somehow, plus he'd have to talk to his aunt and uncle about possibly arriving late – he had half a mind to tell Ron and Hermione that he'd just see them at Kings Cross. He didn't particularly feel like celebrating his birthday, or anything else for that matter.
Still, it would be good to see Ron and Hermione. He just wished they'd written earlier – now he had only a few hours to get everything sorted. He unwrapped the rest of the package to find his presents – a box of Honeydukes chocolate from Ron, a quill set from Hermione, some lumpy biscuits from Hagrid, and a book on Occlumency, which didn't have a note attached to it.
Occlumency. Harry put the heavy book down on his nightstand and sat down on his bed. He appreciated the gesture, seeing as he'd have to continue Occlumency lessons if he wanted to stay sane while at Hogwarts. That was one of the few things he was certainly not looking forward to. He hoped that someone else would be on hand to teach him Occlumency.
Harry got washed and put on the cleanest clothes he could find, then hurried downstairs. Uncle Vernon was just finishing his breakfast. He glowered at Harry from above his newspaper.
"What are you doing up so early?" asked Aunt Petunia, who was just bringing a pot of coffee to the table.
"I wanted to ask a favour," said Harry, looking at Uncle Vernon.
"What is it?"
"I need to go to London tonight. My friends are taking me out for my birthday. I was hoping to ask you to give me a lift into London."
"Like I've got nothing better to do, driving you back and forth. You can take the train if you want to go so badly."
Harry tried to suppress a grin. Uncle Vernon was far too easy to manipulate. Had Harry not brought up the lift, he would have had an issue with Harry going, full stop.
"May I borrow some money, then?" asked Harry. "Only I haven't got any, er, normal money." He'd almost said "Muggle money" but caught himself just in time. Uncle Vernon hated it when he used terms from the wizarding world. "I can pay you back when I come back tonight."
"Whatever happened to the money we gave you last year?" asked Aunt Petunia.
"I spent that on the train ticket when I went to get my books last week," said Harry. "But it's okay, if you don't want to lend me some, I can use my broomstick—"
"Enough! There will be no talk of broomsticks in this house," growled Uncle Vernon, reaching into his inside pocket and extracting his wallet. He pulled out several notes and threw them on the table. "There, boy. Mind that you pay me back in full tomorrow morning, or you'll be sorry."
"Thanks, Uncle Vernon," said Harry, snatching up the money and stuffing it into his back pocket.
"Wait a minute. Did you say you were going to London? Tonight? What time are you planning on returning? We're locking the doors just as always, so if you aren't back by eleven, you can forget about sleeping at home," said Aunt Petunia.
"I'll be back in time," said Harry. "Thanks for the warning."
With that, he walked back up to his room to get some wizarding money out of his trunk. He decided he'd go into town early and spend some time in Diagon Alley. It would be nice to just walk around there without a shopping list.
Harry walked into Weasley's Wizard Wheezes shortly after lunch. He hadn't had time to see the twins when he'd gone to get his school things. A merry little bell announced his arrival. Harry looked around. The shelves were full of brightly coloured boxes of snacks and dangerous-looking metal contraptions – in fact, the whole shop looked pretty much like Fred and George's room at the Burrow.
"Hello there," said a cheerful female voice. "See anything you like?"
Harry looked up and saw a very pretty girl of about twenty sitting atop the sales counter, which was in the very middle of the shop.
"Er, hi. Actually, I was hoping to see Fred and George, are they around?"
She gave him an appraising look. "A friend of the owners', are you? What's your name?"
"It's Harry. Er, Harry Potter," said Harry, immediately cringing as he saw her eyebrows shoot up.
"Harry Potter? Oh, just one moment!" she said, looking at him as though he had two heads. Harry tugged on the hem of his t-shirt and looked at a small contraption the witch picked up from the sales counter. It looked like a microphone.
"Fred? George? There's someone here to see you. Says he's Harry Potter," she said.
A moment later, the back door burst open and Fred bounded out. "Harry! Good to see you, mate."
"Hi," said Harry, grinning.
"Come on to the workroom, let's let Vicky here do her work," said Fred, ushering Harry through the back door and grinning at the saleswitch.
"You can afford to pay a saleswitch?" said Harry, walking into a narrow passageway. There was a light on at the end and soft music was playing from that direction.
"Yeah, business has been great. She's a looker, isn't she?" said Fred.
Harry frowned for a moment. The girl was pretty, no question about that. "Er, yeah."
"Too bad she's a bit too old for you," said Fred. "Or I'd introduce you."
Harry coughed, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. He didn't want to be introduced, anyway.
They walked into the workroom, where George was sitting behind an enormous desk, with his feet up and a sandwich in his hand. "Hi, Harry! Long time no see!"
"Hi, George," said Harry, looking around. The workroom was surprisingly well-ordered, in contrast to the shop itself.
Fred pushed a comfortable-looking chair towards the other side of the desk. "Have a seat."
"Do I dare?" asked Harry, eyeing the chair with some trepidation. "It's not one of your experiments, is it?"
Fred and George exchanged sly looks. "Our reputation precedes us," said George with a sad face.
"We wouldn't dream of pulling any tricks on our number one investor," said Fred, winking. "We've still got to talk about your share in the profits, Harry."
"You really don't have to—"
"We want to," said Fred.
Harry sighed and sat down. "Fine. Whatever you decide is fair, then. And give it all to Ron when he's done at Hogwarts."
"We've already opened a vault for Ron at Gringotts," said George.
"Doesn't matter," said Harry. "I want him to have it. But don't tell him it's from me."
Fred gave him an odd look. "Are you all right, Harry?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," said Harry. "Say, Fred, was that a microphone your saleswitch was using to talk to you?"
"A mike-ro-what?" asked Fred with a frown. "It's just one of Ginny's old hairbrushes, hollowed out and hooked up to a pair of Extendable Ears. We've made some extra long ones and put them into bell jars over there," – he waved at a shelf – "that way if someone comes in looking for us, or if Vicky needs help, we can hear it."
"Only problem is you have to hold the hairbrush really close to your mouth, or it isn't loud enough," added George. "We're still working on it."
"So what brings you to Diagon Alley, Harry?" asked Fred, rounding the desk and sitting down beside George.
"I'm meeting Ron and Hermione at the Leaky Cauldron later. It's, er, my birthday," said Harry, feeling ridiculous.
"Oh, happy birthday! We'll have to get you something, right, George?"
"Of course," said George.
"No, you really don't have to—" Harry started to say, but Fred held up a hand.
"We want to," he said. "But it'll have to be later. Right, George?"
"Right you are, Fred."
Harry had the distinct feeling they weren't telling him something. He ended up whiling away the afternoon with the twins, who were full of the sort of gossip that didn't usually make it into the Daily Prophet.
Harry found out that Umbridge, who had remained a bit touched in the head since the centaurs had captured her earlier that year, had been shunted down to the Goblin Liaison Office. Harry couldn't help but feel grim satisfaction at the thought that Umbridge was forced to work with non-humans, though it was probably not punishment enough, since goblins were rumoured never to use the Office for anything.
When it was time for Harry to go and meet Ron and Hermione, it was also time for Fred and George to close up shop. He said goodbye to the twins and Vicky, who kept staring at him as though he had two heads, and made his way to the pub.
Ron and Hermione were already there, sitting at a small table near the back with tankards of Butterbeer in front of them. They didn't see Harry as he entered.
"Why are you being so stupid about it, Ron?" Hermione was saying in an undertone.
"What do you mean 'stupid'? I don't want to read about Crumple-Horned Snorkacks!" replied Ron heatedly.
Harry coughed. "Hi, both."
"Oh, hi, Harry!" said Hermione, looking up.
"Happy birthday, mate," said Ron, grinning.
"Were you two talking about Luna?" asked Harry.
Ron shot Hermione, who was just opening her mouth to say something, a pointed look. "Yeah, we were. I'll tell you later. Say, have you seen today's paper?" asked Ron, holding out a rolled-up copy of the Daily Prophet.
Harry didn't take it. "Yeah. I have the Prophet delivered, remember?" He didn't understand why Ron wanted to talk about something in the paper. He'd read it cover to cover before leaving for Diagon Alley and there hadn't been anything interesting in it.
"Well, you should take another look," said Hermione in a strangely shrill tone. Harry noticed that she was holding the other end of the newspaper, too. "Maybe you missed something."
"Er, are you two okay? It was a bit hot out today, are you sure you didn't get—"
Before Harry could say "sunstroke", Ron grabbed his arm and forced him to touch the paper. He thought he'd heard Hermione say "Oh, honestly," then there was a jerk behind his navel and the world spun for a moment.
Harry looked around, puzzled. He was in a clearing behind a low-rising building. It was still light outside, but the sun was already hanging lower in the sky. A sweet smell was in the air; it reminded Harry of his first ever visit to Diagon Alley and filled his chest with an indescribable feeling of happiness. He looked around and saw Ron and Hermione standing beside him, looking like they were trying not to laugh.
"What's going on?"
"The paper was a timed Portkey," said Hermione, wheezing a bit. "We had to make you take it."
"Sorry, Harry," said Ron with a sheepish look. "We would have invented a better excuse, but we forgot about your subscription."
Harry shook his head. "So what is this place?"
"Spinners End," said Ron. "Best pub in wizarding Britain. It's a famous place, it is."
"I've never heard of it," said Harry.
"That's because you don't live with wizards," said Ron, waving his hand dismissively.
"Or read books about wizards," added Hermione in a testy voice. "Spinners End was where the Dark wizard Grindelwald was hiding. Dumbledore found him and destroyed him, right here in this clearing."
Harry looked around with renewed curiosity. "Grindelwald?"
"He was like Voldemort back in the forties," said Hermione. "Come on, let's go inside."
Harry followed his friends, feeling strangely excited. So there had been another Dark Lord and he was destroyed. Maybe here, Harry could learn something – anything – that would help him overcome Voldemort. He had spent weeks wondering about what he would have to do in the end.
They made their way around the building, walking along a dirt path that had small white flowers planted all around the edges. Harry guessed that the sweet smell he'd felt earlier was coming off these flowers, as it was much stronger here. When they came to the front door of the pub – a large sign bore the name Spinners End in ornate lettering right above it – Ron swung it open and motioned Harry inside.
Harry was greeted with a sight that made his heart stop for a moment. There was a large banner at the back of the pub, reading "Happy Birthday, Harry!" in Gryffindor colours. The large room was filled with tables – at them sat many people Harry knew, all of them beaming as they turned around to look at the new arrivals.
"Happy birthday!" someone at the back yelled, and people picked it up in a chorus. Harry couldn't stop looking around – he saw everyone from DA, the entire Order of the Phoenix, the whole Weasley family, a good portion of Hogwarts staff and even Oliver Wood.
People started to get out of their seats and walk up to him, some to shake his hand, others to give him a hug. The last person to approach him was Dumbledore. Harry eyed him with some apprehension: he hadn't forgotten what had happened to Sirius and he wasn't sure how to talk to Dumbledore now. Feeling conflicted, he shook his hand and accepted the birthday greetings.
"You have very good friends, Harry," said Dumbledore, smiling down at him. "Ron and Hermione spent most of the summer setting this up and making sure everything was just perfect."
Harry turned around and looked at the two of them. Ron was grinning and Hermione looked sheepish. Harry stepped towards them and hugged them both at the same time. "Thanks," he said. "It means a lot."
Hermione made a little noise between a sob and a whimper. "Happy birthday, Harry," she said.
They sat at a table near the centre that had been left empty. A cheerful witch brought them some Butterbeer and a platter of hors d'oeuvres. Harry took a look around. If the Death Eaters wanted to wipe out everyone who could prove troublesome in the future, they needed to look no further than this pub. His heart clenched. "I really do appreciate it, you two, but what if word got out? I mean, the entire Order's here—"
Hermione shook her head. "Exactly. Dumbledore, too. Voldemort would have to be mad to try and—"
"Is that why Dumbledore is here? Because of Voldemort?"
"Of course not, Harry, don't be silly. He cares about you and wanted to celebrate your birthday, too. It doesn't hurt that he's the only one Voldemort's ever feared, but that's not why he's here."
"Would you two stop saying the name?" said Ron, looking grumpy. "It's putting me off the food."
Harry laughed, unable to help himself.
It was the first time Harry had ever had an actual birthday party, and he couldn't stop grinning as he looked around and realised that all of these people cared about him enough to show up and wish him a happy birthday. He'd been so lonely at the Dursleys' that he'd started to feel like he mattered to no one again, which was never a good thing. Harry did stupid things when he felt like he mattered to no one.
After everyone had eaten, the groups around the tables started to break up and people began to mingle, talking about the war and the news that the Daily Prophet wouldn't print. Harry must have talked to everyone at least once. He found that he felt vaguely uncomfortable in such a large group of people, which was disconcerting – they were there for him, after all.
"Harry, I'd like you to meet someone," came Dumbledore's voice from behind him suddenly.
Harry turned around and saw a thin, pale-faced wizard with close-cropped hair and a vaguely haunted look. He was smiling in a way that suggested he had a problem with his teeth and was trying to hide it.
"This is Professor Eaton, Harry. He'll be your new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher this year."
"Hi," said Harry, eyeing the new teacher apprehensively.
"Happy birthday, Harry. It's good to meet you," said Eaton. His voice somehow didn't fit the rest of him – it was deep and rich where Harry would have expected more of a dry, clipped tone. "This is my son, Duncan," he added, pointing to the young man standing beside him.
"Hi," said Duncan in his father's voice. Harry blinked. Duncan was far easier on the eyes than his father, and that voice—
Harry shook his head slightly and grinned. "Nice to meet you," he said.
"Everyone will please come outside, to the clearing behind the pub!" came Hermione's voice from somewhere behind them.
"Shall we go and see what that's about, Kinsey?" asked Dumbledore, addressing Eaton.
"Of course, Albus. Are you boys coming?"
"Yeah," said Harry. He and Duncan fell into step behind the two older men and Harry was suddenly at a loss for words; not because he was intimidated or shy or scared but because he realised that he had definitely looked at Duncan like that and that couldn't be a good thing.
"Still got two years at Hogwarts?" asked Duncan as they jostled out of the pub through the front door.
"Yeah," said Harry. "Did you go to Hogwarts?" he asked, though he supposed it was a stupid question. He would have remembered this boy, who couldn't be that much older than Harry.
Duncan shook his head. "No, I went to Beauxbatons. Father used to teach there, you know."
They made their way around the pub and into the clearing where Harry had first arrived with Ron and Hermione. The whole group stood quietly for a while.
"What are we supposed to be seeing?" asked Zacharias loudly, and Harry wondered why he'd never noticed that Zacharias had a very graceful neck and a charming smile. He shook his head. It must have been all the Butterbeer he'd drunk – he was noticing the boys around him but paying no attention to the girls. That made no sense.
A loud whistling noise interrupted Harry's thoughts. He turned around and saw a blazing red line of sparks shoot through the air, with little circles of smaller, golden sparks whirling inside it. It exploded in the middle of the clearing, into a brilliant shower of pure white sparks that coalesced to spell out the words 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HARRY'
"You've got to keep back!" shouted Fred, running out from behind a hedge and pulling someone Harry couldn't see aside. "We can't send them any higher because of Muggles nearby, so just keep back!"
With that, he disappeared behind the hedge again. Harry stared in wonder as a huge wheel of blue fire made its way across the clearing from the other side. It stopped in the middle and just hovered a few feet in the air for a while. Harry realised that tiny golden sparks were gathering all around it, but he couldn't see where they were coming from.
Then the golden sparks formed into the shape of a broomstick that flew straight through the circle, then exploded. The resulting sparks coalesced into hundreds of tiny little Snitches that fluttered all around the gathered crowd. There were many noises of surprise and appreciation from the guests.
The fireworks show lasted twenty minutes. Harry was somewhat dizzy by the end of it, but he felt happier than he had in years, really – who could say they had such a fantastic fireworks display at their very first birthday party?
"They seem really talented, these two," said Duncan from beside Harry as the crowd began to dissipate. "Who are they?"
"Oh, that's Fred and George," said Harry with a grin. "Weasley," he added. "My best friend Ron's brothers—"
"You know the owners of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes? Wow," said Duncan, looking at Harry with seeming newfound appreciation. "Did you know they're tied with Gladrags as the most successful wizarding entrepreneurs of the decade?"
Harry's eyes widened. "Really? I didn't know that." He was going to say something else, but he felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up, mildly annoyed.
"Harry, I need to talk to you about something," said Dumbledore. "In private," he added.
"Okay," said Harry. "See you later," he added, looking at Duncan. The boy nodded and walked off. Harry felt a bit resentful of Dumbledore and he wondered why.
"Walk with me a little, Harry," said Dumbledore, and started up the path with the white flowers.
Harry stopped and glared. "Professor, what is this about?"
Dumbledore turned around and faced him. "Your Occlumency lessons, Harry. I doubt that you and I will have another chance to talk before the school year starts, and you need to understand that the lessons are very important."
Harry swallowed. "I do understand, Professor."
"I also have to tell you that you'll have to continue the lessons with Professor Snape."
Harry's stomach lurched unpleasantly. "Why?"
"Because if I were to teach you, I would put us both at a great risk. And Professor Snape is a far better Occlumens than I am, at any rate."
"But Professor, he hates me," said Harry.
Dumbledore sighed. "I don't think Severus hates you, Harry. He's just got his own demons to vanquish. I have spoken to him and he understands that your learning Occlumency is far more important than anything else. He's agreed to continue the lessons as long as you are willing."
Harry snorted. Snape no doubt thought he'd be doing him another favour. "Fine," he said to Dumbledore. "I'll do whatever it takes, Professor."
"I'm glad you understand, Harry," said Dumbledore in a quiet voice. He looked very old and tired. Harry wondered what had been going on with the Order and the war.
"Professor Dumbledore?" asked Harry, hesitating. "What happened to Sirius's old house?"
Dumbledore sighed again. "We've had to give up Grimmauld Place as headquarters for fear of being discovered. It belonged to the Black family, you see, and the only living Blacks are Andromeda Tonks, Narcissa Malfoy, and Bellatrix Lestrange. Technically, the house now belongs to Bellatrix."
Harry felt rage building in his chest. "But she's a wanted criminal," he said.
"That doesn't override wizarding property law," said Dumbledore. "We couldn't risk it, and Headquarters has been moved to a different location."
Harry really wanted to ask where this different location was, but he knew better.
"Harry!" called a voice from behind him. Harry turned around and saw Hermione standing near the wall of the building, looking uncertain. "Oh, sorry, Professor, I'll just—"
Dumbledore waved a calming hand at her. "Go on and enjoy the rest of your party, Harry. I'm glad we got to talk," he said.
Harry nodded. There wasn't anything else to be said. Except…
"What about Buckbeak?" he asked.
"Buckbeak's with the Weasley family," said Dumbledore. Harry's eyebrows shot up. Ron hadn't mentioned anything about Buckbeak. "We only just moved him last week," continued Dumbledore, and Harry nodded.
"Thanks, Professor," he said, and sprinted towards Hermione without waiting for a response. He wasn't sure what he was grateful for, either.
He ran up to Hermione, who had her arms folded across her chest and wore a worried look. "Is everything all right, Harry?"
Harry frowned. "Why?"
Hermione suddenly looked very uncomfortable. "Well, um… Cho is crying in the loo because you haven't even noticed her. She said that when she tried to say happy birthday to you, you just turned and started talking to Neville—"
"Cho is here?" asked Harry, blinking.
"Oh wow, you really haven't noticed, have you?" Hermione's eyes narrowed. "Harry?"
Harry was torn between wanting to find Cho and apologise and wanting to disappear so he wouldn't have to talk to her ever again. He'd forgotten all about Cho, to be honest, and he really hadn't noticed her there. "I'm guessing she's in the girls' bathroom?" he muttered.
"Yeah. Harry, is there someone else?" said Hermione in a hesitant tone.
"Oh, Harry. It's not Ginny, is it?"
"What? No, of course not! Why would it be—"
"Oh never mind," said Hermione with a sigh.
"I think I might be gay," blurted Harry. He immediately regretted it, but there was no way to take it back now. The air around them got really quiet all of a sudden.
Hermione blinked at him. For the first time since Harry had known her, she seemed completely clueless about what was going on. "Gay?"
Harry let out an exasperated sigh and folded his arms across his chest. "Yeah, gay. Interested in other boys. A fairy. A—"
Hermione shook her head fiercely. "Harry, stop. Please. What makes you say that?"
"I don't know. It's not something I want to talk about," said Harry.
"Okay. Well if you do need to talk about it—"
"I know, Hermione. Let's go back inside. I want to find Cho."
They walked back around the pub in silence. In front of the entrance, they stopped and Harry grinned at Hermione. "Thanks," he said. "For this, I mean. It's great."
Hermione beamed. "Don't mention it."
It took the team effort of Hermione, Parvati, Lavender, and Hannah Abbott to get Cho to come out of the bathroom. Harry apologised for not having seen her. Cho seemed okay after a while, but Michael Corner looked sulky for the rest of the evening.
At a quarter to eleven, Harry suddenly remembered Aunt Petunia's warning about returning in time. He told Ron about it – there was no way he could make it back in time by train, and he wasn't allowed to Apparate. Mrs Figg, who had been dozing in a corner, perked up as she overheard their conversation. She suggested that she and Harry could use the pub's fireplace to get to her house, and from there Harry could simply walk back and make it in time.
Harry bid a hasty farewell to everyone, thanked Ron and Hermione again, then walked into the green flames. It had been the best birthday he'd ever had, even better than the one when Hagrid had shown up and told him he was a wizard.
Mrs Figg seemed to have forgotten that Harry was in a rush; she tried to ask him to stay for tea. Harry was grateful he had a very real excuse not to. Her cats were still creepy. He sprinted across the street and rang the doorbell to Number Four, Privet Drive, with moments to spare before eleven.
Uncle Vernon opened the door and demanded that Harry walk a straight line, sniffing around him suspiciously. "Well, at least you're not drunk," he said in a gruff voice.
Harry reached into his pocket and fished out some money he'd exchanged in Diagon Alley. "Here's your money back," he said, shoving the bills at Uncle Vernon. He sprinted upstairs without a backwards glance.
The month before Hogwarts began again passed rather quickly. On September the first, Uncle Vernon dropped Harry off at Kings Cross and sped off. Harry loaded his trunk onto a trolley and made his way onto Platform Nine and Three Quarters without any major incident. Hermione was already waiting there, talking to Hannah Abbott. Ron and Ginny showed up late, arguing about something in loud voices.
Harry relaxed. Another year at Hogwarts was still something to look forward to: he would still have Quidditch and really, the castle was like home by now. He tried not to think about the fact that this was the second last time he'd ever board this train.
Hermione, Ron and Ginny had to go to the prefects' carriage for the first hour of the trip. Harry found an empty compartment, shoved his trunk under a seat and stared blankly out of the window until he heard Ron's voice echoing down the corridor outside. Harry walked over and poked his head out, motioning him over. Hermione was hurrying up behind Ron, carrying a stack of parchment.
"You're by yourself?" asked Ron, looking around.
"Er, yeah," said Harry, raising an eyebrow. "Am I not supposed to be?"
"I'll be right back," said Ron, and took off down the corridor.
Harry stared after him for a moment, then stepped aside to let Hermione inside the compartment. "What's with him?" he asked.
"He hasn't told you about Luna's letters, has he?"
Harry shook his head, frowning slightly. "This is the first time I've heard of it."
Hermione looked vaguely uncomfortable. "Well, maybe I'm not the best person to tell you, and you really ought to ask Ron about it, but he and Luna have been writing letters to each other."
Harry grinned in disbelief. "What?"
Hermione sank down on the seat opposite and grinned back. "I know. She wrote him a letter from her expedition for Crumbly-Horned Snorky Racks. He wrote back. They've been writing like that all summer. You know what he's like, he hates writing letters, so he's been terribly conflicted."
Harry gave her a curious look. "And you're, um, okay with this?"
Hermione raised an eyebrow in a way vaguely reminiscent of Umbridge. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Harry looked away. "Um, no reason, really. I just thought—"
"I know what you thought. What I'm more interested in is your – you know. The thing we talked about at Spinners End."
Harry sighed and stared out of the window. "Yeah, that thing."
"You still think you're – you know?"
Ron walked in, looking slightly flushed but considerably less anxious. "She's here, I just didn't notice her and – oh, hi, Harry."
Harry grinned. "Who's here, Ron?" Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Hermione putting a hand on her chest and throwing her head back, as though to imitate extreme gratitude.
Ron edged into the compartment and sat down with a sheepish look. "Erm, well, I haven't really mentioned this before, but I'mkindofseeingLunaLovegood."
Harry clapped him on the shoulder. "Brilliant, mate," he said, grinning.
Ron sat further back and shot Hermione a furtive look. "Have you told Harry about the meeting yet? Where's Ginny?"
"Not yet," said Hermione, shaking her head. "And Ginny's gone to sit with Dean."
"The prefects' meeting?" asked Harry, turning around so he could see them both. "What about it?"
"There's a new project that Dumbledore's started," said Hermione.
"You won't believe who he's picked for Head Boy," said Ron, shaking his head.
"Who?" asked Harry. "Not Malfoy? He's not in seventh—"
"No, no, but it's a Slytherin. Liam Baddock," said Ron, scowling.
"I've no idea who he is," said Harry.
"He's not that bad," said Hermione. "Honestly, Ron—"
"He's a Slytherin, that's bad enough," said Ron, looking adamant.
"Well it won't matter much with the house unity project, will it?" retorted Hermione, flipping her hair over her shoulder.
Harry felt like he was missing something crucial. "House unity project?"
"Yeah," said Ron. "The prefects are supposed to come up with activities to involve the whole school, to get students in different houses working together."
"Each house's prefects come up with a specific activity that'll represent their house, and the rest of the school has to participate," said Hermione.
"Like what?" asked Harry, frowning.
"Like the DA," said Ron. "That's what Gryffindor'll be doing, we've already decided with the other prefects. The others helped us pick people to lead the groups, and you're leader for Gryffindor."
Harry frowned again and pursed his lips. "Wasn't anyone going to ask me if I actually wanted to lead the DA this year?"
Ron and Hermione looked shocked for a moment. "You don't?"
"Not that I don't, but I'd have liked it if someone asked me if I did, you know?"
Hermione sighed. "Sorry, Harry. I guess we got really excited about it and didn't realise you might not want to – and it's okay if you don't – we just thought—"
Harry sighed and leant back against his seat. "It's fine, really. So what's this house unity stuff supposed to accomplish?"
The gleam in Hermione's eye was much like the one she got when talking about house-elves, and Harry glanced quickly at Ron, who was rolling his eyes. Harry relaxed.
"We're going to try and restore balance between the houses," said Hermione. "To get all four houses working together in various areas, we can foster inter-house friendships and cooperation."
"Even with the Slytherins?" asked Harry, shaking his head dubiously. He didn't see what could possibly make him cooperate with Malfoy, ever.
"Especially with the Slytherins," said Ron in a mocking tone. "She's been like this all the way here."
Harry pursed his lips and said nothing. He stared out the window and hoped that whatever this house unity stuff was, it wouldn't interfere with Quidditch.
The start-of-term feast was no less spectacular than all others; it was made slightly more festive by all the house unity speeches – Hermione had spoken for Gryffindor and Harry had to admit he was a bit moved by her appeal that focused on the friendships between Salazar Slytherin and Godric Gryffindor as well as Helga Hufflepuff and Rowena Ravenclaw.
He wasn't thinking about house unity when he finally got to bed that night, though. Something inside his brain seemed to have switched from "oh, look, pretty girl" to "oh, look, fit bloke". As Harry drifted off to sleep, he wondered if perhaps this new development had anything to do with Voldemort.
Harry was walking through a dark hallway lit by torches set in low wall-sconces. There was a smell of mould and sandstone in the air and Harry wondered if these were the Hogwarts dungeons, but the place felt foreign, ominous. He heard voices from beyond a wall and pressed his ear to it.
"You cannot trust him." Something about the voice made Harry's insides churn and he heard a distant roaring in his ears.
"Severus knows nothing. So if anything goes wrong with this, we'll have to look elsewhere for our traitor, won't we, Bella?" Harry would know that high-pitched, cold voice anywhere. Was this a dream or another vision?
"Yes, Master. Though there are so few of us free now that we shan't have to look very far, shall we?" Harry wanted to smash down the wall and drag her out into the musty hallway. How dare she talk about freedom after what she'd done? How dare she?
"That will change tomorrow, when my Death Eaters will be free again, but you're quite right, of course." Harry shook his head. What would change tomorrow? Somehow he knew that this was no ordinary dream. Then he realised there were something like fingers prying at the edges of his mind, probing deeper and deeper—
Harry sat up in his bed, panting. Voldemort was planning something that Snape wasn't supposed to know about. Bellatrix Lestrange distrusted Snape. The Death Eaters would attempt to break out of Azkaban.
On the very first day of classes, Ron got into trouble for being late to Transfiguration, and McGonagall made him stay behind to explain himself. Harry didn't know why Ron had been late, but he figured he'd find out soon enough.
Harry and Hermione decided to take advantage of the warm weather and went out to eat lunch on the Quidditch pitch. They found a secluded spot under one of the stands and settled down with their sandwiches and bottles of pumpkin juice.
"So, have you told Ron yet?" asked Hermione, dabbing at her lips with a napkin. Harry didn't have to ask what she meant: the whole "I might be gay" business was at the forefront of his mind, which was actually quite upsetting. He really ought to have been thinking about his dream.
"Well I was going to yesterday but the others were up late right along with us. Me and Ron did stay up later than everyone, but he kept going on about Quidditch and all that, and I just couldn't tell him," said Harry, then bit into his last sandwich.
"Well, how about you try again after Quidditch practice tomorrow? It honestly can't be that hard, can it?" asked Hermione.
"You have no idea how hard it is, Hermione," said Harry, trying to keep his voice from shaking as he thought about Ron's possible reaction.
"Well, he'll have to start talking to you eventually. You're friends, Harry!" said Hermione in a reassuring sort of tone.
"Friends or not, he's not going to like this, not even if he makes peace with it. He's probably expected better from me," said Harry with a sigh.
"No one expects anything from you, Harry," countered Hermione, her tone still reassuring.
Harry sighed in frustration. "Nobody expects anything... Hermione, where have you been for the past five years? EVERYONE expects me to do something!" Harry's voice was rising despite himself, and he paused briefly before continuing. "Dumbledore expects me to go and face Voldemort like a good boy should, every other adult expects me to be brave and daring like a good Gryffindor should, Snape and Malfoy expect me to curl up and die like a good Potter should," he spat, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "What nobody expected me to be, is a bloody arse bandit. And here I am, defying all their expectations."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "You're really letting this get to you, Harry. Honestly! It's not that bad. So you might fancy boys, so what? It's not the end of the world."
Harry shook his head. "Somehow I don't think being gay is going to improve my wizarding world experience. Do you know what the attitudes towards homosexuality are like amongst Muggles?"
Hermione sniffed, as though affronted. "Of course. I suppose it's little consolation, but things are similar with wizards, though it's really the pure-blood sorts who are vehemently against homosexuality, seeing as producing children is important to them."
"What about the Muggle-borns and half-bloods?" asked Harry quickly.
Hermione began to pack the leftover sandwiches into the basket they'd brought. "Pretty much the same as with most Muggles. Allowed to exist, but considered distasteful in public," she said, folding a napkin.
Harry dug his fingers into his hair and picked up a half-empty bottle of pumpkin juice. He took a deep swig then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I don't know, Hermione. I just don't know."
They ended up staying a bit longer than they'd intended and had to rush to get to Potions on time. Harry still couldn't believe he managed to make it into Snape's Advanced Potions class: his O.W.L. examination ended up just scraping into an Outstanding. Even though Harry knew he needed the class to be an Auror, he wasn't any happier about the prospect of two more years with Snape.
As if the Occlumency wouldn't be enough. Dumbledore had been adamant about Harry continuing the lessons; he was supposed to see Snape after this lesson to decide on a weekly meeting time. Snape stood outside the dungeon door, sneering. He informed them that they'd be sharing cauldrons; Harry was too distracted to wonder why. He had to remember to tell Snape about his dream.
Harry cast an apprehensive glance around the classroom before taking a seat at one of the front desks. He'd noticed the looks Hermione kept stealing at him but didn't want to talk about his predicament anymore; it was bad enough he kept dwelling on it. He glanced around to see who else had made it into the class. He wasn't surprised to see Draco Malfoy sitting at the back of the classroom with Blaise Zabini. Was it Harry's imagination, or was Malfoy staring at him?
He shook his head and sat down. Snape walked in and shut the door behind him with a sort of final thud that made Harry feel trapped.
"I trust you all have had a good lunch," said Snape in a bored voice. "One of the ingredients you'll be working with today – barnacle seeds – emits fumes that make your digestion speed up, and if you haven't eaten, you shall be starving by the end of this lesson."
Harry noticed Terry Boot and Michael Corner exchange uneasy looks. That was another thing to get used to – there had been so few people with Outstanding scores on their Potions O.W.Ls that students from all four houses were together in one classroom.
Snape waved his wand at the blackboard, where the instructions for a Healing Potion appeared. With another flick of Snape's wand, the store cupboard at the back of the classroom opened and Harry's first Advanced Potions lesson began. He was actually quite interested in the potion they were making – sufficient quantities of it would heal almost any physical ills in a witch or wizard.
Snape seemed in a better mood than usual that afternoon, judging by the fact that he merely made a disgusted face every time he looked at Harry, as opposed to insulting him at every turn. Harry still needed to tell Snape about his dream. He took a look around the dungeon to make sure no one was paying any attention to him and Hermione.
"Professor," he whispered in an undertone as Snape passed by their desk once again.
"This better be important, Potter," murmured Snape, stopping beside him.
As if Harry had ever showed any inclination to engage in small talk with the great git. "Professor Dumbledore told me to talk to you about any further… troubles I have with Occlumency and—"
Snape didn't let him finish. "What did you see?" he asked with a frown.
Harry quickly recounted the major details of the dream he'd had that night. Snape stood by quietly, his face betraying no emotions. When Harry was done talking, Snape started to speak, then cast a glance behind Harry and snapped his mouth shut.
"See me after class," he said in a low whisper and walked back to his table, where he sat down and began scribbling something on a long sheet of parchment.
"What was it, Harry?" asked Hermione.
"Oh, just about the dream," said Harry. "Do we add the barnacle seeds now?"
"Yes, it's almost time for the dragon's blood. Here," – she lifted a small basin filled with the large seeds from their ingredient tray – "just use the pincers and place three of them in at equal time intervals."
Several minutes later, Snape said, "Your Healing Potion should be a clear blue by now. If it's not, you'll get no marks for today's exercise. I shall be coming round to look at your cauldrons and supervise as you add the dragon's blood."
Harry stared at their cauldron. Well, it looked clear blue. He stole a glance at Hermione, who gave him a quick grin. Snape swept up beside their desk a few moments later.
Harry lifted a long clay dropper from the tray and began to add the dragon's blood to the cauldron. He stuck his tongue out and bit down, realising he was sweating profusely. He had to get this right, he had to. He wouldn't give Snape the satisfaction of seeing him do badly during the very first lesson. Harry felt sweat trickle down his cheek as he brought the dropper above the cauldron and released the dragon's blood.
Snape merely nodded and swept off. Harry wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and gave Hermione a rueful grin. She smiled back and fiddled with the flames below their cauldron.
Hermione labelled two bottles with their names while Harry put the remaining ingredients onto the tray. Hermione carried the tray to the back while Harry dropped off their flasks at Snape's desk.
