Author: [info]142978

Rating: NC-17

Summary: After Harry finds Malfoy abandoned in the muggle world, his life takes a turn for the bizarre. Hogwarts is not what it used to be, his friendships are unstable at best, and there's something strange about the way Malfoy has been acting...

:: :: ::

The moment Harry Potter landed back at number 4 Privet Drive, he knew there was something funny about the place. He stood on the opposite curb, studying the house from under a Disillusionment charm. Normally he would have used his invisibility cloak; but with the late August sun beating down on him like it was, he would have smothered himself under the heavy fabric, whispery though it may have been.

Harry wasn't sure what he expected to find here, but he did know that it wasn't to see the house in immaculate condition, the hedges trimmed into perfect cubes and the rosebushes freshly mulched. The windows all sparkled in their panes, and both the empty driveway and the front walk were clear of any fallen leaves or branches. A sprinkler sat in the middle of the lawn spitting a pitifully thin stream of water across the precisely cut, impossibly green grass. The other yards on the block had all wilted and yellowed in the stifling sun, but as usual, number 4 looked lush enough to win a prize.

The house looked so good, in fact, that Harry could not have mistaken its inhabitants for anything other than his contemptible aunt and uncle. Any fool Death Eaters trying to lay a trap for Harry would probably not be observant enough to realize how meticulously Petunia Dursley kept her garden. And Harry had considered the possibility of a trap, at great length.

As he crossed the street, Harry idly wondered where his family had taken the car. Another of their precious lawn conventions, no doubt; Harry let himself smirk at the memory of the trick the Order had played to distract the Dursleys from Harry's escape from their awful house.

Harry bypassed the handful of locks on the front door with a flick of his wand to find himself facing an empty house, silent except for the buzzing of the refrigerator and a radio broadcasting quietly somewhere upstairs. He brandished his wand, ready for an attacker to spring forth from the shadows, until he saw the dishes soaking in the sink. Then he tucked the want into the front pocket of his jeans, now completely satisfied that he had not inadvertently stumbled upon some rogue Death Eaters. One glance at the collection of photographs on the fridge confirmed that the Dursleys hadn't moved since Harry last saw them. Not even Death Eaters would be able to suffer looking at Dudley's fat pink face every day.

He'd worried about them, of course. Only a little more than a year had passed since he'd left Privet Drive and his awful family, but so much had happened in that year that Harry wouldn't have been surprised to find the Dursleys had fled to some distant locale where Harry would never, ever come looking for him, intent on taking a permanent vacation after the strain of bringing Harry up among them.

Then again, he reconsidered, the Dursleys had no real reason to think that Harry would ever have come looking for him. The last they had heard, Harry was in grave danger and might not survive to see his eighteenth birthday.

Smugly, Harry recalled the joint birthday and end-of-war party at the Burrow several weeks earlier. Not only had he survived, he'd saved the entire wizarding world from mortal peril. Not bad for an orphaned teenager.

The Dursleys would love to hear of his success, he mused. They'd probably never believe half of what Harry had seen in the past year, let alone the seven he'd spent using their spare bedroom over summer holidays. As far as they were concerned, Harry's being alive was bad enough. Hearing that he'd performed what could only be described as miracles would certainly ruin their day, their week – maybe even their entire year.

Much as Harry would have loved to see the looks on their faces when they saw him alive, he was relieved, and even glad, that the Dursleys were gone today. He had only come back now to claim a few personal items he had forgotten in his haste to leave the previous summer. Mostly he was looking for letters and notes, and a few odd souvenirs of his years at Hogwarts like the golden snitch from his third year, when Gryffindor had won the House Cup in Quidditch, and a drawing his old housemate Dean Thomas had done of Harry and his owl, Hedwig. Though it was almost painfully sentimental of him, Harry longed for reminders like these that his life among wizards had seemed exciting and magical, before he'd had to spend every hour of his days plotting against the Dark Lord and his followers, before he'd feared for his life, before he'd lost friends.

Harry trudged upstairs to the bedroom he had occupied when he lived with the Dursleys. The walls had been repapered with a dull ecru stripe (apparently Petunia's excuse for good decorating sense), and several picture frames hung in a line along the far wall.

Harry ignored them, assuming they held portraits of Dudley, like every single wall of the living room and halls of the house. His old bed still stood in the corner, with a nice maroon duvet smoothed over the narrow mattress. Apparently they'd been using it as a guest room since Harry left.

He was only vaguely surprised that they hadn't loaded all of Dudley's old toys into the second bedroom, but then, Dudley was much too old to keep most of those around the house anymore. Harry suspected that any toys that were left had been kept by Petunia as mementoes of a time when Dudley had not yet gained such impossible girth.

He was just crossing to the wardrobe to look for his own mementoes when he heard a car door slam outside, followed by several other car doors slamming, and the murmur of voices from the driveway.

Harry glanced at the window, frantically trying to decide what to do. He could stay where he was, gather his things, and only face his family if they discovered him. Or he could go downstairs to meet them, hopefully surprising the lot of them into heart attacks. Or he could just disapparate and try again tomorrow, when he knew Vernon would be working, Petunia would be gossiping at the neighbor's, and Dudley would be roaming the neighborhood with his band of bully friends.

Harry quickly crossed the room again and closed the door, settling on an answer. He would risk being caught and stay until he'd found what he came for – chances were, they never came into his old room, anyway, unless they were laying out guest towels for Aunt Marge. This time of year, Marge was sure to be sunbathing in Majorca, if not further abroad.

Keeping an ear out for the Dursleys below, Harry opened the wardrobe as quietly as he could and dropped to his knees to search the bottom. He thought he remembered leaving a couple of Quidditch books there.

He was so intent on finding his books that almost missed the clothes hanging there, a few worn pairs of jeans and old t-shirts that were roughly his size.

That was strange, he thought. He didn't remember leaving any clothing behind. None of the shirts looked familiar, and they looked like they actually might fit him, unlike the various articles of voluminous clothing he had inherited from his cousin over the years. He got to his feet, pushing the hangers back and forth, trying to understand what it meant.

Looking around the room, he realized that despite its being very clean, someone had obviously been living here. A spare pair of trainers stood at the foot of the bed, crumbly dirt from the garden lingering on the rubber toes. The pillow held a clear imprint of a head, as though the same person had slept on it many nights in a row. The bedding was rumpled and slightly crooked, a state that Petunia never would have left it were she preparing for a guest. There were pens scattered on the desktop beside a couple of used notebooks and a crumpled magazine.

Harry went to the desk, turning the magazine over in his hands. It was a celebrity gossip rag, a new but well-read issue. Someone had circled or starred several of the men throughout the magazine in a bold black marker.

Baffled, Harry looked at the pictures on the wall, then sucked in his breath sharply when he recognized the faces within the frames. None of them were Dudley. In fact, it was exactly the opposite: they were portraits of a family he never thought he'd see in the Muggle world, one that he loathed perhaps as much as the Dursleys.

Harry was so utterly shocked that he barely heard the footsteps ascending the stairs, and he only thought to turn to face the door when it swung open, creaking on its hinges.

"I thought I heard someone up here," said Draco Malfoy in a low tone, looking over Harry as though he were studying the stains on the sole of his shoe.

"Petrificus totalus," Harry said automatically. Malfoy froze with one hand on the doorknob and the other tucked gracefully in his pocket. He looked like some sort of statue, or one of the photographs in the magazine Harry had found, like someone had intended him to stand that way forever.

For a moment, Harry couldn't figure out why Malfoy looked so odd. Then it hit him: he was wearing Muggle clothing, a faded t-shirt with a hole near the hem and a pair of jeans that had seen better days. He was also wearing shabby leather sandals, and his skin had an all-over golden tone to it. He had always looked so pale at school, like he was permanently recovering from a particularly bad case of the flu, especially against the usually dark tones of his expensive, tailored robes.

Anyone who had undergone the same transformation might have seemed more elegant, as Malfoy did now, but somehow the fact that it was Malfoy added to the odd feeling of being back at Privet Drive, and seeing him there. Harry felt a bit as though his center of gravity had been knocked askew; Malfoy wasn't supposed to be here, and he certainly wasn't supposed to look like some sort of model.

"I'm going to let you out of that body bind, Malfoy," Harry warned, coming back around, his wand pointed directly at Malfoy's heart, "but if you try anything, so help me, I'll curse you back to that first arranged Malfoy marriage so you can see firsthand where all that inbreeding began."

Malfoy, of course, didn't reply. He didn't move.

"Finite incantatum," Harry announced impatiently. He kept his wand up, ready to hex Malfoy the minute he did anything remotely suspicious.

Instead, Malfoy rolled his eyes and stretched his shoulders before crossing his tan arms over his ratty t-shirt. "Potter, you stupid, insufferable twat. What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing," Harry retorted.

"I asked first," Malfoy replied, his voice sticky with the smug, bored drawl that had always driven Harry over the edge when they'd fought at school. At least it made him seem a little more like the Malfoy that Harry knew and loathed.

"I came to collect some things."

Harry paused. He had no idea why he had answered Malfoy's question so easily. It was Malfoy who needed to explain himself, not Harry. Harry owed Malfoy nothing. Malfoy, on the other hand…

Harry narrowed his eyes. "Just answer the question, you git, or I'll – "

"Hex me into the distant past, I get it," Malfoy interrupted. He eyed Harry's wand coolly. "Petunia put your things into a box long before I got here. They're in the cupboard under the stairs."

Appropriate, Harry thought with a twinge. He said sharply, "Why are you here, anyway?"

"Yes, you've already asked me that one," said Malfoy. "If I wanted to answer it, I'd have done so already. You bore me. Now, please get out of my bedroom."

"Your bedroom?" Harry scoffed. He lowered his wand just an inch, incredulous. "I lived here six years, and you're calling it yours?"

"Where on earth did you live for the first eleven?" Malfoy dodged the question, sneering. Then his expression flickered minutely and he said, "The rumors were true, then?"

Harry felt the rush of heat on the back of his neck. "Depends. What were the rumors?"

"They said you lived in a closet, that you were made to eat cold food from a tin like some sort of animal," Malfoy replied. "I never believed them, the way you acted. You had the attitude of pure privilege. I especially discounted them when I came here and saw your room. Quite spacious for a closet, I thought. But that does explain it, even if it doesn't explain your attitude. The one in the hall?"

"Under the stairs," Harry said curtly.

"Ah," said Malfoy. He sounded vaguely impressed. "Appropriate, then, isn't it – "

"Shut up, would you?" Harry said irritably. "Why are you here?"

"This is your grand questioning technique? Badgering the enemy to death with stupid questions? Good lord, Potter, heaven help us all if you ever decide to become a spy. You'll never get anything done, save perhaps win an award for the Most Useless Member of the Ministry, ten years running."

Now Harry rolled his eyes. "I don't have time for this. I came to get my things."

"No one's stopping you." Malfoy noticed the open wardrobe door, his expression creasing with unhappiness. "You've gone rifling through my things? Good god, Potter, you've no manners at all! No wonder they kept you under lock and key. You really are an animal, like that godforsaken uncle of yours – "

Harry assumed he meant Sirius. That was alright, as far as Harry was concerned; he doubted that Malfoy knew half as much about his familial connections to Sirius as Harry did. The irony of Malfoy insulting his own blood relatives struck Harry rather fully; he had to suppress a chuckle.

Meanwhile Malfoy hurried over to inspect his pitiful few articles of clothing, Harry assumed to make sure nothing was missing.

"I didn't take anything from you," Harry informed him pertly. "Like I'd want any of your things."

Malfoy shot him a dark look. "Just take your letters and go, would you? You know where they are."

"Fine," said Harry. He pushed past Malfoy with slightly more force than was strictly necessary, satisfied by the grunt Malfoy produced when his shoulder connected with Harry's own.

Harry was careful to descend the stairs as quietly as possible. Despite his unfortunate run-in with Malfoy, Harry still wanted to avoid his relatives at all costs.

He could hear the television blaring, and he assumed the Dursleys were all crouched in front of it with cold drinks and enough snack food to stuff a whale or perhaps a small dragon, but as he crept down the hall toward the cupboard, Malfoy came crashing down the stairs behind him, whistling. Apparently he was determined to make as much noise as humanly possible.

Glaring daggers, Harry hissed, "What are you doing?"

Malfoy smiled smugly and disappeared into the living room, moving as casually through the space as though he'd lived there for years. Harry heard him say, "Petunia? There's a visitor here to see you."

Petunia's voice drifted past the television blare, "Visitor? Why, I didn't even hear the doorbell ring. Whatever would we do without you, Draco…"

Moments later, Malfoy reappeared in the doorway with Petunia at her side and Vernon bringing up the rear. Dudley had apparently decided that the television was more important than whatever surprise guest Malfoy had dug up.


To her credit, Petunia sounded more surprised than offended by his presence. Harry could not say the same for Vernon; he was beginning to puff up and turn a blotchy shade of purple beneath his quivering mustache.

"I found him upstairs," said Malfoy lightly, "rooting through my things."

For just a moment, no one said anything. Vernon made a few strangled noises, and Malfoy looked impossibly smug, but Harry suspected it was just the quiet before the storm. Before long he would be barraged with accusations and insults until he himself turned purple or apparated out of the house, possibly alarming the Dursleys even more than he already had by merely standing in their hall.

Then Petunia acted on an unexpected impulse and flung her arms around Harry's shoulders, clutching him into a tight and awkward hug. Her collarbone jabbed painfully into the bony part of Harry's shoulder.

Once he had recovered from the shock of this gesture – Petunia had always avoided touching him at all, let alone ever hugging him – he patted her on the shoulder, glancing as he did at Malfoy. He looked as surprised as Harry felt. Vernon, meanwhile, had gone no less purple, but remained speechless, apparently also baffled.

Petunia pulled herself away suddenly, her face flushed red with embarrassment that she had just shown any emotion toward Harry, let alone compassion or caring. She wrung her hands, saying, "We're just so surprised to see you – "

Alive, Harry added silently when Petunia's speech dropped off suddenly, her hand flitting to her pursed mouth.

"But," Vernon choked through his apparent rage and disbelief, "why've you come back? We thought you'd gone for good!"

"I left some things behind," Harry said, hearing the defensive edge on his voice.

And he had a right to be defensive, he thought. He had planned on sneaking into the house, taking his things, and leaving. Looking around at his relatives and Malfoy, he realized he'd just stumbled into a set of problems entirely different than a lost handful of old letters, or even confronting the Dursleys again, starting with the question of what Malfoy was doing there in the first place.

He didn't have time to think it through now. Petunia was nodding, pushing past them to get to the cupboard under the stairs. After a moment of rummaging, she produced a rather crumpled looking, unmarked cardboard box.

"I thought you might come back for them," she said, sounding almost apologetic, though Harry couldn't imagine why. He was surprised that she'd thought to keep anything of his, rather than using it to ignite a bonfire the day he'd left. "There were letters, and a few – um, other things."

Harry thought of the Snitch, and suddenly he was impressed by his aunt's courage. She, who had always openly reviled anything magical, had touched a Snitch? For all she knew, the tiny ball of gold might have been some sort of time bomb, or a shiny practical joke. Well, he thought with a smirk, at least he'd left behind harmless "other things," and not his Monster Book of Monsters or one of Fred and George's pranks, or he might have traumatized her even further when it came to magic.

"Thanks," Harry managed, though his mind was still reeling from these few gestures of kindness from his aunt.

"Well," Vernon announced pointedly, "now you've found your things, you can go. Right?"

Though he wanted little more than to sit down right then and sort through his box, Harry caught himself on the verge of agreeing with Vernon. He could look over his things just as easily at the Burrow, or even the park two blocks over. But something in Petunia's expression, both fearful and hopeful, stopped him.

"You will stay for supper?" she asked suddenly. Vernon balked. Malfoy's frown twitched slightly, but otherwise he showed no reaction. Petunia's eyebrows had lifted so hopefully that Harry felt himself caving under some undefined guilt even as every other fiber of his being cried out to him, Leave! Get out while you still can…!

He thought briefly of Ron and Hermione eating with the bereft Mrs. Weasley, the three of them crowded around one end of the table while the rest of it shot out away from them in the other direction, vast and empty. With the end of the war, most of her children had been reassigned to their previous lives in far-away countries, and Mr. Weasley had been kept late at the Ministry almost every night Harry had stayed at the Burrow that summer.

The image of a forlorn Mrs. Weasley was crowded out of his mind by the thought of his mother beaming hopefully at him through the Mirror of Erised seven years ago, and how alike she and Petunia would have looked in this moment, searching his face for – something, after he'd spent so long away.

His friends would understand, he thought defeatedly. Regardless of her motives, Petunia was showing Harry kindness for the first time in his life. He would only be a few hours late.

"Yeah," Harry said, all the breath running out of him in that one word.

"Oh, good," said Petunia, sounding imminently relieved, stepping toward the kitchen. "I'll just – get things started – "

Vernon and Malfoy both stood blocking the hall, each the physical antithesis of the other: Malfoy, thin and elegant even in his frayed Muggle jeans; and Vernon, his blotchiness having faded to a dull red color, a squat, solid mass of flesh beneath a crumpled, garishly yellow shirt with palm trees on it. Still, the two of them glowered at Harry with the same expression of open disdain as he shifted his box from one arm to the other. Neither said anything.

Harry could only assume that Vernon was allowing him to stay even a few more hours because Petunia's behavior had been so strange. His uncle had always catered to his wife and child's odd whims; apparently being nice to Harry was now included. That did not make it any more reasonable or natural for Harry, though.

"Excuse me," said Harry, "but I'd like to use the bathroom. All this excitement. You understand."

They stepped aside, but barely; Harry still had to squeeze between them, Vernon's lumpy stomach at his back and Malfoy's hot breath and cool gaze at his front. For a moment, Harry thought Malfoy might try to grab him, or his wand – but Malfoy seemed content just to glare and shove him hard with one shoulder. Harry slipped past him without any real trouble.

Harry stepped onto the puce carpet at the top of the stairs before he realized he'd been holding his breath.

In the bathroom, Harry set his box carefully on the counter, then splashed several handfuls of cold water onto his face. He hadn't considered how odd it would feel to come back.

It was so surreal, all of it – seeing this house, seeing the Dursleys again. Petunia's actually being nice, for once in eighteen years. It was unnerving, much more stressful than Harry had expected that morning when he'd closed his eyes to apparate here.

And seeing Draco Malfoy, of all people, living with them in a Muggle neighborhood, wearing those clothes like he'd always dressed like that, like he didn't care that the closest thing he had to a wizard friend on Privet Drive was Mrs. Figg, an elderly squib obsessed with her feline menagerie across the street. Assuming he even knew about Mrs. Figg.

Harry stared hard at his reflection in the mirror, still half expecting it to make some snide remark about his hair, like the mirror at the Burrow was apt to do. But this mirror, predictably, said nothing. He stared at the pale cut of his jaw, dusted with stubble; his hair a mess, as always, but cropped short enough that it almost looked as though he'd done it on purpose. The scar on his forehead had been fading rapidly in the past weeks, and had gone from a deep, blistering red to a soft, pearly pink color that blended nicely with the shadows of his fringe. It was almost as though it didn't exist.

Admittedly, Harry found the fading scar a mixed blessing. It had proven a nice change of pace when he ventured into the public domains of the wizarding world, such as the previous week when he, Ron, and Hermione had trouped into Diagon Alley for their school supplies for the coming term. Fewer nosy wizards and witches came up to tell him how glad they were that he'd saved them all from certain death.

But without the scar, Harry felt a little lost. Much as he'd loathed it, he had also relied on its story to fill a major portion of his identity. Before, he'd never had to find hobbies or interests: he was Harry Potter, Boy Who Lived, Chosen One. He'd loved Quidditch, all nine Weasleys, treacle tarts, and fighting forces of evil. Anything that couldn't fit onto his chocolate frog card wasn't really worth knowing, unless it could help him defeat Voldemort.

Recently he'd found himself at a loss when Hermione had observed that he was free to be his own man. It was more than a little overwhelming, and not what he'd expected after defeating Voldemort. Truth be told, he hadn't really considered what might happen after. There had been no real after: only death or survival. And in his case, it had been both.

When Harry emerged from the bathroom, he found Malfoy skulking in the hall.

"What are you doing out here?" Harry accused, though he found himself too tired now even to muster much actual irritation. "Hoping to hex me into oblivion when I wasn't paying attention?"

"Wouldn't be the first time," Malfoy replied smoothly, "but no."

"What, then?"

Malfoy studied Harry's face for a moment, and something in Harry's stomach went cold. He had never really gotten used to people looking at him, expecting something from him because of his scar or his mother's green eyes, but something about Malfoy made it worse, like Malfoy could see right through him. Harry was strongly reminded of Dumbledore's twinkling gaze, which had always given him the same naked feeling. It suggested that Malfoy wanted something from Harry that Harry wouldn't quite understand.

"Why are you really here, Potter?"

Harry pats the side of his box. "I came to get my things. Remember?"

"Oh, of course, your precious box," Malfoy scoffs. "I've been through that box a dozen times. None of it's worth anything. Not worth coming back here for, anyway. Some old school letters, so what?"

Harry shook his head, not really wanting to explain to Malfoy why he wanted the letters from Dumbledore, or that first letter from Hogwarts. It would be like trying to explain to a bird what it felt like to learn you could fly. Malfoy had always known about magic, and about what he would eventually be able to do with it. He'd never had the experience of hearing for the first time that he was a wizard, that all the unexplainable moments in his life actually made perfect sense, that he wasn't the freak he'd almost convinced himself that he was.

He tried sidestepping Malfoy, wanting to return to the kitchen where he could investigate Petunia's bizarre change of heart, but Malfoy stepped closer, blocking Harry's path. They were so close on the landing now that Harry could smell the earthy, organic smell of Malfoy's skin, like he'd been outside all day in the sun. Malfoy's eyes glittered in the dim artificial light of the hall.

"You came back for something bigger," he intoned. He was close enough that Harry could almost feel the vibrations of his voice in his chest. "You came for something to help you – to beat him."

At first, Harry had no idea what Malfoy was talking about. Clearly Malfoy had gone mental after hearing that his father had been killed in the final battle and his mother had gone missing.

Malfoy hissed, "Tell me," and suddenly Harry realized with a horrible sinking feeling that Malfoy had absolutely no idea what had been happening in the wizarding world. He had been closed up with the Dursleys for so long that he didn't know that Voldemort was dead, that the war was over, that he was virtually an orphan. Harry bit down on the urge to feel sorry for Malfoy for being abandoned here.

Something must have shifted on Harry's face, because Malfoy's eyes flickered left and right as he watched Harry.

"What?" he snapped, but the aggression in his voice was half-hearted, like he knew without Harry having to say anything. His eyes flickered, and Harry knew he had to tell Malfoy.

"It's just – it's over," Harry said quietly.

"What is?"

"The war. Voldemort. Everything. It's all over."

"No," said Malfoy quickly, his eyes searching Harry's face for something. "Someone would have told me. Someone would have come for me."

He stepped away, and Harry felt oddly bereft of the heat rolling off Malfoy's body in the artificially chilly air. Pity for Malfoy swelled under his ribcage. All the times he had thought he, too, would be left here with the Dursleys, and every time the Weasleys or Dumbledore or the Order had come for him, after all. Every time, he'd been saved. But Malfoy hadn't.

"It's been over for months," Harry said, attempting a gentle tone. "There was a battle at Hogwarts – the Death Eaters had taken over classes. A few kids hid out in the Room of Requirement, but, um, a lot of people died, in the end."

Malfoy had gone pale under the sunny glow of his skin, and he leaned against the wall, staring blankly at the carpet. Harry felt vaguely alarmed that he wanted to make Malfoy stop looking so utterly lost, that he wanted to produce a truth that wouldn't hurt him.

Harry blurted, "I died to kill him."

Malfoy looked up sharply, and Harry was surprised to see the corner of his mouth twitching upward, despite how wide his eyes were. He studied Harry's figure suspiciously, as though to ask why Harry was still standing there if he'd died.

"You aren't serious," said Malfoy.

Harry nodded helplessly. "Since I died willingly to save everybody, I got to come back."

Malfoy ran a hand through his hair, now looking like he might burst out laughing at any moment. "That's so typical. Leave it to the Gryffindors to make some ridiculously noble and epically stupid Christ-like sacrifice."

He sighed, then shot Harry a wary look, asking, "He's dead, then?"

"Voldemort?" Harry asked, causing Malfoy to flinch. "Sorry. Your mother helped, you know. To beat him. She thought she'd have a better chance of saving you if she weren't – "

He stopped suddenly, shrugging. He didn't know how to explain what had happened that night, when Mrs. Malfoy had kept his still-beating heart a secret from Voldemort. She had bent low over his body and asked, "Is he safe?" Harry hadn't seen Malfoy since the night on the tower, when he'd disappeared with Snape into the Forbidden Forest. But by then he'd known more of Snape's story, and despite his personal loathing for the man, he knew that Snape would have done all he could to help Malfoy, if that's what Dumbledore had wanted. So Harry had whispered, "Yes, he's alive," to Mrs. Malfoy, thereby saving his life. And everyone else's. Harry thought briefly of his near-sorting into Slytherin and forced back a smile. Maybe the hat hadn't been so far off, after all.

"She got out in one piece," Harry finished. "I saw her with the healers after the battle. A few scrapes, but she's fine."

Unless she's dead, he thought, and shuddered, thinking of an article he'd read about Mrs. Malfoy's disappearance and the Ministry's seizure of their accounts at Gringott's and the manor.

When had Harry started lying to spare Malfoy's feelings? It was like his mouth and his brain were totally disconnected, he thought, trying to shake off that feeling, as well as the pity still rising in his throat. Apparently the shock of coming back had weakened his ability to be outright mean to Malfoy. He was even starting to wonder why he had always been so blindly mean to Malfoy – except that Malfoy had always been so aggressive toward Harry first.

Malfoy seemed to absorb the information with little trouble. He nodded vaguely. "And my father?"

"Um," said Harry. He thought of the Fiendfyre, and of the screams that had been lodged in Harry's nightmares for weeks after the battle, the ones his subconscious had only just replaced with the eerie grin on Fred's face when he'd gotten hit. He looked at Malfoy's surprisingly placid expression, and panic welled in his stomach. He had never been very good at lying, even to Malfoy.

On second thought, maybe the sorting hat had been totally wrong about Harry. He was much better at being blunt and accidentally heroic. Secrets didn't suit him.

Luckily, Petunia chose that moment to call up the stairs, "I've got supper on!"

Malfoy held Harry's gaze for another moment before he shook his head. "Never mind."

Relief flooded Harry's body. If he had ever predicted this moment, Harry figured he would have been justified in wanting to be the one to tell Malfoy that his father had died, after all the petty taunts and arguments they'd had over Harry's dead parents. Malfoy would have deserved it, after all the stupid and mean things he'd done and said to Harry and his friends. It would have put them on a level playing field.

But now that he was in the position, he felt sick at the thought of telling Malfoy anything. Harry had never known his parents, and he'd been suffering Dudley's taunts for years before Malfoy had arrived on the scene. Knowing he was an orphan hadn't been pleasant, but he'd known for a long time that all the sympathy in the world wouldn't have brought his parents back. But Malfoy had known his parents. To bear the news felt to Harry like he had been the one who had killed Lucius, not Crabbe's stupidity and ignorance of the spells he was casting in the Room of Requirement that night.

Another pang of guilt washed over Harry as he looked at Malfoy, who had tipped his head back against the wall, his eyes closed. Harry had been as bad as Crabbe, once, in that bathroom their sixth year, casting spells without any idea of what the results might have been. Even now he could see the jagged end of a thick scar at the dip in Malfoy's collarbone, just visible over the collar of his shirt. If anything, it looked even more prominent against the darker tone of Malfoy's now sunny glow.

Malfoy opened his eyes, watching Harry closely as Harry flushed at having been caught staring.

"Like what you see, Potter?" The old drawl had returned to Malfoy's voice, and Harry flushed further, even though he knew Malfoy was just trying to get under his skin. "I suppose you deserve a little something for rescuing me from this Muggle hell. Isn't that how they do it in the fairy tales? A kiss from the tower window, when the princess is saved? Of course, that theory assumes you are here to rescue me, and that Gryffindors like yourself have no qualms about kissing… Slytherins."

Harry didn't quite know how to respond. Assuming Malfoy had gone a little stir-crazy at Privet Drive, and was therefore not making very much sense, Harry rolled his eyes and stuck out a hand to help Malfoy up.

"We should probably get downstairs for supper," he offered lamely.

Malfoy watched him for another moment, then sighed and took Harry's hand, pulling himself to his feet. His hand was surprisingly warm and strong against Harry's, his fingers rougher than Harry would have imagined.

"Snape's dead, then?" Malfoy asked conversationally, and Harry nearly tripped in his surprise.

"Yeah," Harry said apologetically. He never thought he would be sorry to say that Snape had died, but in the aftermath of the battle, Harry had time enough on his hands to see the ways that Snape had been a slimy bastard, and the ways he had genuinely tried to help Harry despite his history with Harry's parents. Grudgingly, he could now admit that he'd been wrong about Snape in some ways.

He raised an eyebrow at Malfoy, though, wondering whether he and Snape had been that much closer than Harry had ever been to his own head of house. He supposed it might have been different if his parents had been alive, and Professor McGonagall stopped by their house on a regular basis to discuss things like the Dark Lord, or how to get rid of Dumbledore.

By way of explanation, Malfoy said, "Only two people knew I was here. Snape and McGonagall. I guess she's dead, too, since you don't seem to have come on her orders."

"McGonagall's been in St. Mungo's," Harry said, another pang of guilt washing over him, "mostly unconscious. She got hit pretty badly during the battle at Hogwarts."

Malfoy nodded briefly. "That explains that, then."

"I'm sure they didn't forget about you," Harry said, figuring that's how Malfoy must have felt.

Malfoy shot him a baleful look, one that said, As if anyone could forget about me.

:: :: ::

Harry suggested it on a whim.

They'd been eating with the Dursleys, talking, even laughing at times, a total reversal from the way meals had always been when Harry had lived at Privet Drive.

Vernon had been predictably mutinous about the situation, and stubbornly silent throughout the meal. Dudley, too, had been silent, his beady eyes locked onto the nearest television screen.

But Malfoy had kept looking at Harry with this curious, guarded expression, like he was trying to sort out something about Harry, though Harry couldn't imagine what had confused Malfoy about him. Harry wasn't the one who had changed; he had come back to the Dursleys with the same crooked scar, the same too-big jeans and stained Chudley Cannons t-shirt he'd always worn, the same vague confusion about what he was supposed to do with himself. Malfoy was the one wearing Muggle clothes in a Muggle house, and even his smug superiority had faded, somewhat, only really emerging when Harry caught him off guard.

Meanwhile Petunia had continued to act strangely hesitant, almost kind, offering Harry seconds as soon as he'd cleared his plate. He had accepted out of surprise more than hunger. It was only when she had mentioned Harry's mother in passing that he began to understand why she'd experienced such a change of heart – though mention of Harry's mother had never sent Petunia into this kind of fit of kindness before.

Harry had insisted on taking the task of washing the dishes from Petunia after they'd eaten, and now Malfoy hovered with him in the kitchen, leaning against the counter with his arms braced on the edge, his elbows bent at funny angles behind him. Somehow he still managed to look graceful.

"You could come with me," Harry said. He had cast around in his mind for something to break the silence, and somehow landed on that, surprising even himself. After he'd said it, though, it seemed the least he could do for anyone stranded with the Dursleys so long – even if that person happened to be Malfoy. "To Hogwarts, I mean. There's a new term starting next week, you could finish your N.E.W.T. exams. They have about a dozen of us coming back, I reckon."

"Why," Malfoy replied stiffly, "would I want to go back to that awful place?"

This gave Harry pause. Hogwarts had always been his home, but it dawned on him now that maybe it hadn't been for everyone. Malfoy must have spent most of his time there feeling as isolated and desperately curious about his family as Harry always had at the Dursleys, curious about the wizarding world, especially as the years had passed, and there had been more at stake for both of them.

Harry shut off the water and turned to face Malfoy, realizing that most of the other Slytherins in their year would be dead, or locked up, or hiding somewhere until they could safely attempt normal lives, even if they were Marked. Harry's eyes flicked to Malfoy's forearm then, involuntarily.

Malfoy laughed, turning his arm so that Harry could see more clearly.

"What were you expecting?" he asked, and Harry felt incredibly stupid in that moment. The Dark Mark leered at him from Malfoy's skin, though the ink had appeared to fade somewhat against Malfoy's tan, the same way Harry's scar had been slowly fading since Voldemort's death.

"They've offered us independent studies, whatever subjects we like," Harry pressed, locking eyes with Malfoy to avoid staring at the Mark. He wasn't about to apologize to Malfoy, so pretending his gaffe hadn't happened would have to do.

Harry did suffer a moment of doubt, now that he'd seen the Dark Mark; he had always doubted how strong Malfoy's loyalties to Voldemort had really been, considering his young age. Since Voldemort had only enlisted Malfoy that he might kill him, Harry had suspected that Voldemort had never fully incorporated Malfoy into his ranks as a Death Eater. Maybe Harry had assumed that Malfoy would have been Marked after successfully killing Dumbledore, or some equally disturbing task.

But then, Harry did know that Malfoy had been trying to protect his family – and if he had only been trying to protect his family's pureblood ideals, wouldn't he have been able to kill Dumbledore? Harry could remember very clearly the moment Dumbledore offered Malfoy protection, the same protection that Voldemort had offered, but without the necessity of murder. There had been a glimmer in Malfoy's eyes, a moment of doubt in everything Voldemort had to offer him, or even hope. Dumbledore had not struck him a deal; he had merely offered to help. Harry still wondered whether anyone had ever done that for Malfoy before.

Presently Harry glanced at Malfoy, at the worn Muggle clothing, at the way Malfoy ran a calloused hand through his long, blond hair. Malfoy had never been the kind of boy to sport calluses, yet here he was. Defying Harry's expectations.

Something about this new Malfoy made Harry all the more determined to have him back at Hogwarts. In a split-second of consideration, Harry knew that the school wouldn't be the same without Malfoy's taunts and petty hexes. Even the broken nose he'd suffered on the train now stood a testament to the normality of his rivalry with Malfoy. The stakes had surely been higher than most schoolyard rivalries, but then, everything in Harry's life had been more desperate, more dire, than most boys his age.

He and Malfoy been kids together, grown up together. Harry couldn't really imagine what Hogwarts would have been like without him, and now, facing that possibility, he didn't want to risk it.

Especially having seen Dumbledore offer Malfoy mercy without question. Despite all the rotten things Malfoy had done over the years, Dumbledore had seen the potential for good in Malfoy. And Harry knew now that Dumbledore would have wanted Malfoy to return to Hogwarts now, and complete his education.

