Harry and Ron were seated at a table in a remote corner of the library. The atmosphere was one of doom as neither of them had yet finished the essay due the following day. It was for the Transfiguration class, which meant no deadline extension. And it was the first assignment of the semester, which would set the tone for the year. McGonagall had handed them the brief on the first day of class, sure, but only Hermione had it ready by October 1st. Everyone else considered September a prolongation of the holidays, which was quite natural since summer technically only ended the 21st.
Ron had more or less capitulated and was ready to hand the distasteful mess he had scribbled down, but Harry was more tenacious, if by tenacious one meant that he was erratically sitting up and walking to random shelves to check books in hope of a miraculous inspiration.
The subject was the uses of transfiguration in architecture, so they had settled near the Architecture division of the Heritage section, where all kind of topics were seemingly randomly archived. Ron had got Harry to stop questioning the wizarding way of classifying things a long time ago.
As Harry went exploring once again, Ron sighed with despair. The not quite silence emanating from Ravenclaws buried in their work was seriously depressing. How Hermione could spend so much time here was beyond him. An elf putting heavy tomes back in place cast a judging glance at his idleness.
Harry came back with a look of excitation that the situation really didn’t justify.
“Ron!” he said, ignoring completely the elf’s shocked face, “I found one! I found an essay!”
“What the heck do you mean?” Ron grunted. “That’s not how it works. You’re supposed to write one bit by bit and suffer hell over it, not find one.” He cast a glance at the paper that had been shoved right underneath his nose.
...when one masters the process well enough, the newly transfigured object can retain something of what it was first. For example, a marble stone transfigured out of a rabbit can hold the silky aspect of the fur. It requires quite a strong magic to make the transfiguration last through the centuries...
“This is good, isn’t it?” Harry said excitedly. He read a bit more before adding “I wonder who wrote this and why they took such poor care of their homework.”
He pointed a few more passages to Ron, and, he had to admit, it turned out to be almost...fun to read. The writing was clearer and more entertaining than Hermione's and the ideas were as almost as good.
Harry seemed really enthusiastic about what he had just read, and, claiming that a few ideas had already began to pop in his head about what he could say for his own essay, he began writing. As he was babbling to his best friend about how he would imitate the method of analysing things he would have noticed on his own and how there surely were a few things about the room of requirement to wonder about, enough to write a passable essay, Ron was moved by a less intellectual curiosity.
He looked for an indication of who the author could be and found one indeed, about ten inches down in the scroll’s margin.
“Blimey!” he exclaimed loudly.
“Muffliato” Harry was quick enough to say and avoid them a proper eviction from the library. “What is it now?”
“Draco bloody Malfoy wrote that essay!” Ron sounded offended.
Harry’s eyebrows jumped up. “What? I didn’t see any name underneath the title!”
“Look, it’s right here in the margin,” Ron said, shoving the paper and a dirty finger right back in Harry’s face. In the same black inked fine scripture as the rest of the essay, was written D.M. Slyth 6th.
It seemed impossible to him that something so good could be written by someone so bad. But as Harry scanned through the pages, he found some references to the Malfoy Manor architectural particularities, as well as to the Slytherin common room that assured them that it was indeed the twat’s work.
“Well, we'll have plenty of time to wonder about Malfoy's academics abilities later,” Harry said in disbelief. He wasn’t one to tergiversate when time was getting short. “The most urgent thing is to somehow write that damned paper!”
And so they did. It was a devastatingly painful experience, but at least now Ron felt wide-awake.
Harry insisted they had to add Malfoy's essay to the pile when McGonagall asked for their work the next day. Ron almost screamed in outrage. What in Merlin’s name had the twat ever done to deserve such kindness from them? But Harry insisted that it was the decent thing to do, that they weren’t on Malfoy’s level. So they swapped it as discreetly as they could with Malfoy's second version of the essay, which was quite visibly shorter and hadn't quite neat a handwriting as the first, clearly having been redone in a hurry.
This was by far one of the strangest good deeds Ron had ever accomplished in his life.
* * *
“I thank you for no less than six papers on Stonehenge,” McGonagall said with her usual matter of fact delivery. “I would have hoped for a little more imagination from you.”
