Author: [info]mildlunacy (aka Reena)

Rating: R for violence and sexual content.

Disclaimer: universe not mine. shocking, I know.

Author's notes: I don't know what to say about this. It had been my baby for a long, long time; started right after OoTP. It means the world to me that you're reading it, and that I finished it, and I hope you enjoy reading it even a fraction of how much I enjoyed writing it.

This novella may utilize some facts and elements from HBP and DH, but overall it occurs on an entirely separate timeline after OoTP and is definitely AU.

Dedication: to Aja and Amalin, who believe. Love.

Summary: Harry and Draco both have ghosts to face in the crucible of their sixth year. Rings of power, strange dreams, confusing feelings, midnight assignations and dark revelations abound. In the end, nothing will ever be the same as both of them learn the worth of their promises.



PROLOGUE // the fall.


Oh night thou was my guide
oh night more loving than the rising sun
Oh night that joined the lover
to the beloved one
transforming each of them into the other

- St. John of the Cross
~~

- June 19th 1996, Malfoy Manor.


When they'd come to take his father away, Draco was asleep.

He had Portkeyed in for the weekend just the evening prior, acting on a summons that brooked no argument. The school was still in a mild state of disorder and no one would bat an eyelash to see the younger Malfoy gone once again for the weekend. Every Slytherin knew Draco had special lessons, supplementary lessons, that he had needed to attend since Hogwarts was such a pathetic excuse for an education.

Draco woke up with the sense of burning in his mind, shaking, panicking, not knowing why. He remembered a dream, barely, and he knew he was almost about to realize something vital. If he only knew it, he could win. He didn't know what he needed to know, but he knew he needed it.

In a single-minded daze, he got out of bed and slipped down the hall barefoot, uncaring he was still in his pajamas. The Manor was always kept at the ideal temperature, but Draco couldn't stop shivering. He knew the house was secure. No one would get past the wards at the gates unless Lucius Malfoy willed them to. The house was safe. Draco had always been safe here.

At the first step of the grand staircase, Draco froze in place.

The marble felt icy to his bare skin, but he no longer felt the cold. The scene was a little too surreal to take in all at once; for a second, Draco was certain he was still dreaming, and he would have pinched himself-- wake up, wake UP!-- if his father's cool grey gaze hadn't kept him still.

Lucius stood right by the door, completely composed, as calm and stern-faced as he always appeared before him. He wore the plain cloak and black leather shoes customary for travel. Draco wasn't sure what was going on, but his heart hammered madly, a tiny frightened bird.

Draco knew showing any fear would be unforgivable. He held himself up stiff and ramrod straight. To the side, there were three men Draco didn't recognize; they were in the sitting room, casting long shadows into the moonlit foyer. Aurors.

Clenching his fists, Draco looked past his father to glare at the men, who ignored him. They didn't speak, didn't even glance at him. His father appeared to be waiting for something. Draco opened his mouth to say something to them-- he didn't know what, but it would be good-- when his father preempted him.

"Draco."

His attention snapped like a rubber band.

He could barely speak past the dryness in his throat. "Father," he whispered.

"Come down now," he said calmly.

Draco jerked slightly, the back of his neck prickling. Suddenly, there was a flash of heat down his spine, and he itched all over. His mind was curiously blank as he came down the steps, knowing his father noted his appearance and disapproved, though he said nothing.

He stood at the last step, unmoving, his lips pressed tight. That moment of silence felt like a cut along his shoulder blades, quiet but deep.

"Good," his father said. "You will listen to your aunt Bellatrix. She will be here to take care of things shortly."

He gave a jerky nod, but his father wasn't paying attention. Bellatrix had been coming for a visit all along. It was why Draco was here, and he'd been looking forward to it. The Dark Lord may come, too, Draco knew; it would be an honor.

"I'm going to give this to you now. Never take it off, do you understand me?"

"Yes, Father," Draco said numbly.

With no further ceremony, his father slipped the large golden ring onto Draco's index finger. He had to bite his lip to stifle a cry.

It burned!

The ring felt blistering hot, and it seemed to tighten to fit itself so tightly as to cause continuous throbbing pain. The pain did gradually recede into the background, but there was a constant telltale buzzing. Draco concentrated on not flinching, and he saw his father give a tight smile. He could try to get the ring off later, he thought. He didn't understand what was going on yet, anyway.

The next few minutes passed in a haze, and when Draco's mind cleared and the burning subsided, both his father and the men were gone. He hadn't heard the door shut, nor seen the Aurors pass. He stood there for a few seconds, dumbfounded, and was almost at the point of yelling and reaching for the door handle when he felt his mother's hand on his shoulder. It startled him so much he jumped, gasping a little.

"Shhh... shhh, darling." Narcissa turned him around gently, but Draco turned his face away as his mother moved to wrap her arms around him. "Let me...."

He couldn't quite manage to pull away; she needed this more than he did. She was shaking, he could tell. Even so, he didn't want to be coddled right now. He needed to act, and immediately. They took his father! This was unforgivable. Unacceptable.

"No! I have to--" The ring was pulsating hotly, and Draco was a bit dizzy. He leaned against his mother's shoulder, feeling like he'd be pulled under into dreams if he let go. Maybe he'd wake up and his dad would still be home.

"It's all right. We have to be strong now, both of us. My darling boy," she murmured. She smelled dizzyingly of moonflowers and jasmine. "That's right, we'll be fine, won't we?"

"Yeah." He pulled back a bit and immediately regretted it. Somehow, he couldn't quite maintain the proper level of cold anger or determination when she looked at him like that. He just felt lost. What was he supposed to do?

The tears burned at his nose and the corner of his eyes, but that was all. Draco broke away entirely and stepped back; he took one step, then another, until he was backed up against the door. He tightened his fists and straightened his posture, but the strange burning tightness of the ring grounded him the most. He couldn't look his mum in the eyes, even so.

She waited for him, and didn't attempt to hug him forcefully again. Things really had changed.

"You should go back to bed, Draco," she said finally. "It's not quite morning yet."

He shook his head mutely, not paying attention. He couldn't sleep. He had to act.

"No," he said, and then more strongly: "No, Mother. You go back. Go back to sleep. I'll take care of things." He glanced up from her white slippers, eyes flickering past her equally white face to settle on the moonlit trees visible through the main windows.

She wrung her hands uncertainly. "If you think that's for the best, darling."

His whole body felt still and sharp as a needle as he looked calmly at his mother and smiled. "I do," he said.

He knew she wanted to hold him once again. Maybe his mother wished Draco was four years old again, and all this amounted to no more than a scraped knee. Then everything could be fixed with a cuddle and a few whispered words from mummy. But no, of course this wasn't about him or any of his stupid old problems. He knew that. She must wish Draco was a grown up. Then he could have known what to do to prevent this whole... mistake, to protect his parents.

Both of them.

The idea left a hole in his stomach, both fear and some weird sense of yearning.

They'd only taken his dad for now, but this meant none of them were safe. This meant-- Draco's mind couldn't quite complete any train of thought entirely, and he gritted his teeth. Bloody hell, he needed to think, but he couldn't! Not here. Everything was swirling around hotly in his head, in time with the pounding pulse in Draco's ring finger. If not for the rush of adrenaline, he'd probably be trembling or nauseous; he barely held it back.

He realized that once again, there'd been a long, empty silence as both of them hovered next to each other. It seemed his mother sensed something in him that told her to stay clear of further attempts at comfort. This left them at an impasse, apparently.

"Don't-- don't stay up too long," Narcissa whispered. "It's not-- it's not good for you." She lingered a moment, waiting until Draco nodded, and then she hurried nimbly back up the stairs, lifting the hem of her robe with clenched fingers.

After his mother had gone, Draco climbed slowly back up the smooth, gleaming staircase. The impossible state of focused calm returned when his mum had finally left.

His fists clenched so tightly it hurt, but his face was set, almost frozen. Slowly, his mind cleared. His emotions were damped down, raging somewhere far away, as if there was a river behind a great stone dam but all he could see was the stillness of a pond.

He walked blindly forward, trying to look at the situation like a puzzle to be solved. The situation. What was it?

Firstly, Draco now had a brand new ring to show for bothering to get out of bed.

Secondly, it was Potter's fault. He was going back to Hogwarts tomorrow evening, in time for school on Monday. It was a bit absurd, really, that school-- and O.W.L.s., no less-- were still a concern. He had to do well, though. And he had to get Potter for this.

Distantly, he realized that this meant it was up to him, now. There were no excuses for failure. Potter had to pay. This was really what his father's departure meant. It meant Draco had to be the one to make the Malfoy name proud. There were going to be no excuses; no more time to waste. He had to be prepared for Aunt Bellatrix, and for everything else, and he had to start immediately.

Draco stopped and looked down; the ring winked at him.

"Huh," he breathed.

The strangely cold black stone set inside it glittered with tiny embers of red. No natural mineral that dark should be glowing like that, but it was obvious that his new possession had a serious enchantment upon it. Physically speaking, the ring was interesting as well; there was an inscription on the stone, something that looked like a coat of arms, an almost but not quite familiar design.

Still. If not for the effects it had on him, it looked ordinary enough. Draco had seen his father wearing fancier jewels to weekday breakfasts.

And now, it seemed, he'd wandered into his father's study. This was a place he was normally forbidden to enter. He would have expected to encounter some ward spell, but before he realized it, he was inside. The huge desk faced him, its chair emptiness accusing Draco somehow, as if it was his fault that Father was gone. Taken.

"It's not!" Draco yelled, then flinched, backing up a step.

Only silence greeted him, but it set his teeth on edge. There were deep shadows in this room, and they pooled all around him as he stood alone in the center. This was the same spot he'd stand in when he'd done something to displease his father. The realization was a jolt of electric current up his spine; he couldn't stand still.

In a few halting steps, Draco stood at the other side of the desk, next to the empty chair. His father's absence was palpable here, a screaming void. He had to remind himself to calm down; he was alive. He'd be back. He'd be back, since there was no way they could keep him there when they had the Dark Lord on their side. The winning side. Of course this was temporary; Draco had to bear with it, and act in his father's place. He'd left his instructions, hadn't he?

Right.

Draco looked out the huge bay window, though all he saw were only shadows and the stars. The moon hid behind a cloud for now, so that Draco's attention was helplessly drawn to all the constellations. The Dragon was bright from mid-March to mid-June, and the Hunter was gradually growing brighter every night. Draco could just about make out the Lady and the Wizard in their eternal dance.

This was the exact spot where his father had taught him the stories when Draco had been a child, but the memories only brought a sharp twinge to his chest. Besides, he had no time to waste on this sort of childish stuff anymore.

He turned his back to the dark sky and gripped the edge of the chair. The leather didn't squeak or otherwise protest, simply giving way beneath his fingers. For some reason, this made him angry.

With a huff, Draco wheeled the chair to the side and sat, breathing hard.

After a moment, he realized no lightning was going to burst through the window to strike him down, as he always secretly suspected it would. At any other time, he might even have been disappointed; right then, he hissed and had to grit his teeth not to start sobbing for real.

"Fuck!" he cried, knocking his head back against the headrest, but it only cushioned him. He swallowed hard, gripping his knees. He had to think.

Draco groaned. It didn't matter, now. He could sit in his father's study, on his father's chair, looking out his father's window upon his father's favorite view as dawn broke. Who needed to go back to his room to sleep, anyway?

He stared at the stone again and strained to remember more, trying to focus on his endless childhood lessons of wizarding family emblems. All that resulted was a pounding headache. The more he stared at it, the more he was certain he'd seen that coat of arms before; it couldn't be an active wizarding family, nor a very large one. Otherwise, Draco was certain he'd have gotten it easily. The harder he tried to remember, the more it felt like there was a vise squeezing tighter around his forehead.

"Oww!" he cried, whining slightly. He rubbed his forehead, trying to stop the room from spinning. "Bugger! That burns!" He could almost smell something burnt and electric, like the aftermath of a thunderstorm.

Draco snorted under his breath. He was really an idiot. He just needed to look it up, that was all. Draco closed his eyes, wishing he could do this in the morning. He wished he could go to sleep here, where his father seemed to be both most present and most absent.

He breathed in and out, letting himself be lulled by the soft chair and the silence. As long as he didn't open his eyes, he wouldn't see the shadows. He could pretend his father had just stepped out, and Draco was simply pushing his luck in the worst way. His father might punish him, but at the moment he almost welcomed the idea.

God, he didn't want to open his eyes. This was unfortunate, because he definitely had to. He had to go look at some of those private books his father kept on the shelves. He had to turn the light on. He had to get up, he told himself, but somewhere around that point Draco lost his train of thought.

He woke up with a start. Slowly, Draco turned the chair around, staring outside.

The trees outside the Manor glowed with a faint peachy pink aura, their new green suffused with a golden dawn shimmer. Shadows of birds could be seen sweeping above them, only specks in the distance. Draco thought of how often his father would've sat here at this time, planning something new and brilliant and secret, and he wished he could Incendio the whole forest right then.

Potter would have to die, Draco thought almost dreamily.

As this crossed his mind, Draco's eyes moved downwards again, and he noticed with faint surprise that father's ring possessed a crimson glow.

There was the answer. He would bet anything on it. At that moment, Draco was filled with a pure conviction: right there was the key to Potter's death. The ring was definitely the key.

He wasn't as good at Charms and stone-work (though it was part of Runes) as he should be, but he knew he wouldn't rest until he knew exactly what his father intended. And, of course, what he could do to use it to suit his own needs. Draco was under no delusions that his father meant to help him with any of his personal desires here, but if it helped his father, there was yet hope. Knowing Dark artifacts, the task ahead of him would most probably involve some kind of pain and suffering, yes, but Draco was prepared. He had been ever since second year, when his father had finally taken him to Nocturne Alley.

In better circumstances, Draco could've fully appreciated all this, since Dark artifacts were... well, really cool. He was lucky to finally acquire one of such obvious merit. As it was, he knew he'd be pleased later.

He definitely wouldn't waver; Bellatrix was coming, and she'd like to see Draco fail. She would have to be disappointed.

Leaning back in his father's leather armchair, Draco found himself drifting back to sleep with a faint smile.

~~

- Late August 1996, Malfoy Manor

School started in a few days: Draco's sixth year. It was about time. It was about time for the House of Slytherin to get what it was due, he thought. This had crossed his mind with weakening enthusiasm the longer the summer wore on. With every day spent either alone or drilled by Bellatrix, all his father's so-called friends on high alert about associating with him now that the Malfoys were 'exposed', he got angrier.

He had enough on his hands just keeping up with the sporadic Legilimency training, Dark Arts lessons and divination and other things Draco was pretty sure he'd never need. Bellatrix didn't exactly follow a rational plan for his instruction; it was more like which way her mood swung that day. That, and how much she wanted to torture him for her own amusement. House spirit wasn't exactly a priority for Draco. In the end, it wasn't just Potter: it was all of them. Traitors, all of them, he thought, though he knew better than to say it.

It didn't matter; Draco hated them all equally. Now that the Malfoys' fortunes fell, since his father 'allowed' himself to be captured, they would have to fight their way back into the Dark Lord's good graces. Once the school term began, Draco could only hope to do some damage control among the Slytherins who had been his to start with. This meant avoiding Nott and Zabini as much as possible. He had important work to do, after all. Once he figured out what it was.

Though Draco didn't have much time entirely to himself this summer, it still galled him that he hadn't made any real progress in his research. He didn't even discover the source of the family crest on the stone. He could only think that his father had hidden the really valuable volumes cleverly enough so that Draco couldn't find them. It was probably even true.

Sitting on his father's chair with ten musty volumes laid open on his desk at night, when Bellatrix was less likely to find him there, Draco didn't think much of his own excuses. His time, once so plentiful, was running out, and the frustration was driving him mad, inch by painful inch.

"Gah!" He rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand. "I need a drink." It would be laughable if it wasn't so fucking serious.

He wished he could throw things, but he couldn't risk making noise. Nor the chance that the books might be charmed to retaliate. Draco sighed and knocked his forehead wearily against the desk.

He may as well have spent the summer getting into Parkinson's pants. It would have been more enjoyable, not to mention productive. It would give him a sense of achievement, for one thing. Some self-satisfaction would be nice. And it would settle the stupid bet Draco heard was going around in Slytherin about his preferences. Ugh. It was like everyone needed to be bloody Zabini to get some respect these days.

"Sorry for not being a slut, Zabini," Draco said nastily, sneering at his imaginary opponent. "Some of us have a little discrimination and taste. Not that you'd know anything about that."

Great. He was talking to imaginary Housemates. It couldn't be long before he'd become a tasteful nutter. It was all a matter of time, wasn't it? Either he'd lose it first or he'd figure things out before that happened; one or the other.

At least the tutoring in obscure divination techniques hadn't been a total waste; Draco eliminated that as one of his many talents.

His relatively weak scrying spell had told Draco little about the artifact except that it had tremendous power-- or more precisely, powers. Definitely multiple. What those powers were seemed to be anybody's guess, and probably required more research. No further clues where to start looking, of course. That would be altogether too easy.

To begin with, Draco had holed up in the Manor library, barely leaving to eat on the weekends since the house-elves brought him everything he required. The Malfoy collections were quite impressive, which was to say he could read through dozens of Dark Arts texts without making a dent. And without discernable progress, needless to say. Some of the scrolls seemed ridiculously ancient, but half the time they were pioneering Lumos charms or something.

In the end, he was left with pure speculations. Draco's instincts told him the ring was about making some sort of link or connection, since some of its properties reminded Draco of blood-stones. Those were largely legendary objects which allowed one contact with a dead person whose blood infused the stone. There hadn't been one at that shop in Nocturne Alley; Draco had looked. They were pretty rare.

Assuming that were true, then a link to whom? And what about the rest of the puzzle? Something about this ring both fascinated and repelled him, more than he would have expected in both directions. He would have wanted answers for his own peace of mind and nothing else.

Certain basic questions stood out in his mind: why did Father give this to him with no explanation, and then only at the last minute? Was he supposed to wait dutifully for Aunt Bellatrix to explain it all? Was he waiting for some other sign? Was he supposed to do anything at all, or was his willing participation unnecessary?

Throughout the summer, Draco had pondered this fruitlessly from many angles until dawn, and sometimes into late morning. Surrounded by scattered books and parchments, opened and left carelessly on the floor, he grew used to falling asleep in his father's armchair. He also grew used to never getting anywhere.

Regardless, the ring wasn't coming off. Frustrating, not to mention inconvenient if it raised any questions. He could always make up a story, though. Stick with what works, he always said.

On the practical front, Draco decided that as soon as he got back to Hogwarts, he'd talk to Snape about beginning work on a potion to dull the probable effects of the ring. Of course, so far there was nothing concrete to link the dizzy spells, nausea and overall lack of appetite to the ring. It just became difficult to stay optimistic when one counted Draco's strange dreams.

Speaking practically, yes, he should have taken the ring off by now. Being practical wasn't likely to get him what he wanted the most though, even if Draco stuck with revenge. No, he had to be smart about this.

Once he got to school, Draco knew he needed to wait. He couldn't do anything too extreme too soon. Not too difficult, since he wasn't too sure what his plans were at this point, but it paid to be extra careful. He ought to stay low-profile before he had a concrete plan, at least.

This could most easily be accomplished by avoiding Potter. It shouldn't be too hard. Potter was no harder to avoid than a shade, going by the way things were at the end of last term. No problem.

Draco found some small pleasure in the thought that the Dark Lord was taking his toll on Potter's health, at least. He merely got to enjoy the rightful benefits. It was all in the perspective. And Draco had all the perspective he needed now.

~~

- Late August 1996, 12 Grimmauld Place


Back in Grimmauld Place, Harry only wanted to leave. Hogwarts didn't seem much like an escape these days. However, the house was almost more oppressive than Privet Drive; not that Harry welcomed the Dursleys, but they were a minor annoyance now. Funny how one's perspective changes after one's godfather dies in front of your eyes, Harry thought. Funny.

Ron and Hermione edged around him, which only drove him mental all the faster. It felt wrong, that he didn't feel much better surrounded with his friends than he had at the Dursleys. Half the time, Harry wished he was back there, in his old room, tucked in by familiar misery. Some of the time, he even wished he'd never met them, any of them, though he was always the next time he saw either Ron or Hermione. Sure, he'd be miserable at the Dursleys if he'd never gotten that letter at eleven, assuming that wasn't actually inevitable, but then Sirius might still be safe in Azkaban. Of course, 'safe' was a relative term when you're in Azkaban, as was 'sane' or 'alive'.

Harry tried to decide if he'd rather be alive in Azkaban or dead behind the Veil, himself, but sighed and gave up before he got very far. Maybe Sirius would have come to break Harry out of Surrey as well, and they'd have run away together. Harry would have liked that. Maybe Lupin could have come to visit.

Harry chuckled. And maybe the tooth fairy would have brought him news of Hermione, whom he'd have never met, let alone Lupin. Well, he'd have met Lupin as Sirius's mate. It was funny, thinking about everything that never would have happened if not for Harry being there. It was possible Ron and Hermione would never have talked, and maybe Lupin would've never been outed as a werewolf except that Professor Quirrell might never have gotten exposed, and Voldemort would still be around at Hogwarts. Then there was Riddle in second year on top of that....

Harry groaned and buried his face in his pillow. It was hopeless.

Well, he'd already known very well he was being selfish and ungrateful and possibly even spiteful, but he didn't care. He didn't care about much of anything, except maybe Sirius being dead and Voldemort being alive. That wasn't bloody fair.

As things were, Harry thought he'd be happy if he never dreamt again.

"Bad dreams?" Lupin asked him one morning.

Harry stared at him. Then he looked at the toast. Then at Lupin's haggard expression and the rumpled shirt collar sticking out of his house-robe. Then he noted Lupin's hands were shaking ever so subtly around his mug. Then he left the kitchen.

The next morning, Harry stayed, cloaked in obstinate silence which was his main way of communicating lately. Rather than feeling the burn, everyone probably thought it was a nice change after all the shouting he did last year. It seemed clear there was no winning at anything once you turned fifteen, Harry decided.

Rather than any desire for company, of which he had little to none-- and which didn't extend beyond Ron and Hermione lately regardless-- he found himself actually worried about Lupin.

After a minute of standing around and not doing much, Harry stood up awkwardly and got himself some oatmeal kept warm on the stove. He sprinkled some walnuts and brown sugar and then poured milk over it. It seemed like the thing to do. Or something.

Lupin smiled and inclined his head. "That's how Sirius would have had it, up till third year. Then James had told him it was a girly way to eat oatmeal."

Harry flushed, then scowled. He didn't know what to make of this revelation about his dad, exactly. "Um. Do you want some, then?" Harry asked politely.

"I've already had breakfast, you see. Now I'm enjoying some time before I have to wake up."

"I see."

Lupin nodded. "I think maybe you do."

"Why didn't we have a wake?" Harry said suddenly, surprising himself.

There was a pause, during which Harry felt quite stupid. It appeared Lupin was only considering what to tell him, though. "We can't afford one right now," he said quietly. "We can't risk a gathering for him outside this house, and he's not that popular--"

"He is! Everyone here loves Sirius!" Harry burst out, slamming his palms down on the table.

Lupin wasn't fazed, apparently. "Albus remains unable to come as of yet, I'm mostly away on Order business, you know that. Most of the current Aurors don't know him like we do, even Tonks. And then there's Snape," he added with some humor. "It wouldn't surprise me if old Severus put a wrench in the works should something like that be in danger of occurring."

Harry glared at him. Lupin sighed.

"I'm sorry, Harry."

"That's not good enough and you know it!" yelled Harry.

"I'm sorry," Lupin said, more quietly, his face becoming very still.

Harry refused to feel guilty, lapsing into a sullen silence. At least the oatmeal was good.

"I dreamed of him, too," Lupin said, apparently out of nowhere. "The first time. Not much use for bad dreams anymore. It--"

"You're not about to say it gets better, are you?" Harry said incredulously.

The lines around Lupin's mouth seemed to deepen. "No. Of course not." He wound his fingers together on the table. "You can tell me, if--"

"No. Er, but thanks."

"-- if you liked," Lupin finished, then sighed. It seemed to be a pent-up sigh.

Harry had to make an effort not to scream. This was way too... polite. It grated on his nerves, though he'd have to admit that if he let it, the soothing atmosphere would get to him.

Instead of making a ruckus, Harry got up to pour some hot milk into a mug. Then he sat down without a word. He could leave, but he wouldn't run away.

The problem was that Lupin said everything in that calm, quiet tone that sounded as if it was supposed to be understanding. Somehow, that was the worst part. No one understood; not Lupin, not Dumbledore, not his friends. No one did, but most of them pretended to. That's what Harry couldn't take.

No matter if they loved Sirius too; no matter if they missed him. Maybe they knew what it was like to have someone they cared about die in front of them, but not because of them. What it was like when it was the person who had let you hope you could have a happy life, a real life and a family and a place where you belonged, after all this was over.

Harry felt a bit guilty for thinking of it that way, because he knew he had Ron and Hermione and the Weasleys, but it wasn't the same. It wasn't the same. That was his godfather, not his friends. Harry couldn't imagine always depending on them; they had their own lives, and he couldn't keep dragging them into his problems forever.

Even Lupin didn't know what that felt like, even though now it was only him and Pettigrew, who didn't really count. He'd given up on having anything for himself, that much was obvious. With every day, Lupin looked more hollow-eyed and wrinkled and weary, as if someone was rubbing him out with an eraser, bit by bit, and at the end there would be no Lupin left, only shadows. He probably wouldn't know how to depend on Sirius for anything even if he was here, still alive. That made Harry angry. He knew Sirius had wanted to help.

For various reasons, Harry was surprised by Lupin's next attempt to reach him.

"Sometimes one needs a connection. It helps to keep it together." Lupin smiled wanly. "Especially for young people, it's--"

"Like you're keeping it together? You're going to teach me how to suffer well, or what?"

Harry really did feel the intense urge to run away this time. It was too bloody surreal; all of this. Lupin's appearance, their conversation, that flat tone in Lupin's voice.

He frowned, showing a bit more of that worn, weary emotion. "Harry--"

Harry got up with a clatter, fist clenched around the edge of the table. "Sorry. I have to go."

He ran to his room so fast he rattled the portrait of Mrs. Black, who started screaming. No matter how many times they'd closed the curtains on her, something went wrong. Usually Kreacher. It never stopped, not really.

He knew how Sirius felt in this house, that was for sure. He had to get out.

The problem was, he couldn't go anywhere; not in London, not right now. And Sirius wasn't about to accompany him to Platform 9 this year, rules be damned. Sirius wasn't about to follow him anywhere anymore; where he went, Harry couldn't follow, though he did make and discard a thousand crazy plans. It had tapered off since his talk with Luna before he'd left last term, but it hadn't stopped. He still thought about it. There wasn't much to think about except what ifs, anyway.

Oh, Harry could tell that they all knew how he felt, and they were all sorry, but it only served to drive him mad. He could tell by the worried looks and the hushed whispers just out of his hearing, not that Harry needed or wanted to know what they were saying.

There was no escape at night, either. Harry hated dreams for awhile now. He wished that they lied; he could handle knowing that. What he couldn't handle was not knowing; never knowing for sure, since his major fuck-up last year. He knew that his dreams were his responsibility, that if he didn't control them, they would control him. Easier said than done, naturally.

He saw Snape looking at him with extra venom (or was that satisfaction?) when he'd come by on 'Order business', which only confirmed Harry's conviction that he'd have nothing to do with any of it if he could help it. He'd manage without help in the future, at least as much as he could. He certainly didn't need any help from him; one encounter with gray underpants was more than enough for anyone.

He did wish he could get a grip on the dreams he did have soon. Never to dream again: that would do the trick.

In the dream, Harry would always be falling; it was the same every time. He would fall deeper and deeper into darkness, forgetting the ground still existed beneath his feet, forgetting that he could fly, forgetting the spell that'd saved him during the First Task.

Something was holding him back though, something he couldn't name. Something that had nothing to do with flying or with the shadows moving across the moon. Something important, and he would never remember it when he'd need to, Harry knew that much.

He would be falling backwards with a sense of mute, betrayed horror, the night sky a curtain of glittering black behind him. Not this. Not this.

He saw the moon behind his eyelids, and it burned him. It was silver and huge, the shadows still moving across it, turning into shapes. In the dream, he recognized them with a distant sense of pleasure, though there was nothing there that he could've put a name to.

Sirius was there, in the darkness, waiting for him. Sirius needed him. Harry knew that better than he knew his own name.

He couldn't be afraid. Falling was the most natural thing in the world, next to flying. Falling was flying, for Harry.

Even so, there was fear, all the more intense for its incongruity. He felt like screaming himself deaf with rage, but he was silent. He could almost have been drifting, except he wasn't: he was falling.

There was no pain, except the sheer acid of helplessness. He knew exactly what he should've done, in that moment, and at the same time, he knew it was too late.

When he'd wake up, he'd forget everything but the knowledge that he could've saved Sirius, and he'd failed.

~~

ONE // moonshine.

Runaway train never going back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I'm neither here nor there

- Soul Asylum
~~

At his first glimpse of Hogwarts, Harry had to blink a few times. Something was different. It was as if another veil had lifted, though nothing as dramatic as coming back fifth year and seeing thestrals. This was more subtle, more insiduous somehow. This made Hogwarts itself seem... different, except it wasn't.

He wondered if his eyes were deceiving him, but no. He was the one who was different, yet again. The world was the same as it had always been: castle, thestrals, laughing and chattering nervous first-years, Ron and Hermione walking beside him, Luna hurrying to catch up before getting distracted by something and falling behind. The owls streaked and screeched above his head, and he could see Hagrid running to greet them. Ron and Hermione took off to greet him, but Harry hung back.

All of them seemed to be back to the beginning again; everything he saw around him could almost fool him into thinking it was normal, if Harry himself wasn't the furthest thing from it. Everything was the same and nothing would be the same ever again. He had to put on a smile somehow; he didn't want more questions, more well-meaning talks.

Dumbledore had 'The Talk' with him before they left the Dursleys, and Harry smirked to recall it. He wasn't angry at Dumbledore anymore, certainly not the way he was. He didn't really care that he'd been left out of the loop. What he realized was that his own expectations were the problem, not the actions of the adults. They would treat him a certain way until he put a stop to it. It was up to him to prove himself worth listening to.

No, he wasn't angry at Dumbledore. He'd even seen Malfoy dart around suspiciously in Diagon Alley when they'd been out for their annual pilgrimage for supplies, but that didn't make Harry angry either. He did wonder what Malfoy was up to, but all in all it was too much trouble to get too excited about it, whatever it was.

All the same, Harry couldn't even remember the time when he didn't walk around with a churning ball of rage in his stomach. He could barely eat for the bile in him. Too fucking bad, eh?

Life goes on whether or not you want it to. That much, Harry learned by now.

Harry called a D.A. meeting the day after they returned, and everyone had showed up. None of them looked bored, or unsure, or even as frightened as Harry did. They just looked determined to win. It was Zacharias Smith who'd asked him what was the most difficult spell they were going to be learning this year, right off the bat. Was Harry going to make them learn how to resist the Imperius? Was he going to teach them how to cast it?

So this was it: another year to try to inspire everyone to keep believing in every single lie he could think of: it would be all right. They could do it. They were getting better; getting closer; almost there. Harry didn't know where, but he found himself saying it anyway, because now people were listening and they weren't just his two close friends anymore. He couldn't let all of them down.

"We are ready," Smith said, brimming with self-assurance. Maybe he should teach them.

"Yeah!" Neville said, looking at Luna. Ginny beamed. Hermione smiled at Harry fondly. God, what a mess.

The problem was, Harry wasn't. Harry wasn't ready for any of it, and he couldn't stop, because it wasn't a choice for him, not for him. If he thought about it too much, he felt sick to his stomach. Every day was one day closer to the Prophecy. Every day was another step towards the endgame, and whoever wound up dead the next time. Peachy.

"And what if you fail?" Harry said.

Zacharias just stared at him, blinking mutely. "Fail?" he echoed. "How?"

Harry felt a bitter smirk take possession of his mouth. "What if you can't do it? What if this is all for nothing?"

The blond just raised a single eyebrow. "Then at least we would've tried, wouldn't we. Isn't that all we can do?"

Harry thought that was ironic, considering that he had no such luxury. Harry Potter couldn't try. Harry Potter had to win, or die trying.

Hermione leaned over, putting a hand tentatively over Harry's. "What's wrong, Harry?" she whispered against his ear. "Is your scar bothering you...?"

Harry fought the incongruous urge to laugh. "It never stops, Hermione. It just-- never stops."

And now Zacharias was looking at him speculatively, as if he were sizing up just how unhinged Potter had become. Let him figure it out, Harry thought. Maybe then he could tell me.

"You're right," Harry said finally. "That was just a test."

"Oh," Zacharias said, but he didn't look like he believed him. Everyone looked slightly uncomfortable and out of place. Cho studiously avoiding looking at him, which was just fine with Harry. Ginny looked troubled. Hermione was staring at his profile, biting her lower lip, and then she seemed to have come to some sort of decision.

"Harry told me that he wanted to use this first meeting to get your opinions on what we should go over this year. So who has ideas?" she said, smiling like it was the most natural thing. And everyone started talking all at once, almost as if they'd been waiting for just such a cue. As if they didn't need Harry there at all. It made him smile and relax onto his cushion. They were good, and capable, and it was almost possible to believe that they could win. Even though they weren't good enough; they could never be good enough.

~~

Harry never actually thought he'd miss the days when he'd felt helpless and trapped in his ignorance, when he just thought he needed to know, to get out there and make things happen. Maybe he was supposed to have learned his lesson and went on to claim his consolation prize, although Harry didn't know what that was supposed to be. If it was meant to be his life, someone out there ought to start coming up with better incentives.

He'd filched a few of Dudley's fags over the summer, just to see what it was like. It didn't matter if he started something else he wouldn't want to finish, did it. He hated it. It burned his throat and made his vision go dim and forced him to throw up quietly in the dirt by his favorite playground swing to get away from Dudders. If Harry thought one was there to watch him make a fool out of himself it would've made it a little better, but no such luck, of course. They couldn't let the boy hero out without surveillance in these dangerous times.

Not that Mundungus Fletcher had said anything. Not that he could, since the bloke seemed to live and breathe and sleep tobacco, every minute of every day. But Harry didn't go out of his way to shut him up, and so word got around. Harry had heard enough about it to wish he'd started some interesting, fulfilling habit, just so it would have been worth the headache by the time he'd gotten to Grimmauld Place.

Ever since Mrs. Black had figured out Sirius was dead she'd taken every tiny opportunity to rail against them for besmirching her house while she was in mourning and for mocking her son's memory, along with everything else. She'd scream, "He's dead! He's dead! Have you filthy-arsed rotten scoundrels no shame??! My son is dead and you dare set foot in his mother's house?! Killers! Murderers! Rabid mongrels!!" and on and on. The fact that she'd berated her own son when he'd been present with the same venom meant nothing; the venom was the important part.

Harry could almost hear the echo of her screech right before he went to sleep: He's dead! He's dead!

Instead of yelling back at Mrs. Black and letting her have it for being a horrid mother, he'd just punched the wall repeatedly, breaking loose chunks of plaster and old paint only to Reparo it again when it was over. Ron hadn't said anything, of course.

Back at Hogwarts, he was still seething with it. If only he had a target. Something to kick and punch and abuse that wasn't made of solid stone like the walls of Hogwarts. Harry was wide awake for the third night in a row, suddenly incoherent with the need to hurt something when he'd woken up after a brief doze. Especially since the stupid dreams had started at the end of August, what he'd wanted was a target....

Harry punched the pillow, biting down on his sheet in frustration. If this went on, he really would do something he'd regret.

"So what're you looking at, Hermione?" he said the next morning, surprised at his own rather normal tone. He even sounded somewhat bored.

"Nothing, it's just--" Hermione sounded distracted as she switched her attention back and forth between the thick textbook sprawled on her lap, her breakfast, and her two objects of observation.

"Just what?" Harry silently dared her to say something about the circles under his eyes or the fact that he wasn't eating something. If she mentioned Madam Pomfrey, he'd laugh outright.

"It's just strange, don't you think? The way he won't look at us anymore. Do you think he--"

"Oh, him." Malfoy. The git that Hermione had been stealing puzzled glances at in between her other projects. Harry's face twisted into a sour scowl, mouth curling in distaste. "Just don't think about it. Maybe if we pretend he's already dead, he will be. He probably hopes that method works in the other direction, anyway."

"But--" She put her book down and focused on her sausages, spearing one carefully and cutting it into bite-size pieces with the utmost concentration. "I know you're wondering too, Harry. I've seen you been looking. Why do you think I noticed?" she said in a reasonable tone.

Harry choked, speechless, and Ron started pounding on his back without breaking stride with the bacon he was shoveling in his mouth. Apparently, an idea struck in the midst of chewing, because he raised both eyebrows and waved a fork at Hermione, who was seated at Harry's other side.

Naturally, Hermione was scandalized. "Ronald!"

"Oh, can it and wipe up your own ketchup. Here, want some more of this? I don't think I can handle dessert, too, and mum--" Ron babbled, blissfully oblivious as usual. Hermione frowned, having gone back to ignoring him, or possibly just multitasking. "Hermione?"

She looked up at Ron and gave her first genuine smile of the day, though it was rather harried. "It's nothing. My calculations were off, and this affects my whole thesis for the extra-credit Arithmancy essay."

Ron raised both eyebrows at Harry, who couldn't help but chuckle. "I see." Ron grinned. "Well, if that's all.... I suppose the Apocalypse can't be far behind." He ate a whole sausage smugly, making Hermione blanch.

Harry rolled his eyes. Hermione scowled again.

"In any case, do you think-- maybe-- maybe he's under sort of charm? Or a potion?"

"Huh?" Both Harry and Ron chorused.

Hermione flinched a little, then blushed. "I mean Malfoy."

"Since the day he was born, you mean?" Ron slurped his soup loudly, and Harry watched Hermione squirm with the effort not to say anything, because it would only lead to no good.

"What? No! Honestly, Ron! Harry!" Hermione sighed in exasperation. "Since he'd come back this year. Doesn't he seem a bit... well, a bit like Luna, only not? It's just unnatural." She chewed on a fingernail, a sure sign of impending crisis.

"Malfoy?" Ron exclaimed, as if he were talking about a particularly interesting type of slug. "He's always been off, so no wonder. The git is more raving than an inbred chiahuahua if you ask me. Maybe the awful stress of losing his daddy had finally made him crack. And not a moment too soon!"

Harry's left eyebrow twitched.

Hermione just sighed again. "But what if... what if maybe there's a method to his madness," she said slowly, still frowning.

"I seriously doubt the method makes any difference."

"Yeah!" Ron said stoutly. "Any way you slice it, Malfoy is Malfoy. Although...." A lopsided grin emerged. "I bet if you pickled it, it'd be pickled Malfoy. And if you canned it, why, it'd be spotted dick Malfoy...."

Hermione tsked and muttered to herself, drinking tea judiciously while flipping through her book again.

Harry decided he was feeling a little better for some reason.

There really wasn't anything else anyone needed to know, Harry thought stubbornly. Malfoy had picked his side, hadn't he?

Though all the politicking and the whole damn war was kind of useless in a way, if it was all going to come down to him and Voldemort, and nothing else was going to help. They'd all be losing their lives for nothing, including Malfoy, if the only thing that counted was The Boy Who Lived living up to his name, as Dumbledore had said.

His good mood evaporated as he looked at his friends, weighed down by what he couldn't even tell them. He couldn't bear to tell them, to see the looks on their faces, to see the pity and sympathy and horror that he'd felt himself so many times over the past summer, when it felt like self-pity had been his best friend for days on end. When he wasn't angry at Dumbledore for keeping the Prophecy and everything else from him anymore, it was all that had been left.

And then there were the nights, the ones where he did fall asleep after all.

~~

In the Slytherin Dungeons, pale green light filtered through the small round opening onto the lake in the sixth year boys' dorm, dappling odd shadows onto a narrow, sweat-streaked face. The bed-curtains had been carelessly left partway open, as if the boy had forgotten to pull the tie before sleep, or had fallen asleep too suddenly.

Draco tossed and turned, biting his lips bloody; he couldn't make too much noise or the other Slytherins would notice, he knew even asleep.

"Wait," the boy would always say in his dream as they watched the stage, his open mouth wet and awful against Draco's ear. "Wait for me." Draco gasped and shuddered, but never responded; he only stared straight ahead at the figure in front of them. "Good, that's good."

He told himself it was just a dream: night after night, Potter bleeding, his body so pale and thin and smeared so liberally with blood, Draco couldn't tell where his wounds began or ended until he touched them.

There was a body lying prone on a grand theatre stage, blood-red curtains pulled shut behind it. Draco sat on one of the chairs arranged in a traditional semi-circle in the first row, and the other man sat behind him, one hand digging into his shoulder as he whispered filthy, dark things into Draco's ear. All the things Draco could imagine doing to that body, he could now do. There were no limits.

When Draco snapped, unable to bear it, he would walk forward, stepping onto the white-washed stage to kneel and press his palms against the body's cooling flesh. He would watch the liquid pool between his fingers. Even his cuticles turned into crimson half-moons before his eyes. He would moan, feeling sick and dizzy, like he was suffocating, like he was the one bleeding from countless cuts.

Harry Potter was dying in his dreams every night now, and Draco just wanted him to stop. "Wait," he'd say, looking into Draco's eyes as if Draco was supposed to understand. As if he was supposed to want to.

"Stop it," Draco would hiss, grinding his teeth and fighting the urge to dig perfectly smooth fingernails into Potter's broken skin.

"I can't," Potter would try to say, though no sound escaped. "Wait here for him," he'd say, and Draco would understand this wasn't Potter, but the pleading tone would still make his mouth tighten, his skin break out in shivers of longing and disgust.

"Why would I do anything you say, Potter? It's not like you'd ever return the favor." He would try to sneer, but his mouth could barely move with the taste of Potter's blood in his mouth, silencing him. Potter (who wasn't Potter) would smile with his cracked, blood-caked mouth, a ghastly mockery of a smile. "You've always waited for him, Draco Malfoy. For me. For both of us. Haven't you, Malfoy?"

"God, I hate you, you fucking-- evil-- bastard," Draco spat, coughing and wanting to spit. "This is sick."

"Yes, hate, yes, hate his sickness" the bodiless whisper would hiss against his ear. "Hate him. You have killed him. He's yours now."

"No," Draco gasped shakily. "No, not-- not mine, I don't-- not like this--"

"Yes! Touch him... just see... look at him... he's weak... he has always been weak. You can destroy him...."

"I-- I don't need your help!"

At that point, there would always be soft, pungent curls of laughter, curling around Draco's own body like a caress, like a snake slipping around his throat, tightening. Feeling like he would never breathe again, the inevitable panic would begin to take control. He couldn't talk anymore by then, could only stare incredulously as Potter's body fell apart and the voice continued to tell him it was his to own and to destroy.

The body that wasn't Potter's would convulse in a fit of liquid coughing, fresh blood trickling out of the corner of the mouth and seeping from its eyes, down the nose. Potter's eyes would always remain clouded with a thin film across them, but Draco told himself he'd never needed to see the eyes to know what lay within: blood and bones. Just like everybody else. Sticks and stones may break his bones, but....

"Hurt me," the voice would whisper, low and throaty, making Draco shudder helplessly. It was much worse that Potter's voice wasn't coming from Potter's body on the floor. "Come on... come on... I know you want to. Just do it. Hurt me, Malfoy."

And of course Draco wanted to. He'd always wanted to. He should just kick him in the ribs as he lay there, it would be so easy. He should hurt him. The bastard more than deserved everything Draco could possibly do to him, because he had hurt him again and again. This was only fair.

Draco would swallow painfully, feeling the seconds tick by as his own blood pounded in his head. The idea of touching this simulacrum of 'Potter' made him sick. He would feel still more dizzy with the hate and sickness and rise only to sway violently on his feet, the taste of blood gathering in his mouth.

"I-- I can't," he'd say, but it sounded hollow. He felt like he was reading from a script, just passing the moments before the dream ended, as it always did, with Potter dying in his arms.

"You can... oh you can, Draco," the other would purr, in his own voice now, sending shivers all down Draco's body. "And you have."

"No...."

"Wait for me." It was a thin whisper burning through the fog, beginning to envelop him. "I have always waited for you, Draco. Always...."

~~

Draco woke up gasping. The ring felt painfully tight around his finger, blazing eerily red in the darkness. It wouldn't be so bad, except most of the time the stone was a dull, flat black color. He wouldn't have been surprised if he began bleeding from his index finger, but he was spared that much. Small mercies aside, lately Draco woke up cold, sweaty, and usually with a pounding headache that felt as if it would split his skull open, though his skin was as smooth and unbroken as Potter's had been riddled with countless seeping cuts.

