"So," said Hermione one morning, "I've decided not to return to school next year." And that was how Harry found out that he was going back to Hogwarts.
It was early July, and sunlight was pouring diligently through the windows and rafters of the highest nook in the Burrow. It was all very pleasant and tranquil, if you were of a mind to be pleased by the weather. Harry found it all a bit cheesy, really.
"Wait, what?" said Ron.
"For eighth year," said Hermione, blinking.
"Oh," said Ron, blinking back.
"Wait, what?" said Harry.
"Really, you two, what's the point of subscribing to the Prophet if you only ever read the Quidditch section?" said Hermione.
"Well, we've got you for all the rest," said Ron. "Eighth year? They can't be serious. They can't make us go back!"
"Oh, really, Ron," said Hermione, folding her arms. "How else do you think you'll qualify for NEWT-level Auror training?"
Ron stared at her. "Hello?" he said. "We defeated Voldemort!"
Hermione fixed him with her we've-been-over-this-Ronald look. "We did not defeat Voldemort," she insisted.
Ron raised his eyebrows at her.
"Okay, fine," Hermione conceded. "We mostly defeated Voldemort. But with a lot of help! From at least three hundred other people!"
"Nah," said Ron, grinning at Harry. "Totally all us."
"And Neville!" Hermione insisted. "Neville was crucial! And Snape! And — "
"Malfoy," said Harry.
Hermione stopped. She and Ron both looked at him.
"Well," said Harry. "His wand, I mean. And his mum."
"And all that wand-swapping," he added. "I don't think anyone followed that bit, really."
After another moment of silence, Hermione blinked a lot and said calmly, "And that's why you two can't expect to get by on just laurels and charm."
"You think I'm charming?" said Ron with a ridiculous leer.
"I think you're quite daft," said Hermione matter-of-factly. "Honestly, you can't expect me to fill you both in on everything. I've been away with my parents for a month! Didn't either of you discuss it with Ginny?"
Harry and Ron exchanged glances. Ron shrugged.
"Or," Hermione tried, turning to him, "I don't know, maybe your mum or dad?"
"They've had other things on their minds," Ron said sharply.
This time Harry and Hermione exchanged glances.
In the six weeks since the Battle of Hogwarts, Ron hadn't mentioned Fred once. When the sound of his mum's weeping drifted slowly up through the floorboards, Ron would blithely start talking about the Holyhead Harpies' chances in the World Cup prelims. Harry never knew what to say, so he just played along.
During the daytime, Ron acted like he expected Fred to come whistling through the door at any moment. "You've got to talk to him, Harry," Ginny had told him more than once. "He won't talk to any of us."
But Harry was the last person to tell someone how to handle their grief. Ron would be fine, he had told Ginny. He would talk when he was ready.
"How do they know Hogwarts will even be ready in time for school?" Harry said, to distract them all from the sudden tension. "After the battle it was so wrecked you probably couldn't even find the library."
"Well," said Hermione, "That's why the subject of my studying in London came up. McGonagall said she feared the library might not be up to its usual high standards following the war. They lost so many books."
Ron had still been staring out the window over the fields around the Burrow. When she said this, he finally looked over at her and asked, "Why didn't you talk to us about it before this?"
Hermione folded her hands in her lap. "I wanted to make sure of my decision before I said anything," she said. "I didn't want to worry you, and I knew I'd see you in a few weeks."
"But why London?" said Harry. "Couldn't you just do an inter-library loan or something and get the books you needed sent to Hogwarts?"
Hermione looked between them, and Harry couldn't decide whether she was feeling guilty for leaving, or for not telling them beforehand.
"I thought after last year — you know everything that happened with my parents." Her voice dropped. "I wanted to be close to them for a while longer. They had so many questions, and when I told them about the memory charm, they took it very poorly. I think — " she bit her lip. "I think they need time to learn how to trust me again."
"Hermione," said Harry.
"You could have told us," said Ron.
"You've had a lot to deal with, Ron," she said. "Anyway — " the briskness returned to her voice. "If I do an independent study in London, I can still enrol through Hogwarts but take the courses at home. It will give me a chance to stay near my parents a bit longer while the school is rebuilt. And then I could decide whether to return to Hogwarts, or stay in the city, do an independent study, and take the NEWTS with everyone else in the spring."
"But you said we couldn't rely on our whatsits and charm," said Ron. "But that's what you'd be doing!"
"Yeah," said Harry. "I like my whatsits."
"I mean — not that you're not brilliant, Hermione," said Ron, "because we'd all be lost without you. But if anyone should get to skip a year, shouldn't it be Harry? We all know they'd pass him into Auror training today with a lot of cannons and a brass band playing 'Hail, the Conquering Hero.'"
"Yes," Hermione said with a laugh. "And then they'd discover their conquering hero couldn't brew a successful Veritaserum to save his life."
Harry leaned over and poked her in the ribs. "Let's face it, Ron," he said. "Hermione could pass the NEWTS today. You and I are hopeless."
"But if Hogwarts is such a giant mess," said Ron, "how are we supposed to learn anything?"
"Er," said Hermione uncertainly, "the rebuilding crews are doing all they can to have everything ready before students return."
"Ginny said the enrolment's dropped off," said Harry.
Hermione nodded. "Faculty, too," she said. "McGonagall was having trouble finding a replacement for her Transfiguration classes now she's to be headmistress."
"Great," said Ron. "You'll be in London and we'll be in bloody Valhalla."
Hermione's face clouded over with worry. "Ron," she said. "Please don't be mad — "
"Mad?" said Ron. "Nine months, Hermione. You couldn't even talk to me before you decided to spend the next nine months away from me?"
Harry started to inch away from the two of them, knowing from years of experience when to leave the room, but Hermione caught his movement and threw him a glance that made him stay put.
"I was going to discuss it with you!" she said to Ron, "but I thought you needed some time."
Ron's red cheeks paled as quickly as they had flushed. "Time for what?" he said.
Hermione's mouth opened and closed. She threw another helpless look at Harry.
"Um," Harry tried. "I think she means that ever since Fr — "
"I can't believe you, Hermione." Ron's voice cut across Harry's so savagely that Fred's name barely registered as sound. "Maybe I'll just forget to tell you if I decide to go back."
"Ron — "
"You waited two months!" Ron stood up, and Harry followed suit, grateful for any excuse to make an exit. "What if you'd stayed with your parents for a few more weeks, would you have told me at all? Or would you have waited till summer was up? Till we got our Hogwarts letters?"
No sooner had he spoken than a Pig-sized ball of fuzz plopped onto the windowsill. The letter in its talons bore a Hogwarts seal.
Ron pointed at it. "See!"
"It's from McGonagall," said Hermione, taking the envelope and rolling her eyes at Ron. "That doesn't make it official." She passed it over to Harry. "It's for you," she said. The owl ruffled its feathers and then bobbled over to Harry's shoulder. It perched there, almost weightless, and its fringe tickled Harry's neck as he opened the letter.
"It's about Malfoy," he said after he read it. "McGonagall wants me to give him back his wand."
"I thought you gave Malfoy his wand back weeks ago," said Ron. They looked at him.
Harry said, "I was going to. I mean — " He broke off. In the aftermath of the battle, he had tucked Malfoy's wand back in his pocket. It wasn't like he was stealing it or something. It had just felt weird to give it back right away after using it all those months.
He had been keeping it safe ever since, making sure he always knew where it was. Part of him liked the idea that when Malfoy finally came around begging to have it back, he'd know that Harry had taken better care of it than he had.
But mostly, Harry hadn't really had anything in mind. He'd just forgot that Malfoy needed it back.
"Things got a little crazy, I guess," he said finally.
Hermione sent him a Look. "He's on the rebuilding team, right? He can't get much done without a wand."
Ron snorted. "Right, I'm sure Draco's really eager to rebuild Hogwarts."
"I wouldn't be surprised if he were," Hermione said. "He's not going to fool McGonagall, and she wouldn't ask you to bring him his wand if she didn't trust him with it, Harry."
"Besides," Hermione continued. "He's got to know how lucky he is. This way he still gets to finish school, and the Ministry gets to say he's been punished. If I were Malfoy, I'd be on my best behaviour."
"Yeah, sure," Harry muttered. "Until my year of community service was up."
Harry had known Malfoy was at Hogwarts over the summer. The papers had been full of it. But the thought of Malfoy being back at school for another year, their final year, hadn't occurred to him until just now.
He tried to drum up some sort of reaction, and found he didn't really have one. He folded the letter back up. McGonagall had instructed him to drop in any time that week. The wards weren't fully restored and Apparition was allowed until they were. Harry figured he might as well go soon and get it over with.
The ball of fuzz sitting on his shoulder hooted softly. He dug a piece of toffee out of his pocket and offered it to the owl. But it only hooted again and dropped the toffee back into Harry's lap.
"McGonagall's overseeing Malfoy's punishment," Hermione said. "She's within her authority to ask for the wand to be returned." She leaned over and offered the owl a bite of apple. It took it and chirped appreciatively, but stayed put on Harry's shoulder. Ron tried to tempt it away from Harry with a bit of gum he pulled out of his pocket, but the owl only hooted and scooted in closer on Harry's shoulder. He was more like a Snidget than an owl, Harry thought. Not like Hedwig. He missed her.
"Looks like he's adopted you," Ron said.
Harry patted the owl gently on the head. It was like petting a cotton ball. "No offence," he told it, "but you're a bit small, and I don't really need an owl right now anyway, so you should probably just head back to Hogwarts."
The owl dug its tiny talons into Harry's shoulder. They barely felt sharp.
"Obviously knows a lie when it meets one," Ron said. Then he took a deep breath, and added, "Besides, if you have no owl, how'll you send all those letters to Hermione when she's off being brilliant in London?"
Hermione threw him a surprised smile, then flung her arms around his neck. He smiled back but rolled his eyes at Harry over the top of her head.
"I mean," he said, looking embarrassed, "You should have told me, Hermione."
"I know, I know, and I'm so sorry, Ron," she said, her voice muffled against his shoulder.
"But you do realise," said Ron, throwing a nod at Harry over her head, "that we're going to get in loads of trouble without you."
"If you're saying I'll regret leaving you two unsupervised," she said, lacing her arms around his waist and leaning in, "I'll have to live with the error of my ways."
"Well, exactly," said Ron. "You'll have all that guilt and suffering to live with while you're away from me. So I might as well not be a git about it, right?"
Hermione beamed at him. "Oh, Ron," she said, and Harry took his cue, the owl, and the envelope, and fled.
Once in the hallway, he pondered whether to look for Ginny and let her know he was going to Hogwarts. She might even want to come with him.
But things with Ginny had been weird lately. She'd been avoiding him without saying why, and that only made him want to avoid her. The thought of having to put up with an hour or two of awkward silence and strange tension wasn't really what he wanted to deal with today. The sunshine was starting to get to him, promising him a day that might actually be glorious.
Then again, Malfoy was at Hogwarts, where Harry was about to go. How glorious could it be?
What the hell, he thought. He might as well hope for the best.
And just for the satisfaction of using it one last time, he Apparated to Hogwarts using Draco's wand.
Harry emerged at a point halfway between the school entrance and the Whomping Willow. The grounds stretched in all directions and the castle itself loomed above, bright and vivid in the summer sun. The hills behind were saturated with light, and the lake at mid-day was a blinding shimmer.
At first glance, it looked like it always had, and something in Harry's chest squeezed tight.
Then he saw the demolished turrets and the folds of scaffolding blanketing the walls, and the noises of reconstruction reached him from across the wide lawns.
All around him the rebuilding teams were coming and going. No one gave him a second glance as he headed toward the castle with the owl still perched on his shoulder. On his way, he saw Aurors pushing through the branches of the Whomping Willow as if it were just another tree. Someone had even leaned a giant section of the staircase against the trunk. The marble had been blasted completely in two.
A group was hard at work covering the parched ground near Hagrid's ruined hut with seeds of grass, while still another group thatched the roof. The air above the Quidditch pitch was thick, refracting the light as if the cheating wards applied to it were still new.
There were Aurors applying wards at the edges of the Forbidden Forest, too, and Harry couldn't help but smile at the idea that the word 'forbidden' might finally come to mean 'off limits to small children.' Despite the lax security there were also Aurors at the gates re-applying the entrance wards. Harry wondered if they would ever be as strong as they once were. Hermione had told him that Hogwarts had ways of rebuilding itself, but it looked as if it could use all the help it could get.
As Harry neared the castle, the owl hooted and shifted on Harry's shoulder. Harry fed it a couple of crumbs from his robe pocket. The owl plumped its mess of feathers once before hopping unsteadily into the air, bobbing for a moment before righting itself and flying in a wobbly arc in the direction of the Owlery. "Guess I've been unadopted," he said, and went inside.
Six weeks prior, the castle had been full of the red heat of war, and later the defeated stillness of the aftermath. Now it was still in ruins from the battle, but the stench of blood and the lingering odour of smoke were gone. By Ginny's accounts, the Hogwarts that Snape had run had been a foul, loveless place; from what Harry could tell, McGonagall's Hogwarts was already a frenzy of activity and motion. The activity he had noticed outside was nothing to the bustle and energy within. Madam Pince was marching a steady procession of wayward books back into classrooms. Teachers were levitating demolished furniture back to their rightful locations. A set of chalkboards whizzed by on the way to the dungeons. Peeves floated after them, smashing the erasers together right over Harry's head and cackling when Harry went into a coughing fit. Aurors were teaching stairways to move again. Paintings were being cleaned and re-hung, including a circle of empty frames around the entrance to the Great Hall. And inside the Hall itself, the ceiling was being coaxed to remember what the sky looked like.
Harry stood and watched for a moment, feeling for the first time that Hermione was right, that Hogwarts did have a way of repairing itself, if only because it always seemed to summon help from those who loved it when it needed it most.
He was so busy taking it all in that he nearly backed into Professor Flitwick, who was leading a crew of house elves, all carrying giant stacks of books up the main stairway toward the library.
"Lots of required reading, Professor?" Harry asked. The books were almost thicker than Flitwick.
Flitwick beamed up at him. "Not for you, Potter! Rewritten history texts, you know! All revised to encompass the rise and fall of the Dark Lord." He gestured expansively, then stopped short when he looked back at Harry, who wasn't smiling. "You know how it is," he said hastily. "Major historical event like this, needs to be set down in the proper perspective. These'll be going to the Restricted Section, of course. Can't have just anyone reading all about Tom Riddle! You know, of course, what that can lead to."
Harry wondered why even now, dead past all hope of resurrection, Voldemort's name still seemed to hold so much sway over the people who had fought him, seen him die. No one seemed to want to say his name if they could say anything else. "Right," he said dryly. "Perils of research."
"Exactly, Potter, exactly!" Flitwick squeaked, and then he hurried off after the long line of house elves.
After checking in the Headmaster's office, which was full of unpacked boxes and dozing portraits but no McGonagall, Harry tried her old office and found her. She was surrounded by empty bookshelves, stacks of files, and dust clouds that seemed to be in a perpetual state of settling. Correspondence from the Ministry sat in a fat stack on her desk, unopened and unanswered. "Oh, Potter, it's you," she said, sliding on her glasses. "Thank you for coming so soon. As you can no doubt imagine, making sufficient use of Malfoy's talents has been quite difficult since he has had no wand."
She lifted her eyebrows. Harry settled into the chair across her desk and said, "I was holding it until he could come get it."
"Malfoy has been serving a punishment under order of the Wizengamot, Potter," McGonagall said tartly. "He has not had time for casual visitation."
Harry nodded and dug the wand out of his back pocket. He slid it across the top of McGonagall's desk, feeling strangely reluctant to let go of it, which was stupid since it was never his wand to begin with. But he had felt comfortable using it. It had gotten him through all those months in the forest. It had given him power when he needed it; it had kept him safe. He wondered if it had ever given those things to Malfoy.
As McGonagall picked the wand up, Harry heard himself blurt, "Are you sure it's safe?"
Her eyebrows went even higher.
"I mean — you trust him with it and all?" Harry ended, feeling sheepish.
McGonagall deposited the wand neatly in her robes before she answered, and then she paused so long that Harry began to wish he'd never opened his mouth.
When she finally spoke, she only asked, "Are you planning to return to Hogwarts, Mr Potter?"
"I haven't really had time to think about it, Professor," he answered. She nodded as if this was about what she had expected.
"I can assure you that Draco Malfoy has had time to do little else," she said. "Do you know how many Slytherins are expected to return to Hogwarts this fall, Potter?"
"Um," said Harry.
"None," said McGonagall flatly. "Except for Malfoy."
"Oh," said Harry.
"Precisely," said McGonagall. "Potter, I assume that if you are mature enough to survive a war, you are mature enough to stay out of trouble at Hogwarts. Even without Slytherin, there are still three hundred students who will be returning in a month, many of whom spent the majority of last year being tortured by their teachers." She lowered her chin and looked at him over her glasses. "I will have far more to be responsible for than Draco Malfoy's safety. I am sure you understand."
"Yes, Professor," said Harry. Then he blinked and realised he didn't understand, not remotely. "Wait," he said. "Are you saying you want me to look after Malfoy?" He tried very hard not to sound horrified and failed utterly.
"I am not saying any such thing, Potter," said McGonagall. Harry expected a wild sense of relief, but he was still too busy feeling horrified. "I expect that Mr Malfoy would have a thing or two to say if you attempted such an unwise proposition."
"Right," said Harry.
She sighed. "You and Mr Weasley and Mr Malfoy are all adults," she said. "I will expect each of you to act like it."
Harry left McGonagall with a promise to be on his best behaviour, noting that somewhere in the course of the conversation she had turned to discussing his returning to Hogwarts as if it were a foregone conclusion. Given his NEWT prospects, he thought drearily, it probably was.
As he left the castle, Harry spotted Malfoy, perched on a levitating scaffold midway up the side of one of the demolished turrets. He had discarded his robes and rolled the sleeves of the ratty work shirt he wore up to his shoulders. His back was to the sun, and even from the ground, Harry could see that his clothes were soaked. His hair stuck to his neck, and his forearms glistened with sweat.
A sudden sense memory flashed through Harry of searing heat on his skin and Draco's arms gripping his waist, his stomach pressed hard against Harry's back.
He turned away, annoyed. Malfoy had never even thanked him for saving his life. But it was Malfoy. Harry might as well have asked for the moon.
Just as Harry was about to Apparate, the owl plopped onto his shoulder with a determined hoot. "Guess I'm stuck with you, then," Harry said, feeding it a jelly bean he'd stolen from the headmaster's office.
The owl hooted again. Then he ruffled his feathers in the direction of the castle with a soft 'tut.'
"Yeah," said Harry. "Guess I'm stuck with Hogwarts for a while, too."
The weeks until the return to Hogwarts dwindled rapidly away. To his surprised, Harry was relieved to be going back. He hadn't realised how long the summer had seemed until he had something to do again — namely, getting ready for school. He divided most of his days between Ron and Hermione and visits with Teddy, who was getting so big so quickly that Harry wondered if there was some kind of special Metamorph-werewolf gene that produced super-babies.
He was happy to be spending the last month before Hogwarts with the Weasleys, but Fred's absence was deafening. George buried himself in work, spending so much time at the joke shop that Harry only saw him once before school resumed. Ron's dad was grim and tight-lipped, his mum wept, and Ron continued to exercise blithe denial that he was missing a brother.
Harry and Ginny never seemed to be around each other more than a few minutes a day. He knew he was spending more time with Ron and Hermione than with her, but whenever he tried to spend time with her, she would close off and refuse to tell him what was wrong. There seemed to be no way out of the cycle.
Ron and Hermione seemed to have more things than ever to fight about now that she was going away, and Harry often felt that they both wanted him around because it was the only time when things still seemed to click into place, when everything felt right. He tried to ask Hermione once if there was another reason she wanted to be in London, if maybe all the fighting had something to do with it. But he made a mess of asking, and she only shook her head and laced her arm through his.
Despite all of these shadows, they all journeyed to London together on the day the Express departed for Hogwarts. Fleur met them at the platform, and kept her arm consolingly around Hermione as she bid Ron and Harry tearful goodbyes. Ginny kept hold of Harry's hand. Ron's mum cried, but she always cried when she sent them off to school, and there was a touch of something in her smile as she flung her arms around him that felt to Harry, for the first time in a very long time, like home.
