* * *
When Lila Pearce was admitted to St Mungo's, Harry had been on shift for eight hours.
There had already been two pædiatric potions mishaps and a bad case of salamander burns this afternoon, and he was quite ready not to see another ashen, remorseful parent again. The irate lecture that Healer Shepwillow had given the parents for keeping a two-year-old and a fire-breathing magical creature in the same house had given him a grim satisfaction, but he what he most wanted now was sleep. He’d been on call for three nights in a row and was looking forward to a proper night's sleep after a pint or two at the Leaky.
He was completely unprepared for the hardest case of his young career as a Healer.
The deep rumble began in reception, followed by a series of howls and the dull, clattering sound of heavy things moving about. Shouts and spells began to be heard above the din. Tristam Lightfoot, the A&E Head Healer, was issuing loud commands and it sounded as though even the magically treated glass barriers separating reception from the rest of the hospital were shattering.
Harry had already signed out at the mediwitch station, but on the way to the bank of staff Floos, he was passed by a few Healers running the opposite direction, their green robes flapping behind them. When the lights in the clinic began to flash, he made a split-second decision and found himself sprinting down the hall after them.
Reception looked as if a bomb had struck, or a typhoon. Parchment rolls and records boxes were swirling in a vortex, a few loose sheets plastered against the ceiling and walls. The giant cloud of parchment made it much harder to spot the heavier objects — chairs, lamps, a potions storage unit— hurtling through the air.
A group of five mediwitches held a line of magical restraint and were pressing forward toward the source of the disturbance. Lightfoot was directing newcomers to the perimeter of the clinic and ordering blast shielding spells. Healers and apprentices, aids and mediwitches alike were trying to stop the furniture and more dangerous objects, sweat dampening their robes, trickling down their faces. Harry saw Healer Lewison, wand bent against the onslaught. The light dimmed from his wand; he was hit by chair and he crumpled to the floor. The others rushed in to help him, raising the shield in the gap that he left while he was carried to safety.
The very air crackled with magic.
The mass of objects swirled in a whirlwind. As Harry pressed on, the magical force-waves shook his bones. Glass exploded ’round him and a piece of paper sliced a stinging cut across his cheek. Batting it away, he created a small, local bubble of protection and walked through the restrictive circle, objects parting before him.
At the still centre of the swirling vortex was a little girl. She was about eight or nine but very small, with dark brown hair. She stared at him with large brown eyes, and the winds slowed for a moment. Harry saw the mediwitches press forward out of the corner of his eye; Lightfoot began to gather a group on the perimeter.
She looked at him with annoyed curiosity, as though he were an unruly Hippogriff in the drawing room.
'Hullo,' he said. 'I’m Healer Potter.'
The blast hit him like boot to the chest, and Harry hurtled backwards.
* * *
Somewhere in the midst of the quiet, he was lying on the ground. He’d fallen from a great height—Quidditch. It was Quidditch and he had come off his broom, but why?
Shadowy figures gathered around him, ghost gauze blowing in an invisible wind, terror and fear sparking like colours around their hollow robes.
Dementors. Of course, he realised. It feels like the Dementors to be around her.
* * *
Harry came to consciousness in the familiar, quiet-but-active setting of the ward. He smelled the ubiquitous disinfectant and heard the clatter of the potion delivery cart in the hall. He must have taken a quick kip on duty. He started awake. He should get back to his station immediately.
As he tried to sit up, he gradually became aware that he was not wearing his Healer's robes. He was clothed in pyjamas and lying on a bed surrounded by protective bars. The wool of the blanket was warm against his cheek as he struggled to sit up.
Immediately there was a hand on his shoulder and an encouraging voice spoke to him.
'Not yet. You’ve just woken up, Healer Potter. Wait.'
'Go call Healer Malfoy,' another voice said, a woman’s this time. 'Right away. '
Malfoy? Why did they need to call Malfoy? And why was he sleeping on ward? Or was he having a vivid dream in his own house?
He opened his eyes wider. The light flooded in and he could make out, with blurred vision, the haze of monitoring spells around him.
