Author(s): scoradh and cynicalpirate
Warnings: None. We wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, now would we? (Only kidding. Nothing to see here, folks.)
Notes: Thank-you a thousand times over to sepiroth01, an excellent beta and a better friend. Also, cheers out to all the people in Rachel's class who gave her advice on the first line of the fic. She probably should have taken it.
Even amidst the fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted.
— THE BHAGAVAD-GITA
Wherever the hell he is, it’s raining. Draco curses. Virulently.
His mother once had a spell to lave an impertinent tongue with soap bubbles—Draco has lost count of the number of times she used it on him when he was a child, furious and spewing obscenities. Now he can taste nothing in his mouth but the bile of terror. He’d even be grateful for a few soap flakes, and he’d used to think that there was no worse taste in the world. That, of course, was before he’d discovered Brussels spouts and Avada Kedavra.
His body operates independently of his head. It’s had lot of experience in so doing. Even as his lips open and close around gibbering imprecations against fate and God and Snape and Dumbledore, his hands are smoothing over his limbs. He hears again the desiccated voice of the Apparition tutor, warning them not to walk unless they’re sure they have something to walk with.
Two legs—check. Two arms—check. Nose, eyes, ears, hair—check. Eyebrows. As Draco’s fingers felt along his forehead, his legs go from under him.
All out of blasphemies, he whispers, “Oh, how—stupid,” and faints.
Clouds undulate against the blue, coy and innocent of all rain. Draco blinks and feels old droplets tremble on his eyelashes. Flexing, he realises that he’s lying spread-eagled across a muddy track, the leaves of a line of trees claiming borders on the sky. The sun dazzles his eyes and Draco is surely going mad, because he feels laughter bubbling against his lips.
After all, he’d never managed to Apparate before.
Dumble—his brain begins to remind him, so Draco screams instead. It comes out as a moan. Draco isn’t surprised; his brain and his mouth aren’t on very good terms. The things he says are rarely the things he wanted to say.
“Good grief!” exclaims a voice. Draco would think it was his own, only he’s never said ‘Good grief’ in his life.
There is a splashing sound, accompanied by an arc of brackish water that lands square on Draco’s face. The culprits—a pair of sensible black brogues—come to a halt by Draco’s head, and he turns his nose to them.
“Are you all right?” Draco is treated to a front-row view of two plump knees encased in thick stockings. A face, wrinkled in concern, pokes into his own.
Of course he’s not all right. It’s the sort of ridiculous question that means nothing except that the speaker has no idea what to say. Right at this very moment, however, Draco is overwhelmed by an tremendous sense of gratitude that the woman is as far from being a wizard of any sort as the trees that are her backdrop. The feeling shocks him almost as much as anything else in these last hours. His brain revolts at it, as does his stomach.
The woman strokes the back of his head as he vomits, and that in itself is so novel as to be terrifying.
“What’s your name, love?” The woman is squatting in the mud now, mud lying lightly on her stockings and shoes. The very sturdiness of her attire makes the dirt seem less than real.
Draco spits again as his mind whirls. If the Death Eaters follow him here, they’ll kill her. If D—the others follow him here, they’ll kill him. If Snape follows him here, he might kill them both. That thought stings like an unexpected hex.
“Harry,” he croaks. “Harry Potter.”
“You wait here, love,” says the woman, her voice fading in and out like a badly-tuned radio. “I’ll get help. Don’t worry, Harry.”
“Are you sure it’s safe to have him around?”
“Bert, look at him! He’s just a kid. He can’t be more than sixteen or seventeen.”
With his eyes still closed, Draco growls. Not a kid, his mind chants. He said it to Father once. He didn’t ever again, although he often spat the line at Mother because it worked on her.
“Yeah, I know seventeen-year-olds. Have one of my own, remember? They’re as stupid as geese and as vicious as dogs.”
“I think he was abused, Bert.” The voice is hushed, but Draco hasn’t spent years listening in on other people’s conversations for nothing. “He was in a terrible state when I found him—and he had nothing with him, only some odds and ends and a funny-looking stick—”
My wand! Draco forgets the woman’s suppositions about his ‘abusive foster family’ and ‘the neglectful Social Service,’ whatever that is. He sits bolt upright. In other circumstances, he’d have been interested in his surroundings, especially the way to the exit. Now, his wild eyes care for one thing only. With his wand he’s a would-be murderer, but without it he isn’t even that.
His shoes have been removed, as have his robes. He plucks at the thick stripy flannel in which he’s been swathed. A shaft of sunlight spears through a slit in the curtains and, in the new illumination, his gaze falls on a familiar, grimy black bundle by a sink. He hurtles out of bed and across the room. Even before his knees slam against the hardwood floor, his fingers are closing around his wand. He remembers to breathe.
He sees that his meagre possessions have been laid out on the floor like offerings before an altar. His robes, now sadly wrinkled; his shoes, socks and underwear; the small pile of money, not more than three Galleons in total; the lucky crystal dragon he keeps in his pocket, which Pansy brought him back from China. It’s as if the woman wanted to show him—what? That she’s pawed through his things, but put them all back? That she didn’t steal from him? That she saw him naked? What?
Draco begins to tremble—but only because the window is wide open and he’s freezing. The bed, when he crawls into it cradling his wand against his chest, is warm.
As his brain grows muzzy and his eyelids quiver, he decides that the world is divided into cold and warmth. He just wants to be warm forever.
Three smart taps come at the door and Bert enters behind the woman. Draco would have recognised Bert even if he hadn’t been muttering under his breath. Draco has an immediate effect on people—quite often one of blinding hatred. Bert is one of latter group. His ruddy face is all screwed up and he peers at Draco sideways, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his sludge-coloured coat. He’s wearing knee-high rubber boots and reminds Draco rather of Hagrid, except about three feet smaller in height and diameter.
“How are you, Harry?” asks the woman, in a tone of maternal solicitude. It makes Draco jump and look about for Potter, just before he remembers his choice of pseudonym. The woman looks sympathetic at his fright and Bert, a smidgeon less suspicious.
“I’m fine.” Draco clenches his fingers around his wand, under the blankets. “Where am I?” he adds. He hadn’t thought Apparating would work, so his only destination had been ‘away.’
“Got amnesia, have you, kid?” Bert’s voice is gruff, but it’s like a puddle of ice that has started to melt around the edges. Draco has to stop himself from sneering. It looks like he’s fallen into the headquarters of Bleeding Hearts Anonymous.
The woman sits on the bed and Draco automatically curls his feet up and away from her. He doesn’t like unsolicited touches. Bert clears his throat.
“I’m Iris,” says the woman, “and you’re in my bed and breakfast, in the village of Fernwood Lower.”
Draco looks about in vain for a breakfast for a moment or two. Iris doesn’t seem to expect an answer, for she continues, “Do you remember anything, lovey? Did you get injured, or did anyone…did anyone hurt you?”
Draco sees Dumbledore’s face shining in the moonlight a split second before he toppled off the tower. “No,” he says, knowing that his voice is too strong but also unable to control it. “I don’t remember anything.”
“Shh, Harry, don’t work yourself up, now,” soothes Iris, patting his leg. Draco flinches, resisting the urge to put his wand to her throat and curse her till she’s oozing. “I’m going to fetch you some beef broth and toast. You’ll feel miles better after a feed.”
Draco stares after her, wondering if she really thinks some Muggle slop will fix everything. How wonderful it would be to be so stupid.
Bert shifts his weight and treads on a creaky floorboard. “I don’t trust you,” he announces, once the clatter of Iris’ shoes on the stairs has stopped.
Come right out and say it, you great Gryffindor, you, thinks Draco. Suddenly it occurs to him that, due to his Muggle status, Bert would never have been to Hogwarts. It’s extraordinary to realise there are people out there who don’t have those standards by which to judge the rest of the world.
Draco thinks it’s a little bit liberating.
He doesn’t say anything, only tightens his lips. They engage in a staring competition before Bert cracks under the pressure and adds, “Iris is a good woman, but she can be a bit gullible. She likes to see the best in everyone. Me, now, I don’t, so I look after her. And I’ll be looking after you, too.”
Draco feels a grudging admiration for the man, that he’s able to pour such dire warning into these innocuous, casually-spoken words. “What do you think I am, then?” he asks, actually curious.
“A druggie, probably, or an alco,” says Bert. “Or one of them cultists—you were wearing some kind of monks’ robe when I carried you up here and you’ve got that odd tattoo—”
Draco shakes his head. He knows what monks are, or at least what monkshood is; as for the rest of it, Bert might as well have been speaking a different language.
“You’ve the look of a young hooligan,” finishes Bert. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“You know nothing, you stupid Muggle,” spits Draco. “You know nothing about anything!”
Bert raises one eyebrow. “I never said I did. I know about birthing calves, and seeding a field, and haggling with foolish businessmen over prices. You try preaching to me, laddie, and you’ll not get far, I’m warning you. Muggle, indeed. I suppose that’s one of your silly religious names, is it?”
Draco gapes at him, incandescent with rage. “Get out!” he yells.
“Me, get out of my oldest friend’s house? You’re the one who should be getting out.” Bert crosses his arms across his rotund chest and leans against the doorpost.
“Now, now,” fusses Iris. In all the noise, Draco didn’t hear her climbing the stairs. She’s holding a patterned tray laden with various steaming pots and bowls. “Don’t be upsetting the boy, now, Bert. He’s had a bad shock and a nasty fall.”
“Fall?” echoes Draco.
“Your head.” Iris nods her head at him. “It was bleeding when I found you. I suppose you don’t remember. I had Dr Callaghan in—he’s a lovely young man, now, he’d be perfect for my Nancy—he saw to you. He says you’re not to be worried for a few days. Do you hear me, Bert?”
Draco presses his palm to his head. His fingers curl around the edges of something that feels like a square of cloth, taped to his head. Barbaric! He needs a real Healer, not a Muggle butcher. Even the callous Pomfrey would be preferable.
“Don’t pull at the bandage, now, love.” Iris sets down the meal she’s brought on the bedside locker with a series of solid clunks. “You only needed one stitch, thank God, but you mustn’t open the wound or Jim will have to do it again.”
“Stitch?” repeats Draco, his voice faint. He has a vague idea what stitches are, has seen them in his clothing, but in his skin—!
“There, there.” Iris is holding a basin beneath his chin and rubbing his back in circles. “Better out than in.”
This time Draco does not throw up, but he continues retching for some time. If Bert wants to see a sick person, then that is exactly what he’ll get.
Iris passes Draco a mug of soup to sip from. The toast has been cut up into soldiers, the butter sitting on top in half-melted golden globules. It runs down his chin and he licks it off his fingers; he’s awkward without heavy silver cutlery between him and his food.
All the time he feels Bert’s eyes on him. He stretches, a flower to sunlight, under the scrutiny. Draco has been playing games all his life. Perhaps, when he met Harry Potter in a robe shop and found that he filled up spaces for hatred Draco hadn’t known were empty, the game began to play him. But his point is he’s a game piece and so is everyone else—the advantage lies in knowing it.
When he is finished, Iris strokes his hair. Draco lets her; he knows it must be dirty and bedraggled, so it isn’t like she can be gaining any tangible pleasure from so doing.
“Do you have anyone we could contact, any family who’d want to know that you’re safe?” she asks.
“I’m so tired,” says Draco in a petulant voice, but when they’re gone he stares at the wall for a long time, wide awake.
Draco’s first waking thought is: I must get home.
However, home isn’t the crumbling grandeur of Malfoy Manor. It isn’t the cold marble hallways or the dusty library or the wild grounds crammed to capacity with dangerous magical plants. It’s Mother, her robes hitched up to the knee, crouched over on a gold brocade chaise and painting her toenails acid green. It’s Father, leaning back from the huge ledger perched in his lap and tapping his fingers on the book’s edge. Mother, collecting tiny Dancing Bluebells right from under the dripping leaves of a Naptha Rose-bush, all uncaring of the mortal danger. Father, holding his hand out to reveal the glow of a cluster of black diamonds between his fingers.
Father whirling Mother around in a crazy waltz—both in matching silver dress robes, her face laughing and carefree and his relaxed—before the guests arrive.
Draco’s hand goes to his collar, as if to tug away once more the matching silver cloth that itched so.
His mother slapped his hands down, her crimson mouth pursed at him; his father reminded him to show dignity at all times. When he clenched his small fists by his sides and raised his chin, resolutely ignoring the tickling, they both looked stern in their pride.
Father is in Azkaban now. Mother wrote a few weeks before…before…to say that she was going to visit friends; where, she did not say.
Home is not bricks and mortar, but a broken feeling scattered between a prison and a bolt-hole.
Draco swings his legs out of bed and moves to the window, twitching aside the cornflower-print cloth. He pauses a moment to marvel at it—he’s only ever known priceless damask and matted velvet to hang at windows.
A long and narrow garden stretches out to a rain-washed gravel road. The garden is well kept and very pretty, with stones set in a neat pattern to form a path to a polished gate. Draco watches as a Labrador pads past and out of sight. There is a Muggle shop across from him; curlicued letters spell out the words ‘Horgan’s Grocery.’ Blinds have been pulled down over the wide window, leaving no visible clue as to what a grocery is.
Buried deep inside Draco is the speechless terror that made him collapse and, according to Iris, hit his head on the way down. It reaches out with cold fingers. Draco lets it take his heart, but refuses it anything else. He has to control it or be controlled, and Draco hates to be controlled.
The only question is, is it safer to stay or to go? Draco can’t quite envision a future that doesn’t blur and coalesce into a tattoo, burning but dark. The Dark Lord will find out what happened, and that Draco Apparated away. For all Draco knows, the Dark Lord already has Mother. It would be the work of an instant to strike down Father as well.
For the first time, Draco wishes he were a Gryffindor. Some reckless bravery would come in handy, to impel him to storm the Dark Lord’s headquarters and rescue his family and get the hell out of this mess.
He wonders if Father has ever killed anyone.
“Morning, Harry!” Iris’ cheerful voice rings out and Draco turns so fast he falls against the window seat. He wonders what possessed him to choose that name. He wouldn’t put it past the devil, or at least a top-ranking Duke of Hell.
“Good morning,” says Draco, after a momentary halt. It occurs to him that he owes a life-debt to a Muggle. It’s a frankly disgusting thought.
Draco opens his mouth to add a more suitable epithet to his greeting, possibly involving the words ‘Muggle filth,’ but Iris has just uncovered a dish of sweet-scented porridge. It’s laced with honey, just as Draco likes it. He can’t help it—his mouth starts to water and his impatient legs take him to the frilly dressing table, where Iris is setting out a bowl and spoon.
“You look a bit more lively this morning,” says Iris in approval. She places the spoon in his lax palm. “Now, my Frank—he’s away at university, studying mucky old ruins or 'archaeology' as he calls it—is bigger than you, but you’re welcome to some of his old clothes—”
Draco swallows against the horror blocking his throat. He truly is turning into Harry Potter.
“—the doctor’s coming today to check your bandages, so you’ll be allowed out and about again. I’ll wash these.” Iris scoops up his robes and under things, but leaves behind the rest. Draco has his wand stuck in the back of the pyjamas he’s wearing. The wood is hard and smooth against his skin. “The bathroom’s the first door on the left. If you pop in for a shower, I’ll leave some clothes outside the door.”
Draco considers thanking her, but decides against it. She burbles on about her son and daughter, never mentioning a father and, as soon as Draco has sucked the last porridge from his spoon, she bustles out again.
After deciding that his only other alternative is to stroll around completely naked, Draco gets dressed in Iris’ son Frank’s hand-me-downs. The trousers only drag slightly, although they’re baggy around the waist, but the shirt completely dwarfs him. The gargantuan sleeves hang down almost to his fingertips.
Draco can see in the mirror that he looks awful, but since Iris hasn’t supplied him with any of the paraphernalia for basic grooming, he finger-combs his hair and decides not to worry about it. He sticks his wand into one of the voluminous pockets for safe keeping. It’s not exactly easy access, as he discovers when he spends nearly five minutes trying to fish the wand out again, but at least no-one who wants to have a sneaky look through his possessions will be able to get to it.
After a few minutes of being reluctantly impressed by the ‘electric’ light switch, Draco tries to think, flicking the light on and off at intervals. He can’t return to the Death Eaters, at least not until he has a story that will please the Dark Lord—or, failing that, a gift to placate him. He’s certainly not going to the ‘good guys’—not only would he be killed when Voldemort found out, they’d probably be none too pleased with him either, come to think of it. He’s got to lie low with the Muggles for now. Just until he can come up with a more viable option, one that won’t end in his untimely demise.
“Oh, Harry! You’re up!” Iris exclaims when she bumps into Draco skulking in the corridor, giving him the prerequisite ‘Harry Potter? Where?’ heart attack. She bustles over, smelling pleasantly of sausages. “Early riser, just like my Frank. How are you feeling, love?”
“Not well,” says Draco, in a feeble voice. He squints up at her as if he’s pathetically ill or short-sighted. Iris sticks out one of her large hands to take his temperature. Draco tries not to recoil.
“Come and get a spot of breakfast,” Iris orders, after gasping with dismay at Draco’s temperature. Draco feels underneath his fringe suspiciously. His skin feels extremely lukewarm.
“I’m not hungry,” he answers.
“You’ll feel better after you’ve had something more to eat.” Iris peers into his eyes. “You look awfully underfed."
“I’m fine,” Draco snaps. He thinks that if he eats anything else Muggle-tainted, he just might throw up all over himself. At that same moment, Draco’s stomach gurgles, disagreeing loudly with his brain. Iris shakes her head at the noise and begins to push him towards the kitchen.
“Best have something to nibble on, love.” Iris manhandles him into the bright, warm room. “My Frank who’s at university always had a huge brekkie, and now he’s six foot two and the strongest boy you ever saw.”
Draco is seated on to a stool next to a wooden table with a check tablecloth. Iris whirls around the kitchen, unscrewing glass bottles and pouring milk from them into huge jugs, cracking eggs into saucepans and filling up big, black kettles. Draco watches in awed silence as Iris fries some mushrooms and makes tea at the same time.
Draco’s never really thought about food being prepared, as such; all the times he’s eaten it, someone else got it to the table.
A silver box next to Draco suddenly explodes, shooting two golden-brown slices of bread into the air. Draco shrieks and dives under the table.
“Your toast’s ready, love.” Iris absent-mindedly plops some teabags into a china teapot. Upon seeing Draco she sighs good-naturedly and aims a playful kick at him under the table. “You young boys, always playing tricks. My Frank who’s at university, when he was little, was such a scamp, always tracking mud into the kitchen and climbing trees, and getting into scrapes. Do you like climbing trees?”
“No.” Draco climbs resentfully back on to the stool. His heart’s still beating at a furious pace, but more out of embarrassment than anything else.
“I thought you might do,” Iris says.
She sets a plate of the most redolent food Draco has ever smelt down in front of him. It smells so fantastic, it should be marketed as a perfume. “A lot of the strangers who come round here to stay at the B&B are naturist people. Hikers and the like. They like trees and that. They get sick of their tents and want a decent meal and, really, who can blame them? Awful weather for the time of year we’re having.”
“Mmm.” Draco is not really listening. He’d thought that he’d just eat a few mouthfuls of something to pacify Iris, but there are three obscenely large, steaming sausages on his plate, and he is starving all of a sudden…
“Eat up, love.” Iris grins as she pushes her way backwards through a wooden door, laden with plates. “I’m just going to take some grub out to the paying customers.”
By the time Iris returns, Draco has already devoured two of the sausages, one side of toast, a rasher of bacon, two mouthfuls of scrambled egg, several mushrooms and about a litre of orange juice. It all tastes amazing, although it’s frankly impressive that he can distinguish between the different flavours, given the sheer amount and variety of food that he’s putting away at one time.
“Good boy!” Iris enthuses, upon seeing the demolished remains left in Draco’s plate. She folds her arms across her capacious bosom. “I thought you weren’t hungry?” Draco ignores the jibe and shovels more food into his mouth.
“I want some more of that,” mumbles Draco, his mouth full of baked beans. He points at the overflowing platter of scrambled eggs.
“Now Harry,” Iris coos, rushing over to poke at a pan of bacon, which is hissing and spitting like a malevolent cat. “‘I want’ never gets.”
Draco swallows the lump of food in bewilderment and grimaces as it squeezes its way down his oesophagus. He can’t imagine why a simple thing like forgetting to chew makes you feel like your chest is being ripped apart.
“Come on, Harry,” Iris encourages, mock-stern. “You know the magic word…”
“I know plenty of magic words, you idiotic Muggle,” mutters Draco. Iris frowns, her pink face filled with disappointment. Draco realises suddenly that his chances of getting any more scrambled eggs have been very much decreased.
“Oh, all right.” Draco tries not to roll his eyes. “Um. Please, Iris.”
Iris beams and triumphantly empties what looks like an entire chicken farm’s worth of scrambled ovaries onto his plate.
“Go over and play with Bert’s son, cherub.” Iris brandishes her duster at Draco as he sits listlessly in an armchair, fingering his wand. “I’ve got to clean, and you can’t mope around the house all the time with your toy.”
“I’m ill,” Draco reminds her, pointedly, and coughs for good measure. Iris raises a sceptic eyebrow and Draco stows his wand in his pocket, offended.
“You’re looking a good sight better.” She rubs at the wooden coffee table with a blue rag. “You’ll just be in my way.”
“I’m very good at being quiet.” Draco is suddenly afraid that Iris might want to throw him out if his invalid condition improves.
“I’m sure you are, love.” Iris pushes her wispy fringe out of her eyes. “But I can’t have you in my hair while I’m cleaning, and little Richard is a lovely boy. My Frank who’s at university always liked him, but they didn’t get on because of the age difference.”
She looks at Draco with a plaintive expression. It makes him feel all hot and irritable and he doesn’t like it. “He hasn’t got a lot of friends.” Her tone changes, and she frowns down at him. “If you’re going to stay here, you might as well get to know each other.”
Five minutes later, Draco scowls as he presses Bert’s doorbell. Iris is meant to be the nice one and here she is, practically threatening to throw Draco out if he doesn't entertain poor little Richard, the Muggle boy with no friends.
Not that Draco himself has any friends right now, actually, but he doesn't need one in the form of Bert’s son. He’ll probably be just as annoying as Potter, only Draco won't be able to hex him because of Muggle-Protection Laws and the fact that the Ministry are probably closely monitoring magic in non-wizarding areas. And he’ll talk about inane Muggle things, like…whatever it is Muggles talk about.
The blue door swings open abruptly and Bert’s large, annoyed face hovers into view. Draco can hear the doorbell trilling shrilly inside the house.
“Hullo, Bert,” he says, in an attempt to be civil.
The expression on Bert’s face suggests that this is a failed attempt, as he looks about as pleased as if Draco had said ‘You’re a bloody stupid, disagreeable old Muggle and I can think of at least seven thousand things I’d rather do than spend time with your offspring.’ This is more or less what Draco is feeling, except a good deal more polite.
“Harry,” Bert acknowledges in a gruff voice. He glares at Draco’s finger, which is still ringing the bell. “You can take your hand off the button now.” Draco does so. Bert does not offer to let Draco in.
“You had breakfast?” Bert demands. Draco nods, rolling up the sleeves of his borrowed shirt, which is far too big for him.
“Iris feed you?” Draco nods again. Bert scowls and wipes his wet hands on the front of his grey overalls. “I see you’re kitted out in Frankie’s old gear. I bet she’s letting you stay there as long as you want, free of charge, isn’t she? If I were her, I’d make you do odd jobs to earn your keep. Not be sponging off kind-hearted souls who don’t know any better.”
Draco sneers in response. Bert is clearly a bad influence and should be kept away from Iris at all costs. ‘Odd jobs,’ indeed.
“Don’t you give me any of your cheek, boy,” warns Bert. “What are you doing here?”
“Iris said I should come over and meet Richard,” states Draco in a monotone. And then, as an afterthought, he adds, “Please.”
“Humph,” says Bert. He sounds disbelieving, as well he might.
He stands aside to let Draco through and Draco steps gingerly into the house, knocking a portrait of a fat woman in a sash that’s hanging on the wall. Bert re-arranges the frame, swearing, and latches the door behind them. There’s no escape, Draco thinks in resignation, gloom settling in the pit of his stomach.
“DICK!” Bert bellows, startling Draco, who jumps. His hand instantly flies to his pocket for his wand. “There’s someone here who wants to meet you!” There is a lengthy silence, and then Bert tries again, even louder. “DICK!”
There is the ominous sound of a creaky door opening and closing, followed by a long pause. Eventually there comes the sound of slow, unhurried footsteps on the stairs. Draco looks impatiently up the worn staircase and sees the shadowy shape of a teenaged boy at the top.
“Come down, then,” says Bert.
The small figure trudges down the steps as if sacks of cement are attached to his heels. The entire descent lasts about ten hours. Bert goes over to his son when he reaches the bottom and cuffs his ear in greeting. The boy flinches.
“This is my son, Dick,” announces Bert. He prods Dick somewhere in the vicinity of his spine. Dick shuffles forwards with every evidence of deep reluctance. He looks the same age as Draco, or maybe a year or two older. There is an uncomfortable silence.
“Well!” exclaims Bert, grimacing at the effort of trying to be sociable. “Say hullo to Harry, then.”
“Hullo,” mumbles Dick, sounding and looking sullen. Draco nods his head a little, inwardly shuddering at the thought they might be asked to shake hands next.
“I don’t know why he’s such a miserable sod.” Bert laughs uneasily, slapping Dick rather too hard on the back. Dick winces. “Always so grumpy, our Dickie.”
Draco knows why Dickie is so grumpy. It is because, quite simply, he is an unfortunate boy.
Dick isn’t unfortunate in the way the real Harry Potter is unfortunate, growing up an orphan and having a giant disfiguration on his forehead. Nor is he unfortunate in the way Draco is unfortunate, being currently on the run from just about every wizard imaginable. He isn’t even unfortunate in the way Neville Longbottom is unfortunate, for having a memory like a sieve and a talent for nothing but incompetence.
Dickie is unfortunate in the respect that everyone who meets him—even the other unfortunates—gains a great sense of perspective and thinks ‘Ah well. My life could be so much worse.’
Dick is shorter than Draco and rather overweight. Not grossly so—much like Crabbe is a bit more meaty than muscled—but he insists on wearing too-small tracksuit bottoms that stop mid-calf and expose a small section of nauseatingly pink flesh before rolled-up white socks shield his ankles from view.
Whether he’s been exercising or not is uncertain, but large patches underneath the arms of his shirt are certainly a much darker grey than the rest of the fabric and a fishy smell emanates from near his person. There is an inexplicable ripped blob of tissue sticking to a patch of skin just above Dick’s left ear. Upon closer inspection, Draco can see that Dick’s chin, neck and forehead are dotted with pinky-yellow pustules and more tiny scraps of tissue, presumably to hide nicks made while shaving. Why one would feel the need to shave one’s temples Draco can’t imagine, but presumably Muggles have very odd habits.
Dick wears glasses like Potter, although his are square and so thick that his eyes are magnified to huge proportions. This is a good thing, in Draco’s opinion, as Dick’s large, watery irises detract attention from his snub nose and mono-brow. His hair consists of little gelled sandy-brown spikes, giving him the look of a hedgehog that’s rolled in an oil slick.
Some people, when not gifted in the looks department, choose instead to cultivate their inner beauty by being warm, open and friendly. Dickie, who is currently scowling and muttering unsettling things under his breath, is clearly not one of them.
“So…tell Harry about what sort of things you like.” Bert seems a little irritated. “Tell him about the bloody mixtures and potions you bubble away up in your room.”
Potions. Draco’s eyes unfocus as Snape’s sallow face flashes abruptly into his mind. Snape, bending over the contents of Potter’s cauldron; Snape, scribbling feverish notes on the blackboard; Snape standing, wand outstretched, in front of Dumbledore…doing what Draco couldn’t…
“I like my chemistry set,” mutters Dick. He casts a hostile lazy eye on Draco. Bert is looking at Draco with mistrust, as if he thinks him certifiably insane. “It’s wizard.”
“What?” Draco yelps, alarmed. He takes a step back, nearly tripping on the hem of my-Frank-who’s-away-at-Unifer-City’s trousers. Everything and everyone are going mad, he is sure of it. Unfriendly Muggle and Son are bandying around decidedly un-Muggle words, therefore curly-tailed farm animals must be performing loop-the-loops in the grey sky outside. “Wizard?”
“Everyone else thinks it’s borin’,” Dick grunts in response, and falls silent. Bert sighs heavily.
“Look, take Harry up to your room, why don’t you?”
“Your knowledge of chemistry is abysmal,” Dick scolds Draco, tugging away the hydrochloric acid before he can contaminate it with his alien germs. Draco had refused to be sterilised for the 'experiments,' on the grounds that the antibacterial hand-gel dried his skin out and felt 'weird and tingly' when he wore it.
Having been provoked earlier, Dick now looks as dangerously near to launching into another one of his half-hour lectures on the merits of acids versus alkalis. Most of the morning has passed in this way, with Dick preaching about ions like a zealous priest on a quest to convert the unbeliever.
“Well, luckily for me,” Draco mutters grumpily, “I don’t care.”
“You don’t care about chemistry?” Dicks looks genuinely astonished. His bulbous brown eyes blink hard behind his glasses.
“Not really, no.” Draco abandons pretence in favour of straightforward honesty. All ‘chemistry’ seems to entail is looking at an array of dull-coloured powders and liquids, and Dick has an annoying tendency to slap his hand away whenever Draco tries to touch anything even remotely interesting.
“What about physics, then? Biology? Geology?” Dick demands. Draco shakes his head and Dick purses his lips in annoyance. “I see,” he says, bristling. “Tell me, what’s it like to be completely out of touch with the real world?”
Quite relaxing, Draco thinks. Sometimes I even forget momentarily about all the real world witches and wizards who want to kill me. Out loud he answers, “I’m not the one who stays locked in his room and does nothing but tinker around with his stupid little potions—chemistry—set all day.”
Dick ignores the jibe. In fact, he doesn’t even appear to notice it. The exasperated insults Draco mutters all-too-audibly under his breath just seem to bounce off Dick's baggy-sweatshirt armour. Perhaps they’re deflected off his mammoth glasses. Either way, they barely register when compared to the effect that barium sulphate has on him.
“Science,” says Dick, not flickering an eyelid, “is absolutely essential to seeing the universe with greater clarity. It shows us how everything works.”
“I’m not that bloody interested in how things work! I’d much rather have them just work for me.”
“Science does work for us,” protests Dick. “Without science we’d just be helpless, boorish savages, having to do everything for ourselves. Science can do anything.”
“That’s not true,” Draco bursts out, on a reflex. He’s surprised he even cares enough to dispute the statement. “This whole ‘science’ thing you lot have is completely primitive.”
“Primitive compared to what, exactly?”
“Oh, never mind. And you can’t do everything. You can’t…fly.”
“Aeroplanes,” states Dick, arms folded over his chest. “Last time I checked, they were pretty adequate at aviation.”
“Oh, do shut up.” Draco frowns, casting around for something that Muggles can’t do that isn’t in itself completely useless, like making a saltshaker waltz with a pepper-pot. “You can’t do lots of things with science. I don’t have to list all of them for you.”
Dick stares at Draco in amused consternation.
“You don’t really think you can fly, do you? Flapping your arms and taking a run up off a cliff, like?”
“No, of course I don’t,” Draco answers wearily. “That’s impossible.”
Dick takes a dropper and squirts a thin stream of indicator into clear liquid that smells faintly of lemons. He then swirls the conical flask reverently, like a wine connoisseur swilling a particularly fine Bordeaux. The liquid turns bright pink.
“My dad and Iris always arrange for the weirdest people to come and play with me,” Dick confides. He follows this revelation with prising a hardened wad of gum out of the ridge of his ear. “They’ve all been completely insane, every last one. But you,” Dick smiles matter-of-factly, chomping on the tiny grey square, “you are the biggest freak I've had yet.”
“What did you do with Richard today?” Iris asks when Draco bursts into the warm kitchen, declaring loudly that he is absolutely famished.
He slides onto his wooden stool and waits expectantly while Iris dollops an amount of stew onto his plate that would reduce a starving child in a Third World country to tears.
“Ell-ec-trick-city,” announces Draco, feeling a faint surge of pride at pronouncing the word correctly, “and wires and things.”
“You young boys, such an enthusiasm for your studies.” Iris picks up two columns of dirty plates and deposits them in the stainless steel sink. “Just like my Frank.”
“He’s at Unifer City, isn’t he?” says Draco smugly, through a mouthful of lamb. He’s getting quite good at this Muggle-impersonator lark, really. Then he remembers that it’s hardly anything to be proud of, and viciously spears a roast potato with his fork in annoyance.
“He is!” Iris exclaims. She appears surprised and delighted that Draco’s picked up on this fact, although he would have to be spectacularly obtuse not to, given the fact that Iris has been name-dropping her son ever since Draco first met her. “Smart as a whip, the both of you. I remember him studying over his silly old calculus with Richard after school…although Frankie was always more on the athletic side than dear Richard.”
Iris’s eyes soften as she looks past Draco, at the fridge. The fridge is one of those new and perplexing Muggle doodads that Draco is still trying to figure out. It’s a—far more primitive, obviously—equivalent of a Cooling Charm. However, Draco doesn’t think it likely that it’s the fridge’s talent for food preservation that’s making Iris come over all sentimental. He turns around.
A picture of Frank is resting on top of the fridge, in a bronze picture frame that gleams from being polished religiously. Draco can’t think how the sheen hasn’t caught his eye before.
Frank himself looks like something of an Ancient Greek god, if Greek gods shopped at Pull and Bear. He’s roughly six foot three—no wonder his clothes dwarf Draco—muscled and slightly tanned, despite the fact that the range of weather conditions in the vicinity of the B&B doesn’t seem to include sunlight.
Golden-brown curls frame Frank’s face and cheekily innocent blue eyes shine out of an honest, friendly face. Frank’s sitting on a boulder somewhere in the rain, hair windswept and tousled to perfection. He’s wearing a navy Muggle jacket made out of that odd waterproof material—plastic? Draco tests himself—and he looks so utterly wholesome that Draco reckons you could set him down next to a loaf of freshly baked bread and not know the difference.
“He doesn’t look much like you,” Draco observes.
He doesn’t mean anything by it. The simple fact of the matter is that Iris is about four foot tall, with nothing much except a constant smile to recommend her in the way of facial features, whereas Frank is a devastatingly attractive rock-climbing giant.
Devastatingly attractive, that is, if you like that sort of thing, which Draco of course does not.
Iris murmurs something inaudible and ladles more stew onto his plate, making the brown tides rise higher on his roast potato islands.
“What?” asks Draco absent-mindedly, still staring at the picture.
“He’s the spitting image of his daddy,” Iris says quietly.
Draco suddenly gets the feeling that he is blundering stupidly around the edges of some yawning psychological chasm and mentally backs away, shifting his gaze.
Next to the picture of Frank on the rock, there is another photograph in a wooden frame. It’s a close-up of Frank as a baby, gurgling happily and wearing something green with embroidered teddy bears on it. Even then, his eyes had that angelic twinkle, but in all other respects he looks—as all babies do—like a pampered, overweight and slightly balding politician. Baby Frank is being held up to the camera by a large pair of hands with a gold band on the ring finger. These hands are decidedly not Iris’ for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being that they are male.
“Did you know,” says Draco hurriedly, “that current electricity is a flow of charged particles, usually through a circuit and, in all dry conductors, the flow is of electrons and therefore of negative charge?”
Iris shakes her head vigorously and stares at Draco as if coming out of a daze.
“No, I expect I didn’t, dear.” She beams. “But how fascinating.”
