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All Life is Yours to Miss

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 ‘Danger and delight grow on the same stalk’ – old Scottish proverb.

**~*~**

The relative hush of Draco’s classroom is disturbed by an irritatingly familiar crackling sound and he looks up from the stack of fourth-year essays he has been marking. For a moment, he regards the group of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor students, all of whom are supposed to be engaged in a simple theory exercise. Most of them are scratching away with their quills or frowning at their textbooks or biting their nails, and though the latter makes Draco’s nose wrinkle, he knows that they are, at least, attempting to understand the fundamentals of organic-to-non-organic Transfiguration. Which is, as usual, more than can be said for Jasper Bracknell and his little band of followers.

Jasper, one of the many banes of Draco’s existence, is leaning back in his chair and obnoxiously popping bubbles of acid green exploding gum as he conducts a muttered conversation with his friend in the row behind him—a conversation which Draco is certain has nothing to do with Transfiguration, organic or otherwise. The thing about Jaspers, Draco thinks, pinching the bridge of his nose as another series of crack-crack-bangs issues from his student’s mouth, is that there is one in every class. And they are almost all Gryffindors. Not that he’s biased. No, if he’s honest, he finds nearly all of his pupils completely maddening.

Crackle-pop-bang, goes Jasper’s bubblegum, and now all the students within a two-chair radius of him are looking up from their work and murmuring gently. Draco sighs.

“Mr Bracknell,” he says quietly, taking some satisfaction in the fact that the classroom falls immediately silent.

Jasper continues to lean back in his chair but his impudent blue eyes swivel to meet Draco’s. “Yes, sir?”

“Tell me you are not eating that disgusting green gunge in my class again,” he demands, covering his weariness with severity.

Jasper blinks. Shrugs. Grins. “Okay. I’m not,” he says, and his friends titter appreciatively.

Draco grimaces, feeling a headache blooming behind one eye. “Be grateful for the fact that your friends find you so hilarious, Mr Bracknell, because you are unlikely to amount to much without your Transfiguration OWL, which you are highly unlikely to achieve without an understanding of Lockheed’s Law.” He pauses, relishing the puzzled expression twisting the usually smug face. “If you could apply yourself to your textbook for a moment or so, you might find it illuminating. In the meantime, I think that’s five points from Gryffindor.”

“Sir, that’s not fair! It’s always...” Jasper falls silent, mouth twitching.

“What is it?”

“Oh... nothing. I think I’ll just have a look at the old... Lockheed... erm... sorry, sir,” Jasper mumbles, frowning and pulling his textbook towards him.

Instantly suspicious, Draco looks around. Nothing seems amiss, but he is unsettled as he returns to his marking, and the next few essays in the pile are subject to a more savage application of red ink than usual. When the giggling starts, his uneasiness turns to alarm.

Gripping his quill hard, he looks around at his class.

“Settle down,” he says sharply, drawing down his eyebrows and shooting them his tried and tested silencing look. Inexplicably, this only makes them giggle harder. Every single person in the room seems to find him an object of amusement. Even the quiet, generally well-behaved Ravenclaw girls at the front are watching him with bright eyes and ill-concealed grins. Equal parts cross and anxious, he stares wildly around at his students. They’re laughing at him. He has no idea what to do with that. After ten years of teaching, he’s used to be feared, disliked, and occasionally respected, but this is something completely new, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Desperately, he turns to Jasper, who is smirking heartily and making a show of staring at his textbook.

Draco throws down his quill and presses his hands against the familiar grain of his desk. It’s reassuringly solid and takes the weight he rests on it without complaint. Or giggling. When the bell rings some minutes later and the classroom empties of students and their strange amusement, Draco waits only seconds before locking the door behind them and stalking around the classroom, searching for clues to the unwelcome hilarity. Finding nothing beyond a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary unflattering drawing of himself, he heads for his rooms. A giggle or two along the way only fuels the suspicion that something is very wrong, and when he arrives in front of his bathroom mirror, that suspicion is quickly confirmed.

His eyebrows have been turned red. Bright red. Gryffindor red, in fact, he realises as he stands there and seethes at his own reflection. He looks ridiculous, and he knows exactly who is to blame.

Furious, he storms out of his quarters and through corridors packed with students looking for mischief with which to occupy their afternoon breaks. He knows exactly where he is going, and despite the whispers and glances, he doesn’t think to correct his eyebrows until he is already halfway across the lawn, and by then, he’s built up far too much momentum to stop and think of a spell to reverse such a ridiculous curse. The grass is springy and damp under his feet as he approaches his target, and he can already feel the wet hem of his cloak slapping heavily against his legs but he doesn’t care—he can see Potter now, and, more importantly, Potter has not yet seen him.

And of course he hasn’t, because at a time when all other students have gleefully abandoned their professors for more diverting company, Potter’s class of first-years are still gathered around him, eager faces turned up to their favourite teacher as he clutches a stack of school brooms and chats away to them as though he hasn’t a care in the world. Perhaps he hasn’t, Draco thinks irritably, as he draws close enough to the group to hear a Hufflepuff boy cry, “That’s so cool, Professor Potter!”

Potter laughs, lifting a hand to scrub at his ridiculous hair as the fresh autumn wind catches and pulls at it, making him look like an over-eager scarecrow. No wonder he’s happy, the lazy bugger. No lesson plans, no marking; nothing to do, in fact, besides supervising first-years on broomsticks. No wonder he has time to cook up juvenile eyebrow-reddening schemes.

“Professor Potter,” Draco snaps, just about managing to remember his manners in front of the students. As Potter turns, the wind whirls savagely across the lawn and flips Draco’s sodden cloak over his head. Growling inwardly, he yanks it down and wipes his damp forehead, noting with resignation that the few students who weren’t already laughing at his impromptu Dementor impression are now giggling at the sight of his eyebrows.

“Hello, Professor Malfoy,” Potter says, blinking his ridiculous green eyes innocently. “Is something the matter?”

Draco grits his teeth, feeling multiple sets of expectant eyes all over him. “Could I speak to you alone for a moment?” he manages. “The bell has gone for afternoon break, you know.”

“Yeah, I know, we were just getting to know each other a bit,” Potter says mildly, glancing at the first-years, who are now following the exchange in pin-drop silence. Realising that Draco isn’t going anywhere, he sighs and turns to dismiss them. “Off you go, then. I’ll see you next time.”

Amid some grumbling and disappointment, the group disperses and Draco watches them meander across the lawn for a moment before he turns back to Potter, who is now grinning. Draco drags in a breath of cold, woodsmoke-scented air and refocuses. Fuck, he hates Potter. Well, perhaps hate is a very strong word, but there’s no denying that Potter is the most infuriating and idiotic person Draco has ever known, and he has known plenty of contenders in his thirty-two years on this earth.

“What do you want, Malfoy? I’ve got stuff to do.”

Draco snorts. “Like what? Counting broomsticks? Checking which way is up? Making sure... actually, that’s all I can think of. What is it you do, exactly?” he snipes, temper compounded by the wind blowing his hair across his forehead and his wet cloak and the mud on his shoes and the fact that Potter seems to be experiencing the same with no concern at all.

“I don’t think you came storming over here to tell me what you think of my job,” Potter sighs, adjusting the broomsticks in his arms. “For one thing, I already know how low an opinion you have of me, and for another, I can’t see you getting your feet wet just to snipe at me.”

“No,” Draco grinds out, hating that Potter has him bang to rights for once. “Perhaps I’d just like to know what the hell you think you’re playing at?” he says softly and with venom, lifting one scarlet eyebrow in inquiry.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Draco fumes. “What—did—you—do—to—my—eyebrows?” he demands.

Potter’s mouth twitches slightly at one side but he shrugs. “Nothing. It’s a good colour on you, though.”

Irritation raging through his veins, Draco clenches both fists at his side and inhales sharply with the effort of keeping the worst of his feelings—the humiliation, the frustration, the sense of being bested—inside and away from Potter.

“I know it was you, Potter.”

“I don’t think you do.”

“So it’s merely coincidence, you’re suggesting, that the very day after our... discussion about certain people’s bias in removing house-points, I take points—quite rightfully so—from a student from your House and I am immediately rewarded with this?” Draco snaps, indicating his eyebrows and then folding his arms, waiting for Potter’s response.

“It wasn’t me,” Potter says evenly.

“Oh, really?”

“Really.” Potter takes a better grip of his broomsticks and turns to leave. “Like I said, I have things to do.”

“I know it was you, Potter, and I’m not going to forget it,” Draco calls after him, infuriated.

He watches the retreating figure until it stops, halfway across the grass towards the castle, and turns.

“Hey, Malfoy?”

Draco sighs. “Yes?”

“You do take too many points from Gryffindor.”

**~*~**

By the time Draco makes it back to his rooms and locks the door behind him, his fury has simmered down to a more manageable level of prickly irritation, and he feels almost calm as he stands in front of his bathroom mirror and carefully strips every last trace of red from his eyebrows.

“That’s better,” he murmurs to his bedraggled reflection. He attempts to spell his hair back into place and sighs, letting it flop damply against his forehead as his own eyes stare morosely back at him. “That may have to be given up as a bad job.”

Tack-tack-tack, comes a familiar clicking sound from the corner of the bathroom. In spite of himself, Draco almost smiles as he turns to regard the oversized beetle that is currently trying to climb out of his basket of clean towels.

“I’m very tempted to let you struggle, Stanley,” Draco says, even as he strides over to the flailing creature and bends to pick it up. “I don’t know how many times we’ve been through this—you may be able to climb in but you cannot climb out.”

Tack-tack, clicks Stanley, pressing his six little feet against the front of Draco’s robes and waving his antennae in the air. His willow patterned shell, the result of a first-year’s botched attempt to turn a simple mint leaf beetle into a cup, glows beautifully in the low light of Draco’s quarters, and he appears to be in good spirits after a good nap in the towel basket.

Letting out a tiny, reluctant smile, Draco carries the beetle, now the size of a small cat, through to his living room, enjoying the familiar weight and the rhythm of contented soft clicking noises. It’s been almost four years since he rescued Stanley (or Stanley Seaton’s Screw-up, to give him his full title) from his human namesake and he has never regretted it. The daft beetle makes for surprisingly satisfying company, and Draco has lived with far more irritating habits than extreme clumsiness and a penchant for hiding mint leaves in unusual places.

“Here,” he says, setting the beetle down in an armchair and absently patting his shell. The temptation to sink into the other chair and light the fire pulls at him like the tendrils of a persuasive plant, but the sound of the bell echoing through the corridors beyond his little sanctuary puts paid to any such idea. He’s going to be late for his own class, and, more importantly, he has a counter-strike to plan.

Having made it just in time and set his students to work on some advanced cross-species spells, Draco picks up his quill and begins to scribble, aimlessly at first, noting down ideas and dismissing them, drawing little beetles and Potters down the sides of his parchment. Evil little Potters and ferocious, man-eating beetles. He does, however, count himself lucky that Stanley is not a carnivore, like many of the varieties of beetle used in school. He chose the mint leaf variety merely because it was, with its shiny green shell, a little more stylish, but these days he is grateful that gathering food for his pet only involves scavenging around the grounds for garden mint, rather than hunting for insects and grubs and such.

As for Potter... well. If pressed, he thinks he would admit to extreme pettiness and immaturity, but no-one is asking, so that’s fine. The unpleasantness of the past is far behind them—at least, he thinks it is. On the surface, it is—but it’s not as though they have ever discussed it, nor have they ever discussed the fact that they just do not get along. Because it suits Draco just fine. Gryffindor and Slytherin have always had a contentious time of it, and there isn’t much more Gryffindor than the head of Gryffindor. Draco doesn’t expect to get near the head of Slytherin position until Slughorn carks it, and probably not even then. Which is fine, because such a position can only mean more time with the students, more time with the other teachers, and many other things he’d rather not think about.

He’s a teacher. He’s a good teacher, he thinks; he knows how to impart knowledge, how to make it stick in young brains; he knows how to keep order and how to mete out discipline (though, he thinks, instinctively touching his eyebrow, he might just lay off taking house-points for a little while). It’s just people, if he’s honest. People are difficult and messy and he doesn’t much care for the way they look at him. Including Potter. Especially Potter.

So he schemes, because he has reasons. Not that anyone will ask what they are.

“Oh, Magnus... no,” protests Ivy Baron, a tiny red-haired sixth-year, addressing her neighbour without looking away from her work. Draco continues to write, keeping one eye on them.

“What? Do you think she’s weird as well?” Magnus whispers, letting his attention drift until his rat grows so long that it begins to slide off the desk. He rescues it just in time and Draco bites his tongue hard, thinking of his eyebrows. Magnus is a Hufflepuff, but Draco just isn’t risking it.

Ivy grins. “Seriously. I’ve heard things.”

Magnus clamps down a hand to prevent his elongated rat from clambering onto Ivy’s desk and ruining her work. “Like what?”

Ivy casts a nifty little freezing charm on her snake-in-progress and turns to look at her friend. Impressed, Draco continues to watch, attempting to ignore the small explosion that has just issued from the back of the room.

Eyes bright, she crosses her arms and smiles slyly. “I heard her say that she wants to tie you up so you can’t move and then have her way with you,” she says under her breath.

Draco muffles a cough with some difficulty.

“That’s... whoa. It’s... well. I suppose it could be weirder,” Magnus says, sounding unconvinced.

Ivy’s smile becomes a shark’s grin as she clearly prepares to deliver the coup de grace. Draco listens intently, all at once quietly loathing himself and dying to know what’s coming next.

“And then there’s the gravy,” Ivy says, and Magnus’ eyes grow dangerously wide.

“The gravy?” he whispers.

Draco closes his eyes, locates his professional pride, and fixes them both with a stern gaze.

“Miss Baron, Mr Humphries,” he says loudly, and they both snap around to face him, “if you could keep your private lives out of my classroom, that would be just wonderful.”

It’s in the mumbling of sorry, sirs, the general air of surprise that no points have been lost, and the smell of burnt hair which now pervades the classroom that Draco has a wonderful idea.

“What are you doing, Zarenski?” he demands, getting up from his desk and going to investigate the disaster with a smile on his face.

**~*~**

Much of the evening is spent perfecting the tricky little curse he plans to use on Potter, and by the time Draco retires to bed, removes three slightly chewed mint leaves from under his pillow, and pulls his embroidered autumn quilt up to his chin, he is feeling rather serene about the whole thing. The following night’s sleep is the best he’s had in a long time, and he is positively cheerful as he strides around his rooms the next morning, humming as he stands under the gargoyle in his bathroom and lets the hot water and steam envelop him and chatting away to Stanley as he sits on the edge of his bed and fastens up his boots.

“I suppose it’s quite a simple concept, but I am rather proud of the spellwork,” he says. “The Full Body-bind is such an underused curse, and it will drive Potter to absolute distraction. I’m setting it to release after a minute, but I think that’s long enough to teach him a lesson about taking points from Slytherin, don’t you?”

Tack-tack, offers Stanley, trundling along Draco’s sideboard and sending a comb, two books and a box of teabags clattering to the floor in his wake.

“Stanley, you are a menace to both the living and the dead,” Draco sighs, but he doesn’t bother to check his smile when the infernal beetle clicks ingratiatingly at him, because no one’s here to see it.

Stanley hops from side to side and flaps his (non-functioning—Draco has checked) wings in a well-worn entreaty to be picked up and carried around, but receives only a stern look in response.

“I don’t think so. I’m going to breakfast and you can’t come with me. You will be seen and I will be in trouble—or worse, everyone will want to be your friend and I will never see you again.”

Tacking gently, Stanley waves his antennae, sending a roll of parchment flying, and Draco raises his eyes to the ceiling. Relenting slightly, he picks up the beetle and sets him on the rug before he can do any more redecorating. He will, no doubt, climb back up onto the sideboard, but it will take him a good while to do it.

Some minutes later, Draco takes his seat near the end of the staff table in the Great Hall, distractedly chewing on a triangle of toast as he waits for Potter, who is always late. He is down to the last crust before he realises he has forgotten to butter it, but eats it anyway, washing it down with a gulp of mud-like coffee. Potter arrives, looking scrubbed and irritatingly healthy, just in time. He is literally pulling out his chair next to McGonagall when the sound of wingbeats announces the arrival of the post owls, and what better time to sneakily curse a colleague than when he and every other witness in the room is distracted? Draco hardly ever has any post—his mother prefers the occasional firecall these days, and his Potioneer’s Weekly always comes on a Friday. Today is no exception, and he seizes his opportunity as Potter is opening yet another intriguing-looking package.

He knocks his fork off the table, and, on the pretext of picking it up, bends and casually flicks his wand in Potter’s direction, mumbling the words to the curse as he gropes around on the cold floor for the dropped fork. Nothing happens, but he feels confident that it won’t be long. Straightening up, he smiles, inhales the deliciously savoury air, and politely asks Slughorn for the bacon platter. It may be a little bit premature, but he feels like celebrating.

**~*~**

There are few things more satisfying than being right, and barely two hours have passed before Draco is proved just so. As he steps out into a sunny courtyard for some fresh air between classes, he is greeted by a mob of furiously whispering students, and, when they part for him at his severe look, there is Potter, leaning against a wall, startled and blinking. The second he spots Draco, his puzzlement turns to rage and he beckons Draco over with a silent gesture. Amused but poker-faced, Draco crosses the cobbles towards him unhurriedly, heart racing with secret delight.

“Hello, Potter,” he says pleasantly. Potter has started a game of ‘what, me?’ and he has no idea what his opponent is capable of.

Potter’s mouth presses into a hard line as he brushes dirt from the back of his trousers, and, in doing so, displays grazed knuckles that almost draw a wince from Draco.

“I know this has something to do with you,” he says quietly, darting a hunted glance around at the students who have, Draco suspects, witnessed the entire thing.

“I’m flattered.”

“Malfoy,” Potter hisses.

“Potter?”

“So this is your revenge? Because you think I did something to your eyebrows yesterday?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Draco shrugs. “Perhaps someone thought you looked better flat on your back,” he adds, lowering his voice.

“You think you’re funny?” Potter sighs. “You think you’re funny. Right. Okay. This is not over, Malfoy.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “I’m terrified.” He turns to leave, unwilling to give Potter a second opportunity to walk away from him.

“Thanks, Professor Malfoy!” Potter calls after him. “It’s always nice to talk to you!”

Draco scowls, then smiles. He can’t quite decide. It would have been nice to have seen it happen, but one can’t have everything. Unless Potter decides to risk taking points again, but he doubts even Potter is that stubborn.

Unfortunately, underestimating Potter has always been his downfall. Not that he would ever admit as much even to Stanley, just in case someone was listening. In this case, Potter (and he knows it’s Potter—no one else has such an impatient knock) is at his classroom door by six o’clock that evening and Draco doesn’t know whether to be exasperated or delighted.

“Come in,” he calls without looking up from his marking. He doesn’t need to look up, anyway; he can feel Potter’s restless energy and smell the outdoors on him as he stomps into the room.

“How long are you intending to keep this up?” he demands.

Draco finally allows himself to look up. Potter looks a little more dishevelled than usual, if that’s possible. He has heard whispers this afternoon, but he hardly dares to believe that Potter has pig-headedly continued to take points from Slytherin in his usual overzealous fashion.

“I really don’t—”

“Right, you don’t know what I’m talking about. I’d believe you, only...” Potter’s shoes squeak on the polished stone as he comes to stand in front of Draco’s desk with his arms folded across his chest. “Wait, no, I wouldn’t, because pretty much everything that comes out of your mouth is a lie.”

Draco leans back in his chair, stung. Something inside him tightens as amusement turns to resentment and he suddenly wishes he’d never thought to retaliate so that Potter would never have thought to come to his classroom and wouldn’t be standing here now, looming over his desk and insulting him. What really bites is that he very rarely lies, not any more, and if Potter knew him at all, he’d know that.

“It’s interesting that when you pull an idiotic stunt to humiliate me, it’s all fun... but when you think it’s the other way around, the claws come out,” Draco says stiffly, picking up his quill just so that he has something to play with. He resists standing in order to avoid looking up at Potter because there’s no way he’s letting on that he’s even the slightest bit rattled.

Potter blinks, startled, and then appears to shake off whatever emotion had attempted to take hold of him. “Malfoy... I don’t know what you’re trying to do here but this body-bind thing has happened to me three times since lunch. Enough is enough! Whatever happened to your eyebrows, I’m pretty sure it was only once!”

“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t taken any points since then,” Draco says, forcing a shrug. “Maybe you should try that.”

Potter gapes, arms falling to his sides. “You mean it wor—erm... the point is, Malfoy... the point is—are you insane?”

Draco grants Potter a half-smile, one borne of satisfaction and of finally feeling solid ground beneath his feet for the first time since Potter entered his classroom.

“It’s interesting you should ask that, because I happen to have read that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” he says calmly.

Potter flushes. “Never mind that. Just stop it. Stop it now.”

“Like I said, I have no idea what you’re talking about. And I have things to do,” he adds, relishing the chance to throw Potter’s dismissive words back at him, and oh, this whole thing is childish, but he can’t help enjoying it. He flicks his wand at the door and it flies open, swinging back and forth on its hinges.

Potter storms towards the door, pausing just outside it. “Malfoy, if you don’t sort this out—”

“You’ll do what? Run to McGonagall?” Draco interrupts, making a show of turning back to his marking.

Potter snorts. “No, but I wonder who she’d believe—you or me?”

The comment stings, just as he supposes it was meant to, and Draco bites his tongue hard as he looks slowly around at the doorway. To his surprise, Potter’s face is twisted into a cringe and his mouth is half-open as though there should be more words but they have been stolen away.

Catching himself feeling sorry for Potter, Draco stops and glares. “I can fight my own battles these days, Potter. Maybe you should try the same—it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

As soon as the words are out, Draco wants them back, but it’s too late, so he looks away from Potter’s staggered face, lifts his wand and spells the door shut with such force that the frame rattles. Alone once more, he abandons his essays and rests his elbows on the desk, dropping his head into his hands with a heavy sigh. He’s an idiot, and so is Potter. He’ll undo the spell in the morning.

**~*~**

That night, he sleeps fitfully, tossing and turning and rearranging his pillows in between restless snatches of dreams about Potter and McGonagall holding hands and slamming doors in his face. Sore-eyed and cantankerous, he rises at first light and spells fire into the grate, sitting in his favourite armchair with his dressing gown wrapped around himself and his feet pulled up onto the seat. The blood red corduroy is soothingly rough against his skin as he tucks himself in tight and rests his chin on his knees. There’s something uncommonly comforting about this chair, with its overstuffed cushions, patches worn through from years of fireside sitting, and the fact that the seat is just a little higher off the ground than perhaps it should be. It makes Draco feel safe inside this huge, lonely castle, and is his favourite thing in these three rooms of his, beside Stanley, who is sleeping peacefully on top of the wardrobe.

Surprising as he knows many of his colleagues would find it, Draco isn’t much bothered by things. He has grown up surrounded by fine furniture he wasn’t allowed to sit on and exquisite objects he wasn’t allowed to touch; even his own bedroom was—and still is, he supposes—a testament to elegance rather than comfort or practicality. When he left home, it was easier to let his mother keep the undamaged parts of the house exactly as they were and let her get on with restoring the rest. He doubts his childhood bedroom has been touched in over a decade.

Most of the furniture in his rooms was already here when he arrived, and he’s always been just fine with that. He has his clothes, his quilts, his cups and teapot and copper kettle, and his chair. The thing about the chair, he supposes, is that it was the first grown up purchase he had ever made on his own. It’s his ‘yes, I am a man, actually’ chair; his ‘I went into a shop and chose this without a parent present’ chair; his ‘I can curl up here and spill drinks if I want to’ chair. He realises it would probably sound faintly ridiculous if he had to explain it to another human being; surely surviving a war and the company of Volde-fucking-mort are the experiences that mean something, not buying an armchair. But it doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone.

He sighs, resting his head against the back of the chair. It smells comfortingly of the fire and unsurprisingly of garden mint. The trouble is, he may have a grown-up chair but he’s not sure he really feels like a grown-up. Maybe that’s the problem with him and Potter—one of problems, anyway. Their relationship, if one can call it that, has never really grown up. He closes his eyes. It’s not as though he wants them to be friends, but...

With the weak morning sunlight filtering onto his face and the fire crackling at his side, Draco allows his exhaustion to take him before he even finishes the thought.

He wakes to the sound of hungry tacking and an insistent pair of antennae waving under his chin. He feeds Stanley, showers and dresses and heads for breakfast feeling restored, ravenous and resolved—just for this once—to be the bigger man. No doubt there will be numerous other opportunities to get back at Potter.

His boots click satisfyingly on the stone of the Entrance Hall and he picks up his pace as the alluring scent of fried mushrooms drifts into his nostrils, turning his head briefly to check on the four hourglasses as he passes. He slows momentarily to note that Slytherin are in the lead, and then something incomprehensible happens.

Right in front of his eyes, all of the emeralds drain away, leaving the Slytherin hourglass empty. Horrified, he spins around to see who has done such a thing, but he is alone in the Entrance Hall. Surely it’s some kind of despicable prank; after all, who would take so many points from Slytherin all at once? Draco’s fingers curl into his palms as he lets his eyes close for a second.

“Fucking Potter,” he mutters, fury overtaking hunger as he turns on his heel and stalks off in search of the obstinate idiot. He can’t believe anyone would be so... but it’s Potter... so anything’s possible... but still. He hopes for Potter’s sake that he finds him sooner rather than later, because he’s only growing angrier with every step.

After fruitlessly checking the staff room, the Quidditch pitch and the Gryffindor common room, startling several students along the way, Draco is heading for the kitchens, just in case Potter is having breakfast with his house-elf friends, when he impulsively sticks his head into the courtyard where he and Potter had argued the day before. It is immediately clear that something has happened, and, judging by the small crowd that has gathered, something interesting at that. He can’t see Potter, but something like panic flutters in his stomach as he walks slowly across the cobbles and ushers the students aside. He isn’t wearing a watch but he knows he has been running around the castle for at least five minutes, and he has a very bad feeling about this.

“Miss Baron, step aside, please,” he instructs, waving the girl away and swallowing hard as she obeys and there, sure enough, is Potter, lying flat on his back on the ground with legs rigid and arms clamped tightly to his sides, glasses askew and eyes staring fixedly at the sky. Taking a deep breath, he draws his wand and casts the counter-curse. When nothing happens, he tries it again, attempting to ignore the speculative whispers of the students who have now crowded back in around him.

“How long has he been like this?” he asks, not caring who answers.

“About five minutes,” Ivy says, and he turns to look at her. Her long red hair flickers around her panicked face in the breeze and she clutches her wand to her chest.

“What did you do?”

“She didn’t do anything,” insists the much taller girl at Ivy’s side. “It was all a misunderstanding! Some horrible boys were trying to curse Ivy’s sister bald, and she cast a Shield Charm, and Professor Potter was over there—” She points across the courtyard, “doing some spells with Magnus, and he thought Ivy cast the curse so he took ten points from Slytherin and then he just fell down like this!” she finishes, breathless and twisting her tie around her fingers anxiously.

Draco frowns, looking around at the group, which, he now notices, contains an even tinier version of Ivy, wearing a Ravenclaw tie and a terrified expression.

“Alright, thank you, I’m sure Miss Baron has a tongue in her head,” he says eventually, and the tall girl closes her mouth firmly. “What I meant was have you cast any spells on him?” The crowd lets out a collective gasp, and he adds, “To revive him! Did you cast any spells that I need to know about?”

“Just Enervate,” Ivy says quietly. “But it didn’t work.”

“What’s wrong with him?” asks someone behind Draco. He doesn’t turn.

“This happened before,” offers someone else. “Yesterday, in our flying lesson. But he came out of it really quickly.”

“Yeah, and yesterday at morning break!” adds someone else, and suddenly the whole group is aflutter, swapping sightings and theories. Only Ivy, her tall friend, and her sister remain silent, and they are all staring at Draco as though he is going to do something miraculous.

He sighs, gazing down at Potter and feeling just a little bit sick. He’s breathing at least, but there’s definitely something terribly wrong. “I don’t suppose you thought to send for—”

“She’s here!” yells someone, and seconds later Magnus Humphries is charging through the crowd with all of his usual grace. He is, thankfully, followed by Madam Pomfrey.

“Alright, alright, out of the way,” she calls, bustling through the crowd with her wand held aloft, and Draco’s brief surge of relief quickly gives way to anxiety as she pulls up beside him and shoots him a sharp look before crouching to examine her patient. It’s as if she knows it’s his fault, and perhaps she does. Pushing his panic aside, he answers her questions and watches vaguely as she prods Potter with her wand, producing a variety of coloured lights that would be rather pretty in different circumstances.

At last, Pomfrey hauls herself up from her crouch and turns to Draco, lips pursed and expression grave. “Professor Malfoy, perhaps you’ll help me get him up to the hospital wing?”

Draco nods stiffly and together they levitate the rigid body of Potter, conveying him carefully back towards the castle at a steady three feet above the cobbles. At the stone archway that leads back into the corridor, Draco pauses, conscious of the gathered students, who have turned to follow their progress in a watchful silence.

“Ivy,” he says, voice sounding uncomfortably loud in the hush. “You’d better come with us. The rest of you—classes will be starting soon. This is not an excuse to be late.”

Ivy, apparently startled to hear her first name, hesitates for a moment before separating herself from the grumbling crowd and tacking herself onto the back of the odd little procession. She doesn’t speak and Draco is grateful; his mind is already racing out of control and it’s all he can do to keep up his stern expression and his end of Potter, whose staring eyes are now thankfully obscured by the reflections of the gloomy corridors in his spectacles.

The path up to the infirmary is mercifully clear, and Draco concentrates on the sound of his footsteps on the stone, keeping time with the squeak of Pomfrey’s sensible shoes and forming an odd, syncopated rhythm with the steps of the much shorter Ivy, whose sharply clacking heels make Draco suspect that she is, perhaps unsurprisingly, breaking the uniform code yet again. His suspicions are confirmed when, at the top of the stairs, she darts around them to pull open the heavy oak door and leans against it, giving Draco an unobscured view of her very stylish and not very Hogwarts pointy-toed, aubergine coloured, high-heeled mary-janes. He sighs and says nothing, and is immediately assaulted by the voice of Potter inside his head, demanding to know whether he would have let such an infraction slide for a Gryffindor.

“Shut up, Potter,” he mutters under his breath, earning himself an odd look from Madam Pomfrey as they lower him onto a bed and put away their wands.

At the end of the bed, Ivy wraps small hands around the metal frame and stares at Potter.

“Am I in trouble?” she asks suddenly. “Because it’s true what Madeleine said—I was only casting a Shield Charm—”

“That’s not why you’re here,” Draco interrupts. “You’re here because you saw what happened and you are to tell Madam Pomfrey everything. When you have done that, you will go to your morning class. Do you understand, Miss Baron?”

“Yes, Professor,” Ivy says, seeming to shrink slightly before him.

Draco inhales slowly. The air here smells like ointment and potions and unfamiliar magic, just like it has always done, but it fails to calm the restless tangling in the pit of his stomach. He knows he’s being unpleasant but he’s not sure how to stop, or indeed how else to be. He stares at Potter’s still form and closes his eyes as an unpleasant realisation rakes over him: if this is the body-bind curse, then Potter may not be able to move or speak, but he remains fully aware of his surroundings, and can hear every last word that is being said.

“Professor Malfoy?”

Draco startles. Pomfrey is standing right next to him and scrutinising him with intelligent blue-grey eyes.

“Yes?”

“I was just asking—are you going to stay with Professor Potter while I run through a few tests?”

Heart speeding, Draco glances back to Potter for a moment. “Er... I’d better not. I have a class starting in...” At that moment, the sound of the bell echoes through the castle and Draco rejoices inwardly. “Well, there’s the bell—I wouldn’t want to be late! Sets a terrible example, you see, and I must...” Draco is still muttering to himself as he lets the doors close behind him and clatters down the steps towards his classroom. It’s not his first choice of hiding place, but for the moment, it will have to do.

Even if it is the class that contains Jasper Bracknell and friends. Draco takes a deep, steadying breath as he rounds the last corner, stalks past the line of waiting students and into the classroom, leaving it open for them without a word. As he settles himself at his desk, he catches sight of the neat scrolls in the hands of the well-behaved Ravenclaw girls and vaguely recalls setting homework during the last class. Well, if nothing else, collecting it will give him a moment or two to put aside this Potter mess and possibly remember his lesson plan for today.

Irritated, he draws his wand and looks around at his students. He’s always organised. He’s always been organised. This is ridiculous—one idiotic accident and all his order, his schedules, his systems, are shot to hell. He just won’t have it. Potter will be fine in no time, anyway; Pomfrey may be an old bird, but she’s a shrewd one, and he would bet his favourite chair that she’s sorted out stranger messes than this one.

Then again, he thinks, this is Potter, and he always has to be different in one way or another. And, of course, when McGonagall hears about it... Draco’s jaw clenches tight as something unpleasant swoops through him. Good grief. McGonagall. She will definitely not be amused. He is just wondering if it would be prudent to tender his resignation straight away when someone in the class coughs and he remembers where he is.

Homework. McGonagall. Humiliation. Potter. Fuck.

No... homework. Silently, he flicks his wand and several rolls of parchment fly through the air before landing neatly on his desk. He casts an eye over the pile and, sure enough, there is one missing. He knows, he already knows before he even looks up, but he looks anyway, and there is Jasper Bracknell, leaning back in his seat and wrinkling his stupid nose under his stupid shaggy eyebrows, trying—Draco thinks—and failing to look charming.

“Mr Bracknell.”

“Yeah, the thing is...” Jasper begins, but Draco is already there.

“You haven’t done your homework.”

Jasper leans forward, gazing steadily at Draco through a swathe of messy hair. “Well, no, but the thing is...”

“I do not want to hear your excuses, Mr Bracknell. I am not in a good mood.”

“When are you ever?” Jasper asks innocently, and all at once he has the entire class in the palm of his hand.

Draco narrows his eyes, opens his mouth to deliver a few harsh words of his own and then closes it again. McGonagall, Pomfrey, Potter—they’re all in there, staring daggers into him and throwing him completely off his stride. Teeth gritted, he folds his arms on top of his desk and regards Jasper.

“Your assignment will be on my desk first thing tomorrow,” he says simply, and is gratified to find that Jasper has no response to offer as Draco rises from his desk, spells the blackboard clean and begins the lesson.

When the bell rings for morning break, Draco locks up his classroom and hesitates in the corridor, torn between heading up to the hospital wing to check on Potter and making a break for his rooms. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter, because within seconds there is a cold hand on his shoulder and a crisply-voiced, “A word, Mr Malfoy?” in his ear. The words wrap around his heart and yank it slimily down through his body. Doom, he thinks quietly, but he turns to McGonagall with a polite smile.

“Of course.”

The journey to the headmistress’ office is silent and laden with tension. Determined to hold onto his composure despite the fact that he is almost certainly about to lose the only proper job he has ever had because of some ridiculous schoolboy retaliation, Draco forces himself to stay still, to stand erect, to look straight ahead. The office is much the same as it has always been; in fact, he doesn’t think anything has changed since the last time he was here, and that was... Draco sighs gently. Nine years. Nine years since those fortnightly meetings stopped. Nine years since he was trusted to strike out on his own. Nine years since McGonagall decided that Draco Malfoy no longer needed her close guidance, and look at where that has landed them both.

“Tea?” she asks, cutting into his thoughts, and he nods wordlessly. She is already pouring, and the smoky scent of her favourite Lapsang is already filling the room and pulling Draco inescapably back to his first meeting here with her, delicate cups and steam and confusion, a twenty-two-year-old Draco and an ageless, severe lady with a wall of watchful portraits. Tiny sugar cubes and fearful questions and the words Draco has never forgotten: ‘Mr Malfoy, I have a proposition for you.’

Draco shivers. He forces himself to look over at McGonagall, who is now sitting behind her desk. A familiar carved chair has appeared opposite hers and she gestures him into it with a significant look over the top of her glasses. He hastily takes his teacup and saucer, knowing from experience that hesitation is likely to offend, and the last thing he wants to do right now is make things worse.

“We need to talk about Mr Potter,” she says, setting down her cup and lacing her fingers together.

Draco bites down on several ill-advised responses to that statement. “Of course,” he repeats weakly.

“Harry is currently in the hospital wing, under the care of Madam Pomfrey.”

“I know,” Draco says, pressing his fingertips to the burning china of his cup.

McGonagall inclines her head. “Yes. Well, I thought you should know that he will be remaining there for the time being, as, after consulting with Madam Pomfrey and examining him myself, we are rather at a loss for how to proceed.” She pauses, fixing Draco with a particularly hawklike gaze. “I have also spoken to Ivy and Holly Baron, Madeleine Kettleworth and Magnus Humphries. Is there anything you would like to add to their accounts of what happened this morning?”

Draco avoids her eyes, which turns out to be a fatal error, as he immediately finds himself staring into the face of Dumbledore’s portrait, which has just woken up. He swallows dryly and sips his tea. It needs sugar, but he isn’t about to ask for it.

He steels himself and turns back to McGonagall. “I wasn’t there when it happens,” he says. Hesitates. “But... well, it sounds rather ridiculous—”

“Then it probably is, Mr Malfoy,” she interrupts, and some of the portraits laugh softly. “But do continue.”

“Alright. Well, we—Potter and I, that is—we were...” Draco stops, flushing lightly, feeling inarticulate and furious with himself. He tries again. “Potter and I were having a minor disagreement. About house-points. He cast a silly curse on me and I cast one back. Beyond that, I’m not sure what went wrong. I certainly didn’t intend for any lasting harm to come to him,” Draco finishes, staring at her face and trying to decide whether or not she believes him.

“I see. And what exactly did you intend?” she asks sharply.

Draco hates himself. He really does. “It was supposed to just...” Oh, fuck, this is pathetic. “It was supposed to cause a body-bind whenever he took points from Slytherin,” he says quietly. “For a minute,” he adds quickly. “Just one minute, that’s all.”

McGonagall leans back in her chair and drinks her tea in silence for what seems like several hours. Her eyes never leave Draco and he feels his insides shrink in horror as he realises that she is not angry but disappointed, and that is so much worse.

“I’m sorry,” he offers into the silence.

For a long time, she says nothing, and then she drains her cup and leans towards him once more.

“Well, Mr Malfoy; if nothing else, we can now put the pieces of the puzzle together. Unfortunately, we are no closer to a solution.”

“What exactly did happen?” Draco asks, curiosity overriding the desire to appear meek.

Pressing her lips into a hard line, McGonagall seems to consider him for a moment. Finally, she appears to concede. “Harry was helping Mr Humphries with an Extensor spell this morning,” she begins, and Draco’s mind is already racing ahead.

He hasn’t needed to use an Extensor spell in a long time, but he knows that they are used to prolong the effect of one spell while another is cast, essentially allowing a person to cast two spells at the same time. He supposes Magnus had needed the spell for his NEWT Charms class, but he has no idea what any of it has to do with bloody Potter. Not that it matters—the important thing is this: if Potter was casting an Extensor at the moment he tried to take points from Ivy Baron, the whole thing almost makes sense. It explains why all the points disappeared from the Slytherin hourglass and it explains the drawn-out effect of Draco’s body-bind curse.

What it doesn’t explain, however, is how long the adverse effect is likely to last, and how it can be countered. If at all.

In a daze, he nods as McGonagall explains the situation, following the same progression of logic and arriving at the same unnerving conclusion.

“I have contacted St Mungo’s and they have promised that a Healer will be with us in the morning,” she says. “In the meantime, you and I have much to discuss.”

“I’m sure,” Draco sighs, forgetting himself as he experiences a sudden and unhelpful wave of irritation towards Potter. Harry bloody Potter, always getting himself involved in anything and everything that doesn’t concern him—if he’d left well alone, Draco would have removed the spell at breakfast and everything would have been back to normal by now. “Why was he messing around with Extensor spells, anyway?” he demands before he can stop himself. “He’s a flying instructor, not a—”

“He likes to use his knowledge to help the students, Mr Malfoy, which is more than I can currently say for you,” McGonagall says acidly and Draco falls silent. “More tea?”                                                                   

Draco holds out his cup, stung. “Thank you.”

McGonagall pours and then sets down the teapot with a soft clank. “So, I find myself in a difficult situation: one teacher incapacitated for goodness knows how long and another setting a dreadful example for his students by perpetuating ridiculous, and quite frankly damaging, house rivalries.” Her eyes seem to glitter dangerously as she stares into him. “What would you do in my position?”

“I don’t know,” he admits, and he cannot recall ever feeling smaller. It’s not even surprising, because ever since she brought him here she has had the power to make him feel proud, accomplished, or ashamed in ways that no previous authority figure has ever managed. It’s not surprising, but it steals his breath and his fight all the same. He rests his cup and saucer on his knee and looks her in the eye. “I understand if you want me to leave, but I would be very sad to do so.”

One of the portraits coughs and Draco ignores it. He knows it’s Dumbledore. McGonagall ignores it, too, letting out a small sound of irritation.

“And how would that help me, exactly, Mr Malfoy? I would be two good teachers down!”

Startled, Draco steadies his teacup before it slides to the floor. “I was under the impression that you thought I was a bad teacher,” he says, refusing to allow himself to feel relieved. Not yet.

“No,” she says, not unkindly. “But I do find it interesting that that is what you heard. No, Mr Malfoy, you are a very good teacher. Your students’ OWL and NEWT results are the best in the school. However...”

Draco looks at his hands, sagging slightly. “However?”

“Hogwarts is more than a school,” McGonagall says, tone softening a little. “Our students live with us for months at a time; we have to provide them with more than the skills they need to pass their examinations. You have more to give these children than an instruction in Transfiguration, Draco,” she says, and he looks up.

“I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean,” he hedges, pushing down the instinctive tingle of horror that is already beginning to wrap around his spine.

McGonagall eyes him sharply. “If that is true, which I highly doubt it is, then I’m afraid I am not planning to allow you your ignorance for a moment more. I have had some time to think about this and I have arrived at a mutually beneficial solution,” she says, and there is something in the curve of her lips that makes Draco want to leap from the chair and flee from the room. “Your silly rivalry with Mr Potter has cost me a valuable member of my staff team,” she says and arches an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Draco says quietly.

“It has also come to my attention that my Transfiguration professor has been shirking his extracurricular and social duties for far too long.” She pauses again.

“Okay,” Draco concedes, fingers clamping around the delicate handle of his cup.

“We are in agreement, then,” she says briskly. “You will take over Mr Potter’s duties until such time as he is fully recovered.”

Draco blinks. Swallows. Bites down on his tongue and forces his instinctive dissent back down his throat, because it could be a lot worse. He could be out on his ear, and instead, he just has to cover a few flying lessons. He can do that.

“I’ll be happy to take Potter’s flying classes until he’s better,” he says evenly.

McGonagall grants him a small smile. “Wonderful.” She reaches into a desk drawer and retrieves a stack of shiny folders. “And these, of course,” she adds, pushing them across the desk towards Draco where they slide into a messy cascade.

Draco stares. “What are these?”

“Mr Potter’s records,” she says airily, and though her mouth is hidden by her teacup, Draco has the horrible suspicion that she is enjoying herself, and that cannot bode well for him.

He picks up the topmost folder and opens it. “Gryffindor Quidditch team,” he reads, dismay mounting as he flicks through the team profiles, sketches of various plays, training schedules... He stares at McGonagall, aghast. “I can’t coach the Gryffindor Quidditch team!”

“Of course you can. You were a very talented player in your time,” she says, expression daring him to argue. “There is a very important game in two weeks’ time and I happen to know that Harry was attending training sessions in order to help prepare. I don’t see why the team should suffer because the two of you have had a silly disagreement, do you?”

Draco swears as loudly as he can inside his head and smiles tightly at McGonagall. “No, I suppose not.”

“Well, that’s settled, then. You will also have responsibility for the first-to-fifth-year Duelling Club, maintenance of school brooms and Quidditch equipment, and house-elf relations,” McGonagall says, and Draco can’t help it, he lifts a hand to his forehead and pinches the bridge of his nose, allowing his eyes to close for just a moment.

“Right.”

“And, of course, you will also be the acting head of Gryffindor,” she says with relish.

“What?” Draco stares, hoping against hope that he has misheard.

“You are now the acting head of Gryffindor House.”

“That... that just won’t work!” he insists, damp fingers sliding on the shiny cover of the folder in his lap.

McGonagall fixes him with a look that can only mean business. “You had better make it work, Mr Malfoy.”

Draco takes a deep breath, trying not to let the panic in. “I’ll have to rearrange a few things and...” and give up sleeping, and try to lead a group of students that includes Jasper sodding Bracknell and all the other ones that hate me, he thinks mutinously. “Will Potter be enjoying the same... experience when he emerges from the hospital wing?” he asks as politely as he can.

“Mr Potter is already being punished, don’t you think?”

Chastened, Draco says nothing. He stares down at the Quidditch folder and then slowly returns his cup to the desk and takes the others, piling them into his lap and wrapping his fingers around the sharp edges. This is going to be a nightmare—in fact, it already is, and he hasn’t even begun the terrifying business of attempting to be a role model to a bunch of bloody Gryffindors.

Still, it is his own fault. And Potter’s. For a moment, Draco wonders who has been landed with the more unpleasant end of the deal. He stops when he realises that whichever conclusion he comes to, it doesn’t make him feel any better about any of it.

“Bad mistakes provide a man with quick experience, Mr Malfoy,” McGonagall says, and when he looks up at her, her face is kinder than he has seen it in a long time.

**~*~**

When the last student leaves his classroom that afternoon, Draco spells the door locked, folds his arms on his desk and drops his head down onto them. He doesn’t even begin his new schedule until tomorrow and yet he’s exhausted, anxious and tight with tension just at the thought of his additional responsibilities... or, perhaps more accurately, at the thought of spending so much time with the students in environments so far out of his control. He shudders. His life is ordered, quiet, restrained—the only bit of chaos he allows comes in the form of Stanley, who will, no doubt, be wanting his dinner by now and will probably be getting up to all sorts of mischief in order to obtain it.

Stretching wearily, Draco leaves the comfort and the scent of chalk behind him and walks at a reluctant pace back to his rooms, where he finds the dreaded files waiting for him on his coffee table but no Stanley anywhere to be seen.

Draco looks in the bathroom, the bedroom, and in all Stanley’s favourite hiding places before giving in and reaching for the bag of mint leaves that he keeps in his tea cupboard.

“Come out, you little bugger,” he calls, taking a leaf and crushing it between his thumb and forefinger, releasing the sweet smell of mint into the air and waiting. For a few seconds, nothing happens, and then Stanley flings himself out of the fireplace, sending coals clattering everywhere and tracking sooty little footprints across the hearthrug as he scuttles towards Draco.

Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack! comes the enthusiastic greeting as the beetle nearly tips himself over in his efforts to nuzzle Draco’s ankles and leap for the leaf at the same time. He is covered in soot and is smearing it all over Draco’s trousers but for once he doesn’t really care. Stanley is pleased to see him and is reassuringly easy to predict, and today, that will do for Draco. He relinquishes the crushed leaf and shakes several more out onto the floor for good measure. When every last bite has been gobbled up, he flings his cloak, waistcoat and shirt over the back of a chair, picks up a filthy, wriggling Stanley and deposits him in the bath. Usually, a quick wipe of his little feet and a polish of his shell with a soft cloth is enough, but not today.

“You’ll never believe what I have to do,” he confides, filling the bath with a couple of inches of warm water in which Stanley immediately begins to splash gleefully, despite his initial protests.

Tack-tack, he offers, swishing his antennae through the water and sending up a stream that neatly hits Draco in the face.

“Yes,” he mutters, wiping his face with his forearm and wrinkling his nose. “It felt quite a lot like that, actually.”

When Stanley is finally clean, they decamp to the living room where Draco pulls on a soft jumper and drops into his favourite chair with the shiny folders of doom. He knows he has to look through them sometime, but his motivation seems to have left him. Maybe it’s up in the hospital wing with Potter. Thoroughly fed up, he leaves them on the table, where Stanley tacks gently over each one and then settles down to sleep on top of the pile.

Draco glances at the clock on the mantel and groans. It’s only just gone four and for once, he has absolutely no idea what to do with himself. He taps his fingers on the arms of his chair for a minute or two, attempting to resist the urge that has leapt unbidden into his head, but it’s no good. He rises, and seconds later, he is making his way up the stairs to the hospital wing. Seeing as this whole mess is at least half Potter’s fault, it makes sense to be where he is. Sort of.

The sun is setting as he lets himself into the infirmary and the whole room is ablaze with golden light; the stark white of the bed linen seems softened as it pulls tight across four empty beds and drapes over the forms of Potter and a girl with two long plaits—Hufflepuff second-year, he thinks—who is occupying the bed farthest from the door. She glances over at the sound of his footsteps and quickly looks away. Oddly irritated, Draco approaches Potter’s bed, which is set between two large windows.

His stomach twists as he gazes down at the motionless form. It’s unsettling, because as many times as he has accused Potter of being lazy, it’s rare to see him not moving. His clothes are sitting in a pile on the chair at his side and he has been redressed—Draco imagines by Madam Pomfrey—in a pair of light blue pyjamas. He looks strange in such a soft colour, but that’s not the reason Draco feels as though something is very wrong. He can’t quite pin it down for a moment, and then there it is. Potter isn’t wearing his glasses. He isn’t wearing his glasses and his eyes have been closed—they hadn’t been closed when Draco left, he is certain of it.

Squeaky footsteps make him turn just in time to see Madam Pomfrey walking over to Potter’s bed with a potion bottle in her hand.

“Good afternoon,” she says briskly.

Draco nods, and then he asks—he can’t help it. “Why have you closed his eyes? He’s not dead.”

Pomfrey gives him an odd look and then softens, granting him a little smile. “He can’t blink, Professor Malfoy. I closed his eyes to stop them getting dry and sore. The eyes aren’t usually affected by petrificus totalus but this is a rather unusual case.”

Draco scans her face, searching for the reproach he expects to find there, but Pomfrey’s expression is clear and open. “Yes, I suppose it is,” he says at last, and she turns away to administer the potion via a funnel-like contraption. The closed eyes still do not feel right, though. Potter looks strangely vulnerable and so unlike himself.

He hangs around at the bottom of the bed until Pomfrey has finished her task and moved on to her other patient, but he doesn’t feel any less unsettled than he had in his rooms. He turns to leave—perhaps a walk around the grounds will help—and stops abruptly, halfway across the floor.

He frowns. “Good evening, Potter,” he says, and leaves, feeling like an idiot.

**~*~**

The announcement comes at breakfast the next morning, approximately two minutes after Draco’s Potioneer’s Weekly magazine has dropped onto the table and upended his half-eaten bowl of cereal. He has spelled away the spilled milk and is glaring at the soggy magazine, wondering why the hell he still has a subscription anyway, when McGonagall stands and silences the chattering masses with three crisp words:

“Good morning, everyone.”

“And a fine morning to you, too, Professor,” someone says heartily. Draco rolls his eyes.

“Yes, thank you, Mr Bracknell. Now, if I could have your full attention for just a moment—I’m sure some of you have been wondering about the whereabouts of Professor Potter, and I would like to reassure you that he is in no danger but is unwell and currently unable to perform his duties.” In the brief pause that follows, a ripple of concern passes through the room and McGonagall has to raise her voice in order to continue. “Professor Potter will be returning to us as soon he can, but in the meantime, effective from Monday, his classes and extracurricular activities will be taken by Professor Malfoy, who will also be standing in as the head of Gryffindor House. I am sure,” she adds, tone sharpening as she looks around at the startled students, “that you will all support him as best you can.”

She sits back down, and the moment she does, the Great Hall seems to erupt in whispers and darting glances. The occupants of the Gryffindor table in particular look shocked and less than thrilled by the news. Draco, for once, absolutely empathises with them.

Friday’s classes seem to float by in a haze. Draco teaches, marks, prepares and advises as usual, but by lunchtime, he can’t seem to remember any of it. He vaguely recalls remarkably similar exchanges with a couple of his braver students, along the lines of:

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Are you really the new head of Gryffindor?”

“Yes, for the time being.”

“But... aren’t you a Slytherin?”

“I am a Transfiguration professor. And a flying instructor. Please get on with your work.”

“He’s not dead, is he? Professor Potter?”

Draco sighs and hurries the last student out of his classroom. There’s a rather wonderful savoury smell drifting down the corridor from the Great Hall, but he shakes his head and walks in the opposite direction. The St Mungo’s Healer must have arrived by now, and he is, for reasons he can’t quite put into words, quite anxious to speak to him or her. As he climbs the stairs, the object in his robe pocket rustles against his thigh and he can’t control a small smile as he acknowledges the minor miracle that had been sitting on his desk first thing this morning.

Jasper Bracknell’s essay. Finished. Legible. Not at all bad, in fact.

When he reaches the doors, Draco shoves the miracle deeper into his pocket and pushes his way expectantly into the hospital wing. To his surprise, the light-drenched room is almost completely empty—in fact, the only person in the whole place seems to be Potter; the girl from yesterday has disappeared and the Healer is nowhere to be seen.

Somehow sensing his presence, Madam Pomfrey bustles out from her office and stops short, expression one of unvarnished bewilderment.

“You again?”

Draco shifts slightly on the spot, feeling awkward. “Yes. I was wondering if I might have a word with the Healer from St Mungo’s.”

“Oh,” Pomfrey says, face clearing a little. “I’m afraid he’s gone.”

“Gone? Already?”

“That’s right,” she says, squeaking over to Potter’s bed and rearranging his sheets. “He was only here for a few minutes—took one look at Harry, asked Professor McGonagall a few questions and then he was off. He said there was nothing he could do.”

Draco’s stomach drops. He’s killed Potter.

All of those people with their fiendish plans who failed anyway and he has managed to do it by accident with a spell that a first-year could manage.

“Professor Malfoy, are you listening to me?”

Draco shakes his head numbly. He wonders how long Potter has. Or, indeed, how long he has now that McGonagall knows that Potter can’t be fixed. Or maybe it’s worse than that—maybe Potter isn’t dying; maybe he’s just locked inside his own useless body for the next hundred or so years. Horror and guilt swipe at Draco’s insides and the room seems to grow darker around him as he stares over at Potter’s bed.

This time, Pomfrey steps right into his personal space and coughs loudly. Draco jumps.

“I think you ought to sit down,” she says, eyebrows knitted, but when she tries to take Draco’s arm, he pulls away instinctively.

“No, I’m fine, really. I just—”

“Sit. Now,” Pomfrey interrupts, enclosing his wrist in terrifyingly strong fingers and propelling him over to the nearest empty bed.

Too startled to argue, Draco allows himself to be pushed down onto the firm mattress and sits there quietly as Pomfrey takes his pulse and feels his forehead with the back of her hand. He grimaces when she starts pulling at his eyelids, but she still has his arm and he’s a little bit afraid of what she might do with it if he resists.

“I’m fine,” he insists, but his words are muffled by the thermometer she has just thrust into his mouth.

“Shush,” she admonishes, and finally he elects to behave himself because the sooner she can get on with her unnecessary examination, the sooner she will be finished, and the sooner he can make a break for his rooms where he can start panicking properly.

“Well, Professor, it seems you are quite alright after all,” she says at last, releasing him and standing back, and he doesn’t think he imagines the look of slight disappointment on her face.

“I did say that,” Draco sighs.

“Yes, well, your pulse is rather fast and you did turn a terrible shade of grey,” she counters. “It would have been remiss of me to let you leave, don’t you think?”

Draco nods vaguely, pressing his fingers to the cool cotton of the sheets and testing the resistance of the mattress against his weight. These beds are rather comfortable, from what he remembers, but there’s a world of difference between a night and a lifetime. Then again, he doubts Potter will have to stay here forever. Perhaps he could help to find a place...

“Young man!”

Draco’s eyes snap to hers. “Young man?” he repeats incredulously. “I’m thirty-two!”

“You are a young man to me,” Pomfrey says. “And if your focus continues to drift, I will have no choice but to admit you.”

“I’m fine!” he explodes, but something in her expression tells him she is not kidding. He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you, but I can’t help feeling it’s understandable to have some sort of reaction to the news that you are responsible for the permanent paralysis of the most popular man in the wizarding world,” Draco says, loathing the resentful sound of the words as soon as they leave his mouth.

Pomfrey frowns. “What on earth are you talking about, permanent paralysis?”

Draco stares up at her, baffled. “You said—”

“Goodness me,” she murmurs, shaking her head. “No wonder you turned such a funny colour. This is what happens when you don’t listen,” she tells him, resting her hands on her hips. “Now, Healer Talbot has examined Professor Potter and assured us that no permanent damage has been done,” she says deliberately, and Draco says nothing; he’s too busy holding his breath. “He left because there is no treatment he can offer—Harry will recover, but there is no way of knowing how long it will take. There is nothing for us to do but make him comfortable and wait.”

Draco grips the sheets tightly, suddenly hyper-aware of everything from the slight roughness in the cotton to the warm pine scent of Pomfrey’s uniform and the harsh sound of his own breathing as a sweet, sharp tide of relief crashes over him. He closes his eyes.

“I haven’t killed him.”

“No. I think he’s made of sterner stuff than that, don’t you?” Pomfrey says brightly.

Draco looks up, shooting her a tight smile. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Pomfrey smiles back and then snaps into her usual no-nonsense setting. “According to Healer Talbot, the recovery time will depend on the strength of the curses cast—yours and Harry’s,” she explains, and this time there is a flicker of exasperation in her eyes that makes Draco want to look away from her, but he doesn’t.

“I see. And did Healer Talbot have anything else to say?” he asks instead.

“Yes. He said we should talk to him.”

“What?”

“To Professor Potter—to Harry,” she clarifies. “Listening is about the only thing he can do for the time being, and it’s as good a distraction as any.”

Draco exhales slowly, quite unsure what to do with that. “Right.” He stands up, carefully avoids looking over at Potter, and sidles around Pomfrey towards the exit. “I’d better be going—I have tests to mark before the next lesson.”

“You have lunch to eat before the next lesson if you know what’s good for you, Professor Malfoy,” she calls after him, and the order, combined with the memory of that delicious smell, ruins his good intentions in an instant.

“I will do that.” He pauses at the door and offers a polite nod. “Thank you, Madam Pomfrey.”

“You know,” she says, just as he is about to pull the door open. “You don’t have to call me Madam Pomfrey any more.”

Draco frowns. “Excuse me?”

Pomfrey shakes her head and folds her arms across her sturdy chest. “I don’t pretend to have a talent for remembering dates, Draco, but I know you’ve been teaching here for a good few years. We’re colleagues. I do have a first name, you know.”

“I know,” Draco says, discomfort making his voice small. He shrugs. “I’ve always called you Madam Pomfrey.”

Unexpectedly, she laughs. “I know.”

Draco hesitates. He has no idea what to say to her. He hadn’t anticipated this strange little confrontation and on top of everything else that is jostling for space in his head, there’s just no way of coming up with anything logical.

“It’s just... well, most of the other teachers call me ‘Mr Malfoy’ or ‘Professor Malfoy’... like you do...usually,” he finishes, absently lifting a hand to pinch at the bridge of his nose.

Pomfrey purses her lips. “Has it ever occurred to you that we are formal with you because you are so formal with us?” she challenges.

Draco says nothing. He can’t.

Pomfrey tilts her head on one side and regards him with a stare that is made up of equal parts sympathy and curiosity. “You still don’t feel like you belong here, do you?” she says softly.

Draco says nothing. He catches his breath. Frowns. Opens his mouth and closes it again.

“Maybe you should think about that,” she says, and turns on her heel, squeaking back into her office before he can even formulate a sentence, let alone get one out.

It’s not true, anyway, and he tells himself that it isn’t as he obediently walks down to the Great Hall and eats a plate of cottage pie in silence. He does belong here, he knows he does, and he tells himself that as he teaches his afternoon classes, marks his tests and forgets to give his first-year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs any homework for the weekend. In fact, he reminds himself as he sheds his outer robes and curls up in his chair to enjoy his last peaceful Friday night, this is the place he has always felt most at home, and how can he not belong when he was asked to return by McGonagall herself?

He might not have the sort of cosy friendships with his colleagues that Potter clearly enjoys, but he’s alright with that. He’s always been alright with that. If he’s honest, he’s not sure he’s ever had a proper friendship and perhaps he doesn’t want one. He’s fine, and Pomfrey doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He’s fine, and he just wants to read his magazine and look at potions he is never going to make. Which is exactly what he is doing when someone knocks at his door.

He stares at it in consternation for a second or two before propriety forces him out of his chair and across the floor, all the while wondering who on earth would want to speak to him on a Friday evening. Perhaps the Gryffindor madness has started early, he thinks, opening the door and steeling himself.

All things considered, he thinks he hides his surprise rather well.

“Granger, Weasley,” he says stiffly, glancing at each of them in mute alarm. He probably shouldn’t be surprised at all; they have obviously come to see Potter’s condition for themselves, and no doubt McGonagall has told them exactly where to come to air their grievances. “How can I help you?” he manages, biting back a tangle of irritation and anxiety at the expression on Weasley’s face.

“Can we come in for a moment?” Granger asks, and Draco steps back to let them pass without a word, even though no one comes in here. He can’t even remember the last time anyone came in here, and doesn’t seem right that these two people are the first to invade his little sanctuary in fuck knows how long. Still, they’re here now, and he supposes he ought to be polite, for Stanley’s sake at least.

“Have a seat,” he says as casually as he knows how, and Weasley does just that, throwing himself into the nearest chair, which happens to be Draco’s favourite.

“Ron, no!” Granger cries, catching his arm and stopping his backside from hitting the seat.

“What?” Weasley mutters, hovering awkwardly. He looks bewildered, just as Draco has always remembered him, but when a pair of crossly-waving antennae appear over the arm of the chair, followed swiftly by the rest of Stanley, all becomes clear.

“You nearly sat on Malfoy’s... erm... pet,” she says uncertainly, releasing Weasley into the chair once Stanley has settled himself on the padded arm, tacking irritably.

Resisting the urge to pick up Stanley and check him for injuries, Draco satisfies himself with a quick visual inspection before he moves away. Besides, Weasley seems rather alarmed by the presence of the beetle, which is all the more reason to leave him where he is. Granger regards him with open curiosity, settling herself on the unoccupied arm of Draco’s chair and resting her hands in her lap. Draco contains his wince as he perches on the edge of the chair opposite. He knows that his lovely corduroy chair is perfectly capable of supporting Granger’s slight frame on its arm, but he still wishes she wouldn’t.

“Where did you get him? He’s very unusual,” Granger says, reaching out tentative fingers to touch Stanley’s shell.

“One of my students made him. He was intended to be a cup,” Draco says, knowing he sounds stilted and awkward. He hadn’t been expecting pleasantries—just accusations—and this is very strange.

Granger lets out a surprised little smile. “Goodness. He’s lovely.”

“He’s massive,” Weasley says, eyeing Stanley suspiciously. “Is he poisonous?”

“No, Weasley, he’s just a beetle,” Draco says with as much patience as he can muster, then sighs as Stanley launches himself into Weasley’s lap. Then Weasley yelps, and it’s all Draco can do to hide his amusement.

“It’s on my knee,” Weasley murmurs, eyes wide and arms held well clear of Stanley, who is turning in haphazard circles in the way that he always does when he is settling down to sleep. “Hermione... bloody hell... it’s... bugger...”

“He is not an ‘it’, Weasley, he is a he and his name is Stanley. But I doubt you came here to talk to me about my beetle, did you?” Draco says, addressing his question to Granger, who is unsurprisingly the more composed of the two in this moment.

Granger nods, glancing briefly at Weasley and then back at Draco. “No. McGonagall told us about Harry this morning and we came as soon as we could. She told us what happened and it didn’t feel right to leave without at least talking to you.”

Draco looks at Granger, at his chair, at his traitorous beetle sleeping happily in Weasley’s lap. He can’t help feeling as though he has already been defeated, even if he does have enough walls to hide behind for the next century or so.

“I don’t know what I can say,” he offers at last. “Yes, it was mostly my fault...”

“Mostly?” Weasley mutters under his breath. Draco ignores him.

“Yes, it was mostly my fault. No, I didn’t intend to hurt him. Yes, I am sorry for what happened, and I am most certainly going to be learning my lesson, as I am sure you have heard from McGonagall already.” Draco shrugs and gives up, trying instead to read the rapid flickering of expressions across Granger’s face.

“Honestly, though, Malfoy, what the hell did you do it for?” Weasley demands, finally managing to tear his eyes away from Stanley.

“Ron, that’s not helping,” Granger says quietly.

“I’m hardly going to make things any worse, am I? The thing is, Malfoy, Harry’s spent all these years you’ve been teaching together telling us that you’re alright, that you’re not the dick you used to be, and then you go and do something bloody stupid like this!” Weasley snaps, and the volume of his voice disturbs the sleeping beetle, who flicks his antennae, making Weasley jump again.

Draco opens his mouth to speak, even though he hasn’t quite processed the idea that Potter has been defending him in private, but Granger jumps in, and Draco begins to wonder if either of them ever manages to finish a sentence without being interrupted by the other.

“Oh, please,” she says wearily. “Like the three of you haven’t done worse to each other in your time.”

“Yeah, when I was an idiotic teenager,” Weasley protests. “Not now.”

Granger snorts. “So, it wasn’t you who put a drawing pin on George’s chair last week?”

Draco glances between them with interest. He has the feeling he could just step out into the corridor right this minute and the discussion would just carry on without him.

Weasley’s face reddens. “Well...”

“You put a drawing pin on your brother’s chair?” Draco asks before he can stop himself.

“Yeah, but he deserved it,” Weasley says defensively.

“He nearly had to go to St Mungo’s!” Granger cries. “When his... never mind.” She flushes and falls silent.

Slowly, Draco meets Weasley’s eyes and they exchange a series of illustrative glances and eyebrow-lifts, culminating in the first wince that the two of them have ever shared.

“Good grief,” Draco says quietly, desperately resisting the urge to shift around in his chair.

Weasley nods. “To be fair, it was only because he tested some stuff on me for his shop that made me go blind for two days,” he advises.

“Potter... Potter gave me red eyebrows,” Draco says, and Granger rolls her eyes.

“Is that it?” Weasley says, incredulous.

“Like I said, what happened was an accident,” Draco says faintly, but he suspects Weasley is no longer listening, because Stanley has begun to tack and twitch in his sleep.

“We didn’t come here to apportion blame,” Granger says, dark eyes terrifyingly earnest as she gazes at Draco. Weasley makes an odd little noise. “Well, maybe a little bit,” she admits. “What’s happened to Harry is just so frightening. It’s horrible just thinking about it.” She shudders.

“I know. Look...” Draco hesitates, fighting against the fragile honesty that seems to be trying to punch a hole through him. “I apologise... for my part in this. I regret it, and I would like to see Potter back on his feet as much as you. Not least because I have to manage the Gryffindor rabble until then.”

“We heard,” Granger says, failing to conceal a small smile. “Madam Pomfrey says the best thing we can do is—”

“Talk to him, I know.”

“We’ll be back, then. Every weekend, for as long as it takes,” Granger says firmly.

“We will. Though it doesn’t mean I don’t still think you’re an idiot,” Weasley adds, looking thoroughly relieved as Stanley stirs and climbs down to the floor.

“That’s good to know, Weasley,” Draco says, feeling rather relieved too.

“Ron,” Granger sighs, but she nods to Draco and gets to her feet, and Weasley follows her.

“I like your chair,” she says at the door, frowning at him and chewing on her lip. “Draco,” she adds firmly and steps out into the corridor, tucking her arm through Weasley’s as they walk away.

Draco stares after them, silent and uncertain.

Tack-tack-tack, goes Stanley as he capers around Draco’s feet.

Draco closes the door and looks down at him. “You are a bad beetle,” he declares solemnly.

Unfortunately, Stanley isn’t listening. Either that, or he just doesn’t care.

**~*~**

In the interests of organisation and of distracting himself from the weirdness he has somehow invited into his life, Draco spends much of the weekend surrounded by folders and bits of parchment as he sits cross-legged on his hearthrug and thrashes out a new schedule for himself. Stanley watches from a chair and does not even attempt to get involved, which only fuels Draco’s nagging fear that he has already been usurped in the beetle’s affections, and by sodding Weasley at that.

Draco sighs. It won’t do to fret about it, and besides, he has more pressing issues right now, such as how on earth he is supposed to fit all of his old and new obligations into the time available. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Draco rubs his weary eyes and picks up his quill to extend his workday further into the evening. If he shifts all the flying lessons to four o’clock and sees the house-elves after dinner, then...

