The Fall of the House of Evans - fencer_x - Harry Potter (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

The Fall of the House of Evans - fencer_x - Harry Potter (1)
Cover Art lovingly drawn by @muraeaka on Twitter

“You really should have worn your dress robes. It’s poor form to meet the Deputy Headmistress looking like you just rolled out of bed.”

Harry Evans finished off his pumpkin juice in one great gulp, head tilted back and mug perfectly angled to keep his father from catching him rolling his eyes. He reached for his napkin, dabbing at his lips, and was saved from saying something that would probably have earned him a stern look and an even sterner talking to by the timely arrival of one of their erstwhile innkeeps bearing a freshly charmed pot of tea. Harry hadn’t yet learned to love the stuff like it seemed everyone here did and was clinging with all his might to the comfort blanket that was a tall glass of pulpy, orange goodness to start the morning off right.

Remus eased aside the platter of toasted English muffins and placed the pot next to it, crooking a finger to beckon the sugar bowl and several tea cups to float themselves over from the cabinet. “Don’t be daft, Sev—no one wears dress robes to get Sorted.”

Severus Evans snatched a straggling tea cup from the air before it could join its companions on the platter Remus had prepared, reaching for the teapot. “Quite right, they wear school robes—which we might have had occasion to purchase in advance had someone not been two hours late picking us up from the Portkey Authority!” This last bit he practically bellowed in the direction of the hob, where Remus’s partner Sirius was presently babysitting a tart on Remus’s orders and was not to take his eyes off of it.

Listen,” Sirius called back, “they changed your arrival point three times. It’s suddenly my fault the Ministry couldn’t find its own head if it was shoved up its arse? And anyway, if you were so fussed about the time, the Knight Bus was right there.”

“And there it was going to stay, because we weren’t going to let our dear companions wander around London all by their lonesome, now were we, Darling?” Remus smiled, all teeth, and Sirius wrinkled his nose. Remus turned back to them. “There’s no need for nerves,” he said, facing Harry but feeling like he was speaking to his father. “It’s just a quick bit of business, and then you can get on with what really matters.”

“Absolutely gutting Diagon of anything and everything red and gold and lion-themed!” Sirius crowed, and Remus rolled his eyes, adding with a meaningful look, “Getting excited for your first day of school.”

Harry ducked his head, feeling just the tiniest bit silly—after all, he was sixteen, not six, and while it was kind of sweet how everyone was so thrilled he was finally going to get the authentic Hogwarts experience his parents and their friends had enjoyed, he himself was honestly of two minds about the whole matter.

After all, he’d never been to school before. Not a proper one, at least. Far too dangerous, his father had said when the subject of Ilvermorny had been proposed, You’ll receive a perfectly adequate education here at home.

And he had, Harry thought, received a perfectly adequate education—his Brutally Exhausting Arcanum Review grades attested to this. Really, he couldn’t imagine any traditional schoolwork being tougher to get through than the assignments his father had set him. He could brew Pepper-up with his eyes closed, Banish a Boggart without breaking a sweat, and manhandle a Mandrake with one hand tied behind his back.

If Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry gave him half as much trouble as Severus Evans’s School for Boys Who Lived had, he’d count his blessings. At least the professors here weren’t liable to force him to talk through his Patronus for a week if he swished when he should have flicked in a Charms lesson.

Severus opened his mouth, likely to insist Harry make his way back upstairs and sort through his trunk for the set of dress robes he’d only had occasion to wear once before (the bat mitzvah of the daughter of a regular shop customer, attended under a Glamour so heavy Harry hadn’t looked quite himself for a week after) when the doorbell to Number 12 gave an ominous clang, announcing a new arrival.

“I’ll get it!” Sirius called—but he was waylaid by Remus, waving him back.

“The hell you will, you’re on tart duty—I won’t see my hard work burned just so you and James can get a headstart on behaving like twelve-year-olds.”

“How do you know it’s James?” Sirius grumbled, shuffling back to his position in front of the oven, when the doorbell began to clang again—and again and again and again at a rapid-fire pace. Remus only crossed his arms, lifted a brow in Sirius’s direction, then headed up the stairs for the entryway.

“Still his doormat, even after all these years? I distinctly recall the Hat saying something about Gryffindors being brave of heart?”

Sirius threw Severus a dark look, showed him a couple of fingers before stowing them in a pair of oversized oven mitts, and snarled, “f*ck off."

Language,” Severus chided as he took a careful sip of his tea, and Harry didn’t miss the way his lips curled in amusem*nt around the rim. It was odd, really, seeing his father in a rare good mood. Smiling. He wasn’t a terribly dour sort on most occasions, but he was generally pretty serious. Maybe this move would wind up being good for him. Reconnecting with old friends—maybe meeting new ones. Yeah. It might not be so bad.

Of course, whether or not it would be ‘not so bad’ for Harry was another matter entirely.

It was only, this was a lot of ‘new’ in a short span of time.

When his father had sat down at breakfast two months ago and informed Harry that they would be moving from their cosy little apartment in San Francisco all the way to England, where Harry would at summer’s end go on to attend his parents’ alma mater for the next year despite having been home-schooled his entire life, he’d nearly choked on his toast. After all, there was a reason Harry had grown up soaking in the California sunshine and not under the perpetually grey skies of the British Isles, and he’d been under the impression, courtesy of his father’s paranoia, that daring to tread on these shores would be tantamount to suicide.

But when he’d brought up these concerns, Severus had been uncharacteristically curt in his response, noting only that new regulations set down by the British Ministry of Magic meant that all native-born witches and wizards of the United Kingdom were required to complete at least one year of schooling locally or risk losing their privilege to practise magic. That sounded like a crock to Harry, but his father remained adamant that there was nothing to be done about the matter. “Circ*mstances have flown beyond our control, and we’re obliged to make this journey. We will go, because we must, but we will not be stupid about it, we will not be naïve about it, and we will not be caught off our guard, am I understood?”

And Harry, who had spent fifteen years living under the same roof as Severus Evans, was anything but stupid, naïve, or liable to be caught off his guard. His father had ensured as such, after all. When you had a magical, murderous madman after your head—even if he had been brought low and run to ground ages back—a healthy amount of paranoia was kind of a necessity. He’d heard every gory detail of Voldemort’s rise and subsequent fall since he’d been old enough to actually comprehend the gravity of what had happened, like the world’s most depressing bedtime story, and Severus had taken every conceivable measure to ensure that he would not lose his son as he had his wife.

For Harry, though, it was all kind of a distant, dull ache. He’d heard the story so many times over, he could practically recite it rote, yet stepping out of the Portkey Authority into the terminal of the British Ministry of Magic and seeing everything seem so…well, normal—it was kind of difficult to credit it. His father’s dire words and penchant for privacy seemed now less like sage advice Harry ought to make his own and more mild psychosis brought about by a decade-and-a-half spent living in secret, apart from most of the magical world at large and tucked away under countless Glamours and carefully cast Notice-me-nots and two different Fideliuses.

Lily Evans had surely been a wonderful person, but his father never wanted to talk about her and kept all memory of her close to his heart, warded against even his own son who really would have liked to have known, well, anything about her beyond her name, that she’d had green eyes like Harry’s and hair of deep auburn, and that her Patronus had been a doe. As it was, he counted himself lucky to know that much.

She was too much a mystery to him for him to miss her very much, so he was content to sit here in the kitchen of Number 12 Grimmauld Place, wolfing down his breakfast and awaiting his fate.

For today, he was to be Sorted.

Now, honestly, Harry didn’t really understand what that meant. He heard the capital-S when his father and these fine folks he had been informed were his godparents said the word, but whenever he asked what Sorting actually involved, no one seemed able to give him a straight answer.

“You learn who your peers will be,” his father had said, and, “You learn who your friends will be,” Sirius had said, and “You learn who you’ll be,” Remus had said, and honestly, it all sounded a bit too precious for his taste. They all of them spoke of Hogwarts with this wistful gleam in their eye, like they really truly envied him about to strut through those evidently hallowed halls, and Harry supposed it was just something you had to experience first-hand to truly understand.

And that time was nearly nigh. In fact, glancing at the clock hanging over the mantel, it was fifteen minutes to nigh.

“I haven’t missed it, have I?” James Potter came scrambling into the kitchen like a tornado, hair askew and glasses askewer, and his prominent grin widened when he caught sight of Harry and Severus. “Wotcher, Harry.”

“Woh-ah,” Harry said around a mouthful. He didn’t know half the slang these folks used, his father evidently having been too proper to use such colloquialisms himself, but they certainly sounded fun enough, and Harry had resolved to adopt a few into his own vocabulary before this diversion was over and done with.

James slid into the chair between Harry and Severus, reaching for a muffin with one hand and the coffee carafe with the other. Harry liked James—he wasn’t half as staid as his father or Remus, and he always seemed to either be coming from or going to some place fascinating. Harry had met him on three separate occasions thus far, and each time he’d stayed for all of twenty minutes before he had to be ‘off’ somewhere. Harry thought he must have a very important job, but his father assured him this was not the case, that was just, quote, “how rich arseholes are.” Harry didn’t really know what that meant, and though it didn’t sound like a very nice thing, it did nothing to diminish James’s standing in Harry’s eyes, such that he was still pretty sure that, of his three godfathers, James was probably his favourite.

Which helped, since apparently he was going to be Harry’s actual father when it came to school records.

See, the problem was this: Harry was kind of a big deal. Famous and infamous in turn. His father said that was what happened when you sundered a dark lord into a million little pieces before you were out of nappies—though Harry couldn’t remember doing that, and he’d grown up having to hide it, so what use was celebrity to him, when it came down to it?

No use whatsoever—so for his own safety and security, he would doff his family name of Evans and don that of Potter. “Why Potter?” James had asked when the proposal had first been put to him, and, “Because you’ve slept with half of London while your better halves here breed pedigree racing hippogriffs, so it stands to reason you’re the one who’d have illegitimate get wandering around,” had been the response. Harry didn’t know how he was supposed to feel about being someone’s ‘illegitimate get’, but playing at being ‘Harry Potter’ for the next nine months would be easy enough, he supposed, so he really didn’t care if his schoolmates thought him the late-blooming result of a serial philanderer’s one-night stand with a No-Maj.

Severus drew his wand, sending the teacup he’d stolen winging its way to the sink. “Haven’t missed it—but it’s a near thing. We still need to Glamour him, after all—and it’s a much easier task with his ‘father’ here.”

James ducked his head, swallowing a bite of toast. “Sorry, sorry—but I forgot my old pair of glasses and had to zip back.” He reached into a pocket and handed Harry a pair of folded up wire-frames. “I’ve de-spelled the lenses, so it won’t muck up your eyesight wearing them for long periods.”

Harry frowned as he took them, testing their fit on his face. A little big, but Harry would manage. “Are you sure I need them?”

“Trust me, men in my family’ve needed their eyesight corrected going back, like, fifteen generations—Harry ‘Potter’ would definitely be sporting a pair of these babies.”

Severus tapped Harry’s shoulder with his wand for his attention. “Chin up, eyes forward, and hold still—these are fine adjustments I need to make, and ones you’ll be living with for the next nine months.” Harry did as instructed, watching his father’s gaze flit back and forth between Harry’s face and James’s as he pinched and poked and tweaked Harry’s outward appearance enough that people wouldn’t do a double-take when told he came from Potter stock.

His soft, dark hair with auburn highlights that fell nearly to his nape in a single gentle wave frizzed up, curling in on itself and blackening like someone had just set fire to it, and his skin tone darkened a touch, less the pale, milky complexion of Severus Evans and more the brawny tan that born-and-bred outdoorsman James Potter looked like he’d cultivated.

He could also feel the skin over his forehead knitting together to hide the spangling lightning-bolt scar where, he’d been told, a deadly curse had struck him as a babe and then rebounded upon its caster, ending the reign of a mad dark lord before it had even truly begun. When Harry had asked how such a thing had been possible—he’d learned about the Unforgivables years back and knew you didn’t just shrug them off—Severus had only frowned and said he wasn’t sure and switched subjects. That he hadn’t subsequently dived into a complicated discussion of the prevailing hypotheses told Harry his father had a pretty good idea of how it had happened and just didn’t want to talk about it. Lots of topics drew that sort of response from him, Harry had learned, and they invariably involved his mother, so he’d learned to take ‘don’t press your luck’ for an answer.

When Severus tapped Harry’s nose next, James gave a cry of protest. “Aw, come on! It’s not that big—leave off.”

“How will anyone ever be expected to believe he’s your offspring if he doesn’t have a nose the size of the Knight Bus hanging off his face?”

“Well if it’s anatomical features you’re wanting to enlarge to make sure everyone knows he’s mine, then why not start with his di—”

The doorbell chimed again in a fortuitously timely moment, and Severus hissed under his breath. “Damn, that will have to be good enough—your hand, Harry. Quickly.”

Harry rolled up his sleeve and bared his wrist for his father—the Glamour would have to be anchored to something on his person if he didn’t want to have to keep re-upping it every twenty-four hours, and the bracelet his mother had Charmed for him as a baby was never removed, so it would do just fine.

James watched them work, elbow on the table and head resting in his palm, all arguments from mere seconds ago seemingly forgotten. “Damn. Still a dab hand with your Charmwork, aren’t you, Snivellus? Ten points to Gryffindor.” Well, perhaps not all arguments.

“We’re nearly two decades out of school, Potter—I really wish you’d leave off with the childish names.”

“Easy enough—if you’d finally up and become an Animagus like the rest of us, we’d be only too happy to bestow upon you a new one!”

Harry perked up but was careful not to jostle his wrist. “You’re an Animagus?” James only waggled his brows invitingly, and Harry turned back to his father. “Can I become an Animagus too?”

“Sure!” James said, just as his father cut in with a curt, “Absolutely not.” And before James could start another argument, Severus directed himself at Harry. “Animagecraft is for those who have nothing better to do with their time than stand around with mandrake leaves in their mouth for a month before running through an open field in the nude hoping to be struck by lightning—and that is not you, Harry, are we understood?”

Harry nodded, resolutely not looking at James, who was presently looming over his father from behind, shooting him a double thumbs-up while he mouthed Summer hols!

Another few moments passed, breath held all around while Severus concentrated on completing the Charm as the soft, muffled drone of conversation filtered down from the floor above.

“You know McGonagall doesn’t like being kept waiting,” James said, still watching Severus’s work intently.

“I expect she’s even less fond of knowing she’s going to be teaching your offspring. Let’s spare her the trauma as long as possible.” And with a final tap of his wand against the bracelet, it emitted a soft blue glow that rapidly dissipated, and Severus drew back. “There. Don’t go wandering around any anti-magic fields for the next nine months, and you ought to be dandy.”

Harry reached up to pat his hair, frowning at its springiness. “…Feels like a birds’ nest.”

“And it looks like one too.” Hey! James protested, and Severus nodded to Harry’s plate. “Finish up, smartly now. As your ‘father’ said, we mustn’t keep the Deputy Headmistress waiting.”

Harry wolfed down the last of his breakfast and took a final swig of his juice just as a sharp DING sounded. All heads turned as Sirius gave a sharp whoop: “Tart’s done!”

And that meant it was time to get Sorted.

Typically, he’d been told, Sorting happened in the Hogwarts Great Hall, where new First-years would be escorted to a dais, made to sit upon a stool in front of the entire school, and told what sort of person they were destined to be by a ratty old hat placed upon their heads. Harry had thought his father had been making a rare joke when this story had been told, only to have Sirius and Remus corroborate it. “A hat? A hat tells you what House you’ll be part of?”

“It’s a very smart hat,” Remus had said, and this had not instilled in Harry an ounce of confidence, who had honestly already been a little bit disappointed to learn he would be meeting with the Deputy Headmistress and not the fabled Dumbledore, the principal—Headmaster, he corrected himself—of the school and someone apparently his own father looked up to quite a lot. His godparents all assured him McGonagall was a ‘good egg’ (he assumed this was a nice thing to say about someone), but Albus Dumbledore had been the lone member of the magical community Severus had kept in regular contact with over the years, and that told Harry he knew rather a lot about rather a lot. He might be the key to unlocking all the mysteries Harry’s father never seemed to want to delve into—and here he’d missed a chance for a face-to-face meeting.

Ah well, surely they’d cross paths at some point in the next year, right? Of course right.

James clapped him on the shoulder and dragged him from his chair bodily, directing him to the stairs while Severus helped Sirius wrangle the piping hot tart under control. His ‘father’ would be expected to accompany him for this important moment, and Harry was silently grateful for the extra bit of familiarity in his corner.

“Gryffindor, yeah?” James said as they mounted the staircase.

“That’s where you all were, right? It’s the best one?”

James gave a little shrug. “Feels a bit biased—but yeah. Or at least the most fun one. Ravenclaws are fuddy-duddy bookworms, Hufflepuffs are all right but a little too stuck in their ways, not very adventurous. Anything but Slytherin—pit of snakes that, and no one you’d want to consort with.” This last bit Harry had heard at length over the past few days. Sirius seemed quite proud of being the first in his line for as long back as had been recorded to not have been Sorted into Slytherin House, as it was evidently where all the wrong sorts went. Remus had been a bit kinder in his depiction of the House, describing its students as ‘focused’ and ‘ambitious’, but Harry’s father had reminded him darkly that this was the House Voldemort had been Sorted into, where he’d roused a following, and where he’d learned all the darker magics he’d used to terrorise the wizarding world, and that had firmly decided Harry.

Remus was engaged in quiet conversation with an older witch when Harry entered the parlour, and they turned as a pair to greet him, with Remus standing to beckon him closer while the witch—presumably Deputy Headmistress McGonagall—took a good long look at him, as if appraising an art piece she was looking to collect. He couldn’t quite place her age, but she was considerably older than his father and godfathers, her face lined with wrinkles and skin holding that parchment-thin glow that suggested she was really getting on up there in years. Her expression was guarded, but he thought he detected a few smile lines around her presently pinched lips and hoped that boded well. She wore a wide-brimmed pointed hat of velvety black fabric upon her head, and Harry wondered if this was the hat everyone was so excited about.

“Excellent timing there, Harry—I was just telling Professor McGonagall here how excited you were to start your Hogwarts education.” He gestured to the loveseat. “Why don’t you have a seat, then? I’ll go check Sirius hasn’t Transfigured the tart into a tortoise while you and your dad get down to business.” He made his quiet apologies to the Deputy Headmistress, who nodded politely, waited for Remus to clear the threshold, and then clasped her hands together and turned to Harry.

“Well, Mr. Potter. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” She had a soft, reedy voice with a very thick accent, and Harry was grateful for the slow cadence with which she spoke, or else he might not have been able to understand her. She’d clearly been teaching a while—probably longer than Harry’s father had been alive—and knew how to make her meaning known. “I understand you’ve been living in America your whole life?”

Harry nodded. “With my mother, yes. But—” He nodded to James. “Dad came to visit, when he could make it out. He’s looked after me, in his own way.”

“Hm,” was all she said, lips thinning, and Harry was getting the impression this woman was not all that fond of James Potter. Maybe he would have been better off claiming to have been cooked up in a cauldron by Sirius and Remus. “Would you mind if I asked how familiar you are with the wizarding world, Mr. Potter? Were you much involved with your local magical community in America? As I understand it, your mother is a Muggle, yes?”


“No-Maj, bud,” James reminded softly, and Harry quietly cursed himself—lucky his father wasn’t around to rap his knuckles for that careless slip-up. “And yeah—but she’s been really understanding about, well, everything, and they play a bit faster and looser with the Statute of Secrecy over there these days. It’s not the 20s anymore!”

“I’m sure,” McGonagall drawled. “But to my question: have you had much of an education thus far? Only, I noticed you weren’t on Ilvermorny’s roster, and I was under the impression most North American magical children took their schooling there.”

Harry ducked his head; no more slip-ups. They’d rehearsed this bit often enough he ought to sail through. “My mother was…a bit overprotective. It didn’t sit right with her, my going off to a school so far away, not being able to see me nine months out of the year. I’ve mostly had private tutors—but I’m confident I’ll be able to stand alongside my peers at Hogwarts when it comes to magical know-how.”

And for the first time, McGonagall smiled, reaching into a pocket to withdraw a thick sheaf of parchment that she began to rifle through, gaze scrawling over the contents. “That much I can see for myself—as I understand it your B.E.A.R.s are held earlier than our O.W.L.s, and I confess I’ve never even heard of a P.O.S.SUM, but this equivalency report suggests you’ve earned high marks in all areas but Transfiguration—only an E equivalent.” She tutted softly under her breath. “Not to worry, though; we’ll whip you into shape before the year is out.” She gave him a knowing little wink. “Hopefully Hogwarts will be able to teach you something in the coming year.”

“I’m sure it will, Deputy Headmistress.”

“I’d ask you to call me ‘Professor’, but I recognise we haven’t reached the part where you’re actually ready for classes yet. Let’s rectify that.” She bent down, picking up her handbag, and thrust her arm into what to Harry’s eye seemed a cavernous void—before pulling out a ratty old brown hat that looked like it’d been around since Hogwarts’ founding, so much wear did it show.

McGonagall grasped it gently by the brim, holding it up meaningfully, and nodded at Harry. He took the hint, lowering his head, and held his breath as the hat settled around his crown, sliding down until his eyes were covered and everything went black.

“Well, you certainly aren’t a First-year.” No, indeed he was not, and the hat’s raspy voice (or was it even actually speaking at all, and this was merely in Harry’s head?) tickled Harry’s mind. He could feel it, he thought, poking about within him. Looking for something, and making itself quite at home in Harry’s headspace. “Can’t remember the last time I Sorted anyone this late—though I know Dumbledore is of the opinion that I Sort too early as it is.”

Harry didn’t honestly care that much about the timing—he mostly wanted to get this over with, because the Hat was very itchy, shifting about on his head as it was, and the mind-probing bit was uncomfortable as well. Just Sort me, he thought at it, Anywhere but Slytherin will do, if it’s all the same.

He imagined he heard the Hat scoff. “Why is it there’s never any two ways about it, hm? Either they’re desperate to be placed in Slytherin or desperate not to!

And that just boggled Harry’s mind; who on earth would want to be placed in Slytherin, when he had it on four different authorities that it was about the worst place you could want to spend your time at Hogwarts?

“Well why shouldn’t they want to be placed there? It’s a noble and ancient House that has given birth to witches and wizards capable of great acts—occasionally terrible ones, yes, but great all the same.” That sounded like as backhanded a compliment as Harry had ever heard. “It is a House for Dreamers, for Visionaries, for those who see in themselves a purpose beyond that laid out neatly before them. A Ravenclaw will meet his future well-prepared, a Hufflepuff will take his future as it comes and be happy all the same, a Gryffindor will beat back whatever challenges his future may throw his way, but a Slytherin will make his future what he wishes it to be. But beware—” Beware? As if Harry hadn’t been warned against this House enough already. “Slytherin is not for the weak-willed or weak-minded. Those who most prosper within its walls are those made of stern enough stuff to beware its pitfalls—for the road to greatness is paved with them. Best not to travel it alone.”

Well, the thing was, Harry wasn’t all that interested in greatness. He had no particular ambitions, no ‘dreams’ or ‘visions’. He didn’t see any grand purpose for himself—and he was pretty comfortable, he figured, letting his future come as it would. That sounded like perhaps a Hufflepuff frame of mind, didn’t it? Yellow wasn’t really his colour, but he could deal with it for a year or so.

“Alas, Destiny doesn’t always listen to what we might want—it simply is, and we cannot avoid being swept along with it, to whatever fate may await us. The child who felled the Dark Lord may find keeping a low profile and ‘letting his future come as it would’ a challenging task.”

Now hold up, how did this thing know who he was? Was it really poking into his most private of thoughts? Surely that was against some sort of regulation. His father ought to sue— “I know rather a lot about you now, Harry Severus Evans, and one thing of which I’m quite certain is that you’ll find your true friends while wearing the colours of SLYTHERIN!”

This last bit Harry heard ringing in his ears, audibly bellowed for all and sundry to hear. The Hat was abruptly yanked from his head, and Harry blinked as the warm morning light of the parlour brought everything back into focus. His real father had joined the pretend one, along with Remus and Sirius and the still-steaming raspberry tart fresh from the oven, hovering between them. And all of them—McGonagall included—were wearing identical expressions of bald-faced shock.

“Well—I mean—obviously there’s been some sort of a mistake,” James began, and his stammering protests were quickly rejoined by Sirius who huffed, “That’s ridiculous. There’s no way in hell James-bloody-Potter’s son got Sorted Slytherin.” Remus had one hand on his partner’s shoulder, reminding in quiet tones that Harry was certain were meant for the rest of the room that, “It’s entirely possible—you bucked a long line of Slytherins yourself to get Sorted into a completely different House, if you’ll recall.”

Severus only sat there in stoic silence, lips pressed into a thin line and brow furrowed; he didn’t look angry—more pensive. Worried. Paranoia creeping into the cracks beginning to line his face and digging its roots in deep. Harry swallowed and turned to McGonagall. “Is it…is it a mistake? I mean—I don’t think…I’m all that suited for…”

McGonagall shook her head, slipping the Hat back into her bag. “The Hat doesn’t make mistakes—it can’t. It simply reads what’s there and reports which House you’re the best fit for. If it says you’re a Slytherin, then I’m afraid that’s precisely what you are.” She seemed to catch her wording, straightening in place and making an obvious effort to soften her features as she reached forward to pat Harry’s knee. “The Hat sees the bits of us that we might not even be aware exist ourselves, and it would not give you a challenge it didn’t feel you were in a place to meet. There are no good or bad Houses, regardless of what you may have heard.” She quickly scanned the room, her frown turning chiding as her gaze fell upon Harry’s guardians in turn. “Only good and bad students. And I expect you will prove quite a boon to your new House.”

Her words were kind, but Harry still couldn’t help but feel like he’d let everyone down, just a little bit. They’d been so very excited, and he’d siphoned a bit of that excitement for himself. Now, though…he didn’t really know what to do with himself.

Sirius sighed, though, doffing the oven gloves he still wore on his hands, and scrubbed at his face. “…Well, I reckon we can at least go through Regulus’s wardrobe for hand-me-downs.”

Remus jumped to his aid. “Yes—yes, that’s a very good idea. Why don’t you and Severus take Harry upstairs while Professor McGonagall goes over the fine details with James here?”

Harry mutely let himself be shuttled back to the stairs, head still whirling, and he took the steps in a daze. He only snapped back to himself when they reached the landing and Walburga Black’s portrait began shrieking, “FILTH! BLOOD TRAITORS! DEFILING MY FAMILY HOME WITH—”

“Pipe down, Mum,” Sirius groaned haggardly, waving her away. “He got Sorted Slytherin.”

Oh, well goodness me, finally some fine news!” The faded portrait of Sirius’s late mother batted her lashes at him, cooing as he continued up the stairs past her, “Do drop in on holidays to share the latest gossip, won’t you, boy? Mine’s nearly a century out of date! Be a dear and find out if the merfolk still teach the Firsties naughty words in Lorelei in exchange for leftovers from the Kitchens.

They continued up the stairs in silence, and if Harry’s father was coming up with them as Remus had suggested, Harry could not see him. By the third floor, the awkward tension became nigh unbearable, and Harry said, “…I did ask it not to place me there. But it went on some rambling monologue about my future and purpose and something about a path to greatness…” He wrinkled his nose. “Even though I told it I wasn’t interested in greatness.”

Sirius sighed, glancing back at Harry over his shoulder. “No one’s angry with you—or disappointed. Don’t feel too bad. It’s just shock—we’ll get over it quickly enough. You’re still you, and that’s all anyone within these walls cares about.”

Harry frowned. “…And outside of these walls?”

“Well, I won’t claim no one will judge you for what House you fell into while at Hogwarts, but that’s just the way folks are. We’re tribal by nature. The ones that matter won’t care what colours you wore, only what sort of person you turned out to be. The Hat knows what it’s doing, I reckon. Best to just roll with it.” They reached the fourth-floor landing, and Sirius drew a skeleton key from his pocket, muttering something under his breath as he slipped it into the lock and gave it a sharp turn. “In the meantime, let’s get you outfitted in the finest of Slytherin fashions—well, finest circa 1970 or so. If you want anything more modern, you and your dad—well, James—will need to pop down to Diagon and raid Madam Malkin’s sometime between now and the 1st of September.”

Sirius waved a hand to his brother’s wardrobe, inviting Harry to piece through his late brother’s schoolboy regalia. Harry wasn’t all that keen to start picking out his new robes just now, but he reckoned this was Sirius’s way of dealing with the shock, as he’d put it, and made motions of appraising Regulus Black’s hand-me-downs. Sirius didn’t like to talk about Regulus, in much the same way Harry’s father didn’t like to talk about his mother, though he at least still seemed willing to explain which pieces had been part of the daily school attire and which pieces had been formalwear and which pieces had been part of Regulus’s ‘Quidditch’ uniform—a sport Harry had heard of but not yet had occasion to witness being played. He was under the impression it was a cousin of Quodpot, which honestly sounded boring as all get-out.

“Do you have to wear a tie every day? I don’t think I even know how to tie one…” Harry muttered half to himself as he drew out a long green-and-silver striped bit of fabric that had a polished silver tie clip in the shape of a—good god, was that a Morsmordre?—still fastened to it. Harry surreptitiously unclipped it and tucked the thing into the pocket of one of the sportscoats he was most definitely not going to be wearing. It wasn’t polite to speak ill of the dead, but Harry was beginning to reconsider his decision to accept some of these hand-me-downs, even out of pity.

“You’ll catch on quickly enough—we’ll be sure you’ve mastered it before you’re off on the Hogwarts Express. There’s spells that’ll do it, but I always figured I’d never get the chance to teach it to a son of my own, so if you’ll oblige me, I’d enjoy passing down the knowledge.”

And that sounded like a quick and easy way to balance their accounts without having to accept old clothes from what Harry was beginning to realise had been a Death Eater-in-Training. “Yeah, I’d appreciate that, thanks.” He closed the doors to the wardrobe and turned around—to find Sirius slowly circling the room, staring at the wallpaper. Except it wasn’t wallpaper—it was paper paper. Newspaper clippings, magical ones, that even without getting too close Harry could tell included articles describing Voldemort’s reign of terror. Still thinking about the tie clip, Harry sincerely doubted Regulus had collected these clippings out of disgust with the acts described therein.

After an uncomfortable beat, Sirius spoke in a soft, serious tone. “…Be careful while you’re there, yeah? I meant what I said—none of us gives two figs what House you’re Sorted into, even if we might’ve been a tiny bit more excited to kit you out in Gryffindor regalia. You’re Sev’s and Lily’s boy, and that’s all that matters. But…” He shook his head. “That place. That House. It’s got a way of…of bringing out the worst in people. It does something to people too weak not to be swayed by others. Turns them into something you wouldn’t recognise. It’s a cutthroat place, everyone out for himself. So just…” He turned to Harry, forcing a smile. “Don’t let it get to you. Don’t let it turn you into something you’re not.”

Well. That might be harder than it sounded. Harry made a face, turning away from the horrible headlines blanketing the walls. “The Hat made it seem like I was meant to be there because…I dunno, I was meant for something…more. Something great, or terrible. Or greatly terrible. And I—” He shook his head. “I don’t want that. I don’t want to be anyone here. That’s the whole point of it all, isn’t it? Not to be special, not to stick out, not to prompt questions. I just want to get through this year and then…get back home. No offence to you and Remus and James, I mean. You’re all swell, but…Dad always said it was dangerous, being here.”

Sirius shrugged. “It’s dangerous being anywhere, you being you.” He stepped over to the wardrobe, piecing through it with a discerning frown before eventually pulling out one of the sets of day-to-day robes, holding it up against Harry and giving him a once over. “…At least the robes look good on you. The colours bring out your eyes. Though these are admittedly a bit out of fashion.” He replaced the robes and reached for the tie—sans clip—hanging on its rack. “The tie should still be useful, at least. Here, let’s see it on you.”

He beckoned Harry over to stand before a full-length mirror and hung it around his neck, proceeding to tie it from behind. Harry watched carefully, trying to memorise the movements, though he got well and truly lost about three loops in.

“It’s custom, see,” Sirius said as he finally fashioned the knot, “for members of my family to have some sort of heirloom on them when they head off to Hogwarts for the first time. Regulus won’t be needing this back any time soon, so I reckon you should have it.”

Harry frowned at Sirius in the mirror. “But—I’m not related to you?”

“Well, no. Not by blood, sure.” He shrugged. “But Lily—and all right, Snivellus, too—was our friend. Is our friend. So you’re, you know. A friend-in-law. Step-friend. Something like that. And unlike the rest of my family, I’m not gonna burn you off the family tapestry just because you got Sorted into a House that doesn’t deserve you.” He clapped Harry on the shoulder. “There, looking quite sharp if I do say so myself. Haven’t had occasion to tie a tie recently, but I reckon I did a fair job of it.”

“One would hope you’d finally learned to manage it after, what, two and a half decades?” came a voice from the door, and Harry only now caught the reflection of his father behind them in the mirror, arms folded in the doorway as he took in the room. Was he, too, suppressing a shudder? Had he already known the dark deeds that Regulus Black had dabbled in before his untimely—or perhaps timely—demise? A part of Harry wondered if Regulus had had a hand in Lily’s death—but he quickly decided he didn’t want to know. He liked Sirius too much to think of his brother every time they interacted from now on.

“Piss off. I’d learned to do it for myself by graduation.” He winked at Harry. “I mostly let Remus do it so I’d have an excuse to be close to him.”

“Perhaps the Hat should have put you in Slytherin, then.” Severus sidled closer, giving Harry an approving glance. “…At least the colours suit him.”

“That’s what I said. Silver linings. Or, silver and green, rather.” Sirius nodded to the door through which Harry’s father had just strode. “They still at it downstairs?”

“Mm. Your better half is making sure Harry’s ‘father’ doesn’t stick his foot in his mouth while wrapping things up with McGonagall.”

Sirius gave a mock gasp. “Our James Potter? Say something he shouldn’t? Perish the thought!”

“Also, your tart’s been a smash hit—between the three of them down there, it’s nearly gone.”

“Oh—what! Dammit, I wanted to try some. You two just—” He waved around the room, and Harry wasn’t quite sure what that gesture meant, but Sirius was already out the door and thundering down the stairs before he could ask him to finish his thought. From the way Severus watched him go, a calculating gleam in his eye, Harry wondered if he hadn’t made the whole thing up, just to get a bit of privacy between them without having to tell the owner of the house to get lost. Maybe this was where the Slytherin bits of him had come from.

Severus sighed, taking up Sirius’s recently abandoned post behind Harry, a hand on each shoulder. “…I’m not disappointed in you, you know.”

Harry nodded. “I know. Sirius said you weren’t, and I didn’t figure you would be.” He met Severus’s eye in the mirror. “But?”

“…But: things will be trickier now. Not a few Death Eaters had children, and they’ll be students now, around your age—most if not all Sorted Slytherin. They’ll be looking for you, or at least keen to report any strange new transfers to their parents. It’s a den of snakes. You’ll need to be on your guard—at best they’ll see you as a target ripe for their puerile pranks, and at worst…well, the brightest brains tend to be Sorted Ravenclaw, but even the dimmest of Slytherins will surely be able to put two and two together, given the happy timing of your arrival amongst their ranks, and suspect you of being you. Dumbledore has made some mention of ‘decoys’ amongst the student populace, other ‘new transfers’ returned to their native shores, but expect there to be eyes upon you at all times, regardless.” He squeezed Harry’s shoulders, impressing upon him the gravity of his words. “The Dark Lord may have been run to ground, but we must never think him defeated—his most loyal followers certainly don’t, and they’ll be only too eager to strike down the Boy Who Lived in his stead to demonstrate their unflagging faith in their master’s eventual resurrection.”

Harry wanted to think Severus was being paranoid, simply an overprotective father imagining Death Eaters lurking around every corner—it was an easy enough thought to entertain, after all, having lived halfway around the world most of his life, cloistered away, never knowing greater danger than that one time he’d nearly been bitten by a very large dog when he was four and run bawling back to his father’s side after accidentally wild-magicking it into a teacup. There’d been a lot of Obliviating that day.

But he knew his father better than anyone else in the world, of this he was confident. Severus Evans was a smart man—and a calculating one. It wasn’t that he didn’t take risks, he just didn’t take unnecessary ones. He’d trained Harry well, or as well as he could on his own, and Harry knew he wasn’t paranoid. It was a bone-deep surety that there truly was someone out there, some thing, that wanted him and would, if it found him, tear him to pieces. That Severus had brought Harry all the way to England as he had, to the land where his wife had been murdered and some magic too old to have a name had spared his son, that he’d enrolled Harry in a proper school

There was ever so much more here than met the eye, machinations whirring away under Harry’s nose, of which he was keenly aware but could do nothing to avoid or circumvent. He couldn’t stop this, whatever this was—he could only nod his head firmly and resolve to do his very best to be as absolutely unremarkable as possible for the next year or so.

By the time he and his father returned downstairs, McGonagall had packed her things—the Hat nowhere to be seen now—and seemed to be making ready to leave. Her brows lifted in amusem*nt when she saw Harry, still wearing Regulus’s old tie, and she gave him a polite nod. “I shall see you in two months’ time, Mr. Potter,” she said, pinching the brim of her hat in farewell. “Pray don’t give me half the trouble your father did, and we’ll get on quite well.”

“Oh, she likes you,” James said once she’d left. “Dunno what I did to deserve that comment, but at least you’ll get off on the right foot with her.”

“Maybe it was the time you turned a rat into a flying phallus instead of a quill and inkwell like we were meant to be doing,” Remus said, sending the plates and teacups back down to the kitchen, as Sirius, polishing off the last piece of his tart, chimed in with, “Or the time you Transfigured her lips into an arse and she had to talk out of her sh*t-hole for a week before she managed the counter-curse.”

Oh, Harry was going to have to step very carefully around his Transfiguration professor, it was sounding like.

James was off again once McGonagall had left, professing more errands to run (“Lady friends to harangue, more like it,” his father muttered), and they made vague plans to meet up again in the coming week so that James could take his ‘son’ shopping for the rest of his school supplies. “I’m gonna get reimbursed for letting your rug rat raid my vaults, aren’t I?” James asked Severus. “I haven’t got mokeskin pockets, you know.”

And Severus rolled his eyes. “Yes, you’re just absolutely strapped, as I hear it—didn’t the goblins have to open up another vault just to hold your fortune?”

James winked at Harry. “What can I say? The people love Playwizard.”

“What’s Playwizard?” Harry asked, and, “None of your concern,” Severus said while Sirius mimed a pair of voluptuous breasts from behind him, burying his head between them until Remus rapped him sharply on the crown in reprimand.

They passed the rest of the morning, lunch, afternoon, and even dinner discussing the many—many—shenanigans Remus, Sirius, and James had gotten up to during their time at Hogwarts, his godfathers only too happy to share stories that Harry’s father had never been obliged to. When he asked if they had any stories about Severus, they proceeded to regale him with three separate occasions where their escapades had been interrupted or else thwarted entirely by either or both Severus and Lily, who had been, in their words, “Pompous sh*ts who deserved each other.”

Severus had only sipped his tea pleasantly. “Perhaps if you and Potter hadn’t been so enamoured with violating curfew nearly nightly, you might have been in the running to be Prefects yourselves.” He’d then nodded to Remus. “Lupin might have managed it, if he hadn’t been wrestling a literal beast.”

“Well I was wrestling a beast of my own,” Sirius had said, one elbow on the table and bushy brows doing acrobatics in Remus’s direction, who favoured him with a fond look—then rolled his eyes.

“Try not to fall in love with one of your dormmates, Harry,” Remus had warned as he stood from the table and made for the chill box to retrieve dessert: an ice cream dish flavoured with something called ‘treacle’ that sounded like it would gum up his teeth terribly but be absolutely worth it. “It’s more trouble than it’s worth. I speak from experience.”

Harry didn’t think he’d have much difficulty on that front, but honestly, Remus wasn’t making a very compelling argument.

Sleep came to Harry that night rather more quickly than it had the one before—in large part because he was no longer burdened with nerves about his upcoming Sorting. It was over and done with now, and all that was left was to accept it, deal with it, and move past it once this business was finished.

When he woke the next morning, he was feeling much more like himself, the veil of sleep having done wonders to refresh his outlook on the whole matter, but he did still give a start when he caught himself in the mirror, forgetting for a moment that he’d been Glamoured to look less like the offspring of Severus Evans and more that of James Potter. He reminded himself to don his glasses so he’d get used to having them on, or else he was liable to blow his own cover the very first day of school.

Remus appeared to be the only one up when Harry trundled downstairs to the kitchen, and he offered Harry a sleepy smile as he twirled his wand, directing a chair to pull itself out from the table and offer itself to Harry. “Any requests? I’m not as dab a hand in the kitchen as Sirius, but I can probably manage.”

“Er, just some coffee to start off with, I think. I’ll have a better idea once I’m a bit more awake.”

Remus laughed and then pulled a mug off of a hanging rack, pointed his wand at it, and muttered something under his breath. A stream of fragrant brown liquid came shooting out, filling the mug, and Harry’s brows rose as Remus offered it to him, smoky tendrils now curling from the liquid’s surface. “Best I can do on short notice—I’ll make a note to grab some grounds from the shops later.” Harry gingerly accepted it, unsure how he felt about drinking magically produced instant coffee. The nonmagical stuff was barely passable—would this be better, or ten times worse?

It turned out to be neither; Harry’s palate was hardly sophisticated enough to tell the difference, and it was enough that it did the trick of perking him up while Remus turned his focus back to a pair of pans and a carton of eggs (Chicken? co*ckatrice? Impossible to tell really) that would, it seemed, constitute the impending breakfast Remus was threatening to make.

Harry let him fret for a silent moment, nursing his mug and wondering why British wizards didn’t just prepare their leaf water using whatever modified version of Aguamenti that had to have been. Actually—he could hazard a guess, as they seemed terribly finicky about the stuff. Remus would probably have a fit if he so much as a suggested such sacrilege. He kind of wanted to ask just to see what happened—maybe he was meant for Slytherin after all.

Which reminded him: “…So, are you gonna tell me to be on my guard, too?”

“Hm?” Remus said, distracted by the sniff test he was currently applying to a loaf of bread he’d found in their cupboard. Belatedly he realised that Harry had actually asked a question that probably merited a response, and he turned around, bread loaf in one hand and oversized knife that was entirely inappropriate for slicing bread in the other. “Sorry—be on your guard…?”

Damn. That had come out all wrong. Harry was trying to be okay with this whole mess, if only because there was nothing to be done about it, though also because everyone else was trying to be okay with it too, but even he could hear the petulant little pout in his tone, making him sound years younger than he was. He shook his head. “Never mind—was just trying out a joke. I don’t think it quite landed.”

Remus’s brow furrowed, and he set aside the knife and bread, drawing out a chair at the table to sit across from Harry. “You know, I was almost Sorted Hufflepuff. I asked the Hat to put me there, actually—I thought it was the place I was likely to stand out the least, because there’s nothing a werewolf trying to hide his curse wants less than attention. The Hat then promptly reprimanded me for likening Hufflepuffs to unremarkable wallflowers and banished me to Gryffindor as punishment. I suppose it knew best, though, in the end—there’s no better place to pass unnoticed than while surrounded by the truly outstanding and ostentatious.” He leaned forward, “And if the Hat hadn’t put me in the very last place I’d wanted to be Sorted, I would never have met these louts who became my lifelong friends and closest confidantes. Severus saved my life, more times than I can count. So don’t walk into there, thinking the worst. You’ll get out of that place what you put into it—don’t close yourself off to every grand, new experience that may be headed your way just because you’re frightened. Severus is smart, as cunning as any Slytherin out there—but I worry he’s too caught up in his past to let you live your own present, free from prejudice and bias. Don’t be afraid to let Slytherin surprise you. You may find you’re more suited there than you expected. Than any of us expected.”

Harry mulled over what he knew to be very good advice, but something still niggled. “…Sirius said not to let it turn me into something I’m not.”

Remus nodded sagely. “And right he is. Don’t let it turn you into something you’re not. Instead, let it turn you into what you’re meant to be. That’s what school ought to do, after all.” He reached a hand over, covering Harry’s, and gave a squeeze—then pushed back from the table and returned his attention to what Harry hoped was French toast, or some iteration thereon.

Somehow, the bean water tasted just a little bit more like proper coffee now.

Through their combined efforts, Harry’s real father and godfathers managed to pin down his fake father long enough that they were able to plan an outing to shop for school supplies in a place called ‘Diagon Alley’, a name which Harry had thought at first was a joke but turned out to belong to a rather popular wizarding shopping district.

It was decided that Harry and James would go about as a pair, while Severus—under a Glamour of his own—would shop with Sirius and Remus. James and Harry would gather those items that merited a more personal touch, while Sirius, Remus, and Severus would take care of the general basics.

First up on the list: a new wand.

Harry had been using his mother’s for as long as he could remember, and he’d objected sternly when his father had suggested he procure a new one. But reason had won out—he would soon be an adult, a grown wizard, and he needed a wand of his own, not a family heirloom, no matter how dearly he cared for it. Besides, there was every chance the wrong sorts might remark the swishy willow wand that had belonged to Lily Evans, so there was no helping it if Harry wanted to keep as low a profile as possible.

Garrick Ollivander of Ollivander’s appeared to have been in the business of uniting wands with their bearers for the last two millennia—and he looked like it, too. His deeply lined face and harsh, raspy voice said he took his craft very seriously, and indeed, he spent nearly thirty minutes muttering to himself as he puttered about his shop after having taken Harry’s measurements—why his inseam length mattered for a wand assignment was beyond him, but James didn’t seem to find this odd—before he finally set three boxes of different colours and sizes on the counter for Harry’s perusal.

“Well go on,” he urged Harry, a bit impatiently. “Give them a test swish.” When Harry evidently didn’t act quickly enough for Ollivander’s taste, he began removing the tops from the boxes and giving a breakneck rundown of each wand’s pedigree, from its core to its wood to its precise length down to the quarter-inch. His mother’s had come from this shop too, as he’d heard it, so at least it seemed Ollivander knew his stuff.

He tested the first one—a willow one, like his mother’s, but with a core of horned serpent keratin (“An import, but fine quality—such wands are favoured by the particularly paranoid.”) instead of unicorn hair—but it felt dead in his hand, his movements stilted with a distinct lag in the casting time as his magic struggled to push itself through the wood veins.

The second one—a cypress one with a dragon heartstring core—wasn’t a much better fit, and Harry wondered what could possibly have prompted Ollivander to choose these wands, thinking they’d suit him. Certainly Harry would never presume to know a wandmaker’s business, but these were so wide of the mark it was almost laughable. Maybe he would stick with his mother’s wand, his father’s paranoia be damned.

But when he reached for the third wand—an unassuming holly one whose core was simply labelled Fawkes on the placard—he felt it almost rise to meet his grip, like it had been waiting most impatiently for Harry to work his way through the pretenders before finally settling upon the wand that was meant for him. When his fingers brushed the shaft, Ollivander inhaled sharply, and he caught, just out of the corner of his eye, James’s previously bored gaze turn sharp, fixing on Ollivander with mistrust.

Harry was captivated, though—too caught up in this thrill rushing through him as he curled his fingers around the haft and lifted the wand into a ready position to much notice anything else around him.

“What is it?” he heard James ask, from far away and distant.

“Oh, no, it’s only—” Ollivander paused, and Harry felt his magic connect with the core, lighting him up like a Christmas tree and setting every nerve on fire for a millisecond before the energy subsided to a pleasant warm buzz. Oh yeah, this was definitely his wand. “That wand’s core… It’s a phoenix feather. One of only two donated by this particular creature. A very difficult core to come by, dearly precious—and generally quite finicky in the witches and wizards it connects with. I only brought the wand out on a whim…”

“Mm…” James said, absently, and he craned his neck to peek through the glazed glass of the front windows at the passersby scurrying through the cobbled streets of Diagon Alley.

“And this core…this particular wand’s brother, if you will… Well, you see, it belonged to…” Ollivander dropped his voice to little more than a whisper. “You-Know-Who.”

Harry felt as if a bucket of ice-cold water had just been dumped over him, and he straightened, snapped instantly from his stupor. “It—who?” His fingers tightened around the wand, knuckles gone white.

Ollivander recoiled. “I daren’t speak his name—it’s Taboo.”

“I’m sure that’s just superstition,” James chuckled, flashing a disarming smile that seemed to settle Ollivander’s nerves a bit, but Harry didn’t miss it this time: the way James’s shoulders were a tight, tense line, the sharpness in his eyes, hidden behind his glasses, and the too-smooth way he corralled the conversation away from discussion of curious connections with Harry’s wand toward instead discussions of compensation and would a lump sum do or were there payment plans available?

Harry had known—well, heard rather—that his parents and their friends had belonged to some manner of secret wartime society that supposedly went around making life difficult for Voldemort and his Death Eaters. As his father told it, Voldemort had been convinced by some mad prophecy that Harry, nought but an infant at the time, would lead to his downfall, and his paranoia and desperation had led him to his parents’ doorstep, where despite their very best efforts to beat him back, his mother had met a brave end, protecting Harry with her very life as some magic rose up unbidden from Harry himself and shattered the would-be Dark Lord into a million pieces.

So he’d had some idea that, once upon a time, Sirius and Remus and even James here had been spies and soldiers and everything in between, working to stop Voldemort before he could rise to real power. But there was a difference between hearing old stories that honestly sounded only about 20% true—and seeing in his fake-father’s eyes a cold, calculating cunning he’d only ever seen in his real father’s eyes before. A brutish desperation honed by years of hunting and being hunted, painted over with a bright, winning smile and roguish flirtation so you never suspected just how dangerous this man could be until it was too late.

They quickly completed the purchase, and James pressed the shopping bag and its precious cargo into Harry’s grasp before laying a hand at his back and steering him gently toward the door. “Wait for me outside, won’t you, Harry? I just need to have a quick word with Mr Ollivander here about getting my own wand serviced.”

And before Harry could object, James had shoved him out onto the street, slammed the door behind him, and pulled the shade.

When he exited five minutes later, he was all smiles once more, as if nothing were amiss. “So, shall we see about getting you an owl now? Dead useful creatures, owls. Every boy ought to have one of his own before heading off to school.”

Harry didn’t dare ask what had happened with Ollivander. He could imagine what his real father would have done to wipe their tracks clearly enough.

Perhaps sensing Harry’s discomfort with whatever had just transpired, James tried to distract Harry by regaling him with tales of his own first trip to Diagon Alley and the handsome eagle owl that his parents had bought for him. Harry didn’t quite understand the fascination with owls these British wizards had—most American wizards favoured mage-bred pigeons these days, being relatively ubiquitous and much more likely to pass unremarked by No-Majs than any other flying creature. He supposed owls were a sight more regal when they swooped in bearing a letter or package or even just the morning paper, but they were hardly subtle.

But they probably didn’t sell mage-bred pigeons anywhere around here, and besides, Harry didn’t really want a pigeon. Or an owl. Or a frog, as was apparently another approved pet students were allowed to bring along with them to Hogwarts. You couldn’t cuddle owls and pigeons and frogs. Well, you could try, but it wouldn’t be the same as—

“And he was a stocky beast, let me tell you—a good hundred and fifty centimetres, wingtip to wingtip! Never struggled one whit with any package he came bearing, winging along like it was nothing at all. You’ve got to make sure you pick one that’s going to be able to handle the—Harry? Harry? sh*t—”

James eventually found him, his nose pressed up against the glass of a shop called Magical Menagerie as he ogled the most absurd-looking, hideously adorable creature Harry had ever laid eyes on.

“Good gad, is that a house-elf?” James gasped in mixed horror and scandal. “What’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t think it’s a house-elf,” Harry said, tapping gently on the glass to get the creature’s attention—and it responded by toddling over to him, a bit wonkily, like it hadn’t quite learned how to use its feet properly just yet. “I think it’s a cat.”

“Is it diseased? Why on earth would they put a sick one on display like that? It’s cruel.”

“Nah, that’s just what the breed looks like I’m pretty sure.”

“They breed cats to look like house-elves? On purpose?” James gave a shudder. “Who on earth would pay money for such a creature?”

Who indeed? “…I kind of want him.” He glanced up at James, who looked like he’d just swallowed one of the toads Harry could spot resting on a log by the register inside. “Surely no one else will take him—look at him.”

The cat—at least, Harry was mostly sure it was a cat—had wandered away from its playmates to paw at Harry through the window. It really did look like a house-elf, with its wrinkly flaps of skin and oversized bat-like ears, but it had the biggest green eyes Harry had ever seen, its whiplike hairless tail lashing back and forth as it mewled pitiably at him from beyond the thick pane of glass.

“Wh—but we were just on our way to get you an owl! You’ll need one! Else how are you going to write us letters every week, telling us about all of the fascinating new ways you’ve found to skirt the rules and begging us for copies of our old parchments to crib for your essays like any good Potter?”

“Surely they’ve got school birds you can borrow, right? And the list said you could bring a cat, if you wanted.”

“A cat, yes, but not a—whatever that thing is. Are you certain it’s meant to look that way? Perhaps it’s got feline dragonpox—it’s been known to jump species, you know, and I doubt you were properly vaccinated against it in that barbaric country you grew up in. It took my parents, before you were even born, and I’m all but certain it came to them through their Puffskein colony.”

Harry didn’t know what a Puffskein was, but he’d made up his mind. “I came here with a clean bill of health, cats are clean animals by nature and surely a hairless one is doubly so, and I’ve already given him a name, so really we kind of have to get him now.” When James still seemed to waffle, Harry delivered the killing blow: “Please, Dad?”

And so, they returned to Number 12 Grimmauld Place with a new wand, a handsome trunk, and ‘Kreacher’, who turned out to be a ‘Sphinx cat’ and not, as James had feared, a disease vector for some violent new strain of Spattergroit.

“‘Kreacher’?” James had asked, nose wrinkling. “Dare I ask why?”

“‘Cause he reminds me of Sirius and Remus’s old house-elf—don’t you think?”

“Why on earth you’d want to be reminded of that blighter is beyond me…”

His godfathers and real father were all equally confounded by Harry’s choice of pet, but as it was his pet and not theirs, he didn’t see it was any of their business—and they seemed content to leave him to get to know his new companion while they huddled with James in the library, door actually warded against intrusion, no doubt to discuss the business at Ollivander’s. Harry tried to search his father’s face when he finally emerged for some sign of how the conversation had gone—if there was actually any real danger, or if this was just a matter of making sure the wandmaker didn’t run around blabbing about the wand he’d just sold this kid that was twin to the Dark Lord’s own. Severus had always been a difficult read, though, even for his own son, and tonight was no different.

When it came time for James to head back to his own flat after dinner, he ruffled Harry’s hair fondly and told him he was turning into a right proper Slytherin for all the cunning he’d practised that afternoon, and as he lay in bed that night, Kreacher—the cat, not the house-elf—curled up on his chest and purring loudly, he supposed this Slytherin business might not be so bad after all.

The next few weeks passed by in a flash, and before he knew it, it was his sixteenth birthday—the first he’d ever celebrated with so large a gathering. Granted, ‘large’ was relative in this case—but ‘five’ was definitely more than ‘two’, and that meant more presents than he’d ever received before (not that he’d been counting). James presented him with a beautiful cloak made of a strange fabric that flowed through his fingers like water and splintered the light whenever it hit. When he donned the cloak at James’s urging, he was shocked to find he could no longer see himself in the hallway mirror (which of late had taken to encouraging him to try an industrial-grade detangling potion for his hair).

“Are you at all certain that’s a wise gift?” his father had asked, deep frown indicating this was a rhetorical question, but James had waved him off.

“Let him live a little, Snivellus. Besides, how could you possibly object to my giving him a way to escape notice whenever he pleases?”

And this had placated his father somewhat, but though Harry appreciated the thought, he wasn’t quite sure what use he’d have for such a gift. “I mean, it’s lovely, truly it is—but…what am I meant to use it for?”

“Well,” Remus stepped in, clearing his throat and nudging Sirius. “We thought perhaps you might use it in conjunction with this.”

And here, Sirius straightened with a soft Oh! and scrambled for a little paper bag at his feet, stuffed full of tissue paper and bearing a label that simply said Happy 16th, Harry! Love, S & R. He accepted the parcel, digging through the tissue paper until his fingers brushed across—

“…A pamphlet?” He frowned turning the folded parchment over in his hands—but it seemed blank. Old and yellowed, it showed quite a bit of age and wear, but there was no writing on it, even when he opened it. “I…I don’t get it?”

Remus gave a superior little grin, reached his wand over, and tapped the opening folds: “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

In an instant, thin lines of deep green ink began to spider across the parchment, winding around the borders and forming fancy curly-cues in the corners before spiralling into the centre to spell out in bombastic fashion:

Messrs Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs
Purveyors of Aids to Magical Mischief-Makers
are proud to present


“Oh good gad,” his father groaned, grimacing as he brought his fingers up to massage his temples. “You can’t be serious…”

“Serious about what?” Harry asked, still taking in the fantastic magic being wrought before him. What a clever little…greeting card? Or what was a ‘Marauders’ Map’? Was it yet another British convention Harry hadn’t yet been familiarised with?

“This, Harry my boy,” Sirius said, tapping the parchment with a finger, “is going to be your new best friend. It helped us become the enterprising rapscallions we were always meant to be in our youth—and now, we bequeath it to you, in the hopes that it will aid you in similar endeavours.”

“No—no, none of this ‘we’ business,” his father said, waving a hand. “I want no part of this. And Harry will have no part of it either.” He reached forward, as if to snatch it from Harry, but as his hand approached the parchment, the beautiful scrollwork vanished, and the parchment folded in on itself, over and over and over, until it was the size of a business card and quite out of his reach.

On the face of the card-sized parchment, new writing now began to blossom: ‘Mr Padfoot bids Snivellus keep his greasy paws to himself.’ And then: ‘Mr Wormtail quite concurs.’

Sirius snorted most inelegantly and had to turn away, and this only piqued Harry’s curiosity further. “What is this thing?”

At his question, the parchment opened itself once more, only this time, instead of the simple but elegant decorative border, a drawing began to reveal itself—no, not just a drawing, a…blueprint. A layout of a building, some several storeys tall, with a dozen-plus dots moving about inside it. And over each dot, Harry could see as he leaned in close, were words. Names. People.

It was, as it had presented itself, a map. Of what, Harry couldn’t quite tell—until at the very bottom of the parchment appeared an impressive seal bearing the name HOGWARTS SCHOOL OF WITCHCRAFT AND WIZARDRY.

Harry’s head shot up, looking to Remus and Sirius to explain their gift. “Wh—this is the castle? It’s a map of the castle?”

“Not just any old map,” James said, leaning forward onto his elbow to admire the parchment with a fond, distant glimmer in his eye. “The Marauders’ Map—”

Severus pounded the table, shaking a finger at James. “You aren’t giving that to Harry—I’ll not have him getting involved in the sorts of daft mischief you lot got up to in your time there! I’ll allow the cloak, but I fail to see any legitimate use for this—this—”

‘—bit of fantastic magical theorem-turned-practical achievement! Mr Moony appreciates Snape’s astute observation,’ was newly scrawled across the edge of the map now, and Harry didn’t think he’d ever seen his father turn that shade of red before, nor that particular blood vessel begin to pulse at his temple.

“Oh come off it, Snape,” Sirius said, grinning. “You know precisely the legitimate uses this thing has—else you wouldn’t have helped us fine-tune it in the first place.”

“And I did so to help save that one’s hide!” He pointed now at Remus. “Not so you could sneak about breaking curfew and getting drunk on elf wine on top of the Astronomy Tower!”

“And we’re not giving it to Harry so that he can go make mischief—” Remus started, before he was interrupted by Sirius’s sputtered, “What? The hell we aren’t—”

Undue mischief, then,” Remus continued. “But it can’t be a bad idea, surely, him knowing a few of the less-well-trafficked routes in and out of the castle, don’t you think, Severus?” His brows lifted meaningfully. “And Harry’s a good lad, I’m certain he won’t abuse it.”

His father’s lips thinned into a tight, unhappy moue, before eventually twisting with a grousing grumble. “Fine. Fine.” He shook a finger in Harry’s face. “Only for emergencies, am I clear? You weren’t Sorted Gryffindor, so there’s no sense in you playing at one like these fools did for seven years.”

Harry ducked his head, quite unsure what had ticked him off, until Sirius’s phrasing struck him: “‘Wouldn’t have helped us fine-tune it’—you made this? All of you?”

James gave a shrug that attempted—but failed—at modesty. “Group project, you could say. The Charms weren’t all that difficult—the hardest part was digging up the original blueprints for the castle. Your mum helped with that bit—there wasn’t a bit of forbidden knowledge she couldn’t get her hands on, that one.”

“Sometimes I think she spent more time in the Restricted Section than out of it,” Sirius laughed. “Probably wore James’s Invisibility Cloak more often than he did.”

“Which means she would’ve wanted you to have it!” James clapped a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Carry on the family tradition, and all that.”

Harry studied the parchment once more, tracking the little dots as they moved about. One dot he saw bore the name Minerva McGonagall—and another Argus Filch. “Are these all teachers?”

“Mm, likely—there won’t be any students there just yet, and—oh, yup. Yup, that’ll be Filch, the school’s caretaker. You’ll want to steer clear of him; he always had it out for us, and I don’t expect he’ll treat you too kindly once you waltz in bearing the name ‘Potter’.” James tapped a finger in the lower right-hand corner. “That’s the entrance to the Slytherin Common Room there; maybe you can study this up a bit and get the lay of the castle before you even set foot inside.”

It was a fine idea—Harry didn’t much like the thought of being late for his very first day of classes just because he couldn’t find his way. A surefire way to invite unwanted attention, that. “So if you all created this map, who are these people?” He tapped the names that had first appeared when Remus had activated it. “Moony and Prongs and all.”

Remus gave a mock bow. “Mister Moony, at your service.”

Sirius gave a salute at his side. “Padfoot, ready to rock.”

James bumped Harry’s shoulder. “Prongs, the pretty one.”

Harry’s attention shot to his father, expectant. “So you’re ‘Wormtail’ then?” It didn’t sound like a very complimentary nickname, but then his godfathers seemed to have had an odd relationship with his parents, so what did he know?

There was a long, awkward beat of silence, though, and none of them seemed to want to meet his eye.

At length, Remus cleared his throat softly and simply said, “…He’s not with us any more.”

And Harry, who’d grown up with a man whose sacred motto seemed to be, “I don’t wish to discuss it,” knew that meant the conversation was finished.

In a bid to dispel the tense atmosphere that had settled over the group, Harry’s father next presented him with his own birthday gift: a brand new potions set with silver-tipped knives and a cauldron made from solid gold, which he was informed was fit for absolutely any brewing he might attempt. “So you won’t have any excuse not to score an O on your eventual Potions N.E.W.T.”

Harry rolled his eyes, just as the still-unfolded Marauder’s Map scrawled out in bright-green ink, ‘Mr Moony has a fantastic idea for where Snape ought to shove his stirring rod.

Remus coloured, quickly tapping his wand over the parchment and whispering Mischief managed! He offered Severus an apologetic little shrug before turning to Harry, chagrined: “What can I say? We were rotten little scamps and hadn’t yet learned what a joy your dad is to be around.”

After dinner, James bid his goodbyes and readied to head out, with plans to meet again come the 1st of September to make their way to King’s Cross Station together and see Harry off. Before he stepped out, though, James leaned in close to Harry, gave a wink, and said, “We expect a full report on the Map’s utility when you’re home for the hols. Mark any bits where we need to update the layout, yeah?”

The last few weeks before start of term passed by in a blur as they finalised preparations for the school year. Harry received a handsome hand-me-down trunk from Sirius—which he was much more pleased to take to Hogwarts than anything more of Regulus’s—that had several magically expanded compartments to store his school supplies, clothes, and of course the new potions set he’d received for his birthday. The Invisibility Cloak from James was tucked away safely behind his underwear, where hopefully no one would dare try to dig it out.

He practised a bit with his new wand as well, and while it performed admirably, he did notice his father and godfathers giving him odd, pensive looks whenever he drew it, though they quickly looked away if they saw they’d been spotted. Harry supposed he understood their concern—he himself was of two minds about using a wand with such a connection to his mother’s murderer—but it wasn’t as if this was that wand, and his father had always told him that there was no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ magic, only good or evil wizards who used the tools at their disposal to their own ends. This was a fine wand, a wand clearly meant for him, as evidenced by the pleasant thrum that surged through him every time he picked it up, and that was all there was to it.

The morning of the 1st of September arrived much like any other, though Harry could not say he rose with much shine. He’d barely gotten a wink of sleep, equal parts nervous and excited about the whole matter by this point.

Nervous, because he’d never really consorted with kids his own age before, certainly not a whole school full of up-and-coming witches and wizards, and what if he said or did something wrong or off-putting? There was really no chance he was getting through this school year without some co*ck-up involving either having never gone to a proper school of any sort before or—if not that—being an American transplant in a British boarding school. He still didn’t like the hot tea his father favoured—though he did appreciate the concept of ‘tea time’—and likely this was going to make him the target of an Unforgivable before his first day was through.

But excited as well, because this would be his first time away from his father for such an extended period of time. He loved Severus, truly he did, and Remus and Sirius were great, but out from under their protective wings, he was finally starting to get an eyeful of the world at large, and gods he really wanted to explore it, all on his own. Make his own mistakes (and dodge the aforementioned Unforgivables), see what was what through his own eyes—or well, James Potter’s hand-me-down glasses—rather than as his father might have wished to present it.

He was actually looking forward to being Harry, just Harry, for a bit—not Harry Evans, the Boy Who Lived, but Harry Potter, sheltered offspring of a rakish lothario with poor eyesight and terribly messy hair.

“And you’ve stowed a change of robes in your pack, yes?” Severus asked for about the thousandth time as their party stumbled out of the public Floos near King’s Cross Station. It was already uncomfortably crowded here in the landing zone, between witches and wizards of all ages hauling around massive trunks topped by cages housing owls and cats and toads and even some creatures Harry had never seen before, and Harry could only imagine how much worse it would be once they reached the station proper. “There’ll be an announcement at twenty minutes out to allow students to change into their uniforms, and your trunk will be in the luggage car, so you won’t be able to—”

“I’ve got my robes, Da—sir. I’ve got the robes, the sandwiches Remus made, my books, my wand, and—” He lifted his own carrier. “Kreacher.” The poor thing was yowling in a low, plaintive voice that suggested he was not enjoying having been rousted from his favourite snoozing spot in the puddle of sunlight on the back porch and shoved into a tiny little cage. Harry had tried to explain to him that he’d be allowed the run of the castle once they arrived, but Kreacher either didn’t understand or didn’t care. Harry worried what he might find left in his shoes in retaliation once they were settled into their room.

King’s Cross Station was, predictably, even more crowded than the Floos had been as hundreds of No-Majs bound for their own destinations joined the magical families rushing for Platform 9¾. Kreacher’s yowling grew even louder, earning them more than a few dirty looks, as their unit was jostled about by the throng of humanity crushing around them, and he barely caught Remus’s, “There’s the barrier! Just ahead!” over the deafening hum of a busy Sunday morning in London.

A pair of hands came down on his shoulders and gave a shove, sending Harry stumbling luggage-cart-first into the stone support between platforms 9 and 10—until with a soft pop, he was suddenly tumbling out the other side, into a scrum just as crowded but at least marginally more well-organised, as a magically amplified voice boomed, “Students are asked to board the train promptly and find their seats; family members may see off their charges from the viewing platform. Please DO NOT DAWDLE in front of the barrier, move smoothly to the nearest compartment to board.

“Look sharp there, Harry,” Sirius said as he nudged Harry forward, and Harry turned now to see the rest of his family struggling to exit the barrier behind him. “Head towards the rear; we’re right behind you.”

He did as instructed, relieved to see that many of the carts crowding the platform on this side of the barrier seemed to budge up just enough to let him squeeze through when by all rights there ought not to have been sufficient room. Really, he didn’t understand how this many people had made it onto the platform to begin with—it was worse than Independence Day on Pier 39½—but whatever magic had been worked into the bricks and mortar here certainly seemed to be doing its job.

He finally found some breathing room near the entrance to the second-to-last car, and he collapsed onto his trunk as he waited for his father and godfathers to work their way through the mass of humanity. With less of a crowd toward this end, he was able to take in the Hogwarts Express for the first time. He’d never ridden a train before, magical or otherwise, nor seen a steam engine (or at least what looked like a steam engine) up close. It was a handsome thing for sure, with its ruby-red livery and cosily curtained viewing windows riding above massive wheels of black iron and already spewing billowing white steam onto the tracks. Inside, he could spot students milling about, engaging in rapt conversations he couldn’t hear from outside the car but imagined involved what they had gotten up to over the too-brief summer break.

“I certainly haven’t missed that,” Remus huffed as he drew up alongside Harry. “Are there more people here than usual this year? It feels like half of London turned out!”

“Nah, it’s always been a madhouse,” Sirius said, twirling his wand about his fingers as a breeze from nowhere whipped up to fan his face. “You just always boarded as fast as possible and missed it.”

“Well someone needed to save us seats.” Remus crossed his arms. “Blessings of having no one to see you off, I suppose.”

“And grateful we were for it,” James said, presently arriving with Harry’s father. “Imagine if I’d gotten stuck sitting next to Snape the whole way! I think I’d have just jumped out the window over a gorge.” He threw an elbow up onto Severus’s shoulder, leaning into him. “Whatever happened to that fellow? Think maybe the grindylows finally dragged him back where he belonged?”

“Impossible to be sure,” Severus grit out through clenched teeth—today he was Glamoured as a distant cousin of Remus’s, lank blond hair falling in his eyes and stiff, stooped posture making him seem smaller than he really was. “But I did hear—oh my. Potter, are you…is that a grey hair?”

“What?” James shot straight up immediately, patting his hair wildly in a manner that rendered it even more unruly than before. “The hell it is—someone get me a mirror. No, never mind, I’m sure I brought one.”

While James set about frantically digging through his satchel, Remus turned to Harry, wand raised. “Sirius and I will get your luggage sorted—why don’t you get started on your goodbyes and then hop on-board to find a seat? Else you might be stuck sitting next to a Snape of your own.” He then pointed his wand at the trunk and flicked it in the general direction of the luggage car, looping one arm through Sirius’s as he levitated the trunk to its final destination.

Harry turned back to his father, giving a nervous little shrug. “…Guess this is it.”

Severus thrust a hand out, grabbing Harry’s and giving it a rough squeeze. “Well, good luck, boy.” He then inclined his head to James. “I reckon your dad’ll miss you.”

“Oh,” Harry said. James had Transfigured a compact into a full-length mirror and was presently picking through his hair like a monkey, nearly twisting himself entirely around as he struggled to find the grey hair Severus claimed to have spotted. “Yeah—what’ll you do with yourself without me around, Dad?”

“Hm?” James glanced back Harry’s way and then gave a little Oh! when he caught Severus’s sharp gaze boring into him. He hastily Vanished the mirror, clapping a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “I’m sure I’ll manage—but trust it will be a challenge.” His expression then softened. “…Your dad’s definitely gonna miss you.” He lifted a brow. “Will you miss him?”

Harry felt his throat tighten, and he swallowed. “Of course.”

“You sure? ‘Cause I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Your old man can be quite a chore to be around—”

“Stow it, Potter,” Severus grumbled from under the impressive moustache he was presently sporting. “Let’s see your son off—he’s got a long train ride ahead of him.”

“That he does.” James pulled Harry into a deep embrace, squeezing tight as he whispered into Harry’s hair, “Just hug me like I’m Sev and I’ll be sure to pass it along to him once we’re back at Number 12.”

Harry squeezed with all his might.

After reassuring the both of them that he would absolutely write as soon as possible—and yes, he’d studied the Marauder’s Map enough he knew where the Owlery was—he was ushered into the nearest carriage just as Sirius and Remus came jogging back down the platform after seeing off Harry’s trunk. More goodbye hugs were had, candies were tucked into his pockets, and he was urged to make friends with one of the Elves working in the Kitchens as soon as possible, as they would be a reliable source of midnight snacks when he inevitably found himself wandering the castle after curfew.

With one last glance behind him before he stepped into the carriage, Harry gave a final wave to his father and godfathers—and then ducked inside before the lump in his throat and heat rising behind his eyes could turn him into a mess before his new peers.

Goodbyes were over—now it was time for hellos.

Still feeling a bit too intimidated to join someone else’s compartment, he found one that was still empty, sat himself down, and waited for whatever was to come. He’d forgotten to ask how long the ride would be, but it was sure to go by more quickly if he had someone to talk to. Would they be other Slytherins? Or was it common for the Houses to mingle? His godfathers’ reactions to his Sorting suggested no, but maybe traditions had changed in the years since they’d graduated. Some of the students were already wearing their robes, so ought he to put his own on now, instead of waiting for the announcement?

But though several students peeked into his compartment to check if it was occupied, no one bothered to join him once they realised they didn’t recognise the face inside. Maybe they thought he was a First-year, maybe they just didn’t feel up to meeting the ‘new kid’ just yet. Harry decided he wouldn’t let it get to him, either way, and tried to occupy himself reading the fresh copy of Hogwarts, A History his father had bought for him, advising him to get up to speed on the castle’s history, as it would do him well in the coming year.

The text was a bit too dry for his tastes, though, and he wound up nodding off as the train picked up speed, the gentle drone of the engine sending him right off. When he woke, it was to a pleasant voice floating through the train, warning students that they were twenty minutes out from Hogsmeade, where Harry recalled he was to disembark and take a carriage up to the castle proper.

He found he was still alone, no other students having joined him in the interim, and he pushed his glasses up enough to rub at his eyes with one hand as he groped for the change of robes in his pack with the other. He’d allowed Remus to teach him to knot his tie in their brief time together—though he’d also allowed Sirius to teach him the spell for it in case he managed to co*ck it up. He Transfigured the window, beyond which he could see vast stretches of the verdant countryside whipping by, into a mirror and made one last, final attempt to tame the bird’s nest that was his hand-me-down hair from James, but there was just no helping it. And besides, if everyone avoided him on account of his hair, well then all the better. He was supposed to be keeping a low profile, right?

Students began to flood the aisle outside his compartment as Harry felt the train begin to slow, and with a final glance to be sure he had everything—his satchel and his wand he kept on himself, Kreacher and his trunk would be delivered to the dormitories for him—he tugged on his lapels, whispered to himself, You’ve got this, Evans, and whipped open the sliding door as he flung himself into the milling scrum of young wizards and witches.

On the bright side, no one gave him a second glance when he exited his compartment, everyone too focused on gathering their own belongings and gossiping about their summer holiday to pay Harry much mind. Everyone probably assumed he was an older or younger student if they didn’t recognise him as one of their own, and Harry let himself be blithely buffeted along as the other students pressed and pulled and squeezed and squished to be sure they managed to get seats in carriages with their friends. Harry wondered if his carriage-mates would be inclined to start a conversation with him—and if he even wanted them to. Now that it was finally here, his first proper interaction with wizarding kids his own age, he was starting to get nervous again.

Would they make fun of his accent? He knew he had an American twang that was particularly pronounced around his vowels, despite his father’s best efforts to instil in him the “mother tongue”, and though it had never really bothered him before, he found himself feeling just a bit self-conscious of the fact that his lingo was a whole generation out of date. Did people still claim to be ‘skill’ these days? Well, he was about to find out.

The train finally came to a hissing, jerking halt, and suddenly it was chaos as everyone shoved their way out onto the platform—which was, to Harry’s great relief, much more spacious than King’s Cross Station had been, on account of the lack of family and loved ones milling about to see off their charges. Harry let himself be carried from the car by the wave of humanity spilling from the train, hoping the swell would take him at least in the general direction of the carriages. Farther up on the platform, towering over the students rushing to disembark, loomed a brick wall of a man nearly twice Harry’s height, holding a lantern that was already gleaming brightly in the failing afternoon light and bellowing, “First-years, this way! This way, First-years! Carriages are for older students only—if you’re a First-year, gather round this way and we’ll head down to the boats!”

“Think the squid’ll grab one this year?” he heard a boy in a red-and-gold tie ask one in a yellow-and-black tie, ribbing his companion with an elbow as he nodded in the general direction of the man attempting to corral the First-years. “I heard they give you passing marks in all your classes if one of your roommates gets dragged into the lake, on account of the trauma.” He sighed loudly. “Some folks have all the luck.”

Shortly, the shuffling mass of students began to coalesce into two queues that snaked in on themselves several times, and craning his neck, Harry could see that the head stopped just before a horseshoe court where a slick, black self-driving carriage was presently picking up passengers before rolling off to be replaced by another equally slick, black self-driving carriage, and then another and another and another. Remus had told him these were not actually self-driving, that there were invisible horses holstered at the front, but Harry would believe it when he could literally see it.

The lines moved rather more quickly than Harry would have expected given all the students needing to be carted up to the castle, and the skies overhead were still bright with fading pinks and oranges and purples by the time he made it to the front of his line. He was the first to climb in when the next empty carriage pulled up, and he was intrigued to see the carriages were much more spacious on the inside than they seemed at first glance, able to hold nearly a dozen students if needed. He pressed himself up against the far side of the carriage, turning to give a smiling nod to the witch who settled in next to him—but he was met with a bushy brown head of voluminous curls that nearly smothered him.

“—don’t understand how you can believe in that sort of hogwash when there’s absolutely no credible evidence of these creatures’ existence!” Bushy Hair was presently well into an argument with one of the other passengers, a girl whose face Harry could not see but who had a soft, lilting voice and did not seem in the least bit bothered by Bushy Hair’s rather exasperated squabbling.

Across from Harry sat a boy in a red-and-gold tie who gave Harry a polite nod but engaged no further, and Harry resigned himself to spending the rest of the carriage ride quietly tucked away in the corner, inhaling the lingering aroma of Bushy Hair’s floral shampoo and watching the castle in the distance loom larger and larger before them as the carriages trundled up from Hogsmeade.

He’d thought, the first time his father had informed him he’d be going to school in a castle, that Severus had been exaggerating. And even after receiving the Marauder’s Map and seeing for himself the layout of the place, a part of him had still thought the notion of attending classes in a draughty stone fortress ridiculous—this was the 20th century! They didn’t do that sort of thing anymore, surely not even in Europe.

But there really was no other way to describe the massive structure, several storeys tall with multiple towers and dozens of windows dotting its façade, all brightly gleaming with warm light, beckoning students inside. It was both imposing and inviting at once, a queer paradox that Harry didn’t dislike. Even Bushy Hair had dropped her argument with what had turned out to be a loopy-looking blonde girl in a tie of blue and bronze to crane her neck enough to take in the castle’s courtyard as their carriage drew up to what Harry took to be the front entrance.

The carriage doors creaked open, and everyone began hopping out, adjusting their robes once more and trading hushed whispers of excitement before they made their way up the stone steps as a group and through the massive double-doors fronting the castle’s entryway.

This next bit would be easy—he’d already been well briefed on what to expect: follow the crowd into the Great Hall and bank left, as that was where the Slytherin tables would be. At least, that was where they’d been twenty years ago. What if they’d moved the tables around? Or what if the long bench tables had been traded out for smaller, more intimate circular tables? It would be the train compartment business all over again!

To his relief, though, the seating arrangement of the Great Hall did not seem to have been altered much in the two decades since his father and godfathers had last sat here, and over each of the four long columns of tables hung vibrant banners proudly announcing which House supped beneath them. Harry threw one last longing glance toward the Gryffindor tables, where students excitedly welcomed the new arrivals to sit amongst them, and made his way to the rather more staid (he would not use words like gloomy or dour, not on his first night, no) Slytherin tables on the opposite side of the Hall.

Several of his new Housemates jostled past him, bumping his shoulder in their rush to claim seats next to their friends, saved for their arrival. As no one had saved him a seat, naturally, he grabbed a spot of open bench at the far end. The student nearest to him—a dark-skinned girl with a wary look in her eyes—gave him a polite nod, much like the boy in the carriage, and then turned back to engage the girl next to her in quiet conversation Harry couldn’t pick up. Were they talking about him? Or were they—as was more likely—simply catching up with each other, trading tales about their summer break that didn’t involve Harry at all? Why had no one told him that being a Slytherin came with pride and ambition, sure, but also a heaping helping of paranoia and nerves?

The other students who slid onto the bench after him also gave him a wide berth, and Harry resigned himself to a quiet dinner of minding his own business and trying to keep a low profile. The point of this year wasn’t to make friends—it was to get through it alive, without blowing his cover. And the fewer people he had to perform for, the easier that would be.

But the ‘keeping a low profile’ bit, he was realising, would probably be tricky to manage.

Once all of the returning students had made their way to their respective House tables, the Sorting Ceremony began for the First-years, which Harry was relieved to see briefly distracted his Housemates from the stranger worming his way into their midst. He joined them in clapping loudly for each new warm body sent their way, clinking glasses when prompted and doing his best to blend in.

But the excitement brought about by the arrival of bright-eyed new recruits to the House was quickly subsumed by the welcome speech delivered by the Headmaster—the ‘Dumbledore’ he’d heard so much about. He reviewed the school rules (many of which Harry was now realising had been routinely broken by his godfathers back in the day—they’d made it sound like the Forbidden Forest had been their private getaway and not home to multiple Class Quintuple-X magical creatures and the last known location of several missing students over the years!), reminded students who were of-age that alcoholic beverages would not be tolerated on the premises outside of staff-chaperoned functions, and then topped it all off by wishing all present a year full of learning, both magical and mystical—“including our several new transfers, returning to us from points near and far. Please, everyone, welcome them warmly, as I’m sure we have much to learn from one another.”

Dumbledore then raised his goblet to each table, receiving responses in turn from students scattered amongst the benches—the ‘decoys’ his father had spoken of, then? Harry he greeted last, and his gaze seemed to linger, eyes twinkling knowingly behind half-moon glasses. Harry politely returned the gesture with a thin smile. So much for keeping a low profile. It was nice the Headmaster wanted others to be friendly toward him, but now he had even more eyes on him than before, which was less than ideal. Even the staff were sizing him up, and he winced under the targeted glare he was receiving from the Potions professor, a corpulent older man with thin, greying hair and a broom-bristle moustache who looked like he ought to be very jovially mannered but was presently frowning right at Harry. Perfect, just perfect.

He kept his head down—literally—for the rest of the meal, monotonously spooning peas and mash into his mouth and wondering if this was really worth the trouble after all. If it was just a matter of ensuring his magic stayed functional, then he could have just moved to Fiji or somewhere equally tropical and remote and lived happily, beachcombing and practising magic as he pleased. Surely they couldn’t actually prevent the Trace from breaking, and who’d travel that far just to arrest him when it was just Harry, coconut drinks, and white sandy beaches as far as the eye could see?

“Potter, wasn’t it?”

It couldn’t be more dangerous than actually coming back here, where people had tried to kill Harry—where people had killed his mother. There was a festering little bit of mould in his chest, nestled behind his ribcage, at the centre of his heart, that was starting to take root already, he could feel it—the urge for vengeance. He hadn’t really known his mother, but he’d known her love. He’d known the love his father had for her. And while he wasn’t yet ready to hare off into the night on the hunt for the last straggling members of the Death Eater cult that had taken her from them, the longer he dawdled here, the more ingrained it would become, he feared.

Potter, I said.”

He didn’t want to be the kind of person whose grief became their entire personality. It was why he never really let himself think about his mother too much. He’d seen what mingled sorrow and paranoia had done to his father, and while he was grateful for the sanctuary Severus had given him, for the two-fold love he’d shared with Harry to make up for Lily’s passing, he didn’t want to open himself up to all of that.

They really shouldn’t have come back. Severus knew they shouldn’t, even—so why had they?

Why had they come all this way just for—

Someone grabbed him roughly by the front of his robes, jerking him around and up onto his feet. “Are you deaf as well as dumb, Potter?” they snarled in his face, and Harry’s fake glasses slipped down his nose.

