On Thursday night, the gentle pitter-patter of rain, like the scurrying of little mouse feet, fell upon Gryffindor Tower. The gold clock above the mantel read half past one in the morning.
Harry and Ron were sat at the foot of the large armchair by the fire, staring blearily at their half-finished Potions essays. Classes had been unrelenting, but the warm fire and red wool were cozy, and the two were fast becoming lulled into a stupor.
From the armchair above them, there came a sudden gasp.
Rubbing his eyes, Harry looked up and saw Hermione clutching a slip of parchment. His Potions book lay open on her lap.
Shit. Harry’s heart thudded to his feet. Any sign of sleep left him at once.
Hermione stared at him beseechingly, her warm brown eyes round and her cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry, Harry, I didn’t mean to read it!” she squeaked. “I just opened your book—to check the ingredients for Wolfsbane Potion, I haven’t got mine with me—and this fell out.”
Harry willed his heart back to his chest. The initial alarm he’d felt upon seeing her discovery had faded—there was no way for her to know who the note was from—but he felt strangely uncomfortable, as if she were looking at him naked. He itched to grab the scrap of parchment from her hands.
Hermione’s face was pink, and her gaze combed him relentlessly.
“What’s happened?” yawned Ron. “And why are you looking at Harry like he’s told you he thinks McGonagall’s fit?”
Hermione started, seeming to realize that she had been staring at Harry rather peculiarly. “Um, do you mind, Harry…?”
Yes. Harry didn’t want Ron seeing it. He didn’t want anyone seeing it. But he couldn’t very well tell his friends that.
Ron sighed exasperatedly and grabbed the note. “Honestly, you two, what—”
Red patches appeared on his freckled face as he read it.
“Blimey, Harry, who gave you this? Because that’s sure as hell not your handwriting.”
Harry’s gut twisted. Give it back. He mussed his hair, feeling the need to do something with his hands.
Hermione, who continued to stare at him, recited breathily, “If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave.”
Heat crept up Harry’s neck as the words coiled around him once again. The image of Malfoy, unbidden, surfaced: his slender fingers gliding along parchment, then sliding down to touch Harry’s, slipping the note into them.
His hand had been so warm. Harry flushed gently, and his fingertips tingled.
“Harry, who—?” She paused. “Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.”
“Uh, what-what-what?” Ron swiveled to face her.
“It’s a quote from a book.”
“Yes, a book, Ronald. A thing people read?” Her eyes still hadn’t left Harry’s. “Granted, it’s a muggle book.”
“I know what you meant,” Ron grumbled. He grinned conspiratorially at Harry, wiggling his eyebrows in a way that Harry didn’t care to see ever again. “I just assumed it was a steamy note some bird passed Harry. Now, which bird is the question—a kinky one, no doubt.”
“Women aren’t birds,” she said automatically. “...And it is, essentially.” She blushed. “Harry, you haven’t said anything.”
Face hot, Harry cleared his throat. Feigning nonchalance, he said, “What’s to say?”
Hermione’s eyes narrowed, and the fever that seemed to have taken over her passed as quickly as it came. Absentmindedly, Harry pitied her future children; his best friend was like Fang with a bone.
“What’s to say?” she asked, incredulous. “I don’t know, let’s start with who wrote you this? And why haven’t you told us about her?”
Her. Harry felt ill.
Ron snorted, itching his nose with his quill. “Give him a break, ‘Mione, you sound like Mum. He’ll tell us soon enough. Won’t you, Harry?”
“Right,” he said. He couldn’t help but feel a little guilty: Ron looked especially guileless with ink all over his face.
Hermione squinted at Harry, but then shrugged as if she couldn’t have cared less. She delved back into the book. Ron seemed to contemplate Harry for a moment. Then he handed the note to him and resumed gazing listlessly at his Potions essay. Harry thought Hermione’s nose seemed too deeply buried in the book to actually read it and, ruefully, pictured gears turning in her head.
No matter. She wouldn’t even be able to conceive the possibility. Harry could barely believe it himself.
It had all started, like everything always seemed to, with Harry’s plain bad luck. Their Potions professor Nimeria Boughbranch, who’d replaced Slughorn after last year forced him into retirement in Majorca, had allotted the class a mere forty-five minutes to brew Derma-Gro, a topical burn-healing potion. Now, this wasn’t nearly enough time. It wasn’t his fault. Not to mention that none another Malfoy had been seated next to him, after Ron and Hermione took the only other available table with only a couple of guilty glances back at him. And Malfoy was purposefully unnerving Harry, with his studied silence and covert glances.
So if anyone were to blame when the cauldron exploded, it most definitely was not Harry. There was a deafening bang, and he and Malfoy were suddenly engulfed in a bubble-gum pink, curiously minty-smelling concoction that immediately began to smart and sizzle. At once, Professor Boughbranch doused them off in an icy jet of water that left Harry shivering, soaked, and more than a little embarrassed.
“Nice one, Potter,” spat Malfoy.
“Speaking now, are you?” Harry muttered as Boughbranch stalked over to them.
“If you needed my help, you should have just asked for it. I’d forgotten how pitifully useless you are. Now, thanks to your fat head, my potion’s gone to the dogs.”
“What a marvelous idea, Malfoy,” said Boughbranch. “Maybe if you lent some of your no doubt esteemed expertise to Potter, you could tell him not to add the dittany on high heat and why.”
Harry was bemused—it almost felt as if she were blaming Malfoy for his potion exploding (not that he didn’t, but that was beside the point). Malfoy looked similarly confused, his white-blond hair plastered to his forehead.
“No?” asked Boughbranch, her raised brows especially frizzy. “Pity. You’ll both have to brew it again here at nine tonight.”
When she swept away, Harry swore that he got the foulest look from Malfoy that he’d ever received in his entire life, and that included the time he’d tried to Crucio him. Harry thought Malfoy might curse him right then and there, Boughbranch or not. But instead he began cleaning in stony silence, and when class ended, strode away with only a parting venomous glare.
Rather tame for him, Harry thought as he packed up and hurried away, Ron and Hermione in tow.
“Detention with Malfoy,” groaned Ron. “It’s first year all over again.”
“Except I’ll be alone. Just Crucio me, it’ll hurt less,” said Harry moodily. “Way to abandon ship, you two.”
“Sorry,” said Hermione unconvincingly. “Could you blame us, though?”
Nine o’clock came reluctantly that night, and Harry set off for the dungeons. When he arrived, he found Boughbranch seated at her desk with two cauldrons on adjacent tables front of her. Malfoy had yet to show up.
“Thank you for being on time, Potter,” said Boughbranch. “Please begin.”
Ten minutes passed, and Harry had just finished up preparing his ingredients when Malfoy sauntered in. Sparing Boughbranch a careless apology, he retrieved his ingredients from the store closet and began chopping. Harry snuck a glance over and realized he’d forgotten his sandthorns; he quickly grabbed them and ignored Malfoy’s low snort.
A knock at the door sounded, and a third-year girl with blonde ringlets entered. When she saw Harry, her face turned the color of his potion (a deep red rather than the pale pink it was supposed to be).
“Professor,” she squeaked, “the Headmistress is asking for you.”
Boughbranch frowned. “Thank you, dear. I’ll be there in a moment,” she said, and then to Harry and Malfoy, “Thirty minutes, boys, and those potions best be passable. Or you’ll both be back tomorrow.” She left along with the beet-faced girl.
Harry glanced over at Malfoy and noticed his was an infuriating candyfloss pink. It only fed his annoyance. It was already October, and Harry was getting no better at Potions. He’d thought he’d almost had it this morning—until his cauldron had decided to explode. And this effort so far seemed to be going worse than the previous one.
Harry had always attributed his failures at Potions to Snape, and then again to his over-reliance on the Half-Blood Prince his sixth year. But he was rapidly beginning to accept that he was just shit at it. If he closed his eyes, he could see his future Aurorship soaring away on the back of a hook-nosed owl.
“You’re stirring the wrong way,” said Malfoy suddenly.
“Honestly, Potter, can’t you read? Three stirs, alternating clockwise and counter.”
Harry glared at Malfoy suspiciously. If it had been anyone else, he might have accepted the help.
“Suit yourself,” shrugged Malfoy.
Harry squinted at his book through the fumes and noted that Malfoy had been right. He stirred clockwise, counted thrice, and then stirred counter clockwise. The potion frothed and lightened a shade.
Harry looked at it, then at Malfoy. “And why are you helping me?”
“You heard Boughbranch. I’m not coming back here,” said Malfoy, “and your half-witted arse needs all the help it can get.”
“Ever the pompous prick,” said Harry, but there wasn’t much bite to his words.
He’d noticed that, recently. He and Malfoy had always traded insults like chocolate frog cards, but now there was something unspoken between them. Perhaps it was Malfoy trying to Crucio him, Malfoy cornering him in the Room of Requirement, and Malfoy lying to his father that night in the manor.
And Harry slicing him open, seeing him bleed out, his blood swirling on the wet tiles; Harry watching him point his wand at Dumbledore, then faltering; Harry coming back for him in the Fiendfyre, pulling him out of the scorching flames as they licked at their ankles.
There was—putting it mildly—never any love lost between them, but now the vitriol in their words had lessened. Something had changed.
“Hellooo—Earth to Potter? Fantasising about your fan club? What, that thirteen year old turn you on? Your potion’s boiling over, peabrain.”
And yet nothing had. Malfoy was still a right arsehole. There was some comfort in that, mused Harry.
“How’s your month been, Malfoy? The Slytherins treating you alright?”
Malfoy scowled and said nothing.
Harry allowed himself a little victory. He’d suspected as much. Lucius Malfoy had ratted out half their parents, after all, and had gotten just a few years in Azkaban for his trouble.
“What, being a snitch doesn’t make you popular? Could’ve fooled me.”
“Speaking of popular, how’s your Boy Hero fan club?” Malfoy sneered. “Got any more girlfriends besides that ginger bint of yours? What’s her name again—Gilly?”
“Don’t call her that,” snapped Harry. “Better yet, don’t even talk about Ginny.”
“Ginny? Bloody hell, what a terrible name. I suppose when you breed like rodents you run out of ideas. It’s a wonder one of the Weasleys wasn’t put down to save them a few knuts—”
Malfoy seemed to realize what he’d said before Harry did. He fell silent abruptly.
Harry felt his anger drain away from him. A sudden tiredness overwhelmed him, and he was quiet for a few moments.
“One day, Malfoy,” he said at last, “you’ll lose someone you care about.”
The two resolutely avoided each other’s eyes. They continued to brew in silence. Harry thought he might have heard a faint “I did” from Malfoy, but it could have very well been the sizzling of the flames beneath his cauldron.
And when Boughbranch returned, declaring both brews passable, he slipped from the room before Malfoy had even begun to clear up.
“How was detention?” Hermione asked on their way to breakfast the following morning.
“About what you’d expect,” said Harry.
“I’m starved,” said Ron.
Owls were already swooping overhead with the morning paper by the time they reached the Great Hall, and heads were bowed all around. At their table, Harry snatched up an abandoned Daily Prophet and read the headline emblazoned on the front page:
MIDNIGHT MURDER OF MALFOY MASTERMIND?
“Can’t be,” gasped Hermione.
“It is,” said Ron. He grabbed the paper.
“‘Ministry officials report that former Death Eater and Ministry informer Lucius Malfoy was found dead in his Azkaban cell last night. A source tells your steadfast reporter that foul play is amiss…’ Malfoy’s past work at the Ministry yada yada… ‘found dead at ten past twelve’...‘Mrs. Malfoy held since for questioning’...‘egregious irresponsibility’...you’d think it’d have more information...”
“Fat chance, it’s a Skeeter article,” said Hermione. “You know, I think that woman’s getting better.” She frowned then. “Do we even know it’s a murder?”
“Wouldn’t be a surprise,” said Harry darkly. His eyes searched the Slytherin table for a certain blond head, but it was nowhere in sight.
“No,” said Hermione softly. Her eyes followed Harry’s. “Can you imagine finding out about your parent’s death this way?”
“Many did,” said Harry.
He didn’t know how to feel. The plate of bacon in front of him looked like bits of flayed skin.
Malfoy was nowhere to be found that day. In fact, he wasn’t sighted anywhere in the castle in the month that followed. Hogwarts was abuzz as the news was pieced together over that time. The Carrows and Yaxley were suspected, and their trial was yet to be held. The funeral took place on the Malfoy Manor grounds. Narcissa and Draco Malfoy attended.
“I hear his mother doesn’t want him back at Hogwarts,” whispered Parvati during Potions one Friday morning.
“Why?” asked Harry.
Parvati gave him a look of condescension. “Why else? Whoever killed Lucius Malfoy...is coming for his son, the Death Eater,” she said with relish. “He’d be safer at Durmstrang.”
“Better there than here,” said Ron, but he looked distinctly uncomfortable.
“My father says he was killed by Fudge’s clone, the one in Azkaban,” said Luna.
“Why ever would that, in any scenario, be a possibility?” sighed Hermione.
“To cover up Fudge’s goblin murders, of course,” replied Luna matter-of-factly. “Lucius Malfoy was the only one who knew about his plot to seize Gringotts.”
“Quiet please,” called Boughbranch as Hermione opened her mouth. “Bring up your vials.”
With a familiar dread, Harry poured his brownish sludge into a glass vial. It looked distinctly chunky.
His partner as of late was seventh-year Slytherin Newt Arleigh, whose idea of working together was sniffing contemptuously at Harry’s repeated failed efforts and remarking at how fascinating it was that the boy who supposedly defeated the Dark Lord couldn’t brew a simple potion.
If only he’d had Hermione, but there was no separating her and Ron nowadays.
Boughbranch eyed his vial sadly. “And what color is this meant to be, Potter?”
“Green?” said Harry hopefully, ignoring Arleigh’s snigger.
“I’m afraid not,” sighed Boughbranch. “D again, my boy, and my office at nine tonight.”
“Why aren’t you taking Potions again?” groaned Harry after dinner, stretching across Ginny’s lap. “Then I’d have a decent partner.”
She pinched him. “For the tenth time, because I hate it. And I don’t need it to play for the Harpies, whatever Mum says.”
“You’re taking Defense. And Transfiguration. And Charms.”
“Yes, because I like them. And I can’t hex McLaggen with a potion.”
Ginny was the new captain of Gryffindor team. Eighth years weren’t permitted to compete, much to Harry’s and Ron’s dismay over the summer. (“You’ll have more time to study for your N.E.W.T.s!” Hermione had said brightly.)
“Remind me again why you two aren’t back together,” said Ron, eyeing Harry’s head on his sister’s thigh.
“Not everyone needs to be practically married,” said Ginny.
Ron squinted at her in vague suspicion before laying back down on the carpet with his Charms book over his face.
Harry felt Ginny’s gaze on him, but he pretended he didn’t notice. That was another can of slugs he had yet to open, and he was perfectly alright with leaving it closed for the time being.
The portrait hole swung open, and Hermione climbed inside.
“I’m back,” she said unnecessarily. “And guess who else is—Malfoy. I saw him leaving Professor Flitwick’s office.”
“I wanted to guess,” came Ron’s muffled voice. Hermione stalked over and snatched the book from his face.
“You told me you were studying.”
“I tell you a lot of things.”
Harry grinned at Ginny, who mouthed, “married,” and pushed him off her lap. “Down to the dungeons you go,” she said. There was an edge to her voice where there hadn’t been before.
Harry groaned, bid his farewells, and made his way to detention.
When he arrived, he was dismayed to see Malfoy sulking at his desk once again. He didn’t look the least bit surprised to see Harry.
“Wonderful of you to join us, Potter,” said Boughbranch. “Well, what are you two waiting for? Get to work. I’ll be in my office.”
As she retreated to her study, Harry eyed Malfoy. He didn’t look too worse for wear, considering, he thought. Perhaps a touch paler than usual.
“Congestion potion,” muttered Malfoy as they retrieved their ingredients from the storeroom. “A Pepper-Up Potion would do the deed. I don’t understand why I’m meant to be here with the likes of you.”
Harry sniffed a leaf that seemed sufficiently like eucalyptus and left the storeroom.
“...bloody waste of time,” Malfoy continued as they prepared their ingredients. “Filthy muggle rubbish.”
“It’s not rubbish just because you don’t know how to do it,” said Harry before he could stop himself.
“I know how to do it,” retorted Malfoy. “You most likely blew up your cauldron again, no surprise there, but this old bag wants me to brew what I’ve missed in class. Don’t know how this is meant to help us pass our N.E.W.T.s. It’s positively paleolithic if you ask me.”
“Yeah well, I didn’t, so shut up about it,” said Harry. “No one cares about how much you hate muggles or how filthy you think they are either.”
“I don’t hate muggles because I think they’re filthy. I hate them because they’d blow us all up in our beds if they had the chance. Their primitive minds couldn’t handle us living alongside them.”
“Not all muggles are like that. Or even most of them.”
“No? Ask your dear auntie and uncle. They lock you in a closet for ten years because they liked that you were a wizard? That you were better than they were?”
Shock caused Harry’s knife to slip. He winced as it grazed his thumb. “Been reading my biographies, have you?” he managed.
“Some of us do read, Potter. I know that’s difficult for you to comprehend.”
“What, Quidditch Through the Ages? Twenty-One Ways to Keep Your Arse On Your Broom?”
Harry scowled. “And what do you read, Malfoy? How to Be a Prick?”
“Something like that,” smirked Malfoy as he steadied his brass scale.
There was quiet for a solid ten minutes after that. Harry spent a good portion of that time sneaking glances over his shoulder to make sure Malfoy was making the same steps he was. He didn’t want to come back here any more than Malfoy did.
“Shit,” Harry cursed under his breath. In his endeavor to scrutinize the other boy’s potion, he’d been inattentive to his own. He was supposed to add the dried ancho seeds before the potion had begun to boil. He hadn’t realized that his heat was turned up higher than Malfoy’s, and now his potion was bubbling happily while Malfoy’s remained at a gentle simmer.
“Lower the heat, throw in the ice-steeped Tulsi, add the seeds, then crank it up to a high boil quickly,” said Malfoy with a cursory glance.
“Stop it,” said Harry through gritted teeth. “I don’t need your help.”
“Right,” replied Malfoy tartly, “that’s why you insist on staring into my cauldron.”
Harry flushed. With reluctance, he did as Malfoy said.
“I have to ask again how you and Weasley made it in here,” continued Malfoy as if Harry had spoken. “Granger’s help, I suppose. I wonder, are all the Weasleys this useless?”
Harry ignored him.
“I mean, did they have so many kids that each one came out more dim-witted than the one before? Those twins were the start of it, to be sure. Didn’t even graduate, did they?”
Anger flooded Harry. He curled his fist so tightly pain stung his palm.
“Not another word, Malfoy.”
“What did I say? Oh—that again. George, was it? Or Fred?” Malfoy shrugged carelessly. “Not much difference either way, is there?”
“You should be thanking Fred. And the Weasleys. If it weren’t for them, and everyone else who saved Hogwarts, you’d be rotting in the dirt with your father.”
Malfoy froze for a moment, and Harry felt a sort of sordid satisfaction.
Malfoy resumed stirring. “Perhaps,” he said with feigned lightness.
“You would be,” continued Harry mercilessly. “But still all you do is mock everyone. Make jokes at their mothers’ and fathers’ and brothers’ and sisters’ grief. You should be on your hands and knees. You deserve nothing. Yet you stand here, a coward, and laugh at their tears.”
Harry stopped, stunned by his own words. Yet there was nothing he had said that rang false.
Now when he looked at Malfoy, he saw his face turn parchment white.
“And who cried for Crabbe?” Malfoy said softly. “Who remembered him when he burned to death, screaming? You?”
Harry said nothing.
“You said it yourself that day. You hoped I’d know what it felt like to lose someone.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“You did. To you he may have been just a Death Eater, Potter, but to me he was my father,” said Malfoy bitterly. “And Crabbe was my friend.”
Harry didn’t know what to say. “I’m—sorry,” he muttered at last.
Irritation swelled up in Harry once again. “And how many times have you wished Ron or Hermione dead? How many times have you made fun of my parents for dying?”
“It’s not like you could ever remember them,” sniffed Malfoy.
“Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.”
“Poor Potter. Poor you and your dead mum and your dead dad,” mocked Malfoy. “Dead parents can’t die, Potter. Our parents made their choices.”
It took all of Harry’s will to simply say quietly, “As did you.”
Malfoy cocked his head at Harry. “Yes, I did,” he said flatly. “You knew everything you were doing, and so did I. Now we live with that.”
“Thanks to people like your father, not everyone has that chance.”
“My father chose what he thought was the winning side. That’s what people with half a brain do. He played his cards wrong is all, and he paid for it. You want me to apologize, Potter? To beg for your forgiveness? I’m so sorry, my Golden Savior, I’ve fed a poison tree and I can’t come back. Forget it.”
“A poison tree?” asked Harry, now confused.
“From that old poem—of course, I don’t expect you’d know it.”
“You about to recite poetry to me, Malfoy?” he said with a humorless laugh.
“You wouldn’t know poetry if it hexed you in the arse.”
“Like you would. Let’s hear it, then.”
“... I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow / I water’d it in fears, / Night & morning with my tears: / And I sunned it with smiles, / And with soft deceitful wiles…In the morning glad I see / My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree. There,” spat Malfoy. His cheeks had taken on a faint pink tinge.
Surprise abated Harry’s anger. He paused for a moment. “You know, we’re really not like that.”
“Astounding observation, Potter. If only your skill in Potions matched that of decoding literature.”
“What’s with you and books all of a sudden?”
“I’ve always read. Not that you’d know that.”
“And you know everything about me?”
“I know you worship muggles and your broomstick. And shag your ginger girlfriend Gilly while picturing Granger and the Weasel every night.”
“Ginny,” corrected Harry automatically. “And we’re not together.”
Malfoy quirked a brow. “No? Trouble in Potter’s perfect paradise?”