Monday

As soon as his last Transfiguration lesson is over, Draco races to his rooms and changes from his teaching robes into a warm, lightweight jacket, a less formal pair of trousers and a pair of boots with soles that he thinks will just about cut it on wet grass. He hasn’t dressed for the outdoors in years and he feels extremely self conscious as he walks through the castle, out to the broomshed (which is an absolute state) and strides out to meet his first years.

These students are a mixture of Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, who will take lessons with him on Mondays and Wednesdays, leaving Tuesdays and Thursdays for the Gryffindors and Slytherins, and Fridays for broomshed maintenance. Having just seen the condition of the broomshed, though, Draco is already wondering if he should have scheduled more time for it.

The wind is particularly cold today, even for September, and the children have huddled into little knots in which to whisper and wait, but they all fall silent when they see Draco, and he is treated to the unnerving experience of twenty-odd pairs of eyes raking over his outfit at once. He looks down at his perfectly serviceable trousers and his plain, moss green jacket and frowns. In their collective time at Hogwarts so far, which amounts to less than a month, he doesn’t suppose they have ever seen him out of black robes, but really, there’s no need to stare.

Dismissing the very real urge to walk quickly back to the castle and sit in his chair until McGonagall comes knocking, he nods briskly at the children and starts handing out broomsticks.

“Good afternoon,” he says finally, raising his voice above the wind.

“Good afternoon, Professor Malfoy,” comes the uncertain response.

“Right. Well, as I’m sure you are aware, I will be taking over your flying instruction until Professor Potter has recovered. Could someone tell me where the class was up to?” he asks, thinking mutinously of Potter’s notes, which, while extensive, appear to be written in code. Or by a drunken spider; it’s difficult to tell.

“Most of us were just getting comfortable with hovering in the air,” offers a girl with freckles and a light Scottish accent. Draco can’t remember her name—he’s still sorting out most of the first-years from one another at this point in the year—but he will learn it, of course he will.

“Hovering,” he repeats, slightly incredulous. By the time he was eleven, he could... he exhales slowly and shakes away the unhelpful thought. His eleven-year-old self is hardly a good example of anything to these children.

“Sir? When is Professor Potter coming back?” asks a chubby boy, and Draco is almost certain he is the one who nearly fainted in his first Transfiguration lesson.

Draco isn’t really surprised by the question, or by the hopeful faces that suddenly surround him, but it still stings a little bit to be such a huge disappointment before he has even started.

“I don’t know,” he says shortly. “When he’s better. Let’s all mount our brooms and get on with this, shall we?”

The order is quickly obeyed, but no one looks happy and Draco has a horrible suspicion that the chubby boy is sniffling as he instructs the group to rise slowly into the air.

The combination of cold wind, snivelling children and pitiful flying mean that Draco is extremely relieved when the lesson is over and the class have scuttled back into the castle for dinner, leaving him alone with his stack of muddy broomsticks.

“This has only just begun,” he mumbles to himself as he wrestles the brooms back into the crammed shed and goes straight to the Great Hall without even bothering to change his clothes. He’s ravenous, and he eats his dinner in five minutes flat, even though it’s corned beef hash, which he hates, and even though the other teachers are staring at him with unguarded curiosity, which he hates even more. He doesn’t have time to think about it, because there is a pile of marking waiting for him on his coffee table, and if he’s efficient with his time, he may be able to squeeze in a quick shower before he has to brave the kitchens.

He makes it with five minutes to spare, but remains more nervous than he wants to be as he lets himself into the kitchen. For perhaps half a second there is a massive flurry of movement, and then... nothing. The pots and pans gleam in the lamplight, there are half-finished bowls of bread on every surface, and the kettle in the corner is whistling merrily as it boils, but there is not a house-elf to be seen.

“Hello?” he calls, frowning and stepping out into the room.

From behind a stack of casserole dishes comes a muffled squeak, but nothing more. He rubs at his damp hair, irritated. This is ridiculous. He had shown McGonagall his schedule and she had promised that the house-elves would be ready for him. Where the hell are they?

“Is anyone there?” he demands of the apparently empty room. The kettle is screaming now and he silences it with a flick of his wand. He already has a headache, thank you very much. “Look, I’m here to discuss the menus—Professor McGonagall must have told you—”

“She did, sir, she did,” says a small figure, emerging from behind the leg of a vast table. “The problem sir is having is that the house-elves is wanting to speak to Harry Potter.”

“I know you,” he says, narrowing his eyes.

“Yes, sir is knowing Kreacher. Kreacher is knowing sir, and the others is also knowing sir, and they is preferring not to come out,” the elf says, large eyes fixed beadily on Draco.

Draco lets out an impatient breath. “Well, that’s great, but Potter isn’t available, so you’ve got me. Believe me, I don’t want to be here any more than you want me to be here, so why don’t we get this over with as quickly as we can?” he suggests, attempting to ignore the slight.

“We is hearing about what happened to Harry Potter,” Kreacher says, twisting his long fingers in the fabric of his... garment. “Many of the others is not happy about what sir has done to Harry Potter.”

“It was an accident,” Draco says through gritted teeth.

“Kreacher is not believing in accidents,” the elf says darkly, and there is another squeak from the back of the room, followed by a series of whispers. Kreacher swivels his ears to listen for a moment and then turns his attention back to Draco, all the while giving the impression that he is enjoying Draco’s discomfort a little more than he should.

“What’s the problem?” Draco demands. He’s hot and bewildered and exposed, and this is ridiculous. Surely these creatures are supposed to be co-operative at the very least. This is nothing short of mutiny.

“They is not wanting to come out, and they is not wanting to help sir,” Kreacher says flatly.

“And what about you?”

“Kreacher is a free elf,” he says, pulling himself up proudly. “But Kreacher sees that sir is descended from the noble and most ancient house of Black.”

“Er, yes, that’s right,” Draco says, at last remembering where he has seen the elf before, many, many years ago. “Does that mean you’ll help me?”

Kreacher pulls an ugly face. “Kreacher does not like sir. No. But Kreacher will... try.”

“Well, that’s something,” Draco sighs, perching on the edge of the nearest table and opening the folder marked ‘house-elf welfare/menu planning’. He still can’t read most of Potter’s notes, but it can’t be all that complicated. “So...according to this...” He squints at the rows of terrible handwriting in the poor light. “These menus are supposed to rotate through weeks one to four until the end of term—hang on a minute—if there are four weeks’ worth of dinners, why does corned beef bloody hash feature approximately every three days?” he demands.

His words are greeted by more whispers, clanks, and then a loud crash as a stack of metal pans is knocked over.

Kreacher scowls but says nothing.

“And while we’re on the subject, what is your fascination with treacle tart? There is not a single week of these menus—and I’ve looked through last year’s as well—where it doesn’t appear!”

“Treacle tart is Harry’s Potter’s favourite, sir,” Kreacher says, somehow managing to look down his bulbous nose at Draco, even as he looks up at him from the floor.

Draco sighs. Of course it is. He could change the whole thing now, of course, but he doesn’t much fancy the idea of trying to start a food revolution in such a hostile environment, and apart from anything else, Potter is lying up there in the hospital wing and wouldn’t be any the wiser, which rather takes the fun out of it.

“Right, well, I’m going to run through these and you can tell me what you need to order,” Draco says finally, regarding his one-elf-team with resignation. He doesn’t know the first thing about cooking, but he’s not about to admit such a weakness in the presence of so many unfriendly entities.

“Harry Potter doesn’t do it like that,” Kreacher says.

Draco takes a deep breath. “Well, I’m going to do it like that.”

“Harry Potter makes tea and we sits around the table,” Kreacher continues, ignoring him. “Harry Potter asks Kreacher how he is, and asks the others also how they is. Harry Potter finds out what we needs.”

“Anything else?” Draco asks, trying and failing to keep a low growl out of his voice.

“Yes. Harry Potter is also telling stories about the misses and misters. Harry Potter is laughing at Vronky’s jokes, even though Vronky is telling terrible jokes,” Kreacher advises. He doesn’t bother to lower his voice in order to insult his colleague, and sure enough, there is a small sound of displeasure from inside the larder.

“I haven’t got time for that,” Draco groans. “Do you have any idea how much I have to do tomorrow?”

Kreacher shrugs and scratches lazily at his wrinkled face.

Draco stares wearily down at the pages of notes until they begin to swim in front of his eyes. He hasn’t slept properly since this ridiculous thing started, and with each extra hour of consciousness, his patience stretches ever thinner.

“I can’t do this,” he says quietly. He twists around to gaze into the depths of the kitchen. “Can’t they come out and just help me for a minute?”

“Not without Harry Potter,” Kreacher says, and something fragile inside Draco snaps. He gets to his feet and throws the folder down on the table.

“Why is everything about Harry Potter?” he yells, and even Kreacher takes a step back. “All I want to do is sort out a few meals like I’ve been asked to, and every single one of you little buggers is being completely un-fucking-helpful!” His words echo around the room and he knows exactly how angry and petulant he sounds, but he just doesn’t care. He points at the open folder and addresses Kreacher. “You sort it out. And don’t you dare tell McGonagall that I didn’t try to reason with you.”

With that, he stalks out of the kitchens and is halfway back to his rooms when he realises that he doesn’t trust them an inch not to do just that, so he turns abruptly and makes his way to the Headmistress’ office. She lets him in without a word and just allows him to stand there in front of her desk and rant himself hoarse while she calmly composes a letter, glancing up every now and then as though to check that he’s still there. When he has run out of steam, she puts down her quill and regards him over the top of her glasses.

“Have you finished?” she asks pleasantly.

Realising he is shaking, Draco pulls his breathing under control and nods. “Yes. But I just can’t reason with them.”

“It’s just a matter of patience, Mr Malfoy, and I am certain you have some in you somewhere,” she says, and he can’t work out whether she is teasing him or scolding him.

“But the house-elves... they’re...” Draco searches in vain for the end of his sentence and instead offers McGonagall a wordless shrug.

“Hold your nerve, Mr Malfoy. The cow may want her tail yet,” she says, eyes gleaming.

“What does that mean?”

“Get some sleep, Professor,” she orders, returning to her letter, and Draco knows he is being dismissed.

When he gets back to his rooms, Stanley has managed to pry his way into the tea cupboard and there are mint leaves everywhere.

 

Tuesday

This time, when Draco strides out onto the lawn at four o’clock, he is ready to have his outfit stared at, and he isn’t disappointed. His Gryffindor and Slytherin first-years are just as disenchanted with him as their Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff counterparts, and this class also has the distinction of containing one of the clumsiest and most accident-prone students Draco has ever seen, and another who refuses to do anything beyond standing on the ground with his broomstick clamped between his knees because he is so petrified of heights.

Afterwards, Draco puts away his pork chops and slightly odd-tasting jam roly-poly in record time once again, and he’s halfway to Duelling Club before he realises that the odd taste was the salt in the custard. He walks into the Room of Requirement, wondering about having Kreacher stuffed and mounted, when a jet of red light hits him in the shoulder and slams him back against the—thankfully padded—wall with surprising force.

“Levinson!” he growls, picking himself up and locating the source of the spell.

“Sorry, Professor Malfoy,” the boy calls, scrambling over to Draco’s side and looking him up and down with a gratifying expression of panic.

“What on earth do you think you’re doing, casting so close to the door? If I’d been a first-year you would probably have knocked me out!”

Levinson grimaces, worrying his dark curls with the handle of his wand. “I’m sorry, sir, it’s just that... well, everyone’s here already. Me and Ivy took the register,” he explains, pointing to a piece of parchment that has been pinned to the wall.

“Hi, Professor Malfoy,” Ivy Baron says uncertainly, appearing at his side.

“What are you doing here? I thought this was club was for first-to-fifth years?” Draco says.

“It is. I’m just helping out this year because my sister wanted to come along, but she’s a little bit nervous. Professor Potter said it was okay,” she adds, eyes turning anxious.

“I didn’t know that,” Draco says, frowning. Ivy is one of his favourite students, but he never knew she had anything to do with duelling. Or Potter, for that matter. “Hang on a minute,” he says, turning back to Levinson. “You took the register and started without me?”

Levinson glances at Ivy, who shrugs and smiles guiltily. “I think Holly wants me,” she says, and slips away.

“Well?”

“Erm... well... okay. Sorry about this, Professor Malfoy, but we didn’t think you’d come, so we just carried on as normal on our own,” Levinson admits.

Taken aback, Draco says nothing for several seconds and listens instead to the sound of running footsteps and Ivy’s voice as she attempts to corral the younger children.

“You didn’t think I’d come?”

“No, sir. Sorry. But you did, which is... great,” Levinson mumbles, scratching his head with his wand again, tempting Draco to reach out and take it away from him before he blows his own head off.

“Well, Levinson, thank you for the vote of confidence,” he says acidly, walking over to a bench in the corner and leaving the fifth-year alone and embarrassed in the middle of the room.

“What do you want us to do?” Ivy asks, and suddenly every eye in the room is trained upon him. He can almost read their thoughts, especially the thoughts of the ones who have seen him for Transfiguration and flying lessons already today: please not him again.

“Whatever you usually would,” Draco says with a little more bite than he intends. “I’ll be watching.”

He doesn’t think he imagines the ripple of nervousness that passes around the room before the activities start up, and for some reason it soothes him. They are, of course, terrible, and by the time the club is over and he escapes back to his rooms, he wants nothing more than to flop face-first onto his bed and groan until there is no sound left inside him. Some of them know what they are doing, he supposes; Levinson, despite his haphazard spellwork, is patient with the little ones and possesses excellent reflexes. Many of the first-years clearly want to learn, but the overall technique leaves a lot to be desired and Draco is horrified by the number of third and fourth-years who still cannot produce a half-decent Shield Charm.

“Your turn tomorrow, Stanley,” he mumbles into his quilt. “And I’ll sleep in front of the fire all day.”

Tack-tack-tack, Stanley offers, scuttling up the bed and climbing into the small of Draco’s back.

Draco closes his eyes. When he wakes, it’s three in the morning, he aches like hell, and there is no chance of him falling asleep again. He crawls beneath his quilt and sticks his head under his pillow anyway.

He wonders if Potter is sleeping.

Wednesday

After a particularly gruelling series of Transfiguration lessons, Draco practically has to drag himself out onto the grass for his four o’clock flying class. Jasper Bracknell, seemingly recovered from his foray into decent essay-writing, is up to his old tricks once more, and Draco thinks he might find it reassuring were he not exhausted, frazzled and covered in bruises from carrying stacks of brooms and slipping on wet grass. Today the world is covered in a fine mist of drizzle and the enthusiasm of the flying class seems about as damp as his own, but he presses on, just like he imagines Potter would do.

Dinner both looks and tastes bizarre, and he has a feeling there are strawberries in the pasta sauce, but he doesn’t ask. He does, however, notice the confused expressions of some of the other diners—among them Flitwick and Sprout—and wonders if he should at least try to find out what is going wrong in the kitchens.

He soon forgets about it, though, when he returns to his rooms and finds that a small queue has gathered there. He watches them from the corner for a moment, wondering whether he should just turn and make a run for it, when he remembers that Wednesday is the night he has scheduled for what Potter calls ‘Gryffindor Open House’. As Head of House, he is now available to hear the questions, complaints, worries and problems of any Gryffindor who might want to share them with him.

He hadn’t thought anyone would actually come, and now that he sees the little buggers waiting for him, the urge to run away is almost irresistible. He won’t run, though, and not just because McGonagall will have him murdered. He won’t run because he is a professional. Yes he is.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, Draco sweeps past the line and into his rooms, quickly shutting his bedroom and bathroom doors and picking up anything he thinks a student might find a little too interesting. It’s alright for McGonagall, Slughorn and the like—they have offices in which to perform this horrifying task. He has to invite students into his living room and let them... have their problems everywhere. Draco stands in the middle of the room, pinching the bridge of his nose and taking slow, even breaths. It will be fine. As long as Stanley stays in the bedroom, and as long as none of them try to sit in his chair.

When he opens the door again, the line seems to have lengthened, and Draco is baffled. Who on earth would want to speak to him? Still, they’re here now, and by the time twenty minutes have passed and he has seen the first two students, he is beginning to relax a little. The first is a panicky fourth-year who wants advice on her NEWT subjects, and the second wants to drop Divination but is convinced that Professor Trelawney will put a curse on him if he does.

Draco is hiding a smile as he lets in the next student, a tiny boy who is now vaguely familiar to him from Transfiguration and flying lessons. He clambers onto the spare armchair and stares at Draco, face pinched with anxiety.

“How can I help you, Mr Burtweed?” Draco asks, wondering which subject will be the problem this time.

“Well,” the boy whispers. “It’s just that I...”

“Speak up,” Draco says briskly.

The boy’s dark eyes widen and he glances around at the closed door. “It’s just that... well, it hasn’t started.”

Draco frowns. “What hasn’t started?”

“My... the other boys said it should have started by now and I’m worried there’s.... something wrong with me,” Burtweed says, voice dropping back to a whisper, and Draco is nonplussed.

“I have no idea what you are talking about. What hasn’t started?”

Pained, the boy glances into the fire and then back at Draco. “My period,” he whispers.

Draco blinks, uneasiness beginning to creep in. “Excuse me?”

“Do you think it’s because I’m so small?” Burtweed asks, small hands knotted together in his lap.

Draco sighs. He doesn’t want to be head of Gryffindor. He never did. In fact, the only thing he wants to do right now is to crumble into a pile of ash on the floor and have done with it. But he can’t—he has to... oh, good grief.

“Mr Burtweed,” he begins carefully. “I don’t know what your friends have been telling you, but boys do not... er... menstruate.”

Burtweed’s eyes grow large. “What?”

“They do not... have periods. The other boys have been teasing you—admittedly rather unpleasantly. I would advise you not to give it another thought,” Draco says, hoping it’s not obvious that he is way out of his depth here.

“There’s not anything wrong with me?” the boy says, a note of hysteria in his voice.

“No, but if you...” Draco trails off as Burtweed leaps out of his chair and dashes for the door, expression caught somewhere between relief and righteous indignation.

“Thanks, Professor!” he calls, and slams the door behind him.

Draco slumps back in his chair and covers his face with his hands.

“Next!”

**~*~**

Draco stands under the shower for a good half an hour that evening, turning the temperature up as hot as he can bear it and letting it wash away the memory of all those problems and all of his godawful advice. He doesn’t know how to help these children—he doesn’t know how to help anyone. He just wants to be left alone. He scrubs and scrubs at his skin and nails, trying to shift the mud that manages to ingrain itself further with each day that passes, but he still doesn’t feel clean as he emerges into his living room and puts on his night clothes. It feels oddly quiet in here, too, now that it’s just him and Stanley again, but that’s perfect, because he’s going to bed and he’s bloody well going to go to sleep tonight.

He dims the lights and climbs under the covers, stretching against the aches in his back, legs, and shoulders. He can hear Stanley in the living room, knocking things over in protest at being shut in the bedroom for several hours, but otherwise the castle seems unnaturally silent. He closes his eyes.

Immediately, he wonders how Burtweed has fared with his friends. Whether Miss Neall is sleeping or sitting up in her common room with the ‘Navigating Your NEWTs: a students’ guide’ booklet she had been clutching throughout their conversation. What he might find on the breakfast table tomorrow. Whether or not he’s ever going to get Winston Camberwell into the air. How the hell Potter manages all this and looks so relaxed.

Draco opens his eyes but the racing of his mind goes on unchecked.

“Enough,” he mutters, throwing back the covers and hunting around for shoes and a robe. If he can’t sleep, neither will Potter. He stomps past a startled Stanley and makes his way to the hospital wing without even bothering to light his wand. When he steps softly into the ward, there is no one there but Potter, lying perfectly still on his back, skin ghostly pale in the moonlight.

Draco shifts the pile of clothes from the bedside chair and sinks down into it, already feeling more at ease than he had in his own bed. He inhales the cool, crisp air and tucks his feet up underneath him.

“I know you’re awake, Potter.”

There is, of course, no answer, and Draco stares irritably at Potter for a moment before leaning over to his bedside cabinet and examining the collection of potion bottles that sit there in neat lines. He wonders if Pomfrey has decided to actually knock Potter unconscious at night but he cannot be certain either way, even after surreptitiously sniffing each of the liquids in turn. He doesn’t suppose it makes much difference—either way, he’s sitting here next to a man who can’t answer back, and there’s something about that that’s rather liberating.

“Well, Potter, here we are,” he says at last, resting his chin on his knees and gazing at the unnaturally still figure through half-closed eyes. “It’s Wednesday the twenty-sixth of September, in case that’s of any interest to you. It’s about eleven o’clock at night. There’s no one here but you and me, and that’s a first, because we’re not arguing.”

Draco sighs, breath warm against the soft flannel of his pyjama-clad knee. The silence is unnerving, so he whispers, “Shut up, Malfoy’ and immediately feels better.

“I’m only saying this because you can’t say anything back, but... you know what, Potter? I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t. The Gryffindors are needy and neurotic and bizarre, none of the first-years like me, the students from the Duelling Club would have preferred it if I’d not turned up and the house-elves apparently think I tried to murder you and refuse to speak to me at all.” Draco glares ineffectually at Potter, who looks so serene with the moonlight spilling over his face that Draco wants to start flinging potion bottles in every direction.

“Of course, it’s only Wednesday. I haven’t had my first Quidditch team practice yet. I bet you think that’s hilarious, don’t you—the idea of me trying to coach a group of Gryffindor tearaways who aren’t going to listen to a word I have to say? Yes, I bet you’d love to be there, wouldn’t you?” Draco grumbles, and then falls silent. Of course he would—in fact, he’s pretty sure that Potter would rather be anywhere but here. Caught between remorse and nonchalance, Draco hesitates, and then tries a different tack. “Just so you know, your broomshed looks like it has been raided by trolls. Don’t you ever tidy up in there?”

Suddenly feeling like an idiot, Draco closes his mouth and keeps it closed for several minutes. He watches the gentle, rhythmic rise and fall of Potter’s chest and soaks up the healing atmosphere of the infirmary. It’s been a long time since he spent a night here, he thinks, instinctively closing his fingers around his left forearm and pulling himself into a tighter ball. A long time. So many things have changed since then that his life is almost unrecognisable, but the familiar sting of fear has followed him here and made itself at home, and he hates it.

“They all just want you, you know. All I hear is ‘when is Professor Potter coming back?’ or ‘Professor Potter does it like this, not like that’.” He pauses, imagining a smile curving Potter’s lips. “Yes, I thought you’d like that. Everyone thinks you’re a better teacher, which is nice for you. I never wanted to be a teacher anyway, did you know that, Potter? I’ll bet you think I just love striding about in my black robes and taking points away from Gryffindors for no good reason. Pretending to be Snape...” Draco hides a smile against his knee. “Well, maybe a little bit. Of course, the two of you could never get along, but Severus was a truly astonishing person. I suppose you could say he was my inspiration. He never really meant to be a teacher, either, but Hogwarts has a way of... seeking people out, I suppose.

“I have been here longer than you have, Potter. How is that even possible? Of course, you just turned up one day with your trunk and the rest was history. The truth is, I know what really happened. I know that Madam Hooch had a job offer to coach the Harpies, and I also know that she accepted on one condition—that Harry Potter would come to Hogwarts and be her replacement. You didn’t know that I knew about that, did you?” Draco says, enjoying the surprise he is imagining on Potter’s face. “You were headhunted, weren’t you, because you’re just that...”

Draco stops as a creak issues from the other end of the ward. Pomfrey.

He untangles himself with some difficulty and gets to his feet, creeping as quietly as he can across the floor and holding his breath as he lets himself out of the hospital wing. He doesn’t exhale until he is safely down the stairs and into the first floor corridor that leads back to his rooms. He feels rather daft as he locks the door behind him and closes his eyes, because his heart is racing and his skin is tingling like he’s been up to something wicked, but there’s just no word for how embarrassed he would have been if Pomfrey had caught him sitting at Potter’s bedside in the middle of the night.

 

Thursday

Draco snatches a couple of hours of sleep after his late night visit to the hospital wing and makes it through his morning lessons with incident. By mid-afternoon, though, he has begun to flag, and lets his last two classes off without homework because the thought of all that marking just makes his brain hurt. In the shed, four muddy old brooms roll from the top shelf and clonk him thoroughly in the side of the head, leaving him seeing double for the next two hours, and quite frankly, one flightless Gryffindor is quite enough to be going on with.

The output of the kitchens only seems to be operating on a downward trend, as evidenced by tonight’s toadless toad-in-the-hole and the suspiciously meaty rice pudding. Ravenous, Draco attempts to eat his way around the disasters but it doesn’t take long until he, too, has to push his plate away and escape from the Great Hall before the glares of his colleagues can become too much. Instead, he storms down to the kitchens, ready as he’ll ever be to give house-elf communication another go.

“Kreacher!” he yells, letting himself in and just about catching sight of the others as they hide themselves away once more.

Kreacher waddles into a patch of light, dragging a vast sack of muddy potatoes behind him. “Sir?”

Draco scowls. “What are you planning to do with those? Potato jelly? Mash with marshmallows? Chips and custard?”

“If sir is wanting to add things to the menu, sir will have to wait until next week,” Kreacher says solemnly, reaching into the bag and picking up a potato in his spindly fingers.

Infuriated, Draco takes a step towards him and then stops. Patience, McGonagall had said. Hold your nerve. He sighs gently.

“No. I do not want to add anything to the menu. I also want you to stop... improvising with the menu. Do you understand?”

“Perhaps. Sir is angry with Kreacher?”

“Yes... no. No, I’m not angry, but some of the food this week has been pretty bizarre, and it’s getting to the point where no one wants to eat it. So... no more strawberries in the Bolognese sauce, no more salt in the custard, no more bacon in the porridge, and no more sausages anywhere they don’t belong. Okay?”

“It is not Kreacher’s fault,” the elf says, face twisting as he dumps the potato back into the sack. “No. The others lack direction without Harry Potter. Some of thems are very upset. Kreacher has tried, sir, but all the things are not as they should be.”

Draco squints into the dark corners of the kitchen, reaching for his long-forgotten diplomacy skills.

“Listen—all of you. You don’t need Harry Potter. You can manage just fine without him. If you’d... if you’d go back to making those lovely, edible meals, I’d be very grateful.”

He waits, encouraged by the increased sound of scuffling and whispering.

“All sir needs to do is be a bit more like Harry Potter,” Kreacher offers, hauling his sack over to the table and starting to sort through it.

Draco stares at him. “I’m going now,” he says quietly.

“Kreacher will see sir on Monday. Yes.” Kreacher mutters to himself as Draco lets himself out into the corridor.

“There he is!”

Draco looks up just in time to find himself surrounded by tiny people. They are moving a lot and all talking at once, but after a moment he manages to separate them out and identify them as three members of his Tuesday/Thursday flying class.

“Yes?” he says, automatically addressing the small Indian girl in the Slytherin tie, and oh, good grief, it’s Surya Khan, the clumsiest thing on a broom since Neville Longbottom.

“Professor Malfoy, can we speak to you?” she asks pleasantly, and as Draco’s eyes flick to her two companions, he barely suppresses a groan. He can’t remember the blonde girl’s name, but the other one is none other than Winston Camberwell. Which cannot be good.

“Yes, if you’re quick,” he says, mentally calculating how long he has until Gryffindor Quidditch practice (not long enough, as far as he’s concerned).

The two Gryffindors look at each other and then at Surya, who continues. “The thing is... before he got ill, Professor Potter said we could have some extra flying lessons because we were...” She looks at the floor, frowning. “Struggling a bit.”

“Right,” Draco says, already wary.

“Well, we waited a little while to see if he would get better, but he hasn’t, and so... we were wondering if you’d help us, Professor Malfoy,” the blonde girl says, all in a rush.

“I don’t know...” Draco hedges, fighting to keep the dismay from his face.

“Sir, Professor Potter promised,” Winston says, cheeks reddening as he forces himself to look up at Draco.

“He did,” Surya agrees. “He said it’s nothing to be ashamed of—some people just need a bit of extra help.”

“That’s true, isn’t it?” Winston asks anxiously. “We’re not just... you know...”

“Don’t, Winston,” the blonde girl remonstrates, tucking her arm through his. “It’s not true what those people said to you.”

“What people?” Draco asks, narrowing his eyes.

“No one,” Winston says firmly. “Are you going to do lessons with us? Please?”

Draco lifts a hand to his forehead and prods ineffectually at the bridge of his nose. “Fine. But I can’t do it now, I’ve got a Quidditch practice.” He sighs, thinking of the tiny wedge of free time he had planned for tomorrow evening, and watching it disappear before his eyes. “Tomorrow. Six o’clock.”

The three students beam and Draco waves them away before he can change his mind. He wonders if Potter has made any other promises.

As he had suspected, the Quidditch practice is an absolute shambles. All seven members of the team are fine flyers, he has to admit, and their Seeker is a nippy little thing who can catch almost anything, but there is no order, no discipline, and no respect for authority—at least not his. Their captain, a fifth-year girl who plays Chaser, is able to command their attention for minutes at a time, but none of them are the slightest bit interested in Draco’s opinion. At least half the team seems to be of the opinion that he is spying on their tactics for the Slytherins, and when he tries to tell them that he has had nothing to do with team Quidditch since he returned to Hogwarts, they almost laugh him off the field.

What really bothers him is their insistence on all talking at the same time, and when he finally gives in and raises his voice above the babble, they become taciturn and sullen, opting to run drills and exercises without him. When the practice is over, Draco makes his way, cold, dejected and prickly, up the stone staircase to McGonagall’s office where he slumps into the offered chair and complains until he is sick of the sound of his own voice.

“I can’t do this,” he repeats wearily, watching her through one eye as she polishes her favourite teapot. “No one is listening. I don’t see the point.”

“You are doing fine, Mr Malfoy,” she says, and he’s almost tired of arguing with her. Almost.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the food.”

“The food is perfectly fine,” she says, frowning as she rubs at a stubborn grease spot.

Draco lets out a small, strangled sound of disbelief. “None of the house-elves will talk to me—still! Well, except Kreacher, and he’s useless. I keep telling them, I’m not Harry Potter! I’m just... not! Aren’t house-elves supposed to be helpful? Obedient?”

McGonagall glances up at him. “Tread on a snail and he’ll shoot out his horns,” she advises.

Draco rubs at his hair. There’s a leaf in it. He sighs. “Am I the snail or is Kreacher?”

McGonagall smiles, and there’s a soft rumble of laughter from Dumbledore’s section of the wall.

“Alright, I’m going,” he says, giving in and trudging back to his rooms. He already has a feeling that he’s going to be visiting Potter again tonight, but he thinks it may be politic to give Stanley some attention, especially if he doesn’t want everything he owns to be reorganised onto the floor while he’s out.

**~*~**

“Where were we?” Draco asks the statue-like Potter, yawning and stretching as he curls up in the bedside seat and wraps his robe more tightly around his body. He doesn’t know why he’s talking to Potter, or indeed, why he’s here at all, but it beats lying awake in his bed and staring at the ceiling, and for that reason alone, he’s prepared to go with it. “We were talking about teaching.”

Potter breathes steadily, and Draco casts an eye over his bedside. He has a new potion since yesterday. Draco uncorks it, sniffs the liquid inside and wrinkles his nose. Potter can keep that one.

“It’s Thursday, you know. Nearly midnight. Your Quidditch team are a bloody rabble. I only hope they listen to you better than they listened to me. And thanks for promising extra flying lessons to three hopeless cases—that was a lovely surprise.” Draco yawns and closes his eyes, feeling warm and lightheaded. “Like I said, I never wanted to be a teacher. I’ll tell you what I wanted to be, Potter, because you’ll like it,” he murmurs, words falling from his mouth unchecked now. “I wanted to be an astronaut.” Draco laughs softly against his own knees.

“When I was six years old, I had a governess called Ingrid. She was rather a progressive type—my mother hired her, of course. One day she took me to a Muggle library in town and let me loose in the children’s section. After that, I did nothing but dream about space. Of course, my father soon... persuaded me out of the idea,” Draco mumbles, grimacing. “Ingrid was gone within the week. Shame... I liked her. And all those stars and planets... fascinating.” Drowsily, Draco forces one eye open. “I always loved Astronomy. Goodness knows how I ended up with Transfiguration. Well, not really. McGonagall needed a Transfiguration teacher, but that’s another story. I suppose the bigger question is, why choose someone like me?”

Outside the window, a bat flaps its wings, casting odd shadows over Potter’s face.

“I like a good snail proverb, don’t you?” Draco mumbles, summoning with some effort the energy required to get up and get out before he falls asleep.

Potter, unsurprisingly, doesn’t answer.

 

Friday

Following another fractured night’s sleep, Draco makes an early morning detour through the kitchens to borrow a large metal pot and enough coffee to see him through the rest of the day. He restrains himself enough to avoid snapping or mentioning Potter even once, but this does not stop the elves from going into hiding, nor does it stop the breakfast marmalade pots from being filled with piccalilli or the lunchtime sausages from being served with tapioca pudding instead of mash.

“They was not having any potatoes,” Kreacher shrugs, when Draco storms through the door after lunch, still feeling the accusing eyes of his colleagues and students all over him.

“You had a big bag just the other day!” Draco insists. “I saw you!”

Kreacher just blinks and shrugs, and Draco slams back out into the corridor, fuming quietly.

His vat of coffee manages to keep him awake during his afternoon classes, but it is helpless against the exhausted fuzziness of his mind, and by the time he reaches the last class of the day, he is losing minutes at a time, staring vaguely out of the windows with his chin propped up on one hand. When he walks around the classroom to check on the spells in progress, he manages to nod silently at each one, and, on examination of the inevitable disaster produced by Zarenski, has nothing more to offer than: “Well, that certainly is different.”

He misses dinner, deciding to raid his biscuit jar rather than attempting to force down whatever the house-elves have produced, and then heads reluctantly for the broomshed. He realises he could postpone the dreaded maintenance until another day, but this is the time he has scheduled for it, and there is something just a little bit comforting about clinging to his plans in the face of this gale-force uncertainty.

He doesn’t have long now that he has promised those extra flying lessons, but it is long enough to assess the situation. When he opens the door, five broomsticks and an old Quaffle tumble out onto the grass. Draco sighs. He rolls up the sleeves of the practical outfit of which he is already sick to death and makes a start, wrenching the muddy brooms away from the tangle one at a time and throwing them down on the grass beside him. After twenty minutes, his arms are red and raw from the wind, his hands are filthy and grainy and his fingers are dotted with splinters. His chest aches and his breath comes in short, sharp bursts and he just wants to sit down. Strike that, he just wants to abandon the brooms to the elements and curl up in his chair by the fire with Stanley and a cup of tea. All that coffee has just given him a headache and made his mouth dry and foul-tasting.

He stares into the dark, musty shed and curses Potter silently, and then a couple of times out loud, just for good measure. It’s not, he concedes, Potter’s fault that Draco isn’t as fit as he used to be, but surely it wouldn’t have been too much to ask to keep his brooms in some kind of order. As he stares deeper into the gloom, following the path of an obscenely large woodlouse across the floor, he realises that, actually, somewhere underneath this top layer of chaos is a pattern... a system.

Lifted, he plunges back into the mess with renewed vigour, flinging brooms this way and that and forcing his way into the back of the shed, where he can just about see the neatly-labelled shelves and racks and the few pieces of equipment that have managed to stay in their proper places. When he finally gets there, scratched and perspiring, he runs his fingers along those labels and realises that every single one of them has been written by Potter. This place has known order after all. Draco leans heavily against a set of dusty shelves and wonders what went wrong.

Nobody’s perfect, says an insistent little voice in his head. Not even Potter.

“Especially not Potter,” Draco mumbles automatically, but there’s no edge to the words. Perhaps the idiot did have too much to do, after all. Perhaps.

With a sigh, Draco returns to his task, clearing out the brooms and Quidditch paraphernalia until he can—carefully—walk from one end of the shed to the other without tripping over anything. The sides of the shed are still littered with junk and the place is filthy, but it’s a start. He draws his wand to cast Tempus and there’s a brief rattling sound, just before an unsecured Bludger pelts out from under a pile of broken brooms and narrowly misses knocking him over. By the time he has steadied himself and wrestled it back into its box, it is ten past six and he is late for his blasted flying lesson.

Any hopes that the first-years might have given up and gone inside are dashed when he walks out onto the field with three brooms and sees them standing there, shivering and hopeful, waiting for him.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says briskly. “Please remind me of your names.”

“Surya Khan,” says the hopelessly uncoordinated one.

“Winston Camberwell,” the boy says quietly.

“I’m Emilie Alderson, sir,” says the last, short blonde waves blowing around her head like some sort of sea creature.

Alderson, Draco thinks, frowning. He’s heard that name before but has no idea where.

“Right,” he says at last, wishing he knew how to talk to such small people. For some reason, having them in such a little group only seems to make it more difficult. “I suppose Professor Potter identified some specific difficulty each of you were having to warrant these lessons?” he asks, deciding it’s probably better to pretend he hasn’t noticed Winston’s phobia or Surya’s inability to stay on her broom.

Winston glances up at the grey sky and shivers. “I’m... well, I don’t really like heights. But I want to learn,” he adds anxiously, looking up at Draco. “My dad says it’s really important to be a good flyer. He has his own business doing aerial mapping—you know, from a broomstick—and I think he wants me to...” Winston falls silent, as though he’s said too much, but Draco says nothing, feeling a surprising twinge of empathy for the boy. It’s almost as though a part of him wants to nod and say, “Well, my father was a bit like that, too,” but he doesn’t.

“Balancing on a broom is really hard,” Surya says stridently. “Especially if you have a low centre of gravity like me.”

“A low centre of gravity?” Draco repeats, nonplussed.

Surya nods. “Yes. That’s what my sister said. I think it just means I have short legs.”

Emilie giggles and Surya turns sharply to look at her.

“I’m not making fun of you,” the blonde girl says earnestly. “I’m no good at all. Am I, Winston?”

“No, not at all,” Winston says, shaking his head furiously. “Rubbish.”

Surya blinks, surprised. “Oh. Okay. I like your coat.”

Emilie beams. “Thanks. My granddad gave it to me just before I came here.” Draco watches them for a moment or two, startled by how easily some Gryffindor/Slytherin alliances are forged.

“Shall we begin, then?” he says at last, handing out the brooms and faltering for a moment at the sight of their eager faces. It’s as if they don’t know him at all, and of course they don’t. Neither do the rest of the first-years, who would have clearly preferred Potter, but this odd little trio almost seem as though they want to like him. It’s very strange indeed.

“I think it would be best if we started from the beginning. There’s no use learning fancy flying tricks without a good foundation,” Draco says, coming to stand opposite his students on the grass. “The first important thing is to be in control of your broom. If you think about riding a horse—”

“My Auntie Susan’s got a horse,” Winston puts in. “It’s massive.”

“Good,” Draco says faintly.

“Has she?” Surya says, leaning forward to look at him. “Have you been on it?”

“Too high up,” Winston admits, and beside him, Emilie grins.

“Right, well—we’re getting off the point,” Draco says sharply, and all three pairs of eyes snap to him. “The point about riding a horse and riding a broom is that you need to be in charge. Your broom has its own magical energy, and when you find your own broom, you will learn everything about the way it behaves, which allows you to work as a partnership. In the meantime, these brooms just need to know that you are in command.” Draco pauses and folds his arms. “Or else you won’t be.”

“Wow,” Winston says softly, and then reddens. “Sorry.”

“So, hands out over your brooms, concentrate hard, stand up straight, Miss Khan...”

“Will my broom know?” Surya interjects, correcting her posture immediately.

“Just do it,” Draco sighs. “And now... up!”

“Up!” calls Surya, and her broomstick rises unevenly into the air, leading first by the bristles and then by the handle until she closes her fist around it and it merely tips slowly back and forth.

“Up!” says Emilie, and despite her uncertain expression, her broom flies easily into her hand.

“Up?” mumbles Winston, and his broom doesn’t move an inch.

“Maybe your broom knows you’re scared, Win,” Emilie whispers, just loudly enough for Draco to hear.

“Speak up, Miss Alderson, especially when you’re right,” Draco says. “You are not commanding your broom to go up, you are wondering if it might, perhaps, possibly, feel like making its way into the air—but only if it wants to. If you can’t summon up some confidence, Mr Camberwell, you will never learn to fly.”

Winston’s eyes turn shiny and he gulps quietly. “Sorry, Professor Malfoy.”

Draco stares down at him, alarmed. “I don’t want you to be sorry, I just want you to listen.”

“He’s trying,” Emilie says, large blue eyes narrowing.

“Well, that’s all I ask,” Draco says stiffly, already feeling them slipping away from him. Even Surya is now regarding him with uncertainty rather than eagerness, and though Draco thinks he should feel better—after all, this is the way his students usually relate to him—all he feels is confused and regretful. With a cleansing gulp of fresh air, he rubs his cold arms and collects himself. “Miss Khan, Miss Alderson, we are going to rise into the air and hover at a safe distance of three feet. Mr Camberwell, I would like you to keep practicing that command until you are sick to the back teeth of hearing it. It needs to be louder, it needs to be stronger, and it needs to sound like you mean it.”

“Yes, sir,” Winston whispers, and Draco forces himself to turn away.

Surya quickly gets her broom off the ground and for a second or two it seems as though she has nailed her balance problem already, but then her broom tips and she overcompensates wildly, throwing herself forward and sliding down the handle.

“Lean back,” Draco instructs. “Don’t panic.”

“Okay,” Surya calls, but she leans too little, and then too much, and all of a sudden she’s tumbling down onto the grass. It’s not a long fall but it’s an awkward one, and Draco holds his breath, but Surya twists in the air and catches herself on hands and knees with a squelch and a thump.

“Are you alright?” he asks, looking her over as she gets to her feet. Her hands, knees and socks are smeared with mud, but she seems oddly unconcerned.

“I’m pretty good at falling,” she says brightly, and looks up at Emilie, who is hovering neatly with her feet tucked up behind her.

She seems to be doing fine, Draco thinks, and he is just about to comment when he catches her eye and she suddenly begins to wobble all over the place.

“I’m not sure about this, Professor Malfoy, I think I should come back down,” she says, descending back onto the grass before Draco has a chance to argue.

Up,” Winston attempts. Nothing happens.

“Again,” Draco instructs, and the two girls rise slowly into the air once more.

Night has fallen by the time they all head back to the castle, and Draco is still puzzling over Emilie’s wobbles. He has watched her do the same thing over and over again, and he just can’t figure out what is going wrong. She is walking more slowly than the others as though lost in thought, and Draco finds himself staring at her coat as he walks behind her. It’s a nice coat—merino wool in French blue—and it fits as though it was made for her.

Draco tips his head back for a moment, relieved to have finally caught the end of that irritating thought. He knew he’d heard the name Alderson before, and now he remembers. The Aldersons own a very high-end tailor’s shop, and have done for generations. His mother used to have her clothes made there all the time. Emilie’s grandfather didn’t buy that coat for her—he probably made it for her. And not only that, if memory serves, the Aldersons are a very old pureblood family with a huge involvement in the Quidditch League. Emilie has probably been flying since she could walk.

The little bugger.

Determined not to be outmanoeuvred by a Gryffindor, at least not for any longer, Draco calls out to her. “Miss Alderson, do you have a moment?”

“Yes?” She slows and allows him to fall into step beside her.

“You don’t need any help, do you?”

She glances up at him for a moment, clearly startled, but then looks back at the ground.

“You can fly perfectly well, can’t you?”

She looks at him again but still says nothing.

Draco tries again. “How do you think your mother and father would feel if they knew you were lying about this?”

Emilie’s lips scrunch into a moue of distress but still she keeps her silence.

“Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?”

She exhales softly and tucks her hands into her coat pockets. “I didn’t want Winston to be on his own. He gets frightened—he’s a bit frightened of you, actually, but when I said I’d come to the lessons he felt better about them. He knows I’m pretending but if he finds out you know I’m pretending he might stop coming and then he’ll never learn to fly,” she says, frowning at the ground.

“I see,” Draco sighs. “And do you realise you are asking a teacher to lie for you?”

Emilie looks up at him, eyes fierce. “I’m not a liar, Professor Malfoy. I hate lying. But Winston is my friend and that’s more important. Please?”

They stop at the edge of the lawn and Draco gazes down at her. He really has had enough confidences for one week. Potter’s head must be full of other people’s bloody secrets. Still, one more probably won’t make things any worse than they already are.

“Leave it with me, Miss Alderson. We will get Mr Camberwell into the air one way or another.”

Emilie grins, and for a horrible moment Draco thinks she is going to hug him.

“Thanks, Professor Malfoy! You’re brilliant!”

She turns and runs towards the castle and Draco just watches her, bewildered. As he sets off to follow her back inside, the light in the window of Hagrid’s hut catches his eye and reminds him that his supply of mint is running dangerously low. He supposes he might as well stock up while he’s already half frozen, so he turns and walks around the back of the hut, where the leaves grow in abundance. He has never thought to ask Hagrid if he minds, but then they aren’t exactly close and there is so much mint that Draco doubts he has ever noticed a few leaves missing here and there.

Shivering, he Transfigures a handkerchief into a cloth bag and crouches in the grass, picking the cool leaves by the handful. Stanley loves the leaves when they are fresh, and he will feast tonight.

“Who’s there?” Hagrid’s voice fills the air and his heavy wooden door creaks on its hinges.

Draco freezes. He knows he isn’t technically doing anything wrong, and that Hagrid is probably more concerned about forest creatures or stray students than leaf-stealing teachers, but it still feels wrong somehow to be caught sneaking around behind someone else’s house. The trouble is, he doesn’t think he can get back to the castle before Hagrid sees him, and there is nowhere to hide, so he doesn’t have much choice but to brazen it out.

Quickly stuffing a few more leaves into his bag, he levers himself up and walks resignedly around to the front of the hut. There’s a clank and a scrape from the doorway, and when he sees Hagrid, framed in the light from the house, he takes a small step backwards, because clutched in his hands is the biggest crossbow Draco has ever seen.

“Good grief, there’s no need for that,” he says, softening his voice to avoid startling Hagrid.

Hagrid relaxes, swinging the vast weapon at his side. “Oh, Professor. It’s only you. Sorry to frighten yeh, but yeh can’t be too careful when the moon’s like that,” he says, waving vaguely at the dark sky with his free hand.

“Well, absolutely, can’t be too careful,” Draco echoes, taking another step backwards. “I’d better be going then...”

“Did yeh need somethin’?” Hagrid asks, puzzled frown just visible beneath immense beard and huge, bristly eyebrows.

Draco hesitates. He’s never been caught before but he’s been caught now, and he supposes he has two choices: one—the truth, or two—some variant of ‘well, I was just skulking around behind your house for no reason’. He’s almost certain there is a way to make this Potter’s fault, too; he just hasn’t come up with it yet.

“I was gathering a few mint leaves,” he says, holding up the bag. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” Hagrid repeats, swinging the crossbow in wide arcs now. “Not a bit of it. They’re out of control, them mint leaves—’ave as many as yeh want. I’ve got a bigger bag if you like,” he offers, looking back into the hut.

Relieved, Draco shakes his head. “No thanks, he’ll never eat them all before they start to go brown,” he says, and then wishes he could have the words back.

“Who’s eatin’ ’em? Don’t you want ’em for a potion?” Hagrid asks, curiosity clearly piqued.

“No, they’re for my... I have a pet,” Draco says awkwardly. “They’re for him.”

“I don’t know of anythin’ what eats mint but little insects and such,” Hagrid says, and it occurs to Draco that this is already the longest conversation the two of them have had since he came to work at Hogwarts. It’s not as though he avoids Hagrid on purpose, though he does feel more than a little idiotic about some of their past interactions, but Transfiguration and Care of Magical Creatures rarely overlap, and it has never occurred to Draco just to strike up a conversation for the hell of it. But he’s here now, and it suddenly becomes obvious to him that if anyone is going to appreciate Stanley for the oddment he is, it is this man.

“He’s a beetle. A rather oversized one,” Draco admits. When Hagrid’s eyes light up with genuine interest, he adds: “His name is Stanley.”

Hagrid puts down his crossbow and rubs his huge hands eagerly on the front of his gargantuan bobbly jumper. “Can I meet ’im?”

Draco blinks, slightly taken aback. “Now? I don’t have him up my sleeve, Hagrid; he’s about the size of a cat.”

“Wonderful,” Hagrid rumbles, beaming. “Yeh can fetch ’im out ’ere if you like. Fang won’t ’urt ’im, he’s far too soft.”

Draco tightens his hold on the cotton bag and realises that he can no longer feel his fingers. There’s something about Hagrid’s enthusiasm that is appealing in a way it has never been before, but there is also no way he is returning to the warmth of the castle only trudge out here again.

“Be that as it may, I am freezing. If you want to see Stanley, you will have to come with me,” he says, feeling fairly certain that Hagrid will make his excuses and retreat into his hut.

“Lemme get my coat, Professor, and I’ll be right with yeh,” Hagrid says, and Draco is left staring at an empty doorway, reflecting that maybe Pomfrey was right, and that it is a bit weird to be called ‘Professor’ by a man who was your teacher when you were thirteen years old. Then again, he’s never asked Hagrid to call him anything. This is just the way things are. It’s always felt perfectly normal until recently.

“Potter,” Draco mumbles under his breath.

“What’s that?” Hagrid asks, slamming his door and starting across the lawn in long, easy strides.

“Nothing,” Draco gasps, having to break almost into a run to keep up with him.

The corridors are quiet. Draco imagines most of the students are keeping warm in their common rooms, sitting around their crackling fires in their soft, squashy chairs, playing chess or reading books, drinking hot cups of... fuck, he’s freezing. And he’s inviting an insanely enthusiastic, terrifyingly hairy man into his rooms. Of course, it all started with Weasley and Granger, followed by a parade of angsting Gryffindors and he has no idea where the madness will end. Still, Hagrid ducks into his quarters and looks around with obvious appreciation at Draco’s plain but comfortable living space. It immediately becomes obvious, however, that Draco does not own a chair big enough for him.

“Sorry,” he says, feeling the inadequacies of his living arrangements for the first time.

Hagrid merely grins through his beard and settles himself on the ring of stone that runs around the hearth. “It isn’ a new problem. Where’s this beetle, then?”

Draco looks around. “He could be anywhere. I’ll just...” He reaches into the bag of mint and then stops. Frowns. Offers the bag to Hagrid. “If you crush a leaf in your hand, he’ll come running. He doesn’t meet many people, but I think he’ll probably like you.”

Hagrid nods and says nothing as he takes a leaf and rubs it between work-roughened fingers, but Draco can feel his surprise as though it is rising through the air and rushing over him, lifting from Hagrid’s coat and spiralling like warmth and wood smoke and moss and wet dog. After a few seconds, the sweetness of mint rises above it all, and there is the scrabble of little feet on wood as Stanley barrels out from under the sofa and towards Hagrid at high speed.

“Look at you,” Hagrid enthuses, gazing down at Stanley as though he’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. “Shall I give it to ’im?” he asks, flapping the mint leaf that is currently just inches out of Stanley’s reach.

“He’ll probably love you forever if you do,” Draco says, hoping the beetle will remember which side his mint leaf is buttered on after meeting all these new and exciting people. “Would you like some tea?”

“That’d be lovely,” Hagrid murmurs distractedly, leaning down to carefully lift Stanley as he munches on his prize. “Come up an’ sit with me so I can ’ave a good look at yeh.”

Feeling oddly conflicted, Draco leaves them to it and makes a pot, rummaging through his cupboard and finding the largest cups he possibly can. When he returns, Hagrid is mumbling softly to Stanley, who is tacking back as though they are conducting a very important conversation. One massive hand rests on Stanley’s patterned shell as he sits comfortably on Hagrid’s thigh, dwarfed by the vast man and looking as close to his intended size as Draco has ever seen him.

When he sets down the tea tray, Hagrid looks up, smile faltering when his eyes fix on something at Draco’s waist-level. Puzzled, he looks down, blood turning cold as he realises that his sleeves are still rolled to the elbow and Hagrid is looking at the faded Mark on his left forearm. Hastily, he pulls down his sleeves and shoots Hagrid a weak apologetic look, but Hagrid has already returned his attention to Stanley. Draco watches him in silence as he sinks into his usual chair. He seems unperturbed, as though he was surprised to see the Mark and then chose to be uninterested, and perhaps he is. Then again, Draco thinks, digging his fingers into the corduroy arms of his chair, he can’t quite remember when he rolled up his sleeves. He’s always so careful.

“I see,” Hagrid says seriously.

TACK-tack-tack-tack-tack,” says Stanley.

“Bugger,” mumbles Draco. It was the broomshed. That’s when he rolled his sleeves up, which means that he spent the entire flying lesson with those three first-years with the fucking Mark on display. What’s really strange is that not one of them seemed to even notice it.

“He’s a marvel, Professor,” Hagrid says, cradling Stanley against his chest with the utmost care as he reaches to take his mug from the tray. It’s the biggest one Draco owns but it still looks like something from a dolls’ house with Hagrid’s massive fingers wrapped around it.

Draco takes the other mug and, with some effort, makes himself comfortable in his corduroy chair.

“Yes, I’m very proud of him,” he says. “Especially when he behaves himself. Listen... you really don’t need to call me ‘professor’, Hagrid. It’s not as though I’ve ever afforded you the same privilege. I’m not sure if it’s too late to apologise for that but I’d like to try.”

Draco holds his breath as the small, dark eyes search his face at length. “That’s nice of yeh, Professor... I mean... well, there’s no need,” Hagrid says, clearly discomfited. “Anyway, what else would I call yeh?”

Draco grips his hot cup tightly. “Well, ‘Draco’, I suppose. That is my name.”

Hagrid nods, slurping at his tea and then setting his mug down on the rug so that he can resume his examination of Stanley. “So it is. If it’s all the same to yeh, I’d prefer Hagrid. I never ’ear ‘Rubeus’ unless I’m in bother with someone.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Draco says, longing to kick off his boots and tuck his cold feet up underneath himself, but not yet certain enough about this tentative... thing to dare. Instead, he points his wand at the fireplace and angles his body into the flames, reflecting that whatever this is, he never expected it to be now, and he certainly never expected it to involve a person he has always believed so very different from him. Just then, Stanley swivels around on Hagrid’s lap and tacks softly at Draco, letting him know he hasn’t been forgotten.

Ah, if his father could see him now. Draco grins to himself and offers Hagrid a biscuit.

“Thanks, I’m starvin’,” he enthuses, taking a ginger nut and appearing to swallow it whole.

Amused, Draco continues to hold out the jar. “I suppose you’ve noticed the food, then.”

Hagrid crunches, frowns, and gives Stanley another mint leaf. “’Ow do you mean?”

“Well, it’s been pretty strange this week. I’m supposed to be looking after the house-elves while Potter is in the hospital, and they’ve rather taken against me. Haven’t you noticed?”

“It’s been a bit different, I’ll admit, but I’ve enjoyed my dinners. Always do,” Hagrid says with a huge shrug that almost dislodges Stanley from his lap.

“Even the sausages and tapioca?” Draco asks, incredulous, though it occurs to him that none of the dark looks in the dining room have ever come from Hagrid’s direction.

“I’m not fussy. I like bangers; I like tapioca,” he says easily. “It’s all food, Pr—Draco.”

“Oh, to be so laid-back,” Draco murmurs, surprised to find himself laughing.

“Well... forgive me for sayin’ so, but yeh’ve always been a bit ’ighly strung,” Hagrid says cautiously, and Draco just laughs again.

“You’re probably right. The trouble is, when it comes to food, I’m not the only one. I daren’t go to the Great Hall any more for all the daggers I’m getting. Staff and students, at that,” Draco says, meeting Hagrid’s eyes. “We’re going to have an insurrection on our hands if I don’t fix things soon.”

Hagrid laughs this time, and it’s a deep, throaty sound that Draco rather likes.

“I’ve no idea what ’Arry does to make ’em like ’im so much, but I’ll tell yeh what I do know. House-elves love mendin’ things. They can’t resist it. If yeh can get ’em int’rested in fixin’ something, I reckon yeh’ll be ’alfway there.”

“Really?” Draco demands, sitting up straighter and staring at Hagrid, who has now managed to upend Stanley and begun idly scratching his underside.

“Yeah. It’s worth a try, anyhow. S’gotta be somethin’ interestin’, though—they won’t use their magic for a broken cup or a run in yer cloak. ’Ouse-elves are clever, you know, and the ones ’ere ’ave got as they like to be respected. Which is right an’ proper, I think, but it means yeh got to think about what yer doin’,” Hagrid finishes, draining his mug and gazing anxiously at Draco.

“That’s brilliant. Do you really think it will work?”

Hagrid exhales heavily, blowing all the air out of his mouth and making the flames in the fireplace next to him waver alarmingly. “I can’t guarantee anythin’ but I’d say it’s worth a try.”

“Anything’s worth a try at this point—the food’s just getting weirder every day,” Draco sighs.

“Tell yeh what—if it really gets so it’s inedible, I’ll let yer know,” Hagrid promises, letting out a bark of laughter. “An’ in the meantime, I could always try puttin’ in a word for yeh. I’m not sayin’ they’ll listen to me, but—”

“Would you really do that?” Draco interrupts, staggered by this unexpected kindness.

“Yeah.” Hagrid shifts his great bulk awkwardly on the hearth stones and focuses his attention intensely on Stanley. “Yeah. Course.”

Draco doesn’t know what to say... or do, or even think. “Thank you,” he manages at last, and it feels woefully inadequate.

“S’alright. Never mind that, anyway.” He picks up Stanley, sets him down on the floor and reaches for another leaf. “Tell me all about where yeh got ’im.”

**~*~**

When Hagrid leaves, Draco heads automatically for the shower, shedding his muddy clothes with relish and dropping them all straight into the laundry basket. Body drained but mind whirling, he stands under the gargoyle and lets the hot water rain down on him until the whole day, including the unexpected interlude with Hagrid, begins to feel like a strange dream. Clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, he impulsively picks up Stanley and dances him around the living room until he starts to feel dizzy and Stanley is tacking to be put down.

He already knows where he’s going, and he can’t even be bothered to think too much about it, so he walks through the moonlit corridors and up the stairs, and before too long he is settling himself in the chair at Potter’s bedside. He has new pyjamas again—red ones this time—and his hair is lying across his forehead at quite the wrong angle. Something compels Draco to lean forward and rearrange it for him, but he resists.

“Hello, Potter,” he says, yawning and wrapping his arms around his knees. “Today’s Friday the twenty-eighth... just about. It’s pretty late. I have had a very strange day. Would you like to hear about it?”

Potter says nothing.

“Of course you would. Now, where to start...”

Draco isn’t sure how long he talks for, but he tells Potter about Hagrid and Stanley and scheming first-years and splinters in the broom cupboard, and all sorts of other things. He talks until he is barely aware of moving his lips, until his muscles are stiff and his fingers are numb with the cold. Every now and then, he closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, the scene is unchanged. Potter is still there, his chair is still uncomfortable, the darkness is still pressing at the windows, and it’s all rather reassuring.

At least it is, until there is a firm hand gripping his shoulder and shaking him, and he snaps his eyes open to find that sunlight is now streaming into the ward and he and Potter are no longer alone. Hurriedly, he attempts to straighten his arms and legs but a bolt of pain down each one persuades him to stay put for a moment longer. Surely he hasn’t spent the night here... just... surely he hasn’t, he thinks desperately, but the look on Pomfrey’s face is quite illustrative as she continues to shake him.

Why is she still shaking him?

“Good grief, I’m awake,” he tries to snap, but it comes out as more of a hoarse whisper.

“Up you get, then,” she says briskly, peering down at him with her hands on her hips.

“I will in a minute, I promise. My legs are a little bit stiff,” he admits, but there is not a scrap of sympathy to be seen on her well-scrubbed face. She looks so energetic and healthy, too, the rotten bugger.

“That is why sensible people sleep in beds, not in chairs,” she says, and Draco thinks that if his knees weren’t so stiff he would be tempted to kick her.

“I didn’t plan to sleep here,” he says, feeling suddenly and unhelpfully like a sulky teenager. “And anyway, I doubt Potter minded.”

“Be that as it may, I am a nurse, not a hotelier, Mr Malfoy,” Pomfrey says, stepping forward as though she is planning to hoist him out of the chair herself.

“What, no breakfast, then?” Draco asks before he can help himself.

Pomfrey tuts and walks away, and he stands slowly, wincing and groaning as he attempts to ease each group of muscles back into its intended shape.

“Catch!” calls Pomfrey, and Draco turns just in time to see a small green projectile heading his way. He catches it in one hand, amused to see that it is an apple from the fruit bowl on the windowsill. “Now, off with you!” Pomfrey orders, and Draco obeys, dropping the apple into his pyjama pocket and casting one more glance back at Potter before he walks out into the corridor and straight into Weasley and Granger.

They step back as one, taking in his sleep-ruffled hair, his pyjamas, his tired eyes, and, no doubt, the fact that he has just emerged from the hospital wing at what can’t be more than eight o’clock in the morning. Aware that the quicker he makes this, the fewer awkward questions they can ask, he nods politely to both of them and makes for the stairs.

“Are you ill?” Granger asks, and he pauses.

“Er... no. No, I just... you know, I’m going to be late for my Quidditch practice,” he stumbles, and almost throws himself down the stairs in his hurry to get away from them.

He makes good time along the corridor (because nobody else—especially not a student—needs to see him in his sodding dressing gown) but not quite good enough to miss Weasley’s thoughtful voice as he muses, “That man just gets weirder every time I see him.”

It really isn’t the best start to the day, and things don’t improve much when Draco puts on his practical clothes yet again and makes it to the pitch for practice just in time. The team, however, are way ahead of him and are already warming up, flying around the goal hoops in long, swooping circles, yelling to one another and laughing as though they haven’t a care in the world, much less a crucial match against Slytherin just one week from today.

“There’s really nothing to worry about, Professor Malfoy,” the team captain says blithely, when Draco gives up on waiting and grabs his own broom, kicking up into the air to fly beside her. It’s been a while, at least two or three years since he flew, and he grips the handle tightly, caught somewhere between exhilaration and anxiety.

“What do you mean, there’s nothing to worry about?” he yells above the wind. “There’s always something to worry about. I don’t know how the Slytherin team are playing at the moment but there’s every reason to believe that they’re very good! You can’t afford to be complacent!”

The girl turns to Draco, long, dark ponytail whipping behind her. “No offence, Professor, but of course you’d say that. If anything, you want us to lose. You know, no one will mind if you just sit this one out. We all know you’re just doing this because Professor McGonagall told you to.”

“For your information, Miss Ainsley, I am doing this because this team needs a leader while Professor Potter is unwell.” And because Professor McGonagall told me to, he adds silently.

“We’re fine,” she insists, edging her broom forward and increasing her speed. “I’m their leader. We really don’t need any help,” she calls, and then she accelerates rapidly, leaving Draco hovering in the air alone. He doesn’t follow her.

Instead, he traces a slow circle around one set of goal hoops and then the other, keeping an eye on the team as they gather in the middle of the pitch and begin to practice feints and various other evasive manoeuvres. They’re so bloody arrogant, like seven little Potters, he thinks, and then stops. Seven young Potters. The Potter he knows now—the one with whom he’s shared a ridiculous but comfortable rivalry for the past decade—is... well, Draco isn’t sure how to describe him, but ‘arrogant’ isn’t the first word he would reach for these days.

Torn between trying again to push his way into their practice and leaving them bloody well to it, Draco just watches. They don’t think he’s on their side and they don’t think he knows anything about Quidditch any more—to them, he’s just an old man who teaches them a stuffy old subject and cannot be trusted with anything more exciting. And maybe he is, but he’s not quite ready to give up.

Quietly, he coasts over to the edge of the group and just hovers there, eating the apple Pomfrey gave him and making mental notes on what he sees. The team seems happy to ignore him, and he is equally happy to let them get on with it for now. He still has two more practices before the game, and the wind and the cold and the apple have at last woken him up.

Hopeful for the first time in a long time, he heads to the Great Hall for lunch. True, he doesn’t know what he might find there, but the cold air and exercise have made him hungry. He opts to keep Hagrid’s ‘it’s all food’ philosophy with him as he sits down to eat, and he thinks he’s going to need it, because the soup is a very odd colour and the sandwiches appear to contain nothing but...

“Is that turnip?” comes the unmistakeable voice of Weasley.

“Raw turnip,” Granger clarifies, and Draco turns slowly to see them poring over a sandwich just a few seats down from him.

“It’s my fault,” he says before anyone else does. “I thought you’d have gone home by now.”

“Oh, no, we’re staying tonight,” Granger says brightly. “The house-elves have made up a room for us.”

Draco frowns. “I thought you didn’t approve of house-elves.”

Weasley glances at him, amused. “You remember that?”

“Of course,” Draco says, peeling apart his sandwiches and flicking the slices of turnip onto his plate. “You had a society of some kind—SNOT, wasn’t it?”

Weasley laughs—no, he giggles—and he carries on giggling even when Granger rolls her eyes and looks pointedly away from him.

“Spew,” he rasps breathlessly, still grinning.

“Excuse me?”

“It was called ‘SPEW’. Sorry, Hermione, but it was pretty funny, looking back.”

“Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare,” she sighs, cheeks flushing lightly. “I’ll admit I was a bit of a pain back then, but none of the rest of you were a perpetual delight, either.”

“I concede,” Draco says, picking up a piece of buttered bread and gnawing on one corner. “What do you do these days, anyway?” he asks, genuinely if inexplicably curious.

Granger flushes harder. “I work for the Ministry, liaising with magical creatures and beings.”

Draco laughs, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “What else could it have been? What about you, Weasley?”

“It’s Ron,” he says firmly, patting Hermione on the back in a clumsily affectionate gesture. “And I’m in Magical Games and Sports.”

“You play for a living,” Draco assesses, reaching for his tea.

“I don’t really think—” Granger begins, but Ron rubs her arm, silencing her.

“I do, pretty much. There’s a fair bit of admin involved, obviously, but mostly we’re travelling around, officiating at tournaments, setting up great big privacy charms, that sort of thing. The last World Cup was spectacular. Bulgaria versus the USA, and their head of sports decided to have the whole thing in Death Valley. Bizarre, but brilliant,” Weasley—Ron?—finishes, eyes bright with the zeal of a fanatic discussing his obsession.

“It sounds fascinating,” Draco says, fighting the temptation to ask Weasley if he can see some pictures from the event.

“It was hot,” Granger says darkly.

“I know,” Weasley agrees, grinning. “Mum and George made a fortune selling refillable perma-iced drinks and sunglasses.”

“How very enterprising of them,” Draco says, secretly impressed.

“How nice to see the three of you getting on so well,” McGonagall says, effectively ending the conversation as she looms over them on her way to the exit.

Draco, Weasley, and Granger look at each other, somewhat startled. Draco can only imagine that the awkwardness written across their faces is all over his, too, and he doesn’t know what to do with the fact that he had actually been enjoying a conversation with them. All of this is very strange, and he can’t be sure whether he likes it or not.

“I’d better get going,” he says a little too quickly as he gets up and backs away from the table. “I’m sure Potter will be pleased that you’re here.”

And he is, because Potter will be, but at the same time, there’s no way he’s going up to the hospital wing tonight. The last thing he needs is to run into them half-dressed again, and he doesn’t even want to think about what they’d say if they caught him actually sitting at Potter’s bedside, talking away to a man who might not even be able to hear him.

Draco frowns. This means that what he’s doing is a secret. He and Potter have a secret. Determinedly ignoring the little flip of his stomach, he unlocks his door and walks into his rooms to hear a frantic tacking coming from the bedroom, and he follows it to find that Stanley has managed to get himself stuck on top of the wardrobe. Finally, something familiar.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Chapter Text

That night, when his back becomes too stiff even for his beloved chair, Draco retires to his bedroom, accompanied by Stanley, half a pot of tea, and a stack of marking. The work has built up alarmingly over the last few days but he has managed to make quite a dent in it since dinner and there’s every chance he might finish it before he goes to sleep. If he ever goes to sleep, which of course he will, because he refuses to entertain the idea that he now needs Potter in order to get a decent night’s shut-eye.

That being said, the hospital wing has become a very soothing place in the midst of all this upheaval, and he feels rather resentful of Granger and Weasley-Ron for keeping him away from it. Draco scowls and pushes the thought to the back of his mind, flopping onto his back and stretching out on top of his autumn quilt, smiling idly when Stanley scrambles up onto his chest, even though it means he has to hold each piece of parchment up above his face in order to read it. He doesn’t care, because a happy Stanley is a wonderful thing, turning and settling against Draco’s breastbone and investigating his shirt buttons with sleepy antennae.