It was a boy. A very angry boy. A very angry pointy boy with white-blond hair that had probably been carefully coifed only moments ago but, in the course of this interaction, had now become mussed, a few strands flying free to dangle in front of sharp grey eyes. He had a gleaming badge on his chest that proudly pronounced him a PREFECT, and he seemed to be expecting an answer.

“Oh, er, yes. Potter—that’s me. Harry Potter. Sorry—” Angry Blond Prefect shoved him away with a scoff, and Harry made a mad grab for the table so he didn’t go tumbling onto his ass. “S-sorry, I was—thinking.”

Angry Blond Prefect raked him with a withering glare. “Of that I have my doubts.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you quite finished stuffing your face?” He inclined his head to the massive double doors at the head of the Great Hall. “My bad luck, I drew the short straw and got stuck having to escort you to the Dungeons.”

Harry boggled, grip tightening a bit on the edge of the table. “Wh—Dungeons?” Surely he hadn’t already been found out, right? His father had warned him you couldn’t Apparate on Hogwarts grounds, but if his life was on the line, he was willing to give it his very best shot regardless.

Angry Blond Prefect rolled his eyes dramatically. “Our Common Room, you dolt.” And oh. Right. He’d known that. He’d even memorised the route on the map, so he probably could have made his way there on his own, but saying so would probably have just made Angry Blond Prefect even angrier—and probably a little suspicious about how the New Kid already knew his way around the castle. “Well?” he snapped when Harry failed to respond as promptly as he would have liked. “I’m not standing here for my own health.”

“Right—right, sorry.” Harry hastily snatched up a napkin and wiped his mouth and hands, shimmying out from the bench. He could feel dozens of eyes on them as he followed Angry Blond Prefect down the rows of tables. Was this sort of attitude out of character for Angry Blond Prefect? Was he generally a gentle soul, loath to so much as harm a fly, and that Harry had managed to draw such ire from him surely evidence he was a shady sort who ought not to be trusted?

“Malfoy,” Angry Blond Prefect said once they’d left behind the cheery warm comfort of the Great Hall—as well as all of its prying eyes.

“What?” Harry said, distracted by the massive hourglasses filled with what looked to be hundreds of rubies and emeralds and diamonds and sapphires. He’d somehow missed them coming in, and every couple of seconds, one or two would gems would be sucked back up into the upper bulb.

Angry Blond Prefect turned sharply on his heel, rounding on Harry, and Harry nearly smacked into him. “I’m missing dessert for you, you realise? Blaise has said he’ll sneak me back a slice of pie, but he and I both know he won’t. He’ll think about it, but then he’ll catch a glimpse of his reflection in the underside of his spoon, and that’ll be that. So seeing as I’m sacrificing a much needed sugar boost to hold your hand and show you where you’ll be resting your weary little head for evenings henceforth, I would very much appreciate it if you’d f*cking pay attention.”

Oh. So maybe he was better mannered when properly fed, then. Harry resolved to try and mend this relationship before it flew further off the rails. “…Yes. Of course, I’m sorry. Thank you. It’s just been a bit of a whirlwind is all. I do appreciate you showing me to the Common Room, really.” Perhaps he could find a way to get Sirius to bake another tart and Owl it to him—they did say the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, after all. “Er—Malfoy?” It sounded like a name.

Angry Blond Prefect glared down his nose at Harry, which was a difficult thing to do, seeing as Harry was only a few hairs shorter than him, so he had to throw his head back a bit to achieve the effect. He sniffed. “Draco Malfoy. One of your Prefects, as you can see.” He tapped the badge on his chest. Oh, so it was a name, and a rather extravagant one at that.

“Ah, nice to meet you.” Harry extended a hand. “Harry. Potter. Harry Potter. That’s my name.”

Malfoy’s lip curled at the proffered hand, and he narrowed his eyes. “…You’re certain they Sorted you Slytherin?”

Harry gave a sheepish shrug. “Afraid so, it seems.”

“Why afraid so? Got something against our House? Where are you from? You sound like you’ve got a mouthful of marbles.”

“Wh—no, I mean, it was a surprise is all. My dad’s Gryffindor. I guess he thought I’d take after him.” He decided not to touch the question of his origin for now—too much improvisation and he’d never be able to keep his story straight, and Malfoy seemed like he was ready to pounce on the tiniest little chink in Harry’s armour.

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed further. More of this, and he was just going to close them altogether. “The Potter line’s produced nothing but Gryffindors since the 17th century.” He raked Harry from stem to stern. “What makes you so special?”

God, this one wasn’t going to give up easily, was he? Harry was now beginning to suspect that Malfoy’s attitude on the usual was a rather surly and pompous one, pie or no pie. “…Couldn’t tell you, sorry.”

Malfoy released a little grunt of annoyance, features screwing up, and then he turned and began marching once more, snapping his fingers when Harry didn’t immediately step to it. “You’ll be rooming with the other Sixth-year boys—Zabini, Crabbe, Goyle, Nott, and myself of course. The dormitories aren’t meant to house more than five to a room, so thanks so very much for the tight squeeze we’ll all have to endure for the next nine months.”

As if this were Harry’s fault. He was liking this Malfoy character less and less the deeper into the bowels of the castle they descended. “Er, I’ll try not to be too much of a bother—”

“Too late,” Malfoy sighed. “Shower shifts are separated by year—Sixth-years are scheduled for 8:00 to 8:15, mornings and evenings; if you need the facilities outside of those slots, a Freshening Charm is your new best friend. Curfew is at 10 PM sharp, lights out at 11—if you’re caught outside your room after curfew and embarrass our House, you’ll wish getting points docked was the worst you had coming.”

They finally arrived at a handsome black door with a silver knocker and handle, and Malfoy tapped the keyhole with his wand, whispering Merlin as the door opened on its own for them. The room was softly lit but very elegantly appointed, and it reminded Harry starkly of Number 12. He recalled that all of Sirius’s family members had also been Slytherin students and wondered if such taste in design was innate to the House or just happy coincidence.

One entire wall was fully glassed in, and Harry supposed that the dark void that stretched beyond was the depths of the Black Lake. Malfoy followed his eye: “And don’t tap on the glass. It annoys the merfolk.”

Harry nodded. “I heard they’ll teach you naughty words in Lorelei if you sneak them food from the Kitchens—is that true?”

Malfoy boggled, the expression rather out of place on his otherwise polished features. “I—what?”

Harry supposed that meant he’d have to try it out himself and hope Sirius’s mother hadn’t been having him on. Perhaps Malfoy thought Harry was having him on too, for he shook his head and moved on, continuing their tour.

Malfoy pointed out the study nooks (“They are to be used for studying and nothing else.”), the laundry chutes (“Deposit your unmentionables promptly; ask Nott what happens if I should find your dirty underwear lurking under my bed.”), the Wireless (“You’ll need a Prefect’s permission to change the channel, though—touch that dial during League Cup matches and you’re liable to get your arm Hexed off.”).

“And should you have any further questions…” Malfoy shrugged. “Ask another Prefect. Or Professor Slughorn, our Head of House.”

They’d finally reached their room’s floor, six levels down. It was a pleasant enough descent, but Harry wasn’t looking forward to having to mount those stairs back up to ground level every morning. “Not you?”

Not me,” Malfoy said pointedly, and Harry wondered how he’d gotten this Prefect position at all. Were they not elected? Did you just get picked at random, or had he greased a staff member’s palm to get his badge? “Also, you’ll be in charge of your own schedule from here on out—that includes waking up in the morning, getting to your classes on time, and attending meals. None of us is going to hold your hand—if you want that sort of treatment, you ought to have been Sorted Hufflepuff.” Well, it wasn’t like Harry hadn’t tried that. “We’re all nearly adults here and ought to be managing our own affairs.”

And that made sense, but did Malfoy have to say it like that? Gods, this was going to be a long year…

When Malfoy at last escorted him into their room, Harry found his luggage had already been delivered, along with Kreacher, who was presently giving himself a bath atop what Harry hoped was his bed and not Malfoy’s.

“Good gad!” Malfoy stopped short, recoiling. “What is that thing?” He squinted. “They let you bring a house-elf?”

And Harry had to chuckle at that, shuffling over to drop his satchel onto the mattress and giving Kreacher a few welcome scritches. “Of course not. This is my cat, Kreacher.”

“…Why does it look like that? It’s not diseased, is it?”

Malfoy would probably not find it amusing he was asking all the same questions James had, but Harry did. “It’s just his breed. I read that they originated in Egypt and used to be companions to Pharaohs.” Harry did not actually believe this claim, suspecting that the employee at Magical Menagerie had only been looking to make a sale, but Malfoy did at least seem mildly more intrigued now he thought such cats were associated with royalty.

“…Well,” Malfoy wrinkled his nose and turned away from Harry’s corner of the room, “if I find it’s shat in my loafers, don’t think I won’t dock points from my own House.”

Harry did not doubt that he would, rapidly realising that Malfoy was the sort of prickly knob who enjoyed a good power trip. Under most circ*mstances, Harry might have been tempted to go out of his way to piss him off—maybe the Potter name did suit him after all—but he could already hear his father admonishing him to check his temper and keep his head down. Summering with a bunch of Gryffindors had left him with some bad habits that were liable to get him in trouble if he didn’t watch himself, and apparently as a Slytherin, he was supposed to be cunning and calculating and stuff, so he should probably get on that.

This seemed to be the end of the tour, and Malfoy left Harry to his unpacking while he departed for the baths (“We Prefects have our own private facilities—you won’t catch me within ten feet of the rancid, mould-ridden cells you lay folk have to use.”) before the returning students mobbed them. And right on schedule, Harry found himself joined by the rest of his dormmates returning from dinner only moments later. He was relieved to find that Malfoy was the testiest and surliest of the lot, with the others—Vince, Greg, Theo, and Blaise—actually turning out to be rather decent sorts. Greg and Vince didn’t talk much after giving Harry a cursory palm brush by way of a handshake, but he was assured that this was just because they were heading for a food coma after overindulging at dinner, a favourite pastime of theirs, and it wasn’t as if they generally had much to say anyway.

Theo too was decent, and Blaise was even decent-er, overly garrulous and not prickly at all, unlike Malfoy. When Harry related the rather tense tour he’d been treated to, Blaise had just laughed merrily. “Oh, he’s always like that. Someday St. Mungo’s will figure out how to remove that stick up his arse, surely.”

Harry wasn’t so sure. It sounded like an integral part of Malfoy’s personality now—removing it might have disastrous consequences.

He resolved to be in bed and on his way to sleep before Malfoy came back from his bath, in case he wanted to start round two of ripping on Harry, and turned in early. He had a big day come morning, after all, and he released a long, soft exhalation as he slowed his thoughts, Kreacher curled up next to him purring softly to lull him to sleep, and wondering if Blaise had remembered to bring Malfoy that slice of pie in the end.

Chapter 2

Chapter Text

Harry awoke the next morning to the insistent buzzing of his wand on his bedside table. Kreacher made irritated cat sounds when Harry jostled him trying to reach over to silence the Alarm Spell, but he quickly settled once Harry rolled from the bed and tucked him back in comfortably. It was nice one of them would get to sleep in, at least.

But while he’d thought he’d gotten a reasonably early start on the day, with nearly an hour still to go before breakfast, Harry was surprised to find he had been the last to rise. Indeed, he was the only person left in the room at all save Blaise, who was presently settled cross-legged on his own bed, Charming his nails different colours until he settled on one he liked.

“Er, where is everyone…?” It was too early for their shower shift, and while he might have believed it of Malfoy, neither Vince nor Greg nor honestly even Theo struck him as early risers angling to review their upcoming syllabus before classes started.

“Theo’s in the Library, supposedly getting a head start on being tutored in Charms by his Ravenclaw girlfriend—but more likely sucking face in the Muggle Studies stacks—and Draco, Greg, and Vince are at practice.”

“Practice?” Harry frowned. “What sort of practice? We only just got here yesterday…”

“The Quidditch season will start before you know it—and Draco’s defending the Inter-House Cup. I’m shocked he didn’t have the team out on the pitch yesterday, honestly. He’s an absolute terror—but he wins them matches, so I suppose they’re willing to put up with it.”

“Oh, right.” Harry nodded, memories of James and Sirius’s ‘spirited’ sports conversations rising to the surface. “I’ve heard of that—it’s your version of Quodpot, yeah?” Blaise made it sound like Malfoy was the team captain, and Harry shuddered internally at the prospect. That was the last thing that prick needed—more power.

Blaise was blinking at him very loudly. “Wh—you’re joking, right?” He snorted softly, shaking his head in amusem*nt and turning back to Charming his toes. “And they say Yanks have no sense of humour!”

“Er, I mean—I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard? Or I guess Quodpot would be our version of Quidditch, if you want to get technical about it, but—”

Blaise pocketed his wand with a snap of his wrist, leaping to his feet and clapping both hands on Harry’s shoulders as he leaned in, eyes wide and white. “Potter. Harry. This is terrible.” He grabbed Harry by the wrist and began jerking him along. “You must come with me immediately—this cannot stand.”

Whatever it was that could not stand was evidently too pressing to resolve for Harry to change clothes, so he allowed himself to be dragged still in his pyjamas—thank goodness he’d chosen to sleep in the boxers without holes in them—up the stairs and down to the massive pitch south of the castle towards Hogsmeade. It was a wonder Harry hadn’t noticed it the previous evening, but between the failing light and the beaming beacon that had been the castle itself, he supposed it made sense.

“If you’re going to be a student of this school—and more to the point, if you’re going to be a member of this House—then you absolutely must have at least a passing understanding of Quidditch.”

“I do,” Harry protested. “I mean, I know Quodpot, and Quidditch isn’t so different, is it?”

Blaise released a harsh bark of laughter, slinging an arm around Harry’s neck. “Harry, Harry, Harry. Listen. I like you. You seem like a stand-up fellow. So I’m going to give you a bit of free advice here.” He dropped his voice and leaned in close. “Never, ever say that in front of Draco, all right? He’ll take it as a personal affront, and you don’t want—”

“What the f*ck are you doing out here, Zabini?” Malfoy called from above them, sharp and strident, and Harry had to shield his eyes against the bright morning sunlight, squinting to pick him out from the dozen of black dots zipping around in the sky. “The pitch is off-limits to all but authorised personnel, and you’re decidedly not autho—” There was a brief pause, and then: “Is that Potter? Get him out of here! The both of you are trespassing! Piss off!”

Zabini waved his arms. “Potter’s never seen Quidditch before! He’s barely even heard of it!”

“I’ve heard of it,” Harry hissed. If it was so important they not let Malfoy know what a rube Harry was when it came to the wider world of magical games and sports, this sure seemed counterproductive.

“He what?!” Malfoy sounded like he’d swallowed his own tongue, and one of the black dots milling overhead dropped like a rock and came zooming their way. Malfoy brought his broom up short once he’d drawn close enough, using the momentum to gracefully hop down until his black boots were kissing Harry’s slipper-covered toes. “What kind of wizard are you?” he sneered, pointy nose almost brushing Harry’s.

“…They didn’t have any teams back home. We’re more of a Quodpot nation…”

“Barbarism,” Malfoy scoffed, then turned his attention to Blaise, snapping his fingers and pointing to the stands. “Watch from there, if you must—watch. I don’t need your ‘witty commentary’ distracting my team.”

“Pucey’s arse did look stunning, though—what, I was supposed to see it and not say anything? I’m not made of stone here!” Blaise was shouting by the end as Malfoy mounted his broom once more and kicked off, flying out of earshot. Harry watched him go with silent appreciation. The severe way Malfoy carried himself extended, it seemed, to his flying prowess as well—all sharp, trained reflex, no movement wasted. Beside him, Blaise sighed, clapping Harry between the shoulder-blades and guiding him toward the steps leading up into the tall, rickety stands. “Well, the view’s better from on high anyway.”

Truer words had never been spoken. Once settled on one of the Slytherin benches, Harry could truly appreciate Malfoy’s skill as a leader. He had to take back his earlier presumption that Malfoy would let the power of the team captain position go to his head. It might have gone to his head, true, but he did at least seem to have the know-how to back it up.

He had the team do drills flying in complex but artistic formations, snapping out ruthless takedowns if one drifted out of position like the most pretentious of drill sergeants. They eventually got around to scrimmaging, and Blaise tried to explain the rules of the game to Harry while the majority of the team jockeyed for the Quod (“Quaffle,” Blaise corrected.), but he found himself increasingly distracted watching Malfoy himself, zipping around the pitch like a green-and-silver bullet with seemingly no interest in the Quaffle at all.

He was just so fast. And so polished. One moment he was there, and then he was there, and then he was five feet away from the stands, gaze snapping around intently, like a falcon on the hunt. His robes flapped behind him like bannerettes, drawing the eye reflexively.

Harry had never been all that interested in sports before—his father had called it a brutish pursuit serving those with simple minds. But there didn’t seem to be anything brutish or simple about this—at least, not from Malfoy’s end. Vince and Greg definitely looked like they’d been recruited more for their muscle than for their strategic instincts. But he couldn’t see how his father could have watched Malfoy absolutely screaming up and down the pitch in all dimensions and thought it low or silly or a waste of time that could be better spent perfecting that Wiggenweld Potion, boy.

“Can anyone play this?” he asked, almost breathless as Malfoy magnified his voice, sending it booming out over the pitch to call an end to practice.

“Anyone?” Blaise chuckled. “Well no, not anyone. But some folks do have a talent for it—Draco’s been Seeking for Slytherin since he was twelve, but supposedly he was riding a broom before he could even walk.” He arched a brow, sensing Harry’s palpable interest. “Like what you saw?”

“I don’t even know what I was looking at,” Harry admitted, but he was smiling, and he couldn’t seem to stop.

He could feel Blaise watching him—and then got a gentle elbow to his ribs. “C’mon. Breakfast starts in fifteen, and I still haven’t finished Charming my nails.”

They made their way back down the winding stairs snaking down from the stands—and found themselves waylaid by Malfoy as they reached the pathway leading back up to the castle. “You’ll note there was no witty commentary!” Blaise protested preemptively, pirouetting around Malfoy and racing for the entry hall before any arguments otherwise could be made. Malfoy cut him a reproving glare as he darted off but made no move to stop him, instead leaning on his broom and sizing Harry up.

“Too good for school robes, are we? Or is this the fashion in—what backwater country did you immigrate from, again?”

“America…” Harry muttered defensively, and Malfoy scoffed in disgust.

“You’re a Slytherin—at least be circ*mspect enough about it to lie and say ‘Canada’ or something. No one’s ever going to respect you otherwise.” He handed his broom off to one of the other team members passing by, crossing his arms over his chest. “So? Thoughts?”

It took Harry a beat to realise Malfoy was hoping to hear Harry’s opinion on the practice session. Probably to tear into him for not knowing what had been going on, since that seemed like the sort of thing he might like to do to start his day off. Maybe if Harry indulged, he’d cut him some slack, at least for the day. “I—well, honestly, I don’t…really know what to say, but—” He scrubbed at the back of his head, lips quirking in bemusem*nt. “It was pretty f*ckin’ amazing. I mean, I’ve seen Quodpot before, but it was mostly kids in parks playing for fun. I guess I’ve never seen people who were actually good at tossing a ball around on broomsticks.”

Malfoy’s lip curled. “Call it ‘tossing a ball around on broomsticks’ again and I’ll skin you like you did your poor cat.”

“I didn’t skin my cat—”

“And weren’t you wearing glasses yesterday? How did you even see the game without those glass-bottle lenses of yours?”

Oh f*ck. Harry groped for an excuse. “Er—someone left a pair of Omnioculars in the stands. Those sufficed. I got dragged out here without the courtesy of being allowed to at least put on proper clothes.”

“And good Blaise did so. It’s shameful to be a nearly full-fledged member of wizarding society and not at least have a passing familiarity with the rules.”

“Wh—I grew up in America! We don’t have Quidditch there—you won’t see me giving you a hard time for not knowing a Pukwudgie from your left big toe.”

Malfoy looked like Harry had just slapped him. “You just made that up. That’s not a real thing. It’s one thing for Loony Lovegood to bandy about that sort of codswallop but I’ll not tolerate it from inside my own House.”

All right, they were done here. Harry didn’t know what sort of vendetta Malfoy had against him or why, but he was through indulging it. “Right. Well, you have fun with practising your needlessly complicated school sport, and I’ll sleep in, and that way, we won’t have to see each other in the mornings.”

Harry moved to brush past him, and Malfoy caught his shoulder, scrambling around to place himself in Harry’s path. “It’s not needlessly complicated. It’s a perfectly normal amount of complicated.”

“Sure, whatever you say. You sound like you like being right all the time, so let’s just leave it at that. I’m sure it’s totally normal for a sport to have two different balls and people hitting them at each other and three goals and one random guy zipping around doing nothing but showing off his flying skills.”

Malfoy wrinkled his nose. “There’s three balls.”

“Oh, well, fine if you want to get pedantic. The two buzzing around slamming into players and the one that actually matters, the—”


“Quiffle. Or Quaff—what?” Harry frowned. “What’s a ‘Snitch’?” Now who was the one just making up words?

Malfoy took a staggering step back. “What’s a—it’s the whole damn game! What did you think I was doing out there?”

Harry shrugged. “Showing off?” He would not be letting Malfoy know he had been remotely impressed with his prowess atop a broom, absolutely not. This asshole had a big enough head already.

Malfoy clenched his fists like he was just barely restraining himself from strangling Harry but then settled for just shaking a finger in his face. “That wasn’t showing off—it’s basic Seeking skills!” He threw his hands in the air and turned on his heel, marching after the final few stragglers from his team still on the field. “The game can’t end until the Snitch is caught, and you think I want to be stuck out here the next six months just waiting for it to leap politely into my grasp? And when capturing one ball outstrips the efforts to score fourteen goals with another ball, I rather think that makes the former matter much more than the latter!” He threw an irritated look over his shoulder when he realised Harry wasn’t right on his heels like a faithful Crup. “Well? Are you coming?”

And Harry very much wanted to just say No, because why on earth would he spend more time with Malfoy than was absolutely necessary—and more to the point, why would Malfoy want to spend more time with Harry than was absolutely necessary?—but the matter didn’t seem to be up for debate, the question rhetorical, and he desperately needed Malfoy to like him just enough to ignore him, so Harry could get on with this school year without drawing the ire-roused suspicion of a Prefect.

He drew up alongside Malfoy, just so he didn’t get the idea Harry was deferring to him. “What’s the point of playing, then, if all you have to do is find this Snitch thing?”

“All you have to do!” Malfoy laughed, a harsh bark that drew frowns from the other players all marching toward what looked like a little shed off around the side of the pitch. A locker room, perhaps? Excellent, Harry could make his excuses there and get back to the castle to get changed into his uniform. He was pretty sure he had Potions as his first class, and the professor didn’t seem to like him and would probably like him much less if he showed up still in his pyjamas. “As if it’s so simple!” Malfoy marvelled at Harry. “Gads, they really don’t teach you anything at Ilvermorny, do they? I knew it wasn’t in the same league as even Beauxbatons, but I did assume they at least taught students the basics of what’s what in the wider magical world!”

Harry didn’t know what they taught at Ilvermorny, not having attended the institution himself, so he let the slight slide for now. Better Malfoy think him an uneducated fool than probe too deeply into where his education had come from and why it hadn’t been from a proper magical school.

Malfoy spent the rest of the march to the locker room regaling Harry with a much more effusive—and honestly easier to follow—rundown of the game of Quidditch, and when he showed no signs of taking a breath let alone stopping on reaching the locker room itself, Harry found he was obliged to follow him inside. He let himself be distracted from Malfoy’s droning prattle by the state of the facility, quietly impressed with how much bigger it was on the inside than it seemed from the outside and much more finely appointed than he would have expected from the dilapidated exterior.

“Well, at least you’ve played—what was it called? That bastard child of Quidditch they concocted across the pond.”

“Quodpot,” Harry said, still marvelling at the slick subway tile lining the showers and gleaming fixtures. The ceiling overhead was already blanketed in a thick fog of steam, and the air was getting heavy with humidity. How was it the bathrooms here were nicer than his and his father’s entire apartment back home? “And I haven’t actually played.” He hadn’t even flown on a broom before, honestly, but confessing as such right now might send Malfoy into cardiac arrest.

“Ugh, ghastly name,” Malfoy groaned, shucking his Quidditch jersey and pelting Harry in the face with it as he set to work on his bottoms next. Harry quickly turned his back, letting the jersey drop to the floor. He wasn’t Malfoy’s house-elf, even if Malfoy spoke to him like one. “Step lively,” Malfoy called out, voice fading with distance. “I haven’t the time to bring you up to speed so you don’t embarrass our House and then shower.”

“Surely there’s a book or something I could read on the subject…” Harry groaned, carefully stepping backwards after Malfoy. If he slipped on a bar of soap and got an eyeful of Malfoy’s undercarriage, he was going to leave, just leave, Apparate right through whatever wards were blanketing the campus and damn the Trace and all threats concerning it. Blessedly, though, he bumped up against one of the long benches fronting the stalls and settled down, focusing on the far wall while Malfoy told him all about the evolution of the Snitch from bird to ball and then moved on to a lecture concerning the different broomstick manufacturers and their respective strengths and weaknesses.

“And frankly, the Nimbus line hasn’t matched the quality of the Firebolt since—towel.” Malfoy snapped his fingers at him. “Towel, Potter.”

“Summon it yourself.”

“With what wand?”

“The one you’ve got up your ass…” Harry grumbled beneath his breath, groping blindly for one of the towels hanging on the rack just off to his side and tossing it over his head behind him. Though he supposed that wasn’t an entirely fair comment—Malfoy hadn’t had a snide remark one for Harry for nearly ten minutes now. He really liked to hear himself talk, it sounded like, but the talking was more silly Quidditch facts and opinions on broomstick makes and models and less sneering quips about the hand-me-down Potter hair and the fact that Harry was still wearing his pyjamas. Maybe he’d snuck a pre-breakfast muffin to sate those nasty hunger pangs. If that were the case, Harry would seriously consider keeping one on hand at all times, for emergencies.

“Wh—you’re still in your bedclothes?” Malfoy gasped, snapping a rolled up towel at Harry as he shrugged into his school robes and directed his tie to knot itself around his neck. Harry wondered if Malfoy even knew how to tie it by hand; it made him feel just a little bit superior, realising he might actually know something Malfoy didn’t.

“When would I have had time to change?” Harry huffed, and Malfoy rolled his eyes.

“Were you just sitting on your arse twiddling your thumbs while I showered?” He waved lazily in the direction of the castle. “Just Summon your Monday wardrobe and change here.”

“I don’t have a ‘Monday wardrobe’.”

“Uneducated and disorganised? Gads, you’re nigh hopeless.” He snapped his wand in Harry’s direction, the tip tracing intricate runes in the air, and Harry’s pyjamas transformed themselves into a fair rendition of his school robes, though his slippers remained just slippers. “That should hold through breakfast, at least.”

Harry patted himself down, frowning. “…Or I could just go back to our room and dress for class, like a normal person.”

“No, you wouldn’t have time. Now, where was I? Ah—right. The standard Quaffle weight has evolved over time. In centuries past, the ball was filled with sand, you see.”

The Quidditch lecture continued on into breakfast. Harry suspected Blaise had done this to him on purpose and actually did not like Harry very much after all. It was the tiniest bit worrisome how absolutely obsessed Malfoy was with this silly game. On most anyone else, it would have been charming the way he so eagerly shared his hobby—fixation, really—with a virtual stranger, but from Malfoy, it felt a little like Harry would be quizzed on every iota of information spilling from Malfoy’s lips, down to the most minute of details, and if Harry slipped up once, he’d find his underwear filled with Hungarian Itching Powder or his quills Jinxed to stab his fingers.

Malfoy was weird. He was prickly and self-absorbed and would have wrinkles before he was 30 from the way he kept his lip in a perpetual sneer, but he was also downright animated as he rattled off all the named fouls in the game, half of which Harry was positive he was making up on the fly (Blatching? Stooging? Snitchnip?).

“Damn,” Malfoy cursed around his last bite of his scone, dabbing his lips daintily with his napkin as he palmed a pocket watch. “It’s nearly time for class—what’s your schedule like, Potter? I’m not done with you yet.”

Oh f*ck it all. That decided it—he would skip dinner this evening to ransack the Library and memorise every book he could find on Quidditch, or else Malfoy would never let him know peace. “Er, I think I’ve got a pretty packed schedule. I’m off to Potions first, and then—”

“Excellent.” He Vanished Harry’s half-finished plate of french toast. “I as well. We’ll walk together and see what you’ve learned so far.”

Not enough to get Malfoy off his back, he suspected.

Though in all honesty, he was kind of looking forward to his classes now. This ridiculousness with Malfoy had helped shake him of any remaining nerves, and he was once again filled with a brimming sense of excitement. Potions would be old hat, and he anticipated no real trouble getting through his Charms, Transfiguration, and Defence Against the Dark Arts classes or the compulsory Muggle Studies lessons, but his education was a bit thinner when it came to Magical History and more esoteric fields of study, like Divination, a class he’d only enrolled in because it was either that or Alchemy, and despite his father’s prodding that an Alchemy N.E.W.T. would open many interesting doors for him, Harry himself had no love for the subject.

All of his tutelage thus far had been at his father’s hand, and while he respected Severus, less than twenty-four hours in Malfoy’s presence had made him keenly aware that there were aspects of magical society where his knowledge was sorely lacking—and it wasn’t just Quidditch.

“If you’re so interested in this stuff,” Harry said as they exited the Great Hall, hoping to distract Malfoy from the earlier threatened quiz, “does that mean you’re wanting to be a professional player when you graduate? Or a commentator or something like that, if those sorts of positions exist?”

“What?” Malfoy looked genuinely perplexed. “Of course not, don’t be daft.”

“Why would that daft?” Harry wasn’t entirely sure what ‘daft’ meant, but he hoped it meant ‘stupid’ and not ‘unconscionably rude and offensive’.

“Because I’m a Malfoy,” Malfoy said, as if this explained everything. “We don’t become Quidditch players.”

“Er, why not? If you’re so good at it—and I’m guessing you are, else you probably wouldn’t be so up my ass about not properly appreciating it—and you enjoy it, then why wouldn’t you at least try?”

And Malfoy gave him a funny look. “…Because Malfoys don’t become Quidditch players. Might as well ask me if I’m planning on flying to the moon. It’s preposterous.”

Harry did not point out that No-Majs had gone to the moon, so it wasn’t really all that preposterous a proposal. But Malfoy seemed convinced that his reasoning was sound, and Harry was too tired and hungry and nervous and excited to refute it right now.

Blessedly, the detour in the conversation did serve as distraction enough to keep Malfoy from grilling Harry on all the Quidditch-related minutiae he’d been inundated with over the past hour, but it did not save Harry from being frog-marched to a table near the back once they arrived in the Potions classroom, with Malfoy sliding into the seat next to him and directing Harry to make himself comfortable, as this would be their workbench for the coming year. Harry hadn’t been planning on partnering with anyone in particular, really, but equally so had he been planning on not partnering with Malfoy. They’d be living cheek-to-jowl for the next year; why on earth would Malfoy want to partner with him in classes as well? Perhaps he thought Harry’s ignorance when it came to Quidditch extended to Potions as well and was gearing up for another long and vibrant series of lectures. Well, let him try; Severus had been reading him Potion Opuscule as a bed-time story since he was five.

“Now, you being one of the illustrious explants joining the student body this year, be prepared for Slughorn to fawn over you effusively. He likes to ‘collect’ students, as it were—on account of their naturally outstanding brewing prowess in some cases, like my own, or merely because they’re a curiosity who happened to be born on the other side of the planet in others, like yours. Expect no small degree of favouritism, but try not to flaunt it; it’s gauche and you’ll win yourself no friends.” Harry had to bite his tongue to avoid making a remark along the lines of That’s rich coming from you and getting wand-whipped his very first full day of school.

“What’s the point of ‘collecting’ students?”

Malfoy rolled his eyes—but for once, not directly at Harry. “He thinks rubbing shoulders with the best and brightest—or at least the most interesting—of us will make him look important. To whom, I couldn’t tell you—I suppose he likes to keep these sorts of connections in his back pocket, just in case. He’s a rather easy-going fellow, though, so even with what I have to assume are your abysmal brewing skills, you ought to skate by, if for no other reason than he’s our Head of House, so he’ll want to have a good showing come House Cup time.”

And all right, Harry had had enough of this. “Now hold on, why do you assume my brewing skills are abysmal.”

“You didn’t even know what a Quaffle was, and I’m supposed to believe you know a Bezoar from a tulip bulb?”

“I didn’t know what a Quaffle was because I’d never been introduced to the sport until today—”

“You’re very welcome.”

Harry opened his satchel and hauled out the silver-tipped knives and solid-gold cauldron he’d received from his father for his birthday. The cauldron gave a satisfying THUNK as it hit the wooden tabletop, and Harry darkly appreciated the slight boggle in Malfoy’s eyes. “But I’m a pretty dab hand with brews.”

And one of Malfoy’s lacy white brows arched up nearly into his hairline, the faintest of smiles curling his lips. “…And a challenger appears.” Malfoy twisted around in his seat, one elbow thrown over the back. “How’s your Forgetfulness Potion?”

“Can’t remember.”

“Your Everlasting Elixer?”


“Your Swelling Solution?”

“Why, do you need some?”

“What’s your Amortentia smell like?”

Harry held up a hand. “Really, take me out for drinks first.”

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed, but he still couldn’t quite shake that little hint of a smile—like he was certain Harry was talking out of his arse and was determined to pick him apart while somehow simultaneously hopeful he was actually speaking true. “What did you get on your Potions O.W.L.?”

“I grew up in America, remember? We didn’t have those,” Harry reminded. “But I did successfully defend my P.O.S.SUM.” At Malfoy’s blank expression, he clarified. “My Positively Onerous Study SUMmary? It’s a sort of thesis you’ve got to write before you’re accepted into advanced-level classes. Do they not make you do those here?” That didn’t seem fair—Harry had spent six months researching and drafting his, and his father had made him Pigeon three different professors on three different continents for review. All it sounded like Malfoy had had to do to merit enrolment in these advanced courses was take an exam you were statistically more likely to pass than fail.

“Just because I didn’t grow up in the same backwater little village you did doesn’t give you the right to make up concepts from whole cloth, you realise.” When he made these superior remarks now, though, they didn’t sting as much. Perhaps it was because Malfoy was delivering them while meeting Harry’s eye instead of looking down his nose at him. Or maybe because that little smile was growing larger with each passing quip, and there was a faint hint of white teeth peeking out from behind his lips. Or maybe because Harry was slowly but surely beginning to see that the Prefect badge was only a shield behind which Malfoy liked to hide, and he was actually kind of, well, a nerd.

Between his Quidditch obsession and his apparently prodigious proficiency with Potions—Harry somehow doubted Malfoy would boast of skills he couldn’t actually back up and rub in others’ faces—Draco Malfoy was seeming like the sort of child who’d been perfectly content to entertain himself from a young age and had thus neglected to develop much beyond the most basic of conversational capabilities. Every interaction with others seemed little more than a chore serving only to distract him from more entertaining pastimes.

Indeed, Malfoy’s follow-up query barrage of, “What was your thesis premise? Can I read it? Who did you defend it to? What were their credentials?” served only to confirm Harry’s suspicion that Draco Malfoy was indeed a world-class grade-A anorak.

And suddenly, he wasn’t nearly as intimidating—and marginally less irritating too—as he had been only moments ago. Or maybe he was irritating in a different way, because he wouldn’t shut up and let Harry pay attention to the lecture. When Slughorn—who turned out to be the broom-bristle moustachioed wizard who’d been glaring daggers at Harry during dinner, not jovial or easy-going in the least—reprimanded them for the third time for whispering during class and finally started docking points, Malfoy switched to scrawling out his questions for Harry on parchment, kicking him under the table when Harry failed to write back his opinions on the interactions between Valerian root and ginger root when used in the same brews quickly enough for his liking.

“All right, if ‘Quidditch player’ is off the table,” Harry began as they set up their station for the first brew of the year, meant to get them back in the swing of things after letting their skills lie fallow for three long months, “then what about an Apothecary? Or a sous-brewer? Or even a Potions professor? Any of those fit for a Malfoy?”

“Historically, yes—but presently, no.”

“What does that even mean?”

“You have your indecipherable handwriting, I have my fluency in double-speak—we’re both of us mysterious types, I suppose.” And when Malfoy failed to elaborate further, Harry assumed that, much like with his father, this was Stuffy Traditional Wizard-speak for, “I don’t wish to talk about it, and if you press me any further on the subject, I shall get very angry.”

Harry rolled his eyes and made his way to gather ingredients for their Hiccoughing Solution brew while Malfoy saw to the glassware and cauldron setup.

Partnering with Malfoy on a brew did not turn out to be, to Harry’s relief, a scarring experience—quite the contrary, they worked together nicely, both confident enough in their skills they were able to cycle smoothly through the steps of the recipe without much in the way of bickering or stepping on each other’s toes. Or at least no bickering on the subject of the potion.

“How is it you reached the age of sixteen years old and never heard of Quidditch let alone watched a match?”

“For the fortieth time—I had heard of Quidditch before! In passing, at least.” Harry shrugged. “I just never had much interest in it.” Malfoy scoffed, and Harry cut him a look out of the corner of his eye as he carefully added the requisite drops of Wormwood Essence to the brew. “…What prompted your interest, then?”

“Being born a wizard,” Malfoy muttered, studying his nails and picking out the bits of congealed armadillo bile that had gathered under them with one of Harry’s silver-tipped knives.

“Even if a passing familiarity with the game were somehow genetically ingrained in magical folks’ bloodlines, I’ve not yet met anyone half as obsessive about the finer points as you.”

“I’m not obsessive,” Malfoy snipped, head snapping up and nearly slicing his finger off in the doing. “I’m simply learned. I only seem that way to you because, as mentioned, you somehow know nothing about—hold on a minute.” He pointed the knife at Harry’s nose. “Potter. You’re a Potter—James Potter’s get, no? How is it your father, a Chaser for his House, didn’t have a broomstick in your hand from the moment you were born? As my father tells it, he wore his Quidditch leathers more than his actual school uniform during his years here.” He fixed Harry with a hard look, leaning in. “I find it very difficult to believe someone with a pedigree such as yours wouldn’t have at least seen a game or two, if he wasn’t angling for a spot on the House team himself even.” He narrowed his eyes. “…Do you fly, Potter?”

“Fantastic to see such animated conversation over the finer details of the first brew of the season, gentlemen,” Slughorn said, clapping a meaty hand on both of their shoulders. “I can assume that is indeed the topic of this little chat, no? Mr Malfoy—I see in my notes you only managed a ‘Passing’ Hiccoughing Solution at the top of last year.” He smiled sharply beneath his bushy moustache, lacking much mirth. “Has Mr Potter’s input proven invaluable, I hope?”

Harry kept his head down, not meeting Slughorn’s eye. If their professor had it out for him, no sense in fanning the flames unnecessarily. Malfoy helpfully responded for them: “…Yes, sir, Professor. We were only trading opinions on the merits and demerits of a final counter-clockwise flourish at the end of the stirring cycle.”

Slughorn crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Were you? And your position on the matter, Mr Malfoy?”

He could hear Malfoy swallow. “In favour. It ensures the thorough dissolution of the more dense components without too badly disrupting the energy flow generated by the clockwise stirring.”

“Hm.” Slughorn co*cked his head. “And you, Mr Potter?”

“…Opposed. The flourish would destroy the inertia required to allow the brew to coalesce. Any potential improvement in potency would be subsumed by the fact that the potion ultimately wouldn’t come together properly.” Malfoy stepped on his toe, and Harry grunted softly. “But of course we followed the recipe by the book this time; these were just thought experiments.”

Slughorn hmmed again. “…Well, the classroom is meant to be a place for the measured exchange of opinions. Only mind that such conversations remain germane to the topic at hand, yes?”

Slughorn then left them to it, and Malfoy blessedly decided to drop his line of questioning for now, though Harry didn’t doubt he’d come back around to it later. He’d better have his story straight when he did.

They bowed their heads over the cauldron, finalising the brew, and managed to eke out an, “Impressive,” from Slughorn despite the interaction, though he did make them test the Solution themselves to demonstrate its potency. Malfoy at least seemed pleased to have had a bit of redemption in the doing and proudly hiccoughed his way back to their table, his spasms so violent they had him bouncing in place and nearly off his stool.

Slughorn, though, was evidently still nursing an inexplicable grudge when it came to Harry, for as he attempted to scurry from the classroom when their lesson had finished, hot on Malfoy’s heels, he found himself stopped by a gruff, “A moment of your time before you head to your next class, Mr Potter?”

Harry swallowed, and Malfoy paused, turning to take Harry’s measure, as if he meant to wait for him—or maybe he just wanted a front-row seat to Slughorn picking him apart. Slughorn did not seem amenable to an audience for whatever was to come, though: “Run along, Mr Malfoy. I believe you have Prefect duties to attend to.”

Malfoy gave a little shrug. “…Nice knowing you, Potter. Try not to lose us too many House points in there.”

Harry trudged into Slughorn’s office as if to the execution chamber. How was it he’d gotten called into a teacher’s office his very first day of school ever? He was supposed to be keeping a low profile, making it through the next nine months without anyone so much as remembering his name and generally drawing no notice. Slughorn clearly had some perhaps well-founded suspicions when it came to Harry, so maybe this was to be an interrogation. He was the Slytherin Head of House, hadn’t Malfoy said so? What if he meant to enact something nefarious once safely behind closed doors? With each step, Harry was regretting more and more not pressing for Malfoy to be allowed to stay; at least then, Slughorn might have had to be more circ*mspect about whatever it was he meant to do.

Slughorn’s office was impressive if on the smaller side than what Harry would have expected for as vaunted an institution as he’d been assured Hogwarts was. Massive dark mahogany cabinets holding hundreds of bottles of potions in every colour of the rainbow lined the curving walls, and twisting overhead hung an iron chandelier, its candles flickering brightly. Atop Slughorn’s desk sitting at the centre of the room lay sheaves of parchment, and scrawled across the topmost sheet in bold script read WEEK ONE ~ 2 to 8 September, 1996 ~ Year 6 N.E.W.T.s. An inkwell was holding down the parchment; it seemed Slughorn was in the process of lesson planning. Not so very nefarious, at least.

Harry gave a jolt at the sound of a heavy lock engaging, casting a wary glance over his shoulder as Slughorn pocketed a ring of keys and began shuffling Harry’s way. Harry shifted to the side to avoid being bull-rushed by Slughorn making a beeline for a portrait just opposite the desk, and he discreetly palmed his wand once Slughorn turned his back to him. Severus Evans had had a passion for Potions that he’d passed on to Harry—but equally fervent had been his efforts to ensure Harry could well and truly defend himself should the need arise (as it was certain to at some point). Harry didn’t want to put his new Potions professor through the wall on the first day of classes, but he was more than prepared to do so.

Slughorn ignored him, though, feeling around the edge of the portrait’s frame until there came a soft click! and the portrait swung out, revealing a sturdy safe with a combination lock of magical runes. With one hand, he absently disengaged the lock with a blasé wave of his wand, while the other palmed a pocket watch, and he studied the face with a frown, mouthing something to himself.

Harry watched him, curious, wondering if he ought to sit down or just start apologising. He didn’t wish to rush Slughorn and thereby incur further wrath, but he did have places to be.

“Er…” he started—but Slughorn held up a finger for silence. Harry pursed his lips, irritation mounting, because if he was going to get given detention, he really wished Slughorn would just have out with it, as Malfoy’s insistence on drilling him in all things Quidditch this morning had meant a lean breakfast, and he’d been hoping to nip back down to the Dungeons for a snack before he needed to make his way to the Library for a study period.

But the irritation quickly shifted to concern and then to horror as Slughorn’s features began to…melt. His cheeks and jowls drooped downward as the broom-bristle moustache was slurped back up into his nose, and his prodigious midsection deflated like he’d been pricked with a pin. The thin, fair hair covering his balding pate began to darken and ooze from his scalp like inky spaghetti, and he grimaced as his broad shoulders crunched inward, his entire frame shedding bulk.

With a massive full-body shiver, all that remained of Horace Slughorn finally sloughed away, leaving behind—


“Keep your voice down,” said Severus Evans, reaching into the now-unlocked safe and withdrawing a single dram of a viscous, mud-coloured potion. “No need to announce it to the whole castle.”

Harry grabbed the edge of Slughorn’s desk to keep standing, knees gone weak. “Wh—how did you…when did you…why did you…?”

Severus gestured for Harry to take a seat, moving behind the desk and dropping into Slughorn’s plushly upholstered great chair himself. He set the vial aside in a rack and steepled his fingers. “Rest assured that, despite appearances, I’m not here to spy on you.” He quickly corrected, “Well, not just to spy on you; Dumbledore requested that I join the staff—in a covert capacity. It seems he’s…dealing with a challenging bit of magic and needed an outside opinion, so the real Professor Slughorn has taken a year-long sabbatical to some delightful tropical destination, and here I am.” He tapped the desk, ensuring he had Harry’s undivided attention. As if he could possibly concentrate on anything else with his mind awhir as it was! “Now, I’m sure you can appreciate that there would be more than a few questions if it came out that there’d been a change in the staffing situation the Board of Governors hadn’t explicitly approved, so while I’ve been granted permission to let you in on my status here, under no circ*mstances are you to let this tidbit of knowledge slip to any of your Housemates, am I clear?” He held Harry’s eye. “Not even the charming Mr Malfoy with whom you seem to have become fast friends.”

Harry gave him a funny look. “Not sure where you got we were friends—he’s given me hell and high water since I stepped off the train.” He scratched his neck. “I’m not entirely sure he doesn’t suspect something—not that I’ve let anything slip, mind! He just seems like a naturally leery sort. Like he’s always looking for an angle.”

“Hm,” Severus said. “Slytherins. Undoubtedly he has something to hold over all his other Housemates already and he’s simply trying to ensure he’s got potent ammunition against you as well. Be on your guard around him.” He leaned forward, expression grave. “The Malfoys were rather highly ranked Death Eaters in decades past, and though they may claim to have changed their tune, their true loyalties remain suspect. I wouldn’t trust them—any of them—any farther than I could throw them.”

Harry frowned, nose wrinkling. “…That doesn’t seem entirely fair. I mean, it’s not as if Draco was involved in any of that, right?” Sure, Malfoy was kind of a pompous jerk, and if Harry had to sit there and listen to all seven hundred of the different ways it was possible to foul someone in Quidditch, he was gonna have Kreacher shred Malfoy’s ties to ribbons, but that wasn’t illegal—even if it ought to be. And more to the point, he didn’t get the same creepy vibes from Malfoy as he’d felt poking around Regulus’s room. At least there were no articles singing Voldemort’s praises papering his side of the dorm room.

“No, it doesn’t seem fair—but it’s smart, and it’s what I’ll ask you to strongly bear in mind when interacting with him going forward. He’s his father’s son from all that I’ve heard and seen. You must not let your cover slip before him. Even if your judgement should prove sound and he isn’t harbouring any nefarious intentions, he may find himself party to circ*mstances where he has no choice but to divulge the secrets he’s been made privy to—either to his parents…or to other more dangerous sorts.”

Harry still didn’t quite agree with that—he wasn’t sure why, but Malfoy seemed like the sort who was rather good at weaseling out of sticky situations. The Slytherin poster-child, he was smart, self-assured, and focused. He’d claimed the previous evening to have had Harry’s escort foisted upon him unwillingly, but Harry wondered if he hadn’t actually wanted to be the one made to show Harry to his Common Room. If he really did have suspicions about Harry’s true identity, it was certainly a fine enough cover to start investigating him.

His father didn’t need to know about any of that just yet, though, so he only nodded. “I’ll be careful.”

“See that you are—I won’t be around to divert Mr Malfoy’s attentions every time, after all. Outside of this classroom, you’ll be on your own.” Severus frowned. “And no more ‘thought experiments’. If you get a Troll on your N.E.W.T.s because you let yourself be distracted in classes by inane suggestions like the implementation of stirring flourishes, I shall be forced to disown you.”

Harry ducked his head and did not let on that, in all honesty, he kind of agreed with Malfoy on the subject. House point deductions were still on the menu, after all.

By the time he finally managed to excuse himself, his study period had nearly ended, and it was time for lunch. Malfoy predictably cornered him nearly as soon as he’d stepped into the Great Hall. He grabbed Harry by the collar of his robes, jerking him toward the Slytherin tables—as if he could possibly be considering lunching elsewhere—and muttered under his breath, “I noticed all of our House points were present and accounted for.”

“Er, yeah—got off with a warning.”

“Warning? Against what?”

“Just—not to distract the Prefects. Doesn’t look good, someone who’s supposed to be representing the House getting called out in the middle of class.”

Malfoy made a face. “He ought to have held me back, then—I’m nearly of-age, I can take my scolding like a man.”

“Well, good—then you can have the next one.” He then broke from Malfoy’s grasp and made a beeline for the table, grabbing double-handfuls of sandwiches before his ass had even kissed the bench. There was another Quidditch lecture coming, he could feel it, and he meant to be prandially prepared this time.

Chapter 3

Chapter Text

Harry managed to get through the remainder of his classes that day and the next as well without any other professors turning out to be his father, god- or otherwise, and he found he was actually looking forward to his next Potions lesson a bit more now that he knew who it was underneath that broom-bristle moustache. He didn’t expect favouritism, naturally, but it was a relief to realise that Slughorn didn’t actually suspect anything and he wasn’t about to be hauled off by rogue Death Eaters intent on finishing what their master had started.

At least, not from Slughorn’s corner. Malfoy was another matter entirely, though Harry maintained that he wasn’t plotting anything nefarious—only perhaps ways to test Harry’s Potions knowledge against his own, or how to bring Harry’s interest in Quidditch up to what Malfoy deemed a suitable degree of obsession.

He’d warmed up to Harry considerably—this, according to Blaise, who explained that if Malfoy had moved from flat-out ignoring you to talking your ear off, it meant he liked you, even if the ear-talking-off mostly involved derogatory slights against your perceived intelligence. From Harry’s end, he’d warmed up a bit to Malfoy too, and he’d kind of been looking forward to another bout of back and forth over a brew in their next Potions lesson.

Except the moment he and Malfoy walked through the door, Slughorn-Severus snapped for their attention and directed Malfoy over to a table near the front, already occupied by a Gryffindor girl Harry recognised as Bushy Hair from the carriage ride up to the castle, while Harry was pointed toward one near the back, also already occupied, this time by a red-headed Gryffindor boy who was making a very poor attempt to hide his horror at being paired up with a Slytherin. Harry gave his father a dark, disappointed look but shuffled his way to his new table and what he took to be his Potions partner going forward.

“Er, hi there—this seat taken?” he asked, just because it seemed polite, as he removed his school bag.

The boy gave a shrug. “Guess not.”

Perhaps he had been partnered with Bushy Hair and was himself sore at being split up through no apparent fault of his own. “Sorry you got banished back here. I think Slughorn’s got it out for me.”

“Oh,” the boy said, a bit wrong-footed. “Er, I assumed it was just ‘cause he doesn’t like Gryffindors.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Harry said, “But I thought he had a reputation for being pretty mild-mannered?”

The boy grimaced. “He’s all right, for a Sly—” He then seemed to recall to whom he was speaking. “So, uh, why’s he got it out for you? Aren’t you in his House?”

Harry wrinkled his nose. “He thinks I’m distracting the Prefects.”

“Oh, but—I’m a Prefect too…” The boy tugged at his robes, and indeed, he had a shiny red badge pinned to his chest.

“Maybe he doesn’t like Gryffindors, then, and he’s hoping I’ll distract you as well?”

The boy snorted softly, covering his mouth when Slughorn-Severus cut them a warning look. “I’m Weasley,” he said. “Ron Weasley.”

“Harry Potter.”

“Yeah, I know. My mum about fainted dead away when I told her a Potter got sorted into Slytherin. Wouldn’t believe me ‘til my sister Ginny confirmed it. She’s a year younger than us.” He lifted his brows. “You got any siblings?” Harry shook his head, and Ron groaned. “Lucky! Want one of mine? I’ve got plenty to spare.”

Ron turned out to like talking nearly as much as Malfoy during lessons—and he too, to Harry’s initial dismay, had an abiding passion for Quidditch. But where Malfoy had been adamant about Harry learning the ins and outs and everything-in-betweens of the game in general, Ron simply wanted to vent about his favourite team and their lengthy losing streak.

“I mean, lots of folks think their glory days are behind them—understandable, they haven’t won a League Cup in over a century—but I think that just makes them the underdogs! They’ve got a good foundation, a rich history, so if they could just tighten up that line-up, I’m sure they could—”

“Less chatting, more brewing, Mr Weasley,” Slughorn-Severus called from the head of the class, and Ron gave a weak little wave, absently stirring what was only boiling water in their cauldron as he turned his attention back to Harry.

“Anyway, do you go for anyone in the League?”

“Oh,” Harry said, glancing up from his textbook; if they were going to get this Wit-Sharpening Potion finished before class ended, it would only be by Harry’s hand, and he was determined to not get held back for a reprimand two sessions in a row. “I actually only saw a game for the very first time just the other day—most everyone plays Quodpot where I’m from.”

“Quodpot…” Ron turned the word over in his mouth, nodding. “Are you any good?”

“I don’t play, sorry.” And because it seemed polite to ask: “Do you play? Quidditch, that is.”

“Oh for sure. Most all of my family does in some capacity—there’s enough of us we can even scrimmage at the holidays when everyone comes around to the Burrow for a get-together.”

“A—burrow? You live in the ground?” He hoped it wasn’t rude to ask that sort of thing. Number 12 being a proper terraced home, Harry had simply assumed that most wizarding families in Britain lived in houses, but perhaps he’d been mistaken.

“No! It’s the name of our family home! Has been for generations. Though—” Ron wrinkled his nose. “I guess when you think about it, it doesn’t sound very complimentary, does it?”

They chatted this way through the rest of class, and between Harry’s actual experience with the brew and Ron’s moral support (well, he did at least help grind up the beetle carapaces), they managed a “Satisfactory” from Slughorn-Severus, and Harry let Ron test the potency, since he had Transfiguration as his next class and could, quote, “Really use the help. McGonagall’s idea of starting the school year off with a bang is a pop quiz.”

“I imagine I’ll catch the back end of it tomorrow. Be a friend and let me know if she asks about anything that wasn’t in the reading?”

And Ron smiled, bright and toothy. “Sure thing. Definitely. Friends don’t let friends get a Troll on their Transfiguration N.E.W.T., I’ve always said.”

Harry doubted Ron had always said that, but it made the sentiment all the more impactful. Malfoy might be warming up to him, but Ron was actually being nice to him, and Harry had to wonder if he hadn’t made his first proper friend in all his sixteen years upon this earth.

Really?” Malfoy sneered when Harry gave Ron a wave from across the Great Hall during the lunch break. “Weasley?”

“What of it?” Harry asked, not sure if hearing Malfoy rag on Ron throughout lunch was going to be better or worse than more Quidditch talk.

“Listen,” Malfoy leaned in close, “I recognise that he looks like a charity case, but you aren’t obligated to waste what little social capital you’ve scraped together with the novelty of your upbringing on him. It’s a travesty Slughorn’s shackled you to someone with marks as abysmal as his, and I mean to have words with him on the matter, because it’s reflecting very poorly on Hogwarts standards to have transfer students forced to consort with the absolute dregs of the student populace, but no one’s expecting you to give him so much as the time of day outside of class.”

“Well, Ron expects it.”

“‘Ron’?!” Malfoy sputtered. “You’ve known him for all of ninety minutes, and he’s ‘Ron’?!”

“Can you two keep it down?” Theo grumbled from further down the bench. “Some of us are trying to enjoy our meal.”

Malfoy showed him a couple of fingers but otherwise ignored him. “It’s a bad look on you, you know. Getting too chummy with his sort.”

“What, Gryffindors?”

“No,” Malfoy said, because he liked to be contrary. “Slackers. People who ride others’ coattails, who use others’ hard work to get a leg up without putting in the effort and doing the work themselves.”

Harry spooned a ladleful of curry onto his plate. It tasted different from the fare they had back home, but it was still pretty damn tasty, so he’d take it. “Seems like it fits the Slytherin brief pretty well to me, though: do as little work as possible to achieve your goals.”

Draco’s lip curled. “Don’t mistake ruthlessness for laziness.”

He was clearly in a mood—he needed to be eating right now, instead of lecturing Harry on something he had no intention of changing his mind about. “Ron’s harmless. He may not be as good at Potions as you or I, but he’s not stupid. And I’ve got no intention of letting him ride my coattails. We were only having a conversation—just like us the other day.”

“We weren’t conversing—we were trading complex, engaged opinions on the subject at hand! If you and Weasley were discussing the benefits and drawbacks of a fine versus a rough grit for sanding off wormwood bark, then that would be another matter entirely, but somehow I doubt it!”

Harry rolled his eyes, taking a bite out of his naan. “He wasn’t distracting me, and I wasn’t getting distracted by him. End of story. I really don’t see how it’s any of your business who I hang out with. Besides—” He nodded across the Great Hall, where Ron was currently engaged in an animated but seemingly one-sided conversation with Bushy Hair. “You should’ve been focusing on your own work instead of cutting eyes back our way the entire class. I can’t imagine your new partner appreciated that.” Malfoy made a sound of disgust. “From what Ron says, it sounds like you and her would get on.”

Well, Ron hadn’t quite put it like that. He’d rather said, “They’re both of them utter swots. They deserve each other.” But Malfoy didn’t need to hear that right about now.

Malfoy’s eyes flashed, and he snarled, “Don’t compare me to that insipid Mudblood,” and Harry saw red.

He threw his spoon onto his plate, twisted around on the bench, and shook a finger firmly in Malfoy’s face, jaw tight. “Don’t you ever use that f*cking word in my presence again, understand?”

The entire table went quiet, and Malfoy paled, blinking several times in rapid succession. Harry could feel his pulse racing, rushing blood thrumming in his ears. He hadn’t heard that word in a long time, and never wielded with such venom. He fought to keep his fists from clenching, the urge to take a physical swing at Malfoy nigh unbearable. He’d always had a temper, a much-maligned hand-me-down from his mother, or so his father liked to say. But he needed to keep it in check here, and while Malfoy looked like he deserved a good clocking, Harry could not indulge.

“Wha—that’s—” Malfoy sputtered, finally finding his words again. He’d probably never been back-talked before, or at least not so sharply. “You—it’s not as if you even know what that word means.”

“Oh trust me, I very much do. I know it’s not a word for polite company—I know it’s not a word for any company. I know its only purpose is to cast aspersions on someone simply because of how they were born. So what if her parents are No-Majs? How’s that, again, any of your business? It’s not like it affects her magical capabilities. In fact, as Ron says it, she’s top of the class. Is it jealousy, then? That someone without a magical background’s getting better grades than you with your sixteen generations of wizarding ancestors?”

Malfoy silently mouthed No-Maj? in confusion, then huffed. “There’s no world in which I’m jealous of Granger—”

“As well there shouldn’t be. You’re plenty capable all on your own, as is she. And she deserves just as much respect as you think you do. People come from all walks. Have you ever even asked if my mom’s a witch? I’d barely heard of Quidditch before coming here. I’m from a ‘backwater’ civilisation, as you put it. Who knows what barbaric customs might be tolerated or even encouraged across the pond?” He leaned in close, whispering, “What if I’m one of those?”

Malfoy’s upper lip trembled. “But—you’re not. You’re a Potter, and it might not carry quite the pomp it once did, but it’s still a reasonably respectable pure-blood family. And you said yourself you’d seen Quodpot, and pale shadow of Quidditch though it may be, I’m certain MACUSA only allow brooms to be flown in strictly magical areas. They’ve historically been even more arsey about the Statute of Secrecy than our own Ministry.”

“And that makes me better than her? Because I want to make sure I get your perspective straight: the circ*mstances of her birth, over which she had no power, matter more to you than the fantastic magical prowess she’s worked hard to hone?”

“I—you wouldn’t understand—”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t understand.” Harry shook his head, thoroughly put off his meal, and shoved away from the bench. “But I’m starting to see why no one wants to partner with you.”

Thenceforth, Harry went out of his way to avoid interacting with Malfoy at all. He ignored any comments or overtures made from Malfoy’s corner, talking around him as if he didn’t exist, and made every effort not to share space with him, be it during meals or showers or free time. Their roommates stayed well out of it, and Harry sympathised, regretting the awkward atmosphere he himself was contributing to, but he wanted nothing to do with someone who thought so very little of those around him. It’d been one thing when Malfoy had just seemed like a prickly, pompous ass but generally well-meaning and affable once you piqued his interest—it was another thing entirely once he showed himself to be a sanguinist little sh*t who actually believed he was better than others simply on account of his birth. The relationship could be repaired in one instance—and assuredly could not in the other.

Not, at least, until Malfoy apologised for being an utter twat and showed he meant to try and mend his twisted way of thinking. Harry wouldn’t fault him for having sh*tty beliefs drilled into his head by his parents—but he would most definitely fault him for not trying to be his own person and think for himself. They were practically grown wizards, after all.

And it was, nearly three full days into their interaction embargo, that Malfoy finally broke, and in between showing Ron how to properly mince shrivelfigs, he caught Malfoy grudgingly—very grudgingly from the looks of it—apologising to Granger. At least, Harry assumed he was apologising, as he was too far away to eavesdrop. But they both looked absolutely miserable, and if Malfoy had been saying nasty things, he at least would have been happy about it.

At lunch, Malfoy sat himself down at the far end of the table, hunched over and looking like he’d just been told his inheritance was being withheld as he morosely picked at his plate. Blaise had leaned into Harry’s space, eyes on Malfoy, and whispered, “What the hell did you do to him, Potter?” in a tone both impressed and shocked. Harry thought Malfoy was being awfully dramatic about the whole thing, but clearly he’d needed this attitude adjustment.

Harry had his first Divination class at the end of the week. Severus had warned him that Alchemy would get him further in life, as Divination was widely considered a field of study that tended to attract the kookiest and least tethered to reality, but Harry was honestly all right with being able to coast through one of his classes without worrying how it might look on his resume.

Professor Trelawney was, he determined within the first five minutes of class, “absolutely barmy,” as James would have put it; “one sandwich short of a picnic,” as Remus would have put it; and “off her rocker,” as Sirius would have put it. Harry was not at all surprised to see the air-headed blonde girl Granger had been arguing with in the carriage enrolled in the class as well, and he learned her name was ‘Luna’ and that she was actually very sweet and kind-natured but just as bereft of marbles as their professor.

Trelawney had decided to start off the lesson with a tea leaf reading for each of them, and Harry was disturbed to learn that, according to her, he was to die that very evening after stubbing his toe on his school trunk, leading to him taking a tumble and cracking his head open on the flagstones. Luna, however, was delighted at this reading, informing Harry that Trelawney predicted a student’s death at least once a month, and while it generally didn’t pan out—“Tea leaves are so unreliable, unfortunately; really we should have started with rat bones”—the professor gave said student passing marks on all their essays and exams for at least the next few weeks to make up for all the trauma they had suffered being faced with their impending doom.

Harry decided it was definitely time to write the class off as an elaborate joke and just try to enjoy the drama of it all—when Trelawney grabbed his arm as he made to leave the classroom, bound for the Dungeons to drop his bag off before heading to the Great Hall for dinner.

He’d thought at first she was having a fit, and the timing couldn’t have been worse, as he’d been the last to leave with no other students about he could call on for help. She leaned into him, moaning and twitching, and her eyes rolled back in her head—

—and then she shot up, stock straight, eyes practically burning as she grabbed him by the shoulders and leaned in close. Her breath stank of old tea, and her voice was a raspy, broken whisper:


“Er,” Harry said, “I—I’m sorry, I don’t—I should find the nurse—”

But Trelawney’s grip only tightened. “Chimaera, you are. Clad in the pelt of a lion…but a snake in the end, and every bit a lamb.

Harry’s blood ran cold, and he violently jerked free of Trelawney’s grip. Her gaze went distant, and then she shook her head, blinking. She gave a nervous little chuckle, patting her cheeks. “Oh my. I think I may need a quick nap before my next class.” She saw Harry was still there, breathing hard and watching her with wild-eyed panic because what the f*ck had that been? “Are you all right, Mr Potter? No need to be so twitchy! You shan’t perish before this evening, I’m very certain of it!” She clasped her hands to her chest. “I shall miss having you in class. You could have been a fantastic Diviner some day. Enjoy these precious final few hours! Make the most of them!”

And with that, she began humming to herself, turning around to rearrange the pillows piled up around the lectern.

Harry stumbled from the classroom, well and truly shaken. That hadn’t been Trelawney just then—that had been…something else, Harry was sure of it. And what had she been babbling about? A chimaera? A lion and a snake and a…lamb? He scrubbed a hand through his hair and wiped his face. This had been some week.

He headed back to his room to prepare for dinner and found Blaise lounging on his bed flipping lazily through a magazine with a racy cover depicting a pinup witch blowing kisses at the reader. Theo and Vince were napping, Vince’s snores the only sound in the room, and Greg was hunched over a piece of parchment spread out over one meaty thigh, a quill clutched tight in his grasp as he chewed on the end in thought.

Harry must have still been pale in the face by the time he made it down from the North Tower, for Blaise sat up with a frown, asking, “What’s gotten your ghost? I haven’t seen someone look so shaken since Draco got back from Boggart Banishing practice.” His brows knit in deep concern. “Wait, you haven’t seen his father around, have you? I don’t recall hearing about a Board of Governors meeting this month…”

Harry settled on the edge of his mattress, and Kreacher came padding over, hopping up onto the bed and bumping Harry with his head, already yowling plaintively as if he hadn’t been fed in days instead of what was likely only a few hours. Harry scratched him behind the ears, still staring ahead blankly. “I just had a…weird experience with Professor Trelawney.”

“Oh,” Blaise said, suddenly markedly less interested in the conversation, and he lay back down. “Just say you had a normal Divination class and save us all the suspense next time.”

“No, I—I don’t…think this was normal.” Harry wrinkled his nose. “I mean, I had the usual Divination experience at first. Trelawney said I would die this evening, and—”

“Oh! Congrats—some blokes have all the luck…”

“Yeah, thanks. But then, after class ended, I made to leave, and she…she started having a fit…”

The door to their room swung open as Malfoy came trodding in, but when he caught sight of Harry, he drew up short, ducked his head, and half-jogged his way over to his side of the room, quickly shrugging off his school bag and keeping his back to the rest of them while he began gathering what looked like his shower supplies, perhaps hoping for a quick pre-dinner rinse in the Prefects’ bathroom.

“She started having a fit,” Harry continued, “and her eyes went all weird. She grabbed me by the shoulders and her voice…” He shook his head. “It didn’t even sound like Professor Trelawney. And she…”

Blaise seemed interested once again, and even Greg had looked up from whatever essay he was trying and failing to start writing. “And?” Blaise prodded.

“She—called me a chimaera. Something about me wearing the pelt of a lion but being a snake in the end. And then there was something about how I was a lamb?” He took in all their expressions, nothing seemed to be clicking. Damn. He’d been hoping this was some well-known saying around Hogwarts and Trelawney had just been taking the piss out of the new kid. He glanced over to Malfoy. “…You have any clue what she meant, Malfoy?”

Malfoy froze like a bug under glass, and then slowly, as if worried Harry might Curse him if he made any sudden movements, he turned to look over one shoulder. Perhaps he thought Harry was taunting him. On some level it was kind of funny, the prick who’d been such a terror to him the first couple of days of school now walking on eggshells around Harry; on another level, it was really quite sad.

Harry decided to give him a break, since it seemed like he was at least sorry for how he’d acted—even if the ‘sorry’ was mostly self-directed. “Has she ever acted like that before?” It was a genuine question; he was new here, so maybe this wasn’t really all that out of the ordinary for someone who danced as near the deep end as Professor Trelawney.

“…How on earth would I know? I don’t dabble in Divination. It’s poppyco*ck masquerading as a serious branch of magical study.” He would certainly hear no arguments from Harry on that point. “…But no, I rather think there’d be even more rumours about her dire mental state flying about than there already are if she’d ever had a fit like that in front of a student.” He shifted around to face Harry for the first time in nearly three days, leaning against his bedpost, arms crossed over his chest. “…What did she say to you again?”

Harry grimaced. “Honestly, I was kind of too freaked out in the moment to really pay much attention to the exact wording—but it’s like I said: something about the pelt of a lion and being a snake in the end, and then she called me a lamb. A chimaera.”

Malfoy chewed on a nail and started pacing. “Well, the lion and the snake bits are obvious—”

“Er, they are?”

Malfoy raked him with a scathing look. “…My mistake, I forgot you’ve likely still got Portkey lag so you aren’t as quick on the uptake as you should be.” He fixed Harry with a look that said he was being exceptionally stupid and Malfoy’s patience was wearing thin. Harry was already regretting starting talking to him again. “A lion and a snake—obviously that’s Gryffindor and Slytherin Houses. The pelt of a lion—you’re a dead ringer for your father—”

Harry’s stomach dropped. “I am?” But then: “Oh—yes, I am. I suppose I do bear a passing resemblance to James Potter…” He nodded. “Which is a totally normal thing for a father and a son.”

Malfoy gave him a slow nod in return. “…Quite. But you were Sorted Slytherin, hence the snake part. This ‘lamb’ nonsense…” Malfoy made a face. “Haven’t the foggiest.”

The others seemed to accept that the mystery had been solved—Trelawney was just crazy, and there was nothing more to it—and now that Harry and Malfoy seemed to be on speaking terms again, there went that awkwardness as well, so it was once more business as usual.

Malfoy finally made it to the fifth floor to take his early shower, dinner was had, and Greg managed to finish his essay with the help of Theo and Blaise. Harry was looking forward to a long, lazy weekend recovering from what had been a rather whirlwind first week of school, and he released a relaxed sigh as he climbed into bed and snuggled into his pillow.

And as he drifted off to sleep, it was to Vince’s stilted snores, Blaise’s grumbled, “Someone Silencio that buffoon…” and a faint, soft voice that sounded as if it were coming from very far away, whispering, “Help…someone…please…please help me…please…

Chapter 4

Chapter Text

Harry had not been sleeping well for the past week.

No, his coursework wasn’t yet so terrible he’d had to burn the midnight oil to keep afloat (but it was still early days yet), nor were his roommates’ own sleeping habits so dreadful they kept him awake nights (god bless whoever invented the Quietus Charm).

It was just that he kept hearing voices—or rather, one particular voice. He couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, nor if they were a student or a staff member. They were generally quiet during the day, but at night, their cries carried, seeming to emanate from the very walls themselves, begging for someone—anyone—to help them. Help them do what, they never elaborated, but still they called out all the same.

Complicating matters was the fact that none of his roommates seemed to notice the voice at all, and asking around the Common Room only got Harry dirty looks, which he supposed made sense. He likely would have given the same wide berth to someone who’d come to him asking if he heard voices. Even Malfoy, who’d finally lost that hurt, hunted hunch to his back around Harry now that they were more or less square again, was no help, suggesting that perhaps he was just hearing the Merfolk trying to lure him into the Black Lake. “They try it every year, you know—and if you feel like sacrificing yourself so that the rest of us can automatically receive passing marks the rest of the semester, then by all means.” He’d then shooed Harry off, and Harry had shown him a finger as thanks for all his help.

Harry decided that meant that if he wanted to get to the bottom of this little mystery, then he was on his own, and he was all right with that. He absolutely needed a good night’s sleep; his father had started docking points when Harry had nodded off in class and would hear no protestations to the contrary.

So after his roommates had fallen asleep, he crept over to his trunk and fished out James’s Invisibility Cloak, praying it was all it was cracked up to be, as well as the Marauders’ Map. He waited until he’d slipped out to the Common Room, torches burning low in their sconces but blessedly empty at this late hour, to unfold the Map and tap his wand to it, whispering the incantation his godfathers had taught him: “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.” Which wasn’t true at all—he just wanted to find out whose voice it was he could hear calling for someone. It sounded like they needed help, after all, and if Harry was the only one who could hear it, then that meant he was the only one who could help. Keeping his head down and minding his own business this was decidedly not, but that was what the Cloak and the Map were for, right?

The pleas were as fervent tonight as ever, and with the Cloak draped over his head and the Map checked to be sure the caretaker Filch and his creepy cat were occupied elsewhere for the evening, Harry eased open the heavy door leading down into the Dungeons, held his breath, and listened.

The voice led him down dark, empty corridors and around statues and up and down staircases, but he eventually managed to track it to a long hallway on the second floor, where it was finally getting louder, no longer quite as muffled as before and somehow clearer and more strident, as if it could sense Harry was close to finding it and thought he needed more encouragement. He felt along the wall, wondering if perhaps there was a loose brick that, on nudging, would open to reveal a room where whoever was calling him was being held captive or had become trapped inside and unable to escape on their own.

But the voice seemed to lead him to a bathroom of all places—and a girls’ bathroom at that, which he entered after a surreptitious glance around, somehow not quite trusting the Map and Cloak to shield him from peeping eyes.

The voice was definitely louder inside the bathroom, and it seemed to echo all around, bouncing off the tall, tiled walls and empty stalls. “Help me, please! Please help, please come!” it called, and Harry locked the door behind himself, doffed the Cloak, and began searching with intent. He checked every stall—nothing. He checked the mirrors—nothing again. He checked the sinks—

The voice sounded like it was coming from directly under one of the sinks, which bore a placard hanging from the faucet reading OUT OF ORDER. Harry felt around it for a latch or some sort of mechanism—perhaps there was a ghost stuck in one of the pipes; he’d heard it happened from time to time—and he tried to soothe the voice still calling for aid: “I’m trying to get to you, but I can’t figure out where the door is, let alone how to open—”

The faucet was instantly sucked into the wall, the placard clattering into the bowl of the sink, and there came a soft, deep rumbling as the sink itself sank down, down, down, disappearing into the floor and leaving behind a deep, dark hole.

“…Oh, that’s bait is what that is,” Harry muttered to himself, and he took two good steps back.

But the voice was even louder and clearer now, and perhaps it had heard the sound of this opening being created, for now it called, “Who’s there? Have you come for me? Please come! Please help me!”

Oh, his father was going to dock so many points from him.

The hole, it turned out, was not very deep—only a few feet—but it was very dark, and without a Lumos to guide him, Harry wouldn’t have dared follow the voice any further, instead investing in a good pair of magical earplugs and calling it a night.

But he’d come this far, and now he could see that the voice was indeed coming from the pipes that ran through the walls and floors and ceilings of the school, he really had to follow this mystery to its inevitable conclusion. He’d cheated death once, after all, so surely he could manage it twice, right?

He cast a Bubblehead Charm on himself as he sloshed through ankle-deep muck, the contents of which he really didn’t wish to know, following the voice, and in short order, to both his concern and amazement, the darkness ahead of him began to dissipate, banished by what looked to be the flickering of soft Ever-burning Candle-light.

Harry dispelled his Lumos and slowly, wand still at the ready, stepped into the chamber from which the light was emanating.

The creature was massive—it could easily have swallowed Harry in one bite, its gullet likely as spacious as the pipe through which Harry had come trudging, and it must have been longer from tip to tail than the Quidditch stands down by the pitch. It was some sort of giant snake, it looked like, and—

—and it was very much dead.

The one eye Harry could see was milky and glassed over, and its forked tongue lolled from its mouth, slipping out between wickedly curved teeth each the size of the Sorting Hat. It seemed like it’d been dead for quite some time, for its carcass was half-rotting flesh, half-picked-over-bone, and Harry was sure the stench had to be absolutely nauseating. He’d never been so grateful for a Bubblehead Charm in his life.

But he quickly surmised, taking in the state of the creature, that this thing couldn’t possibly have been the source of the voice Harry had been hearing. For one, it sounded like it belonged to a much smaller creature, and for another, as mentioned, this one was dead.

He circled the carcass, giving it a wide berth, and called out, “Hello? I’m Harry. I heard you calling for help. Are you in trouble? Where are you?”

But there was no response, and Harry began to get the sneaking suspicion that he was either the victim of a very elaborate prank, or in real, mortal danger.

His grip on his wand tightened, and he began to draw the Invisibility Cloak back over himself—when a flash of movement caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.

“Who the hell are—”

But it wasn’t a Dark wizard, it wasn’t Peeves the Poltergeist, it wasn’t his father wearing a dour frown about to explain that This was all a test, and you failed miserably.

No, it was…another snake. This one much, much smaller than the f*ck-off-huge dead one taking up most of the chamber—only the size of Harry’s arm instead of a whole herd of elephants—and with scales of pure snowy white. It perked up at Harry’s presence, tasting the air with a flickering tongue, and spoke.

Who are you? Did Mother send for you? Can you wake her? Please, I’m so hungry.

Harry wasted several long moments being baffled that he could understand a frigging snake and then several more realising that this was the voice that he’d been hearing. He stuffed the Cloak into his shirt but kept his wand at the ready. The creature didn’t look terribly dangerous, but he didn’t know much about venomous mundane snakes, let alone magical ones, and he wasn’t taking Care of Magical Creatures. Perhaps it had killed the bigger one—though it seemed like this was its offspring, so maybe not…?

“Er,” Harry said, because how did you talk to a snake? “H—hello, I’m Harry…”

The snake began to uncoil itself from where it had been snuggling up against the massive corpse of its mother. “Do you have food? Mother went to sleep and hasn’t brought fresh prey in so very long. Please. Food, please.

“Oh—oh no, I’m afraid I don’t…” Harry patted his pockets, then fished through the one on his left side and pulled out a small carton of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans. They had totally different flavours here from in America, and it had been both a delight and a terror testing them. He hoped the little snake creature didn’t mind. “Er, I’ve got some jellybeans? If you’d like to try some? I’m sorry it’s all I’ve got on me…” He shook the carton invitingly, settling down into a squat. “Do you…live down here?”

I suppose,” the snake said, slithering over eagerly and diving headfirst into the carton. Harry gently tried to extricate it, laying the beans out on the cold, wet tiles so the snake could pick them off one by one. “This is home. Mother’s burrow. Always been here. But Mother fell asleep and won’t wake up, and there were rats and bats for a while, but I ate them already, and Mother hasn’t brought more.

“No…no, I guess she hasn’t. I’m sorry about that.” The snake quickly finished off the Beans and looked up at Harry with great expectation in its beady red eyes. “Drats, that’s all I’ve got on me. I wasn’t really expecting to find…someone with such an appetite.” The snake seemed to wilt, and Harry hastened to add, “But I can come again tomorrow night and make sure I’m prepared, if you like? Do you have any favourite foods?”

Oh I love the rats and bats and big fat spiders Mother brings me. Juicy and crunchy and so warm to consume.”

“Ah,” Harry said. “I’ll…see what the elves can rustle up. Do you think you can hang on for just one more day?”

What’s a day?

“…Right. I’ll just try to be back as quick as possible. You stay here, curl up, and sleep until I fetch you some food.”

You’ll come back? Promise?

It was a curious snake, to understand the concept of a promise, but Harry nodded, and he gingerly patted its scaly little head. “I haven’t got many friends in this school either, so we can watch out for each other.”

After ensuring the snake would not attempt to leave the chamber—there was no telling what might happen to it if Filch or his cat caught sight of it—Harry carefully made his way back to his dormitory, resolving to wake early so he could fill his pockets with breakfast sausages before the others arrived to ask what exactly he was planning to do with them (and in Blaise’s case, “And may I watch?”).

Harry had never had a pet before. Kreacher was a mage-bred cat and so generally took care of himself, and Severus had refused to countenance anything small and/or furry in their home growing up. And Harry had been all right with this, not really knowing what he was missing.

But Noodle—this was what he had decided to call the snake, because she claimed she had no name already and also because she looked like an oversized piece of pasta—had lost her mother at a young age, just like Harry, so he kind of felt like it was up to him to look after her now.

He learned over the course of several late nights in the Library that Noodle was very probably a Basilisk. This had been particularly concerning at first, given such creatures’ status as extremely dangerous Beasts and the fact they could kill with a single glance, but since Harry was not dead, he supposed he didn’t need to panic. Indeed, Noodle seemed to be too young for her Killing Glare to have yet manifested, so Harry simply needed to ensure she understood that nipping was not allowed, even if Harry’s fingers did look like fat, juicy worms.

Noodle was only too happy to abide by Harry’s rules—no biting Harry, no leaving the chamber, and no more calling for help through the pipes—as long as Harry kept the food coming, and between stealing scraps from dinner and Kreacher’s own handsome efforts to capture double the number of rats he usually stalked in the Hogwarts hallways, Noodle was fatter and happier than ever. She seemed to accept that her Mother was not going to wake up and blithely allowed Harry to Vanish the carcass, which meant he no longer needed to trap himself in a Bubblehead Charm every time he came to visit.

And visit he did, almost every night a week if he could manage it. None of his roommates were night owls, he determined, and unless one of them had to burn the midnight oil cranking out a parchment or cramming for an exam, they were all out shortly after lights-out, leaving Harry free to sneak off to rendezvous with Noodle.

That is, until one evening, when just as he’d reached the landing to the stairwell leading up from the Dungeons, pockets heavy with ham and cheese toasties from lunch and carefully wrapped meatballs from dinner, he froze up, paralysed, as he was hit with a Body Bind.

He struggled against the magic to no avail, and he wasn’t sure if he ought to be relieved or terrified when Malfoy sauntered into view, taking a lazy circle around him and slapping the palm of his hand with his wand. “Well, well, well, looks like I’ve found a student out of bed after curfew…” He co*cked his head. “One wonders what has Harry Potter out and about wandering the halls so late at night nearly on the daily. Because yes, I noticed—you tromp around like an Erumpent in heat, it’s a miracle you haven’t woken any of the others. A romantic liaison, perhaps?” He prodded at Harry’s bulging pockets, the savoury scent of glazed ham heavy in the air. “Who’re you dating, a Nothic?” Harry tried to respond, but all that came out was frustrated grunting, and Malfoy rolled his eyes and lazily waved his wand. “Finite incantatem. Now spit it out, or I will dock you points. Double if I don’t believe you.”

“I’m not dating anyone.”

“Of course you aren’t; who’d have you? Where are you going, then?” When Harry declined to respond as promptly as Malfoy evidently wished, he poked Harry with his wand. “Answer, or I’ll put another Body Bind on you, and this one I won’t release until morning. I’ll not risk you wandering around the castle at night by yourself and chance us losing House points any longer.”

Harry held up his hands. “All right, all right, stow your wand! I guarantee it isn’t half as exciting as you’re hoping. You’re more than welcome to climb back into bed and catch up on your beauty sleep. You need all of it you can get.” Malfoy zapped him with a Stinging Jinx, and Harry slapped a hand over his mouth to keep from crying out, shaking a finger in Malfoy’s face threateningly. “Kreacher’s going to sh*t in your shoes for that. You won’t know when. You’ll just step into your loafers one day and there his little present will be.”

Start. Talking.

Harry sighed long-sufferingly. “…It’s easier to just show you.”

The Invisibility Cloak wasn’t nearly big enough to cover two full-grown teenagers and might invite more questions than Harry was comfortable answering just now, so he relied on surreptitious glances at the Map to guide them safely through the dark hallways of the castle until they reached the second-floor girls’ bathroom. Malfoy was hesitant to enter until Harry reminded him flatly, “It’s not as if there’s any girls around right now anyway.” Malfoy had repeated his words in a mocking tone but followed Harry inside all the same.

He’d learned the trick to working the secret entrance to the chamber pretty quickly—you had to just ask it to open. There was a magical little carving of a snake on the faucet in question, and once you greeted it, it revealed the chute and down you went. Pretty clever, if you asked Harry, since you had to know the entrance was there already in order to even think about trying to access it.