'Here are your glasses, sir. Healer Malfoy repaired them. Please lie still. I’ll put them on.' The soft voice sounded like Pernilla Akins, the young and shy apprentice who had excelled in her exams and had barely uttered a word during a six-month rotation on Harry’s ward.
'Why am I here?' Harry slid his glasses on.
'Because you’re an idiot who was nearly blasted into oblivion by trying to play hero.' A familiar drawl came from the right side of the bed. 'Again.'
Harry tried to sit up again. When further hands restrained him, he blinked, forcing his eyes to focus. He could see Malfoy’s blond head to his right and there seemed to be two apprentices and one mediwitch helping.
'Don’t be difficult, Potter,' Malfoy said, his exasperation evident. 'Honestly, Healers really are the worst patients. You’re not to move yet.'
'Where am I?' Harry asked.
'Alive, which is better than you deserve.' Malfoy's voice was clipped. 'You're on the spell damage ward, and you've been unconscious for three days.'
'You had an encounter with a little girl. Do you remember anything before you were knocked unconscious?'
Images swam before Harry's eyes. He saw a small, round face, dark hair, and some sort of settee flying through the air. His head ached.
'It was in reception,' he said slowly. 'There was an emergency. But I must be misremembering. There was furniture flying everywhere.'
Malfoy cleared his throat. 'No. You're actually remembering correctly. You walked through a tempest of flying objects and talked to a very upset little girl. Then she cast something at you — which we've yet to identify, by the way—and we've been trying to get you back since.'
'Yes, Potter. Really.' Malfoy rolled his eyes. He scrawled something on a parchment. His quill was soft and grey and long enough to arch over his wrist. Trust Malfoy to be ostentatious. The standard hospital-issued MediQuills were good enough for Harry. Malfoy handed the parchment to Pernilla. 'You faced the Dark Lord and survived, but were knocked on your arse by a nine-year-old girl. It would be amusing if it weren't so preposterous.'
Harry blinked at the concerned faces around him, Pernilla, a blond mediwitch named... McPherson? 'Is she all right?' he asked.
Malfoy's brow creased and his thin mouth turned in a wry frown. 'We're not sure. But she certainly came away from it better than you did.'
* * *
The next day, Ron and Hermione came to visit and brought his goddaughter, little Rose, with them.
'Harry, you look terrible!' Hermione said, hand flying to her mouth in surprise.
Ron was struggling through the doorway with a squirming Rose in his arms. He ducked through the frame, looking around for a safe place to land with her.
Harry pointed towards a chair in the corner.
'Thanks, mate.' Ron dropped gratefully into it. Rose squealed and reached out towards Harry. Her father pulled her back. 'Not now, love. Uncle Harry’s not well enough for you to be bouncing on him.'
'We can call for toys and a playpen, if you like.' Harry wished his own situation allowed him to play with her as he usually did. He settled for blowing Rose a kiss, which made her giggle.
Hermione set an enormous bag on the end of the hospital bed. 'She has plenty of toys.' She eyed her husband. 'Ron doesn’t seem to think she can survive without at least half of the contents of her toy box.'
Ron frowned, struggling with his daughter to keep her from climbing off his lap. 'She gets bored easily.'
'She looks bigger again,' Harry said to Hermione. 'Might go off the growth charts, that one. And she definitely has more hair.'
'Yeah, she’s taking after her mum with that,' Ron said.
Hermione sighed. 'Poor girl.'
Harry grinned, knowing that the topic of conversation should keep them out of more serious enquiries into his health for at least half an hour.
* * *
In the hallway, Harry paused for a moment before entering the small, isolated room. It had been five days since he had woken up and, although most of his Healers would have preferred he wait two weeks, he was determined to return to work. Malfoy, the lone dissenting voice, had suggested to 'let the damn fool do what he wants; he’s not going to listen.'
A few mediwizards and aids were clustered at the station outside. One Healer, Alice Laycock, watched him with particular acuity, keeping a careful eye on his progress as he made his way through the heavy glass doors to the patient's room.