Draco reads, scribbles, and occasionally relates interesting passages to Stanley as he goes.

“When increasing the dimensions of an object, one must be sure that all pineapple surfaces remain even and boa constrictor,” he reads, eyebrows knitted. “I think Miss Bailey needs to lay off the self-correcting ink, don’t you?”

Tack-tack-tack,” Stanley responds, and of course he agrees. He is a very smart beetle.

Draco scribbles a firm but fair advisory note on the bottom of his student’s homework and then picks up the next roll in the pile. When he has finished, he looks at Stanley and realises he has fallen asleep. Suddenly feeling very alone, Draco pushes the rest of the parchments to the floor and presses his forearm to his hot, weary eyes.

It’s Saturday night, he thinks crossly. Surely there should be something more to it than this. He’s never cared before, but now he finds himself wondering what Granger and Weasley-Ron are up to. What Hagrid is doing. What Potter would have planned if he had the option. He groans out loud and sweeps his fingers over the familiar relief of patchworked fabrics and lines of stitching. He has always wanted what he knows, and now he doesn’t know what he wants. Soon, he falls into a fretful sleep, fully clothed and weighed down by a blissfully sleeping beetle.

Harry Potter is in his room. Just sitting there on the edge of the bed as though he belongs there. He looks better... good... healthy and bright, skin flushed with colour and eyes so green, and he just sits there and stares at Draco. He smiles and Draco smiles back before he can control the muscles in his face and get them to do anything else. Stanley leaps down from the bed and Draco sits up easily, leaning forward. Potter leans forward, too, and then his eyes flash with anger.

“What are you doing here, Draco?”

“This is my bedroom!” Draco points out, but Potter just shakes his head.

“Interesting how quickly you’ve given up on me,” he accuses, unbuttoning his pyjama top to reveal a raw, gaping chasm in his chest. His heart is clearly visible, shrivelled and clenching erratically.

Draco stares, feeling the bile rising into the back of his throat. “What happened to you?”

“I got tired of waiting,” Potter says, voice growing deep and slow, as though he is talking to Draco from under the lake. “Tack-tack-tack-tack.”

“What?!”

Tack!Tack!” Stanley chatters urgently, and Draco opens his eyes to find an energetic beetle hopping around on his chest.

Realising he is holding his breath, Draco lets it all out in a messy rush, resting an unsteady hand on Stanley’s back and staring up at the ceiling. It wasn’t real. Potter was never here. Still, Draco darts a quick glance at the end of the bed, just in case. It’s empty, and when Stanley scuttles away in search of breakfast, Draco pulls himself up with a wince and walks slowly to the window. It’s pouring down with rain. The sky is heavy and grey and the grounds are saturated. Draco wonders if he should call off his advanced flying class, but he doubts the seventh-years for whom Potter provides it will be any less stubborn than the rest. He’ll probably just have to get wet.

“Wonderful,” he murmurs, listening to the drumming of the rain against his window as he stretches his aching arms behind his head and wonders if there’s any point going to breakfast. Sunday breakfasts have always been such a treat, and he’s not sure he wants to find out what the house-elf saboteurs have done to his favourite meal. He really is going to have to try again with them, but not today.

Instead, he feeds Stanley, showers, dresses, and heads to the hospital wing. Weasley-Grangers or none, he just has to check that Potter is still in one piece. Still, he’s relieved when he opens the door and finds no one but Madam Pomfrey, and he hangs back and watches her for a moment.

“What are you doing?” he asks eventually.

“Good morning, Mr Malfoy,” she says, glancing up at him and then returning to her task, which seems to involve several delicate pipes and a small tent-like structure that has been erected around Potter, covering him from the neck down. The gloom of the sky outside is lit by the glow of at least three different charms, and the air smells determinedly of pine needles. “Nutrition and waste management,” she says briskly.

“Ah,” Draco says, understanding. Wrinkling his nose, he grabs the door handle and pulls. “I’ll just step outside, then. Perhaps you could give me a shout when you’ve finished.”

“Yes, alright,” she says, glancing over at him for a moment, surprise clear on her face.

Draco nods and retreats, finding a spot on the stone windowsill in the corridor and watching the rain sluice the lawns. He can just about make out Hagrid and his dog heading for the forest, already bedraggled in the hundred yards or so from their hut. He shivers. It hadn’t really occurred to him to think about such unpleasant and practical things as waste management, and he has a new respect for Pomfrey and her businesslike, let’s-get-on-with-it philosophy. When he tries to imagine himself in Potter’s position, though, he just wants to curl up in a ball and hide.

You put him there, a little voice reminds him, and he lets his head drop against the glass a little too hard.

“It was an accident,” he tells himself, but it doesn’t wash. Things should never have become so idiotic in the first place.

“Alright,” Pomfrey says, opening the door, and he follows her back into the ward, where Potter is now lying peacefully unencumbered, dressed in fresh pyjamas and with a small funnel sticking out of his mouth. “I’m just giving him his last potion, so I thought you might as well come back in,” she says, reaching for a tall glass bottle and measuring a dose out first into a cup and then into the funnel.

“What is it?” Draco asks, recognising the vile smell of the yellow potion as one of the ones from Potter’s bedside.

“It’s a calming potion,” she says, corking the bottle and setting it down. “The Healer from St Mungo’s gave it to me. It’s got mood-lifters and sedatives in it, apparently. I’ve never used it before.”

“Does it make him sleep?”

Pomfrey shakes her head. “No. Healer Talbot said he should sleep on his own. It’s to reduce the psychological effects of his condition.”

Draco grimaces. “To stop him going stir-crazy inside his own head, you mean.”

“Yes,” Pomfrey says, reflecting his grimace back to him. “He also has two different nutrition potions,” she continues, apparently as disinclined as Draco to think too much about Harry’s state of mind. She indicates two bottles on the bedside. “This one stops his mouth getting dry, this one prevents pressure sores, and this is just calamine,” she explains, and Draco decides not to push the issue of the last two bottles, because he has a fair idea of where they come into play and he doesn’t really want to know any more.

Reluctantly, he leaves Potter to prepare for yet another flying lesson. ‘Advanced Techniques’, Potter calls it, and Draco has read the file (as much as is possible) from cover to cover but he still isn’t confident that he’s qualified to instruct a group of seventh-years who are planning to go into flying-based careers after school. Still, he has a broomstick and a good memory, and there’s every possibility that they won’t need him at all, just like the Duelling Club and the Quidditch team.

He finds them out on the lawn, experimenting with umbrella charms and chatting happily as though they haven’t even noticed the mud and the puddles and the roaring wind. They are rather surprised to see him, but he’s getting used to that by now, and when he explains that he’s here to help out in Potter’s place, they are surprisingly receptive. Having cast his own charm, he hovers in mid-air and watches them, offering advice when he feels he has some to offer and trying his hand at some tentative encouragement. By the end of the two-hour session, he doesn’t feel as though he has added a great deal to the proceedings, but, on the other hand, nothing has gone horribly wrong either.

Despite multiple spells, though, he is shivering and dripping as he walks back to his rooms and all he can think about is his shower and his chair. Outside the door, he finds a note and a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. He reads the note, frowning.

Asked house-elves to make these for me. Knew you wouldn’t ask.

Hagrid.

PS Give the mendin a try.

Astonished, Draco takes the parcel inside and opens it. Inside, he finds several sandwiches and a big piece of battenburg cake.

Carefully, fingers numb and slippery from the rain, he inspects each one and is mildly incredulous to discover nothing but bread, butter, and thick slices of ham. No turnip, no strawberries, just proper, normal food. As he takes a bite and sighs pleasurably, a pair of antennae pokes out from under the coffee table.

Draco shows him the sandwich. “Looks like we’ve made a friend, Stanley.”

**~*~**

That night, Pomfrey prods him out of his chair by Potter’s bedside at an obscenely early hour and tells him not to come back. As a result he is quite happy to blame her for the resulting terrible night’s sleep and the fact that he spends much of the next day far too distracted by the things he had planned to tell Potter to allow his few remaining conscious brain cells to concentrate on Transfiguration.

“Please bring your potions to the front when you have finished,” he tells his sixth-year class, nearly missing his chair when he sits down behind his desk.

“Bring our what now?” someone mumbles. Draco yawns.

“Sir, are you alright?” someone else asks. Draco opens one eye. It’s Ivy Baron.

“I’m fine. Of course I’m fine,” he insists, picking up objects from his desk and then putting them down again.

Ivy frowns and looks away, but seconds later, she’s standing in front of his desk.

“Sir?”

“What is it, Miss Baron?” he mumbles, forcing himself to sit up straight.

“I was just wondering if you were feeling alright,” she says again, biting her lip. “You seem a little bit confused.”

Draco shakes himself a little and attempts to look authoritative. It isn’t usually this difficult. “I assure you, I am not confused.”

“It’s just...” Ivy hesitates and glances at someone behind her, then back at Draco. “It’s just that you seem distracted and you just told everyone to bring their potions up to the front.”

Draco sighs. His head hurts. Bloody Pomfrey. “I certainly did not.”

“You did, sir,” someone else chimes in, and suddenly Draco’s field of vision is full of gigantic Hufflepuff. “And you look a bit pale.”

“Mr Humphries,” Draco begins irritably, and then whatever he planned to say next flies merrily out of his head. Which means they’re probably telling the truth. “Did I really?” he asks, rubbing his eyes.

Ivy and Magnus nod. Both of their faces are kind, Draco notices vaguely.

“Okay.” He sits up straight, takes a deep breath and pulls himself together. “I’m very tired. But I’m fine, I assure you. If one of you could go and get me a glass of cold water, I promise to concentrate for the rest of the lesson.”

Magnus looks startled but Ivy smiles and slips out of the room without another word.

The house-elves, as he had feared, aren’t nearly so co-operative. Admittedly, he hasn’t yet found anything in his neat, ordered quarters that needs to be fixed or might be broken in order to be fixed, and his exhaustion is doing nothing to improve his patience, but a little part of him has been hoping that perhaps the little buggers will have grown tired of their rebellion, or that someone more influential than him will have approached them and told them enough is enough.

No such luck.

“I can’t do anything with them,” he tells McGonagall, perching on the edge of his chair with his head in his hands. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep trying.”

She pours tea into a delicate cup for him and adds sugar without asking. “You have strength in you yet, Professor Malfoy. Do you really think I would have given you this responsibility if I hadn’t thought you up to the job?”

Draco drops his hands to his knees and looks at her, pained. “You seem to have a very high opinion of me, which is very gratifying, but I really think you’ve overestimated me.”

McGonagall lets out a short bark of laughter. “You have lost none of your flair for the dramatic, have you? Listen to me. If house-elves are your greatest challenge, then you are doing very well indeed.”

“They’re my greatest challenge today,” he corrects, and she merely continues to sip her tea. “I’m exhausted, and they’re impossible.”

“It is a wise man who can make a friend of a foe, Mr Malfoy,” she says cryptically.

Draco stares at her, utterly perplexed. “Is speaking in riddles supposed to help me?”

McGonagall’s thin lips twist into a smile. “There’s nothing wrong with anything that makes you think. Did you enjoy your visit from Hagrid at the weekend?” she asks suddenly.

“Who told you about that?” he asks, immediately defensive.

“Hagrid, of course. I am not having you followed.”

Draco breathes, picking up his cup at last and then gripping it tightly as he remembers Hagrid’s tendency toward indiscretion. He knows it’s ridiculous, but Stanley is his secret and the idea of McGonagall knowing about him is just... he doesn’t know what it is. But it doesn’t feel right.

“I see. And did he tell you... anything else?”

McGonagall shoots him an odd look. “He told me that you had a rather pleasant chat. Why—is there something you’d like to tell me?”

“No.”

Draco glances away, fixing his eyes on the portraits, but he can feel McGonagall’s sharp gaze all over him.

“In that case, Mr Malfoy,” she says at last. “I suggest you drink your tea and get yourself to the hospital wing. Mr Potter will be waiting for you.”

Draco’s eyes snap back to her and he knows his face is flushing; he can feel it. He doesn’t know why he’s surprised that she knows—there are far too many witnesses, and anyway, she’s always been disturbingly perceptive. Determined to hold on to the remains of his dignity, he gives her a stiff nod, drains his tiny cup, and excuses himself. As he waits for the stone staircase to take him back to the corridor, he closes his eyes and swears until he runs out of breath.

**~*~**

“Evening, Potter,” Draco says, curling up in his usual chair and crunching on an oat biscuit grabbed from the jar after his flying lesson. “It’s Tuesday the second, and I am not going to dinner. I’m just not.” He sighs and rests the biscuit on his knee, leaning forward to inspect Potter’s striped pyjamas and to flick a loose thread from his sheets. “I’m starting to think that your nutrition potions taste better than the food the rest of us are being served at the moment.”

Yawning, he covers his mouth with his hand and grimaces, managing to taste mud even though he must have washed his hands four times before coming up here. He closes his eyes in an attempt to ignore it, and rests his chin on his rain-damp knees.

“What I wouldn’t give for a solid eight hours... in fact, four would do. I bet you’d love to be stomping around in the great outdoors, wouldn’t you, Potter? What we need is a swap,” he mumbles.

“What you need is sleep and proper nutrition,” Pomfrey says, catching the end of the conversation as she bustles over with a steaming mug of tea and pushes it into Draco’s hands. “Man cannot live on biscuits alone.”

Draco inhales the steam gratefully and warms his hands on the hot ceramic. “I know that. I had half a ham sandwich this morning, I’ll have you know.”

Pomfrey tuts. “You’ve lost weight, you know. And it’s not as though you had any extra to lose.”

Draco looks up at her, concealing another yawn. “Yes, thank you. I don’t feel much like eating when I’m tired but I’m doing my best.”

He’s not. He knows he could try harder, but maintaining a healthy diet is so far down his list of current priorities that it’s in danger of falling off completely.

She fixes him with an expression that chills him. “I’m keeping my eye on you, Draco,” she says, and he lifts an eyebrow. She ignores it. “I think it’s lovely that you’re spending so much time with him,” she adds, looking over at Potter.

Lovely?” Draco repeats. He doesn’t think anything he has ever done before has been described as lovely.

“Yes,” Pomfrey says firmly. “But don’t you think you ought to stop calling him by his last name?”

Draco hides a groan in his cup. “What is your fixation on what I call people?”

“Names are very important. They define us, whether we like it or not,” Pomfrey says, squeaking around the bed and taking Potter’s temperature.

“Right,” Draco murmurs, searching for a cutting—or at least logical—response, but finding none.

Pomfrey puts away her thermometer, apparently satisfied. “I’m going down to dinner.”

“Good luck with that.”

Shaking her head, Pomfrey walks out of the infirmary and Draco listens to her rubbery footsteps until they fade away to nothing.

“Everyone’s so strange recently,” he mumbles, gulping at his tea and then sliding it onto Potter’s bedside cabinet so that he can rest his head on his folded arms. He fumbles for his wand and casts a wake-up charm, just in case. “Mind if I shut my eyes for a minute before Duelling Club?” he asks.

He decides to take Potter’s silence as encouragement, and, seconds later, he’s drifting.

**~*~**

“It is late, Potter,” he says when he returns to the chair some hours later with a couple more biscuits and a pounding headache. “I haven’t even bothered to go back and get changed. You should see me, Potter. I’m a mess. I’m wearing a shirt with a button missing, there are grass stains on my trousers, I’ve completely given up on trying to keep my hair under control... it is curling at the ends, Potter. Curling. I look like... good grief, I look like you.” Draco frowns as he regards Potter’s pristine appearance. “I look like you used to look—like you usually look. You look strange.”

He sighs. For a moment he picks fitfully at one of his jacket sleeves and then he yanks it up to his face, eyes narrowed. Sure enough, there is a small but definite singe mark running along the cuff.

“Levinson, the little sod,” he mutters darkly. “I’m beginning to think that he hits me on purpose. Duelling Club,” he reminds Potter. “I’m sure you’re dying to know how it went. Well, it was... it was alright. I’d like to know where they get their energy, that’s for sure. Still, I did manage to get a word in this time, and we set up a few duels between the older students for the younger ones to watch... no use asking them to do something if they don’t know what it looks like. For what it’s worth, Potter, I’m not criticising your teaching techniques... I merely find it impossible to get any of them to tell me what they are.”

That’s because they’re scared of you, Malfoy, says the Potter in his head.

“I’m not sure they are scared of me, you know. I think they just don’t know how to talk to me, and believe me, the feeling is entirely mutual. I can’t help feeling that this job is made a lot easier if one understands children, or at least likes them.” He pauses, thinking of Jasper sodding Bracknell and all the ones just like him, and then of Ivy and Magnus, who had cared, and of Emilie Alderson, who had, at least for a moment, thought he was brilliant.

He just has no idea any more, so he eats his biscuits and looks out of Potter’s window at the stars. They’re always the same, and he likes that.

“So,” he says at last, recklessly wiping his crumby fingers on his trousers. “Pomfrey... Poppy.... oh, that’s weird... er, she-who-mustn’t-be-trifled-with, says I should start calling you Harry. What do you think about that?” Draco sighs and closes his eyes. “Me too.”

When he opens them again—seconds later, he thinks, but he can’t be sure—Potter’s pyjamas and sheets are covered in blood. Frozen to the spot, Draco grips the hard wooden arms of his chair and stares, cold with fear, as Potter’s lifeless hands rise stiffly from the sheets and yank at his buttons, fingers twitching like some kind of mechanical toy, exposing his chest, and there, just like before, is that horrible, gaping hole, gushing with dark blood and revealing with each weak, feverish beat, Potter’s withered heart.

“No,” Draco whispers, mouth dry and stomach roiling. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, no.” Fingers slipping on the varnished wood, he pushes himself upright, blinks, and then stops dead.

Potter is fine. There is no blood, no open wound... nothing. He’s just lying there, eyes closed and arms laid neatly at his sides, breathing steadily and looking—if Draco didn’t know better—as though he is sleeping peacefully. Draco lifts shaking fingers to his forehead, finding the skin there cold and damp. He’s hallucinating, or at least, he was.

Taking slow, deep breaths in an attempt to control his erratic pulse, Draco lowers himself back into his chair and then immediately gets back up. Potter looks okay, he looks fine, but Draco just needs to... make sure.

“Sorry,” he whispers, leaning over Potter and gently pressing his palm to his chest. He’s warm, and Draco’s knees almost give out beneath him with stupid relief. He tells himself firmly to stop there, but before he knows what he’s doing, he’s slipping the top two buttons undone and drawing back the flannel, grazing Potter’s chest with his fingertips.

Everything is just as it should be and his skin is surprisingly soft to the touch, sparsely scattered with dark, curly hairs. Fascinated, Draco lays his palm over Potter’s heart and allows the steady beat to calm him. The rhythm speeds slightly under his touch and he pulls back, realising that he’d be nervous—or even angry—too, if someone started prodding his chest in the middle of the night.

He refastens the buttons and retreats to his chair, still feeling shaken.

“I’m imagining things, Potter,” he says, and stops. Maybe it is a bit strange not to call a person by their first name once you’ve felt their heartbeat. Somewhere, he imagines, is a set of rules regarding these situations, but he doubts he’ll be able to lay his hands on a copy any time soon. “I’m losing my mind, Harry,” he says, and it doesn’t stick in his throat like he thought it might. “Shall we talk about that?”

**~*~**

Draco stumbles back to his rooms somewhere around four, falls asleep with his clothes on and subsequently has the maimed-Potter dream three more times before breakfast. He manages to keep his head together during classes with the help of plenty of cold water and a bag of horrible but sugar-loaded Ice Mice that he confiscates during his first lesson of the day. He is, however, followed relentlessly from class to class by a little band of first-years, who appear to be under the impression that now he is in charge of Gryffindor Quidditch, the team is open to all comers, including the woefully inexperienced. He grits his teeth and quietly plots revenge on whoever started the rumour, tries not to pin it on Jasper Bracknell before he even has any evidence, and attempts to dissuade the enthusiastic students as efficiently and diplomatically as he can.

Unfortunately, they seem disinclined to listen to a word he says, and by the time the dreaded Gryffindor Open House rolls around, the rumour has spread amongst the children like wildfire, and practically every other student that sits opposite him immediately launches into a Quidditch-themed sales pitch. He tells each of them the same thing—that whatever rules Professor Potter has in place are still in force—but the sheer number of them cause the session to overrun, and by the time the last student lets himself in, it is already well after ten o’clock.

“Mr Quinlan,” Draco says, hiding a yawn in his teacup and gesturing for the tall, dark-haired student to sit down.

“You’ve been busy tonight,” he says, folding his long frame into Draco’s second armchair. His voice is pleasant, smooth with a light Irish lilt, and Draco’s sore head is grateful for it.

“Yes, you don’t happen to know anything about that Quidditch rumour, do you?”

Fergus shakes his head. “I didn’t even hear it until after dinner—I’ve been in the library most of the day. It’s true what they say about NEWT year, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Draco agrees, ignoring the sounds of tacking from the next room and hoping Fergus hasn’t noticed them at all. “I haven’t seen much of you since you dropped Transfiguration.”

“Sorry about that, sir,” Fergus says sheepishly, and then breaks into a smile. “It’s nothing personal. I just needed Charms, Potions, and Care of Magical Creatures more. I want to be an animal healer.”

“I’m sure you’ll make a fine one,” Draco says, and he means it. He has rather missed Fergus—he was never quite as irritating as most of the others. “Is that what you want to talk about? I can give you a little bit of guidance, but Hagrid knows far more about things like that and I’m sure he would be happy to help you.”

Fergus rests his hands on his knees and stares at them hard. “No, it’s not that. I was looking for some advice on a more... personal matter.”

Draco cringes inwardly. “Okay. Fire away, then, I’ll do what I can.”

For a moment, there is silence, as Fergus frowns and breathes slowly, apparently working his way up to something difficult. Finally, he looks up, bright blue eyes meeting Draco’s determinedly. In the split-second before he speaks, Draco knows, and he just wants to drop through the floor.

“Professor Malfoy, I’m pretty sure I’m gay, and I’m having some trouble getting my head around it.”

“I see,” Draco says evenly. He’s not qualified to deal with this. He’s not even qualified to deal with his own personal issues. He keeps his face calm as he looks at Fergus and tries to compose a response, but his heart is hammering and his stomach feels as though it is full of eels. “Wouldn’t you rather discuss this with Professor Potter?” he says at last, hating the weakness of the words.

The disappointment is clear in his student’s eyes as he responds. “I was going to, right before he was taken ill. I can’t wait any more, and I thought... what kind of example would I be setting for the younger ones if I didn’t give you a chance? I thought... you’re still a man, aren’t you?”

Draco blinks. “Er, yes, Mr Quinlan.”

“Well, then. I’ve had this in my head for months—years, actually—just turning it over and over, and there’s no getting away from it, but it’s just... how can that be me? I’m so... normal,” Fergus says, shrugging and gazing into the fire.

Realising that he’s going to have to try to help, even if he has no faith in himself to do so, Draco says the first thing that comes into his head. “You are normal, Fergus. If you want to be. Being gay doesn’t make you abnormal. It doesn’t define you.”

Fergus glances at him, wide mouth twisted in contemplation. “I don’t really know what does define me,” he admits.

“Neither did I when I was seventeen,” Draco says, mildly alarmed at the honesty that is escaping his mouth. “I’m not sure I know now.”

“But you’re straight—it must be easier,” Fergus insists, and Draco’s whole body turns cold. Hot. Cold again. Because he doesn’t think about it. He hasn’t thought about it in years. He’s just... him, alone, uninterested, so none of it matters. Somewhere deep within him, though, something sparks uncomfortably and for a humiliating few seconds, he cannot say a word.

“Fergus,” he says eventually, sidestepping the issue as hard as he can. “Time will show you who you are. Experience will show you. Life. As for being gay, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’m not ashamed,” Fergus says fiercely, eyes burning.

“Good. Tell me what you’re really worried about.”

Fergus leans back in the chair and lets out a heavy sigh. “Honestly? Other people.”

Draco gives him a small smile. “Other people are not your problem.” Fergus gives him a dubious look. “Alright. Perhaps they are, but you cannot control what other people think of you. When I was your age, I... well, I spent a lot of time trying to impress the wrong people. Believe me, it is an exercise in futility. The right people will never try to change who you are,” he says, chest aching with the weight of memories and mistakes.

“I hope that’s true,” Fergus says, stretching out his long legs towards the fire.

“It is,” Draco says, ignoring the sting of hypocrisy because it won’t help. “Of course, you’ll make mistakes, but that’s how you’ll learn. Take it from me,” he says pointedly, and he is rewarded with a twitch of a smile from Fergus. “Professor McGonagall says ‘we are to learn while we live’,” Draco confides. “Which is one of the more sensible proverbs I’ve had out of her recently.”

Fergus snorts but says nothing.

“You’re not alone,” Draco promises. “I’m not sure how much help I can be but I can always listen.”

“Thanks, Professor Malfoy.” Fergus brings his hands up to his face and exhales heavily. “Just saying it out loud was a start.”

“And you did that.”

“I did. And the world didn’t end,” Fergus laughs.

“Did you expect it to?”

He shrugs. “I’d spent that long thinking about it... anything was possible. I’ll get going, Professor, it’s late. You know, I think I might actually sleep tonight.”

Draco gets up with him, walking him to the door and resisting the urge to pat him on the shoulder. His face is weary but open with relief and Draco bites back his envy, reasoning that at least one of them will be sleeping peacefully tonight.

“Goodnight, Fergus,” he says, fingers wrapped around the doorknob.

“’Night Professor Malfoy. Thank you. Really.”

Draco shuts the door behind him and closes his sore eyes.

“You are a fucking disgrace,” he tells himself.

Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack! Stanley insists, scrabbling at the bedroom door to be let out.

Furious with himself and the world, Draco strides across the room and flings the door open.

“And you can put a sock in it as well!” he snaps, glaring down at the beetle and then storming out into the corridor without looking back.

In the short time it takes him to reach the hospital wing, guilt has crept into the tangle of anger, fear, confusion, and self-loathing inside Draco’s chest and he doesn’t know if he wants to hide, cry, or hit someone. Instead, he throws himself down into his chair and stares at Potter, who, as usual, looks irritatingly serene.

“I bet you’re not, though, are you?” he says, and the thought doesn’t make him feel any better.

It’s warm in the ward tonight, airless and stuffy, and Draco’s nerves cannot stand it. He strips off his cloak and waistcoat, rolls up his shirt sleeves and pushes open both of the windows near Potter’s bed. The night air is cool and gentle, slipping over his skin and ruffling his hair. He lets it, sitting back in silence and allowing the fury inside him to ease. He’s going to have to apologise to Stanley; none of this is his fault.

“So,” he says after several minutes, pulling himself up into his usual position and gazing wearily at Potter. “It’s Wednesday night, and you know what that means, don’t you? Yes, well, one of your students came along to discuss his burgeoning homosexuality, and that was a treat, let me tell you. I bet you’re marvellous at giving that sort of advice, aren’t you, Potter? Harry? It also probably won’t surprise you to know that I am terrible. There I was, waffling on about experience and self-acceptance, and all that rot.”

Draco frowns. “It isn’t rot, of course, but coming from me, it might as well be. The idea of me giving advice about anything to do with relationships is just... well, it’s ludicrous, frankly. If experience is everything then I am as close to nothing as it gets. Have you had thousands of girlfriends, Harry? I’m sure you haven’t been short of offers. Or boyfriends... or both, why not?” Draco ponders, words coming easily now. He scrutinises the man in the bed, looking for a clue, but finds nothing beside a swathe of hair out of place yet again. This time he barely hesitates before he gets up, strokes it into place and then returns to his seat.

“Pansy Parkinson,” he says, pulling a face at the ceiling. “She was very persistent, and I liked having my ego stroked. It’s not really much of a basis for a relationship, but then again, it was never much of a relationship. She was very aggressive in bed, you know,” he confides, wincing at the memory. “Something of the honey badger about her. Do you know what honey badgers do, Harry? They use their claws to rip your balls off.”

A fleeting smile crosses Draco’s face as he imagines Harry’s reaction to that particular mental image.

“She ended it with me in sixth year. She said I wasn’t paying her enough attention, which I suppose is fair. I had other things on my mind at the time. As did you... don’t think I didn’t notice you following me that year. I often wondered what would have happened if you’d...” Draco trails off, closing his eyes as a bolt of pain shoots across the side of his head. “Anyway, then there was the time Rufus MacNair and I ended up locked in the cellar of the Manor during the war. He was an evil bastard, he really was, but extremely good looking. Dark hair and... eyes.”

Draco looks away from Potter and out at the night.

“We found some elf-made wine down there. It was an interesting couple of days. And that, I’m ashamed to say, is it. That was fourteen years ago, and I am definitely not the sort of man who should be advising teenagers on the subject of sexuality. ‘You’re straight, so it’s easy’, he said. I don’t think either of those statements could be much further from the truth, but I’m clearly no expert.” Draco rests his chin on his knees and stares at Harry, already knowing he’s said too much. There’s a chance he is asleep, but knowing Draco’s luck, it’s very unlikely.

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” he sighs. “Even if you do, I doubt anyone would believe you. And who would care? My father, I suppose, but I can’t say I give much thought to his opinions any more.”

Draco stretches, bringing the faded Mark into his field of vision. He scowls, dragging his arm up to rest on his knee so that he can glare at it more easily. The shapes are familiar; he has seen them every day for the past sixteen years, grey-black lines on white skin, skull, snake; it’s always the same. It just sits there, and he covers it up, pretends it’s not there.

“I hate this mark, Harry,” he says quietly. “You know, when I took your three first-years for their extra flying lesson last week, I forgot to roll down my sleeves and not one of them said a word or even looked at it. I don’t think they knew what it was. Isn’t that frightening? This mark means nothing to them.” Draco shivers in the breeze from the open window, fingers tracing the lines on his skin. “Everyone thinks it’s some kind of elaborate ritual—fire and magic and circles of Death Eaters chanting. It’s not. It’s just you and him. You kneel and bow your head and this thing... this horrible red thing comes out of his wand and carves it into your skin. The pain is disgusting. I don’t know how long it takes, but I honestly thought I was going to die.

“When it was over, he pulled me up and kissed me on the forehead. It was vile, Harry, and I don’t believe I have ever hated myself more than I did at that moment. I had wanted it... for a little while. For some reason I thought it would be a good idea. But then... well, let’s just say the Death Eaters aren’t exactly renowned for their flexibility. I’m not trying to absolve myself of responsibility, believe me, but I sometimes think... never mind.”

Draco yanks down his sleeve and presses his face against it, heart twisted and mind uncomfortably full. His muscles twitch and jerk, confused with exhaustion, and his eyes burn whether he opens or closes them. The calm, moonlit ward seems to mock him, and he knows the last of his sanity is slipping away. A person can go mad from lack of sleep. They can die. He knows that.

His eyes drift from Harry to the window to the bedside cabinet, coming to rest on the tall bottle containing the vile-smelling yellow potion, and before he can reason with himself, he is lunging out of his chair, uncorking the bottle and tipping a small quantity down his throat. It tastes just as hideous as it smells and he gags, abandoning the bottle and searching for a jug of water, but he finds nothing.

“What kind of a hospital doesn’t have water?” he demands of the room, clapping a hand over his mouth when the potion once again tries to reassert itself. “I’ll be right back, Potter,” he mumbles, pelting out of the door and down the stairs, crashing into the first bathroom that he finds and sticking his head under the cold tap.

When he is finally confident that the potion is staying down, he stares at his haggard reflection in the mirror above the sink.

“Why didn’t you just use your wand?” it asks him mockingly.

He blinks. The reflection doesn’t. Alarmed, Draco leaves the bathroom and starts to make his way back upstairs. He makes it as far as the first turn in the corridor when he realises that he is sweating profusely; he touches his forehead and his hand comes away dripping.

“Fuck,” he mutters, pulling at his clothes as a burning, prickling sensation begins to spread all over his skin. It’s the potion. It has to be. And the floor is moving. Draco rubs his eyes and steps back against the wall, but the floor is definitely moving, and he’s pretty sure a sedative potion can’t do that. It lifts and rolls in waves, tiles rising and falling like the spines of some vast creature. Draco glances wildly around, wondering why no one is coming to see what’s going on, to help, but he’s alone and he’s burning up—he has to get outside.

Dragging in a steadying breath, he waits for the floor to roll past him and then makes a run for it, stumbling and slipping as the walls get in on the act, too, pitching him this way and that as he scrambles for the Entrance Hall. He makes it, bruised and breathing hard, and dashes down the steps, fumbling his buttons with slippery fingers as he runs. He doesn’t stop until he reaches the Quidditch pitch, at which point he slows to a walk, kicking off his shoes and socks and walking barefoot on the cold, wet grass, shirt dangling from one hand and skin beaded with perspiration.

The sheer panic he had experienced inside the castle has evaporated, leaving behind a confused sort of tranquillity. He walks in slow circles, relishing the wind that caresses his heated skin, and then throws himself down on the grass and stares up at the stars, head light and buzzing gently.

Harry would like it here, he thinks. Harry likes the outdoors. He smells of grass and trees and things that belong to nature. Draco smells like chalk dust and musty old robes and boring, boring, boring. He’s worse than boring—he’s a coward. He’s afraid of everything, useful for nothing and needed by no one. What he needs is a challenge.

A big one.

Lacing his fingers into the grass, Draco sits up slowly, tipping his head back to follow the gleaming pole of the central goal hoop as it rises into the night sky. He is no longer burning but tingling all over, and it is all at once absolutely imperative that he climb that goalpost. He springs to his feet, pain and exhaustion washed far, far away, and breaks into a run, flinging himself into the air and wrapping his arms and legs around the metal pole. He has no idea how far off the ground he is but it doesn’t matter because it’s a start, and he can do it! Triumphant, he takes his hands off the post and falls with a heavy thump, flat on his back on the cold grass.

“Bugger,” he mumbles, and his voice sounds strange, as if it belongs to someone else.

Quickly, he springs upright and attacks his task with vigour once more. This time he manages to pull himself up, arm over arm and ankles locked together, for a little longer before he hits his head on the pole and loses his grip.

He flops for some time, breathing hard and staring up at the gleaming golden hoop, wondering vaguely if this is how Surya Khan feels all the time. Perhaps he should be kinder to her.

The metal is cold and unforgiving against his bare chest as he throws himself at the post again and again, sometimes sliding straight back down and other times hoisting himself skyward with gritted teeth and the blinding knowledge that if he makes it to the top, everything will somehow be okay.

He doesn’t know how high he is when he falls for the last time, but it feels as though he is flailing in mid-air for several minutes before he hits the ground in a tangle of hands and knees, face and hips and back and everything in between. Strangely, it doesn’t hurt; all he feels is pressure, but he can taste blood in his mouth and his eyes are closing.

No. He forces them open and lightning flashes, somehow. Somewhere. And all is darkness.

When he stirs awake, there is a brief lull of confusion, the scrape of the night air and the sensation of wet grass beneath him, and then Draco’s world explodes into white-hot pain. He opens one eye cautiously and then closes it again because there are too many stars for his head to cope with. He sees enough to know that he is lying on the Quidditch pitch and that his trousers are the only thing protecting him from the elements. Shivering, he moves each limb in turn, and when he is satisfied that nothing is actually broken, he bites down hard on the inside of his mouth and pulls himself upright.

“Fucking hell,” he hisses, drawing up his knees and leaning forward, steadying himself with slow, careful exhalations as the full spectrum of pain courses through his joints and muscles and his head... oh, his head. It feels as though some small creature has crept inside and is now trying to rip the whole thing open from within. Tentatively, he touches his face with his fingertips, feeling raw, swollen patches, rough grazes and a warm trickle of blood. His nose is whistling softly as he breathes and perhaps it’s broken, but he can’t concentrate on that, not now that he’s seen the bruises on his arms, the streaks of mud everywhere and the battered, grass-stained state of his hands.

Wincing, he staggers to his feet and looks up at the towering goal hoop until the pain in his head forces him to stop. Suddenly he remembers what he tried to do and feels sick. Horrified with himself, he hobbles across the grass to pick up his shirt, easing his arms into it with the utmost care and fastening it up, even though the weight of the fabric on his chest and shoulders is almost too much. He can’t go back in half-dressed, and he’s going to have to go back in sooner or later. He collects his shoes and socks with a hoarse Accio and, once he looks as respectable as he’s going to look, he proceeds slowly, swearing and panting, over the grass and back to the castle. If he can just get up to the hospital wing, he can clean himself up, find some kind of pain-killing potion, and no one will be any the wiser.

Filch is patrolling the corridors when he limps back into the castle, but Draco manages to hide in the shadows until he and Mrs Norris have passed. The stairs are a challenge, but he gets to the top in one piece, allowing himself a moment’s rest before he slowly pushes open the infirmary door, creeps inside, and promptly falls over a trolley full of potions, which crashes to the floor alongside him.

Draco leans up on one elbow and stares at the mess of shattered glass and spilt liquid. “Good.”

He knows exactly what is coming because Pomfrey’s rooms are just on the other side of that corridor, and he doesn’t even bother to move. Seconds later, the doors burst open, admitting a furious Pomfrey with a candle in one hand and her wand in the other, bright purple dressing gown flapping behind her.

“What on earth—?” She stops short, eyes flicking from the upended trolley to Draco. Her mouth falls open and she sets down the candle, rushing over to him and kneeling in a puddle of blue liquid. “Draco—good heavens,” she murmurs, touching his face and making him hiss in pain. “What have you done?”

He looks at her, closing one eye as she spells the lights to full brightness. “Too much,” he mumbles.

She turns her wand slowly, reducing the glare until it is no longer searing Draco’s retinas.

“Now, tell me what happened,” she insists. “Have you been... you took his potion, didn’t you?” she says suddenly, peering into his eyes. All sympathy has now vanished from her tone and she pins him to the spot with an expression of pure steel. He collapses under it.

“It was just a little bit. I thought it was a calming potion. It’s not!” he says indignantly.

“It is a calming and mood-lifting potion for a patient who is already under the effects of a curse, you silly man! Goodness knows how it behaves inside a healthy person!”

“It behaves badly,” Draco mutters, flinching as she tucks his feet underneath him and expertly pulls him up. Shaking her head, she hauls him over to the nearest bed and folds him into a sitting position before Summoning a stool and perching herself on it.

“Take your shirt off,” she instructs, and Draco obeys quietly. Every inch of him is pounding and twisting with pain and it’s all he can do not to ask her to knock him out until the morning. “You of all people should know better,” she continues, batting his fumbling fingers away from his buttons and taking over. “You know about potions. You know it’s all about precision, delicate balance... do you have any idea how carefully I have to calculate Harry’s dosage—did you even measure it out?”

Draco looks at the floor. “No.”

Pomfrey makes a rough sound of exasperation and then gently tugs his shirt open and away from his body. She gasps. “What on earth have you done?” she demands, frustration dissolving into genuine concern.

“I fell. Several times.” He closes his eyes, attempting to focus on the breeze from the open window, the soft sound of Harry’s breathing, the bits of grit and grass in his shoes, anything to distract from the reality of sitting half-naked in front of the school nurse in the middle of the night, bruised and broken and feeling like a stupid, naughty child all over again. He takes a deep breath and it hurts. “Please could you mend my nose so that I can go? I promise to come back and apologise in the morning. I’ll replace the potions I spilled. Anything you like.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pomfrey says, but her voice is softer now. She touches an undamaged part of his shoulder with cool, reassuring fingers. “You’re going to stay right here and we’re going to sort this out. Just keep still.”

Draco barely breathes as she looks him over, passing her wand down along arm and leg and casting flickery little charms that warm his skin pleasantly.

“Right,” she says after a silence of several minutes. “There’s nothing here I can’t fix. Don’t you move a muscle—I’m just going to get my ointments.”

She spears him with a warning look and squeaks off out of sight. Draco sags with relief. He’s an idiot; he knows that for certain, but at least he’s not an idiot with serious injuries. Unfortunately, that knowledge doesn’t make any of it hurt any less, and he is thankful when Pomfrey returns with a collection of clinking bottles and a basin of steaming water. He braces himself for another barrage of questions, but it doesn’t come. Pomfrey sits down on her stool, immerses a clean, white cloth in the hot water, wrings it out, and begins methodically swabbing his cuts and grazes. Her touch is brisk but gentle, and when sting pulls a hiss from Draco, she gives him a moment’s respite before starting again. When she touches his face, he inhales sharply, gritting his teeth as she dabs the dirt and mud from his skin.

It’s easier to keep his eyes closed, but when he does sneak a glance at her, there is nothing but concentration on her face. She runs the hot cloth over his marked forearm without a word, as though she cleans up self-destructive ex-Death Eaters every day, and not a single one of his other scattered war scars attracts a comment from her. Gently, she takes each of his sore hands in turn and envelops them in the press of hot cotton, rubbing at grazed knuckles and raw fingertips with incredible care.

When he hears the clink of the bowl being placed on the floor, he opens his eyes to see that the air around them is full of steam, and he is clean and beginning to shiver. Pomfrey gives him a small, rueful smile and scoops some yellowish ointment out of a jar with her fingers.

“What’s that?” Draco asks, breaking the hush.

Pomfrey’s smile widens for a split second and then disappears. “Miracle Ointment. Well, that’s what I call it. It’s my own blend,” she says, smoothing the thick paste onto his skin. “These bruises should bloom beautifully overnight and by morning, they’ll be gone.”

“That’s very impressive,” Draco says, inhaling the potent herbal scent. “What’s in it?”

Pomfrey stands to reach the bruises on his back. “Arnica, tea tree oil, unicorn horn... and some secret ingredients,” she says mysteriously, rubbing briskly at his shoulder blades.

“Such as?” Draco asks, partly out of curiosity and partly to take his mind off her huge, winceyette-clad bosom, which is currently bobbing up and down in front of his face as she leans over him.

“Never you mind,” she says, and when she sits down again, she looks much more like her usual self, and Draco is relieved. She isn’t the sort of woman to be easily rattled, which means that he must have looked pretty terrible.

“I suppose I’ll have to live with the curiosity,” he says, trying to smile and then immediately regretting it when a cut at the corner of his mouth pulls unpleasantly.

“Be careful,” she orders, picking up her wand. “We’ll just heal your nose and the rest of these cuts, and then I’ll put the kettle on.”

“I think this school runs on tea,” he says, bracing for the spell.

“All good British institutions do, Draco,” she says, then adds: “Episkey!

Draco grips the sheets as his nose turns hot and crackly. For a moment he thinks he can feel things rearranging themselves in there and then it’s over and he can breathe properly again.

“That was very strange. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now keep still,” Pomfrey says, narrowing her eyes in concentration as she heals each cut in turn, drawing her wand along the ragged edges of skin and knitting them together neatly so that nothing remains of each one but a faint pink line. “You’ll need some dittany for those. I think I have some in the office. Come on,” she calls, already halfway across the floor before Draco has had time to think about moving. “I’ll make some tea and find you something to wear. I’m sure Harry won’t mind if you borrow one of his pyjama tops.”

“Because that won’t be strange,” he mumbles, but levers himself up from the bed and follows Pomfrey stiffly and slowly into her private office.

“Sit,” she orders, and he knows better than to disobey. He watches her bustling around the room from a surprisingly comfortable patterned armchair and reflects that a person who has the ability to be commanding in a nightie and a purple dressing gown is an impressive person indeed.

The room is small but cosy, decked out in stripes and dark wood. There is a desk, a beautiful old square sink and an army of tiny pewter animals sitting on top of an enviably large potion cupboard. He has never seen the inside of this room before but only one thing about it surprises him: the pictures.

One wall has been completely given over to them, and when Pomfrey turns her back to make the tea he leans closer to examine them. Some are photographs of a little dark-haired girl but most are drawings and paintings, ranging from multicoloured squiggles to more complex pictures of people and houses and trees, and a couple of brave attempts at what seems to be the same ginger cat.

“How are you feeling?” she asks.

Draco jumps as though he’s been caught reading her diary. “Delicate. My head hurts. But better.”

“Eat this,” she says, breaking off a large slab of chocolate from an even larger slab. “I can’t do much about your head; only sleep and time will heal that, I’m afraid.”

Draco isn’t the slightest bit hungry; his mouth is sore and moving his jaw only makes his headache worse, but he breaks off a piece and eats it anyway. He can smell the tea, knows it’s nearly ready, and knows it will help. He sighs when she hands him a spotted flannel pyjama shirt, but wearing Harry Potter’s clothes can’t be any weirder than sitting topless in Madam Pomfrey’s office, so he puts it on.

“Are you admiring my artwork?” Pomfrey asks, handing him a steaming cup and sitting down at the other side of the desk.

Draco nods. “Your granddaughter?”

“No.” She smiles. “My grand niece, Rosa. I don’t have children.”

Draco grimaces as a twinge of pain shoots down his back. “They’re nothing but mess and noise from what I’ve heard.”

“Don’t be like that, Draco. Rosa’s a lovely girl.” Pomfrey gazes affectionately at the pictures, and now Draco realises that several of the painting are of nurses, and one is labelled ‘Auntie Poppy luks after peple’ in higgledy-piggledy script. “I’d have liked to have had a daughter.”

Draco drinks his tea. It’s incredibly strong and he doesn’t know why he’s surprised, but it warms his throat and soothes his nerves just as it should. “Why didn’t you?” he asks impulsively, then sighs. “Sorry.”

Pomfrey gives him an odd look and leans forward on the desk, hands wrapped around her cup.

“I never thought I had time. There was always something I needed to do first, and then...” She shrugs. “It was too late. I always thought my sister had children too young, but now she’s got her kids and she’s got Rosa, and I’ve got...” She stares hard at Draco, forcing a smile. “I’ve got a few hundred little witches and wizards to look after, and I’ve got a staff team to keep in line.”

With some effort, Draco reflects her smile back to her, but all he feels is sadness, and the creeping realisation that he has never really thought of her—or any of the others—as people. They are teachers, nurses, authority figures, but they also have regrets and fears and silly little dreams, and he can’t quite believe it hasn’t occurred to him before. Perhaps that’s what comes of working with the same people who have watched you grow up, advised you, punished you, witnessed your indignities and moments of stupidity. He has no idea what to say to Pomfrey, but he wants to stand up and shake her hand for her honesty, and for the consequent unlocking of a part of his brain that might just turn out to be incredibly important.

“I don’t really understand children,” he muses, and it takes a moment for him to realise he’s thinking aloud.

“Don’t you ever wonder how you ended up in teaching, then?” Pomfrey asks, amused.

Draco smiles wearily. “Every day.”

She regards him steadily.”I don’t think you mean that.”

“Maybe not. But I think I’m probably here because McGonagall asked me to be, and at the time, no one else seemed interested in what I was going to do with my life. Including me.” Draco frowns at Pomfrey’s raised eyebrows. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. I can hardly imagine you calling her Minerva.”

“I do. Frequently.”

Draco sips his tea crossly. “Good for you.”

For some reason, when he looks at her again, she is smiling, and it’s a real smile this time.

“Do you want to know what I think?” she says, continuing without waiting for an answer. “I think there’s a place for all of us in this life, and I think that you have found yours here, just as I have.”

Draco’s skin prickles, and he lifts his cup and drinks the last of his tea. “You really think that I belong here?”

“Absolutely. I remember that some people weren’t thrilled at first to see you teaching here, but that was a long time ago. You’ve proved them wrong, Draco, but now you have to stop trying. You have to let it go. Don’t waste your life,” she says gently.

His eyes sting. He lets them close and nods. “I’m not very good at listening to advice,” he admits. “But I think it’s probably time to try. After some sleep, anyway. If that’s even possible.”

She stands and he hears her moving around the room but he doesn’t open his eyes. He wedges his empty cup between his knees and rests his head heavily on one hand, slumping sideways in the chair.

“Draco?”

“Mm?”

“Where did you fall from?”

“One of the Quidditch goal posts,” he says, yawning widely.

For a moment there is no reply, and then the peace is shattered as Pomfrey yells: “Are you completely insane? You could have been killed!”

Draco’s eyes fly open and his head jerks up, causing him to swear loudly as his neck wrenches at a painful angle. “Was that necessary?” he demands.

She stares at him. “Yes, I think it probably was,” she says calmly. “And if you ever do something like that ever again, I will personally see to it that you are banned from this hospital wing and have to have any future wounds attended to by sugar-stuffed first-years!”

“That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?” Draco says, rubbing his eyes.

“Yes, probably. But it’s four in the morning for me too, you know.”

“That’s fair,” Draco concedes. “I suppose I’d better leave, then.”

“Yes, off you go. Take this when you get back to your rooms and I promise you—you will sleep,” she says, handing him a small glass bottle filled with scarlet liquid and a vial labelled ‘dittany extract’. She prods him out of the chair and towards the exit. “Go on. I’m putting a charm on this door so don’t even think about coming back tonight.”

Draco goes where he is pushed, gripping the precious little bottle tightly. At the door, he turns and glances at Harry. He hesitates.

“I will tell him everything’s alright,” she promises. “Just go.”

Draco goes.  When he stumbles back into his living room, he looks around, bewildered. Everything is just as he left it—there’s his cup on the coffee table; there’s his second armchair, out of place because of Fergus Quinlan’s long legs; there’s the pile of marking he hasn’t yet done... but somehow it feels as though it’s been days since he was here. None of that matters now, though. He has only one thing to do before he can take this potion and maybe—just possibly—sleep.

“Stanley,” he calls, walking around the living room and then the others in turn, searching for the beetle to whom he owes a sincere apology. “Stanley?” After a couple of fruitless circuits, Draco goes to the tea cupboard and crushes a mint leaf, wafting the scent through the air and calling out again.

“Please,” he tries, dropping painfully to his knees on the hearthrug and looking under each item of furniture, guilt-flooded and eyes stinging. “Please come out. I’m really sorry.”

Nothing happens. He sits back on his heels and drops his head into his hands, no longer caring about anything but the fact that his best friend is lost. Hot tears spill from his eyes and track down his face, seeping into his mouth and dripping onto his borrowed shirt.

Tack-tack?

Draco looks up so quickly that his head pounds in protest, but it doesn’t matter because Stanley is poking his head around the bedroom door and cautiously waving his antennae, and Draco is up, crossing the floor in three long, unsteady strides, and scooping him up against his chest.

“I’m so sorry,” he mumbles, cradling the beetle and relishing the feeling of six little legs scrabbling for purchase against his clothing. “I’m sorry I shouted at you. It wasn’t your fault.”

Tack, Stanley says, exploring Draco’s wet face with his antennae. Tack-tack-tack!

“I’ve had a fucking awful night, Stanley,” Draco says shakily. “Let’s go to bed.”

In the dark bedroom, Draco carefully undresses and carefully gets into bed, then very carefully pulls his quilt over his shivering body and smiles as Stanley turns in circles next to him before settling down to sleep. He uncorks the small bottle and drinks the contents in one go. He trusts Pomfrey. Poppy. It tastes nice. He closes his eyes.

**~*~**

He opens them again to find a hungry Stanley promenading up and down his legs and the sun streaming in through the window. Stretching, he turns to look at his alarm clock only to find that it has been pushed onto the floor. When he leans down to pick it up, the first thing he notices is that the pain in his arms and legs has vanished. The second thing he notices is that it is quarter past eight and that he is going to miss breakfast, which might actually be a problem, because, for the first time in several days, he is ravenous. The house-elves can do their worst.

Pushing back his quilt, he looks down at himself and laughs. He has, apparently, decided to sleep in his boxer shorts and Potter’s spotty pyjama shirt. Harry’s spotty pyjama shirt, he corrects. Things really do feel different this morning, and he rather suspects he has better things to do than go around calling people by their last names.

“Or something,” he mumbles, wandering into the bathroom. He walks easily, all aches and pains banished by the magic of Madam Poppy Pomfrey, and alright, there is still a light throbbing sensation at the back of his head, but he can’t bring himself to care. He turns in the doorway, heading back into the living room to seek out the vial of dittany, savouring the feeling of the cool tiles, worn floorboards, and soft carpet beneath his bare feet.

Vial in hand, he pulls Harry’s shirt over his head and returns to the bathroom. Everything feels so...

“Good grief.”

Draco stares at his reflection and grimaces. He has lost weight and it doesn’t look good on him. Lifting both hands, he touches the sharp angles of his collarbone, traces his fingers over his ribs and plucks at the dark waistband that, once snug, now sags slightly. There’s no one to blame but himself, either. Other than Hagrid’s care package, he can’t remember the last time he ate anything but biscuits and bits of toast, and he can’t imagine that the situation has been helped by the stress, lack of sleep, and unusual levels of exercise.

It’s not as though he’s ever been much of an oil painting; his skin is too pale, his lips are too thin, everything is far too angular to be attractive, but this is ridiculous. He dreads to think what he looked like when he stumbled into the hospital wing last night. It’s probably better not to know; the memories of his bizarre behaviour and humiliation are still raw in his mind despite the best efforts of four hours’ potion-induced sleep. Pomfrey—Poppy, Poppy, Poppy—had promised him that the bruises would be gone by morning and she was right. The hair’s-breadth scars from the cuts are already beginning to heal, and as he drops some of the dittany onto each one, he watches them fade almost to nothing.

Setting down the glass vial, he leans on the sink and scrutinises his eyes in the mirror. He’s become almost accustomed to the dark shadows and they are still very much present, as is the ghostly pallor of his skin, but he feels better, and that will do for now.

The shower is wonderful, as are his clean clothes and the cup of tea that he just about manages to squeeze in before leaving his rooms. The Great Hall is almost empty but on the staff table is a tray of sausages that looks relatively un-interfered-with, so he pulls up the seat nearest to it and takes three, which he then stuffs between two slices of wholemeal toast. He’s just about to bite into it when Poppy leans over his shoulder and says,

“Good to see you’ve got your appetite back.”

Draco turns to look at her, stomach grumbling in protest. Her eyes are tired, but she is as immaculately turned out as always and her smile is warm and genuine.

“Yes, I woke up absolutely ravenous,” he says. “Listen, I really am sorry about last night. I’m fully aware of how badly I behaved, and you were truly classy about the whole thing.”

“You can stop apologising to me now, Draco,” she says. “You look much better already and everything’s cleared away upstairs, so there’s no harm done. In fact, I rather enjoyed our chat. I’d have preferred it under different circumstances... maybe a little earlier in the day, but never mind.”

“Yes, I...” Draco sighs. Frowns. The words are coming out whether he wants them to or not. “I really am sorry.”

Poppy stares down at him, stern look firmly in place. “Enough. Eat your breakfast before it gets cold, and I will see you later.”

With that, she walks away, and Draco watches her, biting into his sandwich and chewing contentedly.

He’s still not sure why she seems to want to help him, but it’s becoming apparent that he doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. He’ll see her later, yes, but first, he has some bridges to build. No one knows it yet, but he thinks he may have been given a chance to turn this mess around, and just as soon as he’s finished silencing his stomach, he’s going to grasp it with both hands.

And then he’s going to go upstairs and tell Harry all about it.

**~*~**

“Miss Ainsley, please stay behind; I’d like a word,” Draco says, raising his voice above the sound of the lunch bell. He can only hope that his stern expression hides his anxiety, because the last thing he needs on his hands is a sixteen-year-old Gryffindor who thinks her teacher is frightened of her.

He’s not, anyway. He’s frightened of something and he’s not sure what, but the weary look she gives her friends as they pick up their bags and leave without her makes him want to forget the whole thing. He doesn’t, though, because last night may just have been an epiphany, and those do not come along often—at least, not for him.

“Sir?”

“Have a seat, Roxanne. You aren’t in trouble,” Draco says, enjoying the surprise in her eyes as she sits cautiously opposite him. “I want to talk to you about the Quidditch team.”

She nods and says nothing, but her nostrils flare slightly just at the mention of the word ‘Quidditch’.

“I’m quite certain that you do not want to be here and you do not want to hear what I have to say, but I’m going to say it anyway, because, like it or not, I am responsible for everyone in your house until Professor Potter comes back, and that includes the Quidditch team. It’s true that I haven’t always seen eye to eye with Gryffindor in the past, and it’s also true that I haven’t played since I left school.” Draco pauses, letting out a small, knowing smile. “It’s not as long ago as you think, believe me.”

Roxanne releases a short, surprised breath, and Draco presses on. “Anyway, I have been watching the team and I have some observations. You can take my advice or you can ignore it, but it would be remiss of me not to mention what I have seen. Are you prepared to listen?”

“Yes, sir,” Roxanne says quietly, frowning as though she has no idea what to do with him. He’s happy with that; as far as he’s concerned, it gives him the advantage, and he hasn’t had that in a good few weeks.

“Good. First of all, your Chaser, Mr Ramsay, needs to learn to pass the Quaffle. He may want to score every goal himself, but Quidditch is a team sport and besides, as soon as the Slytherin Beaters realise what he’s doing, they will clobber him, and the chances are he’ll be spending the rest of the game with Madam Pomfrey. Secondly, your Beaters: they may be very strong hitters but they sorely need some training in accuracy. There’s no use having a strong arm if all you can hit is empty air... or worse.”

Roxanne stares at him, mouth open and fingers twisted tightly in the strap of her leather satchel.

“That’s...” she stops, shaking her head.

“Spit it out,” Draco says, but not unkindly.

“All that about the Beaters and Mark Ramsay... that’s just what Professor Potter said to me at our last practice before... is he going to be alright, do you think?” she asks suddenly.

“Yes,” he says firmly. “He’s going to be fine. His recovery will take time, that’s all. I promise you, he’ll be back before you know it and you won’t have to deal with me any more. Except in this room, of course.”

Roxanne lets out a long breath and nods. “I’ve been working on those things, but it’s hard when half the team is brand new this year. Our captain left this time, and I never really expected to get the job.”

Fortified by the small confidence, Draco offers his last piece of advice. “I’m sure you’re going to be a fine captain, Roxanne. I have, however, noticed that you heavily favour your left side when you are throwing and catching, and even carrying the Quaffle. I’m concerned your opponents will notice it, too, and use it against you.”

Shaking her head, Roxanne stares down at her hands. “I can’t believe you noticed that. Professor Potter never even mentioned it.”

Draco gazes calmly across the table at her as he mentally performs a victory dance, and it takes him a moment to realise that he is not celebrating a victory over Potter, but over himself.

“Do you agree that it could be a problem?”

“Yeah. I broke my right wrist over the summer. Fell out of a tree,” she admits, finding a sheepish smile for Draco. “The Healer fixed it in about thirty seconds, but I haven’t felt confident with it since.”

“I understand. Confidence is very important. Perhaps Madam Pomfrey could examine it for you and reassure you of its strength,” he suggests.

Roxanne sighs. “Maybe. Listen... Professor Malfoy... I’m sorry I was rude. It’s just that I already know we’re going to lose to Slytherin on Saturday and having you at our practices was just sort of... rubbing it in.”

Draco leans on his desk, eyebrows arched. “That’s a rather defeatist attitude.”

Roxanne leans forward, too, giving him a look that only a teenage girl can. “You know their captain, Joseph Ryan?” she says, suddenly all challenge. “He’s being scouted by Puddlemere and the Wasps. Either way, he’ll be playing professional Quidditch the second he leaves here. We can’t compete with that.”

“Joseph Ryan is just one person,” Draco points out, though he is secretly rather impressed.

“I’m just being realistic,” Roxanne says solemnly.

Draco smiles. He can’t help it. He opens his mouth to reply and his stomach grumbles loudly.

“Lunch,” he declares instead, rising from his chair and ushering Roxanne out into the corridor with him.

“Oh, god, do we have to?” she groans, following him anyway.

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“Starving,” she says with feeling. “But the food is so weird at the moment.”

Draco rolls his eyes. Of course. “I’ll see what I can do,” he promises, but she has stopped listening.

**~*~**

House-elves... tonight, he tells himself firmly at regular intervals during that evening’s Quidditch practice. There is no excuse for putting it off any longer, and with his improved appetite, biscuits and toast triangles are no longer sufficient. The practice, during which he watches from the sidelines as Roxanne takes her team to task, is by far the most satisfying yet, but he cannot say the same for tonight’s dinner, which he thinks may have been some sort of corned beef hash-egg salad hybrid. Whatever it was, he had eaten it as quickly as he could in an attempt to avoid tasting it, and as he walks back to the castle over the squelchy grass, it sits uneasily in the pit of his stomach as though it’s not sure it wants to be there.

Resolve to make up with the house-elves strengthened, he is just debating whether to go straight to the kitchens and get it over with or shower and change first when he almost walks into a third-year Slytherin boy in the Entrance Hall.

“You’re covered in mud,” he points out, stepping back.

“Well spotted, Charlie,” Draco says easily. “Any other observations?”

The boy frowns, surprised. “I meant... why are you covered in mud, sir?”

“I see. You know, we can save a lot of time and energy if we just say what we mean the first time,” Draco says. He’s enjoying himself now. “In answer to your question, I have just come from a Quidditch practice.”

Charlie’s expression turns sour. “It’s not fair that you’re helping them.”

“Excuse me?” He frowns, aware of something large in his peripheral vision, but he doesn’t turn.

“It’s not fair,” Charlie repeats sullenly. “You were a Slytherin. Why can’t you help our team?”

Draco folds his arms and looks down at his student. “The team that’s captained by Joseph Ryan? The same Joseph Ryan who is currently being fought over by Wimbourne Wasps and Puddlemere United?”

Charlie’s look of astonishment is immensely satisfying. “Er... yes, sir,” he says after a moment.

Thank you, Roxanne Ainsley, he says silently. Knowledge is power.

He gives Charlie a little smile. “I think the Slytherin team will be just fine.”

Looking utterly baffled, the boy slinks away. The thing in the shadows moves out into the lamplight and towards Draco, grinning all over its whiskery face.

“Yeh certainly told ’im, didn’t yeh?” Hagrid laughs. It’s an infectious sound, and Draco laughs, too. It feels strange and frightening and wonderful just to stand there in the middle of the vast Entrance Hall, sharing a moment with this unexpected new ally.

“Yes, I don’t really know where that came from,” he admits. “I enjoyed it, though.”

“I noticed. ’Ow’s young Stanley?”

“He’s fine. When I left, he was trying to get onto the mantelpiece. I doubt he’ll manage it, but he seemed to be relishing the challenge.”

“That’s good. You look much ’appier today as well,” Hagrid says, casting an almost fatherly eye over him.

“I had some sleep,” Draco confesses. “Just a little, but it’s a start.”

“Is that all? You look as though you ’ave a secret,” Hagrid says, wriggling his bristly eyebrows. “Whatever it is, it’s doin’ yeh good.”

Draco’s stomach tightens quite without his permission. “Oh. Well, I don’t know about that, but... thank you, I suppose. And thank you for the sandwiches. They were fantastic.”

Hagrid just laughs and heads for the front doors. “’Ouse-elves,” he booms over his shoulder. “Alright once yeh get on the right side of ’em.”

The door bangs behind Hagrid and Draco hovers in the Entrance Hall for a moment, lost in thought.

He’s right. Of course he is. Hopefully.

All he needs, he thinks as he hurries back to his rooms, showers and makes himself look presentable, is something for them to mend. The trouble is, it has to be something interesting. Something important. The last thing he wants is for them to think he’s just humouring them, or worse, mocking them, and oh, bugger, he’s going to have to do the unthinkable.

He walks into the bedroom, braces himself, and, with the help of a silver letter opener, rips several squares from his beloved autumn quilt, cringing as he pulls at the stitching and tries to make it look as though there’s been some sort of unfortunate accident.

When he’s finished, he holds up the quilt and sighs. It looks terrible: sad and unloved, and he hopes fervently that Hagrid was not overstating the mending talents of the house-elves, because he bloody loves this quilt and he can’t quite imagine life without it.

“You can’t befriend a house-elf without ripping a few quilts,” he mumbles to himself, picking up the folder containing the menus, slinging the quilt over his shoulder, and heading to the kitchens.

As always, the room clears instantly as soon as he steps inside, but he’s ready for it this time.

He takes a deep breath. “I need your help,” he says loudly. “Please.”

Nothing happens. Carefully, he lays out the quilt on the table and tries again. “I was hoping you could fix this... it’s... it’s very important to me,” he says, surprised to hear his voice cracking slightly. “My mother gave it to me and her mother made it for her.”

From the back of the kitchen comes a soft rattle, and there is a creak as someone opens the larder door a crack.

“I know you don’t like me,” Draco continues, eyes flitting around the dimly-lit kitchen. “I didn’t really like you either. I thought you were rude, and the food these past two weeks has been terrible. A lot of people are pretty unimpressed with me about it, which is probably what you wanted, but... things have changed, and I...” he stops, feeling idiotic about talking to what looks like an empty room. “The thing is, Hagrid... he’s my... friend,” he says awkwardly, forcing himself to go on. “He saw my quilt and he said that you were good at fixing things, but perhaps he made a mistake,” he says, dropping his eyes and waiting. Hoping.

Slowly, the larder door creaks all the way open. One elf creeps out and approaches the table without a word, reaching out a long finger to touch the torn quilt, and then suddenly they are everywhere, emerging from cupboards, leaping out of flour bins, popping out from behind crates of fruit and sacks of onions. In seconds, the floor is swarming with them, and Draco steps back, flattening himself against the wall and watching with astonishment as they surround the quilt, whispering amongst themselves. It is impossible to see what they are doing once they close ranks and set to work, but for two or three minutes the table is lost in a flurry of activity, and when they step back, all Draco can do is stare.

His quilt is perfect.

They have restored the damaged sections beautifully, but it’s more than that. All the loose threads and tiny marks that have resulted from years of use are gone; the warm russets and bright golds and rich, deep browns seem to glow in the lamplight, and the whole thing just gleams with newness.

He looks up from the quilt to find himself to focus of many, many pairs of bulbous eyes, and for a moment, no one in the kitchen seems to breathe.

“Thank you,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “Thank you so much.”

“We are fixing things,” says the elf nearest Draco, looking up at him fiercely.

“Yes, I can see that,” he murmurs, and a ripple of satisfaction spreads around the room. Carefully, he gathers up his quilt and folds it into a fat square. “Could we perhaps... start again?”

**~*~**

There is a warm little glow around Draco as he makes his way to the hospital wing that night. Relations with the house-elves are back on track, the Gryffindor Quidditch captain is listening to him, and, if he’s lucky, all three of tomorrow’s meals will be edible.

“What a difference a day makes, Harry,” he sighs, going to drop into his usual chair and then realising that it is missing. In fact, it has been replaced. Gone is the hard, wooden, straight-backed thing to which he has become accustomed; in its place is a soft, low-slung wing-backed armchair in coffee-coloured fabric with a knitted blanket folded neatly on the seat.

Baffled, he lowers himself into it and closes his eyes, floating somewhere between contentment, confusion, and startled gratitude.

“You should see this chair,” he sighs, eyes still closed. “I’m getting special treatment after I behaved so badly. Perhaps because I behaved so badly. What do you think of that?” Draco smiles sleepily, letting all his muscles relax as the day begins to catch up to him. He is fully aware that Poppy is merely trying to look after him, but it’s still a rather foreign concept.

He opens his eyes and grimaces at the potion bottles on the bedside cabinet, then looks at Harry, who is wearing green pyjamas. Eye-green, he thinks idly, and then pulls himself together. He doesn’t know how much Poppy has told Harry, or indeed, how much he heard for himself last night, but for some reason, the desire to supply him with the full, unedited version is compelling. If nothing else, he supposes it will keep Harry entertained for a few minutes.

“I’ve made a truce with the house-elves, you know,” he says, leaning forward to straighten Harry’s collar for him. “Kreacher nearly fainted from shock when he came back with the firewood and saw us all sitting around the table drinking tea. I know, it’s a very strange image, but don’t think I don’t know that’s what you do. That’s where I got the idea. And it’s true, you know, tea really does solve everything.”

Draco pulls his feet up underneath himself and stares lazily at Harry, wondering how he takes his tea and if he’s any good at making it. These things are important to know about one’s friends, he reasons, startling himself. He frowns, wondering if it is possible to count someone as a friend when you have done all the talking and they haven’t really had a choice but to listen. And he does want to be Harry’s friend, which is quite astonishing all on its own.

Eventually, he decides that it’s better to stop thinking about it and just get on with it; after all, it’s not as though his constant overanalysing has done him any good so far.

“I have so many things to tell you, but I think I’d better start with a confession. Last night, I stole something from you.”