Draco still saw them if he closed his eyes, ten minutes and a half an hour and two hours later, still saw them the next morning at breakfast, looking across the Great Hall to see Potter with his eyes firmly on his food. Of course he was; naturally he acted as if Draco didn't exist in the daylight hours, though sometimes Granger caught his glance. Whenever his eyes met Potter's, he'd stare right through him. Normally, Draco would be incensed-- how dare he ignore him!-- but he got the feeling Potter was the one who wasn't all there. It was a wonder Potter hadn't walked into walls yet, probably.

All this was fine with Draco. Besides, he wanted Potter to die, he needed to remember that even if the summer's raging certainty had gotten a bit... sidetracked. It would certainly make his life easier; hell, maybe the dreams would stop. He also needed to remember Potter didn't actually visit his dreams.

He needed to remember all that when he stood under the shower in the middle of the night, the water prickling his skin like a thousand tiny needles. In the dungeons, the weight of centuries of stone, secrets and expectations pressed down upon him, adding pressure to the stream of heated water dousing him, making him gasp.

Then he heard it: "I expect great things of you, Draco!"

That snake's voice. The man from his dreams, even though he could not see nor hear anyone there. The voice had been both there and not there, hissing so close to him his small hairs stood up, but it still raised goosebumps all along his body. He felt... watched. Seen.

"No... oh god, no, please, no...," he whimpered as his forehead knocked violently against the tiles and his legs buckled and he slid to his knees. Images from his dream danced behind his eyes-- Potter prone, now naked, blood trickling like water down tiles-- and Draco's eyes rolled back.

Beyond his volition, his hand snaked down to his limp penis, tugging hard. Draco wheezed, his eyes itching and nose running as he grabbed himself, biting hard on his lower lip. It hurt.

He'd barely touched himself the last month. He never felt like it, not anymore. He didn't want this. His whole body shook, his fingers scrabbling towards the faucets. Draco bit down harder on his lower lip, fighting the sudden compulsion as best he could. His mouth opened and closed like a fish and he kept panting heavily, the heavy, sick dizziness settling in his belly just like in his dream, except now it was mixed with pulses of a familiar heat shooting through him against his will.

His mind was blank as he used his fist, the ring on his finger slick and sparking against his skin.

Draco didn't know whom he begged, he just wanted it to stop.

"Yessss. You're doing well. Quite well."

He all but sobbed, pulling at his prick hard enough to chafe, his breath rattling painfully in his chest, his head pounding.

There was the awful sting of shame like a bone lodged in his throat that Draco couldn't swallow past.

Every time he'd wake up from these dreams, there was that sweeping alien sense of desperation, possessing him. He couldn't ignore it if he tried.

"Please," he choked out, and gasped. He came in gut-wrenching spasms against the tile, his stomach clenching for a bit even once he was emptied out.

Afterwards, Draco felt drained, weak and feverish, almost nauseous. He shuddered and tilted his face up even as he turned the water icy cold, gulping down the water that streamed into his mouth. He was suddenly quite thirsty. Then he exhaled and slumped completely, numbly letting the half-freezing spray run down his neck and shoulders in countless rivulets, making his darkened chin-length blond strands stick to his cheeks and forehead in clumps. It was all too much... just... too much.

Draco had no idea since when he'd become so bloody sensitive, and he didn't like it. It had been four months now, and he still was no closer to having a clue as to what the ring was supposed to be.

No one at Hogwarts could know about Draco's little problem, though he assumed the Dark Lord knew and probably approved. Draco wasn't stupid. Even Snape was unlikely to empathize with Draco's being utterly besieged by Potter in new and increasingly horrid ways, now that the war had begun in earnest. Wishing things were different didn't change the facts as Draco knew them. The only thing that mattered anymore was what he did now. He would get Potter, regardless of the stupid ring. Regardless of his father. The stakes were just higher now.

Draco couldn't afford this distraction; their games were over. Now that the Dark Lord was back and his father finally needed him, Draco had to show his strength. It was a test and he knew it, and there was simply no way Draco was going to fail.

Shaking his head, he stepped out of the showers, summoning the towel with a grim set to his mouth. If he put in the effort, the crimson fog in his mind receded, and his head was clear, just as it should be. Draco realized this wasn't even about Potter at this point; this was about him.

He didn't have much time. All the clamoring, merciless desires the ring woke in him, each one more preposterous and impossible than the last: hurt him. Touch him. Own him.

Draco had to do something soon. He was always aware it'd come to this; he'd looked forward to it. But as things progressed, he'd started to wish it would all just... stop. He almost hoped for way out, though of course there couldn't be one.

Not for him.

~~

Harry yawned, resisting the urge to lay his head on his arms. Another night not to remember, and Snape first thing in the morning didn't help matters. Defence Against the Dark Arts, no less.

Much as he didn't relish the idea of Snape teaching his best subject, it was better than someone the Ministry assigned, Harry guessed. At least this meant he'd probably 'improve' in Potions. Slughorn, their new professor, couldn't be as bad as Snape. Could he? Well, there was no one as bad as that. In any case, after Umbridge, his old Potions professor seemed almost like a relief. He really didn't want to know what new and different evil the position was capable of attracting, especially since it was likely to be even worse then Snape.

The biggest fly in the ointment was really Malfoy, as far as Harry was concerned. What the bloody hell was he doing here? Since when did a Slytherin need to defend against the Dark Arts? Come to that, what were Zabini and Nott doing behind him? It jangled, since Harry was so used to seeing Crabbe and Goyle flanking his not-so-favorite Slytherin. The only thing Harry could think of was that they were here either to cause trouble or to show support for their Head of House, and possibly both.

Harry noticed Hermione's odd signs, too, once he paid attention. Malfoy sat almost motionless at the other side of the classroom, writing carefully on his parchment as Snape made another grandiose first-day speech, going on about the glorious dangers of the Dark Arts, etcetera. Harry wasn't attending. Malfoy's face was empty of malice or even much discernable life, but his hand kept moving in practiced smooth motions. Again, Harry had to wonder why Malfoy took Defence Against the Dark Arts; it defied common sense, really. It appeared that Malfoy didn't see him, period, however.

It was true that the school was seemingly on a verge of a wide-spread panic, and only the sense of complete isolation they had was keeping any of them sane. They were all potentially in danger; Harry just didn't expect the Slytherins to think so.

"I hope you're ready to be taught what you will all need to know to stay alive in this war," Snape said in that awful, slithery voice of his. "Because I will expect you to learn it whether you're ready or not. The Dark Lord--" and here a number of students gasped, making Snape sneer.

Harry glared at him, but he felt completely at ease. He would not rise to the bait so easily. Some of the Gryffindors had gasped at their professor's use of a Death Eater's term for Voldemort, while the Slytherins sported small, pleased smiles. They were so ridiculously transparent and harmless, it was too pathetic to bother with.

"-- expects you to fail, to be too weak to meet the Darker powers on their own terms. He thinks you are feeble-minded fools with no true grasp of real power." Snape whirled around, looking straight at Harry. "He thinks your fragile young minds are ripe for the plucking," he said smoothly, mouth curling around the words.

Harry bared his teeth just a little. Snape had to teach him Occlumency again this year, and Harry knew he hated it almost as much as he himself did, but Dumbledore left neither of them any choice in the matter. He suspected that one of the major reasons that Snape had agreed at all was that he would now be teaching it to a personally selected group of students from his Defence Against The Dark Arts class.

"Hopefully, by the end of the year at least some of you will know enough of what you need to survive," Snape went on. "Though frankly, I wouldn't push my luck. Any... questions?" He drew out the last word, as if daring someone to question him. He was getting off on having even more helpless students to terrorize, most likely.

Harry scowled. "I have one, Professor," he called with what he hoped was a half-way innocent expression. And why not? He was innocent.

"Yessss?" Snape hissed, obviously not having wanted to remember Harry was even in the room.

"How is what we're going to be studying going to be more useful against Voldemort than what we'd already covered in the previous five years? Shouldn't we be building on what we've already learned? Everyone here had passed the Defence O.W.L.s, Professor."

"Harry!" Hermione whispered, pocking him in the side with her elbow. Harry just glowered at Snape, daring him to give him as much detention as he wanted. It wasn't like this was Umbridge. This was nothing.

"Mister Potter," Snape drawled. "I suppose you think you know more about this subject than I do, don't you? That you're above the need to have any more of an education in the defending against the Dark Arts than you think you already have? Is that it?"

Harry winced a little. He should've known this would be Snape's reaction. He could see the endless string of detentions stretching until the end of the school year already. "No. I mean, no Sir. That's not what I meant."

"Isn't it?" Snape nearly purred. "I think you should have the opportunity to teach the less-fortunate Hogwarts students what they've missed out on, don't you?" There was a dangerous gleam in Snape's eyes now, and he was advancing towards Harry, his billowing robes sweeping almost majestically behind him.

"I-- really don't think there's any need...." Crap, Harry thought.

"Don't tell me what is and isn't needed in my class, Potter!" Snape hissed, virtually towering over Harry at this point. "Now. I propose something of a test of your abilities. You should like this. You Gryffindors like to press your unfair advantage, don't you?"

Harry began to speak, but Snape cut him off.

"Silence! I see you need to be taught a lesson, but clearly you think you're too good to learn from the likes of me, aren't you, Potter?" Harry started to shake his head, but Snape interrupted once again. "No," he whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear perfectly. "I can tell that you need some more... direct experience, shall we say." Snape smiled, showing the bare tops of his yellowed teeth, making Harry wish he'd never spoken more fiercely than ever. "What you seem to require is a challenge, correct? Well, then you shall have one."

Snape turned around and now faced the class at large. "I don't expect any of you to volunteer to find out about Mr. Potter's questionable talents as a teacher first-hand. I'm sure those of you with the inclination to do so have already joined his little... club, shall we say." He sneered, and the Slytherin boys snickered. "But this isn't that. No. Mr. Potter will simply go over the material we cover in class and oversee the homework I will give you for the rest of the semester, making sure you get a satisfactory grade, should you be chosen to be in this group. If anyone fails in this little experiment, so does he, and vice versa."

This time, everyone groaned and looked balefully at Harry, who just tried to shrug and melt into the bench. Even Hermione was giving him the evil eye, which Harry thought was uncalled-for since they studied together anyway.

"So," he continued. "I will pick three students for now." Snape looked around the room languidly, not giving away his thought processes with any change in his expression that Harry could see. Not that Harry had ever had positive experiences with figuring out what was going on behind those beady, black little eyes. "Malfoy!" Snape called out suddenly, making the pale boy jump in his seat, looking traumatized. "Zabini! Nott! It's your lucky day." He grinned nastily.

Harry had to fight hard to resist banging his head into his desk repeatedly. He figured that if Voldemort wouldn't kill him this year, this probably would. How stupid could he be? He should've learned to just not speak to Snape by now, shouldn't he?

Unsurprisingly, Snape was positively chipper, even though it came at the expense of several of his own House's students. Apparently Harry's misery was much more important. "Now," he said briskly. "We will begin with covering all forms of Dark possession: mental, physical and what some might call spiritual. What you all have to realize is this: the greatest weapon the Dark has to use against you is also potentially your greatest strength: your own selves. As long as there are emotional and mental weaknesses within you, Voldemort can and will exploit them to achieve his ends. In a very real way, your own minds are always your greatest enemy, and only when you will have achieved mastery over your thoughts and emotions, as well as actions and any spells you may possibly cast, will you even come close to attaining victory. Am I understood?"

Hermione raised her hand high immediately, though Snape ignored it. Harry just pretended like he wasn't there, closing his eyes and wishing he were somewhere else with as much passionate intensity as he could possibly summon while in full view of the Potions Master. Anywhere else, in fact.

Even nowhere would do.

~~

It began in silence, that night which was just like any other night. It hadn't meant anything. Harry was just very, very tired, and yet not tired enough to fall asleep. Finally, in desperation, he decided another brisk night walk might be the answer this time, and so he slipped out of bed, Invisibility Cloak barely enough to cover him completely these days but still worth its weight in gold.

Harry walked and walked, but felt no more sleepy than before. He made another circle of the grounds, starting to feel rather foolish. If he caught a cold at this point, it would be no surprise. Even with a warming and drying spell on the Cloak and his shoes, he could feel the chill starting to set in his bones.

Whether leaning against a stone wall or sitting down in damp, cold, early October grass, it was too easy to stay awake all the way until early morning, or at least in the space in-between waking and dreaming. That particular night, Harry sprawled against his favorite oak by the lake again, his spread Cloak keeping the ground from chilling him, secure that Filch wasn't going to extend his nighttime excursions quite this far from the castle.

He heard footsteps approaching, but he didn't move for long moments. It might be almost dawn, but Harry was almost there, about to fall into exhausted, dreamless sleep. Come what may, it didn't matter until whoever it was made themselves Harry's problem. Even so, Harry's hand moved instinctively to his pocket, fingers curling tight around his wand.

He sensed someone sat on the other side of the tree, but for some reason, after a minute Harry lightly dozed off. Neither of them had spoken. Another few hours passed and it was morning, though when Harry woke he'd startled, having forgotten he had company. He could almost pretend he didn't know who it was without having to look.

"Morning, Potter," Malfoy drawled from behind him. "Getting a suntan, I presume?" His voice was devoid of curiosity. It was as if they'd spoken civilly every day, and this night had not been remotely extraordinary.

Harry supposed the silence had been too good to last, and consequently, so was the relative peace. He just couldn't be bothered to move or muster up the negligible amount of will needed to hex the little wanker. His coiling energy seemed to have bled out of him at some point, and all that was left in its place was a yawning, endless emptiness and a headache. And, of course, cold, damp toes.

Malfoy had gotten up and was now standing in front of him while Harry still sat, as unmoving as the tree-root pushing up into his arse. He couldn't be bothered to meet Malfoy's eyes, so he stared at the clenched thighs before him. There was some grass stuck to Malfoy's trousers, he noted. Slowly, he raised his eyes, and further noted that the other's arms were crossed and he was resting mostly on one leg, thrust out behind him. Presently, he used the other one to kick softly at Harry's shoe.

Harry growled, wondering if it was worth it to actually touch Malfoy just to break his legs. The idea certainly had merit, but he was still so groggy. He wanted coffee. He needed to get up. They'd miss him if he tarried any longer. Get up, he told himself, but didn't move.

"Don't suppose you'll just shove off if I asked nicely, will you?" Harry paused, drawing out his wand and laying it quietly on his lap. "And I am. Asking nicely. I won't do it twice."

"Yeah, right. Looks to me like you're hiding, Potter. Why would that be?" Malfoy drawled, like he had all the time in the world. They'd probably miss him at breakfast as well.

Harry was silent, thinking he'd just sit another half a minute before he'd get up and go to sleep in his own bed. There was no one to stop him. He was so exhausted.

"Do you want me to start guessing?"

Malfoy had never been particularly bright about knowing when to stop, however.

Harry sighed. "So what now? Going to tell on me, Malfoy? Go ahead. See if I care. Now move, or I'll have to make you."

Predictably, Malfoy ignored the threat entirely. "Don't be ridiculous, Potter. Besides, everyone already knows you've snapped." Malfoy sneered, which only made Harry's fist clench involuntarily with the sudden urge to wipe that off his face with blood.

When Harry actually took half a moment to think about it, he had the sour feeling that Malfoy wasn't half wrong. Between the new taste he'd acquired last year for Malfoy's pale little face covered in blood and bruises and this year's renewed tendency to have even more messed up dreams, even Harry could see that something was not right here.

Sighing briefly, Harry began to rise to his feet. He'd really had enough of this by now.

"Enough. That's enough. I quit? So long, Malfoy. Can't say it's been fun, but that's just how it goes, isn't it."

"Quit?" Malfoy's voice was strange, almost devoid of inflection. "You can't quit. If I don't get to quit, neither do you, Potterboy."

"Since when have you gotten so chatty? And since when is this a conversation, because I think I missed it. I'm telling you to shuffle off before I hex your balls off, got it?" He waved his wand vaguely.

Harry blamed his continued presence here entirely on exhaustion. He felt like a popped balloon after a party that went on too long, and all he could think of was rest, a long glorious rest, and possibly a shower and some of Hermione's first aid pain-relief potions for his head and the aching muscles and joints.

"Since now," Malfoy said quietly. "And if you think you're up to hexing me, try walking in a straight line first, genius. If you have to threaten me, that means you can't just show me. Simple."

"I've got nothing to say to you, Malfoy." Rising fully, Harry finally turned to walk away, but the motion was arrested as he stood quite still, waiting for the sudden nausea to subside. A cold appeared likelier with every passing moment. Shit.

"Then we'll just stay silent, won't we."

Harry kept standing, looking up into the pale sky, almost entirely blue now. It was nippy but not so bad, really. He bent to pick up his Cloak, treating it as a normal piece of clothing since Malfoy was there. The air was almost comfortingly cold, keeping him somewhat focused. The thought of staying here and sleeping the morning away crossed his mind, but in the end, he took a deep breath and exhaled, thoughts of a hot shower and coffee giving him a small burst of energy at last.

"Very well," Harry said tiredly. "Suit yourself."

When he started to walk back towards the castle, Malfoy followed along without a word.

~~

TWO // direction for the lost.

I'm looking for an interruption,
Can you believe?
Some medicine for my headache
Hooray, hooray, hip hip hooray
I'm pitching for a new direction
Pinch me when I wake
Don't tell me my dreams are fake
You leave me to lay, you touch me deep,
I don't sleep, I dream

- REM
~~

Draco didn't know what was going on anymore. It didn't make sense, any of it. Not anymore.

Days and weeks had passed since that night by the tree, when something had drawn Draco to the lakeside. He'd woke up hard after another nightmare, eyes snapping open while he lay still, staring at the tiny window onto the lake in front of him. These days, Draco didn't close the curtains very much, unwilling to sleep in the dark. Goyle's snores were almost welcome, somehow.

That night, the greenish light from the lake seemed especially mesmerizing. Draco got up and got dressed silently, in a sort of trance. Later, he didn't recall what he'd been thinking at all.

He knew he'd found the place he was meant to go once he reached the tree, so he wrapped his cloak right around him and fell asleep, suddenly exhausted. He'd been rather shocked to find himself having sleepwalked all the way out of the castle and Potter in the same predicament, more or less.

He'd stared at Potter's sleeping face, pretty much speechless. Potter was pale to the point of being grey, and yet looked peaky and unwell at the same time. He was too miserable to resent, or close enough. He supposed he should have hexed him while he'd been defenseless just on principle, but he couldn't muster the proper mind-set so soon after having woken up. Plus, he'd been bloody chilled as fuck. His poor, poor damp toes.

"Bloody Potter," he muttered, sitting next to the dozing Gryffindor for no apparent reason. This morning he'd woken up in the relative warmth and comfort of Trelawney's classroom, one of the few that was unfailingly unlocked when not in use. It was not as widely known as the Astronomy Tower, but not as difficult to get to as the Room of Requirement, which meant that the only reason Slytherins avoided it was pure disdain for Professor Trelawney. And Filch, of course.

Draco sighed. At least it was Saturday morning.

Somehow they found each other naturally every night, without ever making appointments or keeping to the same place for more than a few nights. As the weather had gotten worse, Potter had started turning up in places like the greenhouse, the carriage stables, the Gryffindor changing rooms and on one memorable occasion, the Owlery. If he ever ended up in the Astronomy Tower, Draco would know it was time to take drastic measures.

"Potter," Draco hissed. When Potter didn't move, he kicked his shin, and Potter groaned. It was all good for Potter and his Invisibility Cloak (oh yes, as if Draco didn't know), but some people had to look out for themselves by their own wits and cunning.

After a moment, it struck Draco that he was actually trying to wake up Potter to let him know it was morning and they might be discovered. He almost smacked himself. Without further ado, he hurried down the old tower stairs. Let Potter fend for himself.

Pansy gave him a knowing look when he arrived, rumpled and late, to breakfast, and Draco bristled. He had to take his time and have a hot shower and a good clean-up, even if it meant cutting his breakfast short. He may be a sleepwalking loon these days, but he wasn't a barbarian.

"Don't ask," he said heavily. "Please."

She giggled, and he glared at her.

"Sleep well?" she said sweetly.

"I told you!" he snapped, snatching a scone and buttering it with a vengeance. "Don't ask!"

"Aww," she said, patting his hand. Draco twitched. "Poor Draco. You look awful, darling."

He looked at her sidelong, scowling. "Thanks."

"If I don't tell you, who will?"

"You bloody well live for this, don't you?" he said sourly.

She beamed at him, then kissed his cheek with pure theatrical flair. She laid it on thick sometimes, but Draco still felt a bit better. "You need a keeper. I've always told you."

"Are you volunteering?"

She laughed brightly, covering her mouth with one hand. "Why don't you ask whoever you've been spending your nights with?" she tittered, batting her eyelashes. "I'm sure they'd jump at the opportunity."

Draco glared at her as viciously as he could while stuffing what was left of the tea and biscuits down his throat.

"Traitorous wench," he muttered. "Who was it petting my head in full sight of everyone on the train only months ago?"

She smirked at him. "If you want it, you'll have to come and get it."

Draco closed his eyes. "This is not going to be my day. I can tell already."

"Aww, poor baby," Pansy simpered, and snatched a glazed strawberry from Draco's fruit tart. "Those are bad for you anyway, you know."

Some part of him wanted to sniff and say, 'That's right. You ought to feel sorry for me, dammit. I'm cold and cramped and bloody well homing in on Potter like a crazed homing pigeon! It's enough to drive anyone around the bend, I'd say!'

Of course, he couldn't say that. He sighed again. At least the tea was good and hot this morning.

"I'll get you back for that when you least expect it, you realize."

"Of course."

Back to what passed for normal, he supposed, though normally he'd be getting his supply of sweets from his mum. His mum was distracted lately, however. Apparently, she slept a lot, these days, thanks to Snape's helpful potions and the instructions to the house-elves. He felt alone whenever he wasn't with Pansy; Crabbe and Goyle didn't help. Potter was purely a complication, something he couldn't share even with Pansy.

The important thing was Potter remained-- would always remain-- the enemy. Then and now. Especially now that neither of them dared look at each other openly during the day so as to avoid unfortunate associations. Even so, Draco could feel Potter's gaze upon him as he resolutely drank his tea, and couldn't stop the furious blush before he set the cup down with a clatter and left the Hall without a word.

This had to stop, he thought, his fists clenched.

The ring got tighter, hotter around his finger, and the tears prickled at the backs of his eyes. Whatever it took. He'd take Dreamless Sleep potion as he should have long ago, and Snape could take his questions and shove them. With that resolution, Draco's heart lightened at last.

~~

The first 'study' session for Defence Against the Dark Arts happened that Saturday night, since most students had gone off to Hogsmeade and most wouldn't be in the library at 7 o'clock to witness their strange meeting.

Harry thought it had been both unnervingly normal-seeming and surreal so far. They'd gathered up the materials, divided up their readings, and had been browsing various tomes on Dark magic almost companionably for more than an hour now. If not for Malfoy avoiding his gaze and Nott smirking incessantly, they could have been any study group out of the many that used the same space for these purposes. It was almost... dull.

"Let's just get this over with," Harry said. "Snape wants a report on resisting the Imperius Curse since I can do it, but I doubt he wants anything not in the books, so...."

Suddenly, Malfoy's eyes snapped up and he sneered. "If that's what you think, then you don't know Professor Snape at all, Potter."

"Oh yeah?"

"He'd probably take points off if you don't prove you understand the material independently."

"You've got to be kidding me." Harry rolled his eyes. "He'd take points off no matter what we do. That's pretty much the point, isn't it? We've already covered this in fourth year, and Snape isn't actually going over the subject in class. It's pretty obvious this is supposed to make me refuse to do it and give Snape an excuse to throw me out."

Zabini raised an incredulous eyebrow. "That may very well be true for you, Potter, but our own Head of House isn't about to treat us like that. We hadn't taken Defence before, after all. I'd say the best way to make the best of this situation would be to illustrate your ability for our benefit. Say, I could cast the Imperius right here and you could... resist. How about it?" He grinned, showing large white teeth.

"I'll act as second and make sure he doesn't do anything too dreadful to you," Nott added, suddenly seeming intrigued. "It's all for the good of wizardkind, Potter, should be right up your alley."

Unsurprisingly, Malfoy didn't offer any argument, but neither did he seem excited to have Harry be the experimental subject. They could theoretically ask some pretty incriminating questions about what Harry had been up to lately, after all, and Malfoy was the one with more to lose there.

After a moment's further consideration, Harry smirked and leaned back in his chair. "All right."

It was satisfying to see Zabini's eyes widen like that. Nott actually sat up a little straighter in his chair, looking less asleep. Malfoy, quite satisfyingly, went even more pale than usual.

"I'm game. Why not? I actually can throw it off, you know. The fake Mad-Eye Moody made us all practice so much, I could probably do it in my sleep." He grinned at the transparently dubious looks on their faces. "Though I have to say, observing it wouldn't do you much good if you want to figure out how to resist it yourself. I'd have to do it to you right back."

Apparently, Nott was the most cerebral between the four of them, so he asked: "Well, go on. Enlighten us. How do you do it?"

Harry raised both eyebrows. "I never said I really knew how I did it, have I." He shook his head. "Nevermind. The truth is, being under Imperius feels really good. It may seem weird, but there's something about letting go of all need to make decisions and responsibilities that feels like a relief. Basically, all you've really got to fight is your own unconscious desire to do as someone asks you to. Simple." Harry smirked. "At least for me it is, since I pretty much never want to do what anyone asks, certainly anyone who'd be casting an Unforgivable on me in the first place."

Nott had his head cocked, a considering look on his ratty face. "Hmm. Interesting." He tapped a quill against the topmost Dark Arts book in his pile. "I've had a theory for awhile now, about how one's areas of magical strength reflect one's personality. If you're freakishly good or pure bollocks at some particular skill, chances are it translates into some similar enough behavior, like being a bull-headed Gryffindor about things in Potter's case. This definitely serves as proof there."

Zabini rolled his eyes. "When do I get to Imperio someone? I'm getting hungry."

Malfoy just sneered.

Harry made a little gesture with one hand. "Go ahead. I'm ready anytime."

Zabini whipped out his wand with relish, and Harry noticed Malfoy's suppressed flinch. He didn't give so much as a twitch of his face to betray him, but he was a little nervous. While he was almost certain, there was a part of him that wondered whether Zabini knew something he didn't. Ridiculous, of course, and yet....

"Imperio!"

Harry sighed, and distantly wondered if this blissful, peaceful floaty feeling had been why he'd agreed to this. Nothing mattered very much anymore, but not in the bad, depressing way. It was more like the feeling you'd get after having already done some huge, painfully onerous task, and being entitled to a long, well-deserved rest. No need to stir, it would all be done for you. Harry hadn't realized how much he'd wanted precisely this feeling to come for so very long.

He gazed at Malfoy, all bad feeling washed away. It was probably only seconds, but Malfoy blushed so prettily under his gaze that Harry kept on looking. There was no reason not to, even if there was no reason to continue except that he'd started. Now that he was properly relaxed, he was in the right state of mind to notice how Malfoy's eyes were really wide and grey, like Scottish rain-clouds. Rain would be nice, he thought. Too bad it was November, and nearly cold enough to snow.

And then he heard, rather distantly: 'Stand up... undress....'

He ignored it entirely for a bit, but the voice was insistent. Pity, because Harry could feel himself regaining consciousness by the second, as he became aware he didn't want to strip in the library, after all. Not in front of Malfoy. Definitely not. No.

'Come on....' the voice both cajoled and commanded. 'Strip for us... let us see you bare arse to the wind... wouldn't that be fun?'

No. Malfoy would see!

'Strip!'

No! Harry gritted his teeth, fingers digging into his palms so hard they drew blood, shuddering with the itch to take his clothes off. A part of him was oddly certain he wanted to see Malfoy's reaction, but the rest of him was shriveled in horror. Thankfully, that bigger part included his cock, which was twitching but offline.

With a grunt, Harry returned to himself, and blinked to see himself holding his crotch in what was probably a defensive move. He blushed furiously, unable to help it.

"Well," Nott drawled. "That was definitely educational, wouldn't you say?"

Malfoy coughed. Zabini looked bored now. Harry sighed. This was going to be a long bloody homework assignment after all.

~~

Ron gave Harry commiserating looks these days, as if Harry's little study-group meant undergoing worse torture than serving detention with Umbridge the year before, but Harry just couldn't summon up the indignation Ron would've wanted. He had bigger problems. Aside from Malfoy unerringly finding him every time Harry went on one of his 'walks' in the Invisibility Cloak, more worrying was the fact that Harry did not even try to stop it. Yet that also paled in comparison to the Occlumency lessons he was due to resume now that the school year was in full swing.

Whenever Ron asked him about what was going on at the study-group meetings, Harry grunted and smiled evasively and tried to change the subject. It wasn't that difficult, especially now that he and Ron had Quidditch practice together to talk about. Ron flew much better this year; probably the effect of competing partly against his own little sister, but partly some sort of mad determination to have fun at any cost this year. Harry thought it was a good plan, but held on to his small stash of the Felix Felicis potion, which was probably the only thing to come out of any Potions class he'd ever appreciated.

Harry just couldn't help being excited about Quidditch, even with everything else on his mind, or perhaps because of everything. There was a simplicity to flying, a unity of purpose, an escape from everything and anything that clamored for attention in his mind.

Besides, it seemed like a nice honest win against Slytherin was just the thing, somehow. The look on Malfoy's face was always priceless when he lost. Nothing would change that much. And there was absolutely nothing that compared to the feeling of the Snitch fluttering desperately in his fist. He wanted to fly so badly he could taste it, and being Captain wasn't so bad either.

Later, he could relive the memory of that golden match with Slytherin in vivid detail: the slow motion final seconds before he'd nudged Malfoy's hand out of the way, feeling the tiniest whisper of the wind against his skin as his fingers grasped the Snitch in victory. They'd stared each other, Harry's fist around the Snitch and Malfoy's fist around his, gazes locked for a moment until Malfoy sneered and whirled around into a dive.

He'd stared after him for frozen moments, until the roar of the crowd and Luna's commentary ("It appears Gryffindor has won again, though their Seeker doesn't seem quite sure, so perhaps they haven't") jolted him out of it. He went into a dive only to break midair next to Ron, beaming at him from across the short distance between their brooms. Suddenly, something had snapped in Harry's chest, and he yelled something incoherent, grasping Ron's fist with his own, lifting the Snitch high in his other hand. The crowd liked that.

"It appears Gryffindor's Seeker calls this one a win," Luna noted over the speakers. "That's a relief."

Harry laughed out loud.

When he landed, Hermione ran up and thwapped Ron on the head for no apparent reason, after which she tackled-hugged him (inspiring a rather panicked 'help! help!' look from Ron, though Harry only shrugged, grinning) and then Harry as well.

Some part of him felt certain this was the last time they'd have a day like this, but he gagged it. Harry let out a little 'oomph' of surprise as Ginny Weasley rushed into to the fray to hug him too.

"Good one, Harry!" She pulled away to arm's length, her eyes crinkling at him.

Harry grinned back. Ginny was quite fit these days, wasn't she? He shook his head. Why had he never noticed? Well, no matter.

He smirked at her, then nodded at Ron. "Thank your brother. If he hadn't done such a good job meanwhile, it would've been over before it began."

Ron flushed and glared at Harry, which was the idea. Ginny snorted and walked companionably back towards the Gryffindor changing rooms with him and Ron, though of course she was bound for the girls'. It was almost like she was a different person, somehow, but Harry wasn't about to protest this new Ginny. Not when he could walk behind her, he thought to himself with a chuckle, though a second later he was horrified at himself. Ron's sister! Ewww! Only last year he was half thinking she was going to be a burden he'd have to look after if she tagged along to the Ministry. Right now, he wouldn't half mind looking after her, but suspected she'd laugh in his face if he tried.

Yeah, there was no denying she wasn't the same sister she'd been at twelve, though.

For some reason, Harry felt he was living on borrowed time right then, which turned out to be true. On the very night of their victory, naturally Snape summoned Harry for his first Occlumency lesson of the year, so Harry wound up parting from his friends on their way back to the Common Room for a detour to the dungeons.

"Wonderful," Harry muttered to himself. "Just bloody wonderful."

He was barely about to announce his presence at Snape's door when he heard a familiar drawl: "Waiting for the sunrise, Mr. Potter? Or Mr. Filch to save you instead?"

Harry stormed through the door, about to tell Snape what he thought of this whole idea, Dumbledore or no Dumbledore, but he was brought up short by the sight of Malfoy sitting comfortably in the only chair besides Snape's in what passed for his 'office'. He opened and closed his mouth, speechless.

"Ah. I see I finally found something that works to shut your impudent mouth, Potter. Perhaps there is hope after all."

Malfoy sniggered. Harry seethed.

"Why is he here?" Harry burst out. "This is a secret!"

Of course, Snape didn't twitch a muscle. "I do realize that, Potter. However much I may regret it, I have accepted the responsibility for teaching you Occlumency As I see fit. And I assure you, if you have a problem with my teaching methods, you may take it up with the Headmaster and stop wasting my time right now. Are we clear?"

Harry bit down on his lip in his effort not to snarl. He knew there was some sort of twisted logic to this on Snape's part, but at the moment, he didn't want to know. He simply did not. Want. To know.

"Well? Are you struck dumb as well as mute or are you trying to test my patience?"

Harry clenched his fist, and made himself speak normally. "Malfoy-- he--" Harry stopped, suddenly unsure what he wanted to say. Malfoy was staring at him oddly, and for once Harry couldn't read him at all. No way was he letting Malfoy into his mind in any capacity or for any purpose, and it shocked Harry a bit to realize he felt more strongly about this than about keeping Snape out. In the end, there was only so much shit Harry was willing to take from Snape, he decided. What's more, he certainly didn't want any revelations about Malfoy of the sort he'd had about Snape last year.

"I'll speak with Dumbledore," he said stiffly, and Snape actually smiled. It wasn't an expression Harry was in any hurry to see on his face again.

"Be my guest. See that the door doesn't hit you on your way out, Potter. Dismissed."

Harry stalked out with as much dignity as he could, feeling distinctly played but unable to pinpoint the moment he'd done something he didn't mean to.

Bloody Slytherins. Surely Dumbledore didn't mean for him to go forward with this. After last year, Harry wasn't so sure he'd put much below Dumbledore if it suited him, he thought grimly. He'd never before second-guessed his immediate impulse to go to Dumbledore, but as he stood before the entrance to his office, he told himself he didn't know the current password and this could wait until he found out.

Just because he wasn't angry at Dumbledore anymore didn't mean Harry wanted to talk to him any more than he absolutely had to. Possibly even if he did. If Dumbledore wanted something, he'd doubtless make sure Harry knew it.

The thought of going back to Gryffindor Tower, with all its merrymakers and proud happy looks and butterbeer made Harry slightly ill all of a sudden. The thought of Ginny smiling at him again was more than he could stomach as well, for some reason.

What he needed was a walk. A nice long walk.

~~

It was after midnight, and his toes were cold. Again.

Harry didn't want to wonder what kept bringing him back here, to the first place he and Malfoy bumped into each other. It had only been last month, though somehow it seemed much longer. Now it was well into November, and only the various charms (including the Impervius, which he was usually pants at) kept him remotely comfortable. Still, he was no closer to either peace or calm, let alone dreamless sleep, so even he had to wonder what the hell he was doing. And Harry was generally pretty good at ignoring inconvenient questions, so this was especially irritating.

He was not looking up at the night sky with sticky, half-open eyes, waiting for those footsteps again.

After that little encounter in the dungeons, what was he thinking? Just because it was dark now didn't mean the rules changed. It didn't change the truth. This was stupid. He wasn't thinking. It was just... odd that Malfoy wasn't here yet. A relief. It was a relief.

Resolutely, he pretended he was alone in all the world and he didn't have to think of anything at all. It was easier to forget that he was waiting, that way.

Usually, when Malfoy came, he wouldn't bother with a greeting or any acknowledgement whatsoever; he'd sit quietly at the side opposite Harry, as far away as he could comfortably get, stretching out his legs. Most of the time, he was out of Harry's line of sight, but he knew Malfoy was there. Even if he arrived after Harry dozed off, he knew. Half the time, he wouldn't even quite wake at the new arrival, but Harry hadn't been surprised since that first time.

More often, perhaps, Harry's heart would start beating stronger, more erratically, and he'd feel a dozen times more awake all at once, though he took care to breathe as if he was asleep. He didn't want to spook it. He had the somewhat superstitious belief that if he opened his eyes, or worse yet said anything, it would turn out that Malfoy hadn't really been there, and Harry would open his eyes in his dorm room. Maybe this had all been one long, elaborately fucked-up dream.

Harry knew it wasn't, though. His dreams had been a lot more sinister for quite awhile now. Still, even thinking about it too much meant he might have to do something.

He may not have to, of course, if Malfoy never showed up. Besides, it was getting too cold for this now, and it was a sheer miracle he got away with being gone a couple mornings every now and then; at least Harry didn't go on his 'walks' nightly. That would be impossible to cover up. Most of the time he made it back before people woke, but that was taking its toll.

Bottom line, Harry knew that time was running out.

All things considered, then, Harry was pretty startled to hear Malfoy's voice sometime after two in the morning. It sounded hoarse with disuse or cold; probably the latter. It was both too close and too distant.

"Potter."

Harry jerked as if it was an electric shock, but stubbornly kept his eyes closed and hoped Malfoy would go away. Or stay quietly. It didn't matter, honestly.

"Potter. This can't go on."

Harry sighed. "Yes."

"We have to talk."

"Now?!"

"I don't mean... I just mean, it's cold, if you haven't noticed. I'm freezing my arse off already even with the warming spell. What happened to Trelawney's classroom?" There was a shuffling noise. "Nevermind that. I came to say I won't be returning. I've got a Potion from Snape, so I'll sleep like a baby, you know. This had really been an insane--"

"So go the fuck away, Malfoy. What's keeping you?" Harry popped his eyes open on a glare. He paused to blow on his numbed fingers. "The way back's thataway." He pointed, raising an eyebrow. "Don't get lost."

"Nothing's keeping me. That's the point." Did Malfoy sound... miffed? "Just a warning."

"Oh, well then, thank you very much for that brilliant piece of information, Malfoy. What would I do without you to guide my daily steps? Oh wait, I'd be happy as a clam."

"You're really an idiot," Malfoy told him softly. "And you don't know anything. That's always been your problem. You think you know, but you don't have a bloody clue what you're messing with. I bet you haven't even thought to wonder how is it I knew where to find you night after bloody night."

That wasn't true; Harry did wonder. He just thought he was better off not knowing for once. It was bound to lead to something like... well, this. Only worse, probably. He clenched his fists.

"So now I'm stupid; so says the prince of hot air and pointless posturing. Go back to your real friends. If you still have any, that is." Harry's voice was even. Insulting Malfoy and vice versa was really nothing. Which was to say, it made him feel nothing at all anymore, and there was something almost calming about that.

"I just-- forget it. I should've known better than to try talking seriously to the likes of you." Malfoy sneered, jerking his chin up. "As for me, I hope you freeze to death." Back to his old self, Harry noted. Well, that was fast.

"Right back at you!" Harry called after him, feeling about as stupid as Malfoy claimed for a minute. "And if you think I should know something, then go ahead and tell me!" Harry panted. "Idiot! I'll find out, whatever it is!"

Well, Malfoy probably didn't hear that last part. Probably. Hopefully.

Harry felt like an idiot, true enough.

What were the chances Malfoy had really wanted to talk, anyway? Slim to none. Didn't bear thinking of.

Scowling, Harry got up and brushed his trousers off, picking up his Cloak and the stupidly large charmed pillow he'd stupidly brought (he was not to share) and setting off towards the tall dark shape of the Gryffindor Tower.

~~

THREE // side by side in orbit

Don't save me
Don't lose me
Don't wake me now
You left me
You release me
Let me drown
Take me down

- October Project
~~

Hermione was concerned. Of course, Hermione was always 'concerned' about one thing or another, apparently, but she didn't know Malfoy like Harry did.

"You're the one who said there's something off about him!" Harry glowered at all his extra Defence homework; he had almost as much as Hermione these days, and that was just wrong. Wrong.

Ron was out practicing and being all confident and peppy and Cheerio, mate, while Harry was stuck in the Common Room, under Hermione's eagle eye. Harry's life had never been fair, but this was cruel and unusual punishment, Harry felt. Or, he did until he remembered last year, and Umbridge, and Sirius, and everything else, and then he just felt worse.

Hermione winced a little. "When I said that, I didn't mean you should go off and follow him around to figure out what was going on! Honestly!"

Harry glared at her. "I never should have told you. I thought you'd understand that I need to know."

"Harry...." She put a hand on Harry's own and looked at him meaningfully.

"What," he snapped.

"What's really going on?" she asked gently, and it was Harry's turn to wince.

It wasn't like he could really tell her he'd been sneaking out to sleep with Malfoy for no apparent reason except his room and Ron's snores and the familiar surroundings were stifling to the point of being suffocating, and he needed to walk it off so he could sleep without dreaming of Sirius. And then Malfoy stopped, and that felt wrong. It was wrong, and Harry couldn't get a decent night's sleep anymore since he dreamt of Malfoy whenever he wasn't having the Sirius dream again. Right? There were limits to what Hermione could be expected to accept, and he'd already reached them just with following Malfoy around a bit.

"I'm not a stalker," Harry said finally. "If anything, he was the one...." Harry trailed off.

Hermione blinked. "Okay." She took a deep breath. "I never said you were, Harry," she said slowly, as if talking to a dangerously unstable person. Great. Just what he needed.

"You don't get it, do you," he muttered.

"Oh, honestly! If you would explain, I could understand! What do you hope to accomplish this way? Dumbledore has even called me to express his concerns, and.... He wonders why you've been avoiding him, Harry."

Harry gaped. "You're kidding."

"I wish I was." She smiled slightly. "Being a go-between between you and Dumbledore isn't a lot of fun for me either, you know."

"I suppose I should be grateful he didn't call Malfoy himself to 'express his concerns'." Harry stabbed his quill till it penetrated the parchment entirely, leaving a healthy splotch in the middle of 'potion'. Even though this was Defence Against the Dark Arts, somehow he was still writing about potions. It figured.

"Harry... what is this really about? You can tell me."

It wasn't like Harry didn't want to; it was just that he didn't know, exactly. He probably shouldn't have told her about his suspicions about Malfoy if he couldn't back them up. Even though she'd done basically the same thing not so long ago.

"He's hiding something," he said finally.

"Okay. How do you know?"

He wanted to talk to me about something! But he didn't! And now he's avoiding me! "Um." Too childish. Not like we're friends or anything. And it's not like I'd expect him to talk to me. Too crazy. "Didn't you see, while we were at Diagon Alley? He ducked into Nocturne Alley alone, and his mum was nowhere in sight. And he'd made threats at the end of last year, too. This is his chance, you know. Plus, I can tell just looking at him. He's been rattier than usual; he's up to something," Harry said stubbornly, feeling a bit foolish but persevering. "According to the Map, he spends lots of time with Snape and in the Room of Requirement. There's other stuff, too."

"Why are you bringing up the Diagon Alley incident now, though? Besides, you don't actually think Malfoy is a threat, do you? And Snape is the Head of his House, remember?"

"Well, I've been thinking about it! And he's still acting suspicious, okay? I'll prove it to you, trust me."

Hermione gave him a Look. "You know it's not because I don't trust you, Harry...."

"Yeah, you just think I've been into Snape's super-special potions stash or something."

"Oh! That reminds me! How are the Occlumency lessons going?"

"They're not," Harry said shortly.

"Oh Harry. This isn't related to the Malfoy thing somehow, is it?"

How did she always know? Not that it was, really. "It's not!" he said, a trifle too loudly. "He doesn't really want to teach me anymore than I want him to. It all works out in the end, I think, actually."

"Isn't this about what you need rather than what either of you might prefer, Harry? You need to develop the skills he can provide, or you won't stop being vulnerable to Voldemort, you know that as well as I do."

"Yeah." He stared at his book until the words started to blur in front of him.

"Well." Hermione huffed and took up her quill, ever practical. "We'll talk about this more after we're finished."

It was one of the few times in his Hogwarts career Harry could recall being grateful he'd stayed up doing homework until well past midnight.

~~

Harry was falling, falling, falling. The sense of vertigo persisted though it was a dream, and he couldn't possibly be falling at all.

He stood at the edge of the Hogwarts Lake, watching the moon, swollen full and silver, calling to him. He wasn't really there, he knew that. He was an intruder, a stalker. He shouldn't be seeing this, he realized, but he couldn't stop looking.

It was Malfoy, standing not far from their oak tree-- or what Harry now thought of as their tree. He stood at the lakeshore, naked, facing the lake. His bare back shone in the moonlight, his skinny legs trembling with cold. Even so, he kept standing there, shivering, just like Harry couldn't help watching.