Harry knocked gently on the door and entered the room. The waves of magic-suppression charms and screening shields took him by surprise. He stopped for a moment to get his balance and then continued into the room, leaving the door open behind him.
'Hullo, Lila,' he said. 'It's nice to see you again.'
The little girl sitting cross-legged on the bed did not move. She was clutching two tattered toys in her small hands, a plastic Babbity Rabbity and a worn plush Hippogriff.
'I'm Healer Potter. Do you remember meeting me?'
She nodded quickly but didn’t meet Harry's eyes. He noticed the grip of her hand on the Hippogriff tightened.
Harry spoke gently. 'I'm sorry we met under those circumstances. I surprised you, didn’t I?'
Brown eyes firmly fixed downward, she didn’t answer.
'You surprised me, too.' Harry said. 'I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I was trying to help you. And I’ll keep trying to help you as much as I can.'
A stubborn jut of her chin indicated that the message wasn’t received, or at least not as he expected. She still did not speak or raise her head.
Harry sighed. 'I’ll be back with Healer Laycock for your afternoon exam and perhaps we can talk more then.'
The little girl was silent, locked inside a deeper shield than even the screens and spells could create. Harry could feel himself vanish from her consciousness before he turned awkwardly and left the room.
* * *
As Harry checked the documents and charts that went with his new patient, he was surprised at the volume of physical data that had been collected: a vast array of tests, consults, and security information for an admission and one-week stay. Slowly, he began to see a thread through the warring opinions and diagnostics, a familiar scrawl on many of the authorisation orders : D. M.
Harry recorded a few notes with a MediQuill and then ran up the stairs to the next floor. Malfoy was just emerging from an office at the far end of the hall.
'Why were you on the case?' The words tumbled out before Harry could formulate a more professional approach.
Malfoy didn’t request clarification but picked up the thread immediately. 'With you comatose, someone with Dark Arts and spellblocking experience had to step in. Of course, I did it the intelligent way, with forethought and backup, but no matter. I hope you’ve learned from your little escapade.' He looked down his long nose, and Harry was suddenly angry at his patronising manner.
He stifled a snarky remark. Satisfactory or not, fighting with Malfoy would not make the situation any better. Harry’d learned that much over the years. 'You’re all over the authorisation orders.'
'After the situation was stabilised, the other Healers were desperate for help and I happened to be available and unafraid to work under the more unusual strictures of this obviously complex case.' Malfoy scowled at him. 'You know, I have had a bit of experience in trauma. And that is clearly what we are dealing with here.'
Harry had been coming to a similar conclusion himself. All of the reports were varied, but something was clearly the matter. They just didn’t know what yet. Lila was not remarkable on any one particular set of diagnostics, but she showed signs of several overlapping problems, none of which could explain the violence and the power of the outburst in the reception room.
'She’s a very powerful witch.' Malfoy interrupted Harry’s musings. 'And we have seen cases where childhood instability or trauma plus magic created a difficult equation. If one thinks about it for a moment, we never knew what happened to the Dark Lord with the Muggles. Longbottom lost his parents and was scarred for life, but his Gran kept him alive. Even if it wasn’t comfortable, she was strong and adapted for him. And then, of course, there’s you, Potter.'
Harry paused. 'What are you getting at Malfoy?'
Malfoy shrugged. 'Nothing in particular. You’re the expert on children, yes? I was merely remarking that there have been cases of strong magic and the failure of the environment to provide for developmental needs, interacting unpredictably in children and suggesting that one should, perhaps, examine parallel cases. But of course, she’s your patient.' He turned to go. 'Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve rounds to make.'
Harry nodded, suddenly thinking about the line Malfoy had sketched out. 'What if we work together?'
Malfoy stopped, just a few feet away. He looked back at Harry. 'What did you just say?'
Harry met his astonished gaze and shrugged. 'You have the interaction experience, and it’s hard to tell now but there might be complex spell or potions components. I have the physical diagnostics and more pædiatric experience. What if we did it together?'
'I don’t like children.'
'It’s an interesting case.'