Malfoy, you are an idiot, Harry says inside his head.

“That is becoming rapidly apparent. Now, do you want to hear this story or not?”

Harry doesn’t move.

“I thought so.”

**~*~**

Friday afternoon’s broomshed-blitzing session is punishing and uncomfortable, but this time Draco is ready for it. Armed with dragonhide gloves, a flask of tea and a handful of powerful cleaning spells, he throws himself into his task, flinging out brooms and bits of assorted junk until his arms ache and his sinuses are lined with dust. At ten to six, he stops, pulling his hot hands out of his gloves and rubbing at his gritty eyes. He sits on a patch of grass that is slightly less muddy than the rest and gulps at his tea, breathing deeply and startling himself with the realisation that he is enjoying the earthy smells of the outdoors, and that, yes, he’s tired and dirty, but he also feels accomplished and oddly energised for the lesson ahead.

Frowning, he glances back into the broomshed. It’s still a mess, but it’s definitely a more organised sort of mess than it had been two weeks ago. One more session, he thinks, and he might be able to start cleaning the whitewashed walls and mending the broken shelves and racks, and he thinks he might be looking forward to that, were it not such a strange thing to do. He finds himself wondering what Harry would think of his efforts but quickly stops, because he is starting to suspect that this project might be him doing something nice for Harry, rather than merely a demonstration of what a properly-kept broomshed looks like, and the idea makes him feel very odd.

That said, a lot of things make him feel very odd these days.

Draco gets up and brushes the dirt and dust from the trousers he has mended twice already this week. He’s going to have to buy more, but that means shopping, the very thought of which makes him grimace as he impulsively grabs an extra broom and heads to meet his first-years. Being nicely dressed is one thing, but shops are quite another, and people who choose to stubbornly survive on a teacher’s salary cannot afford to summon a tailor every time they feel like a change of wardrobe.

“Good afternoon,” he calls, throwing brooms to each of his three students in turn. Predictably, Emilie catches hers, Surya grabs hers and then immediately drops it, and Winston ducks, letting his broom fly over his head and thump onto the grass behind him.

Draco holds on to the fourth broom, watching as Surya and Winston scurry to retrieve theirs. He hadn’t planned on flying today, but something that sounds irritatingly like Potter tells him that he’s never going to get them in the air if all he does is stand there and bark at them with his arms folded, and while he would like to ignore that advice, he knows it is probably worth a try.

“Are you going to fly, sir?” Emilie asks, all wild hair and enthusiasm.

“Perhaps,” he says, suddenly and inexplicably nervous. “Let’s start with ‘up’, shall we?”

Winston groans, but when Draco looks at him, he is placing his broom on the grass with a look of utter determination on his face.

“Up!” Emilie says, cringing, but her broom flies straight into her hand anyway, and Draco is amused.

“Up!” orders Surya, and the rise of her broom is much improved from last week.

“Good,” Draco says.

Surya smiles and Draco feels an odd twinge of pride in his chest.

“Thanks. I’ve been practicing,” she says. “You played Quidditch, didn’t you? I looked you up in the library.”

“I’m in a book in the library?” Draco says, horrified. “Which one?”

“The Hogwarts Team Quidditch Record,” she says. “It has information about every game ever played at Hogwarts. Everyone who’s ever played for their house team is in it.”

“I see,” Draco says, relieved. “Yes, I did play, but that was a long time ago. Now, Winston, have you been practicing, too?”

Winston looks up anxiously at Draco, and Emilie jumps in to defend her friend.

“He has, Professor Malfoy! He’s practiced loads.”

“Alright, Miss Alderson,” Draco says with a touch of irritation. “I’m sure he can speak for himself.”

Emilie stares hard at her broom and says nothing.

“I have practiced,” Winston says, eyes on the ground. “I did what you said and nothing happened.”

“Oh,” Draco says softly. He feels rather inadequate suddenly, and though he can see from Winston’s posture and expression that the only person he is disappointed in is himself, Draco can’t help feeling that he has failed him somehow. This just... doesn’t happen in Transfiguration. His students do as they are told and, one way or another, they succeed. If they struggle, he finds a way to get them through; logically, the same method can be applied here, but Draco has no idea how.

Emilie doesn’t need anything from him besides his consent to continue with her subterfuge, and he senses that there is hope for Surya. All he needs to do is get into the air beside her and teach her to correct her balance. It may be a challenge, but he thinks he can do it; it’s just a problem of mechanics. Winston’s issue, however, is not a technical one, and Draco doesn’t know where to start. He’s never had to help a student who is afraid to perform the magic required of them, and he can’t help thinking that he, with his impatience, and Winston, with his timid nature, are not a match made in educational heaven.

Still, neither he nor Winston have much of a choice at the moment, so he’s going to have to think of something.

“Try it for me now, please,” he says at last.

Winston sighs, but as the others look on, he holds out his hand, takes a deep breath, and lets out a banshee-like scream of “UP!

Draco and Surya both jump at the sound, but Emilie stares calmly at her friend. The broom does not move from the grass. Draco thinks it might have quivered ever so slightly, but he also thinks the wind might have been responsible for the movement. He rubs at his forehead and looks down at Winston, who is flushed and visibly disappointed.

“Okay,” he says, summoning all the tact he can find. “Well, you’re certainly saying it with more conviction.”

“Is that good?” Winston asks gloomily.

“It was quite frightening,” Surya says. “I didn’t know you could make a noise like that.”

Winston gives her a small smile. “But I can’t do it.”

“You will do it,” Draco says with more confidence than he feels. He summons his broom into his hand, just for something to do. All he has to do is figure out how to beat what is probably a perfectly logical fear of falling from a great height. No problem.

By the end of the lesson, Winston is still very much on the ground, as is his broomstick. Draco has made progress in other areas, though; by hovering alongside Surya, he has managed to copy her posture and replicate the problem so accurately that he has found himself in a heap on the ground next to her more than once. Emilie’s acting skills are improving, too, and he can almost convince himself that she is as inexperienced as she is pretending to be.

On his way back to the castle, he catches sight of a tall figure in the near-darkness, flying in slow circles around the trees. He stops, squinting to make out a face, and notices that he or she is throwing a ball into the air, over and over again, sometimes catching it and sometimes fumbling and having to plunge into a dive to retrieve it. There’s something awkward about the movement, something in the left arm held behind the back, and then there’s the flick of a long, dark ponytail, and Draco smiles.

“I think she actually listened to me,” he tells Harry some hours later, curling up in his comfortable chair and pulling the blanket around his knees. The hospital wing is cold tonight; he has already felt Harry’s nose with the back of his hand and cast a gentle warming charm around his bed, but his own fingers are still numb and he wishes he had a hot cup to warm them on. “I bet you think that’s pretty hilarious, don’t you—me helping the captain of the Gryffindor team to conceal her weakness from Slytherin? I suppose it is, really, but god help me, I actually felt proud of her.”

Harry breathes steadily and Draco falls silent, mesmerised by the gentle rise and fall of his chest beneath checked pyjamas. He hasn’t had the horrible dream for two days running now, but that doesn’t mean he’s quite ready to stop worrying about it.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do about Winston Camberwell,” he sighs, fiddling with the edge of the blanket and frowning. “How can I get him to fly if he’s too afraid to even get his broom off the ground? What were you planning to do? There aren’t any notes about it in your file—I’ve checked. Perhaps he hadn’t even told you he was frightened... I suppose it would be easy enough to fade into the background in class full of brand new flyers. You knew he was struggling, though, didn’t you? I’m still interested to know how Emilie Alderson got past you, I have to say...”

Draco sighs. Harry helpfully says nothing.

“Maybe because I don’t just expect my students to lie to me as a matter of course, Malfoy,” Draco mutters, pulling a face at Harry.

Outside, the wind howls desolately around the castle, somehow making Draco feel as though he and Harry are the only people awake in the world. Inside the hospital wing, the flicker of a lone lamp and the glow from Draco’s warming charm seem to wrap them both in a cocoon of soft, hazy light. He wonders if he will ever be able to replicate such a feeling of security once all of this is over—for a moment or two he wonders, and then stops, because he doesn’t want to think about it.

So he talks. He tells Harry about his father’s obsessive quest for power and influence, his insistence that Draco honour the family name above all other things, his moods and his cruelty and his punishments. He also tells him about his father’s lighter side, his love of music and art, and the trips to concerts and galleries that stick hard in his memory even though they had stopped well before he hit his teenage years. He tells Harry about the defiant man who had shaken his hand after the war trials and told him to look after his mother and to never forget that he was a Malfoy, and the broken, confused man who had returned from Azkaban seven years later. He tells him about the moods and the memory loss and the way he spends his days buried in books about time, fixated on the idea that if he could just go back and change one or two things, he could twist his life into the one he had always imagined for himself.

“I don’t know who he is any more,” Draco admits, unsure even now if he feels sadness or resignation or something else completely. “Still, he doesn’t get angry like he used to, and he gets so embroiled in his projects that he forgets to complain about me not visiting often enough. It makes my mother sad, but...” Draco shakes his head, thinking about Harry’s parents and wondering whether he’s being an insensitive idiot by talking like this. Either way, he supposes there’s little point leaving him hanging. “The thing is, I just don’t want to go back to that place. I never went back after the battle, did you know that? It wasn’t my home any more, not after everything that happened there. Mother says it’s beautiful now, just like it used to be, but it isn’t ever going to be the same. Not to me.”

Draco stares at Harry, eyes tracing the strong lines of his nose and jaw and the very beginnings of stubble on his chin. For the first time, he wonders if Poppy is shaving him every morning and the image makes him smile for a moment.

“As soon as I could, I took all the money from my personal vault and rented myself a flat in Glasgow,” he says, wrinkling his nose at the memory of his first home after leaving the Manor. “It’s a rather nice city, actually, but the flat was ugly and the area was ugly; it was all I could afford if I didn’t want my money to be gone within a month or two, and I was hardly fit for work. I was exhausted and depressed and horribly thin... I think I must have looked like a drug addict because the man in the flat below mine was always trying to offer them to me. ‘D’ye need any skag, mate?’” he attempts, trying to fish the distinctive accent from his memory.

He sighs, regarding Harry over the tops of his folded arms. “Suffice to say, I didn’t need any skag. I can only imagine it would have made things worse. In fact—you’ll like this—I didn’t know what it was until I went to the library and looked it up.”

You idiot, Malfoy, he thinks and shrugs. He has no argument for that.

“I was there for almost four years, just... hiding. Waiting, I suppose. I barely spoke to anyone beside the cashiers in the Tesco and my mother, occasionally, though even she didn’t know where I was. I read, I walked, I ordered my NEWT books again and practiced all the spells on my own. You know, I’m not sure I ever thanked you properly for returning my wand to me... I don’t think my mind was quite working properly at the time, but it’s no excuse. For what it’s worth all this way along the road, thank you. Without it... just think, I might still be living above Dave the Rave and eating instant noodles every night.”

Draco shudders as a wave of vivid sense memories crashes over him, and all at once he can taste synthetic chicken and smell damp wallpaper and hear the pounding bass of the music from the flat below. With some effort, he shakes away the thought, replacing it with the memory of tonight’s very delicious and completely non-experimental ham and leek pie.

“I don’t know to this day how she found me,” he says after a moment. “McGonagall, I mean. She would never tell me. I don’t suppose it really matters, but I always hate not knowing. She just turned up one day—I went to the shop to buy some milk, and when I got back, there she was, standing in the middle of my living room, looking at everything with that expression on her face. You know the one I mean—the one where she looks as though she’s trying to figure out where a bad smell is coming from.

“I had to take her somewhere else. I didn’t want her to have to sit in that place and see... I realise it’s ridiculous, but I was ashamed. In the end, we sat in a corner of the Nag’s Head and she told me that she wanted me to come and stay at Hogwarts over the summer. It sounds crazy but I jumped at the chance, partly because I wanted to see the renovation work she’d told me about, and partly because Dave had just got a new girlfriend and I wasn’t getting a minute’s sleep.”

Draco smiles against his dressing gown fabric; with distance, the memory of some of those noises is rather amusing, though at the time, he’d have happily strangled them both for a decent night’s rest.

“Of course, that’s when it all started. The school was empty, obviously, and she kept taking me out on the lawn or into classrooms and giving me strange little tasks to do. I did them, and they kept getting bigger and more complicated until I had to ask what on earth she was up to. She told me to go to her office, and when I got there, the portrait of Dumbledore was awake. She’d set the whole thing up, of course. She wanted me to know that they both forgave me, that there was a new start waiting for me if I wanted it. She couldn’t carry on with teaching Transfiguration and being Headmistress, and she wanted me to take her place. You know, it still sounds ridiculous in my head even now,” Draco admits, shaking his head. “I kept asking her ‘why me?’ and she just kept saying that I was the right man for the job, whatever that means, and for some reason, I let her talk me into it.”

I always knew that woman had a screw loose somewhere, Harry says inside his head.

Draco grins. “We spent the whole summer training. She even brought an examiner in from the Ministry so I could take my NEWTs properly. It was strange... no one had ever wanted to help me like that before, to support me without some ulterior motive. I realise that she needed a teacher, but she could have had anyone—I know that and you know that. Dumbledore...” Draco hesitates, swallowing hard. “Dumbledore tried so many times to save me. I think she wanted to finish the job, so to speak.”

Draco falls silent and lets out a long breath, feeling unexpectedly light and relaxed. And tired, he thinks, as he yawns widely enough to make his jaw ache.

“I’d better go,” he mumbles. “It’s late, and tomorrow’s the match. Think good thoughts, Harry—think about a decent, tightly-contested game. It’s the only way that I’m not going to be half the school’s least favourite teacher tomorrow.”

Folding his blanket neatly, he stands and looks down at Harry for a moment. He almost looks as though he’s smiling.

**~*~**

“What do you think, Hermione?”

Granger looks at Draco, clearly trying to temper her smile. “Very fetching,” she says at last.

Draco turns slowly and stares daggers into Weasley-Ron, (Ron and Hermione. Hermione, Hermione, Hermione) who is grinning and rummaging in his bright red duffle bag. They have been coming to visit Harry every weekend, but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to Draco that they would decide to watch the Quidditch first, and now he wishes he’d been better prepared, because the element of surprise has allowed Ron to festoon him in Gryffindor paraphernalia, and, as the match hasn’t yet begun, he is currently the main attraction for all the students in the stands.

“And finally...” Ron says, producing a huge hat in the shape of a lion and plonking it unceremoniously on Draco’s head.

“No,” Draco says. “Absolutely not.”

“You haven’t seen the best bit yet,” Ron protests. He pokes the hat with his wand and it roars loudly.

At his other side, Hermione snorts and then pretends to look the other way.

“Weasley, I will not—”

“Ron.”

“Ron Weasley, I will not wear this thing. I am already well over my recommended quota of Gryffindor clothing with the scarf and the badge and the gloves,” he says firmly, grasping the hat and beginning to pull.

“Why, Professor Malfoy, what a wonderful display of inter-house unity,” McGonagall says from somewhere behind him and he turns slowly.

“Well, thanks, but I was just going to...”

“Surely you aren’t going to take it off?” she says, eyebrows arching dangerously.

Draco sighs. “Well, I thought I’d let Ron wear it. He’s... cold.”

“I’m alright, mate,” Ron says loudly, and when Draco looks at him, he is pulling on a nearly identical lion hat.

He turns quickly to Hermione, but she, too, is now sporting her own lion hat. Bastards.

Draco smiles weakly at McGonagall and turns back to the pitch, where the players are now standing.

“Lovely,” he mumbles to himself. Ron pokes his hat with his wand. It roars.

“It’s starting!” someone shouts, and then all eyes are on the game.

Ten minutes later, it’s over. Despite Draco’s best efforts, the newly-put-together Gryffindor team is steamrollered by the more established Slytherin side, ending in a score of 200 to 40. He claps for them as they walk dejectedly off the pitch, torn between feeling like a complete tit and feeling bloody proud of them for their performance. Ramsay had passed at least three times, Roxanne had made a valiant effort to use both of her arms, and their Seeker had been glued to his Slytherin counterpart for the entire match, but it hadn’t been enough.

“It wasn’t enough this time,” he mumbles to himself, and Hermione, who is walking beside him as they return to the castle, gives him an odd look but doesn’t say anything. They listened and they tried, and there is absolutely no reason why they cannot do the same thing all over again against Hufflepuff—but this time, even better. As they head for the hospital wing to report the news to Harry, he has the odd suspicion that he’s looking forward to his next Quidditch practice.

When they step inside, Poppy is at Harry’s bedside, and so are her pipes and other bits of cleaning equipment. Draco stops in his tracks, glancing quickly at Harry under his little tent before he turns and starts to walk back out into the corridor.

“Where are you going?” Hermione asks.

“To wait outside until Madam Pomfrey has finished what she’s doing,” he says, and, realising that she is probably unaware of the delicate nature of the process, adds: “It’s waste management.”

“I know. It’s alright, he won’t mind,” she says, going to pull up a chair near the bed.

Draco stares at her and Ron, who hasn’t moved yet, glances between them.

“It’s a bit humiliating for him, don’t you think?” Draco tries.

Hermione gazes at him, eyebrows knitted. “I don’t see how it is, Draco. It’s just us, after all, and we can’t see anything,” she points out, indicating the tent.

Poppy continues to work but there is something about her face that tells Draco she is trying very hard not to speak. He wishes he could be sure what she wants to say but she gives nothing away, so he looks over at Harry’s pale face and messy hair and all of a sudden is caught up in a tide of protectiveness that makes his voice loud and stern as he says:

“That’s not the point. I can’t imagine you would want people watching if you were in his position, and it will only take a few minutes, so we are going to step outside.”

Ron blinks, shrugs, and walks back towards the door.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Hermione says quietly, but she lets go of the chair and follows him.

Draco holds the door open for them. Just as he goes to pull it closed, he catches Poppy’s eye and she gives him a small, secret smile.

Once back inside, the three of them sit around Harry’s bed and give him a blow-by-blow account of the game.

“The Beaters were a bit all over the place,” Ron says, and Draco bristles silently.

“They’re new this year. They’re improving,” he insists, reaching out to correct Harry’s hair and stopping himself just in time. He doesn’t understand it; these people have been Harry’s friends for most of his life, and yet he almost feels as though he wants to protect him from them, and not just them: everybody. It doesn’t make sense, and he is genuinely afraid that it never will.

“Have you got a moment, Draco?” Poppy asks, emerging from her office.

He blinks, pulling himself out of his thoughts. “Of course.”

He pretends not to notice Ron’s and Hermione’s wide-eyed expressions but secretly, he is thrilled to feel like the person who is a part of things. A real person.

In the office, she closes the door behind him and smiles. “I’ve got something for you.”

“Oh?”

“I told Rosa about you the other day and last night she sent me this,” she says, picking up something from her desk and handing it to him.

He stares down at it, throat strangely tight. It’s a drawing of a blond-haired man on a broomstick, which, while slightly wobbly in places, is definitely him. Astonished, he looks up and meets Poppy’s eyes.

“It’s me.”

She laughs. “Yes. We have firecalls every Thursday night and she always likes to hear about what’s going on at Hogwarts. She was rather taken with you; apparently you sounded very interesting.”

Draco shakes his head. “Good grief, I’m not interesting at all.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Poppy says, placing her hands on her hips and treating Draco to her full-on stern face. “And she doesn’t think so, either. The only other teacher she’s ever drawn a picture of is Hagrid.”

Draco smiles. “What a strange and exclusive little club I belong to. I shall put this on my wall. Please tell Rosa I liked it very much.”

“I will. How are you sleeping?”

“Oh, little bits here and there,” Draco says. “It’s getting better all the time.”

Poppy nods, apparently satisfied, and Draco takes his leave. Harry has Ron and Hermione, and he has a work of art to display and a hungry beetle to feed. As he walks through the chilly, sun-dappled corridors, he can’t help but feel like... how had Hagrid put it? Like he has a secret. And sooner or later, he will find out what it is.

**~*~**

That night, remembering his cold hands the previous evening, Draco makes a flask of tea and tucks it into the pocket of his dressing gown as he puts on his shoes and prepares to head up to the hospital wing. He looks up to say goodbye to Stanley, but the beetle is no longer sitting on the hearthrug; he is racing across the floor and scuttling around Draco’s feet, flapping his wings and tacking furiously.

“What? You want to come with me? I don’t think so.”

Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack! Stanley insists, attempting clumsily to climb up Draco’s pyjama leg.

“I’m sorry I’ve been away so much, but...” Draco sighs, resolve destabilised by waving antennae and a round of soft, beseeching tacking sounds.

Despairing of his poor self-control, Draco pulls the cord from the waist of his dressing gown and leans down to tie it around Stanley.

“Go on,” he urges, opening the door and scanning for late-night wanderers before allowing Stanley to scuttle ahead of him, little feet pattering on the stone floor. “You have to be quiet. No tack-tacking and absolutely no knocking things over.”

Tack! Tack! Stanley clicks loudly and Draco says nothing. There’s just no point.

When they reach the stairs, Draco picks Stanley up and carries him, holding him tightly in both arms when he starts to squiggle around excitedly. As soon as they reach Harry’s bedside, he deposits the energetic beetle on the sheets and sinks into his chair.

“Don’t worry, it’s just a very large beetle,” he says, watching Stanley, who has already begun to trundle up and down Harry’s legs, tacking gently.

Something about receiving Rosa’s picture makes Draco want to talk about his mother, so he does, telling Harry about her kind nature and the disfiguring, painful regret for the things she has done over the years to please her difficult husband. He tells Harry how she has always tried to protect him, and how proud she had been when she had found out he was going to be a teacher. He tells Harry about her garden and the smell of her perfume, which he misses, and her debilitating paranoia, which he does not.

Stanley settles down to sleep on Harry’s stomach and, long before he runs out of words, Draco is drifting, too.

It comes as no surprise that Stanley, having tasted life beyond Draco’s three rooms, wants to come to the hospital wing every night, and Draco, though he tries a little for appearances, is powerless to resist. By the third night, Stanley knows the way and all but drags Draco along the corridors, tacking furiously and pulling on his makeshift lead.

“It’s Monday the eighth,” Draco says, placing Stanley on the bed and sitting down. “It’s about half past midnight, and tonight, I... bugger.”

At the sound of squeaking shoes, Draco grabs Stanley and stuffs him inside his dressing gown. When the door opens, admitting Poppy, he leans back in his chair and smiles at her, trying to look natural.

“I forgot my book,” she says, shivering as she pulls her purple dressing gown tightly around herself. She hurries into the office and emerges seconds later, book in hand. Tilting her head on one side, she frowns at Draco’s midsection, which is wriggling violently. “Whatever you have under that robe, I’m certain it isn’t sanitary.”

“I’ll have you know he’s very clean!” Draco argues, immediately abandoning all pretence and allowing Stanley to clamber out onto his lap. “I polish him every day and I clean his feet with warm water and eucalyptus tincture, and if he gets dirty I give him a bath.”

“And how does he feel about that?” Poppy asks distractedly, eyes fixed on Stanley.

“He feels alright about most things if he gets a treat afterwards,” Draco says.

Tack-tack-tack, Stanley offers, waving his antennae at the newcomer.

“I can’t quite believe you brought a giant beetle into my hospital wing,” she says, shaking her head.

“I thought Harry might like to meet him,” Draco tries, flashing her a smile.

Poppy hugs her book to her chest and opens the door, turning her back on all of them.

“I’m just going to pretend I didn’t see any of this,” she advises.

“That’s probably best, isn’t it?” Draco says, picking up Stanley and holding him at eye level. “You’re naughty. Do you know that?”

TACK! TACK! clicks Stanley, all six legs cycling vainly in the air.

Allowing him to leap onto Harry’s bed and start up his usual programme of walking slowly up and down, Draco pulls his knees up and rests in his familiar position, watching them until his eyes start to close.

**~*~**

On Wednesday, the promise of a late-night outing means that Stanley sits in the bedroom rather nicely as Draco opens his living room to Gryffindor House and all its problems. He is so quiet that Draco is reluctant to disturb him when Fergus Quinlan returns for a chat, but something in the opening statement of ‘I’m feeling so much better than last week, Professor Malfoy’ and the unexpected smile of gratitude on Fergus’ face make him decide to risk it. Stanley is, as expected, greeted with delight and a thorough examination from antennae to wing-tips, and, also as expected, he shows off shamelessly for Fergus,tacking and jumping and climbing all over him.

“What a wonderful creature, Professor,” Fergus enthuses, watching as Stanley tries to climb on top of his cup of tea with limited success. “How come I’ve never seen him before?”

Draco isn’t quite sure how to answer that question, and after a moment’s thought can come up with nothing better than the truth.

“He and I have always preferred to keep ourselves to ourselves,” he says carefully. “Things have changed somewhat in the last few weeks.”

“Do you mean because of Professor Potter?” Fergus asks. “Joseph Ryan said he was up in the hospital wing the other day and he saw him just lying there, not moving at all. He said he reckons he’s not moved all this time. Is that true?”

Draco hesitates, wondering which of those issues to address first. “Fergus, I can’t discuss the details of Professor Potter’s health but I can assure you that he’s being looked after very well and there is nothing to worry about. And yes, the situation that has resulted from Professor Potter’s stay in the hospital wing has had an effect on my lifestyle, I cannot deny that.”

“A good effect?” Fergus asks, stroking Stanley’s shell gently.

Draco nods, feeling a wave of uncomfortable realisation passing over him. “Yes.”

“That’s good,” Fergus says earnestly. “You know, I always said you were alright, but some of the others... well, you know how it is. It’s nice how they have a chance to get to know you better now.” Fergus stops, frowning. He puts down his empty cup and places Stanley on the hearthrug. “I’d better go, sorry if I embarrassed you.”

“You didn’t,” Draco says, and Fergus pauses at the door.

“There’s quite a few first-years out there, and I think I heard something about you saying they could go to Hogsmeade. Just thought I’d give you fair warning.”

Fergus departs, leaving the door open just long enough for Draco to catch the babble of young voices in the corridor.

“Why are people doing this to me?” he asks Stanley, picking him up and returning him to the bedroom before he lets in the gullible little buggers.

Stanley has no useful comments to offer, so Draco reluctantly opens the door and deals with the first-years, one at a time. Fergus is right; the vast majority of them have come for Hogsmeade permission slips and go away disappointed, but in between there are genuine problems: a second-year boy who is being bullied by older students in his own house; a fourth-year who has brought a letter telling her about her parents’ divorce; a tiny girl in floods of tears because her cat has died.

Draco doubts he is getting any better at giving out advice but he tries, supplying tissues and cups of tea to the neediest cases and attempting to channel his mother or Harry or Poppy or anyone else in his life that would be a hundred times better at this than he is. When he finishes for the night, he slumps back in his chair and pinches the bridge of his nose hard, trying to ward off the headache that has been threatening all evening.

Someone knocks at the door. He calls out for them to enter, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opens them, he frowns, puzzled.

“Miss Baron? What are you doing here?”

“It’s Open House, isn’t it?” she says, sitting down and crossing one leg over the other. She is still wearing those pointy purple shoes, Draco notes, but there are more pressing matters at hand.

“Yes, yes it is... for Gryffindors.”

She stares at him fearlessly. “Can we pretend, just for a minute?”

Draco frowns, hating being on the back foot. “That depends. What can I do for you?”

“I just want to talk to you.”

“What about? Oh, good grief, is this about you and Magnus?” Draco says wearily.

Ivy laughs. “No, of course not. Magnus is my best friend. Anyway, I haven’t got time for boys if I’m going to be good enough to teach here one day.”

Draco stares at her, aghast. “That’s what you wanted to talk to me about? You want to be a teacher?”

“I really do. I thought perhaps you might—”

“... talk you out of it?” Draco interrupts. He can’t believe it. It’s not as though there’s anything wrong with being a teacher, but Ivy is just such a star; he always imagined something so much more prestigious for her.

“I don’t want to be talked out of it,” she says firmly.

“What about Gringotts, or the Ministry? There are some fascinating career tracks in MLE these days. I could... I could get some leaflets,” he says triumphantly, but she just shakes her head.

“Professor Malfoy, I know what I want. In fact you’re sort of my role model.”

Horrified, Draco searches in vain for any useful words, but in the end, all he manages is:

“Miss Baron, I am a terrible role model. I beg you to reconsider.”

Ivy smiles. “Not a chance. I’m stubborn like that, just ask my parents. In fact, when I got my Hogwarts letter, my father hated the fact that you were going to be my teacher. But then I sorted Slytherin and he had to start getting used to it. It took a while, but I’ve managed to persuade him that we’re not all bad.”

“It’s about more than being a Slytherin,” Draco says carefully.

“I know,” Ivy says, rolling her eyes. “I’ve done my research.”

Draco is bewildered. She has an answer for everything. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?”

She laughs. “Because you were always so cross.”

“And now I’m not?”

“You still are sometimes,” she admits, shrugging, “but ever since you had to take over from Professor Potter, you’ve been different. You’ve also been sad, and I thought it might cheer you up to know that I sort of want to be like you one day.”

“You’re mad,” Draco says before he can stop himself.

Ivy grins. “You and my dad should talk—you’d probably agree on all sorts of things. I’d better go, I’ve got to meet Magnus on the top of the Astronomy Tower,” she says, getting to her feet.

“What?”

She laughs again. “Not really. But I have heard that Sharma Kennedy got a fondue set for her birthday and I want to get back to the common room before it’s all gone.”

Draco watches her go, confused and shaken. And hungry. He needs time to digest the conversation, and he doubts that Sharma Kennedy wants to share her food with him, so he heads for the kitchens, wondering if he can wheedle a late-night snack out of Kreacher.

**~*~**

The next night, when he returns from his first Quidditch practice since the match, Draco is immediately set upon by an excitable Stanley, who apparently thinks it is time for his nightly jaunt already.

“Tea,” Draco says firmly, taking care not to step on the beetle as he battles over to his kettle and begins the most important ritual of the day. Now that he is sleeping a little more—partly in his bed and partly in his new chair at Harry’s bedside—he has happily abandoned the pots of mudlike coffee and renewed his love affair with Camellia Sinensis. It isn’t as though he has actually allowed himself to fall out of love with it, but, as his insanely busy schedule begins to settle into place, he has found that a really good cup of tea can smooth the edges of just about anything this job can throw at him, from mud and splinters to bizarre requests, unsuccessful attempts at flying instruction and everything in between.

As he waits for the leaves to steep, he watches Stanley. He watches Stanley turn in rapid circles, tacking loudly, he watches Stanley clamber clumsily onto the coffee table, and he watches Stanley skid up and down on the polished wood, scattering a whole day’s worth of marked homework onto the floor in a small blizzard of parchment. Draco supposes he should be irritated, but he doesn’t actually think Stanley is being naughty for the sake of being naughty, as he sometimes is. He’s just excited and curious about the world and about the castle. He’s a sociable sort of beetle, and while that’s not something that Draco fully understands, he knows he cannot, in good conscience, continue to hold Stanley back from exploring and making new friends.

He suddenly remembers a letter from the time of his self-imposed exile and words in his mother’s beautiful handwriting:

All I want is to keep you safe at my side, but I know I must let you go, and I will do it with a stout heart, hoping that one day you will return to me.

Draco exhales slowly, feeling the weight of those oft-read words. He still has the letter—all her letters, in fact—tucked away with his quilts. He wonders what she would have to say about Stanley and his quest for independence. It’s not quite the same, he knows, but he suspects his mother has a lesson to teach him, even in her absence, and that is just like her.

He stirs his tea and smiles, knowing exactly what he has to do. Ten minutes later, he is sitting cross-legged on the hearthrug, surrounded by lengths of soft, thick string. He has a tape measure around his neck and his wand in one hand while he uses the other to discourage Stanley from ‘helping’ with the process by trying to eat the leftover string.

As he works, he runs through the recent practice in his mind, wondering if his first ever attempt at a ‘yes, we lost, but we’re going to keep fighting’-type pep talk had been a complete disaster or merely a miserable failure. They had, to their credit, looked as though they wanted to believe his not-very-stirring words, but they had still seemed downhearted as they had taken to the air, and the hint of sparkle that Draco had seen just before the match had been completely absent.

“I never imagined myself actually wanting them to win,” he admits to Stanley, who stands still for all of two seconds as Draco stretches the tape around his widest section. “Now... I can’t quite believe there was ever a part of me who hoped they would lose. They’re just... children. They probably can’t even help being bizarre and confusing.”

Tack-tack! Stanley agrees, rolling over and waving his legs in the air.

“They’re going to love you, of course, so you have to promise to remember who has been feeding you for the last four years. Now, be good. I have to concentrate so I don’t tie myself in a knot.”

Draining his tea cup, Draco narrows his eyes, picks up his first two pieces of string and sets to work, knotting and twisting and swearing and unpicking and redoing until his fingers hurt and the fire has burned down to embers. Finally, he holds up his creation and stares at it critically. It isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing thing he has ever seen, but if it works, that doesn’t matter.

He has made it, and what he has made is a sort of basket-like harness for Stanley, constructed exactly to his measurements, that can be slipped over him and fastened up, allowing Draco to hold onto a long string that connects to a central knot on the top of Stanley’s shell and pull him gently without injuring him. He hopes it bloody works, because he doesn’t think his dressing gown cord can take much more punishment, and, more importantly, the last thing he wants is for the little bugger to damage himself in his enthusiasm.

Noticing the time, he gets up and stretches the stiffness out of his back. He’s weary and a little sore from flying but he pushes away the thought that perhaps he should just go to bed right now.

“Come on, then,” he yawns, picking up Stanley and strapping him into the basket harness. Stanley seems to find this process most enjoyable and tackshappily throughout, even when Draco nudges him with his foot to see how well the harness holds up under a bit of strain. He scuttles around the floor and Draco follows him, letting him run ahead and then gently pulling on the string, finding through trial and error the right amount of force to use so that Stanley neither keeps on running nor flies into the air with a startled TACK! After a few attempts, he gets it, pulling Stanley to a civilised stop each time.

“I suppose we’d better test this out,” he says, triumphant, opening the door and following the patter of Stanley’s feet out into the dark castle. “Now, do you think Harry will be impressed with our creativity or think we are more certifiable than he already does?”

**~*~**

On Saturday, after breakfast and Quidditch practice have been dealt with, Draco straps Stanley into his basket, takes a deep breath, and heads out into the castle with him. It’s their first walk together during daylight hours and he’s nervous, heart racing and string slipping against damp fingers. He has no idea what he’s nervous about; logically, he knows nothing terrible can happen, but sharing his best friend with the rest of the school makes him feel somewhat exposed.

The castle is quiet, and he is just beginning to think that he could turn around and abort the exercise before anyone even sees him when he steps into the Entrance Hall and sees McGonagall standing at the bottom of the stairs and staring right at him. A fraction of a second later, her eyes drop to Stanley, who has begun squirming in his harness to greet this new person.

“Good morning, Mr Malfoy,” she says, eyes unreadable as they lift back to his.

“He’s not dangerous, I assure you,” he blurts anxiously.

McGonagall arches an eyebrow. “I had worked that out for myself. Do you think I don’t know about the two of you and your night-time wanderings?”

Oh, well, fuck, Draco thinks, keeping his face neutral. He supposes she must know about his midnight visits to Harry, too.

“Hagrid told you?” he asks, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice.

For a split-second, she actually looks surprised. “No, but Mr Filch did. He was under the impression that you were... ‘up to something.'”

“I’m not,” Draco says, reluctantly approaching McGonagall to allow Stanley to inspect her more closely.

She smiles. “That remains to be seen. However, I am pleased to see that you have it on a proper leash at last. Just because a thing is harmless does not mean it cannot wreak havoc.”

Draco smiles, too. He can’t help it. “I can’t fault your logic, Professor.”

McGonagall bends and adjusts her glasses as she examines Stanley, who appears to thoroughly enjoy the attention.

“What an odd choice of pet,” she says at last, straightening up and searching his face.

“I didn’t really choose him,” Draco admits. “He chose me.”

“They say one’s true familiar is found that way,” McGonagall says. “Does it have a name?”

Draco blinks, startled. “Er, yes. It’s Stanley.”

McGonagall’s thin lips twist oddly as though she is trying not to laugh. “Welcome to Hogwarts, Stanley,” she says after a moment, before turning and stalking into the Great Hall, leaving Draco and Stanley alone next to the staircase.

“That was odd,” Draco mumbles. “Anyway, come on, let’s go and see what you think about grass.”

Stanley likes grass very much. He also likes cobblestones, mud, and children’s laps. Over the next couple of days, Draco takes him all over the castle and its grounds. They visit the Quidditch pitch and the edge of the forest; they drop in at Hagrid’s hut for some of the strongest tea Draco has ever tasted and a cautious meeting of dog and beetle that enraptures both owners for long, silent minutes. They walk around all of Draco’s favourite little courtyards where Stanley investigates the beginnings of frost and then tries to join in with a game of Gobstones. In fact, they visit almost every corner of Hogwarts beside the library, because Draco has always been afraid of Madam Pince, and he can’t imagine she will be falling over herself to fuss Stanley or even tolerate his presence in her sacred domain.

With this exception, Stanley is universally adored. Boys and girls alike want to hold him or walk him or stroke him, and even the few that initially recoil at the sight of such a large insect are intrigued enough to ask questions from a safe distance. By Sunday evening, Draco is drained from the most social interaction he has had in years, and Stanley is hungry, noisy, and covered in mud. Remembering Poppy’s accusation, Draco feeds him and then runs a shallow bath, determined to make Stanley the cleanest giant mint leaf beetle in existence before he goes anywhere near the hospital wing.

Fortunately, Stanley doesn’t much mind the bath. “It’s a good job, isn’t it, if you’re so determined to like the great outdoors?” Draco says, lifting Stanley out of the water and onto a clean towel.

Yawning, he sits, leaning against the side of the bath and pulling up his knees. He’s not sure exactly what he feels about the great outdoors, but he knows that he doesn’t hate it like he used to. His life is bigger, whether he wants it to be or not, and maybe there just isn’t the time to hate things.

Eyes heavy, he gets to his feet and carries the towel containing Stanley into the living room, collapsing into his chair with the bundle on his lap. The fire is crackling in the grate and his clothes smell like school and earth and leaves. Within seconds, they are both sleeping soundly.

**~*~**

Draco wakes on Monday morning to find that he is still in his chair. He stretches out his stiff limbs and rubs his cold feet against the hearthrug, looking down at his lap to see a towel with a Stanley-shaped impression in it. Stanley himself is nowhere to be seen, and Draco can only assume he has had the good sense to jump down some time in the night and seek out a warmer place to sleep.

That being said, the living room is surprising humid and airless. With the exception of his feet, Draco is actually rather warm and uncomfortable, and a glance out the window reveals that the weekend’s sunshine and frost have disappeared, leaving behind a heavy, grey sky and a general feeling of griminess.

“It’s supposed to be October,” Draco mutters, tapping the ancient barometer that has hung next to his fireplace for as long as he can remember. The needle refuses to move and he walks away from it, scowling. He has always hated this sort of weather and he can’t believe it is daring to show itself so close to winter.

He showers more thoroughly than usual, but by lunchtime, he feels as though he might as well have not bothered. His students seem to be as squirmy and fractious about textbooks and stiff collars as he is, and he finds himself barking at them more than once, blocking out the voice inside his head that is demanding to know how shouting will help. Bizarrely, Jasper Bracknell is quiet for the entire lesson, just staring at Draco from time to time and then calmly looking back at his book, and somehow this only makes Draco feel more irritable.

His four o’clock flying lesson is particularly gruelling; none of his students want to stand out in the soupy, crackly air any more than he does, and even the usually-enthusiastic ones are sullen and grouchy. He ends the lesson ten minutes early, much to the delight of the first-years, and traipses inside to eat dinner under an oppressively grey ceiling. The kitchens are always warm, but tonight when Draco walks inside he hits a wall of heat that makes him grimace.

Seemingly unaffected, the house-elves abandon their tasks and swarm around the table, gigantic eyes swivelling to fix upon Draco, and when Kreacher clears his throat and asks Draco to name his favourite dessert, he thinks he might just pass out from shock. Or lack of oxygen.

Having lost several hours’ marking time the previous night, Draco decides to take a stack with him to the hospital wing, because the idea of not visiting Harry again is just somehow very wrong.

“Sorry I wasn’t here last night,” he says, releasing Stanley from his basket and placing him on the bed. “It’s Monday the fifteenth and the weather is ridiculous.”

Draco abandons his dressing gown and rolls up his pyjama sleeves, glaring out at the clouds he knows are still there, just sitting around and keeping the heat in, pressing it down on everyone and hiding away in the darkness. He can hear himself inside his head and he knows he sounds like a madman, but he’s too grumpy to care.

“I hope you don’t mind if I do some marking. I can’t really afford to get behind at the moment.”

Harry, of course, says nothing, but Draco wonders what he would say, if he could, about Stanley’s vigorous investigation of his pyjama breast pocket. Amused, he curls up in his chair and sets to work, self-inking quill tucked behind one ear. He reads and frowns and shakes his head, scribbling notes and corrections and occasional bits of praise. Every now and then, he comes across something so bizarre or just so very wrong that he has to share it.

“My project for next term will be to turn a moose into a stock cube,” he reads, eyebrows raised. “Just one? Seems rather wasteful to me. What do you think?” He looks at Harry over the top of the parchment. “I bet you think... Malfoy, do you even know what a stock cube is?”

In the distance, a rumble of thunder causes Draco to glance sharply at the window, and Stanley to fall off the bed in surprise. Draco sighs and picks him up, replacing him next to Harry’s hip.

“I do, as it happens. I bought them at the Tesco because they were cheap and they looked like food. I did exactly what it said to do on the box, and it was very odd. It was like meat tea. I think he’d be better off with the moose, really.”

Draco puts the piece of parchment aside and reaches for another, trying to keep his mind on his task as the storm grows closer. The problem is, he’s not thinking about Transfiguration. That’s fine; he’s not worried about that. He can do that. He’s thinking about the thing that is beginning, when he lets it, to drive him to despair.

“Winston bloody Camberwell,” he sighs to himself.

Draco tips his head back against his chair and drops his quill into his lap.

“I realise you’re probably sick of hearing about this, but I really need your help. Which is ridiculous, because I know you can’t give it to me, even if you want to, but here I am anyway, Mr Futility. If I can’t make some progress soon, he’s going to lose any faith he ever had in me and he’s going to give up. What would you do?” Draco asks yet again, as lightning flashes across the sky followed by a rather menacing roll of thunder.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t know how to... fucking hell!”

This time, the lightning illuminates the whole room and the thunder, only a fraction of a second behind, seems to explode right over their heads. Stanley clicks in terror and burrows his way under Harry’s sheets. Seconds later there is another flash and a bang, followed by the welcome sound of fat, heavy raindrops splashing against the windowpanes. Draco gets up from his chair and gently touches Harry’s forehead with his fingertips, finding it warm and sticky.

For a moment he rests his hand there, staring at the spattered glass, before he impulsively flings both of Harry’s windows wide open.

“Feel that,” he whispers, standing with his hands on the damp sill, leaning out and lifting his face into the downpour. Cool air swishes into the room, bringing with it the electrified scent of the storm, and Draco cups his hands, catching the rain and letting it slip through his fingers, returning to the bed and pressing wet palms to Harry’s hot forehead. He goes back to the window and leans out again, repeating the process until Harry’s skin begins to cool and his breathing becomes slow and even.

Draco can’t be sure, but he suspects that Harry is sleeping, or at least resting peacefully, so he leans quietly out of the window for a few minutes more, allowing the deluge to soak his hair and skin and to wash away the last traces of his bad temper. When the thunder and lightning move away from the castle, Stanley pokes his antennae out from under Harry’s sheets and waves them around as though checking to see that the danger has passed.

“It’s alright, you daft beetle,” he whispers, leaning back out and inhaling deeply.

He thinks Harry would have enjoyed the storm. It’s nothing more than a feeling, but that’s all he has to go on at the moment, and besides, Harry is a storm. His life is manic, wild, passionate. It’s brightness and friends and nature and all those things. Without knowing it, Draco has meted out perhaps the cruellest punishment possible for a man like Harry—to be still, to be silent, to be alone. Locked up in his own body and lying, day after day, in a sterile infirmary with no means of communication.

Communication, Draco thinks, hearing the word over and over as though it has lodged itself in his head. Communication. Irritated and riddled with remorse, he shakes it away. Wet and breathing hard, he drags himself away from the window and sits on the edge of his chair, staring at Harry. He doesn’t think he has ever wished harder for a person to talk to him, but nothing happens.

Eventually, he picks up his parchments and quill, straps Stanley back into his basket and leaves. He wants to stay, but there are no stories in him tonight and his heart is sore and heavy. On the plus side, by the time he gets back to his rooms and crawls into bed, he knows exactly what he’s going to do about Winston Camberwell.

**~*~**

Reassured by the knowledge that, at last, he has a plan, Draco goes about his routine with renewed vigour. The cool, fresh weather improves everyone’s spirits, so much so that Draco barely notices the waterlogged ground at his four o’clock flying lesson and he actually manages to make his students smile by slipping in the mud and falling down on his backside.

At Duelling Club, he and Ivy sort the younger students into pairs to practice Shield Charms and other useful defensive manoeuvres. As the spells begin to fly, they lean against the windowsill and watch, giving the students a few moments before they start throwing out constructive comments.

“I still haven’t changed my mind, you know,” she says, gazing straight ahead.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Draco admits.

She glances at him. “If you think I’d be really terrible, I’d rather you said so now.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “I do not think you’ll be terrible at all. I think you’ll be marvellous at whatever you choose to do. I was just... surprised, that’s all.”

“Really?” she asks, and there’s a note of anxiety in her voice that he has never heard before.

“Really,” he says firmly. “Come on, some of this spellwork needs all the help it can get.”

Ivy nods, pulling herself up to her full height, which can only be all of about five feet and two inches. They each take a side of the room, walking slowly by each duel and correcting wand grip, posture and incantations where needed. Draco listens to her calm instructions, noticing how easily she has fallen into the role of unofficial teaching assistant and how naturally she works with the younger students. He supposes that some people are meant to teach; others, like him, have just had teaching thrust upon them.

“Try lunging forward on the other foot,” he suggests, tapping a second-year girl on the shoulder.

“Levinson, it’s supposed to be a shield, not a weapon,” he says wearily, unsurprised when Levinson spins around and gives him the sort of look that belongs on a Labrador puppy.

“Might’ve got a bit carried away,” he says, shrugging apologetically and turning back to his partner.

Draco shakes his head and moves on to the next pair. Across the room, he is vaguely aware of Ivy saying, “Jack, don’t use that spell in here—just try to disarm like Professor Malfoy said,” and then there is an odd flash of light and he turns to see Ivy looking furious, Jack looking guilty, and Jack’s Hufflepuff partner bent double and vomiting bright green gunge.

“I’m sorry, Professor—I didn’t think the spell would actually work. It was just a stupid thing my sister told me,” Jack says, all traces of his usual cheekiness absent.

“Wait until I speak to your sister,” Ivy mutters, stepping around Jack and rubbing the back of the unfortunate first-year.

The vomiting shows no sign of abating, even when Draco casts Finite and everything else he can think of, so he instructs Ivy to carry on with the others and guides the poor girl up to the hospital wing as quickly as he can, vanishing the puddles of bright green liquid as he goes.

“Don’t worry,” he says grimly, pushing the door open with his hip. “Madam Pomfrey will know what to do. And I shall be taking house-points from Ravenclaw for this. I thought they were supposed to be the clever ones.”

The girl looks at him, opens her mouth to speak, and sprays green vomit all down his front. He takes a deep breath and flicks his wand, removing all but a faint, lime-coloured stain from his white shirt.

Poppy squeaks out of her office and has the girl sitting on a bed with a large basin in her lap before Draco can say a word.

“The vomiting curse strikes again,” she observes, picking through the bottles on her potion trolley and gazing calmly at Draco as she carefully mixes two powders in a bright purple liquid and then shakes the whole thing briskly. “I’ve never seen it green before, though,” she says, smiling at him and decanting the potion into a slender-necked bottle, which she expertly pushes into her patient’s mouth. She waits for a moment and then, in between retches, tips the contents down the girl’s throat.

“You’ve seen this before?” he asks, watching in amazement as the girl coughs, wheezes a little, and stops vomiting completely. Dazed, she wipes her mouth on the cloth Poppy holds out to her and then gulps gratefully at the glass of juice that seems to have been conjured out of mid air.

“Come on, Draco, this one’s probably as old as Hogwarts,” Poppy says, touching the girl’s forehead briefly. “How are you feeling?”

“A little bit startled,” Draco says honestly, and then: “Oh. The patient. Sorry.”

The girl nods, blonde pigtails bobbing. “I’m okay. That was horrible, though. I thought it wasn’t going to stop.”

“Don’t worry. They haven’t invented a vomiting hex yet that I can’t cure,” Poppy says brightly. “I want you to drink all of that,” she adds, indicating the juice. “I’m going to fetch something for you to take if you still feel queasy later.”

She walks into her office and the girl—Laura Mearley, he thinks, remembering her name now that she is no longer the girl who is vomiting violently all over him—looks at him curiously. Her eyes flit to Harry’s bed and then back to him, and he knows the question is coming.

“What’s wrong with Professor Potter, sir?” she asks.

Draco hesitates, looking over at Harry, too. “I’m not sure,” he says in the end. “But I know that if he’s going to recover, he needs to sleep, so we should probably be very quiet.”

Laura nods, wide-eyed, and sips her juice. Poppy returns with a small potion bottle, and by the time ten minutes have passed, Laura is restored and steady enough on her feet to walk back to her common room. She politely refuses his offer to accompany her, so he hangs back, sitting on the edge of the bed and watching Poppy fuss around with Harry’s sheets.

“She asked what was wrong with him,” he says after a moment. “I said I didn’t know, but that he needed to sleep. What would you have told her?”

“Exactly what you did, if I’d been in your position,” she says without turning around. “Obviously, it doesn’t give the best impression if I say I don’t know what’s wrong with my patients.”

Draco sighs and pulls a face at her back. “What about the older ones? I heard Joseph Ryan was up here the other day. What did you tell him?”

Poppy turns around, mouth twisting slightly. “That boy is the worst hypochondriac I have ever come across, and he is quite as obsessed with other people’s ailments as he is with his own. I told him to mind his own business.”

Draco grins. “You’re a brave woman. Do you know he’s going to be playing professional Quidditch next year?”

“No, but I can’t say I’m surprised,” Poppy says grimly. “Hadn’t you better get back to your club?”

“Yes,” Draco sighs, getting to his feet. “I’m going.”

Poppy nods and then frowns. “By the way—was it you who opened all the windows last night? It was very cold when I came in this morning.”

“I didn’t open all of them,” Draco says airily. “Just two. We were too warm.”

Poppy stares at him, mouth twitching, and he decides to leave before he says something truly ridiculous. Besides, he has points to deduct from a very sheepish Ravenclaw.

 

 **~*~**

 

“Of course, the first time he asked me, I managed to come up with some sort of excuse. ‘Nae bother,’ he said, and so I did the same thing the second time, and the third time, and the fourth time. By the ninth time, I realised he wasn’t going to stop asking. I told myself that it would be fine; after all, he was just trying to be friendly to his new upstairs neighbour, and it would probably be politic to stay on the right side of him, because, Harry, that man was the scariest looking individual I have ever laid eyes on, and that includes Volde-fucking-mort. That’s what Stanley and I call him,” Draco confides, shifting position and resting his feet on the edge of Harry’s bed so that he can stretch out his stiff legs. “When we call him anything at all.”

Stanley stirs in his sleep, turns through three hundred and sixty degrees and then settles back down in the same place, tucked into Harry’s side for warmth. The temperature has now dropped back into the expected range for mid-October, and Draco is grateful for both his dressing gown and his blanket as he sits at Harry’s side in the small hours of Thursday morning. He has been telling tales from Glasgow for several hours now, reaching into his past and spinning half-lost memories into stories that might provide enough of a distraction to stop Harry from going mad.

“So, one day, I finally agreed, and off we went to the Nag’s Head. It was a Tuesday afternoon, so I thought it would be quiet. I knew Dave worked as a bouncer at the Velvet Lounge in town—that was a pole-dancing club,” he explains, rotating his finger in slow circles as though Harry can see him. “Well, it probably still is. I never went in, despite Dave’s frequent invitations, but the mental images are enough, believe me.” He shakes his head. After all these years, he still can’t quite understand why anyone would pay to sit with a group of other men and watch something so strange. “Anyway, I digress. I knew that Dave worked nights, but I thought most other people would be working during the day, so you can imagine my surprise when we walked into the Nag and it was absolutely packed to the rafters.”

Draco laughs, amused by the naivety of his younger self. “I hadn’t ever seen a place like it, and I haven’t since. Everyone was talking over each other, everyone was smoking, and no one was paying attention to the television, which was showing some sort of football game, but I always had the feeling that if you tried to turn it off or change the programme, you’d be at risk of being stabbed. They used to have it stuck to the wall, right at the top, in the corner, just under the ceiling, as though they were worried someone might steal it. And the women in there, Harry...” Draco shudders, yawns widely, and shudders again. “They were terrifying. Enough to put a person off for life, if they needed putting off. And the whole place just seemed to be full of little flashing lights, ridiculous machines that asked you to put in money and never gave you any back. Dave loved it, though. Dave the Rave... that’s what everyone called him.”

Draco pauses, registering the heaviness of his limbs and the soreness of his eyes. He’ll be asleep soon, one way or another, and rather selfishly, he wants his bed.

“Remind me to tell you the rest of the story tomorrow,” he mumbles, collecting Stanley and heading for the door. “Unless you’ve been asleep for the past three hours, in which case I’ve been talking to myself the entire time.”

Curled up under his quilt with Stanley sleeping on his feet, Draco dreams of his old neighbour and spends much of the next morning wondering how he’s doing these days—if he ever managed to give up smoking, if he’s still having noisy sex with the same noisy girlfriend, or if he ever achieved his dream of opening his own club, rather than working the door of someone else’s.

When he makes it up to the hospital wing that night, it seems only right to continue with the story.

“Where were we?” he says, settling into his chair and inspecting Harry’s pyjamas: the striped ones are back, and they rather suit him.

Stanley tacks to be placed on the bed, so Draco releases him from the basket and deposits him on the sheets before he begins.

“So, we went to the Nag’s Head, Dave and I. Everything was sticky and covered in cigarette ash and I didn’t know where to look, so I just focused on Dave and made my half of lager last as long as I could... and I survived. So, of course, Dave wanted me to go with him again. I wonder now if he was a bit lonely, because I highly doubt I was an interesting companion. I didn’t understand his world and he didn’t understand mine. In fact, half the time we couldn’t understand what the other was saying. I hate getting drunk,” he says with feeling, gripping his flask of tea tightly. “I don’t like not knowing what I’m going to do; I’ve had enough of that sort of thing in my life already. Dave always thought it was funny to try, though.

“I think he saw me as some kind of curiosity—my accent, my hair... he even thought my posture was hilarious. He used to tell me that no one stood like that unless they were related to the Queen. I have no idea why, but that’s what he always said. He was never cruel about it, though. There was this chap in the Nag—Willie, he was called; I don’t think he even had a last name—and he was a nasty bugger. One afternoon, Dave and I were sitting at our little corner table and he leaned over from the bar and started shouting things at me.”

Draco glances at Harry and then up at the ceiling, scowling at the mere memory of the words.

“It was pathetic, really. He said that I was a poofter, and he knew I was because I had ‘long poofy hair’ and ‘fancy poofy airs and graces’ and that I spoke like I had something permanently wedged up my arse... and that he was sick of the sight of me. Then he started yelling at Dave, saying that he needed to ‘give me a good hiding’ before I made him queer, too.” Draco sighs. He can still picture the stupid bastard nearly fifteen years later. “So,” he continues, looking at Harry again. “I was going to...”

Draco’s voice fades to nothing and his heart leaps. There is a green eye looking right at him.

He leans closer, almost falling off his chair when the other eye blinks open. He watches, breath caught, as Harry’s pupils dilate and then contract, adjusting to the lamplight after weeks of darkness.

“Can you hear me?” he whispers. “Er... one blink for no and two for yes?”

Harry blinks twice, slowly and deliberately. Draco grins, flooded with excitement and uncertainty as he is pulled in several different directions at once. Find a way to communicate. Tell Poppy. Hide Stanley. Swear loudly.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he says breathlessly, finally opting to leave Stanley where he is and dash out into the corridor. “Poppy!” he yells, banging on her door. He doesn’t care that it’s eleven o’clock at night. He just doesn’t care.

After what feels like a very long time, the door opens and Poppy stands there in her nightdress, face tight with anxiety until she realises it’s him and she sighs, placing her hands on her hips.

“What is it?”

“He’s opened his eyes,” Draco says, wanting the urgency he feels to leap across the space between them and infect her. “He can see and he can blink, and he can answer questions!”

Poppy smiles. “That’s wonderful news. According to Healer Talbot, his recovery should start to progress more quickly now.”

“Did you already know about this?” Draco demands, puzzled.

“No, but I had a feeling it wasn’t very far off,” she says.

“That doesn’t sound very scientific.”

Poppy laughs. “Healing is about much more than just science. Come on, then, I’ll have a look at him,” she says, pulling on her dressing gown and sliding her feet into matching furry slippers.

At the door to the infirmary, Draco stops. “I’ll be back in a minute—I’ve just had an idea.”

Leaving Poppy shaking her head, he clatters down the stairs and pelts along the corridors to his classroom, where he fishes around in his cupboards and drawers until he finds the items he wants. When he bursts back into the hospital wing, he is out of breath but triumphant, and Poppy is shooing Stanley to the bottom of Harry’s bed and out of the way.

“I really hope he’s clean, Draco. Woe betide you if he isn’t.”

“He’s clean,” Draco says distractedly, perching on his chair and using a stub of chalk to write the letters of the alphabet onto a light piece of slate.

“Hello, Harry,” Poppy says warmly. “It’s nice to have you back. Can you blink for me?”

Finishing his task, Draco wipes his chalky hands on his dressing gown and fixes the letters with an anti-smudge charm. “Here,” he says, standing and holding up the slate so Harry can see it. “I’ll point at the letters and you can blink twice when I point to the one you want.”

“Clever,” Poppy approves, replacing Harry’s glasses on his nose and then turning to look at the slate. “Why twice?”

“Because it’s two blinks for yes. And because that way, we won’t get confused if he just has to blink because... well, for normal blinking reasons.”

Yes, says Harry, and Draco grins.

“Hmm,” Poppy says, apparently satisfied. When she starts on her usual series of tests, Draco attracts Harry’s attention and begins to run through the letters, pointing at each in turn. He has a feeling that Poppy would prefer to let Harry rest, but he thinks that if he was suddenly able to communicate after several weeks in the dark, he’d have something to say.

T, Harry says, and then H. The process is maddeningly slow, but Draco is determined to stick with it. It’s only time, he thinks, and at this point, he has all the time in the world for Harry.

T-H-E-N, Harry says. T-H-E-N-W-H-A-T.

“Then what?” Draco says, bewildered.

Harry blinks twice.

“Do you mean that you want to hear the rest of the story?” Draco asks tentatively.

Harry blinks twice.

Draco laughs, hugging the slate to his chest and wrapping his fingers tightly around the sharp edges.

“Absolutely. I will finish it as soon as Madam Pomfrey has finished with you,” he promises, sitting back down and watching avidly as Harry’s eyes flick around the room, settling on Poppy for a moment before turning back to him and remaining there, steady and clear.

“Well, I’m satisfied,” Poppy says, tucking her wand away and stepping back from the bed. “He’s obviously not in any great distress if the first thing he wants is one of your tall tales.”

“My tales are perfectly proportioned,” Draco says without looking away from Harry.

“Goodnight, Harry. Goodnight, Draco,” she calls, letting the door slam behind her as she heads back to her rooms.

“Right, well,” Draco mumbles with an awkward cough. Playing for time, he gets up and retrieves Stanley from the bed, holding him up so that Harry can see him for the first time. The green eyes widen slightly and then flit all over Stanley, taking in his patterned shell and his antennae and his six wriggling legs. Draco puts him down and he immediately climbs onto Harry’s stomach and settles to sleep. There’s something like relief in Harry’s eyes and it occurs to Draco that it must be nice to finally know exactly what has been walking all over you in the middle of the night.

“He really likes you,” he says, and Harry’s eyes are back on him.  Breathing slowly, he curls up in his chair and holds the slate on his lap so that Harry can see it. The trouble is, Harry isn’t looking at the slate; he’s looking at Draco, and it’s an unnervingly intense sensation. But it’s fine... he just needs to tell the story. Harry wants to hear the story, and if he’s telling it he won’t be thinking about being stared at, so it works out rather well for everyone, he supposes.

“Okay. Well, like I said, Willie started yelling, and everyone went quiet, because they love a bit of drama in the Nag, and clearly something was about to ‘kick off’, as Dave always put it. I was still trying to decide whether to just sit there and brazen it out, or whether to try to walk out, when Dave just leapt to his feet,” Draco says, flinging out an illustrative arm and almost knocking over a potion bottle. “He jumped up and he said... oh, good grief, it’s so much harder to do the accent when you’re looking at me,” Draco groans, but Harry just blinks. He sighs. “Well, alright. Dave said: ‘He’s ma mate, he’s nae poofter!’ and Willie just went quiet... for all of about five seconds. Then he started again, calling Dave all the horrible names under the sun, and I just sat there, feeling like a complete idiot, until Dave just strode forward and punched him in the face. It was horrendous. I actually heard the sound... like a crack and a crunch and a squelch all rolled into one. Of course, that was it then. Willie tried to hit Dave back, and ended up breaking a bar stool and some glasses, and everyone was yelling...”

Draco stops, realising he is gesticulating wildly and has let the slate slide into the folds of the blanket. He retrieves it and turns it over and over in his hands, glancing at Harry every now and then as he relives the memory.

“The landlord came storming out in the end and separated them. Dave was furious because he decided to ban us all from the Nag for the rest of the day, which I thought was rather lenient, all things considered. He didn’t ever let me thank him properly. I tried, but he just grunted and wiped the blood off his face and said we should go and get some chips, so we did. He did let me pay for them, but that’s hardly adequate gratitude—I couldn’t believe someone I hardly knew would stand up for me like that.”

Harry blinks twice and Draco smiles as a thought occurs to him.

“You know, for a moment, he reminded me of you,” he says. “Or at least how you would be if you were six foot three and covered in dragon tattoos. Make of that what you will.”

Harry gazes at him calmly for a moment and then begins to blink furiously.

Draco holds up the board, and Harry blinks twice. Draco touches the letter ‘A’, waits, and then moves on, and after a couple of minutes, Harry has spelled out THANK YOU.

“Oh,” Draco says, surprised. “For the story?”

Two blinks. Yes.

One blink. No.

Draco frowns. Harry blinks for the letters again, this time quickly spelling out THIS.

“Thank you for sitting here? For this?” he asks, indicating the slate. “For talking?”

This time, Harry actually manages to roll his eyes. ALL.

Draco bites his lip. He hadn’t been expecting gratitude. He doesn’t deserve it.

“You don’t need to thank me. This entire mess is my fault,” he insists.

One blink. No.

“Well, it is,” Draco says. “Aren’t you furious with me?”

Harry hesitates and then spells out NOT ANY MORE.

“I suppose you’ve had a lot of time to think,” Draco concedes, shivering and pulling his blanket more securely around himself. “So have I. I understand if you’re wondering what on earth I’ve been doing here every night.”

One blink. No.

“You’ve got all the answers, haven’t you?” Draco says, failing to control a small smile.

NO MORE, Harry says.

“No more what? No more answers?”

Harry blinks once for no and screws up his eyes in frustration. MORE.

“Do you want me to keep talking?” Draco guesses.

Two blinks. Yes.

TIRED, Harry adds slowly.

“I’m sure you are. I’m tired, too. I think I can manage a little bit longer, though,” Draco says, setting the slate down on Harry’s bedside cabinet and dredging his memory for another story.

Harry blinks twice and then gazes intently at Draco as he begins to speak. Halfway into his account of the time there was a robbery at the Tesco, Draco is suddenly consumed with a weariness that radiates out from his chest and creeps along each limb, wrapping him in warmth and pulling him towards sleep, but he keeps going until Harry’s eyes are completely closed, and then, after gently removing his glasses and placing them on the cabinet, he walks quietly out of the ward.

 To be continued

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Chapter Text

Following a surprisingly solid night’s sleep, Draco is in good spirits as he makes his way through his crammed Friday schedule. He enjoys his morning classes and relishes the groans of his third-years as he springs a surprise test on them; he chats to Hagrid at the lunch table and quietly celebrates as he flicks through the test papers and realises that every single student has passed. He just about manages to stave off the urge to visit Harry before the start of his NEWT class, telling himself that this evening will be fine, and that Harry probably needs all the rest he can get now that he is at last recovering.

He doesn’t spend much time thinking about the urge itself, because he has students to teach and broomsheds to organise and plots to execute. At ten to six, he locks up the broomshed and races back into the castle, emerging onto the grass several minutes later with Stanley in tow. He has a plan, but it won’t work at all if his three students don’t turn up, and he can’t see anyone in the rapidly-falling darkness.

“We’re over here, Professor!” yells Surya, and Draco turns in the direction of her voice, finally able to see all three of them in the light from his wand.

“Stay where you are for a moment,” he calls back, walking in a circle some fifty feet wide, wand held out and Stanley scuttling along beside him. When he has completed the circle, he mutters the incantation and the entire area fills with perfectly natural-looking daylight.

“That’s really cool,” Emilie says, walking over to the edge of the circle and inspecting the area where darkness blends into light.

“Thank you, Miss Alderson. Now, before we start, I’d like you to help me with something, Winston, so will one of you girls hold onto Stanley for me?”

Both are immediately eager, but Draco remembers that Emilie had spent at least an hour at the weekend playing with Stanley, so he hands the string to Surya. She takes it, looking down at Stanley, who is turning in gleeful circles, and her smile fades.

“What if he tries to run away?” she asks, dark eyebrows knitted.

“He won’t run away,” Draco promises. “But he might forget where he is and wander too far; that’s what the string is for. If you think he needs to come closer to you, just tug on the string and he’ll come back.”

Surya nods. “Okay. But can’t I just pick him up?”

“If you wish, Miss Khan, but his feet are dirty from walking across the lawn.”

“Professor Malfoy, I’m already dirty,” she says wearily. “I tripped over my shoelaces twice on the way over here.”

Draco inspects her muddy knees and the grass stains on the bottom of her skirt and has to concede that yes, she is already dirty.

“By all means, pick him up. And tie your shoelaces,” he adds, throwing each of them a broom and instructing them to do nothing but summoning until he returns. With a jerk of his head, he indicates for Winston to follow him. He looks terrified and glances back to Emilie for support, but she and Surya are fussing over Stanley and are lost to him.

“Come on, I’m not going to bite you,” Draco says, leading Winston out of the ring of light and across the stretch of lawn furthest from the castle. The evening air is sharp and bitterly cold and the darkness is almost total now, but there’s no way he’s going to get anything out of Winston unless he takes him far away from the others.

Winston picks up his pace but says nothing. Finally, when the light containing Stanley and the girls is almost out of sight, Draco takes out his wand, casts a strong warming charm and sits down on the grass. He looks expectantly at Winston, who stares at him for long seconds before lowering himself to the ground, clearly surprised to find it warm and dry.

“You can stop panicking. I just thought we should have a bit of a talk on our own,” Draco says.

“Okay,” Winston says slowly. “Why?”

Draco sighs. “Winston, I’m going to be honest with you. I’m worried that your fear of heights is so acute that it is restricting your life. I’m not saying that everyone has to be a Quidditch player or that everyone has to love flying, but it’s a very useful way to get around and I find it hard to imagine that you won’t need to know how to do it someday. Not only that, fear breeds fear, and being afraid can paralyse us. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Winston gulps and looks at the ground. “That there’s something wrong with me?”

No,” Draco says emphatically. “There is nothing wrong with you. We are all afraid of something.”

“What are you afraid of?”

Draco hesitates. He has plenty of answers to that question but he doesn’t want to scare the boy.

“Madam Pince,” he admits after a moment, and Winston smiles.

“Me too, but I’d take her over flying,” he admits.

“In that case, you’re braver than you think,” Draco says. “I think that what we need to do is find out exactly what it is about heights and flying that scares you the most. I’m not going to push you to do anything you don’t want to do, but you have to try, because this is important.”