Harry wanted to talk to him, to walk up and offer him a cloak to get him warm, but he couldn't move. He couldn't do a thing. Malfoy was beyond him, somehow, a silvery creature of the water and the moolight. Besides, he had the certainty of dreams that Malfoy wasn't in the state to hear anything right now; he knew Malfoy wouldn't be able to explain how he got here either. They couldn't do anything about this, either of them.

Malfoy walked a step forward, then stopped. The Malfoy Harry knew would have run away from the cold and the dark by now. Of course, the Malfoy Harry knew would never have gone swimming in the squid-infested lake in late November. Then again, Harry knew this was a dream, so all bets were off.

"Draco!" he called, and Malfoy turned around after all.

Their eyes locked, and Harry forgot what he thought he might say.

"I'm drowning," Malfoy said simply. "Help me."

Harry looked at the icy water lapping at Malfoy's bare toes dubiously. "You belong here. Where you are."

"Is that what you really think?"

"Isn't that what you want me to think?"

There was a pause. "Yes. But you'll try to help anyway, won't you? Even though I don't want you to?"

"And why should I?"

Dream Draco might be pale, sad and weary, but he was still more thorn than rose. He rolled his eyes. "You're nothing if not predictable, Potter."

"You sure know how to butter up a bloke when you want their help, Malfoy."

"That's why people invented gratuitous nudity." He smirked, looking over his own shoulder. "I know you looked."

That's when Harry woke up, choking on his own spit. He shuddered, and lay rigidly awake for a few minutes before giving up on sleep and making his way to the showers. He could see Malfoy's pale arse when he closed his eyes, which was just. Not. On.

After a moment's consideration, Harry decided what he needed was a cold shower to wake him up.

~~

At some point, a man had to draw a line, even if it was a line in the sand. So Harry sent a Malfoy an Owl. It was quite simple and to the point:

Malfoy,

We need to talk. Alone.

Tonight. Ten o'clock at the Astronomy Tower.

- HJP


He was quite proud of himself. If he didn't know better, he'd think he was confident to the point of being blase, which was exactly what Malfoy ought to think.

Still, that was after a dozen drafts which involved things like Malfoy bringing his arse down, or Malfoy showing up or else, or Harry claiming he knew what he did in the Room of Requirement. Seeing Malfoy's goons Polyjuiced into little girls to stand watch had been the last straw. Even Hermione was aghast when he told her (even if it dissolved into a fit of giggles soon thereafter).

As long as they didn't magically fall asleep together this time (and Harry was on guard), he figured this should go according to plan.

Later on, he would regret thinking of it in quite those terms. He didn't have the best track record with plans, exactly.

~~

Draco was not having a good morning. The Dreamless Sleep potion left him groggy and disoriented, barely fighting off a pounding headache by the skin of his teeth. His mum had always said Draco was especially sensitive to strong medicines. Besides, the possible side-effects was why it was often so cautiously prescribed; though Snape had relented under pressure, he'd been highly reluctant to provide any. Draco had to go so far as to mention his 'stress' and his mum. It was beyond galling to speak of private matters with Snape, whose eyes always glittered guardedly, making one feel a fool for any emotional display.

When Pansy bid him good morning, it was all he could do not to snarl at her. He grunted something unintelligible enough for Goyle, but she only looked concerned. He sighed to himself.

He had almost convinced himself it could be worse when he got an owl from Potter in plain sight of all his Housemates. He felt himself pale, but clenched his teeth against showing his rage; he'd never been that great at repressing strong emotions, and especially not with a now (full-fledged) headache that felt like a hang-over, but somehow he managed.

Suddenly, he remembered that this was going to be the year he made Potter pay. He crumpled up the owl without reading it, flushing from head to toe with rage.

Just because he'd been distracted by other matters didn't mean Potter would be allowed to think this was acceptable! If he'd sent his own owl... Draco shuddered. It didn't bear thinking of.

"What was that?" Pansy asked, clearly unable to bear it.

Draco sipped his coffee as slowly as he could, but clearly that wasn't fooling the next Rita Skeeter among them. It was always merely a matter of time before he snapped. At last, Draco smirked. "A secret admirer."

Pansy's eyes were round, shiny saucers of barely-banked glee. And to think this was the girl he'd went out with for the last two years. She was so... cute sometimes. It was really a shame they were friends. Draco had so few real friends, in the end, sleeping with them just felt weird, though technically he and Pansy were still together. It sucked, too, because Pansy gave mind-blowing massages. He could sure use one of those right now.

"Do tell," she cooed, sidling closer to him.

Uh-oh, Draco thought. Bad move.

"I'm especially curious how you can tell, since that was one of the school's owls, and you didn't even open it."

"He's been sending me these messages for a w--" Crap.

Pansy's eyebrows shot up nearly all the way to her hairline. "He?" She tittered. "Are you branching out, darling?"

He glared at her seriously now, but Pansy Parkinson was, as always, unrepentant.

She pursed her mouth. "Don't be so narrow-minded, dear. It would be good for you, I think."

Draco choked, spluttering coffee everywhere. "W-what?"

Pansy shook her head and mopped up Draco's chin with her own napkin before he could bat her away. Zabini was giving him a look, and Goyle-- the idiot-- was smiling widely around his muffin. Everyone thought they were just oh-so-adorable, and Draco kicked Pansy's ankle in retaliation. Pansy stuffed the cloth napkin into his mouth in one punchy move, gagging him.

"That's better," she said sweetly.

Draco spat out the linen, coughing as everyone on his side of the table laughed at his expense. God, he didn't dare look over at the Gryffindor table to see if they'd noticed; normally, they would all know better than to act out of character in public, but he supposed matters had grown rather glum for Slytherins in Hogwarts lately and they all needed a bit of relief.

"I'll get you for this," he muttered darkly.

"Of course you will." Pansy patted his hand agreeably.

It was continuously disturbing to Draco that life went on much as normal even though Potter shot him meaningful glances these days and there was a Dark ring pretty much burning a hole through his finger. Oh, and instead of dreaming of Potter naked and bloody, he'd taken to dreaming of himself naked in the moonlight white Potter got to watch.

One of these days Draco was going to start laughing maniacally, he knew, and nothing and no one would be able to get him to stop. Something had to give under pressure here, true enough, but he would be damned if that would be him.

Finally, eyeing the remnants of Snape's potion that night, Draco had to face the three options truly open to him: talking to Snape about this (and face the risk he'd mention it to Dumbledore or worse, the Dark Lord); talking to Dumbledore about this directly (mind-boggling) and, of course, talking to Potter. Potter, who for some insane reason wanted to talk to him right back.

The insane laugher bubbled ever so slightly closer to the surface.

Draco sighed.

Out of the three evils, the lesser was.... He groaned and buried his head in his pillow, just barely refraining from banging it repeatedly against the wall.

The lesser evil here was Potter, rationally speaking. Probably. He was unlikely to talk, not when Draco knew the secret of his little nightly excursions. Not to mention his obsessive stalker owls, all of which Draco had carefully kept for evidence, should he need it in the future.

Of course, the problem was that Draco couldn't wrap his mind around the idea of the two of them having a normal conversation, let alone cooperating for the purposes of Draco's greater good. The concept itself was ludicrous. All he could think of at the sight of him was how wonderful his boot would look mashed into Potter's face, and how Potter would look if he was completely at Draco's mercy. Now that would indeed be stress relief. Too bad it never happened; Draco had always been the one petrified and left helpless as a slug.

Thinking about that incident at the end of last year, Draco's mouth thinned. He'd planned on and even practiced for certain eventualities if Potter was so unfortunate as to cross his path on the train to Hogwarts this year, but instead he'd spent an uneventful ride on Pansy's lap, making certain hints for Zabini's benefit about the Dark Lord's interest in him. Unfortunately for everyone, while Draco suspected the Dark Lord did indeed have a plan for him, he didn't exactly know what it was, and it was likely as not to leave him dead or worse.

He should show up just to hex Potter to bits. Didn't Draco deserve a bit of a release after all this time? True, Potter generally had better goons for back-up and the element of surprise with that stupid Invisibility Cloak he obviously had, but this time he shouldn't be hiding. Not if he was expecting Draco. In other words, he had a chance.

That settled, Draco laid back for a little nap.

~~

He showed up a little late; not so late as to have Potter leave, but late enough to make a point.

Potter stood up from the edge of the windowsill at the sight of him, looking startled. "Malfoy!"

Draco gritted his teeth. This was it!

He drew his wand in a flash, having just practiced, and walked in with it up his sleeve. He didn't waste any time, yelling "Petrificus Totalus!" before Potter had done much more than blink.

Potter toppled forward, right onto his face. Draco was relieved for a bare second that it hadn't been backwards. He didn't need the fallout that'd rain down on his head if he actually killed the Boy Who Wouldn't Die. Draco turned him over onto his back, stepping away to admire his handiwork.

It was cute, the way Potter glared at him even though he couldn't move a muscle. Utterly helpless as a kitten. No, no, it was beautiful. Draco beamed, shivering slightly.

"I told you I'll have you, haven't I? I keep my promises, Potter." Draco wanted to laugh, maybe even do a little jig, but that would spoil the effect. Potter just looked so... perfect like that. "Not what you expected, eh? Hmm? What is it? Cat got your tongue?"

Potter stared back at him, his eyes clear. He still didn't understand. He wasn't even worried. He was secretly laughing at him.

"This is for my father, you fucking bastard!"

Draco's lips peeled away from his teeth and he did it: he stomped hard on Potter's face with his boot. There was a distinct crunch, and there was blood everywhere, running down Potter's cheeks and into his mouth, and his broken nose looked quite awful. Draco felt dizzy; he hated the sight of blood. And yet, he must not show weakness. He must not look away too fast.

His fists clenched, he tried to control his panting. He really did feel dizzy. He ought to get going; the spell didn't last that long.

Potter had his eyes screwed shut. Just like in Draco's dream: he was pale and bloody and on the floor, but Draco's glee evaporated with the pounding, heavy pain that spread up his arm from his ring finger. It only added to his light-headedness and nausea, and Draco thought he could actually hear a low whispering in his ears, though he couldn't make out any words. Then there was a flash of heat, till he seemed to see only through a haze.

The world flickered and went black.

The first thing Draco saw was Potter's awful bloodied face looking down on him, though Potter must have temporarily left Draco there, because he had some ice wrapped in a white handkerchief pressed to his nose.

Apparently, Potter noticed where he was looking and shrugged. "One of the house-elves likes me."

Draco must have still been disoriented, because that was not the first thing he expected to have come out of Potter's mouth. He couldn't quite process it.

"What are you--" he swallowed, "-- doing here?"

Potter looked out the window rather than at Draco. "Do you need water? Can you get up?"

Draco struggled to sit up, taking deep breaths at the sudden rush to his head. It wasn't too bad. "Water," he repeated, unable to think of anything else.

"Dobby!" Potter called.

A house-elf popped into existence right next to them. Draco's old house-elf, no less. The one his dad had lost to Potter, or the one Potter had freed. Depended on one's point of view.

"Harry Potter! What'll Harry Potter be wanting now? Dobby would do anything in his power, he would! Dobby only wishes he could be of more service to Harry Potter than he is!" The house-elf seemed to only then notice Draco, and promptly directed a look of pure malice at him. "Dobby regrets that he cannot hurt a Hogwarts student, it is most unfortunate, but Dobby would do anything else Harry Potter desires."

Draco had the sudden creepy feeling that Dobby was having visions of stomping on Draco's own nose. Or ironing Draco's hands, perhaps.

"Some water, Dobby. All I need is a glass of water for my friend here."

"Your... friend? This is Harry Potter's friend?"

"Well...." Potter clearly winced, peeling the ice-pack away from his face. It looked about as bad now as it had ten minutes ago. "That may be up for debate-- a lot of debate-- but more to the point, he needs some water."

"Any friend of Harry Potter's is a friend of Dobby's! Harry Potter need only ask!" And with that, Dobby popped out of existence with a tiny little puff (which Draco may have imagined), only to reappear less than a minute later. He had a large glass of water, which he set on the floor next to Draco's feet. A second later, he was gone again.

Draco stared at the water for a bit, his mouth feeling drier than only moments ago. "It's probably poisoned," he said judiciously, and licked cracked lips.

Potter snorted. "Suit yourself. It seems you'll be all right now, so I'll be leaving. I really wouldn't have stayed, but it seemed like someone should be the bigger man here."

"How... admirable of you." Draco glared at Potter and relented, drinking down the glass in three huge gulps. "Do you want applause? Gratitude? A parade, perhaps?"

"Not really. A parade would actually be a huge bother. But then you probably only named the things you'd like for yourself."

Draco got up, patting himself down to dust off. He ran a hand through his hair, sniffed, and felt almost his own self again. "Don't presume to know anything about me, Potter," he said flatly. "You don't."

Potter's mouth curled down. "Don't presume I want to know anything about you, either."

"You're the one who begged me to come here. Repeatedly, no less!"

"I know you're up to something, Malfoy." Potter walked towards the stairs, but paused at the edge. "I wanted to give you a chance to come clean before I make my report to Dumbledore, that's all."

Draco's stomach curdled and he went cold. "You don't know anything!" he snapped.

"Are you sure about that?"

"Are you threatening me? Just so we're clear."

"Just so we're clear?" Potter walked back up to him, drawing out the question. He leaned forward until Draco could almost smell him. "No." He grinned. "I'm telling you what I plan on doing, unless you say something to change my mind." That said, Potter went back the way he'd come.

"Wait!"

Potter didn't turn around. "Yes?"

Something to change my mind, Potter said. "I-- I--" Draco clenched his fists, and finally stopped his fine shaking. He swallowed. "Isn't it kind of late? Eh? It's late. I'm sleepy, aren't you?"

Potter stared at him, clearly startled, for what felt like a full minute. He blinked.

There was a drawn-out, excruciating silence during which Draco wanted to die, or sink through the floor, or disappear from the face of the Earth, all fine as long as Potter stopped looking at him like that. He was an idiot. An idiot! Why did he think that would work? God, why? He'd just broken Potter's nose!

"I'm going to the Hospital Wing," Potter said. "Madam Pomfrey never asks too many questions," he smirked. "And you probably need a check-up for that fainting spell."

"Oh. Yeah. That's... probably a good idea."

Potter actually started to smile, then winced, glaring at Draco. "I haven't let you off or anything," he said, starting to walk gingerly down the stairs. "That really hurt like a bitch."

Draco huffed. "Good! I haven't let you off either." Privately, Draco was relieved Potter was too much of a Gryffindor to stomp on his face while he was out.

"As long as we're clear," Potter said, and they walked the rest of the way in silence.

~~

If it came right down to it, Draco would blame his oddly benevolent behavior on the ring in the future, worst case scenario being that he'd need to explain his behavior in the first place. There was no actual proof the ring wanted Potter bleeding to his death; it could be a metaphor for something. Or it could always be a manifestation of Draco's own subconscious desires, since Merlin knew Draco wanted Potter to pay. Draco didn't have to understand it; it was a dream.

He was in a daze the next morning, waking up alone in the Hospital Wing, Madam Pomfrey, as usual, immune to his doe eyes and the rightful listing of his ills and misfortunes. Even so, that had been some of the best sleep he'd had in weeks, probably because it involved an actual bed.

Maybe it was something Pomfrey gave him while he was asleep. That was definitely something to ponder. Mostly because he took a detour on the way to breakfast to send Potter an anonymous owl, which read:

"Potter,

Given there was absolutely no choice, I could be convinced to bear your presence. Also given there were basic conveniences. Plus no questions asked. This is non-negotiable.

Be prepared to give your word as a Gryffindor that this will go no further. I warn you!

I'll be in the Room of Requirement. This is a very limited time offer, of course."

He received a return anonymous owl at dinner-- a different one this time. He jumped when the parchment dropped, and snatched it, glaring at Blaise, who gave him his best innocent look. Draco wasn't fooled, of course. They were starting to suspect something, dammit, and Draco hadn't even started yet!

Of course, Draco didn't open it in public. It was only when he could get away to the bathroom that he opened the parchment he'd tucked into his robes, and it read:

"Malfoy,

How very generous of you.

Let me make this clear: we're not friends, no matter what I told Dobby. I don't need anything from you. And your presence is the last thing I'd want.

That said, it seems this is a matter of mutual convenience to both of us. I'll be there.

- HJP"

Draco crumpled the parchment, fuming, though for once a portion of the rage was directed at himself. What the hell was he doing?

Forget that, what in the world was Potter doing?

A girl's ghost floated up over the toilet's door. Draco literally jumped, giving a little screech and rushing to cover himself and pull up his pants before it fully penetrated who this had to be.

"Oooh," Moaning Myrtle sighed, both mournful and somehow tittery. "You're not supposed to be here! You're a boy!"

"No kidding," Draco snapped. "What gave that one away?"

Myrtle sniffled. "You're mean! Go away! Go away if you're going to be mean to poor old Myrtle! Myrtle, who'd never done anything to you! Everyone is mean to Myrtle, and she's never done anything, nothing at all!" She wailed.

"Oh God," Draco groaned. "Just what I needed."

He did up his fly, stalking over to the faucets and decidently not looking at the mirrors to see Myrtle (who may or may not be reflected, depending what kind of ghost she was). How could he have forgotten about the ghost?

This was all Potter's fault.

"You go away," he snapped. "I have enough problems, believe me. I don't need to add risking being discovered reading Potter's bloody fan-mail to that list."

This seemed to pique her interest enough to distract her from self-pity for a moment. "Potter? As
in, Harry Potter?" Myrtle flitted over to hover to Draco's right, way too close. Draco moved to the next sink over, but didn't leave yet. Mother said cleanliness was one major difference between Purebloods and Mudbloods. Granted, that had been when Draco was ten, but surely it still held.

"What's it to you?"

"I know Harry Potter! Oh, I do! But Myrtle never tells! No one asks poor old Myrtle to tell them anything, anyway. Woooh! People so rarely confide in me! Wooh! I'm always here, all alone...."

"Well, why don't you just leave?" Draco said reasonably.

She stared at him, wide-eyed. "Oh, I couldn't! Who knows what they would do to me, out there! Those horrible little children! I'm safe here! No one ever comes here to hurt poor Myrtle! No, they never come at all!" She sobbed.

Draco stared at her, one eyebrow raised. At least he was temporarily distracted from his troubles, so that was something.

"Has anyone ever suggested therapy?" he said finally, inexplicably cheered up. Ahh, the lot of people apparently worse off than he was. It was always such a good tonic for all ills.

"Are you laughing at me? You are, aren't you? You mean, nasty little boy! You've got to be a Slytherin!"

Draco laughed. "Breeding does tell."

She zipped away to the ceiling, still sobbing. "See if I listen to you now!" She still didn't disappear, only hovered above the toilet. Far, far above.

"You know what's really the worst part of this?"

"W-what is it?" she said warily, after a bit.

"I'm seriously considering confiding in someone who's even a worse idea than you are. I'm not sure if I have a choice or not." He laughed bitterly. "Now which one of us is more pathetic?"

"Oooh!" She wailed. "I know! I know I'm pathetic, I'm not crazy, you know! I know how I sound! But what can I do? What can I doooo?" she yelled with a rising pitch, and faded out with barely a pop.

"Yeah. I don't know either," Draco said, bending to wash his face out in cold water.

~~

When Draco showed up to the Room of Requirement, he always brought a book, these days.

He didn't come every night, and sometimes Potter was not there, but Draco didn't fancy trying to sneak back into his dorm room, and he wasn't sure the Room would supply him with a limited edition of Dark Arts for Dastardly Artists on demand, since the Hogwarts library didn't stock a copy. It was silly, really, because it wasn't actually a Dark Arts book since none of the spells worked, but it certainly gave you a good run for the money trying to figure that out the first time. He supposed it made extra work for the Professors trying to prevent adventurous first-years from getting their eager little paws on it.

It was a Christmas present from Blaise, Draco's second year. Draco hadn't thought it was funny at the time.

Draco sighed. Either Potter wasn't coming this time either, or he was too early. Still, he preferred being early to sleepwalking. That's what the book was for. He would not be caught waiting like some lovestruck Hufflepuff. He shuddered. A lovestruck anything would be bad enough.

If only they had separate Prefect's quarters; he heard they did in Durmstrang, but then everything was plain better in Durmstrang. Or so Krum had told him.

Krum. Now there was a fine specimen of a....

"Malfoy."

Draco flipped the book open again, trying to look engrossed.

"Your book is the wrong side up."

He gasped, hurriedly turning it around before looking down to realize Potter was having one over on him. His hand crept to the wand in his pocket in an obvious move, but Potter blithely plopped down on the sofa across from Draco's armchair, looking horribly... relaxed, as he had no business being.

"Yeah yeah, you'll hex me from here to Sunday, I know, I know, I tremble in my boots. God, I'm tired. Will Snape never stop giving us three times the homework everyone else gets?"

"No," Draco said, trying to suppress a smile and mostly succeeding. "He doesn't like you, Potter. I can't imagine why."

Potter gave him a look. "Don't be arch with me, Malfoy. I can see right through you."

For some reason Draco's heart skipped a beat, and his cheeks heated. "I don't have to be here, Potter," he said stiffly.

Potter looked back at him unflinching. "You know where the door is."

He knew, at that moment: he knew what his self-respect demanded, he knew what the situation demanded. He should walk out and not look back. This farce had gone on far enough; far beyond any attempt at a rational explanation. Except, perhaps, that his ring never hurt him when he was alone with Potter at night, as if he was doing something right. Doing what he was supposed to and serving the Dark Lord's interests somehow. He could tell himself that he was doing this to get Potter's confidence and hurt him when he least expected it, but it did not sound very convincing at times like this, when the actions he should take and the actions he wound up taking were in such stark contrast.

"I was here first," he said, almost wincing at his own words. "I don't have to give up my place to you."

Potter smiled, as if he really could see through Draco, and nodded. Then he stretched out on the sofa, and the lights dimmed.

"Hey!" Draco cried immediately. "I was reading!"

Potter actually laughed at that. "So make your own light."

Draco huffed, caught again but undefeated. He set the book down on his cloak, standing. "Move over," he said, intent on being as annoying as possible.

"What?"

He sat down on the edge of the sofa, wiggling further. "I said, move over!"

"Why? And where?" There was a pause, where Potter thought, or possibly only yawned. "There's no space here."

Draco wished, and there it was. "There is," he said smugly.

There was a much longer pause, and he heard-- or felt-- Potter rolling away from him. A bit too comfortably far away, which spoiled the whole point of the exercise. Draco couldn't afford to back down now. That really would be transparent.

Swallowing uneasily, he laid down on the couch (which was more like a wide daybed now), pulling at the edge of Potter's blanket till it covered him.

"Hey!" Potter muttered sleepily. "What do you think you're doing?"

"What does it look like?" he snapped.

He lay quite stiffly on his side, trapped in a situation of his own devising, way too hot in his own clothes and under the blanket on top of that. He was also way too conscious of how the blanket magnified and trapped Potter's scent, which remained no matter how shallowly he breathed.

"I'm not sure," Potter said with disarming honesty.

"I'm going to sleep," Draco announced in a tone that brooked no argument. He closed his eyes tightly, trying to recite that days Arithmancy formulas backwards.

Draco was almost up to the formula for simulated flight when Potter poked Draco sharply in the ribs. He peered over through slitted eyes and gave what he hoped was a sleepy moan, but Potter only smiled unpleasantly.

"Malfoy?" Potter's voice was soft, but insistent. Draco just snorted, flopped away from Potter and buried his face in the armrest, which wasn't all that soft. "Malfoy," Potter repeated. "Malfoy. Malfoy. Malfoy."

"Yeah, what!" Draco growled, his voice genuinely scratchy with sleep. "Fuck you too, Potter. What? What?"

"Why are you here?"

Draco gave him a dubious look. "I suppose it's my turn to be asked." He did his best to return to taking deep breaths and ignoring the present circumstances. "Go to sleep."

As usual, Potter didn't know what was good for him. "I don't wanna. Bad dreams."

Draco sighed. "Too bloody bad for you. I'm sure you're the only one with that problem in all the world, too. My heart bleeds."

"Still trying to make friends where you can't seem to keep decent enemies, Malfoy?"

"What?!" Draco scrambled back, pulling his legs off the sofa in one smooth movement, face aflame with rage. "I'll kill you in my own good time. Trust me on that, Potter." Draco's eyes were open slits now, and his heart hammered with pure adrenaline.

Potter seemed undisturbed, but his eyes glittered, oddly naked without their glasses as they bored straight into Draco's. Distantly, Draco was aware something was going on. They were still speaking, exchanging words, but none of it mattered. They were just words.

A small, mean little smile, almost invisible, played on the corners of Draco's mouth.

"Don't you think this is strange, though? I mean, if-- when, really-- they find out, they're going to think each of us is being controlled by the other. Maybe even at the same time." Potter smirked, barely visible in the dim light. "They'll think you're blackmailing me and I'm trying to spy on you or maybe waiting for the chance to beat you to a bloody pulp again. Or vice versa. And maybe I am. I know you are. So we probably are nutters." Potter's eyes were twinkling by now, as if he recalled sinking his fist with the Snitch in it into Draco's gut, over and over again.

"Indeed," Draco drawled. "Think of how floored the Weasel will be. Poor Potty, brainwashed by another nasty Slytherin." Draco was grinning incongruously, his feet now spread widely as he sprawled, half-supported by the sofa (a.k.a. the daybed), with his arse suspended in the air.

"Malfoy. Shut up, this is serious." Potter's mouth twitched. "Your head is on my foot."

"I bloody well know it's serious. I'm being serious, here." Draco made a largely unsuccessful attempt at a pout. "And my head does what it pleases."

"Well then, wipe that smirk off your face."

"You stop and I stop, Potter. Fair's fair, all that."

"You've never been fair a day in your life, Malfoy." Potter sighed long-sufferingly.

"Oh well, that's true, I suppose. Guess you got me."

"Yeah, I guess."

The silence that followed after that had a distinctly new quality to it.

Within minutes, Draco said he needed to get a decent night's rest since some people took their upcoming Charms essay seriously, which was a blatant lie. He felt oddly confused, simultaneously wanting to smile and on the verge of tensing up for a fight, which was completely unacceptable and possibly a sign of mental instability on Draco's part.

He wondered if Potter felt the same way.

Then he froze, heart hammering. He realized this had to stop. He had to make it stop. He had to talk to Snape.

~~

Snape had been bent over his private, specially-made cauldron when Draco found him. As ever, greasy hair hung in thin, stringy clumps over his face. He looked forbidding and incredibly concentrated on his task, and it made Draco smile. No matter what else seemed to change, Snape always remained constant.

Draco knew that a certain amount of lead-in was going to be necessary. He couldn't very well just march into Snape's office and expect a great reaction when he thrust an Dark Arts artifact under Snape's nose. This wasn't home. There were appearances to be kept up. And so, Draco stood at attention for several minutes, waiting for Snape to notice him and deign to tell him to sit. He may get preferential treatment in front of the Gryffindors, but their Head of House was famous for his iron fist as well as favoritism in Slytherin, which had naturally gotten him many fans among Draco's housemates. A Slytherin always liked power wielded effectively.

"Well, boy? Are you going to just stand there like a lump of white clay or are you going to spit it out? Why are you here? Shouldn't you be off consorting with some catch of the week or whatever it is you young folk get up to?"

Snape wrinkled his great hooked nose delicately, though it was unlikely to be at the awful fumes now coming from his cauldron. He hummed, stirring lazily, and would probably have smiled had Draco not been there. Draco caught him at it sometimes, though he never told. He was quite fond of his face and body just the way they were.

"Good day, Professor," Draco said brightly, which only made Snape look at him suspiciously. "Just thought I'd visit you, see how you were doing...." Draco restrained the urge to giggle.

Snape's mouth quirked, almost as if involuntarily. "Cut the sarcasm, Malfoy. I don't have the time to waste in idle chatting. There is important work to be done."

Draco enjoyed the dark cutting tones of his Professor's voice, as usual. "I learned it from the best. Sir. Sarcasm, that is."

Snape rolled his eyes. "Much as I'm enjoying this, if you could come back when you have something of value to import, I might be tempted to not take 5 points from Slytherin.... Unless you can give me a reason not to?"

Draco swallowed. He felt unaccountably nervous, but then, he realized that his tale might sound a little far-fetched, even to a sympathetic listener. He had to make sure that he appeared innocent of any wrong-doing, just in case, as well as made it clear enough so that Snape would be inspired to share information. As a model Slytherin, of course, Snape never shared information without a price.

He took a deep breath and just plunged in. "My Father--"

This was, apparently, the wrong thing to say.

"Your father," Snape hissed, interrupting, "is a marked man, Malfoy. A convicted Death Eater. You'd do best to remember that."

Draco flinched. "Yes, but--"

"You'd do best to dissociate yourself from him."

"But, Sir!" Draco cried, not even attempting to retain his dignity. "You and my father...."

Snape's eyes narrowed, and Draco felt himself start to sweat. His favorite professor didn't choose to direct the Look at him often, but when he did, Draco was certainly far from immune. He was pretty good at Occlumency, but this was Snape; it wouldn't surprise Draco if he was better than the Dark Lord. It was one of the reasons he liked seeing him direct it at others so much. At least he could stop himself from whimpering.

"Do not speak to me of the association between your father and I, insolent brat! That is quite simply, none of your concern, and will stay that way! Whatever transpired between me and any member of the Malfoy family except yourself in the past is just that: the past."

"Sometimes you can't get away from the past even if you want to! It won't let you go!"

"Yes. I do realize that. However, everything changes, Draco," he said more softly. That was almost more disturbing, somehow. "While my loyalties remain, as they must, I am not the man I once was, and you should be thankful for it." Snape sneered a little, which was his version of a fond smile. "Was that all or need you to confide in me about your latest sexual escapades as well, hmm?"

Draco squeaked; this was his last chance, and he couldn't blow it. He decided to ignore the possibility that he'd suddenly acquire some gift of verbal eloquence fit to impress Snape himself. Instead, he just held out his hand, the stone on his finger glowing sluggishly in the thick fumes of Snape's office.

There was a sharp, charged silence, during which Snape directed all his attention entirely to Draco's gift (or curse, depending).

"What is this? Why did you come to me with this?" Snape's narrow black eyes flashed up to meet Draco's own with a mixture of anger, suspicion and what might possibly have been... fear?

"I-- I-- I just thought..." Draco sputtered, feeling weak in the knees all of a sudden. "I thought you would--"

"You thought?" Snape barked a laugh, which sounded quite unnatural. "Don't make me laugh, boy. You didn't think, or you wouldn't have waited so long to come to me with this. I suppose you did whatever your dear old father told you to, correct? And don't dare lie to me, or so help me, I'll go to Dumbledore with this right now, do you understand me?"

Draco gaped.

"Do. You. Understand?" Snape bit out.

"Yes! Yes, Sir." Draco mumbled. "I understand."

"Good. Now tell me everything that has to do with how you came to be in the possession of this-- object, leaving nothing out, no matter how embarrassing or inconsequential. You will start from the beginning. And sit down for Merlin's sake! What's the matter with you?"

Draco sank bonelessly into Snape's good chair, the leather one with the armrests that only important visitors were allowed to use. Snape didn't so much as blink, which told Draco how much trouble he was in.

"Promise you won't tell Dumbledore," Draco said mulishly. He gripped the leather armrests feverishly, feeling hopeless, but he had to say it anyway.

"Don't be a fool, Draco. Though I suppose that is patently impossible for you, being a Malfoy. I will promise no such thing, nor will I hesitate in doing whatever else I feel is necessary to clear up this mess."

Draco breathed a tiny sigh of relief. Snape hadn't said unequivocally that he'd go to Dumbledore. That was something. But then, he would be the first to tell Draco that a Slytherin trusts no one. Even so, Draco knew he had no choice, as per usual. A Malfoy didn't have real allies as soon as personal interests diverged. Hadn't he learned that by now? For some stupid reason, tears prickled at the backs of his eyelids.

Irritated at himself, he rubbed roughly at his nose and told Snape everything, except the Potter situation, of course. There was no proof the two issues were related, though, and besides, a Slytherin never told more than he had to.

There was a long, protracted silence, where Draco looked warily at Snape, who was slumped over his desk, head in his hands as if he suddenly had a horrible headache. Draco knew he did, but that was probably the fumes.

"What does he look like?" Snape said at last, still not looking at Draco.

Draco blinked in confusion. "How does who look like?"

Snape's razor-edged gaze bore into him again, much harder than before. "Don't prevaricate now, if you know what's good for you! I'm talking about the man in your dream, you imbecile! The man in your every dream!"

Draco edged away, leaning back in his chair until he could go no further. "Um. I've never seen him, Professor, as I've said. He's always in the shadows, or behind me, and there's nothing there if I turn."

Snape shook his head, dropping his forehead in his hands again. "Try harder. You must have seen his face and merely forgotten it, so try harder! I'm sure you don't want me to enter your mind to look for myself anymore than I wish to see everything you wish to keep hidden! So try. Harder!"

Draco's eyes were wide, and no sound would come out for long moments. He'd never relished Snape entering his mind, but now that there was the danger of him finding out about the situation with Potter, he was petrified. This couldn't be happening!

He closed his eyes, trying to calm his breathing. Breathe. Breathe. Calm. Breathe.

The terror seemed to give him focus, because he was starting to get a vague image when the ring flared up with heat and seemed to tighten around his finger. Draco cried out, feeling nauseous.

"What is it?" Snape said, almost kindly.

"Can't," Draco gasped. "I can't-- hurts!"

There was another pause, during which Draco tried not to hyperventilate and Snape looked thoughtful.

"All right, stop," he said.

"I-- have!"

"Take off the ring."

Draco's eyes grew wider, and the ring tightened further, until he moaned and clutched his whole arm to his chest, breathing hard. "No! I won't give it to you! It's mine! I have a mission! Father-- father--"

"All right, snop snivelling." Draco thought he saw Snape give a sudden wince, but it was gone quickly. "Let me think."

"Oh-- Okay," Draco said, almost meekly.

Snape pursed his lips, looking slightly put out. "Very well. As it seems you cannot recall certain images without some sort of mental trigger activating, therefore...." He got up, walking to the back of the room and rummaging around briskly. "We'll have to do this another way. Since neither of us looks forward to direct mental contact at this stage, we'll have to make do with this." He set a Pensieve on the table grimly.

Draco did not eep. He didn't move a muscle, just watched Snape raise a wand at him. "Wait--"

"There's no time. You have to think of the dreams. Clear your mind and think of the dreams as best you can."

Draco took deep breaths as best he could with his heart hammering like that. "Okay. I'm ready."

Snape softly touched the tip of his wand to his temple, and slowly drew out a silver thread bit by bit, spooling it into the bowl. After it settled, he lifted his hand once more to repeat the process carefully, with no apparent hurry. Draco held his breath, feeling slightly dizzy as he watched the silver stuff pool out of his head and into the bowl. In a way, it was even more disturbing than watching himself bleed. That was his mind floating in there! His memories!

He shuddered once Snape stopped, lowering his wand.

Draco sat, feeling frozen in place as he watched Snape lower his face into the silver pool. Though he couldn't seem to move a muscle, he'd broken out in cold sweat, his whole body itching, his ring tight and pulsing hot around his finger. He breathed shallowly, gritting his teeth.

While this didn't involve the danger of spilled secrets like Snape using Legilimency, it was disturbing nonetheless. That was his mind Snape dipped into; Draco's natural tendency was to prevent just such vulnerability, even in front of someone who was entirely loyal to him. That he couldn't be sure of this with Snape didn't exactly help matters.

It seemed like forever until Snape stopped, straightening up, though it could only have been a couple of minutes; it was for those within the memories that time truly stretched.

Snape didn't speak for a full minute more, staring at him with an inscrutable gaze.

Draco licked his lips, wishing Snape would say something and end the torture. It didn't matter what he said anymore, as long as he didn't have to bear all this bloody suspense.

"Lord Voldemort," Snape mouthed, making no sound though he moved his lips.

Draco screamed, quickly clapping a hand over his mouth. His ring blazed with pain which reached all the way up his arm, radiating in molten prickles to his heart. He felt ill with panic, a sense of vertigo overpowering him though he hadn't moved from his chair.

He felt like he was falling.

"W-what?" He swallowed, panting. "What do you-- that's--" Draco closed his eyes. Of course he knew. Of course he knew, but to have it said.... he couldn't deny it once it was spoken.

Snape cast an Imperturbable Charm on the room along with some modifications Draco had never seen before. He swallowed thickly, his mind sluggish as syrup even as his heart raced along heedless of the rest of him.

Steepling his fingers, Snape regarded him steadily. It was the same look he gave students whom he just knew were about to fail their Potion OWL right in front of his face.

"Well?" Draco screeched, finally snapping. "Is that all you're going to say?"

Apparently disregarding his little outburst, Snape nodded. "How much do you know about the history of the Dark Lord?"

Draco boggled. "I-- don't see how it's relevant, with all due--"

"Mr. Malfoy. I will ask the questions. You will answer them. Is that clear?"

"Yes," he said sullenly, thinking that it had actually been a good idea to come to Potter with this, after all. "I-- don't know, mostly what everyone knows about it, I suppose. Father said he'd been a great student, showed extreme promise from an early age, but that Dumbledore and all the other Mudblood-lovers were always against him, trying to trip him up." Draco paused, scowling. "Um. He went to Hogwarts, in other words, and he was the last Heir of Slytherin. He woke the basilisk, the one that almost got Potter's little girlfriend in second year." Draco hesitated.

"Yes?" Snape raised an eyebrow.

"Everyone thought he was gone, though I don't know why. Something odd happened with baby Potter, and he survived the Killing Curse and the Dark Lord... I don't know. He died instead, somehow; I suppose it... rebounded? Though I've never heard of such a thing. Um. Everyone knows he came back at the end of fourth year, when the Triwizard Tournament ended. He's been gathering up the ones who were loyal to him, preparing...." Draco trailed off.

"Fine, stop. Good enough." Snape sighed, rubbing at his temple with his right hand. "God, what a mess."

Draco waited, biting down on his impatience.

Finally, Snape looked at him directly. "I see you don't know much about the beginnings of the subject, but why should you? We've all taken great care to... great care...." Snape sighed, but seemed to snap back on track. "The man you see in your dreams, he--" Snape stopped. "Do you remember Ginny Weasley's famous mad spell, during second year? Of course you do. She had a diary she'd gotten from your father, that year. What you may not know is that the diary was possessed with a version of Tom Riddle: the man who became the Dark Lord."

Draco gaped, mind whirring as pieces fell into place. Something didn't quite fit, though. "The Dark Lord... possessed the diary? You mean his ghost? Though... he wasn't really dead, right?"

Snape winced, as if he'd been expecting a question like that, but that didn't mean he relished it. "No. This isn't like a ghost possession; it's-- well, it's a memory. An actual piece of Tom Riddle, as he truly lived." Snape's mouth thinned. "There are still things that are too dangerous for you to know. You must understand, you cannot ask too many questions. Ask the right ones, and it will save you from this awful mess you've gotten us all in. Ask the wrong ones--" Snape's gaze bore into him, pinning Draco to his chair. "Ask the wrong ones, Draco, and you'll be dead."

His mind still whirring with dizzying speed, Draco seized upon the one thing that seemed clear he must know right now: "So are you going to tell Dumbledore?"

Snape sighed again, sounding like an old, defeated man all of a sudden. "I would prefer to keep you safe, Draco; safe as I can, even from Dumbledore's meddling. I made a promise, and I intend to keep it. Be that as it may, we have very little time; you cannot hope to resolve this on your own, and neither can I. You must promise me you'll think on everything we've said here. I need you to come to this decision on your own, if possible, but as I said: our time is running out." Snape looked at him almost imploringly, a look Draco barely recognized on Snape's face. "You must hurry. Hurry and grow up, Malfoy. I cannot protect you from this."

There was a lengthy pause, wherein Draco tried to think of what to say and came up blank.

At last, Snape pursed his mouth in that sour way of his, and waved a hand. "I trust you'll think this over. For now, you are dismissed," he said wearily. "I have work to do yet."

After a beat, Draco got up, stumbling slightly in his rush to get out. He turned at the door, and pressed his lips together before speaking: "T-thank you, Sir. Professor."

"Go!"

Draco went.

~~

Routine; midnight meetings with Draco Malfoy had become... almost routine. Enough so that Harry didn't think of it with any particular interest or fixation, and in fact barely thought of it at all most of the time he spent in classes or with his friends. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that Harry didn't think of it, very much on purpose. Nonetheless, the effect remained the same.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, of course. There was that time Harry woke up to Malfoy's hands wrapped around his throat. His eyes popped open quite suddenly that night. He'd been confused, since he was in the middle of a muddled sort of dream. He blinked slowly and looked up into Malfoy's wild eyes in silence. Malfoy's expression was inscrutable in the gloomy dark, his eyes swirling black holes, all but daring Harry to be afraid, and a part of him was, a little.

Malfoy squeezed a little tighter, making Harry gasp for air. Tiny sparkles danced at the edges of his vision, and every instinct screamed at him to struggle free.

Still, Harry waited.

Both of them knew Harry could throw him off at any point. He'd know this sort of thing was inevitable, on some level, and now he wondered where Malfoy thought he was going with it.

Then, he couldn't wait anymore, and he pulled at Malfoy's fingers with his own. They felt steely, and it took too much of Harry's strength to unbend them one by one, though the other hand remained curled around him. He gulped a harsh breath of air, all too conscious of Malfoy's thumb pressing against his windpipe.

"Malfoy...?" he rasped.

Malfoy's mouth twisted as if in pain. His eyes glittered, glassy and somehow vacant even though it was so hard to discern much of anything. At that moment, Harry felt weirdly close to Malfoy; closer than he could remember ever feeling before, at least.

Distantly, he noticed there was a gleam of sweat sliding down onto Malfoy's lower lip. In a moment, it might slip down to land on Harry's own chin.

Only another second, now. Another second.

It became clear that neither of them had known what they were doing. If there was a code to this sort of thing, maybe it was broken. Maybe neither of them knew how to put it back together. Did they want to? Did Harry want to?

"Malfoy," he whispered. Malfoy panted above him, his eyes clearly shut now. Harry was beginning to really worry. The ring Malfoy wore was pressing painfully into his neck. It felt hot. "Wake up. Wake up!" he snapped. It was an order.

"Aaah!" Malfoy jumped all the way off him, scrambling backwards with his arms and legs. "Potter! What--?" His voice was wild, panicked. Harry didn't know what to say.

He never did figure it out, because Malfoy bolted seconds later, running away. Harry sat there for awhile, looking into the dark with his hands to his bruised throat, and he didn't go back to sleep that night.

They didn't talk about it the next day, or the day after.

Overall, they experimented with the arrangements; they had to keep moving, to keep ahead of Filch. Of course, Harry didn't tell Malfoy about the Marauder's Map, but Harry had figured out how to charm it to sound a small alarm if Filch came too close to their current whereabouts. If worst came to worst, Malfoy was a Prefect and Harry had his Cloak. Besides, Malfoy could stop coming anytime he wanted to. Otherwise, it seemed Malfoy depended on him to keep them safe, oddly enough, and that made Harry ever more inventive than he'd been in the past.

Still, after that one memorable night, they'd never returned to the Slytherin Prefect's lounge, and that was fine with Harry. Too much Slytherin in one place; he couldn't sleep comfortably like that, even if the sofas were ridiculously soft.

He knew it bothered Malfoy, but personally he liked the nippy wind slapping him in the face from the Astronomy Tower windows, even in December. It was worth the way his feet fell asleep after a couple of hours of sitting cross-legged, waiting for the dreams to become impossible to resist. The two of them still didn't actually talk much, which was fine with Harry. If they talked, he'd remember what a bloody git Malfoy was, and how all this was a Really Bad Idea.

Harry hadn't meant to gasp when the other boy pushed himself up on one elbow from his nest on the light blanket he'd thoughtfully brought here for himself (naturally not for Harry).

Malfoy wore an unusually tentative expression, but Harry couldn't be sure in the faint moonlight. He felt rather sleepy and a tad cold, still holding off the dreams for as long as he could.

And then it was over, just like it began, with a loud silence that broke.

"Is he really you?" Malfoy asked, in a musing tone.

Harry blinked, confused. "What do you mean?"

There was a strange, cottony feel in his mouth, as if all the moisture in his body had evaporated at some point and was in no hurry to return. He didn't know what was going on, but it was clear that it wasn't good.

"Nevermind," Malfoy replied, too quickly.

Harry's eyes narrowed, that old, itchy and familiar suspicious feeling burrowing between his shoulderblades again. He hated it. "Just tell me, Malfoy."

Malfoy drew out a silver hip flask, giving Harry a significant look. Harry guessed he was supposed to be impressed.

"I'll wager you haven't had this quality liquor before," Malfoy said, grinning suddenly. "I could let you have some too, if you like. I know I'd never warm up enough without this, myself."

Harry shook his head. "Want my firstborn, is that it?"

Malfoy smirked, clearly in his element. "Nope. All you have to do is say 'please'. Simple, eh? 'Oh please, Malfoy, educate my plebeian tastes out of the goodness of your heart." He paused dramatically, milking it for all its worth. "'Amen.'"