He was just walking back to pick up his schoolbag when the bell went. He looked up and lifted his arm to adjust his glasses when he noticed Malfoy standing several feet away from him, just staring. Harry groaned mentally. He'd managed to avoid Malfoy completely until this moment and that suited him just fine, thanks.
"What're you staring at, Malfoy?" he asked.
Malfoy's gaze darted away from Harry's face and onto the floor.
"Nothing much, Potter -- just your pretty face," drawled Malfoy, glancing up again.
Harry's eyes widened and his mouth fell open. He felt faint heat creep up the sides of his face. What was Malfoy on about?
"He's not worth it, Harry," muttered Hermione, who must have heard the exchange. She tugged on Harry's arm and practically dragged him out of the classroom. He barely had time to grab his things from the desk.
"Did you hear what he said?" asked Harry as they hurried to the library.
"He's only trying to get to you," said Hermione without turning around. "Just ignore him."
Harry frowned. "Oh no. I forgot. I'm supposed to talk to Snape about Occlumency lessons. Go on, Hermione, I'll catch up."
The Daily Prophet, September 3, 1996
MASS BREAKOUT FROM AZKABAN – AGAIN!
It appears that the tide of time has turned once again. On Monday evening, a critical security breach occurred at Azkaban, and a number of convicted Death Eaters escaped. The Ministry suspects Bellatrix Lestrange, who managed to evade authorities this summer, as the chief orchestrator of the breakout. It is at present unclear how the Death Eaters were able to get through the guarding wards placed around Azkaban. Since the Dementors left this summer, the wizard prison has been guarded in shifts by teams of Aurors. One of the Aurors on duty yesterday evening, Kingsley Shacklebolt, has been reported as missing. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has declined to comment, citing orders from Amelia Bones, the recently appointed Minister for Magic.
Amongst the escaped prisoners is Lucius Malfoy, captured in the assault on the Ministry this June. A confirmed Death Eater, Mr Malfoy, formerly of Wiltshire, has donated generously to support the Ministry in the past, and the rumour mill is already at work on what his escape might bring, as Mr. Malfoy had friends in very high places indeed. An anonymous source has informed us that a team of Aurors has been dispatched to Malfoy Manor. Narcissa Malfoy, the escaped prisoner's wife, has been brought in for questioning.
This marks the second breakout from Azkaban this year -- the first being in January, when a number of Death Eaters escaped, amongst them Bellatrix Lestrange. At the time, the escape was not attributed to the return of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, as the now-deposed Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, did not believe reports detailing his return. Ministry officials have said that an official statement will be made in two days' time. It is expected that the escaped convicts will rejoin He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but the Daily Prophet urges all witches and wizards to keep their doors locked and warded. For a full list of prescribed security measures, turn to page three.
Harry threw the Daily Prophet across the room. Hedwig gave an indignant hoot and took off. Harry stared after her, then closed the window. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea, asking Hedwig to bring him the newspaper early. Kingsley was missing, and it was all Harry's fault.
Ron walked in from the bathroom, dragging his feet and yawning. He took one look at Harry and squinted.
Harry pointed at the newspaper on the floor. Ron walked over and bent down to pick it up. He read through the front-page article, his frown deepening.
"This is bad news."
"Yeah, thanks, Ron," said Harry, taking a deep breath and desperately trying to stay calm. "I noticed."
Ron gave him a dirty look. "Well at least they're calling things their proper names this time 'round."
"Yeah. Think Hermione's seen this yet?"
"You're the one with the early-bird special Prophet delivery this year, mate."
Harry grinned and hauled his schoolbag up from beside his bed. Seamus, Dean and Neville had left early and he'd only been waiting for Ron to get dressed. "Let's go," he said.
On the way to breakfast, Harry let Hermione read the article. She went very white about halfway through it, and nearly tripped over a trick step. "Oh no," she said as Harry steadied her by the elbow. "Kingsley."
"Yeah," said Harry bitterly. "If only I had kept my fat mouth shut with Snape yesterday –"
"Oh please," said Hermione in a testy tone. They were making their way down the marble staircase with hurried strides. "That you told Snape probably prevented some of them from escaping. There was nothing you could have done, Harry."
Harry wondered why her calm voice was sounding so vexing all of a sudden.
"Yeah, Harry," chimed in Ron, "you did the best you could. It's not your fault they sent Kingsley."
"Yeah, it's never my fault," muttered Harry as they passed through the doors to the Great Hall.
Their first lesson after breakfast was Advanced Transfiguration with McGonagall. Just like Professor Flitwick had emphasised in Charms the day before, they were starting to learn very advanced spells and the theoretical background would become on par in importance with the practical component of their lessons.
"Great, more time in the library," muttered Ron to Harry as they flipped open their textbooks and began to read the chapter on magical laws governing human transformations. They were going to study Animagi next; Harry couldn't wait to find out more about how Animagus forms worked.
He felt a twinge of sadness as he thought of his father and Sirius, but shook the thoughts off resolutely. The last thing he needed was to become distracted in McGonagall's classroom. Ron had told him that she made a huge deal out of his being late on the previous day and Harry wasn't in the mood for another lecture on the importance of sixth-year courses. All their teachers kept going on about it.
By the time they headed for break after Transfiguration, Harry's brain was buzzing with paragraph numbers and law headings – McGonagall hadn't been kidding when she'd said that the laws controlling Animagus transformations were strict.
"Where do you think Kingsley could be?" asked Ron, sitting down on the grass beside Harry and crossing his legs.
Harry shook his head. "I have no idea. I hope he's okay. I wish we could ask someone about the break-out but no one would tell us anything."
"Lupin might, if you ask him," said Hermione, casting a glance behind Harry.
Harry sat up a little straighter. "You think so? Maybe I'll write to him, then."
"All righ', Harry?" boomed Hagrid's voice above them, and Harry grinned up at him.
The lesson started and Harry tried not to tune out Hagrid as he talked about the importance of Advanced Care of Magical Creatures for their N.E.W.Ts. He looked briefly at the Slytherins and frowned. Why was Malfoy bothering to take this class, anyway? The pale boy wore an unpleasant sneer as he listened to Hagrid.
Hagrid didn't have any new creatures for them; instead, he took the time to go over what they already knew from their previous five years. He mentioned that they would study Acromantula (strictly in theory, yeh understan') phoenixes (got us a great one righ' here at Hogwarts, Fawkes is 'is name), as well as various types of snakes (Harry here can talk ter snakes, can't yeh, Harry?).
Harry really wished Hagrid wouldn't single him out like that. He hoped he wouldn't have to demonstrate Parseltongue when they did study snakes. When the lunch bell went, Harry tugged his schoolbag up from the grass, which was matted all around where they'd sat.
"Something tells me I'm not going to like this class. Did you hear that, Harry? Acromantula! Giant spiders!" said Ron.
"Hagrid's not taking us to see Aragog, you heard what he said – strictly in theory," argued Harry. He noticed Malfoy bending down to pick up his schoolbag and was startled by a sudden image of himself walking up behind Malfoy and running his hands down his sides.
Malfoy straightened up and looked straight at Harry. Pansy Parkinson walked up and grabbed Malfoy by the arm. Harry looked away. Hormones and confusion or not, this was Malfoy. What the hell was he thinking?
They had Defence Against the Dark Arts after lunch. Harry wasn't looking forward to it, mostly because he knew that they'd only cover theory in lessons. He did like Professor Eaton, which was a good thing since he'd have to work pretty closely with the teacher to make sure that the practical component of their Defence curriculum was covered properly.
Rumour had it that the former Ravenclaw had only accepted the teaching post at Hogwarts because he believed there was some Dark magic affecting the position and he had wanted to investigate it himself. Professor Eaton wore crisp, always impeccably arranged robes of dark colours. He had long, sinewy fingers and a habit of tapping the frame of his oval spectacles nervously with them.
After the lesson was finished, Eaton asked Harry to stay behind.
"Harry, I'd like you to join us for dinner in the staff lounge. I've invited the other DA group leaders as well."
Harry blinked. "But the DA groups haven't even formed yet," he said. "Have they?"
Eaton smiled. "No, but we've already chosen the other group leaders and the sooner we get started on planning, the better. You didn't think we'd leave you lot to your devices, did you?"
The dinner at the staff lounge was odd for Harry; the only other time he remembered not eating at the Great Hall with the rest of his house was when he and Ron had flown the Ford Anglia into Hogwarts in their second year. House-elves brought in the food and placed it on a small table at the back of the dusty room.
The five of them – Professor Eaton, Harry, Padma Patil, Justin Finch-Fletchley and Sheridan Roper of Slytherin – settled around the table. The conversation was slow-going at first, but eventually Justin and Padma were engaged in a lively debate with Eaton about the effectiveness of anti-Dark device legislation. Harry eyed Roper apprehensively: he seemed very much the Slytherin with his darting, dark eyes, but the thick glasses made Harry think of himself. He wondered absently if Malfoy teased Roper about the glasses.
Padma Patil looked exactly like her twin; it was difficult for Harry to reconcile her serious, earnest manner with her looks – he kept expecting her to start giggling into the palm of her hand. Justin seemed very proud of himself for having earned a spot as a group leader; Harry thought he deserved it, anyway: Justin had been one of the best in last year's DA line-up.
Eaton explained to them what was expected of them. He was going to have these dinners with group leaders from all years except first and second – he would be leading those groups himself as none of the students in the lower years could be expected to be able to teach anyone anything. Harry felt like he was at last a part of something, something he helped create, and the thought warmed him.
After the dinner, Harry made a beeline for the Great Hall but found it nearly empty: their dinner had taken longer than he'd thought. He walked up to Gryffindor tower, but the common room was as bare as the Great Hall had been. Colin Creevey told Harry that Ron and Hermione had gone to the library. Harry thought about going after them, but decided to write to Lupin instead.
He got some parchment, an inkpot and a quill from his schoolbag and stared at the blank sheet in front of him. How should he address Lupin? Professor? Remus? Harry shook his head, and began to write.
Dear Professor Lupin,
Harry paused, brushing his chin with the tip of his quill. What was he supposed to say? Just get to the point? He sighed and dipped his quill into the inkpot once more.
We've all read the article about the breakout and everyone's been really worried about Kingsley Shacklebolt. Has he been found or is he still missing? I hope you're doing well.
Harry stared at the letter for a while. It seemed sort of impersonal and business-like, but he found he couldn't muster up the nerve to ask how Lupin was handling the death of Sirius – whereas Harry had only known Sirius for two short years, Lupin and Sirius had been friends forever. Harry could only imagine what Lupin must be going through.
Every Friday, prefects from each house had to hold an hour-long meeting before the sixth-year Gryffindor Astronomy lesson, which took place in the evening. The meetings were to be held near the Astronomy Tower, so that Ron and Hermione, who both had Astronomy, didn't have to leave early.
After Ron, Hermione and Ginny walked off to the prefects' meeting, Harry and Neville went to the library. Harry wanted to find a book on Animagi that McGonagall had mentioned in Transfiguration. He pulled it from the shelf and made his way over to one of the study tables, where Neville was immersed in a thick tome on magical plants of South-East Asia.
Harry had only cracked open his book on Animagi when he heard a cough from above him. He looked up and saw Zacharias Smith standing there.
"Hi," said Harry. He hadn't spoken to Zacharias since Spinners End.
"Hello Harry," said Zacharias. "Have a good summer?"
"Yeah, as good as it could be," said Harry. "You?"
"Yeah," said Zacharias with an odd look. "Well, judging by the birthday party Ron and Hermione threw for you, yours was really fun, eh?"
"Yeah, it was fun. Thanks for coming to that, by the way."
"It was lucky I could – we were in town for just three days. My dad had a workshop in Palermo for most of the summer."
"Palermo? Where's that?" asked Harry.
Zacharias pulled out a chair and sat down beside him. "Sicily."
"You must have been bored out of your mind," said Harry.
"Not really," said Zacharias, linking his hands behind his head. "It was funny, but I met Blaise there and so at least I had someone to talk to."
"Blaise?" Harry gave him a blank look.
"Blaise Zabini, he's a Slytherin in our year," said Zacharias. "His family's from Palermo."
Harry's eyebrows shot up. A Hufflepuff and a Slytherin? There was something you didn't hear about every day. "Cool," he said aloud. "What's it like, Palermo?"
"Hot," said Zacharias unhelpfully. "Very hot."
"Harry," called Neville. "It's almost time."
"Right then. See you, Zacharias," said Harry. "We've got Astronomy."
Zacharias gave him an understanding look. "Rotten luck, Astronomy on Fridays. Well, see you."
Harry and Neville made their way up to the Astronomy Tower. The classroom was still locked and Professor Sinistra was nowhere to be found. Ron and Hermione were standing near a wall, talking in low voices. Harry and Neville walked up to them.
"Hi, Harry. Where were you?"
"Oh, library. I was talking to Zacharias Smith," said Harry, noticing that Ron began to scowl. Apparently, he still wasn't a fan of Zacharias. "He told me he was in Palermo this summer – that's in Sicily – and get this, he was hanging out with that Slytherin bloke, Zabini."
"And didn't get eaten?" asked Ron with a sceptical look.
Harry snorted. Hermione looked very disapproving for a moment, and Harry mimicked her expression, causing her to laugh despite herself.
"Speaking of Slytherins, you won't believe what Malfoy just did in the prefects' meeting!" said Hermione between giggles.
"Not going to die of shock, are you, Granger?" called Malfoy's snide voice. Harry stopped grinning and turned around. Malfoy was standing there, with Pansy Parkinson on his arm, looking smug.
Ron took a step towards Malfoy and pointed an accusing finger at him. "I don't know what you did to Ernie, Malfoy, but you'll be sorry. You better not be in the same DA group I am in."
"DA?" mocked Malfoy. "Dangerously Addle-brained? I'm terrified. I always knew you were a snivelling hypocrite, Weasel, babbling about house unity when other prefects are around, then abandoning all pretence when it's just you, the Mudblood, and Scarhead here."
Ron lunged, but Hermione grabbed his arm. "Just. Ignore. Him," she ground out.
Harry looked at Malfoy, taking in the curled upper lip and the narrowed eyes. He wondered distractedly what Pansy saw in the pointy-faced git, resolutely ignoring the thoughts that had run through his mind in Care of Magical Creatures earlier this week. Malfoy had bumped into him before Potions on Thursday, and Harry knew Malfoy had done it on purpose.
Professor Sinistra's voice startled Harry and he turned away. Malfoy was clearly just grasping at every straw in reach to get to Harry, and Harry wouldn't give him that satisfaction. He walked into the Astronomy classroom without a backwards glance.
"What was that about Ernie, Ron?" Harry asked as they were settling in for the lecture portion of the lesson.
"Oh, we think Malfoy's threatened Ernie with something," said Hermione from one desk over. "Ernie made this great show of passing Malfoy some potion ingredient lists and Malfoy made just as big of a show of loudly saying that he'd have the research for Ernie shortly."
Harry frowned. "That's a lot of Slytherins and Hufflepuffs being friendly with each other."
"Yeah, that, and Ernie is going out with a Slytherin – that Daphne Greengrass girl, you remember her, right, Harry?" said Hermione.
Harry shook his head. "I'd probably remember if you pointed her out." He would never cease to be amazed at Hermione's ability to know everything in every book ever written in addition to every piece of school gossip.
On their way back to Gryffindor tower after Astronomy, Ron and Hermione told Harry and Neville about all the different house unity-related activities that the prefects were planning. Harry already knew about the Gryffindor project – the DA groups, which would replace the practical component of Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons and foster teamwork amongst the students.
The Hufflepuffs would be organising small gatherings for all four houses on the weekends, in various locations around the school. Hufflepuff would provide the snacks, drinks, and music. The only catch to the parties was that people would be invited exactly ten minutes beforehand and wouldn't know who else was coming. Hermione told Harry excitedly about a goblet they'd bewitched to work like the Triwizard Tournament's Goblet of Fire – it would spit out twenty random names, not one at a time, and it would always be five names from each house, all in the same year. Hermione had helped with that and she seemed quite proud of herself.
Ravenclaw house was organising homework groups for each year with two members from each house per group. They asked all the professors to create extra credit assignments on which these groups could work together to raise their grades. Students taking their O.W.Ls and N.E.W.Ts that year were guaranteed extra points towards their mark if they participated in all the meetings. Harry privately thought that the Hufflepuff parties sounded like a much more fun type of activity than these study groups, but he said nothing.
The Slytherins had the most inane project – not that Harry was surprised. They seemed to think that members of other houses didn't really understand the Slytherin students, and so the Slytherin house unity project involved trying to show the other houses that Slytherins weren't like their stereotype. Each Slytherin would write an essay about themselves and their thoughts on various subjects, and students in their year from other houses had a month to try and figure out who had written each essay. The essays would be read out and their writers identified publicly starting on the night of the Hallowe'en Feast. Harry thought it a great load of rubbish. Everyone knew that Slytherins were a bunch of jumped-up Voldemort sympathisers.
Harry was sure he'd spot Malfoy's essay after the first paragraph. "I bet you anything it'll start with 'I'm the best Seeker at Hogwarts, and Potter can just curl up and die'," he said.
Ron snorted. Hermione looked extremely disapproving. "Look, you have to give this a chance. If we don't, we're being just as bad as the Slytherins."
"How can you say that, Hermione?" demanded Ron, turning around to look at her as he paused in the portrait hole. "Even after they're the ones with the house unity project that requires the least amount of work?"
"I think Pansy Parkinson will have her work cut out for her trying to get them to write, anyway," said Hermione in a testy voice. "I'm going to bed."
Ron stared after her, shaking his head.
On the following Wednesday, Ron and Harry were walking into the common room after dinner when they came face to face with Ginny.
"There you are. I was about to go look for you."
"What's going on?" asked Ron, un-slinging his schoolbag and lowering it to the floor.
Ginny gave him a pointed look. "The Slytherin Quidditch tryouts are tonight. I'd have thought you'd be interested in Malfoy's new line-up, that's all."
Ron slapped his forehead. He'd been thrilled when McGonagall told him he'd been named Quidditch captain. Gryffindor only needed one new Chaser this season; Ron had decided that Kirke and Sloper would do as Beaters – he seemed rather inclined to give them a chance, remembering his own rather poor performance as Keeper. Ginny was by far the best out of those trying out, and the Gryffindor tryouts last week had been short.
"Yeah," said Ron. "I want to see how Malfoy manages to pick a team. Let me just get a clipboard from Dean; I saw him with one the other day."
Harry and Ginny exchanged glances. Ginny shook her head. "Hurry up," she said. "They'll be starting soon and we don't want to be late."
Harry decided he'd go along – not that he was particularly interested in the Slytherin tryouts, but he didn't much feel like doing homework all by himself. Hermione had gone off to the library and Harry didn't feel like walking all the way up there.
Ron reappeared with Dean's clipboard moments later, and the three of them made their way to the Quidditch pitch with hurried steps.
The Slytherins were assembled near a lower section of the stands. Malfoy was standing in the centre of the group and hadn't seen Harry, Ron and Ginny. Harry could see that some of the Slytherins had noticed them. A moment later, Malfoy turned around, his eyebrow raised.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"Don't get your back up, Malfoy," replied Harry. "We've just come to watch your tryouts."
Malfoy sneered. "And what entitles you to said privilege, Potter?" he asked in a mocking tone.
Harry shrugged. "We don't need to be, er, entitled."
"You are banned from Quidditch. Banned for life, if I recall correctly."
"The ban's been lifted, Malfoy," Harry shot back. "It was on only as long as that toad Umbridge was here."
Malfoy made a face, and Ginny piped up. "Bet you miss your Inquisitorial Squad, Malfoy! Shame you can't do any boot-licking this year."
"Ginny, don't." said Harry in a warning tone, his eyes trained on Malfoy's. They were grey and cold and empty.
"Shut your face, blood traitor," spat Malfoy, cold fury in his voice.
"Look, Malfoy, don't make a scene," Harry said with a tired sigh. Ginny made a small noise beside him and Ron was looking apoplectic.
"You are not going to watch our tryouts!" snapped Malfoy.
Harry wondered why he'd let Malfoy get to him so many times before. He was clearly just an insufferable, spoilt child.
"Try and stop us then," said Harry, looking straight at Malfoy, who seemed unnerved.
"So I suppose they made you captain, did they, Potter?" asked Malfoy.
"No. Ron's captain," replied Harry.
"They made him captain?" Malfoy smirked. "Well, Professor Snape shall be very happy to hear that the Quidditch Cup is as good as ours then."
Ron's evidently had enough. "Shut it, ferret-face," he growled, and Malfoy gave him a disgusted look, then turned to Harry.
"So how does it feel being bested by Weasley once again, Potter?"
"I get by," said Harry. Malfoy's eyes narrowed even more and he whirled on Ginny.
"And the mini-Weasel?" he ground out.
Harry wanted to punch him in the face. Ron, apparently, had the same idea, because he took a threatening step towards Malfoy. Ginny was staring daggers at Malfoy, who was glaring at her with a hateful sneer. Harry put an arm around Ginny's shoulders, mostly because she looked like she was about to pounce on Malfoy.
He could see Crabbe and Goyle step closer to their team captain. The last thing they needed right now was a fight. Harry didn't want to risk being banned from Quidditch again – Umbridge may have been gone, but all Malfoy had to do was tattle to Snape and Harry would be facing at least probation.
"Ginny's the new Chaser, she's taking Angelina's place," said Harry, forcing his voice to be calm. "Now if you'll excuse us, Malfoy, I believe you have tryouts to supervise?"
Malfoy's face was a study in contempt, but he waved his hand dismissively at the three of them. He turned back to the other Slytherins, who had gone very quiet. Harry pulled Ginny with him and Ron followed reluctantly. They made their way towards the top-most bench.
Ron extracted an inkpot from his pocket and tried to balance it on his knees. It wobbled precariously and Ron snatched it up quickly, then bewitched it to hang suspended in mid-air. Harry grinned; there were definite advantages to being a wizard.
"Why does Malfoy hate you so much, Harry?" asked Ginny, who was digging in her robe's pocket for something.
"I don't know, to be honest," said Harry. "Probably because I chose Ron over him in first year."
Ginny's head snapped up; she nearly bumped Harry's forehead. "Really? Malfoy wanted to be your friend?"
"More like his boyfriend," said Ron with a murderous glare in Malfoy's direction. "He does seem the fairy type, doesn't he?"
Harry's insides froze.
"Er, I don't know," he mumbled. "I wouldn't know about the, er, fairy types."
"Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course," added Ron, smoothing the piece of parchment on the clipboard in front of him. "But this is Malfoy we're talking about."
Ginny giggled and Harry felt like a huge weight just dropped off his shoulders. "So you don't think there's anything wrong with, you know, being the fairy type?"
Ron gave him a sideways look. "I'd have to be pretty thick, what with Charlie and all."
"Charlie's gay?" blurted Harry.
"You didn't know?" asked Ginny.
Harry shook his head. This made things loads easier. Thinking he might be gay and not being able to talk to Ron about it had made him edgy, and he knew that Hermione didn't like having to hide things from Ron, either.
He glanced over at the Slytherins in the air above the pitch. Millicent Bulstrode had a powerful throw. Harry watched apprehensively as a pass she made nearly knocked Malcolm Baddock off his broom. Harry watched as Malfoy flew higher to hover above the others, his white-blond hair slicked back by the wind that was just starting to pick up.
Harry sniggered as Goyle hit a Quaffle thrown by Millicent with his foot. He turned to Ron.
"We ought to introduce Goyle and Dean, they could swap football tips," he said.
Ginny sniffed loudly beside him and Harry turned around to look at her. "What's up?"
Ginny turned away, and Harry instinctively put an arm round her shoulders, forcing her to look at him. She pursed her lips. "Dean and I aren't talking."
"What? Why not?" demanded Ron, dropping his quill. "Did he hurt you?"
"You know, Ron, the whole jealous brother thing's getting old," said Ginny in a huffy tone. They'd apparently had many fights throughout the summer on the subject of Dean and Ginny's relationship.
Ron rolled his eyes and Harry was fleetingly reminded of Hermione.
"So, you want us to give Dean a talking-to, Ginny?" asked Harry, attempting to sound playful.
Ginny grinned. Ron grabbed hold of his own throat with both hands. "We'll give him a talking-to, all right," he croaked, and the sound that came out was so ridiculous that Harry laughed.
"No, really, I'll sort it out," said Ginny, "but thanks, Harry. Don't hurt yourself, Ron."
Ron gave her a mock glare and picked his quill back up. "Look, they're landing. I bet you anything it'll be Bulstrode, Baddock, and that squishy-faced fifth-year."
"What makes you say that?" asked Harry.
"Well, Bulstrode's obviously good, even though she's a girl. Baddock's the Head Boy's brother and these are Slytherins we're talking about. The fifth-year's pretty good too. I wonder what his name is."
They watched as the Slytherins assembled in a circle not far above them. Malfoy hovered off to the side. He said something and Malcolm Baddock let out a loud whoop of joy. Malfoy turned and said something to a bunch of sulky-looking Slytherins, who promptly began to start landing.
Harry looked at the people left and realised that Ron had been right about whom Malfoy would pick as new Chasers.
"Impressive," he said to Ron, who tried not to look too pleased with himself.
Harry's gaze wandered back to Malfoy, who was saying something to his new Chasers, who were nodding. He turned and barked an order to Crabbe and Goyle, who sped off and landed near the other Slytherins near the lower bench. They threw their broomsticks down and settled on a bench; Harry realised Malfoy must have sent them off to rest. He didn't understand why: did Malfoy care if they got rest?
The Keeper tryouts were tedious – the hopefuls came up to the goalposts one by one. Ron was sure that Avery, a wiry seventh-year, would be picked. Malfoy ended up picking Blaise Zabini. Harry wondered if Malfoy only picked him because they were friends. The boy had been pretty bad – better than Ron had been during his first practice, but still bad.
Ron agreed that Zabini had only been picked because he was Malfoy's friend, but refrained from commenting on Zabini's Keeping itself. Throughout the Keeper tryouts, Ron scribbled furiously on his clipboard while Harry and Ginny chatted about Fred and George's new joke shop. The two were making a lot of money because they carried unique products that weren't available in any other joke shop and as Harry was learning, wizards of all ages were extremely fond of practical jokes.
As it became evident that Malfoy had ended the tryouts, Harry rose from his seat and walked in front of his friends. Ron was making another futile attempt at convincing Ginny that their father had, indeed, used Skiving Snackboxes to get out of work. They passed the Slytherins and Harry was starting to breathe more freely – he'd been sure that Malfoy would start something again.
He hadn't been wrong. "Be afraid, Weasley," Malfoy called. "We've got a strong team this year, as you no doubt have noticed. With those sorry excuses for Beaters you've got, and two Weasels on the team, Gryffindor ought to be hurting."
Ron's face went red and he started to turn towards Malfoy, but Ginny tugged on his robe sleeve.
"Come on, Ron," she pleaded. "Don't let him get to you."
Harry shot Malfoy a look full of contempt and the other boy seemed to be surprised by this. He took a step backwards and didn't say a word as the three of them resumed walking.
Harry wondered if it would be too much to ask for Malfoy to drop dead.
After Potions on the following Monday, Harry was putting his things away when Pansy Parkinson asked Hermione to step outside, ostensibly to talk about something to do with the house unity project. Harry indicated that he'd catch up and Hermione walked out with Pansy, looking apprehensive.
"Potter," came Malfoy's voice from above him and Harry looked up, blinking.
"What now, Malfoy?" he asked, wondering if Pansy calling Hermione away had anything to do with this.
Malfoy took a deep breath. "I was wondering if you wanted to come to Hogsmeade with me and Blaise."
Harry stared at him. He realised they were the only people left in the classroom. The silence in the room was almost palpable. Harry wondered if any of this was actually happening or perhaps he'd dozed off and was having an unpleasant dream.
"What?" he asked.
"Do you have trouble with your hearing, Potter? I asked if you wanted to --"
"I heard you, Malfoy," said Harry, still staring at him. "I can't believe you just said that."
Malfoy shifted from foot to foot. "Well, the year's theme is house unity. What better way to unite the houses than try to settle old feuds?" he said.
Harry's mouth fell open. "Er…" he said. What was Malfoy playing at? "But I... but your dad... but you said..."
Malfoy waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Look, Potter, I realise this is very sudden for you." He looked at Harry pointedly. "Just come out with us, it'll be interesting."
"Uh," Harry said, recalling what Ron had said about Malfoy being the fairy type, "I'm already going with Ron and Hermione, erm, Malfoy." He looked up at the other boy and quickly dropped his gaze again, feeling distinctive heat spreading across his face. "Um."
Malfoy looked slightly taken aback, then shook his head.
"Well, perhaps you'll join us at the Three Broomsticks for some drinks, then?" he offered. "If Weasley and Granger let you, that is," he added in a snide tone.
Harry sighed deeply. This was Draco Malfoy and that couldn't mean anything good. "Look, Malfoy. How do I know this isn't another ploy of yours to get me into trouble?"
Malfoy made an innocent face. "Paranoid, are we? You've got nothing to worry about -- the Three Broomsticks is a public place, there'll be lots of other people there. Unless, of course, you fear being seen with us," Malfoy said. If Harry hadn't known any better, he would have said Malfoy sounded disappointed.
He looked up at Malfoy. "No, I don't. Fear being seen with you, that is. I just wish you'd tell me what you want from me."
Malfoy smiled indulgently. "Just an hour or so of your time, Potter. We'll have some Butterbeer, talk about girls and Quidditch. The usual. Unless, of course, you deem us nasty Slytherins undeserving of your time," he said.
"I don't," said Harry. He really didn't like Malfoy's indulgent smirk. "I just don't trust you, Malfoy. Not as far as I can throw you, anyway."
Malfoy frowned. "Look, Potter, I'm not proposing marriage," he said, his tone light. Harry wished he'd stop with the references to marriage and all things related, because this blushing in front of Malfoy thing was getting old. "Just drinks. We have to start somewhere," said Malfoy.
"Start what, Malfoy?"
"The long hard road to house unity, of course," Malfoy replied with an ever-so-slight emphasis on hard.
Harry wanted to fall right through the floor as he glared at his hands, which were folded in his lap. He gritted his teeth, willing himself to stop thinking about Malfoy and hard things. He looked up at the Slytherin boy, who had folded his arms across his chest. Maybe if Harry played along, Malfoy would finally leave him alone – at least until the Hogsmeade weekend.
"Fine, Malfoy, I'll meet you and - uh - Zabini. What time?"
"Two o'clock on Saturday," said Malfoy. Harry really didn't like the gleeful tone his voice took just then. "Cheers, Potter," Malfoy said airily, rounding Harry's desk and heading for the door.
Just then, the door to Snape's office opened and the professor walked into the classroom.
"Why are you still here, Potter?" asked Snape, his eyes narrowing.
"Uh, I was just—"
"I had to talk to Potter about something, Professor," Malfoy broke in, causing Snape to whirl around and face him.
Harry goggled at them both. Did Malfoy just defend him, after a fashion? He made a mental note to check that the sky was still in place when he went out on the grounds.
"Very well," said Snape after a pause. "I needed to speak with you anyway, Potter," he said with barely masked contempt. "Will you excuse us, Draco?" he added slightly more genially.
"Of course, Professor." Malfoy bowed slightly and hurried out.
Harry picked up his schoolbag and walked over to Snape.
"Well, Potter," said Snape. "The Headmaster has asked me to inform you that we are to redouble our efforts at Occlumency. Now that the school year's on track, I expect you in my office twice a week. Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons."
"Ah, yes. Professor McGonagall insisted that you be exempt from Occlumency training during those times when Gryffindor plays against another house."
Harry exhaled, making a mental note to thank McGonagall in person. "Okay," he said.
"You may go," said Snape, and swept off towards the back of the classroom. Harry glared at his back. He was sure Snape would have made it so Harry had to miss out on Quidditch. Had it not been for McGonagall, he would have succeeded, too.
Harry mumbled a goodbye and walked out of the dungeon, looking around for Hermione. She was leaning against the wall opposite with a contemplative look on her face.
"Harry, did Malfoy talk to you just now?" asked Hermione.
Harry blinked. He hadn't had time to think about this. He didn't know what to make of Malfoy's little invitation, and he didn't want Hermione to get the wrong idea. Vaguely feeling like he'd regret this later, he looked away. "Er, yeah, just the usual insults, you know. Then Snape came out and he had to bugger off."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Interesting."
"What is?" asked Harry.
"That Parkinson would call me out just now. He didn't try to hurt you or anything, did he?"
"No more than usual," said Harry, wondering if he should tell her about his conversation with Malfoy after all. Thinking that it would probably look really stupid to admit he'd concealed the truth just then, he decided to tell her and Ron later.
After a particularly long and gruelling Quidditch practice on Saturday, Harry and Ron were up in their dormitory, getting their homework things together. Harry noticed movement out on the grounds and looked down into the courtyard. Cho and Marietta Edgecombe were sitting on a low wall beside the statue of Circe, talking about something and occasionally laughing. Harry wondered why he couldn't muster up any of his old feelings for Cho.
He heard movement behind himself and realised Ron was looking over his shoulder. "You're not still after Cho, are you, Harry?"
"Erm, no. I just noticed them sitting out there, actually," said Harry.
Ron walked over and stood in front of him, obscuring the window from view. "I've noticed she's been moping around like a lemon lately, and I just thought—"
"Nah, she's probably having problems with Michael Corner," said Harry.
Ron shook his head. "I don't think so, mate. I mean, you know I'm not exactly a genius around girls, but I've noticed her looking at you."
"Well, she can forget it," said Harry flatly.
Ron raised an eyebrow. "You sound really sure."
"I am. Er," – Harry wasn't prepared for this at all – "actually, um, you know, Ron, I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier, but—"
"You don't fancy Luna, do you?" asked Ron with a guarded look.
"What? No, um, no," said Harry.
Ron looked very relieved. "Well, what's going on then?"
Harry took a deep breath. "Er, I think I might be gay."
Ron blinked. "You—"
"Yeah," said Harry, turning away. "Um."
"D'you fancy someone in particular that makes you say that?" asked Ron, his tone careful.
Harry looked over at him and noticed that he looked very uncomfortable. "Er, not really, no."
To his surprise, Ron looked very relieved. "Are you—er—I mean—" Ron trailed off with a sheepish grin. "How'd you know?"
"I don't, really. I just think so," said Harry, breathing a sigh of relief.
"Does Hermione know?" asked Ron.
Harry shuffled his feet. "Er, yeah. I told her on my birthday."
"Your birthday? Blimey, Harry!" said Ron, looking slightly affronted.
"I didn't know how to tell you. Um."
Ron gave him a sidelong glance. "Well, I'm glad you did."
All in all, the conversation had gone just like Harry would have imagined, had he actually sat down and thought about it before stressing himself out about Ron's reaction. This was his best friend, after all.
Now he just had to tell Ron and Hermione that Malfoy had for all intents and purposes asked him out. Well, not really. Did he? Harry shook his head, wondering what the hell Malfoy had up his sleeve this time.
They gathered their things and walked downstairs to the common room. Hermione was sitting in one of the chairs by the fireplace with her feet tucked under her. Crookshanks perched atop the back of her chair, pretending to read the book she was immersed in. Dean, Ginny and Seamus were gathered on a sofa near the back of the room, talking to Colin Creevey, who was gesticulating wildly.
Harry sat down on a sofa across from Hermione and pushed his glasses up his nose. Ron flopped down beside him and started rooting around amongst his things, cursing inkpots for being so bloody small. Harry cast a furtive glance around the room and coughed.
Hermione looked up from her book. "Harry?"