Harry was flummoxed by the sudden turn the conversation had taken. “Don’t talk about things you have no idea about, Malfoy.”
“I don’t know, Potter, two girls in eight years—well, one—Chang was always too good for you, so no surprise how that one turned out.”
“You know an awful lot about my relationships.”
“I know about the lack thereof. But still, one girl in eighteen years...and you as famous as you are. It’s a bit odd, isn’t it?”
“Are you arriving at a point, or do you need me to help you get there?”
“Just envisioning the Daily Prophet headline: CHOSEN ONE CHOKES ON COCK. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
“I—” Harry spluttered, flabbergasted. “What do you care? You’re the one reciting poetry.”
“I am,” said Malfoy. He gave Harry an incomprehensible look.
Harry could have brewed a hundred more failed potions for Boughbranch when she strode in at that moment.
“Ten minutes, boys,” was all she said. Their conversation halted at once, but Malfoy’s words ran circles in Harry’s head. He decided it was too irritating to dwell on for long. It was making him feel a bit nauseated.
When their time was up, Boughbranch inspected their cauldrons and nodded approvingly.
“Good,” she said, “glad to see Malfoy here is having a positive influence on you, Potter.”
Harry didn’t need to see Malfoy’s face to know that he was smirking.
“Which is excellent,” she continued, “because I’ve decided you’ll be joining me for Remedial Potions for the foreseeable future.”
This time, there was no mistaking Malfoy’s low snigger. Embarrassment washed over Harry in a hot wave. His relief at for once brewing a passable potion disappeared. Remedial Potions—Malfoy would never let him live it down.
“Joined, of course, by Malfoy, who’ll be making up the considerable amount of coursework he’s missed as of late.”
Even Malfoy’s palpable dread couldn’t make Harry feel any better.
In this story, eighth years have classes alongside seventh years because their course material is the same. However, their room assignments and privileges differ (e.g. Quidditch). It just makes more sense to me this way, with how class blocking etc. works.
Chapter 2: Hairy Encounters
"Over here, Harry," called Ginny, laughing. The sun shone on her face, freckled and pink from the early November chill; her hair fiery, rippling down her back as she turned to him over her shoulder.
In that moment, Harry was struck by how beautiful she was.
"Coming, Gin," he called back. He turned to Ron. "See you and Hermione at noon in the Three Broomsticks?"
Ron looked at Harry speculatively. Then he looked at Ginny. "I hope you know what you're doing," he said at last.
Harry didn't. Choosing not to respond, he hurried after Ginny through the Hogsmeade gates. When he caught up to her, she linked her arm through his and smiled up at him.
"Where first?" she asked.
Last night, Ginny had asked Harry, quite innocently, if he'd like to spend the following morning with her at Hogsmeade Village. Harry, being the poster boy for myopic decisions, had agreed. He'd made the mistake of forgetting that Ginny never did anything without a reason; the girl spent far too much time with Hermione for Ron and Harry's liking. He was dreading what he knew was coming.
But despite Harry's feelings of trepidation, the morning really was rather pleasant. Although a chill accosted them, the warm sun on their faces seemed to kiss it away. It was the first Hogsmeade trip of the year, after all, and nothing—Ginny's plot, memories of Death Eaters and Aberforth and Ariana—could quell the cheer in the air.
It was when they reached Prunella's Pets Shop a couple of hours later that it seemed Ginny could hold it in no longer. She had been scrutinizing a box of owl treats for Pig for the whole of five minutes when she finally said, "Harry, I want to ask you something, and all I want is the truth."
Harry looked up from the kneazle-cat hybrid he'd been teasing with a toy. Ginny remained fixed on the box of treats. The cat took the opportunity to swipe the toy from Harry's hand.
"Ow," he said, inspecting the red scratch its claws left behind. "What is it?"
"Do you still love me?"
"Of course I do," Harry replied at once.
Ginny turned to him. "Then why aren't we together?" she questioned. Her face was impassive.
It was the exact question Harry had been dreading, and it was because he didn't yet know the answer himself.
"I don't know, Gin," he said quietly. "I just don't know if I'm ready quite yet."
Ginny seemed to take this at face value. "When will you be?" she asked. "Ready, that is."
"I'm not exactly sure."
She nodded slowly. "And what are you sure of?"
Harry didn't know what to say. "I know...I want to do well on my N.E.W.T.s. And I want to move on, I guess, from everything that's happened."
When he said it aloud, Harry realized he didn't actually know what he wanted. It felt as if someone else were speaking through him.
"Because I know what I want," blurted Ginny, “and I'll wait for you, you know I will. But I can't wait forever."
"I'm not asking you to," said Harry quickly.
Ginny gazed up at him with blazing eyes. "Good. Because I won't. But if you make me feel like I should—I might, because I love you. But I'll hate you for it."
Harry looked into her face, set and hard. He felt a sort of pang in his chest, like the sound of a distant drum. He reached out and folded Ginny into him.
Her face pressed against his shirt. "I won't," she repeated, her voice muffled. "I'll find someone else."
"I know," said Harry softly. "I've always thought you could have anyone you wanted."
"Except you, it seems," whispered Ginny.
Harry didn't say anything. Guilt wrenched his stomach.
She drew back from him suddenly. "I'll see you around, Harry," she said, not looking at him. "I've got Charms homework."
She turned before Harry could respond and hurried away, her hair shimmering behind her. At that moment, Harry wondered if it were true that Ginny seldom cried, or if she just didn't like anyone to see it.
Dejected, he picked up the treats Ginny hadn't purchased in her haste. When he made his way to the counter, he saw a familiar pale blond head talking to an elderly woman he guessed was the Mrs. Prunella in Prunella's Pets Shop.
"...I suppose I'll try that," Malfoy was saying to her. She tottered into the storeroom behind the counter, presumably to fetch whatever he wanted. Harry eyed the door, but reluctantly sidled beside him.
"What do you want, Potter," said Malfoy. He didn't seem surprised to see Harry. Perhaps it was because he'd seen Ginny leave nearly in tears.
Harry held up the box. Malfoy rolled his eyes, as if the exchange alone was an inconvenience, and didn't bother replying.
Mrs. Prunella emerged from the storeroom with a package and set it heavily on the counter. Henrietta's Happy Kitten Kibble, Harry read.
"Here you are, dearie," she said. "That'll be five sickles and seventeen knuts."
"Didn't know you had a cat, Malfoy," remarked Harry as Malfoy rooted through his bag.
"Don't," he said shortly.
"Okay," said Harry. "Planning on eating that yourself?"
"Clever. Are you always this irritating?" muttered Malfoy. He handed over the coins. It was apparent that he wasn't in the mood for conversation.
"And you, pet, that'll be four sickles," the cheery old woman told Harry. He looked away from Malfoy to pay her, and by the time he did, Malfoy had left the shop.
Left a bit discomfited by the abrupt interaction, Harry walked out and checked his watch. He decided it was about time to meet up with Ron and Hermione.
He found them pushed against the back corner of an overstuffed Three Broomsticks.
"Hullo! We've just arrived," said Ron.
"Three Butterbeers, please," Harry told Madam Rosmerta, who smiled warmly at him from a nearby table.
"Er—firewhisky for me," said Ron sheepishly.
Hermione gave him a disparaging look.
"I'm well of age," he protested.
She ignored him and turned to Harry. "Have you read today's paper?" she asked crisply.
"Not yet," replied Harry. He'd slept in and missed breakfast that morning, only to be shaken awake by Ron minutes before they'd left for Hogsmeade.
"Well, listen to this," said Hermione, pulling the morning's Daily Prophet out of her bag. She read aloud:
"'Incarcerated Death Eaters Corban Yaxley, Alecto Carrow, and Amycus Carrow no longer stand accused of murdering Lucius Malfoy, former Death Eater and longtime benefactor of the Ministry of Magic. Ministry officials report that charges have been dropped by the Wizengamot against all three parties due to lack of evidence...'"
"Who do you reckon did it then?" asked Harry as Madam Rosmerta set their drinks in front of them.
"Does it matter?" said Ron. "He pissed off so many Death Eaters, one of them finally decided to off him. What difference does it make which one did it?"
"I suppose it doesn't matter," said Hermione. "Although," she added thoughtfully, "it does bring up the question of why they were charged in the first place...and what must have changed."
The three of them sat sipping their drinks in a moment of contemplation.
"By the way, Harry," said Hermione as if she had just realized something, “where’s Ginny?"
With reluctance, Harry divulged the morning's events.
"...and then she just up and left," Harry finished, frowning at his bottle.
Hermione gave him a long look.
"What?" he said.
"I'm just trying to understand."
"What's so hard to get?"
She hesitated. "It's just—you need someone, Harry. To help you through all of this. To help you...forget."
"I have you two, don't I?"
"Yes," she nodded vigorously, reminding Harry of a bobblehead, “of course you do!"
"Whenever, mate," Ron agreed, though he still seemed perturbed by Harry's news. He absentmindedly brushed one of Hermione's stray curls behind her ear.
For some reason then, although he was with his two best friends in the entire world, Harry felt curiously alone.
It wasn't until ten to eight that the three made their way back to the castle, red-faced and worn out from the cold, but happy nonetheless.
When Harry, Hermione, and Ron climbed through the portrait hole, they were met with a peculiar sight. The room was largely empty, as was to be expected on a Hogsmeade night, save for a huddle of first and second years and two familiar people: Neville and Luna. Luna was sitting at Neville's feet, and she appeared to be tying what looked like wreaths of fresh cranberries around his ankles.
"Ho, what have we got here?" said Ron, grinning. "Hey, Luna. This is our common room, you know."
"Hello, Ron," beamed Luna. "Hello, Harry and Hermione."
"Hi," they chorused.
"Er—what exactly are you two doing?" asked Harry.
"Never you mind," said Neville, flushing, before Luna could respond. "Aren't you meant to be with Boughbranch?"
"Why would Harry be with Professor Boughbranch?" questioned Hermione at once. "You haven't got detention again," she said reproachfully.
Harry felt the weight of the room's eyes. "Not detention," he muttered, "...Remedial Potions."
"Remedial Potions," he repeated, louder. "But," he continued, ignoring Ron and Hermione's twin expressions of pity, "it hasn't started yet, anyway."
"Oh, but it has, Harry," said Luna happily. "Neville came with me to return a book I borrowed from Professor Boughbranch...she's very kind, she asked all about Daddy's magazine...and we heard her tell Malfoy you both had Remedial Potions at eight tonight, and for him to tell you not to be late."
"Bloody git," cursed Harry, checking his watch. He tore up the stairs to retrieve his bag and hurried out of the portrait hole before anyone could say anything else to embarrass him.
He arrived at the dungeons an impressive four minutes later, pink and short of breath. On the board, Boughbranch had written the instructions for the potion they were meant to be brewing (a hair-restoring solution) along with a note that she would be by periodically to check on their progress.
He found Malfoy in the storeroom, who seemed put out that Harry had made it after all.
"You could've told me about this," said Harry, scowling at him. "In Prunella's, at least."
"I could've," agreed Malfoy. He reached over Harry's head, and Harry ducked from underneath his arm to avoid having scarab beetles rained down on him.
Harry likewise collected his ingredients and left the closet. While powdering his beetles, the suspicion he'd had when seeing Malfoy in the pet shop began to grow.
"Out with it, then," he said finally, after a couple minutes of internal wrestling.
Malfoy, de-petaling his chamomile flowers, glanced over at Harry.
"With what exactly?" he asked mildly.
"You heard us, didn't you? In the pet shop. Me and Ginny."
"I might've," said Malfoy with an air of indifference.
"That's it? You're not planning on telling half of Hogwarts?"
"Who would I tell, Potter?" said Malfoy scornfully. "Besides, what makes you think I care about you and the She-Weasel?"
"You seemed to care plenty enough the other day," reminded Harry.
"Maybe I just wanted to get a rise out of you," he replied. "It wasn't worth it, though. You're awfully dull, Potter, anyone ever tell you that?"
Malfoy had before, but Harry thought it best not to remind him.
"But now that you bring it up..." drawled Malfoy, “it was a pretty scene. Tell me, do you get off on making girls cry?"
Harry rolled his eyes, unimpressed.
"Because it's quite interesting, really," Malfoy persisted, evidently enjoying himself. "The wizard who thousands of witches would give their left tit for—for some unfathomable reason—couldn't give a rat's arse about any of them."
Harry guessed where Malfoy was going with this.
"I'm not a ponce, Malfoy, if that's again what you're suggesting."
"Oh, I'm not suggesting it," he said. "Although it seems you are."
Harry groaned and decided to let Malfoy have that, if it meant he would stop talking. He supposed he deserved it for Ginny, anyway.
"When's Boughbranch going to be back? You'd think she'd show up soon, seeing as she's forcing us to be here on a Saturday night," grumbled Harry, all too willing to change the subject. "At least then you'd finally shut up."
"You're the one familiar with Remedial Potions," said Malfoy.
"Uh, I never took it."
"Really? I seem to recall an incident fifth year…"
"That wasn't Remedial Potions," said Harry defensively. "That was—" He stopped.
Malfoy smirked. "Convincing argument, Potter."
"Fine. If you must know, Snape was teaching me Occlumency."
Malfoy sneered in disbelief. "What would a dolt like you need Occlumency for?"
"What do you think, Malfoy?"
Malfoy was quiet for a moment. Then:
"He...used Legilimency on you? Even back then, at Hogwarts?"
There was an awkward, heavy silence. Harry stirred his potion.
"The copper rod, not the wood," snapped Malfoy, apparently back to normal.
Harry frowned. "There's a difference?"
"Not much, but the copper will oxidize and lighten the shade of the potion, which will make it easier for you to make value judgements."
"But I don't have a copper rod.”
Malfoy passed him his own. "I have two," he said coolly when Harry looked taken aback.
Boughbranch walked in then and surveyed their potions.
"Copper, that is? Smart touch," she nodded. "Potter, you shouldn't have much trouble with this. As I recall, last time you simply switched the order of the powdered petrified eggs and the aloe."
"Yes, Professor," said Harry while Malfoy snorted.
The hour and a half that followed was much of the same. Boughbranch would arrive every now and then, dispense advice, and retreat to her study. But there was one event that stood out above the rest.
Harry, realizing he'd forgotten the almond extract he needed to finish his potion, made his way to the storeroom. Malfoy followed. He stood beside Harry, scanning the shelves.
They'd been working in silence for nearly an hour, but while Harry rooted through the cupboards, Malfoy said suddenly, gaze fixed above Harry's head:
"A bit of Calming Draught helps. About a quarter of a dose."
"With Occlumency," clarified Malfoy. "I know...from personal experience."
It was bewildering to experience not one, but two expressions of Malfoy's kindness within the hour.
"It's not something I'd wish on anyone," said Malfoy grimly. "Even you, Potter. The Carrows were the worst, after Him. Murderous animals."
"But...they were cleared, weren't they?" asked Harry, hesitating. "I mean, not for the other stuff, of course. But they didn't murder your father."
Malfoy scoffed. "Those three would've cut him apart limb from limb if they'd had the chance. I'm only sorry I couldn't kill them myself."
He said softly, as if he'd forgotten Harry was there, "The things Yaxley would say to mother…"
Malfoy trailed off into the silence. He shifted, turning his head so that his mouth nearly touched Harry's ear.
Harry could feel the edge of his smirk when he breathed, "Did I offend you, Potter?"
Malfoy smelled like smoke and peppermint.
"Don't be ridiculous," snapped Harry, pulling away.
He grabbed the chestnut extract and left the closet, ignoring the sensation of a bird taking flight in his chest.
When the ninety minutes were up, Harry poured his potion into a vial and set it on Boughbranch's desk at the front of the room. From this angle, he could see Malfoy back in the store closet. Harry didn't know what he would need, since his potion looked irritatingly near-perfect.
Harry went to get his bag. The door thudded open and Boughbranch strode in, her eyes on the parchment she was carrying.
Malfoy emerged from the storeroom and placed his vial on Boughbranch's desk. In one fluid motion, Harry saw him pocket something surreptitiously. It looked like a small purple teabag.
Harry's eyes followed Malfoy back to his desk.
"All done, you two? Good," said Boughbranch, unaware. "Let's test them, shall we?"
She conjured two flesh-colored strips that resembled bandages. Harry held his breath as Boughbranch poured a drop of Malfoy's lilac-hued potion over one strip, and Harry's slightly muddier potion over the other. A moment passed. Then, like little tufts of grass, dark hairs sprouted from each of them.
"Excellent," said Boughbranch, shooting Harry a rare smile. "I'll see you boys with the rest of class on Tuesday."
As they packed up, Harry heard her mutter under her breath, "Where's my damned hellebore? I must've left it on my desk…or perhaps with Minerva…"
Harry stared at Malfoy's back as he left the classroom. He wasn't sure what hellebore was, but he was certain of one thing: Malfoy had stolen it from Professor Boughbranch.
On Monday during lunch, Harry and Ron found themselves holed up in the library with Hermione, who kept muttering things like "flick-flick-jab" and "make it sing the time" in preparation for their Charms quiz next hour.
Although Harry himself could have benefitted from some last-minute review, he couldn't help his mind from drifting back to that tiny purple sachet. He had told himself to simply ignore it, and he had successfully since Saturday night. But now it nagged at him like an itchy spot.
Along with something else…but Harry put that thought in a box and locked it away.
"Hermione," Harry said tentatively, “have you ever heard of something called hellebore?"
Hermione glanced up from Fifty-Seven Charms for the Advanced Student and frowned at him.
"Yes. And so have you," she replied.
"I know it's a Potions ingredient," said Harry.
"It's a poison," said Hermione.
Ron perked up from across the table.
"Well, it can be. Certain strains of it are toxic. That's why it's used in minor quantities in the Draught of Peace," she explained. "We worked with it in fifth year. Should be in chapter eight of your Potions book."
Harry pulled the book out of his bag and took a minute to find the right page. It read:
Hellebore, genus Helleborus, aliases "winter rose," "Christmas rose," and "Lenten rose"
Despite often being referred to as the flower, hellebores are not, in fact, closely related to the rose. Rather, the genus helleborus are a species of evergreen perennial flowering plants .
In early European and medieval times, hellebore was used to treat paralysis, gout, and insanity . It was thought that Alexander the Great died of an overconsumption of hellebore , although whether this was simply because the plant was discovered to have lethal variants just before his death is unknown.
Syrup of Hellebore
Syrup made from a concentration of the toxic variants of the helleborus is highly poisonous, known to cause extreme vomiting, nausea, loss of balance, and even stoppage of the heart in those who consume it . When combined with moonstone, porcupine quills, and unicorn horn  it forms the brew Draught Of Peace (p. 202). Less prominent brews include the Volubilis Potion (p. 331) and the experimental concoction Potion no. 86, which was declared an illegal substance by Britain's Ministry of Magic in 1978 due to its fatal nature .
When Harry lifted his head from the page, he saw Hermione and Ron staring at him.
"What is it now?" asked Hermione.
"Malfoy," Harry said. "Malfoy stole hellebore from Boughbranch's stores. I'm sure of it."
Hermione looked sceptical. "You're not suggesting…?"
"Malfoy poison someone? Never," said Ron in mock outrage.
"But who?" whispered Hermione, hushed. "And why now?"
Harry wasn't sure if Malfoy actually intended to poison someone, but he also couldn't say he would be entirely surprised if he did. And yet...he couldn't help but remember Dumbledore's words to Malfoy that night he'd died in the tower.
Draco, you're not a killer, he had said, smiling gently.
But as with many things concerning Dumbledore, Harry was unsure. Perhaps he'd been attempting to convince Malfoy not to kill him. Perhaps he had been wrong.
"I don't think Malfoy would try to kill someone," said Harry slowly. "Not now, not without Voldemort over his shoulder. Unless…"
"He knows who killed his father," Ron finished for him.
The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch, but in that moment it seemed like an ill omen.
The three made their way to Charms. Harry took his seat, but their conversation still weighed on him. He watched the door for Malfoy, who finally entered, as usual, just seconds before class began.
"You're not going to learn anything by staring at him," said Hermione in a low voice.
Perhaps not then, but an hour later when Malfoy went up to the front of the room with his quiz, Harry noticed a typewritten parchment drift to the floor from his open bag. Malfoy strolled from the classroom, the parchment left unnoticed.
Hastily scribbling an answer to his last unfinished question, Harry got up and turned in his quiz. After checking that everyone else, Flitwick included, was otherwise occupied, he walked over and snatched up the parchment. It looked like a page torn from an old book. The language was archaic, and the contents weren't anything like they read in class. But there was one passage that stood out to him, and not just because Malfoy had outlined it in red ink:
And God closed the Book of the Life of the Man, and said, 'Surely I will send thee into Hell. Even into Hell will I send thee.'
And the Man cried out, 'Thou canst not.'
And God said to the Man, 'Wherefore can I not send thee to Hell, and for what reason?'
'Because in Hell have I always lived,' answered the Man.
And there was silence in the House of Judgment.
And after a space God spake, and said to the Man, 'Seeing that I may not send thee into Hell, surely I will send thee unto Heaven. Even unto Heaven will I send thee.'
And the Man cried out, 'Thou canst not.'
And God said to the Man, 'Wherefore can I not send thee unto Heaven, and for what reason?'
'Because never, and in no place, have I been able to imagine it,' answered the Man.
And there was silence in the House of Judgment.
A forbidding sensation formed in the pit of Harry's stomach. He felt as though something terrible was about to happen, and he thought he knew what it was. He looked at the door. Then he glanced over his shoulder.
Ron was still sat at his desk, chewing on the end of his quill and staring at his answers; Hermione was asking Flitwick a question.
Making a split decision, Harry left the classroom and hurried down the Charms Corridor. Malfoy was at the end of it. He had knelt to tie his shoe, but then he straightened and disappeared around the corner. Harry followed him as he took a left towards the Great Hall, but when he reached it, he kept walking, past the classrooms and Entrance Hall. There was nothing here but private rooms and the—
Malfoy ducked into Armour Gallery. No one ever went there, save for Filch and the odd student who cleaned the armoury during detention.