Malfoy paused for a moment's consideration. 'Shepwillow won’t be pleased.'
'She never is.'
'True. But why...'
'Trust me, Malfoy. If I had any other ideas, I wouldn't ask. But I think it’s for the best.'
Malfoy looked at him carefully for a few moments. 'Fine. But only on condition that we have a proper clinical discussion about it soonish. And I’m to be given full care-provider rights.'
Harry hadn’t been expecting the last condition. He wasn’t opposed, exactly, but it was unusual to have two presiding Healers on one case. 'All right,' he said at last. 'Is 5.00 pm in the staff lounge of the canteen "soonish" enough for you?'
'Of course.' Malfoy inclined his head. 'I’ll see you then.'
As Harry walked away, Malfoy added, in low but audible tones, 'You’ll have to trust me, too.'
* * *
Harry’s new-found optimism was dashed by 10.30 that morning.
'Work with Malfoy? Are you sure you're quite well?' Frances Shepwillow's face was drawn in an impressive scowl, impressive in the severity of its tart disapproval. 'Why would you want to share patient care with the fourth floor? Not to mention...' She trailed off, studying Harry.
'Not to mention what?' Harry asked truculently.
His supervisor sighed, running a long hand over her perfectly coiffed red curls in a tidying gesture. 'If you don’t feel ready to return to managing your cases, Healer Potter, you shouldn’t be here.'
Harry found himself bristling and almost enraged at the presumption of her remarks, even though a part of him knew that she was right. He forced himself to pause before speaking. 'It’s this one case, Healer Shepwillow. I do think it’s complicated enough to warrant close interdepartmental coordination'- he echoed the terminology of recent staff memos to underline his point—'and Healer Malfoy has clearly been working on the case in my absence. His diagnostic work is all over the patient’s chart.'
Shepwillow eyed him steadily. 'And he’s made few friends in the process.'
'But isn’t the interest of the patient our highest concern, not our own comfort with the provider?' Harry retorted.
With a sigh, the Senior Healer turned to the form in front of her. With a flick of her wand, she authorised the request. A signature and seal bloomed at the bottom of the parchment. 'There. With a full review after one week.'
She turned to the pile of orders on her desk, and Harry took the cue. He stood up to leave.
As he turned to the door, she spoke again. 'Healer Potter. Don’t make me regret it.'
'I’ll do my best.' He inclined his head and left the room.
* * *
After a good half-hour, Malfoy appeared in a whirl of movement and green.
'Sorry. A backfiring Jinx hit someone during Apparation, and we’ve been sorting that for the past hour.'
Malfoy sat down with efficient, precise movements, adjusting his robe in the process so it draped properly.
Harry looked up from the last sentence of the report . Refuses to answer questions and often seems confused. 'Right. That’s fine. I’m glad you came.'
Malfoy nodded toward the large stack of papers Harry had extracted from the compact file.
'Not an easy clinical picture to draw, is it?'
Harry shook his head. 'I mean, on the surface of things, nothing seems to be wrong, but then, she also seems to have everything. At least, the results of many of the magical tests are contradictory.'
'My theory?' Malfoy leaned forward, his face lighting up. 'Her magical field is warping the tests somehow. I actually think the magical force might not be the problem, but a distraction from whatever is at the heart of the situation.'
Harry considered what he was suggesting. 'How is that possible?'
'I don't really know, but I think it's happening.' Malfoy tapped a finger against one of the reports. 'I began to notice that she would have predictable clinical responses to different practitioners and I monitored the stability of those results. In some way, she elicited what the Healer was leaning toward and was somehow able to mimic the diagnostic spells, or at least, influence them. I’m not sure of the mechanism, but that would explain why there have been so many different diagnoses.'
'She’s a kid,' Harry said sceptically.
'Children are capable of a great many things adults never suspect.' Malfoy curled his hands around his mug of tea.
'All right,' Harry said after a moment. 'If your theory’s correct, what's the problem?'
Malfoy shrugged. 'That's what we want to find out.'
Harry sighed and leaned back. For a moment, he had really hoped that Malfoy held the answer.