"Er," said Harry. "Here's the thing, um. Malfoy's asked me to meet him at the Three Broomsticks during the next Hogsmeade visit."
The silence that greeted his words was so thick that it even made Crookshanks stop purring and look over at Harry.
"What did you just say?" said Ron. Hermione frowned.
"It's not, um, that kind of meeting," said Harry quickly. "He's asked me to meet him and I thought, you know why not? I figured I'd listen to what he's got to say."
"You're barking," declared Ron. "What if he tries something?"
Hermione nodded. "Yeah, Harry. Malfoy's not exactly the model student, you know."
"Well he's a prefect. Aren't we supposed to be giving other houses a chance?" said Harry.
Ron shook his head with a rueful look. "Yeah, but this – this is Malfoy! He deserves to be put into a house of his own. Poncy-git-erin would fit him."
Harry grinned. "True. But I figured it can't hurt."
"Can't hurt? Harry, that's all Malfoy's been trying to do for the past five years! Hurt you!" said Hermione. Ron nodded fervently, then extracted a Chocolate Frog from inside his schoolbag and tore the packaging open with his teeth.
Harry knew they were right. He knew that there wasn't anything he and Malfoy could possibly say to each other that wouldn't end in wands being drawn. He suddenly wondered why he'd accepted the invitation in the first place – what had he been thinking? Or was he too busy staring at Malfoy to really process who he was talking to?
Harry was going to talk to Malfoy during Care of Magical Creatures, he'd even taken a step forward and opened his mouth to call him aside and tell him that the meeting wasn't happening. Malfoy's eyes were half-closed – he was looking at something on his sleeve – and Harry's words died in his throat as he looked at Malfoy's white eyelashes feathered out against his pale skin. He hadn't realised Malfoy even had eyelashes. Why the hell was he thinking about Malfoy's eyelashes?
It was too late; Malfoy looked up at Harry and gave him a slow smirk. Harry's cheeks were becoming flushed again, mostly because he was picturing himself doing rather lewd things instead of telling Malfoy that the meeting was off.
Hermione tugged on his robe sleeve and Harry looked at her, startled. Hagrid was there and the lesson had started. After the lesson, Harry wanted to attempt calling the meeting off again, but Malfoy had simply nodded very slightly in his direction and walked off with his cronies, not looking back.
The two of them seemed to be in the middle of an uneasy truce, and by the fourth week of classes, tongues were wagging about the "sudden change" in Draco Malfoy. Colin Creevey told Harry that most people speculated that Malfoy was afraid of Harry because of something his father had told him. Harry didn't believe it for a second. Malfoy had an agenda of some sort, and Harry would be on guard. He'd go and meet Malfoy, but he would go prepared.
Hogsmeade weekend dawned grey and dreary. Harry, Ron and Hermione made their way out of the castle just behind a throng of younger Hufflepuffs. Neville caught up with them shortly after they set off on the road leading to Hogsmeade. Harry had wanted to talk to Ron and Hermione about his upcoming meeting with Malfoy, but he didn't want to start the conversation with Neville there.
The four of them chatted about lessons as they passed Hogsmeade Station. Neville started doing a rather believable impression of Professor Sprout; Harry and the others laughed loudly. Ron remarked that Neville was wasting his natural acting ability.
Their first destination was Zonko's: Fred and George had asked Ron to nose around for them. Apparently, since Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes had taken off, old Zonko's business had taken a dent and he no longer welcomed the twins in his shops. They browsed around the new merchandise for a while, then headed to Honeydukes to stock up on sweets. Neville left them there to join Dean, Ginny and Seamus, who said they were going to try the new éclairs at Madam Puddifoot's.
It was almost two o'clock by then and Harry needed to get to the Three Broomsticks. He turned to face Ron and Hermione, who were bickering over where to go: Ron wanted to follow the others to Madam Puddifoot's while Hermione insisted that he should leave Ginny in peace.
"Guys?" interrupted Harry, causing them both to look over at him as though surprised he was even there. "I have to go and meet Malfoy now, you coming?"
Ron blinked. Hermione looked uncomfortable. "You're actually going to?" she asked, narrowing her eyes. "I thought you were going to tell him you're not coming."
"I was, but it didn't work out."
"So what? Don't go, and that's it," said Ron with a near-scowl. "Knowing Malfoy, he'll have an unpleasant surprise for you, like setting the Three Broomsticks on fire and you having to take the blame. Remember first year?"
Harry nodded. He remembered Malfoy's little duel challenge all too well; it had very nearly landed the three of them in serious trouble. On the other hand, the Three Broomsticks was a public place and there would be lots of other Hogwarts students there. Malfoy wouldn't dare do anything in broad daylight.
"I'm going anyway," he said. Hermione looked disapproving but said nothing.
Ron frowned. "Well, I'm going with you."
Harry opened his mouth to protest, but Hermione stepped next to Ron. "Me too," she said.
To be honest, Harry was relieved. Even though Lucius Malfoy had escaped from prison, Harry imagined Malfoy still held a grudge over the fact that his father had gone to Azkaban in the first place. It would be good to have his friends there with him. He nodded and turned on his heel, walking towards the Three Broomsticks. It took them less than ten minutes to reach the pub. When they walked in, a high voice called from the back.
Harry turned and saw Luna Lovegood waving at them. She was looking at Ron, who pretended to cringe, but Harry thought he looked very pleased. Luna's letters hadn't stopped with the summer's end; she still regularly wrote to Ron and he grudgingly wrote back. Hermione thought the whole thing hilarious, considering her correspondence with Viktor Krum and Ron's attitude towards that.
"Well, she's seen you, mate. You might as well go over there and say hello," Harry said, grinning. He looked around and added, "Malfoy isn't here, anyway."
Ron ducked his head between his shoulder blades and walked towards Luna's table. After some hesitation, Hermione followed him. Harry looked around again and saw a pair of dark eyes trained on him, from another table near the back. It was Blaise Zabini.
Zabini raised a hand in a little wave, and Harry remembered that Malfoy had mentioned him during their talk in Potions. Malfoy must have stepped out or something. Harry gestured for Ron, who was seated beside Luna and looking uncomfortable, to wait. He walked over to where Zabini was sitting.
"Er, hi," he said, stopping about a foot from the table. The way Zabini's hair framed his face made Harry think of Sirius and he hated these unexpected reminders more than anything.
"Hi, Potter. Sit down?"
"Uh, okay. Where's—where's Malfoy?" asked Harry, pulling out a chair across from Zabini and sitting down.
"He had an urgent errand to run, but he'll be here shortly," said Zabini, leaning back in his chair. Harry placed his elbows on the table in front of him, then quickly took them off. There was something unnerving about Zabini's ease, or perhaps Harry just didn't trust any Slytherins.
"D'you know when he'll be back?" asked Harry, feeling more and more ridiculous. Here he was, asking Zabini about Malfoy, as though it had been Harry's idea to meet here in the first place.
Zabini gave a little one-armed shrug. "No idea. In the meantime, why don't we get drinks?"
"Yeah, good idea."
They called Madam Rosmerta over and ordered drinks; Harry asked for a Butterbeer, Zabini for a Gillywater.
"So, uh, you're the new Slytherin Keeper?" asked Harry, mostly to fill the odd silence that seemed to settle at their table. It was positively jarring amidst all the chatter.
Zabini leaned on the table in front of him using his elbows and linked his hands together. "Yeah. I've never been much for Quidditch, but Draco tells me it's a great way to get girls."
Harry wasn't sure what to say so that. "Oh. Slytherin girls like Quidditch players?"
Zabini smirked. "All girls like Quidditch players, I think." He turned slightly and nodded towards Hermione, who was staring open-mouthed at Luna, looking flabbergasted. "Except maybe her," he added with a wink.
Harry blinked. Was Zabini insulting Hermione? "What do you mean?" he asked, trying not to sound too defensive.
"Well, she's the brightest girl in our year, isn't she?"
Harry relaxed a little. "You think smart girls aren't Quidditch fans?"
Zabini took a pull on his straw. "They'd have to know better than that, wouldn't they? I mean, look at us," he said, pulling a face that made him look like Crabbe trying to concentrate.
Despite his best intentions, Harry felt himself relax even more. He grinned at Zabini, who certainly didn't look like he would have any trouble getting girls. He remembered what Zacharias had told him about his summer a few weeks ago – if Zabini, a Slytherin, were willing to befriend a Hufflepuff, he couldn't be as bad as Malfoy.
"So, Zacharias tells me you're from Sicily," he said to Zabini.
"That's right. I didn't know you were friends with Zacharias," said Zabini with a guarded look.
"He was in the DA last year," said Harry. "Back when it was still, you know, not allowed."
Zabini flashed him a smile. "I wouldn't know anything about that."
They continued talking for a little while, about Quidditch and Snape's latest Potions essay, until a hand fell onto Harry's shoulder and he jumped a little. "Hey, mate, we've got Quidditch practice in an hour," said Ron.
"All right," said Harry. "Well, I have to go," he added, turning to Zabini.
"Sure," said Zabini. "It was nice talking to you, Potter."
They'd spent over an hour at the Three Broomsticks and Malfoy hadn't shown up. Harry should have known Malfoy was just having him on.
Harry was startled out of a deep, pleasant sleep on Sunday morning by a loud knocking sound. He poked his head out from between the bed hangings and peered at the window. Hedwig was fluttering outside, looking unhappy.
Harry got out of bed, shivering as he padded across the cold hardwood floor. He let Hedwig in and shut the window quickly to avoid letting in any more of the cold air. He untied the parchment tied to Hedwig's leg and unrolled it quickly.
Thank you for your letter. We don't know anything about Kingsley, unfortunately. Even if we did, I wouldn't be able to write to you about that. I hope your year so far is going well – enjoy it, it's the last year you have before you have to do the NEWTs, and those are murder. I heard you had Kinsey Eaton teaching you Defence Against the Dark Arts this year – I'm not surprised. I bet he's a great teacher. He was a few years ahead of us in school and he had a reputation for his essays on Dark Magic; I think there's even a book of them published somewhere. He really knows his stuff, so if he teaches you something, take note. I hope you're holding up well.
Remus J. Lupin
Harry lowered the letter and sighed. He found his robes and pulled them on, then stuffed his feet into his trainers, not bothering with undoing the laces.
There went finding out about Kingsley. Worry gnawed at his stomach; what if Kingsley was dead somewhere? He felt responsible for what had happened during the breakout. He felt so helpless, standing there in his pyjamas, Hedwig staring at him with her large round eyes as though she, too, expected him to somehow sprout wings and fly off to save Kingsley.
Harry shook his head, thinking about Lupin's letter again. He'd mentioned that Eaton had been at Hogwarts – that must have meant he knew Harry's dad and Sirius! The thought seemed to make Harry even sadder. He didn't want to meet any more people who'd known his father and godfather longer than he had. Every time someone mentioned either of them, Harry would feel tense and jealous: why was it that others got to have memories where Harry only had corpses?
He sighed, feeling ridiculous once again. He held out his hand for Hedwig, who hopped on it and hooted. "Come on, fuzzball," he said. "Let's take you to the Owlery. I fancy a walk anyway." Hedwig didn't seem to like being called a fuzzball because she made no response. Harry thought about visiting Hagrid as he walked towards the Owlery, but shook his head.
He'd tried to go and spend some time with Hagrid twice in the past two months, but each time the conversation would steer to Sirius. Harry didn't want to talk about Sirius – not now and maybe not ever. Both times he'd fled from Hagrid's hut, making up some lame excuse. Harry sighed as he entered the Owlery and walked towards the window.
"Scourgify," he muttered, cleaning the wide windowsill of owl droppings. He clambered onto it and crossed his legs. The day was promising to be a bright, sunny one; a light breeze ruffled Harry's hair and he turned his face up towards the sun, closing his eyes.
Hedwig landed on his shoulder with a soft hoot. Harry smiled into the still-warm sunshine. Here was someone who would listen and not offer empty advice.
"What do you think, Hedwig?" he asked, turning to her. "Should I go visit Hagrid, or will he just want to talk about Sirius again?"
Hedwig hooted again and nipped at his nose affectionately. Harry smiled.
Someone behind him coughed. He jumped a little and turned around to look at the newcomer.
It was Malfoy, looking slightly dishevelled and holding a package of some sort. Harry thought back to the previous day and his gut tightened. Sodding Malfoy and his stupid games. He felt his smile fade.
"Potter. Nice owl," said Malfoy, then gave a startled yelp as his eagle owl landed on his shoulder. The blond boy glared at her.
Harry swung around on the windowsill and hopped off. Hedwig flew up towards the rafters and he looked at Malfoy. "Thanks," he said. "Yours is nice, too."
"Listen, Potter, I—" started Malfoy, but Harry shook his head. He didn't have time for this nonsense.
"Forget it, Malfoy. You want to play games, I'm not interested. I've got bigger fish to fry."
With that, Harry stalked out of the Owlery without a second glance. What a way to start a Sunday.
When Harry walked down into the common room on Monday morning, the first thing he noticed were the different-coloured parchments on the notice-board by the door. Ron and Hermione were standing next to them. Ron looked gloomy and Hermione sounded like she was lecturing him again. Harry walked closer and squinted at the parchments.
They were the member lists for the Defence Association groups and the Ravenclaw study groups. Two scrolls for each year – one in Gryffindor colours and one in Ravenclaw colours – they listed neat rows of students from all four houses. Harry searched for his name on the red-and-gold scrolls.
DEFENCE ASSOCIATION - GROUP 1 - MONDAYS - 19:00 - CLASSROOM ELEVEN
Potter, Harry (leader)
"Oh great," groaned Harry. "Hermione, Malfoy's in our group." He noticed Hermione and Ron exchange looks. Harry whirled on them. "What?"
"We just thought that you and Malfoy—" Hermione started to say.
"Me and Malfoy, honestly, Hermione," interrupted Harry. "We don't even belong in the same sentence."
He'd refused to talk to the two of them about what had happened in Hogsmeade. He somehow felt like a bit of an idiot, being stood up by Malfoy; at the same time, he felt ridiculous thinking about it in terms of "being stood up". It wasn't as though it had been a date or anything.
"It was good of you to try and give him a chance," said Ron suddenly. "'S a lot more than I would have done."
Hermione rolled her eyes and studied the blue-and-orange scrolls more closely. Harry bent over her shoulder to look as well, searching for his name.
RAVENCLAW STUDY GROUP 2 - TUESDAYS - 18:00 - CLASSROOM EIGHT
Well, at least he wasn't in the same study group as Malfoy. He felt a light twinge as he noticed Zacharias' name and wondered why he was oddly glad that they'd be in the same group.
"Oh great," groaned Hermione. "I've got study group with that cow Pansy."
"At least you didn't get Crabbe," said Ron in a peevish tone. "And you two get to be in the DA group together. I'm in the Slytherin-led group, some bloke named Sheridan Roper. Who drew up these lists, anyway?"
"The Head Boy and Girl," said Hermione. "I think it was random."
"Roper's okay, Ron," said Harry, hoping to cheer him up. "I've talked to him during the meetings we had with Professor Eaton. He's not a typical Slytherin."
"Oh no," said Ron, and Harry frowned. That was weird. Then he realised that Ron hadn't been talking to him. He was staring in horror at the student lists.
"What is it, Ron?" asked Hermione, who also noticed Ron's slack-jawed gaping.
"Quidditch! Our team is scattered, we're all over the week, look! You've got DA on Mondays and study group on Tuesdays, Harry; I've got DA on Wednesdays and study group on Thursdays, and the rest of the team is no better, not even on Fridays – Ginny's got study group then."
Harry sighed. He hadn't even thought about what the house unity projects would mean for Quidditch. Ron was scooping up his schoolbag from the floor.
"I have to go talk to McGonagall about booking the pitch. I hope Malfoy has broken a leg or something and can't get out of bed this morning. We need that pitch," he said quickly and sped out through the portrait hole.
Harry and Hermione exchanged looks. Harry wanted to follow Ron but he wouldn't be any good to him. "We'll go and meet him by McGonagall's office, all right?" he said to Hermione, who nodded.
"Speaking of house unity, Harry," said Hermione as they made their way out of the common room. "I was talking to Ernie and Hannah the other day, about the Hufflepuff parties, and they want to have the poor house-elves run around the castle looking for people!"
She was giving him an expectant kind of stare and Harry tried to look properly shocked, though he didn't understand what she was getting at. He made a noncommittal noise in his throat.
"I was thinking," continued Hermione, evidently taking his silence as encouragement, "if you could help them by using your dad's old map?"
Harry frowned. He didn't like to show his father's map to people, Hermione knew that. "Hermione, I don't know if that's such a good idea, what if Filch gets wind of it?"
"He won't! I promise you he won't, and the house-elves will keep quiet about it if you tell them to, anyway."
"Well, I'm not giving them my map," said Harry flatly.
"You really don't have to! You can just show up with it when they pick out the names and they can look and Apparate to wherever the people are," said Hermione.
They were nearing McGonagall's office now; Ron was nowhere in sight. Harry hoped he'd still be inside, or they'd have come here for nothing. He sighed.
"All right, I'll do it," he said to Hermione.
"Thanks so much, Harry!" cried Hermione, looking ecstatic. "It's really going to make things easier for the house-elves."
Harry shook his head and started to remark that Hermione really needed to get her priorities straight, but just then McGonagall's office door opened and out came Ron. He looked surly.
"Sodding Malfoy," he said in a bitter tone. "He'd got Snape to book the pitch for every second day of the week, plus Saturday afternoons. We have to make do with what's left. At least I'd beaten the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws to it."
"See, Ron, if you had been the one to get the lists from McGonagall, you would have known even before Malfoy," said Hermione in that lofty way she had.
Ron just scowled. "Let's go, I'm starving," he said.
On the following Monday, Harry had a serious case of butterflies in his stomach. The week since the student lists went up had gone by much quicker than usual, or so it seemed to Harry. The DA last year had been one thing – it had been secret, illegal, and very informal. Now he had to teach, as though he were a real Defence Against the Dark Arts instructor.
Harry hurried along the corridor to classroom eleven. He noticed Malfoy and a thin, stringy Slytherin boy Harry was sure was called Nott go through the doors. Harry's stomach did a flop. He'd forgotten all about Malfoy being in his DA group. The git was sure to cause a scene if he wasn't told who was boss from the beginning, and Harry didn't care what people might think. He wouldn't let Malfoy disturb the group meetings.
He walked through the door and grinned at Hermione, who was sitting beside Ernie Macmillan. Malfoy was leaning against a far wall, pretending to examine his fingernails while angling his head ever so slightly towards Ernie and Hermione. Harry ignored him and strode over to the lone desk that stood near Ernie and picked it up. He carried it to the middle of the room and set it down carefully.
"Honestly, Potter, haven't you ever heard of levitating objects with your wand?" asked Malfoy in that infuriating drawling voice of his. Beside Malfoy, Nott sniggered.
Harry shot them both a dark look but refused to rise to the bait. He hopped onto the desk and turned to Neville, who had been sitting on the floor with his nose in a thick book.
"Neville, can you please close the door?" said Harry, and Neville put down the book obediently, then scrambled up and ran over to shut the classroom door.
"Thanks, Neville," said Harry, grinning. He surveyed the people around him and tried to find his voice. "All right, well, most of you were in the DA last year, so you all know me. For those of you who weren't here last year, I'm Harry Potter of Gryffindor, and I will be your group leader this evening," he said with an impish grin at Lisa Turpin, who was standing off to the side near the entrance. Lisa grinned in response and tossed her hair back. Everyone else in the room returned Harry's smile, except for Malfoy and Nott. Harry heard Malfoy snort loudly.
Harry whirled to face him. "Have you got a cold, Malfoy?" he asked icily. Several other people giggled.
"Oh no, but thanks for your concern, Potter. I just find your Junior Auror antics amusing," said Malfoy slowly, looking straight at Harry.
Harry wanted to leap off the desk and clobber Malfoy. Where the hell did he get off talking about Aurors? What did Malfoy know about Harry's future plans? Harry was determined not to let Malfoy get to him, so he looked away.
The meeting was short. Harry explained the goals of the group – to learn effective defence against the Dark Arts beyond what they were taught in class. He explained about the weekly meetings between group leaders and Professor Eaton, as well as about Professor Eaton leading the first-year and second-year DA groups.
At several points during Harry's speech, people interrupted him to clarify details about the group's activities. They'd decided with the other leaders that the new DA would practise defensive spells only. Harry broke up the meeting after about thirty minutes, deciding that it would be enough for the first day.
As they were getting ready to leave, Nott spoke up from beside Malfoy.
"I've noticed you haven't mentioned the June trial by fire in the Department of Mysteries, Potter. Care to give us an insider's look into fighting Death Eaters?"
Everyone fell silent. Harry turned to stare at Nott, feeling his facial features freeze into a sort of mask. "I don't talk about that," he said quietly.
"Why not?" Nott asked with a sneer.
"That's none of your business. We're not here to talk about me, anyway."
Harry was having trouble controlling his temper. Who did this wanker think he was, calling Harry into question as though he owed him something? He was vaguely reminded of last year's meeting in the Hog's Head and Zacharias' attitude.
Hermione walked over to Harry and put a hand on his shoulder. Harry vaguely noticed Malfoy shaking his head. He wanted to turn around and shout at Malfoy; he was no doubt finding it distasteful that Harry was letting a Muggle-born witch touch him.
"Much as I loved this little get-together, I really must be going now," drawled Malfoy.
This broke the tension in the room, surprisingly enough. Harry looked away from Nott, who fled the classroom immediately. Malfoy shook his head again.
"You'll want to control your housemate, Malfoy," called Hermione. "As a prefect, it's your duty to ensure—"
Malfoy's eyes flashed in her direction. "When I want an opinion from you on how to carry out my duties, I'll give you one, Mudblood," he spat.
Several people gasped, staring at Malfoy in shock.
Harry had had enough. "You will not call her that again, Malfoy," he said quietly. "Not during one of these meetings, anyway."
"You and what army will stop me, Potter?" asked Malfoy with an indulgent smile.
Harry was struck by a moment by how white Malfoy's teeth looked. He shook his head slightly. What was wrong with him? "I will personally make sure the Head Boy knows you're being deliberately uncooperative," he ground out.
Malfoy looked shocked for a moment, but he seemed to recover quickly – his insufferable smirk was back. "Fine, but only because you look so pretty today, Potter," he said in a low, lazy tone.
It sounded so intimate that Harry's face grew hot instantly. Malfoy's smirk broadened and he winked at someone behind Harry, then walked out of the classroom. Harry stood rooted to his spot, dumbfounded, until he felt a tug on his robe sleeve. He turned and saw Hermione looking at him with concern.
"Harry?" she asked in an uncertain voice. "Do you think Malfoy might know about – you know?"
Harry shook his head. "The only people who know are you and Ron. I've no idea what he's on about."
Harry's first Ravenclaw study group session went far better than the first DA meeting. His partners were Zacharias, Terry Boot and Blaise Zabini. They all had the same lessons, which was lucky – especially considering that all of them were strong in different subjects. Terry suggested that they draw up timetables for studying together outside of the scheduled weekly meeting.
"The only thing we don't all have in common is Quidditch," remarked Zacharias, leaning back and squinting at Terry. "You don't play, do you?"
Terry scrunched up his nose a little and shook his head. "Nope. Not my thing, really."
Harry glanced at him. "You don't like Quidditch?"
"Oh, I like Quidditch fine. It's the flying that I'm not a big fan of," said Terry, pushing away a piece of parchment.
"Any particular reason?" asked Zabini. He was trying to poke Zacharias' hand with the tip of his quill, without success.
Terry pursed his lips and stole a glance around. "I'm not very good at it," he said, looking rueful.
"Hey, if you want, I could help you with that," said Harry.
Terry looked grateful but vaguely apprehensive. "I'll think about it. Thanks." "It's no problem, really. Flying and Defence Against the Dark Arts are just about the only things I'm any good at," said Harry.
"You can't be very bad at Potions if you're in Snape's NEWT class," interjected Zabini.
Harry raised an eyebrow. "I still don't know how I got in, really. Some major luck on my OWL exam, I imagine."
"You know, you really ought to stop writing everything off to luck," said Zacharias, leaning forward a little. "You tried to sell us that line last year in the Hog's Head, and I wasn't buying it then, either."
Terry coughed. "Unless we get on topic, none of us will be getting very lucky this year," he said.
"Oh, on the contrary. I plan on getting very lucky this year," said Zabini with an odd look at Zacharias, who rolled his eyes.
Harry looked from one of them to the other, puzzled. He glanced at Terry, who didn't seem to have noticed the weird exchange. Harry shrugged. "So, Mondays. I've got DA so I'm only available after that. Zabini, when are your Defence meetings?"
"Name's Blaise," the Slytherin boy said with a pointed look at Harry. "If we're going to help each other not fail all our classes, I'm afraid I'll have to insist on a first-name basis."
Harry grinned. "Sure. Blaise it is then. I'm Harry."
Zacharias reached over and slapped him on the back, grinning. "I think he knows that, mate."
"Well, it never hurts to remind me," said Blaise in an amiable tone. "Especially when all I hear in the common room is 'Potter this' and 'Potter that'."
Harry snorted. Terry looked up from his parchment, on which he was scribbling something in neat, economical rows. "That can't be very fun, having Malfoy around all the time."
Blaise pursed his lips and stared into the far corner of the classroom, his expression suddenly wistful. "He's not that bad, really."
Zacharias looked as sceptical as Harry felt. "Right, mate. Next thing you'll be telling us is that Goyle's a tortured artist."
"He really is," said Blaise with a solemn look, and they burst out laughing.
Harry had a feeling he was going to enjoy these study groups far more than he'd originally thought he would.
One Saturday near mid-October, Harry was summoned to classroom eight, to help the house-elves locate students for a Hufflepuff party. He unfolded the Marauder's map on the floor and waited for the house-elves to activate the magical goblet with the names. It was one of the regular dinner goblets, only it was painted yellow and black and had a large letter 'H' etched into the base.
One of the house-elves snapped its fingers and the inside of the goblet shone golden for a moment, then spat out a stack of thin, folded pieces of parchment. Harry snatched them up from the air and started to unfold them one by one – it was going to be a sixth-year party. His name was on one of the slips of parchment – the other Gryffindors were Ron, Hermione, Lavender and Seamus.
Harry quickly located the other nineteen students on the map and soon the air in the classroom was filled with the soft popping sounds house-elves made when using their own brand of Apparation. "Mischief managed," muttered Harry and folded the map, then slipped it into his robe's pocket. Several of the Hufflepuff prefects showed up moments later, along with the Head Boy and Girl. Harry helped Ernie load snacks and drinks onto a rickety table near the back of the room.
Soon, people started to arrive – the other Hufflepuffs were Zacharias, Susan Bones, Justin Finch-Fletchley and a burly-looking girl Harry didn't know. Parvati's sister Padma led the Ravenclaws in moments later. Terry grinned at Harry as he walked in, but didn't leave Lisa Turpin's side; they were arguing about something in low voices. Michael Corner and his friend Anthony Goldstein both gave Harry careful looks. Harry wondered idly if Michael was still going out with Cho.
The Slytherins arrived last with Pansy Parkinson in the lead – Blaise was among them and he immediately joined Zacharias near the snack table. Crabbe towered behind Pansy, who seemed to be delivering a lecture of some kind to Daphne Greengrass and Sheridan Roper. Daphne kept stealing glances at Ernie and Sheridan looked extremely bored.
As soon as everyone had arrived, Brock Logan, the seventh-year Hufflepuff prefect, called their attention.
"Welcome to the Hufflepuff Hullabaloo!" he said, his tone cheerful. Several people sniggered; even Harry couldn't resist despite the fact that Ernie was standing right beside him. Ernie's eyes widened. "It's a good ice-breaker," he muttered defensively. Harry grinned.
After about an hour of eating, drinking and conversation, Liam, the Head Boy, called their attention once more. "You've probably heard from your younger housemates that these parties aren't just mingling and free Butterbeer," he said in an important tone. Harry leant back against the wall and wondered if Liam had been anything like Malfoy when he was younger. He seemed like an agreeable fellow, for a Slytherin at least.
"Tonight's game involves blindfolds," said Liam with an impish grin. Conversation seemed to die down a little as more people turned to listen. "Yes, you heard right. Blindfolds and dancing, to be exact," continued Liam, his smile positively feral now. "You're going to be blindfolded, all of you. You will then spin and stumble around, and grab the first person you can reach."
Pansy Parkinson giggled. "Is everyone blindfolded, Liam, or just a few people?"
"Everyone, naturally," said Liam. "Then the music starts."
"And then?" asked Zacharias.
"And then we dance," said Ernie.
"What about the blindfolds?" Terry wanted to know. "When do those come off?"
"When the music stops," replied Liam.
Ron elbowed Harry in the side. "Stick close to me and Hermione, mate. You don't want to end up dancing with Parkinson."
Brock Logan passed around a bag filled with different-coloured blindfolds. Harry took one and stared at it. The three bottles of Butterbeer he'd had had settled his stomach into a comfortable warmth and he really didn't feel like dancing with anyone at all. He would much rather have sat down by the floor and taken a nap.
At Liam's signal everyone put on the blindfolds. Harry was a bit taken aback when his dark blue one fitted itself snugly around his head and stayed in place when Harry lifted his hands off it. Feeling more and more ridiculous, Harry followed the order to start looking for a partner. He spun and stumbled around until he ran into someone rather large and solid.
A moment later, the music started – Wish I Had a Puffskein by the Exploding Snappers – and Harry tried his best to remember what Parvati had taught him of dancing during the Yule Ball in fourth year. His partner – who Harry really hoped was the Hufflepuff girl from earlier – wasn't a very good dancer. Harry's feet were aching from being trodden on two minutes into the exercise, and he dearly hoped the music would just stop soon.
When the music did stop, Harry quickly snatched off his blindfold and gaped in horror as he stared up into the face of Crabbe, of all people. Crabbe was blinking rapidly and backing away amidst roaring laughter. The only thing that cheered Harry up was that not all of the laughter was directed at him and Crabbe. Nonetheless, he was mortified.
Nearby, Seamus was clutching his left side with one hand while hanging on to Sheridan Roper's shoulder with the other. Harry thought it was a bit rich of him to laugh, but of course having Sheridan as a dance partner wasn't nearly as embarrassing as having Crabbe. Harry glanced around and saw that Ron was collapsed on the floor beside Lisa Turpin, wheezing. Hermione was standing beside Justin Finch-Fletchley, looking like she was trying really hard not to laugh.
"Laugh it up," muttered Harry, desperately wishing that he could just fall through the floor. He would never hear the end of this.
Sure enough, even Blaise had made fun of him during their next study session, until Harry had ended up covering his hands with his ears and declaring that he didn't want to hear any more about it. It took people a long time to forget the Harry-and-Crabbe dancing incident. The Slytherins had obviously told Malfoy about it, too, because in the following weeks, Malfoy never passed up a chance to insult Harry with lines about dancing, Crabbe or blindfolds.
The odd thing about Malfoy was that he seemed to spend far more time with Crabbe and Goyle lately; Blaise was never seen with him. Harry wondered if Blaise had fallen out of favour with Malfoy for being friendly with Harry. It would be just the sort of thing for Malfoy to do, after all.
All in all, Harry could say he was enjoying the house unity projects, as long as no more of them required dancing with Crabbe.
"Why do we have to bother trying to figure these out, anyway?" grumped Ron, tossing another Slytherin essay into his 'read' pile. "They all sound the same."
The sixth-year Gryffindors were passing the essays around and comparing notes as they were getting close to the deadline for turning in their guesses.
Harry grabbed the essay Ron had just finished with and began to read.
I suppose it's safe to say that I'm in my sixth year, and I'm in Slytherin. I prefer solitude to rambunctious company, and one of my best friends is a girl. I spend my free time in the Slytherin common room most often; you're not likely to see me wandering around the school.
I'm good at Potions and I enjoy the lessons immensely. However, the subject that truly intrigues me is Defence Against the Dark Arts. I quite look forward to the Defence Association meetings, because I'm given to understand that we'd be given a chance to learn about Dark spells and how they are performed. I don't believe we can effectively defend against spells that we only understand in theory, so I think it's important to know the Dark spells in addition to knowing their counter-spells.
Usage of Dark spells lies with one's conscience, after all -- their knowledge is not in itself sufficient to brand a person a Dark wizard. It's like Potions in a way – even the most fumbling of wizards can brew a poison through merely being incompetent, but we don't label them as Dark Arts practitioners. Even poisons have their use in everyday life. I suppose one would say I place utility above ethics, though I don't agree. I think ethics are just as important, but I believe each person answers to himself, and shouldn't be judged by some myopic standard set by society hundreds of years ago.
The music from that time period, however, does tickle my fancy. I'm especially fond of chamber music but I'll listen to anything that has a piano accompaniment. I quite fancy the idea of playing the flute, though I'm far too impatient to learn. Unlike my less discerning housemates, who turn up in droves to Weird Sisters concerts, I fancy The Cunning Minds. Their melodies are to die for, and their song lyrics are metaphorical, not unintelligible -- the unintelligible thing is just a rumour started by people without any appreciation of words transcending language.
To conclude, I'll simply do what most people are doing and speak of my favourite colour. I have several colours that I like to wear and look at, but I tend to prefer black. Not for any reason other than it's practical and it goes with everything.
Harry reread the essay again and wondered who this could be. It sounded like someone Harry would actually like talking to; they seemed on a similar wavelength. Harry would have said it was Blaise, but he'd heard Blaise make fun of the Cunning Minds in study group just a week ago.
On the day of the first Quidditch match of the year, the Gryffindor team sat huddled together in the changing rooms. Ron paced nervously between the benches, muttering to himself and occasionally looking around at Harry, as though expecting advice.
Harry was honestly glad he didn't have to deal with being Quidditch captain. It was bad enough he had to play Seeker against Malfoy, he didn't want to have to get into administrative spats with the pointy git, too.
After they heard the whistle announcing the start of the game, the Gryffindor team rose from their seats and made their way out onto the pitch. Ron slapped all of them on the back as they passed. He then ran to the front of the line they formed as they jogged.
Colin Creevey, who had taken over commentating from Lee Jordan, was yelling their names out in an excited voice.
"Ron Weasley… Bell… Ginny Weasley… Spinnet… Kirke… Sloper… Potter."
They filed out onto the yellowing grass and leant onto their broomsticks just as the Slytherin team made their way towards them. Harry glanced at Malfoy swagger forward; to his credit, his team mates actually looked confident, rather than simply arrogant.
"Malfoy... Bulstrode... Zabini... Baddock... Bartlett... Crabbe... Goyle."
Colin's voice carried far across the stadium, and people were cheering loudly. Pansy Parkinson and a girl whose name Harry didn't know stood in front of the Slytherin supporters, waving a large green banner that bore the words "Slytherin for the Cup" in fancy lettering.
Malfoy walked up to the Gryffindor team, followed closely by his team mates. Madam Hooch was standing nearby, broomstick hovering in mid-air beside her, whistle in hand.
Malfoy stopped in front of Ron, who was eyeing the Slytherin team with some apprehension.
"Captains, shake hands," Madam Hooch said in a tone that brooked no objections.
Ron stuck his right arm out and Malfoy shook it with an expression of great distaste on his face. He dropped Ron's hand quickly and took a step backwards, adjusting the front of his Quidditch robes for some reason.
Malfoy wrinkled his nose and looked like he was about to say something, but the whistle sounded and Harry paid him no more attention for the moment. He kicked off from the ground and soared up towards the Gryffindor goal hoops.