But when he gave a little wave to the snake carved into the faucet and said, “Evening. Mind opening the shaft for us?” there came a clatter from behind Harry as Malfoy plastered himself against one of the bathroom stalls.

Harry turned around, straightening up, and asked with furrowed brows, “Oi, you all right there?”

“Y—you just…” Malfoy swallowed, the long white column of his throat bobbing. “…You’re a Parselmouth.” He said it with a kind of horrified reverence, like he was both terrified of this fact and in complete and utter awe. It was bewildering.

“Er….I dunno what that means? Are you taking the piss out of me again, making up words that don’t exist because I won’t know the difference? You’re such a child.” He gestured to the shaft, now revealed by the clever magical mechanism. “C’mon, you’re the one who was complaining he wanted to see what I was getting up to every night.”

Malfoy craned his head forward, a deep frown wrinkling his features nearly beyond recognition. “…You’ve dragged me here in the middle of the night, speaking Parseltongue, and now you want me to jump into a deep, dark hole that I’ve no idea what lies at the bottom? You’re deranged!”

Harry began ticking items off on his fingers. “No, you followed me here, of your own volition; stop making up words; has your wand stopped working in the past five minutes or can you not cast Lumos?; and if I’m deranged, it’s only because you’ve driven me there.” He crossed his arms. “Would you be less scared if I went first?”

And oh, those had been the magic words, for Malfoy straightened up sharply, tugging on his dressing gown with a huff, and marched right for the shaft, settling down on the edge and giving Harry one last (very cross) look before he gave himself over to the darkness.

Harry decided not to warn him about the river of sewage he would find when he came sliding out the other end of the tunnel.

After Malfoy finished cursing Harry blue and prestidigitating his dressing gown clean (“If I can’t get the smell out of this fabric, you will be paying for a new gown for me! And this lining is one-hundred-percent authentic Arctic jarvey fur, so I hope you’ve exchanged those sticks and rocks they use as currency in the colonies for proper Galleons!”), Harry finally led him into the chamber, warning Malfoy that he should keep his voice low and his tone calm and not make any sudden movements.

Malfoy had been on the verge of telling Harry just where he could stick his suggestion when Noodle, evidently having overheard their animated conversation, came slithering out at a full bolt, winding her way around Harry’s legs and giving him a squeeze of greeting that was just a little too tight for comfort.

Malfoy shrieked and scrambled for his wand, nearly losing it several times with sewage-slick fingers, and brandished it at Noodle, a nasty Curse no doubt on his lips as he sought to save Harry from his sad fate. It might have been touching, were Malfoy not still shrieking and frightening Noodle in the doing.

Harry palmed his wand, a feat he’d gotten quite good at managing even while being lovingly constricted by a baby Basilisk, and rolled his eyes as he drawled, “Petrificus totalus.” Turnabout was, after all, fair play.

Malfoy froze, eyes still wide and white and wand gingerly clasped between two fingertips, on the verge of clattering to the floor and rolling away over the flagstones.

Harry gently shrugged Noodle off, tossing one of the ham and cheese toasties for her to gobble up immediately and letting her now she could have the rest once he’d calmed Malfoy down, so she should wait for him further inside the chamber.

“Now,” he said to Malfoy, still frozen in horror, “I’m gonna take this Body Bind off of you, and you’re gonna do what I told you to do this time: speak in soft tones, not flash your wand in threat, and not make any sudden movements. You’ll frighten her, and while she knows she’s not allowed to bite me, I’ve not yet given her similar instructions concerning you. And depending on how you act once I release you, I might never give her those instructions.” He raised his wand. “Don’t freak out, all right? You’re the one who wanted to come down here in the first place.”

After a silent five count to ensure Malfoy’s nerves had settled, Harry muttered, “Finite incantatem,” and Malfoy sank to his hands and knees, breathing heavily. Harry cast a glance back over to Noodle, who was impatiently awaiting the rest of her dinner, her whiplike tail lashing excitedly.

Malfoy brought a hand up to cover his eyes, as if it was going to do him any good now. “You…have a BASILISK…for a pet?!”

Harry smiled blandly. “Oh, is that what she is? I guess I didn’t notice.” Malfoy let his hand drop down, cupping it to keep from making eye contact with Noodle, and fixed Harry with a dark look. Harry shrugged. “What can I say? I like seeing nasty brutes and trying to make friends with them.”

“You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Would you relax? If Noodle was going to kill me—”


“—stop yelling, and yes, that’s her name—then she would’ve done so already. She’s too young yet. Worst her gaze does is make you feel a little woozy, but it’s pretty easy to shake off.”

Malfoy shook his head in horror. “You’re absolutely barking. Utterly mad. It’s the vapours down here, they’ve scrambled your brains.”

Harry rolled his eyes and started making his way over to Noodle. Much longer, and even his staunchest of instructions were going to get ignored. “I’m not any of those things. Just come talk to her, you’ll see she’s a perfectly respectable Class Quintuple-X beast.”

He then left Malfoy to it and jogged over to Noodle, already apologising for Malfoy’s outburst and explaining to her that Malfoy was actually quite scared of snakes—a healthy habit, as Noodle was very frightening, and her fangs were coming in handsomely—so she should not try to give him any hugs, because he didn’t have any snacks for her, but Harry definitely did, and if Noodle wanted any more bacon-wrapped smokies (her favourite), then she would be a proper lady around him.

“…How long have you been able to do that?”

Harry nearly jumped out of his skin, having been so focused on reminding Noodle of the dos and don’ts around Malfoy that he didn’t notice him sneaking up. He laid a hand to his chest, catching his breath. “Wh—do what?”

“…Speak to snakes.” Malfoy had his eye fixed on Noodle, a turnaround from earlier. Maybe on realising she was too young to kill with a look, he deemed it more important to ensure she didn’t leave his sight. “Did they teach it in one of those halfway houses they call schools over there? It wouldn’t surprise me, honestly.”

Harry frowned. “I can’t speak to snakes. Noodle’s just special. She understands humans.”

And now Malfoy was looking at him with incredulity scrawled all over his features. “…Are you…quite serious? You don’t realise?”

“…Realise what?”

“…You were using snake speech. Parseltongue. Earlier, in the bathroom. And again with the creature. You slip in and out of it like breathing air. It would be fascinating if it weren’t revolting.”

Harry wasn’t sure if he was being complimented or insulted—though there was no discounting it was a bit of both. Malfoy was good at that sort of thing. “Wait—snake speech? You mean another language?” Malfoy nodded, slipping his hand into Harry’s pocket and stealing one of the meatballs. He held it out gingerly for Noodle to examine, and Harry prayed his earlier instructions held. “I…I wasn’t, though. I was just talking normally.”

“You never talk normally,” Malfoy muttered, and Harry wanted to throw another meatball at his head. “Have you any idea how dangerous this creature is? And where did it even come from? I’m positive I recall Father mentioning an incident at Hogwarts decades back where it turned out a Basilisk had found its way into the pipes somehow and wound up killing several students.”

“Well, first off, yes I do actually have an idea of how dangerous she is, and as for where she came from, I honestly don’t know—but I’m sure it wasn’t Noodle that did those things in the past. She’s far too young, and…well, there was another one here when I first found Noodle. An adult, I guess. Long dead. So maybe there’s some truth to your dad’s stories after all?” Harry shrugged. “Either way, I don’t see why she should be punished for what her mother may or may not have done.”

Malfoy stood, straightening, and gave a little yelp when Noodle lashed out just as he was pulling the meatball away, neatly nipping it from his grasp. He frowned and wiped his fingers, sticky with the savoury meatball sauce, on Harry’s nightshirt. “And that’s another matter—how did a Basilisk wind up procreating down here in the first place? They don’t just hatch on their own, you know.”

And Harry did know that, now he thought about it. He’d done his research, and he did indeed recall reading that Basilisks were curious, unnatural creatures whose reproduction was a considered, conscious decision by outside forces. Who had taken the chicken egg and hatched it under a toad, violating at least a dozen international bans on Basilisk husbandry in the doing? Who had placed Noodle here—either to be reared by her mother or to replace her mother—and who would be back at some point to check on their investment?

Harry watched Noodle practically inhale the last of the ham and cheese toasties, all warmth of amusem*nt at the sight chased away in an instant.

He didn’t know who was responsible for all this—but it was probably no one he wanted to meet.

Chapter 5

Chapter Text

Harry’s first month at Hogwarts passed by in a flash, and before he knew it, it was October. The whole month was evidently given over to Halloween, culminating in a fantastic feast with elaborate costumes and festivities on the thirty-first, but for Harry, who had no particularly fond memories of the holiday, since his father had always observed it sombrely as the anniversary of his wife’s passing, it was just another page on the calendar.

Still, he was beginning to see what all the fuss was about. The days were growing shorter, there was a pleasant fall nip in the air some days, and everything seemed gilded in orange and gold.

The first weekend of October was, Harry learned, the very first Hogsmeade weekend of the year. Blaise had thrown nearly as great a fit on realising Harry didn’t know what a ‘Hogsmeade weekend’ was as he’d had on realising Harry didn’t know what Quidditch was, and he demanded that they all make an outing of it together when the day arrived to show Harry about the village. Theo had begged off, claiming a standing date with his girlfriend, Vince and Greg were sitting detention for practising their Beating skills in the middle of the Common Room, and that left Malfoy and Blaise, at which point Blaise had made a face, muttered something about not wishing to be a third wheel, and then disappeared.

Once Blaise was gone, though, Malfoy tossed aside the magazine he’d been reading—Which Broomstick? the cover had read—and swung his legs over the side of his bed, fixing Harry with a look. “Right. Let’s get this over with.”


“Hogsmeade. Get up. Get dressed. We’re going.”

“Oh, but—I was gonna spend the day with Noodle. I thought I could teach her to respond to some hand commands, so you could communicate with her more easily—”

“You’re barking if you think I’m wasting a fine Saturday afternoon sitting inside that dank sewer when I could be getting a spa treatment at Beatrix’s Beautification Boutique or breaking my nose against the glass ogling the latest in broom advances at Spintwitches. It’s hardly Place Cachée, but it’s better than nothing, and it’s the nearest wizarding shopping district for who knows how many miles.” He crossed his arms over his chest when Harry didn’t immediately leap to his feet with delight at the prospect. “What—I suppose you’ve patronised so many more respectable establishments that whatever Hogsmeade has to offer is just too pedestrian?”

“Actually—no, I haven’t been to many wizarding shopping districts at all, now that I think about it. My dad did take me to Pier 39½ a few times when I was younger, though.”

“You've just made that up. That's not a real place.”

“One of these days, I am gonna make something up, but it’ll be so mundane and random, you won’t notice until you’ve told someone else about it, and then they’ll laugh at you.”

Malfoy made a face. “You were definitely Sorted properly.” He snapped his fingers in Harry’s general direction. “Regardless, we’re going. Pansy demanded I meet her at Fickle Fabrics to help her decide on the dress she’ll be wearing to the Yule Ball.” Harry had no idea what that was, but it sounded like the sort of thing families as old as the moon like the Malfoys and Parkinsons got up to for the holidays.

“Why do I need to go then?” Harry’s fashion expertise started and ended with Shoes go on feet.

“Because—I’ll need your help to extricate me from her harpy talons.” Malfoy stalked over to Harry’s side of the room, grabbing him by the shoulders and shoving him in the direction of his wardrobe. “And you ought to know she’s a horror to be around if you’re even thirty seconds late, so if I have to listen to her whinge and moan about ‘not respecting her time’ on account of you, I will also teach you words that don’t exist and will be sure to embarrass you amongst your American peers who are certainly more well-read than you.”

In the end, they still wound up having to wait on Pansy, who within moments of their arrival suddenly recalled she needed to pick up a special imported tea order from Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Shop, so Malfoy directed them a few doors down to a shop called Spintwitches Sporting Needs, which definitely seemed more his speed than the café that, to Harry’s eye, had been packed with couples on dates.

It being the first Hogsmeade weekend of the year, the shop was bustling. It wasn’t quite as crowded as some of the others, like the aforementioned Madam Puddifoot’s or the joke shop they’d passed along the High Road on the way here, but there were students aplenty crammed into the small footprint, and Harry thought about suggesting he wait outside when Malfoy grabbed him by the lapels of his robe and jerked him along, shouldering his way through the crowd and barking, “Prefect passing!” at anyone who didn’t move out of his way quickly enough for his liking.

Malfoy (and Harry in tow) made a beeline for the broomsticks on display, each fitted with a Levitation Charm and a magically moving background to make them look like they were zipping through the air. Harry thought they all looked pretty slick, with their polished shafts and trimmed bristles, and one of them seemed to offer a premium upgrade to a mooncalf-hide saddle with solid-gold fixtures if the customer wished.

Malfoy sighed loudly beside him, though, clearly unimpressed. “I’m not sure what I expected,” he muttered, mostly to himself but loudly enough Harry suspected his concurrence was being sought.

Not knowing the first thing about Quidditch brooms save for which end you were meant to sit on, Harry tried to be diplomatic about any comments he made. “You in the market for a new one?”

Malfoy made a noise, the meaning of which Harry couldn’t parse. “I might be, if there were anything on the market worth considering. Look—” He gestured to the right-most broom. “The newest model they’ve got on display here is the Cleansweep QuickClip! And it came off the line nearly five years ago! They don’t even have the latest Comet series!” Harry surmised this was a bad thing. “I wasn’t expecting the sort of stock you’d find in London, of course, but I did hope they’d have something a bit more modern to offer.” He released a huff of resignation. “I suppose I’ll stick with my Comet 290 for now. It’s better than the old Nimbus 2001s the rest of the team is stuck flying.”

“Are they terrible brooms? I’m still not familiar with these European brands yet, sorry.” Truthfully, he wasn’t familiar with any brands, but he certainly wasn’t looking to start Malfoy on another lecture circuit after finally being deemed ‘up to speed’ on all things Quidditch.

“Not terrible,” Malfoy allowed, gesturing to the Nimbus 2000 on display. “That’s the 2000, the previous year’s version of the 2001, which itself is ancient for a broomstick, and they were pretty well respected. Better brooms for Chasing than Seeking, though; they haven’t got the manoeuvrability the Comet line has. But the company’s in the midst of restructuring, so they haven’t put out a new model since the 2001, practically a lifetime ago. I was hoping they might have pre-orders for the Comet 360—I was thinking of asking for one for Christmas but wanted to test-fly it first. My 290 has that wobble on a straightaway all the 200-series have, but I heard they fixed it with the 300s.”

Harry watched him rattle off all these inane facts about brooms and their use in gameplay and which brands were good and which ones bad and which ones were better for which positions and couldn’t help being stupidly impressed by how deep into the weeds Malfoy got about these sorts of things. “…I really don’t get you.”

“Hm?” Malfoy said, only half listening. He was fingering the price tag affixed to the display for the Nimbus 2000 and frowning, pinch-faced, as if it were a personal affront.

“I mean, you clearly love this sport—an unhealthy amount, in my opinion—and on top of that, you’re good at it, but you’re not even gonna try and pursue a career in it.”

And Malfoy straightened, the frown no longer directed at the price tag but at Harry himself. “I told you,” he said, tone frosty, “it’s not done—”

“And you won’t explain what that means.”

“It means—” Malfoy said, raising his voice, and when he saw they were getting looks, he gentled his tone, “It means exactly what it means. It isn’t done. Malfoys go into politics or finance or—if we’re feeling feisty—management. Campaign or talent, we aren’t very picky. We’re good at directing others, telling people what to think, what to like, what to buy. Anything else is a waste of good breeding.”

And while Harry had never met Malfoy’s parents, he imagined he was hearing their words and not Malfoy’s own, especially since Malfoy had turned back to the brooms, a longing look in his eye.

“Nothing’s a waste if you love doing it. Otherwise what are you doing on the school team? Is it gonna do anything to get you a leg up when you inevitably go into politics or finance or whatever?”

“Quidditch is merely a pastime my parents tolerate for now. Because otherwise I’d throw a fit and they’d never hear the end of it. My tantrums are most impressive.”

That, Harry could believe. “So what’s stopping you from tantrumming your way onto a starting lineup? Assuming you have the skills.”

“Of course I’ve got the skills! And—” Malfoy huffed. “It’s unseemly and immature. I shall be an adult come next June, and I shall act like it.” He wrinkled his nose and then amended. “…Well, maybe from September.”

Harry arched a brow. “One last summer to really act like a spoilt brat, then?”

Malfoy cut him a look. “…Not in so many words, but—I’ve been trying to work out how best to get my parents to approve my spending next year’s summer holidays at the Ludo Bagman-sponsored Quidditch Training Camp. It’s, obviously, sponsored by Bagman, and it’s absolutely brutal—12-hour training days, sunup to sundown, scrimmage matches every other Saturday, games every Sunday, and the top ten players as evaluated by the counsellors at the end of the summer get offered immediate admission to the following spring’s tryouts for the Wimbourne Wasps. They’re not in nearly as good a standing these years as they were when Bagman played, but at least it’s not the Cannons, and there’s every chance you’d get traded up if you were good enough.”

And now both of Harry’s brows were in his hairline. “You—a Quidditch training camp?”

“Yes—and keep your voice down.” Malfoy cast a glance about the shop, paranoia very much unwarranted, as the din of the crowd made it difficult to even hear each other speak. “No need to announce it to the whole student body. I’ve just told you I’m trying to decide how best to broach the topic with my parents—who knows what gossip might find its way to their ears if I’m not careful.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “It’s a summer camp—not a criminal act.”

“And both are equally distasteful in my parents’ eyes. They’ll reprimand me for even considering wasting a summer I ought to be spending shadowing my father at the Ministry. But he doesn’t even work in an interesting department, like Magical Games and Sports. All he does is talk to people, and I hate talking to people! They’re all either stupid or boring or both.” Harry wondered which category he fell into.

“Well,” he said, “do you really need their permission?”

“…Not formally, no. I’ll be of-age when the camp is held. But—well, they’re my parents. I don’t want to disappoint them.”

Harry shrugged. “Kids have been doing things their parents didn’t want since time immemorial. They’ll get over it. I mean, my dad wasn’t too thrilled I got Sorted into Slytherin, after all, but he came around to the idea.”

“My situation’s a rather different matter than simple House dispensation…”

“I guess. But they obviously care about you, or else they wouldn’t be so set on you making the sorts of decisions they think are good for you. So they’ll learn to let go, like any good parent. You’ve gotta be your own man some day, right?”

Malfoy made a face. “That’s a rather low-birth way of thinking—and a very American one as well.”

“And seems to me like living the life your parents want for you instead of the one you want to live is a surefire way to wind up miserable at 40. You’re the one who’s got to live it, after all, not them.”

And Malfoy gave him an appraising glance, not so snotty and self-absorbed for once. “…You know, sometimes you seem very Slytherin, and sometimes you seem like you belong in Gryffindor. Makes you very difficult to pin down. I don’t like it.”

“Well, I find this obsession with Houses silly, so agree to disagree.”

“You say that like Ilvermorny doesn’t follow the exact same system.”

“Well I didn’t go to Ilvermorny.”

Malfoy frowned, brows knitting in confusion, and Harry felt his stomach drop, praying it didn’t show on his features. sh*t. sh*t. “What do you mean you didn’t go? It’s the only internationally recognised magical school in all of North America.”

It was time for some quick thinking. No, it was time for some absolutely lightspeed thinking. “I was homeschooled. My mother—she didn’t like the idea of my being away from home for so long, since we lived pretty far from Ilvermorny. So my parents compromised by letting me be homeschooled. It’s allowed in the States—is it not here?”

“No, it’s allowed…” Malfoy said. “…Don’t let this go to your head, but you’ve got a rather well-rounded education for someone who never attended a proper school.”

“I think I will let it go to my head, thanks. And my mother was a hard-ass, what can I say?”

“And your mother…is a witch?”

sh*t—what was his cover again? James Potter, one night stand, No-Maj—right? f*ck f*ck f*ck. “What’s it matter what my mother is?” he said coolly, forcing the same frosty tone he’d taken when he’d gone off on Malfoy on account of calling Granger that word.

Predictably, Malfoy was cowed, cheeks pinking, and he left off with the probing questions. He crossed his arms, expression sullen. “So you allowed your parents to deprive you of a stable education from a relatively well-respected institution and a chance to mingle with your magical peers—simply because mummy couldn’t bring herself to clip the apron strings in a timely manner?” He arched a lacy white brow. “Now who’s been living his life according to his parents’ whims?”

“Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?”

Malfoy scoffed. “Only because our government mandated it, for whatever mad reason that was.”

“I suppose,” Harry allowed. “But I’ll be an adult next summer too, just like you. And then I’ll be able to live my life however I like—so what excuse will you have?”

Malfoy’s lips pursed, and he rolled his eyes, turning back to the brooms again, as if the models had somehow changed in the last two minutes.

Harry let himself breathe a silent sigh of relief, heart pounding so fiercely in his chest he worried Malfoy might be able to hear it. f*ck that had been close. Harry needed to be more on his guard—Malfoy wasn’t stupid, and he paid attention to the things Harry said. Remembered them. So if Harry didn’t have his story straight, Malfoy was certain to pounce on any irregularities that came up. He wasn’t here for a lark—he’d been coerced into coming here. Someone wanted him here, and if they didn’t already know who he was, then they were at least looking for him. He couldn’t make it easy for them, not when his father and godfathers were working so hard to keep him safe.

“So, which broom do you favour?” Malfoy asked, swiftly changing the topic, for which Harry was quietly grateful. Anything to get away from chatting about his made-up childhood.

“Er…” Harry perused the lineup for show before confessing, knowing it would only bring on another lecture, “None, really. I’ve never flown.”

“What?!” Malfoy barked. “That’s absurd! You lot have your bargain-bin Quidditch knock-off at least! Surely you’ve been on a broom before!”

Harry shook his head. “Nah, my dad didn’t think it was much worth learning.”

Malfoy eyes grew to two times their size. “You’re trying to tell me that James Potter, legacy Chaser for Gryffindor House, didn’t see the point in teaching his own offspring how to fly?! I knew he’d neglected to school you on Quidditch, but to not even let you sit a broom?!”

Oh, f*ck, here they went again. Harry groped for the nearest excuse he could manage. “I, er, guess he wanted me to be my own person? You know, not have to live in his shadow and whatnot. It’s not like I wasn’t allowed on a broom—it just was never proposed, and I never thought to ask.”

Malfoy was still utterly flabbergasted, grabbing Harry by the robes and dragging him back into the scrum of humanity, angling for the door. “This is unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable. Come on. We’re wasting time. Pansy can pick out her own damn dress.”

“Wha—wasting time? For what?” It was the weekend, and as far as Harry knew, there were no pressing matters to which they needed to attend. There was that ten-inch report he needed to get done for Transfiguration due Monday, but that was what Sunday evening was for, wasn’t it?

“For getting you on a broomstick and in the air,” Malfoy said, casting a glance over his shoulder to be sure Harry was keeping up. “If you aren’t afraid of heights already, I’ll make you.”

Learning to fly was not, it seemed, up for debate. Malfoy reminded Harry that he was probably a natural on a broom with his bloodline and didn’t even realise it; Harry certainly hoped genetics didn’t work that way. He didn’t think Severus Evans had ever even touched a broomstick let alone ridden on one, and if his mother had been an avid flyer, he’d never heard about it.

He understood the concept. He understood the Charms involved. He’d even seen it done—and seen it done quite well.

He’d just never done it himself, and there would be no convincing Malfoy that he really didn’t want to learn to fly. It was happening, whether Harry liked it or not.

But where he’d expected another interminable lecture, Malfoy practically talking his ear off about the ins and outs, the dos and don’ts of flying, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that, on this topic at least, Malfoy tended to adopt a more ‘learn by doing’ approach.

He signed out two Nimbus 2001s from the Slytherin locker rooms and walked Harry through the basics—activating the broom’s Levitation Charm, where to grip the shaft, how to balance his weight, and how to accelerate and brake. Malfoy kept these practice flights to a few feet off the ground, quick with a Cushioning Charm when Harry inevitably took a tumble, but both he and Harry were delighted to learn that Harry did indeed have a natural knack on a broom. In the course of a single afternoon, Harry had learned proper mounting and dismounting techniques, how to pull out of a spiral, and even how to bank left and right using just his balance, completely free-handed. After a mere five hours, he was flying as well as Malfoy had at age 8, which Malfoy explained to him was a very impressive feat, even if it felt like a veiled insult.

And that was about how long it took for Harry to learn that he really, really liked flying.

He’d always liked being able to find a little nook in which he could hole himself up and not be bothered, sometimes for hours, as he read books or worked at a Potions equation or just napped, and flying took that to the literal next level. It was freeing and relaxing and exhilarating all at once, his heart in his throat one minute and in his stomach the next.

After ensuring Harry had the basics down, Malfoy started racing him to get him confident flying at speed, graduating over time to greater and greater altitudes until eventually they were soaring even higher than the stands. It was a hell of a way for Harry to learn that he was in fact a little bit afraid of heights, but it was a fun type of afraid, his midsection going all wibbly-wobbly but only when he looked down, and diving felt amazing.

Eventually Malfoy decided to up the challenge and brought out a Bludger, setting it loose on the pitch to teach Harry how to dodge and weave and evade, and Harry couldn’t see how this was remotely relevant to learning how to fly, until Malfoy next produced a Snitch, and Harry realised what was going on: Malfoy was training him to play Quidditch.

And that wasn’t a terrible thing, though Harry really would have liked to have been asked if he wanted to learn. Malfoy never sought permission—he just assumed that, if you had taste, you wanted to do the things he wanted to do, and if you didn’t, then you weren’t worth his time. Harry had bowed his head and gone along with Malfoy’s antics thus far, and that was probably how he’d wound up here, learning what ‘Seeker’s games’ were and developing blisters on his hands from gripping his broomstick’s shaft too tightly.

Malfoy assumed and presumed—and the thing was…Harry didn’t hate it. He didn’t really like it, either, but at least he knew where he stood with Malfoy. Malfoy told you exactly what he wanted and exactly what he thought of you, and Harry at least appreciated that. It felt a bit dishonest, not being able to be entirely open about himself with this person who wore his whole heart on his sleeve, but Malfoy seemed to think it was enough that Harry accepted him for who he was, flaws and all. Well, most flaws.

“Why me, though?” Harry asked, one evening as they were putting away their brooms and preparing to mount a full assault on the Great Hall for dinner—it was roast fowl and smashed potatoes tonight, and Harry imagined he could already smell the mouth-watering aroma even from out on the pitch.

“What do you mean ‘why you’?”

“You’ve got second- and third-string Seekers on the team already if it’s a training partner you’re wanting, and I know you rag on them—”

“Well-deserved criticism is not ‘ragging’.”

“But surely it’d be a more effective use of your time all around to polish one of them into a state you’re satisfied with than to train me up from nothing.”

Truthfully, the amount of time Malfoy had been spending—wasting, really—with Harry had been on his mind for a while now. Malfoy went out of his way to hang in Harry’s orbit, and at first he’d assumed it was mostly because Harry was willing to let himself be lectured at but also a little bit because of their shared interest in Potions. Now, though, nearly two months into their acquaintanceship, and Malfoy, who claimed to hate talking to people because they were stupid or boring or both, was not only still consorting with Harry but contriving brand new situations in which they might interact. Harry wasn’t sure if he should be flattered or suspicious, so he settled on being a little bit of both.

Malfoy shrugged, locking the door to the Quidditch shed with a Charm he still refused to let Harry see (“Team members only.”). “Why on earth should I bother, when you’re a sounder investment? Right here and just as good as them after but a few weeks’ practice.”

Harry fell into step beside him as they set off up the path from the pitch to the Entrance Hall. “Says a lot more about the state of your Quidditch line-up than any innate skills I might possess,” Harry said. “And I wasn’t ‘right here’ a month ago, so the question stands.”

“Well, a month ago I hadn’t decided to apply to Bagman’s Quidditch Training Camp, damn my parents’ opinions on the matter. Plus—I needed to get started right away to make sure you weren’t going to embarrass me when you applied as well.”

Harry drew up short. “When I what?”

Chapter 6

Chapter Text

Harry didn’t know how he’d gone from not knowing a Quod from a Quaffle to—evidently—enrolling in a rather gruelling and very expensive summer camp for a sport he honestly had only a passing interest in, but Malfoy had been most insistent, reminding Harry that he damn well knew the Potters were loaded, so he wouldn’t believe him if he wanted to protest he couldn’t afford it.

And Harry could have gotten out of it a dozen different ways. He could have said he wasn’t really all that interested in Quidditch (true); or that they might not even be living in the same hemisphere come summer (also true); or that he was being hunted by the followers of a fallen Dark Lord and would probably be heading back into hiding once this mandatory year of school attendance had been completed (true as well, but probably not wise to just have out with).

Instead, though, he said: “Fine. You wore me down.” And Malfoy had beamed, a bright blinding thing that nearly dropped Harry like a Jelly-Legs Curse. He’d seen Malfoy smile before, sure—but it was always cruel and cutting, a sharp implement wielded with intent to harm or at least beat back all but the thickest-skinned, like barbed-wire fencing. Never had he seen it so…well, happy.

And then Malfoy had shoved him, jeering, “You’ll thank me for this. Five years from now, when we’re hoisting that cup over our heads, you’ll say, ‘You are without a doubt the best thing to ever happen to me, and I give thanks each and every day you came into my life and made me the man I am today’.”

“Oh, is that how it’s going to go?”

“It is.”

“That sure doesn’t sound like me.”

“Oh,” Malfoy had said, slinging an arm over Harry’s shoulder. “It will. I’m a regular Trelawney when it comes to these sorts of things.” He tapped his temple. “If there’s anything off in that prediction, it’s merely the timeline.”

Verifying the accuracy of Malfoy’s prediction, though, would have to wait a bit, for once November rolled around, their little private training regimen had to be put on hold, because it was time for the first game of the ‘96 Hogwarts Inter-House Quidditch Cup season.

As soon as the match dates were decided, Malfoy became a ghost in the Common Room, along with all Slytherin Quidditch Team members. Harry saw him at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any classes that they shared, but there were no more Seeker’s Games, no more shopping trips to Spintwitches—he even stopped accompanying Harry to feed Noodle. Malfoy lived, breathed, ate, and even slept Quidditch, and Harry was blithely informed that this was perfectly normal.

“Well, not normal for most people that is—normal for him. He gets like this every year.” Blaise co*cked his head, watching Malfoy nearly nodding off, nose buried in a Quidditch strategy book. “I wonder what he’ll do once he graduates and doesn’t have this to obsess over anymore. He’ll have to find a new hobby. He’ll be heartbroken.”

“You think he won’t try to play professionally?” Harry asked, feigning innocence. He often caught himself wondering if Malfoy’s family was just particularly traditional and conservative, or if this was a common thing with well-to-do sorts on this side of the wizarding world.

“Oh, he could. But no, he won’t. Too much his father’s son.” Blaise then seemed to recall to whom he was speaking and lifted a brow. “Though speaking of father’s sons—I see you’ve changed your tune concerning the game. Your hair’s got that delightfully dashing ‘I’ve just been out flying my arse off’ windswept look to it these days. Going to be taking after the old man?”

Harry held up a hand—it was bad enough fending off such suggestions from Malfoy, he didn’t need it from his other Housemates too. “I’ll admit, flying is fun—and dodging Bludgers and chasing Snitches can be exciting. But I don’t think I’ve got the sort of passion some members of our House have for the game. I’m just as happy to cheer them on as fly alongside them.”

“Listen to you, bandying about all the proper terminology like a seasoned vet. It’s no wonder Draco’s taken a shine to you—you’re a sponge, and he adores being able to foist his wealth of esoteric knowledge upon unsuspecting rubes.” Harry wasn’t sure if he’d been complimented or insulted—it was a fascinating skill that seemed inherent to most Slytherins but one he himself had not yet been able to master. “Well, you’ll sit by me come match day. By now you’re probably more knowledgeable concerning the gameplay than me, and I’ll need someone to commentate all the exciting action while I focus on the more important bits.”

“More important bits? What’s more important than the game itself?”

Blaise Summoned a pair of Omnioculars. “All those exquisitely toned Quidditch arses, of course.”

The stands were absolutely packed—and not just the Gryffindor and Slytherin stands supporting the teams actually playing, but the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff stands as well. When Harry squinted, he could make out that most of the students in the other Houses seemed to be pulling for Gryffindor to win, and when he brought this up to Blaise, he was met with a roll of the eyes and derisive scoff. “Of course they’re pulling for Gryffindor. Everyone thinks we’re bitter, prideful wankers. Which, we are. It’s just some folks take offence to that for some unfathomable reason.”

They settled in, close quarters all around, and Harry found himself grateful for the Charmed benches that kept the nether regions nice and warm. This high up, it was rather windy, and Blaise’s insistence Harry bundle up tight now seemed well-founded. James’s glasses did double-duty helping protect his eyes from the breeze, but they kept fogging up, and he’d forgotten the anti-condensation Charm James had taught him over the summer.

Blaise scanned the field through his Omnioculars. “How quick do you reckon Draco’ll wrap things up? I’ve got sensitive skin, you know. I can’t be out in this cold for too long.”

Harry shrugged. “It’s the first game of the season, right? He might want to show off a bit.”

“Damn, you’re right. He absolutely will. The Seeker’s the Gryffindors’ weakest position, so he’ll take his time before he actually puts forth any effort. Might even wait ‘til they hit 140, just to make it dramatic.”

The game, Harry’s first where he actually understood what was going on and had a side to root for, was actually quite exciting. The Gryffindors were a skilled team, and their captain—a flashy red-headed girl he’d learned was actually Ron’s sister—ran them almost as demandingly as Malfoy. Today as well, they were operating like a well-oiled machine, and it was looking like those long practice sessions of late had actually been necessary as the Slytherins struggled to keep pace with them. Malfoy couldn’t coach them from the air, though, like Ginny Weasley could—she was a Chaser, which meant she was able to be in the thick of things, barking orders at her teammates without having to call for a time-out, while as a Seeker, Malfoy had to always be at altitude, scanning the pitch for that tell-tale glint of gold. It didn’t strike Harry as very fair, but he didn’t expect Malfoy to let that stop him from clinching victory.

“Mind if I borrow the Omnioculars?” he asked Blaise, who mutely handed them over while he leaned further into the space of a Fifth-year on his other side, their heads inclined and voices muffled. Harry adjusted the focus and searched for the Gryffindor bench, where Ron sat waiting to be called in as reserve Keeper. Harry kind of hoped the current Keeper, a barrel-chested bus of a Fourth-year who looked ready to defend the hoops bodily, had to be switched out, if only so Ron could get some playtime.

Ron had no aspirations to a professional career like Malfoy (secretly) did, but he loved the game, and he often complained of his family’s fawning over his sister’s skills at the expense his own. With a family as large as it sounded like the Weasleys were, attentions were likely stretched pretty thin, so Ron’s jealousy was understandable. “Plus,” Ron had added during their last Potions lesson, “I’ve managed to convince Hermione to come—told her McGonagall was promising us extra credit if we came out to support our House—and it’d be nice if I could at least save a Quaffle or three while she was watching.”

Harry pulled out the focus, searching for Malfoy amongst the zipping and zooming forms on the field. He was tricky to spot, but Harry finally found him lurking under the Hufflepuff stands near one of the banners. A smart tactic, as the Gryffindor Seeker was presently whipping his head to and fro seemingly seeking out Malfoy himself rather than the Snitch, so he could follow Malfoy to the mark and hopefully beat him there. Harry and Malfoy had practised this, though, in their games together—perhaps in preparation for just this moment, Harry was now realising. Malfoy was very good at baiting attentions, and he’d only let the Gryffindor Seeker find him when he was good and ready for it.

But then, the unthinkable happened: one hour and twenty minutes into the game, the Gryffindor Seeker shot off like a rocket, and through the Omnioculars, Harry could see Malfoy had not been expecting that. There was only one explanation: he’d spotted the Snitch. Before Malfoy. And oh, Malfoy was going to be beating himself up about that for weeks, but that was for tomorrow Malfoy to deal with. Right now, he just needed to make it to the Snitch before the Gryffindor Seeker, and he’d already kicked his Comet 270 into gear and was closing the gap between them fast.

Harry could see the Snitch now himself, hovering just to the right of the Slytherin hoops. It was recharging, and any moment now, it would flit off again. If Malfoy—or the Gryffindor Seeker—could reach it first, the game would be over. Harry certainly wouldn’t hate that—but he hoped it was because of Malfoy’s capture. He’d never seen what Malfoy looked like after he’d lost a game, but he’d heard the horror stories from Blaise and the others, and he decidedly did not wish to witness it first-hand.

Both Malfoy and the Gryffindor Seeker were only a few broom-lengths from having the Snitch in their grasp when its wings began to buzz once more, and off it zipped, banking behind the goal hoops in a brilliant flash. The Gryffindor Seeker pulled off wide, doubling back around the hoops to catch the Snitch on the opposite side—but Malfoy, who’d been tight on the Gryffindor Seeker’s tail, only poured more speed into his dive, crawling up his broomstick and stretching himself out as long and flat as possible.

“Oh f*ck…” Harry said, and from beside him he heard Blaise’s confused, “What? What’s happening? Is Pucey’s arse all right?”

Malfoy was going to thread the needle.

The quickest way to the Snitch was a straight line—but that line ran through one of the goal hoops. And Malfoy meant to follow it to its inevitable conclusion: a game-winning Snitch capture.

The rest of the stadium seemed to catch on to what Malfoy meant to do about five seconds after Harry, and there was a palpable tension in the air as everyone held their collective breath, watching and waiting to see if Malfoy would break his neck or seize the Snitch.

Harry’s heart was racing. Malfoy had fantastic stick handling—he’d made Harry time him racing through the eaves of the stands, where even the slightest misjudgement could mean slamming into a railing and plummeting to the ground. But he’d never done it with a thousand-plus eyes on him, and never through so small a gap. There was zero error tolerance, and even perfectionist that Malfoy was, he couldn’t prepare for every eventuality.

But lucky for him, he’d prepared for this one, and with hair slicked back with a generous application of Sleekeazy’s, he zipped neatly through the hoop, robes barely ruffled, and snatched up the Snitch in a textbook clean capture.

The crowd went absolutely ballistic. Even the Gryffindors in their stands were losing their minds, too agog at the display to even be put out they’d just lost. Madam Hooch was tooting sharply on a whistle, and all other players in the air descended—the Gryffindors in lazy circles, hoping to put off what Harry expected would be a stern lecture from their captain, while the Slytherins dive-bombed the pitch and practically catapulted Malfoy into the air over their heads, raucous in their joy. Harry wouldn’t have expected such effusive emotion from them, given how tight a ship Malfoy ran, but perhaps that only underscored just how amazing a capture it had been.

Spectators were already starting to crowd the stairs, and Harry cursed under his breath. “Thanks for the Omnioculars! See you down there!” he called to Blaise and dashed for the stairs before they became impassable to get down to the pitch and deliver his congratulations in person.

Malfoy was still being hoisted upon shoulders by the time Harry made it onto the pitch, and he worried for a moment he wouldn’t be able to catch Malfoy’s attention in the milling scrum of black and silver and green, but Malfoy’s bright, “Potter!” pierced the din of the crowd, as did the following, “Put—me down—you idiots—!”

Malfoy kicked and flailed and lashed out until his teammates were forced to release him, and he made a beeline for Harry, throwing elbows at anyone who dared get between them. He was already running off at the mouth before they’d come within spitting distance. “Did you see that? Did you f*cking see that? You’d better have seen it! If you were necking in the stands like Blaise likes to do at these matches, I swear to the four founders—”

Harry grabbed him by the shoulders, physically shaking sense into him. “Of course I saw it! God, was there ever a more perfect setup? But I still can’t believe you tried it—”

“I don’t try, Potter, I do.”

“Well I can’t believe you did it either! Lucky your ass is so flat or else you wouldn’t have fit!”

Malfoy shoved him, nearly into another student. “Wizards with glass arses shouldn’t throw bricks.”

Harry let the slight stand—Malfoy deserved it, after that show. “And I was thinking, what if we put together, like, a highlight reel? We could use the Omnioculars to record the footage and Charm the clips together so that you could recreate your greatest hits for scouts.” Malfoy’s face went slack with shock—Harry hoped it was because it was such a fantastic idea. “Obviously they won’t be able to make all your games, and it’d be a shame for the stunts you pull off in our practice sessions to go unnoticed just because no one but me’s watching. And even if you make the monumentally stupid decision not to actually do this thing you’re amazing at for a living, you’ll still have these memories with you to watch over and over again and recreate at many a party or reunion to come, and you nev—”

Malfoy surged forward, grabbing Harry’s jaw with both hands and pressing their lips together, hard, as he smiled into what was a very sudden and quite unexpected kiss. Harry froze for several heartbeats, shock paralysing him as surely as any Body Bind and mind racing—

—and then Malfoy jerked back, shoving Harry away with an expression of abject horror on his features, as if Harry had been the one to kiss him. So aghast was he that Harry half-wondered if he had been the one to kiss Malfoy, but no—his muscles were still tense from seizing up in shock, and his lips still stung where Malfoy had pressed into him, hard and insistent and heady and f*ck.

He heard himself say that last bit out loud, and Malfoy’s expression twisted into something unreadable but all wrong, and before Harry could ask where he got off looking like that when Harry was the one having an internal crisis over here because his best friend (and f*ck—Malfoy was his best friend! When had that happened?) had just up and kissed him out of the blue, Malfoy got hauled into his teammates’ arms once more for more carousing and belting out of some jaunty tune Harry couldn’t make out the lyrics to other than, “Malfoy is our king~

As the players bore Malfoy away, Harry was left standing there, red-checked and pink-lipped, with glasses fogged up from more than just the chill now.

Perhaps predictably, Malfoy avoided him thenceforth. No more training, no more accompanying Harry to feed Noodle—it was almost like before with Quidditch, except then, if he’d felt like it, he could always go and watch Malfoy running drills with the team and listen to him dressing down the second- and third-string Seekers. Now, Malfoy was just gone. Nowhere to be seen or heard except in the impressions he left—a broken cassowary-feather quill that had rolled under Harry’s bed, a plate of muffins at the breakfast table with only the stems left, Potions lessons that were more quiet than usual without Malfoy constantly sniping back and forth with Granger.

And Harry let it go. He let it go because Malfoy was clearly Going Through Something. You didn’t usually kiss someone unless you’d been thinking about it for a while, either consciously or subconsciously, and if Malfoy didn’t want to talk about it yet, then Harry wasn’t going to press it. They were going to have to confront it eventually, but Malfoy went full hedgehog-mode when forced into something, going all prickly and defensive, and that would help their situation none.

So he let it go…for a week.

And then when it started to become clear that they might never speak again if Malfoy had anything to say about it, Harry decided he might have to do all the talking for them.

But first, he needed to have some idea of what he was going to say—and the problem with that was, he still hadn’t the faintest clue how he felt about the matter.

He was irritated—but less with the kiss itself and more with the fact that Malfoy was avoiding the subject (avoiding Harry), so it just hung there, like one of those oversized pumpkins big enough to climb inside that the groundskeeper had grown for Halloween, blocking their way back to each other. Harry had learned to play the most unnecessarily complicated game in the world for this idiot; the least he could do was explain himself!

Because if it was just one of those things—an adrenaline-and-endorphin-infused gut reaction to an incredible game-winning capture, Malfoy’s mind everywhere and nowhere and just too overwhelmed and needing an outlet—that was one thing. Europeans were weird like that, he’d heard, and perhaps here was evidence of that very fact.

But if it was…the other thing… If it was Malfoy having a tiny little crush (or maybe a really f*cking big one) on Harry…well, that would necessitate some mulling over.

Harry’d never had anyone fancy him. Nor had he ever really fancied anyone himself. Not anyone specific. There’d been a No-Maj girl working the register of a shop his father had taken him to once when he was twelve—she’d had long black hair pulled into a severe ponytail and smooth skin and sharp cheekbones, perfectly put together and so confident and sure of herself when she’d spoken to him. He’d been instantly taken with the air about her, even though she’d probably been at least ten years his senior.

And on reflection, maybe that explained rather a lot about why he even bothered with Malfoy.

This problem was too big for Harry alone, though, so instead of heading to lunch after another uncomfortably quiet Potions class, he asked ‘Slughorn’ if he could stay after and discuss an extra credit pairs assignment to help Ron’s struggling marks in the class.

“You have to stop covering for Weasley,” Severus said as the morning’s Polyjuice shot wore off and he made his way to the chilled safe holding the next dose. “His Potions marks are not your problem.”

“I know they aren’t. I’m making them my problem. That’s what friends do.” He crossed his arms, giving his father a look. “You are familiar with the concept, aren’t you? I recall some mention of a group calling themselves the ‘Marauders’…”

Severus shook a finger at him. “I was not affiliated with that merry band of misfits. I simply helped keep them from losing us too many House points.”

He could say what he wanted, Harry knew he did care for them all, deep down—he was just sh*t at showing it. But Severus’s inability to be open with his feelings was not what Harry had come to him for advice on—Harry suspected he’d inherited his relatively easy-going attitude (and, paradoxically, his temper) from his mother. Instead, he needed help sorting out his own feelings, whatever shape they might take.

Harry flopped down into the chair opposite Severus’s desk. “…How do you know when you like someone?”

Severus nearly dropped his new vial of Polyjuice Potion, scrambling to catch it before it smashed upon the flagstones and fixing Harry with a look not unlike the one Malfoy had given him on the pitch a week ago: shocked, horrified, and a little bit betrayed. “Who do you like?”

“What? No one. None of your business. It’s a simple question.”

His father wrinkled his nose. “Then I’m disinclined to answer.”

Harry clapped his hands. “Well—then I’m disinclined to be here.”

He made to stand, and Severus waved him back down, sputtering, “Oh for—don’t go. Sit. Ugh.” He sank into his handsome leather desk chair, hunching forward with his head in his hands. “Your mother would have been better at this…”

“Why?” Harry asked, feigning innocence. “Was she the less emotionally constipated one of the two of you?” He co*cked his head in thought. “You never want to tell me how you two got together. Is it ‘cause you just tripped and fell into a wedding band she happened to be holding?”

Severus’s glare was almost physically piercing. “I will fail you, don’t think I won’t.” He rubbed at his temple, grimacing. “Usually…if you’re wondering if you like someone, it means you already do. You feel…” He waved one hand in a vague gesture. “Off around them. Like your world’s tilted a bit on its axis, revolving just a bit more around them, instead of only around yourself. You might find yourself thinking more about them, their happiness, their safety—often at the expense of your own.” This part sounded like a warning, directed at Harry—but Harry wasn’t really paying attention. Instead, he was thinking about all the ways he could have gotten out of Malfoy’s insistence he join him at the training camp the next summer before ultimately deciding to just say yes, or how he’d genuinely been excited thinking about Charming up that highlight reel for Malfoy, at least before all thought and sense had been driven from his mind by that stupid kiss. “You find yourself changing,” his father continued. “Becoming a new version of yourself. A better version. Not to impress them—or not just to impress them. But because they bring out something in you that no one else, not even yourself, could.”

Harry noticed his father’s gaze going distant, staring into time and memory, Harry’s plight seemingly entirely forgotten, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Oh. Uh, I mean, that sounds nice, but…kinda deep. Is it enough to just want to kiss them and stuff?”

Severus slapped his hands to his face and groaned loudly. “Get. Out.”

And now Harry didn’t want to. “Aw, but I really want to hear more about how Mom was your sun and stars and all that romantic stuff.”

Out!” Severus roared, the potions vials on the wall clinking with the reverberation of the echo, and Harry quickly made himself scarce.

Well, that hadn’t exactly gone how Harry had hoped it would—though it’d about gone how he’d expected it to.

So maybe he did have a teensy weensy little crush or something approaching it. He didn’t think it was anything he ever would have acted on—hell, it probably wasn’t anything he ever would have even realised, except then Malfoy had kissed him, so here they were.

Malfoy had kissed him, which meant he probably liked Harry. And aside from the shock of the gesture—f*ck, that had been his first kiss; he would have liked to have been prepared for it—he…hadn’t hated it. He would have wanted to like it, and probably could have, but they’d been surrounded by cheering, thrashing bodies, and Harry had been distracted, and Malfoy had maybe only just been really happy. Sometimes people kissed people just because they were happy—just because it was a celebration. And what if that was what had been going on? What if Malfoy had only kissed him because he was rightfully ecstatic about making that one-in-a-million capture, and then Harry had kissed him back a little and he’d jerked away because what the f*ck was Harry doing?

sh*t, he was getting too much in his head about all of this now.

He reflected on his father’s words—and he didn’t know about any of that ‘world-tilting’ stuff or ‘becoming a better person’ (if anything, Malfoy’s worst habits were rubbing off on him), but he liked hanging out with Malfoy. He genuinely was glad, in retrospect at least, that Malfoy had decided he was worth bothering with his endless nattering about subjects in which Harry had (initially) had no interest. He liked his laugh—not the cruel, snarling, derisive sneer that came disturbingly naturally, paraded about when Malfoy felt he wasn’t getting his due attention, but the goofy little snorting thing that he was mortifyingly ashamed of and had vowed to Curse Harry for drawing out of him. He liked that Malfoy was such a nerd and didn’t even realise it, genuinely fascinated by the silliest subjects and only too eager to drag Harry into his madness as well.

He liked that Malfoy let himself be messy around Harry—sweaty and dirty and imperfect. Vulnerable. Human. It looked good on him, like a staid, stuck-up prick of a blossom gradually opening to the dawn, petal by petal. It made Harry feel funny inside, realising that Malfoy wouldn’t conscience that from anyone else.

Suddenly, Harry really wanted to talk to Remus. But an Owl would take a day to reach him, and a reply would take another day, and the only Floo access on campus was had via the Headmaster’s office, and he didn’t want his first face-to-face encounter with the fabled Albus Dumbledore to involve asking his godfather for advice on the one thing he’d been told to avoid: falling for a dormmate.

Harry slapped his cheeks and shook his head. There he went again, putting the carriage before the invisible horse. He needed to tackle this problem one step at a time. It was a complicated Potions recipe, nothing more, but if he skipped ahead and tried to add the linseed oil before the armadillo bile, then it was going to blow up in his face. Malfoy looked like the sort who’d been raised to expect a nice, slow courtship, and just like Noodle, he had to be handled with particular care.

But they had to start somewhere, and they couldn’t take their first steps until they both knew where each other stood. So, since Malfoy didn’t seem up to it, Harry decided to clear things up for them.

Lunch would be starting in another twenty minutes, and students were already heading in the direction of the Great Hall. Harry made his way through the milling crowd down to the Dungeons. Malfoy had left as soon as class had been dismissed, scurrying from the room like he’d been hit with a Hot Foot Hex. If precedent held, he’d be in their room, spending the hour before lunch reviewing his notes for his next class (Ancient Runes—again, nerd), and that suited Harry just fine.

When he made it back to their room, Malfoy was indeed hunched over his writing desk in his corner of the room, quill scritching furiously over his parchment. Blaise was reclining on his bed, speaking to Malfoy as he worked, but cut himself off when he saw they were no longer alone. He gave Harry a little wave, which Harry returned. He’d hoped they might be able to have a private conversation, but if he asked Blaise to leave, he’d probably spook Malfoy, so it was looking like he’d have to get creative.

Well, Slytherins were supposed to be masterful manipulators, right? It was time for him to do his House proud.

“Oh! Good, you’re here, Malfoy,” Harry said, tossing his bag onto his bed. “I forgot I had something to give you.”

He crossed the room in three long strides, grabbed Malfoy by the head in much the same way Malfoy had done to him, and laid a smacking kiss on his lips, grinning through it all when he drew back because Malfoy looked absolutely gobsmacked, and his face had gone an enchanting shade of pink.

Blaise barked a sharp, braying laugh and then quickly covered his mouth, rolling off the bed and darting from the room. Harry ignored him and gave a satisfied sigh, brows quirked. “Right! Treacle tart for dessert today! Don’t want to be late!”

After that, Malfoy no longer avoided him. He didn’t try to kiss Harry again—he didn’t even seem up to talking about it—but his pendulum did look to be swinging back toward the sort of equilibrium they’d had before Slytherin versus Gryffindor, such that they were once again nigh inseparable in their free moments as Malfoy dragged them off to the pitch for more death-defying stunt practice or to the student-use Potions lab to try out a new twist on an old favourite (Harry didn’t know what an Erumpent Potion was, but he knew what an Erumpent was and had no desire to find out about its potion) or to the Great Hall when Harry wasn’t moving quickly enough for his satisfaction. Malfoy even seemed to remember Harry’s breathless suggestion they Charm up a highlight reel for scouts and demanded they start stitching together Omniocular footage immediately, because edits would take weeks, and of course they were going to make one for Harry, too, was he deranged?

None of their roommates seemed to have noticed the kiss—either kiss, actually—save for Blaise, and he wasn’t saying anything beyond the odd saucy comment of, “Try not to have too much fun with your broomsticks, boys!” when they set off for the pitch together. Perhaps Slytherins were just circ*mspect about this sort of thing—or perhaps they were all talking behind Harry’s and Malfoy’s backs, like any good gossipers. He couldn’t even ask Malfoy if this was the case, because then they might stop speaking again when Malfoy went hedgehog-mode. He was an awfully sensitive sort.

And Harry was grateful to be back to their old give and take like before—where Malfoy gave sh*t and Harry took it—but now he was just the tiniest bit worried. Worried that this wasn’t where they were meant to be. That Malfoy wanted something different but was too much a coward to ask for it, and Harry wasn’t a mind reader (not that his father hadn’t tried to teach him Legilimency, Harry was just—as he put it—“too thick-headed”), so it might be time, he decided, to implement a bit more of that Slytherin cunning.

Malfoy liked taking the lead, generally. He liked being in charge. He liked being the one with the high ground, the one teaching Harry the ins and outs and everything in between. And he was good at it—it was what made him a fantastic, if ill-liked, Quidditch captain.

But he only liked that sort of thing when he could feel confident in his position. He liked talking Harry’s ear off about Quidditch because he knew more about it than Harry, and he liked arguing about potions because he thought he knew more about it than Harry.

Kissing, and everything associated with it, seemed to be brand-new territory for him, Harry was realising, and that made him scared. No, it made him terrified. Shy, in all the wrong ways. It kind of terrified Harry too, but somehow seeing Malfoy wrong-footed about it all gave him a sort of unexpected courage.

Courage enough to ask one evening, while Harry was feeding Noodle and Malfoy was trying to teach her to do tricks (“I want her knowing what ‘Stay’ means now, when she’s a manageable size, before she gets big enough to eat us whole.”), “So, er…were you…you know, ever gonna do that to me again?”

“Do what?” Malfoy asked, distracted, as he waved a fake stuffed rat around to try and draw Noodle’s attention away from the real one Harry was tempting her with. Noodle was not having it, the clever girl.

“Kiss me.”

Malfoy flung the stuffed rat across the room, and Noodle dove after it this time, drawn by the sudden and unexpected movement of something food-shaped. He was on his feet in an instant, wand clutched to his chest as if he thought Harry might make a move on him. “I—why on earth would you just ask something like that?”

And Harry’s expression went bemused. “Because I was curious? Because I wanted to know? Wh—” He shook his head. “Was I not meant to ask?” It was a genuine question. Malfoy sounded almost offended.

“That’s not the—who just asks that sort of thing?!”

Now Harry was really lost, and they were getting dangerously close to hedgehog-mode territory, he could feel it. “Me! Someone who kind of wants it to happen again!” Or at least he had. Now he was reconsidering, because it was sounding more and more like maybe he’d read the situation entirely wrong, and f*ck, it had been a ‘hopped up on happiness’ thing, hadn’t it? And he’d gone and made it awkward.

Malfoy fidgeted, looking terribly uncomfortable with the conversation, and Harry despaired, until: “You’ve rather a lot of nerve, expecting it to happen again after that display in the dormitory.”

Harry frowned. “What display?”

“Oh don’t play stupid! Blaise has given me nothing but grief since then!” He had? “The lewd comments I’ve had to fend off all on account of your brash—brazen—b—” He huffed, irritated. “I can’t think of any more B-adjectives just now, but trust I will later, and you’ll hear them!”

“I—I’m sorry…” Harry said, a bit appalled at himself. He’d thought they were doing all right again, more or less. God, was he really that blind? Malfoy was generally quite easy to read, an aspect of his personality Harry had actually appreciated. “I didn’t realise—I know he’s made a few remarks, but I thought it was just genial ribbing…” It wasn’t as if Blaise had any leg to stand on when it came to that sort of thing, after all, and Harry had only known him for two and a half months.

“Well, it isn’t! It’s humiliating!”

f*ck, f*ck, this was all going wrong, and Harry started to panic. “I’m sorry, truly I am! I just thought it would be the easiest way to show you how I felt! Turnabout being fair play and all! I assumed if you were comfortable doing it to me in front of, like, five hundred people, then you’d be fine having it done back in front of less than three!” He could hear himself getting defensive now, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. He had his mother’s temper, he’d been told, and his father’s inability to back down from a fight.

And then Malfoy snarled, “You could’ve done it in front of the entire school if you’d at least been passably skilled about it,” and Harry’s cheeks heated—

—and then he froze. Took a beat. And listened to what Malfoy was saying.

And heard what Malfoy wasn’t saying.

He wasn’t saying he didn’t like Harry. He wasn’t saying it had been a mistake, throwing himself at Harry on the pitch. He wasn’t even saying he didn’t want to do it again.

He was saying all of the cruel, nasty, and largely untrue things he did as a defensive tactic. He’d gone hedgehog and Harry hadn’t even realised it because he’d been too preoccupied with everything on his side of the matter. And now that he had himself settled—more or less—it was time to, carefully, pick his way through the messy thorns to reach Malfoy’s gooey, vulnerable centre.

Harry eased to his feet, nodding. “I forgot myself. You’re right. You had a certain…standard of upbringing, and you rightly expect any experiences you share with others to conform to that standard.” He raised a finger. “I do however think you should recall that I’m a very quick learner, and the best way to master a new skill is through rigorous…” He took a step toward Malfoy. “…Intensive…” And another step. “Tailored practice regimens.” He co*cked his head, brows lifted. “I’d think you’d know that better than anyone, Captain Malfoy.” This close, he could see Malfoy’s nostrils flare, just a tiny bit. Harry frowned. “…Has Blaise really been giving you sh*t?”

Malfoy swallowed thickly. “…He always gives me sh*t.”

“But…no more sh*t than usual?”

“…The same amount, twice as irritating.” Harry wanted to sink to his knees in relief, and of course Malfoy misinterpreted his body language for weakness. “It still wasn’t appropriate! You can’t just—just—”

“Go around kissing people without their say-so? No, I would generally agree with you. I just thought turnabout was fair play in that particular instance.” Harry crossed his arms over his chest. “Plus, you were avoiding me, so I kind of had to try and catch you by surprise.”

“I wasn’t avoiding you,” Malfoy said, particularly petulant.

And Harry decided to give Malfoy enough rope to hang himself with, if he was so set on it. “All right. Say you weren’t. You only weren’t monopolising my every free moment and some moments that weren’t free. Did you grow bored of me? Was I that much a disappointment when you kissed me the first time? I can see how traumatising it might have been, having to endure it a second time, in that case.”

Malfoy opened and closed his mouth several times in succession—and then took a breath, seeming to steel himself as he looked Harry in the eye. “…I don’t know who you are.”

And Harry took a mental step back—and then a physical one, heart rate accelerating a few beats. “…What’s that supposed to mean? I mean, of course you don’t? I haven’t even been enrolled here for three months yet.” He didn’t reach for his wand, but he carefully shifted into a defensive stance, just in case.

“I don’t mean—” Malfoy shook his head, closing his eyes. “We don’t—know each other.” He pursed his lips. “…I don’t agree on much when it comes to my parents’ ideals, but one thing of which I’ve always been quite sure…is that I wanted a proper courtship.”

Harry blinked, slowly. “A…courtship?”

“…Arranged marriages are still a thing in the circles in which my family travels, but they don’t have to be a loveless affair. My parents’ wasn’t. They seem genuinely fond of each other and to my knowledge have been faithful to a fault in all their years together. My mother attributed it to her own mother’s insistence that my father court her before a wedding could even begin being planned. He had to—demonstrate his intentions. Earnestly. Show that he genuinely cared for her. And if my mother didn’t believe him, then the whole thing was called off. Nana Druella wasn’t going to have my father turn out to have married my mother for her dowry and name only to be revealed to be a philanderer.”

Harry was starting to get a queasy feeling in his stomach. He’d been worried for a moment there that Malfoy might be on to him, but clearly they had bigger issues of miscommunication to deal with. “But—no offence, I don’t want to marry you!”

Malfoy scoffed and tossed his head, as if Harry were being deliberately obtuse. “Of course you do, shut up. I’m a catch. But that’s quite beside what I’m saying.”

“Is it? Because it sounds like you want me to court you—and I don’t really know what that means, but from the sound of it, it feels like there’d be an engagement involved at the very least. And several lawyers.”

“Well—true, there usually are. Solicitors, notaries public, witnesses. A contract. Courtships are fraught affairs.” He waved Harry off. “But—stop distracting me. It’s not the courtship I want, per se.”

Harry tried not to be so very obvious in the audible sigh of relief he released. “All right, then—what is it?”

Malfoy swallowed. “…I’m not stupid, you know. I’m quite aware that I’m a first-rate prick. I’m demanding, I’m easily offended, and I’d sooner bite my own tongue off than apologise, even when I know I’m in the wrong.” He licked his lips. “I know all that. But I still like to think there’s someone out there who’ll put up with my ridiculousness just because they find me charming despite my many faults. And I know it will make me seem silly and childish—and probably very at odds with everything you’ve seen of me in our brief time together—but…” He seemed to steel himself. “…I would very much like to fall in love with someone. Not a fling, not a rushed, urgent thing driven by hormones and—” He grimaced. “I want…a slow, tightening spiral into someone. I want someone to look at me and see all that I am, to know me inside and out, and still want me. I want…”

He trailed off, but he didn’t need to finish. Harry could hear it: he wanted a romance. Draco Malfoy was sixteen years old, steeped in tradition, knowing he would probably eventually find himself nudged into a marriage of convenience—and the boldest way he could think of to stand against that was to be a hopeless dreamer.

Perhaps Brits weren’t all as emotionally constipated as Harry’s father after all.

“You’re a romantic,” he said with a soft chuckle, because the alternative was to use words like cute or adorable, and those would probably get an Unforgivable flung at his head. He’d survived the last one, but the next wasn’t a given.

“No,” Malfoy said, hotly. “I’m—discerning.” He drew himself up. “I require patience and persistence from a partner—I’m not going to bother with someone who isn’t committed to me. I will admit I was…perhaps a bit overcome in the moment and took liberties I shouldn’t have on the pitch, but I don’t want you to mistake me. I don’t know you—and you don’t know me. And maybe they play it fast and loose across the pond, maybe you’re all right without that sort of—that sort of thing. But…” His lips tightened into a thin line. “It’s not for me. I apologise if I gave you the wrong impression.”

The echoes of Malfoy’s voice bouncing off the stone walls of the chamber steadily faded, until all that was left was the soft burble of running water (at least, Harry hoped it was water) somewhere along the pipes.

The wrong impression. Malfoy thought—had perhaps convinced himself—that Harry didn’t actually like him, only wanted to…well, kiss him. And perhaps a few other things besides. But in fairness, the very first thing Harry had asked now that they were once more on speaking terms was if they might kiss again. Perhaps Harry was the one who’d given the wrong impression, then.

Malfoy was right: he didn’t know Harry, and Harry didn’t know him. And Harry respected that he didn’t want to get involved with a virtual stranger. Harry had never really considered it himself, but he probably agreed. He wasn’t in a position where he could be cavalier with who he consorted with, not now, but he wasn’t going to let that keep him from all the new, exciting experiences he’d been assured by his godfathers would be waiting for him here within these castle walls.

“…I’ve never really thought about what I want in a relationship. I’ve never had one, for one, and my parents’ relationship was—” He caught himself. “It’s all right, but it’s nothing I’ve ever particularly aspired to.” It was difficult to aspire to anything when you didn’t really know all that much about it, after all. “I don’t know what I want for myself. I think—I want someone…fun? Someone I can laugh with. Someone who makes me happy—or at least someone who doesn’t make me sad. Someone interesting—or someone I find interesting, rather. I want…” He shrugged. “Someone I like.” He looked at Malfoy. “And I think I probably like you. As—a friend. But also something more than that, it feels like. I don’t know what—but I would like there to be…more. Maybe not courting, but if there’s, like, a level right below that? Maybe we—”

“You like me?” Malfoy said, breathless, and his eyebrows were doing absolutely wild things. He looked almost hurt by Harry’s confession, and Harry half-regretted it now.

“Er—yes? I mean, of course? I don’t generally hang around people I don’t like, much less—you know—kiss them.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. All this talk about kissing without any of it actually happening was starting to get uncomfortable. “Wait—why did you think I did it, if not because I liked you?” Doubt crowded in once more. “Did you…did you not do it because you liked me after all, then?” He’d said he’d been overcome in the moment—god, it was just a hopped-up-on-happiness thing, wasn’t it?

Malfoy shook his head. “…I told you—I wasn’t thinking.”

“Well think now,” Harry said, a bit more harshly than he’d intended, but it needed saying. “Because I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about the whole thing for weeks now, and it feels like you haven’t given it a second thought—”

“Of course I have!”

“—and now I can’t tell if you do even like me—”

“And of course I do!”

There was a long, quiet beat, Malfoy’s confession echoing off the dank stone walls of the chamber.

“…I do. I do like you,” he repeated, softer now, like he was ashamed, and Harry took back his earlier conclusion that maybe all Brits weren’t emotionally constipated. It was two for two now, after all. “…I wouldn’t…do that…with someone I didn’t like either.”

“Kiss them, you mean.” It was like pulling teeth getting this idiot to speak plainly.

“Yes, of course, kiss them,” Malfoy spat huffily. “But I told you—I don’t want to be mistaken. That—I don’t think…” He trailed off and covered his face with his palms, groaning.

They were talking around each other in ever-widening circles. Harry had thought actually conversing might bring them closer together, but it seemed to only be driving them apart.

Malfoy was so worried about being misunderstood—and yet so bad at explaining himself. “You don’t want to kiss again,” Harry said, if only to have something solid between them.

Malfoy groaned again. “That’s not it—gads, I’d get further talking to one of the bathroom mirrors!”

“But—that’s all I was asking about! I wasn’t even asking to do it multiple times—just the once more, to see if we even liked it when both of us were expecting it.” He pulled Malfoy’s hands away from his face, forcing his eye to meet Harry’s. “You want persistence and patience? You want to know me? This is part of that.”

“I already know how sh*t your kissing skills are,” Malfoy grumbled.

“And I like to think there’s more to me than that. You know I like treacle tart, and that I can do a hand-stand, and that I can talk to snakes—” At Malfoy’s sharp look, he added, “…Which is something I’m not supposed to tell people I can do, I remember.” He sighed. “It’s not the same if I just tell you these things about myself, like I’m submitting a resume. You’re meant to learn them as you go—that’s half the fun.” He sighed. “I don’t want to be mistaken either. I do want to kiss you again. I won’t apologise for it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn all sorts of silly little things about you too. I just want to discover them for myself. I mean, you’re generally an easy read.” He shrugged. “I like it when you can surprise me.”

There was a quiet beat, and then: “…You’re serious.” Malfoy sounded awestruck, and his expression had gone slack with shock. “You’re speaking nonsense. Clearly the fumes down here have scrambled your brains.”

“My brains aren’t scrambled—”

“Because as I mentioned, if you weren’t paying attention: I’m a first-rate prick. I’m demanding, I’m easily offended, and I’d sooner bite my own tongue off than apologise, even when I know I’m in the wrong.”

“Yeah, I heard all that. You left off a few of your more charming features, but we’ll let it slide.”

“So why?”

“Have the fumes scrambled your brains? Because I like you, of course!”

“Yes, but why?”

“f*ck if I know! I’m pretty sure I didn’t have any say in it.” He shrugged. “I just—do. You’re rude and pushy and moody and I live under ever-present threat of pissing you off without even realising it…” He released a little huff of laughter, shaking his head. “And I like it for some reason. You didn’t try to be my friend—you just assumed the position, without asking. Maybe that’s what I needed, seeing as I’d never really had a friend before.”

Really, Harry thought he ought to be asking why Malfoy liked him. They certainly hadn’t had much in common, not at the outset, and Malfoy had been openly hostile toward him until he’d found he had something he could lord over Harry. Perhaps Malfoy could see his worries written on his features, for he said, “You didn’t push back. At least, not the way people usually do. You let me—wash over you. Like a wave against a rock. I didn’t have to worry about you getting swept away.” He frowned to himself. “You may think I’m a spoiled brat, used to getting my way—and…all right, I suppose I am. But I’m always made to feel bad for it, so it only makes me more desperate. Like I’m not allowed to just ask for things. So…I’m not very good at it.”

Harry had to smile at that. “No, you aren’t.”

“You aren’t meant to agree with me. This is supposed to be silent self-flagellation.”

“Silent self-flagellation’s hard though. My dad nearly walked in on me once.” Malfoy gave him a scathing eye-roll, and this time, Harry actually laughed. It felt like he hadn’t properly laughed in weeks. He sighed. “Yeah, you aren’t good at asking for things. And you’re spoiled, and all the other things you said. But you’re also stupidly smart—don’t think my dad hasn’t been getting on my tail about my marks compared to a Malfoy’s—you’re really passionate about the things you’re interested in, especially when they’re things other people aren’t interested in; you’re driven and persistent and you stand up for what you want. You’re difficult. But I like challenges.” He bobbed his head. “And—I didn’t hate it when you kissed me. That’s why I did it back. Because I thought you were the kind of person I might like to try it with again.”

Malfoy’s nose wrinkled some more. He was going to have irremovable lines all across his features by the time he was thirty at this rate. “…So what is it you want from me precisely?” He reached down and gently picked up Noodle, draping her across his shoulders and stroking her under her chin. Her tongue flicked in and out in pleasure, and her eyes—still opaque with a pink hue for now—crinkled into thin little slits. “Malfoys don’t really do dating, if that’s what you’re after.”

“You won’t do dating, but you’ll do courting?” Harry shook his head, marvelling. “And as I understand it, Malfoys don’t really do Quidditch Training Camp, either, but there’s an application receipt in your dresser that says otherwise.” He scrubbed his toe against the mildewy flagstones beneath their feet. “It doesn’t have to have a name. It can just be…us, being ourselves. And seeing if we like who we turn out to be. Learning about each other in the doing. And maybe that ‘doing’ could include some—what do you call it over here? ‘Snogging’?”

Malfoy groaned, sinking down into a squat and burying his face in Noodle’s coils. From the bits peeking out, Harry could see he was blushing fiercely. “Must you?”

“I mean, I think I must? You won’t.” Harry co*cked his head. “…Do you not want to?” It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it had been something Harry had kind of been looking forward to now.

“Don’t be daft, of course I want to.” Malfoy pulled Noodle down so he could see Harry properly. “I was the one who did it first.”

“And then said he was ‘overcome in the moment’. I’m the one who put some thought into it before I did it.”

“Well I’m not overcome in the moment now.”

“No. No, you aren’t.” Harry felt his heart do a little double-beat in his chest, and he licked his lips. “So?”

Malfoy released a little huff, rising to his feet and brushing down the lines of his dressing gown. He straightened his shoulders and threw his head back, closing his eyes. “All right.”

Harry stood there, staring blankly in confusion. “All right…what?”

Malfoy waved a hand in his general direction, eyes still closed. “You may try and kiss me again. Kiss—none of this ‘snogging’ business. I don’t want to imagine how you’ll misinterpret the word and am even less keen to help you experiment.”

Harry blinked, thrown. “Wh—now? You want me to just—do it?” He frowned. “Why do I have to do it? Why won’t you do it to me? Or—aren’t you supposed to do this sort of thing together?”

“Stop making it more complicated than it has to be!” Malfoy groused. “Now kiss me, before I become too cross to allow it.”

Malfoy was sh*t at setting the mood, but Harry worried that if he didn’t pull himself together and kiss the idiot, he might never get the chance to again. He took a breath, exhaling long and slow to encourage his heart to settle into a pace more sedate than ‘breakneck nerves’, and stepped forward. Malfoy was a little bit taller than him (only a little bit, nothing Harry was going to obsess over, no way), and with the way he was standing, tense and head drawn back, it was impossible to find a proper angle to do the deed without standing on his tip-toes, and Harry was not going to have their second (third? Or maybe their first actual one?) kiss be had while on his tip-toes.

He reached out, sliding his hand along Malfoy’s jaw and snickering softly when he flinched. “Coward,” he snorted, and Malfoy opened his eyes, brows furrowed and lips parting—probably to snarl what he thought was a biting, witty retort along the lines of Yes, terrified of what’s likely your abhorrent kissing prowess, so Harry cut him off before he could get going.

Malfoy seized up with an inelegant little squeak as Harry covered his lips with his own, hands coming up to scrabble at Harry’s nightshirt. Harry thought he might push him away for the presumption, but Malfoy seemed to pretty quickly decide that sneak-attack kisses were allowed in his slightly altered courtship ritual, which was great, because Harry had a sneaking suspicion that a lot of their kisses were probably going to have to be claimed this way. Malfoy just liked having the upper hand too much to allow himself to be vulnerable enough to just accept this sort of intimacy. It was a curious sort of discomfort Harry couldn’t quite wrap his mind around—what kind of person built up walls around himself and then complained when no one stepped up to knock them down?

A whiny, hypocritical, self-absorbed prick, that was who.

And Harry was gonna snog him, just as soon as he figured out what snogging was.

He would settle for just kissing now, though.

When Malfoy finally allowed himself to relax into Harry and Harry stopped wondering if he was supposed to be doing anything in particular with his lips or if he was just supposed to hold there for a ten-count, the kiss turned out to be quite nice. He quickly learned there were all kinds of neat things you could do with your tongue, and Malfoy tasted like minty toothpaste with a hint of the chocolate-caramel torte they’d had for dessert earlier that evening.

Kissing was an all-five-senses affair, though, and for whatever reason, Harry was most turned on by the sounds. The soft, sliding smack of their lips, the huff of panted breaths passing between them, and the little grunts of irritation Malfoy made if Harry wasn’t quite giving him precisely what he wanted. They all did things to Harry—mostly things in his midsection—and Harry could feel the throbbing thud of his heart pounding a loud tattoo in his chest with mounting intensity.

Malfoy leaned into him, one thigh shifting between Harry’s legs, and he found he had to fight not to rut against it. That was probably forty-second base, or maybe it wasn’t even on the courtship docket at all. A conversation for another time, he supposed, and a sign they ought to wrap up what had started off as an innocent smooch but was rapidly turning into full-on necking. Was that what snogging was? Necking for Brits? Maybe he’d ask James. He sounded like he’d know more about this sort of thing than Harry’s father, and he’d probably be less likely to freak out about it too. Though he’d likely ask just as many if not more questions, so maybe James wasn’t the best consultant.

Harry drew back when it became clear that Malfoy wasn’t going to, a shiver going down his spine at the audible little gasp of disappointment Malfoy released when they parted. Malfoy still hung there, leaning into Harry and lids fluttering. He was flushed a deep cherry-red—ears, nose, cheeks, neck and probably lower as well—and his hair was tousled from where Harry’s wandering hands had moved to play with it (he was all the time making fun of Harry’s Potter-hand-me-down hair, so turnabout was fair play, he felt), and Harry couldn’t help himself, smiling at the sight.

So of course that was the first thing Malfoy saw when he opened his eyes: Harry’s silly, goofy, self-satisfied smile, which consequently made him frown.

“…What are you smiling about?”

“What are you not smiling about?”

“Mainly the fact that I don’t know what you are smiling about.”

“Haven’t I got a lot to smile about? I didn’t think that was half bad.”

“An improvement from before. But that doesn’t mean it was half good either. Could be more than half bad.”

“Well…was it?” Harry hoped he didn’t sound too eager. These were new experiences for him—his first friend, his first kiss, his first whatever-this-was—but for Malfoy…well, he clearly came from the sort of family that took things very seriously, and even if he had personal aims beyond ‘the family business’ for his future, he hadn’t yet escaped their influence on his way of thinking. Maybe he couldn’t escape it. Harry hoped that was what the whole ‘Mudblood’ thing had been about.

If Harry came on too strong, there was every chance Malfoy might cut and run. Decide that this was too much to handle—there was only so much rebelling an only-son could do, after all, and he was already set on the Quidditch thing, so maybe ‘fraternising with Harry Potter’ would have to go.

Malfoy made a face, like he wanted to say something nasty but then pulled back. “It was…adequate.” He rubbed absently at his lip, and Harry wondered if he realised he was doing it.

“Adequate enough…that we could do it again?”

Malfoy paled, looking genuinely frightened, and Harry panicked internally. f*ck—this idiot was becoming impossible to read. Harry’d thought he had him figured out, but with this new wrench thrown into their relationship, perhaps his confidence was entirely misplaced now. Was ‘adequate’ not merely Malfoy’s patented brand of sarcasm, then, but how he actually felt? He opened his mouth to reassure Malfoy that they didn’t have to—though he would probably not be able to disguise his disappointment, and Malfoy might not believe him—but then Malfoy cleared his throat and gave a short, sharp nod. “…Yes, yes I think we might. But—” He pursed his lips. “…Not in front of those louts. I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Harry breathed a silent sigh of relief. Those louts. Their roommates, he supposed, and that made sense. Malfoy was a private person. He never let anyone—anyone but Harry—see him expressing any emotion beyond cold disdain or violent fury. And the others would, Harry agreed, never let him hear the end of it if they caught him and Harry being affectionate with one another. It would be an angle they could exploit, and Malfoy couldn’t have that. It was bad enough the two kisses they’d already had had been so public—but those could be waved off or explained away. A bet lost (or won), or a strange quirk of American culture that Harry had hauled along with him via Portkey. Anything more…

Anything more would be dating, he was realising. They couldn’t kiss—they couldn’t hold hands, they couldn’t even touch. Not that Harry really wanted to hold hands—he was nearly an adult in the eyes of the wizarding world, and it just felt so childish—but…he liked having the option. He liked the idea of being able to sit next to each other at meals and brush shoulders and kick each other’s legs while stifling silly snorts of laughter. He liked the idea of napping on a bed together in the one free period they shared. He liked the idea of launching himself at Malfoy bodily after he made another incredible Snitch capture, whirling around lost in a world of their own for just a few moments before the cheering crowd rushed in.

“Malfoys don’t date,” Harry said, a little soft and a little sad but as understanding as he could manage it, and Malfoy pursed his lips and nodded—then stepped in close, adjusting the fall of Harry’s pyjamas.

“You can be discreet, though, can’t you?” His tone was all innocence on the surface, but Harry heard the challenge.



“Only not out there?” he asked, then carefully continued, “…Or not anywhere?”

“Oh—gads, no, not not anywhere.” He scoffed. “What’s the point, then? I mean—” He gestured flippantly at Harry. “We have to fix this somehow.”


Malfoy pointed to his lips. “This. ‘Not half bad’? Malfoys don’t do not half bad.”

Harry wondered if he ought to start writing down the things that Malfoys supposedly didn’t do. The list was getting unmanageable.

“Right.” Harry nodded. “More practising?”

“Rather a lot more.” He crossed his arms. “You’ll find I’m an exacting taskmaster.”

“I’m pretty sure I already knew that. I thought we were supposed to be learning new things about each other.” Harry mulled this over. “What’s your middle name?”

Malfoy frowned. “Aren’t you supposed to find that out organically? You said yourself you didn’t want to just rattle off facts.”

“How’s your middle name gonna come up ‘organically’?”

“Fine—you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.”

“Wh—all right,” Harry laughed. “It’s Se—”

He nearly bit his own tongue off. f*ck. f*ck, but he had to stop letting his guard down around Malfoy. Maybe this was why his father had been so nosey before—not because he was overprotective but because he knew that when you…well, when you liked someone, you dispensed with caution you might otherwise have practised, made mistakes you might otherwise not have made. Like nearly telling the present object of your irrational affections your middle name was Severus and not…f*ck, would it have been ‘James’ if Potter had really been his father? Or was there some fancy wizarding tradition for that, too?

Malfoy was waiting expectantly, and when Harry faltered, his expression fell. “…What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing—just, I think…” He groped for an excuse. “I think maybe it is the fumes. Suddenly just started feeling woozy.”

“I knew it!” Malfoy huffed, darting around to brace his shoulder under Harry. “Let’s go. I don’t want to have to try and explain to Pomfrey where I found you passed out when I Levitate your unconscious body to the Hospital Wing.”

Harry went limp on one side, letting Malfoy feel like his knight in shining armour, half because he kind of had to after that story, and half because it gave him an excuse to lean into him. “So…you liked it?”

“Liked what?” Malfoy asked, distracted.

“The kiss.”

“The ki—” Malfoy nearly dropped him on his face, handling him much more roughly now. “I told you—it was adequate.”

“You always make those little noises when something’s ‘adequate’?”

Malfoy’s jaw hardened, and from this angle, Harry could see a little vein pulsing in his temple. “I was trying to tamp down the urge to shove you away. Those were ardent protests I was biting back.”

“I see,” Harry said. “Maybe we shouldn’y try again, then—I wouldn’t want to force you into anything.”

Malfoy laughed, a haughty, sharp bark. “As if you could.” He gave Harry a sidelong little smile. “Trust anything I do with you, I do because I want to.”


“And against my better judgement.”

“That’s sweet, Draco.”

And now Malfoy did drop him, and Harry stumbled over his own feet. “Hey! What was that for?”

“You—” He was flushing darkly. “You can’t call me that.”

“I’m pretty sure I can—it’s your name, isn’t it?”

“No, you can’t call me that!”

“Why not? Blaise does.”

“Blaise does lots of things no one with sense ought to be doing. You go around using my given name and people will talk.”

“I think you’re vastly overestimating how much people care about what name you use with someone.”

“And I think you’re—” Draco started, and then he pinched his lips together and released a muffled little scream of frustration. It didn’t sound anything like the noises he’d made when they kissed, so Harry was starting to think maybe he’d been lying about that. He shook a finger in Harry’s face. “I’m not calling you Harry.”

“You just did. Rolled right off the tongue, didn’t it?”

“It did not. Felt like talking around a mouthful of marbles.”

Now who needs to practice?” Draco scoffed at this, tossing his head and marching for the chute that led back up to the bathroom, and Harry reached out a hand to grab his shoulder, staying him. “…I won’t, if you really don’t want me to.”

And Draco seemed to war within himself, which made Harry’s stomach do funny things, like twisting in on itself, because he wasn’t immediately saying no. “Just—discretion. That’s all I ask.”

And Harry could do that. He nodded. “…I’m gonna use it ‘til I’m blue in the face when we’re alone, though. So, be prepared for that.”

Draco arched a brow. “…Threats are no way to get me to return the favour, you realise.”

“Oh, I know. I’ll make you say my name, though. One way or another.”

And Draco’s lips curled into the wickedest of grins. “Give it your very best shot.”

Harry had been not-dating people all his life—so he’d thought that not-dating Draco would be pretty easy. After all, it was just maintaining the status quo, more or less, except this time with more furtive touches and caresses and lots of snogging (a very confused James had assured him that what Harry described definitely qualified as snogging) in Noodle’s chamber. Practice, it seemed, did make perfect.

But not-dating was…well, not dating. And though Blaise kept most of his lewd comments to himself at Harry’s warning look, miming zipping his lips shut but following them both closely with his eyes whenever they found a moment together, Draco was still on edge. He’d protested—quite hotly—that he wasn’t scared or ashamed, but only that his parents had certain expectations of him, and beyond the shame of enduring merciless teasing from their Housemates, there was every chance that word of their liaisons might make it back to Malfoy Manor, and his parents might tolerate Quidditch Training Camp, but consorting with a Potter, even one who’d been Sorted into Slytherin, would be right out.