Malfoy raised his mug of tea in a mock toast. 'To discovery.'
* * *
Harry and Malfoy had agreed that Harry would do most of the interacting—Harry hadn’t even had to fight Malfoy much on that point—and that they would perform case reviews together regularly. But there was a wrinkle: the continued and utter silence of their patient. Not to the mediwizards, nor to the aids, not to the volunteers nor the Healers did Lila make a single, verbal utterance.
Harry adapted his daily visits so that he would stop by and visit Lila a little without asking for a response. Sometimes he would talk about the weather or the hospital and how it worked or about the children's books she was being read by a volunteer in the evenings. Sometime he was quiet, attempting to slow his breathing and be as meditative and cautious as possible. He tried very hard not to become frustrated with the one-sided interview routine and to lose any sense of expectation and urgency while staying engaged.
He brought in magic butterflies and chocolate frogs and tried surreptitiously to augment the ward toy chest with new things. He sat in the corner while Lila was playing and didn't look at her directly when he spoke to her, but he was always very observant in a careful fashion. When he spoke, it was gently and sparsely. And he tried to listen to whatever cues he could discern in the silence that surrounded her.
After a few days, Harry decided that the little room needed more light and asked one of the aids who moonlighted as a stage lighting designer for Hecate's Children Theatre to help make the room feel warmer. She responded with lovely, diffused lighting and screens on the hospital fixtures that turned the light more golden. As a last touch, the assistant added a little nightlight in the shape of a fairy for Lila.
Lila said nothing after the changes were made, although Harry made it very clear to her that he could switch anything back if she didn't like it. But that night, the night mediwizard on charge said that Lila had fallen asleep on the soft rug on the floor, small hand clutching the fairy.
* * *
They were sitting in a pub near the hospital, a mixed Wizarding and Muggle establishment with a better-than-average kitchen and, most importantly for Malfoy, a good wine list. After their second meeting in the canteen, Malfoy had suggested they find some place far more civilised, and this seemed the best candidate in radius of the hospital.
Malfoy pursed his lips, long fingers poised on the stem of his glass of manzanilla.
'I can't do it. I talk. I don't talk. I sit still in one corner. I sit in the other. But nothing.' Harry gestured with his hands. 'I've never seen anything like it.'
Malfoy ate a few almonds, then wiped his hand delicately on a napkin. 'Don't be silly, Potter. You're far too impatient. She likes the butterflies and the new lights. And she is beginning to trust you.'
'How do you figure?' Harry was completely surprised by this assessment, although he knew Malfoy said nothing he couldn't prove.
'My monitoring spells have shown a marked decline in anxiety and nervous behaviour during your latest visits. I’ve had to tweak them, as I was getting unreliable readings, but in the main, I think I’ve got a—'
'Monitoring spells?' Harry regarded Malfoy suspiciously and snaffled a few olives while he was winding up to explain.
'I've added an affect spike and a few emotive response sensors to the spell web on the room.' Malfoy's raised hand quelled any protest. 'They're fully within the legal limits of spellcasting. It's helping me gather information about her emotional reactions.'
Harry scowled. 'I was already not sure about that damn mirror, but now you've put in untested, unofficial, unorthodox spell layers?'
In the beginning, Malfoy had directly observed Harry's interviews from behind a spelled glass wall. However, Lila seemed to know someone was there and would look over her shoulder. When Malfoy realised this fact, he borrowed a very old observation mirror from the Manor and spent two days modifying it so he could view remotely without causing a magical trace.
Malfoy's nostrils flared. 'Potter, we cannot rely on words to tell a story. She's an excellent natural mimic and has a keen sense of her environment, magical and otherwise. She's been through a lot. We have to figure her out to help her, but we cannot agitate her defences further. And besides, may I just point out, you uneducated idiot, the spell is not untested. It's been used in clinical trials throughout Canada and much of the Continent.' Malfoy sniffed. 'Read your damned journals.'
Harry shoulders slumped and he was suddenly too tired to fight. 'I'm sure you're right, Malfoy. I'm sorry. I just... I'm frustrated, I suppose. I wish I knew what to do.'
