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Say My Name

Chapter Text

It was with drenched robes and stiff limbs that Harry Potter climbed the stairs to his room, pleased with the way Quidditch practice had just gone, but lamenting the late hour and the torrential downpour the team had to contend with towards the end of practice. He had classes in the morning and with all that mud would definitely need a shower before he could even think about bed.

Once in his room he stripped until he was down to his pants, then cast a quick drying charm on his robes so they wouldn’t drip all over everything else in his laundry basket. He would just sneak to the bathroom under his invisibility cloak, so that he wouldn’t be caught nearly starkers by any late-night wanderers. He had done it before. He grabbed the cloak and his toiletry kit, making his way back down the stairs unseen by the few 8th years that were still lingering in the common room at this hour.

Even though he was often worn out at the end of the day, Harry found himself preferring showering late, because it meant he had the bathroom to himself. Headmistress McGonagall was generous enough to give the 8th year students their own living quarters, which included a common room, a bathroom each for the men and the women, and single bedrooms for each student. It meant that Harry had his own space, which he was incredibly grateful for, and he only had to share a bathroom with the dozen or so other boys from his year that had elected to return to Hogwarts after the war.

But solitude was precious to Harry these days, and he took it anywhere he could get it.

The moment he entered the bathroom he realized he wasn’t alone. He could hear the sound of the shower at the far end of the room, feel the steam on his skin even through his cloak, and smell the pleasant tang of soap, subtle but undeniable.

He cursed under his breath, but resigned himself to having company. Maybe whoever it was would be done soon.

He glanced over towards the shower stalls as he prepared to take off his cloak when he recognized the blond head of one Draco Malfoy, and he paused in his movements, momentarily frozen.

Great, he thought, with irony. Of all the people he would run into in the bathroom, alone, at night, it would of course be Malfoy.

He couldn’t help remembering the last time he had confronted his rival in a bathroom, and what a disaster that had turned out to be. The fact that he could have killed Malfoy with that Sectumsempra spell still haunted him.

Maybe I’ll just wait until he’s finished, he thought. He hadn’t removed the invisibility cloak, and there was a very good chance that Malfoy hadn’t even heard Harry enter the bathroom over the roar of the shower. He hadn’t looked Harry’s way at all, and seemed intent on his shower, completely oblivious to his surroundings.

In fact, Harry realized with a lurch, as he took in the left hand of Malfoy’s that was resting against the tiled wall of the shower, supporting some of his weight, and the right arm that was working furiously, making the lithe muscles of his back ripple, it appeared that Malfoy was wanking.

Harry’s mouth went dry, and he felt a strange dizziness that he couldn’t justify entirely with mere embarrassment or shock. And, even more unexpected, his feet moved of their own accord, careful to keep silent, bringing him closer to the bowed, pale figure of Draco Malfoy.

He could really only see the man’s upper half, since the other was partially blocked by the opaque walls of the shower stall, but as he got closer it was clear that his initial assessment was correct: Malfoy was indeed having himself a wank right there in the shower, right in front of Harry. Unknowingly, of course.

At another time, in another life, Harry might have been delighted at the prospect of having an opportunity to humiliate his boyhood rival.  He might have been cheerful with the knowledge that he had something on Malfoy that could be used for taunting down the line, as needs arose.

But as it was, after everything, Harry just didn’t have the energy for that anymore. The war, and the experiences from it, had shifted things for him, particularly his death and resurrection. His once fiery temper had dwindled to a soft glow, and contempt for all those who did not stand by him had waned into something that barely resembled annoyance. And certainly his near-obsessive hatred of the Malfoy heir had faded. In reality, he had barely spared a thought for the blond since the term had started a month ago, and before that he had only expended enough energy to help Draco and his mother stay out of Azkaban during the trials. It was only right, with the way that both mother and son had undeniably affected the tide of the war and the complex web of life-debts the three of them had accrued between each other that would probably never be truly untangled.

Death, war, and the relative peace Harry had found thereafter had mellowed him, for the better.

So it was with mere fascination that Harry watched Malfoy palming himself in the shower while water cascaded down that pale, supple back.

Well, maybe it was a little more than fascination. There was no doubt that Draco Malfoy was beautiful. His body was all smooth, lily-white skin over lean muscle, wet, blond locks clinging to an elegant neck, his sharp features contorted in pleasure. Harry was hard, watching someone that beautiful give themselves pleasure so openly, so shamelessly.

In the back of his mind, there were the faintest traces of guilt, but Harry found them easy to ignore. He would never tell anyone what he was seeing now. And Malfoy would never know he was there, and would never have any cause to be embarrassed.

“Harry.”

He froze under the cloak, unable to breathe. Malfoy had just said his name, right? He hadn’t imagined it? But why? Did Malfoy somehow know he was there? He shifted, slightly, feeling the liquid flow of the fabric of the cloak that concealed him. He was invisible. He was sure of it. And Malfoy had not looked once in his direction.

“Mm,” Malfoy moaned softly, barely discernable over the sounds of the shower. He removed his left hand from the wall and reached behind him, running his fingers along the crack in his arse before letting his index slip inside. He gasped, as though it were a surprise. Harry became, if it was possible, even harder.

“Yes,” Malfoy said, as a second finger plunged inside. “Yes, that’s it.”

Harry had to strain his ears to hear. The blond was hardly shouting. His voice was barely a breath. But Harry could make out most of the words if he listened closely.

“Yes, give it to me. Harder.” Malfoy gasped and writhed, and then he must have found his own prostate, because his knees seem to buckle slightly, and his voice was loud enough that it was easy for Harry to hear, from that distance.

“Yes. Yes. Oh, gods, yes. Harry.”

And there it was again. His name. But Harry hardly had attention enough to spare for the implications, because Malfoy was still going, and it was mesmerizing.

“Fuck. Yes. Gods. Harry.”

Malfoy was close. He was beginning his ascent, upwards, towards the crest of the wave, and he was chanting.

“Harry. Harry. Harry.”

He was there, so close, his face red with the intensity of it, his eyes squinted shut against a torrent of pleasure.

Harry.” The last was a moan, long and drawn out, as Malfoy finally crested the wave, and it was so erotic that Harry thought he might just come right along with him, though he had made no move to touch himself.

A stream of white cum splashed onto the tile walls of the shower and dripped slowly down as Malfoy wrung the last bit of pleasure from his orgasm and finally released himself, panting. He stayed there, under the spray, not really moving, letting his breath return to normal. Then he reached for the taps and the cascade of water waned into a trickle.

Harry moved aside and well out of the way as Malfoy stepped out of the shower stall, revealing himself to Harry in all his nakedness. For a moment, Harry thought the blond might look in his direction, giving him a sneer and some quip about how he had only chanted Harry’s name because he had known the Boy Who Lived was watching. Maybe it was all some kind of prank.

But Malfoy did no such thing. Instead, he grabbed a thick white towel from the stack by the showers and dried himself thoroughly. He wrapped that towel around his waist and then grabbed another, rubbing it furiously through his platinum locks and making them stick up in odd directions, a look that Harry found unexpectedly charming.

He realized he had ever seen Malfoy this real before, without the expensive tailored robes, signature sneer, and air of superiority. Instead, his face was calm and blank, his grey eyes clouded and distant in thought as he went through the motions of getting dressed. Harry continued to watch in something like awe as his rival pulled on a pair of grey boxer briefs over his sculpted arse, followed by a simple white t-shirt that clung to his defined chest.

Yes, Draco Malfoy was beautiful.

And he was saying my name.

Now dressed, Malfoy gathered his things and left the bathroom abruptly, leaving Harry alone under the cloak with his thoughts.

He was saying my name.

What he had just witnessed was without question the sexiest thing he had ever seen, and this was coming from the man who was currently dating the most beautiful woman at Hogwarts, and was having plenty of sex of his own.

But comparing Ginny’s beauty to that of Malfoy’s was like comparing a sunset to a unicorn. They existed in totally different spheres. Ginny was playful and warm, soft and safe. Malfoy was… none of that.

Hard. Serious. Untouchable.

He sighed, suddenly too exhausted to think more about this. It was too much to take in, the idea that maybe Malfoy could want him. It was not something his brain could reckon with at the moment.

So, when he was quite sure he was alone, he shed the invisibility cloak and his pants, stepping into the very stall that Malfoy had vacated only a few minutes previously. He rubbed the grime from his skin with soap and lathered up his shaggy black hair before finally reaching down to take care of his own, still-throbbing erection.

Draco.

Chapter Text

It could have been a different Harry.

It was the first thought that popped into his head when Harry awoke the next morning. He had just opened his eyes and the words were already there, soft but insistent in his head.

He might not have been thinking about me at all. It might have been someone else.

He had gone to bed the night before with his head full of Malfoy, and his restless sleep had been rife with images of the Slytherin, particularly the way he had looked when he came, moaning Harry’s name. But in the sober light of day things looked quite different. He realized he had jumped to conclusions, assuming it had been him that Malfoy was thinking of, and not some other Harry, maybe someone he knew outside of school. Maybe Malfoy already had a boyfriend, who was just coincidentally named Harry as well. It made a lot more sense than for Malfoy to suddenly want Harry Potter of all people. The blond hadn’t shown any emotion other than contempt, disdain, or outright hatred towards him in the seven years they had known each other, and Harry didn’t believe anything could change that. Not even defeating Voldemort, nor saving Malfoy’s life, nor keeping him and his mother out of Azkaban, could change that. If anything, Malfoy probably resented him more since Harry came out of the war a hero while the Malfoy name was disgraced. No, Malfoy didn’t want Harry. He could never want him.

He choked down his disappointment and berated himself for even feeling it. It wasn’t like Harry wanted Malfoy either. He was an arrogant, spoiled, narcissistic blood supremacist. It didn’t matter that the git also just so happened to be devastatingly attractive. Harry had never based desire on looks alone, and he wasn’t about to start now.

And he had Ginny. He loved Ginny.

And Malfoy was an arrogant prick.

Who didn’t want him anyway.

So there.

Still, as he entered the Great Hall for breakfast, he couldn’t help but sneak a glance at the Slytherin table, his eyes peeled for a certain head of platinum locks, before making his way to his fellow Gryffindors. The fleeting glance didn’t reveal much. The blond was simply eating breakfast, his face impassive while he conversed with fellow Slytherin Blaise Zabini. He looked perfectly normal. Perfectly like himself.

“Morning, Harry,” Hermione greeted him, looking up from her copy of the Daily Prophet to give him a warm smile.

“Morning, guys,” Harry greeted the table as he sat down next to Neville and began filling his plate.

“Bloody brilliant practice last night, mate,” Ron said, once he had managed to swallow his mouthful of bacon and eggs. “I reckon if we keep this up we’ll flatten Ravenclaw next month.”

“I think so, too,” said Harry. “Talbott was an excellent find. I have you to thank for that.”

Ron grinned. He was the one that had suggested Harry take on Ben Talbott as a new Beater, despite the fact that he was only a third year. But the boy had a powerful swing and excellent aim. Talbott had been so nervous during tryouts that Harry was all ready to write him off as unable to handle the pressure, but Ron had seen something in the third year and had talked Harry into giving him a shot. And it had paid off.

Harry pondered, not for the first time, if the Gryffindor Quidditch team wasn’t better off if Harry handed over the captaincy to Ron. His best friend had always been the better strategist, as his mean chess game could attest to, and after the Horcrux hunt and the Battle of Hogwarts, Ron had gained wisdom and confidence, and really grown into himself as a natural leader.

As he considered this Harry realized that he had been subconsciously looking again in Malfoy’s direction. He was joined by more Slytherins at the table now, namely Pansy Parkinson and Theodore Nott, the only other snakes who had elected to return to Hogwarts for their 8th year. Millicent Bulstrode’s family had gone abroad after Voldemort’s fall, and Gregory Goyle was serving a sentence in Azkaban, after the extent of his Death Eater activities was revealed during the trials.

Parkinson was teasing Malfoy about something, though from this distance Harry had no way of hearing what. She reached out, suddenly, trying to ruffle Malfoy’s hair, but he was fighting her back with a grimace. She laughed as he straightened his hair back to perfection again, his mouth twisted in his usual sneer and his eyes rolling. But then, unexpectedly, unbelievably, Malfoy dropped the sneer and adopted a smile, aimed in Parkinson’s direction. A real, honest to Merlin smile, with gleaming white teeth and dimples around his mouth. Harry felt his stomach flip over at the sight, much to his own chagrin.

“Harry.”

He was almost glad to look away, giving Hermione his attention. “Yeah?”

Hermione tossed the Daily Prophet onto his mostly empty plate. “We’ve got another one,” she said. “Page three.”

Harry opened the paper and took a look. It took him only a few seconds to spot it.

Godfather to the Savior: A Retrospective on the Life of Sirius Black

Harry furrowed his brow and skimmed the article. Yes, it was much like the others: sentimental and syrupy. And disturbingly accurate. It gave Sirius’ history as the shunned son of the House of Black and best friend of James Potter, before going on to describe the painful details of the betrayal by Peter Pettigrew and the miscarriage of justice that had led to Sirius’ imprisonment. But all of that was common knowledge, particularly since Harry had worked to set things straight and have Sirius’ name cleared after the war.

No, what was really worrying was what the article had to say about Sirius’ relationship with Harry, how they had been reunited after Harry’s third year, how he had tragically only had a couple of years with his pseudo-father figure before the man’s untimely death at the hand of Bellatrix Lestrange. Harry felt his hackles rise. He didn’t have to look at the author’s byline to know who had written the article.

“Where is she getting her information?” Harry asked Hermione, tossing the paper back her way.

“I don’t know, Harry,” she replied. “Maybe she’s using her powers as an Animagus again. In either case, it’s troubling, isn’t it? The articles are only getting more personal.”

Harry had to agree. It was no surprise that for the past few months Harry had dominated the news, being the “Savior of the Wizarding World” and all. Sure, others got their due, sometimes. Both Ron and Hermione were featured regularly as part of the Golden Trio that took out the Dark Lord, and the trials got plenty of coverage as well. But Harry was the face of the new era of peace, and reporters and photographers followed him everywhere during those first couple of months. To his relief, things died down after he returned to Hogwarts and was safe behind its walls. Only one reporter remained fixated on writing stories about him regularly.

Who else, but Rita Skeeter?

That, Harry could have predicted. The witch seemed to relish making his life miserable in any way she could, ever since she first met him during the Triwizard Tournament. She had never shied away from twisting the truth or outright fabrication of facts at Harry’s expense in order to satisfy her readers. It would not have surprised Harry to read that he was actually the next Dark Lord, or he had suddenly developed the ability to turn human brains to mush, or had a secret harem of a dozen witches at his beck and call. All of those stories would have been outrageous and fitting for Rita Skeeter.

But she had turned the tables on him. In the past few months, Skeeter had had the audacity to report the truth.

Whether it was a fluff piece about the fact that Harry had recently corrected his eyesight through the Muggle process of laser eye surgery, or a more sober story about Harry’s testimony during the trials, or an article praising Harry for his diplomatic and generous input in the design of Hogwarts’ war memorial, Harry had been hard-pressed to find any factual inaccuracies. As far as he could tell, it was all true.

Rita Skeeter was behaving like a real, professional reporter, with integrity.

It was extremely disturbing.

“What is she playing at?” Hermione said, voicing Harry’s thoughts exactly.

“Selling papers,” Ron said. “What else? The cow has finally wised up and realized that everyone is in love with Harry and it doesn’t do her any good to be mean about him, so she has decided to be nice about him instead.”

Ron had voiced this opinion before, and in the beginning Harry had agreed with him. But now he wasn’t so sure. Hermione wasn’t either.

“There’s more to it than that, I think,” she said. “I mean, she’s never gone this far before. The others were just fluff, superficial. This is really…”

“Invasive,” Harry finished for her, fighting a grimace. He didn’t like all the details of Sirius’ life laid out like that for everyone to see. It wasn’t any of their business.

At that moment, Ginny plopped down next to Harry, giving him a warm smile and a sloppy kiss. “Morning,” she said.

“Morning,” Harry replied, glad for the distraction. “Have some breakfast.”

“Oh, I’m off, actually. I try to be on time for Transfiguration since our new professor is such a tightarse. Just going to grab something to go.”

Harry chuckled and handed her a scone, which she bit into with relish. She chewed, swallowed, and then kissed Harry again. “Just wanted to say ‘Hi’ and I’ll see you at lunch!”

“What are we, chopped dragon liver?” Ron muttered, gesturing between Hermione and himself.

Ginny grinned, blew her brother and her best friend a kiss, and was off in a sweep of her bright red hair.

“We’d better head to Charms then,” Hermione said.

Ron groaned. “I’ve just remembered we have double Potions this afternoon. I don’t want to go!”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “You’ll survive it, Ronald. Honestly.”

Harry followed behind his two friends as they bickered, Ron lamenting ever having decided to pursue becoming an Auror as a career, and Hermione lecturing him about the dangers of cutting corners. He smiled to himself, his heart swelling with a strange kind of gratitude for the normalcy of it all.

***

Truth be told, Harry hadn’t been much looking forward to Potions either. It was still a challenging subject for him, and without the guidance of the Half-Blood Prince he hadn’t managed to rise much above mediocrity this term. Horace Slughorn still favored him, though, which made the class a little more tolerable. Unlike the hours of near torture he’d spent in the dungeons with Severus Snape for five years.

A tangled mix of emotions churned in his gut at the thought of the late Potions master, and he quickly drove it from his mind as he sat down between Ron and Susan Bones in Slughorn’s classroom. Most of the other students had already arrived. The two Ravenclaws, who always showed up early, sat poised and attentive at their respective cauldrons, while the four Slytherins occupied their own little corner of the classroom, well away from the others.

The 8th years took all of their classes together, regardless of house, since there weren’t many of them and their curriculum was a little different from the 7th years, leaving more flexibility for independent study and the chance for students to pursue internships outside of Hogwarts. Hermione, for example, ventured to wizarding London via floo once or twice a week to work in the office of a solicitor who focused on creature rights. Others had internships at the Ministry, or had started apprenticeships with a master in one particular subject. Harry hadn’t arranged anything of the sort for himself, since it had always been his plan to enter Auror training after graduation. The more he thought about it, though, the more he wondered if that was what he really wanted…

Slughorn called the class to order, and Harry reined in his thoughts.

“Excellent work in our last unit on Healing potions, all of you,” he said. “If you think you might want to consider Healing as a profession, I recommend considering returning to this unit for your final thesis. But for now we are moving on, to a project that requires more innovation, and will test your creativity and intuition as a potioneer.”

Harry and Ron exchanged glances that were both appalled and amused simultaneously. If they had to measure, Harry would wager that they didn’t have an ounce of intuition for Potions between them.

“This project is complex and will take most of the rest of the term,” Slughorn said. “For that reason, the project will be completed in pairs.”

There was an instant burst of noise as students quickly claimed their partners. Ron clapped a hand on Harry’s shoulder.

“If we go down, we go down together,” he said, with ironic solemnity, and Harry laughed.

“Now, now,” Slughorn said, his large mustache twitching. “How about a little inter-house cooperation?”

Harry looked around and saw that Slughorn had a point. Hermione had paired up with Parvati, and the two Hufflepuffs and two Ravenclaws had chosen to stay well away from the Slytherins, sticking together. Still, no one moved, or volunteered to switch.

Slughorn sighed. “I didn’t want to have to make it a requirement, but I suppose I will. You must choose a partner from a different house. If you cannot work it out amongst yourselves, then I will assign you partners.”

This time there was no mad scramble, but rather an awkward silence as everyone glanced around and tried to catch eyes with someone they thought they could tolerate. No one made eye contact with the Slytherins.

Harry glanced over at Malfoy, and saw him hunched over his cauldron, eyes downcast, not even bothering to scope out a partner.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Harry stood, walking deliberately over to the Slytherin side of the classroom and sitting down in the empty seat next to Malfoy.

There were murmurs of surprise behind him, but Harry ignored them as he watched Malfoy glance up at him, then do an amusing double-take before schooling his expression into one of cold hauteur.

“Thank you, Mr. Potter,” Slughorn said affectionately. “An excellent example to us all. Well, go on, the rest of you. Partner up.”

Harry didn’t pay attention to who ended up with whom. He was too busy looking at Malfoy.

“What do you say then, Malfoy?” Harry said, after the silence had dragged a bit. “Can we work together?”

The Slytherin raised one pale eyebrow and looked at Harry with caution in his eyes. “You would deign to partner with a Slytherin, Potter?” His voice was the usual caustic drawl, specially designed to antagonize.

But Harry found he had to fight a smile. He couldn’t be sure why, but the sound of Malfoy’s voice didn’t annoy him anymore. Rather, he found it amusing, as though Malfoy was simply playing a parody of himself.

“Sure, why not?” Harry replied, aiming for nonchalance. “Everyone knows you’re the best in our year at Potions. Even better than Hermione. And I’m pretty much pants at it, so I can use all the help I can get.”

“Inspiring sales pitch, Potter. Now I have to wonder why on earth I should want to partner with you, when you’ll clearly only drag me down.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Well, I’m not so much pants at it anymore.” Not since Snape stopped teaching it. But he avoided saying that name aloud. It might still be a sore subject for Malfoy. “I’ve improved. And I’m excellent at following instructions.”

Malfoy eyed him, and Harry suspected that they were both thinking the same thing, though they were both unwilling to say it. He suspected that Malfoy knew that no other non-Slytherin would be willing to pair with him, and that Harry’s gesture had spared him some embarrassment. But Merlin forbid that be acknowledged.

“Very well,” Malfoy said with a tortured sigh that implied he was doing Harry a favor, instead of the other way around. “If you are going to insist on it.”

Harry couldn’t hold back the grin any longer. He found Malfoy surprisingly entertaining. Malfoy, for his part, was staring at Harry as though he had grown a second head. Harry’s grin grew wider.

This might actually be kind of fun, he thought.

Chapter Text

“Harry, why did you decide to partner with Malfoy?”

Harry looked up from his Transfiguration essay, surprised that it had been Hermione who had broken down and asked the question first. He thought, surely, that it would be Ron. He also thought, surely, that one of them would have asked him right after Potions released for the day, rather than waiting until after dinner, when they were back in the common room and working quietly. He shrugged.

“No one else was going to. He would have been stuck with whatever poor soul was left over. I figured if someone had to step up, it might as well be me.”

“But now you’re stuck with him for the rest of the term,” Ron chimed in. “Or nearly, at least. And this project is involved. It’s not like you can do the work mostly on your own. You will have to spend, you know, actual time with him, outside of class.”

Ron was certainly right about that. The Potions project was going to require a lot of late nights in the library, researching, and partners would have to coordinate their efforts. Slughorn had assigned each pair a potion that was in desperate need of improving, either because it had dangerous side effects and therefore could only be used in emergency situations, or because development of said potion had come to a standstill and the current recipe was incomplete. Each team needed to experiment and tweak the ingredients and methodology of their potion in order to improve it. It was the most daunting assignment Harry had ever received, especially since he was expected to succeed where many potioneers had already failed. In truth, he thanked his lucky stars that he had Malfoy as a partner. Malfoy would do everything in his power to make sure they didn’t fail.

“It is what it is,” Harry said.

“That’s not something I usually hear coming out of your mouth,” Hermione observed. “What brought on this new Zen-like acceptance?”

“Near death experiences will do that to you,” Harry replied. “I just don’t see the point in getting worked up about it. Besides, aren’t you partnering with a Slytherin as well?”

“Zabini is without question the most tolerable of the whole lot,” Hermione said. “His family was neutral during the war, and I don’t think he subscribes to most of the pureblood beliefs that his friends do. He was perfectly respectful to me in class today.”

“Malfoy’s a different story, mate,” Ron added. “You’ll see. It’s just a matter of time before he says something awful about Hermione, or your parents, or Dumbledore, and then you’ll snap, and it’s the 6th year bathroom incident all over again.”

Harry resented Ron bringing that up. He still felt guilty enough about it as it was. “I don’t think that will happen,” Harry said. “I honestly don’t. It’s not that I think that Malfoy has changed, or somehow become a better person, but I’ve changed. I don’t think it will bother me so much.”

“Just don’t come to me when you need help hiding the body,” Ron said. “I want no part of it.”

Harry laughed and shook his head, knowing he would never be able to explain to his friends why he had made the choice to partner with Malfoy. He could barely explain it to himself, although he knew seeing Malfoy in the shower the night before had at least had something to do with it. But his lips were sealed on that front. It was a memory he would never share with anyone else.

***

The potion that Harry and Malfoy had been assigned was just the sort that Harry would have no patience for if he had to brew it himself. It relied on precise timing; one had to stew the tarantula eyes for exactly twelve minutes and thirteen seconds before adding the shredded arcadia root, and then it had to be stirred once clockwise and twice counterclockwise every forty six seconds. Any deviation from this, the instructions indicated quite adamantly, would increase the chances of dangerous side effects exponentially.

The potion was designed to repair damage done to the magical cores of small children in extreme cases of exposure to powerful magic. It tapped into the child’s raw magic to kickstart the repair process and induced a coma that allowed the rest of the body to shut down while the core repaired itself. The problem was that sometimes, if the raw magic was unstable enough, the kickstarting burst could do further damage to the core that resulted in death. There were also some cases of the child never waking from the coma at all.

“Why take the risk?” Harry asked aloud as he looked over the instructions and notes for the potion. He was in the library with Malfoy, and they were about to begin the research process. “I mean, I get why you wouldn’t want your child’s magical core to be damaged. They might never be able to do magic. But isn’t having a Squib better than risking killing them?”

“Damage to the magical core affects more than just one’s magic,” Malfoy said in his own version of a know-it-all tone that Harry was already becoming familiar with. While Hermione always sounded like she was reciting information from a book, Malfoy managed to sound ever so slightly incredulous, as if he couldn’t believe he was having to explain it in the first place. “A child with a damaged core will live a very difficult and painful life and die an early death. The core is like any other vital organ, if it is damaged, or unhealthy, we cannot survive it.” Malfoy was going over his own copy of the potion instructions, circling ingredients and making notes as he spoke. “And there is an argument to be made about quality of life. A life of suffering is no real life at all.”

“There are fates worse than death,” Harry said. He himself was thinking of Voldemort, and the Horcruxes, and a soul in tatters. Harry always knew he would rather be dead than become like that.

Malfoy stopped writing and met his eyes for a moment, his face unreadable. “Yes,” he said. “Precisely.”

“So what we’re doing is important then.”

“I should think so,” Malfoy said haughtily. “Cases of such damage are rare, but if we could make the potion safer, we could save a life.”

The realization was sobering. While Harry was familiar with life-saving, throwing himself into danger to rescue another, this was a different kind of heroics altogether. This was the quiet, methodical kind, the kind he never gave much thought to.

Maybe, he thought, this is Malfoy’s version.

Malfoy finished his notes and showed them to Harry, pointing out which ingredients might potentially be the culprit behind the potion’s volatility.

“We should begin researching substitutes,” he said.

Harry agreed, perfectly willing to follow Malfoy’s lead. In truth, their working partnership so far had been surprisingly civil. Malfoy made the occasional snarky comment, but that was to be expected. He had not yet devolved into outright insults, and so far had exercised an astonishing amount of patience when Harry revealed his ignorance about something.

It’s because he cares about this project, Harry realized. He wants to do well. They had to cooperate to succeed, so he was choosing to cooperate. Harry smiled to himself. Apparently, the secret to getting Draco Malfoy to act like a human being was to give him something to focus on that mattered more to him than getting one over on Harry. If only he’d realized it earlier.

They spoke only of the project. Not once did conversation drift to the realm of the personal, and they were far from chatty. They passed most of the evening in silence, pulling books, rifling through their pages, and taking notes. But it was civil, and really fairly comfortable, and Harry decided to be grateful for that, at least.

***

“How’s research with the ferret going, then?” Ron asked over breakfast. “I didn’t even see you come back to the common room last night.”

Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but only just. “Yeah, it was a late night. And it was good. Malfoy really knows his stuff. I think this is the first time I’m going to get full marks on a Potions assignment, at least without help from the Prince’s book.”

“First you volunteer to partner with him, and then you willingly compliment him?” Ron said incredulously. “I have half a mind to test you for polyjuice.”

Now Harry really did roll his eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic,” he said. “It’s one bloody project, the war is over, and it’s about time we bury the hatchet with the Slytherins, don’t you think?”

“I agree with Harry,” Hermione said absently, not even looking up from her reading as she nibbled on a strip of bacon. “The past is the past. And if Malfoy is being civil, then what’s the harm?”

Ron huffed in annoyance, but didn’t reply. Harry turned to look at Ginny, who hadn’t said anything all morning. Her eyes were fixed on her plate, where she was shuffling her eggs around with her fork.

“Ginny?” he asked.

She looked up and gave him a small smile. “He’ll never be my favorite person,” she said reasonably. “Our family hasn’t gotten on with the Malfoys in generations. Not to mention that his father was indirectly responsible for nearly getting me killed.”

“Exactly,” Ron said, pointing his fork in Ginny’s direction. “And like father, like son, I say. Arrogant, rotten Death Eaters, the both of them.”

“Shut up, Ron. You have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.” The words were out of Harry’s mouth before he could stop them. He was reminded, painfully, of the way Snape used to compare Harry to his father, assuming that because James had been a bully and full of himself when he was in school it meant that Harry must be also. It wasn’t fair, to think that way.

He was aware that three pairs of eyes were now staring at him, but he wasn’t sure how to explain himself. They hadn’t witnessed the side of Malfoy that was calm, focused, and patient. Sure, he wasn’t exactly friendly, but Harry had hardly expected him to be. Still, he was different than how he used to be, and he was different from his father.

“I spent a lot of effort keeping Malfoy and his mum out of Azkaban,” Harry said, “because they had a hand in helping us survive to defeat Voldemort. Lucius Malfoy, I felt no such obligation to. After what he did, in both wars, he can rot there, for all I care. But unlike his father, Draco Malfoy never wanted to murder or torture anyone. He was forced to take the Mark, forced to do Voldemort’s bidding, and even then, he couldn’t do it, not even to save himself or his family. So let’s not lump them into the same category, all right?”

He was met with stunned silence, and took another bite of his breakfast to cover his discomfort. He hadn’t meant to defend Malfoy so vehemently, but Ron’s words and tone had brought something out in him that he hadn’t expected. He sighed.

“I just want to let go of old grudges and move forward, that’s all,” he added, since he still wasn’t getting a verbal response.

The table remained silent, while each of his three friends stared at him with different expressions. Hermione looked thoughtful and sympathetic, while Ron looked like he had just eaten an acid pop. Ginny’s expression was guarded, and she was watching Harry closely.

Tired of the scrutiny, Harry stood. “I’ll see you in Defense, then, shall I?” he said to Ron and Hermione, then kissed the top of Ginny’s head before exiting the Great Hall without looking back.

***

“Have you considered becoming a Healer?”

Harry hadn’t meant to ask the question out of the blue like that, but he had been spending the afternoon sitting across from Malfoy in the library, trying to find some way to steer the conversation to something a little more personal, or at least friendly. After his rant to his friends that morning he found himself imbued with a determination to prove himself right, to prove that Malfoy was different, after all. But to do that, he would have to get to know him, and that was proving a challenge. While the Slytherin continued to tolerate Harry, he had put up social barriers that felt near impenetrable.

“You just… seem to know a lot about it,” Harry added, in response to the blank stare Malfoy was giving him. “I was just curious.”

It could go either way, he thought. Malfoy seemed on the verge of sneering, but for some reason was holding himself back. Harry waited.

“I don’t know,” the blond replied finally. “I’m focusing on getting my Potions mastery. Then I’ll decide what I want to use it for.”

Harry nodded, then scrambled for something to respond with, wanting to keep the conversation going. “Must be nice, having a few years to figure it out.”

Draco shrugged. “It’s my best subject. I know I want to work with potions in some way. The how is not really important at this point.”

“Not to your parents, either?” Harry asked, before immediately biting his tongue. He should probably steer clear of the subject of the elder Malfoys, or at least his father. Too late now. He awaited the fallout.

But Malfoy merely raised a sardonic eyebrow in that signature way of his, and looked at Harry with something that could be mistaken for an amused glint in his eye. “My father is in Azkaban for the foreseeable future, so his opinion is of little concern to me.” He tilted his head slightly, as if he had something else to say but had to decide if he wanted to say it.

Harry just watched and waited, a surge of something that felt strangely like giddiness coursing through him.

“Besides,” Malfoy added, after a moment. “The only thing he ever really cared about is that I find myself a respectable pureblood witch and produce an heir. That was much more important than whatever profession I happened to choose.”

Given that the Malfoys had more money than they knew what to do with, even after making substantial reparations after the war, this actually made sense. Malfoy probably didn’t even have to work if he didn’t want to. Harry struggled to remember if Lucius Malfoy had ever done anything that resembled work, other than throwing his political weight around and bribing people. Nothing came to mind.

Harry also wondered if the finding a pureblood wife and having an heir was still in the cards for Malfoy, since he appeared to prefer those of the male persuasion, at least based on what Harry had witnessed in the bathroom that night. But perhaps Malfoy was bisexual, just like Harry suspected he himself was. Of course, he knew better than to ask.

“Well, it’s nice to know your path, at least for the next few years,” he said, for want of something better to add.

Malfoy gave a vague hum of agreement, and Harry figured that was that. To keep asking personal questions would probably just be annoying at this point.

So he was surprised when Malfoy asked one of his own.

“It’s the Auror Corps for you then, I assume,” he said, his tone nonchalant and his eyes still on his research.

Harry raised his eyebrows in surprise, but Malfoy wasn’t looking at him, and didn’t see. “How did you know that?”

“Why else would you pursue a Potions NEWT?” Malfoy’s reply was probably meant to be a dig, but Harry chose to ignore that.

“Well, you’re right. That was the plan,” he said.

“Was?” Malfoy actually spared Harry a glance this time.

“Was. Is. Maybe. I don’t know,” Harry said.

“It’s only the first term, Potter,” Malfoy said. “There’s plenty of time to recover, even if your marks are atrocious.”

Now Malfoy was definitely mocking him. The strange thing was, Harry was sort of glad. He felt as if he was maybe getting somewhere.

“My marks are fine, Malfoy,” he replied with laughter in his voice. “But I appreciate your concern. It’s nice to know you care.”

His teasing was met with a scowl and a roll of the eyes, but Harry believed, or at least convinced himself, that Malfoy was smiling on the inside. He chuckled.

He suddenly felt a pair of familiar hands slide along his shoulders, and he turned his head to see that Ginny had come up behind him.

“Hi,” she said, pulling back his fringe and kissing him on the forehead. “How is the research going?”

“Good, I think,” Harry replied, glancing briefly at Malfoy, only to see that he was focused on his notes and not paying a lick of attention to Ginny’s arrival. “What are you doing now?”

“Just finished Charms,” she said. “I was going to head to dinner in a bit.”

“Yeah, me too. I’ll meet you there.”

“Actually,” Ginny said, her voice taking on a suggestive edge as she leaned down to wrap her arms around Harry’s neck. “I thought I might mention that I don’t have class tomorrow morning.”

Harry grinned. “Well, congratulations. Rub it in, why don’t you?”

Ginny giggled lightly in his ear, and Harry was struck by how strange it sounded. Ginny was never one to do a lot of giggling. “I meant,” she said, “that since I won’t have class maybe I could stay with you tonight.”

Harry raised his eyebrows, though Ginny most likely could not see it from that angle. He wasn’t sure what to say. Ginny spent just about every weekend in Harry’s 8th year dorm room, but they stayed separate during the week. It was a system that had worked well for them so far.

“You may not have class,” Harry said, keeping his voice light and free of dismissiveness, so as not to upset her. “But I do. First thing after breakfast.”

“Don’t worry,” Ginny purred, kissing his neck. “I’ll make sure you get plenty of rest. When I’m done with you, you’ll sleep like the dead.”

Harry felt his face flame. He had no qualms about Ginny getting frisky with him in private, but she never acted this way in front of other people, not even people they knew well. The fact that she was doing it in front of Malfoy, of all people, was not only strange, it was outright embarrassing.

Thankfully, she didn’t wait for a reply. Instead, she pulled him in for a thorough kiss before breaking away and grinning at him. “I’ll see you at dinner,” she said, then sauntered off.

Harry stared at his notes, trying to get his blush under control. He was certain that Malfoy was smirking at him, and was determined to be calmer before he had to face the mocking he knew he was in for. He rubbed his fingers over his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, taking a couple of deep breaths.

“Is it me, or is the Weaselette compensating for something?” Malfoy said in his usual drawl.

Harry opened his eyes and made himself look at Malfoy. Yep, there it was, the inevitable: pale pink lips, tilting upwards and lopsided in a leer. He took another deep breath before answering. “Her name is Ginny,” he said pointedly, but without any real anger. “And honestly, I’ve never seen her act like that, not in front of other people, anyway.”

Malfoy was smirking so hard his face was probably cramping up. “I wouldn’t dwell on in, Potter,” he said. “I tend to have that effect on witches. They seem to lose all sense when they are in my presence.”

“Yes,” Harry deadpanned. “That explains it. Thanks for clearing that up.”

The thing was, Malfoy, whether he was joking or not, had a point. Ginny was acting very strange, and the only explanation Harry could think of was that Malfoy did have something to do with it. It was as if she wanted to rub her relationship with Harry in the Slytherin’s face. Why she felt the need to do so, Harry couldn’t begin to understand.

To Harry’s surprise, Malfoy seemed genuinely amused. He chuckled to himself a little before rearranging his small, but very real, smile back into a sneer.

“Can we get back to work now, or are you expecting more inappropriate distractions?” the blond asked.

Harry huffed in response, then grabbed another book off the stack, determined to put that uncomfortable interlude behind him. And though he refused to look up, though he tried to convince himself that he was imagining it, he could have sworn he heard another soft chuckle coming from Malfoy’s direction, and he couldn’t help a small smile himself.

***

“Voluntas fortem,” Harry said to the stone gargoyle, which immediately leapt aside as the door opened. Harry entered the rotating spiral staircase, letting it take him up into the headmistress’ office. The journey still brought back memories from when Dumbledore was living and occupied that very office. Back then, the sojourn to visit the headmaster was often filled with trepidation and doubt, wondering what task the old headmaster had in store for him, or what new piece of the mystery would be revealed. Those days had been full of fear and uncertainty, with the threat of Voldemort constantly hanging over their heads. Harry had never realized just how constant that fear was, not until he truly saw what peacetime could bring.

He would always miss Albus Dumbledore. He would always have the highest respect for the man. But he had to acknowledge that it was much more pleasant to enter this office knowing the only thing he had to concern himself with was whether or not he would be getting some treacle tart with his tea.

Since the start of the term, McGonagall had asked Harry for tea in her office every other Saturday afternoon. Harry hadn’t understood her motives at first, but after their first meeting it was clear that the headmistress just wanted to chat, to hear that the new arrangements made for the 8th years were working well, and that everyone was getting along, and that Harry was doing all right. Though Harry would have never initiated such meetings himself, as he had never been as close to McGonagall as he had been to Dumbledore, he found that he looked forward to them. McGonagall, though someone who had also witnessed, and had a hand in, the war, felt like a neutral party, when so many people he knew had strong feelings and agendas these days when it came to Harry and what he was doing.

“Ah, come in, Mr. Potter,” McGonagall said when he reached the inner sanctum of her office. “Have a seat. Tea should be arriving any moment.”

“Thank you,” he replied, following her instructions.

He was used to the change in the office by now, although the first time had been disconcerting. McGonagall did not possess the same intricate and bizarre magical instruments that Dumbledore did, and there was no perch for Fawkes the Phoenix, of course. Most of the office was lined with books, now, and the few instruments that were visible were meticulously placed on shelves and well out of the way. The Sorting Hat still had a place of prominence in a corner of the room, but that was the only thing that was truly familiar.

And, of course, there were the portraits. Both Dumbledore and Snape occupied this collection now. Harry looked up at Dumbledore’s portrait to see the old man smiling at him over his spectacles. He smiled in return.

“Treacle tart?” the headmistress offered, when the tea tray had popped into existence.

“Yes, thank you,” Harry said with a grin, glad that she remembered.

While Harry put sugar and a dash of milk in his tea, he chatted with the headmistress about the goings on about school, preparations for the Halloween feast, and the upcoming match with Ravenclaw in a few weeks.

“And how are the other 8th years doing, then?” McGonagall asked in that brisk way of hers that Harry knew masked her genuine interest in the wellbeing of her students. “They’ve settled in by now, I hope.”

“Yes, definitely,” Harry replied, wanting to reassure her. He told her about Hermione’s internship, and the other things he knew the 8th years had been up to. He told her about how the students were getting on peacefully for the most part, and how there had been few squabbles or conflicts. McGonagall took all of this in with a rapt but neutral expression, but when he finished, she sort of tilted her head and let her eyes soften.

“And how are you?”

Harry blinked. “I’m… fine,” he said. “Really. I’m getting good marks. I’m getting on with everyone. Like I said, the Quidditch team is going strong…”

McGonagall gave him a small smile and a piercing stare eerily reminiscent of her silver-bearded predecessor. “That’s not what I meant, Harry.”

Harry swallowed, having no idea how to reply. It was rare that McGonagall ever used his first name, and it made him a bit uneasy.

“I’m not concerned that you won’t be successful here,” she went on. “I know that you are, that you will continue to be. But I do wonder…” She sighed. “I cannot speak for anyone else, but it is difficult for me to be here, some days. Everything is still so fresh. Even though we’ve rebuilt Hogwarts, and it looks even better than it did before, the memories are there, as are the ghosts of the people we’ve lost, both figurative and literal.”

Harry nodded. He knew exactly what she meant.

“I worry that we reopened too soon. I worry that my students are in pain, being here, and they don’t know how to express it, or they are afraid to. And I worry about you.”

“You don’t need to, Professor,” Harry said quickly. “Honestly.”

She gave him that knowing smile again. “Don’t think that I don’t see what kind of pressure you’re under,” she said. “The way the public turns to you for emotional support, the intrusions into your life by the press. You have to carry more of that than anyone else.”

“I’m used to it,” Harry said honestly. “It’s been that way pretty much since I found out I was famous. I can handle it.”

McGonagall looked at him for a moment, then nodded. “I just wanted you to know that I’m aware of it, and if there is any way that I can help… well, of course, it would be my privilege to do so. You don’t have to do everything all on your own anymore. You alone are not responsible for the wizarding world and its recovery from the war.”

Harry let out a heavy sigh and sat back in his chair. McGonagall’s words struck him powerfully. He knew already, intellectually at least, the truth of what she was saying. But he rarely felt as though it was true. He still felt the burdens of being the Chosen One, even though Voldemort was dead.

“Lately I’ve been rethinking my plan to become an Auror,” he blurted out.

McGonagall took that in stoically. “Well,” she said, “there are plenty of other options for you, given the NEWT subjects you’ve chosen to pursue. There is no reason you must absolutely become an Auror.”

Harry had expected some resistance, and for a moment simply stared at the headmistress in wide-eyed surprise. “You don’t think it’s my… obligation, given my skills and experience, to work to rid the world of dark wizards?”

McGonagall narrowed her eyes and gave him a wry smile. “Are you suggesting, Mr. Potter, that you believe you still owe the wizarding world something?”

Harry opened his mouth and then closed it again, thrown by the question.

“Because from my perspective, it is very much the other way around.”

Harry absorbed that. “I want to do good in the world,” he said.

“And I have no doubt that you will,” she replied. “It seems to be an inherent part of your nature. But there are many different ways to do good, and I don’t believe you should feel obligated to do one particular thing if you don’t want to. You have obligations to yourself as well, to your own happiness.”

Harry sat back in his chair again, floored by the revelation. But there was an excited buzzing, too, building in the back of his brain, a hum, growing steadily louder, whispering promises of freedom and unexplored possibility.

And he found himself welcoming it.

***

Harry was just teetering on the edge of oblivion, reaching for sleep, but he couldn’t quite get there. His chat with McGonagall that afternoon had left him in a contemplative mood all day, something all of his friends had noticed. He was so lost in thought that Ginny had to practically drag him upstairs for bed. He had made himself focus for that part, at least.

Ginny’s nimble fingers traced up and down his stomach in what would normally have been a soothing gesture. Had this been any other day, he was sure he would be asleep by now. But he wasn’t. He released a heavy sigh.

“Something bothering you?” came Ginny’s soft voice out of the dark.

Harry took a couple of breaths and considered before answering. “Not really bothering me exactly,” he said finally. “It’s more that… I’m thinking about some things, and I can’t switch my mind off.”

“Mmm,” Ginny hummed sympathetically. “What sort of things?”

“Just some things McGonagall and I talked about today when I had tea with her.” He paused as Ginny sat up and moved to straddle him. She leaned forward and started kissing his neck, working her way under his jaw and then down to his collarbone. “Go on,” she said. “I’m listening.”

Harry gasped a little in pleasure as he felt her lips brush his nipple. If he could guess, he would say that Ginny had it in mind to wind him up again, with the thought that a second orgasm would help him get to sleep. It wasn’t bad logic, and he let her carry on as he spoke.

“She’s worried that we’re all traumatized, I think. She’s worried that we’re not dealing with our grief, and that being here is hurting more than it’s helping.”

“Do you think she’s right?” Ginny asked as she traced her fingers along his ribs, seeking out the hotspots on his body that she knew so well.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s more complicated than that. And I think anyone who really didn’t want to be here wouldn’t have returned in the first place.” He could feel himself getting hard again, and let out a soft groan. “Ginny.”

“What else did you talk about?” Harry could hear the smile in her voice. She was enjoying teasing him. This was one of her favorite games.

“She asked about me, and how I was doing. I told her I was fine, of course.”

Ginny’s mouth was making its way down his abdomen now, and he felt her hum of acknowledgment against his skin.

“And then I said something, something I’d been thinking, but hadn’t really said aloud before, about how I’m considering not becoming an Auror after all.”

Ginny paused in her ministrations, and he could practically hear her head snap up to look at him.

“She was really supportive,” he said. “That was a relief, because I was kind of worried that she would be disappointed in me, since she had fought pretty hard for me during 5th year to make sure I could take what I needed to enter Auror training after graduation. But she said I have a lot of options.”

Ginny was quiet, and very still. Harry could only make out her silhouette in the dark of his bedroom, and he wished he could see her expression. “Ginny?”

“I’m just… confused,” she said quietly, her voice strangely careful. “It seemed like you really wanted to be an Auror.”

“Well, for a long time, I did,” he replied. “Now, I’m not so sure, and I want to think about it.”

There was a brief silence. “But, well…” Ginny’s tone still had that careful quality to it, as though worried she would say the wrong thing. “You’re taking all the classes for it. This is what you’ve been preparing for. Why take Potions if not for this?”

Harry shrugged. “There are a lot of things I can do with a Potions NEWT, you know. And that’s assuming I’ll even pass.”

“You’ll pass,” she said. “Slughorn would never let you fail.”

“Well, that’s hardly fair, is it?” Harry replied. “I’m not looking to be shown any favoritism. If I don’t earn it, then I don’t deserve it. The same goes for the Auror Academy as well. They’ll probably just let me in because of who I am, without even looking at my marks. I want to earn it.”

“So that’s what you’re worried about?” she said, sounding suddenly relieved. “That you’re not good enough to be an Auror? Harry, that’s mental.”

“No,” Harry said, realizing he had led them off the subject. “That’s not it. If I want it, I’ll go for it, obviously. But I’m not sure I do.”

“How could you not-?” Ginny began, but stopped herself. She reached past him, towards the nightstand, and Harry realized she was grabbing her wand. “Incendio,” she whispered, and the lamps in the room flickered to life. She put her wand back on the table, then knelt before him, unabashed in her nakedness and staring at him with an expression of concern. “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying, Harry.”

He looked at her, the stubborn set of her mouth, the way the lamplight flickered in her eyes, and felt the first stirrings of disquiet.

“I’m saying I need some time to think about it. I don’t want to rush into a decision like that, just because it’s what I happened to want to do at fifteen when all I thought about was having to defeat Voldemort and how I probably wouldn’t live past the next decade. Things are different now. I’m different.”

Ginny swallowed. “Different in what way?”

“I just… don’t have to worry about the same things. My life isn’t focused on this one thing that I have to do for the sake of the wizarding world. I’m free. I can consider my options. My life doesn’t have to follow one particular path.”

He caught a glimpse of Ginny’s eyes glistening before she looked away. The silence dragged on.

“It’s a good thing, Gin,” he said. “It means I can find what really makes me happy.”

“You don’t think being an Auror would make you happy?” Ginny’s voice was soft, and she still wouldn’t look at him.

“It might, or it might not,” Harry said. “I’m not sure yet.” He shifted, trying to get her to meet his eyes. “Why are you upset about this?”

She did look at him, finally, and cleared her throat. “You’ve been acting strange all week, you know. I think you…” She bit her lip and stared at the flame in the lamp on the far wall. “I think you’re scared to face the next step in your life, what you know you need to do. I understand it,” she continued, talking over Harry as he made a move to protest. “What we went through, and losing Fred…” Tears were falling down her cheeks in earnest now, and she wiped at them with the back of her hand. “We’ve all suffered, Harry. And it’s natural to want to pull away from that, to want to escape. But I just… don’t want you to make a choice, and then regret it, because in the moment you convinced yourself that you could be someone you’re not.”

Harry gaped at her. He hated to see her in pain. He knew, no matter how brave a front she usually put up, that she missed the brother she lost dearly. But what she was saying didn’t make any real sense to him. “Just because I choose not to become an Auror doesn’t mean I’m trying to be someone I’m not. I can do any number of things, and still be me.”

Ginny shook her head. “I know you,” she said. “I know you better than anyone. And you… you won’t be happy, unless you have someone to save. You will never be happy unless you have a mission, unless you have something to fight against, for the good of the world. You’re a hero, Harry. It’s in your blood. It’s in your bones. It’s who you are. I don’t…” She sighed. “I can’t support a decision that has you denying who you are, denying what you really need.”

She reached out to grasp his hand, but he pulled it away, looking at her dead on. To her credit, she didn’t look away, and he saw the familiar glint of tenacity in her eyes.

“You really believe that, don’t you?” he said. “You really believe that I won’t be happy unless I pour everything I have into serving others, into fighting evil. You really believe that I’m incapable of making a choice for myself, and not for anyone else.” He pulled his knees up, putting himself completely out of her reach. She stayed very still, watching him. “It’s not just that you believe it. You want me to be like that. You want me to keep being a hero.” He remembered, though it felt like a lifetime ago, the conversation they had at Dumbledore’s funeral. He remembered the way she looked at him when he ended their relationship to go on the hunt for Horcruxes, the unyielding blaze of pride in her eyes, despite the pain that came with it. Because she loved that he was noble, and that he put others before himself. In a twisted way, she loved him for hurting her, because he was doing it to save the world.

But things were different now. Back then, he was brave and selfless all the time because he had to be, because being anything else meant handing all of wizarding Britain over to Voldemort and the Death Eaters. But now… did Ginny really expect him to be like that all the time? Did she expect him to never make a single selfish choice in his life? Did she not care that it could get him killed, or impact the lives of their children? Did she not care if it made him unhappy?

She thinks she knows what you need to be happy. But she didn’t know, not really.

“I can’t be what you want me to be,” he said quietly.

“What?” The word came out as a soft breath.

“All you just said, about how I need to be a hero to be happy. I don’t think any of that is true. But you want it to be true. You need it to be true. And I can’t… I want to start making choices for myself, and not for others. I want to do something other than hunting dark wizards. I want more from my life.”

“I understand that, Harry,” she said. “And you can have more. We’ll have a family, we’ll have everything-”

“Will you love me less if I choose not to become an Auror, if I decided to do something completely unrelated to fighting evil?” he asked outright. He was afraid he already knew the answer, but he needed it confirmed.

She stared at him. “It’s not that I would love you less. It’s that I would believe that you’re not being true to yourself.”

Maybe, before the end of the war, her words would have had some impact. But now they were meaningless. And he could see the truth in her eyes. She would be disappointed in him if he didn’t become an Auror. She would think less of him. And that was not something he would be able to live with.

“I think you should go,” he said.

She gaped at him. “What?”

“This isn’t… going to work.”

“Harry,” she sobbed. “Don’t. Please.”

“You don’t want me, Ginny,” he said. It hurt to do this, it twisted in his gut like a machete, but he didn’t see any other way. “You want some… idea of me that you’ve had in your head this whole time. You want the person I was before, the person I had to be. I’m not him.”

“That’s not true!” she said, reaching for him. “That’s not true.”

“It is true.” He made his voice dead, and cold, and flat. “I’m not going to become a fucking Auror, Gin. I’m not going to be a hero anymore. I can’t be what you want.”

And just like that, she stopped. She stopped trying to touch him. She stopped crying. She seemed to stop breathing, even, for a moment. Then she inhaled one shaky, painful-sounding breath, and stood.

Harry couldn’t bear to watch as she rifled around for her clothes and put them on. Because a part of him, most of him even, was slipping into the dizzying abyss of panic, hardly able to register what he had just done. This was Ginny, his safety net, his home. She was supposed to be his family. And he was letting her go. More than that, he was pushing her out the door.

She left quietly, without even offering a goodbye. Harry released the breath he had been holding, and let himself sink fully into that abyss, let himself feel the complete and utter terror of it. He absorbed it, letting it consume him completely. And then, just as he thought it was going to become unbearable, something strange happened. He felt something all too familiar. The same feeling he’d had when he watched Voldemort’s lifeless corpse collapse onto the floor of the Great Hall.

He felt relief.

Chapter Text

Harry awoke suddenly, for a moment thinking he was back in a tent, in the Forests of Dean, at dawn. But he quickly took in the open curtains of his four-poster, the stone walls of the bedroom, and the window where gray morning light was streaming in, and he relaxed, remembering. The war was over. The Horcruxes were destroyed. Voldemort was dead.

He wondered what had woken him so early on a Sunday morning, and then he heard it, a rustling of fabric and the creak of a chair, and he turned his head to see Ginny sitting against the far wall, watching him. He felt a spike of adrenaline, remembering their painful conversation the night before, how she had left, tears still clinging to her cheeks.

She wasn’t crying now. She was just staring.

“Sorry if I woke you,” she said, her voice soft.

“That’s all right,” Harry said, sitting up. He was suddenly aware that he was naked. Not that Ginny hadn’t seen it all before, but he hugged the sheets around his lower half anyway. “What… um… how long have you been here?”

She gave him a wry smile. “Not long. Just a few minutes. I didn’t really sleep last night and I… well…”

That, Harry believed. She was pale and drawn, her eyes puffy and surrounded by dark rings of tender skin. He felt a stab of remorse, knowing he was responsible.

“It all happened so suddenly last night,” she went on. “It all happened so fast.”

Harry swallowed. “Yeah. I’m sorry. I didn’t handle things very well.”

Ginny nodded, not bothering to argue that point. “Yes, well, I felt pretty shitty when I got back to Gryffindor tower.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

She ignored him and plowed on. “But I think the space was good, because I had time to think.” She took a deep breath. “I won’t pretend to understand why you reacted the way you did, or why you are suddenly rethinking everything. The war has messed us up in different ways and maybe this is just how you have to deal with it. You’ve got a lot to figure out, Harry. I wish you wanted to let me help you but obviously you don’t want that.”

Harry grit his teeth and bit back his automatic response. Ginny seemed to be acquiescing, accepting their breakup, but she still managed to be condescending about it, as though she knew what he needed but was selflessly giving him space to figure it out for himself. It appeared she still could not acknowledge that the questions he had about his future were legitimate.

“I do have a lot to figure out,” he said. “I definitely have more questions than answers at this point. And I do think it’s better if I try to answer them on my own. I don’t want to be pressured into any particular choice, and that’s what I was feeling from you.”

He caught Ginny’s grimace before she smothered it. He figured she wouldn’t like that last bit, but he felt the need to say it, nonetheless. She needed to understand why he needed some distance from her.

“You said that I wanted you to be something you couldn’t be,” she said, and Harry nodded. “Well, I don’t think that’s fair. You don’t know what I want.”

And you don’t know what I want, Harry wanted to retort. But that’s not stopping you from telling me anyway. Of course, he knew better than to say it aloud.

“I think...” she went on, “that it’s the other way around. Or that you’re confused about what you want.”

She looked at him meaningfully, and the first thing that popped into Harry’s head was, Malfoy. Did she know, or at least suspect, that Harry was feeling a curious attraction to the Slytherin? Or perhaps it was bigger than that, broader. Perhaps she suspected he was attracted to men as well as women. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that she had caught him unconsciously checking out Dean Thomas, or her brother, Bill, or any of the other wizards Harry had thought were fit over the years. Perhaps she thought he was questioning his sexuality.

But the look was gone as quickly as it came, and Harry wondered if he had simply imagined it.

“Maybe someday, things will be different,” she said, “and we can think about getting back together.”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “Maybe.” He wasn’t sure, at this point, and he didn’t want to give her false hope. But he didn’t want to hurt her any more than he already had.

She inhaled shakily, pulling the long sleeves of her pajama shirt over her fingers and bringing a thumbnail to her mouth. “Merlin,” she said. “This hurts.

“Yeah,” Harry said. He reached a hand out, offering comfort. “Do you want to-“

“No,” she said quickly, recoiling as though his arm were a viper. “No, that’s not… I can’t. I… can’t. I can’t stand it. I have to go.”

Harry suspected she was about to succumb to tears again and didn’t want him to see. And if he was honest with himself, he had to admit that he was glad she wasn’t seeking comfort from him. He knew now more than ever that his decision, although sudden and unexpected, had been the right one. He could not be with Ginny. Not right now.

She left, and Harry sat in silence for a few minutes. It was still early. He wasn’t really hungry yet, and he didn’t really want to be around other people anyway. So he decided to go flying.

***

It had been the right decision. He had found the Quidditch pitch completely empty, and was able to spend a couple of hours on his Firebolt, leaving all his troubles on the ground. There was nothing like speeding through the air, practicing flips, spins, and dives, to take one’s mind off things.

When he did finally get hungry, he called for Winky, who was happy to bring him scones and a mug of tea from the kitchens. He sat on the grass, warmed his hands with the hot drink, and thought.

What would he do now? The possibilities were limitless. The whole of the wizarding world was open to him now. But what did he want?

To help people. He had meant what he said to McGonagall. He wanted to do good in the world. But she had been right, too. There were many ways to do that.

He could look into Healing. The project he was doing with Malfoy intrigued him more than he thought it would. And he was no stranger to injury, and not at all squeamish around blood. But did he have the marks for it? The training was intensive, as much as Auror training, at the very least. Did he want to go through that? There was always Mediwizardy, which required less training. He would probably make a good Mediwizard.

And then there were all the children, the war orphans, many of whom were not getting the help they needed. There were a lot of children who had lost their parents, and not a lot of families who could take them in. Maybe he could do something about that. He was a war orphan himself, after all, and he knew what it was like to feel unwanted.

But he didn’t have to decide today. He had months. He had all the time he needed. The realization gave him a rhapsodic thrill. He could do what he wanted, when he was ready to do it. He was free.

He finished his tea and decided it was finally time to head back to the castle. He had needed some time alone, but he knew he would eventually have to face the music with Ron and Hermione. They would want to hear from him what had happened with Ginny. He might as well get it over with.

He entered the 8th year common room with windswept hair and his broom over his shoulder. The room was fairly full, many 8th years choosing to spend their morning catching up on work or chatting by the fire. Harry spotted Malfoy in a corner with Zabini and Parkinson, scratching away with his quill. Hermione and Ron were not far from the Slytherins, occupying a loveseat and holding hands while they read, their fingers entwined. The sight was somewhat sickening in its cuteness.

Harry laid his broom against an armchair and then sat down in it, across from his friends. They both looked up at the same time and took in the sight of him. He knew, the moment he saw Ron’s face, that they had already spoken to Ginny.

“What did you do?” Ron asked, his voice dangerously low.

“Ron…” Harry began.

“What. Did. You. Do?” he asked again, his voice louder this time.

Harry sighed and closed his eyes. How did he explain this without making it sound like he was blaming Ginny? Ron would definitely not appreciate that.

“Ginny was crying all through breakfast this morning,” Ron went on. “Crying. She wouldn’t tell us what happened, except that you two had broken up, and you weren’t there. You were just gone. You left us to deal with it, and she won’t talk.”

“I know I hurt her,” Harry said, trying to keep his voice low and hoping Ron would take the hint. With the quietness of the common room, he had no doubt that most of the students could hear them. “But it was the right thing. We both agreed it was. Don’t think it isn’t hurting me too.”

“The right thing? The right thing? Are you kidding me?” Ron stood, ignoring Hermione’s attempts to get him to calm down. “What the bloody hell is wrong with you? After everything she’s been through, you really thought now was the right time to suddenly change your mind and break her heart?”

“That wasn’t my intention,” Harry said. “But we had a really tough conversation last night and then again this morning and we decided-“

“No,” Ron interrupted. “No, she would never… You did this. You did it. Not her. This is on you.”

“Yeah, ok, to an extent,” Harry said. “But-“

“It’s been barely five months since we lost Fred,” Ron said. “You know how hard that was on her, on our family. She can’t lose anyone else, not now.”

Harry was aware that the common room was completely still, no doubt listening with rapt attention, but there was nothing he could do about it now. And he wasn’t about to let Ron put all the responsibility for dealing with their family’s loss on his shoulders. “I don’t think it’s right to expect I would stay in a relationship where I’m unhappy just because we happened to go through a war. It wouldn’t be good for Ginny or me. It wouldn’t be good for anyone. And,” he pressed on, as Ron rolled his eyes dramatically, “I’ve lost plenty, too. You think this isn’t hard for me? You think I wouldn’t make a decision like this if I wasn’t sure it was the right thing?”

“It’s not the same thing,” Ron said. “You can’t compare the losses. Fred was our brother.

“He was my brother, too.”

“Not by blood,” Ron countered. “Not even by law.”

Ron’s words might as well have been a Stinging Hex, for all the pain they inflicted.

“That’s low, Ron,” he said. “That’s really fucking low.”

Ron swallowed and wouldn’t meet Harry’s eyes. “You’ve ruined this. It was going to be the four of us.” He gestured between himself and Hermione. “It was going to be perfect, and you’ve completely ruined it.”

“It wasn’t perfect,” Harry said. “It was far from perfect. Ginny and I are not you and Hermione. We’ve never understood each other the way you two do. We’ll never be as strong together as you two are. That’s just the way it is.”

Ron seemed to be chewing on that, but finding he didn’t like the taste. “’That’s just the way it is,’” he mocked. “’That’s life.’ ‘What will be, will be.’ Enough with the fucking platitudes. They’re getting old.” He reached for his book and his bag and turned back to Harry. “I don’t recognize you at all.”

And with that he walked away, heading for the boy’s side of the dormitory.

There was a long, lingering silence, before the scratching of quills and the quiet hum of conversation picked up again. Harry looked at Hermione, who patted the seat next to her. Harry stood and joined her on the loveseat, putting an arm over his eyes. “I figured he would be upset,” Harry said finally. “But I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Give him some time,” Hermione said. “You know how much he hates change. He had a picture in his head of how things were going to be, and now he has to adjust.”

“It’s not fair.” Harry realized he probably sounded petulant, and he tried to make his voice calm again. “I won’t be held hostage just because he has decided who I should date.”

“It’s more than that, Harry.” She reached over and rubbed his knee. “You know it is. Ron thought we would all be family. He thought your children and our children would be cousins. He thought you two would be Auror partners, and we would be going to Christmas at the Burrow every year and raising our children together. He talks about it all the time. It comforts him. It helps him cope.”

“I would have thought,” Harry said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice, “that given everything we’ve been through together, he would already consider us family.”

“Oh, Harry. He does. He already does.”

“Not by blood,” Harry spat. “Not by law.”

“He shouldn’t have said that,” Hermione said softly. “I know he didn’t mean it.”

Harry shook his head. “Ron thinks I don’t know about loss, but what he can’t understand is that without you and the Weasleys, I have no one. Everyone else is dead.”

She took his hand. “You have us, Harry. You will always have us.”

“Not if the Weasleys can’t forgive me for endings things with Ginny.”

“They will. I know they will.” She brought his head to rest on her shoulder, and they stayed that way for a few minutes. “You’ll always have me, you know.”

Harry smiled. “You’re not angry with me, too, for what happened with Ginny?”

Hermione sighed. “I know you would never hurt her on purpose. And I don’t think you should be with her if you don’t want to be. I’m sad for her. She’s hurting. But I trust you, and if you say it was the right thing, then it was the right thing.”

Harry wished, in that moment, that he had the means to express what Hermione meant to him. He had never been the best with words, especially when it came to articulating feelings. But one of the many great things about Hermione was that she understood this about him, and she knew how he felt without him having to say it.

He squeezed her hand and said, simply, “Thanks, Hermione.”

She squeezed back. “You’re welcome. I’ll always love you, you know. No matter what.”

***

After Ron’s row with Harry in front of all the 8th years, it was no wonder that word of the breakup spread like Fiendfyre, reaching every corner of the school by Monday morning.  Wrapped up as he was in his own feelings, Ginny’s reaction, and Ron’s cold shoulder, Harry hadn’t given much thought to the public repercussions. But he felt them, quite plainly, when he entered the Great Hall for breakfast.

There was a lot of pointing and whispering, not that this was unusual. There had been pointing and whispering since the night of his Sorting, his very first night at Hogwarts. But the chatter around him always lessened once people got used to his presence. Now it had picked back up again, and there was no doubt as to why.

Girls were making eyes at him constantly. (And a few boys, too, although their attentions were more surreptitious.) To be fair, there were always people that made their interest clear, whether they knew he had a girlfriend or not, but now that word was out that he was single, the flirting was incessant. Sometimes it was just a piercing and evocative stare from across the room; others giggled in his general direction and whispered behind their hands; some were bold enough to approach and ask about how he was “holding up, after everything that happened.” Harry did his best to brush all such attention aside. But, after a full day of it, it began to feel as futile as pushing against an ocean tide.

His biggest concern was Rita Skeeter. If hundreds of students were now aware of the news, it was only a matter of time before it leaked beyond the castle walls. Coverage of his relationship with Ginny had been patchy, mostly because the two were careful about their privacy and didn’t talk about each other in interviews or statements to the press. But during the funerals, the trials, and the days of recovery afterwards, they were seen out together plenty, and the wizarding world was certainly aware that they were an item.

Harry didn’t think the breakup warranted a headline, and he hoped most reporters wouldn’t either, not when there was so much of the recovery, new legislation, and a few Death Eaters still on the run to occupy their columns. But Rita Skeeter appeared to still have a fixation with Harry and his personal life, and she had shown herself willing to do some digging. There weren’t any hidden skeletons in his history with Ginny, but the thought of Skeeter probing into it still made his skin crawl.

Harry spent most of the week trying to ignore the general student body, but there was one student who he couldn’t help but watch more closely. He found himself curious about Malfoy’s perspective on the breakup. The Slytherin remained at arm’s length, seeming to regard Harry with an indifference that he found absolutely maddening. Yet sometimes, when they were quietly working, Harry would look up only to find Malfoy in the process of looking away, as if he had been staring. It made Harry want to start a conversation, preferably about the fact that he was now single, but he couldn’t find a good opening. He hardly thought, “Hey, so, by the way, I’m single now. What are your thoughts on that?” would be quite subtle enough.

He was also struggling with why he would even care what Malfoy thought of his being single. Because caring implied interest, and that whole notion made Harry feel very… unsettled.

He did finally get his opening, funnily enough, thanks to one of his many admirers.

Harry and Malfoy were in the library, at their usual table, working on the Potions project when a girl, a sixth year Slytherin, approached them and sat down in the chair directly opposite Harry.

“Hi, Harry,” she said, a little breathlessly.

Internally he cursed himself for not finding himself and Malfoy a more secluded spot in the library where they were less likely to be noticed by the giggling hordes. Externally, however, he was all politeness, forcing a small smile to his lips.

“Hi,” he said neutrally. She was a brunette, pretty in a naïve, doe-eyed kind of way, which Harry suspected, given her house affiliation, was intentionally misleading. After a beat he remembered her name: Elena. They had had a couple of small interactions over the course of the term.

“I just wanted to see how you were doing,” she said, her voice laced with a strange mixture of compassion and eagerness.

Harry furrowed his brow at her and said nothing. He knew where this was going, and was hoping to put her off. She licked her lips and pressed on.

“I heard about you and Ginny and I just thought… well, maybe you were a little upset and you needed someone to talk to.”

In his peripheral vision he spotted Malfoy ducking his head, and thought he might be stifling laughter, or at least a smile. It took all of his willpower to keep his eyes on the girl and keep a straight face as he said, “Thanks, Elena. I appreciate that. But I’ll be fine.”

She put a hand on his arm, lightly but suggestively, and leaned in. “That’s good to hear, Harry. I wouldn’t want to see you hurt. I hope you find you’re able to… move on quickly. Just know that if you need me, I’m here for you.”

Malfoy snorted next to him and tried to cover it with a couple of coughs. Under the table, Harry took his foot and placed it on top of Malfoy’s, pressing down in a warning.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said to Elena. “But right now I really just want to focus on my studies, you know.” This was the line he usually used as a deterrent. It was generally taken well, and didn’t leave much room for arbitration.

“Right,” she said, giving him a dazzling smile. “Well, I’ll leave you to it, then. Bye, Harry.”

“Yeah, see you,” he replied, finally letting out a breath once she was out of sight. Malfoy was shaking with silent laughter next to him. “Oh, bugger off, Malfoy,” he said, without malice.

“It’s just…” Malfoy began, and he shook his head. “Witches throw themselves at you, constantly, and you don’t even care.” He was still laughing.

Harry failed to see why this was so funny, but he found he couldn’t fight off a smile any longer. He had never seen Malfoy like this before, really laughing, without the edge of enmity that usually accompanied his snickering. He took some time to enjoy it, even though watching it made his heart do a strange little tap dance in his chest.

“It’s bloody annoying, actually,” Harry said, finally, once Malfoy had gotten control of himself. “Even when everyone knew I was with Ginny, I was still getting propositioned every other week. Now it will only get worse. But I’m glad you find it so hilarious. At least some good will come out of it.”

Malfoy wiped his eyes where tears of laughter had pooled, and it was like he was Ron for a moment, like he was a friend. Harry realized how bizarre it was, that he was having this conversation with Malfoy of all people, like they really knew each other, like they were just two normal students, like Harry didn’t know that Malfoy liked wanking in the shower with Harry’s name on his lips.

“You prefer it were blokes instead?” Malfoy asked, and Harry looked at him rather sharply, wondering what Malfoy was playing at. But the Slytherin simply raised one sardonic eyebrow and waited for a response.

“I’ve experienced that as well, and it’s equally annoying,” he said, not allowing himself to be flustered by the turn the conversation was taking.

“Really? Men throw themselves at you too?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t they?” Harry gave Malfoy a teasing grin, and was rewarded when he saw twin pink spots appear on those pale cheeks. Turning the tables on the blond would never cease to give Harry some satisfaction, after all.

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“Of course it bothers me. It all bothers me.”

Malfoy let out a frustrated huff. “That’s not what I meant. I meant does it… bother you more with the men, than with the women?”

Harry frowned pensively. “No. Why would it?”

Malfoy was staring at him, and Harry looked down at his parchment, pretending to correct some of his notes.

“Because you’re straight,” Malfoy said finally.

Harry felt his heart rate spike. Was this Malfoy asking… was this Malfoy trying to find out if Harry could be interested? But no, it couldn’t be. Because Malfoy hadn’t asked it like a question. He had said it, like a statement he knew to be true. Harry made himself take a couple of deep (but hopefully silent) breaths, before he decided it was time to clarify.

“I’m not sure if I’m straight or not,” he said, and this time he made himself meet Malfoy’s stare. “I guess I’m still sorting that out.”

Malfoy licked his lips unconsciously. “Sorting out… which you prefer?”

“I already know I like girls, at least,” Harry said. “I’ve only ever had girlfriends. But even so I haven’t had much experience. I liked Cho but it was hard to build on anything when she couldn’t get over Cedric.”

“Yes, I imagine trying to live up to the dead ex-boyfriend would be a challenge,” Malfoy replied with a snort.

For a moment the derision in Malfoy’s tone brought Harry back to their old rivalry, before it dawned on him that the derision was not really aimed at Harry, but rather at the situation. And he truly believed that. Why else would be suddenly sharing personal details about his romantic life with his formal rival, unless he really believed that he would not be taunted for it?

“It was more trouble than it was worth, in the end,” Harry agreed.

“And the Weaselette?” Malfoy said, with something like caution in his tone.

Harry sighed. “That’s more complicated.”

“You ended it?”

Harry frowned again. “It was mutual, I guess. After a couple of… difficult conversations.” He knew he was stretching it a bit. Ginny would not have initiated the breakup herself. But it was kinder to her, he felt, for this to be the story. “We care about each other, but we want different things.”

“You thought you might also like blokes and she didn’t like that?”

Harry had not been expecting that question, and he looked at Malfoy, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes. Malfoy visibly flinched in response, then looked back down to his own parchment and mumbled, “I’m sorry. Looks like I finally overstepped my bounds.”

“No,” Harry said, somewhat surprised at himself. Malfoy looked genuinely chastened, and it didn’t suit him at all. Seeing it made Harry strangely uneasy, and he found himself wanting, needing, to put that knowing smirk back on the blond’s face. “I was just thinking about the question.”

Malfoy blinked and looked at Harry again, still seeming uncertain.

“Because we didn’t talk about that, not really,” Harry went on. “When we broke up, I mean. But at the same time…” He trailed off, realizing he had no idea how to put into words what he meant. He sighed, exasperated with himself. “We didn’t talk about it, but as we were talking I was thinking about it, and part of me wondered if Ginny had somehow caught on and was thinking about it too, if that makes any sense.”

“So it was more the subtext of your conversation, rather than the context,” Malfoy summarized eloquently.

“Yes,” Harry said with a relieved smile. “Yes, exactly.” He saw Malfoy’s cheeks pink again, and Harry realized he wanted to see more of that. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t always express myself very well. You’re much more articulate than I am.”

He was rewarded for the compliment by a deepening of Malfoy’s blush. The blond smiled and looked away. “Well, what are you going to do now?”

Harry shrugged, although Malfoy was still not looking at him and may have not caught the gesture. “Explore my options, I guess.”

Malfoy swallowed and looked at Harry once again, and Harry held the gaze, his heart thrumming like a frightened rabbit’s. He tried to think of something to say, anything at all, but the intensity of those gray eyes left him voiceless.

“Agama skin,” Malfoy said suddenly.

Harry blinked, and breathed, and blinked again. “What?”

“To replace the Compacta Gloria leaves. It has the same properties but remains stable when exposed to heat. That was the danger with the leaves, right?”

“Ummm, right,” Harry said, his mind racing to catch up.

“I think you can only get Agama skin dried, though,” Malfoy said, frowning. “It will need to be brewed for longer, and that will throw off the timing for when we have to filter out the praemium seeds before they explode.”

Harry considered that. “Couldn’t we just rehydrate the skin before we add it to the potion?”

It was Malfoy’s turn to blink and stare. “Yes. That is exactly what we should do,” he said finally, his voice full of genuine surprise. Then he gave Harry a wicked grin. “Nice to know you’re not completely useless after all.”

Harry made sure Malfoy saw the roll of his eyes, but the pleased smile he did his best to keep to himself.

***

It only took a week after the breakup for Harry’s fears about the press to be realized. And when the story dropped, it was worse than he could have imagined. Much worse.

He was greeted Sunday morning at breakfast by his own face splashed across the front page of the Prophet and a banner headline that read, THE SAVIOR IS SINGLE: HARRY POTTER OFFICIALLY WIZARDING BRITAIN’S MOST ELIGIBLE BACHELOR.

He stared, dumbfounded, at the photo, wondering where Skeeter had gotten it. He imagined, based on the brooding expression on his picture-self’s face, that it was taken during the trials, but it was hard to tell. Looking at it, Harry was sure the photo had to have been magically altered. There was no way his eyes were really that green, or his skin that flawless. And there was a five-o’clock shadow along the jaw that Harry never remembered himself sporting, making him look older, not to mention ruggedly handsome in a way he never was in real life.

He forced himself to skim the article, assessing the damage. There were actually very few details about the breakup itself, Harry was relieved to see. Ginny was hardly mentioned at all, which he felt was for the best. But Skeeter made up column inches aplenty by harping on about Harry’s accomplishments, accolades, acts of heroism, and many admiral qualities which included, apparently, his forthrightness, his sense of loyalty, his selflessness, his modesty, and his “outstanding moral fiber.” She went on to speculate what the future might hold for Harry, whether he would join the Aurors, as everyone expected he would, and what qualities he was looking for in a wife.

Harry was blushing from his hairline down to his toenails by the end of it, and wished desperately that he had brought his invisibility cloak with him to the Great Hall that morning.

“Reading the article, are ya?” Seamus interrupted Harry’s mortified thoughts. “Quite flattering. Think that Skeeter woman’s got a bit of a crush on ya.” He gave Harry a wink, and then nudged Dean, who snickered.

Harry looked around at the table. “If any of you ever considered yourself my friends even a little, then you will incendio every single copy of this paper on sight.”

“No problem, Harry,” Neville chimed in cheerfully. “We know you do really hate that stuff.”

Harry gave Neville a grateful smile, even as Seamus was still teasing. “Nothing doing, Harry,” he said with a grin. “It’s such a lovely picture. I think I’ll get some enlarged so all the girls can have one to hang on their wall.”

Harry threw a half-eaten roll at him, and everyone laughed.

In truth, the teasing did make him feel better. He was glad that his friends thought the article was as ridiculous as he did. He snuck a glance at Ron and Hermione, who had been keeping quiet. Hermione gave him a sympathetic smile, as she had been doing all week. And Ron, true to form, was ignoring Harry completely. He imagined the article had only worsened Ron’s sour attitude about the breakup.

Ginny was nowhere in sight, so Harry had no way of knowing how the article had affected her. Things between them had been awkward but cordial all week. Quidditch practice was a little tense, but that had more to do with Ron, and the fact that the rest of the team didn’t quite know how to handle the new dynamics. Dean, being friends with both Harry and Ron, had become de facto go-between for the two of them, while the rest of the team, all new this year, besides Ginny, scrambled to fill in the gaps.

Harry had a sinking suspicion, though, that Skeeter’s article was going to change things.

***

Harry was really tired of being right. Quidditch practice that night was the worst they had had all term. Ron was his usually silent self, but Ginny’s mood was outright foul. She was belligerent and uncooperative, and most of practice was wasted on trying to get all three Chasers to successfully execute the plays that had been practicing for weeks. A week ago, they had it down perfectly, and a victory against Ravenclaw was all but guaranteed. Now, though, Harry was genuinely nervous. The first match of the season was inching ever closer, and if Ginny didn’t snap out of this soon, they were in serious trouble.

By the end of practice, Harry was exhausted. The only thing he wanted was to fall into bed and stop thinking for a few hours. But he couldn’t, because he still had a Charms essay to finish, which was due first thing in the morning.

Schoolwork had been piling up, and it was the worst week for it. Between the breakup with Ginny and the ever-growing fixation with Malfoy, Harry wasn’t getting much rest. Something had to change, and soon.

But first things first, he had to solve the problem in front of him. He was relieved to find the 8th year common room deserted, once Dean and Ron trudged up to bed, and he settled down near the fire with parchment, quill, and Charms text to start writing. It was slow going, as his brain was nearly running on empty, but he pushed onwards.

Harry had nearly finished the essay when the portrait hole swung open and Malfoy emerged through it. He had clearly come from another late-night shower. The words from Harry’s essay may have been swimming in front of his face by that point, but Harry was still awake enough to take in Malfoy’s still-wet hair, thin white t-shirt, and gray Muggle pajama bottoms that hung off of his slim hips. Malfoy looked delicious all relaxed and casual, and Harry couldn’t help staring, or the physical response that came with it.

Malfoy noticed Harry sitting by the fire and gave him a once over. “You look like shit, Potter,” he said simply.

“Mm,” Harry agreed, not bothering to get offended. He knew being overworked and a lack of sleep probably made him look like an Inferius, all pale and gaunt. But he didn’t have the energy to care.

Malfoy walked over to a nearby table and picked up the copy of the Prophet that was resting there. He held it up for Harry to see, a mischievous glint in his eye. “So you’re officially wizarding Britain’s most eligible bachelor now, hm?”

Harry scowled at him. “If you say another word about that fucking article, Malfoy, I’ll hit you with so many hexes you won’t know your arse from your ankles.”

Malfoy kept grinning, sitting himself in the armchair opposite Harry. “I was only going to compliment you on the excellent photograph. No need to be so touchy.”

Harry huffed. “That’s not really me.”

Malfoy looked at the paper again, and then back at Harry. “I hate to break it to you, Potter, but it’s definitely you.”

“No, I mean… they’ve touched it up or something. I don’t really look like that.”

Malfoy stared at him skeptically, but didn’t say anything.

“What are you doing up so late?” Harry asked finally, surprised that Malfoy was choosing to remain in his company.

The blond shrugged. “I like showering at night, when everyone else has gone to bed. I get no privacy otherwise in this place.”

“But you have your own room,” Harry countered.

“It hardly feels that way. Blaise is always barging in unannounced to bother me. And Theo’s room is adjacent to mine. I hear him and Pansy fucking like kneazles just about every night.”

Harry snorted in amusement. “Have they not heard of a silencing charm?”

“It would appear they have not,” Malfoy replied drily. “Or they don’t care. Or they live to torment me.”

“It’s probably the third option,” Harry said.

“Probably,” Malfoy agreed. He adjusted his neck against the back of the armchair, stretching his long legs out in front of him. Harry was momentarily distracted by the sight. “What are you doing up, then?” Malfoy’s tone had taken on the acerbic quality he liked to use when he was going to give Harry a good ribbing. “Wallowing in self pity over the fact that you’re handsome, talented, and universally adored? It must be such a hard life you lead.”

Only Malfoy could turn such a generous compliment into such a scathing insult.

“No,” Harry said simply. He knew Malfoy was trying to wind him up, and he wasn’t about to let him.

“Pining after the Weaselette, then? Regretting your decision?”

“No,” Harry said again, this time allowing himself a small smile.

“Got yourself a new girlfriend, already, hm?”

“Hardly,” Harry said, all out grinning now. “I’m saving myself actually.”

Malfoy let out a bark of laughter before stifling it. “Saving yourself? It’s a little late for that, I would think.”

Harry shrugged. “There are a lot of pureblood fathers who don’t seem to mind. I get men offering their daughter’s hand a few times a week these days.”

Malfoy shook his head. “You must be careful with those, Potter. Never take an offer sight unseen.”

“One of them was from Gustav Greengrass. His daughters went to school here. They were both Slytherin, I think. Not bad looking, by any stretch.”

“Yes, you’re right. Daphne is our year, but she’s completing her education at home, I believe. And they sent the younger one, Astoria, to Beauxbatons.”

Harry smiled. “I’m only saying, I have good prospects.”

“Which daughter did he offer?”

“Oh, I think it was pretty clear that I could have either.”

“You could ask for both, and see how he takes it,” Malfoy said.

“Now there’s an idea,” Harry said.

They sat smiling at each other for a few seconds, and it gave Harry a moment to realize just how much he liked this version of Malfoy: someone he could really chat to, who was still irreverent about his fame but also laughed at his jokes and genuinely listened when he spoke.

“My father was in negotiation with the Greengrasses for a while, actually, before the war,” Malfoy said suddenly, pulling Harry out of his reverie.

Harry absorbed that. “For you, you mean, and one of his daughters…?”

“To marry, yes,” Malfoy said.

“Oh.” Harry wasn’t sure what to say.

“Astoria’s a bit young, but Daphne would not have been so bad. We got along all right, as these things go. And we would only have to be together the once, to produce an heir, and that would be that.”

Harry’s brow furrowed in thought. “You would have been able to tolerate an almost entirely sexless marriage?”

Malfoy smiled wryly. “The marriage would be sexless, yes. That doesn’t mean my life would have to be.”

Harry stared at Malfoy in surprise, but said nothing.

“My wife and I would have an understanding,” Malfoy explained, as though Harry were being particularly thick. “It’s not uncommon among arranged pureblood marriages.”

“I get that part,” Harry said. “I’m just surprised you would agree to it. Why not try to find someone you really loved and were attracted to?”

Malfoy seemed exceptionally pleased that Harry had asked the question. “It’s a bit difficult to find a wife with all those qualities when it turns out you’re about as gay as a niffler in a goldmine.”

There was a beat of silence, and then Harry burst out laughing. Malfoy continued to look pleased with himself.

“You have a point there, Malfoy, I’ll give you that,” Harry said, once he had stopped chuckling. “Well, what about now? Still looking for the pureblood trophy wife?”

“It was my father’s expectation,” he said breezily. “My mother has always been more concerned with my happiness, thankfully. She knows about my sexuality, and she doesn’t care. And what with my father being locked up for the next twenty years, there’s hardly anything he can do. I am free to do as I wish. I suppose I have you to thank for that.”

It was the first time Malfoy had brought up the trials, and Harry’s role in obtaining freedom for Draco and Narcissa both. It was the perpetual hippogriff in the room of their burgeoning friendship, or perhaps one of many, and Harry reminded himself to tread lightly. “It was the right thing to do. You made a difference in the war. Your mother saved my life. It was only right.”

“You always do the right thing, then, don’t you?” Malfoy said, and though there was some scorn in his tone, he sounded like he really believed it.

“Not always,” Harry said, and Malfoy reacted with a surprised raise of the eyebrows. But Harry didn’t particularly feel like venturing down that road, so instead he asked, “So you don’t care about having an heir.”

Malfoy frowned. “I would love to have a son, or a child in general. Multiple children. But there are many ways to have a child, even if you’re bent, like me. I don’t need the pureblood wife and the pureblood heir, like my father always envisioned.”

They had come to the point of it, the one thing that was still stuck in his craw when it came to Malfoy. Harry opened his mouth to ask the question, the thing he really wanted to ask, then closed it again, afraid of ruining the comfortable rapport they had established.

“Just say it, Potter,” Malfoy said, sensing his hesitancy. “I know you have something on your mind. You’re easier to read than Tales of Beedle the Bard. So just say it, and I will react with all the dignity and poise that is befitting of a Malfoy.” He did a funny little wave with his hand.

It took a moment for Harry to realize that Malfoy was actually poking fun at himself, or at least his family name. It was hardly something he expected, but it spurred him on.

“Do you really believe in all that pureblood stuff?”

Malfoy tilted his head and stared at Harry, but he looked thoughtful more than anything. Finally he raised a finger and put it to his lips, and then he spoke. “There is a difference,” he said, “between purebloods, and Muggleborns, and half-bloods, for that matter.”

Harry felt his insides deflate, but he made himself focus on Malfoy, who clearly wasn’t finished.

“The difference is not in magical power, or talent, or intelligence. As much as we purebloods would like to believe it is, there is too much empirical evidence to indicate otherwise. While I loathe to admit it, your Granger is a prime example.”

Harry suppressed a smug smile, with great effort. He never thought he’d see the day that Malfoy praised Hermione.

“But there is a cultural difference, and I don’t think that should be overlooked. The way a pureblood is raised is different from the way a half-blood is raised, and Muggleborns come from a completely different world altogether. I believe we have made mistakes in the past, integrating those of Muggle parentage into our world without acknowledging the difference. They should come in more prepared. They should understand the history of the witches and wizards that have come before them, not just in the classroom, but in the…” He paused, looking for the right word. “...ethos of the school, in the culture itself. We have spent so much time obsessing over blood status that we lose sight of our history. The magic is what matters.”

“So a Muggleborn is just supposed to leave their heritage behind when they enter Hogwarts?” Harry countered.

“No,” Malfoy said. “They don’t have to abandon it. But magic is a part of their heritage, too, and they need to understand that just as thoroughly, even if they didn’t grow up in it. Pureblood ideology, in some ways, comes from a fear of being diluted, not in literal blood, but in tradition. There are distinctions between the Muggles and magic people in terms of the way they live their lives that must be preserved. The more Muggleborns enter the population, the more Muggle culture begins to seep into wizarding culture, and the lines blur.”

“Hm,” Harry said, eyeing Malfoy for a moment. “You want to preserve wizarding culture, yet here you sit, wearing Muggle pajamas.”

Malfoy took a deep breath, then released it. “One cannot deny that there are things that the Muggles simply do better than wizards. Clothing is one of those things. Art, literature, and music are also superior, in my opinion.” Harry stared at him, caught somewhere between grinning and gaping in disbelief. “I have no qualms about wearing Muggle clothing, or listening to Muggle music. But I don’t want the only thing to distinguish us from Muggles to be that we happen to be able to do magic. There is more to us than that, there is more to our culture than that.”

Harry considered that, conceding that he could see Mafloy’s point with a reluctant nod of his head.

“So,” Malfoy went on, “if I did have an heir, whether he was pureblood or half-blood, I would expect him to understand his history, what it means to be a wizard, and what it means to be a Malfoy. There are traditions that are a part of my heritage, and I would not want to lose them. The actual blood status is of little importance to me.”

“Is that outlook different from your father’s?” Harry asked. “He wanted you to find a pureblood wife, right?”

Malfoy sighed. “My father was dogmatic in his beliefs for most of his life, because he had to be. When the Dark Lord was alive, there was no other option. But in my childhood, when the Dark Lord was not in power, I saw my father’s more pragmatic side. He promoted pureblood ideology because it benefited him to do so. Anything that favored purebloods favored him and his family, so of course he would further such an agenda. Whether he really believed that purebloods were magically superior… that’s hard to say. It’s possible that he wanted me to marry a pureblood for status alone, and not because he actually believed it would make me produce a more magically powerful heir. Either way, it took me a while to understand the difference. But I am naturally skeptical, and I inherited pragmatism from both my parents, so eventually I began to question the ideology. By the time the Dark Lord was living in our manor, such beliefs meant nothing to me. Survival was the only thing that mattered.”

Malfoy’s eyes had taken on a haunted look now, and Harry decided to move quickly off the subject.

“So you do intend to have a son, to carry on the Malfoy name.”

Malfoy shrugged. “Ideally. It would certainly make my mother happy, and, I owe her that much, at least. But such things are a long way off. I have my Potions mastery to think about, and whatever career I want to pursue afterwards. And I have to meet someone worth my time.”

“A challenge in and of itself,” Harry said.

“All too true, Potter,” Malfoy agreed.

Harry closed his eyes briefly, and considered all that Malfoy had just said.

“You should go to bed,” Malfoy said, and Harry opened his eyes to look at him. “You look ready to pass out at any moment.”

“I can’t just yet,” Harry said, remembering the homework assignment he had been slaving over. Malfoy had been a welcome distraction, but he actually had to finish the thing, before the night was over. “I still have to write the conclusion for my Charms essay.”

Malfoy reached out a hand. “Give it here,” he said.

“No.” Harry stared at the Slytherin, incredulous. “You’re not going to do my homework for me, Malfoy.”

“Oh, stop being such a goody-Gryffindor,” Malfoy said, his arm still outstretched.

“It’s not that,” Harry said. “It’s just that Flitwick is sure to notice that the final paragraph isn’t in my handwriting, or my words. I would ever get away with it.”

“What a Slytherin way of thinking,” Malfoy said, sounding vaguely impressed. “But I don’t intend to write it for you. Just give it here.”

Reluctantly, Harry handed over the parchment. “Do you need the quill as well or…”

“No, no quill,” Malfoy said, studying the parchment. “Sweet Morgana, Potter, how does one even begin to decipher this chicken scratch?”

“I was tired,” Harry said defensively. “It’s not usually that bad.”

Shaking his head, Malfoy pulled out his wand, the hawthorn one that Harry had returned to him after his trial. He tapped the parchment once, and some of the words glowed white for a moment, before copies of the words lifted from the page like ghosts rising from graves. The words started arranging themselves into a paragraph, which hovered in midair before settling itself delicately at the bottom of the essay. Malfoy released the spell, then handed the parchment back to Harry with a satisfied smirk.

“There you are. The main points from your essay, summarized magically in your own words, in the form of a conclusion. No more writing needed.”

Harry stared in amazement. “Where did you learn that?” he asked.

“I mastered it my fifth year,” Malfoy said, still smirking. “I wouldn’t have survived all the OWL coursework without it.” He stood. “Well, my work here is done.”

“Thanks, Malfoy,” Harry said, feeling dazed. “I owe you one.”

“You don’t owe me anything, Potter,” Malfoy replied, his voice suddenly devoid of humor. He gave Harry a small, soft smile. “Get some sleep.”

Harry stared at the completed essay, listening as Malfoy’s footsteps faded up the staircase and dissolved completely, wondering how deep he was going to let himself get with the Slytherin.

Pretty deep, it seemed.

Chapter Text

The match with Ravenclaw was only days away, and Harry was really starting to get nervous. The Gryffindor team dynamics had only gotten worse, as now the other members had started to take sides or were simply fed up with the dysfunctionality of it all. Harry wondered how he had let it get like this, how he had not seen this coming. Not that he would have stayed with Ginny just for the sake of team unity, but if he had considered the consequences more thoroughly, he would have at least been prepared for the fallout.

He also realized, thanks to a letter he received from Andromeda Tonks, that he wasn’t doing too well in the godfather department either. According to Andromeda, Teddy was missing him (although how Andromeda could really know that, given that her grandson was only six months old and couldn’t talk, Harry was not quite sure). While he had said before he left for school that he would try and come for a visit towards the end of September, that hadn’t happened. School, life in general, got in the way.

Harry wanted to be available for his godson in any way he could be, and over the summer he had made the time. Even with all of the other events going on, he visited Andromeda and Teddy’s little house at least three times a week, spending many hours holding, feeding, changing, and playing with the little boy. What attention wasn’t given to Teddy was fixed on Andromeda, as they chatted and got to know each other. Since they were both going to be permanent fixtures in Teddy’s life, they understood they had to build their own relationship as well.

Harry had really enjoyed those quiet afternoons. They provided solace at a time when the world was still in upheaval, and everyone was looking to him for answers. Sometimes he would just lie down on the sofa, Teddy’s plump little cheek resting on his chest, and listen to his godson breathing. He would stroke a hand up and down that small back soothingly, and the rest of the world would fall away.

But coming to Hogwarts had changed everything. His days were full to the brim with class, studying, and captaining, and it was easy to get wrapped up inside the bubble of the Hogwarts grounds and forget about the outside world. He realized he hadn’t seen his godson in almost two months. Something really did need to be done about that, and he returned Andromeda’s letter speedily.

And, as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already, he found that his attraction to a certain blond Slytherin was only increasing. Since the night of the fireside chat, the two of them found a rapport that went well beyond the awkward and tentative interactions of those first couple of weeks, and at this point was downright chummy. Harry would even go so far as to describe it as a flirtation, from his end of things anyway. And the more time he spent with Malfoy, the more he became convinced that the feeling was mutual. The blush on Malfoy’s cheeks, and the smile on his lips, and the glint in his gray eyes were becoming occurrences of increasing frequency.

Malfoy was now a regular feature in Harry’s wanking fantasies, which were currently his only outlet for release now that he and Ginny had broken up. He had never been with a man before, and he wasn’t entirely sure exactly what he wanted to do to Malfoy, or have Malfoy do to him, but he could take a guess. Usually images of Malfoy naked and hard, with his lips on Harry’s neck and their pelvises grinding together, was enough to send Harry over the edge, Malfoy’s first name barely a whisper on his lips as he climaxed.

He kept this attraction strictly secret, for obvious reasons. Telling Ron would surely only increase the redhead’s ire, and he didn’t think Hermione would take it too well, either. It was one thing for her to agree that he should be civil to his former enemy. It was another thing entirely for Harry to want to sleep with him.

And to tell Ginny… well… he had already cheated death twice. He wasn’t about to risk having to do it a third time.

Despite having Malfoy as a distraction, Harry knew he had to take some action to save his Quidditch team from an embarrassing defeat. He ruminated for a day or so about how to handle it, before a run-in with Ron in the empty 8th year common room gave him just the right opening.