The Slytherins and the Gryffindors that had chosen Transfiguration were packed in the classroom, nervously waiting for their mark. It was a big class to fail an assignment for.
“Thank Merlin, that’s not us,” Ron told Harry without turning his head. Hermione cast him a chastising glance. She liked to concentrate for papers feedback. Ron wondered why as she once more got an O.
Harry elbowed him when Malfoy only received an E instead of the O he was sure he would get. There was no pleased smile on Malfoy's face upon realizing that it was his first and lost essay that had been graded instead of the dashed through second one. He kept a blank face when he got his marked essay and walked back to his seat. Harry, like Ron, received an A, but being bad at writing about transfiguration didn't mean that he didn't understand it, he muttered to Ron.
Ron was about to shrug when Harry seemingly went mad and raised his hand before he could do anything about it.
“Yes, Mr Potter,” McGonagall said from her desk where she sat between a very small giraffe in a cage and a ball of thimbles, “do you have a question?”
“Why did Malfoy got an E?” Harry blurted out. Ron hid his face in his arms while simultaneously cursing Harry for his stupidity.
“Well, because he worked for it I suppose.” McGonagall answered dryly. “You could maybe get an E yourself if you didn't always wait until the last minute to do your homework Mr Potter...”
Beside him on the old wooden bench, Ron heard Hermione wince in sympathy at the cutting remark.
“No, I mean,” Harry elaborated, unable to stop in spite of Ron’s pinching, “why did he only got an E? I read his essay, and it was brilliant. Why didn't he get the same grade as Hermione?”
The stupefied gasp this remark created among his classmates didn’t stop him from adding, a supreme offence for all the students wearing red and gold ties, “His work was better.”
Ron choked on his spit and the rest of the class started to mutter openly, most people unable to believe their ears. Harry and Malfoy were known to be almost mortal enemies, only speaking to each other to throw imaginative insults in each other faces.
“Mr Potter, please sit down,” began McGonagall crisply. She re-established the silence by menacingly tapping on the edge of her desk with her wand. “Must I understand that you have become a Transfiguration expert overnight to be able to judge other people’s work better than your professor? How come your own essay wasn’t of a higher standard then?”
Harry didn’t have much to answer to that. He mumbled an apology, not daring to look McGonagall in the eye now that his moment of folly had passed. Ron tugged at his sleeve and he finally sat back down.
Ron’s only consolation to this debacle was that Malfoy looked like he had swallowed his tongue in surprise. At the other end of the class, the blond boy, with his open mouth, furrowed brow and crimson cheeks, looked like someone had just told him that Snape wore stockings under his robes.
“Merlin!” Ron exclaimed under his breath when Harry was sitting next to him again, making his quills fall from his desk in excitation. “That was absolutely, totally unexpected,” he said with eyes as wide as saucers. His cheeks must be bright pink too now that he thought of it. “Harry, have you lost it? We may be decent people, but we still hate Malfoy remember?”
Hermione seemed perplexed as well. A wrinkle was progressively deepening between her eyes. “And how come you've read his essay?” she asked Harry in a furious whisper, never loosing track of the real questions, “or mine as it is?”
“Well, that's unfair,” was all Harry muttered in answer, busying himself with note taking to avoid further conversation. He scratched his paper so hard that his quill made a drop of ink explode on the paper in a nasty rap. Ron signalled at Hermione that they would get over this later.
At the end of the class, Harry did not wait for McGonagall to call him at her desk and reprimand him further for his outburst. He almost jumped from his seat to get out. Ron knew he didn't want to be confronted with all his housemates. They were no doubt thinking that he had gone completely barmy, which, to be honest, Ron was very much afraid he had.
* * *
The noise this incident made was only beginning to die when, two days later, Malfoy finally decided to say something of his own. Harry and Ron were once again working alongside in the library - which happened far too often for Ron’s liking with the perspective of the NEWTs - trying to get some work done, when they were startled by a voice asking in mock wondering:
“What was so great about my essay? Was it really better than Granger's?”
Ron looked up from his scrapbook in outrage, a big black smear on his nose, to see Malfoy casually dragging a chair. Not only had Harry all but refused to elaborate on the Monday morning incident and Hermione decided to punish them both with the dreaded silent treatment, but now Malfoy, with his posh black clothes and his usual nasty sneer, also felt like he could casually come and sit at their table?