Catching sight of Malfoy's blank expression, Harry realized that he'd been drifting through his thoughts, but he stubbornly rambled on, "And there'll be tutoring sessions with the younger students, since there's been a lot of turnover within the staff. Any subject you like. They've stricken the normal requirements for seventh-year studies, since so many of our year didn't make it back last September, and the ones who did didn't really get much practical learning done."

In retrospect, Harry wasn't sure why Malfoy agreed to it so readily, except that Harry then cast a cleaning charm on the rest of the dishes, which eagerly crowded the drainer after running themselves under the water and sponge. Malfoy watched the spell with a kind of hunger in his eyes that startled Harry. He hadn't seen Malfoy look at anything like that for a long time.

"You could come stay with the Weasleys," Harry offered. "Or we could arrange for a room at the Leaky Cauldron. Whatever you need."

At the look on Malfoy's face, Harry suddenly wondered whether Malfoy had any money of his own at this point. Since the Ministry had seized his assets, he wouldn't have an account left at Gringott's. Harry wondered how much Malfoy had gleaned from Harry's earlier silence when he'd asked about his father.

But Malfoy shrugged and said, "What are a few more days here? Might as well make it an even thirteen months."

"Alright," Harry agreed. He didn't want to think of Ron's response to his having invited Malfoy back to the Burrow.

:: :: ::

On the platform, Harry saw Malfoy long before Malfoy saw Harry. Malfoy came through the barrier from King's Cross at a run, carrying only a small duffel bag slung over one shoulder. Compared to the other students crowding the platform, Malfoy stood out like a sore thumb, both because his pale hair shone like a beacon against all the black uniform robes, and because he stood a head taller than almost everyone else around him. The younger students seemed so small by comparison.

Harry never thought he would be relieved to see Malfoy, but there it was. After returning to the Burrow, Harry had sent an owl with a letter and his own ticket to the Hogwarts Express. With Mr. Weasley's help, Harry had charmed the ticket into a port key to bring Malfoy to King's Cross just before the train arrived. The accompanying note had been brief, and Harry had worried that it could have been misconstrued as rude. He had hoped to make their transition back to Hogwarts more – well, normal – but Harry had considered the possibility that Malfoy might decide to take his chances with the Dursleys after all.

Presently Harry peered through the smudged compartment window at him, watching as Malfoy made his way through the swarm of students toward the train. He looked lost and more than a little overwhelmed. Every time one of the younger students brandished a wand near him, Malfoy flinched and took a step away. The constant stopping made his progress toward the train particularly slow.

When he came near enough to the train, Malfoy began searching the windows; when he saw Harry, he first smiled, then seemed to think better of it, and his expression went blank. Malfoy gave a half-hearted wave instead, and Harry gestured for him to join them in the compartment.

"Who are you waving to, Harry?" asked Hermione from beside him, sounding a little concerned. She and Ron had been avidly discussing the subjects they each wanted to tutor; Hermione insisted that potions was vital to each student's education, but Ron adamantly argued that he had always gained the most valuable lessons from his Defense against the Dark Arts lessons.

Neither had said anything about Harry's nervous watch of the platform, probably because they assumed Harry was still nervous about being seen in such a public place when there were still so many Death Eaters at large., or that he was looking for Ginny in the crowd. She had come to the station separately, escorted by George and Percy from their flat in Diagon Alley. At first, he had been nervous about seeing her again. But once they'd arrived, he'd had other concerns flooding his thoughts.

Harry hadn't told Ron or Hermione about seeing Malfoy at the Dursleys, offering them instead some story about how Vernon had gone ballistic at the sight of him. He knew Ron would not receive the news of Malfoy's return well, no matter how he explained the situation. He suspected that Hermione might be a little more understanding, especially since she had followed the Daily Prophet religiously since the final battle and knew as well as Harry did that Narcissa Malfoy was still missing.

Now he knew he had no choice but to tell them. Having seen Harry in the window, Malfoy would come looking for his compartment, and it would be difficult for Harry to convincingly tell his friends that he had no idea what Malfoy was doing there. Malfoy might not appreciate it, either, and would certainly uncover any lies Harry tried to tell.

"Well?" Ron prompted, crossing his arms over his chest.

Despite Mr. Weasley's recent promotion at the Ministry and their having so few children still at Hogwarts, Mrs. Weasley had insisted that both Ron and Ginny still buy their robes second-hand. Her explanation had involved something about building character, and Harry knew better than to offer Ron financial help, even when Harry saw him eyeing the mannequins in the secondhand shop window in Diagon Alley with a fair amount of disdain. The entire ordeal had made Ron particularly sour about returning to Hogwarts at all.

Harry now looked from Ron to Hermione and back again. How to begin explaining the freak show that had recently become his life?

"The reason I was later than expected at Privet Drive the other night," he said, deciding that a short, honest explanation was probably best, "was that Malfoy has been staying with the Dursleys."

Hermione gasped. Ron's mouth settled into a thin line.

"That's not funny, mate," he said gravely.

Studying Harry's helpless expression, Hermione touched Ron's arm. "I don't think he's joking."

Harry shrugged, explaining, "I guess McGonagall and Snape left him there after – after the tower. He didn't know anything that had happened after he got to the Dursleys last fall, anything with Voldemort or his parents. He's been completely cut off from the wizarding world."

Ron snorted, "So what? All the easier to have left him there."

"Imagine the shock he must be going through," Hermione said pityingly. "You did tell him everything, didn't you, Harry?"

"Of course," said Harry. He glanced out the window, but Malfoy had already disappeared from the platform. "Um, I also might have invited him to come back to Hogwarts."

"What?" Ron asked, clearly alarmed.

Sounding incredibly proud and satisfied, Hermione said, "Good on you, Harry. It must have been hard for him to hear those things about his parents. I should think staying at Hogwarts would do him some good, after having to live with your horrible aunt and uncle."

"I can't imagine how he and Dudley got on," Harry admitted. "Petunia seemed to dote on him, though."

"I suppose he made the best of a hard situation," Hermione said. "He is a Slytherin, after all. He would try to make life as easy as possible, although I can't imagine how living as a Muggle must have sounded to him. Like traveling back to live with Neanderthals."

Harry was relieved to note the sarcasm in Hermione's tone. Being Muggleborn, she had more to hold against Malfoy than either Harry or Ron, yet she was striving to be diplomatic. She seemed to see Harry's reasoning for bringing Malfoy back, even if her look of concern lingered whenever she glanced at Harry.

"I can't believe you did this," Ron fumed. "This was supposed to be our year, Harry! The best year! No Dark Lords, no Snape – "

"Ronald," Hermione warned in a hushed tone.

"And definitely no Malfoy," Ron finished fiercely. His face had gone entirely red from his collarbone to his hairline.

"Sorry to ruin your plans," came a pleasant voice from the doorway.

Harry was relieved to see Malfoy still looking as he had at the Dursleys, wearing his Muggle clothes and a tan. He'd been half afraid that the whole thing had been some sort of dream, or a set-up, or that Malfoy would come back looking as pale and drawn with nerves as he had most of their sixth year, and cursed Harry into oblivion for everything he represented.

Harry glanced at Ron to make sure he wouldn't do anything too terrible. Fortunately, Hermione had laid a hand on Ron's forearm, which was straining as he clenched his wand.

"Harry was just telling us he'd run into you," Hermione said politely. "I'm so glad you decided to come back to school. Education is so important, especially considering we're the ones who are going to have to rebuild things."

She flushed slightly, apparently nervous about having said more than Malfoy might feel comfortable hearing regarding the war, but Malfoy's expression barely changed.

Ron mumbled something, which Malfoy dutifully ignored, dropping into the seat beside Harry, saying, "Thank you, Granger. Living with the Dursleys was certainly – informative. But it should be nice to be around wizards again."

Harry wondered briefly about the edge in Malfoy's tone, but Malfoy was looking at Hermione with a quiet smile that Harry couldn't remember ever seeing Malfoy wear before. He filed it away to think about later.

"Are you going to hang around us all year?" Ron asked pointedly, and Malfoy regarded him with a cool, appraising look.

"I suppose so," he replied eventually. "Not many Slytherins can be coming back, can they? So I suppose it's either throw in with you lot, or hang around Hufflepuffs all year."

At first Ron looked pinched, like he might launch himself across the compartment at Malfoy at any moment and rip his face off with his bare hands. Then Harry noticed Hermione's hand clenched white around Ron's arm, and Ron seemed to settle somewhat, exhaling loudly through his nose.

"Alright," said Ron.

Harry let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He caught the glance Hermione shot him then, one that said, You're going to explain this all to me later. He gave her a subtle nod, and she seemed satisfied enough to turn her attention back to Malfoy.

"So," she said, perhaps a little too brightly. "We were just debating which subjects we wanted to tutor this year. Harry did tell you – "

"That we'd get the chance to teach the younger students, yes," Malfoy finished. "He did mention something along those lines."

"I think potions is one of the most important subjects a witch can learn," Hermione said, "next to all the everyday charms, of course. Just think of all the practical applications, the salves and medicines alone! But Ron thinks that Defense is a better use of time."

"There are some useful spells to be learned," Ron defended himself hastily. Then, with more of a biting edge, "Like Ginny's bat-bogey hex."

"You're going to encourage students to play out their petty rivalries in the halls?" he asked coolly, though to his credit he didn't so much as blink. Ron had the decency to look abashed, and Malfoy said boldly, "I think I'm going to do Muggle Studies."

The silence that followed was deafening. Even Harry didn't know how to respond to that one. If someone had told him a year ago – hell, even a week ago – that Malfoy would ever be interested in Muggle Studies, he would have laughed and sent them on their way.

But now, looking at Malfoy's perfectly serious expression, he thought about how Malfoy must have spent the past year, and how he must have had to start from scratch with the basic elements of his life: working a shower, cooking, dressing, cleaning. A new money system, an entirely new system for traveling. Harry knew how jarring that kind of transition could be – he remembered how awed he had been by the simplest forms of magic: Hagrid's pink umbrella, the concept of a sport played entirely on brooms. Only instead of some wonderful new addition to life, Malfoy had probably found himself feeling exactly the opposite, lost and overwhelmed. Especially since he had only had the Dursleys for support in the transition.

"Me too," Harry blurted out. Hermione and Ron gave him identical looks of surprise. They knew as well as he did that he'd never taken a Muggle Studies course in his life, and how desperate he'd been when he was younger to put as much distance between himself and his life at the Dursleys as possible.

Malfoy raised one slim eyebrow at Harry's outburst, but then explained, "The Sorting Hat used to preach about how the houses should band together. I think that means a strong foundation in Muggle Studies. Wizards already know how wizards live. They should know how Muggles live, too. The Muggleborns have to learn about wizards, after all."

"Oh, that's exactly what I've been trying to tell the professors for years," Hermione beamed.

"Ignorance and misunderstanding only breeds fear and hate," Malfoy said simply. He shrugged, the bones of his shoulders jutting against the thin fabric of his t-shirt. "More should be done to cater to the diversity of Hogwarts' students."

Hermione looked inordinately pleased with this turn of events. Ron merely looked unsettled, as though Malfoy were a pod person, replaced by aliens.

For his part, Harry was relieved to see Hermione taking over much of the conversation. He had felt a kind of familiar embarrassment at his outburst that he'd come to associate only with pretty girls – and with Malfoy. It was a feeling that alarmed and intrigued Harry, and so he filed it away for later thought.

:: :: ::

The castle loomed both familiar and strange over Hogsmeade when the train pulled into the station. The sky still clung to the last dredges of sinking sunlight in the west, and the air had the sharp, burnt-smelling chill of autumn, despite the heat still rising off the pavement.

Harry stood for a few moments on the platform, taking it all in, until Hermione touched his arm gently.

"The carriages are leaving," she said, and together the four of them walked along the short gravel path to the line of thestral-drawn carriages.

"Christ," Malfoy breathed, and Harry realized that he would be able to see the eerie dragon-horses now, too, after the night on the tower. Though neither of them had seen Dumbledore die, they had both witnessed the fall. Apparently that was enough for the thestrals.

Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione, who stared at them with identical grim expressions. The shock was not as severe for them, since they had at least known about the thestrals, even if they hadn't seen them.

"We've touched those things?" asked Ron, looking a little green.

Harry nodded, but Ron wasn't looking. He merely shook his head in disbelief and helped Hermione into the carriage. Malfoy was the last to climb in after Harry, and he searched the other carriages around them for other post-seventh years like them, but most of the other students in sight were much younger, chatting and laughing and pretending to throw one another onto the road.

"What others like us are there?" He directed this question at Hermione, having apparently decided that she knew everything, and would always answer his questions in a more direct, logical manner than either Harry or Ron. "From our year, I mean."

"A few from Ravenclaw," she replied. "Morag McDougal. A Hufflepuff or two. Most of the students whose parents kept them away hired private tutors, so they wouldn't need to come back. Others who stayed, like Neville, already took their N.E.W.T. exams and got passable marks, since they'd studied in hiding. Surprising as it might seem, the battle never interrupted their studies much, although they were given the option to return like anyone else."

Malfoy gave her a blank look, and Hermione cleared her throat awkwardly, explaining, "Death Eaters took over the school. Most of the classes continued as usual, though they tended to be biased. Defense and Muggle Studies were especially affected, as you might imagine. Some students were pulled altogether, most of them Muggleborns whose parents didn't have the means necessary to hire magical tutors for them last year."

"Which means they'll need more study to catch up," Ron pointed out smugly.

"Come off it, Ron," Harry said. "When have we ever finished a year of Defense lessons? We've never pushed ourselves harder to catch up for the next term."

Ron scowled when Hermione said reasonably, "He has a point, you know. This should be an opportunity for us to gather as much knowledge as we can before taking our N.E.W.T.s, not pressure ourselves to catch up on everything we missed."

Malfoy smiled smugly, but said nothing. He watched the trees as they passed by them, looking as though he was seeing them for the first time.

Harry realized he'd been staring when he caught the flash of Hermione's elbow jabbing into Ron's side. When he looked at them, Ron averted his eyes, but Hermione put on a dumb smile for him. Harry smiled back, swallowing his annoyance with their reactions to Malfoy's presence. Especially considering how polite Malfoy had been to both of them, compared to the way he'd always treated them at school.

The carriages carried them to the large front doors of the castle, where a harassed looking young witch stood on the wide steps, making sure the younger students all went directly into the Great Hall while the older students waited in the entrance hall. Harry felt a pang when he realized that McGonagall wouldn't be greeting the first-year students this year, nor orchestrating the sorting, like she always had.

"Welcome back, then," said the young witch. "Go on into the Great Hall. Sit anywhere."

Crossing his arms, Malfoy asked skeptically, "What about the houses?"

The witch brushed him off with a vague gesture. "They've been abolished. Sorting Hat's orders. Go on, then. Sooner you get in there, the sooner we can eat."

"Woman after my own heart," Ron said, sounding satisfied, but Harry noticed the troubled expressions that both Hermione and Malfoy wore.

When they stepped into the Great Hall, Malfoy hesitated in the doorway, but when Harry followed Ron and Hermione to what had always been the Gryffindor table, Malfoy came with them, sitting quietly beside Harry as he had all day. Privately Harry wondered if this would be an ongoing trend. He was surprised to find that the idea didn't bother him as much as he would have expected.

Sitting at the table, Harry realized that he hadn't seen Ginny yet. Even on the platform, the three of them had bounded through the barrier and climbed immediately onto the train. Ron had assured them that she would find her own way, but combing the crowd now for the familiar copper glint of her ponytail, Harry still couldn't find her.

"Oi," Harry said, interrupting Ron's eager study of the empty platters in front of them. "Where's your sister?"

Ron gave a half-hearted glance down the table, then shrugged. "With the prefects, I expect. She's been made Quidditch captain, though without houses I don't know what teams we're meant to play as."

"What about you two?" Harry asked. "You aren't prefects anymore?"

Malfoy cleared his throat pointedly, and Hermione said diplomatically, "The three of us used to be prefects, but since there are so few of us left in our year, the older students have all been given prefect privileges. Really, Harry, didn't you read your Hogwarts letter? We can all give or take house points, and we're all to help enforce school rules – "

"And use the bathrooms?" Harry asked, almost on impulse. He still dreamed sometimes of the many-fauceted bath tub on the fourth floor, of the colored bubbles and painting of the mermaid.

"Yeah," said Ron, "but I still don't get what your obsession is with that bathroom."

"I like the bubbles," Harry answered lamely, ignoring Malfoy's subsequent thinly masked snicker. Harry felt his neck go red, and he avoided Malfoy's eyes after that.

"Anyway," Hermione went on, and Harry made a mental note to get her something really nice for her birthday that year, "we don't have the same specific duties as the prefects, but we do have much of the same power."

"Wicked," said Ron. "All the fun without any of the responsibility."

"We're still expected to help the first years," Hermione reminded him firmly, "and keep a close watch on contraband items, including your brothers' creations."

An awkward pause ensued, as the three of them were instantly thrown back to the final battle, when Ron's brother Fred had been hit. It had been a bittersweet moment of reconciliation with Percy, but Harry knew Ron resented Percy deeply for the fact that his reconciliation with the family had cost them one of the twins.

Malfoy regarded this silence with interest, glancing at Harry for some sort of cue, but Harry could only think of the grim attitude George had adopted since Harry had seen him at the battle. Though the rest of the family had offered their help in the shop, only Percy had managed to break through George's obvious despair. He had moved into the apartment above the twins' shop in Diagon Alley, and had been helping to run the business since they had reopened shortly after Fred's funeral. Though the shop was thriving, George's formerly lighthearted personality seemed to have been lopped in half.

"I wonder how they'll divide the rooms, now that they've done away with houses," Hermione mused, breaking their reverie. She looked intently toward the front of the room, where the Sorting Hat sat atop the tall stool it always had at the start of term feasts. Harry didn't have an answer for her.

"I wonder who they could've found to replace McGonagall," said Ron, staring at the head table. Most of the chairs stood empty, except for the comical placement of Hagrid's bulky frame next to Professor Flitwick's impossibly small one.

"I wonder who they've named Headmaster," Harry said. "I suppose it'll just be a temporary appointment, anyway, until they've got Hogwarts back in order."

Hermione shook her head. "Honestly, haven't you read Hogwarts, A History?" She huffed at the sheepish looks she received from both Harry and Ron, explaining, "Staff appointments may be temporary, and often are, especially considering the difficulties this school has had filling certain positions on a permanent basis – just look at the line of Defense teachers we've had. But the Headmaster position is permanent, for all practical purposes. Once appointed, a Headmaster may remain at Hogwarts as long as he wishes, or until he dies."

"Don't you mean 'he or she'?" Ron prompted. "I think you've started to go soft, Hermione."

"There's never been a female Headmaster," Hermione replied shortly. "I should think the Sorting Hat would be a bit more progressive, but Dumbledore was Headmaster for over fifty years. Maybe it hasn't heard about women's rights movements – "

"Oh, please," Malfoy scoffed. "You pretend to know so much about wizarding history, but apparently you've never put two and two together."

Hermione looked deeply offended, but said nothing.

"Women have always played a major role in the wizarding world. How else would Helga Hufflepuff and Rowena Ravenclaw have been in a position to found a school like Hogwarts hundreds of years ago? These weren't Muggles, you know. How many ancient wizards have you heard of? Merlin, I'd wager, but what others? But I'll bet even you grew up hearing about Medusa and Circe, and Lady Morgana, and the Weird Sisters."

"The band?" Harry asked dumbly.

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "No, Potter. I mean the three witches that tormented a certain Scottish king. Your Muggle Shakespeare wrote about them."

Hermione flushed. "I suppose I hadn't thought of it that way."

Satisfied, Malfoy said, "Well, now you have. The Sorting Hat chooses the Headmaster based on ability, willingness, and leadership among the staff. Apparently that's meant men, so far. It has nothing to do with sex."

Inwardly cursing himself, Harry felt himself go red when Malfoy said "sex" (what was the matter with him lately, anyway, staring at Malfoy, blushing when he spoke?), but he was enormously grateful to see that Hermione was entirely focused on Malfoy's explanation. Malfoy hadn't said more than a few short sentences to them since his arrival on the train, and Harry knew that even Hermione had never seen Malfoy as a great intellectual. They had always assumed he earned his grades through his father's bribery, and Snape's special treatment and influence.

"So you're saying that no women have ever been worthy of being Headmaster?" Ron asked.

"Not at all," Malfoy replied. "But it does mean that no women have ever wanted it enough, even if they were worthy."

"Men are more ambitious," Hermione scoffed, but Harry could see the hint of humor in her eyes. His heart went out to her; he knew she would do her best to get along with Malfoy while they were at Hogwarts, as long as Malfoy continued to indulge her in intellectual debates.

"Are there fewer girls in Slytherin?" Malfoy pointed out. "Not really. It's more likely that there are fewer female professors who are suited for it when the sorting hat needs to choose a headmaster."

Hermione nodded thoughtfully. She looked about to say something, but their conversation was interrupted by a voice from the front of the room.

It was the same witch from the entrance, though now in the better light Harry could see that she was not quite as young as he'd thought, and looked incredibly harassed.

"Welcome, all of you, back to school," she said. "My name is Bethelzda Spitz. I'll be teaching Muggle Studies this year. As most of you know, Professor McGonagall would normally be giving this speech, having been named Headmistress after the position opened up. However, due to the nature of her condition, she'll need to remain at St. Mungo's for at least another few months, until she is well enough to assume the duties."

"I thought you said they'd be naming a new Headmaster," Ron whispered.

"I thought they would," Hermione said quietly. "I didn't know they'd named McGonagall anything."

Professor Spitz continued, "The Sorting Hat has insisted that Professor McGonagall remain in the position despite concerns over her health, having already been chosen. Until she returns, our Deputy Headmaster will be taking over most of her responsibilities, and the rest of the staff will be helping out where they can."

Malfoy leaned close to Harry, an expression akin to dread spreading over his face as he asked, "Who's Deputy Headmaster now?"

Harry shrugged just as Hagrid got awkwardly to his feet. Malfoy groaned and dropped his face into his hands. Ron let out a shout of laughter.

"Is this the hell that I've come back to?" Malfoy hissed.

"I think it's brilliant," said Ron firmly, and Hermione nodded, looking so proud of Hagrid she might burst.

"That hat's getting senile," Malfoy muttered.

Harry had to stifle a laugh, though he felt his own pride swelling under his ribs as Hagrid got awkwardly to his feet at the head table, holding up one of his enormous hands in greeting to the students. The entire hall reacted with a mixture of boisterous applause and unsure whispers.

Malfoy groaned again beside Harry, and Harry glanced from him to Ron and Hermione, who were trying to hide the fact that they were holding hands under the table.

It was going to be an interesting year, of that Harry was sure.

:: :: ::

After the feast, the post-seventh year students were taken aside by Professor Spitz in the entrance hall. Even Harry hadn't expected there to be so few of them; but even then, as he looked around at the assembled group, he was surprised to see that he could name only a handful beyond his own friends. The others he could remember seeing, but to his embarrassment, he realized he'd never bothered to learn their names, despite having been in classes with them for the better part of a decade.

Harry tried desperately to focus on Professor Spitz's explanation of their schedules, that they would each select independent studies and meet with the professors once a week. Tutoring sessions would be run much the same way, only they would be meeting with the younger students twice a week in study periods divided by interest, rather than age or possible house affiliation. Meetings with study partners were also required several times a week.

"You may of course choose to study as many studies as you wish, so long as you have at least three courses," Professor Spitz said firmly. "You may of course choose multiple tutoring sessions. Once we have a better idea of how many tutors we have, we'll be able to divide up the grade levels more easily. Please bear in mind that you are supposed to be helping the younger students. Try not to take on more than you can handle, or it will affect everyone negatively."

This last remark seemed to be directed at Hermione, who flushed scarlet; apparently Spitz had been warned by the other professors of Hermione's tendency to overextend herself academically.

"This first week, professors will be available for individual conferences and would love to answer any of your questions about this new system," Spitz went on. "Now, unless there are any questions – "

Malfoy raised his hand quietly, accidentally nudging Harry's shoulder as he did. Harry glanced at him, but Malfoy didn't show any sign of standing beside Harry, let alone having touched him. He had been talkative during supper, but now Harry looked at the familiar faces around him and realized that Malfoy was, as he'd predicted, the only Slytherin among them.

"Yes, Mr. – ?"


Spitz put on a valiant effort in not reacting to the name, but her mouth seemed a bit pinched as she said, "Mr. Malfoy, of course."

"You said we were to have study groups in our own year," he said. "Will we be able to choose our own?"

Spitz smiled slyly. "After all of these choices we're allowing you, we've decided that you could do with a bit of structure. Your study partners will be chosen for you, after you've signed up for your independent studies. That way you might be matched with someone who has the closest work load to your own, and similar study habits."

"Figures," muttered Ron.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Hermione chided. "You and Harry might as well choose each other, everyone knows you'll choose all the same studies, anyway."

Pretending not to have heard this exchange, Spitz said, "We'll have you fill out a questionnaire about that a little later. Now, if there are no more questions, I'll take you to see your dormitory for the year."

Malfoy cleared his throat, and Spitz sighed, turning back. "Yes, Mr. Malfoy?"

He had stepped in front of Harry, now, and Harry was appalled to feel – what, jealous? Hurt that he'd captured Malfoy's full attention at the Dursleys, even on the train, and probably in the Great Hall, only to be snubbed now for schoolwork?

He squashed the feeling as far down as he could, trying to replace it with something more pleasant. In the end he succeeded only in feeling more uncomfortable for having realized that he cared what Malfoy paid attention to, angry and vaguely horrified for feeling it in the first place, and panicked at the thought that Ron would be able to read this terrible interest in Malfoy on his face. Or worse, if Hermione could see it. She would want to talk it over with him, which was the very last thing Harry wanted to do.

Malfoy's voice rang clear and strong in the high-ceilinged entrance hall. "Will we be permitted to tutor students in subjects we haven't pursued at Hogwarts, if we've spent time outside of school studying them?"

Spitz looked at him with equal parts curiosity and concern. "I suppose you'd have to take it up with the professor of that subject, Mr. Malfoy. It would probably depend on what experience you have outside of your previous lessons at Hogwarts. Anything else you'd like to ask before we get on our way?"

Malfoy shook his head, feigning an innocent expression.

"In that case," said Spitz, looking earnestly relieved, "let's be on our way."

:: :: ::

The dormitory turned out to be little more than a spacious suite of rooms in a fifth-floor wing of the castle, near the Charms classrooms but still far enough that they wouldn't suffer the noise of the entire student body on their way to and from classes. Harry supposed this was a small blessing, since he hadn't been around anyone much younger than his friends in over a year. The feast had been noisy and chaotic in ways that Harry had forgotten children could be. He wondered if he would get used to it, or it their excited voices and laughter would always seem so foreign and, at times, alarming.

There were a couple large bedrooms lined with beds (not the decrepit four-posters Harry was used to, but sleeker looking frames without the privacy afforded to them by the four-posters' curtains), a common room with a fair number of squashy-looking armchairs as well as sturdy tables for studying, and a pair of standard dorm-issue bathrooms.

Professor Spitz had stayed long enough to show them which room had been set aside for the girls, and which was the boys', then informed them that they were required to attend a meeting with the Deputy Headmaster in the Great Hall the following morning just after breakfast. Harry was grateful for the time he would get to spend with Hagrid, even if there were a dozen other students around, but he noticed the subtle clenching of Malfoy's jaw that indicated he was biting back some scathing remark about Hagrid and his new position at the school.

Harry smiled; he might have been trying to stay on Malfoy's good side, but he had to admit that there was still something so satisfying in seeing Malfoy's discomfort, especially over something like Hagrid's new appointment. Even if he lacked experience, Hagrid would still always put the students' best interest at heart.

Once Spitz had gone, Malfoy dropped onto the farthest bed from the doors and lay out across the bedspread, which was a safe, abstract patchwork design featuring the colors of all four houses. The tapestries followed the same bland design, but they were still better than plain stone walls.

"I don't see how you lot have managed to survive all this time above ground," Malfoy remarked, staring at the impossibly blue sky through the window above his bed. Every bed in the room seemed to feature a window right above it, which pleased Harry enormously, especially since he thought he caught a glimpse of the lake through one as he passed.

"No wonder they act the way they do," Ron replied, picking out a bed on the opposite end of the room. Harry felt obligated to choose the bed beside Ron's, but something made him hesitate just long enough for Ron to give him a funny look. When Harry finally slumped onto the end of the bed beside his, Ron went on cheerfully, "Must be some sort of mold allergy from spending so much time in a cellar. Or a vitamin deficiency from lack of sunlight."

"Funny," said Malfoy, but he didn't laugh. Instead he let his eyes drift shut, one of his hands propped behind his head and the other draped casually over his heart.

It took all of Harry's inner strength to tear his gaze away when Ron said, "D'you suppose Hermione's right? That we'll get all the same studies and tutoring groups?"

Harry had to think about this. How long ago it seemed he would have just agreed, and then signed up for all the same things as Ron! But now he thought about Malfoy, a Slytherin lost in a sea of Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors. It hardly seemed fair. And Harry had known his share of isolation at Hogwarts, even if some of that was caused by Malfoy himself.

"Sure," he said eventually. This lying thing was really getting out of hand.

Ron didn't seem to notice his pause; he was folding socks into the trunk at the foot of his bed. Harry couldn't remember when Ron had started folding his socks. He suspected it had something to do with Hermione having come to stay with them a few weeks ago.

"When's curfew?" Harry asked, hoping to distract himself from thinking any more about Malfoy. He was deeply annoyed with himself, and privately he suspected that Malfoy had cast some sort of absurd charm on him to make him think he was losing his mind.

"A couple of hours," said Ron, glancing at his watch. "Why?"

"I was just thinking," Harry replied. Ron surfaced from his trunk to grace Harry with a look that spoke miles for the amount of faith Ron had in Harry's thoughts. Harry covered quickly, "I was just thinking we could fly a little. You want to?"

"Yeah," Ron replied, shrugging.

"What about you, Malfoy?" Harry asked.

Malfoy opened one eye, looking both bored and curious. "Can't. I've got a meeting with Slughorn in a few minutes."

"Slughorn's back for Potions?" asked Harry.

"Honestly, Potter," Malfoy huffed. "You didn't see him at the feast? He was at the head table, right next to your oafish – next to the Deputy Headmaster. Stuffing his face full of caramelized garlic soup."

"Oh," said Harry. "Right."

Malfoy glanced at the clock on his nightstand. "Speaking of, I've got to go."

Hermione ambled into the dorm, answering one of Harry's lingering questions about what potential charms might have been cast over their new rooms, just as Malfoy was shrugging a heavily stained maroon sweatshirt over his shoulders, another Muggle remnant from his time at Privet Drive. Harry wondered if he would ever get used to seeing Malfoy in Muggle clothes.

Malfoy and Hermione shared a polite but incredibly wary look in the doorway, but Hermione soon recovered her usual poised look as she came to the foot of Harry's bed.

"Can you believe we don't have any homework yet?" she asked brightly.

On second thought, Harry realized, she did look a little twitchy.

"It's the first night of the term," said Ron, incredulously looking up from his socks.

"I know," Hermione said. "But it seems strange to be here without anything to do."

Ron raised his eyebrows, and Hermione flushed pink. Harry felt suddenly uncomfortable.

"On second thought," he said hastily, "we should save Quidditch for another night, yeah? I think I'll just take a walk, I need some air."

Hermione cast a stern look in his direction, glancing at the other post-seventh years settling into their respective areas. "Harry, don't wander for too long. I'd like some answers about all of this Malfoy business."

"C'mon, Hermione," Ron said, "there's an entire school year for talking."

Harry chose that moment to duck out of the dorms, as Ron tugged at the hem of Hermione's uniform sweater. Neither of them seemed too disappointed with Harry's offer to leave them alone together, despite the unanswered questions Harry had left them with.

He smiled to himself as he left the dorm. A year ago, he might have been vastly uncomfortable with the turn of events that had left Ron and Hermione increasingly secretive about how they spent their time when Harry wasn't around. After the time they'd spent hunting horcruxes, though, he'd come to realize just how well they worked together. He used to think that it was the three of them that worked like fractions of a whole, but he had started to realize that it had little to do with Harry. Three halves never made a whole.

Harry didn't feel left out, per se; he'd never had the time to think about things like relationships. Not really, anyway. His friendships had always survived because of the other people in his life, never Harry, so that he could focus on saving the world. His few romances had been short-lived and had either begun or ended with the fact that he was Harry Potter.

These thoughts didn't bother Harry too much; they were just the underlying structure of relationships in his life. As he left the dorm, he wondered whether he would ever be able to sustain a normal relationship, or if who he was would always get in the way – and furthermore, whether the few relationships he still had would fizzle now that he was supposed to be living a normal life. Whatever that was.

:: :: ::

For a long, quiet time, Harry wandered the upper halls of the castle, finding the lack of noise there unsettling. The last time he had been at Hogwarts, it had been quiet in an entirely different, curse-enforced way, then bristling with defensive magic and sounds of death and fire and battle, entire portions of the castle burning or collapsing.

Now he paused in front of big, charred patches on the wall, studying them as if they were art pieces hanging in some ancient gallery.

The restoration team, comprised mostly of surviving Hogwarts professors and a few aurors, had managed to rebuild most of the damaged portions of the castle. The stones in those hallways were a bit rougher, too new to have been smoothed down by so many students' small hands. But the castle had managed to maintain its usual aura of ancient wisdom, and that feeling that it would survive whatever time would throw at its thick walls.

Harry almost didn't hear Malfoy approaching, except that Malfoy tripped over a loose stone in the floor, the flat rubber undersides of his sneakers slapping against the tiles as he recovered his balance. Harry spun around, breathing with relief when he saw that it was only Malfoy.

"Long way off from the dorm, aren't we?" Malfoy drawled, regaining his composure almost immediately after straightening.

"I could say the same for you," Harry replied, feeling more at home than he had since returning to the castle. The present confrontation with Malfoy seemed terribly benign after all the violence they'd inflicted on each other over the years, but it was still a familiar dance for them.

How bizarre, thought Harry, to discover that Malfoy was key to the magic Hogwarts had always held for him. But then, he'd understood schoolyard fights long before Hogwarts or Malfoy. He'd just never stood a fighting chance against Dudley, except for the luck of finding himself on the roof. Having Malfoy at Hogwarts just made it all seem more – well, normal. Nothing was perfect in life, Harry had known that nearly his whole life, and Malfoy provided that thorn in his side that made being a wizard seem perfectly real.

Not to mention the fact that he could never really feel the magic rippling through him like he did when he and Malfoy faced off. Even against Voldemort, he still felt like a scared kid who lucked into victory, like he could win by sneezing if the circumstances were right. Malfoy made him feel challenged like a normal kid was supposed to, like he actually had a shot at winning because he was just a boy who had learned an effective jinx, not because he was Harry Potter.