Harry followed, slipping his hand into his pocket and clutching his wand.
Malfoy was crouched, peering behind a suit of armour. He started when he saw Harry.
"Potter," he said, the surprise evident on his face. He stood up.
"Malfoy," said Harry, “you don't need to do this."
Malfoy's brow furrowed. "Do what? Did you follow me?" He scoffed. "I suppose I'm not surprised. It's not like it's the first time."
Harry thrust the parchment at him. "Things aren't...so bad," he said, rather pathetically, watching Malfoy's realization form.
But to Harry's surprise, a laugh broke across Malfoy's face. The sight was foreign without any of its signature contempt.
"Merlin, Potter," he chuckled, “you’re dumber than I thought. I'm not about to off myself. I rather like breathing, you know."
Harry's face burned. He was inclined to believe him. He'd made himself look like an idiot—and for Malfoy, of all people.
"Well, what then? Someone else?" he retorted, attempting to recover some of his pride. "I know you stole that hellebore from Boughbranch."
Malfoy's smile waned. "Stay out of it, Potter. It's none of your business," he said seriously.
"Maybe not," said Harry, “but I think it's in your best interest to tell me."
He was bluffing, of course, but he doubted Malfoy knew that.
Malfoy considered him shrewdly. Then he tilted his head to the side and whistled.
From behind the suit of armour emerged a small, black cat with unusually large ears and a tufted tail like a lion's.
It wasn't a cat, Harry realized. It was a kneazle.
Chapter 3: A Queer Sight
The kneazle stared at Harry with baleful yellow eyes.
"Okay. It's a kneazle," said Harry.
Malfoy raised an eyebrow. "Apt observation."
"No," said Harry. "I know it's a kneazle. And I still don't get it."
Malfoy gave a long-suffering sigh.
"Aren't they, like, illegal—and dangerous? Don't you need a licence?" asked Harry.
"You of all people are worried about something being illegal?" Malfoy scoffed. "Dangerous beasts are a level below breaking into the Ministry. Or Gringotts. And probably everything else you've done."
"You're on probation," Harry realized. "You can't get a licence."
Malfoy glared at him. "And what are you going to do about it?"
"Depends," said Harry airily. He watched the kneazle curl its strange tail around the armour's calf. "On what that hellebore is for."
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Hellebore oil," he explained, “is a tranquilizer. Kneazles are wild animals—they aren't cats. And she's a nasty one."
He sounded exasperated. Malfoy pushed his pale hair out of his eyes, and Harry glimpsed a gnarly scratch on the back of his hand.
"It's a she?" asked Harry curiously.
"I don't know, I've never been able to get close enough to check. Flighty bugger. Seems to like you well enough, of course. Saviour Potter—nothing if not trustworthy."
Indeed, the kneazle was inching towards Harry, its black ears pressed flat against its head. Suddenly, a loud bang sounded in the corridor, accompanied by Peeves's cackling and the squeals of first-year girls.
The kneazle shot around the corner like a Firebolt and disappeared.
Malfoy sighed. "Thanks a lot, Potter," he said, grimacing. "Tell anyone about this, and I'll skin you."
With that, he left the armoury.
Harry watched his retreating back. Annoyance crept up on him as he realized that Malfoy didn't believe Harry would ever tell McGonagall—and, Harry admitted, he was probably right. It wasn't really his business, after all.
Not that that ever stopped him before.
After classes that day, Harry found himself, as usual, in the library. Without Quidditch, the near-constant barrage of schoolwork and impending N.E.W.T. doom had turned the eighth years (Harry, Ron, and Hermione included) somewhat into recluses. Not that he would ever admit it, but Harry welcomed the distraction. And with the exception of Potions, his marks seemed grateful for it.
It was nearing five o'clock. Hermione had left for her evening Arithmancy class. Meanwhile, Ron had his head buried in his arms and was snoring softly.
Harry made his way to the corner of the library where the books for lower classmen were kept. Under the denomination CMC-SCA, he found what he was looking for: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
It had been years since Harry had read the book. Pulling it out, he skipped forward and read:
M.O.M. Classification: XXX
The Kneazle was originally bred in Britain, though it is now exported worldwide. A small catlike creature with decked, speckled, or spotted fur, outsize ears, and a tail like a lion's, the Kneazle is intelligent, independent, and occasionally aggressive, though if it takes a liking to a witch or wizard, it makes an excellent pet. The Kneazle has an uncanny ability to detect unsavoury or suspicious characters and can be relied upon to guide its owner safely home if he is lost. Kneazles have up to eight kittens in a litter and can interbreed with cats. Licences are required for ownership as (like Crups and Fwoopers) Kneazles are sufficiently unusual in appearance to attract Muggle interest.
Harry shut the book and placed it back on the shelf. It didn't tell him anything he didn't already know or, more importantly, mention the hellebore—but Malfoy had seemed convincing in his excuse.
In any case, Harry had more immediate worries. One of which was currently walking through the library doors.
Ginny caught sight of the Harry near the stacks and waved. Tentatively, he smiled back at her.
She came over. Her red hair was woven into a plait down one side and dotted with tiny white flowers. Harry had never seen Ginny wear it that way before; it somehow changed her.
"Hi," she said. "This was...Luna," she gestured to her hair self-consciously.
"No, I like it," said Harry.
They avoided looking at each other for a few uncomfortable moments. Then Ginny broke into a bashful laugh.
"Can we get over this part?" she asked, smiling. "It's embarrassing."
Harry grinned. A weight lifted off his shoulders.
"Fine with me," he said. "But about last Saturday—"
"It's alright," Ginny cut him off. "It was very...adult of you. I can be an adult too."
"Right," said Harry. He stuck his hand out awkwardly. "Friends?"
Ginny rolled her eyes and pulled Harry into a hug.
"Friends," she agreed.
His face buried in Ginny's hair, Harry realized her flowery scent had always been just shampoo.
Remedial Potions took place again on Wednesday night. Although Malfoy was in Harry's usual N.E.W.T. classes, Harry rarely paid much mind to him. Malfoy usually contented himself to sit at the back of the classroom, sullen and superior.
But during Remedial Potions, there was no avoiding him. Luckily, this evening Boughbranch had decided to tutor Harry more closely. As a result, besides the occasional sneer, Malfoy was largely placative.
This suited Harry fine. It allowed him time to mull over the fact that Malfoy hadn't begged Harry against telling McGonagall about his new feral pet. He hadn't even threatened him beyond a half-hearted attempt.
Harry waited ninety minutes until they had completed their potions. At half-past ten, with instructions to tidy up, Boughbranch finally retreated into her office.
"I've thought it over," Harry told Malfoy carefully, “and I've decided what I want."
Malfoy rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "And what, may I ask, could Lord Potter desire from me?"
"I want you to stop the endless abuse. No more insults, Malfoy. You can't call Hermione a Mudblood. You can't aggravate Ron, or talk about his mum, or Fred."
Malfoy looked disbelieving. He snorted. "Is that all?" he asked. "Merlin, Potter, you really don't know how to bargain."
Harry shrugged and went to place his vial on Boughbranch's desk.
Malfoy seemed to think it over. "Well," he said lightly, "if I were to entertain that thought, I suppose I'd want something too. After all, it'll be so hard to restrain myself, with the wealth of material Weasley gives me."
Sighing, Harry turned back to him. He waited, raising his eyes to Malfoy's grey ones, which suddenly sparkled.
"Legilimens," murmured Malfoy.
By the time Harry realized what was happening, it was too late. His vision clouded over, and he felt, once again, the sensation of someone scouring his head, as if rifling through the pages of a book.
Feverishly, he attempted to construct a steel wall around his memories; he tried to suppress one thought in particular, but the more he did, the clearer it became…
Ginny's musk filled the room, filled Harry. The wetness between her silken thighs threatened to swallow his tongue.
Harry lifted his head and slid up over Ginny's flushed body, small and burning. Sweetly, he kissed her open lips.
"Tell me what you want, Gin," he said.
In response, Ginny wrapped her legs around his waist; she tangled her fingers through his hair.
"Are you sure?" he asked. Anxiety snaked through his belly. "It's alright if you've changed your mind."
"I trust you," she replied simply, her amber eyes shining.
Under his breath, Harry muttered a protection spell. Then, slowly, carefully, he pushed into her.
It really did swallow him, then.
"...You...alright?" he managed. He checked her expression, expecting pain or perhaps, although less likely, to see her in the throes of ecstasy.
Instead, Ginny looked merely confused.
"...Harry?" she asked, concern furrowing her brow. "What's wrong?"
Harry glanced down, noticing at once that he had slid out of Ginny. He was barely half mast.
He looked up past Ginny to the door. Malfoy stared back at him, clearly in shock.
"PROTEGO!" shouted Harry.
And suddenly Harry was tumbling forward, forward, forward…then, as if with a marionette string, a force pulled him upright, and he was drifting…
The haze began to clear, and Harry saw a familiar woman in an unfamiliar room.
Narcissa Malfoy lay swallowed by her bed, a vast sea of gold and Prussian blue. Her white-blond hair fanned on the pillow, framing her head like a halo.
It seemed appropriate, because for one bone-chilling moment Harry thought she was dead.
But then her thin chest fluttered, and her dull eyes blinked once, slowly. Looking into her flat gaze, Harry got the impression of a shallow, still pond.
"Mother," came Malfoy’s voice.
Harry whirled around. Malfoy stood in satin dressing robes and bare feet, looking past him.
Harry's eyes traced the line of his exposed collarbone.
"Mother," Malfoy repeated, almost plaintively. The sound was foreign to Harry's ears. "You have to eat something."
He walked past Harry to his mother's bed and sat at her side. Gently, he lifted Narcissa's head and propped her up on the headboard, adjusting her many pillows. When she gave him a smile, Harry could see why he'd initially thought her dead.
Her face was naked and sunken, robbed of its former beauty. When she smiled, it looked grotesque—as if the edges of her mouth had been tugged up by an invisible puppeteer.
With a gold filigree spoon, Malfoy spooned porridge from her bedside tray.
"Open," he commanded.
Obediently, Narcissa opened her mouth. Malfoy spooned in the porridge.
"You must eat," he said as she swallowed. "The house elf tells me you continue to send back meals. I can't always take care of you, especially if you insist on my attendance at Hogwarts when November comes." His tone was reproachful, as if reprimanding a misbehaving child.
Narcissa didn't respond. Her empty gaze was fixed past her son. If Harry didn't know better, he would've thought she was staring right at him.
Malfoy sighed. With a tenderness that Harry didn't know he was capable of, Malfoy brushed Narcissa's greying hair out of her face.
"Mother, it's been nearly four months," he said quietly. "Come back. Please come back...I'm not brave enough to do this without you…"
But Narcissa continued to stare at Harry with her horrible dead eyes.
Slowly, Malfoy turned his head. His gaze met Harry's—but no, that was impossible—
A terrible anger seized Malfoy's face.
"Get OUT, Potter! GET OUT OF MY HEAD!"
Harry felt a violent shove to his chest, knocking the wind out of him. Suddenly, he was falling—and pain cracked across the back of his head, immediate and sharp. He winced, keeping his eyes shut for a few moments until it receded.
When he opened them again, he found himself back in the dungeons. The floor was hard and cold, and his head ached.
Malfoy stood above him, face white with fury. His soft blond hair was more tousled than Harry had ever seen it. In his dazed state, Harry had the fleeting idea that he'd like to touch it.
"Where do you get off, Potter?" Malfoy snarled. His jaw was set, and a tick pulsed in his cheek.
Carefully, Harry stood up. It seemed that Malfoy had pushed him, and he'd hit his head on the wall cabinet before falling.
The pain was fading. But slowly and surely, anger took its place.
"Where do I get off? What about you, Malfoy?" he retorted. "Who told you could go poking around in my head?"
He flushed deeply, understanding what Malfoy had seen; he could scarcely think from the embarrassment.
Malfoy's eyes became steel slits.
"As if I—I couldn't care less about that. I see far too many gingers in real life already."
"What then?" Harry spat. "Just thought it'd be fun to pop in and go for a stroll?"
Malfoy let out a short breath. "I wanted to know where you've kept my wand," he said flatly.
Harry paused, baffled by that answer. It was the farthest from anything he would've guessed.
He said slowly, as if speaking to an idiot, "Did you ever think, Malfoy, that you could simply ask me?"
Malfoy, to his credit, looked cowed.
But after a moment, tilting his head to the side, he asked, “...Well?"
Malfoy's lack of remorse served to irritate him further.
"You're an absolute piece of work, you know that?" scoffed Harry. "And what the hell was that with your mum, by the way?"
Malfoy's expression froze. He stared at Harry, unflinching.
Harry knew he was treading perilous ground, but his humiliation at what Malfoy had seen made him angry and vindictive. Heat crept up behind his ears.
"I know purebloods have very...close relationships with their families, but that was something—"
Harry never got to finish his thought, because Malfoy punched him squarely in the face.
"Fucking hell," gritted out Harry, clutching the right side of his face. It throbbed like he'd fallen twenty feet from his broom onto it.
He drove forward into Malfoy, elbowing him in the ribs, hard. Malfoy made a small oof sound and stumbled back against the wall.
Harry peered up at him through his good eye. Malfoy blew his hair out of his face and glared back at him. But it was for a moment too long, and there was something in that look that Harry couldn't identify. He didn't care to.
"Just sod off, Malfoy," he grunted. He grabbed his schoolbag and stalked out of the dungeons.
Harry didn't know how long Malfoy stood there with that stupid look on his face, and he didn't care. Aggravation quickening his stride, he marched up to Gryffindor Tower.
He found the Fat Lady giggling with a toothless old wizard. They were sharing a bottle of red wine, clearly inebriated.
"Cui bono," he said.
The old wizard whispered something in the Fat Lady's ear, sending her into peals of laughter.
"I said, cui bono," repeated Harry testily.
"My dear lad, what's gotten your wand in a knot?" the wizard asked. "Care to join us?" he lifted his glass, sloshing wine onto his robes.
Harry glared at them.
"Well alright, if you're going to be rude,” tsked the Fat Lady.
She swung open, and Harry climbed inside. Although the common room was buzzing, Hermione and Ron were nowhere to be found. Harry supposed they were shacked up together in some remote corner of the castle.
He went up the stairs to his dormitory and threw open his trunk. Inside was a mess of clothes, schoolbooks, Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes products, and what seemed like every knick-knack Harry had owned since first year.
Taking a chance, he raised his wand and called, "Accio Malfoy's wand!"
From the depths of his trunk shot out a grubby velvet pouch. Grimacing, Harry shook off a chocolate frog wrapper and opened the drawstring, sliding out its contents. Inside were two wands: one of blackthorn, which the Ministry had recovered from Malfoy Manor, and one of hawthorn. Malfoy's wand.
Harry had no use for either. He wrapped Malfoy's wand in some newspaper and returned the other to his trunk.
At his desk, he grabbed a self-inking quill and penned a brief letter:
Here's your wand. Maybe ask nicely next time, you git.
Harry put down the quill and examined his work. Disgusted, he tore it in two and tossed it aside. Once more, he picked up his quill and scribbled:
Here, you bloody tosser. Shove it up your hole for all I care.
Eat a dick,
Satisfied, he rolled up the parchment and dashed downstairs to the Owlery with the wand in question.
When he reached it, he found a suitable barn owl and secured the parcel, along with the letter, to its leg. The owl stared at Harry disdainfully, as if asking if it was really meant to deliver the parcel inside of the castle.
"Seeing as I have no intention of speaking to him again, you are," Harry said. "Feel free to drop a little gift into his tea at breakfast, if you feel like it."
The owl hooted sagely and flew up to the rafters.
"Good riddance," muttered Harry.
The deed done, he returned to the dormitory, undressed, and crawled underneath his covers. His face was still sore, and all he wanted was sleep.
Of course, that would have been too easy.
At first it didn't seem very much like a dream, because Harry opened his eyes and found himself in his own bed. He tried to sit up, but an indomitable force pressed down on him, pinning him to his mattress. The most he could do was lift his neck, and even that was exhausting.
Groaning, Harry dropped his head back onto his pillow and stared at the ceiling. He could've sworn it had been, just moments before, a ceiling like any other, but now he saw that it was a mirror.
But it wasn't any normal mirror. Although Harry was looking at his normal eighteen-year-old self, he appeared to be back in his cupboard at Privet Drive. And then he realized why he couldn't get up: eighteen-year-old Harry was much too big for this cupboard.
Harry rolled sideways and fell off of the tiny cot, which screeched in protest. Grunting, he pushed himself to his knees and crawled over to the closet door. His body felt as if it weighed two-hundred kilos.
He opened the door and peered outside into the hallway. There was no sign of the Dursleys, only a faint electronic humming.
Harry squeezed himself out of the doorway and got to his feet. Cautiously, aware of his every footstep, he crept to the living room.
It was empty. There was no sign that anyone had been there recently; the Dursleys could have been on holiday for all he guessed, judging by the thin layer of dust that coated the kitchen countertops. Indeed, the only thing that suggested otherwise was that the television had been left on.
Harry sat heavily in Uncle Vernon's favorite armchair. It was a hideous thing, beige with orange paisley print, and it sunk deeply, presumably from years of torture under Uncle Vernon's considerable backside.
On the television, the local news was playing. Harry started—Luna appeared to be the newscaster.
She smiled serenely at him through the screen, her hair braided down one side and decorated with what looked like thumb-sized plums.
Harry snatched up the remote and turned up the volume.
"...this week, you can expect a shower of nargles," she was saying, "and you'll find Meteolojinx Recanto quite useless. Oh—I'm being told I should be interviewing a guest! How exciting! How are you doing today, Mr. Curly?"
The screen split, and Harry was startled to see Vernon Dursley's fat purple face appear.
"Er—Dursley," he corrected, rather nastily.
"Well, gesundheit to you, sir," said Luna cheerfully. "You don't look very happy, I'm afraid, Mr. Curly. Is it the gnomes in your garden again? They're quite lovely, aren't they—"
"What're you on about, you daft bimbo?" interrupted Vernon. "This concerns my son! Someone's stolen his Smelting stick!"
Aunt Petunia pushed her way into the screen.
"My poor Duddikins! He's been hiding away in his blankets, scared to death of that horrendous boy," she wailed, appearing to check her lipstick in the camera's viewfinder.
"Which boy?" asked Luna, concerned.
"Him," spat Vernon. "That damned, that unnatural queer."
"Vernon!" gasped Petunia.
"It's true, Petunia!" declared Vernon, turning even ruddier. "I've always known, even when he was a little grub. That boy's grown up to be a pillow-biter if I've ever seen one.
"My Dudders, on the other hand," he continued proudly. "Bound to wrestle one day. Built like an ox, he is."
"Quite like his father," giggled Petunia.
"Repulsive insinuation," came a haughty voice from beside Harry.
Harry spun to his left and was met with yet another surprise.
Narcissa Malfoy sat in the matching sofa, looking nothing like the woman he'd seen earlier that night. Her lip had its signature sneer, and her hair was lustrous, elegantly pinned. She had glinting blue eyes, and she wore red lipstick.
But as it had with the ceiling above his bed, the moment that Harry focused on her features they transformed. Her hair fell into greying straw; her eyes dulled; her face became gaunt and barren.
She was, like Harry had seen in Malfoy's head, entirely conscious. She was just…gone, as if half-kissed by a dementor.
Narcissa looked at Harry blankly. She blinked, as if she wasn't sure if she knew him.
A loud snore from Seamus startled Harry awake. He lay, breathing unsteadily. He was again in his own bed, in the eighth-year boys' dormitory—at Hogwarts, not Privet Drive.
It was a long time before Harry fell asleep again.
"Harry, what's happened to you?"
Hermione's anxious voice drifted up the common room staircase.
"He says he fell," said Ron, his tone giving away exactly what he thought of that answer.
"On his eye?"
"I hit a table," grumbled Harry, climbing down the staircase. He'd had a terrible night of sleep, and Hermione's queries were grating.
He'd woken up in the morning to find that Malfoy had graced him with a large violet eye. He only hoped Malfoy's ribs suffered the same fate. Harry's pride was more wounded, in any case.
Fending off Ron and Hermione’s concern, Harry left the common room with them for breakfast.
When they arrived, they found Peeves crouching on the flagstones above the entrance to the Great Hall. He stuck his tongue out at the three as they entered.
Harry forbid his eyes from drifting to the Slytherin table. He took his seat.
No sooner had Harry sat at Gryffindor table did an owl drop an envelope into his lap.
The envelope was of uncommonly fine stationery, ebony and sealed with a dark blue wax peacock. It contained no name, only the words 'Open alone' in silver ink. The handwriting struck Harry as vaguely familiar.
He surveyed his surroundings. Ron was spooning baked beans onto his plate with gusto. Hermione and Ginny looked to be in deep discussion, likely at the current state of Harry's right eye.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Harry slit the envelope open.
Peeves took that moment to glide through the wall above a gaggle of entering first years.
"Ooooo, ickle firsties…" cooed Peeves. "I've got some wee presents for you!”
Cackling madly, he swooped down and rained a flurry of exploding crackers upon their heads. For good measure, he pelted them with what looked like Decoy Detonators.
"PEEVES, STOP IT THIS INSTANT!" thundered McGonagall, hurrying in after him.
Blowing a loud raspberry, Peeves dropped his last armful of crackers on the Hufflepuff table. They exploded on impact, shattering plates and flinging pumpkin juice into the bewitched clouds on the ceiling.
"Oh, Mrs. Headmistress, Peevsie's been a naughty boy," he giggled as Hufflepuffs scattered in every direction.
Ron and Ginny sniggered into their beans. Hermione looked on pityingly as McGonagall chased Peeves out of the Great Hall; Professors Sprout and Flitwick scrambled to catch the escaping detonators.