Harry laughed, rolling his eyes. "What makes you think I've any desire to drink in the first place? Not to mention drink anything you've got?"

Malfoy gave him a cat's smug grin, holding the flask to his lips. "Well then. Watch and suffer." He unstoppered it and took a healthy sip, giving a delicate shudder. "Mmm. I can't imagine the thought of drinking some of that swill from the Hog's Head or the Leaky. Barbarians, the lot of you."

Harry laid back on his winter cloak next to Malfoy, grinning himself. He crossed his arms beneath his head, closing his eyes. "You're such a drama queen."

"You know you love it."

"Yeah, right. Dream on."

"You'll regret your attitude one day, Potter."

"When will that be? The day you take over the world with three-legged kittens and trained rats and unleash a reign of terror upon us all?"

"When the revolution comes...." Malfoy drawled, though it was more like a slur. Both of them spontaneously broke out in raucous laughter which took full minutes to subdue.

There was a drawn-out silence, broken only by the sound of Malfoy sipping from his flask of liquor. At some point, Harry turned his head to the side to watch Malfoy's throat work, feeling pleasantly sleepy and content.

"In these dreams I have," Malfoy whispered, just when Harry thought he wasn't going to say anything after all, and they'd both get to sleep in peace. "You're dying, every time. My hands are covered with blood, and it's yours. I don't know how it-- I didn't do it."

Malfoy looked at him steadily, as if he wanted Harry to believe that much.

"Okay," he said slowly, his first reaction being to feel cheated out of a peaceful doze for no good reason.

"I didn't do it, it's the truth! In the dream, I think I'm waiting for you to die because I need your blood. I need it for something, but I don't know what. You don't care, do you," Malfoy said.

Harry could hear the pout already, and held back a groan. In some ways, Malfoy was more sensitive than a girl. It was kind of scary.

"No, no. Er, go on."

"Fine, then." Malfoy sniffed. "As I was saying, it's not really me that needs the blood, it's you, except it's not you at all." Malfoy shuddered at this, hissing and rubbing at his right hand with a pained expression. "I know what it sounds like, believe me."

"It's only a dream, Malfoy," Harry said after a beat. "I mean, I have... I've had bad dreams too, but that's all they are. Dreams. It's all right," he added awkwardly.

Malfoy took deep breaths, eyes closed. "It's not. It's not your sort of dream at all. That's the bloody problem." He looked more ill by the second, clutching at his hand with a grimace of pain, which was unusual in itself. Whenever Malfoy experienced the slightest discomfort, he'd cry to all and sundry. Seeing him trying to tolerate pain was... worrying.

"Do you need help?" Harry asked, painfully tentative. "It looks-- kind of bad," he finished lamely.

"What?" Malfoy hissed. '"Oh. The hand. That's nothing."

"It's not nothing! You look like you're about to pass out!" Harry was angry, finally back on familiar ground.

Malfoy hissed louder, curling in on himself beneath his blanket. He looked so miserable and pitiful that Harry felt an odd pang. He couldn't believe he was seeing this; that Malfoy was showing that sort of expression in front of him. It was as if Malfoy had forgotten Harry was there entirely.

And in fact, when Harry cleared his throat, Malfoy jumped. "Potter!"

"You need help," Harry said implacably, but he didn't do anything, like he might have if this were almost anyone else.

"What I need is to go dunk myself in the lake," Malfoy said in a low voice, and Harry almost reached out a hand to check for fever, but the movement was aborted when Malfoy spoke again. "Drowning should do it."

"Draco!" The name was torn out of him, and Harry flushed immediately, pins and needles breaking out all over his body, but Malfoy barely seemed to notice. That made Harry flush for an entirely different reason.

"My father--" he began. Apparently, he'd forgotten Harry was there again, but Harry was becoming too worried to take it to heart. If Malfoy did have a fever, he needed to get him to Madam Pomfrey, by force if necessary.

"Draco," he whispered helplessly. "We should--"

"Why didn't I think of it before?" Malfoy muttered. "He should know what to do. Of course! What an idiot I've been!" he cried, and began to giggle to himself. He was still curled around his blanket on the floor a ways away from Harry's own position, and now he was giggling convulsively, like he couldn't stop.

Harry himself was grim. Truthfully, this seemed like full-blown delirium. The fever must be bad. He thought of reaching out to touch Malfoy's forehead, but even now something held him back, torn, his fist clenched at his side. He was a Gryffindor, but he couldn't quite make himself touch Malfoy when he needed it. What kind of bloody Gryffindor was that?

He forced himself to walk the few steps to crouch by Draco, almost entirely covered by his blanket, though he was no longer giggling. In fact, there was an eerie silence, with only the howling wind outside the tower for company.

Suddenly, it struck Harry that Draco's delirium could be the result of a fever he'd caught spending too much time in a drafty tower with inadequate warming spells, and he felt an unfamiliar pang of guilt. Now there was an emotion he didn't associate with Draco Malfoy. Certainly, he'd given him much worse things than a cold in the past, but somehow this time it was different.

"I'm sorry," he said stupidly. "I shouldn't have insisted we come here. Come with me. It's warm in the Hospital Wing...." Harry himself shivered as he watched Malfoy, who seemed lost in his own little world.

"This is not me, you know," Malfoy whispered, worrying Harry further. "It's someone else, in me. He's making me do things. Why didn't I think of it before?" Draco laughed, apparently at some revelation. "I wouldn't do this, would I? I wouldn't be here with you."

"What?" Harry said sharply. Somehow, that sounded a little too lucid. It sounded what Malfoy-- the old Malfoy-- would say.

"I don't like you, Potter," Malfoy said simply, as if explaining something to a small child.

Of course. It wasn't like Harry believed Malfoy had changed; of course not. He hadn't realized it, but he simply hadn't... thought about it that much. Things happened, and in the end Harry got used to it; it helped that they only happened at night, so he spent most of the time asleep. And it helped more that they didn't actually talk about it much. It seemed preposterous when one put it all starkly like that, but that was pretty much the truth.

Malfoy popped his head out of his blanket cocoon, and his gaze was quite disturbingly sober.

"What?" He sat up on the stone, still wrapped in his blanket but apparently awake enough. "Did you think I enjoyed this? You think I'd do this for fun?"

Harry gritted his teeth, but looked away. "Of course not," he snapped, then wondered at what he'd said and his eyes darted up to meet Malfoy's steady look.

Draco nodded. "You see, you know it too." He shrugged. "It's bloody obvious, is what it is."

For some reason, Harry began to feel dizzy right then, or perhaps he merely never stopped. The vertigo was back, as if he was back in his dream and the ground was rushing to meet him. Except this time he was awake, and there was no waking.

"Tell me," Harry said woodenly on this last night, for it very much felt like an ending.

"He tells me to wait for him," Draco began again, staring unseeingly straight ahead.

"He who?"

"You know who," Malfoy said, and laughed that slightly unhinged laugh again. "He hates you, Potter. He hates you even more than I do, and I really hate you," he whispered. "I hate you more than anyone, you know that?"

"Um," Harry said, purposefully ignoring the flash of heat that ran through him right then. The way Malfoy said it... it was wrong. It sounded wrong, like some sort of confession, which was ridiculous, but Harry had the body of a stupid teenage boy. His body laughed at him at the most inappropriate times possible. It wasn't Harry's fault, was it?

"He's the one that wants your blood, too-- Owwww!" Draco hissed, shaking his hand frantically in front of him, then clutching it to his chest again. "Bloody-- burning-- hell! Aargh! Fuck!"

Harry scrambled to his knees beside Malfoy, suddenly forgetting his earlier hesitation. He reached out to grasp one of Malfoy's hands without thinking, then gasped in sudden pain as his thumb brushed across a glittering dark stone.

"Fuck! What is that?"

Harry pulled Malfoy's ring finger closer, peering at the stone intently, wary of touching it again. There was a heavy throbbing in his scar, hovering on the verge of pain. He didn't get a sense of Voldemort's feelings; this was something centered on the stone itself. It seemed to be the source of Malfoy's discomfort as well; he was moaning low in his throat now, apparently lost to the world once again.

His scar throbbed more insistently, confusing Harry. His mind grew fogged, and he couldn't quite string his thoughts together enough to form a picture. Something teased at the edges of his awareness, something that should be obvious.

All Harry could think was that of course Malfoy had tricked him; he was a Slytherin, and they couldn't be trusted. He should've known. This was some sort of Dark Arts artifact and Malfoy had tricked him because Harry could feel him here; his scar was prickling, which meant this had something to do with Voldemort. Of course; Harry had been right all along, thinking Malfoy was up to something.

"It's--" Malfoy gasped again, but Harry was no longer concerned. "My father--"

"What? You fucking bastard!" Harry was shouting so loudly his voice broke, but he didn't care.

He couldn't bear to so much as look at Malfoy another second, but he still held on to his hand, glancing down at the ring every few seconds.

"I should've known, Malfoy! Fuck it, I did know! I should've-- you-- fuck!" Finally, Harry realized he was holding on to Malfoy's hand and he dropped it as if burned, leaping away from him. He felt sick. He really felt nauseous. His scar was a blaze of pain now.

Malfoy's eyes had rolled back in his head and distantly, Harry noted it looked like he was in serious pain as well. He crouched there on the ground, blanket discarded now, and whimpered pathetically, obviously not all there. That was the only thing that kept Harry from driving his fist into Malfoy's stomach right then. Or better yet, hexing Malfoy to hell and back. There were some new spells Harry had learned this year from all his research for Snape, and it would be nothing more than poetic justice to use one on Malfoy.

His whole body buzzed, aching with the need to lash out at Malfoy, but he couldn't quite let himself do it unless Malfoy started it. All Harry needed was an excuse, and he'd pay Malfoy back for that bloody nose tenfold. He could see Malfoy's bloody face so clearly, like a vision of salvation; he remembered the awful gory pleasure of driving his fists into yielding flesh last year, the sheer bloody release of it. He'd felt so calm afterwards, even though he'd had to pay with his ability to play Quidditch at all; he'd slept like a baby that night, too, he remembered.

"Please," Malfoy whispered hoarsely, suddenly lucid for a moment. "Please. It doesn't matter now, all of it. Potter-- you have to listen. You're in danger...."

Harry barked a laugh, his face screwed up in some awful grimace. "Had to tell me the breaking news, eh? Thanks for the fucking tip, Malfoy. You should do better if you're planning to trick me, next time."

Malfoy shook his head mutely, not saying anything.

Harry sneered, looking down at the other boy though he no longer saw him at all. Harry knew he should leave or he might break down in front of Malfoy, of all people, but none of it mattered. Nothing mattered right then except Harry's burning need to lash out, to hurt Malfoy back.

"Fucking-- pathetic-- loser, that's all you've ever been! You couldn't hurt me if Voldemort himself was giving you pointers every step of the way, could you? Go on, try it! Try and curse me for real, Malfoy, I know you want to! You probably wank off to it every night, don't you? Well, go the fuck ahead, you could have the first shot! What the fuck are you waiting for?" Harry yelled. "I said, curse me! If you've fucking got the balls!"

Malfoy glared at Harry with as much malice as he could muster while cradling his ring hand piteously, most of his concentration probabably used up to keep from crying out with pain. This was his chance to do it the easy way, Harry supposed. This was as easy as it was ever going to get.

"Say something!" Harry yelled. "Or I swear I'll curse you before you know what hit you, and you'll be the only one dripping blood here, believe me!"

"SHUT UP! Okay! Shut the fuck up already!"

"NO!"

Malfoy panted, his head drooping against his chest. "Can't you fucking tell I'm in fucking serious pain, here? Stuff the righteous Gryffindor rage for a bloody second, all right! I can't think straight with all this fucking yelling," Draco yelled. "You stupid sodding TWIT! I'm not trying to fucking hurt you right now, but I will if you really want me to, so SHUT UP!"

"What the fuck are you on about, Malfoy?" Harry shot back, still shouting. "What are you trying to do, then? Excuse me, but I'm a little confused here. You're the fucking Slytherin traitor with a bloody Dark Arts artifact--"

"I'm no traitor!" Malfoy screamed.

"AREN'T YOU WORKING FOR VOLDEMORT?" Harry gulped a few breaths. He felt dizzy with hate and his scar blazed white-hot with pain. "But wait, you can't betray what you never honored, right!"

Malfoy cringed at Voldemort's name, his lips peeling back from his teeth. "I wish I was!" he snarled.

"Like I'd believe you!" Harry shouted.

"As if I care!" Malfoy voice was getting hoarse, and he was panting. Harry refused to be distracted.

"You've got a cursed ring on your fucking finger! What's it got to do with Voldemort, then?"

"Like I'd tell you now, you--"

"What else have you got on you, you ferrety little git? Did daddy's master give you a Mark before he left to rot in Azkaban with the other soul-sucking monsters?!"

Malfoy howled and threw himself bodily at Harry, taking him by surprise. He wasted no time and started biting and kicking incoherently, trying to kick everywhere he could reach as he screamed incoherent obscenities. He clawed at Harry's skin as if attempting to tear it off with his fingers alone. Every time the stone in the ring grazed against Harry's skin with Malfoy's weak punches, Harry's scar throbbed furiously and he felt faint; in a flash, he knew he didn't have much time to subdue him before Malfoy had him.

Once Harry got over his shock, he growled and twisted Malfoy's left arm back so hard he heard a crack. Hissing with fury, Harry reached blindly to knock his forehead against Malfoy's, his own cry of pain lost in the other's scream. After that, he pushed Malfoy savagely away, landing him on his arse on the cold stone floor, eyes wide and unfocused with pain.

Harry didn't look back when he walked away, limping. Now he knew who he could trust.

~~

FOUR // protect me (from what I want).

Put to rest
What you thought of me
While I clean this slate
With the hands of uncertainty

- Linkin Park
~~

It was the first snowstorm of the year, and Harry watched the few people out and about in Hogsmeade walk by the window slowly, heads bowed against the blowing cold. The snowflakes built up on the pub's windowpane, and Harry watched them swirl with a detached fascination. It was still daylight, but the village lamps were on, lending the scene a false appearance of picturesque peacefulness.

Harry thought about telling his friends about the increasingly fucked-up situation with Malfoy, but he couldn't quite make that leap yet. He considered finally reporting to Dumbledore, but he still wanted more information before then. Malfoy was putting everyone in danger, and no matter what, Harry had to stop it. Harry would stop it. He knew his friends wouldn't understand, not about this... they still thought Malfoy was just a nuisance, even if he was acting a bit off these days.

Hell, he wasn't sure he understood, but that wasn't the point. The point was that Harry was short on options at the moment.

He'd gone to Three Broomsticks alone even though he wasn't supposed to leave the castle grounds for Hogsmeade Weekend anymore, what with the general alert after the Death Eater activity spreading across the country since the summer. He was safe enough, going through the secret passage. It would have to serve. He shouldn't go to The Hog's Head when there might be DA members hanging around. Ironically enough, it was the Three Broomsticks that was more likely to be anonymous for Harry at the moment, though there was no escaping being recognized by somebody or other.

Harry ordered a drink and stared at Madam Rosmerta for long enough that she just sighed and gave him what he'd asked for; no one ever suspected Harry of staring because he liked the shape of a curvy woman. He sighed, and she shook her head as if she felt sorry for him.

Great.

He decided he hated everyone. Fuck them all and their rules and their lies and promises and all of it.

With a start, Harry realized he'd been staring at Cho Chang's profile without realizing for the past minute, feeling rather sorry for himself. He felt a little pang to realize just how much his feelings had changed since last year. It seemed like too much bother now, all of it, even if Ginny's hair flying behind her as she rode a broom made him smile.

Harry hadn't really expected anyone in particular to be there, but Cho wasn't so bad, he supposed. Though if she started crying for any reason, he wouldn't feel guilty about getting up and leaving the way he came. It wasn't a bad deal, all in all.

He inclined his head at her and smiled slightly, and that's all it took for Cho to come over. So easy it was sad. For some reason, talking was pretty easy too, now that he wasn't invested.

She looked at him while he spoke with such rapt attention that Harry was embarrassed. Maybe this had been a terrible idea after all.

"I don't blame you, Harry. I believe you, even if your friends didn't. I'm sorry I can't help, but I'm sure you'll figure it out."

Harry sighed and nodded. "Sure, yeah."

"I hope I'm still your friend. We're friends, right?"

"Yeah," said Harry, trying not to fidget.

"Well then, I'm always there if you need someone to listen. That's all." She smiled in a way Harry found disturbing for no reason he could name. Oh, bugger this.

"The thing is, I can't think straight long enough to figure anything out. You shouldn't depend on me to know what the right thing is all the time." He took a swig of firewhisky and shivered as it pooled hotly in his stomach.

"You don't have to do it alone, though. No one really thinks you've got all the answers, Harry."

Harry snorted.

"It's true! Sometimes people need to be told the stuff they already know. I think we already knew that the Dark Lord had returned, you know? It takes courage to face the facts, to really say it. None of us are quite as brave as you, but don't hold it against us. Your friends, I mean."

Harry coughed, blushing.

He really hoped she was too drunk to remember what he told her and vice versa. Scowling, he poured her another round of butterbeer. Madam Rosmerta had given him the glass of firewhisky, but he'd drank it already. Cho was probably a lightweight, though.

"I always knew Malfoy wasn't to be trusted. That's no surprise." Cho sipped delicately at her mug. "But that's a Slytherin for you."

For no good reason, Harry felt like slapping her, but couldn't bring himself to argue the point, either. She said it in a very reasonable tone, which only brought out the contrast between that and her former insights.

"Most Slytherins are bad seeds, it seems like. Sometimes I wonder why Headmaster keeps them around, since they aren't really a part of things, you know? I bet it makes them bitter. Some of my best friends are from that House, though."

"You dated Zabini earlier this year, right?" Harry said, trying to keep most inflection from his tone.

He sighed again. This was really a bad idea. Maybe Malfoy had an explanation... ugh. Of course that was ridiculous, but so was listening to Hogwarts According to Cho Chang.

She blushed. "Oh, Blaise?" Cho laughed lightly. "I think he actually likes Ginny Weasley. Among many others, of course." She giggled. "They both get around a bit." There was a pause, where what she'd just said struck her. "Oh! I didn't mean that how it sounded! I-- um--"

Harry stopped paying attention sometime around 'Ginny Weasley'; his eyes widened in spite of himself. He remembered Zabini speaking of blood traitors as they passed on the train to Hogwarts this year. Somehow, he couldn't imagine it and yet could at the same time.

When had things become so bloody confusing?

Cho pressed her palms lightly to her cheeks, apparently taking his reaction as a sign of great interest. "I was, er... set up, you see. A blind date. By my friend Emma. You know how friends are." She rolled her eyes dramatically. "Blaise is just as horrid as the rest of them, though. He only likes to talk about himself and his conquests and his money." She paused, clearly waiting for some feedback. "Eww, right!"

"Yeah, sure," Harry muttered, still thinking of Ginny and Zabini. He was a little jealous, but mostly he felt awkward and a bit disturbed, almost like walking over his own grave. Ginny would never like Zabini, he was certain. If Zabini liked Ginny, now that was odd in itself, though....

"Oh, Harry!" Cho cried, eyes wide. Harry experienced a moment of fear, thinking she was going to cry, but she didn't. "You understand! Everyone thinks they know who I am, and they have these expectations, everyone. My family, other Ravenclaws, Cedric's friends... but how could they if even I don't know anymore? It feels like the person I am is dead and all that's left is the person I'm supposed to be. You probably don't understand either, but I feel like I can talk to you about--"

"No, no, I do understand," he assured her, rather blindly. Anything to stop the flow of words, God help him.

There was a sour taste in his mouth now. He had to get out of there.

"Here, give me your hand. Can you feel that? Just you being there makes me feel-- makes all of us feel safer, Harry. You're our hero. Don't forget that, okay?"

Harry cringed, getting up and pulling his hand out of Cho's grasp. "No, I could never forget that, Cho. Sorry if I upset you. I really have to go now," he mumbled, backing away.

"You need to tell Malfoy to stay away from you, Harry!" she called after him. "I know more about these sorts of crushes than you do, okay? Trust me! He won't leave you alone unless you're firm with him!"

It looked like Harry was going to have to hit the Hog's Head after all. He pulled the hood up on his winter cloak as low as it would go. He would need a lot more firewhisky before the night was out.

As it turned out, Malfoy was right: the Hog's Head firewhisky was swill. Somehow the smell of goats seemed appropriate, though.

Tell Malfoy to stay away from you.

Harry was slumped on his table, trying to recall of he knew a strong enough sobering charm. Hermione might know, but Hermione was back in Hogwarts like she should be. Probably studying. That or hexing Ron's girlfriend, Harry thought with a chuckle. Hermione sure was going on the offensive this year; he probably wouldn't have gotten away with all the stuff he was hiding from them if they hadn't both been engrossed: Ron in Lavender, and Hermione in making Ron's life a living hell.

Relationships were scary, that much was clear. Good thing he wasn't in one.

Harry took another healthy sip of the swill.

He'd have to stumble back to Hogwarts and hope no Death Eaters lurked in Hogsmeade. Malfoy would laugh at him. So much for everyone's savior, Lord Potter! Or maybe he'd be here drinking from his own super-refined hip flask with the pinched, disdainful expression he did so well. Malfoy was good at looking absolutely enraged at Harry's ideas but going along anyhow, it seemed.

One thing Harry knew for sure: Malfoy didn't deserve any second chances. Still, if Harry didn't deal with this, who would?

He grimaced, getting up with a groan and knocking his chair over. It was time to really think about this. Sober, unfortunately.

~~

Draco had only needed a couple of weeks of hard thinking to figure out the logistics; that was much easier now that Draco's life was back to as close to normal as it got. Thinking about his father was actually easier than some of the alternatives vying for his attention. Potter was still going to pay, of course, now more than ever, but family came first. Family always came first.

It was common knowledge that no one paid visits to anyone incarcerated in Azkaban, not with the Dementors and the spells guarding against Apparation or flooing in. In other words, even if you got there, there wasn't likely to be much useful conversation accomplished. That much was known.

As it turned out, though, Draco got creative when he was under enough pressure.

"Hullo, Father."

He'd schooled his features for this beforehand, but his face threatened to crumple regardless. He bit down on his lip and controlled himself with a huge effort, though all he really wanted was to crumple and have his father hug him again, as he hadn't since Draco had been a small child.

"My son!" A single scratched-up arm started to reach out, then pulled back. Lucius's expression turned shrewd and oddly vague again.

His father did look rather surprised to see Draco there, though Draco actually wasn't there at all. It seemed that was clear as well.

Draco was creative with obscure spells on the border of Dark Magic, though it was really only blood magic. Blood was the simplest and strongest of links, and Draco had plenty of his own; simple. Plus, he did have more access to Snape's old Potions lab to experiment after hours than your average student. It wasn't that hard, though to be fair, it was pretty difficult. In any case, what Snape and Dumbledore didn't have to know wouldn't hurt them, would it.

While Draco wasn't really present; in reality, this was a projection based on a blood-stained rock magically floating in water (sympathetic magic in general was also quite simple, and Azkaban was basically a rock floating in water). The air felt thick in his lungs, though he couldn't tell if it was from potion fumes or eau de Azkaban.

Draco choked mostly when he looked straight at his father, looking so haggard, worn and thin that Draco's throat burned with rage. He felt sick at the sight of the filthy cell now housing Lucius Malfoy, who had always appeared immaculate and in control of his surroundings in front of his son. His huge, regal bed at the Manor was untouched, and instead his father was housed as if he was some errant house-elf.

"Father," he whispered hoarsely.

He couldn't quite look for long enough to get the whole picture. Draco knew he was basically powerless, something like a lucid dream whose solidity was probably helped along by his father's slipping grasp on reality, being in Azkaban and all.

Lucius nodded, otherwise not acknowledging his present circumstances. "Did he give you a task yet, Draco?" he said, forgoing a 'hello, how are you' in his usual brisk manner. It was reassuring, in a way.

Draco's eyes narrowed. This confirmed that his father knew. "No. He seems to want me to hate Potter, which isn't much of a challenge. Who is he, Father?"

Lucius's eyebrow twitched. "Whom do you speak of, son?"

"What about you? I mean-- the, well, the spirit of the ring. I think I dream of him, and--" He flushed.

He knew how it sounded. If his father was going to keep looking at him blankly, Draco had no choice but to question his understanding of the entire situation.

Snape had to be wrong. He just had to be. Yet Lucius was silent, and Draco palms began to itch before he gritted his teeth and clenched them. "Why did you give it to me, Father? Is this a task for me from the Dark Lord?"

Lucius smirked, a humorless, broken sort of expression which made a cut at the corner of his lip start bleeding sluggishly again. "All in due time. Patience, Draco. Rest assured you'll know what you need to when it's necessary. Learn to make the best of your situation and bide your time as you have to. It may yet prove to be the chance to prove yourself that you require."

Draco cringed. "I don't know if I can do it! The ring-- it may be too strong for me. It is making me do... things. And it hurts! It burns!"

"All I know is that you had to be the Keeper of that ring if I could no longer be there to protect it properly. The Manor had been compromised, but the Malfoys have been entrusted with that ring by the Dark Lord, and it is worth our lives. Do you understand?" Lucius's eyes were intense, spearing him in place.

"Yes, Father," he murmured.

"Do as a Malfoy would do and you have nothing to fear."

"And what about you, Father?" he burst out. "Do you have anything to fear, here?" He couldn't help himself, couldn't stop talking. "Are you all right with this?"

Lucius's eyes flashed, but his hands remained primly on his lap. He looked hard at Draco, a familiar expression with ample power to make his son shiver uncontrollably.

"Don't worry yourself about me, son. We all play our parts, and you will play yours, if you are proved worthy. It shouldn't be too difficult. Just do what you do best. The Lord will provide well enough for us if we prove useful and patient."

"But--"

"Not too patient, of course." Lucius smiled thinly.

"Of course, Father. I'll do my best." The back of his eyes stung, infuriating him.

Suddenly, it seemed obvious that the Dark Lord could have broken Lucius out of Azkaban the same way he did Aunt Bellatrix, and yet here he was.

"I have to ask, though; Snape told me I must. You must know something! So what is it, Father? What must I do?"

"You must do what you're told, no more and no less," Lucius said, not looking at Draco. His eyes were distant, an all too familiar shade of icy blue-grey. Obviously, he'd find no guidance there; his father expected him to prove himself worthy. "However, whatever happens, don't trust Snape," he added, "That man has his own agenda."

Draco almost rolled his eyes.

It felt good to be on the other side of the spell, he thought. Untouchable. That's what he was: untouchable.

And so he said it, because he could, and he wanted someone to get hurt: "I'll do as I please. Neither of you can touch me. Not you and not Potter, no one." Even then, Draco was aware he was leaving out Snape and Riddle, all the more visible by their glaring absences. It felt good to say it, though.

That was when Lucius started laughing. He laughed and laughed, a mad, ringing laughter that Draco the echoes of which would resound in his dreams, days later. It drenched him like freezing rain, smearing him in numbness from head to toe. In those moments when he could hear his father laugh, Draco could well believe there was no escape, not for anyone, and for him least of all.

~~

It was a week or so later that Potter finally cornered him in a rare moment without his loyal minions, as Draco studied quietly in the library, minding his own business. Who'd expect one's nemesis to show up while one researched early wizarding society development in medieval Germany? It wasn't like Draco could keep Crabbe and Goyle around at times like this, even with all the muffins in Hogwarts. They'd fidget so loudly, Draco himself would soon snap and start hitting them over the head with the books. It was unavoidable impracticalities that always got you in the end.

It was almost Christmas vacation, and the sense of dread hung about Draco like a perpetual sodden cloud, grey and prickly with potential downpours of sleet. He knew he was out of time, and he was no closer to knowing what to do about it than he had ever been. Somewhere in Azkaban, he knew, his father was laughing.

Draco didn't bother looking up. He could feel Potter there, as disruptive as a stray bolt of lightning in the oppressive quiet of the library. Most of the students had finished for the day, and it was just him and Potter in this corner. Draco pursed his lips. Oh joy.

Ever the Gryffindor, Potter plunged in where saner folk feared to tread. "Malfoy. I didn't mean--"

"Don't bother lying, Potty. You aren't that good at it." Draco sneered. "Did you actually think I needed an apology from you? You really must be desperate. I hear your last fangirl deserted you and started dating Creevey instead. That must hurt."

"GAH!"

Draco jumped, looking at Potter in renewed alarm. He'd forgotten that Gryffindors must not be disturbed lest they go into a killing frenzy. He began roughly calculating the distance between him and the nearest exit, trying to factor in unknown factors like Potter's reaction time and his current level of blind luck.

"Would you listen till I'm finished talking? I was going to say, I didn't mean to let you off the hook so easily. Of course I'm not about to apologize! I've nothing to apologize for!"

"Oh?" His face froze while he tried to breathe normally again. Keep him talking! You can't afford to get into a wand fight in the middle of the library.

"Anyway, you can't fool me!" Potter whispered loudly. At least he had the sense not to yell here.

Draco looked even more dubious. "I beg to dif--"

"-- and your diversion tactics won't work."

"That couldn't be what you thought before, could it? If you truly knew anything, I'd still live to prove you wrong."

"Except you'd always fail to."

Draco's heart skipped a beat at the utter, chilling certainty in Potter's voice. He was wrong, of course. Dead wrong! But he was so bloody certain!

Apparently, Potter seemed to think they could just go back, as if they ever had something to go back to. Someone was due for a rough awakening, then, Draco thought, grinding his teeth. Not that there's anything to go back to.

"You know, I'd contradict you but I can't be bothered. Go throw yourself off the Astronomy Tower if you need a hobby. Some of us have work to do," he said, making a show of focusing on his book.

"I bet you'd cry," Potter taunted softly. "I bet you'd miss me, Malfoy."

"If you ever see me cry, I promise to eat every single insult I've ever thrown at you, but that's only after I've ground you into dust. In other words, you really are an even bigger idiot than I gave you credit for. I'm impressed. Now leave!"

There was the exaggerated sound of a deep breath. "I just want to help you, Malfoy," Potter said slowly. "Let me. I can--"

Draco gave a bitter chuckle. "What? You can what, Potter? Save the wizarding world entire and then let me come back for seconds? Tear this bloody ring off my finger and proclaim victory for Gryffindor? Knife my father in his sleep? What is it you think you can do, exactly?"

"Just take it off, Draco," Potter said, trying to catch Draco's eye. Draco refused to rise to the bait. "It really is that easy. It's always easy once you figure out what you need to do. All that's left is doing it."

Draco laughed harshly. "Ah, the Gryffindor creed in a nutshell, how sweet. And I suppose you think you know what I need, do you? Your wisdom must be as great as your overblown ego."

"Yeah. I know you think you need your father freed, and me taken down a peg or two, and you definitely think you need to win this game you're playing. Or maybe you need me to lose, huh."

"Let's pretend you were actually right for a moment: what does that have to do with this stupid bloody ring?"

"How dense can you be, Malfoy? Stop playing games already! I mean it!"

Draco sneered. "Ooooh, Potty means it. I'm really paying attention now. And who's playing games?" Draco drawled. "As if you're playing with a full deck of cards yourself, Golden Boy." Draco rolled his eyes.

"God, Malfoy! Stop fucking around and wasting time! Who knows what that thing is doing to you the longer you keep it on?"

"So why don't you just bring Dumbledore in here and have him wave his wand and everything will go back to normal right quick so we can hate each other in peace, hmmm?" Draco paused, pretending to think about this. "Ohh wait, I get it! You want to play the hero! Of course! Save the poor misguided Slytherin today, and tomorrow, the world!" Draco sneered. "I don't think so, Scarhead. Thanks but no thanks, so kindly get lost before I hex you in half. I won't warn you twice."

"Fuck you, Malfoy! I'm just stating the obvious. That ring is obviously having some weird influence on your mind, like those fucked-up dreams, most likely. It's obviously got something to do with Voldemort. The more time I spend around it, the more my scar hurts."

"What's that got to do with anything?" Malfoy demanded.

"Nothing you need to know about! I'll get to the bottom of this myself. Don't think I won't! When I do, you better be ready!"

"If I don't know, how would you?" Malfoy mumbled.

"What?"

"Nothing!"

"The point is, I've had enough visions thrown my way that it's just another one at this point, but it seems to hurt you to wear that thing, so why don't you just, you know, take it off, genius? It's your choice, isn't it!"

"Because!" Draco yelled, forgetting himself. "Because I have my own bloody plans for this, all right? I know what I'm doing, and this is all the leverage I've got and I'm bloody well going to use it! I bet you come across this kind of thing every other month, Potter, but this is all I have! My Father gave this to me, but you wouldn't understand about that, so bugger the fuck off back where you're wanted, already!"

"Fine!" Harry shouted. "Have it your way! Let the ring fucking swallow you alive for all I care! It probably will! Don't come complaining when all your plans to maim and torture me fall through, by the way. I won't care!"

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

"And good fucking riddance, Potter!"

"LIKEWISE!" Potter yelled, right as Madam Pince showed up.

"Mister Potter! You will be quiet or you will be asked to leave! Right now," she hissed, and Potter blanched.

Draco hid a smirk, watching her dragging Potter away by his ear. She must have had eyes at the back of her head, because she turned around and glared at him. Draco showed her his best sober-faced victim of unjust Gryffindors face.

"You don't fool me, Mr. Malfoy. I heard you. I'll be back!"

Draco shuddered. After a moment, he started collecting his papers.

"Fucking bitch," Draco muttered to himself quietly, and buried his aching head in his hands. "He gave me a fucking headache, too." He groaned and dropped his cheek heavily onto his textbook. As usual for his encounters with Potter, that went splendidly. Or not.

He escaped the library before Madam Pince could decide she had to drag him out by something more uncomfortable than his ear. Draco did have a healthy sense of preservation, after all.

Without thinking about, he went to his bathroom again and sat down. Myrtle was quiet today too.

He rubbed the black stone on his finger absent-mindedly, his fingertips tingling a little at the contact. The dreams had been particularly gruesome lately. He couldn't help it if he was snappish. But it was all worth it, somehow. It had to be. The plan was everything. Potter would pay.

Draco sighed, disgusted with his own lack of enthusiasm at the prospect. He didn't even know how he would like Potter to pay his dues anymore. His taste for blood had gotten diluted by having been satisfied for many, many nights now. Public humiliation was something he'd tried imagining before, and it probably wouldn't work to his advantage, what with the school being Potter's. Gaining Potter's confidence and then betraying him was clearly more trouble than it was worth, as well as being quite a lot messier than Draco liked.

Rubbing at his sticky eyes with the heel of his palm and yawning, Draco started. He was almost on the verge of nodding off on the bathroom. Not good. If that happened, he couldn't even trust Myrtle to sound the alarm. Drowning in a toilet would also be seriously embarrassing.

The fact was, he really didn't feel like having another one of those dreams right about then. All Draco wanted in life was a nice relaxing bath and maybe a wank if he felt up to it, and possibly not to think about Potter for the next eternity or two. He knew that last one was unlikely, but the other two he could manage. He'd make do.

On the way to the Prefect's bath, Draco gave Potter's rantings some experimental thought.

Maybe he could take the ring off on a trial basis. See what it was like. Keep it as back-up.

He'd expected the ring to turn hot and painful at the turn his thoughts had taken, but there was no obvious response. Perhaps it wasn't really a mind-reading ring. Or maybe it only read Draco's mind some of the time. Sure, that was it.

Draco tugged at the ring gently, almost without thinking. He was feeling especially relaxed, his skin smooth and slippery with soapy bubbles. It was easier than he could've imagined to simply slip it off. His immediate urge upon feeling it budge without so much as a whisper of pain was to whoop with joy and throw it across the bath to clatter somewhere out of sight, but Draco was slightly more rational than that. He just slipped it into his pocket as he left, swaying on his feet a little, and made his way to the Slytherin sixth year's dorms. There was a shower stall and then a bed with his name on them.

He would deal with Potter after Christmas. If Potter was very, very good.

~~

The dreams had stopped. Harry wasn't sure when that had happened, but it must have been at some point while he'd been with Malfoy. He hadn't noticed, but then he had other things on his mind. Besides, while he didn't dream of Sirius or Voldemort, he did dream of Malfoy. Whatever his subconscious had against Harry, he wished it would come out and fight him like a man.

He groaned. He still had to see Malfoy in class, currently two of them. That was just about bearable if they ignored each other (which they did, mostly), but what was deeply fucking unfair was that he also had to work with Malfoy weekly in the stupid Defence study group. Harry hated it with the passion he had reserved for Umbridge last year, but Zabini and Nott amused themselves by playing Malfoy and himself against each other. It was probably the most effective form of torture the Slytherins had ever devised against him, he thought darkly. Their mere unavoidable presence alone would have probably driven him mad within a month; the only good point was that he could tell Malfoy wasn't having any more fun than Harry was.

Theoretically, Harry could use this time to keep tabs on Malfoy as per his original plan, but some of the drive had gone out of him. More than anything, Harry wanted to go back to a world where Draco Malfoy was a minor irritant and sometime stress relief. This state of things was, in a word, unacceptable.

Harry had gone so far as to consider resuming Occlumency lessons with Snape just to give himself something else to occupy his entire focus with. The only problem would be if he ran into Malfoy there, too. Since when was the git everywhere Harry looked? Well, except for the DA meetings; those were going well. Neville was doing especially amazing work, and Ginny made Harry proud. And a little fizzy around the edges with all the smiles she shot at him. He found himself a little jealous of Dean Thomas, sometimes, after which he'd slap himself. Like Harry needed another complication.

Still... at odd moments, Harry found he couldn't get Ginny's blazing eyes after a particularly well-done hex out of his mind. A part of him wanted her to look at him like that. He blushed, remembering it.

"Oooh," Zabini said. "Something on your mind that you'd like to share, Potter?" He grinned widely. "We're all friends here."

"Shut up!" He flushed hotter, increasingly mortified he'd been caught daydreaming. "It's none of your business."

"Why, Potter," Malfoy drawled. "Don't hide it. You blush prettily as a virginal maiden."

Harry worked not to bare his teeth at him. "Can we get on with it? The faster we're done, the happier we'd all be, I'm sure."

"I don't know about anyone else, but I'm enjoying myself," Zabini said. "It's a bit like a zoo exhibition. The animals don't do anything unless you provide the right encouragement."

Nott smirked. Malfoy looked vindicated and entirely too comfortable with himself. Harry was getting a pounding headache. Again.

He gritted his teeth. "Since Snape gave us an independent study for our last report, we have to decide what we're doing now. I'm not doing this myself."

Zabini raised a perfectly-groomed eyebrow. "Who said anything of the sort? We were assuming we were going to have to claim the credit. Seeing as you're so distracted by pleasant daydreams. Right, fellows?" The others sniggered. "So you see...."

Harry took a deep breath. "Fine. Take all the credit, I don't care. It's not like Snape would give me a fair mark in any case. In exchange, I want us to do some research on certain Dark artifacts." He looked straight at Malfoy, enjoying the sight of him going pale, with twin splotches of color on his cheeks. Ah, rage always looked good on him. Now who's the virginal maiden, Malfoy?

It took him a minute to notice that Malfoy wasn't wearing the ring anymore, so he couldn't exactly point and out Malfoy publically. That's fine, it wasn't Harry's plan anyway. So Malfoy was... keeping it hidden, obviously. He could use the research, and since Hermione was not exactly sympathetic to his suspicions, it was a start.

Nott and Zabini had nearly identical looks of confusion. It was kind of cute, in an ugly Slytherin sort of way. Zabini recovered quickly, however.

"Really," he drawled. "And where did you get the idea for this... artifact? Don't tell me! It came to you in a dream straight from the Dark Lord himself, telling you what to do and what you need to do it."

Nott smirked, though Malfoy wasn't so amused for one. He stared at Harry, fury glittering in his pale eyes, making the color seem brighter than ever. Harry stared back, silently challenging Malfoy to say anything about this and see how Harry reacted.

Harry kept a hold on his temper, though only barely. He was getting better at this, he thought grimly.

"I don't know what this sort of artifact is; that's what I mean to find out." He looked only at Zabini and Nott now, gambling on their curiosity. "I know it may be capable of looking like a number of different objects, which is probably a problem to start with. I've come across a couple already, but they're not in my... possession. I also know that the artifact would be capable of holding the living memory of a Dark wizard even after death, though I'm not sure how it gets there. They possess the... er, one possessing the object and eventually make the wearer-- or holder-- do the wizard's bidding. It's probably extremely difficult to make, since there aren't too many of them." He took a breath, satisfied with the others' silence. "That's all I know for now."

Zabini leaned back in his chair. Well, he was giving Harry his full attention, in any case. There was a tense silence, during which Harry looked at Malfoy from the corner of his eye. To his satisfaction, Malfoy looked like he sat on a chair full of drawing-pins. Perfect.

"Interesting," Zabini said finally. "That's certainly one hell of a story."

"It's all true!" Harry whispered, rather loudly.

Nott grimaced as if he tasted something sour. "I'm sure. We're not doubting your holy word as a Gryffindor. Rather, it seems likely that you're... mistaken. Honest mistakes do occur with surprising regularity among certain segments of the population."

Malfoy smirked, then went back to glaring death at Harry.

He was prepared for this, however. "What do you have to lose? Even if there's no such thing, or at least we can't find any, looking through the sorts of Dark Arts texts we'd need to should provide us with our subject by accident, if nothing else."

Zabini raised an eyebrow. "I believe those sorts of texts require permission from the professor. Some of them require the Headmaster's approval. I'm sure you're aware of this."

He had them! Harry fought not to grin and give himself away. "You wouldn't have to do any of the risky bits," Harry said. "I have ways of getting things unnoticed."

"He has a--" Malfoy started.

Harry jumped up, slapping a hand across Malfoy's mouth, surprising himself as much as anyone. He was sure a Pureblood wizard would've used a spell, but this was Harry's first instinct.

"Mff! Mmmph!"

Malfoy struggled as best he could while keeping the noise down in the library, but Harry applied all his strength to holding Malfoy where he was. Luckily, Zabini and Nott found this amusing rather than a credible threat to Malfoy's person, which was probably something they would hear about later, Harry thought a bit too gleefully.

Zabini's good humor restored, he smirked at Harry as if they were back to talking about blushing virgins. "Heavens, I do think Draco likes that a little too much." He grinned at Nott. "What say you?"

After a moment of critical examination, Nott nodded tersely. "Looks like."

Harry had to fight to urge to laugh, which was worse than controlling his temper, in a way. This meant that his hold loosened, so Malfoy renewed his struggles and fought his way to his feet, spluttering and glaring for all he was worth. Which wasn't all that much, all things considered.

"I'll get you for this, Potter," he hissed, and stalked out of the library.

"Well, well." Zabini grinned broadly now. "I hope you're well-versed in the care and feeding of murderous kittens, Potter."

"Kittens?" Harry burst out, incredulous. "He's more like a snake! Or a ferret!"

Zabini's mouth flattened. "Whatever you think, Potter, he's still my friend, and I'm not distracted by overzealous emotions on your behalf, unlike some. You better watch your step."

Stone-faced, Harry forced himself to nod. Diplomacy would never be his strong suit, especially among Slytherins. It got a lot worse than Zabini, he did realize that, however.

"It's in my best interest to see what you dig up on this matter. But don't mistake my curiosity for tolerance, Potter."

"Likewise," Harry bit out.

Zabini grinned his carefree grin again. "Always good to know where you stand in matters of business," he said.

~~

It occurred to Harry that he couldn't remember the last time Dumbledore had summoned him directly; either Harry came himself, or Dumbledore had just been where he was needed, or Professor McGonagall had brought him a message back when he was a lot younger. It wasn't typical for the Headmaster to request Harry's presence in a straightforward fashion, which was probably why he could get away with having avoided him so far; far from it, a lot of his frustration the past year had been because Dumbledore gave Harry too much space to 'protect' him.

So Harry was a bit startled to receive this owl:

"Harry,

I trust you've been enjoying yourself this year. I meant to give you time to recover after the events preceding our last conversation. Were it up to me, you would have yet more time, but time has almost run out for us all. Alas, I fear I may have wasted some of the time we needed to prepare. I can only ask you to understand, and forgive me.

Circumstances render me unable to visit Grimmauld Place during Christmas break, and I'd like to see you before then, if you would.

This week's password is Peppermint Ices, should you choose to use it.

- Albus Dumbledore"

Harry felt a pang. He hadn't realized he'd missed Dumbledore this much. He didn't feel angry at all anymore, and was more than a little lost. Here they were, still conducting meetings of 'Dumbledore's Army' when Harry had been avoiding the man he'd be fighting for. His gut burned with a sudden sour burst of shame.

Without intending to, Harry found himself standing in front of the door leading up to Dumbledore's office. In the end, it didn't feel like a choice at all.

"Peppermint Ices," he said. It was odd to say Dumbledore's silly passwords now that he wasn't a first-year anymore. A little nostalgic, somehow.