Harry squared his shoulders, a thin ripple of magic raising goose bumps over his arms.

Malfoy seemed to sense Harry's eagerness to spar. He studied Harry for a moment, then shook his head, looking very tired.

"Not tonight," he said simply.

"What, too afraid?" Harry retorted lamely. There was no aggression behind his taunts, but Malfoy's thin mouth quirked slightly in a smile. He understood.

"Maybe some other time, when we're both late for class," Malfoy allowed.

Harry nodded, but when Malfoy started to walk past him, he felt a vague sense of panic. He didn't want to admit that he was nervous for that sense of normalcy to disappear as soon as Malfoy turned the next corner.

"Maybe we could fly some time." The disconnect between brain and mouth betrayed Harry again, if not in his words then definitely in the hope that flooded his tone.

At first Malfoy looked puzzled. Then Harry flushed, thinking of what Hermione and Ron might be doing, feeling ashamed for an outburst that was probably only cause by the sudden worry that he would lose the only friends he knew he could count on, Harry Potter or not. Thankfully, Malfoy seemed to understand that, too.

"Maybe," he replied tentatively. He didn't start walking again until Harry nodded briefly.

Once Malfoy had left, Harry felt a little foolish for pretending he could rely on Malfoy for something that resembled friendship. Stranger things had happened, he supposed, but then there was the matter of Malfoy blowing him off. Even with that cool Malfoy courtesy, it was still a blow-off.

And after another full minute, Harry considered the fact that Malfoy hadn't exactly blown him off, either.

:: :: ::

It wasn't until he'd stared for an unreasonable amount of time at the glass-paned double doors in front of him that he realized that he was nowhere near the Potions office that Malfoy had used as an excuse earlier.

A year ago, he might have bristled at the fact that Malfoy had so blatantly lied when Harry was trying his best to manage some sort of truce between them. That sort of thing was exactly the difference between Slytherins and Gryffindors.

Then it fully occurred to Harry that he was the one who had been totally oblivious to where they were, which he couldn't reasonably blame on Malfoy. Moreover, he was staring at the entrance to the Hospital Wing.

His resentment began to melt away as he tried to sort this new clue to the mystery that was Malfoy. When had Malfoy become mysterious, anyway? Annoying, certainly, and sometimes up to no good, but mysterious? Even their sixth year, Malfoy hadn't been mysterious by any stretch of the imagination.

Harry might have been annoyed with that turn of events, but he was too interested in trying to figure out Malfoy.

As he headed back for the dorm, Harry was aware that Malfoy had sparked this kind of obsession in him before, but that thought was swallowed soon enough by questions about Malfoy and the time he'd spent at the Dursleys'.

:: :: ::

Despite the slightly more modern look to their new common room than the old Gryffindor tower, the warm, sparking fire in the grate that night cast an inviting glow around the room. Harry found Hermione curled up with one of her new textbooks next to Ron, who was puzzling over a chess board.

"Need an opponent?" Harry asked, dropping into a nearby chair.

"In a minute," Ron said, sounding distracted.

"He's just trying to sort out how Percy managed to beat him," Hermione explained, setting aside her book for a moment. Harry remembered Ron and Percy playing a series of matches over the course of the summer, but Ron had always won. Hermione continued, "The night you went to the Dursleys, Percy stopped by for supper. Somehow he managed to win a match, and Ron still hasn't figured out how it was possible."

"My defense should have been impenetrable," Ron muttered.

Hermione clucked her tongue gently. "It's just a game, Ron."

"No, it's not," Ron said adamantly. "It was a loss that should not have happened."

After watching him toy with his pawns for a few more minutes, Hermione looked at Harry. "So. Are you going to tell us why you decided to let Malfoy follow you home?"

Harry shrugged. "It seemed like the right thing to do."

"But you and Malfoy have always loathed each other to the very core," Hermione objected. "None of us have ever gotten along with him. He's done nothing but insult us from the moment we came to Hogwarts. He's an abrasive, spoiled boy whose parents are known Death Eaters."

"Yeah, well, his parents are dead now," Harry said brusquely.

This gave Hermione pause. Concern flooded her expression, just as it had on the train earlier.

"I see," she said eventually. "Harry, just because he's suffered a loss – it doesn't mean he's going to have changed overnight. It's true that he looks different, taller, tanner, wearing different clothes, but he's still Malfoy. Everything that he was before, he is now. The same childhood, the same values – "

"The same scars?" Harry finishes shrewdly. Hermione clamps her mouth shut. "I know that it's Malfoy, okay? But I also know that Dumbledore wanted to give him a chance. Even when Malfoy was supposed to kill him, when he had Malfoy's wand pointed at his heart, Dumbledore still offered him a second chance."

"Dumbledore had been wrong before, mate," Ron observed, still studying his chessboard closely, as though to distance himself from the bulk of their conversation, and from Malfoy.

"Not when it mattered," Harry said stubbornly.

"He's Marked, Harry," Hermione said helplessly. "That's not a joke."

"Neither is losing your parents," Harry replied. "Neither is having to choose between murdering someone and losing your family. You think he really would have hesitated to kill Dumbledore if he was really evil?"

"I just – I don't know," said Hermione eventually. She sounded disquieted now, humbled. "There's a lot I don't know."

"I'm not saying we should spend every moment with him," Harry said. "I'm not even saying you guys have to trust him."

"Good," Ron said bluntly.

Ignoring him, Harry went on, "I'm not even sure I trust him. But I can see that he needs help. Snape and McGonagall had a reason for leaving him with the Dursleys. We might never know what that was. But I couldn't just leave him there when no one else might ever have come back for him."

"Alright," Hermione agreed reluctantly. "He can hang around. But, Harry, I want you to be careful. If anything were to happen – "

"Nothing's going to happen," Harry said firmly. Hermione looked appeased, but even as Harry said it, he hoped he was right.

:: :: ::

The next morning at breakfast, the post-seventh years were given their tentative schedules. Malfoy was nowhere to be seen, but Harry intercepted the slip of parchment with his name and studies, comparing it to the rest of theirs. As predicted, Ron and Harry had the same courses and study sessions, but Ron had been assigned to tutor the Defense students, and Harry had somehow been given Potions. Worse, he'd been assigned to tutor with Malfoy.

"How did this happen?" Harry asked no one in particular.

"Still riding the coattails of your supposed success with Slughorn, are we?" Hermione asked, raising one of her eyebrows in a gesture that reminded Harry strongly of Malfoy. He wondered whether the Sorting Hat had given her the same option it had given Harry, but shook the thought when Hermione eyed him with no amount of hidden suspicion.

"This is unacceptable," Ron announced, plucking Harry's schedule from his hands. "I'm going to have a word with that Spitz woman right this moment."

Hermione rolled her eyes as Ron stormed the head table, but Harry took the opportunity to poke his fork through his egg yolks and talk to Hermione about something he'd been thinking about constantly for the past twelve hours.

"I think there's something wrong with Malfoy," Harry said.

Hermione didn't bat an eyelash as she buttered her toast. "Oh?"

Harry pushed aside his eggs and leaned over the table. "I found him outside the Hospital Wing last night, when he said he had a meeting with Slughorn. But Slughorn's office is nowhere near the – "

"Here we go again," Hermione murmured through a sigh.

Harry stopped. "What?"

"Look, Harry," she said, using the kind of exaggerated patience she used when explaining something incredibly simple to Ron. "How do you know he was doing anything in the Hospital Wing?"

Harry stared at her blankly. "He was right there, right outside the doors. Hermione, he told us he had a meeting – "

"I hate to do this to you again," she said, soundly truly sorry, "especially after you were right the last time, and after the doubts I cast last night. But think, Harry. What were you doing outside the Hospital Wing last night?"

"Wandering around so you and Ron could – " Harry stopped short under Hermione's withering glare. "Well, I think we both agree that this has nothing to do with what I was doing outside those doors. I didn't lie about where I was last night."

"Okay," said Hermione, pushing her plate away. She leaned over the table toward him. "If you can find some sort of concrete proof that he was actually in the Hospital Wing last night, then I'll help you figure out what's going on."

Harry dropped his fork into his broken egg yolks and stuck out his hand. "Deal."

:: :: ::

He still hadn't seen Malfoy when he knocked on the moldy wooden doors of Slughorn's office. Somewhere within, a stack of heavy-sounding books crashes to the floor, and Slughorn swears before blustering, "Confound it all – come in!"

The office seemed much the same as Harry had remembered it, stacked with books and fancy-looking boxes on every surface, cluttered with letters and the odd box of candied pineapple or mint schnapps – and of course the obligatory photographs of Slughorn waving enthusiastically with a number of famous witches and wizards.

"Oh, Harry, dear lad," Slughorn wheezed from under a stack of books. "I'm just getting organized. Do help an old man tidy up a bit before our – little meeting."

Harry dropped his bag on the floor and hurried to the professor's side, taking the enormous, wobbly stack of books from the older man and grunting a little under the weight.

"Thanks are in order," said Slughorn, disappearing behind a chair. "Care for a drink?"

"Er," said Harry, still clutching the books like they were a protective barrier. The last time he had been offered a drink by Slughorn, Ron had ended up poisoned. But, Harry had to remind himself, the last time, Malfoy had been slipping poisons and curses into everything around Hogwarts in hopes of maybe knocking off the Headmaster.

He frowned into the decomposed binding under his chin. He had almost forgotten about the incident with the poisoned mead. Trusting Malfoy would certainly take some getting used to.

"You're pathetic," came a drawling voice from the office door, though the barb lacked any real aggression. "We learned the levitation charm first year. Remember?"

Harry turned to see Malfoy leaning lazily against the door frame, arms crossed over one of his old t-shirts. Harry felt suddenly overheated in his prickly school-issue jumper.

Slughorn resurfaced with a sealed bottle of elf-made wine, looking flustered. "Well, Mr. Malfoy, good of you to join us. That levitation charm – let's see – wingardium leviosa – "

Harry's load lightened significantly as Slughorn finally brandished his wand, setting the wine bottle to pour three servings and sending the stack of books to a less cluttered table across the room.

"Don't know where my mind is these days," Slughorn said carefully, sending two of the glasses into two waiting hands, and plucking the third for himself.

Harry avoided sticking him with any kind of stare, and in doing so he found himself meeting Malfoy's eye for a brief moment.

"So," Slughorn continued, settling into the puffiest of the chairs in the room, "I understand that neither of you signed on for Potions as your top choice for tutoring sessions."

For a moment, neither of them answered. Harry felt stuck; of course he hadn't signed on for Potions. He'd cheated through most of his sixth year by using that stupid Half-Blood Prince's book. Snape's old book. Though Harry had to admit, it had helped him a lot. Maybe he could get his hands on that ink-stained copy of the book if he scoured the Room of Requirement in its "please help me hide something" mode.

Thinking about the book made him glance nervously at the knot of scar tissue at Malfoy's throat. He was relieved when Malfoy replied, "Well, sir, I had signed on for Muggle Studies, in light of my recent experiences."

Slughorn looked abashed, and that impressed Harry. The only other people he'd seen make Slughorn look so remorseful were Dumbledore and Harry himself. Apparently the whole staff had been debriefed about Malfoy's stint as a Muggle.

Malfoy continued, sounding almost apologetic, "But apparently they want someone who has been through the program at Hogwarts."

Sounding equally apologetic, Slughorn said, "Understandable, son, of course it's understandable. The reason for having you older students helping the younger years is as much for their benefit on their wizarding levels as it is for your continuing education. Those exams are mostly comprised of information from the texts."

"Naturally," agreed Malfoy. "And I couldn't be happier to have been placed with you, sir. Potions has always been a keen interest of mine."

Slughorn nodded amiably, which struck Harry as rather odd. He tried valiantly to think of a reason why the professor would change his mind about Malfoy. He had been so quick to brush Malfoy off before the war, when the Slug Club had been recruiting full-swing. The only difference between the two years that Harry could think of was the death of Lucius Malfoy.

A thought occurred to Harry then: Had Slughorn been so afraid of Death Eaters that he had discounted Malfoy automatically for his paternal association? Or had something changed so definitely in Malfoy himself that Slughorn now took notice?

Harry remembered how impressed Slughorn had been with Ginny's bat-bogey hex, and her courage in standing up to older students, but that only reminded him that he still hadn't seen her at Hogwarts. He felt guilty he hadn't spent more effort trying to seek her out.

"Er, Harry?"

Harry started, realizing that both Slughorn's watery blue eyes and Malfoy's cool grey ones were pinning him to his chair. "I'm sorry, what was that? I was – just thinking."

Malfoy's tight expression seemed skeptical, but Slughorn waved off Harry's distraction with one fat pink hand, taking a generous sip of his wine.

"Of course, of course," said the professor. "We were just discussing the best way to hold these sessions. Mr. Malfoy suggested the two of you split your students, but I thought you might be able to teach more effectively by combining your strengths for all the students. What do you think?"

Harry let his eyes linger on Malfoy for a moment longer than necessary. His instinct screamed that they divide their students and split the workload evenly. He'd been spending too much time thinking about Malfoy as it was, and he certainly didn't need to spend more time with him than necessary when it came to their lessons. New friendship be damned, Harry was not ready for them to actually enjoy spending time together.

But for some reason Hermione's voice popped into his head, lecturing him on the importance of providing the younger students with the best possible education. He squashed that lecture as quickly as he could, but the idea itself wasn't entirely a bad one.

The normal level of animosity between him and Malfoy had been sorely lacking this year, even if they'd only been at school for a grand total of two days. Harry was itching for a good fight, the kind he and Malfoy used to have when they were eleven and made each other's noses bleed all over their uniform robes. And the only way to let the tension build would be to spend time together.

Silently, he thanked Hermione as he addressed Slughorn aloud. "Sir, I think it would be best for the younger students if we held larger sessions with both of us. So that everyone receives consistent lessons."

"This is absurd," Malfoy muttered.

Slughorn didn't seem to hear it. He beamed at Harry through his great mustache. "Wonderful! Now, you'll know, of course, that your sessions will be divided into smaller groups for you, to keep students with their ability level. You won't have all the students together at once."

"Spitz mentioned something along those lines," Malfoy said.

"I'll have copies of my syllabus for all years, of course," Slughorn went on. "And a few suggestions of topics that might provide especially tricky for the younger students. But of course you'll have dealt with those same issues, won't you? And so you'll know all about the challenges of concocting a fine potion."

"Of course, sir," Harry said. He was trying not to seem so gleeful at the sour look on Malfoy's face. If Harry hadn't known him so long, he wouldn't have noticed it; but there, the tiny dent at the corner of his mouth, the tightening of his brow. Malfoy was irritated, and Harry was thoroughly enjoying it.

It was a beautiful thing, really.

And under normal circumstances, Harry would have wanted to push it as far as he possibly could from the moment they left Slughorn's office until the moment they set foot in the dorm again, and Hermione's reproachful gaze.

But when Slughorn graciously said, "Expect my owls, boys, with those syllabi and class lists," both Harry and Malfoy left the dungeons in matched subdued moods.

For the first few seconds of their walk back to the dorms, Harry pushed aside thoughts of Malfoy's puzzling behavior in favor of lamenting the loss of their rivalry. Even after he'd deliberately agreed with Slughorn to irritate Malfoy, both because Malfoy's preference had been ignored and because Slughorn seemed to take the gesture as a sign of Harry's loyalty – maybe Slughorn's desire to collect celebrities hadn't changed – still Malfoy strolled coolly down the hall as though he were some sort of fashion model, seemingly unconcerned with Harry altogether. It was maddening.

Then Slughorn's office door clicked shut, and Malfoy lifted a hand to flick away a few imaginary flecks of dust on his shirt, frowning.

"What the hell was that?"

Oh, thank god, Harry thought. As cool as Malfoy seemed, their rivalry still existed, despite the surreality of being back at Hogwarts, of having thus far avoided seeing Ginny, of Ron and Hermione actually acting like a couple, of the missing faces among the faculty and staff. Relief overwhelmed Harry's bloodstream, spurring his pulse forward at an abnormally high rate.

"What was what?" Harry replied, attempting to mimic Malfoy's unaffected grace. "Slughorn asked my opinion, and I gave it."

"Don't flatter yourself so noble, you know you did it to get under my skin," Malfoy grit out.

They came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the staircase, which had abandoned them for some other, busier floor.

"Great," Malfoy muttered. "I'll bet you got the stairs to turn against me today, too."

Only when Malfoy's voice betrayed frustration, rather than irritation, did Harry dare glance at him. His cheeks were flushed pink under his tan, the muscles in his forearms drawn tight under his skin as he crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes glittered with something that transcended mere anger or annoyance.

Harry couldn't help but look at him, only marginally aware that he should feel embarrassed by that. Malfoy was far from irresistible, so why couldn't Harry look away? Stare at the floor, instead, or even close his eyes?

"Whatever you're doing, Potter, just stop," Malfoy said after a few minutes of silence. He sounded much more collected than he had before, but his face was still tinged with pink. "You know, when you came to Privet Drive, I thought – I thought – "

"What'd you think?" Harry prompted, simultaneously dreading the answer and hoping for something he couldn't quite articulate.

"I thought maybe we'd put all this stupid, petty arguing behind us."

Harry clamped his teeth together hard, trying not to blurt anything stupid or embarrassing about how normal it was to have an enemy his own age, for once, or anything else he'd been thinking about Malfoy since finding him. Harry tried to put himself in Malfoy's shoes, spending all that time apparently learning to get along with the Dursleys. Harry had always lumped Malfoy in with his family, under the heading of "people who are mean to me," but now he could see how challenging it would be to live among Muggles after you'd lived in a world of magic. Especially if those Muggles carried traces of their relationship with Harry, someone Malfoy had always antagonized and hated. Someone who had put Malfoy's father in prison when they were just fifteen.

When he thought about it like that, Harry realized how difficult and awful it must have been. Yet somehow Malfoy had survived in one piece, and he was trying to put the past behind them when Harry just wanted to tread the old, comfortable waters.

Malfoy was still pink, and Harry could see flecks of spit fly from his mouth when he spoke. "When we were twelve we could justify it with our houses, or Weasley's stupid blind biases, or my dad's – "

Malfoy stopped abruptly, and Harry watched his Adam's apple bob in the pale dips of his throat, feeling vaguely ashamed of himself. Malfoy was actually trying.

"Anyway, all of that's over now. I know you didn't get on with Snape, but you trusted McGonagall. And I trusted her, too. That's got to count for something with your lot. Bloody loyal Gryffindors."

Malfoy sighed, his breath hitching. Harry felt like he couldn't breathe.

"Look, could you just," he said quietly. "Couldn't you just – just stop."

"Stop?" repeated Harry. He had expected himself to sound strangled and strained, not aggressive. Maybe he imagined Malfoy's flinching at the unexpected volume of Harry's voice.

Malfoy's focus seemed to sharpen on nothing as he stared at the drifting staircases. His entire expression stiffened and cooled.

"The world is safe, Potter," Malfoy said. "The Dark Lord's gone, and my father with him. I'm just like everyone else now. And so are you. So just stop being Harry Potter, would you?"

The grating thunk of the staircase settling against the landing startled Harry out of his study of Malfoy's sharp features. As though he had never been talking to Harry, Malfoy stepped gracefully onto the stairs and began to ascend even as the stairs floated away from Harry, who was still standing on the landing and feeling oddly bereft.

"I don't know what else to be," Harry said.

If Malfoy heard him, he didn't acknowledge it.

:: :: ::

Harry was looking over Slughorn's syllabus in the post-seventh common room when Hermione dropped approximately forty-seven pounds of textbooks onto the table in front of him.

"Finding ways to torture your kids already?" he asked dryly.

Hermione flicked her hair away from her face huffily. "I happen to think that challenging my students will help them improve more than letting them slack off during their study sessions."

She cast a pointed look at Ron, who was slouched in a nearby armchair with his own syllabus open over his face and snoring softly.

"Besides, they're mostly Ravenclaws. Unlike you two, they appreciate being challenged once and a while."

Harry had to laugh at that. Hermione smirked behind the textbook she had just opened, and Harry caught the embossed title as it flashed briefly in the firelight.

"Transfigurations?" he asked. "But I thought you were tutoring the Arithmancy students."

"Well," Hermione shrugged, her face flushing a little, "I am. And Care of Magical Creatures, as well. I'm also doing all three as independent studies."

"And Potions, and Herbology," Ron added sleepily from his chair.

"Five subjects, Hermione?" Harry said pointedly. "That's a full course load, on top of your tutoring."

"Six," Hermione replied quietly.


"Six courses," she said, setting down her book. "I'm also doing Ancient Runes."

"Hermione, do I have to remind you what happened third year?" Harry asked. "Even with a time turner you couldn't keep up with everything you wanted – "

"All of my professors know I'm taking so many courses. They've all agreed to adjust their coursework accordingly for me," Hermione explained. "They're going to give me slightly different work than the other students, harder prompts, but fewer of them, so I'll only be writing a few longer papers, and not as many of the smaller assignments."

"Not that it'll stop her from doing all the work anyway," Ron snorted.

"Ronald," Hermione warned, but her face flushed a deep pink color that reminded Harry of the fire-breathing roses that Professor Sprout had always kept in Greenhouse Seven.

Well, Harry thought contentedly, he may have been a third wheel, and Malfoy might have been behaving weirdly, even for him – but it was reassuring to know that some things never changed.

:: :: ::

After several weeks of their strange new roles at school, and their schedules, everyone seemed to have settled into a comfortable new routine.

Hermione had set up a permanent study area in one corner of their common room, where her books remained untouched by her peers under penalty of a frazzled but expert hexing. The sheer volume of books amassed on her table warned them all that she knew what she was doing.

She and Ron would disappear sometimes in the evenings, if he could convince her to leave her studies for a walk around the lake, or some other, more private, activity that did not bear thinking.

At first Harry had smiled to see them go, Ron's fingers drifting to the hem of her uniform skirt as they walked, a subtle reassurance for him that she was really going along with him. But after a time, he began to feel lonely. They had once been his closest friends, and now they barely had time to play a round of exploding snap before dinner most nights, or go over notes together.

Once, when Ron had doubled back to find Hermione her sweater, she had placed a warm hand on Harry's shoulder. "I know this is probably very strange for you," she had said quietly.

Harry had meant to respond with something encouraging and friendly, but Ron had returned, oblivious. As he helped Hermione into her sweater, she shot Harry an apologetic look, and that had been that. Harry knew he didn't have much say in it, anyway. But it had helped a little to know that she had considered his reaction to it all.

Still, the one blessing in Hermione and Ron's tendency to wander away for hours at a time was that Harry was free to continue his pursuit of answers when it came to Malfoy.

Malfoy was still acting strangely subdued and unwilling to fight with Harry, even a friendly argument, though he had lead their small study group at Potions with the ferocity of a war general. He left the younger students with glassy looks when he spoke about the subtly necessary for the craft. He even left Harry a little awed, sometimes. It might have reminded Harry of Snape, if they hadn't been following Slughorn's syllabus, which involved fewer poisons and more useful potions that they might actually use in daily adult wizarding life.

Combined, the forces of Malfoy's enthusiasm for the subject and Slughorn's collection of recipes seemed to render potions an immensely necessary skill for adult wizarding life. Cleaning charms were all well and good, but the potion Malfoy had altered from Slughorn's recipe left the damp wooden worktables gleaming like glass. Harry looked forward to a day when he could spray an apartment with the stuff, and never have to touch a broom again.

"I never knew you had such a knack for this stuff," Harry remarked casually one afternoon, as the younger students gathered their books and quills into their already overstuffed bags.

Malfoy shrugged, not looking up from the bubotuber pus he was straining. "It's something to do."

Harry had ignored the subtle brush-off Malfoy had surely intended in the comment. He had never thought of Malfoy as a dedicated student, but now that they were working so closely together, he could see how highly organized Malfoy was. He took notes during their sessions on each of the students, their behavior and progress. Not all of it went to Slughorn, unless the student was doing incredibly poorly; more often, Malfoy used these notes to tailor his lessons to that student until his grades were up again.

That was another thing. Harry had never considered Malfoy the sort of person who would actually care about his students, especially the smaller Hufflepuffs who knocked over urns of giant squid ink, or sliced open their fingertips and bled over boomslang skin, wasting valuable ingredients from the school stores and injuring themselves. Malfoy was infinitely patient with them, reassuring them that they would get it right one day, pressing gauze to their cuts and teaching them the charm to heal a small wound.

It confused and awed Harry almost as much as Malfoy's apparently thorough understanding of all of the potions theory. Harry found himself learning as much as their first-years were supposed to.

Presently, Harry glanced at Malfoy again over his apparently consuming task of straining the pus, remarking, "I never knew there was so much to this."

Malfoy looked up at that, one eyebrow drifting upward incredulously. "So much to potions? Little wonder you did so poorly, Potter. You never paid any attention to Snape's lectures."

"Never helped that he was always breathing down my neck, waiting for me to screw up, though, did it?"

Malfoy opened and closed his mouth again quickly, then seemed to think for a moment, his gloved hands hovering over the strainer. Then he straightened a little and said, "Snape had a lot on his mind during those lessons, I'm sure."

Harry started to say something about how unfairly he'd always been treated, but Malfoy waved a hand and said, "I'm not saying he was entirely professional, or fair to all of his students. But he did have a certain knack for this stuff, and even you can't deny that. He might not have even been a very good teacher – though some of us would beg to differ – but the man certainly knew what he was doing."

Grudgingly, Harry nodded. Even in hiding, Snape had managed to supply the Order with medical potions that probably helped save dozens of lives. He was still hesitant to talk about the war with Malfoy, though. He kept that bit of information to himself.

"Besides," said Malfoy casually, tipping the strained pus into a clear glass vial, "he probably needed an outlet, all the pressure he was under in every other aspect of his life."

The nudge of guilt Harry felt was almost instant, and persisted as Malfoy went on, "I imagine he had to accommodate Dumbledore's mad plans with little explanation, just like you did. He had to constantly ward off potential mind-readers on both sides. He had to play Death Eater convincingly, despite whatever he might have felt about the situation. He had to pretend to like Voldemort."

"Probably not as easy for a spy as it would be for some other Death Eaters," Harry retorted. "Liking Voldemort."

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Nobody liked Voldemort."


"Well, it wasn't about liking him, was it? It wasn't a bloody popularity contest. It was about ideals. It was about preserving a way of life that some wizards had upheld for generations and centuries." Malfoy's forehead creased then, between his eyebrows. "I mean, if it was about liking your leader, I doubt Dumbledore would have gotten very far, now would he? Sending people back into hell time and again, expecting them never to crack despite highly demanding psychological games, and curses, and torture."

"But Snape chose to do those things," Harry insisted. "Dumbledore didn't make him do anything."

"Maybe I wasn't talking about Snape," Malfoy said, seeming to break out of his far-away look. "Didn't he send Professor Werewolf back into the fray, as well?"

Harry didn't know what to say to that. He fiddled with a stray thread on the sleeve of his school robes.

"Lupin probably knew exactly what he was signing up for," Malfoy continued, "but that doesn't mean Dumbledore wasn't insane to ask it of him. Of both of them."

A part of Harry was annoyed that Malfoy would put Lupin and Snape into the same category, lumped together like – well, Harry was too annoyed to come up with a proper comparison. Like they had been friends when they'd both been alive, both working for the Order. But another part, a larger part, felt cowed that Malfoy had a point.

When had Malfoy become a thoughtful person? This irritated Harry probably more than anything else about him at this point, more than his overeager study habits, or the way he'd been avoiding fights. When had Malfoy gone from being a petty, selfish clone of his father to a respectful, respectable human being? How could the Dursleys have changed him for the better?

"Anyway," Malfoy said suddenly, "you're actually proving to be better at this stuff than I thought you might be. Even without that cheating book you had last year."

"How did you know – "

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Oh, come off it. Nobody goes from nearly failing to teacher's pet overnight without some sort of cheat. Very Slytherin of you, you know."

Harry clamped down on the urge to wallop Malfoy for being such a smug git, but something in Malfoy's new brand of smirk stopped him. It wasn't the kind of superior, smug look that he'd always carried when they were younger. It reminded Harry of the smirk Ron wore when he won at chess, not because he thought Harry was bad at the game, but because he knew how good he really was at it. Just as Malfoy knew how right he was about Harry.

"Yeah, well. The hat almost sorted me differently," Harry admitted. He was surprised at how easily the information left him, after so many years of clamping down on everything that could possibly connect him to Voldemort. "I practically had to beg it to put me in Gryffindor. Did you know that?"

Malfoy had the good grace to look surprised. "Really?"


"We might have been friends," Malfoy said. Harry couldn't tell whether he meant it as some sort of reverse threat, or whether he sounded wistful.

"Funny thing, life," he added, corking his vial of pus and stepped away from the table.

:: :: ::

When it happened (and Harry later supposes, if he were going to be completely honest with himself, that it had been entirely inevitable), they were in the library after-hours with a dozen Potions textbooks that Hermione had pulled for them, tagging pages on the recipes their students were covering that week. Harry had been grateful for her help, but Hermione had set aside and cross-referenced so many recipes, and spells with similar uses and effects, that Harry felt as though he were drowning in all the scraps of parchment and books and lists.

"This is impossible," Harry muttered, squeezing his fingertips into the corners of his eyes.

"What is," drawled Malfoy wearily, "your incompetence, or the students'?"

"Ha, ha," said Harry, lifting his head from his hands. He felt around the table for a quill. "I'll have to write that down to tell Ron later."

"Save your ink, he wouldn't read it even if he charmed it to read itself aloud to him," Malfoy retorted.

Harry laughed, then stopped himself, choking down the remnants of his laughter with a hearty clearing of his throat. Ron might not have been a big reader, but Harry suspected that having a laugh at his expense with Malfoy, whatever else they were made to do together, would not do. Even Hermione would have words with him about that kind of betrayal.

He studied Malfoy, whose pale head was still bent over a pair of open books and a ledger. As Malfoy copied down ingredients and study questions, his hand caught on the loose corners of a few students' essays they'd asked Malfoy to look over before handing in. The papers crumpled loudly in the quiet library; they were alone, and even Madam Pince had left for the night. Some perks of being a remedial seventh year were not as exciting as others, like having free reign of the Quidditch pitch.

Malfoy crumpled the edge of his papers again, and Harry felt an unwarranted pang of jealousy; none of the students had ever asked him to proof their papers. But then, wasn't that what he'd pitched to Slughorn as their strength? He and Malfoy were so different, they could bring more to their students together than apart? Malfoy would edit their essays, check their spelling and grammar, answer their questions about the material and suggest further readings, and Harry would – well, Harry would do what, exactly?

That creeping, useless feeling had been one Harry was quickly becoming familiar with, after facing Voldemort. He'd thought coming back to school would relieve some of the restlessness, the drifting feeling, but now he was beginning to think that he had served his purpose last summer, and he was just taking up space at Hogwarts that another student might have put to better use.

Malfoy seemed to sense a change in Harry's mood, because he looked up then, his eyes flickering from Harry's face to his still hands and quill and back to Harry's eyes. If Harry didn't know any better, he'd say Malfoy looked concerned, but that's what friends were supposed to do. Harry felt another pang of guilt about laughing at Ron.

Malfoy raised an eyebrow. "What is it? You look like you just realized what a right mess you look most of the time."

"I'm only here because of that stupid book," Harry offered lamely, realizing just how he sounded only as he spoke. "And Slughorn thinks I know what I'm doing, but I don't, and honestly, where has that book ever gotten us – "

His eyes fell involuntarily to the spidery end of Malfoy's scar, which was barely visible yet somehow illuminated by the low lamplight as though made of some reflective substance. Malfoy lifted a hand to touch the collar of his t-shirt, and Harry flushed to realize that Malfoy was staring at him with that piercing look that made Harry's stomach go cold.

"This," Malfoy said quietly, tugging at his collar and exposing about an inch of the scar. It looked more ragged as it went down; Harry tried to remember just how long the cut had been, but he could only remember the blood seeping into Malfoy's robes and the puddles below him, and Snape's horrible face.

Harry swallowed hard. Malfoy's eyes flicked to his throat and back to his face, and then Malfoy hooked his thumb under the collar of his shirt and tugged the whole thing off, revealing silvery slashes of scar tissue across his abdomen, smaller lines webbing outward like real bolts of lightening, not just the pathetic iconic jagged line marring Harry's forehead.

As Malfoy tossed the shirt aside, Harry wondered briefly why Malfoy didn't just slice open his shirt and repair it later. He expected that kind of showmanship of Malfoy, for him to want to recapture as much of the drama of the day Harry had cast that stupid spell as he could.

For that matter, Harry wondered where Malfoy's wand was, and why he hadn't cast it beside his books as Harry had when they'd claimed this table, and why Harry couldn't remember having seen Malfoy with a wand all year. The slender yew rod had been strangely absent in the past months, just like Ginny, or Harry's usual races around the Quidditch pitch at twilight, when the light was fading and the edges of the world ran together like ink on wet paper.

Malfoy pushed back his chair and stood, arms hovering strange and stiff by his sides, his eyes still piercing Harry. The guilt flooding Harry's system mingled with that cold weight in his stomach, and he wondered if he might sick up all over Hermione's carefully rendered notes.

"This," Malfoy said again, his voice sounding husky like Harry imagined the light might sound if it could speak. He lifted a hand to touch his collarbone, where the scars folded into the golden tones of his skin and the shadows. "This changed everything."

Harry felt overloaded; somehow his eyes drifted downward, where a trail of pale hair trickled from his navel to the button fly of his jeans, where the scars didn't stretch.

Malfoy didn't seem to miss a thing. His expression had changed almost imperceptibly, but now he seemed to be smirking at Harry.

"Curious, Potter?"

Harry licked his lips. He felt dried out, in need of moisture. Malfoy mirrored the gesture, his lower lip glistening suddenly, and pink.

If he wanted a safe explanation, he would say that he was merely looking at Malfoy's naval because it wasn't scarred, because it meant looking at something Harry hadn't ruined. But Harry knew – and he suspected that Malfoy knew as well – that it was all a monstrous lie. The unscarred tissue on Malfoy's stomach was intriguing for reasons that had nothing to do with Harry's unintentional violence.

A couple of Malfoy's fingers flickered against the waistband of his jeans. Something in Harry's stomach lurched.

He knew there was something he'd been missing about all this, about Malfoy, and the mystery of it all. He knew there was something he couldn't quite put his finger on, something that would make some sense of everything. He suspected he was getting closer to that missing piece by being alone with Malfoy now, by suffering this awful, electric tension and the horror he was feeling at the prospect of wanting to see more, and to touch Malfoy where his eyes lingered.

Harry tried to say something, but all that came from his throat was a strangled sort of gasp that seemed to spur Malfoy onward.