Harry used the distraction to unfold his letter. It consisted of only one line. In elegant, swooping script, it read:
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
For a moment, Harry’s heart stopped. A flame leapt to his face. Surreptitiously, he glanced around him. Around the Hall, students leapt onto their tables to avoid the exploding Detonators.
Harry turned back to the note. Though far from explicit, it felt dirtier than anything he had ever read. He noticed it took him more effort to breathe than usual.
Ron glanced over at him, and reflexively, Harry crumpled up the parchment and stowed it away in his robes.
His face continued to burn. Ron looked at him curiously.
"Posh mail," he remarked.
Harry had left the envelope on the table. He turned it over in his hands; it felt expensive.
"I guess," said Harry, fingering the seal.
A Peacock, he realized. The seal was a peacock.
Harry felt a jolt to the chest, as if someone had just hit him with a Stunning spell. Slowly, he raised his head to the Slytherin table across the Great Hall.
Malfoy was staring back at him. It was too far to see his expression—but Harry swore he winked.
Harry jumped in shock. A latent cracker had erupted from beneath his seat.
"Ron!" cried Hermione. "Your books!"
Sparks danced across Ron's schoolbooks, which he had earlier pushed carelessly to the floor.
"Bloody hell—Aguamenti!" Ron exclaimed, waving his wand wildly.
A jet of water streamed from his wand and extinguished the small flame. The books lay soaked in a puddle on the floor.
Harry looked back at the Slytherin table, but Malfoy was gone.
Chapter 4: The Favour
To say Harry was perplexed by recent developments would be a gross understatement. Harry was disturbed.
He couldn't for the life of him see the angle Malfoy was playing, and that vexed him further. It didn't help that Harry couldn't just ask Ron and Hermione like he always did. He felt the pressure to hide a secret he never asked for; one that he wasn't keen to divulge, for a reason he wasn't yet sure of. It felt wrong, like in doing so he would be somehow exposed.
Naked. Like how he had felt at breakfast that morning, reading Malfoy's letter.
These were the thoughts currently dominating Harry's mind while in Herbology. He was so preoccupied, he failed to notice that the Flower of Quetzalcoatl he was meant to be tending had suctioned to his thumb and was gurgling happily.
"Harry," hissed Ernie Macmillan, his partner, "your finger."
Grimacing, Harry tugged his hand free and cursed as the plant belched onto his arm in retaliation.
"Urgh," said Harry, rinsing off the putrid orange goo with his wand.
"Digestive secretions," said Ernie promptly. "You know, you'll want to pay more attention."
"Right," replied Harry. He stared at the empty bench where Malfoy usually sat.
Ernie sighed long-sufferingly and exchanged a look with Hermione, who, battling the flower's spiny tendrils, shrugged. Ron looked pensive.
Harry didn't fare much better in the rest of his classes. He would forget Malfoy for an hour at a time, but then all of a sudden he would be all Harry could think about.
After dinner, he turned down Hermione's usual offer of the library and instead walked alone to the Quidditch pitch. The air was cold and crisp, and it occurred to him that although he was somewhere in the Scottish highlands in November, it had yet to snow.
Gryffindor had the pitch for practice. The first match of the season, versus Slytherin, was the coming weekend. Ginny seemed particularly fierce during practice, shouting orders and whizzing around on her broom like some flighted admiral. Harry missed Quidditch indescribably. The feeling of the wind in his hair, the tedium of drills and never-ending practices, the thrill of closing his fingers around a cold hard snitch.
He envied Ginny's sense of direction. She had announced that summer she was going to play for the Harpies, and Harry didn't doubt it for a minute. Hermione knew what she wanted as well. She was headed for the Ministry, blazing with purpose to rid the world of house elf injustice or "blood purity" ideology, or both. Even Ron had decided on Aurorship. Only Harry was left hanging on a clothesline—nothing solid beneath his feet.
And here he was now, watching Ginny turn circles from the bleachers and brooding over a certain Slytherin.
Why had he sent that note? He had, hadn't he? Harry vaguely recognized the handwriting. And Malfoy had looked right at him—perhaps even winked—as he'd read it. He had waited to see Harry's response.
Malfoy was just playing with him, Harry decided. He hadn't even been in class that day. Logically, Harry knew it was because he treated house points like chump change, but he couldn't help puzzling over his absence like he did every one of Malfoy's strange behaviors. He felt pathetic for giving the whole thing so much thought. He should've gagged at the letter, scoffed at it with Ron, and tossed it in the rubbish.
But he didn't. He'd hidden it, tucked it away like a dirty secret. Even now, it lay at the bottom of his bag.
Harry heard the familiar screech of a whistle, and Gryffindor team descended onto the grass. Ginny caught sight of him and jogged over.
"Hey Harry, what're you doing here?"
"Just watching you fly," he said. "Walk with me?"
"Um—" Ginny glanced down at herself, grass-stained and sticky with sweat. She turned back to the team. A tall, sandy-haired boy waved at her. "Can it wait? It's just that I've got to shower, and...I've got something..."
She looked apologetic. Harry gauged the tall boy as he bumped Ritchie Coote with his shoulder, snickering.
"Of course," he said.
"You sure? Because if you need—"
"I'm fine, Ginny," he said, plastering on a smile. "It's nothing. Another time."
Harry felt a sense of loss as Ginny said goodbye and jogged back to her team, but he didn't know what he'd planned to ask her anyway. So, this bloke we all hate and who despises us has been acting a bit weirdly lately and he saw our colossally embarassing attempt at sex and now he's joking about sleeping with me. That would've gone over spectacularly.
Harry left the pitch.
Apparently, Malfoy had decided to attend class the next day. The boy didn't spare Harry a glance, as if nothing unusual had happened. From Malfoy's perspective, he supposed, nothing had; he'd simply meant to mess with Harry's head and had subsequently forgotten all about it.
Remedial Potions took place that night. When Harry entered, he found Boughbranch and Malfoy in deep conversation. When Boughbranch glimpsed him, she straightened and said in a clipped voice:
"There you are, Potter. Today we'll be redoing the Eye-Sharpening potion. Page twenty-six of your book."
Malfoy turned and looked at him, and for a brief moment Harry thought he seemed worried; then the corner of his mouth tugged up.
Fuck. Harry had hoped to ignore him, but he didn't think that was going to be possible.
"Off you go," said Boughbranch brusquely. She sat at her desk and squinted at them beneath bushy eyebrows.
Harry collected his ingredients from the storeroom. He couldn't seem to find cod liver oil, but was reluctant to ask Boughbranch (or worse, Malfoy), so he grabbed plain old fish oil and hoped for the best. When he returned to his desk, he saw that Malfoy had already started preparing his ingredients. Harry followed suit.
Boughbranch pulled out a file and examined it. She didn't seem about to retreat to her office like she usually did. Harry thought he knew the reason why.
"How are you, Potter?" asked Malfoy cordially.
Harry gave him a look of disgust; his bruised eye was already fading, yellow at the edges, but it still hurt to touch.
Without looking up from her parchments, Boughbranch called from the front of the room,"I don't have a problem with your chatting, boys, but irregardless I want two flawless potions by the end of the hour."
Malfoy glowered at her. "The old coffin-dodger won't leave me alone," he muttered.
"Can't possibly see why," said Harry dryly.
Malfoy scowled, resentful. "Of course she suspects me. No one would ever suspect The Chosen One of anything."
"To be fair, you did steal from her."
"Lower your voice," hissed Malfoy, "and that's beside the point." He glanced over and added, "Use a pipette for the taro juice."
Harry frowned at his book. "It doesn't say that anywhere."
"Fine, don't listen to me. See how that works out for you. Idiot."
"Don't get your knickers all wound up." Harry did as Malfoy suggested.
"Of course you'd mention my knickers. Fuck, Potter, I'm a person, not a pork chop.”
Harry chose to ignore this. Malfoy watched him expectantly.
"Alright," he caved. "I get it, Malfoy, you're a nympho."
"I prefer 'lothario,'" replied Malfoy.
Rolling his eyes, Harry deposited his dart frog eggs into the simmering brew and stirred until it turned orange.
Malfoy did the same. He seemed to be waiting for something. Then, suddenly:
"Are you a virgin or something, Potter?"
Harry spun to his right. Malfoy smiled at him toothily, and Harry was reminded of a great white shark.
It was only a matter of time before Malfoy brought up what he had seen in Harry's mind. He prepared himself for the embarrassment.
But instead, Malfoy's grin faded a little, and he turned back to his potion.
A beat. Harry consulted his textbook, still wary. Then:
"Did you like my letter yesterday morning?" Malfoy asked lightly.
Harry got the impression Malfoy wasn't as nonchalant as he appeared.
"Uh—can't say I did," he replied.
Malfoy's smirk returned in full force. "Really?"
A phantom blush returned to Harry's face as he recalled the incident. Instead of responding, he said all at once, "Not very smart of you to put it on that tosser stationary. Really, Malfoy, peacocks? Who do you think you are? Not to mention I know your handwriting from being repeatedly forced to brew potions next to you."
Malfoy let out a breath. "I wanted you to know it was me, genius."
"Why would you write—"
"I didn't write it. It's Pablo Neruda."
Harry looked at him blankly.
"He's—a—po-et," he added, enunciating each syllable. "They're a kind of a writer, Potter, only they write little chopped-up sentences."
"How am I supposed to know about some old codger? I'm a blood traitor, remember?" retorted Harry. "Don't know a lot famous wizard-wise."
"Well, that would excuse it," said Malfoy, "if it weren't for the fact that Neruda was a muggle."
Harry raised a sceptical brow. "You read muggle stuff?" he said doubtfully. "You?"
"What's with the tone of surprise?"
"Piss off, Malfoy."
"I don't hate all muggles, Potter," said Malfoy matter-of-factly. "As a species, sure. They're stupid and small-minded. But maybe the one percent of individuals are an exception. Rare ones, mind you."
Harry snorted. "That's big of you."
Shaking his head, he stirred his potion, watching it darken.
"Anyway," continued Malfoy, "I was just taking you up on your offer."
"That we be friendly. You said so yourself the other day."
Harry scowled. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. I meant tolerating each other. Meaning, you shutting up about Hermione and Ron and Ginny. Which," Harry conceded, "you've done alright with so far. We don't need to be friends, and I don't want to."
It was Malfoy's turn to snort. "Merlin. Well thank you, Lord Potter, for your boundless kindness."
"You're welcome," replied Harry. "And I've shown you more kindness than you deserve."
Malfoy gave him a sullen look. "If you're talking about my wand, it's useless anyway. So thanks for nothing."
"What?" Harry lowered his voice as Boughbranch looked up sharply. "The whole reason you invaded my mind was to get that stupid thing."
"I had to win it from you, Potter," sighed Malfoy, "and given that I can't duel you, because I'd get my arse shipped to Azkaban to die in my father's cell, I had to take it somehow. But this way, it doesn't work any better than my mother's wand does. So, I repeat, thank you for nothing."
Harry contemplated this. Something was nagging at him, wanting to be said. "That doesn't change the fact that you did the same thing to me that Voldemort—" he ignored Malfoy's wince "—did to you," he said slowly. "I remember you saying something like, 'no one deserves that.' What happened to that?"
"That's not exactly the same," replied Malfoy.
Harry scoffed, not without some humor. "How do you figure that one?"
"I wasn't torturing you or threatening to kill you. I was just...doing research."
Malfoy seemed like he knew how ridiculous that sounded.
He sighed again. "Look, Potter, I'm sorry, alright? Could you just drop it? I'll be ecstatic if I never touch your mind with the length of a broomstick ever again."
It took Harry a moment to realize that something momentous had occurred. It was an epoch of its own: Malfoy had apologized for something.
"I know what's going on in your tiny head, Potter," muttered Malfoy. "Don't get used to it."
Despite Malfoy's attitude that nothing unusual had happened, Harry couldn't help but think that something was very different indeed. He couldn't put his finger on it—but he felt, maybe, a sort of shift between them.
Soon their potions were completed and given Boughbranch's nod of approval (Harry's a rather reluctant one). Malfoy strode from the classroom, wasting no time in escaping Boughbranch's discerning looks. Harry finished cleaning and left a few minutes later.
Still contemplating the strangeness of that whole interaction, he climbed four flights of stairs to the library, where Ron and Hermione had said they would be that night. But when he arrived, he saw that they were, yet again, nowhere to be found.
Exasperated, Harry left the library. As he turned the corridor, he saw a flash of orange dart around the corner—Crookshanks.
The sight of a scampering cat shouldn't have been anything out of the ordinary, but in the past few years, Crookshanks had turned into what Harry thought might be the laziest, fattest cat in existence. He barely lifted a paw to swat a fly, much less chase after what must've been a rodent.
It wasn't like Harry had much else he felt like doing. He followed Crookshanks.
The cat ran past the classrooms, ducking into the stairway that led up to the Astronomy tower. Growing ever curious, Harry began the trek up the stairs, and when he finally entered the Observation Deck, he realized what had gotten Crookshanks so riled up.
A dark mass of fur sat atop the rafters, flicking its lion's tail back and forth like a pendulum. The kneazle appraised Harry with giant yellow eyes.
"Hello," said Harry uncertainly. Crookshanks curled around his feet, mewling.
With a nimble leap, the kneazle landed on the flagstones in front of Harry. Crookshanks's whining grew louder.
In apparent annoyance, the kneazle reached and swatted Crookshanks squarely in the face. He screeched and shot out of the room as fast as his portly little body allowed.
Harry looked down at the kneazle. It stared back at him unblinkingly. Then, with utmost caution, it sat atop Harry's boots, much like Crookshanks had moments before.
Harry stood there, uncertain. The kneazle began grooming itself.
"Er—sorry, I have to go now," he told it.
In response, it tilted its head up at him and hissed, revealing pearly fangs. Then it got up, stretched, leapt onto the rafters, and disappeared into the shadows.
"Well alright," said Harry as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
He left the tower and climbed upstairs to the common room. It wasn't until a half-hour later, settled into his covers with a heavily dog-eared copy of Quidditch: Thirty-One Momentous Matches, that Harry remembered what he'd read in the library the other day.
The Kneazle has an uncanny ability to detect unsavoury or suspicious characters and can be relied upon to guide its owner safely home if he is lost.
What was it that Malfoy had said?
"It's a she?" asked Harry curiously.
"I don't know, I've never been able to get close enough to check."
The following afternoon found Harry, Hermione, and Ron near the lake, huddled around an orb of conjured blue fire.
"Yes, let's go out in ten degree weather," Ron was saying, rubbing his arms furiously and pulling the hood of his robes over his head, "it'll be splendid."
"Shush, Ron, I'm trying to work on Arithmancy," hissed Hermione.
Harry pinched his cheeks red and let the pain warm him, exchanging a look with Ron, who rolled his eyes and frowned at the chessboard between them.
"Knight to 5D," said Ron. He eyed his knight moodily as it decapitated Harry's king in one fell swoop.
"Oops," said Harry.
"You weren't even trying," Ron complained.
Harry didn't argue, gazing at the sunlight dancing across the black lake. His mind was elsewhere.
The tip of a giant tentacle poked tentatively through the lake's surface, then retreated at once; the blackness splashed violently and rippled, and then it was quiet again.
"It's even too cold for the giant squid," grumbled Ron, "and he lives outside."
The scratching of Hermione's quill stopped. She glared at him. "Not another word, Ronald," she said dangerously.
"We could be in the library right now. I could get away from the noise in the common room without having to study outside. But you decided to—do that—in the library, and now—"
"Alright, never mind," said Ron hastily, turning, if possible, pinker than the cold was making him.
Hermione scowled and returned to her homework.
"What did you do?" Harry whispered, grinning.
The tip of Ron's nose darkened, but he couldn't help but look a tiny bit proud despite it.
"Well, Madam Pince asked me to keep a watch on the desk while she went to talk to McGonagall for a half-hour or so, and you know, it was during lunch, so no one was there, and me and Hermione, well we—"
"Okay, okay," said Harry quickly.
"You asked. Anyway, Pince—she didn't catch us, but she seemed suspicious, and you know Hermione, couldn't act normal to save her life—anyway, she reckons we can't go back now. Not for a while, anyway."
Harry pulled a face, and Ron laughed, earning him another nasty look from Hermione.
Harry wished he had those problems, instead of the one he was currently facing.
"Say," he said, hesitating, "what would you do if—I don't know, Millicent Bulstrode, or someone—tried to chat you up? As a joke, of course."
"What?" snorted Ron. "Bulstrode? She's a troll."
"Not her then," said Harry, thinking, "like Parkinson. Or Daphne Greengrass."
Ron frowned. "Well I'm with Hermione, aren't I? But even if I weren't...they're Slytherins. Probably nearly as bad as Malfoy. Parkinson was always a right bitch to Hermione, remember? And then she tried to sell you to You-Know-Who—"
"Right," said Harry, "of course."
"Why're you asking anyway? Some Slytherin fifth year have a crush on you?"
"All I'm saying is that you'd better not have dropped Ginny for some Slytherin girl. That's just wrong, mate."
"Yeah, no, of course," Harry told Ron, who looked unconvinced. "That's not what's happening at all."
Ron's eyes narrowed. "What is happening?"
"What's happened with Harry?" came Hermione's voice. She had finally lifted her nose from the parchment.
"Nothing," said Harry. "Nothing," he repeated firmly at the looks on their faces.
Ron turned to Hermione. "Speaking, are you?"
“It’s not as if I could study with you talking the whole time…and then I remembered this," she pulled yet another copy of the Daily Prophet out of her bag.
Harry was getting tired of seeing it.
"Why do you care so much about that case, Hermione?" he groaned.
"Because it makes no sense," she said. "Look here—"
Together, Harry and Ron read:
SHACKLEBOLT: SIMPLE OR SIMPLY INSANE?
Rita Skeeter returns to the scene of the notorious crime: Azkaban cell no. 322, where the murder of ex-Death Eater Lucius Malfoy took place last October.
"No Death Eaters came to visit Malfoy," says Azkaban Head of Security, Auror Clive Hawkes. "I hardly think the man had any visitors at all, save for his family and the Ministry."
When asked if the culprit could have been another inmate, or possibly an individual who broke inside the prison, Hawkes snaps, "I think I would have known if a murderer forced his way into Malfoy's cell. I have a team of highly trained Aurors patrolling the inner cells at all times. Now are we quite finished here, or is it part of my job to be insulted by hacks who charade as reporters?"
Indeed, dementors are no longer welcome at the Ministry under the newly appointed Minister of Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt. But this reporter wonders if the reckless decision to fire the longtime Azkaban guards places the wizarding public in grave danger.
"Really, what's to stop those Death Ea'ers from gettin out and murderin all us har'workin folks?" says longtime Skeeter reader, Agatha Wimplethorpe. "I say bring back dementors, or else sack th' spineless cod."
"Skeeter then just goes on to insult Kingsley for the rest of it," said Hermione, folding the paper. "But it's interesting, isn't it?"
Harry didn't see what was so fascinating about it. Neither did, it seemed, did Ron.
"All this time," Hermione pressed, "we've been thinking it was an old Death Eater. Someone who resented Malfoy for informing on them. But what if it was actually someone at the Ministry? What if it was a guard—an Auror?"
Ron laughed. "Come off it, Hermione. An Auror?"
"You said it yourself, Ron, at the trial over the summer. Lucius Malfoy deserved to rot in Azkaban, not get away with just eight years. And most everyone would agree with that. Especially Aurors."
At breakfast the next morning, Harry received a second note.
His heart stopped the moment the envelope was dropped into his lap. At once, he glanced around: Hermione was giggling over the The Quibbler with Ron and Neville, so he supposed they'd made up. Malfoy was nowhere to be seen.
He turned back to the note. It was in the same ebony envelope, with the same silver handwriting: 'Open alone.' It burned in his hands.
Surreptitiously, Harry slid the envelope into his bag and left the table. He walked out of the Great Hall and turned the corner out of the Entrance Hall into an empty corridor.
His heart pounded. Slowly, he took out the envelope and slit it open with his wand. The parchment inside read:
There's nothing I want less than to do this, but I need a favour. You're the only one who can help.
I'm in the hospital wing. Told Pomfrey you'd be by after breakfast.
Shame heated Harry's face. He felt humiliated by his reaction, embarrassed that Malfoy could play him so easily.
Then irritation overtook him. Told Pomfrey you'd be by after breakfast.
The nerve of Malfoy to ask Harry for something, after everything. And to guess—to know—that Harry wouldn't be able to resist his own curiosity.
The hospital wing was right around the corner. Harry hesitated, then rounded it and entered.
"—no, I've told you, I'm perfectly healthy—"
"Oh yes, a broken rib means you're in tip-top shape. Sit, Mr. Malfoy, and drink."
"You've just healed me!" Malfoy said furiously as Madam Pomfrey banged a steaming mug of something onto his bedside table.
She looked sharply at Harry as the doors closed. "I trust you'll make sure he drinks that. Five minutes, Mr. Potter."
She retreated into her office. Eyeing Malfoy, Harry walked over to where he lay in the hospital bed.
Malfoy seemed angry but otherwise fine. Beneath bare, flushed shoulders peeked the top of white bandages.
"Broken rib?" asked Harry. In addition to his irritation, he was now very confused.
Malfoy glared at him for a second, then looked away. He was—Harry realized—embarrassed.
"Yes," said Malfoy in a clipped voice. "I don't think I'll need to explain what's happened here."
Then Harry understood. He scoffed, shaking his head.
"No," he said.
Malfoy sighed and turned to face him.
"Why don't you ask one of your Slytherin friends? There's got to be one desperate enough to help you."
"I don't have friends in Hogwarts."
Harry looked at him sceptically.
"Well, Goyle despises me now that his father's got life in Azkaban, Zabini's a conceited prick, and Pansy left Hogwarts after seventh year to marry her Swedish plank of a cousin. Oh, and Crabbe got burnt to death.”
"They're purebloods, Potter. Anyway, she's always been a bit of a silly cunt."
"She's my best friend, watch what you say," snapped Malfoy. "Anyway, use your head. Do you really think I'd be asking you if I had any other option?"