Ron was all set to ignore him, that was clear, making for the portrait hole silently. Like Harry was just another piece of furniture. But Harry wasn’t having any of it. He was sick of his best mate acting like he didn’t exist, and he was sick of not having the backup as Quidditch captain he had been relying on all term.

“Hey,” Harry said as Ron brushed past him. “Can we talk?”

Ron looked at him briefly, and Harry saw the hesitation, the moment where Ron decided if he wanted to ignore Harry or respond to him. Unfortunately, he chose the former option, starting to turn away again, and Harry felt a surge of annoyance. Before he realized exactly what he was doing, he spoke again.

“Look, I know you’re angry with me, but there are two sides, you know.”

Ron paused at the portrait hole, and there was a brief silence. But, finally, he turned back to Harry. “You dumped her.”

“It wasn’t like that. Merlin, Ron, you think I would…” Harry took a deep breath, realizing that his best move was to try and explain. “Look, I’ve been thinking for a while that I don’t want to be an Auror after all.”

Of all the things Ron was expecting, this certainly wasn’t it, at least based on the confounded look he gave Harry.

“And when I said that to Ginny, she didn’t take it well.”

Ron gaped at him, then recovered, crossing his arms over his chest. “And when were you going to tell me this?”

Harry sighed. Of course, he knew which part Ron would fixate on. “It was something I realized that same weekend I broke up with Ginny. You haven’t exactly been talking to me for the past couple of weeks. When would I have had a chance to tell you?”

Ron didn’t seem to have a good answer for that, so he simply glared. “So you were just going to let me go it alone?”

“Yes,” Harry said simply.

“Bloody hell. Well, at least I know where we stand, now.” He made to turn away again.

“Oh, don’t give me that shit,” Harry said, and Ron paused. “Don’t tell me you want to be an Auror just because I wanted to be one. That’s sure as hell no reason to go through all that training, to put your life at risk. It’s a tough job. One of the toughest. But you can do it, and you can certainly do it without me. If you want to be an Auror, bloody do it. Or don’t. I honestly don’t care, as long as you’re happy.” Ron turned back to him, blinking, and let that sink in. “That’s the point, Ron, don’t you see? We’re free. We did it. Voldemort’s dead, we survived, and we have our whole lives in front of us. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do, and neither do you. And I don’t want to be an Auror. I’m tired of making my life about being a hero, and hunting dark wizards, and risking my life. I’m bloody tired, Ron. I want to do something else. And when I shared that with Ginny, she told me that I had to become an Auror, because if I didn’t, I wasn’t being true to myself.”

Ron scoffed. “She didn’t say that. You’re twisting her words.”

“She did say it, Ron. It’s practically word for word. You can ask her.”

Ron kept his arms folded across his chest and stared at Harry. Harry knew that this meant he was listening, at least, and thinking things over, and maybe needed just a little more prodding to tip him over the edge.

“If you decided you didn’t want to be an Auror after all, how would you feel if Hermione told you that you had to be, that she would be disappointed if you weren’t?”

Ron shook his head. “Hermione would never…”

“Yes,” Harry said, pointing at Ron’s chest. “Yes, exactly. She would never say that. Would you ever tell her that you didn’t want her to be a solicitor? Would you ever tell her not to devote her life to creature rights, even when you think she’s going a bit overboard?”

“No,” Ron said quietly.

“Why not?”

“Because she cares about it, and I love her,” he said.

“Yes. And she would never tell you what you had to do because…?”

“Because she loves me,” Ron finished the sentence begrudgingly.

“Yes,” Harry said, feeling like maybe he was finally getting through. “And I never for a moment would have told Ginny not to pursue playing professional Quidditch, even though it would mean that she had to travel a lot, and would make it harder to raise a family. Because I care about her happiness, and it’s what she loves, and what she wants. I would never have stopped her. And yet she sat there and… I swear to Merlin, Ron, she sat there and told me that I would never be happy unless I was being a hero, and that the only way to do that was to become an Auror. So yeah, it got me thinking, and I realized that it wasn’t going to work out, because I wasn’t going to become an Auror, and that’s what she wanted, no, needed, me to be.”

Ron stared at the floor for a long time. “You love her?” he said finally.

“Yes,” Harry said, with caution in his tone.

“So, she said a stupid thing,” he said. “She shouldn’t think that way. But what if she came around?”

“What?”

“What if she came around to your way of thinking, and realized it was all right if you didn’t become an Auror, and supported your decisions? Would you get back together with her?”

“No,” Harry said automatically, and he was surprised at himself. He hadn’t even needed to think about it.

Ron scowled. “Why not?”

Harry tilted his head back and closed his eyes. How did he put into words what was simply a gut feeling? How did he explain that he simply knew it wasn’t right for him to be with Ginny? “Because…” he began. “Because, even if she accepted that I wasn’t going to be an Auror, she would still…” He sighed. “She has expectations of me. No matter what I chose to do, she would have certain expectations of the kind of person I needed to be, and I would never be able to live up to those expectations, because her perception of me is inaccurate. It’s idealized. She doesn’t really see me at all. I’m not sure she ever did.”

The silence seemed to go on forever, but Harry let his final words hang there, knowing that Ron was thinking them over.

“You may have a point there,” he said finally.

Harry sagged in relief, yet he knew he still had to tread lightly. “I know you see it from both sides, Ron, and I hate that I hurt Ginny. I really do. But this… it’s not helping anyone. You can still be furious with me if you want, but it’s affected the team long enough. We’ve got to get it together, or we’re going to lose the match on Saturday. It’s that simple.”

Ron nodded. “Yeah.”

“I don’t know what to do about Ginny,” Harry admitted. “I don’t know if I should try to talk to her or-“

“No,” Ron interrupted. “I’ll talk to her. It’s better if I give it a try.”

Harry allowed himself a small smile. “Thanks, Ron.”

“Yeah, well,” Ron rubbed the back of his neck, looking awkward. “It might not do any good. But I have to try, don’t I?”

“You don’t have to,” Harry said. “But I would appreciate it if you did.”

“Yeah,” Ron said, not meeting Harry’s eyes. “Yeah, all right.” And with that, he left the common room, and Harry stood there looking after him, feeling that went about as well as he could have hoped.

***

Things did improve, with Ron at least. Ginny, not so much, but at least it hadn’t gotten worse. At this point, she was simply ignoring him and anything he had to say during practice.

On the eve of the match, Harry had too much nervous energy to sit still, and was unexpectedly happy to take Malfoy up on the notion that they should finish the research phase of their Potions project. Unfortunately, the ogling and flirting from a good portion of the female student body had not died down entirely, and their research in the library was continuously interrupted by young witches approaching him to bat their eyelashes and wish him good luck on the match the next day. Tired of the intrusions, and the merciless teasing it incited from Malfoy, Harry suggested they check out the few books they still needed and finished up their work in the 8th year common room, where such attentions would be nonexistent.

“I have to admit,” Malfoy said as the pair made their way through the castle, “that there was a time when I was jealous of all the attention you received. Not from the girls, of course, but from people in general.”

Harry grinned, amazed at the admission. It said a lot about how far they had come in the last few weeks. “And now you see what a bloody nuisance it actually is?”

“Yes,” Malfoy replied, sounding surprised. “I never thought I would get tired of being the center of attention, but if I were in your shoes I think I’d be serving a lifetime sentence in Azkaban for mass murder by now.”

“I’m not sure it’s ever been this bad before,” Harry said. “Sixth year, when there were all those rumors flying about that I was the Chosen One, it was nearly like this. Excessive flirting, witches trying to slip me love potions… there was that ridiculous Quidditch tryout where half the people who showed up didn’t even care about getting on the team, they just wanted to get a good look at me. This, though…”

“Love potions,” Malfoy said. “I hadn’t thought about that. You should watch what you eat and drink from now on.”

“Trust me, I already am,” Harry said darkly. “I have to worry about it in my post, too. That wasn’t a problem before.”

“Well, before you were just the Chosen One. Now you’re the Savior.”

“Ugh, don’t use that word,” Harry said, grimacing.

“Just the thought of it is enough to get most witches drenching their knickers for you.”

“Stop talking. That’s bloody disgusting,” Harry said with a laugh.

Malfoy’s voice rose an entire octave as he taunted. “Oh, Harry, you’re so dreamy. Will you sign every possession I own? Oh, Harry, won’t you sign this creepy photograph I took of you while you were sleeping? Will you sign my breasts, please, Harry?”

Harry shoved Malfoy, knocking him off-balance, but the Slytherin quickly recovered and saw no reason not to continue.

“Harry, I’m getting your name tattooed on my arse. Harry, I’m getting a tattoo of your face on top of my face, so I see you every time I look in the mirror. Harry, I’m taking polyjuice so I can turn into you and touch myself all over.” The blond rubbed his hands all over his own torso with absurd lasciviousness.

“That’s a sick and twisted mind you’ve got there, Malfoy,” Harry said, still unable to contain his laughter. “Remind me never to use Legilimency on you. I will undoubtedly see things I can never unsee.”

“I’d like to see you try, Potter,” Malfoy said with a smirk, clearly pleased that he had managed to taunt Harry relentlessly and yet still make him laugh. “My Occlumency shields are ironclad.”

“Thank Merlin for small mercies,” Harry said, and Malfoy chuckled.

Just then, Harry spotted a familiar streak of red hair coming down the corridor, and his stomach gave a lurch. Ginny. At the same time, though, he had been hoping for a moment like this, a chance to get her alone and talk to her, since whatever conversation she had had with Ron had clearly not accomplished much.

“Ginny!” he called, before he lost his nerve.

The redhead paused and looked in his direction, and as Harry approached he could make out displeasure and apprehension in her features. Harry advanced swiftly, hoping she wouldn’t run. He was aware that Malfoy was behind him, and would get to watch this scene unfold, but seeing as the match was the very next morning, he hardly had time to worry about such things.

“Can we talk, please?” he said. He was within a few feet of her now, and it seemed she was at least willing to stay put, for now. “It’s about the match tomorrow.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Of course it is,” she said coldly.

Harry resisted the urge to scoff. “It’s important to you, too. Don’t pretend that it isn’t.”

Ginny flipped some of her hair back in a haughty gesture. “Maybe, but it’s not the only thing I think about. Unlike some people.”

“I have to think about it. I’m captain,” Harry said, aware that he was getting sucked into her game. He steered the conversation back to the reason he had approached her in the first place. “Did Ron have a chance to talk to you, about how things have been going with the team?”

Ginny gave one dry bark of a laugh. “Yeah,” she said. “I really appreciated, by the way, you having my brother do your dirty work.”

“He volunteered. He thought it would be best-“

“Saving you from actually having to talk to me.”

“Ok,” Harry said, his patience already wearing thin. “I think we both know that’s a load of bollocks. It’s you who won’t talk to me, and while I understand why, and I have been trying to respect it, you can’t let it keep us from winning tomorrow. It’s bad for all of us.”

“You think I’m trying to keep us from winning? Don’t be a moron, Harry.”

“Nice,” Harry said under his breath. He forced himself to meet her eyes again. “It’s not that I think you’re doing it on purpose. But you are doing it. And I don’t understand why. It’s you who wants to play Quidditch professionally. How do you think a loss like the one we’re in for is going to look when the scouts come sniffing in the spring?”

Ginny’s laughter was derisive and forced. “Please, don’t pretend you give a kneazle’s arse about my career. This is about you not wanting to bollocks things up as captain.”

“I’m not pretending, Ginny,” Harry said. “Just because we’re not together anymore doesn’t mean I don’t care.”

“Funny. I think it’s exactly what it means,” Ginny replied with a holier-than-thou tone that was nothing short of maddening.

“Please, Gin, I’m begging you,” he said. “Just get it together and execute the plays like we practiced. If you want to keep ignoring me, that’s fine. But do it for everyone else, at least, and for yourself.”

“It’s not just me,” she said. “And it’s unfair to say that it is. The whole dynamic of the team is off, now, Harry, and that’s on you.  I will do my best tomorrow, I can promise you that. But I’m not the problem here, so stop being such a condescending prat and take a look in the mirror.”

And with that she stormed off, leaving Harry standing stiff, his face burning with a wretched mix of anger, embarrassment, and guilt. Because her words did have a stinging truth to them. He had let everything get bollocksed up. And he had no idea how to fix it.

A subtle cough behind him reminded him that he was not alone, and he turned back to see Malfoy regarding him impassively.

“What a spectacular show, Potter,” he said, but his voice was free of cruelty. “Remind me why you dated the she-weasel again?”

Harry sighed and ignored the question. “There’s a very good chance I’ve just made things worse, isn’t there?”

Malfoy sighed as well. “That’s hard to say. You certainly have not endeared yourself any more to her, but you at least reminded her that the match is important for her career. That might have an effect.”

Harry decided to hold onto that optimism, even if he didn’t really believe it.

***

Another eruption of cheers sounded from the Ravenclaw end of the pitch, and Harry signaled to Madam Hooch for a time out. They were an hour into the match, and dread was already battering away in his stomach. They were down by one hundred points, with no end in sight. Ginny’s promise from the night before rang false, but Harry couldn’t say why exactly, because she seemed to be going along with the plays they practiced. But her heart didn’t seem to be in it, and very few Gryffindor possessions had been converted into goals.

Ravenclaw, on the other hand, had an excellent set of Chasers, and were giving Ron all he could handle. It didn’t help matters that the Gryffindor Keeper seemed to be off his game as well.

“What the hell is going on out there?” Harry said, once they were assembled. He pointed at Chaser Xandra Pierce. “You’ve been missing Ginny’s assists.”

“She’s not throwing like she usually does!” Xandra said defensively, crossing her arms. Ginny gave the short-haired brunette a withering look. “Sorry,” she said, “but it’s true.”

“Ginny, throw hard and aim straight,” Harry said, and saw his ex roll her eyes.

Harry turned to Ron.

“I know,” Ron said immediately. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t even know how that last goal got past me.”

“Sylvester is faking you out,” Harry said. “She lifts her elbow like she’s going to throw overhand and then she switches it up. She’s telegraphing her moves on purpose, so watch out for that. Erlich always aims for either side hoop, so keep that in mind.”

At this point, Ron seemed to know better than to argue, and simply nodded his head in understanding.

Harry turned to his Beaters, who were, frankly, the only members of the team pulling their weight at the moment. “Nice work guys. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

He heard Hooch’s whistle blow and knew that was it. They had to get back in the air. He grabbed Dean’s shoulder.

“At this point, mate,” he said in the Chaser’s ear, “just try to get your hands on the fucking Quaffle and do what you can with it. I can’t figure out what Xandra and Ginny are doing out there.”

Dean smirked but nodded his assent. And with that, play resumed.

Things did improve for Gryffindor on both the offensive and defensive ends. Dean was playing more aggressively and was able to steal possession multiple times, and they were able to turn that into two more goals. And Ron had caught onto Dana Sylvester’s game, and didn’t let the Ravenclaw Chaser fake him out again. Still, they were eighty points down, and Harry found himself watching the Chaser dynamics closely, trying to figure out where they were going wrong. Dean and Ginny seemed to do fine, and so did Dean and Xandra, but passes between the two female Chasers were resulting in turnovers. Harry found himself biting back growls of frustration.

“Watch her!” Harry yelled at Ginny, as she dropped a pass from Xandra. But Ravenclaw had taken possession of the Quaffle again, and was soaring towards the goal. Harry was watching Ron, waiting to see what he would do, when he heard a gasp, and then the student commentator saying over the loudspeaker, “Is that the Snitch?”

Harry whirled around, panic already turning his blood to ice. Sure enough, there was the Ravenclaw Seeker, coming in for a dive. Though the Snitch was still halfway down the pitch from her, she was well ahead of Harry as he dived too, cursing his own stupidity. He had spent too much time being a micro-managing captain and not enough time being Seeker.

If Ravenclaw caught the Snitch now, they would not only win, but win by a painfully large margin, making Gryffindor’s bid for the cup nigh impossible. Harry knew he had to do everything in his power to least make sure the opposing Seeker, Evangeline Robbins, didn’t catch the Snitch at this moment.

He pressed himself flat against his Firebolt, urging it forward with all the power he had. He was gaining on Robbins, but he wasn’t sure it was going to be enough. She was within only a few yards of the Snitch now, and was positioning herself to grasp for it once it was within reach.

Come on, Harry urged his trusted broom, but knew, instinctively, that he wasn’t going to catch up in time. The end of his broom was nearly in line with her feet, but the Snitch was only a foot away from her outstretched hand.

Suddenly he heard a yell, and then a Bludger whizzed a few feet in front of him, hitting Robbins broom and throwing her off course. She barrel rolled and tried to recover, but Harry had taken advantage, dodging another Bludger with a quick duck of his head before closing his hands around the tiny trembling ball.

The stadium erupted in cheers as Harry pulled out of the dive, holding the Snitch up for everyone to see. The commentator was shouting the victory. “Gryffindor wins! Harry Potter catches the Snitch, with help from an excellently aimed Bludger by newcomer Ben Talbott!”

Harry descended towards the pitch, where the rest of the Gryffindor team was already congregating. Ben was clearly the man of the hour, as every member of the team patted him on the back, grinning their gratitude. Gryffindor spectators were entering the field now, too, and Harry took a moment to clap Ben on the shoulder and say, “Congratulations. You won this for us. You should be proud,” before he left the field and his excited teammates behind.

In truth, he felt very little elation in the victory, because he knew that it had not been his doing. In many ways, he felt the win was in spite of his efforts. He entered the team locker room feeling dejected and confused. He had lost matches before, but it was always due to unforeseen circumstances or bad luck. Harry had come away from a match disappointed before, but never feeling like he had let his team down. He had even gotten over the incident with the Dementors in his third year, knowing it wasn't really his fault (winning the cup that year had helped with his guilt, too). This was different, though. He couldn’t help but feel that he had let his team down, as both their captain and their Seeker.

What am I doing? he asked himself, leaning his forehead against one of the lockers as his mind raced.

“Hey,” a masculine voice said from the doorway, and Harry turned to see Ron standing there, his expression one of sympathy.

“Hey,” Harry said, aware of the obvious misery in his tone.

“We survived it, at least, painful as it was.” Ron seemed to be going for a lighthearted tone, and Harry managed a small smile. “Look,” Ron went on, “you were right. Ginny was bang out of order. She wouldn’t listen to me, either. This isn’t your fault.”

Harry sighed. “Thanks, mate, but I think… well… I can’t help but feel partially responsible. I was trying to watch what was going on and I wasn’t looking out for the Snitch like I should have been.” He hung his head, and the glittering captain’s badge on his Quidditch robes caught his eye. He looked at the badge, and then at Ron, and realized what he had to do.

“You did the best you could,” Ron argued. “We should have been handling things on our end so you could do your job.”

“Still,” Harry said, as he made to unpin the badge from his chest, “you would have done a better job.”

Ron scoffed. “Hardly. Whatever is going on between Ginny and Xandra, I don’t think I could figure it out any better than you.”

Harry gave his friend a smile, and held out his hand. Ron, looking confused, mirrored the gesture. “I think you’ll do a great job figuring it out,” he said, as he placed the badge in his friend’s unsuspecting hand.

“What the…” Ron said, staring down at the badge between his fingers. “What are you on about?”

“I’ve been thinking about it since term started,” Harry confessed. “I should have done this weeks ago. But better late than never.”

Ron stared at him, bewildered. “You’re giving up captain?”

“I’m giving it to you,” Harry said, feeling lighter than he had in weeks now that the badge was no longer attached to him, “because you deserve it, and you’ll be a better captain than I could ever be. You’re better at strategy, and designing plays, and recruiting, come to that. Most of the best decisions we’ve made on this team have been on your advice, and that includes Talbott. You’ve been carrying me through this term so far. It’s about time you got the credit.”

Ron seemed to be at a loss for words, and they stood in silence for a good minute, while Ron stared at the badge and Harry waited for a response.

“You don’t have to do this,” Ron managed, finally. “We’ve got through the winter holidays to get the team back on track. It’s not all your doing.”

“But we’ll be better with you in charge,” Harry said with certainty. “And I know I don’t have to do it. I want to. It’s the right thing.”

“You’re not quitting the team are you? Because you’re still the best Seeker Gryffindor’s ever had.”

“No, I’m not quitting as Seeker,” Harry said. “I like Seeking. And now I can really focus on it, instead of trying to wrangle my ex-girlfriend all season.”

“Ah, leaving me to handle Ginny. I see how it is,” Ron said with a smirk, and Harry gave him a grin in return.

“I’ll let McGonagall know of the change as soon as I can,” Harry said.

“I don’t know what to say, Harry,” Ron replied. “This is… well… I’ll do my best, I suppose.”

“I know you will.” Harry gave his best mate a brief hug, glad they had found their way to being on good terms again.

***

As expected, there was a victory party in the Gryffindor common room that lasted through the afternoon and into the evening. Elves happily supplied the celebrants with food and drink, and Ben Talbott’s genius last-second play with the Bludger was the topic of much conversation.

Harry’s heart wasn’t in it, even after he had assuaged his guilt by passing on the captaincy to Ron (which they decided not to announce until it had the official go-ahead from McGonagall). His head was still full of his own mistakes, and all the choices and actions he wished he had made differently.

They had won, but not by a sizeable margin, and Slytherin was sure to flatten Hufflepuff in the match in November. This meant they had a lot of catching up to do if they wanted to overtake Slytherin for the cup. And Ravenclaw was still in the running, even with the defeat, if they did exceptionally well in their upcoming matches in the spring. It was still anybody’s game at this point, and Harry was kicking himself for not giving his team a wider edge as he sipped on his butterbeer and quietly watched the festivities.

He was happy to finally escape the celebration and make his way to the 8th year dormitories alone. Hermione had already dragged Ron away for a private celebration of their own, and Dean had chosen to remain with the other Gryffindors, talking up a sixth year that Harry didn’t know well. But Harry was enjoying the solitude. It gave him a chance to clear his head, and maybe put all of the stress and drama of the match behind him.

He was so lost in his own thoughts that he didn’t see the tall Slytherin lounging in the doorway of an empty classroom, watching him as he passed.

“All right there, Potter?” came the familiar drawl. “That was almost painful to watch. Thank Merlin for third year Beaters, eh, or that would have been really humiliating.”

Harry turned to see Malfoy smirking at him, his body relaxed like he hadn’t a care in the world. Harry was immediately transported back to their old rivalry, seeing Malfoy like that and hearing his taunts. But while years ago he would have gathered all his wits for a snide comeback, things had changed, and Harry felt a stab of betrayal instead.

“Really, Malfoy,” he said. “After everything? I thought you weren’t going to take low shots like that anymore. I guess I was wrong.”

Malfoy’s expression immediately shifted to surprise, and he held his hands up in a conciliatory gesture. “Hey, I didn’t mean it like that.” Harry looked at him skeptically. “No, really,” Malfoy went on. “I thought, since you’d still won and all, you’d be able to handle a good ribbing. I guess I was wrong.”

“Yeah, well,” Harry said, shuffling his feet a little in embarrassment. “I guess it’s a bit of a sore spot even so, since I nearly lost us the match and all.”

“Oh, don’t go being a martyr as usual,” Malfoy said. “Everyone knows it was the she-weasel that bungled it for you. She looked more spaced out than Loony Lovegood. And the he-weasel wasn’t much better.”

“The Ravenclaw Chasers are really good,” Harry said defensively.

“Even so,” Malfoy said. “That’s on him, not you.”

“It’s all on me, seeing as I’m captain,” Harry said, before remembering. “Or was.”

“Was? What do you mean, was? They didn’t sack you, did they? Because that’s bloody uncalled for.”

Harry realized he liked the indignation in Malfoy’s words a little too much. “No, they didn’t sack me. I resigned.”

“Resigned?” Malfoy looked appalled. “Why would you resign?”

“It was the right thing to do,” Harry said. “I gave it to Ron.”

“You gave it to… the right thing to…” Malfoy huffed, incensed. “Why on earth would you go and do a thing like that?”

“Because Ron would be a better captain than me, and because I didn’t want to be captain anymore.”

Malfoy simply stared at him.

“It was outright stressful, if you want to know the truth,” Harry said. “And not in a good way. There was no fun in it anymore. I’ve had enough leadership thrust upon me. I didn’t need this on top of everything else. And besides, I’ve started to get it in my head that I should start thinking about what I really want.”

He met Malfoy’s eyes then, aware that his gaze was heated. The Slytherin swallowed visibly, and Harry kept staring.

“What you want?” said the blond, his voice cracking a little.

“I haven’t got it all figured out yet,” Harry said, and he found that he was unconsciously stepping closer to the blond, drawn in by the unexpectedly helpless look Malfoy was giving him. “But I figure, if I want to do something, I do it. And if I don’t want to do it, I don’t.”

“Good rule of thumb,” Malfoy said, seeming all too aware that Harry had stepped into his personal bubble, but making no move to create distance between them.

“I think so,” Harry replied.

The energy between them had changed drastically. Looking at Malfoy’s exquisite features, the elegant shape of his neck, and the masculine breadth of his shoulders, Harry couldn’t help but be reminded of his fantasies: images of Malfoy pressed against him, moaning his name in his ear. Harry’s eyes flitted to Malfoy’s mouth, and he found himself nearly panting.

Those lips. I want to taste those lips.

“So, what do you want to do?” Malfoy asked, and Harry’s eyes met the gray ones that were watching him closely.

“I think you already know the answer to that,” Harry said, and, before he could overthink it, he found himself closing the distance, placing his lips on Malfoy’s.

They were soft, and pliable, and Harry breathed in and pressed further, waiting for a response.

It was only a second, with Malfoy frozen in surprise, and then he responded, his mouth returning the pressure and his tongue flitting out cautiously. Harry parted his lips and let that tongue all the way in, and barely stifled a moan at the sweet taste. He brought his hand up to cup the back of Malfoy’s neck, pulling him closer.

Malfoy’s hand ran up Harry’s stomach and over his chest, and Harry was sure that the blond would be able to feel the unrelenting pounding of his heart. But he didn’t care, because he was flush against Malfoy now, pressed groin to groin, and it was good.

Malfoy only had about an inch on him, height-wise, and Harry found this perfect, allowing all the right parts to connect, while he was still easily able to get up under Malfoy’s jaw, trailing kisses along the soft skin before descending to that neck he admired so much, and the pulse that was thrumming just below the surface. Malfoy’s breathing was ragged and desperate, and it made Harry’s cock harden further in his trousers.

He could feel Malfoy’s hardness pressed against him, too, and it was dizzying, knowing the effect he was having on the normally collected Slytherin.

Let’s see how far I can unravel him, he thought, and felt a new surge of lust shoot through him at the idea.

But they were still in an open corridor, and anything more than snogging would land them in serious trouble. Without a second thought Harry grabbed Malfoy by his green and silver necktie and pulled him into the empty classroom, closing and locking the door behind him. He then set to loosening the tie further, all the while letting Malfoy ravish his lips raw.

Harry wanted to get his hands on anything he could, and Malfoy seemed to be feeling the same, because Harry suddenly found his outer robes being undone and tossed to the floor.

Harry returned the favor, then slid a hand up under the white shirt that had come untucked from black trousers, feeling the taut skin that stretched over the lean muscle of Malfoy’s abdomen.

“Fuck, Draco,” Harry said in the Slytherin’s ear, knowing if there was ever a time for first names, it was now. He heard Malfoy gasp, and was satisfied with the response. Instead of traveling upward, his hand moved down, hitting the rim of the trousers and sliding onto Malfoy’s belt buckle. “Can I…”

“Yes,” Malfoy said against his neck.

Harry needed no further prompting, working on the belt with shaking hands and making quick work of the zipper. He plunged his hand past Malfoy’s underwear without preamble, thrilled at the sizeable erection he found waiting there. His fingers wrapped around it gently and Malfoy – Draco – whimpered seductively.

Harry was beyond thinking now. He needed Draco to feel what he was feeling, and vice versa. He fumbled left-handed with his own belt and zipper, finally freeing his erection and pressing forward so that their naked cocks rutted together.

“Merlin, fuck, Harry,” Draco said, nipping at Harry’s ear.

Harry groaned in response, the friction between them sending molten jets of pleasure through every nerve. He continued to rut against Draco with abandon, allowing his hand to give added stimulation that sent him to another level of need. He was nearly there, approaching climax faster than he ever had in his life. He didn’t know that this kind of activity could feel so good; he was running purely on instinct. But the way Draco was responding to him, clutching him almost painfully, it seemed his instinct was right on the money.

They had been breathing heavily into each other’s necks, but Harry realized he wanted Draco’s mouth again, and so he lifted his head and took it, nipping at the full bottom lip before delving his tongue inside. Draco moaned into Harry’s mouth, never missing a beat as they ground together.

Harry was reaching for climax, but Draco got there first, by only a few seconds. All it took was feeling the hot splash of cum on his hand and Draco shuddering against him, and Harry found he was joining him in bliss, clutching that hard body against him as pleasure ripped through him, concentrated in his cock but reaching to the tips of his fingers in the aftershocks.

They did not move for what felt like a very long time, their breathing slowly getting under control. Harry took these few moments to bury his face against Draco’s neck, memorizing the scent of him. He placed a couple of light kisses there, and felt Draco shudder slightly.

Harry slowly came back to his senses, and realized it had to be curfew by now, or close to it. While 8th years did not have to abide by the curfew like the younger students, Harry knew there would be staff and prefects patrolling the corridors, and they were bound to be discovered if they lingered long enough.

He wasn’t sure what to say now, if anything really had to be said. One glance at Draco found him glassy-eyed and sated, and Harry felt it right that they should leave it there, for now. There would be plenty of time for discussion, and decisions, in the light of day. The entire encounter had been too wonderful for words.

Their eyes met, although Draco still seemed far away, in some sense, as if he couldn’t believe what had just happened. Harry gave him a warm and gratified smile, and a soft kiss to the lips, which was returned lazily.

“Goodnight, Draco,” Harry whispered against that sweet mouth. He pulled away, cast a quick cleaning charm on himself, redid his zipper, and grabbed his robes from off the floor.

“Goodnight, Harry.” The voice was barely audible.

Without another word, Harry gave Draco another soft peck, unlocked the door, and slipped into the quiet of the castle.


 

Chapter Text

Harry crawled into bed early and slept soundly. It was the sleep of the content, of the satisfied, the kind of sleep he had not enjoyed for a long time.

So it was unexpected that he would awake with tendrils of regret curling in the pit of his stomach, with a thought that belied all of the serenity he had felt the previous night.

I may have just done something very stupid.

It was one thing to fantasize about what he wanted to do to the Malfoy heir. It was another thing entirely to act on it. Yet Harry had always been impulsive, and he wondered if he really should be surprised at himself at all. He had thought enough about snogging Draco, and touching him, and making him come, that was it really any wonder that he had done just that, when the chance presented itself? And it wasn’t like Draco had been complaining. Harry certainly wouldn’t have forced himself on the man. But, receiving all the right signals, he was spurred forward, to quite delicious ends.

But what now? Was this the beginning of something, or simply a way for two men with a mutual attraction to relieve some tension? He had never done anything like that before, quick and dirty in an empty classroom, and he had never thought himself the type to look for sexual gratification without an emotional foundation to underlie it.

But Draco might feel differently. He was not like Ron and Hermione, who believed they had found their soul mate in each other and were already planning out the rest of their lives. Draco had plans for his education, giving himself time to think about his career. A vision of a relationship and a family was down the line, and far from immediate, at least based on the way Harry had heard him talk about it. Was Draco even looking for a relationship at this point?

And did Harry really want a relationship with Draco Malfoy, of all people? Sure, they were getting along better than ever, and the attraction was certainly there, but most of their interactions consisted of joking around and teasing each other, with only a few tender moments shared on rare occasion. Relentless taunting and great sexual chemistry did not a relationship make. Harry wanted to be with someone who knew him as well as Ron and Hermione did, better even. He wanted someone who could be privy to all of his secrets, to the darker, uglier parts of his past, without passing judgment. Someone he didn’t have to be perfect for, who he could be vulnerable with.

But all relationships have to begin somewhere, Harry thought. He couldn’t expect something with that level of depth to take shape in a few weeks. It required time and work.

Did he want to invest that kind of energy in Draco? Had things changed enough to justify such an investment?

At least something with him has shifted, Harry thought, seeing as he exists as Draco now, in my head, rather than Malfoy. But that alone wasn’t enough.

Of course, it was all a moot point until he knew what Draco wanted. If he didn’t want a repeat, or wanted something open and casual, then the answer was simple. If he wanted a relationship with Harry, then Harry would have to decide if he felt the same way, and they would go from there. And if Draco was unsure… well… they’d just have to figure it out together.

But it all relied on talking to Draco, something Harry found himself both anticipating and dreading in equal measure.

***

Harry caught his first glimpse of Draco since “the incident” the very next morning at breakfast, but he was surrounded by fellow Slytherins and Harry very much doubted approaching the table would be appreciated. The most public place in the castle was most definitely not the place to have this sort of confrontation.

The problem was, Draco seemed to vanish completely after breakfast. Harry had it in mind to follow the Slytherin out of the Great Hall and try to catch him once he was alone. But he had been distracted by Ron, who had reminded him that he needed to speak with McGonagall about giving up the captaincy, a task that Harry had all but forgotten about in the wake of his unexpected tryst with Draco after the party. Knowing he should get it over with, he approached the staff table and had what he had hoped would be a quick chat with the headmistress about the change. Naturally, though, she had questions aplenty, and by the time the conversation was over and the issue settled, many of the students had already cleared out for breakfast, including Draco.

Harry checked the library, the Hogwarts grounds, the Astronomy tower, and the 8th year dormitories, but couldn’t find Draco anywhere. There were only a handful of possibilities for other places he could be, one of which was the Slytherin common room, which Harry couldn’t enter. And he didn’t exactly feel like scouring the whole of the massive castle looking for him either.

He’s avoiding me. Well, that’s just great. Harry couldn’t think of any other explanation. If Draco wanted to talk to him, he would have made himself more accessible than this. He had never found it challenging to track down Harry in the past. So the only logical conclusion was that the blond was avoiding Harry, and there was only one reason he would do that.

Draco wasn’t interested.

Harry flopped down onto one of the armchairs in the common room with a heavy sigh, trying not to feel too dejected. He knew this might be a possibility. He had tried to prepare himself for it. And it wasn’t like Harry was sure of what he wanted either. But he was hoping to at least talk to the bloke. He wanted to be sure, at least, that their friendship, which he had really come to value, hadn’t been completely ruined.

Tomorrow morning’s Potions, Harry remembered, and that cheered him up a bit. They would be starting on the brewing and experimentation phase of their project, and they would have to interact.

Harry would get his conversation. He was determined to.

***

Harry’s stomach writhed unpleasantly as he entered the Potions classroom. Draco was already there, in the process of setting up his cauldron, and Harry gave Ron and Hermione a quick wave before heading over to join him.

“Morning,” Harry said as he sat down, glad his voice sounded normal, at least to his own ears.

“Morning,” Draco replied without looking up.

“Had a good Sunday?” Harry asked, cringing internally at the inane attempt at small talk. But he hoped he would get Draco to at least look at him.

“Just lots of homework, the usual.” Draco’s voice was not its old drawl, but nor was it the amiable tone that was becoming more commonplace for the Slytherin those days. Rather it was flat, and perhaps it a bit bored. “You?”

Harry swallowed. He couldn’t help feeling the sting of Draco’s indifference, even if it was feigned. “Just homework as well,” he replied, keeping his tone chatty. “And I had to talk to McGonagall about giving up captain.”

Draco let out a small grunt of acknowledgment, his gaze focused on the notes he was arranging meticulously in front of him.

Slughorn called the class to order, and told them it was to be a project workday. Most teams left for the library, while those three who were ready to begin experimenting stayed in the classroom and set up their brewing stations.

“While it would be more efficient to set up two cauldrons and brew simultaneously,” Draco said to Harry in his know-it-all tone, “I don’t think we should. This potion is a tricky blighter and something very easily could go wrong. I think we should brew them one at a time.”

Harry agreed readily enough.

“We should both take copious notes,” Draco went on. “Especially after we add the new ingredient.”

“Sure, of course,” Harry said. He found himself wanting to hex Draco, or grab him by the shoulders and shake him, something. Anything that would make Draco actually look at him.

But now they were starting the brewing process, prepping the ingredients carefully and focusing on the precise timing required for the first few stages of the potion. The work required all of Harry’s attention, especially since he was determined to do it perfectly and show Draco he was competent after all. Wanting Draco’s approval was a new feeling, but that didn’t make it any less potent.

After an hour of meticulous stirring, wand timer resetting, and excessive note-taking, the pair finally reached last stage of brewing, where the potion stewed undisturbed for a little over twenty minutes before the final ingredient was added and it was immediately removed from the heat. It meant Harry could stretch at last, and heard his back crack with stiffness of being hunched over the potion for so long.

It also meant that he could make Draco talk to him, without anything else to distract them. Draco was still taking notes, but Harry wasn’t going to let that stop him.

“I was hoping to catch you at some point yesterday, actually,” Harry said. He forced his tone to be casual, hoping it would put Draco at ease.

But the blond obviously knew better, because he stiffened, his quill pausing mid-sentence. Harry watched his Potions partner’s handsome profile with bated breath, wondering what Draco would say.

“Is that so?” the Slytherin managed finally.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were avoiding me.” Harry kept his voice low, not that anyone around them was listening in. But he knew Draco would appreciate discretion, and Harry wanted to be discrete himself.

“I wasn’t,” Draco said stiffly.

“Good,” Harry said. “Then we should talk. About the other night.”

Draco did finally look at him, his neck snapping sharply to meet gray eyes with green. “Not here,” he practically hissed.

“Where, then? And when?”

“After class.” Draco’s voice was clipped.

“How do I know you’re not just going to rush out of here the moment we’re done, and then just keep on avoiding me?”

“I told you I wasn’t…” Draco’s jaw clenched as he closed his eyes and took a breath. “I was just thinking. There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to think.”

“All right...” Harry said.

“I’ve Ancient Runes right after this. Meet me outside that classroom before lunch and we’ll talk then.”

“Good then,” said Harry, finding himself relieved, and yet somehow even more nervous than before.

***

Harry had a free period after Potions, but he hardly put it to good use. He spent most of it in the 8th year common room staring into the fire and thinking about what he wanted to say to Draco. And then he started to speculate about what Draco would say to him, and he found himself pacing the room aimlessly, unable to remain still for more than a few seconds. With agonizing slowness time ticked by, until at last it was time for Harry to meet Draco in the corridor outside the Ancient Runes classroom.

It all felt so ridiculous and overblown, Harry realized as he made his way to their meeting spot. Why couldn’t Draco just say what he wanted to say in the Potions classroom? No one was listening in. Why couldn’t they just have a chat, like two friends, rather than make a big to-do about it all. It was highly likely that Draco was just going to reject Harry anyway, so why all the buildup?

Unless he’s not going to reject me. Harry’s heart fluttered at the thought. What if Draco wanted…?

Classes had just released and Harry saw the Ancient Runes classroom door open and 8th years come striding out one-by-one. Harry spotted Hermione, cursed his own stupidity, and thought about turning away. But she had already seen him.

“Hi, Harry!” she greeted him. “What are you doing here?”

Harry opened his mouth to answer with some made up excuse, and then realized the truth was always the better answer. “Just needed to have a quick word with Malfoy,” Harry said, making sure to use the Slytherin’s last name. “But I’ll see you at lunch, yeah?”

Hermione tilted her head and gave Harry one of those looks that indicated she knew something funny was going on, but luckily she didn’t press. “Sure, Harry,” she said, just as Draco was approaching them. “See you in a bit.”

He gave her a friendly wave and waited until she rounded the corner before turning his attention to Draco, who was looking at him impassively.

“Shall we?” Harry asked.

“Over here,” Draco said, leading them down the now empty corridor and into an unused classroom. Harry couldn’t help but blush a little at their circumstances, remembering all that had transpired the last time they had been alone in a classroom together.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking about,” Draco said, his tone dark, and a little husky. It made Harry shiver.

“Then I suppose you’re thinking the same thing,” Harry replied, unsurprised to hear his voice had gone a little throaty as well.

“No,” Draco said quickly, and shook his head. “I mean yes, I am. But… I mean…” Harry watched the Slytherin as he took deep, even breaths and stared at the floor. “It was unexpected.”

“Yeah, it was,” Harry said, rubbing the back of his neck in that way he always did when he was uncomfortable. He hadn’t felt this nervous, or this exposed, since before Voldemort’s death. “I didn’t know I was going to do that, honestly. It just sort of happened. The thought popped into my head that I wanted to do it, so I did.”

“Well, as you said, that’s sort of your new thing now, isn’t it? Doing what you want, when you want?”

Harry found himself grimacing. When put like that, it sounded much more selfish and arrogant than he would ever want it to be. “Only if the other person wants it, too.”

“Of course,” Draco said neutrally. “It wasn’t as if I stopped you.”

“No,” Harry said. “You didn’t.” He wanted to point out that it was much more than that. Draco had kissed him back, with abandon. Draco had removed his robes. Draco had said “yes” when Harry asked permission. But he wasn’t sure that would be appreciated.

“So,” Draco said, breaking the silence. “What do you want now?”

That is the question, isn’t it? Harry thought. The problem was, being alone with Draco again like this was clouding his judgment. The blond looked as immaculate and beautiful as ever. Of course, Harry most preferred Draco fresh out of the shower, barefoot, with slightly messy hair, and in Muggle pajamas, but this was a close second. When Draco was polished and perfect, he held himself with a grace that was impossible not to envy. Harry knew it was probably just his raging teenage hormones, but what he wanted in that moment was to get closer to Draco, to put one hand on that slim waist, and the other on his flawless cheek, to pull Draco flush against him, to put his mouth on that neck, on those lips. He remembered how solid Draco was, and also how passionate. And how sweet that mouth tasted.

But these were the very thoughts that had gotten him into this mess, and he knew he had to control himself. He had to find out what Draco wanted first.

“At this point,” Harry said. “I would just really like some honesty. Whatever you’re thinking, I’d like to know it. That’s what I want.”

Draco eyed Harry carefully for a long time, his fingers steepled together and pressed to his lips. “All right,” he said finally, softly. “What I’m thinking is hard to say. It’s embarrassing. But you said you wanted honesty, so…”

“I do,” Harry said, feeling his heart starting to pound. “I really do. I promise you I won’t taunt you for it.”

That seemed to be the right thing to say, because Draco nodded. He cleared his throat, and looked down at the floor. “I’ve wanted to be your friend for a very long time,” he said, his voice still soft. “Your rejection on the train our first year… that stung. A lot. I’m sure you know that.”

Harry nodded, although he wasn’t sure if Draco saw.

“Ever since then…” Draco went on. “Well, I was a right prick. I know that. There were a lot of reasons, but the reason I was so awful to you specifically was because you rejected me, and I didn’t understand why. And the reason I was so awful to Weasley and Granger is because I was jealous of them.”

Draco met Harry’s eyes, then, and Harry gazed back, hoping the look he was giving was encouraging and friendly, without looking smug.

“I’m sure that’s no great revelation to you. My actions were fairly transparent. I’ve always felt they were. I always thought you probably saw through me.” He paused, and seemed to be waiting for a response.

“I thought you were probably angry about the rejection,” Harry said. “And then, after a while, I figured you just really hated me, generally. I wasn’t exactly nice to you, either. As time went on we just kept making it worse and worse with each other.”

Draco nodded his agreement. “Yes, it was all quite stupid, really. But at the time… well, the last thing I ever wanted you to know was that I really just wanted to be close to you.”

Harry swallowed, his heart starting to pound again.

“I would have done so many things differently if…” but Draco trailed off, not completing the thought. “The point is, even after everything, I couldn’t turn you in to the Dark Lord, at the manor, even though I knew it was you. And then you saved my life from the Fiendfyre and spoke up for me and my mother at our trials. And then you sat down next to me in Potions and asked to be my partner and… well, here we are. I don’t really understand it, but…” Draco ran a hand through his hair, not a usual gesture for him, since it disheveled his impeccable look. Harry couldn’t help but think that it revealed exactly how nervous Draco was, and he felt his stomach clench pleasantly. “Merlin, as if the rest wasn’t mortifying enough.” He shook his head back and forth, as though clearing it. “The truth is that the one thing I have left to be really afraid of now is that I will lose the this thing I’ve wanted for so long. I never thought I would have it, but now I do, and I can’t… I don’t want it to get bollocksed up, not just because I’m gay and horny, and you’re free and exploring your options and… I don’t want to make this complicated. This friendship is the best thing I have right now and I want it to stay that way. As a friendship.”

Elation and disappointment battled momentarily in Harry’s chest. It warmed him to hear that their friendship meant so much to Draco, since it meant a lot to Harry, too. And it was incredible, and a testament to how far they’d come, that Draco was even willing to admit it.

But, Harry wanted… more. He was clear about that more than ever.

But Draco doesn’t. And he’s already given me so much. How could Harry justify pushing this?

And Draco made an excellent point. While this friendship was turning out to be quite nice, it was also new, and fragile, and could easily be ruined by one or both of them. Harry’s insides squirmed guiltily as he realized he might have nearly ruined it already with his impulsiveness. But Draco seemed willing to forget, and put the incident behind them, for the sake of keeping the friendship intact. Harry should be grateful, really.

“All right. Friends, then,” Harry said. For right now, his thoughts added of their own accord. At least some part of him was holding onto hope for the future.

“Friends,” Draco said. He looked genuinely relieved, and that sealed it for Harry. This was the right thing.

“Just so you know,” Harry added, wanting to diminish some of the mortification he knew Draco was feeling, after all he’d shared. “This friendship is one of the best things I have right now, too. I don’t think I could have survived everything with Ginny, and Ron, and everything without it. So…” Harry trailed off awkwardly, but Draco seemed gratified, and that made it worth it.

Draco suddenly laughed, breaking the tension. “Gods, look at us. Talking about our feelings, to each other. What is this world coming to?”

Harry chuckled. “Well, it’s done now, so you can go back to ribbing me about every little thing and I can go back to rolling my eyes and calling you a git.”

Draco grinned at Harry, and Harry thought he could feel his heart breaking, just a little. Nobody should be allowed to smile like that. It should be illegal.

“I’ll see you in the Potions lab tonight then, to test the potion?” Draco said, as he made his way to the door.

“Yeah,” Harry replied. “I’ll see you then.” Draco left, but Harry remained, leaning himself against a desk, brooding.

***

After the talk, things did change a little in their friendship, and yet, somehow, they also didn’t at the same time. They could still maintain that easy banter between them without much effort, and yet Harry thought, though it was possible that he as imagining it, that Draco was a bit gentler with him than before. Kinder, warmer. Harry thought perhaps there was an unspoken gratitude in Draco’s behavior, gratitude for the fact that Harry had listened to the Slytherin’s confessions and returned them, rather than used them against him as Harry very easily could have. Draco seemed to be settling into an increased trust of the Boy Who Lived, and he looked quite comfortable there.

Harry, unfortunately, wasn’t finding himself able to settle at all. He had made himself stop wanking over thoughts of Draco, hoping that it would curb his desire for the blond. But that didn’t stop him from having dreams, some of them quite erotic, and it didn’t stop the occasional fantasy or memory from popping into his head without his consent.

The memories were the most difficult to overcome. While he only had two, really, to choose from, they were quite powerful in their own right. Harry could still remember with tactile accuracy the smoothness of Draco’s flesh under his fingers, and it made the skin of Harry’s hands tingle and burn, thinking about it. He remembered Draco’s taste, his smell, the timbre of his moans, the pitch of his voice when he said Harry’s name, the shape of his teeth on Harry’s neck, the way he shuddered when he came. It was all right there, nearly as real as the moment it had first been experienced.

And there was the first memory, the one that had started it all: watching Draco in the shower. In all the drama and confusion of the past few weeks, Harry had nearly forgotten about it. But it returned to him now, with full force, because to Harry it stood as evidence that Draco really did want him. He clearly had been fantasizing about Harry long before they had struck up this new friendship.

That’s what you want to believe, Harry told himself. He had no real proof that that was the case, and he probably never would.

And it doesn’t matter, Harry continued firmly. Because Draco has already told you what he wants.

So Harry tried very hard not to think about it, and sought out distraction where he could. He put everything he had into Quidditch practice, including helping Ron adjust to his new role as captain, and trying to slowly mend fences with Ginny, though that would be an ongoing process.

He welcomed a letter from Andromeda in the middle of the week, suggesting that, since Harry was finding himself so busy, she and Teddy should come to Hogwarts on the weekend for a visit instead. She suggested Halloween, which was to be a Hogsmeade day, but Harry happily accepted. 8th years could visit the village whenever they liked anyway, and Hogsmeade was no better than Hogwarts or anywhere else when it came to his receiving unwanted attention. Harry felt no need to go out with his fellow students, and knew he would much rather spend the day with his godson.

The prospect of seeing Teddy and Andromeda cheered Harry considerably, and he found it easier to be his usual self that night as he and Draco found themselves in the lab again, treating the dried Agama skin in preparation for their second brewing attempt in Potions the next day. Their first experiment had been an unmitigated failure; the transfigured rat they had tested it on had had a violent seizure within minutes of them administering the potion, and then died quite suddenly. It had been disappointing, but Draco had seemed undeterred. He was much more optimistic about the Agama skin.

It was tricky stuff, the skin. It was thin, and, since it was dehydrated, quite brittle. They had to handle it with their wands only, levitating it from its packaging into a dish for rehydration. The slightest bit of oil from their hands would sabotage the process, and any indelicate treatment would cause it to disintegrate. It was no wonder that it wasn’t a commonly used ingredient. Harry had never even heard of it until Draco mentioned it. Apparently it was the skin of a particular lizard, the only species in its genus to harbor any magical properties, and it was only found in one singular ecosystem in South America. Tracking down enough to experiment with had been a chore unto itself, and they had to be careful with what they had managed to acquire.

Still, it was quite creative thinking on Draco’s part, and Harry found himself impressed.

“How did you think of this stuff?” Harry asked him, as Draco carefully administered drops of water onto the piece in the dish, causing the skin to slowly brighten into a vibrant green as it absorbed the moisture. “I’d never even heard of it before.”

He was expecting some quip from Draco about his own brilliance, followed perhaps by a taunt about Harry’s feeble and pedestrian mind, so he was surprised when Draco’s cheeks turned pink, and he said nothing.

“What?” Harry asked, now undeniably curious. “Why do you look so embarrassed?”

Draco scowled. “I’m trying to concentrate, Harry,” he said.

“Why won’t you tell me?” Harry asked, unable to help a smile. Draco’s rare bouts of discomfort were somewhat of a guilty pleasure for the Gryffindor, even after all this time. “It can’t be that bad.”

Draco bit his lip and said nothing, and Harry assumed he would not get an answer, and sighed to himself. Draco finally finished his task, putting the dropper down and watching the skin revitalize before them.

“The color,” he said suddenly.

“Sorry?” said Harry.

“It was the color that made me think of it.” Draco’s voice had that soft quality to it that was only present when he wasn’t sure he really wanted to say what he was about to say. “I was… looking at you, at your eyes, and I was thinking about how green they were. And then the skin just sort of popped into my head. It’s almost the exact color of your eyes.”

He hadn’t looked at Harry at all as he said this, but Harry didn’t need it. Draco’s telltale blush was enough. He felt a sizzle of energy shoot through him, zinging about from nerve to nerve.

“That’s… quite romantic, actually,” Harry said, his voice teasing.

“Shut it, Harry,” Draco said flatly.

“No, really,” Harry went on, enjoying himself too much. “It’s quite sweet. Adorable even. I’m flattered.”

Draco sighed, clearly exasperated. “I never should have answered you. I’m a fool.”

“Don’t say that, Draco,” Harry said. “I like you this way. When you bite your lip and blush like that, I could snog you senseless.”

He knew immediately that he had gone too far, because when Draco finally lifted his eyes to meet Harry’s, any amusement that may have once been there was utterly gone. “Don’t,” he said, sounding both angry and desperate.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said automatically. And then he thought about it a moment and said, “Actually, no. I’m not sorry.”

“Harry…” Draco began, his voice a warning. “We agreed.”

“Yeah, well…” Harry had no good answer for that. “I know we did. But I’ve just… been wondering… Haven’t you… Don’t you ever wonder…?”

“No,” Draco said, his voice going cold. “I don’t.”

That stung, more than Harry cared to admit, and he scoffed. “I don’t believe you,” he said.

“Choose to believe what you want,” Draco replied, with forced indifference.

“Don’t tell me…” Harry clenched his jaw, exasperated. “I see the way you look at me sometimes. I may not be the smartest bloke in Hogwarts, but I’m not as thick as you think. You’ve been flirting with me for the past month just as I’ve been flirting with you. Don’t deny it.”

Draco clasped his hands and sat back with a sigh. “I thought we had an understanding.”

“We do,” Harry said, realizing he was on the edge of doing the very thing they both feared: ruining things for good. “I just… pretending doesn’t work for me, either. I’m no good at it.”

“That’s all too true,” Draco said. “I’ve never met anyone as transparent as you. It’s a wonder you survived this war at all.” It wasn’t a particularly nice thing to say, but Draco’s voice was so tired, and so devoid of any malice, that Harry wasn’t sure if he should be insulted or not.

Harry was about to answer, although what he wanted to say, he wasn’t quite sure, but Draco beat him to it.

“Look,” he said. “Haven’t you ever created a fantasy that you knew was impossible?”

Harry blinked. “Um, I’m not sure.”

“That’s what most fantasies are. The best fantasies, anyway. You build them around something or someone unattainable, so that when the fantasy never comes true, you’re not disappointed. Anything too attainable, then you almost start to expect it. Or, even worse, you do get it, and it doesn’t nearly live up to what you had built up in your head.”

“What are you saying?”

“You’re the fantasy, Harry. You’re everybody’s fantasy. The Savior of the wizarding world, the hero, brilliant and misunderstood, righteous, and handsome, and humble. You’re the fantasy that is so unattainable that people will fall all over themselves just to get a few words with you, not because they actually believe they have a chance, but because they just want fuel to feed their wildest imaginings. They don’t really know you. Hell, it’s unclear if they really even like you. But that is irrelevant to them, because it’s the fantasy you that matters, not the real you. Don’t pretend you don’t know this already,” Draco said, seeming to accurately read Harry’s livid expression. “It’s the reason that even though you’re quite kind and generous with people in general, you only really let yourself get close to a few of them. It takes you a long time to trust. And with good reason. Which is why it’s so incredible to me that I even get to sit here and have this conversation with you. Because you’ve only ever been a fantasy. And now you’re real. And I… well…”

“What?” Harry said, so shaken that he wasn’t sure if he what he felt was anger or delight. “You’re worried I won’t live up to the fantasy? Because I can ease that worry no problem. I most definitely won’t live up to the fantasy. There’s no question about that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t… Reality is even better than fantasy, you know.”

Draco shook his head. “You really think it would work between us, Harry? I’m terrified every day that this thing we have is going to implode in on itself. Throw sex into the equation and things get a lot messier, especially considering we were on opposite sides of a war, and you’ve just broken up with the woman everyone expected you to marry, and you’ve just now decided you’re even interested in blokes. And me, well, I’m just trying to keep my head down, aren’t I? I’m just trying to survive the next couple of years, trying not to get cursed through my post or spat on when I walk down the street, just waiting for the day that this will all have blown over and I can become a real member of society again.” Draco ran a hand through his hair, and then pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to calm himself. Harry hadn’t seen him this worked up in a long time, and an acute, painful sympathy was rearing its head inside him. “It’s all a right mess,” Draco went on. “I’m just trying to sort it all out, and what I need is a friend, not a boyfriend. I thought you understood, but I guess not.”

“No,” Harry said, feeling guilty all over again. “I do understand. I’m sorry, Draco. I truly am.”

Draco huffed. “You don’t need to be sorry, not really. It’s incredible that you would even consider pursuing something with me. I never, ever thought it would be possible. But… you’re you, and I’m me, and maybe it’s all a really nice idea, but this is the real world, and most things don’t work out the way you hope. So let’s just be grateful for what we have, please.”

“Yeah,” Harry said, knowing he had no choice but to agree. Everything Draco said made sense, even if it didn’t feel quite right to Harry, even though there was still a part of him that clung to the possibility of someday. “Yeah, all right.”

“Thank you,” Draco replied quietly. And with that they returned to their work, remaining mostly silent, though Harry’s thoughts were far from it.

He doesn’t want you like that, he thought, over and over. You just have to accept it and move on. Just bloody accept it.

Easier said than done, of course.

Chapter Text

Harry awoke the morning of Halloween with visions of Draco still lingering behind his eyes. Dreams about the Slytherin happened almost nightly, although surprisingly they had departed from the realm of the sexual for the most part. Instead Draco was simply always present, like a shadow, or a familiar, or a part of Harry himself.

Harry was thankful a few minutes later when he remembered that it was Halloween, and that meant he would be getting a visit from Andromeda and Teddy that afternoon. If a snuggle with his godson and a friendly chat with Andromeda weren’t going to make him feel better, it was likely nothing could.

He ran into Hermione in the common room on his way down to breakfast. She gave him a once-over, as she had been doing frequently for the past week, and remarked, “You’re cheerful this morning.”

“Teddy and Andromeda are visiting today!” Harry said. “Didn’t I mention it?”

Hermione looked a little crestfallen. “I hadn’t realized it was today. Ron and I were going for a date in Hogsmeade this afternoon, since it will be nice and decorated for the holiday. Should I cancel? I’d love to see Teddy.”

“No, don’t cancel. They’re coming around lunchtime, so you’ll get to see them for at least a bit.”

Hermione nodded. “Good. I don’t think Ron would be too happy if I changed our plans. He says he’s been wanting some alone time with me.”

Harry gave her an incredulous smile. “You two don’t get enough alone time already? You spend practically every night together.”

“Yes, well… that’s different. We’re… you know…” Her whole face went very red, and Harry’s grin widened.

“Say no more,” he said, waving his hands in front of him. “You know full well I don’t want to know the details.” He had started a strict policy with his two friends at the inception of their relationship. They could come to him with any emotional relationship topic, but sex was strictly off-limits. It was weird enough when he saw them kissing or holding hands. “You heading down to breakfast?” he asked.

“Actually, I was wondering if you fancied a walk,” Hermione replied, eyeing Harry carefully.

“Any particular reason?”

“Well, while you seem plenty happy today, I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit off lately. And you’re spending an awful lot of time with Malfoy, and I’ve noticed some things…”

“All right,” Harry cut her off, silently cursing her perceptiveness. “Let’s not talk about it here.”

Looking gratified, Hermione followed Harry out of the portrait hole. They snagged some scones and juice from the Great Hall and then made their way out onto the grounds, heading towards the lake.

“You and Malfoy seem to be getting on quite well,” Hermione said without preamble, once they were well out of earshot of any fellow student.

Harry had just taken a bite of scone and used that as an excuse to stall before answering. Hermione waited patiently.

“It’s safe to say I consider him a friend, at this point,” he said finally.

“Hm.” Hermione nibbled on the corner of a scone and thought that over. “I have to admit I didn’t see that coming.”

That’s nothing, Harry thought ruefully, to the real truth of it.

“But it’s almost like you did,” Hermione went on.

Harry had to take a few seconds to understand what she had said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you quite happily volunteered to work with him on the Potions project, and you never once complained about him. You even defended him. And I notice the way you sometimes seek him out. It just seems like perhaps you were trying to become his friend on purpose.”

Harry didn’t know what to say to that. In a way, Hermione was right. Harry had initiated every stage of development in his relationship with Draco. But he couldn’t exactly explain to her that it was because he had accidentally caught Draco wanking and found he liked the sight of it.

“I suppose at first I thought I might just bridge the gap between us a bit,” Harry hedged. “You know, try to put old grudges behind us. And then it turned out that he was really different from what I expected, and I realized I actually sort of liked him. And we talked more, and it just sort of… turned into a friendship.”

“Or, perhaps… more?” Hermione asked, her voice gentle and tentative. Harry looked at her sharply, and she gave him a small smile. “I see the way you look at him, Harry. And I see the way he looks at you. There’s something there.”

Harry fought back an embarrassed smile and shook his head. “You’re annoyingly observant, Hermione, you know that?”

“Yes, I’m aware,” she said, amused. “I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, Harry. But… well, to be honest, it worries me. Not that I think you’re wrong about Malfoy, or anything. I’m sure he has changed. We all have. But that’s just the point. We’ve been through so much, and this is all so fast.”

“I know,” Harry said. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. It just did.”

“So, you two are together, then? For how long?”

“No, we’re not together.”

“Oh.” She sounded surprised. “So then, you just want to be?”

“I do,” Harry said. He couldn’t believe he was admitting this all aloud. But he had to acknowledge that telling someone was a relief. “He doesn’t.”

“Oh. Huh.” Surprise remained in Hermione’s tone. “So, you told him how you feel?”

Harry sighed, realizing the inevitable. Hermione was going to get the whole story out of him. She’ll make an excellent solicitor, he thought, with wry humor.

“It’s more that I… showed him how I feel.”

“You… kissed him?” Although Harry was looking straight ahead as they walked, he knew Hermione was gaping at him, wide-eyed. He was familiar with that expression.

“Yes, and did a bit more than that, besides.”

“How much more?”

Harry looked at Hermione with a wry smile. “Do you really want to know the answer to that?”

Hermione hesitated, then replied, “No, I suppose I don’t. But… if you two… did, you know… other things, then… was he… I mean, did he…”

“He consented, if that’s what you’re asking,” Harry said, balking at her. “I’m not a monster.”

“I know you’re not, Harry,” she said in a placating tone. “I was only trying to point out that he obviously is attracted to you as well, if he returned the… if he…”

Harry suppressed the urge to giggle at their awkward beating around the bush, then threw his head back, anticipating the oncoming humiliation. “We snogged, and used our hands, and such, to get each other off, all right?” he said quickly. “That’s what happened.”

“Ok,” Hermione said. “Thank you for clarifying.”

Harry groaned in frustration and embarrassment.

“Oh, come on, Harry, it’s only sex. We’ve all done it, so we really shouldn’t be embarrassed about it.”

“You’re like a sister to me, Hermione. I never intended to talk to you about any of this stuff.”

“Well, who else are you going to talk to about it? Ron?” she asked pointedly.

Harry grimaced. He could easily imagine the horrified expression that would come over Ron’s face if he ever learned what Harry and Draco had done in that classroom. “Fair point,” he conceded.

“So,” Hermione continued, looking satisfied, “you kissed, you did other things, you both enjoyed yourselves…”

“It at least seemed like he enjoyed it,” Harry grumbled.

“I’m sure he did,” she said. “But what happened afterwards?”

And so Harry told her the rest: how he had confronted Draco and made sure they had a conversation, what was said, their agreement, and then Harry accidentally breaking their agreement while he was teasing Draco, and how upset Draco became about it. By the end he felt strangely better, although nothing had been resolved. He was still as clueless as ever.

They walked in silence for a while, Hermione deep in thought and Harry looking out over the lake, wondering what Draco was up to at the moment, and what plans he had made for Halloween.

“I’d never thought I’d feel this level of sympathy for Malfoy,” Hermione said finally. “But I find I do really feel for him.”

“I know, me too,” Harry agreed. “I want to be there for him. But I also… well, honestly, ‘Mione, I can’t get him out of my head. I think about what we did together, and I want more of that, but it’s beyond that now. I think… I think I really have real feelings for him.”

He could feel Hermione looking at him, but he continued to stare out over the lake.

“That must be really hard, Harry. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m not sure Draco really understands how serious I am about him. I think he thinks it was just a lust-fueled encounter, and it happened because I just became single and I wanted to see what it’s like to be with a bloke. And since he’s been attracted to me for a while, he went with it. But he never took it seriously.” He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I made a mistake, doing that with him. I should have gone slower. Maybe just a kiss, or just telling him what I wanted. At that point, I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted, in the long run. I just knew I wanted him, in the moment. But I shouldn’t have acted on it. It was a mistake.”

“Maybe,” Hermione mused. “But it happened, and you can’t undo it now.”

Harry smirked. “You don’t still have a time-turner tucked away in your robes somewhere?”

“They were all destroyed, you know that,” she said. “Besides, that would hardly fix your problem. You know that’s not how it works.”

“Yeah, yeah, all right. I was only kidding.”

“And there’s a very good chance that if you had never acted on your feelings, you wouldn’t have properly sorted out what they were.”

“No, I suppose not,” Harry conceded. “Still, where do I go from here? Should I try and tell Draco how much I care about him?”

“I don’t know, Harry. Sometimes, in these situations, words don’t mean much. I think if you want him to understand how much you care, you have to demonstrate it.”

“Like, through actions?” Harry had never been much for grand gestures, and he couldn’t be sure Draco was either.

“Like, through respecting his wishes, and taking him at his word.” She gave Harry a significant look.

“You think I should back off.”

“From the romance, yes. Not from the friendship, of course. But notice you’ve been the one pushing this from the beginning. He’s gone along with it, because he likes you, and he really does want to be your friend. But he’s never had the chance to take any initiative himself. I think you should give him some room to do that, if he wants to.”

“And if he doesn’t want to? If he never does?”

Hermione sighed. “Then that’s that, Harry.”

Harry scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Yeah,” he said.

“Think about it this way: Malfoy has made it clear he doesn’t want to lose you. If you push this, he might start to think that the only way to keep you is to enter into a relationship with you, even if he doesn’t feel ready to. Do you really want to do that to him?”

Harry bowed his head. “No,” he said softly. “Of course not.”

She took his hand. “Be patient, Harry. And just enjoy being with him. What follows, follows, right?”

Harry smiled down at his dearest friend, grateful to her, as usual. “Of course, you’re right. At this point, was there ever any doubt?”

“At this point, no,” she said, and Harry laughed. “Back up to the castle, then?”

“Lead the way,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulder.

***

Harry was glad for his talk with Hermione, though it was never one he would have initiated himself. It helped clear his head, at least for a little while, so that he could be ready to see Teddy and Andromeda.

His visitors arrived while everyone was in the Great Hall eating lunch. Harry heard the large doors open and saw the dark-haired woman, who always looked eerily like her sister Bellatrix upon first glance, cross the threshold, six-month-old Teddy wrapped around her hip. Harry smiled and immediately stood to greet them.

“Hello, Harry, dear,” Andromeda said, offering her cheek for a kiss.

Harry complied. “Andromeda. I’m so glad you could come.” He turned to his godson. “Hey, little man, did you miss me?”

Teddy immediately began fussing and squirming, reaching for Harry.

“I thought so,” Andromeda said with a smirk, and handed over the boy.

Harry took him happily, kissing him on the head and humming in agreement as Teddy babbled some nonsense at him and then grabbed his bottom lip. Harry laughed and blew a raspberry into the tiny palm, which quickly had Teddy in giggles, and the boy’s mousy brown hair turned a shade of black the same as Harry’s. Harry couldn’t help but grin at Teddy’s burgeoning Metamorphmagus abilities. “Come on and sit down,” Harry said to Andromeda. “Have you had lunch yet?”

“I had a little something before we left,” she said, following him to the Gryffindor table. Harry was aware that the hall had gone very quiet, and most of the students and staff were probably watching them, but he didn’t care.

“Dessert, then,” said Harry. “Everyone wanted a chance to spend some time with you. I hope you don’t mind.”

Harry sat down with Teddy, and Hermione made room for Andromeda next to her. The two women immediately got to chatting, although Hermione certainly spared a moment to coo at the little boy and kiss his pudgy cheek.

Teddy was the center of attention for the rest of lunch. He was mooned over by most of the Gryffindors, girls and boys alike, and a number of students from other houses came to say hello as well. Some were certainly welcome, like Luna Lovegood and Susan Bones, who Harry considered friends, while some were very clearly mooning over Harry as much as the child in his arms.

Harry immediately realized his mistake in having his godson come visit during lunch. He had learned from experience that there was apparently nothing sexier than a man holding a baby, and by having Teddy there with him he was just asking for more attention. He wished he’d thought it through a bit more.

Andromeda had gone off to the staff table to visit with the headmistress and a few professors, but when she returned Harry suggested they make their way to the 8th year common room.

“It’s a Hogsmeade weekend, and Halloween, so most of the students will be out. We should have the place pretty much to ourselves.”

“Sounds lovely, Harry,” Andromeda said. “I hope you don’t mind, but Minerva invited me for an early tea around 2. Would it be all right if I popped out for an hour around then and left Teddy with you?”

“Of course,” Harry said. He had spent plenty of time alone with his godson over the summer, and he was quite comfortable with it.

Harry got the three of them settled by the fire, and Andromeda took out Teddy’s favorite toys and books from the bag she carried with her. Students were coming in and out of the room for a bit, getting their cloaks and jackets before they ventured out to Hogsmeade, and many of them smiled and waved to Harry as they passed.

“Have fun, guys!” Harry called to Ron and Hermione as they left as well.

Finally, they were alone, and Harry kept Teddy on his lap, occupying him with the beloved stuffed lion toy that Harry had given him before he left for Hogwarts.

“I didn’t think about the fact that you might want to go out to Hogsmeade on Halloween,” Andromeda said. “I would have come another time.”

“Please, don’t worry about it,” said Harry. “If I’d wanted to go, I would have rescheduled. I’d much rather be here with you, honestly. I missed you both.”

“And we missed you. Sometimes, when he’s fussy, Teddy sort of looks around, as if looking for someone. I think that someone is you.”

“It’s hard to be away,” Harry admitted. “I didn’t think about how isolated I’d be, coming back here. I’m sorry we haven’t gotten together sooner.”

“Don’t feel guilty for wanting to finish school, Harry. We’ll manage all right until June.”

Harry smiled, and asked after Andromeda’s health, and the latest gossip, and they fell into an easy conversation. Harry even found his way to confessing that he didn’t think he wanted to be an Auror anymore, and was contemplating what he wanted to do with his life.

“Well, you have to choose the path that’s right for you,” Andromeda said. “No one else can make that decision for you.”

Harry nodded. “And most of my friends have been supportive. The decision did sort of lead to me breaking up with Ginny, though.”

“Yes, I heard a little something about that from Molly.”

Harry grimaced. He knew he probably should have written to Molly Weasley, explaining the situation, but he didn’t know if she would want to hear from him, and he definitely didn’t know what he would say to her.

“I can tell by your face that you feel guilty. Don’t. You’re young, and you just haven’t found the right person for you. If Ginny couldn’t be supportive of your decisions, then she wasn’t right for you.”

“You’re right,” Harry said. “I’m clear about that now. But it didn’t feel good, to end it.”

“It rarely ever does.”

Teddy squirmed and babbled on Harry’s lap, and he let the boy lay down across him, and tickled his tummy. Teddy clearly wanted more, so Harry grabbed his wand and charmed a trio of bright birds to twitter in a circle above the boy, who giggled and grabbed at them happily.

“I will admit, selfishly, that I’m quite glad you aren’t planning to become an Auror,” Andromeda said, once Teddy was thoroughly occupied. “It’s clear that you will be very important to Teddy throughout his life, and the idea that something might happen, that you could be taken from him unexpectedly, it terrified me.”

Harry stared at the woman across from him. “Why didn’t you say anything before?” he asked.

“It’s not my place, Harry, to tell you what you should do with your life. Even if you are helping me raise my grandson, you’re young, and you’ve had such a hard life already. It’s important that you be happy, too.”

“I was thinking about Teddy, when I was making my decision. I mean, I was thinking about a lot of things, but Teddy was one of them. Aurors have a difficult schedule, and can be gone for days, or even weeks, at a time. I thought it might be hard to help raise Teddy, and hard to raise my own children, too, once I have them.”

“Well, I’m quite grateful,” Andromeda said.

Harry snorted. “I think most of the wizarding world won’t be so grateful, when they find out. It’s been printed in the papers that I’m aiming for an Auror position when I graduate.”

“The wizarding world can go fly a kite, as far as I’m concerned,” Andromeda said, with a dignity that much more resembled her other sister, Narcissa Malfoy, than Bellatrix Lestrange. “It’s your life, and they have no business telling you how you should live it.”

“Headmistress McGonagall said something similar,” Harry said.

“Well, Minerva is a wise woman. You should listen to her. And to me, as well, of course.” She smiled, and Harry grinned back. He had forgotten how pleasant it was to talk to Andromeda. It calmed him, even when it felt like everything around him was in turmoil.

“Speaking of which,” Andromeda broke into the silence. “I suppose it is about time for me to head in the direction of her office. You’re sure it’s all right for me to go?”

“Of course. We’ll be fine.”

“I’ll change him before I go. He probably needs it.”

Harry was happy to hand Teddy over for that task. He had learned quickly how to deal with dirty nappies, but it was undoubtedly the smelliest part of the job, even with magic to aid you. There were only so many spells approved for use around infants and toddlers.

“Teddy may get hungry in a bit,” she said as she calmly and efficiently vanished the dirty nappy and settled Teddy into a new one. “I’ve just started introducing solid foods, and there are a couple of jars in the bag. If he’s hungry, try one of those first. Then the bottle, if he’s being really fussy.”

“Sure,” said Harry.

“I’ll only be an hour.” Andromeda handed her grandson back to Harry with what appeared to be reluctance, although Harry was confident it wasn’t aimed at him. Andromeda was just used to having Teddy in her sight at all times. Harry knew that this little baby was the most precious thing in the world to her.

“Take all the time you need,” Harry said reassuringly. “We’ll be fine here. You know, if anything goes wrong, anything at all, I’ll send a Patronus right away.”

“Of course,” she said. With another kiss to Teddy’s head and a wave goodbye, and she left through the portrait hole.

“Well, little man,” Harry said to Teddy as he bounced him on his legs, “what shall we do now?”

Teddy stared up at him with bright green eyes and slobbered all over a couple of his fingers.

He put Teddy on a blanket on the floor for a bit, and let him practice rolling over. But the baby didn’t tolerate that for long. It seemed he really wanted to be held, so Harry settled him in his lap again and read a book to him, a durable tome with lots of pictures, charmed to be impervious to drool. But eventually he started fussing again, and nuzzling himself into Harry’s chest, and the man knew immediately what his godson wanted.

“Time for a little nap, huh?” he said, lounging back on the sofa and resting Teddy on his abdomen, so that his little ear was right on top of Harry’s heart. “This is my favorite, too,” he said softly. “Don’t tell anyone, though. I’ve got a reputation to protect.”

Reputation, ha! He chuckled to himself, careful not to disturb the boy, who was already starting to drift off. Harry focused on keeping his breathing nice and slow, matching it with the baby’s, while he ran a hand softly over his little head, down his back, and back up again. It wasn’t long before he was drifting off as well, letting his overworked brain occupy a space somewhere between dozing and waking.

He was so relaxed that when the portrait hole opened, he didn’t so much as flinch at the sound. He wondered if it was Andromeda, and if an hour had really passed so quickly, but then a tall, male figure came into view, and Harry realized immediately who it was.

Teddy writhed a little on Harry’s chest, perhaps in reaction to the spike in Harry’s heart rate that inevitably followed his looking upon Draco Malfoy those days. But Harry rubbed his back in little circles, and the baby calmed, going still again.

“Well, this is quite a sight,” Draco said, smirking at the pair of them.

“He likes it,” said Harry, realizing his voice sounded a bit dreamy. “I think it’s my heartbeat. It soothes him.”

“It soothes you too, it seems.”

“It’s quite relaxing, actually, having a baby nap on you,” Harry said with a smile. “You should try it.”

“Yes, I’ll just track down my own infant and give it a go, shall I?” Draco settled himself in the armchair across from Harry. “You know, he looks quite a bit like you.”

“For now,” said Harry. “He’s a Metamorphmagus, like his mum. For the first few months, he was changing his hair and eye color at random. Now he’s older, he automatically matches his looks to who he’s closest to at the time. Eventually, he’ll learn to control it, and change his appearance at will.”

“Hm,” was all Draco said in reply, and they sat in silence for a minute or two.

“You didn’t want to go into Hogsmeade today?” Harry asked, finally.

Draco shook his head. “I considered it, but, the novelty’s worn off a bit, hasn’t it?”

“Especially now that we can go whenever we want,” Harry agreed. “Not that I take advantage of that, much. Some of the other Gryffindors like to go down for drinks in the evenings on occasion. Some of them get pretty knackered. But I never really felt like it.”

“No, you don’t seem like much of a drinker, I’ve noticed.”

“I’m really not,” said Harry. He was thinking, suddenly, of his Uncle Vernon, as well as Marge, Vernon’s sister, two people who became exceptionally mean when they’d had too much to drink. And that was saying something, considering they were already pretty mean to begin with. “Never really saw the point. Have to have my wits about me, most of the time. I got drunk, once, at a party celebrating Voldemort’s downfall…” He realized his mistake, and wondered if saying the name would bother Draco, but the Slytherin didn’t even flinch. “I was sort of the guest of honor, and everyone kept handing me drinks,” he went on. “So I drank them. But then I just felt awful, and I wondered why anyone would do that to themselves.”

“To numb the horrors of their lives,” Draco said simply. “To escape that which they do not want to face.”

“I suppose,” said Harry. “But, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I’ve seen things as bad as anyone else has. Bloody hell, I actually died for a few minutes. That really messes with your head, you know. But you don’t see me stumbling around, making a mess of my life.” He was thinking of Ron, in the early days, struggling to make sense of Fred’s death through an excessive intake of firewhiskey. He nearly ruined his relationship with Hermione over it, and it took the trip to Australia to recover her parents for him to finally find an escape that would keep him sober. And there were plenty of other war survivors who still turned to the bottle for solace.

“I never thought I’d see the day you’d be self-righteous about something, Harry Potter,” Draco said, sounding more amused than disapproving. “But it seems that day as come.”

“I don’t mean to be self-righteous,” Harry grumbled.

“No, I like it,” said Draco. “It’s a reminder that you’re human.”

Harry wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything.

“Besides,” Draco added. “You’re right. You saw the worst of it. But you’re also stronger than most people.”

“I’m not stronger,” Harry argued. “I’m just grateful to be alive, and I don’t want to muck it up.”

Draco’s only response was an incredulous silence, but it didn’t last long. Their conversation had woken Teddy, and he was fussing about, now, kicking at Harry’s stomach.

“All right, all right,” Harry said to the boy. “Nap time’s over, I guess.” He lifted Teddy, who was starting to cry in earnest. “What is it, little one?” Harry asked as Teddy’s face turned an angry shade of pink. “What is it that you want?”

“Does he need to be changed?” Draco asked, looking at the crying baby with something like alarm.

“Andromeda just changed him a bit ago,” said Harry, though he sniffed at Teddy to be sure. “I bet he’s hungry. Is that it, Teddy? Would you like some food? I bet your Nana packed some yummy things for you, hm?” He held a hand out to Draco. “Hand me my wand, would you?”

Draco did so, and Harry transfigured one of the end tables into a high chair and placed a still-fussing Teddy into it, making sure he was secure. Then Harry fished around in the bag and came up with two jars, one full of orange food, the other green. Teddy settled in his fussing, seeming to understand that he was about to get what he wanted.

“What’s it to be, Teddy?” Harry asked, holding up the two jars for the baby’s perusal. “Peas or carrots?”

Teddy smacked the orange-filled jar with his hand.

“Carrots it is.” Harry unscrewed the jar and started feeding Teddy by the spoonful. His godson wiggled happily in his high chair, and Harry couldn’t help a small chuckle.

“You are surprisingly competent with him,” Draco remarked as Harry kept feeding the baby, occasionally dabbing at his chin with a burp cloth.

“I had to learn fast,” Harry said. “I didn’t know anything about babies until Teddy came along. But he’s my godson, and I wanted to be a part of his life. I know what it’s like to not have any parents and to feel alone. I never want him to feel that.”

“From what I heard, your own godfather really cared for you,” Draco said, his tone laced with caution.

“He did,” said Harry. “But I hardly got any time with him. He was locked up in Azkaban for most of my life. And then, even when he was free, he had to be in hiding. I didn’t see him much, though he did write to me a lot. But then, well… he died.” Harry made an extra effort to keep his voice even, his attention focused on Teddy. “And that was that.”

Draco seemed to be at a loss for words, so Harry babbled on uncomfortably. “Anyway, the war’s over now, and even though Teddy lost his parents, he can have a happy life, and I’m not going anywhere. Things will be different for him than they were for me. I’m determined for that to be true.”

“I’m sure it will be,” Draco said softly.

“Do you have a godfather?” Harry asked. He’d never heard Draco talk about one, but then, he’d never asked before.

“Severus was my godfather,” Draco said. His voice was rough, and he cleared his throat delicately.

Harry looked at him in surprise. “Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry. That you… lost him, I mean.” Harry hated talking, or even thinking, about Severus Snape. The guilt weighed heavily on him, knowing the man had died to save him, and knowing now the way he had cared for Harry’s mother. Harry had tried to do right by Snape’s memory, using a combination of his own memories and memories Dumbledore had left behind to prove that Snape had been on the side of the Light for the whole second war. He had kept Snape’s more personal memories of his mother to himself, assuming that even in death Snape would never want them known to the world. He wondered, suddenly, how much Draco knew.

“It was… difficult,” Draco said. “But many things at that time were difficult. And I’ve taken some comfort in knowing he died a hero, and that he got a proper sendoff.”

“Did you know he was really a spy for us, in the end?” Harry asked, purely curious.

“No,” Draco said. “No one knew what side he was really on, except for Dumbledore, and you, I suppose.”

“I didn’t know until the very end,” Harry admitted. “Dumbledore was the only one who knew the whole time.”

“Sometimes I think I should have guessed it.” Draco tilted his head, looking pensive. “Unlike my father, he never spouted pureblood dogma at me. Not when I was little, and not when I got to Hogwarts. I always thought that was strange, since I knew he’d been a Death Eater. Even after the Dark Lord came back into power, and Severus was basically his right hand man, the only thing he ever lectured me about was self-preservation, making sure I did whatever the Dark Lord told me to do in order to survive. I should have realized it then, that he was never one of the true believers. It was a wonder he even joined in the first place, being a half-blood and all. It was always a source of resentment, among the Death Eaters, that the Dark Lord favored a half-blood so highly. Many thought he didn’t belong.”

Harry snorted. “I can imagine. Although what they didn’t know was that Voldemort was really a half-blood, too.”

Draco stared at Harry. “What?”

“He didn’t exactly advertise it,” Harry said. “It wouldn’t have been good for his image. But his father was a Muggle, who his mother dosed with a love potion to trick him into running off with her.”

“His father was a Muggle?” Harry nodded, and Draco thought about that for a bit. “Hypocritical bastard,” he said finally.

“Well, yeah,” said Harry. “Although I think maybe his hatred of Muggles came from his father, since Tom Riddle Sr. abandoned his wife and unborn child once he realized what was happening. And then the mother, Merope, died in childbirth, leaving Tom Riddle Jr., the future Voldemort, an orphan.”

“How do you know all this?” Draco asked, dumbfounded.

“Once it was clear that I was the one who had to defeat him, I sort of had to make it by business to know all about him, didn’t I? Most of my information came from Dumbledore, the history, anyway. And a lot came from my interactions with him, and the fact that I was sort of connected to him, mind to mind.”

Draco’s face went very white. “What do you mean, connected?”

Harry stared at him. This had all come out at the start of the trials, as Harry had given testimony about how he had finally defeated Voldemort. But then he remembered that Draco had been in prison then, awaiting his own trial, and may not have ever heard Harry’s testimony.

“There was a piece of him, lodged inside me, from when he tried to kill me the first time. It was the reason I could speak Parseltongue, like him, and I could sense when he was nearby. And when he returned, I could see through his eyes sometimes… what he was doing, what he was feeling.”

“That’s…” Draco stared at Harry in horror. “That’s possibly the most disturbing thing I’ve ever heard.”

Harry shifted uncomfortably, and kept his eyes on Teddy again, who was starting to get tired of eating, it seemed. “It wasn’t exactly pleasant,” he admitted. “But it helped us win the war. And it’s gone now, of course. It died when I died.”

Draco adjusted himself in his chair. “Is that why you… Did you let him kill you on purpose, to kill the piece of him?”

“Yes,” said Harry simply. Teddy was finished, and Harry wiped his mouth once more before plucking him from the high chair. He was aware that Draco was watching him carefully.

“Did you know you would survive the killing curse again, when you turned yourself over to him?”

“No, I didn’t.” Draco stared at him some more. “Come on,” Harry said, his face feeling hot. “Let’s talk about something a bit more cheerful.”

Draco tilted his head and chewed on his lip, but finally acquiesced. “Very well,” he said, grinning. “There’s the Slytherin-Hufflepuff match coming up next Saturday. Care to make a wager?”

“Not on your life,” said Harry, very thankful for the change in topic. “Unless, you’re planning on betting against Slytherin. Then I will happily take the wager.”

“Smart man,” said Draco. “We’re quite good this year.”

“I know,” Harry said darkly. As usual, they were Gryffindor’s stiffest competition for the cup. “Why aren’t you playing this year? I thought I might get the chance to outfly your sorry arse all over the pitch one last time.”

Draco shrugged, not taking the bait. “Didn’t feel like it. I’ve got plenty of other things to occupy my time. Like my apprenticeship, and passing my NEWTs. That was enough for me.” He was staring at Teddy, who was doing a cute little wave at him, with amusement, and something that Harry thought might be longing.

“Do you want to hold him?” Harry asked.

Draco started. “What?”

“He’s your cousin, you know. Second cousin, or something.”

“First cousin once removed,” Draco corrected. “My children would be his second cousins.”

“Right. Anyway, he’s blood, isn’t he? Might as well get to know him.”

Draco still looked unsure. “I have no experience with children.”

“You’ll be fine,” Harry insisted. “He’s good with new people.” He stood and brought the baby over to Draco, who accepted him cautiously, like he was a very valuable and fragile family heirloom.

Harry watched cheerfully as Draco stared into Teddy’s face with a perplexed expression. “Hello, Teddy,” Draco said finally.

Teddy made sort of a “Bah!” sound, and then his hair turned platinum blond. Harry couldn’t see Teddy’s face at the moment, but he imagined his eyes had turned gray to match Draco’s.

“Will you look at that,” Draco said smugly.

“He likes you,” said Harry, and knew he could predict Draco’s response, word for word.

“Well, doesn’t everybody?” Draco smirked at Harry, and Harry rolled his eyes. “He looks quite good blond.”

“I imagine you think everyone would look good blond,” countered Harry.

“Not at all. You’d look absolutely awful, for instance.”

“I would, at that, I’m sure.”

“Really,” Draco said, with mock horror, turning Teddy around so he was sitting on his lap, facing Harry. “Don’t ever go blond. I have enough nightmares as it is.”

“That is a vow I feel comfortable making,” Harry said, choosing to ignore the comment about nightmares. They all had them, the veterans of the war. And there would be no question as to what Draco’s were about. Voldemort had occupied his family’s manor for the better part of a year.

Teddy started to fuss again, and Draco looked about ready to hand Teddy back in panic, but Harry picked up Teddy’s stuffed lion. “Here,” he said. “Give him this. He loves it.”

Draco looked at the toy in indignation but still handed it off to Teddy, who took it happily. “Starting on that Gryffindor brainwashing early, I see.”

Harry grinned. “Well, he’s got to carry on the legacy, doesn’t he, since his father and godfather were both Gryffindors. Or I suppose he could wind up a Hufflepuff like his mum.”

Draco pursed his lips with haughty distaste, although there was an amused glint in his eye. “I think we may have a Slytherin in the making, yet. Perhaps I will get him a stuffed snake to rival the lion, and we’ll see which he likes best.”

“By all means, bring it on,” replied Harry, and Draco laughed.

It was then that Andromeda returned, McGonagall not far behind her climbing through the portrait hole. Both women were chatting and had seemed to enjoy their tea together, but there was a brief silence as they caught sight of Teddy sitting in Draco’s lap.

“Hello, Draco,” Andromeda said, after a slightly awkward pause. Her tone was surprised, but perfectly civil. “What a pleasure to see you.”

Draco stood, passing Teddy back to Harry, and bowed towards his aunt. “Hello, dear Aunt. I hope you are well.”

“Very well, thank you. And yourself?”

“Very well, thank you.”

The tension in the room was palpable. Draco’s relaxed demeanor had dissolved completely, and he now resembled the cold and dignified Malfoy heir of his earlier years. Harry couldn’t help a stab of disappointment at the transformation. He knew it was because Draco was uncomfortable. His family was not exactly on friendly terms with Andromeda. But Harry thought it likely that Draco might want to remedy that, especially with his father now in Azkaban and unable to dictate who Draco and Narcissa should associate with. What Draco didn’t seem to realize, however, was that he would get much farther with Andromeda if he relaxed and behaved more like his true self.

McGonagall broke through the awkward silence by making her way over to Harry, cooing at Teddy resting on his hip.

“And this is the wee lad,” she said. “’Dromeda, he’s absolutely gorgeous.”

“Yes, he is, isn’t he?” Andromeda said, visibly relaxing as she joined Minerva.

As the two women mooned over the baby in his arms, Harry turned to look at Draco, who was shuffling a bit awkwardly and not looking at them. Harry wanted to catch Draco’s eye and say something, but he wasn’t sure what he could say, in front of the others. And then, suddenly, Draco nodded to Harry, turned abruptly, and left the room. Harry felt an ache of sympathy throb within him.

At the sound of the portrait hole opening and closing, the women turned to look. Then Andromeda’s eyes met Harry’s.

“I didn’t realize you were friends with my nephew,” she said.

“It’s a recent development,” Harry admitted. He might have told Andromeda more; he knew she could be trusted. But he was aware that McGonagall was listening in, and it felt strange to talk about his romantic life with his former head of house.

“I was never really allowed to get acquainted with him,” Andromeda said. “Lucius never approved of Ted and I, and he kept both Draco and Narcissa from me. It broke my heart, especially when Narcissa put up no resistance.”

“Things could change now, though,” Harry said. “With Lucius in Azkaban, and all.”

“Perhaps,” she replied, but sounded skeptical.

“Draco’s not like his father,” Harry insisted, aware that McGonagall’s sharp gaze was boring into him. “What you saw, just now, he’s not really like that. If you get to know him, you’ll see. He’s…” wonderful. “I think you would be pleasantly surprised.”

Andromeda eyed Harry, and he stared right back. “I’ll think about it,” she said finally.

“Good.”

“We really must be going. Thank you for the lovely tea, Minerva,” Andromeda said, turning to the headmistress.

“I’ll help you pack up, and then I’ll walk you out,” said Harry. He really wanted to track down Draco and find out if he was all right. But he also knew that this would likely be his last few minutes with his godson before the holiday break, and he wanted to make the most of it.

“Tea next weekend, Potter?” McGonagall asked as she was taking her leave. “There is the match on Saturday, so perhaps Sunday afternoon instead.” Harry recognized the knowing look she was giving him. Hermione often sported a similar expression. He knew better than to decline.

“That would be great, Headmistress,” he said.

“Very good, then,” she said, and was gone.

***           

When Harry next saw Draco, he seemed unaffected by the encounter with Andromeda. By this point, though, Harry knew better than to trust the impassive and often slightly bored expression that Draco wore in most circumstances. He knew, now, just how much Draco was capable of hiding with that expression.

Yet nor did he know how to make Draco feel better, if he was even feeling bad at all. Draco revealed his feelings only when he felt it necessary to do so, and rarely ever asked for help or support outright. Harry had no idea if bringing up the situation would be appreciated or resented, and so he kept silent on the issue.

But his conversation with Hermione remained with him throughout the weekend, and he knew he had to find some way to be there for Draco, and show him how much he cared, whether it was in this matter or another.

I need to do something that will make his life a little easier, he thought. And then he got an unexpected idea.

The book arrived one morning at the end of the following week. It was a heavy thing, and it had been expensive, but Harry didn’t see any other way. He had scoured the library top to bottom for what he needed, to no avail. He had even approached the acerbic Madam Pince, the school librarian, about the issue. She was surprisingly helpful, in the end; she knew the exact book he needed. But Hogwarts didn’t have it, so he had to order it himself.

Hermione leaned across the table with a curious expression as Harry unwrapped the package, reading the title of the book as it became visible: Treatment and Usage of the World’s Rare Potion Ingredients.

“I’d never thought I’d see you spend good money on a Potions book voluntarily,” she said, giving him a knowing raise of the eyebrows.

“It’s for my project,” Harry said, which was true, though he still sounded a bit defensive. Hermione wore a smug smile that irritated him. She knew that this had something to do with his feelings for Draco. At least she knew better to say anything with Ron sitting right next to her, though it might not have made a difference, as the redhead was busy shoveling food in his mouth and paying them little attention.

Harry was anxious to open the book and look through it, but class was starting in a few minutes, and he wanted to look through it without his friends breathing down his neck. So he stuffed the book in his bag and gave Hermione a reproachful look, which didn’t appear to bother her in the slightest.

“Come on,” he said, as Ron finally finished clearing his plate. “We’ve got Transfiguration, and I’d be pleased if Professor Khatar didn’t bite my head off again for being thirty seconds late.”

He didn’t get an opportunity to examine the book until after dinner. He fled to his room, having grown weary of the discerning expressions that Hermione had thrown his way all day. He was relieved to be alone, grabbing the hefty text from his bag and laying it across his thighs as he propped himself up in bed.

After checking the index, he flipped to the section on reptilian skin and found Agama quite easily. Hoping against hope, he began to read.

Harry wanted to remedy a snag that he and his Potions partner had hit the week previously. The Agama skin had turned out to be a disappointment, despite the high hopes they had both had for the ingredient. At first they believed they had done it after all; the skin had stabilized the potion considerably, and the rats they dosed all showed no negative side effects. But when they followed that up with tests to see if it could still effectively repair damaged magical cores, its potency had turned out to be quite feeble. This frustrated them both to no end, although Draco was the most vocal about it.

“I just don’t understand,” he had said over and over, flipping through the one and only text they had on that ingredient. “The effects should be the same, if not more powerful, than the Compacta.”

“Could the rehydration be diluting its potency?” Harry had asked.

They tried everything, even stewing the Agama skin without any rehydration treatment at all. That in particular had been a disaster, nearly destroying Draco’s cauldron, thanks to the praemium seeds that had been made to stew a little too long in order to soften the dry skin.

“We’ll just have to move on,” Draco said. “We’ll just have to let it go.”

But Harry had seen the intense dissatisfaction in Draco at that moment, and it had stayed with him, especially when all of the experiments with other substitute ingredients that followed had been failures.

Which was why he had done everything he could to track down more information on the rare ingredient, in the hopes that there was something they had missed and there was still hope for their potion.

Harry only skimmed the first few paragraphs, as it was all the basic information on the skin, which he was already aware of. But then he found the section on “Challenges and Misuses,” which looked much more promising:

 

            There are few challenges one encounters when working with Agama skin, since the skin itself is rich in a collagen that acts as a stabilizing agent for most volatile ingredients. There are few safety precautions that need to be taken when working with it.

 

Well, that’s hardly helpful, Harry thought. But he kept reading.

 

            However, in recent years sourcing has been an issue as the ingredient has become more popular. Many individuals that collect, process, and sell Agama skin have taken to trying to maximize their profits by extracting the magically potent oil from the skin before starting the dehydration process. This allows the supplier to sell the skin and oil separately. However, since the oil is what gives the skin its powerful healing properties, skin that has had most of its oil extracted has been shown in many cases to be ineffective in healing potions. Therefore, before ordering Agama skin, it is wise to research potential sources to be sure that one’s chosen supplier does not engage in such practices.

 

Harry stared at the page in disbelief. Had he actually done it? Had he actually solved their problem?

He had to find Draco.

Slamming the book closed and tucking it under his arm, Harry bounded out of his room and down the stairs, coming out into the common room. The 8th years present looked up at his noisy entrance, but he didn’t pay them any mind as his eyes scanned the room for that familiar platinum blond head. He huffed in exasperation. Draco wasn’t there, though his three housemates were.

He didn’t feel like scouring the castle looking for him. He was too impatient for it. So he approached the three Slytherins, hoping that now that Harry and Draco were friends, the interaction wouldn’t be hostile.