At the top of the moving stairs, Dumbledore was waiting for him with his arms folded across his desk, his expression uncharacteristically sober.

Harry smiled at him. "Professor," he said quietly, and Dumbledore's eyes twinkled just a little too brightly.

"Harry. Thank you for coming, my boy. I only wish we could use this time to talk and catch up." He shook his head. "An old man's wishfulness. Nevermind it. Now, on to business, as we must...."

Harry sat down at the edge of his usual seat. "Is this about Snape?"

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow, looking at him almost mischievously over his glasses. Harry blushed. "Severus told me the two of you had reached a mutual agreement. Something about the impossibility of teaching those who won't be taught." He chuckled. At Harry's look, he sobered quickly. "My apologies. There's much gravity to your conflict, I'm sorry to say. If the two of you cannot reconcile your differences enough to go forward, it is unfortunate but alas, unavoidable."

"But what about-- Voldemort? Won't he--"

"That depends, doesn't it? Have you had dreams which were not your own lately?"

His heart skipped a beat. "Um. They weren't the usual sort of dreams where I can see what he's doing or when he's happy or angry, but it's been... a little weird, Professor."

Dumbledore looked at him for a long moment. "Well, then, Harry-- it's up to you. I think it's possible, and even probable, that Voldemort will find it most advantageous to shield his thoughts from you from now on of his own volition, though we've had one attempt at full mental attack at the Ministry last year. It's quite possible he'll back off on that front after having suffered such a defeat from within your inner mind. Of course, there's no guarantee."

"What do you think I should do?" Harry said quietly.

There was a pause. "You should do whatever sets your own mind at ease in this matter."

Harry's eyes widened. "What?"

"You'll be of age in less than a year, Harry. There are a few changes you'll start to notice as time goes on." Dumbledore smiled, and for no reason he could name, Harry blushed. The Headmaster chuckled at his reaction. "I'm sure a lot of them have started quite some time ago."

"Professor!" Harry sputtered.

Dumbledore closed his eyes as he gave another merry chuckle, then subsided. "Forgive me, Harry. I do take my joys where I find them. Warm, clean socks are still one of my favorite things, but I must say they aren't the only pleasures in life." He paused, taking a moment to look at the dish with his collection of candies. "Lemon drop?"

In spite of himself, Harry felt a smile tug at the edges of his mouth. After a moment, he reached for the pale yellow candy, unwrapping one and popping it into his mouth. There was a burst of sour sweetness on his tongue, a surprising rush of flavor. Right then, Harry felt as if a burden he'd been carrying for months had lifted gently off his shoulders, and he looked at Professor Dumbledore. Really looked at him, and smiled.

Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "Good, isn't it."

"Yeah," Harry said.

"I'm glad, Harry. My dear boy."

Was there a glitter of tears in his eye? Harry tried not to look further, deciding to change the subject.

"If Snape wants, we can continue for a short while. Maybe he can give me the super-condensed version," Harry said reluctantly. "I want to be as ready as I can be. As ready as I have to be. If he'll be at Grimmauld Place over the winter holidays, we could start then."

Dumbledore nodded solemnly. "I'll let him know, but I daresay your lessons shall indeed resume before you're quite ready. I hope you'll do your best, for you do need a certain familiarity with the subject, even if you'll never be the natural our Professor Snape is himself."

Harry nearly shuddered at the thought of being anything like Snape. "That's fine with me, thanks."

"That's settled, then. Is there something else you'd like to tell me, Harry?"

Harry looked directly at him, and somehow felt certain to his bones that Dumbledore knew. Maybe he didn't know everything, but he knew enough, and he was leaving this up to Harry to divulge, at least for now. Oddly, Harry wasn't sure how he felt about that.

"No," he said after a while. "But I'll come. Er, to see you. Right after Chrismas hols, okay?"

Dumbledore smiled at him, sans twinkle. "I understand. Perhaps it is best this way." He scowled slightly. "Yes, it's best I don't come across certain objects, away from temptation. It's a delicate time, isn't it? I could never trust my better judgment to prevail on certain-- personal matters, I fear. We'll talk about it later, then. You are right, Harry."

Harry looked at him wide-eyed, and with growing suspicion; that was vague, but he couldn't help but think the Headmaster was referring to Malfoy's ring. Considering its dangerous nature, Harry couldn't imagine why Dumbledore didn't just confiscate it from Malfoy, of all people.

Also, it seemed for all the world like Dumbledore wanted Harry to question him, as if he himself couldn't decide whether to tell him something. Maybe Harry was being paranoid, but more and more, he didn't think so.

What the hell. Nothing ventured, nothing lost. "Was there something you would like to tell me, Professor?"

Dumbledore smiled, his look approving. "Yes!" he said simply. "But for now, I have something for you to give to your friend Hermione Granger, instead. It hope she will find it entertaining and instructive."

"Sir?" Harry said blankly.

The Headmaster produced an old leather-bound volume from somewhere in his desk's drawers, placing it carefully in front of Harry. "It may give her much needed guidance, quite soon I believe. Call it a Christmas present from an eccentric old man, if it pleases you."

The leather of the book was worn, but the embossed gold on the cover was still bright. It was quite extravagant, a design decorating each corner, as well as an elaborate golden skull at the center. There was no title he could see on the outside, but after Harry flipped open the book, he saw the title on the front page: The Tales of Beedle the Bard. He stared, hardly able to believe his eyes.

While Dumbledore had never made a habit of being clear, it was something else to use stories to give some sort of coded messages, and not even ones directed at Harry. This was too much.

He flipped through the book, seeing what appeared to be illustrated children's stories for wizards. He stared at Dumbledore, disbelieving. "It's a children's book!" he burst out. "Hermione wouldn't-- she--" he broke off, at a loss for words. "She probably read this ages ago!"

"Ah, but Harry, she grew up in the Muggle world, just as you did, so there's some doubt on that subject. Besides, I find it's quite likely that this volume needs a fresh eye. An ordinary wizard, one who grew up amongst other wizards, may never imagine there may be anything of worth in a book they'd had read to them as children, and overlook certain wisdom they would be unable to find anywhere else."

Harry blinked; taking a deep breath, he stowed the book in one of the deeper pockets of his cloak. "Okay. I'll let her know." Best not to dwell on this too much, he decided.

"Good, good." Dumbledore rubbed his hands together, as if cold. "We'll have a lot to talk about when you return, my boy. There are things of concern to me, and to you, I fear, which I shouldn't have left alone this long, but there's no sense in beginning such tasks as we face right before you have to leave for break. We must believe there'll be time enough yet. If you do get a chance to have a couple of lessons with Professor Snape, that alone should be quite good progress, I'd say."

Harry swallowed his questions and objections, only nodded. "I'll do as you ask."

"Thank you, Harry. I fear I shall need your help this year, more than ever before. I'd like you to enjoy your last holiday before more harsh truths may come to light, needing to be dealt with."

At this, Harry gritted his teeth. "But I want to know! I want to know right now!" He clenched his fist, forcing himself to remain seated. "I'm ready now!"

Dumbledore looked at him almost imploringly. He seemed worn and tired, if not in ill health, and it worried Harry more than he ever would have imagined. In ways that he hadn't quite realized, Dumbledore was his bedrock, the bedrock of Hogwarts as he knew it. He shouldn't look so... worn! Though he was old, nothing could touch the greatest wizard or them all!

His voice, when he spoke, was firm, however. "Patience, Harry. While I suspect you are right, and you are indeed ready, there are things which cannot be rushed into. Real understanding is one of those things."

"But-- I want to help! If you tell me, then I'll understand!"

At last, Dumbledore looked like his stern Headmaster of old once again, as if cloaking himself in some sort of subtle power. "Did you mean it, Harry? When you said you'll do as I ask?" The question was soft. Harry began to speak, but Dumbledore forestalled him. "Think carefully about this, for there's no going back once you've truly set forth on this path. You must be sure."

"Sure of what?" Harry said unwillingly. He still wanted to proclaim his certainty, his readiness, but something in Dumbledore's expression brought him up short.

"Sure that you trust me," Dumbledore said simply. It sent shivers up Harry's spine.

"Does that mean I'm not allowed to question the things that make no sense?" Harry demanded.

"Oh no, Harry," Dumbledore said, still in that soft voice that felt like someone was walking over his grave. Something isn't right here, Harry thought, but couldn't put his finger on what. "You must never stop questioning, or atrocities may be committed without anyone the wiser. No one can be allowed complete control or power over their fellow wizards." Dumbledore sighed. "And some of us must take steps to ensure their reach is limited, to avoid such temptations."

Harry sat back, confused. "What do you mean? Are you... are you telling me not to trust you, after all?"

Dumbledore smiled, only a sad old man, somehow, once again. It made Harry cringe to see it. "That is why it must be your choice, you see. You're fully in your rights to judge me, Harry. All I ask is that you give me a little more time before you do so, as you must."

This conversation made Harry's stomach hurt worse than their argument about the Prophecy. "Why can't you just tell me?" Harry said plaintively, tears stinging the backs of his eyes briefly. "What's going on?" he yelled, finally, standing up. "After all this time, I deserve to know!"

"Yes you do, Harry," Dumbledore told him calmly. "And you shall. Now, do I have a bit more of your patience in this matter?"

After a minute of charged silence, Harry sank down once again, eyes drifting shut. Defeated.

"You know I trust you," Harry said weakly. He felt like a different person, saying it. Not the same person he was last year, or the year before. He felt older, or maybe he was only tired, like Dumbledore.

"After all this time?" Dumbledore asked in an odd voice.

"Always," Harry said.

It would be some time yet before Harry realized why that made Dumbledore gasp. "Thank you, Harry," he said again. "I hope it is not more than I deserve."

~~

A few days before they left for winter holidays, Harry found Hermione studying (of course) on her favorite armchair in front of the Common Room fire. She was curled up, looking more miserable than he'd seen her in recent memory, or perhaps ever. Suddenly, it struck Harry that he hadn't been paying as much attention to his friends as he should have, these past few weeks when he'd been so preoccupied with Malfoy. A heavy stone of guilt sunk to his stomach, making Harry wince.

He knew he was lucky that situation got nipped in the bud before it got out of control. He still had to deal with the Malfoy problem, but he hadn't realized how confused he'd been getting except in retrospect.

"Hey, Hermione." Harry sat down next to her feet on the thick carpet, which glittered red and gold in the warm firelight.

"Harry," she mumbled, obviously distracted.

That was okay. Harry was in no hurry.

Looking at Hermione now, Harry felt things realign into their rightful places inside him. This was where he should be spending his evenings. At that thought, it finally struck him that something was wrong.

"Where's Ron?" he blurted out.

Hermione flinched as if he'd struck her. Clearly, this had been the absolute worst thing to say. "I don't know," she said sharply. As Harry looked up, his hand ending up on his knee for a second before he snatched it back, her face crumpled. "He's with Lav-Lav, where else? Having ever s-so much f-fun," she said through her hiccups. "I'm s-sorry, Harry, I don't-- I don't mean to-- I know you don't l-like girls who cry," she wailed.

On some level, Harry was panicking, because this wasn't Cho, this was Hermione, and he didn't want her hurt! His stomach tightened with a bubbling cauldron of uncomfortable emotions, foremost among them sudden frustration with Ron, who should really have taken care of this himself by now. How long was it going to take? But that tiny resentment, plus his significant discomfort, was quickly flooded by Harry's desire to have Hermione feel better. Or at least stop crying.

"I--" He bit lip, and on impulse, stood up to wiggle himself beside Hermione. He couldn't really do anything, but he allowed her to bury her head in his shoulder and cry her heart out. After a minute, he put an arm around her awkwardly, pulling her closer but also allowing them to fit on the armchair a bit more comfortably.

Ron was going to have to do this himself in the future, Harry thought grimly as Hermione thoroughly wet his shirt collar.

"S-sorry, Harry," she mumbled into his neck, then pulled away. She sighed a little tremulously, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. "I guess this has been building for a bit." She gave a little laugh. "God, I'm turning into such a girl."

"It's okay, Hermione." Harry wiggled some more, and sat on the armrest. He smiled uncertainly. "Personally, I've known you were a girl since fourth year."

They both laughed.

"Everyone would probably get a clue before Ron. If he ever does," Hermione added darkly.

Harry hesitated, but plowed on anyway. "I heard you asked Cormac McLaggen to Slughorn's Christmas party," he said, feeling totally out of his depth. "You probably have the right idea."

"Ron thought it was funny!" she cried, utterly indignant. "He said his surname sounds like a local butterbeer."

"Well, it does. Besides, you know, you could try dating for real, too." Hermione glowered at him. "Sorry," Harry muttered.

"It's all right. I know you mean well, Harry. I'm the one who's a mess these days, honestly. One of these days I'll snap and do something I regret."

Looking at her set expression, Harry could well believe it. "Um. You know you can always... talk to me. If you like," Harry said awkwardly. "Er, and I have something for you, by the way."

Startled, Hermione looked at him. "That's sweet, Harry, but isn't it a bit early for Christmas presents?"

"Oh." Harry blushed, embarrassed now. "Oh no, it's not like that. I mean, this is from Dumbledore." Hermione gave him a look. "It's not like that either!" He laughed, and Hermione chuckled with him. After a moment, Harry drew out the book of stories and handed it to her, unwrapped and everything. It never ceased to amaze Harry how Hermione's mood and attitude always transformed completely once she get her hands on a book. "I mean, he said he hoped it would be, er, 'entertaining and instructive', I think."

Hermione leafed through the book carefully, a small smile gradually growing on her face. "Oh, this is darling! Though I have no idea why Dumbledore would give it to me! I'll thank him the next time I see him, though. This is very... sweet," she said dubiously. "And quite educational! I've never had the chance to read wizarding children's stories before!" She beamed, flipping further.

"So he was right."

"Who was?"

"Dumbledore said something like that, that you wouldn't have seen it before. Um, well, I'm glad you like it. Let me know if you find anything unusual." Harry thought for a moment, and then a random inspiration struck him, as if something clicked in his head. "About rings, maybe."

"Rings," Hermione said thoughtfully. "Huh. Rings often have stories and legends associated with them, you know. Enchanted rings, cursed rings, rings of power, and so on and so forth. They're everywhere!"

"Really."

"Well, not everywhere, but--" she looked at Harry's expression and frowned at him. "If you're not going to be of any further help, then leave me alone to read," she said firmly. Quite a turn-around from the sobbing girl of just minutes earlier, but that was Hermione for you. Once she got a new reading project, everything else paled in importance, clearly.

"I'll be good," Harry said, and settled down quietly by Hermione's feet once again, staring into the fire. He thought of seeing Sirius's head in this same fire only a year ago, and how much he'd give to see him again. He'd give almost anything.

Even so, he thought, he wouldn't give up this moment, or his friends. Sirius would never want him to, he knew, feeling almost as if he could talk to his godfather after all.

~~

FIVE // old friends.

Hello, darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision
That was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

- Simon and Garfunkel
~~

Draco wasn't feeling very well on the train-ride back.

He sat quietly by the window, ignoring Nott's and Pansy's attempts at conversation. Thankfully, Crabbe and Goyle were asleep, and Zabini was off shagging someone in one of the empty compartments; whoever had caught his fancy this week, or possibly this hour. A boy may have high standards, but there were only so many available, gorgeous, and filthy rich Purebloods to be had. A Slytherin was practically made for accepting life's little compromises as cheerfully as could be borne after having your cock sucked every day. It was a hard life, Zabini liked to say. Go fuck yourself with a broom handle, Draco would have dearly loved to say, but then everyone had their burdens to bear.

Distantly, Draco realized that Pansy was exceeding her own past records of annoyance, the more thorougly he ignored her.

Any imbecile would have noticed that at the moment, he looked at food with all the appreciation a sick monkey might have for rotten bananas, but sometimes Pansy Parkinson made monkeys look pretty good.

She sucked on one wiggling little leg of a Chocolate Frog, probably in a fashion she imagined made Draco want to suck on it right back. Instead, Draco felt more than vaguely ill; he turned away before he actually began to hack and cough.

As usual, his restraint went unappreciated.

"Draaaaaco," Pansy crooned. Nott sniggered. Of course, Crabbe and Goyle kept on snoring.

"What."

"Look, look! I've learned to tie one of the frog's legs into a knot with my tongue!"

Nott looked suitably impressed yet disturbed. Unable to help it, Draco did turn to look, and unfortunately Pansy wasn't lying.

"That's...."

"Amazing?" she said, beaming at him with her mouth smudged brown all over.

"Clean your teeth," said Draco.

She gulped the last of it down, and Draco cringed, watching the wiggling little creature's foot peek momentarily between Pansy's pursed lips. Weren't those things supposed to become still once you caught them? Did some enterprising Slytherin charm them so they wouldn't? Did Draco even want to know?

Pansy licked her lips, only succeeding in smearing the chocolate. Inevitably, Draco felt more sick than ever. "Well, aren't you a sourpuss."

"Congratulations, I think you may have put me off chocolate for the rest of my life."

Pansy pouted. "What crawled up your arse and died?"

Draco went back to staring out the window. "Everything," he said.

"It can't be that bad," Nott said suddenly.

"Shut up, Nott," Draco snapped. "If you'll remember, you're only here on my sufferance. I'm feeling sick of everything, and that includes you."

"I hope taking out your PMS on innocent bystanders makes you feel good about yourself, Malfoy," Nott said sharply, and Draco heard the compartment door slide shut.

"Well, that went well," Pansy said after a moment. "You know, we should cultivate poor Notty more. Mummy told me his father is on his way up in the Ministry, and you should've seen his sister Matilda at Zabini's birthday party--"

Pansy probably said something after that, but Draco tuned her out with the ease of long practice. He couldn't be bothered anymore; he could barely hold a conversation without constantly fighting the urge to talk about his bloody problem, and keeping it in was driving him slowly around the bend, he was sure of it.

The closer he got to home, the worse the sinking feeling of dread got in the pit of his stomach. Rationally, he knew no new disaster awaited him, but he couldn't seem to convince his subconscious mind of that. Thoughts of the Manor should have calmed him, but instead Draco felt a formless anxiety that spread in ripples, centering on his home.

His father still wasn't there, which Draco had already gotten used to during the summer, mostly, but this was Christmas. They should be having a party, and the Parkinsons and Macnairs and Crabbes and Averys and Notts and everyone would be there, looking well on their way to being drunk. This year, his mother was probably going to get drunk alone and scream or cry if she saw him, though maybe Draco was going to get lucky.

Snape would probably visit. That ought to be a great highlight. Draco's mouth twisted as he thought of his last chat with his favorite professor.

Oh yes, he could see it now. 'Where is the ring now, Draco?' and 'What have you done with it, Draco?' and 'When will you tell that gibbering old fool, Draco?', except he wouldn't say it like that. No, he'd just look at Draco until Draco would be squirming helplessly and telling him everything he knew and a quarter of all the things he didn't.

Pansy chatted relentlessly as they rode, willfully oblivious to Draco's lack of real participation. Sometimes, Draco was actually answered her, but he never really heard what she said. All his concentration revolved around not thinking about things, which hadn't usually been a problem for him before. Times changed.

He still couldn't believe he'd taken off the ring. His finger felt naked.

Draco kept rubbing his thumb and forefinger over the spot where the ring used to be, over and over again, trying in vain to get rid of the itch. It itched maddeningly, nonstop.

"-- so like I said, since Matilda started that new witch's clothing shop in Diagon Alley, some people's idea of proper fashion has really--"

With sudden clarity, Draco thought he would snap and throttle Pansy if she didn't shut up. Then it would be blissfully silent, though, and Draco didn't want that. The noise was somehow both maddeningly distracting and reassuring.

"-- so I'm invited, aren't I, darling? What will you be getting me? I hope you're thinking about that, because I really want to impress Millie this year, since her mum had got her that diamond bracelet last year, and...."

Finally, Draco had enough of tolerating things just because they were better than the alternative. This was Parkinson, and she was his, and he wasn't going to sit there and listen to her babble if he didn't want to.

"Shut it, Parkinson, before I spell your pretty little mouth shut," he said flatly, still looking out the window.

She gasped loudly, getting up as if to leave, then sitting down again with a lot of force. "Why, that's-- you fucking bastard!" she screeched. "You little creep! Look at me!"

She obviously operated on the assumption that things were normal, and Draco was about to turn around and placate her.

Draco turned around, looked at her, and raised an eyebrow theatrically. "Happy now?"

Pansy gave him a sharp slap. "DIE!"

He stared at her, flushed and speechless with fury, and at that moment Pansy must have realized she'd crossed a line, because she winced and mumbled 'sorry' before running out, either to seek out Zabini or to cry in the bathroom. Draco didn't care; she'd be over it by the time they arrived in London.

Blessed quiet would've reigned over their compartment, had Draco not forgotten Crabbe and Goyle's snoring in the corner.

~~

Harry's heart pounded as he stood by the shabby door with the twisted serpent on it, which seemed like a particularly ill omen right then. The last thing Harry wanted to see was serpents. He never wanted anything to do with them ever again, even if they did tell him interesting things. He wasn't eleven anymore.

Ron was about to knock when the door burst open, revealing a harried looking Mrs. Weasley, with Kreacher lurking behind her.

"Harry! Ron!" Mrs. Weasley cried jubilantly, and crushed them both in a hug, even though they had grown a bit since they'd been scrawny enough to fit in her arms comfortably. "Hermione, oh my dearest! What a pleasant surprise! Ginny will be so relieved!"

Ron made loud choking noises and fought free of his mum's embrace as Hermione stifled a laugh. "Is Fleur here as well?"

"She will be, won't she? Of course she and Bill will be over for Christmas dinner! Remus is staying till then, too, so now the whole gang is here!" She squeezed Harry tighter.

Harry couldn't figure out if he thought hugs felt good or if he exuberant welcome made him feel worse.

"Hullo, Mrs. Weasley," Harry choked out at last, and she released him. She wasn't done with him yet, however; she tilted Harry's chin up and looked straight into his eyes. Harry suppressed a sigh.

"So how are you, dear? Haven't talked to you in a bit! Go on and help with supper, Ronald, what are you waiting for?! And take off your shoes first!"

"Yes, mum," Ron said, too easily defeated. He must be up to something, Harry thought.

"Hermione, dear, I think you've filled out since I last saw you!" she cried, sweeping up a furiously blushing Hermione in a belated hug.

Ron peeked around the kitchen door, making gagging faces.

Harry knew an opportunity what he saw one; since Ron was making faces and motioning upstairs, it wasn't too difficult of a choice between being questioned and playing a game or two with Ron in their room.

"I've er-- got to go," he mumbled, and raced after Ron, forgetting about his dread for a moment.

As long as he didn't look around too closely and concentrated on a nice game of wizarding chess (and possibly knocked himself out with a branding iron), things should be all right.

Harry wished there was anything he could have said that wouldn't sound completely horrible that would have gotten him out of going to Grimmauld Place for Christmas again. He's had Christmases without Sirius before. Every Christmas he'd had except for one was without Sirius, so it was really nothing new. In the end, there was nowhere else he could go, if the Weasleys were here.

He just didn't want imagine what it would be like, having that nightmare in Sirius's own house; the portraits would keep watch, and the Order members would be having their semi-regular midnight chat downstairs. The house would be full of people this year, all of them not Sirius. Not that Harry didn't welcome a chance to spend more time hanging out with Lupin and even Ginny... mostly.

"I don't feel very much in the spirit of things, Ron," he said once he got upstairs. Ron looked at him somberly and nodded.

He reached a hand around Harry as they sat on Ron's bed, the chess set still closed between them. "You said it. I always feel like I'm trapped like a rat in here. It's a house for the dead."

"Ugh, don't remind me." Harry groaned.

Ron gave him a crooked grin. "I've had nightmares about those house-elf heads on the wall, you know. That stuff's not normal."

"Now you're doing it on purpose," Harry said, but his mouth quirked a little. "I swear, just being here reminds me of constantly waiting for Voldemort to attack last year. I wish we could do something."

Ron sat back with a speculative look. "Have something in mind, do you?"

Harry snorted. "I wish! All I need is a lead. If someone would be so kind as to tell me how to kill Voldemort, I'd be all over it." They both laughed. "Hey, maybe I could ask Dumbledore. Like, 'hey, you don't happen to have the secret to Voldemort's death, do you? That would sure be convenient!' Or... not."

"You don't really think he's holding out on you, do you?"

Harry sobered, trying to quell the momentary squirming sensation in his stomach. It wasn't as if Dumbledore hadn't kept the Prophecy from him, he thought sourly. "It's too ridiculous. If he knew how to kill him, wouldn't he have done it already?"

"Yeah."

"I know it's wishful thinking, but I'm so sick of this! I'd give anything not to have stupid Voldemort hanging over my head. Or in my head."

"You haven't had any weird dreams lately, have you?"

Harry grimaced. "Not Voldemort-type weird, anyway." He frowned at the sight of Ron's slight flinch. "Maybe I'm just going stir-crazy. I mean, I'm supposed to think staying in school is more important, but look at the twins! They're fine, right?"

Ron scratched his forehead. "Well... that's them. Those two have been turning a tidy profit since their fifth year!" His nose wrinkled in a show of disgust. "I'm not too sure what the two of us would do, after we killed You-Know-Who. I suppose we could rent out Hermione."

"What, like a pet brain?"

"Exactly!" Ron grinned and clapped Harry on the back. "I like how you think, Harry."

"Hermione would probably take the N.E.W.T.s and pass even if she never spent another day in school," Harry said. "And then she'd go on to become the Minister of Magic because it would be like the highest marks she could get."

Suddenly, Ron looked around suspiciously, as if checking for Hermione lurking secretly behind the dresser. "Don't let her hear you say that, mate! She's been right twitchy lately. I don't know what's gotten her in such a temper, but it's bloody vicious!"

Harry coughed, deciding he needed to change the subject, and fast. "You know," he said with much thoughtfulness, "we haven't played chess together much, now that you have Lav-Lav...."

Ron flushed miserably. "Harry! She makes me call her that, I swear!"

He nearly bit through his tongue not to laugh, and felt like quite the good friend at that moment. "It's fine. All I'm saying is, I reckon you've gotten better since, what, this time last year? Something like that, right?" It wasn't very subtle, but he'd start howling in laughter if he had to listen to Ron go on about Lavender. Either that or groaning and going 'lalala'. Neither was a very good option, most likely.

"Well, of course!" Ron's ears turned red, and he scrambled to open the wizarding chess set and started to set up the pieces. "I'm the best. Even Hermione loses, so she has to admit it."

Harry smiled to himself while Ron was laying out the chess pieces. "She probably thinks it's your only redeeming virtue," he said, unable to help himself.

"You didn't have to say that, Harry!" Ron cried plaintively. "I know it already!"

It was Harry's turn to clap Ron on the back. "Come on," he said. "Let's play before she comes here looking for us. That, or your mum does."

"Looking for new targets, you mean," Ron grumbled, but made the first move.

That evening Harry felt the house closing in on him a little less, though it was always worst right before he fell asleep. It was definitely the house's fault; that and the holidays, which you were supposed to spend with your family. Ron and Hermione were his family now, and of course the Weasleys, but there was always that piece missing where Sirius was supposed to be, exactly like the hole burnt in the Black family tapestry.

Still, Harry knew how to count his blessings, at least this close to Christmas. The dreams weren't really all that frequent anymore, so maybe he wouldn't have that dream after all. He could talk to his friends almost normally again. That counted for a lot.

Besides, the resumed Occlumency lessons probably ought to help take his mind off things, especially with that textbook Hermione had found to coach him as a supplement.

When Snape came, he would be ready, Harry thought.

~~

Snape was waiting for him when Draco got back.

Draco didn't even get to say hello to his mother, didn't even know where she was, if she was in fact home that early in the day. He was only beginning to call out to her when he heard the too-soft drawl coming from the drawing room to his left side. He jumped, whirling around to stare speechlessly as Snape rose from his father's armchair by the fireplace, evidently in greeting.

"Mr. Malfoy," Snape drawled, inclining his head a little. "Right on time as usual, I see."

Draco couldn't seem to move for a second, couldn't bring himself to look at his "favorite Professor" at that moment; instead, he stared at his grandfather on his father's side, Armandis. The old man bestirred himself from his painted slumber long enough to glare at the intruder. He'd never really liked Snape, and Draco used to be irritated with him for it. Now, he just wished he was the portrait, and could just leave the frame as easily as glare, while at the moment he wasn't free to do either.

"Professor," Draco said formally, his legs unconsciously moving forward a few steps. "To what do I owe this... pleasure?" He couldn't bring himself to smirk.

Snape's thin mouth curled. He seemed to feel quite at home here, now that Lucius wasn't around, Draco thought. Suppose he wants into my mum's knickers. Suppose that's all he'd ever wanted. Draco's fists clenched tightly at his sides as he stood ramrod-straight facing Snape across the span of several armchairs and a large, crimson velvet sofa. Snape certainly looked comfortable enough with his long legs stretched out crossed in front of him. He looked like a long black snake coiled languidly across his mum's favorite sofa.

"Oh, I think you know why I'm here, Draco," Snape said silkily, smiling in that oily, nasty way that usually pleased Draco to no end. It was usually directed at Gryffindors and people unfortunate enough to walk unsuspecting into one of his many traps, instead of at Draco himself.

Draco sighed. No games, then. Perhaps he'd best sit down. "I suppose I do," he said morosely.

He could feel the ring as an almost comforting source of warmth against his chest, swaying gently on a delicate cutting of chain. He almost wished he'd had the foresight to destroy it; not that Draco really believed he could, even if he'd wanted to. Still, it would have been much more reassuring to him to at least know he'd tried, especially now that he supposed Snape was about to demand it of him.

"And?" Snape prompted.

"And, I'm not giving it to you," Draco hissed from between clenched teeth. "You can't have it! With all due respect. Sir."

Snape smiled once again, and Draco shifted uncomfortably as he leaned against the back of the sofa. He was rubbish at trying to hide his nerves entirely, and Snape knew it. Draco still hadn't managed to walk all the way around, so he could also sit and do this in comfort. It was the least he deserved, wasn't it? Then again, Draco never got what he deserved.

"No less than I expected, Draco. But that's not why I'm here."

Draco pressed his lips together, settling in for what he could not avoid. "Why are you then, here, Professor?"

"Ah, I see you're going to plunge forward with this conversation like a man. I suspect this has its roots less in Gryffindor boldness than your being too tired to divert me properly."

"Let's get on with it, then."

Snape smiled thinly. "Don't worry, this tires me as well. There's a dreadfully long list of things I'd rather be doing, like fleecing sheep for instance. Alas, none of us truly get what we want in this life."

"No? Potter seems to be doing all right for himself."

"Indeed. On this we are in agreement. Then you'll understand, the rest of us only do as we must."

"I suppose you'll want to see it," Draco said sullenly.

Snape raised an eyebrow. "So forthcoming, Mr. Malfoy. Don't tell me you been spending time with Gryffindors that I'm unaware of?"

Draco flinched. "You don't need to insult me, Professor," he said stiffly. "I'll talk."

"I wasn't, quite. Believe it or not, one of the best people I ever knew was a Gryffindor. Unfortunately, so was all the worst scum you could imagine walking the earth."

"Can we get to the point, please?" This was quite unlike Snape. It was disturbing. Personal information wasn't disarming, coming from that man, it was threatening; the way one would realize Snape was about to kill you or die himself if he told you the truth about himself.

Snape narrowed his eyes at him. "Quite. I'd like to see it. You may give it to me, since I see you're not wearing it. A wise choice."

Draco sighed. He supposed this was inevitable. He drew the chain off his neck, moving to let the ring dangle over Snape's hand, who snatched it quickly. He was careful not to touch the stone and laid it on the nightstand next to his armchair.

"Now. What do you plan to do? I gave you this time so you'd decide, and the time has almost run out."

Draco took a deep breath and exhaled. "I don't know."

"You have to choose, Draco."

"I know," he said grimly.

"It's simpler than you think. It almost always is, though I appreciate that it may not seem that way to you at the moment. Would you care for some free advice, Mr. Malfoy?"

"If you have to."

"In truth, we all make the choices we think are inevitable. A Slytherin will do what he must to survive, which makes everything seem so neatly inevitable. However, that is an illusion. Once your attitude changes, what is inevitable and obvious changes, though duty always remains; I speak from experience."

"You've been talking with Dumbledore about this, haven't you," Draco said flatly. "Don't speak to me of duty, old man! My only duty is to myself and my family!"

Snape pursed his mouth. "I see all that had passed you by entirely. Unsurprising, but still regrettable, for I must indeed talk with Dumbledore if this conversation fails."

"So you're threatening me."

"No, you imbecile! If I wanted to threaten you I wouldn't bother coming here!" Snape snatched the chain off the nightstand, holding it in front of him like he intended to hypnotize Draco with it. "You wouldn't leave this lying next to you if you actually knew what it was, you ignorant boy!"

"And whose fault is that?" Draco yelled. "No one tells me anything important, do they? How do you expect me to make some stupid educated choices if I don't have all the information I need?"

"All the information that's necessary, you already have. This object has the capability to take over your mind entirely, and make you a mindless vessel for the Dark Lord to use and then discard. The fact that you've kept your sanity long enough to take it off is a matter of great luck, make no mistake about it! This isn't some measure of your skill or worth to Riddle. There's no use you can possibly hope to make of hits; the only direction possible is for Riddle to make you be of use to him. Is that clear enough?"

"But my Father--"

"Your father hoped you could be of use to the Dark Lord because he had nothing else to hope for at this point in time, Malfoy. All I can do, and possibly even more than I can do, is attempt to keep you from impaling yourself on the sword your father gave you. I have no wish to see you sink under the weight of your own ambitions, but neither can I swim for you."

Carefully, unbelievably, Snape laid the ring back on the nightstand.

"You're-- leaving it here? With me?"

Snape grimaced. "Unfortunately, I cannot take a Malfoy family artifact out of this house without a Malfoy's consent, much as I may find it necessary. Not without quite a bit of preparation, barring trial of combat. There are some rather impressive theft wards on this manor, as you might be aware."

"If only we had wards against taking a Malfoy against their will, too," Draco said. "Not that you care! You probably would've been there cheering them on!"

"That's enough!" Snape hissed. "My patience is not unlimited! I truly did come to talk with you, Draco. I'm on your side."

Draco searched Snape's face, but could find no sign of deception. Of course, he wouldn't. He was a little confused, that's all. It was a bit much, and a cherry on top.

"We've talked, then."

Snape's lips thinned further, but he nodded decisively. "Indeed. I expect to see you early next term, Mr. Malfoy. We can continue this conversation then. I'll take my leave for the time being, shall I."

"Say hello to Mother before you go."

"I'm sure I will," Snape said shortly, swishing his long black cloak over his shoulders as he went into the gardens, presumably to look for Draco's mum.

Draco knocked his head back and exhaled hard through his nose, staring at the dark stone across the room.

All this fuss, just to make Draco choose something like this on his own.

It was a novel enough idea, but Draco found he liked it.

~~

In the dream, Harry was sitting quietly.

He waited.

He knew he would wait forever if he had to, but he didn't mind. It was dark; the stars had come out, shining more brilliantly than he remembered. There were more to see here than out at night in the Scottish countryside. A truly breathless multitude of stars, glittering in every direction.

It was bitterly cold, cold enough to settle deep into his bones and never leave, but Harry didn't notice. Even if he did, he wouldnt've have cared. He felt like finally, finally he was safe. Nothing could reach him here. He never wanted to leave.

He couldn't see much of his surroundings; he knew he sat on a half-rotten log, with the sound of water lapping against a dark shore, but he knew it couldn't be Hogwarts. That much was clear to him.

There were few sounds here. There was only the water, the quiet whispers of the wind, and his own breathing. Everything else was consumed by the darkness. It was like the whole world had wasted away while he waited by the water's edge. Harry knew it wasn't the first night, just as he knew this was no ordinary river, flowing softly in the dark.

After a while, Harry became aware of something. It looked like one of the brighter stars that hung low in the sky had begun to move.

It was a gradual thing: the light grew steadily as it moved in a graceful arc towards him, dipping and then slowly gliding across the water's surface. It shone brighter than a Patronus, brighter than anything Harry could imagine, but in the end it resolved into a great big silver dog, almost as tall as a man. It sat on its haunches at a distance, head cocked.

Harry's breath caught in his throat.

Sirius.

Sirius was on the other side of the river, waiting for him, just as Harry himself had been.

Harry stared unblinking into the light, and suddenly he could wait no longer. The silence was stifling. Harry wanted to scream and yell and make Sirius get here faster. He had no time left, no time to wait, and he couldn't cross the river on his own.

So close and yet so far.

It was unfair!

Harry knew the longer he stayed here the more he would forget, and he needed to remember.... To remember everything....

There a creaky thump, like ancient wood hitting the invisible shore, then a soft rustle and an aborted movement of fabric. Harry himself couldn't seem to move; he couldn't see a thing anymore, as if the stars themselves had winked out like an illusion bursting.

"Sirius! SIRIUS!"

There was nothing now. Not even echoes.

There was only one thing that made it bearable before: seeing that one bright star. Sirius. Without Sirius, the cold found him, a shriveled tiny thing who trespassed where he didn't belong.

"Harry!"

The whisper swept him up like a leaf in the wind, and he was falling again. Wasn't he always falling? That, and always still. Here, all things were one, endings and beginnings blurring together. He wasn't sure why he'd thought Sirius was gone. Here he was, so close Harry didn't need to see him.

His heart hammered furiously, and yet he found he wasn't afraid. He knew that voice; of course he did. He'd know that voice anywhere. Harry hugged himself tightly around the middle, momentarily flushed with a surge of warmth, prickly with goosebumps on his skin.

"You don't belong here, Harry...." It was directionless and impossible to resist, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Sirius's voice.

Harry was confused. "What? No! Wait! Where are you? Sirius! I want to see you!"

"You can't wait here. You have to stay or go, but if you go, don't come back until it's time. I prefer you don't stay. It's not time yet."

"I'll go! I'll go, so let me see you! I just want to see you!"

"No. You have to choose, Harry. Where shall I take you?"

The voice wasn't Sirius at all anymore, that voice was old and frightening and suddenly, Harry was very, very cold indeed.

"Let me see him.... Please, I just... please...."

There was another rustle of fabric, and a soft, sad sort of sigh. "You want the impossible, child. You can never see this, and I think you know that. Go back while you can. Trust me, you don't want to go where I can take you."

"I won't accept that! I have to see him! I can't live like this... please... I can't, anymore...."

Something touched his arm; it felt icy and smooth as bone. The touch was altogether too real in this place of dark water and faceless whisperings. His right arm and most of his side began to go numb almost immediately, and even as his breathing slowed and his awareness began to flicker, Harry's main thought was that this wasn't right.

Not like this.

Not like this. Harry shuddered, jerking away, and he heard a soft laugh.

"You don't know what you need. That is why you're here, isn't it?"

There was a pause, when Harry felt the wind start to pick up, slapping his hair wetly against his face and making him start. There was a miserable, cold rain now, which seeped through his shirt and hoodie in seconds. He had a body, he knew. That body screamed at him to move.

"Sirius," Harry whispered again. The name tasted like ashes and fear in his mouth. A sob was lodged somewhere in the middle of his chest, and it felt like it was never going to get unstuck. Maybe Harry would never to move after all, and neither would the pain that kept him company.

There was that hollow wooden clunk and a thump once again, and Harry heard the water rushing in once more. The unfamiliar voice began to grow distant.

"Wait!" he cried.

There was a soft laugh, growing fainter. "I wait for no one, and your grief is your own concern. Tend to yourself and leave while you can. You never should have been here, but you wizards have always been more trouble than you're worth. If you want my advice, you will awaken."

And then there was only the silence and the dark once again, and Harry couldn't stand that now. Not again. He couldn't wait any longer.

With a wrench somewhere in the middle of his stomach, he tore himself away. Harry woke up with wetness seeping into the pillow, his fingers clutching uselessly at the sheets. After a few moments, he remembered where he was; Sirius's old house. Sirius, who was dead; whom he didn't save; Sirius, who had been a star.

A sob caught in his throat, choking him. This feeling hadn't been so raw since it first happened, since he watched Sirius falling and falling into nowhere. Or, perhaps, into the dark night sky above the river flowing nowhere in a place that didn't exist.

The lump of his best friend sprawled just feet across from him just made it all worse somehow. He bit his lip bloody and swallowed sob after sob until he felt like his stomach was full of them. This suffocating feeling of no escape would probably hound him until Voldemort found him, and it'd be a simple contest of who would win. At that moment, the chance of death seemed better than all this waiting.

Though Ron stored a few feet away and the others were all around him, Harry felt more alone then ever. He felt emptied out somehow, a hollow man, stripped of illusions about family, hope and the future. All that remained was the Prophecy hanging above him, and the future he could neither choose nor avoid.

Try as he might to escape and dream again, Harry's eyes remained painfully dry and open, unblinking as he stared into the dark, unenchanted by stars.

~~

Draco walked to his mum's usual place in the indoor garden, by the roses. She spent a lot of time by the roses lately, turning to smile absently when she heard him approach.

Her pale hair was still perfectly swept back by the house-elves, and she sat straight on her garden stool in their greenhouse, carefully pruning the roses and letting the flowers litter the path. There were petals everywhere on her dress, and she smelled horribly sweet, so much so that she reminded Draco of an ill person. Between that and her being easily given to tears, Draco had been avoiding his mum since he'd come home for Christmas break.

He was horribly bored, however, and eventually the sheer ennui drove him outside to talk with any human being, even if it was his mother.

She liked to touch Draco's chin with one cool finger, looking searchingly into his eyes, then nodding. It was a lot like this was a stranger, who only pretended to be his mother. The part that Draco couldn't quite ignore was that she acted normally when people came over. One didn't fall apart where it wasn't safe, after all. That was inexcusable.

There was a cold, tight feeling in his chest that seemed worse than any pain from the ring; it was something that didn't go away no matter how many blankets Draco piled on top of his bed. This whole house was cold, just like Draco was; cold and somehow empty. He used to be proud that there were no ghosts in Malfoy Manor; now Draco wondered where they all went. He wondered if they simply faded into the walls, and if his mother was about to do just that.

It was only the night of the winter Solstice, but Draco was already packed. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that he'd never unpacked.

The ring was stowed in his trunk, his wand resting on top of it, his broom leaning in the corner. Of all the things Draco had in his life and could have had if he'd wanted, surprisingly few would provide any regret upon leaving, even if he were to leave forever.

He didn't know why, exactly, but he was angry; so very angry.

When he'd first entered his room upon his return, he'd set his old toys and his old favorite window curtains and even his rug on fire. He'd stood there calmly, coughing a bit as he watched it all burn. He was satisfied, taking it all in while pressing himself closer to the wall, step by step. By the end, the door had gotten warm.

All the commotion had brought a house-elf squeaking in, mumbling and squealing something, and spraying water with a huge hose. He'd been drenched too, though the house-elf had been imploring Draco to leave, over and over, sobbing with emotion.

Draco barely heard the house-elf's protests over the roaring in his ears. Finally, he'd stood there, motionless, cold and wet, drying off by his fireplace. He could've used a charm to do it, but he wasn't able to focus enough to care. The house-elf, whatever its name was, had left after cleaning up the debris and fixing the furniture, which had been charred black. Draco hadn't looked to see it happened, only noticing when he realized that nothing had changed. It was as though what he'd done meant nothing.

That was magic for you. Something that let you walk on broken legs.

Either you control it, or it controls you! Snape snarled in Draco's mind. Snape was even more impassioned about the Dark Arts than he had been with Potions, but unfortunately Draco was nowhere near as good at Defence Against the Dark Arts as he had been in Potions. Most disturbingly, Potter was brilliant at it; even Snape couldn't deny it.

He remembered the day Snape had talked about the dangers of the Dark Arts as if describing the charms of a lover.

The most important thing you must remember is to know what you're doing at all times! One single careless misstep when dealing with these forces and you'll take the top of your head off! And such a fool would certainly deserve it!

Draco barely registered the waves of heat as they reached his skin. He grabbed a crystal dragon from the mantel, only slightly blackened, and threw it into the fire. There was a pop, but it didn't burn. Draco stared at the transparent little statue surrounded by orangey red flames like some sort of phoenix, and felt nothing.

At least, he felt no differently. Of course the dragon didn't burn.

Draco wanted to scream and scream, but he didn't. He dug his nails into the meat of his palms, and stayed utterly still and silent. Most of all, he was afraid no one would come in; he knew his father wouldn't come in.

After a while, he realized he was exhausted. Draco ended up sitting curled up on the window seat against the huge bay windows looking over the garden. It was beautiful in the summer, but not much more than sticks and snow and crows right then.

Snow kept falling and falling as Draco watched. The more it fell, cloaking the outside world in layers upon layers of white, the more he felt certain that nothing could touch him here; nothing and no one, ever again.