The rain sloughs down, creating such neat parallel lines in the mud that Hermione, had she not currently been engaged in a screaming match, would have wanted to get out her measuring tape and start analysing the phenomenon.
Harry crouches at the entrance to the cave, absently chewing his tongue as he attempts to skewer half a tomato on a long twig. He is failing on a consistent basis, as the flesh of the tomato is too soft for the twig to gain any purchase. His plastic poncho, spread out before his feet, bears witness to his previous efforts. It is splattered with skeins of tomato skin, enough pips to start a tomato plantation, and unappetising blobs of red flesh, which make the poncho look like its last home was in an operating theatre.
There is the option of conjuring up a frying pan in which to cook the tomatoes, as singeing off the distinct and disgusting tomato taste is Harry’s ultimate aim in the exercise. However, this would mean that his task would be completed in mere seconds, and he would have to return to adjudicate his best friends’ latest blazing row. For the first few Harry had been, if not eager, at least willing to do so. By the time the twenty-sixth one had come around he was beginning to weary of them.
“Stay, dammit,” Harry commands the tomato. There is a second’s pause during which the tomato swings from the twig, and Harry feels the stirrings of dismay at his looming success, before the tomato takes a suicidal leap on to, and all over, Harry’s boot.
“Bugger,” says Harry happily. He reaches into the net bag beside him for another. His fingers brush cold stone and, on looking down to investigate the anomaly, he finds the bag empty.
There comes the thud of feet trying to make as much noise as possible without much to do it with, and Hermione’s boots hove into sight. Harry moves his gaze up, taking in her crossed arms and mutinous expression. Her hair, never on the flat side even under normal conditions, has blown up to the size of a haystack.
“Hey.” Harry uses the utmost caution to keep his voice as neutral as possible. “How’s the fire coming?”
“It’s not,” says Hermione, panting through her nose. “The firewood Ron collected is damp through. It has to be dried out. When I reminded him that we’re supposed to limit our magic use to essentials, he said a fire is an essential—”
“It is,” complains Ron from the rear of the cave. “Tell her, Harry. Food, water, shelter and protection. I told her this.”
“Which one of those is a synonym for ‘fire,’ excuse me? We have food—well, tomatoes—the cave is shelter and we have our wands for protection.” Hermione catches a handful of hair and throws it over her shoulder, to very little effect. Three times as much shimmies forward to take its place, leaving her looking more like an electrocuted poodle than ever.
“Fire is a protection,” says Ron. “Against…wild animals. And stuff.”
“Wild animals, I ask you,” snorts Hermione. “In Cumbria! There’s none! Unless you’re going to start classifying foxes and rabbits as something we’re in danger from, instead of the other way around.”
“Er,” says Harry. “I think we do need a fire. For these tomatoes. I kind of massacred them.”
Hermione glances down at the miniature sacrificial altar and huffs. The look she throws Harry, before she stomps off to an outcropping at the opposite side of the cave, is one part irritation and two parts betrayal.
Ron lets out a none-too-discreet whoop of triumph. Hermione sends him a molten glare. Harry gathers up his poncho with a sigh.
Every time he is forced to make a call like this, one or the other of his friends goes off into a sulk. It doesn't matter if the eventual outcome is the most obvious and logical solution, such as two days before when Harry had to admit that Hermione would be the best choice for venturing into the nearest Muggle village for supplies.
Ron would only have drawn attention to himself with his ignorance about the currency and novel items like beans in tins. Harry had been out of the question—it was crucial that the Death Eaters remained in the dark about his movements. All the same, Ron had taken offence to ‘the way Hermione said’ that he couldn’t tell a five-pound note from a fungus on his big toe. He didn’t say goodbye when she left. In the uncertain times in which they lived, it was a cutting statement. After all, there had been a fair chance that she might not return.
By the next morning he had cooled down and could even allow that he wouldn’t have made as good a job of shopping as Hermione. Yet the fact that Ron spent an entire night under a dark cloud because of something so trivial is typical of his relations with Hermione these days. It’s coming to the stage where, in the darkest depths of the night, Harry’s regretting bringing them along. Or at least, bringing both of them along.
It’s early August. It’s not chilly enough to make a fire the difference between life and death, but still cool enough to make one the difference between comfort and numb feet all night. Not to mention that their meal will be somewhat more palatable if burnt. Harry doubts that Hermione’s bad temper is due to the fact that she actually craved the sensation of having ice-blocks around her extremities as she tried to sleep. No, it’s a simple case of one-upwizardship.
Harry shuffles over to a large stone, wondering why they don’t just carry a frying pan with them instead of expending magic on conjuring one everywhere they stopped.
Oh, he remembers. There’d been an argument over that, too.
He makes a couple of magical forays on the stone and produces something that might have been a frying pan, if it wasn’t more a rather notched stone that bore a superficial resemblance to a frying pan. He flicks his fingers off the base to a twang of metal and a dull ache in his nails; it’s good enough for him.
He adds an anti-sticking charm to the nominally flat part. Hermione returned from her shopping trip without any butter, claiming it to be an extravagance and, also, bad for your health. If that wasn’t a move calculated to annoy Ron, whose favourite food is bacon butties dripping with melted fat, Harry doesn’t know what is.
Whatever the case, it’s quite clear to Harry that Hermione has never done any real cooking in her life. The idea that food had to be greased to prevent it turning to charcoal during cooking was in the way of being a huge revelation to her.
Ron deposits an armful of branches and twigs on the floor beside Harry and squats down beside him. “All dry,” he announces, brandishing his wand. “You want me to start a fire?”
“Yeah, please,” says Harry. He turns his frying pan stone the right way up. Ron gives it a suspicious glance.
“What’s this? An axe? You’re not planning to go hunting any wild animals, are you? Hermione’ll go spare.” Ron pauses. “Well, more spare.”
“It’s a frying pan,” says Harry, with a tinge of exasperation. He prods it again with his wand, feeling the deprivation of another year’s honing of his Transfiguration skills. Seventh year was when they learned how to Transfigure things into food, according to Hermione. It would come in damn handy right now.
“Oh.” Ron makes the face he always does when he’s trying to tell a lie or a compliment, the one that suggests severe intestinal troubles. “Um. Do you want some help?”
“No,” says Harry. He feels testy, both because it’s really Ron’s fault that Hermione could not be persuaded to do this spell for him, and also at Ron’s silent criticism of Harry’s effort. “Just—go and make up with Hermione, will you? This is getting ridiculous.”
“You’re sure you don’t need me for anything? I could try and catch a rabbit with my teeth, or cut off my own hand with a pebble.” Ron takes in Harry’s expression, which, if Harry’s mental state is anything to go by, is fairly terrible. “All right, all right. But if I’m not back in an hour, tell Mum I love her, okay?”
After a punch to Ron’s arm which relieved both their tempers somewhat, Harry crawls over to their small pile of belongings. They are wrapped in a sheet of tarp that is magically charmed to resist water and the more adventurous races of marauding insect.
During the day, Hermione keeps it in her pocket by means of a Reducing Spell, but Harry pointed out that in order to keep up their façade of Muggle hikers they’d need some genuine equipment. That’s where the backpack, raingear and boots come in. As yet they’ve not encountered any Muggles to test their authenticity, but the blisters they have to magic away every night are real enough.
Harry rummages through the dwindling stockpile of food with one hand, his other going automatically to the locket he wears around his neck. He checks it every few minutes, unwilling to let it out of his sight or even allow his friends to touch it. It is now a habit as deeply-engrained as shoving his glasses up his nose.
He discovers two rather elderly sausages and some rice and carries them over to the crackling fire. He doesn’t have the energy to build a tripod, so he just piles everything into the frying pan and holds it over the flames himself. The heat soon becomes overwhelming, but Harry strips off his jumper to compensate. The smell of cooking food is the one bright spot in an otherwise fruitless and exhausting day.
He glances over at Ron and Hermione. Ron is perched on a pyramid of scree, looking tense. That might only be due to the fragility of his seat, however. He and Hermione do appear to be talking amicably.
The firelight washes the cave walls with splashes of gold and, for a moment, Harry could be back in the Gryffindor common room, watching his friends bent over their homework as he sits on the sofa with Ginny.
His chest tightens at the thought of her, but with an effort he wills the memory away. Harry doesn’t even know where Ginny and the rest of the Weasleys have taken refuge; neither does Ron. It’s safer that way, and a hell of a lot lonelier.
The despair that always wallows below the surface threatens to engulf Harry, but he fights it. Instead of ignoring the painful knowledge that unless he defeats Voldemort, he will never see Ginny again, he acknowledges it. It makes him all the more determined to succeed.
It also takes the edge off his irritation with his friends. He knows what it’s like, the emptiness that is the fact that you’ll never see your parents again. It’s all new to them. The spats are just a way to hide the real issue, the one that deals with the fear and inevitability of death.
Despite his dark thoughts, Harry’s heart is lightened. He tosses the knocked-up meal in the frying pan, noting that the tomatoes are slightly toasted. They very nearly look good enough to eat.
He puts the frying pan on the floor to let it cool and Transfigures three forks out of rock. They retain the texture and colour of dirty granite, but at least come fully equipped with three prongs each.
The first time they all ate from the same plate, Hermione could barely restrain her horror at the barbarity and Ron spilled half of the food due to a trifling hand-to-mouth miscalculation. Harry presumes the fact that they can now hunker down and eat off the ground and with their fingers is an improvement.
The familiar sound of Hermione’s husky laughter floats over to Harry, giving him a brief flash of well-being. He bites the end off a sausage to test it, finding it quite satisfactory. To complete the taste analysis, he does the same with the other end.
“Grub’s up,” he calls. When Hermione wonders about the bite marks on one of the sausages, he assures her that it’s a normal result of frying.
Harry has always been a light sleeper. Perhaps it once wasn’t so, but years of living on a butter-knife-edge with the Dursleys honed his sleeping skills to the point where he’d be the envy of an Army cadet. The slightest whisper still woke him in case it was Aunt Petunia’s hiss coming through his cupboard door, informing him that Uncle Vernon was ready for his breakfast and where were her symmetrically sliced pieces of toast, if you don’t mind?
This had lead to several embarrassing moments in the dormitories. Harry had often listened with a glowing face as his friends, either consciously or not, panted their way through the litany of their latest crushes. Harry didn’t find it hard to go back to sleep, but he often ended up with afterimages of just what his dorm-mates had been doing blazoned on his eyelids as he drifted off. It was an occupational hazard, just as, once, the chance of oversleeping and facing Aunt Petunia’s wrath had been.
Hermione and Ron, who haven't ever known what slumber was like on a trundle bed with a spring that wanted to make love to the fleshy part of their backs, found it harder to accustom themselves to sleeping on rock and under the stars than Harry did. Once they do sleep, however, they stay that way until Harry shakes them awake. It is Harry who wakes up two or three times a night to Hermione’s slumbering sniffles and mumbled ‘Mummy’s or Ron’s ‘Mmm, just like that, yeah.’
The cave they’ve stumbled across this time is spacious, however, and safe enough for Harry to position his sleeping bag near the entrance a good six feet away from his friends. They've both claimed warm spaces on either side of the fire. As Harry drops off, Hermione is still rooting around for some moisturising cream and Ron is struggling with the zip on his sleeping bag. Harry lets his eyes slide shut.
A jumble of incoherent voices guides Harry into wakefulness. He rolls over and checks the luminous dial of his new watch. It still stings a bit to look at it—it had been a seventeenth birthday present from Ginny. It reads one thirty.
He freezes as the sounds he’s hearing drop into place, like three anvils on a slot-machine. There’s a sort of breathy moan, followed by a soft, damp noise that Harry knows very well. The sighs and unmistakable rustling of clothing are the most embarrassing, though.
He almost prefers the fighting.
Rigid with mortification, both at the scene he’s an unwilling witness to and at his body’s uncontrollable reaction to it, Harry grinds his fists into his eyes and tries to convince his very alert brain that what it really wants is sleep.
At last, he does drop off again. When his eyes jerk open, it’s to the dim racket of birdsong. He shifts around in his sleeping bag, making enough of a scrape of silk to warn any snogging best mates that he’s awake now too. After rolling around for long enough to feel the gritty cave floor intimately against his back, Harry decides that his friends must be still asleep.
This time he doesn’t wake them straight away. They’re both back in their own sleeping bags, looking as innocent as babes in the wood. Hermione is curled up like the fossil of a sea anemone, only her shock of hair visible about the sleeping bag. Ron, who’s a hot creature, has his bag unzipped—or maybe he just couldn’t do it up again; fastenings are a great puzzle to him—and one pale leg is thrown over it, straddling the rucked cloth. Harry feels a queer jolt at the sight of him. He can’t decide if he disapproves, approves, or is indifferent to their night-time forays into each other’s clothes. Any way, he’s still the dupe, forced to put up with their bickering but shut out of their explorations.
Yes, he thinks he can definitely call a ‘bitter’ on that one.
Spying Hermione’s parchment and quill, he scrawls a hasty note to the effect that he’s gone for a walk. Hermione is supposed to be keeping a journal of their findings, but as yet there’s a depressingly small amount to report.
Harry pulls on his boots and scrunches his gritty hair out of his eyes. It’s so long that the strands keep startling him as they fall across his vision.
He supposes he can’t really fault Hermione and Ron for seeking comfort in each other’s arms. If he’s honest, he wouldn’t mind having a pair of arms to seek comfort in himself. Unfortunately for him, the only pair qualified are God knows where. Dead, even, for all he knows.
Harry pushes that stomach-churning thought from his mind, allowing the brief jealousy at the ease of Hermione and Ron’s love affair to fade. It was always right in front of them, but it would take a mission of high danger and secrecy make them realise it.
The morning air is crisp and almost sears his throat with its cleanliness. Nearby, the birds that roused him are at it again hammer and tongs. He even glimpses a drab brown bird swelling its tiny chest in song, before it sees him and deflates as if in embarrassment at being caught out. Harry almost smiles.
He climbs to the rise that they gave up the night before on encountering. Quidditch never kept him fit and he’s puffing by the time he gets to the top, but he’s certainly better off than he was on starting the quest. He thinks he might even have developed muscles elsewhere than in his thighs by this stage.
The view from the top is hardly worth the effort, composed as it is of field upon field of marshy grass, spotted with the odd, static-looking sheep. The clouds mass low on the horizon, as if sulky at being woken up so early. All in all, it’s an unprepossessing sight but for the castle.
Harry spots it just as the sun deigns to sidle out from behind a copse of trees and drench the sky with lurid spindles of pink and gold. It illuminates the biscuit-coloured stone with a rosy glow, making it look as pretty and unlikely as a picture postcard. Harry gives a low whistle, impressed despite himself.
He tries to judge the distance between him and the castle and gives up. Instead, his feet drag him onwards, drawn by a compulsion he can’t be bothered to deny. As he gets closer, he sees that the castle is derelict, wreathed in ivy like a bride’s veil and sporting more piles of collapsed brickwork than a builder’s yard.
It is a petite bridesmaid to Hogwart’s grandeur and scale. Harry, walking its circumference in ten minutes, decides it’s nothing more than a watch tower or belfry, a relic of some ancient monastic settlement desperate to hoard its chalices and reliquaries from Vikings and the tenets of priestly poverty.
At the same time, there’s something hallowed and hushed about the place. Harry, who on his aunt’s orders was always kept back from school trips, indulges in a childish desire to explore and play. He pushes aside a curtain of ivy and steps across the threshold, feeling a thrill he’s more used to getting from wandering around bigger castles at dark times of the night.
Inside, the little castle is dim and smells of mulching greenery. Spurts of light break through from slit-like windows and lance down on centuries’ worth of compost.
Harry finds a flight of crumbling steps leading up in a winding cascade to who knows where. Checking that his wand is firmly in his pocket and in reach, Harry mounts the steps, hands sliding over the mossy walls in an attempt at holding his balance. In spite of these great measures, as the steps go up and up, leaving the floor a tiny green circle far below him, Harry feels a tinge of vertigo.
He’s glad when he comes out on to a tiny parapet, even though the sight is hardly one to reassure his protesting stomach. Heights never bothered him when he was on a broom, but then again he’d always had something to propel him through the air and, if need be, to guide him back to the ground again.
A few of the ruined outhouses are visible far below him, looking as if they’d been crushed by a giant’s boot. Given, as it turned out, the former proliferation of giants in Britain, Harry wouldn’t be surprised if that was in fact the fate that befell the buildings. He leans out further over the parapet and feels the mortar crumbling under his fingers. His stomach puts up a full scale protest march complete with placards, and Harry retreats hastily, his back to the rotting shingles of the roof and his head spinning.
Spider-like, he inches around the side of the roof, keeping a good distance between himself and the edge. Yet more fields and toy houses span the distance; he can even see the mound of the cave. Closer to home, white initials have been scratched in the stone of the parapet, suggesting that he’s not the only one to have ventured up here for a lark.
A shingle makes a break for freedom and Harry jumps back just in time. It sparks off the floor of the parapet and skids over the edge of the disintegrating stone, finally making its farewell bid in slow motion. Harry has just enough time to imagine that the odd shaped knobbles on the underside of the slate were hissing at him, before it crashes down through the banked weeds a hundred feet below.
Feeling a potent shot of anxiety, Harry turns around.
The slate has left a gaping hole in the neat pattern, a far greater one than would be expected given its size. Instead of seeing down through a hole to the struts and timbers of the inner roof, Harry comes eye to eye with what looks very like a door handle, in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail.
“I was wondering if you were ever going to notice that,” says a pleasant voice from somewhere to his left.
Harry looks down at the small wooden box before him with rather dazed merriment. It is a simple thing, yet it gives off the impression of being very, very old. It seems to be from an age of masterworks that were so perfectly made that any ornamentation would have been an affront to the dignity of the genius that created it.
“Go on, then,” urges Elizabeth.
Harry looks up to meet her opaque gaze, still feeling vaguely uncomfortable about doing so. Of course, he’s seen ghosts before, talked to ghosts before, but it’s always been in context. The context being a place where the armour held philosophical discussions with the tapestries and there were lots of other people, other kids, to stick with, and share the knowledge that they were feeling a tiny bit freaked out as well.
It’s not quite as reassuringly occult when he can see through Elizabeth's pupils to the leaves behind her head. Or when the strong sunlight means that she flickers in and out of his vision like a scene on a television that’s reflecting back the room as often as it’s showing Coronation Street.
Harry cups both palms over the two longitudinal sides of the box, tenses his forearms and pops the lid off. Elizabeth lets out a contented sigh. It sounds like the wind rustling dry paper; it’s the most solid thing about her. Harry wonders if, over time, ghosts get worn out, fading away until they’re nothing more than voices on the breeze—but his attention is quickly captured by the object nestling in the scented wood-shavings that line the box.
It’s a very small horn. Harry lifts is out. Some of the wood-shavings flutter out as he does so, crunching against his fingers with a pungent smell of old rose-petals. The horn twinkles and sparkles in the sun, like a porcelain-and-platinum fashion model gyrating down a catwalk.
“What’s all this stuff?” Harry taps the various panels of shiny, flecked inlay on the horn.
“Lots of things.” Elizabeth shrugs. For a moment Harry can see her pointed slippers, insubstantial as smoke, beneath the translucent embroidered gown. Her feet rest on the air a few feet above his head. She seems to enjoy looking down at him, but if she were to stand on a level with him she’d barely reach his chin. “Chalcedony, white opal, a few sapphires. Ivory, of course.” She smiles to herself, covering her mouth with a dainty hand.
“Oh, right.” Harry’s education in gem work is severely lacking; he just thinks the horn is a pretty thing. He draws it out further, revealing an attached gold chain of two thick strands coiled around each other. “Can I blow it?”
“You could try,” says Elizabeth. “You’d probably get a mouthful of dust, though.”
“Oh.” Harry flicks a money spider off the chain, feeling his enthusiasm for the idea diminish. “I thought you said what was in here was a magical object?”
“It is,” says Elizabeth. “That does not mean that it is not subject to age. Age is the one thing that magic could never combat.”
Harry could think of a few things that could, Voldemort coming tops—not to mention that the Philosopher’s Stone combated age quite effectively. Elizabeth might have died before that discovery, however. In any case, Harry doesn’t feel like contradicting her. There’s something disconcerting about the fixed, burning gaze that transparency does nothing to dim.
Harry runs his fingers along the length of the horn. It fits snugly into the palm of his hand, but feels icy cold to the touch. Just like the locket. His hand flies to his neck, but the locket is intact, skimming his collarbones like an icicle.
He feels another sensation, but this time a more familiar one: sticking his hand into Fred and George’s esky to fish out the last beer. Harry looks up, not surprised to see that Elizabeth has placed her hand on his arm, or more technically through it.
“I had a feeling that you were the person who was meant to find the horn of Ravenclaw,” she said, her voice low and earnest. It sounded to Harry as though he was trying to listen to it through a thick wall. “I can tell you its history, if you make me a promise.”
“What’s that, then?” asks Harry. He is wary of this ghost-girl’s intentions. Her tumbling curls fall across her shoulder and she bites a plump lip, which retains the faintest hint of pearl-like fullness.
“That you promise to take me with you when you leave,” she bursts out, sounding agonised. “The last time, I did not force that promise. I allowed myself to be entranced by false vows. I swore that if the chance should come again I should not make such a dire mistake!”
“Okay,” says Harry, trusting her less and less. “But what’s that got to do with me?”
He doesn’t really fancy having a ghost as a walking companion; if nothing else, it will put paid to any interaction at all with Muggles, who seemed to regard ghosts as something scary and portentous instead of an infliction rather akin to rats. Although, faced by this girl’s wretched voice and penetrating stare, which suggests that she’s someone well versed in emotional manipulation, Harry is starting to revise his opinion on ghosts. There is something vaguely sinister about Elizabeth, like a pair of fluffy slippers with fangs.
“Well, you are going to take the horn with you, aren’t you?” she asks, sounding and looking genuinely surprised.
“I don’t know,” hedges Harry.
Certainly Hermione would be intrigued by it and want to subject it to rigorous tests that would reveal some stunning piece of information, like that the glue used was derived from Flobberworms. He doubts that this is a good exchange—a creepy ghost is not exactly this month’s most sought-after fashion accessory. Accessory to murder by fright-induced cardiac arrest, more like.
“But…isn’t that why you came up here?” she said, sounding forlorn. “To fetch it?”
“Not exactly,” said Harry. Either his hands are sweating or the horn is secreting an unpleasant, viscous substance on to his palms. He looks down, thinking he’ll see an oily sheen on his fingers, but there’s nothing there. The horn gleams innocently.
“Oh,” sighs Elizabeth. She ‘sits down,’ insofar as she crumples up beside Harry like a wet tissue, just preventing herself from sinking down through the roof. “I was so sure, when I saw that you were a wizard…and so like the other…”
“The other?” Harry wipes his hands on his jeans and frowns at her. Having the horn in his lap is like pressing an ice cube to his crotch, so he wastes no time in bundling it back into its box. The shavings are beginning to reek of dead lilies now.
“Tom Riddle.” Elizabeth regards him without blinking. “He came to take it the first time. He was the first one who knew what he was looking for.”
Harry gapes at her, several things clicking into place. The coldness of the horn, the slimy feeling, the snakes on the door handle; even the rotting scent of the wood shavings. It positively smacks of Voldemort’s corrupting touch.
Elizabeth looks more alert now—hopeful, even. She nods as Harry croaks out an echoing “Tom Riddle? He took this?”
“He swore he would not harm it!” cries Elizabeth. “He lied! But he did not lie when he said that he would send someone to fetch it, in years to come. I thought that person was you. I thought that you were his son.”
Harry clutches his hair, wanting to deny it until his throat is torn. However, he retains enough self-control to realise that shouting obscenities at Elizabeth will make her clam up faster than a shy oyster. And he needs the information she’s been proffering, even if it means letting her trail him, be his friend and going to her Deathday parties.
“Elizabeth,” he says, “you’d better tell me everything.” He gets to his feet. “Come on. We can talk as we—I mean, as I walk.”
The storm breaks just as Harry steps inside the cave. During the last few hundred yards, drops of rain have been spitting off the boggy ground around him. Without Hermione to chastise him, Harry felt free to use an Impermeable Charm on himself and is consequently as dry as a bone in an anatomist’s underground archive. The sky is a thick, ominous yellow and Harry stays for a minute to observe forks of lightning bisect the clouds, as if wielded by an angry giant who keeps missing the lettuce.
“Harry? Is that you?” Hermione’s voice trembles.
“Yup,” says Harry, digging his hands into his pockets. His informative chat with Elizabeth blanched the details of last night from his mind but now, faced with Hermione wearing bed-head-hair and pillow creases on her cheeks, it all comes flooding back.
“Oh, thank God,” sighs Hermione. “Is Ron with you, then?”
“No,” says Harry, frowning. “Isn’t he here? With you?”
“Oh, no! This means he didn’t find you…” In the murky light, Harry can see that Hermione is wringing her hands. “We thought you’d been captured or killed or something. Ron went out to look for any clues and I stayed here in case you came back.”
“But I left you a note!” says Harry in horror. He snatches up the parchment by Hermione’s bedroll and unfurls it. “There, look! I’m going for a walk to clear my head. See you in an hour. Harry.”
“Oh, no,” moans Hermione again. “I never saw that. I never thought of looking there. We’ve all been so good about not poking in each other’s things…”
“Is everything quite all right?” ventures a high voice from behind Harry.
Harry shuts his eyes and chafes his creased forehead. Now is really not the time to be regaling Hermione with wild tales of the Horcrux he’s just stumbled on, but letting Hermione think that she’s seeing a ghost that Harry can’t probably isn’t the best move either, in the circumstances. Besides, Elizabeth would hardly appreciate the gesture.
“Hermione, this is Elizabeth, a ghost I just met,” he says, his voice drooping with weariness. He’s had a full night’s rest, but all he wants to do is sleep and not wake up until someone else has sorted out this whole, ugly mess for him. It’s an un-heroic and unworthy thought, so Harry does his best to quash it before it has a chance to graduate into speech.
“Hello.” Hermione sniffles, but makes an effort to smile. “I’m Hermione.”
“My name is Elizabeth.”
She’s done something to her voice, Harry thinks. It sounds sweet and tuneful, as if someone is cranking it out of a music box, complete with velvet interior and twirling ballerina.
“I would shake your hand, but I seem to be rather challenged in that area of late,” adds Elizabeth.
Against the odds, Hermione laughs. True, it’s more like a bark, but it’s there and Harry stares at her in amazement.
“One of my friends has just disappeared,” says Harry, as much to remind Hermione of the fact as to inform Elizabeth. “I’m afraid I can’t—I mean, we have to start looking for him. Now.”
“It is raining,” observes Elizabeth, her tone cool. “And very misty. These moors turn into a maze when there is a fog. Even the locals dare not venture out for fear of becoming lost forever.”
“Is that what happened to you, then?” asks Harry nastily. He doesn’t like what Elizabeth is insinuating, both about Ron and his own tracking skills. Hermione gasps, and Harry belatedly remembers that it is very bad manners to ask a ghost how he or she died.
“No.” Elizabeth does not look shaken, although of course ghosts have far better facial control than their living counterparts. “But I would not recommend that you start searching for your friend until the weather has cleared.”
“How long will that take?” Hermione’s voice trembles with anxiety.
Elizabeth lifts one delicate shoulder. “On these moors? Days. Weeks, even. In my day, when someone got lost, a large party of searchers would go abroad with flaming torches. Even then, many people remained lost.”
“We don’t have parties of searchers,” Hermione states the obvious, chewing her lip. “We’ll just have to hope that it stops raining soon.”
“No,” Harry buts in. “I’ll go look for him now. It can’t be that bad. It’s the middle of the day, for Chrissakes, and I have my wand.”
“I have a better solution,” interjects Elizabeth. “Let me look for him and guide him home. I will not be fazed by the mists, for I can rise above them. Nor will thunder be a danger to me. I will search for your friend and return him to you.”
Harry narrows his eyes at her, wondering what she’ll want for this. Hermione, however, has let out a gasp of relief and an anguished, “Oh, would you?” Harry can’t very well demand to know Elizabeth’s motives when Ron’s life might be at stake. Privately, though, Harry only thinks that this would be the case if Ron came upon a cell of Death Eaters hiding out in a shepherd’s cot.
“Look, here’s a picture of him,” says Hermione, fumbling in her pockets. Harry peeks over her shoulder and sees a picture he can’t place. Hermione and Ron are squinting at the camera, blinded by sun and unacknowledged lust. Hermione’s sun-top is slipping off her shoulder with the help of Ron’s hand, which is flung across her shoulder.
Hermione makes to hand the photo to Elizabeth, then blushes and holds it up like an idiot board. Elizabeth regards it for a few moments. She looks a bit more at home in the dank surroundings of the cave, but Harry still doesn’t like the way her eyes flicker in and out of focus.
“Very well,” she says, her voice modulating to a velvety burr. “Do not fear, Hermione. I will bring your lover home.”
“He’s not—how did you—” gasps Hermione. Elizabeth just floats up a few inches and winks at Harry.
It’s the first human gesture he’s seen her make. Even as he fumes about sitting in the cave doing nothing, he feels a dart of camaraderie. As she fades out of view into the pelting rain, Harry crushes it. He has a hard enough time dealing with the friends he has. Particularly when they’re gibbering protests and blushing hard enough to power half a dozen red-light districts.
After a while, Hermione’s voice dies down and she sets to biting her nails, a habit she’s cleaved to with some assiduity. Harry’s own nails have been long ago reduced to whitish stubs; since his hair has got so long he’s taken to chewing that instead, so it looks more like a ratty seventies carpet than ever. His stomach cramps as he thinks of Ron, and he wishes very hard indeed that Hermione had thought to check her damn parchment. What was Ron thinking of, running off into the horizon like that? Trying to act the hero? Harry has his hands full just keeping his head above water…
To distract himself, he begins to compose a letter to Ginny in his head.
No, that isn’t intimate enough.
Too intimate. Harry isn’t a 'darling' sort of person.
My dear Gin
Wins the award for stuffiest greeting in the history of the world.
Is far too abrupt. He isn’t an army major. Yet.
I met a ghost today. Her name’s Elizabeth and she thought I was Voldemort’s son. I didn’t tell her I wasn’t because it turns out she’s the guardian of one of his Horcruxes…
Harry’s eyes flutter closed before he can figure out a way to tell Ginny how much he misses her.
The dark is drawing in when Elizabeth and Ron return, sketching lacy grey clouds against the horizon and shading in the foreground with incessant, drumming rain. Ron is stumbling. The mud coating his trousers, hands and in fact every part of him bar his nose bear witness to the amount of times he must have fallen. Hermione, whose practicality was once as firm as a rock but is now being eroded by love, runs out into the rain to catch Ron about the waist and guide him inside.
On some levels he’s furious at Ron for doing this, for bringing trouble down on their heads. On another level he’s grateful to have such a friend as Ron, who would go rushing out into a storm to find him. The gratitude leaves him embarrassed and unbalanced, so he stands aside to let Hermione rush Ron to the fire and ply him with Transfigured blankets and the last of the tea.
Harry moves back to engage Elizabeth in conversation. The ghost is hanging in the air just inside the cave, her expression as still as a pool in a Zen Buddhist temple. One shapely finger is tapping her lower lip.
“Was he far?” asks Harry. “From here, I mean. Did it take you long to find him?”
“He was sprawled in a ditch, soaking wet and chilled to the bone,” says Elizabeth. Harry is disgusted to hear a note of relish in her voice, and her roundabout method of answering questions leaves Harry searching for the fast-lane motorway. “Twas a fair distance from here as the crow flies, but as mortals walk I cannot judge. It has been long and long since I felt the earth beneath my feet. It took us twice the journey again to return, for your friend was in grave need of assistance that I could not render. He fell often to kiss the dirt.”
“Listen,” interrupts Harry, “could you lay off the poetic descriptions for a bit and start talking like a normal person?”
Elizabeth does the phantom equivalent of quivering in indignation; a ripple runs through her grainy image, like the crackle of static on a television screen. “I’m not quite sure I grasp your meaning,” she says, in a stiff little voice that suggests the music box of yore has started to rust.
“All you needed to say was how far away Ron was from here,” says Harry, “and you didn’t even do that! You could have guessed—three, four miles, maybe? Did they have miles when you were alive?”
Another ripple runs through Elizabeth. “Yes, they did,” she snaps. “I venture it was perhaps five miles from here. He started to wander in the mist. He was very near to a Muggle village when he collapsed.”
“Thank you,” says Harry, with a tinge of sarcasm. He can’t help it—there’s something about Elizabeth that rubs him up the wrong way. Even her narrowed eyes irk him, both with their insolence and their familiarity. He can’t think who she reminds him of, but he’s fairly certain that it’s no one he likes.
“Harry?” Hermione sounds wretched. “I—I think there’s something wrong with Ron.”
“Of course there is,” mutters Harry. “He’s been wandering moors all day in the rain.” Elizabeth’s eyes are slits, but Hermione, busy cradling Ron’s damp head in her arms, doesn’t appear to have heard him.
Harry sighs and kneels in the dirt beside Hermione. Ron does look in a very bad way. His lips are blue and his veins are popping out in his forehead and neck. Rivulets of sweat course down his skin but, when Harry lays a hand against it, it is icy to the touch.
“He’s running a fever,” guesses Harry.
Hermione nods, biting her lip. She brushes some tendrils of hair from Ron’s face, her movements tender, and Harry feels a fist of jealousy squeezing his chest. Harry’s been ill enough to require the hospital wing more times than he can count, but he’s never had someone to sit beside him and stroke his hair.
Harry shakes off his uncharitable thoughts to take up one of Ron’s hands—it’s like holding an iceberg with fingers—and call his name. There’s no response. Ron’s eyes do not flicker. He lies in Hermione’s arms like a limp rag-doll.
“I don’t know what to do, Harry,” whimpers Hermione. “I’ve studied a few Healing charms but I don’t know much about them, I never read up on diagnosis, I could give him the wrong magic and—”
“It’s not a magical sickness, though, is it?” says Harry. “He’s just running a fever from being out in the cold for too long.”
Hermione looks doubtful, which is a mighty feat; her worried expression leaves little room for any other emotion. “I’ve never seen someone with a fever to look so—” she objects, not finishing her sentence. They both know how it ends. Dead.
“We’re going to have to get help,” says Harry. “Can we, I don’t know, side-along Apparate to St Mungo’s or something?”
Hermione shakes her head. “Sick people must not be subjected to Apparition or Portkeys, I distinctly recall reading that. Chapter Two of The Home Guide to Magical Maladies. A person’s sense of themselves is scrambled when they’re ill or unconscious and they could get…lost. Ron’s definitely ill and unconscious.”
They both look down at him. Harry notices that Ron’s breathing has become shallow.
“There’s nothing for it,” says Harry. “We can’t risk going to fetch a Healer. That much magic will definitely alert anyone watching that we’re here. Especially—” He’s about to say, especially seeing as there was a Horcrux hidden in the vicinity up until a few hours ago, but he doesn’t want to frighten Hermione unduly. She’s got enough on her plate.
“How on earth will we know if there’s any Healers around here, though?” frets Hermione. “There mightn’t be another wizard for miles and miles!”
“Have you forgotten your roots, Hermione?” asks Harry. Hermione just stares at him, too anxious to even snap back a retort. “Elizabeth says she found Ron just outside a Muggle town. They’ll be sure to have some kind of doctor nearby.”
“Of course! Oh, Harry, you’re brilliant!” exclaims Hermione, sliding one hand from under Ron’s head to wrap her arm around Harry’s shoulder and kiss him soundly on both cheeks. “And if I make a stretcher for Ron, and we levitate it…”
Harry smiles, in what he hopes is a reassuring way. “It’s got to be worth a try.”