“Hello,” Harry said, and saw three faces look up at him with almost identical neutral expressions. “I’m looking for Draco. I’ve got good news about our project. Have you seen him?”

He thought he caught a small smirk from Parkinson, and wondered what that meant. However, it was Zabini who answered.

“He’s in his room,” the dark-skinned man said in a dry, bored voice that seemed to be a prerequisite for belonging to Slytherin house. “He’s working on some very complex Arithmancy calculations and didn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Thanks. He’ll want to be interrupted for this, trust me,” Harry said.

Zabini somehow managed to look incredulous without changing his impassive expression one iota. “If you say so,” he said.

Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes and instead nodded a goodbye to the Slytherins, making for the staircase again. He reached Draco’s room and knocked soundly on the closed door.

“If that’s you again, Pans,” came a call from inside, “I told you, leave it alone.”

Harry smiled at the irritation in Draco’s voice and called out, “It’s Harry, actually.”

There was a muffled scraping of a chair and footsteps, and Draco opened the door, looking confused. Harry smiled at him.

“I was told you were doing Arithmancy and I shouldn’t disturb you, but…” He held up the book for Draco to see. “This is worth it.”

Draco stepped aside to let Harry in. “What did you find?” he asked.

“The Agama skin,” Harry said, recognizing how excited he sounded. “The problem wasn’t with the properties of the skin, but the way it was processed by the supplier we got the skin from.” Draco watched Harry intently as Harry explained about the oil being extracted and the skin losing its potency. “It’s a practice that’s only started in the last few years. That’s why it wasn’t mentioned in that old potions book we used.”

Draco seemed to be absorbing Harry’s excitement by proximity. “So, you’re saying that the Agama skin may still work, if we get it from a reputable supplier.”

“Exactly,” Harry said. “It will require some research, though. I’m not sure exactly how we weed out the shadier suppliers from the reputable ones. After all, we thought our first source was legitimate, but they obviously sold us impotent skin.”

Draco nodded. “You’re right. You’re right…” He paced back and forth. “There may be a way… Can I see that?” He pointed at the book, and Harry handed it over.

Draco opened the book on his desk, and Harry watched over the blond’s shoulder as he rifled through it, turning to a section titled “Oils and Extracts.” There was information on Agama there was well, and Draco read it quickly, his finger sailing down the page. “Yes,” he said finally. “Yes, this will work.”

“What will?” Harry asked.

“We can add the oil to our rehydration treatment,” Draco said. “This says that the skin will reabsorb oil that’s been extracted if the skin is moist enough. It means we can use the skin we already have.”

It clicked for Harry. “If we order the oil as well. Then we can add it back into the skin at the same time we rehydrate it, and it will be as good as new.”

Draco turned to Harry, a massive grin splitting his face in two. “It’s perfect.” To Harry’s surprise, the blond placed an elegant hand on either side of his face and held him firmly. “You, Harry Potter, are a bloody genius,” Draco said, his gray eyes alight and boring into Harry’s.

Harry wanted to respond, but the intimate touch had his heart hammering in his chest, and the way Draco’s thumbs brushed the delicate skin under his eyes made him dizzy. His eyes flicked to the parted pink lips of Draco’s mouth, and he hoped, for a moment, that Draco would lose himself in the moment and kiss him.

But after a few seconds Draco seemed to come back to himself, his smile fading and the light in his eyes dimming. He swallowed, and took a step back from Harry, letting his hands drop. Harry had the powerful urge to whimper at the loss of contact.

“I’ll order the oil right away,” Draco said, turning away from Harry and returning to the book. “It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days. And then we’re back in business.”

“Sounds good,” Harry said, finally finding his voice, though it sounded weak and rough to his own ears.

Draco looked at him again. “This really was brilliant, Harry. How did you find out about this book? It’s a recent publication. I’d never heard of it.”

“Madam Pince,” Harry said, rubbing the back of his head and enjoying the praise a little too much. “I couldn’t find anything else in the library about Agama skin, so I asked her. She suggested I order that.”

Draco smiled softly. “That’s above and beyond. I’d given up hope on it.”

“I know. But I hadn’t,” Harry said, and he suddenly couldn’t help but feel that they were talking about something else. “I thought I might give it one more go.”

“And it paid off,” Draco said. He picked up the book and closed it, handing it back to Harry.

“Keep it,” Harry said. Draco’s brow furrowed. “No, really. I won’t have any use for it after this year. I bet it will come in handy for your mastery.”

Draco still looked confused. “Harry, you don’t have to-“

“I bought it for you,” Harry said, swallowing. “It was for you all along. Just… just take it. Please.”

“All right,” Draco said softly. “Thank you.”

They stood in silence, until Harry didn’t think he could stand it anymore. He either had to jump Draco right then or get out.

“I’ll let you get back to your Arithmancy,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He turned to go, and barely heard it when Draco whispered, “Goodnight, Harry.”

Harry’s hand lingered on the doorknob for a moment. “Goodnight, Draco,” he replied, not letting himself turn back. He knew, somehow, that if he looked at Draco in that moment, he would never be able to look away again.

***

The weekend passed in a blur. The match between Slytherin and Hufflepuff was surprisingly exciting, Hufflepuff actually managing to hold their own well against their opponents and only losing by a one hundred and sixty point margin, much better than expected. Harry also had his tea with McGonagall, where they danced around the issue of his friendship with Draco while discussing his future prospects and what career he might want to pursue. Homework kept him plenty busy as well. Potions wasn’t the only class that had assigned hands-on projects, all of which had to be completed by the end of November, to leave a couple of weeks to study for End-of-term exams. This had all of the 8th years grumbling, especially those who had internships or apprenticeships on top of their schoolwork.

The supremely challenging Potions project was the source of particular ire for most students, but not Harry and Draco. Thanks to their revelations of the previous week, they had a couple of major breakthroughs with their potion and were well on their way to finishing early. Draco had taken to looking perpetually pleased whenever they were working on the project, giving Harry smiles that made the Gryffindor's insides ache pleasantly. Still, Draco was careful not to touch Harry again, stalling any forward motion Harry thought they might be making in their relationship.

It was enough to drive him absolutely mad, his longing for Draco. He couldn’t help but compare his feelings now to those he had had when he realized he wanted to pursue Ginny. The latter seemed to be born out of jealousy, not liking seeing her with someone else. What he felt for Draco was hardly as proprietary. It was more like a warm fire than a possessive green-eyed monster. It burned low in his navel all the time, steady, and pleasant, and unquenchable. It flared up, sometimes, unbearably, painfully, when he least expected it, when he caught a glimpse of Draco doing something totally mundane that was still somehow beautiful, because it was Draco who was doing it. In those moments it took all of Harry’s willpower not to pull Draco to him, to envelope him in the same warmth, the same fire, to make Draco feel what he felt.

I will go mad, he kept thinking to himself, as he and Draco made steady progress with the project. I will go insane, if this keeps up.

And yet another week passed and it was the same. Only the drop in temperature as they entered mid-November gave any indication that time was passing. Harry felt stagnant, his days blending together as the same routine of work, friends, Quidditch, writing to Andromeda, and obsessing over Draco plagued him day after day. He just wanted something to change.

And then the Sunday morning came when he regretted his wish.

It started out like any other Sunday. Harry let himself have a bit of a lie-in, recovering from yet another dream featuring his favorite blond Slytherin. Then he went down to breakfast, where he found Hermione and Ron already sitting. Hermione was chattering away about something or another, while Ron was eating and nodding his head. Harry smiled as he sat down across from them.

“Post arrived yet?” he asked. “I’m expecting a letter from Andromeda about Christmas plans.”

“Any minute now,” said Hermione. “It’s hard to believe the holidays are only a month away! It’s all gone by rather fast, hasn’t it?”

Harry couldn’t disagree more. He was looking forward to the break and the chance to get away from school and work and everything else for a while. It still felt ages away to him. But he only hummed vaguely and started heaping his plate with sausages.

It was only a minute later that the owl post arrived. It brought no letter for Harry, to his disappointment, but a rather a hefty edition of the Daily Prophet, which Hermione snagged and opened, as she usually did, always eager for information. She was quiet as Ron and Harry chatted about Quidditch, and finally Harry looked at her and asked, between bites of sausage, “So, what’s new in the world, Hermione?”

She didn’t answer right away, and she didn’t look at him. Her face was suddenly careful and closed, and Harry stopped chewing, a small stone of dread dropping into his stomach. “What is it? What are you reading?”

Still she said nothing. Ron, curious, leaned over and read along with her, and it only took a second for his face to register horror and disbelief, his eyes wide and his mouth gaping.

“What is it?” Harry asked again, nerves making his voice come out a growl. “Will somebody bloody tell me…?”

Hermione looked at him with watery eyes. “I’m not sure you should-“

“Fucking show me what it says,” Harry nearly shouted, grabbing the paper from her.

The headline was large, and bold, and brutal:

TRAGEDY AND TRAUMA: DISTURBING DETAILS OF OUR SAVIOR’S CHILDHOOD REVEALED!

By Rita Skeeter.

Harry’s blood turned to ice. No. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. Numbly, he made himself read on.

It was all there, every detail: the cupboard, the catflap on his bedroom door, the bars on his window, the ratty hand-me-downs, his aunt and uncle’s unwavering and vitriolic hatred of him and his magic, his cousin’s perpetual violence towards him, his lack of friends. It was all there, in print, for anyone to read. The dark, slimy underbelly of his upbringing.

There were quotes from interviews with Vernon, Petunia, and Marge, even a couple of his grammar school teachers. What Vernon had to say was unsurprising, just the same old rubbish from when Harry was a boy. How he had hoped to “beat that magic out of him once and for all,” and how he kept the truth about his parents’ deaths for his own good, and all that nonsense. The teachers were worse, somehow, describing him as “small, feeble, and lonely,” remembering his broken glasses and malnourished physique. They had never stepped in to help, though, finding him odd, seeing as how he was always getting in trouble for the strangest things. They never bothered to get involved.

There were even pictures. Some were wizard photographs, clearly taken recently, showing the cupboard and his old bedroom, where the catflap had yet to be removed. But there were a few Muggle ones of him as a boy as well, looking tiny and downtrodden. There was a haunted, hopeless look in that boy’s eyes that brought it all rushing back, like it was yesterday, and Harry swallowed down a mouthful of bile.

How had Skeeter gotten her hands on all of this information, all of this evidence? His relatives would never have voluntarily talked to a witch without a sizeable incentive; she must have paid them off. They were probably vacationing in Majorca at that very moment, reaping their reward.

He realized that he was shaking violently, and he dropped the paper, unwilling to read any further. He could see that the next section was some amateur psychoanalysis on the part of Skeeter, delving into the tormented psyche of the wizarding world’s boy hero. All it took was to spot the phrases “years of abuse and neglect” and “internalized beliefs about his own worthlessness” popping out of the page to know he wouldn’t be able to stomach reading any more.

He made the mistake of looking at Ron and Hermione, who were both staring at him with identical expressions of concern, fear, and… pity. Heart pounding, acid churning in his stomach, Harry turned and looked out across the Great Hall. He knew he wasn’t imagining it; many students were looking his way, that same pity in their expressions, while others were talking quietly to themselves, papers in hand, and casting furtive glances in his direction.

The shaking got worse. They were talking about him. They were all talking about what had happened to him. He should be used to it by now, but this was different. Because it had really happened, because it was the one thing he had counted on keeping buried forever.

He stood abruptly. He needed air. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t stay. He turned his back on his friends, practically running for the doors. He barely registered Hermione’s cry of “Harry, wait!” followed by Ron saying, “Let him go, Hermione.” And then he was in the entrance hall, pushing at one of the large doors and bursting out into the gray morning.

It was a bit too cold to go out in only jeans and a jumper, but Harry didn’t care. He made his way across the grounds, towards the lake, welcoming the chilly air filling his lungs and clearing his head. The panic had subsided as quickly as it had come. Now, he was seething.

So, this was Skeeter’s revenge. She had been put out when Harry declined an exclusive interview immediately following Voldemort’s fall, and Harry had expected consequences from that. But he had never realized she was this vindictive, this intent on destroying him. All of the other articles were child’s play compared to this last one, her coup de grâce.

Well played, Skeeter.

He approached the lake and took a right, seeking out a secluded spot where the bank met the edge of the forest. He settled himself against a tree, shivering a little in the cold. He conjured some of the portable blue fire Hermione had taught him, warming his hands for a few minutes before getting comfortable and staring out over the lake.

What was he going to do now? The idea of ever facing his classmates and teachers again was almost unbearable. He knew, no matter what, that they would all think of him differently, now. Whether they were disgusted, or upset, or simply felt sorry for him, it didn’t matter. His past, the one he had worked so hard to be free from, was going to follow him wherever he went from now on.

Hermione and Ron hadn’t even known all the details. They knew it had been bad, but they hadn’t known that it had sometimes been violent, especially in the few years right before Hogwarts. They didn’t know the way his aunt and uncle had constantly undermined his sense of worth through outright verbal cruelty and, even worse, underhanded psychological manipulation. Harry never talked about it, to anyone. He couldn’t help but wonder if his friends were upset that he had never confided in them.

Or perhaps they're just going to obsessively worry about me, he thought bitterly, and think I’m fragile and unstable for the rest of our lives.

Harry brought his legs up, resting his arms on his knees and closing in on himself. There was a ripple in the glassy water of the lake and Harry watched stoically as the giant squid poked a tentacle out of the water. He focused on that for a while, the way the tentacle breached the surface again and again in a fluid sort of dance, like a wave hello, and he felt his mind start to calm. Finally, he at least got to the point where he didn’t feel like punching something bare-knuckled.

His stomach grumbled, but he ignored it. He wasn’t about to go back to the castle for food. He wasn’t sure he could even stomach eating if he tried.

Eventually the squid disappeared, returning to the depths of the lake, and Harry watched the water until all the ripples had smoothed out and the surface was glassy again.

He was calm enough by then that the sound of footsteps approaching didn’t startle him. He knew, by the sound, that it was neither of his best friends. The footfalls were too heavy to be Hermione but not clunky enough to be Ron. When they stopped directly behind him he turned and looked up, and was unsurprised to see Draco staring down at him with his usual impassive expression.

“May I sit?” Draco asked.

Harry nodded. There were few people in that moment that he would have been willing to talk to, but Draco was definitely one of them.

“I saw you rush out of the hall at breakfast,” Draco said conversationally, as he removed his cloak and hung it carefully on a nearby branch. He then conjured a cushion and placed it on the ground next to Harry so he could sit, making sure his hands and clothes never touched the ground. It was all so inherently Draco that Harry had to fight a smile. “I didn’t know if you wanted someone to go after you or not, so I hesitated. By the time I had made my decision, I didn’t know where you’d gone. It took me a while to track you down.”

Harry wasn’t sure exactly why Draco was telling him this, so he simply nodded.

Draco reached into the back pocket of his trousers and pulled out a folded up copy of the Prophet. “I assume this is what’s got your knickers in a twist?” he said.

Harry didn’t say anything, staring out over the lake some more. He could feel Draco looking at him.

“Harry,” Draco said, his voice softer now. “You have… There’s legal recourse, you know, for things like this. You don’t have to let this leech get away with it. I can put you in touch with a solicitor I know who handles libel cases just like this one.”

Harry snorted. “Libel, huh?”

“Yes,” Draco said, and Harry looked at him properly for the first time that morning. Draco stared right back, and then realization dawned. “You’re saying it’s true?”

“Every word,” said Harry. “Didn’t you look at the photos?”

“I thought they might have been faked, or altered.”

“Nope.”

“Merlin’s bollocks,” Draco said under his breath, looking at the paper again. They sat in silence for at least a minute. “All right, then, new plan,” Draco said finally. “I’ll go to Surrey and murder your relatives, while you out Rita Skeeter as an unregistered Animagus and get her fired, and possibly thrown into Azkaban. Double revenge, yeah?”

Harry couldn’t help it; he actually let a chuckle escape his lips. “No need to resort to murder, Draco.”

“No one will ever know it was me,” Draco said. “I’ll use polyjuice and a stolen wand. My mother will give me an alibi, no problem. She’d lie through her teeth for me.”

Harry knew full well that was true. “Thanks for the offer,” he said. “But I forgave them a long time ago.”

Forgave them?” Draco said, aghast. “For all this?” He held up the paper again.

“Yeah,” Harry said, looking at Draco only to see the blond staring at him with an intensely furrowed brow. “I forgave. But I didn’t forget. As long as I never had to see them again for the rest of my life, I knew I would be able to move on. I don’t want to fixate on the past. There’s just too much…” He took the paper from Draco’s hand and shook it. “This is just the tip of the iceberg of the fucked up things that have happened to me. This isn’t even the stuff that haunts me, or gives me nightmares. This, to me, is old news. It’s meaningless.” He tossed the paper aside.

Draco took a moment to absorb that. “All right,” he said. “Then why did you get so upset about it being printed?”

Harry sighed. “Because it’s meaningless to me, but the way it sounds, the way it looks… I know what people will think when they read it.”

“What will they think?”

“That I’m broken, damaged. That I only sacrificed myself to Voldemort because of my intense self-loathing, or something. None of that is true. I’ll admit, it took me a couple of years to accept that I could have friends, even people who considered me family. It took me a bit to figure out I was worthy of love. But since I realized that, I’ve never had any cause to doubt it. I don’t hate myself, at all. I would be a lot more self-destructive if I did.”

Draco frowned, considering what Harry had just said. “I’m not sure that is what people will think.”

Harry snorted. “Really?”

“Did you read the whole article?”

“No,” Harry said. “I could barely stand skimming it.”

“Well, it’s…” Draco grimaced. “All right, it is quite terrible, really. She’s clearly savoring every little negative detail of your story. It’s sickening, to say the least. But then at the end… well, she does this bit about how you ended up the way you are, and she essentially comes to the conclusion that you must be a very extraordinary person, to have endured so much and still had it in you to save us all. She seems to imply that a lesser man, a weaker man, would have succumbed to rage and hatred and turned evil.”

“That makes no difference,” said Harry.

“Why not?”

“Because…” Harry had no idea how to explain it. “Because my childhood had nothing to do with me defeating Voldemort, positively or negatively, and it has nothing to do with who I am.” He realized he sounded petulant, but he couldn’t help it.

Draco sighed and stared out across the lake, since Harry was doing the same again.

“My father was a right bastard, you know,” the blond said, after a few minutes. “He was horrible to me. I mean, not like what’s in here,” he held up the paper, “not violent or neglectful. In fact, I never wanted for anything, when it came to material things: toys, brooms, sweets. But he was… withholding in other ways.”

Harry looked at Draco and saw that, despite what he was saying, his face was calm and free of pain.

“I never remember a moment in my life when I had his approval. It was always ‘You can do better.’ And I don’t think I ever heard him tell me that he loved me. Not once. Perhaps he did when I was very small. But I have no memory of it.”

Harry was still watching Draco. He knew much of this already, or at least could have easily guessed it, but he was listening with rapt attention anyway.

“My mother overcompensated for his lack of affection by giving me anything I wanted, and showering me with love, and telling me I was the greatest person to have ever walked the planet. But it was never enough, because my father was my father. He was so powerful, and influential, and charismatic, all the things he taught me that a Malfoy should be. And I wanted to be just like him. So I made gaining his approval my life’s mission. The problem was, I was never going to get it. Because, while I had believed for a long time that he just simply didn’t know how to tell me that he loved me and was proud of me, the truth was that he withheld his approval on purpose, to make me work harder. He knew exactly what he was doing. And he was so good at it; he had me under his thumb from the beginning, and by the time I realized what he was really up to, it was too late. The Dark Lord had returned, and we were in his service, and I had no choice but to comply. Anything else meant certain death. And then he got himself chucked into Azkaban after the Ministry debacle at the end of our fifth year, and suddenly I had to pay for his mistakes. It didn’t matter that it was unfair, or that I was angry at him. I had to do it, because he would kill us all if I didn’t.”

“I know,” Harry said softly. “It’s not your fault.”

“My point is,” said Draco, meeting Harry’s eyes, “I had parents. Two of them, proper, that on the surface did all of the things that a parent should do for their child. But they fucked me up anyway. They turned me into an insecure little brat who needed constant attention and cared very little for other people’s feelings.” Draco swallowed, and now there was real pain on his face. “You want to talk about self-loathing. I can’t stand thinking about how I used to be. It makes me sick, sometimes. But then I remember that I don’t have to be that. That I have a choice. It doesn’t have to define me.”

“Exactly,” said Harry, glad that Draco seemed to understand. “I don’t want my past to define me either.”

“It doesn’t define you,” Draco replied. “But it is a part of you. The only reason I know what kind of person I want to be is that I finally saw clearly, for the first time, the kind of person I used to be, and I worked to understand how I got that way. I couldn’t be truly free of my past until I accepted that it was a part of me. I know it doesn’t make sense, but it’s true. You’ll never be free of your aunt and uncle and what they did until you accept that it did shape you. It had to. There is nothing and no one in your life that hasn’t shaped you in some way. That’s the difference.”

Harry sat on that for a long time. Draco, for his part, seemed perfectly content to let him.

He had never thought about his past in the way Draco described it. He had always believed that by having his childhood be the one thing that he kept secret, that he would be able to keep it absent from his identity, therefore making it like it had never happened at all. Never again would he have to think of himself as that powerless and unloved little boy. But it could not be erased. It had happened. He had to acknowledge the truth of that, considering how upset it made him to even talk about it. Clearly he was still wrestling with it, internally.

Harry sighed heavily, suddenly very tired, and aware of the growing ache of hunger in his stomach.

“I can’t tell if I’ve made you feel any better,” Draco said.

Harry found himself smiling. “Was that the goal?”

Draco looked at Harry with a furrowed brow. “Of course it was.”

Harry kept smiling. “Surprisingly, I do feel better."

“Good,” Draco said. And then he reached out, tentatively, and took Harry’s hand, intertwining their fingers and letting their forearms rest against each other. Harry felt a thrill go through him at the contact. He didn’t think Draco was going to make another move and try and snog him, but this was a start.

So, assuming Draco wouldn’t mind, Harry rested his head on Draco’s shoulder, and smiled when he felt Draco tilt towards him. They sat, and smiled, and breathed, and played with each other’s fingers as the morning waned.

Chapter Text

There were few times in his life when Harry felt truly content, but this was turning out to be one of them. With the tranquility of the lake before him and the solid comfort of Draco beside him, he thought it really couldn’t get any better.

Unfortunately, there were such petty necessities in the world as feeding oneself, and Harry had essentially skipped breakfast. While the rest of him was quite happy to stay exactly where he was, his stomach was roiling in protest.

“Bugger,” Harry said with a sigh. “I’m starving.”

Draco chuckled beside him. “Luckily that is something that is easily remedied. It’s nearly time for lunch anyway.”

“I don’t want to go back up to the castle,” Harry said. “I just can’t face it yet.”

“All right…”

“I suppose I could have Winky bring us something here. I think her magic extends to the whole grounds.”

“Winky?”

“She’s a house elf that works here. Sometimes I call her directly if I need something.”

“Only you would get to know the Hogwarts house elves by name.”

“She’s an old friend,” Harry said, not feeling like going into the story or correcting him that it was really Hermione who made a point to know all of the house elves. “Shall I call for some lunch, then?”

Draco wrinkled his nose. “I don’t fancy the idea of eating here. This is hardly an ideal spot for a picnic. Let’s go to Hogsmeade instead.”

“I don’t have any money on me. Or a jacket. And I’m not going up to the castle to get them.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “And here I was, thinking you were a wizard and could do magic. Silly me.”

“Oh, right,” said Harry, feeling stupid. He lifted his wand and summoned what he needed.

“You know, you’re pretty pathetic when you’re hungry.”

“Oh, shut it. I’m quite used to hunger, actually. The Dursleys used to use food deprivation as a punishment when they thought I’d done something bad, which was often.”

That shut Draco up, but Harry immediately felt guilty for bringing it up. It wasn’t Draco’s fault he’d had a shitty childhood.

His jacket and money bag arrived speedily. He shrunk the bag and slipped it into his pocket, then shrugged on the jacket. It was his favorite: black leather and quilted lining that fit him to perfection. He had bought it right before coming to Hogwarts, and it was the first item of clothing he’d ever let himself spend a lot of money on. By the way Draco was eyeing him in it, the money had been well worth it.

“You like the jacket I take it?” he teased, raising an eyebrow in his best imitation of the Slytherin.

Draco’s cheeks turned pink, but he smirked and reached out with both hands, popping the collar up. “Wear it like that and you could be James Dean.”

Harry laughed. “How do you know who James Dean is?”

“I told you before, I have some experience with Muggle culture. I’ve seen a couple of his films. He was quite sexy. I couldn’t resist.”

Harry shook his head, disbelieving. Part of him wanted to enjoy the compliment, but it was a bit much. “Well, he was blond, wasn’t he? You already pointed out that I can’t pull that off.”

“It’s not about exact looks. It’s about… aura. ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ and all that.”

Harry snorted. “Rebel With a Cause, more like. Or I used to be, anyway.”

“You still are, Harry.” Draco brushed a hand through Harry’s hair, and it took all of Harry’s willpower to remain where he was, and not move closer to Draco. Handholding was one thing, but this was another level of intimacy altogether, and it was nearly unbearable, knowing he couldn’t take what he wanted.

“Come on. I’m only getting hungrier,” he said and started walking, folding his collar back down as he did so. Draco followed, and they made their way across the grounds in comfortable silence, heading towards the open gates that led into the village.

“Where shall we go?” Draco asked, once they reached the outskirts of Hogsmeade.

“Anywhere but Madam Puddifoot’s,” said Harry, remembering the horrid Valentine’s Day date with Cho Chang his fifth year. If he never set foot in that tea shop again, it would be too soon.

Draco raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask, and instead led them down the main thoroughfare past the Three Broomsticks and then into a charming side street where the cobblestones were uneven under their feet and there was ivy growing along the outer walls on either side.

“There’s a café down this way,” he said to Harry. “It’s simple fare, but it’s good.”

“All right,” Harry agreed. He couldn’t help but suddenly feel like this was a date. They had never been out, just the two of them, like this. But he had to remind himself that Draco saw it differently, and he shouldn’t get too excited.

The café was small and casual, and mostly empty. They found a table, off in the corner, and the waitress approached them promptly. She gave a little squeak as soon as she recognized Harry, but otherwise made no move to acknowledge his celebrity, which Harry was grateful for. She left them menus and a drink list and scurried off.

“She finds you intimidating, I think,” Draco said.

Harry shrugged. “Everyone reacts a little differently.” He reached for the drink list first. “I don’t usually drink at lunchtime, but I could really use something today.” He was pleasantly surprised at the selection. “They have Muggle beer here.”

Draco nodded. “It’s becoming more popular.”

“Good. Wizard drinks are so sweet. It’s nice to have something different every now and then.”

“I’ve had the lager. It’s good.”

Harry was surprised that Draco had tried beer before, but didn’t comment. “Lager it is, then.”

They ordered a pint each, plus sandwiches and chips.

“So,” Draco said, once the waitress was out of sight again. “Tell me what it is that you find so offensive about Madam Puddifoot’s.”

Harry grinned. “I had the worst date of my life there once.”

“With the Weaselette?”

“No, Cho Chang. We went there on Valentine’s. It was the first date I’d ever been on, and I was painfully nervous. And she drags me there, with these other couples that are basically snogging in front of us.” He regaled Draco with more mortifying details and Draco leaned in, listening with open delight. Harry couldn’t help a wide smile himself. There was something about sharing his adolescent humiliation with Draco that made it seem much funnier than it was at the time. “And then,” he said, as Draco started to shake with laughter, “she brings up Cedric, and how they used to go there together, and then she starts crying.” Draco snorted and buried his face in his hands. “And everyone is staring at us, and glaring at me, because clearly it’s all my fault and… well, that was that. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. We ended up having a pretty bad row.”

Draco got control of himself and wiped tears from his eyes. “That is, without question, the worst date story I’ve ever heard.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“And so ended Harry and Cho,” Draco said with mock wistfulness.

“No, actually,” Harry said. “That’s the really mad part. We made up not long after, only to have another terrible row when her friend snitched on us to Umbridge, and she didn’t like that I was upset about it.”

“She sounds very high maintenance.”

“She was. It would not have worked out between us, Madam Puddifoot’s or no.”

Their drinks came then, and while Draco took a hefty sip of his, Harry held back, wanting to get some food in his aching stomach first.

“All right, Draco, tit for tat. What’s the worst date you’ve ever been on?” he asked his companion.

Draco frowned. “To be honest, I’ve never had a really bad one.”

“Lucky you,” said Harry.

“It’s not luck so much as that I haven’t been on that many real dates. When you’re trying to hide your sexuality from your father, you pretty much have to hide it from the world, which made having any kind of real relationship difficult. My fourth and fifth year I mostly just fooled around in secret, nothing serious. And sixth year I had other things to worry about, as you well know.”

Harry nodded. That made sense. “What about after the war?”

Draco sighed. “After I was cleared I did venture out a bit. To Muggle clubs and bars, mostly, where I wouldn’t be recognized. It was… quite unpleasant to have the name Malfoy in the wizarding world at that time.”

Harry let the implications of that sink in. “Are you saying you dated Muggles?”

“Don’t look so shocked.”

“It’s just hard to picture, is all.”

Draco shrugged. “I knew I would never find something serious there. I want to end up with a wizard, after all. But I was finally free and I wanted to… enjoy it, I suppose.”

“And did you?” Harry wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know the answer to that. Draco was good-looking by any standard. No doubt the men were all over him, and Harry didn’t exactly enjoy imagining that.

Draco shrugged again. “It was all right. I went out for drinks a few times, casual things. But it was all fairly… underwhelming. No major sparks. And then I came here, and I’ve just been focusing on school.”

Harry tried not to grimace at the reminder that this wasn’t really a date and that Draco didn’t want to be his boyfriend. It was all so easy to forget, with their relaxed and free-flowing conversation and the way they leaned in to each other automatically, making everything seem more intimate.

Their food came, and conversation turned to other things: holiday plans, Draco’s apprenticeship, Harry’s most recent career discussion with McGonagall. One topic flowed into the next, and Harry did his best to focus on that alone, and not how sexy Draco looked delicately licking his fingers free of salt whenever he popped another chip into his mouth.

Lunch went by too fast, and Harry felt his stomach turn with dread as they placed their money on the table and left the café.

“Can we just… walk around for a bit?” he asked Draco tentatively, worried he was asking too much. He didn’t want Draco to feel obligated to spend the day with him, but he wasn’t ready to go back to Hogwarts yet. Draco looked at him for a second, and Harry was about to backpedal the question and suggest Draco get back to the castle, if he needed to, but Draco spoke first.

“Sure,” he said. “Where do you want to go?”

Harry shrugged. “Anywhere?”

Draco smiled and took his hand. Harry had to turn away to hide his blush. Merlin, this really feels like a date, he thought. He couldn’t get the notion out of his head.

They went by Zonko’s, but it was closed, being a Sunday and all, and only really popular when the Hogwarts students were visiting. Honeyduke’s, however, was open, and they each bought a hunk of fudge to enjoy; Harry, as usual, got treacle, while Draco favored the chocolate peanut butter flavor. They ate it with their fingers and occasionally swapped for each other’s as they kept walking, past the robe shop, and Madam Puddifoot’s, where Draco made a big show of trying to drag Harry inside while Harry laughed and protested vehemently.

They spent a good fifteen minutes ogling the latest broom models in the window of the Quidditch supply shop. Firebolt had just come out with a whole series, each model specially tailored to one purpose. Draco drooled over the Firebolt Red, a racing broom that was supposed to be at least twenty-five percent faster than its predecessor, while Harry coveted the Firebolt Gold, a trick broom designed for Seekers. Apparently its handling and response time was so good it could practically read the rider’s mind for what it was supposed to do next.

“Merlin, that’s tempting,” Harry said. “Especially with two more matches to go for the cup. I could pull off one hell of a Wronski Feint with that kind of maneuverability.”

“From what I’ve seen, you can pull off one hell of a Wronski Feint already,” Draco said, still looking at the Red with a sort of glazed expression. “Don’t get greedy. At least give the other teams a fair shot.”

Harry grinned. “You’re only saying that because you want Slytherin to win the cup.”

“Never said I wasn’t,” Draco grinned back. “All right, we have to walk away, or both of us are going to come away with a fancy new broom we don’t need.”

Harry knew Draco was right, and so they kept walking. They passed the post office, and it reminded Harry that he had yet to get an owl to replace Hedwig, even though it had been over a year since her death.  He kept meaning to, but something always stopped him, a small twist of pain, or maybe guilt, in his gut.

“What are you thinking about?” Draco asked, picking up on Harry’s suddenly serious mood.

“Just my old owl,” said Harry. “She died last year. I never got a new one.”

“Why not?”

Harry wasn’t sure he knew how to explain, and he didn’t even get the chance, as he spotted a silvery shape come bounding towards them. It stopped in front of him and he immediately recognized Hermione’s otter Patronus.

“Harry,” it said, in Hermione’s voice. “We know you want to be alone right now, but Ron and I are worried. Please let us know what you’re ok. We love you.” And then it dissolved.

“That was Granger, I assume?”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “I’m an idiot. I should have sent her something earlier. Should have figured she’d be worried.”

He conjured his own Patronus and prepared a message. “I’m fine, Hermione. Just wanted some time to myself. I’m in Hogsmeade.” He almost added “with Draco,” but immediately realized that Ron was sure to hear the message too, and that would open up a whole box of boggarts that he wasn’t ready for yet. “I’ll be back soon, I promise,” he finished, then sent his stag Patronus charging away towards the castle.

“Nice form, that one,” Draco said with a grin. “Very masculine.”

Harry elbowed him playfully. “Yeah, yeah. What’s yours, then?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never conjured a corporeal one before.”

Harry was surprised at that, before remembering the Patronus Charm was NEWT level magic, and the only reason most of his friends could do it was because he had taught them. The 7th and 8th years were learning it now, but Draco was not pursuing a Defense Against the Dark Arts NEWT, so he would have no way to learn it. “I can teach you how, sometime, if you want.”

Draco shrugged, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “Yeah, maybe.” He changed the subject quickly. “Well, we’ve seen just about all of Hogsmeade, with the exception of the Shrieking Shack. Did you want to visit that as well?”

“No, that’s all right,” said Harry. The Shrieking Shack was no longer just a tourist attraction to him, but rather the site of many painful events, which he had no interest in reliving. He sighed. “I suppose we ought to head back.” He started walking back the way they had come, and Draco copied him.

“You sound so excited at the prospect.”

“Yeah, well… it will just be more whispering and staring all through dinner. But I’m used to it by now. And I suppose I’ll get plenty of letters tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, people do seem to like to get involved in your life, don’t they?”

“Not just me,” Harry said. “Anyone they read about in the papers. Whatever the hot new story is.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes, passing by most of the shops. The Hogwarts gates were soon in view in the distance.

“I’ve just thought of something,” Draco said.

“What?”

“Well, you say you’re bound to get letters because of the article that just came out, and of course you’re right… but doesn’t that mean your relatives will get letters as well?”

Harry thought about that for a moment. “They’re Muggles…” he said at first. “Though they have received owl post in the past.”

“Exactly,” said Draco with a wicked grin.

“But those letters were properly addressed,” argued Harry. “Skeeter didn’t print their address in the paper.”

“Doesn’t matter. She printed that they live in Surrey. And she printed their full names. Any owl worth its salt can find a recipient with that much to go on.” Draco looked quite pleased.

“You think they’re going to get Howlers.”

“I’d bet my life on it.”

Harry wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Certainly, Vernon and Petunia deserved it, after everything. Still, every negative thing involving magic that ever happened to them only further secured them in the belief that magic was wrong, maybe even evil, and a large pile of Howlers would only cement that misconception further.

“I’m sure you’re right,” Harry said. “I only hope it’s not too bad.”

Draco shook his head in disbelief. “You really are a bloody saint, aren’t you?”

“No,” Harry said, frowning.

“I hope they get a whole mountain of Howlers,” Draco said, looking unapologetic. “And I hope they all explode.”

“I’m not saying they don’t deserve it…” Harry said. “I just… what’s the point? The past is the past. I mean, look at us. Not a year ago we were at each other’s throats. And now…”

Draco gave him a soft smile. “And now,” he echoed. “Fair point. Put the past behind you. It was you they wronged, and it’s healthy to forgive. I, however, feel no qualms about being vindictive towards them. It gives me great pleasure.”

“Spoken like a true Slytherin,” Harry said drily.

“Thank you.” Harry stared at him, and Draco smirked. “I assume you meant it as a compliment.”

“Sure, you keep telling yourself that,” Harry said, but couldn’t help smiling all the same.

They passed through the gates and were officially on Hogwarts grounds again. Harry groaned. “Ugh, I don’t want to go in there. I know I’m being a bloody coward but…”

“It’ll be all right, Harry. I don’t think it will be as bad as you think.”

“No, probably not.” He turned and met Draco’s eyes. “And I’d be feeling considerably worse about it if it weren’t for you, if it weren’t for all this,” he gestured back to Hogsmeade. “So, thank you.”

“My pleasure.” Draco’s words were not merely polite, but contained a kind of ardent sincerity.

Harry felt his face warm a few degrees, but he kept his eyes fixed on Draco. “I don’t know what it is…” he said. “You just…”

Draco raised his eyebrows in a question. “I just…?”

“Get it,” Harry finished. “Get me, in a way no one else does. I don’t know what I…” His face was flaming now, and he bit back an embarrassed smile. “Anyway. Thanks. That’s what I’m trying to say. And now I’ve said it. Twice. So…” He turned, feeling like a tongue-tied moron.

But he felt a hand on his wrist, and a gentle tug, and he turned back to see that Draco was staring at him with an expression he had never seen before. He had seen both affection and lust paint Draco’s features in the past, but this was something different. His face was serious, intensely so, and his gray eyes were pure heat, tracing over every feature of Harry’s face, lingering especially over the mouth. Harry licked his lips unconsciously. “Draco?”

Draco let out a small breath, and a smile flitted across his lips for just a moment. “Harry,” he said, and with one swift tug pulled the Gryffindor to him.

Harry barely had a moment to register what was happening before a hand cupped his cheek and his mouth was captured in a blazing kiss that coursed through every nerve in his body. He responded immediately, tasting Draco again in the way he had wanted to since their first encounter. Teeth nibbled lips and tongues danced together as they pulled each other closer, discovering, consuming, memorizing.

And then Draco slowed the pace down a bit, which was lucky, Harry vaguely realized, because they were technically in a public place and it wouldn’t do for them to start getting naked only a few-hundred meters from Hogwarts castle. The kisses now were slow and sweet, and all the better for it.

When their lips parted, they rested their foreheads together and tried to catch their breath.

“You changed your mind?” Harry asked, when he could finally speak.

“Changed my…?”

“You said you didn’t want this.”

Draco gave a dark, throaty laugh. “Harry.” He said the name like a sigh, and the sound of it made the Gryffindor shiver pleasantly, as did the pale hand now running up Harry’s chest to rest over his heart. “I’ve wanted this for so long. Merlin, you don’t even know… But I never thought… I never let myself believe that it could be this good, this… easy. I never thought it could be real.”

“It’s real for me, Draco,” Harry said, meeting his eyes. “I don’t want this to be some casual thing. I want something real. I wanted to tell you that, before, but I didn’t think you wanted to hear it.”

Draco laughed again, this one a little more sardonic. “I’ve been stupid,” he said.

Harry grinned. “Yes, well, you can’t help it.”

Draco glared at him, but there was no real anger in it.

“How about you just kiss me again?” Harry suggested. “And we’ll forget the past.”

Draco seemed all too happy to oblige.

They walked back up to the castle, hand-in-hand, and Harry was amazed at what a difference a bit of snogging could make to his mood. He couldn’t stop smiling.

“I have a couple of conditions,” Draco said out of the blue, as the main doors of the castle came in to view. He paused where he was, and Harry turned back to look at him.

“Name them.”

“First, I want this to be… just us. I don’t want you to be with other people.”

Harry smiled. “Of course. I don’t want to share you with anyone else either. And I don’t do the dating multiple people thing. I just… it’s not for me.”

“Good.” Draco sounded relieved.

“And the second?” Harry asked.

“That this doesn’t stay secret. I know it has so far. People know we’re friends but… they don’t know the rest. And I don’t want to hide it, if we’re really going to do this.”

“I don’t want to hide it either,” Harry agreed. “The only reason I would is to protect you. I don’t know exactly how people will react to this, but I can guarantee some of it won’t be good. And it will probably be much worse for you than it is for me.”

Draco shook his head. “I don’t care about that, Harry. Other people can rant and rave and send me Howlers. It doesn’t matter. I learned a long time ago that most people are stupid, and their opinions are meaningless.”

Harry laughed. While that wasn’t exactly his own outlook on the world, he knew where Draco was coming from.

The wizarding world can go fly a kite, Andromeda had said. Wise words.

“We’ll have to tell our friends, though,” Harry pointed out. “I don’t know how the Slytherins will react, but I can tell you that the Gryffindors will have mixed feelings.”

“Blaise and Pansy already know,” Draco said. “And since Pansy knows, Theo almost certainly does too.” He shrugged at the look of surprise Harry was giving him. “They’re my best friends. I tell them everything.”

“Hermione knows too,” said Harry. “She could tell how I felt about you, and she finagled the details out of me.”

“That’s Granger for you,” Draco said. “What about the Weasel?”

Ron,” Harry corrected pointedly, “is clueless, as far as I know.”

“Well, that goes without saying.”

Harry gave him a warning look. “You know, for this to work, we’re going to have to make an effort with each other’s friends.”

Draco sighed. “I know, Harry. I know.”

“So at least just call him Weasley, if you can’t stand to ever use his first name.”

“What about the She-Weasel?” Draco asked.

Harry fought a smile. “To her face, call her by either her given name or her surname. Behind her back, I don’t really care much.”

Draco pointed a finger at Harry. “There is an ounce or two of Slytherin in you after all, Potter. I knew there had to be.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Come on, Malfoy. It’s nearly time for dinner.”

“So it is,” agreed Draco. “We’ve whiled away nearly the whole day. I’m going to have a mountain of homework tonight.”

Harry groaned at the reminder. “I’ve got that Charms project, and an essay for Defense. Bugger. And here I was planning to invite you to my room for a nice long snog.”

Draco shook his head. “You’ve never prioritized school, have you?”

“No, I suppose not. But I’ve had other things on my mind. Like killing a madman who was trying to take over the world, for instance.”

“And now, what’s your excuse?”

“And now… well… when I think about school work, my mind just starts going,” Harry held up both his hands, as if weighing two options on a scale, “Charms project, or Draco Malfoy?” He looked from one hand to the other. “Gee, which one would I rather be doing?”

Draco laughed. “You see, this is why I resisted getting a boyfriend. You’re going to be a bad influence on me. My marks will plummet.”

“Nonsense,” said Harry. “All work and no play makes Draco a dull boy.”

Draco scowled, not seeming to get the reference. “I am not dull.

Harry grinned and gave him a peck on the lips. “I know you’re not. Far from it.” He turned away and started walking towards the castle. “Come on, then. And if you really want peace and quiet to work tonight, we should probably hold off telling people about us, at least until tomorrow. Wouldn’t want the deranged hordes coming after you while you’re trying to write an essay. I imagine it would be distracting.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Draco conceded, catching up and walking right alongside him. “Tomorrow, then.”

“Tomorrow.”

They parted ways in the entrance hall, Harry entering the Great Hall first and Draco following a minute or so behind. There were only a few people already seated for dinner, and Harry found a spot on the far end, sitting with his back to the Slytherin table so he wouldn’t be tempted to look over at Draco all evening.

Luckily Harry found himself mostly ignored, at least until he heard the familiar trill of Hermione’s voice calling to him.

“There you are, Harry!” she said.

He looked up to see both of his best friends coming to join him.

“Hey guys,” he said. “Have a good day?”

“Are you all right?” Hermione asked, as she sat down. “I got your Patronus, and you sounded ok, but when you left breakfast this morning…”

“You looked like you were going to be sick, mate,” Ron chimed in.

“I thought I was going to be,” Harry said honestly. “But I calmed down after a while.”

“I can’t believe that horrid Skeeter woman,” Hermione said. “She was walking the line before, but now she’s gone way too far over it. We’re going to have to do something about her.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Harry said, giving her an affectionate smile. He was sure his anger at Skeeter would return in good time, but at the moment it was trumped by all that had just transpired with Draco.

“Well, you look loads better,” said Ron. “I thought you’d be more upset.”

Harry shrugged. “I was upset, but…”

Hermione was eyeing him carefully. “What did you get up to, today?”

“I told you. I was in Hogsmeade.”

“The whole day?”

“No. First I went to the lake, and I sat there for a good long while. And then I got hungry, so I went to Hogsmeade. I ate and I walked around and… that was it.”

“All by yourself?”

Harry couldn’t help his answering blush.

“You were with someone?” Ron asked. Harry’s blush deepened. “Blimey. Was it a… did something… happen? You look…”

Harry eyed Hermione, hoping she would pick up on the fact that he didn’t want to talk about it.

“You were with… someone,” she said.

Harry closed his eyes in frustration. He loved his best friends, but sometimes he wished they didn’t know him so well.

“Who was it?” Ron asked.

“I can’t tell you right now,” he said. “I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Why tomorrow? If you’ve started dating someone else, I think we ought to hear about it.”

“Harry will tell us when he’s ready, Ron,” Hermione said, finally picking up on the fact that Harry wasn’t ready to reveal all.

“It’s not Pansy Parkinson is it?” Ron asked, making a face and ignoring Hermione.

Harry laughed. “No, it’s not Parkinson.”

“Thank Merlin. But why keep it a secret, if it’s not a Slytherin?”

“I’m not keeping it a secret,” said Harry impatiently. “We agreed to start telling people tomorrow. So I will tell you tomorrow. I promise.” In truth, Harry didn’t really think Draco would care if he told his friends now, or told anyone else, for that matter. But he just wasn’t ready for what Ron’s reaction would be. The thought of one more night of peace was too good to pass up.

Thankfully, this seemed to placate Ron, and he moved on to speculating about what sort of revenge they could take on Rita Skeeter. Harry, relieved, ate his fill of dinner and happily participated in the scheming.          

***

Harry was yawning heavily the next morning at breakfast. It had been a late night, with all the homework he had put off for most of the day. To make matters worse, he had the expected pile of well meaning but heavily misguided sympathy letters that he had to sort through. He was so irritated and tired that when he finally uncovered that morning’s edition of the Daily Prophet, it took him a moment to register exactly what he was seeing. He stared at it, and blinked, and realized…

He was looking at a picture of himself being kissed quite passionately by Draco Malfoy.

It was then that he realized that the Great Hall was a cacophony of voices, all blending together into an excited buzz, no doubt discussing fervently what was on the front page of that day’s paper. Harry was mostly ignoring this, however, too stuck on looking at the picture. While certainly an invasion of privacy, he had to admit that seeing the way Draco was clutching him, the way they were kissing with abandon, was a pretty big turn on. They looked quite good together. He glanced at the headline.

The Savior and the Snake: Inside the Secret Romance of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

By Rita Skeeter.

It was then that reality hit him, and he realized he had made a mistake. Several, in fact.

The first, of course, was snogging Draco in a place where they could be photographed. Not that it had really been his fault, but he had certainly encouraged the advances. He flipped to the next page and saw that the photographer had not only caught the kiss, but a good portion of their “date” as well, including the lunch, the handholding, the sharing of fudge, and a whole lot of them smiling at each other. It all looked quite cozy, and Harry knew his second mistake was obviously not realizing that they were being followed by a photographer in the first place. By the looks of the article, Rita had very little to actually report, other than that he and Draco were obviously together. But given that she didn’t know any of the details herself, she had allowed the photographs to do most of the talking for her. Without them, she wouldn’t have had much.

And the third mistake… well… that was staring Harry right in the face as he looked up from the paper and met a pair of disbelieving blue eyes.

“Tell me this isn’t real,” Ron said, his voice dangerously low. “Tell me this is some kind of sick joke, and this isn’t really what you were doing all day yesterday.”

Harry took a deep breath and steeled himself. He had always known that, with the exception of Ginny, Ron would be the person who would have the biggest problem with the idea of Harry and Draco together. He had been expecting it, and he felt too strongly for Draco to allow Ron free reign on this issue. However, he couldn’t help but hold onto the hope that Ron could be persuaded to be supportive.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said. “I should have told you yesterday. I didn’t know there was a photographer. I didn’t know it would be in the papers today.”

Ron opened his mouth and closed it again, his wide eyes making him look like a beached fish.

“It wasn’t even really a date,” Harry went on. “I thought he just wanted to be friends, and I was going along with that. He was just spending the day with me to make me feel better. But then he kissed me, and-“

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on.” Ron said. “He just wanted to be friends? You just went along with it? What are you saying, that you wanted…? That you have…?” He seemed unwilling to say it.

“I have feelings for him. Strong ones. And we’re together now, as of yesterday.”

“Merlin’s sweaty bollocks,” said Ron, and Hermione smacked him in the arm in admonishment.

Harry had been so focused on Ron that he had completely forgotten Hermione was there. He turned to look at her, to see that she was giving him a small smile, though her eyes betrayed her anxiety.

“I did what you suggested, you know,” he told her. “I gave him space. I didn’t push. He… decided he wanted to be with me, on his own.” He couldn’t help smiling, even though he was trying to fight it.

“I know, Harry. The picture is pretty clear. He grabbed and kissed you, not the other way around.”

“We didn’t just snog, you know. We talked as well.”

“I’m sure you did.” She looked over at Ron, who was staring at her like he had never seen her before.

“You knew?” he asked accusingly. “You knew, and you were all right with it?”

“Yes, I knew,” Hermione replied, sitting up a little straighter, a clear indication she was prepared for an argument. “And while I did have some concerns, I also wanted to support Harry.”

Ron grumbled something under his breath that Harry didn’t catch, though he could guess the nature of it.

“Malfoy is who Harry wants,” Hermione went on. “And if that’s who he wants then-“

“But he was a bloody Death Eater, Hermione-“

“Not a convicted one.”

“He nearly got us killed. Multiple times! He poisoned me once, remember?”

“By accident.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that I was poisoned, and it happened because he was trying to kill Dumbledore…”

Harry let them go at it, glad that Ron had turned his attention to Hermione, and that she was willing to assume the mantle of defending Draco, at least for a little while. He turned, looking around the room. Some people were staring at him open-mouthed, or glaring at him with open dislike. He mentally shrugged at that, not particularly caring. The only person he really cared about was sitting at the far end of the Slytherin table, looking at the article with critical gray eyes, his mouth twisted in thought.

Harry’s stomach turned over. Was this going to upset Draco? Would this change his mind about their relationship, with all the publicity?

As though he could feel Harry’s gaze, Draco looked up and their eyes met. Harry gave Draco a sheepish smile and raised his eyebrows in a question. Draco returned it with a small smile of his own, and then suddenly stood, a copy of the paper still in hand. It took a moment for Harry to realize that Draco was coming around the table and making his way towards where Harry sat, staring.

Whispers and glares followed Draco as he approached, but he ignored them. Harry noticed, vaguely, that Ron and Hermione had gone quiet, but he was still focused on his new boyfriend, who stopped in front of him, his pale, handsome face impassive, as he held up the paper.

“Darling,” the blond said in a dry voice. “It appears we’ve been outed.” Harry realized that Draco was fighting a smile, and he grinned widely.

“I suppose we were a bit careless.”

“This one is entirely my fault. I recognize that,” said Draco.

“It isn’t,” Harry argued. “I should have realized we were being followed by a photographer all day. I honestly don’t know how I missed it.”

“He must have been under very powerful Disillusionment and Silencing Charms,” Hermione chimed in.

“That is highly likely,” Draco agreed.

While Harry agreed as well, he couldn’t help but feel that he should have been more vigilant. He had been so wrapped up in Draco, he hadn’t used his eyes for anything else.

“Are you all right?” Harry asked him.

“Of course,” said Draco. “I told you. This sort of thing doesn’t bother me.”

“You’ll be getting hate mail tomorrow.”

Draco shrugged. “What else is new? Besides, there’s a silver lining, in that at least this has drawn attention away from yesterday’s story. This is much bigger news than the fact that your relatives were a bunch of abusive low-lifes.”

“You’re right,” said Harry, suddenly feeling more cheerful. “I’d much rather get Howlers about you than stupid sympathy letters suggesting names of good Mind Healers. Thanks for that.”

“Ah, yes, well, it was the plan all along, of course.” Draco leaned forward towards Harry. “You can show me the full extent of your gratitude later,” he said, and winked.

Behind them, Ron made a sort of pained choking noise, and Harry had to stifle a laugh.

“I was going to head to Transfiguration,” Draco went on. “Care to join me?”

“Sure,” said Harry, standing up. “You guys coming?” Harry turned to his friends.

Ron was red-faced and silent, looking as though he had forgotten how to breathe. Hermione’s cheeks were a bit pink, but otherwise she looked normal as she replied. “Not quite yet. We’ll see you there, Harry, Malfoy.”

“Yes, see you there Granger,” Draco said, nodding politely. He turned to Ron. “Weasley.” He then took Harry’s hand and they walked out of the hall together, head after head turning as they passed.

“I think you’re enjoying this a bit too much,” Harry murmured to him as they exited.

“Perhaps I am,” replied Draco. “But come on, Harry. Did you see their faces? Especially Weasley. Priceless.”

Harry rolled his eyes, but he had to admit he found Ron’s reaction rather funny as well. “Still, there will be fallout for this, no doubt. I’m going to have to say something to Ginny, make sure she’s ok.”

“Yes, undoubtedly the image of me snogging your face off will come as a bit of a shock.” Draco sounded almost gleeful, and far from sympathetic.

“Play nice,” Harry warned.

“With your ex? I’m not sure about nice. I’ll be polite. But I have a feeling she and I aren’t going to wind up best mates.”

“You’re certainly right about that.”

Draco paused and Harry, still holding his hand, paused with him. Draco leaned over and gave Harry a light kiss on the mouth.

“I said I would make an effort, and I will. But you at least have to let me have a little bit of fun. It’s all just too entertaining.”

Harry couldn’t help but smile. “Fair enough. After all, you wouldn’t really be you if you didn’t get some kind of twisted enjoyment out of their discomfort.”

Draco grinned. “Exactly.”

“But my point is,” Harry said, letting his smile drop so Draco would know he was serious, “Ron, Hermione, and my other friends… that’s one thing. They can take a bit of teasing. But Ginny…”

Draco turned away, looking sour.

“I’m not just saying it for her benefit. I’m saying it for yours. She has some mean hexes up her sleeve.”

“You think I can’t handle a little girl?”

“She’s no little girl,” Harry said. “Trust me. Plus, if you really want to get along with my friends, rubbing this in Ginny’s face is going to seriously hinder that. There’s having a bit of fun, and then there’s being just plain cruel.”

Draco grimaced. Harry seemed to have hit a sore spot.

“I really want this to work,” Harry went on, hoping to soothe the barb. “I’ve never wanted anyone like this. Not Ginny, not Cho, not anyone.”

That seemed to do the trick, because Draco turned back to him, his face open and vulnerable. “Really?”

“Really. You’re all I’ve been thinking about for the past month and a half. Surely you knew that already.”

Draco sighed. “All right. I hear you, Harry.”

Harry kissed him. “Thank you. Let’s go to class.”

***

As expected, the next day brought its fair share of Howlers, cursed letters, and simple hate mail to Harry and Draco both. Most of the letters Harry received weren’t dangerous; they were along the lines of “How could you?! He’s a Death Eater!” on top of a few slurs on his sexuality from the most narrow-minded of the bunch. It was irritating, but not anything he hadn’t been prepared for.

Draco was undoubtedly bearing the brunt of the negative attention. While people were upset as it was that Draco had “stolen” their savior for himself, the article about Harry’s childhood had made many suspicious that Draco had taken advantage of Harry in some way, preying upon his insecurities and need to feel loved.

This especially incensed Harry, the implication that he was apparently so easily manipulated, not to mention incapable of making his own choices regarding his love life. Those insinuations, and the threat the more dangerous letters posed to Draco, were enough to get his blood boiling. Draco, however, handled it all with aplomb, vigilantly and systematically checking all of the letters for curses and charming all of the Howlers to open at once, so that the cacophony they created was, while quite loud, virtually unintelligible, all of the insults and threats getting buried under one another.

Student reaction was less overtly hostile. Most seemed to realize the stupidity of trying to hex the Savior’s boyfriend; they knew the consequences would be dire, both from Harry and from Headmistress McGonagall. However, there were plenty of dirty looks thrown Draco’s way, mostly from girls, which he pointedly ignored most of the time. Harry could tell when Draco was really starting to get annoyed by it, though, because at those times he would usually throw an arm around Harry, give him a kiss on the cheek, and then wink quite obviously at the glaring students, a smug smile on his face. It made Harry blush, but it usually worked. The students would scowl, certainly, but eventually look away.

The Slytherins, to Harry’s surprise, were quite supportive. Draco’s 8th year friends seemed to just want him to be happy and, while they were a bit wary of Harry, were perfectly polite to him. The younger members of the house were nothing short of in awe of Draco already, and the stir his new relationship caused had elevated him into a sort of demi-god. Harry was included in that awe by association.

The Gryffindors, well… Harry knew he had his work cut out for him. There were some, like Dean and Seamus, who didn’t seem to care much, not having had many run-ins with Draco in the past and therefore not harboring any major resentment towards him. But there were others, like Neville, who couldn’t get over their confusion on the issue.

“Malfoy, Harry, really?” Neville asked him the same afternoon the story had appeared. “You know I think you should be able to date whoever you want, but, honestly, why him, of all people?”

From anyone else, Harry would probably have rolled his eyes and gotten defensive. But he could understand where Neville was coming from. If anyone had a right to have an issue with Draco, it would be him; he had arguably been the target of Draco’s bullying as much as Harry had been in those early years.

“He’s different,” Harry replied. “I know that’s easy to say, and harder to prove, but he really is. He regrets a lot of his behavior in the past.”

Neville simply looked at him, too nice to say outright that Harry was full of it. But Harry knew that was what he was thinking. Draco was going to have to put in a lot of effort with Neville, that much was clear.

“I know it’s a lot to ask, Nev,” Harry went on. “But give him a chance? For me?”

Neville smiled, seemingly in spite of himself. “You know, Harry, for someone who hates the spotlight so much, you make an awful lot of controversial choices that seem to keep you there.”

“The choice is only controversial because I’m in the spotlight,” Harry argued. “If I was just some nobody then people wouldn’t care who I dated and they would mind their own business. And I’m not going to stay away from Draco just because my so-called ‘fans’ won’t like that I’m with him. You know that’s never been my style.”

“That’s true,” Neville agreed. “Still, you made an awfully big splash. It might have been announced with a little more subtlety. That’s all I’m saying.”

Harry happened to agree with Neville’s insightful and diplomatic criticism. If he could have done it over again, he would have done it all differently. Except for the snogging Draco part, of course.

This was due, in large part, to Ginny. He knew she was incredibly upset, and he tried very hard to apologize for allowing her to find out that way, but she managed to avoid him at every turn.

“She doesn’t want to talk to you,” a still-angry Ron told him in the common room that night. “You totally blindsided her with this. She’s devastated, she’s furious, and she will hex you into oblivion if you come near her right now. So just leave it.”

Harry squirmed in his seat with unbridled guilt. “You know that it wasn’t my intention for her to find out like this. I was going to tell you all in private. Her too. I really was.”

“Well, it doesn’t make much of a difference now, does it?”

Harry grimaced but privately agreed. There was no real justification for it. Ginny had every right to be hurt and angry. He just wished he could find some way to magically fix it. But they didn’t make magic that solved this kind of problem.

“You could have told me, you know,” Ron was saying now, pulling Harry back to the present. “That you like boys, I mean. It wouldn’t have bothered me.”

“I know,” said Harry. “But I was still figuring out a lot of it myself and… well… if I had told you what I was feeling, I would have also had to tell you about Draco. And I knew you wouldn’t like it.”

“I don’t like it,” Ron said, glancing across the room to where Draco was sitting with his friends, working away. He kept his voice low. “I don’t trust him, Harry. I have no reason to.”

“My word isn’t enough? The fact that I trust him implicitly, that isn’t enough?”

Ron sat there and thought about that. “I just don’t understand.”

“You will,” Harry said confidently. “As long as you’re polite to him, you’ll see what I see, eventually.”

Ron didn’t say anything for a bit. Harry fought the urge to get up and join Draco, knowing how Ron would construe that. But he was glad he waited, because Ron spoke again after a minute or two.

“Is this the real reason you ended things with Ginny?” he asked.

“Is what the real reason?”

“The fact that you like men. I mean, are you gay or…?”

“Bisexual,” said Harry, making a concerted effort not to be embarrassed. Still, he felt his cheeks warm a little. “I like men and women.”

“So you didn’t break up with Ginny because of that.”

“No. I told you why already.”

“And not because you liked Malfoy.”

No,” Harry insisted, getting a little irritated. “No one else had anything to do with it. I just didn’t think we were right for each other, and I didn’t want to be with her anymore. It’s that simple.”

“I believe you,” said Ron. “But let’s agree that this situation is anything but simple.”

Harry said nothing. As far as he was concerned, it was quite simple. He didn’t want to be with Ginny; he wanted to be with Draco. It wasn’t that complicated. Or it wouldn’t be, if people had it in their heads that I can make my own damn choices about my own damn life.

Luckily Hermione arrived then, practically falling into Ron’s lap, and Harry took that as permission to leave them be. He got up and crossed the room, seating himself next to Draco on the sofa. Draco spoke without even looking up from his parchment.

“I saw you and the Weas-“ Draco cleared his throat. “You and Weasley,” he corrected, “whispering conspiratorially over there.”

“He wanted to know if you were the reason I broke up with Ginny.”

“Was I?”

“No,” said Harry. He thought Draco already knew that.

Draco sighed. “Too bad. I thought maybe you’ve been pining after me for months, maybe even years. Maybe you’ve been madly in love with me this whole time.”

“Maybe you’ve been madly in love with me this whole time,” Harry countered. “You certainly paid me enough attention over the years.”

Draco fought a smile. “Wouldn’t you just love to know the truth?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Well, unfortunately for you I’m quite busy writing a letter to my mother and can’t get into it right now.”

“Well, there’s always after you finish the letter.”

“Yes, but by then I probably won’t feel like it anymore.” He winked at Harry, who scowled. But he knew Draco still enjoyed getting a rise out of him, and was unwilling to give him the satisfaction. So he moved on.

“Are you writing to your mother about us?”

Draco nodded. “I sort of have to, don’t I? She’ll have seen it in the paper by now. I’m sure she’s already irritated with me for not telling her earlier. So I’m explaining the situation.”

“Will she… approve?”

Draco frowned. “I don’t see why not. You’re relatively accomplished, intelligent, and attractive. I could definitely do worse. I mean, not much worse, but still.”

Harry scowled some more. He had to admit that Draco was still very good at the getting-a-rise-out-of-him thing. “It’s only twenty-four hours into this relationship and you’re already annoying me. On purpose, I might add.”

“Yes, but… you’re so cute when you’re annoyed.”

“I am not cute.

“I beg to differ.”

“I am many things. ‘Cute’ is not one of them.”

"You both are so cute I might just go vomit,” Zabini said under his breath, and Draco burst out laughing.

“Don’t be bitter, Blaise, just because that Ravenclaw snubbed you. She wasn’t even pretty.”

Pretty is overrated,” said Zabini in his usual, dry drawl. “She was interesting, which is infinitely more appealing.”

“There are plenty of other interesting women out there,” Draco said.

“All the good ones are taken.” Zabini gave Draco a significant look, which Draco returned, though Harry had no idea what it meant.

“There’s always the Weasley girl,” Draco said, with feigned nonchalance. “I hear from reliable sources that she’s quite a firecracker.”

Zabini looked at Harry and rolled his eyes, and Harry couldn’t help but grin. His tone was always so dry that it was hard to tell when Zabini was joking or not. But Harry was starting to pick up on the fact that the majority of things the dark-skinned Slytherin said and did were with at least a bit of irony, and Harry appreciated that.

“I suppose I’ll leave you to your letter, then,” Harry said to Draco. “I’ve plenty of work of my own.” He stood, but Draco grabbed him by the wrist.

“Grab your things and work here with me. I’ll have lots of fun distracting you.”

Harry smiled. “And you call me a bad influence.” Draco simply looked up at him, his eyes wide with a pretend innocence that Harry found irresistible. He sighed. “I’ll go get my stuff.”

“Attached, much?” Harry heard Zabini say to Draco as Harry was walking away.

“Shut up,” Draco replied, and Harry laughed to himself quietly.

***

The week flew by in a happy blur. While his days were full of classes and his evenings full of homework and projects, he and Draco still managed to find some time each day for themselves. Whether it was a hasty snogging session in a hidden alcove or a relaxed chat by the fire after they’d finished their work, it didn’t matter much to Harry. He had never been this comfortable or this happy with anyone before. It was effortless and natural, from the beginning.

Much to Harry’s delight, their relationship seemed to have actually sparked some inter-house socialization. While Harry and Draco often ate breakfast at their own house tables, lunch and dinner found them together, at one table or another, sometimes with friends in tow. Zabini and Hermione had been especially open to eating at a different table, since they were becoming friends in their own right thanks to their Potions project. Hermione managed to drag Ron along most days, and Parkinson and Nott could be spotted on occasion seated next to Draco at the Gryffindor table, conversing warily but cordially.

The hatemail was still coming in, thanks to other papers having picked up the story. Most of it was speculation and opinion editorials, since there were few real facts to report. Opinion was primarily negative, or at least too flabbergasted to be approving, but there were a handful that seemed to see the relationship positively. One writer called it a “major blow to the cause of blood purity” and “a victory for the New World Order,” whatever that meant.

Luckily, the weekend seemed to dampen people’s interest, and by the beginning of the following week their post had trickled down to a few Howlers and curse or two until…

“Amazing!” Harry said that Thursday morning over breakfast. “Not a single letter today. People are finally getting over it.”

“At least for now,” Hermione said. “You know how easily distracted they are. Undoubtedly the next time you two go out in public, you’ll be swarmed by reporters who will then write about you and print pictures of you, and then people will remember and it will start all over again.”

“Way to bring down the mood, ‘Mione,” Ron said. “Let’s just be glad we’re not having our eardrums burst by Howlers at the moment.”

“Small victories,” Harry agreed.

Suddenly, a crack like lightning rent the happy breakfast babble, and there was a collective gasp from the students followed by a cry of pain.

It was a voice Harry recognized. It took him only a second to react.

Heart thudding, he stood and tore across the room, shoving people aside unapologetically, until he reached the Slytherin table and got a good look at what had happened.

Draco stood there, shaking violently, surrounded by his fellow Slytherins, who were all staring at Draco’s right hand in horror and disbelief. Harry’s stomach twisted in fear when he saw what they were looking at.

Draco’s fingers were a deep, ugly, deathly purple, and whatever was causing it appeared to be spreading over his palm and making for his wrist.

“Move,” Harry said, with enough authority that all of the other Slytherins made room for him. He grabbed Draco’s wrist and pointed his wand at the hand. “Contineo,” he said. The spreading stopped. “Finite.” Nothing. Finite… fuck!” His containment of the curse had worked, but he couldn’t get the curse to dissolve completely. “Draco, look at me.”

Draco did, his eyes glassy with fear.

“I’m taking you to the hospital wing. Can you walk?”

Draco nodded, and Harry immediately came around the table, placing one hand on Draco’s back and the other on his elbow to guide him. He was vaguely aware that the whole hall had erupted in excited chatter, and that there were people following them out into the entrance hall, but he paid it all little attention. He had one purpose, and that was to get Draco to Madam Pomfrey as quickly as possible. He could only hope she would recognize the curse and know the countercurse. He dreaded to think what would become of Draco’s hand if she didn’t. He walked faster, pushing Draco onward.

If only we could Apparate in this fucking place, Harry thought, gritting his teeth. It’s a fucking hazard, not being able to.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” he heard Draco say, as they rounded a corner and made their way up another staircase.

“What are you apologizing for?” Harry asked.

“I was stupid. I opened the letter. I thought it was from my potions master. I thought I recognized the handwriting. I didn’t check it.”

“It’s not your fault,” said Harry. “Everything is going to be fine.” They were nearly there, which was a good thing, because Draco was definitely slowing down. “Come on, Draco, just a little farther.”

“Feel dizzy,” said Draco. “My hand. It fucking hurts.”

“I know, I know. Nearly there, I promise.”

One more corridor to go and Draco was leaning almost all of his weight on Harry by that point. Harry was debating whether it was worth it to cast a Featherlight Charm when he felt some of the burden lift, and looked to see that Zabini had come up to support Draco on his other side. Grateful, and with renewed determination, Harry mustered enough energy to close the distance and burst through the doors of the hospital wing.

Madam Pomfrey was there in a flash, her first look of shock replaced quickly by the calm, serious demeanor she always approached Healing with. She signaled for them to place Draco on one of the beds, and then leaned over to examine him.

“Cutisenium Curse,” she said, looking at the hand, which was now a charcoal gray color. “It’s been contained?”

“Yes,” Harry replied.

“There’s no countercurse. It must be leached from the skin. I have the potion.” She summoned a large bottle of clear, fuchsia liquid, and it opened and emptied itself into a large white bowl.

“This will heal him?” Harry asked desperately. “No lasting damage?”

“You caught it quickly,” she said, lifting Draco’s hand delicately and submerging it in the potion. Draco’s eyelids fluttered and he let out a sigh of relief. “Luckily, this curse works slowly. But had it been allowed to spread, it would have worked its way towards the heart, which would have been fatal.”

Harry saw red at those words. Fatal? He couldn’t believe someone would go this far, just because he and Draco had decided to date.

“And had you waited too long after it was contained, he would have lost the hand,” Madam Pomfrey went on. “But as I said you caught it quickly, and the curse will leach out and his hand will heal.  Don’t believe there will be any scarring.”

But Harry was barely listening. A blinding, fiery rage was building in him. Someone was going to pay for this. He turned to Zabini to ask a question, only to find that they were joined by all three Slytherin 8th years, as well as Ron, Hermione, and Professor Sprout, who had apparently come along behind them to chaperone.

“Did any of you see what happened?” Harry asked the Slytherins.

They all nodded, but Zabini answered. “The moment he opened the letter the curse struck. It was a flash of sorts, and his fingertips lit up, and he was yelling. Then his fingers turned purple. That’s when you showed up.”

“Any chance one of you kept the letter?” Harry looked from one anxious face to the next. They all shook their heads.

“I might recognize it if I saw it,” said Parkinson. “If the curse alone didn’t destroy it.”

Harry cursed under his breath, realizing she had a point. Still, he was determined to figure out who had done this. “I want to get my hands on that letter, if possible. We need something to show the Aurors.”

The entire group stared at him.

“What?” Harry practically shouted. “You think I’m going to stand for this? This is unacceptable. Draco has a right to feel safe, to not feel like he’s going to be fucking cursed every time he checks his post!”

“Language, Mr. Potter,” Sprout said delicately. “I realize you’re upset…”

“I’m sorry, Professor,” Harry said quickly. He looked at the others. “Are we really going to stand for this?”

“Harry,” Hermione said, in that small, gentle way she spoke when she didn’t want to upset him further. “These sort of cases are very hard to investigate. It would be very hard to trace, and if the letter was destroyed…”

“We don’t know that it was!” Harry knew he was worked up, but he couldn’t help it. The rage that burned in him needed an outlet.

“We’ll go back to the Great Hall and look for it,” Parkinson said, grabbing her boyfriend’s hand. Nott nodded in agreement.

“I’ll accompany you,” Sprout said. “I left Horace down there with all the pandemonium. Are you all right here, Poppy?” She looked at the Mediwitch.

“We’ll be fine,” Madam Pomfrey replied, and the three nodded and left.

“Harry, mate, do you really think anything will come of this?” Ron asked.

“I’ll make sure it does,” Harry said fiercely.

“The Aurors aren’t exactly looking to do a Malfoy any favors,” Zabini pointed out.

“They’ll do it for me,” Harry said, his voice dark. He hated throwing his weight around as the Savior, but if there was ever a time to do it, it was now.

Zabini sighed and looked past Harry to his blond friend sitting up in the bed, his hand still submerged in the bowl of potion. “Your boyfriend is going to have a stroke if this keeps up. Talk some sense into him.”

Harry turned and looked, to see that Draco was smiling. “Why would I? I’m quite enjoying this, him getting all worked up over me.”

This earned an irritated pursing of the lips from Zabini and some eye-rolling from Ron, but Harry only had eyes for Draco.

“How are you feeling?” he asked. Draco looked a bit better, at least. Some color had returned to his face and the shaking appeared to be under control.

“I don’t feel much of anything right now,” Draco replied. “The potion seems to be working.”

“Good,” Harry said. He knew the others were watching, but that didn’t stop him from running a hand over Draco’s forehead, pushing his hair out of the way. “We’ll figure out who did this, and we’ll make an example of them. I promise.”

“Harry Potter, my hero,” Draco said, with a simpering look. “My Gryffindor in shining armor.”

Harry let his hand drop. Draco was mocking him. “It’s not funny, Draco,” he said, scowling. “Did you hear what Madam Pomfrey said? It could have killed you.”

“But it didn’t, thanks to you.” Draco’s smile was small, but genuine.

Harry huffed. “Just… will you just please check all of your post closely from now on?”

Draco’s smile faltered, and he looked almost guilty. “Yes,” he said. “I promise.”

“Good.” He ran a hand over Draco’s cheek, unable to resist the urge to touch him, to make sure he was still there, without any permanent damage. A throat clearing behind him reminded him that they weren’t alone. He turned back to his friends and Zabini. “You guys are late for Defense,” he said. “You can go, if you need to.”

“Are you coming too?” Hermione asked, but as though she already knew the answer.

“I’m staying here. Tell Professor Duffy what happened, would you? I’ll pick up any assignments from him at lunch.”

They nodded, waved goodbye to Draco and Harry, and left for class.

“He needs rest, Mr. Potter,” Madam Pomfrey said. “That hand has to soak for another hour, at least. Don’t go getting him worked up.”

“I won’t, I promise,” Harry said, simply grateful that Madam Pomfrey wasn’t going to kick him out altogether.

With a curt nod the Mediwitch turned and went back to her office, leaving Harry and Draco alone.

“You don’t have to just stand there,” Draco said, scooting over and making room for Harry in the bed.

“Do you really think we can both fit?” Harry asked.

“Only one way to find out.”

“I can find a chair. Or transfigure one…”

“Get in the damn bed, Harry.”

He did. It was a bit crowded with the two of them, and they were pressed together, shoulder to shoulder, but neither minded so much. Harry scooted closer, resting his chin on Draco’s shoulder, smelling that familiar Draco smell.

“Really,” he said softly. “Don’t scare me like that again.”

“I won’t,” Draco promised. “I was being very careful in general, you know. I just slipped up the once.”

“I know,” said Harry, the late Auror Mad-Eye Moody’s voice ringing in his head. Constant vigilance. He had thought the need for that lesson was behind them. Apparently not.

They remained that way for a little while, neither of them speaking. Harry’s mind was wandering back to the letter, wondering whether or not Parkinson and Nott had managed to find it, and if it would be of any use to them. I’ll make this right, he thought. One way or another.

“You’re sitting there being a martyr, aren’t you?” Draco said into the silence.

“What?” Harry asked, lifting his head to look at Draco.

“You’re sitting there thinking how this is all your fault and if we weren’t together this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Not exactly,” Harry said. “Though what you just said is true.”

“Bollocks,” said Draco. “I refuse to have this conversation.”

“What conversation?”

“Where you say that I’d be better off without you and how you’re putting me in danger, etc, etc. Any point you make on the issue is moot, so just drop it.” He sounded quite stubborn.

Harry had to laugh. “You were the one who brought it up,” he said.

“Just heading you off at the pass. I know you pretty well by this point. I know where your head was going.”

“I’m that predictable, huh?”

“Yes. And transparent. I believe I’ve pointed that out before.” Harry snorted, and Draco grinned. “You’re a Gryffindor. You can’t help it.”

Harry shook his head. “How’s the hand?” he asked, after a minute.

“About the same was when you asked me ten minutes ago.”

“You’re being very brave about all this, you know,” said Harry with a smile, deciding Draco was up for some ribbing of his own. “If this were five years ago, you’d be writhing around and whimpering, calling for the offender’s head on a spike and saying ‘Wait ‘til my father hears about this!’”

Draco scowled. “I assume you are referring to the Hippogriff attack?”

“I might be.”

“I was a child, Harry.”

“A very whingey child.”

“That’s enough of that, thank you very much,” Draco said haughtily, and Harry laughed.

“You know I don’t think of you that way anymore.”

“I should hope not. I can’t imagine that behavior was very attractive.”

“No. You’re much sexier now.”

That got a real smile from Draco, but it only lasted a few seconds. “I feel guilty about that, you know. The thing with the Hippogriff… what’s his name…”

“Buckbeak.”

“Right, Buckbeak.”

“He didn’t get executed, you know.”

“I know. I’m glad. He escaped, didn’t he?”

“Well, he had some help. From me and Hermione.”

“How did you manage that?”

“Hermione had a time-turner at the time, that she was using for classes, and we went back in time and freed Buckbeak, and then flew him up to the castle and rescued Sirius from getting the Dementor’s Kiss.”

“So thats how Black escaped.”

“Yep.”

Draco shook his head in disbelief. “The things you got up to. It must have been quite exhausting to be your friend back then.”

“We had a lot of adventures. It was quite fun… most of the time,” Harry corrected. The adventures had stopped seeming like adventures, after a while, and started to feel more like battles in a war, although looking back it was hard to pinpoint exactly when things had changed in that regard. “That was a big night for me,” Harry went on, waxing nostalgic. “That was the night I learned that Sirius was innocent, and Peter Pettigrew was alive, and that my father was an Animagus, and that Remus was a werewolf. And it was the night I really mastered my Patronus.”

“You mastered the Patronus Charm when you were thirteen?”

“It’s not as impressive as it sounds,” said Harry. “It was just a fluke of time travel, really. I witnessed my future self performing the charm, so when it came time for me, as the future self, to perform it, I already knew I was capable of doing it, and I just did it without thinking. Hermione tried to explain it to me once, premonitory knowledge and causality, or something. I don’t really remember. Anyway, it was really just pure dumb luck, when you get right down to it.”

Draco stared at him. “You, Harry Potter, are absolutely absurd.”

Harry opened his mouth to argue, then closed it again. “Perhaps I am, at that.”

“Luckily for you, for some bizarre reason I find it insanely attractive.”

Harry grinned. “Yes, quite lucky.”

Draco took his hand. “I’m glad you stayed.”

“Of course,” Harry said. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

“It’s not a problem for you to miss Defense?”

Harry snorted. “No. The classes don’t do much for me. I know most of it already, since I made sure to learn all I could to be ready to fight Voldemort. It’s never anything new, and Professor Duffy knows that. He basically gives me a free pass with it all.”

“Is that how you knew how to contain the curse?”

Harry nodded. “I learned that on my own, among other things, just in case. When you’re fighting a war, you have to be prepared for anything.”

“Ever considered doing a Defense mastery?”

Harry shook his head. “It’s not very common. Most who would just join the Auror Corps instead.”

“But you don’t want to do that.”

“No, I really don’t.” Harry let out a long, slow breath. “I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Draco squeezed his hand. “There’s plenty of time,” he said, and Harry smiled at him. “Speaking of time, how much longer do you think I have to soak this blasted thing?”

Harry let go of Draco’s hand and cast a Tempus Charm. It was 9:47. “I’d say another twenty minutes, maybe?”

“I suppose Madam Pomfrey won’t be back to check for a while, then,” Draco said, with a mischievous glint in his eye.

“No, probably not.”

“Fancy a bit of a snog, then, while we’re alone?”

Harry smiled, then pointed to Draco’s soaking hand. “You’re supposed to keep that still,” he said. “And I’m under strict orders not to get you too worked up.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “As if a couple of kisses from you could get me worked up.”

“History suggests otherwise,” Harry replied, running a hand up Draco’s thigh.

Draco blushed, and he looked so adorable that Harry automatically leaned in to give him a kiss. He tried to keep it soft and chaste, but Draco pressed forward, deepening it automatically. Harry made to pull away, knowing where this could lead, but Draco grabbed his chin and stopped him from creating too much distance.

“Draco…” It was meant to be a warning, but the breathlessness of Harry’s voice ruined it.

“We’ll be careful,” Draco said, his eyes fixed on Harry’s mouth. “Just… don’t move.” He touched his lips to Harry’s again, cradling his chin gently, and Harry gave in, returning the pressure.

He’d never kissed like this before, so slow and meticulous, with his lips and tongue doing all the work while the rest of him remained motionless. But it was heaven. Draco’s lips were pliable, perfectly shaped for sucking and nibbling on, and his tongue was soft and talented. Harry couldn’t help the occasional small moan that escaped him, spurred on by the breathless, needy sounds coming from Draco. They tasted each other again and again with deliberate attention, all of their passion concentrated in the movement of their mouths. They were so lost in it that neither of them noticed the arrival of visitors.

It took a loud and obvious cough from behind Harry for him to stop and turn around, face flaming. Ron, Hermione, Zabini, Parkinson, and Nott all stood at the entrance to the hospital wing, watching them. The Slytherins were all smirking, while Hermione looked a mix of embarrassment and surprise, and Ron looked like he might revert to vomiting slugs again.

They all stared at each other for a few seconds, before Parkinson said, “Don’t stop on our account. I was quite enjoying the show, actually.”

“You might have arrived more loudly,” Draco said, trying to discretely adjust himself.

“And miss witnessing that? Not a chance.” Parkinson replied with a grin. “You’ve just given me some new fantasy material.” Harry coughed, and Draco rolled his eyes. “No, I’m serious. It was quite hot, wouldn’t you say, Granger?” She gave the female Gryffindor a wink.

Hermione turned red and closed her eyes.

“Pansy, always the voyeur,” said Zabini. He turned to her. “Why don’t you actually tell them what you’ve found?”

“Oh, all right,” said Parkinson, pulling a piece of parchment out of the book she was carrying. She walked towards Harry and held it out to him. “It’s free of curses, of course. We checked.”

Harry took it and looked it over. It was charred black all along one side, the edges jagged. By the looks of it, a good portion had been burned away.

“It’s blank,” he said.

“Except for the address,” Parkinson pointed out. “It’s written on the other side.”

Harry turned it over, and saw that she was right. The first portion of the address could be seen in elegant script:

 

Draco Mal

The Great H

Hogwarts

 

“Is this it? The one that cursed you?” Harry asked Draco for confirmation.

“That’s it. I swear, that script looks just like my potions master’s, the one I apprentice for. I had asked him for some information the last time I was with him, and he said he would send me what he could find out. I thought it was him, writing to me about it. That’s why I opened it without checking it for curses.”

“Maybe someone made it look like your master’s handwriting on purpose,” Harry suggested, “so you’d open it.”

“Or it’s just a coincidence,” Hermione said. “In all likelihood it’s just a nasty letter from a very nasty individual, just like all the others.”

Harry gave Hermione a look.

“I know you want to track down the culprit, Harry, but I’m not sure how we would.”

“I know,” Harry replied through gritted teeth. “But I also don’t think we should sit back and let people get sent letters with deadly curses in them. I’m at least going to write to Kingsley about it.”

Hermione seemed to know better than to argue with him on that point, but she clearly had more to say. “If it makes you feel better, Harry, I don’t think whoever sent it meant to kill Malfoy.”

“Madam Pomfrey said-“

“I know what Madam Pomfrey said,” Hermione interrupted, obviously having anticipated this very argument. “But I looked up this curse during class just now, and it’s very rarely ever fatal, because it spreads so slowly. It’s also easily treatable, and usually doesn’t leave lasting damage. Whoever did this obviously wanted hurt and scare you, Malfoy, but not necessarily kill you. And my guess is that they won’t try it again.”

“I think Hermione is right,” said Zabini. “You were fooled once, and you won’t get fooled again. The best thing would be to keep checking for curses and wait for it all to die down. It probably will in another week or so.”

“I agree with Blaise,” Hermione said.

“Well, that’s just peachy, that you two are in agreement,” Harry said, irritated. “But I think it’s up to Draco and me to decide what we want to do.”

“Don’t you think it should solely be up to Draco?” Zabini said carefully. “It’s his life, after all.”

Harry glared, but suddenly felt the warmth of Draco’s hand in his. “Write to Shacklebolt,” Draco said to Harry softly. “And in the meantime, we’ll all be extra careful, all right?”

“All right, fine,” said Harry, placated. If that’s what Draco wanted, that’s what he would do.

Madam Pomfrey came bustling in then, shooing everyone, including Harry, away from the bed so she could tend to Draco. She lifted his hand out of the potion, which had turned a murky purplish gray, and dried it with a cloth before inspecting it.

“Good as new,” she declared, and Draco looked pleased. “Now, you’ve had quite a scare dear, so I recommend you go back to your room and rest for today. The rest of you, off to class, or you’ll be late!”

Harry didn’t want to leave Draco again, but he knew he couldn’t justify skiving off all of his classes. He had Charms next, and he really couldn’t afford to miss it.

“I’ll be fine, Harry,” Draco said, correctly reading Harry’s expression. “I’ll see you for dinner.”

Harry leaned in for a final kiss, his hands ghosting over Draco’s chest. “Be safe,” he whispered.

“Always,” Draco whispered in return.

Chapter Text

Harry heard the shrill screech of Ron’s whistle and tilted his broom downward, aiming for the pitch. He dismounted gracefully and joined the other members of his team, who were all gathering around their captain. Harry had been given free reign to practice on his own all evening, since he knew what he needed to work on. He was curious to hear how the practice had gone for the rest of the team.

“Good work, you three,” Ron was saying to the Chasers as Harry approached. “Dean, watch the way you flank Xandra’s left side on that last play. Make sure you’re covering her. Ginny, give me a little more speed with the last-minute upward approach. It needs to be a surprise.”

Dean and Ginny both nodded, and Ron moved onto his Beaters, before turning to Harry.

“Looked good up there, mate,” he said. “Any problems?”           

“Nope,” Harry said. “Visibility will be a little trickier now, with the snow, but nothing I can’t handle.”

“Maybe we'll get lucky and it will clear up come February,” said Ron.          

And with that, they were done for the night, and they all started heading back up to the castle.

Harry was relieved to see his team back in working order. Ron had done an exceptional job getting Ginny and Xandra to refocus, although it had involved a lot of mediation on his part. Apparently Xandra had defended Harry and his actions to Ginny, including the reasons for the breakup, and Ginny had resented it, so much so that she refused to talk to the brunette Chaser for a while. This led to Xandra blaming Ginny for throwing off the team dynamics and the whole thing rather spiraled out of control. While it warmed Harry to realize that there was a member of his team who had been in his corner during those early weeks of the breakup, at this point he was just glad it was sorted. He had Ron to thank for that.

Not that Ginny and Harry were on very good terms themselves, these days. She was still ignoring him, and Harry, though he very much wanted to talk to Ginny and apologize, was taking Ron’s advice to heart and giving her as much space as he could.

So he was surprised when he saw Ginny glance over her shoulder at him and then automatically slow her pace so he could catch up with her. He did so, after a few seconds, and their eyes met.

“Hey, Gin,” Harry said. “How are you?”

Ginny sighed. “I’m fine, Harry.”

Harry nodded. “Good, I’m glad.”

“How are you?”

Harry managed to keep his smile small. It wouldn’t do to express the full extent of his happiness, considering Draco was the cause of it. “I’m really good,” he said.

“Good.”

They walked in silence, and Harry debated if he should say what he wanted to say. It might ruin this tentative peace that was forming. On the other hand, he might not get another chance.

“I want to apologize,” he said finally, deciding to take the plunge. “I handled this all really poorly. I never would have wanted you to find out I was dating someone by seeing it in the papers.”

Ginny bit her lip and said nothing, her eyes straight ahead.

“If I had known that story was going to come out, I would have made sure to warn you beforehand. I hope you know that.”

Ginny sighed again, even heavier this time, and Harry waited, hardly daring to breathe.

“It really hurt,” she said, “seeing that. I mean, of course it did. But in the end I don’t… I’m not sure it would have been any better coming from you, honestly. It’s not the way I found out that hurt me, Harry. It’s the fact that it’s happening at all.”

Harry nodded, understanding the truth of her words.

“But I knew, before that article, that there was something going on between the two of you,” she went on. “I know my brother is blind as a bat and all, but I’m not, and neither is Hermione.” Harry felt his face grow hot at the thought of one of his best friends and his ex-girlfriend talking about him behind his back. But he had to remind himself that Hermione was Ginny’s friend too, and it was only fair that Ginny have someone to vent to. “Anyone who knows you well and is paying attention can see that you’re in love with him.”

The words shocked Harry, partially because he would never have expected Ginny to be able to name something that painful aloud, and also because he had yet to use the word “love” with Draco. It seemed a bit soon for that. He didn’t want to obsess over putting a label on his feelings at that point. He was enjoying the actual relationship too much to concern himself about it.

“Still,” said Harry, glossing over the “love” issue altogether, “you deserve better from me, and I will try to be better. More respectful, I mean. If you want to be left alone, then I’ll leave you alone. If you want to talk, then we’ll talk. Whatever you want.”

Ginny gave him a wry smile. “Well, not whatever I want,” she said. “What I want, you can’t give me. Or you’re not willing to, at any rate.”

Harry blushed and nodded.

“But if there is something I need from you, I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks,” said Harry, relieved at how cordial this all was. Maybe Christmas at the Burrow would manage to be peaceful after all.

They entered the castle, and Harry was about to turn to Ginny to say goodnight when he saw that Draco was standing in the entrance hall, waiting for him. His heart pitter-pattered in his chest for a second or two, aware that this was the first confrontation between Ginny and Draco since the start of Harry’s new relationship. He saw Draco’s eyes narrow briefly, before his face smoothed into blankness.

“Good evening, Weasley,” Draco said flatly.

Ginny stared at him for a second, then turned and started walking towards Gryffindor tower without a word. Harry turned to look at Draco, giving him an apologetic smile.

“She didn’t hex you, at least,” he said. “That’s a start.”

“Mm,” Draco hummed in vague agreement. “You two were talking?”

Harry eyed him carefully, hoping Draco knew better than to be jealous or worried. “I’ve been wanting to apologize for a while, about the way she found out about us. She finally gave me a chance to.”

“I see,” said Draco. He didn’t seem upset, but he was often hard to read.

“She accepted it, thankfully. Hopefully she’s starting to move on.”

“Hopefully,” Draco echoed.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you here. You were waiting for me?”

Draco shrugged, his telltale pink blush appearing. “I was at my apprenticeship all day, as you well know, and I hadn’t seen you since yesterday.”

“You missed me,” said Harry, his face breaking into a wide smile.

Draco was obviously biting back his natural inclination to argue. “I thought that if I didn’t meet you after practice, that I wouldn’t see you until tomorrow.”

“You missed me,” Harry repeated, with certainty. “You can admit it, you know.”

“You’re an annoying git,” the Slytherin replied.

“So are you.” Harry couldn’t stop grinning. “I guess we’re made for each other.” He kissed Draco, who despite his small scowl returned it readily, and with a satisfied hum.

“All right, fine,” the blond said begrudgingly when Harry pulled away. “I missed you. Happy?”

“Very,” said Harry. “I missed you, too. How was your apprenticeship?”

He took Draco’s hand and started them in the direction of the 8th year dormitories, and Draco answered him, giving him the details of his day as they ambled together through the quiet castle.

***

“It’s been an eventful few weeks for you, Potter.”

Harry smiled into his tea, taking a sip before nodding and placing his cup in front of him. “Yes, ma’am, it has.” As far as Harry was concerned, that was an understatement. But with McGonagall, understatements were quite common.

“How is Mr. Malfoy’s hand?”

“It’s fine, as far as we can tell,” Harry replied, sobering at the reminder. “No lasting damage, no scarring.” He was very glad of this, not just for Draco’s sake but selfishly as well. He loved Draco’s hands, their elegance, and what he could do with them.

“That’s good to hear. The safety of my students is my primary concern. I knew about the Howlers, of course, but I wish I had known he was receiving letters with curses as well.” She gave Harry an admonishing look, and he felt a small stirring of shame.

“There weren’t many with curses,” Harry said. “It was mostly Howlers, and some normal letters as well. We thought we had it under control.”

“Still, Mr. Malfoy should consider having his post screened by a professional.”

Harry sighed. He had suggested that already, but Draco had been adamantly opposed. “I don’t want some resentful Auror assigned to me,” he had said. “Looking over my shoulder all the time, going through my post. They hate me, all of them, and I don’t particularly like them either. Besides, they wouldn’t do anything for me that I can’t do on my own.” Draco’s tone was so definitive that Harry knew better than to argue.

“I’ve encouraged him to consider it,” Harry said. “But I have a feeling he will continue to insist that he do it on his own.”

The headmistress sighed. “Very well. It is his choice.”

“As he constantly reminds me,” Harry said, unable to stop some affection from slipping into his tone.

McGonagall eyed him for a moment, and Harry wondered if she was going to say or ask more about his relationship with Draco. So far they had pointedly avoided the issue, which Harry was quite grateful for. Thankfully, she moved on.

“Have you given any more thought to next term, Potter?” McGonagall asked.

Harry nodded. He knew to what she was referring. The last time they had met, McGonagall has asked Harry if he was interested in an apprenticeship or internship, since he was sure he no longer wanted to enter the Auror Academy. “I think an internship might be a good idea,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what I want to pursue at this point, so I think it would be a good idea to start exploring some options.”

The headmistress nodded, clearly satisfied with the answer, and reached down to open a drawer in her desk. With some difficulty she pulled out a large stack of parchment, placing it on the desk between the two of them with a thunk that rattled the teacups.

Harry’s eyes widened. “Are those all applications?” he asked. “I’m not sure I can complete all of those by the end of the term, with everything else on my plate.”

“Not applications, Potter,” McGonagall said with a small smile. “Offers.”

Harry blinked. “Offers?”

“From masters and business owners and Ministry department heads and many others, all who are willing to take you on as an intern or apprentice.”

Harry stared at the stack some more, taking in its massive size. “You can’t be serious.”

“Are you really surprised?”

“How did they even know I was considering something like that?”

“I’ve had most of this stack since the start of term,” McGonagall said. “As soon as the 8th year curriculum was decided on, and we indicated that we would be allowing 8th years to venture off the ground for hands-on experience, requests have been coming in, for you. You had told me at the beginning of the term that you weren’t interested, so I kept them here in case you changed your mind.”

Harry thought about that. It made him uneasy. It was the Savior special treatment, all over again. “They all want me for one reason,” he said, quietly.

“Yes,” McGonagall agreed. “You’ve shown what an exceptional wizard you are. Talented, powerful, and resourceful. They all want a piece of it.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Harry said, and immediately had to remind himself that he was talking to a Professor, and to not sound so sulky. “They want me because I’m famous.”

McGonagall sat back in her chair and looked Harry over. “Potter…” she began, then paused. Harry waited. She leaned forward again, clasping her hands in front of her. “I hope you know that I have the highest respect for you, and your humility, and your desire to be treated like everyone else. I understand it. But there comes a point in a young person’s life when they have to come to terms with the reality of their circumstances. Accepting reality is part of becoming an adult.”

Harry remained still, listening.

“You saved the world. Not without help, as I know you will insist, and not without some good fortune as well. But you did. You showed the world what you are made of. And that means that things like this,” she indicated the stack in front of her, “are never going to go away. There will always be people who want a piece of you. That is the reality of your circumstances. It may not seem fair, and it may not seem right, but it’s what is.” She paused, watching him carefully for a reaction. Harry stared at her impassively, but she could tell that he was absorbing her words. “The question is, are you going to spend your life punishing yourself and ruining opportunities for yourself, because you don’t believe you deserve the special attention, or are you going to wield your power as a force of good in this world?”