The door creaked open suddenly, and a shadow fell diagonally across the carpeted floor. He was disoriented; for a moment, Draco wondered if this was the Malfoy ghost at long last. Then there was a footstep, and another, and Draco realized his mother had come to visit and that someone must have moved him, because he was in his bed.

Draco felt inordinately cold, considering he was under luxurious layers of bedding. He wished he could still wrap his arms fully around his middle and be six again.

"Draco, darling," she whispered, "there you are. My good boy."

Draco froze, but she didn't approach him immediately. He peered at her as secretly as he could, and saw that the clock in front of his bed read midnight. It was a powerful hour for protection charms for the coming year, though his mother hadn't done one for him since he was a small child.

Draco shivered as he watched her surreptitiously mutter charms under her breath and hang a traditional witch's cutting of holly and myrrh from one of the bedposts.

Afterwards, Narcissa laid a cool hand across his forehead. "I'm so glad you're safe. Mummy's really glad she could protect you. You'll be fine, darling."

He concentrated on breathing evenly, not letting her know he was awake.

More than anything, Draco wished he could open his eyes and whisper "mummy", and have everything be all right again.

Instead, Draco jerked his head away, and his mother sighed.

"I understand," she said, but Draco knew she didn't understand anything. He couldn't let her; he had to protect her.

No, you don't, Draco said silently, wishing she would keep her hand there all night. But Narcissa had already turned away from him; her hand disappeared.

Draco peered through his eyelashes, and he saw his mother reach into a hidden pocket of her silk sleeping robes. She drew out a stoppered glass, swallowing the liquid inside it in a few delicate sips.

Draco watched, not knowing what to say or what to think.

Narcissa smiled, looking away from him at the wall in front of her, where she'd hung many of his old pictures and the paintings of him as a child here at the Manor. She sighed, and Draco thought that his mum was more like a child now, and he may as well give her what she wants.

He felt something break inside him, and he got up, bending over the edge of his bed to kiss her on the cheek. She jumped slightly to the side, making a soft little sound. He couldn't remember the last time he'd kissed her of his own volition.

A hand flew to her face, and finally she looked at him, mouth pursed into a little 'oh'. Her eyes were wide and vulnerable, and in some ways this didn't look like his mum at all, but he loved her more than ever. He loved her so much his chest hurt and he wanted to cry; it was awful in its sudden, silent intensity.

Draco sighed and turned away; he burrowed into his pillow again, tucking his arms around himself to keep from trembling, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep before he knew it.

~~

It had only been five days and Harry was down to his last nerve. He couldn't concentrate on anything; not the evening games with Ron, not his vague conversations with Hermione before they settled down to study textbook Occlumency, and certainly not the mindless chores Mrs. Weasley gave him and Ron to do around the house. He was almost literally at the point of tearing out his hair, and he was looking forward to Snape's arrival. Harry considered that to be the true sign he was at wit's end.

Ginny was sulking, probably because they wouldn't let Dean come over to stay with them, but oddly enough, she was the person Harry found most refreshing. Probably because they were both miserable, and about similar enough things that there was no need to discuss it. A part of Harry felt disloyal for thinking like that, but it couldn't be helped.

They were rarely in the same room alone together for long, but when they were, a companionable silence ensued. They sipped at hot cider and pumpkin juice, Harry sitting cross-legged on the old rug by the fire and Ginny sprawled unlady-like on the sofa. Every now and then, Harry stole glances behind him like he'd sensed Ginny doing once or twice, and one time, Ginny caught him at it.

She grinned. "Peekaboo! I see you!"

Harry's mouth hurt as he smiled, feeling he hadn't done it in ages. "You got me."

Ginny's eyes suddenly sparked with mischief. "You know, it's possible to play Quidditch indoors."

Harry wasn't sure whether to believe her or not. "It is?"

"Yep! The twins are supposed to have done it once, but they wouldn't show me how."

"How convenient," Harry said, but he was intrigued in spite of himself.

"I'm not lying!" Ginny said hotly. She was still grinning at him, and something warm unfurled in Harry's stomach. Why hadn't he talked with Ginny that much before? It seemed like Ron's little sister had grown up while he wasn't looking.

"Didn't say you were," he said placidly.

"Well, see that you don't!" She rubbed at her nose with her forefinger, looking at him consideringly. "I do know it involves a heavy-duty modification on the space-expanding spells mum uses and a largish room-- like the stables or a barn, a garage... or an attic. If you get my drift."

"You think you can do it?" Harry said with a smirk.

"Nah." She stood up, hands on hips, hair gleaming in the firelight. "I think we, er, might be able to. Or we can try and fail, which would be better than this, I reckon."

Harry laughed, and stood up as well.

"Lead on, Harry," she said, and that was the first of several afternoons to come that he'd spent not thinking of being stuck in the house, or Dumbledore, or Voldemort, or Malfoy.

Hermione wasn't much help; she was spending more time with Ron, which Harry was glad for, but tensions were at an all-time high, so she was torn between concerned questioning and simply being preoccupied. Once Harry started avoiding them both in favor of spending time with Ginny, Ron started to give Harry sidelong accusing looks and spending a lot of time whispering behind closed doors with Hermione.

All in all, Lupin was the only one who noticed there was something off about him (moreso than usual), but he just looked at Harry calmly and sipped his tea, clearly waiting for Harry to make the first move. It was almost like he a wild animal who circled him, aware he was in danger of trespassing on Harry's territory. Harry kept his borders well guarded, and Lupin didn't press.

This was in effect whenever they'd caught each other alone, which was rarely. Mostly, Lupin was off on secret errands, since only the kids were confined to the house. The Order was more busy than ever, and Harry, in turn, felt more utterly useless than ever. The only thing that helped was remembering that Dumbledore had promised to tell him thing once he came back; Harry found he couldn't end his vacation soon enough.

He'd laid awake and unmoving for several nights in a row already, listening to the creaks and rustles, twitching at every little noise until he was dissolving in a quiet, acidic rage. He couldn't really go anywhere to walk it off, not really, and apparently these things built.

On the third sleepless night, Harry got up silently. He checked to see that Ron was well tucked in bed, took a deep breath and moved to the door. The portrait of Phineas Nigellus was gone again, probably talking to Dumbledore about Harry should know about but didn't. Regardless, no one watched him move, and that was all that mattered.

He walked down the stairs without even looking, needing to move.

Harry didn't know he was heading towards the kitchen until he was there, standing hesitantly by the door. He realized he was barefoot, as he was shivering a bit, clad only in his pajama bottoms. Unsurprisingly, Lupin was there; it must be his favorite hour, as the clock read 3am. The other time Harry had caught up at this hour, he'd sighed and gone back upstairs. This night, something was different. For long moments, Harry stood and observed him, unsure what he was waiting for.

Lupin sat at the far end of the table. He had some papers spread out before him, but instead he looked fixedly at the fire to his right, with the flickering light casting deep shadows upon his face. He nodded slightly, indicating he knew Harry was there. There was a brief pause before he spoke, looking up to meet Harry's eyes.

"Hello, Harry," he said simply.

"Professor Lupin," he said, staying awkwardly by the door-frame as he watched the man. Was it just Harry or did Lupin look progressively more worn with every month? He wondered if it was grief, or age, or turning into a furry monster every month. Probably some combination of the three.

"Really, now." Lupin's mouth quirked in a small smile. "Haven't I told you, I'm no longer your teacher? It's been quite a while since then. Besides, there's no need to stand on formalities here."

"I suppose."

"Settle in, then, Harry," Lupin said evenly. "If you like. There's tea and hot cocoa, which isn't half bad. And I must say, it's warmer the further you get inside the room." He smiled a bit more earnestly, which only underlined how odd it looked on his face.

Harry sat down as awkwardly as he'd stood; his knees nearly gave out under him once he got to the warm spot on the bench in front of the fireplace. Lupin got up to look for something in the cupboards. Harry waited silently, listening to the crackle of the fire. He occupied himself by staring at the myriad cracks and dents in the wooden table. Lupin's choice turned out to be cocoa powder, though Harry had said nothing; a moment later, he poured Harry some water from an old copper kettle.

"There you are. Give it a moment, it's hot," Lupin said, watching Harry take a sip before he'd finished speaking. "Sorry. Well, how is it?"

Harry hummed. "Hot." The roof of his mouth burned, but the overall effect was not unpleasant.

"You shouldn't rush into some things. That's why you keep the hard chocolate for emergencies."

Was that a joke? Harry gave Lupin a skeptical look, still unsure. Lupin was damned hard to read.

"Do you really keep chocolate on you at all times?"

"Only when I know there's going to be an emergency," Lupin said. Sometimes he remind Harry of Dumbledore a bit, with that twinkle in his eye.

While Lupin was not exactly chatty, somehow he managed to put Harry at ease, in an awkward sort of way. He recalled how he'd been everyone's favorite professor back in fourh year, but they'd all been different back then.

Once he got used to it, the chocolate was unexpectedly rich and bittersweet, coating his tongue in what could only be described pleasure. He stared. "'Sgood!"

"Isn't it?" Lupin gave another one of those odd, subdued smiles he was so good at. "I find it takes the edge off things quite nicely."

There were many questions that were on the tip of Harry's tongue, like for instance what was going on with the Order, but he couldn't bring himself to disturb the peace. In the end, they flowed away with the sips of liquid and the minutes, each one marked by the ticking of the wall clock.

"Thanks," Harry said finally, unable to think of anything else.

"Don't mention it."

His large, lined hand rested on top of Harry's, warm and almost comfortable for a thoughtless moment. They didn't meet each other's eyes, yet the other's steady, quiet presence washed over him. For a little while, before Harry had to go back upstairs to the dark room where he'd try to sleep, it was enough.

~~

Harry didn't know for sure whose idea it was to use Sirius's old room for the first Occlumency lesson, but he was pretty sure it was Snape. It was much neater that way; when Harry got around to boiling him in oil and pulling out his nose-hairs (one day, he promised himself fervently), he'd like to have a complete list of Snape's offenses. For posterity's sake.

There wasn't really any trace of Sirius here, so Harry wasn't that distracted. Rather, he was more angry than distracted by thoughts of his late godfather, which was probably about as good if Snape's purposes involved sabotaging their lessons yet again.

He gritted his teeth. Snape seeing any hint of his encounters with Malfoy was unacceptable. He had to do this right. "I'm ready," he said.

Snape raised an eyebrow at him. "Is that so? Let me be the judge of that, Potter." He sat on the single chair in the room, folding his robes beneath him and drawing his wand. "Needless to say, I will not go easy on you to spare your precious ego. Either you are serious, or you're wasting my time. Which is it?"

Harry felt a muscle in his jaw twitch violently. "I'm quite serious. Sir."

Snape looked directly at him, wearing an expression that said he'd already seen inside Harry's mind, and he was not impressed by Harry's bravado. In other words, his everyday expression. Oddly, this served to relax Harry in some way. This time, he remembered to take a deep breath and clear his mind before Snape started the bloody countdown.

"Very well." There was no further warning as Snape cried, "Legilimens!"

He felt it this time: a pressure against his thoughts, something like a sudden oily dark presence.

Harry bared his teeth, picturing a blank wall in front of his mind, encircling him completely, just as Hermione had advised. That wall was white and featureless, devoid of cracks and dents. Harry's mind was a still pool of water contained by the wall. He put effort into not resisting actively; he was contained, the way the depths of a darkest lake are contained by the glassy surface of calm water.

After some long moments, Snape's eyes narrowed, and the pressure eased with an almost audible pop.

"Very well. You've gotten this far, at least." He sneered coldly. "At this point, I have to inform you that this is a near-worthless achievement, for no Legilimens of any strength will warn you of attack, or need to use his wand to provide a handy giveaway."

Harry bristled. Even Snape must admit this was an achievement! "I know--"

"Silence!" Snape's eyes flashed, glittering with open malice. "I am giving up time I don't have for your benefit, so the least you can do is listen! Now. You cannot count on being able to perceive the invasion of your mind by a skillful Legilimens. Any that would provide a threat would be good enough to cover their tracks. Therefore, you must learn to guard your mind at all times in order to provide any real protection. Understood?"

For a moment, Harry almost thought Snape was trying to be helpful, but then he decided he was making things seem impossibly difficult to discourage Harry further. "How am I supposed to do that, Professor?" Harry tried to use as little sarcasm as possible, though it was hard. He was actually curious.

Snape's mouth twisted sourly. "Hard work! How else, you worthless brat? No doubt you are looking for a shortcut; Gryffindors always are. There are none. You must learn to control your emotions, if you think you can. As I said, the Dark Lord won't knock to announce himself every time, Potter. There will be times you'll have to use your judgment, such as it is, to identify the threat and deal with it."

Harry clenched his fists. It wouldn't be so difficult to control his emotions if he wasn't so tested by being around Snape, of all people. Even Voldemort didn't have the same effect on Harry; at least all Voldemort did was make Harry's scar hurt and threaten his life. Snape, in many ways, surpassed him in annoyance if not in evil.

"I can do it," Harry said. "It'd help if you told me how, too. Sir."

"Haven't you been listening? No, of course not." Snape got up, throwing up his hands. "There is no easy answer, Potter! True Legilimency and Occlumency are products of mental discipline as much as any magical components, as I've attempted to impress upon you repeatedly. You must remain calm and focused at all times, especially those which are critical. You must be able to concentrate your mind to a single point, and make that your only purpose. Overcome your worst prejudice to do what you must to the best of your ability, and you've taken a step towards mastery of the high art of Occlumency."

Harry stared at Snape, dumbfounded. That was quite a speech; Harry could only imagine Snape was passionate about the subject, rather than feeling any great need to enlighten him, though he'd said similar enough things during Harry's first lessons the previous year.

He blinked. "Er-- I'll try-- though I don't think I need to do that much--"

"Do not try, Potter. For heaven's sake, do not try; either do it or give up, but spare us all from more of your trying. And now, thankfully, I must go." Snape turned at the door, giving him another sneer. "See that you've practiced enough to make some progress by the time I call you for another lesson. I will not waste my time again. Good day, Mr. Potter."

He shut the door quietly, and Harry stood there for long moments, staring after him.

"Overcome my worst prejudice to do work?" he muttered, finally. "What, like 'Snape is an evil git'? Been there, done that, first year. Or is it, 'Voldemort must die'? Because I'm not the one pursuing that one ever since first year.'" Harry chuckled to himself. For a split second, he considered that maybe Snape knew, and he was talking about Malfoy, but then he dismissed it.

Malfoy would never tell Snape about their former connection anymore than Harry would. Would he?

Harry wondered what Malfoy was doing right now, vaguely guilty. Where only recently, the need to shut down Malfoy's schemes seemed cut and dry, now Harry heard Cho once again: Tell Malfoy to stay away from you.

Not for the first time, Harry wished Sirius were here to explain some things, or maybe just to tell him that Harry shouldn't worry and that Malfoy was an evil git. It wasn't a prejudice if Harry had proof, was it?

Harry kicked at the foot of the bed, and groaned as he flopped forward, burying his face in the clean linens. Not a trace of Sirius's scent remained; it was truly up to him.

"Stupid Malfoy," Harry mumbled; he was more confused than ever.

~~

SIX // waking dreams.

And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it's a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
And for a second you turn back
Oh no, be strong

Walk on, walk on

- U2
~~

Draco Malfoy just made no sense anymore.

At first, things seemed almost too normal; Malfoy had returned from Christmas hols cheery as a bird, having supposedly spent them with his mother's distant relatives in Nice, at the South of France. He had a number of wizarding photographs of their villa which he showed around to the Slytherins in the Great Hall, some of which had mysteriously found their way to the Gryffindor table. Harry was a little surprised at how colorful and homey the house looked, even if it had the expected huge pool, fancy trimmed hedges, and pretty much fancy everything else. Harry reckoned they'd need to fit in, and Nice was probably different than Wiltshire.

He and Ron had a running bet going with some of the other Gryffindor boys as to how long it would take before Malfoy's story started showing blatant holes, and/or his 'tan' wore off. Not that Harry had ever been there himself, but he was pretty sure it had to have been reasonably cool weather even with their famously 'mild' winters. That was if Malfoy was actually anywhere in that vicinity while some of his peers suffered indoors with record snowfall. Lolling about by the ocean and getting a hint of a golden tint to his skin. Yeah, right. Harry snorted.

Privately, Harry and Ron thought it was a spell. There was no way in hell Malfoy would ever turn golden naturally; more like peeling red as a cooked lobster. He sniggered to himself.

Regardless, Malfoy showed up in style, same old stupid disdainful sneer in place, but without the ring on his finger. Harry couldn't quite believe it, but the first thing he'd done when he'd had his first glance was sneak a look at Malfoy's right hand.

Harry was going for caution and stealth this time, but this plan was foiled when Malfoy waylaid him in the corridor after breakfast. For once, both Crabbe and Goyle and Harry's friends were not present; for Harry's part, Ron and Hermione had gone on to start the DA meeting without him, since Harry had been late to breakfast. He couldn't work up the energy to think without some serious caffeine and pancakes in him, let alone go over more advanced Defence spells. At least it was Saturday; no way was Harry ready to start the new term like this.

"I hate you," Malfoy informed him, with feeling. He'd stepped in front of Harry so fast they nearly collided foreheads. His eyes glittered as he stared at Harry. Weirdly, he felt his stomach clench and swoop sharply at the look, somewhat at odds with Malfoy's tone.

There was a small pause while Harry stared back, waiting for Malfoy to look away, feeling his cheeks heat up when he didn't. His gaze flicked down Malfoy's face rebelliously for a moment; for a split second, he was certain he saw Malfoy's mouth part, and reality temporarily skewed sideways. All he saw was pink. Whoa!

He gritted his teeth and forced himself to relax, his mind helpfully going blank.

Harry's left eyebrow rose. "No 'hello, glad to see you'?" Harry smirked, warming up to it. "As for you, congrats on the tan. That must have taken some effort."

Malfoy sniffed, ignoring the jibe about the tan all too obviously. "We need to start over," Malfoy said decisively.

Harry scratched his temple thoughtfully. Malfoy's tie was slightly askew. "Mmm."

Malfoy cleared his throat. "Let's make certain things clear, here. You're a fucking slug under my shoe. You're not worth my breath, my time or my--"

"Okay, I get it, Malfoy, I get it!" Harry stifled a laugh. Something about this rant didn't quite measure up to their old venomous standards. Maybe Malfoy just didn't have what it took anymore.

Malfoy's ferrety little nose twitched in suspicion.

Looking at Malfoy's pointy face, Harry had to fight the urge to grin in earnest. He felt oddly... relieved all of a sudden. The weirdness in the air between them was still there, a prickly awareness at the back of his mind, but it was nothing he couldn't handle.

"Glad to be a source of amusement for the Chosen One," Malfoy drawled, halfway into a flounce before Harry caught him with a hand by the elbow.

Malfoy looked down pointedly, and Harry let go with a jerk, suddenly sobered. "Um."

Malfoy stood rigidly upright, his chin pointed in some sort of challenge. "It occurs to me that your boorish behavior must have a cause, Potter. Have you really missed me so horribly over Christmas you can't keep your sticky paws to yourself?"

Harry couldn't help it; his mouth quirked. Malfoy scowled blackly enough, but didn't move to go. For some ridiculous reason, Harry felt almost... happy. "So you want us to be friends again, is that it?"

"Potter! Of all the--" he sputtered, his sharp cheekbones tingeing pink. "We were never friends!" He sneered. "I meant, maybe we could resume our mutually beneficial arrangement on a trial basis. Maybe I could be persuaded of certain things... or not."

Harry smiled easily, intensifying Malfoy's apparent discomfort.

"Decided to take my advice, have you?"

Malfoy's lips thinned. "That subject is off-limits until I say otherwise."

"I see. So, what? You want to sleep over? Do homework together? I'm not quite sure I'm following, Malfoy."

Malfoy shot him his most withering death glare, which Harry met easily, keeping his poker face on.

"Are you trying to make me hex you, Potter?" Malfoy said levelly. "Because it's working. And you know what? Forget it," he spat. This time he really did walk away.

"Malfoy!" he cried, knowing he sounded sincere for once.

Malfoy stopped, his thin shoulders twitching backwards. Now that Harry had his attention, he was at a loss. He realized he won't be able to force an apology past his lips anytime soon. Oh well.

"Well," Malfoy snapped. "I'm waiting."

"It's okay," Harry said, fighting an urge to smack his palm against his forehead. Great, that was brilliant for sure. "Er, I didn't mean to laugh at you or anything. I just... don't know what to say, okay? That's all."

Malfoy half-turned, considering. "I suppose you are a hopeless oaf."

Harry grimaced, but decided he'd let it go for once. "Right, right. That's us Gryffindors. Excuse us, we're socially troubled." Harry smirked.

Malfoy looked dubious, as well he might. "How unfortunate," he drawled, then cocked his head. "You might deserve a tiny chance to redeem yourself. If only for the entertainment value, really."

Harry pursed his mouth, trying hard to think of the Greater Good here. It was a close thing. Perhaps it was best he didn't say anything this time. Yeah, and maybe he could stand here and stare open-mouthed at Malfoy's face. Right.

"So-- tonight?" he said briskly. "Midnight? Astronomy Tower?" For no good reason whatsoever, Harry almost began to feel like he'd gotten away with something.

Malfoy's face screwed up as if he'd swallowed a surprise lemon. "I'm not sleeping with you anymore, Potter." And then what he just said seemed to play itself back in his mind, and he blanched; Harry carefully refrained from giving into a chuckle. It was all about the Greater Good these days.

"Who said anything about sleep?" He raised an eyebrow. "Would you prefer to meet up during daytime, when someone is a lot more likely to come by?"

"But Filch--"

"Don't worry about Filch," Harry said smoothly. "I've got it covered."

"H-how? Why should I trust you?" Malfoy jerked his chin up.

"You don't have to trust me at all, Malfoy." Harry paused, daring Malfoy to call his bluff. He flushed, then glared, and finally curled his mouth tight in a pout. "I guess I could show you how it's done one of these days. The point is, I've been getting away from Filch for ages now, you know that for a fact. And we could always go to the Room of Requirement, but if we did that every time, someone's bound to notice we're missing and there'd be questions and such, if that's all right with you."

"No one questions me," Malfoy said, but it was feeble. He sighed. "Why are we doing this again?"

Harry gave him a look. "Beats me. Why?"

Their gazes held for a moment, and then they both laughed. "This is insane," Malfoy said, shaking his head.

"Pretty much."

Malfoy frowned. "You're insane."

Harry crossed his arms casually. "Takes one to know one."

"I am not having this conversation, Potter." But Malfoy's lips twitched just a bit.

Harry smirked. "Me neither."

"Well, good."

"Good."

"Tonight, then?"

Another long-suffering sigh. "The Room of Requirement. At least it'll be warm."

Harry thought setting the date was unusual enough so that he didn't need to push things or argue for the hell of it, though he wanted to. He could make a gesture of peace at this point. It wouldn't take much. "Whatever you want, Malfoy," he said, smiling a bit too broadly.

Malfoy's eyes widened slightly, then he scowled, spine stiffening. "Of course." He left with a dramatic little swish of his robes.

And that was that. Malfoy would know where to find him.

~~

In the slow, snowed-in weeks after his return, Draco drifted.

He didn't know what he wanted anymore. Without the ring's influence, things seemed a lot more confusing, or perhaps differently confusing. He really preferred not to think about it too much. It wasn't too hard, snowed in as they were. Winters here made Draco feel like hibernating under nice fluffy blankets pulled up over his head. The freezing water barely moved in the lake outside the small porthole in the seventh years' dorm-room, and in that grey light, neither did he.

There was a soft, deceptive feeling, as if harsh reality just wasn't in a hurry to continue in this sort of weather, and so had elected to stay somewhere warm and far away. It was a good theory, as these things went. It worked for him. Constant wariness and the continued stress of these past months had taken their toll on him; Draco simply had no more energy for outraged feelings to spare for Potter or the Dark Lord himself. It was kind of... nice.

All in all, Draco wasn't paying much attention to much of anything else, and there were certain consequences.

Sometimes he'd catch himself visualizing taking a bite out of Potter's mouth. He'd forget whatever he'd been doing, staring at nothing in particular, and find himself focusing on Potter's horribly chapped lips. They were hideous.

In a sort of morbid fascination, Draco watched as Potter used them to answer some inane query in class, or as he laughed with his stupid friends during breakfast. Once while he was staring, Pansy actually waved a hand in front of his face, and Draco blinked back into focus. She'd been saying something about sausages, hadn't she?

"I don't want any sausage," he said, quite reasonably.

She huffed. "I didn't ask about any bloody sausage."

"Well, that's your problem, isn't it?" Zabini laughed, and Parkinson found another outlet for her constant irritation. Fine with Draco - hedidn't need any unnecessary distractions.

Crabbe elbowed him. "What'cha thinkin'?"

Draco scowled, staring for several moments at his sloshed over tea. "Sorry," Crabbe muttered, knowing Draco's quick temper about these things, but Draco had more pressing concerns. He focused on Potter's ridiculous hair, feeling a sort of... pain in his chest. What an awfully plebeian, ridiculous look. It was just like Potter to appear for all the world like he'd just rolled out of bed at six thirty in the afternoon.

"I need a haircut," he said. It was true.

The question of what the texture of Potter's lips might feel like under his thumb popped up at unexpected moments. Draco might have been worried about early dementia or worse, but instead, it seemed clear he was spending too much time inside. With Potter.

He really should do something about that, he knew. They were definitely going to have The Conversation soon. Very soon. Then his life would go back to normal. Besides, all of this had to be the after-effects of Riddle messing with his mind. There were only so many times you could dream about someone's naked body and keep one's wits about you, Draco reasoned.

Most of the time, Draco would blink and the urge to touch Potter's mouth always passed; it was like an incipient headache that never quite resolved into a full-scale migraine. There was the one time Draco found Potter snoozing in the library, and actually considered tucking Potter's cloak around him, but it was a temporary madness.

Later that same night in the Room of Requirement, they were snoozing peacefully (Draco on the sofa and Potter on the rug by the fireplace) when Draco woke up and kicked Potter in the ribs to wake him up. When Potter groaned and rolled over, Draco grinned and kicked him again.

"This is fun," he remarked. After a moment, he poked Potter with a foot for the third time. "Wakey wakey!" Revenge was sweet indeed.

Potter slapped at him and missed, then snorted. Though possibly it was a snore. "Whaaah-- quit it."

Draco knelt down by Potter's ear carefully, bring his mouth very close for maximum impact. Then he drew breath and yelled: "FIRE! FIRE! HOGWARTS IS ON FIRE!"

"AAAAGH! WHERE!" Potter bolted upright like a shot. He looked around madly, eyes still clouded over. His pupils were huge, his glasses askew, and his hair stuck almost straight up.

Draco beamed, his arms crossed. Nothing could be more entertaining than Potter half-asleep, panting in pure panic. Well, maybe if Draco could hex him creatively somehow. Potter could use a fluffy tail and whiskers, most definitely.

"Looking for something?" Draco drawled.

Finally, Potter's wild gaze focused on him, and he stopped looking quite so much like a hunted rabbit about to leap. He pushed his glasses up with one finger. "Malfoy," he said, his voice rough from sleep and, of course, the screaming. "It was you."

"I don't know what you mean," Draco said smugly. "What did you dream this time?"

"I know you did it," Potter said flatly. "At least don't pretend." He got up and groaned, putting a hand to his forehead. "Great. Now I have a headache because of you."

"Hey, don't blame me for my good deed for the day, Potter. You need a nice rest in your soft, comfy bed and all your troubles will be gone. I'm looking out for you, here. A little appreciation, if you please."

Potter gave him a look. "You know, I was starting to think you weren't so evil."

Draco smirked. "And now?"

He sighed. "And now, I'm starting to wonder if you're secretly a Gryffindor."

Draco's jaw dropped. "That was-- that was uncalled for!" he sputtered.

Potter chuckled and made his way to the exit, smirking all the way. He tossed a look over his shoulder. "No one's been pranking me this year, since Fred and George are gone. I've missed it, actually."

The door slipped shut on a whoosh of air, with Draco plotting Potter's death with a fervor that was almost... nostalgic. He'd missed this, too.

They had stayed up too long again, neither one feeling sleepy at first, and neither having much of anything to say to one another. The silence was comfortable enough by now, so they made use of their time as best they could. Lately, they had been doing Potions as well as Defence Against the Dark Arts work together, and now and then they'd just done various homework separately. Normally, Draco would do this in the evenings with his friends arranged by the fire, or maybe in the library, but lately he'd been too distracted to concentrate up until they had their appointment. A little too aware of time passing slowly, somehow maddeningly.

As to why, Draco didn't want to know.

~~

What passed for Harry's curiosity on the subject of the two of them-- this thing between him and Malfoy, and what in the hell they thought they were doing-- was abstract enough to be academic. It seemed there was an 'us', now, and he didn't really know what that meant, exactly. Nor did Harry want to know.

The news of war going on outside Hogwarts was taking up more and more of his attention. Dumbledore still hadn't called him back, and the wait was scraping Harry's nerves thin. It was easy enough to let a number of other things go where they willed. This thing with Riddle first; Voldemort second; his friends third. That was how it had to be.

What remained for Harry's reflections on the subject of his night wanderings was generally concerned with what he'd inevitably have to tell Hermione. Truthfully, though he had nothing to hide, the more he put it off, the harder mentioning had gotten. He knew she must have noticed something was amiss, but at least she hadn't cornered him yet. In this way as in others, Harry realized he lived on borrowed time.

Every day was like every other day, until about a month later, it wasn't.

They hadn't meant to see each other that day, but Malfoy was on his Prefect rounds after dinner and he bumped into Harry when he was on his way back from a late run to the Owlery. They both looked around the corridor, but no one else was there.

After a moment, Malfoy's mouth twitched up. The expression was somewhere in between a mock salute and genuine pleasure. Harry's own lips stretched upwards before he could stop it.

"Aren't you going to take away some points?" Harry said finally.

Malfoy arched a pale eyebrow at that. "A guilty conscience, Potter?" He smirked.

"I thought it was a hobby of yours. I remember you taking off five points because you didn't like me, a year ago." Harry grinned.

Malfoy crossed his arms. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I don't fancy being predictable. Next time I'll have to take off three times as many points, of course. I'll wait until you're lulled into a false sense of complacency first."

"Ooh! This must be that devious Slytherin cunning I've heard of."

"I try. What can I say," Malfoy said, ducking his head and looking up at Harry with another smirk. "I'm good."

Some tiny part of Harry was gibbering at the back of his mind. Flirting, he thought deliriously, unable to pretend otherwise. This is flirting! His whole body flushed hot then cold.

"Stop," Harry said flatly, through clenched teeth. All thoughts of the ring and his mission vanished beneath a surge of white static in his brain.

Malfoy blinked at him. "What?"

"You. Me. This farce stops now."

Malfoy gave him a slow frown, still not caught up. "Huh? What are you on ab--"

"STOP!" Harry's fists clenched, and before he thought twice, he'd swung a fist. It was a solid left hook, and Malfoy went down in a sprawl.

Harry stood over him, panting. Malfoy had a trembling hand pressed against one cheek, and he'd made a soft whining sound for a bit before it cut off, and he bared his teeth. There was a bit of blood in his saliva, Harry noted. Malfoy's eyes had watered slightly from the pain, but Harry didn't think he was crying.

He was trembling too, he knew. His mind was a mess. He couldn't think straight. His one lucid thought was that he should leave now.

Harry swallowed painfully, watching the smear of bloodied saliva across Malfoy's familiar pointy chin. He stomach felt oddly hollow, but he felt sick.

"Are you all right?" he croaked. He was unable to look away, and he couldn't have said anything else if his life depended on it.

"What?" Malfoy hissed.

"I said, do you feel okay?" He spoke slowly and softly, enunciating.

Malfoy spat, and a gob of pink saliva landed on Harry's shoe.

"I hate you, Potter," Draco muttered, sounding almost sleepy. It was a completely different phrase than the one he'd uttered right after Christmas, that much was certain.

Harry closed his eyes. He couldn't look at Draco without doing something stupid. He didn't know what that would be, and some part of him was afraid to find out, Gryffindor or not.

"No, you don't," Harry said calmly, after about a month of this.

He hadn't known he believed it until he said it, but now that he did, he realized it was true. Draco didn't hate him and he didn't hate Draco. He didn't know what that meant, but he was pretty sure it meant something was very wrong.

"WHAT?!" Malfoy scrambled to his feet, reaching for his wand.

Harry had his out before Malfoy could even begin an Expelliarmus.

Malfoy hissed and looked around, clearly forgetting for a second that Crabbe and Goyle wouldn't be here guarding him for once.

"This is all just a bit late, isn't it, Malfoy? You 'hate' me so much you spent night after night sleeping next to me. So much you never stop staring at me." Harry bared his teeth, snarling now. "You hate me so much you get a fucking hard-on just looking at me, don't you?" Harry clutched his wand tightly, breathing through his teeth. "Even I can tell when someone wants to cream their trousers anytime they touch me!"

Malfoy shook violently, looking deathly pale. A purple vein pulsed heavily in his temple. Harry realized he'd never seen him quite this enraged before.

"Potter," he said flatly, voice almost entirely steady. "You-- if you wanted to fucking--" He took a deep breath, then went on. "If you wanted to get rid of me so badly, you could've just said so. But that doesn't matter. We duel. Now."

There was a beat.

"So. What. You're waiting for someone to come save you?"

There were some spells he could try, Harry thought. Should he? No, not yet. Malfoy first.

"That was a warning. More than you deserve, you-- fucking-- halfblood FILTH! I've heard all about your stupid loser dad, too! Like father, like son!"

Something snapped in Harry's head, and there was that bloody freedom, back again. "DON'T YOU TALK ABOUT THEM!"

Malfoy raised his wand another inch, and then Harry's wand clattered to the floor, and he was on him. His fist shot straight at Malfoy's stomach this time. His breath knocked out, Malfoy bent over and fell onto his knees with a shocked gasp. Harry bent a knee, about to kick with his foot when Malfoy gave a pull at the leg. Harry fell backwards, landing on his arse with a painful thud and another lurch; he knocked his skull against dirty stone and promptly saw stars. Malfoy's ears must have rang just as loudly, but he managed to roll Harry under him. He got a grip on Harry's sides with his bony knees and held them steady as he slammed his head against Harry's.

Harry grunted heavily, spurting blood in a gush from his nose. He struggled pretty hard, but Malfoy seemed willing to take any amount of abuse to stay locked together. If he was trying to knock any part of Harry's body within reach as hard against the floor as possible, then he was a raging success.

Within minutes, they were both barely able to move from the repeated head trauma, though Harry had a slight margin on Malfoy because he'd flipped them and had him pinned. He didn't do much with the position, except keeping Malfoy's wrists pinned as he waited for his own vision to clear. The weight of his body was enough to keep Malfoy's torso immobile. Harry was staring at Malfoy silently at this point while Malfoy stared back, squinting; blood dripped sluggishly from his chin to land on the other's starch-white collar.

The only thing audible for endless moments was the rushing of blood behind Harry's eyes, the ringing in his ears, the pounding in his temples.

"Potter," Malfoy rasped, wincing.

Harry he felt a reciprocal stab of pain in his swollen eye. "Malfoy," he gasped. At last, his head fell weakly against Draco's blood-stained shoulder.

"Blood-- really-- really-- doesn't become you," Malfoy managed. He coughed wetly with what was likely more blood. "Trust-- me."

Internal bleeding, Harry thought numbly. Bloody wonderful. My fault. Pomfrey. Have to-- bugger-- maybe I could take a little nap here, he won't mind-- will he-- hmm....

He couldn't seem to think straight. Also, his head throbbed dizzily, and he wasn't too keen on lifting it from Malfoy's shoulder. Just the thought made him woozy. Not good.

"Yeah," Harry mumbled weakly. "Sorry." His mouth moved against the filthy fabric, which tasted kind of bad. He probably shouldn't mention that.

"Sorry?!" Malfoy sputtered, setting off another coughing fit. Harry's own chest hurt sympathetically as he felt the fierce heaving convulsions beneath him. "SORRY? Are you mental? Try again-- nnm-- hero boy."

Harry meant to laugh, but it came out sounding like a croak. His throat felt sore from swallowing all the blood and bile. "I meant-- mmgh-- sorry, can't bloody fight anymore. Sorry 'bout the duel. Was stupid." Harry paused, trying to keep to a train of thought and failing. "Comfy," he noted. "Hmmm."

"Hey! Hey, you're not-- if you're going to faint, do it once you roll over! Oi!"

"You can hex me, though. I'll-- hmm-- umm, wait." Harry buried his nose in the blessedly cool skin of Malfoy's neck, sighing a little.

"Potter!" Malfoy's voice sounded shrill and panicked in his ear, but it didn't matter now. Nothing did; things were soft and black and good.

Harry didn't know if he'd fallen asleep or what, but he did wake up.

Malfoy nails dug into Harry's biceps, his arms shaking him. Except that didn't make sense. Why would Malfoy be shaking him?

"POTTER! Don't you dare blank out on me, Potter! POTTER! I can't move you and my legs fell asleep! Are you listening?"

Harry gave a heartfelt groan. This seemed to serve as encouragement enough.

"You better get me to bloody Pomfrey before someone comes along! You know they'll expel me but give you a fucking medal! Oi! Get the fuck off me, you sodding-- ugh! You weigh a ton! POTTER!"

"Okay, okay... hey, no need t'yell.... My ears hurt now. Everything hurts-- an' it's all your bloody fault! Stupid Slytherins-- never shut up, do ye-- hmmmph-- mm...."

"No! No, not again," Malfoy wailed, but Harry was more than halfway checked out. Again. Vaguely, he hoped someone really would come by, even Filch. Distantly, he was aware this was ironic somehow, though damned if he could figure out how. Life was a mysterious thing indeed.

"Mm," Harry said. He still had his face shoved stubbornly into the side of Malfoy's neck. "You smell good," he noted.

"Huh? R-right now?"

"Mm, M-Malfoy. Funny," he sighed.

"It's not!" Malfoy snapped. "It's not funny! And I don't smell-- hey!" He groaned, and there was silence for a short while while Harry laid here like a dead weight, breathing through his mouth. He wasn't really conscious as such, but he was aware of Malfoy's warm presence there. "I suppose it could've been worse. I could be a slug again. I could be alone. Granted, I'd rather be alone."

Another, longer, silence passed. "Potter?" Malfoy whispered, sounding deathly tired himself.

Harry thought he heard Malfoy whisper "I hate you" once again, but he was never sure.

~~

Neither Draco nor Potter were surprised to see the other in the neighboring bed once they woke. Apparently, they did so at almost the same time. Sleeping potions were helpful that way.

Draco groaned, throwing an arm across his eyes. He noted that his skin felt a bit tight in places and possibly even sore in others, which was unacceptable. On the bright side, Potter seemed to be worse off; his skin seemed to have retained a lightly greenish cast. Maybe that was just the lighting; Draco couldn't be sure.

"Fuck," Potter muttered, which made Draco smile in spite of himself.

It would almost be easy to forget it, except it wasn't. Malfoys never forgot-- or forgave-- a slight. On the other hand, neither his revenge could wait for the right time. He knew he'd think of something appropriate when the opportunity presented itself. Meanwhile, he could lay back and enjoy Potter's obvious misery.

"That was really bloody stupid," Potter whispered harshly and buried his face in a pillow.

Draco had a vivid flash of him doing the same thing to Draco's neck. He was glad Potter wasn't looking directly at him; even Draco's toes felt tingly warm, which was patently ridiculous seeing as it hadn't even felt good.

"We are really bloody stupid," Potter added morosely.

"Excuse me, but keep your pronouns to yourself. You are the one who insulted me and attacked with no provocation," Draco said, exercising remarkable restraint. At least, it would've been, if he wasn't still too tired to move or raise his voice.

"Yeah." Potter groaned. "You realize, this means McGonagall will want to talk about this, right? Hell, Dumbledore is probably going to want a little chat. Or maybe all three of them; Snape can't be far behind. Ugh."

Draco suppressed the urge to whimper, if barely. The horrible pounding pain in his head seemed to be returning with a vengeance. Snape. Oh sweet Merlin, Snape talking to him about Potter; Snape talking to Potter.... Where were gaping mouths into Hell when you needed them?

"We need a story," Draco said weakly, sighing.

"That's what I was saying, yeah. Can't very well tell them-- well." Draco turned his head and saw Potter staring up at the ceiling impassively. "You do know, er, I was just going off on you, right? I mean, I don't know what... okay, I know, but it was stupid. Stupid." Potter clearly blushed, even in the dim morning light of the Hospital Wing.

Draco was enjoying this. Potter felt guilty? Oh, that was rich. Just perfect. A once in a lifetime opportunity, this was. Draco made an effort to stifle the sharp smile cutting at the edges of his mouth.

A guilty Potter was a malleable Potter.

"That wasn't an actual apology, just so you know."

After a relatively small silence, Potter broke. Well, as much as could be expected on short notice, at least. "Sorry," he muttered.

"Sorry?" Draco echoed. "Couldn't hear you. What was that again?"

"I apologize!" Potter snapped, clearly feeling a trifle on the defensive side. "Okay? I'M SORRY!"

"Okay. Let's say that was sincere and you are sorry," Draco said smugly. There was a calculated pause for dramatic effect. "How sorry?"

"Aaaaargh!" Potter thrust a pillow over his face and all but growled. The noise came out muffled, but the gist was there. Moments later, he moved his arm to throw it at Draco without any warning, and Seeker reflexes being what they were, Draco caught it easily. "You-- are-- something else. Wow. You're a sodding evil git, you know that?"

"Your point is?" Draco drawled.

Harry growled again. "My point! My point is that you're too bloody well self-satisfied to live! Okay!"

"Remember, you're speaking to an injured man, here."

"Who the fuck is injured anymore? Don't think I don't know you're out to milk this for all it's worth, Malfoy."

"Really."

"Yeah."

"My satisfaction here isn't what you should be worried about," Draco said relentlessly. "More like the satisfaction of your Head of House, not to mention mine, when they hear about this. The story, remember?"

"Fine, go ahead! You can tell them whatever you want! Tell them I assaulted you because I'm a... well, whatever you want! See if I care!"

"So you think you can get away with it no matter what you do." Draco's mouth went flat and bitter. "Can't say you're wrong, I suppose."

"What do you know," Potter hissed.

"Yes, yes, I'm just a filthy Slytherin who should be licking your boots. I've heard it all before. There's just one thing: why would I want to tell anyone you beat me up-- again? Not exactly a badge of honor, is it? Even you must see that."

Potter heaved a sigh. "So what's your angle here, Malfoy?"

Draco frowned. "That would be telling, wouldn't it? Where's the fun in that?"

"You think of this as fun?! God!"

Ahh, the righteous indignation choo-choo train has arrived at the station, Draco thought.

"Not at all," Draco said, keeping his voice carefully level. "As long as you take care never to mention any of that in my presence again, we should be fine, though. You may never ever so much as breathe about parts of my anatomy in that disgusting, filthy manner again, not unless you want to see me hex your face in." Draco breathed in. "Do we have an understanding, Potter?"

Potter's head whipped around on the pillow. His mouth hung slightly ajar, eyes wide without those awful spectacles for once.

"Don't let the flies in, Pots," Draco drawled.

"Oh-- uh, yeah. Sure. Whatever floats your cheese, Malfoy." Potter's mouth twisted as if he'd tasted something bitter. "Is that all? Can we forget about this now? I think I want to go back to sleep."

All? Draco thought. Oh no, it's never going to be over, Potter. Not even when your teeth fall out and your skin shrivels to a prune. Never.

Draco laughed loudly. "Sure. All you have to do is promise me. Promise me you owe me one, on your blood." He didn't know where that came from, exactly, but he was going to roll with it; it sounded good.

"On my blood?" Potter screeched. "Are you kidding?"

"What do you think, you wanker? Now promise."

Potter stared at him, probably trying to read how much of that bullshit was written on Draco's face. Not that it mattered that it was bullshit; Draco wasn't backing down.

"What do you want me to do," Potter sneered, "cut myself and let you drink it?"

"Ha ha. Is that Gryffindor humor?" Draco's tension left him quickly now that he felt fairly certain of victory. "Just give me your bloody word, good God. Not that I'd mind you cutting yourself in my honor, of course. Go right ahead." Draco grinned and wished he made a habit of carrying knives upon his person. Oh well. They'd probably shed enough of each other's blood already.

Potter's eyes burned into him strangely, and for a second Draco felt uncertain. Who knew what was going on in that crazy brain? He may as well have been speaking Mermish, probably.

"Well?"

And then Potter was up and over on Draco's bed; his body heat was blistering hot even through the small space between them, layered with several blankets. He watched silently as Potter brought his own thumb to his mouth, looking Draco straight in the eye as he bit down on it.

Draco's body jerked, and he just barely resisted the urge to moan. His whole body felt raw and sensitized after a split second of seeing Potter's teeth sinking into his own flesh. There was a tiny trickle of blood seeping down Potter's hand. It pooled on the little flesh membrane between Potter's thumb and forefinger. Potter didn't move his hand away from his mouth, possibly waiting for something from Draco. Some sign.