Harry turned his head from side to side carefully, eyes scanning the sky above the crowds of supporters. No sign of the Snitch yet. He glanced over at Malfoy, who hovered at the opposite end of the pitch, doing the same thing Harry was doing.
"Baddock passes to Bulstrode – these two are really a tag team, aren't they – Bulstrode dodges Kirke's Bludger – oh no! Bulstrode scores – what's that?"
Harry strained his ears to listen, determined not to let the early Slytherin goal get to him. He expected loud cheering but instead there was another song coming from the Slytherin section of the stands.
The Gryffindors are merry,
The Gryffindors are gay,
But Potter is a fairy,
He's better at ballet.
The Slytherins are faster,
The Slytherins are tough,
Our captain is a master,
We really know our stuff.
So wave that green and silver,
And let the game begin.
Our Seeker will deliver,
And Slytherin will win!
Harry's stomach did several flip-flops. He scanned the crowd for Hermione but couldn't see her in the sea of red and gold that was the Gryffindor section of the stands. He looked over at Malfoy, who was laughing – Harry couldn't see him properly but the sound carried through the air.
The blond boy turned to look at Harry, who glared back with a scowl on his face. Malfoy turned to the Slytherin stands and waved at someone there. Harry didn't bother looking who it was. Malfoy was trying to throw him off his game, but Harry wasn't going to let him.
Still, Potter's a fairy? Did Malfoy know something? Sick suspicion twisted Harry's insides. He couldn't know, though. The only people who knew were Ron and Hermione and the very idea of either of them telling Malfoy anything was laughable. Harry swallowed, and forced himself to pay attention to the game. He would deal with Malfoy later. He'd find a way.
"Shouldn't that be against the rules, Professor?" Colin was saying to McGonagall, obviously not realising that everyone could hear him. "Right, okay, and it's Gryffindor in possession, Ginny Weasley of Gryffindor dodges a Bludger—"
Harry watched with satisfaction as a Slytherin Bludger nearly took Malfoy out. Crabbe smacked the Bludger with his bat and it slammed into Ginny, who had to fight to stay on her broomstick and dropped the Quaffle.
Bartlett, the Slytherin Chaser, intercepted it and passed to Baddock. After making sure that Ginny was all right, Harry went back to looking around for the Snitch. It was nowhere in sight twenty minutes into the game, and things weren't looking good for Gryffindor. Slytherin was leading seventy to zero, and they didn't even have to cheat. Millicent Bulstrode and Malcolm Baddock turned out to be an unstoppable force.
Harry's heart tightened when he looked over at Ron, who was looking positively dejected. He vowed to get the Snitch before the Slytherins could take the lead over one hundred and fifty points. He wouldn't let the first game with Ron as their captain to be a loss, especially not to Slytherin.
Harry cheered as Ron saved a very difficult goal. They were now fifty points behind Slytherin and Harry felt anxious as he stared around the pitch, trying not to blink so as not to miss the glint of the Golden Snitch.
Then he saw it – fluttering several feet away from Malfoy. Harry was reminded of his second year, when Malfoy had been so busy laughing at Harry's jinxed broomstick that he hadn't even seen it. Harry grinned to himself and angled his broom down. He'd go into a dive to distract Malfoy, then go back up and get the Snitch.
"And it's Gryffindor in possession once again – Katie Bell heading for goal – watch it, Katie, that's a Bludger! OUCH! How's that not a foul?"
Harry dove, and noticed that Malfoy had started moving towards him. Good, the feint was working. He waited until Malfoy was halfway towards him in the air, then turned his Firebolt upwards and urged it to go faster.
He turned around to see if Malfoy was gaining on him, but Malfoy wasn't even coming after him. He was going in the exact opposite direction of where the Snitch was. Harry laughed out loud, not believing his luck. He stretched out his hand and closed his fingers around the struggling Snitch
He'd expected cheering from the Gryffindors but the stadium was oddly quiet. He turned around to look at Malfoy, still grinning, his right hand raised in the air. He blinked as he saw Malfoy with his right arm raised, another Snitch struggling in his fist. Their faces fell simultaneously. What was going on?
Colin's shrill voice pierced the air. "It looks like both Seekers caught the Snitch! But how is this possible? There can be only one!"
Madam Hooch's whistle came from below and a moment later, Harry dismounted beside her, just behind Malfoy, who looked fit to kill. Any suspicion Harry might have had of Malfoy rigging the game somehow evaporated – Malfoy may have been a git, but no one was that good at acting.
Madam Hooch ordered them both to show what they had in their hands. They held out their palms and there were two identical-looking Snitches: one kept down by callused fingers with the nails chewed down to the quick, the other by slender white fingers with short, neatly trimmed nails.
Madam Hooch had a positively apoplectic appearance. "Never in the history of Quidditch... a second Snitch... shouldn't be possible..."
The rest of the Gryffindor and Slytherin players were landing all around them, asking questions and shouting at one another. McGonagall was hurrying towards the group, holding on to her pointed hat.
"What's going on?" she demanded before even reaching the group. Harry saw Snape walking up behind her unhurriedly. Colin was rushing to catch up with them.
"It looks like someone's let loose a second Snitch, Professor," said Madam Hooch in a clipped tone.
"What?" several voices cried in unison.
McGonagall looked outraged. She turned to Snape, her mouth opening and closing.
Snape was glowering at Harry. "If I find out who did this..." he said in a low voice.
Harry glared at him, willing him to make the accusation. Harry would show him. How dare he, the greasy git…
"It had to be a Slytherin!" exclaimed Ron, jabbing his finger in Malfoy's direction. "No one else is that underhanded..."
"Right, we'd sabotage our own team, that's really smart, Weasel," growled Millicent Bulstrode, taking a step towards him. Madam Hooch stepped in between them, and the Slytherin girl backed down, still glaring.
Madam Hooch looked from McGonagall to Snape with a somewhat helpless expression, then exhaled loudly. "I'm afraid I have no choice but to call the game on scored points," she said. "Slytherin wins!"
There were several groans from the Gryffindors, and then more noises of disappointment as Colin announced the result to the rest of the school.
Malfoy threw down his broomstick and stalked off towards the castle.
Harry stared after him, wondering why he found no joy in the fact that Malfoy didn't seem happy with the Slytherin win.
The Gryffindor common room was quiet: instead of the celebrations they'd become so accustomed to following Slytherin versus Gryffindor games, people were talking in low murmurs about what had happened that afternoon.
Harry sat in a chair near the fireplace and stared morosely at Crookshanks, who was stretched out on his back atop the hearthrug, batting a bunch of yarn between his front paws.
"I'm sorry, Harry," said Hermione from the chair opposite. "It wasn't your fault. I still think they should have given us points – you caught that Snitch before Malfoy, I could swear you did."
"It's all right, Hermione," said Harry, shaking his head.
"It's bloody well not all right," said Ron, looking up from his copy of Quidditch Through the Ages. He'd spent the past two hours scouring the book for evidence that might get Hooch's decision overturned, without any luck. "We should have won the game, Harry!"
"I'm curious why Malfoy didn't stay around to gloat," said Harry, ignoring him. "He seemed really upset, I don't understand why. Slytherin won, that's what he wanted, wasn't it?"
Hermione shook her head. "Malfoy wanted to beat you to the Snitch, and with the two Snitches, it's impossible to tell who was the clear winner."
"But if he beats me to the Snitch, Slytherin wins – isn't that the most important thing?"
"No, Harry. He hates you, and he's been unable to beat you to the Snitch in the four years that he's played against you. He's beaten every other Seeker at school except you, did you know? "
"So what? He hates Ron, too, and Ron's our captain. He's beaten Ron, he should be happy."
Hermione looked at him with a patient sort of look one might give a small child. "Harry, Malfoy fancies himself your rival, not Ron's. It's obviously important to him to see you lose. Seeing as you caught the Snitch just as he did, you didn't lose."
"But shouldn't he have been happy that at least Slytherin won against Gryffindor?"
Ron frowned up at him. "Why are you so concerned about Malfoy's happiness all of a sudden?"
"I'm not concerned about his happiness, I'm just trying to figure out why he didn't stay behind to gloat. It was out of character for him, you know?"
Ron shrugged. "If I were you, I'd be happy he didn't stay around to gloat. Last time he stayed behind to try and get at you, you were banned from Quidditch by that foul Umbridge woman."
Harry pursed his lips. "Well, that much is true. Still, I don't get it."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "It's Malfoy, Harry. Honestly!"
Harry stared at the empty fireplace, replaying the scene on the Quidditch pitch in his mind. The dejected look in Malfoy's eyes, the anger with which he'd thrown down his broomstick – did Malfoy really hate Harry so much as to be unable to enjoy his team's victory? Why was Harry even spending any time thinking about this, anyway? It may have been because of Blaise – he often mentioned Malfoy casually in a way that suggested a comfortable friendship – and it inevitably threw Harry, to think of Malfoy as Blaise's friend. He'd never thought he would see the day when he became friends with any friend of Malfoy's.
Ron interrupted his thoughts a moment later. "It's almost dinnertime. Let's go, I'm starving."
By the time dinner was over, no one was leaving – it was time for another batch of Slytherin essays to be read out. The Great Hall was abuzz with conversation: everyone was talking about what had happened at the Quidditch game. At the Head Table, Dumbledore rose to his feet and called everyone to silence. Liam Baddock approached him, carrying a low table. He set it down on the floor and motioned to Trista Morgan, who carried a thin stack of parchments. She put them down on the table and lifted the topmost one, tapping it once with her wand.
"I hope Baddock reads tonight. I can't handle that Morgan girl's voice, gives me the creeps," said Ron, turning around to sit with his back against the dinner table. He was patting his stomach contentedly.
Harry nodded distractedly: he was trying to spot Malfoy at the Slytherin table. He was curious whether he'd even show up, after the Quidditch fiasco that afternoon. He spotted him just as the Head Boy's magically amplified voice boomed around the Great Hall. Malfoy was sitting with his arm around Pansy Parkinson, looking smug.
The essay was like so many others – a listing of favourite lessons with reasons for liking them, a favourite colour, and a childhood experience involving a bewitched swing and neglectful parents. Harry vaguely recalled it – they'd picked Pansy Parkinson for that one. He wondered if that one essay that he kept thinking about would be read out. He really wanted to know who'd written it.
As Baddock finished reading, Trista tapped the parchment and flicked her wand once. A blazing line shot through the air, red sparks coalescing into the words: Gryffindor -- Pansy Parkinson.
Harry turned to look at the Slytherin table to see if Pansy was looking angry; he noticed other Gryffindors turning to look as well. His gaze fell on Malfoy instead of Pansy.
Malfoy was smiling at something Pansy had said, and Harry was struck by how different that smile was from his usual snide smirk that he reserved for Harry and his friends. Malfoy seemed to have sensed him looking, because he turned around and glared straight at Harry, his eyes narrowing. Harry turned back to look at the front of the Great Hall.
Trista flicked her wand again, and blue sparks spelled Ravenclaw -- Tracey Davis. Harry didn't know who Tracey Davis was; probably one of Pansy's gang, by the looks of it. Trista waved her wand for the third time. Yellow sparks spelled Hufflepuff -- Daphne Greengrass.
Liam handed the essay he'd just read to Trista and she tapped it with her wand. A green mist rose from its surface, and the name Daphne Greengrass appeared in the middle. The Hufflepuffs cheered. Harry smirked. So far, every single Slytherin essay had been guessed correctly by at least one house; though admittedly Gryffindor was far behind the other two houses in that respect.
It had been odd, reading those essays, Harry had to admit. He'd long held a perception of Slytherins as people he wanted to have nothing to do with, because of what Hagrid had told him in first year and because they seemed like such an unpleasant lot. After reading some of the essays they'd been assigned for the house unity project, though, Harry couldn't quite see Slytherins as a faceless crowd of ill-intentioned people.
The essay about which Harry was the most curious was not read out that evening.
Harry, Ron and Hermione had promised to meet Luna and Ginny in the library after dinner; the fifth-year girls needed help with their Defence Against the Dark Arts project for the Ravenclaw study groups. As they reached the library, Hermione suddenly turned to Harry with an urgent look.
"Harry, it's Saturday! You have to help the house-elves in the dungeon – the Hufflepuff party, remember?"
Harry slapped his forehead. "Oh yeah, that's right. I forgot. Thanks, Hermione. I'll be back in a half hour," he said, and sprinted back towards the stairs. He made his way up to Gryffindor Tower and grabbed the Marauder's Map from his trunk.
As he descended the marble staircase and headed for the dungeon, he glanced inside the Great Hall and saw Cho, who was sitting alone at the Ravenclaw table. Before he had time to wonder what she was doing there all by herself, someone slammed into him.
Harry looked around, about to apologise, then realised it was Malfoy.
"Watch where you're going," Malfoy said with a scowl. He looked paler than usual, his scowl half-hearted somehow. Harry decided to be the bigger man.
"Uh, Malfoy—" he started to say, but Malfoy interrupted him.
"Looking for Vincent, Potter? Don't worry, he'll save a dance for you. Now get out of my way," he drawled.
Harry frowned. He'd expected that Pansy would have told Malfoy all about what happened at the party, but he refused to rise to the bait. "I just wanted to say, good game today," he began. "I—"
"Oh, spare me, Potter, I'm not going to join your pity party for one. You know I got there first," interrupted Malfoy with a sneer.
Harry gave up. "Oh, forget it, Malfoy," he spat and stalked off towards the dungeon.
"Where do you think you're going?" called Malfoy after him. Harry ignored him and hurried down the stairs. He was well within his rights to go down to the dungeons, and Malfoy knew it.
Harry sped along the dimly lit passageway to dungeon five, where a large group of house elves were busy setting up a snack table at the far end of the spacious room. None of the prefects were there yet, but Harry knew he had to hurry if he didn't want to be seen with his map.
It was to be another sixth-year party, as it turned out, and Malfoy was one of the people attending. Harry really needed to get out of there – he'd deliberately waited until the end to point out Malfoy to the last house-elf; Malfoy was still standing in the entrance hall, which was not far from here at all. Harry had barely had time to mutter "mischief managed," when Liam Baddock strode into the dungeon.
Harry stuffed the Marauder's Map hurriedly into his pocket and cast a suspicious glance at Liam, who was watching him with interest. A moment later, the Hufflepuff prefects filed into the dungeon, talking in raised voices and carrying even more snacks with them. Harry waved to Ernie Macmillan and left the room. He wanted to get out of there before Malfoy arrived.
As he walked towards the stairs leading up into the entrance hall, he saw Malfoy walking unhurriedly down the steps.
"Will you get out of my sight?" Malfoy snapped at Harry.
Harry stopped a few feet from him and glared. "You're the one who followed me down here, Malfoy," he said, trying to keep his voice cool. Malfoy didn't need to know Harry knew that he was going to the Hufflepuff party.
"I didn't follow you, Potter. You should be so lucky," said Malfoy.
Then Malfoy winked.
Harry's stomach did a weird flop and he felt something churning in his gut. Malfoy's eyes glittered in the torchlight, an unnamed challenge just behind them. Harry felt heat spread across his cheeks. This was getting really annoying. What did Malfoy know?
As Harry stood there, the image of Malfoy winking playing over and over in front of his eyes, Malfoy walked off. Harry could smell him as he passed: the ponce wore some sort of cologne that didn't smell half bad.
"By the way, Rita Skeeter wants an interview," called Malfoy, looking around at Harry.
Then he was gone, and Harry could only stare after him.
Malfoy? Rita Skeeter? Why was Harry even still here? What did Rita Skeeter have to do with all this? Harry sighed and climbed the stairs up into the entrance hall. He would drop off the Marauder's Map, go back to the library and ask Hermione about Skeeter – he realised he didn't know if they had a new arrangement or if Harry had another year of gossip articles to look forward to.
When he reached his dormitory and pulled the map out of his pocket, he got curious. Why had Malfoy mentioned Rita Skeeter? The dormitory was empty – Harry figured all his friends would be in the library by now.
Harry sat down on top of his bedcovers and tapped the map with his wand. "I solemnly swear I am up to no good," he said, and watched as the map of Hogwarts appeared.
There was Malfoy, along with a bunch of other people, in dungeon five. Harry's dormitory mates were in the library just as he'd suspected. Harry squinted at the map, looking around for Rita Skeeter's name, but it just wasn't there.
"Mischief managed," he muttered, tapping the map with his wand. He stuffed the map back into his trunk and made his way down to the library. Once there, he tugged Hermione aside and asked her about Rita.
"Has she been nosing around the school?" asked Hermione, narrowing her eyes.
"I have no idea. Malfoy's just told me she wanted an interview," said Harry in a low voice.
"Malfoy? Why were you talking to Malfoy?"
"I wasn't talking to him, I ran into him on my way from the dungeon. You know what he's like," said Harry.
Hermione frowned. "Well, he's just having you on, Harry. Rita wouldn't dare say anything. She's allowed to write stories now, our agreement ended in June, but she'd have to be pretty thick to start anything. We still know her secret."
Harry wasn't particularly reassured, but there wasn't much he could do aside from tracking down Malfoy and beating the truth out of him. The idea itself was appealing, but it would only land Harry in detention and cost Gryffindor house points.
They stayed in the library until Madam Pince ordered them out, then walked upstairs together. When they reached the seventh floor, Luna began to walk in the direction of the staircase that went to Ravenclaw tower. Harry noticed Seamus nudge Ron with his elbow. Ron coloured.
"Hey, um, Luna, wait. I'll, uh, walk you."
"Oh, thank you, Ronald," said Luna, her eyes wide. "I was a little afraid to walk by myself. It's Bug-Eyed Blitherpuss season, after all."
"What the hell's a Bug-Eyed Blitherpuss?" asked Dean with a frown, slipping an arm around Ginny's shoulders. Luna must not have heard him, however, because she resumed walking and Ron had to hurry to catch up to her.
Harry looked over at Hermione, who was staring after the two of them with a sceptical look on her face. She noticed Harry looking and rolled her eyes. "Come on," she said. "I'm fairly certain no Bug-Eyed Blitherpusses will get Ron on his way back."
Harry grinned and set off after Neville and Seamus, who hadn't waited with them and were walking towards the common room, talking in animated voices about the legend of St. Patrick.
When they reached the common room, Hermione and Ginny went straight upstairs. Harry said he'd wait for Ron to come back and the other boys left him alone in the common room, which was already deserted. Harry sat down in an armchair and stretched his legs, then threw his head back and sighed.
There was a vague sense of foreboding somewhere at the back of his mind. He thought about the Quidditch game and wondered who could have been responsible for the second Snitch. He didn't agree with Ron that it had to be a Slytherin – there was no way they would have known that Slytherin would be ahead on points. Besides, there was no guaranteeing that Harry didn't catch one of the Snitches first.
Still, Malfoy had been sure that he'd been the first to catch the Snitch. Maybe it was Malfoy? Harry thought back to the way Malfoy had left the pitch earlier and shook his head. Malfoy wouldn't have reacted like that if he'd been the one behind the second Snitch. Harry recalled his conversation with Malfoy in the dungeon and sat up a little straighter.
What if it was Rita Skeeter? She didn't stand to lose or gain anything from the Quidditch game, and this sort of underhanded trick would be right up her alley – Harry was sure she wasn't above creating news herself when no news was forthcoming. He resolved to check the Marauder's Map more often for her.
She could be anywhere around the school in beetle form. The shed where Quidditch equipment was held wasn't inside the castle, and Rita was only barred from going inside the castle; she could have easily snuck into the shed one night and… what? Harry shook his head again. That didn't work.
What if she'd hidden around the school in beetle form and released the Snitch from the forbidden forest or something? Harry kept trying to picture different scenarios in his mind and he didn't notice when he drifted off to sleep.
…Harry was standing in the middle of the Quidditch pitch, the indignant voices of his housemates behind him arguing with no less indignant Slytherins. All Harry could see was Malfoy, throwing down his broomstick and walking off. Harry wanted to ask him why he was walking away and so Harry ran after him, heedless of Ron calling out his name behind him.
He just kept running after Malfoy, who seemed unaware of being pursued. The castle grounds stretched longer and longer behind Harry, and yet Malfoy kept walking and Harry kept running and the castle was nowhere in sight. Try as Harry might, he couldn't shorten the distance between himself and Malfoy, and the question in Harry's mind formed clearer and clearer as he jogged along the grass.
"Do you really hate me that much, Malfoy?" he shouted finally, giving up on ever reaching him. He didn't know why it mattered, he just knew that he didn't want Malfoy to hate him. Harry didn't deserve to be hated.
Malfoy stopped and turned around. To Harry's surprise, he wasn't sneering or smirking or any of those things. He looked young, small and sad.
"What do you want from me, Potter?" he said, as though he hadn't heard Harry's question.
Harry slowed down and walked up to Malfoy, trying to ignore the stitch in his side.
"I asked if you really—"
"You look really pretty when you're blushing, Potter," said Malfoy, winking.
Harry blinked. "But I'm not—"
"Of course you are. Look!" Malfoy extracted a small square mirror from his pocket and showed it to Harry. It looked just like the two-way mirror Sirius had given Harry last year. Trying to ignore the dull ache in his chest at the thought of Sirius, Harry stared into the mirror.
At first, it was empty and black but then Harry noticed shapes moving in the darkness. He squinted and realised he was looking at two people standing in a sunlit courtyard, kissing. Harry's eyes widened as he realised the people were himself and Malfoy. He watched with fascination as mirror-Malfoy's tongue disappeared in mirror-Harry's mouth. Mirror-Harry had his hands on mirror-Malfoy's arse. His eyes were closed and they both looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Harry looked up at Malfoy, who was smirking. "I told you you were blushing, Potter," he said, and Harry realised he was right. He was blushing, and there was an uncomfortable, tight feeling in his pants. Harry swallowed and took a step towards Malfoy…
…Harry felt someone shake him and opened his eyes. His glasses had almost slid off his nose and he pushed them back up, looking around wildly.
"You fell asleep, mate," said Ron in a hoarse voice. He looked really uncomfortable and squirmy as he stood over Harry.
Harry sat up. "What time is it?"
"Time for the wank of a lifetime," declared Ron. "I wish someone had told me about the consequences of snogging."
Harry flushed. He realised that his dream-induced hard-on was very much alive and well, and it made him vaguely queasy that Ron was right next to him, clearly referring to a hard-on of his own.
"Uh, well, I stayed around to wait for you. I'll just go now," he mumbled.
Ron looked confused for a moment. "Did I say something?"
"No, no, don't worry about it, Ron. I – uh – don't feel very well, I think."
"Wait, Harry, you're not jealous, are you?" asked Ron, holding out an arm to stop Harry from walking off.
"Jealous? Of what?"
"Um, of Luna. And me."
Harry's eyes widened. "No – wait, why? Er, I mean, why would I be – "
Ron looked sheepish. "Well, Hermione said that you might have a crush on me. Seeing as I'm your best friend and we're close and – and, um, I'm not that way."
Harry sighed, shaking his head ruefully. "You know, Ron, I only wish I had a crush on you."
"You wish – wait, what?" asked Ron. He looked dumbfounded for a moment, then his eyes narrowed. "Who do you have a crush on, Harry?"
Harry really didn't want to say it. Saying it would make it real. "Nobody important," he muttered. "I really need to get to bed."
With that, he made his way upstairs without looking back.
Ron wasn't the only one in need of "the wank of a lifetime".
On Sunday, Harry woke up from a dreamless sleep and stared at the ceiling above him. He'd wanked off to thoughts of snogging Draco bloody Malfoy the night before and that was just a million kinds of wrong. Aside from the whole gay thing, he couldn't be thinking about Malfoy like that, that was just nasty.
Harry suddenly remembered that during study group on Tuesday, he'd promised Terry Boot to go out flying. He swung off the bed and shuffled off to the bathroom, rubbing the back of his neck to get rid of the goose pimples – it was unusually cold in the dormitory. The others were still asleep, by the sounds of it.
Ron kept trying to engage him in conversation during breakfast, but Harry was distracted and kept answering "Yeah" to questions that required far more elaboration than that. Hermione got a mile-long letter from Viktor Krum with the morning post; she withdrew to a corner of the common room with it. Harry looked at the clock: it was almost time to meet Terry.
"Hey, Ron, I'm going to go out for a spot of flying with Terry Boot, you want to come along?" he asked.
Ron shook his head. "Sorry, mate, can't. I'm meeting Luna in the library."
Harry grinned. "Library, huh?" he asked, winking.
Ron's face turned pink. "We're going to study together. It was her idea."
"I bet," said Harry. "All right, well, d'you think you'll be done around one? We need to get started on that Astronomy essay"
"All right, I'll meet you back here at one," said Ron. "Have fun."
"Sure," said Harry. He got up and walked up to the dormitory, grabbed a cloak and his Firebolt, then made his way downstairs.
The grounds were deserted as it was still rather early. There was a numbing, chilly edge to the air, reminding Harry that winter was just around the corner, though it was still early November. Yesterday's canopy of clouds had dissipated overnight, and everything was bathed in lazy sunlight. It gave little warmth but abundant brilliance, and Harry had to squint as he walked down the rough stone steps that led down to the Quidditch pitch.
Terry was already there, but he wasn't alone. Blaise Zabini and Zacharias Smith were there, too. The three boys were standing in a small huddle near the far goal posts. They turned and waved as Harry approached.
"We overheard you talking on Tuesday," said Blaise, looking shifty. "Thought we'd join you. We could have a mock game, once Terry here learns how to handle his broom, that is," he added with a smirk.
Harry grinned. "Sounds good." He was still curious about what on earth made Blaise and Zacharias – a Slytherin and a Hufflepuff – hang out together. He didn't ask, though. He mounted his broom and stared expectantly at Terry, who did likewise.
Terry's broom – an old Shooting Star belonging to the school – didn't seem to like its rider much. Harry watched him critically as they rose into the air near the goalposts. He immediately realised what Terry was doing wrong – he was trying to control the broomstick completely; it was obvious that all his thought was bent on making sure that the broomstick stayed in the air.
"Terry," he said, flying closer to the boy, "you don't have to will it to stay in the air. That just confuses it. It'll fly by itself; you just need to think about controlling how it moves."
Terry looked mildly apprehensive. "I'm afraid I'll crash if I stop telling it to fly."
"Trust me, you won't crash. Just try it. I'll watch you from over there so I'm not crowding you," said Harry, and turned to fly up above the goalposts, where Blaise hovered on his own broom. Zacharias was streaking around the goalposts with breakneck speed. Harry glanced at Blaise and was a bit taken aback by the strange look on the other boy's face as he stared at Zacharias.
"You all right?" asked Harry, instantly regretting it. What a stupid thing to ask.
Blaise looked put out for a moment, but grinned. "Yeah. Just looking at him go. He'll give me a run for my money when Slytherin plays Hufflepuff."
"Well, that's not till spring. You've got time," said Harry, feeling himself relax. There was something about the way Blaise held himself that made Harry comfortable around him, but he didn't know what it was.
Zacharias flew up towards them. "Hey, Harry," he called, braking sharply in front of them. "Your student over there is having some," – Zacharias moved his arm as though imitating a wave of water, then jerked his head towards Terry – "trouble."
Harry glanced in the indicated direction and saw that Terry was having considerable trouble staying in the air: his broomstick was rising up and down randomly. Harry saw that Terry had given up trying to control the broom fully, but he wasn't gripping the handle properly. He nodded to Zacharias and zoomed over to Terry.
"You're doing much better, but your grip is off," he said to him. "Here," – Harry let go of his Firebolt for a moment, and demonstrated how to grip the handle – "see?"
Terry laughed. "No, I don't," he said. "We Ravenclaws are theoretically inclined, we're often rubbish when it comes to practice," he added.
Harry grinned. "All right, well, what if I give you detailed verbal instructions?"
"That would work," replied Terry, looking panicked as his broomstick chose that moment to fly slightly lower.
Harry spent the rest of the morning teaching Terry how to fly – it turned out that he'd been too scared to learn in first year and skived off every single flying lesson – and by the end, Terry was far more sure of himself in the air.
When Harry got back to the Gryffindor common room, sweaty and exhausted but happy, Ron was already there. He had Advanced Astronomical Theory open in front of him and a long-suffering look on his face.
"Hey, Ron," said Harry. "I'll just drop off my broom and be right down, okay?"
"Yeah, fine. How was flying?"
"Fun, it's too bad you weren't there. You should come next time. Blaise and Zacharias were there, too – we agreed to meet next Sunday and try to have a mock game."
"Wait, Blaise? As in Zabini? That shifty-looking Slytherin git?" asked Ron with a frown.
"He's not a git," said Harry. "He's all right, Ron."
Ron was looking suspicious. He cast a quick glance around and lowered his voice. "He's the one you have a crush on, right?"
"What? Why?" Harry sat down and stared at him.
"Well, you said last night—oh, never mind. You know, Harry, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were going soft."
"You were telling me Roper's okay – which he is, I suppose, for a Slytherin – and now you're playing Quidditch with the Slytherin Keeper."
"I said you were welcome to join us, didn't I?" said Harry, realising why Ron didn't look one bit happy about this conversation. "Tell you what, come out with me next Sunday. Me, Zacharias and Terry'll be Chasers, and you and Blaise can take turns at the hoops."
Ron mumbled something resembling "fraternising with the enemy" but he looked mollified. Harry glanced over at Hermione, who was still in her corner. She was no longer reading Krum's letter: instead, she was scribbling away at a piece of parchment and appeared to have missed their entire conversation.
Harry thought it a shame. Hermione would have found it interesting that a Gryffindor, a Slytherin, a Hufflepuff, and a Ravenclaw had just spent the morning together.
The Slytherin essay that had interested Harry most ended up being Malfoy's. It was also the only sixth-year essay that no one had guessed correctly. Gryffindor and Hufflepuff had picked Theodore Nott while Ravenclaw had picked Sheridan Roper. Harry stared as the green letters appeared above the parchment, then lifted himself off the bench a bit to see over the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables. Malfoy was sitting in his usual spot with a smug smirk on his face and Pansy nearly in his lap.
Harry sat back down and shook his head. He had been so sure the essay was by Nott. He'd even been almost willing to forgive Nott's insensitive question during the fist DA meeting; he had kept to himself after that day and didn't attempt to antagonise Harry any further, which was a lot more than Harry could say for Malfoy. The essay had talked about conscience applied to using the Dark Arts and Harry hadn't even realised Malfoy knew the meaning of the word.
"I think Malfoy was really selective with what he wrote in his essay," said Hermione with an expression of distaste on her face. "He made himself sound like such a reasonable, interesting person."
"Too bad he forgot to talk about what an absolute git he is," Ron chimed in.
Harry pursed his lips. "I suppose we should have got the hint from 'I place utility above ethics" and 'myopic standard set by society', really."
"Hindsight is always twenty-twenty," said Ron with a sage nod.
Regardless, Harry realised he felt disappointed. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to feel about that. Malfoy couldn't have lied on the essay; there was some sort of magic involved that prevented lying. Though Harry supposed that telling only parts of the truth didn't count as lying. Malfoy still was, and would remain, a git, not worth bothering with.
That Malfoy had become a rather prominent figure in Harry's dreams didn't help, however.
Rita Skeeter had written a scathing piece about an alleged romance McGonagall had had with an American singing sorcerer back when she was in her early twenties. Harry shared his suspicions about Rita being the one behind the second Snitch with Hermione, but she pointed out that if Rita had been the culprit, she would have written about the Quidditch game instead. Harry wasn't fully convinced, but he had to agree that it looked like Rita had tried to gain access to Hogwarts and it had been McGonagall who'd turned her away.
Meanwhile, Wright and Sons were busy developing a new Snitch model; supposedly, the new Snitches would refuse to fly if another Snitch was anywhere within the bounds of a pitch. Quidditch game spectators worldwide were being subjected to Snitch-detecting spells at every match while everyone waited for prototype testing to complete.
Malfoy continued to avoid Harry completely. Harry was rather incensed to realise that he rather preferred it when Malfoy would get in his face. The prolonged silence was making him nervous – not only did Harry wonder what he'd done to cause it, but he also wondered if Malfoy wasn't preparing for something particularly nasty. Malfoy had been just as quiet before he and his cronies pulled the Dementor prank on Harry in third year.
Harry tried not to think about the fact that it was Malfoy who dominated his more erotic dreams. They were only dreams, and he'd had a history of weird dreams, anyway. One Monday during the DA meeting, Harry was watching Malfoy practice a counter-jinx with Susan Bones. Harry's eyes followed the fluid movement of Malfoy's wand arm as he flawlessly repelled Susan's attack. Malfoy's face was a study in concentration and Harry's mind catalogued that expression automatically. Harry flushed as he wondered if he'd see that expression in his dreams that night. This really needed to stop.
On Sunday, Harry was so distracted during flying practice that he actually thought Zacharias was Malfoy for a second. They wore their everyday robes to the practices and when Harry saw a flash of blond hair out of the corner of his eye, the only coherent thought materialising in his mind was "must beat Malfoy to the Snitch". He thought that perhaps he was beginning to understand why Malfoy had been so upset after the ill-fated Quidditch game earlier that month.
Harry stopped in mid-air, hovering a few feet away from the goalposts, watching as Zacharias swooped around them. The Hufflepuff versus Ravenclaw game was coming up next Saturday; by the looks of it, the Ravenclaw Chasers would be at a definite disadvantage. Harry waved to Zacharias and the other boy flew towards him.
"If you're not careful, they'll move you up to Seeker and bump Summerby off the team," said Harry, grinning.
Zacharias laughed and clapped Harry on the shoulder. "Thanks for the compliment," he said, "but I'm happy as Chaser. Contrary to popular belief, I'm not fond of added responsibility."
Harry was going to respond, but didn't get a chance as Blaise braked next to them. Above them, Terry was doing figure eights in the air – Blaise's favourite move.
"I'm going to try it today," said Blaise with a serious look. "I'll just need a safety net."
Harry frowned. Blaise had been talking about trying the Starfish and Stick – a complicated Keeper move that involved hanging off one's broom with one arm and one leg – for the past two weeks. Harry hadn't thought he'd actually do it, but then again, he'd learned that Blaise wanted to be the best at everything.
Feeling glad that Ron couldn't make it that day – he had another "study date" with Luna – Harry nodded. If Ron had been there, he would have wanted to try the move, too, and Harry probably would have had a heart attack just watching him. It wasn't like that with Blaise; Harry didn't care as much.
Blaise got in front of one of the goal hoops. Harry and Zacharias flew down and started circling below Blaise's position, looking up. Blaise swung off his broomstick, hooking a leg around the handle in mid-air. Harry's heart started hammering wildly as he watched: what if Blaise did fall? He should have tried harder to talk him out of it. Blaise flailed around for a while, then clambered back up on his broom with some difficulty. Zacharias immediately flew up to him and clapped him on the shoulder. He said something Harry couldn't hear and Blaise grinned.
They'd brought a practice Quaffle and Harry flew down to scoop it up from the ground. The four of them passed it around for a while, then decided to split up for the day. Terry left first; Blaise and Zacharias followed in his wake, walking alongside each other across the pitch and talking animatedly about something. Harry did a final lap around the Quidditch pitch and was just about to descend when he noticed bright green sparks rising in a fountain above the forbidden forest.
Harry frowned. Hagrid had told him that he'd figured out how to distract Grawp – he seemed to find wand sparks fascinating. Was Hagrid in trouble in the forest? Why were the sparks green, though? Hagrid's umbrella emitted red sparks, so far as Harry could remember. He flew a bit closer to the forest and saw a large, hulking figure moving towards where the sparks had been a moment ago. Twittering clouds of birds rose from the treetops in its path.