It’s the hardest five miles Harry has ever walked—or, more accurately, sloshed. The rain has turned the moors to a viscous goo that fills their boots and sucks at their jeans. The jeans become waterlogged in minus five seconds, leaving Harry feeling like he’s carting around plate armour made of denim.
He lets Hermione lead and contents himself with pointing his wand at the white splodge that is Ron’s stretcher. Harry's glasses are loaded with little droplets, so that he’s seeing the world through thousands of tiny refracted prisms. There’s hardly any difference between wearing them and not, but Harry feels better knowing that in a pinch he could see. If he had to. Out in the open, nearing Muggle habitation, they daren’t risk any more magic than is required to levitate Ron.
Elizabeth is scouting for them, against Harry’s better judgement. He wanted to leave her behind or help boot her into the next world, but not for her to accompany them like they were on a gay little picnic party. The effect of the rain falling straight through her makes Harry feel rather nauseous, so in one way the fogging of his glasses is a good thing.
At last she floats back to them and says, “We’re coming to the outskirts of the village now. You had best put down that stretcher, unless you want several fainting Muggles on your hands.”
Harry hadn’t thought of that part, having been too absorbed in just how very wet he was. He grinds his teeth, uncomfortably aware that Elizabeth has got one up on him and knows it. All unaware, Hermione guides the stretcher to the ground and tugs Ron’s soaking blankets closer to his body, a look of desperate affection on her face.
“You’d better make yourself scarce,” Harry tells Elizabeth, his tone brusque. “Floating stretchers are one thing, but ghosts will give the bloody Muggles heart attacks.”
Elizabeth inclines her head. “I will find you, then, when you have located shelter.”
“Fine,” says Harry in irritation. “Make sure you do it when everyone’s asleep.”
“I will,” says Elizabeth and, with a faint susurration, she’s gone. A faint shimmer lingers in the air for a few seconds; then that, too, disappears.
Harry stares at the space where she was. However, he has no time to dwell on it or the fact that he’s just invited a ghost to visit him in the witching hour. Ron and Hermione need his attention now.
Harry squats beside them, feeling the horn bulge in his pocket and the locket swing against his chest. A rough moaning sound escapes Ron’s lips, which have turned cerulean.
With unspoken accord, Hermione and Harry both take one of Ron’s arms and twine it about their necks, heaving him to his feet. There seems to be no alternative to dragging him along, until Hermione spots the Transfigured sheet they used to cobble together a stretcher. She drags a Severing Charm along it, producing several large strips that she proceeds to tie around her and Ron’s ankles. She proffers a strip to Harry and he does the same.
It’s the first time Harry has done a three-legged race. It would have almost been fun if it weren’t for the rain, which sends new shudders down his back every second, or the fact that Ron’s head is lolling between his and Hermione’s shoulder. The lank wet hair plastered to Ron's skull makes him look like he’s been bleeding profusely.
“Where now?” says Hermione, as they hobble down a street awash with water.
“Anywhere!” says Harry. “The first house you come to. We have to get Ron out of the rain.”
Nodding, Hermione forges onwards, leading them up the street to a tall, skinny house with white clapboard shutters. The gate to the garden is open, the garden itself a patchwork of snapped flowers and pools of water. They negotiate the steps up to the front door with what Harry can only describe as extreme difficulty. In the process, Ron’s head wobbles like a jelly and his legs bang off every protruding timber strut. Hermione and Harry come in for their fair share of blows as well, and Harry rips his shirt on a nail.
Hermione’s shaking finger finds the bell but before she can press it, Harry grabs her hand to stop her.
“Names,” he hisses. “We can’t have anyone knowing who we are. You be…Lucy. I’ll be, um—”
“Felix,” says Hermione. At Harry’s stare, she shrugs. “What? You picked mine. I like the name Felix.”
“Fine, fine,” says Harry quickly. “Ron can be Bill, that’s not too hard to remember.” He leans on the buzzer and props up Ron’s head. He can feel Ron’s pulse beat against his shoulder, slower and deeper than it should be.
An interminable time passes, although in reality it’s about two minutes. A shuffling sound makes itself heard over the pounding rain, and the door swings open with a creak of protesting hinges.
A short woman stands on the threshold, holding a broom. Harry’s brain is very insistent on the point of her height, or lack thereof, but his eyes want to disagree; her huge, bouffant grey perm adds about a foot of tightly curled hair to her stature. Columns of flashing purple crystals dropping from each ear don’t help in disabusing the viewer of her short status, as they seem to go on forever. She’s swathed in the sort of floral pinny Aunt Petunia favours, only on this woman it actually looks used. There are splashes of sauce on the front, along with a few frayed threads; the pockets bulge with pens, pegs and the miscellany of household cleaning apparatus.
“Hello, lovies,” she says, her motherly face pleating into a smile. “My, but you look like three drowned rats! Poor dears. Here, come inside and I shall fix you some tea, that I shall.” She opens her free arm and ushers them inside.
This is exactly what they were hoping for, but Hermione throws an aghast glance at Harry over Ron’s head. They manoeuvre him inside while the woman clucks her tongue and bustles around. She springs forward to move heavily laden occasional tables out of their path with deceptive ease and opens a door into a warm, bright kitchen. Harry keeps expecting her to bring out the axe from behind her back. She hasn’t even asked their names. No one is this welcoming to complete strangers, not in real life.
As the woman pulls out chairs for them and flicks on a kettle, then wipes her hands on her pinny and lays them on Ron’s forehead with a professional manner, Harry starts to wonder who’s life it is he’s got.
“My name is—” says Harry, trying to remember what name Hermione assigned him. It sounded like it belonged to a cat. His gaffe is overlooked by the woman, who merely flaps her hands and says “We’ll get to that soon enough.” Hermione glares and mouths ‘Felix’ in his direction.
“The poor lad’s got pneumonia, if I’m any judge,” pronounces the woman a few minutes later. “I’ll get on the bell to Dr O’Callaghan right this minute. He’ll have some pills that’ll set your friend right in a jiffy.”
“Thank you very much,” says Hermione tentatively. “You’re very kind. Only, who are you?”
“Be forgetting my own head next!” The woman laughs. She pats her perm, retrieving a pen from somewhere within its depths. “I’m Iris Mellor. I run this bed and breakfast. My father—he's passed away these five years, God have mercy on his soul—he was always telling me, ‘Iris, you think everyone in the world knows your name!’ He was right, too. My son, Frank—his father insisted on that—is forever bringing home friends, but they all just call me Ma too. I’m so used to it my own friends even call me Ma!”
She lets out a clear laugh that tinkles like the crystals in her ears.
“Well, I’m…Lucy, and this is my friend Felix,” says Hermione, nodding in Harry’s direction. Harry reigns in a scowl. He doesn’t want Iris to get the impression that he’s annoyed at her, when in fact it’s Hermione who’s the recipient of his ire. Felix, indeed. She might as well have just called him Puss-in-Boots and handed him a feathered cap.
“We were camping with our friend Bill, and he got caught in the rain,” continues Hermione.
Harry realises he shouldn’t have let her do the lying; she’s terribly bad at it, while deception comes to Harry with disturbing ease. It’s too late now, and breaking Hermione’s concentration will only make things worse. Besides, Iris is hovering around, pulling down biscuits and cake that set Harry’s mouth to watering. Iris is nodding along as if Hermione’s tale is the most convincing she’s heard since Bill Clinton’s.
“Ah, that’s terrible,” Iris sympathises. “Here, get some victuals down you. I’ll phone the doc and then you can help me make up a bed for your poor boyfriend, Lucy my love.” She plonks down a plate laden with enough digestives and Hobnobs to feed an army and whips out of the kitchen, betraying a surprising turn of speed given her stoutness.
Ron is sliding off his chair, wracked by shuddering convulsions. Hermione breaks up a Hobnob and tries to put it in his mouth, but his lips purse in rejection and the biscuit crumbles into his lap. Hermione and Harry share a worried glance, which is somewhat allayed by the sound of Iris clearly speaking to the doctor in the hall phone.
With a loud “Cheerio!” Iris comes back into the kitchen. “I’ve got a room downstairs that will suit Bill just right,” she announces. “No tricky stairs until he’s well, I reckon. Are you okay to help me with him, Lucy? And you can wait here and let in the doctor, Felix dear.”
“Of course,” say both Hermione and Harry at once. Harry is gripped by a hysteric urge to go, “Here, puss puss,” and thinks he might be suffering from shock, whatever that is. He helps them hoist Ron from his chair, after which Iris takes over, supporting most of Ron’s weight without batting an eyelid. By contrast, Hermione is breathing heavily by the time they reach the door.
Harry feels himself begin to steam-dry as he sits in the kitchen. He takes in the numerous nick-knacks that weigh down every surface, the wallpaper of grinning cows and sheep and other farmyard animals, the scratched wooden cupboards. There are about three ovens, if Harry’s identifying them correctly.
He polishes off half the Hobnobs and feels distinctly better. Iris, if a bit eccentric and obscenely good-natured, doesn’t seem to pose an immediate threat. Hermione has a Muggle bank account, which they can access to repay her if need be. The doctor is on his way to cure Ron, who will be horrified that they let a Muggle physician near him when he wakes. Feeling at ease for the first time in twenty-four hours, Harry drifts into a soporific daze.
He jolts awake to the sound of footsteps outside the kitchen door. He decides it must be the doctor, although he didn’t hear the doorbell ring. Standing up, he shoves back his hair into something that is a far distant relative of neatness, and brushes the crumbs off his shirt.
“Iris said I was to—” he begins as the door creeps open, almost as if whoever is pushing it couldn’t be bothered to exert much force.
The person coming through has his eyes fixed on the floor and his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his oversized jeans. If this is the doctor, Harry has some qualms about the quality of modern Muggle medical training. For one thing, they’re letting in candidates who are about a decade too young.
Then the boy raises his head, his expression of sullen disinterest flooding with horrified recognition. Harry looks into the appalled grey eyes of none other than Draco Malfoy.
Potter is staring at him.
After that first, searing flash of recognition, in which Potter leapt to his feet so fast that he resembled a bespectacled Jack-in-the-Box, his gaze fixed on Draco. Draco can see shock in Potter’s eyes, and there’s another, indefinable emotion there—one that borders on anger and verges on remorse and teeters over the dizzying precipice that is hate—but whatever it is, Draco can’t make it out clearly.
Draco can surmise, though, from the fact that eleven inches of holly is being aimed at his chest, that Potter isn’t very happy to see him.
To be fair, Draco’s not exactly ecstatic at the reunion either. His hand’s already hovering near his own wand, but it’s not drawn. He's not yet so pessimistic to expect to find his nemesis sitting in the kitchen, helping himself to Iris's oaty biscuits. If Draco had wanted to hold an epic death-match with Potter, he’d have told him to meet him inside a fiery volcano somewhere.
There’s a shuddering tension hanging in the air between them, as if the entire room is shaking in rhythmic, pulsing tremors. The fact that both of them are still as death doesn't help matters. Draco feels sick as he forces himself to return Potter’s stare with a stony gaze of his own. His heart’s fluttering madly somewhere around his oesophagus, and his mouth is so dry that it takes a gigantic effort to prise his tongue away from the roof of his mouth.
"Hi," says Draco, idiotically.
The single syllable falls into the silence with all the harsh poetry of an atomic bomb. It's often been hinted—usually by people he had to sic Crabbe or Goyle on shortly afterwards—that Draco is almost effortlessly offensive, but even he doesn't understand how he mutated a simple greeting into something so scathing, sneering, superior.
Potter reacts the way he always does when confronted by Draco. He sets his jaw and clenches his fists and generally looks like he's psyching himself up to wrestle a rampaging Hippogryff. He never was one for idle conversation. He seemed to much prefer diving headfirst into action—or trouble, for with Potter the two are rarely mutually exclusive.
"You." Potter shakes his head in disbelief.
"Me," confirms Draco, trying to surreptitiously grope for his wand in the bottomless pit that is Frank's pocket. He keeps his eyes trained on Harry, who is too busy smouldering with anger to notice the small movement. "I would say it's nice to see you, Potter, but I'm trying to get out of the habit of lying."
"What are you doing here?" demands Potter. "How do you know Iris?"
"Iris, eh?" echoes Draco. He pretends that he doesn’t notice Potter's wand, pointing straight at his heart. "We do seem to be getting a bit over-familiar, don't we?"
"You nearly killed Ron," Potter spits out, each word trembling with suppressed fury. Draco blinks, barely listening. He's managed to brush the tip of his wand with his fingers. Now, all he's got to do is ease it upwards and into his sleeve without attracting suspicion.
"The Weasel," agrees Draco. He's speaking partly to draw Potter's attention towards his face, and partly to dilute the channel of concentrated dislike that is flooding towards him from the other boy's direction. Potter looks lankier than when Draco last saw him. "Christ, is he here too?"
"And Katie," continues Potter, in a louder voice.
"They were accidents," mumbles Draco. He slides the cool wood of his wand up against his skin. He's concentrating so hard that the enraged boy with biscuit crumbs on his shirt slips out of focus and blurs into the hazy kitchen background. "It was hardly my fault. I wasn't even out to get them, I was—"
"Trying to get to Dumbledore," finishes Potter, his voice glacial.
Draco's hand jerks inexplicably as he opens his mouth to respond, making the wand slip. In his irritation, Draco's eyes flicker downwards for a split second, then dart back up to Potter's face, which is wearing a look of sudden comprehension.
"You little—" begins Potter.
Draco thrusts his hand into his pocket and yanks out his wand at the same time as Potter lunges forward and tries to grab it from him. Potter manages to latch on to it and pulls Draco forwards, making him stumble and shout an unintelligible curse. The curse misses its target and instead hurtles towards their feet, blasting them in opposite directions.
Potter crashes backwards into the fridge, catching the checked tablecloth as he goes and pulling it on to the floor. Draco, however, flies a foot backwards through the door and lands on top of a screaming Iris. She topples as easily as a blade of grass.
There's a bloodcurdling shriek from a brunette girl who's just burst out of a door and into the corridor, a flurry of bushy hair in her face. Draco peers in confusion. It appears to be a rather bedraggled Granger, who looks not unreasonably horrified to see him straddling a middle-aged bed-and-breakfast proprietor. Draco clambers off in a hurry, but Iris seems rather less inclined to pick herself up.
"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dearie me," she whimpers, fanning her face with her hands. "Oh dear...I heard noises...bright flashes...where's Frank...Lights...your toy stick...oh dear, oh dear oh dear." She pauses dramatically, as if she is about to say something else, but continues relentlessly after a few seconds, "Oh dear. Oh dearie, dearie dear. Oh dear oh dear..."
Draco watches her flounder, trying to think what to do. Granger rushes over and says something to the effect of Iris keeping perfectly still and trying to relax. As frantically quoting medical journals does not equate to a soothing bedside manner, Iris ignores her. Her grey hair is askew and she looks like a giant beached sea-mammal. Draco feels a jolt of an unfamiliar emotion. He tries and fails to pinpoint it, but he thinks it might be guilt.
Potter pushes past Draco, panting. He hoists Iris from the ground and tries to prop her up against the wall, but every time he loosens his grip, Iris makes a sound like a small puppy being kicked and sinks into a supine position once more. Eventually, Potter resorts to kneeling next to her and patting her shoulder at random intervals, while he and Granger survey their casualty with expressions of mingled concern and horror.
"Iris, calm down, you're just experiencing shock," says Granger, in what she clearly thinks is a reassuring manner. "I read once—"
"How...Where...lights?" Iris gasps like a fish. Potter kneads the hand not assigned to patting-duty through his mop of hair in confusion. Iris looks from him to Granger to Draco in desperation, fanning herself as if the slightest rise in body temperature could result in spontaneous combustion.
"What were...how did...I saw...oh dear..."
"I can explain," insists Potter, whilst tugging violently at his scalp. If stress doesn't give him a receding hairline, the nervous habit will. "Don't worry."
"This is stupid," mutters Draco, nursing his shoulder. He points his wand at Iris.
"What the hell are you doing?" demands Granger. Her voice is a disbelieving hiss, but it's tinged with a rough edge of fear. She's scared of him, Draco realises.
"What's that?" asks Iris in a faint voice. Her eyes widen in panic as she registers the fearsome toy stick that blows teenage boys halfway across her kitchen and emits loud blasts of coloured light. "Oh—dear."
"Obliviate!" shouts Draco.
A jet of blue light shoots out from the end of his wand and smacks Iris squarely in the forehead. She gapes for a second or two, blinking like someone with a slipped contact lens. An expression of dazed contentment settles on her lined face.
Potter turns to shoot Draco a look of angry incredulity, then takes the opportunity to lean forward and pull Iris to her feet. She stands obligingly and nods her head at him, the purple crystals in her ears clinking in harmony. Draco looks sideways at Granger, expecting her to let forth about improper and disrespectful treatment of Muggles. She sags with relief instead. It perplexes Draco for a moment, before he grasps that she'd thought he was about to cast a different spell.
"Thank you, lovie." Iris hovers in the doorway. She beams at Draco, pleased to see a familiar face. He somehow doubts she'd be so friendly had she known that he'd fired a Memory Charm right between her eyes a few seconds earlier. "I see you've met our new arrivals!" she exclaims. "You all look about the same age, I'm sure you'll have lots to talk about."
This observation does not fall on a very responsive audience. Draco grunts, Potter scowls and Granger looks dangerously close to tears. Iris frowns a little, blowing upwards to shift a wisp of hair out of her eyes. It swings towards the ceiling, as if on a hinge, then flaps back down again.
"Do you know, I'm all of a dither," confesses Iris. "It's terrible, when you get to my age. I honestly can't remember—" she gives a tinkly, bemused laugh "—if I was coming or going."
"You were going," Draco assures her, at the same time as Potter announces, "You were coming."
Iris's eyes dart from Potter to Draco in bewilderment. Draco steps closer to the other boy, to shield the view of the tablecloth that was dragged on to the floor.
"You were going and coming," Granger blurts out. It is clearly her idea of a decent cover story. "You were going..." she falters and coughs in embarrassment. "You were going to come...with me...away. You were going to come away with me to check on Ro—on Bill."
Despite the highly suspicious delivery, Iris nods gratefully at each word of the story, lapping it up. Then she frowns again.
"Bill?" Iris asks, eyebrows raised. "Who's Bill?"
"Our sick friend, remember?" says Granger. She steps forward and tries to nudge Iris through the door in a way that couldn’t be construed as kicking the woman out of her own kitchen. "He's called Bill. And I'm Lucy," she adds, glancing over her shoulder at Draco.
Draco rolls his eyes. Lucy, honestly.
"Oh, your friend," says Iris, as Granger half-pushes her out of the room. "Did I—did I call the doctor?"
"You did," says Granger. "He's coming soon."
"Ah." Iris nods as she's ushered into the corridor, looking rather more alert. “Harry, be good, you hear?”
The sound of their footsteps disappear rapidly down the corridor and into a ground-floor room. Draco reaches out and pushes the door shut. Potter stares at him.
"Before you start with any Muggle-loving blarney," says Draco aggressively, "I was perfectly within my rights to modify her memory. None of your pathetic excuses were going to work and she'd have kicked both of us out. I don't know how you found me, but I—"
"Shut up," Potter interrupts. Draco bristles. "I know this may shock you, but the Earth revolves around the sun, not your arse. I wasn't looking for you in the first place."
Draco snorts with disbelief and Potter raises an eyebrow over his smeared glasses.
"Right," said Draco with a sneer. "So, of all the Muggle shitholes in all the villages in all of England, you just happened to barge your way into mine?"
Potter makes no protest or explanation. This, Draco thinks with annoyance, probably means it’s true.
"How does that woman know my name?" asks Potter. His eyes are still on Draco’s face, as though he’s lining up a target. Draco heart sinks as soon it encounters this particular iceberg, but he tries to wave it away with a shrug and an eye-roll.
"She doesn't, obviously."
"She said, ‘Be good, Harry,’” Potter persists. "She called my name."
"Her memory had just been modified, for Christ’s sake." Draco scowls. "She was probably remembering her old pet hamster Harry. She was confused. You would be too, if you'd had your mind erased by magic."
"She wasn't confused," says Potter. "She looked right at us, and said ‘Be good, Harry.’ She'd been talking to us before."
"It could be rural slang," Draco suggests, rubbing his sore shoulder. It’s really beginning to throb. "For a really annoying boy in scratched spectacles."
There is a pause. Draco swallows a lump of damp air, because his mouth has dried up so much that there's hardly any saliva left in it. Enough for a small ant to use as moisturiser maybe, but nothing that would aid any kind of human lubrication.
"Maybe she wasn't talking to me," Potter concedes, adjusting his glasses.
"Clearly not," snaps Draco, trying to conceal his relief. "She was talking to the pet hamster she had as a child."
"She wasn't looking at me, either," continues Potter ominously. "She was looking at you. Hermione told her my name was Felix—" Potter pauses for long enough to convey significant disgust at the title "—and even if you made her forget that, she wouldn't call me Harry. She was talking...to you." Potter stares at Draco in amazement. "Why would she call you Harry?"
There is a loud clanging sound, as if someone's just banged a gong with a steel saucepan, and suddenly three frenzied bars of crashing, discordant music ring through the room. It sounds like someone playing an out-of-tune church organ with miniature cymbals attached to their fingers. Potter starts in shock, but after a series of occasions being scared out of his wits by the unearthly din, Draco has come to recognise the sound for what it is—the doorbell.
"That'll be the doctor," says Draco says, dodging the question. "I suppose you'll want to let him in."
Harry read somewhere that dogs can hear noises that are out of the human aural range. He’s never heard something that is out of the human aural range because that would clearly be impossible, but Iris’ doorbell comes as close as it is possible to be. Trying to bury his left ear in his clavicle to shield it from the din, Harry fumbles with the mechanisms holding the door shut. Just when he thinks his eardrums are going to pop from the pressure, he succeeds in yanking the door open and breathes a sigh of relief.
The man standing on the stoop is young, with rain-spattered shoulders, an air of scruffy benevolence and a battered black briefcase. He also has the bluest eyes Harry has ever seen. There’s something bewitching about them, for as the minutes stretch on Harry stands with his hand on the doorknob, his mouth slightly agape, while the man smiles at first in greeting and after a while in concern.
“Hello,” he says at last. “I’m Dr Jim O’Callaghan. You must be one of the guests.” He sticks out his free hand and Harry shakes it in a daze.
“H—Felix,” he gasps, the sound of their voices breaking the spell.
Harry comes to an abrupt consciousness of just how dumbstruck he’s been acting, but for some reason he doesn’t feel embarrassed. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that one of Dr O’Callaghan’s trouser-ends is tucked into his sock or the corn-circle the rain has flattened in his hair, or just that he looks like a confused baby bird. It’s clear that whatever embarrassment his stunning eyes wrought on Harry, it can never equal the embarrassment that Dr O’Callaghan achieves just by existing.
“I hear you have a sick patient.” Dr O’Callaghan tries to wring out his hair as he steps into the hall, and pokes himself in the nose. Harry looks past him, just making out a black car parked by the gate through the heavy rain. “I tend to come in handy at such times.”
“He’s just in here.” Harry indicates the door around which Hermione is peeping, her face ashen. “We think he has pneumonia, Dr O’Callaghan.”
“Oh please, call me Jim.” Harry raises his eyebrows, but Jim doesn’t see—he’s preoccupied with shrugging out of his coat. When at last he has it off, he looks around in faint bewilderment. Feeling sorry for him, Harry takes it.
“I’ll just put this in the kitchen for you, shall I?” he suggests, and Jim’s expression clears. He gives Harry a smile that is like sunshine breaking through clouds, and follows Hermione’s beckoning hand into the parlour.
Harry shakes his head. The damp cloth beneath his fingers awakens him to his situation. He’s just left Malfoy alone and armed in the kitchen of an innocent Muggle. Jim’s appearance distracted him somewhat, but Harry has come back to his senses now. With wings on his heels, he flies down to the kitchen, readying his wand as he does so.
What scenes of awful and bloody destruction his mind was able to create in a few seconds are wholly disappointed. Malfoy is sitting at the table, across which the tablecloth has been clumsily pulled. He appears to be doing nothing more dastardly heinous than eating a Hobnob. He looks up as Harry enters and his brows pull into a frown; they twist into a knot when he spots the wand in Harry’s hand.
“Any more magic and you’ll have the Inappropriate Use of Magic crowd in here,” he says, reaching for another biscuit. “I suggest you leave cursing me into a thousand slimy pieces for tomorrow.”
Harry looks down at his wand. Without quite realising what he’s doing, he lowers it, although he resolutely ignores the mental suggestions that he grab a biscuit before Malfoys scoffs the lot.
“I want some answers.” Harry sets his face into an appropriate scowl.
“Six hundred and eleven,” says Malfoy. “Petrificus totalis. A frog.”
“What are you talking about, Malfoy?” snaps Harry. “I’m in no mood for your antics.”
“You asked for answers,” says Malfoy, observing him with a still stare that unnerves Harry. It looks out of place on Malfoy’s normally mobile face. “I gave you some.”
Harry grinds his teeth. Obeying an urge stronger than his higher mind, he snatches the plate of biscuits away from Malfoy’s greedy hands and tips the remainder of the Hobnobs into his own palm.
“Hey, if you wanted those, all you had to do was ask,” says Malfoy. “I don’t like them that much.”
“What a pity,” says Harry. “I would have so liked to think I was stealing something you loved. Or killing it, even.”
The sudden lack of blood in Malfoy’s face tells Harry that the barb has hit its mark. Oddly enough, he doesn’t feel much satisfaction. He just gets the urge, much stronger now, to sleep for years. One day he’ll give in to that.
“Why are you holding that moth-eaten coat?” asks Malfoy, after an eternity during which Harry tries to find meaning in the whorls of wood in the cupboards. There isn’t much.
“It’s Jim’s—the doctor’s,” Harry explains, then wonders why he bothered.
“You really do have a problem with over-familiarity,” remarks Malfoy, drumming his bony fingers on the exposed tabletop. “I suppose it comes with the territory of being a enormous git.”
“I could kill you, right here, and no one would blame me,” hisses Harry.
Malfoy just curls one insolent lip. “You would have done it by now. The worse you could do is call the Aurors on me and even then, they couldn’t convict me of anything.”
Harry realises that this was far the more compelling threat to make and has to rein himself in from hitting Malfoy. Just to sink his hands into flesh and cause pain…Forget curses and spells where you were miles away on the other end of a wand—he wants visceral, he wants now, he wants to feel Malfoy twist and break beneath him.
Harry frowns, wondering if his rage is quite proportional to Malfoy’s comments. Then again, if it wasn’t for Malfoy, Dumbledore would not be dead, so any rage towards him is quite justified.
“Attempted murder,” he points out, after some time.
Malfoy laughs. It sounds like the cawing of a murder of crows. “When people are being tortured and killed left right and centre? Who wants someone who couldn’t do the job? The world is full of people who couldn’t kill other people.”
“Most people don’t try,” snarls Harry, who can barely see through the mist of righteous anger.
All of a sudden Malfoy is right up close. There’s biscuity breath on Harry’s face and a torso that is close enough to punch.
“Don’t,” says Malfoy, “even try to impose your standards on me, you filthy blood-traitor hero. You have no idea about me, so do not judge me.”
Harry lifts a hand to shove Malfoy away, but he’s already gone.
Absent-mindedly, his mind thrumming with confusion, Harry sets about putting the sadly tossed tablecloth to rights.
Harry vacillates between the door of the parlour and the main hallway. He doesn’t want to venture into the sickroom, where he can hear the clink and sighs of medical practice and Hermione’s palpable worry going on. Neither does he want to return outside. Even through the frosted glass panes of the front door, he can see the rain sleeting down in a determined manner that suggests that it’s not going to let up for the next century at least.
There are numerous other doors and a staircase, but Harry doesn’t want to try these—he is a stranger to the house, after all. He can catch the sounds of what is either a television or a very quiet killing spree echoing from one, so he assumes that the rest of Iris’ guests are watching it. He doesn’t think they’d appreciate it if he waltzed in and tried to engage them in light conversation about Home and Away.
His legs ache and his nose feels stuffy, so it’s quite likely that he’s caught a cold. The hallway has one small radiator, painted deep maroon with a decoration of vines. Harry takes to leaning against this and trying to absorb what little warmth it cares to give. It’s one of the old ones that is boiling at the top inch and could double as a fridge from there down. The back of Harry’s jeans are both singeing and crackling with cold.
At last, after Harry’s watched the mud on his boots dry, crack, and finally start to crumble on to the worn Persian carpet, the parlour door opens once more. Jim and Iris emerge, the latter talking nine to the dozen. Jim is nodding along, bits of hair fluffing out around his crown and a tag of shirt cloth peeking out of the fly of his trousers.
“Why, Felix, my love!” cries Iris, on laying eyes on Harry. “Whatever are you doing out here? Didn’t Harry take you upstairs for a chat? I would have thought you young boys would have plenty of things in common!”
“Harry?” repeats Harry, a suspicion growing in his mind.
“Yes, Harry.” Iris flaps her pinny. “You know, the skinny little lad you met earlier? Blonde hair? I found him, you know. Jim had to sew up his head. I gave him some of my Frank’s clothes and all. Poor mite had been kidnapped or abandoned, if you ask me.”
“Oh, Harry,” says Harry, feigning realisation. Inside, his mind is churning. “Of course I remember him. He’s just, er, gone upstairs.”
“Probably to play with his toy stick,” says Iris, in tones that can only be sentimental because they are so utterly devoid of innuendo. Harry catches Jim’s eye for a minute. His look of bewilderment only makes Harry’s sense of the ridiculous more pronounced, and he has to gnaw the inside of his cheek to prevent the hysterical giggles from escaping.
“I suppose you’ll want to go in and see your friend,” suggests Jim. “He’s got a bad case of pneumonia, but I’ve given Lucy a scrip for some antibiotics that will set him right in a few days. And Iris has offered to put you up while he recovers.”
“Oh, thank you.” Harry feels himself start to blush with gratitude. “We can pay you, we just need to get to a bank—”
“I wouldn’t hear of it,” Iris assures him. “Haven’t I got a whole rake of empty rooms? This awful weather is putting the tourists off. And you’ll be nice company for poor Harry. I’m afraid he feels a bit lonely, even though he has Richard, that’s my old friend Bert’s only son, for company. You’ll be a jolly little group now!”
Harry musters up a sickly smile. Whatever Malfoy and the minion he seems to have scrounged up will be, ‘jolly’ couldn’t possibly be an accurate description of it.
“Go on in, then,” encourages Jim. “I’ll be back to check on him tomorrow, Iris, in case he’s taken a turn for the worse. Just keep him warm and dry and don’t let him be disturbed. That means no wild raves, Felix.”
Harry manages not to roll his eyes. “I’ll be sure to cancel the ones I have planned.”
Iris mutters something about preparing supper and she shoos Jim to the door and Harry into the parlour with a remarkable economy of gesture. Harry finds himself propelled through the door into the stifling heat of the sickroom. After his entombment in the icy hallway, it feels like a flamethrower to the face.
Hermione is crouched over a makeshift futon made from what looks like a pull-out sofa, several embroidered bolsters and enough quilts to supply most of North America. Harry can just spot Ron’s head as a splash of red and white in amongst the riot of flowers, fantastic birds and other gambolling flora and fauna.
“How is he?” asks Harry, but before he’s even finished Hermione is putting a finger to her lips and hissing, ‘Shhh.’ If Harry’s question didn’t rouse Ron, Hermione’s snake impersonation most certainly would, but Harry doesn’t feel like pointing this out.
“How is he?” he repeats, barely moving his lips.
“Oh, he’ll be all right in a few days,” says Hermione, her voice louder than Harry’s first question. She plumps one of the pillows in the vicinity of Ron’s head. “Iris is very kind, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, almost too much so. What kind of person adopts every stranger they come across, especially a Malfoy?”
“Keep your voice down, Harry, or you’ll wake Ron,” admonishes Hermione. As she turns to smooth a wrinkle in a quilt, Harry relieves his feelings somewhat by poking his tongue out at her. Of late, Hermione seems to think that she’s the only one entitled to care about Ron. It annoys Harry, especially after all that nonsense in sixth year.
Harry remembers the part of sixth year that incorporated him tailing Malfoy with a start. It seems like years ago, yet it was only a few months. A few months ago that Malfoy’s bumbling ineptitude led to the death of the greatest wizard that ever lived…
Harry blinks back the sting in his eyes and tells himself fiercely that if he’s going to cry, it’s not going to have anything to do with Malfoy. He refuses to let Malfoy win even that miniscule, irrelevant victory.
“I don’t know,” Hermione is saying, with the thoughtful look that always summons up the faint aura of an earnest chipmunk. “Perhaps she’s just a genuine philanthropist?”
“She doesn’t look like she knows much about philosophy,” objects Harry, “and anyway, what’s that got to do with being a nice person?”
“Philanthropy, Harry, not philosophy.” Hermione gives a weary shake of her head. “It means ‘love of people.’”
“Ah,” says Harry, who isn't much more enlightened. He doesn’t have time to dwell on it, because at that moment Iris opens the door carrying a silver tray adorned with tea things.
“I thought you could have a little supper before I start making tea for the guests,” she says. “Then we’ll make up a little bed in here for you, Lucy, and I’ll show you to your room, Felix. Did you have any luggage or anything?”
Hermione makes frantic eyebrow movements in the direction of the now normal-sized hiking gear, piled in a corner. Harry winces at how obvious she’s being, but fortunately Iris can be unobservant for England.
“Yes, I just brought it in while you were away,” says Harry. “There’s not very much,” he adds, hoping to be reassuring, but Iris seems to think that this is a badge of deprivation.
“Oh, you poor dears,” she sighs. “Parents today! Whatever are they thinking, letting their children out with barely more than the clothes on their backs, I’m sure I don’t know. Well, Frank grew like a sprout for about four years and I have more clothes than I know what to do with after him. Nancy left a few things too, but I’m afraid she was quite a bit chubbier than you, Lucy my love.”
“Honestly, it’s all right, Iris,” says Hermione, rather too forcefully.
“Could I help you wash up after dinner?” Harry jumps in. He realises that Hermione’s nerves are frayed to breaking point, but she can be unintentionally sharp. Now is not the time for her unique brand of scouring honesty.
“You are a pet.” Iris’ eyes crinkle with fondness. “I think you’d better have a warm supper and go to bed, though. It’s been a long day for you.”
Harry couldn’t agree more, although the sight of toast dripping with golden butter, cold ham, and scones with cream more than make up for it. Hermione takes off her shoes and snuggles down beside Ron. Harry is surprised that Iris doesn’t make an objection to such blatant pre-marital relations, or at least to how unhygienic it must be—but she just gets a moist look on her face and beckons for Harry to follow her.
The room he finds himself in is pink. Very, very Pink. Iris has led him into a swamp of pink. Every shade, from puce to magenta, has a representative within the soft furnishings. Harry feels himself assailed by the collective pink force field.
“Isn’t this nice?” says Iris. “I decorated the rooms myself.”
“Gorgeous,” croaks Harry. In fact, he thinks Iris would be the envy of anyone who believed colour could be added to the battery of psychological weaponry.
“I’ll let you sleep, then,” says Iris. “I’ll get Harry to introduce you to Richard tomorrow. I think Lucy will want to stay by and look after Bill, so you’ll need someone to show you around a bit. Harry’s got to know the place pretty well. Him and Richard are as thick as thieves.”
“Okay,” says Harry. His head is whirling with all the new names, which he can barely keep track of. It also sounds very odd to hear his name referred to in the third person. He wonders what the hell Malfoy is playing at by using it, and resolves to find out first thing in the morning.
The room looks a good deal less obnoxious when coated with a layer of darkness. Harry switches the curtains shut across the determined shaft of moonlight that wants to accentuate the peach shadows. He’s almost too exhausted to get into bed and certainly too tired to unpack. He just drags off his clothes and crawls under the duvet.