So Harry was good—he was discreet (though perhaps not as patient as he would have liked to be), and he let Draco take the lead when they were out and about, never pressing for more than what Draco felt comfortable offering before the watching eyes of the student population at large. They were still friends, after all, and most had grown bored of the Potter-Malfoy pair weeks ago, even with the sensation of the whole kissing-in-the-middle-of-the-Quidditch-Pitch scene.

But Draco could not—or would not—let himself be anything more than that outside of Noodle’s chamber. Harry told himself he’d known this would be the case and should never have expected more, but…well, he had. Because it was growing harder and harder to read Draco even as they ostensibly grew closer. Like Harry maybe really did need these glasses, the things that had been clear from afar growing cloudy as he drew near. Draco bothered him less, and their private Quidditch training sessions grew less frequent. Harry might have chalked it up Draco just being busy prepping for upcoming Cup games, but Slytherin wasn’t playing again until February, and even then it was against Ravenclaw, presently dead last in the league thanks to their proper Keeper being out with Dragon Pox and none of the replacements being able to handle the goals.

Not that Harry wasn’t having to keep his own relations guessing as to the nature of his (potential) new amorous relationship. His father had refused to let the matter drop after Harry had come to him for advice and regularly watched him like a hawk during classes and at every meal. He was even holding surprise dormitory inspections—and uncovering a shocking amount of p*rnographic paraphernalia in the doing—to the consternation of Harry’s roommates, evidently in the hopes of catching Harry in the midst of some scandalous act.

Noodle’s chamber was their only sanctuary, the one place in the entire castle where they didn’t have to put on airs or hold back—though Harry suspected that Draco still did, to a degree. The need to put up walls seemed ingrained, perhaps genetic, and Harry had to remind himself on the regular that good things came to those who waited, and Draco was a very, very good thing.

Even if he could be ridiculous sometimes.

“—and Ron was saying—you remember Ron, right? Weasley? We’re partners in Potions—anyway, he was saying that when he attended the World Cup with his family a couple of years back, the Bulgarian Seeker, I think his name was Crom? He pulled this move, have you heard of it? The Runski Feint, Ron said?”

Draco nearly snapped the quill he was currently penning an Ancient Runes essay with in two and bit out, “It’s Krum, and it’s the Wronski Feint, and why are you talking Quidditch with Weasley? What does he know?”

“He knows a lot,” Harry said, defensive of his friend. From what he’d gathered, there was no love lost between the Weasleys and the Malfoys, but it didn’t mean Draco had to be purposefully nasty when Ron came up in conversation. Ron held his tongue well enough, so Draco could manage the same. “He’s a big fan, and he Keeps for Gryffindor.”

“He reserve-Keeps for them, I don’t think I’ve seen him in an actual game once—in five years. And isn’t his favourite team the Cannons?” Draco snickered, lip curling as he smoothed out the feathers on his quill and reached for his inkwell. “They’vee the worst record in the league. Losers backing losers, shocking.”

Harry leaned back against Draco’s writing desk. It was a rare moment where they’d found themselves alone in the dormitory, most of the eligible members of their House having taken themselves down to Hogsmeade for the Saturday afternoon. Harry had wanted to join them—the Three Broomsticks was usually packed, but the Hog’s Head wasn’t nearly as nicely appointed and thus wasn’t half as well-patronised, and the barman turned a blind eye to whatever students got up to in the back booths. He hadn’t been able to steal a quiet moment with Draco outside of the chamber in over a week now, and he’d been really hoping to kiss Draco sometime without the stench of mildew and stagnant water hanging heavy in the air.

But Draco had professed a need to get cracking on an essay that wasn’t going to write itself (“Theo says they make quills for that, you know—when’s your birthday?”), and Harry hoped that maybe if he distracted Draco enough from his task, he’d get fed up and teach Harry a lesson.

He crossed his arms over his chest, staring down at the little whorl on the crown of Draco’s head as he scritch-scritched away. “You always have to be such a dick?”

“No,” Draco said airily. “This is an art I’ve finely crafted over the years.”

Harry rolled his eyes so hard he thought he felt something pop. And then, he said perhaps more gently than he ought to have, “…You don’t have to be jealous of him, you know.”

And this time Draco did snap his quill in two, meeting Harry’s eye with accusatory fury. “Jealous? You seriously think I’m jealous of Weasley? Why on earth would I be jealous of that?”

“I dunno,” Harry said, shrugging. “Why would you be?”

“I wouldn’t,” Draco snapped, and then, a bit more defensively, “I’m not.” He took a long, even breath and closed his yes.

“…Well, good,” Harry said. He co*cked his head, leaning into Draco’s space. “…I’m a pretty swell guy, if you haven’t noticed. I’ve got other friends besides you. You’re gonna have to get used to that.”

“Oh, congratulations,” Draco said with waspish vigour, forcing a bright, toothy smile. “ You’ve finally mastered what most do in nursery school.”

He’d thought it about ‘Malfoy’ and confirmed it with ‘Draco’: confidence though he oozed from every pore, he could be an insecure, possessive, selfish little sh*t. And sometimes it was flattering, and sometimes it was irritating, but the very worst thing you could do is ignore it. Now, you couldn’t feed it either—instead, you had to take the time to point out how absolutely misplaced such feelings were, as then he’d wind up feeling foolish and back off.

So: “…I think he likes Hermione,” Harry said, casual as anything, and the abrupt change in subject seemed to throw Draco, who was looking at Harry now like he’d grown a second head. “Granger. He keeps looking at her in Potions, and he gets the dopiest expression on his face when she’s on a roll answering questions from Slughorn.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Weasley’s always got a dopey expression on his face. It’s genetic, I’m quite sure.”

Harry shrugged. “I think it’s kind of cute, getting stuck in a daze staring at someone you like, ignorant to all your surroundings.”

“Ugh.” Draco shuddered. “He ought to have some self-respect. It’s not cute—it’s mortifying is what it is.”

“And what is it when you nearly take a Bludger to the head ogling someone’s ass when you ought to be trying to beat them to the Snitch?”

“That—” Draco raised a finger in warning at Harry. “That—is hazardous to one’s health.”

“Yeah, you nearly slammed head-first into one of the hoops.” He hopped up onto the desk properly, legs swinging. “Better get out while you still can,” he leered, leaning in close. “Your burgeoning Quidditch career’s on the line.”

Draco angled his head up to meet Harry, lips twisted into a thin little smirk. “I think I can handle myself, thanks. I rather like living dangerously,” he said, and closed the distance between them.

Chapter 7

Chapter Text

On December the 1st, it was announced just before breakfast that the Yule Ball would be held in two weeks’ time. Harry recalled a Hogsmeade weekend nearly two months back now and something about Pansy and a dress and f*ck, Harry hadn’t thought that was actually a real thing.

“Of course it’s a real thing,” Draco scoffed around a bite of his Scotch pancake once breakfast had been properly served. “Has been since the early ‘80s.”

“A bit of levity to take students’ minds off the—well, you know,” Blaise said, ever the diplomat. “Parents were threatening to remove their children—it was a last-ditch effort by the then-Board of Governors to remind them that Hogwarts was and ever would be inviolable.”

They were all tip-toeing around the subject, but it didn’t take Harry long to do a bit of mental math and realise what they weren’t saying. It was an odd feeling, knowing there was a whole school tradition—a tradition at a school he’d barely even heard of six months ago—put in place on account of the thing that’d broken his family apart. He wondered how many of the people at this very table had had parents involved in it—had had parents responsible for it. Almost weekly his father reminded Harry to watch himself around Draco, given his family’s close ties with Voldemort in the past, and Harry didn’t like doubting Draco, wondering how much he did and didn’t know, but he still did sometimes.

“Well, you boys better snap your dates up quick,” Pansy said primly, smoothly changing the subject. “Or you’ll be stuck with Dean Two-Left-Feet Thomas and Susan Smells-Like-Sardines Bones.”

Next to him, Draco viciously speared his fork into one of his kippers, and Harry flinched but couldn’t blame him. He felt a bit queasy himself. The ostensible goal of the Ball, as Professor McGonagall had reminded the students in her announcement, was to promote inter-House unity, and as such, students wishing to come with a date were obliged to seek out partners from other Houses. Even if Harry had wanted to ask Draco to go with him—and even if Draco might have said ‘yes’, decidedly not a given—he couldn’t have.

So instead, when Ron spent the better part of their Potions lesson the next day whining and moaning that he couldn’t even have the pleasure of being rejected by Hermione when he asked her to the Yule Ball, Harry suggested, “Why don’t you and I go then?”

And Ron took a little hop back, raking Harry with a worried, wary gaze. “Er—wh-what do you mean?”

Harry fought not to roll his eyes—but he didn’t think he was entirely successful. “I mean, we’re two guys—blokes, sorry—in the same boat, right? You can’t ask the person you really want to go to the Ball with, and…well, I can’t either. So instead of us both stumbling through the motions trying to find someone who’ll agree to go with us—”

“Wh—you think I can’t find someone who’ll go with me on my own?” Ron protested a bit hotly.

“Well the only other girl I really see you consorting with is your own sister, and you can’t ask her for multiple reasons.” Ron made a noise of grudging agreement. “And I…well, I can’t ask the person I really want to go with for multiple reason either.” Ron arched a brow but didn’t press for details. Maybe he had his suspicions already and really didn’t want them confirmed. “So this way, at least I get to go with a friend. You’re really the only person I’m all that close with outside of Slytherin.”

“You could ask Hermione,” Ron suggested. “I mean, not that I want you going with her, but I’d rather she go with someone I trusted than some rando.” He glared across the room, where Hermione presently had her nose buried in a book while Draco watched over their brew. “Imagine if Malfoy tried to ask her.” Harry snorted at the thought, preposterous on so many levels, and Ron pressed, defensive, “He might do it! Just to humiliate her. Maybe leave her standing at the staircase all alone without an escort. Or throw a fit on the dance floor and claim she stepped on his toes.”

“Nah, he won’t do it,” Harry promised. “Not if he knows what’s good for him. Plus—” He ribbed Ron gently. “She’s too smart to say ‘yes’.”

Ron didn’t seem entirely convinced but at last said, “Yeah, all right. The pickings are pretty slim otherwise, so from a purely selfish perspective and just to get in the door, I can tolerate you being my arm candy for the evening.”

“Hold up, why do I have to be your arm candy?”

“Well because you’re obviously much better looking,” Ron said. “Unless you feel otherwise?” and Harry wondered for a moment how Ron hadn’t been Sorted into Slytherin himself, devious as he could be sometimes. “Have you got your dress robes picked out already?”

Harry shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever owned a set fancy enough for this sort of function in my life. Not too many balls where I’m from.”

“Well yeah, but haven’t you ever been someplace you had to dress up fancy? Like a wedding? Or I dunno, even a funeral?”

“I went to a bat mitzvah once.”

“What’s that? Does it involve bats?”

“Surprisingly, no.” Harry sighed. “But I can probably get something squared away in the next couple of weeks. Do you have yours?”

Ron grimaced. “After a fashion. And I do mean long long long after a fashion. I think mine are hand-me-downs from an eighteen-times-great uncle or something. They look like they were stitched in the Dark Ages.”

“Guess I am gonna be the arm candy, then…” Harry said, and Ron leaned into him, snorting loudly in laughter. Draco’s head snapped around, fixing a sharp glare on Harry, who gave him a little wave—before his father stepped into his line of sight, glowering down at the both of them.

“Already testing our freshly brewed Laughing Potion, are we, gentlemen?”

“Er, just a sip,” Harry said, before hastily adding, “Sir.” Severus gave them a hard look before clasping his hands behind his back and stalking on to the next station.

“Cor,” Ron marvelled. “He really doesn’t like you, does he? I thought Slughorn liked everyone.”

“Guess I’m just special,” Harry sighed and turned back to their brew.

Deciding it would be best to get it over with before it became A Thing, Harry let Draco know later that evening that he’d asked Ron to be his date to the Yule Ball. “He wanted to ask Hermione, apparently, but she’s in his House, so he can’t and…” He lifted his brows pointedly and dropped his voice, though Vince was presently playing Exploding Snap with himself (and somehow losing) and paying them little attention. “And obviously I can’t go with the person I’d like to go with, so it only makes sense.”

Draco’s jaw was hard, but his tone was light. “That sounds like a fantastic idea. Kind of you, too—‘tis the season for charity, after all.”

And f*ck it all, here they went. “Are you seriously telling me you’re mad about this? That you’re—” He dropped his voice and cut Vince a glance. “That you’re jealous? Of Ron? Again?” He waved his hand in the general direction of Gryffindor Tower. “What was I supposed to do? See if Yvie didn’t have a spare Ravenclaw tie you could borrow and try to sneak in with you that way?”

Draco crossed his arms over his chest. “It would be a rather finer attempt at Slytherin cunning than this.” He sniffed. “Or you could just not go. It’s not required, after all.”

“Oh—are you not going, then? Because as Pansy tells it, you’ve got a whole extra wardrobe just for dress robes and a standing agreement with the Smith family that you’re to be seen congregating with Zacharias at least twice a term, and you’ve been lax the past few months.”

Draco’s glare could cut glass, and he snapped his wand through the air, enveloping them in a Quietus bubble that Harry could feel cut them off from the loud SNAP and CRACKLE of Vince losing another hand to himself.

“You can ask whoever you like. Go, don’t go, I don’t give a f*ck.”

“Good. Glad we’re in agreement that since I can’t ask you and you can’t ask me, we’ll abide by the rules of this silly school dance and just try and have fun regardless. And you can ask whoever you like too.”

“Oh?” Draco said, one lacy white brow arching nearly into his hairline. “I can, then? And you won’t mind?”

“Of course not. It’d be awfully hypocritical of me, after all, and we’re neither of us hypocrites, are we?” He punctuated the end with a finger to Draco’s chest, then let his arms drop to his sides, deflated. “…I’ve never been to school before. I’ve never been dancing, I’ve never really even been to a party, not like this. I’ve had the most sheltered childhood you can possibly imagine, and I just want to have…” He sighed. “An experience.”

Draco ran a tongue over his teeth, gaze shunted off to the side. “Who’s saying you can’t? I told you—go. Have a grand time. Step on Weasley’s toes, I beg of you. Consider it my Christmas present.” He then snapped his wand again and dispelled the Quietus, barking at Vince, who was presently dancing around his bed and batting at his head, aflame, “For f*ck’s sake, man! Hospital Wing—now!”

He had known Draco would be ridiculous about Harry inviting Ron to the Yule Ball because Draco was ridiculous about everything, but at least he’d gotten it out of the way. Draco would pout, he would probably be short and snippy with Harry for a few days. He might even put off accompanying Harry to feed Noodle until the next weekend even. But Harry could wait him out. He always waited out these little tantrums, and in no time at all, they’d be back to arguing potions thermodynamics theorems over lunch or trying to Charm chess pieces to recreate famous Quidditch games because it was too snowy to go flying these days.

But it didn’t take until the weekend. It didn’t even take a few days.

It didn’t even take twenty-four hours.

Draco was curiously late to lunch the next day—he was rarely late to meals, especially not since Harry had let him know in no uncertain terms that he was a right arsehat (a new word he’d added to his vocabulary, courtesy of his godfathers) when he hadn’t eaten anything, and if they were to consort, he must always at least carry a Chocolate Frog on his person, for emergencies.

But today he was late, and not just by a few minutes—he didn’t show up until ten minutes before the Kitchens closed and students departed the Great Hall, bound for their afternoon classes.

Harry watched him swan in, cool and confident and thoroughly unruffled, and he made space on the bench for him, pushing the nearly empty platter of cold-cut sandwiches in his direction as he asked, low so even the House gossips couldn’t hear, “Where were you? Blaise said you didn’t come back to the room after your morning class.”

Draco liked to use the free period between Ancient Runes and lunch to get a head start on his Transfiguration reading, an enthusiasm for academia Harry chalked up largely to the fact that Harry had higher marks than him in three subjects, and he meant to make it two.

“I don’t see how it’s any of your concern,” Draco said airily, reaching for a sandwich with dainty fingers.

“Well—I mean yeah, it’s none of my business. But I’m allowed to ask.”

Draco took a bite, chewing thoughtfully. “Well, if you must know, I was securing a date for the Yule Ball.”

Harry’s brows lifted; he’d expected a spite date from Draco’s corner but certainly not so quickly. “I see. Who’s the unlucky lad or lady?”

Draco swallowed thickly and then took another bite. “Granger.”

Harry sputtered in laughter, covering his mouth when the few stragglers still at the table gave him dirty looks. “Right. Pull the other one.”

“I’m going to assume that’s some low-brow turn of phrase to suggest you don’t believe me, but I’m quite serious.” He reached for the pitcher of pumpkin juice and poured himself a glass. “She’ll corroborate it.” He took a swig to wash down the last of his sandwich. “You were right, I must admit. I had her all wrong. She is a fascinating person once you get to know her—I confess, I can’t keep up with her once she gets going. Her approach to magic comes from an entirely different angle to us—she thinks about things that would never occur to wizards with fully magical heritage. And—oh.” He snapped his fingers in Harry’s direction. “That reminds me; being reared by Muggles, she’s got nothing in the way of dress robes, so Pansy and I will be taking her to Gladrags at the weekend. You’ll be all right moving our plans to Monday afternoon, yes?”

Their ‘plans’ had involved teaching Noodle to attack on command; Harry hadn’t felt entirely comfortable with the idea, but Draco had assured him that if they could teach her to bite on command, they could also teach her to not bite on command, and he supposed that logic had worked. He narrowed his eyes at Draco, suddenly suspicious. He was talking far too much, and this was sounding less like a simple jab at Harry to try and stoke jealousy and more a chance to do as Ron had feared and humiliate Hermione.

He placed a hand on Draco’s arm to grab his attention. “…It’s one thing to resort to childish displays to try and get back at me because you think I’ve gone out of my way to do something to hurt you, and it’s another to involve innocent people in them. You’d better not be planning on doing anything nasty to her. I think I’ve made my feelings on your feelings regarding No-Maj-borns crystal clear.”

Draco jerked his arm away, rolling his eyes and reaching for another sandwich. “Oh stand down, you ninny. Granger hardly needs you fighting her battles for her, dashing white knight though you do make.” He took a savage bite. “I’ve got other friends besides you. You’re just going to have to get used to that.”

Harry didn’t like his words being twisted and turned back on him, and he didn’t like the idea of Draco hitting the dance floor with Hermione for a half a dozen different reasons having nothing to do with jealousy. Ron was going to sh*t himself when he found out—there might even be a duel. Harry had heard they still resorted to those sorts of barbaric rituals on this side of the Atlantic, and what if Ron lost? What if he won? The Weasleys and Malfoys were both old-as-dirt Pureblood families. This might lead to a feud that would last for centuries! All because Draco was being a jealous little twit.

He sighed. “If you’re trying to hurt me, it’s not going to work. You’ll only piss Ron off.”

“Excellent, precisely what I wanted to hear. You’ve just made my afternoon.”

“I’m serious—I dunno how you convinced Hermione to even talk to you outside of Potions, let alone do this, but—”

Draco turned on him, a fork raised in threat. “And what’s that supposed to mean? I can be quite the gentleman when called upon. My parents were rather strict about showing good manners.”

“Even to a No-Maj-born?” Harry smiled wanly, and Draco rolled his eyes.

“That’s such a stupid word. At least use Muggleborn like a normal person.”

“I’m not normal, though.”

“On that much we can agree.”

And Harry decided that was the best he was going to get—if he pushed any more, Draco was going to start getting feisty, and they’d fight, and while making up afterwards was actually really fun he’d learned, now was neither the time nor place to get into it. “…Don’t suppose you’ll let me borrow a set of your dress robes, will you?”

Draco actually laughed, swallowing the last of his sandwich and dabbing at his lip. “I quite insist. Can’t have you embarrassing both yourself and our House at the same time for one, and for another, I’ll always leap at the chance to humiliate Weasley.”

Harry arched a brow. “Up to and including showing Hermione the good time he can’t?”

Draco arched a brow of his own. “Nice to see you’ve finally decided to play the game.”

And oh no.

Draco hadn’t taken Harry asking Ron to the Yule Ball as a threat.

He’d taken it as a challenge, and now Harry was in very real danger—of losing.

Between end-of-term exams and preparations for the upcoming festivities, the next two weeks passed by far more quickly than expected, until it was just one week to the end of term, the eve of the Yule Ball at last upon them.

“Don’t make me look too good,” Harry warned as Draco fussed with the fall of his dress robes, cinching and pulling and tugging until he was satisfied. “Or my dance card might fill up before I can work you in.”

Draco’s brow furrowed—but Harry thought it might be because there was a thread coming loose from the cuff of one sleeve. Draco had made good on his promise to loan Harry a set of his robes, and they were near enough in size that the outfit needed hardly any tailoring—though that hadn’t stopped Draco from casting a panoply of spells Harry had never even heard of to adjust it in infinitesimal ways only he would notice.

“And what makes you think I’m going to be caught dead dancing with you in public?” His tone was just cold enough Harry thought he might be serious. Draco had only grown more careful with his image in these past few weeks, pulling further and further away from Harry outside the chamber. Harry didn’t begrudge him his space—he’d told Harry on multiple occasions that his parents wouldn’t approve of their consorting even as friends—but that didn’t mean he had to like it, and some small, silly part of him had hoped that he might catch a break with this Yule Ball business. Everyone would be dancing with everyone, after all—surely no one would read anything deeper into Harry dancing with a Housemate than if he were to dance with Ron or Hermione or Luna, the loopy Ravenclaw girl he’d been partnered with in Divination after everyone else got tired of Trelawney singling him out each lesson for a new prediction of his untimely demise.

He sighed, shoulders slumping, and Draco poked his spine to make him straighten up. Harry let him go back to his prodding. “…If you wouldn’t have wanted to be seen with me in the first place, I’m not sure why you’re so pissed off you’re going with Hermione and I’m going with Ron.”

“As I’ve told you ad nauseum: I’m not pissed off.”

“Could have fooled me,” Harry muttered under his breath, though not softly enough Draco missed it.

Draco tightened Harry’s tie rather more viciously than Harry felt was merited. “Pray don’t mistake my general irritation with the way of the world for being angry with you. We’ll get on much better that way.” And this close, Harry could see a faint blush pinking his cheeks. His complexion made his emotions easy to divine, for which Harry was generally quite grateful. “…I hate these sorts of events.”

Harry swallowed. “…Pansy said you love them. It’s why you’ve got that whole extra wardrobe just for dress robes.”

“I like a good party. Not this—it’s performance and pageantry only. There’s always someone watching.”

And oh. Harry supposed he understood that sentiment then. It was difficult to let go when there were eyes all around, making sure you didn’t slip up. Harry supposed he couldn’t afford to ‘let go’, he being who he was and Draco being who Draco was, but the illusion would have been nice. With his father there chaperoning the ball alongside the other professors, even that friendly dance he would have wanted to share with Draco would probably have been looked at askance after all. It would’ve been a sour note to end the evening on, getting a lecture from his father reminding him he had to be careful and constantly vigilant.

“…You’ll have to take me to a proper party sometime, then.”

“You couldn’t handle any proper party I took you to.”

“Don’t be so sure. We had some rowdy affairs back in America.”

“I distinctly recall you telling me you’d never been to any parties. That you wanted an ‘experience’.”

“I never said I’d been. I just said we had them.”

Draco shoved him across the chest to disguise the amused little smile threatening to curl his lips. “There. I’m afraid that’s the best I can possibly manage, given what I had to work with.” He took Harry by the shoulders and steered him over to a full-length mirror he’d conjured to Charm his own robes to fall and flow just how he preferred. “Behold.”

Harry had to admit, he looked pretty damn good.

It was still jarring, catching himself in the mirror—like looking at a sibling rather than himself and then being thrown when his reflection moved in all the ways he did. Draco had insisted he style his hair somehow but had stopped short at demanding he apply the same liberal amount of Sleekeazy’s as Draco had to his own carefully manicured coiffure. Instead, James Potter’s hand-me-down curls had been well tamed, less feral but still charmingly wild. The voluminous robes had been taken in to show off a trim form, much more toned now than just three months back thanks to weeks of nigh-daily Quidditch training (albeit less nigh-daily of late), and the vibrant green bow-tie at his throat provided a pleasing pop of colour against the otherwise monochromatic palette.

“Oh—and a final touch…” Draco said, waving his wand in minuscule motions around Harry’s waistcoat pocket, and in elegant looping silver stitching he wove an HJP—before turning his wand on himself to do the same to his own waistcoat.

“DLM…” Harry said as he watched the letters stitch themselves into the fabric. “You still haven’t told me what your middle name is.”

Draco fastened his PREFECT pin just under the initials. “And you still haven’t told me yours.”

Harry tapped the J. “And yet you seem to know it.” Draco shrugged by way of response. “Anyway, mine’s nothing special, it’s just my dad’s name. Yours is probably steeped in stuffy tradition, though. It’s gotta be something like…Lancelot?” Draco snorted and shook his head. “Fine. Lysander.” Still no. “L…aco.”

“Yes. Yes, you’ve solved it. My name is ‘Draco Laco Malfoy’. They ought to have put you in Ravenclaw. Come on.” He moved to loop his arm through Harry’s—then seemed to think better of it and settled for grabbing Harry by the wrist and tugging him along. “Or else our dates will think we’ve stood them up.”

Harry rather thought Draco might have liked that, but it probably would have reflected poorly on the both of them, and Draco was all about image. Harry wondered if Draco had told his parents he was bringing a No-Maj-born student to the Yule Ball—and if their reaction to the news would be better or worse than if they’d heard he’d invited a Potter.

To his own father’s credit, Severus had seemed relieved when Harry had mentioned off-handedly he would be attending the Yule Ball with Ron. “The Weasleys are a fine family—though I hope Mr Weasley dances better than he brews, for your feet’s sake.” Harry suspected ‘fine’ was short for ‘not involved with Death Eaters’, and he would have been similarly approving of anyone Harry chose to invite to the Ball, so long as they weren’t named Draco…Larry? Malfoy.

They finally made it through the crush of students crowding the stairs to the Entry Hall at the base. A massive archway festooned with balloons and baubles and tinsel stood before the doorway leading into the Great Hall proper, and every time a couple passed underneath, they found themselves showered with conjured snowflakes as a booming voice of indeterminate origin announced their names to the partygoers already present. A bit more attention than Harry had been hoping for—and much more than his father had probably been hoping for—but it was too late to turn back now. Especially since his date was presently standing near the arch, wringing his hands nervously and trying very hard (and failing) to keep from glancing over to Draco’s date just on the opposite side.

Ron’s moaning about the sad state of his dress robes had been, it seemed, well-founded. They were oversized with far too many ruffles, and the elbows and knees had clearly needed mending over the years, patches of mismatched fabric obvious. Harry felt overdressed, now conscious of the finery he wore as he sidled up next to Ron. “Fancy running into you here. You been waiting long?”

“Somehow both yes and no,” Ron muttered sourly under his breath, but his attention—and ire, Harry suspected—was directed across the way as Draco stiffly marched up to Hermione, gave her a curt nod and said something Harry couldn’t catch, before offering her his arm.

She looked quite breathtaking. Her robes of periwinkle blue seemed to float along with her, leaving sparkles in the air as she passed, and her bushy brown hair had been expertly coiffed to maintain its character and charm without being quite so wild. He wondered if Hermione had styled herself, or if this too was Pansy’s Magicosmetologist-in-Training handiwork.

“Hermione looks nice,” he remarked evenly, and Ron made a grunting noise of agreement. “You’d better hit her up for a dance quick once we get inside—her card’s gonna fill up in a flash.”

Ron’s head snapped up, and he looked stricken. “Like hell I’m gonna get within ten feet of her looking like this! I’d only embarrass her! I can’t believe I wanted to ask her to this thing myself!” He buried his face in his hands, moaning, and now they were starting to get looks.

“Er, chin up,” Harry urged, shepherding Ron away from the arch; Draco and Hermione were just now passing under, and the booming voice announced, “Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger!” Even from out here in the entryway, Harry could hear the rush of astonished murmurs following their presentation. Gods he hoped Draco was on his very best behaviour tonight. “Here, would you like me to take it in a bit?”

Ron looked up, frowning. “You know tailoring Charms? I thought only housewitches ever bothered to learn to cast those things.”

“You’d be surprised,” Harry said, choosing not to spill Draco’s dark secret, even if it would improve Ron’s mood manifold.

He pared back most of the ruffles, Glamoured the mended patches to blend in with the rest of the fabric, and adjusted the colouring of the robes from a dour brown to a more elegant charcoal hue. The end result was a marked improvement, and Harry was pretty damn proud of himself.

Ron patted himself down once Harry had finished, marvelling, “A dab hand at Potions and Charms? They sure do know how to grow ‘em in America, don’t they?”

“Eat your hearts out, housewitches of Britain.”

With Ron safely squared away and, at least according to him, his nerves steeled, they finally headed inside. Passing under the archway, they were showered with glittering snowflakes, and the voice from nowhere announced, “Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley!” A few heads turned their way, much as they’d done with most couples, but all quickly went back to their conversations and co*cktails, two randos from Slytherin and Gryffindor being a decidedly less interesting arrival than the top two students at the school with a known history of enmity.

Once they made their way into the Great Hall, though, they found that the space had been transformed. The tables had vanished, replaced with a dozen massive Christmas trees lining the wall, stretching to the ceiling and adorned in all manner of glitz and glittering glamour. The dance floor looked like an iced-over pond, and overhead floated countless glittering ornaments in reds and greens and golds and silvers, like a cloud bank of festive bubbles.

Harry cast his eye about the room—and had no trouble spotting his father in Slughorn’s form, prowling the punch table and fixing any students who dawdled too long getting drinks with a sharp glare. Perhaps sensing someone was watching him, Severus turned his gaze to the entryway and locked eyes with Harry. He gave Harry a slow, meaningful nod that he was pretty sure said something along the lines of Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and that was already a lost cause.

Wary of his father getting the idea to try long-distance Legilimency on him, he took Ron by the elbow and urged him further inside.

Ron was in a much brighter mood now that he could be distracted by the decorations and the energy of the Ball itself, an invisible band striking up jazzy, up-tempo versions of Christmas carols that begged to be danced to. “I wonder if I’ll be able to convince Hermione to let me take her on a turn about the dance floor, now that I don’t look like my great uncle Ignatius on his wedding day. I’ve actually been practising a bit, you know—I know the Swingstep, the Valerian Waltz, the Scurvyfoot. My mum used to take me around at weddings when I was too young to know it was embarrassing to be seen dancing with your mum. So I—” He inhaled sharply, turning on Harry in a panic. “Wait, do you think she even knows how to dance? Like, wizarding dances? I don’t want to assume, but it’s more than likely she doesn’t, right? It’s got to be dead last on the list of things you ought to learn before coming to Hogwarts as a Muggleborn, yeah?”

Harry didn’t remind Ron that he’d never heard of those dances either. “Er—yeah, you…might want to take things slow with her, in that case.”

“That’s assuming she even wants to try and dance after Malfoy probably steps on her toes the whole night…” His attention had been pulled by Draco and Hermione, who weren’t anywhere near the dance floor, though this didn’t seem to encourage Ron in the least.

“I’m sure he won’t—he knows better than to make a scene at a function like this.”

“S’pose you’re right. Besides, he’s probably been taking dancing lessons since he was, like, five. Poncy knobs like him go to fifty balls a year, I’ll bet.”

It was generally only thirteen, Harry had been informed, but who was counting?

They took a turn around the Hall, greeting friends and acquaintances they saw along the way, and Ron’s mood improved even more when he got a few Looking sharp, Weasley!s in the doing. In fact, the angry vein in his temple only twitched just a little bit when they found Ron’s sister Ginny had arrived on the arm of a Ravenclaw student named Corner who was, according to Ron, a “grade-A wanker”.

“I mean, he’s a whole year older than her—what’s he thinking, going around with someone her age? I thought Ravenclaws were supposed to be smart. And don’t even get me started on—oh, sh*t, there they go, Hermione and Malfoy! They’re gonna dance, c’mon!” Ron grabbed him roughly by the collar and jerked him toward the dance floor. “I need to see if she can dance properly so I don’t embarrass us both by inviting her out while everyone’s doing the Trolltrot when she wouldn’t know it from the Bellabaloo.”

“Yeah, sure, wouldn’t want that,” Harry drawled but allowed himself to be manoeuvred into the crush of students swaying (or stumbling in some cases) to a slow-tempo version of “Sleigh Glide”. Ron let him lead, his focus fixed over Harry’s shoulder to watch Draco and Hermione. “How’s it looking?”

“They’re talking. I can’t make out what they’re saying. You think we can get closer? Damn, I wish I’d thought to bring some Extendable Ears with me…”

Harry didn’t know what those were. “I meant the dancing—no toes-stepping? She’s keeping up?” He was pretty sure “Sleigh Glide” had its roots in a No-Maj tune, so there was every chance Hermione was at least familiar with it.

“Ngh, I guess…” Ron was forced to admit. “He doesn’t even like her, you said—you promised, even. Why’d he have to go and ask her to this thing?”

“Out of spite, would be my guess.”

Ron naturally assumed the spite was directed his way, and Harry didn’t bother correcting him. “What the hell did I ever do to piss him off? Or is he just doing it for a lark, because he can?”

“You probably know him better than I do. What do you think?”

Ron snorted. “Somehow I doubt that,” he said, and despite Harry’s questioning look, he declined to elaborate.

Once the song ended, Draco and Hermione departed the dance floor, still engaged in quiet conversation that irritated Ron and piqued Harry’s curiosity, and made their way to the punch table where Harry’s father still stood sentinel.

“You thirsty?” Ron asked, following Harry’s eye, and without awaiting Harry’s response, he continued, “I think we need some drinks in us. Yeah. I’m gonna go get us some. You wait here, and if Malfoy and Hermione get back before I do, then—I dunno—stall ‘em.” He shook a finger in Harry’s face. “You do not let them get another dance in before I’ve managed to ask for one, got it?”

Harry gave him a little salute. “On my life. They won’t get past me.”

“Good man.” And then he was off, winding his way through the crowd as quickly as he could.

Harry smiled to himself. He was actually having a much better time than he’d expected, and though he had nothing by which to measure how well the evening was going, he thought it was going pretty well for his first Ball.

When Ron had still not returned, nor Draco nor Hermione, by the time the next song started up, Harry let himself be invited to dance by Luna and her date, one of the Patil twins who Harry honestly still couldn’t tell apart but was pretty sure wasn’t the one from their Divination Class, since she was a Ravenclaw like Luna. Maybe Luna couldn’t tell either.

The song was a much more up-tempo one than he’d been expecting, and it had taken genuine effort trying to keep up with two dance partners, such that by the end, Harry was feeling parched and was just about to head to the punch table in search of Ron—when a cool glass of a fizzy berry-flavoured concoction was pressed into his hand.

“You know Lovegood’s certifiable, right?”

“Oh, I could kiss you,” Harry moaned, taking the proffered cup with gratitude and knocking it back in one long gulp.

“Just you try it,” Draco said dryly, one brow raised as Harry finished off the glass and began shouldering his way through the crowd in search of more. “Need an Aguamenti to the face? I’m happy to oblige.”

“And ruin your dress robes? Perish the thought.”

Draco shrugged, following after him. “I’ve got a dozen more sets. And Mother and Father will be buying me a new set for this season’s festivities. Burn those ones for all I care.”

“You’re what people mean when they say some folks have too much money, you know.”

“That sounds like something people without enough money would say.”

Harry craned his neck, trying to see over the crowd. “You didn’t see Ron while you were at the punch table, did you?”

“I did. And then Granger saw him. And then I didn’t see either of them. Which is pretty much how I like things.”

Well, perhaps that was for the best. “…So what were you and Hermione talking about?”

“Hm?” Draco lifted onto his toes, as if with the whole inch he had on Harry he might be able to get a better grasp of their surroundings than Harry. “Did everyone decide to get a drink at the same time? Good gad…”

“No, they’re doing it just to make your evening inconvenient, obviously. And you heard what I asked, so answer the question.”

“Well now I don’t want to, just to make your evening inconvenient too.” When Harry gave him a look that said his evasiveness was not cute, he sighed and rolled his eyes. “We were just talking. About nothing of any great import. I told you, I’ve come around to the fact that she might not be an absolutely useless witch simply on account of her provenance, and my conversations with her have proven most illuminating.” The crowd at last began to part, many heading back to the dance floor or to use the facilities, such that they could finally reach the punch table for drinks. “Her parents rip people’s teeth out of their heads, it’s fascinatingly barbaric.”

Harry couldn’t begin to imagine what Hermione’s parents actually did if that was what Draco had taken away from the conversation, but it at least sounded like he wasn’t being nasty to her. “…Well, good then.”


Harry nodded. “I like to think you’re a dick to me because I’m special and you like me. It makes me jealous when I see you being a rude little sh*t to others.”

Draco waggled a finger at him. “That won’t work on me. No, I’m wise to your tricks now. Besides, you ought to know me well enough by now to understand that I love making people jealous.” He snatched up the ladle from the punch bowl as soon as their turn came and added in a tone low enough Harry’s father glowering at them from the other end of the table couldn’t hear, “Especially people I fancy.”

And Harry’s heart felt so light he could’ve danced on the ceiling right about then.

Deciding that their respective dates were better off with each other—and enjoying their own company more than either Ron’s or Hermione’s, at least for the moment—they took their drinks off to a stretch of wall where other wallflowers were congregating and talked about nothing special at all. Draco described the Balls he was looking forward to attending over the holidays—as well as the ones he wasn’t looking forward to attending—and Harry said he’d be spending time with his father, which was not a lie. He was actually kind of looking forward to it; Christmas had never been a very fancy affair when it was just him and Severus: a small tree, a quiet exchange of gifts, and occasionally attending a Christmas service one of the lovely old No-Maj ladies who lived nearby had invited them to. Remus and Sirius, though, were going all out this year: a massive spruce that would be decked out in all manner of glitz and glam, a feast that would put the sorts of affairs Hogwarts threw together to shame, and enough presents for Harry to make up for sixteen years of missed holidays together.

He would miss Draco and their secret, stolen moments together, but it was only a couple of weeks, and he hadn’t gotten to really see his father in months now, so he was admittedly missing him too. Just a little bit.

At length, Draco Banished his empty glass back to the punch table and excused himself.

“What? Where are you going?” Harry immediately began scanning the dance floor, assuming Draco was going to make another appearance with Hermione before people started to get suspicious about their extended chat, sans both their dates.

“…To take a piss, if it was any of your business.” Draco co*cked his head. “Why, did you want to hold it for me?” Harry jerked back, frowning, and a sly little smile curled Draco’s lips as he shrugged elegantly. “Next time, then.” He then walked, swaying as he did so, for the doors and left Harry flushed and irritated for reasons he couldn’t quite pinpoint. Maybe Draco had spiked their drinks without him noticing.

“Enjoying the festivities, Mr Evans?”

Harry jumped in his skin. He’d been so focused on watching the entrance, waiting for Draco to return—and wondering if the archway would announce it, something like, “Draco Malfoy and Empty Bladder”—that he hadn’t even noticed someone sneaking up behind him. “I—pardon?”

It was an older man—a much older man, an ancient man, and oh f*ck. It was Dumbledore. Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster, and he’d just called Harry—

“I asked if you were enjoying the festivities, Mr Evans. Perhaps you’ve been enjoying them a bit too much?” he chuckled merrily, but Harry’s heart was beating a loud tattoo in his chest, and he whipped his head around, trying to see if anyone had caught Dumbledore’s very inappropriate slip of the tongue.

But no one seemed to be paying them a whit of attention. Even though Dumbledore commanded focus wherever he walked, a tall, imposing figure in a grandfatherly package, all the other students—and even the faculty, including Harry’s own father—seemed to have their thoughts elsewhere, and the conversations around them quieted to a dull, blunted hum.

“Did…did you do that?” He then added, because his father had told him that Dumbledore was a fantastically complicated but very powerful wizard, and it generally wasn’t wise to be too rude to those sorts, “Sir.”

“Do what?” Dumbledore asked, brows lifted inquisitively behind the half-moon spectacles that hung off his crooked nose. He himself was dressed in festively coloured velveteen dress robes with a snow-white lining along the hem and a Phrygian cap, from the end of which hung a set of sleigh bells that jangled merrily. He looked fantastic for his presumed age, and Harry recalled his father mentioning that Dumbledore had been dealing with some particularly challenging magic of late. If he was unequal to whatever task was troubling him, though, he definitely wasn’t showing it.

Harry didn’t know if he was being teased or genuinely imagining things, and perhaps his confusion was written on his features, for Dumbledore made a gathering gesture with one hand, and the surrounding din disappeared nearly entirely. “I find that privacy on demand is rather convenient, and I suspected someone of your heritage might appreciate it as well.”

Harry swallowed. “…You know who I am.” He’d known this, of course—but it was different, speaking of his true identity with a virtual stranger and not family friends, especially after how insistent his father had been with reminders he was to let no one see beneath his mask. He tugged at his mother’s bracelet on his wrist in nervous habit.

“Yes…but also no. I know who your parents are, I know of your true name—I know what you’ve done for the wider wizarding world without even realising it.” He co*cked his head. “But I won’t pretend to assume that means I know who you are.”

Harry longed for a fresh cup of punch, and as if on command, his empty glass refilled itself. He knocked it back with a wincing gulp. “I didn’t do anything. If you know who my parents are, you ought to at least know that. It happened to me.” He certainly didn’t want someone of Dumbledore’s stature thinking he was anything more than precisely what he was. Great expectations rarely worked out for the folks saddled with them.

Dumbledore only chuckled, rumbling deep in his chest. “Events happen to everyone. Yours, you must admit, was a singular experience.”

And Harry shrugged. “I suppose. I think I’d rather just have my mom back than a ‘singular experience’.” A thought then occurred to him. “Wait, did you know her? My mother.”

“Oh, indeed. She was an excellent student—and I don’t merely mean her marks. She was kind and caring, and as I understand it very well-liked by her peers. We kept in touch, even after she left these halls, and she had a very bright future ahead of her.” His smile softened into something tinged with regret. “…I expect she would have gone on to do great things had she not been taken from us so abruptly.” Harry could feel him staring, like he was trying to peel away the layers of Harry to see what he was like underneath. “…May I ask you a personal question, Mr Evans?”

“…I suppose?” Perhaps it’d been for the best that McGonagall had been the first Hogwarts representative he’d met after all.

“Do you hate Voldemort?”

Harry boggled. “I—do I…hate him?” Was it not obvious?

Dumbledore nodded. “When you think about what he did to you and your family, what he took from you, what he would have wrought upon the wider wizarding world and beyond…do you feel hatred for him?” Harry opened his mouth, but Dumbledore continued, “Have you never wanted to seek your revenge, if you could? Many may believe that Lord Voldemort has truly been sundered, undone by means unknown when he tried to murder you as a babe, but I am not quite so optimistic. I hold that he has merely gone to ground, broken but not destroyed—and that he may eventually find the means to rise to power once more. So I ask again, Harry Severus Evans, do you hate Voldemort?”

And maybe it wasn’t actually that obvious after all. Harry turned his thoughts over in his head before speaking this time, as he sensed a weight to whatever he said. Judgement imminent. “…I know I ought to. And I do have…dark feelings. But—I have to admit it feels so…removed. I’ve never met this person, only ever heard horrible tales about him, and while I certainly have no love for him…I don’t know how I’d react if I found myself face to face with him, honestly. Maybe I’d want revenge—but would it bring my mother back? Would it give my father peace?” He rubbed at his spangling lightning-bolt scar, hidden underneath Severus’s heavy Glamour. “…It all feels a bit too much for me. I’m really just trying to get through the school year.”

Battling Dark Lords and saving the wizarding world was a task for people who’d already been in the trenches, like his father and godfathers. Not Harry. Harry was meant for Quidditch Training Camps and nursing heady crushes and making pets of Class Quintuple-X dangerous beasts.

Revenge was for people who’d lost something, not for those who’d never had anything to begin with.

Dumbledore’s grizzled beard twitched into something Harry thought might be a smile, though it was difficult to tell. “And rather an interesting school year it’s been for you so far, as I hear it.”

Harry wondered just what he’d heard. Somehow, he thought Dumbledore might actually know about Noodle, ridiculous as the idea was.

“…I confess, I don’t really feel…properly Sorted. I mean, no offence, you’ve got a really nice school and all—”

“Thank you,” Dumbledore chuckled, though it did at least feel genuine.

“—it’s just—” Harry sighed. “…Everyone expected I’d go into Gryffindor, and I didn’t have any particular preferences one way or the other, but I was at least hoping it wouldn’t be…here.” And Dumbledore wasn’t saying anything, only watching Harry carefully, again like he was trying to pick him apart, so Harry rushed to defend his feelings. “I mean, it wouldn’t necessarily have been better in Gryffindor, I just don’t feel like I really fit the—you know, ideals of Slytherin. I like to think I’m a hard worker, so wouldn’t Hufflepuff have been all right? And I think I’m pretty smart—my grades speak for themselves, at least in Potions—so maybe Ravenclaw? Plus, my father’s convinced it’s dangerous for me to be in Slytherin House, me being who I am—”

And now Dumbledore was laughing, a booming jolly thing, like a lanky underfed Santa Claus.

“Pardon me, Mr Evans, but I rather think your father’s view may be particularly twisted—did you know he came from a long line of Slytherin students himself? On his mother’s side, at least. I won’t say he’s entirely wrong about there being a greater chance of the wrong sorts getting wind of your true identity down in the Dungeons, but it’s hardly the Snake Pit he may make it out to be.” A secret little smile ruffled his bushy moustache. “Did you ever ask him if he felt entirely properly Sorted when he graced these hallowed halls?” Dumbledore cast a glance over his shoulder at Slughorn’s form, still standing guard over the punch bowl. “Shall we ask him? I’m sure it would be a fascinating tale—”

“No!” Harry yelped, reaching reflexively to stay Dumbledore’s handsomely gloved hand, about to be raised to hail Severus. He quickly released his grip, ducking his head in apology. “Er, no…no—I hadn’t thought about it. He seemed…well, at least comfortable being Sorted the way he was, and he may not have the most traditional of friendships with James and Sirius and Remus, but…it does seem genuine.”

Dumbledore made a pained little grunt, grimacing. “Oh, those boys. Terrors, they were—always getting into trouble and then somehow getting right back out of it. I have no doubt it was your father’s involvement with their little group that saved their collective skins many a time, and even then only because your mother begged it of him.” He sighed. “May I tell you a secret, Mr Evans?”

“I—if you…feel like it?” Where was Draco? He needed an excuse to get away from this conversation, it was only getting weirder as they talked.

“Now, you mustn’t tell anyone, not even your Mr Malfoy—many of our students find a camaraderie in their House assignments, feel a conviction that they’re precisely where they fit and are among like-minded peers. It grants them a sort of freedom, the knowledge that their closest peers share their values, and paradoxically allows them to define themselves for who they are and who they are not, how they differ from all others wearing their same House colours.” Dumbledore tapped the side of his nose. “Many of our students. But not all.”

Like Harry himself, he supposed, and Dumbledore continued: “The Sorting Hat is a fine bit of magic. Crafted centuries ago by one of the Founders of this very institution, it has been used each year to help our students figure out where they belong. It’s a tricky thing, though—finding the right fit for some. Students come along now and then who don’t really align with any House in particular, or who seem like they could do perfectly well in multiple Houses. In such cases, then, the Sorting Hat is allowed…some leeway, we’ll say.”

“Leeway, sir?”

The corners of Dumbledore’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. “…The Sorting Hat does not always place us where we are most suited—but where we are most needed. Sometimes, it does so for our own good. As I mentioned before, your father came from a long line of Slytherin students, and his enmity for the House, while perhaps not so very appropriate in this day and age, is well-founded, knowing the Dark paths his ancestors have trod. But in being Sorted into Gryffindor, he was saved from falling into the same trap as the Princes who came before him by the friendships forged therein, even if they were forged kicking and screaming. Other times…” His gaze travelled over Harry’s shoulder. “Other times, we’re Sorted as we are for others’ good. Can you think, Mr Evans, of someone’s life you might have changed for the better, simply by being in their presence?”

Harry turned to follow Dumbledore’s gaze—and saw Draco, standing at the entryway and casting his eye over the crowd, presumably trying to figure out where Harry had wandered off to in his brief absence.

Harry’s cheeks heated, and he turned back around. “I mean—”

But Dumbledore was gone, and the din of the crowd had now returned. The invisible band was pumping out a new tune, something slow and warbly that invited all to find an amenable partner and make their way to the dance floor, and Harry felt a bone-deep urge to be not here, not in the middle of a crowded hall, not not alone with Draco, suddenly overcome him.

He spotted Luna picking over a floating tray of Christmas cookies and hailed her. “Luna—Luna! I need the biggest favour in the world from you.”

“Oh my. That sounds like a lot of responsibility. But Papa says I’m very mature for my age, so I think I might be up for it.”

“Er, fantastic. You see Professor Slughorn over there?” He gestured as subtly as he could so as not to draw his father’s attention unduly. “He was asking me about, um—” He groped for a topic. “Wizarding Christmas traditions practised in the Arctic, and I know you pride yourself on that sort of thing—”

She clapped her hands together excitedly. “Ooh, he wants to know about Dark Winter’s Eve, then?”

“…Yeah. Yup, you nailed it. That one. I couldn’t remember what it was called, so I said I’d do some research, but it’s the Yule Ball and of course I haven’t got time for research, and—” He put on his most pathetic pleading expression. “Would you mind? Filling in for me, that is? Since you’re already so well-versed on it and all.”

“It would be my great pleasure,” she said, beaming, and after primly adjusting her hat—which was itself shaped like a giant Christmas cookie—she grabbed the entire floating tray of cookies and marched for the punch table. Harry decided that he did maybe feel a little bit Slytherin after all.

Thirty seconds later, he’d reached Draco’s side. “Wanna get out of here?”

Draco arched a brow. “What, do you need to piss now? Decided you want me to hold it, then?”

No,” Harry said, casting a final glance toward his father to be sure he was thoroughly distracted between Luna and tales of whatever Dark Winter’s Eve was. “But I was thinking of heading to a bathroom, actually.”

Noodles’s chamber was as dark and dank as ever, but the pipes carried the music from the Great Hall down to them all the same, dulled and muffled but still plenty festive. Noodle, too was delighted with the finger-foods they had smuggled out for her—two armfuls of sausage-stuffed pastries and a very carefully wrapped handkerchief of Swedish meatballs—and was merrily chomping on them in the corner. Even Draco rolled up his sleeves (well, after unpinning his solid-gold heirloom cufflinks, that is) and demonstrated some very impressive Charm work to string magical twinkling lights around the chamber with conjured flurries overhead falling around them.

“You’re always wearing that,” Draco said, nodding to Lily’s bracelet on Harry’s wrist. He adjusted his hold on Harry’s hand to get a closer look. “What is it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you take it off, not even to shower.”

The strains of the carols filtering in from the Great Hall had prompted Harry to summon all of the hand-me-down courage he’d inherited from his Gryffindor family and ask Draco if they might share at least one dance before the Yule Ball ended (“There’s always people watching here, like you said—so I thought we’d go somewhere there’s not.”), and after more lengthy consideration than Harry would have liked, Draco had agreed, provided he was allowed to lead because, “I polished these loafers by hand and I won’t have my work ruined by you tromping on my toes.”

That had been three songs back, now, and they were mostly just swaying in place, too warm and drunk on probably-spiked punch (that would teach Harry’s father to glare at Harry all evening instead of doing his job) to do more than lean into each other for support as the excitement of the evening gave way to exhaustion.

“Oh,” Harry said. “…It was a gift. From my mother.” And it was. She’d been the one to put it on him as a babe, as his father told the tale, and he’d never had it off his person. It now functioned as the anchor for his Glamour, so all the more reason he could never remove it, but Draco didn’t have to know that just yet. “…Sentiment, I guess. I kind of feel like if I take it off…I’ll lose my last link to her.”

It was difficult to describe his feelings for his mother. He certainly couldn’t tell his father that he felt anything other than a bone-deep melancholic ache for her—but the fact was, he’d never known her. Never gotten to know her, and he mourned that, but…he couldn’t summon emotions that didn’t exist.

He could only hold on to this bracelet and know that someone who had loved him very much had placed it there, had loved him so much she’d laid down her life for him.

He didn’t know how to feel about people wanting to die for him. He’d much rather they lived for him.

Draco snorted softly, smile gone a bit crooked. “Don’t go all maudlin on me, Potter. She’s only just across the pond.”

And oh—right. Harry only now remembered that his mother was meant to be alive and well, and he forced a self-deprecating chuckle of his own. “What can I say?” He shrugged. “I’m mama’s boy.”

“He’s a mawma’s boy,” Draco mocked in a dogged attempt to imitate—or rather, deride—Harry’s accent.

“Hilarious, you are. A laugh riot.”

“We really ought to start elocution lessons—we can’t fly in this weather, so we might as well make use of our free time somehow.” There was a laundry list of ways they could make use of their free time that sounded a lot more fun than whatever elocution lessons were. “Can’t have you embarrassing yourself in front of reporters with your hideous diction.”

Harry frowned. “You’ve never seen it. It could be a perfectly nice specimen. What makes you think it’s hideous?” Draco shoved him hard across the shoulders and tried to break their dance stance, but Harry held fast. “…Hope I haven’t ruined my image in your eyes.”

“My opinion of you can’t possibly get any lower, so fret not.” He patted Harry’s cheek gently. “But lucky for you, I like a man who’s in touch with his emotions.”

“Well, I mean, one of us has to be.”

And Draco leaned forward, smile glittering, and bit his f*cking nose.

Harry shoved him back, laughing and rubbing at his nose. “You’re so weird, you know.”

“It took you three months to figure that out? Merlin, but you’re slow on the uptake.”

“No, I just had higher hopes for a Prefect. Not that I knew what a Prefect was, mind, but I assumed it was kind of an important position and they wouldn’t let obsessive lunatics be one.”

“Well, now you know better.” Draco dropped into a squat, risking soaking the hem of his lovely robes in sewer filth, and gave Noodle scritches that were very warmly received as she nosed about in the folds of the fabric in search of more treats. To her delight, Draco produced two more sausage-stuffed pastries he’d probably been saving as a midnight snack for himself and let her have at them. Harry took the moment while Draco wasn’t paying attention to him to smile fondly, then carefully schooled his features once more before Draco noticed.

“…Do you really think Hermione’s a fascinating person?”

Draco sighed and rolled his eyes, easing back to his feet and prestidigitating his hands clean. “Are we really going to keep doing this? Good gad, we can’t both of us be immature, jealous little sh*ts—and I’ve already claimed that throne.”

“I’m not jealous.”

“Mm. Then why do you keep asking? Do you want me fancy her?”

“Wh—no. I just find it curious that your opinion on her could have changed so drastically in such a short amount of time. I mean, it wasn’t three weeks ago you were complaining she ought to be wearing a hairnet because you swore up and down it was her hair that contaminated your brew in that week’s Potions lesson and not your own.”

“Because it was—she sheds like a—like a—” He huffed. “Like an animal that sheds a lot!”

“I’ve seen your three hairbrushes, Draco—you ought to ease off. You’ve already got a widow’s peak as steep as Mount Everest. Much more, and—” He mimed a smooth, cueball head, and Draco’s already pale complexion went off-colour.

“Malfoys don’t go bald.”

Harry shrugged. “Sounds like there’s lots of things Malfoys don’t do that you’re bucking tradition for…” He closed the distance between them again. The band up in the Great Hall was playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” now, and Harry was feeling like he deserved one dance where he got to lead before this night ended. He took Draco’s hand in his own. “…I would’ve asked if I could, you know. Even though you’re an immature, jealous little sh*t.”

“I know,” Draco said, allowing himself to be gently spun around and whirled back into Harry’s arms. He wrested his hands on Harry’s shoulder, twisting one of Harry’s curls around one finger. Harry was starting to get used to the style and thought he might miss it once he was finally able to be himself again. He wondered what Draco might think of Harry Evans. He wondered if Draco might even speak to him again, once he found out.

But tonight was not for dwelling on the dark what-ifs to come—tonight was just for dancing and soft music and Conjured snowflakes landing on lashes.

“Hermione looked really nice. You and Pansy did fantastic work.”

“And Weasley looked horrific.”

“Hey, I fixed him up. Eventually.”

“And in doing so perhaps ensured his family line continues. Good man. Did you tread on his feet like I asked?”

“No. I’ve decided to get you a different Christmas present.” And because he couldn’t resist asking, “…What’re you going to get me?”

“Who said I’m getting you anything?”

“Good manners, which I have on excellent authority Malfoys pride themselves on.”

Draco wrinkled his nose. “Damn.”

“Well, don’t invest in any Quidditch gear at least. I’m pretty sure Ja—my dad is gonna load me down with all the good stuff over Christmas vacation.”

“Excellent. Then you’ll have no excuses when I continue to thrash you once the weather’s fit for flying again.”

The music wound down, and Professor McGonagall’s thick brogue echoed through the castle walls, reminding students that the Ball would be concluding in the next half hour. Harry sighed. “…We should probably head back up, or the others might—”

Draco pulled him into a kiss, soft and warm and full of more affection than Harry had been rightly expecting. He could not wrap his head around Draco—he was a dozen different paradoxes shoved into a gangly, pointy body with an overzealous application of hair product and cologne, and Harry, gods help him, was absolutely infatuated with this infuriatingly intriguing individual.

He kissed him back, bringing his hands up to brace against Draco’s jaw and held fast for several long moments, leaning their foreheads together. His glasses had fogged up, so he couldn’t make out Draco’s expression, but he was pretty sure whatever face he was making, he was blushing cherry-red. Harry probably was too.

“…That was nice of you, but I’ve already got a date.”

And Draco bit his nose again.

By the time they made it back up to the Great Hall, many of the students had already returned to their dormitories to sleep off the evening’s festivities. Those that remained were either still stuffing their faces with Christmas confections, risking a very un-festive detention assignment by playing target practice with the ornaments on the trees, or winding down the Ball with a final dance. Harry’s heart swelled when he noticed Ron and Hermione among the couples still on the dance floor, utterly lost in one another and carrying on quiet conversation. He gently elbowed Draco next to him, directing his attention to Ron and Hermione, and Draco released a dramatic retching sound that drew a glare from Filch standing guard at the entrance.

Dumbledore was nowhere to be seen, nor was Harry’s father. He didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing Severus wouldn’t spot them sneaking back in, as he hadn’t been sure how to explain their absence, but he wasn’t going to interrogate it just now. It was enough they’d have a few more moments to breathe, enjoy the atmosphere, and embrace this experience for what it had been: technically the best Yule Ball Harry had ever been to.

After the Ball, the final few days of the term were spent preparing for the train ride home. Harry’s father would be Flooing ahead separately, as it would be difficult to explain why Professor Slughorn would need to travel to London, but Harry would be taking the train, a trip he was looking forward to much more now than at the start of the term.

Draco suggested it might be less than wise for them to seem too chummy on the ride back, so Harry happily shared a train carriage with Ron and Hermione. Hermione was an animated and enjoyable conversation partner, nearly as manic about brewing theory as Draco, but Ron, Harry suspected, was probably wishing Harry had sought other company for the trip, so that he and Hermione might be able to spend their final few hours before winter break bolstering their fresh relationship. Hermione would be spending the holidays with her No-Maj family, such that even writing letters to each other might be difficult, as too many owls flying around suburban Britannia might seem rather out of place. She made a valiant attempt to explain to Ron how to send mail the No-Maj way, but Harry didn’t think Ron had quite gotten it, even by the time they made it to London.

His godfathers were all there to meet him when he stepped off the train at King’s Cross, and Remus’s “distant cousin” had even made a surprise reappearance. Severus kept the Glamour up until they’d made it safely back within the walls of Number 12, but once he could be sure there were no prying eyes about, he doffed the disguise with a relieved sigh. “I shall quite enjoy being able to be myself in my waking hours for at least a couple of weeks.”

Harry hadn’t realised how much he’d feel the same for himself: being able to be Evans and not Potter (no offence to James) and not having to watch his words or be careful with the company he kept. His father still hadn’t pressed him for an explanation about slipping away during the Yule Ball, but he was sure it was coming, probably when he least expected it. Or maybe “Slughorn” would just dock Slytherin 50 points without explanation once they returned to Hogwarts and that would be that.

Christmas, it turned out, was a rather festive affair when you had more people than just your father around to celebrate with, and Remus and Sirius had gone all out this year, on account of their house guests. The halls were well and thoroughly decked, and even the portrait of Sirius’s mother was in brighter spirits after Harry took an afternoon to update her on everything that had and hadn’t changed in Slytherin House since her time at Hogwarts. “Oh, it warms my heart to hear that the influx of Mudbloods and their ilk hasn’t tainted that fine establishment beyond salvation!” That had pretty much been the end of that conversation.

It being too risky to do much shopping in public or stroll about taking in the season’s decorations, Harry had to keep himself occupied indoors. He mostly spent his time with his texts, without much else to do, but he did while away a good few hours studying the massive Black family tapestry hanging on the wall in the parlour after noticing for the first time that Draco was on it. It looked like he and Sirius were related, and Harry wondered how his godfather felt about that side of his family—though he didn’t dare actually ask.

As Christmas drew nearer, though, the holiday atmosphere really ramped up, bringing with it, for the first time, multiple presents for Harry.

He’d never wanted for anything materially before, but it was new and exciting, getting gifts from people other than his father for once. Two days before Christmas, James dropped in with a festively wrapped box he said had been delivered by owl just that morning, addressed to “Harry Potter”—and a peek at the attached card showed it had come from the Weasleys. Inside, he found a soft, plush hand-knitted sweater of emerald green with a giant “H” embroidered in shimmering silver thread on the front and a second note from Ron that explained his mother made sweaters for all the family members each year and had insisted she send matching ones to Ron’s new friends. Mrs Weasley had even included a little cat-sized sweater for Kreacher that he was going to hate wearing. Harry couldn’t wait to see him in it.

James had come through with his promise—well, more like a threat, really—to gift Harry a proper Quidditch broom after hearing he’d taken up the sport (Harry had wisely neglected to divulge who had spear-headed his training), and Christmas morning saw him unwrapping a fresh-off-the-line Comet 360, just like Draco had wanted, complete with an imported shaft of cherry wood that James boasted was steady as a rock and smelled lovely to boot. Sirius and Remus had complemented this gift with a full set of Quidditch gear, including a helmet, goggles, and leathers.

“And a pair of Omnioculars,” Sirius said, “so you can get one of your friends to record your games, if you decide to go out for the team. We don’t want to miss any of the action.”

“I’m not going out for any team,” Harry laughed. “I’ve only got another six months here at best.” Give or take a few for still-undecided summer Quidditch training programs with inexplicably charming roommates.

“Sure, but there’s nothing saying you can’t start up a local team once you’re back home!”

His present from his father came not in the midst of the festivities of Christmas morning or even afternoon but rather late into the night, once everyone was turning in. Harry had just finished changing into his pyjamas when Severus beckoned him over and palmed a small wad of tissue paper from his pocket, passing it to Harry. It was heavier than he’d expected from the size and unassuming wrapping, and he carefully peeled back the paper to reveal a slender vial made of some sturdy material, stoppered with a sealed cork and strung upon a sleek chain.

“A…necklace?” he asked, perplexed, and Severus gave a gruff chuckle.

“…A Pocket Pensieve. I…” He sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. It was thinning now with a prominent widow’s peak that only grew steeper with each passing year. Harry wondered if he’d ever go bald, like Malfoys supposedly didn’t. “I’ve filled it with memories. My own, of myself and your mother in our younger years.” He reached over and folded Harry’s fingers around the Pensieve. “Just because I’m too ‘emotionally constipated’ to talk about her much doesn’t mean you should miss out on seeing what a joy she was to be around.” He then favoured Harry with a soft, knowing look. “As long as we remember them, they’re never really gone.”

Harry squeezed the Pensieve tight, holding it to his chest, and nodded.

Unexpectedly, he also received a present from Blaise, though it was marked, “From the unlucky sods who have to put up with you two,” and when Harry tore away the paper, he found a thick tome with a handsome green cover titled Men Who Love Dragons Too Much in gold gilt lettering. He hid it at the bottom of his school trunk without opening it, because it sounded rather racy, and that was the last thing he needed to be caught reading right now.

But all of his wonderfully thoughtful (and thoughtless) gifts from friends and family and loved ones all around did not distract from the fact that he’d received nothing—no presents, no letters, not even a Howler—from Draco. Granted, they’d made no promises, and Draco had warned him not to expect much contact over the break, as his social calendar would be too packed to allow him time to breathe let alone keep up correspondence, but Harry had hoped for at least something. Something to prove he hadn’t been poisoned by the toxic fumes down in Noodle’s chamber and dreamed the last nearly four months.

He’d thought the radio silence from Draco’s quarter might be because he, again, didn’t want his parents knowing he was consorting with someone of Harry’s breeding, so he’d written him a letter pretending to be “Harry Potter, Draco’s very pissed off and reluctant Arithmancy partner” who didn’t want to be exchanging owls with Draco over the holidays but had been forced into it by a joint project. When nothing came of that, he tried to have Blaise forward a letter for him (“I’m going to go bunk with the Hufflepuffs if you’re going to keep asking me to be your messenger, I really am!”), but again, no reply.

Harry was disappointed, despite understanding the circ*mstances, but he did at least have Ron who replied to everything Harry sent him and then some. Granted it was mostly complaining—generally about his brothers, a set of twins who’d graduated from Hogwarts a year back and were now in the business of developing magical joke products, which they enjoyed testing out on an unsuspecting Ron; but nearly as often about Hermione and his inability to figure out the No-Maj mail system, such that he hadn’t heard a word from her since parting ways at King’s Cross Station.

You don’t think she and Malfoy are…?” Ron had written in one of his letters, his terror at the unvoiced thought palpable even through writing, and Harry had rolled his eyes and immediately penned back that no, they weren’t up to whatever Ron thought they might be, and then diverted Ron’s attention with questions about his brothers’ joke shop and if they offered owl-post orders.

No, he didn’t think Draco and Hermione were secretly getting together on the side—at least not for romantic liaisons, as Ron seemed fearful. But the fact remained that Draco still would not confess what had prompted the sudden shift in his feelings for her—surely even a bout of jealousy couldn’t sweep aside years of sanguinist brainwashing, right?—and Harry couldn’t help but feel that the silence from Draco’s quarter throughout the holidays had a darker, more insidious reasoning.

Chapter 8

Chapter Text

With the turn of the new year came a brand new school term, and though Harry had enjoyed the respite, he was eager to get back into the swing of things.

His irritation at being ignored all Christmas break peaked when, even on the train ride back, Draco continued to ignore him to the point of hostility—and to make matters worse (worse, because he had to listen to Ron complain about it the entire ride), he locked himself into a compartment with Hermione for the duration of the trip, leaving Harry and Ron hovering outside in the aisle, letting their imaginations run away with them.

Ron had produced a set of rubbery-looking flesh-coloured things that he called Extendable Ears and tried to shove one into a crevice between the compartment door and the floor, but to no avail. Clearly Hermione and Draco wanted their privacy, and there was no getting around that.

“You don’t…you’re sure they’re not…?”

And Harry had reassured him multiple times over the break that no, they were definitely not, but his own arguments were starting to wear thin. Eventually, though, he reasoned, “I mean, if that were the case, you think they’d be so brazen about it? If they wanted you to know, they’d be necking in the middle of the dining car—” Ron went sheet-white. “And if they didn’t want you to know, they’d have snuck off somewhere without you realising.”

Ron looked sapped. “…So what do you think’s going on, then?”

Harry honestly didn’t know, and it had stopped being amusing a long while back. Last he’d checked, they really hadn’t gotten along—even through the end of the school term, they’d sniped at each other so frequently in Potions that, between them, they’d lost their Houses a combined thirty-plus points and nearly gotten Draco stripped of his Prefect badge.

No, whatever they were up to, it decidedly wasn’t anything romantic in nature.

“It’s…I dunno, probably a project or something? Hermione’s never one to turn down a chance for extra credit, right? Even if it meant having to partner up with Draco?”

Ron mouthed Draco like it left a sour taste and shook his head. “But—why would she choose to partner with him, then?”

“Maybe it wasn’t a choice. Maybe it’s punishment.”

Ron nodded at this. “…Yeah, I could see that. They have been fighting a lot, and something’s up Slughorn’s arse this year because he’s way meaner than I remember.”

Harry clapped him on the back. “Plus, I mean, look at you—who’d toss over a specimen like yourself for him?”

“Yeah, who?” Ron said, tone dry, and he was giving Harry a funny look. That earlier ‘Draco’ had been a slip of the tongue he’d probably wind up regretting soon.

The rest of the afternoon was a whirl of activity, between getting settled back into the dormitories, enjoying the splendid start-of-term feast, and catching up with friends from both Slytherin and other Houses. Luna had evidently gone hunting with her father for some mythical creature that Harry had never heard of and probably didn’t exist, and Pansy had interviewed for an internship with a local Magicosmetology clinic the coming summer and was very confident about her prospects.

Draco continued to avoid him, though, even through dinner and the return to the dormitories. He wasn’t off huddling with Hermione anymore, at least, but he was very much giving Harry a wide berth, acting as if he didn’t even exist, and short of marching up to him in public and demanding an audience—something he was quite confident Draco would never forgive him for—he saw no way to break through this barrier.

And then Draco broke through it for him.

“Potter!” Someone jostled him roughly. “Po—Harry!

And that was new. Harry lifted his head from his pillow. He knew his hair was doing absolutely wild things—even wilder than usual—and his mind was swimming in that limbo between waking and sleeping, where he couldn’t quite tell if he was dreaming or not. “…Draco…?” Probably dreaming, in that case, given the cold shoulder he’d been giving Harry for weeks now.

“Well-spotted, nice to see you aren’t completely blind without those hideous glasses. Get up.”

Harry’s faculties began to come back to him. “You called me Harry…”

“Ten points to Slytherin!” Harry wondered if Draco saying that actually did add points to their ledger, seeing as he was a Prefect. “And that is your name, isn’t it? Get up!” He began poking Harry insistently, and Harry listened out for any signs of life from the rest of their roommates.

It was very late—or else very early. The candles burned so low in their sconces that Draco was little more than a softly limned shape looming large near Harry. He blinked owlishly, trying to bring the room into focus. “…Why? It’s the middle of the night. Can’t this wait ‘til morning?”

“No, it can’t.”

“Oh, so suddenly you want to talk to me…” He tried to sound waspish and bitter—but he mostly thought he sounded drunk.

“Would you—just—” Draco made a soft sound of frustration, a sound that probably would’ve been an irritated roar if he hadn’t been trying to be quiet, and grabbed Harry by the bicep, tugging. “Noodle. She’s probably an actual noodle now after weeks of not being fed. We need to tend to her.”

“She had plenty of rats to feast on over the holidays, don’t be dramatic. She’s probably three times as big as when we last saw her, actually.” He paused, a thought crossing his mind. “…We should bring blindfolds, just in case.”

He waited for Draco to scoff that it wasn’t worth it, risking death by Basilisk glare just to have a private word with Harry, and then he’d shuffle back over to his bed, climb in with his back to Harry, and they’d go back to not speaking for whatever reason.

Instead, though, he said, “Did your mummy get you some self-preservation for Christmas? About damn time you started showing some. Get up.”

And that seemed to be the end of that conversation, as Harry found himself chivvied from his bed and into his slippers so they could make their way to Noodle’s chamber.

Draco’s worry—genuine or otherwise—for Noodle’s health had been entirely unfounded, as though she was absolutely ecstatic to see them, hissing a whole medley of Missed you! and Gone so long! and Came back to me!s, she had indeed ballooned in size since they’d last seen her. Blessedly, she still had the milky-white lens over her eyes that, Harry had learned through research over the break, meant she hadn’t yet gone through her pubertal moult that would mark her an adult, with all the nasty Basilisk powers therein.

“I see someone’s been keeping the local rat population in check,” Harry crooned as he scratched Noodle generously under the chin, her beady red eyes rolling back in her head.

“Indeed,” Draco agreed, “but much longer and I fear the rats won’t be enough to sustain her.”

He had a point. Basilisks in the wild stalked prey of whatever size they pleased and felled them with a single glance—rodents and dinner leftovers wouldn’t sate her hunger once she reached full size, and Harry didn’t know how he was going to sneak anything larger down here for her. “…Might have to start thinking about how to get her out of here. Before she’s too big to do so.”

Draco arched a brow. “And set her loose on all those Muggles you’re so fond of? You sound like Salazar Slytherin himself.”

Harry didn’t think that was a compliment. “Well what would you have me do, then?” Draco grimaced and looked away, clearly lacking the stomach to offer crueller alternatives himself. “…I’ll just tell her not to eat people. She can go and live in that big forest—the one no one’s allowed to go in. Probably lots of deer and stuff in there for her to eat.”

“Oh, I’m sure the Centaur herd will be thrilled with that.”

He wasn’t sure if Draco was making genuine criticism of Harry’s ideas or just being contrary because he very much liked it. “I don’t hear you offering any suggestions.” He crossed his arms. “Though I suppose I should be grateful you’re speaking to me at all.”

Draco frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Wh—are you serious? You didn’t respond to a single one of my owls—”

“I told you I wouldn’t be able to! I told you not to send any, in fact! I was quite explicit!”

“And you spent the whole train ride back with Hermione—”

“You’re the one who wanted me to become ‘friends’ with her, so I don’t see how you’re in any position to complain—”

“And you avoided me the entire day, even once we were back inside the castle!”

“That—!” Draco started, then shut his mouth, shrinking back. “…That…all right, that wasn’t very kind of me. I’ve just—” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I’ve…had a lot on my mind lately. And I felt poorly, about…well, I got your owls.”

“Oh.” Harry didn’t really know what to say to that. It kind of took the wind out of his sails. Draco didn’t often apologise, so it left him feeling wrong-footed on the rare occasions that he did.

“I haven’t been—ignoring you, or avoiding you, or anything like that. Well, all right, I suppose I have, but it’s nothing to do with you. Not directly at least. It’s only—” He sighed, licking his lips in nervous habit. “Things with my parents have been…delicate, of late. You can imagine they have certain expectations of me, and…and I haven’t been meeting them, we’ll say.”

Harry could see where this was leading. “They…don’t want you associating with me.”

“Oh, that’s—” Draco started, then cut himself off and gave a short, sharp nod. “…Yes, I suppose you could put it that way. So it wouldn’t have done either of us any favours being seen interacting, even via owl post.” He fixed Harry with a shrewd look. “Even for an Arithmancy project you made up out of whole cloth that we were to be reluctant partners on.”

“I was pretty proud of that, actually.”

“Yes, perhaps you ought to be in Ravenclaw, sharp fellow that you are. Regardless…” Draco sank into a squat, gently brushing long, slender fingers over the crest of spines blossoming along Noodle’s neck. “It would probably be best if we…didn’t associate any more in public, beyond as cordial Housemates.”

Harry’s heart sank.

He’d been irritated when he’d thought Draco had been avoiding him, but recognising now he had a reasonable excuse—if not one Harry particularly agreed with—he mostly just felt…bereft.

Draco was his best friend. Ron was fun, and funny, and he never talked down to Harry, but…he wasn’t interested in Harry, not the way Draco was. Ron loved the Cannons, but he wouldn’t force Harry to listen to him drone on and on about them if Harry indicated he wasn’t interested. He wouldn’t frog-march Harry anywhere or practically threaten him to pay attention to some inane bit of minutia he was interested in that Harry wasn’t. And that just made it sound like Harry was a glutton for punishment, that he liked being mistreated, but that wasn’t it at all.

It was the way Draco was so perfect and put-together in front of everyone else but just lost it around Harry, couldn’t help but be pushy and emotional and dramatic, all because of Harry. He let his walls down and didn’t just invite Harry inside, he forced him in—and then locked the door behind them.

It made something curdle warm and sickly sweet in his stomach, realising how much Draco trusted him, when Harry really hadn’t done all that much to earn his trust, other than to let Draco be Draco. He was even outright lying to Draco right now about who he was—and still.

All these months, he’d been allowed a tantalising glimpse at the wizard underneath the smooth, polished porcelain mask Draco had been raised to hide behind, so being shut out like this…well, it hurt—even if it was through no fault of his or Draco’s.

Draco must have read his reaction writ clear on his features, as Harry had made no effort to hide it, and quickly added, “Oh—come now, don’t be like that.” It was almost pleading. “It’s only in front of others, you understand? I don’t so much mind that Zabini and Pansy know we’re…close—but outside of those precious few…” He shook his head, lips thinning into a line. “It just wouldn’t be good. For either of us. If anyone thought we were—” He made a face. “Friends.”

And then Harry remembered standing in their bedroom as Draco fidgeted with his tie and reminded Harry, There’s always someone watching.

Harry forced a wry smile. “Guess that means no more Quidditch practice, then,” and Draco grimaced, which made Harry feel even worse. He stepped in close, taking Draco by the shoulders and giving him a little shake. “…Unclench. Parents can be…ridiculous sometimes. But they generally want what’s best for us. Or at least what they think’s best for us. And it’s, what, six months? Five, even? And then it’ll be summer vacation, and you’ll be…well, out from under their thumb. Where’s this training camp supposed to take place, again?”

Draco was staring at him like he’d grown a second head—and then he was kissing him, desperate and happy, like he was making up for nearly three weeks of not kissing him. “…Why are you the way that you are?”

“I…don’t know if that’s supposed to be a compliment or an accusation.”

“Bit of both.” He frowned at Harry, studying his face with a careful eye. Harry wondered if, this close, he might be able to see through the Glamour—but then what would be the point of such magics if that were the case? “…I only don’t know what to make of you sometimes. It frightens me. I never know what you’ll do.”

“…I feel like I’m pretty simple. Predictable.” He shrugged. “Maybe you’re just bad at reading people.”

“I’m an excellent read of people,” Draco said, and he sounded curiously confident, like he wasn’t just saying it to be contrary, even though that was a favourite pastime of his. “Why would you do this?”

“Do what?”

“Any of this.” He stepped away, crossing his arms over his chest and feigning interest in what was left of a thoroughly dessicated rat corpse that Noodle had been playing with, toeing it with one polished loafer and clearly fighting back a gag. “…I’m certain I’m more trouble than I’m worth, and I’ve just shown you that should it come down to it, I’ll choose my family over you.” He thrust his chin out defiantly, and Harry had to laugh—which only brought a flush to Draco’s cheeks. “I’m quite serious!”

“I know! That’s why I laughed!” Harry rubbed at his nose, cavalier. “Because you haven’t shown that at all. You’re still going to go to Quidditch Training Camp, it sounds like. You still dragged me out of bed and down here to kiss the living daylights out of me. And you’re still you. You’ll take the easy the way out when it’s something you can stomach—I mean, we weren’t going to be hitting the pitch while it’s still below freezing out there anyway, and surely you’ve run out of Quidditch facts and hare-brained Potions schemes to bother me with at lunch, so what’s the harm in keeping other company for a few months?” His smile softened. “But when it’s something you can’t stomach. When it’s something that really, really means something to you—you find a way around it. You’re very clever that way.” And now Draco’s cheeks were pink for an entirely different reason. “You’ve got a spine, and you use it when it suits you. Isn’t that what being a Slytherin is all about?”

“…You’ve got far more faith in me than I have in myself, evidently.”

“Mm, evidently. And it’s not faith. I’m pretty good at reading people too, I’ll have you know.”

Draco still had his arms crossed, fingers drumming against his bicep as he sized up Harry. “…And what does your father make of this?”

“What?” Harry asked, thrown by the shift in subject. “My father?”

“What does James Potter think of his heir befriending not just a member of the Sacred 28—an organisation his family was banished from generations ago—but a Malfoy, quite the worst of the worst, in his eyes?” He arched a brow. “If you genuinely think it’s just ‘parents being ridiculous’.”

Harry’s heart calmed its frantic nervous palpitations, and he gave a little wincing smile. “He, uh…doesn’t actually know. I mean, he maybe suspects.” He then amended, “…Probably suspects. But I haven’t really said anything, and he hasn’t asked. Maybe he thinks if we don’t talk about it, it’s not happening.” That tended to be Severus’s approach to most problems, after all, and Harry was all right with it.

“And if he did know?”


“If he did know. If he finally decided it was time to talk about it—if he told you I wasn’t the ‘right sort’, that consorting with me might be dangerous.” He swallowed. “…Would you stop?”

And Harry was getting the uncomfortable feeling Draco wasn’t just talking about social standing any more. His father had warned him about the Malfoys, but Harry had maintained then as he did now that Draco wasn’t like that. And if he was going to ask Draco to ignore his parents’ poor advice, then he ought to be prepared to do the same.

“…No. I wouldn’t.” And in case Draco had a mind to accuse him of talking a big talk, he added, “I might be a bit more discreet than we have been about it, but…no.”

Draco straightened, seeming to take this as a challenge. “I can be discreet.” Harry released a bark of laughter that sent Noodle slithering for her hidey-hole. “I can be!”

“Can you? Mr Quidditch Team Captain, scandal of the Yule Ball for showing up with a No-Maj-born date on his arm, Slytherin Prefect? Because you haven’t convinced me so far.”

“I can. I shall.”

And Harry let a smile begin to curl at his lips. This was how they handled things bigger than the both of them: they made it a challenge, because then it was fun, instead of frustrating or frightening. “All right then. We’ll be discreet. And mean it this time.”

“Well at least I’ll be. I don’t know about you.”

“There’s lots you don’t know about me,” Harry said—then remembered something. “Oh!” He made a grab for Draco’s hand, dragging him along. “We need to get back.”

“What? We’ve only just gotten here, I thought we might—” He cut himself off, though, so Harry never learned what he thought they might do.

“Well you woke me up in the middle of the night when we’ve got lessons in the morning, for one, and for another: I have something for you.”

And nothing got Draco moving faster than the promise of a present.

Everyone else was still safely abed by the time they crept back to the Common Room, and after drawing the bedcurtains around them and casting a careful Silencio for good measure, Harry pulled out the little box he’d Owl-ordered over the break and passed it to Draco, who opened it with a wary sort of hesitation, like he thought it might be cursed.

It was not cursed, though: it was a novelty Snitch, shaped like a little round dragon that snorted spurts of real, actual fire when a Seeker made a grab for it, making catching it even more of a challenge. Harry had seen it in one of the magazines kept on hand at Number 12 to entertain during lengthy constitutionals, and he’d known immediately it would make a perfect Christmas present for Draco. Not wanting to see it returned without even being opened, he’d decided to wait until they got back to Hogwarts to gift it, even if he’d been pretty pissed off at getting the silent treatment the entirety of Christmas vacation.

But Draco’s frown only deepened as he gently caressed the little spines down its back, not unlike Noodle’s. “…I haven’t gotten you anything.” He closed the box, clutching it close. “I was—busy. It wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking about it. I just—I had a personal project I’ve been working on. It’s…taken rather a lot of my focus.”

“…The one with Hermione?” Harry asked, trying not to sound accusatory—but he knew he’d failed and immediately regretted ruining the moment. He rushed out, before Draco could respond, “It’s fine. It really is.”

“It really isn’t,” Draco insisted, and even in the low light of their wands, Harry could see him flushing. He hadn’t said anything about the Hermione bit, and he didn’t look like he was going to. “…I’ll get you something. Something you’ll really like.”

“Will you, now?” Harry said, tone teasing.

“I will. But you won’t know when you’ll get it. It’ll be a surprise.”

“I see,” Harry nodded, because Draco was really kind of cute when he was being ridiculous. Which was inconvenient and made it hard to be discreet, because he was ridiculous all the time. “Well, it’ll have to be something pretty spectacular; you need to meet or beat a dragon-shaped Snitch, after all.”