Harry, Ron, and Ginny took their places in the first empty compartment they could find. The ride was quiet. It was easy to see that the train was barely full, and those who had chosen to return were sticking to each other so closely that there was no wandering the train or trying to find your friends. And of course, Harry thought, no Slytherin to spy on. There wasn't even a confectioner's cart to make the rounds on the train, and Harry missed it even though he couldn't remember the last time he'd cared about Bertie Botts' or blood-flavoured lollipops.
He sat silently on the train, hand tucked into Ginny's, trying to remember what they normally all talked about on the way to Hogwarts. After a few starts and stops from each of them, they all three fell silent and stared out the window until Ginny finally stood up and sighed.
"This is ridiculous," she said. "I'm going to find Michael's little sister. She was supposed to start this year and her parents almost kept her from coming after..."
Harry squeezed her hand impulsively. Michael Corner had been one of the last students to die in the fighting. He had also been Ginny's first boyfriend.
"You should come, too, Harry," she said.
Harry looked up at her. Her face was drawn and she looked exhausted. "Don't you think that would be a bit awkward?" he said, and immediately realised that was the wrong thing to say.
"I just — "
Ginny pulled her hand loose from his. "No, never mind," she said.
"I'll come," said Harry, standing up.
"It's fine," she said, sending him a look that said that it clearly wasn't, and then she left.
Harry stood there for a moment, staring after her, and then sat down again. "Okay," he muttered. He glanced up at Ron, who was watching him dully.
"Harry, mate," he said, "I think it's gonna be a long year."
There was something predictable about the gloom that hovered over them when the train pulled into Hogsmeade. So many students were crowded around the thestrals that a couple of them spooked and had to be reigned in by the drivers before the carriages could proceed. Ginny stayed back with the rest of the Gryffindor 7th-years, which was fine with Harry. He and Ron met up with Neville and Luna, who told them that the four of them, the Patils and the Brocklehursts, a couple of Hufflepuffs (they weren't sure who, but with Harry's luck it was probably Justin and Ernie), and Malfoy were the only eighth years who had opted to return.
"You don't think they'll make us all hole up in one dorm or something, do you?" said Ron, glancing over at Harry. "Slytherin's completely empty, isn't it?"
"That would be nice," said Luna absently. "I've always wanted to see a Lobalug."
They looked at her.
"Mermaids use them for spears," she explained. "You can see them in Slytherin through the windows, since it's under water."
"Right," said Ron, but he was grinning for the first time all day. "Sorry about your lavalumps, Luna, but I'm not going to share a room with Draco Malfoy."
Harry tried to picture having to share a room with the Hufflepuffs and Malfoy. "I have to say I'm with Ron on this one," he said.
"Oh," said Luna. "That's all right. They're probably not real anyway."
Harry grinned, too, and realised it was the first time in a long time.
The first surprise of the school year came when they entered the castle. For the most part, Hogwarts had been given a respectable face lift; there were left-over bits of construction and bits of rubble here and there, but the scaffolding was gone, and the wards shimmered and held fast all along the gates. There was something live and crisp in the air, and Harry felt anticipation sneaking into his bones as they walked inside.
The first thing they saw were the portraits.
The frames were tall and elegantly carved, cut from a dark wood — black cherry or yew. There were probably a dozen of them circling the hallway. Harry had seen them on his previous visit to Hogwarts, hung all across the marble foyer that opened onto the Great Hall.
But at the time, they'd been empty.
Harry's first thought was that someone should have warned them. His second thought was that there was really no warning anyone could have given for this.
Twelve frames. Twelve portraits. Twelve lives lost in the battle of Hogwarts.
Twelve students come back to life.
As he stood in the middle of the entrance, stricken to the spot with shock, he felt someone brush past him and realised with a jolt that it was Ginny. "Michael?" She ran forward to one of the two paintings in the centre, where the image of a boy with sandy brown hair was beaming down at a first-year, his sister, probably. Ginny jostled to stand next to her at the front of the group of Gryffindors who had crowded around the picture.
All around them, students were entering the castle and reacting to the portraits. Harry stood still, hardly knowing where to look, with Ron next to him.
Then, over the general clamour and shrieks of excitement, he heard a voice he'd recognize anywhere, calling his name.
"Harry! Hey, Harry!"
A rush of feeling, warm and familiar, passed over him, but when it had gone, he felt colder than ever.
"Hey, Colin," he said easily, turning to the portrait of Colin Creevey with a smile.
He looked just exactly as he had every day Harry had seen him: neat student robes over a shirt and vest, Gryffindor tie slung over his left shoulder. The only thing missing was his camera strap, which should have been slung over his right.
"Where's your camera?" Harry asked. Then he kicked himself when Colin's face fell.
"I tried to get them to paint it in," he said. "But the painter just said that he should have filled in my mouth last." As he spoke, Harry was staring at the canvas. Colin had light and colour in his skin, could move about as though he had muscles and joints like anyone else. But there were faint brush strokes over his cheeks and hair, and the outer edges of his image when he moved seemed to flicker in and out of space somehow, as if his shape were constantly trying and failing to escape out of two dimensions.
"But it's okay, really," said Colin. "I'm just glad that I can be back at Hogwarts so I can keep an eye on — Dennis! Hey, Dennis!" He threw an energetic wave over Harry's shoulder, edges blurring, and Harry turned, expecting a Creevey ambush.
Instead he just saw Dennis flick a glance of recognition at Colin's portrait, freeze, and walk stiffly into the Great Hall without a word, his face hard.
Harry turned back to Colin and said hastily, "He probably didn't hear you."
"Sure," said Colin a bit too quickly. "Sure. Anyway, we've got all year to talk now, right, Harry?"
"Yeah, sure, Colin," Harry answered, thinking that even if Colin couldn't leave the picture frame, his voice held an entire dimension of emotion. "Of course."
Colin's portrait stood on the far left edge of the semi-circle of portraits in the wide foyer. When he had called Harry over, Harry had lost view of most of the rest of the paintings. In his head he had been working through the names of the ten remaining students, but he had come up short at eight: Lisa Turpin, who would have graduated third in her class; Cho's cousin Ai, who would have been a sixth-year Ravenclaw; Jacob Salonga, who'd played Beater for the Hufflepuffs last year; Ginny's friend Soblessa, a seventh-year Ravenclaw; a tiny Gryffindor third-year named Adam Allen who shouldn't have been there at all, but who had hidden in the Great Hall and died a hero, fighting so viciously it had reportedly taken two adult Death Eaters to finally cast Avada Kedavra; and a sixth-year Hufflepuff, Tirane Sparks, who had transferred to Hogwarts the year before from a school in Kenya.
As Harry looked around the chamber, he could place each student by the house colours around each portrait, but he couldn't see the identities of the last two portrait-holders.
And then, alone in the opposite corner, he saw Draco Malfoy, and at least one of the mysteries was solved.
Malfoy stood in front of a portrait that hung at the farthest end of the foyer, cast in shadow by the angle of the light streaming out from the Great Hall. He had his back to the frame, hands stuck too casually in his pockets. He was the only person standing within several feet of it, and the portrait itself was empty, as if its inhabitant had better things to do.
But even empty, Harry knew with certainty that if he were to look at the name engraved on the bottom of the frame, it would say Vincent Crabbe, 1980-1998.
Malfoy looked healthier than he had when Harry last saw him up close. He'd gained weight, and the wary hunted look that had been permanently etched on his face seemed to be fading. And given that the last time Harry'd seen him he'd been covered in plaster dust and sweat, he had cleaned up pretty well, too.
Harry looked a fraction of a moment too long, long enough for Malfoy to feel the pull of Harry's eyes and spot him. He didn't remove his hands from his pockets, but his shoulders went a little straighter, and after another moment he sent Harry a curt nod, which Harry returned.
It was probably, Harry thought, the first civil exchange they'd had in years.
Another moment and Harry would have turned back to Colin, but as he did, he saw Ron, still standing on the threshold, looking as if he'd just been hit with a Stunner. Following his gaze, Harry saw he was staring at the portrait in the centre of the room, the one next to Michael Corner. The crowd of students around it was so thick that at first Harry couldn't see whose it was, especially because whoever was in the frame was bending down to be at eye level with the younger students.
Then he heard an unmistakable laugh, and the words, "And that's what happens when you combine Botuber Pus and Exploding Snap!" and up popped Fred Weasley.
Someone had forced his portrait self into Gryffindor robes, and even on canvas they looked as if they knew they ruined the authenticity; but otherwise, he looked the same as the last time Harry had seen him when he was alive. Harry stared. Ginny stood beside the portrait with tears in her eyes, and Harry, like Ron, was fixed to the spot.
Harry had spent nearly a decade around Wizarding portraits, but never before had they seemed so completely surreal. For several moments, he had to remind himself that Fred was not going to climb down out of the frame and start walking around, because Fred, the real Fred, was dead. Harry cast a stunned look over at Ron, who was digging his nails into his palms. He started to go to him, to say something, but considering he had yet to get an admission out of Ron that his brother was dead, Harry was a little stumped on how to politely remind him of it.
He was still staring when Ginny caught his eye and sent him a shaky smile. Fred followed her gaze, and waved at them both. "Harry! Ron!" he called over the clatter of students, who were flocking in waves around Fred's portrait like pilgrims to a shrine. "Don't stand there like morons, you two, come take a look!"
Harry found his legs again and went up to Ron. He had to yank him forward by the elbow, so they both stumbled a little.
Up close, Fred's grin was exactly the same. His freckles, his hair, the crooked twist of his lips when he wasn't speaking, the restless motions of his hands — a dozen tiny details Harry had absorbed unconsciously over the years and never noticed until they all hit him now with the force of recognition. It was all exactly the same.
"Wow," was the only word he could get past his lips, which was still years ahead of Ron, who just stared.
"I guess you'd call this a real frame-up job," said Fred with a wink — and that was the same too. "Always said I'd never go back to Hogwarts in my lifetime, but I guess they got 'round that little predicament." He laughed again. "So come on, admit it. Umbridge was behind the whole thing, right?"
"Is it true you lit a firecracker on Umbridge's head?" asked an awed first- or second-year.
"Is it true you turned her into a magical blow-up doll at the joke shop?" asked another.
"My dad said you flew the middle one on Cornelius Fudge at a Ministry banquet!"
The noise broke over Harry in waves. Fred didn't look fazed, but the chaos outside the Great Hall had been steadily building, and it was obvious that Fred's portrait was the focus. The other portraits were surrounded by friends and family members, and there was plenty of crying and reunion making the rounds. But the Weasley twins' exit from Hogwarts was already the stuff of legend, and for most of the younger students, not even epic fights against evil wizards could eclipse the height of setting off a fireworks display in the Great Hall. Whole dorms were crowding around his portrait, and Fred was already off and running with tales of the time he and George had Transfigured Mrs Norris into a rabbit and then tipped off Filch that she was eating the cabbages.
Harry tugged Ginny away from the surge of students. She couldn't take her eyes off Fred, and Harry was pretty sure Ron hadn't yet closed his mouth. "They didn't tell you?" Harry asked. "Your mum and dad didn't mention it?"
"No," Ginny breathed. "Oh, Harry, he looks so — he's so real."
"Yeah," said Harry, unable to say why this bothered him so much.
"I heard Dad mention the Ministry was going to commemorate the battle at Hogwarts, but he didn't know the details," she said. "It doesn't make sense that he's here. He wasn't even a student at the time of the battle."
"I guess since he left early he got a free pass back in," Harry said. From what he could tell, Fred didn't seem to mind being dead as much as he minded having been hung at Hogwarts, and even that seemed to be more a cursory complaint, caught up as he was in reliving his glory days as a Gryffindor.
Someone tugged his arm. It was Ron, who'd regained his powers of motion long enough to inform Harry, "It's really him! It's Fred!"
Later, Harry thought that right then was when he should have said something. He almost did. He opened his mouth to say, "No, mate, it's not. It's not Fred, because Fred's dead."
But Ron and Ginny were beaming up at the portrait, and Fred was grinning down at fifty eager students, telling them about the time George gave the entire Ravenclaw Quidditch team a box of Canary creams right before a scrimmage with Gryffindor. "Fifteen minutes in, half the team turned into birds. It was glorious. They never did find the Snitch."
And the truth was that even as a portrait, Harry thought, Fred was more alive than Voldemort had ever been.
So he smiled at Ron, and hugged Ginny, and said, "Yeah. It's him."
The second surprise they received was also courtesy of the Weasley twins.
The Sorting Feast was one of the most awkward evenings Harry had ever sat through. The entire Slytherin section was empty except for Malfoy, who for the first time in his life didn't preen like a king at the end of the table, but rather curled in on himself at one corner of it, reminding Harry of his reunion with his parents after the battle. The other houses were gutted, too, from students who couldn't come back or who wouldn't. The ceremony included a long section commemorating the dead, with many of the students openly weeping, and Ginny squeezing Harry's hand so tightly under the table as they read off the list that Harry still felt it for a long time after she let go.
The Sorting Hat, looking rumpled, patched, and decidedly the worse for wear, delivered only one verse of song. It hardly livened the mood.
Once a year I urge my brethren To join up the Hogwarts Four:
To join up the Hogwarts Four:
Noble Ravenclaw and Slytherin,
Hufflepuff and Gryffindor.
Have I stammered? Must I clamour
To deaf ears ad infinitum?
I will sort you, but I exhort you:
Don't repeat the past—unite 'em.
"Cranky, much?" Ron muttered.
Ginny said dryly, "If you'd had to be dug out of a pile of rubble, you'd be cranky, too."
The first student who took the stage was sorted into Slytherin. There was a moment of stunned silence, followed by polite applause, and then, with a stricken look on her face, she slowly moved to sit as far away from Malfoy as possible. Harry stifled a smirk.
The second student who took the bench was also sorted into Slytherin. And then the third, and then the fourth. The fifth went to Hufflepuff, to everyone's relief, but then the sixth, seven, and eighth went to Slytherin, and low murmurs were beginning to creep round the room.
"The hat's trying to make up for the missing students by restoring the ratio of Slytherin students to the rest of Hogwarts," Ginny murmured. "Seven to one, Slytherin to the other houses."
"Kinda ruins the personality factor, though, don't it?" said Ron.
"Maybe that's the point," said Neville.
The Sorting went relatively quickly, given that Ginny's ratio theory was spot-on, and the Slytherin students were mostly too shell-shocked at their fate to do much applauding in-between selections. Harry tried to picture Hogwarts with eighty or so Slytherins in one class for the next seven years. As it was, with only first years in Slytherin, they wouldn't have enough teams for Quidditch, and the inter-house competition would be hopelessly skewed. Everything would be hopelessly distorted. And with such a giant majority Slytherin couldn't really be considered the house for innately evil children. Not for the next seven years, at least.
Maybe Neville was right.
There was such an undercurrent of unease by the time the hat had finished that McGonagall rose to the podium to quiet everyone. She said a few words about decorum and welcoming everyone, and seemed to be quelling any and all objections with the strength of her glare as she spoke. It put Harry in mind of Dumbledore all at once, and he resolved to go pay his portrait a visit as soon as he could. At least Dumbledore's portrait was easy to cope with, he thought. So far, whenever he'd seen it, it had mostly been sleeping, or talking about socks. Maybe there should be a minimum age requirement for portraits, he thought. Or a waiting period. How could anyone expected to grieve normally when the person they lost was still right there in front of them, moving around and acting alive?
Harry had never much thought about the ins and outs of Wizarding portraits, but the ideas he had now were troubling. How did the personality inside the portrait match up with the one outside? What if the portrait were painted while the original were still alive? Would they share the same soul — if portraits even had souls? If Sirius had been painted before he fell through the veil, would his painting know what had happened to him? For that matter, how did people decide who got to continue on as a portrait and who didn't? What if —
"ATTENTION, ALL DOERS OF MISCHIEF, PRACTITIONERS OF PRANKS, AND SPINNERS OF YARNS!"
McGonagall broke off in mid-speech, and every head in the room jerked to attention. The voice had no point of origin as far as Harry could see, but it filled the room. Maybe a magnified Howler, he thought.
A Howler with a voice that sounded suspiciously like a Weasley twin.
"ARE YOU BORED WITH SCHOOL AFTER ONE WHOLE HOUR? TIRED OF STUDYING ALREADY? WONDERING HOW YOU'LL SURVIVE A WHOLE YEAR WITHOUT A REAL QUIDDITCH MATCH? LET THE EXPERTS HELP!"
As the voice subsided, dozens upon dozens of thick folded parchments materialized on all the tables in the Great Hall. "It's a catalogue," said Ginny, flipping through. Harry read over her shoulder.
HIGH JINX: A SEASONAL CATALOGUE OF JOKES, PRANKS, LEG-PULLS, WHIMS, FANCIES, AFFRONTS, HORN-SWOGGLES, BUFFOONERY, AND DON'T-TRY-THIS-AT-HOMES
NOW WITH BONUS SELECTION: MORE WAYS TO ENJOY HISTORY OF MAGIC!
Ginny covered her mouth with her hand and began to giggle. McGonagall had a look on her face that Harry knew well from past acquaintance, and it was that expression that convinced him, even more than the tiny lower case print that read mail-order supplies courtesy of An Establishment, Diagon Alley, London, that George was behind this.
"He must have been working on this all summer," he said, thumbing through page after page of brand-new jokes and derivations on old ones.
"Longer," Ginny said. "They must have been working on it for ages. That's why he stayed at the shop so often after — he was trying to get it ready for the start of term."
"How'd he get a Howler inside without telling any of us?" Ron asked.
They looked at each other, and then slowly shifted their collective gaze down the table.
A few seats down, Lee Jordan's little sister, Esther, sent them a wink.
"Amazing," said Ron. "I've got to tell Fred." He grabbed a copy of the catalogue and stood up.
Ginny stood up too. "I'll come with you." The two of them were halfway down the aisle before Harry could even swing a leg over the bench.
"Do you think he knew? Do you think George got a message through somehow?" Ron was saying as he went. Harry watched them go, wishing he could feel happier about Fred being there. He wished Hermione had come with them. She'd agree with him, he knew, and maybe she'd even tell him why.
He flipped through the catalogue. McGonagall had more or less restored order, but the air was full of the sound of pages being riffled. He glanced over to the Slytherin table, where the Weasley wares were being welcomed with a warmth that had never before been present in that house. Malfoy had started out by himself at one end, but somehow during the sorting, he had become surrounded by ickle firsties, a number of whom were now crowding around him while he patiently taught them the respect due the Weasley trade, which was, of course, to rip out the pages of the catalogue and transfigure them into flying cranes. For the second time that day, Harry found himself grinning.
The third surprise was not really, in retrospect, a surprise at all. When Harry went down for breakfast the next morning, the empty canvas that should have held Vincent Crabbe had been slashed into ribbons sometime during the night. Madam Pomfrey was hard at work restitching it.
Standing beside her, thin-lipped and silent, was Draco Malfoy, and Harry realised suddenly that the evening before, he hadn't been standing in front of it to view it.
He'd been standing guard.
For the first few weeks, Harry walked through the halls of the castle, remembering the dead, as if they were still falling all around him. Sometimes he passed Malfoy in corridors, alone and looking completely defenceless for the first time in his life. Not even when Harry had taken his wand from him did he seem as lost as he did without Crabbe and Goyle. As if he'd worn them as armour his whole life.
Mostly, though, Malfoy just stood silently in front of Crabbe's portrait, like a sentinel whose changing of the guard had never come to relieve him.
Then, a few weeks into term, the orders from the High Jinx catalogue began to arrive, and Hogwarts became a battleground once more — of pranks instead of hexes.
Hogwarts was a sea of arrivals from Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, and Harry had privately begun to think that if owls could ever go on strike, the owls of Diagon Alley might be well on their way to mutiny, what with the constant siege of deliveries from the joke shop. His owl, which so far had just been known to everyone as Owl, was so tiny that Harry felt guilty sending it out with anything heavier than a leaf of parchment, and he could tell that it lived in constant terror of the large packages arriving daily all around it. He settled mostly for just petting it.
McGonagall had warned Harry that she would have her hands full with the concerns of the school and would have no time to look after him. At the time, she had probably been envisioning a school full of war-ravaged trauma victims. Instead, she had a school full of children who randomly woke to find their mattresses transformed into giant marshmallows, classrooms that occasionally morphed into swim tanks and filled with water, meals that frequently levitated across the Great Hall and deposited themselves onto a convenient head, professors who sometimes developed canine attributes and unknowingly delivered their lectures as a series of barks, and portraits who often taught those with initiative how to augment the tricks of the High Jinx seasonal catalogue. Said augmentations usually took the form of sparks, loud noises, and/or an increase in feathers.