Harry supposed not. He thought for a minute, watching Malfoy's face, which remained stubbornly impassive.
"I guess you're on your own then," he said.
Despite his efforts to appear stoic, Malfoy's face fell slightly. "What's your problem, Potter? You would be failing Potions right now if it weren't for me."
Harry didn't know which part exactly set him off, but the way Malfoy had been treating him, as if their relationship was normal, as if they didn't hate each other's guts, suddenly flipped a switch inside of him.
"My problem, Malfoy," he hissed, "is that you think you're better than everyone else. You think you're better because you come from money, and status, and 'pure blood.' You think you're better than me because you read old books on some dusty shelf, and because you think that all I care about is Quidditch. And so you think that when I do something, it's because I have some superiority complex. That I'm a narcissist who wants to humiliate you. But the truth is, Malfoy, I don't think about you at all."
There was silence, heavy and awkward.
Malfoy lay there, his grey eyes wide. Then they narrowed, and his jaw set. Harry wondered if he'd gone too far. But then the boy spoke:
"I wouldn't be asking for help if I thought I was better than you, moron."
Harry tried to deny the slight relief that swept over him. Malfoy looked at him with faint amusement.
"You're just special, Potter. Is that what you want to hear?"
Harry had never felt proud of being better at Defense than Hermione anymore than he did of being better at Quidditch than Ron, given that they both, Hermione in particular, were better than him at many other things. But he felt a definite satisfaction at being better than Malfoy. That made two things—Defense and Quidditch.
Despite Malfoy's constant insistence that he was, Harry was not stupid. He knew exactly what Malfoy was asking of him, and why: Malfoy had no friends, a castle full of people who wouldn't be sorry to see him gone, and a probation to match. Ron and Hermione would call it his needing-to-save-people thing. They would probably be right. But that didn't change the fact that he had a thing.
It was perhaps silly and superstitious to rely on the reaction of some strange beast. There were certainly enough existing reasons to be distrustful of Malfoy, and a flighty kneazle wasn't one of them. It didn't need to be said that Hermione and Ron definitely wouldn't approve of this.
And yet, despite everything, Harry shoved that nagging to a back corner of his mind. He reached out to grasp Malfoy's proffered hand.
He even pretended not to notice when Malfoy not-so-discreetly wiped it on his trousers afterwards.
Chapter 5: Lux
After dinner on Thursday, Harry told Ron and Hermione he’d be going to another Remedial Potions session, bid them goodbye, and set off. But in reality, he was going to attempt something he’d never imagined himself doing: help Draco Malfoy.
Harry was surprised by how easy it was for him to lie to Ron and Hermione, but his reluctance to find out what would happen if he told them the truth kept him from feeling too guilty. Not that Harry was any expert in dueling—far from it—but remembering how Malfoy had cowered during the Battle assured him that he was at least better than Malfoy.
So, at half past seven, Harry found himself in empty Classroom No. 10, a dusty old room in the coldest corner of the dungeons. Not even Snape had held his classes here, for as damp and freezing as the rest of the dungeons were, this classroom also seemed to have invisible cracks running along its walls, letting in every ice-cold gale of wind that whipped across the Black Lake.
“Stellar choice of location, Malfoy,” complained Harry, rubbing his hands together furiously and blowing into them.
Malfoy raised a brow. “It is actually. No one ever comes here. Last thing we need is a couple sixth years stumbling in on us.”
Harry couldn’t argue with that: his teeth had started chattering. Mumbling a spell, he conjured an orb of fire much like Hermione’s at the lake, but his flickered erratically, occasionally sputtering. Shadows played on the stone walls as the orb rose above their heads, and the classroom was suffused with warmth.
If Malfoy was impressed, he didn’t show it. “So, Potter,” he said matter-of-factly, “where do we begin?”
“Er—shouldn’t you be telling me?”
Malfoy scowled. “What use are you then?”
“If you recall, I’m doing you a favour, Malfoy. I can leave right now if you’d like.”
Blue sparks spit into Malfoy’s hair. He shook them off, his sleek hair falling back easily into place. Then he dropped his scowl.
“Fine,” he said, apparently trying to appear conciliatory. “Tell me something then. How did you, someone who—and don’t get offended, Potter, I’m really only being realistic here—is utterly mediocre in every way, end up defeating the Dark Lord?”
Harry looked at him flatly.
“Oh, that’s right, you shouted ‘Expelliarmus’ and the wizarding world’s greatest, most infamous sorcerer was vanquished,” said Malfoy. He chuckled derisively, then composed himself, remembering that he was meant to be playing nice. “Please, I’m not a ‘Witch Weekly’ reader.”
It was true that the Ministry had published a highly revised version of events. After much pressing from Kingsley after the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry, Hermione, and Ron had finally divulged theirs and Dumbledore’s secret. Kingsley had kept the knowledge of Voldemort’s horcruxes (and of the three’s countless crimes in destroying them) out of the papers. Inevitably, rumours both true and false abounded. But only those close to them knew the truth.
Voldemort had scarcely entrusted the knowledge of his horcruxes to his Death Eaters; Malfoy certainly would have had no knowledge of it. He and the rest of the wizarding world were forced to believe one thing: Harry was the Boy Who Lived, and it was simply some esoteric force inherent in him that had finally conquered You-Know-Who once and for all.
Harry didn’t feel like sharing the truth with Malfoy of all people.
Appearing disappointed when Harry didn’t respond, Malfoy remarked, “That’s it then?”
Exhaling, Malfoy ran his hand through his hair. Then he shouldered his bag and crossed the room to the door.
“What do you think you’re doing?” questioned Harry, taken aback.
“Potter,” he sighed, “I know you have an insufferable need to help people to feel good about yourself, but I think I can disarm someone on my own.”
Inexplicably, Harry felt the urge to prove him wrong.
“It wasn’t just that,” he said slowly. “I faced him before then, you know…and yeah, I was lucky, and I had lots of help, and I still don’t exactly understand whatever prophecy was made about us—but I fought him, and won,” finished Harry plainly. “More than once.”
Malfoy digested this. His gaze flickered over Harry, thoughtful, curious. Then he smirked, dropped his bag to the floor, and raised his wand.
Harry had his wand out of his pocket before Malfoy could speak.
“Expelliarmus!” he shouted.
Malfoy crashed into the desk behind him, toppling over it and landing solidly on the ground with a heavy grunt. His wand flew cleanly into Harry’s left hand.
“Ouch,” muttered Malfoy, struggling to extricate himself from between the desk’s legs. He shoved his way out and, stumbling, stood up.
His hair was uncharacteristically tousled, his cheeks pink. He held out his hand, and Harry tossed the wand back.
Again they raised their wands.
“Incarcerous!” shouted Malfoy.
“Protego!” called out Harry at the same time.
Repelled by an unseen force, the ropes Malfoy’s spell had conjured threw themselves back at him. He darted to the side, but a tendril wound its way around his forearm. Malfoy vanished it with a jab of his wand.
Levicorpus, thought Harry, grinning despite himself. Immediately, as if by an invisible string, Malfoy was flipped upside down and hoisted in the air by his ankle.
“Let me down, you fucking wanker!” Malfoy said hotly, letting out a shocking string of expletives. His wand pointed at Harry threateningly, he tugged at his ankle with his other hand—and his sleeve fell back to reveal a startling tattoo of a skull with a serpent tongue. It was the Dark Mark.
At once, Harry sobered. Liberacorpus, he thought, and Malfoy crashed to the ground for the second time.
“I get it, Potter,” he grunted as he got to his feet, looking very rumpled indeed.
But Harry was now questioning what he was doing in the first place.
“That wand...” he said slowly, “it’s yours.”
Malfoy gave him a withering look. “Obviously.”
“But you told me—”
“It may not work the way I want it to, but it’s still mine.”
“...Exactly,” said Harry. “But for all the Ministry’s intents and purposes, your wand is your mother’s.”
Malfoy’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Your point?”
“You’re on probation. And the only wand the Ministry’s tracking is your mother’s—not this one. That’s why you wanted it back so badly. That’s why you tried to read my mind to find it.”
The look on Malfoy’s face confirmed Harry’s theory.
“Potter, I’d be a complete idiot to do anything except defend myself. Do you think I want to be in Azkaban?”
“So I should just believe you?” asked Harry. “Based on what—your assurance alone?”
Malfoy opened his mouth to reply, then closed it soundlessly, like a very stupid-looking fish. Then, after a moment, he rolled his sleeve back up his left forearm. The Mark was exposed again, stark under the blue light. Harry realized it wasn’t black at all, but badly faded, mottled and ugly.
“This stain will never come off me,” said Malfoy so quietly Harry strained to hear him over the fire’s crackling. “I’ll always be branded as a Death Eater.”
“Bully for you.”
“I’m not asking for your pity,” snapped Malfoy. “I’m just stating a fact.”
He shook his sleeve back over the Mark and glared at Harry, apparently uncomfortable under the scrutiny. But he was defiant all the same.
“Are you staying or not, Potter?”
It was perhaps a stupid and naïve decision, but in response, Harry raised his wand again.
This time, Malfoy was faster.
“Expulso!” he cried.
The wind was knocked out of Harry, and he was thrown back six feet into the stone wall. He managed to choke out an “Impedimenta” before he crumpled to the floor. Dizzy, he squinted across the room, where a Malfoy-shaped blur was slumped, motionless. Harry scrabbled for his glasses and shoved them back onto his face, but it was too late: Malfoy was already on his feet.
“Ignis Eructo,” said Malfoy lazily.
A scorching ray of flame shot out of his wand—straight for Harry. He rolled out of its reach just in time, eyes wide with shock. Heat grazed his side.
“Aguamenti!” he yelled, blasting a jet of water into the ebbing flame. “Flipendo!” The desk he had crouched behind hurled itself at Malfoy, who panicked.
“Diffindo—fuck, no—” stammered Malfoy, but the desk had already split into two. He ducked as both halves crashed against the wall right where his head had just been.
Vaguely, Harry realized that the tapestry behind him was aflame.
“Ebublio,” he said, pointing straight at Malfoy; he was at once encased in a large, transparent bubble that bobbed cheerfully around the room. Indignant, he pummeled its walls and shouted soundlessly.
Breathing hard, Harry put out the fire before it spread to the wooden desks and chairs. Then he popped Malfoy, who, for the third time that evening, collapsed heavily onto the floor.
Unsteadily, Malfoy shoved himself to his feet.
“Does it get you off to keep doing that?” he panted, resentment clear on his face.
Harry ignored this. “Well, Malfoy, you’re not terrible,” he said critically. “A little slow with your retaliations maybe, and you get flustered easily.”
“Yes, well,” muttered Malfoy, coloring slightly.
He raised his wand once more, and Harry prepared himself.
But at that moment, there was an ominous creaking sound. Both boys spun towards the door—and were greeted by a pair of lamp-like, yellow eyes.
Mrs. Norris stared at them malevolently. Then she turned tail and vanished out of sight.
Harry cursed. Caught up in the duel, he hadn’t realized how much noise they were making. Hastily, he grabbed his bag and pulled out his cloak.
“Is that—your invisibility cloak?”
“No,” replied Harry, disappearing under it and heading for the door.
“Potter, leave me for Filch to find, and I won’t be able to control what I say,” threatened Malfoy.
Harry paused. Malfoy’s eyes darted around the room for him, frantic.
“You’d better not get us caught, Malfoy,” he snarled. Hearing the clacking of fast approaching footsteps, he hurried over to Malfoy and threw the cloak over him as well. Then, suddenly remembering, he Vanished the orb of fire, plunging them into darkness.
They crouched to cover their feet—just as Filch burst into the room, eyes wild.
“Where are you at?” barked Filch. “Come on out, nasty buggers.”
Malfoy was pressed flush and warm against Harry’s side. Harry swallowed a grunt as a hard elbow jabbed his stomach.
Filch threw open a wall cabinet and peered inside. Then he scanned the classroom with a baleful glare.
“Must’ve slithered out, the little worms,” he grumbled to himself. “Come, my sweet, it’s suppertime,” he nudged Mrs. Norris.
She turned her head to gaze straight at the two of them.
Malfoy’s breath quickened, hot on Harry’s neck. A curious shock, lighting-fast, shot down his spine.
“Get, you old bat,” snapped Filch. He swooped up Mrs. Norris and, at last, left the classroom, slamming the door shut.
Harry let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Next to him, he felt Malfoy do the same.
“Get off,” he said irritably, shoving Malfoy away from him. The cloak slid off the two, and Harry picked it up.
“Suppose it’s safe to go back?”
Harry avoided looking at him. “Not my problem,” he replied. He swept the cloak over himself.
“Wait, Potter,” said Malfoy, focused somewhere above Harry’s head, “...thanks.”
Harry didn’t have a response for that. He was glad Malfoy couldn’t see him that moment, as he was looking very awkward indeed.
“Guess you’d have to be better than me at something,” said Malfoy, smirking. “It’s unfathomable that someone could be so incompetent, after all.”
Harry found his voice. “Two things, you mean.”
Malfoy raised an inquiring brow.
“I am significantly better than you at Quidditch,” said Harry with a touch of smugness.
“Sure, Potter. It’s not because you have a Firebolt or anything. Without it you wouldn’t stand a chance.”
A surge of daring rose in Harry. “That a challenge?”
At that, Malfoy sort of half-smiled, and his eyes crinkled at the edges in a way Harry had never seen before. He felt a sudden lurching in the pit of his stomach.
“You’re on, Potter,” said Malfoy softly. “I’ll meet you on the hill overlooking the Black Lake at midnight—don’t need Filch spotting us on the pitch. And bring the Firebolt.”
Then, seemingly without worry that he would come across Filch, he brushed past Harry out of the classroom.
Harry sat in Gryffindor commons that night, twirling his quill and staring apathetically at his Transfiguration homework: Explain, in a minimum of 1,500 words, the magical theory by which fire is conjured (50 points).
While he could very well conjure fire in real life, he had little idea how it actually worked. He suspected Professor Splog wouldn’t just accept that he’d learned it from watching Hermione while living in a tent on the run from Lord Voldemort.
Harry checked his watch: a quarter to twelve. He stared out the window into the night. It was black and cloudy, without a single star in the sky.
“I think I’ll go to bed now, Harry,” said Hermione, yawning. She glanced across the room at Ron, who had earlier been studying Herbology with Neville and was now passed out on the desk, snoring intermittently. “Honestly,” she sighed, but there was only tenderness on her face as she went to wake him.
Harry bade them good night as they trooped upstairs. The common room was now empty; everyone had gone to bed. But Harry was wide awake—agitated, even.
He waited five minutes.
Then, rather abruptly, he stood and shoved his homework and quill into his bag. He crept up to the eighth-year dormitory.
Snores rumbled under canopied beds. Carefully, Harry opened his trunk and pulled out his Firebolt and a golden snitch with a large crack splitting the middle. Then, donning his invisibility cloak, he hurried out and through the portrait hole.
“I may be old, but I’m not stupid!” called the Fat Lady, though she could not see Harry. “Students frolicking about, canoodling at all hours—no decency, no sense of propriety— ”
Harry’s watch read five minutes to midnight. Without pausing to consider if what he was doing wise, he hastened down Gryffindor tower, crept out of the castle, and climbed up the hill overlooking the Black Lake.
However cold it had been during the day, it was twice as freezing at night. Stormy grey clouds shielded the sky like a weighted blanket. The only light came from the few torches burning outside the castle entrance. For the second time that day, Harry conjured an orb of blue fire; then he made two more. Warmth spread to his toes.
“Showing off, Potter?” said a familiar voice. “You’re late.”
Harry jumped. In the darkness, he had thought he was quite alone. Now, as the flames rose, circling above their heads, he saw Malfoy’s face just a metre from his own.
Wordlessly, he held out the Firebolt. Smirking, Malfoy took it (Harry winced) and offered his own broom.
“Nimbus 3004,” he said at the look of grudging appreciation on Harry’s face. “Their newest model. Of course, it’s no Firebolt.”
Harry examined the broom critically: it was long and lean, with an immaculately polished mahogany handle.
“Ready?” he asked.
As hard as he could, Harry tossed the snitch into the air. It disappeared among the murky clouds.
Then, in tandem, they kicked off from the ground. The flames rose with them, faintly illuminating the sky.
Wind whipped through Harry’s hair. Overcome with joy, he resisted the urge to whoop loudly. It had been months since he’d been on a broom; he’d had no reason to without Quidditch. But now everything felt right once again.
Harry rose as high as he dared. With the firelight, it was much easier to see below him than above. Underneath, robes billowing behind him, Malfoy circled like a large crow.
They flew for nearly a half hour without incidence, the snitch well hidden. One moment Harry thought he saw it—but it was only Malfoy’s sleek blond head far below.
As time wore on, Harry could sense the other boy growing restless. His mind, too, started to drift...but then he snapped it back into place. No way in hell was he going to lose to Malfoy, Firebolt or not.
As if he’d read his mind, Malfoy soared upward towards Harry.
“Fantastic game, Potter,” he called. “Really exhilarating.”
“Well, it was your idea.”
“So while we're here…” drawled Malfoy. “Let me ask you something. Those muggles you lived with—how awful were they, for you to prefer Weasley’s shack?”
“Malfoy,” warned Harry.
“What do you care?”
“Just making conversation. Being friendly.”
Harry continued to scan for the snitch; Malfoy might have grown distracted, but that didn’t mean he would too.
“My biographies didn’t satisfy you?” said Harry absentmindedly.
And then, unexpectedly, he saw it: the firelight had thrown a ray onto the Black Lake, and he could see in the distance the glimmering golden snitch.
Without another thought, he hurtled down, down, down—then straight for the lake. He shot across it so quickly the blackness rippled; the flames had trouble following him. Though he could no longer see the snitch, he knew it was there.
Dimly, he was aware of Malfoy cannoning behind him. The whooshing of his broom grew closer—the Nimbus was no match for his Firebolt, after all—
The flames caught up with them. They illuminated the vast lake—and Harry saw the snitch just below him.
But no, it was a reflection. He looked up—ah.
Malfoy’s ragged breathing was just inches behind him. Pressing flat against the broom, Harry turned sharply upwards—he was zooming perfectly vertically—
Yes. At last, he closed his hand around cold metal.
The snitch’s wings beat uselessly against his clenched palm. Below him, he heard a loud curse. He looked down at Malfoy, indignant and severely wind blown.
Victorious, with blood pumping through his veins, Harry soared downwards. His heart felt lighter than it had in weeks. Together, the two of them descended onto the lawn overlooking the lake.
“It’s faulty,” spat Malfoy, scowling accusingly at the cracked snitch.
Harry tossed it into the air and caught it. “Want to go again?”
“It’s late,” replied Malfoy stiffly.
Harry shrugged, grinning. Malfoy’s sour expression ceased as he watched Harry.
“So it’s true,” he said and snickered. “You really lived in a closet, Potter?”
“Well, only until I got my Hogwarts letter…” replied Harry self-consciously. “Then I got Dudley’s—my cousin’s—second bedroom.”
Malfoy’s smile faded. He stared at Harry.
“What?” said Harry, growing annoyed.
“But why?” questioned Malfoy.
Harry peered at him suspiciously. It was surprising to see the lack of scorn on Malfoy’s furrowed face; there was only naked curiosity.
Perhaps that was why he replied, “Dunno—or I do, I guess. My aunt knew my mum was a witch and hated her for it. Not sure if she was jealous or what, but the Dursleys all hated that I was her son—that I was, you know...strange.”
“Muggles,” scoffed Malfoy disbelievingly.
Harry shrugged, his desire to correct Malfoy vanishing into the starless night...his heart was thrumming; he was still high on his win. A question leapt from him.
“So, that letter you sent me—you know, the weird one—that was just some twisted joke, right? At my expense?”
Malfoy regarded Harry intently. His pale eyes were luminescent under the flickering flames.
“Of course,” he replied quietly.
Harry felt a strange sensation wash over him—relief, that’s all it was, nothing more.
Needing to impress upon Malfoy why he was bringing up the issue, he said slowly, “Because, well, that’s not something people usually joke about. Regular people, I mean. Regular blokes.”
Malfoy continued to watch Harry closely, who resisted the urge to fidget under the scrutiny.
“That so?” said Malfoy.
Harry realized something then, and it was like a boulder dropped into his stomach. How he had not seen it earlier...he could’ve kicked himself for his own thick-headedness.
The golden snitch, which had just given him such gratification, now felt cold and leaden in his hand.
“Why are you telling me this? I could tell anyone about you, you realize…?”
Malfoy snorted, but his eyes told Harry there was nothing he found funny.
“What makes you think I care what people say about me anymore?” he said bitterly.
It was a tacit confirmation. Suddenly, Harry felt quite sick; he wanted to run, but he felt that if he tried, he’d find his feet firmly rooted to the grass.
“What do I have to live up to? My family name?” Malfoy continued, his tone mocking. “You know the state of my family. You saw it, in my head. Don’t have much to lose.”
Silence followed his outburst, tense and awkward. Harry was at a loss for words. That was happening quite a lot these days—this time, at least, he thought was justified.
“Anyway, Potter,” said Malfoy after a few moments, “I assume you don’t speak with those muggles anymore.”
“No,” said Harry, still distracted. “The last time was before I went into hiding.”
“And you managed to live there for sixteen years without hating them? You’re not a saint.”
Frowning slightly, Harry watched the firelight throw undulating patterns on the grass underneath their feet.
“I just kept thinking...they’re not my family. They’re just people I happened to live with. I didn’t belong there. One day I would get out and never look back. So I did.”
“Family isn’t something you choose, Potter,” said Malfoy seriously. “It’s blood.”
Shrugging, Harry replied, “I never found that very important.”
Malfoy examined him as if he were a peculiar creature he had found on a stroll through the woods. Then he reached out and plucked the snitch from Harry’s hand, fingers grazing his palm. They were warm despite the night’s chill.