Harry’s eyes widened. They were getting into much deeper territory than he expected. Wield his power as a force of good? The idea almost frightened him. “I don’t want to… I don’t know, wind up like… like Lockhart, or someone. Addicted to the fame and the attention, obsessed with myself and how others see me. And I don’t want to wind up like Voldemort, or Grindelwald, thinking that because I have power that it makes me better than other people, giving me the justification for taking whatever I want for myself and destroying anyone who gets in my way.”

“Harry,” McGonagall said, leaning across her desk towards him. “Do you honestly believe that you will succumb to such baseness of character? You, who walked into death to save us all? You, who willingly gives up power and attention on a regular basis? You, whose capacity for compassion is so great that you can forgive so thoroughly a young man that tormented you for seven years and actually begin a relationship with him?”

Harry stared at her. She made him sound so… extraordinary. She made it sound like those deeds were great challenges. But she didn’t understand that they weren’t, that they were easy. “I did all of those things without consciously thinking about them,” he argued. “Or because I had no choice. I simply knew I had to, so I did.”

“Exactly my point,” said McGonagall, looking satisfied. Harry continued to look at her, dumbfounded. “In your very nature, Potter, you are already diametrically opposed to all of the men you just mentioned.”

Harry glanced up at the portrait of Dumbledore to find him snoozing away in his frame, or, at least, pretending to. “Dumbledore once told me that it is our choices that make us who we are, more than our abilities,” He told McGonagall.

“And Albus was, as with most things, right,” she replied. “And look at the choices you’ve made so far. I’d say it paints a very clear picture.” Harry didn’t say anything. He was going to have to ruminate on that for a while. “If you want some off-campus work for next term, you have a multitude of options,” she continued, and Harry’s brain scrambled to return to the original point, his eyes automatically falling to the stack of parchment. “Take these with you, look them over, talk about it with those you trust, and decide what you want to do. The choice is up to you, of course. But there are some wonderful opportunities in here for you. Please don’t keep yourself from them merely because you believe you don’t deserve them. You do. Everyone deserves the opportunity to be exceptional, including you.”

Harry carried the stack out of McGonagall’s office, thanking her as always for the tea. He shrunk them so they would fit in his jeans pocket and made his way back to the 8th year dormitories, his head full of what McGonagall had just said.

He had been expecting to have to fill out applications, just like anyone else. But, if he was honest with himself, he knew that wherever he applied was likely to take him on without even reading his application. Was there really any point in getting worked up over that inequity? It seemed more useful for him to simply move on, and choose something that would be a worthwhile endeavor.

But what will that endeavor be?

When he entered the 8th year common room he was pleasantly surprised to find Hermione, Zabini, Draco, Ron, and Ron’s Potions partner, Susan Bones, all sitting together, working away. He had to admit that it warmed him to see that kind of unity. None of them were treating it as though it were odd or unnatural, which made it all the more incredible. It was beautiful for its ordinariness.

Not wanting to disrupt their work, Harry sat down quietly next to Draco. He needn’t have bothered to be subtle, though, because Hermione noticed him immediately and greeted him with a smile.

“Hi, Harry. How was your tea with McGonagall?”

“Fine, as usual,” he said. He pulled the shrunk stack of parchment out of his pocket, reverted it to its original size, and plunked it onto the table. “She gave me these. I have to go through them.”

“What are they?” Draco asked.

“Internship and apprenticeship offers,” Harry said. “Apparently, I’m quite popular. Can’t imagine why.”

“I know this sort of thing makes you uncomfortable, Harry,” Hermione said. “But you really shouldn’t let that-“

Harry held up a hand, interrupting her. “No need, ‘Mione. McGonagall already gave me a big speech about not giving up opportunities or punishing myself for my fame. It’s already covered.”

“She knows you well, then,” Draco said with a grin, and Harry nudged him.

“Well, let’s see, then, Harry,” said Susan. “What sort of offers did you get?”

It was all over the map: internships in Ministry departments ranging from Games and Sports to Law Enforcement, apprenticeships in any subject imaginable, even ones, like Arithmancy, that Harry had never taken, and several paid part-time positions in foundations, orphanages, and private offices.

“Look at this!” said Ron, holding up a piece of parchment in disbelief. “Firebolt wants you as a design consultant!”

“Celebrity endorsement, more like,” Draco said darkly.

“I already ride a Firebolt,” Harry said. “They basically already have my endorsement. And I’m not going to design brooms for a living. Just being able to fly now and then will be enough for me.”

“Zonko’s International wants you as a product tester,” said Susan. “That could be fun.”

“And I repeat,” said Draco, with a raise of the eyebrow, “celebrity endorsement.”

“Here’s a master duelist, Harry,” said Hermione. “He sounds quite good. Wins all sorts of tournaments.”

“Do I really want to be a duelist, though? I only learned how to duel in order to protect myself. I don’t want to just go around winning competitions. I want to actually contribute something to society.”

“It says here that the majority of his work is teaching self-defense,” Hermione countered. “Not dissimilar to what you did with the DA. And you were a very good teacher, Harry.” Ron and Susan both nodded their heads in agreement.

“All right, put it in the ‘yes’ pile, then,” said Harry.

The “yes” pile in question was turning out to be quite small. As it turned out, though Harry still had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, he had a very good sense of what he definitely did not want to do.

“This narrows it down a lot, guys, thanks,” Harry told them when they were finished. “I’ll have to look these over more closely and see what appeals.”

They were done just in time for dinner, too, and the group made their way down to the Great Hall, walking in pairs with Harry and Draco lingering in the back.

“McGonagall asked about your hand, by the way,” Harry said.

“Did you tell her I was fine?”

“Yes…”

Draco gave Harry a look. “Yes, but…”

“She agrees with me that it’s a good idea for you to have your post screened by someone,” Harry said rather quickly, knowing it was going to irritate Draco for him to bring this up again.

“I see,” he said, in that careful voice that meant he was on the verge of becoming annoyed. “And did she volunteer that opinion, or did you just happen to mention it?”

“She said it without my prompting,” Harry insisted.

Draco sighed. “It’s not going to happen, Harry. It would be pointless.”

“It wouldn’t be pointless,” Harry argued, unable to help it. “You may not want to do it, but there would certainly be a point to it. With someone else screening the post it would completely remove the risk of you even being close to a cursed letter.”

“Perhaps, but at what cost? I don’t want an Auror constantly interfering in my life, Harry.”

“It wouldn’t be-“

“Harry,” Draco cut him off, his voice firm, but surprisingly calm. “If you bring this up again I swear to Lady Morgana herself that I will hex your bollocks off. And you know what a shame that would be for both of us.”

Harry understood that he had pushed Draco to his limit on the issue, and acquiesced. “Well, I do like my bollocks where they are,” he said, fighting a smile.

Draco grinned and stood aside to let Harry pass him into the Great Hall. “That makes two of us.”

***

Harry knew Draco was determined to handle things on his own, without the help of the Ministry or any Aurors, but Harry wasn’t going to let up completely on solving the problem. He had written to Kingsley Shacklebolt the afternoon after Draco’s attack and throughout the weekend was eagerly anticipating the reply.

It came, finally, Sunday evening while most of the 8th years were in their common room, cramming all the last-minute work they could. The following few days of class were jam-packed with project due dates, since they were now at the end of November and heading into the final weeks before exams. Stress was at an all-time high, knowing that even when all the projects were complete, they still had loads of studying to do to finish out the term.

So it was no surprise that Harry received a few dirty looks as a loud tapping at the window disrupted the thick working silence of the common room and he stood immediately to see to it, recognizing Kingsley’s gray owl. He gave the frazzled 8th years an apologetic smile as he passed by again, letter in hand.

“Shacklebolt’s replied?” Draco asked him as Harry seated himself again, already undoing the seal and opening the letter.

Harry nodded, his eyes on the paper as he read:

 

Harry,

Thank you for your letter. I’m always happy to hear news of how you, your friends, and your fellow students are faring at Hogwarts, given everything. Minerva keeps me apprised, but it’s nice to hear from students as well. As always, your honesty is refreshing.

Your description of what had happened to Mr. Malfoy was very disturbing, and I am relieved that there will be no lasting damage. I agree with you that no person should endure this kind of harassment, whether he is the son of a convicted Death Eater or not. Mr. Malfoy certainly has some options here, including Auror protection, in some form, if he wishes it. I will personally see to it that he is treated fairly and with respect by the Aurors, if he chooses to take that route. And if there is any other help I can provide, please let me know.

As to the favor you’ve already asked, I have looked into it. I know that this isn’t what you want to hear, Harry, but I’m afraid Hermione is right that these sorts of crimes are very difficult to investigate. Unfortunately, our ability to trace the source of a letter is well behind a writer’s ability to avoid detection. There are charmed quills, ink, and parchment that when used render our tracking charms inert, and that is what the writer of the letter you sent me has used. On top of that, they clearly wore gloves when they wrote the letter, as none of my detection charms have picked up a whiff of skin contact with the parchment from anyone other than yourself, Mr. Malfoy, and Miss Parkinson. I’m very sorry, Harry, but there is simply no way to find who sent the curse to Mr. Malfoy with this letter alone.

I realize that this is frustrating, and that you want to everything you can to keep it from happening again. But bear in mind that the cursed letter and the person who sent it is really a symptom of a much larger affliction that our world is facing right now. People are angry, frightened, and traumatized from a long and difficult war. They want someone to blame for what they have suffered, and a man who took the Dark Mark but is still walking free is an easy target. Putting one culprit away for sending him a curse won’t take away the public’s anger or fear. In fact, it could make it worse. What we really need to move forward is a paradigm shift. We must heal, and we must stop thinking of our world as divided between those that are good and those that are evil. Rather we must unite under the fact that we survived.

This is a process, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a long one. But you have a strong voice in this world. Perhaps it’s time to really use it.

Just think about it.

All the best to Ron and Hermione.

Yours sincerely.

Kingsley Shacklebolt, Minister of Magic

 

Harry sat back against the sofa with a heavy sigh. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but somehow he had held out hope that Kingsley would have some unexpected solution to their problem. But no, of course, it wouldn’t be that simple.

“May I?” Draco asked, pointing at the letter.

Harry handed it over and was silent as Draco skimmed it.

“As I thought,” the blond said simply.

“He’s sympathetic to the issue,” said Harry. “He would help if he could.”

“To the point that it is appropriate,” Draco said delicately.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s the Minister. He is beholden to the whims of public opinion, whether he wants to be or not.”

“I rather think he has the power to shape public opinion,” countered Harry.

“To some extent, perhaps. But it’s clear from this letter that he wants you to take up the mantle as well.”

Harry snorted, though he knew Draco was right, and that was what Kingsley was suggesting. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m not exactly built for politics. I’m too honest, and I’m not very diplomatic, and I don’t care much about pleasing people or making them like me.”

Draco responded with silence, and Harry looked at him. He expected the blond to be wearing a knowing smirk, but he looked thoughtful more than anything.

“What are you thinking?” Harry asked.

Draco gave an elegant half-shrug. “You could be political, if you wanted. You have the clout. People listen to you.”

“But I don’t want to,” said Harry. “I like the way I am.” This was followed by more silence. “You don’t agree?” he asked with the arch of an eyebrow. “You think I should become a politician?”

“I’m not talking about running for office,” said Draco. “That would be awful. You’d be pants at it, for one thing. And I mean that as a compliment.” That made Harry chuckle, and Draco smiled. “But there are many ways to be political. That’s all I meant.”

Harry thought about that for a moment. During the war, he’d done everything he could to avoid being political. He simply didn’t have the stomach for it, since it seemed all of the politicians he encountered were more concerned with appearances than they were about actually helping people, and he wanted nothing to do with that.

Kingsley’s not like that, though, he told himself.

He snapped back to the present as he felt a set of gentle fingers smoothing out his furrowed brow. “It was just a thought, Harry,” Draco said, fingering a lock of Harry’s hair before resting the hand against the back of Harry’s neck. “If you don’t want to do it, don’t.”

Harry gave his boyfriend a small smile, reaching out a hand to rest on the blond’s trouser-clad knee. They remained that way for a minute, as a wave of fatigue hit Harry and he closed his eyes. The war was over, and yet there was still so much to worry about.

It never ends, he thought. And speaking of which…

“We should finish the conclusion for our Potions paper,” he said to Draco.

“Already done,” the Slytherin replied, his fingers kneading Harry’s neck and his thumb running up and down Harry’s pulse point. “And it’s damn good, too. We’re going to get full marks on this. I can feel it.”

Harry smiled a real smile now and closed his eyes again, his focus slipping away from Kingsley’s letter and the angry public and settling instead on the sure brushes of Draco’s fingers on his skin.

***

Draco’s prediction turned out to be right, and then some. When they finally received feedback on their Potions projects that Friday afternoon, Harry and Draco eagerly opened their parchment and then stared dumbly at it.

“Extra credit,” Draco said, his eyes wide with shock. “We got full marks plus another ten percent.”

Harry couldn’t believe it either. “That’s the best Potions grade I’ve ever received. Hell, scratch that, that’s the best grade I’ve ever received period.”

Draco laughed. “Ha! This is bloody brilliant.” He looked around the room, Harry did the same, to see that there was a diverse range of emotions being expressed around them. “I think it’s safe to say we’ve got the best in the class,” Draco said conspiratorially.

Harry nearly pointed out that they probably received extra points from Slughorn because Harry was Harry, but immediately thought better of it. They had worked their arses off on the project, and had produced amazing results. Draco, at least, certainly deserved the one hundred and ten percent score.

“How did you two do?” Hermione asked on their way out of class. “Blaise and I received a ninety-seven. There were a couple of hiccups with the final brewing process but we improved the potion overall so…”

Harry rolled his eyes, accustomed to Hermione fishing for grade comparisons. He was also not surprised when Draco revealed his and Harry’s score with small, but still rather smug, smile.

Hermione’s eyebrows rose straight up into her hairline, but she said nothing.

“Hear that, Harry?” Draco whispered in Harry’s ear. “We even beat the brains of the Golden Trio. I believe this calls for a celebration.”

Harry fought a smile. “What did you have in mind? Dinner? Drinks? Remember, if we go to Hogsmeade we’ll probably just get photographed and harassed again.”

Draco gave Harry a heated look. “I was thinking something a little more private, actually.”

Harry felt himself go red. “What did you have in mind?”

“Come to my room after dinner,” he said suggestively, “and you’ll find out.”

Harry was jittery all through dinner, his stomach clenching with excitement and nerves. He had been dating Draco for a few weeks now, and they had certainly found some time to fool around when no one was looking. But they had not yet stayed the night together. In fact, Harry hadn’t even been invited up to Draco’s room before, which meant they hadn’t had any real opportunities to take their time and enjoy each other. Harry hadn’t invited Draco to his room either, wanting to let Draco set the pace after he had been so pushy with their first encounter. The last thing he wanted was to make Draco feel rushed.

But he was ready. More than ready. He had been fantasizing about this for a long time. He wondered, as he picked at his food, what Draco had in store for him.

It took a couple of hours for them to call it a night. Pansy had sucked Draco into some drama regarding Theo and Harry played a couple of games of chess with Ron while he waited. His focus was so poor that he lost spectacularly both times, even worse than usual.

Finally, though, he heard Draco announce to his friends that he was going to bed. Harry caught his eye and saw that heated look again. He swallowed.

“Check,” Ron said, and Harry turned back to the game.

He made a move, and Ron scoffed.

“Come on, Harry. You’re not even trying.”

“I’m knackered,” said Harry. “I think I’m just going to go to bed.”

Ron gave him a knowing look. “Bed at half past nine on a Friday night? Yeah, right.”

“I’m sure you don’t want to know what I’m actually getting up to,” Harry pointed out.

“All too right, mate,” Ron agreed.

Harry laughed and shook his head, making for the boys dorms and practically bounding up the stairs once he was out of sight of the common room.

When he knocked on Draco’s bedroom door he was pulled inside without preamble. Draco didn’t even bother to greet him, pulling him into an intense kiss without a word.

Harry smiled against Draco’s lips. “Of course it would be great Potions marks that get you going.”

Draco chuckled darkly as his lips descended along Harry’s jaw and down his neck. “It’s you who gets me going, Harry.” His voice was deep and hoarse in Harry’s ear, and Harry shivered in response, making Draco chuckle again.

In one swift motion Draco pulled off Harry’s jumper and the t-shirt underneath it, exposing Harry’s skin to the cool night air. He felt a tingling wave of gooseflesh overtake his chest as Draco touched him with cautious fingers, their mouths locked together once more. Harry reached for the top button of Draco’s shirt but the blond batted his hand away.

“No, no,” he said, grinning wickedly. “Not yet. I want to see all of you first.”

Harry was going to argue, but his voice was lost as Draco cupped his growing erection through his jeans. Then with nimble fingers Draco made quick work of the button and zipper, sliding the denim down Harry’s legs without ceremony. Harry automatically stepped out of his jeans, looking down at the blond head that was now level with his groin.

Draco remained kneeling, and the sight of it made Harry’s heart pound frantically, especially when that beautiful, ethereal face looked back up at him with fathomless gray eyes. Draco licked his pink lips and then smirked, ever so slightly. Harry assumed it was at what must have been open lust on his face.

Harry’s breathing was getting heavier and heavier, and when Draco buried his face in Harry’s pelvis and let his nose run along the length of the underwear-clad erection, Harry couldn’t help the soft moan that escaped him. He closed his eyes, but only for a moment. He reminded himself that he wanted to watch this.

Draco was looking up at him again, looking nothing short of intoxicated. “Get on the bed,” he said, his voice rough, but commanding.

Harry complied, reveling in the heady vulnerability of being almost completely exposed while Draco remained fully clothed. He watched as Draco stood for a moment at the foot of the bed, his mouth neutral but his eyes hungry as they traveled all over Harry’s body.

“Come here,” Harry said, and it came out more like a plea than a command. Draco smirked again.

“But I’m having such a good time looking at you,” he replied.

“I can think of even better things you could be doing,” Harry said, his lips twitching.

Draco climbed onto the bed, looking like a large jungle cat stalking its prey. “I’m not sure it gets much better than this,” he said, his breathless voice betraying his excitement. “You are…” he ran a hand across Harry’s ribs, “the most beautiful thing…” the hand descended lower, to Harry’s hip, and then down his thigh, “I have ever seen.”

Harry couldn’t help huffing a small, disbelieving laugh. Have you ever looked in a mirror? he wanted to retort. But he had no words. He barely had breath. Draco was descending upon him, situating groin against groin, chest against chest, and mouth against mouth. Harry gave in, opening his mouth willingly to Draco’s tongue, enjoying the weight of Draco’s body on his.

Draco pulled back a little, and Harry took advantage, slipping a hand between them to start undoing the buttons of Draco’s shirt. “I need to touch you,” he said against Draco’s mouth, and Draco remained still, letting him separate button after button until the shirt opened fully, exposing the chiseled white contours of Draco’s chest. Harry ran a reverent hand up the stomach to the sternum as Draco hummed in appreciation.

But Harry was suddenly distracted, feeling the uneven bumps of scarred skin under his fingers, and he pulled away from the kiss to look down at Draco’s chest.

It was almost unnoticeable, the scar that ran up the center of Draco’s chest in a jagged bolt. Harry could barely make it out in the lamplight. But he could feel it, and he knew it was there, a stark reminder of one of his greatest mistakes.

“I did this,” he said, his voice sounding shocked to his own ears. “I did this to you. I can’t believe-”

“Harry,” Draco’s voice was gentle. “Look at me.” Harry tore his eyes from the scar, trying to swallow his shame. The gray eyes he met as he looked up were full of determination. “I did much worse than you ever did to me.” Harry swallowed and started to shake his head, but Draco held him still, his hand coming to rest on Harry’s forehead. “The past is the past, remember?”

Harry let out the breath he was holding and, after a moment of deliberation, nodded. They had agreed. Forget the past. Begin again.

“We’ll forget it all, Harry,” Draco whispered, their faces only an inch apart. “I’m going to make you feel so good.” And with that he kissed Harry hard, no longer holding back, and Harry groaned, feeling his erection returning with full force.

Draco was clearly ready to up the pace, as his head descended down Harry’s body, lips caressing, tongue licking, and teeth nipping at nearly every inch of Harry’s skin. Harry was panting harshly by the time Draco reached the edge of his pants, feeling like if he didn’t get some relief from the delicious torture that he would lose his mind.

Luckily for him Draco seemed just as ready, and his underwear was removed in one deft yank and tossed to the floor. Harry’s painfully hard cock stood at attention, waiting. Draco took a moment to admire it with carnal delight before he licked a wide stripe from base to tip, making Harry shudder and groan. More. He needed more.

“Draco…”

Draco cupped Harry’s bollocks with one hand while his mouth slipped over the tip of Harry’s cock, and Harry had to resist the urge to plunge himself into Draco’s mouth. The sensation was so powerfully pleasurable but at the same time not nearly enough. A sweet, molten need was building in him, nearly unbearable in its intensity.

Draco’s mouth slipped further down, taking in more of him, and Harry writhed, trying to control himself.

“Gods, Draco. Please.”

Though his eyes were shut tight he knew from feel alone that Draco was smiling around his erection, clearly enjoying the begging. But Harry didn’t have the focus to worry about that. All of his thoughts were concentrated on the building pleasure that came in waves as Draco moved up and down with exquisite slowness, his tongue swirling over and around the head, adding another layer to the sensations.

This was certainly not the first blowjob Harry had ever received. Ginny had pleasured him this way many times, and he had always enjoyed it. But there was something about Draco’s technique, or perhaps Draco himself, that took it to another level. Draco’s mouth was bigger, and could take in more of Harry, but that didn’t account for all of it.

Harry opened his eyes and looked down at the man who was so deftly pleasuring him, and the sight before him almost made him come on the spot.

Yes. There was just something about Draco.

The blond was speeding up his rhythm, one hand still gently kneading Harry’s bollocks and the other exploring the rest of Harry: caressing his arse, stroking his stomach, pinching a nipple. It all built the heat inside Harry bit by bit until he could hardly stand it.

He was on the precipice, about to fall. “Fuck, Draco. I’m going to come. Don’t fucking stop.”

Draco hummed happily in response, and that was enough. Harry came hard, vaguely aware of the embarrassing moan that escaped him as he did. But he couldn’t find it in him to care, as the last waves of his orgasm stole through him and he watched Draco taking all of it, his eyes closed and his tongue busy.

Harry relaxed his head back on the pillow and couldn’t help but smile. “Damn, Draco,” he said. “You know what you’re doing.”

Draco loomed over him, licking his lips in a satisfied way. “I told you I would make you feel good.” He leaned down for a kiss, and Harry could taste himself on Draco, and smell the intoxicating musk of sex.

“I never doubted you for a moment,” said Harry. He was aware of the erection that was digging into his hip, a reminder that Draco had yet to be taken care of. His stomach gave a little lurch of nervousness, wondering what Draco would want from him and if he would be any good at it. He had virtually no experience pleasuring a man (other than himself, of course). Or maybe Draco wanted something else entirely.

“What now?” Harry asked, his stomach fluttering. “Is this the part where you fuck me?” He tried to smirk in a way that made him look both brave and nonchalant, but he wasn’t sure if it was translating, especially since his voice was shaking.

Draco stilled above him, looking down at him with a discerning expression. “I’m not quite… ready for that, yet,” he said, and sounded a bit nervous himself.

“That’s ok,” Harry said quickly. “I just wasn’t sure… I’m not really… well, you know I’m not experienced-“

Draco put a finger over Harry’s lips to stop his babbling, which Harry was quite thankful for. “We’ll know when it’s right,” he said, sounding much more calm now, perhaps even amused. “Besides, when the time comes, I want you to fuck me.

Harry’s eyes widened, and his limp cocked twitched at the thought.

“That turns you on, doesn’t it?” Draco asked with the arch of a brow. “The idea of being inside me?”

“Yes.” There was no point in denying it.

“Me, too,” Draco said, biting his lip. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Harry placed a hand on Draco’s chest, letting it travel down his stomach and stop at the threshold of his trousers. “But for now…” he began, his stomach writhing again with the return of his performance anxiety. He wanted to make this as good for Draco as it had been for him.

Draco flipped them over suddenly so that he was lying on his back with Harry straddling him. “For now,” the blond said, his voice and face taking on an imperious quality that Harry imagined he must use with his house elves. “Suck me, Potter.”

Harry burst out laughing and Draco grinned up at him. Harry felt his anxiety leave him in one fell swoop. This was Draco; Harry already knew which buttons to press and which games to play. This is going to be fun, he thought.

“Just for that, Malfoy,” he said. “I’m really going to make you squirm.” He watched as a mix of trepidation and excitement lit up behind those gray eyes.

He began with the chest, trailing feather-light kisses along the sternum, his lips ghosting torturously over Draco’s already pebbled nipples, making the light hairs that dusted his chest stand on end. Harry could tell that Draco was trying to appear unaffected, but his breathing was getting harsher by the minute, and Harry smiled to himself knowingly.

He had Draco sit up so he could finally remove the shirt, then made Draco lie back so he could get a good look. He had seen the Slytherin in less clothing than this, but this was different. This was real. This was for him. His hands roamed over Draco’s torso, and then down each arm. He saw Draco flinch and quickly realized why.

The Dark Mark. They hadn’t talked about it. Harry hadn’t even caught a glimpse of it the few times he had seen Draco’s bare arms. He lifted Draco’s left hand, turning it over to look at the inside of the forearm. The mark was gone, and in its place there was a rough and vivid scar that vaguely resembled the shape of the skull and the snake. It was as though the mark had collapsed in on itself, and Harry realized that was probably exactly what had happened.

“Harry…” Draco said, his voice weak. Harry looked at him, taking in the self-conscious and pained expression.

“Draco,” Harry replied simply, then lifted the arm and placed his lips on the scar. Draco whimpered, then released a shaky breath as Harry trailed kisses down the length of the forearm. “The past is the past, right?” he said.

Draco stared at him for a moment, then nodded infinitesimally. Harry released the arm and leaned over Draco, kissing him softly. “Now,” he said. “Where were we?” His hand dipped a few inches into Draco’s trousers, making the blond’s breath hitch. “Oh, right. I remember.” He undid the belt buckle and zipper with a slowness that made Draco groan in frustration, and Harry couldn’t help a small chuckle. “So impatient,” he admonished, finally beginning to tug the trousers down, deciding to take the pants down with them, freeing Draco’s hard cock, which was already a deep red with arousal.

Once the clothes were discarded, Harry did as Draco had done, getting a good look at the blond in all his naked glory. He really was something to behold. “Perfect,” he said in a whisper. “And all mine.” He hovered over Draco, his hands roaming lightly, freely, occasionally brushing the erection and causing Draco to spasm underneath him. “Mine,” he said again. “Isn’t that right, Draco?” He was aware that his voice had taken on a dark, almost possessive quality, but by the way Draco was reacting to him, this was not a problem.

“Yours,” Draco breathed, and Harry felt himself starting to harden again.

Unable to hold back anymore, he kissed Draco with abandon, delving into every crevice of his mouth before moving lower to suck on his neck. All the while his hand was lightly stroking Draco’s cock, making it leak magnificently. Draco was panting and moaning, nearly sobbing with need.

“Harry…”

“What do you want, Draco? You have to tell me, or you won’t get it.”

“Your mouth.”

“My mouth?”

“On me.”

“My mouth is on you.” Harry smiled against Draco’s neck as the blond growled without restraint.

“On my cock. Please. I need you. Please.”

Harry was back to full hardness now at the sound of Draco Malfoy begging for him. He wasn’t sure there was a sweeter sound to be heard anywhere, and he knew it was time to comply and reward the Slytherin for being so fucking sexy.

He started slow, as Draco had done, kissing the tip and tasting the light salt of Draco’s precum. But Draco was already so far gone, writhing and whimpering with need, that Harry soon let him go deeper, taking as much of him as he could. Draco threw his head back and moaned with relief. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, that’s it.”

Harry worked him up and down, using his intuition and knowledge of his own preferences to guide him. He let both his hands roam, determined to begin learning all of the major hotspots that would turn Draco into putty in his hands. The delicate skin inside his hips seemed to get a strong reaction, as did a light graze over the side of his ribs. His perineum, no surprise, made him buck wildly, as did running a hand up the crack of his arse. It gave Harry an idea.

With one finger he began to explore the area around Draco’s entrance, listening closely for Draco’s reaction. It seemed to be acceptable, but he wanted to be sure it was ok for him to go further. He released Draco’s cock and looked up at him. “Is this all right?” he asked, wiggling the finger that was lingering at Draco’s arse. “Can I…?”

“Yes,” Draco said quickly. “Yes. Fuck, yes.”

Harry smiled, grabbed his wand, and cast quick cleansing and lubrication charms before returning his mouth to Draco’s erection. With dual focus he carefully began easing a finger inside, breaching the tight, warm space in slow increments. Draco moaned, clamping around him before relaxing and letting him in further.

Harry hadn’t realized he could get any harder, but this was too erotic. All he could think about was what it would be like when he entered this part of Draco a different way. It was going to be incredible.

He could tell that Draco was close, and he really wanted to make this count. Wiggling the finger around, he began to explore, crooking the finger and pressing until he hit a spot that made Draco cry out, a mix of Harry’s name and a bunch of gibberish. Harry hummed and pressed the spot again, and Draco whimpered controllably.  

One more, he thought, and pressed harder this time.

Cum flooded Harry’s mouth and he did his best to swallow it, though he had to admit the combination of the salty taste and slimy texture wasn’t what he would call enjoyable. But it was tolerable, and the pleasure he had obviously given Draco made it well worth it.

He stroked Draco to full completion with one hand, working on his own throbbing erection with the other. He hadn’t expected to come again, but the whole experience was just too arousing. He looked down at Draco, who was watching him stroke himself through hooded eyes. It didn’t take long for Harry to find his second release, coming onto Draco’s stomach. He wanted to collapse right there, but he mustered the wherewithal to cast a cleansing charm on both of them before he flopped down next to Draco with a satisfied sigh.

He leaned in for a kiss, and was surprised when instead Draco rolled towards him and curled around him, burying his face in Harry’s neck. Harry smiled and kissed the top of Draco’s head.

“I guess I did all right, then?” he said.

Draco snorted delicately and lifted his head. “You’re a fucking natural. Was that really the first blow job you’ve ever given?”

Harry nodded, and Draco shook his head in disbelief. “If there’s anything I’ve learned about sex,” said Harry, “it’s that it’s all about communication, both verbal and non-verbal. It was easy to pick up on what you liked.”

“Physical things have always come easily for you,” Draco said. “You’re a physical being.”

“I suppose that’s true,” said Harry with a yawn.

“Don’t yawn,” Draco said. “You’ll make me yawn and then…” He gave in, though, his mouth stretching wide. “And then I’ll get all sleepy.”

“There’s nothing wrong with getting sleepy,” Harry said.

“But I was going to ask you something.”

“What were you going to ask me?” Harry replied, amused by the drowsy lilt to Draco’s voice.

“About your scar.”

Harry furrowed his brow, a hand automatically going to the lightning bolt on his forehead.

“Not that one,” said Draco. “The one on your chest. It’s sort of oval in shape.”

“Oh, that,” Harry said. “That’s from a cursed locket I was wearing. It burned me.”

That was met with silence, and Harry wasn’t sure if Draco was just thinking, or if he had drifted off to sleep. Finally, though, he spoke.

“You were wearing a cursed locket?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Hm.” Draco turned to face Harry again. “And this?” He brushed a hand along Harry’s forearm.

“Basilisk fang.”

“Now that’s a story I want to hear.”

Harry laughed. “I’ll tell you, but not tonight. I’m sleepy as well.”

“Mm,” Draco agreed.

“Come here,” Harry said. He wanted Draco wrapped around him again. Draco seemed happy to comply. Harry reached for his wand and then extinguished the lamps, plunging them into darkness. “Goodnight, Draco,” he said softly. Draco’s breathing was already smooth and even, so he wasn’t expecting a response. But then Draco’s voice came out of the dark, sounding thoroughly content.

“Goodnight, Harry.”

Chapter Text

“You’re sure you won’t join us at the Burrow tonight, Harry?” Hermione asked as she, Harry, Ron, and Draco made their way off of Hogwarts grounds to Hogsmeade, where they could Apparate to their respective homes.

“I have things to take care of at Grimmauld,” Harry said. He had already explained this to Ron and Hermione twice, but they didn’t seem to get it. “I’ve got gifts to wrap-“

“You could easily do that at the Burrow, mate,” Ron interjected.

“With half of the Weasley clan sneaking in on me to see what I got them? Hardly,” Harry replied with a smile. “Besides, I want to check on how the renovations are coming along, and make sure that Kreacher is doing all right.”

His friends had been strange about him deciding to stay one night at Number 12 Grimmauld Place all alone before joining them at the Burrow for Christmas. He couldn’t be sure why, exactly, but they seemed to think it would upset him. Harry had no idea how to explain that it would be the opposite. Since he decided to turn Grimmauld into a permanent home for himself, he had felt at peace. He had the means of turning the dark and dingy house into something nice, something Sirius would have appreciated. He liked that idea, and he wanted to see it through.

They made it into Hogsmeade with no further nagging from Ron or Hermione, and they pulled their wands out, all preparing to Disapparate.

“We’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Ron said.

“Yeah, see you then,” said Harry, and with a pop his two friends disappeared. Harry turned to Draco, who had been very quiet for most of the walk. “Are you all right?”

Draco shrugged. “I used to look forward to the holidays. We went to all sorts of parties and had lavish meals and hosted lots of visitors. We’ll still have the meals, no doubt, but with it just being Mother and I…” He sighed, and then looked at Harry, his expression melancholy but his eyes filled with warmth. “It will be better when you’re there.”

“I’ll be there before you know it,” Harry said, taking his hand.

“I hardly think that’s true,” Draco said. “But I’ll live with it.”

It hadn’t been the original plan for Harry to spend part of the holidays at Malfoy Manor. But earlier in the month Draco had finally plucked up the courage to ask, citing a desire on the part of Narcissa Malfoy to meet Harry “officially.” Draco had been so adorably demure about the whole thing that Harry had jumped him on the spot, accepting the invitation only after he had ravished Draco quite thoroughly.

It had not taken much to rearrange the plans. He would stay at the Burrow for the first week, spending both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning there before heading to the Manor that afternoon. Then he would have the rest of the holidays to spend with Draco. He was quite looking forward to it, and for more than just the obvious reasons. He had a feeling that the Weasley Christmas was going to be both very busy, with all the Weasley siblings and guests that would be joining them, and also very sad, since it was their first Christmas without Fred. Harry imagined that after a week he would be quite ready to whisk away to a quiet manor to enjoy copious amounts of snogging. It would be the perfect reprieve.

“If you get bored, write to me,” said Harry. “I’d like to hear from you anyway.”

“We’re a bit pathetic, aren’t we?” said Draco with a laugh. “We’ll only be apart a week.”

This was not the first time in the past few weeks that Harry was reminded of Draco’s limited experience with relationships and what it felt like to be in one. He never knew, in those moments, if it would be best to explain to Draco that attachment wasn’t weakness, that the craving he was feeling was natural at the beginning of a relationship, and would temper itself over time. But the last thing he wanted to do was come across as condescending.

“Not pathetic,” he said mildly. “Just… invested. I happen to think it’s a good thing.”

Draco sighed. “All right, fair enough. Whatever you want to call it, it’s happening.”

Harry smiled. “Yes, it is.” He leaned in and captured Draco’s lips in a soft kiss. “I should get going.”

Draco nodded. “I’ll write to you.”

“Good. I’ll reply.”

“I…” Draco looked suddenly irritated with himself. “I’ll miss you.”

Harry smiled wider, feeling renewed warmth spreading through him. “I’ll miss you, too, as you well know. No need to be embarrassed about it.”

Draco huffed. “I’m not good at this part.”

“I think you’re doing great,” replied Harry. He kissed Draco again. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Soon,” Draco said with another kiss.

Reluctantly, Harry pulled away, knowing he would linger there all day if he let himself. With a final soft smile at Draco he Disapparated, popping into existence again onto the stoop of Number 12 Grimmauld Place.

He smiled at the sight before him. Even the door itself looked better, more inviting, than it had when he had left for Hogwarts. He opened the door eagerly, ready to see what his hired team of renovators had done so far with the interior.

Harry stopped immediately in the silent foyer and looked around, already amazed at the difference a few months could make. The renovations to this part of the house had gone smoothly; the walls were lighter, the ceilings higher, and the hallways wider, making the space feel more open and far less dingy. The removal of some of the darker objects, like the troll leg umbrella stand and the elf heads on the wall, had also made a big difference. He walked down the hallway to the kitchen, where clean granite countertops and sleek new Muggle appliances had been installed. Harry wondered how Kreacher was taking these particular changes. Some things, like the oven and the gas stove above it, would be similar enough to what wizards used that it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Items like the refrigerator and the dishwasher, however, would be completely foreign, and he could see his pureblood friends and his house elf being confused as to why he would even want them in the first place. Only the half-bloods and Muggleborns would understand how dead useful such things could be. And he had already decided to wire the house for electricity anyway. Why not go all out and have the best of both worlds?

Harry was quite pleased with the progress so far, though the work was far from done. He knew parts of the upper floors still had not been touched, and there were a number of Black family heirlooms and other objects he would have to sort through himself, though he’d made sure a certified curse-breaker had gone over everything first.

What would be really telling, though, about how the renovations were going, Harry knew, would be the family tree, and he immediately left the kitchen in search of it.

The mural had been there since the construction of the house, and it showed all of the Black descendants, with the exception of those who had been blasted off the wall by angry matriarchs and patriarchs over the years. The images of Sirius and Andromeda were the most notable of those to Harry, and he had explored the option of trying to restore the images, or else cover the mural altogether.

But the family tree was ancient magic, and it wasn’t a simple task for the magical renovators. It was tied deeply to the magic of the house, they said, and it could not be removed or changed without the house’s consent. They recommended he bring in a magical theorist and Harry, not knowing what else to do, followed their advice.

He had hired Thelonia Prewett, who came highly recommended, for a consultation at the end of the summer. She reminded him a lot of Luna Lovegood, not so much in looks but in demeanor. She had a serene and dreamy way about her that made her seem a bit flaky. But Harry, knowing Luna as he did, knew that such appearances could be deceiving.

“Oh, yes,” she had said immediately upon entering the house. “I see the problem.”

Harry was surprised. He hadn’t even shown her the mural yet. “What do you mean?” he asked her.

“This house has absorbed a great deal of malevolent magic. Can’t you feel it?”

Harry looked around, as if expecting to see darkness seeping from the very walls. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “It’s always been like this, for as long as I can remember. Granted, I’ve only owned it for a couple of years.”

She nodded. “You’ve grown accustomed to it, perhaps. Or you didn’t know what you were feeling. That is more and more common these days.”

“It belonged to the Black family for centuries. They were dark wizards, for the most part, I think,” Harry said. “Is that why the house has… malevolent magic?”

She looked at him in what he thought might be surprise. She still had that soft smile on her face, but her eyebrows had raised just a fraction. “No, that is not relevant. For the most part, distinctions between light and dark magic are purely semantic, and often misleading. That dichotomy distinguishes in very crude terms the origins of many spells and rituals, but it says nothing about intention. After all, a so-called ‘light’ spell can be used with hateful or vulgar intent, and a ‘dark’ one with loving or righteous intent, just as much as the reverse is true.”

“So what is malevolent magic, then?” Harry asked, thoroughly confused.

“Hatred,” she said simply. “I believe there have been a number of heads of the family living in this house over the centuries that have had hatred in their hearts, and undoubtedly committed hateful acts towards members of their family, people they were supposed to love. Such acts corrupt the sacred family landscape, distorting what should be a space of peace, acceptance, loyalty, and love. This desecration creates a toxic energy that permeates everything.”

“Would a mother disowning her son and blasting his portrait off of the family tree count as a hateful act?” Harry asked.

She smiled warmly at him. “That is a prime example.”

Harry nodded. “Would you… like to see?” he asked, unsure if it would be useful or not.

“Lead the way.”

She stared for a long time at the mural, her face impassive. “Yes,” she said finally. “There is a lot of hatred here. It cuts me deeply to even think of it. It’s hard to understand how a family could do this to itself.”

“There are plenty of Black descendants who are wonderful, loving people,” Harry said, thinking of Andromeda.

“I’m sure that’s true,” Thelonia replied with a sigh, brushing a hand over her graying chestnut hair. “But the head of the house is also its heart, and has most of the power. The house responds to that energy more than any other.”

“Is it fixable?” This was what Harry was really worried about. He’d already invested a good chunk of money in renovating the house, and he had grown rather attached to the idea of living in the space that Sirius had given him. It would be a real shame if he had to let it sit there without use.

“Oh, yes, certainly,” she said. “It can be reversed, although it will take some time. But the cure is quite simple. Those that inhabit this house, particularly the head of the house, must have love in their hearts, and act lovingly towards the people in their lives. The more powerful the benevolent magic, the faster the malevolent magic will recede.”

“So I just have to… live here?”

She looked at him with an amused glint in her eyes. “Do you have love in your heart?”

Harry blushed. This was a strange conversation. “Um, I suppose so.”

“Then yes. You simply have to live here. Over time you will begin to feel a shift in the energy. And certain aspects of the house, like this family tree, will begin to heal themselves. The house will sense your desire for it and restore the images.”

Harry raised his eyebrows, amazed, but also skeptical. He had never assigned a house that much agency before. Then again, Hogwarts castle had always seemed to have a mind of its own. Why should an ancient family home be any different?

“It also wouldn’t hurt to remove any artifacts that are associated with former owners of the house, anything that makes you uncomfortable,” Thelonia went on. “And if there are portraits of family members that might be releasing malevolent energy, those ought to be removed as well.”

“Yeah, we’re working on that,” Harry said, thinking of the portrait of Walburga Black that was still stuck to the wall in the hallway. But he was determined to get rid of it, one way or another. “I should also mention that I’m going back to Hogwarts, and won’t be staying here much for the next nine months or so. Will that be a problem for the… healing of the house?”

“It would be most effective if you were here frequently,” she said. “But I can create some surrogate artifacts to exist in your place until you finish school. They will channel your energy wherever you are and release it into the house. It shouldn’t be too much of a drain on your magic.”

“Great,” said Harry.

“I should warn you, such artifacts require blood magic and are therefore considered by most to be dark objects, though they are not illegal. But again, that is just semantics. It is the intention of the magic that matters.”

Harry considered that a moment, but really didn’t see the harm. After all, he had used the Imperius Curse in the war against Voldemort, because he had no other choice. He couldn’t regret that dark magic, when it saved so many lives.

“That’s fine,” he said. “Just tell me what you need from me.”

That had been four months ago, and now Harry was standing in front of the mural again, hoping to see a difference. And there did seem to be. He might have been imagining it, but he thought that the colors looked more vibrant, the gold and silver connections between the members more defined. The black marks across many of the faces were still present, but upon closer inspection Harry saw that the blackness looked a bit flaky. He reached up to where Sirius’ portrait should have been and ran a hand across it, finding that some charred pieces came away with his fingers.

“Will you look at that,” Harry said to himself quietly, as he continued to brush the flaky blackness away and saw a faded image of his godfather start to come into view. Some charred remains still clung to the wall, but Harry could easily make out Sirius’ face and part of his neck. He smiled.

It wasn’t a complete restoration, but it was a start.

***

Harry passed the night in Grimmauld pleasantly enough. Kreacher was pleased to have someone to cook for, and had already familiarized himself with the new range in the kitchen (the microwave, no surprise, remained untouched). After a delicious steak and kidney pie and treacle tart for dessert, Harry took inventory of his Christmas presents and wrapped them, carefully packing Draco’s and Narcissa’s away from the rest. He figured it might be a little awkward to get them mixed up.

He had thought he’d call it an early night, since the last few weeks had been tiring, full of work and exams, but he found he had trouble falling asleep. Compared to the past few months at Hogwarts, with the sounds of 8th years coming and going in the dormitory late into the night, Grimmauld was almost oppressively quiet.

And Harry missed Draco. He hadn’t been spending every night with the Slytherin for the final weeks of the term, but he had spent enough time sleeping next to him that he was starting to get accustomed to it. More than accustomed. It was quite comforting, in fact. Draco’s body was warm and solid, wrapping him in a cocoon that made him feel safe in a way he never had with Ginny. He couldn’t explain why. It was just a mystery of human chemistry, he supposed. Draco’s smell, the feel of his skin, the soft rhythm of his breathing, all made Harry relax, let go, feel… at home.

Home. Just one of the many things his childhood deprived him of truly understanding. He had never felt at home at the Dursleys, of course, though he hadn’t known any different until he came to Hogwarts. That had felt like a home to him, or as close as he could get, but he found he wasn’t as attached to the school that way anymore. Perhaps too much had happened there, or it belonged to too many others in the same way. He needed something that was his, that he could create for himself, hence the extensive renovation project.

Although, he thought, as he breathed deeply and wished for sleep to take him, home doesn’t have to be a place at all.

He had learned this, being with Ginny. She had been more than a girlfriend. She had represented the promise of a future, of a whole life. And for a long time, that’s what he thought he wanted. What he couldn’t see at the time was that it wasn’t Ginny herself that was that promise, it was her whole family. Perhaps, as cruel and unfair as it was to think it, Ginny was really just his ticket in to becoming a true member of the Weasley clan. She was his chance to really belong somewhere.

But that was not a good enough reason to be with someone. He knew that now more than ever, because he had something quite different to compare it to. Draco didn’t promise a big family, a community, surrogate parents and siblings. Draco’s family world was nearly as small as Harry’s own. Yet when he was with Draco, he found that the two of them were enough. Neither of them had to be more than what they were or promise more than they could give.

And isn’t that what belonging really is? Being enough, just as you are?

He did eventually drift off, but morning came all too soon. Harry dragged his way through it, trying to muster the energy that he knew would be required for the chaos of a week-long stay at the Burrow. He hadn’t always felt that way about visiting the Weasleys, and he felt a bit guilty for feeling it now. But he couldn’t do anything about it. It was just one of the many things that had changed in the past few months.

He Disapparated off of the stoop of Grimmauld with his shrunk trunk in one pocket and his shrunk bag of presents in the other, landing on the solid, frozen ground a dozen yards from the gates of the Burrow. He immediately heard the sounds of laughter and triumphant whoops coming from the back garden, where he was sure some members of the family were enjoying a game of Quidditch before lunch. He smiled, reminded that there were some quite nice things about staying at the Burrow after all.

When he approached the front door he could hear both Molly and Hermione’s voices coming from the kitchen. From the sounds of it, they were talking about Hermione and Ron’s post-Hogwarts plans. Harry let himself in, and both women stopped talking abruptly to look at him.

“Harry,” said Hermione brightly.

“Hey Hermione, Molly.” It had taken a while to get used to calling Molly Weasley by her first name, but she had drilled it into him unrelentingly after the war, and he was finally in the habit of it.

“Hello, Harry dear,” Molly said, coming over to give him a kiss on the cheek, which he returned. “You’re just in time. I was preparing lunch for everyone.”

“Can I help?” Harry asked, knowing it would immediately win him points.

They set him the task of cooking the bacon while Hermione and Molly continued their conversation.

“I suppose we’ll have to go flat-hunting come summer,” Hermione was saying, obviously picking up from wherever she had left off. “We haven’t talked much about what we want exactly, but I imagine that size and cost matters more than location, since we can both floo into work from home.”

“You know you’re always welcome to stay here for the first couple of years,” Molly replied. “It would help keep your expenses down.”

“That’s very generous, Molly,” Hermione said. “But I think Ron wants to strike out on his own, and so do I, for that matter. I think we both want to do things like… like proper adults, you know?”

“Of course,” Molly said, with understanding. But then her tone shifted, and she pursed her lips. “Although, if Ronald really wants to do the thing properly, he’ll get you a ring before the year is up.”

Hermione blushed but said nothing, and Harry grinned to himself as he turned the bacon over. He knew that while Hermione and Ron were very committed to each other, neither of them was ready for marriage quite yet. They both wanted to get their careers off the ground first. Of course, Hermione was not about to say as much to Molly Weasley, who had married Arthur right out of Hogwarts.

Fortunately, Hermione was spared the burden of replying when the group that had been playing Quidditch entered the kitchen through the back door, talking animatedly. Ron and George both greeted Harry with a clap on the back, while Ginny gave him a small wave and Charlie shook his hand.

“How was Quidditch?” Harry asked them.

“I’m getting old, that’s all I know,” said Charlie, giving his stiff back a stretch. “These three can fly circles around me.”

“You held your own just fine,” Ron told him. “It’s not your fault Ginny is better with the Quaffle than all of us.”

Lunch was ready, and they settled around the table together, as always. Conversation revolved around reports from Hogwarts, Charlie’s work in Romania, and the new products George was launching at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Harry told everyone about the renovations at Grimmauld, and Molly looked especially excited.

“I always wondered how it would look as a proper home,” she said. “I can’t wait to see it.”

By the time lunch was over and Harry was trudging up the stairs to Ron’s room to put away his things, Harry was feeling much better about the prospect of a week with the Weasleys. He realized that he had been unconsciously quite nervous about how Molly, and even Charlie, George, and the other brothers, would act towards him now that he and Ginny were no longer together. But little had changed. Harry couldn’t help but wonder what Ginny had told them about the breakup.

“Sorry you’re stuck with me, mate,” Ron said as Harry unshrunk his luggage and put it at the foot of his bed. “Only so many rooms, you know.”

Harry gave him a bewildered look. “No need to be sorry,” he said. “This is how it always is.”

Ron shrugged. “I sometimes wondered if things would be different, with us being adults and all. But Mum’s still making Hermione stay with Ginny. Keeping us separate.”

Harry grinned. “It sounds like you’re the one who’s sorry to be stuck with me.”

“Oi, it’s not like that,” said Ron. “I just… a man gets used to certain things, after a while.”

“No need to explain. You know, I can stay with George instead if you want Hermione to stay with you.”

“Yeah, right.” Ron relaxed onto his bed, lacing his fingers behind his head. “Mum would notice right away. We didn’t even risk it last night, when I had this room all to myself. Can you imagine what she would do if she caught us…?”

“She has to know you two are… you know.”

“She knows, but she doesn’t know. Doesn’t want to know, really. She turns a blind eye because Hermione and I have made it clear that we intend to get married, but even so she’s not going to tolerate it under her own roof. She’s old-fashioned like that.”

“Well, then I suppose you’ll just have to go two whole weeks without a shag, then,” said Harry.

Ron scowled. “It’s more difficult than it sounds, you know. I mean, isn’t that why you’re going to visit Malfoy after Christmas? You can’t go two whole weeks either.”

Harry didn’t have a good argument for that. While he did experience a bit of a dry spell between his breakup with Ginny and that first encounter with Draco, that was different. Now that he had tasted even just a fraction of what Draco had to offer, he couldn’t get enough. This week at the Burrow alone was going to be hard enough to endure.

There was a tapping at the window, and Harry glanced up to see Draco’s eagle owl, Archimedes, hovering outside, a roll of parchment tied to his leg. Smiling, Harry stood and opened the window. The bird flew in, very patiently lifting its leg to allow Harry to untie the parchment.

“It’s from him, isn’t it?” said Ron, eyeing the owl with a strange look on his face.

“Yeah,” said Harry. To his surprise, the owl was lingering. “I suppose he wants a treat?”

“Of course a Malfoy owl would expect a treat,” Ron said archly.

Harry glared at him before digging around in his trunk for the bag of owl treats he still kept on hand. Archimedes accepted the snack happily, then hooted and flew up to one of Ron’s bookshelves, finding a place to perch.

“Well, that’s odd,” said Ron.

“He knows I don’t have an owl,” Harry said, realizing. “He must have made sure Archimedes waited to bring my reply back with him.”

“That’s awfully presumptuous,” Ron grumbled.

But Harry disagreed. He thought it was quite considerate. He unrolled the parchment to see what Draco had written to him.

 

Dear Harry,

You told me to write to you if I got bored, so here I am doing just that. It’s astounding that it hasn’t even been a whole day yet, but perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

The manor is painfully quiet. Mother and I went half an hour into dinner last night talking in hushed voices until we realized that there was no need, that we could be as loud as we wanted. But there’s not enough shouting, singing, or laughing that could fill in the profound emptiness of this house, so it didn’t make much difference.

I realize I spent most of the term complaining about how I never get any peace and quiet at Hogwarts. But now that I’m here, I miss all the company and all the noise. Why is that, that I cannot simply be satisfied with whatever my present circumstances happen to be? Human nature, or is it unique to me?

Of course, I know the real reason I feel unsettled. You’re not here.

Yes, go ahead and call me a romantic sap. I’m not there to glare at you, so you can get away with it.

I hope your holiday so far has been more enjoyable than mine. I will certainly enjoy it more with a reply from you. Send it with Archimedes when you can. He’ll wait.

Yours,

Draco

 

Harry smiled, letting the warmth of Draco’s confession seep into him. And yet, Harry thought, chuckling, Draco still managed to be his usually snarky, amusing self throughout the entire thing.

“What, did he send you dirty poetry, or something?” Ron asked, making Harry remember that he was there.

“It’s just a normal letter, Ron,” Harry said with a mildly exasperated sigh, rolling the parchment up again and slipping it into his pocket.

“I suppose you’d better reply then, so that bloody bird can go home.” Ron glanced up at Archimedes, who was watching both of them imperiously from his perch in the corner.

Harry intended to do just that, but he only got so far as “Dear Draco” before both he and Ron were called downstairs by Molly and put to work with the first round of many chores leading up to the Christmas Eve party. By the time they were finished dinner was nearly ready, Arthur was home from the Ministry, and the table needed to be set.

It wasn’t until well after dinner, as most members of the family were either heading to their own rooms or else finding a quiet place by the fire to read, that Harry had an opportunity to pen a response to his boyfriend. He curled up in an armchair in the quiet sitting room with parchment and quill and began to write.

 

Dear Draco,

I know exactly what you mean. Grimmauld was far too quiet last night with just me and Kreacher and it made me miss Hogwarts, and you, of course.

Now I’m at the Burrow, and it’s the complete opposite problem. I’m not sure this house has ever known the meaning of the word “quiet.” This is the first minute I’ve had to myself all day, and I’m not even really alone. Arthur and Charlie are playing chess on the other side of the room, Hermione is by the fire reading an Ancient Runes text, and I can hear Molly in the kitchen baking a pie for tomorrow’s dinner. I could just go up to my room, I suppose, but Ron’s already up there, probably still lamenting about the fact that he can’t share a room with Hermione now that he’s home. He’s been complaining about it all day to me and Hermione both.

Not that I can say I blame him. I know life would be a lot more enjoyable for me if I had you to crawl into bed with tonight, and even more so if we could really be alone. I’m craving quiet again, but peace even more so, which I’m realizing is much harder to come by. Being in the company of the right person makes a big difference.

Maybe I’ll convince you to stay with me at Grimmauld for Easter break. We’d get plenty of quiet and peace both there. Do you think you could be persuaded?

And by all means, continue to be a romantic sap. You know full well I enjoy it. Speaking of which, I miss you. Write to me soon.

Yours,

Harry

 

Harry rolled up the letter and tied it securely, then went in search of Archimedes, who was in the kitchen feasting on a plate of bacon rinds that Harry had set out for him.

“Thanks for waiting,” he told the owl as he tied the letter to its leg. “You’re a patient one.”

Archimedes preened and then snapped a quick goodbye with his beak before taking off out of the open kitchen window. Harry watched the bird fly off into the night, glad that Draco would at least receive his reply by the morning.

“Was that Draco Malfoy’s owl?” Molly asked from the kitchen island, where she was flattening and shaping pie crusts.

Harry started and turned to her. “I… um, yes, it was.”

Molly gave him a small smile. “You’re afraid I don’t approve?”

Harry had no answer for that. It was exactly what he was afraid of, but he was worried about offending her by saying so.

“I’m certainly surprised,” Molly went on. “The way you three always talked about him, I thought you quite disliked him.”

“We did,” Harry said, finding his voice. “But that was before… before everything. He’s changed a lot, and so have I.”

“So have we all,” Molly agreed.

“I…” Harry took a deep breath. “I am sorry. About Ginny, I mean.”

Molly sighed. “Ginny is like me in so many ways that I thought she would make many of my same choices that I made when I was her age. But it has been clear to me for a long time that she wants more from her life than I wanted. I was young, and a bit naïve, I suppose, when I married Arthur, but I was also clear about what I wanted. I wanted to be a mother, and I wanted to have many children. I do not believe for a moment that I made the wrong choice, but I also don’t believe for a moment that Ginny would be nearly as happy in the same circumstance.”

Harry wasn’t sure how to answer, since none of what Molly was saying had anything to do with why he had broken up with Ginny.

“She has a great deal more exploring to do before she settles on anything, I think. We don’t all find our soul mates at age fifteen.”

Harry nodded. “That’s true.” He smiled suddenly. “Of course, turns out Ron found his at age eleven, he just didn’t know it.”

Molly smiled. “Yes, I hardly expected that. She is quite good for him, isn’t she?”

“They’re good together,” Harry said. “She keeps him grounded, and he reminds her to lighten up sometimes.”

“Mm,” Molly agreed. “She will be a wonderful daughter.” She looked at Harry, her gaze suddenly piercing, and Harry swallowed. “Of course, I would feel that way about her whether she married my son or not.”

Harry stood frozen, staring at Molly and wondering if she was saying what he thought she was saying.

“That’s what you’re afraid of, isn’t it, Harry? That I won’t love you anymore because you’re not going to marry my daughter?”

Harry felt a sting in his eyes and swallowed against it. Taking a shaky breath, he managed a nod.

“Oh, dear, no,” Molly said, coming to him. “Come here.” She pulled him to her, wrapping her arms around him. “You will always be my son,” she said softly, rubbing a hand up and down his back the same way Harry did to soothe Teddy. “No matter who you love. Ginny will heal, and she’ll find happiness. Don’t be afraid. It will all turn out all right.”

Harry knew he should probably be embarrassed to break down like this, but Molly’s words were like a balm on his aching conscience. He hadn’t realized how tightly he had been carrying around the fear of the Weasleys rejecting him until he could finally let it go. What a release it was.

“You’ll have to bring that Draco around some time after school is finished,” Molly said into his ear. “So I can make sure he’s treating you right.”

Harry managed a watery laugh. “That would certainly be an interesting visit.”

She pulled away and looked at him, rubbing some of the moisture off of his cheeks. “I think it’s time for bed, young man,” she said. “You’ll sleep better tonight than you have been, don’t you think?”

Harry smiled. Leave it to Molly Weasley to be the one to notice the subtle bags under his eyes. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

***

The conversation with Molly did a great deal for his mood and his ability to sleep over the next few days leading up to Christmas. He was able to be more relaxed in the presence of the Weasley family, which kept growing as Percy showed up mid-week and Bill and Fleur arrived only a day later. The house was starting to feel full to the brim, but even so Harry was able to handle the noise and chaos better, knowing now that even without Ginny, he did belong there.

The daily correspondence with Draco helped as well. They had cultivated a reliable routine already, in which Draco would reply to Harry’s letter in the morning, so that it reached Harry by the late afternoon, and then Harry would write back in the evenings, so that Draco would have a letter when he woke up.

“Honestly, Harry, you think you could manage a whole day without hearing from him,” George teased him one afternoon, as he readily picked up on Harry’s frequent glances towards the open window and the hope in his eyes that Archimedes would come flying through any moment. “With him being a pale, ferrety git, and all. I’m not sure I see the appeal.”

Harry rolled his eyes, but didn't retort right away. George joked around much less frequently since Fred’s death, and Harry wanted to encourage the behavior, even if it was at his and Draco’s expense. He smiled, deciding to give as good as he got.

“You’re one to talk. Rumor has it you and Angelina are joined at the hip these days. Are those wedding bells I hear?”

George shook his head. “We’re both too sad,” he said simply.

Harry sighed and resisted the urge to apologize for bringing it up. This was just the way George was sometimes: teasing and smiling one minute and then grave and serious the next.

Draco’s owl swooped in suddenly and perched himself on the armrest of Harry’s chair.

“Hello, Archimedes,” Harry greeted him as usual, removing the owl treat from his pocket that he’d been saving and giving it to the owl as he removed the letter.

He heard George heave a sigh. “Like clockwork,” he said. “I could set my watch by it.”

Harry ignored him and unrolled the letter.

 

Dear Harry,

Have you had a single moment alone since you arrived there? Every letter’s description makes me envision you surrounded by people. I suppose you must be alone when you bathe (or at least, I hope so, for your sake). Is it not exhausting? It would be for me.

Of course, I’ve had the opposite problem. For a time I really believed I would be doomed to have no company at all until you came, but that finally changed yesterday when Blaise and his mother Marianna came for a visit. How refreshing it was to see another living soul besides my mother! The novelty didn’t last long, though. Blaise is currently fixated on a particular witch and he talks about her constantly. It’s tiresome, and I tell him so, but he doesn’t care. We’ve been friends for far too long for him to be concerned that he might be annoying me.

It was very nice for Mother to spend time with a friend, however. Her social circle has shrunk considerably since the end of the war. The pureblood world is a fickle place. But Marianna has always stayed loyal, just as her son has to me, so I suppose I should be grateful. I know Mother is.

She asked me this morning if you like quail. I suppose she’s thinking of serving it for Christmas dinner. I told her you’ll eat just about anything, barbarian that you are.

Only two more days until I see you. I hope the Weasleys haven’t worn you out too much. You’ll need your strength for the things I have in mind.

Yours,

Draco

 

Harry flushed red at the final lines of Draco’s letter and tried very hard not to get too aroused in front of George. That would only incite teasing on the level of merciless.

“He must have written something quite sweet for you to blush like that,” George said with a grin. “Sweet, or very raunchy. Might I have a read?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Harry, making to stuff the parchment inside his pocket, but George was too fast and summoned it to him. “Oi!” Harry said angrily, grabbing for the letter as George danced out of his reach.

A scuffle ensued that ended with both men on the floor, laughing hysterically from ricocheting Tickling Jinxes, and Molly had to intervene, yelling as she loomed over them.

“What in Merlin’s name is going on in here?” She ended the jinxes with a quick wave of her wand and the two men relaxed against the carpet, breathing heavily.

“He took…” Harry breathed, “my letter… from Draco.”

“Honestly George. One would think you were still ten years old. Give Harry back his letter. And then wash up, the both of you. It’s nearly time for dinner.”

“Tattle-tale,” said George, but he handed over the parchment nonetheless.

Harry took it gratefully. He was even more grateful, however, looking at George. He hadn’t seen the man smile that brightly in a long time, and it was nice to see.

***

December the 24th finally came, and it was a full day from start to finish. Molly was already cooking furiously by first light, assisted throughout the day by anyone she could rope into a task.

“We’re expecting a large crowd tonight,” she said. “We need to make sure there’s plenty for everyone.”

The Weasleys had never thrown a Christmas party this large, Harry was fairly certain. Not only was all of the Weasley clan going to be in attendance, along with many of their significant others, but they were also expecting most of the surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix, as well as a number of Arthur’s friends from the Ministry and a few neighbors, including the Diggorys and the Lovegoods. It was to be a celebration, not just of the season, but of the advent of peacetime after a hard war.

Harry suspected, though, that Molly and Arthur were also trying to fill the inescapable void that Fred had left behind. His absence was felt at every meal, but it was rarely acknowledged. The family didn’t seem quite ready yet. Either way, big party or no, Harry knew Christmas morning would still be hard on all of them.

Guests began arriving just as dusk was falling. Harry had helped the Weasley brothers erect a large tent for the party, complete with powerful heating charms, fairy lights, and plenty of tables and chairs for all the guests. Harry was reminded a bit of Bill and Fleur’s wedding. Times were certainly better now than they were then, less frightening anyway. On the other hand, they had all been together, Fred too.

Harry put this from his mind, though, determined to enjoy himself. He found it much easier to do so with the arrival of someone he had been missing a great deal.

“Harry!” cried a gruff, familiar voice, and Harry was pulled into a bone-crushing hug that he knew only one half-giant was really capable of.

“Hullo, Hagrid,” he said cheerfully. He pulled back to look at his old friend. “How’s the breeding business treating you?”

“Business is good, Harry. Real good.”

“Glad to hear it.”

After the Battle Hagrid had elected not to return to Hogwarts. Instead, he and Madame Maxime established a beautiful estate in France, with plenty of land for Hagrid to breed magical creatures (legally, of course) for profit, and Madame Maxime could commute easily to and from Beauxbatons, where she was still Headmistress, as needed. Harry had missed seeing Hagrid on the grounds, had missed their regular visits for tea and conversation. But he was glad that Hagrid had finally found something to make him happy.

Harry greeted Madame Maxime as well, having to lift himself on his toes to reach her cheek for a kiss, and then the two moved inside to greet their other hosts.

“All right, Hagrid’s here,” said Ron happily, coming up next to Harry.

“Where’s Hermione? I’m sure she’ll want to say ‘hello’ to him, too.”

“Keeping an eye on Ginny,” Ron replied in an undertone. “Apparently she’s consuming the elven wine a little too fast.” Harry frowned. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” Ron continued. “She’s probably exaggerating anyway. You know how Hermione can be about these things.”

Harry did know, and chose to let it go. He had to remind himself that Ginny was not his responsibility anymore. It had been months since their breakup and the last thing he wanted was to feel guilty on Christmas.

“Let’s get some food, then,” Ron said. “I’m starving.”

The food was delicious and the drink flowed freely, and soon the tent was full of happy guests who had consumed their fill and were more than a little tipsy. Ron and Harry were both among them, although Harry was starting to realize how lightheaded he was getting from the wine and switched to butterbeer after a time.

He made the rounds of the guests, taking time to chat with Luna and her father Xenophilius, as well as having a nice long conversation with Kingsley, who was eager to hear how Harry and Draco were faring after the cursed letter incident. He finally made his way back around to Hagrid, who was sitting at a table with a large tankard of mulled mead, talking to Charlie about his work.

“Not allowed ter breed dragons o’ course,” he was saying. “That’s the on’y thing that’s a real shame abou’ the job.”

“Dragons need their own space, as you well know, Hagrid,” Charlie replied. “They’d kill any other creatures you were keeping there.”

Hagrid nodded his agreement. “Even so, I’ve got a nice pair o’ unicorns abou' to have themselves a foal. And Buckbeak’s chits are developin' nicely.”

“You bred Buckbeak?” Harry asked. The hippogriff had remained in Hagrid’s care after the war was over, and was even allowed to go by his original name now that he was no longer a fugitive.

“That I did, Harry. He’s quite happy on the estate, ‘s far as I can tell.”

Harry had no doubt that he was. It had probably been hard, being on the run with Sirius for a while.

“We miss you at school, Hagrid,” Harry told him. “You should come for a visit sometime.”

“Maybe I will, at tha’,” Hagrid said. “Didn’ want ter go back at first, you see. Too many painful memories. I’m surprised you decided ter return, if I’m honest, Harry.”

“It was hard at first,” Harry admitted. “But there are more good memories than painful ones, so I was glad, in the end.”

“Good man. Always lookin’ on the bright side.” Hagrid took a large swig from his tankard. “All in all I jus’ knew I had ter get on with my life. I couldn’ stay at Hogwarts forever, and I wanted to be with Olympe. But perhaps I shoulda stayed one more year, ter see you three off fer good.”

“It’s all right, Hagrid. You’ll come to our graduation, right?”

“Wouldn’ miss it.”

All in all the party was a success, and Harry was glad to get a chance to catch up with those he hadn’t seen since he had left for Hogwarts in the fall. Still, he was glad when it started to wind down and guests slowly dwindled away. It had been a long week, and Harry was knackered.

I get to see Draco tomorrow, he realized, and the thought perked him up a bit. He was looking forward to that even more than he was looking forward to Christmas morning, and giving Teddy all the gifts he had gotten him.

Harry and Ron were finally both able to excuse themselves and make for Ron’s room.

“Ugh, maybe we should Apparate,” said Ron as they both trudged up the stairs. “My room feels so far away.”

“No drinking and Apparating,” Harry reminded him.

“I’m not drunk,” said Ron.

“You’re tipsy, at least. Come on, only a bit farther.”

A door to their right opened suddenly and Hermione poked her head out of what Harry knew to be Ginny’s room.

“There you are!” she said, looking at Ron. Harry couldn’t help noticing that her face looked a bit flushed. “Ginny’s out, she’s chatting with Luna, says she won’t be back for a while.”

Ron immediately cottoned on. “Is that so? Well, well, well…” He looked around surreptitiously.

“Oh, come on, hurry up.”

“I’ll be in eventually, Harry,” Ron said, throwing his friend a lascivious wink. “But don’t wait up.”

Hermione giggled and pulled him inside, and Harry had the sneaking suspicion that she had been drinking a bit as well. With a smile and a shake of his head Harry resumed climbing the stairs to Ron’s room. He had been giving Ron a hard time all week about not being able to hold out. It appeared Hermione was just as impatient as her boyfriend.

Trying very hard not to think of what those two would be getting up to together, Harry prepared for bed. He climbed in and extinguished the lamps, relishing the fact that he was finally alone for more than a few minutes for the first time all week. He took a few deep breaths, savoring the silence, already beginning to feel himself drift off.

The bedroom door opened suddenly and Harry sat up, shielding his eyes against the flood of light from the hallway.

“Back already?” he said, assuming it was Ron before realizing it was far too soon, and the silhouette he could finally make out in the doorway was most definitely a woman.

Ginny.

Harry reached for his wand and lit the lamps, and Ginny was illuminated, leaning against the door frame, still wearing her glittery gold Christmas dress.

“We thought you were still outside, talking to Luna,” Harry said, for want of something better to say.

“She went home,” Ginny said, her voice lazy and soft. She drifted farther into the room, closing the door behind her.

She was drunk. Harry knew it immediately, though he had never really seen her drunk before. Though she was fairly sure on her feet, the eyes were a giveaway. Usually clear and piercing, her hazel depths were clouded over, slightly unfocused, her eyelids drooping slightly. It made Harry very nervous.

“I guess you’ve been shut out of your room temporarily,” said Harry. “I can send them a Patronus, tell Ron to clear out so you can go to bed.”

“Oh, let them have their fun,” Ginny said. “It’s Christmas, after all.”

“Well… I really need to-“

Ginny giggled, essentially ignoring him. “I heard them, you know. I guess they forgot the Silencing Charm. They’re really going at it.”

“I don’t really-“

“Just like we used to. Remember, Harry?”

Harry swallowed. The tone of Ginny’s voice turned his blood cold. He gathered the covers around himself more tightly, aware that he was only wearing underwear and no shirt.

“You were quite good with your tongue, as I recall,” she said, walking towards the bed with an exaggerated sway of her hips. “I would go so far as to say you were an expert in that regard.” She was reaching behind her to unzip her dress.

Harry couldn’t believe it. She was actually trying to seduce him, after everything? “Ginny-“

“I was quite good, too. Don’t deny it. The sounds I could get you to make.” Her dress slid to the floor, and she was bare-chested, wearing only a pair of black knickers.

“Ginny, this really isn’t a good idea.”

She climbed onto the bed, placing one knee at a time until she was kneeling in front of him. Though he tried, Harry couldn’t back away any farther; he was flat against the wall.

“Don't worry, I won’t forget the Silencing Charm. You can be as loud as you want.”

“Stop, Ginny.”

She reached for him, trying to caress his face, and he grabbed her wrist.

“Stop. You have to stop.”

The first flash of doubt crossed her features, but smoothed over. “You can’t tell me you don’t remember how good it was. You can’t tell me you don’t want it.”

“I don’t want it,” Harry said, unsure how to be any clearer.

“I… I could make you-“

“No, you can’t.”

“I could-“

“I love Draco.”

Her eyes widened in shock. “You don’t, not really.”

“I do, Ginny. You know I do. You said so yourself. You saw it.”

For a moment Ginny was frozen, and then her whole face crumpled, and she buried it in her hands. Her whole body started to shake with quiet sobs.

“Ginny…”

“Oh, Gods,” she said. “Oh, Gods.”

“Ginny, I’m sorry.” Harry couldn’t be sure what he was apologizing for, exactly. It wasn’t as if he had led her on in any way. Yet what else could he say? He had no way to make it right. He summoned a blanket from the foot of Ron’s bed and wrapped it around her mostly naked form, shielding her from the cold. She took it readily, wrapping it around herself.

“What’s wrong with me?” she whispered. “I don’t… this isn’t… why do I feel like this?”

Harry wasn’t sure how to answer that. He had a hunch, but he wasn’t about to presume to tell Ginny what it was she was feeling, or why.

Ginny wrapped the blanket tighter around her, tears falling freely down her cheeks as she stared, unfocused. “I…” She took a shuddering breath. “I miss F-F-Fred, and I miss y-you, and I… miss… myself.”

Harry wrapped his arms around her blanketed body and she came willingly, resting her head against his chest.

“This is not me. I’m not this. I don’t know who this is, but it’s not me.”

“It’s all right,” Harry said, rubbing a hand up and down her back. “Grief has done things to all of us.”

“I never wanted to be this person. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“I know. I know you are.”

He rocked her a little, and rubbed her back, letting her sobs subside naturally. In the back of his mind he knew Ron could be coming back at any moment, and might possibly make a scene when he found them like this. But that didn’t matter right now. All that mattered was that Ginny was calming down.

After what felt like a long time Ginny lifted her head and looked at Harry. Her eyes locked onto his, and Harry was glad to see that some clarity had returned to them.

“You don’t love me anymore, do you?” she said.

Harry hesitated. “I care about you a lot, Ginny-“

“Yes, but you’re never coming back to me. We’ll never be together.”

Harry sighed, but kept his eyes on hers. ”No, probably not.”

Ginny dropped her gaze and nodded. “Well, all right then.”

She stood, turning away from Harry as the blanket fell off her shoulders. Still, Harry averted his eyes from her naked back and bare legs as she stepped back into the dress and pulled it up around her. When she was fully clothed she turned to him.

“Don’t tell anyone about this, please. It will only upset them.”

Harry nodded. “I won’t. I promise.”

“Goodnight, Harry.” The way she said it, it sounded more like "goodbye.”

“Goodnight, Ginny.”

And she was gone.

Chapter Text

When Harry’s eyes snapped open Christmas morning, he had no idea what could have woken him so early. The house was preternaturally quiet, and Harry guessed the previous night’s festivities were to blame. He wondered if he was the only one who wouldn’t be entering Christmas morning hung over. Luckily, they made a potion for that, though he doubted there was enough to go around. He chuckled at the thought of the Weasleys half-heartedly squabbling over the supply.

Harry himself was grateful that he had ended the evening with his wits about him, considering what had happened with Ginny. He shuddered to think how things would have unfolded if he had been out of his skull on elven wine. He didn’t think even under the influence of alcohol he would have had a desire to be with her, but he wouldn’t have been able to fend off her advances or help her to see reason so easily, in all likelihood. His stomach twisted at the thought of what could have been.

He had promised not to tell anyone, and he was happy to keep that promise when it came to the Weasleys. Keeping it from Draco, on the other hand, he felt a bit squeamish about. This was the kind of thing you were supposed to tell your significant other, right, even if you promised not to? Because even though nothing happened, the act of not telling made it into a kind of secret. And that was bad, right?

Or would it simply upset Draco more to know it? Would it make him unjustifiably jealous or distrustful? It wasn’t like Draco needed any more reasons to dislike Ginny.

He wished he could ask Hermione’s advice. She would have good insight. But he wasn’t allowed to talk about it. He felt a surge of anger towards Ginny for putting him in this position in the first place. What had she been thinking?

She wasn’t.

Harry heaved a sigh and then got himself out of bed. He would just have to decide about all of this later, after the festivities, after he finally saw Draco again and had his way with him a few times. Maybe then his head would be clearer.

He got dressed quietly so as not to disturb Ron, who was tangled in the covers of his bed, snoring softly. He tread carefully down the stairs, trying to avoid the ones that creaked, and made his way into the kitchen.

Molly was the only Weasley who had beaten him out of bed. She was working away silently, baking bread and preparing enough sausages and eggs to feed an army. She looked up as Harry came in.

“Good morning, Harry, dear. Did you sleep well?”

“I did,” said Harry. “And I think I’ll probably be feeling better than most this morning.”

Molly chuckled, though it was a bit forced. “Yes, I daresay most of us let it all hang loose last night, didn’t we?” Harry couldn’t mistake the melancholy in her voice, and as he got closer he saw that her eyes were red-rimmed and glistening. Harry knew she must have been thinking about Fred.

“What can I do?” he asked.

“Oh, I think I’ve got it under control here.”

“I don’t mind helping,” said Harry. “Honestly.”

“Would you just… talk to me? About anything. I could use the company.”

Harry smiled at her. “Of course.”

Eventually the other Weasleys started trickling in, some, like Arthur and Charlie, looking no worse for wear, and others, like George, looking as though they hadn’t slept at all. They all joined Harry at the table, chiming into his conversation with Molly, though the energy of the whole group was subdued. George didn’t say much at all, staring into his cup of tea and occasionally rubbing at his puffy eyes. When Ginny finally entered she avoided Harry’s gaze altogether and sat at the other end of the table.

Things perked up a bit with the arrival of Andromeda and Teddy, loaded down with Christmas packages, the baby sporting an adorable little wool hat and matching mittens. Harry scooped him up from Andromeda immediately, giving kisses all over his face and making him giggle.

“I missed you, Teddy,” he said softly, pulling off the boy’s mittens. “Look how big you’ve gotten already.”

Teddy smiled and grabbed at his face, and Harry laughed. Some things never change.

Breakfast was served, and Andromeda situated herself next to Harry so they could catch up. She wanted to hear all about the apprenticeship that he was starting next term.

Harry had decided to go with the master duelist. He thought it was most in line with his talents, but also that he could learn a great deal. A close second had been the Diaphone Thickett Foundation, which focused on Muggleborn rights and helping those of Muggle parentage integrate effectively into wizarding society. It was a worthy cause, and he liked the sound of the kind of work they did, but he was still uneasy about getting too politically involved, and had decided against taking an internship there.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching,” Harry said. “I don’t know if I would want to be a professor, or just take private clients, but I think the work could be interesting.”

“That’s wonderful, Harry,” Andromeda said with a smile.

“We’ll see,” Harry said. “I’m trying on the possibility. I don’t want to commit myself to anything yet.”

Andromeda nodded her understanding. “And on another subject, what’s this I hear about you and Draco Malfoy?”

Harry flushed red. “We’re, um… involved.”

“Yes, I know,” she said.

Harry shrugged. “It’s going well so far.”

“Harry’s been getting letters from him every day since he got here,” George said, giving Harry a wink. “They’re madly in love. It’s quite disturbing.”

Harry blushed redder, aware that half the table was looking at him. “I’m leaving for Malfoy Manor this afternoon for a visit, actually,” he said, turning to Andromeda. “Any advice on dealing with Narcissa?”

Andromeda gave him a sad smile. “It’s been a long time since we’ve spoken,” she said. “But she was always intense when I knew her. A force of nature. If she’s the same person now that she was when we were young, well… I suppose my advice would be stand your ground, if you can. And if you can’t, and you get knocked over, don’t take it personally.”

Harry laughed. “You’re making me even more nervous than I was before.”

Andromeda laughed with him. “I don’t mean to. She loves fiercely, Narcissa. None more so than her son. If you love him, and are good to him, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

Harry nodded. That was helpful advice after all.

The family gathered in the sitting room for presents, which, as always, was a chaotic affair. It was made even more so this year with Teddy, now able to crawl, getting into anything within reach. Harry tried to keep the boy on his lap, but it was no use. The presents, the people, the pretty lights on the Christmas tree, were all just too interesting.

Being the only baby, Teddy without question raked in the biggest haul of presents, from toys to clothes to books, not to mention his own tiny Weasley jumper. Harry did quite well himself, though, with new Seeker gloves from Ron, books on teaching and advanced Defense from Hermione, a selection of products from George’s joke shop, and many others. He pulled on his own Weasley jumper (green, to match his eyes, as always) and gave Molly an extra-long hug, knowing how hard the holiday had been for her.

He was grateful to the Weasleys for accepting him as a part of their family, but he had to admit that by the afternoon, most of his mind was on getting himself to Malfoy Manor and seeing Draco again. He was glad when all the present opening was done and he could sneak upstairs to pack and freshen up, so that he was presentable for Christmas dinner with Narcissa.

All packed, he bid warm goodbyes to nearly everyone in the house (Ginny, he was luckily able to avoid), ignoring lascivious eyebrow raises from George and Ron, and giving Hermione a kiss on the cheek.

“I’ll see you for New Years’, yeah?” he said. They were hoping to plan a fun night in the city with some of their friends.

“We’ll see you then, mate,” said Ron with a grin. “Now go. Your Slytherin lover awaits.”

Harry rolled his eyes, one last time, for good measure. Then he walked into the cool afternoon to Apparate to the Malfoy estate.

He appeared just a few yards from the main gates, and he took a moment to stare up at the imposing behemoth that was Malfoy Manor, unable to repress a brief flashback to the last time he had walked this path. He had not been alone, then. Ron and Hermione had been his fellow prisoners, and Fenrir Greyback…

He forced himself back to the present, taking in a few lungfuls of chilly winter air to quell his racing heart.

Everything is different now, he reminded himself.

The gates opened for him, and he stepped through them, making his way down the hedge-lined walk to the manor’s immense front doors. To his left he heard the rhythmic wail of a peacock, and he turned to see a whole group of them, white as the snow, waddling about with their large tails trailing behind them like the lacy trains of wedding gowns. He smiled. He had forgotten about the peacocks. They were a leftover from Lucius' legacy, Draco had explained.

When he reached the steps the doors opened before him, and the tiny figure of a house elf appeared, female, if Harry could guess, although one couldn’t always tell.

“Mr. Harry Potter, sir,” the elf said in a squeaky voice. “You is being welcomed to Malfoy Manor.”

“Thank you,” said Harry, with a nod of his head. He followed the elf inside, happy to step into the warmth of the grand foyer, while the doors closed smoothly and slowly behind him of their own accord.

“Pipsy is taking your coat, sir,” she said, reaching out with her spindly arms. Harry gave it to her, thanking her again. “The master and mistress of the house is having tea in the south wing,” the elf went on. “I is taking Mr. Harry Potter there, sir.”

Harry looked all around him as he followed the elf through the house, taking in what he could. It looked very different than the last time he had been there: cleaner, perhaps, and most certainly lighter. The oppressive atmosphere that the presence of Death Eaters had laid upon the manor had obviously been lifted. Still, it was deathly silent, so much so that Harry couldn’t help wincing as his footfalls vibrated conspicuously in the stillness. Though Draco sometimes had a tendency to exaggerate, in this instance Harry could see that the descriptions in his letters had been quite accurate.

Pipsy was leading him towards the back of the house and eventually stopped outside a parlor who’s large French doors were open wide. Harry stopped with her, taking in the sight of Draco and his mother, both seated on lounges in front of a low table, sipping tea and talking quietly, each of their blond heads glowing a little in the fading afternoon light.

“Master Draco, Mistress Narcissa,” Pipsy said, bowing low as she entered the room. “Mr. Harry Potter is being here.”

They both stood quickly but gracefully as Harry entered the room. Narcissa approached him first, Draco not far behind. Harry made himself focus on Narcissa for the moment, though he was dying to get another good look at the man he had been missing for the past week.

“Mr. Potter,” Narcissa said in that dignified voice he recognized immediately. “Welcome to our home.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Malfoy,” Harry replied, taking her outstretched hand and giving it a light kiss, as he knew he was supposed to do. “It’s a pleasure to be here.”

“Please, won’t you join us for tea?”

“Thank you,” Harry said. He glanced at Draco, finally, who had the slightest of smiles on his face. His eyes, though, were intense, and bored into Harry’s, conveying what he could not with the rest of his polite features. Harry flushed and reminded himself that it would be bad form to give Draco an enthusiastic snog in front of his mother.

He sat down and was fussed over a bit by Pipsy, who poured his tea, lacing it with milk and sugar when he gave her consent, and offered him a multitude of pastries and finger sandwiches from the large tiered platter in the center of the table. Aware that both of the Malfoys were staring at him, he thanked the elf quietly and hoped they would soon feel permission to resume their conversation. Instead, though, Narcissa spoke directly to him.

“I hope your holiday has been pleasant so far, Mr. Potter.”

“You can call me Harry, Mrs. Malfoy. And yes, it was, thank you. Last night the Weasleys threw a party for some friends and neighbors, and then this morning we all exchanged gifts as usual.”

“Do all of the Weasley children attend Christmas at the Burrow? I imagine it must be quite crowded.”

Harry smiled. “It is. And loud. And this year we had Teddy and Andromeda, too, of course, and Teddy was crawling everywhere and getting into all sorts of trouble.” Harry bit his tongue immediately as he saw the look that crossed Narcissa’s face. It was brief, and he almost missed it, but it had definitely been there. Pain, sorrow even. He mentally kicked himself for not bringing up Andromeda more tactfully.

Five minutes in and she already hates me, he thought.

“I understand Teddy is your godson,” Narcissa said. “You were close with his father?”

“Yes, Remus was my teacher for a year. Draco’s too.” Harry glanced at Draco again, whose features were schooled into those of a calm spectator. He wasn’t going to get much help with this, it seemed. “But he was also a very close friend of my parents, and he helped me through some difficult times.”

“It must have been good for you, to have people in your life who knew your parents well.”

“Yes, it made a big difference.” Of course, all of the Marauders were dead now, but he didn’t point that out. He took a sip of his tea.

“Draco told me that you are to start apprenticing with a master duelist this term. Is that what you want to do, become a duelist?”

“Probably not exactly that,” said Harry, feeling increasingly like he was sitting for a job interview. “But I never learned formally, and I thought it would be good for me. And I’m considering teaching Defense as a profession, and this duelist also does that. He takes on private clients.”

“You want to become a teacher.”

“Maybe,” said Harry. “I’m exploring the option.”

Narcissa nodded. “Rumor has it you were set to become an Auror, but Draco tells me that isn’t true.”

Harry repressed a sigh. He felt as if he was walking on constantly shaking ground, unable to get a firm conversational footing. He wondered if this was just how Narcissa was and couldn’t help it, or if she was doing it on purpose. He remembered Andromeda’s advice and steeled himself to answer. “Before the war I thought I wanted to be an Auror, and I was taking the classes for it. But now that the war is over I’ve changed my mind.”

“You would rather teach than fight.” Harry could not tell from Narcissa’s expression or tone of voice if she approved or not, and Harry decided to simply be honest.

“Yes. I’m a bit tired of fighting.”

“We all are, I think. Those of us who are sane, anyway.”

Harry couldn’t quite stifle his surprise. “I agree,” he said. He then immediately asked about their holiday, hoping to turn the attention away from himself. Another glance Draco’s way found the blond fighting a smile. Harry wished he could reach out and take Draco’s hand, touch him in some way. But he resisted.

Finally, the tea came to a close and Narcissa suggested that Draco show Harry to his rooms.

“I hope you will find it all to your liking,” she said.

“Thank you, and thanks for the tea.”

“My pleasure, Mr. Potter.”

Not wanting to correct her on his name a second time, Harry followed Draco out of the parlor and waited until they were well out of earshot before saying, “Does your mother hate me? I can’t tell.”

Draco chuckled. “No, she doesn’t hate you. She’s not the warmest person, but she’ll be more expressive once you get to know her.”

“I feel like I kept saying the wrong thing, like it was a test that I was failing.”

Draco gave Harry a warm smile and took his hand as they made their way up a staircase lined with elegant green carpet.

“It was a test, but you didn’t fail.”

“Oh,” said Harry.

“My mother, despite her aristocratic upbringing, actually prefers honesty and forthrightness. You gave her both, so she is happy.”

Harry thought about that for a moment. “Well, that’s good, I guess.”

Draco laughed again and squeezed his hand. “She rarely complains in front of most people, but those who know her well know her disdain for how disingenuous purebloods can be. It was always a point of contention between her and her mother.”

“If that’s true, then she would get along very well with Andromeda, I would think.”

Draco paused and turned to Harry. “They did, when they were girls. They were very close. But then Andromeda went off and married a Muggleborn, while my mother did the ‘right thing’ and married a pureblood. It divided them, though I think my mother would have preferred that it didn’t. But she…” Draco stared down at their entwined fingers for a moment. “She loved my father, and he didn’t approve of my aunt and… I think she regrets it now, though she would never say.” He gave Harry a wry smile. “She likes forthrightness from others, but she’s not always forthright herself, especially when it comes to painful things, or things she is ashamed of.”

“I think that’s true of all of us,” Harry said.

“So it is,” Draco agreed. “Come on, your room is this way. It’s right next to mine.”

Harry had to admit that he had been hoping for different sleeping arrangements, namely ones that had him in Draco’s bed for the whole week. But perhaps Narcissa was insisting on this, and the last thing he wanted to do was get on her bad side.

Draco led him into a suite of rooms that was decorated in a blue and green color scheme. The furniture was mostly tasteful antiques in dark wood, with a large canopy bed with thick down bedding.

Harry looked around the space. “It’s… a very nice room,” he said. “The bed looks comfortable.” He turned to Draco, who was watching him with what might have been amusement, or perhaps affection.

“I’m glad you like it,” he said.

“What’s not to like?” replied Harry.

“There is… another option.”

“Oh?” Harry raised his eyebrows, feigning innocence.

“You could stay with me.”

Harry couldn’t help but smile. “I was hoping you would say that.”

“I know.”

“Your mother won’t mind?”

Draco shook his head. “It’s not really up to her. Technically, it’s my house. My rules.”

Harry chuckled. “Maybe so, but I’d like to keep your mother happy, if I can. Life will be easier for both of us, and…” He bit his lip. “I want her to approve of me.”

Draco took a step towards Harry. “She already does. She knows what we are, what we have. She won’t interfere.” He cupped Harry’s cheek with his hand, and Harry felt tension crackling, jumping from Draco’s skin onto his, tension that had been building from a week apart.

“Good,” said Harry. “That’s good.” His eyes flitted to Draco’s mouth automatically, and saw the lips form a small smirk.

Draco leaned in, close enough that their noses were touching and their lips were just a hair’s breadth from brushing together. Harry’s heart pounded away in his chest and he breathed in Draco’s breath, tasting it, savoring the moment as the humming energy between them reached a fever pitch.

Incredible, he thought, that I can feel like this and he hasn’t even kissed me yet.

And then Draco closed the gap. It was such a small space, but it made all the difference. The light pressure of those soft lips had Harry opening himself to Draco without hesitation, and Draco delved slowly in, taking his time. Harry massaged his tongue against Draco’s, and let a small but needy moan escape him.

That soft sound seemed to trigger something in Draco, because he moaned in return, pulling Harry to him so they were flush against each other, one hand on the small of Harry’s back and the other gripping almost painfully into his dark hair. Harry was happy to follow suit, running his hands greedily over the defined muscles of Draco’s back and down to his perfect arse. He squeezed, pressing Draco even closer to him and grinding their trouser-clad erections together. Draco moaned louder.

“Feel how just how much I missed you,” he said breathlessly into Harry’s ear, rutting his cock against Harry’s again.

Harry, his head now dizzy with lust, barely managed a reply. “Feel me, too.”

Draco’s hands were sneaking up the edge of Harry’s shirt. “Merlin, Harry,” he said. “I want you, right now. I thought I could wait, but…”

“How much time do we have?”

Draco spared a glance at the grandfather clock. “Twenty, maybe thirty minutes, before my mother has Pipsy fetch us for hors d’oeuvres and aperitifs.”

Harry tried not to get sidetracked by how ridiculously pretentious that all sounded. “Plenty of time,” he said, reaching for the belt of Draco’s trousers.

“The way I’m feeling, I’m not sure I’ll last more than a few minutes,” Draco admitted breathlessly, tugging at the fabric of Harry’s shirt. “I had a whole… evening planned for us after dinner, where I was going to… to take my time, but…” He pulled Harry’s shirt off, his gray eyes raking the expanse of Harry’s bare torso. “Fuck, look at you. I can’t possibly… I have to have you. Right now.”

“Yes,” said Harry.

That was all that needed to be said. They were halfway out of their clothes already but Draco finished the job with a wave of his wand, leaving both of them exposed and panting. Draco practically tackled Harry onto the guest bed, but Harry came along willingly, reveling in the feeling of skin on skin. They released a collective moan as Draco ground into Harry and Harry bucked lustfully in response, increasing the friction.

This won’t take long at all, Harry thought ruefully, as he felt the sweet fire of climax already beginning to build deep within him.

Draco had conjured some lube with his wand and was using a hand to stroke them both, while simultaneously plundering Harry’s mouth with his tongue. He couldn’t keep up the multi-tasking for long, though, as the intense pleasure seemed to paralyze him. He stilled over Harry, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth open. Harry drank it in, the knowledge of how much Draco wanted this, wanted him, taking him to new heights.

Harry added his own hand to the mix, exploring all of Draco’s erogenous zones before stroking his fingers along that rock hard cock. “Come for me, Draco,” he said. “I want to see you.” Draco opened his eyes, locking gazes with Harry, just as Harry reached down to give the blond’s bollocks a gentle squeeze.

“Harry!” he cried, erupting all over Harry’s tanned torso, gray eyes never leaving green. With just a few more strokes Harry was releasing, too, and he kept his eyes open, making sure Draco could see the all the pleasure he had given him.

Finally spent, Draco collapsed on top of Harry, the sticky layer of their combined cum gluing their abdomens together. Harry, too busy trying to catch his breath, couldn't find it in him to care.

“I told you I wouldn’t last long,” Draco said with a laugh. He lifted his head and gave Harry a couple of soft kisses. “I was too worked up.”

“Me, too,” said Harry. He glanced at the clock. “Five minutes from start to finish.”

“A record?” Draco asked.

“I don’t know. How long did that first time in the classroom take?”

“No idea.” Draco rolled off Harry, reaching for his wand to clean them off. “I was too busy being amazed it was happening at all to keep track of the time.”

Harry laughed, then sat up and launched himself off the bed with a satisfied groan.

“Hey, where are you going?” Draco asked.

“We still have a few minutes before dinner,” Harry said, looking back at him with a grin. “I thought I’d give you your Christmas present.”

That turned Draco’s pout into a smile, as Harry knew it would. Harry crossed the room to where Draco had banished their clothing, laughing to himself as he saw that Draco had managed to get them to fold and stack themselves neatly, even in the throes of lust. Harry began dressing himself.

“You can’t stay naked and still give me my present?” the Slytherin asked. “That would be two presents in one.”

Harry laughed and tossed Draco’s clothes at him. “I don’t want you to be distracted by other things when you open it.”

“Must be a good one, then,” said Draco.

“I hope so.” In truth, Harry wasn’t sure if he’d done the right thing or not. It seemed like quite a good idea at the time. He’d been jumping out of his skin for the past two weeks with anticipation. But Draco was sometimes hard to predict.

He fished the two shrunk packages out of his pocket and enlarged them, setting the one that was meant for Narcissa on the small table where his clothes had been moments before. The larger of the two packages he brought to Draco, his heart sputtering nervously as he handed it over.

Draco, now dressed as well, took it and looked at it, as if trying to guess what it was, but then tore off the paper with a flourish, revealing a box of high quality French butter caramels. He looked down at it and licked his lips.

“These are my favorite,” he said, running fingers over the top of the box. “They’re hard to find. They don’t make that many batches.”

“I know,” said Harry. “But that’s just a small token, really. The other present is inside.”

Furrowing his brow in confusion, Draco lifted the lid off the box to see that there was a folded piece of parchment resting lightly atop the caramels. He lifted it out, setting the box aside and unfolding the parchment slowly. Harry’s heart thudded away in his chest as Draco began to read, his eyes growing wider with each dart across the page. Finally, he reached the bottom of the letter and stopped, only to stare at the signature for quite a long time. Then his face lifted, and his hand lowered, and he stared at Harry in disbelief.