“Okay,” Winston says, voice wobbling a little.

Draco waits, listening to the soft sounds of the girls’ voices and Stanley’s joyfultacking as they are carried towards him on the wind.

“I don’t like it because it’s dangerous. You can fall and get hurt.”

Draco bites back the first reply that comes into his head. Instead, he asks, “Have you seen that happen? Have you seen someone get hurt?”

Winston nods, lips pressed tightly together, eyes glistening, and something relaxes inside Draco as he realises he may be making a breakthrough.

“Tell me.”

“My dad, you know I told you he... well, he flies?” Winston says all in a rush. “He fell when I was little. Something went wrong with his broom and he fell a long way. He crashed through someone’s conservatory... it was a Muggle’s house and the Ministry had to come. He was hurt really badly. He was in St Mungo’s for ages. My mum just sat there and cried, and I heard a Healer tell her he nearly died. I wasn’t supposed to hear it but I did.”

Draco lets out a long breath. “That sounds very frightening. What did your dad do when he was better?” he asks, already knowing the answer.

Winston narrows his eyes, and when he speaks, he sounds almost angry. “He got a new broom and he went back to work,” he says. “I asked him not to and my grandma asked him not to and he did it anyway.”

“Has he had any more accidents?”

“Nothing like that. But it can happen. It can happen, can’t it? So it’s not safe!” Winston insists.

Draco rests his folded arms on his knees and stares up at the stars, searching for inspiration. The stars glitter and glow, beautiful but unhelpful. “Yes,” he says finally. “It can happen. People have accidents, and there’s no point in pretending that they don’t. Sometimes we have to take risks, though—and I know you’re upset with your father but I think he looked at the risks and he looked at how much he loves to fly and decided it was worth it. Look at Surya—the girl falls over five times before breakfast every day but she still wants to get on a broom, because flying is an experience. It’s a fantastic skill to have. It’s fun. It’s exhilarating.”

“It’s scary,” Winston says flatly.

Draco closes his eyes briefly. “Okay. It’s scary. But don’t you want to find out if you can do it?”

“A bit,” Winston says, voice small. “I am supposed to be a Gryffindor.”

“You are a Gryffindor,” Draco corrects. “I think I know what we need to do and I think we should do it soon. Will you come and meet me tomorrow morning at eight o’clock?”

Winston looks alarmed. “On my own?”

Draco meets his eyes, hoping to appear challenging but non-scary at the same time. “Yes.”

Winston frowns, wrings his hands and exhales noisily. “Okay!” he says at last with such vigour that both of them jump slightly.

“Good. Let’s get back to our lesson, shall we?”

“Yes, sir,” Winston says, getting to his feet and scrambling to keep up with Draco as they return to Stanley and the girls. When Draco sneaks a glance at him, he is encouraged by the expression on the chubby face; apprehension is clear, maybe even terror, but both are easily outstripped by raw, burning determination.

“I can work with that,” he tells Harry. “He’s petrified but he still wants to try. I can’t ask for more than that. I certainly didn’t possess that kind of fortitude when I was eleven years old... I’m not even convinced I possess it now.”

DAFT, says Harry.

Draco snorts. “I’m not arguing with that.”

SO.

“So? So, what am I going to do?”

Two blinks. Yes.

“Well,” Draco begins and then pauses, leaning over precariously to catch Stanley, who is about to topple off the edge of the bed. He nudges the beetle back onto the sheets, shakes his head, and continues. “I’ve realised that until he conquers his fear of being in the air—or at least takes the edge off it—he will never have the confidence to summon his broom into his hand, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is rather fundamental to the process.”

Two rather vehement blinks. Yes.

Draco sighs, pouring himself another cup of tea from his flask. “This is probably all blindingly obvious to you, isn’t it? Don’t worry, I’m fully aware that you would have figured it out weeks ago... you’d probably have had Winston flying circles around the goal hoops by now...”

Harry blinks furiously and then, with some effort, spells out: BETTER THAN CLIMBING THEM.

Draco lets out a huff of surprised laughter. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right. I shan’t be trying that again.”

The green eyes gleam, and, for a moment, Draco has the feeling that Harry is trying to smile.

“Anyway,” he says, mouth twitching at the corners. “I’m meeting him first thing in the morning and I’ll have an hour with him before Quidditch practice, which will be followed by the fastest shower and change you have ever seen, because tomorrow is my spot on the Hogsmeade rota. Never a dull moment, or indeed a restful one,” Draco sighs, adding a touch of drama for Harry’s benefit. “I have to buy clothes, Potter, and yes, it is Potter for this moment, because my outdoor clothes are worn through and it’s all your fault. I dread to think how many pairs of trousers you must go through in a year.”

Harry’s eyes sparkle. SHOP IN HOGSMEADE GOOD TROUSERS, he advises.

“Do you mean Gladrags, or the one near the fountain?”

FOUNTAIN, says Harry.

Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack, says Stanley, clambering onto Harry’s pillow and investigating his hair.

“I shall try that, thank you. You know, it’s nice to know when you’re awake,” Draco admits. “Before, I was just talking away with no idea if anyone but Stanley was listening, and he’s heard all my stories before.”

AWAKE LOTS. Harry pauses and then adds: SLEPT LAST NIGHT.

Draco smiles. “That’s good. Poppy says that sleep will speed up your recovery, so I should probably leave you to it soon. I’ll just finish telling you about Winston. Here’s the plan...”

**~*~**

Despite Harry’s approval of his strategy, Draco is anxious as he waits on the grass for Winston the next morning, still half-convinced that he isn’t going to turn up, but on the dot of eight, he sees the small figure heading nervously but briskly towards him.

Lifted, Draco greets Winston with a smile. “Good morning. Have you had breakfast?”

Winston nods, frowning.

“Good. It’s important to settle your stomach before you fly, especially if you’re a little bit nervous.”

“It’s not very likely that I’ll fly today, is it, sir?” Winston says gloomily.

Draco grins, feeling as though he has a secret weapon at last. “Winston, you are going to fly today.”

Eyes wide, Winston stares up at him. “I... what?”

“You and I are both going to fly,” Draco says, tipping back his head to look at the clear, blue sky. The air is crisp and cold, and the breeze gentle but stirring. “And the conditions couldn’t be better.”

“There’s only one broom,” Winston points out, eyeing the slightly battered Firebolt X4 in Draco’s hand.

“Yes, because as long as you are afraid of taking your feet off the ground, your broom will never come to you, and it will never obey you. So, we’re going to miss out the beginning of the learning process and start somewhere in the middle,” Draco says, trying to sound more confident as Winston’s face grows more nervous.

“I thought the beginning was important,” he says softly, looking up at the sky and cringing.

“Usually, yes, but not today. The only thing you have to do today is trust me,” Draco says, mounting his broom. “I’m going to control the broom, and you and I are going to fly together.”

“I can’t!” Winston blurts, taking several clumsy steps backwards.

“Of course you can. All we’re going to do is lift a few inches off the ground, and then, when you’re ready, we’re going to fly very slowly in a circle around the edge of this training pitch.”

“Professor Malfoy, I can’t,” Winston repeats, alarm making his voice quaver. “I’ll fall off.”

“You won’t,” Draco promises. “I won’t let you. You can sit behind me and hold onto my waist, or you can sit in front of me and lean back if that makes you feel safer.”

Winston looks around wildly, clutching at his coat and breathing rapidly. “You said you wouldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to,” he accuses, and the words smack Draco squarely in the chest.

“I’m not going to make you, Winston,” he says, heart twisting, and it suddenly becomes clear how fucking important this is to him. He wants to help this boy. He needs to. He isn’t sure exactly what has happened to him, or how it has happened, but he thinks the damage may be permanent. Winston stares up at him, dark eyes full of fear and defiance and he feels it. He feels sick and terrified and overwhelmed, full of something that makes his eyes hot and his chest full. The cold wind whips at his hair and coat and he inhales it deeply.

“Are you alright?” Winston asks.

“I am fine, and so are you. Listen to me: I am not going to force you to do anything, but I want you to remember what we talked about yesterday—about risks and about trying things?”

Winston nods slowly.

“Good. I want you to give this a go—just once—and if you absolutely cannot carry on, we will stop, and we will think of another plan. If, and only if, it’s not as scary as you thought, we can try it again. Do we have a deal?”

Winston says nothing for a long time. He stares down at the grass and frowns, and Draco keeps perfectly still and quiet, hardly daring to breathe in case he startles Winston and ruins everything.

“I’ll try it,” he says at last, and Draco smiles, sagging inwardly with relief. “I want to sit on the front, though, so you can catch me if I start falling off.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Draco says, and he shuffles back towards the tail of the broom to make room for his passenger.

Winston approaches the broom with the caution of a person approaching a vicious animal, gingerly placing one hand on the polished wood and then frowning. “It’s a bit high up, sir.”

Puzzled, Draco looks down and realises that the height difference between the two of them means that the broom is currently sitting somewhere in the region of Winston’s chest, making it impossible for him to get on, even if he wanted to.

“Ah. Sorry.” He crouches, lowering the broom to a more convenient height. “You can do this, Winston,” he encourages. “All you have to do is swing your leg over the handle and then hold on.”

It takes some time, but finally, Winston sets his face, nods, and climbs stiffly onto the broom.

“Good,” Draco says casually, but inside he is throwing a small party. He hadn’t been sure that he would get even this far today, and it feels fantastic. “Are you comfortable?” he asks, kicking the footrests forward so that Winston can reach them if he wants to.

“I’m okay,” Winston says, gripping the handle for dear life.

“Well, I’m very impressed. If you’re ready, I’m going to bring us up just a little bit, just enough so that my feet are off the ground.”

“Aren’t you going to hold on?” Winston asks, turning his head to look at Draco.

“To the broom or to you?”

“I don’t know! Both!” Winston cries, shaking slightly.

“Okay,” Draco says, concealing a ripple of amusement. He leans forward and places his hands in front of Winston’s, gripping the handle and enclosing the frightened boy in the circle of his arms. “How’s that?”

Winston nods, and Draco is astonished to feel the fearful tremors begin to diminish. He has made a child less frightened. Less. Good grief.

Slowly, murmuring encouragement and taking care to keep the broom completely level, Draco eases them into the air, stopping when the tips of his toes are no longer in contact with the grass.

“Winston, you are now flying,” he announces, grinning. “How are you doing?”

“Er... I’m not really sure,” comes the shaky reply. “Do you think I should open my eyes?”

This time, Draco lets the soft laughter escape into the cold air. “Yes, definitely.”

For several seconds Draco hears nothing but Winston’s slow, controlled breathing, and then there’s a gasp, and, “Oh! I thought we were much higher than this!”

“No, we’re barely off the ground, but the point is, you are flying,” Draco points out.

Winston looks down at his dangling legs and shudders. “Do you think I’m going to fall off?”

“No,” Draco says firmly, tightening his grip on the handle and feeling the press of Winston’s coat fabric against his own. “I’ve got you. Don’t look at the ground—look forward. Look ahead to where you want to go.”

“I’m not sure I want to go anywhere,” Winston says, but his voice is stronger already, and he obeys Draco’s instructions, lifting his chin and staring hard at the forest in the distance.

“There’s plenty of time for that,” Draco says. For now, he’s more than content to keep hovering in place, because Winston is on a broom and he isn’t going to pieces. If Draco can keep it that way, he suspects he has a chance of helping Winston to kick his phobia, even if it is one inch at a time.

By the time the hour is up, Draco has managed to land the broom on the grass and rise back into the same position several times and Winston has managed to control his nerves to the point where he has been able to hang onto a conversation while in the air. Granted, his answers to Draco’s questions had been little more than squeaks and mumbles, but it is progress, and Draco praises him extravagantly before rushing off to get ready for Quidditch practice.

One step at a time, he tells himself, scribbling the date for their next lesson into his schedule and wondering when he’s ever going to catch up on his marking if he keeps adding new tasks to the bloody thing. Perhaps he’ll have to stop giving out homework altogether; he doubts very much that his students will mind.

The walk into Hogsmeade is rather pleasant, though he doesn’t remember ever enjoying it before. He stays at the back of the group of chattering students, walking alongside Septima Vector, his counterpart for the visit. She is a quiet, serious woman about whom Draco knows very little, but she seems content enough to chat with him about the beautiful weather and the unusual sheep in one of the fields they pass on their way.

“My father kept sheep,” she tells him, holding onto her elaborate hat as a gust of wind tries to blow it away down the path. “He used to say they were more intelligent than people, but then he was a very strange man.”

Draco smiles, deciding to keep his thoughts about his own father to himself. When they reach the village, he tells her he has some shopping to do and she just nods politely, apparently happy to keep an eye on the students by herself until then. They separate, and as Draco heads for the men’s outfitters near the fountain, he muses that once upon a time, he would have been grateful for such a taciturn companion, but that now he has grown accustomed to the talkative natures of his new friends and students, the silence leaves him feeling... odd.

He wonders what Harry would have to say about that. He’d probably laugh, if he could.

The shop is small but packed with rails, racks and mannequins. None of the garments seem to be arranged or grouped in any kind of order, and Draco quickly realises that he is just going to have to start at one side and work his way around methodically. As he sorts through trousers and jumpers he becomes aware of an increasingly heated exchange taking place somewhere on the other side of a tall rail stuffed with winter cloaks, and, despite his best intentions, he finds himself listening.

“Yes, I know that,” comes a rather familiar female voice, the owner of which is clearly gritting her teeth, “but I’d appreciate it if you would just help me find these in the size I’m looking for.”

The voice that comes next is male, young, and rather smug, Draco thinks.

“Listen, we get girls like you in here all the time, trying to buy clothes for their boyfriends, and believe me, what they get is never what he wants.”

“I really—” the girl begins, but is quickly interrupted.

“Just trust me,” the man says, tone dripping with condescension. “You probably won’t even get the right size.”

“Please.” At the sound of the barely-controlled anger in the girl’s voice, Draco lifts his head and stares at the rack that separates him from the owners of the voices.  “Please just do your job, and bring me a pair of these trousers in waist size—”

The man lets out a theatrical sound of irritation. “Oh, god... you know, I’m so sick of girls like you trying to control what us men wear. You think you know everything, and you’re just—”

“Enough!” the girl explodes, and Draco braces himself for impact. He thinks he now knows who the voice belongs to, and if he’s right, the idiotic sales assistant should start running right now.

“Excuse me?!”

“I said, that’s enough! I am a customer, and I have as much right to be one as anyone else. I want to buy these trousers, and I don’t really care what you think about that. In fact, I couldn’t be less interested in any of your horrible, sexist opinions, and if this wasn’t the only decent place to buy trousers around here, then believe me, I would be walking out of that door right now! I’ve been in here loads of times before and I have never been spoken to like this—I will not be spoken to like this! Go and get me someone else who isn’t an idiot!” she snarls, and then... nothing.

Draco listens to the clatter of footsteps and the ragged sound of the girl’s breathing for several seconds before he decides to put down his stack of trousers and investigate. On the other side of the rack, he finds a scowling girl with long red hair, dressed in jeans and a green coat and clutching a pair of trousers in such a tight grip that she is in danger of ripping them apart at the seams.

“Ivy? What are you doing here?” he asks, and as soon as the thoughtless words are out of his mouth, he wishes he could have them back.

“Buying trousers for Magnus.”

“Can’t he buy his own?” Draco says lightly. Ivy’s scowl darkens and he immediately gives himself a mental slap, holding his hands up in contrition.

“Oh, don’t you start... Sir,” she adds, flushing and looking away.

“Never mind that,” he says, brushing off the outburst. He owes her that much for his own unhelpful comments. “Just out of curiosity, why are you buying Magnus’s trousers for him?”

She meets his eyes. “You’ll laugh.”

“I promise not to.”

Ivy sighs. “Magnus and I do certain sorts of shopping for each other... today I’m buying him these trousers and he’s in Scrivenshaft’s getting me a new quill. It’s sort of... insurance. It stops us both from spending too much money on things we like but don’t need.”

“That’s actually very sensible,” Draco says, brows knitted.

Ivy laughs. “You sound surprised.”

“Not at you. At Magnus,” he admits. “Listen, why don’t you give me your—Magnus’s—money and I’ll get these for you?”

“Because then that horrible man won’t learn anything!” Ivy says indignantly, and she has a point.

Just then, the bell rings and an older man, clearly the owner or manager, walks into the shop with sandwiches and steaming paper cups. Draco points.

“I think he will, actually. You tell that man what happened and I’ll get the trousers—that way you won’t have to speak to that imbecile again.”

“Okay... but then I won’t get to shout at him again,” she says, disappointed.

“Perhaps that’s a good thing. We don’t want you to explode.”

She laughs. “I do have a bit of a temper. My mum says Ivy is short for I-volcano.”

“I don’t think I could possibly comment,” Draco says, but they share a smile as she goes to talk to the man behind the counter.

He listens as she relates the story, particularly relishing the part where the sales assistant is summoned and given quite an earful by his boss. As he eavesdrops, he selects several pairs of robust-looking trousers, several light sweaters and a new short coat with a wand pocket and an inbuilt water-repelling charm, and is all ready to pay and retreat when Ivy returns, string-handled bag in hand.

“You bought them,” he remarks, not at all surprised.

“Yes. That man there—it’s his shop. He was very apologetic. He found the trousers for me and I got them for half price because of what happened.”

“Magnus will be pleased.”

Ivy snorts. “Magnus will be paying me danger money if this continues. Anyway, I’ll see you later, sir.”

“Yes, of course,” he says, hoisting up his pile of garments and inclining his head politely. “Enjoy your afternoon.”

She nods distractedly but does not move. Her eyes flit over the items in his arms.

“Are you open to suggestions?” she says quickly.

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “I’m not sure. Go on.”

Ivy hesitates, biting her lip and twisting the handles of her bag around her fingers. “You should get something that isn’t black,” she says after a moment. “Or grey. Or that muddy colour that’s pretending to be green.”

“These are practical colours,” Draco says, fighting to keep the defensive tone out of his voice. This girl is his student, and she does not need to know that she is offending his fashion sense, such that it is. “I’m going to be wearing them in the rain and the mud. They need to be dark.”

“What about at weekends?” Ivy asks.

Draco frowns, throwing out a hand to indicate his perfectly serviceable outfit of trousers, shirt, and jumper, and his winter coat and scarf.

“It’s all black,” she says gently.

“Alright then,” he snaps. “What would you suggest?”

Amusement blooming on her face, Ivy shakes her bag into the crook of her elbow and wanders over to a rail of sweaters. She pulls out several that are identical in style to the ones in his arms, but in rich shades of red, green, indigo, and turquoise.

“Colours,” she says, piling them into his arms and staring at him intently.

Draco looks at the stack of jewel-bright sweaters, at Ivy, and at the counter, where the owner of the shop is watching him with interest. In the end, he doesn’t think he has much of a choice.

Five minutes later, he and Ivy emerge into the bright sunlight, several bags heavier and several Galleons lighter, and are about to head in separate directions when they are waylaid by a group of seventh-year Slytherins. The group contains the now-infamous Joseph Ryan, and he wastes no time in making himself the centre of attention.

“Heading to Madam P’s with your favourite teacher, Ivy?” he calls, smirking at his friends. “What will Humphries say?”

Draco takes a step towards the little group, all traces of levity evaporating. “I suggest you stop there, Mr Ryan, before you say something that earns you a few Saturday detentions,” he says pointedly, and Joseph’s friends fall silent behind him.

“That’s not fair,” Joseph complains. “You can’t make me miss a match.”

“I can and I will, if you do not start showing some respect for me and for your fellow students. Now go on, bugger off out of my sight,” he snaps, tingling with satisfaction at the sight of genuine anxiety on Joseph’s face.

“Suck turnips, Joseph!” Ivy yells at the retreating backs of the boys, making Draco jump slightly. “He’s just sore that I shot him down at the end of last term.”

“You did what?” Draco demands, staring at her.

She laughs. “I mean he asked me out and I said no. I’m going to meet Magnus at the sandwich shop now, but if you’re going there, too, I promise not to think you’re following me.”

“I think you made a wise decision,” he advises her as they part, and he means it.

He doesn’t trust Joseph Ryan an inch, and by the end of the next hour, Joseph probably knows it too. Draco wanders up and down the cobbled streets, nipping into shops and cafes here and there to make sure everything is as it should be, but at no time is he unaware of the little group of seventh-years. Eventually, Draco finds himself outside the Three Broomsticks, and, deciding that Joseph and friends are probably as sick of him as he is of them, he decides to go inside.

It’s been many years, but some things just never change, and this pub is one of them. Draco buys himself a Butterbeer for old times’ sake and looks around for a table that isn’t already crowded with students. He spots a seat right next to the roaring fireplace and heads for it, but doesn’t quite get there before he hears his own name and stops short.

“That’s a brilliant one, Jasper. Malfoy will go mad!

“Jasper,” Draco mutters to himself, taking a quick look around before he ducks behind a stone pillar, and, sure enough, Jasper Bracknell and his friends are talking about him. And laughing. He takes a deep breath and a swig of Butterbeer, trying to convince himself that this is a coincidence... perhaps today is just not his day... and yet. He’s already riled in a way he can’t explain, and he doesn’t even know yet what they are talking about. He’s not sure he wants to know, but for some reason, he’s listening anyway.

“Did you see the queue last week?” says one of the other Gryffindor fifth-years, snorting with amusement. “All those first-years begging to come to Hogsmeade!”

“You didn’t see him when he came to the door,” Jasper says with an obnoxious snap of gum. “I hid round the corner and watched—his face was priceless.”

Behind the pillar, Draco clutches his Butterbeer and fumes as the whole group dissolves into moronic laughter.

“Trouble is,” one of them says eventually, the one Draco has always assumed to be Jasper’s girlfriend, “I don’t know if they’ll fall for it again. I mean, I know they’re just first-years and everything, but at some point they’re going to stop believing what we say.”

“They are pretty stupid,” offers another boy. “Yesterday I saw two of them trying to hex Mrs Norris when Filch wasn’t looking.”

“That’s bloody brave if you ask me,” Jasper says with feeling, and for possibly the first time since the two of them laid eyes on one another, Draco agrees with him.

“Did it work?” asks the girl.

“’Course not. They’re first-years,” the other boy says, and something in his tone sends an additional crackle of irritation through Draco.

Everyone laughs, and for long seconds Draco hears nothing from the table but the clinking of Butterbeer mugs and the sound of a quill scribbling against parchment.

“Right, I think I’ve got everything down,” Jasper says at last. “Any more ideas? Make it quick, ’cause we’ve got to go and meet Malfoy and Vector in a minute, and I don’t know about you but I don’t fancy getting on the wrong side of her again.”

The girl laughs. “I think you like getting detention with her.”

“Shut up, Jess,” Jasper grumbles. Draco lifts an eyebrow and gulps at his drink because, disturbingly, once again, Jasper is right about something—it is nearly time to get going.

“Maybe we should... like... leave off for a bit,” someone says.

“Er, why would we do that?” Jasper demands hotly.

“Maybe Malfoy’s learned his lesson. He does seem different recently.”

There is silence as everyone, including Draco, seems to wait for Jasper to respond.

“Screw that. As long as he hates all Gryffindors, which I know he still does, he’s fair game,” Jasper says, and there’s a creak and a crack-bang as he leans back in his chair and pops his gum.

Draco decides not to wait around for any more, and quietly weaves his way back out of the pub and into the street, taking care not to be seen by Jasper or any of his friends.

So, he thinks, walking slowly to the meeting point and perching on a cold wall to wait. That’s how it is.

When Septima joins him, she grants him a polite smile, but she doesn’t seem to be in the mood for talking once they move off back to the castle behind the gaggle of students, and that’s fine with Draco. He has plenty to think about.

He doesn’t know why he’s surprised by any of it. He’s always been pretty unpopular with the Gryffindors, and he’s always just let it be, because until very recently, the feeling has been entirely mutual. Now that he’s been forced to interact with them, though, he has realised that disliking an entire house is ridiculous, and he has to admit that he’s become rather attached to some of them. Fergus Quinlan is a brave and likeable young man, and so many of the little ones just want to learn, and possess an eagerness for doing so that makes Draco feel rather humble. He doesn’t hate all Gryffindors—he has never hated them. He does, however, have a little irritable spot for Jasper and his friends, and it appears that the feeling is reciprocated.

No doubt they think they are hilarious, getting one over on their least favourite teacher—relishing his frustration and making him waste his time—but it is Jasper himself that pushes up Draco’s blood pressure, makes him feel cross and petty and twelve years old again. His attitude is abominable, but it’s not just that; there’s something about him, something about his popularity and his scruffy hair and his big, impertinent eyes that just sets Draco on edge before a single word passes between them.

He wonders what Harry would... Draco halts in the middle of the path and groans, but the conclusion of that thought crashes into him anyway.

“Professor Malfoy?” Septima asks, dark eyes narrowed in concern.

He shakes himself and forces a smile. “Sorry. Just realised I forgot something on my shopping list, but it doesn’t matter.”

She hesitates for a moment and then seems to accept the explanation, allowing him to fall into step beside her without another word. Draco barely notices the rest of the walk back; he’s caught up in the unnerving realisation that Jasper Bracknell is Harry. At least, he’s the parts of Harry that Draco has always found the most challenging. He represents everything that the two of them have always managed to bring out in one another—rivalry, pettiness, revenge, arrogance, misplaced pride—and it’s staggering, because he’s been teaching Jasper for well over four years now, and he has never seen it.

Harry Potter is everywhere. He’s always known it. And the crazy thing is, the only thing he can think about doing when he gets back to the castle is heading straight for the hospital wing to tell him all about it. Mostly about it. After all, Harry doesn’t need to know that he has somehow colonised Draco’s head and is refusing to leave.

He returns to find Filch waiting for him in the Entrance Hall. The caretaker looks him over with deep suspicion, as though he might have Stanley secreted about his person, before he scowls and conveys the message that McGonagall would like to see him in her office.

“Thanks,” he offers, briefly tempted to throw open his coat and yell, ‘It’s just me, you crazy old twit!’ but he resists, mostly because there are students present, and some of them are just starting to like him a little bit.

He walks quickly up to her office, shopping bags banging against his thighs, trying desperately to remember anything idiotic that he might have done in the last few days. The trouble is, his head is so full of Harry and Jasper and possible acts of revenge that he can’t recall a single thing. When he walks into the office, McGonagall is waiting for him. Her favourite tea set is on the desk, and the room is already filled with the warm, smoky scent of Lapsang.

“Is everything alright?” he asks, taking a seat when she offers it and placing his bags on the carpet.

“That is what I wanted to ask you,” McGonagall says, steepling her fingers and regarding him carefully. “You have not burst into my office to complain in over two weeks. I wondered if something was the matter.”

Draco stares at her, astonished. He can’t be sure whether or not she is mocking him, but that doesn’t really matter, because surely it hasn’t been two weeks since he was here.

“There’s no need to be so surprised, Mr Malfoy,” she says, lips curving into a sly smile. “I do possess a sense of humour.”

Draco looks away from her and out of the window, letting a small huff of laughter escape. “I know, I just... has it really been that long?”

“Yes. After your first two visits, I began marking them on my calendar,” she says, picking up the teapot and pouring the fragrant liquid into two delicate cups. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

Draco nods for milk and then takes his cup. “I’m fine, Professor. I’m... absolutely fine.”

“You mean you do not have a single bone to pick with me?” McGonagall asks, lifting her cup and her eyebrows in inquiry.

Draco hesitates. The only thing that’s gnawing at his insides right now is Jasper’s petty sabotage, and he thinks he’d prefer to deal with that one on his own. “Not that I can think of,” he says at last.

“Miracles never cease.” She sighs and sips at her tea, features arranged into an expression of philosophical disappointment. “Just when I was starting to enjoy your diatribes.”

Draco smiles, surprising himself. “I’m sure I can muster one up if you like,” he offers.

She shakes her head. “You know as well as I do that it won’t be the same if you don’t mean it.”

“Sorry.”

“Never mind. How was Hogsmeade?”

“Very nice. Nothing major to report, although I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Joseph Ryan needs to be taken down a peg or two,” Draco says, and McGonagall grimaces. “It was nice to get out, and the third-years all behaved very well considering this is all still new to them.”

“I’m glad to hear it. It’s wonderful news about Harry, isn’t it?” she says with a small smile, and Draco’s mouth twitches into a near-grin before he can do anything to stop it.

“Yes,” he agrees, trying to tone it down slightly. “It’s fantastic that he’s recovering and that he can communicate again.”

McGonagall nods and drinks her tea in silence, leaning back in her chair and gazing at the portrait of Dumbledore, which is snoozing gently in the sunshine.

“I am proud of you, Draco,” she says finally.

“Oh,” he manages, startled.

“You have struggled and you have complained, but you have done everything I have asked of you, and you have done it with greater skill and understanding and determination than anyone could have thought possible. I know how difficult this time has been for you. I know you have had to work hard to keep up with your extra responsibilities. This process has taken its toll on you, and there have been moments when I have been tempted to intervene, but you have prevailed, Draco,” she says, leaning towards him across the desk, steely eyes daring him to argue.

He says nothing, just holding onto his cup and trying to quell the tangle of emotion in his stomach.

“You are stronger and better than you know,” she continues. “I brought you here because I could see something in you that I wanted for Hogwarts. I have always seen your potential and you have not let me down. You have always been a good teacher, Draco...”

“I’m not sure I was, actually... before this,” he admits.

“Are you arguing with me?” she demands, eyes glinting.

“Maybe a little bit.”

She smiles and shakes her head. “You were a good teacher, but you are now on your way to becoming a great teacher.”

Draco looks down into his cup, ignoring the flush climbing up the back of his neck as best he can.

“Even with all the complaining?”

McGonagall makes a small sound of exasperation. “It strikes me that you actually thought I expected you to cope with all these extra things alone. Draco, all I really wanted was for you to learn to accept help from others, and to believe that everyone is not against you.”

“I’m afraid that didn’t occur to me,” Draco admits, feeling rather stupid. “I’m getting there, though.”

He is, too. With the exception of Jasper and friends, he is now quite content to believe that none of the staff or students actually wish him any ill.

McGonagall says nothing, just refills both of their cups and sits back, plunging them into an unexpectedly comfortable silence. Draco drinks his tea, opting to leave the gentle feeling of peace unbroken. He has never before felt so relaxed inside this office and he wants to hold on to the moment, to catalogue it and preserve it, just in case he never has another one like it.

When the last of the tea has been finished, Draco rises and gathers his bags, thanking McGonagall and waiting for her say something about his shopping. She doesn’t, but he is amused to note that she appears to be fighting quite the battle with herself to prevent any comments from escaping.

After a brief stop to relieve himself of coat, scarf and bags and feed several mint leaves to a hungry Stanley, he makes his way up to the hospital wing, wondering if Ron and Hermione will still be around. When he opens the door, he finds them sitting around Harry’s bed, one at each side, and is surprised to realise that he doesn’t mind at all. Well, he’d prefer it if Ron wasn’t sitting in his chair, because it’s his, but he will cope. They haven’t seen him yet, and he watches the three of them from the doorway, interest caught by the item on Hermione’s lap. It seems to be a small plaque of glass, perhaps a foot square, with markings that he cannot quite make out. Seconds later, though, the letters B, I, S, C, U, I, T, and S are traced, one after another, into the air above the bed by a pulse of shimmering green light, and all becomes clear.

“Biscuits?” Hermione repeats, laughing. “Yes, I’m sure we can manage that, as soon as Madam Pomfrey says it’s okay.”

“I can make biscuits now, you know,” Ron tells Harry. “I could bring you homemade biscuits with whatever you want in them.”

Draco watches Hermione point to each corner of the glass in turn. She then concentrates her efforts in a smaller area, and as she repeats the process, the letters C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E-P-L-S appear in the air. Impressed, he takes two steps into the ward and then stops as Poppy emerges from her office with her tent and pipes and funnels. This time, when Ron and Hermione see her, they get to their feet without a word and head for the door. Draco follows them, leaning against the sun-warmed windowsill in the corridor and examining the clever piece of glass in Hermione’s hands.

“I wondered where you’d got to,” Ron says, leaning beside Draco and stretching luxuriously.

“Harry’s just started talking and already you can’t remember a word he says,” Hermione sighs, shaking her head. “He told us Draco was in Hogsmeade when we first got here.”

Ron frowns. “Oh. Was that when I was laughing at his pyjamas?”

Hermione glances at Draco wearily. “Yes.”

“What’s the matter with his pyjamas?” Draco asks, intrigued.

Ron snorts. “They’ve got little dragons on them, and every now and then, one of them lets out a little puff of smoke. They’re hilarious.”

“I’ll get you some for Christmas,” Hermione promises. “How was Hogsmeade?” she asks, turning to Draco and cradling the piece of glass carefully against her chest.

“The same as ever. Great minds think alike, by the way,” he says, indicating the glass plaque. “That’s exactly what I did when he first opened his eyes.”

“Oh,” Hermione says, crestfallen. “He’s already got one? He didn’t tell me.”

“He hasn’t got one like that,” Draco says hurriedly. “Yours is much better. Mine is just a piece of slate with letters chalked onto it. May I?”

He holds out his hands and Hermione passes him the glass plaque. It’s a beautiful piece of equipment, clearly loaded with expert charm-work and practical features. The letters of the alphabet have been separated into four groups, one in each corner of the glass, and in the middle are the numbers one to nine and a list of useful words like ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘pain’, and ‘tired’.

“Did you make this?” he asks, looking up at her. He thinks he already knows the answer.

“Yes. It’s just... well, I thought it might make things a bit easier,” she says quietly.

“It will,” he assures, handing it back to her. “It’s... well, it’s lovely,” he says, frowning as he tries to find the words he wants without embarrassing her. “You should make these for a living.”

“That’s what I said,” Ron puts in, and when Draco looks at him, his face is arranged in the most affectionate expression of ‘I told you so’ that he has ever seen.

“Thanks,” she says with a small smile. “It’s nothing really. From what I’ve heard, you’re the one who’s been doing all the work around here.”

“I haven’t, I assure you,” Draco says, but Hermione’s smile just blossoms in front of him. In the end, he can’t look at her and has to look out of the window instead, but it doesn’t help; he knows she’s smiling at him and he has no idea what to do with that.

“What have you been telling her?” he asks Harry as soon as they have left for home. Hermione has left the glass plaque in his care, along with instructions on its finer functions and idiosyncrasies.

WHO, Harry says, and Draco watches the shimmering letters for a moment before he shakes himself.

“Who do you think?” he says. “Hermione.”

NOTHING, Harry blinks. This is already so much faster than the chalkboard.

“I don’t believe you.”

WHY.

“Because she was looking at me like... like she used to look at you sometimes when you listened to her in a lesson or did something nice. It’s the sort of look one gives a naughty dog when it finally decides to roll over. It’s very odd.”

One of Harry’s eyebrows twitches, making Draco grin until he remembers that he’s trying to get information out of him.

JUST STUFF, Harry says, and then, TELL ME ABOUT HOGSMEADE.

Draco sighs. He stares down at the green eyes with the sinking feeling that Harry can probably out-stubborn him without even trying.

“Fine. You win this time. I will tell you about Hogsmeade,” he relents, and, making himself comfortable in his chair, he does.

He tells Harry about his walk into the village and the strange sheep; he tells him about Ivy’s hot temper and his practical purchases, and he tells him about tasting Butterbeer after what must be a decade and a half. Then, for some reason veering around the most pressing issue of the day, he tells him about Quidditch practice and Winston’s progress and about McGonagall and her tea and her sardonic compliments. Harry listens for several minutes without interrupting, but when Draco pauses for a moment too long, he says,

WHAT ELSE.

“Nothing else,” Draco says lamely, and he has no idea why he’s suddenly avoiding the subject. “That’s about it.”

Harry frowns. At least, one of his eyebrows does. WHAT ARE YOU NOT TELLING ME.

“You’re imagining things,” Draco says, eyes caught by Harry’s pyjamas. The little dragons do indeed blow out little puffs of smoke and are quite mesmerising, especially for people who are trying to avoid other people’s eyes. Try as he might, though, he can’t ignore Harry’s indignant blinking, so he turns his attention back to the plaque.

MOLLY SENT THEM, Harry says. TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED.

Finding himself irritated but fighting a smile at the same time, Draco flops back against his chair and sighs, regarding Harry with resignation.

“You can never just let things lie, can you?”

Harry just stares at him, one eyebrow twitching.

“Fine. I was going to tell you all along, but then it just seemed... a bit embarrassing.”

I DONT CARE.

“Oh, well, that helps a lot,” Draco says drily. “Alright. When I was in the Three Broomsticks, I overhead a bunch of fifth-years—specifically, Jasper Bracknell and friends—talking about me. Do you remember how I told you about those rumours someone was spreading around the Gryffindor first-years? I had a feeling it was him, and it turns out I was right: they were behind it, and they were sitting there without a shred of shame, plotting the next one. Apparently, he is under the impression that I hate all Gryffindors.”

Two blinks. Yes.

“Yes what?” Draco asks, frowning.

KNEW THIS.

“You knew he was behind the rumours?”

One blink. No.

“You knew he thought I hated Gryffindor?”

Two blinks. Yes.

Aghast, Draco leans forward, gripping the glass plaque tightly and staring at Harry in disbelief.

“You knew and you never tried to reason with him?” he demands.

NEVER, Harry says, and rolls his eyes to the ceiling. TRIED MORE THAN ONCE. SOME KIDS DONT LISTEN.

Draco snorts. “That certainly is true. I’m sorry.”

Harry performs an odd sort of crinkle with his eyes that looks so much like a shrug that Draco can’t help smiling. He settles back again, tucking up his legs and resting the plaque on his thighs.

HOW DO YOU REALLY FEEL, Harry says.

Draco swallows hard. “About what?”

GRYFFINDOR, Harry says. Pauses. TIT.

“Oh, thank you,” Draco says, relieved until he realises that he doesn’t know exactly how to answer the question. “I feel... I do not hate all Gryffindors, let’s start there. I am certainly not a fan of Jasper Bracknell, but I do not hate him, either. I find him very challenging, and I suppose it affected me more than I expected to hear that he disliked me so much. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”

One blink. No. HAD STUDENT ONCE COULDNT STAND ME. DEVASTATED.

“Really?” Draco says, surprised. “I thought they all loved you.”

Harry rolls his eyes. I KNOW YOU DO.

Draco lets out a soft sound of confusion and gazes out of the window, attempting to process this revelation that shouldn’t be a revelation at all. He supposes that no one is universally liked, any more than anyone is universally disliked. Even Volde-fucking-mort had sort-of friends. Besides, who wouldn’t like Harry? He’s just so... oh, good grief. You, you fucking idiot. At the start of this very term, you didn’t like him. He wants to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, and he wants to stay in this chair forever and run away from this place all at the same time.

When he looks back at Harry, it’s as though every one of those thoughts is being reflected back to him in the green eyes, so much so that he briefly fears that he has been thinking out loud.

“I think perhaps I was unfair sometimes,” he admits at last. “I never hated, but I did sometimes believe that every student in that house was the same, and there’s no excuse for that.”

EXPERIENCE LEAVES MARKS, Harry offers.

“You’re probably right, and very wise for a man who can only move one eyebrow,” Draco says. “I still can’t help feeling rather pathetic... and yet, at the same time, I’m not sure I can let Jasper walk away from this experience unscathed.”

WHAT WILL YOU DO.

“I don’t know,” Draco muses. “I think it’s time to show him that I have no problem with Gryffindors, only idiots. And then I promise to be the bigger man. Wherever possible.”

Harry’s eyes crinkle at the corners. TRY NOT TO DAMAGE HIM PERMANENTLY.

“I think I can manage that. Are you tired?”

Harry’s eyes flick around the board for several moments before Draco realises that he is trying to select a word from the list in the centre.

“Cold?”

Two blinks. Yes.

“It is a bit, isn’t it?” Draco agrees. Darkness is falling fast and without the warming influence of the sun, the air is quickly turning chilly, so he casts a warming charm around the bed and picks up his blanket from the arm of the chair, hesitating only for a moment before draping it over Harry and gently tucking it around his shoulders. “Sorry,” he mumbles, feeling horribly self-conscious as soon as he steps back. “I didn’t mean to...”

No, Harry blinks, letting his eyes fall closed and then snapping them open.

“You are tired.”

Two blinks. Yes.

Draco stretches and ruffles the back of his hair indolently. “Sleep,” he mumbles, yawning as he feels Harry’s weariness all around him like a warm quilt. “I have plotting to do.”

The thing is, he muses as he waits for the kettle to boil and warms his cold hands by the fire, this isn’t about petty revenge, as easily as it could be. He wants more than that. He wants to teach Jasper, and to a lesser extent his friends, a lesson that will stick with them.

“Experience leaves marks,” he mutters to himself, watching for a moment as Stanley knocks over two of his shopping bags and then tries to climb into them, before he gets up and empties the clothes out onto the bed for inspection. Stanley moves slowly over the sweaters and trousers, examining and tacking over each in turn.

“I’m glad you approve,” Draco says, turning away to make his tea. When he returns to his chair, Stanley has settled down to sleep in the middle of the red sweater. Apparently, Ivy isn’t the only one who thinks he should be wearing more colours.

Amused but still uncertain he dares to wear such a thing, Draco curls up with tea and ginger biscuits and pushes all matters wardrobe-related to the back of his mind. Within minutes, the familiar comforts of fire, chair, and tea combine to soothe his mind into a slow, drifting haze.

Stanley makes funny little noises when he sleeps, Draco thinks. Harry’s eyes are nice. McGonagall never puts enough milk in her tea. Winston Camberwell flew on a broom today. All he has to do is make the punishment fit the crime.

Draco opens his eyes and grins.

**~*~**

For the next few days, Draco waits, poised, for the perfect opportunity to spring his plot. He is rather pleased with the overall plan and has no intention of spoiling it by rushing in before the right moment. Instead, he tells Harry all about it, and keeps an eye on the fifth-year Gryffindors with the knowledge that soon, he will have the chance to turn the tables on Jasper’s game of rumours.

His chance comes, finally, on a gloomy Friday afternoon in late October.  Having struggled throughout the lesson, many of his first-year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs have still not mastered turning wood into parchment by the time the bell rings, and Draco knows what he has to do.

“Just a moment,” he says sternly, drawing the students’ attention away from their attempts to stuff everything into their bags at once and flee the classroom. They pause and look up at him guiltily. “I have noticed that many of you have been having problems with this spell. It is an important piece of magic, which you may well need for your end-of-year examinations. Fortunately,” he continues, raising his voice above the ripple of anxious whispers, “Jasper Bracknell and his friends from Gryffindor have volunteered to assist any first-years who need help with this spell.”

The first-years dart glances at one another but the general feeling in the classroom seems to be relief.

“Sir?” someone calls out. “Will they help us even though we’re not Gryffindors?”

“Of course,” Draco says firmly. “One doesn’t get to one’s OWL year without learning a little bit of inter-house communication. Tell him that Professor Malfoy sent you... and his thanks,” he adds, indicating the door and watching the first-years pile through it, chattering amongst themselves.

That night, he tells Harry that the plan has gone off without a hitch, and that now, all he has to do is wait. As it turns out, he doesn’t have to wait very long at all. After their Saturday lesson—blessedly later in the morning than the previous week—Draco and Winston walk back to the castle together and head immediately for the Great Hall, from which an enticing aroma of fresh bread is emanating. Winston spots Emilie at the Gryffindor table and hurtles over to her with a grin and a ‘bye, Professor Malfoy!’

Draco watches him go, quietly thrilled by his progress. Today, he has been brave enough to let Draco fly all the way around the training pitch and kept his eyes open the entire time. Granted, Draco had taken it very slowly, and the broom hadn’t been more than a foot from the ground at any point, but things are definitely moving in the right direction and the lesson has left Draco feeling accomplished and very, very hungry.

On his way over to the staff table, where he can see Hagrid and Poppy engaged in some sort of lively discussion over soup, he spots Jasper, sitting just a couple of places up from Emilie and Winston and wearing a scowl that makes Draco’s heart glow with satisfaction. When he catches sight of Draco, his eyes narrow and his lip curls, but Draco just smiles at him and carries on to the staff table.

“Afternoon, Draco,” Hagrid says, spreading his bread roll with enough butter to lay bricks. “Yeh’ve got to try this soup; it’s wonderful.”

Draco sits down and tries the soup. It’s wonderful.

**~*~**

As the week goes on, Draco observes the progress of his plan with interest. With each day that passes, Jasper’s scowl becomes darker and his attitude towards Draco becomes less favourable than ever. Draco blithely ignores all of it, noting with curiosity that Jess Fisher and the others are not turning their frustration at their stolen time on him, but on Jasper himself. Still, Draco does nothing, because he senses there will be a breaking point, and besides, his first-years’ command of the wood-to-parchment spell is improving dramatically, so it would appear that someone is helping them, albeit begrudgingly.

On a frosty midweek evening, Draco and Stanley walk into the hospital wing to find Harry wrinkling his nose and frowning. When he catches sight of Draco, he smiles, and Draco’s heart performs a resounding thump as he smiles back.

“What on earth were you doing when I came in?” he asks, tipping Stanley onto the bed and picking up the glass plaque.

PRACTICING, Harry says, showing Draco both rows of teeth, presumably because he can.

Draco laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so pleased to see you scowling at me.”

WASNT SCOWLING AT YOU, Harry says, drawing down both of his eyebrows. ONLY AT CEILING.

“Yes, well, I’m sure it thoroughly deserves it,” Draco says, reaching for his blanket.

Harry just grins, eyes bright, and Draco just stares at him, suddenly gripped by the fear that if he moves or looks away from Harry or continues to look at Harry, he will be sick. His stomach flips nastily and his heart lurches and he thinks he may be holding onto the glass plaque a little too tightly.

ARE YOU OKAY.

Draco blinks and forces himself to breathe normally, dragging his eyes away from Harry and staring intently down at the blanket in his lap. He doesn’t think he is, actually. He thinks he’s in more trouble than he ever could have imagined.

“Fine,” he says weakly, looking up. “Just felt a little bit odd for a moment.”

NOTHING NEW, Harry says, smiling again.

With a gargantuan effort, Draco forces a smile in return and pulls himself under control. It hurts.

**~*~**

He holds out as long as he can that night, but it is earlier than usual when he straps Stanley into his basket and flees the hospital wing. Back in his rooms, he flops onto his bed and covers his face with his hands, leaving Stanley to scuttle around the floor with his string harness still attached. He can feel his face burning against his palms and his heart is pounding so violently that he is afraid it might stop as hot, crackling horror floods his veins, mixed with guilt for leaving so soon when Harry has made such a huge step in his recovery, and something else that scares the absolute shit out of him.

It’s new. So brand new that he has no idea what to do with it, yet at the same time he knows exactly what to do with it and that is the thing that is making him want to hide under the bed and never come out again. It’s the thing that he has made an art-form of avoiding, the thing that he has successfully kept himself safe from for all these years, and Harry has somehow found his way in. Draco has let him in, because he never once imagined that something like this could happen.

“This just isn’t happening,” he says, mumbling the words against his fingers, but he doesn’t believe them.

Tack-tack-tack! says Stanley, trying to climb up onto the bed, falling off, and then managing it on the second attempt and clambering onto Draco’s stomach with his long string trailing behind him.

He didn’t even see it coming. Not for a moment, and now he can barely breathe under the weight of it.

He is attracted to Harry.

Draco drops his arms to his sides and groans when the memory of Harry’s smile tumbles unhelpfully into his head and sets his stomach roiling all over again.

No. It’s worse than that.

Horrified, he claps his hands back over his face. Seconds later, his fingers are being prodded by inquisitive antennae and he emerges to find Stanley sitting on his chest and looking, if possible, rather concerned.

“It’s alright, Stanley,” he assures, unhitching the harness and lifting the beetle out of it. “I’m just having a little moment because I think I may be in love with Harry Potter.”

Tack, Stanley offers, sweeping his antennae over Draco’s mouth before jumping down to settle on the quilt beside him. Draco strokes his shell absently, wondering how on earth this could have happened and what the hell he’s going to do next.

Nothing, he tells himself. Nothing is the answer to that second question. Right now, he has other—if not more important—fish to fry. Fish that cannot be pushed down and forgotten about for the time being, like Jasper Bracknell and Winston and Surya and the Quidditch team and all those other responsibilities that he holds in his hands like the strings of many kites: one false move and the whole lot could come crashing down in a tangled heap.

This is just... this is just not a good idea, that’s what this is. This is the consequence of him allowing himself to get close to someone, and not just someone—the person who has somehow been involved in everything he has done for almost as long as he can remember. This has happened to him somehow without his knowledge, and, far more worryingly, without the Harry he has always known even being present. How can a person fall in love with a motionless body in a hospital bed, a few blinks and a smile? It makes no sense, and yet he isn’t willing to deny what he feels—at least not here, in the safety of his own bedroom, with Stanley as his only witness.

Suddenly restless, Draco gets to his feet and leaves the bedroom, pacing up and down his living room and trying to twist the mess inside his head into something that resembles logic. His eyes flit impatiently from object to object—his kettle, his barometer, his copy of Potioneer’s Weekly—searching pointlessly for something that will make all this somehow fit together. His gaze comes to rest on the stack of folders on the corner of his coffee table and he picks one up, flicking through the pages and pages of Harry’s terrible handwriting and the most recent entries: his own.

Letting out a long, heavy breath, he drops into his chair with the folder clasped to his chest.

Harry has been present. He’s been with Draco all along. Draco has been living his life, standing in his place, seeing him properly for the first time through the eyes of his colleagues and students and friends. It has taken the absence of Potter for Draco to know Harry, and he doesn’t know whether to be relieved by the insight or ashamed that it has taken him so long.

Either way, he understands now, and he can get on with the more important business of locking it away in the back of his mind where it can’t cause any damage. Comforted, he puts the file down and gets ready for bed. It takes him a long time to get to sleep.

**~*~**

When Gryffindor Open House rolls around the following evening, Draco waits for the first student with a degree of impatience. He knows that the size of the queue will almost certainly reflect the effectiveness of Jasper’s punishment, and he holds his breath as he opens the door for the first time and glances quickly along the corridor.

“Hello, Emilie,” he says, waving her inside and hiding a triumphant smile at what he sees. He can see two or three first-years in the queue, but nowhere near as many as he has had in recent weeks, and that must be a good sign.

She jumps up into an armchair at his invitation and is so small that her feet dangle a good six inches off the floor. Draco sits opposite her and tries to look welcoming, even though the only thing he really wants to be supporting is his quilt, and possibly an extra blanket.

“How can I help you?” he says anyway, because he’s a professional, and because he likes Emilie, and not just because she definitely has a little bit of Slytherin in her.

“I wanted to say thank you for letting me come to flying lessons,” she says, expression painfully earnest. “And to tell you that I’m not going to come any more.”

“Why not?”

“Winston doesn’t need me there. He isn’t frightened of you any more.” She smiles and wrinkles her freckled nose. “I don’t want to take time away from him or Surya. You’ll probably get a lot more done if you don’t have to keep pretending to help me.”

Surprised and rather impressed, Draco nods. “That seems fair. Winston is lucky to have such a thoughtful friend.”

Emilie wrinkles her nose again and shrugs, attempting to brush off the compliment. “I don’t know. Surya is my friend, too, you know. We joined the Chess Club together.”

“Good,” Draco says. “I was in the Chess Club once. I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it.”

“Neither am I,” Emilie admits, sliding out of the chair. “Surya is, though. She’s teaching me. See you tomorrow.”

She practically skips out of the room, blonde waves bouncing, and then is gone. Draco follows her to the door, taking a deep breath and hoping that everyone else in the queue will be so easy to help.

**~*~**

By the end of the session, Draco has arrived at three important conclusions.

One—that listening to the problems of teenagers is infinitely easier when one has had one’s full quota of sleep; two—that the most efficient use of everyone’s time will be for him to spend Friday evenings tutoring Surya, and Saturday mornings tutoring Winston, and three—that suppressing one’s feelings isn’t as easy as first thought, especially when everything reminds you of the person you are trying not to think about.

He has always seen Harry everywhere but now it has become more than an inconvenience; it is downright maddening. He’s in the kitchens, where the house-elves speak fondly of him and enquire after his health; he’s in the broomshed where Draco has mended the broken racks and is now in the process of cleaning and whitewashing the walls; he is in McGonagall’s office with tea and the watchful portrait of Dumbledore; he is in Hagrid’s hut and Poppy’s office and Draco’s living room.

Draco’s everything, in fact, and every day it gets a little bit worse.

He’s there in Winston’s stubborn face and Jasper’s sulky one and every first-year who can now successfully turn a small piece of wood into a neat roll of parchment. He’s lying in his bed every evening, just like always, smiling at Draco like he’s the most brilliant thing he’s seen all day, and he has no idea. None.

And that’s good, he tells himself, because Harry doesn’t need to know about this. In the brief, ridiculous moments when he entertains the idea that he would tell Harry how he felt, and that Harry would reciprocate, he easily brings himself back to earth with the certain knowledge that it would never work. Harry does not want or need a grumpy, jaded Transfiguration teacher with a decidedly dodgy past. Harry can do better than that with his eyes closed and both arms tied behind his back.

He sighs, pushing up his sleeves and staring at the faded Mark. In the bed next to him, Harry is sleeping peacefully with Stanley tucked into his side, and Draco doesn’t really know why he’s still there at all. It must be one o’clock in the morning and he is weary all over, but he can’t bring himself to leave. The root of all his problems, he supposes, is that he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he never has. He looks up and startles to see Harry looking right at him.

“I thought you were asleep,” he says, retrieving the glass plaque.

YOU WOKE ME UP WITH YOUR WORRYING, Harry says.

“I’m not worrying,” he lies. “Just thinking.”

SAW YOU STARING AT THAT THING.

Draco glances reflexively at the Mark and shrugs. “Sorry.”

YOU ALWAYS COVER IT, Harry says.

“Yes, of course. Do you expect me to walk around school with it on display?” Draco asks, knowing he sounds defensive.

FIRST YEARS DIDNT CARE.

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “You remember that?”

REMEMBER LOTS OF THINGS, Harry says, and Draco’s face heats slightly at the memory of some of the stories he has shared.

“Yes, well,” Draco says awkwardly.

Harry’s eyes glint in the lamplight. HIDING MEANS IT STILL HAS POWER.

“No, it means that I don’t want to remind people of my past,” Draco argues. Every fibre of his being urges him to pull down his sleeve but he knows that he cannot give in.

ARE YOU ASHAMED.

Draco frowns. “Yes, of course.”

LONG TIME AGO.

“Yes, it was. I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me.”

Harry rolls his eyes. STOP HIDING. He pauses. SHOW IT.

“Harry, I can’t do that. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.”

WHY. WHO CARES.

“I do!”

BET YOU NOBODY NOTICES.

Draco releases a small sound of disbelief and leans forward. “Bet me what?” he challenges.

Harry’s eyes crinkle, sending a shiver through Draco. WHATEVER YOU WANT.

Draco’s mouth turns dry. He stares at Harry for long seconds, trying to remember how to breathe.

“That’s a dangerous offer,” he says roughly.

DO YOUR WORST, Harry blinks. MALFOY.

**~*~**

Draco isn’t a bit surprised when his dreams for the next two nights are full of green eyes and challenge and the words ‘whatever you want, Malfoy’ being murmured against his ear by someone who has warm skin and smells of the outdoors. He doesn’t blame Harry—at least not entirely—when he wakes up restless and uncomfortably aroused; there’s no way he could know what his attempt at encouragement was going to do to Draco’s head and heart and fuck-knows-what-else. He was just... trying to help, and the more Draco considers it, the more he thinks Harry might just have a point. It has been fourteen years—perhaps he doesn’t have to hide any more.

Still, he is rather relieved when Surya turns up for her Friday evening lesson and forces him out of his thoughts. Now is most definitely not the time for carrying out experiments—not only do the two of them have work to do, but the November evening is far too cold for messing around with sleeves. In fact, as the lesson gets underway, he becomes convinced that the only thing preventing his arms from freezing right off is the tough exterior of his new coat, and it is staying exactly where it is.

Conditions remain arctic for his lesson with Winston the following morning, with teeth chattering throughout the session despite Draco’s near-constant movement and barricade of wind-repelling charms. Winston, however, is undeterred; he is calm, if not completely relaxed, as they loop around the pitch at a moderate pace, and the moment Draco lands, he is desperate to demonstrate the fact that he can now summon his broom almost completely into his hand. He has clearly been working exceptionally hard in his spare time and Draco tells him so, in response to which he manages to grin and cringe and blush all at the same time.

In the Entrance Hall, they part ways. Winston heads for the Great Hall for lunch and Draco makes his way up to the hospital wing, grabbing an apple from the kitchens on his way. He fully expects Ron and Hermione to be in attendance at Harry’s bedside, and there they are, standing on opposite sides of the bed and telling him they’ll be back as soon as they can.

“Hello,” Hermione says, picking up her handbag and slinging it over her shoulder as Draco comes to stand beside her. “We’re just going down for some lunch.”

Draco holds up his apple. “I’ll stay with him while you’re out.”

Ron grimaces. “That’s not lunch. Aren’t you hungry?”

Hermione shakes her head with a half-laugh, half-sigh that seems particular to her.

“I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be fine,” Draco says, crunching into his apple.

As they exchange glances, a soft thumping sound draws their eyes down to Harry, who is moving his head around on the pillow, turning it this way and that, and lifting it several inches before flopping back down again. He lies there, breathing hard, looking to each of them in turn as if to say, hey, what about that, then?

“Show-off,” Draco mutters, but he grins, and Harry grins back, and he’s ruined.

Hermione stares at Harry for a second or two and then turns and throws herself at Draco, hugging him with surprising force. Eyes wide, he freezes and then slowly, tentatively puts his arms around her and tries not to get his apple tangled up in her hair.

“Nice one, mate,” Ron says, drawing Draco’s attention to the fact that both he and Harry are watching him with amusement.

Hermione draws back and looks up at Draco. “Sorry about that,” she says, but the words do not match her shiny eyes and rather fierce expression.

“It’s alright,” he says, still rather startled.

“I know you’re laughing at me, Harry,” she says sternly, before ruining it with a smile of pure delight. “It’s just so exciting to actually see something come unstuck, so to speak. It must be lovely to be able to move a little bit.”

Two blinks. Yes.

Hermione picks up the glass plaque and the letters form in the air with impressive speed:

GO HAVE LUNCH ALL OF YOU.

“You’re not half bossy now you can move your head,” Ron says, but he pats Harry on the shoulder and ushers Hermione and Draco out of the hospital wing before they can protest. “A man who cannot have lunch knows its true importance,” he pronounces grandly, and Draco can’t quite help laughing along with him.

**~*~**

On Tuesday evening, after flying lessons and dinner, Draco stands in front of his bathroom mirror and stares at his reflection critically. Stanley, who is still in the bath after a particularly muddy run around the grass, tacks for attention, but Draco barely hears him. In many ways, he looks rather better than he has done for a long time; his eyes are bright, his skin has a light flush of colour to it, and improved house-elf relations have allowed him to gain enough weight that he no longer looks half-starved.

The trouble is, none of that matters, because he is wearing a green jumper. It is, he has to admit, a nice green jumper, but he can’t help but wonder what on earth it is doing on him. The rich shade of emerald does seem to suit his skin tone, and the fine knit is soft against his skin and warm enough that he doesn’t need a shirt underneath, but still.

“You bought the bloody thing,” he tells himself firmly. “You’re going to wear it.”

He is going to wear it, and he is going to wear it to Duelling Club, which is due to start in less than five minutes. If he can’t do it there, where Ivy, the sponsor of the coloured clothing intervention, will be present, then he might as well go into Hogsmeade on Saturday and return them all of them.

Tack-TACK! Stanley interjects, splashing water out of the bath and onto the back of Draco’s trousers.

“Settle down,” he instructs, drying his trousers with his wand and carefully lifting Stanley out of the bath in a big, soft towel. As he places him on the hearthrug, the clock on the mantelpiece chimes for seven o’clock and Draco groans, realising that he has two choices: to wear the green sweater for Duelling Club or to turn up late. Swearing under his breath, Draco makes a run for it.

When he arrives, Ivy is already there, standing next to the window and marking off names on the register as the students trickle through the door in little groups. She glances up when he enters, something approaching satisfaction flickering in her eyes, but she says nothing.

He stands next to her without a word, watching the students as they mill around the room, exchanging gossip and practicing duelling stances.

“I’m not going with him today,” one second-year says, wrinkling her nose at her friend.

“Who, Timothy?” the other asks, cleaning her wand on the hem of her skirt.

“Yeah. He was really mean to me last week. He’s always really mean to me,” says the first.

“You know what my mum always says about boys?”

The first girl shakes her head. “No. What?”

Her friend regards her with a knowing smile. “When they’re mean to you like that, it’s ’cause they like you.”

“Erghh,” the first girl says, pulling her face. “I hope that’s not true.”

It isn’t, Draco thinks, suppressing a smile. Unless he and Harry have just liked each other all along. In hindsight, though, things might have been easier if that had been the case.

“Don’t panic, I’m here!” announces Levinson, stumbling into the room as though pushed.

“I don’t know how we’d have coped,” Ivy mumbles, putting a tick beside his name on the register and glancing at Draco.

“Go on,” he says wearily.

“What?”

“I know you’re dying to say something about my jumper.”

Ivy blinks, smiles, and drops her eyes back to her register. “It’s very nice.”

“That’s all?” Draco demands.

Amused, Ivy wraps her arms around the register and looks him over obediently. “The sleeves are a bit short, aren’t they?”

“Are they?” Draco whispers, suddenly conscious of the fact that the room is full of eyes, but when he glances around, not a single one of his students is looking at him.

“Mm, they’re supposed to sit just below your wrist bone in this type of jumper—yours are sitting just above,” she explains, holding out her wrist in demonstration.

“Does it matter?”

“To be honest, sir, it depends on whether or not you want to look fashionable. It would probably look better if you rolled them up until you can alter them properly, but that’s just my opinion,” Ivy says, shrugging.

Draco groans inwardly. He doesn’t much care about being fashionable, but right now that seems irrelevant, because all he can hear is Harry’s voice and all he can see are Harry’s defiant words in shimmering green light: STOP HIDING. SHOW IT. WHO CARES. WHATEVER YOU WANT.

“Right,” he says, willing his fingers not to shake as he pulls up each sleeve in turn until they rest just below the elbow. He looks at Ivy, not at the Mark, but he knows it’s there and he knows she sees it as she flicks her eyes critically over his altered sleeves. “Better?” he manages, and she nods.

“Much.”

And that’s it. When the door opens, she looks away and ticks off the last two names on the register before turning to him, eyes expectant.

Puzzled, he turns to the gathered students. Takes a breath and clears his throat. “Everyone—let’s get started, shall we?”

**~*~**

Something compels him to head straight for the hospital wing as soon as the club is over, and Harry’s eyes widen comically at the sight of his sweater.

COLOUR, he says helpfully, turning his head on the pillow to face Draco.

“Don’t start, I know it’s weird,” he sighs, lowering himself into his chair.

I LIKE IT.

“Oh,” Draco says, surprised. “Well, thank you. I’m not sure what I think quite yet. It’s Tuesday the sixth, by the way. I’ve just come from Duelling Club.”

Harry nods. Of course, Draco remembers, he has a calendar and a clock on his bedside now—he’s had them for over a week—but some habits are hard to break.

“Apparently, what the students really want is to see me duelling,” he tells Harry. “I’m afraid I promised them that as soon as you were fully recovered, you and I would put on a demonstration for them.”

Harry gives him an odd little smile. FINE. The smile turns into an all-out grin. BUT YOU SHOULD WATCH OUT.

“Are you threatening me?” Draco asks, lifting an eyebrow.

Harry says nothing, but tilts his head in a small shrug.

“I’ve been thinking about Ivy Baron,” Draco says, tapping his fingers thoughtfully on the edges of the glass plaque. “Do you remember me telling you that she wanted to be a teacher?”

Two blinks. Yes.

“I was against the idea at first, I have to admit, but she seems very serious about it. She’s been helping me out at Duelling Club and she’s so good with the little ones... and the big ones, at that. I’m wondering if McGonagall will let her support me in some of my normal classes during her free periods. I don’t know if she’ll even want to, but I think I want to help,” Draco says, feeling curiously vulnerable as he waits for Harry’s response.

SHE WILL, he says quickly.

“How do you know?”

SHE LOOKS UP TO YOU.

“How do you know that?”

Harry smiles. I CAN TELL. ITS A GOOD IDEA. ASK MCG.

“Ron’s right—you are bossy,” Draco says, and Harry offers a very creditable sneer in response. “I think I will, though. It can’t hurt.”

For several seconds there is silence between them, and Draco tries to remember what he used to do before he had a Harry to bounce ideas off. He thinks the job used to fall to Stanley, who is useful for all sorts of things but has never pretended to be an expert on teaching.

SO, Harry says.

“Mm?”

WHO WAS RIGHT.

Draco frowns. “Who was right about what?”

Harry’s eyes lift briefly to the ceiling. DID ANYONE CARE, he asks, glancing pointedly at the Mark.

Draco follows his eyes and almost lets the plaque slide out of his hands as his breath catches in his chest. “I forgot,” he whispers. “I forgot all about it.”

TOLD YOU.

Draco stares hard at his bare forearms, heart racing with the realisation that at some point during Duelling Club, the Mark and all the self-loathing and anxiety associated with it have somehow slipped out of his head. He has no idea how that is even possible, but there is no way to argue with the evidence.

“No one said anything,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I didn’t even notice anyone looking at it. All anyone seemed to care about was duelling and the fact that I was wearing green.”

HA, Harry says, pulling a startled laugh from Draco.

“This is absolute madness, you know that, don’t you?” he says, lifting a hand to push the hair out of his eyes.

UNDERRATED.

“What, madness?”

Harry nods.

Draco smiles, closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. He wants just a moment for the revelation to sink in. It’s just possible that the only person at Hogwarts who has an issue with the Mark these days is him. Of course, he isn’t about to start waving it around in the middle of his classes, but the fact remains that he no longer has to hide, and that might just be fucking wonderful.

When he opens his eyes, Harry is staring at him impatiently.

SO WHAT DO I WIN, he says, face suddenly impossible to read.

“What do you mean?” Draco asks, even though he has a very good idea.

I WAS RIGHT, Harry points out. WHAT DO I GET.

“I don’t know,” Draco says. “What do you want?” Harry’s eyes meet his and do not flit away for the longest time. Draco is terrified. “Well?” he prods in a hoarse whisper.

A STORY. ABOUT DRAGONS.

Draco grips the plaque tightly. “I don’t know any stories about dragons.”

MAKE ONE UP.

“Seriously?”

Harry nods, eyes sparkling with amusement.

Draco sighs, dredging his memory for anything he knows about dragons and wondering just how he ended up here. It’s probably someone’s fault. Probably Harry’s.

“Alright,” he says, looking out at the stars and hoping for the best. “Once upon a time...”

**~*~**

Stanley is running amok. He has once again managed to get into the tea cupboard during lesson time and has chomped down half a bag of mint leaves, resulting in boundless energy and an even greater enthusiasm than usual for knocking over Draco’s possessions. Draco watches him during a rare lull between Open House visitors, shaking his head as Stanley thunders across the coffee table and sends several of Harry’s folders skittering to the floor.

“It’s not as though you were starving, is it?” he says with an air of futility.

Tack-tack-tack-tack, Stanley clicks merrily, leaping down from the table and rolling over several times on the hearthrug. Shaking his head, Draco leans down and turns him the right way up. He really must remember to lock that cupboard, he thinks, rising at the sound of knocking and going to open the door. The person on the other side of it is not someone he ever expected to come here. In fact, he doesn’t think the two of them have ever spoken outside of lessons and house-point deductions.

“Good evening, Jasper,” he says, forcing himself to keep his face neutral. “Have a seat.”

“I’d rather not,” Jasper says sulkily. “I won’t be here long.”

“Well, I’m afraid it wasn’t really an invitation,” Draco admits. “Whatever discussion we’re about to have is not going to take place in the doorway.”

When he indicates the chair for a second time, Jasper traipses across the floor and slumps into it, hands in pockets. He looks weary, Draco notices as he takes his own seat, and smaller, less ebullient than usual.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he offers, surprising himself.

“No thanks,” Jasper says, giving him an odd look from under his messy fringe. “I just want to...” Trailing into silence, he watches Stanley pelt out from under the coffee table, perform a circuit around Draco’s chair, and scuttle into the bedroom. “Erm... it’s about this stuff with the first-years. It was one thing when they were asking us for help with the parchment spell, but now it’s all kinds of stuff... and they just keep asking... and the others won’t help any more, they just keep sending them all to me, and I just can’t keep doing it,” Jasper says miserably.