And Draco’s lips curled in on themselves in a devious little smile. “Oh, I do appreciate a challenge, I think you’ll soon learn.”

Chapter 9

Chapter Text

Practising discretion, it turned out, was really, really boring—but not entirely impossible. So Harry told himself that flying in the January chill would have been miserable and he did not at all miss hearing Draco babble about the more adventurous uses of Shrivelfigs or who was actually behind the Tournament That Nobody Remembers.

Instead, he played Gobstones and Exploding Snap and other frankly barbaric wizarding games with Ron and a few of the braver Gryffindors who didn’t hold Harry’s green-and-silver tie against him. Thomas was a friendly fellow who apparently had No-Maj family in Oregon, and Finnegan was outgoing as anything but had an accent so thick, Harry only caught every other word on the best of days. He tried to get his own roommates to mingle with them, but everyone always found excuses that Harry was pretty sure they just made up—daily he was reminded that there was a strict if unspoken divide between Slytherin and the other Houses, and it made making friends across House lines a real chore.

Still, he tried, and his efforts were rewarded, such that he was reasonably able to keep himself distracted from the fact that Draco was, once again, practically a ghost around Hogwarts, more so than even the literal ghosts.

It was most inconsiderate of him, forcing himself into Harry’s life and demanding his friendship and more-than-friendship and then just f*cking off to parts unknown. Harry couldn’t even avoid him if he wanted to, it turned out, because he was never around to avoid.

As Ron said it, Hermione was difficult to pin down as well, and Harry had the strong suspicion that where they found one, they’d likely find the other, but he kept quiet about any suspicions involving the two of them this time, as Ron was having a hard time finding a new Seeker for Gryffindor after their current one had come down with Spattergroit over the holidays and would be out for the rest of the school year.

But Draco wasn’t gone gone, and Harry still saw him in their shared classes and at lunchtime and late in the evenings, when he’d drag himself back to the Common Room just shy of curfew, looking haggard and overworked. Harry wanted to reach out to him, but that would be the height of indiscretion, naturally, so they shared the odd quiet moment of companionship a few times a week feeding Noodle, and Harry told himself it was enough that Draco would Conjure a little bench upon which they could sit, stroking Noodle as she enjoyed a post-prandial nap and leaning against Harry’s shoulder while Harry talked about how Trelawney had predicted he’d die that day (driven mad by a Fwooper and hurling himself off the Cliffs of Dover).

And then, one day, he’d come back from Transfiguration to prepare for dinner and found a note on his pillow, sealed with a Charmed wax stamp that demanded his thumbprint be pressed into it before it would reveal its contents: instructions in familiar loopy handwriting for Harry to be in front of the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy on the seventh floor at the stroke of midnight.

Draco had sat himself in the midst of Pansy’s little fiefdom at dinner, ignoring Harry as had become usual and entertaining a gaggle of lower-year girls who tittered merrily at everything that rolled off his tongue. Harry distracted himself from the display by inquiring with Vince and Greg how their upcoming game versus Ravenclaw was likely to pan out and if they thought Draco putting off training was going to adversely affect their chances of winning the Interhouse Quidditch Cup this year—in tones just loud enough he was pretty sure could be heard further down the bench.

It was much the same as it had been every evening for several weeks now, and Harry told himself he was used to it, that discretion was smart, that it meant they could still be together at all, but he would not deny that time seemed to slow to a syrupy crawl while he waited for the clock to strike 11:45 before finally donning his Invisibility Cloak, pulling out the Map, and quickly and quietly making his way to the seventh floor.

He paused at the seventh-floor landing to catch his breath and put himself back together. Whatever Draco had planned—Harry didn’t think he’d ever been up here period, not outside the North Tower where Divination classes were held. He was pretty sure the Ravenclaw Common Room was around here somewhere—were they meeting Theo’s girlfriend for something?

The tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy wasn’t difficult to find. Harry caught Barnabas in the scandalous act of attempting to teach a troupe of trolls ballet and decided that he was, indeed, Barmy.

“Er, ‘scuse me?” he called, and Barnabas turned from his training with an irritated huff.

Yes? Any particular reason you interrupted us? We’re working on our pliés this evening, as I’m sure you can see.”

“Oh, of course, I was only wondering if you’d seen anyone else around this hallway tonight? A blond boy, perhaps?”

Barnabas scoffed. “That one. Imagine: a Prefect, out roaming the hallways after curfew! You young whelps really need some discipline, I say.”

Harry let him go back to training his trolls without any further conversation and checked his watch: two minutes to midnight. This had better be worth it—he had to get up early the next morning to finish an essay for Herbology. It was decidedly not his favourite subject, despite his father’s efforts to instil in Harry an appreciation for the many Potions ingredients that could be found in the common household garden.

“Fancy running into you here,” came a familiar drawl, and Harry whipped around to find Draco leaning against the jamb to a door that had definitely not been there ten seconds ago. He had his arms crossed over his chest and was still in his school robes but with rumpled hair that suggested he’d just woken from a nap, the picture of lazy elegance

“How did you…” Harry frowned, looking up and down the corridor. There was nowhere nearby to hide, and surely Harry would have heard him sneaking up. Draco tended to make a scene wherever he went, and it was only thanks to James’s Invisibility Cloak and the Marauder’s Map they hadn’t yet been caught while sneaking off to feed Noodle.

Draco inclined his head. “Step inside, my dear Mr Potter, and let me show you your much-belated Christmas present.”

There was a curious energy to Draco tonight that was infectious, and Harry let any irritation slough away when it became clear that Draco was excited about something and eager to surprise Harry. An excited Draco was truly a sight to see, and the last time he’d been excited, he’d kissed Harry in front of all and sundry, so Harry was all right with going along with whatever scheme was being cooked up.

Draco took him by the wrist when Harry evidently wasn’t moving quickly enough for his liking, and he found himself drawn into a massive room.

Massive—and empty.

It was all cold stone walls and softly flickering torches, as tall as the Great Hall and nearly as wide and long, with absolutely nothing in it. Harry wondered how something of its dimensions could possibly fit within the castle walls, but magic was magic was magic, and sometimes there was no point trying to understand it.

Draco darted forward, turning with arms spread. “Well, what do you think?”

“What do I…think? Er, it’s…nice? And big?” Harry shook his head. “What am I looking at? Is this an unused classroom?”

“Of course not! You honestly think I’d drag you out of bed for an unused classroom?”

“You woke me up one time to ask if I thought a pimple on your neck was a Doxy bite.”

“The dormitories could’ve been infested! You have to get an exterminator in immediately if they’re already feeding on humans!” He tossed his head, as if Harry were the one being ridiculous and not Draco himself. “Never mind, I’ll just have to show you I suppose.”

He then swept one arm around the room, doing a dramatic twirl, and to Harry’s great shock, a dozen pieces of fine furniture—a chaise longue upholstered in a violent acid green, a weathered trestle table like they ate dinner at in the Great Hall, a handsome ebony escritoire—popped into existence, arranging themselves neatly around Draco as he conducted their arrangement as if at the orchestra.

Once satisfied with their position, he turned back to Harry, triumphant. “Well?”

“You—made all of that?” Draco was fairly skilled at repair and mending Charms, but he’d never shown any remarkable talent for Conjuration, so Harry was quietly impressed and wondered if this had been what he’d been working on in private these couple of months now.

“Well—no. I mean, yes, kind of, but—” He continued to sweep his arms around the room. “Think of something! Anything you could possibly want!”

“I kind of want to go back to bed…” Harry muttered to himself—but then, as if by, well, magic, his four-poster, the very same one he’d left down in the Dungeons, materialised from nothing, bedding fresh and already turned down for him to climb back into. Harry gave a start, palming his wand. “What—the hell was that?”

And now Draco looked so superior, once more brimming with that infectious energy. “I call it the ‘Room of Stuff You Want’.”

“…Doesn’t really roll off the tongue.”

“It’s a work in progress. The point is, it gives you anything you want. Well, barring a few un-Conjurables, like food. Gamp’s Law can be a bitch.” He waved dismissively. “But anything—anything! Books—” He Conjured—or had the room Conjure—what looked like the entire History of Magic section of the school library. “Quidditch—” And when he said ‘Quidditch’, he meant it, as the room Conjured a full-scale pitch, including a pair of brooms of nondescript make and the trunk that held the Quaffle, Bludgers, and Snitch. “And even—”

This time, a section of the Room expanded to transform itself wholly into a bedroom, tastefully decorated in monotones with luxurious rugs, velvet bedding, and a massive set of French doors that looked like they led out onto a balcony.

“Isn’t it marvellous?” Draco fair swooned, taking a flying leap onto the bed he’d just Conjured and flopping onto his back.

“I…yeah, I suppose so?” The Quidditch pitch was definitely impressive, but he wasn’t sure what the point of Conjuring a bed was when Draco already had a perfectly nice one down in the Dungeons. “You going to start sleeping here or something?”

“What? Don’t be daft! I was just showing you the attention to detail this place has! Look!” He crawled to the foot of the bed, pointing to one of the posts. “It’s even got the chip in the wood from where I ran into it trying to fly my new broom indoors two years ago!”

Oh. Harry frowned, taking in the set anew. “This…is your bedroom?”

“Yes, of course, what did you—” And then he caught himself, flushing. “I—well, I only wanted to show the degree of detail it could recreate…”

“And you picked your bedroom for that…”

“It was the first thing that popped into my mind!”

“Yes, obviously.”

Draco made a gesture that Harry had learned in his time here was very rude and sputtered, “Well—make it do yours then. That way we’ll be even.”

“How will that make us even?” Harry laughed, even as he turned and focused on another corner of the room, truly intrigued by the place now and eager to see how far its magic stretched. “I just think about my room?”

“No—you have to…” Draco made a face. “…Want it. Need it.” Harry arched a brow, and Draco spat, “I told you, it’s the ‘Room of Stuff You Want’!”

“Wants and needs are different.”

“Not always,” Draco sniffed, and Harry rolled his eyes.

He hadn’t seen his bedroom, his real bedroom, in months. Nearly a year, soon. He missed it. Missed the way everything in it was his, missed sleeping alone, missed knowing his father was just one room over. Missed waking in the mornings to what he’d learned these recent months was classic British breakfast fare, though he’d always been told it’d been his mother’s favourite.

He imagined the walls, papered with moving photographs of mostly him and his father but a fair few baby pictures where his mother played with him in his bassinet before turning to the camera and waving at Harry—well, at Severus, but he could imagine—from across time. He imagined his bed, nothing nearly as extravagant as the four-poster he slept in here but more familiar and somehow more comfortable with its creaky mattress and stains of indeterminate origin.

He didn’t need it, he thought—but he really, really wanted to see it just now. Thinking about it made the want all the stronger, and he could really use a little bit of familiarity when it felt like everything was changing too quickly. His father didn’t look like his father, Christmas had been lovely but oh so busy and not the quiet, private affair it’d been for many years, and even Draco was pulling away from him, walls going up and seeming less and less like the person he’d become—all right—a little bit enamoured with over these months. He just wanted his home, his room, his bed.

And then, there it was. Recreated in perfect detail, as if he’d just walked through the door.

Draco immediately rushed over, bumping his shoulder. “Well? Is it accurate? Did it work?”

“Yeah, I think so…” Harry breathed, taking a turn around the room. Like Draco’s bedroom had been, it was carved into a corner, one step on cold, unremarkable flagstones, the next on worn wooden boards with errant bits of parchment and not-quite-clean-not-quite-dirty laundry scattered about. His sheets were still thrown back, like he’d just woken up, and though the window sash was down and the curtains drawn, Harry could feel the warmth of the sun shining through. It was all so real, like a memory but even better, and—

“Is this your mother, then?” Draco asked, and Harry whirled around to find him peering dangerously closely at one of the photographs plastered to the walls of his room, a collage of memories. “You certainly didn’t take after her, did you?”

“I’ve got her eyes,” Harry said, voice thin with panic, and he thought, as hard as he could, about how much he wanted this room gone, disappeared, every trace of it vanished.

In a heartbeat, his Conjured bedroom was no more, and Draco leapt back from what was once more stone wall with an irritated huff. “I was looking at that!”

Yes, that had been the problem, and the bits of Harry that had been moulded by his father’s bone-deep paranoia, long slumbering, began at last to stir. Severus would be disappointed it had taken this long for Harry to show an ounce of wariness, but at least he’d shown it eventually.

Draco was a Slytherin. And more than that, he was a Malfoy, a family who’d had ties to Voldemort for decades and to Dark magic for even longer. That didn’t mean that Draco himself was a terrible person or that he would have sided with his parents, but he’d said himself that he couldn’t buck them entirely.

They’d grown close these past months—closer than Harry had ever been with another person. And bringing Harry here, to this fantastic room ready to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets if you just opened yourself up and let it… well, ‘cunning’ was right there in the House motto.

He didn’t want to believe this had been Draco’s intention—but he had to at least entertain the possibility. He had no idea what Draco had been up to over the holidays and even before then—this business with Hermione might just be a distraction, meant to make Harry think he was cheating (never mind that they’d never really given whatever this was between them a name, so would that count as ‘cheating’?).

Maybe it was nothing. Or maybe this was everything.

He couldn’t take that chance, risking both his life and his father’s.

He swallowed, forcing a smile. “Hey, you didn’t want me poking around your bedroom. Like hell I was gonna let you poke around mine.”

Draco tossed his head. “Heavens forfend I see your dirty laundry.”

“It wasn’t dirty! I just hadn’t put it away yet!”

“I feel like you’ve used that same excuse on your poor mother,” Draco muttered, then drew his wand, and a guilty part of Harry tensed, conscious that his own wand was stowed in his back pocket and not easily wielded if a Curse was about to be flung his way.

But Draco only Vanished his room—perhaps fearful of Harry taking his revenge and ‘poking around’ the recreation of Draco’s bedroom—then favoured Harry with another secret, superior smile. “I haven’t shown you the best part, yet.”

“It gets better?” Harry had to laugh, because there was a frigging private Quidditch pitch thirty feet away.

“Most definitely,” Draco said, then turned to a space on the wall, waved an arm dramatically, and Conjured—a tunnel.

No, a stairwell, leading down. Warmly lit with torches along the way but very, very deep. Draco rested a hand on the banister and began walking down, calling back, “Coming?”

Harry palmed his wand, slipping it up his sleeve for quick and easy access, and responded, “Hold your hippogriffs!”

The shaft, it turned out, led down to Noodle’s chamber, which quite frankly astonished Harry. “So wait, this room can make a tunnel leading anywhere in the school?” he asked after they’d fetched Noodle to show her the room as well.

“Not anywhere,” Draco admitted, lounging on a freshly Conjured divan upholstered in a plush brocade of silver and gold as Noodle played at being a lap Basilisk and made herself comfortable draped over him. “I couldn’t get it to create a passageway leading to the dormitories—I wager the students’ rooms are warded somehow. And I haven’t experimented, but I wouldn’t expect to be able to reach any of the professors’ offices or private quarters, either. But public areas—like bathrooms, laboratories, the kitchens even—yes.”

Harry joined him on the divan, reaching over to stroke Noodle as she dozed, her blood-red eyes still pink behind the milky film that kept her from doing them real harm just yet. “How did you find this place even?” He’d never seen anything like it on the Map. This section of the seventh floor had always been empty, so he’d assumed it had just been bare stone wall.

And Draco coloured a bit at this, sinking down further into his seat. “It was…well, an accident, I suppose. Unintentional. But—it worked out, so we’ll call it fate. Kismet, as they say.” Harry waited for him to explain himself, and Draco sighed. “I was…in a snit.”

“Rare for you.”

“Do you want me to tell the story or not?” Harry buttoned up. “I was—frustrated. All right, pissed off that we couldn’t do…well, anything. That I had to go down to that dank, disgusting chamber if I wanted to spend any time with you at all—no offence, darling.” He gave Noodle’s head an apologetic pat. “I do feel poorly about—this business. It grates that I can’t—that I won’t allow myself to do what I wish to do. So I was pacing, just out there—” He waved toward the door through which Harry had entered. “Thinking about how much I wished it could be like before—flying and futzing about in Potions and arguing.”

“We still do the arguing,” Harry smiled.

“Not nearly as much as I’d like, though!” And Harry knew it was a genuine thing Draco missed. He liked being right—but more than that, he liked the opportunity to prove to others he was right. He couldn’t do that if the person he enjoyed arguing with most was the same one he couldn’t be seen consorting with publicly. “And then—a door appeared. From nothing. I know it wasn’t there before, but suddenly it was, and curiosity got the best of me. It’s like it could sense…” He shrugged. “What I really, really wanted.”

Harry looked around at the fantastic Conjurations. “…I thought you could be discreet?”

“I can be. If I must. But…” Draco made a face. “That doesn’t mean I like it.”

And Harry, honestly, didn’t like it either. He didn’t like stealing moments, he didn’t like Noodle’s chamber any more than Draco, he didn’t like no longer having this one person he could be a little bit himself with—even if he had to be reminded that it was only just a little bit himself, and anything more was too dangerous.

Still, he wanted to share what he could, when he could—and Draco seemed to be of a similar mind.

“…I don’t like it either. Being discreet, I mean. This place, I like.”

“Do you?”

Harry nodded, taking a lap around the room. The brooms that had been Conjured were of no particular make, and Harry wondered if he could sneak his Comet 360 up here. He’d noticed the mournful grimace Draco had worn when Harry had brought it out to show their roommates and suspected this meant his parents had not been as generous as James this past Christmas. Draco might appreciate being able to test-fly it—or else he’d pretend he’d never wanted one at all. He could be weird sometimes. Lots of times.

“Yeah,” he said, hands on his hips. “I do.”

And Draco fair beamed.

Harry was really going to have to keep his guard up around this one. It was entirely too easy to lose himself in these moments where he looked at Draco and saw not the malleable son of the cult who’d killed his mother and would have killed him as well, but the prissy know-it-all who was obsessed with esoteric topics and refused to rest until he’d dragged Harry down with him.

But he’d been told to have fun, to enjoy this breath of fresh air, and he could do two things at once. He could. He could court Draco—Ron assured him this was a thing that Pureblood families did—and keep his head about him.

It was as easy as not falling in love, and he’d been not in love for sixteen-going-on-seventeen years. What was a few more months?

The rest of January flew by in a flash, and February was threatening to do the same. The Sixth-year coursework was actually quite challenging, especially now they were on the other side of the new year with N.E.W.T.s bearing down upon them.

Draco—and many of their classmates—seemed to particularly struggle during Patronus Week in Charms class, which Harry found amusing and Draco decidedly did not. “When am I ever going to need to cast the damn thing? This isn’t the Dark Ages or the Giant Wars! Owls are perfectly suitable modes of communication, and the Ministry’s rounded up all the Dementors in Azkaban, so what’s the point?”

Harry watched Draco pace out his irritation from where he lay lounging in a hammock, swinging beneath two freshly Conjured palm trees. They reminded him of home, and the Room had done a masterful job of recreating them. He wondered if it could recreate Pier 39½—it would be nice to be able to visit with Draco, even if it was a pale comparison to the real thing. “I…imagine the point is to test your Charms skill, in that case? It’s a measure of your capability. It’s not going to be on the test, though, right? Don’t get so worked up about it. If it’s beyond you, then you can just—”

“It’s not beyond me,” Draco snapped. “It’s just—I don’t see the point in learning it!” He gestured vaguely in Harry’s direction. “How much time did you waste mastering this outdated bit of arcana, then?”

Harry had made quite the impression when he’d Conjured his stag readily during their lessons, even earning Slytherin an extra 20 points, Flitwick had been so dazzled. Harry had no yardstick by which to measure the accomplishment himself—his father had been pleased when he’d managed it, but he’d also been pleased when he’d managed to properly time his Shield Charm and successfully brewed Wiggenweld Potion. If it had been a fantastic feat, Severus Evans had never shown it.

“Couple of weeks, I suppose? I was 10 at the time, though, so my attention span might not have been—”

Ten?!” Draco shrieked.

“Well, yeah. I mean, that should show you it’s really not that difficult to master, right? A literal child could do it!”

“Oh, so I must be stupid then, hm?”

“Wh—I never said that!” Harry tried to scramble out of the hammock—which didn’t go all that well, as he wound up tipping himself onto the floor, face smushed into the flagstones while his back end was caught in the netting. By the time he managed to right himself, Draco was already marching for the door. “I never said that at all! You just—I dunno, maybe need to focus more. I’m happy to help—”

And oh that had been the entirely wrong thing to say, because Draco, red faced, had made a very rude gesture at him and stormed from the room, refusing to so much as acknowledge Harry’s existence for an entire week. It was worse than being ‘discreet’, even, because at least then Draco had still been cordial if cold and aloof. Now, he was just speaking around Harry, and Harry despaired that he’d really royally f*cked up, triggered something that meant their friendship was irreparable—

—until he found himself being run down in the halls between classes by a ghostly white peaco*ck screeching like a banshee that chased him into the courtyard and sent him diving into a snowbank for cover.

Draco had laughed so hard he’d pulled a muscle but claimed to any who would listen when he retold the tale at dinner that evening that it had been well worth it to “put Potter in his place”—and to Harry’s irritation, most everyone had agreed with him. Harry was just going to assume they were all jealous, but he supposed it’d been worth it on his end as well if it meant Draco was finally talking to him again.

“You were right,” Draco had told him as he claimed Harry’s hammock for his own (“Conjure another one if you want it so badly—since you’re so good at Charms.”), “I did just need to focus more.”

“Hm,” Harry had grumped in response, crossing his arms over his chest. “So what memory did you wind up drawing on?”

“That—” Draco said, waggling a finger, “—is none of your concern. But I’ll give you one guess what my new memory going forward will be.”

Harry didn’t need one guess.

Draco did make up for the incident, though, by helping Harry master Apparition—a feat Draco had managed the previous summer thanks to private tutors but with which Harry still struggled. Severus had done his best, mind, but it wasn’t something that came naturally to Harry, and when Severus’s attempts to scare proficiency into Harry (“You think you’re going to outrun a wizard intent on taking your head? You think you’re going to outrun him?”) had only wound up sending then-twelve-year-old Harry into a lengthy crying fit, they’d decided to try again some other time…and never really gotten around to it.

The Ministry of Magic had sent an agent to the school to teach the Sixth-years properly, but the lessons still weren’t sticking, and when they’d learned that the Room of Stuff You Want was capable of providing a non-warded field in which they might practice Apparating within the castle walls (did Dumbledore know this place existed? It seemed dangerously close to being a security risk…), Draco had magnanimously offered to ensure Harry was popping in and out of existence, even if it killed him.

More likely, though, he just thought it a fun way to get back at Harry for having mastered the Patronus Charm before him.

Regardless, it worked, and Harry was beginning to believe that maybe those Nastily Exhausting Whatevers might not be so nasty or exhausting after all.

But of course this welcome little honeymoon period within the confines of the Room couldn’t last forever, and too soon, Draco became a ghost once more.

Granted, half the time he did have a legitimate excuse, as Slytherin’s next Quidditch match versus Ravenclaw was coming up soon. The weather was still sh*t for flying, but Draco wasn’t letting that stop him from drilling his team until they were about to fall off their brooms. “They’ve let themselves go over the holidays, and I mean to make them regret it.” And he’d made good on that threat—he was ruthless, and Harry certainly didn’t envy the players under him as he watched secretly from the sidelines, hidden under James’s Invisibility Cloak and making mental notes to help Draco up his own game, since the second- and third-string Seekers were, as Draco put it, “bogies on broomsticks”.

But the other half of the time, Harry had no clue what he was up to or where he was doing it, and no amount of scouring the Marauders’ Map was turning him up. He’d briefly entertained the thought that perhaps he was using the Room of Stuff You Want, but this did not seem to be the case, so Harry was left baffled. Hermione too had been difficult to pin down of late, but according to Ron, this was because she was working on a personal Potions project—something Harry had never heard being offered and was pretty sure didn’t exist. He’d even approached his father, testing the waters, but bafflingly, Severus confirmed Hermione’s story—and what he suspected would be Draco’s as well if asked. He tried to probe further but received only thin, pinched lips and an offer to prepare a project topic for Harry and his partner as well if they were looking for extra work. That had been Harry’s cue to leave off.

Complicating matters further was the fact that Severus too was absent entirely from class some days, with a substitute professor watching over them while they did busywork. When he tried to find out what was keeping his father from duties he’d otherwise been quite diligent in carrying out thus far, he was reminded that Severus had his own project for Dumbledore he was working on, and he did not need Harry’s help with it, thank you very much.

Everywhere he looked, people he’d trusted or at least wanted to trust were giving him the runaround, and it was starting to feel like everyone knew something he didn’t. It was little comfort that Ron, too, seemed entirely in the dark about where the object of his affections had run off to. Draco and Hermione weren’t cheating—whatever project his father was involved in, Harry was starting to think they were too.

And he was done taking, “It’s none of your business,” for an answer.

It was a Hogsmeade weekend when he decided to put his plan into action. Most of the eligible students would be down in the village, enjoying a rare jaunt off-campus, but Draco had had the Quidditch team pulling double training sessions every weekend with their match against Ravenclaw on the horizon. Harry would head down under the Cloak, wait until Draco had torn the team a new one and dismissed them for the afternoon, and then corner him. Draco was always the last to head to the locker rooms for a shower, using the empty pitch to focus on his own forms without the distraction of Bludgers or other broomsticks flying around. Harry would press him, make him finally confess what he was up to—if it was innocuous, Draco might not speak to him for a while, but he’d eventually come around to forgiving Harry his (well-founded) suspicions. And if it wasn’t…well, Harry suspected he had about ten years of duelling practice on Draco and could take him in a fight if it came to it.

He really, really hoped it wouldn’t come to it. If only because he didn’t want to have to hear his father’s I told you sos.

But when he arrived at the pitch, sneakers soaked through from the slushy walk because he’d forgotten how to Charm his shoes against the elements, he found it completely empty.

Empty—except for Draco, holding a broomstick in each hand. “You know, if you’re going to skulk about under that Cloak, you need to take more care with disguising your footprints. A blind man could track you.”

Harry pulled the Cloak off, stuffing it into his hoodie pocket. “What gives? I thought I’d come watch practice.” It wasn’t entirely a lie.

“What practice?” Draco said, too innocently, and tossed one of the brooms at Harry.

“The one you told everyone at dinner last night they’d better not be late for, or you’d hang them from the goal hoops by their tongues?”

Draco smiled to himself, a privately self-satisfied thing that did things to Harry’s stomach he both loved and hated. “That doesn’t sound like me.” He then mounted his broom and kicked off. “Less talking. More flying!”

Harry watched him dart off, shading his eyes with one hand and squinting. He was behaving very peculiarly, and it was making it difficult for Harry to hold on to his anger and irritation. Draco hadn’t been this civil with him in public in two months—and now he wanted to go flying together? Out in the open? Where anyone could see? Granted, the pitch was empty, no sign of any of the other players about, and maybe that had been the plan all along. Slytherin cunning had its uses, it seemed.

Recognising he wasn’t going to get any answers from the ground, Harry grabbed the free broom, mounted, and kicked off after Draco.

It was, predictably, freezing, and even the stoutest of Warming Charms couldn’t keep the chill entirely at bay, especially as Harry had dressed not for flying but rather for delivering firm, insistent lectures concerning trust and how one went about earning it.

Draco drew them into a Seeker’s game—using, of all things, the novelty Snitch Harry had gifted him for Christmas. The spurts of fire it unleashed when one of them made a grab for it nearly burned their fingerprints off, but it at least warmed them up for a few seconds, such that an hour had passed before Draco finally called it quits after a near miss with his eyebrows.

Harry alighted breathless, heart thudding thunderously and blood thrumming in his veins. They hadn’t had time to fly even inside the Room of late, and Harry had missed it—the freedom of the open air, the wind whipping at your cheeks, and another warm body racing alongside you after that gleaming bit of glory. He didn’t know that he’d ever have the patience for team-based strategy, but gods he liked flying—and he loved it with Draco.

“Guess my Christmas present suited?” he said, still breathing heavily as Draco took his broomstick from him.

“I might have had a different opinion had it taken off my eyebrows, but I’d say it passes muster otherwise.” He began herding Harry toward the locker room, where Harry knew a bank of warm showers waited that would get the blood pumping back into their frozen limbs. If his toes weren’t about to freeze off, he probably would have raced Draco there on foot.

“Where were the others? I distinctly recall you saying that there’d be practice today.”

“Pay a lot of attention to me, do you?”

“You make a spectacle of yourself every meal, it’s practically impossible not to.”

“Practically impossible isn’t the same as impossible—you could ignore me, if you wanted.”

“Yeah,” Harry said, biting back a smile. “I could, probably.” He didn’t miss that Draco still wasn’t telling him where the others had gone off to, but he stopped caring as soon as they crossed the locker room wards, the chill instantly whisked away by the magically heated interior. A fresh towel and bar of soap floated after him as he made his way to the shower bank, peeling off his sweaty robes as he went and Banishing them to the laundry basket.

Nothing beat flying out in the open air—the pitch in the Room was good for keeping up skills, but it was like tap water versus a fizzy beverage: the same thing in essence but decidedly not in experience.

Harry stepped under the beating spray, inhaling the steam rising up open-mouthed and knowing he was going to be aching all over tomorrow but relishing the thought. Things had finally felt normal again today, and for the first time, he doubted his will to keep up the façade of having and wanting nothing to do with Draco Malfoy for another four months. He’d missed this, the freedom—and Draco being so open and eager and—

“Budge up, Potter.”

Harry nearly swallowed a lungful of water as Draco pressed into his stall. “What the—get out!” He swiped a hand over his face, wiping away the water streaming into his eyes. “You’ve got your own stall!”

“Yes, but you aren’t in it.” And he gave Harry a look, full of challenge—and a hint of terror. Like he was at his most vulnerable right now, nudity aside, and Harry could do him real, grievous harm if he wished. While Harry dithered with how to respond to that, Draco pressed a bar of soap into Harry’s hand and turned to place his back to him. “Soap me up?”

Oh, this was a very bad idea and not very cool and calculating and cunning at all. He’d been Sorted poorly, he just knew it, but all the same, he accepted the bar with an inward mental groan and tried to keep his eyes fixed on the dark shower tile straight ahead as he mechanically, methodically, scrubbed at Draco’s shoulders.

And he might have been able to handle it, might have passed whatever this test was—with flying colours even—if Draco hadn’t pressed back. Not just against Harry’s ministrations, but down below, and Harry nearly slipped onto his ass when Draco’s rear bumped up against his co*ck—a seemingly innocent movement at first, and then with evident purpose.

“Wha—er…” Harry swallowed around the lump in his throat and arched his back in the narrow stall, because things were getting a little tense, and he couldn’t tell what was happening. “What…are you doing?”

Draco cut him a frown over his shoulder, slapping the bit where Harry had left off soaping him up, now clutching the bar for dear life. “Snap to it, Potter, I don’t have all day. The Warming Charms on the taps deactivate after twenty minutes.” When he caught Harry’s expression, he added with a quirk of one brow. “And isn’t it obvious?”

That was a trick question if Harry had ever heard one. He began scrubbing the bar of soap over Draco’s back again in slow, hypnotic circles as he tried to centre himself. “…I didn’t want to assume.”

“Pity. I wanted to you to.”

And he sounded entirely too self-confident. He always sounded self-confident, but generally Harry could keep up with it, and he felt one step off from Draco in this moment—he hated feeling out of sync with Draco, and he knew Draco didn’t like that sort of thing either. He wanted a challenge. He wanted someone who would walk beside him.

Well, he’d have to settle for someone right behind him this time. Harry inched forward, slotting himself against Draco’s back but not pressing with the presence Draco probably wanted, given the way he gave a trembling little jerk as Harry leaned into him. “…Just so we’re clear, I’ve never done this sort of thing before, you know.”

“…I was rather counting on that.” He could hear the smile—and the relief—in Draco’s voice, the human edge to it that put Harry at ease. Draco twisted around, grabbing the soap bar from Harry and chucking it aside. He drew closer, sensitive bits nearly brushing, and draped one arm over Harry’s shoulder while the other snaked between them. “…May I?”

Harry didn’t trust his voice, so he just nodded—rather more enthusiastically than he’d really meant—and Draco’s smile curled in on itself, excitement palpable.

Harry tried not to buck too hard when Draco touched him—but the novel sensation of being touched there by someone other than himself was too much, and he nearly slammed Draco into the shower wall, bracing one arm against the wall while the other gripped Draco’s shoulder hard. He clenched his eyes shut, breathing heavily. “S—sorry…”

“Don’t ever f*cking apologise for that,” Draco crooned, angling to press a kiss against Harry’s jaw, and another and another following until he reached Harry’s lips. He curled his fingers around Harry, giving a gentle, testing tug and slipping his tongue inside Harry’s mouth when he gasped. “You’re doing absolutely perfect.”

Harry would have to take his word for it, the blood rushing in his ears drowning out the hiss of the shower, and Draco kissed him hard and deep and insistent to keep him present in the moment as he brought Harry to the bleeding edge but refused to let him rush over. Harry shortly made clear his frustration with an activity he typically finished as quickly as possible being dragged out for so long—all right, it had probably only been a few minutes at best, but still—and Draco kissed him in soft apology, drawing back and whispering against his lips, “Very good things come to wizards who wait.”

He then released Harry, his co*ck bobbing pitifully between them. It was an angry red, probably as pissed off as Harry at being denied release, and Harry tried to protest, “Wh—c’mon…I was almost…”

But Draco had turned around again, elbows braced against the shower wall and glancing back at Harry over his shoulder. There was little question as to what he might be expecting, given the position he’d adopted, and Harry took several long, bracing breaths. “I…I don’t—I mean…”

“My thighs, Harry.” And Harry felt his heart do a double beat, leaving him lightheaded—Draco used his name only now and again, and it did things to Harry’s thought process that were better left unsaid. Draco arched his back a bit more, one brow lifted as he locked eyes with Harry. “I won’t ask more than you’re prepared to give. Trust me.” He then swallowed and added, “…But I really want you right now.”

Harry nodded slowly, taking the single step to close the distance between them, and slotted himself between the firm, round globes of Draco’s cheeks. They fit so perfectly, like lock and key, and he wanted to stay here forever.

But his co*ck wouldn’t let him, very quickly and insistently reminding him there was more pleasure to be had, and while he didn’t feel nearly prepared to cross that particular bridge, enticing as the dark little divot between those cheeks was looking right about now, the warm, thickly muscled thighs just below would be plenty good practice.

He swallowed, took a long, bracing breath, and cradled Draco’s bony hips as he carefully eased his weeping prick into the space between the thighs. The resistance was welcome, more so because he knew he wouldn’t be hurting Draco, who flexed in response to make the channel even warmer and tighter.

“Pray don’t take it easy on me,” Draco breathed, forehead resting against one arm as he reached between his legs to palm his own co*ck with the other. Harry frowned—he kind of wanted to do that himself, but he at least recognised he just didn’t have the presence of mind to focus on two org*sms right now. Next time, then. Because there was definitely going to be a next time. And a bunch more after that, if he had anything to say about it.

“Tell me if it’s not what you want.”

“Oh don’t you worry, I very much will.” It sounded like both a threat and a promise, and Harry—if it was possible—got harder.

Seeing as Draco sounded like he could handle his own pleasure, Harry decided to focus on himself, on what felt good to him, and hope it was what Draco was after too. This was well beyond a furtive tug under the sheets after his father had gone to bed or even pulling himself off during his morning shower to wake up. This was a pantomime of something more adult and far more intimate, and if it was the closest he was going to get to the real thing right now, he meant to make the most of it.

He rocked into Draco, flexing and relaxing as he gently rolled into a pleasant rhythm to get used to the sensation. Too much too fast, and he’d pop—and while he’d been aching for climax only a moment ago—and okay, he still was—he wanted to enjoy the experience. To let Draco enjoy it.

“Faster,” Draco panted, and from the angle, Harry could see Draco’s bicep and shoulder flexing frenetically as he worked himself. “Faster, dammit—and harder. I’m not going to break. f*ck me.”

The word sounded indescribably dirty in this context, and that fired Harry’s blood. Draco wanted to be ruined—he wanted for Harry not to apologise. So often he was the one in charge—leading his Quidditch team with an iron first, lording his superior knowledge over all who might listen (and even those who tried not to listen). But with Harry, he could ask—beg, demand—to be put through his paces, handled with rough, artless care and a punishing intensity he would never tolerate from anyone else.

Harry wondered if he’d ever done this with anyone else—he certainly seemed to know what he wanted, and he sounded confident, but Harry wanted to believe that no. No one else had ever been good enough for him. He’d never trusted anyone else enough to allow this, never been able to make himself this vulnerable. And that made Harry hot.

He did not make Draco ask again.

He quickened his pace, head hung as he let the driving spray of the shower beat over him, rivulets running down his cheeks and jaw and chin and dripping onto Draco’s back. He watched the knobs of Draco’s spine and the way his muscles jerked and twitched as Harry pounded into him.

He’d wanted this—he didn’t realise how much, but he had. All right, maybe not this this, but this intimacy. He’d wanted Draco to himself and not just for privacy’s sake but for the sake of having him. For Draco to show that he wanted Harry, that he’d been avoiding him for reasons beyond his control and not because he’d tired of Harry’s needy, incessantly clingy nature.

“Harry…” Draco panted, a keening whine that echoed. “Harry…”

Something snapped at the base of Harry’s co*ck, sending a jolt of lightning up his spine, and his hips snapped forward and forward and forward, slamming Draco against the wall with a grunting oof! Harry lacked the presence of mind to apologise, though, because he was spilling, seizing and shuddering and gritting his teeth to keep from crying out but still releasing a strangled yawp of completion.

“f*ck—f*ck, warn me—next time—” Draco panted, working himself feverishly, and Harry hugged him tight, still pressed up against him as his hips continued to weakly thrust. Draco’s flexing thighs milked him until he was just a bundle of oversensitised nerves. Harry wanted to reach around to help, to offer a literal hand, but Draco seemed to have himself—well, handled.

He leaned back against Harry, and draped over his shoulder as he was, Harry could see down and over Draco’s chest and stomach to the pert, proud prick sliding in and out of Draco’s fist. He pressed a soft, lazy kiss to Draco’s shoulder—and then gently bit down, suckling, and Draco gasped sharply—

—and painted the shower wall with lacy white ribbons of spunk as he rose onto his tiptoes, back nearly bent in half and a silent scream stuck in his throat.

He then collapsed in on himself, slumping against Harry and breathing heavily. Harry could feel the trembles wracking his body, and even through the heat of the shower spray, his skin felt like it was on fire, burning from exertion and flush with pumping blood.

“…Happy Valentine’s Day,” Draco groaned, sated, and Harry jolted.

“…sh*t, that was today?”

Draco snorted, and he gingerly shifted around on unsteady feet to face Harry properly. A loopy grin that Harry had never seen before and wondered if he’d ever see again curled at his lips as he patted Harry gamely. “Yesterday, you romantic, you. It’s why the team wasn’t on the pitch—I gave them the afternoon off because they wouldn’t stop whinging about the holiday when fewer than half of them are even in relationships.” He slumped against Harry, resting his head on his shoulder. “Lazy arseholes, it’ll be on them if we lose the Cup this year.”

And now Harry had a loopy grin of his own. “Well, I’m certainly not complaining.”

“You’d better not be.” Draco drew back again, reaching around Harry to grab his wand from the little nook where it had been stowed and whispering the counter-Charm to turn off the taps before Summoning them both towels. “It took me weeks to contrive this. You’ve been watching me like a hawk—it’s been impossible to surprise you!”

Harry sobered a little at that, remembering now why he’d come down to the pitch in the first place.

"…Well, you’ve been acting weird.”

“Have I?” Draco said with testing innocence that suggested he knew damn well he had been.

“Yes. For a while now. You and Hermione are—up to something. You’ve been nice to her in Potions. Or at least not terrible.”

Draco rolled his eyes, Summoning fresh sets of training clothes for himself and Harry. “This again? I thought you wanted us to get on.” He arched a brow, a smile ghosting across his lips. “Now who’s jealous?”

And Harry felt irritation spark through him, because they both knew this wasn’t jealousy. Or mostly not jealousy, at least—only in the fact that Hermione seemed to be allowed to spend as much time as she pleased with Draco when, for whatever reason, it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ for Harry to do so. Harry didn’t buy into the sanguinist tripe he’d heard spouted—by wizards and No-Majs alike—but how was it more acceptable for someone of Draco’s birth to spend time with a No-Maj-born than a ‘proper’ wizard like Harry? Draco’s explanations were all over the place, and Harry was rapidly losing his patience.

“I just want to know what you’re doing—and don’t try to tell me it’s a Potions project.” He could hear the whine in his voice and wished he had as good a handle on his emotions as his father seemed to. Evidently this was something he’d inherited from his mother, and honestly he’d rather have gotten her lovely red hair than an inability to control his temper.

And for a brief flash, only an instant, Draco opened his mouth—and Harry thought he was going to tell him. To say something more than the blithe excuses he’d offered these past two months. He wanted to, Harry could see it waiting just behind his tongue, full of reassurances and explanations that would leave Harry both relieved and embarrassed he’d felt any concern at all.

But instead, Draco shook his head, snorting softly, and tugged on his undershirt. “It’s nothing you need test your wanting mental faculties with, my dear Mr Potter. When the time comes that we need your input, trust we’ll let you know.”

Harry tried to feel irritated, to feel angry—but it was beyond his reach now, replaced by disappointment. He could feel Draco pulling away, even before he did so physically.

He tried to make light of it, even as he wanted to shake Draco until all of his secrets came tumbling out. “…If you two need my input on anything, then whatever you’re working on is already doomed.”

“Oh, you have other ways of helping me out, I think we’re learning.” He stretched his arms, arching his back until a little peek of belly poked out, and Harry quickly busied himself tugging on his shirt so he didn’t get caught staring. “I feel like I’ve just dumped gallons of stress down the drain just now, in fact.”

Harry snorted, brows lifting. “So I’m your stress reliever then, am I?”

“You are…” He raked Harry with a gaze—curious, amused, and still more than a little bit wanting. “Something. Indeed.”

Harry shook his head, finishing dressing as Draco ensured all signs of their activities had been cleaned up. “I’m serious, you know. I don’t like being lied to.”

“Who does?” Draco said, and fixed him with a pointed look—prompting Harry to think very hard about Occluding his thoughts, just in case Draco turned out to be an accomplished Legilimancer. “I’m not lying to you. Granger and I are in the midst of an important project, and your help is not needed at this juncture.”

Harry crossed his arms. “That doesn’t mean you’re being entirely honest, either, though.” That was Slytherin talk, if he’d ever heard it, and by now, Harry spoke it fluently.

And Draco sighed—not in irritation, though. He mostly sounded…tired. Like he was nearly at his breaking point and Harry was only making matters worse. He winced inwardly; perhaps this little rendezvous in the shower hadn’t all been about romantic holidays. Maybe he really was Draco’s stress reliever.

When he spoke, the levity was gone, and he sounded achingly honest—he never spoke like that, there was always a layer, a thin veneer of jest that kept you from seeing the Draco underneath it all, because it was like staring into the sun otherwise. You couldn’t handle him raw and open and real like that. It frightened Harry, just a little.

“...I recognise I haven’t done all that much to merit your trust—but I’ll ask for it nonetheless.” He locked eyes with Harry, holding him fast. “Please. Just—accept that I can’t tell you everything there is to know about me. Or don’t. But either way I can’t give you any more than this for now. And—” He rolled his eyes. “Pray don’t go harassing Granger for details either—she’s already got Weasley up her arse about our dalliances and not in the fun way.” He pursed his lips, tone softening. “I won’t hurt you. At least not unless you ask me to, and then that’s a conversation for another time.”

The veneer was back, and that sent a little shiver of relief through Harry. It was strange—wanting Draco to be more open with him and then being inexplicably terrified when it happened. “…Do you even know what you’re doing?”

Draco gave an elegant one-shouldered shrug. “Do any of us? I’m managing—and if it ever becomes too much to handle…” He slipped his wand up his sleeve. “Well, I know where you sleep.”

Chapter 10

Chapter Text

The conversation in the locker rooms left Harry feeling marginally more all right with whatever this situation was with Draco—but only marginally. He could temper his emotions a touch better, but it didn’t stop irritation and frustration from curdling acid-like in his midsection, and no amount of Pocket-Pensieve-sharp recollections of their steamy liaison was making matters better.

He somehow managed to see less and less of Draco as the weeks wore on. He had always left the dormitory before Harry woke up in the mornings and was back in bed before curfew. Most days, he couldn’t even accompany Harry to feed Noodle. The odd glimpses he caught of Draco these days were from across the table in the Great Hall or on furtive jaunts down to the Quidditch pitch to watch the team train.

February felt interminable now—but at long, long last, the day of the Ravenclaw versus Slytherin match finally arrived, and Harry packed into the stands alongside Blaise and Theo to support their roommates.

G-g-g-gods I hope he makes this game quick,” Blaise stuttered through chattering teeth. “I’m going to freeze my bollocks off, and it takes forever to reattach them.”

“You could cast a Warming Charm?” Theo suggested, rolling his eyes at Blaise’s dramatics, though he ought to be well used to them by now.

“And miss the chance to complain about something? It’s like you don’t know me at all, Theodore!” Blaise nudged Harry. “How’s he been doing? You’ve been watching them practise, right? Draco likes to talk a big game, but the Ravenclaws this year are no pushovers, so says Theo.”

“Yvie says Chang’s gonna make him eat her broom bristles, that he’ll have splinters in places where the sun doesn’t shine by the time she’s done with him,” Theo said, a pair of Omnioculars already glued to his face as he watched the teams warm up.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Blaise sighed, and Harry hoped for Draco’s sake Theo was exaggerating.

Harry donned his own set of Omnioculars and tracked Draco as he zipped and dived and spiralled through the air. He had, Harry knew, a set of dragonhide leathers with permanent Warming Charms infused in them for games like this, so while Draco would not let the game drag for any particular reason, neither would he end it any sooner than was appropriate, and if Chang wasn’t everything she was cracked up to be—Harry had Transfiguration with her but had never seen her on a broomstick himself—then he might even allow himself a bit of flourish, perhaps hoping for a repeat of the Gryffindor match in case any scouts were paying attention.

Once the match started, though, Draco showed every sign of being as sharp and focused as ever, and the long hours of drills and scrimmage matches had paid off for the rest of the team as well. Greg and Vince mowed down the Ravenclaw front line with well-targeted Bludgers, and the Chasers sent Quaffles soaring through the goal hoops with pinpoint accuracy.

Harry found himself watching Chang almost as much as Draco, though, curious to see how she flew. She was a different beast entirely from Draco and the only real competition Harry thought he’d seen for Draco thus far. Harry was certain she would have made him eat the Snitch if they’d had to face off, and he wasn’t entirely certain Draco could outfly her either. She was keeping up with him with maddening ease, and he could see through the Omnioculars’ zoom function that the pacing was starting to get to Draco, too. He was used to being lord of the air—even Harry wasn’t truly a challenge for him, not when he was focused and not simply flying for the thrill of it. But Chang was on him like a Hunting Crup after a Jarvey, and she was not going to let him have that Snitch without a fight.

“We’re up 50 points—why hasn’t Draco closed the deal yet? What is that arsetit doing?” Blaise groaned. “Waiting for the Snitch to fall into his hands?”

“Chang’s not giving him space to breathe,” Harry said, white-knuckling his Omnioculars. “She’s tailgating him so he’s focused on her instead of looking for the Snitch.”

“Well don’t be jealous, her arse has nothing on yours—I’m sure it’s just a professional interest.”

Harry rolled his eyes but didn’t pull the Omnioculars away from his face. He left off tracking Draco, pulling back the focus to see if he couldn’t spot the Snitch himself. Maybe he could telepathically communicate its location to Draco somehow. Not that he condoned cheating—he just hated seeing Draco struggle, probably about as much as Draco hated being seen struggling.

He was studying the tall grass growing at the base of the Slytherin hoops—sometimes the Snitch liked to hide there, feeling safe surrounded by the brush—when Blaise grabbed him by the shoulders and gave a violent shake as the rest of the Slytherin stands erupted into full-throated cheers. “He’s caught it! He’s got the Snitch, Potter!”

Harry jerked the Omnioculars away, scanning the sky to see what he’d missed—oh why had he looked away? Maybe Theo would have a recording he could share—and saw Draco, the Snitch fluttering madly in one hand as he waved it about victoriously. He took a lap around the stands even as Madame Hooch tweeted sharply on her whistle to summon the players down to the ground to shake hands, preening and displaying in a fashion that reminded Harry of his ill-mannered Patronus.

“Oh he’s going to be insufferable for the rest of the weekend, isn’t he?” Blaise snorted good-naturedly.

“Try the rest of the week,” Harry muttered and began to put his Omnioculars away as the others around him started for the stairs. The team would retire to the locker rooms now (which Harry still couldn’t think about without flushing darkly), where they’d have a debriefing with Draco. Since they’d won—and looked pretty good out there doing it—it probably wouldn’t be a terribly long affair, and dinner was likely to be a rowdy one as the rest of the Slytherins gave the players their well-deserved laurels and relived the match blow-by-blow. The last time Draco had won a game, Harry’d gotten kissed, but he very much doubted that was in the cards this time arou—

“Oh, good gods…!” Blaise gasped, and it didn’t sound like his usual scandalised indignation but genuine terror, and Harry whipped around.

Just in time to see the distant little dot that was Draco, still on his victory lap around the pitch, wobble atop his broom and slump, limp, off to the side, plummeting toward the ground.

Shrieks of horror went up, and Harry’s heart leapt into his throat as his stomach bottomed out. A dozen thoughts flashed through his mind—Summon his broom and swoop in to catch him (no, it would take too long), Summon Draco by the collar (would it even work? You generally couldn’t Summon living creatures), just leap over the railing and pray gravity was too preoccupied with Draco to care about Harry (now that was just ridiculous, panic was making him delusional)—each less sensical than the last, and though time seemed to move like syrup, Draco falling feather-light and languid, he knew distantly that this was not the case, that there was nothing Harry could do to save him from that hundred-foot drop, that—

And then there were Vince and Greg, one burly arm each wrapping around Draco’s midsection mere body-lengths from the ground like the most awkward Snitch capture in recorded history. Together, they gently lowered him to the ground as Madame Hooch zipped over, tweeting stridently on her whistle and barking orders at the Ravenclaw Captain to send for Madame Pomfrey.

Harry snapped his Omnioculars up again, adjusting the focus until he could see Draco clearly and waiting—praying—for signs of life. “Breathe you contrary bastard…” he grit out, and a hand came up to rest over his back, a gentle presence.

“Everyone’s staying up here to gawk—the stairs are empty. Hurry on, before they crowd.” Blaise gave Harry a shove across the shoulders. “Whatever you do, don’t let them Sever his Quidditch leathers if they decide they need to get them off him. They cost a fortune, and I know for a fact he’d sooner die than see them destroyed.”

Harry gave a confused little half-nod—and then decided he really didn’t have the presence of mind to determine if this was actually something Draco would care about or not. Harry wasn’t rich—at least not nearly the same level of well-off that families like the Malfoys were—but he’d get James to use that Playwitch money to buy Draco a whole damn dragon of his own if he survived whatever had just happened.

Which brought up the question of what had happened? One moment he’d been flying free, and the next falling. But Harry hadn’t been watching him the entire time—had someone Cursed him? Or—pushed him?

No, no he couldn’t think like that. He had to focus on Draco, on making sure Draco was all right (because he was! He was just fine, he was too stubborn to…). After that, he could start entertaining wild theories that probably were entirely unnecessary as there would be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this incident.

He burst from the rickety wooden stairwell onto the field, head whipping to and fro as he tried to get his bearings—and he quickly surmised Draco’s location from the crowd forming near the base of the Slytherin hoops. He grabbed the first person he found—one of the Ravenclaw Chasers, it looked like, and asked, panic tightening his voice, “Wh—what’s happened? Is he all right?”

The Ravenclaw seemed bewildered at being so suddenly accosted, raking Harry with a confused look. “Er—I dunno. I think Hooch is taking him to the Hospital Wing. Professor Flitwick was here watching the game, and I heard her ask him for help Levitating the body.”

The body. Harry was going to be sick.

But they wouldn’t take a corpse to the Hospital Wing, would they? Unless they didn’t want anyone seeing the carnage.

Ravenclaws were useless, he wasn’t going to get any of the answers he needed from them. He searched the crowd for green robes and caught Pucey huddled up against Warrington, sobbing into his robes while Warrington patted his head gamely. Blaise was going to despair. He rushed over to them, giving Pucey a shake. “What happened to Draco? Is he all right?”

“Wh—Potter? Bystanders aren’t supposed to be on the pitch.”

“Just tell me!”

“They took him to the Hospital Wing,” Warrington said, and Pucey started on a fresh jag. Perhaps Ravenclaws weren’t as useless as Harry’d thought, then.

“But—he was alive?”

Warrington rolled his eyes and shoved Pucey away with a disgusted huff. “Look—you’re wailing like a banshee and now there’s already rumours he’s dead.” He flicked Pucey’s forehead, just between his eyes. “You want people assuming you Cursed him so you could get his position?”

Pucey went sheet-white and started blathering motormouth excuses, but Harry was already jogging off the pitch, bound back for the castle. Draco wasn’t dead—probably—but that didn’t mean he was all right, might not still die as a result of…whatever had happened.

The pathway was clear, half the castle still back in the stands, gossiping about what had just transpired, with the other half either in the castle whiling away their afternoon or down at Hogsmeade enjoying their free weekend. Word would spread quickly, though, if Hooch and Pomfrey didn’t nip it in the bud promptly with assurances that Draco was fine, just fine. Would Harry’s father have heard what’d happened by now? f*ck, would Draco’s father have heard? Quite the awkward way to meet the parents of someone you were in a situationship with.

He decided to head straight for the Hospital Wing. They’d probably turn him away, but he might at least learn what’d happened and how dire the situation was. If they decided to be cagey, then Harry would lean on his father for details. Severus would likely realise that his son’s interests in his roommate ran rather deeper than mere acquaintances, but if he hadn’t figured that out by now, well that was really on him. Gryffindors were very good at ignoring uncomfortable truths, Harry was learning.

Sure enough, the door to the Hospital Wing was closed with a NO VISITORS ~ DO NOT DISTURB sign posted, but Harry promptly ignored it. It was small relief that the door was unlocked; if they’d really wanted people to stay out, not wanting word a student had died to spread like wildfire, then surely they would’ve at last cast the most basic of Locking Charms.

He eased the door open, hoping to be sly about it—and winced when it creaked loudly, calling the attention of Madames Hooch and Pomfrey as well as his father and Professor McGonagall. “Er—I just wanted to see how—”

“Is he all right?! Is he alive? Oh, Draco!” Pansy wailed from behind Harry, shoving him aside and bull-rushing Madame Pomfrey, who’d stepped away from the others with arms outstretched to shoo them back. Trailing after Pansy came her hangers-on, Bulstrode and Greengrass, and now that Harry looked, half the Slytherin Quidditch team as well as Blaise and Theo were rounding the staircase landing and jogging their way with intent.

“Oh—good gracious—!” Madame Pomfrey huffed, and Hooch shouldered her aside, glowering down at Pansy and spreading her cloak to give those behind her a modicum of privacy.

“You lot should be ashamed of yourselves,” Hooch hissed, golden eyes flashing. “Barging into a house of healing like this! Out! Out, the lot of you!”

“But—we wanted to know if he was all right!” Pansy protested, yelping when Hooch slashed her wand and sent sparks exploding at her feet. “Honestly!”

Harry let himself be herded out with the rest of the crowd. He didn’t know if Draco would be delighted his tumble-and-possible-murder had brought about such enthusiastic concern or mortified at the display. Hopefully he’d find out soon.

Hooch shut the door behind herself and addressed them all in soft but serious tones. “I appreciate your concern, really I do—it must have shaken you all very much, seeing that. But you can all rest perfectly easy—Mr Malfoy is only suffering from a touch of exhaustion. Not an unfamiliar sight in young athletes who think their very lives hang in the balance of each Quidditch match.” This last bit she directed at the gathered students still wearing their leathers and holding their broomsticks. “But quite mundane, I can assure you. He’ll receive the best of care and be pampered like a prince this evening and then be returned to you all hale and hearty on the morrow. Let’s give him time to catch his breath, shall we? Your Head of House will let you know should there be any change in his condition. Now—off with you, go on now.”

The group dispersed with grumbles, but there was a palpable air of relief about them all now, and Harry felt lightheaded, like he might faint if he didn’t watch his step. He leaned against a column until the world stopped spinning.

Exhaustion. That was all. Exhaustion—from working himself ragged between Quidditch training and whatever this business with Hermione was and those too-rare moments now when he favoured Harry and Noodle with his presence. Harry’s expression twisted into a self-directed grimace; this was partly his fault. Only partly—Draco wasn’t happy unless he was trying to take on the workload of three—but still, the thought that Draco had still tried to find time to be with Harry in the midst of so strapped a schedule didn’t make Harry feel good at all.

He felt entirely justified in his irritation at being given the runaround, but Draco had asked for trust—and then had pushed himself to the breaking point so Harry wouldn’t think more poorly of him than he already did.

Gods, he felt like a wanker. He didn’t really know what the word meant, but he’d heard it enough in context that he was pretty sure if he looked it up in the dictionary, his picture would be beside it. When someone had something so important they worked themselves to exhaustion to try and see it through to completion, the proper response was to support them, not to be pissed at them.

He would try, he resolved, to be more understanding. Or at least not to be so openly irritated that Draco picked up on it. He probably wouldn’t be too good at it—Harry took after his mother in being frustratingly easy to read—but he would at least give it his best shot.

No further notice on Draco’s condition was delivered the rest of the afternoon. Dinner was a more subdued affair than would generally have been the case after a Slytherin victory, but there were still toasts and congratulations to be had, and Professor Dumbledore did at least clink his glass for the hall’s attention, letting the populace know that Draco Malfoy was recovering and would be returning to classes on Monday, though Madame Pomfrey would be keeping him in the Hospital Wing for the next twenty-four hours, just to be certain he was on the mend.

Harry forewent dessert after hearing that and slipped off to the Room of Stuff You Want (god, they really needed to think of a better name than that) to make preparations for an impromptu Hospital Wing visit.

Once curfew had passed and the castle had settled for the evening, Harry scooped up Noodle and draped her around his neck like a very heavy feather boa, grabbed the basket of muffins, meats, and spreads he’d pilfered from the Kitchens, and donned his Invisibility Cloak, thinking very hard about how he really wanted a tunnel that led directly to the Hospital Wing right about now.

The Room graciously complied, and Harry set off.

Madame Pomfrey had retired to her quarters, but it was still early enough she might be awake yet, so Harry stepped lightly as he made his way to the beds at the far end of the room, where a thin curtain had been drawn around one bed in particular. A part of him was still nervous—he hadn’t seen for himself that Draco was all right, he’d only been told so; what if the staff had been lying? What if it really was some nasty Curse that someone—probably Chang, sore about losing the Snitch to him—had laid on him? What if he was really—

“Is that you, Potter?” Draco grumbled, shuffling upright and scrubbing at his eyes blearily. He’d been sleeping, evidently, and his hair was in wild disarray with a prominent crease on one cheek where he’d pressed up funny against his pillow. Harry had never in his life seen a more welcome sight.

He tugged off the Cloak, stuffing it into his hoodie. “How’d you know it was me?”

“It was either you or some other invisible assailant come to murder me at my most vulnerable.” He shrugged. “I took a chance.” He then squinted in the low light. “…Is that Noodle? Good gad, you brought her out in public? Are you mad?”

“I hid her under the Cloak. And she was worried for you,” Harry said by way of explanation, and he gently removed her from around his own shoulders to drape across Draco’s.

“Hm, was she, then?” Draco said, stroking her nose while he held Harry’s gaze. “Well, good thing you brought her, I suppose, so she could see I’m all in one piece.”

Harry settled on the edge of the bed, idly picking at the ticking on the comforter. He licked his lips, resolutely not looking at Draco. “…She said it was exhaustion.”

“Who did? Noodle?”

Hooch. They demanded an explanation when she wouldn’t let them see you—”

“Wait, they? Who’s ‘they’?” Draco shifted forward, angling himself so he could see Harry’s face. “Who saw it happen? Please don’t tell me I pitched off my broomstick in front of the whole f*cking crowd!”

Shh! Harry hissed, frowning at him. “You’ll wake Pomfrey, and she’ll run me off. Probably take House points while she’s at it.”

Draco buried his face in his hands. “I’ll never live this down…” he moaned, though at least it was muffled this time.

“Yeah, well at least you’ll live,” Harry said, not a tiny bit crossly. “What the f*ck happened? One minute you were waving the Snitch around, proud as anything, and the next Greg and Vince were ferrying your unconscious body to the ground.” He firmed his jaw. “…You could’ve died.”

“I wish I had,” Draco said, petulant, and flopped back down onto his back, staring up at the ceiling.

“f*ck you,” Harry spat viciously, and Draco shifted up onto his elbows, rolling his eyes.

“Oh for—don’t be like that. Obviously I’m not being serious.”

“Well you should be. Exhaustion, really? You know how hard you have to have worked yourself—the limits you have to have pushed past—to faint? Atop a broomstick, to boot?” It was a wonder he was even conscious right now—in fact, in retrospect, Harry really shouldn’t have come here. Letting Draco get some well-deserved rest would have been the better course of action. Too late for that now, though.

Draco drew his legs up to his chest, distracting himself by feeding Noodle bite-size pieces of cold sausage. “I—misjudged my condition. I thought I could handle the game, and—well, clearly I did. Evidently we won, even—though I confess I don’t really remember it.” He sniffed. “Regardless, it won’t happen again.”

“You’re damn right it won’t—whatever this project is you’re working on, it can’t be worth nearly getting yourself killed.”

And Draco laughed—then quickly sobered, swallowing. “No, I meant it won’t happen again—because we won’t need to train nearly as hard for the rest of the Quidditch season. We won today, which means we can coast to an easy Inter-House Cup win once again this year. There’s only the match versus Hufflepuff left for us, and we haven’t lost to them in nearly two centuries, so there’s every likelihood we’ll continue our annual tradition of trouncing those badgers.”

Harry saw red. “Are you seriously telling me you intend to keep on with—with whatever this is you think’s so important you not only can’t tell me, though of course you can tell Hermione apparently, you’ll nearly work yourself into an early grave to see it through?”

Yes,” Draco snapped, soft and sharp, and Noodle tensed around him. He gave her a bit of cheese by way of apology—one of her favourites. “…Yes,” he repeated, more calmly now but still just as sharp. “You told me you’d trust me—”

“No I didn’t.”

“Well—I’m asking it again, regardless! I’m not killing myself—it was a lapse in judgement, and it will not happen again.”

“You can’t promise that. You’ll let it happen again, if you really think this project is as important as you say it is—I know you will.”

“I won’t. And if it somehow threatens to happen regardless, you know Granger will stop me. She vowed to go to McGonagall to keep me from flying today even.” He wrinkled his nose. “Had to spike her drink with Lethe River water to make her forget about it.” When Harry didn’t seem to find this amusing, he softened and reached a hand out, laying it along Harry’s jaw to direct his gaze to meet Draco’s own. “…I am sorry. For—everything. You don’t deserve this.”

And Harry didn’t like how that sounded, not at all. He pulled back and let Draco’s hand fall to the mattress. “If you were really sorry, you’d stop it.” He knew he sounded like a child. He felt like one, too.

“…Yes, I suppose you’re right. I’m not sorry. Not for doing what I’m doing. Not for putting something bigger than me above my own health. I’m only sorry I can’t talk about it.”

“Except you can talk about it. With Hermione.”

He went back to petting Noodle. “…I’d rather talk about it with you.”

Somehow, that did make Harry feel better. Just a little. “…I miss you.” Draco didn’t say anything, but Harry could hear him tensing, tightening. He didn’t know what that meant, but he didn’t think it was anything good. “It feels like I don’t know what to do with myself now. There’s only so many games of wizarding chess I can let Ron absolutely demolish me at, and you’d think I’d be better at it by n—”

Draco reached out, groping for Harry’s hand—but his head was bowed, and his shoulders were hunched. “…It’s only a little bit longer. I promise. We’re close. Nearly finished, and then—then once summer comes, we’ll show Ludo Bagman what-for, just the two of us.”

He sounded so earnest, so hopeful, so self-sure—but he wouldn’t look Harry in the eye this time, and that made it impossible to believe him, because when Draco was right and knew he was right, he wanted you to see the triumph clear on his face. It was a lie—and they both knew it.

He squeezed Draco’s hand back, brushing his cheek over the knobby knuckles. It was warm and solid—and it sought out Harry with a fierce defiance. It sent a funny feeling thrilling through him, knowing Draco wanted him and couldn’t have him, that soothed the rancour of wanting Draco back and not being able to have him either.

It was a heady thing, being wanted. It made you want to be someone worth being wanted. And that meant showing patience—even when you thought you couldn’t.

He reached for the basket of goodies he’d brought, pulling out two bottles of pumpkin juice. It was strange stuff, nothing like the cactus juice American magical folk favoured, but he’d found he rather liked it. He passed one to Draco and then raised his bottle in a toast. “Summer. Just us,” he repeated and clinked his bottle against Draco’s, forcing a smile.

True to form, Draco no longer strained himself to the breaking point trying to balance schoolwork and Quidditch training anymore—but that simply meant that he poured himself even more into his project with Hermione, abandoning not just Harry but all of his friends (or what passed for friends when you were Draco Malfoy). Rare were the moments he even showed his face at mealtimes, and if it weren’t for his rumpled bedclothes and the lingering scent of pine and white musk when Harry found his way to the showers in the mornings, he might have convinced himself Draco had vanished from the face of the earth entirely.

Harry tried his very best to distract himself. This was well beyond discretion now, into the realm of outright avoidance, and if Harry didn’t keep himself occupied, he was going to do far too much thinking, and thinking led to dwelling led to obsessing.

He therefore decided to fill his Draco-less existence with that much more Ron to make up for it. Ron was a great guy—always ready with a joke (especially dirty ones) and an ear to fill with complaints and only ever asking for Harry to do the same in return. And complain he did, at length; Harry didn’t really feel comfortable complaining about Draco to someone who so violently loathed the Malfoys (for good reason, as Harry understood it), but Ron definitely didn’t feel the same reluctance to moan and whinge about Hermione and her conspicuous absence of late.

Knowing that such discussions would, inevitably, involve Draco, what Draco was up to, what nefarious schemes he was concocting, and whether or not he was going to use Hermione in some dark magical ritual, Harry tried to divert their conversations in the direction of Quidditch—which turned out to have been just the ticket to a grand distraction.

March was upon them, which meant the Gryffindor versus Hufflepuff match was a handful of weeks away. This Harry knew because Ron was utterly beside himself with worry that their new Seeker wasn’t nearly aggressive enough when facing off against a rival Seeker for the Snitch. “I mean, Demelza’s a fine enough Seeker on her own merits—especially considering she used to be a Chaser, you should see her dodge Bludgers!—but I think she got spooked watching the match versus Malfoy. She saw the thrashing he gave our old Seeker and hasn’t wanted to even touch the Snitch, begging us to let her keep Chasing. But we desperately need a Seeker, and Ginny can’t play two positions at once, so I was hoping…”

His tone took on an upward, hopeful lilt, and it was only here that Harry realised what was being asked. “Wait—you want me to help? A Slytherin? Isn’t that like, I dunno, against some ancient House code or something?” There was plenty of inter-House mingling during classes and mealtimes and free periods, but Quidditch practice seemed an entirely different beast altogether. “Aren’t you afraid I might be a spy or something? Carry back all your secrets to Draco?”

Ron scoffed. “Nah, I don’t reckon I’d still be talking to you if I thought that little of you. And besides, we already had our match against you lot. If you wanna spy for Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff, I guess you’re welcome to try, but Ginny’s the strategist—that’s why she’s Captain. You’re not gonna get much useful intel outta me or Demelza.”

Harry released a sputtering little sigh. “But—how did you even know I Seek?” They hadn’t discussed his proficiency on a broom since the early days of their friendship, before Harry had ever even sat on one.

“I heard from Hermione,” Ron said, a little evasively, and Harry narrowed his eyes.

“…And where did she hear it from?” Hermione was one of the brightest witches Harry had ever encountered, but she had no love for Quidditch, to Ron’s dismay. It was one of her very few faults, according to him.

Ron sighed and made a face. “Malfoy, apparently.” He then fixed Harry with a look. “…It’s weird, right? It’s not just me being a ‘small-minded jealous fool’? I know what his lot think about witches like her. The fact that they’re willingly spending time in each other’s company is just…”

“No, it’s not just you. I don’t think I’ve seen Draco in his waking hours in weeks. He said they’re doing some kind of special Potions project—though to be honest, I don’t believe it.”

Ron sidled in closer, looking over his shoulder as if he thought they might be overheard. Though who would bother eavesdropping on them from where they sat huddled together on one of the benches on the third-floor landing was beyond Harry. “…You think maybe he’s up to something? Malfoy. I mean—” He held up a hand. “I know he’s your friend and all, not that I can claim to understand what redeeming factors you might possibly see in him, but you’ve gotta admit, given his family situation and how he was acting toward her, even up to Christmas, it’s fishy.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” Harry muttered, chewing on a nail. No, he didn’t think Draco was up to anything—not anything nefarious involving Hermione at least. But he was hiding something, something he seemed very adamant he see through to its end. Draco could be driven and cunning, and Harry wanted to believe him—to trust him—but there was little he hated more than being lied to, hypocrite though that made him.

f*ck, there he went, thinking about it again. Time to put a stop to that. He shook his head, sighing. “Anyway—your Seeker needs training, you said?”

“Yes!” Ron said, clapping his hands and clearly as relieved as Harry for the diversion. “Like I said, Demelza’s a good flyer—she just lacks confidence in her own Seeking skills. Maybe if you could, I dunno, give her some pointers? Or even just fluff her ego a bit? She’d appreciate it more coming from someone who understands her position, I’m sure—even if they’re a Slytherin. No offence.”

Harry shrugged. “I guess I can give it a shot—but I’ve only been riding a broom for six months now, and I’ve never actually played a proper game of Quidditch before. It’s only been Seekers’ games with Draco. I can’t promise I’ll amount to anything more than a second pair of eyes for her.”

“Even better—you’ve trained with one of the most ruthless players out there. If you can still walk straight, that’s a credit to your talent.” Harry felt the back of his neck warm at Ron’s unwittingly insinuative language. “All I ask is that you just hear her out, maybe play a few of those Seekers’ games with her, and try to sand down some of that trauma your worse half left her with.”

Harry gave a reluctant nod. “Demelza, you said her name was?”

“Yeah. Demelza Robins. She’s around our age, gangly like all you Seeker types, trying to bring unibrows back into fashion.” Harry thought he knew her—he was pretty sure he’d seen her hanging out with Ron’s sister and a few of the more sporty Gryffindor girls at mealtimes. “And—seriously, you don’t have to do this if you don’t feel comfortable. I’d feel like a right arse if asking you for this favour got you chewed out by Droopy Mouthoil over there.”

Harry was going to have to remember that one. He waved away Ron’s concern. “It’s his own damn fault if he loses the Cup because he didn’t take the Hufflepuff match seriously and assumed none of the other Houses would come close to threatening his vaunted Slytherin supremacy.” He couldn’t force Draco to tell him what he was working on—but he could make him regret choosing this ridiculous, life-threatening, surely-not-that-serious project over more practice, especially after lecturing Harry on the ins and outs and everything in betweens of Quidditch until he was blue in the face.

Robins—“Please, ‘Demelza’. And thanks again for helping put me through my paces! You’re a lifesaver—Ginny’s probably gonna kick me off the team if don’t get my act together in time for the Hufflepuff game.”—turned out to be an absolutely charming girl who, while nowhere near the flier that Draco or even Chang was, still put up a good fight in the air. She didn’t have a natural eye to seek out the Snitch, but she was a menace once she found it or—as happened more often—once Harry found it for her.

They whiled away the afternoon playing Seekers’ games or with Harry delivering what little advice he felt qualified to offer, and when it came time to head back to the castle for dinner, they made promises to meet up again their next free period. This continued for a good week as Harry found himself enjoying being able to fly out in the open again, even if it was still chillier at altitude than he might have liked, and even if it wasn’t with anyone nearly as challenging an opponent as Draco.

Demelza was fairly quiet and easygoing, and the other Gryffindors who came by to watch their training were a fun group as well, it turned out. Harry suspected that Ron’s advance testimony in Harry’s favour had helped them warm up to him, and before long, there were tentative invitations to Hogsmeade outings exchanged and promises to hook Harry up with any of the more interesting contraband that came into the school, evidently courtesy of a system set up by Ron’s older twin brothers who’d graduated the year before.

It was after one of their more productive training sessions that Harry returned to the dormitory—sweaty and happy because Demelza’s perception had been improving, such that she was spotting the Snitch before Harry more often than not now—to find Draco hunched over his desk, quill scritching away at a parchment, in a rare instance of being precisely where he ought to be but certainly not where Harry had expected him to be.

Harry drew up short. “Oh.” Well this was going to be awkward.

Draco straightened with a frown, setting aside his quill. “…Where’ve you been? Granger decided she absolutely had to spend the afternoon with Weasley so I went by the Room of Stuff You Want to see if you wanted my company but found it empty.” He gave a sniff, nose wrinkling. “You reek. And are those my leathers?”

“Er, maybe?” They absolutely were. Harry had his own now, but Draco’s were already broken in and much more comfortable. “I didn’t notice.”

“I’m sure.” He raked Harry with a judging gaze, prickly and uncomfortable. “So?”


“Your whereabouts? You’re all the time whinging about my not spending time with you, but in my rare moments of freedom from what I assure you is an important project, you’re nowhere to be found.”

“Oh,” Harry said, scrubbing at the back of his neck. He really wanted to be in a nice warm shower, scrubbing off all this grime and sweat, not having what was going to be a very uncomfortable conversation with someone whose jealousy streak could span the Atlantic. “I was playing Quidditch. Just a quick game.”

“Hm,” Draco said. “With whom?”

Harry sighed, deciding to just have out with it. It wasn’t as if it was a secret—he just hadn’t wanted the first conversation he’d had with Draco in weeks to devolve into an argument. “Robins. From Gryffindor. Ron asked me if I’d help train up their new Seeker—their old one’s out with Spattergroit, so Ron asked me to give her some advice.”

Draco’s fair complexion went pink, and he sputtered, “Train up their—give her some advice—?!”

There it was. “Oh, calm down, would you? You act like I’ve turned traitor.” Then again, that was probably exactly how Draco saw it, from what he’d heard of these House rivalries. “You already thrashed them, and it was a favour for a friend—it would’ve been rude to turn him down. Plus—” He shrugged. “It’s not like we’ve been doing much training ourselves. I can’t go letting my skills get rusty if we’re gonna show Bagman a good time at Quidditch Training Camp come summer, right?” He lifted his brows. He was getting good at this manipulation stuff Slytherins were supposed to be so skilled at, he thought.

Draco made a strangled noise in the back of his throat and slumped in his chair, leaning over his desk in what Harry suspected was a purposefully dramatic posture. “Don’t say that like I’m just off faffing about and I wouldn’t rather be flying myself.”

And Harry felt just a little bit bad, Summoning a chair and settling down next to Draco at the desk. “…I know. But then you also can’t act like I’m just messing around with the Gryffindors to hurt you and wouldn’t rather be flying with you. Or doing anything with you, really.” Hell, even just being able to have this brief conversation with Draco felt like a gift he shouldn’t look at too closely. “...Need my help yet?”

Draco snorted softly, angling his head to the side so he could fix Harry in his gaze. “You are admittedly clever, but I fear this is something Granger and I must tackle on our own for now.”

Harry shrugged. “Maybe I wasn’t talking about using my brains. I mean, I do have other talents.”

Draco arched one brow, lips curling. “Do you, now? And where, pray tell, have you been cultivating these talents?” He lifted his head, gaze gone sly but still with a bit of warning in his eyes. “Not with Weasley, one hopes.”

Harry settled back, one arm thrown over the back of his chair. “Nah. Self-study.”

And now both of Draco’s brows flew upward. “Self—?”

Harry produced his wand, gave it a gentle undulating flick, and whispered, “Penifors”—and the thin strip of wood immediately Transfigured itself into a fair replication of a substantially sized male member, with a bit of a curve and a bulbous crown. One of the knots had even unfurled itself into what looked to be a vein running along the underside of the ‘shaft’.

Draco released a harsh, inelegant bark of laughter, covering his mouth as his cheeks went pink. Harry smiled reflexively at the sight, Draco’s boldly displayed emotions quite literally infectious, as if Harry had lost any immunity he’d built up over the months. And well, he supposed he had. “Where on earth did you pick that up? I certainly don’t recall Flitwick teaching that in Charms.”

“Finnegan showed me—”

Finnegan?” Draco snapped, immediately on his guard again as his good mood vanished to parts unknown.

Harry held up a hand to stay his concern. “Stand down, would you? I told him I meant to play a prank on you.”

Draco didn’t seem to find this any better a reason. He crossed his arms over his chest, scepticism thick in his tone. “Mm. And I suppose he was only too happy to help you in this noble quest?”

“Oh, I think it’s universally agreed upon by all the Houses—Slytherin included, mind you—that you’re a superior asshole who thinks far too highly of himself and deserves to be shown up. I believe Finnegan described you as having a ‘stick the size of Hagrid’s left arm’ up your ass. He’s very eloquent once you get past the accent, apparently.”

Draco scoffed derisively. “Preposterous. I’d never let that oaf anywhere near my arse.” As if this had been the most insulting part of Finnegan’s gossip. He leaned forward on one elbow, chin propped up by his wrist as he pressed into Harry’s space. “So…how successful would you say your efforts at self-study have been, then?”

Harry made a face, waving his wand-slash-dild* around like a flag. “Well, this thing tastes like wood, and it’s rather more stiff than, er, well. I think I’ve got splinters on my lips now.”

“You tasted it?” Draco breathed, scandalised, but he was grinning far too widely for his shock to be believed. “Whatever for?”

“Boredom, we’ll say.”

“The things you get up to when I leave you to your own devices for too long… Here.” He reached out to lay his hands along Harry’s jaw. “Let me see those nasty splinters…”

And Harry let him get an up-close and very personal look, leaning into Draco and trying very hard—but probably failing—not to be too eager about it. He felt like he’d been wandering lost in a desert for twenty years and Draco was the first sign of water he’d yet seen. Harry drank him down greedily, bracing his leg so he could ease Draco up and onto the writing desk, and Draco graciously allowed himself to be manoeuvred as Harry pleased, with only a soft grunt of protest when Harry bumped his behind against the cold drawer knob—

“Ooh, Penifors!” came Blaise’s delighted announcement as he strode in, tossing his bag onto his bed and tugging at his tie. “Useful little Charm in a pinch! Try it on a sausage zapped with a Warming Charm—a savoury treat in every sense of the word!” He then sent his robes flying into his wardrobe with a flick of his wand and turned on his heel, heading right back out the door and offering them a backwards wave. “Don’t spoil your appetites, boys! It’s roast beef and garlic mash with tarty apple crumble for dessert tonight!”

The door slammed shut behind him, leaving a particularly loud silence in his wake. And then Draco swallowed, leaned into Harry’s shoulders, and started laughing—which made Harry laugh too, and they were still laughing and still hadn’t un-Peniforsed Harry’s wand yet by the time Vince, Greg, and Theo returned to ready themselves for dinner as well.

“Try that sausage trick Blaise suggested and let me know how it goes,” Draco muttered under his breath, breaking away from Harry and the rest of the group as they headed into the Great Hall. Off to work on his project, Harry supposed with a dejected sigh—but hopefully not foregoing dinner entirely on account of it. “And try not to have too much fun with the Gryffindors. You wouldn’t like me when I’m jealous.”

Draco’s thinly veiled threat became less thinly veiled shortly after Gryffindor’s game versus Hufflepuff (ending in a close but decisive capture by Demelza, who was born away on the shoulders of her teammates for what was surely to be much carousing), when Harry found himself waylaid on the way back from lunch by Pansy on one side and Blaise on the other, ostensibly accompanying him back to the dormitory but feeling very much like they were about to spirit him away for one of those dark and dastardly Slytherin rituals Ron had warned him about.

“Er, hullo.”

“Evening, Potter,” Pansy said smartly, looping an arm through Harry’s as Blaise did the same from the other side. “Let’s have a chat, shall we? We never chat.”

“Well, we don’t have any classes together.” He turned to Blaise. “And we chat all the time.”

“Yes, but we never chat,” Blaise said in a thick drawl. “And we’ve been rooming together for over six months now! That’s just not right.”

Harry didn’t know what that meant, but before he could protest any further, he’d been hauled up to one of the reading nooks on the third floor overlooking the courtyard. With a wave of Blaise’s wand, the single chair expanded itself into a sizeable couch, and down they plopped.

“So it’s come to our attention,” Pansy began, “that you’ve been cavorting with Gryffindors.”

Blaise nodded grimly, “Yes—and not even in mixed company!”

“A tragedy,” Pansy said. “It’s become clear you’re in desperate need of a good, strong Slytherin presence in your life and, well, since it seems Draco’s busy these days, we’re here to do his dirty work for him.”

And ah, now Harry saw this for what it was—an intervention true, but less so for Harry’s own good and more to soothe Draco’s bruised pride at having the position of ‘flying with Harry’ usurped by those he deemed unworthy. Well too f*cking bad for him. “I really think I’m all right, honest. I’ve just been having fun with some friends. There’s nothing saying we can’t be friends with students from other Houses, right? I mean, Theo’s dating a Ravenclaw.”

“Yes, but Theo’s dating a Ravenclaw.” Pansy sniffed, admiring her cherry-red nails filed into the shape of talons. At least Harry hoped they’d been purposefully filed that way and it wasn’t how they naturally grew. Draco called her a ‘harpy’ sometimes, and he was beginning to wonder if it was less rude commentary and more genuine statement of fact. “There’s a hierarchy to these things.”

“Yeah, I don’t really care about that sort of thing—”

“And that’s precisely why we’re here! To fix that.” She patted him smartly on the chest. “There’s no need to go slumming it with the riff-raff just because your—well, whatever you two have going on—is presently unavailable.”

“Precisely,” Blaise agreed. “So we’re here to keep your spirits bright and your thoughts occupied until Draco’s finished with—” He leaned around Harry, asking Pansy, “Er, what’s he doing again?”

“…Well don’t ask me. You sleep in the same room as him.” She turned to Harry, one brow raised. “…Do you know?”

“No,” Harry said flatly. “He won’t tell me. Only says it’s an important project for Potions.” He narrowed his eyes at Pansy, a niggling voice in the back of his mind that sounded a lot like his father reminding him that Slytherins never did things for others out of the goodness of their hearts. “…Did he send you here? To keep me from hanging out with Ron and the others? I swear to god, that jealous little—”

“Stand down, old boy,” Blaise chided gently with a hand on Harry’s arm. “I’m sure he’s every foul thing you were about to accuse him of being, but rest assured he really only asked us to chaperone you—”

Blaise!” Pansy gasped, slapping him sharply on the shoulder, but Blaise trundled on.

“—apologies, to accompany you to be sure you didn’t feel, well, neglected, I suppose.” He co*cked his head a tic. “He’s very fond of you, you know. Though—” He wrinkled his nose and tugged at one of Harry’s wild curls. “I’m afraid I honestly can’t see why—what is this rat’s nest you insist on styling your hair into each morning, dear man? Do we need to stage an intervention?”

Harry batted his hand away. “It’s—genetic. There’s no getting around it.” He sighed. “And, while I appreciate the concern—I think—really, I’m perfectly capable of entertaining myself.”