“You did this?” he asked.

“I had help from Slughorn, of course,” said Harry. “But it was my idea in the first place.” He wished Draco would give him some sign, positive or negative, that would indicate how he felt at that moment. But all he could read in the blond’s features was shock.

“How…?” Draco looked back at the letter again. “I can’t believe you thought of this.”

“I hope I didn’t overstep my bounds,” Harry said nervously. “But I’ve heard that one of the hardest things about starting a career as a potions master is getting published early on, even though you need the exposure and credentials to build your business or get a job. I thought this would give you a leg up on the competition.” Draco gaped at him. “I didn’t do much, honestly,” Harry said. “I just submitted our paper, with the cover letter, which Slughorn helped me write.”

“Harry… this is… this is Potions Quarterly. This is… everyone who is anyone in the potions world wants their research published by them.”

“I know.”

“They’re putting us in the January issue. It’s the most important issue of the year.”

“I know.”

“People will… important people, Harry, will read our paper. They’ll brew our potion.”

“I know.”

Draco stood up abruptly and walked over to Harry, planting a firm kiss on his lips. “This is the most thoughtful thing anyone has ever done for me. Ever.”

Harry finally let himself smile. “I’m glad you like it. I was nervous.”

Draco shook his head, looking down at the letter again. “I can’t believe it.” His brow suddenly furrowed. “This is only addressed to me, though. Why is it not to both of us?”

“I listed you as the primary author on the paper. I’m just an assistant. You’ll get all the credit.”

Draco gave him an incredulous look. “Why would you do that?”

Harry shrugged. “You did most of the work. I just helped. And it makes no difference for my career. Plus, I know the kind of attention my name garners. I didn’t want it to overshadow your work unfairly.”

“It wouldn’t have,” Draco replied. “We should share this. We both did it.”

Harry shook his head. “No. I want it to be yours alone.”

Draco continued to stare at him. “Why?”

Harry stared back, unsure how to explain. “Because…” he began. He looked at Draco some more, and then he knew. “Because… I love you.”

Draco’s eyes widened just a fraction, but otherwise his expression didn’t change. He continued staring at Harry as though the Gryffindor had started speaking Mermish.

There was a popping sound as Pipsy appeared suddenly in the room. Harry turned automatically to look at her. “Master Draco and Mr. Harry Potter, sirs. The mistress of the house requests your presence in the east wing parlor. You is expected there at once.”

“Thank you, Pipsy,” Draco said flatly, and the house elf bowed low before popping out of existence again.

Harry turned back to Draco to find that the shocked expression had been replaced by one of pure wonder. Harry smiled and pressed his lips to Draco’s chastely. He was enjoying the fact that he had rendered Draco practically speechless. That alone was quite a feat. “Come on, then,” he said. “It won’t do to keep your mother waiting, will it?” He grabbed Narcissa’s gift from the table and put it into his pocket, then made for the door. He could hear Draco following behind him, and his smile widened.

Narcissa was waiting for them where Pipsy had said, her back ramrod straight as she perched poised on one of the silk-upholstered loveseats. She had a glass of sparkling wine in her hand, and stood immediately as they entered the room.

“Have a drink,” she said. “Dinner will be served in half an hour.”

“What would you prefer, Harry?” Draco asked him. “Wine or firewhiskey?”

“I’ll have whatever you’re having.”

Draco poured both of them two fingers of Ogden’s finest, handing Harry his glass. Then Draco joined him on the loveseat where Harry already sat, sitting much closer to him than he had during tea, close enough that their arms brushed occasionally.

Narcissa looked between the two of them briefly, her face impassive. “How did you like your accommodations, Mr. Potter?”

“Please, call me Harry,” he replied, remembering Draco’s advice about how Narcissa liked forthrightness. “I really would prefer it.”

“Very well… Harry,” Narcissa said. “So, was the room to your taste?”

“I like it very much,” said Harry, equivocating, but Draco jumped in.

“We’ve decided Harry will be staying with me in my room, Mother,” Draco said, and he stared at her as if issuing her a challenge.

Harry tensed. There was a beat of silence, in which Narcissa stared at her son, her face blank but her eyes piercing, reminding Harry remarkably of Draco for a moment.

“Very well,” she said, and then, strangely, she gave her son a small smile, as if she were proud of him. Draco nodded at her, and Harry realized that there was much about their relationship that he didn’t understand.

Narcissa encouraged Harry to eat the food that had been laid out for them, while she asked him and Draco about Hogwarts, what they and their friends were studying, and what the next term would bring. Harry, now a little less nervous and quite hungry, helped himself to canapés, crudité, and mild olives while he listened to Draco tell his mother about their Potions project and slowly sipped his firewhiskey.

“You’ll never believe what Harry gave me for Christmas,” Draco said, and Harry blushed under Narcissa’s careful gaze as Draco explained that their paper was going to be published.

Narcissa absorbed that stoically. “How very… creative,” she said finally.

For some odd reason, Harry wanted to burst out laughing. Narcissa was the most difficult to read person Harry had ever encountered in his life, and somehow, in that moment, he found it inexplicably hilarious.

It’s brilliant, he thought. There’s no real way to please her, or to make her like you, so you’re better off just being honest, and being yourself. It was oddly liberating. He felt himself relax a little more.

Another elf, a male named Loxie, announced that dinner was ready, and the three of them made their way into the dining room, where the places were set with more silverware and goblets than Harry had ever seen in his life.

Harry had grown accustomed to the Weasley method of dining over the years, which involved a lot of food all served at once, sometimes followed by a pudding course. The Malfoys, however, clearly preferred to dine in the French style, with multiple courses and wine that paired with each dish. Harry found it all a bit overwhelming, though quite delicious, and simply tried his best to use the correct fork and knife for each course, watching Draco surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye to make sure he was doing it right.

Conversation was still a bit stiff. There were clearly some subjects that were to be avoided, the war and the aftermath being the biggest and the most glaring. Their talk centered mostly around Hogwarts, Draco’s apprenticeship, Narcissa’s business dealings (as she was currently in charge of the Malfoy estate and its investments), and the latest pureblood gossip. Harry didn’t contribute much, but he made a point of listening, and reacting appropriately, and eating as slowly and gracefully as Narcissa and Draco did.

They finished their main course of quail with rosemary glaze and mushroom risotto and their plates were cleared magically by the elves, making way for the salad and cheese course.

Narcissa picked up her glass of wine and sat back in her chair a little, looking as relaxed as Harry had seen her that night. She looked at Harry for a moment, her exquisite, austere face the picture of thoughtfulness as she asked with steady confidence, “How is my sister?”

Harry stared at her a moment, a hand frozen halfway to his own wine glass. He dropped his hand in his lap and cleared his throat. “She’s well, overall, I think,” he said. “She works hard, raising Teddy, and I think it’s draining for her, sometimes. Losing her husband and her daughter took its toll, of course.”

“I can imagine,” Narcissa replied softly.

Harry’s eyes flitted to Draco for a moment, unsure, but then he decided to take a chance. Narcissa had brought up the subject, after all. “I think she’s looking to reconnect with the family she still has,” he said. “She’s lost so much already, like we all have. I think she would welcome a correspondence with you, if you… were so inclined.”

He had surprised Narcissa, it seemed, if the delicate arch of her brow was any indication. But she did not seem upset. “You think she would?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I’ve thought about writing to her many times,” she said, and Harry was surprised that she was sharing this. “But time, and family, and our choices… have divided us.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Harry said, before he could overthink it. “Things are different now. The world is different. If there is ever a time for fresh starts, it’s now. I mean, look at me and Draco.”

He did finally let himself look at Draco now, to find that the blond was watching him closely, but with a small smile. He turned back to Narcissa, who was also considering him intensely.

“Indeed,” she said finally.

The conversation moved on, but Harry couldn’t help feeling that he might have planted a seed, one that could grow into something interesting.

Dessert finally came, a rich chocolate mousse, served with coffee, and Harry thought it might be time to give Narcissa her gift, though he was quite nervous to do so.

He took the package out of his pocket, unshrunk it, and placed it on the table.

“I brought you something,” he said to her. “I gave Draco his present already, of course, but I wanted to give you one as well.”

Again, it seemed he had surprised her. “How considerate,” she said. She took the gift and unwrapped it, while Draco and Harry watched in silence. She weighed the black velvet box in her palm for a moment, before opening the top to reveal what was inside.

She stared at the necklace silently for a good ten seconds. It was a Black family heirloom, one of the many that Harry had inherited: a large emerald and amethyst pendant on a woven white gold chain. The appraiser he had hired to take a look at the piece had valued it at over 50,000 galleons. Still, Harry had no qualms about giving it to Narcissa. It felt more like it belonged to her than to him in the first place.

“This was my grandmother’s,” she said. “I remember it.”

“Yes,” said Harry. “That’s what I was told. I thought you might… well… I wanted to return it to you.”

She looked up at him, her face as unreadable as ever. “Thank you,” she said in a flat voice. “That’s quite generous.”

“I have a number of heirlooms that I’ve found while cleaning out the house,” Harry went on, deciding to go for broke. “I hope you will feel free to go through them at some point, and take whatever you want. I’ve told Andromeda the same.”

Narcissa stared at him. “You don’t wish to keep any for yourself?”

Harry wasn’t sure what to say. Had he offended her? “I don’t think of them as mine,” he said honestly. “I would rather you and Andromeda have what you want. I’ll keep and find a way to display the rest, but I really don’t… um… my godfather was not particularly attached to any of it, I don’t think, so I don’t have much attachment to them either.”

“Very well,” Narcissa said, after a long silence. “Perhaps over the summer I will have an opportunity to take a look.”

“Great,” said Harry.

“Thank you for the necklace. It’s beautiful.”

“You’re welcome. Thank you for having me here. Dinner was delicious.”

Narcissa nodded, and dessert was finished in silence. Harry was reeling, wondering if he had just done something very stupid. And the way Draco was looking at him, with his eyes narrowed slightly and his mouth set in a thin line, had Harry worried.

Harry and Draco were able to excuse themselves shortly after, and Draco led Harry to his rooms, a suite complete with a massive bathroom and a bedroom done tastefully but unsurprisingly in Slytherin colors of green and silver. The elves, Harry saw, had already brought up his trunk and hung up his clothes. He turned to Draco, unable to stand the silence any longer.

“Was I…” Harry began. “Did I do the right thing, giving your mother that necklace?”

“It was perfect, Harry,” Draco said. “I know she’s not very… effusive. But knowing her as I do I could tell she was quite moved by it.”

“Good,” breathed Harry. “I wasn’t sure. And you were giving me a look…”

Draco’s face closed off slightly. “What sort of look?”

“I don’t know. Like I’d done something wrong.”

Draco huffed a small laugh. “Merlin, Harry, no. That’s not it. It’s just that I’m… nervous.”

“About what?” Harry’s pulse began racing for an entirely different reason. He had dropped a bit of a bomb on Draco right before dinner by saying “I love you.” He had thought it would be appreciated, perhaps even reciprocated. It had felt right at the time. Now he found himself terrified that he had misstepped, and Draco was trying to find a nice way to tell him so.

“About giving you your Christmas present.”

Harry blinked. “Oh.”

“Yours was just so good, so thoughtful. And after what you did for my mother… I don’t think mine lives up-“

“Draco, don’t be ridiculous. It’s not a competition.”

Draco raised his eyebrows, giving Harry a sardonic smirk. “No? Are you sure?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Yes. Whatever it is that you got me, I’ll appreciate it.”

Draco let out a slow breath. “You say that now…”

“Why don’t you just give me the present, and I’ll prove it to you.”

Draco gave Harry a mild glare for his impatience, but finally nodded. “All right. But if you hate it-”

“Sweet Circe, Draco. I’m not going to hate it.”

“If you hate it,” Draco pressed, “you have to let me know, so that I can return it and get you something else.”

Harry felt his jaw clench. “You drive me barmy sometimes, you know that?”

Draco grinned, nervousness seemingly forgotten for a moment. “Yes, but you love me, so…”

“Yes, you annoying, insecure bastard. I love you. Now give me my fucking present.”

Draco laughed, and Harry grinned at him. “It’s in the other room. Come with me.”

He led Harry out of the bedroom and into another part of the suite, a small sitting room with comfy looking chairs by a fireplace and shelves of books lining the walls. Draco walked to a corner of the room, where something stood large and somewhat out of place, hidden under a blue sheet. Without further ado, Draco pulled the sheet off to reveal a silver birdcage.

Inside was a large owl with distinctive feathers speckled black, white, and gray. It stared at Harry with piercing, intelligent light green eyes.

“It’s beautiful,” said Harry. “This is for me?”

“His name is Orion,” Draco said. “I was going to give you the chance to name him but then it just came to me, and it suited him.”

“I like it,” said Harry. “Will you let him out, so I can get a good look at him?”

Draco did, and Orion immediately flew the short distance to land on Harry’s outstretched arm. He was heavier than Hedwig had been, gripping Harry securely with his talons. The wizard and the owl stared at each other for a moment or two.

“Do you like him?” Draco asked.

“Yes, very much so.”

“I wasn’t sure… You had mentioned that you needed to get a new owl, but you hadn’t yet and I didn’t know why. So I asked Granger, and she told me about your old owl, and how she died, and that you were close, and how you probably hadn’t replaced her because it would make you sad. But I thought, if someone bought one for you, that was really different from your old owl, and it was a gift, then it could be a happy experience instead of a sad one…”

Harry had never heard Draco babble nervously like this before. “He’s wonderful, Draco. Thank you.” His fingers stroked lightly across the bird’s back, and Orion closed his eyes, as though enjoying it.

Draco took a deep breath as if he was going to say more, but then simply sighed heavily. “Good,” he said.

“You really thought I wouldn’t like it?” Harry asked.

“I… well, an owl is a personal thing. I thought perhaps getting you one would be presumptuous, or that it might upset you.”

“I’m the opposite of upset. This was very thoughtful. Especially since you went so far as to ask Hermione’s advice for my sake. That was brave of you.”

Draco blushed. “Granger is… more tolerable than I realized she would be.”

Harry laughed and petted the owl some more. “You know,” he said, after a minute, “Hedwig was the first proper present I ever really received. Hagrid gave her to me for my eleventh birthday. I mean, I’m sure I received real presents when I was small, from my parents, but I don’t remember those. And the Dursleys never gave me anything, no surprise there. So I think of Hedwig as my first real birthday present. It’s fitting that my second owl should be a gift as well, don’t you think?” He looked at Draco, only to find the Slytherin looking back at him with a sad, almost pained expression. “What?” asked Harry. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No, Harry,” Draco said softly. “It’s just… when you say things like that, it makes me…”

“What? Sad? That’s not my intention.”

“Yes, sad, but also…” He took a deep breath. “You looking like that, like you’re just grateful for the little that life has handed you, it makes me want to give you more. It makes me want to give you everything. I think…”

Harry and Draco stared at each other. Orion, seeming to sense the change in atmosphere, spread his wings and took off to a corner of the room, where there was an owl perch with room for him and Archimedes both. They both watched the owl briefly, and then Draco turned back to Harry.

“It’s all right, Draco,” Harry said. “You give me plenty.”

“I think I would give you my own beating heart right out of my chest if you needed it,” Draco said.

It was as if Draco had sucked the breath out of Harry’s lungs. Winded, dizzy, he tried to find some way to respond. But he found he could barely stay upright as Draco drew closer to him.

“In other words,” the blond said, when they were only inches apart, “I love you too.”

Harry made himself take a shaky breath, but he only had a moment to relish the sweet oxygen before Draco’s lips descended upon him and he was breathless all over again. Draco coaxed Harry’s mouth open with his tongue, and Harry complied with a soft moan. It was really starting to get good when Draco broke the kiss suddenly.

“Get in the bedroom and get naked,” he commanded. “There’s so much I want to do to you.”

Harry didn’t hesitate.

***

Harry was not sure he’d ever had a holiday more relaxing than staying at the manor with Draco. Every morning started out quite deliciously, with them waking up naked together, sometimes fooling around, if they felt like it, or otherwise just talking idly until they mustered the energy to get up for breakfast. Most of their days were spent just the two of them, as Narcissa had work to do in her study or out of the manor. Sometimes they stayed close to home, playing chess or gobstones, or walking about the grounds, or flying on the professional-sized Quidditch pitch that lay just outside the back gardens. But other days they ventured out, to Muggle London, mostly, where they wouldn’t be hassled by reporters. They showed each other their favorite London spots, ate their fair share of curries, kebabs, and toasties, and went to the cinema and the zoo.

They were always back in time for dinner, though, so that Narcissa could spend time with them and hear about their day. It was slow going, but Harry thought he actually might be putting a crack in Narcissa’s stony exterior. She had readily taken to calling him “Harry” rather than “Mr. Potter,” and by mid-week was inviting him to call her by her first name as well.

The nights, though, were something else altogether. There was plenty of sex, of course, which was brilliant as always, but that wasn’t what made those winter nights special. Rather it was that in the safe and secluded blanket of darkness it was easier for Harry and Draco both to lay bare that which they sometimes hid by the light of day. Embarrassing secrets, painful memories, and sweet confessions were whispered into the air, unheard by anyone but the two of them, absorbed, accepted, and tucked away for safekeeping.

It usually began with a shy question, hesitant, nearly not asked at all. But the darkness was freedom, and the bedfellow trustworthy, and so the question would eventually be asked, albeit softly, almost unheard.

“When did you realize you were in love with me?”

Harry had smiled into his pillow when Draco had asked that. He could tell, just by the tone, that Draco had been wanting to ask it for a while. He thought a moment before answering.

“That’s hard to say,” he said. “Because by the time I realized it, I was already in it.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“I don’t think there was a moment when I said, ‘Aha! I’m in love with Draco!’ Just, one day, I knew I was.”

“So there wasn’t one thing I did, or said, that made you fall in love with me?”

“It deepened over time. It was a lot of little moments that built to something,” Harry said. “As for where it began… if I’m being honest, I think I’ve been at least a little bit in love with you since after the first time we were together. You know, after the Quidditch match.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Draco’s voice was dry, but Harry could tell he was smiling.

“Maybe that seems a little early to you. We weren’t even dating then. But I’m pretty sure it’s the truth.”

Draco laughed sardonically.

“What?” Harry asked.

“Just… you think that’s early?”

“You don’t?”

Draco didn’t say anything for a few seconds, and Harry waited patiently.

“Since just October… that just seems like not very long to me.”

“Well…” Harry wasn’t sure what to say.

“I’ve wanted you since fourth year,” said Draco. Harry went perfectly still beside him, hardly daring to breathe. “I don’t think you could call it ‘love,’ what I felt back then, considering how dysfunctional our… acquaintanceship was at the time. But I wanted you. I thought about you all the time.”

Harry swallowed. “Really?”

“Really. Why do you think I taunted you so much? Because when I did, you took notice. When I did, then you were paying attention to me. And I liked it, when you looked at me, or talked to me, even if it was with hatred. It made me feel… it’s hard to describe. You made me feel… worthy, I suppose. Even though I was your opponent, your rival, I was obviously a worthy one, because you focused your attention on me.”

Harry thought about that for a minute or two.

“I realize it sounds crazy,” Draco said into the silence.

“Actually, I was thinking it makes a sort of twisted sense.”

“’Twisted’ being the operative word.”

Harry turned over and gave Draco a kiss at the corner of his mouth. “Yes, well, a lot of things were twisted and tangled up back then.”

“You’re telling me.”

“So, you wanted me, during the Triwizard tournament, and during fifth year, when I was acting like a lunatic half the time.”

“Yes.”

“And sixth year, when I was stalking you. You must have liked that.”

“I did, and I didn’t. I liked the attention, as always. But that year… well… let’s just say I had put sexual interest down at the bottom of my list of priorities.”

“Yeah…”

“And I didn’t like that you might destroy my plans. Not that I wanted to actually succeed, but if I let you, or anyone else, stop them, then my mother would die.”

“I know, Draco.” Harry wanted to move quickly off that subject. “So, when did attraction turn into love, then?”

He heard and felt Draco shift beside him. “When Greyback brought you here. I don’t know… again, I’m not sure you could call it ‘love,’ but… when I saw you, there, with Granger and Weasley, I was terrified. I was distraught. I didn’t want anything to happen to you. I didn’t want him to get you. At the time I told myself it was just because I thought of you as our last hope. I wanted him destroyed and I knew you were the one who had to do it. But later, towards the end of the Battle, when Hagrid carried you out of the forest and everyone thought you were dead…”

Draco stopped there, and Harry laid a hand on Draco’s bare chest, running his fingers lightly over his skin. “Go on,” he said softly, after a minute.

“I remember pain, an unexpected, powerful pain in my chest, and I remember thinking, ‘I could have loved him. It would have been so easy to love him.’ And then you weren’t dead, and you killed the Dark Lord, and suddenly the world was a different place. There were new possibilities. Even before I had my trial, I felt lighter, clearer. And you testified for me and my mother, and we were free. And that’s when I started to fantasize. I couldn’t let go of that thought, that feeling I had when I thought that any chance to be with you was lost. Of course, I still didn’t really believe I had a chance with you. But I let myself fantasize about it.”

“I didn’t realize… I wish I had known you were going through all that.”

“Would it really have been better for you to know then, Harry?” Draco asked. “Wouldn’t it have just been confusing?”

Harry sighed. “I don’t know.”

“I think it would have been. I wasn’t the same person I am now.”

“Neither was I.”

“I used to wish it had all been different. I used to wish you had taken my hand that first day on the Hogwarts Express. But now… now I’ve accepted it. The good and the bad. I think it probably all had to happen the way it happened.”

That was hard for Harry to agree with, only because so many people had died, and he often wished he could go back and change that. But then, when he let himself take the long view, he realized that if any one small thing had been different, it might have changed the outcome of the war. The only thing to do, really, was to be grateful and move on.

“Well, we’re here now,” he said.

“Exactly,” Draco replied. “We’re here now.”

***

Some confessions weren’t so sweet, like the night Harry decided to tell Draco what had happened with Ginny on Christmas Eve.

It was New Years’. Harry had managed to see his tentative plans with Ron and Hermione through, and he, Draco, and a whole group of 8th years went into Muggle London for the parade and the fireworks. It had been a wild night, full of drinking, dancing, and general revelry. All of the 8th years who attended, which included, of course, their closest friends, but also a couple of Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, ended up getting along quite well, the divisions between their houses crumbling as they enjoyed the festivities. Draco had given Harry a snog to remember as the clock struck midnight and the year 1999 officially began, and they certainly weren’t the only ones who were clearly mad for each other. Harry kept having to throw things at the back of Ron’s head to get him to watch the fireworks rather than simply stare at Hermione all night.

Harry and Draco finally Apparated home, completely knackered, and made to fall into bed.

“Will you resent me if I say I’m too tired for sex?” Draco asked as he stripped down to his pants.

“No,” Harry said, laughing. “I’d just fall asleep halfway through anyway. We’ll make it count in the morning.”

“Mm,” Draco agreed, sliding under the covers.

“Even without sex this is much better than how I spent my Christmas Eve,” said Harry.

“I hope so,” replied Draco, turning out the lamps with a flick of his wand. “With only Ronald to keep you company.”

And that’s when Harry’s stomach writhed unpleasantly, remembering that it hadn’t been Ron who had tried to keep him company. He had nearly forgotten about the incident with Ginny, but now it sat there, between them, begging to be told.

Things had been going so well. Harry and Draco were closer than ever. He didn’t want to ruin it, but on the other hand, people who loved each other told each other the truth.

“About that night,” Harry said, before he could stop himself. “There’s something I should mention.”

Draco went still beside him. “What sort of something?”

“It’s not a big deal, really, but… Ginny sort of… tried to… come onto me. She was drunk.”

Draco snorted. “Why am I not surprised? I knew she wasn’t over you. This was at the party?”

“No, after. Ron was with Hermione, and I had gone to bed, and she came to my room.”

“What did she do?” Draco asked, his voice growing tighter.

Harry really didn’t want to tell this part, but he wasn’t sure of any way around it, without being dishonest. “She… took off her clothes, and tried to… you know.”

“No,” Draco said, his voice dangerously soft. “I don’t know.”

“She tried to… seduce me. Like, talk me into sleeping with her.”

“What sort of things did she say?”

“Do you really…? Are you sure you want to know this much detail? Suffice it to say I made it perfectly clear that I wasn’t interested. I told her to stop, and she stopped.” Eventually.

“What did she say?”

Harry sighed. “She just started reminiscing about the old times, about our relationship…”

“About sex, you mean.”

“Yes.”

“The sex you used to have, together. She was reminiscing about that.”

“Yes,” said Harry, feeling more defeated by the minute.

“And then what did she do?”

“I eventually got her to stop coming onto me, by telling her that I loved you, and that I didn’t want her. And then she got really upset, but not at me. She started crying, I think because she realized how… messed up she was, I guess, about everything. The breakup, but also Fred’s death, and the war. She just kind of cried for a while. Then she left.”

There was a tense silence.

“Did you… comfort her?” Draco asked.

“I tried,” said Harry. “I couldn’t do much, really.”

“Did you hold her, while she was crying?”

Harry chewed on his bottom lip, knowing Draco wouldn’t like his answer. “Yes.”

“While she was naked.”

“I put a blanket around her, so she wasn’t really naked.”

“What were you wearing?”

“Draco…”

“Were you naked?”

“No.”

What were you wearing?”

“Underwear.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes.”

Another tense silence. Harry waited, his heart going double-time in his chest.

“Well, at least you didn’t fuck her. That’s something.”

“Draco…”

“I tried not to think about it, you know. I tried not to think about the fact that you were with her, in her house, for a whole week.”

“I don’t love her, Draco. There was nothing sexual about the way I comforted her. It was the same way I would have comforted Hermione. Like comforting a sister.”

Draco snorted. “I hardly think the two of you had a brother-sister relationship, Harry.”

“All right, bad example, or bad wording. It doesn’t matter. It was platonic. And at the end, she told me that she had finally realized that I didn’t love her anymore and that we would never be together again. She left with no illusions, because I was clear with her.”

Draco exhaled a shaky breath.

“You trust me, don’t you? You believe me, don’t you?” Harry turned fully towards Draco, though he could barely see the blond’s features in the darkness.

“Yes to both, Harry,” Draco said, after a minute. “But I don’t like it.”

“I didn’t like it either,” said Harry. “And I was pretty angry about it afterwards, to tell you the truth, especially since Ginny made me promise not to tell anyone.”

“So why are you telling me?”

“Because I love you, and you are more important to me than she is. Being able to tell you the truth, being able to tell you anything and everything, is more important to me than any promise I might make to her. I want us to be able to share everything, Draco, the good and the bad. I never want to feel like there’s something I can’t say to you, or you to me. I want you to know all of me, and me all of you. That’s what I want. That’s how much I love you.”

The silence seemed to go on forever. Finally, though, Draco spoke. “Good answer.”

Harry finally felt like he could breathe again. “I’m sorry, Draco.”

“It’s not your fault, Harry. It’s hers.”

Something in Draco’s tone had Harry nervous for a different reason. “Please don’t…”

“What? Do you think I’m going to do something to her?”

Harry didn’t answer.

“I’m sorely tempted,” Draco confessed. “But from now on, I will simply ignore her. As far as I’m concerned, she doesn’t exist.”

Harry exhaled. “I can live with that.”

“Good. Now come here.”

Harry slid closer to Draco, to find that they were now face to face. Draco kissed him, then let his lips travel down Harry’s neck and then back up again. “Now,” he said softly, once his mouth had reached Harry’s ear. “What are you going to do to show me how much you love me?”

Harry smiled. It seemed neither of them were too tired anymore. And besides, some things were more important than sleep.

***

The rest of the holiday break passed far too quickly for Harry’s liking. He had started getting used to spending every night with Draco, and he had immensely enjoyed the time he could spend free of cares, worries, work, or the outside world. Though they had ventured off the Malfoy estate more than a few times, the past week had still felt like their own little personal bubble. Harry was sad to leave it behind, and already looking ahead to Easter break, when he could have Draco all to himself at Grimmauld.

The night before they had to return to the bustle of Hogwarts, Harry decided to take advantage off the last few moments of true peace and solitude and have himself a nice long bath. Draco’s tub, no surprise, was enormous, and came equipped with all sorts of taps that emitted delicious-smelling soaps and shampoos. Harry lay back in the sudsy water, thinking about the next term and the fact that his apprenticeship would be starting in a couple of weeks. He wondered what this master duelist would be like in person. He’d seemed knowledgeable, if not a bit arrogant, in his letters, but sometimes it was hard to tell through writing alone.

He heard the bathroom door open and he opened his eyes. “Draco?”

“Who else would it be?” the blond’s dry voice came from behind him. He heard footsteps, and then Draco came into view, wearing a very luxurious looking white bathrobe.

“Could have been Pipsy,” said Harry with a dreamy smile.

Draco snorted. “Our house elves never barge into the bathroom unannounced. They’re too well-trained.”

Harry simply gazed up at him, too relaxed to concern himself with trivial things like a house elf’s training. “Enjoying the view?”

“I was actually thinking I’d join you.”

Harry sat up. “By all means.”

Draco removed his robe. He was completely naked underneath, and Harry got a nice long look before scooting forwards and making room for Draco to step in behind him. Draco sank into the water, which Harry had charmed to stay the perfect temperature, and sighed contentedly. Harry leaned back, resting the back of his head in the crook of Draco’s neck.

They remained that way for a good while, neither of them speaking. Harry closed his eyes and relaxed against Draco further. Draco leaned down and kissed the side of Harry’s head, then ran his nose up and down the Gryffindor’s neck, inhaling his scent. Harry smiled to himself and looked at both of their arms, which were resting side by side on either edge of the tub. Harry had never given much thought to how tanned he was until he saw his skin next to Draco’s lily-white complexion. It was a nice contrast, he thought.

“It’s our last night,” Draco said, pulling Harry out of his contemplation.

“It’s our last night here,” Harry corrected him lazily. “We’ll still be together at Hogwarts.”

“Yes, but it will be different. We won’t have as much time.”

Harry couldn’t argue with that. He had been thinking much the same thing.

“This was an indulgence. I recognize that,” said Draco. “But still, I wish we could have more.”

“There’s always Easter,” said Harry. “And after Hogwarts.” They hadn’t talked at all about their living situation post-graduation. The relationship had been too new, and the end of the spring term too far away, for them to really contemplate it. But a lot had changed in the past week.

“It feels so far away,” said Draco.

“I know.”

Draco ran his fingers up and down Harry’s forearms lightly, making him shiver. “I was thinking…” he began.

Harry opened his eyes when Draco didn’t finish. “What? What were you thinking?”

“I want to do something different tonight.”

“All right.”

“I want you to fuck me.”

Harry sat up abruptly and turned around, wanting to get a good look at his boyfriend’s face. Draco had his usual calm mask in place, but Harry knew him well enough now to know that the expression hid his nervousness. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m sure. I’ve thought about it all week.”

“You have?”

“Yes. You haven’t?”

Harry tilted his head. “I think about it on occasion. But I didn’t have any expectations or anything.”

“Well… what do you think?”

Harry smiled a slow smile. “Do you even have to ask?”

“Apparently I do.”

Harry leaned in and kissed Draco, taking his time. He could feel himself hardening at the prospect of Draco’s request, and an exploring hand found that Draco was doing the same. Harry repositioned himself, with his legs on either side of Draco’s, straddling him. Their cocks brushed lightly together in the warm water, and Harry kissed Draco more deeply, enjoying the way the blond was starting to pant with anticipation.

Harry nibbled at Draco’s earlobe and said, his voice soft and husky. “Of course I want to fuck you, Draco. You have no idea.”

Draco groaned in response and pulled Harry’s face back for a kiss. Things were already heating up, and Harry decided it was time to get out of the bath.

“Bedroom,” he said against Draco’s lips.

Draco nodded in agreement, and Harry stood, water dripping from his body. He stepped out and grabbed a towel, drying himself quickly. Draco was doing the same, and Harry took a moment while the blond’s back was turned to give him a nice hard smack on his beautiful arse. Draco jumped and turned to look at him, his eyes blazing.

“Oh,” he said. “Two can play that game.”

Laughing, Harry dodged Draco’s first attempt and made for the bedroom, Draco not far behind. The problem was that he had nowhere to run, and Draco tackled him stomach-first onto the bed with ease, giving Harry two stinging slaps to the arse that had him hissing in a mix of pain and pleasure. Draco grabbed Harry by the hips and turned him over on his back. He was straddling Harry around the torso, his large, erect cock standing out prominently in front of Harry’s face.

“I win. That was easy,” the blond said with a smirk.

“And I think I know what you want for your prize,” Harry said with a lascivious grin, sliding himself underneath Draco until his tongue was perfectly positioned to give the underside of his cock a nice, long lick. Draco groaned.

“Yes,” he said, as Harry took Draco fully into his mouth. “Yes, Harry.”

Harry grabbed Draco’s arse with both hands and pulled him closer. As he worked Draco’s cock with his mouth, his fingers began exploring around Draco’s entrance.

“Here,” Draco said breathlessly, handing Harry a bottle of lube from the nightstand. “Prepare me. I like when you do it.”

Harry nodded, lubing up and setting to work, dipping one finger inside Draco, followed not too long after by a second finger, all the while letting Draco gently fuck his mouth.

Harry enjoyed the feeling of Draco slowly opening up for him. He fingered Draco frequently, and they had been working on stretching him over the past few weeks, having gotten as far as three fingers. Still, Harry knew that a cock was larger than three fingers, and that Draco would need plenty of preparation and to take things slow.

Harry brushed over Draco’s prostate once, then twice, and Draco moaned loudly. “Keep doing that and I’ll come,” he said.

Harry released Draco from his mouth and smiled up at him, “Go ahead and come. I can get you hard again.” He knew from experience.

But Draco shook his head. “I want you inside me.”

Harry stared up at him. “Now?”

Draco moved off Harry, lying on his stomach and his arse exposed to Harry. “Keep preparing me. I’m almost ready.”

Harry did, enjoying the sight of Draco writhing on the bed as he inserted three fingers this time. He’d never gotten to see his fingers actually move in and out of Draco like this, and it was incredibly erotic, especially knowing what came next.

He started teasing Draco with his erection, running it along the smooth globes of Draco’s arse and delving into the gap between the two cheeks. He moaned with pleasure and anticipation, and heard Draco do the same.

“Turn over,” Harry said. “I want to be able to look at you for this.”

Draco rolled over onto his back, giving Harry a view of his flushed cheeks and glowing gray eyes. Harry continued to finger him, but leaned over Draco for a kiss.

“This is new to me,” he reminded Draco. “I want to do it right. You’ll have to guide me.”

Draco stared up at him for a moment. “I’ve never done this either,” he said finally.

Harry froze. He hadn’t realized that. Of course, that was because Draco hadn’t told him. Harry had just assumed, based on the way Draco had seemed experienced on all other matters with gay sex, that he would be experienced with this also.

“Don’t stop,” Draco said, his voice shaky. “Please, Harry. I want this.”

Harry nodded, though his nervousness was increasing by the minute. He had been worried enough about doing this right when he thought Draco at least had done it before. Now they were just two young men, figuring it out as they went. “We’ll just… go slow,” he said, as much to himself as to Draco. “We’ll figure it out together.”

Draco nodded. “I’m ready, Harry.”

Harry reached for the bottle again, lubing up his own throbbing cock and groaning at the touch. He was nervous, true, but he also wanted this just as much as Draco did. Lifting Draco’s legs, Harry positioned himself at Draco’s entrance, took a deep breath, and pushed forward, ever so slightly, feeling the head enter that first ring of muscle. He felt Draco tense briefly and then relax, and Harry pushed a little farther, running a hand soothingly up and down Draco’s thigh.

“Keep going, Harry.” Draco’s voice was husky with want, and it spurred Harry forward. He eased himself farther inside with a groan. It was so tight, so good.

Don’t come, he told himself over and over, squeezing his eyes shut tight. Whatever you do, don’t fucking come.

He was in Draco to the hilt, and though all he wanted to do was move, he made himself stay still. He knew this was important. Draco needed time to adjust. He opened his eyes, looking at Draco for confirmation that he was all right. Their eyes locked, and it pulled at something deep within Harry, sweet and painful all at once.

“Move, Harry. You can move.”

He did, slowly at first, watching Draco carefully, feeling him out. But as he felt Draco opening for him further, he began moving faster, moaning at how good it felt, and how beautiful Draco looked beneath him. He was managing to find Draco’s prostate every few thrusts, and it had the blond crying out, eyes open in blissful shock. Harry had to rein himself in so he wouldn’t come at that sight alone.

“Harry… fuck… so good… please.”

Draco made to reach for his own cock, but Harry got there first, stroking it gently so as to prolong Draco’s pleasure for as long as possible, though Harry wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold out himself. He had said they would go slow, but he was pounding away into Draco now, too aroused by the way Draco cried his name to fully control himself.

“Draco,” he said, as he felt the fire building within him. “Draco, you are so fucking perfect.”

Draco only groaned Harry’s name in response.

“Fuck. I’m going to…” Harry tightened his grip around Draco’s cock and slowed down his thrusts enough to find that sweet spot inside Draco again. “Come with me, Draco. Please. I’m going to-“

Draco threw his head back and came, clenching around Harry so hard that it milked his orgasm from him instantaneously. He groaned as he felt himself filling Draco, and he collapsed on top of him, still inside.

“Gods,” Harry said, breathing heavily, “That was…”

Draco moaned underneath him, and Harry pulled out slowly, lazily peppering Draco’s neck and face with light kisses as he did. He reached for his wand and cleaned them off, and heard Draco giggle uncharacteristically.

“It tickles,” he said as Harry flopped down next to him.

Harry looked over at him, watching as the smile faded slowly from his face, his features smoothing into calmness. There was a glisten in his eyes, though, that made Harry’s heart clench.

“Are you all right?” he asked the blond.

Draco closed his eyes and nodded, but Harry wasn’t totally convinced.

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” He had been trying so hard to watch for signs of discomfort, but maybe he was more wrapped up in his own pleasure than he realized, and had missed something.

“No,” said Draco, his voice throaty. “I’ll be sore tomorrow, but you didn’t hurt me.”

Harry rolled over on his side to face his boyfriend. “Look at me,” he said gently.

Draco did, and Harry saw the moisture was still there, threatening to spill over. Harry stroked a hand across Draco’s cheek. “If it was too much, too soon, we don’t have to do it again. We won’t until you’re ready.”

“It wasn’t,” said Draco, after a few seconds. “It was… you were… it was everything, Harry. It was everything.”

Harry wasn’t entirely sure what Draco meant by that. “I love you,” he said.

Draco smiled at him. “It was perfect.”

Chapter Text

Harry awoke wrapped in the heat of a warm body. It was a feeling he was really starting to get used to, after the past week of spending every night with Draco. While the Slytherin was hardly the clingy type in his waking life, he always seemed to be drawn unrelentingly to Harry when he slept. When he and Draco shared a bed Harry usually found himself not merely attached to his boyfriend, but completely tangled up in him, come morning.

He smiled and kissed the top of Draco’s head. The blond groaned, indicating that he was at least partially awake, though none too happy about it. Harry chuckled softly.

“What time is it?” Draco asked, his voice slurred and somewhat muffled by Harry’s shoulder.

Harry glanced at the clock. “Nearly 7:30.”

Draco groaned again and rolled off Harry before running a hand over his face and giving a small stretch. “Mother wanted us for breakfast at nine.”

“Excellent,” said Harry, reaching for Draco and trying to pull him back. “That leaves us plenty of time to have some fun.” But Draco wouldn’t budge.

“You are bloody insatiable. Give me a moment to wake up.”

Harry snorted. “Insatiable… you’re one to talk, you know.”

He caught Draco’s brief smile. “Maybe so. But I’m not nearly as much of a morning person as you are.” He still had his eyes closed, as if trying to hold off officially waking up for as long as possible.

“Something I was shocked to discover,” Harry said, resting on one elbow while his hand traveled lightly but deliberately over Draco’s bare abdomen, hoping to slowly get him in the mood. It was their last morning at the manor together, and he wanted to make it count.

“Why is that?” the blond asked, opening one eye briefly to look at Harry.

“Because you always look so impeccable in the mornings. I assumed it would take you hours to get ready.”

Draco smirked. “Malfoys learn their grooming charms early. I’m a master.”

“Well, I know that now,” said Harry. He never ceased to be amazed at how quickly Draco could go from disheveled to perfectly polished with a wave of his wand.

“You, on the other hand, appear to have never learned any to begin with.”

“That’s because I haven’t,” said Harry. “I do it all by hand.”

“Which is to say, you roll out of bed and hope for the best.”

“You try getting this hair to lie flat. It’s untameable.”

“I bet I could.”

“I bet you couldn’t.” Harry scooted closer, so that his face was only a few inches from Draco’s. “You know what else? I think you secretly like it.”

“On the contrary. It makes me mental. I’m ashamed to be seen with you in public, in fact.”

“Oh, is that so?”

“It is. You look like a bloody savage. An absolute brute!”

“A brute! How embarrassing for you.”

“Indeed. You’re a rapscallion and a rogue and I want nothing to do with you.”

“Too late now, I think,” said Harry with a grin.

Draco heaved a dramatic sigh. “Yes, I daresay it is.”

Harry moved closer still, leaning in to just barely brush his lips against Draco’s, and Draco pressed forward for more. Harry smiled against his lips.

“Are you awake yet?”

“Why don’t you use that wandering hand of yours and find out?”

Harry did, and discovered Draco half-hard under the covers. He stroked and teased, and was rewarded for the effort as the erection stiffened in his hand.

“What do you want, Draco?” Harry asked. “I’ll do anything you want me to. Just tell me.”

Draco’s breathing was ragged now as Harry rolled fully on top of him, pressing their bodies together.

“Do whatever you want to me, Harry,” he said breathlessly. “I’m yours.”

Harry loved hearing those words, particularly the last two. They made his insides clench with pleasure every time. This was certainly not the first time Draco had said something similar. He liked surrendering to Harry, letting him take control. Harry liked it too. It gave him a heady sense of power that had a little to do with having free reign over Draco’s body, but much more to do with the kind of trust required for Draco to give him that free reign.

It was trust that Harry knew he would never abuse. It was too precious. So, though Draco had said, “whatever you want,” Harry was aware of his responsibility to take care of Draco in that moment, and there were going to be some limitations this time around. Draco was undoubtedly sore from the night before, when Harry had taken Draco’s virginity.

He was struck powerfully again by the trust Draco had in him, and it solidified his decision.

“I’m going to make you come with my mouth, Draco,” he said in the blond’s ear. “And I’m going to take my time. So you just lie back and enjoy it, all right?”

He felt Draco smile against his shoulder, and he knew he was on the right track.

***

Harry’s assumptions were confirmed as he saw the way Draco was walking after he got out of bed to get dressed. Draco wasn’t visibly wincing but his gait was most definitely different, more careful.

“Are you in pain?” he asked, watching Draco from the bed.

Draco shook his head as he pulled on his underwear. “Just a little sore, like I knew I would be.”

“Do you need a potion, or maybe a mild healing charm?”

Draco looked over at him. “It’s fine, Harry.” Harry said nothing but continued to watch him closely. “Honestly,” Draco said, with a small smile and a pink tint to his cheeks, “I like it. It reminds me of what we did.”

“I can remind you of what we did,” said Harry. “I’ll remind you every hour all day long if you want me to. You don’t have to be uncomfortable.”

Draco walked over to him and kissed him soundly. “Sometimes a little pain is good,” he said. “Besides, it’s just a small twinge. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Well, carry a potion with you today, just in case you change your mind.” Harry was aware that he was mothering Draco a bit, which was further confirmed by the irritated look that Draco gave him. Harry knew that his protective instinct was rearing its head because of what had transpired the night before. What Draco had given him, what they had shared, and the way Draco had reacted afterwards all gave Harry a powerful need to take care of him. But he reminded himself that Draco was a grown man and didn’t want to be babied.

“Aren’t you going to get dressed?” Draco asked him. He was fully clothed now, looking immaculate as usual. “We have to be downstairs in five minutes.”

“Just enjoying the view for a bit longer,” said Harry. He was feeling quite wistful about their last day at the manor. “I won’t get to see it nearly as much at Hogwarts.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, you know,” said Draco, coming to sit on the bed within Harry’s reach. “I was thinking about what you said last night. We won’t have all day every day like we did here, but we can have this. We can have nights together, and we can have the mornings. We can have every night and every morning if we want.”

Harry grinned at him. “Draco, are you asking me to move into your room with you?” He wiggled his eyebrows.

“Stop being a cheeky git for one minute,” Draco said, exasperated. “I’m trying to…” He sighed.

“I’m sorry, Draco,” Harry said, sobering his expression. “Go on. I’m listening.”

“I just don’t see why, at this point, we would spend our nights apart. After this week, after the things we said, and the things we did… things have changed, haven’t they?”

“Yes,” said Harry. “Very much so.”

“So, if that’s the case, then I think they should keep on changing… at Hogwarts.”

“You mean we should keep things moving forward,” Harry clarified.

“Much better than moving backward,” Draco said. “And I think that’s how I would feel if we were only together on weekends. It would feel like moving backward.”

Harry stared at him, his heart swelling almost painfully.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Draco said.

“Like what?” Harry asked. “Like I love you? I don’t know how else to look at you.”

“It makes me want you again, and we don’t have time for that,” Draco said, licking his lips unconsciously.

Harry leaned forward. “Well, at least we have something to look forward to tonight,” he said, kissing Draco softly. It was meant to be just a single brush of their lips, but the moment they made contact neither seemed to feel that one would be enough. Harry deepened the kiss immediately, and Draco grabbed Harry’s neck and pulled him closer. It was when Harry began exploring Draco’s mouth with his tongue that Draco pulled away.

“You’re bloody dangerous, you are,” he said. “I’m going downstairs. Otherwise I’ll never stop touching you.”

Harry wanted to find some way to keep teasing him, to try and convince him to stay, but he knew Draco didn’t like keeping his mother waiting, and also how much Narcissa hated to wait.

“I’ll be down in just a few minutes,” he promised.

“Take a few extra,” Draco said with a smirk. “And try to fix that hair.”

Harry snorted, amused. “It’s a lost cause,” he said. “But I’ll do my best. For you.” He batted his eyelashes at his boyfriend.

Draco rolled his eyes, but Harry caught his smile for a brief second before he turned away.

***

It was a subdued morning. Harry had the distinct impression that Narcissa didn’t want them to leave. Or at least, Harry reconsidered ruefully, she didn’t want Draco to leave. She kept casting covert but loving glances at her son, finding excuses to touch him in small ways: brushing non-existent dust from his shoulder, fixing his already-perfect collar, or sweeping back a lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead. Draco tolerated this, knowing exactly what she was doing and why, although it clearly drove him a bit mad. Harry, however, found the behavior quite endearing. He had caught Molly Weasley doing something similar with all of her boys, including Harry, a time or two.

When it was finally time to leave, Harry was surprised to find Narcissa embrace them both. The folding of her arms around Harry was brief but genuine, and Harry kissed her cheek, hoping this was the right move.

“Take care of yourself this term, Harry,” she said.

“I will,” Harry promised, then lowered his voice to say, “And I’ll take care of Draco, too. Don’t worry.”

Her eyes blazed at him, and Harry thought he could see approval in her gaze, as much as fierceness, at least. “See that you do,” she replied.

Harry smiled at her. Warm and fuzzy Narcissa was not, but Harry liked that about her. He understood much better now where Draco had gotten his inner strength.

He felt Draco take his hand. “Are you ready?” the blond asked, and Harry nodded.

“Let’s go.”

***

The transition back into school life was a bit painful at first. Harry had never had a better holiday, he was certain, and he had never felt less like returning to Hogwarts. Still, he knew he shouldn’t complain. He had Draco with him through most of it, and he was quite glad to see his friends again.

There were also a number of welcome changes from last term that made his life quite enjoyable. The most obvious, of course, was spending every night with Draco. They hadn’t fully moved into one room or another, maintaining their own spaces, but they stayed together every night, alternating rooms, and woke up together every morning. The actual waking up was a challenge some days, if only because with Draco right there Harry could always think of better things to do than get up for class. He was sleeping better, though, than he had since the end of the war, and that made up for it, as did the closeness and comfort he felt with Draco, which was only growing.

There were other changes, too. The social atmosphere of the 8th year dormitory was beyond merely tolerant, now, and had transitioned into being outright friendly. Joint projects, inter-house relationships, and a fun New Years’ Eve had made most of the 8th years let go of old rivalries and obsessions with house affiliations and welcome new connections. In fact, many of the students began lamenting that the 8th years didn’t have their own table in the Great Hall, so that they could all eat together instead of being segregated. Hannah Abbott, Padma Patil, and, shockingly, Pansy Parkinson had jointly discussed petitioning the headmistress for such a table, and hopes for success were high.

Harry loved seeing this transformation, for its own sake, but also because it simply made his social life easier to balance. Hermione and Draco were quite friendly now, and Ron, though still wary of all of the Slytherins, could be caught on occasion talking to Theo about Quidditch or playing chess with Draco or Blaise, who he had found to be two much worthier opponents than Harry ever was.

Most shocking of the welcome shifts, however, was Ginny. She appeared to be back to her normal self, almost suspiciously so. She no longer avoided Harry at every turn, or glared at Draco, or made trouble for the Quidditch team. When she did run into Harry, she was affable and chatty without being overly attentive. She was regularly sitting next to Hermione or Ron at mealtimes now, even with Draco in the vicinity, cracking jokes and being her usual sardonic, overly-honest, and hilarious self.

Harry didn’t know what to make of it. Had their painfully awkward encounter on Christmas Eve been that much of a breakthrough for her? Or was it simply a very convincing act that would fall apart after a few weeks? Harry had no way to know, and he wasn’t about to ask her. He didn’t think it wise to say anything to Ron or Hermione either, concerned that he would break his promise to Ginny and let it slip that she had tried to seduce him. He had remarked about it to Draco, but the only response he received from the Slytherin was, “Ginny who? I don’t know who on earth you’re referring to.” Harry had rolled his eyes at that, but not pushed, letting Draco pretend Ginny didn’t exist as he was committed to doing.

Luckily, Ron seemed to pick up on the change eventually, once Quidditch practice resumed, and made a comment to Harry in the common room one night.

“Ginny seems back to normal,” he said, out of the blue, while they were in the middle of their Defense essays and Draco worked on Ancient Runes translations. “Did you say something to her?”

“Me?” Harry said, after a pause, because it took him a minute to realize that Ron was addressing him, and not Hermione. “No. I don’t think there is anything I could have said to Ginny to make her be normal.”

“Huh, well, something has happened, don’t you think? Surely I’m not the only one who noticed.”

He heard Draco snort quietly next to him, and Harry knew exactly what he was implying. Ron was usually the last to notice these things. He wanted to give Draco a nudge in the ribs as a reminder to behave, but felt doing so would be too obvious.

“How was she over the holidays, after I left?” Harry asked, hoping his tone sounded casual enough. He made the mistake of glancing at Hermione however, and the look she was giving him made him almost certain that she knew what had happened Christmas Eve.

“She was a bit sulky,” Ron said, regaining Harry’s attention. “Or… maybe not sulky. Quiet, though.”

“Introspective,” Hermione chimed in, giving Harry that significant look again. Harry shifted uncomfortably under her gaze.

“All right,” said Harry. “Well… I don’t know.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining,” said Ron. “I’m bloody grateful. I just wondered, is all. Maybe she’s dating someone new?”

“Again, I would probably be the last to know,” said Harry. Ron turned to Hermione.

“She hasn’t said anything to me about someone new,” Hermione said. “I don’t think there is. I think she’s just finally accepted the end of the relationship with Harry and is ready to move on.”

“Thank Merlin for that,” Draco said under his breath, probably only meant for Harry to hear. The way Ron and Hermione were looking at Draco, however, indicated that they had caught it as well. The blond finally glanced up from his parchment, looking from one to the other with an expression that asked, Am I wrong?

“Thank Merlin, indeed,” said Hermione, after a moment. She then wisely moved off the subject. “You start your apprenticeship tomorrow, don’t you, Harry?”

Harry nodded. “Yeah. It’s in the late afternoon. It’s the only time he could see me. He has clients the rest of the day.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it? It means he’s successful, that he does a good business.”

Harry shrugged. “Yeah, that’s true,” he said. “I honestly have no idea what to expect.”

Hermione seemed to pick up on the nervous edge in his voice. “I felt that way too when I started my internship. But it only took a couple of weeks to get settled into it. I bet it will be the same for you.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Harry. In truth, he really just wanted to get his first day over with. The unknown was worse than anything else.

***

When he flooed into the home of the master duelist the next afternoon, he was surprised to find himself tumbling into what appeared to be a very posh waiting room. There were a number of armchairs in dark leather arranged around coffee tables of magazines and newspapers, a fountain gurgling unobtrusively in the corner, and three walls lined with shiny awards and accolades. He wondered, at first, if they all belonged to the master duelist, but saw different names on each one as he took a closer look.

“Awards that his students have earned over the years,” came a feminine voice from the corner, making Harry jump. He turned to see a woman sitting behind a desk, watching him with an amused smile on her face. She had stringy maple hair that was thrown sloppily into a bun in the back of her head and stuck through with a quill, revealing a sharp face complete with a square jaw and small but severe nose. She was probably only a few years older than Harry, he thought, but one couldn’t always tell, with magical people. They aged more slowly. “Good afternoon, Mr. Potter,” she said. It took a moment for Harry to realize that she had an American accent.

“Good afternoon,” he replied.

“Mr. Kemp is just finishing up with his last student of the day. He’ll be with you shortly.” Her words were formal, but her tone was far from it. In fact, it was quite warm and gave her an air of sincerity that Harry immediately liked.

“Great,” Harry said.

“As I was saying, about the awards,” she went on. “Mr. Kemp likes to display them out here, to show off the accomplishments of his students. These are just magical replications, of course. The students in question own the real ones. But he always makes copies.”

“It must be good for business,” Harry said.

“Why do you think he does it?” she said, and that amused smile was back, although she appeared to be fighting it. “He has plenty of awards himself, as well, of course, and I’m sure you’ll be getting a good look at those, too.” Her tone had become a bit dry, but also oddly affectionate.

Harry chuckled. “I’m sure.”

“You have an Order of Merlin, I understand. For all that business with what’s-his-name.”

“Um, yes, I do.”

“And where do you keep it?”

Harry stared at her. She was certainly to the point, this one.

“I haven’t displayed it anywhere,” he said. “I think it’s in a drawer in my bedroom, at my new house.”

“Hm,” she said. “Interesting.”

A door opened, and two figures emerged. One was a light-haired wizard, probably Harry’s age, looking rumpled but energized. The other was dark-haired, tall, slender, and imposing. He reminded Harry a bit of Snape, though his hair was cropped short and he sported a well-trimmed beard on his square jaw. One lithe hand rested idly on the younger wizard’s shoulder.

“Vesper,” the darker wizard addressed the maple-haired witch, who Harry assumed must be his assistant. “See to it that Damian here has his next session rescheduled for the 3rd. I’ve had to rearrange some things.”

“Of course, Mr. Kemp,” she said.

The wizard nodded, then turned to Harry. “Welcome, Mr. Potter. I’m Aurelian Kemp. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

The student, Damian, looked sharply around to gape at Harry, but Harry ignored him. “Thank you, Mr. Kemp. I’m looking forward to working with you.”

“Why don’t we go back to my office and get to know each other?” Kemp suggested.

Harry agreed, and followed the willowy man through the door, nodding to Damian and Vesper both as he passed. Damian was still staring agog and bug-eyed, but Vesper simply gave him a warm smile and a little wave.

Kemp led Harry down a hallway and through another door into a large, open space, with floor to ceiling windows that let in a great deal of natural light, even in the fading afternoon.

“My training room,” Kemp said. His voice was clear and confident, as though he was accustomed to being listened to. “Designed to my specifications by a magical engineer. It has everything you could possibly need for practicing, even on your own. The room will create virtual opponents for you, and you can adjust the settings. It also turns into a professional dueling arena. It’s where I give most of my lessons.”

He looked at Harry, who nodded his approval, although he privately thought that the Room of Requirement, where he had taught his DA classes, was even more impressive. But he wasn’t about to say as much aloud.

“Feel free to use it whenever you like. I, or Vesper, can show you how it works.”

“Great,” said Harry. He had to admit, having free access to such facilities was more than he had expected.

There were a number of doors off of the training room, one of which brought them into Kemp’s sizeable and comfortable office. A fire was crackling pleasantly in the hearth, casting flickering light on more shiny dueling awards that were arranged artfully on the walls. These awards all had Kemp’s own name on them, and Harry immediately remembered what Vesper had said, and had to suppress a smirk.

“Please, have a seat, Mr. Potter,” Kemp said, taking his place behind a large mahogany desk. Harry sat in the leather armchair across from him. Kemp laced his fingers in front of him and looked Harry over. “I was pleased to received your letter of interest,” he said. “And surprised, I must say. I have only been back on this side of the Atlantic for a short while, and am still working on reestablishing my practice here.”

Harry raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I didn’t realize that. Where were you living before, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“The States,” he replied. “I was only there for about three years, but they were quite fruitful years, I have to say.”

Harry was doing the maths in his head, realizing that Kemp had left England around the same time that Voldemort had regained his power. What a coincidence, he thought wryly.

“I returned this past summer, after the defeat of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. I know what you’re thinking.” He offered Harry a wry smile of his own. “And yes, I left the UK when you first announced that he was back. Couldn’t take the chance, being of Muggle parentage myself. My brother and his family were already well-established in the States, and I joined him there. It was a dangerous time for people like me, as you well know.”

Harry did know, of course, better than anyone. And he couldn’t help but think about how useful a man of Kemp’s supposed talents would have been as a soldier in the war. But he kept that to himself.

“So,” Kemp continued, leaning forward. “I find myself curious what it is you would like to get out of an apprenticeship with me. The talk of the wizarding world is that you will be entering Auror training after graduation. I have to wonder what you believe you’ll get from me that you won’t receive from the Academy. Their dueling trainers are exceptional, or so I’ve heard. I was offered a job there, upon my return, so I know they have a nose for talent.” He smirked. “But perhaps you’re looking to get a head start on training, so you’re sure to make the cut. Not that I blame you. It could be a smart move.”

“Actually,” said Harry, “I’ve decided not to enter the Auror Academy.”

That stunned Kemp into silence, but only briefly. He looked Harry over again with a glint in his dark eyes. “May I ask why not?”

Harry shrugged. “After the war, I wanted something different. I’ve spent seven years of my life fighting evil, fulfilling a destiny I never chose. I want something different for the rest of my life. I don’t want my life to be in constant danger, and I want to be able to have a life outside of my work.”

Kemp stared at Harry with narrowed eyes and a small smile on his face, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “I like that,” he said finally. “That is very interesting.”

Harry furrowed his brow. “What do you mean, sir?”

“You’re just not what I expected,” he said. “In a good way. I had a picture of you in my head of a sort of noble martyr type, inhumanly selfless and virtuous, always going on about serving others and never taking anything for yourself. I have very little patience for those kinds of people.”

That brought Harry up short, because he had been accused of being that in the past, by people who didn’t know him very well. Was that his public image? He supposed it must be.

“Well, I like to think I’m a good person,” said Harry. “But you’re right, I’m not selfless all the time. I believe I deserve to have my own life.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Kemp said. “So, if that’s the case, then what is it that brought you here, if not preparation for the Academy? Do you want to become a professional duelist?”

“I’m intrigued by the setup you have here,” replied Harry. “The teaching in particular. I taught some Defense to my fellow students during the war and I liked it. I wanted to see what it would be like to do that professionally.”

Kemp nodded. “Very well. I will make sure you can assist in some sessions with students. That will give you the best picture of what I do.”

“Perfect,” said Harry.

“But first, before one can be a teacher, one must master the subject. How are you as a duelist?”

Harry made a face. “I’m decent, I suppose. But not great.”

Kemp laughed. “Well, you defeated the most powerful dark wizard of all time, so you can’t be terrible.”

“That was mostly luck.”

“Hm.” Kemp’s mouth turned down slightly at the corners. “We may have to do something about that modesty of yours.”

Harry blinked. He wasn’t sure if Kemp was joking or not. He hoped so, because Harry happened to like his modesty, and didn’t want to ever lose it.

“Let’s head back into the training room,” Kemp said, standing. “I want to get a look at your technique.”

Harry agreed, though he had to admit to himself that this was the part he was most nervous about. He had never had any formal training, unless one counted the disastrous meeting of the dueling club that Lockhart had tried to found in his second year. Harry had learned the Disarming charm from that experience, but little else, related to dueling, anyway. Everything else he knew was self-taught, with Ron and Hermione helping him, or gleaned from the very patchy Defense education he and his classmates had experienced over the years.

Kemp had Harry stand in the center of the training floor so he could get a good look at him. “I want to begin at the beginning,” he said. This turned out to be a good thing, because apparently Harry knew nothing about proper dueling technique. His stance was all wrong, as was the way he held his wand. Kemp physically adjusted the position of his feet, his center of gravity, and his wand grip, talking him through what he was doing.

“The strength of your magic comes from your body, not your wand. A wand is merely a conduit. The more grounded you are, the deeper you can reach into your magical core for power. But you need to be able to move at a moments’ notice, so be light on your feet. But keep your weight low.”

Harry did his best, yet was all too aware of the inherent contradiction in this. How was one supposed to be rooted in the floor and light on their feet at the same time?

But Kemp was eventually satisfied with the progress in Harry’s stance, because he moved on, having Harry show him the spells he knew. He conjured an opponent for Harry, who appeared as a ghost-like image, clear and defined, but a little transparent. Harry went through his arsenal, occasionally stopped by Kemp in order to receive feedback. Some spells, like the Disarming charm, were near perfect (“Are we surprised?” Kemp had said with a smile. “That’s what you used to defeat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, is it not?”) while others were, according to Kemp, “sloppy.”

“Tighten up that flourish on your Stunner,” he said. “No need to wave your wand around. Remember, draw power from your core.”

By the time Kemp declared them finished for the day, Harry was quite worn out. While the work had been primarily mental, rather than physical, he felt it in his whole body. He was looking forward to getting home and getting into bed.

“You have a very interesting approach, Potter,” Kemp told him as they walked off the floor. “It’s clear you’ve learned most of what you know for practical reasons. Your magic is powerful and your spells are effective, but you lack finesse.”

That didn’t surprise Harry at all. “Finesse” was not a word he had ever heard in association with himself.

“When you return, I’ll show you what dueling with finesse looks like,” Kemp said. “For now, though, I have a floo call to make, so I will have to end this here.”

“All right,” said Harry, nodding. “Thank you for the lesson. It was very helpful.” He wasn’t sure exactly how he felt about Aurelian Kemp. On the one hand, the man was certainly arrogant and a bit self-serving. But he knew what he was doing, and he wasn’t tripping all over himself trying to please or impress Harry, and Harry had always preferred that. And the session had been quite informative. Harry had a lot to work on.

“My pleasure,” Kemp replied. “You know your way out?”

Harry nodded, and they said their goodbyes.

Vesper was still in the waiting room when he entered. Harry was surprised, considering it was well past seven o’clock. Even more surprising, she was sitting at her desk, eating a pizza.

“Hello, Mr. Potter,” she said. “How was the session?”

“Good, thanks,” he said, unable to help a hungry glance at the pizza, which looked to be covered in sausage and peppers.

“Would you like a slice? I have plenty.”

“Um, thanks,” Harry said, helping himself. He took a bite. “Delicious.”

“Thanks. I made it, from scratch, the no-maj way.” She looked quite pleased with herself.

Harry raised his eyebrows in surprise. “No-maj?”

“Sorry, Muggle, to you,” she said with a grin. “I just can’t get used to it. ‘Muggle’ is just so British! It’s adorable.”

“Well, it’s really good pizza. I’m impressed.”

“I made myself learn how to make good pizza when I moved here. It’s the key to my happiness. That, and good Mexican food, but that I haven’t been able to find anywhere, or make it halfway decent myself. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. Suffer in silence, I suppose.”

“You’re American, right?”

“Born and raised,” she said.

“Why did you move here?”

“To work for Aurelian… Mr. Kemp,” she said between bites.

Harry realized Vesper must have known Kemp in the States, and followed him here. “Well, you’re obviously committed,” he said. “I hope you weren’t staying late on my account.”

Vesper smiled. “I live here,” she said. “Literally.” She held out a hand. “I suppose I never properly introduced myself. I’m Vesper Kemp.”

Kemp? “Are you Mr. Kemp’s wife?”

She snorted. “Gods, no. I’m his niece. My dad is his brother.”

“Oh.” That made a bit more sense.

“I’ve been training with my uncle since I was fifteen,” she went on. “I’m a duelist as well. And I’m his apprentice. Other apprentice, I mean, now that you’re here.”

“Oh,” Harry said, hoping she didn’t feel he was somehow moving in on her territory. “Well, I look forward to working with you.”

She grinned at him. “You’re adorable,” she said.

“Um, thanks?”

She laughed. “I mean in a very tough, manly way, of course.”

Harry laughed too, then finished his slice. He wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Vesper, much like with Kemp, but he liked her all the same. “Thanks for the pizza,” he said. “I was starving.”

“You’re very welcome,” she said. “Do you have your next session scheduled, or do you need to get something on the books?”

Harry scheduled his next session, making sure it overlapped with one of Kemp’s students, as he instructed, so he could observe Kemp’s teaching methods. He then said goodbye to Vesper, who was already digging into another slice of pizza, and approached the floo, glad the day was over.

***

He found his friends in the common room, working away, and it reminded him that he still had homework of his own. He flopped down on the sofa next to Draco, who looked up.

“Long day?” the blond asked.

Harry nodded  “It was good, though. I learned a lot.”

“Good.”

“Apparently I have power, but no finesse. I already knew that, though.”

Draco gave Harry a lascivious smile. “I can think of instances in which you have plenty of both.”

“Gross,” Ron said under his breath, and Harry and Draco both laughed.

Harry made himself take out his Transfiguration text and get some reading done, though it was slow going. His brain was overworked and stopped absorbing the words, after a while. Finally, it was time for bed, and Harry and Draco went up to Draco’s room together.

“Kemp really wore me out,” Harry said as he undressed, then stifled a yawn.

“What’s he like, this Kemp?” Draco asked.

Harry did his best to describe his new dueling master as they climbed into bed, but it came out all contradictory. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I’m still trying to figure him out, I suppose.”

“Mm,” Draco said. “Sounds like it.”

Harry curled up to him, wanting to wrap them up together as usual. He knew that sleep would find him easily; he could already feel it coming on, though Draco hadn’t even doused the lamps yet.

“Harry.”

The tone of Draco’s voice made Harry open his eyes. “What is it?” he asked, eyeing his boyfriend, who looked at him with a serious expression. It made his heart sputter nervously to see it, though there was still warmth in Draco’s eyes as he brushed a hand through Harry’s hair.

“I know you’re tired, but there’s something I feel like I have to tell you.”

“All right.” Harry swallowed his nervousness, determined not to jump to conclusions.

“It’s about Blaise.”

Blaise? Harry furrowed his brow in confusion, not sure what to expect. Did Blaise and Draco have a history that went beyond friendship? Was that what Draco wanted to tell him? Harry couldn’t remember ever seeing any indication that Blaise was interested in men, but the Slytherin was generally reserved, so maybe that was why.

“He fancies Granger.”

Harry blinked, forcing his runaway brain back to the present and trying to process what Draco had just said. “What?”

“Blaise is interested in your Granger. He wants to pursue her.”

“Since when?”

Draco shrugged. “That’s hard to say. I think he’s always been a bit intrigued by her, her intelligence, and how she doesn’t much concern herself over trivial things. He admires those qualities. But I believe it was their partnership on the Potions project that had him seriously considering a relationship with her.”

Harry sat up. “He can consider all he likes, but it won’t make a bit of difference. Hermione and Ron are very serious about each other.”

“So I have pointed out to him, many times,” Draco said with a sigh. “But Blaise is a stubborn bastard.”

Harry shook his head, sliding back down to lie under the covers. “Well, too bad for Blaise, I suppose. But why did you feel the need to tell me?”

“Because Granger is one of your closest friends, and I thought you might want to know something that pertains to her.”

“Yes, but…”

“I’ve also never seen Blaise quite like this.”

“What do you mean?”

Draco ran a hand lightly and distractingly over Harry’s chest, and Harry had to make himself focus. “Blaise always has notions about pursuing some witch or another,” Draco said. “It’s been that way since fifth year, at least. He becomes intrigued, pursues them, and then one of two things happens: the witch either turns him down outright, because Blaise can be a bit intense, not to mention an acquired taste, or he loses interest, realizing the witch isn’t nearly as intriguing as he first thought. With Granger though, it’s like she… infected him. I can’t think of a better word for it. She got under his skin and just kept festering there, spreading and growing until she consumed him.”

“That’s lovely imagery you’re using there, Draco,” Harry said with a smirk.

Draco gave him a look. “The point is, though he tried fighting it, knowing that she was involved with Weasley, he couldn’t make the feeling go away. He is quite taken with her. I’ve never seen him this way, and I honestly have no idea what he’ll do. So I wanted to give you fair warning.”

“All right, well, I appreciate that. But like I said, it’s a non-issue. Hermione would never leave Ron for someone else.” Draco was quiet next to him, spurring Harry to ask, “You don’t agree?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Draco.

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m not saying anything, Harry.”

Harry looked at Draco for a moment. “I know you don’t really get why Ron and Hermione are together, but they work, you know, in their own way.”

“All right…”

“You just don’t like Ron.”

Draco sighed next to him. “I don’t hate him as much as I used to. But it’s true that I don’t see the appeal. I think Granger could do better.”

Harry scoffed. “Do better?”

“I mean find a better match. For her.”

“And you think Blaise is that better match.”

Draco’s silence answered for him.

“You really do, don’t you?”

“I don’t know, Harry,” Draco said after a minute. “Maybe.”

It was Harry’s turn to be silent. He was too bloody tired to think about all this at the moment, and he was annoyed at Draco for picking now to have the conversation.

“I didn’t bring this up to cause a fight,” Draco said. “I just wanted you to know the situation.”

“All right, well, I know it now,” Harry said, his tone clipped. “Can I go to sleep, then?”

“By all means,” Draco said drily.

He turned out the lamps, and they lay on their backs in silence, staring at the ceiling. Harry knew, immediately, that he wouldn’t be able to sleep, not like this.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you,” he said, after a few minutes. Draco didn’t say anything at first, but Harry knew he wasn’t asleep and had heard him.

“And I’m sorry I brought it up tonight. It was bad timing,” he said finally.

Harry sighed. “I’ll be more rational about it when I’m not so tired, I promise.”

Draco turned toward him, laying an arm across Harry’s chest. “I love you.”

Harry felt himself relax, finally. What a difference those words could make, sometimes. “I love you too.”

Chapter Text

Harry had to fight a yawn as he watched one of Kemp’s dueling students, a tall but noodly 20-year-old named Gerald, battle a virtual opponent in the training center. The wizard was deft on his feet, but he had a weak shield that was easily penetrated, and his aim with hexes left something to be desired.

Kemp was yelling the same critiques to his student as Gerald tried to listen and follow the instructions while keeping up with the opponent, which was set on medium. Harry bit his lip to fight another yawn. This was not his favorite part of the apprenticeship by any stretch.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have an interest in Kemp’s teaching methods. In fact, Kemp was quite effective in most circumstances. He had a knack for figuring out each student’s learning style quickly and using it to his advantage. Some, like Harry, needed to be shown physically what to do, needed to feel in their bodies, in their muscles. Others needed aural instruction or the visual aids of demonstration. But Kemp always seemed to know. On top of that, his understanding of technique was extensive. Harry had only attended a few sessions with him but was seeing a vast improvement.

No, all in all Harry would quite like Kemp’s job, except that there seemed to be so much focus on dueling competitions specifically. Most of the students who came to Kemp for instruction were looking to become professional duelists themselves, rather than simply master the art of defense in order to protect themselves, which is what Harry had originally envisioned.

Because of this, a lot of time was spent emphasizing competition rules and etiquette, as well as small technical details that would prevent a duelist losing points from judges. Not a lot of emphasis was placed on the effectiveness of the hexes themselves in actually surviving a dangerous situation, which was where Harry’s interest lay for the most part. He had mentioned this to Kemp, in passing, not wanting to appear disappointed but rather simply curious, and Kemp had made the point that now that the war was over, most people didn’t concern themselves much with their physical safety anymore. “It may not be particularly wise on their part,” Kemp had said. “But it’s the way things are now.” Harry had to concede the point.

He glanced at the clock, looking forward to when it struck five and this session would be over. Then he himself would have some time on the floor with Kemp before he headed home for the day.

“Potter,” Kemp said, turning to Harry. “Anything to add?”

Shit. Gerald was finished with the virtual opponent and Kemp had obviously been giving him feedback when Harry wasn’t paying attention. He thought fast. “Um, his back leg,” he said.

“What about it?” Kemp asked.

“It doesn’t move in sync with his front when he shuffles his feet. It slows him down.”

Kemp stared at him. “Very good. Did you hear that, Gerald? Mr. Potter noticed it as well. We’ve been talking about your feet for a while now, haven’t we?”

The student rubbed the back of his neck. “Yes, sir.”

“Good then. We’ll go over it again next week. For now, we’re done.”

Gerald thanked Kemp and moved off the floor, and Kemp immediately turned to Harry. “Now, Potter, show me what you’ve got. I hope you’ve been working on those jinxes we were going over last week.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said. He’d been practicing every night. This was the part he was good at and enjoyed immensely.

“Let’s put it a notch above the medium setting and see how you handle it,” said Kemp with a small smile. Harry nodded, then settled himself in his fighting stance. It was actually starting to feel natural now.

The opponent materialized and took only a second before firing what Harry thought might be a nasty Flamethrower Jinx. Harry dodged, keeping his footing, and retaliated with an Ice-bullet Jinx, which was blocked. Back and forth they went, and Harry could hear Kemp yelling instructions at him, reminding him he needed to have multiple spells ready to go if he wanted to land anything. He aimed a Stunner high, making the opponent duck, before hitting him immediately with a low Leg-locker Curse that had the opponent hitting the ground immediately.

“That’s it, Potter,” he heard Kemp call. “Now, finish him off.”

Harry bound his wrists and then pinned him to the ground with another spell, and that was that.

“Quick work,” Kemp said. “Come here. I have some thoughts on that Stunner of yours. Still doesn’t seem quite right.”

A couple of notes from Kemp and Harry was back in the ring, all fatigue and boredom forgotten. Kemp dialed up the difficulty setting just a little higher, and the opponent appeared again, ready to give Harry all he could handle. He was so wrapped up in the duel that he hardly heard Kemp’s shouting, and it wasn’t until he was knocked off his feet by a sneaky Trip-up Jinx that he noticed someone else had entered the room. He lifted his head, feeling dazed, as he heard two sets of hands clapping off to the side. He turned to see Vesper smiling at him.

“Good effort,” she said. “That’s a tough one. Gets me a lot, too.”

Harry scrambled to his feet, taking in the sight of her. She wasn’t wearing her usual black robes, which her petite frame always appeared to be drowning in. Now she was in a tight lycra top and leggings, showing off her surprisingly athletic physique. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail and was quill-free. She looked ready for a workout.

“All done up at the front?” Harry asked her.

“Yeah, Gerald was the last of the day, except you. Thought I’d come check it out, then maybe get some time on the floor myself. Haven’t had any all day.”

“By all means,” said Harry, waving her onto the floor. He had yet to see Vesper duel, and was undeniably curious about the energetic brunette. “I’d like to see you in action.”

“Thanks,” she said, giving him a winning smile. “I’m glad I got to see you in action, too. You know, you fight pretty dirty. Half those jinxes aren’t allowed in competition these days.”

Harry grinned. “What can I say? I’m not much for following the rules.”

“Uh-huh,” she said drily as she started limbering up. “If you say so. Me, I like the rules. They push you to your limits. They make you work for it.”

“Right, ok,” Harry said with a roll of his eyes.

“Crank it up, Aurelian,” Vesper called to her uncle. “Let me show Harry here how it’s done.”

Kemp gave her an amused smile, then started up the training program. Vesper got into position, looking agile and grounded, her eyes focused, waiting.

It seemed like the moment the opponent fully materialized it was firing a spell, but Vesper was ready, blocking it easily with a movement so minute Harry almost missed it. Then she cast a curse of her own with lightning speed, her economy of movement boggling Harry’s mind as he watched her dodge, fire, block three different spells, and then fire again.

“She’s so fast,” Harry remarked to Kemp quietly, trying to follow all of Vesper’s movements as she dodged a jinx from the virtual opponent and fired back three of her own, all non-verbally. The first was blocked but the next two hit their mark, disabling the opponent long enough for Vesper to take a final shot that sent the opponent flying across the room.

“And that’s a win,” Kemp said, the pride in his voice unmistakable.  He looked at Harry. “Fifty-four seconds flat. I used to wonder if I was clouded by bias, believing my own niece was that talented. But after she had won her fourth national tournament by the age of eighteen, I stopped worrying about that so much.”

Harry laughed and turned to look at Vesper again, who was making her way off the floor, grinning.

“Did you put that guy on easy setting or something, Uncle Aurie? I thought with Harry watching, you’d at least make me work for it.”

Kemp smiled back. “I don’t have a setting on this thing you can’t beat, as you well know. What I’m really looking forward to is the day I have you duel Potter, here.”

Harry balked. He was not about to duel Vesper anytime soon. He would get his arse handed to him. “I think I need about a decade’s more training to be that good.”

Vesper crossed her arms and gave him a look of mock suspicion. “Always so modest. That, Mr. Potter, is what we Americans call a hustle. But I won’t fall for it.”

Harry grinned. “I’d hardly expect you to. Just go easy on me the first time, all right?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be gentle,” she said with a wink.

“All right, you two,” said Kemp. “I have to leave it here. Potter, you’ll have Vesper get you something scheduled for next week?”

“Yes, sir,” Harry replied.

Kemp returned to his office, as usual, while Harry and Vesper went back to the waiting room.

“In all seriousness, Harry,” she said, as he held the door open for her and she walked past him. “You’re really good. I was watching for a few minutes. You’re a beginner, sure, but you have a lot of raw talent. I can see why my uncle is so excited about training you.”

“Mr. Kemp is excited? About me?” That was not something Harry had picked up on. He sometimes felt that Kemp tolerated him, at best.

“He doesn’t let it show,” she said. “But behind closed doors, yeah, he’s pretty thrilled. And it has nothing to do with your fame, if that’s what you’re thinking. He just likes taking students with a hell of a lot of potential and molding them into champions.”

“I have no intention of becoming a champion,” Harry said bluntly. But, as with most frankness, Vesper was unfazed.

“We’ll see,” she said. She pulled out the leather-bound day planner where she kept Kemp’s schedule. “So, what do things look like for you next week?”

“Thursday afternoon is best,” said Harry.

“4 o’clock?”

“Yeah.”

As Vesper penciled him in Harry caught sight of a copy of the Daily Prophet sitting on her desk, left open on a page that happened to feature photos of Harry and Draco out together with friends on the first Hogsmeade weekend of the term. Harry remembered that day clearly. The reporters had been unavoidable.

“Ah, you caught me,” she said, and Harry tore his eyes from the photos to look at her. “Like all of your adoring fans, I entertained myself today by catching up on the details of your love life. I hope you don’t mind.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “You could always ask, you know.”

“I know. But this is so much better, because it includes pictures.” She picked up the paper and showed him a close-up of Harry and Draco at the Three Broomsticks. Draco had his arm around Harry, casually but possessively, while Harry was watching Draco talk and laugh like no one else in the world existed. “I mean, look at that,” Vesper said, pulling Harry’s focus back to her. She was pointing at Draco’s smiling face. “You really lucked out, I have to say. That is one tasty blond morsel you have yourself there. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re a looker, too, but… damn.”

Harry couldn’t help but laugh. “Hate to break it to you, but he’s about as gay as they come.”

“No pun intended,” she said with a grin, and Harry rolled his eyes. “Doesn’t matter anyway,” she went on. “Even if he swung both ways, there’s just no moving on from you, I bet.”

Harry fought a blush, reminding himself that this was just how Vesper talked. No subject was off-limits. He shrugged, not knowing what to say.

“Gods, you are so freaking cute,” she said. “I can’t get over it.”

There was that word again. Cute. Since when had that applied to him? “I guess we’ll see how ‘cute’ I am when I’m wiping the floor with you in a duel.”

“Oh ho!” she laughed. “So the golden boy knows how to trash talk after all. Good to know. I guess we’ll just see who’s wiping the floor with whom, won’t we?”

“I guess we will.”

He bid goodbye to her not long after, already thinking of his dinner, a Potions essay he still had to finish, and, of course, Draco.

***

“I have some things to report,” said Draco without much preamble as they prepared for bed.

Harry smiled. Draco liked to play catch-up on the days that they were apart for their apprenticeships, even though it had really only been half a day and Harry had seen him at lunch. “All right. Go ahead.”

“First off, my mother wrote to Andromeda.”

Harry had to admit he was surprised, but pleased, by that turn of events. “Really?”

Draco nodded. “She told me about it in a letter today. Apparently she wrote her last week and received a reply, even.”

“Well, that’s great,” said Harry.

“I think so.” But Harry could read the apprehension in Draco’s tone.

“But you’re worried.” It wasn’t a question.

“Perhaps. I don’t know.” He sighed. “My mother… she doesn’t do vulnerability well. None of the Malfoys do. I just don’t want her to put herself out there and then be disappointed.”

“You think Andromeda will disappoint her?” Harry pulled back the covers and climbed into bed, and Draco followed suit.

“I think my dear aunt has plenty of reasons to keep her distance, and could easily pull away again if my mother does or says the wrong thing. And seeing as how they’ve lived in two completely different worlds for so long, that’s quite likely to happen. What do they have in common anymore? What would hold them together?”

“They’re family.”

Draco gave him a wry smile. “Is that enough? Just look at you and your relatives. If too many bridges get burned, is it possible to even find your way back?”

Harry considered that. Draco had a point. He wasn’t exactly looking to be connected to his aunt, uncle, or cousin, although he and Dudley had had some limited communication over the summer. But he certainly didn’t see a future full of get-togethers and birthdays and holidays with him. But still…

“I just feel like the situation is different,” he said.

“How so?”

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” said Harry. “I just feel that it’s true.”

Draco huffed. “You’re always feeling things like this, without any argument to back it up.”

“Yes, well, I’m often right anyway. I just feel in my gut that this is a good thing.”

“You’re only saying that because you were the one to encourage it in the first place.”

“So you’re going to blame me if this all falls through?” he asked the blond with the raise of an eyebrow.

“Yes. Absolutely.” Harry stared at him. “Oh, come on, I’m only joking,” said Draco. “As you well know.”

“I guess we’ll just have to see what happens.”

“Yes, I suppose we will.”

“What else did you need to report?”

“Oh, right,” said Draco, sitting up a little in bed. “Guess who approached me today, wanting to talk.”

“Who?”

“Guess.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Hmmm… I don’t know. Father Christmas? The ghost of Bellatrix Lestrange? The front woman for the Weird Sisters?”

“What a little smartarse you are.”

“Better than a dumbarse.”

“Not by much,” Draco grumbled.

“Just tell me who it was, Draco. I’m getting tired.”

“Ginevra.” The way he said it, it sounded more like the name of a nasty and persistent skin rash than the name of a person. But Harry hardly noticed, too distracted by the implications.

“What did she say?”

“Nothing of much substance,” he said. “She asked me how my term was going, and if I liked my apprenticeship. And then she told me she was considering something in journalism, if the whole Quidditch thing didn’t work out. And then she smiled and waved and said ‘see you around.’ Like we’re… friends or something. You know, just two friends having a chat, except for we’re both in love with the same bloke. It was weird.”

“That is quite weird,” Harry agreed. “What did you do? I mean, you’ve been on this whole ignoring her kick for a while…”

“I didn’t ignore her, Harry. That would have been rude.”

Harry gave him an incredulous look. “Since when do you care about that?”

“I am a perfect gentleman,” he insisted. “Much more than you, anyway.” Harry kept staring at him. Draco sighed. “All right, mostly I was polite because I knew it would make things easier on you.”

Harry grinned. “Well, that’s quite nice of you Draco. Thanks.”

Polite,” he corrected. “Not nice. Remember?”

“Sure. Fine.”

“It put me on edge, though. I kept thinking she was just lulling me into a false sense of security with her boring conversation so she could take out her wand and hex me into oblivion.”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. She wasn’t.”

“It’s hardly dramatic. I’ve got to watch myself, you know, with your fan club on the prowl. I’m sure a number of witches, and wizards, even, are convinced you’re their soul mate and are just waiting for the right opportunity to get me out of the way once and for all.”

“That’s a bit paranoid, don’t you think?”

“Hardly. You have some crazy fans, Harry. Just look at some of the letters you get. Look at the letters I get!”

“Fair point,” Harry conceded.

“And you know what they say.”

“What? What do they say?”

“You’re not paranoid if people are really out to get you.”

“Yeah, but do you really think Ginny is out to get you?”

“I think it’s bloody weird that she came up and chatted to me today. She’s got some twisted scheme up her sleeve. There’s no other explanation.”

“There are plenty of other explanations. Like maybe she’s trying to move on, and being friendly with you is a part of that effort.”

“Oh, Gods, I hope not. I mean, I want her to move on and all, but I was perfectly happy when we were both pretending like the other didn’t exist. That worked quite nicely for me.”

“She’s the sister of one of my best mates. She’s going to be around for the foreseeable future.”

Draco thought that over. “Still,” he said finally. “I don’t trust her. I wouldn’t put it past her to have come up with some way to win you back.”

Harry snorted. “All right, first off, she’s a Gryffindor, not a Slytherin, and I don’t think she’s ever contemplated such a scheme in her life. Secondly, it wouldn’t matter if she did come up with some scheme, because it wouldn’t work. I love you, not her, and there’s nothing she can do to change that.”

Draco thought some more. “If you say so.”

“I do say so.”

“So I just have to put up with her, then.”

“I’m sorry. I know it’s not ideal. Do you want me to talk to her?”

Draco shook his head. “No. Because then I’m the arsehole who can’t tolerate the ex, even though I got the guy and she didn’t. And I’m tired of being the arsehole.”

“That’s very big of you,” said Harry. “But, then, what do you want me to do?”

Draco looked at him. “I don’t need you to do anything. I just told you because I thought you ought to know.”

“All right…”

“You gave me a whole speech about how you want us to tell each other everything and know everything about each other. Just trying to respect your wishes.”

Harry smiled, rolling towards Draco to put an arm across him. “You’re right, I did. Thank you for telling me.”

“You’re welcome,” Draco said begrudgingly, but he placed his hand over Harry’s and gave it a squeeze, revealing his true feelings. Harry was convinced that Draco enjoyed sharing everything as much as Harry did, though he was loathe to admit it.

“So, Narcissa and Andromeda are reconnecting, and Ginny is being weirdly nice to you. Anything else worth mentioning?”

“Hmm,” said Draco for a moment. “That’s about it, I think.”

“Nothing to report on Blaise?”

He could practically hear Draco roll his eyes, though he couldn’t see his face at the moment. “No, Harry. As I told you yesterday and the day before that. He’s still interested in her and deciding what he’s going to do about it.”

Ever since Draco had revealed that little secret about Blaise, Harry had been bugging him incessantly. It was partially because he didn’t want to be caught off guard in case Blaise made a move and Harry had to be involved in the aftermath, but also because he was not-so-secretly hoping to hear that Blaise had gotten over it and moved onto someone else.

But even he knew that was unlikely. He’d been watching Blaise and Hermione interact with more scrutiny for the past few weeks, and he wondered to himself how he hadn’t seen it sooner. Blaise was no lovesick puppy by any stretch, but the way he watched Hermione, the way he looked at her when she was talking, the way he leaned into her, intent, focused, had a kind of gravity about it that was hard to mistake. Though he rarely smiled, or blushed, or anything of the sort, his entire body language conveyed how important the bushy-haired Gryffindor was to him. She mattered. It was quite interesting to witness, although also disturbing, for its implications and potential consequences.

“All right, I’m sorry. I’ll stop bugging you about it.” He snuggled closer to Draco, about ready for sleep.

“It’s not really any of our business, anyway,” the Slytherin said.

Harry had to disagree. “She’s one of my best friends. And she’s dating my other best friend. It is my business, Draco, because I love them and I want them to be happy.”

The pregnant silence he received in response conveyed that Draco had plenty to say on the matter, but wasn’t, for whatever reason. Harry considered prodding him for a real answer, but thought better of it. Classes, dueling, and homework and worn him out, and he felt done with talking.

“Fine,” he said, yawning. “I’ll drop it, for now.”

Draco squeezed him tighter. “Goodnight, Harry.”

“Goodnight, Draco.”

***

The next day Harry’s head was full of all the pieces of news that Draco had reported. He wondered to himself, as he went about his Friday, how the correspondence between Narcissa and Andromeda was coming along and what had possessed Ginny to try and get to know Draco. He also spared a thought or two for Blaise and Hermione, because he couldn’t help it, though it was clear that nothing had changed in that regard.

In the afternoon, after his classes were done for the day, he decided to write Andromeda. While he was careful not to mention Narcissa, he hoped he had left an opening for her to tell him about communicating with her sister if she was so inclined. He had tried to be subtle about it, though he knew subtlety was most definitely not his strong suit. He chuckled to himself, knowing Draco would readily confirm that if he ever shared the insight aloud.

Though his classes were finished his week wasn’t over yet. The Quidditch team had a practice that evening, though it was cold and dark and hardly ideal. The match against Hufflepuff was looming, and while the majority of the team felt they were well prepared, their esteemed captain didn’t want to take any chances. He worked plays with the Chasers until they could execute them in their sleep, yelling at Ginny and Dean every time they were caught goofing off, and made Harry and the two Beaters run drills to keep their skills up to snuff.

It was bitterly cold, though, and Harry’s hands were numb by the time Ron called the end of practice and he finally descended from out of the thin winter air. He removed his Seeker gloves and massaged bloodflow back into his hands while Ron gave everyone notes on their work. Finally, they were done for the night and started walking back up to the castle in groups. Harry could spot Dean and Ginny in front of him, still talking and joking around. He saw Dean nudge Ginny and she laughed loudly. Harry smiled. This looked promising.

He watched the two of them all the way up to the castle, hoping to see more signs of something unfolding between them, but not getting much more than some mild flirtation. They parted ways in the entrance hall with no more than a wave and a “See you tomorrow,” and Ginny headed in the direction of the Gryffindor dormitories while Dean headed towards the 8th years’. Harry jogged to catch up with him.

“Hey, Dean,” he said, when he was only a few steps behind him.

Dean turned and greeted him with a smile and a nod. “Hey, Harry. Brutal practice tonight, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, keeping pace with him as they made their way up a staircase. “Listen, is there something going on between you and Ginny?”

Dean stopped and turned fully to Harry, his brow furrowed. Harry paused, too. “Really? You have the audacity to ask me that?”

Harry faltered. “Ummm.”

“Look, I’m not saying it was wrong for you to end things with Ginny, but seeing as you did, I don’t think you have a right to poke your nose into her life like that.”

“Hey, I was only asking.”

Dean crossed his arms. “And what are you going to do if you found out we were dating? Try to break us up?”

Harry stared at him, dumbfounded. “No,” he said emphatically, when he had found his voice. “I would be happy.”

Dean stared at him blankly for a moment.

“I was asking if there was something going on between you two because I was hoping that there was.”

Dean’s eyes narrowed. “Are you serious?”

“Yes.” Harry rubbed the back of his neck. “All right, I can see how it would seem a bit weird…”

“Um, yeah, it’s a little weird.”

“But I just… Ginny’s had a hard time of it lately, since the breakup-“

“Trust me, I know,” Dean said darkly.

“Yeah, sure, well… I just…” He almost laughed to himself at how awkward this was becoming, but eventually resisted the urge and pressed on. “I want her to be happy, that’s all.”

“And you think dating me would make her happy?”

Harry shrugged. “I thought it might. It would be good to see her moving on.”

Dean stared at Harry with a discerning expression for a few seconds before he replied. “Dating someone new isn’t necessarily the mark of happiness, you know. Who’s to say I wouldn’t be just a rebound?”

Harry didn’t have a good answer for that.

“I’m also not going to get back together with Ginny just because another of her exes asks me to.”

“I wouldn’t expect that to be the reason,” Harry said, taken aback. “I just wanted to know the situation.”

“And hoping for a particular outcome.”

“Well…”

Dean let out a small laugh, suddenly. “I get it, Harry. You’re happy with Malfoy and you feel guilty, and knowing Ginny was happy with someone else would ease the guilt.”

Harry grimaced slightly. That sounded quite selfish, actually. “You caught me,” he said.

“I’m not dating Ginny. Not as of right now at least.”

“Oh.”

“We’re spending a lot of time together, though. She’s working some things out, not just about you, mind. A lot of things. I don’t feel like I can give you all of the details, because she said things to me in confidence.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Harry said quickly.

“The long and short of it is that she’s working out how to be happy right now. I don’t think she’s ready for a relationship yet. But I’m… cautiously optimistic, let’s say, for the future.”

Harry smiled. “That’s good.”

“I’ll be honest, I think you were absolutely barking mad to cast Ginny aside for… Malfoy of all people.”

Harry grinned. “A lot of people feel the same way. But they don’t know what I know.”

“Clearly,” said Dean. “And I can’t say I’m sorry you and Ginny aren’t together anymore. I never really…” He looked sheepish, suddenly. “I screwed it up, the first time around. I was a bit controlling and possessive, and Ginny doesn’t do well with that sort of thing. But we’re both older now, and more mature and… well, we’ll see, I guess.”

“Yeah, I guess we will.”

There was an awkward silence as the two of them resumed climbing the staircase, the uncomfortable conversation out of the way but still a ways to go before they arrived at the dormitories. Finally Harry mustered up a question about Dean’s internship at the Ministry and they managed to stretch their small talk all the way to the entrance to the common room. Harry was relieved, and looking forward to relaying the awkward but informative exchange with Dean to Draco when he got inside.

When he entered common room, however, he felt a strange tension in the air immediately. It was strangely quiet, and everyone present was looking around at each other surreptitiously. Harry scanned the room and spotted Draco, Blaise, and Theo all huddled together, talking in hushed voices. He walked over to them, ready to ask what was going on, and then he heard it: shouting. Very familiar shouting, coming from the girls’ side of the dormitories. It was unmistakable.

Ron and Hermione.

The words themselves were muffled behind a closed door, but Harry caught enough of Ron’s words to be able to surmise that he was more angry and upset than he had been in a long time. Hermione was quieter, her voice almost pleading, and he couldn’t make out any of it. He turned to the Slytherins.

“What happened?” He already had a good inkling, but he wanted it confirmed.

None of them answered, not even Draco.

“What did you do, Zabini?” Harry asked, keeping his voice low. There wasn’t much point, though, really, because the entire common room could still hear them.

Blaise looked at him archly. “Who says this was my doing?”

Harry let his silence and unblinking stare speak for him. He suddenly felt Draco’s hand on his shoulder.

“He told Granger,” he said, quiet enough that only Harry heard.

“Yeah, I figured as much,” Harry said drily. He was still staring at Blaise. “When did you do it? While we were at Quidditch practice, and Ron was out of the way?”

Blaise lifted his chin. “Yes. You didn’t expect me to do it with the ginger sitting right there, did you?” He met Harry stare for stare.

“And what did Hermione do?”

Blaise’s smile was small but smug. “She’s your best friend. Why don’t you ask her yourself?”

“I would, except she seems to be having a row with her boyfriend right now, a row you caused.” Harry kept his voice calm, and it sounded all the more dangerous for it.

“That’s quite a leap,” replied Blaise. “I only told Hermione the truth. What she chose to do with that truth, and the way that… boyfriend,” he spat the word, “of hers chose to react… well that’s on them, isn’t it?”