Harry had wondered, when he first made the decision to start back at Hogwarts, if he and Ron and Neville would be treated any differently for being war heroes. Instead, Fred's presence in the main foyer made them feel almost normal again. Neville, who had more or less led most of the student body the previous year, had earned a respect from the upper year students that Harry had never seen, even as leader of the DA. But Fred was something more: students thronged to him at all hours of the day, even at night, until Filch started chasing them off with a dirty mop.
At which point Fred scouted around until he found a disused Muggle Studies classroom where someone had hung a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. Then he passed around meeting times and crowded into the frame as often as he could. As far as Harry could tell, the sessions were mostly all-boys, mostly lewd, and mostly a chance for Fred to tell how he and George had undermined Umbridge as often as they could during Harry's fifth year.
If anyone had taken a page out of Fred's book and tried to sabotage McGonagall, Harry convinced himself that he would have put a stop to it, Weasley portrait or no portrait. But while the jokes flew fast and furious in the first month of school, McGonagall herself was never at a loss. She was in many ways a stricter headmaster than Dumbledore had been, and no one ever underestimated her twice.
The mass of Slytherin first-years quickly sorted themselves out by cliques. Much to Harry's amusement, most of them seemed to like Malfoy. Sometimes, when he walked past Malfoy and the portrait, a handful of younger Slytherins would be gathered around him like wayward ducklings, and Malfoy would be doing his best to pretend they didn't exist.
Harry hadn't given much thought to the fact that with the new sorting ratio, most of Slytherin House had to have been half-blooded or Muggleborn. But then one day he stood near enough to hear Malfoy telling them vividly and at length why they were all disgraces to the name of Slytherin. "In short," Malfoy finished grandly, "None of you could have bribed your way in before the war, and in two or three years you'll most likely have brought the whole house down and previous generations will curse you."
"You're funny," said one of the girls.
Malfoy scowled at them. They laughed. Harry couldn't help but stifle a grin, and Malfoy happened to look up and catch him.
"Hard at work brainwashing your new recruits already, Malfoy?" he said, since he'd been caught listening in anyway.
Malfoy recovered quickly enough to seethe, "They're not mine, Potter, but if you want to rescue the lot of them from the shame of being Slytherin, be my guest."
There'd been a time when Malfoy could make him lose all objectivity just by showing up. Now it was like it didn't even matter much what Malfoy said to him; it was all of a certain ilk. Malfoy was predictable. Harry almost welcomed that.
"Being Slytherin didn't mean so much to your lot in the end, though, did it?" he said. "None of them came back."
"Being Slytherin has nothing to do with the house, Potter," Malfoy answered, just as calm. "They stuck together. They did what they had to do."
"Well then," said Harry, "I guess that makes you less Slytherin than you thought."
Harry hadn't spoken to him since the first day, but it was still satisfying to watch Malfoy's cheeks go splotchy. "You've no idea what you're talking about, Potter," he said.
"Maybe not," said Harry, "but if I were you, Malfoy, I'd stop defending the absent and love the ones you're with."
Malfoy wrinkled his nose.
"And I'm not talking about that empty portrait," Harry added.
"It's not empty," Malfoy said, too hastily. Then he scowled, and his face snapped shut like a fan.
Harry rolled his eyes and bent down to the shortest Slytherin.
"Make him tell you about the time he saw Voldemort and screamed like a little girl," he whispered, loud enough so that Malfoy could hear him, and then he went into breakfast.
Harry, as it turned out, could adjust to most of the changes at Hogwarts more easily than he could accept the idea of passing Malfoy by silently every morning without finding a way to get under his skin. Malfoy always responded, though, even on the days he was obviously trying to hold himself in check. Harry had slotted Malfoy's effort to stay calm as being pure rage at first, but knowing on what a short leash the Ministry had him, he had begun to read it as paranoia. Malfoy was afraid that one wrong move would land him in Azkaban with his father.
Harry was almost impressed at how well he was doing.
But Malfoy couldn't watch Crabbe's portrait all the time. He had to eat, and sleep, and he was in all Harry's classes, which he bore with the same awkwardness that Harry, Ron, and the rest of them bore the fine art of being held back a year. Malfoy never missed class, which meant he couldn't always guard the frame; and invariably, at least once a week, the portrait would be slashed again, or the canvas egged, or the frame scratched.
Privately, Harry asked Colin if he would keep an eye on it, see if he could find out who was doing it; but the portraits had to sleep, too, and, as Colin woefully reminded him, he had been painted without his camera, which meant that he couldn't even take a picture, much less carry out his lifelong vision of inventing an ingenious infra red-sensitive device that could trigger a snapshot when someone came near.
"What would happen if someone painted in a camera for you now?" Harry asked, mainly to be polite.
"Oh, I don't know," said Colin. "It would have to be pretty similar to the one I own or else I don't think it would work. But then I don't really know much about these things — I just woke up stuck in here, still learning the ropes, you know." He laughed. He always seemed in good spirits when Harry said hello in the mornings and evenings; but Harry had seen him trying to talk to Dennis at least twice more since that first night, only to get no response.
It was a funny thing about Colin Creevey, Harry thought. Before leaving Hogwarts, he had probably been badgered by the kid every day, and he'd never particularly enjoyed it but it hadn't been the worst thing in the world, whatever he'd felt about having a camera shoved in his face. Now Harry made himself go out of his way to talk to Colin at least once a day. Colin was just the same as he ever was. His artist had somehow managed to imbue him with all the energy of a hyperactive terrier, just as he'd had when he was alive. He looked and sounded and acted like he was made of flesh and blood, and Harry guessed that he should have been happy to see Colin, the way everyone else was.
But talking to Colin Creevey was horrible, because every time, Harry remembered the way he'd looked the last time Harry had seen him, lying in a cold stiff pile in the Great Hall. He'd died with an open mouth, shocked into silence. He hadn't seen death coming. If he'd lived, Harry knew, he probably would have gone on to be a photographer for the Prophet, and he probably would have found an excuse to take a picture of Harry once a week for the rest of their lives, and Harry probably would have gone right on finding him obnoxious and annoying.
He wanted to ask Colin if it made him angry — that he'd died, that he was stuck in a picture frame for the rest of his death-time, that they hadn't even given him a camera to take with him into his new portrait after-life. But he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answers, because Harry figured there was a chance he'd end up as a portrait one day, and dwelling on it just made him feel depressed.
So instead he asked Dennis why he wasn't talking to his brother.
"He misses you," Harry said as casually as he could one evening at dinner. Dennis had grown into a dark-haired brooding type with legs that were too long for him. He had Colin's clumsiness and Colin's nose, but beyond that the resemblance stopped. "You should say hi to him."
Dennis took a swig of pumpkin juice and gave Harry a look over the glass. He swallowed, sat the glass down, and said, "That thing is not my brother. My brother's dead."
"I know," said Harry awkwardly. "Believe me, I do. But he still has — "
Dennis stood up so fast his knees banged noisily against the underside of the table. "My brother is dead. That stupid portrait isn't real. It can't walk, it can't eat, it can't show me how to build a model aeroplane. You can paint as many portraits of him as you want but he's gone. Don't you get that? Why is everyone acting so happy to see the fucking thing?"
"Leave me alone, Harry," Dennis said. His voice was trembling. "At least his portrait can talk to you all day long — that's probably his idea of heaven anyway."
But that night Harry only managed a brief nod and a wave to Colin — just like old times, he thought guiltily. Instead he stopped in front of Crabbe's empty canvas, beside Malfoy.
"So where is he, then, if it's not empty?" Harry asked. He tried to make it sound casual, but Malfoy went rigid anyway and glared at him.
"Why are you asking?" he snapped. "So you can find him and get in a few hexes?"
"You don't know where he is, do you," said Harry.
Malfoy shrugged. "He's somewhere in the castle," he said. "He's got to be. There's only the one painting."
Harry thought about how many paintings there were in the castle, how many places there were to hide if you were a painting who didn't want to be found, and only one person in the whole world wanted to find you.
"He wanted to kill you," Harry said. "Before he started the fire."
"Get lost, Potter," said Malfoy, without much heat. He reached out and ran his finger along the edge of the empty portrait, collecting dust from the frame. "I've wanted to kill you plenty of times."
Harry looked at him. The signs of progress were more in what he and Malfoy didn't do than what they did: there were no more seething insults, no wands drawn. Even now, he felt strange every time he saw Malfoy using his own wand again. Malfoy had never thanked him for giving it back, but then he'd never thanked Malfoy for letting him borrow it for all those months.
He remembered Malfoy lying to Voldemort to help them escape. He remembered Malfoy shouting, "Don't kill him!" over and over as Goyle and Crabbe stood ready to perform the killing curse on Harry without hesitation. He remembered Voldemort saying to Lucius Malfoy, "Perhaps your son has befriended Harry Potter."
"I'll take over, if you want," he said. "You can't stand here all night."
Malfoy looked up at him, and their eyes locked for a long moment. There'd been a time when that was all it ever took to make Harry feel like he was on fire. At the moment it was more like a low simmer. He broke the gaze and shook his head. "Suit yourself," he said, and he turned to leave Malfoy there.
He counted the number of steps he took before Malfoy called his name, and allowed himself a smirk before he turned around.
Summer rolled into fall with little fanfare: one day the air was muggy; the next it was crisp, and the leaves crunched beneath Harry's feet when he took Owl out for flying — though with Owl it was less like flying and more like sustained careening. If there had been Quidditch, Harry would have considered auditioning him for the Snitch. As it was he was almost too busy to miss it. He still took his broom out as often as he could, but seventh year at Hogwarts was apparently devoted to studying, studying, and more studying, and since he'd been gone a year he and Ron had a lot of catching up to do. Without the Half-Blood Prince to help him, his potions grades were back to abysmal, and Slughorn had taken to slapping him on the back and saying, "Don't worry, my boy! It'll come back to you, just like flying a broomstick!"
The lower years still met regularly with Fred in the Mona Lisa portrait. Filch had found them at last and chased them off, but the boys had started moving the painting around the castle so that they all met in a different location every week. Harry could always tell when they had just met, because the next day there was an outbreak of new pranks and a lot of interesting twists on the old ones.
Ron joined them every night for a while, but then he came in to the Common Room one night bearing a hideous painting of his own. It was a long canvas of a wide grassy valley, with an Opaleye dragon painted at one end of it.
"Please tell me you didn't get that from Hagrid's personal portrait collection," said Harry, staring at it. It was curled around itself and appeared to be fast asleep, which Harry thought was a weird way to paint a dragon, but then maybe sleeping dragons were just a Hogwarts thing.
"Nicked it from one of the Hufflepuffs for ten sickles," Ron said, out of breath but triumphant.
"I have a feeling you got ripped off," said Harry.
"It's for Fred!" Ron had already climbed atop the biggest couch in the room and was hanging the painting dead centre above it. "So he can talk to us whenever he wants without us having to come all the way downstairs."
"Oh," said Harry. "Good idea."
"I know, right?" Ron was grinning.
"Just, are you sure he wants to?" said Harry. "I mean... if I were stuck around here I think the last place I'd want to hang out would be the Gryffindor Common Room."
Ron threw him a look over his shoulder. "Are you kidding? He's already spent half his life hanging out here," he said. "And he'll want to talk to us, of course."
Harry had his doubts on that one as well, but they proved to be moot. The first time Fred stepped into the frame, the Opaleye everyone thought was non-enchanted suddenly flicked its tail, popped open one of its dazzling eyes, which sparkled in a way that no human being could have painted, and sent a massive arc of scarlet-red fire spiraling across the painting before any of them had even registered that it was awake.
Fred yelped and made a flying leap off-canvas.
"Bloody thing nearly singed my top coating off!" he said later, glaring at Ron.
"I thought it was a Muggle painting!" said Ron, rubbing the top of his head. "I mean the bloody thing never moved!"
"Yeah?" said Fred irritably. "Well, next time, do me a favour and send in a fair maiden or a box of treasure or something before you send in your dearly departed brother, all right?"
"That Hufflepuff fifth-year scammed me out of ten sickles!" said Ron, scowling. "What am I going to do with some stupid dragon?"
"Teach it to play exploding snap?" said Harry.
"Nah," said Ron seriously. "If we could just get it out of the frame, though, it'd be perfect for — hey, I've got it!" And he took off upstairs.
"What d'you think he's gone after?" said Fred.
"Oh, no," said Harry.
It was probably Sir Cadogan's finest moment.
"FEAR NOT!" he bellowed, or rather tried to; when he entered the painting he had shrunk in proportion to the dragon, so his voice was a little tinny.
"Are you sure this will work?" Harry asked Ron.
"He's a knight!" said Ron. "Course it'll work!" But Harry noted he was chewing his fingernails.
The stand-off was epic. Sir Cadogan advanced toward the dragon, waving his sword erratically from behind his shield. His armour plating had a luminous quality about it, as though he'd got someone to touch up the brush strokes just for the occasion. The dragon, who had promptly gone back to sleep after chasing off Fred, popped open the same eye as before. It sent two lazy puffs in Sir Cadogan's direction, looking unimpressed.
"BEGONE, FOUL CREATURE!" said Sir Cadogan. He shuffled closer. The dragon yawned. Sir Cadogan two-stepped closer still and rapped it on the nose with the flat of his sword.
The dragon sneezed, stood up, and lumbered off-canvas. Sir Cadogan gave a roar of victory and raised his tiny arms.
And that was how Fred got his own painting in the Gryffindor Common Room.
The best part of the whole episode, at least for Harry, came when Ron owled Hermione to tell her what they'd done. The next day she'd sent him a Howler that carried on for at least two pages. RONALD WEASLEY, DID YOU EVEN STOP TO THINK FOR ONE SECOND ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOU'VE ROBBED THAT POOR CREATURE OF ITS HABITAT? YOU CAN'T JUST SEND IT TO LIVE AMONG THE OTHER PAINTINGS IN THE CASTLE! WHERE WILL IT SLEEP? WHAT IF IT CAN'T FIND A FRAME BIG ENOUGH TO FIT IT! THE TOPOGRAPHY OF NEW ZEALAND IS VERY SPECIFIC! YOU'D BEST HOPE THAT THE ARTIST DID A SERIES OR ELSE YOU COULD HAVE RENDERED A MAJESTIC CREATURE HOMELESS FOR ALL ETERNITY. HONESTLY!
And so forth.
That night Harry owled her: See what I mean?
She responded the next day with a note that read fire chat, 8 pm tonight.
Harry stole away to the Hufflepuff Common Room and met her there at eight sharp. When her face popped out of the fire, he was so glad to see her he swung his arm around her and kissed her on the forehead. She swatted him away.
"I'm going out soon, so I can't spare long, but tell me about Ron."
Harry told her. He wasn't really sure what to say about Fred. It wasn't that he was any different than before, but with his portrait there at Hogwarts, Ron wasn't really accepting that Fred was dead. Hermione listened. Then she frowned.
"I know this business with the dragon is — well, perfectly daft," she said. "But that's just typical for Ron, Harry. Hasn't he seemed okay to you? I mean in general."
Harry thought about it. "I guess he's quieter lately," he said. "But that's probably because he doesn't have you around to argue with." And because they were all, he thought, different since the war. But he and Ron never really talked about that stuff when they were together.
She pursed her lips. "I know it's a strange idea to think about for you and me," she said, "But Harry, maybe Ron doesn't have to accept that Fred's gone. I mean, think about it — if he can come see Fred at Hogwarts whenever he wants, how is that any different from when he was alive?"
"Because it is," said Harry. "I mean, Fred's not — he's not alive, Hermione, any more than Dumbledore's portrait's alive, or Snape's, or Sir Cadogan's."
"Are you really positive about that?" said Hermione. "I mean, the portraits, they walk, they sleep, they talk, they move around from place to place, they can go anywhere they want inside the castle, and they can move around between portraits of themselves. How is that different from a real person with limited mobility?"
"But — Hermione, it makes no sense," he protested. "These portraits, how do they think? Why is it they sleep but they don't eat? They can move around from canvas to canvas as long as the canvas was originally a portrait of them, right? But if there are multiple paintings of the same person, why is there ever only one actual figure of that person that moves around inside of them? Why not doubles? And why can't I just hang a frame up in Shropshire and call it a picture of Fred Weasley and let Fred get around in it?"
"Well, for one thing," Hermione said, "Portraits fall under the Fifth Exception to Gamp's Law, so you can't have multiples of the same person roaming about. For another, the frames don't have any magical properties themselves; the canvases do. You can't have a magical painting until you've actually got yourself a completed portrait. And portraits don't eat because there's no food for them to find. If they come in contact with a magical painted piece of fruit or something, they do eat. Their behaviour patterns are mechanized. Harry, why is this bothering you so much now?"
"Because their behaviour patterns are mechanized!" said Harry. "Because it's not natural."
"Harry," said Hermione, in her I'm-being-very-patient-with-you voice. "We're wizards."
Harry sighed. "Death is supposed to be permanent. You're not supposed to be able to just — I don't know, put down a piece of wood and a canvas and make a whole new life out of what you get."
"Why not?" said Hermione. "Death wasn't that permanent for you, was it?"
Harry opened his mouth, then shut it again.
"Harry," Hermione said gently, "I'm not saying you're wrong about Ron. But I think you need to figure out why this is getting to you so much."
"It's not just me," Harry said. "I don't think Fred knows how to deal with being a painting any more than Ron knows how to deal with him being dead."
"Well, paintings can last for centuries, after all," said Hermione. "I imagine it's the kind of trick that takes a while to learn. Can you see Fred as a Hogwarts portrait in a hundred years?"
"Nah," said Harry. "He'll burn the place down with exploding Botuber pus first." She grinned at him and reached through the fire to squeeze his hand.
"Tell you what," she said. "I'll do some research and let you know if I find out that portraits are secretly evil spirits with no resemblance to their real life counterparts."
"Yeah, thanks, that'd be a big help."
"Oh, Harry, what would you do without me," she said.
"What have I been doing, more like," said Harry. "I've had to resort to having conversations with Malfoy since you're not here."
"Malfoy?" Hermione raised her eyebrows, and Harry dove in and told her all about Crabbe's portrait, and how he was hiding somewhere in the castle, and how Malfoy was always out there, keeping watch so no one would hurt it.
"Maybe you should help him," said Hermione.
"I did," said Harry. "I took over for him the other day after he'd been standing there for who knows how long."
She laughed. "Not help him guard the painting," she said. "Help him find Crabbe."
"Are you serious?" said Harry. "He could be anywhere. There are probably a thousand paintings in this castle."
"But all the other portraits move around, right?" said Hermione. "They could help you look for him. The ones who've been here for centuries probably know exactly where to look that the rest of us wouldn't."
"You want me to ask the paintings to find Crabbe?" said Harry blankly.
"I don't care one way or the other," said Hermione primly. "But it sounds a little like you do."
"He tried to burn us," said Harry.
"And Malfoy saved us," said Hermione. "His mum saved you. And his wand saved all of us."
Harry felt himself scowling. This conversation wasn't going the way he wanted it to. "Malfoy won't let me, probably," he said. "He'd just tell me to get lost. I mean — why would I want to help Crabbe of all people?"
Hermione shrugged. "It's like the Sorting Hat said once. If we don't unite, we'll crumble from within."
"What would I even do if I found him?"
"Leave that up to Malfoy, I suppose."
"Did you ever think maybe if someone doesn't want to be found, we should let them stay hidden?" Harry grumbled.
Hermione brushed his hand with her thumb. "Everyone wants to be found, Harry," she said. "The people who hide are the ones who think no one is looking."
"Have I mentioned I miss you?" he said. "Not any chance you're going to finish that independent study a few weeks early, is there?"
She shook her head fondly. "I'll be at the Burrow at Christmas," she said. "Besides, you still have Ron and Ginny to look after you." She paused, then smirked. "And Malfoy."
They were still laughing when Hermione looked over his shoulder, started, and pulled her hand out of his grasp. "Hey, Ginny!" she said.
Harry tuned in surprise. He hadn't told anyone he'd be up here; Ron had been buried in transfiguration assignments and hadn't bothered to ask, and he just hadn't thought to tell Ginny. Things had been tense with her for weeks — pretty much ever since summer, though Harry still wasn't really sure exactly why. He had planned on talking about it with Hermione tonight if he got the chance, but obviously that was done.
"Hi, Hermione!" she said, and it sounded pleasant enough, but Harry could tell she wasn't really happy about finding Harry and Hermione alone. "If you two are done, I have a favour to ask."