Malfoy leaned over the table, flattening his palms on the pages of the forgotten books, and the muscles in his arms pulled tight. The same pale hair dusted his forearms, and the Mark leered at him from the shadowy underside, and despite feeling so dry Harry thought he might burst with it, with the dryness and cold tension churning inside him, until Malfoy raised an eyebrow and Harry dove forward toward him, forgetting for a moment that Malfoy wasn't wearing a shirt. His fingers slipped, and he ended up gripping the sharp line of Malfoy's shoulder instead, causing Malfoy's breath to hitch a little, and Harry was close enough to feel as well as hear it.

For a second, Harry tried just to take in the smell of him, the slight mold of the books, the dampness of his breath, the lingering sweet smells from supper, and ink, and parchment that continued to crackle under them as they scrabbled for balance, and the rain wafting in from the cracked windows nearby. Then Malfoy leaned forward again, hesitating only until Harry blinked at him before pushing their mouths together with a kind of light sigh from the back of his throat.

What surprised Harry most was not that he was touching Malfoy like this, but how different it was than he might have expected, had he ever taken a moment to let himself consider the possibility. Kissing Malfoy was not like anything he'd experienced before: with Cho, things had been awkward and questioning and damp; and with Ginny, they'd seemed comfortable, warm, content, lingering. But these things with Malfoy seemed electric, shooting sparks along Harry's skin wherever he touched.

Harry faltered and flushed, realizing how sudden the rush of arousal was, and how it felt unlike anything else he'd done with girls. He had been prepared to wait with girls, but with Malfoy everything seemed so urgent, so necessary.

Malfoy seemed to take encouragement from Harry's hesitation and leaned heavily into Harry's kiss, his hand moving to grasp at the juncture of Harry's shoulder and his throat, his thumb tracing a line back and forth along Harry's skin.

This, Harry considered through the haze of lust shrouding his mind, made too much sense. The thrill of their childhood fistfights, the utter horror he'd felt when he'd sliced Malfoy open their sixth year and the resulting guilt, the surprising lack of girlfriends – because, despite Ron's comforting reassurances, Harry knew what a rare case he was to have only really shown interest in Cho and Ginny, both smart, both athletic, both unmistakably thin and boyish in figure.

Another pang of guilt shot through Harry at the thought of Ginny, effectively nipped in the bud a moment later by Malfoy's teeth grazing the soft muscle where Harry's shoulder met his neck. For that matter, any and all emotion Harry might have been previously feeling melted instantly when Malfoy put his mouth anywhere on Harry's body, like an incredibly fast and effective Dreamless Sleep draught, or an All-Body Numbing Charm. He couldn't feel anything else when he was trying to understand and control the surging heat Malfoy inspired in him.

Just when Harry thought he couldn't possibly contain any more electric energy beneath his skin, Malfoy grunted against his mouth and tugged on the front of Harry's shirt. He had inched forward over the table, which really was putting too much distance between them, and now Malfoy was perched underneath Harry, but when he'd managed that maneuver, Harry couldn't say. He just knew that when Malfoy's hand slid down to Harry's trouser fronts, thumbing open the fly, Harry's breath hitched and his pulse flickered, then sprinted.

Almost belatedly, Harry raised a hand to touch Malfoy's chest, his fingers brushing the pale fuzz of hair there, pulled back as though burned by the heat of Malfoy's body. He swallowed the panic lurking somewhere near his ribcage, then flattened his palm against Malfoy, who hissed at the friction against his nipple. It was almost too good, too numbing. Harry had never allowed himself to let go like this, nor had he had the time or circumstance to let go like this.

Malfoy had gotten his hand into Harry's shorts by then, his fingers wrapping around Harry's cock, hot and sparking something urgent and primal in Harry's bloodstream.

This was no longer about curiosity, or some twisted need in Harry's subconscious for forgiveness for what he'd done to Malfoy in Myrtle's bathroom. This was something Harry was doing for himself, because he wanted to, and not for any other reason. That thought washed over Harry, drowning the guilt and doubt, like permission to carry on with Malfoy, and let himself enjoy the feel of his hands on Harry's cock, and the fingers sliding lower over his balls for a moment before tugging back up toward the head and foreskin.

Harry let loose a groan at that, and Malfoy smirked against his shoulder, then parting his lips to nip at Harry's collarbone. The pressure from his teeth seemed directly connected to Harry's groin; he bucked his hips toward Malfoy, latched his mouth onto Malfoy's neck, his fingers threading through the fine but prickly hair at the nape of Malfoy's neck. Malfoy sighed, then nudged his chin higher and licked Harry's earlobe, swirling his tongue against the curve of his ear.

"Harry," Malfoy murmured, still working his hand around Harry's cock, "is this – am I –"

Harry tried to say, "Yes," and, "Don't you dare stop," but all he managed were a few strangled syllables and a labored gasp before he twitched, his hips bucking again; and there was a shuddering warmth as he clutched violently at Malfoy's shoulder, and his eyes clamped shut so tightly that he could see colored lights bursting behind his eyelids.

There was a moment of stillness, and then Harry could hear Malfoy chuckling. When he opened his eyes again, Malfoy was smirking, but there was something unusual about it – there was a light behind his eyes as he tossed his hair and pushed a hand forward through Harry's thick hair. Harry let his head bob a little under the gesture, unable to suppress a smirk that mirrored Malfoy's when Malfoy leaned against him, grinding his own still-jean-bound erection against Harry's stomach.

"A Malfoy never asks for help," he said in a near-growl. His hand came to rest at the nape of Harry's neck, where his hair was growing long into unruly curls. "But desperate times call for desperate measures."

The laughter bubbled up inside Harry before he could stop it, and, laughing, he leaned up to impress a kiss upon Malfoy's mouth even as he thumbed open the fly of Malfoy's jeans.

:: :: ::

The next few weeks passed as something of a blur for Harry. Between Hermione's copious notes and a few subtle jabs and surprisingly helpful tips from Malfoy, Harry was beginning to feel as though he were actually helpful to a few of his pupils. Hermione and Ron were spending just as much time together as they always had, but Harry found it difficult to complain when Ron set aside time for at least one game of wizard's chess every few days, and Hermione still helped him with his tutoring.

Though the Quidditch season had gotten off to a rocky start, Harry made a point of flying more often, and he started to find himself surrounded by a handful of younger students keen on improving their techniques. The strange thing about this new flock of admirers was that they seemed most keen on his flying, not on his being Harry Potter. It certainly was a new concept for Harry, who had suffered years of Quidditch tryouts involving dozens of girls who were only there to giggle over him. Harry wasn't sure why his victory over Voldemort had resulted in even fewer girls vying for his attention, but after Romilda Vane, he was quite happy to leave it at the few awkward first- and second-years tagging after him in the halls, wide-eyed and blushing.

Things with Malfoy were as strange as ever, though Harry had to admit that they might never have a normal relationship by any definition. Malfoy had cooled toward him somewhat since the night in the library, but he was in general more willing to help Harry with his coursework without Harry having to ask. They had taken to studying together in a corner of the common room, their books open around them with few words exchanged unless they needed to organize their next lesson plan.

The silence might have been maddening, yet Harry felt that something had changed between them. The animosity they had harbored had all but disappeared, and what tension was left stemmed more from Harry's lingering thoughts of the scars on Malfoy's torso, and the smooth stretches of skin they pointed toward below the waistband of Malfoy's shorts.

Thoughts of Malfoy's shorts and what lay beneath them crept into Harry's mind quite often those days.

They might be sitting across from one another in the Great Hall, silently polishing off their respective breakfasts, when Harry would notice the grace with which Malfoy held his fork over the sausages on his plate. That thought might churn for a moment, until Harry's gaze drifted to the angle of Malfoy's nose, or the glossy sheen of Malfoy's hair.

When Malfoy deigned to grace the Quidditch pitch with his presence, Harry couldn't help but admire Malfoy's form: leaning over his broom effortlessly, swinging to a stop above the goal rings. Usually Malfoy then proceeded to perform a flawless imitation of the third-year playing keeper, Timms, a stringy-looking boy with glasses and reflexes like some sort of large jungle cat. Timms could appear to be distracted by a butterfly on the ground, then pull together an amazing play out of nowhere by saving three straight goals and preventing a mid-air collision. Malfoy would push his hair off of his face, hunch his shoulders, and slacken his jaw just the way Timms tended to when everyone thought he wasn't paying attention.

There were problems with this kind of mental meandering, of course, as Harry quickly realized. Malfoy would tip his head up slightly over breakfast, quirk one eyebrow, and smirk harder than Harry had ever seen him smirk before. He would break character when mimicking Timms in a shout of laughter, and bestow the same smug smirk on Harry as Harry hovered below. He would then mimic Harry's keen stare and slight frown, staring off into the distance, as though he weren't the subject of Harry's distracted scrutiny.

And all Harry could do then was blush furiously and dart away on his broom or stab at his eggs violently with his fork, trying desperately to pretend that he hadn't just been caught staring.

Still, the smirking was all Malfoy managed to accomplish. They went about their studies, and they put on their study sessions as usual, but Malfoy never came near enough to Harry to actually touch him. It was as infuriating as it was exciting. Harry couldn't stand it.

Unfortunately (and Harry had thought this over at great length), there really wasn't much he could do about it, short of grabbing Malfoy by the collar and snogging him senseless. And if Malfoy was going to be stubborn enough to go out of his way not to touch Harry in any way, even when passing papers or dishes across a table, then Harry was definitely not going to crack first.

In a way, this perceived competition reminded Harry of the way he and Malfoy used to interact, always on their respective guards, always waiting for the other to make the first move so that they could pounce on it. The difference now was that instead of punching Malfoy square in the mouth with one sharp fist, Harry only wanted to punch Malfoy with his mouth. So to speak. Whenever Harry thought about this, rational thought seemed to dissolve under the immense pressure of how ridiculous the whole thing seemed, and how badly he wanted to touch and be touched by Malfoy again, like they had in the library.

:: :: ::

Everything changed the morning Harry woke almost before the sun to hear Malfoy hissing in his ear, apparently just shy of Harry's nightstand.

"Oi, Potter," Malfoy whispered. "Get up."

Assuming it was some horrible dream, Harry pulled the blankets more securely around him and burrowed his face against the warmth of his pillow.

Malfoy's voice came again, a little more urgently than before. "I said get up, you lazy sod."

This time, Malfoy tugged back when Harry tried to tug his blankets over his head. In his sleep-hazy state, Harry lost the battle, and Malfoy managed to pull his bedding entirely off the bed, casting it aside on the floor. The early morning chill bit into Harry's ankles where his pajamas had ridden up, and he grunted inelegantly.

"Potter. Get up! We're going afield," Malfoy said, grabbing Harry's shoulder hard and shaking him.

Harry shrugged him off, propping himself up on one elbow, rubbing his eyes with the other hand. "We're what?"

"Going afield," Malfoy repeated, giving him another good shake. "Into the forest. There are some things I'd like to gather for the third-years and their healing potions."

"You want to go into the forest?" Harry parroted dumbly, still having trouble understanding. "You want to go into the forest now, before the sun's even up?"

"Yes," Malfoy replied impatiently. He crossed his arms, threatening to scowl at any moment.

Harry sat up a little farther, leaning forward over his knees to stretch his shoulders a bit as he tried to process Malfoy's request. "You mean you want me to come with you?"

"Yes, Potter, into the forest," Malfoy said.

The scowl finally came fully into play on Malfoy's narrow features, so much so that Harry had to close his eyes to avoid laughing or feeling guilty about wanting to sleep through what was apparently a psychotic breakdown on Malfoy's part.

"I'll give you five minutes to get dressed, and it's cold out," Malfoy said. "I have to find my trowel."

Malfoy turned abruptly toward the trunk at the foot of his bed, digging through it for the missing tool. Harry couldn't help but smirk at that – Malfoy going bonkers over a lost shovel, probably a dirty one at that – but he complied with Malfoy's wishes and made his way out of bed and into a thick Weasley jumper and a pair of jeans.

"Ready," Harry said quietly, shrugging his cloak over his shoulders.

He noticed that Malfoy, still searching for his trowel, was wearing a heavy corduroy jacket rather than the billowing black cloaks Harry was used to seeing him wear, the kinds of cloaks he'd always seen in the expensive tailor's shops in Diagon Alley, complete with embroidery and gleaming silver clasps. The jacket, dusky brown with a lighter cotton lining, did the same for Malfoy that his Muggle clothing did; it made him look older, tanner, more solid. The old robes and cloaks had always washed him out, Harry realized, and made him look much younger, like he'd snuck into his dad's closet for a bit of dress up.

"Found it," Malfoy announced, tucking the trowel into the pocket of his jacket and turning to face Harry. He must have caught a strange look on Harry's face, asking, "What?"

Across the room, someone groaned and threw a pillow. It landed close to Malfoy, sliding across the hardwood into his feet.

"What?" Malfoy asked again, not bothering to lower his voice.

"Nothing," Harry whispered. "Let's just go, okay?"

They matched pace as they walked from the dorm, Malfoy shoving the pillow back onto one of the beds as they passed, muttering, "Tosser."

Malfoy led the way down several flights of stairs and along one particularly quiet, drafty hallway before Harry stopped him.

"Where are we going?"

"To the forest, stupid," Malfoy retorted. When Harry merely stared at him blankly, Malfoy sighed impatiently. "Through the entrance near greenhouse five, if you're so interested. Why?"

"If we swing down three flights, we could stop for breakfast," Harry suggested. "It's a little out of our way, but I'm half starved already and we've barely made it ten minutes."

"High maintenance," Malfoy huffed out his breath, but allowed Harry to turn around and cross back to another staircase, one that would lead them almost directly to the kitchens below.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Harry replied.

"You always think with your stomach," Malfoy argued.

Harry shrugged. "If you want to go into that forest and chance a fight with any of the things I've seen in there, that's fine. But I'm not going to do it on an empty stomach."

Malfoy was quiet for a moment, then asked, "What have you seen in there? Worse than the Dark Lord, I mean."

"Werewolves," Harry said. "Centaurs, dragons, thestrals – "

"Those terrifying horse things have names?" Malfoy interrupted. "The ones that pulled the carriages?"

"Yeah. They're really gentle, actually. But a little creepy, if you aren't used to them, I guess."

They walked in silence for a little while, along the corridor and down a flight of stairs.

Malfoy asked suddenly, "What else have you see in there?"

"In the forest?" Harry asked. Malfoy nodded timidly. Harry grinned. "Oh, not much else. Except for Grawp."

"What's a Grawp?" Malfoy asked quickly.

Harry quirked an eyebrow, looking back at Malfoy. "Afraid?"

"Me? Never," Malfoy scoffed. "But you do know how to fight one of these grawp creatures, don't you?"

"I know just the spell," Harry laughed.

"Good," said Malfoy, his voice tinged with suspicion at Harry's laughter. "Because I'm taking you with me for a second opinion on the specimens I'm collecting, and that's it. I certainly don't need anyone to take care of me out there."

"Right," Harry said. When Malfoy stubbornly refused to respond to Harry's sarcasm, Harry asked, "What kinds of things are we collecting, anyway?"

"Oh, you know, mostly commonplace herbs," Malfoy said, seeming to gain confidence as he rambled on. "There are a few plants that only bloom at night, and there aren't any fresh samples in the potions store. An insect or two that I thought we could use with the second-years and their anti-aging draughts. And I thought we might give a practical lesson on telling the difference between certain kinds of plants, that sort of thing. There are a few species that could cause a severe allergic reaction if ingested by mistake."

"Oh," said Harry, trying to muster enthusiasm. He still wasn't sure why he'd been dragged out of bed so early for this little adventure, but he figured that humoring Malfoy wouldn't hurt. Plus he might actually learn something, which would give him an advantage over their students when they actually gave the lesson.

Not to mention the fact that Malfoy seemed so jumpy that Harry was secretly pleased to have been apparently invited mainly as security for their outing.

In fact, Harry was so pleased with this thought that he almost walked right by the still-life that concealed the entrance to the kitchen. He stopped so abruptly in front of the painting that Malfoy bumped into him and swore.

"Honestly, can't you pay attention to where you're going?" Malfoy demanded.

Harry didn't comment on the fact that it took Malfoy a few long moments to step back an appropriate distance. Instead he said, "No, I can't. It's this way."

He tickled the pear, ignoring Malfoy's sidelong look, then hopped back when the portrait swung open toward him. Malfoy almost got knocked aside by the enormous frame, but managed to keep his grumbling to a minimum.

"Master Potter has come to pay his friend elves a visit?" came a squeaky voice from somewhere near Harry's knees.

Harry looked down to find the sagging, scarred face of a house elf with enormous, lopsided ears and a slightly singed tea towel wrapped around its emaciated waist. The elf was bowing formally toward him, one hand touching his paunchy belly and the other extended behind him.

"Er," said Harry. He hadn't quite thought this through, coming to the kitchens. Impossible though he might have thought it, he had forgotten about the house elves that ran the school's kitchen. He had also forgotten that Dobby wouldn't be among them; for a moment, he scanned the small crowd of house elves that had paused in their morning work to greet their unexpected guest.

"We've just come for breakfast," Malfoy said, sidling up to Harry as though the elves might attack him at any moment.

Harry glanced at him; he would have expected Malfoy to sound a bit more disdainful when speaking to the house elves, but then, he had to concede that stranger things had happened.

"Certainly, master Malfoy," the elf said, bowing a little further. "We can get you many things."

"Just a few of those sticky buns," Harry said quickly, coming back to himself. "And a bottle of juice. That's all."

"Certainly, master Potter," said the elf, stumbling over himself a bit to collect their breakfast.

Malfoy leaned a little closer to Harry. "Don't you find it strange? Having them grovel like that to you, when you're the one who, for all intents and purposes, liberated them in the Hogwarts battle?"

"Er," said Harry. He could feel himself flushing bright pink. "I don't ever think I'll get used to it, if that's what you mean."

Malfoy shook his head, but didn't press the issue.

"Here you are, masters Potter and Malfoy," the elf chirped, returning with a rather large picnic basket full of food.

Harry peeked under the lid; there were the sticky buns and juice he had asked for, plus a variety of fresh fruit, a few generous blocks of cheese and a rather fragrant, crusty loaf of bread, and another glass bottle of milk.

"Thanks, um – "

"Bittsy," the house elf hastily finished, looking a bit flustered. "Bittsy hopes you enjoy your breakfast, masters!"

"Oh, we will," Malfoy replied smoothly, plucking the basket from Harry's arms and making for the portrait hole. "We definitely will."

Harry had no choice but to follow. Once in the hall, he took an apple from the basket and crunched into it, humming a little at the taste. Somehow the food at Hogwarts always tasted better than any other food he'd ever eaten. Even after he'd been at school for months, the food still seemed as welcoming and fresh and delicious as ever.

They were outside by the time he finished the fruit, and he tossed the core away into the longer grass near the edge of the castle. The day was overcast and a little damp, though it wasn't raining; the vegetation held a thick layer of dew that brushed aside as they walked through it, soaking into the cuffs of their jeans.

A thought occurred to Harry. "How did you know about the house elves' being in the war?"

Malfoy shrugged, straining a little under the weight of the basket. "I've had some time to catch up on my recent history. You might not know it, but there's been a lot of speculation about the elves' involvement in that war."

"There has?"

"Of course there has," said Malfoy, but it didn't hold the same condescending air it might once have done. "There's never been another war, even another battle, where the house elves took sides against wizards. They're an enslaved race, always have been. They only would have entered into combat at the express orders of their masters. If they took it upon themselves to decide who to fight, they might offend their masters by mistake. And that would probably earn them so much self-mutilation that they'd have ended up dying for that mistake."

"Oh," Harry said grimly. "I guess I never thought of it that way."

"Yes, well," Malfoy went on, pausing by the edge of the forest to rest his arms from the weight of the basket for a moment, "your freeing our elf certainly changed a lot for the entire race."

Harry smiled a little, remembering the day he'd freed Dobby with one of his socks pinched between the pages of Riddle's diary. It had been exhilarating for him, but if he had to be honest, the thrill had had little to do with Dobby's freedom. Instead he had been giddy with the idea of directly defying a man like Lucius Malfoy.

Afterward, of course, he'd been grateful for Dobby's help with certain things, like trailing Malfoy his sixth year. But the initial motivation behind all of it had been superficial and petty. That realization gnawed at Harry's conscience as he pictured the grave he'd dug with his own hands near the seaside cottage the previous spring.

"Anyway," Malfoy said absently, already smiling, "we had plenty of other elves to take Dobby's place."

While Harry might have recognized the joke as completely inappropriate, he also appreciated Malfoy's attempt at joking with him. It made all the awkwardness seem worthwhile, if it meant that after it all ended, they were friends.

Malfoy bent over the basket, picking through its contents lazily. "Still, they do pack a decent meal, when you need one, those house elves."

Harry watched as Malfoy took out the bottle of milk, sweeping his hair back as he stood upright to drink from it. The unapologetic way that Malfoy uncapped and drank directly from the bottle amazed Harry; even now, he could hear the shrill warnings of both Petunia and Mrs. Weasley that if anyone drank directly from any bottle (except of course Dudley, in Petunia's case), there would be hell to pay. Harry knew that the gesture said more for Malfoy's spoiled upbringing than it did for his character on the whole – Malfoy had been allowed to do whatever he wanted growing up, and that freedom carried over still in his actions – but Harry still found it attractive that Malfoy wouldn't be concerned with rules, even as well-trained in etiquette as he probably was.

Coming out of his reverie, Harry realized that Malfoy was giving him an odd look again.

"What?" Malfoy demanded. "That's the same look you gave me earlier. Did I do something that offended you?"

"No," Harry said quickly, "no, you were just drinking out of the bottle – "

Malfoy looked incredulously at the bottle in his hand, then back at Harry. "You would rather I'd found a glass out here instead? In the Forbidden Forest?"

"No," Harry said again, torn between the impulse to laugh at the ridiculous nature of Malfoy's comment, and the rushing need instilled in him by his suddenly racing pulse. Malfoy was giving him a look that Harry thought meant that he should be closer to him, when really it probably just meant that Malfoy thought Harry was completely off his nut.

"I mean, you could always transfigure something into a glass," he suggested, though he was thinking more about the tiny film of milk left on Malfoy's lower lip than any practical answer to Malfoy's assuredly rhetorical question.

Malfoy stared at him blankly, his mouth set in a grim line. With such a bleak expression, Malfoy looked suddenly very tired, all of the layers of shadow creeping into view under his eyes, and around his cheeks. He looked underfed, like he'd been missing sleep.

"Hey, it was a joke," Harry said a little forcefully, but his voice sounded thin against the odd rustling and faint bird calls from the forest.

Malfoy seemed to shake off the moment, turning back to the woods. "We should start with the Piping Ferns. They tend to roll up at sunrise, if direct sunlight comes anywhere near them."

He began trudging into the woods, leaving the basket where it sat in the thinning grass, near the bulging roots of the first trees.

Harry asked, "We're just going to leave the basket there?"

Malfoy glanced back, shrugging. "No sense in carting it halfway through the forest and back, is there?"

Harry chuckled, flicking his wand toward the basket. It trembled and shrank to the size of a school eraser, and Harry tucked it into the pocket of his jeans.

Malfoy stared hard at Harry's pocket for a moment.

"We're wizards," Harry teased, imitating the condescending drawl Malfoy favored, coming close enough as he passed to tap Malfoy's temple gently.

After another quiet moment, Malfoy's footsteps crunched after him through the leaves.

:: :: ::

They trudged through the forest like that all morning, Malfoy crouching every so often with a vial produced from who knows where, some internal pocket on his jacket, Harry suspected.

"See this, Potter, this is a specimen called Fairy Fig, in laymen's," Malfoy would announce, brushing his fingers over the jagged edges of a leaf on a tall, thin plant. "It isn't really a fig – well, probably a cousin, very distantly – but it produces a kind of fruit with extraordinary properties. The juice can cure burns, if prepared properly, and the seeds, if ground at exactly the right time in the lunar phase, can prevent ulcers from forming. An incredible plant."

Once, Harry crouched with Malfoy as he showed Harry a set of roots that protruded through the leaf cover, the bark looking as though it had been bubbling over with some corrosive acid.

"If you burst these, you can get a pus similar to that of a bubotuber," he explained. "It's highly dangerous, though, and I didn't bring my gloves. It would burn right through my skin if I tried to unload it now."

He looked fretful for a moment, looking at the roots as though he longed to puncture the bubbles. Then a brightly colored blossom caught his eye, and without thinking, he grabbed Harry's hand and dragged him over to the tiny flower.

"This isn't nearly as rare as some of the ones we found this morning, but look at how big the granules of pollen are! Imagine the size of the bee that would carry pollen so big."

"You sound like Neville," Harry laughed, enjoying how easily distracted Malfoy seemed by something as mundane as plants, and the warmth of Malfoy's palm against his hand.

"Neville?" Malfoy repeated absently. Then he snapped out of his reverie, rolling his eyes. "I remind you of Longbottom?"

Harry felt oddly bereft when Malfoy snatched his hand away, though he tried valiantly not to show it. Overcompensating for his nerves, Harry's words tumbled a little too quickly, "You should have seen him before the Triwizard Tournament. He was going on and on about the properties of gillyweed when used on humans, and how salt water and fresh water affected it. He was pulling all sorts of books off the shelves in the library for me."

Malfoy huffed, though mentioning Neville's more academic pursuits seemed to make the comparison slightly better from Malfoy's perspective. "Longbottom was fairly good at Herbology, wasn't he?"

Harry nodded. "He was made the youngest partner of a centuries-old green-growers firm in London this year."

Malfoy seemed satisfied by this news. "I suppose there are worse things," he mused. Then another plant caught his eye, and he was stumbling over himself trying to a vial underneath to collect a dollop of dew as it rolled off the peak of its leaf.

"This is said to cure heartache," Malfoy explained, studying the other leaves of the plant carefully for more dew.

"Is it," Harry replied absently. As he had been all morning, Harry was more interested in the play of shadows on Malfoy's face, and the way his enraptured attentions made Malfoy look so much more attractive that the bored smirk he'd always carried at school.

Malfoy must have caught the look on Harry's face, because he rolled his eyes and said, "Honestly, Potter, you're hopeless."

"What?" Harry asked defensively. "I can't look at a person?"

"You were staring," Malfoy said pointedly, crossing his arms. The gesture might once have seemed petulant, but now it only seemed to draw attention to how broad Malfoy's shoulders had gotten, compared to the scrawny boy he'd once been.

"So? What are you, the staring police?" Harry knew he sounded childish, but he didn't care.

Malfoy was giving him that odd look again, though now it was tinged with amusement, and Harry was unraveled by it, demanding, "What do you want me to do?"

Malfoy shook his head slowly, letting the echo of Harry's voice fade into the foliage around them. "I should have known better than to – "

Something in Harry's stomach went cold with the sudden onslaught of embarrassment. All the time he'd spent pitying Malfoy since he'd found him on Privet Drive, all the times he'd gone out of his way to accommodate Malfoy, all the times he'd disagreed and argued with Ron and Hermione over him. All the long study sessions he'd spent wishing Malfoy would do it again, would lean over their study table and grab him by the front of his shirt, would kiss him hard. All the times he'd wondered if Malfoy was just being shy about it, and all along he'd just been too embarrassed to have snogged Harry at all.

Harry was furious with himself. He didn't know which would be worse, to go back to the castle by himself, like a coward, or to stay here and suffer the uncomfortable truth that Malfoy had just been having a lark with him in the library that night, that it hadn't meant anything to him after all.

And here he'd thought Malfoy had changed, that he was actually capable of caring for other people, for considering their feelings.

Malfoy seemed to be circling him, and all Harry could do was stare awkwardly at his feet and hope that it ended. Malfoy said, "I should have known better than to let you go all this time without – "

Harry didn't want to hear the end of the sentence.

And then he didn't have to.

Malfoy had stopped circling, pushing himself up against Harry as Harry stumbled backward until he was backed up against a tree, the bark rough under his hands and beneath the thick wool of his jumper. Malfoy kissed Harry just as hard as Harry had been hoping he would, as hard as Harry had wondered if he had all those nights ago. It had started to feel like a bizarre, unlikely dream until now.

Now Malfoy's hands were pulling at the bottom of Harry's jumper, his thin fingers cool against the warmth of Harry's stomach, and he wasn't hesitating at the fly of Harry's jeans this time. He undid the fly and ran his knuckles along the pale stretch of skin there feathered with dark hair, turning his palm to Harry's cock as it nearly sprang out of his shorts on its own.

Malfoy murmured against Harry's mouth, "I never should have assumed you'd be embarrassed by me."

He went on to lip Harry's neck, and the soft underside of Harry's ears.

"Embarrassed by you?" Harry repeated. He was vaguely aware of his breath steaming in the still-cold air, and of Malfoy's breath steaming against Harry's skin as he all but panted against him. It felt good, much too good for Harry ever to have thought it was a dream. What an arse he'd been.

"Why would I be – " His voice caught in his throat as Malfoy scraped against his collarbone with his teeth – "embarrassed?"

"Normal people would be," Malfoy explained, rather half-heartedly. He brought one of his hands up to Harry's collar, tugging at the scratchy wool to give him a better shot at Harry's bare skin. His other hand remained at Harry's groin, pulling at Harry's cock in long, halting strokes.


"No idea. You ask a lot of questions for someone getting off," Malfoy observed. His voice was dusky and damp, and Harry briefly wondered how far their voices might carry in the woods, until one of Malfoy's fingers delved south over Harry's balls, and he cried out in surprise. He could feel Malfoy's smile against his shoulder as Malfoy went on, "You're not really the type to make a mistake that might embarrass you later. I'd forgotten that."

"How would you ever – have known that?"

"I have eyes, Potter. I saw the way you used to look at the Weasley girl. Like you only wanted her, like it meant something when you touched her."

Ginny. Harry tried to feel a pang of – well, anything for Ginny. Guilt, maybe, or sympathy, or concern at how little he'd seen her that year. But he couldn't muster any of those feelings while Malfoy lessened his ministrations for a moment to grind his hips against Harry.

Harry groaned, bucking against the tree behind him. He knocked a little of the bark loose, but he was blissfully unaware of the dull, dry sound it made as it hit the carpet of leaves underfoot; Malfoy was rubbing his own erection unapologetically against Harry's thigh, his hip pushing against Harry's cock with the most delicious pressure. Malfoy only had to press his mouth once more to Harry's for Harry to spiral completely out of control, grunting and shuddering against Malfoy's jeans as he came, Malfoy following quickly after him.
:: :: ::

He relaxed between Malfoy and the tree, his head spinning slowly as he tried to remember – tried to care – where they were and what they'd been doing before the amazing sex.

Thinking the word gave Harry pause. Blearily he wondered how much farther Malfoy had ever gotten with any other boy – with any other person, for that matter. Harry himself had only shared a few awkward kisses with Cho, and Ginny – even if he suspected that Ginny might have been just as eager as he had been to explore new territory.

Would Malfoy even consider this sort of bland, barely more-than-snogging actual sex? Harry could feel himself blushing at the thought of what else Malfoy might have done. Sucked someone off, or – well, Harry couldn't even think that without turning a brilliant shade of scarlet that he would not be able to pass off as a rosy post-coital glow.

As it was, Malfoy was beginning to stir, pulling back from his resting place against Harry's chest, his cheek resting somewhere near the dip in Harry's shoulder. The loss of Malfoy's head against him was striking, as the temperature had stubbornly refused to rise even after the sun had completely risen.

"Well," said Malfoy quietly. His voice slightly hoarse, though Harry couldn't remember Malfoy making any noise at all while Harry had been moaning and grunting under Malfoy's skilled fingers. "We should probably get back to the castle. Weasley will be looking for you, and I promised I would review the Arithmancy assignment with Hermione before lunch."

"Right," Harry agreed. He would have rather stayed here, with Malfoy, tagging plants and taking samples, than return to the dusty halls of the school.

But Malfoy was already walking away, adjusting his jacket on his thin frame, smoothing down his hair. He reached under the jacket for a moment to secure all the vials and envelopes he'd filled that morning, then turned to Harry again.

"We're still on for Quidditch later, right?" Malfoy asked. If Harry didn't know any better, he would have guessed Malfoy sounded hesitant, even worried that Harry would have forgotten or made other plans.

"Yeah," Harry said, relieved.

Malfoy smiled, and it seemed an entirely natural, sunny thing against the sparsely mottled light filtering through from the thick, leafy canopy overhead.

:: :: ::

Harry's situation with Malfoy didn't get any less ridiculous when Malfoy started responding again. Just as he had when they were younger, and one of them had cracked and made a rude remark concerning the other's parents, now their interactions usually began with a suggestive look from Malfoy, his eyes lingering a bit too long on Harry's mouth or neck or hands – or, alternately, with Harry accidentally forgetting to respond during their weekly planning sessions because he was too busy daydreaming about Malfoy's hands on his cock.

Then Malfoy would leer, or Harry would smirk, and one of them would tease the other for having virtually no self-control. Before long, they would be tangled around each other on a desk or the floor, or standing against a door or wall, their mouths meeting desperately in an attempt to grind closer to one another through their robes.

It was during these moments that Harry felt so overwhelmingly normal, and so alive, that he wished their little meetings would never end. As the winter melted slowly into spring, the days growing longer, the sunlight stretching just a little further into the night, and their Quidditch practices breaching their study hours, Harry could feel the pressing rush of time against him and what he might eventually realize was happiness.

He had dreaded the end of terms before, for exams, the return to Privet Drive, and the inevitable battle against Voldemort, but never had he dreaded the summer so much for what he would be missing at Hogwarts. In the past, after all, he had been so sure he would return to find Hogwarts the same old moldering castle as ever, but now he suspected that Malfoy would leave in June and disappear into adult life. Or worse, that he himself might do the same.

The question of what to do after leaving school was one that haunted Harry enough as it was; adding Malfoy into the anxiety he already suffered only made it worse. Try as he might to set aside thoughts of graduating and moving on, Harry found them creeping in on him at inopportune moments.

Like when he had his hands down Malfoy's pants in a hallway somewhere near the Charms classrooms, Malfoy whimpering into his ear, his hips bucking against Harry's wrists.

Or one lucky afternoon when they had the dorm to themselves, and had collapsed, laughing and panting, onto Harry's bed after having practically run up from the pitch. Though both had been nervous about causing a scandal, they had made good use of the hour or so that passed before other students began to trickle in from dinner. The idea that they might be caught only heightened the thrill of it.

That in itself was odd to Harry. He had spent the better part of seven years fighting Voldemort and other assorted bad guys, and yet it was the idea of being caught kissing another boy that got his heart racing as though it might kill him.

What was be becoming, that he was afraid to be discovered like that?

Yet it was also a joke to Harry, that even his closest friends thought him a bit insane for "obsessing" over Malfoy, to spend so much time supposedly trailing him to find out his secrets, when really all he wanted to find was the warmth of Malfoy's breath on his cheek, or Malfoy's fingers slipping under the waistband of his trousers, or into his hair.