Harry opened his mouth to retort but stopped short as he heard a door slam and the angry pounding of feet coming down the stairs. Ron came into view only a moment later, and he looked murderous.

“You,” he pointed at Blaise, his eyes blue fire. “You fucking snake. What you did-“

“I didn’t do anything she didn’t want me to,” the Slytherin replied, still the picture of calm, haughty, and self-satisfied. “Or didn’t she tell you, it was she who made the move, after my confession.”

Ron lunged at Blaise and Harry moved quickly, grabbing Ron by the chest to hold him back.

“Don’t, Ron,” Harry said, trying to put as much authority in his voice as he could, and hoping it could break through Ron’s fog of rage.

“He kissed her,” Ron hissed through his teeth. “He put his hands on her. And now I’m going to put my fists on him.”

There was a part of Harry that was tempted to let Ron have at Blaise as much as he wanted. In his opinion, Blaise had crossed a line. Expressing feelings was one thing, but to turn it physical… But no. The state Ron was in, he could seriously hurt Blaise, winding up in detention, or seriously hurt himself, or perhaps something even worse.

“Come on, Ron,” he said urgently in the redhead’s ear. “Don’t give him the satisfaction. This is how he wants you to react. He wants to get you in trouble, or for you to do something stupid.”

That seemed to get through to Ron, because he stopped struggling. But Harry didn’t let him go just yet.

“Let’s head up to your room, come on.”

“Fine,” Ron said, breaking out of Harry’s hold. “But this isn’t over.” He pointed at Blaise again. “Don’t think you’ll take her from me, snake. You don’t stand a fucking chance.”

Blaise looked on impassively as Harry placed a hand on Ron’s shoulder and led him towards the boys’ dormitories. He turned back to look at Draco, who was staring at the two of them with a sober expression. Harry nodded to him once, and looked away again. They would talk later.

Ron silently seethed his way up the stairs, Harry just a little behind him. He wondered, as he watched Ron’s shoulders flex with tension and his hands clench and unclench, what was going to happen next. What was Hermione feeling? What was she going to do? He needed to talk to her, too. But, at the moment, Ron needed him more.

When they reached Ron’s room and stepped inside, Ron's demeanor changed. His shoulders slumped and he put his head in his hands, mumbling something.

“What?” Harry asked. “I can’t hear you.”

“I said, I think I’ve really fucked up, Harry,” he said softly.

“What do you mean?”

Ron shook his head, then started pacing the room, running a hand through his short hair again and again. “Fuck,” he said under his breath.

“What happened?” Harry asked calmly, hoping Ron would start explaining things coherently.

“She was waiting for me in the common room when I got back from practice,” he said, still pacing. “I could just tell, the look on her face… but I didn’t know it had anything to do with Zabini, not until she pulled me upstairs and told me…” He stopped, turned, and looked at Harry. “Apparently Zabini’s had his eye on Hermione for a while.” He snorted. “I mean, can you fucking believe it? A Slytherin?”

Harry decided it wasn’t quite the right moment to remind Ron that Harry was also dating a Slytherin, and most definitely not the right time to confess that he had known about Blaise’s feelings for a while.

“Then she told me they kissed,” Ron went on, “and I… fuck, Harry, I just lost it. It was like a whole bunch of fireworks went off in my brain. I started asking her all these questions, about what she had said, and did she kiss him back, and did she… did she have feelings…” He swallowed thickly, and turned away again.

“What did she say?” Harry couldn’t help but wonder if what Blaise had said was true. Did Hermione kiss Blaise, or was it the other way around?

“She said… she said it all happened so fast, and she didn’t…” Ron wiped a hand across his face. “She didn’t know how she felt. She was confused.

Harry closed his eyes. That wasn’t good.

Confused,” Ron said again, like it was a foreign word he was pretty sure was an insult. “So I said, ‘confused about what, about us?’ And she looked at me, and she said she knew she loved me but she didn’t know… she needed time to think about things and would I… would I give her some time…” Ron was pacing again, and shaking his head frantically. “Fuck… fucking hell…. Fuck.”

“And then what happened?” Harry asked.

There was a brief silence, in which Ron kept pacing and Harry watched him, waiting. Finally, the redhead stopped. “I laughed at her,” he said. “Not like, in an actually amused way, but in a ‘I can’t fucking believe this’ sort of way. And I told her, ‘Yeah, Hermione, take all the fucking time you need. I’ll just sit around on my sorry arse waiting for you to decide if you’d rather be with me or with Blaise fucking Zabini, shall I? Not bloody likely.’ And then I stormed out.”

Harry absorbed that. “Were those your exact words?”

Ron snorted. “I don’t know, Harry. Pretty damn close, at any rate.”

“All right.”

They stood in silence for a few minutes. “You were right,” Ron said finally, softly.

“About what?”

“Zabini wanted me to fly off the handle. He knew I would, clever Slytherin bastard. I played right into it.”

“It’s understandable that you would get upset,” Harry said.

“Yeah, but Hermione’s always hated my temper. She’s always telling not to get worked up so easily. So now she gets the comparison between me, who freaks out at the first sign of trouble, and Zabini, who’s so calm about it all that he may as well be a bloody monk. Which do you think is going to appeal to her more?”

“It’s not that simple,” Harry argued. “She’s a smart girl, she’ll-“

“Exactly,” said Ron, and he sounded more defeated than he had all night. He sat down on the edge of his bed, and Harry joined him. “She’s too fucking smart for me, that’s for sure. She’s always been too good for me, all around.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is true, Harry, and everyone knows it. I don’t know how I got her to be with me in the first place. It was a bloody miracle. I should have known it wouldn’t last.”

“You can’t think like that, Ron. You just… you can’t. Not if you are going to work this out.”

Ron laughed sardonically. “Work this out? Bloody hell, Harry, we haven’t even been together a year, and already she’s questioning…. The first sign of interest from someone else, and she’s already considering her options. How am I supposed to…?” He put his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. “All these plans we made, always talking about the future. We talked… we talked about what to name our children for crying out loud.” His voice cracked. “And what was that to her, just… what? Just talk, just…? Did that not mean anything to her, the things we said? Was she just humoring me, or something?”

For the first time that night, Harry felt some stirrings of anger towards Hermione. Because Ron made a very good point. Hermione had seemed totally committed to Ron since they returned from Australia with her parents. Why hadn’t she sent Blaise packing from the off? What was she playing at, keeping two men hanging until she decided what her feelings were?

“You can’t let it end like this, Ron,” he said.

“I don’t know what to do, Harry,” he said, sounding drained. “She wants space and time… I have to give it to her, don’t I? What else can I do?”

“I just don’t want to see you pack it in, all over one row, and one kiss…”

“If she doesn’t want me, if she doesn’t pick me, then there’s nothing I can do about that.”

“You can fight. Fight for her.”

“I don’t know if that’s what she wants. I think… if she made her decision, and it wasn’t me, then she would want me to accept that. She wouldn’t want me to hold on.”

“It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind,” Harry said.

Ron shook his head. “I don’t know, Harry. I’m just so bloody…”

“Confused?” Harry finished for him with a wry smile.

“Yeah,” said Ron. “I guess it’s going around. Don’t let Malfoy catch it. It’s agony.”

Something clenched painfully inside Harry, something like fear, something he had no interest in addressing at the moment.

“I think you need some sleep,” he said. “It makes sense that things are confusing right now. It will be clearer in the morning.”

Ron sighed. “You’re probably right.”

“Don’t give up on her, not yet. Don’t make any rash decisions.”

“I won’t,” he said quietly.

Harry was a bit nervous about leaving Ron alone with his thoughts, but he couldn’t stay there all night. He had to talk to Draco, and get more details about what had really happened.

He bid Ron goodnight, though it seemed like the redhead had barely heard him. As he made his way down the stairs towards Draco’s room, he tried to wrap his head around how this had gotten so out of hand. His first instinct was to blame Blaise, since he was the source of all the confusion, the one who had thrown his hat in the ring where it didn’t belong. But could he really blame the Slytherin simply for being honest? Hermione was the one who should have set him straight, and the fact that she hadn’t… that she had even maybe kissed Blaise instead, well… he didn’t know what to think.

He knocked on the door of Draco’s room and heard Draco call “Enter” from inside. When he opened the door he saw Draco was lounged on his bed in pajamas, reading his Charms text. He looked up at Harry and Harry closed the door behind him.

“How’s Weasley?”

Harry let out a heavy sigh. “Shaken up, confused, angry, scared,” he said.

Draco nodded knowingly.

“Fuck,” Harry said, mostly to himself. “How did this happen?”

Draco didn’t say anything and just looked at Harry from the bed. Harry walked over and sat down. “What did Blaise tell you?”

“About what happened between him and Granger?” Harry nodded. “He pulled her aside after dinner, when you and Weasley had left for practice. He told her how he felt, that he was interested. And he said she just sort of listened for a while, and then she said he had given her a lot to think about, and could he give her some time. And he said ‘yes,’ and then… she kissed him.”

Harry thought that over. “Do you think he’s telling the truth about that part, that she kissed him?”

Draco gave Harry a funny look. “Why would he lie?”

“To piss off Ron, to make things tense between the two of them.”

Draco scoffed and shook his head. “You think we Slytherins are all conniving bastards, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t,” said Harry, his hackles rising. “But he has every reason to exaggerate the truth, at least, make it sound a certain way…”

“What did Granger say on the matter?”

“She told Ron that they kissed, but she didn’t say who initiated it.”

“Well, that’s telling on its own.”

“In what way?”

“If it had been Blaise who had initiated the kiss, then she would have said so, wouldn’t she? She would have laid the blame where it belonged. Instead, she equivocated, which makes me think Blaise is telling the truth.”

Harry chewed on that. “Fucking hell,” he said.

“It was a kiss, Harry. It’s not like they shagged.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “You don’t think Ron has a right to be angry about it?”

“I think he overreacted.”

“Really.”

“Yes, really. Granger just probably wanted to see what it was like, to be sure she was making the right choice.”

Harry stared at Draco blankly. “And if it were me?” he asked finally.

“What do you mean?” Draco eyed him carefully.

“If it were me, going around kissing other people, just to, you know, see what it was like, seeing what other options are out there, you would be just fine with that, would you?”

Draco stared at him, his face tight and wary. “It’s not the same thing.”

“How is it not the same thing?”

“Because Granger isn’t going around snogging everyone in sight. She was presented with an alternative, an alternative that may in fact be better for her than her current relationship, and she took a moment, just a single moment, to see if it could be something she would like.”

Harry shook his head. “That’s what it all comes down to, doesn’t it? You just think Blaise is better for Hermione than Ron.”

“I don’t know for sure, Harry, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was.”

“And I’m sure there is also a part of you that is enjoying watching Ron suffer.”

“That’s not fair.”

Harry arched a brow. “No?”

“No! My particular dislike of the Weasel is, in this case, irrelevant.”

Harry stood and paced the room for a moment, frustrated. Because a part of him, a large part, didn’t really believe Draco.  “I just don’t understand how you can’t think this is a bit fucked up. Hermione is in love with Ron, what they have… how can she just…?”

“That’s not how it works, Harry. You know that better than anyone. You dumped the Weaselette, did you not, even though everyone thought you had something great?”

Harry shook his head again. “That’s different.”

“No, it isn’t. No one can know what a relationship is really like except for the people in the relationship. It’s nobody else’s fucking business. And if Granger realizes that Weasley isn’t the one for her, and that Blaise would be better, who are you to stop her?”

“She made promises to him. She made commitments.”

“They’re not engaged,” Draco said.

“So? So she doesn’t have a ring on her finger yet, so what? They were going to look for flats together this summer. They were going to move in together. I heard her talking about it at Christmas.”

“And you never had such conversations with Ginevra? You never talked about you joining the Aurors, and her playing professional Quidditch, and having kids-“

“It’s fucking different!” Harry insisted, turning to Draco with fury. What the hell did he keep bringing up Ginny for? “It was an illusion, what we had. My dreams changed, and she couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t happy in that relationship, it just took me a while to see it. It’s not like we were just going along fine until someone else came along and struck my fancy and I thought ‘Yeah, I’ll just drop Ginny, who I’m madly in love with and perfectly happy with, to pursue something with someone I barely know.’ No. I ended it because I didn’t want to be with her. Hermione, on the other hand, was perfectly happy, and then Blaise-“

“How do you know she was perfectly happy?”

“How do I know? Because she’s my best friend, that’s how I know.”

“I see,” Draco said, standing up himself. “And this doesn’t sound a bit familiar to you? Is this not exactly how Weasley reacted when you told him about your breakup with Ginevra? Did he not insist that you two were happy, and how could you end it, when everything was perfect-“

“Stop bringing up my breakup with Ginny! It’s a different fucking situation, and you know it.”

“No, Harry, I don’t. I think it’s an eerily similar situation, and you are being a fucking hypocrite.”

Harry took a step back, feeling as though he had been punched in the gut. “A hypocrite, huh?”

Draco bowed his head. “Harry…”

“That’s great. That’s fucking rich, coming from you.”

“Harry…”

“As if you can pretend you’re not invested in the outcome, but in Blaise’s favor.”

“That’s not-“

“You don’t just think Blaise is better for Hermione than Ron, you think Blaise is better than Ron, period. Admit it.”

Draco’s jaw clenched. “I’ve always been clear about that. But that’s not relevant.”

“Like hell it isn’t. You’ve always had it out for Ron, ever since that first day on the train. You know that’s why I didn’t shake your hand, right, because you were such an arsehole to him-“

“Don’t even go there, Harry.”

“And you’re still fucking jealous of him! After seven, nearly eight, years! Why can’t you just get over it?”

“He’s been a shitty friend to you, that’s why.”

Harry felt fire flare behind his eyes. “You don’t know a fucking thing about it. Yeah, a few times, over the course of eight years or so, we’ve had our rough patches. But he has followed me into more dangerous shit… He has put his life on the line for me more times than I can count. You have no idea. He’s been there for me a lot more than he’s failed me, and when he has been a shitty friend he’s always made it right. And what were you doing for those seven years, huh?” Draco’s face went white, and Harry knew he was wading into dangerous waters, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. The rage was still burning in him. “Being a snobby, cruel, blood supremacist bastard, that’s what. And yet I forgave you, didn’t I? I gave you a second chance-“

“Oh, here we go!" Draco shouted, throwing up his hands. "I’m supposed to just fall at your feet, then, unworthy as I am, since you were so kind as to forgive me for the way I behaved when I was a child. While you were just perfect in absolutely every way.”

“Fuck off, that’s not what I meant.”

“Saint Potter, bestowing his loving mercy upon the undeserving masses.” A familiar and disturbing sneer was twisting Draco’s face. “Well let me ask you this, if you can forgive your shitty, whingey bastard of a best mate and your snobby, bigoted bastard of a boyfriend, why can’t you give your other best friend, the one you claim to love like a sister, the benefit of the doubt? Unlike me, and unlike the Weasel, she has always been there for you, she has always trusted you, always stood by you.” He came around the bed to be face to face with Harry. “And she does one thing… she even considers the possibility of being with someone other than Ron fucking Weaselby, and you turn your back on her.”

“I’m not-“

“You haven’t even bothered to talk to her. You haven’t even bothered to find out how she’s doing, or hear her side of the story.” He poked a finger into Harry’s chest. “You’re too focused on making sure your real best friend, the one you really care about, isn’t getting his heart broken.”

Harry knocked Draco’s hand away. “You are twisting things around to suit your argument, Draco. You know that’s not how it is.”

“I’m just calling it like I see it, Harry.”

They stared at each other for a moment, neither moving nor speaking. Harry could feel his heartbeat in his ears, adrenaline coursing through him that nearly masked the twisting pain in his gut.

“Well, I guess I know what you really think of me now,” he said.

“Back at you, Potter,” Draco spat.

Harry bit back a retort. They were right on the edge, and he had no idea which way they were going to fall. He took a step back. If he spoke now, this wasn’t going to end well. He had to get away. He had to figure out what he was supposed to do from here, if there was anything he could do.

“Fuck this,” he said under his breath, turning away. He reached for the doorknob, and didn’t turn back, and didn’t hear Draco calling after him as he walked out the door.

Chapter Text

Harry was only in his own bedroom a few seconds before he realized he couldn’t possibly stay there. He was too worked up, pacing the room, barely resisting the urge to grab things out of his trunk indiscriminately and hurl them at the wall.

What the fuck just happened?

For the first time in a very long time Harry felt the need to stray into the dark shroud of Hogwarts castle at night, into the nooks and hideaways he knew so well, where he would never be found.

Running from your problems, said a snarky voice in his head that sounded vaguely like Draco, though it was possible there was a thread of Hermione in there as well. But those weren’t exactly his two favorite people at the moment, so he ignored them, reaching into his trunk for his invisibility cloak.

When it was secure around him he left his room, careful not to make a sound on the stairs. He needn’t have bothered; the common room was empty, all of the participants and spectators of the Blaise-Ron-Hermione drama having gone to bed. He made for the portrait hole with haste and found himself in the quiet, dark corridor.

A thrill went through him, distantly familiar, not dissimilar to what he felt the first time he tried the cloak his first year. He could go anywhere he wanted. He was free.

Free. It had a bittersweet edge to it, now, which had not always been so. For a number of months after defeating Voldemort, Harry had reveled in the knowledge that he was no longer bound to a prophecy, to a destiny that would most likely kill him. And when he had ended things with Ginny, he had felt something similar. He could choose to do or be anything he wanted. He was not tied to the will of another.

But he also knew that floating along without a purpose was not fulfilling, and he had sought to put down roots, to tie himself down to the things he wanted to, the things that mattered to him.

Draco was at the top of that list.

He had tied himself so deeply to the Slytherin that it was physically painful to be away from him now, especially after what had happened and the things they had said to each other. But with each turn of a corner and descent down a staircase he reminded himself that he was angry, that Draco didn’t understand.

How dare he call Harry a hypocrite, just for trying to look out for his best friend? How dare he throw those old taunts back at him? The haughty derision of Draco’s tone as he called Harry “Saint Potter” lingered in his mind, recalling the old days of when Harry would rather sock Draco in the jaw than kiss him on the mouth.

The past is the past. They had promised each other.

Yeah, because you were so great about keeping that promise yourself, rang that sarcastic voice again.

Cursing himself, Harry turned again, only to find that he was faced with the painting that led into the kitchens. Really? He thought. This was where he had ended up? He decided not to question it, tickling the pear in the right spot that would open the painting and let him enter.

Being late at night, the kitchens were not bustling with elves as usual, but there were still a few about, folding and flattening croissant dough for the breakfast pastries, restocking the cupboards, and scrubbing the last few pots and pans of the day. Harry spotted Winky among them immediately, and he removed his cloak.

“Master Harry!” Winky said in a high, delighted voice. “What is you doing in the kitchens so late?”

“Not entirely sure, Winky,” Harry said with a sheepish smile. “Just looking to clear my head, I guess.”

Winky nodded knowingly, as if this somehow made sense. “Would Master Harry be wanting a cup of tea?”

“That would be great, if it’s not too much trouble,” said Harry.

It was never too much trouble for house elves, of course, and soon Harry had not only a steaming mug of tea but also a platter of pastries left over from breakfast that morning. Harry helped himself to a cheese Danish gratefully.

“What is it be bothering Master Harry, sir?” Winky asked, taking a stool next to him.

Harry looked at the elf and sighed. “I’ve had… a bit of a row with my boyfriend.”

“With Draco Malfoy, sir?”

Harry stared at Winky. “How did you know?”

She smiled. “Everyone knows, sir. We house elves be hearing everything that happens at Hogwarts. We is everywhere always, sir.”

Harry couldn’t help but laugh, though it felt a bit hollow, given the mood he was in. “Good point,” he said.

“What was the fight being about, sir?”

Harry sighed. What was the fight about, exactly? Blaise’s confession, Hermione’s indecision, Draco’s jealousy and Harry’s protectiveness of Ron? Or was it something else, some other cache of deep-seated issues between the two of them?

His stomach tightened with dread at the thought.

“At first it was about something our friends had done, a situation they were in, I guess. It was a bit of a mess and Draco and I were talking about it, and we had different opinions on the issue, and suddenly…”

Winky watched him with large, unblinking eyes while Harry tried to figure out what exactly had happened.

“Suddenly we were yelling, and it wasn’t about Ron or Hermione or Blaise anymore. It was about…”

Fear.

He hadn’t realized it before that moment, what he had been feeling. But he was terrified. He had been in the throes of terror well before his fight with Draco. What had happened between Ron and Hermione scared the living daylights out of him.

“Do elves have romantic relationships, Winky?” Harry asked.

Winky’s bulbous eyes widened in surprise. “Yes, sir, of course. We is having relationships. How is you thinking new elves is being born, sir?”

Harry grinned at the slight indignation in her voice and nodded. “Are they monogamous? I mean, do you stay with the one person forever or are you with, you know, multiple people, sometimes?”

“It is depending on the will of our masters, sir,” she replied. “Some masters, they is breeding us, and we is not having a choice of who we is being with.” She made a face of mild disgust, but that quickly faded. “But at Hogwarts we is being free to be making our own choices, sir. And sometimes it is being forever, and sometimes it is being only a short time.”

“Like witches and wizards,” said Harry.

“Winky is thinking so, Master Harry, sir.”

“I just thought…” Harry sighed, feeling a bit stupid. “I thought sometimes, maybe, when you met the right person, you just knew. Maybe if it’s right, then there is never any doubt. It feels right all the time. But that’s naïve, isn’t it?”

She didn’t answer, but Harry felt that was answer enough.

“I was so sure of them,” he said. “After all the work it took to get them there, to get them together. After all that time, and confusion, and the terrible rows they would have sometimes… I knew it was really because they loved each other and just didn’t know how to… to show each other, how to say it. And then when they finally… it was like it all fell into place, like all the pieces finally fit.”

Except that wasn’t quite right either, was it? Because Ron had struggled right after the war, with drinking and drowning his sorrows, and Hermione was pretty torn up after she brought her parents home from Australia, when restoring their memories had been trickier than she thought it would be. She had been anxious, ill-tempered, and distant with her friends, including Ron.

But they had gotten through it, and when it was time to start their eighth year at Hogwarts they were stronger than ever. And things had been going so well since then, it was easy to forget the rocky beginning. It was easy to gloss over the past.

Forget the past. Begin again. There was some merit to that, but perhaps he and Draco had glossed over the past a little too effectively. Maybe sometimes they had to remember where they had been as well, to see how far they’d come, and to acknowledge the things that made them different.

“I said some very stupid things to Draco, Winky,” Harry said. “Things I didn’t mean.”

Winky nodded. “That’s all right, Master Harry. Just tell him you wasn’t meaning them.”

Harry laughed. “It’s that simple, huh?”

“Yes,” she said, sounding a bit amazed that Harry would even question this.

“He said some things to me, too, you know. Things that really hurt.”

“Was he meaning them?”

“I don’t know. I hope not.”

“I suppose you is having to ask him, Master Harry, sir.”

“I suppose you’re right.” He did want to speak to Draco, but he still felt so confused about Ron and Hermione, and how he felt, and the things Draco had said about it, and he didn’t want to cause another row. “Hermione might leave Ron,” he told Winky.

She frowned. “That would be making you sad, sir?”

Harry raised his eyebrows in surprise, not expecting the question. “Ron would be sad, so I would be sad too.”

Winky nodded. “And Miss Hermione, too. She would be being sad.”

“But she would be the one doing the leaving.”

“The end of love is always being sad for everyone, sir.”

Harry smiled a small smile, because, of course, she was right. “She would be sad that she hurt him,” he said.

“Precisely, sir.”

“She doesn’t want to hurt him,” Harry said, and it was like a revelation. “She’s not doing this to hurt him. She just needs to know for sure…” What? If she was meant to be with Ron? If there was some potential with Blaise? If neither was right? Or both… but no, she would have to make a choice. Harry didn’t think Ron or Blaise would abide by anything else, not the way Blaise felt about Hermione, and not after all that she and Ron had already shared together.

She has to make a choice.

“Not the right choice,” he said aloud. “Just the best choice, for her.” That was what Draco had been trying to say all along. There was no right and wrong, there was simply better and worse. She was trying to determine which was the better match, and which was the worse.

But then, once she chose, what happened if someone else came along? The same thing? Another game of comparisons? What if she just jumped from bloke to bloke for the rest of her life, constantly looking for the better thing? No, that made no sense. At some point, if she really wanted to make a commitment, she would have to decide to keep choosing the same person day after day for the rest of her life. But how could she ever guarantee that she had made the best choice of who that would be? Even worse, what if it was the best, but she didn’t always feel like it was? What would happen if Hermione chose Ron and then one day, ten years from now, she woke up with a bit if indigestion and thought, I don’t feel like being with Ron today? Turn tail and run? Ignore it and choose Ron again anyway, even though it didn’t feel right? Act weird and distant until her choice became clear again? That was no way to live a life.

“Love is bloody complicated.”

“Yes, sir,” said Winky.

“There’s just so much uncertainty.”

“Yes, sir.”

He thought about how sure he had been of Ginny, until he realized their relationship wasn’t what he thought it was. And Ginny had been sure of him, too, but he had left her, broken her heart, not on purpose, but because he could not continue to make the choice to be with her.

Hermione has to do the same thing, painful as it is. He had been there. He knew.

“I’m an idiot.” Draco was right again. Hermione deserved some empathy here, someone who would at least be willing to hear her perspective. And since Harry was the person who might be able to understand better than anyone, Draco was trying to convince him to be that someone. But Harry had decided not to cooperate. He was too busy being afraid.

“Winky isn’t thinking you is an idiot, Master Harry, sir.”

He smiled at her. “Thanks, Winky. But in this case, I was being an idiot, at least.”

She thought about that. “If you is saying so, sir.”

“Ron and Hermione aren’t soul mates,” said Harry. “Because there is no such thing. Love is just two people choosing each other over and over again. It’s not destiny. It’s a choice. And whatever choice either of them make, I have to stand by them, because they are important to me.” Hadn't both of his best friends stood by him during some of the most reckless and stupid mistakes of his life? How could he not do the same for them?

“Yes, sir.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Harry sipping his tea and contemplating what he was going to do with these realizations.

“I would choose Draco,” he said suddenly.

“Sir?”

“Even if he was calling me a hypocrite or ‘Saint Potter’ or disagreeing with me about something that really mattered to me, I would choose him anyway. I do choose him anyway. Because he knows and accepts me, but he also stands up to me and expects something of me. Not something I can’t be, not expectations I can’t meet, but expectations I want to meet.”

“Winky is thinking you should be telling that to Master Draco, sir.”

Harry stared at her, a sudden, restless energy building deep within him, a need to do something about this. “And Harry Potter is thinking you’re right.”

That made Winky grin broadly. “Winky is helping Master Harry! Winky is getting him to be making things right with his Draco, sir!”

“I couldn’t have done it without you, Winky.” Harry matched her with a grin of his own. “Thank you.”

Winky looked nothing short of delighted. “You is being most welcome, sir. You is coming to Winky whenever you is needing it, sir.”

Harry thanked her again, bid a warm goodbye to all of the remaining elves, and donned his cloak once more. Then he returned to the dark corridors of the castle, renewed determination coursing through him.

He couldn’t wait until tomorrow. He had to talk to Draco tonight. He could only hope that Draco would let him.

He flew up stairs and down corridors with fretful urgency, half of his mind preoccupied with what he was going to say to Draco, given the chance, and the other praying that he would get the opportunity. He would not be sleeping tonight otherwise.

They had never had a fight before. Or, at least, not since the start of their relationship. They’d had small disagreements, tense discussions, but nothing like this. Harry had no idea how Draco behaved in these sorts of circumstances.

I guess I’m about to find out.

Finally he was at the entrance to the 8th year dormitories, and he removed his cloak and gave the password. The common room was still empty, the last embers of the fire glowing in the fireplace. He took the stairs to his room two at a time. He would put his cloak away, then go to Draco’s room and hope he was let in.

He needn’t have been concerned, not when he arrived at his bedroom door and saw who was waiting there for him.

Draco sat slumped against the door, still in his pajamas and his hair disheveled, like he had run his fingers through it repeatedly. He looked up immediately when he heard Harry approach, and Harry’s heart tightened painfully as he took in the red rims of Draco’s eyes. He looked not dissimilar to how Harry felt. Draco stared at him, dumbfounded, for a moment.

“I thought you…” He swallowed. “I thought you were in there and just weren’t willing to let me in.”

Harry shook his head. “I took a walk instead.”

“I thought…” Draco took a few shallow breaths, and Harry walked over to him, offering his hand to help him up. Draco took it, using it to hoist himself to his feet. Harry didn’t let go, intertwining his fingers with Draco’s. The small point of contact felt so good that it firmed his resolve. “I pounded on the door. I shouted for you. I made a right scene, you know.”

“I’m sorry,” said Harry. “Do you want to come inside?”

Draco nodded, and Harry pulled out the charmed key that allowed him and only him to unlock his bedroom door. He turned the knob, pushed the door open, and gestured Draco inside. Then he followed, not letting go of Draco’s hand. When the door was closed firmly behind him, and a powerful silencing charm was cast, he turned to his boyfriend.

“First off,” he said, still clasping Draco’s hand tightly in his own, “I love you.”

Draco released a shaky breath and seemed on the verge of saying something. But Harry was far from finished.

“Secondly, I was an absolute and complete idiot, and I’m sorry. You were right. I should have been more supportive of Hermione, and more concerned about how she was feeling. The fact that you were brave enough to tell me, to call me out on my hypocrisy-“

“I never should have said that,” Draco jumped in.

“But you were right,” said Harry. “I didn’t want to hear it, but you were right. Hermione will make the decision that is best for her, and that’s the way it should be. I did the same thing when I broke up with Ginny, and I don’t regret it for a moment, because it meant I got to be with you.”

Draco closed his eyes and stepped closer to Harry.

“I’m just so scared, Draco. It just… I don’t know. It really scared me. There are things you’re sure of. There are things you count on, and when they suddenly fall apart…” He closed the small gap between them, putting a hand on Draco’s hip. His head was bowed, almost resting on Draco’s shoulder, thinking about what he needed to say. “Things looked so easy and simple from the outside for them. I felt like I could see the next fifty years of their life together: their own flat, a wedding, kids, a new house. I could see them sending their children off to Hogwarts. I could see them growing old together. I know it sounds mental, but I was… I was counting on it. I believed in it completely. So when I heard Hermione might have doubts I thought… ‘Nothing is certain.’ And it terrified the hell out of me, Draco. Because what they had looked so good from the outside, and what we have is so good… I just can’t stand the thought of losing you. The very idea of it makes me want to crawl under a rock and never come out. I love you too much and I believe in what we have and I-“

Draco’s hand came up to cup Harry’s throat gently, and his thumb tilted Harry’s chin up a little. “Look at me, Harry,” he said. Harry did, finally. “That isn’t going to happen to us. I won’t let it. What we have is too strong. Nothing and no one will ever come between us.”

Oh, how Harry wanted so desperately to believe that. But he couldn’t, not with his recent revelations. “I want that to be true, Draco,” he said. “But that’s not how it works. That’s not how life works. Life takes things from us. Life shatters us all the time.”

“I have to believe it,” said Draco fiercely. “If I don’t, then I can’t be brave enough to love you as completely and inexorably as I do. I have to believe that we are stronger than anything, and that no one that enters our lives can ever replace me in your heart. Because otherwise I will run for my life and never let myself feel anything ever again.”

Harry absorbed that silently, never looking away from Draco.

“Maybe life destroys us,” Draco said. “Maybe it shatters us. And when it happens, we’ll deal with it. But I can’t live my life in constant fear of it happening. I won’t. I know what it’s like to live in fear and I won’t do it again.”

Harry nodded, because he knew exactly what Draco was talking about. He knew that feeling all too well, and he didn’t want to live that way either. “Of course, you’re right.”

“As usual,” Draco said with the ghost of a smile.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Harry, fighting a smile himself. He looked into Draco’s eyes again, his expression sobering. “It’s still hard for me to be as cavalier about this situation as you are, Draco. I know Hermione deserves to be with who she wants to be with, but it’s causing Ron pain, and I can’t just brush that aside. And I can’t pretend that Hermione kissing someone else just because they expressed feelings for her isn’t disturbing to me. If you did that, it would really hurt me.”

“I would never do that,” Draco said quickly.

“The way you were talking, it sounded like you didn’t think it was a big deal.”

Draco grimaced. “You’re right. I was minimizing Weasley’s pain because… well, honestly, I have no real desire to walk in his shoes, or feel empathy for him. Part of me hoped he would just accept it and make things easier for Granger and Blaise, which, now that I say it aloud, is quite stupid.”

Harry let his silence confirm that for him.

“But you’re right. It would hurt if you did that to me. And Merlin knows you’ve had plenty of chances, with all those insane admirers you have.”

“None of them have any appeal for me, Draco. You know that.”

“Yes, I know. Honestly, I never for a moment believed that you would do that to me, because I know I never would either, and you’ve never given me any reason to doubt your feelings.”

“But Ron felt much the same thing. He didn’t think he had any reason to doubt Hermione, either. That’s my point. He was completely blindsided.”

Draco sighed. “Yes, all right. It’s a point well-made.” He ran a hand through Harry’s hair, almost absentmindedly, and Harry found himself leaning into the touch. “They’re not us, though. It won’t happen to us.”

“No one thinks it will happen to them until it does.”

“And we’re back to that again. Do you think I’m going to leave you? Do you really think I’ve got one eye focused on you and the other looking around for someone else?”

“No,” replied Harry, but there was the slightest trace of doubt in his voice, and Draco seemed to pick up on it, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “No,” Harry said more firmly. “Of course not. All I mean is… nothing is certain.”

They stared at each other for a moment or two. “If you have to wait for absolute certainty to be able to commit to a relationship with me, then we will never be able to have a relationship at all,” Draco said finally. His grip tightened in Harry’s hair. “I can’t promise you guarantees, and you can’t promise me them either. But I can promise you that I am in this, fully in this. With all of myself. Are you?”

“Yes,” Harry said, without hesitation.

“Then it’s simple,” the blond replied, and he pressed his lips to Harry’s.

The kiss was soft but contained a certitude that Harry found both comforting and exhilarating. He returned the kiss with fervor, matching the need he could feel from Draco with his own. His grip tightened around Draco, pulling them close enough together that no space remained between them.

The fear, doubt, and hurt from their fight had ignited, transmuting into passion and an overwhelming urgency to get as close as possible. Draco’s hands fisted in the back of Harry’s Quidditch robes as his tongue delved into Harry’s mouth, and Harry responded by gripping Draco’s hair tight, pulling it until he heard Draco moan. He started clawing at Harry’s robes, trying to remove them.

“I need you, Harry,” he said.

Harry pulled away for a moment to look at him. “I need you too, but… there’s so much more I have to say, to apologize for.”

“I know, me too, and we’ll get there. I just…” He kissed Harry again, and Harry could feel everything in that kiss, absolutely everything. “I need this first. I need to feel you.”

Harry didn’t see a point in resisting anymore. This wasn’t about burying their problems under the numbing drug of sex, this was about finding a way to reconnect after they had felt so disconnected. He raised his arms to make the removal of his robes easier and Draco yanked them off swiftly.

“I hope I’m not too dirty from practice for you,” he said, realizing that with all the drama he had forgotten to shower as usual.

“Just dirty enough,” said Draco with a smirk, and Harry would have rolled his eyes at the ridiculous joke if he wasn’t already so aroused. He removed Draco’s shirt and then gave him a little shove onto the bed. Draco complied without complaint, watching as Harry freed himself from the rest of his Quidditch uniform until he was completely naked.

“Lie down,” he said in the voice he knew Draco liked so much. Draco scrambled to follow the orders, already panting with want, his dilated pupils fixated on Harry’s erection. He crawled towards Draco with deliberate slowness, eyes trailing down his bare torso until they rested on the prominent bulge in his pajama bottoms.

Harry loved this part, especially now that he and Draco had been fucking for a while. While Draco did occasionally like to give orders in the bedroom, he was more and more showing his submissive streak, and very much enjoyed taking orders as well, especially when Harry gave them. And Harry found he liked being in control, especially given the way Draco responded to him.

Hands ghosted over Draco’s chest, and he panted and squirmed, longing to be touched for real.

“Stay still,” Harry commanded, and Draco huffed, simultaneously exasperated and aroused.

“Touch me,” he said.

Harry pinched one of Draco’s nipples and pulled, and Draco cried out, arching into it. Harry placed a hand in the center of his chest, holding him in place. “Be still or I’ll stop.” Draco whimpered but nodded, and Harry bent his head to take the nipple into his mouth, licking, then sucking, then biting gently, pausing if Draco moved too much. Each pause was met with a whimper of increasing desperation, and Harry couldn’t help a grin. He could do this all night, but he also had his own needs, and he knew that while Draco liked submitting, he wouldn’t stand teasing for too long.

He grabbed and removed Draco’s bottoms and underwear in one swift motion, exposing him completely. Then he looked down at the sight before him, deciding what he wanted to do next. Draco was flushed and beautiful, so much so that it almost hurt to look at him. With a growing ache in his chest Harry realized how close he had come to ruining everything, and he had to do something to ease the ache. He couldn’t bear it otherwise.

He reached for the lube he kept in the bedside table drawer. “Spread your legs,” he told Draco, though his command was softer this time. Draco complied without hesitation. Harry lubed up two of his fingers and worked his way into Draco’s entrance. It opened for him beautifully now, since they’d had over a month of stretching him in new ways. Harry took a moment to appreciate the feel of him, knowing he was the only one who had ever been inside him. He had never put much stock in virginity, or saving oneself; it all seemed quite arbitrary to him, from a moral standpoint. But he had to admit there was something quite moving about the fact that he was only one Draco trusted enough to do this with. He wished he could give Draco something similar.

Maybe, he realized, as he took Draco into his mouth and felt the blond do everything in his power not to writhe underneath him, he could, if he could ever convince Draco to top for him. Now there was an intriguing idea.

He worked Draco with his mouth at a torturously slow pace. He didn’t want Draco coming yet; he wanted this to really last. He inserted a third finger, trying as best he could to avoid the prostate, as he wanted to save teasing that for later. Draco huffed and panted, and said, finally, “Please, Harry. I’m ready.”

Harry released Draco from his mouth and nodded. Yes, Draco felt ready. He lubed up his own cock, then positioned himself at Draco’s entrance, sliding slowly in, taking his time.

Harry wanted to show Draco how much he meant to him, and since he wasn’t always the best with words, this was one of the ways he knew how to most effectively. A lot of times this was demonstrated by going with exactly what he knew Draco wanted, which was usually things a bit on the rough side. He wanted tonight to be different, though. Draco had said he wanted to “feel” him, and Harry wanted to make sure he did. Every. Single. Inch.

So when he knew Draco had adjusted fully to him, he pulled out steadily, then pushed back in with exquisite slowness. Draco trembled and gasped, so he did it again, and then again, and again.

“Harder, Harry,” Draco breathed. “Faster.”

But Harry shook his head at him, and Draco stared back in bewilderment.

“You said you needed to feel me.”

“Yes,” Draco said. “But feel you harder, and faster.

Harry chuckled. “Just feel it, Draco.”

Draco growled at him, but Harry didn’t care. He was too busy searching deliberately for Draco’s prostate. After a few well-placed strokes he found it, feeling Draco spasm underneath him. Now that he knew the angle, he found it again easily and brushed over it slowly and carefully.

Draco cried out and reached for his own cock, but Harry was having none of that. He pinned Draco’s hands above his head.

“No, no,” he said. “Not yet.”

“You’re going to kill me!” Draco cried. “I need… it’s too much, Harry. I need to come.”

“Not yet,” Harry said again.

“Please!”

“I’ve got you, Draco. Just feel it.”

Harry hadn’t realized how much he would like it this way. The slow pace kept him from building up and coming too soon, and the effect it was having on Draco was incredible to watch. With only a few more leisurely strokes across his prostate he was a quivering, sobbing, desperate mess, his cock so hard it had turned an angry shade of purple.

But he couldn’t torment Draco forever, and he didn’t want to make him too sore, so he started to up the pace, just a little, smiling as Draco heaved a breath that sounded almost relieved, before realizing that Harry was still going slower than usual.

“Harry,” he said. “Harry, please.”

Feeling his own pleasure building and deciding it was time, Harry kept Draco’s hands pinned with one hand while he sought out Draco’s cock with the other. One light brush over it told him it wouldn’t take much, and he grasped it ever so gently, stroking it once, then twice, all the while aiming for Draco’s sweet spot again.

One more stroke and Draco was coming, and kept coming, letting out a surprised cry followed by an erotic moaning of Harry’s name. Harry rode it out, thrusting just fast enough to bring him over the edge. He was shocked by the power of his own orgasm as it overtook him.

“Fuck, Draco,” he moaned, collapsing once the aftershocks had waned.

He realized, after a moment, that Draco was kissing him wherever his lips could reach. He lifted his head so that Draco could catch his lips.

“I love you, Draco,” he said, his mouth against the blond’s. “I love you so fucking much.”

“I love you too, Harry,” Draco replied softly. “I can’t ever lose you. Not even for a minute.”

Draco was shaking underneath him, and Harry lifted himself up to lie next to him, embracing him fully, Draco’s back to his front. “You never will, Draco. I promise.”

There was more to say, so much more, but they both seemed to understand that this wasn’t the right moment. So instead Harry picked up his wand, cast a cleansing charm over them, extinguished the lamps, and returned it to his bedside table. Then he held onto Draco for all he was worth until he felt sleep overtake him at last.

***

As Harry came back into consciousness, the fuzzy residuals of his dream slipping away and awareness of the morning light growing, he noted that something felt a little off. Or perhaps not off exactly, but different. He flexed his muscles slightly, and realized he was chillier than usual. Not unbearably so, but notably. He was used to the almost stifling heat of Draco surrounding him when he woke up.

He opened his eyes. Draco was there, only a foot away, looking at him with a soft expression. Harry smiled.

“Morning.”

“Good morning.”

“Were you creepily watching me sleep?”

“Not creepily,” said Draco, his quiet voice holding just a hint of indignation. “Just… normally.”

Harry chuckled. “I was only kidding.”

“I don’t get to do it very much, you know. You always wake up before me.”

“Mm,” Harry said. “That’s true.”

They stared at each other. It was clear that Draco had something he wanted to say, and Harry tried very hard to be patient and wait for him to say it, though the bareness of Draco’s chest and the way their legs were still tangled together under the covers were both a bit of a distraction.

“You really scared me last night, Harry,” Draco said.

Harry released a heavy breath. “I know.”

“I get that you were scared too, but… you just took off, you just left me. I thought-”

“I wasn’t running away from you. I wasn’t leaving you. I just had to clear my head.”

“But I didn’t know where you were. I had no way to…” Draco visibly shivered, and Harry reached out automatically to run a hand up Draco’s shoulder and down his back, trying to warm him and comfort him at the same time. “You can’t do that to me, Harry. I don’t do well with leaving things unresolved like that, not knowing when they will be worked out.”

Harry continued to run his palm up and down Draco’s back, thinking of how he wanted to answer.

“I was afraid I would say something stupid, even more stupid than what I had already said. I was afraid I would say something really damaging, even though I wouldn’t have meant it. I didn’t want to say something I couldn’t take back.”

“All right,” Draco said. “I understand that. But I don’t understand why you had to leave. You couldn’t have just kept silent for a few minutes, and calmed down, so we could talk about things without shouting?”

Harry shook his head. This was a prime example of a way that the two of them were fundamentally different. “I have a temper, Draco. I’m all too aware of it, and it’s better than it was, but when I get upset, when something hurts me or scares me… my first instinct is to fight, fight for my life. I don’t know if it’s left over from the war, or from my childhood, or what, but I know what I feel, and it’s pretty explosive. I’ve learned that in those situations I have to walk away, just temporarily, to be able to calm down. When I’m alone, I can think, and I can calm down enough to be reasonable. But I can’t do it in the moment. I have to have time and space.”

Draco heaved a sigh. “So every time we have a fight, that’s what you’ll do, you’ll run?”

“Only if the fight is as bad as the one we had last night. And, honestly, I hope we don’t have too many of those. I hated it.”

“So did I.”

“But yeah, in the rare moments that we have a bad fight, I’ll probably need to step away for a bit. I wish I could promise you different, but I don’t think it would be good for either of us. I told you, I don’t express myself as well as you do. When I’m angry or upset it’s even worse. I won’t be able to have a reasonable conversation until I’ve calmed down. I’m sorry.”

Draco was silent for a moment or two, taking that in. “All right,” he said. “As long as it’s only temporary.”

“It always will be,” Harry said. “I will never run away and not come back.”

Draco nodded, then took a deep breath. “There’s something else.”

“All right.” Harry braced himself.

“We broke our promise, about not using our past against each other.”

Harry sighed heavily again. “Yeah.”

“We both did it…”

“But I did it first,” Harry said, feeling a wave of shame come over him. “And worse. I never should have said that stuff. I didn’t mean it, you know. You have to know that.”

Draco chewed on his lip. “I believe you,” he said. “But… you weren’t wrong. That’s the problem. I know I was awful to you most of the time. And as much as I would like to change that, I can’t. So when you bring it up, use it as a weapon against me… if you were saying things that weren’t true, it wouldn’t hurt nearly as much. But the fact that it is, it just makes it that much worse.”

“I get it,” said Harry. “I won’t do it again.”

“It might happen again,” Draco said. “Like you said, when you get upset, you fight back. And so do I. So we might do it again, without meaning to. I just think we have to agree that when we do, we’re allowed to call the other on it right away. I don’t think we should ever let those things fester.”

Harry nodded. Draco made a good point. “I can agree to that,” he said.

“Good.”

“Was there anything else?”

Draco shook his head. “That’s all I wanted to say.”

They stared at each other in silence for a minute more as Harry mustered the wherewithal to say the thing he knew he had to say.

“We have to talk about Ron.”

He felt and saw Draco’s whole body tighten next to him for a moment. But after a beat he said, “I know.”

“You don’t have to like him,” Harry said. “But you have to accept that I do. That I love him, like a brother. He’s part of my family, Draco, just like Hermione is. I have to be there for him.”

“I know,” Draco replied, but he looked quite unhappy.

“Can you help me understand why that’s so hard for you? You seem to have taken to Hermione no problem. You were even advocating for her last night. And I’m glad you were. But why is Ron different?”

Draco rolled over so he was lying on his back and staring at the ceiling. “I know it’s not rational,” he said. “But when I see you so… devoted to him, when I see you together, talking and laughing, when you two remember the old times… it makes me insane. I don’t know why it’s different with Granger. It just is.”

“Is it because he’s a man? Are you afraid I’m actually attracted to him, or something?”

Draco snorted, as if that possibility was ludicrous. “No,” he said. “Besides, you’re bisexual. If I have to be worried about that with Weasley, I have to be worried about that with Granger, too.”

“All right…”

“You aren’t attracted to him, are you?”

Harry made a face. “Not at all. The same goes for Hermione.”

Draco nodded. “Good.”

“So what is it, then?”

“I don’t know,” Draco said. “I don’t know if it’s like what you claimed last night, that it all comes down to that day on the train, and that you chose him over me. Or if it’s something harder to pinpoint than that. I just… I resent the hell out of him, Harry. I don’t know why.”

Harry sighed, feeling a bit frustrated. “Well, I don’t know what to do. Especially now. If Hermione is going to break up with Ron, then he will need me to help him get through it. They both will, and I won’t turn my back on either of them.”

Draco closed his eyes. “I know.”

“But what they are to me and what you are to me are totally different. I won’t put them before you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Draco turned to him, vulnerability flashing through his eyes for an instant.

Finally, Harry thought, we’re getting somewhere.

“You come first for me,” he said. “This relationship is the most important thing to me. But just like I would never keep you from relationships with your family or your closest friends, I would expect that you do the same for me.”

Draco absorbed that silently. “You’re right. I will try to be better.”

“Thank you.” Harry slid closer to him, lightly pressing their bodies together. He kissed Draco on the forehead, then on an eyelid, then on his cheek. Draco tilted his head, reaching for Harry’s lips, and they connected. Harry heard a soft moan that could have come from either of them, or both of them, and felt the first stirrings of an erection.

Draco rolled on top of Harry, situating himself between Harry’s legs, and Harry groaned at the contact. His hands roamed freely down Draco’s back and down to his arse.

“Are you sore from last night?” he asked against Draco’s lips.

Draco scoffed, pulling away a little to look down at Harry. “Hardly. Not after that delicate handling you gave me.”

Harry grinned. “You liked it.”

Draco momentarily looked like he was considering arguing the point, just to spite Harry, but then thought better of it. “Still, I know what I want now.”

“Mm, and what’s that?”

“For you to pound me into the mattress.”

Harry groaned, unable to help himself, and Draco smirked above him. “Yeah, you like it hard, too, don’t you?”

It felt like Draco was issuing him a challenge somehow, and Harry reacted, moving so swiftly that Draco squawked in surprise. Harry rolled them so he was on top, then flipped Draco onto his stomach. He pressed his hard body to Draco’s, pinning him down, while he ground his erection against Draco’s arse.

“I’ll show you hard,” he said, his voice dark, almost threatening. Draco whimpered and wriggled beneath him, stealing Harry’s breath. Knowing neither of them could wait much longer, he reached towards his bedside table drawer for the lube.

There was a soft knock on the door.

Harry paused, and heard Draco groan underneath him.

“Ignore them, Harry. I need to be fucked.”

But Harry had a feeling he knew who it was, and he remained still, listening. The knock came again, this time followed by a voice so quiet he almost didn’t catch it.

“Harry?” The voice was meek but unmistakeable. 

Harry sighed. “It’s Hermione,” he said to Draco in a whisper, lifting himself off the blond. Draco turned over onto his back, and Harry looked down at him with an apology in his eyes.

Draco sighed and nodded. “Go,” he said. “Answer it.”

“Just a second!” Harry called to the door, climbing off of Draco and scrambling around for underwear and a t-shirt. He pulled both on swiftly, then made his way to the door, opening it just enough to poke his head out. He could hear Draco behind him, looking for his own pajamas.

Hermione looked like she’d just rolled out of bed, wearing only pajama bottoms and a tank top, her thick hair tossed into a messy topknot. She also looked like she hadn’t slept a wink, or had been crying all night, or perhaps both. Harry’s heart constricted in empathy for a moment.

“Hey, ‘Mione. How are you holding up?” he asked her.

She managed a wry smile. “Not well.” Her bottom lip quivered, and she clamped down on it with her teeth to control it. “I’m sorry it’s so early, but… can I… can I come in?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, “Yeah, just, um…” He looked behind him, to see Draco pulling his pajama bottoms on. He looked at Harry and nodded. “Sure, can you just give us a minute?”

“Draco’s here,” Hermione said in realization. “Of course, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“I can come back later.”

“No,” Harry said. “Really. I wanted to talk to you anyway. I just need to finish getting dressed.”

“O… ok,” she said. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” Harry said firmly. He closed the door and looked around for a pair of his own pajama bottoms.

As he pulled them on he heard Draco say, “I’ll clear out for a bit. She probably doesn’t want to talk to me.”

Harry looked at him, wanting to argue, but he realized Draco was probably right. “I’ll find you after, and we can finish what we started.”

Draco smiled and made for the door, opening it to reveal Hermione again.

“You don’t have to go,” Hermione said immediately, and Harry wondered if she had heard them, though they had tried to talk quietly. “Really, Draco, you don’t. I actually… well, since you’re here… I thought you might be able to help me understand Blaise a little better, since you’re his best friend and all.”

Draco turned back to look at Harry, his expression hard to read. Harry shrugged at him.

“All right…” Draco said finally, stepping aside to let her in.

She walked into the room, her arms wrapped around herself as if she were trying to hold in her insides. She looked at Harry for a moment, her expression pleading. He opened his arms, and her face crumpled immediately.

“Oh, Harry,” she sobbed, closing the distance swiftly and burying her head in his chest. Harry wrapped his arms around her. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, her voice muffled a little in Harry’s shirt. “I’m so confused.”

They remained that way for a while, Harry rubbing a hand up and down her back soothingly and Hermione sniffling away quietly. Draco went to go sit on the bed, his back against the headboard, watching the two of them with serene patience.

Hermione finally pulled away and wiped her eyes. “I’ve ruined your shirt,” she said to Harry, a bit pathetically.

“It’s just a worn out t-shirt,” said Harry, looking down at the splotchy mess where Hermione’s face had been moments before. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Like most of his wardrobe,” said Draco from the bed. “Feel free to ruin as many shirts as you want, Granger. Then maybe he’ll actually go buy new ones.”

Hermione huffed a soft laugh. Harry made a face at Draco but didn’t retort, instead turning back to Hermione.

“What can I do, ‘Mione? How can I help?”

She shook her head. “I just… I suppose I just need to talk.”

Harry nodded and gestured her over to the bed. He took a place next to Draco and she sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed, facing them.

“I assume you heard what happened?” she said to Harry, once they were settled.

“Yes, I did. Well, I heard Ron’s version, anyway.” He saw Hermione flinch at the name. “And I heard part of Blaise’s. But I haven’t heard yours, obviously.”

She played with her fingernails for a moment, then took a deep breath. “I kissed Blaise. I just… up and kissed him.”

“That’s what I heard,” Harry said neutrally.

“I know it was… wrong." She put her head in her hands. "Merlin. I know it was stupid. I never thought I would be the kind of person who-" She cut herself off, shaking her head. "I know it's not an excuse, but… in the moment… Blaise was saying all these nice things, about how he’d never felt this way about anyone and he thought we were perfect for each other and it was all so sweet and unexpected and I… I just had this thought about how even though I loved Ron, if I didn’t at least see…” She ran a hand over her face. “It’s going to sound awful, it is awful, but what I was thinking was that new information is always valuable, and if one has to make a decision, they need all the information they can get their hands on.”

Or rather, lips on, Harry thought wryly, but was smart enough not to say aloud.

“I just thought that kissing him would be like… gathering data.” She cringed. “Gods, that’s really awful, isn't it? I wasn’t that cold or indifferent at the time. It’s just that… I had to know. I was having these feelings, while he was talking, and I had to know if they were real. It was possible I was just flattered or surprised or… I thought if I kissed him, at least I would know one way or the other.”

“And did it help you know one way or the other?” Harry asked, though he thought he already knew the answer.

“No!” Hermione cried. “It only made me more confused. Because I… I liked it. But I also thought of Ron immediately after. If it had been a really great kiss, I wouldn’t have thought of Ron, would I? When I kiss Ron sometimes I… I’m so lost in it I forget my own name.”

“What kind of kiss was it?” Draco asked. “Was there tongue?”

Harry gave Draco a warning look.

“It’s a legitimate question!” Draco said, looking from Harry to Hermione. “There are a number of different kinds of kisses, and they all make a person feel different. You have your quick peck on the lips, then you have your more lingering, but still tongue-free, kiss, and then you have your full-on snog. So, which was it?”

Hermione blushed a little, but considered the question. “I suppose it was somewhere between lingering kiss and full-on snog. There was a bit of tongue, but not a lot. Not an overwhelming amount.”

“Interesting,” Draco said. “Very interesting. So you weren’t overcome by devastating passion, yet neither were you unaffected.”

“Exactly,” said Hermione.

Harry rolled his eyes. Only the two of them, and perhaps Blaise as well, would analyze a bloody kiss in such a way.

“Do you like Blaise?” Harry asked.

“Yes,” Hermione answered immediately. “I like him very much.”

“Are you in love with him?”

“No,” she answered, just as immediately. “But I like him as more than a friend. I think… I think I could love him, maybe.”

“And are you still in love with Ron?”

“Yes,” Hermione said. “Yes, of course. But I’ve been in love with Ron for years. That’s not going to go away in a day, or a week, or even a month.”

“So let’s just play out a scenario, shall we?” Draco said, appearing to actually be enjoying himself a bit. “If you did end things with Weasley, would you start something with Blaise right away, or would you wait?”

Hermione looked at him. “That’s a very good question.” She thought about it for a bit. “That’s a very, very good question. Because how could I be fully invested in Blaise if I’m still trying to move on from Ron?”

“And yet is that a reason to stay with Weasley, simply because you’re already in love with him? Do you think you would fall out of love with him eventually, and be able to fall in love with Blaise?”

“I think given enough time… but… I don’t think it could happen right away.”

“Blaise would wait for you,” Draco said, and Harry looked over at him. Was it his imagination, or was Draco trying to talk Hermione into choosing Blaise?

“And that would be very sweet of him,” said Hermione. “But I wouldn’t hold it against him if he couldn’t.” She looked at Harry. “You said, right after the breakup, that you still loved Ginny, even though you knew you didn’t want to be with her. How long did it take for you to fall out of love with her?”

Harry felt a bit uncomfortable talking about this in front of Draco, but he contemplated the question in earnest.

“I don’t remember the exact moment. I don’t think it took long, though. I cared about her, I wanted her to be happy, long after the breakup but… I think it took only a couple of weeks for me to stop loving her.”

Hermione nodded.

“It was a different situation, though,” Harry said quickly. “Because there wasn’t anyone else in the picture. I was focused solely on Ginny and whether or not we were right for each other.”

Hermione tapped her lip and looked at him. “Another very good point,” she said. “Your breakup was only about you and her. Mine would be about us and someone else, and that makes it all the more confusing.”

“Perhaps you should think about it only in terms of you and Ron,” Harry suggested. “And leave Blaise out of it.”

“But I can’t,” Hermione argued. “Because like it or not, he’s a factor. He’s the… the catalyst. I wouldn’t even be questioning my relationship with Ron if it weren’t for him.”

“No?” Draco jumped in. “Are you sure?”

Hermione stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that the very fact that you are willing to consider a breakup as soon as someone else expresses an interest speaks to some underlying issues in the relationship that might already have been present. If you were truly happy with Weasley, would you really be considering someone else?”

“That’s one way to interpret it,” said Harry. “But I think that’s simplifying it a bit. After all, it isn’t just anyone who has you questioning the relationship. It’s someone you think you might actually want to be with. Not like if… I don’t know, someone like… Zacharias Smith, or some prat like that told you he was mad for you and wanted you to break up with Ron. You’d just turn him away and not think twice. It’s the fact that you like Blaise that has you confused, not the fact that you don’t want to be with Ron.”

“Well, anyone in their right mind would turn away Zacharias bloody Smith, Harry,” Draco countered.

"Maybe so," Harry replied, "which is beside the point, since what I was saying was-"

“Stop it, you two,” Hermione interjected. “You’re getting sidetracked. Although you both make good points.”

“Do you like being with Ron?” Harry asked, turning back to her.

“Yes.”

“Do you like it more or less than being with Blaise?”

“I don’t…” Hermione huffed in exasperation. “It’s like comparing Hippogriffs and Horntails, Harry. They’re so different.”

“All right, well…”

“Ron and I are completely different in so many ways. It presents challenges and it has benefits. But Blaise and I… we’re quite similar. We have a lot of common interests and think in much the same way, but that also has me a bit nervous. I need someone who… who pushes me, not makes me more like I already am.”

“The idea that opposites attract has its merits,” said Draco. He gestured between himself and Harry. “Case and point, right in front of you. But Harry and I would be nowhere if we didn’t have some common ground. Without things to unite us, we would fall apart. And, frankly, from where I’m sitting, I just don’t see where your common ground is with Weasley. You’re academically gifted; he’s mediocre at best. Your interest lies in books and politics, while he likes… what? Quidditch and… more Quidditch?” Hermione and Harry were both giving Draco dangerous looks, but he pressed on, seemingly unfazed. “He’s hot-headed, you’re cool-headed. He sees things simplistically, you understand nuance…”

“You can stop there, Draco,” Harry said. “We get the picture.” He was trying very hard to keep his temper under control, not wanting another row within twelve hours of the first, but they had just talked about Draco being more tolerant of Ron, and here he was outright insulting him.

Hermione, it turned out, felt no such need to hold back.

“Honestly, Draco, why must you be so awful about Ron? What has he done to you that neither Harry or I have done in the past?”

“It’s not my intention to be awful,” Draco said haughtily. “It’s my intention to get at some sort of truth about your compatibility. Is the list I just gave you wrong? Because if it is, by all means, enlighten me.”

“It is wrong,” Hermione said, sitting up straighter on the bed. “He’s not some sports-obsessed moron, which you should know well by now considering he usually beats you at chess when you play! Ron is intelligent, and when something really interests him and he puts his mind to it, he’s quite successful. But he likes practical learning, not unlike your boyfriend, I might add.”

“I know Harry likes practical learning. And we he learns in that environment he isn’t simply ‘successful,’ he’s exceptional, whereas the Weasel-“

“Ron is exceptional!” Hermione cried. “He’s just not exceptional in the same way. He’s the best strategist I know, both on and off the Quidditch pitch. He understands how things fit together; he knows how to get something with many moving parts working to the best of its ability, and he can think many moves ahead, predict what’s going to happen. Why do you think Harry gave him captain? Just for a laugh? Since he’s taken over the team has made huge strides – no offense, Harry-“

“None taken,” Harry said quickly. She was right, for one thing, but mostly he was just enjoying this rant in defense of Ron. It justified many of his own feelings.

“He’s going to be a brilliant Auror,” she went on, still on a roll, “for that very reason, and for the fact that he has a huge heart and cares deeply about other people. He protects the people he loves but he also forgives them when they make mistakes, because he knows he’s not perfect and he can readily admit that he has made mistakes. He’s not one of those people who has to be right about everything all the time, and he listens when other people have ideas and gives them the benefit of the doubt, even when he has ideas of his own that he could be sharing. He doesn’t assume he always knows the right way to do something, and frankly that’s something I need a lot of the time, because that’s one of my worst faults. And he doesn’t stick his nose in where it doesn’t belong. You call him unobservant but what you don’t know is he does usually notice things, he just doesn’t assume it’s any of his business, because he thinks people should live their own lives and will share something when they’re ready. Whereas I, and Harry can attest to this, stick my nose into other people’s business all the time and it drives people crazy. I used to be even worse than I am now, a nosy know-it-all who always believed she was right about everything and had to make sure everyone knew it. So, in truth, Ron has helped me be a better person, a better version of myself. That’s what we do for each other, Draco, we balance each other out and we make each other better, so you can just take your ‘common ground’ and shove it-” She stopped mid-sentence, her finger pointed at Draco, frozen in midair. She dropped her hand suddenly. “You sneaky Slytherin bastard.”

Draco raised his eyebrows in feigned innocence, but neither Harry nor Hermione were fooled.

“You sneaky bastard.” A ghost of a smile crossed Hermione’s lips for a moment. “I know what you’re doing.”

“What?” Draco asked, the innocent look still plastered on his face. “What am I doing?”

“You’re making me… you’re getting me worked up to argue in favor of Ron.”

“Now why on earth would I do that, Granger?” Draco asked. “Everyone knows I can’t stand him.”

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. “Because even though you don’t like Ron, you can somehow tell that I…” She trailed off, bringing her thumb to her mouth and biting the nail, suddenly deep in thought.

Harry recognized that look immediately. He knew better than to interrupt her.

Draco did, too, apparently, because he sat there calmly for a few moments, before turning to Harry, taking his hand casually and playing with his fingers.

“What do you think they’ll be serving for breakfast this morning, Harry? Personally, I hope it’s a full fry-up. I’m famished.”`

Harry stared at him, nothing short of confounded. What was Draco playing at? Or was he not playing at anything?

“No? No fry-up for you? That’s unusual. You’ll just go with scones and tea, then?” Draco grinned at Harry’s blank stare. “Not hungry yet? Still need to work up an appetite?”

“What are you on about?” Harry asked him finally.

“Breakfast,” Draco said, as if it was obvious.

Hermione looked up at them suddenly. “I have to… I have some thinking to do.”

“Go on then, Granger,” Draco said cheerfully. “It’s what you do best.”

“I…” She looked between the two of them. “Thank you.” She still seemed a bit distracted, though, as she stood to leave.

“Happy to help,” Draco said smugly.

Hermione looked around at him. “You didn’t have to manipulate me with reverse psychology, you know. Couldn’t you just... ask me to explain why Ron and I are good together, like a normal person?”

“If by ‘normal person’ you mean Gryffindor, then no,” said Draco.

Hermione shook her head in disbelief, but she seemed to let it go. “I have to talk to Ron, and Blaise, too. I have to…” She sighed. “Thank you. I have to go.”

She walked out without much more fuss, leaving Harry and Draco sitting on the bed in silence.

“What the bloody hell just happened?” Harry asked finally.

“Granger reminded herself why she chose to be with Weasley in the first place.” He still looked smug as he rested against the headboard.

“How did you… how did you know that insulting Ron was going to make her remember all that?”

“I didn’t,” said Draco simply. “I assumed she would defend him. She does love him, after all. But as far as acknowledging their compatibility, it could have gone either way. If deep down, she loved Weasley but believed they were incompatible, she would have discovered that truth in her argument. But deep down, she believes that she and Weasley are good for each other, and she’d just forgotten it, wrapped up in the things Blaise said as she was.”

Harry looked at him in awe. “What a clever little Slytherin you are,” he said finally.

Draco preened for a moment, then offered Harry a soft and somewhat sheepish smile. “I can’t take all the credit. Pansy did something quite similar to me back in November.”

“Regarding what?”

“Regarding you, actually.”

“Me?”

Draco nodded. “You know how I was at the time. I had convinced myself that, even though I was hopelessly in love with you, we would never work as a couple… because of our history, mostly. Pansy thought that was bollocks, though, and she told me so. She tried the direct approach with me for a while, but it wasn’t working.”

Pansy thought we should be together?”

He nodded again. “She thought you’d be good for me. But she couldn’t convince me of that fact, not until she found a way for me to convince myself. She told me one day when we were alone that she realized she could see my point, and that you and I would be an absolute disaster together, and she didn’t understand how we could even be friends, and maybe I should just cut ties with you altogether. And I got quite irate, and I told her off, and while I was telling her off I started coming up with all of these arguments for why we were so good together and… voila, I had a revelation.”

Harry shook his head in disbelief. “Are you telling me that Pansy Parkinson is responsible for us ending up together?”

Draco scoffed. “Well, I like to think I had a little something to do with it.” He leaned towards Harry. “So did you, for that matter.”

Harry covered the remaining distance and captured Draco’s lips in a soft kiss.

“So, you did the same thing for Hermione,” he said, pulling away just a little. “That’s quite good of you.”

Draco shrugged. “I did it for you, and for Blaise.”

“For Blaise?”

“If she doesn’t really want to be with Blaise, if she loves Weasley and is going to continue to love him, I’d prefer she know that sooner rather than later, for Blaise’s sake.”

Harry nodded. “That makes sense. Will he be upset about this?”

“Of course,” said Draco. “He plays it cool and collected but he… rejection would take its toll on anyone.”

“Sure,” said Harry.

“Of course, nothing is set in stone yet. We gave Granger some things to think about, but she won’t make a decision like this swiftly. She’ll think and talk and think some more.”

Harry grinned. “Unlike me, who makes snap decisions all the time. I realized in about three seconds that I had to break up with Ginny. I can pinpoint the exact moment.”

“Can’t say I’m unhappy about that particular snap decision.”

“I told you, my gut is usually right.”

“You’re fortunate in that regard. Granger and I… we overthink everything.”

Harry frowned. “Ron’s an overthinker, too, actually. It doesn’t always seem like it because he reacts very emotionally to things, but he also overthinks stuff like this.”

“Do you think he’ll do that in this situation?”

Harry sighed. “I don’t know. I hope not. But he… he was awfully confused last night. He didn’t understand how Hermione could do what she did, and he wondered what it meant for their relationship, in the long run.”

“I can’t say I entirely blame him,” Draco admitted. “But I hope… well I hope that if Granger tries to make amends, he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

“Me too,” said Harry.

“Because he so easily could, knowing him,” Draco added, as if unwilling to be too kind towards Ron.

Harry rolled his eyes. “Are you doing that on purpose to wind me up, or can you just not help yourself?”

“A bit of both,” said Draco. “The real question is, are you going to punish me for it?” There was a hopeful glint in his eye, and Harry couldn’t help but laugh.

“I thought you wanted breakfast,” he said.

“Mm,” Draco said, placing a hand on Harry’s thigh and giving it a hard squeeze. “Breakfast can wait.”

***

Harry hoped that after their little chat Hermione would have found enough clarity to make things right with Ron. Unfortunately, things did not appear to be that simple, as Ron had been doing some thinking of his own, and was continuing to be confused by Hermione’s behavior.

“I don’t know what to think, Harry,” Ron told him as they made their way to another Quidditch practice Sunday afternoon. “Hermione’s being so analytical about it all. She comes to me yesterday with a list of reasons that we should be together. An actual bloody list all written out on parchment.”

“And that… bothered you?” Harry asked. Personally, knowing Hermione, he didn’t think it was that surprising.

“Well, the first thing I asked was if she had made a list for Zabini as well. Turns out she had. And when I asked her why, she said she was just being thorough.

“Honestly, Ron, did you expect anything else?”

Ron scowled and thought about the answer. “That’s the thing, Harry. I really did. I know Hermione is Hermione and she’s going to be analytical and she’s going to think deeply about things but I thought… I thought when it came to us, she wouldn’t be so bloody… herself about it. We didn’t have this issue before. She was going with her feelings. Now she’s just thinking and thinking about it, instead of feeling. I just… when it comes to love, at some point, you have to stop thinking, don’t you? You have to stop making lists and weighing the pros and cons and you just have to… go for it. Like you did with Malfoy. And the fact that she isn’t… it has me worried. Is it always going to be like this, from now on?”

Harry sighed to himself. His and Draco’s predictions were turning out to be spot on. Ron and Hermione both were overthinking this, just in different ways.

“So what are you going to do, then? End it, because she’s thinking too much?”

Ron grimaced. “Of course I don’t want to just end it for good, but… I don’t know if I can trust her again, to be really committed. I don’t know how.”

They walked towards the pitch in silence, both of them deep in thought, until Harry asked, “How did you leave it with her, then, after your talk?”

“She told me to think about the things she had said. She told me it might serve me to make my own list.” He snorted at that. “Like that’s ever helped me before.”

“Maybe it would be helpful,” Harry said tentatively, “and you just don’t realize it yet.”

“I’m not going to figure out if Hermione and I are right for each other by completing a bloody homework assignment about it.”

“Then how are you going to figure it out?”

“I don’t know, Harry. I don’t bloody know. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, and I have so many other things to worry about, besides. There’s a whole pile of homework for this weekend that I’ve barely started, because all I could do was think about our fight. And the match with Hufflepuff is coming up, and I’ve just found out that they’re going to play one of their reserve Chasers, and his playing style is totally different, and I’ve got to rethink some of our strategy and I just…” He ran a hand through his hair. “It’s too much. It’s just too much, Harry. I don’t know. I just really didn’t need this right now.”

Nobody ever does, Harry thought, but kept it to himself. He understood where Ron was coming from. With it being their last term, and NEWTs swiftly approaching, all of the teachers were laying on the work extra thick. And he also knew plenty about the stresses of being Quidditch captain.

“I’ll help you with the Quidditch strategies,” he offered. “I can’t tell you what to do about Hermione, obviously, but maybe I can lighten the load of other things a bit.”

“Yeah,” said Ron, patting Harry on the shoulder. “That would be helpful. Thanks, mate.”

***

Ron ended up taking Harry up on his offer almost every night the next week. Harry, though happy to be able to do something to help Ron, was starting to feel the burden a bit as well, thanks to all of his own schoolwork.

He was thankful for Draco, who always helped him unwind at the end of the day, and thankful that they had found their way back to normal very quickly after their row. If anything, it seemed the fight had made them even more sure of each other, since they had managed to survive it intact.

Still, the workload was getting to him, so much so that he actually groaned with dread that Thursday when he remembered he had his apprenticeship that afternoon. He wasn’t sure he had the energy for it, and he hadn’t been practicing his technique hardly at all, too busy with everything else.

“I don’t want to go,” he told Draco at lunch. “I haven’t felt this way about it before. Is it a bad sign?”

“Don’t put too much stock in it, Harry,” Draco said. “There are some days I don’t feel like going to mine, but once I get there and get working, I usually forget I felt that way. You’re just tired. We all are.”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “I can’t wait for Easter.”

“That’s over a month away,” Draco said, amused. “And we’ve got all our mid-terms right before.”

Harry groaned. “Don’t remind me. I don’t want to think about it. I just want to think about you and me at Grimmauld doing nothing but having sex and sleeping.”

“I hope you planned some meal breaks into that schedule as well,” said Draco. “You know how crabby I get when I haven’t eaten.”

“I’ll have Kreacher deliver all of our meals to us. We’ll never have to leave the bed.”

Draco laughed, and Harry felt a bit better. It was a nice fantasy, that.

***

Unfortunately, Harry didn’t feel much more energetic by the time he arrived at Kemp’s estate, or when he stood around observing the master duelist’s final student of the day as usual. His mind kept wandering to other things, be it Ron and Hermione, the upcoming Quidditch match, or the two essays he still had to finish before he could go to bed that night. He couldn’t help but feel, as he rubbed his eyes and tried again to focus, that this was a waste of his time. What was he getting out of it, exactly?

“Are we boring you, Mr. Potter?” Kemp’s acerbic voice broke through the fog.

Yes, he wanted to answer, but he knew that was the exhaustion talking. “No, sir. I’m sorry.”

“I would think that you would want to pay attention, considering that Cecelia here managed to be successful with the Diffusing Decoy Charm, which you have yet to master.”

Harry clenched his jaw but managed a believable, “Yes, sir,” trying to remind himself that it wasn’t Kemp’s fault he was so easily distracted. But he wasn’t having much luck.

Thankfully, Cecelia’s session was only another ten more minutes. However, that did mean that when she was gone Kemp was now focusing all of his attention on Harry, and he didn’t look too happy.

“Look sharp, Potter,” he said. “Do you want time on the floor or not?”

“Yes, sir,” said Harry.

Kemp raised a dark eyebrow. “Then make it count. Show me what you’ve been working on.”

At first it went all right. Harry was used to the speed and spell arsenal of the mid-level opponents and he could handle most of what they had to throw at him without much effort. Kemp, however, was not impressed.

“Your form is off today. You look sluggish. Perhaps the opponent was just not fast enough for you, hm? Let’s turn it up a level and make you actually work for it.”

Harry groaned internally, but didn’t complain. He simply got in his fighting stance and waited.

“Feet, Potter!” Kemp called, before the program even started. “Stay off your heels!”

It went downhill from there. Harry just couldn’t keep up with the more advanced opponent. There was definitely something about his reaction time that was sluggish, he had to admit, but he didn’t know if it was fatigue or if he was simply too sick of it all to care anymore.

“What in Merlin’s name are you doing out there, Potter?” Kemp said as Harry was knocked to the floor yet again.

Harry heaved a sigh. “It’s been a long week, sir. I’m distracted.”

“You’re distracted? By what, boyfriend troubles?”

Harry looked at him. Was that just a general heckling, or was Kemp actually making a dig about his sexuality?

“No, sir,” he said, his voice clipped. “I’m just overworked. NEWTs are coming up.”

“In a life or death situation, one can’t afford to be distracted by exams, Potter.”

This isn’t a bloody life or death situation! Harry wanted to shout at him. This is bloody stupid competitive dueling! And besides, what would you know about it, considering you fled the country before you had to even lift a finger against Voldemort?

But another, more reasonable voice kept telling him over and over not to say that out loud. Don’t say what you’re thinking. Don’t be stupid. Don’t say it.

“I’m aware of that, sir,” he said finally.

“Work through it,” Kemp said. “Find the energy and the focus. Pretend, if you have to, that you are fighting someone who really wants to hurt you. Pretend you don’t have a choice.”

That actually helped a little, although Harry mostly was able to find some energy and focus imagining his opponent was Kemp, so he could hex the living daylights out of him.

He was subdued and brooding upon his return to Hogwarts, something Draco picked up on immediately, of course. Still, he didn’t ask Harry anything about it as Harry silently ate a late dinner in the common room and then spread his essays out in front of him.

He didn’t even ask as they were climbing into bed, although he did reach for Harry’s hand and pulled him close.

“Come here,” he said, situating himself sitting up behind Harry. He started rubbing Harry’s neck and shoulders, and Harry went with it, finally letting himself relax a bit.

They were both quiet as Draco worked away and Harry let his mind wander. What an awful week it was turning into. Draco’s hands on him were helping, though.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, Draco,” he said out of the silence.

Draco didn’t pause in his ministrations when he said, “With your apprenticeship?”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “I thought it was the right thing but… I don’t know. It might just be that I’m so tired, and I’m not thinking straight, but it was just really rough today. And Kemp… he’s skilled but, he’s also a bit of an arsehole.”

He heard Draco chuckle quietly behind him.

“I just thought I’d have some sort of moment of clarity where I would realize exactly what I want to do with my life. But it seems like things are just getting murkier.”

“You’re only eighteen, Harry. You have plenty of time to figure it out. And we haven’t even graduated yet.”

“Part of me wishes school was over, because I’m really sick of homework and I just want to get my NEWTs over with. But on the other hand, graduating means I have to go off and do something with myself.”

“Or not,” said Draco. “It’s not like you don’t have enough money to live off of until you figure out what you want to do.”

“So what, I should just lounge around eating pumpkin pasties until you get back from your masters program every day?”

“You don’t think that sounds enjoyable?” Draco teased.

“Not really. I’d be bored out of my bloody mind.”

Draco chuckled again. “Yes, you would. But you don’t have to lounge. You could volunteer or something.”

Harry thought that over. “Yeah, I could.” He took a deep breath and was pleasantly surprised to find that the tightness in his shoulders was nearly gone. “Your hands are like magic,” he said sleepily.

Draco paused. “All of me is magic, Harry. I’m a wizard.” He sounded amused.

“You know what I mean.” Draco didn’t answer. Harry sighed. “It’s just something Muggles say sometimes.”

“I see. So it’s figurative. Because they don’t believe that magic is real.”

“Yes, exactly.”

Draco laughed and kissed the back of Harry’s neck. “I love you.”

Harry smiled and leaned back against him. “Thank Merlin for that.”

***

By the end of the day on Friday most of the 8th years were feeling pretty well done with work. The Gryffindor men had it in mind to do something about that.

“Let’s go out,” said Dean as they were sitting around in the common room after dinner, not doing much of anything. “We haven’t been down to Hogsmeade for drinks all term.”

“Merlin knows I could use a drink,” Ron said sardonically. “I’m in.”

Neville and Seamus affirmed their interest, and Dean turned to Harry. “What about it, Harry? Fancy a pint?”

Harry did rather fancy a pint, actually. It seemed like the perfect way to top off a week that had been imperfect to say the least. But he didn’t want to leave Draco behind. “I’m in, if Draco can come too.”

To his surprise none of the Gryffindors even blinked, as if they had been expecting this. They all turned to Draco, who had been reading a letter and seemingly ignoring them. He was looking at them now, though.

“You up for it, Malfoy?” Dean asked.

“Go out and get pissed with a bunch of Gryffindors?” he asked, looking from one curious face to the next. “Yeah, all right. Why not?”

There was a collective cheer all around, with even Ron joining in, enthusiasm for their outing building among the group.

“Meet back down here in ten minutes,” Dean told everyone, so they could grab their money and outerwear.

Once they had dissipated Harry leaned towards Draco for a kiss. “Thanks for saying yes,” he said to the blond. “I’ll have more fun with you there.”

“You’re welcome,” said Draco with a smirk. “But I didn’t do it for you. I’m going to save all of my memories from tonight in my pensieve, for future blackmail material.”

The Three Broomsticks was about half full when they arrived, and there were plenty of tables. Neville and Ron grabbed them a large table in the back while the rest of the group went up to the bar for drinks.

“Whaddaya think, lads?” Seamus asked them. “Firewhiskey to start?”

“Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear,” Dean quoted sagely.

“Six Firewhiskeys,” Seamus told Madam Rosmerta, who gave them the once over.

“You lot are going to be trouble, I can tell,” she said, though there was an affectionate glint in her eye.

When the drinks were poured they delivered them back to the table and got settled in.

“Nice choice,” said Ron, downing his in one go and clacking his glass on the table. “That’s the ticket,” he said. Harry rolled his eyes, but the others laughed, and Seamus and Dean followed Ron’s lead.

“Impressive. I didn’t realize Gryffindors drank like Slytherins,” said Draco.

“Slytherins? I don’t know about that. All I know is, Gryffindors drink like men!” cried Seamus, and they all cheered.

“Another round, mates?” Ron asked the table.

To Harry’s surprise, Draco shot back his Firewhiskey with a quick tilt of his head, reached in his pocket, and plunked a handful of coins onto the table. “This one’s on me.”

Another round of cheers ensued, and half the group went to retrieve more drinks. This included another Firewhiskey each for Harry and Neville, though both of them were only starting on their first.

“I think I’m a bit out of my depth, here,” Neville said conspiratorially to Harry. “I usually just have one or two and call it a night.”

Harry clinked his glass with Neville in solidarity. “Same here. I guess we’ll be the ones who have to keep them in line.”

“Good luck with that,” said Ron. “I’m drowning my sorrows tonight.”

Harry had mixed feelings about this, of course. On the one hand, he understood how upset and confused Ron still was. He and Hermione had been giving each other a wide berth all week, having not quite figured out if they were staying together or breaking up. All Harry knew at this point was that Hermione had finally turned Blaise down, citing that things were too mixed up with Ron and she had to figure out what was happening there before she could begin to move on.

But, Harry knew, Ron was also partially responsible for all the mixed up feelings between him and Hermione, and the dramatics of claiming to need to “drown his sorrows” rubbed Harry the wrong way. Why couldn’t he and Hermione just sit down and finally have a bloody conversation? He and Draco had worked things out within two hours of their fight. Was it really that hard?

The drinking slowed down a bit, some of them switching to beer and others nursing more Firewhiskey. Conversation was loud and a bit hard to follow, as they first discussed Gryffindor’s chances in the upcoming match, which they all agreed were quite high, but then moved onto unrelated topics, like how unfair Professor Khatar was with grading essays and how Neville had finally worked up the nerve to ask out Hannah Abbott.

“Nice one, Nev,” Harry said, while Neville blushed profusely. “I like Hannah. She’s great.”

“Yeah,” said Neville with a shrug. “It’s early yet.”

“Oi, that reminds me,” said Seamus. He turned to Dean. “You never told me if you made it with Ginny yet or not.”

Harry snorted into his glass of beer, and then looked up to see Dean looking distinctly uncomfortable. He eyed Ron.

“Umm, no,” he said, then stood up quickly. “Anyone up for another round?”

When he was gone Ron leaned into the table. “You’re not telling me she’s with Dean again, are you?”

“It’s nothing official,” said Harry. “They’re just spending time together.”

“You knew about this?” Ron asked, looking betrayed, or as betrayed as one could look and still be a bit glassy-eyed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“There’s nothing to tell!” Harry insisted. “They’re not together. They’re just… like I said, they’re spending time together.”

“Shagging time,” Seamus inserted, and Ron glared at him darkly.

“Don’t bloody go there. Seamus,” Harry warned. “You’ll put him in a worse mood than he already is.”

“Sitting right here,” Ron grumbled.

“Here, have a whiskey,” Dean said, shoving a glass in Ron’s hand. “A peace offering, and a promise that I am not currently shagging your sister.”

“Cheers,” said Ron, brightening.

Eventually they started to pair off, Dean wanting to play darts and Neville accepting the challenge, while Seamus sat with Draco at the other end of the table, teaching the Slytherin his favorite drinking songs. Unbelievably, Draco was actually willing to sing along, once he’d learned the words, although Harry felt he could readily chock that up to extensive alcoholic lubrication.

“I’ve been a wild rover for many’s a year

I’ve spent all me money on whiskey and beer!”

Someone from a nearby table started joining in, and Harry laughed. He turned to Ron, who was looking at Draco with a pensive expression on his face.

“I think I’ve finally figured it out,” he said.

“Figured what out?” Harry asked.

“You and Malfoy. I think I finally see it. It took me a while.”

“No kidding,” said Harry, assuming that Ron was drunk enough to handle the ribbing. “But I told you, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Ron. “It’s still weird, mind you. Even weirder to see him acting like… a normal human being.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “He’s always been a normal human being,” he said. “He just acted like a prat for a bit.”

“A bit?” Ron said, but dropped it when he saw Harry’s expression. “Yeah, all right, maybe. But you know, I think… I think it’s you. I think you get him to act, you know, not so uptight all the time.”

“He’s just one of those people who’s really different once you get to know him,” said Harry. As far as he was concerned, Draco had always been game for a laugh, you just had to be the kind of person he was willing to have a laugh with.

“Yeah, I can see that,” Ron said, after a minute.

They sat in silence, listening to a round of “Drunken Sailor” before Harry turned his attention to the dart board across the room, where he could see that Dean, much more drunk than his opponent, was losing to Neville spectacularly.

“I haven’t really done this all year,” said Ron.

“Hmm?” Harry asked, turning his attention back to his best mate.

“Dean and Seamus regularly go out with other 8th years, but I've hardly ever joined them. There was just the once, I think, in Septemer. I was always with Hermione on Friday and Saturday nights.”

“Yeah,” said Harry.

“I like it,” said Ron. “So that’s… that’s something right? Freedom?”

“Hermione wouldn’t stop you from going out if you wanted,” said Harry.

“No, she wouldn’t stop me. But she’d give me that look. You know the one.”

Harry did know the one, although he disagreed with Ron’s assumption. “I think if it wasn’t every weekend, but only on occasion, she wouldn’t care. You just… this summer, when it was every day, it scared her.”

“Yeah,” said Ron. “Still…”

“Are you trying to talk yourself into breaking up with her? Is that what this is?”

“I’m just trying to come to terms with what it would be like to not be with her anymore. Permanently.”

“And how does it feel?”

“Pretty fucking horrible,” Ron said, staring across the room, his eyes unfocused.

“Well, that tells you something, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know. I only have one breakup to compare it to, and that one was a bloody relief, because Lavender was quite clingy, if you recall.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Harry said drily.

“It was clear what I had to do, because I didn’t like her anymore.”

“And you were already in love with Hermione by that point.” Ron scowled at him. “Just pointing it out,” Harry said lightly.

“You want me to stay with Hermione.”

“I want you to be happy, Ron. I want both of you to be happy. Does being with Hermione make you happy?”

“It did,” said Ron.

“And what changed?”

“What changed?” he asked incredulously. “You know full well what changed. She kissed another bloke. She considered dumping me for another bloke. I realize you don’t know the feeling from direct experience, but let me enlighten you: it puts a bit of a damper on the relationship.”

“Sure,” said Harry. “But a really strong relationship could survive something like that.”

“And you think Hermione and I are strong enough.”

“I can’t answer that. Only you and Hermione can. But you have to… don’t you owe it to yourself to try?”

Ron thought about that for a while, and Harry looked across at Draco, catching his eye. He was nursing a beer and listening to something Dean was explaining, although Harry, from that distance, couldn’t quite follow it. Draco gave Harry a soft smile, which Harry returned.

“You told me to fight for her,” said Ron.

“The night of the row, you mean?”

“Yeah. You said I shouldn’t give up on her.”

“I did say that.”

“Sometimes I think I should fight. Sometimes I think I should march right up to her room and tell her to stop making her bloody lists and just decide to be with me, because we’re good together, and we already knew that before Zabini came along.”

“So why don’t you?

“Because I know what she’ll say. She’ll say the same thing she said when she showed me the list in the first place. She’ll say that love isn’t enough, and that there comes a point when two people have to decide why they’re together beyond just the fact that they love each other. That’s why she wanted me to make my own. Because when I said ‘I love you, isn’t that reason enough?’ she said it wasn’t. She said I had to know why. And I just… I don’t know how to get past that.”

“Oh, for Merlin’s sake, Weasley,” came Draco’s voice, much closer than Harry expected. He had moved around the table to sit next to Harry without Harry noticing, so absorbed was he in what Ron was saying. “Harry was right. You’re as bad an overthinker as Granger.”

Ron looked at Draco, and then at Harry. “Did you say that, Harry?”

“Something like that, yeah,” Harry admitted, looking at Ron apologetically.

Ron looked at Draco again. “Well it’s not true. Don’t you know, I never think anything through. Just ask Hermione.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Bollocks. You should listen to yourself. Going on and on about how you love her and you’re so miserable without her and you want to fight for her, but there’s this bloody list standing in your way. I mean really, Weasley, you’re going to let the best thing that’s ever happened to you fall apart because you’re not willing to write out a fucking list? If someone told me that the only thing standing in the way of getting to be with Harry was that I had to write down the reasons I wanted to be with him, I would get that shit done in ten minutes. I’d write a thousand fucking lists, just for good measure!”

Ron stared at him, wide-eyed, and Harry looked around to see that just about everyone in their vicinity was staring at them. Draco wasn’t finished, though, and hadn’t seemed to notice their audience. Harry hoped there were no reporters around.

“So why don’t you just write the damn thing, Weasley, just to see what happens? Why don’t you write it and take it to Granger and have a chat? Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t, but at least your relationship won’t have been wrecked over a single piece of fucking parchment.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “Honestly.”

“Been saving that one up, have you?” Harry said with a smile as Ron sat there, somewhere between dumbfounded and deep in thought.

“You were too busy tiptoeing around him to say it,” said Draco. “And it had to be said.”

“Bravo, mate!” Dean called from across the table.

That seemed to signal the end to their evening, as they were all pretty knackered, and Ron clearly had some thinking to do. They walked back up to the castle, the four other Gryffindors in front and Harry and Draco lagging behind. Draco was looking a bit wobbly and Harry took his hand.

“You’re sloshed,” he said, amused.

“Mm, a bit,” Draco said cheerfully.

“Do you think you would have said those things to Ron if you weren’t?”

“Yes, I would,” he said definitively. “Although perhaps not so loudly.”

“Yeah, I think the whole village heard you. And maybe the whole castle as well.”

“Oh well,” said Draco, shrugging. “It if makes Weasley grow a pair and get back with Granger, it was worth it, right?”

“I think it was pretty worth it regardless,” Harry admitted. “I was quite entertained.”

Draco sighed and released Harry’s hand so he could put an arm around him. “I love you, Harry.”

“I love you too, Draco,” Harry said, thoroughly amused.

“I meant what I said. I would write that list a hundred times.”

“I believe you said a thousand, actually,” Harry corrected.

“A thousand then. A million!”

“You really are quite drunk.”

“And you really are quite sexy,” Draco replied.

“And you really are quite ridiculous.”

They walked in silence, letting the others get farther and farther ahead, arms wrapped around each other.

“This,” Draco said finally, “was perfect.”

Chapter Text

Harry opened his eyes to the blue-gray light of dawn, barely visible through Draco’s bedroom window. Harry couldn’t remember at first what had woken him, though a twisting knot of dread was still tying itself up in his stomach, left over, he could only assume, from whatever dream he’d been having.

It was too early to be up on a Sunday, and Draco was wrapped around him as usual, lost to the world. Harry was quite comfortable, save for a tiny pressure in his bladder he felt he could ignore for another hour or so. He knew he should go back to sleep.

But the moment he closed his eyes, he remembered. He’d been dreaming of Kemp, of the training floor, of an unbeatable virtual opponent with sallow skin, a cold, high-pitched laugh, and two snake-like slits where his nose should be.

Vesper had been there, too, off to the side. She was seated in a throne, dressed like a Victorian queen. There was a cake in front of her, an entire cake that she was eating bite by bite with a fork, a cake that said “Champion” across the top in blue frosting.

“Want a bite?” she had asked him.

But then there was a flash of green light. Harry had felt himself collapse, everything going black, and suddenly Kemp’s voice was ringing in his head.

In life or death situations, one can’t afford to be distracted by cake, Potter.

Harry opened his eyes again, fully awake now that he had remembered the details of the dream. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where those images had come from, or what they probably meant.

He wasn’t so comfortable anymore. He had the kind of nausea that feels like a heartbeat in your stomach, and Draco’s body heat was a bit too stifling around him. Slowly, hoping he didn’t disturb Draco too much, he began untangling himself and sliding out from underneath his boyfriend.

He almost made it without incident, but just as he finally slid himself free Draco’s arm flopped onto the mattress and the blond reacted with a jerk, followed by a groan at the discovery of the suddenly empty space.

“Shh,” Harry said to him softly. “Go back to sleep, Draco.”

“Harry?” Draco mumbled sleepily.

“I’m just going down to the common room for a bit. I’ll be back.”

He didn’t know if Draco heard him. He appeared to have already gone back to sleep. Harry pulled the covers around Draco’s naked form and tucked him in just a bit before searching for his own pajamas.

The common room was unsurprisingly silent, and Harry lit a fire in the fireplace to bring both some light and heat into the space. When he sat down next to the warm glow, however, he found it did nothing to ease the small tremors that kept coursing through his body.

He hated dreaming about Voldemort.

Of course, he had hated it much more when Voldemort was still alive. At least now, upon waking, he could talk himself back into the reality that he would never have to be afraid of that evil bastard ever again. But still, there were always those few moments before reality set in, when the fear was as palpable as it used to be in the war.

It’s getting better, he reminded himself. It gets better every day.

In truth, it had been a lot better since he’d started sleeping nightly with Draco. He hardly ever had nightmares, and on the rare occasion he did they weren’t the kind that jerked him awake, sweating and calling out, the metallic taste of adrenalin in his mouth. He hadn’t had those since the summer.

But why another nightmare now? Was it just the stress of a difficult week? Or did the fact that Voldemort somehow found his way into a dream about his apprenticeship mean something? If it did, it couldn’t mean anything good.

Harry sighed. He didn’t know why he had believed coming down to the common room would make him feel any better. He had wanted to be alone. He just needed that, sometimes. But he still felt the unpleasant clawing of nausea in his stomach, and thinking about the dream wasn’t making it any better.

He needed a distraction. But what? Homework? That only made his stomachache worse, thinking about all he had to get done.

Then he remembered. Andromeda had written him that week, but he had been too distracted by everything else to yet send a reply. He pulled out his wand and summoned a quill, ink, and parchment from his room. Happy to have something enjoyable to do, he began the letter.

 

Dear Andromeda,

A party on April the 8th will be perfect. I’m glad we can celebrate Teddy’s birthday on the actual day. It works out nicely that it falls over Easter break. Draco and I will be staying at Grimmauld for that week, so we’ll be coming separately from the Weasleys. But if you need any help with preparations, all you have to do is ask, and we’ll be there. By the way, is there anything in particular Teddy wants or needs by way of presents? I have some ideas of my own but I thought I’d ask.

I had another thought, though I’m not sure it’s my place to say anything about it, so if I’m overstepping my bounds feel free to tell me off. But I did hear from Draco that you and Narcissa were corresponding again. You haven’t mentioned it yet, so I don’t know if it’s going well, but if it is going well I thought it might be nice for Narcissa to attend the party as well.

 

He paused in his writing. Did he really want to go there? Would Andromeda resent him for it? Would Narcissa even want to attend her great-nephew’s first birthday party? Draco hadn’t been sure when Harry brought it up, although he did eventually admit that his mother might be pleased by the invitation, at least, even if she ended up declining. And there was some niggling part of him that couldn’t help but want to do a bit of match-making between the two sisters.

When had he become such a meddler?

Footsteps on the stairs distracted him, and Harry looked towards the boy’s staircase, wondering who he would see descending. He was quite surprised when it turned out to do be none other than his brown-eyed, bushy-haired best friend. He smiled at her as she came into view.

“Morning, ‘Mione,” he said.

She paused for a moment, surprised, but then she smiled back.

“Morning, Harry. I didn’t expect to see you up so early.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” said Harry. “You?”

“I’ve just come from Ron’s,” she said, turning a bit pink.

“I figured,” said Harry with a smirk. “You were locked up in his room practically all day yesterday.”

Talking,” said Hermione pointedly.

“Sure,” said Harry. It didn’t matter to him. He was simply glad they were interacting again.

“Anyway,” Hermione went on. “I didn’t particularly want to leave, but I have more work to do than I thought possible and I wanted to get an early start.”