"Oh!" said Hermione. "Absolutely, I'm just on my way out with my parents. They send you their love, Harry, and I'm supposed to tell you that it's high time you came out to dinner with us the next time you're in London."
"That's so sweet!" said Ginny. "We'd love to." And then she gave Hermione a smile that Harry didn't understand at all.
Harry was already on edge from voicing all that he'd been thinking about the portraits, and he had a feeling that if he said anything at all to Ginny in this mood it was going to end up badly. But he also wasn't really up for trying to spare her feelings when she'd just shoehorned in on his conversation with Hermione, so after Hermione had gone, he took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "So! How'd you find me?"
"I asked around and no one knew where you were," said Ginny, "so I checked the Marauder's Map."
Harry blinked. "You stalked me?"
"What?" Her jaw went slack. "No."
"You did," said Harry, feeling his face heat up. "And you interrupted my conversation with Hermione."
"Oh, please," said Ginny, putting a hand on her hip. "She was about to leave, you heard her. And anyway, I'm not sure I like you having conversations with my brother's girlfriend behind his back."
Harry stared. "Ginny, she's my best friend."
"No, Harry," Ginny snapped, "your best friend should be your girlfriend, and if you talked to me half as much as you pined away for Hermione maybe you wouldn't need to owl her for advice."
"I'm not pining! I've known her since I was eleven, which is a lot longer than I've gotten to know you, by the way — "
"Which is exactly why I deserve more time with you than she gets," said Ginny. "I haven't had as much, and how am I supposed to get to know you if you're always pulling away from me?"
"Oh, really, I didn't know you cared, since you spent most of the summer avoiding me," snapped Harry, fiercely glad they were having this fight, even though he felt dark and ugly as he heard the words coming out of his mouth.
"You were always with them," said Ginny. "And maybe I just needed some space after everything that happened last year."
"Space?" said Harry. "You need space, but you flip out if you don't know where I am for half an hour?"
"I wasn't!" she started to speak, then stopped and tried again. "I just wanted to ask you to come to Soblessa's birthday party with me," she said wearily.
Harry blinked. "Why are they having a birthday party for a dead girl? And why would you come all the way up here for that?"
"Because it's her birthday," said Ginny, "And because it's starting any minute. You've been to Deathday parties before, Harry, why are you being so obtuse about this one?"
"Because I never even knew her. Why would I want to go to a party for her?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Ginny. "Why would you possibly want to do something nice for a girl who lost her life fighting in your battle against Voldemort — "
"It wasn't my battle, Ginny, it was everyone's. And that's my point. It's not her birthday! She's dead!"
"That doesn't mean you can't celebrate her life!"
"I can celebrate her life better by not wallowing in grief!"
"Wallowing? It's a birthday party!"
"For someone I never even spoke to!"
"You know what?" said Ginny, eyes blazing away. "I keep forgetting. I keep expecting you to act like you care. But that's all over with. Now Voldemort's dead, now your parents are avenged and you've," air quotes, "saved the Wizarding world, why should you have to deal with any of the fallout?"
"That's rich, Ginny," Harry said coldly. "That's real rich coming from you. How much fighting did you even do in the war?"
She looked as though he'd slapped her, and for a moment of shock he felt as awful as if he had. There was a thick silence, and then she unfolded her arms with a jerk, as if she'd been stunned into movement.
"I'm done, Harry," she said. "I'm just done."
She left the room.
"So why are we getting soused?" said Ron.
"We," said Harry, taking a swig of Firewhisky, "are getting soused because Ginny broke up with me."
He, Ron, and Neville were sitting on the couch underneath Fred's canvas of Unique New Zealand Topography. Fred and Colin were stretched out on the grass in the painting, shrunk in proportion to the scenery so that they looked about ten centimetres tall. Fred was chewing on a blade of grass that looked more like a random brush stroke. Harry wondered if it tasted like paint.
Ron had taken one look at Harry when he got back to their dorm room, put down his quill, and said, "Right, mate, we need to get you drunk." The previous year, Seamus had started a bootlegging system among the outgoing seventh-years that had resulted in a stockpile of butterbeer, Firewhisky, mead, and whatever else they could get their hands on concealed in their dorm room cupboard. Harry hadn't really had much opportunity to take advantage of it, but he figured he was making up for lost time now. Neville was on to his second mug of Firewhisky. Harry didn't want to think about how he'd become the kind of person who could drink like that.
Ron stared. "She what?" he said. "Why?"
Harry shrugged and took another gulp. "I have no idea, one second we were arguing about her always having to know where I am, then it was some stupid party, next thing I know I'm getting dumped."
"Soblessa's party?" said Colin.
"Sure," said Harry. "A birthday party for a dead girl."
"Oh," said Colin. "I always thought she was the most beautiful girl in Hogwarts."
"So ask her out," said Fred, twirling his blade of grass.
"You can do that?" said Neville. "I mean, paintings can — you know, hold hands and stuff?"
Fred leaned over and ruffled Colin's hair in response. Colin gave a squeak that was even higher pitched than usual, probably because he was so tiny.
"Seriously, do it," said Fred. "Life's too short." Then he grinned. "Well, actually, it isn't for us, is it?"
"You think she'd say yes?" said Colin.
"Sure," said Fred. "What else is she going to do for the next five thousand years?"
"Forget Soblessa," said Ron, "what about you and Ginny, Harry, what were you thinking?"
Harry gave Ron a look.
"You know if you break my little sister's heart I have to kick your arse, right?"
"What — she broke up with me," Harry protested. "And I don't see you going around working over Dean Thomas!"
"That's 'cause he and Ginny were all wrong for each other!" said Ron. "Not like you and her. The two of you were perfect together!"
Harry snorted. "Then why is it she and Dean got along fine, and me and her fight all the time?"
"I didn't even know the two of you were still together," said Neville.
"Are you nuts?" said Ron.
"Great," said Harry. "Real helpful, Neville, thanks."
"But you broke up with her after sixth year, right?" said Neville.
"Well, yeah," said Harry. "But we got back — " he stopped.
Actually, he wasn't sure they had gotten back together. It had felt like they had, but he couldn't really remember ever having made it official.
"I mean, she kissed me last Christmas," he said confusedly.
"Yeah," said Neville. "She told me about that." Then his face went red. "Last year, I mean."
Harry looked at Ron, and then they both slowly looked at Neville.
"Neville," said Harry, "why would Ginny tell you?"
"What Harry's asking," said Fred cheerily, "is if you've been moving in on his not-girlfriend while he's been not-dating her."
"It wasn't like that!" Harry protested, though he suddenly had a feeling it was more or less exactly like that.
"No!" protested Neville. "I just — last year, I mean. You don't know what it was like around here, Harry. No," he said sharply, when he and Ron both started to protest, "You really don't. Sometimes when things were — sometimes she and I would talk. That's all. She wasn't sure the two of you were ever going to start dating again, and she wasn't sure if she should keep waiting around for you or not."
"Oh," said Harry. His throat was starting to knot up.
"You arse," said Ron, glaring at him. "You've been leading my little sister on!"
"I have not!" said Harry. Then he drained the rest of his Firewhisky and went for a second round.
"You have, too! Now I've got to beat you up!"
"Come off it, Ron," said Fred. "He's just got himself dumped. Pretty hard to do when someone's not even dating you in the first place."
"Yeah, well, we all know Harry's got such a great way with girls," said Ron. "But now you know what the problem is you can fix it, at least."
"Right," said Harry.
Ron took a long gulp of butterbeer. "She's probably down at the party. Go find her and make up already."
"Ease off the lad," said Fred. "He may not want to un-break up if he was never actually dating."
"Of course he wants to," said Ron.
"Ron," said Harry.
"I mean he's part of the family anyway," said Ron, "and Ginny's been in love with him since she was like six."
"Ron," said Harry. He felt hot all over suddenly; probably all the Firewhisky. He stubbornly took another drink.
"People change," said Fred. "Learn to let go, Weasley."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ron said, squinting at him. Fred's face was tiny on the canvas, but Harry could tell he was frowning.
"It means," said Fred, "that maybe Harry here needs some time to be on his own before you go marrying him into the family."
Harry nodded his head in support, but he wasn't sure he actually moved. He was possibly starting to get drunk.
"And," said Fred, "it means maybe you should ask yourself why you've been spending more time with me lately than you ever did when I was alive."
Harry nodded his head again for good measure. It jiggled that time. It felt kind of cool.
"I don't know what you're on about," said Ron. He emptied his butterbeer and sat it noisily down on the floor. "In fact I think you're full of bollocks."
"I think I'm, um, going to go see if the party's still on," said Colin in his tiny awkward voice. He stood up.
"I'll come too," said Neville smoothly. "I wanted to wish Soblessa a happy birthday."
"Bye!" said Harry brightly. Neville was a good chap, he thought. When he wasn't trying to steal people's girlfriends. Or, hell, maybe even when he was.
"You've got more time to spare, for one," said Ron as if the others hadn't spoken. Colin scooted out of the frame. "You've got less to do!"
"Yes, but you don't," said Fred. The blade of grass was gone, Harry noted. The painting looked sharper, too. Fred's tiny edges stood out crisp and neat against it. Oh, yeah, he thought. Definitely drunk.
"So? Hermione's not around, is she?" said Ron. "That's freed up a lot of my time!"
"True, true," said Harry.
"Or," said Fred, "you're trying to convince yourself I'm not — "
"SHUT UP," Ron roared. The Common Room went quiet and everyone stared. Even Harry stared.
Ron stood up and marched upstairs to his dorm room.
"That was a bit cold, don't you think?" said Harry.
"Nah," said Fred. "He needs to hear it."
"You're really tiny," said Harry. "Cute, though."
Fred stood up. "I'm going to pretend this entire evening never existed," he said. "You'll thank me later. Oh, god, I wish I could still get drunk."
"You going back to your portrait?" Harry said interestedly.
"Oh, yes," said Fred sarcastically. "Nowhere else to go."
"You won't be tiny any more," said Harry. "Want me to come watch?" He could stand guard like Fred was one of Draco's lost paintings.
"And there goes the second thing I wish I'd never heard my little sister's boyfriend say," said Fred.
"Ex," said Harry. "She dumped me."
"Goodnight, Harry," said Fred.
"G'night, Tiny Fred!" said Harry.
Once alone, Harry considered his options. He supposed he should go see about Ron. But that was a sobering thought, and Harry really, really didn't want to be sober right now. In fact, he felt under the circumstances he should be a lot drunker.
But it was Ron, and Ron needed him, so he sighed and went upstairs.
Ron was lying on his bed doing homework. "Hey, mate," he said absently when Harry entered.
"Hey," said Harry, sitting down on his own bed. "Um, are you okay?" Ron was sort of fuzzy at the edges, just the opposite of Fred's painting. Alcohol was tricky.
"Yeah? Why wouldn't I be?" said Ron, like he couldn't imagine being anything else. He sounded so convincing it took Harry a second to remember why he was — oh, right, his brother was dead.
Harry suddenly saw Fred's face as he died, his laugh caught permanently in his throat. Instantly his head felt clear.
"You sure there's nothing you want to talk about?" he said to Ron.
"Nope," said Ron. He wrote something on his parchment. Harry couldn't remember him ever acting this invested in Herbology assignments before.
"Ron," said Harry, "look, you're my best friend, and I know it's been rough without Hermione here, but this thing with — "
"Shouldn't you be downstairs making up with Ginny?"
"No," said Harry. "Ron, I need to talk to you about Fr — "
"You'd better hurry," said Ron, still in that same absent voice. "The party could be ending soon."
He turned a page of his textbook. He hadn't once looked up at Harry.
Harry stood up. "I wish Hermione were here," he said. "She'd know how to keep you from making a complete arse of yourself."
"Have a nice night," said Ron.
Harry stared at him a moment longer. Then he gave up and went downstairs.
He gathered up the remaining four bottles of Firewhisky and beer and went to it.
Harry was staring at the wall. It was a very nice wall, he thought. It had stones. Walls with stones were nice. Why hadn't he ever noticed how nice the walls were at Hogwarts?
He peered closer. Then he found himself pitching forward into it. He felt like a mug someone had accidentally sloshed.
"Wow," he said. Then he liked the way his voice sounded in the empty corridor, so he said it again, louder this time. "Wow! Good thing there's a wall there."
He leaned against it, enjoying the cool slab of stone against his cheek. Then he slumped all the way forward and slid down to the floor. He had two bottles of Firewhisky and one bottle of butterbeer left; the others he'd emptied and put down... somewhere else in the castle. He was on his way to — somewhere. The Prefects' Bath, maybe. Sure. A swim! A swim would be excellent. He willed himself very hard to get up. He stayed on the floor. After another moment, he giggled.
Harry looked up. Draco was strolling down the corridor towards him. Harry eyed him and tried hard to suspect him of something, for old times' sake. But he couldn't think of anything, except maybe spying on Harry. Spying on Harry really badly. He giggled again.
"What's wrong with you?" said Draco, stopping in front of him. Then he spotted the bottles. "Oh. You're drunk," he said. He wrinkled his nose.
"No," said Harry. "I was drunk. Then I sobered up long enough to make an idiot of myself. And now I am actively getting drunk again."
"You mean the great Harry Potter indulges in drunken revelry?" said Malfoy. "Shocking."
"No," said Harry. "I had a reason."
"Do tell," said Malfoy, folding his hands in his robes and looking smug.
"Well," said Harry, "at first it was because my girlfriend just dumped me. Or... something. Then it was because one of my friends is dead, and my other friend is going off his rocker because of it, and I can't do anything to help him."
"Well," said Draco, "my girlfriend hasn't spoken to me since she led my entire house out the front door of the castle and then never came back, one of my friends was killed at Hogwarts and is now hiding somewhere where I'll never be able to find him and he'll be some sort of miserable troll for the rest of his death-time, and my other friend is also going off his rocker, only I can't do anything to help him because he's doing it in Azkaban."
Harry wordlessly passed him a bottle of Firewhisky.
Draco took it and slumped down the wall beside him. He glared at Harry, but it was probably more for old times' sake than for anything else, Harry figured — his way of saying 'bottoms up,' maybe.
He took a swig. Harry did too.
"D'you just make that into a contest?" Harry asked after a moment.
"No," said Draco. He took another drink. "Maybe."
"Call it a tie," said Harry.
They drank again. The floor was starting to swim less, which could have meant that he was sobering up, or maybe just that he was concentrating harder. He had to make sense or else Draco would laugh at him. And Draco wasn't half-drunk, so Harry would have to work at it.
"What're you doing up here?" said Harry.
Draco turned his head and gave him a look. "This is the Charms corridor," he said.
"Oh," Harry said. That was nearly to the dungeons. "Well, what're you doing down here, then?"
"Aren't you supposed to be standing in front of a painting, I mean?" said Harry patiently.
"There's a bunch of people down there," said Draco. "Nothing will happen to it while they're there. They're having a party for one of the dead girls."
He didn't add, "The bunch of idiots," out loud, but it was very clearly implied. Harry very nearly grinned at him. He took another drink instead.
"How's your wand?" he asked after they had had silence for several moments.
"Fine," said Draco. "Why wouldn't it be?"
Harry shrugged. "That whole bit about the wand knowing who its master is."
Draco tensed. It was a funny feeling, sensing what Draco's body was doing without actually looking at him directly. He was a few stone slabs away from Harry, but Harry felt like they were shoulder to shoulder.
"Well, Potter," Draco said at last. His voice sounded thick, as if the words were being dragged out of him, and Harry wondered if he was starting to feel some of the Firewhisky. "Apparently my wand thinks we're so much alike it can't tell us apart. Probably why you were able to use it so well in the first place."
Harry considered this for a moment. "I bet you hate that," he said. Draco looked over at him, his eyes narrowed. There was nothing on his face that Harry could translate, so he gave up and slumped further against the wall. "I don't," he said after a moment, unsure whether he meant the wand or Draco or something else. "I don't hate it."
Next to him, Draco sat back, too, and took another long drink. "You're Harry Potter," said Draco. "You're supposed to be gracious. Forgive your enemies." There was no heat behind it.
"That's not why I — " Harry said, and then stopped.
Draco turned his head and stared at him. "Not why you what, Potter?" he said, too casually. "Not why you've been trying to befriend me ever since school started?"
"I haven't been trying to do anything," said Harry, feeling his cheeks redden. "I just haven't — "
He cut himself off. He was sobering up again.
It was all gone, he thought. Whatever hatred or even disgust he'd always felt for Draco had evaporated like so many other things they'd lost at Hogwarts that year. Of all the things he'd never thought the war would take from him, his enmity with Draco was highest on the list. But he felt nothing. It was just... gone. There was nothing there any more.
Harry abruptly thought of Ginny and realised he was comparing the sensation of lost emotion. He realised that they were exactly the same.
"What, Potter?" said Draco impatiently. Harry was sort of impressed he could still coax that much animosity of him, given all the other things he'd seen on Draco's face.
"Look," he said after a moment, "I've got this... map."
It seemed he could also still get Draco to express an unspoken assertion that he was an idiot.
"It's a map of Hogwarts," protested Harry. "I think I can help you find Crabbe."
Draco's blank look got blanker. "Why would you possibly want to do that?"
"You can't seriously be planning on standing there every night for the rest of the year," said Harry.
"Doesn't answer my question."
Harry huffed. "I happen to have a map of Hogwarts, which you just happen to need if you're ever going to find your friend."
Draco shook his head. "He tried to kill you. Tell me one reason why I should let you near him."
Harry looked at him. "Okay," he said. "Fine. Reason number one. You don't really think I'd do anything to him and you know I know it. And I can give you all the other reasons, if you want them, but it comes down to — I couldn't have defeated Voldemort without you."
Draco still looked like he wasn't buying it. "You pulled me out of the Fiendfyre," he said roughly. "That makes us — "
"No," said Harry. "It's not the same thing. I couldn't let you die."
He realised as he said it that it was the truth. He'd never once thought of leaving Draco there. Saving him hadn't been a choice.
"Look," he said, "Do you want me to spell it out for you, or can we just leave it that I'm bored and you could use the help?"
Draco hesitated, started to nod, and then stopped. "I don't know how to convince him he doesn't need to hide," he said. "The painting gets trashed at least once a week. Maybe if he was there it'd just be worse."
"We can fix that," Harry said, though he had no idea how. Draco threw him a sceptical look. Harry rolled his eyes. "Just say yes and don't be a prat for once in your life."
His voice was as clipped as Harry had ever heard it, but for some reason Harry felt like grinning. So he did, tipping back the rest of his bottle of Firewhisky and draining the last.
When Draco caught up and finished his bottle, they opened the last butterbeer together and passed it back and forth between them.
It said a lot about how Harry's year at Hogwarts was going that the best thing that happened to him that week was getting drunk with Draco Malfoy. A few other highlights were the way his head felt the next morning, the way Ginny politely but firmly brushed him off when he tried to talk to her, and the way Ron barely spoke to him or anyone for the next several days. By the end of the week he'd started looking forward to saying hi to Colin's painting, and he was sitting with the sixth-years just to have someone to talk to.
He was so busy trying to make amends with Ron and Ginny, he didn't have much chance to talk to Malfoy in the next couple of days. But then someone or something nearly destroyed Crabbe's portrait. When Harry came down to breakfast in the morning, not only was the canvas slashed, but the frame was cracked completely in two. Malfoy was repairing it with a shaking hand.
Harry fetched the Marauder's Map.
When he went down to breakfast Malfoy had gone inside. He'd done a pretty decent repair job on the frame, but it seemed he had to leave the canvas to Pomfrey, because healing a Wizard painting was a tricky business.
"You're sure you haven't seen anyone hanging around recently?" Harry asked Colin. "Anyone who might have tried to get at Crabbe's painting?"
Colin worried his lower lip and shook his head. "No," he said. "The portraits are always asleep when they come."
"What do you mean by sleep?" asked Harry. "Do you all sleep standing up like the Fat Lady?"
"A lot of the older portraits have chairs or chaise lounges in the paintings," said Colin. "There's an empty one in a painting in the Herbology wing — I usually sleep there if it's not already taken."
"That's absurd," said Harry.
Colin shrugged. "It'd be nice if we had beds or something. But really, portraits have been getting along just fine without having to have beds for centuries, haven't they? Maybe we adjust."
He looked as if he didn't sound so sure.
Harry took a deep breath when he went in to breakfast, crossed over to the Slytherin table, and said, "budge over," to the first-year who was sitting beside Malfoy. The first-years stared at him, and then shoved each other down the row in a ripple of green and black.