In the seconds before he falls asleep, he’s almost sure that he hears someone crying in the next room.
“Get up, Potter. I’ll be damned if I’ll wait all day for you to shift your sorry arse.”
“Malfoy? Bzuh?” Harry is sure he’s having a first-class nightmare and keeps his eyes resolutely shut. It doesn’t stop the nasal drawl, which sounds like it’s coming from a remove.
“Fine. You have only yourself to blame for this. I’m coming in.”
A latch disengages. Harry burrows his head under the pillow. It’s not such a bad dream after all; there’s a real bed in it, and it’s not engulfed in flames or sharp spikes or anything. In fact, it’s very inviting indeed.
“God, you are a lazy sod. You’re supposed to obey your superiors, you know. Oh, I suppose you wouldn’t, you big rebel. Get up!”
Suddenly, Harry feels very cold. After a minute’s frantic cogitation, he puts it down to the fact that the bedclothes have been ripped away from his body. The sounds coming from Malfoy, which are akin to that of a squirrel being squashed to death, add further proof to his hypothesis.
“Oh, my eyes,” whimpers Malfoy.
Harry rolls over, pulling the pillow away from his face. This elicits a scream from Malfoy. Irritated, Harry throws the pillow at him.
Then he remembers that he never got around to putting on pyjamas the night before.
“Oops,” he says.
Malfoy is using the pillow as a blindfold. Judging by the snuffling, it is also a rather effective gag as well. Harry scrambles forward and tugs up the sheet, casting it around his shoulders so that he is sitting in a little tent of Egyptian cotton.
“You can look now, you big girl’s blouse,” he snaps. “Then you can tell me what the hell you’re doing here.”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” sniffs Malfoy, taking a peek around the edge of the pillow. Harry finds himself darkly amused by wondering what Malfoy would have done if Harry had lied. Probably kept looking, the pervert. “You’re the one in a pink bedroom.”
“At least it’s not by choice,” says Harry. “I bet your bedroom at home has pink silk sheets.”
Something in Malfoy’s face, what little Harry can see of it, goes stiff and dead. He looks on the point of tears, or murder, but he does neither when Iris bustles through the door. Iris is a degree-holder in bustling; she can manage to do it even whilst standing still.
“Ah, Felix, you’re awake!” she exclaims, as if no event ever brought her such joy. “Lucy’s had her breakfast, she went off for a quick walk before Jim calls. Are you peckish?”
“Oh—I suppose,” says Harry. He’s even more aware, now, that there’s only a thin layer of material between him and the rest of the world. Somehow it felt better when that layer was a robe or a t-shirt and jeans, even if he had just as little beneath them.
“Lovely! You and Harry can have breakfast together. I’ll go throw something together.” Iris beams at them, revealing a deep dimple in each cheek. She bustles out again.
Harry releases a breath that had accumulated in his airway without his noticing. Malfoy has shrunk back against the wall, his arms crossed across his chest and his hands claws around each elbow.
“First off,” says Harry, “you can explain to me why you’re here, Harry.”
“Why, what are you going to do to me if I don’t?” sneers Malfoy.
“Well, for starters, I’ll drop this sheet,” says Harry. He lets his fingers curl around the edge.
“All right, I’ll tell you!” yelps Malfoy. Harry raises his eyebrows. He hadn’t actually expected that to work.
“I Apparated when I got outside of the grounds of Hogwarts,” Malfoy gabbles. “I—I’d never done it before. Not properly. So I got lost, and Iris found me, and…here I am.”
Harry doesn’t believe a word of it. Malfoy is wearing what was obviously intended to be a summer t-shirt. It has a neck wide enough for a great white shark and the sleeves fall to his elbows, but more importantly it reveals a familiar dark shape on Malfoy’s left forearm. Something of Harry’s doubt must have shown in his expression, for Malfoy adopts a defensive stance.
“That’s what happened,” he says, as if this were a statement that would add an enormous amount of clout to his story.
“So what have you been doing since you got here?” asks Harry. “Hanging out with Muggles? Doing chores? Plotting world domination? What?”
“Well,” says Malfoy, his voice hesitant, “I have been doing some chemistry experiments.”
“Ha, I knew it!” Harry’s voice rings with triumph until his mind has time to scan Malfoy’s last sentence. “Wait—chemistry experiments?”
“Yeah,” confirms Malfoy. “You know—titrations? Flame tests? That sort of thing.”
“Yes, I know,” snaps Harry, even though he doesn’t. Science class, in primary school, had mainly consisted of him trying to avoid having his hair set alight by Dudley’s Bunsen burner. “Why?”
“Look around you,” says Malfoy, his lip curling. There’s something about the way he does it that creates a coil of anger deep in Harry’s chest. “This place is not exactly Entertainment Central. It was that or watch the grass grow.”
“So this is where Richard comes in, is it?” asks Harry. “You’ve been setting Muggles on fire for fun or something?”
This time, Malfoy doesn’t just curl his lip, he narrows his eyes into slits as well. His face looks like a less-than-convincing Chinese warrior mask. Harry’s coil of anger tightens into a helix.
“If you’re talking about Dick, and I’ll assume you are because you’re too stupid to actually be cunning,” says Malfoy, “then no, I do not set him on fire. What do I look like, a pyromaniac? Muggles actually have these things called ‘police.’ They tend to look down on that sort of thing.”
“Of course I know that!” howls Harry. “I was brought up by Muggles!”
“Dragged up would be more accurate, if you ask me. I guess I’m stuck with you. Hurry up and eat breakfast, will you? Dick’s promised to let me use the hydrochloric acid today.”
“Fine,” grumbles Harry. There’s something very wrong about Malfoy feeling put out by Harry’s presence. Malfoy should be quivering with terror—or at the very least apprehension—of what Harry could do to him. Smacking him in the mouth, for example. Then again, Harry doesn’t have any connexions to the Death Eater underworld, who are far more dangerous than the Aurors. This perhaps explains why Malfoy thinks he can be so cocky.
Harry supposes it can’t do any harm to tag Malfoy for a while and at least make sure he’s telling the truth, and that no Muggles are being harmed in the course of his average day. With a sigh, Harry heaves his legs out of bed and looks about for his pack. He isn’t entirely certain he owns any garments that aren’t currently sopping wet, torn to shreds or adorned with more mud than a pigsty wall.
Malfoy lets loose a sort of strangled gasp.
Harry looks down. “Oh, crap,” he mutters, Summoning his wand to his hand with a wordless command. “Shut up, Malfoy, it’s not like you don’t have one too.” He considers this. “Well, probably.”
“Bugger off, Potter,” hisses Malfoy. He stalks out of the room without walking into the door. It’s quite a feat, considering that his eyes are screwed shut.
Harry unearths some relatively fresh boxers and realises he still hasn’t found out why on earth Malfoy’s been going about calling himself, of all names, ‘Harry.’
“Remember, I only agreed to bring you because Iris said I should,” Draco informs Potter imperiously, once they’re both standing outside Dick’s house. That morning, Iris had had a ‘grand’ idea, which inexplicably involved ‘Harry’ and ‘Felix’ spending extended amounts of time together while ‘Lucy’ helped ‘Bill’ recuperate.
In Draco’s opinion, this is as far from a grand idea as it is possible to be. In in reality it is a spectacularly bad idea, but when Iris gets something into her head she’s less like a dog with a bone than a Rottweiller with the postman’s femur clamped between its slavering jaws.
“I only agreed to come because Hermione said it would be a good idea to find out what you’re really up to.” Potter’s voice is flat. He pushes up his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose, which is truly a most annoying gesture now that Draco comes to analyse it.
“I’m not 'up to' anything, you paranoid wanker,” Draco scoffs.
“Then I’ll just amuse myself counting down the seconds until I don’t have to look at your ugly mug any longer.”
“Well, then… fine.” Draco huffs, unable to think of anything else to say.
“Fine,” agrees Potter.
“Fine,” Draco repeats, a bit put out.
He’s not much looking forward to Dick and Potter finally meeting each other. Given the latter’s propensity to surround himself with Mudbloods and freaks of nature, he and the former should get on like a house on fire. Which would leave Draco feeling even more like a spare part than he already does.
Bert answers the door on the fifth knock—unusually prompt—and eyes the two boys mistrustfully.
“Another one,” he mutters. “Won’t be long before your entire coven’s lodging with Iris, will it?” He points them up the stairs and stomps into the sitting room, muttering.
“Sorry, but what was that?” asks Potter.
“When we met, Bert thought I was in a cult,” Draco explains, stepping into the dark house. “Because of the robes, or something like that.”
“Oh. Right.” Harry doesn’t say anything else, but Draco suspects he might be hiding a smile.
They tread up the worn, burgundy carpet on the stairs in silence. No sooner has Draco lifted his hand to knock on Dick’s door than it opens to reveal the boy himself, wearing gigantic laboratory goggles over his glasses. It gives him the eye to body ratio of a perpetually startled baby owl.
“Who’ve you got with you?” Dick’s jaws work furiously, chomping down on his chewing gum at breakneck speed. Potter visibly reels.
“All right.” Draco sighs, keen to get formalities over as quickly as possible. “This is—er—Felix. Felix, this is—”
“’m Dick,” Dick grunts, by way of greeting. Potter looks as if he doesn’t know whether he’s being insulted or introduced. He sticks out his hand awkwardly and Dick regards it with unfriendly confusion, as if a reaction he’d expected to be exothermic turned out to be, shockingly, endothermic.
“Hi,” Potter says. He peers at the shorter boy, who pops his gum, unimpressed.
Potter has a way with people, Draco’s noticed. People who aren’t Slytherins, that is. Apart from a few exceptions—the blonde wanker in Hufflepuff, for instance—the other houses all seem to like him, when he’s not setting snakes on them or having fits of temporary insanity during lessons. Ravenclaws smile when they see him in the corridors. Hufflepuffs offer him a piece from the trays of cupcakes they get sent on their birthdays. People Draco could have sworn Potter’s never spoken to laugh like hyenas at his pitifully bad jokes. Not that Draco’s ever been the recipient of one, but he’s assuming that someone who flares up so much at a failed murder attempt doesn’t have much of a sense of humour.
Dick, despite being undeniably Muggle, must have been a Slytherin in another life, because Potter receives no such special treatment.
“You named after a cat, then?”
“No.” Potter’s jaw quilts slightly. “I’m named after…my uncle.”
“Bit of a stupid name,” Dick points out, to Draco’s mingled horror and delight. “You must get teased.”
Potter opens his mouth at that, as if about to illustrate the numerous ways the name ‘Dick’ could be found humorous, or to retort that at least he wasn’t named after genitalia. By showing considerable effort, he turns the other cheek, both of his own blushing dark pink.
“So, what are you two—er—doing up here?” Potter asks innocently, once they’re all inside Dick’s room and seated next to what looks like a thorny bush of copper and crocodile clips.
“I told you earlier, you halfwit,” Draco snaps. “Experiments.”
“What, really?” Potter answers, taken aback. He casts a suspicious glance at Dick, who blinks back at him in a hostile fashion. “You mean the whole necromancy and invoking dark spirits kind of thing?”
“No,” Draco answers flatly. “The whole Bunsen burner and advanced circuitry kind of thing.”
“Let me get this straight,” says Potter. “Ever since you got here, you’ve been playing around with…chemistry? Not masterminding an evil plan, just…chemistry.”
“Mostly, but physics too,” Draco replies. He nudges a bored Dick. “I must apologise for Felix, he’s a bit slow.”
There’s a pause. Potter looks as if he finds it hard to believe that Draco’s doing anything less evil than slicing up newborn babies, let alone dissolving solutes. Draco doesn’t quite know whether to be flattered or insulted. Watching Dick carefully, Potter performs a very fake, very theatrical sneeze that sounds suspiciously like ‘VOLDEMORT!'
Draco rolls his eyes. Dick gazes calmly at Potter through his outsize goggles.
“So what’s the deal with Dick?” Potter asks, when they’re walking back to Iris’ place at the end of the day. Potter is nursing a nasty wire burn, which Draco feels quite pleased about. “What are you really doing with him? I mean, he’s a Muggle, and we both know they have cooties.”
“He’s just a friend.” Draco trails his fingers against a wooden fence. It’s something he doesn’t like to admit even to himself—because honestly, a Malfoy and a Muggle?
“Surely you don’t have friends, Malfoy,” Potter comments.
They’re looking for a dry route to cross the paved road. After the previous night’s downpour, it resembles a small stream dotted with stepping stones.
“I thought you just smarmed up to people and then only if you could get something out of it," continues Potter. "All I can see you getting out of it with Dick is an advanced knowledge of the Periodic table.”
It always happens at the close of the day, Draco thinks. When the sky reddens and everything turns an even darker shade of grey and everyone in Iris’s tiny speck of a village goes home for a cup of tea and an evening biscuit, there’s so much more time to think about the world he’s left behind. And it doesn’t help that Potter’s here now too, with his mussed hair and his stupid glasses, a constant reminder of what must be going on elsewhere.
Something inside Draco snaps.
“I always wondered how you made friends, Potter,” Draco retorts. “I suppose all the times you nearly got them killed created a sort of bond.”
Potter shoots Draco a look and mutters a surly, “Shut up.”
“I wonder who’ll be the first to go?” Draco continues relentlessly, needing Potter to retaliate. “The Weasel’s not improving much, is he?”
“I said, shut up,” Potter repeats, scowling. His fists are already clenching inside his jeans.
Draco smiles without humour. “I bet the others won’t be so keen to hang out with you once the Dark Lord starts picking off all your little mates like flies,” he taunts. “If he hasn’t already, that is. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the losers you left behind are already dea—”
A loud horn blares all of a sudden, cutting Draco off. A few seconds later, a head that looks like a giant potato only less attractive sticks out of the window of the truck and starts hollering at the both of them.
“YOU BLOODY IDIOTS! MOVE OUT OF THE WAY!”
Draco stumbles over Frank’s shoes in his haste to get to the kerb—he hasn’t had much experience with them, but cars look vicious—and steps into a puddle that leaves him dripping up to mid-calf. Potter’s way ahead of him, though, striding along through the slight drizzle that’s starting up just for some variance in the weather. Draco struggles to catch him. Potter stops dead at Iris’ open gate and whips around, eyes blazing.
“At least I know who my friends are, Malfoy. At least I know they haven’t deserted me. At least I know my parents are dead. And at least I know what I’m doing. You don’t have anywhere to go, you don’t have a job to do, you don’t have a side to fight on anymore. No-one wants you. And if you think that by cosying up to Iris and playing with science every day over at Dick’s house you’re going to have a place somewhere, well, then, you’re even more pathetic than I thought.”
Draco stares at him, icy water dripping down his borrowed sock.
“Forget it.” Potter waves a hand in mild annoyance, his rage trickling away like flour through a sieve. “Just…forget it.”
He runs up to the front door and presses the doorbell. A mish-mash of demented heavenly choirs and geriatric organs clang joyously, and then the door opens to reveal a beaming angel with a wooden spoon tucked behind her ear..
“You’re back!” Iris exclaims, sounding delighted. “Come in dears, feed yourselves up, God knows Bert doesn’t keep wholesome food in that house. You should bring Richard over for a meal one of these days, now you both know him, Felix my love.” Iris pinches Potter’s cheek fondly, then ushers him inside, not noticing his wince. She turns to look at Draco, still standing by the gate.
“Harry, come on in, you’ll catch your death of cold!” Iris tuts. She nods her head with approval as Draco steps over the threshold, and shuts the door with a satisfied smile. “There, now all my little lambs are gathered safely in. I remember when my Frank was a boy, he never wanted to come back home, always playing in the fields. Just like him you are, such a scamp.”
Draco nods and allows himself to be chucked on the back of the head.
She’s wrong, though. Unlike Frank, Draco desperately wants to go back home. It's just that he doesn’t know where it is. Or if it even exists.
“He’s just as much of a git as ever!” storms Harry. “Always on with his snide little looks and superior attitude—and he’s sitting there wearing some cast-off Muggle clothes thinking he’s the king of the castle!”
“Sounds a bit like you,” says Ron. His voice would make a broken violin cry in sympathy, it is so hoarse. For all that, Harry whirls on him, his mood foul.
“What did you say?”
“Oh, not that you’re like Malfoy,” Ron hastens to add. “The prat. Only, when you were talking about Muggle clothes…” He gestures at Harry’s jeans, seeming to harbour the hope that this will aid him in expressing himself. On the footstool, Hermione’s head is buried in her hands.
“I see.” Harry knows that Ron didn’t mean to compare him to Malfoy, or remind him of his horrible days with the Dursleys. He knows it. He just has trouble convincing himself of the fact.
“So,” says Hermione, her earnest face betraying her mission of pouring oil on troubled waters, “did you find out anything? About Voldemort—Ron Weasley! Grow up!—or his missions or anything? What about Malfoy's parents?”
Harry scratches the back of his head. “Well, I don’t think he knows where his parents are. He didn’t seem to know anything…”
“Are you certain?”
Ron sips from his mug of clear broth, making a slurping noise.
“Well, did you find out anything at all?” demands Hermione.
“Not really—come on, Hermione, I was with a Muggle the entire time! I couldn’t exactly grill Malfoy on Voldemort’s plans for destruction and ruin in front of Dick, now could I?”
Ron snorts half his broth back up through his nose.
“That’s the…Muggle, I take it?” says Hermione carefully. “Not…anything else?”
“It’s Richard, but everyone calls him Dick,” explains Harry. “And he had the cheek to think that my name was weird, too! Him and Malfoy would be a matched pair if it wasn’t for the whole pureblood thing.”
“He thought Harry was a weird name?” Ron frowns. “I know Muggles are a bit dim, but surely ‘Harry’—”
“Not Harry, Felix,” snaps Harry. “The stupid name Hermione made me use when we came here. You’re Bill, remember?”
“Reminds me of that time in first year, with the dragon,” says Ron, going all misty-eyed. Harry and Hermione stare at him in confusion.
“Still a bit woozy,” mouths Hermione. Harry nods in agreement.
“Harry, I can’t see anything else for it,” says Hermione, in a louder voice. “You’re going to have to tag Malfoy for a few days. We can’t possibly just leave him here. He could be a danger to poor Iris.”
“That’s true,” says Harry. “But we have other things to do.”
“I know,” says Hermione. The word ‘Horcrux’ lies heavy in the air between them. “But you don’t have to do that alone. Ron will be allowed to use the common room by tomorrow, so he can pick up on the local gossip. I can formulate some reason for chatting to all the locals about any strange occurrences. And we can summon Elizabeth back. Meanwhile, you do everything you can to squeeze the truth out of Malfoy.”
Harry felts a queer jolt in the pit of his stomach. He assumes it’s got to do with Elizabeth. He’s succeeded in pushing the ghost to the back of his mind ever since they arrived at the bed and breakfast and he would like nothing better than for her to stay there.
“Very nice, Granger.”
The three of them turn at the sound of that unmistakable drawl. Harry feels a shot of guilt and wonders whence it sprung. It’s never nice to be caught talking about someone behind his back, even if that person is as hateful as Malfoy.
“I don’t suppose I get a say in this, or anything?” continues Malfoy. He enters and leans against the foot of Ron’s sofa-bed. Ron cringes away, as if Malfoy has something far more contagious than any disease.
Malfoy’s eyes are cold.
“You owe us some answers,” says Hermione. Malfoy turns his ice-chip gaze on her.
“I owe you nothing, Mudblood,” he says.
Harry hears Hermione’s gasp, Ron’s violent exclamation. They are nothing but background noise, however. All Harry can see is Malfoy’s narrow face, pinched in distaste; all he can hear is the sound of his own ragged breathing.
And he doesn’t hit Malfoy.
A sudden memory comes back, sharp as a blade. It cuts through Harry’s consciousness, exposing what just have been pity.
Dick, stirring liquid in a conical flask, his face a mask of diligence. Malfoy, beside him, ready with the acid in a little twist of paper. Harry had been content to let them get on with it. He’d always hated Potions, after all—this just seemed more of the same, only sans explosions.
And there had been something about Malfoy’s face, in the instant when Harry looked up from picking at loose threads in Dick’s knitted bedcover. Malfoy’s mouth had looked wider, his pouty lips thinner, and Harry realised that this was because he was smiling.
He’d never seen Malfoy smile before.
Harry has suffered his fair share of great tragedy, there is no doubt about that. Yet, for all that, he can still remember evenings when he and Ron and Hermione had simply sat around the fire, laughing at tiny little things for hours and hours. A smile was not a big event. It was not something that could change your whole outlook—but perhaps it opened the door to these things.
All Harry is aware of now, however, is the fact that he couldn’t hit Malfoy without that memory being there too. And if he did it all the same, that would make him no better someone like Voldemort. Or Snape.
Malfoy is standing there, his skinny arms crossed over his ridiculously large t-shirt. His face dares Harry to lay a hand on him; his mouth is nothing less than despicable. Yet Harry’s overwhelming urge is only to briefly wish him far away, not to inflict grievous bodily harm on him.
It’s certainly a new feeling, but it’s also quite a relief. Harry hadn’t realised how much space loathing for Malfoy had taken up in his mind until it was gone for good.
“I really do think,” says Harry, after a measured silence during which Malfoy’s mask appears to slip a little, “that someone who’s wearing a Bowie t-shirt should rethink, oh, their virulent hatred of Muggles and Muggleborns? You’re not fooling anyone, Malfoy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” spits Malfoy. “Just because I happen to be sharing this house with you, and you keep a personal collection of half-breeds and half-bloods and traitors, it doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly going to be all sweetness and light too.”
“Is that honestly what you think?” asks Harry, curiously. He’s almost forgotten Malfoy’s grave insult, although if it weren’t for his sudden coughing fit Ron appears ready to present Hermione with Malfoy’s head on a platter. “That we’re sweetness and light, and you’re not? You’ve obviously never seen Hermione when she had exams coming up. Or Mrs Weasley when the twins have just crossed her.”
“What are you trying to say here?” says Malfoy, sounding highly suspicious. Harry hardly knows himself.
“I guess that the Death Eaters don’t have the exclusive rights to being bastards,” says Harry.
“Wow, that’s a convincing argument.” Malfoy rolls his eyes. “Abscond to the side of light, because hell, we have bad days too!”
“It could be worse,” says Harry. “At least it’s honest.”
“You place far too high a premium on honesty,” sniffs Malfoy.
“And you put way too high a price on it,” counters Harry.
“If I could interrupt this philosophical debate for just a moment,” says Hermione in a strained voice, “we have a visitor, Harry.”
“Oh, sorr—” begins Harry. Then he realises on the reason for Hermione’s nervous tone. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Restrain your uncontrollable excitement at seeing me, I beg,” says Elizabeth. There’s more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice; in fact, it contains the ultimate exam crib of sarcasm. Now that Harry comes to think about it, she sounds a lot like—
“What are you doing here, Elizabeth?” says Malfoy. “I thought you passed over hundreds of years ago.”
“I’m flattered that you recall me,” says Elizabeth, blushing silver. “Do they still keep the records, then?”
“Of course,” says Malfoy. “Tradition is everything. But of course, I don’t have to tell you.”
“Do you—know each other?” Harry stares from one to the other. Both of them regard him with identical flat-eyed stares.
“She’s my ancestor,” says Malfoy. “It was the sixteenth century, wasn’t it, Elizabeth?”
“1589,” confirms Elizabeth, with a toss of her opaque curls. “I was married to one of your many times great-grandfathers. Nephron Malfoy. A wonderful man.”
“He smuggled cursed salpetre to the Desmond Rebellions, didn’t he?” asks Malfoy. Elizabeth nods, and he grins.
“How sweet. Living history,” says Ron.
“Why, what were your ancestors doing in 1589 that was so admirable? Mucking out the pigs?”
“He’s a Weasley, I can tell by his ears.” Elizabeth taps her lips with her finger. “Yes, I think I have the right of it. A certain Bilius Weasley married my niece Constantine a few years after my own wedding.” She beams.
Harry isn’t sure which expression is more priceless: the one on Ron’s face, or the one on Malfoy’s.
“How have you been since you left us?” Hermione places a restraining hand on Ron’s arm, although he looks more likely to die from acute shock than launch an attack on Malfoy. His distant relation, Malfoy.
“Oh, dead,” says Elizabeth, her tone careless. “I fear I grew impatient, but the Muggles are all away now and I judged that it would be safe to return to you, Harry. My guardianship of that which you carry has not yet ended, I fear.”
“Does that mean you’re going to hang around until I get rid of it?” Harry is aghast at the thought. It could be years before he finds all the Horcruxes. He has not the slightest desire to spend them in Elizabeth’s company.
“Not as such,” says Elizabeth. From her expression, it’s evident that she is as little enamoured of the idea as Harry. “I must stay near you, but I think the best course of action would be to aid you in your mission to recover the others.”
“How did you know about those?” demands Harry.
“You wear one about your neck, do you not?” Elizabeth’s smile is as thin as the edge of a blade. “Death bestows some talents, you realise. These items, they are all connected by obscure black magic.”
“Does that mean you can sense where the others are?” cries Hermione. “Oh, Harry, she could help us find all of the H—”
Harry frowns at her and flickers his eyes to Malfoy. Hermione subsides, but her cheeks are flushed with excitement.
“Well, can you?” says Harry. “Feel where the others are, I mean.”
Harry is careful to keep his face as still as Elizabeth’s. After all, Elizabeth was guarding the horn for Voldemort. Of course, she’d seemed angry at his betrayal—but she was also a Malfoy.
“Moreover,” adds Elizabeth, “there is one very near here. I can feel it pulse like the beating of a heart. You must move quickly, Harry Potter. That beat grows stronger as each one is disturbed from its place of rest. Soon, the Dark Lord will know it too.”
“I always thought you were crazy, Potter, but now I’m certain of it.”
Harry places the dish he was drying on the kitchen counter. Iris’ response to his offer to wash up had been suitably effervescent. Harry is hopeful that he’d secured her goodwill towards them for a few more days.
“Why’s that then, Malfoy?” He focuses on the serried ranks of crockery to control his emotions. Just because he doesn’t quite hate Malfoy anymore doesn’t mean that Malfoy can’t still arouse strongly negative feelings in him.
“For one thing, you’re pitting yourself directly against the Dark Lord with only two other kids and a ghost to help you,” says Malfoy. He moves into Harry’s line of vision. “For another, you’re doing housework. Are you having delusions of house-elfery or something?”
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever washed a dish before,” remarks Harry.
Malfoy tosses his head. It’s clearly a habit he picked up from frequenting race courses, so much like a horse does he look when he does it. Yet there’s also something undeniably arrogant about the gesture.
“Of course not,” he says. “Granted, Potter, you have the brain of gnat, but surely your powers of deduction are great enough to figure that one out.”
“Here’s your big chance, then.” Harry tosses the dishcloth into his face. “Have a go.”
“You must be joking, Potter,” splutters Malfoy, once he’s disentangled himself from the damp material. “I might catch your housework disease or something.”
“You’re living here out of the goodness of Iris’ heart.” Harry’s voice is steely. “The least you can do is wash up after yourself.”
It’s natural to Harry to defy those he thinks of as his opponents, whether they’re in authority or not. He doesn’t do it with the expectation of winning—rather, he does it as automatically as breathing. He defies, therefore he is.
He figures he could beat Malfoy into submission, or Malfoy will turn on his heel and storm out. Either way, Harry’s nearly finished the dishes and he has a warm bed waiting for him. Tomorrow is another day, undoubtedly one that will be filled with danger and hardship, yet still a night away.
Instead, Malfoy steps forward and picks up a sudsy plate as if it’s a venomous snake.
“What do I do with it next?” he asks in a pathetic voice.
“Not so superior now, I see,” observes Harry. He reaches over, grabbing Malfoy’s hand with his own—it’s cold—and guides it roughly over the surface of the plate.
A while later, Malfoy says, “I think I get it now, Potter.”
“Right.” Harry picks up a stack of dried plates and shoves them into the cupboard with more than necessary force.
Malfoy remains silent for a time, as Harry squeezes out a sponge and uses it to wipe down the table and counters. Malfoy’s abominably slow, but there’s no denying that the dried plates he produces are pristine.
“Do you really think you’re going to defeat the Dark Lord?”
His voice is so quiet that Harry would almost be inclined to dismiss it as a murmuring from the common room. It’s the timbre that stops him, that peculiar distasteful familiarity that would allow Harry to pick Malfoy’s voice out of a crowd of hundreds.
Harry swipes at some invisible crumbs, trying to buy himself time. “I don’t know.”
“I forgot that it was my job to reassure you.”
“No, I mean because you’re the champion, aren’t you? Harry Potter, the school-kid, up against the most powerful wizard alive.” Malfoy lays down another plate with great care. “If I was a betting man, I’d say the odds are stacked so much against you that they’re about to topple over.”
“Well, I would have had the only wizard Voldemort ever feared on my side,” says Harry quietly, “only someone went and killed him.”
The tinkle of breaking china is surprisingly muted. Malfoy stares at the shards littering the floor around his feet, as if wondering how they got there.
“I didn’t,” he mutters, sounding for all the world like a guilty child.
“No, that’s right, you didn’t,” agrees Harry. You are not a killer. “You’re not even worth that much. And you’re not worth the bother of killing, either.”
Malfoy lifts his blazing eyes and Harry feels something stir in his chest. All the same, he continues, “I don’t even hate you any more. You’re not even worth that.”
“Well, lovies, how are you getting on?” Iris pops her head around the door, smiling her apple-cheeked smile. “Nearly finished, I see—oh, dear, did someone have a little accident?”
There is a brief, frozen pause.
“Yes,” says Malfoy. “That was me. I—I’m sorry.”
“Not to worry, my dear!” says Iris. She remains blissfully unaware that the unthinkable has happened—that Draco Malfoy has just apologised for something. To a Muggle, no less.
Or maybe it’s only Harry who feels like that.
“Plenty more where that came from,” adds Iris, as she pulls out a dustpan and brush. “Some of the guests are awfully clumsy, and of course you get the odd few who are light-fingered. Speaking of guests, I must see if anyone wants tea and iced Volvos. Just sweep that up there, won’t you, Harry?”
She holds the dustpan out to Malfoy, who takes it.
He gets awkwardly to his knees. Harry hears his bones crack. It echoes like a gunshot in the silence left by Iris’ departure.
Harry drops far more easily and snatches the dustpan out of Malfoy’s unwieldy hands.
“What are you doing, Potter?” There is a rough edge to Malfoy’s voice that Harry knows well. And the last thing on earth he wants is to see Malfoy cry.
“She told Harry to do it,” says Harry, elbowing Malfoy out of the way. “Harry’s doing it.”
Malfoy watches him for a moment before he leaves.
Harry is half-way down the garden path when Malfoy catches up with him. When Malfoy speaks, his voice is breathless, yet his face shows no sign of exertion.
“I told Iris you were coming to visit Dick with me again. That’s more convincing than going for a walk, and you can stay away for hours.”
“Why’d you do that?” asks Harry, eyeing Malfoy. Red isn’t a good colour on him; the t-shirt brings out the flush of blood under his pale skin.
“A Malfoy always pays his debts,” says Malfoy stiffly. Harry hasn’t got a clue what he means by that, but he’ll be damned if he’ll ask, either.
They walk on in silence. Harry’s fist is clenched in the horn around his pocket; every so often, his hand goes to the locket at his throat. He doesn’t really need to. Both of them are so cold he can feel them through layers of cloth.
“So, are you going out with the Weasley girl?” asks Malfoy out of the blue.
Harry is brought up short. “What’s it to you?”
Malfoy scowls at him. “I’m making conversation. You may have heard of the idea? It’s where two people talk about inconsequential—”
“I was. Not any more.” Harry feels too long in the tooth to play the defensive game with Malfoy. After all, Malfoy has refined it to a high art.
“What’s her name again? Grunelda? Gertrude?”
“You know perfectly well that it’s Ginny. Your father tried to kill her in second year.” Harry pauses, and twists the knife. “Seems he’s not cut out for murder, either.”
Malfoy’s expression is sublime in its blankness. “My father would do anything for his family. Even killing for them. Maybe when you have a family, you’ll understand that.”
“And what about the Weasleys?” demands Harry, feeling his temper surge despite himself. “Do you think they’d understand if your father killed their only daughter?”
“Is that why you went out with her?” For once, there is hardly any malice in Malfoy’s tone. “Because you want to be one of them?”
“Of course that’s not why,” snaps Harry. “I went out with her because I loved her.”
“Ahh.” Malfoy closes his eyes on his in breath, and Harry stops in the middle of the street, disconcerted. Malfoy looks almost alien, standing there with his head thrown back and the sunlight streaming down the long column of his throat.
“So,” the whisper comes, “would you kill for her?”
Harry turns and strides off. He doesn’t realise he’s running for Dick’s house until he’s there, ringing the doorbell.
“Coming to see the boy, are you?” grunts Bert. “Well, he ain’t here. He’s doin’ one of them whatjamacallems, site research is what he calls it. Mucking about in fields, if you ask me.”
“Really?” asks Harry. His head is whirling; this inexplicable behaviour of Dick’s is only more of the same. “What’s that got to do with chemistry?”
“Beats me.” Bert shrugs irritably. “If you want him, follow the road on past the last copse. He’ll be up on the hill, beyond that burned cottage.”
“Thanks,” says Harry, but he’s talking to a closed door.
For lack of anything else to do, he follows Bert’s directions. Elizabeth disappeared last night when she felt Iris coming and Harry hasn’t seen her since. He’s still not sure that he wants to, either.
Malfoy is waiting for him at the copse.
“How did you know where to go?” asks Harry. His anger starts to abate as he realises the irrationality of it. Not that he’s like to let Malfoy know that, though.
“Let’s just say I know Dick a good bit better than you.” Malfoy is frowning, but that might just be the sun. “I think you’ll want to see this.”
Dick is happily scrabbling at the dirt, collecting samples for heavy metal testing. He greeted Malfoy with a highly enthusiastic “Hey, Harry,” and Harry himself, not at all. Harry didn’t see what all Malfoy’s fuss was about—dirt was dirt, in his opinion, and Voldemort hardly seemed likely to hide a Horcrux in it, no matter how richly alluvial it was—until Malfoy tugged at his arm and directed his attention to the cottage.
Or rather, the run-down but still magnificent manor house.
“I don’t think Dick can see it,” whispers Malfoy, his lips almost on Harry’s neck. This, in Harry’s opinion, is going above and beyond the call of caution, but he doesn’t want to attract Dick’s attention by shoving Malfoy away. “I asked him and he just said, ‘Oh, the burnt out cottage. Who cares?’”
“Muggle Protection Charms,” Harry guesses. Malfoy nods, his hair brushing Harry’s cheek. It feels silky, even if what it looks like is a snarl of gossamer strands.
“Can we get inside?” wonders Harry.
“Do we want to?” Malfoy makes a face. “There’s a reason they don’t want casual visitors here, I’m guessing.”
“There’s a reason I was put in Gryffindor, too,” Harry points out. “Bring Dick, or stay here with him, I don’t care.”
Harry moves towards the house, pushing at a rusting set of gates. They give way easily. The driveway is pitted with potholes, giving it the look of a victim of pox, yet the straggling herb beds lining it hint at its former grandeur.
He hears the patter of feet behind him, followed by a loud exclamation. Harry imagines that Dick is overcome with surprise—but in fact, the noise came from Malfoy, who twisted his ankle in a pot-hole. Dick is blinking rather more rapidly than usual, but appears otherwise unmoved.
“Can you see anything, Dick?” asks Harry.
“Yuh. Big old house. Big deal.” Dick shoves his glasses up into the deep red dents on either side of his nose. “Betcha they didn’t even keep a basic set of acids on the premises.”