“You wish,” he hissed at the intruder, the movement of hand punctuating this declaration almost knocking off a pile of dusty books. But Harry didn’t side with him to offer a united front to the enemy. Instead, pushing his glasses back on his nose, he outrageously answered Malfoy’s question in a civil fashion.
“Well,” he begun trying to keep his voice detached but failing miserably, “it was quite original and clear. Bold but logic. Hermione's was very well documented and clever and everything, but yours was simply…I don’t know…brighter I guess, and much more personal. She's my friend, but the grades were unfair. I didn't imagine McGonagall as someone who would practice favouritism.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Harry coughed a little in a desperate attempt to retain some kind of normalcy. It failed. Ron mouth just wouldn’t close down. Malfoy looked constipated.
“Well, I must say I'm quite amazed by this turn of event,” Malfoy said carefully, linking his fingers together. He was obviously aiming for composed, but there was a hint of wariness in his voice. “So it was you who gave her my essay on time. Where'd you find it?”
“You had forgotten it here, near the transfiguration section. I read the beginning out of curiosity,” Harry admitted, glancing nervously at Ron who was still dangerously silent. He swallowed before adding: “ And well…I felt compelled to go through the whole thing. I didn't copy anything though. Well...not much.”
At this Ron smiled a pinched smile at Malfoy.
“I wouldn't have dreamt of you liking my ideas,” Malfoy said, looking from one to the other, his voice full of wonder. He was hunching weirdly over the table, as if he could see in a clearer way what Harry was plotting by looking up his nostrils.
“Well…neither would I have, to be honest,” Harry answered. He hesitated a moment and then smiled tentatively. Ron made a strangled sound. Malfoy’s eyes went back to him.
“What are you working on now?” he asked next.
“Potions,” Ron said between his teeth. This whole situation was even more awkward then when his aunt Frances had asked his mother why she felt the urge to reproduce so often.
“Well, seeing as you are such big fans of my work, you can have a look at my Potions essay too” Malfoy said. Ron waited for a punch line, but Malfoy bent down, rummaged through his bag and fished a roll of parchment out of it. He handed it to Harry, a weird sneer on his face. “Both of yours must be worse than anything I would have written with my left feet. If you have even started it, that is. By the way, you have coal on your nose Weasley.”
Malfoy then stood up and left as silently as he had come, disappearing behind a shelf of English- High, Popular and Common Goblin dictionaries, leaving Harry and Ron to their bafflement. Harry didn't know if he should say thank you for the help, or say something about Malfoy's last quidditch performances to make him pay about the comment on his potion abilities. Ron did pinch his own forearm viciously.
* * *
“I must say I'm very surprised mister Potter,” said Snape dryly a few days later. “This wasn't as catastrophic as you previous works.”
They were in double potions with the Slytherins, in that dreadfully humid classroom without any windows, squeezed between dirty cauldrons.
“The rest of the class has failed miserably,” Snape continued with a thin smile, “except of course for Mr Malfoy, who seemed to be the only one in possession of something approaching a brain. Miss Granger was also passable”, he added after a blank, delighted of the look of pure despair that had taken over the face of the young witch for a few seconds.
Ron groaned miserably when he got his essay back. He should have sat on his pride and taken an inspiring look at Malfoy’s. He had been so sure it was a trap designed to make them fall accused of cheating that he had advised Harry against even reading the parchment. He was now eating his hat.
“Harry, I'm really proud of you,” Hermione said in a hushed voice, ignoring Ron completely. She was speaking so low you had to have a sound amplification spell on to be able to hear her. Which Harry and Ron both had because chatting was the only way not to die of despair during Potions. “I always knew that you could do well in potions if you really worked on it.”
“Actually...” Harry begun, but Snape was now near them, giving the instructions for the assignment that would give them their final grade for the semester.
“Maybe some of my colleagues have already told you about this, as this is a transversal assignment” Snape begun with an air of aristocratic boredom, “but you're going to have to join two subjects for this project.” How he was able to sound condescending even while giving schoolwork was beyond Ron.
“It is a group work, but you will be marked individually. So no one is advised to rest on the work of others. And you should also know that whichever subject you pick, I will be a member of your jury anyways.”
Ron folded his arms and buried his face inside them. Life was a tasteless travesty.