Malfoy watched as Harry sat down, unrolled the map, tapped it, and said, "I solemnly swear I am up to no good." Then Harry watched as Malfoy's jaw slid gradually lower and lower while the map revealed its contents. When the last of the names — their own, the words H. Potter and D. Malfoy squinched together in minuscule print in the Great Hall — had formed, Malfoy looked up at Harry, his face holding about twelve expressions at once.
"This explains a lot," he said coolly.
"Cry me a river," said Harry. Malfoy's lips twisted, but it wasn't quite a glare, and he returned to the map, studying it for a long time.
"This seems like incredibly advanced magic," he said. "But I might be able to modify it."
"It can't be that advanced," said Harry. "It was created by Hogwarts students."
Malfoy looked up. "Who?" he asked, and Harry told him. Malfoy's face didn't change until Harry said Pettigrew's name.
"He used to be their friend," Harry said. Malfoy nodded, still looking at him, and then turned back to the map.
"It probably uses some kind of foundation charm," Malfoy said, "that's tied to the magic of the school. And a revealing spell for the witches and wizards inside it."
He tapped the centre of the map, over their names, and murmured a spell. A space cleared, and words appeared above each of their names:
18 yrs old, Auror-in-training, hero & all-around decent chap
18 yrs old, outcast, slightly less of a giant prat than he used to be
Harry tried very hard not to laugh. Malfoy scowled. The tops of his cheeks went pink.
"Nice party trick, Malfoy."
The scowl deepened. "The point," Malfoy said, quickly wiping the words away, "is that the map can be altered. If I can work with it I can probably get it to show the portraits."
"It's a good idea," said Harry. "Won't you need help?"
Malfoy went rigid all over, the way he had when they'd been drinking the other night. "I'm good at charms," is all he said.
"Okay," said Harry.
Malfoy paused, and then said, "I'd like to borrow it for a bit," and he almost, almost, kept his voice so smooth Harry was fooled by it, except for the tremble at the end of it, and the way his palms were spread flat on top of the map, pressing down hard into the table.
"It's okay with me," said Harry with a shrug, trying to pass it off as casual. "Just be careful with it. I'm keeping it safe for Teddy," he said.
"Who?" said Malfoy.
"Your cousin," said Harry, and then he stopped short. It was possible Malfoy didn't even know Teddy existed.
"Oh," said Malfoy quietly. "Aunt Andromeda's grandson."
"I figure the map should go to Remus' son," said Harry. "When he's old enough to use it."
Malfoy traced the corner of the map with one finger.
"They named him after his granddad," said Harry. "I'm his godfather."
Malfoy grimaced. "So I heard," he muttered, and then stood up from the table. "I'll take care of it," he said, and Harry didn't know whether he meant the map or finding Crabbe. He started to leave, despite having barely eaten anything, and Harry had to put a hand out to stop him. Malfoy froze with Harry's hand on his elbow.
Harry reached out, took the parchment from him, and tapped it gently with his wand. "Mischief managed," he said, and the parchment slid clean and clear of all content.
He rolled it back up and handed it to Malfoy, who rolled his eyes and walked away.
"You're welcome," Harry called after him cheerily, and then got round to breakfast.
"Are you going to eat that?" one of the first-years asked, pointing to his croissant. She was blonde-headed and wore glasses, and eyed his plate if she'd be happy to eat his whole breakfast for him if he liked.
"I was actually saving it just for you," said Harry, and she broke into a grin and sat down beside him. By the time he was done, the Slytherin first-years were no longer trembling at the other end of the table, and he'd learned that Malfoy had threatened them with a body bind on the first day of class if they ever annoyed him.
"He didn't mean it," Harry lied, feeling generous because he had just stolen Malfoy's helping of treacle tart.
When they looked disbelieving, he told them all about the time Malfoy got turned into a ferret, and subsequently left breakfast in an excellent mood.
October was long, as it always was for Harry. The days passed in a routine of classes, meals, and homework that remained unbroken except for the pranks. Most of them originated with the joke catalogue, but a few of the students had gotten original. Someone or something caused it to snow for two days in the Herbology wing; Professor Sprout spent them both in agony over her Dragonfire lilies and Mandrake roots, and Neville got excused from most of his classes in order to help cast warming spells and transport plants to safety. Another group of someones made every item in the Muggle Studies classroom disappear: desks, parchments, board, quills, textbooks, and the Muggle stapler, spark plug, and ironing board being used in preparation for mid-terms. The hunt for them lasted most of a Wednesday, until finally all items except for the spark plug were found and accounted for on top of Hagrid's chimney. The spark plug, it was believed, had been mistaken for a piece of jewellery and was probably being worn by an unwitting guilty party as an amulet.
A few students had started up unofficial Quidditch scrimmages on the weekends which were quickly gaining popularity. At first they begged Harry to be a captain, and he almost said yes until he found out that Ron had said no, and that he'd be taking precedence over Ginny. He wasn't about to play without Ron, and he couldn't do that to Ginny, but he was tempted to work with the teams in practice anyway. It was Quidditch, after all, and Harry was acutely aware of how long it had been since he'd last flown. But then he found out through word of mouth that no one had offered the same to Malfoy. He didn't know why that left such a rotten taste in his mouth; it wasn't as if Malfoy would be the best captain the school had to offer, but it was a reminder of how much things had changed, and of the fact that Harry wasn't really up for school rivalries these days anyway.
Ron had given Harry his best impersonation of a lecture from Hermione when he found out that Harry was helping Malfoy, which made it doubly satisfying when Harry informed him it had been Hermione's idea to start with. This led to a flurry of heated Owls back and forth between the two of them, ending with Hermione's to Ron, underlined: don't be an idiot.
Then Ron mentioned the whole thing to Ginny, who, he reported later, calmly closed her textbook and went to find Harry, who was in the library.
She tapped him on the shoulder.
"Did you give that stupid map to Draco Malfoy?"
"You know," said Ginny, "The one you said I was stalking you with?"
"Oh," said Harry. "Wait, hang on — "
She held up her hand and he shut up.
"If you trust Malfoy to handle your private things more than you trusted me, Harry, all I can say is that I hope you know him better than I do," she said, and walked away.
Ron told him he got off lucky not to have a Bat Bogey hex levelled at him, and Harry was inclined to agree. Ron was still sore at him for not trying harder to get back together with Ginny, but around mid-terms she was spotted holding hands with Thaddeus McMillan, Ernie's younger brother, and Ron just took to sending Harry occasional glowers of betrayal over meals.
Harry attempted to talk to her a few times, but it was difficult to find a private moment when both of them were alone. "I don't want to talk about it yet, Harry," she said at first, and Harry discovered he didn't really either, so he left it alone.
He tried again after seeing her with her new boyfriend, and this time she sighed and took his hand. She looked at him sadly, as if she'd already forgotten him and was trying to remember what loving him had felt like. He thought, not for the first time, that maybe it was because he hadn't ever shown her what it had felt like for him.
"I wanted to tell you first," she said. "You just haven't been around much." She broke off then, awkwardly, and Harry was able to fill in the blanks well enough on his own.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She shook her head. Then she squeezed his hand. "I didn't want to put pressure on you," she said. "Not then or ever. I'm sorry."
Harry wanted to respond, to tell her she hadn't been pressure at all, but everything he tried to say stuck in his throat. In the end he just nodded, and when she left him sitting there, she did it without looking back.
The next day ten new orders from the joke shop came through by owl, and that night at dinner nearly half of the Slytherin first-years were turned into yowling orange tabby cats with silver stripes. One of them — Malfoy refused to say which and Harry never learned — climbed contentedly into Malfoy's lap and purred the whole time, while Malfoy sat stiff-legged and scowling, his nose wrinkled like a bedspread.
That almost made it a good week.
"I've found Crabbe," said Malfoy the next night. He was waiting for Harry outside the Fat Lady's portrait, map in hand.
"Just like that?"
Malfoy nodded and handed it over. Harry took it and unrolled it.
He spread it out flat against the Fat Lady, who harumphed and said, "Well, I never!" before gliding out of the frame. It took a moment to see the names in the dimly lit hall, and Malfoy obligingly Lumos'd the end of his wand and held it over Harry's shoulder.
"You did it," he murmured as the names of the portraits began to form. He saw the Fat Lady's label moving across the map from canvas to canvas. She was already halfway to the Astronomy Tower. "Nice job, Malfoy."
"There," said Malfoy, leaning in and tapping the page with his wand. Harry squinted, and then he saw it.
"He's in the library?"
"The Restricted Section," said Malfoy. "No one ever goes back there."
"Especially not since the war," said Harry. Madam Pince had started requiring that all requests for Restricted Materials be approved and signed by both a guardian and a staff member.
"Not very likely she'll give me a pass, is it," said Malfoy. His breath reached the back of Harry's neck as he spoke.
Harry turned and found that Malfoy, in holding the wand over his shoulder, had moved so close that Harry could see the smattering of freckles on his nose. He'd never noticed those before. He wondered why. He was supposed to know Malfoy like the back of his hand. Malfoy was easy for Harry. He always had been.
"Looks like you need my help again," he said.
"Well, well," said Malfoy. "If one didn't know any better, one would think you trying to assimilate me, Potter."
"It's not that," said Harry. "I just." He stopped and tried to remember how Hermione had put it.
"You?" said Malfoy patiently.
"Um," said Harry.
"Never mind," said Malfoy. "If it's that much of an embarrassment, I won't make you own up to it."
"No," said Harry hastily. "It's not!"
"Potter — " Malfoy said, the tone of his voice cutting off whatever protest Harry had on his lips.
And then Malfoy smiled at him. It wasn't a smirk. It was something completely different, and Harry didn't think he'd ever seen it on Malfoy's face before.
"I'll be right back," said Harry decisively, and ruined whatever suavity he had managed to sustain by tripping and falling through the portrait-hole.
By the time they got to the library, all Harry could think of was that night in the Room of Requirement. Malfoy was holding himself carefully apart from Harry the whole time they were under the cloak, but they were both too tall to fit beneath it without crouching together, and even with Malfoy's arms tucked carefully against his ribs, every wayward brush reminded Harry of the last time they'd been like this.
And that reminded Harry of a whole lot of other things he'd rather not be thinking about, like the way Malfoy had looked at Malfoy Manor last year, terrified and broken. The way the scars had formed so effortlessly across his chest when Harry duelled him, the way he'd never been able to win against Harry without cheating. The way he'd broken Harry's nose on the train just because he could. The way Harry used to lay in bed as a boy back on Privet Drive and think about all the things he'd love to do to Malfoy.
None of them had ever involved risking his own life for Malfoy's. None of them had ever involved looking into Malfoy's eyes as he'd pried Malfoy's wand from his hand. None of them had ever involved months and months spent using Malfoy's wand and thinking of him every time he'd done magic. None of them had —
"Potter, could you possibly proceed at a pace more worthy of the Lethifold and less like the Flobberworm?" Malfoy whispered over his shoulder.
They had, Harry acknowledged, slowed down to something like a shuffle. He sped up accordingly. "I should have just made you follow me," Harry grumbled. "And no one knows how fast Lethifolds move anyway."
"The people who've been eaten by them do," Malfoy said cheerily. "You know, I've asked for one every year for Christmas since I met you. Biggest disappointment of my childhood, not finding it under my tree. Or rather, not not finding it, I guess."
"You would like a creature that can't be seen and no one can prove actually exists," Harry said.
"Oh," said Malfoy. "Sorry, my mistake, I thought we were cavorting around under a magical invisibility cloak."
"I'm not cavorting," Harry muttered, but it came out more amused than grumpy, and even without looking he could feel Malfoy's smirk tugging at him all the way to the library.
The library was mostly back to normal, but there were still countless sections of books that had been destroyed, and consequently the room looked larger than ever. He and Malfoy slipped inside the Restricted Section under cover of the cloak, then made sure they were concealed behind one of the stacks before Malfoy stepped out from beneath it. Harry slid it off his shoulders, feeling keenly aware of the warmth Malfoy's proximity under the cloak had generated now that it was gone.
Malfoy paused, staring at Harry from the neck down. Harry knew he was remembering the scene outside the Shrieking Shack and Harry's headless face appearing amid all the mud.
"So many years of confusion, explained at last," murmured Malfoy, looking at it wistfully.
"Oh, get over it," said Harry. Malfoy gave him the two-fingered salute, motioned for Harry to stay back, and left Harry to follow him.
They found Crabbe in the back of the Restricted Section, tucked away in an incongruous painting entitled Still Life with Broomsticks which someone had placed next to the stack labelled Vanishing Charms — Wicked Witches. He was sitting with his back to the frame, on a low Quidditch bench. The painting encompassed a locker room, complete with two broomsticks, the bench, cleats and a bunch of towels which Crabbe had apparently been using for blankets. Since the painting was wider than it was tall, and done from a low-angle view, Crabbe's head could barely fit on the canvas. All they could see was the top of his thick shoulders as he hunched over on his knees. He seemed to be staring off into space.
It looked like an absolutely miserable state of exile.
Harry hung back against the stacks. It was late, but the Restricted Section lamps were still lit, and Malfoy made a shadowy figure against the long rows of books as he stepped forward.
"Crabbe," Malfoy hissed.
Crabbe's posture didn't change.
"Crabbe!" Malfoy said, a little louder.
Crabbe's shoulders slowly unclenched, and his big hulking body uncurled a little. Another moment, and his head dropped into the frame.
For a moment Malfoy looked lost, as if he hadn't planned on what to say once getting to this point. Finally he just shrugged and said, "Hey."
Crabbe nodded. His portrait-self, Harry noted, was younger than Crabbe himself had been when he died. The likeness must have been based off a photo from before Crabbe joined the Death Eaters — before his face had filled out into its most thug-like, square-jawed shape. This Crabbe looked smaller and softer than Harry remembered.
"So, uh," said Malfoy, "I was thinking maybe you should come back to your portrait, yeah? The other portraits have been asking after you."
"Bollocks," said Crabbe. His voice was still the same, Harry thought — surprisingly soft and smooth.
"No, really," said Malfoy. He was nervous: he kept shifting from one foot to the other, and swiping his hair back over his ear. "If you could just come back," he said, "and let everyone know you're okay, I think you'd — "
"I ain't taking orders from you any more," said Crabbe in that same soft stubborn voice.
"Of course you aren't, you blithering idiot," Malfoy snapped, as if patience had finally given way to a lifelong habit of belittlement, "because you're dead!"
Crabbe's face crumpled as if something enormous had just sat on it.
"M'still here, ain't I?" he said dully. "How can I be dead if I'm still here?"
"Because it's not the same," said Malfoy. "How d'you even end up here, anyway? You hate the library. You don't even read."
Crabbe blinked and looked past Malfoy as if only just now noticing what the room outside the portrait looked like. "Dunno," he said. "Was warm. S'got a bench. Good for sleeping."
Malfoy's jaw fell. "You sleep on that thing? Every night?"
Crabbe shrugged. "There's a dragon comes 'round 'n tries to eat the towelling," he said. "Chase him off with broomsticks."
"Come back, you halfwit," said Malfoy. "You know you can't stay up here forever."
Crabbe's sighed. His face swayed out of the frame for a moment so that Malfoy was left staring at his overlarge knees. Crabbe had taken off his Slytherin robe at some point and started using it for a pillow.
"Draco," said Crabbe softly, his head dropping back into the frame. "Did we win the war?"
Malfoy's face went slack in surprise. Beneath the cloak Harry tensed.
"No," Malfoy said flatly after a moment. "We did not win the war. You lost the war when you tried to kill Potter and got yourself burnt up instead. You would have taken me and Goyle with you if Potter hadn't — "
He broke off and looked away, chewing his bottom lip and glowering at the floor. Crabbe's face slipped from a scowl into a frown into a pout that made him look years younger, even as a painting.
"I thought the Dark Lord would — "
"The Dark Lord is dead," said Malfoy. "All six or twelve of him or whatever. It's finished. Goyle's in Azkaban. So are our fathers."
"Oh," said Crabbe.
"But the Dementors are gone," said Malfoy hastily. "They're being treated fairly."
"Oh," said Crabbe again. His voice had slid into a thick monotone. After another moment he asked, "Then what are you doing here?"
"I have no idea," said Malfoy.
"I don't want to be with those Mudbloods and such," said Crabbe. "They all hate me."
"Our house is gone," said Malfoy, his voice going up sharply in pitch. "There's no one here except for me and you. If you don't come back I'll — it'll just be me."
"But I'm just a painting," said Crabbe.
"You're not," said Malfoy. "You're not." He blinked fiercely a few times, and shoved his hair behind his ear. Harry suddenly felt incredibly guilty for having come. He should have let Malfoy borrow the cloak. He shouldn't be here at all.
"I almost got you killed," said Crabbe in his softest voice yet.
"I know you didn't mean it," said Malfoy. "You didn't know what it would do — the Fiendfyre."
Then he stepped forward and put his hand on the canvas. Crabbe didn't move, so Draco's hand just lay flat against the empty space between the viewer and the two broomsticks criss-crossed in the corner. "If you come back," he said, "I promise no one will hurt you."
Crabbe rubbed his forehead, his giant hand bobbing in and out of sight.
"Okay," he said at last.
Even though he was worried his presence might tick Crabbe off, Harry went with Malfoy to see that Crabbe made it safely back to the ground floor. It was slow going; Crabbe didn't really remember which way to go, and the portraits seemed to have their own circuitous routes. Harry and Malfoy were mostly able to direct him by referring to the map, but it was the middle of the night by the time they all finally made it back to the portraits in the main foyer.
Harry had a moment of fear that they would find Crabbe's portrait vandalized, but it was intact, and Crabbe slid into it with the look of a traveller bedding down in a strange place. "No bed," he said gruffly.
Most of the other portraits were awake and watching them. "You get used to it," said Lisa Turpin. She slid over into his portrait frame and gave him a careful pat on the back. "It's good to see you," she said. Crabbe just looked at her awkwardly.
Harry looked around at the other portraits to see how they were taking it. Colin was looking wary and nervous. Fred mostly looked disinterested, but Ai and Tirane followed Lisa's example and came over to wish Crabbe well.
Harry glanced over at Malfoy, who was watching the paintings intently. He looked nervous for Crabbe in a way that reminded Harry of when he was a first-year, holding out his hand for Harry to take. Harry didn't find it smug at all now.
It dawned on him that he wouldn't really have a reason to interact with Malfoy after this. Probably he wouldn't even see him outside of classes, since Malfoy wouldn't be playing Quidditch and would have no reason to hang around guarding Crabbe's portrait after this.
Crabbe had worked himself up to saying things like "hello" and "oh, just around" in response to the other portraits. Michael Corner came over, and gave him a wary smile which Crabbe actually returned.
Malfoy glanced over at Harry, then started as if he'd forgotten something and reached inside his robes. "Here," he said, handing over the map.
Harry hesitated. He wasn't really sure why it mattered, but he felt wrong just taking the map and going back to normal. He glanced up. Malfoy's hair was falling into his eyes. Harry couldn't get a read on him, and couldn't think of any reason why he shouldn't just take it and get out of there.
So he did.
He nodded and tucked the map into his own robes. Malfoy nodded back.
Just as Harry was rounding the corner, though, Malfoy called his name. Harry turned. "Thanks," Malfoy said. He said it easily enough, but his eyes glanced off Harry's shoulder as if he were afraid a direct hit might injure him.
"Sure," said Harry. "G'night." And he made sure he looked straight at Malfoy — made sure that Malfoy knew he was looking.
The next day Malfoy wasn't standing his post by Crabbe's portrait when Harry came down to breakfast, and Harry felt stupid for thinking something was missing when he saw that Crabbe was by himself. He managed a nod when he walked by, and Crabbe nodded back. With Crabbe safely installed where he belonged, Harry thought, there would hopefully be no more attacks on the portrait.
Which meant Harry didn't really have anything left to tie him to Malfoy.
It wasn't that he'd been trying to get to Malfoy by offering something he could use. He really had intended to help. But he couldn't just go back to ignoring Malfoy now. He wasn't sure he'd ever wanted that anyway, not since he'd seen Malfoy huddled in the corner of the Great Hall with his parents, looking shell-shocked and alone.
It dawned on him that when Hermione had told him to help Malfoy find Crabbe, she'd known this would happen. She'd known that a part of Harry wanted to do more than just make peace.
Inside the Great Hall, Malfoy was already eating. He always managed to be earlier than Harry, and this morning it looked like he was already nearly done with his breakfast. Harry tried to concentrate on his own meal, but he kept looking over at Slytherin, wondering if there was a way to talk to Malfoy before class.