:: :: ::

One breezy afternoon in May, the post-seventh year dorm stood deserted, its inhabitants either trapped in their tutoring sessions or taking advantage of the warm weather by studying outside, near the lake. The giant squid was celebrating the sunlight by performing a rarely seen ritual that involved a good deal of water splashing over the students' heads and books. A few of them moved to drier territory, but most of them merely laughed and cast another drying charm on their things and continued taking notes – or pretending to, in Ron's case, as Hermione commented on the finer points of the squid's celebratory ritual, and how much it resembled the mating ritual of the same species of squid.

Meanwhile, Harry and Malfoy sprawled over their respective beds, books spread over their bedding. Malfoy would read intently for a few minutes, then scribble a few illegible notes onto a length of parchment. Every so often he would underline or circle a word or sentence in the book itself, humming under his breath.

Harry spent most of his time surreptitiously watching Malfoy study; his own parchment lay mostly untouched beside his potions textbook.

Nearby, one of the Hufflepuffs (whose name Harry could never remember), continued to sigh and flip through the pages of a well-worn charms book. As far as Harry could tell, the Hufflepuff had not succeeded in finishing any studying, and really he had only kept Harry and Malfoy from doing unmentionable things while the dorm was empty.

"Harry," the Hufflepuff said suddenly, and Harry felt even worse about not remembering his name.

"Yeah?" he said, realizing he hadn't responded when even Malfoy sat up a little straighter to pay attention to their conversation.

The Hufflepuff asked, "Could you show me how to do that feint? That really tricky one that you pulled first year, in that match against Slytherin?"

"A dirty move," Malfoy muttered, but Harry nodded.

"The Wronsky? Sure. I'll be on the pitch tomorrow, after supper."

"Wicked," the Hufflepuff grinned. He looked back at his textbook, but quickly scratched at the back of his neck and sighed. "I'm not getting anything done in here. Best of luck to you, mates."

He took his time in pulling on his trainers and ambling out of the room, grabbing a light jacket, apparently heading out to attempt the Wronsky feint another time before Harry taught him how to do it properly.

Harry was about to turn to Malfoy and suggest they do something inappropriate while they had the dorm to themselves, but Malfoy was already upon him, pinning him to the bed, his teeth clipping Harry's as their mouths met.

"Thought he'd never leave," Harry murmured against Malfoy's neck as Malfoy ducked his head to draw broad strokes along Harry's ear with his tongue.

"Hufflepuffs aren't known for their perceptive natures," Malfoy replied, as dryly as he could for being so occupied with Harry's ear.

:: :: ::

It would have been too perfect to have gone on like that forever. Of all people, Harry knew that nothing lasted forever, that nothing was completely without its faults. Still, it was crushingly disappointing for Harry that breezy April afternoon, to discover the faults in this particular escapade.

He had been so wrapped up in the secret meetings, the hastily scribbled notes, the subtle hints in the brush of Malfoy's hand against his, or the bump of their shoulders. He had all but forgotten his obsession with outing Malfoy's hidden agenda to his friends, if not the whole school.

Hermione, of course, noticed his distraction well before Ron caught wind of his slipping grades and his increasingly late assignments. One morning she caught him at breakfast, before Ron or Malfoy were awake.

"Harry," she said, touching his hand briefly as he reached for the butter, "might I have a word?"

Harry pulled his hand back. It had not been a question. He forced a smile. "Sure. What's up?"

He was nervous when Hermione smirked at him, inwardly cursing Malfoy for having left a string of stippled bruises along his collarbone, much too close to the collar of his robes to be safe. They'd agreed at the beginning that they'd have to be careful, have to keep it a secret. And here Malfoy was flaunting it, looking unbearably smug every time he came into the same room as Harry, and if he had dared to leave marks on Harry's neck, it would be –

Harry stopped this wild internal monologue abruptly as he realized the odd look Hermione was giving him. He colored, trying not to think about how panicked he'd looked.

Hermione started to shake her head just as Harry realized that she'd already said something. He tried not to think about how panicked he sounded as he blurted, "What did you say?"

"I asked if you were alright," Hermione said, a line of concern creasing between her eyebrows.

"I'm fine," Harry replied in a strangled voice. "I'm just fine. What did you want to talk about?"

"You've been acting strangely lately," Hermione said frankly, crossing her arms, all business and less concern. "Disappearing for hours at a time, forgetting assignments and deadlines, blowing off your first-years when they approach you in the halls – Harry, there's got to be something troubling you. You haven't acted this oddly since – well, since sixth year. When you were obsessed with Malfoy."

Harry's breath whooshed out of him all at once. He hadn't exactly been planning to tell her, or Ron – oh, god, especially Ron, who would turn beet red and absolutely murder Harry. But Hermione had given him a perfect window of opportunity, and the thought of being so actively distant from his friends lately had begun to weigh heavily on Harry's mind, when he wasn't suctioned to Malfoy's neck.

That thought made Harry blush again, but he was resigned to tell her. "Actually, Hermione, I'd like to talk about that. About – about Malfoy. He's – "

Hermione cut him off abruptly, holding a hand out to stop him talking. "I knew it. You've been tailing him again, haven't you? You've gotten back into your – your obsession!"

As relieved as he was that Hermione was surprisingly clueless, for once in her life, Harry was equally disappointed. When had it actually become better for him to be sneaking around to spy on Malfoy, suspected Death Eater, than to sneak around to snog Malfoy, potential boyfriend?

"But, Hermione – "

"I don't want to hear it, Harry! He's not a Death Eater. He never really was one." Hermione frowned, as though she might have felt the beginnings of a headache. "He was a sad boy who wanted his dad to love him. He was desperate to prove his worth, and he got into some things that were over his head. That's all. Malfoy's success that year was accidental and stupid; you know that as well as anyone. You said yourself that Dumbledore had all but forgiven him, didn't you?"

Harry was unsure how to respond, but Hermione seemed to take his silence for stubbornness.

"Dumbledore's word should be good enough for all of us," she continued quietly. "At least, it was for me. And it should be good enough for you, too, if you would only let go of this silly schoolboy rivalry. Especially since you're the one who brought him here, if I need to remind you."

Hermione shot him a warning look, then glanced at her watch and gasped.

"Heavens, I'm late for an appointment with Professor Sinestra. Sorry, Harry, I've got to run." She gathered her bag, pausing only to frown again at Harry. "You will listen to me this time, won't you?"

Harry sighed. He couldn't decide whether to be frustrated or amused by Hermione's oversight.

"Won't you?" she repeated. "I don't think he's perfect, not by a long shot, but he seems to be trying. And I'm sure I'll regret saying this, but Malfoy isn't all bad. So?"

"Of course I will, I'm listening," he said finally, the resolve leaving him to tell her what was really going on. Hermione looked satisfied; Harry must have sounded defeated enough to have considered her point. That in itself was almost enough to make Harry laugh as she walked away, hugging her textbooks to her chest, but instead he jabbed at his eggs a few more times before shoving the plate away. He shouldn't find it funny to keep secrets from one of his best friends.

"This is ridiculous," he muttered.

"What's ridiculous?"

Harry jumped as Malfoy spoke, sliding into Hermione's recently abandoned place. He relaxed as Malfoy poured himself a glass of juice and grabbed an ιclair from one of the over laden platters at the center of the table.

"Hermione's just got her wires crossed, is all," Harry said vaguely.

"Ah," Malfoy said. "Interesting saying, that. Did you know that in Muggle houses, a pair of crossed wires could take down the entire place in just a few minutes, should the wires happen to ignite? It's the same concept as, what d'you call it, hotwiring an automobile. Except of course in the case of hotwiring, the Muggle would be closely monitoring the situation."

"Yes," Harry agreed wearily. As much as he normally enjoyed the novelty of Malfoy's lectures on Muggle technology, he was not in the mood right now. Not after the whirlwind of nerves that was talking to Hermione lately, who had become more an acquaintance than a close friend.

Malfoy took a rather large bite of his ιclair, staring thoughtfully upwards. "I should think that I would like a house wired with Muggle electricity someday. How convenient, not to have to light all those candles every time you came home."

"There's charms for that," Harry said absently.

"Well, yes," Malfoy replied. His thoughtful look shifted into something a bit more vague, and a bit more troubled, but Harry was considering the ways his conversation with Hermione might backfire in the near future.

She would of course tell Ron about this conversation, he thought. And then he would feel obligated to sit Harry down with his own lecture and warnings, same as Hermione had. This is Malfoy we're talking about, and, He's still not worth it, mate, and, Are you going to do this to yourself again? Wasn't being right about him once enough for you?

A nudge from Malfoy's pale fingers against his arm broke through Harry's troubled line of thought.

"Potter," Malfoy snapped, sounding petulant and looking more concerned than Hermione had, "pay attention. What could possibly be more interesting or important than listening to me?"

Harry couldn't help but smile. "Nothing that I can think of, at the moment."

"Good," Malfoy said, looking more appeased. "Now, have you given any thought to the Delirium Draught we're supposed to be guiding our young minds through this week? You know it's a bit more challenging than the other potions they've had so far, but I was thinking we might give them an opportunity to see its effects firsthand, so that they might appreciate just how much damage they could inflict should they forget an ingredient, or worse."

Harry tried not to stare at Malfoy's mouth as he spoke, at the curve of his pink lips and the flash of white teeth underneath, but it was difficult. Malfoy noticed, smirking but scolding, "This is not the time for frivolous daydreaming, Potter. We have students to think of."

"I never would have pegged you for the responsible type," Harry replied dryly. "But I suppose stranger things have happened."

"And they shall continue to happen, no doubt." Malfoy's voice was sharp, a little too sharp for Harry's comfort. But before he could say anything about it, Malfoy was steepling his fingers over his plate, ignorant of the smudge of chocolate on his left pinky, and continued speaking.

"I was thinking, then, that we should involve Pomfrey in a sort of experiment for the students. We could deliberately muck up a few draughts, then herd them all up to the hospital wing for a demonstration. – A safe demonstration, I mean, of course. Nothing too dangerous."

"Sounds good to me," Harry agreed.

He remembered his first few years of Potions, and how different they would have been had he understood that some of them could be extremely poisonous under the right circumstances. That brought to mind the image of Ron slumped on the floor of Slughorn's office their sixth year, and the horror and blind panic Harry had felt at the time. To have seen his friends near death might have been the encouragement Harry had needed to work a little harder, even under Snape's tutelage, just as seeing his friends trapped under water during the Triwizard Tournament had kept him stubbornly by their sides until he was sure they would all be okay.

"Good," Malfoy said. "There is a time for studying one's texts, and a time for practical applications of the knowledge one might be gaining. This way we could quiz them on which chemicals – is that what Muggles call them? chemicals? – anyway, which elements of each potion cause which symptoms, and why certain mistakes are more severe than others. Forgetting the dittany, for instance, is not nearly as major a problem as adding too much valerian root before the final burst of heat is applied – "

Malfoy stopped, looking a little embarrassed, and said, "Anyway, you're probably bored by that kind of talk. I'll make up a lesson plan, and discuss protocol with Pomfrey at her earliest convenience."

He cleared his throat, taking another sip of juice. "I have some papers to finish writing. Are we still on for flying later?"

"Absolutely," said Harry, relieved to hear Malfoy's end of the conversation settle onto a topic he could actually follow. Sometimes it seemed that Malfoy's brain ran a mile a minute, scattering thoughts in every direction and clamoring to pick them up again before Harry could even begin to respond to the first question. It left him a bit breathless, even though he'd barely said more than a word to Malfoy; in fact, he'd hardly moved.

Malfoy looked satisfied, and so Harry grunted a farewell as Malfoy snatched another ιclair from the platter and swooped off, presumably to the post-seventh common room to finish his work before the morning bell sounded.

That was another thing, Harry considered, that would never cease to amaze him: that Malfoy was almost as enthusiastic and confusing as Hermione sometimes, when they got worked up over academics.

:: :: ::

It was, as Harry considered while drifting aimlessly over the pitch that night, a paradox, as most things in his life had recently come to be, opposite meanings coexisting in the same event, or body, or word. Harry had been thinking a lot about that lately, between his fears of the future and his meeting secretly with Malfoy with increasing regularity.

His entire life had been a paradox, his being remarkably unremarkable, an average boy expected to save the world. The surreal wonders of the magical realm becoming more normal and welcome than the comfortable, monotonous drudgery of his Muggle life. And now, added to that list of paradoxes, one Draco Malfoy: the wealthy academic, the forgotten heir, the well-meaning evildoer.

That was one thing Harry had realized about Malfoy in the time they'd spent together, without ever having to have uttered a word about it in Malfoy's presence – that Malfoy's actions, though despicable, had been in defense of his family. And not just the ideals of his family, either, but the living flesh-and-blood of his father, and his mother. Harry had glimpsed a sliver of that loyalty in Mrs. Malfoy's actions the night of Voldemort's defeat; she, too, had chosen sides based on ancestral beliefs and traditions, but in the end, it was her son's safety that mattered more than Voldemort's success. She had, in some ways, stepped in front of the same sorts of dangers for her son that Harry's mother had done for him.

Harry had not revealed these thoughts to his friends. Hermione might agree with him in theory, but she was often as stubborn as she was intelligent. And Harry didn't even want to imagine Ron's reaction, despite the loyalty Ron showed for his own family. Harry suspected that if not for the same types of ancestral traditions that Narcissa Malfoy had obeyed when choosing sides in the last war, had also deeply informed the Weasley-Malfoy rivalry. Not that the Weasleys stored nearly as many skeletons in their closets as the Malfoy's stuffed in their own, of course. Still, Harry had the nagging feeling that if Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy had never met, their sons might have politely ignored one another rather than constantly spitting with rage whenever the other appeared on the scene.

Thinking about these things tended to make Harry's head throb. He had come to the pitch tonight to forget about his troubles on earth, not to muddle through them. He had come for fresh air and a change of pace from the stuffy library stacks, and the typically sticky work tables in the Potions dungeons.

The weather was still slightly cool and damp, the sky still murky over the lake with the remnants of the afternoon's heavy rains, but the trees lining the pitch were mossy with budding leaves, and the dusty warmth of the broom shed had been a welcome relief after Harry had trekked down from the castle after supper. The long light from the setting sun cast a low, orange sparkle on the lingering moisture on the grassy lawns and pitch.

It was in this setting that Harry first caught sight of Malfoy striding onto the pitch, coming to a stop a few yards from one set of goal posts, one of his hips canted further than the other as he posed with his broom, still the now rather old model he'd flown their sixth year.

"Care for a bit of competition, Potter?" Malfoy called up to him. His voice carried surprisingly well for such a large space, filling every inch of the stands. Harry supposed there had been some sort of amplifying spell cast, either by Malfoy just now, or by the faculty.

"I guess I could use another body up here," Harry called back. "You know, so I could judge how fast I'm really going when I nip past you on my way to the snitch."

"Funny," Malfoy said. He tossed his hair a bit, exaggerating his pose all the more, like he was trying to imitate a male model. Privately Harry thought he looked the part, in the same jeans he wore almost every day and a wooly green jumper that made his shoulders seem broader than Harry tended to remember. "Has anyone ever told you that you should go into comedy?"

"I've considered it, you know. 'And how about Voldemort, huh? What a guy. He's the only man I've ever met that could pull off a silk caftan with bare feet. Where did he think he was, anyway? Borneo?'"

Malfoy mounted his broom, drifting idly around the goal posts in lazy circles. Soberly, he pointed out, "You're probably the only person in the world who could get paid to make fun of the Dark Lord so soon after his demise. Most people would get booed off the stage."

Harry shrugged, pushing his broom back and forth slowly, like a child's seesaw. "Maybe. I'm sure I'd get my share of opposition, same as anyone."

"I'd be there every night in the front row, just to heckle you," Malfoy assured him.

"My hero," Harry teased.

"It's a tough job," Malfoy agreed, "but someone would have to do it."

Harry laughed. He caught the private smirk Malfoy allowed himself before setting loose the tiny flutter of golden wings that was the snitch.

Neither of them had to say anything then; they both hovered idly for a moment before Malfoy shot forward in a sweeping loop around the stands, dodging support beams as though they held a force field strong enough to repel him. Harry, meanwhile, contented himself with watching the wind comb Malfoy's hair back in streaky blond streams over his back.

He still caught the first snitch before Malfoy even came close to catching up with him, somewhere midfield.

The second round, Malfoy circled Harry as a cat might circle its prey, watching Harry for a reaction to the snitch. He shot off just as Harry's gaze must have flickered, having caught sight of it at the other end of the pitch, but still Harry managed to tumble head over tail after it, catching it upside down.

"Only you would be so lucky," Malfoy sighed, but even he looked impressed as Harry loosed the snitch once again.

So they went on like that, taunting each other with the subtle movements of their brooms, watching one another for reactions and spectacular plays.

Then, as the sun was finally sinking fully under the hilly horizon, casting the entire grounds in shadow and the sun's dusky rays gave way to clear moonlight, Harry directed his broom downward for a run at a particularly tricky feint. Malfoy swung upward from his spot a few yards below, determination shining in his features like polished silver in candlelight, probably thinking he would beat Harry to the snitch by driving straight toward him. But because of the light, or maybe the look on Malfoy's face, Harry forgot to catch himself soon enough before he reached the other broom, swerving only at the very last moment when Malfoy let out a shout that must have echoed all the way to the castle.

The glossy handle of Harry's broom smashed hard into the tail of Malfoy's, and Malfoy spun out roughly while Harry found himself aimed directly for the ground at full speed, his broom completely unresponsive to his attempts to right himself. Malfoy righted himself soon enough, and turned to Harry just in time to see him barreling straight to earth.

Harry shouted for Malfoy to do something, anything, but by the time Malfoy shouted something indistinguishable in return, Harry was colliding with the ground, hitting with his shoulder first, his broom shoving hard into his abdomen just below his ribcage and knocking him breathless. Almost as soon as he could register that he couldn't breathe, his head hit the still-frozen ground hard, knocking him into the darkness of oblivion.

:: :: ::

When Harry woke up, he found himself lying in an unfamiliar bed, staring up at the familiar stone buttresses of the hospital wing.

"Oh, thank god, he's awake," Hermione said from somewhere to his right.

"Took you long enough, Harry," Ron chimed in. "But I did tell you, didn't I, that he'd come around. He always does. Don't you, mate?"

Harry attempted to sit up, but found his back muscles and one of his arms so sore that he could only manage to turn his head slightly, just enough to see Hermione's furrowed brow and Ron's admittedly relieved expression.

"How long have I been here?"

"All last night, and nearly all day today," Hermione said, just as Ron replied, "Dinner's on in an hour or so."

"And where's Malfoy?"

Ron's expression darkened significantly, and Hermione looked slightly embarrassed.

"He's the one who brought you in," Hermione said after a slight pause. "He was beside himself, more or less, when he finally found someone to let Pomfrey know you needed help."

"He's locked himself up in his bed since he left last night," Ron added, looking sour.

"Well, he was quite upset," Hermione chided him, almost in an aside from their conversation with Harry. She turned back to Harry, adding, "He wouldn't say anything but that you'd had an accident, and you'd fallen from your broom. Even when they found Hagrid and he was asking questions about what had happened, Malfoy refused to say anything but that you'd had a fall. It was very strange."

"Strange that nobody's considering the possibility that Malfoy was the one who caused it," Ron muttered mutinously.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Pomfrey assured us that Malfoy's story checked out. Besides, he was so upset – "

She bit her lip, looking thoughtful for a moment. Then she shook her head adamantly. "No, I'm quite sure that he's telling the truth. He's been nothing short of a gentleman all year, as surprising as that's been. There's nothing to suggest that he's lying now."

"Of course that's how it would seem, Hermione – "

"I've had enough conspiracy theories for one school, thank you, and for one lifetime. But Harry, just to make sure. You must tell us. Do you remember anything? Did Malfoy do something to your broom? Or to you?"

"No," Harry said adamantly. Perhaps a little too adamantly, he realized a moment later, as Ron raised an eyebrow and Hermione looked vaguely affronted and amused by his decisive tone.

"I didn't mean any offense, you know," she offered by way of an apology. "I know the two of you have been spending plenty of time together, with your tutoring sessions. I just thought, since you'd been going on about Malfoy again – "

"He's been on about Malfoy again?" Ron demanded. He turned quickly to Harry, his tone as firm and businesslike as Hermione's sometimes got. "You've been on about Malfoy again? I thought we'd been over this ages ago – "

"Well, he was right about it that time," Hermione countered reasonably. "And Malfoy was acting a bit suspiciously."

"So? It's not like there have been anonymous attacks on students this time around," Ron snapped. "Vold- – He's gone, okay? Harry did his bit for the good of humanity, didn't he? What's Malfoy fighting for now, hm? He's got no Dark Lord, no parents. He's got nothing left to fight for, except revenge on Harry for taking it all away."

A tense hush fell over them. Hermione stared resolutely at the crumpled sheets at Harry's knees. Harry gritted his teeth, trying not to move and strain his tired muscles, or to lash out unreasonably at Ron. That was a harder feat than Harry could ever have imagined, with Ron hitting all of Malfoy's tender spots.

"He didn't do anything, alright?" Harry said eventually, when he'd managed to get his voice to a normal tone and decibel. He had worried for a moment that he might begin shouting, or attempt to throttle Ron for being such an ass about Malfoy, longstanding rivalry or not. Malfoy hadn't done anything to directly irritate Ron in a long time. Ron hadn't even been around Malfoy long enough to witness any offensive or irritating behavior in the first place.

Ron and Hermione both looked at Harry with identical looks of surprise.

Harry went on, "We were just flying. We had a snitch out, like we always do. And then I dove for something, and he came at me at the same time, and we couldn't pull out of it in time."

"Then why didn't Malfoy crash, too?" Ron demanded.

"Because of the way he hit – that I hit him. The angles of it all, and we were both going so fast. I don't know, it happened too fast."

Harry lifted a hand to his forehead, rubbing his temple. This was starting to give him a headache, and he suspected that was one pain that hadn't resulted from the crash.

"Harry, you're probably tired," Hermione said, glancing at Ron, who was fuming orangely beside her. She touched his elbow gently. "We should probably let you get some rest, now that we know you're alright. Madam Pomfrey will be along to ask you some questions of her own before long."

"Right," said Harry with no attempt to mask his relief. "Thanks."

"We'll be along again to visit you soon," Hermione promised. "Right, Ron?"

"Yeah," Ron said darkly. "But if I get my hands on Malfoy until then – "

"Ronald," Hermione interrupted, "you'll do no such thing. You'll let Pomfrey deal with this, and Hagrid."

They began to walk away from Harry's cubicle of curtains, Ron muttering, "We can fight off Death Eaters in life or death battles, but we aren't allowed to resolve our own conflicts at school? What's the point?"

Harry sighed into the pillows propping him up slightly. He tried to remember exactly what had happened, how they had collided, but the only thing he could remember was the look of utter horror on Malfoy's face when he'd finally hit the ground, several of his bones cracking loudly within the case of his body.

Testing his fingers and toes with a twinge of pain in his side, Harry suspected he'd broken a few ribs, and probably one of his arms. Obviously he didn't remember taking any Skele-Gro, but that didn't preclude Pomfrey from having administered it.

He idly wondered where Malfoy was now. Was he still hiding out in his bed, avoiding the hospital wing for fear that he'd have to confront Harry? And exactly how upset had he been, anyway? It made Harry equal parts nervous that Malfoy would give them away by seeming so concerned, and worried that Ron was right, that Malfoy had done this on purpose. An elaborate set-up to off Harry, sure – but still, the possibility was there.

That was what troubled him the most, Harry realized. Despite everything, all of the progress they had made, all of the secret meetings and snogging, all of the trusting looks Harry had thought Malfoy was sending his way – what if, at the core, Malfoy was still the same old Malfoy? What if all of Harry's speculation about the Malfoys and their true loyalty was wrong, and Malfoy had only been softening up Harry to make the final blow all the more easy, and all the more insulting? A part of Harry went cold, to suspect Malfoy of foul play.

A rustling of the curtain surrounding him brought Harry out of this somewhat depressing reverie: Pomfrey, wearing her usual dull grey nursing robes and pristinely white linen mob cap, with a floating array of medicinal-looking bottles in tow.

"Good to see your smiling face, Mr. Potter," Pomfrey said dryly, though Harry was probably frowning outright.

"Hullo," he said glumly.

"I've reset your broken bones," Pomfrey informed him, touching a few places on his arm, and the side of his body that ached, near the ribs. "Three ribs, collarbone, two in the same arm – which I have never seen in all my years at Hogwarts – and you've cracked your skull. A few cuts and bruises, but otherwise you should be in fine shape."

She tinkered with a few bottles before handing him a spoon and pouring a generous helping of one particularly viscous, murky green fluid onto it.

"Take this," she said, and then, handing him another spoon and somewhat thinner, but far fouler-smelling potion, "and this."

After Harry had satisfactorily swallowed his medicines, Pomfrey sent the bottles away with a flick of her wand, and eyed Harry as though she meant serious business.

"The Malfoy boy was quite upset when he brought you in last night," she said eventually.

"So I've been told. Is he alright?"

Pomfrey raised an eyebrow, but said only, "He suffered a few minor bruises, but otherwise is in perfect health. Which, as you might guess, Mr. Potter, causes me some confusion and concern. A collision like that – several meters in the air – which caused you such serious injury, but left Mr. Malfoy in perfect condition, does not in my book seem entirely normal. Even for a magical academy full of clumsy children."

Harry didn't know how to respond. Usually the nurse doled out her medicines, then ushered him out as quickly as she could declare him healed. She was not the type to assign riddles involving his own injuries, as Dumbledore might have done. Harry's head began to ache a little more, despite the overall numbing sensation of the combination of potions Pomfrey had fed him.

"Under most circumstances," Pomfrey went on, "especially in students your age, with your combined magical experience, I would have expected Mr. Malfoy to have done something that might have prevented your fall."

Scowling, Harry cursed this turn of events. First his friends laid into him about Malfoy's suspicious actions, and now Pomfrey? Even Harry was starting to suspect that Hogwarts was something of a madhouse.

Pomfrey was looking at him with a fair amount of expectation glittering in her eyes. Harry was suddenly very tired of all of this.

"I'm beginning to feel a bit sleepy," Harry said pointedly.

"Very well," Pomfrey said. "But if you have any thoughts which might enlighten the situation, Mr. Potter, do be kind enough to share them."

She left without another word. Harry was not actually very tired, but he was increasingly grumpy. Who were these people to tell him that Malfoy had caused his fall? That Malfoy had intentionally tried to hurt him?

Harry felt a sudden pang, realizing just how monstrously different his life had become in the last few weeks than it had ever been at Hogwarts. As strange as it had always been, at least most things had seemed to make sense. Now everything seemed upside down, and a little overwhelming in small ways that added up. It was starting to make him grumpy.

Add to that the frustration of the entire world trying to persuade him to out Malfoy as the villain in their accident, and the nagging ache of his mending bones, Harry was feeling ready to nap for a very, very long time, especially if it meant waking to a world where things were normal. Where he would gladly tattle on Malfoy for something he didn't do, and when Dumbledore was around to give him sound advice without his having to directly ask for it.

That stung a bit, Harry realized. He had gotten used to the idea that Dumbledore wouldn't be around, but until recently he had blamed Malfoy for that fact. Malfoy had been responsible, after all, with his attempts to prove something to the Dark Lord, to his father. For over a year, Harry had blamed Malfoy. But now he couldn't even get Malfoy in trouble with the school nurse, let alone blame him for the death of a great wizard.

Miserably Harry admitted to himself that Dumbledore had probably planned the entire thing, from Snape's involvement to Harry's witness. At least, he had probably understood what Harry might eventually get out of the memory. Having already learned of Snape's relative innocence, Harry knew he could never fully hate the man as he had throughout his career at Hogwarts. And if he could appreciate Snape's role in the triumph over Voldemort, what was trusting Malfoy? A small concession in the grand scheme of things.

So why was everyone else so hard on Malfoy today? If Harry could admit he was innocent – and stranger things had happened, especially where Malfoy was concerned – then why wouldn't everyone else?

It was absurd. And it made Harry grumpy.

He stared for a few minutes, steaming to himself as he listened to Pomfrey rearranging her supply cupboard across the room. Specks of dust floated lazily in the strong beams of late afternoon sunlight above him. Harry was relieved to find a distraction in watching them. He wondered idly if he could make them combust, individually, each speck blowing in a chain, one after another. Maybe if he had his wand with him, he could –

Harry sat up suddenly, wincing at the shock of pain that washed over him at the jerky movement.

Pomfrey's words had fully registered in his mind. With your combined magical experience, I would have expected Mr. Malfoy to have done something that might have prevented your fall…

Malfoy hadn't saved him from crashing into the pitch, Harry realized, his thoughts tumbling, scattered and frantic, as the pieces began to fall together. Malfoy had barely moved. He had watched, horrified, as Harry plummeted to the ground.

They were both adults, both nearly completed their magical education, both fought in one of the roughest wars wizard kind had ever witnessed. Malfoy must have known at least a little dark magic, what with his heritage, and his standing with Voldemort; and Harry, though perhaps not the best student, had defeated one of the most powerful wizards of all time. Some of the strongest magic in the world coursed through his veins. Granted, he had been the one falling.

But Malfoy.

Malfoy was a brilliant student, had always been intelligent and dedicated to his studies, always rivaling Hermione in their class standings. He could listen to a Potions lecture, taking minimal notes, and ace the exam with only a little review.

So why hadn't he saved Harry? Why hadn't he even tried?

Harry's pulse sped up. It seemed so totally implausible, so ridiculous, and yet –

When Malfoy had lied about meeting Slughorn earlier in the year, he had been at the hospital wing, evasive in his answers when Harry had confronted him. When Malfoy had signed up for courses and tutoring sessions, he had chosen Potions, Muggle Studies, and Arithmancy – all subjects which required little, if any, applied magic. All the times they'd strewn their things across the tables in the library, or the workrooms in the dungeons, Malfoy had unloaded mechanical pencils, quills, small glass pots of ink, obscure ingredients in tiny vials. And where was his wand, among the miscellany gathering in the bottom of his school bag?

Harry found himself breathing heavily under the stunning weight of his discovery: that Malfoy didn't have any magic.

It all made sense, when Harry thought it through.

When McGonagall and Snape had planted him at the Dursleys, they must have sapped his magical abilities, both for Malfoy's safety and the comfort of the Dursleys, who after seventeen years of Harry, must have needed a terrible amount of coaxing to invite another wizard into their midst. Anyone trying to find Malfoy would surely never think to look for a Muggle, with no magical signature to trace.

And a wizard like Malfoy, infused with pride and instilled with a deep sense of shame when even the slightest error was found in his work, his actions, his words. Of course he wouldn't have told anyone. Of course he wouldn't have told Harry, of all people, even after the friendship they'd cultivated, and everything else they'd done.

Harry didn't know whether to be elated to have solved the mystery, or horrified at the idea of what it must have been like for Malfoy to have been trapped with his aunt and uncle – worse, with Dudley – without any magic at all. Harry had been through that once, sure enough.

And then to be brought back to Hogwarts, where everyone around him could cast whatever spell or jinx they wanted, at any time they liked – it would be the ultimate insult after suffering the loss of what Harry imagined must have been a major source of Malfoy's pride, beside his bloodline, which had also been all but extinguished.

Feeling a little sick with relief and overwhelming empathy, Harry knew he needed to confront Malfoy about this. To be going through it alone seemed worse than any other self-destructive act Malfoy could have been going through. That Pomfrey seemed to know made things slightly better, but obviously she felt as though Malfoy needed allies as well, or she wouldn't have hinted so heavily to Harry just moments ago.

But when he tried to move his legs in order to leave the bed, Harry found himself incapable of moving below his waist. The sheet seemed to be stuck down, and he couldn't feel anything other than to know that he still had both legs and feet, and all of his toes, even though wiggling them produced no visible sign, and the sheet didn't even move.

"Madam Pomfrey!" Harry bellowed, clenching his fists around the edge of the sheet at his waist.

She hurried over, looking more harassed than concerned as she appeared around the curtained divider. "Yes? What is it?"

"I need to go," Harry informed her. "You've got to let me out of this bed. I have to talk to Malfoy. Immediately."

Pomfrey smiled a little at that, looking somewhat relieved, but she shook her head. "You're not to go anywhere until those bones of yours have healed up properly. I won't see you in here in a few days, complaining of aches in your arms, just because you wouldn't sit still for more than a few hours. Or worse, breaking them doing something silly, like climbing into bed tonight, all because you were so impatient."

"But, please, I have to – "

"Mr. Potter, there's no need," she interrupted firmly. "If you would let me finish. Mr. Malfoy is already here to see you. He's been waiting outside for nearly an hour."

"What? Why didn't you let him in?"

"I didn't want you to get worked up," Pomfrey said briskly, "or for you to get him worked up, poor lad that he is. But as you seem intent on speaking with him immediately, I might as well let him know you'd like to see him."

She cast him a stern look, adding, "And for the love of all that's good, Mr. Potter, please don't send him into a fit like you've been known to do. I won't have you casting any harsh spells on the boy, not when you're both in such states."

"I understand, thank you," Harry said as Pomfrey nodded and disappeared. He listened to her shoes clacking on the stone floor, and to the creaking of the heavy doors that separated the hospital wing from the small waiting area and, finally, the corridor outside.

After an agonizingly long moment, Pomfrey's shoes clacked back down the ward, accompanied by another, softer, pair of footsteps.

The soft rubber soles of Malfoy's trainers on the tile, Harry realized, and the thought comforted him. For the first time, he was unconcerned with what that might mean, that he was glad to see Malfoy. He no longer cared what anyone thought of it, even adults like Madam Pomfrey, or even his friends.

Just as Harry thought Malfoy and Pomfrey couldn't get any closer without him seeing them, he felt a spasm of panic. What was he going to say, exactly? What was he going to do? Accuse Malfoy of holding out on him, like they were such good friends? Ask him why he didn't tell Harry, sound all pathetic and wounded, as though they were actually friends? Or, worse still, Harry considered with a flutter of his pulse, like they were boyfriends?

Then Malfoy appeared around the corner, and he looked tired and anxious but still slightly masked, as though he thought Harry wouldn't be able to tell that he'd worried if only he held his expression still enough.

It was enough to make Harry feel guilty all over again, for having thought Malfoy was up to no good, for thinking his friends and Pomfrey were out to get Malfoy, too; but most of all, for wanting to tell Malfoy only that he'd be okay, that Malfoy didn't have to worry, after all.

Malfoy stopped just inside the curtains and stood with his legs apart and his arms crossed, as though bracing himself for a fight. Harry would have laughed, had his ribs not hurt so much – a broken invalid, cause a fight in the infirmary? Like almost everything else in Harry's life, it seemed ridiculous.