“You might be surprised,” says Harry.
The entrance hall is coated in dust inches thick. Inspection of their footprints reveals an intricate tile pattern of black and white marble just visible underneath. Malfoy wanders over to inspect something that looks like a trapdoor, while Harry tries a mammoth set of double doors. They are locked, and Harry gathers the spider shit of decades on his fingers.
“I see you’ve found it.” Elizabeth’s musical tones reverberate through the trapped space. “Even without my guidance. They are surely guiding your steps. They want to be together.”
Harry suppresses a shiver and turns to glare at her. Two things happen simultaneously. Malfoy cries out, “I got it open! There’s a flight of steps…”
And Dick’s head slowly swivels, to take in Elizabeth, transparent from head to toe and dressed in a ruff and curls set that would have made Sir Walter Raleigh turn green with envy.
Looking impressed for what could very well be the first time in his life, Dick emits a soft “Oh!” and faints.
The cellar is full of teapots.
Harry strolls down between the shelves, gaping at the plethora of porcelain. Many of the teapots are just ordinary steel. There are a few plastic kettles that remind him of the sort of items that could make Aunt Petunia drool. In Muggle terms, however, they are ever-so-subtly wrong. The limescale has formed into the shapes of battle-scenes and naked ladies. One of the teapots has swollen and broken, but it has been patched up with something that looks very like gold wire and fire opals. It’s now probably worth more than the entire stock of Dixon’s.
These don’t interest Harry as much as the other ones, the real treasures. There are fat little teapots with gilded dragons, ones the size of cauldrons that hiss at his passing. There are more jewels and precious metals than Smaug’s haul, and they have all been pressed into the service of the common leaf-infuser. Harry can only shake his head at the folly and wonder of it all.
“God,” he hears Malfoy say behind him, and Malfoy can make even that neutral word sound like the screaming curses of a dying prophet. “The dust! Honestly, what have the house elves been doing around here?”
“Dying,” suggests Harry. He doesn’t know too much about what house elves do when their owner dies. He presumes they are passed on to the next of kin, much like Kreacher. Thoughts of Kreacher are unpleasant, but they lead Harry to the inevitable next thought—who is the rightful heir of this crumbling house with its buried fortune of teapots?
“It’s bad enough down here, you don’t have to turn it into a crypt on top of everything else,” grumbles Malfoy. He stands beside Harry, closer than Harry would have liked, but the floor is a warren of teapots. To misstep is to chance getting teapots shards in the sole of one’s foot.
Harry kneels to scoop one up. It’s a tiny thing, which sits snugly in his hand and glows a little by the light of his wand. The handles and rims have been enamelled. It’s the kind of thing Ginny likes. Harry remembers the one occasion when he was in her bedroom. The little room was stocked full of ornaments and bric-a-brac. Not that he paid much attention to them—he’d been too enthralled with Ginny’s hasty hands and the way her laughter puffed against his cheek.
Harry didn’t realise his fist had clenched until Malfoy’s drawl informed him, “You’ll crush it if you’re not careful. Moonstone can be sharp. Medieval wizards used to make swords out of it. But why I am telling you? Stupid, stupid, I should make you shove your hand against your neck.”
“I’d shove it down your mouth before I died, trust me,” snarls Harry. He dislikes having been dragged from pleasant memories to the dismal reality of Malfoy’s company.
Malfoy sends him a filthy look and steps away. His hands are lost within his voluminous pockets as he ranges to and fro, sometimes bending his knees to peer in at something, but never touching.
Harry heads off in the opposite direction. He hopes that Dick is all right, but Elizabeth would alert them if he woke up. Or at least, Harry hopes so. He knows better than to trust a Malfoy, even a dead one, but right now he has no choice.
He still has the moonstone teapot in his hand. He fingers it as he wanders around the cellars, which seem to have no end. He does take care to note unusual teapots as boundary markers. It would not do to get lost and starve to death in a cellar that Muggles can’t even see. He has no illusions about his chances of survival were he to rely on Malfoy’s sense of honour. Malfoy would leave him to die quick as winking and claim he’d been a hundred miles away at the time, torturing frogs to death or something.
Harry still isn’t certain that dissecting amphibians is a trustworthy thing to do, although Dick’s eyes had gleamed with religious fervour as he hooked the corpse up to electrodes. Malfoy had even announced, apropos of nothing, that ancient wizards had used this sort of experiment to develop Transfiguration. Dick had been too absorbed in his work to notice Malfoy’s blunder, although a burning glare from Harry had caused Malfoy to sharply curtail his history lesson.
Just because Dick lets him play with chemicals, Malfoy seems to assume that he’s some sort of honorary wizard. It isn’t just stupid, it’s bizarre. Malfoy used to call Muggle-borns Mudbloods, and they are wizards.
Harry stops to inspect a jade teapot carved into the likeness of a warrior, with a sword for a spout and a bow for a handle. It’s a very ugly representation and the warrior has a girth more suited to a sumo wrestler. Harry shakes his head again. Whoever purchased these things had more money than sense.
There are more shelves stretching away into the gloom, but Harry is grown weary of the game. There’s nothing to be seen down here, unless you have some kind of tea fetish. He turns to go back, ducks into another corridor of shelves and realises the worst has happened. He doesn’t know where to go next.
Muttering under his breath, he tries frantically to remember which marker teapot came next, the red dragon or the one that was inscribed with runes that started singing huskily when he walked by. Neither is in evidence, but if there were a big ugly teapot of panic, it would be staring Harry in the face.
The world turns and turns, and there are many strange sights to be seen. Nothing could be more outlandish to Harry at that moment than hearing Malfoy’s far-off voice and accounting it a relief.
“I’m here!” he calls. “Where are you?”
A muffled reply comes from somewhere. Harry whirls around, trying to locate its source. It’s fruitless—the teapots confound sound. Harry’s fairly certain that Malfoy isn’t on the ceiling.
“I can’t hear you!” he yells, putting the full force of his lungs into it. His next breath comes raw. “Where are you?”
“Here, you great daft fool.” Malfoy steps over a waist-high pile of teapots with a fine disregard for how they tumble around on the floor, and bestows a look of great distaste upon Harry. All the same, his narrow, scowling face is a sight of greater pleasure to Harry than he thinks he’ll ever admit in this lifetime.
“Oh,” says Harry, after a minute of staring. Malfoy’s distaste gives way to distrust before Harry gathers his wits. “I was just wondering,” he finishes, aware of how lame it sounds.
“How sweet. I’ll be sure to put you on my Valentine’s list. Now, are you done, or do I have to drag myself around this mausoleum for another century?”
“There was nothing to stop you leaving,” blurts Harry, before he can think. He’s actually quite glad that Malfoy is here. It's not the sort of place Harry would relish exploring alone.
Malfoy curls his lip again, but for some reason Harry doesn’t feel the habitual anger. “And deny myself the pleasure of your company? Never. You going, then?”
“Yep. There’s nothing to see here.”
“On the contrary, there’s plenty to see. If you really, really like teapots, that is. Which I don’t. Tea comes in cups.”
“No, it doesn’t,” objects Harry. He doesn’t count himself an expert on tea by any means, but he knows it starts off by growing in fields. “You have to get teabags and boil them—”
Even in the poor light, Harry can see how baleful Malfoy’s glare is. “You have to. I don’t.”
For some reason, this makes Harry laugh. Maybe it’s because his thought—that the real world is going to come as such a shock to Malfoy—is an unkind one. After all, Harry is hardly likely to laugh in real mirth at one of Malfoy’s japes, is he?
“If you’re quite finished.” Malfoy’s voice is frozen solid. “Get us out of here, would you?”
That stems Harry’s amusement pretty damn quick. To cover his apprehension, he chooses anger as the colour of the day.
“Me? You mean you don’t know the way out? You found me!”
“That, Potter, is because I was following the sound of your bleating,” says Malfoy. “I hardly think that the same technique would work on the door.” This time, his glare is not so much baleful as molten. “Oh, how perfect. The hero has led us into a maze and he can’t find his way out again.”
“I didn’t say that!”
“You don’t have to,” sighs Malfoy. He perches atop another pile of teapots, a set cunningly wrought to take on the shape and texture of skulls. Harry doesn’t think the choice was an unconscious one.
“What are you doing?” demands Harry. As far as he can see, Malfoy looks like he’s settling back and waiting for someone else to do the work. He fancies Malfoy might deny this, but in the past Malfoy was never very keen to accede to Harry’s wishes and he doesn’t start now.
“Someone will eventually find us,” says Malfoy. Harry thinks this far from likely. “If not, I’ll eat you.”
“You’d have to kill me first.”
“Quite,” says Malfoy in withering tones. “And I know, I just know, you’re going to say something like, ‘Not if I kill you first.’ Don’t bother, Potter. I already know you don’t have one original bone in your stunted body, you don’t need to beat me over the head with the fact.”
“Huh,” says Harry. “Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. How original is it to just do what your daddy tells you to?”
Surprisingly, Malfoy hoots with laughter. His laughter, unlike everything else about him, is not cold and dignified. In fact, it sounds like a cross between a hacksaw and a donkey in mortal agony. Harry raises his eyebrows. He’s more used to Malfoy responding to taunts in kind.
“Oh, Potter,” says Malfoy. “Was the pun intentional? No, probably not, or you would have said ‘teapot’ instead. I forgot, heroes don’t have sense of humour. Or the intelligence God gave a cat.”
“Stop wittering, Malfoy,” commands Harry. “We have to make a plan.”
“I have my plan,” Malfoy reminds him. “I’m going to eat you. Alive or dead, I don’t really mind. And I know exactly which part I’d eat first.” He fixes his eyes on Harry’s crotch, which disturbs Harry more than it should. His stomach even jumps. Malfoy wouldn’t really eat me, Harry thinks uneasily. Anyway, I’ll get out of here before he can.
“As plans go, it isn’t great,” Harry says at last.
“Oh yes? This coming from the person with the patent on rushing in where angels fear to tread? Here, watch me tremble in the wake of your puissant criticism.”
“You do talk a lot of rubbish, you know,” says Harry. Malfoy makes a minute inspection of his fingernails.
“Please don’t imagine that your opinion matters one whit to me, Potter. It just so happens that we are stuck in cellar together. I would still brain you with a teapot if I thought I could get away with it.”
“Well, me too,” protests Harry.
“You want to brain yourself with a teapot? Oh, do. It would be so entertaining, and save me a lot of trouble besides.”
“Did you ever, like, wonder why so many people hate you?” asks Harry. He’d always thought Malfoy was pushy, opinionated and snobby, and those are the kinder epithets. However, his hatred of Malfoy just is. It's been there so long that there doesn't need to be a reason for it any longer.
Now he begins to see that Malfoy has many reasons for which he could be hated. Right now, the main one is the fact that Malfoy is twining his hair around his fingers with a thoughtful expression. There's something really obnoxious about that.
“I always assumed it was due to jealousy,” says Malfoy, without a hint of modesty. “Besides, I think ‘hate’ is too strong a word. That just for you and me and the Dark Lord. Everyone else just dislikes, or is indifferent to. Hating takes up such a lot of energy.”
“Do you hate the Dark Lord?”
It’s a question that spills from Harry’s lips almost before he notices his mouth opening. Considering that he already knows the answer, it is quite pointless. Harry is still inwardly berating himself when Malfoy speaks.
Under the glare of Harry’s wand, Malfoy’s eyes are as chilly and distant as two stars. “Yes. I do.”
So he hadn’t known the answer, after all.
“Well,” says Harry, trying his best to be jolly and determined, “no use just sitting here. Let’s try walking until we find the door.”
“Or wander into the bowels of the earth and perish, never to be seen again by mortal man,” mutters Malfoy, but he gets up and dusts off his jeans all the same.
Harry strides off, holding his wand in front of him to ward away the darkness. He tries not to remember what Hermione had once told him, that spells did not last indefinitely. It had made sense at the time, but Harry doesn’t much like the thought of being in the dark with all these teapots. They have started to seem creepy.
It is when he comes to a fork in the shelves and realises that he can no longer hear Malfoy’s breathing that he sees a flaw in the plan. Raising his wand aloft, he is about to yell Malfoy’s name when Malfoy crashes out of a barrier of teapots, his t-shirt ripped clean in two.
“They attacked me!” he gasps. “The teapots with the little teeth! They jumped down on me and swarmed all over me and I had to smash them off with some broken wood—” Malfoy looks down at his bare chest, where a thin cut is oozing blood. “I appear to have ripped my shirt,” he observes. “Iris will be annoyed.”
“Come here,” says Harry in exasperation. In truth, he’s shaken. Carnivorous teapots are not something he feels particularly well equipped to deal with. He hopes the Reducto Curse will work on them. Or he could set them on fire…
“What now?” says Malfoy. He’s a foot from Harry and Harry can smell chocolate on his breath.
“I’ll heal that,” says Harry. “Those teapots can probably scent blood.”
Malfoy’s face turns ashen, even though Harry was only trying to cover up his altruistic urge to heal the other boy. He doubts the veracity of his own statement; after all, teapots have nothing with which to smell.
He places his fingers on either side of the cut, as Hermione taught him—and remembers that some of the teapots have carved faces, with noses. His fingers tremble against Malfoy’s skin and he can feel the juddering of Malfoy’s breathing. Feel it, and smell it.
Hurriedly, he points the tip of his wand to the edge of the cut and mutters, “Asclepius.” A shaft of blue light runs up the length of the cut, knitting Malfoy’s skin together. Within seconds, a smear of blood is all that remains.
“Wipe that off, they’ll smell it,” says Malfoy urgently. Harry nods and looks around for a cloth. He debates using his shirt, but if that has blood on it the teapots will come for him too…
With a low growl, Malfoy pulls off what’s left of his t-shirt and uses it to rub the blood from his skin. He tosses it away and hikes up his jeans, which ride so low on his hips that Harry can see the top of his boxers. At least he wears boxers, unlike Harry, who tends to forget. Thank God for small mercies.
“How did you manage to get lost again?” hisses Harry as they creep further down the corridor.
“I didn’t get lost, you did,” whispers Malfoy furiously. “I looked around and suddenly you were gone, you great prat!”
“We can’t afford to get separated. Not if we have to fight the bloody teacups.”
“Fine, stick close to me,” says Malfoy, but Harry shakes his head.
“I reckon the place is trying to split us up. Easier prey, see? We need to…tie our legs together or something.”
“What, you think that'll give us a sporting chance, do you?"
“You have a better suggestion?”
“Yeah,” says Malfoy, and he grabs Harry’s hand.
The shock sends tingling flames up Harry’s arm, but he refuses to let his emotions show. The tips of Malfoy’s fingers are cold where they curl around Harry’s palm, and his skin is sweaty. It’s hardly what you’d call normal, holding hands with another boy in a cellar full of bloodthirsty teapots, but it is a reasonably good idea.
It just means they have to keep holding hands. Harry can deal with that.
It also means that they are practically walking on top of each other in the narrower passages, but as Harry’s despair of ever finding a way out mounts, so does his discomfort at feeling Malfoy’s bare torso pressed against his back and arm decrease. It’s not like Malfoy is someone Harry would ever want to hold hands with. It’s not like he’s Ginny.
“We’re never going to get out,” he says at last, in a hopeless little murmur.
“Oh, well,” says Malfoy. “Would you prefer to be roasted or boiled, Potter?”
“I don’t know how you propose to cook me at all. You don’t have an oven.”
“I could set fire to some of these damn teapots,” says Malfoy, kicking one. His face is sullen.
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t last forever. And then you’d be all alone.”
“It’ll be better than your company.”
Harry actually feels insulted for a second. It’s logical that Malfoy should despise spending time with him. Harry has never been all that logical, though.
Harry drops on to the floor. He doesn’t intend to drag Malfoy with him, but Malfoy is still gripping his hand. They both end up slumped against the splintered shelves. Harry feels too apathetic to even untwine his fingers from Malfoy’s humid grip.
“I really feel I’m too young to die,” says Malfoy eventually. “There are so many things I haven’t done yet.”
“Yeah,” says Harry. He tries to make a list of distinguished feats he could have accomplished had he got out, but all he can think of is ‘sex.’ Fair enough, he would have liked do a bit more of it before he died, but there were surely other things he wanted to do. Definitely. Except that Harry can't happen to think of any.
“It’s terribly depressing,” continues Malfoy. “Do you think they give marks in the afterlife? Like, say, if you’ve never kissed anyone, you don’t get to go to this heaven, you have to go to the one for…virgins, or something?”
Harry snickers, trying to imagine a heaven for virgins. Presumably the predominant colour would be white. Then something Malfoy said registers, and Harry says, “Wait, do you mean you’ve never kissed anyone?”
“No,” snaps Malfoy, instantly on the defensive. “I didn’t say that. Did I?”
“You haven’t, have you?” Harry makes use of the fact that he’s got several of Malfoy’s fingers in his possession, by pinching them between his own until Malfoy winces.
“Have,” he mumbles. “I mean, Pansy…”
There’s something about the way he turns his head away that makes Harry certain of the lie. “Properly?” he presses. “On the lips? With tongues?”
“Don’t be disgusting, Potter. I don’t want to discuss Pansy’s tongue with you. Or at all.”
“You have to use tongues,” sighs Harry, suddenly tiring of the subject. “Otherwise you might as well just kiss someone’s cheek.”
“That’s pretty pathetic, Malfoy,” says Harry. He feels guilty for doing so, even though Malfoy has said ten times worse about Harry in his time. It really sucks to be a good guy, although at least Harry won’t die never having kissed someone else.
It strikes Harry like a sudden blow. He might die here, he really might. Always before, there was someone to rely on, to expect to care: Sirius, Dumbledore, even Snape. They were all gone now. There was only Dick…
“Dick!” exclaims Harry.
“Yes, I know you think I am, now shut up,” says Malfoy.
“No, I mean Dick. We’ve forgotten about him!”
“And what help is he going to be?” Malfoy’s voice is like the lash of a whip. “The whole point is that we can’t get out. This cellar is too big for him to hear us calling three floors up—I barely heard you when you were a hundred feet away.”
Damn logic. Harry tries to throw back his head, but he ends up slamming it against the shelf. It adds a throbbing ache to his other troubles, one of which is that he’s sitting next to a half-naked Malfoy. Harry doesn’t like that this is factor, but there's nothing he can do about it.
Faith, that’s what is called for in situations like these. Blind faith.
Are you a witch or not? his memories scream at him.
“I’m not,” protests Harry. “I’m a wizard.”
“Well done,” comes Malfoy’s acerbic tones. “Keep going, we might be able to find out your sex, age and name. What fun that shall be!”
“Don’t talk to me about names, Harry,” mutters Harry. There was a thought he was supposed to be having, but Malfoy had disrupted it.
“Look, it was that or ‘Severus’ and I don’t think that’s a common Muggle name.”
“No, it’s not,” says Harry. “Vincent is, though. And Gregory.”
Malfoy looks blank. “So?”
“Or Pansy,” suggests Harry with a snort. For some reason he finds that amusing.
“I don’t think I like what you’re implying there.”
“When do you ever like what I’m implying?”
“True,” says Malfoy, putting his head on one side. “But even if I am going to die here, I’m not kissing you. I think I’d rather go another round with the biting teapots.”
“Wait, what? Why would you kiss me?”
“God knows,” says Malfoy. “Frankly, I don’t know why anyone would. You don’t look as though you’d be very good at it.”
“I’ve never heard any complaints. How would you know, anyway? You’ve never done it.”
Malfoy’s face twists, but Harry can tell there’s not much he can say to that. He tries, though.
“I’d probably be better than you, though.”
“Fine. If we ever kiss the same girl, we can ask her. Now shut up for a minute, I’m trying to think.”
“Takes an effort, does it?” says Malfoy, but Harry is busy watching him roll his wand against the floor.
“That’s it!” he cries in triumph. Snatching up his own wand, he closes his eyes and summons up his first kiss with Ginny—the happiest moment of his life.
After a while, Malfoy asks, “Was something supposed to happen? Because you know what, Potter, it didn’t.”
“What?” Harry’s eyes snapped open. “It should have worked!”
“Tell that to the man who invented the sublaris idiotinus.”
Harry harrumphs and closes his eyes again. For some reason, the memory isn’t strong enough, so he goes back to one of the very oldest: the fizzling in the pit of his stomach when he caught the Snitch, snatching it yet again from Malfoy’s grasping hands…
“Wow,” breathes Malfoy.
Harry opens his eyes to find his stag floating before him, stamping one translucent hoof restively.
“Go to Elizabeth,” commands Harry. “Bring her back to us.”
The stag dips his head and canters away through the shelves. Harry watches him until he’s out of sight. “Bye, Prongs,” he whispers.
“That was actually quite impressive,” says Malfoy, in the tones of one who finds this terribly hard to believe. “Mind you, a stag? Are you trying to compensate for something?”
“What’s your Patronus, then?” asks Harry, turning to sneer into Malfoy’s face.
“Don’t have one.”
“Your life has been such a waste,” reflects Harry. “Still, now you might have a chance to make up for everything you’ve failed to do.”
“What good will Elizabeth do, even if she does find us?”
“She’s a ghost. She can float through walls.”
“Yeah, but we can’t.”
“I mean, she’ll be able to find a way out and guide us through.”
“Huh,” says Malfoy, but he doesn’t comment further. Harry takes it that he can find no fault with Harry’s actions, and revels in the rare silence.
“Hey, Potter?” It is some time before Malfoy’s voice, sounding almost tentative, breaks the silence.
“If we had ended up being stuck down here, would you have…”
“Would I have what?”
Malfoy’s face is screwed up, as if in pain. Harry tries not to look at his nipples. It’s just too weird. He doesn’t want to know things like: Malfoy has a trail of downy hair leading down his chest and stomach. He doesn’t want to see that it’s the same golden colour as the hairs on his arms, or that Malfoy has a small pink scar just above his bellybutton.
“Nothing,” says Malfoy.
He doesn’t talk again until Elizabeth comes.
Elizabeth doesn't bat a transparent eyelid at Draco’s lack of clothing. When they emerge from the mansion, the crumpled form of Dick’s body is still lying on the ground, a sight that for some reason makes Draco’s heart backflip into his mouth. He thought the boy would have regained consciousness ages ago. Elizabeth hovers above the casualty, looking supremely unconcerned and more than a little bit bored. On closer inspection, Draco notices that Dick is sucking on his thumb and making soft mewling noises.
Partly out of an uneasy reluctance to spend more time topless in Harry Potter's company, Draco offers to walk the dazed and belligerent Dick home. After a few weak protestations, Potter leaves. Later, Draco wonders if he’d been wrong to send Potter packing so soon. Escorting Dick back turns out to be harder work than he'd bargained on. For one thing, Draco has to practically lead a confused Dick by the hand, like a pimply, oversized toddler. For another, Dick suddenly snaps to attention three-quarters of the way home and demands that they return to retrieve the soil samples he’s forgotten. Somehow, Draco finds himself scrabbling around on his hands and knees in the grass looking for little pots of mud, while Dick offers unwelcome advice, such as “I think maybe it’s sort of around the middle of one of those cowpats.”
They finally arrive. Draco tries to usher Dick quickly into the house and up the stairs, so that he can get up to Dick’s bedroom and borrow a clean shirt without having to answer all sorts of awkward questions about being half-naked and covered in dirt. Unluckily, Dick responds about as well to ushering as a Giant African Land Snail. He plods resolutely up the stairs, clutching his little pots of mud. Before they reach the top, Bert sidles out of one of the upstairs rooms, looking sullen. Not that Draco’s yet witnessed any of facial expressions of Bert's that aren’t members of the 'grumpy' family.
Bert’s eyes narrow to slits when he sees Draco standing behind Dick, with no shirt on and the waistband of his boxer shorts grazing the underside of his hips. Bert is probably the kind of man who never takes off his vest, not even when in the shower, and who thinks that visible bellybuttons constitute indecent exposure. Draco doesn’t say anything. There are no words to say.
“Hrmph,” Bert grunts eventually. “Fancy yourself in a boy band, do you?”
“I was…too hot,” Draco answers.
“Too hot,” Bert echoes, eyeing the goosepimples on Draco’s arms. The central heating in Bert’s house leaves something to be desired, such as another central heating system, and they don’t have a fireplace.
“Yes, I was too hot,” Draco replies tiredly. He doesn’t have any real idea of how to talk to these big, ugly, stupid people with the very probable homicidal tendencies. They always seem to know instinctively that he isn’t one of them. Draco can’t imagine why, although perhaps on reflection it’s more than a little due to the superiority complex, drawling accent and inclination to tilt his head back so he can literally look down his nose at them. Inspiration strikes.
“I was, er, too ‘ot,” he explains, fashioning the accent out of spare odds and ends wafting about in his brain. “Wot wiv all the work we ‘ad to do an’ all the, um, collectin’ of the…mud.”
Bert stares at him incredulously. He opens his mouth, closes it again, and then walks right back into his room, shaking his head. Draco can’t help but feel a little triumphant.
As soon as they get into the bedroom, Dick commences taking the pH of the mud. Draco rifles through his closet. The shirt he finally deems acceptable to wear is far too short in the arms, so the cuffs cut into his wrists, but far too baggy everywhere else. Draco sighs and flops backwards on to the bed. He’s sure that he looks simply gorgeous. Potter’s going to love ripping the piss out of his outfit when Draco gets back to Iris' place.
Draco glares at the ceiling. It stares back at him in a neutral, off-white sort of way. After a quick glance to make sure that Dick isn’t looking, Draco tries sticking his tongue out at the ceiling and crossing his eyes in a hideous grimace. The ceiling doesn’t rise to the bait, just simply continues to exist and peel slightly at the edges. Draco sighs and gives up, depressed with the general unresponsiveness of his target.
What Potter said about kissing with tongues is worrying him. Who does Potter think he is, to tell Draco what counts sexwise and what doesn’t? He isn’t much more experienced than Draco, surely. It’s not that Draco hasn’t had the opportunity to score. He has. There have been opportunities, certainly. Draco can’t be the only one who just hasn’t taken them. There has to be someone in the year as inexperienced as him, other than Longbottom.
Maybe his year is—was, he’d better start using the past tense when thinking of Hogwarts—just depraved, and that’s why everyone else seemed to be running around shagging each other here, there and everywhere. Perhaps Muggle schools are full of chaste angels, and that’s the way seventeen year-olds are really supposed to be.
“Hoi, Dick?” Draco calls from where he’s lying prostrate on the bed.
Dick is at his worktable, utterly absorbed in trying to measure out a catalyst. He doesn’t answer, but Draco has grown used to his odd methods of communication. Ask Dick a question and, unless it’s about polymers or alkali metals, he’d usually ignore you and then respond five minutes later, once you’ve forgotten what it was you asked him about in the first place.
“Yeah, anyway,” Draco says, pressing the tips of his fingers together in an arch, “do you ever, you know, think about having—you know—someone, to do—you know—stuff with?”
Draco doesn’t want to risk being more candid, for fear that Bert is listening at the keyhole, ready to rush in and pummel him if he hears anything about Take That or Hari Krishnas. Yet Draco knows he won’t have to elucidate. Cryptically worded the question might be, but even someone as odd, isolated and unsettling as Dick will be able to understand what he means through the inflection. It’s a gift given to all teenage boys—the ability to instil innuendo into anything, even a phrase as banal as ‘I brushed my teeth this morning.’
Dick gets it, anyway.
“Unsanitary.” Dick scowls. “And she would interfere with my work.”
“You think?” Draco sits up and puts his chin in his hands. He notes the subtle transition from ‘someone’ to ‘she,’ but doesn’t really know why.
“You betcha,” Dick replies tartly, blinking at Draco through his goggles. “Why d’you think the Curies died of radiation poisoning? I bet you anything old Marie was some brainless ditz who left a gamma-ray emitter lying around and they both snuffed it.”
“Interesting.” This is the stock answer that Draco gives whenever Dick says something he doesn’t understand. Dick, who hears his hobbies called 'interesting' about as often as he hears himself called 'devilishly handsome,' is usually pacified by this and goes back to work glowing. On this occasion, however, he seems rather more keen to elaborate on the topic.
“I mean, I never heard,” Dick announces grandly, “of Einstein having girlfriends.”
“Mmm,” says Draco, who’s never heard of Einstein, let alone his love life. Dick gestures defiantly at a framed black-and-white poster on the wall.
“He got married eventually,” Dick says confidentially. “But I think that’s only ‘cause he knocked her up. Great man, though.” He gazes at the picture adoringly, quivering with suppressed emotion.
Draco has to avert his eyes. The sight of Dick quivering isn’t the most pleasant of experiences, especially after a heavy breakfast. Draco looks at the poster instead. If the grainy photo is of Einstein, he isn’t at all surprised by the scientist’s lack of girlfriends early in life. The man looks as if he visits the same hairdresser as Potter, and his tongue is hanging out of his mouth in a way that suggests deeply entrenched insanity.
“So, you’ve never had a girlfriend? Not even at school?” Draco queries cheerfully, feeling that at least there is an adolescent human being less experienced in such matters as he, even though Dick’s status as a human being is debatable.
“My old classmate Callum got a girlfriend just before we chose our A-Levels,” Dick mutters, eyes narrowing. His voice is reminiscent of that of an army general discussing a model private turned traitor out of the blue. “He used want to do Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry and Physics. Now guess what he’s chosen. Guess! Guess.”
“I can’t,” Draco answers flatly. He can’t stand guessing games and he’s bored by Muggle academics. He hadn’t liked school even when he’d gone. Back then, it had just been a compulsory waiting period before he could get out and live. Now he is out, but his life is very much hanging in the balance. Ironic. Probably it’s due to the nature in which he left—plotting to kill the Headmaster hadn't exactly lent itself to a peaceful existence.
“He’s doing,” Dick whispers in hushed tones, as if Callum has committed some perverse atrocity, “History of Art. Just cause Anna’s giving him head. That’s when she puts her mouth down there.”
Draco has no idea what History of Art is, though he assumes Dick’s reaction is comparable to the one Draco's family would have if he took, say, Muggle Studies. He does know what giving head is—apparently teenage slang transcends the Muggle and Wizarding worlds—and gasps obligingly, though he’s slightly annoyed by the insinuation that Dick is more knowledgeable about blowjobs than he is.
“But is that normal?” Draco probes, wanting to stick to the point. “For your friends, I mean?” He doesn’t want Dick judging any of this by his own personal standards, which are sure to first be filtered through the ethics of the Ideal Gas Law. “Have all your friends done that kind of stuff before?”
“Do you mean Callum?” Dick's plump face darkens. “He’s no friend of mine.” Dick swallows hard, and his face slowly turns a less violent shade of purple. “When I was going out with my girlfriend, I didn’t do anything disgusting like that.”
Draco falls off the bed. The thought of any female allowing Dick to touch her of her own volition is more than a little disturbing. He pulls himself back on to the mattress, looking at Dick in horror.
“When you were going out with your what?”
Dick leers at Draco oddly for a few seconds. Draco tries not to recoil, then realises the boy is only trying to appear enigmatic. It isn’t a look that suits him.
“My girlfriend,” says Dick. “I mean, I weakened. If she wanted me so badly, why shouldn’t she have me for a short time? Puppy love, you know.”
Draco fights the waves of rising nausea, although Iris’s fry-up breakfast—the only thing he’s eaten all day—is trying as hard as it can to expel itself from his body. He manages a question.
“What was her name?”
“Beryl. But I used to call her, as a nickname—”
“Stop,” Draco pleads. Any nickname more intimate than ‘Sweetheart’ and he’ll need intensive psychological counselling for the next five years –
“Beryllium. The group two element, next to lithium.”
“Oh,” Draco manages. “Kinky.”
By the time Draco returns to the B&B, 'Felix,' 'Bill' and 'Lucy' have already eaten their dinner and vanished somewhere, presumably to their individual rooms. They’re probably huddled together, Draco thinks, laughing while Weasley makes asinine jokes and Granger plays nurse. Or listening to Potter’s story about the teapots and whispering about Draco. Draco forces himself not to care.
He eats his dinner alone in the kitchen. Iris is doing the washing up again—there always seems to be a new batch of dirty plates materialising as soon as the last ones have been scoured. She good-naturedly ignores him while he chews. It reminds Draco of the times when he used to sit in the west sitting room with Mother, while she practised her embroidery spells and he read one of those big dark books from Father’s library, trying to understand the long words. They never talked. But it was still…nice.
“Do you know a Beryl?” Draco asks on a whim. Dick hadn’t been very forthcoming with any detailed physical descriptions of his girlfriend, and Draco’s willing to bet that she had a tail or six toes or some other deformity. Iris pauses at this, frozen in the act of wiping a glass with a plaid dishcloth. “One that used to hang around with Dick?”
There’s a silence, and then Iris starts wiping again, at twice the speed. The place where her hand used to be now looks like a little plaid whirlwind.
“Oh, little Beryl Thompson, you mean?” Iris babbles in a light, careless sort of voice. “However would you know about her? Her family used to live here, right next door to Bert. That was before they moved, though, cherub. She’s not here anymore.” She says all of this in one breath, still wiping the same glass feverishly. Draco’s surprised she hasn’t already reduced it to a small pile of sand.
“What was she like?” Draco asks warily, as Iris finally discards the polished glass and begins to brutalize a slightly damp soup bowl.
“Horrid, standoffish sort of woman,” Iris replies promptly, with uncharacteristic viciousness. “Never even smiled when I bumped into her down the shops.”
“Excuse me?” says Draco, utterly confused.
“What? Oh, you mean Beryl.” Iris gives a tinkle of a laugh, as brittle as breaking glass. “She used to go over and play with Richard. I think he used to do his silly old experiments on her. It was all very sweet. They used to run about with no clothes on in the paddling pool… ” Iris swivels round, drying her hands roughly on her skirt. “Are you alright, Harry? You look pale. Well, paler than usual.”
“They…ran about…with no…Dick…not wearing any…”
“Oh, Harry!” Iris exclaims, laughing. “You little scamp! They were very young. She moved away when they were both about ten.”
Ah. That explained it. It hadn’t so much been puppy love as two young lovers who had barely stopped wetting the bed.
“Who was the horrid, standoffish woman?” asks Draco, limp with relief.
Almost imperceptibly, Iris stiffens. Her gaze flickers over to the top of the refrigerator and the picture of male hands holding baby Frank. Male hands wearing a wedding ring. Draco glances at Iris’s fingers. She also is wearing a wedding ring on her left hand. He wonders why she hadn’t taken it off to do the washing up, but it looks as if it’s been jammed on so tightly that it would be almost impossible to remove.
“She was no-one, dear,” says Iris. She smiles reassuringly and slides Draco’s empty plate off the table. Then, evidently realising that Draco is not going to fobbed off so easily, she adds, “Just Beryl’s mother.”
“You must’ve been pleased when she and Beryl moved away, then,” remarks Draco.
“Well, Beryl and her father moved later,” says Iris, slowly. “And no—I wasn’t pleased when she left.”
“Because she left them behind?” asks Draco, uncomprehendingly.
“It wasn’t so much what she left behind,” Iris replies softly, eyes flickering unconsciously to the refrigerator once again, “as what she took with her.”
Suddenly it seems as if the whole room is tainted, the air heavy with the heady perfume of loss. Iris’ grief is suddenly so tangible that Draco can feel it choking him, drying up the moisture in his throat and causing a familiar pricking sensation underneath his eyelids.
“I’m going to bed,” he mumbles, jerking to his feet and trying to flee the kitchen. He’ll do anything, anything, to keep from crying down here. Draco hears Iris call up to him as his feet pound the stairs, racing up to the sanctuary of his room.
“I’ve left your pyjamas on the bed, Harry.”