Parvati sat across from him, chewing a carrot and reading a book. Every time he looked up, so did she. The third time it happened, she turned around, followed his gaze, and said, "You should just go talk to him."
"Uh," said Harry, feeling the tips of his ears burning. "I don't think he'd like that much."
Parvati shrugged. "You've done it before," she said. "Didn't think it was that big a deal."
"It isn't," Harry said, too quickly. She was right. He'd talked to Malfoy before in public. At dinner, even. It wasn't a big deal.
But he'd had a purpose then. Now it would be like — like he just wanted to say hi. Like they were friends.
"Well, whatever," said Parvati. "But your ex has been trying to figure out who you've been staring at for the last ten minutes. If I were you I'd talk to him just so you don't give her the wrong idea."
Harry stilled and deliberately didn't look over at Ginny. "Thanks," he said.
She shrugged again. "Unless it's the right idea."
"Sorry?" said Harry, but she'd returned to reading her book.
Harry drained his pumpkin juice and walked over to the Slytherins. The first-years saw him coming and automatically moved away from Malfoy, who looked up warily, but slid over so Harry could fit on the end of the bench beside him.
"Morning," said Harry cautiously.
Malfoy lifted his eyebrows and gave him a nod in greeting.
"D'you stay long after I left?" Harry tried. "With Crabbe and all?"
Malfoy's eyes went half-lidded and bored. "I guess," he said.
"Oh," said Harry.
"Did you want something?" said Malfoy, and Harry felt a flicker of annoyance, because what he wanted was for Malfoy to be unpredictable for once, and not a complete prat.
"Yeah," he said, and then threw down the first thing he could think of. "I wanted to ask if you wanted to go flying tonight."
"With you," he said.
"Yeah," said Harry.
Malfoy stared some more. "I'm not going to go flying with you, Potter," he said, and he sounded so shocked that for a crazy second Harry wondered if maybe he'd asked Malfoy something completely different.
"Oh," said Harry stupidly.
"No," said Malfoy. "I have the Potions essay to write."
"Oh, right, me too." Harry looked down at the table, desperate to ground himself. "We could — work on it together?"
"I don't care what you do, Potter," said Malfoy. Then he looked down, up, over Harry's shoulder, and at Harry again, and added, "I'll be in the library after dinner."
"Oh," said Harry. "Right."
Malfoy was still staring at him, but he must have found something reassuring about Harry's torpor, because he shook his head and stood up.
"See you in class," he said, and it wasn't until after Malfoy had left and Harry was sitting there being stared at by twenty suspicious first-years that he realised that Malfoy had all but expressly invited him.
That night, Harry met Malfoy in the library. At first they sat silently, but after scowling at his Potions textbook for a while, Harry gave up and asked Malfoy what powdered bat wings even had to do with the make-up of a Dreamless Sleep potion, whereupon Malfoy insulted him several different ways and explained, and Harry wrote things down and repeated them in as stupid a manner as possible, in order to encourage Malfoy to keep going.
In this way, Harry proceeded to manipulate Malfoy into goading, annoying, prodding, and scorning him into writing the first decent Potions assignment he'd managed all year. It worked brilliantly, and Harry had almost finished his essay by the time Malfoy called him a hopeless moron and threw a quill at his head.
"So," said Harry, after ducking the flying quill and rescuing his parchment from the distraught inkwell that skittered about on the table in search of it. "Flying, then?"
"No," said Malfoy, and then his quill rebounded off the nearest candelabra and poked Harry in the back of the skull.
Harry fell into bed around midnight and slept soundly through breakfast. Eventually the sun rose high enough to poke him awake with persistent, dazzling fingers. He cracked one eye open and smiled. He'd been dreaming of flying.
When Harry got to Potions, it only seemed natural to slide onto the bench beside Malfoy, in the space Slughorn had been trying unsuccessfully to fill with partners all year. Ron and a few others sent him incredulous looks which he ignored, but everyone else went on as though Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy sat next to each other every day.
Even thinking about it made Harry feel petty, somehow, so he turned his attention to helping Malfoy mix the assigned Restorative Draught.
Malfoy sent him a look that was thoroughly blank.
Harry shrugged. "Assimilation," he said, and Malfoy almost chuckled.
When he turned in his Potions essay, Slughorn glanced over it, stopped, read a little further, and then beamed at him. "You see, m'boy!" he said. "I knew you still had the knack! Just like flying a broomstick!"
Beside him, Malfoy wasn't even trying not to snicker. Harry kicked him under the table.
It was easy, from then on, to talk to Malfoy. It began with things like Potions, but soon it spread to being paired up in DADA projects and arguing about the World Cup before classes and shoving each other in corridors as they passed.
And it wasn't that any of those things were new, but Harry'd never actually enjoyed them before. He didn't know what it meant that he did. He honestly didn't think Malfoy had changed all that much. But he had gotten quieter without a house of his own, without Crabbe and Goyle and Pansy Parkinson around to boast in front of. Harry always expected him to see him lording it over the Slytherin first-years, but mostly he kept to himself. They seemed to alternately ignore him and hover around him.
Sometimes, watching them at meals, Harry couldn't tell whether Malfoy was protecting them, or they were protecting Malfoy.
He liked the way Malfoy was with the first-years, even though some of them were half-bloods and first-generation wizards. He liked the way Malfoy talked to Crabbe every day. He liked the way Malfoy had never once complained about not getting invited to play Quidditch with the other houses on weekends, and the way he'd never once commented on the fact that Harry hadn't joined them. He liked the way Malfoy occasionally looked glad to see him. He liked the way that occasionally was becoming frequently, despite the fact that every time he suggested that the two of them go flying together, Malfoy wrinkled his nose and gave him the brush-off. Harry was starting to like the way Malfoy always said no, at that.
More and more often, Harry was starting to think that maybe he just liked Malfoy.
By mid-November, the pranks had actually started to slow down. Not even George's supply of jokes was endless, so when the new High Jinx catalogue for winter magically appeared all over Hogwarts, the collective unclenching was almost tangible. Harry sent off for his orders the first day out, and Ron complained bitterly that they should have gotten first dibs.
"You won't use most of this stuff anyway, Ron," Harry said. "Bubble gum hair conditioner with actual bubble gum?"
"Oh, come on, that one's brilliant," said Ron.
"And any girl you use it on would hex you into a million pieces," said Harry.
"Forget using it on a girl," said Ron dreamily. "I'd use it on Malfoy. Could you imagine?" Harry did, and laughed.
"No worries, mate," he said. "I've got Malfoy covered." Ron gave him a look, but said nothing.
The day his order arrived, Harry got Fred to show him how to combine the new mail-order exclusive Arachknit with a hover charm — which he then launched on Draco Malfoy, who shrieked like a little girl in the middle of Potions.
This ultimately proved unfortunate, as Harry was laughing too much to call the spider off. After Malfoy flung it away, it sailed gracefully around the room and dropped at last on Parvati's head. It tried to eat her, wool pincers scrabbling furiously. She rolled her eyes, scraped it off with her wand, and dropped it into her cauldron.
The cauldron began to belch billowing chunks of soot and smoke out into the classroom. "Oh, dear," said Slughorn, and something like a screeching mass exodus took place.
What was left of the doomed tarantula lurched out of the cauldron, borne aloft on a lava-lit plume of fire, and landed directly on top of Slughorn's patiently brewing Incendius potion.
Whereupon the room promptly exploded.
Some time later, a bedraggled Potions class assembled in the main foyer, all accounted for, all slightly soot-stained, and all doing their best to avoid looking at the Headmistress.
Harry reminded himself that he'd sort-of killed Voldemort and received an Order of Merlin, and he and Ron had their own Chocolate Frog cards, and therefore they were not likely to get expelled during their last year at Hogwarts.
"Er," he said. "It's like this, Professor."
McGonagall gave him a look he knew from long experience, and he closed his mouth.
"Mr Weasley, Mr Potter, and Mr Weasley," McGonagall said, and it took Harry a second to realise that she was glaring over their heads at Fred's portrait, "I would like to see the three of you in my office."
Harry didn't think he'd ever seen McGonagall so angry. For the first five minutes all she did was glare at them until Harry felt like a first-year again.
"This nonsense," she said at last, "has gone on long enough. Teaching incorporeal animation to first years! Enchanting the staircases to move in only one direction! Hexing the bathwater yellow!"
Ron let out a snigger. McGonagall rounded on him.
"While I am pleased, Mr Weasley," she said icily, "that you and Mr Potter are enjoying your return to Hogwarts so immensely, I must also point out that I have had no less than thirty-eight students become lost on the way to meals in the last week alone. There are whole groups of girls refusing to set foot outside their dorm rooms in between classes because someone has taught their male classmates a transparent robe jinx. And now? Blowing up classrooms? — which, by the way, Mr Potter, you will be responsible for repairing in entirety."
Harry nodded. He and Ron stared at their feet.
"This school," said McGonagall, "has endured too much real pain and suffering for the past four years to have its recovery waylaid by hoodlums."
She pulled the Ultimate High Jinx catalogue from beneath her robes, and Ron went still and serious.
"I am not saying that there is a connection," she said, "between this catalogue and the fact that its arrival coincides with that of a certain portrait — "
"Now just a sodding minute," Fred broke in, and Harry hadn't thought it possible for portraits to change shades, but Fred's cheeks were tingeing quite red. "Even if I'd known about the catalogue beforehand, which I didn't, you can't really think it's my fault that the Potions class happened to be brewing — "
"That is not the point, Mr Weasley," McGonagall snapped, and held up her hand when Fred started in again. "Your arrival back at the castle has engendered total and consistent chaos. Since your return, two new poltergeists have been discovered, and Peeves is more powerful than ever. And when I say, 'more powerful,' I mean more of a nuisance."
"But how is that Fred's fault?" Ron demanded.
McGonagall looked between the three of them for a moment and then sighed. Harry couldn't tell if she was fond or fed up.
"Hogwarts is at the weakest point in its entire history," she said. "There are whole sections still being rebuilt and re-warded. The students who have been brave enough to have come back are extremely vulnerable. They are desperately in need of an escape from reality, and in need of a hero."
She fixed Fred with a quelling look. "It would seem that in this instance, you are both the hero and the escape, Mr Weasley."
Fred stared back at her.
"But I'm a portrait," he said at last.
"You are a war hero, and a Hogwarts legend," McGonagall answered. "You — and this goes for all three of you — are no longer students flouting rules and playing jokes on other students. You are role models who are using your considerable influence to instruct impressionable children to go forth and prank. You must see the distinction."
"Actually, with all due respect, Professor," Fred said, "the only thing I see is that I'm trapped on a wall for the rest of eternity. Forgive me for not really getting the part where I suddenly became a powerful god of tricks."
"Professor McGonagall's right," Harry surprised himself by saying. "Everyone really respects you." Ron gave him a 'whose side are you on?' look that he ignored. "I'm just saying, if they're all looking up to you anyway, it's not so bad to make sure they aren't going overboard with the pranks and stuff, is it?"
He sidestepped the fact that he was the one whose prank had gone overboard.
"And how's he supposed to do that, Harry?" Ron snapped. "He can't just say, 'hey, everyone, remember those eighteen years I was Fred Weasley? Well, I take it all back!'" He threw a glance over his shoulder at Fred, but if it was intended to be supportive, Fred didn't register it. He was frowning at the floor instead, his mouth drawn tight.
"I'm not Fred Weasley, Ron," he said quietly after a moment.
"Huh?" said Ron.
"I'm just his portrait."
"That's crazy," Ron said, face heating up like Fred's had earlier. "Of course you're Fred!"
"What Mr Weasley means is that he is not the same as you knew him in his lifetime," Professor McGonagall said smoothly. "In his death-time, he may prove to be quite another individual altogether."
Ron stared at her. Harry felt a little colder as well.
"But," McGonagall continued sharply, "if you persist in damaging school property, flouting school rules, and encouraging the performance of highly dangerous and problematic practical jokes, you will not have the opportunity to explore whatever new paths your portraithood might take, Mr Weasley, because I will have you disconnected from the Hogwarts gallery network and shipped back to the frame-makers in a crate full of packing Flobbers!"
Ron threw a horrified look at Fred, whose portrait had lost the extra colour in his cheeks and then some.
"I don't think she can really do that," Harry offered. Ron and Fred cast him identical looks of scepticism.
"I do, however," McGonagall said, sounding satisfied that she had made herself clear, "have an alternate suggestion."
"Transfiguration," Ron repeated for about the third time since they left McGonagall's office.
"You have to admit, it sort of makes sense," said Harry. "She's been desperate to find someone to take over the class. And we already have a ghost as a teacher — why not a painting?"
"Maybe it would be okay for one of the other portraits," Ron said. "I could see Colin Creevey helping out with Muggle Studies and all that."
They were on their way back to the Great Hall for dinner. The staircases, Harry couldn't help but note, had been un-enchanted and were functioning normally.
"But Fred's — well, he's Fred, that's all. He's not a teacher! He and George do jokes, that's what they're good at — it's who they are."
"Yeah, but — " Harry started, then cut himself off.
"But what?" Ron said.
"Forget it," Harry mumbled. Ron was already annoyed. Harry really didn't want to go into the question of what kind of person Fred would be if he didn't have George to partner up with. Maybe he'd've gone into Quidditch. Maybe he'd never have left Hogwarts. Maybe he'd never have been —
"What's wrong?" Ron asked.
"Uh — " They had reached the main entrance, and Harry looked around for a distraction. Colin was away from his frame, and Fred hadn't returned from McGonagall's office yet — she had kicked the two of them out when it became clear that Fred had quite a bit more arguing to do before he agreed to teach Transfiguration. Harry thought privately he'd be lucky to make it out without McGonagall deciding to take turpentine to his portrait.
Then he saw Draco Banishing the leaves from his shoes on the steps outside.
"Nothing," Harry finished. "I just want to ask Malfoy about something."
"Fred's getting asked to teach and you want to be friends with Malfoy. Hogwarts really is arse-backwards," Ron said, and rolled his eyes on the way inside.
As Malfoy entered, a gust of November wind picked up the end of his scarf and tousled his hair, which was as blinding as ever despite the ash that had covered all of them earlier. His cheeks were bright, too, and he had the freshly-scrubbed look braving the outdoors at Hogwarts in late fall always gave you — the look Harry knew well from years of high-altitude stand-offs and scowling matches in the dead of winter.
At start of term, Harry had thought Malfoy had looked healthier, more himself than he'd seemed in an age. Lately he looked even better. He'd gotten some of his sleek polish back. Harry didn't know quite what it meant about himself that he noticed the difference between polished and unpolished Malfoys. But Malfoy stood a little straighter, looked less likely to fall over if you so much as pushed him. And the shrewd gleam in his eyes was back.
He was different, a hundred times over. He'd been — well, mostly — decent to the mass of first-years in his house, despite the fact that most of them weren't Purebloods. Harry wondered if learning that Snape was a half-blood had done anything to change Malfoy's opinion about letting Muggleborn in. Maybe it was having his life repeatedly saved by Harry and Hermione, or maybe the fact that it was the half-blooded Minister of Magic who had offered him clemency and pulled the Dementors from Azkaban. Something had to have changed somewhere, Harry thought, because the term was more than half over, and Malfoy had yet to so much as throw a glare in the direction of one of the other students. Excluding Harry, of course.
Malfoy had let Harry help him. Did that make them friends? Harry didn't think so. But the thought of it made him feel hopeful.
Then again, Malfoy had always thought of him as a giant prat, and it didn't seem likely that anything would change that.
"What's the matter, Potter?" Malfoy said when he saw Harry watching him. "Trying to think of something else large and furry to attack me with?"
Harry laughed. "Only you would call that an attack, Malfoy," he said, a little gratified by the way Malfoy crossed over to him.
"I was in fear for my life," said Malfoy, with exaggerated dignity. "Which, considering you blew up the entire classroom, was a valid concern."
"Pity, too," said Harry. "We were all very much enjoying listening to you scream like a two-year-old."
"Oh, certainly," said Malfoy, "and speaking of small children, did you enjoy your lecture from McGonagall?"
"She called me a role model," said Harry, and watched as Malfoy's nose wrinkled.
"There's no accounting for taste," said Malfoy with a sniff.
"You've never eaten a chocolate frog with my card on the back?" said Harry, before he realised what he was saying. "I've been told it's delicious."
By the time his brain had caught up with him and nearly shorted out altogether in his horror, Malfoy had caught up too. A strange look was starting to crawl across his face, but Harry was too busy being aghast at himself to parse it.
"I've no opinion on how you taste, Potter," Malfoy said smoothly. "But then I prefer bitters to sweets."
Harry didn't really understand what happened then. The space between them thickened. Harry could feel it folding, shifting, twisting around them in weird ways.
Then Malfoy's eyes flickered down to Harry's lips, just for a moment.
It might as well have been a punch in the stomach.
Harry stared at Malfoy, at the quickening spark of his eyes and the colour gathering in his cheeks. His face was sharp and bright, and there was no Firewhisky on hand to serve as an excuse. Harry felt like someone had just shone a torchlight in his eyes and all he could see were imprints from the glare. It wasn't like Ginny, or Cho; it wasn't like anything he'd felt before, because it was Malfoy.
It was Malfoy.
Harry swallowed. "I'm not that sweet," he said.
Malfoy's eyes darkened, but he didn't move. He was so dedicated, Harry thought, to trying to keep cool and composed, even when everyone in the world could see what kind of shape he was in. Right now Harry knew he was just as confused as Harry, but he only straightened and responded dryly, "I wouldn't know, Potter, I only buy them to bite the heads off."
And then he nodded briefly and brushed past Harry towards the dungeons.
"Wait," Harry said, slipping his hand around Malfoy's elbow before he could get far. Malfoy turned and looked at him, and in that thick, contorting air, Harry could feel how close they were standing, and how warm Malfoy was next to him, just like he could feel his own skin.
"I wanted to tell you — " and then he stopped, because he had nothing to tell, hadn't thought that far ahead, just didn't want Malfoy to go.
Malfoy waited, his eyes fastened onto Harry's, and Harry looked back, wondering when Malfoy's face had gone from pointy and annoying to full and delicate, except for the hard line of his jaw and the way his mouth —
"You wanted to tell me," Malfoy said pointedly after another embarrassed moment of silence. Harry tried to look as if he knew what he was going to say, grasped around for something, and landed on —
"Flying," he said. "I wanted to tell you that we're going flying tonight."
The change on Malfoy's face was instant: his eyes widened and his blush spread straight up to his hairline. "Oh, we are?" He prised his elbow free of Harry's grasp, abruptly, as if it had been an afterthought.
"Yes," said Harry, letting his voice fall. "You and me."
"And you get to decide, is that it?" said Malfoy. "I could have things to do, you know."
"You could," said Harry, feeling like he was back on level ground with Malfoy for the first time in months. "But you don't."
"You are a complete git, Potter," said Malfoy.
"After dinner," said Harry, feeling a weird thrill of anticipation curl in his stomach.
Malfoy looked at him for a long, still second, eyes wide and wondering.
Then he gave the curtest of nods and took himself off as quickly as he could, with a strut that might have been convincing but for his red face.
Harry was still standing there when Ron came out of the Hall.
"You still out here?" he said. "They've got shepherd's pie and cream puffs tonight — better come get it before it's gone."
"Thanks," said Harry.
"You all right, Harry?" said Ron.
Harry got as far as, "I — I just — " before giving up.
Luckily, just as Ron opened his mouth to interrogate him, Fred sidled back into his picture frame, looking bedraggled but turpentine-free. Ron's attention slid over to him instantly.
"You're back!" he said, grinning. "What'd McGonagall say when you told her no?"
Fred grimaced. "I told her yes," he said.
"What?" Ron stared. "Are you crazy? You'd go nuts as a teacher!"
"Maybe," said Fred. "But it's not like I've got anything better to do around here, and besides, she can't teach Transfiguration and be Headmistress too, it's too much for one person."
"Are you serious?" said Ron. "You've always tried to sabotage teachers, not help them."
"Okay, yeah, sure, but — "
"George'll think you've gone cuckoo on him, just wait — "
"Ron." The look on Fred's face changed, just like that, into something Harry didn't recognize. Ron stopped short when he saw it, and Harry went cold all over.
"I don't want you to say a word to George about this," Fred said to Ron. "Or about me, from now on." Ron blinked at him. "Ron, I mean it. Don't you sodding dare."