Yet there Malfoy stood, watching Harry guardedly for some sign of what he had been brought in to discuss.

"I hear you've been hanging around outside," Harry began tentatively, "waiting for me to wake up."

Malfoy rolled his eyes, but Harry could see the relief in Malfoy's face that he was coherent and well enough to have visitors. To be honest, Harry was relieved, too.

"They said you might not walk again," Malfoy said lightly. "I only came to see if it was true."

"Ha," Harry said.

"Like I would lie about something like that. The Boy Who Lived With a Gimp. Not a very satisfying ending to the epic that is your life, now, is it? It's just the sort of cruel irony that I so dearly love."

Harry had to smile. The old, bored coolness had risen in Malfoy's tone, and it was a welcome relief after the drafty silence of the ward. In fact, if Malfoy's eyes didn't have that deep pink edge to them, and that dewy look that suggested Malfoy had been crying, Harry would have thought they were back in the Great Hall, exchanging unpleasantries the way they always had, over meatloaf and the glowering faces of their friends.

But of course, everything had changed since then, and now Harry knew, and suspected that Malfoy knew as well, that the pretense was all they had left of their old animosity. Too much had changed even in the past few months, let alone the past two years, for them to have remained truly enemies as they had in their younger years at Hogwarts.

It was a relieving thought to Harry, who had had enough enemies for one lifetime.

"I'm glad you came to see me," Harry admitted.

Malfoy smirked, but it was not the old malicious sneer of yesteryear, but rather a privately smug look for meant Harry alone. "I suppose I'm glad you're not dead."

"Thanks," Harry laughed.

"Any time," Malfoy replied. He paused for a moment, then looked a little sheepish as he added, "You know, being laid out like this, you've missed scads of material for the tutoring sessions. I daresay you'll never catch up."

Harry smiled. He would talk with Malfoy about it eventually, his mysterious lack of magic, and what to do about it. Another time, when Malfoy didn't look so pleased just to be sharing the same space as Harry, and when Harry wasn't quite so relieved to know that he was right about Malfoy for a second time.

:: :: ::

Harry was to be released from the hospital wing the next evening, just in time to hastily scribble out three feet of parchment on the subtleties of transfiguring budgie feathers into ospreys due the following morning.

He had just finished changing back into the robes he had fallen in from the stiff cotton pajamas that Pomfrey had him in for the duration of his stay on her ward, when he received another, far more surprising, visitor.

Ginny, for all the candlelight Pomfrey had provided in Harry's small cubicle, looked small and washed out. What light managed to catch in her copper tresses managed to darken the color rather than highlight her beauty, embellishing the dark circles under her naturally wide eyes.

She sounded unfamiliar and hoarse when she said, "They'd said you might not wake up. Right after, I mean, when you were still out cold."

"Pomfrey said it had been easy to mend everything," Harry replied, surprised he could sound so easy about what apparently had been a near-death experience. "Didn't sound at all like there was any danger of that."

Ginny shrugged dispassionately. "Rumors will fly, I guess."

"Yeah," Harry agreed. They stood for a moment, awkwardly, and Harry wondered when it had gotten like this between them, the complete opposite of the warm and comfortable feelings he'd had whenever she was around during his sixth year, the feelings he now felt when he and Malfoy shared a quiet understanding of something. But then, Harry supposed it followed that major theme of everything having been turned on its head.

He sighed, the tension beginning to make his neck ache, and his head.

Ginny seemed to take this as a sign that he wanted to say something, and she looked at him intently for some sort of response, some sort of answer. Harry wasn't sure of the question she meant to ask with that look, or whether he could possibly answer her at all, no matter what the question. They'd been so distant all year, strangers despite all they'd been through together. In some ways, Ginny had acted as the embodiment of all the fears Harry had had about becoming estranged from his friends.

"You know," he started, just as she blurted, "I've been avoiding you."

Harry paused, trying to process this information. In truth, he had thought he had been the one avoiding Ginny, not the other way around. And he had assumed that Ginny had been scarce because she was a seventh-year herself, because she had her own friends and coursework, and N.E.W.T. preparations. But then, she had always been closer to Hermione than anyone in her own year, unless one counted Luna Lovegood, and Luna had opted not to return to Hogwarts for her final year, instead taking over her father's post running the Quibbler. Her friends had been just as absent as Harry's, and it had taken Harry all year to realize that. The guilt started nagging at Harry once again.

"It was just," Ginny went on, the words rushing out of her like water from a broken tap, inconsistent and muddled. "It was just that it was all so much, you know, with the war, and with Dumbledore gone. I thought it would just be temporary, you know, us breaking up. I thought you might be sad for a while, and then you would go off on your own, and you'd defeat Voldemort, and then everything would settle down again, and we could – that we would – "

She stopped, looking paler still, her freckles standing out like negative constellations on her face.

The moment passed, and she blinked hard and went on, "But then it was over, and you did come back. But there were so many other things, and you still seemed so busy with everything. And there was – " She paused only for a moment then, pushing through – "Fred. And George was so upset that Ma said I could stay with him for the summer, just to make sure he was truly all right, and Percy too. At first I didn't even know you were at the Burrow, to be honest. And then I didn't go to visit as often as I had been, because I thought that – seeing you, I would – "

Harry felt the panic rise in him as she gulped down an impossible breath, tears glistening at the corners of her dark eyes. Somehow the idea of a crying Malfoy seemed so much more manageable than that of a crying girl, especially when that girl was Ginny, who was supposed to be so strong, so durable.

With so many brothers, how could she be anything but durable, Harry thought wildly. And why would Malfoy crying be any better than this? Maybe because Harry could make some inappropriate jab, and Malfoy might laugh, and everything would seem smoother, then.

He knew how to diffuse Malfoy's moods, Harry realized numbly, like he might have once done for Ginny, when they'd been together. But that had been ages ago.

Ginny seemed to recover quickly enough, and said, "It didn't matter anyway, I guess, because I got back here and never saw you, with the post-seventh dorms. I could just hide in Gryffindor and avoid you forever, couldn't I? Especially when you were teaching Potions, and I was only taking that for auror training anyway. I only needed a passing grade, nothing spectacular. No reason to go to the sessions at all.

"And when I finally did get up the courage to talk to you again, you'd disappeared, too," she said. "Studying for your own N.E.W.T.s, Hermione said, or working with Malfoy on your tutoring sessions – "

It was in that moment that Harry knew, with a faint sense of dread, what Ginny was going to tell him next. Even as she took a breath to steady herself, she seemed to crumple a little more under the weight of the confession, and Harry couldn't help but wonder why she'd bothered to come all the way down to the hospital wing just to tell him what he already knew.

He and Malfoy couldn't have run around together so long without anyone noticing, after all.

Harry met Ginny's eye and she relaxed, suddenly, her shoulders slumping a bit even as she straightened up, relieved of her secret, Harry supposed. She struggled valiantly for a moment to smile, but when Harry reached out a hand to loop her fingers against his, a gesture of attempted comfort, she contented herself just to breathe, and relax, and take in the image of Harry, who he imagined must have looked unwashed and sore, but alive, at least.

"Anyway, I just thought," she finished, "you could probably use a friend. To talk to. If you needed to. I doubt Ron would be very open about Malfoy, of all people, let alone the idea that you might be – "

She let the thought dangle in the air between them, waving a vague hand in one final attempt to articulate something. As defeated as she looked, she now also held a kind of satisfaction in her features, acceptance and forgiveness and, most of all, sympathy.

"Thanks," Harry said, the only thing he could think to say. Truth be told, he was already feeling a bit lighter, just having shared his weighty secret with someone else, especially someone who was supportive.

"It can't be easy, considering that it's Malfoy," Ginny added casually. "Although that's one thing I can't say I entirely approve of, Harry."

Harry squeezed her hand. "Well, I could tell you – "

"I'm afraid I don't want to know any of the gory details," she interrupted, a hint of a smile nudging the corners of her mouth. "I am going to put my foot down there, Harry. I am still an ex-girlfriend, after all. Suffice it to say that I'm here if you need a shoulder to cry on when he does something stupid."

"It's exactly that kind of needlessly violent attitude that makes me think you two would get along famously," Harry said.

"That and the superior flying skills," Ginny agreed. "Both of us could trounce you in a heartbeat, and you know it."

Harry chuckled, squeezing Ginny's hand. While he suspected that they might never be as close as they were when they were dating, Harry still was relieved and appreciative that he had her friendship once again, without any pretenses, without the pressure of not knowing what she might think of him, or whether she hated him for abandoning her.

Although, he thought with a smile, he still might need to convince Molly.

:: :: ::

The final few weeks of the term passed both far too quickly and much too slowly for Harry's liking.

Despite extensions and waivers from his professors, Harry still felt swamped with coursework and N.E.W.T. preparations. Hermione offered to devote an hour every night to help him catch up on the valuable study time he had missed by being unconscious and regrowing the bones in half his limbs, but no matter how many enchantments, potion ingredients, and definitions she had him recite, he still felt lost and unprepared.

"This is pointless, Hermione," he argued one night when his head felt split open with the strain of it all. "Even if I don't take the exams, let alone pass them, I'll still be able to find work after graduating, you know that."

"You may find work, Harry, but you'll never be able to duplicate the satisfaction of completing your education," she replied waspishly.

"No, you're right," Harry conceded cheekily, "dying to kill Voldemort doesn't nearly measure up to the pride I'll have in passing a test."

"You are impossible sometimes," Hermione snapped. She flipped her nearest textbook closed with gusto, the cover banging shut with a clap that startled half the common room. "Learn it yourself, why don't you, and then you can whine about failing half your exams."

"Hermione," he called after her, somewhat half-heartedly, but she'd already disappeared through the girl's dorm entrance across the room. "Fine, maybe I will learn it myself."

Harry forced himself to focus on the page in front of him, a detailed account of a potion-making incident gone horribly awry, something about love potions. He had barely gotten through the first paragraph, which described the tumultuous and unhappy marriage of the potion-making wizard in question, when his eyelids started to droop, his face sagging toward the page despite his having propped himself up on his elbows.

"Oh, who am I kidding?" he muttered to himself, "this is impossible."

"What is," drawled a familiar voice, "your own incompetence, or your students'?"

Harry looked up to see Malfoy leaning casually on the back of Hermione's abandoned chair. He'd tied back his hair, but a few loose strands still framed his face, apparently irritating his eyes as he swept them aside with a shake of his head every few minutes. The blue of his t-shirt made his eyes pop against his pale skin.

Suddenly Harry's thoughts were decidedly not on his studies anymore.

"So. Hermione's given up on you, has she?" Malfoy guessed dryly.

"Not my fault," Harry said stubbornly. "I only pointed out that these tests are pointless for me, I can get a job anywhere – "

Malfoy clucked condescendingly, shaking his head slowly. "Potter, Potter, Potter. Tell me you are not so foolish as to actually believe that. Even I know that a name can't open every door."

"Well, not if your name is synonymous with evil and dark arts," Harry shot back.

"Ooo, fancy words. Have you been reading your thesaurus?" Malfoy pulled out the chair in front of him and sat down in one fluid movement. "You know as well as I do that nobody's going to take you seriously if you don't prove your worth with these exams."

"Haven't I proven my worth enough? I saved wizardkind and Muggles alike, don't forget!"

"I haven't, Potter, believe me," Malfoy replied coolly. He didn't look directly at Harry as he spoke. "But sacrificing oneself to one's mortal enemy is not exactly a marketable skill. Not like, say, accounting. Or wrangling electricity, like those Muggle repairmen."

Harry slouched lower in his chair, scowling.

"Now, now, use your words," Malfoy goaded shamelessly. Harry scowled harder. "Fine, but listen for a moment. I actually came to you with a proposition, of sorts."

Harry was interested, but admittedly his interest was directly related to the amount of time that his conversation with Malfoy might distract him from his studies. Especially when the weather was so beautiful, sunlight streaming in long blocks into the quilted tapestries lining the common room walls, illuminating threaded unicorns and sphinxes.


"The truth is, Potter, that I seem to have lost my magic," Malfoy said frankly, stunning Harry out of his funk.

He still hadn't found a way to talk about it with Malfoy, after his failed attempt in the infirmary, and to hear Malfoy put it so bluntly was like hearing cursing after living with monks for so long.

Harry tried to muster the appropriate response, but Malfoy waved him off.

"Don't you even bother trying to seem concerned," he said. "You've known for days, if not weeks, and I can't be bothered with pity. Especially false pity. That's the problem with Gryffindors. They seem to think that caring will solve every problem."

He seemed distracted for a moment, apparently lost in reverie about his rival house, then snapped out of it abruptly, saying, "I've been working on it all year with Pomfrey, various salves and ointments, some rejuvenation potions, even a couple of tinctures best known as – " Here he blushed, but pressed dutifully onward – "aphrodisiacs, normally used to, ah, stimulate organ function."

Harry stifled a giggle, brushing off the niggling thought that he was legally an adult, had saved the world several times over, and yet sex still made him giggle.

"The point being," Malfoy continued, perhaps a little louder than before, "that none of it worked. I've gotten a new wand and everything, practiced on my own for hours, but nothing's helped. Pomfrey isn't sure what sort of removal ritual McGonagall and Snape used on me, and I can't remember everything – it was dark, and I was frightened, and undergoing some sort of mild shock from the trauma of that night, and Dumbledore – and so she can't just reverse the damn thing. She's been looking into negating charms, but without knowing the original, we're lost. There are thousands of reversals out there, and McGonagall's still in her stupor, as I'm sure you know."

"So why come to me? How am I supposed to know what to do about it when Pomfrey doesn't even have a clue?"

Malfoy looks faintly embarrassed. "Well, Pomfrey did advise me that one's magic tends to function on a mostly instinctual level. We use our wands as a means of centering biological protocol in order to produce specific, desired effects. That's why you can summon a more powerful incendiary charm when you're angry, for example. Or why a love potion is its most potent when the maker is at the height of his own passion, as opposed to letting it sit for a week and mulling the whole thing over before giving it to the target.

"But Pomfrey told me, months ago, that if I felt more comfortable in certain places around the castle, I was more likely to be able to cast spells again while I was in that particular space. Indulging my impulses might bring me closer to finding a way to tap back into the dormant part of me that was sealed off when they cast the original ritual."

Harry furrowed his brow. "What do you mean, sealed off? Didn't they just take your magic from you altogether?"

"And do what with it, Potter, stuff it in a jar somewhere, like a pickled toad?" Malfoy scoffed. "Please. It's impossible to completely steal someone's magic entirely, when it's an integral part of them, without killing them. It's attached to their soul, or whatever part of a person makes them – well, them.

"From what I understand it's how the Dark Lord was able to create his horcruxes. By killing each of the people he did to make them, he was able to take most of their power. Each piece of his own soul was broken off, but still connected because the original was still alive, and made a little more powerful by the magic he siphoned from the victims. And if that part of him had been threatened, the magic from one of the horcruxes would have activated, powering his magic from a distance. Without the victim's magic, even the traces that Muggles carry with them, the Dark Lord would never have been able to get his own power back to him from those pieces he left behind.

"It's how he was able to expand his power exponentially as he came closer to achieving immortality through those horcruxes. I thought you knew all about this, Potter. Wasn't that all the fuss about your private lessons with Dumbledore?"

"Well – yes, actually," Harry admitted. "Sort of. We never went into the thorough details. How did you know about the horcruxes?"

"I was a Death Eater, Potter. We know a thing or two about horcruxes. Honestly. Plus I've been at school all year. You think schoolchildren can keep their mouths shut about this sort of thing? I've also done plenty of research in the library, reading old copies of the Prophet. I know what happened while I was away. I even know about – my parents."

This news hit Harry like a splash of cool water to the face. He had deliberately kept this specific information from Malfoy, knowing how much it would sting to hear the news of his father's gristly death, and his mother's disappearance. Malfoy seemed a little bitter that he had learned the news through an old scrap of paper; Harry felt guilty, wondering if he'd done the right thing by keeping his silence.

"The point," Malfoy steeled himself to continue, "is that by splitting his essence, the Dark Lord managed to eke power merely because the splitting had made his edges raw. Like electricity in a Muggle house. A wire can carry the electricity from the plug to the light bulb, but when you sever the wire, a spark might turn the entire house into an inferno in a matter of minutes. The power is less controlled, but much more dangerous."

Malfoy looked pleased with himself to have come up with such an analogy. Admittedly, Harry himself was impressed.

"By the end I suppose the Dark Lord was capable of incredibly devastating things, but he lacked the control necessary to implement them. Surely he knew this, but of course he would have rather died struggling under the delusion that he could control it, instead of giving up his entire regime and admit that he was wrong, and he was incapable of using all the power he had gained."

"But what does this have to do with your magic?"

"Oh," said Malfoy, apparently snapping back out of a train of thought that was rapidly heading into the distance. "Right. Well, there have been a few documented cases of wizards breaking the seals on their own magic, in situations like mine, through very base instincts. Mothers protecting their children, for example. Even Muggles can access their trace amounts of magic the same way. Obviously this doesn't happen often, but Pomfrey suggested that if I could find a place, or a thing, or a – person, that might release the same sort of biological signal, I might be able, in turn, to release my magic from its seal."

Harry looked at him blankly. "And how exactly am I supposed to help – er, break your seal? So to speak?"

Malfoy didn't as much as blink at the innuendo. Harry couldn't help but feel marginally disappointed in that; the sunshine and desperation to distract himself made it easy to laugh, even at the dumbest things. And Malfoy being honest with him, and asking him for help. Malfoy had never asked Harry for help. It made him a little giddy.

"When I'm with you, I feel – glimmers," Malfoy said, his voice a little stilted.


"Glimmers," Malfoy repeated, exaggerating his annunciation. "Little shimmers of magic. Glimpses. Hints. Glimmers."

"Ah," said Harry with some hesitation.

Malfoy looked pained.

Harry's mind was still reeling from Malfoy's lecture on the mechanics of shredding one's soul; how could he focus on everything Malfoy was trying to tell him, then break this code Malfoy seemed to be using? It was almost like Malfoy was speaking another language, even more so than Malfoy normally sounded like he was speaking another language.

Yet somehow, suddenly, his meaning broke through the wall of incomprehension in Harry's brain.

"Oh," Harry said abruptly.

"Yes," said Malfoy shortly.

"Oh," Harry said again, letting Malfoy's meaning soak a little more completely into his brain.

"Yes," said Malfoy again, starting to sound mildly impatient. The color had risen on his neck, a pale blush that might not have stood out on anyone else; but Malfoy's abnormally fair complexion, despite the tan that lingered from the previous summer of yard work, he appeared to be turning an alarming shade of pink.

Harry smiled a little to himself, taking note of Malfoy's color. Malfoy noticed the direction of Harry's gaze, lingering on his neck, and he blushed an even further shade of pink, his posture growing stiff with discomfort.

"So," Malfoy said brusquely.

"Yes," Harry answered simply. "Yeah, I'll help. I mean, for the good of the order and all that; one does what one must for one's country."

Malfoy rolled his eyes again. "Really, Potter, sometimes you are totally – "

"Adorable," Harry supplied cheerfully.

"Completely – "

"Charming," Harry said, enjoying Malfoy's discomfort.

"Unbearable, is what I was planning on saying," Malfoy said. "But I suppose under the right circumstances I might be willing to admit otherwise."

:: :: ::

That night found Harry straddling Malfoy's lap in an abandoned room in one of the east wings, with leaded glass windows that gave the impression of an atrium; before Harry's thoughts submerged under the sublime pressure of Malfoy's tongue lapping over his newly healed collarbone, he considered that the room might once have been a chapel or equivalent. The view over the lake as the sun rose would have been spectacular, especially when the chain of stone pots along the easternmost wall contained plants as well as the grainy dirt they now held.

They had come here, he and Malfoy, to experiment more with Malfoy's embarrassing admission that Harry stirred something primal in him. Harry supposed that such a feeling might have inspired a girl to tell him she was in love; for Malfoy, it merely meant that Harry was crucial to the recovery of his magic.

And Harry was perfectly alright with that fact, that he was useful again to someone, even if that someone was Malfoy. The thought had occurred to him that Malfoy might just be using him to get his magic back. From the very beginning of the year, that might have been Malfoy's motivation in becoming Harry's friend. But the fact that he stirred something in Malfoy had to mean something, right?

How much had changed between them, that Harry even enjoyed the idea that he might be just a tool by which Malfoy might become whole again.

But that sounded horribly cheesy, Harry mused, distracted only for a moment, until Malfoy latched onto Harry's neck and licked an especially ticklish spot. Harry hummed, a completely involuntary act. Contentment washed through him; he felt more at home here, with Malfoy, than he normally did even at Hogwarts.

At that moment, a wave of warmth tingled through all of Harry's body, seeming to resonate from somewhere beneath his ribcage.

"There," Malfoy breathed. "Do you feel that?"

"It's like… dropping into a warm bath," Harry said quietly.

"Exactly," said Malfoy, "exactly. That's – that's the kind of thing I've been feeling – "

He arched his back, his breaths coming quicker and shallower. Harry took the opportunity to bring his hands under Malfoy's soft t-shirt, palms flat against the warmth of Malfoy's stomach. He thumbed the soft trail of hairs there, below Malfoy's naval, leading toward his waistband.

Malfoy shivered, bringing his face close to Harry's again, one hand cupping Harry's neck while the other covered one of Harry's, leading it closer to the fly of Malfoy's jeans.

Harry's pulse fluttered. For all the messing around they'd done, it had always been Malfoy reaching for Harry's cock, leading them forward. But something about Malfoy's helplessness spurred Harry onward, or maybe it was the knowledge that Harry was actually helping Malfoy by touching him, justifying the act and banishing any discomfort he'd ever felt about it, that made him do it. In either case, he found it surprisingly easy to know where his hands should go next, and just how to touch Malfoy there, and how fast, and how hard.

Malfoy groaned, another wave of warmth rippling over them. If Harry were honest, he would admit that those waves of magic were turning him on just as much as they seemed to be coming from Malfoy's arousal. A pretty good cycle, if Harry was going to judge.

"More like that," Malfoy murmured, guiding Harry's hands against his cock.

It was, Harry reflected, much like getting himself off. Only instead of being led by his own sensation, he was following Malfoy's groans, the hitches in his breath, and those waves of magic that were growing a faster, steadier rhythm between them, rolling over Malfoy and then Harry in turn.

"Hey," Harry whispered against Malfoy's neck. "Would you ever have thought that it would be me, like this?"

Malfoy nudged Harry away with his forehead, nibbling intently on Harry's earlobe instead. Somehow he managed to say, "Stop sounding like a girl, Potter."

Harry grinned. It was answer enough, from Malfoy.

:: :: ::

When Harry woke feeling mostly stiff and chilled, his head pillowed by something soft and warm and smelling like his aunt's favorite discount fabric softener, he was at first incredibly confused and alarmed. He thought he might be back at Privet Drive, trapped in the cupboard under the stairs, and his entire wizarding life had been one long, brilliant dream of some sort.

But, no, there was too much light flooding his eyes as he managed to pry them open, and distantly he could hear a few birds chirping from outside, and a few laughing voices wafted upward from the grounds below.

He was at Hogwarts, Harry thought with relief. He touched the soft corduroy pillowing his head, and then began to remember the previous night, with Malfoy, in the abandoned chapel room on the seventh floor.

Despite the few hopeful tremors and increasingly strong glimmers both of them had felt, they had failed to break the seal on his magic. Frustrated and disappointed, Malfoy had pounced on Harry all over again, but this time their exchange reminded Harry more of the dueling they used to do in the halls than the sex they'd had earlier in the evening, or any of the sex they'd had ever. Malfoy had been rough and impossible to persuade to return to the dorms – not that Harry had put up much of a fight, when Malfoy was set on pinning him to the floor and ravishing him.

Presently Harry brought one cramped hand up to his neck, remembering now the sharp nips Malfoy had administered. Those would bruise for sure, though how disappointed in that fact Harry was, he couldn't say.

Now that he was involved in helping Malfoy get his magic back, and now that he had an ally, even if it was Ginny, of all people, Harry was less concerned with what people would think when they found out. What his friends would think, he admitted, since he already couldn't remember the names of half his class. Ron and Hermione were the ones whose opinions he really cared about, and right now he was more worried about helping Malfoy than his reputations or friendships. A year ago, that might have alarmed him.

But now, the wheels of his mind had been churning all night. He'd been dreaming all night of ways to help Malfoy, but none of them made much sense to him now that he was awake. He'd dreamed of giant machines with huge wooden gears and cogs, pulleys and levers, counterweights and balances. He'd dreamed of a spell so ancient and forgotten that he hadn't found it in any of the books they'd found in the library; one of the castle ghosts had come across their studying and told them idly of a time when his own magic had been taken from him. In the dream, Harry had been annoyed with the ghost for interrupting, and blasted him with a spell that ran purple from his wand, shattering the ghost into a million glittering pieces. He'd woken up from that one with a start, chilled at the thought that he could destroy any of the castle ghosts, or that his dream self would have wanted to.

He lay still for a moment, regretful that his dreams were all so useless. He knew as well as Malfoy did that Madam Pomfrey had done everything in her power to help him, and she had more magical resources and reference books at her disposal than anyone else Harry could think of. She'd been nursing for longer than either of them had been alive. What chance did Harry's pitiful grasp of magical theory have against years of experience?

The thought made him pause. It was true that Pomfrey did have years of magical experience. But maybe it wasn't a problem that could be solved entirely with magic.

"Wake up," Harry said forcefully, sitting up and attempting to take Malfoy with him.

Malfoy was propped against the wall, his head tipped back against a tapestry, his mouth slightly open and drooling a little. Harry wasn't sure whether to find it disgusting or endearing, but he quickly shook off the dilemma in favor of answering a question that mattered.

"I said wake up, you daft git," Harry said again, shaking Malfoy hard by the shoulder.

Malfoy opened one eye irritably, reminding Harry strongly of Hedwig when he'd woken her up to send a letter to Ron once in the middle of the night. "What could you possibly want from me. I just spent the night on the floor, for the first time in my life ever. Even when I was on the run, I stayed in Snape's spare room. How could this day get any worse from here? I should just go back to sleep."

"No," Harry said quickly. "You've got to come with me. You've got to get up and come with me right now."

"Why?" Malfoy asked sharply.

"Because I think I've figured out a way to get your magic back, but we're going to need Pomfrey's help."

Malfoy eyed him warily for a moment. Harry considered the picture he must have presented: wide-eyed, hair totally a mess, glasses askew, clothes all wrinkled and probably buttoned wrong in his sexual stupor the previous evening.

"I know, I probably look like a madman," Harry began. "I probably sound crazy. But you've got to trust me."

"We've tried everything in the wizarding world, Potter. There's nothing more that can be done for me." Malfoy struggled to sit up a little straighter, running a hand through his hair. "I'd be lying if I said that my appeal to you last night wasn't mostly just to get in your pants. I know there's not much hope for me at this point."

"Don't say that," Harry said, beginning to feel a little helpless.

"It's true," Malfoy insisted. "I'm little more than a squib now, a Muggle raised by wizards. Much as I'd like to deny it, or change it, I know better than to screw with fate. It's what I get for – well, for everything that happened sixth year."

"You're not a squib!"

"I am, Potter." Malfoy shot him a scrutinizing look. "Remember what I told you about the magical seal? Well, some have theorized that it's the same seal that keeps squibs from performing magic. I've told you that everyone has some magic running through them, even Muggles. That's where their supposed miracles come from, ordinary people doing magical things when under immense pressure. Squibs aren't just wizards with a lack of magic; they've naturally assumed the same sort of seal over their magic that I've had placed on me. Or so the theory goes.

"They used to seal the magic of prisoners the same way, centuries ago, before the dementors were recruited to kiss the lost causes. They figured that by sealing their magic, the criminals would be incapable of performing the sorts of crimes they were used to. And mostly they were right, those criminals ended up going mad when they discovered they were without magic for the rest of their miserable lives."

Malfoy snorted. "I'm sure that's where Snape got the idea, in his reading of ancient torture techniques. Well, it almost worked."

"Apparently it did work," Harry replied shortly, defeated. "You haven't got your magic."

"I meant the going mad part," Malfoy retorted. "By the time you showed up, I was resigned to being a Muggle forever. I got on Petunia's good side. I learned about Vernon's drills. I'd even started to enjoy gardening, if you can believe it."

Harry remembered the dry, earthy smell he'd caught on Malfoy the day he'd found him. He hadn't been too far off, to suspect that Petunia had sent him to work. Though maybe Malfoy hadn't been forced into it, after all.

"Anyway, now I guess I've got some marketable skills, even without magic," Malfoy mused. "I've a pretty good hand for Herbology, after all. And I'd make a find apprentice to any potions master. Or I could wrangle electricity. I could live as a Muggle, find a nice house somewhere, operate a repair vehicle – "

"Hey, stop that," Harry cut him off, thoroughly irritated now. "Did I not just say I had a plan? You aren't even going to listen to what I've got to say, are you?"

"As I'm trying to have a pity party for myself at the moment," Malfoy said dryly, "no, I suppose I won't."

"Then I'm truly sorry, but you don't exactly have any say in the matter," Harry said firmly.

Malfoy frowned, giving Harry his full attention at last. "What?"

But Harry had already pulled out his wand, and he now pointed it squarely at Malfoy's jaw. "Immobulus. Levitacorpus."

His legs locked above him, Malfoy dangled upside down a few feet from Harry, glowering for all he was worth as his hair streamed around his reddening face.

"This is the most undignified thing I have ever – " He took a deep breath, though it didn't help to relieve any of the anger building in his pale eyes. "Potter, you cannot do this to me. You're above this kind of thing, aren't you, you Gryffindors? Taking hostages?"

Harry began walking toward the door, pulling Malfoy's body through the air behind him like some opaque, wiggling ghost.

"Sorry to disappoint you, Malfoy. The hat almost put me in Slytherin, remember?"

Malfoy scowled, but eventually said, "Fine. I'll go with you willingly. I can walk, Potter. You can put me down now."

"Nope," Harry said cheerfully, taking care to help Malfoy avoid floating directly into a suit of armor along the way. "You've already proven yourself to be incapable of following directions. You asked for my help, and I'm giving it to you, whether you like it or not."

"Hmph. The hat was right to put you in Gryffindor, after all. Bloody menace to civilized society, your lot is, hoisting people up by the ankles left and right."

They went on like that the entire way to the hospital wing, Harry pulling Malfoy along, Malfoy bobbing in the air like a duckling on a particularly rough patch of lake water. Malfoy continued to complain and tried valiantly to convince Harry to let him down, but Harry never wavered in his resolve.

When they came to the double doors of the hospital wing, Harry threw them open with a flick of his wand, the thick brass handles cracking against the stone walls behind them. Malfoy stopped talking altogether. Harry hadn't meant to use such force, but if the show had been awe-inspiring enough to silence Malfoy, Harry vowed to use the trick again to impress someone.

As expected, Pomfrey came bustling out of her office with a stormy look on her face, her mouth set in a thin line.

"What is the meaning of all of this racket?" she thundered, not appearing to notice Malfoy's predicament at first. "I've got two first-years in here who've broken out in terrible rashes after ordering sweets from the Weasley shop by owl. Beyond them I've got a girl incapable of walking after getting into an argument with one of her friends about her shoes, and the friend zapped her shoes four sizes too small. I've been trying all night to get them off, but the poor girl keeps squirming and crying so loudly that I can't concentrate at all."

As if on cue, a strangled wail rose over the curtained dividers along the ward. Pomfrey cast one last stern look at Harry before saying, "This had better be good."

"I hope it is," Harry agreed simply. "I think I've figured out a way to unstick Malfoy's magic."

It was only then that Pomfrey noticed Malfoy dangling in the air behind Harry. By this time, Malfoy's face was a deep purple, his scowl darkening his expression even further.

"Oh, really," Pomfrey said. "And why have you brought him in like this, like some calf about to be branded?"

Harry shrugged. "He was being uncooperative and mopey. He forced my hand."

"I see," said Pomfrey. She was trying to appear stern and neutral, but Harry could see the twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth. "Well, let's get you all inside, then. I would like to hear this plan of yours. We could use all the help we can get."

:: :: ::

After only a few minutes, Pomfrey had arranged a small cubicle of curtains for them at the closest end of the ward. She had insisted that Harry let Malfoy down, then given him a brief examination to make sure Harry hadn't damaged him in any way.

"Should have seen the injuries sustained the first time that spell swept the castle," she reminisced. "I had boys with sprained calf muscles and torn ligaments, from all the squirming they did to try to get free. One boy even managed to sprain his back, and he had to spend nearly two weeks on bed rest up here. He missed three Quidditch matches, and never made the same mistake again."

So Malfoy lay on a narrow hospital bed, his hair still ruffled and his face still vaguely pink, while Pomfrey and Harry took chairs on either side of the bed.

"Now," Pomfrey prompted. "Tell us about this plan of yours."

"Well," Harry said tentatively. "You've been assuming that the seal in place is solid, like a bottle stopped with wax?"

Pomfrey nodded. "Something like that, yes."

"Well, what if it isn't?"

"What do you mean, Mr. Potter?"

"I mean," Harry tried again. "I mean, what if this magical seal isn't at all like solid wax, blocking the neck of a bottle? Or a rubber stopper, plugging up a hole? What if it's more like a net of some sort?"

"Nets don't keep things out, Potter," Malfoy said snidely.

"Some things," Harry agreed desperately. "It wouldn't keep out water or air, or very small grains of something, like sand. But what if that isn't what magic looks like? What if magic is bigger, more solid? More like an animal, that can be caught in a net? And what if that net had very large holes in it, so that the animal could reach an arm or leg through – the glimmers that've been pushing through?"

"I'm not entirely sure where this is going, Mr. Potter," Pomfrey admitted, rubbing her temple idly with one hand.

Harry shook his head. "Let me start over. In Muggle science, there's this theory about water pressure."

"I thought you just said that my magic wasn't like water," Malfoy said petulantly.

"Shush, Mr. Malfoy. Let the boy finish."

"Thanks. Like I was saying, water pressure. If you have two equal bodies of water, you can place a thin barrier between them and none of the water will pass through it. Pressure on both sides is equal, and so there's nowhere for it to go. Two bottles, for instance, with a piece of wax paper between the necks.

"But if you take some of the water out of one of the bodies and use the same thin barrier, then pressure starts to build up in the fuller bottle, and the water will burst the barrier altogether. Or if you freeze the water in a plastic bottle, and the bottle explodes. The water wants to go where there's less pressure, to relieve the tension, and there's nothing on the other side to stop it, because the air outside the bottle has less pressure than the water."

"I think I see what you're saying," Pomfrey said slowly. "If Malfoy's magic is behaving as the water does in your examples, then pressure has been building up between the magic and the seal."

"Yes, precisely," Malfoy chimed in, suddenly interested now that there was Muggle theory involved. "But because there's probably pressure on the outside of the seal, it has nowhere to go."