“Oh I’m sure you think you are,” Blaise said mildly, a bland smile on his lips. “But seeing as you’re resorting to Penifors, I think rather more drastic measures are in order.”

Pansy nodded solemnly. “You’re coming to Hogsmeade with us—” She raised a finger when Harry opened his mouth to protest. “No objections. We’re burning daylight. Now—” She hauled Harry back to his feet, sidling in close and dropping her voice to a loud whisper. “A little snidget told me that James Potter bankrolls Playwizard—does he really? And how might a well-connected someone go about getting an internship?”

And so, Harry was made to play third wheel to what he initially took to be Pansy and Blaise’s weekend date—but shortly came to suspect was something more along the lines of an excuse to practise their devious games on each other before going after bigger fish. He couldn’t tell if they were just flirting for the fun of it—or if they even really liked each other at all, as their interactions vacillated between teasing idle comments and calculatingly targeted sniping. Being a Slytherin was utterly exhausting, and Harry really, really hoped it was just for the one year.

But when they tired of taking potshots at each other, they turned their sights not on Harry as he’d initially feared but Draco, as they both had evidently known him rather a long time—Blaise since First Year and Pansy since age three—and so had many interesting (and oftentimes mortifying) stories of his youthful follies. Draco would probably not be pleased to learn that Harry now knew about the time he’d spent the night in a tree after getting chased up it by one of the Manor’s peaco*cks, or the fact that he’d accidentally Vanished his swimming trunks in a fit of wild magic on a family vacation to the Amalfi Coast and had to run naked through the streets back to their villa. But if he hadn’t wanted such stories getting repeated, then he should’ve been here to stop the conversation from happening to begin with, so it was his own damn fault Harry was now privy to several dark tidbits from Draco’s past he’d rather be forgotten.

“So—you’re really from America, then?” Pansy asked over tea at Madam Puddifoot’s as they waited for her latest order from Gladrags—a new set of robes for her family’s midsummer ball—to be packaged. “Your accent’s all funny, I can’t place it.”

Harry ducked his head in a nod. “Er, yeah—my mom’s American, and I grew up there, but dad came around fairly often, so I guess I picked up on his speech.” He made a concerted effort to direct the conversation away from himself, always wary of slipping up. Chatting with Slytherins was dangerous for a number of reasons these days. “Have you ever been, then?” he asked the both of them.

Pansy made a face. “No. Though I’ve always wanted to—I love to travel, really. It gets so boring around here sometimes, seeing the same old faces at the same old functions. America’s always sounded so…” She gave a delighted little shiver. “Primitive.”

Harry fought not to roll his eyes. “You sound like Draco—it’s not primitive. You’ve seen my grades. I’m just as properly educated as the rest of you.”

“His grades,” Blaise snickered. “Yes, we’ve seen your marks—and you’ve told us you were educated by your mother, no? So your proficiency reflects little on the quality of the American educational system. I mean—” He directed his words to Pansy now. “I did hear that Ilvermorny was founded by a Hogwarts graduate, but imagine they were a Hufflepuff!” He shuddered in disgust, and Harry didn’t bother fighting the eye roll this time. These people could be truly ridiculous sometimes. He’d thought it a less-than-charming quirk of Draco’s initially, but now he was seeing it was just how all Slytherins were—or at least all Slytherins occupying a certain financial niche.

He decided to make at least a modicum of effort to dispel these backwards notions. “You know, you could always come and visit,” he said, before he actually realised what he was inviting them to do: stay with him in his and his father’s very small apartment while they were very much in hiding from precisely the sorts of people Pansy and Blaise (or at least their parents probably) consorted with. It was too late to take it back now, though, and he could only hope they’d never take him up on the offer.

“Visit?” Blaise said, blinking. “You mean to say you’re going back, once term ends?”

“Oh,” Harry said, also blinking. “I mean—I assumed I was? I haven’t really…discussed it with my father, but this was only meant to be a temporary thing. It’s only the one year that’s compulsory, after all.”

Privately, he still wasn’t sure what was going to happen with this Quidditch Training Camp business—if Draco actually meant to attend, if he genuinely expected Harry to come along, if Harry genuinely expected to go along. Doubtless Severus would never sanction it—he was paranoid enough about this year at Hogwarts, another three months out of his sight would be out of the question—but if he could tell Draco to stuff his parents and live his life for himself, then he really ought to take his own advice. After all, he couldn’t live under a rock forever, could he?

But these decisions would require talking to Draco, which had become all but impossible these days.

“Well, yes, but why would you go back?” Blaise pressed. “What are you even planning on doing there? Have you any prospects at all? Perhaps if you were attending Ilvermorny—I’m sure there are connections to be made, professors to impress and favours to call in, but you’re homeschooled, you said, and no offence meant to your lovely mother, but matriculating from Hogwarts will look much more impressive to would-be employers than, ‘Mummy told me I’m a very smart young man.’”

Harry decided to let the slight against his nonexistent mother slide and gave a shrug. “I dunno. I mean, I guess I assumed I’d help my dad run his Potions shop?” he said, unthinkingly, and then wished to bite off his own tongue for the second time in as many minutes when Blaise boggled and Pansy nearly spat out her tea.

“James Potter owns a Potions shop?” Blaise whispered, scandalised, and Harry despaired he’d ruined James’s carefully cultivated image of a debonair wizard-about-town. The only potions he seemed to traffic in were hair products that didn’t even do much good for his wild, untamed locks.

“It’s, er, a side business,” Harry said quickly, hoping to save James’s good (or bad) name. “He outsources, mostly. It’s just something he’s been dabbling in.”

“I see…” Blaise said, not looking like he bought the story at all—but he quickly moved past it, shaking his head. “Well, then all the more reason for you not to go back. You’re going to tell me working your father’s side business, something he’s just ‘dabbling’ in as you say, is your dream?”

“Well, it’s not my dream, no, but I’m not opposed to it.”

Blaise threw up his hands and slumped back in his chair. “He’s not opposed to it!” he huffed in disbelief.

“Potter, you can’t be serious,” Pansy said, her tone gentle as if speaking to a child. “You don’t have anything you actually want to do? What about Quidditch? Draco says you’re very good.”

“I really doubt he says that.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine, you’re right, he’d never say anything like that—not out loud. But he does intimate it, in his own way. Have you ever seen him flying with anyone solo, even training our team’s own second- and third-string Seekers?” Harry opened his mouth to respond, but she barrelled on. “No, you haven’t—and neither have we. So?” She leaned forward, elbows on the table and chin in her hands, waiting expectantly.

“So—what? I mean, I don’t want to play professionally, if that’s what you’re asking?” She wilted with a defeated groan. “Listen, I appreciate your—interest, I suppose this is? But I haven’t really decided what I want to do with my life. I’m only sixteen.”

“No, you’re already sixteen, my good man,” Blaise said, draping an arm over his shoulder. “And fine, you don’t want to be saddled with anything as serious as a dream? You don’t need one, really—just a job you don’t hate and money enough to do what you really want to on the side.”

Pansy snorted, brows waggling. “Oh but he won’t have to pay for it with Draco.”

Blaise lifted a shoulder in an elegant shrug. “He won’t have to—but it is nice to tip someone for outstanding service in America, as I hear it.”

Pansy tittered at this but then sobered, taking a measured sip of her tea. “…So, I don’t mean to pry—”

Blaise snorted. “That’s rich. Pull the other one.”

She whapped him lightly with her napkin, then turned her attentions back to Harry. “…But what is going on with you and Draco?” Harry coughed around his own sip, glancing about to be sure no one was eavesdropping. It was one thing to casually tease—quite another to probe so genuinely as it seemed Pansy was. “He hasn’t shown an ounce of interest in anything that wasn’t a top-of-the-line broom or the latest issue of Potioneering Today, not in all the years I’ve known him—and then you swoop in, and it’s like you’re a virgin Snitch he’s just dying to make a flesh memory with.” Her lips twisted into a thin grin. “In more ways than one.”

Blaise nodded along with her, tapping the teapot until his cup refilled itself, tendrils of steam curling around him. “I confess, I thought him above this sort of thing—I’ve never been able to peg him, in any sense of the word. Yet—” He waved a hand in Harry’s direction. “Here you are, and that’s put to bed quite any doubts as to what stiffens his bristles.” He snorted softly, raking Harry with a warm gaze. “Perpetual bedhead and gods-awful eyesight, evidently.”

Harry couldn’t take him seriously when he was dumping nearly as much sugar as there was tea into his cup. He settled back into his chair, rubbing at his arms, and shrugged, hoping it was all right to be candid with them about this. Slytherins were, by definition, generally out for themselves, but they were also fiercely loyal, he’d learned, and when they closed ranks, you weren’t getting anything out of them they didn’t want you to have.

“…I mean, I do like him. Not that I’ve had all that much experience with liking people, so I’m not sure if I’m going about it properly. But I’m trying to just…go with what feels right. Follow my instincts. And I’m pretty sure they’re saying I really, really do like him. I can’t speak for him, but…I think he likes me back?” For certain definitions of ‘like’, at least. He had to enjoy being around Harry to some extent, given—well, everything. But it was difficult to tell how deep those feelings ran. It was difficult for Harry to tell how deep his own ran, even.

“He does,” Pansy said, smile gone more than a little fond. “It’s embarrassing really—for everyone involved.”

“Then—” He leaned forward. “Why does it feel like—like I still can’t get to him? It’s like there’s this wall separating us, like he’s holding something back. And I dunno if it’s because of his family or because he doesn’t trust me, or—” Or a dozen other much darker reasons Harry really didn’t want to consider, because he didn’t think he’d be able to handle it if it turned out his father had been right. “Or what, but I can’t seem to find—him. Not outside of very rare instances at least.”

And now Pansy’s smile waxed wistful, and she gave an elegant little one-shouldered shrug that he was sure he’d seen on Draco before. “It’s a Pureblood thing.”

“I’m a Pureblood,” Harry said, because wasn’t he? Sure, Lily had been No-Maj-born, but she was every bit a witch herself, just like Hermione was.

“Being a Pureblood’s less a matter of your provenance and more…well.” She made a face. “A state of mind. It’s difficult to explain.”

Harry felt his frustration peaking. “Well try.”

She rolled her eyes. “Right, well the Malfoys are part of the Sacred 28—I don’t suppose you’ve heard of them?” He did, actually, but she didn’t wait for Harry to respond, perhaps—like Draco—enjoying the sound of her own voice and the superior feeling of telling someone something they didn’t know. “They’re a very old and very strict directory of families that can still claim to be 100% wizard as far back as records exist—centuries, in most cases. Most members are very proud of their lineage—and Draco is no exception. But…it necessarily comes with a lot of baggage and a lot of expectation.”

“As well as a lot of money,” Blaise cut in, “which only compounds the baggage and expectations.”

Pansy nodded. “Draco’s parents are very well-regarded in the circles in which they travel—I mean, I don’t think even I would’ve been allowed to consort with him as a child had my family not also been part of the Sacred 28. It’s about…” She wrinkled her nose. “A carefully cultivated distance. You don’t approach them—they approach you. You only matter once they show an interest in you—or when you serve a purpose. They’re about as close to aristocracy as you’re liable to find in the British wizarding community—or at least they like to think they are.”

“But,” Harry protested, waving a hand in Pansy’s direction, “you’re nowhere near as difficult to pin down as he can be.”

“Well not everyone likes being pinned down,” Blaise said around a careful sip of his tea, lips curling. “Perhaps that’s not his thing.” Harry rolled his eyes—Slytherins.

“He outright avoids me,” Harry continued. “Or, I mean, maybe ‘avoiding’ isn’t the right word—but ever since Christmas, he’s been…distant. He says he’s working on a Potions project, and I do want to believe him but…” But he didn’t. And Draco knew he didn’t. And still he asked for Harry’s trust—yet here he was, complaining about it. Showing that he had no trust to give. He rubbed at his face, suddenly miserable. “...How is it you can just wrestle me out of the castle and drag me down here for tea when he won’t touch me with a bargepole these days?”

Pansy laughed, a cruel tinkling thing that fell harsh on the ears. “Oh Potter, you see the reason we can have our way with you and Draco can’t is because my parents have all but disowned me, largely on account of the fact I’m going into Magicosmetology instead of the family business.”

“What’s your family’s business, then?”

“Marrying richer.”

Harry supposed that made sense, and he cut a look at Blaise. “So what’s your excuse?”

Blaise took a timely sip of his tea. “To my knowledge, the Zabinis are not and have never been part of the Sacred 28. It’s served us to align with their interests, but I can’t honestly say most of them would associate with me or my mother if we weren’t ridiculously wealthy. There’s a not insignificant chance my father’s a weekend ski instructor in wizarding Davos. Mum used to go on and on exhaustively about his ‘exquisite bone structure’ and well, I think my face speaks for itself.”

“The point is,” Pansy said, drawing his attention back her way while Blaise admired himself in the mirror he’d Transfigured his wand into, “it can be a difficult thing, standing up to one’s parents and societal expectations. Slytherins aren’t known for our stiff spines, after all.” She gave his hand a squeeze. “But we’re very much worth the investment, I say. And I think Draco’s a fantastic investment. I know he may seem—well, like a grade-A arsehole, stuck up, full of himself, and with a dozen different neuroses, half of which they probably haven’t got names for. And you’d be right.” She smiled. “But he’s also trying very hard to be himself, in the face of generations of tradition and demands that he be a Malfoy first and Draco last. And whether you believe it or not, you are helping.”

And Harry did want to believe it, but with just a handful of months as reference, it was difficult to tell. “...Then why does it feel like he’s getting further and further away from me?”

“Because that’s how it has to be, old boy.” Blaise’s expression went a bit wistful. “It’s a luxury even he can’t afford—to be himself, just now. Whether it’s burying himself in schoolwork or driving himself to the brink of exhaustion with extracurriculars, he needs all the armour he can get to survive the next couple of years untangling himself from this wicked web. But he’s a very resourceful sort. If you can give him the space he needs to work himself out, then I expect you’ll be greatly rewarded when he finally manages it.”

Harry honestly didn’t know if that was really in the cards. Years? Years staying here? He didn’t know if he’d be here the next couple of months let alone the next couple of years.

But that did nothing to quell the growing ache in his chest to be around Draco more—and if that meant having to pull back more himself, to let Draco learn to be Draco without the pressure of having to be Draco-and-Harry at the same time…well, he could try. For as long as it lasted.

Dumbledore’s words that sometimes people were Sorted the way they were for others’ good rang in his ears. He was here because he could help Draco become whatever it was he was actually meant to be, tempt him out of the dull orbit into which he’d been born and send him careening off into space on a path of his choosing.

Harry didn’t have a dream, but he thought maybe he did have a purpose, and he could definitely see the allure in being something to someone. Helping others blossom into their best selves. It was thrilling, when you thought about it that way—being not just wanted but needed.

And maybe he was meant to be a Slytherin after all.

As March waxed into April, Harry tried—really he did—to take Pansy and Blaise’s less than gentle suggestions to heart and practised giving Draco space, allowing him to learn to be himself by himself.

But perhaps Pansy and Blaise had put in a good word for him, for while Draco consorted with him no more in public now than he had the past few months, he did begin dropping by the Room again, if only once a week or so, and even snuck down to Hogsmeade with Harry through one of the passages Harry had found in his idle moments spent studying the Marauders’ Map. They didn’t discuss the Potions project or how hard Draco was working himself—Draco never brought it up, and Harry shied away from it too, Pansy and Blaise’s warnings that Draco needed his space or else he might go hedgehog on him again ringing on his ears—but he was still at least Draco.

They talked strategy for the Slytherin match against Hufflepuff coming in the next month (“Well, it’s less strategy and more, ‘What’s a fair point margin to beat them by such that we don’t seem any more arseholish than the rest of the school already thinks we are?’”), and Harry told him that he had it on very good authority they’d be brewing Amortentia in the next week and wondered what Draco thought his was going to smell like (“Precisely what it’s meant to smell like. Stop fishing for information—or at least do it less obviously. It’s very unbecoming for a Slytherin.” This, said with a poorly bitten-back smile.).

Their little getaways, though, were shortly put to a stop when the end of the month saw the Hogsmeade passageway closed off, completely filled in and impassible. Harry had a very strong suspicion that his father was behind the swift end to his and Draco’s otherwise enjoyable outings, overprotective nut that he was, but when Harry pressed him about the matter, he was only told Severus had no idea what he was talking about, which Harry intimated to mean he should focus more on preparing for his end-of-term exams than gallivanting around Hogsmeade on the arm of a Death Eater’s son.

And then, something truly bizarre happened.

It was in Divination, because of course it was in Divination. All of the weird stuff in Harry’s life of late happened there. Granted, generally it was the fact Trelawney offered him wan, sad smiles once a week on account of the fact he’d be dead before the weekend was over, or told him that she had enjoyed their brief time together when the strap of his school satchel broke after their lesson on death knells.

Today, though, it felt different.

No, rather—it felt disturbingly familiar.

Harry generally partnered with Luna in Divination, because she was loopy in a fun way and not in a disturbing way (most of the time at least), and she always seemed excited to learn about the magical fauna of the Americas, convinced that a massive colony of Sasquatch had migrated from Asia over the Bering Strait land bridge thousands of years ago and continued to live undetected in cave systems underground in the Rockies. Today, though, she had an urgent meetup with a Ravenclaw study group immediately after class and had left Harry to clean up their tea leaves himself.

He’d just finished whisking away the evidence of his latest tale of doom and gloom, noticing he was the last to leave the classroom and hurrying to gather his things before Professor Trelawney noticed he was still about. Often she took this to mean a student was hoping for a private reading and would pull out her collection of crystal balls to see which best suited the unfortunate victim’s aura. Just last week it had happened to Michael Corner, and he’d nearly missed lunch altogether; Harry did not want to risk the same.

“G’bye, Professor! Have a good weekend,” he rushed out, shuffling past her for the door as he adjusted the strap of his bag. He’d double-checked to make sure it was securely fastened, just in case. The last thing he needed was—

Trelawney’s hand snapped out, grabbing him by the shoulder, and he nearly took a tumble as she leaned the full weight of her body into his. She was thin as a rake, the bulk of her mass being derived from the many baubles she wore as jewellery and her long, flowing robes, but it was still a weight Harry had not been prepared to bear, and he drew up short. “Er—you all right there, Professor?” he asked, forced levity in his voice, because it was chicken tikka for lunch today, and while Harry had never had any particular feelings one way or the other toward Indian food before, now he was a decided fan of the cuisine. “Shall I call Madame Pomfrey?”

Her head lolled on her neck, like it’d become detached, and she stumbled forward, shoving Harry into the wall. This close, Harry could hear her mumbling something under her breath and prepared himself for another Trelawney classic: You will fall deathly ill should you consume anything spherical for the next twenty-four hours! Or The new quill your mother sent you is Cursed! Throw it away, or the next love-letter you write with it will spell the end of your relationship!

But a cold chill began to creep up his spine, snaking its way up to his throat and wrapping tightly so he could barely manage a whisper: “P-Professor…I really…need to get on to lunch…”

Her head whipped up, eyes wild and shaking and magnified three times their actual size behind her oversized glasses. She fixed him with a look of horror and babbled, almost incoherently, “Rats… Rats in the castle…!”

And oh. Well, of course there were rats in the castle. Kreacher had been getting fat off of them for months now, and Noodle’s diet had always included a fair helping of rodents to supplement the treats Harry and Draco snuck her from the Great Hall.

“I’m sure it’s being handled,” Harry reassured, patting her gamely on the shoulders and trying to gently ease her off of him. “I’ll let Mr Filch know, though, if it would make you feel better?”

“Rats…” she continued distantly, paying no heed to Harry. “Oh, dear me, his father’s bones…he’s got them now. He’s got them. He’s got them. And servant’s flesh, ready at the gates… Blood of his enemy…soon…so very, very soon…”

“Er, yeah, I’ll let Mr Filch know about that too, then.” Why oh why had he offered to clean up his and Luna’s station today? He never learned.

“Rats in the castle…” she repeated, allowing Harry to lead her back over to her desk and settle her into her chair. “Rats in the castle…must tell Dumbledore… Rats…”

And Harry, bereft of any idea as to what he could possibly do about the situation beyond let his father know of Trelawney’s odd state, mutely took his leave, making for the Potions classroom and deciding that the chicken tikka, sadly, would have to be written off.

But to his dismay, his father only took his statement with a studious frown and dismissed Harry to his luncheon, reassuring him that this was something Trelawney did all the time and likely no cause for concern. Harry’s protests that it really didn’t feel like one of her usual fits fell on deaf ears, and with frustration curdling in his stomach, he dragged his feet toward the Great Hall. The chicken tikka somehow didn’t taste nearly as good as it usually did.

Curiously, at their next Divination class, a substitute professor led the lesson, and it was nothing but dull reading work for the rest of the month, until May opened with a centaur named Firenze stepping in to fill what they were told would be a lengthy vacancy while Professor Trelawney addressed some personal matters.

Something smelled decidedly rotten, and it wasn’t the tea leaf stores gone bad. Harry made his way to his father’s office straight away after the lesson, demanding to know what had really become of Trelawney.

But Severus, more evasive than ever of late, only told him that Trelawney had been under considerable stress recently and was taking some well-deserved time to recuperate, as Divination could be a taxing study for the particularly gifted.

Harry stood outside the door to his father’s office, the sound of Severus double-bolting it from the inside ringing in his ears, and felt a rising tide of bile burn his throat.

He was getting really, really tired of everyone lying to him.

Chapter 11

Chapter Text

In a rare bit of good news, something Harry was feeling in exceedingly short supply of these days, Slytherin beat the pants off of Hufflepuff in their final match of the season. Gryffindor still had their Ravenclaw match to round out the year, but there was very little chance of the points results interrupting Slytherin’s march toward another Inter-House Quidditch Cup, and celebrations were decidedly in order.

The whole of the Three Broomsticks was commandeered by Slytherin House, the Wireless was hit with a Sonorus, and most of the tables and chairs were Banished to make room for lots and lots of raucous, rowdy dancing. Madam Rosmerta, the owner of the establishment, seemed to have been given the night off, replaced with a dark-haired woman someone suggested was a relative of Nott’s and who seemed to have no qualms about serving underage witches and wizards anything they pleased from the tap.

As the evening waxed on and the drink flowed, inhibitions decreased or else disappeared entirely, such that Harry—who was abstaining from anything stronger than Butterbeer, certain that even if he didn’t get so tipsy he said something he shouldn’t, he’d still wind up getting an earful from his father about the entire escapade—found himself Accio’d by his tie onto the dance floor by an apple-cheeked and high-spirited Draco Malfoy.

“What happened to discretion?” Harry laughed as he stumbled into a dance position that felt like a ballroom waltz forced to the beat of a contemporary tune.

“Discretion can get f*cked,” Draco laughed, a bright-white toothy thing, and then leaned forward, far into Harry’s space, and dropped his voice to a husky whisper. “And I’d like to, too.” He pulled back, a brow quirked in challenge. “If you’re feeling up to it, of course. I can understand if you’re exhausted from watching me absolutely sweep arse—”

“Yeah,” Harry said breathily, smiling stupidly even though he didn’t entirely know what he was agreeing to. It sounded like Draco was in a really good mood, though, and he absolutely wanted to be a part of that. “I reckon I could manage.”

Draco patted his cheek, with a bit more force than Harry was expecting. “That was the right answer.” He then shoved Harry away and raised a finger. “I am going…to take a piss. And then you’re going to get me back to the castle even if you have to Levitate me there, are we understood?”

“Er, sure?” Harry chuckled, watching Draco stumble off the dance floor toward the toilets. “Do you need any help?” he called, and Draco made a rude gesture, then disappeared.

With his dance partner momentarily absent, Harry let himself drift off the dance floor, his vacancy quickly filled with other warm bodies gyrating in drunken glee.

They ought to go to the Room of Stuff You Want, right? On top of lacking anywhere near the privacy one might wish for when…doing things…it just didn’t seem polite to do that sort of thing in the same room as your friends slept in. Though this made him wonder if any of the others had similar compunctions. Theo might (if only because it wasn’t generally encouraged to bring students from other Houses into the dormitory), and Vince and Greg didn’t have significant others to Harry’s knowledge, but Blaise looked like he didn’t give a f*ck and might even charge if others were around while he had his fun, as if it were a privilege to behold.

No, that wasn’t something Harry thought he could comfortably do, so the Room of Stuff You Want it would have to be, unless Draco had other plans. And speaking of stuff they wanted, or rather needed—what would they need, exactly? Harry thought back to their liaison in the Quidditch locker room showers, but he was pretty sure the real thing would require more preparation. Did Draco know what they’d need? Had he done this sort of thing before? Now there was a path down which Harry really didn’t want to let his mind wander, because he was already feeling the beginnings of jealousy curl in his stomach, and he didn’t want to be that sort of person.

Distantly, though, he became aware that time was passing—and that it had been nearly fifteen minutes now since Draco had practically pirouetted off to take his piss. He cast about the room, wondering if Draco had perhaps been waylaid on his way back to Harry, but saw no sign of his striking white shock of hair. He wasn’t at the bar either, and when Harry checked the toilets—both the men’s and the women’s, in case Draco had taken a wrong turn and passed out—he was still unaccounted for.

Asking around, he was met with confused shrugs, until he chanced upon Theo while he was fetching drinks for himself and his girlfriend: “Saw him slip out the back, not sure where.” He arched a brow, raking Harry with a judging glance. “Thought he’d be with you.” And then he’d swanned off into the crowd, leaving Harry very confused.

Draco had slipped out? Without telling Harry? Or—maybe he’d been so drunk, he’d bypassed the toilets entirely and gone to take a leak out behind the bar. In which case, they really shouldn’t be doing anything too drastic tonight. That he hadn’t come back suggested he couldn’t come back, and Harry felt responsible for not at least following him to the toilets and waiting outside, if only to be sure he didn’t slip and conk his head on one of the bowls.

f*ck, he could have wandered into a ditch by now in a drunken stupor with no one even thinking to look for him. That was Harry’s cue to leave, he figured, and after ensuring his presence wouldn’t be missed, he ducked down the hallway past the toilets and out the back entrance, already on the hunt for wayward prissy assholes who didn’t know how to pace themselves.

But Draco had not wandered into any ditches that Harry could see. Nor was he in Spintwitches, nor Gladrags, nor Puddifoot’s, all of which had shuttered their windows for the evening. None of the Hogsmeade residents had seen him, and it was only after nearly a full half hour searching every inch of High Street that Harry thought to check the Marauders’ Map, as maybe Draco had gone ahead back to the Room of Stuff You Want and was waiting impatiently for Harry to join him, having forgotten through his drunken haze that they’d never actually discussed where to meet.

The Map was back in their dormitory, though, so he double-timed it up the long path back to the school. It was getting late, and if Draco was so out of it he’d wandered back to the castle by himself under the assumption Harry would meet him there, then that sealed it: tonight definitely wasn’t the night to be taking any new steps in their already very strange relationship. They could dote on Noodle and play Exploding Snap until Filch started making his rounds. There would always be a next time.

But when he made his way down to the Dungeons, he found Draco was not in the Room of Stuff You Want but sitting on his bed—his bed, notably, and not Harry’s—long legs folded beneath him and head in his hands.

He snapped to attention when Harry entered, and Harry gave a start himself. “Wh—Potter?” He frowned at Harry, blinking in confusion. “What on earth are you doing here?” It was almost accusatory, as if this weren’t Harry’s room too.

Harry hung in the doorway, one hand on the frame and blinking in equal confusion at Draco. “...I could ask you the same thing. I’ve been looking all over for you. You just left the Three Broomsticks without saying a word. I was waiting for you.”

“Oh—f*ck. f*ck, you were.” Draco wiped a hand over his face and swung his legs around to the side of the bed, hopping off. He moved over to his writing desk and began to organise the papers scattered upon it. Harry caught sight, before Draco quickly shoved it into a drawer, of an opened letter, the cracked seal bearing the symbol of a peaco*ck: the Malfoy family seal. “I’m sorry,” he apologised, though he didn’t sound very sorry just now. “I think I came off the adrenaline a bit too quickly and felt rather ill between that and the drink. Father’s always warned me to pace myself, that it’s unseemly to let yourself become too uninhibited in public—maybe that’s one thing my parents taught me that I ought to have heeded even in the midst of my spot of teenage rebellion, hm?” He seemed to recognise that he wasn’t actually responding to anything Harry had said and softly cleared his throat. “It’s not the exhaustion again or anything—I really do think I just had a bit too much, between the game and the excitement and the liquor. I asked Pomfrey for a nip of Pepper-up, and she suggested I lie down until the feeling passed. I think she was on to me. I must have drifted off—I’m sorry. Truly I am.”

He crossed over to Harry, genuine contrition on his features—and Harry believed him. He really was sorry, this Harry knew.

But he was apologising for yet another lie, which it made it very difficult to forgive him.

Harry was too tired to care just now, though. The stress and worry had taxed his reserves, and all he wanted to do was crawl into bed and fall asleep. To just not have to think about Quidditch or missed chances or Death Eaters or Draco Malfoy for a good eight hours.

Harry nodded, and clapped him on the shoulder, giving a gentle squeeze but nothing more as he shifted past Draco toward his wardrobe. He began tugging off his tie and shrugging out of his robes. “It was a good game. You deserved the celebration.”

Draco snorted softly and turned to lean back against the doorjamb. “It’s always a good game when I’m there.”

“So gracious in victory,” Harry returned, tossing his tie in Draco’s face. “And you wonder why all the other Houses hate us.”

“Jealousy only.” He carefully folded up Harry’s tie for him, setting it on his bed, and began wringing his hands in nervous habit. He licked his lips. “…I really am sorry it didn’t work out this evening. I…I wanted to. It felt like—it was supposed to be tonight. And then—” He scrubbed at his hair, ruffling it elegantly. “And then I ruined it.”

“You didn’t ruin anything,” Harry said, irritation waning, and he shuffled over to Draco, shirt open and belt hanging loose. “It was just—too much drink, like you said. I’ll have to learn to watch how much you’re served next time, I guess.” He shrugged. “It’ll happen. If we want it to.”

Draco studied him carefully. “And…you do? Want it to?”

Harry gave a nervous little snicker. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“No,” Draco said. “They don’t.”

And Harry supposed he had a point. “…I won’t say I’m not nervous. That it feels—big. Bigger than a couple of teenagers. Consequential, I guess. But don’t mistake that for not wanting to.” He bobbed his head. “I…think it’d be fun.”

A soft smile ghosted over Draco’s lips, curling at the edges. “That it would definitely be.” He took a step closer, head dropping forward to rest on Harry’s shoulder. “…Somehow everything is, with you.”

Harry didn’t really know what that meant, but it made him feel warm and happy all the same.

There it was again: that feeling of accomplishment at being able to be just the sort of person Draco both wanted and needed. He would have to examine that in greater detail at some point, certain it said something important about himself, but the time for self-reflection could come later.

“Thank you for coming to look for me,” Draco said, half-muffled against Harry’s shoulder.

“Who says I was looking for you?”

“Mm, wishful thinking then, I suppose.”

Harry rested his head against Draco’s, inhaling his scent—still a hint of sweat from the game mingled with the bite of the late spring night air and the lingering aroma of ill-gotten booze and bodies huddled on the dance floor.

“I was looking for you,” Harry finally admitted. “But mostly because I thought you might be lying passed out in a ditch. Better I find you than Hagrid out to take that massive dog of his for an evening dump, I figured.”

Draco’s shoulders and back shook with repressed laughter. “My hero, the great saviour Harry Potter. Where would I be without you?”

“Well, in my mind: still stuck in that ditch about to get shat on by a mastiff three times your size.”

And now Draco released a sharp bark of laughter, drawing back and pressing a deep, delighted kiss to Harry’s lips. “I can only hope the day will come when I can return the favour.”

“...I can’t say I’m looking forward to lying facedown in a ditch under threat of faecal fire, but all the same, I’ll hold you to it.” He nuzzled Draco’s cheek, soft with baby-fine hairs that would never grow into a beard, no matter how many potions he guzzled. “My dad said I’d need all the friends I could get in the ‘snake pit’.”

He could feel Draco tense in his arms, just a bit. “…And we’re friends?”

Now there was a trap if Harry had ever seen one. He tried for levity: “What else, if not friends?” They still hadn’t defined whatever this was, but he was pretty sure they’d leapt clear over ‘friends’ and into what felt like unfamiliar territory for the both of them.

And Draco melted again, leaning into Harry and co*cking his head just far enough to the side he could nuzzle the crook of Harry’s neck, inhaling deeply. Harry wondered what he smelled like—Draco didn’t seem like the type of person who’d do something like that if Harry stank, at least. “…I’m still working it out.”

It was probably the most honest thing Harry had heard from him in months, and he brought his arms up around Draco, squeezing the life out of him. “…Let me know when you figure it out?”

Draco mutely nodded, and they stood there, unmoving in their embrace, until the muffled sounds of the rest of the House returning from their drunken night out began to filter in.

When Harry closed his eyes that night, his final fading thoughts were that the great saviour Harry Potter had something of a ring to it that he didn’t hate, and maybe he’d been properly Sorted after all.

He woke in the middle of the night to someone calling for him, softly and with a sibilance he’d rarely heard from human lips.

Rarely, because generally only snakes conversed in Parseltongue.

Harry bolted upright, rubbing at his eyes and blinking in the pitch black. “Lumos Minima,” he whispered after groping for his wand, and a wan glow began emanating from the tip. The room was quiet and still save for the soft wheezing from Greg and Vince’s corner, and as far as he could tell, Harry was the only one awake.

Hhhhhhharry…” the voice came again, more distant now, like it was drifting further away with each passing heartbeat.

Harry threw aside his covers and stepped into his slippers, straining his ears. It didn’t sound like Noodle—for one, she never used names; he was ‘dark one’, and Draco was ‘light one’, and that was the extent of any proper nouns exchanged. And for another, this voice sounded more masculine—with an odd accent that Harry couldn’t place. Was there another Basilisk lurking in the castle? Surely Noodle would have noticed—and the rat population couldn’t possibly support another quintuple-X dangerous beast lurking in its walls.

He glanced around quickly to be sure none of his roommates were awake, and satisfied that they were all sleeping off the evening’s festivities, he grabbed his Invisibility Cloak and carefully crept out into the Common Room. The moonlight filtering down through the lake beyond the glassed-in wall cast swirling, shimmering shadows over everything, and Harry paused again to listen for the voice. Maybe it wasn’t Parseltongue after all—maybe it was one of the merfolk. They generally used hand signals to communicate with the Slytherin students, but everyone knew at least a little bit of Lorelei; it wasn’t entirely dissimilar from Parseltongue, when he stopped to think about it.

But there were no merfolk about that he could see, and the voice sounded like it was coming from deeper inside the castle.

The last time he’d heard a voice calling out during the night, he’d found a terrified little creature hungry and yearning for someone to care for it. Maybe this was more of the same. It didn’t have to be a Basilisk—it might just be a bog-standard garden snake that had come out of hibernation and found itself unable to leave its hidey-hole for one reason or another. He’d never bothered to look into what sorts of creatures spoke the language, after all—a fact he was sorely regretting just now—so really it could be anything.

And it sounded like it needed help, so he drew the Cloak around himself, whispered a quiet, “I’m coming, just hang in there,” in case the voice could hear him, and set off.

The voice led him to the central stairwell and its perpetually shifting staircases. At this hour, they were largely dormant, only creaking every now and then in crotchety threat but bearing Harry’s weight without issue as he crept upward.

On reaching the seventh floor, though, and sensing the voice leading him toward the left corridor, he began to suspect that whoever—whatever—it was that was calling out for him, it lay in or near the Room of Stuff You Want.

These suspicions were shortly confirmed when he neared the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy and caught something moving amongst the shadows thrown by the low-lit torches.

A person—but not a student.

A professor.

“…Professor Quirrell?” Harry called, tugging the Cloak off and quickly stuffing it into the pocket of his hoodie. The Defence Against the Dark Arts professor was pacing a trench into the flagstones just around where the door to the Room of Stuff You Want generally appeared, and Harry wondered if his and Draco’s secret little getaway spot wasn’t quite as secret as they’d imagined.

Quirrell gave a squeaky jolt when Harry called out, whirling on him with one hand to his chest. Harry was still several paces away, not wanting to seem like he was sneaking up on the poor man—he always seemed a stiff breeze away from a nervous meltdown, and Harry wondered if the Defence post was really a good fit for him—but this close, he could see a panicked sweat beading over Quirrell’s forehead as he mopped at it frantically.

“Potter. Good gracious, what are you doing out of bed at this hour?”

“I…thought I heard something.” Quirrell hastily stuffed a piece of paper into his pocket, and Harry frowned. “Professor Trelawney had mentioned something about rats in the castle walls—before she had to take her break—so I thought it might be that.” He glanced around them—they were very much alone, and there were no rats in sight, nor any snakes or basilisks or creatures of any sort aside from himself and the professor. “…Are you all right, Professor?”

Quirrell was rubbing at his eyes and shaking his head. “Apologies, Potter. Only a bit of insomnia. I’ve been…wrestling with a problem of late, and it’s been keeping me up at nights.” He straightened, fixing his gaze on Harry, heavy with consideration. “…Perhaps I just need a neutral outsider’s opinion.”

It seemed an odd place to have a conversation about Defence, but getting on a professor’s good side was never a bad idea, as his Housemates said it, so he summoned all of his Slytherin cunning and nodded. “Sure. I guess I could spare a few moments.” He inclined his head back toward the stairwell. “Should we head to the Defence classroom, then?”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Quirrell said, a bit distant as he turned his attention to the wall across from Barnabas’s tapestry—and a familiar door materialised from the bricks. Damn. There went any hope of engaging in romantic liaisons using the Room; if the professors could just pop in and out as they pleased, it was far too risky. Quirrell turned back to Harry, nodding at the door. “Have you used this room before, Potter?”

“Er…no, sir. I didn’t even know there was a room down this corridor.”

“Hm. Neither did your father.” Quirrell reached for the knob, giving it a yank, and Harry sat up rather a bit straighter now.

“You knew James Potter?” he asked, jogging to catch up.

“Quite well,” Quirrell said. “We were close, once.”

And that was strange; why hadn’t James ever mentioned a friendship with Quirrell? His Defence marks weren’t terrible, but they could always be better if he’d had a standing relationship with the professor to lean on. Draco would be proud of him for these thoughts, finally having made a proper Slytherin of him.

Quirrell stepped over the threshold and into the Room, and with a last glance around, not sure if he was checking they weren’t being watched or hoping that they were, Harry followed, though not before slipping his wand up his sleeve. Just in case Quirrell asked him to help with a spell, of course.

But the Room into which Harry walked was not, to his genuine shock, the Room of Stuff You Want. Rather, it looked like the Room of Stuff You Didn’t Want.

It was equally as massive as the Room that Harry and Draco had been using, but rather than an empty space, a blank canvas intended to be moulded to the occupants’ desires, it was cram-packed with all manner of useless paraphernalia. Teetering towers of dusty old tomes, broken broomsticks, cracked crystal balls, chairs and tables and desks and more, far as the eye could see. It certainly didn’t look like a place to solve a problem, unless your problem was needing a lot of old junk.

“This is the Room of Hidden Things,” Quirrell said, taking in the mess around them with far less awe and wonder than Harry. “Or, well, I don’t know that that’s its true name. It’s only what I’ve been told it’s called.”

“That’s a…nice name,” Harry said, as mildly as he could, and Quirrell chuckled.

“No need to stand on ceremony. It is indeed a heaping pile of rubbish. The refuse of centuries of students—and professors, I’d wager—tossed haphazardly into the nearest open door when they found themselves needing to dispose of something post-haste. A room built to lose things, essentially.”

“That seems…contradictory to the concept of storage,” Harry frowned, wiping the dust from a glassed-in cabinet. Atop it sat a marble bust of someone Harry didn’t recognise, and atop that, a lovely costume-jewelry circlet sat co*ck-eyed. “How are you to find it again, amidst all this junk?”

“I believe the general idea is to not find it again.”

“So the Room of Lost Things, then.”

Quirrell bobbed his head. “What better place to hide something of great value…than amidst so much worthless clutter?”

And Harry supposed he had a point. He continued to explore the room, being careful not to stray too far from the main path that had been carved out between the towering piles around them. It was probably only too easy to get lost in here, and he didn’t want to become the latest ‘hidden thing’ the Room kept secret from others.

Was this really just the Room of Stuff You Want, then? Only perhaps a different form? Maybe this was what it looked like—a persistent pocket dimension—when a whole lot of people over the years all ‘wanted’ a place to toss things.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Quirrell checking a pocket watch, and he was suddenly hit with a wave of lethargy—it was late, so late it was early, and he didn’t have classes the next day, but he did still want to get back to his bed. Maybe he’d spend Sunday checking the Marauders’ Map for rooms around the castle that seemed empty or poorly frequented. If the Room of Stuff You Want was compromised, as it seemed it might be, he and Draco would have to take their liaisons—amorous and otherwise—elsewhere.

The snap of the pocket watch closing brought Harry back to himself, and he shook his head, fighting past the fatigue. He still needed his wits about him to make his way back down to the Dungeons without getting caught out of bed by Mrs Norris or Peeves. “Er, do you need to get back to your office for something, sir? Perhaps I should give my opinion on your problem quickly, so we can both be on our way? Only, Slytherin House had a bit of a raucous night, on account of our Cup win, so I’m pretty beat…”

Quirrell rubbed a thumb over the case of his pocket watch in what looked to be nervous habit, muttering something under his breath, then gave a sniff, nodding. “Yes. Yes, indeed. I think we’ve dawdled quite long enough.” He then snapped his wrist, palming his wand with preternatural speed, and whipped it in Harry’s direction. “Petrificus Totalus!”

Harry froze, paraylsed in an instant, and the sharp suspension of movement tipped his balance, sending him crashing hard to the floor. He couldn’t even groan in pain, as his wand slipped from his sleeve, rolling over the wooden floorboards with a clatter.

Quirrell stepped forward, snatching up Harry’s wand and tossing it into one of the piles of refuse, where it would be lost to time and memory. “You won’t be needing that. Or…” He reached to tug free the Invisibility Cloak, turning the fine fabric over in his hands. “A hand-me-down from James, then? He ought to have entrusted it to someone more worthy.” He spat a sharp Incendio!, and Harry mutely despaired, locked inside his own body as he was.

But the fabric failed to catch, shrugging off the arcane assault, and Quirrell frowned in irritation at it, giving it a shake. Evidently deciding destroying the Cloak was more trouble than it was worth, he cast it aside with the same carelessness as Harry’s wand. “Well, he’ll want it back, I’m sure. We’ll just leave it here where he can come and pick it up any time he pleases. If he can even find this place.”

His tone was growing rougher and gruffer with each passing beat, his mien shifting from that of nervous Defence professor to someone both less and more confident. A man on a mission, with Harry unwittingly involved. Quirrell began to pace, a hunch curving his back as he wrung his hands before himself. “Not long now. Only a few more minutes. I confess, I thought it might take longer to lure you up here. I said to myself, ‘Petey, the boy’s stupid—but he’s not actually James’s get, so maybe he’s got sense enough at least not to go wandering around the castle chasing after phantom voices in the middle of the night, him being who he is.’” A thin smiled stretched impossibly wide over his lips. “I’ve never been more delighted to be so wrong. Must be all that Gryffindor blood running through your veins. Senseless stupidity that can’t be covered up by the Slytherin robes you wear in the day to day.”

His cheeks and jawline began to droop, and his eyes were going funny—and by now, having seen the same from his father a number of times, Harry knew the signs of Polyjuice Potion wearing off when he saw them. The realisation that this was not Quirrell—that perhaps Quirrell had never even existed—froze him in place, paralysing him as surely as the Body Bind still laid upon him.

“Perhaps this is fate, then. Your own mother tried to turn you over to the Dark Lord all those years ago, you know. She must have known this was inevitable, hoping to get it over as with quickly as possible and save her own skin in the doing.” He stretched his neck, which popped with a sickening crack as the last of Quirrell sloughed away. “About time we got around to granting her dying wish, then.” He gave a final shudder, releasing a groan, and the man standing before Harry now was no one he recognised outright—but there was an undeniable familiarity about him.

And then he realised he had seen this person before—though only in boyhood photos, bracketed on either side by young men at least a head taller than him and with all the confidence and bravado that came naturally when you were a Gryffindor in the prime of your youth.

Time had not been kind to Peter Pettigrew. He had a wild glint in his eye that well-suited the frumpy, worn robes Quirrell had been wearing, and his thinning hair sprouted from his pate in disarray. He was the same age as Harry’s father and godfathers, but he looked at least a decade older, like he’d spent the whole of his time since school stuck here in this Room of Hidden Things himself, with only his thoughts to entertain him. And perhaps he had—James, Sirius, and Remus had never seemed inclined to speak of Pettigrew at all, and his father had only ever told him that they’d ‘lost touch’ over the years.

What grudge Pettigrew could possibly have with Harry, though, boggled the mind. Had Harry’s parents done him wrong in the past somehow? Had Harry done him wrong somehow? Sure, there’d been the time he’d mixed up Confringo and Confundo and nearly exploded Quirrell into a million little pieces, but this really seemed like an overreaction in that case. The Shield Charm had protected him, hadn’t it?

Pettigrew reached down, scruffing Harry with rather more strength than Harry might have given him credit for, and snarled in his face as with his other hand he grabbed at an old, beat-up candelabra in want of a good polishing, “You’ll be witness to the rebirth of glory this evening, Mr Evans, aided by your own hand.” He grimaced inwardly. “Or, well, my hand. But it will be ever so worth it.” His upper lip curled, revealing a row of yellowing teeth filed nearly down to nubs. “My master has very much longed to be reacquainted with you, Harry Evans,” Pettigrew drawled, almost a hiss, and Harry’s blood froze in his veins, because suddenly this was far, far more serious than a bit of childhood drama dragged into the present.

My master—and the almost reverence with which he’d spoken of the ‘Dark Lord’... There was little doubt now that Harry had been very stupid, very naive, and very Gryffindor about this whole interaction when he’d spent so long trying to learn to be a good little Slytherin. He tried with everything in him to wandlessly cast something—anything. A Caterwauling Charm might at least get Barnabus’s attention, and then he could send word around the castle through the portraits.

Pettigrew watched him internally struggle in delight. “I can see you’re eager as well, hm? Well then, I know the hour is late, but how about we pay him a quick little visit?”

He shifted his grip to wrap his hand around Harry’s throat, nails filed to points digging into his flesh, and then the world twisted in on itself as the Portkey Pettigrew clutched in his other hand activated, and Harry found himself yanked through space, for parts and purpose unknown.

When everything stopped spinning after what felt like both an instant and an age, Harry found himself thrown to the ground, freed—if only for a moment—from the Body Bind. Everything ached, and his head was swirling, but he still forced himself up onto his hands and knees, trying to get a bearing on his surroundings as Pettigrew stepped around him.

Before his eyes had even adjusted to the dim moonlight, the sound of his robes swishing over not wooden floorboards but overgrown dead grass and the loamy scent of freshly turned earth in the air told Harry that he was outside—and as he reached out to steady himself back to his feet, fingers clutching at a worn stone monument at his side, he realised he was standing in a graveyard.

f*ck. f*ck, this was not good. In fact, it was kind of a little bit bad, really. It’d been one thing to be trapped in the castle with Pettigrew, rescue only a few rooms away, but entirely another to be…wherever he was now, wandless, with someone who at the very least meant him harm and at worst…

Well, he didn’t want to stick around to find out. He hauled himself to his feet and shoved off—

“Ah, ah, ah, not so fast there, Mr Evans,” Pettigrew tutted, and after a sharply hissed Incarcerous!, Harry found himself bound by the arms and legs with Conjured ropes that tightened painfully around him, sending him toppling forward and nearly conking his head on the stone monument. “You’ve only just arrived. Let’s get you comfortable.” He whipped his wand, and another length of rope zipped around Harry’s midsection, binding him to the stone monument with his hands over his head. “And just in case dear old Severus bothered to train you in wandless casting…” He pulled out a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and stuffed it in Harry’s mouth. “If you’ve managed both wandless and nonverbal casting…well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, shall we?”

Harry’s head began to ache, a throbbing pain that echoed his rising heartbeat, down along his scar still buried under layers of Glamours. He squirmed against the ropes when Pettigrew turned away, but they were magically fastened and would not be undone easily.

Come, Nagini!” Pettigrew hissed in what Harry now realised was the ham-fisted Parseltongue he’d heard calling him to the Room of Hidden Things. Oh f*ck, this was bad. His father wouldn’t even get the chance to ground him for life, because he was going to f*cking die. At least he was already in a graveyard.

He remembered Nagini. Or at least what he’d heard of her in stories told by his father. Voldemort’s faithful familiar, a massive snake that did her master’s bidding unerringly. Pettigrew seemed to command her now with the smattering of Parseltongue he’d picked up from his old master, and doubtless she was slithering his way presently, intent on making Harry her next meal. Fantastic.

All right. All right, time to put that Slytherin cunning to use. Draco certainly wouldn’t have sat here waiting for his doom to open her massive jaws and swallow him whole. Maybe he could talk her out of it—he’d gotten quite good at handling massive f*ck-off snakes over the past few months, and what was Nagini but a bigger, nastier Noodle?

He began working his jaw, trying to spit out the handkerchief Pettigrew had stuffed inside, when he caught movement in the grass out of the corner of his eye—as a long, slender body that Harry would have had a difficult time wrapping his arms around slithered past him. Nagini ignored him entirely, though, and Harry assumed she was simply waiting for direct orders from Pettigrew—until he noticed she had something in her mouth already.

It looked like a bundle of fabric—robes or some other clothes perhaps—and Pettigrew beckoned eagerly when Nagini drew near, holding his hands out. “Yes, yes, gently now—gently!” Nagini carefully deposited the bundle in Pettigrew’s waiting arms, like a stork delivering a baby, and Harry gave a start when he saw that something was moving within the robes, stirring and wriggling. His scar gave another throb in response, stronger this time, and Harry grimaced, gritting his teeth until the pain abated.

But it didn’t abate, instead mounting with intensity as if building to a climax, and Pettigrew carefully began unwrapping the bundle. “The cauldron now, hurry!” he snapped at Nagini, inclining his head. “We mustn’t keep him waiting any longer than he already has!”

Nagini bared her fangs at him, hissing in a low, soft growl, “Orders from rats…” but she still dutifully slithered away, back into the darkness.

“A disgusting creature,” Pettigrew said to Harry, as if they were chatting over tea. “But needs must. Sometimes brutish force can be useful, and we don’t have any Gryffindors around, so she’ll have to do.”

Nagini returned only a moment later, hauling a massive cauldron easily large enough for a grown man to stand in comfortably, and deposited it within a carefully arranged circle of stones that lit itself aflame as soon as the cauldron was in place.

Pettigrew hissed in delight, waving his wand at the cauldron with one hand as he carefully cradled whatever was wrapped in the bundle with the other. The flames flared brighter, and steam began to rise from the lip of the cauldron, some brew evidently already bubbling within. Harry gave a tentative sniff, trying to place the potion by scent, but all he caught was the rank stench of sweat soaking the handkerchief still lodged in his mouth and the mouldy aroma of decay from the graveyard.

Nagini slinked away from the now merrily crackling flames, little more than a pair of glittering eyes in the darkness watching with rapt attention, and Pettigrew cradled the bundle in his arms. “Nearly ready now, Master…” he crooned as sparks began to leap from the surface of the now wildly bubbling brew, and the robes and rags twitched and shifted with equal vigour.

Hurry!” a raspy voice urged, and Harry’s blood turned to ice—it sounded like the thing in Pettigrew’s arms had spoken. “I want to stand before him…as myself…”

“And so you shall,” Pettigrew said, the cauldron beginning to boil over. He hastily unwrapped the bundle, revealing at last a sight that made Harry’s stomach churn with nausea as a fresh wave of pain arced along his scar.

It was like a child, but only in shape—a malformed fetus, bleach-white and wriggling like a worm exposed under an overturned stone. Its skin had been flayed, exposing oozing muscle and sinew, but there was no blood, and that was all wrong. He tried not to let his eyes find its face, terrified it would be looking right at him—

—and it was. Two sunken, glowing red eyes, boring straight into his own and gleaming in triumph as its mouth split—quite literally, split open—to expose a row of rotting, blackened teeth that spread to allow wheezing laughter through.

Harry tried to scream—but the handkerchief in his mouth muffled everything, and he wrestled with renewed vigour against his bonds. He couldn’t bear witness to this, he couldn’t be here. He was supposed to be back in the Dungeons, abed, with Kreacher purring at his feet and Draco sleeping soundly mere paces away. They might have had their liaison tomorrow, or at least they might have kissed again. God it’d been forever since they’d kissed properly. Snogging. He liked it, even if it sounded disgusting.

But instead he was here, watching Pettigrew unwrap this hideous thing that ought not to exist let alone be alive.

He slammed his head back against the stone monument, hoping he might concuss himself, knock himself out so he didn’t have to watch, because now Pettigrew was gently lowering the creature with almost loving reverence into the boiling potion. This caused the brew to bubble even more wildly, belching out glittering black smoke, and the thing in the cauldron screamed as Harry’s scar burned and burned and burned.

God, might it drown in there, or boil alive? He hoped so. He hoped the thing was gone. He could feel it dying in there, killing him out here, but he was all right with that, and somewhere in distant memory he thought he heard Neither can live while the other survives.

“And so it begins…” Pettigrew said, breath trembling with fanaticism as he raised his wand and pointed it at Harry. He fought not to flinch, tearing his gaze from the cauldron and staring up at Pettigrew’s wildly dancing eyes. You couldn’t let them know they’d gotten to you, he could hear Draco chiding him, and it was bad enough he’d screamed the once—he wouldn’t let it happen again. Emotionless clod, it was in his blood. He tensed, waiting for the deathblow.

But then Pettigrew’s wand dropped, pointing at Harry’s feet. “Reducto!” he spat, and the ground before him split, cracking open the grave beneath and spewing dust and sod into the air. Harry pulled his legs up to his chest, watching in horror as something began snaking up from the hole—a fine thread of dust and debris, its path carefully conducted by Pettigrew, who guided it into the cauldron. A fresh volley of sparks sprang from the bubbling surface.

“Bone of the father…unknowingly given…you will renew your son…”

Harry twisted around as best he could, to see whose grave had just been violated, but all he could make out on the stone monument was the final few letters of the occupant’s name: DDLE.

“Flesh of the servant…” Pettigrew continued, and Harry whipped back around, heart in his throat, because he’d drawn a dagger from his cloak now, thin and shining and silver, and had it laid against the soft flesh of his inner arm. Inches above it, the Dark Mark was visible—glowing a sickly green that pulsed in time with the throbbing ache of Harry’s scar. “Willingly given…” He raised the dagger, fingers clenched white-knuckled around the hilt. “You will revive your master!”

Harry turned away, eyes shut so tight that spangles of colour flashed behind his lids, but he couldn’t block out the sound of Pettigrew sawing through flesh and muscle and bone and sinew with something wholly unsuited for the task. Perhaps that was the point—the pain its own sort of offering—and Harry’s ears rang with the piercing scream of Pettigrew hacking off his own f*cking hand before plopping it, unceremoniously, into the roiling brew before him.

When Harry dared to open his eyes again, he found that Pettigrew had stumbled to his knees, his face sheet-white and dotted with sweat. His lips trembled as he struggled to find his voice, panting heavily. He was staring at Harry, trembling and grunting but wordless for several long moments.

At length, he licked his lips and climbed to his feet once more, still swaying unsteadily but head drawn back and shoulders squared. It was the look of someone so fanatically committed to their cause that their own well-being mattered nought in comparison to their glorious purpose. And Harry was standing in his way.

Pettigrew picked up the dagger with his remaining hand from where it had fallen from his grip at Harry’s feet, evidently too weak to keep hold of it between the shock and blood loss. He swallowed thickly. “B-blood of the enemy…” Oh f*ck, oh f*ck. “Forcibly taken…” Harry tried to lash out with his feet but only managed a few weak spasms, hamstrung by the bonds that held him fast. Pettigrew was going to cut off Harry’s f*cking hand, just like his own, and deliriously, the only thing Harry could think of was, Please, at least not my casting arm. It’ll make jerking off terribly awkward.

Pettigrew pressed the tip of the dagger to the bend of Harry’s elbow, locking eyes with him and chanting in soft threat, “You will resurrect your foe.” He then slashed, slicing a long red line down Harry’s arm—the casting one, f*ck it all—until rivulets of blood began to spill over, dribbling down to stain the ground. Pettigrew tossed aside the dagger, palming his wand once more and carefully drawing the blood into a swirling, pulsing ball that he guided over to the cauldron. He snapped his wand with a vicious strike, and the bloody ball began spinning as it lowered itself into the bubbling brew, a viscous whirlpool whipping up as the grotesque ingredients mixed and melded. The potion shifted from a dark mud-red to a ghastly white, glowing almost luminescent—until it released a blinding flash that seared Harry’s retinas when he neglected to look away in time.

A stabbing pain lanced along his scar, like Pettigrew had plunged the dagger in hilt-deep, and he felt himself coming dangerously close to passing out. He couldn’t, though—he mustn’t. If he fainted now, he wouldn’t wake up again, because he knew now what was brewing in that cauldron, what that grotesque imitation of a child had actually been.

Blood magic was a dangerously powerful thing—bloodlines, blood bonds, and blood spilled in animus, separate they were all tools that, in the hands of a skilled mage, could achieve fantastic feats.

Together…they could make the impossible possible.

He blinked repeatedly, the afterimage burned into the backs of his eyes, and all he could hear was Pettigrew sobbing. Yes, Harry thought—the ritual had failed. Something had gone wrong, and all of these preparations had been for nought. Pettigrew might kill Harry now in a fit of sorrowful, frustrated rage, but at least he’d failed.

“My Lord…” Pettigrew whimpered, and then: “You…are…glorious.” And he was laughing now, soft breathy chuckles crescendoing into mad cackles. A wind whipped up. Harry’s scar didn’t hurt any more—or maybe it did, and he’d just become numb to it. His vision came back to him like a mist parting, except there really was a mist, a foggy haze that blanketed the graveyard, slowly dissipating in a nonexistent brreze, and Harry, under the light of a pale moon, saw the dark outline of a tall, thin man rise from the fat belly of the cauldron.

Voldemort stood, hale and whole as he bathed in the moonlight. “My wand, Wormtail,” he sighed, extending a bony hand, and Pettigrew surged back to his feet, scrambling one-handed to fish a wand from his robes. He passed it, hilt first—with some difficulty—to his master, who snatched it up and Summoned his robes with a sharp snapping motion. He shivered as the fabric settled itself around his form. “Now that’s more like it.”

He Vanished the cauldron with a swipe, taking his first steps onto solid ground in fifteen years, and between his sheet-white skin and sunken red eyes and complete absence of anything resembling a nose, he looked not unlike the visage of Death itself. Harry wondered which of Beedle’s three brothers he was meant to be in this situation.

“Lord Voldemort…has risen again,” Voldemort announced with a bellow, though he had no audience save for Pettigrew, still cradling his bloody stump wrapped in a motheaten blanket he’d probably stolen from the Room of Hidden Things, and Nagini who watched the events unfold patiently from the tall, dewy grass.

“Precisely as you planned it, My Lord. To the most minute of details.”

Voldemort smoothed down his robes, taking a moment to examine himself, from the long, skeletal fingers to his sunken chest and sinewy neck and skull-like bald head. Whatever he found, he must have been satisfied with the outcome, for he crooned in a cold, high voice, “You have done…quite exceptional work, Wormtail, I must admit.”

This seemed to bolster Pettigrew’s spirits, and he straightened, chin out but still breathing heavily. “It has been an honour.”

“Indeed, I expect it has. And honour deserves reward.” Pettigrew brightened, shoulders slumping in relief, until Voldemort added, “In due course. First, though, I think we should have an audience.” He turned his searing red eyes to Harry. “Witnesses are necessary, after all, to tell tales of the resounding defeat of the Boy Who Lived in the wake of the Dark Lord’s rebirth.” He inclined his head in Pettigrew’s direction but did not take his eyes off Harry. “Your arm, Wormtail.” He snapped his fingers, and Pettigrew was at his side in an instant, bloody stump still oozing and Dark Mark glowing a sickly green.

Voldemort’s lip curled in disgust at the sight, but he swiped away the gore and marvelled at the tattoo. “The others will feel theirs reactivating now too, I think.” He arched a brow at Harry. “Time to see who’s still up and about after all these years.”

He stabbed the Mark with a pointed nail, and Pettigrew seized in pain, biting back an agonised howl. Before his eyes, the glowing green Mark turned a jet black, and Harry’s scar burned anew, a throbbing ache left in the wake of the assault.

Voldemort began to pace, not with a nervous energy but a languid, leisurely presence, and for the first time, Harry allowed himself to—made himself, really—take in just what was happening.

Through magics either old or forbidden or both, the man who’d murdered his mother and tried to do the same to him was standing here, whole again. This was no longer a hypothetical posed by a school headmaster over fruity party drinks—it was real, and it was happening now.

He pushed down the terror, the animal panic searching for a way out, a way to survive, and focused on all the other emotions welling up within. Sorrow, realising this had been the last thing his mother had ever seen. Frustration that despite his father and godfathers’ very best efforts to protect him, he’d undone them all with sheer, wilful stupidity and naiveté. Anger that the self-proclaimed brightest minds in the wizarding world had allowed this monster to rise to power once before and were on track to letting it happen again.

But subsuming it all was a cold, bone-chilling hatred.

He’d told Dumbledore before that he didn’t hate Voldemort—that he couldn’t hate him, because to really hate someone, you had to know them. Voldemort had been a story, a tale told to explain why his father was the way he was, why Harry couldn’t have any real friends, why they’d had to move so often.

But seeing him now, the arrogance with which he held himself, the cold certainty that he had won, it made the blood in Harry’s veins, previously frozen with terror, boil.

This monster had torn his family asunder, had taken his father’s most precious person from him, had made him a paranoid shell of a human being. Harry might have had a childhood, might have had a mother who spoonfed him Pepperup Potion when he was feeling under the weather, might have had summer visits to England where he’d have found himself with his nose pressed up against the glass of a broomstick shop alongside a posh, blond-headed boy who thought it was absurd Harry had never heard of Quidditch and resolved to teach him to fly before he flitted back across the pond.

This ‘Dark Lord’ had taken and taken and taken from Harry…and still he thought he deserved more.

Harry would die, he decided, before he gave him anything else.

“Do you know where you stand, Harry Evans?” Voldemort asked, and when Harry did not respond on account of the handkerchief stuffed in his mouth, Voldemort turned to him with a frown, then released an easy chuckle, waving his wand and Vanishing the fabric. “Apologies, you’ll have to excuse Wormtail. A tad overcautious, I think. He’s told me of your marks in your classes, and I’m sure I’ve nothing to fear.”

“He’s a sh*t teacher,” Harry said, mind racing—he had options now. Not many, but more than he’d had thirty seconds ago, at least. Children generally grew out of their wandless wild magic bursts by puberty, but who was to say that life-threatening danger couldn’t eke one out of Harry, just once more? “I learned more in a tiny little two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco than in six months of Defence under him.”

Voldemort did not seem to mind his cheek, especially as it was directed at an underling for now. “Indeed. I have not kept Wormtail by my side all these years for his casting prowess.” He gave an elegant shrug. “Perhaps things would not have come to this had that fool of a headmaster just given me the Defence Against the Dark Arts post all those years ago as he should have. Why, you might still be lying cosy in your bed, dreaming of…well, whatever it is teenage boys with no ambition dream of.”

Harry wondered just how much of his time at Hogwarts Voldemort had been made privy to—only what Quirrell-slash-Pettigrew had seen? Or more? Did he know of Harry’s father’s involvement? Did he know about Draco? Quirrell didn’t seem to realise Harry had been spending time in the Room of Stuff You Want, so there might be whole swathes of Harry’s personal and private lives that Voldemort didn’t yet know about.

Good, he thought. The last thing he needed was Draco—presumed innocent in all of this until proven otherwise—reaping the consequences of Harry’s stupidity.

“You stand, boy, on the grave of my father—a Muggle, and a fool. Yes—” He held up a bony hand. “I’m sure it must come as a shock that I hail from tainted lineage. And you would be fair to call me a hypocrite—but you would not be right in doing so. For Thomas Riddle—” He spat upon the ground at Harry’s feet. “—may have been my father, but Merope Gaunt was my mother. The Gaunts, direct descendants of Salazar Slytherin himself, are my line.” He co*cked his head at Harry, slit-like eyes narrowing even further. “Though I confess I am terribly curious as to how one with your blood made it into such a great House. Must be your father’s family’s influence, traitor though he was to his kind.”

“Maybe the Hat has a sense of humour.”

Voldemort’s lip curled. “Nothing to match yours, though, I see. I can understand why Wormtail gagged you, now.” He returned to his pacing, hands clasped behind his back. “But useless though my father was in life, save for offering his seed to help bring another wizard into this world, he has proven rather more valuable in death. And now that his purpose has been served…I turn to my new family. My true family, who will welcome me back into their arms as their leader once more.”

He cast his gaze about the graveyard, as one by one and in quick succession, figures began to Apparate into existence, whipcrack snaps echoing around them.

They all of them wore dark robes and deathshead masks that shielded their faces from view, and the moment their feet touched grass, they rushed forward, throwing themselves prostrate at Voldemort’s feet—worshipful, like greeting their messiah. Pettigrew did not join their number, still standing but leaned against one of the other monuments for support as he clutched his arm to his chest. Harry supposed he felt like he’d shown his fealty clearly enough this evening already.

At length, Voldemort shooed them away with a bored flick of his wrist, and they formed a ring around him. Quiet fell across the graveyard, only the wind whistling through the trees and the soft susurration of rustling grass as Nagini stalked them all breaking the silence.

“Fifteen years it’s been,” Voldemort bellowed, as if he had no fear of the local No-Maj populace hearing. Maybe he was hoping the police would drop in for a visit so they could have some fun terrorising them. “Fifteen long, long years since we last joined this circle. And yet, despite the suddenness of the summons, you have all arrived so promptly and fallen at my feet so dutifully. Never have I felt more exactly where I was meant to be than when surrounded by you, friends. My Death Eaters.

“Still…I sense an air of performativeness. Of displays of devotion driven only by guilt. Why has it been fifteen years since I last beheld all of your elegant robes and carefully maintained masks, long laid in storage only to be fished out from wardrobes and taken up mere moments before you appeared at my side?”

He gestured to Pettigrew whose shoulders straightened and lips curled into a knowing half-smile. It was dangerous, being the favourite of a Dark Lord, but there was probably something of a thrill to it too. Like thinking you’d tamed a tiger just because it ate out of your hand once, when at any moment it might knock your head from your shoulders with a dinner-plate-sized paw.

“Behold our comrade, Peter Pettigrew. Only one of you bothered to seek me out. To save me from the wretched existence to which I’d been cursed. To go through the painstaking process of building me back into the wizard I once was. Perhaps the rest of you thought me beaten, felled—by happenstance—by a mere babe in his cot. You did not trust that I had measures in place, old and powerful magics to ensure that I will always rise again.

“I do not forgive—I do not forget. I remember: and I remember that Wormtail has paid in flesh to aid in my rebirth. I also remember to reward those who help Lord Voldemort, most handsomely.”

He whipped his wand in an arc, and a beacon of silver flashed momentarily before fading to reveal a gleaming silver gauntlet, etched in snaking filigree, that floated disembodied over to meet Pettigrew’s outstretched stump and fixed itself firmly in place. Pettigrew marvelled at the feat, flexing his new fingers and snatching up a bit of stone rubble that he crushed in his grip like a walnut.

“Will that be an adequate replacement for your ‘donation’, Wormtail?” Voldemort asked, voice silky smooth and brooking no argument, but Pettigrew seemed in no position to turn his nose up at his new hand.

“Oh yes, Master. I can serve you quite well with this.”

“See that you do.” Voldemort then cast his eye back to the others shifting uncomfortably in response to the display, perhaps wondering what exactly had transpired that they’d arrived to a reborn Dark Lord and one of their number down a hand and fearful they were next. “…Lucius. How lovely you decided to join us this evening. I’m aware your dance card’s been rather booked of late, yet you still managed to squeeze in a turn about the ballroom with your old master.”

Harry’s heart sank. Not exactly how he’d wanted to meet Lucius Malfoy (Lucius! Draco Lucius Malfoy, there it was.), if he’d had to cross paths with Draco’s parents at all. He’d hoped, despite knowing it futile, that the Malfoys weren’t actually Death Eaters as his father had warned, that maybe they’d just been allied with what they’d thought was a rising power before but had changed their ways and wouldn’t be easily turned to him again. No such luck, it seemed. It didn’t look like Mrs Malfoy was here, but that only meant she probably wasn’t Marked.

He wondered what Lucius’s being here meant for Draco. He wasn’t Marked either—Harry had seen his arms from every possible angle and then some—but that didn’t necessarily mean anything, given his age. Young recruits within Hogwarts would be very useful for expanding Death Eater ranks, and if this was to truly be Voldemort’s second rise, Draco would probably be on the chopping block.

If he hadn’t already promised his loyalty to his father’s master, that is. Harry didn’t want to think he’d so poorly misjudged Draco, but he had to entertain the possibility. Slytherins were cunning—and Draco was no exception. ‘Work your way into the affections of the Boy Who Lived and help turn him over to the Dark Lord,’ would have been an easy enough task for someone as charming (when he wanted to be) and insistent (even when he didn’t want to be) as Draco.

“Wormtail tells me that you’ve made yourself quite a respectable sort in these many years since my purported downfall. That you’ve renounced me and all ties to the dark magics that would have raised you to such great heights. I can only hope that he is mistaken, but I must admit I do have my doubts… You Malfoys were always so obsessed with class when you ought to have been focused on power.”

“My Lord!” Lucius protested, voice muffled from beneath his mask. “I was ever on the alert for signs of your return! Waiting, hoping that you might rise again to once more take up the mantle of—”

Were you?” Voldemort asked, head co*cked. “Or were you perhaps hoping that your days marching at my side might be behind you? I must admit, it’s a much easier task to sit behind a desk and legislate your will upon others than to stand up and grab it. You couldn’t be blamed for wanting to take the easy way out.” His hissing voice came out with a syrupy drawl, and Harry—and probably Lucius as well—knew this was a lie. As he’d said: Voldemort did not forgive, and he did not forget.

Lucius smartly had no response to this, standing up straight and stiff, perhaps expecting to be struck down right there. Harry, despite it all, sincerely hoped it didn’t happen. He wanted to believe Draco was innocent in all of this, and he didn’t deserve to know the loss of a parent. Not when he’d had the luxury of being able to know them for sixteen years. At least Lily’s death had been something of a mercy, gone before Harry even knew what he’d be missing.

But Voldemort did not curse him. Instead, he struck him a more deadly blow: “I will expect more ardent demonstrations of your faith in the future. Something akin, I think, to the sacrifice Wormtail has made for me.” Lucius tensed, and Harry wondered if he was about to Apparate away. Maybe Voldemort thought this too, for he added, “Not a hand this time, but…perhaps your blood, nonetheless. You have a son, no?” Oh f*ck, f*ck no. “Around our young friend’s age?” He gestured to Harry, then folded his hands before himself. “...Bring him along next time, won’t you? It’s time he took his place among our ranks.” He then turned from Lucius. “I certainly hope you’ve prepared him well.”

And Lucius, the absolute spineless weasel, swallowed thickly but nodded. The cold hatred Harry felt for Voldemort was starting to be subsumed by a fiery fury that a parent would so callously turn his child over to this monster, a child who, Harry knew, respected and probably loved Lucius. A child who would follow him to his own doom if Lucius only crooked a finger.

“And lest any of you think I find only Lucius culpable for his lack of faith, know that I hold the rest of you on an equally tight leash. Precious few of my followers have remained as loyal as Wormtail over the years—the Lestranges rot in Azkaban, alongside Crouch, refusing to renounce me, but their stern faith shall be richly rewarded once we have freed them. Our army will grow, but those who have wavered in their allegiance may find themselves marching with the masses instead of at my side. It would do you all well to reflect on your decisions these past fifteen years, to think how you can restore yourselves in my eyes.” He swept his gaze around the circle. “I look forward to seeing your very best efforts.”

He then turned back to Harry. “But my apologies, Mr Evans. I’ve kept you waiting. Only a bit of house cleaning to do before we move on to more important matters. Friends!” He called out to the rest of the Death Eaters. “Our guest of honour, Harry Severus Evans. The Boy Who Lived. Now—” He held up a crooked finger. “I will tolerate no barbarity from any of you—after all, we ought to be thanking Mr Evans. For without him, I would not be standing here before you, powers rekindled, as I am.” He directed his words to Harry now, glowing red eyes boring into his. “The bonds of blood flow between us now, boy. Bonds that no insipid predictions or premonitions or prophecies can sever. Your mother cannot save you a second time—she cannot stop me from touching you now.” He palmed his wand, drumming his fingers along the shaft. “She cannot stop me…from killing you.” His lip curled, skin stretched over uncomfortably long, white teeth. “I am the embodiment of Slytherin—and you a mere pretender. I am brilliant, I am driven, and I will get what I want. What I deserve.”

In a flash, he’d whipped his wand around and with a crack snarled, “Crucio!”

Harry’s back arched, nearly snapping in half, and agonising pain tore through his bones, searing from the inside out. His scar began burning again, and it felt like his skull was trying to split in half around it. The pain went on and on and on, and he kept hoping he might just black out, or maybe even die, anything to stop experiencing this moment, to stop existing, but the spell refused to kill him. It just kept hurting.

And then it was gone, and he hung rag-doll limp against the headstone, supported only by the ropes and panting in great gulping gasps. The echoes of pain set his nerves on fire, and everything still hurt—the brush of wet grass against his skin, the gentle night gusts, the rough ropes digging into his flesh.

Appreciative chuckles rippled around the ring of Death Eaters, and though he lacked the strength to lift his head to see, he knew Voldemort was standing there, a stone’s throw away, grinning down at him in triumph. He thought he’d won. He knew he’d won. Harry’s mind was too fried—quite literally—to be clever now. To survive, like a good little Slytherin. Voldemort had gone down and come back kicking, but Harry couldn’t. He couldn’t.

“To think any among my number were so foolish as to imagine a child—a child—could have been my undoing!” His voice took on a harsh, angry rasp. “Do you not know who I am? Do you not know what I am? I am the boot that crushes, I am the hand that chokes. Death cannot take me—I will consume it.” He slashed his wand through the air, and an acid-green skull blossomed in the heavens above. “We will consume it!”

The Death Eaters around him let out a hearty cheer, though Pettigrew remained solemn, only clenching his fist in solidarity, as if such shows were beneath him.

“And the first death we will take in this new age…” Voldemort said, breathing heavily now and wand clenched tight in his grip, “is this one.” He pointed it at Harry. “No more narrow escapes, no more last-minute sacrifices. Only a life snuffed out by one more powerful. Bear witness as this one last mote of hope these insipid fools cling to is finally extinguished.” He grinned, almost manic in his mood now. “I almost feel sorry for you, child. You never chose this—to be marked this way. You are a lamb they have raised for slaughter, an idol they look to as a light in all the darkness surrounding them. They made you the Boy Who Lived—and now, alas, you must die.” He paused a moment, head ticked in contemplation. “I shall do you the service of allowing you to meet your end on your feet at least.”

He twitched his wrist, and the bonds holding Harry to the stone monument dissolved into dust. Harry toppled to his hands and knees, everything aching for all manner of different reasons, and his head swam from the sudden change of position. Voldemort rolled his eyes when Harry paused to gather himself. “Up, boy. Nagini’s hungry, and she’s a terror to be around when her meals are delayed.” In the tall grass, Nagini lifted up, eyes glittering and tongue darting out to taste the air.

Harry willed himself to Disapparate, but to no avail. His magic was beyond him, his wand lost forever, and his father likely sound asleep, never to know what had truly become of his son. Would he feel it, when Harry died? He liked to think that if you loved someone that hard, you knew. You just had to.

He staggered back to his feet, tears welling in his eyes from the pain, and he fought to keep from crying—he couldn’t give Voldemort the satisfaction. He’d think Harry scared, and he was, but he was also filled with a kind of stupid bravery he knew he’d inherited from his parents. The bravery that let you meet your fate on your own two legs.

Voldemort raised his wand, and Harry could practically see the incantation of the Killing Curse lying ready on his tongue.

And then something smooth was pressed into Harry’s palm—the hilt of a wand—and someone whispered in his ear in a voice tight with terror, “Please don’t die!

Avada Kedavra!” Voldemort crowed triumphantly, as Harry bolted to the side, rolling just in time for the Curse to obliterate Riddle’s headstone. A roar of frustration followed Harry as he ducked behind another stone monument, knowing it would not protect him long and he needed to fight back somehow.

Sure enough, the statue exploded, flinging Harry to the ground with his ears ringing. He scrambled to his feet, taking off at a mad pace and nearly twisted his ankle dodging a wild grab from one of the Death Eaters who’d taken it upon themselves now to pin him down so Voldemort could finish him off.

“No!” Voldemort raged, “He’s mine! Touch him, and the next Curse will be directed your way!” Another jet of green light split the darkness, and the Death Eater sprang back in a panic, fleeing the wildly flung spell. Voldemort shot Unforgivables with wild impunity, sending his Death Eaters scattering in a panic to avoid being caught in the crossfire, and shortly there was nowhere left to hide.

Harry turned, breathing heavily and wand clutched white-knuckled in his grip. It would have to be a duel. His senses were too wrung out from the excruciating echoes of the Cruciatus, and he knew if he tried to Disapparate, he’d Splinch himself.

Duelling had never been his forte, despite his father’s best efforts. He had the skills, the instincts, the reflexes—but not the drive to harm.

Not usually, at least.

“Come out, come out, Harry…” Voldemort crooned, stalking the ruined remains of the dozen or more gravesites he’d violated. The dust of demolished headstones hung in the air like a low fog, and Harry used it for the meagre cover it provided as he waited for his moment. The Death Eaters were gone now, or hiding too behind monuments and mausoleums, watching and waiting for their master to finish his task so they might safely stand before him once more. “I can make it quick, if you show yourself… Quick and painless. No more Crucios, just a candle snuffed out. Show yourself…be a man. Don’t die begging like your mother—it’s unbecoming of a Slytherin.”

And after having finally come to terms with the Slytherin bits of himself, the last thing Harry wanted to do was anything unbecoming of one.

But just now, he thought he needed to channel some of that brash Gryffindor bravery he’d heard so much about and hope Draco, wherever he was hiding, didn’t give him too hard a time for it later if they survived.

He picked his moment as carefully as he could, holding his breath so as not to give himself away, and when Voldemort’s back was turned, a Killing Curse thoughtlessly flung at what had probably only been a bat in the bushes, he snapped upright, sliced his wand through the air, and shouted, “Expelliarmus!

He couldn’t kill Voldemort—he knew it, somehow, in his bones. No Curse was going to take him down, certainly not from Harry, who’d never cast an Unforgivable before and wasn’t confident he could mean it enough in his current state to make it stick.

But disarming Voldemort would give him an opening—a chance to run until he could at least catch his breath and try to Apparate. He didn’t know where he was, didn’t know if trying to get back to Hogwarts or London or anywhere else familiar would be too far a trip and overtax his core, leaving him even worse off than he was now, but he had to try. Draco, he had to hope, could make himself scarce too. Harry had no idea where he was and no time to seek him out—even calling for him while beating a hasty retreat might be a death sentence for Draco, whose father was still skulking about. If Voldemort remarked Harry running off with Draco Malfoy at his side…it wouldn’t be good for any number of reasons.

So he let the Charm fly—but no sooner had the incantation left his lips than Voldemort had whirled around, gleaming red eyes wide and a triumphant sneer on his lips, and with the full movement of his twisting body, he roared in response, “Avada Kedavra!

A jet of green light blasted from the tip of Voldemort’s wand, meeting the red arc from Harry’s as their spells left their lips in the same instant and crashed midair in a shower of sparks that shook Harry, physically, his wand vibrating in his own hands. He clasped his left hand over his right to solidify his grip as the wand seemed charged with raw arcane power, such that he feared it might splinter in his grasp.

He could feel his feet sinking into the overturned earth with the force of the magic from Voldemort’s wand trying to pierce through Harry’s spellcraft, to rip it apart and tear into Harry himself. He squared himself with a grimace, refusing to be the one who broke—his very life depended on it, and so too did the lives of all those he cared about. This spell could not fail.

Voldemort, too, seemed to sense that something ineffable but of deadly import hinged on this moment, for he had his wand gripped before him like a lifeline, his pale white face lit up in violent shades of red and green as the energy colliding between them blew his robes back in a wild, whipping fashion.

Harry felt himself being drawn forward, closer to Voldemort, like two poles on a magnet, and he planted his feet, feeling his shoulders wrench.

And then, from the point where the beams of their magic connected, a flash of gold nearly blinded him, and he clenched his eyes shut for a moment before daring to look again. Still supernova bright, the flash was consuming the streams of raw arcane energy flowing from their wands, transforming their magic into a single strand of warm gold. Harry stared in slack-jawed wonder at whatever was happening, and it gave him some small comfort that Voldemort seemed equally baffled, only growling at his Death Eaters not to interfere, that Evans was his, and they would not take this from him.

He could see Voldemort fighting to yank his wand back, to break the connection, but something held him fast, and Harry knew without even trying that he too could only let this happen, run to its inevitable conclusion, and pray that conclusion didn’t result in his being blown to smithereens by what was probably a well-documented phenomenon when simultaneous spells clashed. Probably should have spent more time with his nose buried in A History of Magic than listening to Draco prattle on about Quidditch strategy (though in his defence, Draco was much more entertaining even at his worst than Bathilda Bagshot).

Voldemort’s efforts to free himself, though, were futile, and for the first time, Harry saw real, genuine fear settle over his features. It sent a thrill through a dark corner of Harry’s heart and left him with a strange sense of hope. Even if he wasn’t mortal, even if Killing Curses couldn’t take him down, this purported Dark Lord was still capable of fear, still slave to that particular emotion if no other—and that meant he could be manipulated, could be exploited, just like any animal with a survival instinct.

That knowledge wasn’t much help right about now, but something told him that there would come a time when it would be useful to know that Voldemort, despite it all, did not actually think himself invincible—even if he’d deluded those around him otherwise.

The roar of the whipping wind and zipping crackle of magic all around him began to fade, though, replaced by a high ringing in his ear that, to his concussed and addled brain, sounded like singing. A gentle, peaceful melody that was a blessed balm in this moment and seemed to soothe his jangled nerves, still afire from the Curse Voldemort had laid upon him. It didn’t sound human, these haunting, healing strains, but the sound seemed to emanate from all around him, wrapping him in a warm embrace and cocooning him in a protective mantle.

Don’t break the connection, it told him, as if he’d had any choice in the matter. His wand was vibrating more furiously than ever, and the glowing golden orb where their beams of magic met began to move—slowly, slug-like, inching its way toward Harry.

Stand fast, the singing urged, and he felt renewed strength surge through him even as the bubble of energy slid down the connection their wands made. He didn’t know what would happen if it reached him. Explode his wand? Explode him? It couldn’t be good, and better Voldemort test it out than him, so he focused with all his might, fingers wrapped tight around his shuddering wand, and concentrated on forcing that bead of energy back, back along the connection, to meet Voldemort’s wand. The song in his ears and mind and heart was crescendoing, and he heard another voice, human this time he thought, urging Yes! Yes, hold on! Hold on!