“It’s faulty,” repeated Malfoy, frowning at the damage. The snitch’s gauzy wings fluttered tiredly. “Supposed hero of the wizarding world and can’t even afford a proper snitch. Why’s that?”
Harry shrugged again. After the Battle, the Ministry had retrieved the snitch from the Forbidden Forest. Harry had accepted it with reluctance. At least the stone that had been inside it was forever hidden, unremarkable on the forest floor, just as he’d intended.
Apparently unsatisfied, Malfoy’s eyes narrowed. When Harry reached for the snitch, Malfoy grasped him by the wrist.
He leaned in. Unconsciously, Harry held his breath. Malfoy’s scent was so distinctly masculine, woodsy and peppermint-y, that it threw him off for a moment. He felt strangely lightheaded.
Warm breath ghosted his jaw, touched his collarbone. A lightning-swift image of Malfoy’s lips on his neck flashed through his mind.
But Malfoy simply whispered:
“It’s finally snowing.”
Indeed, cold snow was falling gently, kissing the back of Harry’s blazing neck. It trickled underneath his collar.
Harry wrenched his wrist away. He was suddenly very angry, though he could not explain why.
“Fuck off, Malfoy,” he spat. Clutching the snitch, he threw Malfoy the Nimbus and snatched his Firebolt back.
The boy’s laugh clung to him, following him off the pitch.
Harry’s face, windburned, glared back at him from the bathroom mirror the next morning. He touched his cheek tentatively and winced.
Though it had been protected by his robes, Harry’s wrist burned treacherously.
He turned the faucet and splashed his face, hissing; the cold was like a slap against his raw skin. Then he re-examined his reflection.
Harry looked the same as he always did, albeit more pink than usual: same straight nose, same green eyes, same stupid scar…same unruly black hair. He pressed it flat, though he knew it was futile.
“It’s charming, dear,” said the mirror fondly.
Harry made a face. “Thanks,” he muttered.
Straightening his tie, he left the bathroom for class. He had come back late last night and, resolving to complete his Transfiguration homework in the morning, had gone to bed. But as those things usually go, Harry had overslept—and class was in ten minutes.
Resigned, he climbed down the stairs to Transfiguration. He found Ron among the throng of students, accompanied by a stack of toast. Hermione trailed behind, distinctly disapproving.
“Must you bring that in with you?”
“Wha’? Ol’ Splog won’ mind,” said Ron through a mouthful.
At that moment, a shockingly girthy man squeezed through the doorway to Transfiguration.
“Yes, yes, come in, come in,” said Professor Splog genially. He winked at Ron and patted his extra-large stomach.
Pink and porky, Harry’s first impression of Splog at the start of term was of a much kinder, much older Dudley Dursley. Not for the first time, Harry wondered why a man so well-accomplished in Transfiguration did not spell away his corpulence. His only conclusion was that Splog liked it that way.
Harry found his seat. Homeworks were being passed to the front of the room. He busied himself by making a show of opening his textbook and examining its contents. Determined to avoid Splog’s eye, he didn’t notice until too late that Draco Malfoy had taken the seat just to the right of him.
“Er—what do you think you’re doing?” Harry said under his breath.
Malfoy ignored him, pulling his completed homework from his bag. Harry exchanged a look with Ron and Hermione.
There was the sound of heavy footsteps, and then Splog was frowning down at him.
“Tut, tut, Harry. No homework today?”
“Sorry, sir.” He tried for an ashamed look.
“That’s quite alright. Next class, eh?” smiled Splog indulgently.
Harry felt Malfoy’s glare. As forgiving as Splog seemed, he doubted Malfoy would have been given the same treatment.
At the bell, Splog waddled to the front of the room, assignments in hand, and settled comfortably in his magically enlarged armchair.
“Today we shall be leaving behind elemental reactions and beginning—shall we say—a branch of corporeal transfigurations,” said Splog, reclining in a pose of ultimate relaxation. “Let us see who has read ahead...who can define for me Bertrand’s Law?”
Predictably, Hermione raised her hand. Next to her, Padma Patil’s shot up as well. Splog nodded at Padma.
“Bertrand’s Law states that a Vanished object may only be successfully Recalled in a different locus if certain prerequisites are met. That is to say, the witch or wizard must possess sufficient will and the correct technique; the object must be tangible or corporeal; and the object must be Recalled in its entirety, or else its fundamental attributes may be altered beyond recognition,” recited Padma.
“Excellent,” said Splog happily. “Ten points to Ravenclaw.” Hermione looked disappointed. “And who can tell me...when we Recall an object, from where exactly does it appear?”
He looked around the room, smiling. Nobody raised their hand. It was strange, Harry thought, that he’d never wondered where Vanished objects went.
After a moment, Hermione said, “From the void, I suppose.”
“Ah, the ubiquitous void. Both everywhere and nowhere at once,” replied Splog. “And yet, as far as we know—no wizard has seen it. Why do you suppose that when we Apparate we do not recall ever visiting such a void?”
“Well…” said Hermione slowly. “Before you Recall an object, it was Vanished for however long you intended. But Apparition is near-instantaneous, isn’t it? So anything that will have fully experienced this ‘void’ either has no consciousness or can’t tell us what it experienced, because it isn’t human.”
“Well said, my dear,” said Splog approvingly. “Take ten points. Now—”
But then Splog stopped, because next to Harry, Malfoy raised his hand. It was an unusual sight: Malfoy usually spent Transfiguration staring into space or doodling on spare parchment.
“A question, Mr. Malfoy?”
“No. Just that when you Disapparate and Apparate, you’re not exactly focused on some ‘void,’ are you? You’re picturing the place you want to reappear in. But when you Vanish or Recall an object, you concentrate on nothingness—maybe it’s the ‘void’—so they’re actually rather opposite.”
It was perhaps the most Malfoy had ever spoken in class since the beginning of term. And it was certainly the most earnest Harry had ever heard him, maybe ever.
Splog looked momentarily surprised. Then he said smoothly, “True, very true. Ten points to Slytherin...and we will begin exploring this very contradiction now, if you will kindly turn to Chapter Six…”
As the sounds of rummaging and rifling filled the classroom, Harry saw Malfoy tear off a piece of parchment, scribble something, and fold it in half. Harry stared down at his textbook: Chapter Six, Bertrand’s Law.
Swiftly, warm fingers pressed parchment into his hand. Harry looked up sharply.
Resting his head on his hand, Malfoy’s gaze held Harry’s, quiet and deliberate. Then he turned back to his textbook as if nothing had happened.
To the left of Harry, Ron and Hermione were reading. Splog was chatting animatedly with Luna. Trepidation settling low in his stomach, Harry unfolded the parchment. In Draco Malfoy’s fluid handwriting, it read:
If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave.
The minute Malfoy passed him the note, he’d expected something of the sort...and yet nothing could have prepared him for how he felt. It was as though last night had rushed back to Harry. The feeling in his stomach shot up and squeezed his lungs; his chest burned; he was somehow hot and cold and tingly all at once.
Malfoy was staring at his textbook with a fixed expression. Harry took a steadying breath. Then, leaning in as close as he dared, he hissed:
“Malfoy, I’m going to kill you, the muggle way, and feed you to the giant fucking squid.”
Malfoy snorted loudly.
Though the classroom wasn't quiet by any means, a few people glanced his way. Ron and Hermione gave Harry quizzical looks before returning to their notes.
"Don't be ridiculous, Potter," said Malfoy, quieter. "We both know you won't hurt me."
"And why's that?" asked Harry, temper flared.
"Well, you won't even tell anyone about this, will you?" smirked Malfoy, tilting his head to the side. "Not even Granger or Weasley. Your best friends."
It never ceased to irritate Harry how well Malfoy seemed to know him. He willed himself to calm down.
"Yes, because it's embarrassing," he replied.
"So let me get this straight," whispered Malfoy, eyes bright, "You won't tell anyone because you're embarrassed. Because some part of you likes it, and you're afraid that if people find out, I'll stop."
Harry gaped at him.
"That's not—you're delusional, Malfoy."
Malfoy shrugged. Harry wanted to punch the stupid smile off his face.
"Oh, I don't think I'm the delusional one here," he replied airily.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Malfoy looked at him pityingly. "I'd buy a mirror if I were you, Potter."
"It's windburn!" said Harry indignantly.
"Shh!" hissed an uptight-looking Ravenclaw.
Harry glared at her until she blushed and turned away.
Slightly ashamed, he lowered his voice when he said, "What's stopping me from going to McGonagall?"
Malfoy had begun to pack up. "Go right ahead, Potter," he said neutrally. He raised his hand. "Professor, I'm meant to see the Headmistress at half nine, like she informed you earlier."
"Yes, yes, all fine."
Swinging his bag over his shoulder, hands in his pockets, Malfoy bent over Harry's desk. "Want to come with?"
At Harry's lack of response, Malfoy laughed lowly. Then he turned away, and Harry thought he felt a ghost of a hand trail down his shoulder. Tingles danced down his spine.
As Malfoy's footsteps receded, Harry stared at Chapter Six, uncomprehending: A quintessential moment in a young wizard's education is when he begins to ask the following...
When the bell finally rang, he left the classroom with Ron and Hermione. Ron, chewing, had just unwrapped a chocolate frog.
"What'd Malfoy want?" he asked, frowning down at a winking Dumbledore.
"Just some stupid joke," Harry muttered. "Doesn't matter."
"I, for one, think it's admirable that you two aren't constantly at each other's throats anymore," said Hermione.
"Who has the time?" agreed Ron sagely, popping another frog into his mouth. "Ugh—Harry, I got you again. Here, you have it."
Harry's own face stared dully back at him, flattening his hair over his scar.
"Yeah," he said noncommittally, pocketing the card.
Together, the three left the castle; Herbology was next period.
Outside the greenhouses, they found Hagrid lugging a large box labeled 'Carnivorous Calendula officinalis.'
"If these don't help your pest problem, nothing will," Professor Sprout was saying to him. When she saw the three, she tapped her watch pointedly and headed for Greenhouse Four.
"Haven' seen yeh all in a while," said Hagrid, frowning down at them.
"Yeah…" said Ron, scratching his head. "Sorry about that."
"We've been so incredibly busy, Hagrid," said Hermione earnestly.
"Eighth Year's been rough," added Harry.
Of course, he'd never say it, but the real reason Harry hadn't seen much of Hagrid was because Hagrid always wanted to talk. Harry found the whole thing highly uncomfortable and entirely unnecessary.
"Alrigh', save it," said Hagrid, grinning. "Come by for a cuppa sometime, s'all I ask."
Harry couldn't help but feel guilty as he watched Hagrid lumber away.
So after dinner that evening, just before Remedial Potions, he finally paid a visit to Hagrid's hut. He'd invited Hermione and Ron, but the two had merely glanced at the textbooks and parchment piled high on the common room carpet and groaned.
But when he arrived, Hagrid was nowhere to be found. Instead, he found Luna and, for some strange reason, Parvati Patil on their knees in Hagrid's vegetable patch.
Harry stared at the unlikely pair as they poked holes in the soil, robes caked with dirt.
"Oh hi, Harry," said Parvati, noticing him. "Hagrid's out, if you were looking for him."
Luna was planting large seeds into the holes they had made.
"Yeah, I was, thanks…" he said. "Can I ask what you two are up to?"
It was all well and normal for Luna, but Parvati—and Lavender, when she had been alive, thought Harry with a dull pang—had always giggled incessantly at Luna's antics.
"We're planting Dirigible Plums," said Luna happily. "Hagrid said we could as long as we steered clear of the giant pumpkins."
Standing up, Parvati brushed herself off. Parvati, who had always struck Harry as somewhat vain, looked unbothered by the fact that the bottom of her robes were now more brown than black.
"I need to be off. See you later?" she asked Luna.
Then, to Harry's great amazement, she leaned down and kissed her.
"Bye bye," said Luna absentmindedly, carefully tucking the seeds into the soil as if putting a child to bed.
Shaking her head, Parvati waved goodbye at Harry and strolled away towards the castle.
"Would you like to help?" asked Luna. "I've still got lots left…"
Harry watched Parvati disappear over the hill, her long black ponytail swinging behind her.
"But...Neville?" said Harry. "You two are always together...and in the common room, after Hogsmeade, we saw you tying berries around his ankles. What was that?"
"Wrackspurts," replied Luna seriously. "We've got an infestation."
"She's been very upset, you know, about Lavender," said Luna sadly. "Lavender liked to make fun of me, but she stopped when Ginny told her not to. You're not with Ginny anymore," she added.
"Yeah, I know," said Harry.
Luna stared at him through wide, pale eyes. "She's happier now, I think."
"Good for her."
"But you aren't."
"You don't know that," he said, somewhat testily. Luna's colorless eyes felt like a magnifying glass. "So…Parvati?"
"Oh...yes, we were paired for our Divination project," said Luna dreamily. "She said I'm the first girl she ever fell for, and she didn't really like all those other boys. I don't think that's quite true, though."
"Right," repeated Harry. "It's just...it's a surprise, isn't it? I didn't know you were like that."
"Like what?" she asked, head cocked to one side.
Harry searched her face. Luna sincerely seemed as if she hadn't a clue what Harry was talking about.
"Never mind," he replied. He checked his watch. "I've got to run. Let Hagrid know I stopped by if you see him, will you?"
"Re-me-di-al Po-tions," singsonged Luna. "Bye, Harry. I'll save you some plums."
Harry was perpetually late to Remedial Potions, and it was because he usually tried to delay walking into that classroom as much as possible. But it was nearing eight o'clock, so with a faint feeling of nausea he re-entered the castle and climbed down into the dungeons.
Once again, Boughbranch had written instructions on the blackboard. Harry retrieved his ingredients from the storeroom and began measuring out a vial of salamander blood.
Malfoy entered the classroom. He dropped his schoolbag carelessly on the floor by his desk and headed for the storeroom without a backward glance at Harry. Boughbranch followed him with her eyes the whole way.
The potion they were brewing today was a particularly difficult one; on his first attempt, Harry had been left with a cauldron full of charcoal and a strong odour of burning plastic. So it was with extra care that he worked, attentive to the board and his textbook. But the entire time, uneasiness played in his stomach. He was on guard for Malfoy to do something—insult him or taunt him to follow Transfigurations earlier that day—but it never came.
It was unlike him to waste the opportunity to torture Harry. But Malfoy worked beside him, more or less placid, only speaking to disparage his potion-making skills and frequently correct him. Harry had long since stopped resisting the help, because he wasn't an idiot. Why should he complain if Malfoy was getting him out of Remedial Potions faster?
Forty-five minutes later, Boughbranch peered into their cauldrons and nodded in satisfaction. As Harry began to clean up, she said, "Don't forget, you two, I need that essay on Wolfsbane and Polyjuice potions tomorrow. No exceptions."
She eyed Harry, who hoped his expression didn't give away that the assignment had completely slipped from his mind.
"I'll be heading to the Headmistress's office, then to my chambers," she added. "Considering the library's closed, you two may stay here to work together if you'd like. Certainly you, Potter, could use Malfoy's help...I've locked the storage cupboard."
She left the room. Malfoy spelled his desk clean.
Harry paused. He could have asked Hermione, but it was getting increasingly difficult to be around her and Ron nowadays. And he had a strange unwillingness to leave quite yet; the classroom was quiet, and Malfoy's company had been...actually somewhat pleasant.
Harry wasn't under any illusions. Anyone could be pleasant (or, at least, in Malfoy's case, only mildly insulting) for forty-five minutes. He knew Malfoy wanted to remain on his good side so that they would continue to practice dueling. In Transfiguration earlier, Malfoy had had a momentary blip, but out of all the things he'd done, it was actually quite tame, Harry told himself. It was like that interspecies relationship he'd learned about in science class before he ever knew anything about magic, or wizardry, or Voldemort: Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy were in a sort of symbiosis—temporarily.
It was never in Harry's nature to spend much time dissecting how he felt; that was more Hermione's speed. So instead he just said, "Did you already finish the essay?"
Malfoy was packing his bag. "Haven't started."
"I'm a little lost, to be honest," said Harry, shifting.
Malfoy looked up at him. A ghost of a smile played at the corner of his mouth.
"Are you trying to ask for my help, Potter?"
Harry shrugged. "If you're busy…"
Malfoy considered him for a long moment. "No," he said finally.
Sitting down at the closest table, he pulled out his notes and read aloud the prompt written there:
"'In close to five feet, compare and contrast the mechanisms by which Wolfsbane Potion and Polyjuice Potion work on the body. Which essential ingredients and processes differentiate the two? Which compare them? Also discuss what would occur if certain ingredients or processes were omitted.'
"Shouldn't be too difficult," he said, taking out his quill.
Harry sat across from him. For the next hour, they worked together, Potions books splayed out in front of them. Snark and occasional slurs to his intelligence aside, he found that Malfoy was actually a rather decent tutor.
It was as if Draco Malfoy had two different personalities: one that existed to torture Harry, and one that just...existed. This Malfoy mouthed words while he was reading them, and impatiently pushed his hair away from his face while bending too close to parchment. He had a tendency of staring at the ceiling, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth when he was contemplating something. On occasion he'd flare up, provocation ready on his tongue—but it would quickly blow over with only a snide quip or withering glance.
"Your handwriting's awful, Potter," remarked Malfoy, leaning over the desk. "Are muggle schools really so substandard that you never learned to write properly?"
Frowning, Harry thought his handwriting was not too bad. He didn't want to think about Malfoy's handwriting in any form, because it reminded him of other things.
"So Polyjuice Potion…" he said, tapping his quill thoughtfully. Malfoy eyed it in irritation, and he stopped. "It uses lacewings and leeches, but Wolfsbane only uses leeches?"
"Lacewing flies bind the properties of two indentities," replied Malfoy, preoccupied. His face was too close to the parchment again, reminding Harry of Hermione. "Naturally, it would be disastrous in Wolfsbane Potion."
"Careful, Malfoy, or your nose'll turn black," said Harry, searching the textbook's index.
Malfoy straightened immediately, scowling, but swallowed his retort.
"I'm expecting at least two dueling sessions from this, Potter," he said instead.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever."
Harry's pot of ink was running dry. He bent down, rifling through his schoolbag for a spare, and felt something fall out of his pocket. As he reached for it, Malfoy trapped it underneath a glossy dragonleather shoe.
Malfoy smirked. "What's this, Potter? A love note from Weasley, perhaps…?"
He dragged his foot back and picked up the chocolate frog card with Harry's face on it.
"Oh," he said, eyes gleaming. "Of course you'd carry this around in your pocket. I bet you save every single one."
Harry flushed. There was something in Malfoy's expression that made him uneasy.
He snatched the card back, shoving it into the recesses of his bag.
"Order of Merlin, First Class..." said Malfoy softly, grey eyes never leaving Harry's. "And all those other medals...you must be proud, Potter."
"I didn't save it," he snapped. "Ron just handed it to me, alright?"
"Of course," replied Malfoy silkily.
Harry felt himself growing annoyed again. It was too much to ask, apparently, that Malfoy act like a decent human being for more than a couple hours.
"Just because you're jealous of the fact that I have actual prospects—"
"I never knew you were so concerned for my future," said Malfoy, face tightening. "Well, I assure you, the last thing I am is jealous of you."
"Who are you trying to convince, Malfoy?"
Harry looked into Malfoy's face, rigid with anger, and sighed.
"Let's just...stop, alright?" he said wearily. "Forget it."
Slowly, Malfoy's expression eased. Then he shook his head and let out a strange little derisive laugh, which broke off quickly.
"Who would have seen this coming? A future where being a Malfoy closes more doors than it opens."
Harry felt awkward, like he was intruding on some bare part of Draco Malfoy.
"Well, what would you like to do?" he asked carefully.
Malfoy appraised him. After a pause, he said, "Who knows. Something that won't make my dear father curse me from his grave. Or, seeing as he's already rotting…"
It was a bit disturbing to see Malfoy so flippant about his father's death, even if his father had been a heinous Death Eater. Harry thought of Mrs. Weasley, of her warm brown eyes and of her apron, which always smelled like cinnamon. He thought about Sirius's laugh, Ron's smirk, and Hermione's anxious brow.
"Love…" he said slowly, "isn't conditional. At least, it shouldn't be."
"I never said my parents didn't love me, Potter. But there are things you've never had to worry about—status, lineage, familial duty…" he trailed off.
Pink patches had appeared high on Malfoy's cheeks. He ran a hand through his blond hair, looking equal parts embarrassed and irritated. Harry was quickly learning that this was one of Malfoy's anxious habits.
"Look at you," burst out Malfoy. "You lived in a cupboard, for Merlin's sake. And you turned out fine. No—you're perfect."
The idea was so ridiculous that Harry laughed.
"What? Have you seen me do well at anything, besides Quidditch and Defense?"
"Who cares about school, Potter?"
"You always made fun of me. You lived to make Hogwarts hell for me. And when anything bad happened, you tried to make everyone hate me."
"Didn't work though, did it?" said Malfoy, a tick pulsing in his cheek.
Harry hadn't seen Malfoy like this since Harry had seen the memory of Narcissa in Boughbranch's classroom.
"You're acting like you never did anything wrong. You were a bully. You were terrible. And—however you felt afterwards—you joined Voldemort. You knew what he was, what he was capable of doing. I'm not perfect, but I never did that."
Malfoy stared at him. The tick in his jaw had stopped. But Harry was unstoppable.
"Your father dying and whatever's wrong with your mother—that justifies fuck all. Look at Neville—he has no parents, at least none who know he exists. Family isn't an excuse for shitty life choices, Malfoy."
Suddenly realizing that he was breathing quite hard, Harry shut up. He couldn't identify the moment when he'd first started getting worked up. Anger quickly turning to shame, he glared at the desk. A few painfully silent moments passed.
At last, Malfoy spoke.
"I know," he said quietly.
Harry met Malfoy's cool gaze.
"I know, Potter," repeated Malfoy. "That's what I was trying to say, if you'd listened."