'We share that frustration,' Malfoy said over the rim of his glass. 'But as I've said, Potter, you're going to have to trust me. I genuinely want to figure out a treatment protocol with you, and for that, we have to arrive at a diagnosis. To have a diagnosis, we must have reliable observation.'
'And some sort of results.' Harry took a long pull at his glass. 'Which we do not have.'
'True. But we are getting closer. Of that I am sure.' Malfoy finished his wine just as their dinners arrived.
Harry reached for his fork, his stomach rumbling.
* * *
And then there was Shepwillow. The first week Harry had managed to stay out of the full review by pointing to the data gathered in the previous rounds and the synthesis he and Malfoy had made (well, Malfoy had made, if he was perfectly honest), but this week Harry had to go before his supervisor. In front of the entire pædiatrics ward staff. And he was incredibly nervous. Just thinking about it made his stomach hurt.
The review was at 8.45 in the morning on a bright and cold Tuesday. Harry Apparated into work in a fog, brain overtaxed from the millions of things he'd tried to stuff into the night before. He'd made the mistake of making a broad search for parallel cases in the WizMed database and ended up with piles of parchment delivered by Floo, which hadn't made anything better.
When it was his turn to speak at 9.07, his mouth was dry and his pulse was racing.
He cleared his throat, rustling his papers before him. 'We have the case of a nine-year-old girl, admitted two weeks ago in the middle of a strong neuromagical disturbance.'
Shepwillow eyed him from the far end of the table. Healers Kapoor and Findlay looked on neutrally; the rest of the assembled mediwizards and witches appeared friendly and open.
'As you all know, her entry onto ward was a bit dramatic.' Harry coughed, and a titter of nervous tension exited the group. Shepwillow didn't laugh.
'We've had her under monitoring and magical dampening spells in a secure room since. I took over her care on the nineteenth of November and asked Healer Malfoy, who had been working with her previously, to act as Co-Healer on the case.'
A surprised whisper ran through the room and, as if on cue, Malfoy appeared at the door.
'Ah, Healer Malfoy,' Shepwillow said in an iron voice. No one ever came even a minute late to Healer Shepwillow's rounds. 'You made it.'
Malfoy nodded coolly. 'Healer Shepwillow, members of the pædiatrics ward. I was regrettably detained by a parallel round on the Neuromagical ward and could not, as I'd hoped, come earlier.'
'I'm sure it was something deeply unavoidable,' Healer Shepwillow said. The expression on her face made it very clear that she believed nothing of the sort.
'You might say so, Healer Shepwillow.' Malfoy took his seat. 'I couldn't possibly comment. But the Minister of Magic did seem to think it important.'
This gained Malfoy all eyes in the room.
'I assume you are joking,' Healer Shepwillow said.
'Nothing of the sort, Madam Healer.' She flinched as Malfoy used the older honorific. 'He’s on the fourth floor right now with the media, issuing a statement about the long-term care rights of patients on the Janus Thickey Ward. I believe it has something to do with a WHS bill before the Wizengamot?'
Healer Shepwillow bit her lip, once, and Harry knew Malfoy had her bested, no matter how much it pained her to admit it. 'Very well. Healer Potter, continue.'
Harry cleared his throat again. He felt inexplicably better with Malfoy in the room, more anchored and less adrift in the sea of hypothesis and supposition that supported their case.
'Healer Malfoy and I have conducted interviews and observation of the patient. As you know, this has been impeded by the fact that the patient does not speak.'
'Have you tried Loquor Locutus?' Healer Kapoor asked.
'Yes,' Harry said. 'That has been attempted by a number of experts. Although she does not utter a word, there is no physical blockage or mental impairment that would make her incapable of using spoken language.'
'Has she had any sort of curse or slow working hex?' Healer Kapoor continued the diagnostic questioning line.
Harry shook his head. 'Healer Malfoy and the Spells and Counterjinxes department have run very thorough tests. Although she seemed positive for spell damage, none of the usual countermeasures were effective.'