Draco nods, resisting the temptation to jump in before he absolutely needs to.

With a deep breath, Jasper meets Draco’s eyes and continues. “I know what you’re doing and it’s because of what I did... what we did to you. I don’t know how you knew it was us, but I get it and I’m sorry and if you could call them off now, that’d be great.”

“I see,” Draco says, taking a moment to digest the words and the wonderfully unexpected implication that he may just have succeeded in teaching Jasper a lesson. “And what would you say you have learned from this, exactly?”

Jasper shrugs and looks at his shoes. “Not to mess with you, I suppose, sir.”

Draco hides a smile. “Well, that’s a start. Perhaps a little bit of respect for your teachers, whether you like them or not?” he suggests.

Jasper nods moodily. “Yes, sir.”

“And while we’re on the subject of respect, how about a little bit for your fellow students, not to mention your own housemates? You probably made a lot of those first-years feel very silly and disappointed with your rumours, and believe me, picking on people younger and less experienced than you doesn’t make you big or impressive.”

Jasper looks up, expression torn somewhere between offence and guilt. “We never meant to pick on anybody,” he insists. “It was just...”

“A way to get at me,” Draco puts in evenly. “I know. I also know what you think about me, and it’s not true. You don’t have to believe me, Jasper, and perhaps you and I will never be one another’s favourite people, but we can do better than this, don’t you agree?”

Jasper sighs. “I suppose so. Like I said, I’m sorry, sir.”

“Apology accepted,” Draco says, and though he suspects that what Jasper is sorriest about is getting caught, he thinks there’s a grudging sort of respect in him that wasn’t there before. “I appreciate you coming to talk to me, but I can’t help wondering where your friends are.”

“In the common room, probably, why?”

Draco tries very hard not to roll his eyes. “Because while you might have been the instigator of the prank, if that’s what you want to call it, they were involved in it, too. Don’t you think they should have come with you to apologise?”

“I don’t know. They’re not really talking to me at the moment,” Jasper admits, inspecting his shoes once again. “As far as they’re concerned, it’s my fault that we’re getting mobbed by first-years all the time, which it is, I suppose. They won’t come if I tell them to, that’s for sure.”

“Perhaps they aren’t very good friends, then, if they turn their backs on you the moment something goes wrong,” Draco suggests, and the look Jasper gives him tells him everything he needs to know—namely, that he should not try to understand the world of teenage friendships, much less attempt to meddle in them. Draco has seen that look before, many times, and the sight of it on Jasper’s face is actually rather reassuring. He has not, as he had momentarily feared, broken the boy’s spirit.

“I shall speak to them myself,” he says, watching the relief flood Jasper’s drawn face. “It wasn’t all bad, was it? Helping those first-years?”

“It was alright,” Jasper says cagily. “It got a bit much when they wanted help every five minutes, though.”

“I can imagine,” Draco says with a serene smile, “but have you any idea how much your work has improved since you’ve been helping them?”

Jasper frowns. “No, sir.”

Draco leans over to the sideboard and searches for the relevant class folder, eventually finding it on the floor along with several other things that Stanley apparently thinks he should keep there. He flips to the section in which he keeps a log of homework and class grades, and finds Jasper’s page.

“There,” he says, turning the folder around so he can see. “I think you’ll agree that these results show a definite upward trend.”

“That’s... weird,” Jasper says, leaning forward to stare at the page. “I actually thought I was doing worse in Transfiguration because I was so sick of doing it every night with those kids. That and the fact that I’ve had to stay up late to get all my homework done because of it.”

“Practice is one of the most important things in Transfiguration,” Draco says, taking the folder back and regarding Jasper wearily. “I must have told you that six or seven hundred times already. And perhaps your class grades are better because you’re not messing around with your friends and you’re too tired to wind me up.”

Jasper gives him a dirty look and stands up. “I’d better go and get some sleep then, sir.”

Draco spells the door open for him without getting up from his chair. “You do that,” he says, yawning and stretching. “For tomorrow, we start again.”

He flicks his wand to close the door behind him and the slam is followed by a loud thump from the bedroom. Reluctantly, he rises and goes to investigate. If he’s lucky, Jasper Bracknell will be the last student of the night, but he thinks Stanley might have it in him to be troublesome until the sun comes up.

**~*~**

Encouraged by his conversation with Jasper and determined to dish out another lesson to the fifth-year Gryffindors—this time regarding taking responsibility for one’s own actions—Draco seeks out Jasper’s friends and one by one takes them to task. By Friday afternoon, he has secured an apology from every single one of them, and at dinner that night, he watches with quiet satisfaction as, led by Jess Fisher, they approach Jasper and ask if they can sit with him. He still looks unimpressed, even by teenage boy standards, but he acquiesces, and Draco has a feeling that they are going to be absolutely fine.

Everything by degrees, he tells himself, looking up at the swirling clouds on the ceiling and reaching for a second helping of stew in the hope of keeping his insides warm during his six o’clock flying lesson. He doesn’t feel the slightest bit regretful about taking a night off from broomshed maintenance, but Surya is already getting up from the Slytherin table, having bolted her dinner, and is no doubt heading to her dormitory to dress for adversity; there’s no way he can let her down.

And if he’s honest, he doesn’t want to. He’s been cold and wet before, and it provides him with a wonderful excuse to stand under the shower for as long as he damn well pleases. He shoots a defiant look at the ceiling and chases the last piece of carrot around his plate before chewing it decisively and striding out of the Great Hall. Ten minutes later, he’s standing out in a rather pathetic drizzle with a determined Surya, and thirty minutes later, they are both celebrating as she comes in to land, having completed a whole circuit of the pitch without falling from her broom. She had wobbled once or twice, but had managed to correct her balance each time, and it doesn’t matter at all that she slips and falls on the muddy grass as she touches down, because she has achieved what was once thought impossible, and Draco thinks he may burst with pride.

“Well done!” he enthuses, holding out a hand to help her up. “That was fantastic.”

Surya allows herself to be pulled up. “Do you think it doesn’t count because I fell over at the end?”

“Absolutely not,” Draco says firmly. “Your feet were already on the ground when that happened.”

Surya grins. “I can’t believe I stayed on all that time!”

“Well, now you know you can do it,” Draco says, pushing his wet hair out of his face. “I’m very proud of you. Do you want to leave it there for today or do you want to give it another try?”

By the time he has finished his sentence, Surya is wiping her muddy hands on her coat and climbing back onto her broom.

Winston, too, is gaining confidence all the time, and he doesn’t seem to notice the freezing drizzle any more than Surya does. When Draco reaches their usual training spot, he is already there, hopping from one foot to the other as though he might explode before Draco gets to him.

“Professor Malfoy, watch this!” he says, producing the broom that Draco has lent him for practice. Draco watches as he places the broom on the ground, sticks out his hand, and, with a glare that could stop a Death Eater in his tracks, yells, “UP!”

Slowly but surely, the broomstick rises into the air and into Winston’s hand, and Draco doesn’t blame it. He doubts he could fight against determination so fierce for long, either, and he mirrors Winston’s delighted smile back to him, because this means so much. Not only can he now attempt to fly by himself, but this triumph shows that Winston is finally taking charge of his fear.

“You did it,” Draco says, suddenly gripped by the bizarre urge to ruffle Winston’s hair. He shakes it away and stuffs his hands into his pockets. “I’m so impressed. You must have been practicing all week.”

Winston flushes violently but his grin just widens. “Emilie and Surya have been helping me. Surya told me what she did last night... don’t you think... don’t you think we’re all getting so much better?” he asks, looking up at Draco as though his response is the most important thing in the world.

“Yes,” Draco says, chest tight. “I think you’re all doing marvellously. Now, I was going to suggest that we tried adding a bit of height to our circuit today, but perhaps you’d like to see if you can get off the ground on your own?”

Winston chews his lip, flicking wide eyes between Draco’s broom and the one in his own hand.

“On my own?”

“Just an inch or two,” Draco says, keeping his voice casual. “If you think you can.”

Something interesting flits across Winston’s face and he stares down at his broom, which is still hovering rather nicely. “Maybe... maybe after,” he says, looking hopefully up at Draco. “Can I fly with you first?”

“Of course,” Draco says, mounting his broom and making room for Winston, who climbs aboard with unprecedented enthusiasm.

“Not too high, though,” Winston says anxiously, turning his head to look at Draco.

“Not too high. One step at a time, I promise,” Draco says, watching much of the stress drain out of his face. Winston trusts him, and it’s a strange feeling, heavy and fragile and warm. “Hold on.”

They complete their circuit without incident, coasting along at a steady five feet above the grass, and when Draco experimentally takes one hand off the broom to point at a kestrel circling over the treetops, Winston copes admirably; in fact, he barely panics at all, merely stating that he’d “prefer it if you kept both your hands on the broomstick, Professor Malfoy”.

When they land, Winston picks up his borrowed broom again and spends several minutes summoning it into his hand and then letting it go again, during which time he draws Draco into a conversation which consists mainly of the following exchange, repeated over and over again:

“Do you really think I should try it?”

“I really do.”

“Do you really think I can do it?”

“Yes.”

“If I fly an inch off the ground and then I fall off, could I die?”

“No. Definitely not.”

Finally, Winston takes a deep breath and shakes the water from his hair like a dog. “Can I hold onto you?”

“Absolutely, but you might feel better holding onto the broom.”

“Just in case, though?”

“Yes, of course.”

Winston nods, frowns, and summons his broom into his hand yet again. He’s becoming rather good at it.

“I’m going to try now,” he announces, swinging one leg over the broom and gripping the handle tightly. “It’s a lot scarier on your own,” he admits, and Draco moves closer, standing alongside Winston and offering his arm for support.

“All you need to do now is push against the ground with your feet—just very gently. If you go too high, I will bring you back down.”

Winston swallows hard, looks down at the grass and then forces his head up to look into the distance, just like Draco has taught him. Tucking his free arm behind his back, Draco clenches his cold fingers into a tight fist, pulse racing and breath short as he is momentarily pulled into Winston’s world along with him. He can do it, he knows he can, and if he doesn’t do it today, that’s okay, that’s fine, but wouldn’t it just be...

“Brilliant,” Draco breathes, as Winston screws up his courage and pushes, rising slowly into the air—one, two, three inches—and then hovering there. Both hands grip the broom handle tightly, both feet are pedalling slightly in mid-air, and Winston’s face is contorted into a terror-struck grimace, but he’s doing it. The grin that stretches Draco’s face only grows when Winston drops back to the ground and immediately needs to sit down. He sits beside him, barely noticing the rain soaking through the seat of his trousers.

“Did I do it?” Winston asks, shivering.

Draco laughs, tasting raindrops and hard-won success. “You certainly did.”

**~*~**

As soon as Winston has been sent back to Gryffindor Tower for dry clothes and a celebratory cup of hot chocolate, Draco practically runs up the stairs to the hospital wing, head full of nothing but sharing the victory with Harry.

Poppy shakes her head at his wet hair and clothes but disappears into her office without a word, leaving Draco to perch carefully on the edge of his chair and tell Harry everything. By the time he has finished, he is beginning to shiver and his cold, damp clothes are sticking to his skin all over, but it doesn’t really matter.

“It was only a couple of inches, so there’s still quite a way to go, but he did it,” Draco says, pausing for breath for perhaps the first time in five minutes. He looks at Harry and realises that in his excitement he has forgotten to pick up the glass plaque. “Sorry,” he says, leaning over and looking around for it.

“That’s great news, but don’t you think you need some dry clothes?” Harry says.

Draco freezes, turning slowly from his search to meet Harry’s eyes. “Excuse me?”

Harry laughs. It’s an odd sound, one that’s scratchy and dry from disuse, but it’s wonderful. “You’ll catch your death,” he says. “I’m surprised Poppy isn’t already out here with the Pepper-Up.”

“Never mind that, when did this happen?” Draco demands.

“About three o’clock this morning,” Harry says and then stops, frowning, to clear his throat repeatedly. “It still feels a bit weird. I had a really odd dream, and when I woke up, I sort of spoke my thoughts out loud. You’ll be pleased to know that my first words were ‘good grief’.”

Draco laughs, finding the shivers easier to ignore now that warmth is spreading effortlessly through his body. “And that’s my influence, is it?”

“Well, I don’t think I ever said it before this happened,” Harry says easily. “Listening to a person talk for weeks on end has to make an impression on you, I suppose.”

“It wasn’t weeks on end,” Draco says. “That makes it sound as though I was here the entire time, droning on and on.”

Harry grins. Draco shivers. “It felt a bit like that sometimes,” Harry admits. “Not the droning on part, but it was like... I’d fall asleep with you here and I’d wake up to you telling me that it was the next day. You don’t know how much I appreciated that. When I couldn’t even open my eyes, there was almost no way of knowing even if it was night or day. I was just drifting. You gave me a little bit of structure—something to hang my time on, if that makes sense...” Harry pauses and looks up at the ceiling. “Sorry. I’m embarrassing you, aren’t I?”

“No,” Draco says, even though his face is heating. “But you really don’t need to appreciate anything. I put you here, and anyway, I think I needed someone to talk to as much as you needed a distraction.”

Harry sighs. “I’ve been saying this in my head for weeks, and now I’m going to say it to you properly: this was just as much my fault as it was yours. I’ve had just as much time to think about it as you have—more, in fact—and I’m not interested in any of your guilt or self-loathing. And it wasn’t just a distraction; I’ve actually enjoyed getting to know you and finding out that you aren’t a complete dick, you just play at being one because you don’t know what else to do.”

Draco says nothing for a moment or two, watching the rise and fall of Harry’s chest as he catches his breath. “Do you feel better now you’ve said that?” he asks.

“Yes, thank you,” Harry says. “I’ve got plenty more where that came from, believe me.”

“I do. Out of interest, how many times have you practised saying that to me?”

Grinning, Harry shakes his head. “Never you mind.”

Draco heaves a dramatic sigh. “Alright, well, I suppose I’d better settle in for all those saved-up rants.”

“Don’t you have a Quidditch practice?”

“It’s been cancelled. Roxanne seems to think the weather will be better tomorrow, though I’m not holding out much hope.”

“In that case, could you please go and get dry?” Harry says, eyes appealing. “I’m feeling cold just looking at you.”

“When did you become so demanding?” Draco asks, but he gets up and heads for his rooms anyway, and not because Harry has told him to. At least, not just because Harry has told him to.

When he returns, clothes clean and warm and hair dry, Harry is drinking warm pumpkin juice from a very long straw that terminates in a mug on his bedside cabinet.

“That must be a relief after all those disgusting potions,” Draco says, sitting down and pulling up his knees.

“Yes, and remind me again how you know they’re so disgusting?” Harry teases, clamping the straw between his teeth to speak.

“I have no defence. I was just having a very bad day.”

“I know,” Harry says, expression turning serious. “It was horrible waiting for Poppy to come and tell me what happened. I woke up when the potion trolley fell over and then I heard your voice.” He shudders and narrows his eyes as he looks at Draco. “I was worried about you,” he says accusingly, and Draco’s heart leaps.

“I don’t blame you. It was a very stupid thing to do.”

Harry gives him a look of eyes-wide agreement and continues to suck on his straw. “Do you want to hear something idiotic?”

“Of course.”

“I knew you’d come this morning—I was waiting for you—and when you did, it felt like I’d been dreaming all this time, and I’d woken up and you were a different person,” Harry says, wrinkling his nose as though unconvinced by his own words.

“I’m not all that different,” Draco says, but he’s not sure he believes himself either.

“You look different,” Harry points out.

“Is this about the colours?” Draco asks, glancing down at his wine-coloured jumper. “I’m not sure about them myself.”

“No, the colours are good. You just look different,” Harry insists, chewing on his straw thoughtfully. “You look... I don’t know... well-rested.”

Draco snorts. “That is definitely debatable.”

“Well, debate is something I am now fully capable of,” Harry says brightly. “You know, I’d never have imagined that you’d sit like that.”

“Like what?” Draco asks, suddenly self-conscious.

“Like that,” Harry repeats, gazing pointedly at Draco’s habitual position of chin resting on folded arms and folded arms resting on drawn-up knees. “When you’re in the Great Hall you sit like you’ve got an iron rod up the back of your shirt... or like you’re related to the Queen,” he adds slyly.

“I don’t know. I suppose it didn’t matter how I sat up here because no one could see me,” Draco admits. “Why do I have the feeling that you’re going to remember absolutely every idiotic word I have said since September?”

Harry looks at the ceiling. “I remember a lot. Is Dave the Rave seriously a real person?”

Draco laughs. “Of course he is. I’ve probably got a photograph of him somewhere.”

Harry smiles. “I really hoped he would be. Do you ever speak to him any more?”

“Not since the day I left Glasgow. He wasn’t exactly the letter-writing type. He did say that he was going to miss me, but he had his noisy girlfriend by then, so I’m sure he was able to cope.”

“You have no idea how many questions I have to ask you,” Harry says, finally releasing the straw from his mouth and turning his head to face Draco. “First, though, there’s something I think you should know.”

“Go on,” Draco says, fighting down a ripple of nervousness.

“I never offered extra flying lessons to Emilie Alderson.”

“What?” Draco demands, head jerking up from his arms.

“I promised extra lessons to Winston Camberwell and Surya Khan, but that’s all. Emilie was an experienced flyer from day one,” Harry says.

Draco groans and drops his face back against his forearms. “You mean she played me? She saw her opportunity when you were out of the picture and she just lied to my face? And I believed her?”

“I actually think she’s cleverer than that, because didn’t she admit to you after the first lesson that she didn’t need to be there?” Harry points out.

Draco looks at him. He is doing a very poor job of hiding a smile.

“Yes,” he says through gritted teeth. “She made me believe that she had fooled you in order to fool me. Good grief.”

Harry laughs, and the sound is much stronger this time. Draco fights a smile, caught somewhere between amusement and dismay.

“I always knew there was more than the average amount of Slytherin in that girl,” Draco sighs. “Especially for a Gryffindor.”

“Sometimes it’s not so clear-cut,” Harry says. “The Sorting Hat tried to put me in Slytherin until I started arguing with it.”

“You can’t argue with the Sorting Hat,” Draco says. Frowns. “Can you?”

“I can argue with anything,” Harry says mysteriously, leaving Draco wondering whether or not he’s joking about the Sorting Hat. He has a funny feeling that he’s not.

Unsurprisingly, now that Harry can talk again, he is very reluctant to stop, so Draco spends the next hour or so listening and nodding as Harry congratulates him on his successes with Winston and Surya, his ongoing diplomatic relations with the house-elves, and his handling of the situation with Jasper, who, he assures Draco, “absolutely deserves it and more”. He asks after Hagrid, who has been banned from the hospital wing due to a cold, and Stanley, who Draco promises to bring along on his next visit. Before he can get to his many questions, though, Harry is descended upon by Ron and Hermione, and Draco decides to give them their time alone with Harry and his newly-regained skill.

Back in his living room, he drinks tea by the fire with his feet up on the coffee table, while Stanley trundles up and down between table and lap, using Draco’s legs as a bridge. The rain is lashing down now, pounding against the windows and blurring the outside world into soft-focus. It’s a perfect day for doing nothing, for relaxing in front of the fire with a book or lounging in the bath or taking an afternoon nap, but Draco doesn’t want to do any of those things. He wants to sit in his wing-backed chair, draped in his blanket, and listen to Harry’s voice. He wants to hear about all the thoughts and smart remarks and amusement he has missed.  He wants to rest his chin on his arms and look at Harry and not care that he can’t get a word in edgeways.

Ron and Hermione are still around at dinnertime, and they sit with Draco at the staff table. Hermione delightedly discusses Harry’s progress as her pork chops go cold, while Ron somehow manages to join in and demolish several servings simultaneously.

“Madam Pomfrey says he can start eating normal food again tomorrow,” Hermione tells Draco.

“I’m sending biscuits,” Ron says. “The man needs biscuits.”

“Can you really make your own?” Draco asks, secretly rather impressed.

“Oh, yeah, I’ve been practising. Got a book and everything,” Ron says, gesturing with his fork. “The place I used to get them from closed down, and none of the others taste quite right, so I thought I’d have a go. It’s a bit like Potions, only less chance of explosions and you get to eat something nice at the end.”

“They’re lovely, actually,” Hermione says. “We could bring some for you next week if you like.”

Draco hesitates, eyes flicking from one earnest face to the other and finding himself in the curious position of being offered homemade biscuits by two people he once hated.

“Thank you,” he says eventually. “That would be very nice.”

By the time they head for home, it’s almost eleven, but Draco doesn’t care. He’s humming with restless energy and makes it to the top of the stairs in record time before he realises that he has left Stanley behind and has to run back down to retrieve him.

“Hello, Stanley,” Harry says, lifting his head to greet the beetle as Draco frees him from his basket and tips him onto Harry’s abdomen.

Tack! says Stanley, apparently surprised to hear noises coming from this previously silent entity.

“I never imagined you having a pet,” Harry admits, smiling when Stanley decides to be brave and scurries forward to examine his face with curious antennae.

“Me neither,” Draco admits, taking his seat. “I doubt I’d have ever gone out and bought one, but Stanley just sort of scuttled into my life and I didn’t have much of a choice. I wouldn’t be without him.”

“You’ve got lovely patterns, haven’t you?” Harry says, examining Stanley at close range as he wedges himself under his chin. “My aunt had a whole dinner service like this.”

“She obviously had good taste,” Draco says without thinking.

Harry pulls a face, and it’s one that Draco has seen many times before but not recently. It seems to belong on the face of a much younger Harry and looks charmingly odd on the face of the full-grown man in the bed.

“She didn’t, believe me. It looks much better on Stanley. God, I hated those plates... I dropped one once when I was doing the washing up and she was so convinced I’d done it to spite her, she wouldn’t give me anything but tinned tomatoes to eat for the rest of the weekend,” Harry says, staring into empty air for a moment before he seems to shake himself out of it with an embarrassed shrug. “Sorry.”

“What for?” Draco asks, horrified. “I thought my father was bad but he never tried to starve me.”

Harry quirks a half-smile. “They never tried to actually hurt me; they just really enjoyed making me miserable. Anyway, I haven’t had to see them for years. I suppose we could play a game of ‘who had the most ridiculous upbringing’, but it might be easier not to bother.”

“We could call it a draw,” Draco suggests, pushing down the desire to ask more questions.

“Good plan.” Harry smiles properly now.

Draco smiles too. “Alright then.”

Harry nods vaguely and continues to look at Draco; Draco looks back, and suddenly there is nothing but silence and the inability to look away or form a coherent sentence.

Tack-tack-tack! Stanley clicks urgently and then falls off the bed.

Relieved, Draco scrambles to his feet with a decided lack of grace and rounds the bed to find Stanley on his back, all six legs flailing wildly. He picks the beetle up and places him next to Harry before taking his seat and hoping his discomfiture is not as obvious as he thinks it is.

“You have no idea how bizarre it felt, the first time he started walking all over me,” Harry says with a neat little jerk of the head that shunts his glasses down his nose and allows him to look at Stanley, who has immediately climbed onto his chest.

“I can imagine. I know he’s not light, especially when he’s jumping up and down on a full stomach or bladder,” Draco says.

Harry smiles. “It’s not just that—it’s the noises! Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack,” he clicks, imitating Stanley, who stops what he’s doing to scuttle closer to Harry and place his antennae carefully on Harry’s chin. “Hello,” Harry murmurs, grinning. “My imagination went a bit mad, I think. I don’t think I could do justice to the thing that was in my head without drawing you a picture.”

“In that case, I shall make sure that you have access to quills and parchment as soon as you’re able to use them,” Draco promises.

“I’ll hold you to that. I’ve got all kinds to write down.”

“Like what?”

“Like everything,” Harry says, tipping his glasses back into position and turning his head to regard Draco. “As soon as I stopped panicking, I realised that the only way I was going to get through this without going completely mad was to find ways to keep my mind occupied.”

“Well, don’t stop there, I’m intrigued,” Draco presses, tucking his cold hands into his blanket.

“Good to know this experience has taught you some patience,” Harry observes, amusement rendering his face horribly attractive.

“Good to know this experience has taught you that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” Draco shoots back.

Harry’s eyebrows fly up into his messy fringe. “You’re one to talk.”

“I think you’ll find you’re the one doing most of the talking these days.”

Harry grins broadly and closes his eyes for a moment. “Do you want me to answer your question or not?”

“I do,” Draco says gravely, pressing his lips tightly together and waiting.

“Well, I came up with some new plays for the Quidditch team...”

“Really? You’ll have to talk me through them—there’s no way we can afford to lose to Hufflepuff,” Draco says, catching his use of the word ‘we’ just a fraction of a second before Harry does. Not that he says anything; he doesn’t need to. The flicker of amusement and triumph is quite enough.

“I will, if you stop interrupting.”

Draco presses his mouth against his forearm and nods.

“I decided what everyone is getting for Christmas, and I also decided that if I’m not able to go shopping myself, or even write out my own forms for owl-order, then I’m sending you into Hogsmeade with a list,” Harry says, and Draco arches an eyebrow but keeps his mouth shut. “I planned the menus for the spring term; I redecorated my rooms at least five times; I worked out and learned my times tables up to thirty...” Harry pauses, and Draco can’t help himself.

“What are twenty-three twenty-nines?”

“Six hundred and sixty-seven. You’re not going to—”

“Seventeen twenty-ones?”

“Three hundred and fifty-seven,” Harry says quickly. “You’re not going to catch me out. I’ve had a lot of time to practice.”

“I’m not sure why I’m bothering anyway; I have no idea if those answers are right,” Draco admits. “I’ll be interested to see you try to find a use for that skill.”

Harry laughs. “I probably won’t, but I think it’s improved my memory, which is something. I also spent a lot of time just thinking about... life, I suppose. Mine and everyone else’s. I think by the end of that first month, I’d put the entire world to rights.”

“Perhaps now is the time for you to go into politics,” Draco suggests.

Harry wrinkles his nose in distaste. “If I ever decide that’s a good idea, I’d like you to be the first person to stun me. Hard.”

“Consider it done,” Draco says faintly.

“Thank you. Do you know what I thought about the most?” Harry asks, eyes intense as he stares at Draco. “What has been in my head every hour of every day since I got here?”

Something inside Draco twists unhelpfully. “Ah... no.”

Harry’s mouth twitches at one corner. “Bloody. Fucking. Itches.”

Draco blinks. “Excuse me?”

“Think about how often you scratch your nose or your arm or the back of your knee without even thinking,” Harry says, eyes narrowed. “Think about how aware you would become of that feeling if you had literally nothing to distract you. Then think about not being able to move even a quarter of an inch to relieve it. Then multiply that by a hundred because every day you have to drink a potion that, for about an hour afterwards, makes you feel as though you have ants under your skin. Just think about it.”

“I don’t want to,” Draco says. His skin is crawling but he daren’t scratch; Harry is already giving him a knowing look. “Are you still... itchy?” he asks tentatively.

“It’s not as bad now that I’m not taking the potion any more, but even without that it’s enough to drive you mad,” Harry says.

“Can’t you ask Poppy to... scratch you?” Draco says, cringing slightly at the thought.

“I think it’s a bit too intimate somehow,” Harry says, rolling his eyes as Draco’s eyebrows flick upwards. “I don’t mean it’s in an intimate place, you idiot.  I just don’t think Poppy and I have the sort of relationship where I can just casually ask her to scratch my belly.”

“You make yourself sound like a dog,” Draco laughs. “Actually, it’s not a bad comparison.”

“Dogs are very loyal and smart,” Harry says. “I’m fine with that.”

“They also like running in circles and rolling around in mud,” Draco points out.

“I’m alright with that, too.”

“You are maddening,” Draco sighs.

Harry tips his head in a shrug. “Maybe. But I don’t think you mean that.”

Draco frowns, gazing at Harry and then at Stanley, who appears to have made a nest on Harry’s pillow. He doesn’t know where his next words come from, but he thinks that someone has to say them.

“I was wondering if one of us should mention how weird this is.”

Harry regards him steadily, eyes ridiculously green beneath their square frames. “Which part exactly?”

“The fact that the last time we spoke before this happened, we were furious with each other and that was pretty much the status quo. Does it make sense that we’re now... like this?” Draco says, and he feels stupid and clumsy already, but he’s committed now.

“Does it need to make sense?”

“I prefer it when things make sense,” Draco admits.

Harry grants him a flicker of a smile. “For what it’s worth, the thing I thought about most after itching was you.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Shut up, I’m trying to... I don’t know. But it’s true... I thought about why you came here, and why you stayed. What you wanted from me, if you wanted anything at all. I listened to your stories and they helped me not to lose my mind.”

“I thought that was what the times tables were for,” Draco says quietly.

“Will you stop that?” Harry demands, letting out a sigh of pure exasperation. “What I’m trying to say is that, actually, this does make sense. It makes perfect sense. It might not have happened in the most straightforward way, but, as far as I’m concerned, Draco, we are now friends, and I don’t give up on my friends, even when they’re extremely frustrating.”

“Right,” Draco says after a moment, shifting into a cross-legged position and dropping his hands into his lap. “I suppose that’s fair. Did you practice that one, too?” he asks, unable to help himself.

To his surprise, Harry flushes and looks away. When he looks back at Draco, his eyes are rather fierce. “As a matter of fact, I did.”

“Well, I thought it came out rather well,” Draco says, fighting a smile.

“Fuck off.”

“I could, or you could ask me some of those burning questions,” Draco suggests.

“Not tonight,” Harry says, yawning. “I’m tired and so are you.”

“I’m fine,” Draco insists, catching the yawn from Harry and just about managing to contain it.

“I’m going to sleep,” Harry says, “so if you stay, you really will be talking to someone who can’t hear you.”

“Fine,” Draco sighs, untangling himself from his blanket and strapping a sleepy Stanley into his basket. “Do you want these off?” he asks, tapping the edge of Harry’s glasses.

“Please.”

Draco sets them on the bedside cabinet and looks down at Harry for a moment while Stanley skitters clumsily around his feet. His eyes are already closed but there is a small smile on his face that just makes Draco want to reach out and touch him.

He doesn’t. He tucks his hands into his dressing gown pockets and says, “I hear you’re going to be stuffing your face with biscuits soon.”

Harry’s smile flickers lazily but he doesn’t open his eyes. “I’m looking forward to it. You can have one if you behave yourself.”

“No promises,” Draco says, allowing Stanley to tug him in the direction of the door. “Goodnight.”

**~*~**

Sunday dawns cold and cloudy but completely dry, meaning that all of Draco’s flying-related activities can go ahead. Everyone is in good spirits, allowing for a satisfying advanced class and a promising Quidditch practice, but by the time Draco gets back to the castle, he is extremely hungry and has managed to miss his favourite meal of the week. There’s nothing for it but to head up to the hospital wing in and hope that there are biscuits to steal.

“He didn’t waste any time, did he?” Draco remarks as he approaches Harry’s bed and sees that Ron has been as good as his word. The bedside cabinet is loaded with delicious-smelling bumpy packages wrapped in brown paper, and Poppy has cast a gentle levitation charm on a huge chocolate chip cookie so that Harry can lift his head and take bites by himself.

“I’m not complaining,” Harry says, licking a spot of chocolate from his lower lip. “This is my first real food since the twentieth of September, can you believe that?”

“Yes,” Draco says. That date is rather ingrained in his memory, too. “Was it worth the wait?”

“I don’t know about that, but it’s a very nice biscuit. See for yourself,” he says, jerking his head in the direction of the stash on top of the cabinet.

“So, I’ve been good?” Draco says distractedly, inspecting the mounds of different biscuits and picking up one with an oatmeal sort of texture and what look like chunks of chocolate.

Harry laughs. “I don’t know. How much trouble could you have caused since two o’clock this morning?”

“You underestimate me, as always,” Draco says, curling up in his chair and biting into the biscuit. It’s... actually very, very good. The texture is perfect and the whole thing has a subtle but delicious flavour of oranges. Ron Weasley, the biscuit man, he thinks idly, and takes another bite.

“I have never underestimated you,” Harry says.

Draco looks at him dubiously. “Never?”

“Not often,” Harry concedes. “And I’m learning.”

Draco merely nods, finishing his biscuit in silence. “Do you think we could persuade him to bake other things for us? Just think... bread, pies, cakes... the possibilities are endless.”

“You should ask him,” Harry says, lifting his head completely off the pillow to catch the last bite of hovering biscuit. “He likes you.”

“I doubt that,” Draco murmurs, distracted by the suspicion that Harry’s left shoulder had come off the bed with him during that last upward lunge. He doesn’t appear to have noticed and there’s little point in getting Harry’s hopes up just yet, but Draco can’t ignore the excitement that prickles all over him. He is getting better, and he’s getting better faster all the time.

“Are you listening?”

“I have no idea. What did you say?”

Harry sighs. “I said that Ron does like you. Yesterday he told me that you were ‘alright’, and from Ron, that is a solid endorsement.”

Draco smiles. “Well, I think he’s ‘alright’ too, but I still haven’t quite forgiven him for that lion hat.”

“You mean you’re not going to wear it at the next match?”

“Anything’s possible, I suppose. Will Ron and Hermione be there?”

“I’m still getting used to you calling each other by your proper names,” Harry admits, but there’s something in his blinding grin that tells Draco how much it means to him. “It’s on a Saturday, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the twenty-fourth.”

“Then they’ll be there. I wish I could go,” he sighs, and then brightens. “Maybe I will. Last night when you went to bed I was making some calculations about the acceleration of my recovery since I opened my eyes, and it’s at least possible that I could be walking in two weeks’ time.”

“I thought I went to bed because you needed to sleep,” Draco says drily, and Harry just shrugs. “It’s probably best not to focus too much on this match. There will be others.”

Harry flops onto his pillow and stares moodily at the ceiling. “Yeah,” he says at last. “I know. I just... I suppose I feel like me again so I should have my life back, but I know it’s not as simple as that.” He shrugs again, and this time the left shoulder definitely comes up from the mattress.

“I understand,” Draco says, heart speeding at the sight, “and I don’t think we should rule it out just yet.”

**~*~**

At dinnertime, Poppy shoos him out of the ward telling him that Harry is going to have something to eat, and he shouldn’t even think about coming back until he has done the same. In his rooms, he washes his hands, feeds Stanley, and then walks back out into the corridor, where he finds Hagrid shuffling rather morosely towards him.

“Are you coming for dinner?” Draco asks.

Hagrid opens his mouth to answer, but instead throws a small sack at Draco and pulls out a vast, spotted handkerchief, into which he proceeds to sneeze violently. Draco takes a step back, clutching the bag, which had belted into his chest with considerable force. It smells strongly of mint.

Hagrid sneezes again, blows his nose noisily and attempts to smile at Draco, but his nose is red raw and he is slightly unsteady on his feet.

“Would you like me to get you some Pepper-Up?” Draco asks.

Hagrid shakes his head. “I’ve ’ad some. Never seems to make any difference.”

“How inconvenient.”

“Yeah. Never mind though, ’ow’s ’Arry doin’?” he asks, brightening.

“Great,” Draco says, smiling involuntarily. “Talking quite a bit.”

Hagrid laughs. “I’m not surprised. Anyway, I’d better go give Fang ’is dinner. I picked them for yeh before the frost gets to ’em,” he says, nodding at the bag in Draco’s hands.

“Thanks very much,” Draco says, peering into the bag. It’s stuffed with leaves, more than Stanley could even hope to eat before they start to turn dry, but he’s rather touched by the gesture.

“What does ’e eat in the winter?” Hagrid asks.

“I Transfigure mint leaves from other plants, but they’re not quite the same, judging by his level of enthusiasm.”

Hagrid looks thoughtful. “Ah, well, never mind. I’ll see yeh,” he says, and though he and Draco walk in opposite directions as soon as they part, Draco can hear him sneezing all the way to the Great Hall.

**~*~**

“Did you know that she sings when she thinks no one’s listening?” Harry says quietly, and Draco follows his eyes to see Poppy handing over a potion bottle to a Ravenclaw student and then disappearing into her office.

“Really? What sort of things does she sing?”

Harry chews his lip gently. Draco looks out of the window. “Sort of... operatic things.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow and turns back to Harry. “Is she good?”

“Not bad. I mean, she’s not exactly Celestina Warbeck, but it’s quite nice to listen to.”

Draco snorts. “Because Celestina Warbeck is the standard by which we judge all singing talent?”

Harry grins at the ceiling. “There’s a thought. No, but she always makes me think of Molly.”

“Hasn’t she been to visit you?” Draco asks as the thought occurs to him.

“Yeah, a few times. She mostly comes during the day, but she can’t visit as much as she wants to because she’s usually looking after Rose for Ron and Hermione. She said she didn’t really want to bring her, and I can understand that. She’s just turned six and it’d probably frighten her to see me like this.”

Draco nods, rather startled by this information. He had completely forgotten that Ron and Hermione had a daughter, and he has no idea how he has missed Molly Weasley’s visits completely.

“How did I not know she was here?” he says, mostly to himself.

“You never asked,” Harry says.

“Oh.”

“It’s not a problem,” Harry assures. “It didn’t occur to me that you’d be interested, but I haven’t been completely lonely when you’ve been in lessons. Poppy’s spent an awful lot of time chatting to me, and pretty much all the other teachers have been in at one point or another... and when anything interesting goes on in here, I have a front row seat.”

“Does anything interesting ever happen in here?” Draco asks.

“Well, one time there was this idiot who drank someone else’s potion and went on a mad rampage around the Quidditch pitch,” Harry says, eyes sparkling with mischief. “Apparently he made a real mess of himself trying to climb one of the goal hoops.”

Draco groans and tips his head back against his chair. “Are you ever going to let that go?”

“Not any time soon, no,” Harry says gleefully.

“Bugger off, Potter,” Draco mutters, trying not to smile.

“Hey, less of the Potter.  Do you know when you called me Harry for the first time?”

“No, but I’m sure you do.”

“It was Wednesday the third of October. Which was, coincidentally, the same night that you drank my—”

“Behave.”

Harry sighs dramatically. “I’m hungry. Is there anything left on the side there?”

Draco looks. “Nothing but crumbs, I’m afraid. I could bring you something from the kitchens later if you like.”

Harry lets out a low groan that travels right down Draco’s spine and rests there, heavy and aching.

“Is that a yes?” he manages.

“A huge one.”

**~*~**

The following evening, Draco makes tea for all the house-elves, sits down at the table with them and listens to Vronky’s jokes and praises them all effusively for the week’s food before he dares to ask them for a favour. As it turns out, though, “please could you make a treacle tart for Harry Potter” is a favour he needn’t have worried about requesting. As soon as the words are out of his mouth, a babble of conversation breaks out around the table, and, as Draco watches, two elves are immediately dispatched to start the tart-making process.

“If Harry Potter is eating, Harry Potter is getting well!” one of the others says to a chorus of cheers and excited applause from the others.

Draco finds himself unexpectedly caught up in their enthusiasm, and when the menu-planning session is over and the tart is not yet ready, he finds himself making a second round of tea and waiting for it so that he can take it straight up to the hospital wing with him.

“Sir is a friend of Harry Potter now,” says a particularly tiny elf as he carefully hands the still-warm tart to Draco.

“Yes,” Draco says simply.

“Sir is very clever,” Kreacher opines, waddling over with a knife, two forks and two plates.

“What do you mean?”

“Kreacher knows it is a clever thing to make friends with Harry Potter.”

Draco frowns. “I’m not sure exactly what you’re implying.”

“Kreacher knows,” Kreacher says mysteriously. Behind him, the tiny elf shakes his head and sighs.

“I don’t think you do,” Draco says, frowning. “I don’t think you know anything about it. Thank you very much for the treacle tart. I’m going now.”

As soon as he is back out in the corridor, he feels ridiculous for being so defensive. He takes a deep breath and starts walking; never mind Kreacher, he has a tart to deliver.

Harry’s nose is already twitching when he walks into the hospital wing. When Draco unburdens himself of pie dish, plates and cutlery and sits down, Harry manages to pull both shoulders up from the bed in his attempt to better see the offering.

Draco glances at the treacle tart. “Oh, this?” he says casually, celebrating inside and wondering how long it will take Harry to notice this new stage in his recovery. “This isn’t for you. I just brought it with me so it could cool. Tonight I’m having a midnight feast with Jasper Bracknell and all his friends.”

Harry, now flat on his back once more, lifts his eyebrows dubiously. “Much as that is a fantastic image, you had better start dishing that out in the next ten seconds or I’ll...”

“You’ll what? You’ll head-butt me?”

“I’ll bite you,” Harry says triumphantly.

“You’re a savage.”

“Rarr,” Harry growls—rather ineffectually, Draco thinks—and then sighs. “Please may I have some of that lovely treacle tart, which I really hope you didn’t make yourself, although it does smell very nice.”

“You’re in luck,” Draco says, sinking the knife through the sticky tart and cutting two slices. “It was made by the house-elves. I was there merely in a supervisory capacity.”

When he turns back to the bed, plates in hands, Harry is staring at him almost as though he has never seen him before. Draco feels himself crumbling slightly under the intense gaze and forces himself to look away as he tries to remember the charm Poppy has started using to help Harry eat his meals.

“What’s the matter?”

Draco smiles, drawing his wand. “Nothing.”

“It’s Nutritor.”

“Of course,” Draco says and casts the charm. It’s a rather specialised spell and he knows his attempt is nowhere near as neat as Poppy’s, but the little plate is soon hovering nicely and the fork is bobbing close to Harry’s mouth, allowing him to stretch just a little and take a bite. As Draco sits down with his own plate and watches, he is pleasantly surprised to note that the fork is performing rather well, managing to avoid stabbing Harry in the face entirely, and only missing its target and smearing his cheek with sugary filling once or twice.

Harry doesn’t seem to care. He devours the slice with all the enthusiasm of a man who has endured almost two months of a liquids-only diet, and easily polishes off a second. Draco picks at his absently, preferring to sit back and absorb the delight on Harry’s face, and when he does at last try a forkful, he isn’t impressed.

“This is just sugar and pastry, you know that, don’t you?”

Harry looks at him. “Yeah, so?”

“Little bit too sweet for me, I think,” Draco admits, setting his plate down and pouring himself a glass of water from Harry’s jug to wash the overpowering taste from his mouth.

“Ah, well. More for me,” Harry says, finishing his second slice and flicking his tongue over his bottom lip.

Draco shakes his head and aims a cleaning spell at the places where the sticky fork has collided with Harry’s skin.

“Well, that was cold,” he mutters, shuddering, and then: “Where’s Stanley tonight?”

“Hiding mint leaves all over my bedroom, probably. I came straight from the kitchens.”

“Oh.” Harry gazes at the ceiling, eyebrows knitted. “I have questions, you know.”

“So you keep saying,” Draco says, hoping he sounds more amused than afraid.

“Well, I’m never sure where to start. I suppose I should just leap in and hope for the best.”

“Isn’t that what you always do?” Draco says, and then wishes he hadn’t, but Harry just laughs softly.

“Yeah, I suppose so. Okay then... when you first started talking to me, before I could respond or even open my eyes, you sometimes used to fill in my parts of the conversation.”

“That’s not a question,” Draco complains, pulling himself into his usual position and hiding his flush behind his folded arms.

“I know. What I wondered was... did you really think I would’ve said those things if I could reply?”

“I have no idea,” Draco admits. “Sometimes I just thought I...” He stops. ...heard you in my head, he finishes silently, fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds. “Never mind.”

Harry frowns but appears to let the matter drop. “You seemed to think I was pretty cruel. All I ever seemed to say were things like ‘shut up, Malfoy’ or ‘you’re such an idiot, Malfoy’. I think once I even said ‘you’re a fucking disgrace, Malfoy’. Just for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have said any of those things.”

“You’ve definitely told me to shut up more than once,” Draco points out.

“Yeah, maybe when we were arguing and driving each other mad,” Harry says, expression fierce. “But you told me some pretty difficult stuff, and I’m not going to make you talk about it all over again, if that’s what you’re worried about, but you should know that I would never have called you an idiot or a disgrace for any of it. I was so relieved to have something interesting to listen to, you have no idea.”

“I’m not interesting,” Draco says, feeling prickly and sensitive.

“You are,” Harry insists, lifting his head and shoulders from the bed in a bid to stare more insistently at Draco. “You are interesting. And you’re brave. So... fucking hell, I’m moving my shoulders.”

Grateful for the distraction, Draco sits forward and examines the three or four inches of empty air between Harry’s shoulders and the sheets as though he has never noticed it before.

“That’s fantastic. How does it feel?”

“Stiff,” Harry admits, moving each shoulder in turn and then flopping back down. “Weak, too, but I suppose it’ll take a while to get the strength back.” He closes his eyes and grins, shifting his shoulders gently back and forth as though performing some sort of bed-bound dance step.

“Is there any use hoping you’ve asked all your questions now?” Draco says pointlessly.

Harry snorts. “You haven’t really answered the first one yet, but I’ll let it go. Here’s something I’ve wondered about since I heard it—do you ever still want to be an astronaut?”

Draco lets out an embarrassed huff of laughter and looks out at the night sky. “I think I’m a little bit too old for that now.”

“That wasn’t the question, though, was it?”

He sighs. “If I could go back to being seven years old and change everything, then yes, I think it would have been a fantastic thing to do, and if you tell anyone I said that, I shall have to kill you.”

“My lips are sealed,” Harry promises. “Forgive me if I’m getting too personal here but I started thinking that maybe you wanted to go into space so you could get as far away as you possibly could from... well, everything.”

“That part of it was certainly appealing,” Draco concedes, resting his chin on his knees, “but mostly I just wanted to find something that no one had ever found before, to look at everything with my own eyes and keep track of the stars.”

“I hadn’t ever thought of it like that,” Harry admits, and when Draco glances at him, he has twisted himself so that he can gaze out of the window. Draco smiles to himself and looks out with him, preparing to enjoy a lull in the questioning when Harry suddenly asks: “You told me you were seeing things... hallucinating.... what did you see?”

Taken aback, Draco scrambles for an easy lie, but there’s nothing in his head but the truth.

“I can’t really remember,” he says, trying evasion instead.

Harry turns away from the window and impales him with a stern stare. “Don’t think I don’t remember that you had to undo my buttons and touch me before you calmed down.”

“I suppose I was hoping that you wouldn’t remember that,” Draco admits. “I’m sorry.”

Harry gives him an odd look—it’s a combination of exasperation and kindness and it makes Draco’s chest hurt. “I don’t need an apology, I just want to know what the hell was going through your head to frighten you so much. I wanted to know at the time but I couldn’t do a thing about it.”

Draco curls into himself for a moment, pushing the horrible memory down and locking it away where he hopes never to see it again. He looks at Harry and knows he has to tell him something.

“I had a dream that something bad happened to you,” he says quietly. “I’d really rather not go into details, but suffice to say that when I was sitting up here one night, tired beyond reason, and I saw the same thing happen to you right in front of me, I needed some reassurance that it wasn’t real.”

Harry stares at him, eyes wide. “I can live without the details,” he mumbles.

“Good,” Draco says, and then silence falls over them like a thick blanket. Draco turns his eyes back to the stars, tracing the familiar patterns with his eyes and creating new ones: the beetle, the practical trousers, the stubborn Gryffindor. Harry’s breathing is slow, steady, soothing, and Draco almost thinks he’s fallen asleep when he throws out another question.

“How did you know about me and Madam Hooch?”

Draco whips around so quickly that something twinges in his neck. “What?”

Harry screws up his nose. “Why do you always go there?”

Somewhat relieved, Draco grimaces and rubs his neck. “I don’t know. Force of habit.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Just to clarify, I was talking about her job offer and mine. Where did you hear about that?”

“It’s not as glamorous as you might think,” Draco begins, and Harry interrupts:

“I hadn’t imagined it being glamorous at all, to be honest. I imagined you skulking around in your Snape cloak and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.”

“Harry, I assure you, not a single eave was dropped. At least not intentionally,” Draco says, ignoring the part about the Snape cloak because it’s just embarrassing. “I’d found a really good crop of mint underneath Madam Hooch’s window, and I was collecting beetles for turning into teacups. It was a warm day, her window was open, and that’s when I heard it.”

“And you just stayed there and listened, did you?” Harry says, amused.

“Of course I did. You never know when that sort of information will be useful.”

Harry snorts. “And was it?”

“No, not really, and it didn’t exactly help me to warm to you when you turned up,” Draco admits. “It was just another way that you were special.”

Harry lifts his head and regards Draco with an expression of pure disbelief. “And what are you, chopped liver?”

“I... what?” Draco asks, bemused.

“Sorry, that’s a Molly-ism, I think,” Harry laughs. “I meant that it didn’t make sense for you to think I was ‘special’ because I was approached by McGonagall to come and work at Hogwarts when exactly the same thing happened to you!”

Draco says nothing. He says nothing for a long time, just stares at Harry and presses his mouth against his forearm, breathing slowly and trying to work out exactly how he has managed to be such an idiot.

“Draco?”

“You know, I never once thought about it like that,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose and hoping for everything to start to make sense. Shaking his head, he drops both arms to wrap around his knees and sighs. “It just didn’t even occur to me that the circumstances were even similar.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Harry says. “You thought that I was—how did you put it—headhunted, and you got your job here because McGonagall needed a Transfiguration teacher and she felt a bit sorry for you?”

“When you put it like that, it does sound slightly insane,” Draco admits.

“Especially since she knew I wanted to teach here one day,” Harry says. “Not only that, I was very easy to find. She didn’t have to track me to some seedy part of Glasgow.”

“Ten years,” Draco mumbles, tipping his head forward and hiding behind a fall of hair.

“Nine, actually, if you start counting from when you first thought about how special I was,” Harry says helpfully, and Draco thinks he might kick him if he weren’t paralysed from the shoulders down. With this rate of recovery, though, it won’t be too long before he can kick Harry with impunity, and the thought rather cheers Draco.

“Anyway, never mind that. I want to hear more about your summer with McGonagall,” Harry says with relish.

“Why do you have to make everything sound so... I don’t even know,” Draco sighs. “Disturbing, I suppose.”

“I think that’s probably all in the interpretation,” Harry says, face a mask of concentration as he begins to lift his shoulders off the bed, alternating stretches to the left with stretches to the right.

Draco watches him, admiring his determination to get moving as quickly as possible.

“It was a beautiful summer,” he says eventually, casting his mind back. “It was warm and clear nearly every day—it had been warm in Glasgow, too, but you can’t breathe there like you can here. The air just tastes different, and I’d almost forgotten what it was like to live in the only building for miles around and see trees and grass out of my window every morning. It probably sounds silly, but being here again was like therapy for me.”

Harry opens one eye as he continues to stretch. “It doesn’t sound silly. I’ve always felt more at home here than anywhere else.”

“I think that’s probably true for me, too, though I never used to feel quite... anyway,” he amends, frowning at his knees. “McGonagall and I had the whole castle to ourselves—even Filch and Mrs Norris had gone on holiday for the first time in years. I suppose the house-elves were still here, but I didn’t really think of that at the time.”

“I suppose they must have been, unless you and McGonagall were down in the kitchen every night, making dinner together,” Harry says, grinning. “That’s a great image, though.”

Draco laughs. “No, not quite. We did eat together, though. And drank tea. Lots and lots of tea. Like I told you, she gave me all these little challenges and problems to work out. It seems obvious now that she was testing out my skills, trying to find out how much I still needed to learn, but at the time, I had no clue what she was up to. I nearly stopped trying to work it out after a while because I was actually enjoying myself.”

“I bet you loved stalking about the castle when there was nobody in it, didn’t you?” Harry says, and his expression tells Draco that he knows he’s right.

Draco just smiles. “It’s a much nicer place without all the students in it.”

“I don’t think you mean that.”

“I don’t think I do, actually,” Draco admits, surprising himself. “It’s certainly a calmer place and a more orderly place, but I suppose it wouldn’t be Hogwarts if it wasn’t swarming with noisy little buggers wanting to learn something.”

Harry shakes his head, relaxing at last with a long, heavy exhalation. “I’m not even going to argue with you, because I know you’re very attached to some of those noisy little buggers. And you know what else? You’re so convinced I’ve had special treatment, but I’ve never spent more than a few hours alone with McGonagall, let alone had dinner with her or any of that other stuff. You obviously mean something to her, Draco, whether you can see it or not.”

“You know, I think I preferred you when you weren’t so observant,” Draco says.

“I’m not observant, I’ve just had a lot of time to think,” Harry points out. “Can I have some more tart?”

**~*~**

Draco stays late that night, not leaving until most of the treacle tart has been devoured and many, many more of Harry’s questions have been either answered or sidestepped. As Harry had promised, there are a lot of questions, ranging from the simple (what did his flat in Glasgow look like) to the bizarre (did he ever tell dragon-tattooed Dave what his name meant) to the slightly more complicated (does he miss his mother). In fact, by the time Draco lets himself back into his rooms, picks up Stanley, and crawls into bed, he has been asked about nearly everything he remembers mentioning to Harry, with one rather glaring exception.

Not a single word has passed between them regarding relationships or any of the admissions Draco had made that fateful night about his sexual past. Of course, it’s not out of the question that Harry feels those things are too personal to be discussed right now; it’s entirely possible that he just doesn’t want to embarrass Draco. But as he lies there, listening to Stanley’s comfortable tacking from somewhere next to his hip, he can’t banish the thought that his confessions have made Harry feel strange and uncomfortable, and that that’s why he’s keeping quiet.

He also knows that had Harry asked, in his characteristically direct style, why he hasn’t had a relationship for over a decade, or if he is gay, or if he thinks he’ll ever be interested in anyone again, he would probably have burst into flames right there in the hospital wing. Somehow, though, that knowledge just dissolves away when he’s faced with the prospect that this frustrating, wonderful person might not understand.

Because every day, this feeling is getting a little bit worse, and with every shred of restraint that Draco gives away, he knows that he is slipping further and further from that safe, comfortable place where everything is controlled and predictable and easy. He is in love with Harry Potter, and it’s crazy. He feels like he might burst any moment with the intensity of it, and all he can do is hope that when he does burst, it doesn’t destroy the unexpected friendship on which he’s coming to depend.

Tack, Stanley says softly, catching a patch of bare abdomen with his antenna and making Draco jump.

“What would you do, Stanley?” he asks, feeling for the beetle in the dark room and stroking his shell.

Stanley clicks, flaps his wings, and then turns in several circles before settling down to sleep.

“I could try that,” Draco mumbles, yawning, and closes his eyes.

**~*~**

On Tuesday evening, Draco wears his turquoise jumper to Duelling Club and no one says a word. On Wednesday evening, Gryffindor Open House goes without a hitch, and Draco is just checking the corridor for stragglers when Hagrid looms into view.

“How’s the cold?” he asks, letting him in.

“Nearly gone now, just a few sniffles,” Hagrid says, lumbering over to the hearth and lowering himself down onto the ring of stones. “Finished with yer Gryffindors?”

“For tonight, yes,” Draco says, holding up his copper kettle.

“Please. Yeh got time for one more?”

“One more Gryffindor?” Draco asks, puzzled, but Hagrid just grins.

“Well, an ex-Gryffindor, I suppose. I ’ave a favour to ask yeh.”

“Absolutely. Let me put this on to boil and I’ll be right with you,” Draco says, lighting a fire beneath the kettle and seeking out his large mugs before taking his seat. “What’s the problem?” he asks, realising as he does so that he’s using his most ‘understanding’ voice, the one he has come to favour for the more extreme Wednesday night problems.

“There’s no problem, Draco, I was just wonderin’ if yeh’d let me ’ave Stanley for a couple of hours next week,” Hagrid says hopefully.

“You want to borrow Stanley?” Draco asks, glancing over to where the beetle is snoozing peacefully on the spare armchair. “What on earth for?”

Hagrid laughs. “’Cause ’e’s a very interestin’ individual, of course. Yeh see, I thought I’d do a lesson for the seventh-years about the care of magically-altered creatures, and Stanley would be perfect. Nothin’ll ’appen to ’im, I promise yeh. They’ll just want to look at ’im an’ maybe draw a few sketches... what do yeh think?”

The unvarnished hope on the bristly face is too much for Draco, not that he was ever going to say no to such a request.

“Of course you can, I think he’ll enjoy that immensely.” As the kettle boils, he gets up and goes to make the tea. “I can make a few notes for you, if you like, about how he was altered and what his habits are and such.”

“I’d appreciate that very much,” Hagrid says, beaming.

When Draco comes back with the tea, Stanley stirs awake and tacks noisily as Hagrid fusses him with a huge, calloused hand. Draco smiles into his cup, hoping that fame doesn’t change him.

**~*~**

“Stanley’s going to be a celebrity,” Draco announces as the two of them walk into the hospital wing later that night. He stops, staring at Harry in bewilderment. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” Harry insists but continues squirming his moving parts around on the bed like half a salmon.

Draco doesn’t believe him for a moment. Releasing Stanley to scuttle around on the floor, he approaches the bed and looks down at Harry with his arms folded.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” Harry repeats, gritting his teeth and thrashing for all he’s worth.

Draco smiles to himself as it all clicks into place. “Harry?”

“Yes?”

“Do you have an itch?”

Harry stops moving. Lips pressed into a hard line, he looks up at Draco mutinously. “Yes.”

“Do you need some help?” Draco offers.

In response, Harry begins squirming again, clearly trying to rub a spot somewhere between his shoulder-blades against the mattress. His face is turning redder and redder with each second that passes, and Draco can only watch for so long before he has to intervene.

“Alright, that’s enough! Where the fuck is it?” he demands.

Harry stops to meet his eyes and for long seconds, they just stare, locked in a silent stand-off.

“Fine,” Harry sighs eventually. “It’s just to the left of my spine and...”

Draco leans over, supporting his weight on one hand against the mattress, and follows Harry’s instructions, scratching firmly through the soft flannel until Harry groans and then flops onto his back, nearly pinning Draco’s hand to the bed.

“Thank you,” he sighs, closing his eyes and smiling serenely.

“You’re welcome,” Draco says, trying not to feel awkward as he sits down and pulls his blanket around himself to keep out the cold night.

“In fact,” Harry says dreamily, “that was almost as good as the night you opened the windows and put something cold on my face... remember, when it was hot and then there was a thunderstorm?”

“I remember,” Draco says, heart pounding at the memory.

“I slept so well that night,” Harry says. “In the morning I listened to the rain for ages until Poppy came in and demanded to know who had opened the windows. For a moment, I think she really thought I’d done it.”

“She told me off for it later, I assure you,” Draco says, unable to take his eyes from the calm face with its determined, dark eyebrows, strong jaw and lips curved into a small, contented smile. When Harry opens his eyes he jumps slightly.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I’m fine,” Draco lies, wishing he would stop asking. “Don’t you want to hear about Stanley’s foray into the world of teaching?”

~TBC~

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Chapter Text

The rest of the week passes in a comfortably familiar carousel of Transfiguration, flying, and visits to Harry. He is now woefully behind with his marking, but as no one but him seems to mind, he just carries on, trying to squeeze in an hour or so every other evening and taking bits and pieces that he thinks might amuse Harry up to the hospital wing with him. At Thursday’s practice, the Quidditch team pull together to try out some of Harry’s new manoeuvres and fly with more cohesion than Draco has ever seen them; he doesn’t know if it’s having Harry back, even in part, that is inspiring them, but whatever it is, it’s working, and he’s delighted.

Winston and Surya, too, are improving all the time. By the end of Saturday’s lesson, Winston has practiced hovering just above the grass so many times that he looks almost comfortable doing it, and Surya and Emilie, who have come to cheer him on, tackle him with congratulatory hugs as soon as he dismounts his broom. Harry has—Draco’s still not sure how—dissuaded him from confronting Emilie about her deception.

“She did it for the right reasons, Draco, and she stepped back as soon as she could—I’d let it go if I were you.”

Draco does, but he also decides to keep an eye on Emilie as he watches her laugh and give Winston a high-five. He has a feeling that one day, not too long from now, that girl will be trouble.

That night, as they sit with cake from the kitchens and big cups of tea—Draco’s gripped in cold fingers and Harry’s sitting on the cabinet with his long straw sticking out of it—Harry tells Draco all about his life before returning to Hogwarts. He has, by all accounts, tried quite a few different careers before finally finding his place in teaching.

“So, after that I decided to try selling broomsticks, but no one ever came into the shop to buy a broomstick, they just came in to stare at me or ask for my autograph, which got a bit wearing, so I gave that up and spent a summer in Romania with Charlie and his boyfriend, which was a lot of fun, but I missed home too much,” Harry says, pausing to suck tea through his straw.

“You missed this?” Draco asks, pointing at the window, where the rain is sluicing down the glass.

“Not that specifically, but I quite like the British weather,” Harry admits. “Plus, I got pretty tired of having my clothes and hair singed all the time, so I came home. I was staying with the Weasleys and Arthur suggested trying a job at the Ministry, so I did.”

“And?”

Harry grins. “I hated it. Everything’s just so stuffy in there—every time you want to do something you have to fill in about five different forms and send memos here, there and everywhere. I don’t think I was really suited to an office job, anyway. I prefer to be outside.”

“You know, doing your job for the last few weeks has rather left me with that impression,” Draco says.

“I miss it,” Harry sighs. “You’ve no idea how much I hate being in here when I can see the sky from the windows, and then you come in smelling like the outdoors and I think I’m just going to explode with jealousy.”

“I don’t smell of the outdoors now,” Draco says, sniffing the arm of his sweater. “I had a shower before I came here.”

“I know. And I sort of wish you did,” Harry says, wrinkling his nose. “It doesn’t really make sense.”

“I didn’t expect it to.”

Harry pulls a face and twists to look out at the pouring rain. “I think I’ve probably spent a lot of time rushing around and not enough time thinking,” he says thoughtfully. “Maybe I haven’t wanted to think. Since I’ve been here, though... I’ve not really had a choice. It’s probably been good for me.”

“You are quite literally the most optimistic person I have ever met,” Draco says, bewildered.

“I’ve been called worse. In fact, the man I worked for after the Ministry used to call me ‘dummkopf’, which, if I remember correctly, means ‘stupid head’.” Harry grins. “He was a very angry German man.”

“And you worked for him because...?”

“Well, he had this vegetable stall in Diagon Alley, and I thought it might be nice to work outdoors, and with... you know... vegetables...” Harry trails off because Draco is nearly crying with laughter.

“I’m sorry. I’m just picturing you throwing turnips around and shouting things,” Draco mumbles before disappearing behind his cup and laughing until it hurts.

Harry snorts and then he is laughing, too. “I didn’t shout things. I think that was part of the problem—I felt a bit daft yelling at people who were just trying to do their shopping. I only lasted two weeks.”

“You quit?” Draco manages, breathless.

“No, he sacked me. He thought I was stealing tomatoes.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I wish I wasn’t,” Harry says, grinning. “I wasn’t too upset about it.”

Shaking his head, Draco drinks his tea and watches Stanley, who is trundling slowly up the bed. When he reaches Harry’s hand, he flicks his antennae over it, and Harry strokes his shell.

“Harry,” Draco says calmly, just as Stanley lets out a terrified TACK and flings himself to the floor, apparently spooked by the sudden movement. Once he has leaned down and peered under the bed to reassure himself that Stanley is unnerved but unharmed, Draco turns his attention to Harry, who is staring at his wriggling fingers as though they don’t belong to him.

“That is very strange,” he says, frowning as he twists his wrist to one side and then the other.

“Does it feel strange?”

“No, not really. I suppose I’m just not used to seeing my fingers move,” Harry admits. With what looks like a mammoth effort, he lifts his arm and drops it onto his abdomen. “Ha.”

Draco smiles. “Do you mind if I fetch Poppy? I think she’d rather like to see this.”

“Go for it,” Harry says, narrowing his eyes and attempting to clench his fingers into a fist.

Draco sets down his cup and gets to his feet. “Don’t be daft, Stanley,” he sighs, picking up the beetle and cradling him against his chest.

Poppy emerges from her office and shoots Stanley a suspicious look that quickly melts away when Draco informs her of Harry’s latest progress. Within seconds, she is at his bedside, asking question after question as she carefully takes Harry’s arm and supports it through an almost complete range of movements. The limb is stiff and weakened but it clearly wants to co-operate, and Draco can’t keep the smile from his face as he holds onto a softly tacking Stanley and watches Poppy work.

“This is wonderful, Harry,” she enthuses, gently placing Harry’s arm back at his side. “You’re progressing at an impressive rate, though I don’t know why I’m surprised about that.”

“That’s because he’s powered by stubbornness,” Draco points out, folding himself into his chair.

“I embrace my stubbornness,” Harry says airily, reaching out to touch the edge of Poppy’s sleeve with his fingertips. “Especially if it’ll get me to that Quidditch game.”

“We shall see about that,” Poppy says, stern face wavering at the inquisitive touch. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

In her absence, Harry decides to touch everything he can reach, which includes a much calmer Stanley, who is placed back on the bed so that Harry can have a second attempt to fuss him.

Tack-tack-tack, he clicks, bravely climbing up onto Harry’s chest and swiping his antennae over Harry’s offered hand.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Harry says, stroking the patterned shell carefully.

“He knows,” Draco says, and then all the words fall out of his head because Harry is reaching out and touching him, sliding warm fingers over his wrist and pulling it down onto the sheets. Draco lets him, hoping Harry cannot feel his pulse jumping under his fingertips, holding his breath and waiting, staring at their contrasting skin tones and wondering if Harry has any idea what he’s doing.

“You’re cold,” Harry says, almost in a whisper, and then there is the sound of squeaky footsteps, and Poppy is back.

Draco draws his hand back onto his lap and smiles tightly at Poppy as she bustles over with a notebook and an armful of clanking bottles. He shivers. He’s pathetic.

“Here we are,” she says, standing next to Draco and unloading the bottles onto the end of the bed. “I wrote this for you a week or so ago, just in case—some exercises for you to do as you regain the movement in your arms and legs,” she explains, holding up the notebook and then setting it down on the bedside cabinet. “I think we can start with those tomorrow. These, on the other hand...” She indicates the collection of bottles, “These we can begin right away.”

“What are they?” Harry asks, straining to see the bottles but quickly giving up because Stanley is in the way.

“These are going to help you get your strength back,” Poppy says brightly, showing Harry one bottle at a time and then handing them to Draco for reasons passing understanding. “Blood tonic, loosening liniment, heat-vapour ointment, vitamin drops, anti-stiffness muscle rub, and one of my most effective potions,” she finishes, brandishing an attractive conical bottle filled with a murky green liquid.

“What’s in it?” Harry asks. He looks alarmed, but whether by the sheer number of bottles or by the sight of Poppy’s potion, Draco doesn’t know. Either way, he doesn’t blame him one bit.

“All good things. The active ingredient is kelpie proteins,” Poppy says, examining the bottle in the lamplight and then handing it to Draco.

Harry blows out a long breath. “Okay. Whatever will help, let’s do it.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Poppy says, face turning stern once more. “Listen to me now, Harry. These treatments will speed up your recovery, but you will not be going anywhere—and that includes a Quidditch game—unless I think you are strong enough. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Harry says obediently. At her side, Draco nods too, just in case.

Poppy’s face relaxes. “Good. Now...” Frowning, she looks around. “Goodness me, Draco, what on earth are you doing with all those bottles?”

Harry and Draco exchange glances. “Looking after them for you?” he suggests.

Poppy tuts and extracts one of the bottles from the pile. Deciding to keep his mouth shut for the time being, Draco watches as she shakes out the liniment onto Harry’s forearm and massages into his skin, manipulating the muscles with practised skill until Harry’s eyes are closed and his arm is covered in a light sheen from shoulder to fingertips. The process is repeated with various different substances before Poppy casts a glowing charm around the limb and starts on the potions and tonics. By the time she leaves Harry’s bedside, the whole area smells of herbs and menthol and gentle warmth, and Harry is very nearly asleep with Stanley settled on his other shoulder.

“I’m going to go,” Draco whispers, lifting Stanley and strapping him into his basket.

“Don’t,” Harry mumbles, opening one eye.

“You should sleep. And anyway, I don’t want to get in trouble with Poppy. I think she’s feeling rather strict this evening.”

Harry smiles lazily. “She just wants to look after me. They all do... ’cause, you know... this is my family,” he says, lifting his arm and then letting it flop back down. “Hogwarts. All these people... they’re my family. And now they’re yours, too.”

Draco stands at the bedside, listening to Harry’s breathing as becomes slow and even. He doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything at all.