* * *
“Flitwick has already told us about this assignment,” Hermione said excitedly at lunch. “He said we have to find a unifying question or topic that would need two different research domains to be answered. Last year some students chose to work on the diet of banshees, joining Botany and Care of Magical Creature.”
“Can we please not speak of homework when we are eating?” Ron protested through a mouthful of nips and tatties. Seamus had already offered him to work on explosives, which needed charms and...something yet to be defined, and Dean seemed rather keen on inventing a magical version of soccer and was accepting any partners. So he really hadn’t anything to worry about yet.
Harry, however, the traitor, kept the conversation going by explaining how he was thinking about expending his culture about the wizarding world because often enough he heard other students, or even Ron and Hermione, referring to things he didn't know about, and he was finding it more and more frustrating as the years passed by. Hermione, of course, how nice of her, offered to pay a visit with Harry to the section dedicated to the wizarding humanities in the library in the afternoon after lunch. During the free period. By the time desert had come, Ron was seriously questioning his choice of friends.
Hermione recommended An History of Wizarding specificities: a culture in the making, a book by Sir Saint-Mars and that evening Harry declined a game of chess in front of the common room fire in favour of reading in bed.
“Have you slipped something in his drink?” Ron asked Hermione, as he incredulously watched his best friend go upstairs. “You should become an auror, I didn’t notice anything.”
“It wouldn’t kill you to read a book sometime,” she laughed at him. In her opinion, Ron was clearly the deranged one.
“I’ll have you know that I’ve known about this book since way longer then you,” Ron retorted, piqued.
“Yes, really. We have a copy at home, because there's a chapter, - or rather a few lines – about our family in it. Mum put the book right next to the complete work of Lockart. Which says a lot about the quality of Saint-Mars’ prose.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be surprised that Harry needs to discover these things for himself too then,” Hermione told him with an annoying smile.
When Ron went upstairs to the bedroom, Harry was indeed reading, glasses askew on his nose. He still had his socks on. Ron sat on his bed, setting himself comfortably on the quilt his mother had made for him when he started at Hogwarts.
“Interesting?” he asked Harry as a peace offering.
“Yes, very!” his friend answered excitedly. “Listen, I’ve found a passage that might make you laugh.”
“Go ahead,” Ron answered, fishing for his pyjamas underneath his pillow.
Harry thumbed through the book, opened it on the page he had marked, pushed his glasses back on his nose and cleared his voice.
“But the predominant input in the Malfoy line is undoubtedly the French one,” he read. “The Norwegian line settled in Normandy following Viking invasions of the IX century and adopted the French custom and language. The French spelling of the name, Malefoi, means “of bad faith”, or rather, who betrays his oath”.
“Fitting,” Ron snorted. “But what kind of dumbass would wear that as a name?”
Harry held up a finger. “It was given to Adalbert in 1097 by his French suzerain” he continued, “when he grew jealous and wary of the magical nature of his dear counsellor and condemned him as a diabolic sorcerer. Adalbert Malfoy decided to keep this name as a symbol of wizarding pride and a reminder of the deceitfulness of moldus.”
“I think I remember that story now,” Ron said, wriggling into his bottoms. “And before that the book explains how a Viking ancestor, before the time of the Normans, hexed his children so that they would always be blonds. This family has been deranged for a long time.”
“Yes, that would be Dagmar Malfoy,” Harry completed. “How come no one ever told me to read this book?”
“Oh, come on, I’m sure it was in Binn’s syllabus. He put it there right the year it was published.”
“1758,” Harry went to check, bursting into laughing.
“1758? That’s the third edition mate,” Ron added, with a snort that made Neville enquire about what was so funny.
* * *
Ron’s restored feeling of normalcy didn’t last very long. Just the next morning, while Harry and him were hurrying toward glasshouse 3 for their botany class (Hermione was already taking the advanced one), their breakfast of crumpets still in hand and ready to be consumed discreetly behind leafy plants, a familiar mocking voice greeted them from a corner.
“Nice trousers Weasley,” Draco Malfoy drawled, “did your mum make them for you out of one of her old dresses from the 1970’s?”
Ron turned his head so fast that Harry worried for his cervical. He went very red in the face when he spotted Malfoy.