Someone was in trouble in the forbidden forest and Grawp was definitely not going to help them. Harry urged his broom forward. Who would be walking around in the forest on a Sunday? It couldn't be Hagrid – he wouldn't send up sparks idly. Harry squinted and saw that Grawp was moving towards a clearing. He thought he could make out a person standing near the edge, but he couldn't tell who it was from his height.
Harry watched as Grawp got ever closer to the clearing. He made up his mind. Angling his Firebolt downwards, Harry flew through a thicket of branches and down towards the clearing. He landed with a heavy thud and set his Firebolt against a low hedge, then peered through the trees in front of him. Grawp gave a low roar that caused the very ground to vibrate, and started reaching towards – Malfoy!
What the hell was Malfoy doing in the forest? He was a school prefect, he knew it was off-limits for students. Recent fantasies aside, Harry still disliked Malfoy, but he couldn't just sit there and watch him get squished by Grawp. Harry burst through the trees, making as much noise as he could to try and distract the giant.
"No, Grawp, no!" he cried, waving his arms about frantically.
Grawp stopped reaching for Malfoy and blinked stupidly at Harry. "Harry," he said.
"No, Grawp!" shouted Harry. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Malfoy moving. This distracted Grawp from Harry and he looked back at Malfoy.
"Boy," he said.
Harry stared helplessly at Malfoy, who'd clamped his mouth shut with both hands. He was leaning against a thick tree trunk and shaking like a leaf. Harry suddenly felt sorry for him. He swiftly took out his wand and send up a blazing shower of scarlet sparks at Grawp's head.
Grawp blinked several times and tried to grab at the flickering air around him. Harry sent another volley of sparks, aiming at the other end of the clearing, and Grawp followed, looking mesmerised. Harry pointed his wand at the sky and sent forth a fusillade of more sparks. Grawp seemed to forget all about Malfoy as he chased the sparks, crashing through the trees on the other side.
There was no time to lose. Harry looked over at Malfoy, who was staring after Grawp. Harry crossed the distance between them in several enormous strides and rammed into Malfoy to bring him to his senses in case he was in shock.
"Move," said Harry, and tugged on Malfoy's robe sleeve.
Malfoy stumbled after him, still looking at the spot where Grawp had stood. A moment later, they burst through a thicket onto a narrow path just behind the clearing. Harry turned around to face Malfoy, who had his hand pressed to his face: Harry could see a trickle of blood making its way down Malfoy's cheek. He must have cut himself on a branch.
Malfoy opened his mouth but Harry lifted a finger to his lips. "Quiet," he whispered. "He might still hear you."
"What the hell is that thing doing in the forest?" Malfoy whispered back.
Harry ignored him, looking back and straining his eyes to try and make something – anything – out through the trees. An ear-splitting, earth-shattering roar came from behind them. Harry exhaled as he heard thundering footsteps, undoubtedly heading away from their hiding place.
"Stay here, I need to get my broom," said Harry to Malfoy and started making his way through the thicket.
"So you can leave me here? I don't think so, Potter," said Malfoy in a waspish tone. Harry shook his head mentally – he'd never understand Malfoy's logic. Why would Harry leave him there? He'd come to help him, hadn't he? Harry clambered past a thorny bush and headed back to where he'd left his Firebolt.
Harry's heart was still fluttering rapidly in his chest, only now he wasn't sure if that was because of Grawp or because of Malfoy's breath on his neck a moment before. Harry picked up his Firebolt and went back out into the clearing. Malfoy was standing in the middle of it, glaring at Harry. Harry almost rolled his eyes. He had just saved the great git's hide and all Malfoy could do was glare at him.
"You're welcome, Malfoy," he said, trying to keep his tone light. Malfoy sneered, but Harry wasn't about to let things get complicated. "Can you find your way out?" he asked.
"Yeah, that's why I sent up sparks, because I wanted to let everyone know I could find my way out of this Merlin-forsaken place," said Malfoy.
Harry laughed, unable to help himself. How Malfoy managed to sound like a petulant child at sixteen was beyond him. "You got lost?"
"I did not get lost. I fell under a Pogrebin's spell." Malfoy drew himself up to full height – which was still at least two inches below Harry – and gave Harry a challenging look.
Harry's eyes narrowed. "Wow, a real Pogrebin? Is it anything like they describe in books?"
"I didn't get a chance to examine it under a magnifying glass, Potter, it scarpered after I sent a Stunner at it."
"Yeah, you would try to Stun it, wouldn't you?" Harry shook his head in disgust.
"It's what you're supposed to do to them, you nitwit." Malfoy stared at Harry for a moment. "At least it was only a beast, not a person," he added, barely above a whisper. "Like the people at a certain Ministry department, for example."
Harry felt the colour rise in his face. Who the hell did Malfoy think he was, trying to talk about the Department of Mysteries? He shot Malfoy a look full of loathing. "What do you mean by that?" he ground out, his knuckles gripping the Firebolt so tightly that he felt his hand shake.
Malfoy smirked. "You figure it out, unless you're as thick as you look."
Harry let out a loud sigh, closing his eyes for a moment. This wasn't the time or the place for another confrontation with Malfoy. Harry hadn't learned to bottle up his feelings for nothing, after all. "Whatever, Malfoy. I'm leaving. If you want to get out of here, follow me." With that, he took off down a path to the left, one he knew would lead them out to the castle grounds.
He heard Malfoy walking after him and smirked to himself. Insufferable git.
"You seem to know your way around here," Malfoy commented acidly from behind him, "considering that students aren't allowed in the Forest."
Harry turned his head slightly to look back at him. Was Malfoy for real? "Why, nice to meet you, Mr. Pot. I'm Mr. Cauldron."
"I told you, it was a Pogrebin," Malfoy huffed, turning up his nose and nearly stumbling over a log on the ground.
Harry sniggered and turned away. Served the prat right; maybe next time he'd fall on his face.
"You didn't answer my question, Potter," said Malfoy in a whiny tone.
Harry didn't turn around. "What question?"
"I say, look over there!" Malfoy demanded instead of replying.
Harry whirled around. Malfoy pointed at a pathway through the trees. Something large gleamed at the end of it, obscured by thick undergrowth. Harry couldn't believe it – it was more than likely Mr Weasley's old Ford Anglia. It was mostly hidden by brambles and dead leaves, but Harry knew that had to be it. He shuddered, remembering what lay beyond that pathway.
"Uh, you don't want to go there, that's where Aragog lives," he said, unable to keep his voice from wavering slightly.
Harry slapped his forehead, kicking himself mentally. He'd forgotten that this was Malfoy, who would surely use anything Harry told him against Harry and his friends. "Um, one of Hagrid's pets," he replied. It was true, after all.
Without waiting for a response, Harry backed away a step, turned back around and resumed walking. He heard Malfoy follow him after a moment. They stayed silent for a few minutes, then Malfoy spoke up.
"So why's Weasley scared of Aragog, Potter?"
Harry's heart skipped a beat. He stopped and turned around to face Malfoy. "What makes you think he is?"
Malfoy was still walking when Harry turned around. He stopped inches away from Harry. For a beat, Harry was only aware of Malfoy's proximity. He'd never stood this close to him before. He stared at Malfoy's pale cheek, wondering what it would feel like under his fingers.
A scowl twisted Malfoy's features as he backed away from Harry. "That's for me to know," he said.
It took Harry a moment to remember what Malfoy was talking about. He muttered an expletive under his breath and set off down the path again. He kicked himself again mentally for being such an idiot. Why couldn't he keep this sort of thoughts at bay?
They were approaching a clearing with a large log across the middle of it. Several black-feathered arrows stuck out of the dark, mossy bark. Harry remembered the centaurs with some trepidation; he really hoped none of them were around right now. He cast a glance around and hurried across the clearing, ducking slightly. Sunlight filtered down from the canopy above, causing light spots to flicker on the ground. A red squirrel hopped out of the log and scampered away into the trees.
They hustled along dry, beaten paths for another ten minutes and finally Harry could smell water lilies and reeds in the air. They must be getting close to the lake. He breathed a sigh of relief, grateful to be almost out of the forest. He heard a cracking sound like a twig snapping somewhere ahead and froze in place, listening.
Malfoy must have been following him too closely; he slammed into Harry, nearly causing them both to topple to the ground. Malfoy grabbed onto Harry's robes to steady himself. Harry felt his Firebolt's tail end collide with something soft. He didn't turn around, partly to hide his embarrassment – there was heat in his cheeks – and partly because he was still trying to listen for any hostile sounds.
Malfoy hissed softly from behind him. Harry turned around and glared; Malfoy was leaning against a nearby tree, rubbing his right leg. That's what the Firebolt must have knocked into.
"Quiet," said Harry, then turned back around. He was suddenly aware that Malfoy was still holding on to his robe with one hand.
Malfoy let go of Harry's robe. "Are you trying to get me to wrestle you to the ground? If so, you're going about it the wrong way, Potter," he whispered into the Harry's ear from behind.
Harry felt gooseflesh creep up his neck and he drew in a breath. This just wasn't on. Why was Malfoy doing this? He turned around to face Malfoy, barely aware of the broomstick still in his hand.
They were closer than ever before now, and it suddenly struck Harry how deep Malfoy's grey eyes looked. Malfoy's mouth twisted into a smirk, but it looked half-hearted and there was something like panic in his eyes. Harry dimly reminded himself of centaurs and danger and getting caught, but all he wanted to know at this moment was whether what Malfoy had just said had been an invitation or just another attempt to unsettle him.
"What exactly did you mean by that?" he asked, trying to sound casual.
Malfoy's eyes widened in a look of innocence but they still looked panicked. Harry noticed colour rising in Malfoy's cheeks and his heart began to beat just a little faster.
"You're the one who danced with Vincent, you tell me," Malfoy said in a hoarse voice that was new to Harry.
Harry's eyes narrowed. Malfoy started taking a step backwards, but Harry grabbed the front of his robe with his free hand and pulled him close. This had nothing to do with bloody Crabbe, and Harry knew that Malfoy knew it. He didn't know if perhaps Malfoy was going through the same thing as Harry, but he knew that Malfoy wasn't indifferent. He couldn't be, not with that flush in his cheeks, not with that erratic breathing. He had dreamed about this so many times, and he had the opportunity to stem the tide of Malfoy's gay jokes, wherever they were coming from.
"There are some lines you shouldn't cross, Malfoy," Harry said, his tone uneven.
He didn't care about his tone, though. He leant forward and pressed his lips against Malfoy's. The last thing he expected was for Malfoy's lips to be soft and warm, not cold and forbidding as they always were in Harry's dreams. Malfoy made a startled noise and shoved Harry away, stumbling backwards and falling on his rear end.
Malfoy wiped his mouth with his robe sleeve and looked up at Harry. "Potter, what do you think you're doing?" he spat.
Harry had to fight to keep from throwing himself down at Malfoy. The other boy looked so helpless as he sat on the ground, looking up at Harry with impossibly wide eyes. So Harry had been wrong, then. Malfoy looked so genuinely horrified – he couldn't possibly be gay or even curious. As something fell inside Harry, he forced his face into a grim mask.
"If I hear one more thing about my sexual orientation, I'm going to tell everyone about the first boy I ever kissed. I'll volunteer to drink Veritaserum, too," he said, thinking feverishly as he spoke. He couldn't risk having Malfoy tell the whole school about what had just happened, so he'd pretend he only did it to keep Malfoy quiet. He could still feel Malfoy's lips under his, but that didn't matter.
"Bastard," said Malfoy, trying to rise and wincing.
Harry relaxed; Malfoy had bought it. Feeling magnanimous, Harry smirked and held out his arm. Malfoy grabbed onto it and pulled himself to his feet, still glaring. He let go of Harry's arm and brushed his hair out of his face.
Harry didn't trust himself to hang around Malfoy any longer. He shouldered his Firebolt and set off through the trees without looking back.
It was only later, when he leant his Firebolt against the wall in his dormitory, that Harry realised that Malfoy now owed him a wizard's debt.
Malfoy hadn't shown up at dinner that night. He had avoided looking at Harry throughout mealtimes on Monday, and Harry stayed away from him during the DA meeting that evening. He had to keep as much distance between the two of them as possible, he found, because the scene in the forbidden forest kept playing in his mind.
Harry wasn't sure if he should have felt guilty or unhappy that he kept imagining alternate endings to that scene. It should have worried him that none of those endings involved Malfoy walking away. In fact, all of them involved Malfoy responding to Harry's kiss first, and a variety of other things next.
Harry compensated by focussing on his schoolwork. On Saturday, as everyone else made their way to the Quidditch pitch for the Ravenclaw versus Hufflepuff match, Harry had to go to Snape's office for Occlumency – he wasn't exempt when Gryffindor wasn't playing.
He, Ron and Hermione split up in the entrance hall as Harry made his way to the dungeon and his friends walked out into the bright Saturday sunshine. Harry still hadn't told his best friends about what had happened in the forest between him and Malfoy. He wasn't sure he was going to, either.
Harry arrived at Snape's office several minutes later and knocked on the door. The sound echoed ominously in the dungeon hallway.
"Enter," came Snape's cold voice from beyond the door.
Harry walked in. "Good morning, Professor," he said.
"Potter," said Snape, getting up from behind his desk. "For once you aren't late."
Harry said nothing. He eyed a jar behind Snape, where something purple was flopping about and making disgusting "squee" noises against the glass walls.
Snape made his way around the desk and stopped in front of Harry. "Have you been practising?"
"Yes, sir," said Harry. It was true. He'd grown quite proficient at clearing his mind before falling asleep – not that it helped any against the highly embarrassing dreams featuring Malfoy.
On the bright side, his lurid Malfoy fantasies made him even more motivated to repel Snape's attempts at Legilimency. Harry really didn't want Snape to have that sort of information on him, and that day, he managed to keep Snape out of his mind at every attempt.
When they were finished, Harry opened the door and walked out. There was still a dull roar in his ears but he felt considerably more confident than he had felt twenty minutes ago; that was a good thing. He didn't know if Snape had seen anything regarding him and Malfoy. He really hoped Snape hadn't, because that would just not be on.
"I see you're already doing badly enough to need remedial Potions," called a very familiar voice behind him.
Harry stopped and turned around. He realised he was still shaking, and he did his best to conceal it. Malfoy hadn't so much as looked at him since last Sunday and now he was suddenly trying to engage him in conversation, in a deserted dungeon hallway, no less? Harry glanced around for Crabbe and Goyle but they were nowhere to be found.
"What's it to you, Malfoy?" he snapped, left hand clenching into a fist, the right reaching for his wand.
Malfoy whipped out his own wand and glared coldly, continuing to walk towards him with a swagger. "Just curious."
"Curiosity killed the Kneazle, Malfoy." Harry rolled his shoulders and assumed a fighting stance, legs slightly apart and tensing. This was far easier when Malfoy wasn't standing two inches from him.
"Did Blaise teach you to say that, Potter? There's no way you would have learned that from those Muggles who raised you."
Harry forced a laugh, tilting his head back slightly. "Jealous, Malfoy? Are you jealous that your friend would rather spend time with me than you?"
Malfoy sniggered, looking at him with incredulity. "You really think he does, don't you? You're daft, Potter."
"Funny. Why don't you come flying with us on Sundays then?" Harry said with a smirk. He was sure Blaise wouldn't have told Malfoy about the Sunday practices.
Malfoy sniggered once again, stopping a foot away from Harry. "I choose not to, Potter," he said with an impassive glare.
Harry felt his smirk fade away and his shoulders sagged a little. "You know?"
"Of course I know." Harry blinked. Malfoy knew that Blaise was hanging out with Harry and he allowed it? What was going on?
"Oh," he said.
They stared at each other, wands clutched in their hands. One part of Harry's mind kept wondering why Malfoy hadn't tried to put a stop to Blaise's coming to Sunday flying practice. What was in it for him? Or maybe Blaise was spying on Harry for Malfoy? No, that was ridiculous. Blaise wouldn't become friends with Zacharias just for that, would he? Harry looked at Malfoy's face and noticed that he was staring not into Harry's eyes but at his mouth. Oh, not on.
Malfoy licked his lips and Harry realised it was the first time he'd actually seen Malfoy's tongue, rather than dreamed about it or imagined it. Harry's eyes widened just as his breathing quickened as image after image from his dreams assaulted his consciousness. It must be a side effect of Occlumency, Harry thought distractedly as he watched Malfoy lick his lips again.
It hurt to admit it, and Harry thought himself a freak for it, but all he wanted at that particular moment was to find out if Malfoy's tongue would feel as good against his as it usually did in Harry's dreams. Harry blinked. This was Malfoy, he shouldn't even be here, he should get away.
Malfoy cocked his head to one side. "You want to do it again, don't you?"
"Whuh?" asked Harry, suddenly aware that he had no idea what Malfoy had just said. Harry was having difficulty breathing through his nose and his lips parted involuntarily. He felt like a snake hypnotised by music when Malfoy took a step closer.
"Admit it, Potter," Malfoy said with a smirk.
His breath hit Harry's cheek and Harry's mouth went dry. On the one hand, he wanted to slam Malfoy against the wall and find out if he really was a talker. On the other hand, he wanted to run away really quickly. His feet, however, felt like they'd suddenly turned to lead.
Malfoy stepped even closer and pressed a palm flat against Harry's chest, causing him to jump a little. He felt his heart thundering against Malfoy's fingers and he knew Malfoy felt it, too – the git looked amused. He leant forward, his cheek nearly touching Harry's.
"You know you do," Malfoy whispered. His lips almost touched Harry's ear and that was it for Harry.
It was as though a dam broke inside him, letting forth a rush of confused anger and lust – Harry grabbed Malfoy by the front of his robes and threw him against the nearest wall. He didn't bother with lips, he just shoved his tongue into Malfoy's mouth, which was slightly open in surprise.
He found Malfoy's tongue with his and tasted it, which caused a desperate sound to start building in his throat. His tongue slid over teeth and lips and rough and smooth surfaces in a kind of frenzy – he had no idea what he was doing, but all he cared about was that he was impossibly turned on.
Malfoy grabbed the front of Harry's robes and pushed him roughly away. Harry's hands were still fisted in Malfoy's robes. They stood there, staring at each other, breathing hard. Malfoy's eyes had an unfocused, odd look to them, as though he was struggling with something in his mind—
"What's going on here?" came a familiar cold voice from behind Harry. Oh, bollocks. Harry let go of Malfoy and took a step back.
Malfoy's face immediately took on a look of wide-eyed innocence. "I was just walking to catch the tail end of the game, Professor, when Potter attacked me," he said.
"Fighting, Potter? Again? I think we'll make it twenty points from Gryffindor and detention on Monday."
Harry shot Malfoy a murderous look and bowed his head. "Bloody liar," he muttered.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that, Potter," said Snape with a malicious smile.
"Yes, Professor Snape, sir," said Harry, glaring at him as well.
Malfoy smirked. "May I go, Professor?"
"Yes, you may, Draco." Harry started to follow Malfoy, fully intending to throttle him as soon as they were around the corner, but Snape said, "Not so fast, Potter. I need to have a word with you in private."
Harry stopped and turned to glare at Snape again. He heard Malfoy's footsteps recede down the hall. Had he really just—
"Potter, I don't know what you have got against Mr Malfoy and I don't particularly care," said Snape in an indulgent tone. "But you should remember that Lucius Malfoy is still at large and were he to learn that you're causing problems for his son—"
"Lucius Malfoy hates me anyway, Professor," said Harry, feeling his face grow hot.
"Don't interrupt me when I'm speaking."
"I said don't interrupt me, Potter," said Snape with a malicious sneer. "I'll also take this time to remind you that I am Head of Slytherin house and I will not allow you to manhandle my students. I'm sure you think you're special, but I assure you—"
Harry was barely listening, however. All he could think of now that he'd had a chance to catch his breath was that Malfoy had responded to his kiss in that hallway.
Harry kept zoning out and thinking about what had happened in the dungeon all afternoon. He nodded and grunted as Ron gave him a blow-by-blow account of the Quidditch game, from the kick-off to when Cho had caught the Snitch. Ravenclaw was now officially in the lead for the Quidditch Cup, and Ron was sounding a bit frantic.
No one still had any idea who'd released the second Snitch during the Slytherin versus Gryffindor game a month ago. Harry wanted to forget about it as quickly as possible, because it could have been anyone and dwelling on it would only cause problems. Ron had at least one bright idea a week regarding the culprit, and Hermione kept very quiet on the subject.
Harry couldn't sleep that night. He kept tossing and turning, feeling like the covers were suffocating him. Most of all, he kept thinking about Malfoy up against that wall and Malfoy's tongue, reluctant against Harry's. He ended up getting about two hours of sleep and didn't quite feel like he was alive during classes that day. He didn't know how he would make it through the DA meeting, but he found that avoiding looking at Malfoy was far easier than he'd thought it would be.
In fact, he found that he couldn't look at Malfoy at all. He didn't even give him a second glance when he passed him on the way to detention with Snape. The detention involved scrubbing the floor to the Potions classroom, which Harry did with a vague feeling of gratitude: the work was mind-numbing, and that was exactly what Harry needed.
On Wednesday, Harry was feeling marginally better – he could actually function without constantly thinking back to the dungeon scene on Sunday and getting a nasty feeling inside. He'd been sure that Malfoy would tell everybody what had happened, despite Harry's threat in the forbidden forest. He recalled vaguely what Hermione had said about homosexuality being a horrible thing in pure-blood circles. That was probably the only reason Malfoy was keeping silent.
As Ron, Harry and Hermione made their way to the Gryffindor table at breakfast, Harry became aware of a vague buzzing around the Great Hall, like a swarm of disoriented bees. As they got into their seats, Harry realised what the commotion was all about. There in front of him was a wizarding photo. It was a badly taken close-up that featured two boys – a dark-haired one and a fair-haired one – kissing passionately. Scrawled across the bottom of the photo in angry red ink were the words "Dirty homos."
Harry's blood ran cold as he peered closer at the photo. Had Malfoy got someone to take pictures? But how would he have known—? Then Harry realised that he wasn't looking at himself and Malfoy. He was looking at Blaise and Zacharias. He glanced at the Hufflepuff table behind him. Zacharias sat at his usual spot, with his head in his hands. A lot of his classmates were gathered around him, hands on his back.
Harry stuck his neck out and rose out of his seat slightly to look for Blaise. He saw that Blaise was just walking into the Great Hall then, accompanied by Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle. Harry watched as Malfoy approached a group of students huddled together at the far end of the Slytherin table. He elbowed several out of the way and looked down, then reached to pick up one of the photos. He stared at it for a moment, then glanced up at Blaise.
Harry's stomach clenched as he watched Blaise, who seemed to have turned into a statue. Malfoy looked at the Hufflepuff table, then turned back to the group of Slytherins beside him and said something. A fifth-year Harry vaguely recalled from the Slytherin Quidditch tryouts said something to Malfoy. Malfoy whirled on the boy and said something no doubt threatening, because the fifth-year seemed to sort of duck and look away.
Malfoy put a hand on Blaise's shoulder and spoke to him. Harry couldn't believe that Malfoy could look like that. He looked concerned and earnest and, well, human, for lack of a better word. Harry's chest tightened as he watched Blaise nod dully and walk over to sit down beside Pansy Parkinson, who immediately started pushing food towards him. Harry couldn't imagine what was going through Blaise's mind at that moment.
He kept watching Malfoy, who spoke several words to the Slytherins around him, then sat down beside Blaise. Harry felt a tug on his sleeve and turned around, irritated. Hermione was giving him a pointed look.
"You shouldn't stare, Harry," she said.
Harry scowled at her. He wanted to see what was going on. "Does anyone know who did this?" he asked.
On Harry's other side, Ron shook his head. "No idea. No one's talking, either." He nodded towards the head table. "Looks like the Head Boy and Girl are having a chat with the Headmaster."
Harry followed his gaze and saw Liam Baddock saying something to Dumbledore with a serious look on his face. Dumbledore kept nodding, but nothing much seemed to be happening and Harry turned back to his food. His heart was still going pitter-patter from when he'd thought the photos were of him and Malfoy. He wondered if Malfoy had had the same thought, too.
"I bet I could find out who did it," said a high-pitched voice to Harry's left.
Harry turned and saw Colin Creevey talking to his classmates. "What did you say, Colin?"
The smaller boy looked up at him with an earnest look in his eyes. "Photography's my hobby. I have an idea how to find out who did it, Harry," he said.
"Can't revealing spells do it?" asked Hermione.
Colin shook his head. "These look like they were taken with a Muggle camera."
"What? How can a Muggle camera take wizarding photos?" asked Ron, sitting up a little straighter.
"Easy," said Colin. "In my first year, I had a Muggle camera. I just developed the film in a special potion."
"So can you tell who did it?" asked Harry.
"Can't," said Colin. "Don't have all the equipment. I could bring it from home after Christmas."
"You do that, Colin," said Harry, making up his mind.
Breakfast was over and the Great Hall was emptying. Feet scuffled against the floor, schoolbags were hoisted on shoulders as another day of classes began. Harry stared at the Slytherin table: he noticed that Blaise and Malfoy weren't leaving. Blaise just sat there without looking at anyone and Malfoy kept talking to him about something. When Harry saw Blaise rise from his seat, he pulled his schoolbag up and hurried towards him. Ron and Hermione exchanged glances and followed.
"Blaise!" Harry shouted.
He saw the boy stop and stiffen. Beside him, Malfoy turned around with a sneer. Harry stepped around him and walked over to Blaise.
"What do you want, Harry?" asked Blaise in a neutral tone.
Harry took an involuntary step backwards, but persisted. "I want to help you find out who did this."
"Do not meddle in the affairs of Slytherins, Potter," sneered Malfoy. "We don't need your help."
"Sorry, mate," said Blaise, "but Draco's right. This is for us to deal with."
Harry licked his lips and glanced from Malfoy to Blaise. "Colin Creevey knows a lot about cameras. He said he could trace the pictures to a source."
He heard footsteps behind him – Ron and Hermione had caught up.
"Hi, Blaise," said Hermione. Ron echoed the greeting. The two of them didn't spend as much time with Blaise as Harry did, but they did join Harry, Blaise, Zacharias and Terry during study groups sometimes.
"Hermione, Ron," said Blaise with a curt nod. He turned to Malfoy. "Well?" Harry wondered why Blaise deferred to Malfoy in this situation. Why did he have to talk to Malfoy?
"Why are you telling us this, Potter?" asked Malfoy.
Harry gritted his teeth. So Malfoy was Blaise's keeper, apparently. He took a deep breath and turned to Malfoy.
"He'd need Blaise to be present for some parts of the... er... " Harry started to say.
"It's part revealing spells and part Muggle technology," piped up Hermione. Malfoy scowled at her. So did Harry. He really wished she wouldn't interrupt.
"Only he can't do the Muggle part until after Christmas, he doesn't have all the equipment with him," continued Hermione in a bossy tone, heedless of Harry's warning look.
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Fine. Do your best. But leave it to me to deal with them."
Harry goggled at him.
Malfoy narrowed his eyes. "You heard me. I'm going to deal with the bastards myself."
He put an arm around Blaise's shoulders and steered him from the Great Hall.
Harry could only stare after them. Who knew Malfoy could be a loyal friend?
Harry spent Christmas at the Burrow at Mrs Weasley's adamant insistence. It was warm and cheerful, but Harry couldn't enjoy it – not least because he kept thinking back to last Christmas, remembering Sirius's drunken carolling and wishing he could turn back time. Harry spent a lot of his time sitting in Ron's room and staring at the Cannons posters, where tiny players zoomed around the canvas in infinite loops. Sometimes Harry wished he could be one of those players, flying around on a poster without a care in the world but to repeat the same movement over and over again. It would be properly mind-numbing, at least.
Hermione went skiing with her parents for Christmas. She was uncharacteristically full of stories during the trip back to Hogwarts, all of which featured some boy named Claudio. Harry could only snigger into his sleeve as Ron remarked that Hermione certainly had a thing for foreigners. As his two best friends began to bicker over Viktor Krum yet again, Harry stared out the window and wondered, not for the first time, whether Malfoy ever thought about the encounters in the forbidden forest and the dungeon. Harry himself couldn't seem to get those out of his head, for better or worse.
The Sunday Prophet, January 5, 1997
THE GAME THAT CHANGED QUIDDITCH HISTORY
As Quidditch teams in the remotest corners of the world replace their old Snitches with the now-perfected Singleton series types, the Prophet's Rita Skeeter has managed to talk to a Hogwarts student who witnessed the game that started it all. The student requested anonymity to avoid the wrath of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, who many believe has become dangerous and unstable following considerable brain damage sustained during his encounter with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named last year. For the first time since the historic match took place, here is the full account.
The Slytherin versus Gryffindor game began as any other. Draco Malfoy, the talented Captain and Seeker for the Slytherin team, had put together a strong offence. In a cunning move, he recruited Chaser Millicent Bulstrode, the first female Slytherin player in over fifty years. It was one of the wisest decisions in school-league Quidditch lately; Bulstrode's skill on a broom and sure aim far outstrips those of all three Gryffindor Chasers put together. Together with Malcolm Baddock and Andrew Bartlett, Bulstrode proceeded to put Slytherin into a sure lead, which was helped along by the team's promising new Keeper, Blaise Zabini.
Just as Beater Gregory Goyle sent a Bludger at one of the Gryffindor Chasers, Seeker Malfoy spotted the Golden Snitch and dove for it. Almost half a minute later, the Gryffindor Seeker spotted the second Snitch and raced for it. The Slytherin Seeker had caught the Snitch -- but so had the Gryffindor Seeker. As confused onlookers rushed onto the pitch, the Gryffindor captain was overheard accusing the Slytherin team of cheating. This reporter considers that rather poor sportsmanship, considering that Slytherin's Seeker had clearly caught the Snitch first.
The referee called the game on points scored and the win went rightfully to Slytherin. Here, at last, we have the story behind the scandal. Hogwarts officials had, for unfathomable reasons, refused to allow the Prophet's reporter to interview the match participants. It's not altogether surprising, considering Gryffindor's lamentable performance -- the Deputy Headmistress is head of Gryffindor house...
"Of all the dirty, lying—" fumed Ron, waving the evening edition of the Prophet around as they bounded down the marble staircase to the Great Hall on the first evening back at Hogwarts. They were late for dinner because they got held up with Rita's article.
"Relax, Ron," said Hermione. "It's not even as bad as it could be. She's still scared we'll turn her in."
Harry said nothing. He wondered who could have told Rita about the match in such detail: it certainly sounded like a team member – no one else would have heard Ron accuse the Slytherins of releasing the second Snitch.
Ron was walking a few steps ahead of them. He was just through the doors to the Great Hall when Malfoy, walking with his head bowed, ran smack into him.
"Watch where you're going, Malfoy," Ron said.
Malfoy looked up at Ron and smirked. "Oh, it's you. No need to apologise then."
Harry tensed. He narrowed his eyes – of course. Malfoy had been there on the pitch after the game.
"Been talking to Rita Skeeter again, Malfoy?" he asked.
Malfoy raised both eyebrows. "Me? For your information, I was at Hogwarts over the holidays. Besides, don't try to tell me that article is anything but the truth."
Ron turned beet-red. "I'll show you truth, you smarmy—"
"Ron, no!" screeched Hermione. Ron's fists unclenched. They'd had a long talk about Ron and Harry rising to Malfoy's taunts during the break and Ron seemed to remember himself.
Malfoy was looking at Harry, and Harry suddenly wanted to turn around and walk very far away from there. Malfoy had been at Hogwarts during the break? What about his mother? Harry briefly entertained saying something along the lines of "At Hogwarts during the holidays, Malfoy? Doesn't mummy love you any more?" but decided against it. Malfoy had taunted him with similar insults for years; Harry would be no better than him if he resorted to such underhanded tactics.
Malfoy tore his gaze away from Harry's face and looked at Hermione. Harry wondered why it was that he wanted Malfoy to keep looking at him, at Harry. He noticed Blaise right behind Malfoy and remembered the photos, and Colin.
"Have you got any closer to finding out who did it?" he asked, glancing at Blaise.
Malfoy shook his head.
"Well, er, Colin brought his – things," said Harry to Blaise. "Except he said it'll take a week for him to – er – sort things out."
Blaise nodded. Malfoy tugged on his arm with an impatient look. "Let's go," he said. Blaise obeyed and they started walking out of the Great Hall. As Malfoy walked past Harry, he paused and turned slightly.
"You know your way to the dungeon, Potter. Just come and get Blaise when he's needed," he said. Harry blinked, his mind forcing images of him and Malfoy in the dungeon to the forefront. Malfoy swept past him and Harry tried to tell himself that it was just the fact that he hadn't seen Malfoy in a while. It would go away soon.
On the following Saturday, Harry was making his way back to Gryffindor tower after helping the house-elves locate another batch of partygoers. He took a wrong turn and ended up having to walk through the Slytherin dungeon to get to the surface.
As he walked towards the passage to the entrance hall, he noticed two boys coming down the stairs at the far end of the hallway. He couldn't make out who they were but he heard one of them – the taller one – laugh at something the shorter one had said. What happened next made Harry freeze in his tracks about a foot from the pair.
The taller boy suddenly pressed the shorter one against the wall and leant forward to whisper into his ear. Harry recognised the shorter one – it was Malfoy. He grinned in a strange, private way that Harry had never seen before and pressed a hand against the other boy's chest.
Harry breathed in sharply and Malfoy turned to look at him. Harry realised he was still clutching the Marauder's Map. The taller boy turned to look as well and Harry realised it was Blaise. Blaise and Malfoy? Blaise detached himself from the wall and levelled Harry with a look.
"Hi, Harry," he said. Harry continued to gape, but managed a nod in response.
"You're spending far too much time in the dungeons, Potter," said Malfoy. "It's not doing much for your complexion."
Blaise smirked and muttered something under his breath. A door materialised in the wall and slid open. Harry realised they were right next to the Slytherin common room. As Blaise disappeared through the doorframe, Malfoy began to follow him.
"Wait," said Harry, not quite sure why. He began to stuff the Marauder's Map back into his pocket.
Malfoy turned around and raised an eyebrow. The door behind him slid closed with a soft thump, and Malfoy sidestepped the entrance. He turned to Harry.
"I didn't mean— I'm not—" Harry broke off and looked away, staring moodily at a torch near the end of the hallway.
"I haven't got all day, Potter. Is this actually important?"
Insufferable self-important git. "It's bloody well important," Harry exploded, taking a step towards Malfoy, who backed away towards the wall behind him.
"Why Potter, you dog, you," drawled Malfoy, sounding amused. "You just can't resist, can you?"
"Shut. Up. Malfoy," spat Harry. He couldn't believe that Malfoy and Blaise were… well, that friendly. Malfoy flinched and made an elaborate show of wiping his right eye with his hand.
"Make me, Potter," he taunted.
Was that an invitation? Harry's eyes widened.
He was going to say, "I didn't mean to interrupt anything", but Malfoy suddenly lifted his right hand and brushed two fingers over Harry's bottom lip, dragging it down a little. Harry let out a small noise of surprise and flinched, his eyes widening even further. What was Malfoy doing? Malfoy's mouth curved into a smirk and he bit his bottom lip. Harry could only stare.
"You what, Potter?"
Harry couldn't deal with this. Not with this sort of passive-aggressive attitude that meant he had to make a prat of himself every time he was around Malfoy. "Oh hell," he breathed, then took off down the corridor. He would not let Malfoy coerce him into a repeat performance of last time. Never.
Even if Harry had to be gay, he certainly didn't have to be gay with Malfoy.