"But — but he misses you," Ron stammered. "You — you're his brother and he — "
"I AM NOT HIS BROTHER," Fred bellowed, and Ron stepped back from the painting as if he'd been slapped. Out of the corner of his eye Harry could see the other portraits slipping quietly from their canvases. "I am NOT Fred Weasley! Don't you understand that? Fred had a brother. And a family. And a life. Fred was going to marry Angelina and be a Galleonaire before he turned twenty. He was going to have a million kids and a million nephews and nieces. I have — " he hesitated and then said roughly, "I have a rectangle for a house. And a teaching assignment."
"Fred," said Harry. The bottom was gone from his voice and his stomach.
"No, Harry, don't misunderstand," said Fred. He was clenching and unclenching his fist, and his voice was gentler, though it was trembling. "I'm not saying I regret anything. I died protecting George and you and Ron and Percy, and all the people I loved. But — " he looked pleadingly at Ron. "You have to understand that the person you knew as your brother is gone. I'm a memory. That's all."
Ron was blinking furiously. "That's the stupidest thing you've ever said. You heard what McGonagall said. You're a legend and a hero."
"No, Fred Weasley was all those things. Fred Weasley was all those things because George Weasley was and is all those things. And so help me, Ronald, if you do anything to get George's hopes up that his brother is alive — if you do anything to keep him from moving on with his life, I swear by Dumbledore I'll find a way to climb out of this painting and I will kill you. But first I'll make sure to paint your portrait, so after it's done you'll understand how alive you're not."
Ron stared. His face was open and shocked, and his eyes were red-rimmed, but he just stared.
"Come on, Ron," said Harry, taking his elbow.
"Promise me you won't mention me to George," said Fred. "You and Ginny."
Ron let his chin drop. It could have been a nod or a tremor.
Harry pulled him gently away, and pretended not to see Fred cover his face with his hand.
Gamp's Law of Elemental Magic said that there were exceptions to the rule of creation. Life, Harry knew, could not be given back, or duplicated, or recreated. But portraits were not alive to begin with, and so they were their own exception. The Fifth Exception to Gamp's Law of Elemental Magic: portraits could not be duplicated into different frames.
But each rule had properties, even the exceptions. The portraits could never leave the frame. The ghosts could never leave the past. The images in the Mirror could never really leave the mind that put them there.
Harry had died. Or, at least, Harry had been nearly dead the way some people were nearly headless or nearly Death Eaters.
He wanted to convince Ron that it was not the having been dead, or nearly, that was the important part.
It was having been anything at all.
When he met Malfoy that night after dinner, he didn't feel like talking, so he didn't. It had been ages since he'd been on a broomstick or up in the air. The night was crisp and clear and stark, the moon so bright it was almost a yellow-green flame against the cloudless cobalt sky. He and Malfoy took to the air like soundless birds, their bodies arching into the shape of the flight and the shape of their chase; as if the formation were instinct; as if they were marshalling each other toward home.
November tapered into shorter days like a candle burning at both ends.
Harry watched Ginny holding hands and laughing with Thaddeus McMillan and tried hard to feel something apart from a vague satisfaction that she was happy. But just as before, when he'd tried his hardest to dredge up something raw and angry for Malfoy, he got nowhere.
He felt like the war had dulled him at the edges. It was nothing like the cold pain and anger he had felt three years earlier after watching Sirius fall through the veil. It was nothing like that at all.
He didn't feel particularly bitter. He mostly just felt exhausted.
But he tried, anyway: he told Ginny she was beautiful, and that he was happy for her, and she kissed him on the mouth and told him that she would always love him, even if he was completely clueless and more or less something of a prat and she'd never make the mistake of dating him again.
Then she made him help her with her defensive plays for the scrimmages until he felt more leathery than the Quaffle.
Nights, and sometimes during the evenings, he flew with Malfoy. Most of the time they just flew. Sometimes they talked. Sometimes they screamed, but more and more often, they laughed.
Between spending more time with Malfoy and restoring the Potions classroom, Harry hadn't had a lot of time left over to spend with Ron. When they were together, things were tense, and no matter how much he worried about him, Harry couldn't get Ron to open up. Some days Harry wasn't even sure he wanted him to.
A few weeks into his teaching stint, Fred showed up in the classroom with Crabbe, who stared at them all, stiff and awkward, like a scarecrow with stage fright.
Fred had been painted with his wand, so while much of what magic he could do was limited, he could Transfigure things all day long within the confines of his portrait. McGonagall had permanently Transfigured her classroom blackboard into a canvas, and there was just enough room for both Fred and Crabbe to squeeze in, though they were mostly only visible from the waist up.
"The problem we face today," said Fred, addressing Harry and the other eighth-years, "is that I sort of skipped out before this lesson. And we all know no one learned anything last year. Crabbe assures me that he paid attention during this part, but for now, let's just assume we're all in the same boat. Today, we're going to teach ourselves how to conjure living things."
He said it with a certain irony, since anything he conjured from behind his frame wasn't exactly alive. But he and Crabbe made a pretty good go of it. In fact, toward the end of the lesson, Crabbe seemed to be enjoying himself so much that he actually spoke up and mumbled something to Fred. No one else heard it, but it must have been smart, because the next time Fred wiggled his wand, he added a flick of the wrist that nearly sent an enormous flock of canvas birds colliding into the frame.
Ever since, Fred had invited Crabbe to his class now and then to help out with lessons, especially with the seventh- and sixth-years. He also invited Colin, and sometimes the two of them came together. The sight of Colin and Crabbe working together was weird enough for Harry, but he was glad of it. In a certain way, it made sense, though wherever the real Crabbe was, he was probably frothing in rage, if he even cared at all. His portrait didn't seem to care.
"Potter," Malfoy said to him one afternoon after one such lesson. "I've been thinking about the portraits. How they don't have anywhere to sleep."
"Right," said Harry. "Well. Some of them have armchairs."
"You can't get any kind of decent sleep in an armchair, Potter," said Malfoy, nose wrinkling. "I've been all over the castle during the summer, and there are easily a hundred unused classrooms. I was thinking — "
He stopped and frowned.
"Go on," said Harry.
"Just that they should have somewhere to sleep," said Malfoy. His voice had dropped. "The Room of Requirement has been completely empty since the Fiendfyre destroyed everything in the Room of Hidden Things. It's been warded off by the rebuilding teams, but it's safe to enter, and I can get past the wards." His eyes met Harry's briefly, and Harry could tell, once again, how nervous he was. He wondered if Malfoy had spent most of his years at Hogwarts fighting off this kind of uncertainty — if the bluster of previous years had been a way of masking it, or if the war had robbed him of whatever confidence he'd had.
"We could use some of the empty classrooms to paint the canvases and then hang them in the Room of Requirement," said Harry.
"Yes." The worry on Malfoy's face cleared a bit.
"Sounds good to me," said Harry. "How many d'you think there are?"
"Six thousand, one hundred and fifty-seven?" Malfoy gaped. "That's impossible. There can't possibly be that many."
Harry shrugged. "The map wouldn't lie. And maybe it's impossible, but it is Hogwarts."
"Where are we going to get six thousand canvases for six thousand beds?" said Malfoy.
"Where else?" said Harry, and dragged Malfoy along to the Room of Requirement to ask the castle itself.
"So why didn't the Room just give us six thousand paintings with beds in them, again?" asked Malfoy.
"Gamp's Law," said Harry, craning his head to look at Luna's painting. "I think."
"I hope you don't mind," said Luna. "I gave it a few extra touches."
She had painted a beautiful four-poster bed, elegant in every way, except for the giant lavender starbursts all over the canopy. Oh, and the fact that it was on the ceiling.
"We can just — uh, turn it right-side up," said Harry. "I'm sure it will be fine."
Malfoy sent him a look of incredulity over Luna's head. Harry tried to telegraph, 'It's just Luna, you know, that girl your dad tortured for a few months,' and probably failed. Luna looked at Malfoy. "You should make one for the dragon, too," she said. "I would have drawn mine out of grass, but I wasn't sure the frame would fit an Antipodean Opaleye."
Malfoy said, "That's okay, I drew mine out of lollipops," and then turned his back on her, muttering things. Harry tried not to laugh and probably failed at that too.
It had taken nearly an hour of steady Requiring from both Harry and Draco, but the castle had gradually produced over six thousand blank, unframed canvases, which they had spent another hour levitating to the nearest empty classroom. So far Harry had only mentioned the project to a few people, but the portraits were talking about it non-stop, and word was travelling fast.
It was only the first day of actual painting, but some of them had already come by to watch the progress. Soblessa was inspecting the bed Harry had drawn. It was a rudimentary, rectangular cube, approximately the right size for a medium-sized bed — or so he hoped. He hadn't thought that anyone would be able to actually sleep on it, and he was right. Soblessa passed her hand through empty air.
"You have to paint it first," said Luna. "Most people use chromative oil paint. I prefer watercolours, myself, but that works better for painting ghosts."
She swiped her brush into the jar she had brought, and painted Harry's bed a bright purple. Each brush stroke seemed to quiver as it met the canvas, and the more she painted, the more Harry's bed began to gain shape. By the time she was finished, it had a mattress, and a headboard, two giant pillows, and four stout legs.
Soblessa beamed at them and sank onto it. "It feels like goose feathers!"
"Great," said Malfoy, coming up behind them. "Now we just have to do that six thousand more times."
"Six thousand, one hundred and fifty-five," Harry corrected. "Plus one for the dragon."
"Or you could just do this," said Luna, and with a wave of her wand, she copied Harry's giant purple bed onto three more canvases.
Harry and Malfoy exchanged glances.
"Brilliant, Luna," said Harry, and saw with satisfaction that Malfoy agreed.
The New Zealand valley in the Gryffindor Common Room was as sunny as ever — no dragon in sight, the grass as vivid and uneven as ever. A mass of Gryffindors were gathered around it, watching the group of people who had taken over the field.
"All right," said Fred, holding up one of the first broomsticks. "Everyone gets ten minutes each at first, provided the brooms aren't defective. Since our friend Vincent is the one responsible for finding these puppies, we've agreed to give him fifteen minutes in the air." He slapped Crabbe on the back, and Crabbe looked reluctant but happy as he accepted the broomstick and kicked off into the air.
"Bollocks," said Ron. Harry turned and saw him glaring at Fred. "You know how chummy they've been lately?" he said. "It's like he's not even the same person any more."
Harry only shrugged. Sooner or later Ron would reach his breaking point, and when he did, Harry would be there, but for now, he was done trying to reason with him. Fred made a brilliant Transfiguration teacher, which everyone could see but Ron. What was more, he seemed to be quite happy with it, as far as Harry could tell. But pointing that out to Ron only led to rants about how Fred was "just confused."
On the canvas, Crabbe took to the air, his feet wobbling a bit. The broomstick was a good size, and it flew well as far as Harry could tell. On the ground, the portraits clapped, and although Crabbe was too small to show much expression in the New Zealand painting, Harry could tell that he was relaxed.
Ron, however, was disgusted. When he stomped upstairs to their dorm room, Harry followed.
"He wouldn't need to hang out with people like — like that," said Ron, "if he just had family and friends of his own around."
"Maybe he just likes Crabbe," said Harry.
"How could he?" said Ron. "He tried to kill us, Harry! He's a brainless thug."
"Then I guess it's a good thing you've been too busy to notice what's going on with me and Draco," said Harry peevishly, although if he'd been put on the spot he couldn't have said what exactly was going on with him and Draco.
"I know you've been too busy turning the castle into a bed and breakfast to have time to talk to your best friend," Ron retorted.
"Maybe if you weren't so busy trying to deny reality, you'd know why no one's talking to you," snapped Harry, "including Fred."
"I'm not the one trying to frolic through wonderland with Death Eaters," said Ron. "What's wrong with everybody lately? What kind of reality is that, huh, Harry? Fred Weasley would never — he'd never — "
"Fred is dead," Harry snapped. "I know it's next to impossible to move on when his portrait is right here in the castle with you, but if you keep waiting for him to be the brother you lost, you'll be waiting your whole life, mate."
Ron looked back. "He just needs to remember that he still has a family," he said.
Harry said, "So do you," and went back downstairs.
Crabbe was just finishing up his flight, his face open and content. When he finally landed, he handed the broom over to Colin, who punched his arm and grinned at him, much to Crabbe's apparent chagrin.
The group of Gryffindors gathered around watching the portraits had grown. Off to the side, Harry saw Dennis Creevey. He was glaring at the landscape and the gathered portraits with an open hatred that alarmed Harry. He knew Dennis hadn't been speaking to his brother, but Colin had loved Dennis, and Dennis had never given any sign that his ignoring the portrait was out of enmity.
Then Harry glanced back at the painting, and suddenly it all clicked.
"Hey, Dennis," he called across the room. Dennis looked over at him, then shrugged and crossed to where Harry stood.
"What's up?" he said. He looked impatient, which pissed Harry off even more.
"That thing that's not your brother? He's been lying for you," Harry said coldly.
Alarm flickered over Dennis' face and then melted into affront. "What are you talking about?"
"Shut up," said Harry. "Colin told me no one had seen anyone coming 'round the paintings at night because the portraits were always somewhere else sleeping. I believed him. But they're not; he's usually there at night and so are most of the rest of them, because they don't have anywhere to sleep. So he had to have seen you. There's only one person in this castle he'd lie to me about."
"What are you so bent out of shape about?" snapped Dennis. "What's it to you if I — "
"I told you to shut up," said Harry, and this time Dennis did. "You told me one painting was just a picture, but you're so angry at another one you tried to destroy it for months. If I were you I'd figure out why that is, and do something about it. Also, if I were you, I'd maybe thank my brother's portrait for caring about me so much he'd lie to protect me when I haven't spoken to him all term."
"Sod off," sneered Dennis, but his face was pale, and he cast a shaken look over his shoulder at Colin's figure where he stood next to Crabbe's.
"Don't mind if I do," said Harry, and he left.
"You can't name your owl 'Owl,' Potter, don't be ridiculous."
Harry and Draco were walking back from the Quidditch shed. The first snow of the year had fallen the previous evening, and while it was only barely enough to shade the ground, it made Harry feel alive. Term would be over in just a few weeks; he'd see Hermione — finally, he'd see Hermione, and maybe she could talk some sense into Ron, and the three of them could be themselves again.
It was almost Christmas. He was thinking of getting Draco a gift just to watch his nose crinkle in pretend disgust.
He grinned. "Why can't I name my owl 'Owl,' Malfoy?"
"For the same reason your parents didn't name you 'Obnoxious Gaping-Mouthed Prat,' for one," said Draco blithely. Then he considered. "Probably because they didn't have a chance to get to know you as well as I do. Pity."
"Pity your parents didn't do things my way," said Harry. "'Arrogant Prig Who Cheats at Quidditch' would've been downright handy."
"I did not cheat," said Draco. "I can't help it if your broom thinks it's a whirligig."
"It tried to nest," said Harry. "With me still on it."
"Well, really, Potter, just because you're not ready to settle down doesn't mean — oh, good Lord, what is that?"
He had stopped just inside the castle entrance. Harry followed his gaze and nearly drew his wand on reflex.
Fred was absent from his painting. In his place, an atrocity of paint and geometry wobbled on stick legs, its wide round eyes staring, its half-circle mouth randomly opening and shutting like a fledgling's. It was made of thick white lines, with giant paint daubs for hands and feet, and the flat things that were its arms teetered on its glaring streak of a body like ropes knocking against a flagpole. It had no nose or other features on its face — just the two unblinking eyes and the oblong mouth rhythmically opening and closing over the point of its triangle chin.
Atop the whole resided the bright orange blob of what would have been its flaming red Weasley hair.
"He didn't," said Harry in slow dawning horror, to no one in particular. "Tell me he didn't."
"He was a madman!" said one of the portraits. "A madman with a paintbrush!"
"We begged him to stop," said another.
"Fred was so angry, but he wouldn't listen!"
"He kept saying, 'This will make everything better! Now you won't have to be alone!'"
"It was horrible!"
Harry stepped forward and stared. The figure stared back with his terrible circles for eyes, and waved a paint globule in greeting.
Over his shoulder, he heard Draco say brightly to Crabbe, "Now, see? Wasn't this worth sticking around for?" and Harry leaned against Fred's frame and laughed because there was nothing else to do.
"Are you trying to push me away?" Fred yelled as he shoved the stick figure out of the canvas, only to have it wobble back in. Ron and Harry were standing beneath his painting. They had waited for Fred to return for over four hours, and the moment he did the other portraits had made a mad dash away from the scene.
Fred was livid. At first he tried to kick Ron's stick figure, but when Ron exclaimed in horror he stopped and just tried to kick Ron instead. It was interesting watching his foot punch through the painting but never actually get anywhere.
"What were you thinking?" he yelled.
"That you needed a friend," said Ron, temper flaring.
"Oh, great," said Fred. "You think this thing is supposed to make me feel good about being stuck on a wall at Hogwarts?"
"I thought you liked being here," said Harry. "You liked teaching."
"Yes, and you know what I don't like? Seeing my baby brother drag himself around like a kicked puppy because of me."
"I'm not!" Ron said hotly.
"And what else I don't like," said Fred, glowering, "is coming back to my painting and finding it occupied by whatever this thing is!"
"I just don't see why — " Ron began. Fred cut him off.
"I'm begging you," he said. "Let this go."
"Let what go?" said Ron. You're not making any sense!"
"No, Ron, listen to me," Fred said. "If I can't get you to snap out of this, I'll have to do it my way."
"What does that mean?"
"It means I'm going to find a way for you to get over me, one way or another!" said Fred.
"There's nothing to get over!" Ron insisted. "You're right here! Why can't you just accept that and — "
"And what?" Fred yelled.
"And BE MY BROTHER!" Ron screamed, the noise echoing off the flagstones and buttresses of the entrance hall.
Fred stopped and stared at him. Harry did too.
"I mean it," said Ron in a choked voice. "Why can't you just let yourself be my brother?"
Fred sighed. Then he looked up over their heads, at the stone walls and the iron girders, and the stained glass windows high overhead. Harry could see it all clearly, without turning around to look.
"Because," Fred said after a long moment, with another sigh, "A century or ten is a long time to be stuck on a wall, thinking about what you should have done, but didn't."
"Fred — " Ron tried, but Fred shook his head.
"I'll have all the time in the world to be stuck in one place because that's where I'm supposed to be," he said. "But right now? I'm supposed to look out for you. For Ginny. For right now, I have to do what your big brother would do."
"You are my big brother," said Ron. "Just act like it! It's all I want!"
Fred shook his head.
"You have to let Fred go," he said softly. "Or you'll let me go instead."
Ron stared with wide eyes.
"But you're right here," he said.
Harry took his arm and said, "Come on, mate, let's go," and dragged him away, still confused and protesting, Fred watching them with worried eyes.
For two days, Harry watched as Ron followed Fred around the castle, the stick figure dutifully wobbling after them on its beanstalk legs. "You don't need to hang out with that loser Crabbe any more!" Ron insisted repeatedly, while Fred more or less ignored him and went about his business.
The next night, per usual, Fred met the other portraits in the Gryffindor Common Room for a regular round of flying. Ron's mood had begun to wane, much to Harry's relief, but when they arrived upstairs after dinner, Crabbe was in the air and Fred was wincing as Ron's stick figure tried and failed to figure out what to do with the second broomstick. Its legs were too skimpy to grip the base, his hands too amorphous to grip the handle. Its mouth opened and closed rapidly, and it pointed its expressionless head toward the sky.
Ron threw himself on the couch beneath the portrait and glared as Crabbe settled back down to earth and passed his broom off to Michael Corner. Fred gave Crabbe a slap on the back. Crabbe shrugged him off but looked mildly pleased. Ron glowered harder.
"Did you really have to come watch?" said Fred.
"Oh, please," Ron snapped. "You honestly think I don't care what happens to you here?"
Harry sighed and sat his books down on the table next to the couch, and sank onto it beside Ron.
"What's he mean, what happens to us?" said Tirane. "We're portraits. What would happen to us here?"
Ron sent Harry a look. "Anything could happen," he said uncertainly. "You could fall in with the wrong crowd of people, get your portrait banged up, get made a Hogwarts teacher when you're not looking!" He shot a glare at Fred.
"But we're portraits," said Tirane again. "None of that matters to us."
"Of course it does," said Ron stubbornly. Some of the portraits exchanged glances.
"It matters to me," said Colin. "I don't want to leave Dennis."
"Sometimes leaving is the best thing for everyone," said Fred.
"How can you say that?" said Ron.
"Easy," said Fred. "I'm a portrait."