Draco didn't feel confident enough to speak, so he nodded jerkily. He was suddenly thankful for those comforting layers of blankets.

"You want this, don't you," Potter said hoarsely. The words were barely muffled by the digit which remained in his mouth, which he was currently sucking on gently.

Draco was helpless to contradict him, though he tried. "No." That was about as far as he could go.

His eyes seem incapable of leaving the vicinity of Potter's lips, though sometimes they flickered up towards the eyes. They always darted back down to settle heavily on the mouth. The slightly parted, swollen looking mouth. That mouth.

"Guh," Draco said.

Potter's eyes burned him, all pupil; Draco could only watch with a sick fascination as Potter tore his thumb away and thrust it ruthlessly into Draco's own mouth. Draco's whole body went rigid immediately, his eyes wide open.

Draco's eyes rolled back in his head. It wouldn't take much, now. Draco's cock felt tight and wet against his stomach, and somehow, he knew Potter knew. Those eyes: they knew.

You won again, Potter, just stop, stop this, I give in, stop....

None of that made it past his lips, of course, because Potter was moving his thumb rhythmically in and out of Draco's mouth. Draco's eyes rolled back in his head; he couldn't handle all this, he just couldn't-- He was going to shake apart.

Draco's shudders were getting stronger, blatantly obvious to a blind man, and Potter was watching him for sure. His cock felt so swollen that the barest contact was going to make him explode, but Potter kept going, eyes hooded with Draco's thumb in his mouth. Draco couldn't watch himself anymore, couldn't bear to feel anything but that finger thrusting slickly between his teeth. It forced its way it again and again until Draco's head swam; the vertigo alone could put him under all over again.

"Aaaaaagh!"

He couldn't take it anymore!

Draco sucked Potter's finger deeper, licking furiously around it. Potter no longer bled, but there was the remaining, tangy taste of copper. Draco's mind was completely obliterated in the onslaught of more lust than he knew what to do with, not that it mattered anymore. He heard a loud, wet gasp somewhere, barely audible amidst his own pants ande whimpers around that saliva-slick thumb, but he didn't care; his whole world melted down around him. His hips bucked helplessly and he was so close, so close!

His fingers fisted desperately in the sheets, Draco's hips arched off the bed. "Y-yesss," he moaned.

There was still a part of Draco aware of an old Malfoy family chain and the ring that burned his chest, setting off little sparks down to his very toes. He could feel the buzz up to his teeth, and it was so good-- so good-- he bit down on Harry's finger until he tasted blood again. He sucked and licked and hummed around the pad of the thumb, whimpering weakly as the pressure finally released and he came; legs shaking, mind reeling, tongue working in tiny circles.

Draco was still coming down off the fierce rush, eyes slitted with woozy satisfaction, when he looked up at Potter and gasped.

His finger was motionless in Draco's mouth, but Potter himself wasn't. His mouth hung open, the sweat beaded on his upper lip as he sat back on his heels; he looked right back at Draco, rubbing the pad of his palm back and forth across the tented outline of his cock. He seemed to be beyond either stopping or feeling mortified, as Draco definitely was himself.

Draco watched breathlessly as that hand moved back and forth, faster and faster. The movement was all too close to Draco's thigh, and he began to feel dizzy again.

Potter's tongue curled against the roof of his mouth, sometimes darting out to wet his lips. The urge to lick at that wet mouth, swipe his tongue across and down, press it against the pulse in Potter's neck-- it hurt. Remaining still, keeping control: it hurt.

And yet, Draco could hardly move; he didn't quite dare believe it: Potter flushed, panting, all but begging for it. This went beyond surreal into pure wet dream, and his erection was painful now. Still, he did nothing but watch and suck softly at Potter's finger, waiting for that perfect moment. Finally, Draco broke and reached inside his pajama bottoms; enough was enough. He jerked his fist underneath the fabric a few times while the eye contact continued.

"Unngh!" And it was over; there wasn't much left to spurt, though Draco's stomach clenched hard.

Potter's breath hitched, and he made a tiny, quiet noise like "Hh-uuuh." The only other signs were the rolling shudders and the way Potter bit his lip. His expression was completely indescribable, and naturally burned itself into Draco's memory.

Afterwards, Harry just lay down facing Draco without a word. His face was impassive, though his eyes glowed.

Their silence holding, they fell asleep like that, bodies not quite touching; Draco didn't dream.

~~

SEVEN // what remains.

Should the wide world roll away
Leaving black terror
Limitless night,
Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand
Would be to me essential
If thou and thy arms were there
And the fall to doom a long way.

- Stephen Crane
~~

A week passed, then two. Most things went back to normal, or as normal as things ever got between them anymore.

There was a trick to not thinking of certain things; it involved being very busy, distracted, and not particularly wanting to remember a certain incident. All in all, Harry had factors working in his favor. As things stood, the only time he weakened was right before and after sleep, but there was no accounting for those fantasies; there was a time Harry had pictured Hermione naked.

Harry discovered that as long as he didn't bring anything up, Malfoy was content to live each day as if it was brand new. Harry didn't try to reminisce about any of the 'old days' very often, but Malfoy's reaction was generally severe. Or rather, it seemed as if reminding them of their history triggered Malfoy's old reflex responses, and so inevitably, they wound up fighting. Harry thought maybe Malfoy did it out of a desire to prove something, but he had no more clue how to defuse the situation than before.

Sometimes he did feel some small bit of nostalgia for simpler times, truthfully; back when he knew where everything stood. He missed being certain about things, that was certain.

These days, they met in the Gryffindor Prefect's lounge now half of the time; there were no memories here, at least. Hermione had first given him the password when he mentioned the need for peace and some measure of both isolation and comfort to practice Occlumency again. They had a schedule of certain hours each of the years' prefects occupied the space, and Harry could have Ron and Hermione's four-hour slot late in the evening. Snape really was indefatigable when he wanted to be; Harry wasn't about to escape. In the end, the Occlumency excuse wasn't a lie; he really did want someplace private yet close to Hermione, just in case. Bringing in visitors was a bonus.

Hermione knew, finally. To Harry, it was something of a relief; one less secret to plague him.

She'd found them sitting silently together over their Defence Against The Dark Arts textbook, exhausted from trying not to fall asleep. They'd stayed too long, still there even after dawn; they faced each other motionlessly across the round table as they sprawled with their elbows over their books like tired children. Draco had his back to her, and he didn't seem to hear the portrait of Circe swing open, immediately.

"Harry, oh there you--"

Harry did see Hermione quite clearly; she stood at the entrance with a hand to her mouth.

He couldn't breathe for a moment, his only emotion being simple panic. He felt jolted wide awake, his eyes locked with Hermione's. He tried not to read what was written there, and instead attempted to make her leave. If only she'd go away, things would be fine. Harry was pretty certain of this.

Her brows knitted together, and with the ease of long familiarity, Harry knew she was disappointed in him. Not because here he was with this apparent ease with Malfoy, of all people, but because he hadn't told her. Probably also because he was obviously skiving off work to do-- what? Sleep, maybe. Do Defense Against the Dark Arts homework. He could see she was a bit confused on that count.

She'd shook her head at him and turned to leave as quietly as she'd come, but Harry knew it wouldn't be over. It would only fester.

"It's a long story," he said tentatively.

Unsurprisingly, Malfoy finally roused at this, looking around owlishly. It was sort of disgustingly cute, Harry thought. His judgment was polluted by Malfoy's shedding cuteness like some pets shed fur, though that was probably a really bad analogy. He was sleepy! It was a good excuse.

"Go back to sleep, Draco," he said.

"Okay," Malfoy said meekly, laying his head on his arms. Harry suspected this was only possible when Malfoy was mostly asleep and had more to do with his tone of voice than anything, but Hermione didn't have to know that.

Hermione raised one eyebrow rather eloquently, making Harry blush for some reason. I called him Draco, he realized after a moment. Shit.

"You just need the right approach," he said, though she remained skeptical. As well she might be, Harry supposed.

"So when were you planning on telling me this 'long story'?" She didn't scowl, only cocked her head, but Harry blushed anyway. He felt a bit sorry for Ron sometimes.

"It's complicated," he said.

She gave him a look heavy with irony. "It's good you realize that, then."

"You know," Harry swallowed. "Um. Dumbledore stuff." Much as he hated playing the Dumbledore card, at this point it was a question of honorable retreat.

Hermione gave him a long look. "I won't push you, Harry. You don't have to worry so much, okay? If you need to talk, you know where to find me."

His throat tightened, and Harry nodded gratefully. "Thanks."

She shook her head at him. "Oh Harry." She sighed and turned on her way out. Turning her head back over her shoulder, she added: "Anytime."

His friends were long-suffering; his enemies were a bit like mutant multiplying cockroaches. One of those creatures that could reproduce from a left-over ear or a blob of gooey fluid, for example. And then there was Malfoy, of course. Harry supposed it all balanced out.

The next day was Saturday, so they wound up meeting in the Prefect's lounge again. Malfoy seemed to be having fun, or close enough: he was explaining something about the contradictory properties of the banzala root for what was probably the fifth time, though it was an aside that had nothing to do with anything insofar as Harry could tell. Needless to say, Harry wasn't really listening.

He fancied he could feel Draco's ring in his vicinity, calling softly to him in a half-forgotten tongue Harry was on the brink of understanding. Not Parseltongue, not quite, though the reason Harry knew that was because he wasn't in the presence of snakes. Snakes were hard to miss.

It was laughable that he didn't know more than he did, and that it was in Malfoy's possession instead of his. There was nothing much else to do besides think of the mystery; it was either that or think of Malfoy's face as he spurted come all over himself, and that was definitely not an option.

As time went on, his intuition insisted more and more on the parallels between the ring and Ginny's old diary. Both appeared possessed, both came from Lucius Malfoy... and of course, where there was one, there could be two. Even without Dumbledore's call, Harry was almost certain he was onto something.

Barring Dumbledore's laying all this out for him (though that would be nice), Harry knew that he'd only know for sure after he put the ring on. Unfortunately or not, this realization didn't really frighten him; he knew about Draco's dreams, and he saw what they did to him, but dealing with that was a part of Harry's job. He'd gotten better at his Occlumency, too. It was time.

First he asked Hermione, saying it was for Snape's extra-credit project (and indeed it wasn't unrelated), whether there were any stories of a special ring, overtly related to Riddle or not. Hermione had looked at him strangely for a long moment. She hadn't been guilty of it most of the time, but even so it hurt to see that flicker of distance in her eyes, almost as if she was looking at him as the Chosen One for one split second. Then she blinked.

"I'll-- I don't know." She looked thoughtful. "I think there was something in Dumbledore's book of fairy-tales, actually, but I need to check to be sure."

"What? That old thing?"

Hermione gave him a steely librarian type look; she was getting really good at those. "I thought I taught you better respect for your elders," she said severely.

"Um." He squinted at her, trying to see if she was serious. Finally, Hermione gave him a little smile. "You know, they say learning is an ongoing process, in and outside the classroom. That sort of thing. Um." He fidgeted with a piece of string. He didn't know where it came from; possibly from his tie.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "It's all right, Harry."

"Really? All of 'it'?" He grinned.

She sighed. "Yes, yes. By the way, you should talk to Ron one of these days. Now that I know where you've been running off to so much lately, it makes more sense, but he's still in the dark, you know."

"With Lavender," Harry thought before he thought twice of it.

Right on cue, Hermione grimaced. "Yes, well. We've all had our distractions this year, true enough. What do you think about the three of us going to the next Hogsmeade Weekend together?"

"Hey, are you ok? I know Ron has been a little... in your face about things lately. Uh...."

"It's okay, Harry. No, I don't need to talk about it, and no, I won't hex his tongue off, or Lavender's for that matter. Probably." She smirked.

"Oh." He swallowed. "Well. That's reassuring," he said, and then they both laughed.

He really did need to get back to business, as well as to his friends, whom Harry knew he'd been neglecting for no good reason. It's not as if Malfoy required a delicate touch or something.

In any case, Harry was the one that mattered to Riddle, not Malfoy. Harry was the target, and Harry knew he was also the only possible defense. He didn't have a choice in the matter, right?

He knew what he had to do.

Meanwhile, Hermione made a practice of slipping notes to him with this week's lounge password, along with their joint homework reminders and allotment schedules. He was glad she was taking this so well, all things considered; he was also glad Ron never decided to show up for duty on time. He knew Ron's only real involvement with his Prefectly chores was the nightly Gryffindor House circuit. Regardless, Harry didn't enjoy imagining what could've happened if Ron had actually used the Prefects' lounge as he should have, before Hermione had found out. He definitely wasn't ready for that conversation, he knew that much.

One Tuesday, they weren't seeing eye to eye on their work-- again-- and Harry wondered if it wouldn't be easier to return one another to their previous lives. It's not as if they could never see each other again; they probably couldn't avoid it.

As Malfoy glared at him and refused to explain whatever it was he'd been saying about this Potions ingredient or the other (they all ran together in Harry's head after a while), Harry came to his decision; as usual, it wasn't much of a decision at all.

It was now or never: they didn't sleep-- or otherwise rest-- next to one another since the Hospital Wing incident, and Harry's dreams of falling had tapered off lately without any assistance needed. Now was as good of an opportunity as Harry was ever going to get, and he knew it. Of course, bringing it up was going to be difficult, since one of Malfoy's conditions for them hanging out was Harry laying off the subject until Draco said otherwise.

"I give up," said Malfoy, finally.

Harry tried not to look too relieved. "Okay. But we need to talk." Smooth, Harry.

As it became apparent that Harry's sudden attack of smoothness had petered out into awkward silence, Malfoy came to the rescue. He quirked both eyebrows. "About...?"

He was not nervous. Why would he be nervous? It wasn't like his 'relationship' with Malfoy basically hinged around this subject or anything. It was fine. Harry was cool.

Harry took a deep breath and plunged in. "Er. It's about the ring."

"That is not up for--"

"Give it to me," Harry said simply, having the nerve to look Malfoy in the eye.

"What?!"

"Just-- give it to me. I'll give it back to you in the morning, okay? So it's more like a temporary loan, really. It's, well-- you trust me, don't you?"

"Potter-- I-- I don't think that's such a great idea."

"Why?''

Malfoy squirmed, clearly uncomfortable. "Well, how about it being most dangerous to you? About about the fact that this is what it wants? And how about the fact that no one knows what would happen if the thing is activated by someone who--"

"Look, I don't want to argue about this, okay? Can't you, I don't know, make it easy on me, this once? Come on. Please, Draco."

Malfoy probably knew Harry was just pretending to ask, to be all nice about it, but the unspoken threat was thick in the air between them.

"You don't know what you're saying, do you! You don't have the first clue what this thing did to me!"

"Isn't that because someone has been holding out on me?" Harry voice rose in outrage.

"Even I'm not sure of everything he can do. The ring wants you, and I'm sure Riddle would be delighted if you rush into his open arms!"

"I'll just tell Dumbledore about it, then," Harry said, lips set. Though he probably already knows.

"Snape probably already had," Draco said bitterly.

"So what's left? Come on!"

"I don't trust you." His voice was flat.

"I know you don't. It doesn't matter anymore," Harry said seriously. "There is no time left. You know that."

"No I don't!" Draco yelled suddenly. "This is the ring my father gave me! I can wear it or not as I please, but it's not for you! If you die while I sleep, I'll just have to say 'I told you so', but do you think your precious Dumbledore will listen? NO!"

Harry sighed. "I have to know what Riddle wants from you, and from me. Can't you see that?" Harry's voice had turned plaintive, almost pleading. "I can handle this, Draco."

"Oh, sure you can. Harry bloody Potter, conquering hero. Of course you can."

"Well, if you won't, you won't. I'm sure it'll find its way into my hands one way or the other."

"Aaarrgh! You just. Don't. Quit. Do you? Fine! Fucking perfect! Go ahead! Kill yourself for all I care! It's what I wanted, isn't it!? Here, take it and get out of my sight!" Draco reached under his collar, fingering the delicate silver chain and drawing out the ring with the casual grace that spoke of practice.

Harry held out his hand mutely.

Draco snarled. "Promise me! Swear you'll give it back when I want it. It's mine, Potter!" Malfoy's lip curled in a sneer. "You owe me. You gave your word, remember!"

Harry didn't react for a few moments, studying Draco's face. Then he nodded, his hand unwavering.

"I do. You have my word, Malfoy," Harry said evenly. He closed his hand around Malfoy's when it rested momentarily in his; he'd placed the pendant stone in the dead center of Harry's palm. Together, they formed a seal, though Harry didn't notice any odd sensations; there was only the heat of their joined hands.

"Say it again!"

"I promise," Harry sighed. "You can have it back when you ask."

And then Malfoy tore his fingers away, face twisting in a sneer once again as he turned to leave. Harry wasn't watching, his eyes already focused on the object now in his possession.

~~

Harry's need to know everything he could about the object was all-consuming now, which made the lack of progress particularly infuriating. They were just about to have another meeting, Harry and Zabini and company, though Malfoy didn't show up. It was stupid anyway, since all that 'research' was a joke; Hermione was going to help him, and if she couldn't figure it out, no one could.

Nott was quiet, looking deceptively bored, but Zabini was practically radiating smug self-satisfaction. Unwillingly, Harry felt his curiosity piqued.

"Well?" Zabini drawled, tapping his fingers on the table. Harry smirked to note that the rhythm appeared to be making Nott flinch repeatedly.

"What?" Harry snapped. This was definitely going to be a waste of time.

"Don't think I appreciate your tone, Potter. Well, aren't you going to ask me after our progress on a certain matter?" He raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure you're bursting with curiosity."

"Like hell," Harry muttered, but contained himself. "Yes. So what've you got?" He met Zabini's eyes squarely, adjusting his glasses. "It's all right if you don't have anything yet, I know it was a wild goose--"

"Oi! Hold up, there, Potter. I realize we are brilliant and fabulous and so on and so forth, it goes without saying, especially considering the horrifyingly vague references you'd gifted us with-- more like kids' stories, I say!-- but I am a Zabini. I have many resources you cannot imagine."

Harry frowned. "Don't tell me you found something when you went home over Christmas...?"

"In a word, yes. But once again, I don't appreciate your tone." Zabini paused. "Nott?"

"Yes?" Nott seemed half-asleep, with his chin resting on his chest so comfortably, but apparently he wasn't. At least, not yet.

"Do you appreciate his tone?"

"No."

"See? There you have it." Zabini smirked, clearly in too good of a mood to have all this be less than wildly theatrical.

"Can you get on with it," Harry groaned. "Please."

Zabini huffed. "You've got no sense of proper occasion, have you." He paused, giving Harry a once-over. "No need to answer, Potter, you'll only wear yourself out. More to the point, yes, I did find a very interesting text in the family library. While I'm sure there's got to be something useful in the Restricted Section, personally I'd prefer not to involve Professor Snape in this little venture. Do you?"

Harry bit the inside of his mouth to stop himself from saying anything he'd later regret. The mission-- this particular task-- he had to focus on those things and nothing else.

"No, you're right," he said as pleasantly as he could, enjoying the way Zabini's eyebrows shot up and even Nott twitched his head up momentarily. "The last thing anyone needs is to be caught raiding the library."

"Quite." Zabini all but grinned, his restraint growing thin. "In any case, I do wish I could show you the text in question, but I can't risk walking around Hogwarts with that sort of Dark Arts material stashed in my elbow. I'm sure you understand."

"Sure. Yeah. What is it, then? Just tell me."

"Well, to reiterate: you were looking for a rare possessed object or artifact, which could be any number of different things, and which holds the living memory of a wizard after death. Am I right so far?"

"Yes," Harry breathed, his heart hammering.

Zabini looked for all the world like a cat who'd gotten into a great big stash of cream. There was a prolonged pause, and then Zabini shrugged, giving up the game in a whoosh. "There's only one thing that matches the description, though either most wizards don't speak of it or simply don't know of its existence. It is rather advanced Dark Arts, after all."

"And?" Harry leaned forward, resisting the urge to clutch at the ring he wore even now on a chain against his chest.

"And--" Zabini shrugged. "It's a Horcrux."

"What?"

Nott had buried his head in his arms, Harry noted distantly, as if that would give him some sort of alibi. Harry did have to admit, at the moment Zabini had said the strange word, the library seemed suddenly entirely too quiet.

"Simply put, it's a path to immortality, though not one it seems most wizards end up taking. It's a rather difficult spell, it would seem; it might take a truly great wizard to pull it off. I don't understand exactly how it works-- it was one of those old, 'mysterious' tomes that they used to make where they thought magic seemed cooler the more obscure the directions-- but suffice it to say, a Dark wizard would ensure life after death by secreting a piece of himself away in some object somewhere. It would allow him to go on even if one was destroyed."

Harry's throat was dry as dust. "How many? How many pieces?"

"Hmm. Interesting question. From what I can figure, it's just that: a piece. There wasn't any mention of more."

"So what if there are two-- or, at least two of these... pieces? Horcruxes?"

Zabini looked startled. "I don't know. I suppose it's possible, if we're talking about a really great wizard. Not that you'd think so, Potter," Zabini sneered. "Being a goody-goody Gryffindor, you people have a rather limited idea of greatness."

Harry waved this aside impatiently. "So tell me more! Is there more?"

"The other important thing is the method, I suppose: this is probably the reason it's considered difficult to make. One creates a Horcrux by killing a person and then using their death to power the spell. Not your average Potions ingredient. At least, not these days, seeing as we're all so civilized." Zabini smiled, but it was a pale shadow of a thing.

Harry nodded intently.

"This is quite a useful bit of information to have, however. You don't have to worry about any further payment for our services."

"What?" Harry gasped.

"Oh, don't worry, Potter. I'm not in the killing business. And besides, if I was going to go so far, I'd prefer eternal youth, not eternal life. Who wants to break one's very self into pieces for something so lame as bare existence, anyway? Too much effort for too little reward, if you ask me."

Harry frowned at him. This was definitely a really bad idea, and he couldn't believe he'd actually started this himself. He almost felt he deserved whatever the consequences were. Almost. "I'll be watching you," Harry said in a low voice.

"How flattering," Zabini said blandly. "I have a new fan."

"This is no laughing matter!" Harry hissed.

"Do you see anyone laughing? Or are you really too dense to realize that knowledge is power?" Zabini sighed. "Nevermind. Come on, Theo."

Nott got up immediately, not sparing Harry a glance.

Harry watched them leave, then buried his own head in his arms. This time, there was no one he could blame but himself.

~~

Hermione cornered him when they found themselves alone in the Common Room that night. He'd meant to talk to her too, so he was pleased when she sat next to him on their comfy, somewhat battered old Gryffindor sofa. If they had to talk about unpleasant things, there was probably nowhere else he'd rather do it.

She began without preamble. "So. As I'd said, I thought there was something about a ring in that book of tales by Beedle the Bard that Dumbledore gave to me, but I was wrong. You know, he probably did that for a reason; it's just, I can't tell what it is yet." She gave a wan little smile, then shook her head. "I'm not sure why, but there's something important hidden in that book, Harry. I can feel it. It's a question of-- well-- asking the right questions, I think."

Harry swallowed. Suddenly, this was all just a bit much. He was disappointed this was a dead end, and yet Hermione's weird behavior was getting to him too. "What sort of thing?" he whispered.

"Like I said, I'm not sure. There's one story that jumped out at me, though." She hesitated, then leaned over to grab something and placed the book on Harry's lap. "You should read it, actually. It's quite good, and I don't know if a retelling would do it justice, so--"

Harry already had the book open. While he was in a hurry and wanted to know immediately, he couldn't resist opening it to see for himself. Having to take Zabini's story on faith didn't exactly sit well with him.

"Which one is it?" he said.

"It's 'The Tale of the Three Brothers'. There's a surprise there neither of us were looking for."

Harry flipped through it, grimacing at the thought of really taking a book of fairy-tales seriously. It sounded like something Luna would come up with. He started and paused, rereading the passage several times once he got to the mention of Death's 'Invisibility Cloak', which he'd given to the third brother. It couldn't possibly be his own father's Cloak, of course, but Harry couldn't repress a shiver. It was especially creepy because apparently the Cloak was passed down from father to son.

"Wow," he said at last.

"I think that's your Cloak, Harry!" Hermione said earnestly. "I've done a bit of research on it, and it appears most Cloaks don't work the way yours does. Not so well. If you charm them into invisibility, the charm wears off eventually, but yours doesn't. There are also spells to circumvent their effects and see through those cloaks, but something tells me yours would be different. You realize what this means, don't you?"

"Um." His head was whirling. "No?"

"Harry!" She gave him a look. "It means that if the Cloak is real, shouldn't there also be a Stone and a Wand like that?"

Harry's eyes widened, but then he scowled. "Or I could have a really really nice Cloak. Which is more likely-- that, or my having something out of a fairy-tale book?"

There was a pause. "But Dumbledore wouldn't give it to us for no good reason, would he?"

Harry wasn't sure what to say. "Even so...," he said slowly. "It's not like I care whether there's a super-special Wand out there or what have you."

Hermione looked startled. "Well, that's good, Harry." She grinned. "I'm glad." Harry gave her a skeptical look."Hmm, I wonder...." She trailed off.

"Hmm?" Harry was distracted by idea that this Stone was a magical artifact that could defy Death itself. Like a Horcrux, he supposed, but this didn't involve any killing, did it? Granted, it didn't seem to help the middle brother the way he'd hoped, but....

Once this business with Riddle's living memory was done with, he was going to have a nice long talk with Dumbledore. Hermione was right; he must have given this book to her for a reason.

He knew he shouldn't want something like the Stone, not when it wasn't that different from Riddle's Horcrux stuff, but he did. He did. The desire to bring back Sirius was an itch at the center of his chest, burning hot.

Hermione must've known exactly the direction his thoughts were taking, because she watched him extra carefully. Hopefully, she knew better than to say anything right then.

"You know, it's the desire to conquer Death that made Tom Riddle into... You-Know-Who."

"What's your point?" He glared at Hermione. "I'm not Voldemort."

She frowned, but didn't flinch like Ron would have. "None of us are perfect, Harry. Everyone has something, some way the Dark Arts can tempt them."

"Now you sound like Dumbledore."

Hermione blushed. "I'm only trying to help! What I'm saying is, it's okay to consider this stuff, but if you really do mess with the natural order of things like life and death, you lose something important. Maybe that's why-- You-Know-Who-- why he is... the way he is. I'll have to do more research."

"So what you're saying is, you're afraid I'll turn into Voldemort! Thanks a lot!" Harry's voice rose. "It's great that you're so strong and bloody moral, Hermione, but both your parents are still alive and you don't have a godfather!" Harry jumped up. "You didn't watch him die!"

Hermione reached out a hand to try and catch Harry's wrist, but he jerked out of the way. "I was there, Harry," she said softly. "I wanted to save him too."

"You don't know!" he shouted. "None of you know!"

Tears brimmed in Hermione's eyes, but didn't spill. "No, we don't. I know none of us can really know what you're feeling, so you'll have to forgive me. Ron, too. You have no idea how much I wish I still had a Time-Turner, Harry. I'd go back for you, no matter what the consequences. I hope you know that." A single tear worked its way down her cheek, and she didn't wipe it away. "I'm really sorry, Harry," she said hoarsely. "Please believe me."

There was a pause, during which Harry had ample time to feel like a total git. He blinked quickly. "No." He cleared his throat. "Hermione, don't cry. Don't cry. It's-- I didn't mean that. It's not your fault, okay?"

She looked at him, eyes already red, and gave a little shuddering sniff, then rubbed at her nose with a forefinger. "Well, look at us. We're both kind of a mess, aren't we." She smiled him, and it wobbled a bit.

Harry's mouth firmed. "I'm not crying."

"No," Hermione smiled almost mischievously. "You're not."

Harry looked out the tower window with great concentration. "So. About Malfoy...."

"What about him?" she said carefully.

Harry didn't ask himself why he was telling her this now, but somehow he knew this was the last chance. He had to tell someone what he knew, not that things had gotten to this point. Hermione listened quietly, not interrupting, though she grew more pinched and pale as Harry mentioned all the time he'd spent with Malfoy while he was under the influence of a Horcrux. At least he didn't go into that time when he'd woken up to find Malfoy's hands around his throat, but he knew it sounded bad enough. He knew there was no good reason he'd kept it to himself, and Hermione would be well within her rights to lay into him if she wanted to.

He looked at her mutely after he was done, the rush of words both a relief and a kind of pain. On the one hand, it felt good to have someone else know what was going on. On the other, well, he kind of liked having this all to himself. Not Malfoy, especially, but....

Hermione cleared her throat.

Harry looked up firmly, refusing to back down or act guilty. He was not about to apologize or anything of the sort.

She drew a deep breath. "Well. From what you told me, I wonder why Malfoy hadn't succumbed to Tom Riddle's influence more obviously. Remember Ginny, our second year? She couldn't even remember what she did while he was in control once he got strong enough. And Malfoy would've wanted to help."

"I--" Harry remembered all the time he'd spent with Malfoy, and after all this time, it surprised him how his stomach sunk at the thought that it had all been a lie. For once, Harry wasn't angry, only sickened. He'd been such a fool; this was Malfoy. Even if Malfoy had that excuse-- he'd never pretended to be anything else-- no one could have been in control of Harry's mind, with or without Harry's knowledge. "I don't know," he said heavily.

"I have the feeling it's important, though." She bit her lip. "Maybe very important."

"I said I don't know!" Harry yelled. "He was just fucking with me. Maybe he'd succumbed from the beginning, and Riddle was biding his time. How do I know he wasn't?"

"But you were with him, Harry," Hermione said calmly, giving him a steady look. "Wouldn't you have noticed if he were behaving oddly?"

"What's odd for Malfoy? And remember, you yourself said Malfoy seemed odd! Right at the beginning of the year, too!"

"I didn't mean it like that. I thought he looked tired or distant, not quite there perhaps, but that's not the same. Ginny had a feverish sort of purpose to her back then; Malfoy only seemed overburdened. In fact--" She bit her lip again, worrying it thoughtfully between her teeth.

"What?" Harry said wearily.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say that Malfoy was resisting, especially considering how well he'd held up. Comparitively, at least. Tom Riddle has a great amount of will, even in dormant form like that, Harry! Some other strong influence had to have been tugging him in another direction for him to have retained as much independent thought as you told me!"

"Resisting?" Harry snorted. "More like cheering him on. He kept telling me he wanted to kill me, or how he'd have me, or how I should watch myself! And he had dreams where I died every night!"

"But had he ever actually made an attempt on your life?" Hermione asked gently.

"He'd never had an opportunity!" Harry cried, outraged. As if he'd let Malfoy pull one over on him that badly.

Hermione raised both eyebrows at him, and Harry bristled. "Not even while you were asleep?"

Harry didn't have a good answer to that, so he scowled. "I would've woken immediately!"

"Harry...."

"Well, the git doesn't have the guts for it, so what?"

"Doesn't it say something about Malfoy if he's unable to truly harm you?"

He clenched his teeth until they started to hurt. "I suppose he's not a killer, but neither is Ginny, so I don't see what you're getting at."

"Harry," she said carefully. "Have you considered that maybe being around you may have... helped neutralize the effect of the ring?"

Harry goggled at her. "Eh?"

Hermione blushed. "Think about it! He was drawn to you; apparently, he felt calmer, more relaxed, and better able to sleep in your presence. You felt the same way, enough so that you kept going with it against all common sense. Why do you think that would be?"

"How should I know?" Harry shouted. "What are you driving at?"

She sighed, pushing a curly lock of hair behind one ear. "I'm not accusing you of anything. I'm just saying maybe Malfoy didn't hate you as much as he thought. There is one thing that's consistently good at fighting You-Know-Who, you know...."

"THAT'S RIDICULOUS!"

Hermione's mouth went flat. "You don't have to shout, Harry."

Harry scowled, feeling an intense urge both to argue the preposterous idea and to be proven wrong. That tiny desire made him angrier than anything. She was wrong. The whole concept was beyond twisted, not to mention sick and disgusting. And wrong. Just because he'd gotten so hard and came while watching Draco unravel before him... that was a fluke, a one-time thing. He hadn't touched his cock. He hadn't... done anything. It didn't count!

Besides, they were allowed to have hormones, right? They'd both been a little crazy that night, first fighting and then.... He swallowed.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I didn't mean to yell at you." Harry sat down again, closing his eyes, suddenly exhausted.

She frowned at him, but let it go. "Maybe I'm wrong about you, but you can't tell me you know for sure how Malfoy felt, you know. And it fits, that's all."

"It's still a stupid theory."

"Do you have a better explanation?" She half-smiled at him.

"Maybe Riddle was biding his time, letting Draco-- I mean Malfoy-- get close to me, so he'd take over when the situation was right. Or maybe he hadn't been strong enough to take over yet. Or maybe I'm right and Malfoy had been brainwashed all along." His mouth twisted. "It wouldn't surprise me."

"I just want you consider it."

"Fine," Harry said. "Um. Thanks for all the help, but I-- er, I have to go," he finished lamely.

"Where are you going, Harry?" Hermione said. "What are you going to do now?"

She held on to his arm as he got up from the armchair facing the Prefect's lounge window. She'd come in soundlessly as always to catch him alone, staring into the darkness beyond the glass as if he saw something new and fascinating in it. And in a way, he did. She was looking at him suspiciously, trying to project concern. "You look a bit peaked. Are you okay? Maybe you should stay in tonight... you know, lie down for a bit. Malfoy has left already, hasn't he?"

Harry exhaled. Why did he tell her about Malfoy, again? Harry's face twisted petulantly. It wasn't even near curfew yet, and she was already trying to play the Prefect-Best-Friend cross-breed. Now was the time for a really good distraction. "Really, Hermione," he said with what he hoped was exasperation. "Do you think Voldemort is after my mind and body all the bloody time? Even total mental cases need to sleep at times, and I'm sure he dreams about fluffy pink bunny-rabbits on his days off. Sometimes, I'm sure he needs a break too, just like I do."

Hermione flinched, and Harry felt a little guilty. Only a little, though. "None of us have days off, you know that. That's why I think you should get some rest while you can...." She was looking at him so earnestly Harry felt like backing away, turning around and running.

Harry was hard-pressed to lie to Hermione, but he knew she wouldn't let him do what he had to do alone. There was only one way out.

"You're right," he said, letting the weight of his conscience turn his voice heavy, as if with fatigue. "I need to think about all this." That wasn't a lie, at least. "I have the feeling that I'm missing something, some major clue. About the book, or-- I don't know, the ring, or Malfoy, or how it all ties together." He gritted his teeth, quite honestly frustrated.

Hermione stood up and reached out to draw Harry into an unexpected hug. "Oh Harry," she murmured thickly into his neck, sighing. "Oh, thank goodness! Yes, we do, we need a rest. We need to think about this."

Maybe Hermione was even right-- hell, wasn't she always right?-- but the price didn't really matter anymore.

"Yes." Harry's voice was steady, his pulse beating evenly in his throat.

This wasn't the end, he knew that. The end wouldn't come so easily, not in dreams, and not somewhere safe away from his friends. They didn't need to know about it this time. This was about what Harry needed to know about himself and Riddle, and probably Draco, too.

"It's about time let things go a little, Harry. You've been so tense lately, and I didn't know what was going on, but I waited, and I'm glad. We can face this together, you know? Have you forgotten?"

"No," Harry whispered, his eyes stinging. "I haven't forgotten. Now let go, Hermione. We'll talk about it again tomorrow. I'll ask Ron, too. We'll figure it out."

Hermione's mouth twisted severely, and she looked like she wanted to say something else. She probably didn't trust such a quick capitulation, but Harry had no time. No time left for any of this, really.

"All right." Hermione stepped away, looking at him intently. Harry kept looking back as forthrightly as he could. "Good night, Harry," she whispered, and gave him a little smile.

"Good night," Harry said. He didn't smile, and then it was too late to try, because Hermione's light, familiar footsteps sounded on the stairs to the girls' dorm.

Something ached oddly inside him. This was the first time he'd face something like this without his friends, and he knew he should be proud at the chance to prove himself or some such thing, like a Gryffindor probably should, but he couldn't escape the feeling like this wasn't right.

Maybe it wasn't, but it was too late now. The path was set, the time to waver now past.

Harry didn't know what he planned to do, exactly, or how he was supposed to just fix it. In the end, all those endless hours trying to absorb this year's Defence Against the Dark Arts textbook and Snape's incessant training and prodding at his mind had to be worth something.

It was time to find out how much.

~~

When Harry got to the Room of Requirement, it was dark and empty as a tomb. He whispered "Lumos," and his wand lit up a dim circle around him. He walked forward slowly, wondering if this is what happened because Harry didn't need anything; or rather, he had everything he needed with him. The little bit of light was distracting, though. He knew he couldn't concentrate on the ring and keep his wand up with the lighting spell the whole time, in any case.

He took a deep breath, then released it. "Finite," he whispered, and the light went out.

After a moment, Harry lowered his wand.

It took Harry a few moments to get used to the pitch black. At first he was disoriented and slightly nauseous, but after a long minute passed, he felt ready. Perhaps even exhilarated. There was fear and adrenaline and anticipation all roiling around in a potent soup somewhere in his stomach, but mostly, it felt good to be where he had to be at the right moment.

In a way, it was a relief not to have to wait anymore.

He took care to breathe. In and out, one after another, until his heart slowed and his mind cleared entirely. He took a loose stance, deciding to stretch his muscles after a moment's hesitation. He rolled his neck, bent at the waist several times, all the way down and backwards. It felt good.

Harry didn't think, pulling the chain off his neck and slipping the ring off. Once it was on his finger, he gasped. The scar burned like hell. He dropped to his knees quite suddenly, barely aware he'd done it; his heart thudded in his chest and in his throat, and he couldn't get a full breath. Pain. It really fucking hurt.

And then the pain was gone, suddenly as it had come: the world darkness changed shape somehow, and Harry could no longer feel his own body. There was an intense sense of vertigo, of the world twisting all round, like he was a sponge and this was a drain into hell. Well, it probably was, he thought distantly. What did he expect?

He hadn't heard himself fall, but Harry came to lying on a flat surface; he realized his cheek was cold. His whole body was terribly, terribly cold.

He got up creakily and took a step forward, a bit surprised at finding ground beneath his feet.

"Huh," he said.

And then the world lurched once again, and everything fractured into shards, all of which flickered with sickly green, like a memory of death.

Harry had always found his own eyes quite ordinary. Not green as toad or fresh as glass: they were simply green, and there was nothing unusual about being what one always had been: just Harry.

These things all became second nature; even death could probably become a familiar, comforting presence.

"Yessss!"

Harry started, and realized he had been staring without realizing it; these weren't his eyes, and this wasn't a mirror. That green light had a source.

That 'source' also had messy hair, though with a smooth forehead. There wasn't a mark or wrinkle to disturb that even surface. The boy who wasn't Harry smiled.

"What do you want?" Harry demanded, though on second thought it should be obvious.

"I want what you want, Harry." Thin lips twisted. "What is it that you've always wanted?"

"I don't know, what?" Harry spat.

"To live," he whispered, and Harry shivered violently. "Only that, and nothing more."

Harry could've nodded, if he didn't feel so damnably cold everywhere, as if he'd never feel warm again. He couldn't feel his fingertips; couldn't tell where he stood, or indeed anything at all outside the half-familiar green gaze searing through him. It was the only source of heat in the entire universe, it seemed like.

Harry knew with a rock-solid, immovable certainty that the other had no reason to lie to him, not about that. Wasn't it obvious? Yes, of course, Riddle wanted to live.

"You're wrong," Harry whispered, enjoying a flicker of surprise he thought he saw. He really was certain. "Oh, I don't mean you're wrong about your desire to live. Everyone wants that, I guess. Not everyone wants only that and 'nothing more'."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Take me, for instance. At this point, I don't care if I live or die myself, honestly. It doesn't matter that much." Harry shrugged. "I wanted some other people to live, though, more than anything. I'd do whatever it takes to protect them. I will destroy every single memory you'd hidden away, wherever they are, I promise you that."

Riddle laughed with a light, amused trill that sent shivers of unease down Harry's spine. Somehow, this laugh was more purely disturbing than anything Voldemort had thrown at him so far. In a way, he knew, this was the real thing; Voldemort was but a shadow. In the ways that counted, he probably wasn't even real.

"Oh really, Harry," he crooned. "How very noble. You really are the model Gryffindor, after all. All the way. To the bone." He licked his lips.

Riddle grinned easily, his face melting and reforming until it was the handsome, sharp-featured boy he remembered meeting his second year. The smile may have been dripping with poison, but there was no denying Riddle was a charming fellow, and he knew it.

He leaned back against a solid, featureless black wall, looking at Harry playfully through a black fringe. "Come, now. Don't let's play games here, not now. Don't you mean you wish to protect him? I know that boy very well, you know. He doesn't have a lick of common sense when you are involved. And you? Won't you wait for him? I'm sure he'll come to you. Oh, he can't resist, didn't you know?"

"You're wrong!" Harry cried. "I meant it! I'll destroy you! And you've already taken enough-- my parents, Sirius-- what's Malfoy got to do with--"

"Wrong? Oh, am I really? What's this, then?" And Riddle swept an arm in a sweeping gesture full of showmanship and pure satisfaction.

Harry stifled a gasp.

There he was, all of a sudden: Malfoy, in shackles next to a single, sputtering torch. He was nearly a dozen feet away, but he clearly looked deathly pale. Malfoy bled sluggishly from a myriad small gashes, a number of them centered artistically around his nipples. There was hardly any unbruised skin to look at anywhere on his skinny frame. His whole chest was smeared with dried, darkening blood.

"It's not real," Harry hissed through clenched teeth. "None of this is real. I won't fall for tricks like this, Riddle. You're going to have to better than that."

"Ah," Riddle said, as if he'd suddenly become enlightened. "Not real, you say. Perhaps, perhaps. But the line between what's real and not is so dreadfully thin when it comes to dreams and wizards, wouldn't you say so, Harry? You ought to know."

Riddle gave another flick of the wrist, and the bloody vision faded away, only to be rapidly replaced by a motionless figure lying at his feet. A bloodied gash passed for the figure's mouth, and huge, unseeing colorless eyes stared up at them in mute accusation.

"Ron," Harry choked, his heart clenching hard and lurching in his chest. The guilt swallowed him up. He hadn't talked to his best friend properly in months now. "Ron," he moaned.

Harry fell to his knees, unable to either reach out or retreat; he wanted to close its eyes, or lift a curl of coppery hair away gently. It shouldn't be allowed to be like this, he thought, this was wrong, but Harry felt frozen solid. If he reached out, he'd be crossing the line, admitting this wasn't an illusion when he knew it was. Of course it was. Ron was just fine. He was snoring away on the bed next to Harry's empty one in the dorm room they shared with Neville and Seamus and....

He wanted to shake himself; a part of him knew he was overreacting, and this was exactly what Riddle wanted, but it was simply too much. The most he could do is stay very still and wait for his mind to unlock from the shock. Any moment now, he'd be himself again. He'd be fine. Ron was fine. Everything would be fine if Harry could get a grip, he knew that.

Harry noted that Riddle was silent beside him, probably waiting for Harry to snap. As if it'd be so easy. Yeah, right. Except this vision was now permanently imprinted onto his eyeballs; other than that, he was peachy. No need to let Riddle in on the game so fast, though, so Harry stayed bent over the dead body, very carefully not looking down.

"So you see, Harry," Riddle was said, right in Harry's ear; he crouched next to him as if in comraderie. "You do want to live, don't you? You want to live to see your friends again. It's not enough to know they're out there, enjoying themselves, if you're not there with them, is it?"

Harry said nothing, clenching his teeth as Riddle breathed on the back of his neck. Harry could barely repress a shudder at the obscene sensation, but the prickle down his spine only grew if he resisted. He could feel the other's cold body pressed against his back, his arms wrapped tightly around Harry's middle.

"You see, I have no choice in this, and neither do you. We are both of us bound by unfortunate circumstances, with no way out except through. Hmm?" Ice-cold lips were at the base of Harry's neck now. It felt like he'd never be entirely warm again.

"Unlike you, I'm not willing to pay any price to get what I want, even if I did want it." Harry spoke through gritted teeth. "You're not going to convince me I'm like you. Give up. What's the bloody point?"

"Survival, Harry. Survival for one means death for another; it'd be easier if you accepted it. It is a law of the natural world. There's always a price to be paid, and when the time comes-- when your time comes, you don't get to choose."

"I'll pay it if I have to," Harry hissed. He should be fighting. Why wasn't he fighting?

"Oh yes, I know you will. Self-sacrifice and noble deeds and the needs of the many against those of the one. How droll. But I know you better, Harry Potter. It's all been circumstance and luck up till now, hasn't it? You don't actually know what you would choose, do you?" Harry felt a smile stretch sharply against his cheek. "That's all right, though. Everything in its own time."

"GET AWAY FROM ME!" Harry yelled, jumping up awkwardly. He stumbled over not-Ron's body, landing in a sprawl across it.