Voldemort’s expression faltered, shifting from the sheer maniacal glee he’d shown when he’d nearly forced that bubble of energy over the connection between their wands and down Harry’s throat to wild panic and confusion. The bubble inched and wormed its way achingly slowly toward Voldemort now, blinding in its brilliance and going nearly supernova as with a final burst of effort from a well he’d thought long gone dry, Harry forced it to connect with the tip of Voldemort’s wand.

The singing in his ears vanished, eclipsed by Voldemort’s screams, and Harry thought for a wild, delirious moment Is this how it ends? Was this, whatever ‘this’ was, Voldemort’s true downfall? Was it Harry’s? Neither can live while the other survives, after all.

But then the golden light faded, like the dying rays of the setting sun, until Harry could see again, though his vision was pockmarked with dots of colour and his ears were still ringing. The first thing he saw, through the fading brilliance, was Voldemort’s eyes, glowing red and wide with shock.

The second thing he saw was a hand. A ghostly, smoke-like hand launched from the tip of the wand before vanishing. He was still struggling to parse what on earth that had been when a voice, soft and feminine in his mind, suggested Peter’s hand. Oh, right—it had looked a bit like the new metal hand Voldemort had fashioned for Pettigrew only moments ago.

His heart froze in his chest, a sick giddiness curling in his stomach. That voice—he knew that voice. He’d heard that voice. Never before, with his own ears, but rather a lot of late, when he’d gone diving into the memories in the little Pocket Pensieve his father had crafted for him.

And then there she was.

Her form blossomed from the tip of Voldemort’s wand like a rose, each petal unfurling to reveal a woman, ghostly and translucent but softly glowing and with a density to her form that belied what Harry knew to be transience. An apparition here for but a moment—but still here.

Before him, as beautiful as she’d seemed in memory and alight with love and pride as she approached Harry, was Lily Evans. His mother.

It was a good thing he seemed physically incapable of dropping his wand, or it would have been on the ground as he fought the near-overwhelming urge to launch himself into her arms, phantom though he innately knew her to be. He didn’t care, he just wanted her around him and holding him and protecting him, he didn’t want to have to be strong, he didn’t want to have to be fighting this monster, he just wanted to be young and stupid and Harry Evans, not the Boy Who Lived.

“I know, my love, I know,” she soothed, brushing her hand over his cheek and cupping his jaw. “You have already had so much taken from you, it would be a cruelty to ask for more.” She pressed a kiss to his forehead. It felt like nothing, a cool breeze over his fevered flesh. “But you must find the courage to give it regardless.” He heard her voice clear and clarion in his mind, and it was a comfort, knowing Voldemort couldn’t share in this moment, still screaming as he was, ranting and raving against the magical phenomena unfolding.

“Destroy it! Destroy the apparition!” Voldemort roared, furiously panicked gaze fixed on Lily, and Harry despaired as the Death Eaters scrambled to point their wands, now finally given a proper order and leave to see it done.

Lily did not seem cowed, though, giving Harry a final gentle squeeze he could not actually feel—and then directing her eye over Harry’s shoulder to the darkness beyond.

“Save him, please!” she pleaded, and Harry had no time to cast his gaze behind him, to see to whom she was speaking, before a hand grabbed him roughly by the shoulder, jerked him back, and sent him twisting into darkness, Lily’s final, “I’m so proud of you, my darling. I love you,” fading in his ears.

Chapter 12

Chapter Text

Draco dragged him—for it was Draco, clutching James’s Invisibility Cloak like a security blanket with one hand while he gripped Harry’s arm tight in the other—through a series of short, break-neck Apparition hops that gave Harry whiplash, his world spinning as his feet slammed into solid ground for but a second, barely enough time to take a breath, before he was whisked back into the aether bound for destinations known only to his guide.

After what felt like an eternity, Draco finally seemed satisfied with where they’d landed, or else he was simply too exhausted to try another jump, and they fell into a heap amidst piles of old, mouldering hay in what looked to be the remains of an old barn. It was in deep disrepair, missing most of its roof and half of its walls, but it was shelter of a sort, and to Harry’s eye, admittedly still dazed from the clash of his and Voldemort’s magic, it seemed abandoned and deserted, no souls magical or mundane around for miles.

He settled back against one of the rotting posts holding what remained of the structure upright and took deep, panting breaths as he waited for the world to stop spinning. He was distantly aware of Draco attempting to do the same, and he chose to focus on that as a polestar for his whirling thoughts.

“…Your timing is impeccable.”

Draco laughed—or he tried to; it caught in his throat, and he began coughing so hard Harry worried he might hack up a lung. “I certainly know how to make an exit, ask anyone.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” He winced as he struggled to his feet, hand cramping where he still had his wand clutched for dear life.

He could hear the frown in Draco’s voice. “Gads, man, what the hell are you doing? Sit down—you’ll tip over and crack your head on one of these Muggle farm implements and get blood poisoning and die.”

“Good. Why should I let Voldemort have the satisfaction of killing me?” He took a bolstering breath, rubbing at his eyes. “I can’t cast sitting on my ass.”

“Why are you casting anything?! You nearly died!”

Harry ignored him. “Expecto Patronum!” The silvery stag leapt from the tip of his wand and cantered awkwardly around the cramped stable before coming to stand before Harry, awaiting orders. “Find my father. Tell him we’re—” He frowned, turning to Draco. “…Where are we?”

Draco’s head lolled to the side, raking Harry with an irritated expression, then he sighed: “A scrap of woodland, just outside of Marston, in Wiltshire.”

“Right, there. Wherever that is.” He desperately hoped his father still had a good handle on English geography after so long away. “I don’t think either of us are in a state to be Apparating anywhere anytime soon, so if he could, you know, come get us? That’d be swell.” He made a shooing motion once he’d finished to send the Patronus on its way and watched as it cantered out of sight, a soft sigh issuing from his lips. He was going to get such a lecture once they were back at Hogwarts.

Draco reached up to tug on his pant leg, and Harry finally submitted, settling back down next to him against one of the mouldy hay bales. He swallowed thickly, rolling his wand between his palms nervously. “…How did you find me? I don’t think I even knew where I was.”

He could feel Draco tense next to him and then, after a long beat: “…I didn’t leave the Three Broomsticks because I felt ill.”

“…Yeah, I figured.”

Draco swallowed, head hung guiltily, and Harry felt a tiny little spear of vindication lance through him. “One of our house-elves popped into the bathroom when I went to take a piss—terrible timing those creatures—with a letter for me. From my mother. It said…” He licked his lips, shoulders hunching a bit. “...It said to stay in my room that night. That I might be—summoned.” And Harry felt that churning sense of unease from before curl in his stomach again—the realisation that Draco was caught up in all this, whether he wanted to be or not. Harry very much hoped it was the latter. The fact he’d spirited Harry away from the confrontation with Voldemort suggested as much, but he was through making assumptions about people’s motives. It was time for actions to speak louder than words.

Draco continued, heedless of Harry’s internal conflict. “And—I panicked. I wasn’t thinking, I just knew I couldn’t be there, in Hogsmeade. They could get to me there, but not at Hogwarts. They can’t get me at Hogwarts, so—I ran back. Like a f*cking coward.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, curling into a ball as he drew his legs up. “And then—and then you got up and left, and I thought Maybe he’s gone to take a piss, because surely you’d wake me up if you were going to see Noodle, and I didn’t want to think there was a connection, but…” He grimaced. “But I knew there was. And I couldn’t sit there snug in my bed knowing something might…might happen. So I went after you using the Map, since some f*cking wanker had taken the Cloak, and I saw—I saw him take you. I barely managed to grab your wand and don the Cloak before his Portkey activated, and I hitched a ride.”

He was breathing heavily by the time he’d finished, like if he’d paused to stop and take a breath he wouldn’t have had the courage to continue, and then he looked at Harry, eyes wide and white and disbelieving. “...You’re really him, then. The Boy Who Lived.”

It didn’t seem like there was any point denying it now, and when he’d brushed the sweat from his brow, he’d felt his scar, exposed—the raw arcane power thrilling through him during whatever had transpired having evidently burned through the Glamour.

He touched the bracelet on his wrist, recalling Draco’s drawling teasing about his sentimentality—and then tugged it free, clutching it in his fist still trembling from the effort of maintaining his grip on his wand.

He felt the illusory magic cascade from him like a shattered glass shell falling away, and though he could not see it, he knew that the version of him that Draco saw now was not Harry Potter but Harry Evans.

He expected Draco to flinch, to recoil—or at least to curse in shock, whispered or otherwise.

He did not expect relief.

“Oh good,” Draco sighed. “I was worried you might be hideous under there.”

Harry boggled. “Wait—you knew?”

Draco arched a brow. “Was I not meant to?” And Harry must have looked like he was winding up to take a swing at Draco—he was, but only in his mind—for Draco held up a hand. “Stand down. You were…as circ*mspect as you could probably have been expected to be, with all that Gryffindor in your blood. And I didn’t want it to be you, to be fair—I just wanted you…to be a normal, remarkably unremarkable boy…” He trailed off, staring into the far distance at nothing.

Well. “That makes two of us,” Harry said, and Draco snorted softly.

“Can’t always get what we want, can we? Not even when your name is Malfoy, evidently.” He leaned back, head tilted up and throat bobbing as he swallowed. “...I’ve known for a while—suspected, initially, and then…yes, known. If I’m being honest, it’s the only reason I gave you the time of day, there at the outset. My parents told me before the school year started that I ought to be on the lookout for any new transfers, to attempt to befriend them, as such connections might be…useful, in certain senses.” Harry’s brow dipped, and Draco was immediately contrite, turning to grab him by the wrists. “That was early days only, I swear it. Rest assured that my pursuit of your friendship—and more—was done with my very worst, most artless of efforts.” He released a little self-deprecating huff, lips twisting. “If I’d been lying, I’d have been rather better at it.”

“I’ve heard your lies. They aren’t much better.” Harry knew he sounded bitter. He didn’t care.

“That wasn’t lying,” Draco said, pale skin pinking. “That was—me trying to tell you what little of the truth I could.”

Well, they’d have to agree to disagree on that point, Harry supposed. He shrugged. “So—what? You figured me out, all on your own, then?”

“No,” Draco admitted, a bit sour in the face, as if disappointed in this. Perhaps he was; he loved a good puzzle. “Not quite. I was rather…forcefully brought into the fold.” Harry’s brow furrowed in question, and he explained, “...Your father—that sad*st masquerading as Slughorn, mind, not James Potter—can be rather insistent when it comes to ensuring your safety. It was either lend my aid to the valiant cause of your protection, or have my mind wiped. I suppose I was too much a threat to be left alone.” His voice went soft at the end, and he didn’t sound like he entirely disagreed with Severus’s assessment.

Still, Harry grimaced. “Sorry. He means well, but he…isn’t the most tactful when he feels threatened.”

Draco waved him off. “Honestly, I probably needed it. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to…do what needed to be done. Not without someone threatening they’d scramble my brains otherwise.”

What needed to be done. Harry shook his head. “The ‘valiant cause of my protection’—what, he wanted you to be my bodyguard?” Protest though Draco might that his pursuit of Harry had been genuine and not forced, it was becoming more and more difficult to believe.

And Draco laughed, a mirthless thing. “I wish that had been all he asked of me. It would’ve been a far easier task.” With a wincing groan, he eased to his feet and began brushing the errant hay and dirt from what Harry realised now were his very fine pyjamas. He was even wearing the expensive slippers Blaise had gifted him for Christmas. And now they were ruined, all because of Harry, and Draco wasn’t complaining. Not yet at least. He was kind of touched. “…Granger and I really have been working on a project. And it really has been for our ‘Potions professor’, even if it has f*ck-all to do with Potions. So I haven’t been lying.”

Harry gave him a shrewd look and then snorted derisively, shaking his head. “f*cking Slytherins.”

“No, not yet. And that’s on me, I’m sorry.”

Harry crossed his arms, not quite sure he was ready to slip back into their usual banter, tempting as it honestly was. “Does that mean you can finally tell me what exactly you’ve been getting up to, then?”

Draco’s face fell, lips twisting, “I—can’t—” And he must have seen that Harry was this close to just Apparating away in disgust, Splinching risk be damned, for he hastened to add in a voice thick with desperation, “I can’t, I physically can’t! He made me make an Unbreakable Vow!”

And Harry took a step back, hackles rising. “...What the f*ck do you mean he made you?”

“...As I said,” Draco grimaced, “Your father made me an offer I couldn’t easily refuse.” When this didn’t seem to satisfy, Draco licked his lips and said, very deliberately, “...He wanted to tell you about them himself.”

No, Harry amended his earlier uncharitable thought: Slytherins were wonderful creatures. They could weasel their way out of anything when it suited them. Harry could feel his heartbeat ramping up: “...Tell me about what?”

A loud, sharp CRACK rent the air, sending a flock of nightbirds scattering with frightened screeches as Severus Evans Apparated into view, tall and imposing and without a trace of Slughorn about him.

His lips thinned into a tight line. “Tell you about the Horcruxes.”

Chapter 13

Chapter Text

By the time they made it back to Hogwarts, Apparating in fits and spurts as Severus overtaxed his core multiple times trying to Side-along both Harry and Draco at once, dawn had nearly broken.

“It was Pettigrew,” Draco had huffed during a brief stopover at what looked to be some No-Maj family’s lake cabin, abandoned over the winter but stocked with plenty of non-perishables. “He’s been disguising himself as Professor Quirrell for what I expect has been the entire school year. Possibly longer, even.”

Severus’s lip curled as he took a grimacing sip of the coffee Harry had prepared for them, like their meek secretary as they had their publicly private little conversation. His input seemed neither wanted nor needed. “I thought Quirrell seemed to have more backbone than I remembered, and I’ve had trouble finding Polyjuice ingredients of my own. I ought to have suspected something sooner.” He waved for Draco to continue. “What did he want Harry for? If it was only to turn him over to his master, he could have taken Harry at any time. Why now?”

Draco shook his head. “This—revival ritual they performed. The preparations must have taken some time to complete. He needed bits of people.” He ticked off items on his fingers. “His family, his servant, and his enemy.” He added in a very small voice Harry had never heard him use before, “...My father was there.”

Severus had nothing to say to that, and perhaps it was for the best. Draco didn’t seem like he could take Harry’s father’s usual brand of tough love right about now. He changed the subject with a loud sigh. “...So he’s back. And in full form, it sounds like.”

Draco nodded. “If his power has waned at all over the years, I certainly can’t tell.” He shuddered. “He was tossing around Unforgivables like they were Lumos. The force he must command to have managed that, after fifteen years as something not even human…”

“All power, no finesse,” Severus sneered as he finished off his coffee. “You knew this would not be an easy task when I first put it to you. Not getting cold feet now, I hope? I’m sure your father will be disappointed not to expect you at any future meetings with his master, but Ms Granger could still use your input.” Draco’s expression darkened with offence. “Good. Then nothing has changed.”

Harry watched their interactions with a pit of bitter acid growing in his stomach. They spoke around him, as if he weren’t there and hadn’t nearly died, and they had a familiarity with each other Harry hadn’t seen his father demonstrate with any but those he considered near-equals. Even Harry he kept at arm’s length these days, under the guise of protecting him. Yet Draco was made privy to all of his secrets, brought into a fold Harry hadn’t even known existed, and he was through. Just through.

He set his own mug down rather forcefully on the counter between them. Crossing his arms over his chest. “...So is anyone going to tell me what the hell ‘Horcruxes’ are, then? I was told you wanted to tell me yourself—yet there’s been no explanation.”

Silence was all he received from both Draco’s and his father’s quarters until Severus straightened, hit his mug with a quiet Tergeo, and Banished it back to the cabinet where Harry had found it.

“I think we ought to be on our way. We’ve miles to go before we sleep, as they say.”

And then, before Harry could protest, Severus clapped one hand to his shoulder and the other to Draco’s, and together they twisted into nothing with a POP.

Harry was made to wear the Cloak as they crossed onto school grounds, the Glamour still glitching in the wake of his encounter with Voldemort. “I’ll need to wipe it entirely and reapply,” Severus said. “It shouldn’t take more than a few moments. Mr Malfoy, why don’t you return to your dormitory, and I’ll send Harry back your way once I’ve finished putting him back to rights.”

It was a suggestion in word only—the tone and dour expression on Severus’s face made it clear that Draco would go back to the Dungeons and would wait for Harry to follow after, no objections.

Draco, though, did not seem to approve of this course of action at all. “I really don’t think—”

“You will continue as if nothing is amiss. If anyone asks where Harry’s gotten off to, he took ill in the night and is being pampered by Madam Pomfrey for the day.” Draco did not protest again, but nor did he look like he was ready to be rousted so easily, and Severus placed a hand on his shoulder, gentle but insistent. “...Thank you. For looking after him. But this conversation I must have with him alone. He’ll be sent back your way soon enough—for now, trust him to my care.”

Draco swallowed thickly, then reached between them to tug off the Cloak and wrap his arms around Harry’s neck, squeezing tight and whispering savagely into Harry’s shoulder, “I meant what I said: Please don’t die.” Harry felt his anger momentarily displaced by the unexpected gesture. Discretion could get f*cked, indeed.

But, just as quickly, Draco practically leapt off of Harry, a dark look thrown Severus’s way, and with great reluctance, he padded off down the corridor, bound for the Grand Staircase.

Severus and Harry watched him go, each with wildly different thoughts running through their minds, Harry suspected, and was proven right when his father growled, “I don’t like him.”

Harry channelled his still bubbling acid-like irritation into Draco’s defence: “Well he doesn’t like you. So I reckon you’re even.”

“I don’t like him for you,” Severus amended, and Harry felt something snap.

“He’s the only reason you still have me,” he said in a whispered hiss, “so if I were you, I'd at least try to ‘like him for me’."

Severus swallowed thickly and stepped back, looking everywhere but at Harry. “...You don’t think I realise that?”

“I honestly don’t know. Because if you did understand that the only thing standing between me and a face-off with Voldemort was my sixteen-year-old roommate, then I would’ve thought you’d have set up better defences just in case he—a teenager—wasn’t there to help. Like maybe tell me what the hell was going on!”

“I tried! I did everything I could to keep you on your toes, to prepare you, to teach you to always be on your guard, and yet—” He made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat, perhaps recognising that the middle of the hallway was not in fact the best place to have a family feud. He grabbed Harry roughly by the arm and shuttled him into the nearest empty classroom, locking it fast and placing a quick series of wards he must have had memorised for just such occasions. Paranoid prick (or well, maybe not so paranoid).

He then rounded on Harry. “I have done my level best to keep you safe, all these years, to teach you who to trust and who not to trust, to train a healthy bit of paranoia into you. I surrounded you with those sworn to your protection, from myself to your godfathers to students of questionable family lineage who seemed like they might enjoy the chance for a spot of teenage rebellion.” He clenched his hands into white-knuckled fists, and there was an unmistakable quaver in his voice, though it was hard to tell if it was from rage or desperation. Maybe a bit of both. “I have done all that I could to keep you safe while letting you still be you, to have something approaching a childhood. And yet you accuse me of not doing enough?”

“Yeah,” Harry nodded. “You did all you could—except the one thing that I wanted you to do: talk to me. Trust me. You’ve never hidden anything from me before, never let me be ignorant of everything and everyone out there waiting for me. Never! Until we came here, and then it felt like you couldn’t trust me anymore, and I told myself it was just because you didn’t have the greatest memories of this place, that you were just being you, my dad the emotionless clod, but then you started involving my friends, letting them in on whatever it was you felt was important enough even you needed help but not important enough to bring your own son in on. And still I let it go, because—because I don’t know why.

“I just thought if I waited long enough, that one of you would tell me. You, or Draco, or maybe even Hermione. Do you know what it’s been like? Feeling like there’s a sword hanging over me and waiting for someone—anyone—to tell me it’s there…and that warning never coming?” Harry shook his head. “What happened? Why wasn’t I important enough to tell? It’s always been us against the world, and now it feels like everyone knows what’s coming except me.” He released a derisive huff. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if I hadn’t almost died and forced your hand. It’d be just another Sunday—”

Severus’s arms snapped out, and he drew Harry into a tight hug, nearly crushing in its fierceness. He held him there for a long beat, and Harry felt shudders of emotion ripple through him. “Please—don’t say that. Please.”

Harry waited, and then because Draco had taught him it was never a bad idea to be a little sh*t: “...Don’t say it’s Sunday?”

“...Don’t say you almost died. I cannot hear those words—because then I can’t help thinking about you actually dying, and the wound the mere thought of that inflicts is too much to bear.” He inhaled deeply, exhalation coming with a haggard stutter. “You are all I have left. Of course it’s us against the world—even after all this time. Always.”

“…Except it doesn’t feel like it.”

Severus released him, reluctant but likely understanding that Harry would need to breathe at some point. He tugged on his robes, collecting himself.

After a quiet beat, the space completely silent thanks to the heavy wards put in place, Severus said, “...I wanted, so desperately, for you to have as normal a school year as possible while you were here. To experience what it might be like to just be an ordinary child, surrounded by other ordinary children. Making friends—making enemies. Taking classes you liked as well as ones you didn’t like. I wanted that for you—if only for a few months.” He wrung his hands before him. “...I’ve known for some time that we would have to have a difficult conversation, and while I may have been Sorted into Gryffindor, I do not count bravery as one of my qualities. I wanted to put this conversation off for as long as possible—at least until the preparations were ready.” He grimaced to himself. “And preparations have been ready for several weeks now, so I’ve no more excuses to make.”

Harry felt his heart rate begin to pick up, and a nauseous churning curled in his midsection. This wasn’t his father’s patented brand of paranoia—this was well and truly fear, and Harry didn’t think he wanted to know, now, what had put it in him.

But after his fantastic rant about wanting Severus to talk to him more, he was in no place to decline, so when his father inclined his head for Harry to follow, explaining, “Let’s head back to my office. I’ve stronger wards in place there, and…we’ll want to have our privacy for this,” Harry had no real choice but to go.

“I had hoped,” Severus said as he sealed the door to his office behind them and made his way over to his great chair behind his desk, “that you’d be better prepared when you inevitably faced him—if you had to do so at all. I envisioned a distant future where, through rigorous duelling practice and intense discussion of his personality and flaws, you would feel equal or greater to him in a wand-to-wand battle.”

“We can’t always get what we want, I guess,” Harry muttered in his best attempt at Draco’s drawl, and Severus gave a wan little chuckle.

“I suppose not.” He leaned over his desk, steepling his fingers. “What was your measure of him? The man who murdered Lily Evans?”

And oh, Harry hadn’t allowed himself a moment to breathe since being spirited away from that place that might have become his own grave were it not for Draco—and suddenly it all washed over him, overwhelming and choking like a rogue wave.

“I—I saw her,” he stammered, jaw working. “I saw her—Mom. She was there.”

Severus sat up straighter, thin black brows furrowing, and his voice was hard and strained. “...What do you mean you saw her?”

“We—duelled. Voldemort and I. Well, maybe ‘duelled’ isn’t quite the right word. It was mostly me running for my life and trying to dodge all the Curses he was flinging at me. But I managed to get one off—except he was prepared, and he cast at the same time. I thought for sure his Killing Curse would overwhelm my magic—you can’t even Shield against it, after all—but the magic kind of…met? Collided, and it felt like a real, physical force I could control, pushing against me while I pushed back against it. Something happened—I dunno what to call it—but suddenly…she was there.” His lips quirked up into a smile as he stared blankly into the distance, memory sweeping through him. He was back there now, but it wasn’t so bad, because she was there too, and she wouldn’t let anything happen to him. “She was there, but…translucent, though. Like a ghost. But warm, so not like a ghost?” He brightened. “She spoke to me! And I know it was her, because I’ve heard her, in your memories! She said—” He swallowed thickly. “She said she was proud of me. And that she loved me.”

Severus slumped back on his chair, head thrown back, and rubbed at his face, covering his eyes. “...Of course. Priori incantatem.”

It wasn’t a term with which Harry was familiar. “What’s that?”

Severus leaned forward again, seeming glad of the chance to deliver a lecture and free himself from the emotional turmoil of the moment. His father wasn’t looking at him, and Harry wondered if he, just a little bit, resented that Harry had gotten to see Lily one last time—for the first time, really—and he hadn’t.

“The Charm Prior Incantato has only niche uses, forcing the wand upon which it is cast to, well, regurgitate echoes of the most recent spells it has performed. It’s generally limited to Auror investigations and the like, when such information is pertinent.” He sighed. “...There is a related phenomenon, though, that manifests in very, very limited scenarios: specifically when two wands that share a core are forced into a duel. The cores generate a sort of resonance, known as Priori incantatem, that allow their wielder to wilfully force the opponent’s wand to produce echoes of its most recent spells. In Voldemort’s wand’s case…” He swallowed a thick lump, throat bobbing. “...You would have seen the echo of your mother, among others.”

An echo. Not a ghost, not an angel or anything come from beyond the grave to shelter him and shower him with a decade and a half’s worth of lost love. Just a magical phenomenon, special only for its rarity.

“...So she wasn’t real,” he said morosely, shocked how much he’d hung on it actually having been her. She’d been the realest thing he’d ever seen in that moment, and he’d needed her to take away the pain and anger and hatred bubbling up that felt foreign but welcome—and she had.

And now it was all coming back.

Yes, yes she was—” Severus started, scrambling from his chair to place his hands on Harry’s shoulders and shake understanding into him. “She was—what we understand of such magics could barely fill a thimble. If anyone could have reached through the veil and touched you, then it was her. If she made you feel like her son—then that was your mother. Don’t you dare think she wouldn’t rend the very foundations of reality for an excuse to spend but a moment with you once more.” He pressed a kiss to Harry’s forehead, in precisely the same place Lily had. “Either of us would.”

Harry wanted to believe him, but now that the thought was lodged in his head, it wouldn’t leave. He tried to distract himself with anger—and it worked: “…I should have fought back harder. I know how to duel—I’m good at it.” Well, he was half-decent; he had good reflexes, as Quidditch training had shown, but he could be predictable. “Why didn’t I try? I just ran, and then all I could think to do was disarm him! Disarm the man who killed my mother! I could have cast anythinganything would’ve been better, would’ve shown him that he couldn’t outrun his fate forever. Eventually he’d have to pay for the misery he brought upon others.”

It was a fine sentiment, he knew, but the truth of it was that he was just a child, and Voldemort was a monster who’d so thoroughly prepared for every eventuality even he probably didn’t remember all of his failsafes. Harry could’ve cast anything else, true—but the outcome would have been the same.

“Because you couldn’t,” Severus said, matter-of-factly. He took a step back from Harry, doffing all the fierce emotion and slipping back into the cool guise of Potions Master. “You couldn’t have fought back harder. Just as I couldn’t have. Just as dozens of others couldn’t have. That’s the Gryffindor in you talking—silence it. Those robes you wear to class every day speak of a different story, and you really ought to start acting a bit more like your House. Or, failing that, lean on those around you who can. Be smart. Be cunning. And do not be egotistical and overconfident. A thousand skilled wizards have run up against him and failed to beat him.” He released a soft, wistful sigh. “…It’s the ones who were smart about it who’ve chipped away at his armour.”

Harry frowned at the wording. “…Is that what ‘Horcruxes’ are? Are you—fashioning some kind of weapon? Something that can beat him?”

Severus’s lips thinned. He turned over his shoulder to one of the portraits, an older wizard with a perpetually pinch-faced sourness to his mien and curled lip, as if he’d just smelled something foul. His father lifted his wand and poked it forward, as if piercing a bubble, and spoke up, “Professor Black. Would you be so kind as to let the Headmaster know to expect us promptly? We have…important matters to discuss with him.”

“Oh, so now you want my aid! Done with our private little conversation then, are we?”

“You know as well as I the importance of discretion.”

“You can have all the discretion you might need if you would but return me to the house of my ancestors.”

“In due course, Professor Black. For now—would you be so kind?”

Professor Black gave a mighty harumph! but shuffled from his portrait frame all the same, and Severus turned back to Harry. “The Headmaster may be able to be more…delicate in the explanation.”

Harry was beginning to get the idea these Horcrux things weren’t a weapon after all. “…These are what you’ve had Draco and Hermione working on?”

Severus placed a hand at his back, urging him from the office. “As I said, the Headmaster will be able to answer your questions.”

“You didn’t say that, though. You said he’d be more delicate about it. And I’ve asked you.”

“Oh—blast. The Glamour. Wait, stand here.” He then began tweaking and poking Harry’s features in a manner he hadn’t missed. “Mr Malfoy and Ms Granger have been helping me with my research, yes.”

“On Horcru—”

Don’t,” Severus hissed, poking his nose rather sharply, then pitched his voice lower and leaned close. “…Do not say that word again until we’ve reached the Headmaster’s office, am I understood?” Harry frowned but nodded. “It is not a word to be bandied about—most won’t know what it means, but those that do…are particularly dangerous.”

“…Is that why you made Draco make an Unbreakable Vow? So he couldn’t tell anyone about it, even if he wanted to?”

“I did not trust him. I still don’t, if I’m being honest, but not because of his family ties.” Severus’s shoulders slumped as he tapped Harry’s crown a final time, and he felt the tingle of the Glamour setting in. “He’s too fond of you for his own good. I protected him from himself.” Harry opened his mouth, another protest ready on his lips, but his father already had his hands on his shoulders again, steering him toward the door. “Come,” he said, drawing a cloak with a deep hood over himself instead of reaching for one of his Polyjuice vials. “We mustn’t keep Professor Dumbledore waiting.”

Harry let it go for now. They’d have plenty of time to argue each other hoarse later.

By the time they’d climbed their way to the Headmaster’s Office. It was much larger than Severus’s office, which itself was already respectably sized, and its walls were decorated with portraits of witches and wizards whose names and accolades Harry could only guess at. In the corner on a pedestal stood a large gilded cage, its door open, within which perched a bird with bright orange-and-red plumage. It was presently napping with its head tucked under one wing, and the gentle rise and fall of its chest reminded Harry that he was, in fact, very very tired himself.

Dumbledore already had three mugs of something warm and bracing waiting for them, along with a trio of comfortable armchairs by a massive stone fireplace. The weather wasn’t nearly as chilly these days as it had been just a few weeks ago, but the nights could still get a bit nippy, and Harry appreciated the cosiness, even if it disarmed him. It felt like a shoe had dropped, and somewhere, there was another just waiting to come tumbling down after it.

“I hear you’ve had quite an exciting evening, Mr Evans,” Dumbledore said mildly as he settled into the tallest-backed of the chairs, facing the pair clearly meant for Harry and his father to occupy. “Most grown wizards would not still be standing after such an encounter as you survived, much less taking tea in my parlour.”

“…I’m not sure I’d call it ‘exciting’, sir,” Harry said, inhaling the vapours of his drink. His nerves were still jangled from the Cruciatus, and three times between his father’s office and Dumbledore’s he’d contemplated begging off and reconvening after he’d had some sleep and guzzled the strongest pain potions Madame Pomfrey had in stock, but he’d eventually concluded that he needed answers, and putting such conversations off would only give his father further excuses to avoid coming clean.

“No,” Dumbledore sighed. “I don’t suppose you would, after all.” He co*cked his head, blue eyes narrowed behind half-moon spectacles. “What did you make of him? The wizard once known as Tom Marvolo Riddle—or rather, what’s left of him.”

Tom. Tom. It was such a normal name. Maybe that was why Voldemort hadn’t wanted to use it.

“I…I don’t know,” Harry said. His father had asked Harry the same thing, and he still didn’t have much of an answer.

“Come—you must have some thoughts.”

“None that are polite to repeat.”

Dumbledore chuckled merrily at this. “Spirit. I like it.”

Harry could feel him still waiting for more, so he offered instead, “When we duelled—”

“A duel!”

He ignored the interruption; it felt patronising, and he could feel his irritation rising again like an incoming tide. “When we duelled, our spells clashed—and there was this brilliant gold bead of light that made the echoes of the most recent spells you’d cast spill out from your wand.”

Priori incantatem,” his father reminded, and Harry nodded. Dumbledore just gave an impressed Hm! as if he’d already heard this story. Harry wondered if he in fact had.

“And—it was a pretty one-sided duel otherwise. I was focused on escaping, not fighting. I wanted to—but, in the moment, I just…” He swallowed. “…It didn’t seem smart.”

“And here we see that you have finally become the Slytherin you were meant to be.” Harry frowned, temper sparking, but Dumbledore raised a hand. “I mean no offence, Mr Evans. It was merely an observation—a Gryffindor might have blindly thrown himself into that battle, fuelled by rage and hatred and all of those most basic but ever so powerful emotions. A Ravenclaw might have tried to outwit him—distracted him, bought time until aid could arrive. A Hufflepuff would have been a resourceful little badger, perhaps digging away at Voldemort’s support system and working to turn him against his Death Eaters or them against him. But you…” His lips quirked up on one side. “You sought to survive. You did not give in to base emotion or waste your time pursuing tacks you knew you were unsuited for. You practised great cunning.” His smile softened. “Mr Malfoy has taught you well. Bravo.”

Harry still didn’t feel entirely complimented, so he diverted the discussion. “…My father said you wanted to discuss something with me.”

“Did he? What might that be?”

Harry cast a sidelong glance at Severus, checking for permission, but found his father much more interested in his teacup right now than his son. Fine, the inelegant, indelicate way it would have to be.

For the third time that evening, he asked: “What, exactly, are Horcruxes, sir? I’m under the impression they’re a rather dangerous field of study, and that they might be some sort of weapon for defeating Voldemort?” He hoped he didn’t sound terribly stupid right now. It wasn’t his fault no one was telling him anything, evidently enjoying watching him muddle through this business all on his own, but he hated seeming like a dud in front of someone he respected.

Dumbledore set his teacup aside and folded his long, spindly fingers before him, one hand bearing an elegant velveteen glove of emerald with silver stitching. He was still smiling, but at least without that patronising gleam in his eye from earlier. “They are not weapons—not in so many words. But they are the key to destroying Lord Voldemort for good.” He then frowned to himself. “No—I misspoke. Without their destruction, he cannot be killed. Not in any meaningful way.”

Harry hadn’t realised there were scales to death with meaningful and less-than-meaningful extremes. “…Sir, what are they?”

“A Horcrux is a talisman of sorts. A tether to the mortal realm, created through the most brutal of dark magics that imbues a bit of the creator’s soul into an object. So long as the Horcrux remains, the one who created it will always have a way to claw their way back from death.”

“And…Voldemort’s made one of these?”

Dumbledore tilted his head down, eyes glinting from behind his spectacles as he seemed to stare through Harry. “…He has made seven.”

Oh. Well f*ck. Harry shook his head. “So—we’ve got to destroy these bits of his soul first, before there’s even any point in trying to destroy him?” Dumbledore nodded sagely, reaching for his cup once more and refilling it with a tap of his wand. “All…right. How difficult are they to destroy?”

“Not so very. If you can find them.”

“Well—do we know where they are?”


“Do we know what they look like, at least?”

“No.” Harry wilted, and Dumbledore released a soft chuckle. “You see the conundrum, now.” A ‘conundrum’ was putting it mildly. “But take heart, all is not quite so hopeless as it may seem. One has already been destroyed—and another…” He co*cked his head in thought, eyes darting to Severus and then back again. “Another may be sundered soon. That leaves just five to contend with.”

Still five, you mean.”

“Better than seven, you must admit.” All right, he had a point.

Harry then began to put the pieces together, turning to his father: “Wait, so—this is the research you’ve had Draco and Hermione working on? That’s why you made them make an Unbreakable Vow? So they couldn’t tell anyone they were looking for Horcruxes?”

Severus nodded. “Ms Granger has a passion for research and a thirst for knowledge I’d be wary of in most anyone else, and Mr Malfoy…well, his goals were rather more self-serving, I think. But he is sharp and has an understanding of darker magics without—to my eye—the drive to use them to his own ends, Slytherin though he may be.”

“Mr Malfoy and Ms Granger have been most helpful—through their combined efforts, we believe we’ve narrowed down the potential Horcruxes to a mere handful of likely candidates.” Dumbledore spread his hands. “All that is left now is to find them and destroy them.”

Harry gave a dry, mirthless laugh. “You make it sound so easy.”

“I do,” Dumbledore said. “I apologise.”

Harry shook his head. “I…all right, I appreciate finally being looped in on all this—but I’m not sure why it’s happening now.” He turned on his father. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before? Why all the secrecy from me? I could have been helping all this time—and don’t—” He raised a finger when Severus seemed about to protest. “Don’t tell me you just wanted to let me enjoy being a teenager for a bit. This sounds like it’s a hell of a lot more important than Quidditch practice and Yule Balls. I want to help. Let me.” How Severus could have possibly thought he wouldn’t want to was beyond him.

Severus was tight-lipped, though, and Harry could see his throat working with emotion. In the end, it was Dumbledore who spoke first: “…Please don’t blame your father, Harry. He did want to protect you—for as long as he could. He hoped to spare you—even now, he hopes it won’t come to it, but there is a cold, calculating streak in him inherited from a long line of Slytherins that tells him there is no other choice.”

Severus’s back was curved in a hunch, and Harry silently begged him to say something, because he was beginning to doubt that Dumbledore really would be more delicate in his explanation after all. “…Dad?” he said, soft and timid, but it was enough to break Severus, who took in a deep, bracing breath, releasing it in a staggered stutter.

He turned to Harry, looking him all over, as if taking him in anew. “You…are one of his Horcruxes. The one he never meant to make. And the one he doesn’t know about.”

Harry felt his stomach drop—and then his teacup really did drop, falling from his limp grasp but rescued before it could shatter upon the flagstones by a subtle twitch of Dumbledore’s wand.

Another may be sundered soon—Harry’s father desperately putting off having what he was convinced would be a difficult conversation—Draco’s arms tight around his neck, begging Please don’t die.

His mouth was dry, and when he spoke, it came out a raspy whisper: “…I’ve got to die?”

No,” Severus assured him, leaping from his chair to kneel before Harry and taking his hands in his own. “You do not need to die—”

“Actually, he does, Severus,” Dumbledore said, a faint smile still on his lips despite the dark discussion they were now entertaining.

His head whipped around. “Would you shut up!” he snarled, but Dumbledore did not seem cowed. Severus turned back to Harry, as earnest as he’d ever seen his father. “You do not need to die. I won’t let you. We need only to the destroy the Horcrux’s vessel—without it, the bit of his soul that has attached itself to you will perish.”

“Being ‘destroyed’ sounds a lot like dying!”

“Ten points to Slytherin,” Dumbledore chuckled, as if this were the most entertaining thing he’d seen in ages. Harry didn’t think he liked this man anymore and had no idea why Severus had thought he’d be more delicate with this conversation. Maybe he just hadn’t wanted to have it himself—maybe this was Dumbledore’s way of making him have it. He wondered which House Dumbledore had belonged to when he’d been a student.

Severus took a haggard breath, asking, “…Might we have a moment alone, Headmaster?”

“…Of course,” Dumbledore said, rising from his chair and giving them a polite nodding bow. “I think I shall take an early-morning stroll about the greenhouses. Professor Sprout has had the Fifth-years potting Fanged Geraniums, and they’re in full bloom!”

With that, he shuffled from his office, long silver robes swishing softly over the flagstones and down the spiralling staircase leading from his tower.

Severus stood from where he’d been knelt before Harry and began pacing, a nervous energy about him that was almost palpable. Harry couldn’t blame him—it was only shock keeping him sitting here as it was.

“This is not your job, Harry. Your job is to be a child—if only for a little bit longer. Your job is to go to school dances and have awkward dates at Madam Puddifoot’s and try out for the Quidditch team and to tell your very well-meaning father you’ll consort with whoever you like, his good advice be damned.” He turned on Harry, pleading. “It is not this.”

And Harry knew that. Had been telling himself that most of his life. Resentment was an old friend of his by now. And it was a child’s job to wallow in that resentment, too. He ought to be allowed to be angry that he’d never been able to be a child, except for maybe those brief first few weeks here, before his father had taken his best friend away and put lies and secrets between them. And he was angry.

But there was also a feeling, like lead, settling in the pit of his stomach that said none of that mattered. It didn’t matter how he felt—because it did nothing to change the outcome.

Harry said, in a much smaller voice than he’d intended, “He really can’t be destroyed for good, though—not without this, right?”

“It is a hunch, we don’t know you’re actually a Horcrux—there’s never been any indication that humans are acceptable vessels for Horcruxes, and there’s no reason to believe you’d be the first—” He seemed to run out of steam though, speaking more to convince himself than Harry now, and he brought a hand to his mouth, closing his eyes in a visible attempt to calm himself.

“...It’s not a hunch, though. Or you wouldn’t have told me.” Harry swallowed. “Is there any way to be sure?”

And Severus gave him a shrewd look. “One, for certain. Or as an alternative that doesn’t involve you dying—”

“You said I wouldn’t die.”

Severus ignored him. “—We could hunt down the pieces we know to be Horcruxes, destroy them, and then deal him a killing blow. Best case scenario: those were all of the Horcruxes, and Voldemort is gone for good. Worst case scenario: there really is a bit of his soul cleaved to you, and he’s only been critically wounded to the point that he cannot feasibly return to power again.” He waved a hand in a grand gesture. “Look how low he was brought even with all of his Horcruxes still intact! Simply destroying the ones that don’t involve risk to human life would be more than enough to ensure he stays gone.”

“But gone isn’t gone. And—because you’ve told me the story a thousand times—the only reason he was able to be brought to the brink of death last time was because of his own rebounding curse.” Harry laughed roughly, shaking his head. “Gonna chuck another baby his way and hope the Killing Curse bounces off that one too? Because if not, it certainly sounds to me like unless I die—”

Severus winced. “I told you not to say that…”

“Without that, then he’s just gonna keep running around, terrorising people, ruining more families, and maybe it’ll take him twenty years this time to rebuild himself, but he’ll do it again. So if you want to take that chance, all right—let’s find the other Horcruxes, and then we’ll roll the dice. We’ll hope that the one chance you’ll probably get to deal him a deadly blow is the one that sticks.” Harry firmed his jaw. “Or you can stop being my dad for five minutes and see logic. I’m getting good at it now, so I’m happy to help.” He leaned forward in his seat, elbows on his knees and head hung. “...If you’re only going to get one shot at this…you have to be sure.” He looked up, locking eyes with Severus. “...Am I a Horcrux?”

Severus closed his eyes. Evidently even Gryffindors could lose their nerve. “...Yes.”

Harry felt the strength leave his limbs as he slumped back in his chair. Was this what his mother had meant? Was this the one more thing he was going to have to give to a world that had already taken so much from him? His life?

Well, at least it’d been a short one. And not a very remarkable one. No great loss, he supposed, trying his best to detach himself from the emotion of the moment, because he wouldn’t be strong enough for what had to happen otherwise.

Severus was on him again, shaking him by the shoulders. “You are a child. A teenager! Sixteen going on seventeen, with your entire life ahead of you—a long one, one your mother died to ensure you would have. I count it a blessing now you weren’t sorted into Gryffindor, so stop trying to play at one.”

“I’m not,” Harry said, forcing evenness into his voice. “I’m being as cold and calculating as I possibly can without losing my mind here, so please don’t make it harder than it has to be.” He gave a wan, wistful smile. “If you don’t want me acting like a Gryffindor, then you ought to act like one.”

Severus’s lips twisted into a bitter frown, shoulders hunched. “I spent my entire life’s supply of courage chasing down your mother. I worry all I have now is fear of losing the only piece of her I have left.”

“...I don’t think we get to choose who we lose sometimes, Dad.”

And Severus’s frown deepened as he shook his head. “The hell we do.”

Harry’s heart clenched, “Dad—”

“No, no—” He leapt to his feet, and began pacing, gesturing wildly. “I told you you weren’t going to die, and I meant it.” Harry opened his mouth to protest, not sure how he could stop his father once he began spiralling but needing to, because it would drag him down as well. “There’s a way.”

“A way,” Harry repeated evenly. Denial it was going to be, evidently. “All right.”

Don’t take that tone with me,” Severus snapped, ceasing his pacing to glower down at Harry. “You insist on being a self-sacrificing fool? Well, I know who you got that from, and it certainly wasn’t me. And I’ve no intention of sitting idly by and just letting it happen this time.”

This time? Harry frowned. “I—what are you talking about?”

Severus swallowed thickly. “There is a way to…cheat death. Without Horcruxes.” He released a haggard breath. “Magic older than anyone can quite grasp—and yet it’s been used countless thousands, perhaps millions of times over the course of wizarding history.”

That sounded entirely too good to be true, and given his father’s desperate state, Harry was hesitant to credit it—not least of all because hope was a dangerous thing to contend with for someone trying to come to terms with the fact he was going to die a hell of a lot sooner than he’d expected. “...And you just happened to remember this useful bit of magic existed right now?”

Severus pursed his lips at Harry in disapproval, probably not impressed with his tone. “...Do you think that I would lie to you? That I would not understand the gravity of the situation—that I would dare tamper with your agency? Do you think I have never loved someone so much that I let them die, because I knew that was what they wanted?”

And if Harry ever had before, he certainly didn’t think so now, a chill running down his spine. “...What are you talking about?” he repeated with more insistence this time, because his father didn’t say things like that idly.

They stared at each other for a long, unbroken moment of silence before Severus flinched and settled into Dumbledore’s chair, hands laced before him. Harry’s breathing had become ragged with apprehension, and he could feel his heart pounding against his ribcage, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak any further, throat parched.

Blessedly, Severus seemed to collect himself at last and spared them further awkwardness. “...She was so clever. Not unlike Ms Granger. The first witch in her family line, there wasn’t a single bit of magical lore or theory she didn’t find fascinating. And it was the more obscure bits, the pieces shrouded in mystery and rumour, that most fiercely grabbed her attention and stoked her curiosity.” He allowed himself a bitter, twisted smile. “Sometimes I think she spent more time in the Restricted Section than out of it. A Marauder in her own right.”

His mother. He’d always known she’d been smart, but he’d privately thought his father might have been a bit overzealous in his boasting, calling her the brightest witch of her age. He tried to imagine her hunched over a desk in the library, dwarfed by a tower of dusty old tomes on either side and having to be tugged from her little nook by his father, insistent that she was getting more pale than he was these days and that was just wrong.

“She was the one who found it first—cobbled together from dozens of different accounts across centuries, anecdotal evidence only initially, but enough…” He looked away, gaze fixed off in the distance and eyes gone glassy. “Enough to stake her life on it.”

He sniffed, coughing softly, and when he spoke again, his voice had taken on an academic tone as he distanced himself from the emotional blow of recollection. “There are many aspects of reality so esoteric that our understanding of their interaction with magic is woefully thin. Time, space, the mind, death…love. And it was love that your mother found most fascinating—how it could not truly be manipulated by magic, when so many of our other emotions could be; how it could be predicted but not guaranteed and was ever so malleable; how it affected the very core of us, how it affected our magic—and how there were spells that could be empowered by hate but seemingly none that could be empowered by love.” He shook his head. “She thought that was a ridiculous notion, that one of the most powerful forces in the universe couldn’t somehow be harnessed.” He Summoned his forgotten saucer and teacup, tapping his wand against the lip to refill it. “It turns out it can be harnessed. Only not in an offensive fashion.”

Harry frowned. “Not…in an offensive fashion? Then—how?” The concept of emotions empowering one’s magic was not a foreign one. Unforgivables and other darker magics required a certain degree of negative emotion on the caster’s part to really do their dirty work, Patronuses required happy memories to be Conjured, and children’s emotional outbursts were common triggers of wild magic surges before they learned to control themselves. But Harry had never heard of the applications of love, not in spellcraft or brewing or any branch of the arcane. “Healing magic?” he tried.

Severus’s lips thinned into a tight line. “Defensive magic. Protection. Retribution.” Harry swallowed, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “...She divined that a powerful enough display of love could…place a protective Charm upon another.” Severus grimaced. “And what is a more powerful way to demonstrate your love for someone than to sacrifice your life for them?”

And there it was. His father had always told him, for as long as he could remember, that his mother had given her life for Harry. Given it to protect him—and he’d thought they were just pretty words to describe a murder in cold blood. But he’d been right. He’d been right.

“When we went into hiding, locking down once it became clear that Voldemort would stop at nothing until the babe he’d marked as his enemy had been destroyed, she spent her every waking moment with her nose buried in books. I don’t think she changed a nappy once that first year.” And Harry had to smile a little at that—where had those recollections been in the Pocket Pensieve memories? He needed to have them added, stat. “She would bounce ideas off me and dazzle me with new tidbits she’d uncovered in her readings while feeding you—I think she found the research effort itself nearly as thrilling as any findings.” The warm bloom of reminiscence then fell away, his features tightening. “…And then she stopped talking to me about what she’d learned that day. She was still deep into her research, dashing off owls to points far and wide, dismissing me when I suggested she pace herself or take an afternoon to spend with you in the warded garden. Her intensity was evergreen, but her excitement had vanished like a puff of smoke in a gale.”

He took a steadying breath. “…And then, the Order received word that the Death Eaters were planning a raid on a local Muggle village. Lily suggested I join the Order members, that I take along a parcel Transfigured to look like you and bait Voldemort into attacking. A well-enough constructed ruse might be sufficient to convince him he’d killed you and put him off your scent either entirely or at least long enough to allow us to flee the country. She would stay back with you, protected behind our wards, and wait for word of our success. I was the better dueller between us, so it was better I go if it came down to a match of wands.

“And I knew—I knew she was lying. But she was so disarming, and I couldn’t force it from her. I could never stand in her way when she was on a mission. At best, she’d talk circles around me, and at worst…at worst, she wouldn’t talk to me for weeks. So when she told me to go, to help the others pull off the plan, that they needed me more than you and she did and that she’d make sure nothing happened to you…” He swallowed, wiping a hand over his face and releasing a staggering breath. “I believed her. I made myself believe her.”

“So, she lied…but…” Harry shook his head, still not following the thread. “Why? Why would she send you away?” He tried not to recall Pettigrew jeering that Lily had given him up willingly, had known there was no avoiding his fate, but the suspicion galled him like bitter bile, choking.

And then Severus said the words he’d been fearful of hearing: “Because she wanted to meet him, with you, alone. She wanted him to come for you—she needed him to want to kill you so badly…that he would kill her to get to you.” A sad, warbling smile stretched his lips. “Because that was the last greatest protection she could give you. A Sacrificial Charm so powerful that anyone who dared attempt to harm you would be struck dead on the spot. A knowledge she’d scrounged up from the annals of history, not so much forbidden as forgotten. A knowledge she’d hoarded to herself…so at least you would have one of us left behind to care for you.”

And that, it seemed, was the straw that broke him, as the emotion of it all—recollecting the past, contemplating the future, and the aching loneliness of seemingly being abandoned on both ends—overwhelmed his father, who sank to his knees, back heaving with great sobs that Harry had never witnessed before.

He panicked—Severus didn’t cry. That was the one thing Harry had always counted on, the fact that he could seem so cold and stoic, expressing himself in every other way possible except weeping. If something was too difficult for him to speak about without risking a crying jag, he would just not speak about it at all. That had always been the trouble.

And now Harry wished he’d go back to the not-crying, because he hadn’t a clue how to handle this situation. Parents were supposed to comfort their children while they cried, not the other way around, and bereft of ideas, Harry launched himself at his father, wrapping him in his arms and hugging him as tight as he possibly could.

Paradoxically, this only made Severus cry harder, and that got Harry choked up too. “Y—you’ve gotta stop. We look ridiculous. Please.”

Severus’s arms came up around him, nearly squeezing him breathless as he buried his face in Harry’s neck. “I shouldn’t have let her. There were other ways. There are always other ways. I’m sorry…I’m so sorry, Harry…”

As if he had any place apologising! Harry shook his head fiercely, voice thick with emotion as he blinked back tears. “It wasn’t your fault. She wanted to do it, you said. She made her choice—”

“And it was a stupid one—as bright as she was, she could be selfish and foolish, and that was the culmination of both.” Severus’s voice took on a gruff, bitter edge, and he pulled back from Harry, mopping his eyes with his robes. “And I won’t stand for you making the same mistake.”

And now they were back to this. Harry was starting to understand why his mother hadn’t confessed her plan, now. A dark part of him wondered if it might come down to Obliviation—Dumbledore certainly seemed content to blithely allow Harry to be destroyed, so he’d probably be equally all right with a bit of mind manipulation to make it all go down more easily. “Dad…”

But Severus had a finger raised as he slicked back his hair with the other hand in a feeble attempt to put himself back together. He straightened, jaw tightening. “You mean to do this. There’s nothing I can do about that—nothing except make it so you don’t have to.” He slipped his wand into his sleeve. “It’s merely a matter of destroying the parasitic bit of that soul clinging to you without destroying you in the doing.”

Harry released a rough little chuckle, wiping at his eyes. He would let himself properly cry later. He had a lot of reasons to cry now, so it would be best to get it all over with at once. “You make it sound so simple.”

“Oh, I can assure you it is far from simple,” Severus sneered. “…But if it is what must happen, if you cannot be dissuaded from this course, then you must allow me to try. Do not ask me to stand by and watch as another one I love dies for a perceived greater good.”

And Harry supposed that though hope was a dangerous thing for him, it was all his father had left. He would have to stomach it for as long as it lasted. “…Is this a desperate bid, or do you actually have something?”

“A bit of both, actually.” That somehow made sense. “You can thank your mother, though. She gets to save you a second time.”

Harry frowned. “I don’t follow.” Was the Protection Charm still active? Ought he to have just stood there and let Voldemort try and Curse him, back in that graveyard? He might be snug in his bed, on his way to sleeping through the whole of Sunday morning by now in that case.

Severus stepped over to a blackboard hanging on the wall, upon which were scrawled dozens of arcane sigils whose purpose Harry could only guess at—probably should have taken Ancient Runes instead of Divination—as well as a very poorly drawn stick-figure rendition of a dragon attacking a tower in an effort to capture the princess living therein. His father palmed his wand and swiped away what Harry hoped were not terribly important calculations of Dumbledore’s.

Severus began scrawling furiously. “What we know is that one—there is a bit of Voldemort’s soul stuck to your own, cleaved so tight it cannot be removed by any means, magical or mystical or mundane. The only way to destroy it is to also destroy the housing.” He drew a figure not much more impressive than Dumbledore’s crude dragon. “You.”

“I think I liked ‘vessel’ better.”

Severus ignored him, continuing to scribble, this time adding another figure and a couple of arrows into the mix. “We also know that two—when a witch or wizard willingly lays down their life for another out of abiding love for them, they are able to generate a protective Charm so powerful, that any attempt to violate it backfires on the assailant with deadly force.” Severus tapped the board, and one of the figures began to cast at the other, with the spell rebounding and knocking the caster prone. “A blow that can only be survived if precautions against death have already been taken.”

“…Like having a bunch of Horcruxes lying around.”

“Indeed. So, when targeted by the Killing Curse without this Charm upon you, you die—with it upon you, you don’t die.” Harry was following so far, but he felt like the conversation was about to take a hard right off a cliff, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to join it. “We simply need to engineer a condition under which you both do and do not die.”

Harry wanted to laugh, but he couldn’t muster the strength, slumping back into his chair. “Oh, is that all? We just have to do the impossible.”

“Don’t be dramatic—I recognise you haven’t gotten much sleep tonight, but you know as well as I that paradoxes are as much a part of magical theory as wands and cauldrons.”

“I hate magical theory,” Harry groaned.

“Well you’d better learn to like it and quick. Because it might be the only way you live to see seventeen, if you’re as bent on charging toward certain death as your mother.” He whapped his palm with his wand, and Harry sat up a bit straighter. “Now. The killing part is easy enough—I’ve wanted to do it enough times over the years.” He firmed his jaw. “...It’s the keeping you from dying bit that will require…well, rather a lot more effort.” He swallowed, suddenly finding the flagstones fascinating. “We’ll apply the same sacrificial protection upon you as your mother did—”

“Wait—wait.” Harry held up a hand. “What do you mean the same one as her? She died to put that—” His heart froze in his chest, a lead weight. “...What the hell are you saying?”

“...If you’ll kindly stop interrupting and listen, perhaps you’ll learn something.” He moved back to the blackboard, seemingly grateful for the distraction as he scribbled away. “There is no Shield Charm that can block the Killing Curse—and more to the point, we don’t want to block it. We only want it to touch you just long enough to destroy the weakest part of you—that nasty parasitic bit of his soul—before it takes the whole of you with it. The only magical effect that has ever been proven able to do that, to rebuff the power of the Killing Curse, is Lily’s Charm—which is only able to be placed on another under conditions of self-sacrifice fuelled by a wellspring of love.” He tapped the circular loop he’d drawn on the board, sniffing. “So: The Curse is cast, but the Charm is in place, so the Curse rebounds, killing the caster and completing the sacrifice—”

“Completing the sacri—who’s casting the Curse?!” Harry charged over to his father, placing himself in Severus’s line of sight. “Dad, who’s casting the Curse?”

Severus turned to him, slipping his arms into his sleeves. “I am.”

“The hell you a—”

Harry.” A hand came to rest on his shoulder, squeezing with rather more force than was appropriate, and Harry flinched. Severus held his eye, and Harry saw a welling sadness that terrified him. “You can’t possibly have thought there was any chance I would let you do this on your own.”

“Well—no—but—” But there was no sense in both of them dying, he didn’t say, because his father had asked him not to.

“And who would you have sacrifice themselves to ensure you survive this? Your Mr Malfoy? I have trouble believing a Slytherin could ever be that suicidal or stupid.”

“And yet here I stand,” Harry muttered because, well, it was turning out to be true. “And how about no one? How about no one dies who doesn’t have to?”

“But someone must. Whether it’s you—or me—or some nameless, faceless no one. This will require sacrifice.” Severus drew back. “But no one has to stay dead.”

Harry frowned. “...What are you talking about?”

“Precisely what I was getting around to before I was interrupted.” He began pacing. “Order of operations is quite important here. How, if I were to cast a Killing Curse at you, could I possibly sacrifice myself to keep you from dying? And how, if I were to take a mortal blow meant for you, could I possibly have been the one to Curse you?” Oh, well that was a very fair question, and Harry realised now he’d been so caught up in the emotional turmoil of it all, he hadn’t stopped to think about logistics.

“That’s impossible,” Harry said. “One or the other must happen first. You can’t both kill me and die for me.” Thank all that was magical and mystical for that.

“Not generally, no—but all bets are off the table when it comes to the most ancient of magics, bound to those experiences most core to our beings. Since time immemorial we have sought to kill each other—and love each other. Why shouldn’t such urges co-exist? They operate in balance. A parent willingly sacrificing their life for their child, despite being given ample opportunity to avoid his fate, so that when the child is struck by the Killing Curse, it rebounds and kills the would-be murderer—the parent—thus completing the circle.” He gave a lazy shrug. “It’s a paradox to be sure, but such magics rarely make sense from a human perspective.”

Harry’s head was starting to hurt, so he stopped trying to understand the magical theory behind it all—he still hated it—and clung to the one bit he could grasp: “Well, that sounds fantastic, except for the part where you die.” He shook his head. “I won’t agree to any of this sacrificial protection business if it means your life is forfeit. James and the others will need you.”

Severus swallowed, lips thin. “…And I won’t need you?” Before Harry could protest, growing tired of the back and forth, Severus brushed past any arguments. “Well, luckily for the both of us, I’m an accredited Master Potioneer with over fifteen years’ experience, and as you’ve had the misfortune to witness firsthand, there are indeed concoctions that can tie lives together, pulling one back from the brink of destruction to hale and hearty wholeness. I’ll prepare such a potion, imbibe it, and see you on the other side.”

Again, he made it sound so simple, like there weren’t a dozen different ways this could all go horrifically wrong.

Severus must have seen the concern on his features, for he softened, laying a hand against Harry’s cheek. “…You don’t have to do this. We could run—anywhere in the world. We would be ghosts—but together, and alive, without the risk. Just us, like it’s always been. Like she wanted it to be.”

But Harry drew back, shaking his head. “We’ve been running this whole time, haven’t we? And now I’ve finally seen what it’s cost us. She died so that we could live. And that’s not living. That’s just surviving. And I couldn’t hide away forever anyway. He’d find me—or threaten my friends and loved ones to try and get me to face him. You’re saying you’d be all right, him just swanning around, murdering as he pleased? When you know there’s a way we can stop him for good? Don’t you want to end this?”

Hermione deserved to live in a world where she wasn’t risking her life just being the fantastically talented No-Maj-born witch she was. Draco deserved to live in a world where his biggest concern was telling his parents he wanted to be a professional Quidditch player when he grew up. Ron…well, Ron was doing all right, all things considered.

“…I do want to,” Severus said, voice barely a whisper. “More than you can possibly know.” His lips twisted into a wry, sad smile. “But it’s generally bad form to ask one’s child to risk his life for your own vengeance.”

“It would be a cruelty to ask for more,” his mother had said. “But you must find the courage to give it regardless.”

He didn’t have the courage, though. This wasn’t bravery, not in the slightest. It was anger, it was defiance. It was doing what Lily would have wanted him to do, because she knew a thing or two about saving others. And Harry had people he wanted to save now. It was a terrible thing; he wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else, he decided.

“Well,” he said, swallowing despite his parched throat. “You aren’t asking. I’m saying I want to. I’ll do it.”

Maybe he wouldn’t have to worry about taking his N.E.W.T.s after all.

Chapter 14

Chapter Text

Exhausted in every way possible—mentally, physically, emotionally, and probably a few other ineffable ways as well—Harry let his father shuttle him back to his dormitory, where he promptly faceplanted onto his bed just as the others were beginning to rouse and didn’t wake up until Draco gently shook his shoulder to let him know dinner was about to be served. By this point, Harry was more hungry than tired, and he allowed himself to be distracted from everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours by the prospect of a hearty, filling meal and the buoyant spirits of his Housemates to go with it. It was hard to believe that this time yesterday, he’d been charging on Hogsmeade with the rest of the Slytherins in the wake of another Inter-House Quidditch Cup victory.

To his relief, Draco did not immediately press him for an explanation of what had passed between Harry and his father after Draco had left them, but he did keep looking at Harry while they marched up the stairs to the Great Hall, such that eventually Harry couldn’t stand it anymore, asking, “Should I have a portrait drawn up? It’ll last longer.”

Draco frowned. “No, just…” He wrinkled his nose. “Your Glamour’s back.”

“Of course it is.” He waved his mother’s bracelet for show. “I can’t exactly walk around looking like—well, me, can I?”

“I suppose not,” Draco said, sounding just the tiniest bit disappointed. “Do you think you’ll doff it once you’ve left school?”

He was being awfully particular about Harry’s Glamour—and then it struck him. “...Do you not like that I look like this now?” He had said that Harry ‘wasn’t hideous’, and while that wasn’t exactly high praise, it did speak to a certain aesthetic appreciation that Harry was glad for.

“Well—it’s just—” Draco sputtered, gesturing at the whole of him. “I know it’s not you now. It’s weird, that’s all.”

“You knew it wasn’t me before, though.”

“No I didn’t,” he protested, though it came out weak, because it was. “...I didn’t. I mean—there’s a wealth of difference between knowing and…knowing.” His lips twisted into a frustrated little moue. “It’s different when it’s right there in front of your face. Feels like you’re wearing a mask around me now.”

“...Well, I am.”

“Yes, I know that.” His voice went a bit petulant. “...I just wish you didn’t have to.”

And he didn’t have to, not around Draco at least—but the Glamour wasn’t something he could slip on and off. If he removed the bracelet, the whole thing would have to be reapplied, and it wasn’t something he felt equal to casting on himself or even trusted Draco to recreate perfectly. Draco wasn’t nearly as anal and overprotective as Harry’s father. At least, he didn’t think so. f*ck, was that why he was attracted to him?

That was something to be examined much later—or maybe not at all, if things didn’t work out.

“Well, if you can remember to watch yourself in mixed company, you can call me ‘Evans’ if that makes it feel more real?”

Draco’s expression soured even further. “That’s worse almost. It doesn’t feel like you.” He shook his head. “And I lose my head when I’m irritated—I’d let it slip, I know it.”

“All right,” Harry said, running out of options. “Then how about just ‘Harry’? I mean, it is my name.”

Draco scoffed. “Only children use their given names with each other.”

“But I call you ‘Draco’?”

“Yes, because you’re a child.”

“...Well fine, I’ll stop.”

And Draco actually reached out to grab his arm. “Wait—no, don’t do that, you idiot.”

Harry raised a brow. “Surely you won’t want to consort with a child though.” He gently tugged his arm away, pausing their ascent to face Draco from one step up. “...It’s not childish. It makes me feel closer to people. When they stop becoming a name and start becoming a person for me.” He shrugged. “I liked it when you used my name before.”

Even in the pockets of dim light between torches along the stairwell, Harry could see Draco’s cheeks pinking up a bit as he ducked his head. “...Well, I expect it’ll take some time to get used to it. Only—” His nose wrinkled. “Pray don’t use my name like that too much in public. I’ve an image as an uptight priggish arsehole to maintain, and you’re absolutely ruining it.”

Harry smiled, nodding politely, and didn’t tell Draco not to bother with the effort because it probably wouldn’t matter soon.

Forty-eight hours. That was how long it would take for his father to finish preparing the potion for the ritual, he’d been told. So that was how long Harry had to get his affairs in order, just in case the worst came to pass.

Severus had urged him to stay in his room until summoned—but there was no way Harry was going to spend what might be his final few days on earth down in the Dungeons. Dumbledore had evidently arranged for him to be excused from classes on account of a sudden-onset case of ague, so Harry filled his newfound free time with ensuring that whatever he left behind (if he left anything behind—he was trying not to be too pessimistic about the ritual, but at the same time he couldn’t allow himself too much hope) found its way into the right hands.

He left his gently-used broom and Quidditch gear in Ron’s locker—a decided upgrade from his current setup.

Kreacher he sent padding to Gryffindor Tower with a note tied to his collar reading For Ms Hermione Granger — A companion for her companion. Her cat Crookshanks had far too much hair, and Kreacher had none; they would probably get along swimmingly.

He stole a few moments to himself to chat with Noodle, down in the Chamber this time because he didn’t know that he was quite ready to head back to the Room of Stuff You Want—or whatever that other version of it was—until he absolutely had to.

“And make sure you listen to Draco—er, the light one—if I’m not around as much in the future, all right? He’ll bring you all sorts of delicious treats, but you must behave around him. He might ask you to wear a mask or something soon, but it’s not going to hurt you, so do as he says.” He stroked Noodle’s nose—she was getting rather sizeable now, her head nearly big enough to fill his whole lap—and she nuzzled his palm happily. “…We’ll need to get you out of here soon, I think. Before you’re too big to be moved.”

Like it here. Like the warmbloods.

“And we like you, very much. But you don’t deserve to be cooped up here. Draco says his family’s lands are massive. Maybe we could—maybe he could smuggle you out there. Build yourself a nice burrow and feast on all the jackrabbits and deer and badgers you can find. But—no warmbloods. We’re stringy and don’t taste very good at all.”

Noodle had nothing more to say on the matter, and Harry supposed that was all right. He felt bad, saddling Draco with caring for a quintuple-X dangerous beast he couldn’t even communicate with, but it wasn’t Noodle’s fault any of this was happening, so he wanted to be sure she would be properly cared for if Harry wasn’t around to stand up for her.

Eventually, time ticked down as it always tended to do, and then it was the evening before the ritual, and Harry still had one final goodbye to deliver. The one he was looking forward to least. It would be easy enough to turn in like tomorrow was nothing special, but he couldn’t do that to Draco. He couldn’t do that to himself. He deserved to enjoy one last, really good thing before whatever happened, happened.

So when curfew had been called and the lamps turned low, with Blaise’s eyemask firmly in place, Theo snuggled under several massive duvets with his girlfriend’s framed portrait tucked under one arm, and Vince and Greg filling the air with their honking snores, Harry crept over to Draco’s bed under cover of darkness, drew back the sheets, and slipped in beside him.

“What the hell are you—?” came Draco’s sleepy surly complaint when he realised he had company, but Harry quickly shushed him, drew the bedcurtains around them, and laid down a heavy Silencio. Draco lifted up onto his elbows, still frowning and lacy white brows beetling. “What’s this, then? You wanting to visit Noodle?”

“No, I’m wanting to visit you.”

And now Draco’s brows lifted clear into his hairline. “…And to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Harry shrugged. “We haven’t had much chance to talk lately. I’ve got to grab my moments where I can.”

“Mm, well feel free to grab me any time you please.”

“Oh? What happened to discretion?”

Draco flopped back down onto his back, sighing as he scooted over to make room for Harry to join him properly on a mattress that was barely big enough for one let alone two nearly full-grown wizards. “…I’m beginning to wonder if there’s really any point to it.”

“…Your father hasn’t…he hasn’t said anything to you, has he? About…?”

Draco shook his head. “Not yet. I keep watching the owls when they swoop in to deliver the post at breakfast, expecting to see Xerxes with a letter telling me—” He closed his eyes and licked his lips in nervous habit. “…He’s probably waiting for my birthday. Once I’m of-age, I’ll be able to operate more freely.” He opened his eyes again, staring up at the canopy overhead. “…I might not even come back here for my final year.”

And Harry didn’t really know what to say to that, so he opted for fantasy. “…We could run away together.”

Draco snorted softly. “Oh? Where to? And don’t say America. I’ll march myself into the Black Lake before I step one toe onto colonial shores.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Well at least you’d be far away from all of this. Hard to get much further away, in fact. And—” Harry raised a finger. “You’d dominate the Quodpot circuit, I’m sure.”

“Oh, fantastic idea for lying low and not being noticed: become a world-famous Quidditch-but-worse player.”

Harry supposed he had a point. “You could wear a Glamour. It’s not so bad, once you get used to it.”

“And deprive the world of this exquisite bone structure? You must be joking.”

Even in their fantasies, it seemed Draco intended to be what James would call ‘a grade-A wanker’. “Fine. We could take over my dad’s Potions shop. He’s always preferred the academic side of things over the sales aspect, so I’m sure he’d be only too happy to let us run the front of house while he putters around in the back cooking up new concoctions to sell to the locals.”

Draco made a face. “Business takes all the fun out of brewing. I don’t want to be making unguents and tinctures for housewitches until I keel over at my workbench.”

“Well,” Harry sighed. “I think the only other option then is to just hop on our broomsticks and fly off to a desert island. We could build a hut out of palm fronds and subsist on coconut drinks and shrimp kebabs.”

“It does sound tempting,” Draco admitted. “But I burn too easily.” A quiet beat passed between them, and then Draco asked, not looking at Harry, “…Why did you give Weasley your broom?”

f*ck. “…Who said I gave him my broom?”

“He did. He asked me why you’d done it, and I said I didn’t know why you did half the mad things you do but that he ought to stop looking gift broomsticks in the bristles since it was probably the nicest thing he was likely to ever have between his legs. I don’t think he liked that.” He co*cked his head to the side, and Harry could feel those sharp grey eyes running all over him now, like bedbugs. “Why did you give it to him?”

“I didn’t,” Harry said, playing at nonchalance. “I just loaned it to him for the rest of the season, since Gryffindor’s still got their match versus Ravenclaw left. He must have missed the note I left with it.”

Despite all these months around rather talented liars and truth-twisters, Harry still didn’t think he was very good at it, especially when the attempted deception was directed at someone typically so shrewd and insightful and quick to suspect. But, regardless, Draco didn’t call him on it, and Harry didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing.

He decided to change the subject, because the next question was probably going to be about Hermione’s brand new cat that looked a lot like Harry’s old one. He shifted onto his side, sharing Draco’s pillow, and bumped their knees together. “…I never got to say thank you. For, you know. Saving my life.”

Draco tilted his head to the side, staring for a long time at Harry, before he said, “…She was very beautiful. Your mother. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to meet her properly.”

Harry released a rough, rueful laugh. “That makes two of us.” His smile slid to something more genuine then. “…I think she’d have liked you.”

“Of course she’d have liked me. I’m very charming. Everyone likes me.”

“My father and the better part of the student population would beg to differ.”

Draco made a face. “Well I don’t care that they don’t like me.” He shifted closer to Harry. “I only care that you do.”

“What makes you think I like you?”

“You have a habit of climbing into the beds of people you don’t like in the middle of the night and Silencing their bedcurtains, giving rather inappropriate impressions of your intentions?”

Harry’s lips curled in on themselves at the corners. “…Who says they’re inappropriate?”

He slid one arm around Draco’s midsection, playing at the hem of his shirt, and Draco gave a breathy little gasp when Harry brushed the rough pads of his fingers over the sensitive skin at Draco’s hip just peeking out from his boxers.

“…You’d better not start something you aren’t prepared to finish,” Draco warned, swallowing, but he was already reaching for the band of Harry’s own boxers, slapping it lightly against his skin. “It’s impolite to tease.”

“I come from a roughneck country of morons, I think you once said. I wouldn’t know good manners if they reached out and grabbed my—oh.”

Draco’s lips drew back into a wicked toothy grin. “You were saying?”

Harry shook his head. “Nothing important.” He licked his lips. “I can’t promise I’ll be very good at this,” he said, still teasing at the band of Draco’s underwear.

“It’s not Ancient Runes,” Draco said, giving a gentle roll of his hips so that Harry could feel him already stiffening beneath the fabric. He shifted closer so that his nose was brushing Harry’s, and his voice grew rough and husky. “…Just touch me how you touch yourself.”

And Harry thought he could probably handle that, pun not intended.

He let Draco continue rutting into his palm through the soft, silky fabric of what were likely very expensive undergarments and tried to keep his focus on his task even as Draco massaged his own prick with languid, loving touches. He’d spurted first the last time they’d touched each other, and he didn’t want to make a repeat performance of it. That might set a pattern, and if he survived the next twenty-four hours—a very big if—then he didn’t want to give Draco any ammunition during romantic liaisons going forward. That was of course if Draco wanted anything to do with him after this—again, a very big if.

“Stop faffing about and put your f*cking hand on me,” Draco rasped, half-whine half-snarl, and just in case Harry needed directions, he used his free hand to tug down his boxers until his co*ck sprang free, guiding Harry’s hand to it and wrapping his fingers around Harry’s in instruction. “Like that, yes, just so.”

Gods but Draco sounded so hot with that prissy accent, directing Harry on how he wished to be pleased, and Harry felt himself stiffen even further in Draco’s grasp, giving a needy little thrust to punctuate his feelings on the matter.

“Is this how you touch yourself, then?” he asked, breathy and exhilarated as Draco swiped a finger over his tip, the sensation of the Quidditch-rough pad of his thumb against the sensitive crown nearly enough to make him pop then and there.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I would, yes. That’s why I asked.”

Draco gave another rolling, gentle thrust into Harry’s grip. “…I’ve been known to add a personal flourish or two, when I’m in the mood.”

“Oh?” Harry licked his lips. “Are you feeling particularly in the mood tonight?”

“Someone tugging on your prick too pedestrian for you already?”

And Harry gave an answering swipe of his own over Draco’s tip, grinning madly when Draco jumped in his embrace and swore softly under his breath. “I’ve been rather sheltered—hard to find much time to really, er, experiment when your overprotective father’s just one room away, beyond rather thin walls. I hear you European types get really wild, though, so I was hoping for a demonstration.”

“Absolutely no culture over the pond, I’ve always said,” Draco tutted under his breath. “…Do as I do.”

Draco’s fingers gave him a gentle squeeze before slipping down Harry’s shaft and tracing the thin, sensitive skin covering his balls. Harry tensed with a sharp gasp, his own grip on Draco’s co*ck tightening, and Draco grunted softly. “Should we take turns, or can you keep your head about you and not rip my prick off while I touch you?”

“Nope, nope, I got this, I can…” He shivered whole-bodily as Draco gently tweaked one of his balls, fighting to keep from pressing his legs together. “Oh gods.”

“The gods have nothing to do with this.” And then one daring finger dipped behind, brushing over the thin strip of skin leading into the cleft of his ass and rubbing meaningfully. “…Ever touched yourself here?” Harry swallowed, not trusting his voice, and shook his head. “…Ever wanted to?”

“I…” He didn’t quite know what to say to that that wouldn’t offend. “…Does it actually feel good?”

Draco pressed a hair further in, brushing the pad of his finger over the baby-fine hairs covering the globes of Harry’s ass. “You tell me.”

“I mean—not just this, but…” He gave an ambivalent little shrug. “…In the showers, you seemed like you really…really liked it.”

“Because I did. I don’t do things—I don’t ask for things—I don’t want. Anything.” He fixed Harry with a hard look, eyes clear, and pressed forward into a deep, driving kiss. “I’ll show you. Next time.”

Harry didn’t know if this turned him on or terrified him, and Draco must have seen these wavering feelings writ over his features, for he added. “…I won’t promise it will feel good for you—not everyone does like that sort of thing—but…” He drew his hand back up to wrap long, slender fingers around Harry’s co*ck, giving it a pump. “I like it. And I’d like you to be familiar with it inside and out. Pun very much intended.” He began to pump with intent. “I won’t tolerate ‘I can’t promise I’ll be very good at this’ next time. You’re going to get good. And the best way to go about that is through vigorous practice.”

And that seemed to be the end of that discussion, for which Harry was grateful, because he’d been edging without meaning to for five minutes now, and these were the sorts of conversation they could have during their refractory period, surely. Draco must have agreed, for he draped one arm over Harry’s shoulder and around his neck, pressing their foreheads together and working Harry with generous attentions that demanded recompense in kind.

Harry tried to realign his focus—Draco was here, with him right now, in a rare moment of relative privacy, and all he wanted was for Harry to touch him. It might be the last thing Harry could do for him, so he wanted to do it right. If there wasn’t going to be a next time, then this one had to count.

He renewed his efforts to bring Draco off, using the slick already seeping from the tip to lubricate his grip. He even grew so bold as to run a finger over the swell of the tightening balls as had been done to him, which Draco very much liked and so communicated through a deep, bruising kiss, panting against Harry’s lips a heady mantra of faster, tighter, please.

This whole affair felt somehow more intimate than the shower had. Harry had his fingers wrapped tight around Draco’s most intimate bits, his every gentle squeeze and flick of the wrist wringing new filthy nothings from Draco’s lips. This was his doing, all him reducing someone typically so staid and uptight to a mewling mess of limbs and sweat and mounting tension.

f*ck,” Harry hissed when Draco made an O with his fingers and shoved Harry’s dick through them. He could feel his org*sm bearing down upon him, and he despaired, wanting so badly to have brought Draco off first this time. In the low torch light flickering around them, he could just make out Draco’s face, lashes fluttering wildly against his cheeks and expression twisted into one of tortured bliss.

Harry made a panicked decision, desperate and too horny by half to reconsider, as he slipped a finger still wet with slick just behind Draco’s balls and massaged the thin little strip of skin. Draco gasped sharply, both hands scrabbling up now to grab at Harry and pull him close. He mashed their lips together, rutting back against Harry’s fingers and bringing their hips together to trap Harry’s dick between them. He rocked feverishly, pleasuring himself and Harry at once and babbling nonsensically into Harry’s mouth.

This couldn’t be it. This couldn’t be all he got to have. He barely even knew Draco—he needed more time

But there was no more time. There was just this moment, shattering between them as a wave of pleasure slammed into the both of them, impossible to tell who came first because they were both seizing now and diving off the cliff together.

Draco continued to kiss him through it, begging against his lips all the while, “Don’t go. Please. Please, don’t go. Harry…” And even as the jerky spasms faded and the panting gasps subsided, still he begged, and Harry just hugged him tighter, crushing him to his chest.

“I won’t. I’ll stay here. I’m not going anywhere.” He pressed his forehead to Draco’s, smiling wryly. “Discretion can get f*cked, remember?”

He knew Draco wasn’t talking about staying in his bed. He knew it—and Draco probably knew he knew it. But if they didn’t talk about it, then it wasn’t real, and Harry really was going to stay here—to stay—and maybe their friends would find them with limbs entangled and sheets askew in the morning, maybe they’d tease them even more mercilessly and openly than they did now, maybe Draco would get a summons from his father at breakfast. Maybe he’d Incendio the parchment and then they’d rush to Noodle’s Chamber and spend the rest of their lives making it their stinky, rat-infested love nest, where no one could find them.

If they didn’t talk about it, there was nothing saying all of that couldn’t come to pass.

So Harry quietly cleaned them up since Draco seemed halfway back to sleep already, a sheen of red sparks racing over their bedclothes that Draco complained “tickled”, then fluffed the pillow between them and settled down with his ankles entwined with Draco’s.

There were still a million other things he wanted to talk to Draco about—to tell him—that had both nothing and everything to do with what waited for him with the rising of the sun.

But he swallowed them down, focusing his thoughts instead on the quiet wheezing of Draco’s slowing breaths as he slipped over the edge and into fresh slumber.

He would tell Draco everything he wanted to—and a few things he didn’t want to but probably needed to—after this was all over. Hope needed something to anchor itself to in order to really work; you couldn’t just blindly wish for an outcome you weren’t actually invested in coming about. And he was finally ready to allow himself to hope. He didn’t want this to be the end. He didn’t want the last thing he heard from Draco to be him begging, pleading, for Harry not to go.

So it wouldn’t be. He wouldn’t let it.

He closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, it was to a soft, silvery light glowing just beyond his eyelids. He squinted in the dim gloaming, blinking blearily, and stiffened when he saw her.

A doe. His father’s Patronus.

It was time.

His heart immediately started beating a fierce tattoo in his chest, so loud in Harry’s ears he worried it might wake Draco—but his bedmate continued to slumber, unbothered by Harry rustling about. After an agonisingly long few seconds as he worked to disentangle himself from Draco without rousing him, Harry finally padded back over to his bed, quickly and quietly changed into his most comfortable jeans and pullover—if he had to die, he certainly wasn’t going to go out dressed in an overly starched set of student robes—grabbed his wand, and allowed himself one last look at Draco.

“…I’ll be back,” he said softly—half to Draco, half to himself—and then nodded to the Patronus and followed it in the direction of the Common Room.

All was quiet, as expected of the hour, but once he stepped out onto the landing where the Grand Staircase led up from the Dungeons, he found company waiting for him: Professor Dumbledore.

“Good morning, Mr Evans. I trust you slept well? You’ll need a good night’s rest for the coming ordeal, after all.”

“I can sleep when I’m dead, I figure,” he said, falling into step beside Dumbledore as they began to march up the staircase, still following the Patronus.

Dumbledore chuckled, evidently much more partial to Harry’s gallows humour than his father. “Let us hope it does not come to that. I fear Mr Weasley won’t survive his Potions final without your aid.”

“I heard that if your Potions partner dies, you get an automatic ‘pass’ on all your exams.”

“Alas, you’re mistaken—that’s if your roommate gets dragged into the lake by the giant squid.” Harry was staring straight ahead, watching the doe climb the staircase without tiring, her dainty hooves making no sound as she trod, and he could feel Dumbledore’s eyes falling heavy upon him. “Speaking of which, how receptive was Mr Malfoy to your decision to proceed with this bit of experimentation?”

Harry said nothing, only hardening his jaw. He couldn’t think about how Draco might have reacted—might react, after it all—or he’d lose what little nerve he was still desperately clinging to.

“Ah,” Dumbledore said, nodding. “I see you subscribe to the belief that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” He crossed his hands before himself, one still covered in the velveteen emerald-green glove with arcane runes stitched into it with silver thread. “Take it from someone who once believed the same: that is a very dangerous notion. In some cases…” He sighed. “...Permission is all we have the time to seek. It is the last, greatest thing we can give to those we care about: the truth, and the knowledge that we value them enough to grant them that.” A thin smile stretched at his lips, and it did not look very happy. “But indeed, it is a difficult thing to do. Difficult, but necessary.”

“I feel like I’m all stocked up on doing ‘difficult but necessary’ things right now, sir.”

Dumbledore laughed, loud enough it echoed a bit, and Harry wondered if anyone else was up and about to hear it. “I suppose you’re right. And there isn’t much that can be done about it now, hm?” Harry wasn’t sure if he was talking about Draco or the ritual—maybe he was talking about both. “...Do not think we brought this to you lightly. I dare say your father would have rather it not be brought to you at all. Though I confess I’m surprised you agreed to such drastic measures so easily.” He co*cked his head at Harry. “Self-sacrifice is not a core tenet of your House with which I’m familiar.”