A week later, Colin Creevey said he was ready to try and find out who had taken the photos of Blaise and Zacharias. Hermione went to the greenhouses to ask Professor Sprout for some trays; Colin said he needed them for the procedure. Harry went to fetch Zacharias from the Hufflepuff common room. Ron ended up going to the Slytherin dungeon to get Blaise. He said he still remembered where the hidden door was, back from when Harry and Ron had got into the common room to interrogate Malfoy as Crabbe and Goyle. It felt like a million years had passed since then.
Harry wanted to be there to see who the culprit was and so he followed as Zacharias led them further into the dungeons. They followed a series of twisting passages, all alike, until they finally arrived at a small enclosure at the end of a long hallway. Zacharias stopped near a wall, looking sheepish. Harry and Hermione set the trays they were carrying down on the floor. Colin put down the cauldron he'd brought beside them. Hermione crouched down beside the smaller boy and began helping him un-stack the trays.
Harry walked over to Zacharias.
"A bit embarrassing, this," said Zacharias, looking off to the side.
"I bet," said Harry. "So – you told me back in first term that you met Blaise in Palermo. Was that where—"
"Yeah," said Zacharias, still not looking at him. "It was a good summer."
Harry heard footsteps from the other end of the hallway and looked up. Ron was walking towards them; Blaise and Malfoy were following. Blaise carried a bag over his shoulder, which he handed to Hermione as he walked up to where she and Colin were sorting trays. Harry didn't look at Malfoy.
"There you are," said Zacharias, looking at Blaise.
"What's the occasion for the town meeting?" said Malfoy.
Harry glanced at Blaise, who tugged on Malfoy's robe sleeve with an exasperated sigh. Colin rose and approached the sixth-years with some trepidation.
"All right, Harry?" he squeaked. "We can start, right?"
"You should be talking to Blaise here, Creevey, not Potter," said Malfoy in a nasty tone.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yes, Colin, we can start."
Colin glanced up at Blaise and Zacharias with an embarrassed look. "Er, where were you – um—"
"Right over there," Blaise said, pointing to a corner behind Hermione. There was a hint of amusement in his voice. Zacharias was studying the hem of his robe sleeve. It was too dark to tell whether he was blushing.
Colin snatched up a photograph from where Hermione had piled them on the floor and studied it. "Lumos," he muttered. He shone his wand at the photo then into the corner that Blaise had indicated.
"This was no professional, I'll tell you that much," Colin said. "No attention to ambient light...."
"Oh, that's helpful," Malfoy cut in, "considering Hogwarts is crawling with professional photographers."
Colin opened his mouth to protest, but Harry waved an impatient hand. "Never mind, Colin, it's Malfoy."
Colin looked dejected, as though he would have welcomed a debate, but closed his mouth and went back to studying the photo.
Malfoy scowled at Harry. "What do you mean by that, Potter?" he bit out.
Harry began to retort, but Blaise stepped in between them. "Can we just get this over with?"
Harry nodded and turned away. There were several protracted moments of silence while Colin muttered to himself, occasionally glancing at Harry and Ron. He pulled a ruler from his pocket and held it against the top of the photo, then slid it to the other edge and frowned.
"This was definitely taken by a Muggle camera," he said after a moment. "I've studied wizarding cameras and none of them produce prints this size."
Blaise looked blank. "Prints?"
"The film is transferred onto special paper, it's sort of like printing," said Hermione, who had in the meantime got up and walked over to study the photo with Colin. "But aren't wizarding photos developed in a potion, Colin?"
"Yes, but the negative has to be blown up to the right size before you put it in the potion. Wizarding cameras don't take photos this size; it's smaller than the nearest standard size."
"What if someone shrank it?" said Zacharias. "You know, to throw people off?"
Colin shook his head with a serious expression on his face. "That would've shrunk the people in the picture, and that never looks smooth. It's easy to shrink a still photo, but not a wizarding one. Trust me, I've tried."
"So then it would have to be a Muggle-born, wouldn't it?" Blaise said slowly. "Who has a Muggle camera?"
"Creevey here, Brantley from Ravenclaw, and the Dawson twins from Hufflepuff," said Malfoy. Harry glanced at him curiously. Apparently, the Slytherins had been busy.
"No Slytherins?" asked Ron in an accusing tone.
"There are none of her kind in our house, Weasley," said Malfoy, glancing at Hermione. She gave him a withering look. Harry tensed.
"Listen here, Malfoy," said Ron, taking a step closer to him. Harry's hand strayed to his pocket and Malfoy reached for his own wand.
Blaise coughed. "Can we just get on with this?"
"He can't go insulting Hermione every time he—" Ron's face was flushed with indignation.
"He didn't insult her," Blaise interrupted, looking straight at Ron.
"So he didn't call her names, we all know what he meant –" Ron was looking apoplectic. Harry narrowed his eyes at Malfoy, who wore an impassive look.
"That's as good as you'll ever get it, Weasley," said Malfoy in a neutral tone.
"Ron, stop. It's not worth it, honestly," Hermione spoke up suddenly. "I agree with Blaise. Let's just get this done."
Ron took a step back, his shoulders sagging slightly. Harry stared at Malfoy. What did he mean by "as good as you'll ever get it"? That was the first time Harry had ever heard Malfoy actually back down a notch – well, in a way. Normally, Malfoy would just increase the intensity of his insults until someone got violent. Harry noticed that Malfoy was sneering and he shook his head slightly, looking away. Did Malfoy really care about Blaise? Was that why he was willing to back down?
"Where were we?" said Malfoy, turning to Blaise.
"So it was a Muggle camera," said Blaise, looking uncertain.
"The Dawson twins are in first year, so they're pretty much out," added Zacharias.
"They're Hufflepuffs, they're out by default, I'd say," muttered Malfoy, earning a sharp glare from Zacharias. Malfoy smirked at him. Harry wondered if Zacharias knew what Malfoy and Blaise were up to.
"Well, we're back to square one, aren't we?" said Hermione. "The people with Muggle cameras are all unlikely suspects—"
"Maybe," interrupted Malfoy with narrowed eyes, "it was actually Creevey. He took the pictures and then volunteered to help—"
Colin's eyes widened to an impossible size, his mouth a round "O" of surprise.
Blaise coughed again. "Draco, he's a Gryffindor." Harry blinked. It was weird hearing Malfoy's first name from someone he, Harry, considered a friend.
Malfoy pursed his lips. "True. Scratch that then."
"What's that supposed to mean, Blaise?" asked Ron, narrowing his eyes.
"Well, you lot are not exactly known for your cunning, is all," said Blaise with a straight face.
"You'd be surprised, Blaise," said Harry in a clipped tone. He really wasn't in the mood for a discussion of house superiority.
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Fascinating as the Gryffindor version of cunning might be, can we get back to what we're here for?"
"Well, if dressing up in a Dementor outfit or hitting people with Bludgers are examples of the Slytherin version of cunning, then you might want to take a page out of our book, Malfoy," said Harry, forcing himself to keep calm.
Malfoy looked at Harry with murder in his eyes. Harry started reaching for his wand again. Malfoy pressed his lips together for a moment, but said nothing. Harry smirked.
"I don't expect you to appreciate subtlety, Potter," said Malfoy quietly.
"You and your mates are about as subtle as Hagrid's dog, Malfoy," said Harry.
"Speaking of dogs, how's yours doing, Potter? The great shaggy mutt you brought to the train with you last year?"
Harry felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. He felt blood drain from his face, trying to think of something to say. How dare Malfoy bring up Sirius? Harry couldn't even feel angry: being reminded of Sirius like this, when he was least expecting it, caused a dull ache in his heart. The silence was almost deafening as he stared at Malfoy. Had he really been reconsidering Malfoy as a person? It seemed so ridiculous now – someone who could so casually bring up the deaths of another's loved ones didn't deserve any leeway.
"Can we – uh – what's going on?" Colin's voice demanded.
The sound startled Harry and he looked away.
"I don't know why the hell I came here," he muttered to Ron and set off down the hallway.
Harry kicked the edge of his bed in frustration as he paced the dormitory, carefully making sure to kick the mattress rather than the wood below. How dare Malfoy bring up Sirius? The great git had no idea what it was like to lose someone you cared about, that was for sure. Harry paused. Sirius would have hated to see Harry so vulnerable because of him. He wouldn't let Malfoy get to him ever again. Malfoy was just a spoiled brat with no redeeming qualities, and it was silly to think of him as anything other than that.
He met up with Ron and Hermione in the common room later on; they told him that they hadn't managed to find anything out. The spells had worked just as intended, but whoever had taken the photos had worn a balaclava while taking them, and there was no way to tell who it was for sure. Harry couldn't help but feel a bit bitter – so the scene with Malfoy hadn't even been necessary.
Harry was not entirely unaware of the irony in the fact that the next morning, he'd woken up hard and panting, after a dream that involved him and Malfoy doing very bad things in front of Ron, Hermione, Blaise, Zacharias, and Colin.
The next Hogsmeade weekend was in February, and Harry had met up with a bunch of people from the old DA at the Three Broomsticks. Blaise was there as well; he'd come with Zacharias – apparently, the other Slytherins had gone off to Madam Puddifoot's at Pansy Parkinson's bidding. Harry wondered if Malfoy was there too. He somehow couldn't picture Malfoy among the gaudy trinkets at that tea shop, try as he might.
Seamus brought a bottle of Firewhisky with him – he was in with a few older Gryffindors who were allowed to buy spirits – and insisted that everyone take a shot of it in their Butterbeer, 'for a mood boost', as he'd put it.
Firewhisky by itself didn't tend to get one drunk too quickly, but mixed with Butterbeer it produced a happy feeling and a warm buzz that lasted for hours. So went the popular rumour, and Harry decided to try it. He felt the Firewhisky sear his throat as it went down, despite the Butterbeer. He sat back and downed the rest of his drink as quickly as he could, wondering when he'd start feeling the effects.
Ten minutes later, he was listening to Neville talk about his Mimbulus mimbletonia. Yeah, there definitely had to be something really buzz-inducing about the Firewhisky-Butterbeer mixture, because Harry found that he was rather interested in what Neville was saying. Only alcohol could make Harry enjoy talking about Stinksap.
"Draco, over here!" called Blaise suddenly.
Harry turned around and saw Malfoy hold the door open for Daphne Greengrass, who hurried over to sit beside Ernie Macmillan. Harry turned back to Neville, who was now talking earnestly about Hogsmeade needing more recognition.
"What Hogsmeade needs is a Quidditch shop," Neville was saying. "Every village needs a Quidditch shop."
"Also, every village needs an idiot and you're it, Longbottom," said Malfoy's voice from Harry's other side.
Harry turned around and blinked. What in the world had possessed Malfoy to sit beside him? He cast a glance around the table and realised that all the seats were taken now.
"Shut up, Malfoy," said Neville.
Malfoy's eyes widened for a moment, but he recovered quickly. Harry was watching him out of the corner of his eye as though through a haze. Somewhere deep inside his mind, he knew that it was the Firewhisky-Butterbeer mixture that prevented him from hexing Malfoy on the spot.
"Well, as much as I enjoy listening to you making a fool of yourself, there is already a Quidditch shop in Hogsmeade," said Malfoy to Neville.
Harry looked up with interest. "There is?"
It was the first time Harry had addressed Malfoy directly in weeks. He'd avoided Malfoy during meals and ignored him completely during lessons, no matter what Malfoy said to him. He'd always paired Malfoy with Susan Bones during the DA meetings. Harry had been determined to forget that Malfoy existed, actually. He'd been doing a bang-up job of it, too. Now, however, he wasn't sure if it was the Firewhisky or what, but Malfoy looked almost agreeable.
"Yeah, Quaffles and Bludgers, right as you pass the Post Office," Malfoy replied. "Old Donegal owns it. I'm surprised you've not heard of it, considering he's a distant relation to your Head of House."
"I thought it was never open," said Harry, remembering the shop with its dusty windows.
Malfoy raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, Donegal doesn't like too many visitors. Makes good money off collectors' items, I expect. He's got connections all over."
They looked at each other for a moment, seemingly both shocked that they'd just had an entirely civil exchange without going for their wands once. Neville looked even more shocked than they were – he looked from Malfoy to Harry and back again, his eyebrows disappearing under his fringe.
No one else seemed to have noticed. Neville was still staring blankly at the two of them as they gaped at each other.
"Hey, Neville! C'mere for a second," called Ron from across the table. His voice was oddly high-pitched and sounded out of place; Harry guessed that Ron was feeling the Firewhiskey-Butterbeer, too. Neville got up obediently and walked over, knocking his chair to the floor as he did so. He gave Harry a sheepish grin as he picked the chair back up. Madam Rosmerta hurried over at the noise. Seeing Malfoy, she broke into a wide smile.
"My favourite heart-breaker. No, no, don't tell me. Nettle wine and blackberry rum, right?"
"Yes, please, O Fairest of all innkeepers," Malfoy said, biting his lip slightly and smiling in a way that was definitely come-hither.
Madam Rosmerta blushed a deep crimson and hurried off. Harry was staring at Malfoy's mouth, wondering if the smile was fake or real.
"Heart-breaker, huh," said Harry. "Been here before then?"
"If I didn't know better, Potter, I'd say you were chatting me up," Malfoy returned, his expression stony.
Harry suddenly remembered the beginning of last term. "'Course you've been here before. Told me to meet you. What was that all about?"
"It's hardly of any consequence now, Potter," said Malfoy, smiling warmly at Rosmerta, who'd just returned with his wine. Malfoy picked the glass up and took a sip. Harry wondered what nettle wine tasted like. Did it sting Malfoy's throat going down?
Harry slipped his hands around his tankard of Butterbeer and looked at Malfoy. As long as he was feeling magnanimous and not wanting to hex Malfoy, he might as well try and get some information out of him. "So, humour me then. Twenty questions. What was that scene in the dungeon all about?" Harry said.
"Scene?" asked Malfoy with a blank look.
Harry cast a glance around and leant slightly closer. "You and Blaise."
"You know, contrary to what you may think, Potter, Slytherins are human, too. We horse around with one another, except we're not as obvious about it as you Gryffindors," said Malfoy in a haughty tone.
"So you were, er, horsing around?" asked Harry with a smirk.
Malfoy matched the smirk. "Fantastic deduction, Potter. Are you sure you don't want to switch to Ravenclaw?"
Harry scowled. Malfoy glanced at Blaise, who was trying to explain something to Hermione, his hands flying in front of her face with blinding speed. Harry looked at Zacharias, who was sitting beside Blaise and talking to Ernie and Daphne Greengrass. Harry noticed that Blaise's left arm was under the table and wondered if it was on Zacharias' leg, or even higher up.
"So, Potter, twenty questions," said Malfoy. Harry turned to look at him. Malfoy ran a finger around the rim of his glass and bit his lip. Harry wondered if the whole world was in league to make him think illicit thoughts that day. "Why did you ask about Blaise?" Malfoy continued.
Harry felt colour rise in his cheeks and Malfoy must have noticed, because he smirked.
"Just curious," said Harry to his tankard.
"Oh, get out of it, Potter," said Malfoy. Harry could practically hear the smirk in his voice. This was a really bad idea. He didn't want to be talking to Malfoy. He wasn't worth talking to. He didn't even have anything interesting to say, really. Harry did, however, want to try the nettle wine, preferably by way of Malfoy's tongue. He blinked at two grizzled-looking wizards who were playing some sort of card game. This was getting ridiculous.
He vaguely heard Malfoy say something, then someone else replied and Malfoy got up, his chair scraping against the floor. Harry looked down at his tankard. Why was Malfoy leaving? Why did it matter?
Harry stared as Malfoy and Blaise left the pub. Why couldn't he get thoughts of kissing Malfoy out of his head? Why had he been so stupid? Why was he attracted to the most unattractive person in all of Hogwarts?
A week later, Gryffindor played Ravenclaw and won by a hairline, bringing Gryffindor closer to the Quidditch Cup. Ron was ecstatic. Harry not so much – he was happy that Gryffindor stood a chance of winning the Cup, but Cho had caused such a scene after Harry had beaten her to the Snitch that he almost resented the victory. He couldn't go anywhere without people sniggering behind his back.
The day after the Quidditch match, Ron went off to meet Luna and Harry made his way to the pitch for the flying practice with Blaise, Zacharias and Terry. They got a practice Quaffle and were going to stage an impromptu match with no Seeker or Beaters.
They kicked off at the same time and Harry flew out to the left field, keeping an eye on the Quaffle. This was different from Seeking, though Harry was sure he could do it just as well – as long as he managed to keep the Quaffle long enough to score a goal.
Harry was flying to intercept Terry when something blindingly painful hit him in the side. The last thing he remembered was an image in front of his eyes, like a TV screen shutting itself off – dazzling brilliant light suddenly shrank down to a tiny dot, and then everything went black.
Harry awoke to loud voices.
"He's not conscious! And even if he were, he needs rest, he was nearly killed!" Madam Pomfrey's voice was saying shrilly.
"We just want to leave these for him, we'll be quiet, we promise!" Hermione's voice pleaded.
Harry coughed and sat up, wincing. The last thing he remembered was flying to get the Quaffle from Terry. What had happened?
"See what you've done? He's gone and woken up now," said Madam Pomfrey in a crotchety tone. "Go on, talk to him. You have twenty minutes."
Harry grinned at Hermione, who ran to him, practically knocking Madam Pomfrey off her feet. "Oh, Harry. How are you feeling?"
"I'm all right, just, er, sore. What happened?"
"You'll never believe this, Harry, it was Theodore Nott, a Slytherin," said Ron, who had walked up behind Hermione.
"Nott? What did he do? And what did I ever do to Nott?"
"He only took you out so you wouldn't get in the way. He's mad, Nott is," said Ron. "He wanted to kill Zacharias Smith."
"Because of the gay thing. The photos? That was him," said Hermione, sitting down on the side of Harry's bed.
"He was the one behind that second Snitch, too, Blaise told me," said Hermione.
Harry felt like his head was spinning. "Okay, back up a little. I don't understand any of this."
Ron and Hermione began to tell the story, interrupting each other occasionally. Apparently, Theodore Nott had had some sort of issue with Malfoy, which was why he'd released the second Snitch, hoping to undermine Malfoy's influence with their house, or something. Harry could only shake his head and stare – he would never, ever understand Slytherins.
Nott also thought that it was Zacharias' fault that Blaise was gay – he'd taken those pictures and spread them around the school, hoping to break them up. When that hadn't worked, he'd decided to kill Zacharias. He seemed to have thought that if Zacharias were to die, Blaise would go back to being straight. Harry listened with horror: that was the extent of the pure-bloods' hatred towards homosexuality?
Nott had Stunned Harry first; he'd then Stunned Terry, who rushed to help Harry. Nott had then disarmed Blaise and Zacharias, and proceeded to rant like a lunatic – something about his father, Malfoy, Blaise and Slytherin. Ron said that Blaise had been tight-lipped about the details and Zacharias had been so terrified that he didn't remember half of it – Nott had his wand at Zacharias' throat throughout his speech.
"So I gather that Blaise and Zacharias are okay?" asked Harry, sitting up a little straighter. "What about Terry?"
"That's the weirdest part, Harry. You're never going to believe who saved you all," said Hermione.
"Malfoy," said Ron.
"Malfoy?" asked Harry. "But – why? How?"
"He'd somehow found out about Nott, I think another Slytherin must have told him," said Hermione. "Someone who Nott was friends with. He flew out onto the pitch with Crabbe and Goyle, and knocked Nott to the ground with his broomstick."
Harry's eyes widened. "Wow," he said, shaking his head.
Ron nodded. "Yeah, that's what I said when I heard. I can't believe Malfoy would do something like that."
Hermione frowned. "Well, he and Blaise are very close, from what I gather."
Harry sat back against his pillow. "So where's Nott now?"
"He ran away. See, Malfoy must have sent someone to get Snape before he flew out, because Snape showed up moments after Malfoy and his goons. He revived Terry and sent you off to the hospital wing. While he was loading you onto a stretcher, Nott scarpered," said Ron with a frown.
"Wow," said Harry again.
"You're really lucky, Harry," said Hermione, her face suddenly serious. "You were twenty feet in the air when Nott's Stunner hit you."
"As much as it pains me to say it, you were lucky Malfoy showed up when he did," added Ron, pursing his lips. "If he hadn't shown up, you might have bled to death."
Harry blinked. Malfoy had come out to help Blaise? Malfoy?
Madam Pomfrey hadn't allowed Harry to leave the hospital wings on Monday and insisted on keeping him through most of the morning on Tuesday, for final checks of some sort. When Harry showed up in Care of Magical Creatures, he was immediately surrounded by his classmates. They kept patting him on the back and asking if he was okay. Harry grinned and nodded, but he was distracted; he kept glancing at Malfoy.
Malfoy, for his part, didn't seem to think that saving Harry's life meant anything special. He suggested that people start calling Harry The Boy Who Would Not Die. Harry had laughed along with the Slytherins, causing Ron and Hermione to gape at him in astonishment. Harry didn't understand why – Malfoy did have a point. Harry kept getting into dangerous situations and not dying. It was funny, if he thought about it that way.
On the following Saturday evening, Harry had to go and help the house-elves with locating people for another Hufflepuff party; Ron came with him to keep him company. Ever since Harry had taken his tumble on the pitch, Ron never left his side. Harry suspected Ron felt guilty about not having been there for him when Nott decided to have his spectacular meltdown.
When the bewitched goblet spat out the Gryffindors' names for the party, two of them were Harry and Ron's.
"Brilliant!" exclaimed Ron. "Too bad Hermione isn't on this list," he added. The other Gryffindors were Seamus, Parvati, and Maurelle.
"We is thinking we don't have to be telling Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley to go to classroom eleven, right?" squeaked the house-elf beside Harry.
Harry shook his head in response. Ever since the near-miss with Malfoy last term, Harry had insisted that the house-elves coordinate the invitations from the kitchens, rather than from the site of the party. He didn't want anyone knowing about the Marauder's Map, especially not Malfoy.
Speaking of Malfoy, the goblet had spat out the Slytherins' names and Malfoy's was among them, along with the names of Blaise, Pansy Parkinson, Daphne Greengrass, and Millicent Bulstrode. Harry scanned the map and saw that they were all in the Slytherin dungeon; Malfoy and Blaise in the common room and the girls in a room off to one side of that.
Harry watched as the dots labelled with the Slytherin girls' names made their way out to join the dots labelled with the boys' names, then all five of them made their way through the dungeon hallway and towards the stairs leading into the entrance hall.
"C'mon," he said to Ron, "I can see the others coming down the stairs; let's all go together."
Ron hopped off the counter on which he'd been sitting and followed Harry out of the kitchens. They met up with the other Gryffindors at the marble staircase, then made their way towards classroom eleven.
They were the last to arrive – Harry saw Malfoy with Blaise, Zacharias, Terry, and a bunch of other Slytherins and Ravenclaws. It sounded like they were talking about Nott's whereabouts – though only a week had passed with no sightings, Nott's actions and escape were quickly becoming legendary.
Darla Nesbett, the seventh-year Hufflepuff prefect, welcomed them all to the party, using the phrase Hufflepuff Hullabaloo again, which caused Ron to snort quietly. Darla invited them to have some snacks and drinks, announcing that Liam would start the evening's game shortly.
Harry and Ron didn't join any of the groups that quickly formed around the room – Ron was talking to Harry about Luna. They were beginning to have problems, mostly based on the fact that Luna was apparently getting even weirder than usual lately, whatever that was supposed to mean. Harry did note with some curiosity that there wasn't as much division around the room based on house – Hufflepuffs, Gryffindors, Ravenclaws and Slytherins were standing around and talking together.
Liam called everyone's attention after about twenty minutes and the conversation and giggles died down.
"All right, it's good to see that you lot are having fun already. I think you'll find tonight's game just as fun, if not more," said Liam with a sly smirk.
He drew a small canvas bag out of his pocket and tossed it into the air, then caught it as it fell. Trista Morgan came up behind him and waved her wand, causing twenty chairs to appear in the centre of the classroom.
"If you'll all take your seats, we can get started," Liam said.
The Weird Sisters were playing a cover of Celestina Warbeck's You Stole My Cauldron But You Can't Have My Heart on the wireless as people took their seats. Liam waved his wand at the device and turned down the volume, then addressed the room.
"Tonight's game is called Darling If You Love Me."
Malfoy sniggered at the sound of the name, as did several other people. Harry frowned. He had a bad feeling about this. Liam grinned and continued.
"There are exactly twenty marbles in this bag, eighteen white and two black. I'm going to pass the bag around the room and each of you will take out a marble without looking. Once you've got your marble, you'll show it to the room. The first person to pull a black marble will lead the round. The second person with a black marble is the target."
"The target?" asked Blaise.
"That's the fun part," Liam said, his grin widening. "The lead walks over to the target, sits on their lap, and says 'Darling, if you love me, won't you please smile?'"
Several girls tittered. Harry stared at Liam in disbelief.
"And to what end are we doing this?" asked Malfoy. Harry looked at him and saw that he looked just as dumbfounded. It was a small comfort.
"To make the target smile, of course," Liam said. "The lead can do whatever they want – pull faces, tickle, play with their hair, whisper in their ear, just generally act loving. The target has to say 'Darling, I love you, but I just can't smile tonight.' without laughing or even cracking a smile. If they say the phrase without a hitch, they win the round and the marbles are passed around again." He brandished the bag of marbles as though to emphasise, then continued. "If the target so much as smiles, they are out of the game and they take a white marble with them. The game continues until two people are left – they must repeat the procedure again until one of them cracks a smile, whereupon they are out of the game. The last witch or wizard standing is the winner."
"What do we get out of it, though?" Blaise wanted to know.
"A lot of laughter, I expect," replied Liam.
Harry settled further back in his chair and sighed. The Head Boy handed the bag to Malfoy, who took out a marble. Black.
"Excellent, so you're the lead, Draco," Liam said.
Malfoy smirked and passed the bag to Blaise, who pulled out a white marble. The marbles made their way quickly around the circle. They reached Harry and he took out a black one. The laughter that followed was positively deafening. Even Malfoy was laughing; it looked like Harry was the only person who was thoroughly unamused. Beside him, Ron had started laughing but stopped abruptly as he took one look at Harry's expression.
"Who comes up with these games, anyway?" asked Harry.
"This one was – Hannah's idea," wheezed Ernie.
Hannah Abbott went very red but she, too, was smiling. "We wrote them on slips of parchment and they're pulled randomly out of a hat," she said.
"Well, I think it's a bit stupid," said Harry.
"Don't be a spoilsport, Potter," snapped Malfoy. "It's a game. I'll just be pretending you're Pansy, anyway."
Pansy and several other girls giggled. Harry glared. Malfoy got up from his chair and walked over to him. Harry became very conscious of the silence that fell around them. Malfoy grabbed the back of Harry's chair and straddled him. Harry's heart started hammering wildly in his chest at the closeness. Malfoy's weight felt almost pleasant on his legs. Malfoy leant in so that his breath tickled Harry's ear. Harry gripped the sides of his chair until his knuckles started to hurt.
"Darling, if you love me, won't you please smile?" breathed Malfoy into his ear.
Somewhere in a different dimension, several girls were giggling. Malfoy drew back to look at him. Harry wondered if he had any idea what his closeness was doing. He looked deliberately past Malfoy, tensing his legs so that Malfoy wouldn't even accidentally go anywhere near his cock, which was growing hard with alarming speed.
"Darling, I love you, but I just can't smile tonight," croaked Harry, feeling heat spread across his face. He desperately wished for two opposite things at once – for Malfoy to get the hell off his lap and for Malfoy to push down on his erection.
"Good show, Potter," murmured Malfoy in the same breathy voice he'd used earlier, then got up from Harry's lap and stalked over to Pansy, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "He doesn't really love me, you needn't worry, pet," he said loudly. Everyone laughed; Harry was just trying to remember how to breathe again. Malfoy smirked and sat back down in his chair.
Blaise leant close to Malfoy in a way Harry found a bit too intimate and whispered something that caused Malfoy to glance at Harry. Harry just stared back, still unable to form coherent thoughts. There was no denying it: he wanted Malfoy. There were only three problems: Malfoy was the biggest git Harry had ever known, he was more than likely straight, considering that he had a girlfriend, and – well, Malfoy had a girlfriend.
The game went on; Harry did find it amusing when Ernie Macmillan landed in his lap and practically howled "darling if you love me" at him. Malfoy had fallen out when Millicent Bulstrode boomed the line at him. Harry couldn't help noticing that Malfoy had a deep, throaty laugh that seemed almost at odds with his pale face and pointed features.
The last two standing were Terry Boot and Susan Bones. Susan won, to much applause and giggles. Liam broke the party up after that. The sixth-years filed out of the classroom in mixed groups, talking all the way to the entrance hall.
Harry stared at Malfoy's back as he and Ron made their way out of the classroom. Malfoy sidled up to Morag MacDougal, a Ravenclaw, and started talking to her. Harry quickened his steps, hoping to catch a bit of their conversation as he passed them.
"Oh no you don't, Draco," called Pansy Parkinson suddenly, turning around and beaming at Morag. "I will not have you spreading dissent."
"That's all he ever does though," said Ron conversationally as he and Harry passed the group.
"You're just jealous that you didn't get to sit on Potter's lap, aren't you, Weasley?" said Pansy with a snide glare.
Ron's face turned red as if on cue. He stopped, as did Harry. Malfoy walked up behind Pansy and put an arm around her shoulders. Harry's jaw tightened.
"You started this, Weasel King. Be a man for once, admit you shouldn't pick fights you can't win," Malfoy spat. "Isn't it your Mudblood friend who keeps harping the loudest about house unity? Some example you're setting, picking on Slytherin girls in the hallways."
"Girls? He was talking about you, Ferret-face," said Harry through his teeth.
"But he was talking to my girl, Scarhead," Draco mocked. There was a group of people gathered around them now.
"You know what? All three of you are being ridiculous," Susan Bones said, stepping between them.
Malfoy took a quick look at her and suddenly seemed to straighten up. "You're right, of course. Come on, Pansy. Morag, I'll talk to you tomorrow," he said, and began walking away.
Harry watched as Malfoy planted a kiss on the top of Pansy's head. He thought back to the forbidden forest, to the dungeons, to that night's party – nothing added up. The way Malfoy behaved had been more than inconsistent that year. He'd started with the "pretty face" bit back at the beginning of the year, he'd invited Harry to Hogsmeade then backed right off, he'd allowed Harry to kiss him and even kissed back, he'd gone out of his way to be unpleasant to Harry but ever since the incident with the photos Nott had taken, Harry knew Malfoy wasn't all git all the time.
"Gonna talk to him, Ron," he muttered as they set off towards the entrance hall again.
"Who?" asked Ron, who was glowering at Malfoy and Pansy's backs.
"What? Why?" said Ron in a loud whisper.
"I have to ask him a question. I'll tell you about it later, wait for me in the common room, okay?"
"Can I come with you? I won't bother—"
"Ron, please," said Harry. "Just… let me talk to him. Please."
"All right, fine. But hurry up. If you're not back in an hour, I'm going to go looking for you."
Harry was barely listening to him. They were at the marble staircase now, and the Slytherins ahead of them were about to descend the dungeon stairs.
"Malfoy," he called loudly. Ron clapped him on the back and started up the staircase.
Malfoy looked around and raised an eyebrow. Harry just stared at him, hoping that he'd get the hint. Malfoy seemed to do just that. He gave Blaise a look. Blaise grinned and urged the girls to go on. Millicent Bulstrode cast a suspicious look at Harry over her shoulder but went downstairs with the others.
When they were gone, Malfoy turned to Harry, who had in the meantime leant against the railing.
"What do you want, Potter?"
"Can we talk?"
"I just have to ask you a question. You don't have to look so afraid."
"Afraid? In your dreams, Potter. Follow me."
They hurried to the small chamber across from the Great Hall. Malfoy let Harry go in front of him, then pulled the door shut, moved a little to the left, and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Harry shot him a glare. "Are you gay?"
Malfoy grinned, in that easy way Harry had seen him smile at Blaise. "I don't think it's my sexual orientation we ought to be debating, Potter."
Insufferable, slippery prat. Harry grabbed his robes and shoved him hard against the wall. Malfoy struggled against his grip, but Harry was stronger than him.
"What're you playing at, Malfoy?" growled Harry, narrowing his eyes.
"You're a prissy thing, aren't you, Potter? I bet you wank off to thoughts of Blaise and Smith shagging in the Quidditch changing rooms, don't you? How about Blaise giving it to me in the dungeon? Bet you'd love to see that, wouldn't you?" Draco whispered.
Harry didn't know when it had become so difficult to breathe. He hadn't wanked off to any of those things, but his mind latched onto 'Blaise giving it to me' and that sounded pretty damn hot. "So it's true then?" he managed to say.
They were so close now, Harry realised belatedly; too close. Malfoy wrested Harry's hand away from his neck, then snatched Harry's glasses off and threw them aside. Harry took a startled step back, but Malfoy grabbed his robes and pulled him closer, pressing himself against Harry.
"How about I show you," he said.
He dragged his tongue across Harry's bottom lip, sending a jolt of pleasure through Harry, who drew in a sharp breath. The obvious shiver that ran through Malfoy at the sound made Harry's mouth fall open. Malfoy put a hand on the back of Harry's neck and pushed his tongue delicately into Harry's mouth, touching Harry's tongue with it.
Harry tried to choke back a sound but failed. There was nothing he wanted more at that moment than for Malfoy to do that again. He leant forwards and mashed his mouth against Malfoy's, shoving his tongue in roughly and trying to reach every inch of the inside of Malfoy's mouth. Malfoy bit down on Harry's lower lip, causing Harry to hiss with pleasure. Harry's hips jerked forward, pinning Malfoy to the wall.
Malfoy grabbed a handful of Harry's hair with his right hand and a moment later Harry realised that Malfoy's left hand was pulling up Harry's robe. Oh, not on. Harry broke away, panting. His robe was almost all the way up and he felt cold air hitting his legs.
"What—" he began, but Malfoy ignored him. He grabbed onto Harry's underpants with both hands and pulled down, sliding down in front of Harry, his robe rustling against the wall behind him.
Harry felt Malfoy's fingers run up his thighs lightly and felt his eyes roll back in his head. How did Malfoy do that? He didn't have time to wonder, because the next moment, he felt something warm and wet slide up from his navel to his chest.
"S-stop," gasped Harry, shivering. Malfoy straightened up and looked straight at him.
"Don't tell me this isn't exactly what you wanted, Potter."
"But what about you and Pansy Parkinson?" Harry managed, grasping onto the first thing he could think of. It was true, this was exactly what he'd wanted, but now that it was actually happening, he wasn't sure it was such a good idea.
In response, Malfoy took Harry's cock in hand. Harry almost came; he hissed, drawing back a little. There was no way he'd give Malfoy the satisfaction of laughing at him for being a wimp. Malfoy's chuckle at the sound made something inside Harry's chest drop.
"Pansy and I have a unique relationship, Potter, and it happens to be none of your business," said Malfoy, punctuating his words with long, slow strokes.
Harry couldn't believe this was happening, but his mind seemed to have decided to suspend all disbelief just as long as Malfoy continued doing what he was doing. Harry gasped and gripped Malfoy's shoulder more tightly, burying his face in the curve of Malfoy's neck.
"Besides," Malfoy continued, whispering now, "it's a hand job, not a marriage contract."
He licked Harry's exposed neck and Harry couldn't suppress his groan this time. Malfoy shuddered at the sound and continued to lick and bite gently, until Harry didn't know where he was anymore. He writhed and pushed into Malfoy's hand, until all he was aware of were Malfoy's teeth on his neck, Malfoy's fingers on his cock, all in a frenzy of frantic movement until Harry was coming, still thrusting into Malfoy's hand, choking back a scream and biting down on Malfoy's shoulder.