**~*~**

The next morning, he walks slowly and contentedly up to the hospital wing with Stanley pulling gently at his side, relishing the winter sun that streams in through the windows and archways and the warm weight in his stomach of a first class Sunday breakfast. The fact that he has genuinely enjoyed flying with the advanced class this morning just adds an extra glimmer of satisfaction to his stride, and he finds himself smiling even as he opens the door to the ward and follows Stanley inside.

What he sees just makes his smile flicker and widen. Harry has managed to prop himself up slightly on a pile of pillows and is attempting, with varying degrees of success, to feed himself. Draco watches him for a moment from the door, noting the eyes narrowed in concentration, the arm that hasn’t quite regained its usual co-ordination, and the smear of ketchup that runs all the way from one side of Harry’s mouth to his ear, all of which speak volumes about this man’s bloody-minded insistence on looking after himself. Perhaps McGonagall is right, he thinks, approaching the bed quietly; perhaps he and Harry never were all that different.

“Enjoying yourself?” he asks, freeing Stanley and sinking into his chair.

Harry turns to look at him for a moment as he chews a piece of sausage. “Yes,” he says after a moment, already trying to spear a slippery bit of tomato on his fork. “Can’t beat a Sunday breakfast.”

“I agree.”

“I know I’m making a mess, but I’m never going to get back to normal if I don’t practise,” Harry says, clanking the fork against his teeth with a sound that makes both of them cringe.

“I think you’re doing extremely well for a person who has only had the function of their arm back for a few hours,” Draco points out.

Harry laughs. “You didn’t see me trying to eat the porridge. Poppy’s face was a picture when she saw the sheets. She was alright in the end, though—I told her how brilliant her remedies were for a while and by the time she’d finished cleaning me up she was in quite a good mood.”

Draco smiles. “I think her stuff’s rather good.”

“Oh, it is,” Harry agrees, carefully conveying a toast triangle to his mouth. “Most of the stiffness has gone already. Now it’s just a matter of getting the muscles to do what I want them to. I was hoping to try writing again today, actually.”

“Aren’t you right-handed?”

Harry nods. “Yeah, but I’ll work with what I’ve got for now.”

“What about magic? Can you cast with your left hand?” Draco asks.

“Not really. I’ve tried before but it doesn’t feel right. Still, I suppose the right hand can’t be far behind, can it?” Harry sighs, glancing down at his useless right arm.

“Of course not,” Draco says, wondering if he should be encouraging unrealistic hope. Then, again, this is Harry. Perhaps none of it is unrealistic at all.

When Poppy comes out to take away the breakfast things and start Harry’s new exercise regime, Draco excuses himself and runs down to his rooms for parchment, quills, and pencils. Harry receives them with enthusiasm and hums with anticipation as Draco and Poppy throw together a slanted floating desk-like contraption that hovers over his chest and allows him to reach the parchment easily from his propped-up position.

For the rest of the afternoon, they sit in a comfortable near-silence as Draco applies himself to his marking and Harry fights to gain control of his fine motor functions. Every now and then an explosive ‘ha!’ or ‘bugger!’ or ‘tack!’ makes Draco look up, but otherwise, all is peaceful. By the time Poppy insists that it’s time for a break and brings out mugs of tea for all of them, Harry’s wrist is aching but he doesn’t care, because he has a perfectly legible, if wobbly, set of letters to show off. Predictably, he insists on taking his cup from Poppy but quickly has to surrender it and return to the straw.

“Bit heavy, I think,” he sighs, clearly dejected.

“One step at a time,” Poppy reminds him, picking up the parchment and admiring the letters.

Harry looks at Draco expectantly. “She’s right, you know. I also don’t think I could write so legibly with my left hand.”

Cheered, Harry sucks up the rest of his tea without complaint and then immediately returns to his task. By the time Draco leaves for dinner, he has written his name, the date, and is working on what looks a lot like the words: ‘come the fuck on, left hand’. Later that night, Draco returns to find him still scratching away feverishly, eyes narrowed against the low light and teeth gritted against the inevitable discomfort.

“Don’t you think it’s time for a break?” Draco suggests, tucking his dressing gown around himself and sitting down with Stanley in his lap.

Harry startles, eyes huge and hair everywhere, as though he has been raking his fingers through it, which Draco supposes he probably has.

“I didn’t hear you come in.”

“You were absorbed,” Draco says, amused.

Harry smiles, dropping his quill and stretching out his arm with a grimace. “I have something for you.”

“I always worry when people say that,” Draco admits, and Harry just rolls his eyes, reaching to the bottom of his stack of parchment and pulling out a single sheet, which he passes to Draco.

“It’s not very good but I doubt it’d be any better if my arm was working properly, I’ve never been much of an artist. But you get the idea.”

Draco looks at the parchment, eyebrows arched. He laughs. It’s a picture of Stanley, or, at least, it’s a picture of what Harry had imagined Stanley to look like before he saw him. There is nothing delicate or skilled about the rendering, but it has a powerful, vivid quality that seems to make it jump right off the page. As it is, Draco is rather pleased that it doesn’t, because the Stanley Harry has drawn is bizarre and fearsome with spikes all down its back, long, menacing legs, sharp pincers and an expression of pure malice in its little eyes.

“Good grief. This is what you thought he looked like? This is what you thought was walking all over you?” he asks, gazing at Harry in disbelief.

Harry shrugs, looking slightly sheepish. “I have a vivid imagination.”

Draco snorts. “Look, Stanley,” he says, holding the picture up for curious antennae to explore. “This is you. You’d love to be so frightening, wouldn’t you?”

Tack, Stanley says, and jumps onto Harry’s bedside cabinet, displacing two potion bottles that Draco manages to catch just in time.

“Sorry, it is a bit daft,” Harry admits.

“Absolutely not, I love it,” Draco says. “In fact, it’s going on my wall.”

“I don’t believe that for a moment,” Harry says, smiling now.

“You can believe what you like,” Draco says, and when he returns to his rooms that night, he unrolls the parchment from his pocket and sticks it to the wall right next to his portrait from Rosa.

**~*~**

After a refreshing night’s sleep and a surprisingly entertaining chat with Flitwick over breakfast, Draco starts his Monday morning lessons in a far better humour than usual, to the point where he doesn’t even raise his voice when one of his NEWT students manages to make a glass of water explode.

“Congratulations, Mr Zarenski,” he says, striding to the back of the room and dispelling the cloud of blue smoke with his wand. “You have somehow managed to defy the laws of both physics and magic. You must be very proud.”

Zarenski just stares at him sheepishly, but behind Draco, something very odd is happening. The other students are giggling, and it takes him a moment to realise that they are giggling at him. They are amused by something he has said, and he doesn’t think that has ever happened before.

When he turns around, the laughter fades and the students turn away, but most of them are still smiling as they return to their work. At the front of the room, Ivy and Magnus are still watching him with interest, and Draco forces himself to ignore them.

“I think we’ll go for the Order of Merlin another day, shall we?” he says, vanishing the debris of Zarenski’s experiment and conjuring a new glass of water for him.

“Yes, sir.”

Draco goes to turn away and then stops. Zarenski isn’t a bad student. He doesn’t lack intelligence or ingenuity, and he’s never afraid to try something that might not work. Perhaps he deserves a bit of encouragement.

He turns back to his student, who is now staring at the new glass of water with his eyebrows drawn together in concentration.

“Listen, Zarenski, nothing truly groundbreaking was ever achieved without a few unwanted explosions,” he says, enjoying his student’s astonished expression for a second or two before returning to his desk. Picking up his quill, he continues with his lesson plan with an odd little smile on his face.

Tuesday night’s Duelling Club is particularly gruelling as most of the first-years have colds, meaning that the stubborn ones are sniffling and sneezing all over the place, and the sensible ones have steam pouring out from under their hair, which, in large quantities, makes it rather difficult to see where spells are being cast. In the end, he opts to finish early and drive the untreated students up to the hospital wing with him to receive a stern word and a dose of Pepper-Up from Poppy.

Though caught off guard at the large number of students, Poppy performs admirably, quickly organising them into a line and lecturing them on the importance of looking after oneself as she hands out flasks of the smoking liquid. The initial grumblings from the children quickly subside when they see Harry, who waves to them all with his left hand as he carefully exercises his right. Draco grins across the ward at him and waits only until the last student has left the ward before hurrying over to the bed.

“It came back in the middle of the night,” Harry says, clenching and unclenching his fist slowly. “The feeling of it sort of... waking up... woke me up.”

“That’s great,” Draco says, sitting in his chair and mouthing a ‘thank you’ to Poppy as she shakes her head at him and returns to her task of re-making beds.

“I know. I think I’ll be able to sit up next—I’ve had a few twinges in my back. And then it’s just a case of getting my legs going and I’ll be out of here! And I’ve still got four more days until the match, so...” Harry trails off, face alight with hope.

Something prickles on the back of Draco’s neck and he has to force himself not to look around at Poppy, because he knows she’s looking at him. He has a good idea what she’s thinking, because he’s thinking the same thing: Harry is becoming fixated on Saturday’s match, and it’s all too possible that he’s setting himself up for disappointment.

“What’s the matter?” Harry asks, and Draco realises he’s been staring into space.

“Nothing. But let’s not rush this, okay?”

Harry sighs and shakes his head. “That’s easy for you to say. You’re not stuck in here.”

“No,” Poppy says from the other side of the room. “He’s not. But he knows as well as I do, and as well as you do, for that matter, that if you push too hard you’ll just end up making no progress at all. We talked about this, Harry, and I know it’s not easy for you, but you have to be patient.”

Harry says nothing for a long time. When he speaks again, all he wants to talk about is Duelling Club, and Draco decides to let the subject go.

At lunchtime on Wednesday, Draco eats quickly and heads up to the hospital wing to check on Harry’s progress. It isn’t as though they had parted on bad terms the night before, but Harry hadn’t seemed quite himself and Draco is all too aware that the constant quest for progress and independence is wearing him down. With that in mind, he is surprised to find Harry in good spirits, propped up in bed and practising his wand grip. As Draco approaches the bed, he finds himself the subject of a very brief but impressively steady levitation charm.

“Very nice,” he approves as he is set down and allowed to take his seat.

“Thanks,” Harry says, narrowing his eyes and tracking Poppy’s progress along the ward with his wand. “I think I might have to try this on her if she doesn’t give in soon.”

“Give in to what?” Draco asks, apprehensive.

“Nothing terrible,” Harry says, dropping his wand back onto the sheets. “I just want to take over washing myself—as much as I can, anyway. I told her that millions of Muggles with permanent disabilities manage to wash themselves every day.”

“And what did she say?”

“She said that millions of Muggles weren’t her patients, I was,” Harry says, rolling his eyes.

“I can’t say I’m surprised by that,” Draco admits.

“Neither was I. I’m not going to give up, though.”

“I don’t think you’d be you if you did,” Draco says, and immediately feels self-conscious.

Harry just smiles, but across the ward, Draco can hear Poppy muttering to herself.

On Thursday evening, Draco walks up to the hospital wing after Quidditch practice feeling weary but accomplished. The team have improved so much in the last couple of weeks, and he really feels that with the combination of his management skills, Harry’s new ideas, and their own hard work, they have every chance of beating Hufflepuff on Saturday. What he is less certain of is Harry’s fitness to attend, and he has the creeping suspicion that the disappointment is going to hit him very hard indeed.

When he walks in, though, he is heartened to see that Harry is sitting up. He is still supported by several pillows, but his upright position can only mean that he has regained the movement in his spine.

“Look at you,” he says, and Harry looks up from his makeshift desk.

“I am sitting up,” he announces.

“I can see that.”

“I am wearing a t-shirt,” he says.

“So you are,” Draco murmurs, inspecting the bright red t-shirt and wondering how fantastic it must feel to wear a normal garment after all those weeks of pyjamas.

“No more pyjamas—well, I’m still wearing the bottoms, but hopefully not for long,” Harry says, staring hard at his motionless legs as though to encourage them into movement.

Draco sits down and pulls up his knees. “I’m sure you were sick to death of them.”

“Yeah. You know, I’m not sure I’ll ever wear pyjamas again,” he says helpfully, and Draco does his best not to think about that too hard, but it’s difficult. “Anyway, how’s the team? Did you show them that new feint I thought of?”

“I did. They seem to be feeling much more confident and they’re actually communicating with one another now. Roxanne is of the opinion that Hufflepuff will be ‘smooshed’ on Saturday. I think that means they’re going to lose, but now I’m wondering if I should have asked,” Draco says, frowning.

Harry laughs. “I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant. Did you have a chance to... hello,” he says suddenly, smiling at someone over Draco’s shoulder.

“Hello, lads,” Professor Sprout says, appearing at the bedside and bringing a strong scent of earth with her. And mint. Draco turns, puzzled, and looks at the plant under her arm. “How’re you feeling, Harry? I think you only had one arm moving the last time I saw you.”

“Fantastic, thanks,” Harry says, instinctively stretching both arms. “I’m hoping for a rapid recovery before Saturday—especially now I’ve heard that our team is going to be ‘smooshing’ yours.”

Sprout laughs. “The Hufflepuff team is very strong this year, Harry. I think the result is anyone’s guess. Still, it’ll be marvellous to see you back in the stands.”

Harry beams. “Do you want to sit down?”

“Oh, no, I can’t stay. I was actually looking for you, Draco, but you weren’t in your rooms and one of the students I asked told me this was the best place to find you.”

Draco opens his mouth to protest and then stops, realising that, rather like Harry, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

“Yes... here I am,” he says awkwardly, deciding to stand up so that he doesn’t have to keep looking up at someone who is usually so much shorter than him.

“This is for you,” she says, pushing the small plant into his hands.

“It’s mint,” he says, puzzled.

She laughs. “Of course it’s mint. You needn’t look so worried, it’s not going to bite you. Hagrid came to me the other week and told me about your difficulties getting proper mint for your beetle,” she explains, glancing at Stanley, who has crawled to the end of the bed and is now trying to touch her cloak with his antennae. “Bless him,” she laughs. “Anyway, I’ve trained this one to thrive indoors, so you can keep it in your quarters. I’m sorry it’s a bit small, but I didn’t want to hang onto it in case you needed it. It should keep going all year round, anyway.”

Draco looks at her and then down at the plant in his hands, startled and deeply touched.

“How very kind of you,” he says, shaking his head. “I have no idea what to say.”

“That’s enough for me,” Sprout says, shrugging. “Any friend of Hagrid’s is a friend of mine, and I love a challenge.”

“Thank you so much,” Draco says, wanting to say more, to wring her hand and praise her thoughtfulness, but he just stands there as she smiles at them both and stomps out of the room.

“That was nice,” Harry says lightly.

Draco just nods. Tacking for all he’s worth, Stanley launches himself at the plant, misses, and slides off the end of the bed. Draco decides to leave him there.

“Here,” Harry says, picking up his wand and levitating the plant out of Draco’s hands. Draco lets it go and watches as it settles neatly on the windowsill out of Stanley’s reach. “Draco?”

“Mm?”

“Stop looking like someone’s just slapped you and come and tell me about my Quidditch team.”

**~*~**

At breakfast on Friday, Poppy sits down next to Draco and tells him that the movement has returned to Harry’s legs, meaning that the curse has left him completely. The trouble is, she explains as she pours herself a cup of coffee, Harry’s legs are far more weakened than the rest of his body and at the moment he is unable to lift them from the bed or even bend his knees.

“He’s not going to be ready by tomorrow, is he?” Draco says.

She shakes her head. “Not a chance. His recovery has been incredible—we both know that—but going out there tomorrow in this condition would just be a step too far. I can’t count the number of times I’ve told him not to get his hopes up, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. When I left him he was nearly bubbling over. He’s not going to take it well.”

Draco folds his arms on the table and stares down at his empty plate. “He’s going to be very disappointed. Do you think it would help if I come with you when you tell him?” he suggests, looking up at Poppy.

“That’s very kind of you, Draco, but you have lessons to teach. I’ll manage.”

“I’ve got NEWT and OWL classes this morning or I’d ask someone to cover,” he says, glancing around at the nearly empty staff table. “If you can wait until lunchtime, I’ll be there as soon as the bell rings.”

Poppy gives him a grim smile. “I’ll try.”

“Good luck,” Draco says, watching her throw down her coffee and get to her feet with a familiar air of no-nonsense determination. He has the feeling that the next few hours are going to be difficult for everyone involved.

He tries to keep his attention on Transfiguration for the next two lessons, but he knows he is distracted, and his students probably know it, too. He briefly considers making a dash for it at morning break, but is quickly waylaid by a student wanting to discuss her homework grade, and by the time she is satisfied, his next set of students are already arriving.

The very moment his last student has exited the classroom, Draco is striding along the corridor, up the steps and into the hospital wing, heart hammering and nerves jangling. Poppy is standing by her potion trolley, sorting through the bottles and quite clearly trying to deflect Harry’s questions.

“What do you think?” he says, pulling himself into a fully upright, unsupported sitting position and moving his legs around on the bed with his hands. “I could use that hovering chair—you know, the one you said I can use when I leave here? Oh, hi, Draco. Have you heard?”

“I have,” Draco says, glancing at Poppy. They have to do it, and they have to do it now, because the thought of crushing Harry’s infectious, almost childlike optimism is sickening, and if they wait any longer it is just going to become impossible.

Poppy nods, hands coming to rest on top of the potion bottles. With a slow, deep breath, she turns around and together she and Draco approach the bed.

“What’s the matter with you two?” Harry asks, and he looks so fucking vulnerable in his soft blue t-shirt, hair everywhere and glasses sitting slightly askew, green eyes bright and puzzled.

Draco wonders if he could just leave Poppy to it, but he stays, fingers wrapping tightly around the cool rail at the bottom of the bed.

“Harry, you need to listen to me. I know you don’t want to, but this is important. You’ve only had movement in your legs for a few hours, and you can barely move them on their own. They’re not strong enough yet—”

“But if I used the chair...” Harry starts.

Poppy shakes her head. “I’m sorry, but I’m really not convinced the chair would be practical for a Quidditch match. Think about getting up and down from the stands, and even if you stayed on the ground, there’s a chance that you could be hit by something or someone and then we’d just be starting all over again. I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Her voice is gentle but firm and she doesn’t look away from Harry for a moment. When she stops speaking, he looks down at his hands and bites his lip hard.

“Couldn’t we just try it?” he asks, voice smaller than usual. “I could stay well back from the pitch...”

“No, I’m sorry,” Poppy says. “Not this time.”

Harry says nothing.

“I’ll let you talk to him for a bit,” Poppy says, touching Draco’s arm and squeaking back into her office.

“You wouldn’t be comfortable in the chair anyway,” Draco points out when her door clicks shut behind her. “You need to be able to stretch out until your knees are more flexible. I promise to tell you every single thing that happens. I’ll come straight up here afterwards so I don’t forget anything.”

“Yes, because that’ll be the same,” Harry snaps.

Draco exhales slowly. Of course he’s disappointed. He’s angry with both of them and himself.

“No, it won’t, but at least you’ll know how everything went, and by the time the next match comes around, you will be better, and you will be there,” he says calmly.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” Harry snorts, looking up and meeting Draco’s eyes. His expression may be caught somewhere between anger and grief, but anger is definitely winning out. “You don’t know what it’s like for me in here. You’d probably love it—you don’t have to go anywhere or talk to anyone, and you especially don’t have to go outside. All that mud and wind and rain and all those horrible students everywhere trying to be your friend—you can hide from anything you like in here!”

Stung, Draco grips the rail more tightly. “I don’t think for a moment it’s been easy for you—”

“All I wanted,” Harry interrupts, voice shaking now, “was to go outside in the fresh air and watch my team play Quidditch. I thought that was a reasonable enough request, and I worked my arse off to get my arms and hands and back moving; I put up with every single liniment and potion that Poppy could think of and I did every single exercise—I was up all night doing them! Have you any idea of how little sleep I’ve had in the past week?” Harry demands, eyes shimmering dangerously.

“No, I haven’t,” Draco says, losing his patience, “but if you had any sense you’d probably have had more! Do you honestly think that you’re so different to other people that you can just push yourself through this like a madman and suffer no consequences? Stop being a stubborn fucking idiot and slow down before you get yourself stuck in this bed for another two months!”

Harry stares at him, fists balled and breathing ragged. “You absolute... fucking... prick,” he says at last, and Draco’s gut twists painfully.

“If that’s what you think of me,” he says, gathering himself, “I think I’ll go.”

Harry mumbles something in response but Draco doesn’t catch it and he doesn’t stop walking until he reaches the stone windowsill in the corridor and his legs quiver alarmingly underneath him. Hoisting himself up onto the sill, he drops his head into his hands and pushes out his breath slowly. He knows that Harry’s anger isn’t really directed at him. He doesn’t think it’s even directed at Poppy. He thinks—hopes—that Harry doesn’t really think he’s an absolute fucking prick. What hurts is the other stuff; the stuff that’s probably true. Harry’s right about him and he hates it.

Still, none of that matters because he and Harry have argued, and this is the first time he’s ever cared about being forgiven. He doesn’t know how to fix this but he needs to learn quickly, because everything inside feels wrong and he can hardly stand it. Searching for comfort, he curls himself into his usual position and stares at the wooden doors, chin resting on his folded arms.

He doesn’t know how much time passes before Poppy comes out, but she doesn’t seem at all surprised to see him.

“Well, that went about as well as I expected,” she says, standing beside him and staring at the doors, too.

Draco lets out a rough snort. “Did you really expect that?”

“Not in so many words, but I knew he’d be upset.” She nudges him with her elbow and he glances sideways at her. “You know that wasn’t about you, don’t you?”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “I think it was about me a little bit.”

Poppy shakes her head. “No, Draco. The only person Harry is really angry at is himself. He’s an intelligent young man; I can guarantee that he knew on some level that he wasn’t going to be ready for that Quidditch game. The problem is, sometimes hope can be blinding, and it can very easily separate us from reason. I’m not saying he wasn’t angry with me a little bit, too, but I have a suspicion that if it’s a choice between the two of us---he finds you easier to shout at.”

Draco looks at her calm, scrubbed face and her serene, blue-grey eyes. “You’re a wise woman.”

“I’m an old woman,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of things, and I’ve seen enough to know that he is sitting in there right now and wishing he hadn’t said those things to you.”

“You heard?” Draco asks, cringing.

“I couldn’t really help it,” she says with a rough laugh. “I think that a lot of what you said was true, if rather harsh, and a lot of the things he said were just things he needed to get off his chest. But that’s it. Harry isn’t the sort of person to hold grudges.”

“I know,” Draco says. “I’m just wondering if... all this time, I thought I’d been helping, and really he was just lying there and fuming to himself because I wasn’t appreciating my life... his life... life,” he sighs.

“No,” Poppy says firmly. “You’ve spent more time with him than anyone—it means a lot to him. You mean a lot to him.”

“I don’t know about that,” Draco says, closing his eyes as something starts to turn dizzying circles inside him.

Poppy lets out a sound of exasperation. “Draco, he needs you.”

“He needs you. I’m just... I don’t even know what I am. I’m ridiculous.”

“You certainly are not. Listen, Harry needs me to make sure he eats and to make sure he’s healthy and that he’s moving towards recovery. He needs you to be his friend, and he needs both of us if he’s going to get better,” Poppy insists.

Draco lets his hands drop to the windowsill and presses them against the cold stone as his mind races. He doesn’t think he has ever been needed by another person before. It’s rather a strange feeling. He thinks he might be able to live with being needed by Harry.

“You should go in and talk to him,” she says gently.

Draco looks at her. “Now?”

“Yes, now,” she says, shaking her head. “I’ll even make myself scarce if you think it will help.”

Draco gives her a grateful smile. “I’ll be back in two minutes, I promise,” he says, scrambling down from the windowsill and running down the stairs.

He makes good time but it’s definitely at least five minutes later when he lets himself back into the hospital wing with a loaded tray. He’s never been very good at apologies, but he strongly suspects that the application of tea and cake can only help things along.

Harry is lying on his back, hands resting on his stomach and head twisted to look out at the cloudy sky. When Draco starts moving potion bottles and setting down the tea tray, he looks over cautiously and then looks away again.

“I didn’t mean it,” he says quietly.

“Neither did I,” Draco says. “Well, I did mean the bit about you pushing yourself too hard, and you are very stubborn, but... this is a terrible apology, I’m sorry.”

Harry’s mouth twitches into a smile and he turns his head back to Draco. “It’s alright. I think I meant a lot of the stuff I said, too, but I meant it for the person I knew before. Not you.”

Draco sits down. “That person was still me, you know.”

“I know,” Harry says, propping himself up on his elbows. “I don’t think I knew that person, either. I only thought I did. I bet that doesn’t make any sense,” he sighs, flopping back down and rubbing his elbows.

“You’d be surprised,” Draco advises. “Would you like some marble cake?”

**~*~**

“Aren’t you going to put your hat on?”

Draco shoots Hermione a sidelong glance. “If I don’t, is Ron going to put it on for me?”

Hermione looks at him, loose curls blowing out from under her own lion hat. “Probably.”

“That’s what I thought,” Draco sighs, pulling on the hat just as Ron clatters up the wooden steps and throws himself down on the bench next to Hermione, and realising he doesn’t really mind at all.

“I brought provisions,” Ron announces.

“Where did you get these?” Hermione asks, taking a mug and warming her hands on it gratefully.

“House-elves,” Ron says, gulping at his own drink and passing one to Draco.

“Thank you.”

“I can’t believe you got them to make hot chocolate for us,” Hermione says disapprovingly, but Draco can’t help noticing she is drinking it anyway. “It’s not really—”

“Oh, look, the team’s walking out,” Ron interrupts.

“So they are,” Hermione says drily, but her eyes quickly turn to the pitch along with everyone else’s.

Draco watches as both teams rise into the air, grateful that the job of referee has fallen to someone else. The whistle sounds and he holds his breath. The game quickly becomes fierce, both teams fighting hard for the Quaffle, and Draco has to admit that they are quite evenly matched. Five minutes in, the players are blurs of yellow and red as they dart through the air and Bludgers are flying everywhere, cracking against the bats of both Hufflepuff and Gryffindor Beaters and forcing Chasers and Seekers alike to veer wildly off course to avoid them.

“Come on!” Ron yells as Roxanne Ainsley slams the Quaffle through the central Hufflepuff goal hoop and the whole Gryffindor contingent explodes into cheering and applause. Draco claps and hopes that all the roaring from the lion hats isn’t going to permanently deafen him.

A split-second later, a jagged crash rends the air and everything but panic flies from Draco’s mind.

“Fuck,” he mutters, leaping to his feet and casting a rapid spell to slow the fall of his Seeker before he even has time to think about it. He barely hears the gasps and mutters behind him as he lowers the boy to the grass. As soon as he is safely down, Draco turns to leave the stand but hesitates when Poppy dashes out onto the pitch and kneels down beside him.

“I didn’t even know she was here,” Ron says, and Draco just nods tensely. He wouldn’t put it past Harry to have talked Poppy into watching the match so that he would have a backup if Draco forgot any important details.

An anxious hush falls over the stands as Poppy carries out her examination. The other players land at a careful distance and Roxanne pelts over to stand at the side of her injured teammate. The Hufflepuff Seeker picks up the pieces of her opponent’s broom and stands uncertainly with them in her arms.

“He’s alright!” Poppy calls, and the answer is a collective sigh of relief. The expectant silence that follows means that her next words can easily be heard. “I’m afraid that wrist is broken, Mr Jenkins, and probably the elbow, too. Hagrid, can you help me get him up to the hospital wing?”

Roxanne crouches down to conduct a brief discussion with her teammate, and then, as Hagrid bears the shivering boy from the pitch, she looks up at Draco. He looks back, hands resting on the barrier, and gives her an encouraging nod. After a moment, she returns it and makes a familiar hand signal to someone below the stands. Seconds later, the reserve Seeker walks nervously out onto the pitch and, led by Ron, Hermione, and everyone else in Draco’s stand, the crowd begins to clap and shout.

As the game resumes, Draco drops back down onto the bench in a daze. For a moment, he wonders if he should leave and make sure Jenkins is alright, but then he remembers his promise to Harry. Besides, Jenkins is in the safest hands in the business, and Harry’s morning is about to get a little bit more exciting.

“Pay attention, mate, Ramsay just scored twice while you weren’t looking!” Ron bellows, elbowing Draco in the side with quite some force.

Draco rubs his side and turns his eyes back to the game. Within minutes, all three Gryffindor Chasers have scored goals and are pulling together for a fourth using one of Harry’s new attacking strategies. The Beaters are striking Bludgers at the opposition with unprecedented accuracy and the reserve Seeker, though rather timid, is being aggressively marked by his Hufflepuff counterpart as if she thinks he knows something she doesn’t.

Behind him, a group of students are chanting ‘Go, go, Gryffindor!’ over and over again, Ron appears to be commentating each play under his breath, and both Hufflepuff and Gryffindor sections of the crowd are breaking into whistles and cheers every time anyone flies near the goal hoops or sights the Snitch. The goals are pouring in on both sides and Draco can barely keep track of them, so when the Hufflepuff Seeker shoots into the air and the stands explode, he is momentarily caught in confusion until he finds himself in the midst of a maelstrom of wild applause.

“We won!” Ron yells, hugging Hermione and Draco in turn.

“What? Really?” Draco mumbles against a mouthful of roaring lion hat.

“Really!” Ron insists, grabbing his head and turning it to face the scoreboard, which reads 320-290.

Light with disbelief, Draco looks down at the pitch, where all seven Gryffindor players are celebrating.

“Good job!” he shouts, laughing at Ron’s attempted wolf-whistle and clapping until it hurts.

**~*~**

After taking a moment to congratulate the team, Draco follows Ron and Hermione up to the hospital wing for the promised post-match debrief. He is tempted to linger and join in with their celebrations for a moment or two, but it quickly becomes clear that they can barely hear him over the yelling and whooping of their housemates. In fact, the only one who seems at all affected by his words is the reserve Seeker, who is visibly relieved not to be berated for failing to catch the Snitch.

When they walk into the ward, they find Harry sitting up in bed and chatting quite happily to the white-faced boy in the bed next to him while Poppy sits on a low stool between them and rotates a strange, fractured ball of light in the air in front of her, eyes narrowed.

“Go, go Gryffindor!” Ron calls out, grinning.

Harry turns and grins back. “I heard the cheering from here. Roger and I were just talking about how long it was going to take you to fight your way through the crowds.”

“How are you doing, Roger?” Draco asks, approaching the Seeker’s bed and trying not to wince at the state of his elbow.

“I’m okay, sir,” he says with a tight smile. “Madam Pomfrey’s already fixed my wrist and now she’s putting my elbow back together. Apparently it was... what did you say?”

“Comprehensively shattered, Mr Jenkins,” Poppy says, turning the tangled ball of light, which, Draco now realises, represents Roger’s splintered elbow. “If you could all keep your voices down, that would be very helpful.”

“Sorry,” Hermione says softly, and perches on the end of Harry’s bed.

“We can be good,” Draco says.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Poppy tells him, and then there is a rather nasty crack before a small section of the ball of light turns from orange to green.

“What happened?” he asks Roger, attempting to distract him. “It was all so fast.”

“Bludger,” Roger says, grimacing as another piece of bone clicks into place.

“Whose?”

“Slinger’s,” Roger says, and Draco is relieved to hear that the Gryffindor Beaters are not responsible for the damage to their own Seeker. “It was a good shot, actually.”

Draco shakes his head. “How long before he’s recovered?”

“Don’t rush me, Professor Malfoy,” Poppy says sternly. “He’ll stay here until the morning so that I can make sure everything is as it should be.”

“In that case, you should probably expect a visit from the rest of the team before long,” Harry puts in.

Poppy sighs and says nothing, but Roger grins.

“Do you really think they’ll remember to come and see me?”

“Of course they will,” Harry says.

“Looks like they’re on their way now,” Ron says, peering out of the window and across the grounds. “I hope I’ve brought enough biscuits for everybody.”

**~*~**

All too aware of the sleeping form of Roger Jenkins in the next bed, Draco leaves the hospital wing at an entirely sociable hour that night. He sits in front of the fire with Stanley, telling him all about the game and, because he won’t tell anyone, all about how wonderful Harry looks when he’s happy.

After a very satisfactory Sunday breakfast, he heads to the hospital wing to find that Roger has been discharged and Harry is still sleeping, curled up under a mountain of sheets and blankets.

“Is he alright?” he whispers to Poppy.

“He’s fine, but he’s had a tiring couple of days, so I decided to let him sleep,” she explains. “I’ve got a fresh pot of tea in the office if you’re interested.”

“What about him?” Draco asks, indicating Stanley, who is, for once, standing quite nicely at the end of his string, antennae waving gently.

Poppy gazes down at him, hands on hips. “He can come, too, but he has to stay on the lead. I’ve got enough to do with him rearranging my office for me.”

Amused, Draco follows her into the office, accepts a cup of tea and sits down to listen, all the while keeping an eye on Stanley, as Poppy updates him on Harry’s condition, Roger’s recovery, and Rosa’s latest escapades. The combination of gentle sunlight, refreshing tea and good company means that the rest of the morning seems to slip away effortlessly, and it seems like no time at all before Harry is calling out to say that he has something to show them.

“Go on, then,” Poppy says, coming to stand at the end of the bed beside Draco.

Harry, who is sitting up with his weight on his hands, grins, and then points his toes, rotates his ankles and, with obvious effort, lifts both heels from the bed.

“It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do, isn’t it?” Draco says pointedly.

“Oh, don’t you start about sleep, you’ve no room to talk. The number of times I’ve found you snoozing in that chair in the middle of the night just doesn’t bear thinking about,” Poppy says, shaking her head.

“That’s you told,” Harry says.

“What I meant is that you’re both as bad as each other,” Poppy sighs. “Draco, you’re not my patient, but I’m still going to encourage you to take care of yourself. Harry—you are my patient, and if you want to keep seeing progress like this then you need to rest when I tell you to! Are we clear?”

“Yes, Madam Pomfrey,” Harry says, biting down on a smile. Draco smiles back at him from behind Poppy and he loses control of it completely, causing her to heave an exasperated sigh and disappear back into her office.

**~*~**

Slowly but surely, Harry’s range of movement begins to increase, and with a combination of rest and Poppy’s rigorous programme of exercises, his flexibility and control are also on the rise. The Quidditch match may have come and gone, but Harry’s drive for independence is still very much in evidence, and Draco has the feeling that Poppy will not be able to hold him back for much longer.

On the last day in November, he sits in his chair, dividing his attention between his usual pile of marking, telling Harry about Surya’s not-quite-successful attempt to stay on her broom while flying at speed, and watching Poppy as she expertly manipulates Harry’s pyjama-clad legs through a range of familiar exercises. If he’s honest, he doesn’t think he’s doing any of the three things with any kind of skill or focus, but the atmosphere around the bed is one of light, well-worn camaraderie, and it’s really rather difficult to care.

“I don’t think she was really ready for that sort of speed, but she was insistent on having a go,” Draco says, accidentally doodling a red beetle on Lois Maplin’s homework and then quickly vanishing it.

“Sounds like someone else we know,” Poppy says, pushing Harry’s knee up towards his chest with slow, firm traction.

“Nothing wrong with trying things,” Harry says, opening one eye to regard Poppy. “You know, I’m not sure my leg bent all that way before the accident.”

“Nothing wrong with a bit of increased flexibility,” she says pointedly, and pushes harder for a moment before releasing Harry’s leg and reaching for the other one.

“Madam Pomfrey!” someone cries as the heavy doors bang open and Draco turns to see Surya, face and hands covered in blood, being half-supported and half-dragged by Winston and Emilie.

“Madam Pomfrey!” Emilie repeats, eyes wide with panic. On Surya’s other side, Winston looks like he’s about to be sick.

Poppy abandons Harry’s leg and rushes over to attend to them, while Harry and Draco exchange curious glances.

“Calm down, Miss Alderson—can you tell me what happened?”

“Ah...fedostas,” Surya mumbles as Poppy ushers her over to an empty bed.

“She fell down the stairs,” Emilie translates helpfully.

“On her face,” Winston adds.

Surya nods miserably.

Harry winces.

“Alright, alright,” Poppy says, tapping her wand against her palm for a moment. “Don’t worry, we’ll have you as good as new in no time. You two—go and wait outside until I come and get you.”

Winston and Emilie hurry for the door without a word and Poppy heads for her trolley. Draco gazes at the back of Surya’s head for a moment with a twinge of empathy. It hadn’t been so long ago that he’d sat on that very bed, feeling like an idiot and waiting for Poppy to fix him.

When he turns around, Harry is holding up a piece of parchment on which he has written:

It’s amazing that you can keep her on a broom at all!

Draco smiles, and then his eyes settle on Harry’s left leg, which is lying rather stiffly, waiting its turn to be stretched out. When the thought occurs to him he shakes it away, but it quickly returns, buzzing around his head like an unswattable mosquito, and before he knows what he’s doing, he is reaching out and taking hold of the leg firmly.

“Should I ask what you’re doing?” Harry says calmly.

“Probably not,” Draco advises, getting to his feet and beginning the sequence of movements he has observed many times before.

“Just thought I’d check,” Harry says, and when Draco looks at him, his face is completely relaxed, as though what’s happening is the most natural thing in the world. “You can push harder than that, you know, I’m not going to snap,” he adds as Draco leans right over him, far too close, pyjama flannel brushing against bare hip as his sweater rides up.

Draco swallows dryly and looks away. “Good to know.”

“I appreciate this, you know,” Harry says, breath catching the side of Draco’s neck as he holds the position, and good grief, this was a bad idea; Harry feels warm and strong and smells like tea and autumn and all Draco can think about is what it would feel like to have the whole thing all over him, powerful hands gripping his hips and...

Harry makes a small sound of discomfort and the stark reality of the hospital wing crashes back in around Draco. Flushing violently, he lets go of Harry’s leg and steps back, hoping that Harry hasn’t noticed how hard he is and furious with himself for losing control.

“Sorry... did I hurt you?” he says, glancing to the next bed and finding that Poppy is still talking softly to Surya as she heals the cuts and scrapes on her face. It seems ludicrous somehow that nothing has changed in the space around him when he feels so shaken.

“No, just a little twinge,” Harry says. “You can carry on... if you want to.”

Draco frowns. He doesn’t really have much of choice unless he wants to come out of this looking like an idiot who cannot control himself, so he finds a smile for Harry and resumes the routine, taking care not to lean too close or make eye contact. When he has finished, and Surya has been returned to her friends, he sits down in his chair and places his marking firmly in his lap.

“Thanks,” Harry says, stretching out his legs and flopping into a sort of starfish shape across the bed. “Look, I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable in some way.”

Draco looks up sharply. “You didn’t.”

“I feel like I did.”

“Harry, I’m fine.”

Harry lets out a long breath and stares at him for a moment before shrugging. “Okay.”

“Okay.”

“Well, that was a mess,” Poppy says, squeaking over to the bed. “Fortunately, it looked a lot worse than it was.”

“Draco finished my exercises for me,” Harry points out.

“Yes, I noticed.” Poppy lifts Harry’s left leg easily and flexes the knee. “You’ve done a rather good job,” she says, smiling at him. “If you ever get tired of Transfiguration, you can come and be my assistant.”

“I won’t forget you said that,” Draco promises, relaxing enough to return her smile as the worst of his uncomfortable arousal fades away.

Draco doesn’t think he wants to work in the hospital wing, much as he enjoys Poppy’s company, but with every day that Harry gets stronger, he is more convinced that he’s going to miss his time there. By Sunday, Harry is able to bend his knees enough to sit on the edge of the bed and dangle his legs to the floor; by Monday night, he is on his feet, holding onto Draco on one side and Poppy on the other, and by Tuesday evening, he is shuffling around the hospital wing with a metal frame, much to the initial alarm and eventual excitement of Stanley, who decides that running around and enticing Harry to chase him is a fine game indeed.

Realising that Harry’s release is imminent, Draco suddenly remembers the broomshed, which he has rather neglected recently, and which Harry will no doubt want to inspect as soon as he is allowed outdoors. When he opens the door he is horrified to see that most of his hard work cannot even be seen beneath a sea of abandoned brooms, mud, and clumps of grass. Fuming, he works through dinner and right up to the start of Open House, sorting through brooms by wandlight, aiming cleaning spell after cleaning spell at the filthy floor, and finally, pinning up what he hopes is an adequately threatening warning to keep things tidy or else.

After Quidditch practice on Thursday, Draco and Stanley enter the hospital wing to find Harry’s bed empty. On closer inspection, he sees that the covers have been thrown back rather than folded, and that all Harry’s things are still sitting on the bedside cabinet, but Harry himself is nowhere to be seen.

“He’s in the bathroom.”

Draco turns to see Poppy in the doorway of her office, holding a steaming mug and smiling.

“His walking frame is still here,” he points out.

“He doesn’t need it. At least, that’s what he says. He went off without it quite happily, though—a bit stiff but going rather well.”

Draco smiles. “To be honest, I thought for a moment he might have escaped.”

Poppy laughs. “Well, I think he’s been considering it. That’s why I’ve got to let him go.”

“You’re going to discharge him?” Draco asks, ignoring the unhelpful swoop of his stomach. “When?”

“In the morning. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep him here once he was fully mobile. If he makes it back from the bathroom in one piece I’ll be satisfied that he doesn’t need me any more,” she says, expression rather wistful. “If it were up to me, I’d have him here for another week or so, just to be sure, but I think we all know he’s had enough.”

“Does he know about this yet?” Draco asks.

Poppy doesn’t respond. Her eyes are fixed on the other end of the ward, where a door is opening and Harry is emerging and walking, slowly but steadily, towards them. He grins at Draco and Draco grins back, watching his careful steps, his cautiously-spread fingers, his hips in low-slung, faded jeans.

“I’m free!” he declares as he reaches Poppy and Draco.

“Not until you touch that far wall, that’s what we agreed,” Poppy says sternly.

Amused, Harry takes three more steps and presses his palm flat to the stone. “Okay?”

“Lovely. Now all you have to do is get a good night’s sleep and eat a proper breakfast.”

Harry sighs. “You can’t just keep adding conditions. It’s not fair.”

Draco finds himself on the receiving end of a very effective appealing look, but he shrugs, knowing he has no jurisdiction here.

“This is my hospital wing, Harry Potter, and I can do whatever I like. Now go and sit down and drink your tea before I change my mind.”

**~*~**

“Sir, is everything okay?”

Draco blinks, realising that he’s been staring over Ivy’s shoulder for at least a minute and he’s still not sure why.

“Fine, thank you, Miss Baron. Carry on.”

He moves on to the next student and forces himself to focus, but it’s not easy, even when confronted with something that looks like a ferret with a lizard’s head, because his mind doesn’t want to be here. It’s upstairs with Harry, wondering how he’s getting on with leaving the hospital wing, hoping that Poppy isn’t lecturing him too much and trying to work out when they will see each other next.

“He’s coming back today,” one of his students mutters to the girl next to him, who shakes her head.

“We’d have been told. I bet it’ll be another week yet. Or maybe not until after Christmas.”

“It’s today,” the first student insists. “I promise you.”

“Yeah? Bet you ten Sickles it’s not.”

“It’s today,” Draco says, stopping at their table with his arms folded.

The first student blushes and starts working feverishly. The second aims a gleeful smile at the side of his head.

“I’m glad we didn’t finalise that bet, then. Thanks, Professor Malfoy.”

Draco sighs and returns to his desk. He wonders if Harry is back in his rooms by now.

Wherever he is, he doesn’t show himself at morning break, and by the time Draco walks into the Great Hall for lunch, he is beginning to worry. When he approaches the staff table, though, he catches a flash of bright red and there he is, dressed casually in jeans and a sweater and sitting between Hagrid and McGonagall. When he sees Draco, he smiles easily and offers an apologetic shrug when the only seat Draco can find is almost right at the other end of the table.

Draco sits, vaguely aware of Sinistra to one side of him and Slughorn to the other, and picks at his lunch. Every now and then he hears a skitter of conversation involving Harry’s name from one of the house tables and wonders if McGonagall has any plans to formally announce his return. Not that it matters, he supposes. Either way, Harry is back, and the strange, comfortable sort of twilight in which the two of them have existed since September is at an end. No more midnight chats and secret jokes and Sunday afternoon tea and cake; Harry has his independence back now. If he had ever actually needed Draco, he doesn’t need him now, and Draco isn’t quite sure where that leaves him, because he needs Harry more than he will ever be willing to admit.

He has no idea what happens now, what is supposed to happen now, or even what he wants to happen now. All he knows is that he feels uncertain and displaced and he hates it. So he carries on, because he doesn’t know what else to do. He teaches his classes and he takes the first-years’ flying lesson; he eats dinner and listens to McGonagall’s triumphant announcement that Harry is out of the hospital wing but won’t be taking back his classes until the new year; he feeds Stanley and heads out into the dark to spends an hour flying with Surya, who is as delighted as everyone else to hear that Professor Potter is back at last.

He does his best not to feel unwanted as he walks back to his rooms, but he can’t escape the feeling that every one of Harry’s students and colleagues will be thrilled to see the back of him come January. As he rounds the last corner, he stops short. Harry is standing at his door. Well, more accurately, Harry is leaning on the wall outside his door and looking slightly nervous, but he’s there, and that is the important thing.

“Hello,” Draco says, finally remembering to walk the rest of the way to the door and unlock it.

Harry pushes himself off the wall and gives him a frighteningly charming half-smile.

“I haven’t been ignoring you today,” he says. “At least, not on purpose.”

Draco frowns. “You’ve been ignoring me by accident?”

Harry sighs. “God, you’re a pain. Can I come in?”

Suddenly feeling hot and stupid, Draco forces himself to nod like a normal person and open the door. Harry follows him inside and is immediately mobbed by Stanley.

“Charming,” Draco says, gently booting the beetle away from Harry’s feet so he can make his way over to the hearth and sit down. Of course, he sits in Draco’s chair straightaway, but Draco opts to say nothing. Just this once.

“Great chair,” Harry remarks, making himself comfortable.

Draco lifts an eyebrow and flicks his wand at the fireplace. Seconds later, the dark room is alight with crackling flames and wavering shadows.

“So, where have you been?”

“Outside,” Harry says, eyes gleaming. “Hagrid helped me get down to the grass and then I sat in my chair and watched Care of Magical Creatures all morning.”

“And where is your chair now?” Draco asks with a hint of Poppy-esque sternness.

“In my bedroom. I don’t need it all the time,” Harry insists.

“If you say so. What about this afternoon?”

Harry wrinkles his nose and looks at the floor. “I was a bit tired after lunch, so...”

Draco looks at the fire and smiles to himself. “Is it good to be back?”

“It’s weird,” Harry admits. “Everyone’s so pleased to see me and all of them want to talk to me at once... horrible noisy buggers,” he adds, flicking a secret glance at Draco that makes his heart thump against his ribcage.

“Like you said, you can hide from pretty much anything in the hospital wing,” Draco says, glancing around at his books and cups and piles of homework. “This is where I used to hide.”

“It’s important to have a sanctuary,” Harry says, looking around, too, “but I don’t think you need to hide any more.”

“Maybe not,” Draco murmurs, but he barely has any idea what he’s saying because Harry is staring right at him, right into him, and he daren’t move in case he spontaneously implodes.

“I was wondering,” Harry says after a moment, finally breaking the spell. “I know I’m not supposed to be taking any of my classes back until next term, but how would you feel about me sitting in on a few of them, you know, just to help me get back into things?”

“Of course,” Draco says. “They’re your classes.”

“Brilliant,” Harry enthuses, grinning.

As it turns out, Harry’s plans to ‘sit in and observe’ do not only involve the classes and clubs that fall under his own remit. On Monday morning, Draco finds him standing in the corridor with his second-year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, and it quickly becomes clear that sitting quietly and Harry are things that do not really mix. He makes it all of ten minutes into the first lesson of the day before he raises his hand to ask a difficult question, and the obvious amusement of the students only seems to spur him on to further acts of disruptiveness.

Torn between not wanting to encourage him—it may be almost the end of term, but there is plenty still to learn—and his natural urge to smile at Harry’s poor attempt at an innocent expression, Draco ignores Harry’s presence as best he can. His best, he has to admit, is nothing to write home about, but it’s clear by the end of the day that if nothing else, his students seem to feel much more enthusiastic about Transfiguration than usual.

“You smile a lot more than I thought you would,” Harry says, lounging in a chair at the very back of the classroom. The last of the students have left for the day and Draco is sitting on the edge of his desk, opting to look out at the darkening sky instead of at Harry.

“I certainly do not.”

“Draco, that doesn’t even make any sense.”

“I don’t care. Anyway, I have to go and get ready for flying, so you’d better get your arse out of my classroom before I lock you in it,” Draco says as stridently as he can manage with Harry sitting there and smiling all crookedly like that.

“Can I come with you?”

Draco blinks. “Why would you want to do that?”

Harry just laughs and gets to his feet. Fifteen minutes later, he is standing on the lawn in coat and scarf while Stanley capers around his legs and Draco attempts to recapture the attention of a group of first-years who have found something much more interesting to look at.

“I’m sure Poppy said something about you needing to rest,” Draco says as he carries the broomsticks back to the shed at the end of the lesson.

“Poppy obviously has no idea how boring resting actually is,” Harry says, hurrying to catch up with him. His steps are still stiff and slightly awkward, but he is already working up to his usual speed and Draco still hasn’t seen him use the hovering chair once, the stubborn bugger.

“It’s not her fault you have such a short attention span,” Draco points out, shifting the brooms to one arm so that he can pull open the door of the shed. He waits.

“Bugger me,” Harry says, looking over his shoulder at the neat rows of brooms, the clean-swept floor and the freshly-painted walls. “Did you do this?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Harry shakes his head. “It was such a state... I can’t believe it.”

Wrapping one hand around Draco’s forearm for support, Harry steps around him and into the broomshed, and Draco watches with satisfaction as the wide green eyes flick all around the interior before settling on him.

“What on earth did you do this for?” he asks, brows knitted.

Draco shrugs awkwardly and turns away to stack the brooms in their proper places. He doesn’t have an answer for Harry. He’d make one up, but his brain seems to have stopped working.

Behind him, Harry sighs and then suddenly laughs. “Put your broom back in the rack when you have finished using it. Racks are now charmed to automatically deduct five House points for any broom not returned within twelve hours,” he reads and laughs again. “That’s genius—which charm did you use?”

“None,” Draco admits with a flicker of a smile. “It seems to be working, though.”

Harry stares at him for a moment. “You absolute Slytherin.”

Draco just laughs.

After dinner, Harry expresses a desire to visit the staff room, and with nothing better to do until his meeting with the house-elves, Draco follows him there and watches vaguely as he pulls notes and cards and bits of parchment out of his pigeon-hole and sorts through them. As he stands there, wishing he knew what to do with himself, McGonagall appears and starts poking at the fire and muttering to herself. Draco wonders if this is normal behaviour for her; he never comes to the staff room unless he’s asked to, and he can’t remember the last time he was here.

“Good evening, Professor McGonagall,” Harry says, now gazing at the notice board with interest. “I can’t help noticing that my name is on the Hogsmeade rota for this weekend.”

“You needn’t worry, Harry, Aurora has agreed to take your place,” McGonagall says without looking away from the fire.

Harry chews his lip for a moment. “Well, that’s very kind of her, but I think I’ll go anyway.”

McGonagall turns sharply, poker in hand. “That really won’t be necessary.”

“I want to,” Harry insists, turning to face her, and for long seconds Draco watches as they stand there, locked in silent battle.

“It might be prudent to wait until next time,” McGonagall says.

“The walk will do me good,” Harry counters.

“Aurora has probably already made plans for Hogsmeade,” McGonagall argues.

Harry says nothing for a moment, and Draco thinks he might be about to give in. “Oh, well,” he says, shrugging. “I suppose we’ll both go.”

McGonagall closes her eyes briefly and then, to his astonishment, looks to Draco for help.

“I was planning to go to Hogsmeade this weekend anyway,” he lies. “Christmas shopping, you know.”

“Oh, so you’ll be there in case I fall down?” Harry says, turning to him with a wry smile.

“I will feel better to know that someone will be there in case you fall down,” McGonagall says, shooting Harry a weary look and sweeping out of the room.

When Draco heads for his house-elf meeting and Harry follows him, he isn’t in the least surprised. Neither is he surprised when the elves swarm around Harry as soon as he steps into the kitchens, pulling out a chair for him and chattering excitedly amongst themselves. He is only a little bit surprised when he lets himself back into his rooms afterwards and realises that Harry is still with him.

“Tea?” he offers, watching Harry examining his book shelf and wondering if he, too, isn’t quite sure what he should be doing now that things are supposedly back to ‘normal’. There’s nothing normal about any of this, and yet he’s perfectly happy to have Harry wandering around in his living room, even if he is too curious for his own good, and even if the sight of him makes Draco feel a little bit like the world is falling in.

“Tea would be great,” Harry says distractedly, and then: “This picture.”

“Yes, what about it?” Draco says, glancing at Rosa’s drawing.

“A child drew a picture of you,” Harry marvels. “That’s not the Draco Malfoy I know.”

“No, I don’t think it is,” Draco admits.

“You actually put my picture of Stanley on the wall.” Harry laughs. “I’m honoured.”

“You should be,” Draco says. “Hang on a minute.” He ducks into the bedroom and pulls out a battered old case from under the bed. After a brief rummage, he finds what he’s looking for and rejoins Harry in the living room. “I told you he was a real person,” he says, handing the photograph to Harry.

“This is Dave the Rave?” Harry asks, gazing down at the picture of the huge, tattooed man with one arm around Draco’s shoulders.

“Yes. And me.”

“Yeah... you look...” Harry frowns and falls silent.

“You can say it. I look terrible,” Draco says, looking at his photo-self over Harry’s shoulder. “That’s the bench in front of the Nag. The landlord’s wife took that with my very first disposable camera.”

“I’m not going to say you looked terrible, but you look much happier now,” Harry says firmly. “And I’m glad.”

Lost for words, Draco does what he always does when he’s uncertain: he makes tea.

The next couple of days fall easily into the same pattern, with Harry splitting his time between observing Hagrid’s lessons and making a nuisance of himself in Draco’s during the day, and trundling about after Draco to his various clubs and meetings during the evening. Halfway through Wednesday afternoon, it begins to snow. Unsurprisingly, Harry is the first to notice, and equally unsurprisingly, he manages to draw the entire class away from their reading to watch the flakes swirling past the windows.

Draco’s flying lesson is just as easily disrupted when a delighted Stanley begins to scuttle around in his first snow, leaping into small drifts, chasing snowflakes and tacking excitedly.

“Alright, can we pay attention, please?” Draco calls, secretly just as charmed as the others by Stanley’s enthusiasm.

He thinks he gets about ten minutes out of the shivering students before Stanley once again demands everyone’s attention. Draco turns, exasperated, to see him attempting to climb Harry’s legs, flapping his wings and tacking to be picked up.

“I can’t,” Harry says reluctantly, and Draco knows how much he hates having to admit that his arms are still a little on the weak side. “You’re too heavy.”

“His feet are cold,” Laura Mearley says, and her classmates cluck sympathetically.

As Draco watches Stanley picking up his little feet one at a time and shaking them, he realises that she is right. Stanley obviously loves the snow, but his legs have not been built for cold weather.

“Oh, alright,” Harry sighs, bending and hoisting Stanley into his arms. He throws the long string over his shoulder, brushes the snow from Stanley’s shell and turns to Draco. “I’ll take him inside.”

“Thanks,” Draco says, watching the two of them walk away. As they disappear out of sight, Harry is holding Stanley up at eye-level and talking to him quite firmly.

Curious, Draco turns back to his class and, in the absence of Harry and Stanley-shaped distractions, manages to get them all up into the air and through their usual drills.

Harry isn’t at dinner that night, nor does he show his face at Open House. Stanley wanders in with a first-year student who claims to have had his lead thrust into her hand by Professor Potter, but neither she nor the beetle can tell him anything about what Harry might be up to. On Thursday morning, Harry sits at the back of Draco’s Transfiguration class as usual but merely smiles mysteriously when Draco tries to find out where he’s been. Once again he is absent from the staff table at dinner, and, oddly enough, so is Hagrid. In an attempt not to go insane with curiosity, Draco pretends not to notice and throws himself into his work with such vigour that by the early hours of Friday morning, he has, at long last, caught up with all of his marking, and he falls into bed, exhausted but relieved.

“Have you got a minute?” Harry says, just as Draco is about to leave his classroom for lunch.

“I suppose so,” he says, sitting on the edge of his desk and folding his arms. “Have you finished being weird?”

Harry grins. “For now,” he says, and hands Draco a small cardboard box.

Draco stares at it, puzzled. “I don’t understand.”

“Just open it.”

Draco opens the box. Inside are six tiny leather boots. Stanley-sized boots.

“Am I going completely mad, or are these snow boots for my beetle?” he asks cautiously.

“That’s exactly what they are. I thought it was a shame that he couldn’t play in the snow when he obviously liked it so much,” Harry says.

Draco picks up one of the tiny boots, heart swelling almost painfully. His eyes prickle and he blinks hard, because he’s not going to bloody well cry, especially not on Stanley’s new boots, but he can’t think of the last time someone gave him such a thoughtful gift.

“They’re... well, they’re rather magnificent,” he says at last. “Thank you.”

Harry lets out a long, messy breath. “I’m pretty relieved you like them, actually. We thought you might just think we were completely mental.”

“We?”

“Oh!” Harry shakes his head. “I almost forgot. This was a joint effort—Hagrid and I made them together. Well, I measured Stanley, and then Hagrid stitched the boots and I shrunk them down to size. We decided it would be easier that way.”

“Hagrid can sew?” Draco says, struggling with the incongruous mental image.

“Oh, yeah, he makes a lot of his own clothes,” Harry says. “I don’t imagine there’s much choice in the shops for someone his size.”

“I don’t imagine there is,” Draco says faintly, replacing the little boot in the box and sealing it up.

That night, Stanley is fitted with his snow boots and takes to them immediately, scuttling up and down the lawn at Harry’s side and making sure that Draco’s students do not learn a single thing.

**~*~**

The air is crisp and cold on Saturday morning, and both Harry and Stanley are in attendance at Winston’s flying lesson, providing equal parts distraction and encouragement as he bobs along just above the snow-covered grass with his tongue poking out in concentration. Afterwards, the three of them walk behind the horde of students and in front of Aurora Sinistra and Flitwick, both of whom have plans for Christmas shopping and both of whom prefer a more sedate pace than an excitable Stanley will allow.

By the time they reach the big old oak tree that roughly marks the halfway point, Stanley has been fussed and admired and chatted to by practically every student in attendance, but Draco isn’t as worried as he used to be. It could be the sunshine on his face or the enthusiastic presence of Harry at his side; it could be the knowledge that Stanley had now starred in two of Hagrid’s lessons with plans for a third, but he thinks it’s probably the simple fact that each time he is petted or cooed over, Stanley preens and dances for a few moments and then scuttles back to Draco’s side to bump against his ankles before he is scuttling back out to the length of his string to pull feverishly in the direction of their destination.

Draco nods and listens as Harry waves his hands around and tells him interesting and bizarre bits of information about the landmarks they pass, but the thing that’s really making him smile is the way Harry’s unusual gait seems to match Stanley’s: the beetle is thrilled with his little snow boots but wearing them is making him pick up each of his feet with more care than usual, and this, coupled with his obvious unwillingness to compromise on speed, means that his movements have an entertainingly chaotic quality. Harry’s stiffness, worse in his right leg than his left, grows more marked as they approach the village, but he shows no signs of slowing down either. Draco just watches them with exasperation and thinks of the canvas bag he has folded away in one pocket in case Stanley gets tired, and wonders if he should have brought one for Harry, too.

“Can you smell that?” Harry sighs, tipping back his head and closing his eyes. “It smells like winter out here. Breathe that in, Draco,” he instructs.

“I am already breathing, I assure you,” Draco says, but he inhales deeply anyway.

Harry sighs happily. “I’m glad to hear it. I love winter, but I wish I hadn’t missed so much of the autumn; it’s probably my favourite season.”

“Really?” Draco asks, thinking of sludge and rain and shortening days.

“Really,” Harry says, wobbling slightly as a particularly savage gust of wind blows his long scarf out behind him and kicks a spray of powdery snow against his coat.

Instinctively, Draco grabs his arm to steady him; surprised green eyes flit to meet his, and he lets go.

“Sorry.”

“What for?”

Draco’s breath catches in his chest and he frowns. “I don’t know.”

Tack-tack-tack-tack! Stanley interrupts, bounding through the snow as the frost-covered village comes into view and reveals a whole new venue for his own special brand of mischief.

“Well, it’s your first outing in a while,” Draco says. “What do you want to do?”

Harry wants to do everything, and Draco doesn’t know why he is surprised. When the other two teachers head one way up the main street, Harry and Draco head in the other, wandering into shops and admiring window displays as they go. Within an hour, they have already visited every shop except Honeydukes, where Stanley is headed off at the pass by a stout old woman in a white apron, and Draco eventually insists on standing outside with him while Harry goes inside and emerges some minutes later with a bag full of treats and a red and white candy cane, which he stuffs unceremoniously into Draco’s mouth.

“Thanks,” Draco mumbles, extracting it again to remove the wrapping before he starts to suck.

“I know this probably sounds ridiculous but I hadn’t properly realised how close we were to Christmas,” Harry says, chewing on the end of an identical cane and gazing up at the twinkling lights strung between the shops and houses. “Term finishes in a few days and when we come back, everything will go back to normal.”

“With a few exceptions, I hope,” Draco says, trying not to think of the things he will miss terribly, but there are just too many: Harry’s presence in his classes and his rooms, Quidditch, Duelling Club, his flying lessons with Winston and Surya. The house-elves, on the other hand, Harry can gladly have back.

Harry smiles and bites off the tip of his cane with a crunch. “Definitely. Shall we go and have lunch in the Broomsticks?”

“What will all the students think?”

“That two of their teachers are having lunch in the Broomsticks.” Harry laughs. “Come on.”

Draco follows him uncertainly. “You said ‘when we come back’.”

“Yes?”

“Where are you going to go?”

“The Burrow,” Harry says, slowing down to look at some unusual water glasses in a shop window. “Molly and Arthur Weasley’s house. I always go there for Christmas, have done ever since I was eighteen.”

“Will Ron and Hermione be there, too?” Draco asks, licking minty sugar from his bottom lip.

Harry laughs. “Of course. And Rose, and all Ron’s brothers and Ginny and all their kids and partners, plus a few more Weasley relatives for good measure. It’ll be pretty crowded, but it’s always good fun. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be on Christmas day.”

Draco nods, twining Stanley’s string around his fingers and wondering why he feels so bitterly disappointed. He must have known Harry wasn’t going to stay; he never stays. And yet.

“Sounds good,” he says vaguely, casting his eyes around the window display until they settle on a pair of vast ceramic mugs with heavy bottoms and chunky handles; they are each big enough to hold at least a couple of pints of tea and are gleaming with a deep cherry red glaze. They are also perfect for a person to whom he owes several favours, and he’s going to have them.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” Harry asks.

“The usual,” Draco says vaguely, rummaging in his pockets for coins. “Reading, planning lessons, walks around the lake, that sort of thing. Can you hold Stanley for a moment? I just want to buy these mugs and I have a feeling he’ll try to knock over something valuable if I take him in.”

When he returns, Harry is waiting for him with an odd look on his face, but he doesn’t say another word until they are sitting down in the Three Broomsticks with Stanley under the table and cups of mulled mead in front of them. As Draco had expected, the pub is full of students, but they are laden with shopping bags and don’t seem to be interested in much besides showing off their purchases and laughing at what their friends have bought. When he thinks about it, the whole lot of them have been impressively well-behaved and he hasn’t had to speak to a single one of them except to answer questions about Stanley.

“So,” Harry says significantly as soon as they have ordered their food, “are you really not going to see anyone over Christmas? Not even your parents?”

Draco frowns, startled by the challenge. “I’ll see McGonagall and anyone else who stays in the castle over the holidays. I know I’m not exactly sociable, Harry, but I’m not a hermit either.”

Harry fixes him with an exasperated gaze. “I meant... aren’t you going to see your parents?”

“It’s complicated.”

“I know,” Harry says softly. “You told me all about it, remember? I’m not going to pretend that I understand, Draco, but when you were talking about them, I really got the impression that you missed your mother.”

Draco sips his drink, trying to think of something to say other than ‘you’re right’ or ‘fuck off, it’s none of your business’, both of which are fighting to come flying out of his mouth first.

“She knows it’s difficult with my father the way he is. That’s why we write,” he says at last. “I’ll send them a card and a gift like I always do.” Draco shrugs, feeling Harry’s eyes on him and knowing that whatever he’s thinking is probably right.

“I didn’t...” Harry begins, trailing into silence as a smiling young woman brings over two plates of hot, delicious-smelling food. “Thanks. Listen, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I just thought it was sad that you and your mother don’t spend time together any more. You know what, though? It’s not really any of my business, so maybe we should just forget it and eat our lunch.”

“Alright,” Draco agrees, and immediately regrets it because he feels like a coward, and worse, he is allowing Harry to go on thinking that he has strayed into an area where is he isn’t wanted, which, despite Draco’s initial reaction, isn’t the case at all. He wants Harry to ask, to wonder, to interfere as much as he likes, and now all he can do is stare at the side of his head while he eats his baked potato and wish for the last five minutes all over again.

**~*~**

While he gets no such second chance, Draco’s mood is brightened by the fact that Harry shakes off the conversation in no time and, as soon as they have finished eating, drags him back out onto the snowy cobbles for more wandering and window shopping. Predictably, Harry does stumble once or twice on the slippery ground and Draco manages to grab him both times, though the force of the second fall pulls them both to the ground where they lie for several seconds, breathing hard and slightly tangled while Stanley tacks frantically and attempts to help. Finding himself rather too close to Harry for comfort, Draco scrambles back to his feet and hauls Harry up off the ground with some effort.

“Why do I have the feeling you’re enjoying this?” he asks, rattled and flushed and covered in snow.

“I’m having a nice day,” Harry says airily.

“Are you alright, Professor Potter?” calls a concerned student as she passes.

“Fine thank you, Elena,” Harry calls back, lifting a friendly hand and waving at the girl. He turns back to Draco and starts brushing the snow from his coat. “I think I’ve just realised why you were different.”

Draco arches an eyebrow. “Different?”

Harry grins, taking Stanley’s lead as they start walking again. “Well, you’re different in all kinds of ways, of course, but I meant that you were different when I was stuck in bed. When I couldn’t move or even open my eyes, and all I could do was listen. Plenty of people came to talk to me—I know that Healer from St Mungo’s said they should and I heard Poppy trying to encourage people when they said they didn’t know what to say.”

“I don’t understand,” Draco admits.

“You did know what to say,” Harry says simply.

“I certainly did not,” Draco tells him. “Stanley, put that down.”

Harry snorts. “Maybe you think you didn’t, but you did. You know, Ron and Hermione spent hours and hours with me every weekend but until I could talk back, they didn’t talk to me like they usually would. It was always a bit... awkward, I suppose, like they were so distracted by what I couldn’t do and they just couldn’t see past it. You were just... the same. It was quite comforting.”

Draco stares down at the cobbles as they walk, pulse fluttering and tense hands crammed into coat pockets. “I don’t know what to say,” he admits at last.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” Harry says.

“Oh, shut up. I said all kinds of rubbish, I’m certain of it.”

“Don’t make me tell you again how much I enjoyed your stories,” Harry says darkly.

“Please don’t,” Draco says, pouring as much disdain into his voice as he can muster. Harry just laughs, brushes his shoulder against Draco’s and starts talking to Stanley instead. He’s hopelessly charming and warm and bright, and he knows all of Draco’s secrets. Draco is lost and he knows it.

**~*~**

After dinner that night, they gravitate towards Draco’s rooms without a word. Once inside, Harry carefully lowers himself onto the hearth rug to stroke a rather sleepy Stanley. Draco puts the kettle on and watches them, warm and content for a moment as he allows himself to enjoy just how right they look together, there in front of his fire, in his living room, as though they belong there.

As though they belong to him.

As reality begins to filter back in, Draco turns away and yanks open the cupboard to look for cups. Harry doesn’t belong to him, even if he is sitting quite happily on his floor on a Saturday evening, having spent the entire day with him already. He’s just there, and soon he won’t be, and the whole thing just aches too much to think about. He has his own rooms; maybe he should be there instead.

“Draco?”