"Wherever the outside of the seal is," Pomfrey said.

"Or if the seal is thicker than that thin sheet of paper," Harry added.

Pomfrey frowned slightly, thinking the problem over in her head. "It's also true that I've been considering this seal to be blocking just a small entrance to a large container. Maybe the seal doesn't work that way. Maybe the seal is less like a cork and more like the bottle in your example, or a balloon, surrounding the magic like the net you mentioned."

"And if that's the case," Harry continued, "then it would be even easier to break if I'm right. There's more surface area to a whole balloon than if you stretched a balloon over the mouth of a bottle. The tension would stay strong forever that way, because the water could never build up enough pressure to push against the balloon at one time."

"But what if that is the case, that the seal is merely covering a small entrance to a reservoir of magic?" asked Pomfrey. "I've been trying to unravel the charm all term. The seal is still strong."

"Then we would just need to put more pressure on the outside of the balloon than is already pushing against it from the inside," Malfoy said.

"Like a pen through the safety seal on a jar of marmalade," Harry said. "We're not trying to unravel the seal, just puncture it. With the pressure Malfoy's already built up lately, trying to find those glimmers, it's got to be ready to burst any second if we apply the right amount of pressure."

"I've been going about this all wrong," Pomfrey said, sounding vaguely awed.

Harry smiled. "Exactly."

:: :: ::

Though Harry had hoped for a positive response to his idea, he was surprised at how delighted Pomfrey truly seemed. She set to work immediately, giving Malfoy a thorough physical examination, charting what traces of magic she could find in order that she might better target the seal.

"Imagine," she said to Harry, "this entire time I've been trying to find ways to help him break the seal from the inside, when really it's been exactly the opposite. A door that's clearly marked 'push,' and this whole time I've been trying to pull on it."

"Leave it to Potter to luck into the answer," Malfoy commented. "I've been working with one of the best medical minds in the country, and who solves the riddle? An amateur."

Pomfrey looked pleased at the compliment, but said, "Oh, hush. Some of the best advances in magic have been made by accident. Mr. Potter merely gave us a fresh way of looking at the problem. Besides, I had never really thought of using brute force, so to speak. I've been looking for more subtle ways of undoing the spell, reversing the charm, untying each knot in the net. Imagine trying to unravel the surface of a balloon."

"Snape would be appalled to think that his fancy magic would be undone with a battering ram," Malfoy replied. "All the delicate intricacies of the ritual, gone to waste."

"And I'm sure Professor McGonagall would be pleased to see the two of you working together to solve a problem," Pomfrey pointed out. "Moreover, to see the two of you working with a faculty member to help. It was quite a shock to see you come to me for help, Mr. Potter, rather than attempt this on your own."

Harry flushed. "Yeah, well. I didn't want to see anyone get hurt."

Pomfrey nodded. "That's just it. Understanding when a problem is beyond your own powers is a sign of maturity, Mr. Potter. And I never thought I'd see the day when such an inter-house rivalry could be patched up to this extreme. It certainly is one for the record books."

Privately, Harry agreed. For the thousandth time that year, he considered the bizarre nature of his relationship with Malfoy. But he supposed now that he had set aside any hard feelings he had for Malfoy the day he had watched Dumbledore extend an arm of mercy toward him that night on the tower; ever since then, Harry had known that he too would have to extend the same mercy toward Malfoy if he ever found himself in a position to do so. The first opportunity had been in the Dursleys' kitchen, when he had invited Malfoy back to Hogwarts. Here he was living the second, helping Malfoy repair his magic.

As complicated as his feelings for Malfoy may have been, Harry knew it could not have happened any other way. For his part, at least, Harry knew what Dumbledore had been trying to teach him that night, why he had forced Harry to witness Malfoy's failure as a Death Eater: to show Harry that there was more to everyone, even Malfoy, than met the eye. If Harry could see through Snape's gloomy, miserable exterior to the human motivations underneath, then understanding Malfoy's more human qualities was a piece of cake.

What had surprised Harry most of all about their budding friendship was the degree to which Harry actually liked Malfoy – his keen intellect, his diligence when it came to solving problems, his sense of humor, his stubbornness. These were qualities Harry had always seen and appreciated in his friends; now he had been given the opportunity to see them in Malfoy, it seemed both obvious and disappointing that they had been hidden from Harry all this time.

Presently Malfoy sniffed, trying valiantly to appear indifferent to Pomfrey's commendation. "I still don't understand how this is going to work, exactly. Even if my magic is trapped inside this metaphorical balloon, how are we going to build enough pressure on the outside to burst it? I'm quite strong, you know. My magic will put up quite a fight."

"I'm sure it will," Harry muttered.

"What was that?" Malfoy asked sharply.

"You're always putting up fights," Harry said frankly. "I'm not surprised your magic would, too."

Pomfrey seemed to ignore their bickering, finishing up with her examination of Malfoy. She then turned to Harry.

"Alright, you're next. Into your own cubicle with you."

Malfoy looked surprised and a little alarmed. "What? Why does he need to be checked out, too?"

"Because," Pomfrey said impatiently, "Mr. Potter is going to provide the necessary pressure on the outside of that pesky balloon of yours. He's going to be the prick you need, so to speak."

Harry grinned at the look of horror on Malfoy's face at that announcement, turning to leave the cubicle.

Malfoy hollered after them, "But he'll hit me so hard I might never recover! The seal isn't all he'll burst! He'll puncture the very core of me!"

"I assure you, I will take every precaution to make sure that both of you are safe during the entire process," Pomfrey announced briskly, continuing to usher Harry from the cubicle.

"This is absurd," Malfoy mumbled mutinously. "I demand to speak with a lawyer, should I end up dead at the end of the day from this nonsense."

:: :: ::

"Now," said Madam Pomfrey in a very official tone of voice. "In order to do this properly, you are both going to have to listen very carefully, and follow every instruction I give you with absolute dedication and thought. I will not have either of you mucking it up after everything I have done for you, especially when it comes to this problem of your magic, Mr. Malfoy.

"We are dealing with highly unstable forms of magic, and I will not risk either of you injuring yourself or the other person, simply because you did not pay attention. Is that clear?"

Both Malfoy and Harry agreed quickly.

Several days had passed since Harry had proposed his idea. Since that meeting, Pomfrey had taken out the curtain between their cubicles, so that both of their hospital beds were within a few feet of one another, leaving just enough room for Pomfrey to walk back and forth between them. If anything happened to either or both of them, she would be able to get to them in time to prevent them from sustaining permanent damage.

Each of them had been dressed in embarrassingly thin, infirmary-issue cotton pajamas which left little to the imagination, and Pomfrey arranged them on their backs on their beds.

"For now you can sit up and move as you like, but once we begin, I don't want any fidgeting," Pomfrey warned. "It might throw off the results. I'll be back in just a moment."

She left the cubicle, the curtains drifting with her as she passed.

Malfoy, propped up on his elbows, sighed as he looked toward the nearly full moon through the windows, hanging low over the leafy silhouettes of the forbidden forest's tall trees.

"I can't believe we've gotten out of taking our exams," he said. "After all of the preparation I've done. After all of the notes I've taken. Such a pathetic waste of time and energy."

"At least it'll get your magic back," Harry pointed out, trying not to let his gaze stray to Malfoy's pale pink nipples, or the webbing of blue veins under the much more obvious spidering of scars on his torso. By now, those scars had become commonplace to Harry. He regarded them merely as a part of Malfoy's body, like his fingernails or eyelids - though sometimes, if he let his mind wander, he returned to that day in the bathroom, and the curse he'd cast.

Even during those moments, he didn't let it bother him as much. He figured that if it hadn't happened, then his relationship with Malfoy never would have evolved the way it had this year, and he was willing to make that trade. Plus, he had learned a valuable lesson about magic that day, one he should have learned years before from Ginny's encounter with a similarly powerful book.

"That is, if I get it back," Malfoy said stubbornly.

"What do you mean, 'if'? You don't think it's going to work?"

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "I think, Potter," he replied, "that it will take more than a teenager's grade school science to solve my problem. I think that I'm not going to get my hopes up until we see some sign that this insane scheme of yours has worked."

"You know," Harry remarked by way of rebuttal, "Muggles have seen marked improvements in medical patients who have prayed for their own recovery. Terminal patients, too."

"Prayer?" Malfoy scoffed.

"Yes, prayer," Harry said. "I mean, I don't think you've got to believe in some higher power or anything. I'm just saying, a positive outlook could do you some good."

"Well, I'll leave you to that," Malfoy said. "Since you seem to be so good at this optimism business. Leave me to be reasonable about this whole mess."

Presently Madam Pomfrey returned, carrying with her a small box that clinked when she walked. She set the box on the edge of Harry's bed and began pulling from it a series of small stones, each a different shape and size. Some looked to be precious, sparkling in the low light of the room. Others were opaque, dark in color, and roughened as though she had plucked them from the side of the road. A few were smooth and shaped like eggs, the pale greenish-blue color of the sky just before the sun rose.

"What are those for?" Harry asked.

"It's a sort of ancient magic. These stones will act as a conduit between the two of you while we perform the set of spells," Pomfrey explained.

"Conduit?" Malfoy asked.

"It will help to channel the magical energies that will be passing between you," Pomfrey said. "It's impossible to fully harness and control the kind of magic that we'll be working with tonight, especially since we're trying to unleash a raw, unstable kind of power, but the conduit will at least allow us to control where the magic goes."

"Like jumper cables," Harry said suddenly.

Malfoy seemed suddenly keenly interested, as though sensing that Muggle technology was involved somehow. "Jumper cables?"

"They're what Muggles use to start their cars when the battery dies," Harry explained. "They pull another car right up to the dead one, and then they attach cables to each battery. When the second car is started, the spark can usually send enough energy into the dead battery to get it working again."

"Oh," Malfoy said brightly, "so these stones will help Harry's magic to spark mine?"

"Something like that," Pomfrey said with a fair amount of satisfaction. "The conduits are all a part of an old cleansing ritual, very similar to the type of spell work used to seal a wizard's magic. I imagine that when Minerva and Severus performed the original sealing of Mr. Malfoy's magical abilities, they used similar conduits. It takes an enormous magical effort to seal off someone's magic; the two of them must have known that, and would probably have combined their powers to have completed the ritual. It would have been easier for them to do so if they used conduit stones, or a similar sort of channeling device. Does that sound familiar, Mr. Malfoy?"

Malfoy peered at the stones as Pomfrey pulled them from the box in almost matching pairs. He looked troubled, like none of it sounded remotely familiar. Then he stopped, closed his eyes, and shook his head, as if mentally berating himself for not remembering sooner.

"They did combine their powers for a portion of it," he said finally. "That was around the time that I passed out. I think – I think Professor Snape traced funny patterns on my arms and chest with his wand."

"What did they look like?" Pomfrey asked with acute interest.

"I don't really remember," Malfoy admitted. "I just remember that they glowed after he'd drawn them, and then seemed to sink into my skin. They glowed brighter for a moment, and then they faded."

"What color were they?"

Malfoy shrugged. "Blue, I guess. Or white."

Pomfrey nodded for a moment, but did not attempt to enlighten them on what that meant for their cause. Instead she took a few stones and approached Malfoy, ordering him to lie flat. When he obeyed, she began placing the stones in a pattern on his bare chest, one in either dip just above his armpit, another at the juncture of his collarbone, three in a line down his belly. The final stone was very bright, very clear, and shone amber in the candlelight, looking for all the world like a large drop of honey glistening where Pomfrey placed it over Malfoy's heart.

Then she turned and repeated the process on Harry, using a set of stones that looked almost identical to the ones she had used on Malfoy. The two near his arms were a smooth, opaque pink, like opals; the three along his belly glittered a deep green; and the heart-shaped, orange, marble-like stone at his collarbone.

But when she came to the final stone that was to rest above Harry's heart, Pomfrey pulled from her box a rather large red gem, the facets of which seemed to be caked with dust, like it hadn't been polished in a very long time. It took Harry a moment to realize that it was about the size and shape of the sorcerer's stone that he'd managed to take from Voldemort during his first year at Hogwarts, although it no longer gleamed in the light.

"How did you get that?" he blurted. "Dumbledore said it had been destroyed."

Pomfrey smiled slyly. "Dumbledore has said many things over the years," she said cryptically, and after that she refused to answer any of his questions regarding the strange stone.

Having placed the stones, Pomfrey removed the box from Harry's bed. She then stood between them, saying, "Once I begin the incantation, you both must remain very still. I am not exactly sure what effects this type of magic will have on either of you, having never been required to perform this sort of ritual on a patient before. But I assure you that I will be here throughout the entire process, and if anything should happen, I'll be right here to make it right again."

When both boys nodded as best they could for balancing so many stones on their body, Pomfrey took out her wand. She muttered a few words, and a peculiar warmth trickled through Harry's whole body. Pomfrey repeated the words over Malfoy, and almost immediately, his organs began to glow through his skin, a pale aqua among the veins. Harry glanced down at his own body; his organs were glowing faintly, a warm orange color.

"I've cast a monitoring spell on both of you," Pomfrey explained. "If anything goes wrong with any of your vital organs, this spell will alert me immediately. Try not to be distracted by the light.

"Now, remember what I've taught you about trying to remain in touch with those instincts that bring you the closest to feeling your magic, Draco. The closer you can bring your powers to the surface of this balloon we've theorized, the more likely it is that we'll be able to reach it without any complications."

Harry glanced at Malfoy as best he could without moving his head; he was looking pale and very small in the odd light emanating from beneath his skin, more like he had during their sixth year. A thin line creased his forehead. Harry was fairly sure that, if provoked, Malfoy would sound like the old brat he always had been to Harry.

A tenderness washed over Harry's heart as he realized how tense and nervous Malfoy must have been during all their years at Hogwarts. Between his father's rocky status with Voldemort and his own efforts to fit in and stand out among the Slytherins of their year, Malfoy must have been constantly straining himself. No wonder he'd always been so ready to fight with Harry.

Harry was dimly aware of the light amber color emanating from his organs flickering under his ribcage; Madam Pomfrey took a step closer to his bed and shot a sharp look at him.

"Harry? Remember what I've told you about channeling for the spell. Like a Patronus, this charm relies heavily on what you're currently feeling in order to power the spell. Try to think of times that your magic has been especially powerful, or you've accomplished something through your magic. A sense of pride can go a long way toward powering a battering spell like this one."

Earlier Pomfrey had explained that while she would be performing the actual charms, Harry's internal status would make enormous strides in the effectiveness of the magic itself. He had immediately considered the Patronus; it was appropriate now that she brought it up, since it was one of the major sources of pride when it came to Harry's school career. The Patronus had been a twofold victory for Harry. Learning it had been incredibly difficult for him, since it relied on him channeling particularly happy memories from a childhood that had been far from happy. But teaching the charm to others during his fifth year had proven just as satisfying for him as seeing that first wispy stag burst forth from his wand. Seeing the other members of the D.A. conjuring their Patronuses had been terrible rewarding. Harry had all but burst with pride to see it.

"I'm going to cast the spell in just a few minutes, once I'm certain that your vitals are stable and strong enough to sustain it. Though this is at heart a basic transference spell, moving power from Harry to Draco, it could be quite dangerous if there's an imbalance in health between the two of you, or if one of you is much less focused than the other. I know you've heard this before. I just want to impress upon you the severity of the spells we'll be casting tonight, in case either of you has decided you'd rather not be here, after all."

After a moment of determined silence from both Harry and Malfoy, Pomfrey nodded, satisfied. "Good. Neither of you seems worried about the process, judging by your vitals. Barely a change in either of you."

She fussed for a moment with their stones again, muttering a few minor charms as she passed her wand over their glowing organs. She paused once with her wand tip pointed at Harry's heart, looking concerned and proud at the same time.

"You know, boy, I'm quite proud of both of you. Not many students your age, even at Hogwarts, would risk so much for one another. Especially not with the kind of history the two of you have."

Harry felt himself blush. Glancing at over at the next bed again, he was satisfied to note that Malfoy had turned bright pink as well. They had settled into their routine so easily, without much discussion of their former rivalry, and having it brought up just seemed embarrassing – for Harry, at least. Discussing it seemed like it would do more harm than good at this point, when they'd both done their best to forget that most of it had ever happened.

He glanced again at Malfoy, who was still pink. Apparently it was embarrassing for him, too.

When Pomfrey spoke again, her voice was all business. "Well, then. I don't see why we shouldn't begin. Hold still, both of you – "

She spoke a few strange words that Harry didn't immediately recognize – not Latin, like most of the spells they learned at school, and not French or German from what little of those languages Harry had heard from the Beauxbatons students, and a few of the Durmstrangs, during his fourth year. This new language sounded lush, like the thick foliage of the forest during deep summer when the wind ran through it, and ancient, dusty and heavy with shadowy sounds.

Harry closed his eyes to hear Pomfrey recite the incantation, which as she continued speaking sounded more like a poem than a spell. He wanted desperately to drift off to sleep, listening to her like that, but then he heard Malfoy sigh, and he remembered what he was doing there, and what he needed to do in order for the spell to work properly.

He thought of the Patronus, of the private lessons he'd taken with Lupin to learn it, and the swelling pride that first successful charm had earned him. He thought of the first time he had correctly finished a potion for Slughorn, using the Half-Blood Prince's textbook and those added instructions, the giddy knowledge that he'd not only gotten it right, but also done better than everyone else in the class, even Hermione. He thought of the first spell he had ever cast, a simple levitation, and the first touch of his first broomstick as it had leapt into his hand from the still-dewy grass on the pitch that first year at Hogwarts. He thought of all the jinxes and hexes he'd ever thrown at any Slytherin, ever, especially the ones who had deserved it; and he thought of the time Ginny taught him to do a bat-bogey hex in a train compartment heading north.

Unbidden, the memory of casting Sectumsempra flooded Harry's mind, and he thought of the cool rush of power he'd felt after uttering that one fateful word; he remembered the horror at seeing Malfoy start to lose blood, but also the deep, wild sense of power in the act, the knowledge that he, Harry, had done that to another person, that he could affect another person's life that strongly in just an instant. The same thrill of knowledge flooded him again, that he could have snuffed out a life so easily, with so few syllables.

And he thought of that night outside the castle, the light of the fiendfyre flooding the grounds through broken windows and collapsed walls, the look on Voldemort's inhuman face when he'd cast that last spell, something so simple that Harry had almost considered it a joke, a last laugh on a man with no sense of humor whatsoever. Harry could still feel the shape of the word on his lips, Expelliarmus, and the heady adrenaline rush he'd felt as he'd seen Voldemort's wand fly out of his cold hand and spin through the air, defeated after so many years of tyranny.

That triumph, that hot heat of victory, sent Harry's mind into tailspin of memories so thick he couldn't discern one from the next. A hundred Quidditch wins, thousands of times he'd fixed his own glasses, the dull roar of a Floo fire, the sickening crack of a house-elf appearing or disappearing right behind him. It was all so dizzying, these mundane moments in wizarding life. He used so much magic on a daily basis that he had forgotten, in the middle of it, just how truly amazing it all was.

Gratitude swept his mind, and flashes of Dumbledore's twinkling eyes, and vaguely Harry could sense that his body was trembling with it, but still he remained steadfastly focused on that first full Patronus charm in the woods, and Sirius' limp body crumbled in the dusty grass there; the blurry memory he'd had of his father outlined against the glowing form of a stag, and the blind hope that had endured within him that his father would come, his father would save him, his father was somehow alive that night. That hope had been worth all the Patronuses and all the magic in the world.

Holding strong to that memory, Harry felt the world around him spin dizzily past, faster and faster, until he drifted into darkness, and at last he slept.

:: :: ::

When he came to, it was still night. The moon still hung low over the forest beyond the window panes, and the candlelight still flickered soundlessly against the stone walls of the hospital wing. Harry could still feel the starched stiffness of his too-thin pajama bottoms, and when he looked over, he could still see Malfoy lying prone on his own bed, just a few feet away. Malfoy's face was turned away from him, and Harry spent a long moment staring at the lean stretch of pale neck curving over Malfoy's pillow.

But when Harry sat up, his head throbbed as though he had just been slammed by a bludger. He groaned, feeling like he might sick up. There was a constant pressure over his breastbone, like someone was pushing the flat of their palm against his chest with all their weight. He rubbed at it absently, grunting a little at the unpleasantness of the sensation.

"Oh, goodness, he's alive," came a voice from his left. Moments later, a warm hand clasped his own on the bedspread.

He managed to open his eyes after the wave of nausea subsided. Hermione was leaning over him, looking peaky and absolutely dreadful with concern. Large, dark circles hung under her eyes, blooming purple like bruises.

"Are you feeling alright?" she asked quickly. "Are you okay?"

"Let him have a chance to breathe, Hermione," said Ron from Harry's right. "He's only just woken up, hasn't he? And Pomfrey says he'll need his rest."

"What are you doing here?" Harry asked slowly, his mouth feeling prickly with heat, his tongue thick against his bottom teeth.

"You didn't come down for supper," Hermione said sheepishly.

"And neither did Malfoy," Ron supplied darkly. "We had to investigate that sort of coincidence, Harry, you know we had to."

Harry didn't know whether to feel more irritated or relieved that his friends had still noticed his disappearances, despite their own absences from suppers all term. He was just as hesitant to remind them as he was to explain the usual reason he might have disappeared from dinner with Malfoy.

A crease had appeared between Hermione's eyebrows. "Harry, why didn't you tell us you were going to be doing this spell?"

Harry shrugged, not quite sure of the answer to that question himself. "I didn't think you'd care one way or another."

"But it was incredibly dangerous! What if something had happened to you? What if you'd been injured, or died? Harry, what if you hadn't woken up?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Harry scoffed, but sobered when he caught the grim look on Ron's face.

"Malfoy's still out cold," he said, nodding at the second bed in their cubicle.

Harry looked at Malfoy for the first time since waking up. He was still lying on his back, still pale as ever, the charm to monitor his organs still glowing serenely beneath his skin. But his face was entirely expressionless, as Malfoy's never was; even in sleep, his face was often creased from his dreams, his mouth twisting into unspoken words that never came to the surface.

Fear rolled through Harry almost instantly, and the pressure on his chest seemed to double. This time he did sick up, right over the side of his bed where Hermione stood. Luckily Hermione sidestepped the accident, and afterward she helped clean it up, flicking her wand discretely.

"Sorry," Harry mumbled, rubbing at the corner of his mouth.

"It's alright," she soothed, reaching a hand toward him to smooth his hair away from his face. "Harry, we were so worried when we'd heard."

"News travels fast, I guess," Harry murmured, wondering who had been in the hospital wing when he'd hauled Malfoy in by the ankles that night.

"It's been three days," Ron said solemnly. "You barely moved until this afternoon, Pomfrey says. You should have seen her face – looked like someone had died."

"Three days?" Harry repeated, stunned. "And Malfoy?"

Hermione shook her head. "He hasn't shown any signs of waking up."

"She said something about side effects of the spell, though," Ron said hopefully. "She told us all about it, when we first got here."

"What side effects?" Harry asked. A swelling panic joined the other feelings catapulting through his body and mind, but all of these were dampened by that damned pressure on his chest.

"The sleeping, mostly," Hermione told him. "From what I understand, you used nearly all your magical strength to bombard the seal they placed on Malfoy's magic. The shock of losing that power, even for the few moments that it took to leave your body and affect Malfoy's, was enough to knock you out. You must have passed out just when your magic left you. Madam Pomfrey said that Malfoy lost consciousness just a few minutes after you did. She wasn't sure whether he'd passed out after receiving the brunt of your magic, or because he was feeling the entirety of his own magic after so long without it."

Harry's head spun. What if Malfoy never woke up? What if he had passed out after being hit with all of Harry's magic, after agreeing to try an incredibly difficult, dangerous incantation that had all started because Harry had remembered some elementary science? It would be all Harry's fault. A year ago, he would have loved to hear this; now, it just seemed terrifying.

He retched once, but his earlier sick, combined with the fact that he hadn't eaten in three days, had left his stomach entirely empty but for a thick rope of saliva that clung to his lip.

Hermione gently wiped at Harry's mouth with a corner of his sheet.

"Oh, Harry, he'll come around," she reassured him, though her tone of voice suggested she cared more for Harry's concern than for Malfoy's recovery.

"He owes it to you, after dumping you on the pitch last week," Ron added aggressively, attempting to smile.

But remembering the last time he'd been in the hospital wing, the incident that had started this whole mess, only made Harry feel more wretchedly miserable. He sank back down onto the bed, pulling the blankets around him and curling into as small a ball as he could manage with his gangly legs and arms.

"He doesn't want to hear that, Ron," Hermione whispered harshly.

"You didn't trust Malfoy, either, need I remind you," Ron replied sternly. "You were the one who said he was daft to trust him – "

"At least I gave him the benefit of the doubt, for Harry's sake," Hermione hissed.

"Yeah, look where it got you," muttered Ron.

There was a harsh silence during which Harry was forced to strain his ears for some sign, however slight, of Malfoy's breathing. He could hear nothing over the tension in the room, which seemed to ring in Harry's head.

"We should – get Madam Pomfrey," Hermione said eventually. Even at full volume, she sounded incredibly far away through the blankets over Harry's ears. "She'll want to check up on you, Harry, now that you're awake."

For a moment, Hermione and Ron seemed to have a silent argument about who would find the nurse. Eventually, two sets of footsteps echoed away from Harry's bed.

When they'd gone, he pushed the blanket away from his eyes again, so that he could watch Malfoy's bed for any change.

Pomfrey appeared only moments later, looking breathless and relieved. Neither Ron nor Hermione had come back with her, apparently ordered to leave Harry alone to rest.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Potter?" she asked.

"I got sick," Harry said feebly.

"I'm not surprised," Pomfrey said. "The strain your body has undergone could not possibly leave you completely unscathed. If you're only feeling a little nausea and fatigue, then you're a living miracle."

"What about Malfoy?"

"Malfoy should be fine in a day or so," she told him confidently. "Because he bore the brunt of your magic, he'll take longer to recover than you did. Not to mention the fact that Mr. Malfoy has always been more – delicate, I suppose, than the other boys his age. You have to remember, Mr. Potter, you have an unusually strong will to live."

She smiled at the joke. Harry found it difficult to see the humor in the situation, or any situation, at the moment. Until Malfoy woke up, Harry wasn't sure if he would ever find anything funny again. He would never forgive himself if anything happened to Malfoy because of his stupid balloon theory.

"He just needs his rest, Harry," Pomfrey said again. "I've been checking his vital signs every few hours, and they've been every bit as strong and stable as yours. Stronger, even, now that you've woken up. Give his body time to recuperate."

"And his magic?" Harry asked.

"That's a trickier question," Pomfrey admitted hesitantly. "I don't exactly have any way of monitoring that, short of having Malfoy demonstrate his abilities himself. I could trace his magic energy levels, but they would show me the same results as they would have before the ritual we performed. Even though he was unable to use his magic, it was still present. A trace would only show me how much magic he has, not how much he can use."

"Oh," said Harry. He hadn't realized how disappointed he'd be to hear that. Or how terrified he would be at the prospect of Malfoy never waking up.

"Get some rest," Pomfrey instructed him shortly. "I'll bring you something to eat eventually, once your stomach has settled a bit, but for now drink plenty of water and let me know if you feel any pain or dizziness. Also, tell me if your nausea continues. I expect it should fade in the next few hours, but if it doesn't, I'd like to know."

"Yes," said Harry. "I'll let you know."

"Good," said Pomfrey. "Good night, Harry. And stop worrying."

:: :: ::

" – very interesting bonding effects. It's most unusual. I've never seen it happen like this before."

Harry tried valiantly to open his eyes, but the sunlight pouring through the windows above his bed was blindingly bright, and his eyelids felt as though someone had poured concrete over them as he slept.

When he did manage to open his eyes, he found several new bodies in his cubicle. Pomfrey, of course, stood by the foot of his bed, her grey uniform robes looking freshly starched. With her was a steel-haired woman wearing robes with the St. Mungo's crest emblazoned on the sleeve, and a paunchy man wearing dour black robes, much like the ones Snape used to wear.

"Have you tried any Dissuading charms?" asked the healer. "They might not give you permanent effects, but it would at least give you some idea of how serious the bonding is at this point."

Pomfrey shook her head at that. "I don't want to risk damaging either of them. A Dissuading charm might show me what sort of bond I'm dealing with, but it wouldn't dissolve the bond. For them to feel the effects of it, then have it disappear, only to reappear again full force would be cruel. I won't do it."

"Well, I'm not sure what I'll be able to dig up for you," the man said. "I might have a draught somewhere that could numb the effects of separating them, but I can't guarantee that it will work very well. It's meant more for soothing heartache, nasty divorces, that sort of thing. The best thing for them is to keep them together until you know more about their bond."

Harry looked away from the adults, glancing at Malfoy. His heart did a funny leap to see Malfoy's eyes open, staring back at him as Malfoy lay curled on his side, a mirror image of Harry's own position. Malfoy shot him a pointed look, which Harry took to mean that he should remain quiet. He nodded almost imperceptibly, but Malfoy must have seen it, because his pale gaze drifted back to where the adults conversed at the other end of their beds.

"Please do all that you can," Pomfrey said briskly. "I know it's short notice, but it's such a bizarre case that I had to have a second opinion."

"Any time, Poppy," said the healer. "You know I love this sort of thing. Medical mysteries. Unsolvable cases."

"As do I," agreed the man, apparently a potions master.

Pomfrey began to usher them slowly away from the beds. "Let me see you out. I have several ingredients I'd like you to look at, Wilbur, before you go…"

Once the adults had passed out of earshot, Harry asked quietly, "What was that all about?"

Malfoy sat up, his blanket falling around his waist in a woolly blue puddle. With all the sunlight pouring in around him, he didn't look nearly as pale as he had the night before. If Harry hadn't known any better, he would have said that Malfoy hadn't been sick at all, that he was waking up in his own bed in the dorm upstairs.

"Something's gone wrong with the incantation," Malfoy explained, his voice tense and hushed.

"Have you got your magic back?"

Malfoy nodded. "It's a bit unpredictable, but it's there. When I woke up, I pulled the water glass to my hand without meaning to. Before that, Pomfrey says I pulled the blanket over me without reaching for it – how could I have? I was unconscious. Little things like that. But whenever I try to focus on it, or to cast a spell, my eyes go all bleary and nothing happens. Apparently my magic has stage fright."

Harry smiled briefly. "So what's gone wrong, then?"

"Not sure, exactly. I didn't hear the whole conversation. Something about bonding spells."

"Bonding spells?" Harry thought of Bill and Fleur's wedding ceremony, and the charms that had been cast over them by the presiding minister, a portly man in white robes. There had been a green and gold glow around them, and then a flash of white light. Then the ceremony had been over, and Bill and Fleur had kissed. "Like a marriage?"

"Not… entirely. They use a very common bonding spell in most wedding ceremonies, it's true. But that's a very mild type of bond. Years ago, they used to perform very strong bonding spells on indentured servants, to keep them loyal to their masters after the journey overseas. What else would stop them from running away as soon as they landed? When a bonding spell is performed, the subjects are imprinted into one another's magic – like ducklings with their mothers. The servants couldn't leave their masters, or they would get confused or very sick.

"If done correctly, a bonding spell can be set to whatever terms you like. In the case of the servants, they could arrange for the spell to last for a given number of years, depending on how long their passage had been to the colonies. Or in the case of a marriage, the spell can have a set of stipulations – to love and honor one another, for example – and if those aren't met the spell dissolves. It makes for more civilized divorces than I've seen in the Muggle world, people leaving one another, hurting one another. When a bonding spell dissolves, it's easy to tell that two people aren't committed the way they'd intended to be."

Malfoy shivered a little, drawing his blanket closer around his body, looking thoughtfully at the curtains that surround them.

"Pomfrey said something about the terms of ours seeming indefinite, though," he said.

"Indefinite? What does that mean?"

"I suspect it means that there aren't any stipulations in our bond, so it would be virtually unbreakable," Malfoy suggested grimly. "But I supposed we won't know until they do. It's all so fascinating, though. Without the usual stipulations, it's entirely possible that our bond could go on forever."

:: :: ::

They didn't see much of Pomfrey that day. A small army of house-elves brought them breakfast and dinner trays at the appropriate times, all bowing so low to Harry that their ears scraped the floor. Malfoy pretended not to notice, though he barely touched any of his food all day.

While they waited, they talked over the possible outcomes of the spell. Malfoy seemed to know a little bit about the mechanics of the ritual, especially now that it had been done to him twice, but when it came to actual speculation or guesses as to their own fate, he didn't really have a clue.

"In theory, almost anything could have happened," he said irritably. "That's the problem with magic. Even if you've properly prepared and executed everything, you might still get the wrong answer. One misplaced speck of dust between us could have set the whole thing off on some explosive tangent. We could have lost our lives. Instead we just managed to tie them together forever."

"How romantic," Harry joked, leaning over the game of solitaire exploding snap he'd laid out on his bedspread.

"It's not romantic, Potter," Malfoy replied. "It's terrifying and humiliating. You know I spent my childhood expecting to settle down with some nice, wealthy pureblood heiress?"

"Who? Parkinson?"

Malfoy sneered. "Pansy? No. That would be like you marrying the Weasley – ah, well. Bad example. No, my parents had been looking at a young witch from Belgium. Nice girl, actually. Strong family, strong loyalties to the pureblood ideals. Same stunning blue eyes, of course."

"Of course," Harry allowed.

"But I suppose all of that's blown to pieces now, eh?" Malfoy didn't look nearly as sad about that prospect as Harry suspected he should have been. In fact he looked wistful.

Harry tried to be disgusted or even annoyed, but he considered the fact that Malfoy had known nothing else about marriage than the example laid before him by his parents, as exemplified by what Harry had seen of the Black family, all duty and loyalty to the ideals, arranged marriages. Harry had always imagined his own parents' life as romantic and carefree, cut tragically short by those same pureblood ideals. He had a hard time believing that the beliefs of the Malfoy and Black families were Malfoy's beliefs now.

"Would you have wanted to marry her anyway?" Harry asked. "I mean – "

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "I know what you mean, Potter. As a matter of fact, I do like girls that way. There are exceptions, of course. Now it all seems a moot point, what with my family's collapse. I may be the only one left to carry on the name, but what does it matter if the legacy has died? I'd only be dragging the name even deeper through the mud, for all the wealth and influence I might once have been afforded."

"I guess I don't really understand anything about that," Harry admitted. He slapped a card down onto the bedspread and the whole thing ignited, littering his blankets with ash. "Damn."

Malfoy watched as he cleaned it up. "It was nice to have a family like the Dursleys'. If only for a little while. Even they had a certain pride in their family name, even if that pride was based mostly in their lawn clippings and Dudley's boorish bullying."