He flinched at Riddle's laugh, and hit his head when he made a little gesture and the body vanished from under him.

"You're not afraid of an illusion, are you? Not a brave Gryffindor hero, surely?"

"SHUT UP! SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP!"

Harry's vision darkened, and shadows swirling sickeningly at the corners of his eyes. It was so hard to breathe, to think, and all he could think of was that he had to wake up, but he couldn't. He had to snap out of it, he couldn't let everyone down like this-- He had to be strong-- had to-- but he could barely tell up from down, and Riddle's voice rang oddly in his ears, a sound like church bells tolling for the dead.

What did he mean to do? He couldn't remember. What was he going to do?

"Yessss," Riddle hissed. That pleased, satisfied sound that Harry remembered. "That's right, all you need is to let go. You're mine, and you always have been. You never knew how much, but I knew! Oh yes, I know everything about you now, everything that you've never told anyone, everything you've never admitted to yourself. I'm glad I chose you, Harry. I chose you though I didn't have to, and now it's time for our little game to face curtains. Everything has an end, after all, except for me."

And this time, Riddle didn't laugh.

~~

Draco sat up in his bed with a lurch, as if from a nightmare. It was a nightmare, one he hadn't had for awhile now, but it was a familiar thing indeed. The only thing missing was Potter's naked, bleeding body, but he was sure that would be coming along shortly.

He sat very still, cold sweat running down his sides. Draco's thumb rubbed frenziedly at the place where the ring had once been; no one could tell anymore except for Draco. There was no trace left of those long months, nowhere except in his mind.

His body jerked, and the sense of urgency that came with the last echoes of the nightmare intensfied again. He needed to go-- get out-- he had to leave, and now! Harry was there-- Harry-- he couldn't be, could he?

No.

His bad dreams had been long gone. He was safe and sound. Even the ring was no longer his problem, not with his father still in prison. None of it was his concern anymore; Potter had made sure of that himself, hadn't he? He'd been right eager to take the blighted thing off his hands, and Draco had made a token resistance, but in the end he was glad. A bit ashamed at the depth of his relief, maybe, but it was there. He wanted his life back; his old life. Precisely speaking, that would be the one without Potter, and Potter's problems, and Potter's issues, and Potter's stupid thumb sucking, and-- Draco snarled and hit his pillow.

Draco shut his eyes tightly, trying to force his breathing into something approaching slow and steady. Instead, he hit the pillow again, rather ineffectually. His heart beat wildly in his chest, and he knew he was nearly hyperventilating and couldn't do a thing to calm down.

The snores of Crabbe, Goyle and Zabini were usually reassuring enough, even welcome to Draco, who'd often found a certain novelty in the constant presence of other boys his own age. It wasn't the same as sleeping next to his mum, and besides, he hadn't done that since he was three. Tonight, Crabbe's incoherent muttering oddly added fuel to the maddening itch of Draco's conscience. Ridiculous, he thought. This was bloody ridiculous.

Draco's fingers clenched desperately in the sleek silken sheets-- Sanity! Where was his sanity?-- but his mind couldn't quite comprehend what bothered him until he knew. He knew Potter. He knew what he'd be doing, that complete and utter imbecile.

"Fuck," he groaned, with feeling. "Fuck-fuck-fuckfuck... FUCK!"

He should just-- he should make his way over to Snape's quarters and let him now. Snape would know what to do. That's what Draco should do, it was clear as day. A first-year could tell him that in situations like this, he ought to call a teacher. He wasn't an idiot, unlike some people.

Still. He had no time. There wasn't a second he could afford to lose, he knew that. Calmly, coldly, he realized that was the truth.

He closed his eyes for a moment. Bloody hell, I'm an idiot. For Potter, no less.

NO. No no no, he was not going to accept it meekly as you please, no thanks, no way, it wasn't happening, and his subconscious could choke on it.

It was Potter's fault that Draco hadn't slept longer than a couple of hours at a time ever since The Incident. There would be no more comfort in doing so in Potter's presence, either, since Potter was the problem. Draco's desire to be involved in any way had shrunk to nothing. Draco simply wanted out; was that so much to ask?

So there was a war. So there was Potter. So there was the accursed bloody ring, which sunk deeper into Potter's mind with every moment. So what?

He wanted to go back to sleep; a nice, relaxing slumber where all the Slytherin fifth-year girls, and perhaps some Ravenclaws and a stray Gryffindor or two, lined up naked for a chance to pay homage to his greater assets. That sounded nice.

And Potter-- Potter could quite frankly get fucked. He'd asked for it, didn't he. Draco hadn't. Draco had asked for none of this.

With a painful sort of clarity, Draco realized everything had led him up to this quite efficiently. Absolutely everyone he'd known had manipulated him into this, and that had to stop. It had to stop.

Draco forced himself to take deep breaths and keep very still; he had nowhere else he had to be at that moment.

It was out of his hands now.

His duty was to stay alive.

Moreover, as the Malfoy heir, it was his responsibility.

His business was to win the upcoming match against Hufflepuff and Gryffindor; possibly, to remember Pansy's birthday this year. That was Draco's life. None of it included screwing himself over, a fact he'd somehow managed to ignore for far too long.

The back of his neck prickled. His mouth was bone dry, and his whole body felt airy and hollow, like he could break if he ran too hard. This wasn't his fight, damn it all to hell!

He clenched his fists, the nails biting hard into his palms. That would leave a mark, he knew.

Draco mashed a pillow into his face, muffling a maddened scream.

Oh, God.

At that moment, Draco knew something else as well as he knew anything: Potter needed him.

Potter needed him, Draco Malfoy, and no one else could help.

"You will pay for this, Potter," Draco muttered as he swung his milk-pale legs over the side of the bed. "Oh, you will pay, and I will be the one to make you. That's a promise."

Considering Potter's state in the dream-- or whatever it was-- no one else was going to come bursting in, either. Theoretically, of course, getting himself killed was Potter's business, but perhaps Draco could be said to have a stake here, since it was his decision to hand over the ring his father had entrusted to him. In the end, he had to finish what he started.

Besides, that idiot was probably in the Room of Requirement, where no one could interrupt him unless they knew exactly what to expect.

Draco set his jaw and swung a black cloak around his shoulders, not bothering to get dressed. He had to hurry, hurry, hurry, but he tiptoed as silently as he could through the dungeons. Some people didn't have an Invisibility Cloak, though at least Draco was a Prefect. Who was going to take points off him? Mrs. Norris?

As he slipped out into the chilly corridor, Draco huffed a weary laugh. "Right then." He sighed. God, he was tired already and he hadn't even done anything.

He was well aware this was probably the stupidest thing he'd ever done, and that it was all Potter's fault he'd ever gotten to this low point in his student career. Chasing after a stupid Gryffindor who was doubtlessly doing what he did best: that was probably worse than being said Gryffindor.

However, self-awareness wasn't his friend right now. Right now, he'd be the one to make Potter pay for all this, and that was a promise Draco would make sure to keep.

~~

"You are alone here, Harry," Riddle said softly. "That is human nature, I'm afraid: we're born alone and so we die quite alone as well, but you especially. It's rather poignant, isn't it? Both your parents gone so soon after you're born, leaving you to grow up with those awful Muggles. I truly sympathize. And here you are, about to die away from your precious friends, with no one the wiser. It's a sad story."

Harry barely heard him; he'd curled up with his head buried in his knees, back against the wall. He didn't remember getting there, but then his memories were a bit murky in general.

"Maybe I'm wrong, though," Riddle said meditatively. Harry jerked his head up, and Riddle smiled widely, spreading his arms. "After all, you've always had me inside you, Harry, haven't you? Never alone, not with me there, giving you power. Giving you life. That's my life you've borrowed all this time, you know; it's only right that I should have it back."

"My-- s-scar-- it's my scar, isn't it?"

Harry could barely speak through the hard shivers, but that made sense, somehow. Yes, of course; that must be why he'd been able to see Voldemort's dreams, why he'd been so lucky. It all made a horrible kind of sense.

In a moment, Harry shook so hard his teeth chattered, and all he really wanted was for Riddle to shut up about how alone he was and do something.

Then there was a cool finger brushing lightly against his scar, and he noticed how it didn't hurt. It should hurt, it should burn, but Harry was still cold and after the hand was gone, there was no relief.

"Yes," Riddle whispered. "Of course. I should have realized."

Oh, Harry thought, sickened. He didn't know! He didn't quite have the energy to get angry at himself about it, though. He really ought to stop talking sometime very soon.

"So g-get it over with," Harry muttered. "Go on, d-do something! W-what are you-- what are you w-waiting f-for?"

There was a soft, musical laugh. Was that really Riddle? Did he laugh like that? Did it matter? No, of course not.

"You poor child. Yes, yes, it shall be over soon. We're waiting for someone to join us, that's all. Two's company, but three's a party. We'll wait until he's here; I'm sure he's worried about you. Hmm, and after you were so ungrateful and claimed you cared about your dead more than about your newest friend, too. A pity."

"What?" Harry stared, forgetting about his miserable body for a second.

"Ah yes. Have I got your attention again?"

"What business have you g-got with Draco? He's got nothing to do with this! Leave him alone!"

Riddle grinned wide and sharp. "Oh, but I'd say it's not your place to tell me my business, is it? Or, indeed, to tell our young Malfoy, either. We've got some unfinished concerns, him and I. Don't be too concerned. This comes first."

Harry gasped, suddenly wanting more air. What was he doing, clutching his knees to his chest like a child? What was going on? He had so little strength, though. He knew he ought to conserve it; make Riddle think he was under his spell, listen for an opening. He shouldn't keep rising to the bait like this. He could control his own mind, dammit!

He was only a little distracted, because there was a tiny warmth. Something that made him feel just a little tiny bit warmer, somewhere deep in his stomach: it was Malfoy. He'd be waiting for his ring back. Malfoy wanted Harry to come back. Draco wanted him to-- Draco wanted him-- Draco was-- who was he?

Once again, Harry was falling.

Just like in that old familiar dream, Harry fell and kept on falling, and his every ghost and nightmare fell with him. This is how Sirius died, so it's only right. Then that thought, too, faded and dissolved into little red sparks of pain.

~~

Draco slapped Potter hard, knocking the other's head to the side to no reaction. He held the point of his glowing wand to Potter's face, looking for the first response, but there was none. Potter's head was limp and his breathing shallow, though quite clear once Draco lay his ear against Potter's chest.

His palm had left an angry red imprint on the sallow skin; good, that was a sign of circulation, at least. Draco sat on his knees with Potter's head upon them, and he had to take deep breaths to restrain the urge to throttle the idiot.

"Idiot!" he hissed, and slapped him again. At any other time, this would be enjoyable, but at the moment he'd rather Potter got off Draco's lap and slapped him back. Potter was the one prone to needless violence, not Draco.

"Potter!" Draco screamed, his voice breaking mid-shout. "YOUR BRAINLESS SLUG! STUPID WORTHLESS FUCKING ARSE! WAKE UP! HOW MANY FUCKING TIMES DO I HAVE TO DO THIS?! I HATE YELLING!"

Draco pressed two fingers hard against the general location of the jugular, and exhaled as he felt a pulse there, too. He didn't know what else to do; he'd already taken the ring off, to no effect. No matter what, though, Draco knew he had to do it now. He stared at the stupid ring in his palm for a second, and then squeezed it closed again.

It tingled. It knew, though it was probably more correct to say that Riddle knew. He was probably laughing at Draco's helplessness somewhere. Well, he wouldn't be the first.

Potter was sodding heavy. "Christ," he muttered.

Suddenly, like a switch being flipped, Draco was absolutely furious. Mortifying tears prickled at the back of his eyelids. He buried his nose in the thick dark hair, which retained the smell of school-issue soap that always made Draco sneeze, as he did now.

A moment later, and his anger had left him already; he felt useless and limp as the stupid bastard in his arms yet again.

There was a certain warmth like this, radiating out against his side; it reminded him of all the nights they'd spent in such close proximity, almost but not quite sharing body heat. It was somewhat reassuring. A plan; he needed a plan. Panic was bad, plans were good: that's what it came down to.

Draco took deep, measured breaths, refusing to open his eyes and see Potter's slack face. It was fine. He could handle this. He was Draco sodding Malfoy and he could take this and anything else Potter cared to throw at him.

"Potter," Draco croaked. "What are you doing?"

Great, now he was talking to unconscious people. It was obvious what Potter was doing: not a bloody thing. Whatever happened with the ring, it was over, probably before Draco had taken it off. He hadn't even gotten burned or otherwise hurt when he did so, which was not a good sign. And it wasn't that Draco wanted to be hurt, but it'd be nice if he could tell himself all he needed was to wait for Potter to win.

Wait for Potter to win. Yeah, right, because that's what Draco wanted most. Not. He almost laughed at the twisted ironies of this messed-up situation.

"You promised," Draco whispered. "You promised you'd give it back, but I want you back first. Arsehole."

Oh well. This meant he needed a plan: how to get Potter back and how to get Riddle out of the picture. No big deal. If he solved one, maybe he'd even get help on the other.

It shouldn't be so difficult to make his way into an unconscious, undefended mind like this, though Draco hadn't really studied Legilimency as a tool against unconscious people. He wasn't sure it could be done, though he supposed there was no obvious reason why not. Yes, why not. Draco was a risk-taking kind of bloke, after all.

He laughed a bit hysterically. "You really owe me, Potter. Ohh yes."

Draco flared his nostrils. This probably meant he had to put on the ring again, because there was definitely a chance that since Potter wasn't home, he was with Riddle. Great. This reminded Draco of one of Snape's old lectures to him, back when Draco had actually spent some of his free time having a spot of tea with the Potions Master. The last time was sometime in fourth year, wasn't it?

Step One: think clearly about the situation, and take note of all sides.

Step Two: assess the risks involved, then calculate chances of success.

Step Three: make a plan, choosing whether to go forward, how, and when; if the chances of success fall below comfortable parameters, retreat immediately.

Step Four: execute, and if choosing retreat, examine the options to retry afresh; start over from step One.

Sounded easy, at least coming from Snape, but what did his Head of House know, anyway?

On the subject of clear thinking, this could very well be a trap. No big deal; Draco had his wits about him, so he wouldn't fall for some stupid Dark Lord trick the way Potter would. Please. He was a Slytherin; unfortunately, now it was time to put that to the test.

With a grimace, Draco put the ring on, leaning his head against the wall. He felt a little stupid when for long beats, nothing happened.

Well, when did it ever, really, before? There's no way it'd be so easy.

Draco concentrated, lifting his wand and pointing it at Potter's temple: "Legilimens!"

There was a swirl of disjointed memories, none nearly clear enough to see any detail; it seemed that in an unconscious mind, all that stuff was there but not so readily accessible, the way it would be in a person who was truly awake. Regardless, Draco pressed on, looking for the trail of bread crumbs that had to be there if Riddle did want him here as Draco suspected. And there was no other option he would now consider.

Ah! There-- he saw a blurry picture of Riddle's face, and a vague scene that reminded Draco of his dream. He reached out to it, but it flitted out of his grasp.

"Shit!" There were memories of Riddle all around him, some of them half-formed thoughts and fears, some of them old dreams, and it was none too easy telling the different types apart. This was hopeless.

After a moment, Draco concentrated on his own recollections of the most recent dream, projecting the images as a sort of beacon into the chaotic swirl of Potter all around him. Everything ran together and blurred and reformed again and again in a sickening spiral, but Draco held on to his determination to get to some spark of Harry, wherever he was. And then, a bit anti-climactically, it was over.

Poof!

As if it was effortless all along, Draco opened his eyes and there was Riddle, standing in front of him, with Potter curled up next to a torch, his head buried in his knees.

"Ah! Finally!" Riddle walked forward, sporting a pleased little smile. "I know this isn't much, but I'm nearly able to manifest myself, so we shouldn't have to meet like this again. Rather a lot of bother for so little reward, isn't it? Quite unfortunate."

Draco knew it was essential that he play this right, but he really wanted to run over to Potter and slap him around a bit. All things in good time, he told himself.

"So you were waiting for me?" he said politely. "Is there something you want, my Lord?"

Riddle smiled, clearly approving of Draco's proper show of respect. They were all the same; all the adults Draco grew up with just wanted Draco to behave the way they expected, and supposedly he could have whatever he wanted afterwards. It took him a while to realize what a lie that was.

"Nothing all that strenuous, I assure you. I thought Potter may wish to say good-bye."

Draco twitched very slightly under Riddle's dark, glittering gaze. "I... see."

"Do you really?" Riddle's grin was like a cat's, all tiny teeth and smugness. "You do realize that everything has gone exactly according to plan, yes? Your reactions were most satisfactory. Potter was always the preditable sort, but I did wonder if perhaps you'd choose the do the smart thing and stay in bed. Really, Draco. What would your father say?"

Draco flinched. There was no excuse or sensible explanation he could give, that much was plain. "I wasn't thinking," he said, with some difficulty. He had to strike exactly the right tone, here. "I thought you might want me here."

Riddle smiled archly, raising one eyebrow. "Is that so? Very well. You really have been useful to me. Much more than your father, from what I can tell. I need loyal wizards on my side. Of course, once I'm manifest, I shall know who's really worthy with certainty, but for now-- for now, we shall see, shan't we?"

"Potter--" Draco glanced over and nodded at the pitiful-looking figure. "He doesn't seem up to saying much of anything. Does he even know I'm here?"

"Oh, well," Riddle drawled. "Why don't you find out then, hmm?"

"Potter has a binding oath he has to keep with me, my Lord. The one he swore on his blood," Draco whispered, feeling Riddle's eyes on him but keeping his own gaze fixed on Potter and only Potter. "That much is mine. Potter has to wake up and give me what I've asked for."

Maybe it was only because he was watching so intently, but Draco was certain he saw Potter's shoulders twitch. He must be there, listening. It was Potter! There was no way he'd surrender so easily, Draco knew. The time to wake up was now, though. Now or never, Potty! Wake up! There was another twitch, and Draco smiled; he'd never ended his casting of Legilimens, had he? Even now, their minds were linked! He felt like crowing.

"Really?" Riddle said, spilling some ice into Draco's rising excitement. "And what did he promise, exactly? I have to wonder if he's capable of following through at this point."

"I like to leave these things open-ended," Draco said lightly. "The more possibilities the better, I'd say."

"Hmm." Riddle appeared to consider this. "Perhaps you're right."

A part of Draco was rather smug about the whole blood oath thing, yes, though he wondered if it was binding, considering you probably needed to actually do a spell, and not just wank off while sucking at some blood. He coughed self-consciously, momentarily distracted from his mission here.

"Er, thanks." Maybe this was a good idea; keep Riddle talking, buy some time. "Potter really owes me for all the times he'd shit all over my plans." Draco pursed his lips in thought. "And all the times he got away with things just because he's the Headmaster's pet. And all the times he hexed me with absolutely no provocation, insulted me, refused to follow the rules, insulted my parents and used violence upon my person." Why was he saving this person, again?

There was a tug on his attention somewhere inside Draco's mind, making him start. 'Boo-hoo, poor Malfoy!'

It took a moment, but Draco realized that didn't come from within his own mind, thankfully. He wasn't the self-deprecating sort, and he had no desire to start being one under stress.

Riddle was giving him an odd look; probably realized that this was something Draco could go on at length about, and rightfully so. He tilted his head, pausing before he spoke. This was a first. Riddle definitely always had a response ready, and if he didn't, you were probably about to surprise him, which wasn't likely to end well for anyone. Draco stifled a wince.

"You know, I don't generally give out advice, but in this case, I have to say that it's best to leave petty childhood slights behind. I have no use for anyone without a proper sense of priorities."

Draco hoped his peeved expression covered up his sudden consternation, and that unfortunate acidic blast of almost painful relief. 'Potter?!'

To Riddle, he said only: "Petty?"

Riddle was starting to look like he'd swallowed something sour. Draco wondered if he should be pleased with himself or not. He did seem to have a talent. "It's important to pick one's enemies wisely. That is, don't waste your time on defeating anyone who can be either used or avoided."

'No time for hellos! How do I get back into my head?'

"Ah," Draco said, actually startled by the idea that he could've been, perhaps, overreacting like Father had often said. It's not like he ever wanted Potter underfoot. Honestly! "But what if I can't avoid him?"

Riddle shrugged. "Simple. Make sure he avoids you." He smiled. "All that's necessary is being unremarkable, even inconspicuous, until you're ready to be remarked upon."

Draco thought about this for a bit. "I'm pretty sure he'd start suspecting me of something even if I didn't do anything and stayed out of his way." Draco smirked a little to himself. "That boy has paranoia issues."

'Hey! I resent that! It's not paranoia if they really are out to get me!'

'You know it's true.'

'Okay, forget about it! Focus, Malfoy!'

Draco rolled his eyes, which Riddle took the wrong way. Oops.

"That's not the question here," he snapped. "You control their attention as well as the assumptions that lead them to complacency. That is power."

'You're the one who thinks fast on his feet, Potter.' Draco wasn't good at multi-tasking, and besides, Potter's attitude was making him peevish.

In the end, neither he nor Riddle were prepared for Potter to jump up and point a wand at Riddle just as he mentioned 'power', crying "Legilimens!"

'I'll have to go through him!' Potter yelled somewhere within his mind.

For a fraction of a second, it had seemed the future Dark Lord was distracted. Stupid, Draco thought. This was supposed to be the best Legilimens pretty much ever. No, this went far beyond stupid; he was speechless, feeling the rage build. If Potter got himself killed like this, he'd really... he would make him sorry.

'We're connected, Malfoy! We always have been! Getting in should be easy as pie!'

Now Draco was really confused; connected how? What?

'NO! Stop! What do you think you're-- You idiot, he can--'

Then that thought was forgotten because Riddle cried "Avada Kedavra" and Potter screamed as the green light burst from Riddle's wand, connecting in a straight line directly with Potter's scar. Unable to blink-- barely able to comprehend what he was seeing-- Draco thought it looked almost like the scar was projecting green light as much as Riddle's wand, though that was ridiculous. Impossible.

Draco stood frozen, unable to interfere and unsure what he could do. Could people die in dreams? Did these spells actually work the same as they did in reality? Should he pull out of Riddle's mind before they all went to hell together? He couldn't figure out a single side of this situation, forget taking note of them all.

Potter fell to his knees, but his eyes stayed open, and his wand stayed pointed. Riddle wasn't moving either, and Draco saw that his mouth hung open as if in surprise. In slow motion, Draco watched Riddle fall to his knees as well. The green light emanating to-- and from-- Potter's scar flickered, and Riddle made an odd little sigh.

The whole exchange must've taken much less than half a minute, but for Draco it was an eternity. The important thing that Draco understood was that Potter wasn't dead for whatever reason, and it was going to stay that way.

"Potter!" Draco screamed. "You owe me!" And then he pulled, terminating the spell that bound them at the same time. The last thing he saw was Tom Riddle's face in profile; he looked surprised.

The next thing Draco knew, he was alone in his own head, and about to throw up.

He lurched over to the side, knocking Potter's head off his lap, and brought up the remains of his dinner, hacking and coughing pathetically, with prickly tears streaming from the corners of his eyes. It went on for a while, his stomach clenching tight as a walnut even when there was nothing left to expel from it.

It took a bit of time, but once Draco was sitting back on his heels, panting and trying to regain his composure-- or at least figure out where the Room of Requirement would put some water-- he realized the ring was no longer on his figure.

Draco turned, and saw it lying innocuously behind him next to Potter's hip; it must've fallen off on its own when he'd broken away. Well, Draco was in no hurry to put in on again, that was for certain.

Then he realized he could see it, and not by wandlight: apparently, the Room of Requirement picked up on his subconscious wishes. Maybe it was common to provide proper lighting for those who needed to toss their cookies at short notice. At least the Room had that mess taken care of; now that Draco also noticed the bowl and small towel nearby, he set himself to a spot of cleaning. One thing at a time; he couldn't concern himself with the next emergency while feeling like he'd just rolled out of a rubbish bin.

Onto the next problem: Potter, who didn't have the good sense to wake up on time.

He sat down heavily, staring at Potter's unmoving face numbly. Distantly, he remembered the green light and the Killing Curse, and the hollow feeling inside him spread. Even if Potter breathed, that didn't mean he lived.

At some point, Draco's fingers had curled around Potter's cold, motionless ones and squeezed. Maybe he could roll over and play dead too, and when he woke up, he'd be back in his nice bed in the dungeons, and this would all have been a really stupid dream. Except this was Draco's life, and things never went his way.

"You know, Potter," he said conversationally. "I did say you owe me one. So if you'll just, I don't know, wake up now, I might consider that debt paid. You'll never get a deal this good again, trust me."

There was a lengthy pause. Draco felt like he might cry, or scream, or fall over and take a nap to escape this whole bloody mess, except he was too tired.

And so, no one was more surprised than he when the fingers he held jerked fitfully, squeezing back with no warning whatsoever. Draco was wide awake in well under a second.

There was a tiny gasp, and without warning, Potter jerked away, and before he'd quite processed it, Draco held on. Draco wasn't trying to restrain him, but Potter pulled himself free violently, all without opening his eyes first.

"Potter!" Draco yelled. He really did hate yelling. The only reaction was more blind tossing and turning.

"HARRY!"

Those green eyes popped wide open, looking a bit panicked. He wasn't focusing yet.

"I've got you, Potter! Hey, look at me! Come on, snap out of it!" Draco shook him. "Harry!"

"Hurts." Harry groaned.

"Good," Draco breathed, and hugged him.

~~

Someone was holding him very tightly. Malfoy, definitely Malfoy. No one else was this bony. Or annoying.

It felt good, but his skin hurt everywhere, pricking at him like with needles. Harry felt consciousness flicker yet again, and his eyes rolled up.

"Ohh no, you're not going anywhere," Draco rasped, and kissed him.

Harry's breath caught painfully in his throat. His first instinct was to pull away, because this was just too much, but then something kicked in. As for his second instinct, Harry's fingers loosened on Malfoy's pajama sleeves and he sighed. Distantly, he wondered why Malfoy was wearing pajamas, but then he decided it didn't matter.

Malfoy's lips were a little salty. "This is nice," he mumbled, though that wasn't quite right, was it?

His mind was still foggy, but this wasn't hard. He was finally warm, so he reached up to wind his arms around Draco and just held him. This was a bit weird, true, so it was probably a dream, but Harry didn't mind playing along for now. However, his agreeableness made Malfoy snap out of it, and he jerked away with frantic force. He looked quite disheveled and kind of ratty, his puffy eyes glaring at Harry in a familiar sort of way.

Harry smiled a little, tentatively. He felt quite pleasantly dazed. He found he liked this foggy, uncertain state of mind; he couldn't recall much to put things in context, but that was okay. Malfoy was here, and he looked pissed; this was reassuring.

"Stop looking at me like that, Potter!" Draco snapped, turning his head to the side.

Harry was a bit startled to see the flush stealing up Draco's neck, a pretty contrast to his pallor.

"Like what?" Harry said faintly.

Draco sputtered, glaring some more, but somehow it wasn't too convincing. "You know! God, did you finally lose your mind while playing stupid-hero-gets-blasted-with-the-Killing-Curse? You never did have the common sense of a bloody gnat, did you! And no sense of decency! And I really have to go!"

"Huh?" Harry levered himself up on one elbow. "Killing Curse? Gnat? What?" He strained his memory a bit, but there was still a worrying hole that spread right up until the conversation he'd had with Hermione. He knew he'd resolved to confront Riddle and end it all, but he couldn't remember actually doing it, though he clearly did. He couldn't imagine asking Malfoy to help, but maybe he did.

Malfoy was giving him one of those patented Looks, like Harry should be ashamed of being a member of the human race.

"Huh." Harry said. "I don't think I remember."

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "You think?" He began to push himself up, his face twisted into a sickly, sour expression. Harry thought it was probably like suddenly realizing he was laying naked and covered in slime in a pigsty, surrounded by Mudbloods.

"Wait, wait, you're going?"

"Do you have a problem with that? Some of us have spent an exhausting night rescuing ungrateful swine from evil wizards while under no obligation to do so, only to return to an appalling lack of gratitude. Or recognition."

Harry scowled, trying to focus on the important things here. "Um. Thanks. Really! What did you mean about the Killing Curse, though? I feel alive... I think."

"Yeah well, I wish I knew." Malfoy pursed his lips. "Then maybe next time a homicidal maniac decides to kill me, I'd have a huge loophole the size of a stupid scar. Though somehow I doubt it." Malfoy pointed at Harry's forehead. "That thing isn't normal, you know."

Harry touched his scar; it felt normal. Definitely there, at least, and inert, which also suggested Voldemort wasn't currently nearby. "So what happened?" he said curiously.

"I'm sure you'll remember for yourself, Potter. And now, I'd like to get some sleep, thanks."

"But-- what I mean is, about Riddle-- is it over? Did I get him?"

Malfoy looked at him incredulously. "Did you get him? You should be grateful he didn't get you, with that harebrained scheme to, I don't even know, what were you doing, anyway? It sure seemed like suicide to me. Maybe you thought you could jump into Riddle's mind and come out the other side, but things don't work that way!"

Harry sat all the way up, pausing to scratch at the back of his head. "Huh. That sounds weird. I don't think I'd do something without a good reason."

Malfoy raised a single eyebrow.

"Well, okay, fine, most of the time," he muttered. "So, Riddle--"

"I don't know if 'alive' even applies to someone living in a chunk of stone," Malfoy said, sounding unwillingly drawn in. "I don't think he's all there, though, 'cause you certainly did something. Not on purpose, of course, but whatever it is looked like a bit like that curse rebound you're supposed to have done as a baby."

"But that's impossible! You need another person to sacrifice themselves for that to work!"

Malfoy scowled. "Yeah, well, like I said, I don't know! We weren't operating under standard conditions, anyway, since we were somewhere inside Dreamland in your own head. Still... if someone has to die when Avada Kedavra gets cast for a rebound to happen, maybe it happened to Riddle."

"Wait, I think I remember something," Harry said slowly. "Okay, not really. Hmm. It just seems like maybe there's a piece of Voldemort inside me, to make that connection work... so if he hurt me, he'd be hurting himself? That sounds pretty crazy, yeah, I know. Besides, I thought you said he wasn't dead?"

"How would I know! You want to put that thing on and try to ask him to make sure?"

Harry glanced at him thoughtfully, and Draco shook his head. "No! No, no, and no! That means no, Potter, are you mental?"

Harry smiled slightly. "I didn't mean that. Look over there, do you see that?" Harry pointed behind Draco a few paces.

"What? What's the Sorting Hat doing here?"

Things were falling into place quickly now, so that Harry felt like he was flying. Nothing seemed impossible because nothing was random, not in the Room of Requirement.

"What did you need, when you entered here? What were you thinking of?"

Malfoy blinked at him. "I-- I suppose I wanted you there. And--" He looked uncomfortable, ducking his head. "Well. I wanted help. Something to help me... help you. Defeat whatever's in that ring. I guess I didn't pay attention to anything else once I saw you there." Malfoy was unmistakably red now.

Harry grinned, to Malfoy's further exasperation. "That's great!" He took a step forward, going so far as to clasp Malfoy's shoulder. Draco looked down at the hand touching him, then back up at Harry, then down again. Harry grinned wider; he felt like an idiot, but he didn't care. He had it! The way to destroy Horcruxes! All thanks to Malfoy! Unintentionally, of course.

"Thanks a lot, Malfoy," he said, unable to suppress a grin. He clapped him on the shoulder before he thought better of it, then let go. "This helps a lot. You, er, maybe you really should go back to your dorm, though."

"What?" Malfoy stared at him suspiciously, apparently at a loss to understand Harry's sudden and bizarre mood swings, which only amused Harry further.

Harry put on his innocent face. "What? I'm concerned for your welfare, just like you wanted me to be."

There was a beat, and then Malfoy grimaced. "I'm staying. What are you plotting, Potter? If you do something stupid right after I finally leave, I'd never live it down."

This time, Harry smiled genuinely, though the sudden urge to give Malfoy a kiss was rather disturbing.

"Nothing stupid. In fact, I should thank you for giving me the idea. We're going to use the Sword of Gryffindor to destroy the ring!" Harry practically beamed. "So easy! Who'd have thought, huh?"

"The... Sword of Gryffindor."

Harry nodded. "It's in the Sorting Hat. That's gotta be why it's here."

Malfoy looked rather dubious. He took a step towards the Hat, and then shook his head. "Okay, I'll humor you this once."

"No problem, Malfoy. Watch and learn," Harry said, feeling a trifle smug. "Though I suppose that since only a true Gryffindor can do this, it's sort of useless trivia to you. Oh well."

Harry's grin faded as he knelt down by the hat, taking a deep breath. There was a tiny part of him that was nervous. What if the Hat had changed its mind about him? He needed this to destroy the Horcruxes, he knew that without a doubt. The ring couldn't be allowed out of this room; he wouldn't even entrust to Dumbledore at this point. Whatever Riddle had done to mess with Harry's memory, and however temporary the lapse was going to be, he wasn't going to take any more chances.

He drew back the rim of the big hat, and realized he'd been holding his breath when it whooshed out at the sight of the hilt of the Sword.

Harry drew it out in one smooth motion, rising to his feet. The rubies on the hilt sparked to life, and Harry felt both grim and elated at the same time. Holding this, he didn't exactly feel invincible, but he did feel strong. He had a serious responsibility here, but it was one he welcomed; he hadn't been too happy about his future being decided by some bloody Prophecy, but this-- this was different. He knew he chose this.

Malfoy seemed to be staring at him.

Harry turned to face him. "What?" He felt a little awkward, weirdly enough.

Malfoy coughed. "I guess you weren't kidding."

"Nope. What do you think?"

"It's-- it's a big sword. My father has some in the library, and--"

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Harry sighed.

He could practically hear Malfoy swallow. He didn't expect the words that came out of his mouth next, however. "It's not the sword that makes the difference," Malfoy said softly. "It's you."

Harry didn't speak for a moment, studying Malfoy's face. "Yeah?"

Malfoy was blushing, but he didn't look away. "You can do this."

There was that funny feeling again; it was getting kind of insistent. Harry knew he'd done it only a little while ago, but that didn't really count. He'd kissed Malfoy, sure, but he'd been pretty out of it. He might have kissed Neville at that point. Or Ron. Okay, probably not, but the point was that right now, every cell in his body kind of wanted in on the action, which was just wrong, but somehow so right Harry had a hard time arguing. Something in his stomach growled. Well, he was hungry, too. Life didn't stop for final battles with Dark wizards (assuming he'd had one) or weird squirmy feelings for one's sort-of-friends-but-not.

Harry bit his lip, making a decision. "Want to do it with me?"

Malfoy blushed some more. Okay, it was getting to be a pattern. A really cute pattern.

"What? I mean, do what?" Now both of them were embarrassed. Malfoy looked at Harry's sword a bit desperately. "Do you want me to hold it for you? I mean--"

With an effort, Harry held on to a straight face throughout this, though it was a close thing. He swallowed, feeling the giggles rushing at him without mercy. They were both really tired. That was all. It was enough to be going on with.

"Yeah. I meant, maybe we could, you know, destroy it together. Since that's how it has been so far, right? I know I probably couldn't have done this without you."

"Don't mention it. Really."

Harry shrugged. "So do you want to?"

Malfoy looked at the sword and then the ring a bit dubiously, but when he met Harry's eyes again, he nodded. After a moment, he stepped closer and reached out with his right hand, while Harry let go with his left so that they ended up holding the hilt awkwardly in front of them. Well, this didn't need to be good for a sword-fight.

Harry let go momentarily and knelt down to pick up the ring. It looked-- and felt-- a lot like an ordinary ring. There were no special vibes from it, though Harry knew that had to be deceptive. Whatever had happened to Tom Riddle inside that stone, it wasn't nearly enough.

There was a stone brick in the wall which stuck out more than the others around it, just about at waist height. It served their purpose well enough, and Harry placed the stone there carefully, then stepped back. Without thinking, he reached back for the hilt of the sword, and found himself brushing against Malfoy's fingers.

"Ready?" he said, gripping tighter.

"Ready enough."

Harry nodded, eyes focused on the stone, which glowed faintly red. They couldn't afford to miss, he thought.

"Three! Two! One! Go!" Harry yelled, and their arms moved as one in a swinging arc. They heard a sharp cracking sound like a 'chok'.

There was a flash of brilliant red light, and Harry's scar burst into painful life for a moment, right as he felt Draco's grip go limp around the sword hilt. He didn't know how he knew, but Harry felt certain he must be seeing something; no matter how much of a link Harry had with Voldemort, it was Draco who'd worn the ring for months on end.

Acting on instinct, Harry yelled incoherently and brought his sword down again, feeling the shock of impact reverberate up his arm. "DIE!"

Malfoy sat down abruptly on the floor, his legs having given out. Harry followed suit more slowly, gripping the sword hild to hide the shaking of his hands.

They sat there quite silently for some time; Harry wasn't sure how long had passed, except now he was certain he was hungry. And rather inclined to a nice long nap. Too bad the Room of Requirement no longer seemed like an attractive place to curl up on the couch.

Malfoy got up as abruptly as he'd collapsed, still silent.

Harry found his voice. "Whatever you heard, or saw, you know-- if Riddle got to you-- it doesn't matter. You're my friend." He was pleased he'd gotten that out; it wasn't easy. Harry didn't look up, though he could see Malfoy's shiny leather shoes quite well.

"Shut the fuck up, Potter," Malfoy said tiredly.

"Don't go," Harry said softly.

"What?"

"You heard me. Please. Just... stay. You're warm."

"I'm... what? Do you hear yourself or-- what? Did you go round the bend completely? Snap out of it! Newsflash: holiday's over. You can go back to hating me or whatever you want, and I'll be staying the fuck away from you, thanks."

Harry stared up at him for a second, speechless. He couldn't quite see Malfoy's face from this angle, but that didn't matter.

"I-- I'm sorry." Harry felt small, sitting on the floor like this all of a sudden. He leaning back against the wall, letting his hair fall into his eyes. "I just-- it doesn't matter. I don't know what I thought, but thank you. Again. Sorry to mention it; this is the last time, promise." His tone was rueful.

"Sure," Draco mumbled. "Forget about-- this-- Us, or whatever. Just forget it. Please."

Harry swallowed, painfully. His head buzzed and his thoughts were all in disarray; he couldn't grant the request immediately, but he knew he'd try, so he said so. "I'll try."

"Fine. See you, Potter." Malfoy took a couple of steps towards the way out. Somehow, it must have been a long way away.

"It's loo late, isn't it?" Harry's voice drifted off. "I don't know. It's all different. You and me and everything. Just different." Suddenly, his head hurt like a bitch, and Harry desperately wished he knew what he was talking about so he could shut up about it faster.

"Nothing's different, Potter!" Draco shouted. Harry fancied he heard an echo.

Harry got up, walked up to Malfoy. It was surprisingly easy. There were two spots of vivid color smearing the angles of Draco's cheeks. Quite possibly-- no, definitely-- he was blushing. Slowly, Harry's mouth stretched into a grin, and the color only deepened.

"Stop that! You stop that or I'll--"

Harry folded his arms placidly across his chest. He was feeling a bit stronger now, for some reason.

There was only him and Draco now, he knew that even without having to remember anything. Harry could handle this; no question. When it came to Malfoy, Harry always won, and he knew they both knew it. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but probably by next week. That's how things worked.

"Or you'll what, Malfoy?"

Draco turned around to meet his gaze in a cool grey eyes challenge, but it was no use. His breath came as shallow as Harry's own.

All Harry could do was look at Draco and just breathe, feeling more and more free.

"I mean it! Just because I saved your sorry arse doesn't mean-- it doesn't mean anything, got it? A whole lot of fucking nothing!"

"Yeah." Harry smiled, surprised at feeling a strange, sweet kind of malice flow like alcohol through his bloodstream. Draco was embarrassed and angry and confused; well, he wasn't the only one. "I understand."

And he reached a hand to tug Draco's head down to his, his whole body feeling light and untethered by gravity as he pulled them both to the ground.

When Harry kissed him, Draco only gasped and both said nothing for a while.

~~

EPILOGUE // a theory of flight.

we can't fight gravity on a planet that insists
that love is like falling
and falling is like this.

- Ani DiFranco.
~~

They had been flying aimlessly for hours now, weaving around turrets and taking turns daring each other into dizzying feints. There was no hint of a golden sparkle in the sluggish March daylight, and both of the slightly breathless boys were laughing with careless exhilaration. They had 'accidentally' ended up here after breakfast, and it had only taken a measuring look and a smirk to get them to summon their brooms and fly, no words necessary.

"Hey Potter!" Draco called, grinning foolishly as the sun momentarily blinded him.

Potter was a blur, chasing after sunbeams as if he were a five year old. Draco knew he should find the whole ridiculous display highly distasteful, but all he could muster amidst the bubbling in his chest was the urge to tease. He liked the way it made Potter's eyes sparkle when Draco was flamboyantly cross with him yet again.

Draco took a deep breath of the bracing spring air and felt a little warmer. Potter had stopped in midair, his head now turned back, regarding him with an embarrassingly open expression which Draco never got used to. This couldn't last, Draco knew that, but he couldn't find it in him to care just then. They could fly; nothing could touch them. They were as gods. He and Potter. Potter and him.

He didn't quite let himself think that maybe this was how it was meant to be all along.

Harry was grinning back, pushing his flyaway hair from his face.

They had such a precarious balance these days. Draco knew the outcome of this game wasn't even up to them. This wasn't actually his game, he knew that. It was Potter's. More and more, Draco found he didn't mind his relative obscurity. Meanwhile, he had the issue of Slytherin House on the verge of dissolution to occupy him, besides a certain feckless Gryffindor who wouldn't go away.

"Care for a real game, Scarhead?" Draco shouted.

He dipped sharply with his broom, gliding back up towards Harry, who still hovered almost uncertainly before him.

He waggled his eyebrows, making Harry laugh.

"We have nothing to play with," Harry said with a secretive little smile.

He watched the sun grow brighter behind Harry's head, and something clenched in his chest. It was probably his heart.

These moments seemed so much more important lately, somehow. Moments where it didn't matter what came before or after. Granted, usually they involved Potter's tongue in his mouth.

Maybe it was just that there were so many 'what ifs', Draco didn't know where to start: what if his father escaped from prison tomorrow; what if Harry decided he needed to reject all things Slytherin for real this time? Even if they both went back to 'normal' by next week, there was still right now; and right now Harry was right here.

Right now, Potter was smiling like they were the only two people in the world, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Right now, even knowing it wasn't true, Draco still felt free.

"That's not true," Draco said, feeling like the greatest sap in the history of the world. He felt his cheeks heat up, though it would hardly be noticeable in his flush from all their morning exercise.

Harry's face turned serious for a moment, and he reached out a hand though there was still quite a bit of distance between them. And then he seemed to shake off the sappy mood and shot off after the Snitch again. Draco shook his head ruefully. This had to be enough, and it was.

We have each other, Draco finished silently.

He was flying circles around the pitch restlessly, trying not to wonder why Potter really flew off.

"You give up too easily, Malfoy," Harry laughed and slipped the hood off his Invisibility Cloak. The bastard had been right next to him!

"Pffbt! Cheater!"

"Takes one to know one," Potter grinned.

The truth was, it was disgustingly difficult to stay mad at Potter for very long at times like this, not while the blood still sang in Draco's veins from earlier that morning.

"How did you fit a whole broom inside that sodding Cloak, anyway? What are you, a bloody illusionist?"

Harry laughed, twirling his Cloak this way and that about his body, making various body-parts wink in and out of existence in dizzying flashes. "And what if I am? I can be anything I say I am."

"So who are you today, Potter?" Draco drawled.

There was a strange little pause before Harry answered. He was looking down at the ground, his fingers playing restlessly with his broomstick. "I don't know, Draco. I think I'm just me," he said softly, looking vaguely perplexed by his answer.

"You don't say. Well, that's a surprise, Potter. Can't say I would've guessed it, myself."

Suddenly Harry looked up, eyes flashing brilliantly at him through the glasses, making Draco momentarily breathless. It made Draco fidgety and somehow irritable, not to mention inexplicably warm. Best not to dwell on these things, really.

"A nice change though, isn't it?" Harry said, grinning up at the sky. "It's a good day for being Harry Potter."

Draco snorted. "Wouldn't that be every day? I must say, your life has become dreadfully monotonous the last month, what with all this easy access to my stunning person. I've gone too easy on you lately. Maybe I should do something about that."

"Maybe. Or maybe I like it this way." Potter smiled and flew his broom flush against Draco's. "How's about a new game, Malfoy?" he whispered harshly in Draco's ear, making Draco shiver.

His answer didn't come in the words of any known language, but it did come with tongue.

And one moment, there were two boys laughing and jostling each other with their brooms in midair as they raced to see who could reach the ground first.

The next, they had disappeared; two sleek brooms lay discarded on the sand and the sun shone through the space where they had been.

.......................................................................
FINIS.