Harry still can’t find his pyjamas. Anything could have happened to them since the last time he’d had a chance to wear them—when was that? He can’t recall. Out in the open, he and Hermione and Ron had more often than not slept in their clothes, or huddled in blankets while they dried out their clothes. Pyjamas were a luxury.
Harry doesn’t mind sleeping in one of his large t-shirts, a relic from the days of being dressed by the House of Dudley. However, Iris has done a sweep of his room, bearing off every particle of clothing for washing. She seems to assume that all civilised people keep their pyjamas under a pillow, or in a pyjama case if they're really posh. It hadn’t occurred to her that Harry doesn't.
There’s something illicit and—Harry can’t help it, most things are these days—erotic about sleeping naked. The sheets feel different against his bare skin. It almost makes him get up and put on his wet, muddy jeans, but they’d been uncomfortable enough to walk in. He can’t bring himself to sully Iris’ pristine bedclothes with them as well.
He tucks the sheets in around his legs, but that only brings home the foreignness of their touch. In the end he tosses them loosely around his body and hugs his knees to his chest. He also vows to get his clothes back come morning.
He can’t sleep, not with this tingling in his skin. He can hear shuffling sounds coming from the next room, telling him that Malfoy is not yet abed. Even if he were, Harry doesn’t think he dares to relieve himself when Malfoy can hear, and probably listen too. Instead Harry squeezes his eyes shut and thinks about Ginny.
Her face is a pale smudge crowned by long red hair. He remembers their one hasty coupling far more clearly. It had been in the Gryffindor common room on one exceptionally fine summer day. The rest of the house had been outside, soaking up the sunshine, but Ginny had cornered Harry on his way out.
At any moment, someone could have walked in and caught them, adding extra urgency to their fumbling touches. Ginny had been as eager as he was, her hands in his hair and her tongue in his mouth, but she could hardly stifle her gasp of pain as he entered her. Harry still felt guilty about that, even though she assured him afterwards that it was normal.
He’s never told Ron. Ron would kill him, and Malfoy would probably be highly disappointed that he hadn’t got there first.
Then again, Malfoy had had plenty of opportunities to kill Harry in the last week and he hadn’t even tried. Fair enough, he’d talked about eating Harry if they’d been abandoned in the cellar, but he would have made his way out eventually—leaving Harry’s dead body behind, if he so chose. And he hadn’t.
Harry tosses and turns, feeling the sheets scratch against his skin. If Harry hadn’t known who Malfoy was, he suspects he could easily have believed his story of abandonment.
Malfoy seems…content here, with his friend Dick and Iris and his ‘experiments.’ It’s all transient, of course; Dick is going to university at the end of October, where Harry presumes someone will teach him how to wash his hair. Malfoy doesn’t have a long-term plan of what he’ll do when Dick is gone, or when Iris eventually comes to her senses and throws him out. He doesn’t even appear to miss his parents. It’s all very strange and it makes Harry’s head hurt.
He should be seeking the Horcruxes. Well, he is, and he’s found two, but he should be thinking about them as well. Or about Ginny. Not fretting over Malfoy’s cold heart.
A hiss comes at the door. Harry sits up, wondering if it is Hermione come to visit. He can’t imagine why she would. She’s wrapped up in tending to a groggy Ron and besides, she can see him any time during the day if she likes. Harry hesitates.
The hiss comes again, followed soon after by an exasperated snort. “Potter, I’m a Slytherin, not a snake. Let me in.”
Harry just loves the way he demands entry. “Open the door yourself, you lazy bugger.”
Malfoy has clearly been getting his tips on nightwear from the same place as Harry—he’s clad in a huge t-shirt that hangs almost to his knees. Harry doesn’t know who Che Guvara is and is prepared to bet that Malfoy doesn’t either, but he was obviously a very large man.
“What do you want?” asks Harry, a shade testily. It’s that or be embarrassed by his nakedness.
Malfoy shrugs. His legs are slim as a girl’s, with knots of muscle barely visible in his calves. In fact, Malfoy could pass for a girl, if his fine hair was a little longer. Of course, he’d need a padded bra.
Harry finds this train of thought considerably disturbing. To derail it, he adds, “Can’t it keep till morning?”
“It can keep forever,” says Malfoy, “or it can keep for the next five minutes, and no more.”
“Really? I’ll take the first one, then,” says Harry. His chest is bare to the night as he sits up. A chill breeze that he hadn’t noticed before calls out armies of goose pimples on his arms.
“Are you naked again?” asks Malfoy, suspicion writ large on his features.
“As a matter of fact, I am,” snaps Harry. “So unless you want to be traumatised for life, like the last time, I suggest you spit out whatever’s bothering you and go away.”
Malfoy takes a step closer to the bed. The stark moonlight dapples his cheeks silver and white. He looks diseased.
“I…I want to go home,” he says. “I want to go, but I’m afraid. The Dark Lord will kill me and my mother if he finds out that I disobeyed him and ran away. He might still think that I’ve been taken captive…”
“That’s unlikely. He has his spies, you know. The only way you’d still be with the Order of the Phoenix is if you agreed to turn traitor, and Voldemort knows that.”
“So my parents are probably already dead.” Malfoy’s eyes glisten in the gloom, but his face is as still as death.
“I don’t know,” says Harry, doing his best to gentle his words. He tugs the sheet a little further up his chest. “We don’t get all that much information. I don’t know any more than you do. If they’d been Muggles, it probably would have made the papers, but—”
“But you don’t know,” says Malfoy. “And if they were dead, what would you suggest I do?”
Harry is at a loss. “I wouldn’t come asking me, that’s for sure. You hate me, you said so yourself. You might fear Voldemort’s wrath, but our side isn’t going to be any better for you. I don’t think.”
“I know you don’t think,” says Malfoy, with mild rancour. “I want you to promise me something.”
“And why should I do that?” Harry frowns, feeling a shiver go through him. The wind, it was the wind. Yet the window is closed.
“I don’t know,” admits Malfoy. “Because you’re honourable and good and heroic?”
“Not good enough, Malfoy. It’s your fault that Dumbledore is dead.”
“Yet he offered me sanctuary. Won’t you do the same?”
“He offered you that before he was dead, and I’m not Dumbledore.” Harry gropes for a blanket that he knows was at the end of the bed when he got into it. “I want some proof. Proof that you aren’t going to run to your Death Eater pals and turn us in when we leave, if you haven’t done that already.”
“You’re still here, aren’t you?” says Malfoy. “Trust me, if they knew where you were, they’d be parading your head around on a pike. I—I miss my mother, Potter.” There’s a definite wetness to Malfoy’s eye now, but the line of his chin is grim. “I don’t care about the rest of it any more.”
“But of course you’d say that,” insists Harry. “Prove it.”
“Very well.” In one swift movement, Malfoy has grasped the hem of his t-shirt and pulled it over his head. Harry has a glimpse of lots of taut, pale flesh before Malfoy’s head emerges, his hair tousled and his eyes hard.
“What’s this supposed to mean?” demands Harry. He realises that he has backed up against the wall in his apprehension—he can feel the raised fleur-de-lis wallpaper sucking at his shoulder blades.
“Your proof,” says Malfoy. “Or did you really think I’d touch you because I wanted to, Potter?”
His hand is on the bed now. Harry can see his raised knuckles shining in the cold light of the moon. Harry has never felt so terrified. He is also, to his shame, aroused. Malfoy’s the wrong shape, the wrong sex, the wrong person, but he seems to be offering something that Harry’s body wants very much indeed.
“Odd kind of proof,” says Harry at last, in a strangled little voice.
“Yeah,” says Malfoy. “The kind you can believe.” The sheet slips through Harry’s fingers as Malfoy pulls it back. The part of Harry’s brain that’s in control does nothing to stop it, even though the pit of his mind is crying in distress.
“I think it would be easier if I just—” says Malfoy, breathless. Harry nods, with no idea of what he’s agreeing to. Malfoy slides in beside him, fluid as liquid smoke, pressing against Harry.
Harry doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know. Yet somehow he is reaching clumsily for Malfoy, tilting his head so that their lips touch. Harry has to almost pull Malfoy’s chin down to get his tongue inside his mouth, remembering too late that Malfoy has never done this before.
He’s a fast learner, though. Soon, he is kissing back so hard that Harry’s jaw aches from it, his tongue filling Harry’s mouth and his stubble scratching in a way that Harry has never imagined. His own must be doing the same, but it’s a small price to pay.
Malfoy’s skin is boiling where it melds with Harry’s. Working on sheer instinct now, Harry clutches at Malfoy’s sweat-slicked buttocks, rubbing against him in a way that, contrary to all logic, works. It’s so different from Ginny—rougher, with much more heat and sweat—that there’s really no way to compare. Soon, as Harry moans around Malfoy’s tongue, he stops even trying.
Then there’s Malfoy’s hand. It knows exactly what to do with Harry, but it shouldn’t feel this different from Harry’s own, it shouldn’t feel this good—
Afterwards, Malfoy’s knees crack as he clambers from the bed and wipes his stomach with the edge of Harry’s sheet. “Well,” he says, as Harry cleans his sticky fingers on the pillow and tries not to wince, “was that proof enough?”
“I—” Harry tries. He wants to say that anyone can sell his body. That there are many different forms of payment for it. But Malfoy has never been an accomplished liar and he’d never kissed anyone before Harry. Harry could bloody well tell.
“I’ll use my mouth next time,” says Malfoy, still in that same flat tone. “I’ll do whatever it takes. In return, you’ll leave me here till the war is over, and you won’t tell anyone where I am.”
“You—next time?” To Harry’s humiliation, a new flood of heat rushes through him at the thought.
“I take it that means I’ll be seeing you tomorrow night.” Malfoy sends him a humourless smirk, scooping up his t-shirt. “Make no mistake, Potter. I need you, but it doesn’t mean I like you.”
“Me neither,” protests Harry, but it’s too late. Malfoy’s gone.
Draco huddles into a ball on his cool sheets, panting heavily. Another sharp breeze of wind rustles through the curtains, making him shiver. He’s covered with a slick film of ice-cold sweat and the room’s bloody freezing. However, Draco’s too lost in his thoughts to prise himself off the bed and go to the window to close it. Iris clearly subscribes to the ‘fresh air is good for you’ school of thought, which doesn’t exactly explain the roaring fire in the sitting room—but then again, she is bonkers.
Potter’s stomach is strangely soft. Draco doesn’t know quite what he expected it to be like—certainly not a Quidditch-honed bed of muscle and sinew—but it was a shock to discover how warm and, well, soft it was.
Draco’s wearing his hastily-replaced T-shirt like a poncho, the material tenting over his kneecaps and drawn taut over his back. Draco weaves his fingers into one another. He wonders how many girlfriends Potter has had, how he learnt to moan like that.
Or boyfriends, for that matter.
Draco gives a little half-snort, half-sob as he thinks about what Iris’ reaction would be, if she knew what had been going on inside her freshly laundered sheets. He thinks about his mother, then his father—but that’s too painful.
Different emotions are washing over Draco, like tides in a turbulent sea. The next one to engulf him is shame. Numbing, toe-curling shame that makes his stomach crawl. It’s disgusting what he’s done, filthy, depraved by anyone’s standards. And the worst of it is what the little voice in the dark recesses of his mind keeps whispering to him—the worst of it is, he actually enjoyed it.
Potter was right. He is pathetic.
Although, at the end of the day, he’s just doing what he has to do. He’s just looking out for himself, like he always has, and so what if he has to give Potter a blowjob to ensure his safety? It’s simply self-preservation. It doesn’t mean anything.
It’s a comforting lie for Draco to tell himself before he falls asleep, anyway. Much like the bedtime stories he remembers being read as a child, the ones that promised to end with everything being all right again. But only for the good guys.
Draco ignores the chilly blasts from the window, and doesn’t bother with sliding between the warm folds of the duvet. A clock chimes somewhere on the landing, startling him. Draco hugs his knees closer to his chest in a clammy embrace and closes his eyes, but not quickly or tightly enough to stop a tear leaking on to the pillow.
“I’m terribly sorry about this, my love,” says Iris. “But it’s so rare to get so many visitors at this stage in the season—”
“It’s perfectly fine,” Harry assures her. “Bill’s nearly better. We can try the nearest town for accommodation.”
Iris flaps her pinny in distress. “Lawks, lad, that wasn’t what I meant at all! Only that I’ll need your pink bedroom for a young couple. I was thinking that you could share with young Harry for a few days. I can put a little trundle bed in there for you.”
“Oh,” says Harry, feeling his breath catch in his throat. He almost would have preferred it if Iris was kicking him out. Share a bedroom with Malfoy? He feels all the proper horror at the prospect, but there’s a faint stirring of excitement in there as well and that’s far more disgusting.
“Ah, it’ll be lovely,” says Iris. “I remember when my son Frank had lots of little sleep-overs. Used to drive my Nancy wild, because of course she fancied all of his friends. Oh, children grow up too fast!”
Harry follows her into the kitchen in a daze. Hermione is already there, sipping tea with her little finger stuck out. A stack of toast peeks out from under a tea towel; Harry presumes this is for Ron.
Ron. Ron would die a thousand deaths if he knew what Harry had done last night. Hell, Harry’s dying a thousand deaths for doing it, and he’s fearful of seeing Malfoy again with one breath and wanting to desperately with the next.
“Harry!” exclaims Hermione. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you in simply ages.”
Two days, in fact, but Harry supposes that girls have different ways of measuring time. “What would you like to talk about?” he asks. The horn Horcrux digs into his hip as he sits down. He wonders for a sudden, guilty second if his sins can be read on his face. He dearly hopes not.
“About the Horcruxes, of course,” hisses Hermione. Iris is humming to herself as she pulls rack after rack of hash browns out of the oven. “Did you find anything yesterday?”
“Dick was collecting samples outside the village,” begins Harry. He is aware of Iris’ stupendous hearing, even if Hermione is not. He resolves to be circumspect. “There was this old ruin and we explored it.”
“And we found nothing.” Harry gropes for the locket. A flash of bowel-clenching fear shoots through him. It’s not there. “There were…teapots…”
“Teapots?” Hermione frowns as Harry scrambles away from the table. “Harry, wait, where are you going?”
Harry’s about to answer when Iris turns from the oven, smiling. “Has that lazy boy come down for his breakfast?” She looks about in confusion, at Hermione’s brick red face and Harry half out of the door. “Oh. I could have sworn you said ‘Harry,’ Lucy.”
“I’ll go fetch him,” gasps Harry, bolting from the room.
He remembers checking for the locket when he woke up the day before. It could have got lost anywhere. Malfoy could have filched it from around his neck all that time down in the cellar—or even last night. Harry blushes deeply. He would have been too distracted last night to notice if Voldemort had ransacked the house with a flaming sword and four-score elephants.
Harry dashes into the pink bedroom. The bed is still tumbled from his restless sleep and—oh, god. Harry hopes that Iris was planning to change the sheets anyway. In a fit of madness, he rips the bedclothes from the bed and bundles them up. Then he crawls around the room on his hands and knees, poking into every nook and cranny. Somehow he already knows that it’s hopeless. The locket won’t be there.
“Looking for something, Potter?”
The voice is as cold and unfriendly as it ever was, but Harry is too full of worry to be disappointed by the lack of change. “Yeah,” he mutters, backing out from under the bed with his hair full of dust.
“What is it? I might have seen it.” Malfoy perches on the stripped bed, his bare ankles swinging. His button-down shirt is slipping off his shoulders—by accident, not design, although the fact that it was designed for someone several sizes larger isn’t helping much.
“You’re offering to help me?” Harry raises incredulous eyebrows.
“God, no.” Malfoy runs a hand through his hair, wincing as he encounters knots and tangles. “It depends on how valuable this thing is, so I’ll know to keep it or not.”
For once, Harry does not immediately fly off the handle. Instead, he analyses what Malfoy’s just said, through a haze of anxiety edged with dark lust.
“Yes, but,” he says, talking slowly as the thought coalesces, “if you actually wanted to do that, you wouldn’t tell me. That would ruin it.”
For a moment Malfoy gapes at him, his mouth dropping open a little to reveal the tip of a tongue that Harry knows far too well. Then, with a visible recovery of dignity, Malfoy says, “Yes, of course, Potter. I was only testing you.”
“Huh,” says Harry. He does his best to show how utterly unconvinced he is by that admission, but Malfoy has slid to his knees beside him. Harry can smell him—the sandalwood soap Iris keeps in all the bathrooms and the chocolate on his breath. Malfoy must have a huge stash of it somewhere. Harry doesn’t like chocolate that much, though, and he’s more concerned with the way air is having great difficulty getting in and out of his lungs, not to mention thoughts in and out of his brain.
“Well, what is it?” says Malfoy. “Loath as I am to pass up the enormous pleasure of sitting on the floor with you all day, we might actually get something done if I knew what I was looking for.”
“A locket,” says Harry. He’s far too flustered to doubt Malfoy’s motives any longer, although he does wonder if that was Malfoy’s idea. But Harry can see the dip between Malfoy’s collarbones and nothing, not even on Ginny’s half-naked body, engrossed him more.
Malfoy is frowning. “Is it that one you wore around your neck?”
Harry nods. The spun pink carpet is nowhere near as exciting a prospect as Malfoy’s throat, but it is the guaranteed safe bet.
“Hang on, I think I…” Malfoy scrambles to his feet. Harry watches them go out the door with a quarter regret and three-quarters relief.
Life had been a good deal simpler when he could just despise Malfoy.
But kissing him was like nothing else in the world. Even Ginny…
Harry groans as his stomach knots in guilt. What would Ginny do if she knew what he’d done? There was no other option; he’ll have to—
—Malfoy’s tread awakens the latent groans of the floorboards, and his feet are so skinny every tendon is a mountain range—
—keep on doing it, because he might as well be hung for a sheep as a Malfoy.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” Malfoy squats in front of him, blonde hair falling into his eyes. The locket dangles from his fingers.
Harry knows better than to snatch at it. “Where’d you find that?”
“I picked it up in the cellar,” says Malfoy. “It looked valuable, you see.” He has the grin of a shark and the laugh, Harry recalls, of a donkey; Harry wonders what God saw fit to arrange that. Or to give Malfoy a mouth that is the temptation of saints.
Harry leans forward, screaming at his mind to stop looking at Malfoy’s fingers—and what fingers—and inspects the chain. It’s snapped; the clasp is near where the locket is hanging and Malfoy has looped the broken ends around his fingers. Fingers again, Harry’s mind groans in despair. There really is no escape.
It does occur to Harry that he’s never obsessed over Ginny to this extent. Nor even Cho. He can’t remember what Cho’s hands were like, but if he closes his eyes he can visualise Malfoy’s hangnails and the way his fingertips are red and cold from poor circulation.
He doesn’t dare to meet Malfoy’s eyes.
“There you two are!” clucks Iris. “Never stop with the tricks, do you? Now, I know it’s your hols but I was hoping that you could help me out a little. Lucy’s going to clean the kitchen, but I thought if you did a few bedrooms—Oh. I see you’ve started! Well done!”
“What?” says Harry. He follows Iris’ gaze to the bundle of bedclothes. “Oh, yes, I—” He looks at Malfoy. He has spirited away the locket and is standing with his hands clasped behind his back, rocking on the balls of his feet.
“Oh, you are a good boy!” sighs Iris. “Would you mind doing that to all the rooms on this corridor, and bringing down the sheets to the laundry? It’d be ever such a help. Harry, I want you to run some errands for me.” She musses Malfoy’s hair. That’s something she does quite a lot, in fact, and far from cursing her hand off Malfoy bears it stoically.
Harry makes a pretence at folding the sheets more neatly as Iris leaves, muttering something about ‘grocery money.’ Malfoy and Harry are left alone once more.
“I suppose I’d better go see what she wants,” says Malfoy.
“Yeah,” says Harry.
The yawning gap of conversation threatens to engulf them. Malfoy turns and flees. Harry keeps smoothing the edges of the cloth in his hands, while his mind busily compares it to Malfoy’s skin. The skin is winning hands down.
As Malfoy yanks the belt free, his trousers slip to his ankles almost of their own accord. He turns his back on Harry then, as if ashamed. No. Harry saw his face before he moved it away, and Malfoy is ashamed.
Harry could do with learning a few lessons from him. Instead, he’s sitting on his camp bed, drinking in the sight of Malfoy’s bare legs, the severe dips and hollows. Truth be told, his legs are rather weedy, but as they curve up under the end of his t-shirt, Harry has a hard time concentrating on the truth. Seeing is not believing, but touching might be.
Harry’s hands move of their own accord, shoving away his jeans and ripping his t-shirt over his head. He resents even the small span of time when his vision is obscured by the cloth. All of this is heady and immensely stupid, but Harry finds that there is a strange music to the loud and irregular beating of his heart. It echoes in his ears and thrums all the way down to the pit of his stomach, relentless as a storm.
Harry has never been particularly self-conscious when it comes to his body. He used to be skinny and short. Now he’s still skinny, but some of his muscles have deigned to show themselves and he’s not as short as he used to be. He’s no Greek god, but he is the one chosen to defeat the Dark Lord. It seems too trivial for words to fret about his appearance with that hanging over his head.
Malfoy has not had the same luck, it would seem. He sits down on the edge of his bed and draws his knees to his chest, still not looking at Harry. Harry is disappointed, but unsure what to do. It’s not like they are going out—and Harry certainly doesn’t want to go out with Malfoy. However, it does leave some awkward gaps. Harry can’t possibly ask Malfoy what’s bothering him. He has no right. However, he can guess. The words ‘Potter,’ ‘plebeian room-sharing habits’ and ‘I touched you last night’ would probably be involved.
Sighing, Harry squirrels his legs under the sheets. He feels far too hot for the duvets Iris has so lovingly provided for him—in fact, he has to keep his knees bent, for fear even the small friction of cloth on skin will defeat him.
His last task is to extinguish the night-light on the dressing table. As he reaches for the switch, he meets Malfoy’s eyes for the first time.
Malfoy’s face is hard as stone, and about as jolly. The knuckles on his gripping hands stand out so much they might have been carved out of marble. Yet he holds Harry’s gaze for so long that Harry starts to feel uncomfortable, and he squirms beneath his flowery sheet.
“So,” says Malfoy at long, long last. With slow, careful movements, he slides a hand under his pillow and withdraws something that glitters between his fingers. As he holds it up, Harry recognises the locket.
“Ah,” says Harry. At this juncture, he feels that something more is required of him, but honestly, who can be expected to be verbose when their legs are prickling with lust and starch?
“You still require proof?” The locket dances tantalisingly between Malfoy’s fingers.
“Yes,” says Harry. He can see that it’s the only way he’ll get the locket off Malfoy, short of going over and punching him in the face. Not really a feasible option, because that could end up in a wrestling match and, given the strange new hold Malfoy has over him, Harry somehow feels that he’d be at a disadvantage.
“Okay,” says Malfoy. “You choose. I can…show you more proof, or you can have this back.” He holds the broken chain up to his neck. For a moment, as he tilts his head to observe the gold lying against his throat, his hair drifts back to expose the shell of his ear. There are a few faint pink spots under his jaw and his knees are knobblier than Harry’s grandfather’s.
A split-second decision is appropriate in the circumstances. A hero never has doubts about the rightness of his choices. All the same, Harry doubts.
He lifts the sheets and swings out of the camp bed. It’s got to the point where air currents are heavy as fingers on his over-sensitised skin, so that every step is an agony of sensation.
Not sure of anything but what he wants to do, Harry leans forward and kisses Malfoy on the lips.
“Show me,” he says.
The sun is hot on Harry’s skin, and his pillow is so very squashy. Burbling contentedly, he burrows his cheek into it, curling his fingers around the edge. Morning is his favourite time of day, before anything happens to disturb his perfect contentment.
Today, that disturbance is fast in coming.
“Potter, what do I look like to you?” an irritated voice demands. “A bolster?”
The voice is unpleasant and far too close. Harry digs his ear against the pillow, hoping it will drown out the noise.
The pillow moves.
“God, you’re heavy,” Malfoy moans. By sitting up, he pitches Harry off balance—yet Harry is not yet ready to relinquish what his brain still insists was the loveliest pillow it ever encountered. He slides down Malfoy’s body until his nose is pressed against Malfoy’s hip bone, inhaling the bready smell.
“And a limpet, it turns out,” continues Malfoy. He nudges Harry’s head away. His fingers are not that persistent, however, and when Harry slips his arm around Malfoy’s leg Malfoy stops trying to push him away altogether.
“Is it morning?” mumbles Harry. He’s not feeling very comfortable now, and the realisation that he slept all night with his head on Malfoy’s chest is a barbed one.
“Your powers of inference and logic reasoning astound, as ever.” Malfoy stretches, yawning. He shivers, though, when Harry’s fingers begin to stroke the skin of his inner thigh. “Potter, what are you doing?”
Harry should have thought that was obvious. “What do you think?”
“It was never part of the deal that you…oh.”
Harry keeps his eyes half-closed, still in that sweet muggy nearly-awake state. He wriggles the sheet back to expose the tops of Malfoy’s skinny bare legs. Malfoy hunches over and tries to pull the sheet forward again, but Harry is having none of it. His lips are inches away from the hot downy skin between Malfoy’s thighs, and his fingers close around Malfoy’s erection.
The last times, he never did this intentionally. His hands had just been desperate for something to touch, and slipping them between their frantically rutting bodies had seemed the easiest thing to do. Now, however, the strong sunlight is trimming everything and Harry can see clearly—despite his glasses being somewhere underneath the bed—what he is doing.
The angle makes it more difficult, but Harry drags Malfoy’s thighs apart with his free hand, ignoring the cramp in his other wrist and simply continuing to move, and stroke, and occasionally squeeze. He’s far better at this than he is at touching Ginny—after all, he’s had years to perfect his technique on himself.
Malfoy makes a faint sound of protest, but the nerves behind his knees are jumping. Harry is more inclined to trust in Malfoy’s body than in his mouth.
“No, you can’t,” Malfoy is saying. His words are interspersed with strangled groaning sounds, like “Nngh,” and “Hah,” which, while not exactly poetry, almost seem like it to Harry’s ears. “No…”
“Yes, I can,” says Harry, and this is not just his habit of disagreeing with Malfoy speaking. It actually is happening like it should. Malfoy has fallen to his elbows, his neck scrunched up against the headboard, but his entire body is rigid, resisting the effects of Harry’s hand.
His cock is stiffer than ever, the only movement the deep throbbing of the long vein on the underside. The skin beneath Harry’s fingers is dripping, but it’s not enough.
Hesitating for only a moment, Harry leans forward—his own erection twitching against Malfoy’s trembling knee—and touches his tongue to the very tip of Malfoy’s cock.
“Time to be getting up, lazybones!” sings out Iris. Harry freezes, his fingers digging into the flesh of Malfoy’s thigh. Iris’ voice has the effect on him of a dozen cold showers in quick succession, but for Malfoy it’s too much. With an almost soundless sigh, he jerks up against Harry’s palm.
Harry is extremely irritated to be cheated of watching Malfoy come, something he’s been wanting since the very first night, but there are far more pressing matters to worry about. Iris’ footsteps are padding ever closer.
“Quick,” he mutters, shoving Malfoy’s head on to the pillow. Malfoy, looking limp and drained, doesn’t even make an objection to Harry’s manhandling. In seconds, Harry has put a respectable distance between them, and has dragged the covers up to their chins. Hopefully, Iris won’t notice that they are both completely naked.
“Breakfast is going on the table in ten, m’dears,” says Iris, as she swings open the door. Harry blinks up at her, smiling what he hopes is a just-woken-up smile.
It seems to work. For a second, Iris beams back—then her gaze lights on the lump beside Harry and the tufts of blonde hair emerging from under the blankets.
“Is that Harry?” she asks.
“Yes,” says Harry. He can hardly deny it. He keeps his hand firmly clenched around the edge of the blankets; his fingers are still glossy where Malfoy came all over them. “He, er, had a nightmare…I thought he’d calm down if I…”
“Oh, I see. The poor chuck,” sympathises Iris. “You’re very good to him, Felix. Anyway, I’ve made extra sausages for both of you. Wake Harry up, won’t you, Felix?”
“Sure,” squeaks Harry. Malfoy is plenty awake, for he’s just reached around Harry’s belly to grab his cock.
“I can’t believe she bought that,” breathes Malfoy into his ear. “Nightmare, my arse.”
“Lucky for you she’s so innocent,” retorts Harry. Malfoy clearly doesn’t like the defiance in his voice, for he squeezes so hard that Harry is robbed of breath, not to mention the wit to argue further.
By the time they make it to breakfast, the sausages are cold.
Hermione and Ron are fading by the fire. As the tinny tunes of yet another sitcom jingle fills the air, Harry rouses himself. Draco and Iris have taken to bed ages ago. Harry, who desires nothing more than to blank out his thoughts, chose to do so through the happy medium of television. Now his eyes are beginning to sparkle in a disturbing way, and he never wants to see another episode of Friends for as long as he lives.
“G’night,” he mumbles in his friends’ direction. Ron has a lax arm around Hermione’s shoulder; he raises his fingers in a tired salute. Hermione’s hair is all over her face, but the rhythmic way that it’s fluttering suggests that she’s asleep under it.
Harry collects his toothbrush from his bedroom, leaving the light off so as not to disturb Malfoy, and ambles to the bathroom. He opens the bathroom door to a bank of steam, a kindly gift from its last inhabitant. Waving it away from where his glasses have already fogged, Harry makes for the sink. He is stopped by a scream.
“Potter! Get out!”
Harry takes off his glasses. The world is still blurry, but slightly less shrouded in mist. A frantically gesticulating blob standing in the bath resolves into Malfoy, once Harry has rubbed his glasses clean and replaced them.
The bath is an old-fashioned one, converted to modern ways with reluctance and the mere addition of a shower-head and moveable glass partition. It does exactly nothing to shield the bathroom floor from water or Malfoy’s body from Harry’s view.
Harry thinks its designers deserve a Nobel Prize for architecture.
“I’m showering,” hisses Malfoy. “Out.” He tries to cover himself with his hands and a stray bar of soap, but he doesn’t seem to realise that his taut arm muscles and—oh God—his nipples are just as enticing a prospect. Especially when they’re slick and dripping with water.
“Sorry,” mumbles Harry. He drinks in one last look and fumbles for the door handle. He’ll come back another time to clean his teeth, and let Malfoy shower in peace.
He really means that.
His fingers find the lock, and twist it.
The tiny sound shrieks through the room like a miniature banshee. Harry’s already dropped his toothbrush by the time Malfoy turns to investigate. Before he can even grit his teeth in anger, Harry’s fly is open, his underwear damp.
“What do you think you’re doing, Potter?” Malfoy’s voice is an earthquake of indignation ending on a squeak. Harry sees the way his eyes flick around the room and earth on the door that’s locked behind Harry.
“Just…want to watch.” Harry gasps as he frees his cock from its prison and slowly begins to tug on it.
“You’re sick, sick and twisted, Potter, you know that?” Malfoy’s insults would have carried more weight had he not sounded so terrified. “Leave, this instant!”
Harry manages to smile and even lick his lips, which is a feat of considerable ingenuity given the combined havoc a naked Malfoy and a naked cock is wreaking on his brain. “Make me,” he says. He knows exactly what Malfoy’s thinking—that the door is behind Harry.
Malfoy chooses the lesser of two evils, turning his back on Harry and continuing to bathe. Harry has time to see the glint of molten hatred in his eyes before he does so, and it turns him on.
His hips begin to arch away from the door as his cock strives for more heat and tightness than even the most tightly squeezed fist can provide. Harry tries, though, his eyes locked on the long wet lines of Malfoy’s back and arse and thighs. Harry's jeans slither to the floor and puddle around his ankles. Harry kicks them away and spreads his legs wider, leaning back against the door.
Malfoy’s soaping himself now; it seems to be what Harry interrupted him in doing. He’s reaching around his back to run the bar across his vertebrae. They stick out a lot—the soap must feel like it’s snowboarding down the Alps. Then the soap disappears and Malfoy’s skinny arms flex. His head is bowed. He’s soaping his stomach, Harry guesses, fingers moving faster. Does he have an erection? Does he like being watched, even if he thinks he doesn’t?
The soap appears again, gliding briefly over the curve of Malfoy’s bottom before Malfoy braces an arm against the tiled wall and hikes up his foot to scrub at his sole.
The view is wicked.
Harry longs to take the soap from him and clean him properly, not this slap-dash wash Malfoy’s obviously doing because he wants to get out of the shower as fast as he can. Harry, though, would break off a little slither of soap and lather it in his hands first, then massage it into Malfoy’s shoulders until all the knots of tension dissolved away. He’d let his hands slide lower, until they fit into those grooves along Malfoy’s hips, the ones that seem designed for Harry’s hands. He’d get the bar of soap and scrub, then, round and round on Malfoy’s arse cheeks, and then…in between, dipping the bar into the furrowed crease.
After that, he’s not sure. Of course, he’d played with himself back there, once the wonder of straightforward wanking had worn off. The hole was too narrow to do anything but rub at with his fingertip, but that was usually enough to bring him off, knowing that it was somehow wrong. It felt good, though.
Malfoy’s probably done it too.
“Are you done yet?” asks Malfoy, over his hunched shoulder.
“Mmm.” Harry pushes his t-shirt up, letting his other hand drift across the downy skin of his stomach and into his pubic hair. It feels deliciously naughty to be touching himself with half his clothes still on.
Malfoy reaches for the tap to switch it off, but as he does so the soap slips from his grasp. With a grunt of frustration, he bends at the waist to pick it up.
The breath stops in Harry’s throat and the entire universe shrinks into the cleft between Malfoy’s legs.
There must have been a time lapse between the time when Harry was choking with lust and the time when he was clambering into the shower, drenching his t-shirt and socks and bobbing cock with spray, but it was clearly of little cosmic significance. Harry can’t remember a moment of it.
Harry lays a finger on the small curve of Malfoy’s lower back, and Malfoy's head comes up with a jerk that almost breaks Harry’s nose.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you in the shower with me? Let’s hope I’m experiencing some kind of horrific illusion, because otherwise I would be forced to kill you with much pain—”
“Oh, shut up.” Harry puts his hands on Malfoy’s hips, nuzzles at his neck, starts a slow grind against Malfoy’s hip. Malfoy responds with what almost sounds like sob. A sob of misery, not of lust, but Harry wants to touch someone so badly that it’s almost an illness, and Malfoy will have to do.
A sudden pounding at the door puts Harry off his rhythm. “Harry! Are you nearly done?”
Harry shoves his fingers into Malfoy’s mouth to stop him from crying out. “Nearly done, Ron,” he calls back, proud of how little his voice trembled. “Ten—ten minutes.”
Harry sags against Malfoy’s back, the wet material of his t-shirt sticking to him and making him uncomfortable and cold. He feels faintly ridiculous.
Then Malfoy moves his tongue against Harry’s thumb, which is resting against his lower lip.
Harry steps out of the bath. He points his wand at the door, which unlocks. With elaborate care, Harry turns his half-naked, sopping back on Malfoy and picks up his toothbrush.
After a few minutes, Malfoy slips out. Harry tries not to think that he let him escape.
Iris left out a pile of laundered clothing on Harry’s bed. Harry is touched by her thoughtful maternalism, although yet more aware of the fact that he hasn’t slept in his own bed for days now.
Waking up with his face buried in Malfoy’s hair is something that is wretchedly easy to grow accustomed to.
Harry pulls on some clean jeans and hurries out of the room before Malfoy gets back from cleaning his teeth. The nights he spends with Malfoy are rather like drunken blackouts; he can remember snatches and flashes of white-hot light, but mainly the sense of being stifled with the softest velvet in the world. Nothing concrete, and it’s easy to pretend that it’s not really real.
It bears very little relevance to the waking world, in which he blushes on catching Malfoy’s eye, and where Malfoy's scowl whips up a turbulence of hot guilt in Harry's belly.