“Not everything’s about Houses.”

“Indeed. And perhaps that’s for the best. After all, it’s a difficult thing, making a sacrifice for the nameless, faceless masses. A wider world you’ve never had the chance to experience and thus could not be asked to have any particular love or loyalty for. I have found it so much easier when faced with a difficult decision…to just focus on one person. Just one. One person who, whatever the outcome, you hope will have a better life after than before.”

It sounded nice, in theory. “...And what if you aren’t sure if their life will be better, after?”

Dumbledore’s smile twisted under his ample facial hair. “That, my boy, is what makes hope such a chore. It’s infinitely easier to believe the worst of those we leave behind than to believe that they’ll be strong enough to carry on without us. That’s where faith comes in. Faith and trust.”

Except it was hard to have faith in someone you’d only known for a handful of months and who’d been lying to you half that time—all while you’d been lying to him. Harry didn’t think Draco would pitch himself off the Astronomy Tower if Harry didn’t come back from this, no, but he could be very cavalier with his life when he wanted to. Maybe that was where Harry had learned it, not inheriting it from his mother after all.

He wanted to have faith in Draco so badly—but he needed more time. He needed all the time in the world with Draco. He wanted it, so badly.

“…Do you think this will work, sir? This ritual.” He locked eyes with Dumbledore, hoping this meant he wouldn’t be able to be evasive as he seemed to favour being. “I’d like it straight, if it’s all the same to you. It won’t change my decision, but I don’t think my father’s capable of being unbiased here, so…”

Dumbledore gave him a long, shrewd look, sighing. “...I think the logic is sound. Your father is a capable arcanist, of this I have no doubt.”

“...But?” Harry prompted.

“...But I also think that, when it comes to Lord Voldemort—and you—we cannot be certain of anything. In truth, I do not know how the Horcrux he made in you by attacking you those many years ago will react to this. Destroying a Horcrux is an easy enough task—destroying it while leaving the vessel intact…” He shook his head. “I have neither seen nor heard of it being done.” He forced a thin smile. “But if anyone could make it happen, your father could. Your parents can achieve frighteningly fantastic feats when their loved ones are in danger, I’ve learned.”

“...So there’s no way to be sure it will work, then.”

“The only way to be absolutely sure the Horcrux is destroyed is to kill you outright.” Dumbledore gave a disaffected shrug. “But we can try it this way first.”

Harry frowned. “...And if it doesn’t take?”

“I would never force you into anything you did not wish to do, Harry.”

And that was not quite the answer he had been hoping for. Harry’s eye drifted to the elegant glove on Dumbledore’s hand again, but Dumbledore quickly laced his fingers together, the drape of his sleeves hiding the glove from view.

“…You said, before, that you knew my mother.”

“I knew both of your parents in their youth,” Dumbledore reminded. “An odder couple I doubt I have ever seen grace these halls. But no one would have ever accused Lily Evans of being predictable.” He smiled to himself, bushy moustache ruffling as he chuckled. “You take after her in more ways than one.”

Harry frowned. “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Well. It takes a certain sort to bend a Malfoy to his will—a feat I never achieved in all my years as Headmaster but which you managed in your first week of schooling.”

Harry felt his cheeks heat, and he nearly stumbled on one of the steps. “That’s—I really don’t see what that’s got to do with…”

“Only that you’ve got to be made of stern stuff to not get blown over by those forces of nature we encounter in our lives.”

“…You sound like you’re speaking from experience, sir.”

“Oh!” Dumbledore nodded ahead. “Look, here we are.”

Without Harry realising, the doe had led them to the seventh-floor corridor and the familiar patch of wall where hung Barnabas the Barmy’s tapestry. The door to the Room stood open just opposite them, and the doe bounded through it, disappearing as soon as she crossed the threshold in a shower of silvery dust.

When the dust cleared, Harry saw his father standing, tall and imposing with his hands clasped behind him as he slowly paced. The Room was much changed from when Pettigrew had brought him in mere days before. It was no longer the Room of Hidden Things, or whatever Pettigrew had called it, though it did not resemble the Room of Stuff You Want either, not in its usual state at least. There were no Quidditch hoops, no comfortable sofas before massive stone grates with Conjured fires crackling merrily within, and certainly no spiral staircase leading down into the bowels of the castle to Noodle’s chamber.

Instead, it looked to be the state of the Room when Draco had first presented it to Harry: A cold space of dark stone—a blank canvas from which you could create whatever your heart pleased. Evidently, what Severus Evans pleased right now was no distractions, short of a small table upon which sat two flasks of a clear liquid, enough for a single gulp each.

Dumbledore extended a hand, inviting Harry to step inside first. “I hope you’ll forgive us for taking the liberty—for some strange reason, your father didn’t think it entirely appropriate to perform this ritual with a regulation-sized Quidditch pitch standing in the background. You should be able to restore the trappings easily enough though, I think.”

Harry balked. “Er—sorry, I didn’t realise we weren’t meant to…” he started feebly, but Dumbledore waved him off with an easy chuckle.

“If the Room had not been meant to be enjoyed by students and faculty alike when they had a need for it, then measures would have been taken to keep you out.”

“To be honest, I think we found it mostly by accident.” Really, Harry hadn’t found it at all—that had been Draco’s ridiculous luck.

“Well, you and Mr Malfoy certainly seem to have been making good use of it.”

Harry shifted uncomfortably. “I think he was…mostly concerned about optics.” And about the potentially deadly fumes in the sewers, but Dumbledore didn’t need to know about the extent of their excursions about the castle. Assuming he didn’t already know, which was admittedly a rather large assumption.

“Ah. Well, he is a Malfoy. I believe concerns about optics are baked into the very fabric of their person.”

“Are you going to dawdle in the doorway all day, or are we going to get this over with?” Severus called impatiently, whapping his wand sharply against the table and causing the little flasks on it to hop worrisomely.

“We were just having a pleasant little chat.”

“That I very much doubt.” Severus schooled his features into something a bit less dour as he directed his attentions to Harry. “I hope you slept well?”

He did not offer the quippy I’ll sleep when I’m dead retort as he’d done for Dumbledore, only nodding. “As well as could be expected.”

Severus gave a soft little huff of amusem*nt. “You can hardly be blamed. Right, then we won’t waste any more time. If all goes well, you’ll be able to squeeze in a bit more sleep before breakfast with your companions, and I’ll pretend not to notice if you yawn too much in class.”

“I feel like Slytherin ought to win the House Cup this year if I do this,” Harry said, half to Dumbledore and half to his father. “Surely this is worth at least a couple hundred points.”

Dumbledore laughed, shaking his head. “You were right, Severus. He has been spending too much time around young Mr Malfoy.”

His father beckoned him closer, and Harry stepped away from Dumbledore, unsure if he actually liked his headmaster very much or not. It was difficult to read him and even more difficult to know if what he showed you was entirely the truth. It might have been nice, having the whole truth of everything laid out for him, seeing as there was a very real possibility he was about to die here, his father’s faith and insistence be damned, but evidently even that was too much to ask.

He thought again about his father’s half-hearted suggestion they run away from all of this. Voldemort wanted to kill him—but did he want to kill him so fiercely he’d scour the earth and slaughter everyone in his path to find Harry, or would it be enough that Harry wasn’t around to bother him with confusing prophecies and ineffable magical effects, allowing Voldemort to conduct his reign of terror in peace?

But of course, in the end, it didn’t matter either way: Harry wouldn’t be able to sit there, safe and secure in some hidey-hole, while nearly everyone he’d ever cared about fought—and probably died—because he hadn’t done what needed doing.

He wasn’t a Gryffindor. He didn’t have a death wish.

He just really wanted to go to that stupid Quidditch Training Camp with Draco, that was all.

And this was the only way that might actually happen.

He picked up one of the drams of liquid and gave it a sniff. Coconut—but with a sharp, acrid after-note that burned the nose, like alcohol. “Couldn’t have brewed something that smelled better?”

“Shall I Summon a bottle of Butterbeer to wash it down with?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “…So what is it?”

“We don’t exactly have time for a dissertation. The brew will lose its potency if not consumed promptly.”

That sounded like the sort of thing someone might say when they didn’t want their child knowing what was or wasn’t in the potion he was about to drink. He hoped it wasn’t parts of people, like the slurry Pettigrew had cooked up for his master.

No more stalling, he supposed. Harry raised his glass. “To not dying.”

Severus’s lips thinned into a tight line, and he raised his own glass in response. “To not killing you.” He then clinked it against Harry’s and knocked back the contents with a grimace.

Harry did the same, wrinkling his nose and coughing sharply as it burned on the way down. There was definitely some alcohol in that brew, and he hoped it hadn’t f*cked with the rest of the ingredients. He rubbed at his chest, smacking his lips. “…How do you know it’ll work?”

Severus took several steps back, wand in hand. “Only one way to find out.” He adopted a traditional casting stance. “You doubt my skills?”

“No,” Harry said, a bit defensive. He Vanished the empty flask, then pocketed his wand to be sure he wouldn’t be tempted to draw it reflexively. “But everyone makes mistakes. Especially when they’re stressed and worried.”

Severus Vanished his own flask in response, tone grave and almost threatening. “I would not make a mistake, not with this.” And Harry wanted to believe him—but it wasn’t about careless error. It was about wanting something so badly to be right that you missed how wrong it was. It was about stubborn refusal to see the truth—something his father was rather adept at, but which Harry had learned in the past few months to move beyond.

He was seeing things in a colder, crueller light now. The pinprick points of A and B, and the bright line between them, cutting through anything and everything to create the quickest, most reasonable route to achieving a goal. It wasn’t about him—it wasn’t even about the greater good.

Dumbledore had told him to think of one person, just one person whose life might be a tiny bit better if he made these difficult decisions. He still didn’t think Draco would see it the same way, but Harry did genuinely believe that Draco would be better off tomorrow than he was today, whatever the outcome of the next sixty seconds.

Because one way or another, this parasitic piece of Voldemort’s soul within him, the bit that Harry was starting to actually physically sense, a dark dread falling silently around him like ash, was going to be destroyed. And it wouldn’t kill Voldemort, but at least he might have bigger fish to fry than concerns about bringing reluctant new recruits into his fold.

Of course, it might also make him lash out in retributive anger at what he believed to be one of Harry Evans’s closest companions, as surely Pettigrew had brought scintillating tales of their escapades to his master’s ear. Discretion certainly hadn’t been on Draco’s mind when he’d kissed Harry in front of half the school on the Quidditch pitch, after all.

But Draco was clever and calculating, and maybe without Harry around to cloud his judgement, he’d have a straighter head on his shoulders. Likely no one would think to look for him in Noodle’s chamber if he were to retreat there, so at least he might have the dignity of dying from inhaling toxic fumes instead of at the end of Voldemort’s wand.

Harry’s father drew himself up, swallowing thickly, and glanced at Dumbledore—who dipped his head into a solemn nod and then stepped back, evenly spaced between the two of them. He placed his hands behind his back, as if observing a duelling demonstration and not what would amount to a benevolent murder.

Harry could feel his heartbeat picking up its pace as his father practised his wand movements, a slow, lazy flow of warm-ups that let Harry see in devastating clarity the precise flicks and twists that would be his undoing. He couldn’t look away, though—forced himself to watch—because he didn’t think he was very brave, but he did have pride now, and he did not want to disappoint his father. Didn’t want to give him any reason to call this off.

He didn’t trust Dumbledore—but he did trust his father. Severus wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t risk both their lives, if he didn’t know it would work. Severus Evans came from a long line of Slytherins, and Harry didn’t doubt that there was still a bit of that Do you think I’d honestly do something I didn’t want to do? in his blood as well, just like Draco’s.

“Harry,” his father called softly, drawing his attention back to the moment when it had threatened to wander, and Harry straightened stiffly, swallowing.

Severus raised his wand, and even from this distance Harry could see his fingers were white-knuckled, though there was no hint of so much as a tremble in his stance.

Harry’s heartbeat was loud enough he could hear it in his own ears now, the pulse so violent it clenched his throat, and he couldn’t swallow down the lump forming. His heart knew, somehow, what his brain was about to allow to happen and was doing its best to escape its fate, with or without Harry.

Would it hurt? He hadn’t thought to ask—had been too afraid to, honestly, and besides, how would anyone know? He was the only one who’d ever taken one of these and lived to tell the tale, and he couldn’t remember. He had a scar from it, though, so it had to hurt at least a little, didn’t it?

He didn’t say any of this out loud, though. He just squared his jaw and thought of Draco sleeping warm and safe in his bed down in the Dungeons, arm still stretched out reaching for a Harry who was no longer there. Draco would wake up, and Harry would probably still not be there, regardless of how well this went, and he would suspect—might even know—that Harry had done something very stupid. And it wouldn’t matter if it had been for him, or the wider wizarding world, or even for Harry’s own sake.

He would probably still hate Harry for it.

He closed his eyes. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t bounce back this time, after all.

He held his breath, and heard his father’s broken voice raspily whispering, “I love you—so, so much.”

And that was nice, but sometimes you couldn’t help hurting the ones you loved. And that didn’t seem fair, but life wasn’t—

An unnameable force SLAMMED into him, whole-body, snapping his head back and setting all his nerves afire—

And everything—went—black—

Harry opened his eyes with great effort, like he had lead weights attached to his lids, and his mind swam as if caught in a whirlpool, his thoughts buffeted to and fro, unable to latch on to anything for several long, confusing moments.

He did, though, eventually manage to open his eyes and found himself staring up at a bright, brilliant blue sky. Massive fluffy white clouds drifted high overhead in scattered arrangement, and though he could not see the sun from this angle, he could feel it as a warm, pleasant burn on wind-chapped skin.

He was lying down on his back, he realised, and with great effort, he eased up first onto his elbows and then into a seated position.

He was on a pier—a long dock of weather-beaten planks with equally weather-beaten wooden benches installed along it at regular intervals. Harry had been reclining upon one of these benches when he’d woken, and now that he was sitting up properly, he could see a vast expanse of water stretching out before him.

The wind whipped at his hair, and he reached up and could feel that the Glamour was gone—which made sense, as his bracelet was gone as well. He wasn’t wearing the clothes he’d gone to meet his fate in either, but rather a simple set of jeans and his favourite, faded old sweatshirt that he’d nearly worn holes in. It was the sort of thing he always wore on outings into No-Maj areas, like the Pier—

And it was here that he realised he knew exactly where he was. He’d been here a dozen times in his childhood, walked along these rickety planks and sat upon these rather uncomfortable benches—though never on such an absolutely perfect day—looking out over the bay. His father would buy them both garlic-and-butterbeer-flavored Never-melt Ice Cream cones from Francesca’s Frozen Delicacies, and they’d lose themselves in the Medusa’s Maze (he was pretty sure the statues were just statues and not actually hapless victims who’d never made it out, but there had always been rumours…) before settling in to catch the Sunset Siren Show from the Bubblehead Charm seats (always worth the extra 2 Galleons).

It had been forever since he’d last been here, though—his father had grown more reclusive in recent years, and the last time they’d made the trek up to the bay area had been his eleventh birthday, nearly six years ago now. How on earth had he—

“I’ve missed this place.”

Harry gave a start, nearly slipping off the bench and onto his ass as he whirled around, hand instinctively going for his wand on realising he was no longer alone. He steadied himself before he went tumbling, though, as he caught sight of who’d just spoken.

His father, sitting sedately on the opposite side of the very same bench Harry had nearly toppled from. He had his back to Harry, but his head was tilted up, the breeze whipping at his stringy black hair. He’d always had a rather pronounced widow’s peak—how ironic—and it was threatening to render him bald before he hit 40. He probably ought not to be letting the wind have its way with what little he had left.

Harry belatedly processed that Severus had spoken to him—or at least spoken around him—and so he probably ought to respond. “I always thought you hated it—it was too crowded, and it smelled, and everything was overpriced.”

Severus gave a careless shrug. “I did hate it. It was too crowded, and it did smell, and everything was overpriced.” He shifted around, and Harry could see now that he was wearing a matching sweatshirt to Harry’s, one Harry had begged him to buy so that they could be a pair: I Went To Pier 39 ½ and All I Got Was a Lesson on How to Differentiate a Siren from a Sea Lion. “I hated it,” he continued. “But you didn’t.”

And indeed Harry hadn’t. He had so many fond memories of this place—the weird foods, the weirder folks, the Automatons that occasionally escaped from the No-Maj’s Musée Mécanique, the sirens that sometimes pretended to be sea lions to scare the tourists (and sell the aforementioned sweatshirts), and more than anything, a rare afternoon out in public, just having fun with his generally staid and stoic father, getting to see him smile when the strange No-Maj busker pretending to be a bush would leap out and scare Harry as they passed, especially when it was the third or fourth time it had happened and Harry really ought to have been expecting it by now, or watching the way his face spasmed when he chomped into a bit of garlic bulb in their garlic-and-butterbeer ice cream cones, or falling asleep in his father’s arms at the end of an exciting but exhausting day, well past the age when it was entirely appropriate.

He opened his mouth, not exactly sure what he was going to say but knowing he needed to say something, when there came a strange sound from just off the side of the dock: a plaintive mewling, but not like a kitten—more like an injured sea lion perhaps. A raspy sort of croak that filled Harry’s heart with both pain and revulsion. He started for the railing, prepared to lean over and look to see what sort of creature could make such a noise and terrified that it might look worse than it sounded, but he was stopped by a hand on his arm, grip firm and insistent.

“Don’t,” his father said, dark eyes locked with Harry’s. “Ignore it.”

“But—” Harry started, and Severus shook his head.

“There is nothing you can do for it. You must leave it be.”

Harry wanted to keep protesting, certain he ought to at least see what it was, because what did his father know? Maybe there was something Harry could do for it.

But the wind picked up again, sending a fresh burst of salty bay air skating over his skin, and he was drawn back to the moment.

“…Where are we?”

Severus inclined his head, arching a brow in Harry’s direction. “I thought you knew.”

“Well, I mean—I do. At least, I think I do, but—” He shook his head. “What’s happened to Hogwarts? We can’t have been Portkeyed back home, right? And—” He turned in place, squinting to keep the glare of the too-bright sun from searing his eyes. “And there’s no one here.” Not a single living soul besides them on a boardwalk usually bustling with activity. He’d never even sat on one of the benches before now—they’d always been occupied. “There’s no one, no tourists, no locals, no one…”

No one but them—them and the sea and the ridiculously perfect weather suited to much further down the coast. There were no seagulls even, no sea lions, no belching honks of ships vying for marina space, no sirens screeching at each other in Lorelei that Harry probably would’ve been able to piece together now, after his months around the merfolk that called the Black Lake home.

It was too perfect—and too wrong.

A lead weight began to form in his midsection as he processed where he was—and where he wasn’t: the Room of Stuff You Want, a dram of mystery potion, “To not dying”—“To not killing you”, a flash of green behind his eyelids and then nothing.

Harry swallowed, turning slowly to face his father, hands limp at his sides. “…Am I dead?” he asked, ashamed it came out so weak and frightened. He wasn’t frightened—he was confused, that’s all, and he just wanted to know. He just wanted to know, so he could start processing whatever this was. Limbo? Surely not heaven—Harry didn’t know that he honestly believed in heaven, and you had to believe in something to get to go there, right?

Severus was instantly on his feet, circling the bench to grab Harry by the shoulders and give him a shake. “No,” he said with real force in his tone. “I told you you wouldn’t die, and I keep my promises.”

The reaction, though, was too insistent for Harry’s liking, and that lead weight in his stomach was still there, like a dark cloud hanging over this postcard-perfect day.

His voice felt like it was scraping raw over his throat as he asked, “...Are you dead?”

Severus’s arms dropped back to his sides, a hunch to his shoulders, and he turned his head toward the end of the pier, which seemed impossibly far away. The thing that sounded like it was dying under the dock gave another pained, rasping groan. “...Let’s go for a walk. It’s been so long since I felt this brisk sea air on my face. I should like to enjoy it a bit.”

Harry felt his blood heat to a boil in an instant. “That’s not an answer!”

“No,” Severus said with a sigh. “It isn’t.” And then he started walking.

Harry was momentarily torn between a childish insistence to stand right where he was and demand a proper explanation—and the gripping panic that if he let his father leave his sight, then that would be the last of him, and he’d lose him for good, forever.

His fear won out in the end, and Harry jogged to catch up, falling into step beside him. “I deserve an answer,” he said, because even if he wasn’t standing his ground and throwing a tantrum, evidently he could still act like a child.

Severus was still staring straight ahead, and from this angle, Harry could see his jaw tighten—and then go slack as he relented. “...Yes, you do. I believe you railed against me at length on how you deserved to know the truth. You told me you weren’t a child, and I treated you like one at every turn—because you are. You are my child. And I’m afraid you always will be.” He forced a tight smile and turned to look Harry straight on. His eyes were glassy, and Harry had never been more terrified in his life than in this moment. His father never cried—so those moments when never turned into sometimes were generally very, very bad. “But to keep the ugly truth of it all from you any longer would be a danger to you—so I won’t.”

Harry could feel his heart beating a thundering tattoo in his chest. It felt like he was still standing in the Room, still waiting for the killing blow to come.

“...I died.” Harry made a noise in the back of his throat—it sounded like the thing dying under the dock. “When I told you I wouldn’t. I told you I would brew a potion to pull me back. I told you I wouldn’t leave you. I told you everything you wanted to hear.” His expression twisted. “But I lied to you—about so many, many things. I lied because I was too scared to tell you the truth.”

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Suddenly Harry knew where he’d learned that from—and he could see in living colour that it really was the coward’s way out. Draco had had an excuse for keeping the truth from him—he’d been magically bound to do so. But what excuse did Harry have? What excuse did his father have? Nothing. Nothing but base cowardice.

“I thought these lies would keep you safe—keep you alive—but they’ve only kept you sheltered. I haven’t got much time left now—I can’t protect you any longer. No one can. The time is coming for you to save yourself. Yourself, and those you care for.”

Harry shook his head, taking a step back. “No—no, you promised—” He could feel his throat tightening, and it was impossible to swallow down the lump of emotion.

“I did. And I’m so sorry—”

“f*ck your ‘sorries’!” He didn’t want an apology. He just wanted his dad. He didn’t know where they were, he didn’t know what was happening, but he knew why it didn’t feel real now—because it wasn’t. There was never going to be another Sunset Siren Show, no more garlic-and-butterbeer Never-melt Ice Creams, no more near-misses in the Medusa’s Maze.

Severus drew him into his arms, and Harry fought it, but sorrow was sapping him of his strength, so it was a lost cause. He didn’t want to feel this warm, solid chest, these arms hugging him so tight it felt like they’d never let go. He didn’t want to hear his father’s stuttering breaths as he struggled to keep himself together, knowing each one might be the last. He didn’t want to believe his father was alive and know he was dead.

“…It was the only way to save you. A sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice without sacrifice.” He released a sad little chuckle. “Magic’s funny that way.”

“…Maybe you shouldn’t have saved me, then. Maybe you should have let me go.”

Severus’s embrace tightened painfully. “Never. I could never have done that. It would have broken me.”

“And this won’t break me?”

“It won’t. You’re stronger than you think—all my years of coddling you weren’t enough to stamp out that spark of adventure and curiosity your mother blessed you with.” He took a steadying breath, then pushed Harry out to arm’s length and set them both down upon a bench. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he was still sniffling, but his voice was stronger when he spoke again. “I told you I meant to give you the harsh truths you’ve been after now, and I mean it, so put aside your well-placed anger for a moment and listen.”

Harry was still breathing heavily, and his eyes burned with unshed tears that would likely become shed ones before this interaction was through, but he kept all the raging anger he longed to unleash against his father banked behind his tongue for the moment. He didn’t want the last thing he said to him to be a curse. He would have the whole of the rest of his life to do that, however long or short it lasted.

“...I cannot tell you what my first lie to you was, because in truth I don’t remember. But the first perhaps most relevant one…was that the Ministry passed a law that would force you to endure at least one year of education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.” At Harry’s frown of very obvious confusion, he continued, “There was such a law—or a proclamation, at least—but it was…planted. Requested to be enacted. By myself—myself, and Dumbledore.”

“You—what?” Harry shook his head. “I—I don’t get it. What do you mean requested?”

“I mean we leaned upon allies embedded in the Ministry to put forth this plan to ‘force’ you from hiding and bring you somewhere you could much more easily be targeted by forces wishing you ill.” Severus hardened his gaze. “You at Hogwarts would make too tempting a target for Voldemort and his followers to resist making an attempt on.”

Harry boggled, sorrow momentarily shoved aside for a burst of hot offence. “You—used me as bait?”

“In so many words, I’m afraid. With rumours of his most ardent Death Eaters still at large growing louder in recent months, we saw our chance to force him into the light and make a final, decisive run against him. I refused to leave you a sitting duck, though—it was why I petitioned Dumbledore for permission to give Professor Slughorn a much deserved sabbatical. But I could not watch over you the entire time, of course—so I recruited a stand-in. Mr Malfoy took rather forcible convincing to join the cause of looking after you, but he came around in the end. I suspected Voldemort would come for you—somehow get to you, even behind the protections of the castle—and my worst fear was that it would come at a point where I wasn’t there to stand with you.” He gave a grudging roll of his shoulders. “Let us be grateful for the Malfoy family’s penchant for dogged persistence when it comes to getting what they want.”

Harry wasn’t going to let himself be distracted by his father’s irrational irritation with Draco this time, though. “You could have told me! Any of this, you could have told me, and I wouldn’t have had to go through half the bullsh*t I did!”

“Yes, I could have told you—you would have trusted me more for doing so, you would have been better prepared, you might have even been a match for him.” His whole form shrank, though, and he suddenly seemed older than his years. “...But the burden of that knowledge would have robbed you of this brief glimpse into what you could have had—the life you might have led if you’d been allowed to be Harry, just Harry, and not a boy burdened by prophecy and prediction.”

“Then it would have been better to be prepared! I’d rather have had that, because I didn’t get to see what I could have had—I saw what I never could have had. I was never going to have that life—I was never going to have friends and studies and meals in the Great Hall. I wish you’d given me the choice—because I know what I’d have chosen.”

Severus’s lips tightened. “...I knew what you would choose as well. That’s why I couldn’t let you. You needed to see what it might have been like to live without fear, surrounded by people who cared for you, to have your greatest concerns be your marks in Charms or who to ask to a school dance. Because now you know what’s been taken from you—what stands to be taken from others.” He placed a hand on Harry’s shoulder, giving him a little shake. “Now you have something to protect. And that’s a powerful driver.”

It sounded like a lot of justification for something Harry decidedly did not see the same way—until he was reminded of Dumbledore’s words at the Yule Ball: Can you think, Mr Evans, of someone’s life you might have changed for the better, simply by being in their presence?

…If his father had warned Harry of his plans, if he’d put into Harry all the suspicion and paranoia he had long since learned to live with, Harry doubted he would have given Draco more than the time of day. He would have maintained a polite distance, keeping his head down and bothering no one with his friendship.

Severus had always tried to keep Harry on his toes—had even gone out of his way to warn Harry (repeatedly even!) against Draco—but he’d actively encouraged Harry to enjoy this year. So Harry had. And if he’d known from the outset that this was all a ruse, that there were Death Eaters quite literally lurking around every corner, ready to do him mischief in the name of their Dark Lord, then everything would have been different. There would have been no Noodle, no Room of Stuff You Want, no Quidditch showers—no Quidditch period—no Yule Ball, no nothing. Hell, Ron and Hermione would probably still be politely ignoring each other on account of him being a tactless Quidditch-obsessed disaster and her being a bookworm know-it-all.

f*ck. f*ck. There was no winning, was there? There was no world where he got to have everything he wanted—he either lived in ignorance and had friends and more-than-friends and relative freedom and a life, or he saw the dark side of everything, labouring under perpetual fear that every time he dropped his guard, someone was going to take advantage of it.

He could have Draco—or he could have the truth. Never both.

He slumped against the bench, rubbing at his eyes with a fierce irritation. “You can’t leave me to this. You can’t.” He shook his head. “You can’t leave me.”

Severus leaned forward, pressing their foreheads together. “I’m not. I would never. It’s only asking others to look after you for a spell. Only a trice. But I’ve done my part. I just want to go home.” He gave a soft, sad smile. “It’s not fair you got to see your mother again and I haven’t.”

Harry’s arms came up around him, holding him fast. “Take me with you. I can’t do this. I can’t go back there without you.”

But Severus carefully disentangled himself, forcing Harry to meet him, despite his red-rimmed eyes and salty tear tracks running down his cheeks. “You can. You can because you must. I cannot go with you—and Dumbledore is not long for this world either. Yet there is still important work that must be done. This was a calculated risk—I did not offer you as bait lightly. But now that Voldemort has risen again, he’ll be bolder. Overconfident. Easier to track—and easier to take down.”

Harry was still choking back ugly sobs, trying to hide his face from his father, because he didn’t want this to be his last memory of him. He didn’t want the last time he saw Severus Evans to be through the blur of tears.

The thing under the docks had floated along after them, and he could hear it, too, releasing haggard, rasping wails that begged their attention. Severus laid a hand against Harry’s cheek to keep him from indulging. “That’s no longer part of you. Leave it to be washed away like the rest of the dross.”

It felt like him, though. He too wanted to sink under the dock and just cry and cry and cry.

“…I’ll miss you, though.”

Severus squeezed him, a bone-crushing hug that nearly took Harry’s breath away. “I won’t miss you. Because I’ll always be watching you. Always.” He then added in a forcibly parental tone. “So just remember that when you’re with that boy.”

And Harry let himself laugh now, a warbling thing that was only maybe a little bit humour and the rest overwhelming emotion. When he finally trusted his voice not to crack and send him on a new crying jag, he asked, “…What was in the potion?”

Severus gave a soft little snort. “…A souvenir from Professor Slughorn’s ongoing stay in Fiji. The finest coconut rum the equatorial distillery of Ogden’s had to offer.” He turned his face into Harry’s lanky hair, kissing his temple. “I thought to have one drink with my son, before it was too late.”

Harry was distantly aware of the big, bright sun overhead moving with the passage of time, though it was difficult to tell if they’d been here seconds or minutes or hours. Still, move it did, and it was making a slow but steady trek toward the distant horizon, when this picture-perfect day would end and so, Harry felt, would this final brief, blessed moment with his father.

Severus, too, seemed aware that they were on borrowed time now. “...You’ll need to go back soon.”

And no, no, he wasn’t ready. Didn’t think he’d ever be ready. Harry squeezed back with all his might. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.”

Severus carefully disentangled them, scrubbing softly at Harry’s head with one hand and wiping his eyes with the other, palm resting against Harry’s cheek. “You know precisely what you must do. The Dark Lord will still be out there when you return, powerful—and well-protected. You must snip away at those remaining tethers he still has, so that he can be destroyed once and for all. Eliminate his Horcruxes—and make a better life for yourself than I could have ever given you.”

Harry shook his head. “I—I’ve got no idea where to even begin with that! Why does it have to be me? Surely there’s a dozen others who’d be so much better suited for this—what about James or Sirius or Remus?!”

But Severus remained firm. “No. No, and you must listen to me carefully, Harry: they cannot know. Not about the Horcruxes, not that you’re trying to destroy them. Better wizards than they have been tempted by this knowledge, and even if they were to hold strong to their morals, Voldemort has ways of plying his prisoners for information. If they were to be caught by his forces and their minds invaded…”

Then Voldemort would discover they knew about his Horcruxes. He’d gather them up, hide them away where they were likely to never be found, and that would be that.

“You must be cunning about this, Harry. Trust no one outside of those in your circle. I don’t very much like your Mr Malfoy, but he’s made of sterner stuff than I’ve perhaps given him credit for, and Miss Granger has a mind beyond parallel underneath all that hair. They will have been freed from their Vow with my passing”—Harry’s heart clenched, and his stomach turned—“but they’ve both already risked their lives to see this effort through. I doubt they’d consider turning back now.”

Harry thought of Draco, being offered the choice to either help protect Harry or have all thought of him wiped from his memory. He could have gone back to his comfortable patrician life, perhaps a bit confused but still with goals no loftier than pursuing a professional Quidditch career. There would be no Quidditch Training Camp now, he was finally forced to admit, and it soothed the ache in Harry’s heart just a little, realising Draco had chosen him over Quidditch, in the end.

Above them, the sun began to inch toward the distant horizon. Harry could no longer hear the thing under the dock. He wondered if it had died, or if it had simply, like him, accepted its fate.

“I’m sorry,” he choked out, voice thick. “I’m so sorry.”

His father tutted him softly, stroking his head. “Hush. What on earth could you have to be sorry for? You have been my greatest joy and my proudest legacy. Your mother gave you to me. An incomparable gift, and one I have had the honour to see grow into a fine young wizard. I am only disappointed I won’t get to witness the deeds you accomplish in person.” He rocked Harry gently. “But I will always be watching.”

The setting sun lit up the bay in fiery oranges and dazzling golds. “What if I’m not enough? What if I can’t do this?” He didn’t want to be tasked with taking down a Dark Lord, even if a part of him ached to do so. He would gladly trade this chance at vengeance a thousand times over for the promise of his father coming back with him. “You can’t leave me like this.”

“I would never have done this if I didn’t know that you would be surrounded by souls who love and respect you, dedicated to your safety and to seeing this task through. I cannot help you anymore. I cannot protect you anymore. I ought to be the one apologising to you.” Yes, Harry thought bitterly. He ought to. “But you can do this. You are enough. You are my son. You are her son. You are our son. And while you may not believe in prophecy, he certainly does—and he is terrified of you.” Severus gave his shoulders a tight squeeze. “Give him something to be scared of.”

The light was fading fast, and Harry started to panic. He squeezed with all his might. The dark couldn’t take his father away from him if he never let go. He wouldn’t let it. “I won’t go back. I won’t be forced back.”

But Severus pulled away with surprising strength, or maybe Harry was just sapped by sorrow, and he pressed a kiss to Harry’s forehead. Harry could feel a teardrop slide down his father’s nose and along Harry’s scar, zig-zagging over his flushed skin. “I have loved you and your mother,” he whispered, “as I have loved no others. And I always will. Always.”

Harry sobbed, open-mouthed, raw and rough, and buried himself in his father’s robes with his fingers clenched white-knuckled and begging whatever forces might be listening not to do this. Please. He would take the thing under the dock back, he would find another way, he would make another way. He would make whatever deal they asked.

He would—

When Harry opened his eyes, it was dim but not dark. Gone was the strong, heady scent of open water and sandy shoals, and strands of his hair did not ruffle in the bay breeze any longer. Overhead hung a heavy iron chandelier, the candles in their cups burning low and soft, as the only illumination in what Harry distantly recognised was the Hospital Wing.

It was quiet as the grave, and Harry knew that he was alone, in every sense of the word.

He lay there, unmoving, and closed his eyes, letting the tears flow freely without a care to keep up appearances any longer and wishing with all his heart that he were an emotionless clod like his father.

Chapter 15: Epilogue

Chapter Text

At morning’s light, Harry—not wishing to face Dumbledore just now, because he would probably say something he would live to regret—put in for permission with the Deputy Headmistress to withdraw from Hogwarts and return to London, offering to complete the remaining few weeks of the term by correspondence. He supposed it ought to have said something that she made no effort to stay his decision, didn’t even ask what might have brought it on or refer him to the Headmaster. She only pursed her lips before nodding once, clearing her throat with an, “I’ll start the arrangements then, Mr Potter,” and suggested he head back to the Hospital Wing, as he was looking ‘peaky’. He didn’t know what that meant, but he left all the same.

No one came to visit him in the Hospital Wing—likely no one knew he was in the Hospital Wing—and he daren’t set foot down in the Dungeons again, for fear of what might be waiting for him. Draco could have looked for him, if he’d wanted to—he knew where Harry kept the Marauders’ Map, as well as how to use it. That he made no such attempt, though, obviously meant he didn’t want to, and Harry was going to respect that. On the bright side, this meant Harry would never have to explain where he’d gotten the nasty new scar spangling across his chest, undisguised by any Glamour. On the less-than-bright side…it meant Harry could never explain, even if he’d wanted to.

He returned to London as quickly as was feasible, all his belongings already magically bundled and waiting for him when the groundskeeper, a literal giant of a man named Hagrid, escorted him to Hogsmeade Station. He rode the Hogwarts Express back to London, the entire train all to himself, and it was with solemn expressions all around that he was greeted by his godfathers. Few words were exchanged, and from the red rims around their eyes, he suspected that they wanted to discuss what had happened about as much as Harry did.

Sirius and Remus made it clear, though, that Harry was more than welcome to stay with them in Number 12 for as long as he pleased. James, too, offered up his bungalow, but James was gone on business much of the time, and it was agreed upon all around that Harry shouldn’t be alone right now, not with Voldemort rallying his forces.

And it did seem, from what Harry could tell, that the vaunted Dark Lord was once again making good on his title. The local newspaper, the Daily Prophet, was delivered by owl each morning, describing the dark deeds sweeping the nation in lurid detail. Never did these articles mention Voldemort specifically, not even using the silly He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named moniker they favoured here, but Sirius and Remus assured him this was because the Prophet and most Ministry officials were “arse-tit*” with their heads stuck in the sand, desperate to ignore what was happening right under their noses. No one wanted to be the one to admit that the reign of terror from fifteen years ago was starting back up again, because obviously if you didn’t acknowledge it, then it wasn’t actually happening.

Part of Harry—the particularly self-serving Slytherin bit mostly—wanted to return to America. It was his home, the only one he’d ever known, and the only link to his father he had left. What would happen to Princely Unctions, Unguents and Ointments, his father’s potions shoppe? Someone had to at least let the locals know it was closing for good.

But when he casually floated the idea of going back to close shop and pack up their little terrace apartment, maybe spend a few days making peace with this place he had known all his life and was likely to never see again, he was immediately shut down.

“It’s too dangerous now, Harry,” Remus reminded in a tone he probably thought was fatherly but sounded nothing like Severus, too sweet and sanded down around the edges. “With You-Know-Who rising to power again, he’s going to be on the lookout for you for sure now. You’d never be able to Portkey safely, and Apparition would take weeks, leaving you vulnerable and exposed all the while.”

“Exactly,” Sirius had chimed in unhelpfully. He’d always struck Harry as the more adventurous of the pair, one for risk-taking, but perhaps being actual, proper godfathers saddled with Harry’s well-being had wrung it out of him. “With the Fidelius on this house now, there’s no safer place in the world for you to be.”

Harry didn’t remind them they’d said much the same about Hogwarts, and look what had happened there.

He still fantasised some days about running away—heading off alone to live on the lam, maybe leave behind just enough clues to convince Voldemort to abandon his attempts at global conquest and chase after Harry. He was clever enough he could keep it up for at least a couple of years, surely, and this way no one else would run the risk of getting hurt. Maybe Dumbledore and Draco and Hermione (but probably not Ron) could track down the rest of the Horcruxes in the mean time, and all would work out.

But he could hear his father tutting at him, as if leaning over his shoulder to peer at his exam marks and finding nothing but disappointment. That was overly emotional Gryffindor talk, not the cold Slytherin logic he’d been ordered to practise. Draco would probably have said much the same, but Harry wouldn’t know, since they hadn’t spoken since that last night together.

It was hard to imagine, nearly a month later now, that Draco hadn’t learned the whole truth of what had happened. He would know that Harry had lied to him—or at least not told him the truth in so many words—and he would be angry, if Harry was lucky, or indifferent, if Harry was not lucky. Harry certainly couldn’t blame him—he’d brought Draco far more trouble than he was worth, and between the risk to both his life and his future, Draco would be better off on all accounts forgetting that Harry Potter, or Harry Evans, had ever existed.

Besides, though Harry’s father’s words still rang in his ears, certain that both Draco and Hermione were well and truly committed to the cause of helping dismantle Voldemort’s support system, Harry himself couldn’t quite credit it.

Hermione sure—she was of No-Maj descent and would be a target regardless of her associations. But Draco had his family to think of—parents he loved and respected, even terrified as he was of their involvement in the Dark Lord’s plans. Returning to their side, forgetting this mess he’d been dragged into and moving on with his life would have been not just understandable but advisable.

Freed from the yoke of the Unbreakable Vow, perhaps he’d get to go to that Quidditch Training Camp after all.

Harry had thought about writing to him on a few occasions—but he’d always convinced himself it was too dangerous now for them to be caught associating. It was dangerous, but that was merely an excuse for Harry to be a coward. If he’d wanted to get a private message to Draco, he could—and vice versa.

The best thing he could do for Draco now, though, was to not do anything at all. If Harry wasn’t around, perhaps Voldemort would lose interest in Draco. In all the Malfoys, even.

Or maybe he’d just murder them all in a frustrated pique at Draco’s failure to deliver the Boy Who Lived to him promptly.

“Harry?” Remus knocked politely on his doorframe while Harry had his head bowed over a Charms text. He’d received an extension on his final essay, but the parchment wasn’t going to write itself, and he still had three inches to go before he could call this thing good enough. “You have a visitor. Down in the parlour.”

Harry frowned. They didn’t get “visitors”. Harry could count on both hands the number of people privy to Number 12’s location these days, and he knew them all by name. He rolled up his parchment, slipping it into his schoolbag and hopping to his feet. “Who is it?”

Remus’s thin, polite smile betrayed nothing but a hint of disapproval, and he only extended a hand for the stairwell. Fine, if he wanted to be mysterious about it.

Harry plodded down the stairs, passing Sirius in a pink-checkered apron and holding a spatula in one hand at the top of the flight leading down to the kitchen. He fixed Harry with a hard, warning look and shook the spatula in his face. “You need anything, you just shout, right? My Depulso is downright deadly.”

“Er, thanks?” Harry said with a half-smile, not quite following his godfather’s quirky mood as he hooked a right into the parlour. Sirius could be really weird sometimes.

He offered Sirius a weak wave, then leaned on the swinging door and pushed his way into the parlour—

—and then nearly tripped over his own two feet, barely catching himself before he pitched over the back of the long sofa.

“…I think I may be sick,” Draco drawled, studying the Black Family tapestry along the wall. He was squinting at it, lips twisted into a pinched frown as he chewed on a nail. “This says I’m related to Longbottom. I’d rather have discovered I was related to the Giant Squid than that overfed waste of magical inheritance.”

Harry swallowed thickly, mouth dry at the sudden and most unexpected appearance of quite the very last person he’d thought to find in the parlour of Number 12.

Banter…was a good sign. Right? It felt like the old Draco—normal Draco. A Draco who wasn’t angry with him. Biting comments and snide remarks bandied about presumably for Harry’s entertainment, when he wasn’t familiar enough with these families to know if he ought to be offended on Longbottom’s behalf or not.

“…Being related to you’s no great honour either, as I hear it. Sirius says James fainted dead away when he saw your dad had been added to the tapestry, especially so near his own ancestor.” He dared a few cautious steps closer. “How come all you Pureblood types seem to hate each oth—”

A fist SLAMMED into Harry’s cheek, sending him stumbling back nearly onto his ass. He might have gone down in a heap of limbs had he not been saved from the embarrassment by colliding with the cabinet containing the Wireless. His vision flashed in a rainbow of colourful splotches, momentarily blinded, and his ears were ringing with the force of the blow. Where had Draco learned to throw a punch like that? Certainly not from any of Ludo Bagman’s old Omniocular recordings, that was for sure.

But then a pair of arms slipped around his neck, pulling him into a tight, fierce hug that reminded Harry, unbidden, of his father and the pier and that picture-perfect final day. He felt his eyes heat with emotion—emotion he had been working very hard to ignore—and he struggled to free himself, but Draco just tightened his hold, spitting with bitter venom, “If you ever f*cking die without my permission again, I’ll kill you myself.”

Then, in a whiplash shift of mood, he shoved Harry away, grabbed him by the collar, and with more upper-body strength than Harry would have credited someone who generally played Seeker rather than the more burly Beater position, he launched him viciously over the back of the sofa, where he landed on the cushions in an awkward heap.

“What the hell—” Harry started, struggling to right himself, and Draco interrupted with a snarled, “Muffliato!” and the sounds around them fell away to a distant, quiet hum.

Harry shifted upright, hair in disarray and frowning deeply. “...Where did you learn that spell?”

“Where do you think?” was Draco’s patronising reply, and he pointed a finger at Harry. “Sit there and stay there. I need to pace, and I don’t want you getting in my way.”

And then he did begin to pace, the frantic, nervous energy about him almost palpable. Harry dared a glance at the door, but Sirius did not come charging in to question the commotion, so it seemed they would have their privacy at least.

He wasn’t sure if he ought to start what was likely to be a long and uncomfortable conversation or if Draco wanted to give him a piece of his mind first, but Draco liked hearing himself talk, so it stood to reason he would want the first bite at the apple now, too.

“Do you know what it’s like,” he said at length in a deadly soft whisper, “to not sleep for nearly thirty nights straight? Do you know the dark places your mind can wander when every time you close your eyes you see someone who’s not there any more? Do you know how it feels to hang in limbo, not knowing if you ought to mourn or hope or anything?” He stopped his pacing and turned on Harry. “Because if not, then you’re in luck, because I can tell you: it f*cking sucks.”

Harry seized the opening. “Draco, I’m sorry, truly I am, but—”

Draco raised a finger. “No. No. Not your turn yet. These were rhetorical questions only. And you sound like you need more time to come up with a better opening salvo than I’m sorry.” He then began to pace again. “At first, I was fine—I was fine. Told myself there would be other nights and that you simply needed a reminder that, at least on this side of the Atlantic, it’s considered poor manners to grope and run. But then your items were removed from the dormitory and your bed lay empty. So then, then I was angry—oh was I angry.” Harry had difficulty believing he wasn’t still angry now. “I’m afraid I did not comport myself as a Malfoy ought to when cross and may have done a sizeable degree of property damage to our room. Your bed is a pile of ash and cinders now, so I hope you weren’t too attached to it. And then—” He took a breath.

“Then I went to your father—except he’d scarpered as well, and assuming you both had fled the country with your tails between your legs because it’s so much easier to run rather than fight and yes I know how rich that sounds coming from me, but I am not finished yet.” Harry shut his mouth, his feeble attempt at an explanation dying on his lips. Draco slicked his hair back, as a few errant strands had worked themselves free of his carefully styled coif during his tirade. “Where was I? Right. So, with dear old daddy nowhere to be found, I tried our Headmaster, and demented old coot that he is, he strongly suggested I quote ‘sit tight’. Whatever the f*ck that means. So, despondent, I returned to my studies, my thoughts erratic and my health deteriorating, because you—” He rounded on Harry. “—You have no right to touch me like that, to hold me like that, and tell me you ‘aren’t going anywhere’ when you f*cking went somewhere!”

His voice crescendoed into a roar that threatened to break through the Muffliato, and his usually pale complexion was flushed a deep, angry red, his eyes glassy and flashing with rage. “And since you neglected to tell me where, I drew the only conclusion I could and decided you’d done something stupid. And probably suicidal.”

A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B, Harry supposed—and then he registered Draco’s words, shaking his head. “Wait—you…you don’t know what happened?” Draco had said he’d assumed Harry’s father had snatched up Harry and returned to America, but it didn’t sound like anyone had dispelled this misconception in the weeks since then.

No!” Draco practically wailed, throwing his hands in the air with his characteristic dramatic flair. “All I know is that one moment I was blithely eating breakfast in the Great Hall, wondering as I’m wont to do most mornings these days whether the ditch you were lying dead in was very near or very far from Hogwarts, and which I actually preferred it to be, and the next I was being scruffed like a naughty kitten by Dumbledore and spun off into the aether without so much as a by-your-leave!” He waved around the room. “I don’t even know where I am, only that the owners have exquisite taste, and for some reason my cousin who I haven’t seen in over a decade is here looking at me like I got his favourite hippogriff killed.” Harry was going to assume that was some delightfully quaint turn-of-phrase European wizards used.

Perhaps some of this private but inappropriately timed amusem*nt showed on his features, because Draco cut him a sharp glare. “Someone better tell me what the f*ck is going on, or I’m going to start Incendioing things again. I don’t like secrets.”

He said this like Harry did like secrets, and it was a rich complaint coming from someone who’d lied to—or all right, withheld the truth from—Harry for months now, even if it had been under duress.

But Draco was breathing hard, still worked up, and looking much less polished and put together than he usually did. The dark circles under his eyes attested to the sleepless nights he’d spent in worry, and Harry understood now the terrible thing he’d done to Draco: dooming him to never know, to never hear from Harry’s lips what he’d intended to do and why. It might seem easier to ask forgiveness than permission, but Dumbledore had been right: it was the coward’s way out, and Draco didn’t deserve it. He deserved being respected enough to be told the truth, and if Harry wanted to be treated like an adult and not a child, he needed to start acting like one.

“...My father isn’t missing,” he started. “He wasn’t avoiding you, and he certainly didn’t flee the country.” Harry swallowed thickly, because he’d never actually said these words out loud, and he didn’t want his voice to break when he did so. “...He’s dead.”

“What?” Draco scoffed, lip curling. “Don’t be absurd—you won’t make me forget how angry I am with you by trying to get me to feel sorry for you. He’s not dead.” His tone was matter-of-fact, like he thought Harry was being very silly and needed to stay on topic.

But his body language spoke a different story, freezing up when Harry said those dreaded words, and he held himself turned just a bit away from Harry now, as if shielding himself from the blow of what he said potentially being true.

And Harry firmly believed that not telling someone the truth was just as bad as lying to them, if you could help it, so he would start walking the walk, no matter how much each step pained him.

“...Do you know how I survived Voldemort’s Killing Curse as a baby?” he said, because it was best to start at the beginning.

Draco blinked at him like he’d grown a second head. “I—how on earth would I know that?” He waved a hand dismissively. “It’s all—prophecy or whatever. Ancient magics, ineffable and incomprehensible, blah blah blah.”

Harry gave him a shrewd look. “You don’t believe that. You’re an academic, though you may not want to admit it. You’ve never met a problem you didn’t think there was a perfectly reasonable solution to. So what was the solution to my problem?”

“...He missed, obviously,” Draco drawled, crossing his arms over his chest. “Does this diversion have a purpose?”

“He didn’t miss.” Harry pushed back the clump of hair hiding his scarred forehead, un-Glamoured now, baring it for Draco to see. “Or else I wouldn’t have this.” Draco averted his gaze from Harry’s scar, as if he didn’t like being reminded. Bad luck for him. “It hit me. So why am I still here?”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Clearly because I committed some cardinal sin in a previous life and am now getting my due.”


“I don’t know! By all rights you shouldn’t be! If anyone knew how you survived, I’m certain I’d have read about it by now!”

Yes, Harry supposed. He probably would have, know-it-all that he was.

“There’s a Charm,” Harry continued. “A powerful protection, so much so it can prevent even the Killing Curse from taking.”

Draco frowned, confusion knitting his brows. “...There’s no such magic. If there were a simple Charm that could spare someone like that, it’d be in all the spellbooks and core curricula. We’d learn it as First-years, even.”

“Well, that’s because there’s a catch: You don’t cast it on yourself. You use it to protect a loved one—and you have to die for that person in order to bestow it upon them.” Harry gave a little half-shrug. “Doesn’t leave much time to write an article, I guess.”

Draco began to put the pieces together. “So—you’re saying…the reason you survived the Curse as an infant…was because someone died to protect you.” He blinked in realisation. “Your mother.”

Harry had missed that little lilt to his voice, the way the pitch rose in soft triumph when he’d made a discovery, and nodded. “She…” he started, then paused, not entirely sure he wanted to share the lurid details of her suicidal plan, but then decided he owed it to Draco to be open with him. “She planned it. She lured him there, hoping he would try to kill me, so that she could sacrifice herself for me and cause his Curse to rebound.”

“Oh. f*ck,” Draco swore softly, and he seemed to war with himself, part of him itching to comfort Harry and the other still very rightfully angry. Harry spared him the conflict by continuing his story.

“She thought it might stop him. Or at least slow him down.”

“So—you were bait?” He sounded horrified, and Harry didn’t think he’d ever loved him more than in that moment. Using Harry to lure Voldemort into a trap had been, from some perspectives, an ingenious move. Certainly both his parents seemed to have thought the same, the ends justifying the means. But Draco, despite his black little Slytherin heart and blood that ran silver and emerald for countless generations as he told it, saw only the threat to Harry’s life, a risk taken without his consent, and sympathised.

“In so many words, I suppose,” Harry said, and before Draco could start what would likely be a scathing and well-meant tirade, Harry continued, “The only problem was, the particular circ*mstances of this interaction led to an…unexpected complication.” Harry swallowed. “His murder of my mother…served as a catalyst. For a process Voldemort had already completed six times before he reached my family’s doorstep. The rebounding curse fractured his already unstable soul further—and a fragment split off…” He took a bracing breath. “…And attached itself to me.”

“The f*ck it did,” Draco whispered, a terrified tremor in his voice and complexion gone white. His knees wobbled a bit, and Harry held a Summoning spell behind his tongue to draw the great chair in the corner under Draco if it looked like he was about to collapse. “The f*ck it did,” he repeated. He shook his head. “People can’t be Horcruxes.”

Harry had thought, for a while there, that Draco had known about his condition—that through his rigorous research, he’d figured it out, maybe even before Harry’s father and Dumbledore had. He’d thought maybe that had been why Draco had been so adamant he finish his studies, that he’d been searching for a way around it, to spare Harry his fate.

And then he’d thought that no, Draco couldn’t have known—because if he had, then he surely would have tied Harry to the bedposts, or slapped a Body Bind Charm on him and refused to release it, or asked the Room of Stuff You Want to lock Harry inside and never let him go, not until they’d figured out how to destroy the Horcrux without destroying Harry along with it.

But now…hearing the strident denial in Draco’s voice, the subtle quaver and spitting venom that spoke of a boy who’d grown up always getting his way and was not about to have that change now, thank-you-very-much, he’d swung back around to suspecting that, deny it though Draco might have tried, he’d known, on some level, the wretched truth.

But Harry had hurt him enough already. He could leave Draco this one little delusion that he seemed to cling to, like a security blanket.

“Maybe not,” he allowed. “But all the same, I was one, essentially.”

“You were one…” Draco turned the words over in his mouth. “Do you—does that mean…” He was breathing hard, stumbling over his words. “Does that mean you aren’t, now?” He licked his lips. “You—they fixed you, yes? Your father and Dumbledore? They wouldn’t let you stay like that, not if they’re half as noble and well-meaning as they like to think they are.”

Harry rested his elbows on his knees, hunched forward and staring at the far wall, unblinking. “…How do you destroy a Horcrux?”

He heard Draco’s soft, frightened inhalation, and out of the corner of his eye, he caught his mouth working. “That—you aren’t a Horcrux,” he maintained stubbornly. “People can’t be Horcruxes.”

“How do you destroy a Horcrux?” Harry asked again, slowly and deliberately.

Draco’s voice, when he spoke again, was thick and tremulous with emotion. “You destroy the vessel.” He quickly rallied, though, with an angrily spat, “What the f*ck does that have to do with you? Because if you tell me that you—” He balled up his fists, and Harry worried he was going to take another swipe at him. He was also worried he might let it happen. “…Where is your father?”

Harry licked his lips. “…He was the one to suggest it, just so you know. You can’t possibly think that I—”

“And you went kicking and screaming the whole way? They had to have house-elves hold you down while they worked their magic on you? Kidnapped you from our dormitory, did they?” Draco’s expression twisted. “Do you ever think about anyone but yourself?” Harry didn’t think he was actually supposed to answer this, so he didn’t, and Draco continued. “Do the rest of us serve only as comfortable background noise to the one-man symphony of your existence?” Harry opened his mouth to speak, because that sort of accusation didn’t sound called for at all. “How can someone so smart be so f*cking stupid?”

Harry’s temper flared, and he was through taking his lashings now, the pain of losing his father firing his blood with indignation. “You think I didn’t agonise over this decision? That it was easy? There was no choice! If I didn’t do it—”

“I don’t give a f*ck why you did it. I care that you didn’t tell me. I had to wake up, in that bed, and you were just gone. And I thought I’d never see you again.” His mask was beginning to crack, crumbling off in pieces. “Why would you do that to me?”

Harry felt the backs of his eyes heating with tears of shame and frustration. He was reminded of how he would have felt, waking to his father being dead, without Harry having been able to at least say goodbye. It had hurt enough, having him taken away while Harry had seen it coming. It would have broken Harry, losing him unawares.

He scrubbed at his face. “I was scared. I was scared you’d try to stop me. I was scared I’d let you.” He tried to force a smile, but he didn’t think it took. “I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay with you—I wanted to just be Harry. I wanted to wake up next to you and go to class the next day and argue about a dozen silly, stupid things because it’s fun and you get this little twitch to your eyebrow when you’re frustrated that I can’t stop staring at.” He swallowed. “But we can’t always get what we want.” He shifted forward in his seat, staring up at Draco and licking his lips, mustering all the earnestness he could. “…I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I was a coward. I’m sorry I couldn’t trust you.” He exhaled shakily, blinking back his emotions. “I wish I hadn’t done it.”

He wished he hadn’t even come here, to England. He wished he and his father just could have stayed in America, running their little potions shoppe. It was nothing glamorous, but it was all Harry had ever known. He would have been content, ignorance being bliss and all that. He would probably never have met Draco, never have known what life was like outside of his cage, but he’d be safe—as safe as he could be at least—and his father would be alive, and Voldemort would still be in hiding.

So much pain and sorrow, all for a gamble. He would have been happier, if all this had never happened.

But Draco would have graduated next year, after a summer that did not involve a training camp with Ludo Bagman, and put away his broom and Quidditch leathers and gone off to apprentice with his father, pursuing a life of dull drudgery he had no interest in and losing anything and everything that made him alive and vivacious and Draco.

And Harry would have plodded on, content to keep his curiosity on a leash with the greatest excitement in his life the occasional No-Maj tourists looking for something to make them popular with their preferred sex or seeking help to discreetly vanish a stubborn rash in a sensitive area that modern mundane medicine just couldn’t manage. He would never have sat on a broom let alone chased a Snitch or executed a Sloth Roll, and he would never have gotten the chance to learn just who his parents really had been. His life would have been a gilded lie, and worse still, he would never have known otherwise.

The wider wizarding world, too, would have had the dark spectre of Voldemort’s supposed-but-not-confirmed downfall perpetually hanging over them. Dumbledore and Harry’s godfathers and anyone else suicidal enough to work with them might have continued hunting for Horcruxes, and maybe they would have found them. Maybe they would have destroyed them. But it would never have been enough—and eventually they would have shown up on Harry’s doorstep seeking his sacrifice, if not at sixteen then at twenty, or thirty, or whenever Harry had just decided he’d finally found happiness, because that was how it always went with this sort of thing. He would have died without ever actually having lived. Without being able to know what—who—he was dying for.

What a monumental waste it would have been.

“I wish I hadn’t done it,” Harry repeated, “…but I did. And if you won’t accept my explanation or my apology, then I don’t know what you even came here for. The pleasure of telling me off? Getting to punch me?” He gave a little shrug. “I can’t say I blame you. But then I don’t know what you’re still doing here.”

Draco looked somehow both stricken and furious at the same time. He marched on Harry, and Harry thought he might try to hit him again, fighting not to flinch because, really, he deserved it—

—but Draco laid his hands along Harry’s jaw and gently but firmly drew him up, onto his feet, and into a kiss—and Harry hadn’t known until that moment, warm flesh against his own and the faint scent of salt between them from unshed tears, how much he’d needed to be touched. He hadn’t hugged anyone—not even Sirius or Remus—since his father. He hadn’t been able to bear it. He hadn’t wanted to be held by them or patted or touched or anything, because it would overwrite that last, bright moment with Severus, and he’d start to forget how it had felt.

But Draco never asked for permission. He didn’t note the way Harry folded in on himself and shied away from embraces, he didn’t care that Harry just needed some space for now.

He was selfish and needy and stubborn, and when he wanted to share his affections, you had better be ready. A force of nature, Dumbledore had called him. The sort of storm that changed the landscape when it struck.

Harry felt something wet brush against his cheeks, and the forehead pressed against his own was feverish and hot. When he opened his eyes, he saw Draco’s staring back at him, red-rimmed and a deep, charcoal grey. “I’m here because you’re alive, you utter f*cking nimrod. I thought you were dead, and now you’re alive, and that’s all I care about. The rest is just details. Because if it isn’t obvious, I’m really f*cking happy.” And then he finally did smile, just a little. “I’m also absolutely furious with you, that hasn’t changed, but there’s a difference between screaming in your face how much you scared me and spitting it at your grave. One’s much more satisfying than the other.” He kissed Harry again, and then again, like each time he stopped he needed to rush back in to be sure Harry was still there. “Tell me you won’t leave, and mean it this time. Please.”

He remembered squeezing his father tight, hugging with all his might and begging him not to go. How much it would have meant to him to hear All right, I won’t, I promise. When the people you loved said the words you most wanted to hear, you wanted to be able to trust they were real—and Harry had broken that trust before. He deserved to be hit another few times, he thought. Not that he was going to offer Draco that.

He pulled Draco into a tight hug, heart doing a delightful little double-beat when Draco’s arms came up around him with equal desperation. “How could I, when your company’s so charming?” Draco pinched him, and he added with more sincerity. “I won’t. I swear it.”

“…Would you make an Unbreakable Vow?”

“…I’m not as good at those as my dad was, but…if you insisted.”

Draco pulled back, searching his face, then shoved him away and back down onto the sofa. “…We can talk it over with Granger.”

“Talk it ov—she’s here?”

“No,” Draco said, and fished out a small pouch he’d had tucked down his shirt. He tugged the mouth open and plunged his whole arm in, up to the elbow, as he searched for something. “We’re going to meet her.”

“…I can’t leave here. It’s dangerous—there’s a Fidelius on this house. It’s probably the only place he can’t get to me.”

“If he could get to you at Hogwarts, he could get to you anywhere.” It was getting a bit eerie, how very much of the same mind they’d become. “Besides, you’re—where the f*ck is it?” He growled, tugged the mouth of the pouch open even wider, and shoved his whole head inside this time. When he finally drew back out, he had a long, slim black box in his hand, tied with a black ribbon. He smoothed his mussed hair back down, wiped the wrinkles from his clothes, and gave a sniff as he passed the box to Harry. “I was told to give you this.”

Harry gingerly accepted the package, frowning at it. “…What is it?”

“How the f*ck should I know?”

Harry reminded himself Draco was allowed to be a little sh*t for at least the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Lying to someone about your imminent demise merited at least that much. He carefully untied the ribbon, throat suddenly dry and heart beating rapidly. “Who gave it to you?”

Draco didn’t respond, and Harry decided that was answer enough. With no small amount of trepidation, he lifted back the hinged lid of the box—and saw a wand, settled neatly into a velvet-lined niche, alongside a single bright orange-red feather and a furled scroll.

From the corner of his eye, he could see Draco peeking over the lid of the box, understandably curious about its contents but polite enough he wasn’t forcing it, and Harry licked his lips. “…My father’s wand.” He’d thought they’d buried him with it—wherever it was they’d buried him. It wasn’t as if they could have had a funeral—and Harry hadn’t wanted to know, besides. Suddenly, he realised how monumentally grateful he was that it hadn’t been lost.

He ran his fingers along the shaft, pausing at the hilt, worn smooth with age. He thought he could still feel the lingering warmth of Severus’s grip, even though he knew it was just his imagination. Perhaps Draco wasn’t the only one clinging to delusion with all his might.

He heard Draco swallow audibly. “He’s…you weren’t lying. He is gone, then?”

“He’s gone…so that I could still be here.” Even if Harry still wished, in the dark watches of the night, that he’d been able to go with him. “I’m getting really tired of people dying trying to save me.”

“…Well, no worries here. You’ve rather talented fingers for someone as inexperienced as you claim to be, but I don’t like you that much.”

Harry laughed at this, a warbling, choking thing, and he wiped viciously at his eyes, setting the wand and box aside as he unfurled the scroll to read.

Dear Harry,

I hope this letter finds you well. I don’t imagine it will, but I hope so all the same. I regret I was not able to be there for you to verbally excoriate and rail against in person, but my ailing health means that I must keep my travels brief and rare as I spend my final days—hours—moments—ensuring that the work your father and I started does not go unfinished.

I wish that we might have met years ago—that you could have come to my school as a student of less remarkable lineage and thereby enjoyed the sort of experience we staff always hope for our charges. All the same, I hope these past months have not felt like an entire waste and that you do not wholly regret being brought into our care. If you have learned anything at all about yourself or the world at large, then that is all we as teachers can ask.

I imagine you are teetering on a knife’s edge right now. Wondering what lies ahead for you—if you have the mettle to see through this final task your father has charged you with. If your quaint but comfortable life from before is truly lost to you now. If you’ll ever be able to think about Severus and feel something beyond a sinking pit in your stomach that seems to stretch forever. These are the sorts of worries that seize hold of our hearts when we find ourselves at a precipice. I know this, because such loss is an old friend to me too, Harry.

So let me tell you your future. Not from prophecy, but from experience.

You do have the temerity and tenacity to do what needs to be done, because you have already decided you do. Your life from before is lost to you and can never be restored—but you will find peace and love and belonging again. And while your heart may feel broken into a million different pieces right now, time heals all, whether we want it to or not, and there will come a day—perhaps very far from now, admittedly—when you think of your father and smile rather than weep.

So much has been asked of you, you who have already given so much. But I’m afraid your destiny has only just begun, and the inconvenient thing about prophecies is that they’re quite finicky about how they’re fulfilled. This is your task—but it is not your task alone. Do not be afraid to lean on those around you, for you have had the great fortune to be surrounded by the best of sorts—the friends and family and loved ones who would walk to the ends of the earth with you and beyond if you but asked. Your bonds may be new and untested, but they are strong, so hold fast to them.

As you may have surmised, the wand included with this letter is indeed your father’s. He would have wanted you to have it, I suspected—if for no other reason than it’s always nice to have a spare in case of unforeseen circ*mstances.

You may recall that the last spell cast from this wand was the very Curse that struck down Severus Prince Evans. As such, if you were to cast a particular spell upon it…then you might be treated to a vision of your father. Cast it when you feel you most need it—but always remember: it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

The feather is my final gift to you. I offer you safe transport to a location where you can prepare yourself properly for what is to come—and then, unfortunately, the rest will be up to you. Everything I have learned about these objects and their likely hosts over the years, I have left for yours and your companions’ perusal in my Pensieve.

I wish you the best of luck and pray that we will meet again some day, where you may finally give me the piece of your mind I deserve.


Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

Draco was tickling his nose with the feather when Harry looked up from the letter. “…What did he say?” he asked, as if he hadn’t been sneaking peeks of its contents while Harry read.

Harry batted the feather away. “…Bunch of nothing, really.” If Draco thought this was a piss-poor answer to his question, he graciously declined to press it. “The feather’s a Portkey, I think.”

“Then you’d better grab on, hadn’t you?” He began tickling Harry’s nose with the end again, and Harry grabbed on tight to his hands, holding them in his own.

He brushed his thumbs over Draco’s knuckles, steadying his breathing. “…I can’t do this without you.”

Draco leaned into him. “…Of course you can’t. You can’t do anything without me.” He pulled one hand free to brush a bit of Harry’s hair from his forehead, exposing his scar. “The sooner you get that through your thick skull, the easier this will be.” He slid his hand down to cradle Harry’s jaw. “…Only know that I can’t do this without you either. I’m not brave. If it had been me—if I’d had to—” He took a shuddering breath. “I couldn’t have.”

“Well,” Harry said with a soft smile. “If it’d been you, you’d have found another way around it. You’re very clever. It wouldn’t have come to that.”

“…It might have,” Draco said. And then: “…I only don’t want there to be any…misconceptions.” Harry arched a confused brow. “I’m not brave,” he repeated, “I’m not doing this because I want to be the hero. I’ll admit I’m a bit deluded about rather a lot of things—but my mortality is not one of them.”

“So why are you doing it? You came because I’m alive…and now?”

Draco gave him a hard, fierce look. “Now I’m going to make sure you stay that way.”

He surged forward to capture Harry’s lips with his own as the world around them twisted and turned inward with a loud POP, the Portkey activating and whirling them off into the aether.

Harry supposed he was going to have to write off that Charms essay. Hopefully Flitwick would agree to another extension.

When his feet hit solid ground once more, he was in a room he’d been in just once before and honestly had hoped he’d never see again: Dumbledore’s Office, not much changed from the last time he’d ‘visited’ a month or so ago, except that the gilded cage was now gone, along with the beautiful orange-red bird that had been sleeping inside it.

Harry wobbled unsteadily on his feet, his balance shot from the abrupt departure and arrival, and Draco brought his hands up to grab him by the shoulders.

“Steady on. You’re not getting out of this that easily.”

“Oh!” came a new voice from behind them, and Harry twisted around sharply, hand instinctively going for his wand. “Fashionably late,” Ron snorted, arms crossed over his chest as he looked the both of them over. “Some Saviour.”

“Harry!” Hermione cried, rushing over to greet him from where she and Ron seemed to have been bent over a thick tome lying open on Dumbledore’s handsome mahogany desk. “Oh, we’ve been worried sick about you! It’s been weeks!” She directed her attentions now to Draco. “This was what Dumbledore needed you for at breakfast?”

Draco crossed his arms with a sour frown. “He could have had the good breeding to ask before snatching me away. It’s not like I was liable to turn down the opportunity to give this one a piece of my mind and drag him back here kicking and screaming if necessary.”

Hermione smiled softly at his forced acerbity—and then turned a pitying gaze on Harry, eyes sweeping up to his now-exposed scar. “…I’m so sorry about your father. He was a brilliant man, and I know he loved you very, very much.”

Harry did not want to be having this conversation right now. He didn’t want to be having it ever, but Hermione was too thoughtful and good a person to let a tragedy go unremarked. It felt odd, her offering her condolences when they weren’t really all that close, but he didn’t want to seem rude. He nodded short and sharp. “Yeah. Thanks.” He groped for a distraction—any other topic—and recollected that they were not three but four. He frowned at Ron’s presence. “…Hey.”

Ron ducked his head. “…Hey.” He nodded to Harry’s appearance. “I like your new look. Much less birds’ nest-y. And the scar’s wicked.”

Harry shook his head. “But—you knew?”

Ron waved him off. “Nah, hadn’t a clue. I think my marks are poor enough to tell you they certainly weren’t gonna bring me into the fold if they had a choice. But then Hermione and I were talking over lunch a few weeks back, discussing our summer plans, and it kind of…came out.”

Hermione was flushing darkly. “I’d gotten so used to the Vow stopping me from saying more than I should have. And suddenly it—didn’t.”

There was an awkward beat of silence—interrupted by the sharp toot of a steam engine, muffled by the castle walls and distance.

“Oh,” Hermione said, a hint of a whine in her voice as she shifted in place and wrung her hands before her. “That’ll be the Hogwarts Express. It feels wrong not being on it.”

“Because it is,” Ron said unhelpfully, and she gave him a little pinch. “Well it is! I mean, I think we ought to all be clear on that: What we’re doing here is so far from what we’re supposed to be doing it’s not even funny. I’m not saying it’s not right or good, just—there’s gonna be consequences.”

“Wait,” Harry said, stepping into the office proper now. The air felt close, like they were inside a bubble, and Harry wondered if that wasn’t precisely the case. “What exactly are you two doing here?”

“Well,” Hermione started, confusion in her voice. “…Didn’t Professor Dumbledore brief you? About the Horcruxes—and having to find them?”

Ron clapped his hands over his ears. “More stuff we aren’t supposed to know about. I feel like I’m gonna get smited—smote? Smitten—just for hearing that word.”

Hermione ignored him with an ease that spoke of experience. “Harry, where have you been? It’s been weeks since anyone saw you, and then Professor Dumbledore spirits Draco away in the middle of breakfast and tells us to convene in his office. He mentioned something about our ‘timetable’ being ‘accelerated’, but he refused to speak any further on the matter, saying it was best we discussed it with you.” She looked uncertainly at Draco. “We…kind of assumed you’d know what’s up.”

Harry didn’t quite know how to answer her question, so Draco did his dirty work for him: “Potter—” he started, then grimaced. “Evans has been on a sort of…sabbatical. Compassionate leave, and all.” He fixed Hermione with a sharp look. “I don’t think we can rely on the help of our elders any more. This may be it.”

“‘It’—?” Her brows knit. “But—we’re hardly qualified to—I mean, we’re teenagers. Don’t be ridiculous.” She shook her head. “We haven’t even finished our research. There’s a thousand unknowns—”

“Then we’ll have to make them known. Along the way.” He dipped his head in Harry’s direction. “Potter—Evans—”

“‘Harry’?” Hermione suggested drily, a knowing little smile curling her lips, and Draco tossed his head in irritation.

Whatever. With his father’s passing and Dumbledore’s…indisposal…the task of risking life and limb tracking down these things has fallen to him. I for one don’t plan on making him do it alone.” He gave both Hermione and Ron a hard look. “…I know it’s sudden. If I thought we could afford months more of preparations, I’d be all for it. But things are moving fast now—faster than any of our purported guardians could have anticipated—and I don’t think we’ve got the luxury of waiting any longer.”

“That may be the case, Malfoy,” Ron said, drawing up behind Hermione and rubbing at her shoulder comfortingly, “but she can’t just uproot and go off hunting H-words! None of us can! I mean—you probably least of all! What do you think’s gonna happen to your folks when You-Know-Who gets wind you’ve run off, and oh, conveniently enough, the kid he’s got it out for is gone too, and funny thing, you two were pretty close chums in school? Plus Hermione’s Muggleborn—the Death Eaters would probably leap at the chance to string her parents up and draw her out of hiding when she goes missing curiously around the same time as you and Harry.” He threw his hands into the air, sinking dramatically into the massive, plush desk chair. “Realistically, I’m probably the one whose family’s in the least danger, associating with Harry.”

“Should I take that to mean you’re ready to hare off on a Horcrux hunt with him, then?” Draco asked innocently, blinking.

“What? No way, I was just saying—” He turned to Harry, immediately contrite. “I mean, not no way, but—it’s complicated—” His stammered apologies failed him, though, and he brought his arm up to cover his eyes. “I should stop talking…”

“Yes,” Hermione drawled blandly. “You should.” She sighed. “But he does make a good point… About our families.” She began pacing, and Harry was struck by how much she reminded him of Draco when his thoughts were awhir. They made such fine partners when put to a problem—it was a shame they hated each other’s guts. “…My parents are Muggles—but that might be for the best. They’ve had next to no interaction with the wizarding world—which is honestly an area I really think could use some reform. I mean, the Muggleborn population is only going to increase in the future, so ideally there should be some sort of onboarding system to help new students and their families better assimilate into—”

Granger,” Draco grit out, and she waved her hands.

“Right—sorry, sorry.” She sighed. “The point is, for better or worse, they’d have no one to turn to if I went missing, except maybe the Muggle police. There’d be no ripples on this side of things if I just…disappeared.”

“But—they wouldn’t just let you vanish without a trace and think nothing of it,” Ron laughed incredulously, brows furrowed. “They’d summon their law enforcement, like you said—the pleasem*n.” He seemed very proud of himself for remembering the term. “They’d kick up a fuss, and sooner or later someone in the wizarding world would notice a Hogwarts student missing.”

“Not for months,” Hermione said, and then added in a smaller voice, “…And they wouldn’t involve the police if they didn’t remember they’d ever had a daughter in the first place.”

What?” Ron barked, just as Draco clapped his hands in delight with, “Oh Granger, that is devious.”

“Hermione,” Ron said, leaping from the chair and shuffling around in front of her to take her hands. “You can’t just Obliviate your par—”

She jerked her hands back and continued pacing. “And for Draco…well, no one’s going to be able to wipe him from memory. He’s far too widely recognised.”

“I’ve a face you don’t forget,” Draco said, gently brushing a strand of hair that had freed itself from his careful coiffure back into place.

“Fake his death,” Ron suggested darkly. “I’d be happy to help.”

“Oh—brilliant, Ron!”

“What?” Ron straightened. “I was joking. Kind of.”

Hermione whirled on Draco. “We could kidnap you! Dumbledore’s actually done us something of a favour, grabbing you at breakfast—he caused a scene. Maybe he even meant to. I’m sure your parents would stop at nothing to get you back, but we’d be in the wind by the time they rallied a search for you. The staff will claim they’ve no idea what’s happened to you, your parents will be convinced Dumbledore or those close to him have taken you, perhaps to ply you for information on their connections to You-Know-Who. Your parents’ reactions would be genuine, so they couldn’t be punished for your disappearance. And you don’t actually have any information worth sharing, so I sincerely doubt You-Know-Who would waste time on trying to get you back. He’d write you off as an acceptable loss.”

Draco chewed on his thumbnail, a nervous habit. “…Not the school or its staff, we’ve already seen this is no safer a sanctuary than a wicker basket. They’d find a way in—through legal means if not magical ones—and root me out. When I failed to turn up, it would only raise suspicion even further. No…” He looked up—at Harry. “…Your father.”

Harry jolted. “Wh—what?”

“It may seem crass—but we could say he did it. Absconded with me—back to America, with you. A wretched fate for me, to be sure, but it might divert their attentions abroad for awhile. We could send them a note—if they ever want to see me alive again, they’ll do their best to ensure that no one ever comes looking for you or your father. I don’t expect they’ll do as instructed, but they can’t possibly find someone who’s…well. And he’d have had means and motive to abduct me, so it works.”

“And for Ron…” Hermione mused, tapping her finger. “That one’s tough…”

“He eloped, obviously,” Draco said easily. “With you.”

Hermione coloured. “I—well that’s—I mean—”

“I’d never elope!” Ron said with hot offence, then added more sheepishly, “…My mum would kill me if I tried.”

“Come now, it makes perfect sense—it might even spare you the sad fate of, good gad, Obliviating your own parents? Dark stuff there, Granger. Our intrepid young Ronald, smitten with passion for his bucktoothed, bushy-browed paramour and despairing that she might find herself the target of heinous acts of sanguinist terrorism, books the first Portkey out of London, bound for parts unknown where he and his lady might make honest wizards of each other in relative anonymity. At least until this whole Dark Lord business blows over.”

Harry watched them argue as if from far away. Honestly, they all sounded like terrible plans, leakier than a screen door on a submarine.

But they were trying. Even Ron, who had no business being involved in any of this except that Hermione was, and he’d follow her most anywhere. Harry didn’t want any of them here—but he needed them all. He needed Ron’s easygoing, affable friendship, he needed Hermione’s gentle but firm I-know-more-than-you-so-you’d-better-listen-to-me nature, and he needed Draco’s…everything.

He didn’t want any of his friends risking their lives—but then, they probably already knew that, and in the end, how they spent their lives was their decision to make. Harry was through trying to force choices upon his friends—though he might offer constructive criticism when he could.

Someone tapped his shoulder, and he turned—to see no one was there. Another tap on his other shoulder, and he turned again to find still no one. Soft, hissing laughter wormed its way into his ear, and he looked up in time to see Noodle uncoiling herself from the absolute knot she’d tied herself into around one of the iron chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

“Well, well—look who finally woke up from her nap,” Draco drawled scurrying over to scritch Noodle under her chin. She was wearing a little cap and goggles that looked like it might have been part of a falconer’s hood at one point, and Harry began inspecting it while Draco fished around in his pockets, claiming he’d scrounged some bacon bits for her at breakfast and that Dumbledore would never hear the end of it if they’d fallen out while whirling through the aether on their Portkey journey.

“I Spelled the goggles to keep her glare controlled,” Hermione explained helpfully, even as Ron cowered (“f*ck you, Malfoy, I’m not cowering!”) behind her, keeping his gaze averted. “She hasn’t hurt anyone yet, but I caught myself feeling a little woozy the other day when I was brushing her fangs, so I thought better safe than sorry.”

“And we need these fangs in tip-top condition for the job ahead of us,” Draco purred, letting Noodle wind herself around him with an unfailingly fond expression on his features, worlds away from the recoiling horror he’d shown when Harry had first introduced them.

“We do?” Harry asked. Were they going to sic her on Voldemort? It wasn’t the worst idea, when he thought about it.

“Mmhmm,” Draco said, seeing no need to elaborate, so Hermione helpfully explained, “Basilisk venom—one of the few known ways to destroy a Horcrux. Not much point in finding the things if all we’re going to do is carry them around with us like dead weight.” She brushed a careful finger across the spines snaking down Noodle’s back. “It’s staggering the degree of foresight Professor Dumbledore had to have had to think to hatch her.”

Harry blinked. “To—what?” He turned to Draco. “He—hatched her?”

Draco made a face, continuing to dote on Noodle. “Figures, doesn’t it? Letting deadly magical beasts just wander the castle, liable to gobble up any of his cherubic charges when they tired of rats, just to have a reliable source of Horcrux-B-Gone.” He cut eyes at Harry and snorted derisively. “Tell me that doesn’t sound like him.”

Harry could not, in fact, say it didn’t sound like Dumbledore.

He sighed, the reality of it all finally settling in, and rubbed uncomfortably at his neck. “…I know you’ve all been at this longer than I have—except you Ron—so you’ve had more time than me to come to grips with, well, everything. But I don’t know what I’m doing. I didn’t want this—I just…wanted to be me. Nothing special. But we can’t get everything we want, apparently, so here I am. That doesn’t mean you have to take on the same risk and responsibility, though.” And Draco was looking at him with a severe look now. “It’s my prophecy. Not yours. Not if you don’t want it.”

“What happened to ‘I can’t do this without you’?” Draco snarled, and Noodle hissed at him in reprimand.

“It’s still there. Only warring with, ‘I don’t want to lose you.’”

This seemed to cow Draco, and a bit of colour began pinking his cheeks as he drew down. Hermione cleared her throat softly. “We’ve already made our decisions, Draco and I. We made them as soon as your father took us into his confidence—we kind of had to, really. And Ron…” She turned to him, a fond smile on her lips, and Ron sighed.

“…I’m a Gryffindor. We’re supposed to be brave. Besides—it’s either this, or spend my summer helping Fred and George test their product lineup for the autumn school term. I figure I’m more likely to survive this.”

Harry allowed himself to indulge in the chuckle this brought out, and he turned to Draco. “…You know this means no Quidditch Training Camp, right? You’re really sure about this?”

“Mm,” Draco hummed, draping his arms over Harry’s shoulders and letting Noodle wrap herself around them, squeezing them close together. “You’ll just have to think of a way to make it up to me. But you’re a Slytherin—we’re very clever. I’m sure you’ll manage something.”

Ron made a gagging noise, and Hermione swatted him sharply.

Harry reached into his pocket, pulling out the little scroll Dumbledore had left for him, and began to shuffle over toward the massive Pensieve that stood in the corner. He imagined he could feel the weight of the others’ eyes on him—watching, wondering what he meant to do.

He was still teetering on that knife’s edge, knowing this was what he was meant to do—and terrified of the enormity of it. So many were depending on him now, whether they knew it or not.

But, he’d been told, it was always easier to make a difficult decision while thinking not about the faceless masses but about one particular person whose future might be brighter for the sacrifice he was about to make. One, or two, or maybe even three particular people.

He peered into the mirror-like surface of the Pensieve and saw his own face staring back—joined first by Draco’s, then Hermione’s, and then Ron’s. They scanned each other’s expressions—and Harry saw worry, trepidation, doubt, and even the barest hint of excitement. But he did not see regret. Draco’s fingers threaded slowly through his own, and Noodle—still lazily twining herself around Draco—flicked his ear with her tongue as she tasted the air.

Harry took a bracing breath. “…Last one in’s a day-old Dungbomb,” he said, with a crooked self-deprecating smile, and as one, they pitched forward into the swirling darkness of memory.

The Fall of the House of Evans - fencer_x - Harry Potter (2024)


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