Harry tried his best not to say exactly what was on his mind, namely several rather rude questions about Malfoy's sanity, if he thought the Dursleys were a desirable family. Instead he thought about the Weasleys, and how he'd always been grateful for the surrogate family they'd provided him. Even if it was his horrible relatives that Malfoy was talking about, Harry had seen Petunia's potential for kindness. He supposed that they were a family, after all. And Malfoy hadn't always been such a picture of kindness toward Harry.

"Anyway, I guess we're stuck together," Harry said instead. "That's sort of like a family, right?"

Malfoy scoffed. "A family of one," he mocked lightly. "Harry Potter, volunteering to be my mother, my father, and my husband all in one day. How valiant. What sacrifice."

"Come off it," Harry said, trying to hide his smile.

Malfoy grinned, then sobered, attempting a more serious tone. "Well. I guess it could be worse."


"You could have found me a year earlier, and then we never would have shagged," Malfoy said.

Harry had to laugh at that. He tried to imagine what might have happened that day in Myrtle's bathroom had he been sneaking off to snog Malfoy rather than spy on him. A bit regretfully, he thought it would have been much less bloody.

It seemed appropriate that Pomfrey would choose that moment to enter their end of the ward again, though Harry was grateful that she did not seem to have been listening to their conversation.

"Gentlemen," she said briskly, "I have good news, and unfortunately I have some bad news. As you both must know by now, Mr. Malfoy has regained the use if not control of his powers. Right now it might seem a bit wild and uncontrollable for you, I'm sure, but over time and with practice, you should be able to bring yourself up to speed rather quickly. If you'd like, I can find you a tutor of some sort through St. Mungo's. They deal with this type of thing rather frequently. It's like a muscle you haven't used in a while; you'll need to build up the strength there before you can begin running marathons again."

"I think I should be alright on my own," Malfoy said. "But thank you."

"Fair enough. Just remember to take it slowly," Pomfrey replied.

"What's the bad news?" Harry asked, impatient to hear Pomfrey's explanation of the bond that had been formed.

"The bad news is that there have been a few unexpected side effects of the incantation," Pomfrey said. "I've been talking to a few experts, and I will continue to work closely with them to get the two of you back to the peak of full health, but it's unclear exactly how much we can do for you."

"That's what you said about breaking the seal on my magic," Malfoy reminded her. Harry was surprised to hear so much hope sweeping through his voice.

"What's happened to us?" Harry pressed.

"Well, the conduits we used were supposed to work like this," Pomfrey explained. "They were supposed to strengthen and focus the magical energy leaving Mr. Potter, and filter and focus the energy entering your body, Mr. Malfoy. That way we could better control the flow of energy, to avoid overloading your system, or wasting any of the magic that we could muster from Mr. Potter. They were supposed to connect you for just long enough that Mr. Malfoy could absorb some of that magic, igniting his own.

"Unfortunately, the ritual is very, very old, and its effects are largely unpredictable. For a long time, no one kept records of the newer incantations they performed, and then this type of incantation quickly became outdated. I believe that a bonding spell was written into the spell that I performed on you; it was not a side effect, so much as a part of the incantation itself. Its purpose in connecting you even for a moment was to open a channel between the two of you permanent, so that Mr. Malfoy would always have access to the same jump start, if you will. Does that make sense to both of you?"

"Yes," said Malfoy immediately, just as Harry said, "Sure, but what does a bonding spell do, exactly?"

"I'm sure you've already suspected, already felt it, to an extent," Pomfrey said, sounding vaguely apologetic. "Mr. Potter, you will have felt more healthy and invigorated once Mr. Malfoy had woken up, like your strength had been returned to you more fully. Each of you might feel sleepy when the other sleeps, hungry when the other eats. That sort of thing. Emotions that run strong through either of you will also run through the other. I was confident Mr. Malfoy would wake up when I saw that you were in fine health, Mr. Potter."

"Like a psychic link?" Harry thought of the comic books Dudley had always brought home, superheroes with extraordinary telepathic abilities, reaching into each other's minds.

"More like a magical link," Pomfrey corrected him. "Because magic is so instinctual, programmed into your biological functions, this link is not going to be something that you can hope to control. You might learn to live with it rather comfortably, and you might learn to use it to your advantage, in some ways. You'll find it difficult to lie to one another now, and you'll recover from emotional trauma – shock, depression, et cetera – but ultimately it's little more than a window between you. You are connected, now. Plain and simple."

"So it's not like the link between me and Voldemort," Harry said, surprised at how firm he sounded. "We won't be able to read each other's thoughts, or manipulate each other's dreams?"

"Oh, I don't know about dreams," Pomfrey said, sounding interested. "You'll have to let me know whether your link extends into dreams. But you shouldn't be able to change each other's dreams, no. You're right about that, Mr. Potter."

Satisfied with this answer, Harry settled back against his pillows. He didn't have any more questions about the bond; it was something that existed, something that might effect how he went about his daily routine, but otherwise it wasn't anything that could be helped. It didn't give Malfoy any particular advantage over him, and the same was true for him. As long as it wouldn't hurt him, Harry couldn't be upset about that.

Malfoy seemed relatively relieved, as well. Once Pomfrey had gone, he admitted, "It's mostly like the bonding that would have taken place if I'd married the Belgian, anyway."

"Glad I could be a worthy substitute," Harry said, "even without the blue eyes."

Malfoy shrugged. "Like I said, it's not like I've got any reason to continue the legacy. Besides, children tend to be sticky."

:: :: ::

A week had passed; still Harry and Malfoy were not allowed to leave the infirmary. They took all of their meals in their cubicle, though Pomfrey had expanded their space to include several chairs, a small couch, and a coffee table for their visitors.

And they did have a slew of visitors, from Ron and Hermione, who visited daily, to Ginny, who stopped in every few days to update Harry on the final few Quidditch practices of the year. Though there were always a few awkward silences during her visits, mostly times that she and Malfoy eyed one another warily, both of them managed to maintain civility. Malfoy asked her questions about her course of study, and her plans to become an auror or play Quidditch professionally, and he even allowed her to show him a few tricks when it came to learning new spells.

"I had trouble channeling my magic when I was a first-year," Ginny admitted. "I'd point at a thimble, and a textbook two tables over would begin to dance."

Occasionally, Harry and Malfoy were visited by a handful of younger students at a time, all curious about Harry Potter and what rumor said had been an attempt to save Malfoy's life from a deadly illness. Malfoy relished in hearing these rumors, and he milked them for all he was worth, elaborating on the pain he had suffered while waiting for Harry and Madam Pomfrey to come up with a cure.

"I'm not sure I'd have expected you to encourage that sort of thing," Harry told him after one such visit. "Letting them think I'd done you a favor."

Malfoy merely shrugged, paging through one of the textbooks Hermione had brought up for him to read. "You did do me a favor. Why should they think otherwise? The truth will out, eventually. Besides, you should see how uncomfortable you look whenever they show up. It's all the entertainment I've got these days."

So Harry allowed it.

:: :: ::

Once, Pomfrey bustled into the cubicle, followed by a house-elf carrying a tray laden with biscuits and chocolates. The elf bobbed immediately over to the couch and chairs, where Malfoy and Harry had been sprawled with a thick Arithmancy text and a copy of the Quibbler, respectively.

"What's all this?" Malfoy asked, though he didn't hesitate in taking his favorite kind of caramel truffle from the tray.

"You have a guest," Pomfrey said cryptically.

"Who's that?" Harry asked. He helped himself to a few cookies.

Pomfrey merely shrugged, staying only long enough to flick her wand at their beds to change the sheets. Then she bustled right back out, presumably to tend to other patients and duties.

Seconds later, a tall, thin woman in rather nondescript, it not billowy, robes came into the cubicle. Harry studied her face, the strong cut of her jaw, the familiar turn of her mouth as she glanced around the cubicle nervously.

Malfoy sat up a little straighter. "Mother?"

Relief seemed to flood the woman's face, and Malfoy leapt up from his chair to hug her, nearly bowling her over.

"Wherever have you been?" Mrs. Malfoy asked, pushing Malfoy's hair away from his face. "Look at your hair! Why haven't you cut it?"

Malfoy brushed off the comment, explaining quickly, "Professor Snape took me into hiding. I had to give up my magic and live with Muggles, and I gardened, Mother! In the dirt! And then Harry came – "

Mrs. Malfoy looked gratefully at Harry. "You did know he was safe, after all."

Harry blushed, but at the smile Mrs. Malfoy gave him, he suspected that she knew as well as he did that he had made the whole thing up to save his skin that night. Of all people, he thought, she should respect a lie as important as that one. She must have told a few herself, over the years.

"Where have you been, Mother? Everyone said you'd gone missing, and the papers," Malfoy said. His voice had gone soft and a bit helpless, like a child's.

"I had to," Mrs. Malfoy explained. "After your father – well, the Ministry was all over the manor, and I had no real way of proving anything about my involvement. I might never have gone on the Dark Lord's raids, or attended any of his meetings, but I was party to a lot of dangerous information in that last year or so. I had no choice. But I've managed to arrange an estate for us south of here. It's a bit smaller than we're used to, and there will be fewer elves, of course – "

"Mother," Malfoy interrupted. "It's fine."

Mrs. Malfoy smiled broadly, touching Malfoy's face again, going over his eyebrows with her fingertips. "It's good to see you, Draco."

Malfoy hugged her tight again, and Harry looked away, studying his Quibbler intently. He had never been quite comfortable around such open displays of affection from families, having never really experienced too many of his own, and it seemed especially invasive of him to watch the Malfoys, of all families. Still, he'd caught the look of joy and pride in both Draco and his mother's faces, and he supposed that was all he really needed to have seen.

"We can go as soon as you're packed," Mrs. Malfoy told Draco. "The house is all ready, everything's there. I couldn't salvage much of the manor, but for a few heirlooms I managed to find. Looters, and all."

Harry glanced up; Mrs. Malfoy looked faintly embarrassed at the prospect of her belongings having been stolen from her home, only to be bought back by their rightful owner at a scandalously high price. Harry wondered if any of the old Black heirlooms had made it back to her hands.

"I'm not to leave the infirmary," Malfoy said.

"I'll have it all arranged, don't worry," Mrs. Malfoy said.

"But what about Harry?" Malfoy asked hesitantly.

"Whatever do you mean?" Mrs. Malfoy replied.

"Where's Harry going to go?"

"Back to the Burrow, I expect," Harry supplied. "At least, for the time being. I imagine I'll buy a house somewhere, or a flat in London."

Malfoy frowned, looking a little petulant. Mrs. Malfoy laid a hand on the crown of his head, an attempt to soothe him.

"He can do whatever he wants, love," she said absently. "He's not our responsibility."

"But the bond," Malfoy said stubbornly. "What if we need to stay close for the bond?"

Mrs. Malfoy opened her mouth to reply, then closed it, apparently at a loss. Harry had assumed she had been told about the bond, but apparently she hadn't quite considered the full meaning of it. Now the prospect of bringing Harry Potter into what was probably a very old wizarding estate seemed too much for Mrs. Malfoy to handle.

She cast a helpless look in Harry's direction, and Harry looked in turn at Malfoy. His cheeks had flushed a pale pink; suddenly Harry suspected there was something Malfoy was simply too stubborn to admit. Malfoy wanted him to stay close, bond or not.

Harry ventured, "Well, I've still got the house on Grimmauld Place."

Mrs. Malfoy's expression lit up. "The old Black house?"

"That's the one," Harry said, realizing for the first time that the Grimmauld house had been a place she remembered fondly from her childhood, regardless of its collection of dark and evil artifacts. Those artifacts might even have added to the joy Mrs. Malfoy now displayed. Harry glanced from Mrs. Malfoy to her son, understanding at last the full extent of the circumstances under which Malfoy must have been raised. He shivered.

Dryly, he added, "I'm sure it would be big enough for the three of us, if we clean it up a little."

"That settles it," Mrs. Malfoy said, shrugging mildly. "I'll arrange to have our things moved to Grimmauld Place immediately."

"You – wouldn't mind living with Harry, Mother?" Malfoy asked hesitantly.

"The two of you have been bonded, after all. That makes him practically family, doesn't it? Though this might not be entirely the life your father and I had intended for you – Well, not much seems to have gone the way we planned. At least you've been bonded to someone like him, whose intentions will usually be in your best interests…?"

Though his mother seemed slightly unsure of her own blessing of the situation, Malfoy looked enormously satisfied to hear that. He beamed at Harry across the cubicle. "Can we wire the house with Muggle electricity?" he asked.

While his question earned him a concerned look from his mother, Malfoy merely grinned, and Harry couldn't help but agree to have Grimmauld Place wired.

:: :: ::

The days came and went, along with a slough of so-called experts in the fields of bonding rituals, magical seals, and other ancient magic. Pomfrey never asked for Harry's permission, nor Malfoy's, for any of the tests performed; however, she did always cast the same apologetic look on both of them when she parted the curtains to their end of the ward, introducing them quickly to the newest healer or dusty academic.

At first Harry dreaded these visits, wherein old wizards with their cold, waxy hands would poke and prod at his shoulders, ask him to remove his shirt, peer curiously at his scar as though they were amazed to be seeing Harry Potter with their own eyes. He had thought most of the wizarding world had been done with all that, the sensationalism, the yearning for contact with him, the Chosen One business. It hadn't. If anything, this new turn of events – Harry's selfless sacrifice not just for the sake of humanity, but for the safety of a boy his own age, his rival – left Harry feeling nervous about the delicate nature of the information they left with in the evenings.

If Pomfrey hadn't assured both of them after every visit that these experts and nursemaids were sworn to absolute secrecy, Harry would have assumed that every paper in the wizarding world had been plastered over with news of Harry's accidental marriage to the Malfoy heir. He was not keen to repeat any adventures in the tabloids he had suffered in previous years.

Malfoy seemed to sense his apprehension and annoyance – though, to his credit, he was not the only one; Harry had never been one to hide his emotions, and he rarely hesitated to inform this specialist or that healer that he would rather their hands not stray any further south, thank you, even in the name of science.

After one particularly grueling visit, during which Harry had flung an end table at the wall after a mustachioed gentleman had commented on his rather stringy physique for the tenth time that afternoon, Malfoy said to Harry over the edge of a rather thick volume on the potential medical benefits of basilisk venom, "You really have nothing to worry about, you know. Malfoys have been smoothing over scandals for generations."

"I'm not worried," Harry replied icily, rubbing his knuckles where he'd hit the table. He felt restless, unable to sit; worse, he could tell that his pacing was beginning to wear on Malfoy's patience. Harry absently alternated between rubbing his hand and the space just below his sternum, where the ghosts of Malfoy's feelings lingered.

Pomfrey had offered to heal it, but he had been so irate that he had refused her help, snapping, "Let it serve as a warning." Malfoy had clucked at him like some mother hen, raising his arms obediently for his healer as though she was a tailor. Harry had almost regretted his actions, until the next round of healers came, smoothing over the torn skin on his hand without his permission, and prodding him with their wands even more incessantly than usual.

Malfoy now shrugged, not looking away from Harry. "Suit yourself. But if there's one thing everyone knows about Harry Potter, it's that he's incapable of hiding anything from the press."

"What, the Prophet?" Harry nearly spat. "That rag has always been biased against me, ever since that Skeeter woman – "

"It isn't about biases, Harry," Malfoy said soothingly. He seemed to have adopted a little of his old confidence, since his mother had returned to him. Harry wasn't sure if he found it relieving or irritating. "It's about celebrity, and naivety, and unfortunately you've got plenty of both."

"Why do you care what they say about me, anyway?" Harry asked. "It's not like you have to have your name dragged around with mine. You just said you can smooth it all over if you want – why not just amend it? I'll say it's someone nobody cares about, a Ravenclaw – "

"You don't get it, do you?" Malfoy interrupted coldly.

"What?" Harry asked, now thoroughly irritated. He wanted to take a hot, leisurely shower in the hospital wing's private stalls, then summon a meal so heavy it would take him days to sleep off.

But Malfoy's pale eyes bored through his anticipation, forcing him to attempt to sort it all out.

"Anything you tell the papers will inevitably come back to me," Malfoy said. "Think of all the people who have seen us together this year – who will notice that we're both missing from our classes, from the Great Hall at meals. Someone, somewhere, will have a weak spot for the fame or the money they're offering. We'll be outed eventually, unless we go in together on this."

He paused, allowing Harry ample opportunity to respond. When Harry remained stubbornly quiet, Malfoy said, "I'll take that as a request for help."

Harry still didn't respond. Malfoy turned a page in his book, finally lowering his eyes. The sounds of the paper against his dry fingers was maddening to Harry, who could barely understand where this anger was coming from. Constantly feeling hints of Malfoy's desire for him to calm down were not helping matters.

But who were these people, thinking that Harry needed their help? That he wanted to separate himself from Malfoy again? Admittedly, the bond had seemed strange at first, as though a second heart had been implanted into Harry's chest. In time he had adapted, and now he could not imagine his daily life without feeling the rhythm of Malfoy's emotions alongside his own. It was normalizing, after so many years of his wild moods. Harry had never before been so aware of how internally polarized his emotions could be, swinging from anger to tenderness to grief within minutes.

Something in his mind told him that these were normal for a teenaged boy, especially one who had seen all that he had – but something also reminded him of the looks he had already received this year for his strange behavior. Ron was not so moody. Even Hermione maintained control; Harry remembered the day she had let her temper get the best of her, when she had sent a flock of angry canaries hurtling toward Ron's head, but it was the exception to the rule. No one had gotten hurt, unlike Harry's end table.

Harry sighed, but Malfoy didn't look up from his book until Harry cleared his throat hesitantly and said, "Thank you."

Malfoy closed his book. "Everyone always said you were rather stupid, but after careful observation I can honestly refute their accusations. You may be a bit slow, but you do always come around. It's only a matter of time before you'll be conversing like a normal human being, and not some troll, grunting and smashing."

If anyone else had said it, Harry might have been embarrassed by the rebuke. Instead he brushed it off as Malfoy – although pieces of the conversation continued to catch up with him.

"You care more about your own name than you do about mine?" Harry asked abruptly.

"What?" Malfoy seemed more annoyed than surprised that Harry would ask that.

"All that talk about your family's legacy not mattering so much anymore," Harry said. "Suddenly your mother's back in the picture, and you can only think about the scandal it would cause if anyone found out about us? Can you really change your mind about something so important after just a few days?"

"A lot has happened in these few days," Malfoy replied tersely.

"So your pushing for me to live with you," Harry said, "that was just so I wouldn't be free to run off and shout my story to the press? Is that it?"

"Heaven help us, Potter, I just finished praising you for not being a total idiot," Malfoy snapped. "In less than five minutes you've completely nullified that praise. Are you really so surprised that I would choose my mother, my family's safety, over you?"

Harry stopped, dumbstruck. After everything they'd been through together, with the ritual and the bonding, the resulting tests that had been forced on both of them, Harry had forgotten that there was any reason to mistrust Malfoy. The possibility that he had been wrong about Malfoy dawned on him slowly.

"Then you really haven't changed," Harry said quietly. "You're still the same old Malfoy, only looking out for yourself, your name."

"Of course I am," Malfoy replied. His expression was terrible; Harry had to look away for the anger and betrayal rushing under his sternum. "You've been acting like I'm not the same person, like I'm one of 'the good guys,' one of your friends. I'm still a Malfoy, still a Slytherin. How could you have trusted me so readily on Privet Drive, not knowing what I was doing there, or whether I was telling the truth? I could have been there to attack you, Potter. I could have been there to kill you. And you would have walked right into the trap."

"But – you didn't," Harry said helplessly. The anger was washing away, replaced by desperation and guilt over his own foolish actions. His friends had been right not to trust Malfoy, after all, and now Harry would be forced to stay close to him for the rest of his life. A suitable irony, Harry thought.

"No, I didn't," Malfoy agreed. "I didn't curse you, or kill you. I couldn't. I didn't have my magic, or a wand. I wanted to, when I first saw you. Believe me, I wanted to. But how imbecilic would I have to have been to murder the one person who could have helped me then? I'd been stranded for a year. You might have been the only wizard I would ever see again, and if I drove you off right away, you would have left and never come back. So you see, I had to be nice to you then."

"You have a funny definition of 'nice,' Malfoy," Harry retorted. "Is that why you were so friendly with my relatives? You were manipulating them, too?"

"It didn't make any sense for me to alienate or insult the Dursleys. I was at their mercy, especially without my magic. You might have bullied and threatened them, and they may have deserved it, after the way they treated you – but I was defenseless, and alone. I did not want to risk being thrown out of the only safe haven I knew. Over time it became more natural, especially with Petunia. She apparently felt quite guilty about mistreating you after she realized she might have sent you off to your death."

So Harry had been right about that; Petunia had second-guessed her treatment of Harry, after all.

"It didn't hurt that I explained the severity of the situation in the wizarding world," Malfoy went on. "She asked about you, once, and when I told her what Dumbledore's men were expecting of you, she seemed suitably horrified. She was much more accepting of my presence there, after she learned what you were expected to do. Apparently I served as a surrogate nephew for her, a second chance to embrace the wizarding world. And I was safer than you ever were, without my magic. I was the nephew she was supposed to have had."

"Figures," Harry muttered. Leave it to Malfoy to manipulate the Dursleys. No wonder they had gotten along so well. The information settled low in Harry's belly as the implications of Malfoy's behavior became clearer to Harry. "You manipulated me, too."

"At Privet Drive? Yes, I did. I told you, I had to play nice in order to get my magic back. I didn't think you would help me any other way. Then you told me about the Dark Lord and your stupid sacrifice. Who else would show that kind of humility, dying to save everyone, not just their friends, but their enemies. You weren't just saving the good in the world, you were saving most of the evil in it, too. It was mind-blowing for me to hear that."

"Yeah, well, I didn't help you because I was humble, I helped you because Dumbledore wanted it," Harry said.

"But don't you see?" Malfoy asked helplessly. "How many other people would have done that? I broke your nose, Potter, and I hurt your friends. I tortured Longbottom for years. I got you put in detention hundreds of times. I constantly tried to make your life difficult, and do you know why?"

"I put your father in prison," Harry said automatically. "I fought against everything your family believed in."

"No!" Malfoy had a crazed look in his eyes. Harry could feel his mania, his longing for Harry to understand, swelling in his chest; the pressure of it was almost unbearable. "You didn't want to be my friend."


"It was stupid," Malfoy said. "We were eleven, and you chose Weasley. That's not the point."

"Then what is the point?' Harry said waspishly. "Please enlighten me."

"The entire time we were in school, I wanted you to show some sign that I mattered," Malfoy said. His tone had dropped. "I had grown up in a world where I was the most important – but you were still the most powerful. You were still the boy my father spent more time thinking about. Who wouldn't have been jealous? I was supposed to carry on my family's name, but what did if matter if Harry Potter wasn't stopped? So I, too, fell into the trap. You always seemed so unworthy of the attention. But you weren't, were you? You were exactly worth every minute everyone spent talking about you instead of me."

Harry didn't know what to say. The reminder of his fame irritated him, made him uncomfortable, but he had never realized the impact he'd had on Malfoy over the years. He had always assumed that Malfoy was just a bully who wanted to get under his skin – he had never understood why Malfoy might have wanted it so badly. He felt guilty, suddenly, more than anything else.

"So I told myself that I would use you to regain my magic," Malfoy said. "Finally I would have the influence over you that I'd always wanted – and if anyone could help me, it would be you. Especially after we got back to Hogwarts, and Pomfrey didn't seem to have any idea how to fix the problem, I knew it would be up to you. All the time spent tutoring together, flying together – at first it was aggravating, to have asked you for help and have to spend so much time with you. But if I wanted to be honest with myself, I knew all along that I wouldn't be able just to manipulate you."

"What made the difference?"

Malfoy looked pained to say it. "You looked – older. Taller. You hadn't shaved. You actually seemed to care what happened to me. I didn't stand a chance."

Harry felt suddenly, irrevocably cowed. Despite giving Malfoy the benefit of the doubt, he had still managed to forget how complex he could be. He had assumed that Malfoy had to have been good or bad, trustworthy or not, when really Malfoy's confusion over the bizarre nature of the entire situation was probably even more overwhelming than Harry's had been.

Sensing Harry's softening mood, Malfoy seemed to collect himself rather quickly.

"Anyway, I just – it's not that I'm not looking out for you, too," Malfoy said. "I just have my family to consider again, too."

Harry stiffened, but his thoughts strayed to the soft brush of Mrs. Malfoy's hair against his face as she'd asked if Malfoy was alive. He thought of the joy on Malfoy's face when he'd seen her again, and the screams of Lucius as he'd died. Harry couldn't blame Malfoy for clinging to some part of his family's past, even a less desirable one. If placed in the same situation, Harry would be forced to do the same.

"Fine," Harry said. If he was going to be living with Malfoy for so long, he figured he might as well make things as easy as possible on both of them. They didn't need constant reminders of the fact that they came from two very different worlds. It was enough for Harry, he decided, that Malfoy had changed as much as he had, regardless of his actions when they'd first met at Privet Drive.

Malfoy looked immensely relieved, but shot him a look that clearly stated, Let's never speak of this again.

:: :: ::

That summer, Harry's birthday found him celebrating on the new rooftop garden at Grimmauld Place. They had been living there together, the three of them, for only about two months, but already the place had shown marked improvements as far as everyone was concerned. Mrs. Malfoy had insisted that the family tree had been left up in the third floor study, but the rest of the house had been thoroughly cleaned and redecorated, and so many Weasleys and other well-wishers came to visit them that the large house rarely seemed empty.

While Harry might have preferred a small cottage in the country, like the Burrow or Godric's Hollow, he found that Grimmauld Place was a suitable alternative, especially after Malfoy had insisted that they convert the flat rooftop into a garden patio, complete with fairy lights and a sturdy hedge to keep away the neighbors' prying eyes.

They had invited a small crowd the night of Harry's birthday, including most of the Weasleys (Bill and Fleur were, of course, breaking charms together in Egypt), Hermione, Luna Lovegood, a few of Malfoy's surviving Slytherin friends, and several professors from Hogwarts.

Arthur Weasley had just begun slicing generous portions of the enormous, lopsided cake that Molly and Hagrid had collaborated on, Ginny at his side scooping ice cream, when the doors to the rooftop terrace had opened, revealing to everyone's surprise, Professor McGonagall.

"Minerva!" Molly exclaimed, her mouth dropping open.

"Yes, hello, everyone," McGonagall said. She was confined to a wheelchair, a bold tartan blanket spread over her legs despite the sunny heat of the day – and behind her, pushing the chair, was none other than Neville Longbottom.

"Neville!" Harry cried.

Neville wheeled McGonagall over to the table, where she was nearly buried in well-wishers asking about her health. Though her voice was a bit scratchy from disuse, and she looked quite thin and pale, she otherwise seemed her usual firm but friendly self.

"Managed to get away from the greenhouse for the day," Neville told Harry when they got a moment to properly greet one another. "I thought we could make it a joint birthday party."

"Great," Harry laughed, clapping him on the back. Sobering a bit, he added quietly, "How long as she been awake?"

"A few days," Neville said. "But she was only just released this morning from the hospital. They've been monitoring her closely. It was a small miracle that I managed to let them release her for the day. Isn't that right, professor?"

Apparently having been listening in, McGonagall wheeled herself closer, smiling broadly at Harry from beneath the broad brim of her hat. "Couldn't miss this opportunity to see you, Harry, before you embark on your adult life."

"No, I imagine not," Harry said, grinning just as broadly. "It's good to see you, Professor."

"Tell me," she said, raising an eyebrow. "Are you still planning on joining the aurors?"

Harry discussed his plans with her for a while, gladly taking the cake that had been shoved into his hands by Ginny, grateful when Malfoy had appeared by his side.

McGonagall's voice turned sharp as she addressed him."And you, Mr. Malfoy? What are you going to do with yourself?"

Malfoy glanced at Harry, smirking. "Well, I can't very well let Harry have all the fun, now can I? I reckon I'll join up with the aurors, too. Someone's got to clear the Malfoy name, after all."

McGonagall seemed terribly amused by this, but she nodded. "You always did have exceptionally high marks, when you set your mind to it. The Ministry would be lucky to have you. Both of you."

"Thank you, professor," said Malfoy. He hesitated a moment, pushing his cake around a bit with the tines of his fork. "Professor, might I ask – ?"

"About the sealing charms?" she finished. "I thought you might want to know. Poppy has sent me several owls about your struggles this term, though I've only now been able to read them. I am sorry I couldn't do more to help you when it could have been useful."

Malfoy shrugged elegantly. "Water under the bridge, I suppose."

"Severus and I never expected it to be so difficult for you to reverse," McGonagall admitted, looking faintly embarrassed. "We set measures in place so that you couldn't break the seal on your own, of course – the pressures of the situation, of being placed with the Dursleys, of losing your magic and being completely cut off from the only world you'd known. We agreed it would be best for you to remain without magic until we could find you again, and explain everything properly, about Severus's true loyalties, and Dumbledore's requests of us regarding your safety."

"Dumbledore had a hand in this?" Malfoy asked, flushing a rather indignant shade of pink.

McGonagall nodded. "He was the one who asked us to place you at the Dursleys. He suspected that, if left to your own devices, you would be even more determined to help your family, using any means necessary. You are a Slytherin, after all, although at times more loyal than a typical Slytherin."

Malfoy did not seem to be able to decide whether he was more annoyed or pleased by this assessment; in the end, he said nothing, but shoved a large forkful of cake into his mouth to avoid further conversation on the subject.

"Well, we knew as well as he did that those means would involve Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Dumbledore made it clear to you, did he not, that you alone held the power to choose your path?"

"He did mention something like that," Malfoy mumbled through his cake.

"You may not have known that Severus had made an Unbreakable Vow with your mother, promising all in his power to keep you safe," McGonagall went on.

Malfoy did look surprised to hear this; he glanced at his mother for some sort of confirmation, but she was engaged in reluctant conversation with Molly Weasley about the floral pattern of the tablecloth. Malfoy looked back at McGonagall, hungry for information.

"Protecting you involved keeping you out of Voldemort's plans," she said simply. "That might not make much sense to you at this point, but at the time it seemed obvious to Severus, and to me, that the best option for you was to remove you from the situation. We had your mother's sanction, and you were still a minor at the time."

She shrugged, as if unsure what else she could say about the matter.

"But why the Dursleys?" Harry asked. "Why not Mrs. Figg, or – I don't know – Mundungus Fletcher?"

"What, that old dust bag?" McGonagall scoffed. "He'd have sooner sold Draco to the highest bidder than kept him safe. And as for Arabella, she might seem sturdy, but she hasn't been getting any younger. We did consider her, but she did not feel up for the task of shepherding a teenager with price on his head. She did agree to keep an eye on you, though, despite it being from a distance. We did tell Draco that she would be around if he desperately needed help."

"Not that she could have helped me," Malfoy muttered.

"There wasn't anyone else?" Harry asked helplessly.

"If we'd had more time, we might have found a more suitable situation," McGonagall agreed. "But, in the end, who would ever have thought to look for Draco Malfoy at the Dursleys? It turned out to be quite a safe decision, and when we approached them about the situation, they seemed remarkably receptive. Petunia especially seemed to understand the severity of the circumstances. If it weren't for her willingness, especially once we explained that we could seal his magic, the Dursleys would not have allowed him to stay with them."

There was a quiet moment then, while Harry considered Petunia's unexpected kindness, and what Draco had said about their relationship. Maybe he had pegged Petunia wrong all along; maybe she had cared more about his mother than even he had known, and she had felt guilty about mistreating him. Or maybe she was just worried that Harry would have caused them serious damage if he'd found out they'd destroyed his things. He smiled a bit at that; Petunia would have understood the power necessary to destroy Voldemort better than Dudley or Vernon, even if she couldn't grasp it in its entirety.

"I suppose it was shortsighted of us to expect that both of us would survive the war unscathed," McGonagall admitted presently. "For that I apologize, Draco. We should have enlisted a secret-keeper. But our plan was implemented so quickly, and it was difficult to know whose loyalties were true to what or whom. Choosing an appropriate secret-keeper proved difficult for the same reasons, and it's a good thing we didn't have time to find one. Otherwise Harry might never have found you."

Malfoy shot Harry a look that spoke plainly of Malfoy's desire to tell McGonagall off for her poor planning, a look that also told Harry that he owed Malfoy one for biting his tongue now.

"We wouldn't even have considered the Dursleys as an option if it weren't for you, Draco," McGonagall said absently, but there was a twinkle of humor in her eye.

"What?" said Harry.

"How could it have been my fault?" Malfoy asked sharply.

"The night I came to Spinner's End, you overheard Severus and myself discussing our options for you," McGonagall explained. "When you heard we were going to seal your magic – well, do you remember what you said?"

Malfoy colored instantly, but adamantly replied, "I haven't a clue."

"'I might as well be living as a Muggle,' you said. It certainly gave us ideas. The Dursleys were a suitable compromise, considering their knowledge of the wizarding world and the fact that we've imposed on them in the past."

"Oh, brilliant," Malfoy said drily. "I imprisoned myself with the Muggles."

"You seem all the better for it," McGonagall said shrewdly. "To be honest, before we took you away, I wasn't sure which side of this war you would end up on. The experience seems to have done you some good."

Malfoy muttered something and excused himself, slipping off to discuss something much safer across the terrace. McGonagall, too, slipped into conversation with Ginny nearby, leaving Harry a moment to think.

Harry watched Malfoy across the garden, considering all the ways McGonagall was right about Malfoy. He wondered what she'd expected to have happened to him, alone with the Muggles, whether they'd expected Malfoy to rebel and run away. They didn't seem to have accounted for that, probably because Snape had figured Malfoy correctly: it wasn't lucrative for him to have run from Privet Drive. He was better off and safer staying with the Dursleys until someone could come for him.

How bizarre, Harry thought, that life could have brought them together this way. He had seen some very strange things, but never in his life had he anticipated this particular turn. Nor had he expected to be so comfortable with it, despite the fact that he and Malfoy would surely continue to butt heads throughout their lives.

Presently, Mr. Weasley appeared at Harry's side. Handing him a slice of the birthday cake, Mr. Weasley told him, "The professor's right, you know."

And reluctantly, glancing at Malfoy, and then at Mrs. Malfoy, he added, "Both of you would make welcome additions to the aurors' team. And recruiting season is almost upon us."

Harry called Malfoy over, rolling the idea over in his mind. It struck him as funny, that he and Malfoy should become an auror team, after everything.

"What do you think?" Harry asked. "It would mean converting to our side, you know."

"We would make a pretty spectacular team," Malfoy mused. "It would be quite dangerous out there. You'd be cursed to oblivion without someone there to watch your back. And as for switching sides, Potter – you should know by now that a ministry alliance does not necessarily mean that my personal views would be the same as yours."

"So?" Harry asked, rolling his eyes. "You think we should join?"

Malfoy shrugged casually. "Sure. What else have we got to do?"