“Did your mum make your belt with the tender skin of her aristocratic bottom?” he replied with inventiveness, his voice bouncing against the naked stone of the walls.
“Do not insult my mother,” Malfoy growled, getting closer.
“You insulted my mother first, git.”
“I beg to differ Weasel, I didn't start it: your dreadful fashion sense was the first to strike.”
“Shut up Malfoy, you are being a bore and we don’t have time for that,” Harry declared, pulling Ron by the elbow toward the glasshouses.
“Oh, I'm really hurt Potter,” Malfoy snorted, following them toward the same direction. That was yet another subject they had in common, Ron remembered. He never paid much attention in that class, it was way too early and as a prefect he often had to patrol the night previous to it.
“But I know you don’t mean it,” Malfoy bragged, falling into step with them, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Ron horrified eyes did nothing to stop him.
“Do not play coy, Potter,” Malfoy carried on, spitting the two t with as much contempt as he could muster. “I know you find me fascinating.”
“Where are you getting that from?” Ron asked with the bombastic tone of the righteous, almost deafening Harry in the process. They were outside by now and he still hadn’t tasted one bite of his breakfast.
“Well, your dear friend thinks I'm clever. Bright, I seem to recall, was his choice word.”
Harry shrugged disdainfully. “Yeah, well, it wasn't really clever of you to insult Ron.”
“Not Ron, the way he dresses...” Malfoy corrected. He smiled when he saw the books Harry was carrying underneath his left arm. “Oh but I see that you are really fascinated with me,” he added gleefully. “Saint-Mars had a strange - well no, a very natural - obsession with the great Malfoy family.”
Harry made a noise of frustration and began to walk even faster. The glasshouses were now in their sight of view. “Why does everyone seems to know about this sodding book and never bothered to tell me anything about it? ‘There you go Harry, something to bring you up to date on your new world that you don’t now the first thing about.’”
This got an amused huff from Malfoy, who seemed to be enjoying himself hugely. Of course the bastard had thought about wearing gloves, Ron noticed. He would have like to put his own hands inside his pockets, but he had food to protect. At this rate the crumpets would be horribly cold when he would finally be seated.
“Yeah, more along the lines of ‘Hi Potter! This book is a huge praise of my pure-blooded family that you hate. Here, read it, I'm sure you'll find it enjoyable’, he mimicked in a mocking tone. “I certainly couldn't foresee that you would finally see the light...”
“Oh, just shut up, we are already late enough as it is!” Ron interrupted, breaking into a sprint, his handful of pastries clutched against his heart.
* * *
The next time Malfoy talked to them was during the following Potions class.
“Today will be a new occasion to humiliate yourselves,” Snape greeted them, “as I'll use my last strengths trying to teach you how to brew the veritaserum, which is a classic of NEWTS...”
One quarter through the hour, Ron was already having great troubles keeping his concentration up. The idea of making veritaserum was appealing at first, but Snape had decided they needed a full lesson about the history and the regulations of the veritaserum before they could actually try to produce it. He took an involuntary nap when Snape begun to explain what undesirable side effects the third version of the potion, by Gregory Mulet, had, and how it had been improved.
“So, what do you say?” Malfoy asked them at the end of the lesson, waking him up. “Do we have a project group?” He had his bag flung on his shoulder, a hip resting against the wooden desk, and a face strangely devoid of sarcasm.
“A project as in working together?” Ron asked in return, disbelievingly and still half sleeping. Which was weird because he usually was wide-awake near an enemy presence.
“Yes, I'd like to work with someone who worships my intelligence because they understands it,” Malfoy explained with a mocking nod towards Harry, “and not because they don't, like Crabbe and Goyle.”
“I do not worship anything that is yours!” Harry whispered furiously, not wanting to alert Snape.
“Well you should, it could get you an O for that project,” Malfoy said casually. “And with potions as a subject what’s more. Now, that would impress McGonagall, wouldn’t it?”
“Well…” Harry was at a loss for words. Ron punched him. He couldn’t be considering this ridiculous offer now, could he? But Harry took his arm away, threw a warning glance at Ron and motioned for Malfoy to follow them outside the classroom.
“What is going on Harry?” Hermione asked when she saw that the three boys were remaining behind in the corridor.