To Harry’s surprise, Ron is sitting at the kitchen table when he arrives, scoffing down pancakes and maple syrup with reckless abandon. For some reason, he has two forks, and he’s loading one up as he bites off the other.
“Morning. Are you better now?” Harry pulls out a chair with a scrape and chooses some wholegrain toast for himself. It’s a general apology to the universe.
“Yup.” Ron’s words are somewhat muffled by the seven tonnes of pancake that he’s managed to concentrate on the end of his fork. “Hermione don’t think so, though. She wants me to—” Harry winces; there was definitely a distinct crack as Ron swallowed “—eat porridge.”
“What’s wrong with porridge? You like porridge. You ate it at school.” Harry crunches on the edge of his toast without enthusiasm. The chair’s cushion is digging into his bottom, so he shifts to a more comfortable position.
Or maybe it’s just another bruise. He’d been quite startled to find small round bruises on his hips on the first morning—then he’d remembered how he’d got them, and only had room to be embarrassed.
Ron makes an incredulous face—quite a feat, given that he’s got so much food stuffed in his mouth that he resembles an angry blowfish. After some concerted efforts at getting his oesophagus moving, he says, “I always ate cornflakes at school. Didn’t you notice?”
“Um, no.” Harry feels like he’s failed some obscure test, and pushes his toast away as his stomach cramps. Ron has already dismissed the incident in favour of more icing sugar.
“Gotta eat fast,” he elucidates. “Hermione’ll kill me if she sees me eating all this.”
“That is very true, Ron Weasley,” drawls Hermione from the door. “I’ll give you five minutes to choose your place and manner of death, and then it’s curtains.”
Ron makes a face of instant contriteness, but Harry notices that he’s got a death-grip on the jar of maple syrup. He sees that Hermione sees, too, and is smiling.
“Seeing as Ron’s up and about again,” says Hermione, taking a seat, “how about we go check out this ruin you and Malfoy explored? There has to be more to it than the cellar.”
“Sounds good.” Harry starts to pull apart his toast. His arse is definitely tender, yet loath as he is to try, he can’t remember Malfoy doing anything that would have resulted in this digging pain. Unless he cursed Harry while he was asleep—and why hasn’t he done that yet? He is Malfoy, after all. “Elizabeth said something about sensing a Horcrux nearby. Must be in the house—it definitely belonged to wizards, what with all the wards.”
“Yet Dick could get through them? That’s interesting.” Hermione taps her spoon on her nose in thought. Harry peeks, and sees with relief that Hermione has a bowl of porridge in front of her. At least Harry hasn’t been completely and fecklessly unobservant all these years. “Perhaps they can be modified to let Muggles through when accompanied by wizards?”
“Of course they can, Granger.”
Both Hermione and Ron twitch at the voice. Possibly only Harry can hear the tenor of tiredness shivering through it. Certainly he’s the only one blushing furiously. He concentrates on his scraps of toast, which have suddenly taken on a massive aura of all-absorbing interest. And something is bloody well poking him in the butt.
“What do you mean?” Hermione’s clearly interested, but trying to tone it down in deference to the person she’s speaking to. Harry could have told her that Malfoy is too defeated these days to be particularly nasty to anyone—it’s a quality that belongs only to the satisfied and smug and Malfoy is neither—but such revelations would cause far too much questioning of how, exactly, Harry knows this.
“Have you been involved in modifying wards?” Hermione wants to know, when no reply—but also, no negative epithet—is forthcoming.
“No.” Malfoy plonks a bowl of porridge on to the table, slopping some over the side. He spoons in brown sugar and inexpertly mixes them together. Harry catches himself staring at Malfoy’s hands and mentally slaps himself.
“Oh.” Hermione sits back, visibly disappointed. “How did you know that, then?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to realise.” Malfoy’s voice is empty of vitriol. “It’s something that’s obvious to people brought up in wizarding families.” His gaze travels as far as Ron, and his lip recoils a little. For some reason, Harry is heartened at this small return of the real Malfoy. The one who doesn’t sleep with Harry Potter. “Well, the ones whose ancestors have made a point of becoming involved in magical research, anyway.”
“Off-loading their laundered gold on tax-havens, you mean,” responds Ron, but not with great heat. This may be because he’s added a third fork to the pancake production line and it’s keeping him amused.
Malfoy lifts one shoulder. It’s not a particularly elegant gesture. Nothing about him is elegant, especially not when he’s dressed in clothes that seem to come in sizes Elephant, Whale and Woolly Mammoth. However, he’s got something that can trump elegance by existing even where style is dead, and that’s charisma. It gives him arrogance and over-confidence and obnoxiousness as by-products, but his charisma is the thing that allows him to get away with it.
It’s a pretty abrasive charisma, but Harry can’t help responding to it. To distract himself, he decides to actually listen to what Malfoy’s saying, and ignore the way his hair goes a bit curly at the nape of his neck.
“—magic is inherent in us. That wild magic we had when we were younger—we could do anything with it, if we were strong enough and were allowed to. The reason that we have spells at all is because humans need names and boxes to put things in. In the end, though, you’re using the same magic to cast a Summoning Charm as to cast an Unforgivable, and people don’t like that. They don’t like to realise that the wand that does the dishes can put an end to someone’s life just by changing thoughts. That our only limitation is what we think we can’t do.”
Malfoy slumps in his chair, evidently exhausted by his speech. Ron is sneering through his mountain of pancakes, and Hermione is flushed bright red. Harry, who was too busy listening to Malfoy’s voice to take in what he was talking about, tries to remember.
“That can’t be right, Malfoy,” objects Hermione. “You need to be able to concentrate your energy to cast Avada Kedavra, you can’t just point your wand at someone and expect to—to kill them. Moody—I mean Crouch—said as much.”
Malfoy smirks. “You really think one of the Death Eaters wanted Dumbledore’s babies to get the idea in their head that they were that powerful?”
“Bellatrix told me the same thing,” murmurs Harry. “She said you needed to feel real hate to do it.”
“That’s where the good always fall short.” Malfoy stabs the air with his fork, his eyes staring into the distance. “You haven’t really lived until you’ve hated something with every fibre of your being, until you could feel your skin tightening and your hands trembling with it. You lot go about denying this dark side of yourselves as if it’s something separate from you, instead of just one of the facets. Hate is natural. Anger is where human beings live.”
“You haven’t lived until you’ve loved either,” says Harry suddenly. “Dumbledore said that there was no force more powerful.”
Malfoy turns his cold grey eyes on him. His face is immobile, and, almost, frightening. “He would say that. He’d suppressed his own hate so much it all came out as this bloody terrifying benevolence. Did that never make you suspicious?”
“What are you trying to say here?” Harry feels his fists clenching.
“You know what I’m saying,” says Malfoy. One of his fingers is plucking at the prongs of the fork and he must know what that’s doing to Harry, he must.
“My mother saved my life,” Harry manages. “She saved my life because she loved me so much.”
“Yes, I’m sure she was a paragon of bloody virtue.” Malfoy sounds bored. “The fact remains, however, that the only thing separating love and hate is not degree, or opinion, or shades of goodness. It’s people thinking they’re different.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Malfoy.” Hermione’s voice is brisk. “You can’t possibly be saying that being in love with someone, wanting to do things for them and spend time with them, is the same as disliking them?”
“I didn’t say dislike,” says Malfoy, “I said hate.” His eyes bore into Harry’s. “Look closely. I’ll think you’ll find I’m right.”
Harry squirms in his chair—and yelps in pain. “Right, that’s it! This cushion is getting burned, right now!” He jumps up and tries to yank the cushion away, but it is firmly moored to the back of the chair by double reef knots and refuses to budge.
“Good lord, Potter, are you deformed?” Malfoy sounds disgusted. Considering that Harry’s arse is the only thing prominently in view, it’s an appropriate reaction for him. So why does Harry feel like shaking him until his teeth rattle?
“What do you mean?” Harry gives up on his struggle and looks over his shoulder. He flushes at Malfoy’s minutely assessing expression.
“You have a bulge,” says Malfoy, pointing for good measure. Harry can hear the smirk in his voice, but he doesn’t, so he couldn’t—
Then he puts a hand on the back of his jeans, and realises that there’s something in his pocket.
“It’s the little teapot,” he says. He plops it into the palm of his hand; the moonstone glints up at him. “I must have brought it with me by mistake.”
“Morning, my lovelies!” Iris projects a force-field of cheeriness that extends several metres. It makes Harry jump and involuntarily clench his fist around the teapot.
“Ow!” he howls. He uncurls his fingers. Three droplets of blood well from the pad of his forefinger. His brow furrows as the teapot twinkles up at him.
“You all right?” Iris looks up from where she’s already got ten rounds of bacon on the go.
“Just stubbed my toe.” Harry musters up a smile.
“I did warn you about the moonstone.” Malfoy’s voice is low and close. Somehow, without Harry registering it, he’s risen from his seat to stand beside Harry. He’s not close enough to touch or even smell, but he still sends Harry’s breath into orbit.
Iris asks the room if anyone would like a rasher, and Ron makes general mastication noises and fork waves of agreement. Hermione is stirring her porridge, looking lost in thought. None of them are paying Harry or Malfoy any attention. And why should they? Harry’s only feeling like his chest is a helium balloon and Malfoy is pumping it. He only wants to reach out and brush the loose strands of hair behind Malfoy’s ears. He only needs to look at him and he’s hard.
Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, then.
“Moonstone is sharp,” adds Malfoy. His accent drags on the sibilant sounds, so that he sounds like he’s got the beginnings of a head cold. “Look, you—”
He takes Harry’s hand, making every nerve in Harry’s body jump to the site, and surely the brush of his knuckles against Harry’s palm wasn’t intentional? Harry knows that Malfoy only touches him on sufferance, from his twisted notion of loyalty, and he also knows that he should have stopped it before it began, but none of this means that Malfoy wants—that he likes—
“—cut yourself.” Malfoy gives a cruel pinch to the skin on either side of Harry’s middle finger. Harry gasps.
Malfoy’s face changes. Or at least, Harry sees a change, although he would have been hard-pressed to describe it. They both watch the trickle of blood wallow down Harry’s finger for one hot, tight moment.
“I think that’s lovely!” coos Iris. “The lot of you, going to play with poor little Richard—why, it’s almost like he has friends! I bet you’re delighted, Harry?”
“Yes,” say Harry and Malfoy, together, automatically. Malfoy drops Harry’s hand; for a minute, Harry wants to snatch it back. A minute, and common sense reasserts itself. Harry decides he hates it viciously.
Hermione looks up. A second earlier and Harry’s sure she would have caught a glimpse of Harry’s naked longing. As it is, it’s all he can do to slouch and cross his legs and will away his erection.
Malfoy lifts his hand to his mouth. Harry spies a smear of red before Malfoy’s tongue flicks out and licks it away.
Harry chokes on his own breath, but softly.
“I think I shall pack you a picnic lunch!” announces Iris.
There’s autumn in the crisp air and in the trees, which are starting to sport liberal applications of rouge about the leaves. In truth, Harry feels a bit chilly in his t-shirt—but that could also be the effect of having Malfoy walk along beside him.
Once introduced, Dick looked at Hermione with something like slavish adoration in his eyes. He hasn’t yet stopped pestering her with questions about school that, given her complete lack of knowledge as regards A-levels and the Chemistry syllabus, are proving for the first time difficult for her to answer. Ron is fuming in the background, forced to walk behind them due to the narrowness of the path but practically on Hermione’s heels, just in case she might be tempted by Dick’s pudgy and pH-y wiles.
Harry is carrying the picnic basket, which feels heavy as a rock and seems to contain enough supplies to allow Attila the Hun’s forces, including war elephants, to feast for a month. He keeps swinging it from hand to hand, not so much from a desire to equalise the weight on his arms as from the fact that he can’t decide if he wants the hand nearest to Malfoy to be free or not. Of course, he can’t possibly touch Malfoy, out in the open and in plain view of his best friends—but he still keeps swinging his basket to the outside hand. And back again.
After a while, Malfoy remarks, “Are you aiming for some kind of Hansel and Gretel dynamic, Potter? Because you’re leaving half the food behind on the path.”
Harry stops guiltily and checks. True to form, Malfoy has exaggerated wildly. Harry’s only lost two breadrolls, one of which has crumbled, but that’s more like one two hundredth of the quantity, not one half.
He sets the basket on the ground and flexes his fingers. He magically healed the cuts as soon as they were out of sight of the house, but he fancies he can still feel a cold prickling sensation in them.
Malfoy shifts from foot to foot, glancing at the trees, the sky, at Hermione and Ron and Dick’s receding backs, at his shoelaces—anywhere, in short, but at Harry. Harry keeps stretching his fingers, even though they aren’t sore any longer. He had wanted to place a lightening charm on the basket, but of course it was out of the question. The Memory Charm placed on Dick with swift and worrying dispatch by Malfoy had cured him of his ghost notions. Harry can't be responsible for blowing their cover again. After all, lots of delusional Muggles see ‘ghosts.’ Few of them have visions of free-floating picnic baskets.
Now, however, as Harry and Malfoy linger together on the same stretch of road, not speaking and—for Harry’s part—not thinking about much more than the rushing in his ears, Harry is terribly glad the basket is so heavy as to require rest stops.
A final spurt from Dick—“Are you sure you haven’t heard of the isoelectric point?”—and the other three disappear behind a dip in the road. The densely packed trees swallow the sound of their voices in a few seconds.
Harry doesn’t remember moving, even though he must have done so to kick over the basket. But like a whirlwind memory loss, there’s the feel of warm sweaty skin under his fingers—and he has his hands wrapped around Malfoy’s arms, the curve of his temple fitting just so against Malfoy’s. He crushes Malfoy up against a tree, his hips holding Malfoy’s body like a pinion.
Malfoy doesn’t complain, although it could be argued that his clipped “O-oh” sounds more resigned than pleased.
But—Harry fists his hand in Malfoy’s hair, greasy from the wind—he doesn’t care—his hand slips betwixt arm and cloth, gripping some of Malfoy’s shirt hem and some of his bared hip—Malfoy isn’t supposed to—the rough motion makes Harry’s own shirt ride up—doesn’t have to—oh, the shock of skin against skin, with the wind draping cold sheets of goose-pimples across—like it.
That wasn’t part of the deal.
Malfoy turns his head away, and at first Harry thinks that he’s going to try to escape. Instead, he drags his leg up along Harry’s, amplifying the friction to almost unbearable levels. His heel digs into the back of Harry’s knee for purchase and makes Harry stumble into him, his whole weight against Malfoy’s chest and groin. This seems to have been Malfoy’s aim, for he gives a little whimper and clutches the back of Harry’s neck.
Harry can feel the edges of Malfoy’s mouth wet near his ear. His own gasping mouth latches on to the side of Malfoy’s jaw. He likes the feel of stubble scraping against his tongue, of knowing that he’s kissing the soft part under Malfoy’s chin and making him groan and sigh and jerk like a fish on a line.
Harry’s cock is tingling in his jeans, shooting sparks behind his eyes and aiming bullets at the pit of his belly. Malfoy’s erection is jutting into his hipbone; even as Harry registers it, he can feel it throbbing. Malfoy is practically climbing Harry’s body, panting into his ear.
“Mmm, wait,” gasps Harry, pushing Malfoy back. Malfoy moans in protest, grabbing Harry’s face and yanking it forward for the roughest, sloppiest, most erotic kiss Harry’s ever had. Malfoy’s hand is squeezing his bottom, which no one has ever done before, fingers massaging the cloth into the space between his cheeks. It feels dirty and thrilling, and Harry relaxes his muscles to give the deft fingers more room.
They take it.
Malfoy’s tongue keeps slipping out of Harry’s mouth because he’s riding his cock over the bony prominence of Harry’s hip and he’s pausing to choke out gasps. Harry is nothing if not determined, however, and he chases it, twisting his neck and shoving his own tongue into Malfoy’s mouth in an effort to keep him still.
“Want,” moans Malfoy. “Now, fuck it, Potter.”
“That’s what I was trying—” Harry objects. Eyes narrowing, Malfoy savagely tugs on Harry’s lower lip with his teeth and rips open the button on Harry’s jeans, a move that would have stopped even a QC dead in his tracks.
Harry isn’t about to let Malfoy take the upper hand here. He shoves his knee between Malfoy’s legs and thrusts. Malfoy’s hands slacken about Harry’s waist as his entire body clenches. He always fights his orgasm as if it's an alien invader, like it’s a defeat, and no matter how much he seems to enjoy what happens before he always goes slack and dull-eyed afterwards.
He isn’t quite there yet, though. Harry knows the cadence of his moans well enough by now to realise that they’re not at fever pitch. Safe for the moment, he licks a long, wet line up Malfoy’s throat, from hollow to hollow, bathing the straining muscles. Malfoy’s face is red, his eyes clenched shut. Harry laps at the sweat on his forehead and, gently, his eyelids. Malfoy sighs.
Once he’s suitably relaxed, Harry battles with Malfoy’s zipper—motor functions low on oil due to his reserve-stripping excitement—and pushes down his underwear. Even as Harry tugs his cock free, Malfoy breath hitches. He’s already leaking profusely, so Harry brushes the head with his palm first, moving in slow circles; it’s a technique he’s always found tantalising. Malfoy seems to agree, in moans if not in actual words.
By the time Harry has wrapped his fingers around Malfoy’s shaft, shoving down cloth as he goes, his own erection is demanding attention. Rapt in watching the movement under the skin of Malfoy’s face—the way his hands flutter down, as if he would push Harry away, but never quite getting there—Harry opens his jeans all the way. He squeezes Malfoy from base to tip, coming up to torment the slit with almost brutal sawing motions. The sight is enough to make him come himself, so he just rubs the heel of his hand against the bulge in his underwear and concentrates on wanking Malfoy.
Malfoy comes silently, as is his wont. His teeth in his lower lip almost split it in two, and the veins in his forehead and cock bulge for a split second, and it’s over. Harry wipes off his hand on the rough bark behind Malfoy’s lolling head and continues to press his own erection, almost lazily.
He expects to come long before Malfoy returns to his senses. It’s a surprise, therefore, when the body in his arms rouses and, in a step that’s almost like a dance, reverses their positions. Harry’s hand is snatched away from his cock and pinned above his head. He moans at the loss; but the feel of Malfoy’s soft, dripping cock through Harry's underwear more than makes up for it.
“Let’s see how you like it, eh?” hisses Malfoy.
If Harry’s higher centres had been operational, they might have noted the malice in Malfoy's voice. Something else is in control now, however, and it rejoices in the violent way that Malfoy yanks Harry’s trousers and pants down his legs, so that he is standing with his bottom bare and flush against the bark of the tree. It’s a foreign but moreish feeling, and Harry wriggles and moans.
“I never knew you were so randy, Potter.” Malfoy’s fingers wrench at Harry’s cock, so hard it feels like he wants to pull it off. He probably does, but Harry doesn’t mind. It feels so utterly, mind-blowingly good. He’s torn between opening his legs wider for Malfoy, and squeezing them closer together to expose more of his inner arse to the coarse tree-bark, and hampered in both by the jeans around his knees.
He keeps his eyes trained on Malfoy’s face, which is fierce and almost incandescent with effort. He also sees the look of fright cross it when Harry comes, covering his hand in sticky semen—but after that he collapses on Malfoy’s neck, and doesn’t think of much at all.
He thinks he hears Malfoy mutter, “Oh, no,” but he might have imagined that.
However, he doesn’t imagine the next words that are spoken. They are horrifyingly real.
“Came back to check if you’d got lost.” Dick is as truculent as ever, and he eyes the overturned basket with no little dismay. “Lucy and t’other one are in the house.”
“Oh,” says Harry weakly. Malfoy seems to have been stunned into silence. Carefully, in case Malfoy should topple, Harry unwinds his arms from around Malfoy’s neck.
“I should put that away if I was you.”
Two sets of hands drop to cover exposed privates, achieving about as much modesty as a naked Madonna.
“I’ll take it, shall I?” Dick stoops to pick up the basket, shoving some sandwiches back in as he goes. Harry raises an eyebrow at Malfoy, who makes a face. “See you in the house then.”
Dick goes off.
Harry can’t be certain, but it appears that he is whistling as he does so.
“What the—” Malfoy’s lip couldn’t curl any more if he’d put rollers in.
“Just—don’t question it,” Harry advises. He yanks up his zipper and wonders, briefly and hopelessly, if it’s possible to have a normal conversation with an enemy who’s just brought you off.
Malfoy casts one baleful look at him and sprints off, hands fumbling at his trousers—he does have a rather lovely arse—and Harry decides that it’s not.
Harry is out of breath when he reaches the house. Hermione sends him a quizzical look, gated by two fronds of frizzy hair. “Did you get lost, Harry?”
“Something like that.” Harry shoves his hands into his pockets, refusing to be drawn.
Hermione’s got bigger problems. Dick is hovering near her like a persistent strain of smallpox. His hands twitch, and for once Harry reckons that this has nothing to do with his ten different types of allergy. If Dick had been looking at him like he was looking at Hermione, Harry would have been heading for the hills.
If it had been Malfoy, he probably wouldn’t have minded.
Malfoy is absorbed in some poison ivy, with an expression that suggests he’d like to garrotte Harry with it. For some reason, Harry finds this endearing. He hopes all his future relationships will be this fulfilling, complete with semi-unwilling sex and murderous impulses towards the greenery.
“Are we eating or what?” Ron stomps around the side of the building. “Ah, there you are, Harry. Just in time.”
Harry dislikes the sound of Ron’s voice. Harry’s already had enough emotional turbulence this morning. One thing he really doesn’t need is Ron roping him in as an accessory to a homicide.
“Good idea,” enthuses Hermione. Her voice sounds a little strained; behind it, Harry can hear Dick rambling about the properties of ethanol. All in all, it makes for a very jolly gathering.
This time, Harry is careful to extract the tiny teapot from his pocket before sitting down. Somewhat unwilling to put it from his hand, he holds it loosely in his palm and watches the scene before him unfold with the closest he’s come to amusement since he and Malfoy—since he—since Malfoy came to him for sanctuary.
Ron’s got into a huff and is sitting as far from the rest of them as the boundaries of Iris’ check blanket will allow. Hermione is trying to get away from Dick, but as Malfoy has claimed Dick’s other side in order to avoid Harry, she’s practically sitting on Malfoy’s lap. It says a lot about Malfoy’s feelings towards Harry that he almost looks pleased by this turn of events.
“What’s that you’ve got, Harry?” Hermione pushes a bread roll at Harry. She seems to have picked up on Dick’s phobia of white bread, because she’s collected at least half-a-dozen white-flour products into her lap.
“Oh, it’s a teapot I found here the last time I was here.” Harry looks down at the green teapot. He can’t seem to hold it out to Hermione, even though that was his initial impulse. “It’s a strange little thing.”
“It’s a Horcrux,” says Malfoy, almost lazily.
“What?” yelps Harry. “How do you know that?”
“What’s this about prostitutes?”
“Shut up, Dick. Horcrux is a—code-name that P—that Felix has for his collection of—er—”
“Yeah, that. Felix collects teapots.” Malfoy bites viciously into a scone. “He’s a bit of a bloody nutter, if you must know.”
“At least I’m not a Death Eater!” shouts Harry, losing his slack hold on all reason.
“Is that a club?” Dick looks interested, as he is in anything for the full five seconds it takes for him to realise it doesn’t have anything to do with chemistry.
“You could say that, if you were evil and depraved and a bastard,” says Harry, not quite softly enough.
“Depraved? Me?” Malfoy spits out crumbs. “That’s rich, coming from you!”
“Is that what you were doing back there in the woods? Playing at Death Eaters?”
“What were you doing in the woods, Harry?” Hermione leans away from Dick’s halitosis. “I thought you said you got lost?”
“Yeah, Potter has no sense of direction whatsoever,” claims Malfoy, with complete lack of foundation. “Can’t even find his way out of cellar. Or to his own bed.”
“You weren’t much help, either way.” Harry can feel his face start to heat up, and his skin tingles at how close Malfoy’s coming to spilling a Heinz factory’s worth of beans.
“Who’s Potter? Is that something to do with Death Eaters too?”
“Harry, I mean Felix, were you doing something in the woods? If it’s got something to do with Malfoy, I mean Harry, I think you need to tell us—”
“Yeah, does the slimy git have a Dark Mark?”
“This slimy git has a name, Mr ‘I’m too poor to afford a fashion sense!’”
“Yeah, you do. 'Slimy Git.' That’s your name, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Ron, I mean Bill, please. Try to act your age.”
“Not your shoe size. Only it comes to the same thing. I’ve never seen such enormous feet. Did your mother mate with a pterodactyl?”
“You shut up about my mother!”
“Do you even know what pterodactyls are, Malfoy, out of interest?”
“Hermione, stop talking to Slimy Git as if he’s a human, please.”
“I think I’ll talk to him however I choose, actually. Just because I’m your girlfriend doesn’t mean you own me!”
“Ooh, trouble in paradise. Can you hold that thought, Weasley? I want to take pictures.”
“Is this Death Eater talk?”
“Dick, Death Eaters don’t do chemistry!”
Harry quietly gets to his feet and walks away. Behind him, the conversation descends to the level of baboons scratching their armpits and screeching at each other, apart from Dick. Reassured that he isn’t missing out on something of vital, chemistry-related importance, he’s fallen asleep in the picnic basket.
“Okay,” says Harry. “I know you’re there. You can come out now, the Muggle’s not here.’
“What about the rest of your, ah, companions?” Elizabeth uses the word delicately, as one would a dirty forceps.
“I’m sure they’re having lots of fun.” Harry goes for wry and comes out bitter instead, but he puts that down to Malfoy’s influence.
No one could expect Malfoy to have feelings other than loathing towards Harry. Not after what Harry’s done to him, in the name of loyalty and secrecy and protection. It’s just that Harry’s had a lot of experience in expecting the impossible.
“I was a little surprised that you returned here.” Elizabeth does a twirl, spinning out her translucent skirts. “After all, you found the Horcrux, did you not?”
Harry clenches his hand, feeling the metal of the teapot cold against his skin. “Have you been talking to Malfoy?”
“I may have been. I trust that is allowed? He is, after all, my relation.”
Harry snarls. “So you let slip some vital information to someone who is, for all intents and purposes, working for the other side?”
“What other side? You are on the same side, Harry Potter. Those who are against Voldemort are all on the same side.”
“Huh. I’ve had no solid proof that Malfoy’s not a Death Eater.”
“I am a Death Eater.”
Harry starts. He hadn’t noticed Malfoy creeping up on him.
“As for the rest, has my proof not been solid enough for you? Was the evidence not hard enough?”
Harry clenches his fists. “Stop pissing me about, Malfoy. Why didn’t you tell me this was a Horcrux?”
“Five minutes ago!”
Malfoy squeezes his eyebrows together. “Potter, I just found out ten minutes ago. When we…left the woods, I met Elizabeth there.”
“Well…” Harry flails. “You could have found a better way to tell me than in front of a Muggle, like that!”
“Yes, because you really deserve the best treatment from me, of all people. Come off it, Potter. The day I treat you with the same respect I give to people I truly like is the day I slit my wrists and change my name.”
Harry is frigid with anger, but he manages an icicle of a smile. “Change your name first?”
Malfoy’s look is as cool and appraising as an aristocratic frost. “You’re learning, Potter.”
“The fact remains that you have unearthed—”
“Uncellared,” murmured Malfoy, who seems to have some kind of pathological attachment to the word.
“—another Horcrux. Perhaps you would be better to direct your search to other, more fruitful areas?” Elizabeth raises her fine eyebrows. Harry wonders if there’s such a thing as a post-mortem facial. If there is, Elizabeth’s been indulging.
“I don’t get it.” Harry looks down at the teapot, which is just visible through the fingers he can’t uncurl. Now that he comes to think of it, the metal has always felt colder than it should, but it makes no sense. “Why’s there a Horcrux here? What is this place?”
Elizabeth makes a moue of surprise. Added to the eyebrows, it looks like she’s trying out a spot of mime. “You mean you didn’t know? I thought the reason you came here was because you’d realised that there was a high likelihood of a Horcrux being concealed in the house.”
“Elizabeth, please don’t credit Potter with anything but the most elementary thought processes.” Malfoy’s voice sounds strained. “He probably stumbled on it by pure chance.”
Harry would have quite liked to object to that. He would have, too, if it wasn’t true.
“This sadly dilapidated building was once the seat of great pureblood family,” says Elizabeth. “I recall many glittering soirees I attended here during my lifetime—there was one where we had to dress up as Eastern princesses, and the Minister for Magic at the time was kind enough to remark that—”
Harry makes a face. He directs it at Elizabeth’s ruff so she won’t see it, but this means looking right through her, at Malfoy. He’s wearing a similar expression to Harry’s. For a moment, Harry feels a flash of connexion—but Malfoy scowls fiercely and it’s gone.
“—I’m not sure what happened to them, but the houses rise and fall through the centuries.” Elizabeth heaves a sigh, or would have done, had her lungs still been functioning. “The Smiths were once great, but—”
“What, you mean this is Smith Manor?” Harry’s mind works nineteen to the dozen. “Oh—now I understand—but I thought it was meant to be a cup—”
“Honestly, Potter. If you were hiding your soul in a dozen objects, would you just leave them like that? Did the idea of Transfiguration and warding never cross your simple little mind?”
“It might have, if you hadn’t butted in so rudely,” snaps Harry. “Hey—how do you know all this about Horcruxes?”
“Gosh, Potter.” Malfoy does something sarcastic and coquettish with his hand. “And I thought I was putting up with you because you understood what my background was, but alas, you’re still as thick as plank. One should never expect much of Gryffindors. Yet I must be a natural optimist or something.”
“I’m just wondering, you understand, but the point of all that was…?”
“My father,” drawls Malfoy. “Right hand to the Dark Lord and all that? Owner of the largest collection of Dark Arts books outside Hogwarts?”
Malfoy gives him an odd look. “Yes, Hogwarts. Contains a library and things. It’s called ed-u-ca-tion. You may have heard of it, although I have grave doubts that you actually imbibed any of it—”
“So you know about Horcruxes?” interrupts Harry. Malfoy might not have heard of anything so Muggle as dog chew-toys, but he has the mentality of someone who’d design them for a living.
“Wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I did do some reading before sixth year.” Malfoy’s smile would not have looked out of place on a cadaver. “A little homework, you could say.”
“And—” Harry puts out a hand, but thinks better of it. “Would you be willing to help us?”
“For crying out loud, Potter. What did you think I was trying to do all this time? Practise my wrist movements?”
“Your wrist movements are fine,” mumbles Harry.
Malfoy gives his shocking bray of a laugh.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” says Harry, but Malfoy is too busy biting his lips to reply.
“There you are!” Hermione tramps up to them. Harry casts a warning glance in Elizabeth’s direction, in case Dick should be hot on Hermione’s heels, but the ghost has already faded out. “What are you two doing? You’ve convinced Dick that you’re in some kind of exclusive club that involves throwing bread rolls about the place, you know. Is this more of the same?”
“Um, no.” Harry looks sideways at Malfoy, but he’s staring at the ceiling as if he never saw such a sight of such awesome wonder before in his life. “This is a Horcrux, and Malfoy says he thinks it’s under some kind of concealment charm and that he’ll help us break it and he—”
“Please, Harry, remember to breathe.” Hermione looks alarmed. “Will we need somewhere sheltered to work on it?”
“Depends what kind of curses are worked into the protection, I guess.” Malfoy shrugs. “But I can’t possibly predict what they’ll be, so we might as well do it here in the house.”
“Oh, what are we going to do for references and research?” frets Hermione. “If only I had my pre-NEWT notes with me—”
“You made pre-NEWT notes?” says Harry incredulously.
“Yes, in fifth year—and I added to them in sixth year—”
“It doesn’t matter,” interrupts Malfoy. “We’re just going to have to work on bare instinct and raw power. Potter’s got plenty of that, and I suppose I could be willing to admit that you have some form of brain under that furze bush that you call hair, Granger—”
“You’re so faithless, Potter. I was joking.”
“That was not particularly amusing.”
“Says the king of snappy comebacks and witty one-liners.”
“Don’t push it.”
“Fine.” Malfoy smirks. “Shall I pull it, though?”
“Oh, keep saying my name in that manly enraged tone of voice, Potter. It’s making me go all weak at the knees.”
Hermione looks between them with a bemused expression. “Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever understand boys.”
Ron is gazing fixedly out of the window. “He’s…digging,” he reports, with a dark frown.
“Digging, you say? Nurse, the screens!” says Malfoy, with little appreciable animosity. He’s engrossed in turning the teapot over and over in his hands. Harry watches him with a feeling that could be likened to that of a mother watching a clown juggling her baby on a tightrope.
“Be careful,” he mutters, as he’s done every five seconds since Malfoy managed to get him to yield up the object.
“Yeah,” replies Malfoy, as he has every time. For some reason, he doesn’t get irritated by the repetition. If Harry weren’t so worried about the teapot’s safety, he’d wonder why.
“What do you know about Horcruxes, Granger?”
“Almost nothing,” says Hermione, in a tone that suggests she’s confessing to a couple of dozen cardinal sins. “They haven’t exactly been on our syllabus. All I know is what Harry’s told us.”
“They’re very obscure. Obviously—most sane people doubt the existence of souls, after all. It takes a really sane mad person to think that you could take one and split it up, like so much dust.” Malfoy runs a thumb delicately over one of the shards of moonstone. If Harry squints, he imagines that he can see a smear of his blood on it.
“Is it definitely souls, then?” Hermione frowns. Harry can’t remember if her parents are religious. He’s always felt that dentistry is an occupation that lends itself to Buddhism, just so the temptation to run amok with drills has a conduit.
“Soul, life force, the thing that makes you human, makes you ‘you’ and not someone else…” says Malfoy, in a vague voice. “It’s part of the power that you tap into when you use magic, that’s for sure, but that’s not all it is.”
“The part of you that goes away when you die?” offers Harry. He remembers hearing that somewhere, a long time ago. The Dursleys stopped going to church after Aunt Petunia found out that the cleaning committee used own-brand furniture polish.
Malfoy looks pleased. Or proud, or something. Harry isn’t quite sure—neither feeling is often directed towards him. It’s one of the things that he loved about Ginny, that she did both. Seeing Malfoy do it makes Harry feel warm inside, even though that’s a ridiculously soppy and potentially fatal thing to do in relation to him.
“Exactly. And the Dark Lord never did die, did he? So whatever it was he split, immortality is its most important quality. But—” Malfoy rubs at his forehead “—I was thinking, that there must be some parts to the—well, call it a soul, for simplicity.”
“What, like large, and small, left and right?” Hermione’s forehead is just one big wrinkle.
“Now he’s putting the dirt in test tubes!” Ron sounds outraged.
“Thank you for that, Weasley. No, I meant more like—if your soul is what makes you who you are, then it’ll have your characteristics. Like, the part of you that gets angry, and the part that makes you love things, and the part that’s clever…” Malfoy scrubs his hair back from his forehead. His expression is open, almost worried, and Harry feels his heart clench. He is sure he didn’t authorise that. “Am I making any sense?”
“No, you are. After all, if you are cutting up something, you need it to have a beginning and an end…a stalk and a root, even.” Hermione is off. “What made you think of that?”
“Well, this one attacked Potter. There’s his blood, see. But none of the other ones did that. But if this is the one that carried the Dark Lord’s…I don’t know, violence, or something, then that would make sense.”
“True, but only if the other ones have a similar effect,” objects Hermione. Harry can tell she’s not arguing with Malfoy so much as teasing out a point. “Harry, has any of the other Horcruxes done anything to you?”