Harry shook his head, needing to emphasize his point—Malfoy had to understand.
"It’s not enough. Realizing you're shitty doesn't make you less shitty. You have to do better."
Internally, he winced at how clumsy he sounded, though he believed every word.
Malfoy peered at Harry. His gaze had softened, and he seemed...almost astonished. Then, after a moment, he looked away.
"I'm too sober for this," he sighed, sounding exhausted—and there he went again, running his hands through his hair. Even in its current state, it looked as silky-soft as ever. He looked down at their essays, which were still far from completion, and sighed again. "What we need, Potter, is some inspiration."
From his schoolbag, Malfoy drew out a tiny clear sachet. Inside was what looked like the leaves of a plant, red and green and purple.
"Cannabis alihotso," he informed him.
"Is it...legal?" Harry squinted at it. Surprise and curiosity had tempered his irritation.
"Going to run to McGonagall?"
"No," he said, insulted.
"Don't be a prig, Potter. But yes, technically."
"Alihotsy…" said Harry, frowning. "Wait, isn't that—"
"In Laughing Draught?" finished Malfoy, momentarily impressed. "Yes, but this isn't it. Related, though."
And with a flick of his wand, the sachet transformed into a glass pipe. Malfoy lit a small flame underneath it. Then he closed his mouth around it, inhaled, and breathed out. Smoke curled from his lips, the same color as the flames on the walls. Or maybe the smoke had no color at all, and it was only the torchlight painting the whole classroom subtly golden.
He passed the pipe to Harry. The embers stayed magically lit, sparks dancing within their glass prison. The moment seemed surreal, like an unusually vivid dream he'd have during an afternoon nap.
"How have you messed with it?" he asked, only partially joking.
"Don't smoke or do, I don't care," responded Malfoy indifferently. "Just don't be prat for once in your life, and keep it to yourself."
Harry regarded it. A whiff of cloves rose from the embers. "How does it feel?"
"Peaceful, mostly…it helps you think sometimes. Though if you overdo it, the opposite happens."
Experimentally, Harry placed his lips to the pipe and inhaled. At once, fire filled his lungs—he tore his mouth away, coughing until his eyes watered.
Malfoy snorted. "Take it easy, Potter."
Blinking away tears, Harry tried again. This time, he breathed in, quickly removed his mouth, and breathed out. Smoke fluttered from his lips like a sigh, leaving behind a faint burn of candied cinnamon.
Continuing in this manner over a period of time (Harry didn't know how long), they turned back to their essays. Whether it was because of the plant itself, or just the spice-scented smoke drifting through the classroom, was uncertain, but their moods were considerably subdued. Malfoy had a point after all, thought Harry belatedly.
"So," he said conversationally, tapping his quill again. Malfoy took no notice. "You really don't know what you want to do?"
Malfoy shrugged, exhaling a honey-hued cloud.
"Well, what do you like?"
He contemplated the ceiling. "Potions, Quidditch, reading. Not much else."
"You could take over for Pince. She'll be snuffing it any day now."
"It's not a joke," he glowered. "Just because you're illiterate."
For some reason, Harry had the urge to laugh. "I know you'll hate this, but you're more like Hermione than I ever could have thought."
For a moment, he felt on edge, half-expecting Malfoy to call Hermione a Mudblood or something similarly offensive. But Malfoy simply said, with mild disgust, "I'm much better looking."
Harry rolled his eyes.
"People see what they want to see," said Malfoy quietly, "but books don't notice you at all."
This time, Harry laughed. "Merlin, you're high."
Malfoy glared at him half-heartedly and turned his attention back to the ceiling.
Hunger rumbled through Harry's stomach. Rooting through his bag, he excavated an apple and bit into it, relishing its crunch—no apple had ever crunched so crunchily, he thought, its sweet-tart juice dribbling down his chin.
"Ugh," said Malfoy, pulling a face when Harry offered him a bite.
A soft meow came from the doorway.
Large yellow eyes blinked slowly at them. For a moment, panic rising to his throat, Harry thought it was Mrs. Norris again—but it was only that skulking black kneazle.
"Come here," coaxed Harry, drumming his fingers gently on the floor (how had he ended up on the floor? The stones were cold and uncomfortable).
"Forget it," said Malfoy, who was now lying on his back on the floor next to Harry. He eyed the kneazle resentfully. "Ungrateful brute. I feed and water her, and some thanks I get."
He pulled up his shirt. Malfoy's stomach—the inches Harry could see—was pale and hard. Thin red scratches criss-crossed just above his navel.
"It is a cat, sort of," reasoned Harry, crunching. "Those don't look too bad."
Scowling, Malfoy pulled his shirt back down. Harry watched the trail of blond hair disappear underneath his trousers.
He turned back to the doorway, but it was empty.
"She'll be back," said Malfoy carelessly, taking another drag. "Needy bitch."
Harry's apple had vanished. He lay down, side by side with Draco Malfoy, and marveled at the picture they must've made...a particularly blurry one, he mused.
"Room's spinning," he muttered.
"It does that from time to time," replied Malfoy, unconcerned.
"You're not afraid?" he asked.
"We're already on the floor," said Malfoy pointedly.
"I think you'd better stop," remarked Malfoy, sounding amused. He reached over and plucked the pipe from Harry's hand.
Harry caught his wrist, much like Malfoy had after their Quidditch match.
Malfoy's eyes flared, but he said nothing. He merely watched Harry, wary of his next move.
Harry tugged down his sleeve, exposing white skin dusted with hair. Malfoy didn't protest, yielding to Harry's touch as he turned his wrist: the Dark Mark was revealed once more.
"I never knew if you actually had it," Harry murmured.
"You said you didn't think about me at all."
"In the hospital wing, after Pomfrey healed me. After your whole speech about superiority complexes or whatever."
“Oh…" mumbled Harry. "That's not...exactly true."
"In that it's completely false?" asked Malfoy, his voice very soft.
Years ago, at Mrs. Figg's house one lonely summer while the Dursleys were on holiday, Harry had seen a man on television melt a block of steel into a puddle. Staring into Malfoy's eyes, Harry thought he could see that very pool now, silvery and molten and bright.
He realized he was still holding the boy's wrist. Malfoy's gaze, ever mercurial, burned into his own. He was warm and solid in Harry's grasp.
As if he'd been pricked, Harry released Malfoy.
"I've got to go."
"...See you, Potter."
Head whirling, Harry stood and shoved his parchment, quill, and textbook into his bag. He crossed the room and had a last glimpse of Malfoy with his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling with an inscrutable expression on his face, before he closed the door.
Feeling oddly hot, Harry climbed up the stairs. As he turned the corner from the Entrance Hall, he came across a familiar face.
"Harry," said Ginny, sounding surprised. "Was just at the pitch…headed for the common room?"
"Okay—wait, Harry," she reached out a steadying hand on his chest. "Are you alright?"
Ginny's worried eyes, like runny honey, poured and flowed together so that she looked like a strangely pretty—
"Cyclops," whispered Harry.
"What?" said Ginny with increasing alarm.
Her one huge eye blinked, then Harry blinked, and Ginny looked human again.
"Yes?" he tried again. "Yes. I'm fine."
The corridor was spinning again. Harry focused very hard on remaining upright as it zoomed around him gleefully. He was the axis of a spinning globe; he was the anchor of his future—
Ginny snapped her fingers in front of his eyes. The spinning stopped.
"How many fingers?" she asked briskly, holding up her hand.
Harry squinted. "Two?"
She studied him. "Firewhisky?"
"Green thing," he mumbled. "Red purple thing."
"Red purple…" said Ginny, bewildered. Then her eyes widened in realization. "Are you stoned?"
"Yep," said Harry happily.
"Harry James Potter," she said, torn between exasperation and amusement. "What have you done?"
He tried to wink at her, but he felt his right eye droop sadly and slide right off of his face.
"Ouch," he said absentmindedly. "I have to finish my Potions essay."
"Well, it's only eleven…" said Ginny. She examined him critically. "But you'll definitely need to sober up."
"Can just copy off of you."
"I'm not in Potions, Harry, for the hundredth time."
"Bogey," laughed Harry. "Boogey."
"Okay," Ginny grasped him by the end of his sleeve. "Let's go."
"I can walk on my own," he told her as he was led up the stairs and through corridors.
"Of course," she said soothingly. "What's that in your other hand?"
Harry opened it. It felt unpleasantly sticky. Shaking her head, Ginny grasped the apple core by the stem and threw it away.
Harry studied her: Ginny's face was small and heart-shaped, surrounded by flaming red hair.
"You're like a plum. A Dirigible Plum."
They climbed up another set of stairs.
"Luna's a lesbian."
"Yes, I know."
They turned a corner.
"Mm...I don't think so," replied Ginny, distracted. "Here were are. Catananche."
Harry shook his head, sure he must have misheard her. But then a door opened: inside lay a dazzling, high-vaulted chamber of pristine white marble.
"Prefect's bathroom," she informed him.
In the center of the room lay a vast tub the size of a small swimming pool. Decorating its perimeter were faucets of all shapes, gold and silver and shimmering.
"She's in the pipes," Harry muttered. He squinted suspiciously at the largest faucet, expecting at any minute that Moaning Myrtle would come swooping out of it.
Ginny raised an eyebrow. "Try that one—on the far left," she said, pointing.
"You're not staying?"
"It's the boy's bathroom, Harry. Anyway, good luck."
"Wait, how did you know—"
But the door had swung shut behind Ginny. Harry was alone.
Shrugging off his robes, he pulled off his shoes, socks, and trousers and unbuttoned his shirt; then he took that off too, at last sliding his pants off. Shivering, he climbed into the tub, which instantly filled with blissfully warm water.
"Far left…" he muttered. With difficulty, because his fingers felt like dangling egg noodles, he turned the tap.
At once, sea-foam green bubbles poured from it. They jitter-bugged across the water's surface. Harry held his breath, then sunk into the bath. As soon as the top of his head breached the surface again, he felt the room shift, then right itself. Sobering potion, he mused.
It had helped, but it hadn't solved everything.
A particularly cheerful bubbled settled on his chest.
"Hi bubble," said Harry. He poked it and grinned as it started warbling what sounded like the first few bars of "A Cauldron Full of Hot Strong Love."
When the song ended, the bubble popped wetly, and Harry applauded. Then he leaned back against the side of the tub. Breathing deeply, he stared hazily as blue-green mist filled the room. He hadn't realized it before, but he was so very tired...
A silvery figure drifted in from the opposite wall.
"Go away, Myrtle," grunted Harry. "I'm naked."
But the ghost that turned to face him wasn't Myrtle. Gaunt-faced, with horrible, blank staring eyes and robes spattered with blood—was the Bloody Baron.
The Baron's chains clinked menacingly. Its gaze chilled something deep within Harry. Somehow, though it took tremendous effort on his part, he found his voice.
"Er—sorry, Baron, sir."
But the Baron continued to stare at him, the sockets where its irises should have been terribly white and empty.
Logically, he knew that a ghost could do him no harm—even if that ghost was a vengeful, deranged murderer. But that didn't stop the discomfort he felt at being stared down by it.
Under the Bloody Baron's gaze, Harry began to regret his life choices that had brought him to this moment. If he hadn't said anything, the Baron would have floated right past him; if he hadn't gotten high, he'd never have come across it in the first place. The fault lay, decided Harry, with Draco Malfoy.
"Sorry, Baron," he repeated, clearing his throat. "Don't let me stop you."
The spirit drifted higher up the wall, but did not leave. It examined him from above like a diaphanous, highly unappealing chandelier.
The eerie quiet of the immense, sparkling white bath; the ghost's eyeless sockets fixed upon him—it was more than Harry could bear. He was dreaming, he told himself firmly. After all, the Bloody Baron never gave anyone the time of day, preferring to skulk in shadowy, far-flung corridors and occasionally threaten Peeves.
This thought quelled much of his fear.
"I spoke to her, the woman you killed," said Harry.
It said nothing, merely observing him silently.
"You wear chains, and you're dead. Surely you're regretful. But she hasn't forgiven you." He recalled the loathing that twisted the Grey Lady's face as if it were just yesterday. "I'm not completely in control of what I'm saying at the moment," added Harry hastily.
Unexpectedly, with a rasping voice that froze Harry's blood, the Baron spoke:
"I only regret harming the mistress," it croaked, though its mouth never moved. "Lesser men wend to far moe wondrous lengths to forbear what they fear than to obtain what they desire."
In all of his years at Hogwarts, Harry had never heard it utter a word. That confirmed his theory: somewhere, maybe back in that classroom with Malfoy, he'd fallen into a drug-induced sleep and was now envisioning having this very conversation.
"Doesn't it bother you that she still hates you?" he asked. "Even after your death?"
Its eyeless face contorted with excruciating sorrow.
"Her forgiveness would only be a gift to grant to herself. I bid never for't."
Harry stared, nonplussed. His head was beginning to ache (did heads ache in dreams?). The Bloody Baron continued to examine him.
"Farewell, nude sirrah," it rasped at last.
And with that, the ghost drifted through the ceiling and disappeared.
Harry woke just after midnight. Nearly all the bubbles in the bath had dissipated, and the water had gone cold. Briefly, he wondered what was the point of a magical tub if that could happen.
The incident with the Bloody Baron came back to him, clearer than any dream. Had he fallen asleep after it or before? It wasn't important. Shuddering with cold, Harry dressed quickly and left the prefect's bathroom for the Gryffindor commons.
He found the Fat Lady giggling with her toothless old wizard friend, who she batted her eyes at, fanning herself with a ridiculous hat.
"Effugium," said Harry.
She swung open without a glance. Harry climbed inside.
Hermione was sitting in the old squashy armchair by the fire, engrossed in her Arithmancy textbook. At her feet, Ron played Exploding Snap by himself.
"So you've finished the essay then?" Harry asked, heaving down on the carpet next to him.
"No," said Ron indifferently.
"Shall we do it together?"
Ron sighed heavily and pulled the assignment from his bag. The two got to work.
At half past one, nestled in wool carpet, Harry stared dully at his half-finished essay. He was comfortable and warm, and whatever he and Malfoy had smoked earlier, combined with the bath, did nothing to stop his eyelids from drooping once again. He was drifting...
A sudden gasp startled him upright.
Rubbing his eyes, Harry looked up and saw Hermione clutching a slip of parchment. His Potions book lay open on her lap.
Shit. Harry's heart thudded to his feet. Any sign of sleep left him at once.
Hermione stared at him beseechingly, her warm brown eyes round and her cheeks flushed. "I'm sorry, Harry, I didn't mean to read it!" she squeaked. "I just opened your book—to check the ingredients for Wolfsbane Potion, I haven't got mine with me—and this fell out."
Harry willed his heart back to his chest. The initial alarm he'd felt upon seeing her discovery had faded—there was no way for her to know who the note was from—but he felt strangely uncomfortable, as if she were looking at him naked. He itched to grab the scrap of parchment from her hands.
Hermione's face was pink, and her gaze combed him relentlessly.
"What's happened?" yawned Ron. "And why are you looking at Harry like he's told you he thinks McGonagall's fit?"
Hermione started, seeming to realize that she had been staring at Harry rather peculiarly. "Um, do you mind, Harry…?"
Yes. Harry didn't want Ron seeing it. He didn't want anyone seeing it. But he couldn't very well tell his friends that.
Ron sighed exasperatedly and grabbed the note. "Honestly, you two, what—"
Red splotches appeared on his freckled face as he read it.
"Blimey, Harry, who gave you this? Because that's sure as hell not your handwriting."
Harry's gut twisted. Give it back. He mussed his hair, feeling the need to do something with his hands.
Hermione, who continued to stare at him, recited breathily, "If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave."
And...we've made a full circle.
To clarify: the story until now has been the events preceding Hermione's discovery ("the past"). Next chapter will resume with the events after it ("the present”). Yay for nonlinear timelines!
Chapter 7: Bacchic Revels
"If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave."
Heat crept up Harry's neck as the words coiled around him once again. The image of Draco Malfoy, unbidden, surfaced: his slender fingers gliding along parchment, then sliding down to touch Harry's, slipping the note into them.
His hand had been so warm. Harry flushed gently, and his fingertips tingled.
"Harry, who—?" She paused. "Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights."
"Uh, what-what-what?" Ron swiveled to face her.
"It's a quote from a book."
"Yes, a book, Ronald. A thing people read?" Her eyes still hadn't left Harry's. "Granted, it's a muggle book."
"I know what you meant," Ron grumbled. He grinned conspiratorially at Harry, wiggling his eyebrows in a way that Harry didn't care to see ever again. "I just assumed it was a steamy note some bird passed Harry. Now, which bird is the question—a kinky one, no doubt."
"Women aren't birds," she said automatically. "...And it is, essentially." She blushed. "Harry, you haven't said anything."
Face hot, Harry cleared his throat. Feigning nonchalance, he said, "What's to say?"
Hermione's eyes narrowed, and the fever that seemed to have taken over her passed as quickly as it came. Absentmindedly, Harry pitied her future children; his best friend was like Fang with a bone.
"What's to say?" she asked, incredulous. "I don't know, let's start with who wrote you this? And why haven't you told us about her?"
Her. Harry felt ill.
Ron snorted, itching his nose with his quill. "Give him a break, 'Mione, you sound like Mum. He'll tell us soon enough. Won't you, Harry?"
"Right," he said. He couldn't help but feel a little guilty: Ron looked especially guileless with ink all over his face.
Hermione squinted at Harry, but then shrugged as if she couldn't have cared less. She delved back into the book. Ron seemed to contemplate Harry for a moment. Then he handed the note to him and resumed gazing listlessly at his Potions essay.
Harry thought Hermione's nose seemed too deeply buried in the book to actually read it and, ruefully, pictured gears turning in her head.
Thankfully, in the weeks that followed, neither Ron nor Hermione pressed the issue. They seemed to be of the mind that Harry would tell them about this mysterious girl in his own time. Of course, Harry never would, because there was no girl.
In fact, there was nothing at all to tell—or so he told himself.
The start of December was underway, and with it came the castle's Christmas cheer. Hagrid lugged gigantic trees, magically magnified, through the corridors; Professor Flitwick carried piles of wreaths and baubles so high he was often mistaken for a small tree himself; and Professor McGonagall could be spotted humming carols while shooting wads of gum into Peeves's throat, silencing his cackling.
That morning at breakfast, enchanted snow drifted gently from the ceiling of the Great Hall, dusting all of its inhabitants with a faint iridescence. But at Harry's corner of the Gryffindor table, students were anything but cheerful.
As the holidays approached, Professor McGonagall had informed the seventh and eighth years she would be conducting a "Mid-Year Review." The nature of this development was vague, and when memos with their appointments were distributed that morning, worry spread like spattergroit.
"I suppose it'll be like an exam," said Hermione, frowning. "I mean, she'll want to make sure we're performing well in our courses so we're on track for N.E.W.T.s, won't she?"
"Oooh, I'm not doing so well in Charms," said Parvati, looking sick.
Neville moaned around a forkful of sausage. Even Dean and Seamus looked nervous.
For once, Harry felt like he would do alright if he were tested: he was doing fairly well in his classes and was even scraping Acceptables in Potions. Loathe as he was to admit it, Remedial Potions with Malfoy had helped (though he couldn't be gladder that it was over).
"When's your slot?" Harry asked Ron.
He peered at Ron's memo, which said in McGonagall's stately script: Today, 1 pm. Ron had turned a delicate shade of green.
"You've been doing well, haven't you?" said Hermione bracingly.
Mournfully, Ron poked at his sausages.
From behind Harry came a loud, girlish giggle. He spun around, alarmed, and was greeted by a gaggle of younger girls.
"Oh—it's him—!" one shrieked.
"Shut up, Maggie," another hissed, turning scarlet when Harry stared at her.
"Yes, we know it's Harry," said Ginny loudly, taking a seat next to him. She seemed unaware of the death glares shot her way. "Don't you all have somewhere to be?"
The girl who'd giggled, now looking sullen, pulled her group away.
"Honestly," sighed Hermione, patting Ron's arm.
Harry frowned. It was nearly halfway through the year, and while he was occasionally (embarrassingly) asked to sign a photograph or witch's hat, most people had become accustomed to him at Hogwarts. But for some reason today, he felt as though an unusually large number of students were staring at him across the Great Hall, whispering and giggling.
"Don't worry about it," said Hermione cryptically. "Pumpkin juice?"
The feeling that something was afoot followed Harry through the corridors to his classes. In Charms, Anthony Goldstein winked saucily at Harry, then chortled with his friends; a seventh-year girl Harry had never spoken to before asked him, blushing like a tomato, what kind of chocolate he'd like best for Christmas; and a beaming Professor Sprout gave Gryffindor five points when Harry told her good morning.
As they entered Defense Against the Dark Arts, however, the class sobered. The door thudded behind them, and Harry and Hermione took their usual seats along the front of the classroom. Ron, just returning from McGonagall's office, joined them, looking pleased about something.
Professor Ivor Roman was seated behind an ornate desk. One long finger languidly caressed his goatee as he observed the class.
"Today, we duel," he said smoothly, almost purring over the words. "No spoken spells. Otherwise...there are no rules."
He smiled menacingly, and Harry thought he caught a glimmer of a fang.
"Told you," muttered Ron. "Vampire."
"Vampires aren't allowed wands. Not to mention Professor McGonagall wouldn't let a vampire teach students," whispered Hermione.
But Harry wasn't so sure. Professor Roman, gaunt, pale, and still smiling widely, had always seemed a little too bloodthirsty to be wholly human.
"Pair up now," commanded Roman.
Before Harry realized what he had done, he'd turned and nodded at Draco Malfoy at the back of the classroom.
It had been instinctive: dueling was mentioned, and Harry had immediately associated it with Malfoy. It was only natural, after all, as the two of them had met thrice just that week to duel, true to Harry's word.
As if it were all normal, Malfoy stood and sauntered towards Harry.
"Can we help you?" said Ron coolly.
"I'm sure you can't, Weasley," replied Malfoy, equally cold.