“Yes?”

“How many cups do you think we need?” Harry asks, amusement flickering in his voice as he looks at the sideboard, where almost every cup Draco owns is now sitting.

“I don’t know,” Draco says crossly, scowling at the cups. “Maybe you should make tea for a change, or don’t you have your own rooms any more?”

Harry’s eyebrows shoot up under his messy fringe. “Wow. What was that about?” he asks carefully.

The sudden flash of anger dissipates and Draco leans against the sideboard, rubbing his face with both hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that,” he says, exhaling slowly. “I’ve never seen your rooms, though... are you hiding something weird in there?”

Harry reflects his cautious smile back to him. “Not exactly.”

“Well, now I’m intrigued,” Draco says, putting the spare cups back into the cupboard and pouring the tea. “Spit it out.”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“I don’t care.”

Harry sighs, watching Stanley crawl slowly across the rug towards the bedroom, stopping every few inches and tacking softly. “What’s the matter with him?”

“He’s just tired. Put him on the bed if you like, that’s where he wants to go,” Draco says, indicating the open bedroom door.

Harry gets to his feet stiffly and lifts the weary beetle into his arms. “Come on, then,” he murmurs, carrying Stanley into the bedroom and then reappearing, hands in pockets, looking equally worn out. “I like your quilt,” he says, yawning.

“Thank you. Now tell me why you don’t want me to see your rooms.”

“It’s not that I don’t want you to see them, I just don’t want to be there,” Harry says, accepting his cup of tea and leaning against the doorframe. “It just... doesn’t feel right. Not since I got back.”

“Why not?”

Harry shrugs. “It just feels cold, and it smells damp and neglected. I don’t feel like I can relax there any more. I told you it was stupid.”

“Do you feel like you can relax here?” Draco asks, surprised.

Harry yawns again. “Yes.”

Draco taps his fingers against his tea cup as he thinks. “Okay,” he says eventually. “Tomorrow we are going to spend the day in your rooms.” Harry pulls a face but Draco ignores him. “It’s not that you aren’t welcome here... quite the opposite, in fact... but as you rightly said, everyone needs a sanctuary, and yours isn’t going to get any less neglected if you just keep neglecting it.”

Harry collapses into an armchair and drinks his tea, frowning. “I hate it when you’re right.”

**~*~**

After breakfast, Draco follows Harry directly to his rooms before he can change his mind. As he waits for Harry to unlock the door, he tries to imagine what Harry’s living space will look like, but before he has reached a decision, the door is swinging open and unleashing a waft of cold, musty-smelling air. Wrinkling his nose, he steps inside and tries to look around, but all the curtains are drawn and he can barely make out the shapes of a table and chair just five or six feet away from him.

“Maybe some light would help,” he suggests, and Harry shrugs, so he draws his wand and sends the curtains rattling along their rails. Harsh winter sun floods the living room, revealing a dull coating of dust on every surface. The air is heavy and smells slightly of mildew; Draco walks across the floor and presses his hand against the stone wall, finding it damp.

“When was the last time you opened the windows?” he asks, turning to look at Harry. “Or lit a fire?”

Harry hovers in the doorway for a moment before reluctantly coming inside and leaning against the door to push it closed. “September?” he says uncertainly.

“No wonder it’s so uninviting,” Draco says, catching sight of Harry’s dejected expression and wanting nothing more than to stride across the floor and kiss him until he smiles again. “I can’t believe the house-elves didn’t come and sort this out before you came back, we should...” He stops, shaking his head. “They tried, didn’t they?”

“They came the morning I got out,” Harry says, looking at the floor. “Loads of them. They said they were going to put everything back just the way it was before, that it’d be like none of it had ever happened. I didn’t want that, I... I don’t know. I shouted at them and told them they couldn’t come in, and, well... it’s been like this ever since. Nobody else knows, so...”

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Draco says firmly. “They were so pleased to see you on Monday night, I don’t understand it.”

Harry glances up at him with a tiny sheepish smile. “I’d already apologised by then, but they haven’t been back.”

Draco takes a long careful breath before asking the question he’s not sure he wants the answer to.

“Why didn’t you want everything back the way it was?”

Harry looks at him and shakes his head gently. “Don’t, Draco.”

“Don’t what?” Draco rasps, stomach clenching with a dull, inevitable sort of pain.

Harry’s eyes are bright as he pushes himself off the door and wanders into the middle of the room.

“Let’s just... tidy up a bit, okay? If you help me, you’ll have your space back twice as fast,” he says, flashing a smile that doesn’t quite convince Draco.

He sighs heavily, torn up with the knowledge that something has shifted between them and he has absolutely no idea what to do about it. Harry doesn’t want things back the way they were before, but exactly what he does want remains somehow out of Draco’s reach. He watches Harry for a moment as he walks around the room, flicking away dust with his wand, and then, pushing his painful confusion to the back of his mind, he sets to work.

Harry’s rooms, he quickly discovers, are very much like his own, and not just in terms of the standard Hogwarts fixtures and fittings. His taste also tends towards the comfortable, worn and practical, and he has just as many books on his shelves as Draco, though most of his have titles like: ‘The Love of Flying’ and ‘Quidditch: the tactical persuasion’ and ‘The Philosophy of House-elves and Other Domestic Beings’. He also finds volumes on cooking, gardening, and advanced Transfiguration, as well as the biggest, heaviest Muggle dictionary he has ever seen.

The main difference between the two sets of rooms is that Draco’s walls and surfaces are mostly clean and empty, while Harry’s are host to a plethora of photographs, drawings, old tickets and odd little trinkets. Draco dusts each tiny ornament and oddment, happy to have something on which to focus his attention in the absence of Harry’s usual stream of conversation. They work in near-silence, flinging open windows, cleaning out the grates and lighting fires in every room in an attempt to banish the miserable smell of disuse that hangs in the air.

At lunchtime, Draco runs down to the kitchens and brings back sandwiches and fruit and tea and they sit on the clean-swept floorboards to eat, sleeves rolled up and hair sticking to their foreheads in spite of the cold air swirling in through the open windows.

“Sorry about earlier,” Harry says suddenly, pulling the crust from his sandwich and chewing on it.

Draco’s stomach flips unhelpfully and he forces himself not to look up straight away. “It’s alright.”

“It isn’t at all. I don’t think I realised how daft I’d feel when you saw the state of my rooms, but it’s no excuse for acting like a child,” Harry says firmly, and though Draco doesn’t entirely believe the excuse he is being offered, he takes it, because he likes resolving conflicts this way—quickly, and with apologies—it’s rather novel and he suspects that he and Harry should have tried it years ago.

“I understand. You’ve been through a difficult experience... it’s not all that surprising that you’ve come out of it with a weird tendency or two,” he says, biting into his sandwich.

Harry throws an orange at him.

**~*~**

“Are you going to ask her or not?” Harry says for perhaps the seventh time since dinner. His rooms are now clean and warm and smelling like wood and polish, but for some reason, they have ended up back in front of Draco’s fire.

Draco groans and flops against the soft corduroy of his armchair. “I will ask her later,” he says. Again.

“When?” Harry demands, allowing Stanley to jump from the back of his chair into his lap. “Tomorrow she’ll be writing her Christmas cards, on Tuesday she’ll be running around trying to make sure everything is in place for the end of term feast, and on Wednesday morning everyone will be leaving, including Ivy.”

“Well then, I’ll do it next term. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, if you’re a pathological procrastinator,” Harry says, eyes gleaming.

“Bugger off. Anyway, how do you know when McGonagall writes her Christmas cards?”

“Because she always does them on the last Monday of term.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Harry says, shrugging. “She’s a creature of habit, I suppose.”

“How very odd.”

“Draco, just go. I’ll go back to my rooms and you can tell me all about it when you’re done,” Harry says, hefting Stanley into his arms and shuffling to the edge of the chair.

Draco holds up his hands and gets to his feet. “Fine, I’m going, but stay there, for goodness’ sake.”

“How do you know I’m not going to steal anything?” Harry asks, mouth twitching.

Draco carries on walking and pulls open the door. “You’ll not get past my guard beetle!” he calls, smiling when Harry’s laughter follows him down the corridor.

When McGonagall calls him into her office he is amused to see that she is sorting through a vast box of Christmas cards.

“How can I help you, Professor Malfoy?” she asks distractedly, examining a card with a shimmering picture of a Christmas tree on the front.

“I’m not here to complain, I promise,” he says, taking the seat opposite hers. “I just wanted to see what you thought about an idea I had.”

McGonagall drops the card back into the box and pins him with her sharp eyes. “Go on.”

“It’s about Ivy Baron. She wants to go into teaching when she finishes school and I think she shows a lot of promise. She’s been helping me with the Duelling Club in her own time and she’s very good with the younger students. I thought she might benefit from assisting me in Transfiguration during her free periods... if that’s alright with you,” Draco says, keeping his voice steady and his posture straight.

“Yes, fine,” McGonagall says briskly and continues to stare at him as though expecting a further request.

“Well, that’s it, really,” Draco admits, startled. “Thank you.”

“Don’t look so surprised, Draco, it’s an excellent idea,” she says, eyebrows flickering. “If you recall, I was the one who told you that you needed to offer your students more than just a thorough grounding in Transfiguration, and that is exactly what you are doing. I’m not about to stand in your way.”

“That’s good,” Draco says faintly. “I suppose I just imagined we’d have to have more of a discussion about it.”

McGonagall shakes her head. “I trust you. Besides, I don’t have time for discussions; I have Christmas cards to write,” she says, picking up her quill.

“Harry said you wouldn’t be starting your cards until tomorrow,” Draco says before good sense can stop him.

McGonagall looks up and grants Draco a rather sardonic smile. “Harry obviously doesn’t know how many cards I have to write this year,” she says as he rises to leave. “Do give him my regards and reassure him that he doesn’t know everything—it will do him good.”

Draco’s smile doesn’t falter even when Dumbledore wakes up and winks at him. “Will do.”

**~*~**

Draco receives his customary Christmas card from McGonagall on Tuesday morning. He shows the picture of a snowy mountain to Stanley and then reads the message aloud:

“Dear Draco, I hope your Christmas is merry and that the coming year brings health, change, and the contentment that you so richly deserve. Be happy while you are living, for you’re a long time dead. All the best, Minerva McGonagall.”

Tack-tack, Stanley says, climbing onto the coffee table.

“P.S. Festive regards to Stanley,” Draco reads, looking down at the beetle. “Well, you can’t ask for a more definitive welcome to the Hogwarts family than a mention in McGonagall’s Christmas card.”

“Did you get a weird proverb in your Christmas card?” Harry asks as they walk together to the end-of-term feast that evening.

“Of course, don’t you always get one?” Draco says nonchalantly. Harry glances at him, eyebrows knitted as though he doesn’t know whether to believe him or not, and Draco just lets him get on with it.

He is still flicking curious little glances at Draco as they half-listen to McGonagall’s long list of announcements, but Draco ignores him, gazing instead at the enormous trees and floating fairies and hoping that the food will appear very soon.

“As we have already established, Professor Potter will be resuming his usual duties at the beginning of the new term,” McGonagall says, to the sound of restrained but sincere enthusiasm from the house tables. “We will, of course, be delighted to have him back. However, I would like to now take a moment to recognise the hard work and determination of another member of staff, who has taken on all of Professor Potter’s classes, clubs, and responsibilities in addition to his own, and who has done so admirably and almost without complaint—would everyone now please join me in a round of applause for Professor Malfoy.”

Draco, who has been staring at McGonagall with growing horror throughout this speech, is astonished to see her smile at him with genuine pride and bring her hands together just a fraction of a second before the entire hall explodes in applause. Face burning, he looks out at the sea of students, all of whom are looking at him and all of whom are clapping.

At the Gryffindor table he sees Winston and Emilie, who are grinning and applauding as though their lives depend on it; Fergus Quinlan grins and gives him a thumbs-up, and even Jasper Bracknell looks pleased, giving Draco an odd sort of smile and a shrug when their eyes meet. Led by Roxanne Ainsley, the entire Gryffindor Quidditch team shout out unintelligible words of encouragement. At the Hufflepuff table, Magnus Humphries is on his feet, and soon, so are several of his housemates and nearly all of the Ravenclaw first-years. Ivy Baron looks like she is about to burst with pride, and, a little further down the Slytherin table, Surya cheers and waves her fork in the air.

Lost for words, Draco finally turns to look at Harry, who is applauding furiously and clearly enjoying his discomfiture. It’s all Draco can do to keep himself upright, but he manages it, fighting down his embarrassment as best he can and attempting to soak up the feeling of pure, perfect belonging that surrounds him for the possibly the first time in his life.

“Well, then,” McGonagall says, raising her voice above the racket and waiting impatiently for it to die down. “I think it may be time for dinner.”

As she speaks, the platters and dishes fill with everything from roast chicken to lamb curry and everything in between, and the Great Hall falls into a rumble of contented chewing and gentle conversation.

“That was very odd,” Draco says, touching his still-hot face with his fingertips and then piling mashed potatoes onto his plate.

“Your face was brilliant,” Harry says. “We should do that at the end of every term.”

“I think not,” McGonagall says, taking the potato spoon from Draco and helping herself.

Draco thinks not, too, but he doesn’t mind the warm glow that settles around him as he eats, chats to Harry, walks back to his rooms with Harry, drinks tea with Harry, and tries not to think about the fact that Harry is leaving in the morning. There’s nothing any sort of warm glow can do about that.

It’s after midnight by the time Harry heaves himself up from his chair, says goodnight to Stanley and returns to his own rooms to sleep. Draco watches from the door until his shadow has completely disappeared and then strips off his clothes and stands under the shower for as long as he can bear it, caught somehow in the hope that with enough hot water and soap, he can wash this feeling away. By the time he crawls into bed, though, all he feels is damp and a bit light-headed.

Wednesday morning is cold, grey and drizzly, which has the advantage of making everyone else look just as miserable as Draco feels. There is a certain air of festivity in the Entrance Hall, but Draco stays as far back from it as he can, because he doubts that ruining his students’ moods will make him feel any better. The little buggers still manage to seek him out, though, and he finds himself on the receiving end of more see you next term, sirs and Merry Christmases than he thinks he has had in his previous ten years of teaching combined.

“Sir?”

Draco looks up to see that Jasper Bracknell has broken away from his friends and is standing in front of him wearing a bright red bobble hat and a strange expression.

“Yes?”

“I’ve been thinking,” he says. “I’ve seen how much you’ve helped Professor Potter this year and I think... if you can do that, you can’t be all bad. So... er... have a good one.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “Well, thank you, Jasper,” he says faintly, watching the boy rejoin his friends and head for the front doors. As he does, Winston catches his eye and waves excitedly before returning to a serious-looking discussion with Emilie and Surya. Draco smiles, knowing Winston is dying to get home and show his dad what he can do.

“Have a lovely break, Professor Malfoy!” Ivy calls as she is dragged across the tiles by a grinning Magnus. “Looking forward to working with you!”

Draco watches the two of them pelt out into the rain and sighs, envious of their high spirits.

“There you are,” Harry says, pitching up beside him with his coat buttoned up to his chin and a battered leather satchel slung across his shoulders.

“Where did you think I’d be?”

“In your rooms, I suppose. I don’t usually see you out here on the last day of term.”

“Perhaps I had to make sure you actually left,” Draco says, pretending nonchalance and hating himself for it. Harry is alive with energy and Draco’s nerves are shredded. He folds his arms across his chest for protection and offers a tight smile.

“I’m going, don’t worry,” Harry says easily. “The rest of my stuff is probably already on the Hogwarts Express by now, so I might as well go with it.”

“Well, good,” Draco says, shifting uncomfortably on the spot.

Harry takes a deep breath and something painful flickers in his eyes; a split-second later, it’s gone.

“Don’t have a miserable Christmas, Draco,” he says, hesitating for a moment before stepping forward and folding Draco into a hug.

It’s over before he knows it, and Harry is stepping back and walking away, but the clean scent and the press of warm skin and the drag of wool and leather cling to Draco and infiltrate every last screwed up connection in his mind. As soon as the last student is out of the Entrance Hall, he stumbles back to his rooms and locks himself in.

When someone starts pounding at the door an hour or so later, Draco merely looks up from his chair and glares. The person on the other side, however, has other ideas, and the pounding continues until he throws down his book and stomps over to fling the door open.

“Oh,” he sighs, irritation fading quickly. “Hello, Hagrid.”

“I might ’ave dented yer door a bit, I’m afraid,” he says guiltily. “I’m sorry... I was just a bit worried about yeh after this mornin’. Wanted to check yeh were okay.”

Puzzled, Draco looks around the door and sees that there is indeed a small damaged patch that wasn’t there before. “Not to worry, I’m sure I can fix it. I don’t really know what you mean about this morning, though,” he lies, gesturing for Hagrid to come inside. “Have I missed something?”

“Oh, well, it’s probably nothin’,” Hagrid says, ambling over to the fireplace and scratching Stanley’s shell before heaving himself down onto the ring of stones. “Yeh just looked sad ter see the students go. Thought you might like a bit of company, but don’t be afraid to tell me to sod off if yeh’d rather be on yer own.”

Draco turns away to fill the kettle and gazes at the drizzle snaking down his windows. He had been so certain that he wanted to be alone, but now there’s a very large man in a very large coat sitting on his hearth and he thinks he wants to have tea with him. Any distraction is a good distraction, surely, and besides, it will give him the chance to try out his new Hagrid-sized mugs.

“Now that’s a cup of tea,” he says, beaming, as Draco passes him one of the big red cups and settles in his armchair with a rather more modest one and a happily tacking Stanley.

Hagrid takes off his coat, revealing a hairy green jumper and Draco looks at it, wondering if he has made it himself.

“I knitted it,” Hagrid says, making Draco wonder whether he actually voiced his thoughts or he has just been staring a little too hard.

“That’s very clever,” Draco admits. “I don’t think anyone in my family knows how to knit.”

“Not even yer mother?” Hagrid asks, raising bristly eyebrows.

“Not as far as I know. Perhaps I should ask her,” Draco says absently.

“It’s cheaper that way, and yeh can ’ave any colour yeh want,” Hagrid says, eyeing the bright red sweater that Draco has left on the back of his spare armchair. “Them things cost a bloody fortune.”

It isn’t until Draco is halfway into his retelling of the story of Ivy and the rude shop assistant that he realises he’s having a rather nice time, and then he finds himself picturing Harry on his way back to London and pauses, midsentence, in order to stop picturing it.

“And what did she say?” Hagrid asks.

“Hang on,” Draco says, shifting Stanley so he can get up. “I think we need some more tea.”

**~*~**

When Hagrid leaves, Draco decides that the only way he is ever going to feel normal is to do exactly what he would normally do at the beginning of the Christmas holidays. So, with Stanley in tow, he walks up to the library, walks very quickly past Madam Pince, who is re-shelving books with an even sourer face than usual, and pulls out a selection of books at random. When he enters the Restricted Section and she gives him a severe look, he gives her one back and carries on.

Back in his rooms he stokes the fire, puts his feet up on the coffee table and delves into an ancient, mould-spotted book on the art of necromancy. It’s a thick volume with tiny, cramped text and it keeps him going, with the odd break for food and stretching, for the rest of the day. In the morning, he picks up the next book in the stack—‘A Beginner’s Guide to Wandless Magic’—and starts all over again. Outside, the drizzle is unrelenting, and by mid-afternoon, all the snow has turned to slush. Draco peers out at the grounds and sighs, abandoning his tentative plans for a walk around the lake and flopping back into his chair instead.

The next book he picks up is ‘Hogwarts: a History’, and he has read it far too many times already to find it enjoyable, but it keeps his attention away from Harry, so he perseveres with it, guiltily ignoring Stanley’s reproachful tacks and flaps for attention and supplying mint leaves when he knows that what Stanley really wants is exercise and a change of scenery. He tells himself that if someone knocks, he will answer the door; he will even go out if they want him to, but no one comes.

On Friday he receives a beautifully embossed card from his mother which he pins up beside McGonagall’s snowy mountain and his two drawings.

“It’s midwinter,” he tells Stanley, speaking for the first time in several hours. His mother always sends a card on the solstice, and this year is no exception. Stanley waves his antennae and Draco picks him up, hugging him to his chest and pacing back and forth across the floor. It’s not Stanley’s fault that he’s confused and missing Harry, and all at once he feels terrible for shutting him in for all this time.

“We’ll go out tomorrow, how about that?” he says.

Stanley tacksagainst his chest and then settles there to sleep, seemingly placated.

As soon as the sun goes down, Draco folds up his autumn quilt and stores it away carefully under the bed before pulling out his winter one and shaking it out next to the open bedroom window. Under Stanley’s watchful gaze, he spreads the crisp white quilt over his bed, smoothing down the patches of scarlet and midnight blue with sure hands, just as his mother used to do. Humming to himself, he walks around the living room lighting candles with his wand until the whole place is lit by nothing more than dozens of flickering flames.

With that done, he sits down on the hearthrug and picks up his book. Frowns. Puts it down again.

He stares at the glowing embers of the fire.

Harry’s voice echoes around his head. ‘Aren’t you going to see your parents?

“Shut up,” Draco mutters, and reaches for his rarely used pot of Floo powder. For a moment, nothing happens, and he waits, hoping his neglected connection is still working.

Finally, the flames turn green and Draco is able to scramble forward and push his head into his parents’ drawing room. He looks around, noting with a complete lack of surprise that absolutely nothing has changed since he last visited, and then the grizzled form of Lento the house-elf looms into view.

“Master Draco,” he rasps, affecting a slow, creaky bow.

“Er, hello, Lento... is my mother around?” Draco asks, already feeling self-conscious and suspecting that he should leave this sort of spontaneity to the Harry Potters of the world.

“Mistress is lighting candles in the parlour,” Lento says, and Draco smiles, feeling a warm rush of affection for his mother.

“Can you fetch her, please?”

Lento bows again and retreats. A minute or so later, Draco’s mother enters the room and settles herself on a low chaise in front of the fire. Her long hair gleams in the soft light and she seems older than Draco remembers but her whole face is alight with pleasure at the sight of him.

“Hello, darling, did you get my card?”

“Yes, thank you. Did you and father get the things I sent?” Draco asks, suddenly unsure of himself. He hasn’t communicated with his mother via any means but letter in a very long time and he wonders if he should start with an apology, but his mother’s eyes seem to be telling him otherwise.

“Yes. I’m afraid your father has already started on the chocolates, even though I told him he mustn’t open them until Christmas day,” his mother says ruefully.

“Well, whatever keeps him happy, I suppose,” Draco says, and they share a familiar glance that washes away thousands of pointless words.

“How was your term?” she asks, smoothing an invisible crease out of her robes.

Draco smiles, even though his heart hurts. “Interesting,” he admits. “I made friends with Harry Potter.”

His mother raises a delicate eyebrow. “Well, you must tell me how that happened,” she says, and so Draco does. He leaves out the difficult parts but tells her everything else, from his scarlet eyebrows to Harry’s stay in the hospital wing to his efforts to teach a frightened Gryffindor to fly, and all the bits in between. By the time he has finished, his knees are aching from kneeling on the hearth and his mother is staring at him in amused disbelief.

“No wonder you haven’t had time to write me a letter,” she says, smiling.

“I’m sorry,” Draco says, and she shakes her head.

“I’m proud of you.”

“I haven’t—”

“Don’t argue with me, Draco.”

Draco closes his mouth. He thinks that Stanley may be trying to climb onto his back, but he decides not to tell his mother that. She’s never been a big fan of insects.

“I wish you’d come home,” she says, expression turning wistful. “I miss you.”

“I can’t,” he insists, voice barely rising above a whisper.

“I know,” she says, smiling sadly and something inside him shifts. He takes a deep breath.

“Would you come and see me here instead?”

His mother hesitates. “Are you sure?”

“Please,” he says, voice growing stronger. “I miss you, too. I’ll send you a letter in the new year and we’ll make arrangements... I have so much to show you.”

She smiles, twisting her elegant hands in her lap. “Draco, I will be there the moment you send for me.”

Just at that moment, Stanley succeeds in his attempt to climb onto Draco’s back and he tacks triumphantly, making Draco laugh, and when he does, his mother laughs, too. Draco ends the firecall with his head spinning and his heart full, shaking Stanley onto the rug and throwing him up into the air.

“You’re going to meet your grandmother,” he says, catching the beetle and holding him aloft. “Whether she likes it or not.”

**~*~**

Draco keeps his promise of an outing to Stanley, even when he turns the last corner into Hogsmeade and sees the last-Saturday-before-Christmas crowds and wishes he’d opted for a walk around the lake instead. He has a shopping list, and Stanley doesn’t seem fazed at all, so he supposes he can cope with sludgy streets and bustling old ladies for an hour or two. In the grocer’s shop, they buy biscuits, cheeses, and several different types of tea, then they head to Zonko’s, where Draco braves the hordes so that Stanley can try out and then choose a small treat. The item that seems to interest him most is a small rubber ball with a bell inside that changes colour each time it is touched, so Draco takes it from him and pays for it before tucking it away for Christmas morning.

He wanders into Dervish and Banges with the vague intention of finding a Christmas present for Harry, who has, in an impressive display of stealth, left a nicely-wrapped gift in Draco’s tea cupboard for him to find. On this front, he draws a blank, but he does stumble across a rather lovely pewter cauldron and hesitates for only a second or two before buying it for Poppy. He feels a bit silly as he walks out of the shop with the bulky parcel under his arm but he pushes the feeling away. Poppy is his friend now, and friends do not allow friends to invent wonderful healing potions in tatty old cauldrons like the one Poppy has in the corner of her office.

Secure in the knowledge that he is doing the right thing, Draco walks slowly up and down the high street and in and out of all the little alleyways and courtyards with Stanley splashing and kicking up slush at his side. He knows he needs to find something for Harry, and Hagrid, too, but nothing he can see seems quite right.

“I’m sure Ethel could make one just like that,” insists one old woman to another as they step out of the haberdashery and start hobbling in the direction of the tea shop.

“Ethel and whose army?” says the second, and they both laugh.

Curious, Draco pushes open the door to the haberdashery and walks into the small, brightly-lit shop that smells of fabric and glue and all manner of comforting things. The door closes softly and a bell tinkles, summoning a short lady with a kind smile from behind a mound of multicoloured balls of wool.

“Good morning,” she says, eyes widening as she notices Stanley. “What a very large beetle you have there.”

“He’s well-behaved,” Draco assures her, willing Stanley to be good.

“That’s more than I can say for some of my customers. How can I help you?”

Draco hesitates, aware that his reason for being in the shop is sketchy at best. Unfortunately, a better excuse does not seem to be forthcoming, so he offers the truth.

“I overheard the ladies that just left talking about something that would be difficult to make, and I was curious,” he admits.

“Even for Ethel?” the woman asks, eyes sparkling.

“Yes, that’s the one.”

She nods. “They were looking at this,” she says, picking up a thick bundle of fabric and shaking it out expertly over her measuring table.

It’s a quilt. Draco steps closer to examine the delicate pattern of patchwork pieces, every single one of them a different shade of green, brown, or blue. When viewed as one, they merge into a dreamy picture of earth, trees, and sky, but when examined closely, each contains its own arrangement of tiny glass beads, sewn-in ribbons and shimmering embroidery. The whole thing is chaotic and beautiful, and Draco knows instantly that Harry has to have it.

“It’s fantastic,” he says, looking back up at the woman. “I’ll take it.”

“Don’t you want to know how much it is?” she asks, amused.

Draco grimaces. “Not really.”

The woman shakes her head but quickly folds up the quilt and packs it into a string-handled bag.

Five minutes later, he and Stanley are heading to the Post Office with it, and Draco is relieved to realise that he has more than enough money left to post it to the Burrow and still have enough left until his next payday for essentials. As quilts go, the one he has just bought was a little on the expensive side, but Draco has spent twice as much in the past on a single shirt, and by that standard the quilt was quite a bargain. In the queue at the Post Office, he and Stanley stand behind a small boy who is clutching his mother’s hand and a somewhat raggedy stuffed dragon.

“Dragons,” he mumbles to himself. Doesn’t Hagrid like dragons?

Tack-tack-tack, says Stanley, playing with a bit of string he has found on the floor.

Filliminster Malfoy—Dragon Tamer Extraordinaire, he thinks, smiling at the memory of one of his favourite childhood books. He thinks he particularly liked it because it featured his father’s least favourite relative, but if he remembers correctly, it also has some rather spectacular photographs and illustrations, and his old copy is probably one of the only ones left in existence. He wonders.

Abandoning his place in the queue, he collects a piece of parchment and an envelope and dashes off a quick note to his mother, wishing her a happy Christmas and asking her to send on his copy of Dragon Tamer. Perhaps his gift for Hagrid is already sitting in the Malfoy library, gathering dust.

**~*~**

That night, he wraps the new cauldron in silver paper and waits until he knows Poppy has gone down to dinner to sneak up to the hospital wing and leave it on an empty bed. The next morning he opens his door to find her standing there, bundled up in coat, scarf and mittens, with a large rucksack strapped to her back and a broomstick under one arm.

“Going somewhere?” he jokes weakly.

“Home,” she says, smiling and indicating the broomstick. “My niece’s house is just about an hour’s ride away and I promised Rosa I’d take her carol singing tonight.”

Fighting to hide his surprise at the thought of Poppy on a broomstick, Draco just nods and says, “Give my regards to Rosa, won’t you?”

“I think she’d prefer a photo—she’s become rather a fan of late,” Poppy says, and before he can stop her, she produces a camera from nowhere and snaps a picture of him, in which he imagines he looks extremely startled.

“She must be a girl of very strange tastes,” Draco says.

Poppy laughs. “Perhaps. Thank you very much for the cauldron, Draco. It’s beautiful.”

Draco looks at the floor. “You’re welcome.”

“You really didn’t have to...”

“I wanted to,” he insists, meeting her eyes.

“Well, that’s fine. I wanted to give you this, though I’m afraid it isn’t as fancy as your gift,” she says, handing him a soft, loosely-wrapped package.

Astonished, he goes to pull at the ribbon but she stops him. “Save it for tomorrow.”

He shrugs and tucks the package under his arm. “Thank you.”

Poppy touches him gently on the arm and turns to leave. She hesitates, turning back to him in the middle of the corridor. “Draco?”

“Yes?”

“It’ll all work out, you know,” she says, and then she’s walking rapidly away, shoes squeaking against the stone floor.

Draco stares after her for long seconds and then retreats back into his living room, deciding that whatever she’s talking about, he’s just not going to think about it.

Unfortunately, putting Poppy’s parting words out of his mind proves to be an impossible task, and they dog Draco for the rest of the day, seeming to float around after him in the air, nudging gently at the back of his head every time he succeeds in forgetting them for more than a minute at a time. His dreams are full of knowing words that spill from teacups and cauldrons and out of the pages of books, sharp eyes and kind ones and green ones and the wrinkled hands of the woman in the haberdashery as she folds an ever-expanding quilt and laughs, demanding to know how he thought even for a moment that his feelings for Harry weren’t written through every part of him.

He wakes early on Christmas morning, startling Stanley as he throws back his winter quilt and stumbles to the window, yanking it open and gulping at the freezing cold air.

It’s just a dream; it’s nothing, he tells himself over and over, putting on the kettle and standing under the pounding hot water from the gargoyle until the panic abates and his begins to feel more like his usual idiotic self. When he really thinks about it, he supposes that it’s irrelevant what his friends and colleagues and acquaintances think; the only thing that matters is what Harry thinks.

He doesn’t want to know what Harry thinks, either, he realises, frowning and deciding to open Poppy’s present instead. The paper falls away easily and he laughs.

“Look, Stanley,” he says, holding up a brand new dressing gown, but Stanley is chasing his new toy around the floor and isn’t in the least bit interested. Draco examines the dressing gown at arm’s length, admiring the soft, forest green fabric and the way that the belt does not appear to have been used as a makeshift lead for an excitable beetle. Quietly delighted, he throws off his old robe and puts on the new one, tying the belt securely and settling into his chair, tea in hand, to observe Stanley’s attempts to retrieve his colour-changing ball from under the coffee table.

Before lunch, he takes Stanley for a walk around the lake, crunching over frosted grass and nudging the beetle away from the edge of the water with his foot every few strides.

“You can’t go in there,” he remonstrates, peering into the depths. “The giant squid is hibernating.”

On their way back to the castle, they call in at Hagrid’s hut and exchange gifts. His mother has come through for him in spectacular style, having decided to have the book carefully cleaned and restored to almost its original glory before sending it back to him with her most reliable owl, and Hagrid is thrilled with it, beaming as he turns the pages with the very tips of his fingers and marvelling at each of the pictures in turn.

“So, ’e’s a relative of yours, this Filliminster Malfoy?”

“My father’s great uncle, I think,” Draco says, watching Fang rise and sniff cautiously at Stanley’s shell. “I used to read it as a child and I thought you might like it, what with all the stories about dragons. It’s all true, supposedly, though Filliminster did have a reputation for embellishing his tales.”

Hagrid laughs. “Yeah, well, I suppose it takes a certain sort, don’t it? Look at that,” he breathes, gazing at a photograph that must have been very old even at the time of publication. “Welsh Ruby. Beautiful, isn’ she? Yeh don’t see them any more.”

“You like it?” Draco says uncertainly, and Hagrid just laughs louder.

“It’s wonderful. Thank you. I’ll keep it on an ’igh shelf, well out of the way of Fang’s big slobbery mouth,” he promises.

“That would probably be a good idea,” Draco says, glancing at Fang, who has lost interest in Stanley and is now gnawing on what looks like half a deer carcass. “What’s this?” he asks, turning back to Hagrid as something light and delicious-smelling is placed in his arms.

“Sorry it’s not wrapped—I only finished it this mornin’,” Hagrid says. He pulls at one of the many bands of supple leather and runs his thumb over several neatly carved letters. “It’s got ’is name on, see?”

Draco stares, completely staggered by his second gift of the day. Hagrid has made Stanley a new harness. The overall shape is almost identical to the string basket made by Draco, but every section is a strap of pliable, butter-soft brown leather, each about an inch wide and meeting in the centre with a solid brass ring, to which a matching lead has been attached.

Lost for words, Draco drops to the floor and frees Stanley from his string basket. Carefully, he lifts him into the new harness and fastens it.

“How did you get it to fit him so perfectly?” he asks, looking up at Hagrid, who is now beaming.

“I measured ’im one afternoon before class. He behaved so well for ’Arry, I thought it was worth a try.”

“Look at him—he loves it,” Draco laughs, straightening up and watching Stanley turn in gleeful circles.

“If yeh want to let him off for a bit, yeh don’t need to unstrap him,” Hagrid explains, buzzing with enthusiasm now. “Just unclip the lead from the ring, and away ’e goes.”

Draco looks up at the flushed, bristly face and smiles. “Thank you so much. Stanley is thrilled.”

Hagrid ducks his head and scrubs at his scruffy hair. “Well, it’s no bother... besides, we better get goin’ or we’ll be late for lunch.”

“We can’t have that,” Draco says with amusement as Hagrid puts on his coat and tucks the dragon book on top of a high cupboard.

“No, all the best crackers’ll be gone,” Hagrid says gravely, ushering them out onto the frosty grass and slamming the door of his hut. “It’s a very serious business.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of crackers left at the table when Draco and Hagrid arrive, and they pull several each before the turkey has even been carved. Draco wins some sparkling balloons from the third-year next to him, which he blows up and gives to Stanley to chase, and a tri-corn hat from Levinson, who is sitting on his other side. He puts it on before his student can say a word and exchanges amused glances with Hagrid, who is sitting opposite him and wearing what looks like a lime green mortarboard.

Draco counts fourteen people around the table, including Hagrid and himself. McGonagall is there, presiding over the meal with impressive gravitas considering that she is wearing a pirate’s eye patch, and Sprout, Flitwick and Filch are also in attendance, along with two Slytherin students, three Ravenclaws and a Hufflepuff. As they begin to eat, Draco is very aware of the presence of Mrs Norris and he is initially concerned for Stanley’s welfare, until she pelts out from under the table with the beetle in hot pursuit, much to the raucous amusement of Hagrid and the horror of Filch. Draco only waits a moment or two before pulling Stanley back, but Mrs Norris has had enough and refuses to come near the table for the rest of the afternoon.

Some hours later, Draco walks a slow, sauntering path back to his rooms, head full of laughter and warm words and limbs pleasantly heavy from three cups of mulled mead, which, he tells Stanley solemnly, is two more than he usually has at Christmas. Too relaxed to attempt anything vaguely strenuous, he unclips Stanley’s lead from his new harness and curls contentedly into his chair. Out of the corner of his eyes he can see Harry’s gift, just sitting there on the edge of the coffee table, and he supposes he’s going to have to open it some time.

Narrowing his eyes, he flicks his wand and the box travels unsteadily through the air before landing heavily in his lap. He pulls the tag from under the ribbon, stomach lurching as he reads Harry’s chicken-scratch handwriting.

For keeping track of the stars.

-       Harry

Draco holds his breath as he unwraps the box and gently withdraws the contents. It’s a telescope, shiny, copper, cold and heavy against his fingers. Harry has bought him a telescope. Overwhelmed, he cradles it against his chest, closes his eyes, and promptly falls asleep.

He wakes suddenly to the sound of knocking and almost drops the telescope on his foot.

“Go away,” he mumbles, easing the kinks out of his stiff neck and carefully depositing the telescope on the coffee table. His rooms are completely dark and he has no idea what time it is, but his head is hurting and his mouth is dry and he’s absolutely not in the mood for company.

“Draco!” the interloper calls, voice muffled by the heavy wood.

“Someone had better be dying,” he tells Stanley, and he crosses the floor and opens the door just as Harry is raising his fist to knock again. Inhaling sharply, Draco gazes at him in disbelief, taking in his weary expression, his cold-pinked skin and the snow in his hair.

“What on earth are you doing here?” he demands.

Harry fixes him with a look of pure exasperation. “Draco, it took me three jumps to get to Hogsmeade; when I got there it was blowing a fucking blizzard, I stepped in god-knows-how-many icy puddles on the way up here, I can’t feel my fingers or my nose, and Filch just yelled at me for tracking slush across the Entrance Hall, so could you please just let me in?”

Draco rubs his face and glances at his drawn curtains. “It’s snowing?”

“Draco,” Harry says rather insistently.

“Sorry.” Draco steps back to let him enter, thrilled and confused and terrified to see him all at once.

Stanley comes barrelling over to greet Harry and he smiles wearily, dropping his satchel on a chair and bending down to stroke the beetle, who is still strapped into his new leather harness.

“Don’t you look fancy?” he murmurs, holding out frozen fingers for Stanley to inspect.

Draco looks on, heart racing out of control. He doesn’t know why Harry is here or what he wants, but he is beginning to hope, and he doesn’t think he can stand it if his return means only that he is tired of the Weasleys already.

“Are you staying?” he asks stiffly.

Harry looks up. “I didn’t come all this way for a flying visit, if that’s what you mean.”

“Right. In that case, you need a shower and some dry clothes,” Draco says, clinging to practicality in the absence of certainty. He ignores Harry’s puzzled expression and stalks into his bedroom, pulling out comfortable trousers, a woollen sweater and a pair of warm socks. Pushing them into Harry’s hands, he points in the direction of the bathroom and then stands there expectantly, arms folded.

“I... alright,” Harry says, looking suspiciously like he’s trying not to smile.

When Draco hears the hiss of the shower, he goes to his cabinet and opens the bottle of Firewhisky sent by his mother. His hands shake as he pours out two measures and he fights to pull his breathing under control, lighting the fire and searching for a comfortable position in his chair.

“Your shower’s better than mine,” Harry tells him, emerging from the bathroom in a cloud of steam and rubbing at his hair with a towel.

Draco says nothing and holds out a heavy glass to him. Harry accepts it and curls up in the other armchair, tucking his legs around himself and pulling the sleeves of Draco’s sweater down over his hands. He looks clean and warm and he has, judging by the smell of the steam, used all of Draco’s shower products. Deciding not to think about the shower, Draco sips at his drink.

“Did you have a nice Christmas?” Harry asks politely.

“I did. I think my favourite part was finding out that Mrs Norris is frightened of Stanley,” Draco says.

Harry grins for a moment and then his face turns serious. “We should probably talk about why I’m here.”

Draco nods cautiously. “Alright.”

Harry rests his glass on his thigh and picks absently at the stitching of Draco’s trousers, as though he has forgotten already that they do not belong to him. “Now I’ve said that, I feel a bit daft about it. Oh well,” he sighs, flashing Draco a small, nervous smile. “It was great at the Burrow, you know. It always is.”

“I believe you,” Draco says, because he has no idea what else to say.

“The thing is... after we’d all had dinner and all the presents had been opened, everyone was just sitting around and drinking wine and listening to the wireless, and I started wondering what was going on back home,” Harry says, frowning at his glass. “It was as if almost everyone I wanted to be with was in that one room, but I couldn’t settle because I missed Hogwarts. I missed you.”

He looks up, meeting Draco’s eyes, and Draco grips his heavy glass tightly as everything inside him seems to rearrange itself. He takes a deep breath, falters, and tries again.

“I missed you, too,” he says, and Harry’s smile makes his heart skip.

“Well, here I am,” Harry says softly, draining his glass and blowing a gentle plume of smoke in the direction of Stanley, who is now sitting on the arm of his chair.

Draco smiles. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Good.”

“Now what?” Draco asks, thinking out loud and immediately wishing he hadn’t when Harry stretches and gazes intensely into him, green eyes glowing, because now he can’t breathe and he suspects that moving out of this chair is going to be an issue, too.

“I want to play a game.”

Draco lifts an alarmed eyebrow. “Such as?”

Harry laughs and the tension dissolves instantly. “I don’t mind, but it’s Christmas day and we should be playing a game. Nobody at the Burrow could agree on what to play, so we didn’t play anything, and when I was walking through Hogsmeade I looked in people’s windows and nearly every one of them had Trivial Pursuit out, or Monopoly, or Gobstones, or...”

“I see,” Draco says, unsure whether he’s relieved or disappointed. “I’m afraid I don’t have any games. Here’s a thought, though: there aren’t any Gryffindor students staying this year. You could go and raid the games cupboard in their common room.”

“Why me?” Harry challenges.

“Because you’re a Gryffindor, of course.”

“Yeah, and technically, you are still head of Gryffindor,” Harry points out.

Draco tries his best but he fails to come up with a decent counter-argument, so, in an attempt at compromise, they both slip out into the dark castle and walk as quietly as they can along the corridors and up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower.

“Shh,” Harry whispers as the sound of Filch’s voice drifts along the corridor at the top of the steps.

Draco freezes instinctively. “I didn’t say anything,” he whispers back.

“No, but you were going to,” Harry insists, grabbing his wrist and pulling him into an alcove.

“What are we hiding from?” Draco hisses, fingers brushing against Harry’s.

“Filch!”

“Why?”

Harry grins, shrugs and glances out into the corridor.

Draco stares at his profile from only inches away, breathing him in with every ragged inhalation.

“I think it’s safe now,” Harry whispers, and they creep back out into the corridor, jumping over the creaky sections of floor and grinning with the stupid exhilaration of sneaking around the castle in the dark for no good reason.

“Password?” demands the Fat Lady, looking down at them with a slightly wobbly expression.

“I don’t know what it is,” Harry whispers, eyes wide.

“Why are we still whispering?” Draco asks, also whispering. “It’s ‘Bowtruckle’.”

Harry snorts and heaves himself stiffly through the portrait hole as soon as the Fat Lady allows him. Draco follows, lighting his wand to navigate the darkened common room and then to illuminate the jumble of games they find in the tall cupboard by the fireplace.

“What shall we get?” Harry whispers, eyes bright in the darkness.

“I don’t know,” Draco says. “Stop whispering.”

“I can’t,” Harry insists, leaning against Draco for a moment and stifling a snort of laughter.

Amused, Draco presses his lips together and gazes into the cupboard, casting his eyes over the brightly coloured boxes and pretending that Harry isn’t shaking with silent mirth next to him.

“What do you want, then? Gobstones? Serpents and Broomsticks? Ker-plunk, whatever that is?”

Harry thinks for a moment and then reaches for a carved wooden box. “Chess,” he says triumphantly.

“Chess? You have all of these games to choose from and you want to play chess?” Draco demands.

“Why not? It’s a man’s game,” Harry says, deepening his voice and drawing down his eyebrows.

Draco laughs. “If you say so.”

“I do. I’m not very good, but I’m sure you can teach me,” Harry appeals.

“Harry, I am terrible at chess. You must know that.”

“Are you sure?” Harry whispers.

“Yes,” Draco whispers back. “I must have told you that before.”

“Nope. It must be one of the very few things you haven’t told me,” Harry says, grinning and dashing for the portrait hole with the box under his arm.

“Don’t be rude!” Draco calls, scrambling after him.

Harry turns, pressing one finger to his lips. “Shh.”

**~*~**

Once safely back in Draco’s rooms, they set up the board on the coffee table and pull their armchairs close to play. It quickly becomes apparent that Harry’s aptitude for the game is as limited as Draco’s but that doesn’t seem to restrict his enthusiasm for smashing Draco’s pieces or trying to sneak in illegal moves while Draco is fetching drinks or paying attention to Stanley.

“Put my knight back immediately,” Draco demands, leaning over and tapping Harry’s hand, in which he can see his little black mounted figure struggling to be released.

“I’m just borrowing him,” Harry says, wiping biscuit crumbs from his mouth with the other hand.

“Harry, I can see that you’re trying to convince my king to forfeit, and I won’t stand for it. This is terribly un-Gryffindor of you,” Draco points out.

Harry’s eyes sparkle. “I’m having a night off. It’s Christmas.”

“Not any more it’s not,” Draco says, glancing at the clock on the mantel.

Harry looks, too. With a weary sigh, he releases Draco’s knight and rubs at his eyes beneath his glasses. The knight looks up at him indignantly and urges his tiny horse back onto the board.

“I didn’t realise it was so late. No wonder I’m exhausted.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “So, it has nothing to do with all that long-distance Apparating and stomping up here from Hogsmeade through a blizzard?”

Harry yawns. “Shut up. I’m going to get some sleep,” he says, standing up and stretching. “I left my quilt at the Burrow—didn’t want it to get damaged. It’s brilliant, though, thank you.”

“Never mind that,” Draco says, frowning. “You can’t go back to your rooms.”

Harry shoots him a lazy smile. “Oh? Why not?”

Something flickers in the pit of Draco’s stomach but he ignores it. “The house-elves thought you’d be gone until the start of term, that’s why. Your bed will be stripped, there won’t be a fire, and the whole place will be freezing,” he says, getting to his feet and levelling a challenging stare at Harry. “We could ask them to sort it out now, I suppose, but it is Christmas and it is two o’clock in the morning...”

“Okay, okay,” Harry agrees, lifting his hands in surrender. “Where do you want me to sleep?”

“In the bed,” Draco says with some effort.

“And where will you sleep?”

Draco groans inwardly. “Here,” he says, indicating his corduroy armchair.

“You can’t sleep in a chair,” Harry insists, folding his arms.

“This chair and I have a very special relationship,” Draco says firmly. “I’ll be fine.”

Before Harry has a chance to argue any more, he stalks into the bedroom, pulls out a pair of pyjamas for Harry to borrow, collects the bits and pieces he needs, and makes himself a rather comfortable temporary bed from his armchair, two pillows, a blanket and a sleepy Stanley.

Harry leaves the door open a crack and Draco finds himself comforted by the sounds of rustling and steady breathing as he settles down to sleep.

“Harry?” he calls after a minute or two.

“Mm?”

“I called my mother. She’s coming to visit.”

There’s a pause and a rustle and then: “Now?”

Draco smiles against his pillow. “No, not now.”

“Okay.”

“Thank you for my telescope.”

“Good,” Harry mumbles sleepily. “It’ll be useful for looking at... things.”

“Things,” Draco repeats, allowing his breathing to fall into rhythm with the restful vibration of Stanley’s abdomen, letting his thoughts drop away one by one until nothing remains but Harry.

**~*~**

When he opens his eyes, the room is flooded with ghostly white light and his hands and feet are numb with cold. He stretches, grimacing at the stiffness in his neck and peers down at the floor, where Stanley has managed to drag most of his blanket into a makeshift nest.

“Well, I’m glad you’re comfortable,” Draco mutters, just about resisting the temptation to prod the sleeping beetle with his foot. Instead, he lights the fire and goes over to the window, eyes narrowed against the morning sun and the dazzling whiteness that covers everything in sight.

Before long, his eyes flit to the bedroom door and he creeps, vibrating with sharp, sweet anticipation, to look through the crack and reassure himself that Harry is still there. He is, of course, and he seems to be sleeping peacefully sprawled out on his stomach in the middle of Draco’s bed with Draco’s winter quilt pulled right up to his chin. Draco smiles and bites his lip, pressing his fingers firmly against the doorframe as though to somehow affirm the fact that this is really happening.

And something is definitely happening, he tells himself, walking through the silent castle in pyjamas and dressing gown to collect fresh bread and butter from the kitchens for breakfast. Harry came back because he missed him, and if that wasn’t enough to wash away his denial, the look of easy pleasure in Harry’s eyes when he stirs awake to see Draco sitting on his bed definitely is.

“Good morning,” he says, looking down at the messy dark hair against his crisp white pillows and the strong, bare shoulders that make him wonder, with a ripple of interest, if Harry has decided to boycott pyjamas as he once threatened. “There’s breakfast in the living room if you want it.”

Harry gazes up at him for a long, warm moment and then throws back the covers, sitting up and revealing that has opted to wear the stripy flannel trouser section of the pyjamas.

“Fantastic, I’m starving,” he sighs, pushing off the bed and stretching languorously until the loose-fitting trousers slip to rest dangerously on his hips in a way that makes Draco quite incapable of thinking about anything else for a good few seconds. “Are you coming?” Harry asks, voice light with amusement, and Draco snaps back to himself just in time to see Harry walking out of the room.

Rattled, he follows him, and they eat breakfast in front of the fire in near-silence.

“So, what would you usually do at this point?” Harry says, returning to the hearth with two cups of tea and a handful of leaves for Stanley.

“I don’t think there’s anything usual about this,” Draco points out.

Harry smiles, and good grief, it’s just too much. And not enough. Draco sighs.

“I came back to spend time with you, Draco, not to completely destroy your plans.”

Destroy them, Draco thinks feverishly. Instead, he grips his hot cup and says: “My plans were not very exciting, I promise you.”

“I don’t know,” Harry shrugs, and something in his face makes Draco think he’s trying to tease him, trying to push him, and it’s confusing and thrilling, waking long-forgotten parts of him and making them crackle into life. “It wouldn’t hurt me to do some reading, and I’m sure you mentioned a walk around the lake; that sounds good.”

“There’s a good chance we’d sink into the snow and never be seen again,” Draco says.

“I’m prepared to take the risk,” Harry shoots back, suddenly all challenge.

“Fine,” Draco says, finishing his tea a little too quickly and getting to his feet.

“Good,” Harry says with equal defiance, scrambling out of his chair too, and suddenly they are standing just inches apart. Draco is close enough to see the flecks of gold in Harry’s eyes, to count his rapid breaths, to reach out and thread their fingers together, but he does nothing. It’s all there; all of the fear and insecurity has been for nothing because now he knows it’s for him; he just has to lean in and break the flimsy barrier that is keeping them apart.

He steps back, smiling weakly and loathing himself. “Let me know if you need to borrow any more clothes,” he says, walking into the bedroom and giving his reflection in the mirror a filthy look.

“Okay,” Harry calls, and the uncertainty in his voice makes Draco ache.

Deciding the snow drifts will be a little too much for Stanley, Harry and Draco dress warmly and walk down to the lake without him, stepping carefully and leaving deep, uneven impressions behind them. The world is soft and muffled and beautiful, making every word seem so loud that their conversation fades to nothing well before they reach the lake. Draco just watches Harry instead, tracking his movements out of the corner of his eye and willing himself to do something, even if it’s just reaching out and grabbing Harry’s gloved hand in his, but Draco’s hands remain stubbornly in his pockets.

The lake is still. Some sections have even frozen into floating sheets of ice, and Harry crouches by the edge of the water, pulling off one glove with his teeth and skating his fingers over the rippled, glassy surface. Gently, he presses down against one edge of the ice and smiles as the whole thing bobs and submerges his fingertips and Draco really does love him. He stands back, several feet from the edge, tucking his cold nose into his scarf and watching Harry until every part of him sings and hurts with the ridiculous inevitability of it all.

“I bet I could walk on that if I was really careful,” Harry says, turning to look at Draco and then straightening up, laughing. “I’m not going to, don’t worry.”

“Good,” Draco says nonchalantly as they head back in the direction of the castle. “Because I won’t be held responsible if you fall in and the giant squid eats you.”

“He wouldn’t. We’re friends.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Draco admits.

Back in the living room, they shed their damp outer clothes, stoke the fire and settle down to thaw their cold-bitten extremities in front of the flames. Harry insists that now they have walked around the lake, it must be reading time, and before Draco can say a word he has reached into his satchel, pulled out a copy of ‘Journeys in Wandlore’ and disappeared behind it.

After a moment, Draco sighs and picks up the book on the top of his ‘unread’ stack. It’s probably a very interesting book; it certainly has some rather vivid illustrations of spells gone awry, but Draco just can’t concentrate. It could be because his head is full of things that have absolutely nothing to do with reading, but equally, it could be because Harry is one of those people who cannot just sit and read quietly to himself. Every few minutes he has to alter his position or sigh and when he’s not doing that, he’s asking Draco a series of increasingly bizarre questions.

“What does ‘puissant’ mean?”

Draco looks up. “I’m not sure. Why don’t you go and look it up in your gigantic dictionary?”

Harry wrinkles his nose. “It’s a long way and I’m cold, so I thought I’d ask you. Never mind, I’ll just make up what I think it means.”

Baffled, Draco returns to his vague examination of his book’s illustrations.

“You know, I used to wonder why you always smelled of mint,” he says after a minute or two, and this time when Draco looks up, he is leaning over the arm of his chair and teasing Stanley with a dangling leaf.

“Now you know,” Draco says faintly, watching Stanley jump and finally wrest the leaf from Harry’s hand.

“Mm,” Harry agrees, flicking over a page.

Draco tucks up his feet and leans in to inspect a particularly gruesome picture of a witch with four extra arms growing out of her back. Harry taps his fingers on his book. Draco ignores him.

“I’ve had a thought.”

Draco lifts his head slowly. “Are you sure?”

“Draco,” Harry says, closing his book with an odd little smile, “are you cross because you haven’t had a cup of tea in the last ten minutes? Because I can make tea if that would help.”

Draco closes his eyes and suppresses a low growl. “No, but I’ll have one if you’re offering.”

“Right then,” Harry says, getting up and clanking around behind Draco with spoons and cups and water. “My thought was this, by the way, and you can tell me to bugger off and do my job if you want me to, but I was wondering if you wanted to carry on with some of the stuff you’ve been doing—I don’t mean all of it, obviously, but I thought maybe we could run the Duelling Club together and you could hang onto those extra flying lessons because those kids really seem to respond to you, and... clearly I’m waffling now, so... I’ll stop.”

Draco listens to the whistling of the kettle for several seconds before twisting around in his chair to face Harry. “Do you really think so?”

Harry shrugs. “Yeah, I do. You’ll still have loads more time than you did this term, and I started to get the feeling that you were actually enjoying those things in the end. And plus—”

“You don’t have to talk me into it,” Draco says, already beginning to plan his next lessons with Winston and Surya. They won’t always need him, he knows that, but there will be other students, each with their own unique problems, and he’s looking forward to meeting them.

“I didn’t think you wouldn’t want to do it,” Harry admits, poking at the teapot and releasing the fragrant steam into the room. “I thought you might be more stubborn about it, though. You seem to have a knack for denying yourself things.”

Draco’s stomach lurches. “Such as?”

Harry just shakes his head and attends to the tea. Five minutes later, they are both buried in their books once more, cups of tea at their sides, and not a word has been spoken. No longer even vaguely diverted by the contents of his book, Draco has taken to darting covert glances at Harry and gnawing anxiously on his bottom lip. Despite the frown of concentration on his face, Harry doesn’t seem to have turned a page in a very long time. The mantel clock’s gentle ticking suddenly seems obnoxiously loud in Draco’s ears and the longing that has been seeping through his veins since Harry turned up at his door is now threatening to overflow and flood every part of him.

He breathes, slowly and carefully, searching for a word on the page that he can cling to, but not a single one of them makes sense. Somewhere near his feet, Stanley patters around. The wind swirls around the castle. Harry snaps his book shut with a thud.

“That’s it.”

Draco jumps. He sets his book on the arm of his chair. “What?”

Harry exhales raggedly, hands pressed to his face, and then gets to his feet. Draco stands, too, unsure why he needs to mirror Harry’s posture, only that he does.

There’s an oddly pained sort of smile on Harry’s face as he meets Draco’s eyes. “I thought I learned so much patience while I was under that spell,” he says quietly. “I did... actually, I did. But you know what? I don’t think I can deal with another second of this.”

Draco catches his breath, realising that they are, once again, just inches apart. He is all ready to say ‘what exactly do you mean by this?’ but instead he says: “Neither can I.”

Harry’s eyes darken and he’s leaning closer, Draco’s fingers are grazing his belt loops, his warm skin, and it’s happening, it’s just a brush of lips and then...

TACK-TACK-TACK-TACK! Stanley clicks loudly and they pull apart to see him capering around their feet, antennae waving, apparently delighted with the situation.

Harry sighs, but he’s smiling as Draco leans shakily against him and mumbles, “I’m going to have that beetle fed to the giant squid.”

“Poor Stanley,” Harry says, pressing a kiss to Draco’s neck and leaning down to fuss Stanley.

“Do you want to go into the other room?” Draco asks, hoping he doesn’t sound too desperate.

“Yes, please.”

“Come on,” Draco says, heart hammering as Harry follows him into the bedroom and locks the door behind them.

“That wasn’t exactly how I imagined things to go, just so you know,” Harry says, resting his forehead against Draco’s and lacing their fingers together.

“I’m relieved,” Draco murmurs, allowing himself to breathe easily now that the painful tension has been banished and replaced by a warm, gentle ache that seems to want nothing more than this, everywhere and all over until it burns slowly right through him.

“Maybe I should’ve seen it coming,” Harry says, pulling back slightly so that Draco can see the vulnerability and slight embarrassment on his face. “Realising how much you loved Stanley was sort of what made me start falling in love with you in the first place.”

“Oh,” Draco manages, throat tight, and then he’s kissing Harry and everything is easy.

For long seconds they stand there, clinging to each other, pouring out hours and weeks and months of tightly-kept longing into the meeting of warm mouths, gentle, tracing tongues, fingers threaded into hair and whispers that no longer need to make sense. None of the waiting matters now because this is everything and it is Harry and Draco is on fire.

Gaining in confidence as Harry pulls their hips tight together and groans at the friction, Draco draws him down onto the bed, falling onto his back and tugging Harry down until he is sprawling over Draco, one hand cupping his face and the other curled into the quilt beneath him.

“Are you okay?” Draco whispers, vaguely aware that he needs to make sure Harry isn’t in pain now before he completely loses himself to the warm mouth on his throat and the weight of Harry all over him and the friction of Harry’s denim-covered erection against his own.

“I think so,” Harry says, mumbling into his neck and pushing against him with such slow intention that Draco can’t help groaning out loud.

“I think so, too,” he says after a moment, gasping slightly, and perhaps he’s just saying words, but he doesn’t care. The only things that matter are Harry’s mouth and the wave of pure relief in his stomach and the fact that Harry is kneeling unsteadily on the bed and tugging his jumper over his head, and Draco can touch him at last, tracing fingertips over smooth, warm skin and pulling at his own shirt, wanting to do everything at once and yet wanting to make it last as long as possible.

Harry helps, removing Draco’s shirt and exploring every inch of exposed skin with careful hands and slow kisses. No one has ever touched him like this, but now that Harry is doing it, Draco doesn’t know how he could have thought it would be any other way. Their movements are languid, aching, rising and falling together as jeans and trousers and woollen socks are kicked to the floor and they push, arch, gasp against each other, until the only words are ‘please’ and ‘yes’ and ‘thank god’ and Draco is inside Harry, holding his hips as he leans down, green eyes alight beneath damp dark hair, rising and sinking down with beautiful, maddening control. Draco touches him, hearing his whimper, feeling his blunt nails scraping his chest, watching his head tip back and staring, dry-mouthed, at his exposed throat.

“Yes,” Draco whispers, sliding his hand firmly over desperate, slippery hardness and letting out a short, harsh breath as he feels the scorch of arousal pull tight in the pit of his stomach.

Harry looks down at him, flushed and open, smiles breathlessly and spills hotly all over Draco’s hand without ever looking away from his eyes. Draco stares back, groans softly and pulls Harry down into a messy kiss as his release rushes through his body.

Silence once more falls over the bedroom as they lie tangled and sticky. Outside, the snow is now coming down in soft, thick flakes and Draco idly watches them swirl past the window as he strokes Harry’s back and wonders how on earth he managed to wait thirty-two years for this to happen.

Harry draws in a deep breath and releases it against Draco’s chest. “Well,” he mumbles. “Thank fuck for that.”

Draco laughs and Harry lifts his head to look at him, glasses askew and smile crooked.

“Am I to assume that now you’ve had what you wanted, you’re going to leave me broken-hearted?” Draco asks, arching an eyebrow.

“Of course not,” Harry says, pretending offence. “There’s loads more I want yet. It could take years.”

“As long as you let me know when you’re bored,” Draco says, carefully running his thumb along Harry’s bitten bottom lip.

Harry nods. “I’m cold.”

“That’s because we’re on top of the quilt instead of under it,” Draco says and yawns.

“Are afternoon naps part of your Christmas routine?” Harry asks hopefully, scrambling to his knees and then under the quilt as he catches the yawn.

Draco doesn’t reply, but he crawls under the quilt too and tangles himself easily with Harry.

“I do love you, you know,” he mumbles, taking off Harry’s glasses and placing them on his bedside table. “You daft bugger.”

“Yes,” Harry says sleepily, and seconds later, he’s snoring.

“How the fuck do you do that?” Draco demands, watching him with exasperated curiosity for a moment or two before deciding to take advantage of the situation and pressing his cold back into Harry’s warm chest. Harry mumbles to himself and slides an arm around Draco’s waist, pulling him closer. Draco hides a smile in his pillow and watches the snowflakes until he falls asleep.

**~*~**

They rise after sunset, relaxed and ravenous, and Draco graciously allows Harry to use the shower first while he takes the opportunity to raid the kitchens. They could, of course, walk down to the Great Hall and see what the house-elves have provided for the remaining staff and students, but Draco is reluctant, feeling as though taking part in the normal Hogwarts routine will somehow pop the astonishingly happy little bubble in which he currently finds himself.

The house-elves are happy to provide all the necessary ingredients for a cobbled-together sort of picnic dinner; even Kreacher, who has been in a strange mood with Draco since the treacle tart incident, seems oddly enthusiastic to help, adding a huge chunk of smoked gammon to the pile in Draco’s arms just as he goes to leave.

“I have food,” he calls, piling the provisions onto the coffee table.

Harry does not reply, but the hiss of the shower is almost deafening and Draco is quite sure he’s still there. He hums to himself as he collects plates and cutlery, realising as he does that he has accidentally put on Harry’s jumper instead of his own. Glancing around, he sniffs at the sleeve and smiles.

The knock at the door is an unfamiliar one but he goes to open it straight away in the hope that he can deal with whoever it is before Harry finishes his shower and eats all the food. In all likelihood, it’s just Hagrid, trying out a less destructive knocking style.

“Hello,” he says, opening the door and freezing.

“There really is no need for you to look so horrified every time you see me, Professor Malfoy,” McGonagall says wearily. “I merely wondered if you had seen Harry.”

“Harry?” Draco repeats, forcing himself to keep his eyes on McGonagall rather than drawing attention to the sound of the shower by looking at the bathroom door.

“Yes,” she says, giving him a sharp look. “You know him—green eyes, glasses, about five foot ten?”

“Yes, I was just—”

“Mr Filch informs me that he returned to the castle last night,” she interrupts. “I have not seen him since, he is not in his rooms, and I would just like to know that he’s alright.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Draco says, just as the bathroom door swings open and Harry emerges. Both Draco and McGonagall turn to look at him as he wanders into the living room in cloud of steam and a bathrobe, happily oblivious to the eyes fixed upon him.

“Draco, did you ask for some... Professor McGonagall,” he finishes weakly, turning to see them both standing in the doorway.

“Well,” she says after a moment, one eyebrow flickering. “There you are.”

“I was just... having a shower,” Harry says redundantly, and there’s something about his expression that makes Draco want to smile, even in the midst of his panic that he’s about to lose his job. Again.

“Yes, I can see that,” she says drily. “In future, I would appreciate it if you would inform me when you change your plans. Mr Filch has been quite concerned for your safety.”

Harry’s eyes flick to Draco. This time he does smile and has to fake a cough to hide it.

“Well, that’s... I’m very sorry,” Harry says solemnly.

McGonagall regards him sternly, lips pursed. “Yes, well. I was going to ask you if anything was the matter, but I think I rather have my answer, don’t I?” she says, turning on Draco and making him wonder for a moment if he’d actually rather lose his job than suffer the horribly knowing glint in her eyes for another second.

“There’s nothing to worry about, Professor McGonagall,” Harry says suddenly and she turns back to him with an amused smile.

“It hadn’t occurred to me to do so,” she says, nodding to each of them in turn and then stalking away. “Goodnight, gentlemen.”

**~*~**

“For a minute there I actually thought I was going to die of embarrassment,” Harry says, huddling closer to Draco under the blanket they have brought along in their attempt to make the top of the Astronomy Tower a more hospitable place to be on a winter’s night. The snow has stopped and the sky is surprisingly clear as Draco calibrates his new telescope and tries to hold onto Stanley at the same time.

“I think I still might,” Draco admits. “It’s not as though I can avoid seeing her again for the rest of my life, is it?”

“Here, give him to me,” Harry says, taking Stanley and tucking him under the blanket so that only his antennae are still poking out. “He might keep me warm. I suppose we could run away and find somewhere else to work.”

“Who else would have us?” Draco wonders, looking up at the glittering carpet of stars and then looking at the same patch of sky through his telescope. He sighs contentedly, seeking out constellations and listening to the gentle, fidgety sounds of his two companions.

“I suppose we’d better stay put,” Harry says after a while, and Draco doesn’t think he sounds too disappointed about it.

“She didn’t seem all that surprised, did she?” Draco says, twiddling a dial on his telescope in order to bring an unfamiliar star into clearer focus.

Harry just shuffles closer and smiles against Draco’s coat, breath warming his skin through several layers of fabric. He rests his telescope on his knees and exhales slowly, watching the white plume feather and dissipate into the night sky. Stanley tacks softly and turns in circles on Harry’s lap.

“I wonder how many stories I owe you.”

“Enough to keep us going for a long time, I expect,” Draco says, picking up his telescope again.

“Hmm,” Harry mumbles, and then, brightening: “Do you remember the German guy with the market stall?”

“Yes?”

“Well, after he sacked me, I found out who really was stealing tomatoes...”

**~*~**

Wednesday 2nd January, 2013

The Great Hall is once more full of laughter and chatter and life as the students pile in and rush to their house tables in anticipation of the start-of-term feast, and Draco thinks he may have missed them after all. He straightens his knife and fork and glances down the table at Poppy and Hagrid and then at McGonagall, who is sitting in the chair next to him and gazing beadily over at the main doors, where Harry and all the other heads of houses are standing, welcoming the students and counting them back in from the train.

Harry looks relaxed and happy, dressed in one of Draco’s new jumpers and his formal black teaching robes, but there is another reason that Draco is having a hard time looking away from him. Harry’s eyebrows have been spelled a determined dark green—one might say Slytherin green, but Draco would say nothing, because he had cast the spell as a joke, not realising that Harry would insist on leaving it in place for the entire rest of the day.

McGonagall lets out a small sigh. “It’s just going to be a different kind of trouble from you two, isn’t it?”

Draco hides a smile in his water goblet. “Probably.”

McGonagall shakes her head. “Oh, well,” she says with a philosophical sigh. “He that would eat the fruit must climb the tree.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” he says, directing his bewildered frown at his plate.

“Do you think anybody’s noticed?” Harry asks, taking his seat next to Draco.

McGonagall shoots him a weary look before getting to her feet. The room falls silent and she smiles.

“Let us begin.”

~END~

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