“Well good on you,” said Harry. “Ron won’t be up for another three hours or so, so this is prime, distraction-free work time, I guess.”

“Exactly,” Hermione replied. Instead of heading to her side of the dormitories, though, she curled up in the armchair across from him. “What are you writing?”

“A letter to Andromeda. I’m trying to decide if I should suggest she invite Narcissa Malfoy to Teddy’s birthday party in April.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea,” she said. “It would be nice if they could reconcile, wouldn’t it?”

“It would,” Harry agreed. “For their sake, but for mine and Draco’s as well. The way things are going, Narcissa and I might end up being family someday. And Andromeda is already practically family, and it would just be awkward if they couldn’t get along.” He looked up from his parchment to see Hermione smiling at him. “What?”

She shook her head. “Nothing, Harry. It’s just sweet, that’s all.”

Harry felt himself blushing. “Yeah, yeah, all right.”

“I’m not trying to embarrass you. It’s just nice to see you so happy and feeling settled. You deserve it.”

Harry found himself snorting. “Settled” hardly seemed to describe him at the moment, although Draco had nothing to do with that. “While I’m definitely happy with Draco,” he said, “I’m not exactly settled on anything else. My life feels like one giant question mark right now, to be honest.”

“The apprenticeship?” Hermione asked tentatively.

Harry shrugged. He didn’t feel much like talking about it, the dream still fresh in his mind. “It isn’t that I’m not getting something out of it, I just… I’m not sure I want to teach Defense. And if it turns out I don’t, that crosses off one more item on my very short list of things I might be interested in doing.”

“You’ll figure it out, Harry. I’m not worried.”

“That’s what Draco always says.”

“Well Draco is quite smart, it turns out.”

Harry laughed. “Who would have thought?”

She laughed along with him. “It is quite funny, when you think about it. The whole situation is. If at eleven years old someone were to tell you that it would be Draco Malfoy you would be shagging senseless every night seven years in the future, you would have laughed them out of the room.”

“Hexed them out of the room, more like. And ‘shagging senseless every night’ is a bit of an exaggeration.”

“Not the way Blaise tells it,” Hermione replied, amused.

“And what would Blaise know about it?”

“Theo told him. He overhears you all the time, being next door to Draco’s room and all. He says you two have quite a bit of sex, and aren’t at all quiet about it.”

“We put up silencing charms!” Harry said, alarmed.

“Silencing charms can fail when one is not paying attention,” said Hermione. “And I bet you forget them, sometimes. Especially in the mornings, apparently.”

Harry considered that. Yes, that was very likely true. “No bloody privacy,” he grumbled.

“Oh, no one cares, Harry. Half of the 8th years are paired up by this point. More than half, even. We all overhear things.”

“Who are you overhearing, then?”

“Padma Patil’s next door to me. And she’s at it with Ernie Macmillan quite frequently.”

Harry made a face. “I really don’t want to think about what MacmIllan is like when he’s having sex.”

Hermione grinned. “It’s quite funny. He sort of sounds like-“

“I don’t want to know!” cried Harry. “I seriously, seriously don’t want to know.”

Hermione had a good laugh at Harry’s expense, while he pretended to go back to his letter.

“I like it,” she said finally. “I think it’s a good sign.”

“You like listening to other people having sex?” Harry said with a grin.

Hermione blushed. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said. “I only meant that I like that people are pairing up. I think it’s indicative of true peacetime. People are coming together; they’re building their futures. It’s not that no one had relationships while the war was going on, but everything was so uncertain it felt like things could fall apart any day. There was so little hope. Honestly, that’s one reason I held off on telling Ron my feelings for so long. I couldn’t bear the thought that I would finally have what I wanted most of all and then suddenly lose it. There was a good chance that one or both of us would die and I just couldn’t…”

“I think you would have been devastated either way,” Harry said. “If something had happened to you or had happened to Ron, the other would have been devastated, because you loved each other even if you hadn’t told each other.”

Hermione thought about that. “You’re right.”

“I know.”

“How would you have felt if something had happened to Draco during the war? You didn’t love him yet. Would you have felt something, do you think, if he had died?”

“I don’t know,” said Harry. He didn’t like thinking about that at all. It gave him the creeps. It made him want to run back upstairs and check on Draco, just to make sure he was safe. But he resisted, knowing that would only disturb the blond’s well-deserved rest. “Maybe I would have, maybe I wouldn’t.”

Hermione nodded.

“So, speaking of the future,” Harry said, looking to change the subject. “Does this mean that you and Ron have officially patched things up?”

Hermione smiled a small smile. “We’re on our way. That whole situation rattled us both a lot more than we thought possible.”

“Yeah,” said Harry. He had seen the truth of that firsthand.

“He has to find his way to trusting me again, trusting that I’m invested this time, for real. That will take some work, on both our parts. But I’m clear now about what I want. So I’ll do whatever work I have to do to make it right.”

Harry nodded. “So how did you figure it out, in the end? Who to choose?”

“I thought about what Draco said. Or rather, what he made me say to myself. I realized I was spending all my energy trying to figure out my feelings, when, funnily enough, I already knew my feelings. I already knew I loved Ron and that I had an attraction to and mild interest in Blaise. The problem wasn’t what I was feeling. The problem was what I assumed those feelings meant. On the one hand, I couldn’t see how it was possible for me to be completely in love with Ron and have feelings for someone else at the same time. On the other hand, I also couldn’t see how I could justify ending things with Ron, who I knew I was in love with, for Blaise, who I could have fallen in love with but was not guaranteed to. It was when I stopped thinking in those terms and started thinking about who each of us were as people, and how I would fit with each of them, and what kind of person I was with each of them, that I started to find clarity about it.”

“And in the end you decided you fit better with Ron?”

Hermione tilted her head and considered the question. “Not quite. Because I think I would have fit with Blaise, too, just in a different way. A very different way. That was what it came down to, in the end. The relationships I could see unfolding with each of them were so drastically different that it turned out to be not that hard to determine which I wanted more, which I would be happier in.”

“And why not Blaise, then?”

Hermione sighed. “Blaise is wonderful. He’s intense, and quite serious, and remarkably intelligent. He’s driven, ambitious, thoughtful, mature…”

“He sounds like you,” Harry said.

Hermione smiled. “Exactly. On some level, that was appealing, the idea of being with someone so much like me. I certainly never want to be with a partner who turns me into someone I’m not. He would have reinforced many traits that I like in myself. And yet, that’s dangerous, in its own right. When I look back on the time I spent with him, I remember intense discussions, being intellectually stimulated, forced to think about things in new and exciting ways, but I don’t remember laughing very much. I don’t remember joy, or light-heartedness, or playfulness. I don’t remember relaxing, or letting go of things that didn’t matter. Those are the things I get with Ron, and it’s good for me, because I don’t always do them on my own. He… it’s like I’m an anchor, and he’s a buoy. I keep him grounded; he lifts me up. It’s a symbiotic thing.”

“And in this metaphor, Blaise is also an anchor?” Harry asked. “Meaning he weighs you down, to some extent?”

“Nothing quite so dramatic as that,” Hermione replied with a roll of her eyes. “But in some sense, yes, Blaise is also an anchor. So we would be grounded together. But who would be lifting us up?”

Harry thought about that, and wondered if the metaphor could apply to him and Draco. He didn’t quite think so. But it worked nicely for Hermione and Ron. “Ok, then,” he said. “So you’re Ron’s anchor he’s your buoy. And Blaise… well, Blaise might be better served finding a buoy of his own.”

Hermione looked at him. “Precisely.”

“Makes sense to me.”

“I do feel quite bad about Blaise, though. I hope that, some day, we can be friends again. When all of this has blown over.”

“He took a risk, pursuing someone who was already in love with someone else.”

“Yes, he did. But still, I think he was upset, although he did his best not to show it.”

Harry nodded. Draco had predicted as much. “You couldn’t make Blaise, Ron, and yourself all happy simultaneously. It was impossible.”

“I know.”

“But you did, at least, give him consideration. That’s a lot more than some people would have done.”

Hermione gave him a small smile. “Thanks, Harry,” she said. “You know, I thought at first you might be mad at me.”

Harry took a moment to answer, trying to decide if he was going to get into the full truth with Hermione or not. He wasn’t sure how helpful it would be. “I was upset at first. For both your sakes. But Ron was the one I saw first, and he was pretty torn up and I… felt bad for him. And I wasn't exactly... thrilled, you know, to find out about the kiss."

Hermione's face turned a bit red, and she nodded.

"But I also knew it had to be hard on you. Because of what happened with Ginny. I could sort of relate, even though the circumstances were different,” he went on. When Hermione didn't reply, he added, “I just want you two to be happy, honestly. At first I believed it meant that you two should be together. But then I realized that if you needed to be apart to be happy, then I would support you.”

“That’s how I felt about you and Ginny,” Hermione said. “I could see that you were happier without her. And I could see that, even though she was heartbroken and confused, it was more about trying to understand what happened, and understand herself, than it was solely about losing you, if that makes any sense.”

“Yeah,” Harry said, remembering the awkward encounter at Christmas.

“That told me the breakup was the right thing for her, too.”

They contemplated that for another minute or two, until Hermione seemed to come back to herself and declared it was time for her to get to work. She summoned her entire bookbag from her room and began spreading books and notes in front of her. Harry went back to his letter, and they worked in companionable silence until he had finished it. He decided to keep in the suggestion about Narcissa and the party. Andromeda, he knew, would take it or leave it. But at least he’d put in his two knuts worth on the issue.

Morning light was streaming through the windows by that point, and Harry figured Draco would be waking up soon, if he wasn’t awake already, and was perhaps wondering where Harry had gotten to. Leaving Hermione to her runes translations, he made his way back up the stairs to Draco’s room.

When he opened the door, however, it was to find that Draco was not alone. Blaise was sitting on Draco’s bed, much like Hermione had done on Harry’s a week earlier.

“Oh,” he said, surprised, as Draco’s blond head and Blaise’s dark one both turned to look at him. “Sorry. I’ll just… meet you downstairs, then, shall I?” This was aimed at Draco, who was giving him a soft smile.

“No,” said Blaise. “That’s all right. I have work to do anyway.” He slid gracefully off the bed. “We can pick this up later,” he said to Draco, and Draco nodded. Blaise crossed the room to the door, and Harry stepped aside for him. “Potter,” he acknowledged with a nod.

Harry nodded back, then closed the door and turned to Draco. “I really didn’t mean for him to have to leave. I could have waited. I’m sure he had some things he needed to talk about.”

“It’s fine, Harry,” Draco said, scooting over to make room for Harry in the bed. Harry accepted the silent invitation, sliding in next to him. “I’ve been up for a bit. We had plenty of time to talk.”

“If you say so.” He put a hand on Draco’s knee, and they sat in silence for a few moments.

“Are you all right?” Draco asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“I was surprised when I woke up and you weren’t there.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I woke up really early and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I didn’t want to wake you up, so I went downstairs.”

He was aware that Draco was staring at him, but he kept his eyes fixed on the other side of the room.

“Bad dream?”

Harry swallowed. How did Draco pick up on that so easily? “Yeah.” He chewed on his bottom lip.

“What about?”

Harry shrugged. “What it’s always about.”

“Him.”

“In one form or another. In this case he was a virtual opponent I was fighting in Kemp’s training room.”

Draco put his hand over Harry’s. “That must have been scary.”

Harry shrugged again. “I don’t remember most of it. Just enough that when I woke up I knew I didn’t want to go back to sleep.” He felt Draco run a hand up his back and into his hair and knew his boyfriend was trying to find some way to comfort him. “It’s fine, really,” he said. “I hardly ever have nightmares anymore. They’re bound to pop up once in a while, and it’s been a stressful week.”

“Sure,” said Draco.

“Anyway, I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up. I was planning to be, but I got sidetracked in a conversation with Hermione. And given everything, I wanted to see how she was doing.”

That made Draco smile. “So while you were talking to Granger about Blaise, I was talking to Blaise about Granger.”

“Basically, yeah.”

Draco chuckled. “I’ll be glad when this whole debacle is behind us and we can move on. I’m a bit burnt out on my friends and your friends coming to us with all of their feelings.”

“I’m with you there.” Draco’s hands had still not left his hair, and he was giving Harry’s scalp a good scratch. It felt quite nice, and Harry tried to resist the urge to nuzzle into it like a cat. “So how is Blaise doing, with everything?”

Draco sighed. “At this point, he’s trying to convince himself that he and Granger would have never worked out anyway. But I don’t think it’s going all that well.”

“Yeah.” Harry felt a small stab of guilt. He hadn’t spared much thought before now for Blaise’s feelings in the whole situation. Part of it was that he was focused on Ron and Hermione, and another was that he had sort of seen Blaise as the villain in the whole thing. But he could recognize now that that wasn’t really fair.

“All in all I think he’s feeling pretty discouraged. He’s never been in a serious relationship before. They always fall through after a few weeks. Granted, that’s often because he loses interest, but still… it’s making him reexamine everything. After all, the only common denominator in all those failures is him.”

Harry considered that for a moment, and Hermione’s anchor/buoy metaphor popped into his head. “Maybe he’s pursuing the wrong kinds of women.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, from what you’ve said about it in the past, it seems like he’s always pursuing academically minded, serious types, yeah?”

“That’s the general trend.”

“So maybe he needs to think outside the box a bit, try pursuing someone not so serious, or not so studious. Someone really different from him.”

“But those aren’t the kinds of women he’s attracted to. He knows what he likes.”

“He thinks he knows what he likes,” said Harry. “But can we ever really know what’s good for us until we get it?”

“Someone’s waxing philosophical this morning.”

“It’s just something Hermione said, about how she and Blaise were almost too similar. She said it would just reinforce the aspects of herself that were already there, rather than bring out the things she wants to be there but don’t always come out naturally. For her, there’s something really satisfying about being with someone different from her. Maybe Blaise would have the same experience if he gave it a try.”

Draco snorted, then pursed his lips, then really considered what Harry had just said. “Perhaps you’re right. But there’s no telling him that.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a stubborn bastard, that’s why.”

“Well…” Harry threw up a hand. “I guess that’s it then. There’s just nothing to be done. I guess Blaise is stuck pursuing the same kinds of women and being disappointed over and over again for the remainder of his life, since he’s so stubborn it would be impossible to even mention the possibility of trying something different.” He heard Draco sigh heavily, but didn’t let that stop him. “I hadn’t realized that Blaise is so stubborn that it renders you incapable of saying any words related to giving him advice he might not want to hear. I hadn’t realized that Blaise’s stubbornness had the power to turn you mute on the subject. Thank you for that information. That’s helpful.”

“You’ve made your point, Harry. Honestly, when did you turn into such a snarky git?”

Harry grinned, finding it hard to believe that Draco had set him up so nicely. “When I started spending all my time with you.”

“Walked right into that one,” Draco said under his breath. “All right, you have a point. Maybe I will float the notion by him, at some point. But I can tell you right now that I don’t think it will do any good.”

“Well, at least then you will have tried. And that’s all we can do, isn’t it?”

“Yes, you’re right.” Draco’s hand cupped the back of Harry’s neck and he kneaded the muscles gently for a moment. “You can always wake me up, you know, if you have a nightmare.”

Harry glanced at him and then away, a bit rattled by the turn in conversation. “It’s not a big deal. Draco. I wouldn’t want to bother you with it.”

Draco didn’t say anything, though his hand kept working. Harry closed his eyes.

“I know you don’t want to bother me with it,” Draco said quietly after a few minutes. “And I understand. I just want you to know that you can.”

Harry squeezed Draco’s knee in thanks. He knew he would probably never take Draco up on the offer. But sometimes simply knowing the offer was there was enough.

***

Over the next week, things started to get back to normal, or about as normal as they were going to get anyway. The friendship between Blaise and Hermione had cooled considerably, to no one’s surprise. Although she said nothing about it, Harry knew that Hermione was saddened by this, but also understood the inevitability of it. And at the moment she knew she needed to put her energy into her repairing her relationship with Ron, rather than worrying about if she and Blaise could be friends in the future.

Blaise didn’t make a scene or appear to harbor much animosity, at least. He stuck mostly to his Slytherin friends from then on, though he was still cordial to Harry and quite friendly with the 8th year girls that Pansy had been befriending over the course of the term, most notably Hannah Abbott, who Pansy had partnered with for the Potions project. Harry was glad that the drama with Blaise and Hermione hadn’t struck a heavy blow for inter-house unity, and did his part in trying to get to know Blaise and Pansy as much as Draco had made an effort with Hermione and the other Gryffindors.

He couldn’t help but feel relieved, though, that Hermione and Ron were making amends, and not just for their own sakes. While Ron had tried very hard not to let the situation affect his role as Quidditch captain, it had made a small impact that could be felt amongst the whole team. But now he was back on his game, just in time for the match against Hufflepuff.

It wasn’t that Harry, or anyone else on the team for that matter, was concerned that they were going to lose to Hufflepuff. While the badgers had themselves a roster of decent Chasers, their Keeper was mediocre at best and their Seeker was a rookie. The bigger concern was walking away from the game with a large enough point margin to give them a fighting chance against Slytherin in the finals.

“Don’t catch the Snitch too soon,” Ron reminded Harry for the millionth time at their final practice before the match. “I’d like to see it when we’re eighty points up, at least. Even more, if we can manage it.”

“I know, Ron,” Harry said, resisting the urge to throttle his best mate. The only thing holding him back was remembering how stressful it was being captain. He reminded himself to be grateful he didn’t have to do it anymore.

Harry wasn’t nearly as nervous as he was before the Ravenclaw match. Rather he felt that jittery excitement that always came on match day, and he was mostly just eager to get out there and do what he did best. And, perhaps, show off for his boyfriend a bit.

“Are you even going to be cheering me on?” Harry asked Draco over breakfast that morning. “You’re not wearing any red or gold, I see. Or carrying that flag Dean gave you with the lion on it.”

Draco gave him a look. “You know I’ll be rooting for you. I even agreed to sit in the Gryffindor section with Granger. But I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing or waving Gryffindor colors. There are some lines I simply can’t bring myself to cross.”

Harry chuckled. “I suppose I’ll take what I can get.”

“Besides,” said Draco. “Do you really need the moral support? You’re going to crush them.”

Harry shrugged. “Let’s not make any assumptions. I don’t want to jinx it.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Please.”

Draco had been right, of course. From the moment the first whistle blew, it was clear that the Gryffindor Quidditch team was far from jinxed. Ron had gotten his Chasers operating like a well-oiled machine, using quick passes and last-minute assists that disoriented the Hufflepuff Chasers and made it nearly impossible for their Keeper to block shots. They were fifty points up within the first ten minutes, and Hufflepuff had yet to score a single goal.

Harry stuck to his assigned role, though, and was thankful for it, since there was a bit of a near miss early on when he spotted the Snitch hovering not far from the far right Hufflepuff goal post. Gryffindor was only up twenty, at that point, and Harry knew that Ron would not be happy if he caught the Snitch so early.

Pretending to see the tiny gold ball towards the Gryffindor end, Harry went into his favorite move, the Wronski Feint, a spectacular, high speed dive that made his blood hum in his veins and his stomach lurch with elation. The Hufflepuff Seeker tried to follow but couldn’t keep up, not that it mattered, since Harry hadn’t really been going after the Snitch at all. He pulled out of the dive and looked back towards the Hufflepuff goal posts to see that his feint had had the desired effect. The Snitch had disappeared, and the Hufflepuff Seeker hadn’t caught even a glimpse of it.

As an added bonus, the entire Hufflepuff team was so distracted by Harry’s dive that it allowed Ginny to score again easily while no one was paying attention.

The game progressed beautifully from there, and when the score reached one hundred to twenty in Gryffindor’s favor, Harry began looking for the Snitch in earnest. It was about twenty minutes later, when they had a one hundred and ten point margin, that he spotted it again, and this time, he went straight for it, capturing the pesky little ball before the Hufflepuff Seeker had even begun the chase.

Elated at the easy victory, the Gryffindor team descended onto the pitch, making a big happy pile with their captain in the center. It was one of the easiest matches any of them had ever played, and the obvious skill and excellent collaboration of his team had Harry quite hopeful for the finals.

The best part, though, was seeing the heat in Draco’s eyes as he approached Harry after the match. It was clear that Harry’s spectacular dive had had quite a positive effect on the blond’s libido. As Draco brought Harry in for a scorching kiss (while the rest of the team looked on, cat-calling and wolf-whistling), Harry knew he is was in for an enthusiastic celebration that night, in the privacy of his own bedroom. His absolute favorite kind.

***

Harry was glad to have the match out of the way, knowing the team didn’t have to worry about the finals until May. As they entered March he had little time to worry about anything other than schoolwork, as studying for mid-term exams got into full swing.

He was still going to his apprenticeship once a week as well, and after that one rough day was determined to not let his other obligations get in the way of his daily practice. He did want to get better at dueling, even though he knew for sure now that he would never want to enter competitions. But being good enough to teach was even harder than being good enough to compete, in his opinion, and he hadn’t written off the idea of becoming a teacher quite yet.

Kemp had started having him participate in his sessions with student in a more hands-on way, letting him teach certain moves or explain things. Harry liked this. He was remembering what he had enjoyed so much about leading the DA, getting to see the direct impact of his effort when a student caught on to something they weren’t getting before. It was concrete, measureable, and highly satisfying.

It also showed that Kemp had faith in him, believed that he was capable, even though the dueling master wasn’t always good at conveying that in their lessons. Harry had to believe he was doing something right, to have been promoted from mere observer to teaching assistant.

But he was still quite surprised when, once he arrived for his last session before Easter break, Vesper informed him that Kemp wanted Harry to lead an entire session with a student himself.

“He thinks you’re ready,” she told him as she sorted through one of the filing cabinets behind her desk. “This guy is a beginner. Just started about a month ago, comes in twice a week. But he has promise.” She finally found the file she was looking for and brought it out. “Anyway, they’re working on basic defensive spells right now. His notes are in here.” She held out the file.

“Where’s Kemp?” Harry asked. “He’ll still be there, won’t he?”

“Of course. He’s just finishing up another session. He’ll supervise, but he wants you to take point.”

Harry, his eyebrows raised, opened the file and looked at the notes. It all seemed straightforward, exactly as Vesper had described. Harry knew plenty about defensive magic. This would be a good fit for his first time.

Which wasn’t to say that he wasn’t nervous. This student, Jaime Vilar, wasn’t any younger than him. He hoped he didn’t see Harry as being too much of an amateur.

He studied Kemp’s notes on Jaime’s footwork, spell work, and overall learning style before returning the file to Vesper.

“All set?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Great. Oh, and I wanted to confirm with you… you’re not coming in next week right?”

“Yeah, it’s mid-terms,” said Harry. “It will just be too insane. And then the week after is Easter break, so I won’t come in then, either.”

Vesper nodded. “Right. Then we’ll set you up for three weeks from now.” She opened the day planner.

“Perfect.”

“Doing anything fun for the break?”

Harry smiled. “Draco’s coming to mine for the week. I have a house that I’m almost done renovating. We’ll go to my godson’s birthday party on Thursday, but other than that, I think we’re just going to stay in and relax.”

“That sounds nice,” Vesper said wistfully. Then she grinned and wiggled her eyebrows. “And you’ll have the place all to yourselves.”

Harry grinned back. “That’s the idea.”

“You’re so lucky,” Vesper said with a sigh.

“Don’t I know it.”

“I wish I had time for a boyfriend. But I’m here all the time, training, or working for Aurelian. And then I travel for competitions, of course. This year has just flown by, really.”

“You should make time,” said Harry. “Go out once a week or something. I bet Kemp would let you.”

“Oh, it’s not him stopping me,” said Vesper. “I just… you know, I don’t know that many people here to go out with, and I don’t want to go alone. It’s a vicious cycle. I don’t know anyone, because I never go out. And I never go out, because I don’t know anyone.” She looked at Harry. “I sound pathetic.”

“No,” said Harry. “I get it. You should come out to Hogsmeade with me and my friends sometime. You’d get along great with them.”

“Really?” Vesper’s face lit up. “I’d love that. Are any of your friends single… and cute?”

“Er, they’re an attractive bunch, I suppose. But I’m not setting you up with any of them!” He pointed at her, so she’d get the message. “I don’t do that matchmaker stuff. If you hit it off with someone, you hit it off. I don’t take responsibility.”

“Wise man,” Vesper said.

“I’ve just had enough of being in the middle lately,” said Harry, thinking of Hermione and Ron.

Jaime arrived then, which put an end to their conversation as Vesper put on her slightly more formal professional façade and Harry prepared to introduce himself to the student.

“Good afternoon, Jaime. I hope you’re well,” said Vesper warmly.

Jaime smiled as he approached the desk. He was a couple of inches shorter than Harry, with dark hair, olive skin, and a Mediterranean nose. “Buenas tardes, Miss Vesper,” he said in a Spanish accent. “You are looking beautiful as always.”

Vesper gave the student a small but knowing smile. “Always the charmer, aren’t you?” Jaime grinned wider. “Welcome back. Mr. Kemp will be out shortly, but he wanted me to introduce you to Mr. Potter. He’s an apprentice here and he’s going to be leading your session today.”

Jaime turned to look at Harry, and Harry held out his hand. “Harry Potter. It’s great to meet you, Jaime.”

“I know who you are,” Jaime said. “Everyone this side of the Atlantic knows who you are.”

“And most people on the other side, too,” Vesper said with a wink at Harry.

Harry sighed and nodded. “Fair enough. I like to introduce myself anyway, and not make any assumptions.”

“Like a true gentleman,” said Jaime approvingly. “I like that.”

“Well, that’s good. You’re from Spain?”

“Madrid, but currently living in London. I’m on an exchange program with your ministry. I thought, for fun, I would learn some self-defense; I was always decent in school. Kemp says I have a lot of promise. He is encouraging me to enter competitions, when I am… how he says…? ‘Up to snuff.’”

“Sounds about right,” said Harry.

“You compete?”

Harry shook his head. “That’s not really where my interests lie. I want to teach Defense. That’s why I’m training under Kemp.”

“Yes, he is an excellent teacher, I would say.”

“Proof positive right here.” Harry indicated Vesper. “She’s been training under him… how many years now?”

“Five,” Vesper said, eyeing Harry quizzically.

“She’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Harry said.

“I know,” Jaime leaned in conspiratorially. “I saw her practicing the other week. She is like… is called… el relámpago. I do not know the English word.”

“I don’t know that one,” admitted Harry. He turned to Vesper. “Do you?”

“Lightning,” she said, blushing.

“Yes, yes! That is it. Lightning!” Jaime flourished his wand arm and imitated the sound of a lightning strike. “Pow! One second, you’re dead.”

“It’s all over. You don’t stand a chance,” agreed Harry.

“Precisamente.”

“All right, well if you two are done talking about me like I’m not here…” said Vesper, fighting a smile. Jaime winked at her, then turned back to Harry.

“I look forward to our session Mr. Potter. For now I find the changing room.” He held indicated the messenger bag slung across his back. “I come straight from work and did not have time to change.”

“Sure. I’ll see you in there.”

Once Jaime was out of sight, Harry turned to Vesper. “What about him?”

“What do you mean?” Vesper asked with wide, innocent eyes.

“You know exactly what I mean. He’s quite good looking.”

Vesper pursed her lips. “Really? I didn’t notice.”

“Yeah, right. I saw the way you were looking at him.”

Vesper whacked him on the arm. “That’s a vivid imagination you have there. As if I would ever ogle a client. I’m a professional.”

“Yeah, but he’s not your client, he’s Kemp’s.”

“Same thing.”

Harry shook his head in disbelief.

“Why don’t you go after him, then, if you think he’s so good looking?” she added.

“Because I am quite happy in my relationship. Besides, I prefer them tall and blond and almost obnoxiously snarky.” Vesper rolled her eyes all the way to the ceiling. “And he was flirting with you, not me.”

“He was not flirting.”

“He was. It’s just that flirtation is a permanent state of being for you, so you’ve lost the ability to read the signs.”

“You are so full of shit, Harry Potter. I can’t wait for the day my uncle lets me kick your skinny ass all over the training floor.” She shoved him playfully, and he shoved her back.

The door opened and Kemp and his student walked through, and the two apprentices stopped giggling abruptly. Kemp eyed them both.

“Vesper, kindly help Liana schedule her next session. Potter, with me. Is Jaime here yet?”

“Yes, sir, he just went to change. He said he would come back when he’s ready.”

“Perfect,” said Kemp. “Let’s get a move on.” Harry followed him through the door. “That session ran over. Liana has some challenges with following instructions and I made her run extra drills. Did you get a chance to look at my notes on Jaime?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, then we can get started right away. You’ll lead. Start with basic defense moves, Shield Charm and the like. Chances are he knows some of it already, but when they learn in school they almost always develop bad habits, so be prepared to do some correcting.”

“Sure,” said Harry.

Jaime was already in the training room when they walked through the door, looking comfortable in sweats and a t-shirt.

“Hello, Jaime,” Kemp greeted him. “Thanks for waiting.”

“No problem, sir.”

“I believe you’ve already met my apprentice, Mr. Potter?”

“Yes, we were introduced.”

“Great. Then, if it’s all right with you, I’m going to have him take the lead in this session.”

“No problem,” Jaime replied, giving Harry a friendly smile. “I’m sure I will learn a lot from him.”

“Then let’s get started.”

Harry began where Kemp suggested, with the Shield Charm. As usual, Kemp’s instincts were right on the money, and Jaime did in fact have some issues with his shield technique. But Jaime was good-natured about it and quite receptive to feedback.

“If you want a really strong shield I find it’s best to push it outward with your magic a bit,” Harry explained to Jaime. “You will feel a natural resistance from it, but that’s ok. That tension means more powerful hexes are less likely to penetrate the shield.”

“Push with both hands to be most effective with that,” Kemp said from the outskirts of the floor, where he was observing the lesson.

Harry nodded and turned back to Jaime. “He’s right. Even your non-wand hand will help you here.” Of course, I was getting to that, if I’d just had another couple of minutes, he thought, but didn’t say aloud. He knew Kemp wasn’t used to turning over the reins, and probably had a compulsion to put in his two knuts worth every now and then. Harry could live with that.

They practiced the charm, with Harry throwing hexes at Jaime and Jaime trying to block them, for another twenty minutes, and Jaime steadily improved. He was far from perfect, though, but as they were practicing Harry found it harder and harder to get his chance to give the student feedback before Kemp jumped in to do it first. Part of the problem was that yelling instructions from the sidelines was Kemp’s style most of the time, whereas Harry preferred to watch the student do the move from start to finish and give feedback afterwards.

“Your feet, Jaime!” Kemp yelled. “You’re flat-footed. We’ve talked about this.”

Jaime’s shield wavered a bit and finally failed.

“It’s all right, try again,” said Harry. “And you do want to stay on the balls of your feet. I know it seems like having them firmly planted will help you stay grounded, but it won’t. Focus on keeping your weight in your core, not your legs.”

“He knows this already!” Kemp called.

Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes or exchange an irritated look with Jaime. That would be unprofessional. But he was sorely, sorely tempted. He saw Jaime give him a small smile of understanding, and that was enough.

“Again?” Harry asked, and Jaime nodded.

It finally got to the point that Jaime could produce a fairly strong shield, and Harry decided it was time to move on. He didn’t want to make the student spend the whole session on one charm.

“Good work. Keep practicing that at home,” he said. “Let me show you something else. This is one of the best spells I have in my defensive arsenal. It’s called the Impediment Jinx.”

He heard Kemp clear his throat and turned towards the noise. “I don’t teach Impedimenta as part of my curriculum. Better to move on to the Deflection Charm.”

Deflecto is a lot harder to learn than Impedimenta,” said Harry. He knew that this was only one session he was leading, and Jaime was Kemp’s student, in actuality, but why on earth couldn’t he learn how to use the jinx? “In fact, Protego is harder, too.”

“That’s because defensive spells in general are more challenging. They require a more nuanced use of energy and impeccable technique. The Impediment Jinx is offensive, so it is easier.”

“It’s technically offensive,” argued Harry, “but in actual usage it’s more defensive.” He turned back to Jaime. “It freezes an opponent for up to ten seconds. This is perfect if you have to make a quick getaway, or keep an attacker from hurting someone else. It leaves them vulnerable to charms like Incarcerous, so the attacker can be captured easily.”

“Which would be useful if Mr. Vilar here was training to be an Auror. But in competitive dueling circles the jinx is considered a bit gauche.”

“Gauche? Why? I imagine it could be very effective in dueling as well as self-defense.”

“It’s just not done,” said Kemp. “For one thing, it can be shaken off or blocked easily, if a person has had practice. And for another… it’s just considered a bit crude. Judges have been known to frown upon it.”

Harry shook his head. That didn’t make any sense to him. Many of the so-called “rules” of competitive dueling seemed completely arbitrary, in his opinion. “Well, it can’t hurt to learn it. It really isn’t difficult, and it’s one of the best things to have in your repertoire for defensive purposes, out in the real world.” He figured Jaime would appreciate this, especially since he had come to Kemp for self-defense lessons in the first place.

“Move on, Mr. Potter,” Kemp said, with finality. “To the Deflection Charm, or something else, if you have it in mind.”

Harry hesitated. On the one hand, if Jaime wasn’t going to get to practice the Impediment Jinx once he learned it, then what was the point? On the other, Jaime could practice at home, if Harry showed him the basics. And it was a useful spell. And this was his session, not Kemp’s.

“Sir, can I talk to you for a minute?” Harry asked.

He saw Kemp’s jaw tighten, but the man nodded.

“Keep practicing your shield,” Harry told Jaime. “I’ll just be a minute.” He walked off the floor and towards Kemp.

“Interrupting a student’s session to have a chat?” Kemp asked with an eyebrow raise. “We don’t want to waste Mr. Vilar’s time. The time he is paying for.”

“Sir, I’m just trying to understand why you’re so against me teaching him this jinx. He doesn’t have to practice it with you, but at least he’ll be able to practice it on his own. What can it hurt?”

“Time,” Kemp said simply. “Time spent in the session today, time spent practicing at home, when he should be working on his shield. Time. There is a competition coming up this summer that I want Jaime to be ready for. Why would he waste his time on something he isn’t even going to use?”

“Because he might use it. Yeah, maybe not in competition, but, if he’s ever attacked-“

“Attacked? Do you really believe he has to worry about that? And even if he does, that all of the other dueling skills aren’t going to prove more useful? It’s a pointless jinx to learn, end of discussion.”

“This is my session, sir.”

“With my student. If you want to teach it to your own students, be my guest. You can build your entire defensive curriculum around the Impediment Jinx, if you like. But you won’t teach it here.”

Harry felt his temper coming to the surface at Kemp’s stubborn dismissal of the issue. “If you were just going to teach from the sidelines, sir, why bother pretending to let me take the lead at all?”

“Excuse me, Mr. Potter?”

“You’ve been interrupting the entire session, always with feedback that I would have given Jaime anyway, if you’d given me the chance.”

“I am supervising, Mr. Potter. You were not expected to lead a perfect session, of course, and I jumped in when necessary to fill in the blanks.”

“I would have filled in those blanks myself, sir. Everything you said was something I already knew.”

“I see,” said Kemp, his eyes flashing dangerously. “Two months with me and you’re already an expert. Well you must just be a prodigy, then.”

“I had plenty of experience before I came here,” countered Harry. “Sure, I didn’t know about the correct way to bow before a duel or which spells earn you the most points but I knew plenty about defending myself.”

“Yes, with sloppy technique and simplistic jinxes,” Kemp said coldly.

Harry gritted his teeth. “I’m alive, aren’t I, despite many people’s best efforts? I’ve used that jinx against more Death Eaters than I can count. How many of Voldemort’s followers did you fight against, sir? I’m guessing not many, considering you skipped out on the war altogether.”

That, it became immediately clear, was quite the wrong thing to say.

Harry saw Kemp’s eyes bulge for a moment. “Mr. Vilar!” he barked suddenly.

“Sir?” Harry heard Jaime say behind him.

“I’m very sorry, but we’re going to have to cut this session short. See Vesper about it when you leave and she will compensate you for the time lost. I sincerely apologize.”

“No problem, sir,” said Jaime. “Thank you for the lesson.”

“You are most welcome,” said Kemp, not taking his eyes off Harry.

Jaime passed them on his way out the door and gave Harry a fearful look. Harry nodded at him, hoping he appeared reassuring. He could handle Kemp, one way or another. He was hardly scared of him.

When Jaime closed the door behind him and they were alone, Kemp looked Harry up and down, as if sizing him up. The silence stretched on. Harry made sure to never look away.

“Some disagreement I can tolerate, Potter. But outright insolence, in front of one of my students, no less? Where do you get the nerve?”

Without thinking about it, Harry held up his hand where the scar from his detentions with Dolores Umbridge was still visible, especially when he tightened his fist. I must not tell lies.

“I learned during the war, sir, that the most important thing I could do is always speak my mind, even when it’s something no one wants to hear. Holding back the truth does a disservice to everyone, and keeping Jaime from learning something simply because you don’t believe it would be useful would be a disservice to him. He told me within two minutes of having met me that he was interested in self-defense, and didn’t even think about the possibility of competitive dueling until you told him he should. I thought the best education possible I could give him-“

That’s quite enough,” Kemp interrupted. “How very noble of you. And yet, at the same time, so arrogant. You really do buy into the legend of the Boy Who Lived, don’t you? You really do try to live up to all the things they say.”

“I don’t care about what they say,” said Harry, the temperature of his anger rising by the second. “I don’t give a damn about my public image. But I do give a damn about doing right by other people.”

“I see, and you believe I don’t?”

“I believe Jaime came to you for self-defense lessons, and you pushed him into dueling-“

Pushed him. How dare you speak like that about something you know absolutely nothing about? I did not push him. I barely had to nudge him. Jaime, for all his outward nonchalance, has quite the competitive spirit. As do you, for that matter. Yet you are afraid to use it.”

“I’m not afraid. I’m just not interested.”

“I cannot possibly begin to understand you.”

“And I cannot possibly begin to understand you, sir. Because it seems you, too, are afraid. But of what, I don’t know. Of actually standing for something, I suppose.”

Kemp’s back straightened so that he loomed over Harry, a steely glint in his eyes. “You seem to be under the false impression that this sort of behavior makes you a man, Mr. Potter. I can assure you, it doesn’t. I can see now that you have become little more than an unwitting infant turned self-righteous hero. What a disappointment.”

Though Harry would never admit it aloud, those words stung considerably. But he knew what would hurt Kemp even worse. “And you are nothing but a coward who flees the country to save its own skin and only returns when the rest of us have made it safe for him. So I suppose I’m a bit disappointed too, sir.

Kemp’s face got slowly redder and redder. Harry thought for a moment that he might spontaneously combust. But instead he said in a low, icy voice. “We are done here.”

“Yes, we are.”

Harry turned on shaky legs, making for the door. In fact, his entire body appeared to be vibrating. Part of it was anger, he knew, but another part had to be disbelief, because he couldn’t really be sure what was happening. He made his way down the hall and out into the waiting room, where he immediately heard Vesper’s voice.

“Harry? What the hell was going on in there? Jaime just came out and said…” She went on, but Harry hardly heard the words. He turned around and looked at her.

“I’m sorry, Ves,” he barely managed, aware that his voice sounded tight. “I can’t.”

“What? Harry-“

But Harry was already at the floo, tossing a handful of powder into the fire like he was throwing a grenade.

***

Harry couldn’t get his agitation to abate, hard as he tried as he made his way to the 8th year common room. There was a scathing and unrelenting monologue cycling through his head that he couldn’t get rid of, and it kept his blood pounding away in his ears. He flexed his hands and rolled his shoulders, trying to ease some of the tension, but there was nothing for it. He was worked up, good and proper.

Fuck Kemp. Fuck his arrogance and his stubbornness and his self-serving nature. Fuck him for trying to turn me into something I’m not, something I never wanted to be. Fuck him for never listening and for always thinking he’s right. Fuck him for fleeing England when he should have helped us fight, and fuck him even more for not even being ashamed of it.

And on, and on, and on…

He didn’t have to say a thing when he entered the 8th year common room and his friends caught sight of him. They knew immediately that something had happened. Ron and Hermione looked at Harry with identical expressions of alarm, and Harry saw Ron grip Hermione by the arm as she made to stand up and go over to him, seeming to instinctively understand that this wasn’t the wisest move.

Harry locked eyes with Draco, who was sitting with his fellow Slytherins and watching Harry with a furrowed brow. The glance was only a second, but it was enough. As Harry made his way up the stairs to his room, he knew that Draco would follow. He unlocked his room and left the door open, and was only pacing for a few seconds when he heard the blond enter with cautious steps.

“What happened, Harry?”

Harry shook his head. He had no words, not yet.

Draco closed the door behind him and came further into the room, seating himself on the edge of Harry’s bed. Out of the corner of his eye Harry could pick up on the relaxed body language that was meant to convey Draco’s infinite patience, though he knew in actuality his boyfriend was probably anxious for an answer. Harry stopped pacing and turned to him.

“I got angry. Said some things. But they were justified.”

“Tell me.” It was a gentle command, but it was a command all the same. And, for some reason, that it made it easier to respond.

“Kemp, he… he was going to let me lead a session with a student. I thought it was a good sign, like he’s finally letting me take the reins a bit. And I was glad to finally get to try it for myself, see if teaching is really what I want to do.” He began pacing again. “He was a beginning student, had only been coming to Kemp for a few weeks. He was just learning the basics, easy stuff, stuff I can do in my sleep. I knew exactly what we should work on, and it was going fine, except that Kemp kept jumping in and correcting things, even though I had it perfectly under control. It was irritating, but I could have tolerated it. Except that when I got to the point that I wanted to teach the student Impedimenta, Kemp wouldn’t let me. I tried to find out why but his explanation was complete bollocks. It made no sense. So I pulled him aside and asked him why he had even bothered to let me lead the session, if he was just going to try and lead it himself from the sidelines. That really pissed him off. I guess I was a bit… insolent about it. But I was annoyed!”

He looked over at Draco to see that the blond was listening with an impassive expression. “I don’t blame you. It sounds annoying,” he said. “What happened next?”

“It just… escalated. You know how I am.” He managed a wry smirk, which Draco returned. “And it turns out Kemp has a bit of a temper, too, because before I knew it we were throwing insults at each other, and by the time he was calling me a ‘self-righteous infant hero’ I decided I would be well shot of him, so I said… well… I said something quite nasty back. And that was the end of it. I left. Stormed out, more like.”

“And how are you feeling now? Still angry?”

“Yes! I can’t seem to...” Harry made himself take a calming breath. “I feel like I have more to say to him, but none of it is something he would want to hear. It’s better that I left, I think, because it really could have gotten ugly. But now I have all this pent up frustration and I don’t know what to do with it.”

Draco grinned. “I can think of some things you could do with it.”

Harry gave him a look. “I’m not going to shag my anger away, Draco. It’s not that kind of frustration.”

“Frustration is frustration,” Draco said, earning another look from Harry. “Oh, I’m only joking… mostly.”

Harry managed a small chuckle and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Well, do you just need to vent, then? You can tell me all the awful things you were thinking about Kemp, since I won’t get upset or judge you,” Draco suggested.

Harry thought about that. “What I really want is to understand.”

“Understand him?”

“Understand why it isn’t working. It’s like we’re… I don’t know. It’s like we’re different in all the wrong ways and similar in all the wrong ways too. It’s like the exact opposite of my relationship with you.”

“Hm,” Draco said noncommittally.

“You get on with your potions master, don’t you?”

“Sure,” said Draco, sounding surprised at the question. “He’s no Severus Snape, who I was always planning on apprenticing under, but he’s quite good. And he treats me with respect, even though he could easily hold my former Death Eater status against me.”

Harry snapped his fingers and pointed at Draco. “You know, that’s part of it, I think, the respect thing. I don’t feel like Kemp respects me. Or he doesn’t treat me with respect, anyhow.”

“In what way?”

“He doesn’t listen. He just talks. Barks orders, more like. And there’s no flexibility. You either do everything his way, or you leave. Learning isn’t… a conversation with him, it’s a lecture. You know, when Dumbledore was helping me get ready to fight Voldemort, he rarely ever told me what to do. He would usually talk me through to my own conclusion about things. He would guide me to the truth, not push or drag me there. And Remus, when he was teaching me he used to give suggestions, correct my technique, help me see what I was doing wrong, but he never barked them at me. They were more like reminders, and they didn’t distract from what I was trying to accomplish. He had a calming presence, which made it easier to learn.”

“It sounds like you just don’t mesh with Kemp’s teaching style, perhaps.”

Harry sighed. Was that it? He wasn’t sure. “He’s a good teacher in many ways,” he countered. “I’ve learned a lot. He knows so much, and he has a good eye, and he’s good at explaining things. But it just isn’t… I just think a relationship between a mentor and a student has to be one of mutual respect. And I don’t feel any respect from him.”

“Do you show him respect?” Draco asked carefully.

“Yes,” said Harry. “Yes, of course.”

Draco looked at him for a moment. “Let me ask it a different way. Do you respect him?”

Harry opened his mouth, but found he didn’t have an answer. Or perhaps not a fully honest one, anyway. He really considered the question. “I respect his talent as a duelist. I respect many of his abilities, like how he can watch a student for five minutes and already tell everything they’re doing wrong…”

His saw Draco’s mouth twitch, ever so slightly. “But…”

Harry closed his eyes in a slow blink of realization. “But I’m not sure I respect him as a person. He’s made some questionable, selfish choices in his life. Not just choices that I wouldn’t make myself, but choices I can’t understand anyone making. He has attitudes, too, about dueling, about his business. It’s about what serves him, not about what’s good for other people, for his students.”

Draco didn’t say anything, perhaps trying on Dumbledore’s technique and letting him come to his own conclusions.

“I suppose the question is,” he said, after a minute or two, “can Kemp tell I don't fully respect him?” He looked at Draco, who looked back with an expression of pure curiosity, as though he were simply waiting for the answer. “I mean, in the way I'm acting? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe he can, and that's part of it. Maybe he’s been reacting to the way I've been treating him, even if he doesn't... you know, consciously realize it.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” said Draco. “But I do think whatever this relationship is, it’s a bit dysfunctional.”

Harry snorted. “Yeah.”

“So I would argue that the real question is, what are you going to do about it?”

Harry looked at him blankly.

“Are you going back?” Draco pressed. “Are you going to work it out, or sever ties? Are you quitting or staying on?”

“I don’t know. I feel like I have plenty of reasons to quit.”

“And what reasons are there to give it another go?”

Harry sighed. “I haven’t fully explored this teaching option, and if it’s something I would want to do. I was learning a lot about dueling and improving my technique. I get on with his other apprentice, and I think she could teach me a thing or two as well.” He felt a pinch of regret at the thought of Vesper. He’d been really enjoying their burgeoning friendship. Would he lose that too, if he cut ties with Kemp?

Draco nodded. “And your reasons to quit?”

Harry gave him an incredulous look. “Aren’t they obvious?”

“Name them,” Draco said. “Just try. Say them out loud.”

“Kemp’s a twat.”

Draco burst into laughter, but then gave Harry a knowing look. “Be more specific, Harry.”

Harry sighed again. “Fine. He… We… it’s not… it wasn’t the relationship I envisioned. I don’t have the kind of relationship with him that I was looking for with a mentor.”

“And what were you looking for?”

“I guess… something more like what I had with Dumbledore or Remus?” He hadn’t realized that until he said it aloud, but he suddenly understood that it was true.

Draco nodded. “Or Sirius?” he asked tentatively.

Harry looked at him sharply. “What do you mean?” Sirius had never been his teacher or his mentor.

Draco shrugged. “Every man, with the exception of Arthur Weasley, I suppose, who has ever been close to a father figure in your life has died, Harry.”

“You think I’m looking for some kind of father replacement?” Harry asked. “That’s taking it a bit too far with the psychoanalysis, Draco.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “It might not be that simple. But for you, who never had a father, the lines between father and mentor are a bit blurry, aren’t they? I’m not trying to psychoanalyze,” he said, in reaction to Harry’s blank stare. “I’m speaking from experience, as someone who never truly had a father either. Why do you think I was so attached to Severus? He listened to and supported me more than my own father ever did. The two roles conflated quite naturally in my mind. Losing Severus, in the end, was much more painful than losing my father to prison. Only one of them really loved me.”

Harry took a step towards Draco, wanting to comfort him, but Draco waved a hand. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make this about me. I’m only pointing out that it’s natural for you to want to find a man in your life, someone older than you, who can teach you, guide you, even… love you, like a father does for his son. And if that’s what you’re looking for… well, you’re obviously not going to find it in Kemp. But that’s not his fault. Nor is it yours.”

Harry’s natural inclination was to argue. Of course he hadn’t believed he would find some sort of pseudo-godfather in Kemp. But he made himself consider it, because he was learning how wise Draco was about these things, and because Draco’s personal experience was relatable to his own in many ways.

“I don’t think I was looking for a replacement for Sirius,” he said finally. “But I think I was looking for another Dumbledore or Remus, maybe. And considering how extraordinary those two men were and how well they knew me and my history, I suppose those expectations were unfair to put on someone new. But that doesn’t change the fact that Kemp… Kemp isn’t just a disappointment he’s… the opposite of what I’m looking for.”

“So, what does that mean going forward? Are you going to quit?”

Harry grimaced. He hated the idea of being a quitter. It was not his usual way of doing things, to quit when it got hard. But the idea of going back there, of facing Kemp again…

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

“All right,” said Draco. “You don’t have to know right now. Easter break is only a week away. You’ve got midterms and plenty else to worry about. Don’t decide now, if you don’t think you can. Take some time to think about it.”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “All right.” He looked at Draco, who gave him a soft smile.

“Come here.”

Harry did, and was a bit surprised when Draco immediately began undoing the lower buttons of his shirt, revealing the tan skin of his flat stomach. Draco leaned in and kissed around his bellybutton.

“Feel better?” he asked.

“Mm, a bit,” Harry said.

He felt the vibrations of Draco’s laugh through his abdominal muscles as the blond continued to place kisses there.

“What can I do for you?” Draco asked.

“You’ve already done so much for me, Draco,” Harry said, though his voice was a bit breathy as Draco’s lips skimmed the sensitive skin at the edge of his trousers. “Let me do something for you.”

But Draco shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’ve just realized how long it’s been since I made you come with my mouth.” He looked up at Harry, his gray eyes suddenly clouded with lust.

Harry’s breathing hitched, and he felt himself grow to full hardness almost instantly.

“I can’t complain, of course,” Draco went on, his voice getting darker and huskier by the second as he began to undo Harry’s belt and zipper. “I love the way you fuck me.” He dropped to his knees in front of Harry. “I love it when you come inside me.”

“Fuck,” Harry groaned. Draco’s words had him panting already, his cock throbbing painfully.

Draco peeled down Harry’s trousers and pants all the way to his ankles, then ran a finger from his perineum over the crack in his arse, making Harry buck uncontrollably. “But tonight I want to remind myself how good you taste,” Draco went on, before kissing the tip of Harry’s leaking cock.

Harry moaned, grabbing onto one of the posts of his bed for support. He knew exactly what Draco was doing, trying to distract him from his troubles, but he was way too far gone to care. He watched as Draco took the head of Harry’s cock into his mouth, all the while keeping his eyes on Harry, making sure Harry could see everything he was doing. Harry placed a hand gently on Draco’s head as the blond took the erection further into his mouth.

“Mm, Draco.” He had to close his eyes from the pleasure of that warm, wet mouth, that swirling tongue.

Draco sucked a little harder, then relaxed his mouth and throat, taking Harry even further inside.

“Gods!” Harry cried. It took all of his willpower not to take control and thrust with abandon. “You’re fucking incredible, Draco,” he managed, knowing how much Draco would like that.

His boyfriend hummed in appreciation, sending a wave of delicious fire up his cock and into his gut, where the pleasure was mounting, his bollocks already tightening, readying for release.

“Don’t stop,” he told Draco. “I’m so close.” It was incredible, really, that he would be climaxing so soon. But Draco was talented and knew how to work him into a carnal frenzy like no one else, so he supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised.

Part of him wanted to make it last, keep feeling the sharp, sweet pull that came with the rhythmic bobbing of Draco’s head, but he knew he couldn’t hold it off. That burning in his gut was peaking now, reaching the point of no return, and it was only a matter of time.

“Draco!” His hand tightened in that platinum blond hair as he hovered right on the edge. “Draco, I-“

Draco’s mouth tightened around him, and Harry tumbled over the cliff, his orgasm ripping through him as he pulsed into Draco’s mouth. Draco swallowed it all, not releasing Harry until he was absolutely spent.

His legs like jelly, Harry had no choice but to collapse onto the bed, though he was careful to avoid crushing Draco in the process. Working to get his breathing back to normal, he lay on his back and watched Draco, who was now removing Harry’s shoes and the clothing that was gathered around his ankles.

“Well this is just a full service kind of place here, isn’t it?” Harry joked, still out of breath, his legs now completely free.

Draco grinned. “I’ve got to give you some reason to keep me around.”

Harry didn’t honor that with a response. Draco already knew how much Harry loved him.

“Here, I’ll help you take off your shirt as well.”

There were just a few more buttons, and some finagling to get the sleeves down his arms, and Harry was completely naked.

“Take yours off too and I’ll return the favor,” Harry said.

“Hmm…” Draco looked at his watch. “Maybe, in a couple of hours, if you’re still awake. I have a runes translation to finish first.”

“You’re choosing Ancient Runes homework over a blowjob?” Harry asked incredulously.

“If you give me one now, I’ll fall asleep,” said Draco reasonably. “And then my homework won’t get done, and I’ll get bad marks, and fail out of Hogwarts, and then be unemployable, leaving us to live in destitution for the rest of our days.”

“All from one little blowjob. What a travesty,” said Harry. “Never mind, I suppose, that between us we have more money than we could ever possibly need.”

“Shhhh,” Draco said. “Not relevant.” He peeled the covers from underneath Harry and then began to lay them over his naked body.

“Are you seriously tucking me into bed right now?” Harry asked, though, since he still didn’t feel much like moving, he was not fighting Draco at all.

“I think you could use some rest. You’ve earned it, you don’t have any homework that can’t wait until tomorrow, and you’ve had a rough day. Just enjoy it.”

Harry huffed. “You know what would make me feel even better? Giving you a blowie. That would really get my spirits up.”

Draco laughed. “Don’t tempt me, Harry.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re so bloody tempting, and I’m only half a term away from perfect marks in Ancient Runes. Please don’t make me choose between your sexy, talented mouth and finally besting Hermione in this subject. That would just be cruel.”

Harry sighed but acquiesced, glad, at least, that Draco was finally calling Hermione by her given name. It had taken him long enough.

“Fine,” he said. “But I’m staying up until you get back.”

“Promises, promises,” Draco said. “I won’t hold it against you, you know, if you don’t make it.”

“Really. I’m determined to now. I’ll open my Charms text, get ahead on my reading. I’m sure it will keep me riveted.”

“Getting ahead on schoolwork!” Draco feigned shock. “I must be rubbing off on you.”

“You could rub one off on me right now, if you wanted,” Harry replied cheekily. “I’ll help.”

“All right, that’s enough of that,” said Draco. His expression sobered. “I love you.”

Harry, realizing that they were getting back into more serious territory and that Draco was really going to leave him to finish his homework, took Draco’s hand. “I love you, too. And thanks. For everything.”

Draco leaned over to give Harry a sweet, chaste kiss. “Anything for you. Always.”

Harry liked the sound of that. “Always,” he echoed.

He saw Draco swallow, trying to contain the raw emotion Harry could see reflected in his eyes. Then, with another kiss and a soft, “I’ll be back,” Draco stood and walked out, leaving Harry alone to pass the time with daydreams of what he would do to Draco when he returned.

Chapter Text

Harry wasn’t sure what he wanted to show Draco first as they entered Number 12 Grimmauld Place. There was certainly plenty for him to see with the completely redone first floor, but there were also all of the family heirlooms that had been declared safe and were waiting in their display cabinets, plus the Black family mural in the sitting room.

And then there was his bedroom, which, frankly, he wouldn’t have qualms about heading to first. It had been a busy week of mid-terms, with neither of them having much time or energy to have their own private fun. Harry was feeling that deprivation in full force.

But the way Draco was looking around the space and starting to wander towards the dining room, it was clear he was game for a tour, and Harry put his needy libido aside for the time being so that he could show him around.

“This looks great, Harry,” Draco said, running his fingers lightly along a hallway wall and its fresh coat of light blue paint. “I only came here a couple of times as a child; I don’t remember much, except that it was dark and sort of gave me the creeps.”

“Yeah, I think that was most people’s general impression.”

“A vast improvement. Kept some things, though.” He pointed to the spidery wrought iron chandelier above the dining room table. “That’s a Black original. Has to be.”

Harry shrugged. “Some things I liked,” he said simply. While the chandelier had been a bit creepy when the walls were dark and it was covered in cobwebs, with the lighter walls and the new furniture it looked quite modern.

They entered the kitchen, and Draco whistled, impressed. “So shiny,” he said. “Is this what all Muggle kitchens look like?”

“New, fancy ones, anyway,” said Harry. “Older ones look much like wizard kitchens. But Muggles have some extra appliances, since they don’t have preservation or cleaning charms.”

Draco opened the door to the stainless steel refrigerator. “I’ve heard about this. It’s a giant box that keeps things cold.”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “It’s called a refrigerator. Fridge for short.”

Draco nodded, then pointed to the small appliance installed above one of the ovens. “What’s that, then?”

“Microwave. It heats things up very quickly. Faster than warming charms, even.”

“You don’t say,” said Draco.

Harry chuckled. “You know, if you’d taken a Muggle Studies course, you’d know all of this already.”

Draco gave him a “don’t be absurd” sort of look and made his way over to the microwave, where he started pressing buttons at random.

“It’s best if you put something inside first,” said Harry, coming up behind him and pressing “cancel” quickly as the microwave whirred to life. “I’ll show you later.”

Worried that Draco might start pressing every button he could find and accidentally start up the empty dishwasher, he guided them out of the kitchen and into the sitting room.

“I wanted to get a look at the progress of the mural,” said Harry.

“Look, I’m on here,” said Draco, pointing to the portrait of him that sat nestled under Lucius and Narcissa.

“Yeah, I know.”

“And so are you.”

Harry started. “That’s not possible.” He followed the trajectory of Draco’s pointed finger and saw, with a spasm of surprise, that his boyfriend was right. There was most definitely a portrait of him, where there hadn’t been before. It was linked by a gold thread to Sirius’ image.

“Because he named you his heir,” said Draco. “That’s what the gold means. Heirs are linked by gold to their parents, other children silver. Couples are linked in red, see?”

Harry could see the pattern now. He hadn’t put much thought into the colors. He’d been more concerned about the restoration of the portraits that had been blasted off. But now that Draco had pointed it out to him he could see that those who were married were connected by a deep, metallic red, while their children were linked by either silver, gold, or, in only a few instances, black. Sirius’ link to his mother was such an example. For the children who were disowned, Harry thought.

“I didn’t think I’d end up on here,” he said, his fingers lightly touching his own portrait, and then tracing the gold line all the way to Sirius’, which was now fully restored.

“You’re a Black now,” said Draco, coming up behind Harry and wrapping his arms around his waist. “Not by blood, but that doesn’t matter. The house knows your connection to the family anyway.” He pointed to his own portrait. “We’re not so far apart really.” Taking Harry’s hand, he traced their fingers along an invisible line from his portrait to Harry’s.

“Someday,” Harry said softly, imagining that line marked in red.

He felt Draco’s arm tighten around his middle. “Someday.” He nuzzled into the back of Harry’s neck, then began placing his lips there with the softest of touches, sending shivers of pleasure and anticipation down Harry’s spine. “How about you show me your bedroom next,” the Slytherin said in Harry’s ear.

Harry smiled. His thoughts exactly.

***

Once they had thoroughly worked up an appetite, Harry decided he wanted to cook them dinner himself, so he could finally try out the new kitchen. He hadn’t had much of a chance the one day he was at Grimmauld over the Christmas break, since Kreacher had insisted on doing all of the cooking for him.

When Harry relayed that desire to Kreacher, however, the house elf seemed to not know what to make of it.

“Is Master Harry not being pleased with Kreacher’s cooking?” he asked in his feeble, scratchy voice.

“No, that’s not it at all, Kreacher,” Harry said, rubbing his neck and feeling a bit awkward. “I just haven’t gotten to use my new kitchen, is all. I’d like to try it out.”

Draco was a bit skeptical as well. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” he asked, looking on as Harry started prepping the ingredients for roast chicken and potatoes.

Harry rolled his eyes. “Of course. I’ve been cooking since I was small.”

“At your aunt and uncle’s? I thought they didn’t feed you much.”

“They didn’t,” said Harry. “I fed them.”

“They made you cook for them?” Draco had that tone in his voice he got when he was simultaneously amazed and incensed. Harry nodded. “And yet you still enjoy cooking, after all that?”

Harry shrugged. “Sure.” He couldn’t explain why being forced to cook for his relatives hadn’t put a damper on the pastime. It just hadn’t. “Any chance you’re going to give me some assistance?”

Draco hesitated. “I’d hinder you more than help, probably. I know nothing about the culinary arts.”

“How can a man already halfway through a Potions mastery not know how to cook?”

“How can a man who’s been cooking since he was a child not have any intuition for Potions?” Draco countered.

Harry considered that. “Touché,” he said. “Very well. Kreacher will help me, then.” Kreacher started at that, and then clasped his hands together happily. “Whereas you’ll be in charge of entertainment.” He pointed towards his stereo and the shelf of CDs above it. “Pick out some music for us, would you?”

Draco seemed pleased with the task, and started browsing through Harry’s CD collection. “The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones,” he read off. “I’m sensing a theme here.”

“Yeah, well, I know what I like,” said Harry. It was true that his CD collection wasn’t large, but it was well curated.

“Who are the Violent Femmes?”

“Folk rock band from the States. A bit angry, sort of neo-punk meets alternative country.”

He didn’t see Draco’s reaction, since he was busy seasoning the chicken, but he figured by the silence that Draco didn’t quite approve.

“The Clash?” Draco asked, sounding confused.

Harry had to look up at that. “Surely you’ve heard of The Clash.” Draco stared at him blankly from the stereo. “’London Calling’? ‘I Fought the Law’? ‘Rock the Casbah’? No? Nothing? That doesn’t register at all?” Harry shook his head in disbelief. “Sweet Merlin.” For all his talk, Draco clearly had some gaps in his musical education.

“You have basically no hip-hop at all,” Draco commented. “Where’s your Mos Def? Notorious B.I.G.? Tupac?” It was Harry’s turn to look blank. He had heard of those artists, but had little interest in their music. “You must have some Dre, at least,” Draco insisted.

“No, sorry.”

“Remind me what it is that keeps us together? Because it’s clearly not our taste in music.”

“Hmm, I had thought perhaps it was our profound love and mutual respect for each other,” said Harry, amused.

“And the brilliant sex,” said Draco, still skimming the collection. “Never forget the sex. Yes!” he shouted in triumph. “You have Michael Jackson at least. You have been redeemed.”

Harry rolled his eyes. Of course he had Michael bloody Jackson. He watched as Draco pulled Thriller off the shelf and started playing around on the stereo, trying to get it to open.

“Need some help over there, love?” Harry asked with mock sweetness.

“I’ve got it. Don’t be so impatient. I know how to work a bloody stereo.”

Draco did, in fact, have it under control, since only a minute later the funky beats of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” could be heard. Draco turned up the volume loud enough to fill the kitchen. Then, to Harry’s surprise and great amusement, Draco started to dance.

“When I said you were in charge of the entertainment, I didn’t mean you had to literally provide it,” said Harry, although he was quite enjoying the show. Draco, unsurprisingly, was a good dancer. He had both grace and rhythm, and those nights he spent in Muggle clubs after his trial clearly paid off, as far as his repertoire was concerned. Still, there was something inherently funny about watching the Prince of Slytherin try to imitate the King of Pop’s signature moves.

“What is Master Draco doing?” Kreacher asked, looking somewhat appalled.

“The moonwalk, of course,” said Draco.

Harry found his laughter hard to control. Draco’s moonwalk needed some work.

“You can’t tell me this music doesn’t make you want to dance,” Draco said. “How can it not?”

“I’ve never been a good dancer,” said Harry. “So I tend to avoid it at all costs.”

“Bollocks,” said Draco. “You’re good at all things physical.”

“Not dancing,” said Harry.

“You just need practice, and confidence.”

“And rhythm. And I don’t believe I’ve ever moved my hips like that it my life.”

Draco danced his way up to Harry. “You have,” he said quietly. “Just not on a dance floor. You moved quite a bit like this when you were bollocks deep inside me not an hour ago.”

Harry felt his face flame, and was glad that Kreacher hadn’t overheard Draco’s remark. “It’s not the same thing.”

“It is the same thing,” Draco said. “I’ll take you out to a club sometime and show you.”

Luckily, Draco then allowed Harry to get back to his cooking, rather than forcing him to start dancing as well. He seemed perfectly content to dance alone, confident in a way Harry couldn’t help but envy. As Harry and Kreacher got the chicken and potatoes ready for the oven, Draco moved, snapped, and chanted along with the song, lost in his own world.

“Mama-say mama-sa mama-coo-sa.”

“And I haven’t even given him any wine yet,” Harry remarked to Kreacher, and thought he caught the elf smirking.

After a tasty and enjoyable dinner, Draco liked the idea of watching something on Harry’s fancy new television, so they moved to the lounge and took a look at Harry’s DVD collection. Like with his CDs, he didn’t have all that many, but what he did have, he loved.

“What are you in the mood for?” Harry asked him.

“Something scary,” Draco said, which didn’t surprise Harry in the slightest. “With lots of action.”

Harry pulled out Jurassic Park and held it out to him. “Have you seen this?”

“No,” Draco said, looking at the front, and then the back. “What are those things? Big lizards?”

“Dinosaurs. A bit like dragons, except they don’t breathe fire. And only some of them can fly.” He saw Draco raise a skeptical eyebrow. “But it has lots of scares and action, and really good special effects.”

“I don’t know what that last bit means, but sure, why not?”

They settled in together on the couch, and, as usual, within only a few minutes Draco was riveted.

Harry really enjoyed watching films with Draco. He talked a lot, which some would find annoying, but it was only because he became so quickly invested in the story and the characters. Harry wasn’t sure if it was just an inherent part of Draco’s personality or the fact that films were still a bit of a novelty for the pureblood wizard, but he didn’t much care. It was as entertaining to watch Draco watching the film as it was to watch the film itself.

“Oh, shit!” Draco cried as Laura Dern’s character ran for her life from one of the raptors. “Shield Charm! Why doesn’t she use a fucking Shield Charm?”

“She’s a Muggle,” Harry reminded him. “She can’t perform a Shield Charm.”

“Oh, right,” said Draco. “I always forget. It must be absolutely terrifying to be a Muggle. Just about anything could kill you at any moment.”

“Yes, like bloodthirsty dinosaur clones,” Harry said drily.

“These things aren’t real, right? Those velociraptors scare the shit out of me. Worse than dragons. They’re fucking stealthy.”

“They did exist at one point, before there were humans, but they’re extinct now.”

“Yeah, but all these smart Muggles were able to bring them back to life.”

“In the film,” said Harry. “But no one has done it in real life. It’s not clear if such a thing is even possible. It probably isn’t.”

“Thank Merlin for that.”

Harry laughed at Draco’s theatrics and snuggled closer to him.

Someday, in the not too distant future, he thought, it could be like this all the time.

He couldn’t wait.

***

“Harry, have you seen this?”

Harry looked up from the range, where he was scrambling eggs and frying bacon, to look at Draco. The blond was sitting at the kitchen table, holding up that morning’s edition of the Prophet.

“No, I haven’t read it yet. What does it say?”

“The Heirloom Declaration Act,” Draco said.

Harry waved his wand to flip the bacon over. “The what?”

“It’s new legislation some members of the Ministry are trying to push through. It’s supposed to go before the Wizengamot for a vote in a few weeks. Apparently the people who wrote the bill feel that the Ministry needs to have awareness of and control over artifacts imbued with magical properties that have been passed down through wizarding families. They want owners of such artifacts to have to register them with the Ministry.”

Harry was silent for a moment as he absorbed that. The food was ready and he floated two plates over to him and divided the breakfast between them, then added toast to each plate. He then levitated the two plates to the table, and heard Draco’s quiet “thanks” as his food was placed in front of him. Harry sat down and picked up his fork before he finally asked, “Why? Why would they care about something like that now?”

Draco paused in the buttering of his toast to give Harry a wry smirk. “Why do you think? Who is most likely to have such artifacts in their possession?”

“Purebloods,” Harry said. That much was obvious.

“Exactly.”

Harry thought some more. “They’re targeting purebloods?”

Draco nodded. “Not all purebloods, either. Just traditionally dark families. They must be, otherwise, what would be the point? The Ministry doesn’t give a lick what sort of heirlooms old wizarding families own, even magical ones. They just want probable cause to go through our possessions in the hopes of finding something illegal.”

“They can do that?”

“If that act passes, they can,” said Draco. “According to the article I just read, the new law would let Ministry officials search pureblood estates if they have reason to believe the family owns dangerous artifacts they haven’t declared. And considering that most dark wizarding family have various dark artifacts rotting away in their basements… Never mind that no one uses them. The fact that they most likely exist will probably be justification enough for the Ministry to go snooping.”

As he chewed his bacon Harry opened the paper to see the article for himself. Skimming it, he saw that Draco was right. The Ministry claimed to be looking to crack down on the trade and use of “dangerous artifacts” in general, but was very clearly fixated on what pureblood families might have in their possession, specifically. “How bad is this?” he asked the blond. “How much of an impact will this have?”

“It’s hard to say,” said Draco. “It depends on how eager the creators of the bill are to get pureblood families in trouble. They could start enforcing the law right away, if they felt like it. Or nothing could come of it. But either way, it would give the Ministry power it didn’t have before.”

“How bad would it be for you or your mother? Could you two get in trouble?”

Draco sighed. “Mother and I went through a sizeable purge when we moved back into the manor. Of course, the Aurors had already been through the estate while we were in prison. They found plenty right there in plain sight, but seeing as how Voldemort and his minions had been using the house as their headquarters, they couldn’t pin anything on us. A lot of it was confiscated, but we didn’t lose anything too valuable. Most of our own heirlooms are hidden away and well protected. But when Mother and I got home we went through everything, removed dark magic from the objects that we could, and got rid of anything that was irreversibly cursed.”

“Why?” Harry asked.

“Because we were finally free and we didn’t want to give the Aurors any reason to chuck us back in Azkaban.”

Harry nodded. It was smart thinking. “So you’re probably safe from this, then.”

Draco sighed. “Probably. Hopefully. The problem is my father… my ancestors, too, they had all sorts of hiding places for things. And you’ve seen the size of the estate. It would be nearly impossible to find every possible hiding place, unless you already knew where they were. There is a very good chance that there are things Mother and I missed, simply because we didn’t know they were there. The Aurors might not be able to find them either, but what if they did? What if they got lucky and found just one secret room that happened to hold some dark artifacts? We’d be in a whole heap of trouble then, especially given our track record.”

“That’s so unfair!” said Harry. “How can you be held responsible for something you didn’t even know was there?”

“They don’t care much about ‘fair,’ I don’t think,” Draco said darkly. “The fact is, I own the estate, and my mother resides there and manages it, which means we are legally responsible for everything within the estate’s boundaries, whether we know it exists or not. And possession of certain kinds of dark artifacts is illegal, even if you never use them. So…”

Harry shook his head. “This is wrong. This is people just trying to get back at you for avoiding prison.”

“I won’t be arrogant enough to assume it’s only targeted at the Malfoy family,” said Draco. “Many pureblood families will be in a similar situation. But social power is in the hands of the Muggleborns and half-bloods now, since the end of the war. Being a pureblood is looked down upon, in some circles. It’s assumed we’re all bigoted and practicing dark magic. Except for the Weasleys, of course, or the other traditionally light families,” he finished bitterly.

Harry ignored Draco’s slight dig at his best mate’s family, too focused on what they could possibly do about this. “Surely this wasn’t Kingsley’s doing. Surely he hasn’t signed off on this.”

Draco shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”

“He wouldn’t,” Harry said definitively. “This is some other group within the Ministry and the Wizengamot trying to make this happen. But it can’t possibly pass, can it? There are still a lot of purebloods with seats in the Wizengamot who would probably vote against it.”

“Unless they don’t want to be seen as favoring purebloods too much, or are afraid it will appear they have something to hide.”

The back of Harry’s neck prickled unpleasantly. This had flavors of the anti-Muggleborn policies that the Ministry implemented while under Voldemort’s control, only in the other direction. It was based in fear, suspicion, and prejudice.

“I’m going to write to Kingsley about this. He has to do something, if he isn’t already. This can’t pass. I won’t let it.”

Draco smiled at him. “You’re going to declare political war on the Ministry for me, Harry?”

He knew Draco was only joking, trying to lighten the mood, but Harry decided to take the question at face value. “You’re damn right, I am,” he said.

Draco stared at him, seeming surprised by the determination in Harry’s expression. As if to punctuate his point, Harry leaned over and gave Draco a sound and heartfelt kiss. Draco returned the kiss with enthusiasm, and was smiling softly as Harry pulled away. For a moment he thought perhaps Draco was going to make some crack about Harry being his “shining Gryffindor hero” as usual, to break the tension, but he didn’t say anything of the sort. He seemed, if anything, quite moved by Harry’s words.

“I’ll write to Kingsley this morning,” said Harry. “And then afterwards, we can get up to whatever you want. We have the whole day ahead of us.”

“Sounds perfect,” Draco said.

And with that, they returned to their breakfast.

***

“Harder!”

Harry grinned against the back of Draco’s neck, all too happy to oblige. Holding onto the blond’s arms for leverage he drove inside him with renewed force, relishing the way it made Draco mewl with abandon.

“Yes, yes, yes! Harry! Fuck, yes!” Draco was arching against Harry, meeting him thrust for thrust, riding the Gryffindor’s cock from underneath. It drove Harry wild in the absolute best possible way, although it did have one downside.

“Keep that up and this will be over way too soon,” he said through gritted teeth.

“What? This?” Draco asked, his breathless voice laced with mischief as he ground into Harry and clenched around him deliberately. It stole Harry’s breath, and he had to pause to avoid coming immediately.

“Oh, you naughty boy,” Harry said in his ear, pinning down Draco’s hips so he couldn’t move. “Someone needs to remember who’s in charge here.” He slammed into Draco as hard as he could, making the Slytherin scream unintelligibly. Harry did it again, and Draco writhed beneath him, trying to absorb the pleasure. “Who’s in charge, Draco?” Harry asked in his most dangerous voice. He slammed into Draco again.

“You are!”

“Who owns you, Draco?” Another slam.

“You do!”

“You are mine. Don’t ever forget. And that means, you don’t ride my cock like that unless I tell you to, do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Sir? Oh, Harry liked that. He liked that very much.

“Good boy. Now take what I give you.”

Draco’s fingers clutched the pillows for dear life as Harry started pounding away again, aiming for Draco’s prostate and trying to keep his own impending orgasm at bay. Now that he had Draco’s compliance he wanted to reward the Slytherin with extended pleasure.

Draco trembled and moaned beneath him, and Harry could tell the blond was doing his best to follow orders and not to grind into Harry.

“That’s it, Draco,” he said, finding Draco’s sweet spot and rubbing his cock against it again and again. “Does that feel good?”

“Yes, Sir!”

Again with the “sir.” Harry thought he might lose his mind. The need in his cock was building dangerously.

“You are so fucking hot, Draco,” Harry told him. “You are incredible. You are everything.”

“Harry,” Draco groaned in response. “Harry, please.”

“Ride me, Draco,” Harry commanded, knowing it was time. He reached around to grasp Draco’s hard, heavy cock in his hand. “Give me everything you have.”

Draco didn’t hesitate, slamming back against Harry as Harry thrust in.

“Fuck yes!” Harry cried. “That’s it, baby. Ride my cock. So fucking good!”

Draco wasn’t holding back, practically fucking himself on Harry’s cock, and Harry could feel the pleasure building, threatening to spill over. He knew needed to feel Draco’s orgasm around him, and soon.

“Come for me, Draco,” he said. “Come for me, baby.”

Two more strokes and Draco did come, spilling all over Harry’s hand and the sheets below them, tightening around Harry and sending him over the edge.

Draco,” Harry moaned, erupting inside the Slytherin, grinding into him to wring every last drop of pleasure out of his orgasm. He then collapsed on top of Draco, unable to move, trying to get his heart rate and breathing under control.

He knew Draco wouldn’t like being crushed for long, though, so he made himself pull out and roll off after a minute. Reaching for his wand, he cleaned them off as usual, then opened his arms to make space for Draco to curl around him. But Draco didn’t move.

“Draco?” Harry asked.

“Mmmm?” the blond replied, his face half buried in a pillow.

“You all right?”

“I’m… incapable of moving, at the moment.”

Harry chuckled. “I’m sorry. I worked you pretty hard.”

“Sorry?” Draco said incredulously, managing to lift his head just enough to turn it to face Harry. “For the love of Merlin, don’t be sorry. That was the best fucking shag in the history of shags.”

Harry laughed, relieved. “Yeah, it really was, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know how you do it,” Draco went on, still breathing heavily. “I honestly don’t. You’re amazing. What you do, what you say… Gods.”

“It’s you,” Harry said. Draco snorted delicately. “No, really,” Harry insisted. “You bring it out in me.” It was the truth. He’d been decent with Ginny, he was pretty sure. He’d always known how to push her buttons and make her feel good, and she’d always responded well to him. But Draco took Harry to another level. There was no self-consciousness, no overthinking. It was just instinct, pure and primal. When he was touching Draco, kissing him, inside him, he just knew.

“Whatever the reason,” Draco said, finally appearing to get his breath back. “That was one for the books.”

Harry hummed in agreement and closed his eyes. He had notions of drifting off then and there, but then a question he’d been meaning to ask popped into his head. “Draco?”

“Hm?”

“How did you know you were a bottom? Before you ever had sex, I mean.” Draco had made it clear pretty early on what he wanted their roles to be, and at the time Harry had believed it was because Draco was already experienced. But that turned out not to be the case, and Harry had always wondered how Draco knew what he wanted before he’d tried it both ways.

“Hmm…” said Draco. “That’s a good question.” He didn’t continue right away, rolling over onto his back and looking up at the ceiling in thought. Harry waited, watching him. “If I remember correctly, it was something I decided fairly early on, after I finally learned about anal sex. I didn’t exactly get that education through formal channels; it was all what I picked up from older Slytherins. There were a couple of gay men who were 6th and 7th years when I was a 4th year, and they told me most of what I know. Thankfully their information was pretty much accurate.”

Harry nodded in understanding. Inaccuracy was often a problem when it came to teenage boys "teaching" each other about sex. He was glad Draco hadn’t had the same issue for the most part.

“That’s how I learned about tops and bottoms, and how some people are one or the other and some like both. They said it all depends on the couple, and everyone’s a little different. That was helpful.” He paused, thinking. “And after that… well, I suppose at some point I must have figured out what I liked. Mostly through wanking and playing around. When I fantasized about sex I always imagined I was the one getting fucked. It just felt right to me. So I figured I was a bottom. And, actually, now that I think about it, I had some qualms with that at first. I thought Malfoys weren’t supposed to be the type to bottom. But I got over that, I guess. Probably around the same time I accepted that I was really and truly gay, even though my father would hate it.”

“Mm,” Harry turned on his side and put an arm across Draco. “That makes sense.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Curiosity, mostly. When I was thinking about being with men… or really… you specifically, I really didn’t know what role I would want. I thought I could go either way.”

“Well, you’re an excellent top,” said Draco.

“I like topping,” said Harry. “It’s a lot of fun. But I am… curious, about what bottoming feels like.”

Draco hummed. “It’s quite good. Or it is with you, anyway.”

“Would you ever consider reversing roles?”

That seemed to bring Draco up short. “I… I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.” Harry didn’t say anything. “You’ve been thinking about it, though, obviously.”

“Yeah, a bit.”

“Are you… unsatisfied, with the way things are?” He heard Draco’s voice tighten, just a little.

“No, not at all. Not even a little. The sex is brilliant, honestly. I just… well… I had this thought. Maybe you would think it’s silly.”

“Try me.”

“I was thinking about, you know… virginity. And how I was your first time.”

“Yeah…”

“And how… I liked that.”

“I liked it, too. I wouldn’t have wanted my first time to be with anyone else.”

“I’m glad. But it… it doesn’t bother you that it wasn’t my first time?”

“It was your first time with a man,” Draco pointed out.

“That’s true.” Harry hadn’t thought about it that way. And he had to acknowledge that, though his experience was limited, being with a woman and being with a man were very different. “But, I don’t know… being the top. It’s different, somehow.”

“So, you want me to take your anal virginity.”

Harry let out a nervous laugh. “I don’t know, Draco. It was just a thought I had.”

“Hmmm.” Harry could practically hear Draco’s brain whirring away beside him. “I will admit, the idea is… intriguing.”

“That was my feeling exactly.”

“I like the idea of you giving me something like I gave you. But… I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a top.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think I have… the confidence, I guess.”

“The confidence.”

“Yeah.”

“This coming from the man who doesn’t think twice before moonwalking across my kitchen.”

“It’s different.”

“According to you, dancing and fucking are basically the same skill set.”

Draco laughed. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did.”

“All right, well…” He sounded uncertain.

“If you don’t want to top for me, Draco, I understand. I just thought… you know, I’d ask. I just wanted to know what you thought of the idea.”

Draco was quiet for a minute. “Who am I to deny you the wonders of the prostate, though? I sort of can’t believe I haven’t asked you before. Makes me feel a bit self-centered.”

“You shouldn’t,” said Harry. “I could have easily said something, too, before now.”

“Anal sex has to be worked up to anyway. But there is a lot you can do in between, to enjoy yourself. I haven’t gone there with you, fingering or toys or anything, because you never asked and I wasn’t sure you were interested in that. But if you’re curious, we can always explore.”

“I like that idea.” It seemed they would be shelving the possibility of Draco fucking Harry for now. But Harry was all right with that. The working their way up to it sounded quite fun on its own. “But let’s start tomorrow. I’m spent.”

Draco laughed. “Not surprising, considering we fucked this morning, and last night, and that morning, and the night before…”

“It’s this house! Knowing no one is around, except Kreacher, who’s tucked away in his little cubby hole downstairs, we can be as loud as we want. No one is going to walk in on us or get in our way. It makes it quite easy to jump you constantly.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining,” said Draco. “I’m just pointing out that you shouldn’t be hard on yourself that you’re not game for a second round. You’d have to be superhuman.”

“Fair enough.”

“So we’ll start tomorrow, then. After Teddy’s party.”

“Oh, right, the party,” said Harry. The break had flown by in a blur, so much so that he hadn’t realized it was almost Thursday already. “Remind me to wrap presents in the morning. And I picked out a card we can both sign.”

Draco smiled. “How very…. domestic of you.”

Harry squirmed. “Yes, well… I didn’t want you to feel obligated to get him anything yourself.”

“I bought Teddy presents of my own.”

“Oh.”

“But we can sign the card together. I like it. It’s very… couple-y.”

“Couple-y? I’ve never known you to be one to make up words.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do. And I like it too. So we can just be couple-y together and revel in our couple-ness and our couple-ocity and our couple-itude.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “You’re a prat.”

“Yes, I know. But I’m a great shag.”

“That’s why I keep you around.”

“I knew there had to be a reason.”

“All right, smartarse,” Draco said, sighing. “Time for actual sleeping, if you can turn off the witty banter long enough.”

Harry yawned. “Consider it turned off.”

“I’ll get the lamp, then.” Draco reached for his wand before remembering that the lamps were electric. He made for the switch underneath the light bulb.

“One more thing, actually, before you do that,” said Harry.

Draco flopped down and looked at him. “What is it?”

Harry turned on his side and rested on his elbow so he could look at Draco full on, amused at the exasperation in Draco’s voice. “I just felt the need to mention that I love you more than words can possibly express,” he said matter-of-factly. “Just thought you ought to know… that you might be interested in the fact that I love you more than anyone has ever loved anyone. That’s all.”

Draco blinked up at him, and then his mouth formed a disbelieving smile. “You bastard. You absolutely perfect bastard. You’re never going to let me get over you, are you? You’re going to make sure I’m desperately in love with you for the rest of my life.”

Harry grinned down at him. “Yeah, something like that.”

“Well…” Draco said. “It’s working. Congratulations.”

“Yes, I’m quite pleased,” Harry said, kissing him.

“Saying things like that to me,” Draco went on, almost grumbling, barely kissing him back. “Making me feel like my insides are on my outsides all the time.”

“In a bad way or a good way?”

“Both,” he said. “It’s wonderful, but I just… I have no armor anymore. If you…” He looked Harry directly in the eye, to let him know that he was serious. “If you break my heart, that’s the end of it for me. I’ll be finished. Absolutely destroyed.”

“I will never break your heart, Draco,” Harry said, with such sober honesty that it calmed Draco almost immediately. “I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear being without you.”

They stared at each other for what felt like a long time. Finally, Draco nodded. “All right.”

Harry leaned down to kiss him again, and this time, Draco kissed him back fully. “You’re it for me, Draco,” he said softly. “I’ve never been so sure about anything in my life.”

“Good,” Draco said. “Because you’re it for me, too.”

“Good.” He kissed Draco again. “Can we sleep now?”

“Yes, by all means.”

Draco switched off the lamp, and rolled over to curl into Harry, finally. Harry held him, listening to his breathing until it evened out before finally letting himself drift away.

***

Harry could already hear the sounds of the party as he and Draco approached Andromeda’s house laden with presents.

“Sounds like a full house in there,” Draco commented. “The Weasleys really are loud, aren’t they?”

But they discovered, as they entered the house and made their way to the back parlor, where most people seemed to be congregated, that there were many more people than just the Weasleys in attendance. Andromeda, it appeared, had invited the whole neighborhood, or at least those who were parents with little ones of their own. Harry was reminded of something he often forgot: that Andromeda, as a single parent who had lost most of her own family, had certainly sought out the help of her community in raising Teddy. Harry and the Weasleys weren’t the only people important in Andromeda’s life.

It was clear, though, by the warm smile she gave Harry as she spotted them, that she had been anticipating their arrival. She squeezed the shoulder of the woman she was talking to, excusing herself, and made her way over to them.

“Harry,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re here. It feels like ages since I’ve seen you.”

Harry gave her a kiss and a warm smile. It certainly did feel like ages since Christmas. “It’s great to see you, too.”

“And Draco,” Andromeda said, turning to her nephew. “Thank you for coming. It means a lot.”

“My pleasure, Aunt,” Draco said, giving her a kiss as well.

“Look at all these presents you brought! Honestly, Teddy is the most spoiled child in the world, I think.”

Harry grinned. “What are godfathers for?”

“The gift table’s just there,” she said, pointing to the other side of the parlor. “And there is plenty of food and drink in the kitchen, so please help yourself.”

“And the birthday boy?” Harry asked.

“He’s outside, with the rest of the children. I didn’t want to keep them all cooped up, since it’s such a nice day.”

Harry and Draco dropped off their gifts at the table Andromeda indicated, which was already piled precariously with packages, then went out into the backyard, where they were immediately greeted with the happy squeals of children playing, toddling, and running around. Teddy, of course, not being able to walk yet, was not among them, and Harry scanned the yard until he spotted Hermione with a familiar little boy in her arms.

“Harry!” Hermione smiled warmly as they approached. “Draco! There you two are.”

Hugs and kisses were exchanged, and Harry took a moment to get a good look at his godson.

“Look how big he is!” he exclaimed, and he almost felt a little upset. Three months was way too long to go without seeing him. The last thing he wanted was to blink and miss Teddy’s childhood altogether. He vowed silently to himself that he would see Teddy every week once he was finally finished at Hogwarts.

“He’s been waiting for you,” Hermione said, and it was immediately apparent that she was right as Teddy reached for him.

Harry took him, bouncing him a bit to feel the added weight in his arms. “Stop growing, Teddy,” he said to the boy playfully. “At least until I finish school. I’m missing all the good stuff.”

Teddy just smiled up at him and then patted his face.

“So, how’s your break been so far?” Draco asked Hermione.

“It’s been lovely, actually. Very relaxing. Ron gets on very well with my parents, thankfully, and they are really happy to have us.”

“And how are they, with everything?” Harry asked, knowing that Greg and Jean Granger still had trouble on occasion with confusion and memory loss, after the powerful memory charm Hermione had to use on them during the war to keep them safe.

“Doing all right,” Hermione said. “Dad still goes a bit wonky in the afternoons. Forgets he doesn’t live in Australia anymore. But Ron’s really wonderful with him, actually. Half past three rolls around and they have the same conversation, where Ron reminds him where he is and who we are and what happened, and then he remembers again. You would think it would drive Ron mental, answering the same questions over and over. But he’s quite patient.”

Harry smiled, glad to hear that Ron and Hermione were both doing what they could to get their relationship back to being as strong as it used to be. 

“And where is the ginger in question?” Draco asked.

Hermione gave the blond a knowing look but didn’t comment. She indicated a shaded area that was set up with some patio furniture. “Getting to know Percy’s girlfriend, Audrey.”

“Percy brought her finally?” Harry asked, surprised. There had been hints at Christmas that Percy had met someone he was fairly excited about, but he was very tight-lipped about it. Molly had spent a good portion of the break trying to get information out of him to no avail.

“It sounds like things have gotten pretty serious,” Hermione said. “I guess Percy thought it was time to introduce her.”

“Molly must be thrilled.”

“Relieved, I think,” said Hermione with a smirk. “Because she seems fairly… normal. Likeable, even. You know, friendly, down to earth, easygoing…”

Harry grinned. “What were you expecting? A female version of Percy?”

Hermione looked pensive. “Yes,” she said, sounding surprised. “I suppose I was.”

Harry laughed and switched Teddy to his other hip.

“Well, I’m off to grab some food then, if you’re good to handle Teddy for the moment,” Hermione said.

“Sure,” said Harry. “We’ve got him.”

Hermione went back inside and Harry and Draco decided to make the rounds of the party, to see who else was around. Bill and Arthur were making conversation with a neighbor of Andromeda’s who worked down the hall from Arthur at the Ministry. They greeted Harry and Draco warmly and introduced them to their friend, who was, like most people, quite excited to meet the Savior. They didn’t linger long, though, as the discussion came back around to the minutia of Ministry policies and Harry had little patience for it.

They wandered over to Ron and George, who sat looking relaxed with bottles of butterbeer in their hands and chatting with a pretty brunette that Harry had to assume was Percy’s mysterious but apparently quite likeable girlfriend.

“There you are, mate,” said Ron, when he spotted them. He waved a cautiously friendly hello at Draco as well.

“You brought him with you,” said George to Harry, by way of greeting, as he looked Draco up and down with a sly grin. “A snake among lions. It takes courage, I’ll give you that.”

Draco made a point of looking around the backyard: the warm day, the flowering trees, and the laughter of children, and said, with an arch of his brow, “Somehow I think I can handle it.”

George laughed. “We’ll see, Malfoy. The thing about me is, the fact that Harry is absolutely mad for you will not stop me from having my fun. In fact, his clearly undying love and deep attachment only makes me want to prank you more. So I’d watch out, if I were you.”

“Oh, stop it, George,” came Angelina’s voice as she sat down next to him with a plate of food. “Everyone knows you’re mostly talk these days.”

“Mostly talk?” George balked. “Mostly talk? How dare you!”

“You’re only encouraging him, you know,” Harry said to her.

She smiled up at him. “Yes, I know. Hi, by the way. It’s been forever!”

“Yeah, I know! How are you?”

They made small talk for a few minutes, as Angelina told him about her job working for Nimbus and the new broom line they were developing to rival the Firebolt. Harry sat down with Teddy in his lap and Draco sat too, between Harry and Audrey. He turned to Audrey and introduced himself quietly.

“Oh, right!” said Angelina. “You guys haven’t met Audrey yet! She’s Percy’s girlfriend.”

“We’ve heard,” said Harry. He looked at Audrey. “You’re practically famous. Everyone’s been wanting all the details on you, but Percy’s been very hush hush about the whole thing.”

“That’s Percy for you,” said Audrey with a smirk. “I told him I was perfectly happy coming for a visit at Christmas, but you know how he is. He’s so private.”

“Count yourself lucky,” said Harry. “A Weasley Christmas is not an experience to be undertaken lightly.”

“Oi,” said George, nudging Harry with his foot. “You love us and you know it.”

Conversation continued idly as Harry caught up more with Angelina and made a point to get to know Audrey. Hermione was right; she was quite easygoing and down to earth. She worked at the Ministry doing foreign relations, which was how she met Percy, but she had a sort of deprecating and amused way of talking about her work that Harry liked. 

As they all chatted Teddy was passed from one person to the next, wanting to be in the middle of the action as usual and spend some time with everyone.

“He’s a little social butterfly, isn’t he?” Audrey said as it was her turn and she bounced the baby on her knee.

“He’s just really relaxed,” said George. “A laid back sort of kid. Kind of like Tonks.”

“More Tonks than Remus, that’s for sure,” said Harry.

“I bet he has his dad’s brains, though,” said Ron. “By all accounts Remus was top of his year at Hogwarts, even with that furry little problem of his.”

“And Teddy didn’t even inherit that furry little problem,” said Harry, making faces at his godson, who smiled at him from Audrey’s lap. “So he’s just about perfect, isn’t he?”

“You’re smitten,” said Angelina. “That’s bloody adorable.”

“Proud godfather,” said Harry. “It’s in the job description.”

Teddy was passed back to Harry, finally, who stood and said, “I think I’ll go find Molly and say hello. I haven’t seen her yet.”

“I’m going to grab some food,” Draco said, standing as well. “Do you want some?”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Harry said, giving him a peck. “Thanks.”

“Anything in particular?”

“You know what I like.”

“Blimey, you guys are practically married already, aren’t you?” said George. “I bet you have pet names for each other and everything.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “No pet names,” he said. “We’re not that bad.”

“Although, you did call me ‘baby’ last night while we were-“

Harry smacked Draco on the arm to shut him up, and the entire group burst into laughter.

“Uh-oh,” said George, seeing the look on Harry’s face. “Someone’s in trouble.”

But Draco was smiling widely. “It’s ok. I get in trouble a lot. Harry likes doling out punishment.”

This made the group laugh some more, especially George, who couldn’t get over the flaming blush on Harry’s face.

You’re really going to get it tonight, Harry thought at Draco. He wished he could say it aloud, but that would only confirm that Draco was implying. Apparently, though, his face was conveying plenty, because Draco was grinning at him wickedly, with an undercurrent of excitement.

“You really are in trouble,” he said, pointing at Draco. “Bring me some food. I’m going to find Molly.”

Draco grinned even more widely. “Yes, Sir,” he said.

Harry turned away from the group, face still flushed. “Oh man,” he heard Ron say behind him as he walked away. “That was an insight I really didn’t need.” This was followed by another round of laughter.

“Your cousin is a prat,” Harry said to Teddy. Teddy stared at him solemnly, as if in agreement. “You’ll learn in due time, I’m sure.”

Even though he was sure that the group they’d left behind was undoubtedly still talking about him and Draco, Harry pushed the embarrassment from his mind as he made his way around the backyard, greeting the people he knew with a wave and avoiding avid looks from people he didn’t know but clearly knew who he was. He couldn’t see Molly anywhere, and realized she was probably inside, but he came across Percy and Kingsley talking near the back gate and paused to say hello.

“Hi, Kingsley,” he said. “I didn’t know you’d be here today.”

“Harry,” Kingsley said with a knowing smile. “Good to see you. I took a couple of hours off today. Wouldn’t have missed it.” He waved at Teddy. “Happy birthday, little one.” Teddy smiled as though he understood, then put his fingers in his mouth.

Harry turned to Percy. “I met Audrey by the way, just a few minutes ago. She’s great. Well done.”

Percy turned a bit pink but raised his chin just a fraction. “Yes, she’s quite lovely, isn’t she?”