Harry was barely aware of Malfoy wiping his hand on his robes. He felt like collapsing. He drew back, shaking slightly and releasing Malfoy, who looked like he was about to roll his eyes.
Harry leant forward and kissed him again, because he didn't know what else to do. Malfoy returned the kiss with something like reluctance. Harry's hand brushed accidentally across Malfoy's cock underneath his robes, causing the other boy to break the kiss and throw his head back with a soft sound.
"You know, Malfoy," whispered Harry into his ear, "I never did get to thank you for showing up when you did last week."
"No need to thank me, Potter," said Malfoy, sounding breathless. "I didn't do it for you."
Harry was far too turned on to bother coming up with a retort. Instead, he licked Malfoy's ear and pressed his thigh between his legs.
"Oh," gasped Malfoy, rubbing against Harry's leg. "Fuck, Potter – oh – fuck."
Harry took Malfoy's earlobe between his teeth and bit down gently, eliciting another gasp-choke from Malfoy, who promptly grabbed Harry's arse and pulled him closer. Harry pulled back and looked him in the eyes, which were slightly unfocussed. Harry leant in and kissed Malfoy forcefully while trying to pull up his robes. It wasn't going very well; for some reason it was difficult to concentrate on these two things at the same time.
This was far easier when Harry was dreaming. Malfoy sucking on his tongue as he put his arms around Harry's neck felt far more brilliant in reality, though. Harry bit back another sound that was threatening to rise from his throat and pulled down Malfoy's underpants. Malfoy made a small noise when Harry wrapped his fingers around his cock.
Harry began to move his hand up and down, unsure of just what the hell he was doing. Malfoy seemed to be managing famously without him; head thrown back and mouth slightly open, he thrust smoothly into Harry's fist, making small sounds of pleasure that drove Harry wild. He felt himself grow hard again as he listened to Malfoy and realised that Malfoy looked far too comfortable for someone who was intimate with a boy for the first time.
Harry almost came again when he felt Malfoy's cock pulse under his fingers, coating them with slippery come. Malfoy pressed his forehead against Harry's shoulder for a moment, then pulled out of Harry's hand and leant back against the wall. His eyes were half-closed and his hair was messed up. Harry blinked at him.
"Well, it's good to know that you're at least capable of being properly grateful, Potter," murmured Malfoy in a sleepy voice. His eyes flashed open briefly, then fell closed again. "You should leave first. I think I need a moment."
Harry was only too glad to oblige. He stumbled up to Gryffindor tower in a near-daze, occasionally looking around himself and wondering when he was going to wake up. When he stumbled through the portrait hole minutes later, the first thing he saw was Ron, sitting on the sofa with his back very straight and looking worried.
"You look like hell," Ron remarked. "What'd Malfoy do to you?"
Harry walked closer and sat down. He really didn't want to get into the details of just what Malfoy had done to him.
"Harry?" said Ron in a small voice. "What's that on your robes?"
Harry glanced down to where Ron was pointing and blushed. His robes were stained rather obviously with come – Ron would likely know only too well what those stains were. "Exactly what you think it is, mate," said Harry after a moment.
Ron blinked. "He didn't put the Imperius Curse on you, did he?"
Harry grinned and looked away. "No, he didn't. Would you rather he did?"
Ron looked extremely uncomfortable, shifting from side to side. "Um. Are you going to, um, do that again? With Malfoy?"
"I don't know," said Harry truthfully.
Ron pursed his lips and gave him a sidelong look. "Do you want to?"
Harry closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. There really was no use denying it, was there? He looked at Ron, who looked fearful.
"Yeah, Ron. Yeah, I do."
Harry and Malfoy went back to carefully ignoring each other after the night of the party. Harry noticed that Malfoy made a point of being with Pansy wherever he went. For his part, Harry figured out that he really didn't have to like Malfoy as a person to want to shag him. He'd always thought the two things went hand in hand, but if Saturday's encounter was any indication, they really didn't have to.
However, because Malfoy was constantly with Pansy, Harry didn't dare approach him. He was waiting for the DA group meeting on Monday to talk to Malfoy. They were supposed to practise the counter-spell for the Heart-Liquefying Curse; it involved a tricky wand movement that was difficult to master and so Harry had a perfect excuse to talk to Malfoy. He stopped behind him, as close as he dared. Malfoy lowered his wand arm and turned his head slightly.
"You're really wanton, you know that, right?" muttered Malfoy.
"I want to talk to you, Malfoy," said Harry, lowering his voice as well.
Malfoy snorted. "Is that what we're going to call it?" He took a slight step backwards so that his back almost touched Harry chest. Harry stiffened and tried to control his breathing, which quickened immediately.
"In the courtyard, after dinner on Thursday," said Harry.
Malfoy shook his head and Harry had a brief moment of something close to panic as he thought Malfoy would refuse to meet with him altogether. "Not the courtyard. On the pitch, and make it Wednesday. Pansy's got study group then," said Malfoy.
"Fine. Just... leave your thugs behind," said Harry, remembering that Malfoy rarely went anywhere without Crabbe and Goyle.
"We'll see about that, Potter."
Someone called Harry's name and he walked off, irritated.
On Wednesday after dinner, Harry felt like he was in a tub full of angry Knarls. He'd told Ron and Hermione about his decision regarding Malfoy. Hermione had just pressed her lips together and shook her head disapprovingly. Ron's expression had been somewhere between disgust and disbelief, but he just nodded, as though it was perfectly normal that his best friend wanted to snog his enemy.
Harry took his Firebolt with him, so he could pretend he was going out for a spot of flying if he happened to run into anyone. He made his way across the grounds, breathing in the chill March air. The grass beneath his feet was still frozen, but there was something of spring all around; Harry wasn't sure what it was.
He descended the winding steps to the Quidditch pitch, shivering a bit against the cold. He leant his broomstick against the rough stone cliff and leant back beside it, keeping an eye on the stairs. The sky was darkening and a wind was picking up; Harry was grateful for his warm cloak as he shoved his hands further into his pockets.
After about ten minutes of waiting, he thought that maybe Malfoy wasn't going to show up, when he heard footsteps from above. He looked over and his stomach did a flip-flop. It was Malfoy, also carrying his broomstick and wearing a hooded cloak. There was no mistaking his swagger, though.
Malfoy paused at the foot of the stairs. He was looking in the other direction as he tugged his hood further down.
"Over here, Malfoy," said Harry, fighting to keep his nervousness out of his voice.
Malfoy turned around and fixed him with a stare, then walked over and propped his own broom beside Harry's Firebolt. Malfoy squared his shoulders and faced Harry, a scowl on his face.
"So what's this about?" asked Malfoy.
Harry took in his pale, pointed face, thinking back to when Malfoy's head was thrown back against the wall, breathing broken syllables as he thrust into Harry's hand. Harry felt a chill run up his spine and fought to collect his thoughts.
"You and me. Quidditch. Mind games. Sex," blurted Harry, wondering where the hell all that had come from.
Malfoy grinned. "Did you practise that line, Potter?"
"What if I did?" replied Harry, grinning as well. It didn't hurt him any to let Malfoy think whatever he wanted, after all.
"Give it a few years, Potter, and you might be able to convince a Hufflepuff."
Harry felt his grin fade. "I don't have a few years, Malfoy."
Malfoy raised an eyebrow. "Come again?"
"You heard me. Here's the thing, Malfoy. Your dad's mate wants to kill me, and he'll probably succeed, though I'm damned if I won't try to stop him." Harry pushed his glasses slightly up his nose. "So I figured while I'm on borrowed time, I might as well make the most of it."
Malfoy blinked at him. "You're propositioning me."
He was sharp, Harry had to give him that. "I didn't even get to that part yet."
"I'm good at sub-text."
Harry blinked. "Sub-text?"
"Reading between the lines, you nitwit."
Harry detached himself from the wall and stepped closer to Malfoy. "So is the fact that you haven't tried to hex me yet sub-text for 'yes'?"
"On whether you can live with fucking someone who hates you."
Harry flinched. "Do you?"
"Of course I do. Don't you feel the same?"
"Er, hate's a bit strong. I reserve that for, you know, Snape. Voldemort."
Malfoy blanched at the name, but rolled his eyes. "Fine, you dislike me, then. Wish I would turn into a ferret permanently and get eaten by giant spiders."
"I want you, Malfoy." Harry stepped even closer to Malfoy and pushed his hood off with one hand. "What's it gonna be?"
"We can work something out," murmured Malfoy.
Harry noted with mild amusement that he sounded somewhat breathless. He leant forward and pressed his lips against Malfoy's: they were cold, but not for long. Malfoy made a small noise and pushed Harry against the wall behind him. Harry hadn't realised that Malfoy could be quite this forceful.
When they broke apart several moments later, Harry knew they wouldn't get very far snogging in the cold.
"C'mon," he said. "I've got the spell to lock classroom eleven."
Malfoy raised an amused eyebrow. "Perks of the job?"
"Yeah, something like that," said Harry, grabbing his Firebolt. "C'mon."
They walked towards the castle in awkward silence. They made for the courtyard rather than the front entrance – classroom eleven was closer that way, anyway. Once inside the classroom, Harry leant his Firebolt against the far wall and watched as Malfoy did the same.
They stared at each other for a moment. Malfoy smirked. "Not quite the same, without the element of surprise, is it?"
"Come over here," said Harry.
Malfoy laughed. "Make me."
Harry raised an eyebrow. He took out his wand and grinned. "Accio cloak!" he said, pointing his wand at Malfoy. Malfoy whirled around as his cloak came off and flew towards Harry, who caught it and put it down on the desk. He patted the cloak and glanced at Malfoy, who looked furious.
"Want me to continue, Malfoy?"
Malfoy's wand, however, hadn't been in his cloak as Harry had hoped it would be. Malfoy reached into his robe's pocket, took out his wand, and pointed it at Harry. "Accio clothes!" he shouted.
Harry's cloak came off first, with a slight ripping sound. His robes and T-shirt went next, causing his arms to shoot up over his head and his wand to clatter to the floor. Harry's shoes, socks, and underpants were last, causing him to fall backwards on the desk. He heard Malfoy laugh and cursed under his breath. Leave it to a Slytherin to not play fair.
He leant up on his elbows and his mouth fell open. Malfoy was walking towards him. That wasn't the most surprising thing, however. Malfoy was as naked as Harry. He walked right up to Harry's desk. With a swift, almost practised, movement, Malfoy took off Harry's glasses, set them down on top of the cloak, then put his hands on the tops of Harry's thighs.
"Now that's the way to make me come over," said Malfoy. He shoved Harry's legs apart and stepped between them. Harry was quite hard already, just from watching Malfoy walk towards him, but this was… new.
"Oh," said Harry as Malfoy's cock brushed against his. He sat up straight and stared into Malfoy's eyes.
"What's the matter, Potter? I thought you wanted to fuck," said Malfoy.
Harry wasn't sure what to say to that. Did Malfoy think Harry was more experienced than he appeared? Malfoy ran his hands down the sides of Harry's legs and glanced up. "Wait, you weren't serious, were you? When you said I was the first boy you ever—"
Harry flushed. His heart was thundering against his ribcage and Harry wondered absently if he was at any risk of a heart attack anytime soon. It would sure spare him from further embarrassment. "Yeah," he said in a low voice. "I was."
Malfoy looked confused for a moment, then a wicked smirk curved his mouth. "Oh," he said.
Without warning, he dipped his head down and dragged his tongue across Harry's nipple. Harry's hips jerked forward involuntarily. Malfoy's hands slid along Harry's legs to his back, then locked there, pulling Harry closer. Malfoy looked up at him and smiled.
"You know, Potter," he said, brushing his nose slightly against Harry's jaw. "This is going to be a lot of fun."
Without warning, Malfoy dropped to his knees and grabbed Harry's cock almost possessively, pulling back the foreskin in one swift movement. Still grinning, he winked at Harry, who was frozen with shock.
Then Malfoy took the head of Harry's cock into his mouth, and Harry squeaked in surprise. Malfoy's tongue was doing wicked things and Harry couldn't stop looking, but he wished that Malfoy wouldn't look back at him.
Malfoy kept looking, and licking, and then he started moving his hand up and down near the base of Harry's cock. Harry let out a gasp and closed his eyes, gripping the sides of the desk desperately for support and trying to think but failing. Malfoy began to suck and Harry whimpered, thrusting forward to feel more of that. Malfoy let go of his cock and Harry let out another whimper, which sounded far more desperate than the previous one.
"You like that, Potter?" asked Malfoy. Harry forced himself to open his eyes and look down. He nodded, blinking at Malfoy's gleeful smirk. "I bet you do," said Malfoy. His hand was still on Harry's cock and it was moving lazily up and down. Harry's mouth was dry and he worked his jaw to moisten it.
Malfoy stood up and pressed close to Harry. Harry tried to look everywhere but at his face. Had Malfoy really just done that? Harry noticed a white mark on Malfoy's right arm and seized his wrist, twisting his arm outwards. A thin, long scar ran along Malfoy's right arm.
"Where did you get this scar?"
"Compliments of your friendly neighbourhood Hippogriff."
"I like it."
Harry lifted Malfoy's arm to his mouth and licked upwards along the scar. Malfoy let out a soft sigh and pressed his mouth to the spot between Harry's neck and shoulder, flicking his tongue against the straining cord of muscle there. Harry felt a chill run up his spine and he released Malfoy's arm, pulling him closer.
"Yeah," he whispered into his ear. "I would."
If someone had told Harry in September that he'd be having it off with Draco Malfoy in the same classroom where he held the Monday DA meetings later in the year, Harry would have called Ward 49 at St. Mungo's and informed them that a patient had escaped. That, more than anything, made Harry approach these meetings with a bit of humour and a sense that he was only dreaming.
Nothing changed during lessons and study groups – well, not really. Malfoy didn't go out of his way to be unpleasant to Harry, but he didn't pass up any opportunities to laugh at Harry if he did or said something particularly inane, which seemed to be happening a lot lately, especially around Malfoy.
One night after dinner, Harry, Ron and Hermione were walking out of the Great Hall when they heard a girl sobbing. Harry turned around and saw Malfoy with his arms around Pansy Parkinson. He was murmuring something to her, but it didn't seem to be working as she only cried harder.
"You don't understand! It's not about the marks! I care about that plant, we've spent so much time tending it!" she wailed.
Malfoy hugged her close and she buried her face in his robe, sniffing loudly and hiccoughing. Malfoy started to look around and noticed the three of them. Harry was sure Malfoy had noticed him glaring at Pansy, because he smirked and stroked her hair gently. "Come on, pet, let's get you to the common room," he said.
Pansy gave a feeble sniff and went along, clinging to Malfoy. Harry stared after them for a while, then stalked off towards the marble staircase. He hadn't realised that he had a possessive streak, apparently.
Later that evening, Harry was waiting in front of classroom eleven as usual. When Malfoy showed up, Harry grabbed him by the front of his robes and threw him bodily into the classroom, then backed him up against a wall.
"You're going to tell me what's going on with you and Pansy," he growled.
Malfoy's breath was coming in quick, short gasps as he worked his thigh between Harry's legs. He rubbed it gently against Harry's hardening cock and ran a hand down Harry's back. "Jealous, Potter?"
"Stop it, Malfoy," said Harry, fighting to keep from arching into the touch. "Just tell me."
"It's nothing that should concern you, Potter," said Malfoy, nuzzling Harry's neck.
"So you're not sleeping with her?"
"I've told you, Potter, my relationship with Pansy is none of your concern. After all, I don't ask you about Weasley's sister."
"Ginny? What about her?"
"Did you think I didn't see you with her when we had the Quidditch tryouts?"
"That was nothing, though, we just—"
"Whatever you say, Potty."
"You're really annoying."
"And you talk too much."
Malfoy grabbed the back of Harry's neck and pulled him in for a kiss, rough and wet and needy, fucking Harry's mouth with his tongue. Harry felt warmth pooling in his lower belly and he gave up on trying to get answers out of Malfoy.
It was much more fun to fuck him, bent over a desk, panting and pushing back but never screaming. Malfoy had this practised, easy way of biting down onto his lower forearm to keep himself from making loud noises during sex and Harry knew this was because he'd let Blaise fuck him – he didn't need to ask, it was obvious. The thought of Malfoy sleeping in the same dormitory as Blaise drove Harry madder these days than Pansy's constant presence – at least Pansy couldn't fuck Malfoy like this.
It was sick and perverse and disgusting but Harry didn't care – he owned Malfoy during those stolen moments, when he thrust into him, knocking him into the desk hard enough to bruise; when he lowered Malfoy to the floor to bring him off with his mouth and licked the angry red spots on Malfoy's hipbones, spots that would turn blue tomorrow and yellow the day after.
It was payback for all the times Malfoy had treated Harry badly, in a way – sometimes when Harry fucked him, he felt the urge to say "this is for Mudblood, this is for Weasel King, this is for Scarhead" but he never did, because he knew he didn't need to. Malfoy knew it anyway. The most perverse thing of all was that Malfoy enjoyed it as much as Harry did.
Two weeks after the events on the Quidditch pitch, Harry, Ron and Hermione walked into the Great Hall at dinner to find it abuzz with conversation.
"They've caught him!" yelled Ginny from her seat with the fifth-year Gryffindors. "They've caught Nott!"
Harry hurried over to the table and snatched up a copy of the Sunday Prophet. He quickly found the article.
Nott had somehow managed to make it to Diagon Alley – probably broke into one of the Hogsmeade homes and used their fireplace. He'd been staying at the Leaky Cauldron under an assumed name until today. A pub patron spotted him at breakfast, recognised his face from the pictures the Prophet had printed last week, and immediately alerted the Hit Wizards. What Nott had done to Harry, Blaise, Zacharias and Terry had been a serious crime. He was facing serious assault and attempted murder charges. He'd turned seventeen in October and was thus a fully-grown wizard.
The article said that Nott was half-mad when a Hit Wizard apprehended him. On account of the boy's mental state, he was being kept in a St. Mungo's ward until law enforcement officials could figure out if he was fit to stand trial. Harry thought that St. Mungo's was the best place for Nott. He was just about to put the newspaper aside when he noticed the name 'Malfoy' in the centrepiece article.
MISSING AUROR TURNS UP
Readers of the Daily Prophet will recall that Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt has been missing since 3rd September, the day of the mass breakout from Azkaban by a number of convicted Death Eaters. Late last night, Shacklebolt knocked on the door of Victoria Archer's Cardiff home. Archer says he looked very much like a ghost, but was very polite as he introduced himself and requested use of her fireplace to get to the Ministry of Magic.
"I gave him some Floo powder and he left," says Archer, 29. "Minutes later, I heard the sounds of Apparition outside my window and looked out. Four wizards were running off in the direction of the motorway just behind my home. That was the last I saw of them."
Shacklebolt is currently in St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, undergoing treatment for prolonged exposure to the Imperius Curse and various magically induced burns, says Healer Worley, 36. A Ministry spokesperson has informed the Daily Prophet that the Auror had been held in captivity by the Dark Lord's Death Eaters. He had been tortured for information about his supposed involvement in a mythical secret society, the Order of the Phoenix.
Shacklebolt was being taken to a different location by escaped convict and confirmed Death Eater, Lucius Malfoy. A confidential source tells the Daily Prophet that Malfoy had most likely miscalculated his Apparition point and ended up in the path of an oncoming lorry, the impact of which killed him instantly. He must have been the one to have put Shacklebolt under the Imperius Curse, because the Auror, who had Apparated several feet away from the motorway, was freed from the curse immediately.
Lucius Malfoy's body, recovered by the wizards whom Archer had seen running behind her home, was taken to St. Mungo's Hospital. He was pronounced dead on arrival. Attempts to contact Malfoy's wife Narcissa at their Wiltshire manor have so far been fruitless...
Harry looked up sharply and turned to look at the Slytherin table. He rose slightly in his seat, but there was no sign of Malfoy's white-blond hair anywhere. Harry could see Pansy Parkinson and Blaise there, but not Malfoy, Crabbe or Goyle. He sat back down and shoved the newspaper at Ron.
Did Malfoy already know? He wouldn't show up for dinner if he did, Harry knew that much. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced over to the Great Hall entrance, ignoring Ron's exclamation of "Blimey, Hermione, Lucius Malfoy is dead!"
Harry watched as Malfoy, flanked by Crabbe and Goyle, made his way to the Slytherin table. He didn't glance Harry's way, but he didn't look like he'd just found out his father was dead. Pansy Parkinson shouted something to Malfoy and he walked over to her. She handed him the Sunday Prophet. Harry wondered if Pansy was that gleeful about the death of Malfoy's dad. He repressed the urge to run and snatch the paper out of Malfoy's hands. No one should find about the death of their parents from a newspaper.
He watched Malfoy as he scanned the front page, then turned to Pansy and made a remark that caused her to giggle. Harry was horrified. Was Malfoy really that cold? He could joke about the death of his own father, whom he'd idolised? He noticed Malfoy start to hand the newspaper back to Pansy, then his hand paused in mid-air. Malfoy's eyes were riveted to the front page and Harry knew he was reading the centrepiece article.
A moment later, Harry watched as Malfoy's face turned even whiter than it usually was. The hand that held the newspaper was shaking uncontrollably, and Malfoy was just staring at it. Malfoy suddenly swayed and grabbed the table in front of him for support, upending a goblet and sending its contents all over Pansy.
She turned around and said something, but Malfoy didn't seem to react. Pansy snatched the newspaper out of his hands and Malfoy sank down onto the bench beside her. Blaise stood up and started reading the paper over Pansy's shoulder. After a few moments, they both looked at Malfoy, their mouths hanging open.
Malfoy rose. Blaise put an arm around his shoulders, steering him gently towards the doors. Malfoy stumbled along, seemingly heedless of everything around him. Harry's heart clenched as he watched them leave. Had he really thought that the Slytherins were laughing about Lucius's death? Was he really as uncharitable towards them as Hermione always suggested?
"Kingsley's alive, though, that's all that matters," said Ron from beside him.
Harry whirled on him. "A classmate of yours has just lost his father, Ron," he said in a clipped tone.
"It serves Malfoy right. Now he's got no one to hide behind—"
"Leave off, Ron. Just leave off," said Harry, feeling a roaring in his ears that he really wasn't supposed to feel where Ron was concerned. He got up from the table and stalked out of the Great Hall, feeling suddenly alone.
Harry had gone straight to bed after the scene in the Great Hall, but he couldn't sleep. After about an hour of tossing and turning, he realised that someone was standing out beyond the bed hangings.
"Who's there?" he called.
"It's me," said Ron's voice. "I thought you were sleeping."
Harry sighed and sat up, then pulled the hangings open and grabbed his glasses off the bedside table. Putting them on, he gave Ron a look.
"I'm sorry," said Ron. "I wasn't thinking about your mum and dad."
Harry sighed. "This isn't about my mum and dad, Ron. It's not right to be happy that someone died. It doesn't matter who it is."
"Somehow I don't think Malfoy would feel that way if it were my dad who died," said Ron, his tone acidic.
Harry gave him a long look. "Now he would."
Harry wasn't sure how he knew that. He wasn't even sure he knew it, but there it was. He and Ron would be all right, but that didn't change the fact that they'd just had a row over Malfoy. Harry had just defended Malfoy to Ron. Maybe Harry had been wrong about being able to shag someone without caring for him.
On the following Monday after Potions, Harry found himself watching the entrance to the dungeon, wondering if Malfoy was going to show up. He hadn't come to classroom eleven the night before. Harry hadn't expected him to, but he'd waited for an hour regardless.
Malfoy walked in right before the lesson started. He looked awful. There were dark circles under his eyes and he wore a scowl that bore none of his usual malice. Their eyes met as Malfoy passed Harry's desk, but Harry said nothing. He looked away.
Harry paired Malfoy with Lisa Turpin, a round-faced Ravenclaw girl, during the DA meeting that evening. They were learning how to resist Memory Charms. Harry didn't speak to Malfoy, but watched him for any signs of – well, anything, really. He didn't know how to feel; he felt no pity towards Malfoy because somehow he couldn't bring himself to pity the other boy. He did understand, though.
When the meeting was over, Malfoy made to leave, but Harry called his name. Malfoy turned around, his eyes narrowing, and Harry knew that things wouldn't go back to the way they were just last week.
"What do you want, Potter?" asked Malfoy in a guarded tone.
Harry gave Hermione, who was talking to Neville a few feet away, a sharp look. She pulled Neville out of the classroom, shutting the door behind them. Everyone else had already left; Harry and Malfoy were alone.
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry to hear about your dad," said Harry.
Malfoy closed his eyes for a moment, then looked back up at Harry. He crossed the distance between them in several large strides, glaring. "Save your pity for someone who needs it, Potter," he muttered.
"It's not pity, Malfoy," said Harry. "I just know exactly what you must—"
"Shut up, Potter. Just shut up. You have no idea what it's like to lose... to lose—"
Harry felt a surge of white-hot anger. "Oh, really, Malfoy?" He heard his voice rise, but he didn't care. "Don't I, now? Maybe next time you decide to bring up my godfather—"
"Is that what this is about? You're still sore I mentioned your dead godfather? For your information, he was family," said Malfoy with a sneer. "A blood traitor, so all I can say is good riddance to bad rubbish—"
Harry punched him in the mouth. He should have listened to Ron. Malfoy was unable to understand others' suffering, and he didn't deserve any compassion. Malfoy wiped his bleeding lip with the back of his hand and looked up at Harry.
Harry's fists were clenched at his sides, his eyes were narrowed and he was taking deep, laboured breaths. There was only so much he could do to keep himself from attacking Malfoy again.
"You know, Potter," murmured Malfoy, "if only you'd had the good sense to snuff it sixteen years ago, none of this would be happening."
Harry's heart sank. "Yeah," he said, his voice raspy. "You're right, Malfoy. But don't tell me you hold me responsible for your dad's choices. I didn't make him join Voldemort. You want someone to blame, blame him. You're — you're pathetic."
"Pathetic, am I?" snarled Malfoy, reaching for his wand, but Harry grabbed his wrist. Malfoy tried to free his arm, but Harry was stronger.
Harry's outburst had left him drained, as though he'd expended all his energy. He felt empty and betrayed – he'd really thought that Malfoy could care about someone other than himself or his family, that Malfoy could care about Harry, just a little. He'd been wrong, but Harry didn't want to fight anymore. "Look, Malfoy," he said, trying to keep the edge out of his voice. "I don't— I don't want to have to fight you. Not you. Not anyone from school." His voice broke, and he just stood there staring at Malfoy, hoping the other would understand.
"Spare me, Potter," said Malfoy in a controlled voice.
His eyes were darting all around the room and he seemed at a loss for words. Harry's heart was sinking further and further – he'd let himself believe things that weren't true. He'd let himself believe that Malfoy was capable of caring, of forgiveness. He'd projected feelings onto Malfoy that Malfoy didn't have. That wasn't Malfoy's fault, it was Harry's. Harry needed to learn that in some cases, the world really was split into good people and Death Eaters.
Malfoy tried to wrestle free of his grip again and Harry let go, lifting his chin up and narrowing his eyes again. "Fine, Malfoy. Do whatever you want. Go join Voldemort for all I care, it's what you always wanted, isn't it?"
With that, Harry stalked out of the classroom and didn't look back.
Despite himself, Harry couldn't help but feel gutted for Malfoy when Slytherin lost rather spectacularly to Hufflepuff on Saturday. Summerby, the Hufflepuff Seeker, caught the Snitch before either team had scored any goals. Harry and Malfoy had avoided each other since their row on Monday. Harry thought it was for the best, anyway.
The school had been buzzing with anticipation all week – Seamus had liked the idea of the Hufflepuff parties so much during first term that he'd suggested they hold a St. Patrick's Day party for the whole school. Hermione had been appalled – St. Patrick was responsible for driving the druids and witchcraft out of Ireland. Seamus had only grinned at her and said that anything was fair game for a party. He'd always been a little subversive.
After lunch on Sunday, Harry and the rest of the sixth-year Gryffindors walked down to the Great Hall in a great noisy group. It was something new, at any rate – a party for the whole school. There hadn't been one like it since the Yule Ball in Harry's fourth year.
The four house tables had been moved, two to a wall, laden with snacks, fruit, and drinks. The teachers were going to supervise from the head table. Students were gathered in small groups all around the enormous hall. Harry sipped on a Butterbeer and listened to Liam welcome everyone to the first ever school-wide St. Patrick's Day party. Technically, St. Patrick's Day wasn't until tomorrow, but that would have been a Monday and so not a very suitable day for a party.
A wizarding wireless was playing from the opposite corner, its sound magically amplified so that it was as loud as a live concert. The main event was a game Seamus had heard of somewhere – it involved dancing while passing around large sacks filled with green clothing. The music would stop at random intervals and everyone who was holding a sack had to pull on a piece of clothing from inside, without looking.
Harry was dancing with Hermione, both of them trying to avoid the sacks being passed their way. A few feet to their left, Ron and Luna were dancing as well. Luna had a dazzling green shawl wrapped around her head, and Ron was looking sulky in a green feather boa.
Harry laughed as he watched Seamus pull a pair of exceptionally large green knickers from his bag; after some hesitation he pulled them on his head. This made him look so much like an overlarge frog that Harry was nearly doubled over with laughter.
"Going to think about this twice next time, are you, mate?" he called to Seamus, who laughed in return and made a rude gesture in Harry's direction. Harry sniggered, then his hand closed automatically around something that was shoved at him. The music stopped and Harry was standing there holding the sack of clothes.
Sighing, he reached inside and pulled out a long green cloak – well, that wasn't too bad. He fastened it around his shoulders, ignoring Hermione's near-howl.
"The only time you'll see me wear Slytherin colours," he called to Ron over the music, which had started again.
"Yeah, I think that's the only reason Snape allowed this to go on," replied Ron as Luna twirled in front of him.
Harry cast a glance at the head table and saw that Snape wasn't actually there – he'd been there just a moment ago. Harry noticed Snape disappearing into the antechamber with a very familiar-looking blond. What did Malfoy and Snape have to talk about that couldn't wait until after the party?
Harry was distracted again, and Hermione dodged Ernie Macmillan's attempt to foist the clothing sack on her. Harry grabbed hold of it, preparing to throw the whole thing at Ron, but the music stopped again. Was someone doing this on purpose? Harry reached into the sack and pulled out a green pirate's hat.
Ron hooted and hollered. "Arr, matey!" squealed Ginny. "Go on, put it on, Harry!"
Harry jammed the hat on his head and Hermione doubled over with giggles. "Oh, you look so ridiculous," she said, wheezing. "Never buy one of these, Harry."
Harry managed to avoid the sack for the next fifteen minutes. He was just getting used to dancing with the hat on – it kept falling off and he had to go chasing all over the floor after it –
The noise was so loud that Harry jumped, and looked around fearfully. What was going on? The music was still playing, but nobody was dancing. People were looking around at each other, all seemingly asking the same question. The ground trembled beneath their feet.
Harry looked around, trying to find the other sixth-year Gryffindors, but he couldn't make them out for all the green garments people were wearing. It looked like a Slytherin party, Harry thought vaguely as he passed by a group of nervously giggling fifth-year girls.
"Professor... Dumbledore," came a raspy, gurgling shout from the doorway and Harry whipped around to look.
Hagrid was leaning against the doorframe. Both his arms hung limply at his sides; Harry could tell they were broken. Half of Hagrid's face seemed to be missing behind a mass of blood and matted hair. There were dark stains all down his front: blood gushed from his nose.
"Get the children—" Hagrid croaked, blood bubbling from his mouth. He toppled over sideways and lay quite still.
"HAGRID! NO!" shouted Harry, reaching for his wand and running as fast as his feet would take him.
He almost knocked someone off their feet, but he didn't care. Damn this ridiculous cloak! Harry couldn't get at his wand.
"GET BACK, HARRY!" Dumbledore's voice boomed, but Harry ignored him.
CRASH. The shaking was getting stronger now; Harry thought he saw the walls around him wobble, though it might have been the fact that he was running.
There was another loud crash and several people screamed. Harry froze as he watched the entire entrance to the Great Hall get demolished with a single blow. The doors flew off their hinges and landed not far from the entrance; a huge chunk of the wall above the doors littered the floor not far from Harry.
Grawp stood where the doors had been.
The screaming started after a moment of stunned silence, but Harry was barely aware of it.
"Harry. Grawp kill Harry," the giant boomed over the screams and the music, which was still playing. His voice sounded serene, like he was speaking in his sleep.
Harry found that he couldn't quite move. Grawp reached for him. A moment later, his enormous fingers closed around Harry's shoulders, and he was sure he felt something break. A thousand questions were teeming in Harry's mind but there was no one to give him the answers. Why was Grawp crushing Harry? Who had put him up to it? Was Hagrid okay? Harry tried to struggle in the giant's grasp but it was like being in a particularly effective steel trap.
His wand was useless, still somewhere in his robes, and Harry could feel something wet and warm spreading across both of his upper arms. He didn't feel much anymore and was barely aware of being lifted off the ground. He kept trying to wriggle out, realising that the pain he felt all over his body would be less unbearable if he'd only stop struggling, but another part of his mind refused to give up the fight.
The last thing he remembered was a shower of bright green sparks, just like Malfoy's had been in the forbidden forest all those centuries ago.
Harry awoke with a jolt and sat up very straight. "Hagrid!" he yelled out.
"There, there, dear," said Madam Pomfrey's voice from somewhere behind him. "Lie back down, there's a good lad. You've been through a terrible injury and you need rest."
Harry tried to move his arms and they obeyed. He felt fine, except for a dull throbbing just behind his eyes. "I'm fine. Where is Hagrid?"
Madam Pomfrey walked and sat on the side of his bed. "I'm sorry, dear," she said in a kindly voice. "Hagrid's gone."
"NO!" yelled Harry, attempting to swing off the bed. Hagrid couldn't be dead, he couldn't be – it wasn't fair!
Madam Pomfrey forced him to lie back down. "You had both of your arms broken yesterday and fell a good distance down. You need rest." There were steely notes in her tone that would have normally put the fear of death in Harry, but he didn't care.
He struggled furiously against her grip. He managed to push her off and jump out of the bed, looking around wildly. "Where is he? I know he's here!" He stared around himself helplessly, but he and Madam Pomfrey were the only ones there.
Madam Pomfrey got up and started walking towards him, but Harry wasn't having it. He dodged her reaching arms and made a beeline for the bedside table to grab his wand. He ran out of the infirmary, bounded down the corridor of the hospital wing and out into the draughty castle hallway. He didn't care that he was barefoot and wearing only his shorts and a thin T-shirt.
He ran blindly up along familiar staircases and through familiar tapestries until he ended up at the Fat Lady's portrait.
"Starflower," he yelled to the portrait, and it swung open, admitting him. Harry climbed through the hole and scrambled into the common room. It was deserted. A look outside told him it was early afternoon; classes would be finished soon. He clambered up the staircase to the boys' dormitories, got up on his bed and pulled the hangings shut.
He cast an Imperturbable Charm on the bed hangings and climbed under the blanket, shivering. The blanket wasn't helping. He felt cold all over, as though icy fingers were gripping his insides and twisting, causing his cold blood to spill and wash over the rest of his body, leaving him frozen and lifeless. Harry was vaguely aware of sitting up and rocking back and forth as he suddenly realised how alone he really was. His friends could not understand this – this cold feeling.
Harry felt burning behind his eyes as he thought about Hagrid – he'd never see Hagrid again, and it had been Hagrid who had saved him nearly six years ago, snatched him out of a dull and cheerless life and showed him where he really belonged. Harry hadn't spent much time with Hagrid this year – he kept thinking that when the wound left by Sirius's death wasn't quite so raw, he'd go and have a good long talk with Hagrid, but that wasn't happening anymore, was it?