Harry’s on the point of shrugging, when Malfoy’s fingers delve inside his voluminous collar. They extract something gold and glittering and Harry feels a deep, internal shudder.
“I think so,” he croaks.
If the locket is Voldmort’s lust, then what is the horn?
But, more importantly, if the locket is Voldemort’s lust, was any of it Harry’s?
“Hmm, it’s an interesting point, but not a particularly useful one, I think,” muses Hermione. “I mean, if you had a set number of traits that your soul carried, then we’d at least know how many Horcruxes we’re looking for. But people feel any number of things.”
“Pride, lust, avarice, envy…” suggests Malfoy.
“Loyalty, love, generosity, admiration,” counters Hermione.
“Potter, your call. Tie-break it.”
Harry looks down at his feet. “Power.”
“Power’s not something you feel, it’s something you have.” Malfoy twists to look at Ron, whose nose is pressed against the window glass. “Or, if you’re Weasley, something you most emphatically don’t have.”
“Degrade my boyfriend once more and you’ll be picking up your intestines with a spoon,” says Hermione calmly.
“I can respect that.” Malfoy turns back to the Horcrux. “Look, what we want is for this Horcrux to assume its true form, right?”
“Well…probably,” hedges Hermione. “To ascertain that it is the cup of Hufflepuff. By hypothesis it means that we have the locket belonging to Slytherin—if the embossed snakes and the fact that it belonged to the Blacks is anything to go by—and Ravenclaw’s horn.”
Malfoy sighs. “The Dark Lord is so damnably unoriginal. I mean, those things have histories, it’s possible to track them down. Me, if I was splitting up my soul, I’d stick it in a few pebbles, maybe a dead tree. Something that no one would ever guess.”
“Well, Voldemort was never very subtle. Just, you know, evil and powerful and stuff.”
“Your contribution is invariably pertinent, Potter. What’s a spell to reveal something, Granger?”
“Aparecium, of course. But it’s going to take something far more advanced than that—”
“I know. But advanced magic isn’t about having a different word, it’s about a different knowledge. I think if the four of us try hard enough, we can change this thing back.”
“Actually, changing the cup into a teapot wasn’t too bad. As far as subtle goes.”
“Potter, they are both receptacles for beverages. I bet you someone else suggested it, too. Like my father.”
“That’s something to put in his memoirs.”
“Yes, Horcrux, just before Iniquity and after Greed. A gripping read for all ages, I’ll bet.”
“You know, you two have been getting on a lot better lately—why are you laughing, Malfoy?”
“Nothing, nothing. I haven’t been getting it on with anything.”
“Just because you’ve got a very dirty mind—”
“I learned from the best dirty mind in this room. Pity he can’t do anything about the hair, though.”
“Ron!” yells Harry, with perhaps rather more force than is necessary. “We need you.”
It is probably Harry’s imagination that the room darkens as they gather around the Horcrux. The room is dusty and littered with the scraps of many generations of nesting swallows, who make for notoriously messy houseguests. All the same, Malfoy has managed to shamble together a makeshift table. The small teapot rests on it, glistening in a slightly feeble way.
“Ready?” says Malfoy, his voice low. Harry doesn’t contest his right to say ‘Ready.’ Somehow, that childishness belongs to a time when he’d never seen Malfoy naked or held a serious conversation with him about the Dark Lord’s soul. Alternatively, five minutes ago.
“Youse guys had better get home. Something terrible’s happened.”
Harry can hear the words, and in any other circumstance they would have jolted him awake. However, the voice speaking is curiously free of all animation, one that could have said ‘My love for Heathcliff is like the rocks beneath, a source of no visible delight, but necessary’ in a tone that would cure insomnia.
All the same, his eyes feel itchy and seem to think that opening would improve this situation somewhat. He struggles upright—funny, he doesn’t remember lying down—and squints at Dick. The light outside the windows is wrong. For one thing, it’s not there any more.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. His voice feels thick in his mouth, as if someone’s stuffed it with cotton balls.
“Oooh, I didn’t know youse were archaeologists. Bunch of poofters, if you ask me.” Dick sends Harry a limpid gaze that makes Harry wonder if he really did think that Harry and Malfoy were just playing with bread in the woods.
“That kind of fancy stuff. Don’t think you got it in BT.” Dick points at a golden cup, which is resting in what looks like a small crater of splintered wood. It’s emitting an oleaginous shine that puts Harry in mind of primordial slime.
Hermione is stirring; Ron is stretched beside her. Harry looks around, but he can’t see Malfoy anywhere. Harry's heart begins to beat wildly.
“Oh, you’ve woken up.”
Harry turns, ready to lambast Malfoy for his careless remark. Then he sees Malfoy’s face.
“I couldn’t wake you,” he continues. There’s something about his small, quiet voice that makes Harry more afraid than if he’d shouted. “So I went to get Dick, and he couldn’t wake you either, so we went back to the village, and—”
Malfoy’s face says it all.
“The Death Eaters attacked, didn’t they?” Harry’s heart drops like a stone through silk. “They—”
“Not quite. I think it was just a…sweep. And they couldn’t find you, so they…you know the doctor?” Malfoy’s eyes have gone faraway. Harry hopes it’s nice there. “He stitched up my head. Primitive technique, of course, brutal almost…but it worked.” He takes a deep breath. “They went through his house. There was blood…”
“I thought Death Eaters just used the Cruciatus!”
“Don’t be a bloody fool. What about that curse you used on me? Do you think nice people invented that one, do you? Someone who wanted a nice clean death for their enemies?”
“Jim wasn’t anyone’s enemy!”
“Every Muggle is a Death Eater’s enemy.”
Harry sags back. “That’s so stupid! Why?”
“Yeah, well, rabbits are inferior to me, but I don’t feel the urge to torture and kill them!”
“Ah, but you’re a good guy, Potter, remember?”
Hermione moans. “My head…”
“Well, the transformation worked.” Malfoy nods at the cup. “I hoped it would. But I think it released some kind of huge magical signature that alerted them—”
“Wait,” says Harry, suddenly suspicious. “What were you doing all that time we were unconscious? Who’s to say you weren’t alerting them yourself—”
“I haven’t got time for this.” Malfoy steps forward, places both hands on Harry’s face and kisses him, lips hard and angry against Harry’s mouth.
“Harry?” Ron’s voice is weak, buckling under the weight of unadulterated horror. “Please tell me I’m still asleep. Please. I can pay—”
“I think,” says Dick, “that someone ought to tell me what’s going on.”
“Oh, I suppose I’d better modify his memory again.” Malfoy steps away from Harry and draws his wand.
“And you can put that away,” adds Dick. “I’m not completely daft, you know.”
“Could have fooled me,” mutters Ron.
“I know better than to hang around when someone points sticks at me. Especially when they shoot out light and whatnot.” Dick’s face is as waxy and expressionless as a clay dolly, which means he looks the same as always. There’s something of the mad inventor light about his eyes, though, the one that looked at tropical birds and said, ‘Ho, evolution!’ Dick continues, “Modern science has a lot of things to say about the existence of magic—”
“Dick,” begins Malfoy. Harry and Hermione share a look. Hermione starts to pull her wand out.
“—but I, for one, don’t think that science can answer every question. I mean, what about the duck-billed platypus?”
Ron beams. “Hey, I know that one. There was this wizard called Wilbert Duckfoot who was really bad at Transfiguration—-”
“Oops. Sorry, Hermione.”
“So you’re all wizards then?” Dick seems quite calm in the face of this information. As a scientist, Harry would have expected him to be at least a little sceptical. Then again, this is a boy who almost faints with delight at the thought of uncoiling DNA.
“No,” sighs Hermione. “I’m a witch.”
“And your names really aren’t Harry, Felix, Bill and Lucy, are they?”
“Well, mine is Harry,” says Harry.
“He’s the hero,” adds Malfoy.
“And he’s the villain.”
“Voldemort is the villain, Ron. Malfoy’s just…a henchman.”
“Come off it, Granger. I merit at least a henchlord.”
“You don’t merit anything, Malfoy, because you’re on our side, remember?” says Harry viciously. He tries to wipe Malfoy’s spit off his lips in a clandestine way.
“Oh, no! So he wasn’t putting an enchantment on you back there, Harry?”
“What the boy wonder means to say is, he’s the one who’d need to be putting enchantments on people to get them to kiss him. Right, Potter?”
Malfoy really is evil, Harry reflects. No matter what side he’s on. “Something like that,” he mutters, thinking of the locket Horcrux.
“There’s search parties starting for the doctor,” interjects Dick. “And we’re taking a census in case anyone’s gone missing. Me an’ Harry came to collect yis.”
“His name is Draco,” says Harry.
“Really?” Malfoy makes an expression of heart-stopping surprise. “Funny, that. I thought it was ‘Malfoy.’”
They find Jim’s body under a bed of roses. Jim has been cursed half a dozen times, with spells of such brutality they left great jagged tears in his skin. Harry thought that the body was lying on gravel until he looked closer; the grass underneath Jim is drenched in sticky, congealed blood.
“How did they know he knew us?” Harry feels sickened. He wants to throw up, or cry, yet all he can think of is Malfoy’s skin, wet from the shower, and his face when he laughed, and why the world is designed so that all of that has to be in the balance with an innocent man’s life.
“They didn’t, Potter. He lived alone, some way out of the village. An easy target, in other words.”
Harry sees the sense in that. He directs his next words to Malfoy’s feet, afraid of what he might discover in his face. “We have to tell Iris.”
“What good will that serve?” snorts Malfoy. “You’ll terrify her and it won’t do any good, anyway. Since when have Muggles found a way to fight the Killing Curse?”
“She has a right to know,” insists Harry. “I’d want to know, if I were her.”
“Yes, but you’re a hero,” says Malfoy, and turns away.
It rankles more when Harry’s thoughts of what he traded his heroism for are still so raw. His life for yours, Harry wants to scream, but of course he doesn’t. That would only expose his folly to the whole world.
It might have been easier, Harry supposes, if Malfoy had long red hair and was a girl. Yet he can’t help thinking that he’d made that choice a long time ago, even before the time he went haring off after Horcruxes and left Ginny behind. It was too dangerous for her to be at his side. Yet he had no qualms about risking Malfoy, whether it was battling teapots or something darker.
Malfoy didn’t ask for this; neither did Harry. It absolves neither of them from the blame.
Harry trudges after Malfoy, back through the fields to Iris’ guesthouse. A group of searchers are resting on her steps, too fatigued to do more than lift cups of tea to their lips. However, when Malfoy speaks the words, “We found him,” the effect is nothing less than electric. Much tea is spilled.
But slowly, the realisation descends that Malfoy said, ‘We found him,’ not, ‘We brought him back.’ One woman starts to cry, large tears sliding down her cheeks as she kneads her doughy hands in distress.
“You’d best take me to him, lad,” says the police sergeant heavily. He places his hand on Malfoy’s shoulder.
Harry feels an odd sensation rip through his belly. After a moment, he recognises it as jealousy. It’s hardly possible that he can be jealous of the old, whiskery and very married policeman touching Malfoy for a brief moment, is it? Malfoy is as likely to want him as he is the horse in the field. Yet the sergeant isn’t making him whore out his favours in return for shelter, a nastily truthful part of Harry's brain reminds him. In reality, Malfoy would probably prefer the horse to you.
“How odd! Look, Mel, someone’s shot up some kind of green firework. Do you see? Over there, behind the house…”
Harry wakes early, to find a light frost gilding the windows. For a late summer morning the air is cool. He shivers, and realises the fact that he’s lying naked with about half an inch of sheet covering him probably isn’t helping matters. Blindly, he gropes for the blanket, assuming it’s fallen by the side of the bed.
Instead, he squeezes a soft, warm lump, which makes a garbled noise of protest at the intrusion. For a split second, Harry’s heart jumps into his mouth and starts dancing a hornpipe. Then a pale arm snakes out of the covers to push back butter-coloured hair. Malfoy’s face squints up at him, covered in pink crease-marks.
“Can’t you keep your hands off me for two minutes?” he demands, his voice throaty with sleep. He digs his head into the pillow with a muffled groan.
“You’re hogging the blanket,” says Harry. It’s when he hears the deep, slow sounds of Malfoy’s breathing that he realises Malfoy's fallen back asleep, and that Harry only mouthed the words, empty to the air.
Harry wraps his arms around his knees, hugging himself and rocking a little. It’s something that he used to do when he was small, to keep the tears at bay. He’d say one word over and over in his head, to forget Dudley’s latest pièce de bullying or Aunt Petunia’s sharp scolding. Despite the fact that he had hated them almost before he could talk, some part of him still yearned for their approval and acceptance, because they were the only ones around to supply it.
He supposes that yearning is still there, making him want everyone to like him. He’d thought Hogwarts would be his big chance. That was before he realised that half the world resented him for his fame and accidental glory. Even his best friends weren’t immune.
And, if he had to pick one person to represent all that loathing, it would be the naked boy in the bed next to him, bathed in the bleak morning light.
He thinks of his parents. It’s never difficult to bring them to mind, even though his only images of them have been cobbled together from a five-minute meeting with ghosts and a few grainy, black-and-white photographs. It doesn’t matter; Harry just uses his own reflection to supply his father’s, and puts Ginny’s hair on his mother.
It’s not the first time he’s wondered what life would be like if his parents had lived, if Voldemort had never heard the prophecy, or indeed if Voldemort had never risen at all. But it’s the first time Harry's thought seriously about it, or longed for it so much that it physically hurt.
He crawls over to the window, aware of the cold but only in a peripheral way, and leans against the glass. Outside, a fairy lace of dew covers the lawn. If his parents were alive, there would be no reason for people to hate or resent or envy Harry on sight. He’d be just Harry. Malfoy would have nothing against him. He’d still be a raging snob with award-winning pretensions, and probably nothing would ever alter the obnoxiousness, but his father would be merely unbearable and not evil. Malfoy himself would not be the heir to malevolence.
Harry’s always known that he’ll have to get rid of Voldemort, or be got rid of, ever since he found out how his parents really died. He can trace the shiver of awareness right back to Hagrid saying, “Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if had enough human left in him to die…” Evil like that could not be permitted to walk beneath the sun.
Harry can’t vouch for Lucius Malfoy, and he’s only met Narcissa once. It’s beguiling to think that Malfoy only inherited his wrong thinking, and could abdicate the throne if he wished. Harry doubts that any of it is so clear-cut, however. Perhaps it’s easier when your parents are dead. Perhaps heroes were designed that way—alone—so that no one could influence them unduly.
“Potter, are you quite, quite mad?”
Harry almost answers yes. Instead, he turns his head to the voice.
Malfoy has sat up in bed, the sheets tumbling about his waist. His eyes are soft from sleep and he’s slumped against the pillows, but his voice is still sharp. “It’s freezing. Ridiculous weather altogether. Are you trying to die of frostbite before the Dark Lord arrives?”
Harry looks back out of the window. All of a sudden, dark specks have gathered on the horizon. They could be clouds.
He shivers. “I don’t think I’d have time.”
Malfoy sighs. “You can’t do anything to stop him. You could try to get away, I suppose, or hide. But he’s always going to find you. In some respects you should be flattered. He obviously regards you as a formidable enemy.”
“If only.” Harry tightens his grip on his knees, pretending it’s the cold that’s making him shake. “There’s a prophecy that says one of us has to die, or be killed. And he can kill me.”
“Oh, prophecies.” Malfoy shakes his head in impatience. “I’ve never had much truck with those. They’re extremely suspect, in my opinion. I mean, if you get a prophecy that tells you you’re going to be eaten by a dragon on Tuesday, wouldn’t you make sure that you were locked up in a fireproof bunker for a week in advance?”
Harry has never thought of it like that. “But—”
“Do you really think the future is nailed down like that? That on the cusp of every decision you make, there isn’t a million futures waiting to exist? Don’t be foolish. Any sibyl worth her salt—or brandy, in Trelawney’s case—should be able to predict the rise of some dark wizard or other every few decades. If there’s one thing you can rely on humans to do, it’s to make the same mistakes.”
“I wish I had your certainty.”
“Oh, believe me, I know all about making mistakes.” Malfoy’s look is oddly caressing. “For one thing, I never could leave you alone, no matter how my parents scolded me for it. ‘Unbecoming of a Malfoy’ was how my mother put it, even though she was one of the barmy Blacks.”
“Enough of the barmy. My godfather was a Black.”
“So am I, if you want to bring it back to genetics. Which can be fun if you’re not a Weasley.” Malfoy stretches back, tightening all the skin of his chest. If Harry didn’t know better, he’d almost say that Malfoy was teasing him. The locket lies on his left collarbone, making an odd contrast to the white skin and blemishes surrounding it. “The Dark Lord is cruel, and maybe we’ll all die because of him, but do you really think he’ll win? For one thing, we already have three parts of his soul. I wouldn’t call myself a theological philosopher by any means, but I doubt you can function on half a soul.”
“It’d be better if we had all the parts, though.” Harry glances out of the window again. The black cloud on the horizon has grown exponentially—already, it’s blotting out the newly risen sun.
“So Summon them,” suggests Malfoy lazily. “But in the meantime, get dressed or come back to bed. I feel cold just looking at you. Your lips have gone a bit blue. Not the most becoming look on you, Potter, I have to say—”
“Wait, wait.” Harry shakes his head, trying to clear it of Malfoy’s babble. “Say that again.”
“Blue. Not really your colour. Perhaps a dark green, or even salmon—”
“No, not that, the bit before. About Summoning the Horcruxes.”
Harry watches Malfoy’s face, seeing it freeze for a heartbeat. When he breathes out, it’s so loud that Harry can hear it from across the room. “You really think that could work?”
“If we can transform something just by thinking it—”
Malfoy’s voice is shaky. “I guess it’s handy to have two huge egos sloshing around in the same building, eh? Most people wouldn’t believe that you could even attempt it.”
“I don’t think I have a choice.” Harry pauses. “Really salmon?”
“No, I was kidding.” Malfoy rolls his eyes. “Iris won’t be up for another hour, you know.”
Harry turns his head away. “You don’t have to do that anymore. After today, I have a feeling it won’t be relevant. One way or another.”
“And it was probably only the effect of the locket, anyway,” adds Harry, feeling something twist inside.
“Probably.” There’s a rustle of bed sheets. “Handy, then. Otherwise, how could you have profaned yourself by touching me, eh? See, even Dark Lords are good for something.”
Harry dares himself to look at Malfoy. He’s crunched down into the pillows, his hair all over his face.
Harry stands up and wobbles over to the bed, his legs no longer under orders from the common sense that Harry abandoned on the windowsill.
Malfoy looks up. His mouth twitches.
“You can still use the bed. I mean, I suppose I could be prevailed upon to give you some of the blanket. You probably need your beauty sleep. What am I saying, you definitely need beauty sleep, or even moderately-attractive sleep—”
Harry gets to his knees, clumsily, because the mattress gives way and makes it a movement of more chance than grace. Summoning up all his motor skills, he unclasps the locket from around Malfoy’s neck, while Malfoy lies still as a terrified animal.
At last, Harry gets it off. He drops it next to the cup and the horn, then Banishes them with a flick of his wand.
“Maybe—not the locket?” whispers Malfoy.
“It’s just…I want…” says Harry, who doesn’t know. Malfoy breathes in a nod, takes Harry’s hand and places it on his stomach.
As the sun saturates the sky and battles with the growing mass of darkness, the room manages to fill with light.
“Do that again.”
“Oh. Oh, don’t stop.”
“Kindly cease biting my neck. You’re not a vampire. Harry.”
“Fine, what do you want me to do?”
“Here, give me your hand. No, lower…lower…yes…”
“Ha, I knew you did it too.”
“Harry, if you’re going to…you need…”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.”
“No, I just meant—look, Grassicate!—why’ve you moved your hand?”
“In these situations, best not.”
“Jesus Christ. You’re so—I’ll—move your legs a bit—why are you laughing?”
“Kiss me, Harry, you great daft Gryffindor.”
“Shut up, or I’ll use another finger.”
“Is that a threat or a promi—ohh.”
“This can’t be normal. It—shit. Wow. I thought you’d forgotten that.”
“When you’re rubbing it against my hip like that? Hardly. Oh, don’t—no, keep going!”
“You said don’t!”
“Of course this isn’t normal. Put them back, Harry. But since when have you ever been normal?”
It is, Harry thinks, a telling point.
It’s quite hard to find the right time to tell someone their village is going to be under attack from pillaging murderers with magical powers. Especially when said someone is doling out a constant supply of poached eggs, toast and rashers with a monologue on the sorry state of the world.
“I never thought we’d see those wicked vandals here in Fernwood Lower,” sighs Iris. She’s beating egg yolks with Herculean strength. “It’s a disgrace, and such a tragedy. You know, I don’t think I’ve quite registered that poor Jim is dead. Him with his entire life in front of him, too. It’s a crying shame.”
Harry shares a desperate glance with Hermione. He can feel disapproval radiating from both Ron and Draco, neither of whom were keen to appraise Iris of the full story. However, Draco—with Hermione’s help, and Harry’s persuasion—has already telephoned Dick and asked him to come over. He’ll be here any minute, and Iris has to know before he does.
“Iris,” says Harry loudly, in the belief that more decibels will aid a breakthrough.
“You all right, Felix, dear? Would you like another egg?”
“My name isn’t Felix,” says Harry. Best to start at the beginning, he thinks.
“Isn’t it?” Iris sends him an indulgent smile. “My Nancy was always going through those phases. We had to call her Amantina for three weeks, I remember Frank kept calling her Adam, it drove her quite wild—”
“No, I mean Felix isn’t my real name. My real name is Harry Potter.”
“Are you sure? Isn’t that odd, you and young Harry there have the exact same name. I bet that’s rare.”
“No.” Harry tries to smile reassuringly, but he can see through the window that the sky is dull and murky, what part of it isn’t covered by a blanket of shadow. “This is Draco Malfoy.”
Hermione stands up. She shrugs at Harry, and takes out her wand. “My name’s Hermione Granger.”
“And I’m Ron Weasley,” Ron volunteers.
“Don’t you mean Ronald?” Draco smirks.
“Harry, you did that wrong. You were supposed to introduce him as Slimy Git, remember?”
Iris looks bewildered. “Are you in some kind of secret society?”
“In a manner of speaking,” says Hermione. “We’re wizards. Well, they are, and I’m a witch.”
“Oh.” Iris’ smile creeps back, like an insidious tide lapping at a sandy Pollack masterpiece. “You’re those Gothics, then? Do you have pentagrams and underground midnight ceremonies and so on?”
“Dunno about pentagrams,” says Ron. “Sounds like Arithmancy to me. But Neville used to sneak down to the kitchens every second night, I do know that.”
“He did? I never heard him.”
“Yeah, well, your bed wasn’t right next to the door, was it? I used to make him bring me the house-elves’ special oatmeal biscuits to make up for it.”
“The house-elves what?” says Hermione dangerously.
“Ahem.” Malfoy coughs. “Perhaps a little more germane proof is in order?” He draws his wand; a minute later, Harry and Ron fumble theirs out of their sleeves.
“You all have your toy sticks, then?” Iris gives them the look reserved for currently harmless mental patients who’d misplaced their straitjackets, or academics generally. “I’m sure that’s a lot of fun, but—”
“Oh, for—” says Malfoy, under his breath. “Tantallegra!”
The five of them watch the teapot dance across the table in silence.
“Well, I’ll be mogadored,” says Iris. “What was that, then? Did you do it by remote control?”
“Remote what?” say Draco and Ron together. They share a look of unwilling and mutual incomprehension.
Hermione’s lips move. “Iris. What would you say if I told you that we were…spies. For the government. And that there was a group of rebel insurgents headed this way, intent on killing—well, everyone?”
“I’d say you’ve been watching a bit too much telly.” Iris stares at the teapot. “Well, I would have done, before yesterday and Jim being killed. Right now, I think I’d believe just about anything of the world.”
“Then perhaps it’s best if you think of us like that,” says Hermione. “We have to go and fight them, in a way. But we wanted to warn you, so that you could get to somewhere safe in time.”
An orchestra of tone-deaf angels rings through the house. “I’ll get the door,” says Draco.
“We invited over Dick and Bert,” explains Harry. “Bert has a car. If you leave, now, you should be able to get far enough away—”
“What, you mean leave?” Iris looks horrified. “And let those horrible people lay waste to everything and everyone I hold dear? I think not, young man.”
“Look here, Harry, if that is your real name. Once upon a time I might’ve run. But I learned the hard way that you should fight for what you love.” Iris’ eyes flicker to a photograph pinned on the refrigerator. Harry’s never paid much attention to it before. Iris’ house is crammed full of pictures and she seems to have more relations than a thrice-divorced Mormon. But, for a moment, something in Iris’ face shines like steel.
Dick enters the room with a clatter. He has a huge backpack. Bert and Draco follow him.
“I brought my chemistry set,” announces Dick.
“That’s great.” At least someone has the wit to prepare for departure, Harry thinks.
“Also some potassium permanganate.”
“That’s…also great.” Dick surely doesn’t think that Harry actually took in anything he said about chemistry, does he?
“To make bombs,” finishes Dick, and grins.
“I got this.” Bert hefts a rifle on to his shoulder.
Harry looks at Draco helplessly. “Dick, didn’t you explain about the magic?”
“A shot from this baby will kill you right dead, magic or no,” says Bert, sounding satisfied.
Iris extracts a stack of buckets from her cupboard. “I used to have a reputation as an expert booby-trapper when I was in school,” she giggles. “I always used cold water before, though.”
“Well, if we can’t convince you of the danger—” begins Hermione.
“Oh, I reckon I knows danger when I sees it,” says Bert. “Don’t mean much.”
“You could die!” Harry bursts out.
Bert just raises his eyebrows. “When I was a little’un, they used to say there was a land flowing with milk and honey waitin’ for those as was good when they were alive. You go through life worryin’ that you’re going to die, you’d never stir from your own front door.” He claps Harry on the shoulder. “Don’t look so stunned, lad. I’ve never made a habit of fearin’ death, and I don’t intend to start now.”
“Speaking of dead people,” said a new voice, “I was wondering if you’d forgotten me.”
Harry closes his eyes. “Iris? Bert? Dick? This is Elizabeth Malfoy. She’s, um, she’s—”
“Among the many departed of this world.” Elizabeth sketches a deep curtsey, five inches from the ground. She looks around. Dick has already lost interest and is scrabbling through his bag, having correctly divined that Elizabeth knows nothing about chemistry. Bert looks as if he’s deeply shocked, but currently occupied in concealing the fact from the world. And Iris—
“I think I may know what you want to ask, my lady.” Elizabeth smiles at Iris. “And no. I cannot contact him for you. Muggles always pass straight to the other side. That is their greatest gift, or their greatest tragedy, depending on where you are standing.”
“So you can’t tell me—” Iris looks white and strained. Harry feels confused, although Draco is wearing an expression of something approaching recognition from a long way off.
“No.” Elizabeth’s smiling has to be one of the most disconcerting things Harry’s seen of late. “But I think you already know.”
Iris deflates. “Oh.”
“Harry, I came to inform you that the Death Eaters are approaching fast. And, from what I can tell, setting fire to everything before them.” She sniffs. “Most uncouth behaviour, in my opinion.”
“Because, of course, Death Eaters are fabled for the delicacy of their manners,” murmurs Draco. “We’d better get a move on.”
“Are you going to Smith Manor?” asks Elizabeth. “That is most unwise. The magical residues are very strong there, and they will have had time to pinpoint the location more closely. It will be the first place they will look.”
Harry begins to chew his thumb. It doesn’t taste very nice. “Where can we go, then? Hermione, any ideas?”
Iris and Bert exchange a look. “Why do you need to go anywhere?”
“What do you mean?” Harry releases his thumb with relief. He’d never make a cannibal.
Iris pours boiling water into a bucket, and smiles at Harry. For some reason, Harry’s chest tightens unbearably.
“I can’t promise that I have any witching stuff, but for Nancy’s old silver jewellery, but can’t you make your hurrah here?”
“It’s too dangerous!” objects Hermione.
“As opposed to what?” says Draco dryly. He moves to stand beside Harry.
“Well, when you put it like that, I suppose…but Iris, you’d better ask the guests to leave. There could very well be crossfire.”
“That there will.” Bert pats his rifle. “If I have anything to do with it.”
“Crazy! They’re all crazy!” whispers Harry to Draco.
Draco’s smile breaks Harry’s heart. “Yeah. They probably catch it off you.”
They choose Draco and Harry’s room, mainly because the Horcruxes are already there. Hermione thinks to open the window. Ron props himself up in the cane chair, and Harry climbs on to Draco’s bed next to Draco, out of habit.
“Your bed is really neat, Harry,” remarks Ron, staring at the camp-bed. “I never knew you could do hospital corners.”
“You learn something new every day?” tries Harry.
Ron shrugs. “Look, if it works, it…works. These aren’t normal times.”
Harry takes this as tacit permission to lean against Draco. “No, they’re not,” he agrees, for one second glad of it.
“You and Hermione should sit together.” Draco’s voice is brusque. “If you’re going out, you’ll have created a mixed magical signature.”
“Two heads are better than one, you mean?” Hermione clambers up beside her boyfriend. Ron presses her hand to his mouth, and even in the dim light Harry can see that it’s shaking.
“Are you scared?” Harry asks the sudden silence.
There’s a pause. Then—
“Fucking terrified,” says Malfoy evenly.
“What he said,” says Ron.
“Only more politely,” adds Hermione.
Harry laughs. “Accio Horcruxes?” he says.
“Accio other Horcruxes,” Draco corrects him. “Or maybe Accio Horcruxes we don’t have?”
An explosion sounds. Through the window, Harry can see a red flare, and then another. The furniture shakes with the impact. The light flashes off and on, then off.
“It’ll have to do,” says Harry, trying to feel certain. “Ready?”
“I’ll let you say it this time,” murmurs Draco, and wraps his free hand around Harry’s waist.
With Draco’s head on Harry’s shoulder and Hermione’s tears soaking Ron’s neck, they Summon the Horcruxes.
The figures emerge through the mist. It’s still that undecided time between night and day when it could go either way. They chose it for that reason, without ever realising it.
The smallest one breaks free. A high, child’s voice breaks through the tendrils of fog like a sword. Within minutes, it begins to evaporate.
“Malfoy.” Ron clears his throat and walks forward, holding out his hand as if over a great chasm.
“Weasley.” Draco takes his hand for all of a fraction of a second. “And Weasley. And Weasley. Good lord, now I see why they invented first names.”
“I’m Richard, and I’m ten,” says the child. He tugs on Draco’s sleeve until Draco looks down at him. “Who’re you? You don’t have a beard.”
“Yes, well, not everyone is as blind in that area as your father.” Draco clears his throat. “You two certainly wasted no time. And—Richard?”
“Every second person was calling their kid Harry.” Ron shrugs awkwardly. “We didn’t want it to mean nothing.”
Privately, Draco thinks it would have meant everything, but he’s learned to keep his opinions to himself.
Richard has already lost interest in Draco and his beardlessness, and is romping through the dew-laden reeds. Hermione gives a squawk and tears after him, to protect him from the terrible dangers of wet socks.
“So.” Ron shuffles his feet. “How’ve you been?”
“That’s a spectacularly inane question, even coming from you.”
“I heard you married Pansy,” Ron persists.
‘“Married’ being the operative term. Got a divorce three years ago.” Draco eyes Ron’s ring finger. “How many sprogs have you popped now?”
“There’s just Richard.”
“You do surprise me.”
“Yes, well, what with the curse that hit Hermione…we were lucky that we even had him, to be honest.”
“Oh.” This is a little too raw and honest for Draco.
“You know, I always thought you were, well, gay. After Harry.”
“No.” Draco’s voice is crystallised anti-freeze. “It was only Harry.”
“We tried to find you, when it was over. We realised that you maybe didn’t want to see your father—”
“No, Weasley. I was afraid that I would see my father.”
“And Dick. I think it was that last bomb thing he made, it got the Death Eater and him. And Bert. Took down twenty Death Eaters with that gun of his, even though there were only sixteen shots in it—”
“Ron, I was there.” Draco holds Ron’s gaze for a minute. “When he—I was watching. After that, I left. Didn’t seem to be much point in staying.”
He marvelled that he could put words around it—and such dry, inane words at that. They don’t come anywhere near describing the feeling of having your heart ripped out, of the air stopping in your chest, of feeling a part of yourself die too.
Probably a good thing, that.
“Ah.” Ron has also learned a few things since then, it would seem. He claps Draco on the shoulder, before Draco can anticipate such a gesture and move out of its range. He feels strangely touched.
Together, they mark the last few yards to where the bed and breakfast once stood. The ashes have long since been grown over by grass, although Draco fancies that he can see the impression of the foundations, hear the ringing of the clamorous bell in the one place he was happy.
“Never thought he’d actually die, you know?” Draco tries to say it casually, around the sudden lump in his throat. He turns his head, to see that Ron’s eyes are wet.
“Fuck,” he says. “Neither did I. I—”
Draco can’t bear to see Ron’s grief. It’s far too legitimate.
“Whatever happened to Iris?” he asks quickly. It’s something he’s wondered about, on and off, down through the years.
Ron smiles. “She went with Elizabeth. Elizabeth wanted to cross over, and I think Iris was the only one who could help her.”
“In desperation, miracles happen. Look at us.” Ron shrugs. “I don’t think I’d be able to Summon and destroy five Horcruxes right now. It’s only when the trial comes that you find out how strong you are.”
“Or how weak.”
“I don’t like you, Malfoy, but if you’re talking about yourself than you’re an idiot. It would never have worked without you. I mean, Harry loved my sister, but he needed you. You were his balance. The other half of his equation.”
Draco gives him a lopsided smile. “So where does that leave me now?”
“The same place as the rest of us,” says Hermione, coming up behind them. Richard has his hands cupped around something; she ruffles his hair. “Right here.”
“I caughted a butterfly,” says Richard proudly. He opens his hands. There is a flash of iridescence, a flutter of wings, and the butterfly takes flight.
“Caught,” corrects Hermione. She winks at Draco, who feels something open inside him. “We’d better get back, Ron. I need to open the office.”
“Equal Rights Agency,” supplies Ron. “Listen, Malfoy…I know we’re not close, but…”
“Voldemort was the troll,” says Hermione. Ron smiles.
“Yeah. That’s something you can’t share without being friends. Sort of, anyway.” He studies Draco with a cautious expression. “You’re welcome to visit any time you like. Your mum, too.”
“I don’t think she’d realise what was going on. Spell damage, you know.” Draco can say that lightly, now, too, showing nothing of the hopeless rage of once upon a time. “Even so, she’s probably curse me for crossing the threshold of a bunch of Muggle-loving blood-traitors.”
“She might not,” says Hermione, who always did strike Draco as being a disgustingly positive person.
“Well, you never know.” Draco smiles. It gets easier each time. “I’ll think about it.”
“All right.” Hermione takes Richard’s hand. “Ready, darling?”
There’s a ripple, and they’re gone.
“You leaving, too?”
“Nah.” Draco examines his hand-made leather gloves, feigning casualness. “Going to hang around for a bit more.”
“Right.” Ron’s gaze has grown frighteningly perceptive.
“Oh, and Weasley?”
“I don’t like fruitcake.”
“I’ll remember that.” Ron’s laugh echoes as his body leaves.
Holding himself together with the ease of long practice, Draco sweeps his robes off the wet ground. He’s got a spot in mind. Once it was as clear as the nose on his face, but it has since grown dim. He’s pretty certain it was right here, on this knoll, but in the half-light all the knobbly grass looks the same.
It probably doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s only as real as Draco’s memory. And of course, when the house stood, the bedroom where Harry lived was upstairs, and the steps on which he died were downstairs, and none of it exists any longer.
After a while, Draco crouches, then kneels, then presses his face to the dirt.
It begins to rain.