"George would never leave you," said Ron. "Percy, Bill, Charlie, Ginny, me — none of us would ever — "
"Yeah, well, you're all alive, aren't you?" snapped Fred.
"Ron can't help that he cares about you," said Harry. He felt stupid arguing with a portrait, and he felt even stupider trying to stick up for Ron when he was being an idiot, but it was Ron, and Harry would always stand up for him in the end; he couldn't stand not to. "Maybe you should stop trying to take that from him."
Fred looked at Harry, his eyes harder than Harry knew a portrait's could be. "You know who took that from him, Harry?" he said. "Voldemort. I'm just trying to give him back what little that remains."
"It's more than that," Ron said, his voice hoarse. "Don't you get it? You're more than that to us."
Fred turned and looked around at the group of portraits. They stared back awkwardly. Then he looked back at Ron.
"No," he said. "I don't think so. But look." He sent Ron a shaky smile. "I'm sorry I can't be — that it's not real. The way it was."
He swung his leg over the broom.
"Fred?" said Ron.
"It's okay, mate," Fred said. He tipped his head in a nod to Harry and the others. "You'll figure it out, and you'll be okay."
"What are you doing?" said Ron.
"I told you," said Fred. "I'm looking out for you. Maybe we should just try it a different way for a while."
He kicked off from the ground into the air, hovering a few feet above the earth.
"You can't actually fly away, you know that, right?" said Harry. "What do you think it would prove even if you could?"
"Look, Harry," said Fred, turning around and giving him a sad smile. "I had a good run, don't you think? If Ron needs some prodding to accept the fact that I'm a dead man, then who am I to stand in his way by hanging around? Trust me, it's no paint off my nose."
"But — but wait," said Ron. "You can't just... you can't just go."
"Ron," said Fred, "you'll be okay." And he rose straight up into the air like a balloon, fast and bright.
"Wait," Harry said. "Ron — he's not going anywhere, he — he can't."
"Ron," Fred called out when he was hovering at the top of the canvas. "Your brother? He hasn't gone anywhere."
"But — you're my brother," said Ron helplessly.
Fred sent him a lingering sad smile, and said, "He hasn't gone anywhere."
And then he flew into the back of the painting.
Ron put his hand on the painting as if he could grab Fred and keep him there, his fingers scrabbling against it. The portraits cried out in alarm, and Harry grabbed Ron's arm and pulled him back.
Fred and his broomstick flew straight toward the tiny mountains at the top of the canvas, their peaks fading into a blur at the horizon. Harry gaped as his tiny frame got smaller and smaller and eventually dotted out all together.
"He did it," said one of the Gryffindors, after a long shocked silence. "He left."
On the ground, the figure that was all wobbly lines and orange Weasley hair waved a paint splotch in goodbye.
There was one thing left Harry could do.
He owled Hermione.
Fred wasn't anywhere to be found on the Marauder's Map. They looked anyway. The other portraits helped, fanning out over the castle and sending the younger students into a flurry of excitement. Ginny was furious with all of them: with Harry and Ron for not letting her know that things had gotten as bad as they had, and with Fred for flying off without even saying goodbye. When Harry tried to apologize she yelled at him, and then hugged him and cried.
Ron was just determined to find him, his face going stubborn and flinty at any suggestion that Fred was gone for good. But by the middle of the following day, Fred was still gone, and the new lines of worry on Ron's face looked as if they'd been etched there permanently.
Ron and Ginny skipped lunch to go look for Fred together. Harry would have gone with them, but Ginny told him she wanted to be alone with Ron.
"Maybe if he can just talk to me," she said, and didn't bother finishing that sentence.
At lunch, Harry stared so sullenly into his plate that the other Gryffindors left him alone. Twenty minutes into his fulfilling recreational activity of stirring peas with his fork, Draco sat down next to him. He wasn't exactly smiling, but Harry had learned what it looked like when Draco was glad to see him.
"You look absolutely ridiculous when you sulk," Draco said. "You realise no Weasley in the world is worth this."
Harry looked up. "Are you saying there are times when I'm not absolutely ridiculous?" he said, wondering when Draco Malfoy had become the kind of person who could cheer him up, much less the kind of person who would want to.
Draco grabbed a fork and began stealing his peas. "I'm saying I refuse to be seen with people who are too busy brooding to appreciate the privilege of being seen with me."
"You're eating my lunch," said Harry. "Is that part of the privilege?"
"No," said Draco, muffled through all the peas. "That's just because you like me."
Harry smiled before he could help it. Draco's mouth went lopsided when he saw it, and Harry's smile got bigger.
"You know, I'm really starting to understand why Crabbe and Goyle liked you so much," he said.
"And I'm starting to understand why Granger had to flee to London," rejoined Draco.
"Because I'm irresistible?" said Harry.
"Because your sad and lonely expression would guilt her into staying."
"But I'm not sad and lonely," said Harry. "That's why I'm letting you eat my lunch, remember?"
Draco glanced up sharply, his face doing that thing where it held about twenty different emotions, and Harry's next joke stuck in his throat. So he kicked Draco under the table.
"Did you just come over here to flirt with Harry?" Parvati asked. She was sitting across from them, watching them with amusement over the top of her book.
Draco turned his attention to her. "I am a man of many talents, and would be more than happy to flirt with you as well," he said.
Harry kicked him twice as hard under the table. Parvati laughed and pointedly went back to reading.
"Gryffindors are very odd," said Draco.
"This coming from someone who once dressed up as a Dementor to try and throw a game of Quidditch," Harry said. He spoke lightly enough, but when he glanced over he found Draco looking awkwardly down at the table.
"I don't..." was as far as Draco managed to get, but it was enough.
"Hey," Harry said. Draco tensed and kept his eyes averted. His lips were drawn very thin. "We were kids."
Draco had to swallow twice before he spoke, and when he did Harry could tell the effort he was making to keep his voice level. "I've a feeling I was a kid a lot longer than you were, Potter," he said. Something about the way he said it made Harry's throat tighten.
"I don't think so," he said. He wanted to say a lot more, about scars and wands and the way Draco's face looked sometimes when he was watching Harry — how it made Harry feel like he actually had saved the Wizarding World, or at least a small piece of it.
Draco was looking at him that way now, and all Harry could do was look back.
"Did you come over just to tell me how sad and lonely I'm not?" Harry managed after a moment.
Draco put his fork down on Harry's plate. "No," he said, his face clearing. "I came to tell you that we are going flying."
There was snow in Draco's hair. It reminded Harry of the way he'd had plaster dust in his hair when he'd seen him on the scaffolding outside Hogwarts in the summer. He had a sudden urge to reach up and brush it away. The knowledge of what that meant had been growing steadily over the weeks. He supposed he should have been scared, or confused. Maybe even horrified.
But he wasn't. Not even a little.
"Here," said Draco, and Harry caught the broom Draco tossed to him reflexively. It wasn't his own; it was ratty and warped and about six inches too short.
"You ever played Strawple?" he said.
"Never heard of it," said Harry, and Draco gave him an eye roll that told Harry that it was probably some snooty Pureblood thing, and he was a moron for not knowing what it was.
"It's where you fly round on kids' training brooms and try to knock each other off," said Draco. There was a gleam in his eyes that Harry had previously seen only when someone mentioned Buckbeak or being mean to Hufflepuffs.
Harry grinned. "Brilliant," he said. "Let's do it."
Draco paused for just a moment, a look crossing his face that made Harry's grin get bigger. Before he could ask himself if this was a good idea, Draco had mounted his broom and taken to the air. Or rather, he tried to take to the air — the broom was so warped that he nearly lost his balance not two feet off the ground. He turned and glared at Harry when Harry burst into laughter, but Harry was learning what the glares meant, too, and it just made him laugh harder.
His broom was stunted and half the straws were out. When he swung his leg over it, it gave a sudden jerk, as if it were horrified. He gave it a pat, which seemed to calm it, and then pushed off the ground.
Half a minute later he was laughing so hard he couldn't see where he was flying. The broom was barely long enough to give him something to hold onto; it was trying desperately to fly under his weight, but it was desperately out of practice, and whenever Harry tried to veer left it shot right. Draco was hardly doing any better, but he still had the advantage of starting first, and he was a ways ahead of Harry. His broom, however, seemed to have a habit of taking off backwards at a moment's notice, so Harry figured he might luck out.
"What happens after I knock you off?" he called across the field.
"I tell you to sod off," Draco called back. "No, wait, that's now." Harry rolled his eyes. Draco's hair was beginning to clutch the sides of his face in frozen streaks, still weighted down with snow. It caught the sun as if it were made of crystal.
Harry had an idea. He managed to swoop his broom back down to the ground, low enough that he was able to reach down and scoop up a giant handful of snow.
Draco saw him and his eyes went wide. Then he called down to Harry, "Really? That's the best you can do?" and whipped out his wand.
In seconds an artillery of snowballs had formed out of the cover on the ground and were rising into the air, hovering between them like land mines. Harry rose and arced the one in his hand as hard as he could for Draco. It went wide, but it spooked Draco's broom, which shot straight up into the air and then took off in the other direction. Draco yelped and grabbed it with both hands, and tried to glare at Harry over his shoulder, which just made Harry laugh harder. Or at least, it did until Draco got his broom under control, snagged the nearest snowball, and hurled it straight at Harry's head. He ducked, but it caught his shoulder anyway, and he was treated to a mouthful of snow and the look of pure glee on Draco's face.
Harry let out a curse and dove towards the crowd of snowballs, just as Draco, on the opposite side, did the same thing.
Some time later, freezing, covered in snow, and laughing so hard his muscles hurt, Harry went for the final snowball just as Draco did. Harry got there an instant earlier, but Draco grabbed his wrist and tried to grapple it away with his free hand. Harry tried to pry Draco away from him, and Draco's broom lurched forward so that Harry nearly pulled him off his broom instead. Draco pressed against Harry for balance, and the snowball compacted between their hands.
They were side by side now, and it was just like every year they'd spent playing Quidditch, both their hands locked around each other with the Snitch caught between, except for how it was nothing like that at all.
The snowball began to crumble. Harry could feel Draco's palm slick and wet against his own. He was close enough now to reach up and brush the snow out of Draco's hair. He began reaching up with the hand not holding onto Draco's, but Draco caught his movement and his expression changed, lightning-quick, into something new. Harry froze with his hand still lifted. He was stricken by the crystal snow in Draco's hair, and the way his eyes refracted the light.
Harry knew Draco's face. He knew his grey eyes and the way his lips stretched thin and tight when he was embarrassed. He knew the way his mouth slanted into about fifteen different angles for varying degrees of smug, amused, cocky, indulgent, and the way it slid into a complete blank when he was taken by surprise. And he knew, now, about the freckles on his constantly wrinkled nose; about the way he was worried and nervous more often than he ever wanted you to know, and the way he hadn't wanted his friends to die.
He knew, too, that he'd seen the look Draco was wearing before. He looked the way he had when he was telling Dumbledore how he'd fixed the Vanishing Cabinet: triumphant and scared out of his mind.
Adrenalin shot through Harry, a fierce, possessive rush; but he didn't move, not just yet. The two of them sat motionless, not quite linking hands, but not letting go, either. Harry started to speak before realizing he had no idea what to say. Draco leaned towards him, so subtly Harry thought it might have been a gust of wind knocking him closer and not something done on purpose; but it gave him an excuse to brush his thumb over the back of Draco's hand, just to see what would happen.
Draco snorted, and Harry might have gotten pissed about it, except for how Draco was staring straight at his mouth.
Around them, the winter air was lit with a charge that sneaked beneath Harry's skin and sizzled.
"Don't," said Draco, and it came out as a whisper so coarse he must have had to try again. "Don't you dare laugh, Potter," he said, and Harry did laugh at that, a short, quiet chuckle. He curled his raised hand into the snow-wet streaks of Draco's hair, and kept it there when Draco leaned in the rest of the way and kissed him.
When Harry returned to the Gryffindor Common Room, it was dark and nearly empty. Harry stood for a moment in the entrance, looking around. His mouth and his hands were still tingling with energy, and he should have felt free. Instead he felt different; older. There was a still, broken quality to the atmosphere in the Common Room that he couldn't define. He had lived through days that felt like lifetimes during the last year. He had spent many of them feeling as if he'd woken up one person and gone to bed another. But in the last days of the term, something oppressive had come over each of his friends. He felt as if everyone around him were waking up one thing and going to bed something else, and none of them knew what to do with the strange, raw newness of themselves.
The portraits had left the long landscape canvas alone for the better part of two days, and now the dragon had returned and lay sleeping in the middle of the field, as if he had never left. The lamps were burning low as Harry passed through and wound up the steps to the dorm. He didn't want to face Ron just yet; not alone, and not with the urge to break into a grin stealing over him at all the wrong moments. But Draco was a piece of his life he couldn't make fit next to all the others, and Harry would have to live with that for now. He would live with it any way he could.
When he opened the door to the dorm room, he saw that Ron's bed had been spelled with a canopy of heavy curtains. They were pulled shut all the way around it. Warmth and hope flooded him, and he gingerly went to the side, listened for sound, and peeked into the curtain.
Hermione sat curled around Ron, her arms wrapped around his shoulders. He was shaking noiselessly against her, and Harry had never been so relieved to see anything in his life.
Her hand caught Harry's before he had even moved, and he sank onto the bed behind her. He folded his arms over her, kissed her, buried his head against her shoulder. The sheer weight of missing her, missing the three of them, flooded over him so powerfully that he had to fight to hold it back.
Ron raised his chin and tugged Harry's free hand into his, without ever opening his eyes. Hermione turned into Harry's embrace and kissed him again. "I shouldn't have left," she whispered against his skin, her lips burning the side of his throat. "I should have stayed with you."
Harry shifted and held on to her harder. "It's okay," he whispered back. "Everything's okay."
And he held on to them both as hard as he could, and everything almost was.
"Do you think you should take it down?" asked Hermione, studying the Opaleye, who was still sleeping soundly in the middle of the canvas.
"Nah," said Ron. "I bought it fair and square, yeah? And anyway, sleeping dragons is kind of a Hogwarts thing, isn't it?"
Harry grinned. Hermione ruffled his hair. They were sitting on the long couch beneath the painting, and Ron lay stretched out between her and Harry, his feet in Harry's lap and his head in Hermione's.
"Well, what about that?" Harry said, and gestured to the stick figure. It had taken to wandering back and forth between Fred's empty portrait and the dragon's painting. The dragon didn't seem very bothered by it. At one point the stick figure had tried to climb onto its tail. It hadn't gotten very far, and so had sat down on it for a few hours without moving.
"Dunno," said Ron. "I think it's kinda nice, myself."
Harry and Hermione looked at each other.
"I'm sure we can work something out," said Hermione.
"Bed number six thousand, one hundred and fifty-five," said Draco, transferring the last painting back onto the wall in the Room of Requirement.
"You really did all this yourselves?" said Hermione in open wonder. The Room had expanded itself outward to accommodate the vast rows of paintings. They stretched in all directions, and Harry wondered if this would be the beginning of the new Room of Hidden Things.
"We had help," said Draco. His voice was carefully neutral, but Harry suspected that had more to do with the looks Hermione and Ginny had been throwing the two of them off and on all day than dislike. He suspected Hermione had guessed, and gone to Ginny to ask. He would have a lot of explaining to do before they left for the Burrow.
A few scattered portraits were already sleeping cosily in beds. Just looking at it made Harry tired. He perked himself up by thinking of the term to come, with Hermione back where she belonged and Draco enjoying a whole dormitory to himself. And then Auror training, he thought.
Or maybe something completely new.
"I hope you don't mind," said Luna, coming up behind them. "I made a home for your friend." She had her wand out, and with it she was levitating a large painting. The canvas was blank except for a twinkling yellow sun, a row of swaying purple and pink flowers comprised of lines and squiggles, and a girl in a purple dress with hair to match the sunshine.
"Wow," said Ron. "Is that for — for me?"
"Well," said Luna, "I thought we might hang it up and see if he wanted to live there. I could make him a house, if you like," she said.
"I think we're fine, Luna," Hermione said. Harry noticed she was frowning at the stick-girl, who was drawing herself a watering can with her stick-wand and using it to water her stick-flowers.
"Pretty smart for a finger painting," said Harry.
"Thank you, Harry." Luna smiled serenely.
She levitated over onto the wall near the door. Ron's stick figure emerged from the huddle of portraits and stepped hesitantly into the frame.
The stick-girl stopped watering her flowers and dipped him a curtsey made out of angles. The stick figure waved slowly in response.
The stick-girl waved her wand, and a tree dotted with bright red things that could have been cherries or pomegranates or apples appeared beside the flowers. The bright blue outline of a bird with giant feet appeared and sat on one of the round red things.
Ron's stick figure's round mouth went wide in what could have been a smile, and his cheeks went pink all the way up to his Weasley hair.
"Yes, well," said Hermione, un-tucking her wand from behind her ear and tapping it in her palm. "Very nice, Luna, thank you."
"Are you kidding? That's brilliant, Luna!" said Ron. Then he saw Hermione's face and amended hastily, "I mean. For a completely hypothetical painting."
"I'm going to go now," Luna said. "My father is picking me up at Hogsmeade, so I won't be on the train with you all." She gave them a radiant smile. "Goodbye, Ron," she said. "I'm glad you're feeling better. Goodbye, Hermione. Goodbye, Harry. I hope you and Draco will be very happy together."
Draco blanched and had a coughing fit. Ron said, "Huh?" at the same time Ginny exclaimed, "Harry!" and Hermione said, "Thank you, Luna, you've been very helpful, have a good Christmas!" and ushered her firmly out the door.
Then she turned around, promptly transfigured the stick-girl's hair from vivid blonde to dark brown with curls, and gave them all a Look.
"So, Harry, Malfoy," she said. "Anything you'd like to tell us?"
"I hate your friends, Potter," muttered Draco.
"Huh?" said Ron again.
"I knew it," said Ginny, looking back and forth between them.
"The things I do for peace and harmony," said Draco with a long-suffering sigh.
The others turned to him with identical looks of disgust, and Harry laughed out loud.
Ron and Hermione held hands all the way from Gryffindor Tower to the Great Hall. The carriages stood waiting to take them all to Hogsmeade, but the departures were slow. In the main foyer, students stood in groups, saying goodbye to each other, and to the eleven portraits that hung on the walls. Someone had placed bright Christmas wreaths at the top of all the frames, and tinsel around the edges. Harry had to laugh. He bet Crabbe loved that. Sure enough, when he looked over, Crabbe was glaring at the edge of his canvas. When he saw Harry watching, he gave him a grudging half-wave. Harry returned it.
Harry looked for Colin. He looked up, saw Harry, and waved eagerly, but Dennis was standing next to his portrait, talking to him softly, and Harry didn't go over. Instead he looked around for Draco, but the Slytherins were nowhere to be seen.
In the centre of the circle of portraits, Fred's stood vacant. But in addition to the wreath and tinsel that hung around it, there were notes and folded-up pieces of parchment stuck along the cracks between the frame and the canvas. Come back! Sinistra is on to us! Need new ideas for sabotage, one of them read. OWLS week 1999 — Exploding Whistlestoppers in your honour, read another one. Don't miss it.
One of them just said, We miss you.
Harry smiled. Over by the entrance, he saw Ron looking at the empty canvas. Hermione's hand was curled around his shoulder.
Professor McGonagall was watching him.
"Sorry you have to find another Transfigurations teacher, Professor," he said. He ran his finger over the edge of the frame.
McGonagall gave him an arch smile and said, "Thank you for your concern, Mr Potter, but perhaps that will not be necessary."
"You think Fred will come back?" Harry asked.
"You left us for a time, too," said McGonagall. "And yet here you are."
Harry looked around him. Hogwarts was not quite back to normal, but there were Christmas decorations everywhere, and someone had hexed a sprig of mistletoe with a Hover Charm so that it randomly chose students and followed them about; and in the Great Hall, the ceiling knew that it had started to snow.
Outside, the carriages were waiting to take them to Hogsmeade station. He and Draco would find each other on the platform. Their hands would brush as they talked, and Harry would board the train and sit beside Ron, and listen to him bicker with Hermione all the way back to Platform Nine and Three Quarters.
They would meet Ron's mum and dad, and Bill and Fleur and George and Percy and Charlie, and Ginny would say goodbye to her boyfriend, and Harry would look over and see Draco and his mother, her arm wrapped tight around his shoulder. They would look at each other across the platform, and Harry would be ushered into the Burrow, mirthful even when it had no reason to be. And there he would stay until the New Year.
Hogwarts would be there when they returned.