“Don’t worry, we’ll explain later!” he reassured her, waving her away. There would definitely be no we in the explanation, Ron thought.
“Don’t hurt your brain,” Malfoy said casually once they were alone in the hallway, “I was thinking of doing something about the magical property of pureblood. It’s quite controversial and I know how you two hoodlums like to break the rules so…”
Harry’s eyebrows shot into his bangs. “What? That’s not controversial, that’s…I don’t know, Nazi! Besides, it's not as if the fact that you are from an ancient pureblooded house has any influence on your magic. You aren't better than Hermione at charms; blood doesn't give any special abilities.”
“By Merlin,” Malfoy exclaimed, genuinely surprised, “don't you know anything? No special abilities? Just read A single drop: the power hidden in pure blood, it will teach you not to say such ignorant things again. It was known by every wizard before it was banned in consequence to...the little historic incident with the Dark Lord.”
A moment of tension followed this admission. Malfoy glanced at Ron, waiting for a reaction.
“Banned,” Harry repeated. This word held a strange fascination on him. “It must be in the restricted section then, if they still have it.”
“Of course they still have it, it's not even dark magic. Just ask Snape for a note...” Malfoy advised, a confident smile back on his lips.
Harry was incredulous again. “Are you mad? Snape hates me!”
“And he despises me,” Ron chipped in helpfully.
“Oh right,” Malfoy laughed as if the thought delighted him, “he's the only member of the faculty sensible enough not to be beaming at you...”
As Ron was opening his mouth again to throw some biting repartee, Malfoy added:
“Shall I just lend you my own copy then?”
* * *
The Halloween feast was well under way, and Ron was enjoying every bite of it. Now that he was amongst the most senior students, and a prefect to boost, he exercised his right to first share on every course with a barely hidden delight. Hermione was berating him, between cheese and desert, explaining something to do with a weird muggle religious cult and the sin of gluttony when some enemy presence assaulted their table.
“Hi stupid and dumb-dumb” Malfoy greeted Harry and him. Halloween was a homely event and everybody was wearing woollen jumpers, expect for Malfoy, who was clad in stern looking black as per usual. “I've come to bring you knowledge.”
“Malfoy, what do you think you are doing here! What the hell is up with you lately!” Ron cried, staining his fingers with hollandaise sauce as he hit the tables in outrage. Malfoy remained collected, going as far as to take a seat at the end of the bench. Crabb and Goyle were a few feet behind him, looking menacing.
“Everyone has to fight ignorance in his own little way. So I brought you the infamous banned book Potter,” he said directly to Harry. “Don't you dare dirty it. Do not leave it too near Weasel and his greasy big fingers, it costs more than he can afford.”
Ron said a word and did something with his finger his mother wouldn’t have approved of.
“It's a...potion book,” Harry declared lamely going through a few pages.
“If you like Saint-Mars, I'm sure you'll find it very cool,” said Malfoy, seemingly unfazed by Harry’s lack of enthusiasm and the daggers coming from Ron’s eyes. “Don't be prejudiced Potter.”
“That's rich coming from you,” Hermione snorted, but her eyes were stuck on the book.
Malfoy didn't answer but threw an enigmatic smile, and left with Crabbe and Goyle in his tow.
“What a git,” Hermione said without an ounce of surprise in her voice.
“What the hell is up with him? Does he think he is our friend now or something?” Ron asked at the same time.
Harry did not answer right away, because he was too busy examining the book. It was black, bearing the Malfoy crest, a white and long M, with the inscription “Sanctimonia Vincet Semper”. He looked up as his friends again.
“What does that mean?” he asked, pointing the Latin sentence.
“Purity Always Conquers” Hermione answered with distaste.
Ron let his hand flail everywhere, as if to erase the disturbing situation. “Harry, what the hell is going on? First the essay, and now that book? We really have to talk about this Malfoy situation. He is being much too invasive for my sanity. We can’t seem to go anywhere without seeing his skinny face and his pointed nose nowadays! Is he mad? Is he sick? Does he have a devious plan to gain our trust and then get at us? Has he used up all his money to buy himself a new personality?”
“I don’t know,” Harry admitted. “But it definitely calls for an investigation. Are you in?”
“I’m going to investigate that first,” Hermione answered, taking the book from him. “You boys can handle the other part.”