“She told me she volunteered to come by at Christmas, but you wouldn’t let her.”

“And throw her into that proverbial lion’s den for her introduction? Not a chance. I actually like her, you see. I didn’t want her to go running for the hills.”

Harry laughed. “I made a similar point to her, don’t worry.”

“I should actually probably go track her down, make sure she’s doing all right.”

“I think Ron and George are keeping her well-entertained,” said Harry, knowing exactly what Percy’s reaction would be.

His eyes widened. “Sweet Merlin. I really should find her, then. It was great talking to you, Kingsley.”

“You too, Perce. I’ll see you at work.”

Percy waved to both of them, and Harry turned immediately back to Kingsley, only to have the next words he was going to say preemptively cut off by the Minister.

“I know exactly what you’re going to ask me, Harry,” he said good-naturedly. “And yes, I received your letter, and yes, I was planning to reply. But it’s been one hell of a week and I hadn’t gotten around to it.”

Harry smiled. “I’ve been told I’m predictable. I guess that’s turning out to be true.”

“I just remember the very… should we say… passionate wording of your letter. It’s clearly an issue you feel strongly about.”

“Yes, I do,” said Harry, not wanting to beat around the bush. “It really worries me, Kingsley, I’ll be honest. I don’t think a lot of people realize how dangerous a law like that could be. And what’s next, then, if it passes? Are we going to start digging into pureblood rituals and customs, too, telling them what they can and cannot do?”

Kingsley looked chagrined. “Dating Mr. Malfoy has really changed your perspective on things, more so than I expected. I never thought you’d be an advocate for pureblood rights.”

“I’m an advocate for everyone’s rights,” said Harry. “I believe in choice, the right for anyone to live their life how they want to live it, and not be penalized for their blood status or the deeds of their ancestors. Most purebloods aren’t practicing harmful dark magic, as you well know. And those that were are already in Azkaban.”

Kingsley sighed. “I agree with you, Harry. And my office is doing what it can. I have not thrown any support behind the bill.”

“But have you publicly denounced it?” Kingsley hesitated, and that gave Harry his answer. “You need to, Kingsley. The people look to you; they trust you. It’s like you said, everyone’s afraid right now. And the rhetoric from the writers of the bill is that purebloods have held too much power and they need to be controlled, and that’s only making people more scared. Someone influential needs to share another perspective, calm people down a bit.”

Kingsley was looking at Harry with a wry smile.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Harry.

“What am I thinking?”

“That I should be the one to do it, not you.”

“Your words, Harry, not mine.”

Harry huffed and bounced Teddy a little. “I’m not a political animal, Kingsley. I think I would only make it worse.”

Kingsley shook his head. “You are self-aware in many ways, Harry, but not in this one. The only thing that makes someone a political animal is that they care deeply about people and issues. The rest… the diplomacy, the maneuvering, the strategizing, that’s all learned skill.”

“Yes, but not necessarily skills I want to learn,” said Harry. “Or even skills I think I could learn easily.”

“You’re a force of nature when you want to be,” said Kingsley. “More so even than Hermione, sometimes, if the issue affects someone you love. If I thought for a moment that you’d accept, I’d offer you a position in my office without question.”

Harry stared at Kingsley, surprised. “Here I am harassing you, and you’re saying you want to give me a job?”

Kingsley smiled. “A good leader needs people who disagree with him and will stand up to him. And that’s one of your most admirable qualities. You speak truth to power all the time. You don’t even think twice.”

Harry furrowed his brow at him. “We’re getting off the subject.”

“You caught that, hm?” Kingsley’s laugh was deep and sardonic. “This is what I’m talking about.”

Harry shook his head, wanting to get back to his original point. “If you don’t have an issue with the bill, Kingsley, and you want to sit back and let it pass, that’s your prerogative. But if you believe, as I do, that it’s wrong, I hope you will say something. That’s all I wanted to say.”

Kingsley eyed him for a few seconds. “Very well, Harry. Point taken. But let me make one in return. I am hardly the only person in this conversation who has the power to affect major social change. One does not have to hold elected office to be influential. You know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you feel strongly about something, you cannot sit back and hope the politicians do the work for you, either. If you want something done, do it yourself.”

Harry rolled back on his heels and considered that. Kingsley had a point as well. “Yes,” he said. “You’re right.”

“I’m not saying you haven’t done enough already,” Kingsley said, more conciliatory now. “Merlin knows none of us would be here now if it weren’t for you. But one war is over and another has begun, of a different nature. And there’s so much more to do. You have to decide where your place in all of it is.”

Harry nodded, making it clear that he had heard Kingsley’s words, though he didn’t know what to say in return. Thankfully, they were soon joined by another Ministry member, and Harry took the opportunity to thank Kingsley and go wandering again, his head reeling from everything the Minister had pointed out to him. He made his way back in the direction of Ron and George, wondering suddenly what had taken Draco so long with the food. But he was distracted again when he ran into Ginny and Dean, who were looking cozy by the drinks table.

“Well, well, well,” he said, with a pointed look at their entwined fingers. “Look at you two.”

“Hi, Harry,” said Ginny with a friendly smile. “And hello to you, birthday boy.” She put a finger to Teddy’s soft little cheek, making him giggle. “Have you been lugging him around all afternoon?”

“Practically,” said Harry. “But I don’t mind. Just getting some quality time in. How’s your break been so far?”

“Really good,” said Ginny. “I went for a tour of the Holyhead Harpies’ facilities yesterday. They need two new Chasers and a Beater, so they were doing an open house for potential new recruits. I talked to one of the managers and she said they’ll be sending a scout to watch us play in the final.”

Harry grinned. “Fantastic.”

“Yeah, so, no pressure,” said Dean.

“We’ll crush Slytherin,” Ginny said with that familiar tenacity of hers. “I’m determined to.”

“Either way, they’ll like what they see from both of you,” said Harry.

“I’m not looking to go professional, at this point,” said Dean. “But Ginny will get a spot no problem.”

“I have no doubt,” said Harry.

“Where’s your Slytherin, then?” Ginny asked.

“No idea,” said Harry. “He went to get food what seems like ages ago. I’ve just been on a whirlwind tour of the entire backyard and I don’t see him anywhere.”

“Probably got caught up with a guest inside who wants to talk his ear off about something or other,” said Ginny. “There are a surprising number of Ministry workers here and they all think their work is very important. Dean and I got caught up with some wizard for twenty minutes who was prattling on about… what was it?”

“The regulation of the import and export of unicorn hair,” said Dean.

“Ah yes, that was it. Riveting stuff, really. Got a good nap in, at least.” Ginny took a sip of her butterbeer. “So perhaps Malfoy’s been accosted by him, and he’s just too polite to make a run for it.”

“When has Draco Malfoy ever been too polite to do anything?” Dean asked.

“Now, now,” said Harry in mild warning.

“He’s quite polite to me, actually,” said Ginny. “And we all know he can’t stand me, so that’s something.”

“That’s… not true,” said Harry, trying to keep a straight face. “He absolutely adores you, didn’t you know?”

Dean snorted into his butterbeer and Ginny rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Hilarious, Harry. Really witty.”

Harry felt a hand slide across his back and turned to see the Slytherin in question sidling up next to him, holding a plate of food. “What’s witty, Harry?” he asked with a knowing smile.

“Nothing,” Harry said. “I’ve been wondering where you went.”

“I got accosted,” Draco replied, holding the plate out to him so Harry could grab a cheese and cracker off of it.

“I told you,” said Ginny.

“By Molly Weasley,” Draco finished.

Harry swallowed his mouthful of cracker quickly. “Really? What did she say to you?”

“That I’d better be good to you or she’ll hex my bollocks off and keep them in a jar under her sink.”

“She did not,” said Harry.

“All right, not in those exact words. But I understood the subtext.”

Harry shook his head and helped himself to a piece of shrimp cocktail.

“And how are you two today, Dean, Ginevra?” Draco said pleasantly.

Dean chuckled and said, “Fine, Draco, just fine.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Actually,” said Ginny to Harry. “Might I steal the little one from you? I haven’t gotten to hold him since Christmas.”

“Sure,” said Harry. “I’ve hogged him long enough, I suppose.” Still, as Teddy left his arms and got comfortable in Ginny’s, Harry felt suddenly and unexpectedly at a loss, like he didn’t know what to do with his hands.

“I think we’ll go look for Hermione and Ron,” Ginny said. “I haven’t seen them since we first arrived.”

They waved goodbye to Harry and Draco both, taking Teddy with them. Draco immediately turned to Harry, distracting him from the slight wistfulness he was feeling. “There’s something else. Guess who’s arrived?” He gave Harry a significant look as he took a bite of his shrimp.

There was only one person whose arrival could draw such a look of simultaneous surprise and worry from Draco, so it was easy to guess. “Your mother.”

He nodded. “She’s talking to Andromeda. Right now. I spotted them on my way back out here.”

“Well, how did they look?”

“Awkward.”

Harry ate some more food off Draco’s plate and waited for the blond to elaborate, as he knew he would.

“You know, a stiff embrace,” the blond went on. “Stilted, formal conversation, from the both of them. Damn our pureblood upbringings sometimes, I say. We’re not supposed to show our feelings in public, so in situations like this we just end up looking clumsy and inelegant, which is the opposite of how we’re supposed to look. I hate it.”

Harry smiled, unable to help it. “I never thought I’d ever hear those words coming our of your mouth, Draco Malfoy. This is a historic day indeed.”

“Shut up,” Draco said with a sigh.

“I think, personally, that it has nothing to do with the fact that your mother and your aunt were raised pureblood and everything to do with the fact that they haven’t seen each other in a very long time and things are bound to be awkward in the beginning.”

“I just think their first encounter should have been in a more private setting,” said Draco. “Not at a party, where everyone can see it.”

“Well, why didn’t you say that before?” Harry asked, aghast. “I asked you about it multiple times. If you didn’t want me to suggest that Andromeda invite your mother, you should have told me so.”

Draco shrugged. “I didn’t think of it until just now.”

Harry sighed, exasperated.

“You were quite giddy playing matchmaker with them,” Draco said. “I didn’t want to ruin your fun.” Harry rolled his eyes. “And I really did think my mother would appreciate the invitation, but I never in my life believed she would actually show up.”

“Well, then, this isn’t my fault at all,” said Harry. “She’s the one who chose to make their first encounter in a public setting.”

“I never said it was your fault.”

“You were implying it.”

“I wasn’t, Harry,” Draco said, in the forced patient tone that he used when he was feeling just a little irritated. Then his tone softened. “You honestly believe I’m going to blame you if my mother and my aunt can’t work things out? Your martyr complex really knows no bounds.”

Harry shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “Like you said, I’ve been playing matchmaker.”

“Those two women are way too self-possessed and strong-willed for your suggestions to have any real effect on them. You may have been a catalyst of sorts, but they are reaching out to each other because they want to, not because of you.”

“If you say so,” said Harry.

Draco put his arm around Harry and kissed his temple, letting his mouth rest there for a moment. “I get to be nervous and worried about this without it meaning that I hold you responsible. I’m just afraid someone will get hurt. That’s not on you. It’s just… the situation.”

Harry nodded, enjoying the feeling of Draco’s nose pressed into his hair. “You’re right, I’m sorry.” They remained that way for a silent moment. “Maybe we should go in and say hello to your mother, then. Ease some of the tension.”

Draco pulled away, taking a deep breath. “Yeah. I suppose we should.”

Andromeda looked nothing short of relieved as Harry walked through the back door. It was clear that the conversation with her sister had been emotionally fraught. But neither sister, Harry noted, looked particularly upset, per se, only a bit at a loss as to what to do next, and Harry thought that was a good sign.

Narcissa embraced and kissed them both in that reserved way of hers, though she gave Draco as warm a smile as Harry had ever seen on her.

“You look good, my love,” he heard her say quietly to Draco. “Happy.”

“I am,” he replied, just as quietly, and Harry smiled to himself. “Come into the yard with us and sit down,” Draco said more loudly. “It’s lovely out.”

“I’ll grab some drinks for us,” said Harry. “Pumpkin juice, maybe?”

“Perfect,” said Draco. He led Narcissa outside, his hand resting on the small of her back, leaving Harry alone with Andromeda.

“How are you?” he asked her.

Andromeda took a deep breath. “Surprised,” she said. “And… pleased, I suppose. I’m not quite sure yet.”

Harry smiled. “It’s all a bit complicated, I bet.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Well, thank you. For inviting her, I mean. I think it meant a lot. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

Andromeda nodded. “We’ll see,” she said simply.

Harry went into the kitchen to fix the drinks, but ran into Molly on the way and got sidetracked yet again. He pretended to scold her a bit for threatening Draco and she whacked him on the arm in jest.

“I did no such thing, Harry,” she said. “I merely… implied that, seeing as your essentially one of my own, it would be quite unfortunate if he treated you with anything other than love and respect.”

Harry laughed. “A subtle distinction, I think,” he said. But he had to admit that, on the inside, he was secretly pleased.

By the time he’d emerged into the backyard again with the drinks, Narcissa and Draco had themselves well-settled at a table in the shade. Harry was also surprised to see that his godson was sitting quite happily in Narcissa’s lap. He thought it looked a bit odd, considering Narcissa’s expensive, tailored robes, glittering jewelry, and sleek hairstyle, but she looked quite content to be holding him.

“You’ve met Teddy, then, I see,” he said as he placed a glass in front of each of them.

“I snagged him again from Hermione,” said Draco. “Figured Mother should get a turn.”

“I had no idea he was a Metamorphmagus,” Narcissa said, indicating how Teddy was currently sporting golden blond hair the same shade as hers. “I’d forgotten Nymphadora was as well.”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “Although she always favored pink hair, if I remember correctly.”

“Perhaps when he goes through a phase of adolescent rebellion,” she said, “he’ll sport something similar.”

“More than likely.” It was hard for Harry to imagine, in fact. What would Teddy be like as a preteen, a teenager, an adult? “I guess we’ll find out.”

Narcissa passed Teddy to Draco, who bounced him on his lap and made faces at him while Harry and Narcissa chatted about how the term was going. She asked about his apprenticeship and he did his best to dodge the issue, mostly, a burning mix of shame, anger, and confusion still churning in his gut at the memory of his last interaction with Kemp.

Luckily, Draco and Teddy together was quite a distracting sight, and Harry and Narcissa’s attention was pulled there frequently. Draco was making different funny sounds with his mouth, from a motorboat noise with his lips to a rapid rolling of the letter “r” on his tongue that sounded almost like a purr. Teddy stared up at Draco in wide-eyed awe, occasionally placing his hand over the Slytherin’s pale mouth, as if trying to understand the strange sounds by feel.

Harry couldn’t help the low, pleasant tugging in his navel that he felt while watching them. One glance at Narcissa found her watching Harry, rather than Draco and Teddy, a knowing glint in her eye. Harry realized he probably looked a bit dopey and glassy-eyed, but he decided he shouldn’t bother to be embarrassed. It was better, wasn’t it, for Narcissa to see just how deeply Harry loved her son?

Teddy started to tucker out after a while, and fell into a doze against Draco’s chest.

“It’s been a full afternoon for him, I suppose,” Narcissa said, looking at the sleeping boy.

“Yeah, this party was a lot bigger than I expected,” said Harry. “And not really what I imagined a one-year-old’s party to be.” He glanced over at the group of small children kicking around a football and riding on toy brooms, the only indication that this was a child’s party at all. The rest of the guests were all grown, milling about with drinks in their hands, talking and laughing.

“He’s only one,” said Draco. “It’s not like he’s going to remember it anyway. I imagine this was more a party just to have a party.”

Harry thought Draco was probably right. It reminded him a bit of the Weasley’s Christmas party. Just an excuse to get together and celebrate that they were all alive and in one piece.

Without Teddy to distract him Draco fell into an easy conversation with his mother about the next year of his Potions apprenticeship and preparations for his NEWTs, and Harry relaxed back in his chair a bit, content to close his eyes, feel the sun on his skin, and listen to the measured cadence of the Malfoys’ voices.

***

“That really was surprisingly exhausting,” said Draco, adjusting his posture in the rickety plastic chair.

“Yes, it really was,” Harry agreed. They’d stayed on at Andromeda’s after most of the other guests had left, helping her clean up and put things away, and to give Teddy some extra attention. While it had been an enjoyable party, all of the socializing had been tiring for both of them, and after they were finished cleaning up they decided there was nothing they wanted more than to curl up with some takeaway and a film at Grimmauld Place. They were now at a restaurant, awaiting the curry and samosas they had ordered. Harry took Draco’s hand. “I’m so glad you were there.”

“Me, too,” said Draco.

“You were wonderful today.”

He heard Draco snort. “You were expecting me to be awful?”

“No,” said Harry. “Of course not. I just wanted you to know that you were especially wonderful. I was trying to give you a compliment and express my gratitude.”

“So does that mean you’re not going to make me pay for the things I shared about our sex life with George and Ronald?”

Harry huffed. He’d forgotten about that. “That depends,” he said.

“On?”

“How much energy I have.”

Draco laughed. “Fair enough.”

“Or perhaps the real punishment would be if I refused to fuck you at all.”

Draco pouted, and Harry was chagrined at how sexy he found the expression. “Now that’s just cruel.” He stared at Harry with those wide, pleading eyes that were always the Gryffindor’s downfall. “You wouldn’t do that to me, would you?”

Harry had to look away. “You dangerous creature,” he said. Though he couldn’t see it, he knew Draco was smiling next to him.

The man behind the counter called their order up and they retrieved it gratefully. It was only a few blocks to Grimmauld Place and the evening was unseasonably warm, so they decided to walk the distance, hand-in-hand, mostly in happy silence. Harry contemplated the contentment he felt at the prospect of a night in, not to mention three more whole days of break in which he and Draco could have to themselves and do whatever they wanted.

When they turned onto Grimmauld Place, however, something immediately felt off, and by the time they’d covered half the distance to the stoop of Number 12, Harry could see what.

Reporters, a whole swarm of them, were waiting outside of his house.

“You have got to be kidding me,” he said.

They paused outside the light of a streetlamp, and luckily the reporters hadn’t spotted them yet. But they were obviously waiting for him to arrive. They had to believe he wasn’t already yet inside.

“How did they know we’d be coming home?”

“Who knows how long they’ve been there? Maybe hours,” said Draco.

“Yeah, but…”

“And think about how many people were at the party. All those people we didn’t know, but who undoubtedly recognized you.”

“You think someone called a reporter? Because we attended a child’s birthday party? Why would they care?”

Draco shrugged, but Harry thought perhaps Draco did know why they might care, and just didn’t want to say it aloud.

“Well, we can’t Apparate directly inside,” he said. “We could try landing right inside the wards but their coverage is smaller than it used to be. It doesn’t even include the stoop anymore. I should probably do something about that.”

“They’re just reporters,” said Draco. “They won’t hurt us.”

Harry nodded. “We’ll just push through, nice and quick. You remember what to do?”

“Stay close to you and don’t say anything,” Draco quoted.

“Right.” This was Harry’s general rule for dealing with journalists. They always tried to ask leading or provocative questions to elicit and response. The best way to win their game was always to refuse to play.

Putting a protective hand on Draco’s back, Harry spurred them forward, and they’d only taken a few steps when the group finally noticed them and began swarming them in a buzz of excitement.

“Mr. Potter! Mr. Potter!” they all cried.

“Did you attend your godson’s birthday today, Mr. Potter?”

“Are you and Draco Malfoy living together?”

“Did you really bring a Death Eater to a war orphan’s birthday party?”

So this was what they were so riled up about? What absolute rubbish, Harry thought as he bowed his head, keeping his face out of sight of the camera flashes, and maneuvering Draco swiftly to the door.

“Mr. Potter! How long do you plan on staying with Mr. Malfoy?”

“How do your war hero friends feel about you dating a Death Eater?”

“Is he the reason you’re not going to become an Auror?”

“Mr. Malfoy, do you feel the Heirloom Declaration Act unfairly targets purebloods such as yourself?”

Harry almost didn’t catch the question with the din the other reporters were making, but there was something about it, when it did finally register, that gave him pause. Perhaps it was the fact that the reporter had addressed Draco directly, or something about the tone or the question itself. He turned.

“Who asked that?” he called out to the group. “About the Heirloom Act? Who asked?”

A hand raised amongst the crowd, and Harry saw that it belonged to a wizard with thick dark hair and mahogany skin. “What’s your name?”

The wizard cleared his throat in the silence. “Jalil Safar,” he said.

Safar. Harry knew that name. He’d been seeing it in the byline of a lot of articles about his relationship with Draco. But unlike most of the others, Safar’s perspective was usually favorable, or at least reasonably balanced. He was one of the first to see Harry and Draco’s relationship as a good thing, rather than a problem that had to be solved.

The silence dragged on as Harry looked at Safar, and then over the crowd of reporters, who all had quills poised at their parchments, ready to write down anything he said. Harry could feel Draco’s bewilderment behind him, but he ignored it for now, looking for a particular face. Finally, he spotted her.

Skeeter.

He met her eyes and she stared at him. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was reading on her face. The usual bloodthirstiness was certainly there, and the relish of his discomfort, and he thought perhaps he could see triumph glinting in her eyes, too, as though she believed she had already bested him. He smirked at her.

“Mr. Safar,” he said, loudly and clearly, turning back to the wizard who was still awaiting his response. “I’d love to speak to you about the issue of the Heirloom Declaration Act.” There was a quiet murmur amongst the crowd. “What would you say to an exclusive interview with me?”

The buzz grew louder as the reporters looked around at each other, shocked. Still, Harry could hear Safar quite clearly when he replied, “Of course, Mr. Potter. I would be honored.”

“Send me an owl tomorrow,” said Harry. “And we’ll arrange something.” He looked around at the crowd, and his eyes fell on Skeeter again. The glint in her eyes had gone steely, and she was clutching her quill so tightly that it seemed in danger of snapping in two. Harry’s smirk widened, and he didn’t take his eyes off her as he said, “As for the rest of you, you can just go slouch back to the dirty holes you crawled out of. Goodnight.”

He turned then, grabbing Draco by the elbow and pulling him towards the door. He felt the familiar tickle of the wards wash over them as they crossed the threshold and stepped into the house. Harry closed the door and locked it, for good measure. When he turned back, Draco was balking at him.

“What in the name of all things magical was that? What happened to stay close and don’t say anything?”

Harry found himself smiling. “Safar asked an interesting question.”

Draco ran a hand over his face, then looked up at the ceiling as though he would find some understanding there.

“All right, so it was a bit impulsive,” said Harry.

“Yeah,” Draco said with a huff.

“But I just think… maybe it’s time I realize that this sort of thing is going to happen to me for the rest of my life. Happen to us. After all, if our future is together, and we really do move in together, and get married, and have children, they’re going to have a field day every time we take a new step in our relationship. There will always be questions, and they will always write stories. Maybe it’s time I accept that, and actually try to shape the story.”

“This is about us?” Draco asked. “I thought it was about politics.”

“It’s both,” said Harry. “They’re all wrapped up together for me. I want to speak out. I want to say something about this horrible bill they’re trying to pass, but the reason why I finally do is because of you. Anything I can do to protect you, I will.”

Draco stared at him for a few beats, then turned and set the takeaway bag on one of the foyer tables. He approached Harry, a hand coming up on either side to clutch Harry’s face gently. “Are you sure about this?”

“Yes,” said Harry. “It feels right.”

“And this… this Safar guy. You think he’ll give you a fair shake? You think he’ll do right by you?”

“By us,” said Harry. “He already has. He’s written in favor of our relationship. He wants the wizarding world to move on from its obsession of who’s a Death Eater and who’s a pureblood. I’ve read it directly from his articles. I remember because they’re among the few I can actually stand to read.” He put his hands on Draco’s hips as Draco’s hands slid down his neck. “I want you to do the interview with me.”

Draco blinked, his brow furrowing slightly. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Yes,” Harry insisted. “You’re more articulate than I am. You can help me get my point across. And I’ll be braver if you’re there.”

Draco looked into Harry’s eyes as if trying to x-ray them. “All right,” he said finally.

Harry face broke into a smile. “Really?”

“Really. Anything for you, you know that.”

Harry closed the distance quickly, pressing his lips to Draco’s, and Draco returned to kiss with fervor, his hands still cupping Harry’s neck. They both opened their mouths and let their tongues battle for a moment, before Draco pulled away. He turned and cast a stasis charm on the food, presumably to keep it warm.

“Sex now, food later,” he said.

Harry grinned. He was game for that. “You still want that punishment fuck?”

To his surprise, Draco shook his head. “No. I want it…” He swallowed. “Sweet and slow, like that time… I want to feel you again.”

Harry’s heart swelled to bursting at Draco’s request, at his willingness to even admit that was what he wanted.

“That sounds perfect,” he said, capturing Draco’s mouth again.

Absolutely perfect.

Chapter Text

Two things of significance arrived for Harry the Monday morning after they’d returned to Hogwarts. The first was a copy of The Beacon, the paper which contained the article that Jalil Safar had written about Harry and Draco. Harry started reading it immediately, a bit nervous about what he would see.

Not that the interview hadn’t gone well. They’d held it at Grimmauld, on Draco’s suggestion. He believed that Safar would be quite pleased to be allowed into the “inner sanctum,” as it were, which might work for them favorably. And, as with many things, Harry was learning, Draco was right. Safar had arrived looking a bit starry-eyed, nothing short of amazed that he was getting such an opportunity. It almost made Harry a bit nervous that the reporter would be too easy on them, making the article seem more like a puff piece than what Harry really wanted it to be, which was a conversation-starter on the issue of anti-pureblood legislation.

Luckily, Safar was as competent as he was gracious, asking probing, insightful questions, not just about the Heirloom Act but also Harry’s personal journey during his final year at Hogwarts as well as his relationship with Draco. The two wizards had been expecting this. They knew that by holding the interview with the two of them, such questions were bound to arise.

“And maybe they should,” Draco had said. “The press has been covering our public appearances but not a lot of substance about our actual relationship. Maybe it’s time people see what we’re really about. Maybe they’ll accept it more if they see inside it.”

Harry had been ambivalent about that. It went against his every instinct to share such personal feelings with a journalist. But Safar never took the questions anywhere inappropriate, and Harry found himself able to relax after a while, accepting that revealing a bit about his relationship with Draco could be a good thing, in the right circumstances.

They’d even allowed Safar to bring a photographer, though luckily she hadn’t made them pose for any shots. She just took candids of them during the interview, hovering in the background and fairly easy to ignore, after a while.

His eyes fell to one of those very photos, one of Harry talking animatedly with his hands while Draco looked on with a small smile, looking comfortable as you please. There was another next to it of Harry laughing at a clever quip Draco had just made. There was a caption underneath that one: “Potter and Malfoy’s charming and easy banter shows just how well they understand each other.”

“Hm,” Harry said.

“What does it say?” Draco asked, leaning to read over Harry’s shoulder.

“Apparently our banter is ‘charming.’”

“Well, of course it is,” said Draco. He looked at the photos. “We look quite good. Even your hair is cooperating.”

“Because I’ve let it get so long.” He shook his hair out, demonstrating the point. It really was quite shaggy. “It stays flat more easily like this.”

“I know, that’s why I like it,” said Draco.

Harry rolled his eyes. “I was thinking I should probably cut it soon, actually.”

Draco pouted. “Don’t cut it much. I like it this way, honestly. You look like a rock musician. Albeit a very clean one, but that’s even better.”

Harry laughed. Yes, he doubted Draco would be too happy if he started sporting a more “grunge” look to match his hair. The Slytherin valued good hygiene quite highly.

“Here,” he said, handing Draco the paper. “Take a look for yourself. I think it looks good though. He captured the basics of my argument about the Heirloom Act quite nicely, and he was very kind to us regarding everything else. The best we could hope for, I think.”

“Now we’ll just see how people react,” Draco said, taking the paper from Harry.

This left the Gryffindor with the second piece of post he had received that morning, and this one was considerably smaller, and much less expected. It was a letter from Vesper. Harry stared at it for a moment without opening it, taking in his name and address written in Vesper’s flowing, slightly messy script. What did she want to say to him? There was a chance she was quite angry or hurt. At least it’s not a Howler, he thought ruefully. Finally, he made himself open it.

 

Dear Harry,

I don’t know if this was the right thing to do or not, but I kept your session for this Thursday at 4 on the books. Aurelian didn’t give me instructions on it either way, and I wanted to give you the chance to come back. Other than the fact that I miss you, I think my uncle would like a chance to talk to you about what happened (not that he would ever admit it aloud, but a niece knows these things).

Please at least think about it. Whether you continue on here or go your separate way, at least it won’t be because of an impulse of the moment. At least you will know, whatever decision you make, that you did it after some consideration. Besides, it would really break my heart if I didn’t get to duel you (and beat you, of course) at least once.

Please just promise me you’ll think about it. We’ll be waiting for you.

With love,

Vesper

 

Harry released a heavy sigh. He hadn’t given much thought to what he was going to do about his apprenticeship. It hadn’t occurred to him that he could simply show up for the session that was already on the schedule, like nothing had happened. But of course, it wouldn’t quite work like that. He and Kemp would have to have a talk. The very thought of it weighed in Harry’s gut like lead. But then, the thought of tossing the connection away without so much as a goodbye didn’t feel right either.

“What’s wrong, Harry?” Hermione asked from across the table.

Harry shook his head. “Just trying to figure out what I’m going to do about Kemp. His apprentice sent me a letter telling me that she’d kept my spot on the schedule if I want it. I don’t know if I should go.”

“What happens if you don’t?” she asked.

Harry took a deep breath. “Then, that’s it, I guess. It’s just over.”

“Is that what you want?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, then that’s your answer, I would think.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you’re not sure you want the apprenticeship to be done for good, then don’t you owe it to yourself to go and find out either way?”

Harry glanced at Draco, then at Ron, both of whom were watching him with carefully neutral expressions, making it clear they weren’t going to tell him what to do. He looked back at Hermione and the question that remained on her face.

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess I do.”

***

The waiting room looked like it always did when Harry arrived Thursday afternoon. It felt like forever since he’d been there, although it was only a few weeks. But there were the awards on the wall, and the leather chairs, and brunette sitting behind a desk, reading. She had looked up at the sound of the floo, though, and was staring at Harry like she wasn’t sure what she was looking at.

“Hey,” Harry said.

“Hey yourself.” She closed the book she was reading and placed it on the desk, her eyes not straying from him. “You got my note?”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t reply.”

“I know. I wanted to give myself the option of chickening out.”

A small laugh escaped her before she stifled it. “Hey now, I thought Gryffindors are supposed to be courageous.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

She smiled a real smile now. “Yes, you are.”

Harry pointed to the door. “Is he in?”

“He’s with his 4 o’clock student. You know, the session you were supposed to assist with.”

“Right.”

“But, seeing as you’re late, and seeing as you two probably have some talking to do before you get back to work, it might be best if you wait.”

“Yeah.”

Harry thought about sitting down, but realized he was a bit too antsy for it. He honestly had no idea what he was doing there. He walked around the room, looking at the awards, aware that Vesper was watching him.

“What happened, Harry?”

He stopped and looked over at her. “He didn’t tell you?”

She shrugged one shoulder. “A bit.”

“Did he tell you the things we said to each other?”

“I think I pretty much got the gist.”

Harry lowered his eyes. “I lost my temper. I know that. But the things I said… I wasn’t wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean about…” Harry wasn’t sure it was a good idea to relay what he was thinking to Vesper. Yeah, she was his friend, but she was Kemp’s niece, and was clearly loyal to him. She would probably be offended. “Look, your uncle is a brilliant duelist, all right? And he’s a great teacher, for certain kinds of students. But he doesn’t know anything about fighting out in the real world, about really being in a dangerous situation. But he talks at me like he does, and that just… it bothers me. He skipped the war, Vesper. The one that killed a lot of my friends, that nearly killed me. He just… skipped it. It’s hard for me to have respect for that.”

Vesper chewed on her lip and stared at him. He stared right back, waiting.

“Ok,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to do this but…” She stood, making her way over to him. “I have something I have to show you.”

Harry blinked. “All right.”

Vesper took him by the wrist and led him through the door and into the main hallway. For a moment Harry thought they were going to be bursting in on Kemp with his student after all, but instead she led him through another doorway to the left that took them into a part of the house Harry had never seen. They entered a large open foyer and Harry barely had a chance to take in the high ceilings and the crystal chandelier before Vesper was dragging him towards a curving white staircase that led upwards.

“Are you sure we’re supposed to be in here?” Harry asked her.

“It’s fine,” she said.

“Where are we going, exactly?”

“You’ll see.”

They were on the second floor landing now, and Vesper, still gripping his wrist tightly, brought him down the main hallway and to a locked door, which she opened with a quick “Alohamora.”

They walked into what appeared to be another study, though this one was far less pretentious than Kemp’s office downstairs. There was a small messy desk and simple wooden chairs, and the wall was hung with photographs and drawings rather than dueling accolades.

“Is this your study?” Harry asked.

Vesper shook her head. “It’s Aurelian’s private office.”

She pointed to a photograph, and Harry saw that it was one of Kemp, perhaps ten years younger, almost unrecognizable. He sported a clean-shaven face in the photo, and his hair was even darker then, his face free of the forehead lines and crows feet. He had his arm around a smiling woman with a heart-shaped face and sandy blond hair that fell over her shoulders in waves. Kemp was looking at her in such a way that Harry had no doubt as to their connection.

“Aurelian’s wife, my aunt Chloe.”

“Where is she?” he asked, thinking he might already know the answer.

“She’s dead.”

Harry looked at Vesper, to see she was looking at the photograph impassively. “I’m sorry. How did she die?”

“Cancer. Ovarian. It metastasized to her spine and she was gone in a few months.”

That brought Harry up short. Wizards and witches didn’t usually die of cancer. “She was… was she a Muggle?”

Vesper shook her head. “She was a Squib.”

“Oh.”

“Surprised?” Vesper asked, smirking.

Harry would have been lying if he said he wasn’t. “Yeah, sure.”

“Most people are,” said Vesper. “Squibs have it worse than Muggles, and Muggleborns, certainly. Most Muggles get to be ignorant of magic, and even the ones that are aware… at least they grew up in a culture where not doing magic is normal. And Muggleborns, well, yeah, it can be hard to fit in, but at least they can do magic. Imagine being born into a family that expects something of you that you can never be. That was Chloe. Never mind that she was brilliant; she had an incredible mind for mathematics. She was an engineer. And a talented artist.” She pointed to the drawings on the wall. “Just amateur, of course, but still. So yeah, a lot of people in our world wouldn’t understand why my uncle would want to marry someone so ‘disappointing’ to her family, but Aurelian didn’t care. He thought she was amazing.”

Harry stared at the photograph some more, not sure what to say. He wasn’t entirely sure why Vesper was telling him all this. Perhaps she thought he believed Kemp to be a bad person, and wanted to prove otherwise.

“You know how some people are just born to have a difficult life?” Vesper said. Harry nodded. Sometimes he thought himself in that category. “Chloe was one of those people. Born into a pureblood family that was ashamed of her, experimented on with various rituals and potions, trying to imbue some magical power into her, when everyone knows that’s impossible. You’re born with a magical core or you're not. There’s no potion or spell or remedial training that can give you magical abilities. They nearly killed her, trying to get her ready for Hogwarts. She ended up in the hospital, and was eventually removed from her parents’ care and put into the Muggle foster system. But she was chronically ill for the rest of her life. She had all this internal damage from what they had done to her, and most foster parents couldn’t handle it, especially since no Muggle doctors could ever figure out what was wrong with her. But she got through it, somehow, I guess, although she never talked about it and I think it was the darkest time in her life. But she worked hard at school and got into college – I guess you guys call it university, over here – and she got her degree, met my uncle, got married.”

“How did they meet, if she was living in the Muggle world?”

“Aurelian was in Slytherin house with her brother, Philippe. He was the only decent one in the bunch, from that family. Aurelian was the only Muggleborn in the house at that time, and as you can imagine, it wasn’t easy for him to fit in. But Philippe always looked out for him. And he did right by Chloe too. He tracked her down when she turned eighteen and gave her money, to help her through school and whatnot. They stayed in touch, and he and Aurelian remained friends after Hogwarts, and he introduced them, and…” Vesper smiled. “They just… connected.”

Harry smiled, too, although he was having a hard time imagining it all. It didn’t sound like the same Aurelian Kemp to him. “Sounds like she got to be happy, then, at least for a little while.”

Vesper’s smile turned sad. “Yeah, they had a few good years, I think. But like I said, Chloe was… well, she had a hard row to hoe, as my Grandpa would say. There were a lot of things that didn’t quite go right. She was always sick, for one thing. She had good days and bad days of course. But her health was always an issue. And she wanted a child so badly, and they tried, but…” She looked up at a charcoal drawing of a little girl with dark hair, wearing a white dress and picking wildflowers. “That’s Sarah,” she said, pointing to it. “My cousin. There aren’t any photographs of her, because she only lived about five minutes after she was born. But for years afterward, Chloe would draw her, the way she imagined that Sarah would grow up. She just… couldn’t get over it. They never tried again after that. And then she got cancer, and had to have treatment, and then you announced that old Voldie had returned, and Aurelian knew they couldn’t stay in England. He was a Muggleborn married to a Squib and she was so sick, one bad spell would probably finish her off. He just couldn’t take the chance. So they came to the US to live near my mom and dad. And then she went into remission, and had another good year or so, and then she relapsed and died a few months later.”

Harry bowed his head, feeling like a right prick. Kemp hadn’t fled England for himself; he had done it for his sick wife. There was a lot that made so much more sense now, and yet…

“Why didn’t your uncle tell me any of this? He let me believe from the day we met that he just left for the States to save his own skin. He flat out told me that. He let me believe he was a selfish coward.”

“He was ashamed,” Vesper said simply. “Not of Chloe,” she added, when she saw the look on Harry’s face. “Not of the fact that his wife was a Squib. He was ashamed because he couldn’t save her. He couldn’t make her better, he couldn’t save their daughter… he felt like he had failed her in every way.”

“But he didn’t,” said Harry. “It’s her family that’s to blame. If they hadn’t done all those awful things to her when she was a child, she probably never would have been sick, and their daughter might have lived.”

“He knows that, Harry. But he doesn’t feel it. Because grief isn’t rational. It makes us feel strange things that have little justification in reality. He knows it isn’t his fault. He knows that he gave Chloe the best years of her life…” Vesper took a shaky breath, moisture in her eyes now. “But he doesn’t feel it. He feels responsible, he feels…” She shook her head. “He would rather have people believe that he was a selfish coward, as you say, than know that even though he was an exceptional wizard with every possible resource at his disposal, he couldn’t protect his family.” A tear spilled over, running down her cheek, and she bit her lip.

“I’m sorry,” said Harry. “That’s awful. It’s all awful.”

“It was,” said Vesper, wiping her cheek. “And he will be so pissed when he finds out I’m telling you all this. I’ll really be in for it. But it’s worth it, because unlike him I like things out in the open. I believe in dealing with your problems head on, and I believe that the only way you two could possibly reconcile your differences is if you understand him a little better.”

Harry nodded. “Thank you. I just wish I’d known. Some of the things I said…”

“I know,” said Vesper. “But it’s not your fault. Or… well, it is, a little. You did say those things. But you didn’t know the full context. And honestly, it’s not the first time Aurelian has heard something like that, and it won’t be the last. It doesn’t usually bother him, much. But your opinion matters to him, whether he makes that clear or not, and it upset him, that you think he’s a coward.”

“I guess that’s a life lesson in not making assumptions,” said Harry.

“Yeah,” said Vesper. “It’s a hard one to remember, especially with people who are as private as Aurelian. But my mom always says that everyone has at least one story that could bring you to your knees, if you knew all the details, and she’s right. Everyone is much more than they appear to be.”

“So what’s yours, then?”

“My story?”

“Yeah.”

She stared at him, and for a moment Harry thought he had crossed a line. But then she smiled, ever so slightly. “I was assaulted when I was fifteen. I didn’t have my wand, he used magic to control me, and… well… I don’t think I have to spell it out for you.”

Harry shook his head. “No,” he said, feeling a bit sick at the thought of what Vesper might have gone through.

“It’s what got me into dueling, though,” she went on, her tone lightening a little. “After that I swore I would never let anyone or anything make me feel so powerless again. It was a way to… take control of my own life again, I guess. I trained a bit in school, with my uncle’s long-distance guidance, and then when Aurelian and Chloe came to the States he agreed to become my coach full time. I’ve been training under him ever since.”

“So that’s why you were willing to come all this way to keep working with him.”

“Sure,” she said. “He’s one of the best dueling instructors in the world, and I get all kinds of special treatment, because I’m basically his surrogate daughter.” She grinned, all sorrow forgotten, or, at least, well-hidden.

“Special treatment, hm?” came a deep voice from behind them. Vesper and Harry both turned slowly to see Kemp standing in the doorway, arms crossed, watching them with a dangerously stoic expression. “I can think of a special treatment or two for you, dear niece. Like giving the bathrooms, changing rooms, and the training floor a thorough scrub down, without magic, this time, I think.”

Kemp’s instructions and tone of voice, if aimed at him, would have provoked Harry’s insolent streak, he was sure. But Vesper merely bowed her head in an obedient nod and said, “Yes, sir, of course.”

She kept her eyes on the floor as she turned to go, and didn’t dare glance up at Kemp as she passed him in the doorway. He eyed her with an expression Harry found hard to interpret. There was plenty of anger there, certainly, but something else as well, something warmer, like pride, or devotion, maybe. He turned back to Harry.

“Mr. Potter.”

“Good afternoon, sir,” Harry said, trying to make his voice neutral and respectful, realizing that it didn’t look too good to be caught snooping into his private life. “I was hoping… that we could talk.”

Kemp stared him down for a moment, arms still crossed and his posture imposing. “Very well,” he said finally. “But not here.”

Harry nodded and followed Kemp out of the room and down the stairs.

“Meet me in my office,” he told Harry, once they were in the downstairs hallway. “I need to have a quick word with my niece.”

Harry considered for a moment pleading on Vesper’s behalf for him not to be too hard on her, but immediately thought better of it. There was a lot about their relationship that he didn’t understand, and it wasn’t his place to butt in. Plus, Vesper could handle herself just fine.

He sat in the usual armchair in front of Kemp’s desk and thought about what he wanted to say. He’d had no idea what to say when he’d first arrived, and after Vesper’s revelations to him he felt even more at a loss. An apology was certainly in order, but then… what? What did he want to have happen?

He didn’t have to contemplate for long, it turned out, because Kemp arrived only a few minutes behind him. He sat in the chair behind his desk and rested his clasped hands on the smooth, dark wood. The two wizards simply looked at each other for a minute, Harry, for his part, trying to reconcile the younger, happier man he’d seen in the photograph with Chloe and the man that sat before him now. Present-day Kemp didn’t look unhappy, per se, but Harry thought perhaps he could see an emptiness in the dueling master that he hadn’t picked up on before. Or maybe he was just imagining it, projecting the idea onto Kemp now that he knew about the man’s past.

“How shall we begin?” Kemp said finally.

“I suppose with an apology, sir. I said some things that were out of line. If I had known the truth about why you really left England-“

“I’m not going to discuss my wife or my daughter with you, Mr. Potter,” Kemp cut in.

“I understand that. I wouldn’t expect you to. But it does put some things into context for me.”

Kemp arched a brow. “I see. So you have me all figured out, now.”

Harry sighed. This wasn’t going very well so far. “No, sir, no more than you have me figured out, based on what you and the rest of the wizarding world knows about my past.” That got Kemp’s attention. “I only meant that knowing the real reason why made me think about your decision to leave England differently, and if I had known before I wouldn’t have said the things I said.”

“You would have had more respect for my choice, knowing the truth.”

“Frankly, sir, yes.”

Kemp sat back in his chair, and slight smile on his face. “I meant it when I said that I don’t understand you, but I think perhaps I didn’t have it quite right. I think it’s more that I don’t know what to make of you. Your honesty is… if we’re being honest, here, refreshing and infuriating in equal measure.”

Harry fought a smile. “I think a lot of people feel that way about me.”

“Indeed. My niece likes it, though, probably because she is similar in that way.”

Harry smiled genuinely now. “And I appreciate it in her. I think it’s why we’ve become friends so quickly.”

“Mm,” Kemp hummed vaguely. “But there are ways in which you are very different.”

“I don’t disagree with that.”

“Do you know why Vesper is such an exceptional duelist?”

Harry tilted his head. “I expect it has something to do with her incredible speed and her mastery of non-verbal spells.”

“Not to mention her perfect technique, her quick reflexes, her extensive arsenal of spells… I could go on. But that’s not why I asked the question. Because none of those are the answers. The things you and I just mentioned are the results of the reasons she is exceptional, not the reasons themselves. I’m talking, of course, about discipline, and determination, and commitment.”

Harry remained silent, thinking this was probably going nowhere good. Was Kemp about to tell him that he lacked those things? Because he already knew, when it came to competitive dueling, at least, that he did lack them. But he didn’t need Kemp to reiterate it for him.

“When Vesper came to me, asking to be coached, she had none of the skills or abilities we just listed. She was a confused, angry, frightened young woman whose only foray into anything remotely athletic was her background in dance.” He smiled suddenly. “You’ve seen firsthand how most students start out pretty flat-footed. Vesper had the opposite problem. She pranced around the arena like a bloody ballerina. I used to call her ‘Twinkletoes,’ which she hated immensely.” He chuckled, and Harry found himself chuckling as well. It was quite funny to imagine Vesper prancing around in any form. “I honestly wasn’t sure she was cut out for dueling. But she was my niece, and I loved her, and all she really wanted was to feel safe again.” His expression had sobered. “But by the time she was graduating from Ilvermorny, something had shifted dramatically. She wasn’t so angry or frightened anymore, and she had matured considerably. And she was outright hooked on the sport of dueling. Not just the moves and techniques, or the competitions, or the glory, but the… community of it, the code of honor, the ritual. The best duelists in the world – and I’m not necessarily talking about the ones who win the most, either – understand that it is an art more than a sport. They love it for its very nature. And Vesper was like that, is like that. She loves the dignity in the way duelists are expected to treat each other. She loves the precision required to attain a perfect score from the judges. She loves every little detail of it. And, because of that, she wants to practice it all the time. I know it seems like all she does for me is cook and clean and manage my clients, but she’s up at five every morning to train and condition, before she starts her work for me. And if there’s a cancellation during the day, or I’ve finished up and retired for the evening, she hits the training floor for more practice. It is a dedication unmatched by any of my other students. I believe I will spend the rest of my career searching for another student like her, but that search will be in vain.” He ran a hand over his beard. “So many students come to me, wanting to be exceptional duelists. You have the impression that I push them into it, but I can assure you it’s not the case. It’s very popular in the States, more so than Quidditch, even, and it’s growing in popularity here. Usually I look for potential, for raw talent that can be molded, but I never turn away a student if they don’t show a lot of talent immediately. Because you just never know. Because talent, while certainly helpful, is not nearly enough to be successful in the world of competitive dueling. You have to want it. You have to want it so badly it makes your teeth hurt. And that’s not something that can be taught, or forced, or instilled. It comes from within. I tell all of my students that. I’ll teach anyone, but if they don’t want it enough, there is only so much I can do for them.” He looked Harry over. “And you, Mr. Potter, don’t want it. You have almost no interest whatsoever.”

Harry opened his mouth to reply, but Kemp was already continuing.

“It’s not a criticism, merely an observation. You made it perfectly clear in our first session. You want to teach, not compete. Don’t think I forgot that. But…” He took a deep breath. “I will admit that I lost sight of it a bit, because you have so much talent. It’s practically coming out of your ears. And it’s so raw. Less so, now, perhaps. But in the beginning… well, what can I say? “ He smirked. “I have an almost compulsive need to take raw talent and shape it. Like a sculptor molding clay. I had thought that I could mold you into both an excellent duelist and excellent teacher at the same time. But I made the mistake of thinking that teaching a competitor and teaching a fellow teacher required the same… approach, I suppose. I’ve never taught another teacher before. I’m used to having to push, to having to look for perfection, to fix things in the moment and nip bad habits in the bud. But that doesn’t work for you, does it?”

Harry tried not to gape. What Kemp had said sounded almost like an apology, which Harry had not been expecting. He’d also gotten right to the heart of the issue, without Harry having to explain it, but then… Kemp always had a knack for that. “I would say that’s accurate, sir,” he said. Kemp merely nodded, and so Harry continued. “I admire the way you teach, the kind of progress your students can make in such a short time. Observing has been very helpful. But asking me to teach and then trying to… teach me, while I’m teaching… well… it was a bit of a…”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘fiasco,’ Mr. Potter,” Kemp said drily.

“Yes, sir.”

“I agree. I would have to change my approach, if you wanted to continue learning from me. Which I am willing to do…” He trailed off, looking at Harry contemplatively. “But if we were to continue, I would need something from you in return.”

Harry nodded. His behavior had not been the best. He was aware of that fact. “I will be more respectful, sir,” he said.

“I’m not just talking about that,” said Kemp. “Although that would be appreciated. It is not good for business to have you undermining me in front of my students. And I will do my best not to undermine you, either, when I am supervising your teaching,” he added with a pointed look, perhaps in reaction to the look on Harry’s face.

“Thank you, sir,” Harry said, a bit self-conscious about how transparent he could be sometimes.

“I am more than happy to engage in candid discussion about techniques and methods in the privacy of my office, but we won’t do it again on the teaching floor. Can we agree to that?”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said.

“Very good. The other thing I need, the thing I really need, is clarity about what you’re really looking for here. Your goals were quite vague and fluid regarding what you wanted to get out of this apprenticeship, and while I think we were operating successfully for a while, it has come to the point where I need to know more concretely what you want from me. It is easy for me to teach my dueling students. They want to compete; they want to be great duelists. I know how to accomplish that. But you… you have no interest in competing, and you say you want to teach... But teach what, exactly? It would be quite difficult to build a business as a dueling instructor when you’ve never competed yourself.”

Harry chewed his bottom lip as he considered Kemp’s words. Yes, this, perhaps, was the crux of the issue. He had no bloody idea what he wanted, in this apprenticeship, or in almost everything else in his life.

“I don’t want to teach competitive dueling,” Harry said. “You’re right, there wouldn’t be much point without the hands on experience. And the competition part isn’t really what interests me. I like the defense aspect. I like the practical approach, how the skills can be applied in the real world, not in a controlled environment like a competition.”

Kemp nodded. “You want the kind of dueling training that you would get in the Auror Academy.”

“Yes, I suppose, but I don’t want to be an Auror.”

“Instead, you want to teach those skills to others, to civilians. Self-defense, entirely practical.”

Harry’s head swayed a little, trying to decide how to answer. “Maybe,” he said. “But I don’t even know if there’s a market for it.”

Kemp nodded again. “That is a sticking point, certainly. But there may be a market. A smaller one than competitive dueling, but considering who you are… well, there may be a number of witches and wizards who would pay good money to be taught self-defense by the Savior.”

Harry found himself tensing at that. Is that what he wanted? People coming to him for help just because it was Harry providing it? Would it just be a chance for people to meet him? Would they even care about the actual self-defense, or just spending time with him? He was a bit squeamish about the whole idea.

“Well, that certainly got a reaction,” Kemp observed, eyeing Harry carefully. “It really does make you uncomfortable, doesn’t it, all that attention? I called you an ‘unwitting hero’ before, but that’s not really it, is it? You’re more reluctant. Not about the heroics, but about the glory that comes with it.” He leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. “I really don’t understand that at all,” he said. He sounded more fascinated than anything. “Which is why I couldn’t believe that’s how you really felt. But it’s true, isn’t it? You really just wanted to save the world and then be left alone.”

Harry tried very hard not to squirm. “I suppose that’s accurate.”

“You suppose,” Kemp said, amused. He put a finger to his lips and stared at Harry. “Merlin knows you have the talent, the passion, and the intelligence to do anything. But you don’t have any direction.”

Harry’s eyes widened a little. No one had put it so bluntly to him before. “That sounds about right,” he said. “I guess… I had one purpose in life for so long, something it seemed like I was born for, even, and when I accomplished it… It was so nice, being free, at first. But now I just sort of feel…”

“Adrift?” Kemp suggested.

“Yeah.”

“And so you came to me because dueling and teaching interest you, and you wanted to see if you would like it.”

“Yeah, that’s about the size of it.” Harry didn’t particularly like admitting this aloud. But, in a way, it was a relief, even if Kemp would look down on him for it.

Kemp nodded and leaned back in his chair again. He continued to stare at Harry for a long time, although it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as it could have been. Kemp seemed to be thinking hard, his gaze neither judgmental nor disapproving, but rather like he was trying to work out a particularly tricky puzzle.

“All right,” he said finally. “Let’s try this on for size. It obviously won’t serve you to work with the students of mine that came to me exclusively for competition. They want a particular kind of instruction, the kind you aren’t interested in providing. But there may be some among my roster that are looking for practical self-defense as well. I can ask around, gauge interest, and see if there is anyone that would want to do extra sessions under your instruction. This will give you a chance to practice teaching the way you imagine wanting to, and give you a sense of what the market is like for those sort of lessons. And, if you find you like it, and the students are receptive, you’d finish your apprenticeship here with a client base with which to start your own business. How does that sound?”

Harry stared, disbelieving. “You’d give me some of your clients?”

Kemp shrugged almost imperceptibly. “There is plenty of work to go around, in this business. My roster is full and I have a waiting list. I end up recommending other coaches who have openings on a regular basis. We all know each other, and it’s just part of the business. Besides, the work you’re looking to get into is quite different from mine. If the students you take with you prefer it to competition, it’s for the best. They were never going to be serious competitors anyway.”

“Some may want to do both,” said Harry.

Kemp nodded. “And if they do, we’ll share them.”

Harry considered that. It was much more than he was expecting. “Would you still supervise the sessions?”

“I think that would be best, if only to observe your instruction. You may need feedback, as you’re still learning yourself. But I will promise to provide that feedback behind closed doors, and not impose myself on your sessions except in an emergency.”

Harry nodded, mostly to himself. Yes, that sounded quite reasonable. “I like that idea, sir,” he said. “Very much.”

“Good. I’ll ask around. I have a couple of students in mind already.”

“Can I continue the dueling training as well? For myself?” Harry asked.

Kemp smiled slightly. “You’re still interested in that?”

“I like it,” said Harry. “And I was learning a lot. Just because I don’t want to compete doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the sport.”

“Very well, then. We’ll continue to hone your technique as well. But it may mean extra time spent here, depending on how many students are interested in learning from you. Is that doable, with your NEWTs coming up?”

“I’ll make it work,” said Harry. It was only a couple more months, and this was his best chance of determining if he could make a business out of this work, if he even wanted to.

“Good,” said Kemp. “Give your availability to Vesper so she knows when to schedule student sessions. As for now… would you like some time on the floor today?”

Harry raised his eyebrows. “Sure,” he said, with a small smile. “That would be great.”

After a thorough workout, in which he realized neglecting training for even just three weeks could take its toll, he bid Kemp goodbye and headed for the waiting room. Vesper practically accosted him when he walked through the door.

“How’d it go?” she asked, her eyes wide and anxious. “You were in there for so long.”

“That’s because I did some training, after our talk, which was surprisingly civil.”

Vesper’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Thank Merlin. I thought maybe you’d storm out of here again after a few minutes and that would be the end of it.”

Harry laughed. “My temper’s not that bad.”

Vesper gave him a look. “Between the two of you, who knows what would have happened?”

“He wasn’t too hard on you, was he?” Harry asked.

Vesper shook her head. “No, he was reasonable. If the conversation with you didn’t go well, I might have gotten it worse, but as it is it’s just some extra chores.”

“On top of everything else you do around here?” Harry said. “When will you sleep?”

“When I’m dead,” said Vesper with a grin. “No really, it’s not that bad. And it’s the least I can do after all those years of free training that have turned me into a globally ranked duelist. After everything Aurelian has done for me, I hardly have a leg to stand on in the resentment department.”

Harry nodded. “Has he always been this… prickly? Or is he the way he is because of… you know…”

“Because his wife and daughter died?” Vesper clarified pointedly.

“Yeah.” Harry rubbed the back of his neck.

“He’s more abrasive than he used to be, I think,” she said. “But he’s always been tough on his students. He sort of has to be. They pay him to make them great. He sees it as his duty. But he’s different with his family. Behind closed doors, he’s always been different. You know, warmer, more open.”

Harry nodded. He could see how that could be true. And he wasn’t sure he would ever get past that boundary with Kemp himself. They would probably never wind up best mates. But that afternoon had been a step in the right direction, and he owed a lot of that to Vesper.

“Thanks, by the way,” he said. “You’re a lot of the reason I’m still here, and that this will probably still work out.”

She smiled widely, looking incredibly pleased. “You’re very welcome. Now introduce me to a couple of your sexy Gryffindor friends and we’ll call it even.”

Harry laughed. “I’ll owl you the next time we plan to go out.”

“That would be great.”

“Also, the anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts is coming up. There’s going to be an event of sorts. You should come.”

Vesper bit her lip. “Wouldn’t I be a bit out of place? It’s for the people who actually went through the war, right?”

“It’s for anyone,” said Harry. “Anyone who has an interest in honoring those who died to save all of us.”

Vesper thought about it. “Maybe I will. I’ll think about it.”

“Good,” Harry said. “I could use some friendly faces in the crowd. I have to give the dedication speech for the new memorial, and I hate public speaking.” He had been roped into it by McGonagall earlier in the week, not feeling like he could say “no” to something so important.

“You’ll be great,” she assured him.

“That’s what everyone says,” Harry replied with a wry smirk. “But I think that chance is slim. I’ll be decent at best, completely bumbling and inept at worst. I might even vomit and pass out in the middle. So feel free to come witness my humiliation.”

She laughed. “Well, fine, you’ve sold me. As long as I won’t be too out of place.”

“Not at all,” said Harry.

Per Kemp’s instructions, he then relayed his schedule to her so that she could put it in the books and start arranging clients for him. With that he took his leave, feeling better about the prospect of his apprenticeship than he had in a long while.

***

Harry let out a heavy sigh and scratched out the words he had just written with his quill. Looking back up the parchment, he saw just how many times he had tried to write the first sentence of his dedication speech and then crossed it out. This was not going well.

Why do I have to do this? he thought bitterly. Of course, he knew why. He sighed again and laid back against the headboard of Draco’s bed.

“How’s it going over there?” Draco asked from his desk, where he was writing an Herbology essay.

“Hm, not great,” Harry replied.

“Considering you’re making noises like you’re dying the slowest death in human history, I’m not all that surprised.”

“Yes, well, it’s about as painful as that.”

“And you call me dramatic.”

“I’m no good at this sort of thing, Draco. I never know what to say in circumstances like this.”

“Read me what you have so far.”

Harry followed this with an extended silence, and Draco turned in his chair to look at him. “Is it that bad? You won’t even read it aloud to me?”

“I just did. As in,” he held up the parchment, “I have absolutely nothing.”

Draco gave him a sympathetic smile. “It will be all right. Just… pick a theme.”

“A theme?”

“Yeah, an abstract idea you want to talk about. And then make everything about the Battle and the people and the memorial relate back to that theme. It’s like a thread that connects everything.”

Harry stared at him. Where did Draco learn this stuff? “What sort of theme?”

“I don’t know, take your pick. Peace, Love, Heroism, Sacrifice, Acceptance. Something like that. You can pick more than one, if you want. But they should be related. And it should be something that speaks to you. Something you feel.”

“All right. Then my theme is Stage Fright. Complete and Utter Terror. And Mortification.”

Draco scoffed. “Be serious, Harry.”

“Or you could just write it for me.”

Draco shook his head. “No, I can’t. I have plenty of my own bloody work, for one thing, and for another… I have no idea what you should say either. Only you can know how you feel about the Battle and the people that died. They were your friends, they fought for you, with you. I’m sorry, Harry, but you have to do this.”

Harry sighed yet again, but nodded. Of course, Draco was right. But it didn’t make the job any easier. As Draco went back to his essay, Harry stared at his parchment and thought about themes. An abstract idea that he wanted to talk about. All the things Draco had listed off were worthy, but were any of them right? Did he know what he wanted to say about Peace, or Love, or Heroism? They were all heroes, those that had died. He had loved them all. And now he wanted peace. The end. Done and dusted.

He’d never really thought of himself as someone who had things to say to the world, other than the time when Voldemort returned and he tried to convince Fudge and the other Ministry fools of that fact. But now… well, he supposed there were a few things he had to say, after all. Safar's article had certainly already had an impact. Not all of the response was good, of course. Harry had received a few Howlers since its printing saying he was turning his back on Muggleborns when they needed him most, accusing him of letting former Death Eaters influence him too much, or just outright spouting rhetoric that all dark wizarding families should be stamped out once and for all. These messages were hard to hear, but he had his friends, including Draco, and his convictions to help him weather it. 

The bright spot in it was that many people were actually very receptive, willing to listen, and willing to think past their prejudices. It helped that following Harry’s interview some other writers were getting on board and questioning the fairness of the Heirloom Act. And Kingsley had finally come out with a statement against it as well. It was looking like his impulsive decision to give the interview had been a good one, at least in the sense that it was getting the wizarding world to have a serious dialogue about the issue. He could handle the nay-sayers, so long as he could see that in some way he was making a difference in their world.

Without giving it much more thought, Harry wrote the word “Unity” across the top of the parchment, and then stared at it for a bit. He suddenly felt a dip in the bed and realized that Draco was climbing in next to him.

“Done already?” he asked the blond.

“For now. I’ve got more to do tomorrow but I think I’ll call it a night.”

Harry was all for that, and placed the parchment and quill on the bedside table next to him.

“Can I be honest about something?” Draco asked him.

“Of course,” said Harry.

“I’m really, really dreading the anniversary.”

“Me too.”

“Good. So I’m not an awful person.”

“Of course you’re not.”

“I just…” Draco looked up at the ceiling. “I don’t know what I’m going to do there. I was on the wrong side of that Battle. One of the few people who will be there who was. I feel like everyone’s going to be looking at me like… like I’m scum.”

Harry wished he could tell Draco that that wouldn’t happen, but, unfortunately, it probably would, given the current political climate and the emotional heaviness of the day. “So what if they do? They’re just ignorant. They aren’t willing to take into account what you did for me, for us.”

“What I did?” said Draco. “That day, what I did was corner you in the Room of Hidden Things and nearly get you burned to death. I hardly think I helped the cause.”

“Actually, that Fiendfyre destroyed the Horcrux we were looking for, so it worked out.”

Draco gave him a look. “Nice try. I know I was a fool that day. I didn’t want you to fail, I honestly didn’t, not deep down. But Crabbe and Goyle… I can’t believe I went along with them. I was scared and stupid, and I couldn’t admit to what I felt…”

“Draco,” Harry said. “Don’t go there. You know that all is forgiven. Everything is different now.”

“I know that. But it doesn’t change the fact that it will be the anniversary of the day I almost got you killed.”

“I walked into the Forbidden Forest and got myself killed anyway,” said Harry. “And you know what? It’s also the anniversary of the day your mother lied to the most powerful evil wizard of all time because of how much she loved her son, stalling his knowledge that I was still alive long enough that I could fight him properly and destroy him. That’s something to be proud of.”

“I’ll be sure to let Mother know,” Draco said miserably.

“Draco…”

“I just really wish I didn’t have to go.”

Harry looked at him. “Well, you don’t have to go.”

“Yes, I do. What kind of message would it send if I didn’t go? It would say that I don’t care, and I do. I do care about those people that died. And I want to support you, and I know you need it. It will be a hard day for you, even without the speech.”

“It would be a lot easier without the speech, though,” Harry said, unhappy for the reminder.

“Once it’s written, you’ll feel better.”

“I’m not so sure. I really don’t do well with the whole public speaking thing. It would be so much better with you giving it.”

Draco barked out a laugh. “Yeah, sure. I’d get hexed off the stage before I’d even begun.”

“Not if you were disguised as me.”

“Oh, of course. I’ll just dye my hair black then and draw a big old lightning bolt on my forehead, shall I? No one will know the difference.”

“I meant polyjuice, you dolt.”

“I see. But then there’d be two Harry Potters there, which would be a bit confusing for the other attendees, I would imagine.”

“Well, I’ll polyjuice myself into you,” said Harry, sitting up a little straighter in bed as a wide grin spread across his face. “It’s the perfect solution. You do all the public relations, speech-giving stuff that I hate, and I’ll field all of the tossers who give you the stink eye and hex them if they get too out of hand.”

“Polyjuice into each other?” Draco asked. Of course, he knew Harry was joking, but his eyebrows rose and a fascinated glint entered his eye. “That’s pretty kinky, actually.”

“What the hell are you on about?”

“Turning into each other? Come on, Harry. Actually becoming each other? What if we had sex like that? It would be you fucking yourself, as me. What a fascinating experiment that would be.”

Harry shook his head in disbelief. “You are one twisted bastard. Always have to bring it back to sex, don't you?”

“I can’t believe I’ve never thought of it before,” said Draco. “I’ve thought of just about every possible way to have sex with you.”

Harry laughed. “Well, I draw the line at polyjuice. It would be for non-sexual purposes only.”

“Oh, you’re no fun.”

“I am a lot of fun, actually,” Harry insisted. “I just want us to have sex as ourselves, not each other, or other people. Is that so much to ask?”

Draco laughed heartily and gave him a chaste kiss. “No, it’s not too much to ask.”

They chuckled to themselves quietly for a minute or two, their worries temporarily forgotten.

“You’ll be glad you gave the speech,” Draco said finally, his face calmer now. “Even if it isn’t perfect, when it’s all said and done, you’ll be glad you did it.”

“And you’ll be glad you were there,” Harry replied. “Even if some people give you a hard time or judge you for it, you’ll feel better.”

Draco took his hand. “Yes,” he said. “You’re right.”

***

The day of the anniversary finally arrived, and Harry awoke that morning with a pit in his stomach.

Damn it all to hell. Why did I agree to this? he thought for about the millionth time.

It was meant to be a day of healing. It was what they had decided as a community. McGonagall had sought input from everyone who had fought in the Battle, plus other students who had lost loved ones. It was clear from just about everyone that what was most important was honoring the people who had fought, rather than the events of the Battle itself.

“I just don’t want it to be depressing,” Dennis Creevey said in one of the planning meetings. “And I don’t want to relive what happened. I just want to celebrate my brother, who he was as a person, you know?” Looking around the room, Harry saw many students nod emphatically.

So they’d gone very simple. The Hogwarts grounds were transformed into a sort of walking memorial for the fallen, with each person having their own individual locus, with a board where people could post photos and write messages, as well as vessels where people could leave pensieve memories of that person for their loved ones to take home with them. It was hardly elaborate, but Harry thought it was perfect.

He only wished he had the presence of mind to be able to appreciate it. He was weighed down heavily by anxiety over his speech, and it was hard to focus on anything else. He’d hardly slept at all; both he and Draco had tossed and turned all night, awaking frequently and struggling to get back to sleep.

Draco was trying to be supportive, but he wasn’t faring much better. He was pale and quiet all morning, and when Harry made to rub a comforting hand across his back, Draco had turned to him with a knowing look.

“We’re just a couple of right messes, aren’t we?” he’d said, which had made Harry smile.

At least the speech was written. That was something. He’d finally figured out the main points of what he wanted to say, and Draco and Hermione both had helped him with the language. So, all in all, it had turned into a decent piece of writing. Now he just had to make sure he didn’t botch it in front of all of wizarding Britain.

“Bugger,” he said under his breath and as walked about the grounds. He’d been thinking about the damn speech again. He had to stop tormenting himself.

He’d left Draco with his mother, both of them wanting to spend a good deal of time in front of Snape’s memorial. Harry had understood that need, though he hardly wanted to linger there himself. So he’d left them to themselves, allowing for them to have some quality time together. But it meant that he was now alone and feeling a bit adrift. He supposed he could track down Hermione, or Ron, or any of the other Weasleys. But he could probably guess exactly where they were, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to go see Fred just yet. So instead he just floated along, looking at the photos and messages people had left.

When he came across Remus and Tonks, their memorials side by side, he paused, feeling a lump in his throat. He had hundreds of memories of each of them that he could contribute, but he knew they’d all be going to Andromeda anyway. He would just give them to her himself, if she wanted them. So instead he laid a hand on each pedestal and said, very quietly, “Don’t worry. I’m taking good care of him. He will always be loved, and know how much you loved him. And he’ll always know what you did for our world.” He took a shaky breath, fighting the sting in his eyes. “I miss you.” Then he let go and walked away.

He paused at more memorials, thanking each person quietly, and he started to feel better. This was what he needed, in the end. And maybe he always had to do it alone. He found himself steering clear of any memorial that had too many people around it, or at least waiting for the groups to move on so he could have a moment to himself.

He found Colin Creevey’s locus vacant, though it was clear that a multitude of people had already come by. The board was full to the brim with photos, not just of Colin, Harry realized, but ones he had clearly taken himself. His art, his passion, on display for everyone to appreciate. He felt a presence next to him suddenly, and considered moving on, but he wasn’t done looking at all the pictures.

“Colin Creevey. He was a friend of yours, I presume?”

Harry felt a frisson of loathing travel up his spine. He’d know that false, hyper-feminine voice anywhere. He turned to look at Rita Skeeter, who stood far too close, smirking at him. Her eyes had that steely glint in them again, evident behind her signature cat eye glasses. He glanced down to where her notebook rested in her hand, and the Quick Quotes quill that hovered above it, waiting for Harry to respond.

“Put it away, Rita,” Harry said, a mild warning in his voice. In truth though, he really didn’t think he had the energy for this, not on this day of all days. He turned back to Colin’s photos, not wanting to have to look at her.

“Oh, don’t be a spoil-sport, Harry. It was a perfectly innocent question.”

“I won’t say another word if you’re going to use that thing.” He indicated the quill. “Put it away.”

They were at a stalemate for a moment, but Skeeter seemed to realize she had no choice. Harry wanted nothing from her, after all, and could walk away whenever he felt like it. She was the one who obviously wanted something from him. With an almost inaudible huff she placed the quill back in her crocodile skin handbag, then made a point of digging around for a normal quill.

“Don’t bother,” Harry told her. “Whatever I say to you is off the record anyway.”

“Off the record?”

“Yes. Off the record. Surely, being the professional journalist you are, you’re already familiar with the concept?”

“Someone’s gotten quite snarky in his young adulthood, hasn’t he?” Skeeter commented, although she didn’t necessarily sound displeased by it. “Why all the hostility, Harry?”

Harry couldn’t help a small, disbelieving laugh. “You know why.”

“I only reported the truth. Isn’t that what you wanted? For me to stop printing lies about you?”

“Yes, that’s your game now, isn’t it? Pry into the deepest aspects of my personal life to get back at me. Knowing that if you print the truth, then I won’t be able to refute it.”

“I’m merely trying to give the wizarding world exactly what it wants: to know you inside and out.”

“Without my permission.”

“If you’d given me an exclusive from the start, you could have controlled the story.”

Harry turned to her again, his eyes blazing. “And if you’d been just a little patient, the exclusive I gave to Jalil Safar could have been yours.” He saw surprise flash across her face, and he smirked. “That’s right. I would have given it to you, after what you did for me my fifth year, with The Quibbler. But you’re incapable of patience, aren’t you? The moment I turned you down, you immediately had to begin plotting your revenge. Never mind that it was only a week after Voldemort’s death, and I hadn’t even given my testimony yet. It never occurred to you that I might simply not be ready to talk about it yet. All you had in mind was punishing me. Well, here’s a bit of truth, Rita, since you’re such a big fan of it, and all. Actions have consequences, and your actions these past months have guaranteed it that you will never get any sort of interview with me for the rest of your life, let alone an exclusive one. So congratulations. You’ve had your revenge. You’ve printed just about everything about me that could possibly be interesting to anyone, and now you have nowhere to go, because you burned all of your bridges with me and I will have nothing to do with you from here on out. I hope you’re satisfied with yourself.”

She stared at him for a moment, and Harry went back to looking at Colin’s photos, not really seeing them with the fire pulsing behind his eyes.

“Fascinating speech, Harry. Really quite interesting. But let me remind you that simply because you choose not to associate with me does not mean that I can’t still dig up dirt on you. And don’t think for a moment I believe your assertion that I’ve written all there is to write. There is always more. I’ve hardly even scratched the surface of your relationship with Draco Malfoy.”

“You will leave Draco alone,” Harry seethed. “Or so help me, you will live to regret it.”

He didn’t have to look at her again to know she was smirking. He could hear it in her voice. “And there it is, just another one of your many weaknesses. It’s the people, really, isn’t it, Harry? All of the people in your life that you love so much?”

“You come after them, I come after you,” Harry said. “Simple as that.”

“Come after me with what, exactly?” She sounded amused.

“I’m sure I’ll think of something. There’s always that beetle-sized secret of yours that happens to be illegal.”

“You can’t prove I’m an Animagus,” she said. “No magic can force me into that form, only force me out of it if I’m already in my animal state.”

Harry shrugged. “Who says I have to prove it? The court of public opinion will do the job for me. The word of the Savior against the word of one of the most reviled reporters in wizarding Britain. I wonder who people will believe. And let’s not forget that I’m not the only one who knows. Others can back up what I have to say.”

“You mean your clever little Muggleborn friend? Of course she would back you up. She’s hardly proof.”

“I mean all of the Slytherins who used to pass secrets to you during the Triwizard tournament. Pansy Parkinson comes to mind. She and I are friends now, didn’t you know? And there was another… Draco Malfoy, was it? The Prince of Slytherin? The one whose lead all of the other Slytherins follow? You outed yourself to quite a lot of those snakes, I understand. Big mistake, Rita. One might even say newsworthy.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “If you even try, I will destroy you in the press. Gloves off, no holds barred. You think since the public loves you now that you’re safe from them. But there’s nothing they love more than watching a celebrity crash and burn. Trust me, I make my living off of it.”

“You print one falsehood about me or any of my friends and I will nail you for libel. I’m not a child anymore, and I know how to hire myself a solicitor,” Harry shot back, his tone full of venom. “Besides, it will be a bit difficult to trash me in the press if you’re unemployable. And I doubt even the smallest news rag would hire you once your secret’s out.” Skeeter didn’t seem to have a good answer for that, her face pale and stony, and Harry found himself smiling. “Hunting season on me is over, Rita. Get used to it. Or things will get really ugly. Do we understand each other?”

She didn’t say anything, but Harry felt that was answer enough.

“Good,” said Harry. “So long, then, Rita. Have a nice life.” He turned and walked away, not bothering even to look back to catch the expression on Skeeter’s face.

That was not the time or place he’d been planning on having that confrontation, but he was glad it had happened. It was one less thing for him to worry about. And if Skeeter took the risk of firing another shot at him, he’d follow through on his promise, secure in the fact that Draco would back him up one hundred percent.

And now, back to what really matters.

He finally came to Fred’s memorial, only to find that most of the Weasleys had moved on. Only Molly and Arthur remained, leaning against each other while Molly sniffled into a handkerchief. Harry was about to give them some privacy when Molly spotted him.

“Oh, Harry,” she said, opening her arms.

Harry came and embraced her, and she held onto him tightly.

“Come look at what everyone has left here,” she said, once she’d pulled away and wiped her nose. “Look at all these wonderful pictures.”

Harry did, and couldn’t help but smile. Fred was beaming or laughing in each and every one of them, looking like the life of the party.

“He had a happy life, didn’t he?” Molly said. “It wasn’t nearly long enough, but it was a good life.”

“It was,” Harry said. “It was a great life.”

It was all feeling like a bit much, all of a sudden. He wasn’t sure his heart could take anymore. And he wished he knew where Draco was.

He left Molly and Arthur behind, his eyes peeled for a certain blond head. Who he stumbled across, however, was Vesper, looking clean and polished with iron-straight hair and burgundy dress robes. Even more surprising, however, was that she was joined by her uncle.

“You guys came!” Harry said, surprised, and happy to see a friendly face that didn’t remind him of the war. He gave Vesper a hug and shook Kemp’s hand. “Have you guys been looking at the memorials?”

“Yeah, we’ve just been walking around. We don’t know all that many people. Well, I don’t, at least.”

“I recognize a few professors from my Hogwarts days,” Kemp added. “Slughorn was my old head of house. He was happy to run into me.”

“Were you a Slug Club member?” Harry asked wryly.

“As a matter of fact, I was,” said Kemp.

“So was I, my sixth year.”

“That doesn’t surprise me at all. I bet he came right for you.”

Harry grinned. “Before the school year even started.”

“What in Merlin’s name is the Slug Club?” Vesper asked, making a face.

“One of the most overblown and pretentious things I ever had the pleasure of experiencing,” said Kemp with a small smile. “You didn’t miss anything, dear niece. Trust me on that.”

“He’s right. It was mostly just Slughorn trying to get in good with people who would be important and influential someday, while they were still students.”

“Interesting…” said Vesper.

But Harry had caught something odd out of the corner of his eye, and when he turned he saw someone coming towards him, looking entirely out of place in a loud red kimono sort of getup that said “Go Lions!” in big gold letters across the front. The real distraction, however, was the massive lion-shaped headdress, which reminded Harry a bit of Luna’s old roaring lion hat.

“What on Earth…” He heard Vesper say as the figure came towards him.

And that’s when Harry realized: it was Draco. And he knew exactly what had happened.

George had showed him the prototype of this particular product. It was a small pin that could be planted on someone’s clothing and, when triggered, transformed their wardrobe into outlandish regalia from the Hogwarts house of your choice that was nearly impossible to remove. They were trying to finish them in time to sell them at the Quidditch finals, and by the looks of it, they’d succeeded.

Harry tried to hold back his laughter, but it was a losing battle, with the way the ridiculous lion head bobbed up and down as Draco walked. He just couldn’t help the peal of sniggers that escaped him, feeling a kind of cathartic release after all the sadness and grief he’d been feeling up to that point.

Draco, however, was clearly not in the mood to laugh. He wore both a glare and a scowl as he said, from underneath the headdress, “Yes, by all means, laugh it up, Harry.”

For some reason, that only made Harry laugh harder, and he bent over, his hands on his knees.

“You are such a bastard,” Draco said.

Harry straightened, trying to get control of himself. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying to get his breathing even again. “This was George’s doing, I assume?”

“And Ronald’s,” Draco sniped. “Your precious surrogate brothers decided to make a fool of me on the one day I absolutely had to be taken seriously.”

Harry sighed, his laughter mostly under control now. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “They’re not trying to make you look bad, I promise. They’re just… sad about Fred and acting out.”

“How very mature,” Draco grumbled.

“In a way, you should be honored, really. They wouldn’t pick on you if they didn’t like you. You’ve basically been inducted into the family.”

“I will never be a Weasley. Not now, not ever.”

“We’ll see,” Harry said with a grin, pulling out his wand to put Draco right again. “Just wait ‘til you’re pulling on that first Weasley Christmas jumper.”

“Sweet Merlin, what have I gotten myself into with you?” Draco muttered under his breath, trying to dislodge the headdress, which refused, by design, to be removed.

“Stop fidgeting, would you?” Harry said. “I can’t fix it if you don’t hold still.”

“Fix it?” Draco asked. “How are you going to fix it? I’ve already tried everything.”

“Just hold still, all right?” Harry ran the tip of his wand along Draco’s left lapel, and the spell slowly disintegrated, returning Draco to his black dress robes. He looked perfectly normal again, if not a bit disheveled.

“How did you do that?” Draco asked, temporarily awed.

Harry plucked the small pin off Draco’s robes that was a cause of all the trouble. “It’s a Weasley product,” he said.

“Well, I figured as much. But still…”

“One of the perks of being a part owner of the company. George tells me about all of the new products and how they work.”

“Part owner? Since when do you have investments?”

“I have investments,” Harry said defensively. “And in the case of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, I gave them their startup capital. My Triwizard winnings.”

“You just handed those clowns a thousand galleons when you were fourteen? And no one stopped you?”

“No one knew about it. Besides, I didn’t want that money,” Harry said softly. “It was better that they take it.”

“We need to have a talk about the way you throw your money around. You should sit down with my mother to talk about your investment portfolio. She could give you some options that are better than some joke shop.” Draco had his wand out now, using grooming charms to fix his hair and wrinkled robes.

“I received quite a sizeable return on that investment, I’ll have you know,” said Harry. “Now can you focus for a moment?” he asked, once Draco looked impeccable again. “I want you to meet some people.”

It was then that Draco seemed to realize they weren’t alone as he looked over and caught sight of Vesper and Kemp.

“This is my dueling master, Aurelian Kemp, and his other apprentice, Vesper,” Harry told him. He turned to Kemp and Vesper. “And this is my boyfriend, Draco Malfoy.”

“I figured as much,” Vesper said with a laugh as Draco shook both her hand and Kemp’s. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“I should hope so,” said Draco with a smirk, which made Harry roll his eyes. “And I’ve heard a bit about you as well,” Draco went on smoothly, back in charming aristocrat mode now that he no longer looked ridiculous. “You’re a national dueling champion, so I hear.”

“In the States,” Vesper said with a pleased smile. “I’ve only gotten to compete in regional tournaments since I moved here, but there’s a national one coming up this summer that I’m hoping to qualify for.”

“You’ll qualify,” Kemp said. “There is no question of that.”

“I also hear that we’re to introduce you to all of our good-looking single friends,” Draco said with a grin.

Vesper swatted Harry on the arm. “You told him that?”

“Of course. It’s not like it was a secret. You were practically begging me to.”

Vesper closed her eyes in mild mortification, and Harry risked a glance at Kemp, who was scowling but holding his tongue on the issue.

“Well, most of the 8th years have paired up already, and I doubt you want to go much younger than that,” Draco said.

“I draw the line at them being of age, of course,” said Vesper. “But seeing as I’m already twenty… yeah, nineteen or above is better.”

“Well, we’ll see what we can do.”

Harry shook his head. “I said I wasn’t going to play matchmaker.”

“But that doesn’t preclude me from doing so,” Draco retorted.

A bell sounded across the grounds, signaling that it was time to start gathering for the dedication of the Battle Memorial.

“Bugger,” Harry said. He had finally allowed himself to forget about his obligations, but now he was reminded with full force.

Draco took his hand. “You’re going to be fine,” he said in Harry’s ear. “Just another thirty minutes and this will all be over.”

Harry nodded but said nothing. He suddenly felt like there was a wriggling creature in his stomach trying to get out.

The crowd made its way around the lake, where rows of chairs had been assembled in front of the memorial, which was still covered in a large shroud, ready to be revealed after the dedication. A podium had been erected as well, just to the left and in front of the covered memorial. Harry tried not to look at it as he took his designated seat at the end of the row. Draco sat beside him and immediately took his hand again. Harry was grateful for the gesture, feeling like the Slytherin’s grip was the only thing anchoring him to his chair.

There were a few moments of silence before the headmistress stepped up to the podium, her expression somber.

“Thank you all for being here today,” she said. “I know that this is a difficult and painful day for many of us to remember. But as painful and difficult as it is, it must be remembered, for the sake of our world, our future, and the people we have lost. We gather today to honor them with a new memorial which will remain on our beloved school grounds for the rest of time, so that we may always be grateful for the peace we have found, and for those who fought to give it to us.

“I would now like to welcome our Minister of Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt, to the podium to introduce our dedication speaker.”

She stepped aside as Kingsley rose from his chair in the front row. He embraced McGonagall and gave her a kiss on the cheek before taking the podium.

“Thank you, Minerva.” He looked out over the crowd. “This has been a difficult day indeed. On days like these it is so easy to get swept up in the past, in what was and what could have been. But I find myself today looking more and more to the future, and what we can create together in our new world. I am honored, as your Minister, to be a part of that, but I also can’t help but feel like I’m already a member of the old generation. I see so many young faces out here today, many of them familiar, because they fought with me in the Battle. Too young, you were, some might say. And perhaps they’re right. You were too young to have to face what you faced. And yet here you are today, finishing your education, preparing to build lives for yourselves. You overcame all odds, and you should be proud.

“There is a particular young man, the one I’m meant to introduce today (although, let’s be honest, I doubt he really needs an introduction)…” A few people chuckled, and Harry tried to control the nervous bouncing of his legs. He felt Draco place a hand on his knee, trying to calm him, but it didn’t help much. “I’ve known Harry Potter for a few years now,” Kingsley went on, “since the reestablishment of the Order of the Phoenix in preparation for our second war. What struck me immediately were his honesty, his integrity, and his commitment to the happiness and well-being of others. You don’t need me to tell you how extraordinary he is, for you already know what he has done for all of us, although he will always insist that we all did it together. But I will say that it is the example he sets that gives me hope for our future, and I can think of no better person to dedicate this memorial than him. Please join me in welcoming Harry Potter to speak to us today.”

There was applause, Harry was sure, but his breath was too heavy in his ears for him to really hear it as he stood. Focusing on simply keeping an even footing as he made his way to the front, Harry managed to ignore everything else around him.

The speech is good, he told himself, and was reminded of how much he had Hermione and Draco to thank for that. But he would deal with that later. The speech is good, and you will be fine.

He must have kissed McGonagall and shaken Kingsley’s hand. He must have, surely. But before he knew it he was at the podium, the papers of his speech in front of him. He looked down at his shaking hands, silently cursing them. Finally, he made himself look out over the crowd, seeking out the friendliest faces among them. And then he made himself speak.

“Thank you, Minister, for your kind words. And thank you, Headmistress, for making this year at Hogwarts possible and successful for all of us.” He saw the two of them nod their heads at him encouragingly, and he turned back to the crowd. “And thank you all for being here today. In thinking about how we wanted to commemorate this day, the Minister, the Headmistress, and the students at this school wanted most of all to be able to honor those who died for us. I hope that getting the opportunity to celebrate the lives of the fallen today has been a healing experience for all of you, rather than merely a sad one. I know it has been for me.

“I’ll be honest, I never thought myself the best person to come up here and give a dedication. Those of you who know me know I’m more a person of action than a person of articulation.” That got a couple of laughs, and Harry let himself smile for a moment. “The truth is, in times like these, I don’t have many words. It often feels like words cannot possibly express the incredible grief, love, and gratitude I feel when I think about those that fought alongside me. No words I could say could do those feelings justice. But, I also know, in times like these, that words are the only thing we have. So, I’ll do my best here. You’ll just have to bear with me.”

He paused, allowing himself to breathe, glad that the shaking seemed to have calmed. He reminded himself not to rush. “There are times when I wish I had the world’s biggest time-turner and I could turn back the clock to keep all of our friends and loved ones from dying at the hands of Voldemort. Those are times when the senselessness of the violence and destruction Voldemort wreaked on our world completely overwhelms me. But then I remember that no amount of wishing or fantasizing in the world is going to bring our heroes back, and the only thing I can really do is acknowledge that while Voldemort’s actions were senseless, the deaths of the people that fought against him were not. They died so that we could live. They died so that we could have peace. It’s important that I remember that, because there is nothing more vital in these times than making sure their sacrifices were not in vain. We owe them that. We owe it to ourselves, too.

“And how do we make that so? How do we make sure that another dark lord doesn’t rise among us? The idea that it could happen again brings on a terrible fear for me, a fear that makes me want to act out against those I don’t trust and take control in places where I feel I have none. But does that help? Does that keep the world safe?

“We may spend years trying to understand what made Voldemort so evil. Was it the fact that he delved so deeply into dark magic? Was it the fact that he was conceived, not in a relationship of love, but one of manipulation and deceit? Was it something in his ancestry, in his blood? Was it his hatred of all things Muggle? Did someone hurt him so extensively in his childhood that he spent the rest of his life wanting to hurt others? We’ll probably never understand the whole truth, only bits and pieces. But I will say, having had the unpleasant opportunity to peer into his mind more than a few times, there are some things I know about Tom Riddle that help me understand his nature, if not the cause of it. And to me, based on what I’ve seen, there is nothing that made him so horrible, so evil, as this: when he looked at a person, he didn’t see a person. He saw a piece in a chess game. He saw a pawn that could do his bidding, or a puppet he could manipulate, or an obstacle he had to annihilate. In his own mind, the only person that existed in the world was him. Everyone else was merely a help or a hindrance to the thing he wanted most: to control everything and everyone. To me, that was what made Voldemort so dangerous. Because if he never saw other people as people, then he could not feel love or compassion towards them, not feel remorse for killing them. I’m not sure he felt much of anything really. He certainly never felt anything for anyone other than himself. And isn’t that so much more terrifying than even anger or hate? Indifferent to others is the coldest, cruelest thing we can be.”

The crowd was absolutely silent, hundreds of faces staring up at him, and Harry felt, suddenly, much more clear-headed. Because this was important, because he needed to say it, and because they were ready to hear it. He plowed on.

“And we are not immune to it. We have to be aware of that fact. It’s so easy, when we encounter someone different from us, someone whose blood status, or magical practices, or political leanings, make us uncomfortable, to turn off our feelings. To tell ourselves that we’re right, and they’re wrong, and they are less than us because of who they are or what they believe. And in doing so, they stop being people to us. They become less than us. And that makes it easier for us to persecute them, to manipulate them, to ignore their suffering. And when we do that, when we take it that far, we are no better than Voldemort. When we do that, we are simply waiting for another dark lord to rise among us, to divide us again. And we cannot let that happen. We already know the price of that mistake. We’ve already paid it.

“Our esteemed Minister said something very wise in a letter he wrote to me a few months ago. He said that, ‘we must stop thinking of our world as divided between those that are good and those that are evil. Rather we must unite under the fact that we survived.’ And he’s right. This war was hell on every single one of us, no matter what side we were on, and the only way to allow it to truly be over is to be united, rather than divided. Because we lived when so many didn’t. And those that didn’t died for us, not just so that we could live, not just so we could have peace. They died so that we could be free. Free from the tyranny of Voldemort, free to be who we want to be, do what we want to do, believe what we want to believe, to love who we want to love.” His eyes found Draco in that moment, to find the blond looking up at him with a slight, proud smile on his lips. He gave Draco a small smile in return. “We may not always understand each other’s choices. Some of those choices may even anger us, or offend us. And when they do, we can acknowledge it, talk about it, debate it. But we should never turn away from those conversations, and we should never try to inhibit another’s right to be as free as we are. We should never stop seeing other people as people, even when they disagree with us, are different from us. It is that freedom that the fallen gave their lives for, and for me this memorial will stand as a testament to the power and the incredible gift of that sacrifice. I will not ever let myself forget it. And I hope you will join me in that. Thank you.”

He stepped away from the podium, finally, too awash with relief to really absorb the applause he was receiving. He went to stand next to McGonagall and Kingsley as the shroud was magically removed to reveal the recreation of the front of Hogwarts, where small statue versions of hundreds of students, teachers, and Order members stood together, ready to defend it, hands clasped and wands at the ready. Harry had liked this design for the memorial when he’d first seen the plans. He liked that no one person or group was emphasized, but rather that it showed everyone standing together, united.

He looked back over at the crowd only to find that they were all standing from their seats, still clapping. Whether it was for him, or for the memorial, or for the fallen, he didn’t much care. He was just glad they were moved at all.

The applause ended, finally, and people were invited to come take a closer look at the memorial. Harry made his way over to his friends, the adrenalin from giving the speech having subsided. Hermione immediately gave him a hug and whispered, “Great job, Harry.” All of the Weasley brothers gave him praise and claps on the back. But it wasn’t until Draco embraced him that he finally let himself relax.

“You were wonderful,” he said in Harry’s ear. “I’m so proud of you.”

Harry smiled into Draco’s neck. It was the perfect thing to say, when it would be so easy for Draco to crack a joke or give him a ribbing, as he might have done in lower stakes circumstances. But one of the things that was so incredible about Draco was that he always seemed to know what Harry needed in the moment.

“It was for you,” Harry replied quietly.

Draco pulled back so that he could cup Harry’s cheek and kiss him soundly. Someone amongst the crowd wolf-whistled, but Harry didn’t care. He pulled away, finally, knowing he was probably blushing.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” he said, a bit louder. He turned to his friends, keeping an arm wrapped around Draco’s waist.

“Now you can relax and enjoy the reception,” said Hermione, beaming.

“Good, ‘cause I’m starving,” Harry said. He’d barely eaten anything that morning, too nervous about the event to have an appetite.

The group made their way to the Great Hall, where the usual long house tables had been relegated to the side to hold the food and drinks, and the main floor was dotted with dozens of smaller tables. Several people approached Harry as they entered, shaking his hand and thanking him for his words. He smiled and nodded and thanked everyone, one eye ever on a very promising looking platter of chicken legs on the far side of the room.

He was eventually able to extricate himself and get himself some food for his now growling stomach. He sat down with Draco, Hermione, Vesper, Kemp, and a handful of the Weasleys and enjoyed sitting back and listening to their conversation, letting the last of his anxieties about the day fall away.

It was done. He and Draco had both survived it.

When he’d eaten his fill of the savory foods he ventured to the dessert table on his own, wondering if he would be lucky enough to find some treacle tart. As he was perusing the selection he felt someone come up next to him.

“I thoroughly enjoyed your speech, Mr. Potter,” said a voice he didn’t recognize, and he turned to see a tall and curvy woman standing next to him. She had gray eyes and dark hair that went barely past her chin in a sleek bob, and was looking at him with a polite but avid expression.

“Thank you,” said Harry with a nod.

“Did you write it yourself?”

“With some guidance from people I trust.” Harry continued to look over the different desserts, hoping she would take the hint.

“Well, it was inspired. I’d love to hear more about your thought process behind it.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, hoping his voice sound friendly enough. “I’m not speaking to any reporters today.”

“Good thing I’m not a reporter, then,” she said, which made Harry look at her again. She held out a hand. “Naomi Thickett. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Thickett…” Harry said, taking the hand to shake it. “As in…”

“The Diaphone Thickett Foundation. Named after one of my ancestors, and one of the first Muggleborns to be allowed to attend Hogwarts many centuries ago. You’ve heard of us?”

“You sent me an internship offer earlier this year.”

“That we did.” Naomi looked pleased. “Well remembered.” When Harry didn’t say anything in return, she plowed on. “I’m a deputy director at the Foundation and I’m launching a new task force, one that addresses the current state of purebloods' rights in our society.”

Harry furrowed his brow. “I thought that your foundation was focused on Muggleborn rights and integration.”

“It is,” Naomi said. “And it’s a worthy cause, to be sure, and still a very important one. But I have personally seen firsthand since the end of the war that focusing only on Muggleborn rights is not enough. I think we should be addressing the rights of everyone, regardless of blood status.”

“I happen to agree with you on that,” said Harry.

She smiled a small smile. “I thought you might, not only based on your speech today but also on that interview you gave a few weeks ago. You were the first to speak out and really make sense on the issue of the Heirloom Declaration Act. My partner was particularly impressed with what you had to say.”

“Your partner?”

“I’m married to a pureblood who comes from a very traditional family. The choice to marry me was hard enough on her, with her family and all, but the way things have been politically… well, I’m sure you know firsthand about that, considering who your boyfriend is.”

Harry had to admit he was becoming more and more intrigued by this woman. “Yes, I do know a little about it.”

“I’d say you know a great deal. In fact, I believe you have a very unique insight into the issues that are facing us today. I would really like to get a chance to talk to you more about your perspective. This task force is my own personal project at the Foundation and I want to do it right. I want to hear from people who think beyond the status quo, who aren’t beholden to anyone or anything except their own convictions.”

“And you think I’m one of those people?”

“I see every indication that you are. Am I wrong?”

Harry smiled. “No. In fact, I like to think that you’re right. I try to be that way, anyway.”

“Good. Then would you be willing to meet with me? At a time and place of your convenience, of course. I realize that your time is limited and valuable. But this cause is an important one.”

She was perhaps a bit pushy, but Harry liked her candidness, and the fact that she was neither simpering and drooling over him nor particularly condescending. Rather she was looking at him with the kind of esteem with which one looks upon someone they see as an equal. That, really, was what sealed it.

“Sure, send me an owl. I’m not sure how much time I will have in the next few weeks, with my NEWTs coming up, but if I can find the time, I will happ