It was too late now. Harry's body had betrayed him. He raised his wand, and Malfoy followed suit, eyes glinting.
"I don't know about this," said Hermione, her voice anxious.
"If you hold back, I shall know," said Professor Roman silkily to the class at large. "Begin."
A corner of Malfoy's mouth twitched. Before Harry could blink, fire burst from the end of Malfoy's wand.
"Not this again," groaned Harry, dodging it. A yelp sounded from behind him, along with the smell of burning fabric.
"Silently, Potter," came Roman's voice.
Nebuluse, thought Harry. At once, Malfoy was surrounded by a dark, swirling fog.
He pointed into the fog. Stupefy.
But before the red bolt of light penetrated it, the fog was blasted apart. Clouds dissipated into the classroom like smoke. Harry coughed and sputtered, struggling to keep his eyes open.
Through the haze, Malfoy raised his wand—and Harry's ears filled with a piercing cry, one long, shrill note that drove any thoughts of spellcasting from his mind.
Hands clamped over his ears, he dodged a blue ray shot his way, rolled behind Roman's desk, and screwed up his eyes.
Finite. The shrieking stopped. He peered over the top of the desk—and ducked to avoid yet another spell.
When had Malfoy got so good?
Harry gritted his teeth, summoning his concentration—the desk in front of him was blasted apart—but he was already on his feet, pointing his wand into Malfoy's smug face.
From the tip of Harry's wand poured serpents, slick and silver; hissing, they shot towards Malfoy, coiling around his legs, wrapping around his wrists.
Malfoy's eyes widened. Harry had him.
Grey eyes narrowed, and everything went dark.
Alarm rose in Harry as he realized was blinded. Finite, he thought fervently, but the darkness was unyielding.
Suddenly, pain slashed across his cheekbone. Wet, warm blood trickled down the right side of his face.
Gasps sounded from the classroom, but he paid no attention to them. He could feel Malfoy circling him, playing with him, waiting for a move. He wondered why Malfoy didn't just stun him now and be done with it.
Cheekbone stinging, Harry tried to locate the sound of his footsteps, but over the room's tumult it was impossible. And then he heard, just to his right, a short intake of breath—yes.
Immobulus, he thought as hard as he could, not pointing his wand, but focusing on Malfoy's face, on the sound of his footsteps and his quiet inhale.
A clattering sound, like a wand falling to the floor—and then Harry could see again. He blinked, and the room blurred into focus.
Malfoy stood in front of him, frozen as ice.
It had been Harry's wand that had fallen. Breathing hard, he bent down, picked it up, and straightened—
And felt cold wood pressed against his throat.
"You lose, Potter," said Malfoy softly.
Harry's heart thumped erratically. Grey eyes, liquid, were just inches from his own.
He shoved his wand, hard, between Malfoy's ribs, twisting until those eyes winced.
"Don't get cocky, Malfoy."
Malfoy smiled, ever so slightly. Harry's gaze dropped to his mouth. Red bloomed on Malfoy's lower lip, dark and wet. It had been bloodied somehow, maybe from the debris of the exploded desk.
His bottom lip, fuller than the top, looked soft and firm.
Harry raised his gaze to Malfoy's face: he saw something like victory flash across it. But there was nothing to be victorious about, because they'd ended in—
"A draw," announced Professor Roman. "Potter, Malfoy...lower your wands."
Still staring at each other, the two slowly lowered their wands. With effort, Harry tore his eyes away. He felt Malfoy's gaze burning into the back of his head.
Around them, the class was in various states of disarray. Hermione was breathing heavily, her bushy hair standing upright as if she'd been electrocuted, and Luna had been Stunned, a dreamy expression glazing her face. Seamus had apparently received the brunt of Malfoy's blast of fire. With surprise, Harry realized that only he and Malfoy were wounded.
Roman's dark gaze lingered a second too long on Harry's cut cheek, then Malfoy's bloody lip. Then he touched his wand to Luna's forehead, reviving her, and with a lazy wave, repaired his desk.
"Very good," he said in satisfaction. "Now," he swept behind his desk and sat leisurely. "Take your seats. We will be dissecting your duels, and I shall soon review your performance in excruciating detail."
The classroom was tumultuous again as students brushed off, pulled each other to their feet, and returned to their desks. Harry settled into his chair and pulled parchment and quill from his bag.
Then he felt Malfoy's presence again. He saw those fingers, long and pale, slide a piece of folded parchment onto his desk.
Immediately, Harry slapped a hand over it and whirled around: Hermione was fretting over Ron, who still seemed somewhat Confounded. No one was paying attention to him and Malfoy.
Harry raised his gaze to Malfoy standing above him. A brow was raised on his otherwise blank face—an unspoken challenge.
Wanting nothing more than to Vanish the note (and yet itching to read it), Harry unfolded the parchment. In handwriting he was getting to know far too well, it said:
The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
Harry's heart leapt to his throat. Heat flushed his neck, then spread to his ears, which burned in anger.
Malfoy hadn't given Harry a note since that morning in Transfiguration, even in the evenings that they'd dueled alone. Yet he'd chosen this moment—in the middle of a full classroom—to do so.
Harry looked up from the parchment and, once again, met Malfoy's gaze. Then, quite deliberately, he placed his wand to the parchment and burnt it to a crisp.
Malfoy's smirk faded as the ashes, smeared across Harry's fingertips, drifted to the stone floor like black snow.
"Ten o'clock," said Harry quietly. "The usual place."
"Well, I think it was really the snakes that got everyone's attention," said Hermione, smiling.
"And Malfoy blowing up Roman's desk," chortled Ron. "Bad luck, mate."
"It was a draw," said Harry.
"Oh, won't you let me heal that for you?" wheedled Hermione, looking hopefully at the cut on Harry's cheek.
It had stopped bleeding, but it still stung when he smiled or frowned too widely.
"Don't worry about it," he said.
Hermione sighed and shot Ron a significant look. Harry ignored them.
Since Defense had been a double period, the three were done with classes for the day. They'd decided to visit Hagrid.
Wrapped in thick winter coats, they shivered and hurried across the hill, brown grass crunching under their boots. Smoke furling from the chimney, Hagrid's house rose in the distance. When they arrived, Ron knocked loudly, his fist trembling with cold. The door swung open, and Hagrid beamed down at them.
"Alrigh', yeh three? Harry—cut yerself or summat?"
"Defense," said Harry shortly. Hermione rolled her eyes.
Hagrid frowned slightly as the three stamped snow from their boots and squeezed into the warmth of the hut. Inside, a welcome fire was sputtering merrily. Fang lay at the hearth, his deep snores rattling wooden walls.
"Tha' Professor Roman…" said Hagrid as they sat at the table and poured themselves tea. "Dunno what the Headmistress's thinkin', hirin' him. Must be gettin' desperate for someone to take the job…"
"Because he's a vampire?" said Ron eagerly.
"Wha'—no," said Hagrid, though he looked shifty. "Used to teach at Durmstrang, he did. Very knowledgeable in the Dark Arts...
"Anyway, Harry," he said, dark eyes twinkling. "I'm sure yeh got enough on yer mind as is."
Harry's stomach wrenched for one terrifying moment before he realized that Hagrid couldn't possibly be talking about Draco Malfoy.
"What do you mean?" he managed.
"Yeh haven' heard?"
Confused, Ron said, "We've just had classes all day."
Hagrid bustled around the hut before pulling out a glossy magazine, luridly pink and stamped with Harry's own face. It grinned and waved sheepishly at him.
Ron guffawed and turned the cover. Groaning, Harry craned his neck to read:
The Chosen One's Chosen Grace:
Witch Weekly Names Harry Potter This Year's "Most Charming Smile Award" Recipient
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, headed by Headmistress Minerva McGonagall, has long been touted as Europe's best academy for young witches and wizards. However, student gossip concerns neither potions nor hexes, but rather their bona fide hero, eighteen-year-old Harry James Potter.
While the Wizarding world knows him as the young man who vanquished infamous Dark wizard You-Know-Who, Harry is famous among the witches of Hogwarts for quite a different reason.
"His smile lights up the corridor—and that scar! He's so handsome. Everyone says so," says Greta Hopkirk, 16.
"Once I dropped my textbook in the corridor, and he tried to pick it up for me. I think our hands touched for a second," gushes Angie Winkle, 14. "It was the best moment of my life."
"I saw him after class once—in Professor Boughbranch's classroom—I could barely speak!" says a third-year girl who asks to remain anonymous.
Cringing, Harry skimmed down the article to a photo of a harassed-looking Ginny.
Harry Potter: Boyfriend or Bachelor?
The singledom of the Chosen One is a point of hot contention. His most recent conquest, Ginny Weasley, 17, says shiftily when questioned on the nature of her relationship with Harry, "Yeah, we dated...could you move so I can get to class?"
Romilda Vane, 16, remarks on the shadiness of Miss Weasley's response and notes, "I don't know, I hear her family's sort of poor. And she's got freckles."
"Alright, that's enough," said Ron.
"This goes on for...six pages?" said Harry weakly, flipping through the glossy magazine.
Hagrid chuckled beneath his shaggy beard.
"Well, it's probably a big article for them," said Hermione primly, though she appeared to be stifling a laugh.
"Didn't you get a letter? They must have sent you one."
Harry, who received a weekly bundle of fan mail and press inquiries, said truthfully, "I probably threw it away."
"Harry, you should've seen your face," she giggled at last. "I didn't read it, of course, but the girls have it posted all around the dormitory."
"You didn't read it?" said Ron, brow furrowed. "That explains how you missed this…"
Harry, Hermione, and Hagrid squinted at bottom of the page. Squeezed next to an advertisement for Sleakeazy's Hair Potion, there was a column merely a finger's length that read:
Azkaban Aurors Questioned in Murder Case
Auror Clive Hawkes, Head of Azkaban Security, was interrogated last Tuesday in relation to the murder of ex-Death Eater and ministry informant, Lucius Malfoy.
Hawkes and the two Aurors who guarded Malfoy's cell the night of the murder, John Steeley and Pat Rumple, are suspected of foul play.
"This wasn't in the Prophet," said Hermione. She sounded as if the paper had personally slighted her.
"Yeah, well, don't think the Ministry would want word out that they're interrogating their own employees, would they?" replied Harry.
Hagrid and Hermione nodded seriously.
Thoughtfully, Ron remarked, "It's just as you said, isn't it, Hermione? That day at the lake."
"Did she?" said Hagrid, impressed.
"We'll see what comes of it," said Hermione with a look of satisfaction on her face.
Dinner was a rowdy affair, with Dean and Seamus taking every opportunity to quote sentences from the Witch Weekly article at Harry. Ron and Ginny soon joined in, enacting a play with an entire cast of characters in between bites of roast beef. For some reason, Neville ended up played most of the parts until Angie Winkle walked by, heard Neville, and burst into tears. Hermione quickly put a stop to it after that.
After dinner, they retreated to the common room. It was very hard to focus on doing homework (even as it piled up in front of them) when snow fell from the black sky, fire crackled, and laughter of younger, more carefree students could be heard around the common room.
"Oh, let's give it a rest," said Hermione at last, shutting her book and stretching.
A look of amazement spread across Ron's face.
"Come on, Ron, I'm not a tyrant," said Hermione peevishly.
"It's not that," said Ron. "Look at Little Leo."
Across the room, Little Leo had just received what looked like three squirts of a dark, foul-smelling liquid to the face.
"You're in a good mood today," noted Harry as a gleeful Ron watched Little Leo pelt Little Xiao with Gobstones.
"You are," said Hermione, squinting at him. "That reminds me...how was the 'Mid-Year Review' with Professor McGonagall?"
"Not bad," said Ron airily. "She just talks to you about future career plans, N.E.W.T.s, all that."
"And?" prompted Hermione.
"Well, I'm doing alright. On track to Aurorship even with Potions, thanks to you, 'Mione. McGonagall reckons I just need to work on Transfiguration and Charms, pull more than Acceptables, and I'll be set."
"That's amazing, Ron!"
"Great," agreed Harry. He felt a vague sense of nausea.
Hermione glanced at him sideways and said, "How about a round of Exploding Snap?"
The three of them whiled away the evening playing cards with Neville, Seamus, Dean, and Ginny until Dean and Ginny got into such a row over points that they began setting decks of cards on fire.
As the hour approached ten o'clock, the crowd showed no signs of dissipating. Ron was now scrutinizing a chessboard across from Neville while Hermione curled up in the corner with a book called One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
"I've got to get going," said Harry, eyeing the gold clock above the mantel. "Remedial Potions."
Ron grunted noncommittally: Neville, grinning, had just beheaded his queen.
For the umpteenth time in nearly three weeks, Harry had lied to Ron and Hermione. He'd needed an explanation for his disappearance, and it was easier to pretend that he was still behind in Remedial Potions than to explain that he was spending his nights secretly dueling Draco Malfoy. But each time, shame writhed in his stomach; this, along with mounting trepidation, accompanied him as he climbed down to the dungeons.
Malfoy was apparently a fast learner. He'd nearly bested Harry back in Roman's classroom earlier that day. In fact, if he'd stricken when Harry was blinded by whatever hex Malfoy had used, he likely would have won outright.
It was this fact that made Harry uncomfortable. It was why he was meeting Malfoy in the dungeons now, when he could be in the common room watching Dean and Seamus charm their homework to fly repeatedly into Parvati's hair.
Hidden underneath his invisibility cloak, he arrived at Classroom No. 10. He swept it off as he entered.
Malfoy was lounging at the desks, his long legs stretched across three chairs pressed together. Dread settled in Harry's stomach when he saw Malfoy thumbing through a garish pink magazine.
A familiar combination of mirth and scorn painted his pale face as Harry appeared in the doorway.
"'Harry Potter, Boy Hero extraordinaire...and heartthrob,'" he drawled, leisurely flicking through the pages. “‘Most Charming Smile Award.’ Impressive. That should go on your chocolate frog card, Potter, next to massive dickhead."
"Thought you weren't a Witch Weekly reader."
"Pansy owled it me a copy," he said idly. "My favourite part is—where is it?—this twit, Priscilla Ball—"
But whatever Priscilla Ball had said, Harry never found out, because he drew his wand and the magazine flared red, dissolving into ash. Malfoy cursed and shot up, his fingers black and scalded.
"Fuck you, Potter," he scowled, wincing. "You've got to stop burning things. It's not exactly creative."
Then he drew his wand from his sleeve and raised it as well.
Harry dropped his bag from his shoulder. Faintly, he realized the classroom was freezing, but there was no time to conjure his usual fiery orbs.
Malfoy's wrist flicked almost imperceptibly.
Protego, thought Harry at once. A violet bolt of light rebounded on Malfoy, who leapt nimbly to the side.
"Oppugno!" Harry called just as Malfoy shouted, "Incarcerous!"
Harry dodged the hex sent his way, but Malfoy was too slow: the blackboard pried off the stone wall and launched itself at him, pinning him to the floor. His patent dragonleather shoes kicked uselessly underneath it.
A moment later, a chill spread through Harry. For a split second, he thought it was just the draft of the room. Then ice poured through his veins, freezing his blood; he watched in horror as his wand arm seized up, and his fingers fossilized around his wand.
Finite, he thought desperately. Nothing happened.
His lips, frozen shut, could not utter a spell. He was so cold he thought he might never move again…
Malfoy stilled under the blackboard. Then it seemed to liquidize, melting into a hundred, glistening black salamanders; like spilled ink, they raced across the stone floor before disappearing into dark smoke.
Impedimenta! Harry thought wildly. Malfoy, who had just emerged through the smoke, coughing violently, stopped dead in his advance.
Every inch of Harry was glacial down to his blankly staring eyelids. Desperately, he imagined fire filling his blood, shooting through his veins. Malfoy began to stir. With every particle in his frozen body, Harry thought, Aestus corporis.
It worked. Heat spread through him like a kiss just as Malfoy, grey eyes alight once more, raised his wand.
Fire shot from its end yet again.
"Stop. Trying. To set me. On fire," gritted out Harry. "And you call me uncreative."
Malfoy had no time for words. His face was flushed, alight with thrill, as he fired spell after spell. Harry dodged and parried them all, some more easily than others. Then he shot his own hexes and curses back at Malfoy.
It didn't matter that the dungeon was cold and dark; at times the light blinded Harry momentarily, and sweat trickled down his back.
He hit Malfoy with an Immobulus Charm. But the second before Malfoy froze, a flash of light, like a darting flame, shot from his wand. It pierced Harry's left trainer as he leapt aside.
From his left heel spread an itching, burning, prickling sensation that began to worm rapidly through him. First his left leg, then his right, his torso, his arms, fingers, face…
A million needles jabbed all over his skin. Suddenly, Harry realized that fire ants were crawling all over him. There were hundreds of them—thousands.
Shock jolted his system. Horrified, he lifted a searing hand to stare at their angry red bodies.
Harry's mind went blank. He knew no counter spell.
He tried to Stupefy Malfoy—maybe then Harry would win, and the curse would break—but his wand seemed to have stopped working. The ants bit him mercilessly, each stab sprouting angry purple welts. And was it just his imagination, or did they seem to consume a part of him with every bite? He felt his magic seeping away even as he tried to summon it…
The charm on Malfoy could wear off any second. This morning in Defense had shown that. Harry would be at his mercy.
Harry shut his eyes tight. He felt legs crawling over his eyelids, then fiery pain.
His eyes flew open.
With a great clattering, the fire ants all over Harry exploded, transfiguring into showers of countless peppermint humbugs. The candies bounced, scattered, and rolled across the stone floor.
"Expelliarmus!" called Malfoy.
Harry's wand flew above in a high arc, landing across the classroom.
The welts had disappeared. Harry pushed up his sleeve and stared at his skin, blank as clean slate except for a smattering of dark hair. Maybe he'd only imagined them.
The pain faded more slowly. His skin still throbbed where the ants had bit him.
Dark magic, thought Harry uneasily.
He looked up at Malfoy, who tossed him his wand back. Harry caught it in midair.
"Immobulus wasn't designed for humans, even if it's used that way," said Malfoy, watching Harry closely. "Someone skilled in Occlumency could throw it off."
"Oh," was all Harry said.
Malfoy's cheeks were still tinged pink. In past years, his hair had been slicked back in an impenetrable platinum helmet, but now it fell gently in soft strands around his face.
"That's your problem, Potter. You're fast, but you make mistakes. And you make the same ones over and over again."
Faintly, Harry remembered a moment when he'd told Malfoy something similar. He felt a strange sensation of mingled irritation and...pride?
"Is that all?" he asked, shouldering his schoolbag.
"No," said Malfoy. His lips quirked slightly. "You don't always think before you act."
He reached out abruptly, and Harry's grip tightened on his wand, adrenaline coursing through him. But Malfoy only plucked a stray peppermint from Harry's shoulder. He unwrapped it and popped it into his mouth.
"You're bleeding again," commented Malfoy. His eyes, glittering, traced Harry's cheek.
Reflexively, Harry's fingers shot up to his face: so he was. When he drew them back, they were red and slippery.
It hadn't hurt while they were dueling, but suddenly Harry was hyperaware of every sensation in his body, from the cold-born goosebumps sprouted on his arms to the pain nibbling his cheekbone.
"That was…" Harry gestured vaguely at himself. "Dark magic, wasn't it? And earlier too, in Defense. When you blinded me, I could feel it."
Malfoy just continued to watch him intently. After a moment, he said quietly, "What are you doing here, Potter?"
Harry shot him a patronizing look. "Well, I was dueling you."
"No. What are you actually doing here? You don't have to be here."
He considered this. Malfoy had a point; Harry had thought the same thing himself. No doubt the Gryffindor common room was still as he'd left it. After all, with the holidays approaching, no one had much of an inclination to study. What was he doing here, in a freezing dungeon classroom with Draco Malfoy, when he could be drinking smuggled firewhisky and playing Wizard's Chess next to a crackling fire?
Slowly, Harry said, "There's something about being surrounded by people...that makes you feel more alone."
Malfoy raised a signature eyebrow. "More alone than being alone?" he said with clear surprise and skepticism.
"Forget it," said Harry. He felt self-conscious all of a sudden. Uncomfortable, he tucked his wand into his sleeve and scratched his neck, which still twinged dully.
Malfoy stepped close to him. "Nice try," he said. "You're funny, Potter."
Harry's hand froze mid-scratch. "Yeah?"
Another step. No.
"Yeah," said Malfoy softly.
He was too close.
"You're a rubbish liar, too."
He bent nearer; Harry stiffened. Breath hot and stirring on Harry's throat, he said like a sigh, "A little she strove, and much repented, / And whispering, 'I will ne'er consent'—consented."
Harry could smell the peppermint clacking in Malfoy's cheek. He could count every one of his blond eyelashes.
"I'm not a bloody girl, Malfoy," he whispered. Speech any louder seemed to have eluded him.
"Don't I know it," murmured Malfoy.
His eyes were silver stars. His scent, like the forest, washed over Harry.
And then it was heady, and strong.
Something unfurled in Harry, bloodred, reckless. All reason fled from him in utter abandon—a distant shattering. He lunged, dragging Malfoy by the collar of his robes so that he stumbled onto Harry.
He kissed Draco Malfoy.
Warm, dry lips. Peppermint.
A soft puff of air, like a gasp—a hot exhale—and he felt a hand ghost across his stinging cheekbone.
Panic rose in Harry's throat like bile. He tore away, his heart hammering madly.
He couldn't tell if the words were coming from him or someone else. His chest hurt with the ferocity of his thumping heart; he was hot and cold and numb and feeling.
Malfoy's eyes were more black than grey. He touched his fingertips, blood-stained, gently to his lips. He looked stunned.
Harry couldn't hear another word. He couldn't look into his face, at his mouth, at Draco Malfoy's mouth.
He shoved Malfoy's chest, firm and too real under his hands. Malfoy stepped back as easily as if he were made of paper. His breath stuttered.
Harry turned, stumbled through the doorway, and bolted.