"Harry?" came a tentative, soft voice from behind the bed hangings. Hermione. Harry ignored her. She wouldn't be able to get inside. "Harry, will you please go back to the hospital wing? Madam Pomfrey says—"
I don't care what she says, thought Harry. I'm staying right here.
"—that you have to be under supervision, you had serious injuries."
Nothing compares to losing Hagrid, nothing.
There was silence for a while, then Ron's voice interrupted it. "It was Malfoy who saved you, you know. I reckon you weren't wrong about him."
Harry almost snorted. What did he care about Malfoy?
"Yeah, he shot sparks at Grawp. I wonder how he knew how to do that," said Hermione.
Because I showed him, thought Harry. He owed me his life, now he's paid that back. Hope he's happy. Now leave me alone.
He wanted to tell them to leave him alone, but he didn't trust himself to speak. There was something building deep in his chest that if he were to try and use his voice, it would burst forth like water through a dam and Harry would scream forever.
"Harry, Grawp was under the Imperius Curse. Somehow Voldemort found out about him. I guess he's powerful enough to be able to magically affect a giant," said Hermione. "It wasn't your fault."
Good old Hermione. She knows exactly what I'm thinking, doesn't she?
They continued to mutter reassurances – it sounded like there were six people, all trying to coax him out from behind the bed hangings. Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville, Dean, Seamus. Why, it was a regular pity party for one, to borrow a phrase from Malfoy. Harry just sat there and stared dully in front of himself. He didn't know how long it lasted, but he snapped out of it when they told him he was afraid.
"They've taken him away now, Harry, you don't have to be afraid," said Neville's kindly voice.
They think I'm afraid of Grawp?
Harry suddenly felt hot anger build up inside him. Were people saying that he'd run away and hiding in his room because he was afraid of Grawp? That was not on. He waited for them to leave and took the charm off the bed, shrugged into some robes and made his way out onto the school grounds, ignoring the hush that fell around the common room when he walked through. He ignored everyone, even Ron and Hermione, and just walked and walked, down familiar staircases and through familiar tapestries.
Afraid of Grawp, they said.
He would go into the forest and find the giant and meet his death like he was supposed to, without Malfoy interfering. Either must die at the hand of the other and neither can live while the other survives. Harry should have died.
He was just striding past Hagrid's hut when he heard Fang's howls from inside. The twisting feeling in his gut became a dull ache as he listened to Fang cry. He forced open the door to the hut, letting the giant dog bound out at him. Storm clouds were gathering overhead and Harry heard the distant roar of thunder. How fitting.
He shut the door to Hagrid's hut and leant back against it, throwing his head back and listening to Fang mourn his master. There couldn't be a better requiem for Hagrid. Harry wanted every beast to mourn his death, because Hagrid had loved them, and he had died partly because he'd loved them.
The rain began to fall in fat droplets, pelting at Harry's face occasionally when a wind gust blew his way. It was cold, and Harry was glad – he could be cold here, and no one would ask him any questions or make him talk about anything. He'd failed so very often and so badly. He'd failed to protect Sirius. He'd failed to help Hagrid. He'd even failed to repel Voldemort properly when he was a baby.
Fang gave a high-pitched wail and Harry nodded. That was the way to cry for the dead.
"Oh, shut up," came a familiar, unwanted voice from Harry's right.
Harry forced himself to open his eyes and look at him. Malfoy was standing not two feet away from him, holding an umbrella and looking ridiculous. "What the hell do you want, Malfoy?"
"I want you to take this beastly creature away so I can watch my thunderstorm in peace, that's what," said Malfoy in a crotchety tone.
Harry couldn't believe him. Hagrid was dead, and all Malfoy wanted to do was watch a thunderstorm? Harry reminded himself to never go after anyone for the sex alone. It clearly wasn't worth it. He laughed – a fake, hollow sound. "Always out for yourself, huh, Malfoy?" he said with a sneer. "Just can't leave things alone, can you? Who the hell asked you to interfere yesterday, huh?"
Malfoy blinked at him. "If you thought I was going to be happy with owing you my life, you were wrong," he said.
"You're such an idiot, Malfoy. No, really, you're impossible. I wasn't going to hold it over your head. I especially wouldn't have held it over your head if I was dead."
"That's precisely it, Potter. I was facing the prospect of living a life that belonged to you by all accounts, and that just was not on. Your friend, the giant, decided to gift me with a chance to repay my debt, and now we're square. If that creature were to show up again right now, I wouldn't move a muscle, except to run away. Just making sure we're on the same page, you understand. I didn't do it for you, I did it for me. So I don't give a damn if you approve or not."
Harry scowled. Malfoy made him realise that he no longer had any intentions of seeking out Grawp and meeting his death; he wasn't sure quite when that had happened. "Are you finished?"
"Fine, then, sod off," said Harry. He didn't have time for this wanker – to think he'd been starting to wonder if he cared for the git!
Malfoy's eyebrows shot up. "I'll have less of the cheek, Potter. I'm still a school prefect."
"And I still fucked you, school prefect," said Harry, leering deliberately. "So why don't you sod off anyway?"
Malfoy scowled. "So self-righteous, aren't you, Potter? Think the world revolves around you, don't you? Did you know that your dead mate's half-brother killed Queenie?"
"Who the hell is Queenie?"
Harry felt his fake smirk fade. "Daphne died? How?"
"Crushed by a chunk of wall that the giant tore out of the Great Hall entrance. They took her away this afternoon, but I see you've been too busy feeling sorry for yourself to notice anyone else."
"I'm sorry," said Harry. "I didn't know." Oh, poor Ernie.
"No surprises there."
Harry was suddenly tired. "You know what, Malfoy? I—"
"No, you know what, Potter? Your mate deserved what he got. He brought that creature to our forest. Because of him, an innocent girl is dead. I'm guessing Hagrid must have been a Gryffindor before he got expelled, because only a Gryffindor could be that blinkered by emotion."
With a snarl, Harry lunged at Malfoy. They tumbled to the ground. The wind tore the umbrella out of Malfoy's hand and Harry saw it fly off towards the forbidden forest, looking like a mutant mushroom. Harry straddled Malfoy and drew back his fist – all that mattered now was shutting him up. Malfoy was wrong, he shouldn't be allowed to say things like that.
He looked down at Malfoy, dimly aware that Fang had stopped howling. Malfoy's eyes were closed and he was wincing already, as though expecting Harry to hit him. Harry couldn't. Despite how angry Harry felt, this was familiar: him on top of Malfoy just like this. There was warmth in this and Harry suddenly longed for that warmth, didn't want to be so cold anymore.
Malfoy can't help what he thinks. He was raised a certain way, just like I was raised a certain way. He's upset that Daphne died, and I'm upset that Hagrid died. We both care, that's what counts.
The rain was trickling down Malfoy's face and neck in rivulets. Harry leant down and licked one of them off, feeling Malfoy first freeze beneath him then shiver as Harry kept licking. He rocked against Malfoy, his mind switching off, dull ache giving way to frenzied oblivion—
He lifted his head sharply and looked at Malfoy, who was staring at him with a mixture of fear and wonder. Harry couldn't see properly; his glasses had misted over. Malfoy reached up and took them off, in a gesture that Harry would have called gentle if this hadn't been Malfoy.
Lightning danced across the sky above them, illuminating Malfoy's face with an eerie, otherworldly glow. Thunder rang out and Fang began to howl again. The rain around them was coming down in earnest now; Harry couldn't see the castle, not even the lights in its windows.
Harry looked down and cocked his head to one side. This boy had to be the most annoying creature on the face of the planet – one moment, Harry wanted to murder him and the next moment, he wanted to fuck him through the floor. "Why is it," said Harry, "that I let you get to me, Malfoy?"
Malfoy coughed. "Dunno. Maybe because I'm right and you don't want to admit it."
Harry leaned down above him, using his elbows for leverage. "You're right? About what?"
"Everything, really. I'm quite good at being right. Can we fuck now?"
Harry's breath hitched, but he shook his head. "No. You're really not impressed by the Boy Who Lived thing, are you, Malfoy?"
"Not in the least," confirmed Malfoy. He was clearly lying, but Harry didn't care for some reason.
"And you're not just jealous," he said.
"Jealous of what, Potter? Look, I'm all wet, and it's cold. Either beat me to a pulp or let's shag, either way. I'm not interested in your existential angst."
Harry snorted. Malfoy must have been channelling Phineas Nigellus Black for a moment there. "You remind me of one of your ancestors, you know that?"
"Never mind," said Harry, shaking his head slightly.
"I didn't know you went to the trouble of researching my ancestors. How romantic. Excuse me while I swoon."
Harry had to fight not to smile. If anyone had told him a month ago that Draco Malfoy would be the first one to make him smile after he lost Hagrid, he would have hexed them. Now, he felt the cold feeling in his chest dissipating, and it wasn't just the fact that he was turned on. Harry didn't know how to tell Malfoy all this, and so he just said, "prat."
Malfoy squirmed. "Do you think we could move this someplace drier?"
Harry lowered his mouth to Malfoy's. "No way," he whispered. "I like you wet."
Malfoy licked Harry's lower lip in response; Harry could feel him lifting slowly off the ground, as if to press himself closer to Harry.
"Malfoy," whispered Harry. "I want you. Now," he mumbled and sucked on Malfoy's earlobe. Malfoy arched his back even more, turning his head slightly to one side.
"Keep talking, Potter," gasped Malfoy, "and I might consider it."
In the end, they settled on locking Fang back up, going back to the castle and finding a broom cupboard. It was much too cold outside.
When Harry had come back to the common room later that night, in soaking wet clothes, Hermione threw herself at him and didn't let go until he assured her that he was fine, and everything would be all right.
Gryffindor lost to Hufflepuff in the final Quidditch game of the season. Harry had caught the Snitch, but Hufflepuff was so far ahead on points that it didn't matter. For the first time in twenty-five years, Hufflepuff had the Quidditch Cup. Ron was gutted, but Harry didn't care much. Quidditch seemed like such a childish thing, with Hagrid's funeral still fresh in his mind.
The events of early spring seemed to have broken many house barriers that the house unity projects couldn't. People from all houses were frequently seen in groups on the lawns of Hogwarts grounds, in the library, in hallways between classes. Harry thought it fitting, especially considering the renewed meetings with Malfoy almost every night, frantic and breathless.
Harry spent Easter break at Hogwarts with Ron and Hermione. He told them about Malfoy, withstood their barrage of questions and concerns. In the end, he had to point out to them that Malfoy had saved his life. He didn't tell them why Malfoy had done it. Ron had thought it disgusting that Harry was paying Malfoy back with sexual favours, and said so. Hermione went so red in the face that Harry and Ron ended up rolling around the floor laughing.
On the evening after their final exam, word got around that everyone would be allowed to go into Hogsmeade the next morning, even the students below third year. Harry had other ideas for how he wanted to spend the day, and so he cornered Malfoy after dinner, quite literally stuffing him into a corner and whispering instructions into his ear. Malfoy had initially resisted, but gave up when Harry put his tongue to uses other than talking. "Fine, I'll meet you, you prat, just – oh – stop this at once, someone will see us."
The next morning, Harry made an excuse to Ron and Hermione about needing to pack, and insisted they go on to Hogsmeade without him. He made his way down to the courtyard. He had to squint into the brilliant sunshine outside to see: Malfoy was leaning against the statue of Circe, looking relaxed with one of his feet pressed against the stone behind him.
Harry walked straight up to Malfoy, put a hand on his hip, and kissed him – he'd long since learned that Malfoy preferred the direct approach to things and didn't like to beat around the bush. Malfoy, however, went into a tizzy at Harry's rather obvious display. He pushed him away, looking around in alarm.
"What do you think you're doing, Potter?" spluttered Malfoy. "We could be seen!"
"Nah, everyone's in Hogsmeade," said Harry, his voice unnecessarily raspy.
"Not the teachers, you daft prat," said Malfoy after a moment of hesitation.
Harry smirked. "Fine, let's find someplace more private."
"If you'll unhand me," said Malfoy, failing to sound as threatening as he no doubt intended to.
They were just about to re-enter the building when Snape materialised in the doorway. Harry hated it when he did that. The two boys backed away a few steps and Snape strode out into the courtyard, looking decidedly at odds with the sun-drenched surroundings. He was holding a rolled-up newspaper. He frowned at Malfoy, then turned to glare at Harry.
"Were you fighting with Mr. Malfoy?"
"No, sir," said Harry in a sullen tone.
"Very well. I have something for you from Professor Dumbledore. Hold this for me," Snape said, extending the newspaper to Harry and reaching into his pocket with his other hand.
"I'll hold it, Professor—" said Malfoy and reached out for the paper at the same time as Harry.
Harry felt a jerk behind his navel and his vision blurred for a moment. Considering this wasn't Harry's birthday and it hadn't been Ron with the newspaper, this could only mean bad news.
He found himself standing on a dirt road instead of the cracked stones of the courtyard.
"Idiot boy," Snape barked at Malfoy, and yanked the newspaper back.
Malfoy gaped, turning to Harry, who was standing next to them, his hand still extended.
Harry looked up at Snape. "What is this place?" he asked, feeling like he'd been there before.
"Welcome to Godric's Hollow, Mr. Potter," Snape said with a bitter edge to his voice.
Harry's eyes widened. This was where his parents had been killed! He looked to his left and saw the ruins of a two-storey family home. The entire top floor was caved in. Thick sheets of ivy covered most of the building. The front door was partially off its hinges. It swung softly back and forth as a strong wind gusted all around them.
"Professor," said Harry, his voice low and urgent.
Snape gave him a significant look, angling his head very slightly towards Malfoy. Harry gave a small nod and stared straight ahead of him, avoiding Malfoy's gaze.
"Ah, Harry, so glad you could join us," came a familiar high-pitched, cold voice from the front door of the house.
Harry turned and tried to keep from launching himself at Voldemort.
"You see, Bella?" the Dark Lord said to a cloaked figure standing next to him. "I told you Severus could be trusted." He turned back to gaze at Harry, but noticed Malfoy. "Who is the other boy?"
"Did baby Harry bwing a fwend?" said Bellatrix in a mocking tone, pushing her cloak's hood off. "Why, it's Draco!" she said, her tone back to normal. "Draco Malfoy, my nephew."
"Ah, I see. A shame about your mother and father, boy," said Voldemort, not sounding sorry at all.
Harry had to fight to keep his jaw from dropping. He didn't know Malfoy had lost both of his parents. He cast a furtive glance at Malfoy and realised with horror that this must have been the first time Malfoy heard of his mother dying. Harry was filled with thick, acidic hatred for Voldemort suddenly, like a vat of tar had been emptied into his bloodstream.
"Why did you bring the other boy, Severus?" continued Voldemort, turning to Snape.
"He happened to be standing next to the Potter boy when the Portkey was about to activate, my Lord. I knew he could be trusted to keep quiet about our -- ah -- sudden disappearance, so I continued as planned. Unfortunately, Draco decided to be helpful when I asked Potter to hold the Portkey," Snape replied in a smooth voice. Not a muscle twitched in his face.
"Very well," said Voldemort. "Bring him in, you can take him back with you when we're done."
Snape grabbed Harry's arm and pushed him roughly forward. "Come along, Draco," he murmured to Malfoy. "It'll be all right."
They entered the dilapidated house, glass and rocks crunching beneath their shoes. The inside wasn't much better than the outside. There was an unhealthy, musty-sweet smell about the place, like a dead thing festering. Harry wrinkled his nose involuntarily. He could see a patch of blue sky above; part of the ceiling still held. Brown and yellow leaves rustled underfoot as they walked further in.
"Welcome home, Harry," said Voldemort in an amiable tone. "I don't expect you remember this place at all. This is where your parents lived and died." He gave a short laugh, like nails down a blackboard. "I thought it would be nice of me to let you see your birthplace before you died."
Harry's mind was white with rage. How dare this creature talk about his mother and father? How dare he even set foot inside this house? He struggled furiously against Snape's grasp. Just a little bit more—
"Your persistence is admirable, Harry, but surely you must realise how futile it would be to run? There's nowhere you can go. My people are all over the village; they'd only catch you and bring you right back. You're only making things harder on yourself."
Harry stopped struggling and squared his shoulders. "Who said I was going to run?"
Voldemort laughed again. "Ambition. I admire that in an adversary. It's too bad you are no match for me, boy. The potion, Severus?"
Snape reached into his pocket and handed him a black bottle. Voldemort's long, spidery fingers closed around it.
"I'd wasted so much time on that useless Auror," said Voldemort. "He knew nothing, of course. That glimpse our – hmm – special connection allowed me into the nature of the prophecy in September was most illuminating. Unfortunately, I hadn't counted on Dumbledore's keeping it a secret from everyone but you, Harry. I'd thought he would have told his precious Order everything. But no matter! I will find out what this mysterious power you possess is." He uncorked the bottle in his hand and shook it slightly. "I will become Harry Potter. Whatever other power resides in your blood shall be mine for an hour and I will know how to destroy you. Severus."
Snape grabbed a handful of Harry's hair and yanked. Harry had to fight the tears from springing from his eyes. He knew Snape was on his side, that much was clear from their wordless exchange regarding Malfoy, but of course Snape couldn't pass up a chance to hurt Harry, could he?
Snape deposited Harry's hair into the bottle Voldemort held out. Polyjuice. Harry stared down at the floor, locking his jaw firmly in place to keep from gritting his teeth and started slowly inching towards his right pocket with his left hand. If he could be quiet and pretend not to be moving and just slowly try and get his wand, he could hex Snape – to make it look like Snape wasn't on his side, of course, he thought with a grim sort of satisfaction – then he could take out Bellatrix and maybe Malfoy…
Harry hoped that Malfoy wouldn't do anything stupid, like try to capture Harry for Voldemort. He didn't want to have to hurt him, but he would. His hand crept ever so slowly towards his wand pocket – just a bit more and he'd be there. Voldemort would be distracted right about now, wouldn't he, what with the effects of the Polyjuice Potion and all?
His index and middle fingers were in his wand pocket. Harry took care not to make any sudden movements and just kept reaching further in until he touched the end of his wand—
"Well, well, well, your vision is quite bad, Harry," said Harry's own voice from his left. Harry froze. Would he have time?
"Take his wand, Severus," the Dark Lord commanded, staring at Snape with an unfocused look in his eyes.
Harry drew out his wand and opened his mouth to Stun Snape—
"Petrificus Totalus!" shouted Malfoy's voice from his right. Harry's heart sank as he waited for the curse to hit him. Malfoy had really picked a side, after all. The thud he heard startled him and he realised that Bellatrix had toppled over. What?
"Stupefy!" screeched Voldemort-Harry, pointing his wand at Malfoy.
Harry turned to look at Malfoy, eyes wide – Malfoy had acted to save him, to buy him an advantage. A part of Harry wished he hadn't done that, because now all he wanted to do was revive Malfoy and demand answers. Instead, Harry took his wand into his right hand as Snape released his shoulder and turned towards Voldemort. He heard a dull thud as Malfoy hit the floor, but he didn't care. Raising his wand, Harry opened his mouth—
Dumbledore stood in the middle of the room, eyes flashing. "This is your greatness, Tom? To prey on schoolboys?"
"Come now, Dumbledore, he's no mere schoolboy. The other one was in my way, and yet I spared his life, you will notice."
"You didn't spare Cedric, you stupid—" exploded Harry suddenly, lunging forward, but strong arms caught him from behind.
"Control yourself, Potter," murmured Snape. "This is not your fight."
"Too right it's my fight, let me GO!"
Harry struggled furiously against Snape's hold but to no avail. Across from him, Bellatrix stirred and sat up, looking around with a dazed expression on her face. Malfoy's Full Body Bind clearly needed work. Bellatrix looked up at Dumbledore, then to Voldemort-Harry and her eyes widened in fear. Harry felt a savage sort of pleasure at seeing her this weak. She started to rise, but Voldemort spoke again.
"Follow me, Bella."
With that, he Disapparated and was followed immediately by Bellatrix. Harry stared at the place where he'd stood, torn between wonder at watching himself Disapparate and irrepressible bitterness that his enemies had got away once more. He glared up at Snape, who immediately let him go. Dumbledore seemed frozen to his spot. His eyes were closed and he looked weary.
"Professor?" said Harry hesitantly.
Dumbledore's eyes fluttered open and he smiled. "You're safe for now, Harry. With a little help from your friends, I see," he said, nodding to Malfoy, who was still out cold.
"I suggest we don't revive Mr Malfoy, Albus," said Snape, "until he's safe at Hogwarts. I'm afraid he's just learned of his mother's death."
"What's going on?" demanded Harry. "Why did Voldemort just leave?"
"I believe he's chosen to use the effects of the Polyjuice Potion as he'd intended, Harry," said Dumbledore, his face suddenly grave. "And he might just be able to learn something he can use against you, but let's cross that bridge when we get to it."
He bent down to pick up a large rock and hefted it. "Portus," he muttered. "Severus, hold on to Mr Malfoy. The Portkey'll take us into the hospital wing at Hogwarts."
Snape gathered Malfoy up in his arms and took hold of the rock in Dumbledore's hand. Harry grabbed onto the rock as well. A moment later, he felt a tug behind his navel and a vague sense of nausea, then found himself staring at an astonished Madam Pomfrey.
"Oh my goodness, is he injured?" she clucked, rushing over to Malfoy, whom Snape deposited on a nearby bed.
"Just Stunned," said Snape.
"Stunned by Voldemort," amended Dumbledore. "I'd advise keeping him here until he wakes up. "Ennervate," he murmured, pointing his wand at Malfoy, who did not stir. "Just as I thought. Let him sleep it off – he'll be in considerable pain when he wakes up, but I leave him in your capable hands, Poppy."
Harry drew up a chair and sank down into it. "I'm going to wait here until he comes to," he said.
"Oh no, you aren't," said Madam Pomfrey crossly. "You're going to go straight back to your dormitory and let the poor boy rest."
"I'm not," said Harry, folding his arms across his chest and tilting up his chin in a way that would have made Malfoy proud, "going anywhere."
Dumbledore chuckled. "Let him stay, Poppy. I daresay he won't be as much trouble as when he's the one in the hospital bed."
Harry felt a sharp prod on his knee.
"Wha-?" he said and sat up straight, pushing his glasses up his nose. He must have fallen asleep. "You're awake," he said to Malfoy, who was looking at him with an amused sort of expression on his face.
"So are you. What are you doing here, Potter?"
Harry flushed. "I'm, er, not sure. I fell asleep." He ran a hand through his hair. "Are you okay?"
"Never better. Did you kill him?"
Malfoy sat up and fixed him with a glare. "Did you kill the Dark Lord?"
"Er, no. He got away. With your aunt. Again." Harry's voice wavered and he stared down into his lap.
"Honestly, Potter, do I have to do everything myself?"
Harry frowned. "Dra— er, Malfoy, what? I don't understand. You want me to kill—" Did he just almost call Malfoy by his first name?
"What, you think I'm making idle conversation?" Malfoy demanded, leaning forward and grabbing his robe.
"Why?" whispered Harry, his breath thick in his throat.
"He killed my parents."
"Mine too," said Harry, trying to keep the bitter edge out of his voice and failing.
"You're going to kill him, aren't you?" asked Malfoy, leaning even closer.
They were nose to nose now. Harry's heart was hammering against where Malfoy's fingers gripped his robes. Was this what Malfoy was after? Had he only helped Harry so he'd avenge Malfoy's dead parents?
"Yeah," breathed Harry, his tone unsteady. "I'll try..."
He kissed Malfoy, prying his lips apart softly with his tongue. I have to believe it's more than just revenge. I have to believe he did it for me. Malfoy sighed and leant into the kiss, but suddenly let go of Harry's robes and fell back down on his pillow.
"Stunner – damage," he managed, gasping for breath.
"Sorry," said Harry, suddenly worried. "Should I get Madam—"
"No, I'll be fine. I just need rest," said Malfoy, regaining his breath.
"Okay. I'll, er, just go then." Harry got up, knocking the chair over. He flushed and bent down to pick it up, then stood over Malfoy's bed for a moment. He wanted to ask why Malfoy had done it – why he'd helped Harry back there, but he found that he was too scared of what the answer might be. He didn't want any more unpleasant surprises today. Harry turned to leave.
"Potter," called Malfoy.
Harry turned around quickly. "Yeah?"
"What did the Dark Lord mean by 'special connection'?"
Harry's hand shot up to worry his scar. "This. He, er, can see things. Sometimes. If I let him."
"Oh. Can you do the same?"
Harry nodded. "Yeah, it works both ways. I have to let him in if he lets me in, though."
"Was that how you knew about the Azkaban breakout?"
Harry grinned. "You're really clever, you know that? You and Hermione would get along," he said.
"You're making me ill."
"Yeah, yeah. See you, Malfoy."
The Leaving Feast brought a surprise – the Great Hall was decorated in Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw colours. Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw were tied on points, with Gryffindor and Slytherin trailing just behind. Harry wondered how that was going to work. He asked Hermione, but she just gave him a smug smile. "Oh, I've read about this, but I think you'd better find out for yourself," she said.
Just then, Dumbledore rose from his seat at the head table to address the school.
"Another year is ending. It has been, in a word, an experience. A learning experience for all of you, I hope, in more ways than one. We have seen friendships formed this year of a sort that have not been seen at Hogwarts for centuries. We have, unfortunately, seen death – of teacher and student alike – and while this is supposed to be a festive occasion, I would like to ask that we take a few moments to remember Rubeus Hagrid and Daphne Greengrass."
Harry stared at the empty table in front of him. He couldn't really remember Daphne, except for those few times that he'd seen her with Ernie, but he sure would remember Hagrid. He would never forget Hagrid, and he would never forget who was responsible for his death. His and Sirius's and his parents'…
Dumbledore continued speaking. "Well, tradition dictates that it is time to award the House Cup," he said with an important air. "The point standings are as follows: in the lead are Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw house, with six hundred and eighty points apiece. Gryffindor house is just behind them with six hundred and thirty points, and Slytherin in last place with six hundred and twenty-five. Well done, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw!"
Cheers broke out from the two middle tables, but Dumbledore held up his hand. "We are not quite done yet."
Harry looked up at him sharply. He wouldn't take this away from the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, would he?
"I still have some points to award," Dumbledore continued.
Harry wanted to jump up on the table and scream at him not to do it. Didn't he understand?
"To Mr. Harry Potter, for once again demonstrating outstanding courage in the face of insurmountable odds, I award Gryffindor house fifty points."
The roar from the Gryffindor table was deafening. Harry buried his face in his hands and tried to drown out the roaring. He didn't deserve those points, he didn't—
"And last but not least, to Mr. Draco Malfoy, for decisive action when it mattered most and for out-foxing the oldest fox in the chicken coop, I award Slytherin house fifty-five points."
Harry looked up again, this time at the magical hourglasses that held the house points. They were – even. Then the Slytherin table exploded in cheers that far outstripped the Gryffindors' earlier ones. People were getting up and clapping, shouting Malfoy's name – the Hogwarts rumour mill was in good working order, apparently, and everyone seemed to know what had happened at Godric's Hollow. Harry was among the first Gryffindors on his feet and clapping. He turned towards the Slytherin table and searched out Malfoy's eyes with his.
Harry grinned happily at Malfoy, who was managing to look horror-struck and smugly pleased with himself at the same time.
When the cheering and applause died down, Dumbledore smiled down at them all. "As you may have noticed, this means that the point counts are equal. The House Cup rightfully belongs to all four houses this year. I hope you are as proud of yourselves as I am proud of all of you. Through co-operation, you all have managed to achieve unity between the four houses, and such a thing has not happened in over a thousand years."
During the train ride back home, Harry felt slightly unsettled as he stared out the window for fifteen minutes, oblivious of the chatter around him. Ron and Luna were arguing with Hermione about the existence of Crumple-Horned Snorkacks while Neville and Ginny were attempting to drown them out with a rousing chorus of the Hogwarts song.
Harry wasn't sure what kept bothering him, but he knew it had something to do with Malfoy. He hadn't seen Malfoy since the Leaving Feast and it seemed odd that they should part without at least saying goodbye. He made up his mind right then and made his way out of the compartment, pretending that he had to go to the toilet. He didn't know which compartment Malfoy was in, that was the problem.
Near the end of the second car, he stopped outside a locked door and suddenly heard Pansy's voice from beyond it. His heart did a little jump: he'd found Malfoy. He tried to think about what he would say, then decided he didn't really need an excuse, not after Godric's Hollow. He was about to knock when the door swung open and he was staring into Malfoy's clear grey eyes.
Malfoy cast a quick glance behind himself, then walked out of the compartment and shut the door behind him tightly, murmuring a locking spell.
"Not going to invite me to sit with your lot, are you?" asked Harry with a bitter undertone.
Malfoy glanced at him in surprise. "I thought you wanted to see me. If you'd like to sit with my friends--"
"No, no, that's not what I meant. Oh, forget it." Harry dug his hand into his hair, his jaw tightening. He didn't know why he'd envisioned sitting together with Malfoy's friends, maybe even with Malfoy in his lap – this was so stupid.
Malfoy looked towards the end of the corridor, making sure no one was there to see them. He opened the door leading to the platform that connected the carriage with the next one, motioning for Harry to follow. It was dark on the platform as there were no windows, and the floor was slightly wobbly. It was a tight, closed space filled with the smell of burnt tea leaves that was characteristic of train stations and railways. Harry followed Malfoy in and shut the door, plunging them into near-total darkness but for the light that filtered in from the adjoining carriages.
"Are you afraid?" asked Harry in a raspy voice. Malfoy was leaning against the wall somewhere just beyond his reach.
"Afraid? Afraid of what?"
"Voldemort. What you did back there..."
"...is none of your concern. I'm safer at the Manor than anywhere. The Ministry doesn't know Mother is dead, do they?"
Harry shook his head, looking away. That information would stay with the Order.
"The Dark Lord wouldn't go after me where I'm being watched by Aurors, Potter."
"He goes after me anywhere."
"Well, that's you. I'm not worth getting caught over, Potter," said Malfoy, sounding strangely bitter.
Harry wanted to tell him how lucky he was, but instead he just stared. Malfoy's eyes glittered in the near-darkness around them and Harry felt his heart quickening. How many more meetings like this would they have? Was this the last time? He felt hands gripping the front of his robes, pulling until he was next to Malfoy. Harry pressed his palms flat against Malfoy's chest and leant down to kiss him.
It was different this time – Harry felt like he was kissing Malfoy for the first time, really, and the way Malfoy was responding was different somehow, more intimate, with some kind of feeling. Harry thrust against Malfoy, his hands sliding down his sides, hitching up Malfoys' robes, running along his bare chest, waist, hips. Malfoy sighed into the kiss and reached to pull up Harry's robes as well. He bit down gently on Harry's lower lip and Harry whimpered, trying to control his fingers as he tried to pull down Malfoy's pants.
Ten minutes later, they were cleaned up as best they could be, given the lighting conditions. Malfoy ran a hand lightly down Harry's cheek and leant in to kiss him – slowly and carefully, just lips against lips, in a way that Harry hadn't really been kissed before.
They broke apart and looked at each other. Malfoy's eyes were glinting in the shadows, and Harry knew that no matter what happened, this moment would stay with him forever.
"I'll see you in September?" whispered Harry.
"If you're lucky," Malfoy whispered back.
"I'll see you, Potter."
Malfoy left the dark platform and Harry followed him out. He stared as Malfoy unlocked his compartment and disappeared behind the door. Was that it?
The Hogwarts Express pulled into Kings Cross station just after seven in the evening. Harry, Ron and Hermione were among the first to get off the train, but Harry wasn't in a hurry to leave. He waved goodbye to Hermione and Ron, promising to write as soon as he got home. Harry watched as other people said their goodbyes and only just now realised how many inter-house friendships had formed that year. Slytherins were hugging Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs goodbye, Gryffindors were shaking hands with Slytherins and Hufflepuffs – it was a bit odd.
Harry understood now, why Dumbledore had been so keen on fostering and strengthening house unity at Hogwarts. Friendships made at school were the ones that lasted the longest in the wizarding world, and they would only grow stronger with years for the younger students. He was a bit resentful that he only had a year left at Hogwarts, though he didn't think he'd ever lose touch with Zacharias, Blaise, or Terry, not even speaking of Ron and Hermione.
Would he and Malfoy lose touch? Harry didn't know. He suddenly realised why he'd been so keen on seeing Malfoy earlier. He looked around but couldn't see him anywhere, then caught a glimpse of white-blond hair as Malfoy crossed the barrier between Platform Nine and Three Quarters and the Muggle world. Harry pushed his trolley forward and followed.
"Hey, Malfoy, wait!" he shouted when he crossed over.
Malfoy stopped and turned to face him. Harry noticed Lupin standing a few feet away from the Dursleys and waved a hand at him, indicating that he'd be along shortly. Lupin nodded, smiling, and Harry turned to Malfoy.
"Do you still hate me?" he asked.
Malfoy stared at him intensely for a moment, then turned around and walked away.
June 31, 1997. Malfoy Manor, Avebury, Wiltshire.
Last time we spoke, you asked me if I still hated you. I didn't answer you then because only a true Slytherin would have been able to understand the short answer. The long answer, however, would have taken much more time than I had then. I think I've managed to break it down as simply as I can without compromising myself should this letter fall into the hands of a Weasley.
When I was small, things were very simple. There were Malfoys and there were those who opposed us, the villains. Since the day we were introduced, you were the designated villain in my life. Our last year at Hogwarts changed many things about the way I see the world. Some of them were sensible things like realising that the associations my friends choose needn't reflect badly on me. Others were less sensible things like realising that I was really quite interested in associating with the designated villain.
I'll cut this short because I do have a modicum of faith in your ability to pick up sub-text. For what it's worth, you've proven that you're not the typical cardboard villain. You're disgustingly brave and unnecessarily generous. You're surprisingly ambitious and uncharacteristically cunning. I don't hate you any more because you are so unlike your housemates in many ways and so like mine in others: a Gryffindor and a Slytherin.
Harry lowered the letter, suddenly remembering what it was that kept bothering him. He never did ask Draco how the hell he'd got it into his head that Harry might be gay. He rolled the letter back up and tossed it onto his bed, then bounded down the stairs and picked up the phone, dialling Hermione's number from memory. She picked up on the third ring.
"Hey, Hermione," he said. "It's Harry."
"Oh, hi, Harry! I got your letter, I was just writing—"
"Never mind the letter. Are there any sights to see in Avebury?"
There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment, then Hermione spoke again. "Yes, the Avebury Circle. It's an ancient site, similar in history to Stonehenge. Why?"
"I think," said Harry, "I've a fancy to see this Avebury Circle before we go back to school."
Pairings:......... Harry/Draco; several other slash and het pairings implied.
Author's notes:.......... This story stands alone, though it's also a companion piece to my A Gryffindor and A Slytherin, which is from Draco's point of view. The title is a play on two lines from a Sorting Hat song. A million thanks go to my betas – Mishty, Jaxmari and Vel – you ladies rock. Thanks also to DelaRia for providing feedback on a crucial passage in the late draft stage.
SummaryIn the summer before Harry Potter's sixth year at Hogwarts, something relatively inconsequential causes him to wonder if he'd been barking up the wrong tree the whole time, as far as girls went. As the year progresses – amongst activities geared towards house unity, nefarious Slytherin plots, and dealing with the loss of loved ones – Harry begins to wonder if perhaps giving people a chance isn't so scary, after all. What does all that have to do with Draco Malfoy? Why, everything, of course.
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