'Are you sure these tests were conducted properly?' Healer Findlay was quick to interject, perhaps a little too so.
Malfoy flinched. 'Yes. This is what we do every day and we have saved lives. The little girl has no known outside curses, hexes, or other influences on her. External factors—at least, current external factors—should be excluded.'
'Have you considered the possibility that this is entirely self-induced, then, and that she might be doing this to get attention?' Healer Shepwillow asked.
Harry paused, shocked at the plain-spoken nature of his supervisor's words. As all eyes in the room were on him, a vice gripped his insides and squeezed the air out of his lungs. He gulped a breath of air as quietly as he could as his head swam.
'Certainly there are components of this that do get attention and that may even qualify as self-inflicted.' Harry conceded. 'But there is no doubt that the little girl has very real reasons for her condition.'
'Such as?' Healer Shepwillow's lips compressed into a thin line.
Harry's breathing was so constricted, he almost saw stars. 'That has yet to be determined. We have just established diagnostic methods to find the problems. We have an apparatus that will catch non-verbal cues and we are proceeding into case historical analysis. The previous data that has been gathered was too haphazard.'
Malfoy was tense, although his posture appeared relaxed. Healer Shepwillow mulled the matter over for a long moment before she made her decision.
'Very well. You have very little to go on, gentlemen, and I'm not certain of this course. You have one more week. After that, we will seek an appropriate long-term placement for this patient.'
Harry began to protest that it was far too dangerous, that she was far too fragile, but something in Malfoy's eyes implored him to stop. Inexplicable anger welled inside his chest.
'Thank you,' he said in a low voice. 'We will meet your expectations.'
'See that you do.' Shepwillow turned her intense focus onto the Healer next to Harry and Harry collapsed with visceral relief into the chair. 'Healer Kapoor, please present your case.'
After the meeting was finished, the members of the ward dispersed for their morning tasks. Malfoy waited until most of the room was emptied before he said, 'Healer Potter, a moment.'
They walked out of the conference room, to the far and less busy end of the hall where the linen pickup was.
'What just happened in there, Potter?' Malfoy asked.
'What do you mean?' Harry was a bit irritable. 'You were there.'
'Yes, and when Healer Shepwillow asked you a question, I thought you were going to attack her.'
Harry tamped down a surge of anger. 'I don't know what you mean. I didn't like her suggestion, but I was trying to answer it and demonstrate what a bad idea it was.'
'Potter, you were very nearly insubordinate to a Supervising Healer. That much was written across your face. You also looked like you'd seen a ghost.'
Harry blinked. 'I didn't sleep well last night. I spent most of the evening trying to review the case and prepare for questions.'
Malfoy gave him a long, searching look. 'We've won another week at least.'
'Yeah,' Harry said. 'I thought I was going to have to wring it out of her.'
Malfoy frowned as Harry walked away.
* * *
Harry was walking in his neighbourhood. He was wearing Muggle street clothes and he was going to visit Ron and Hermione, he knew he was, but somehow he made a wrong turn and ended up at the green around the corner. A tunnel led to down to the left and after he walked into this new passage, he emerged onto Privet Drive in front of his aunt and uncle’s house. Except it was a Wizarding house now and the tidy exterior had been set with turrets and was circled with bats.
Bats, he thought, but he didn’t quite question them.
He had the urge to find something he’d left and so he pressed on, through the now-black door and into a very narrow and surprisingly long hall, now grown almost impassable. The interior was dark and oddly familiar, like a doll’s house. There was a strange noise, which he recognised as the sound of a child crying as he approached.
When he reached the cupboard under the stairs, he was suddenly afraid to go any farther.
Harry turned to leave, but the walls began to tighten. He couldn’t move. There was a bang on the door of the small cupboard, rattling the lock, and Harry was suddenly aware that there were Dementors in it, that they had lured him in and he had no way out. He fumbled for his wand for what felt like ages but he couldn’t reach it in his pocket. The door began to swing open, flooding the hall with a bright white light—
And he woke up kicking and screaming in his own bed, heart pounding.
* * *
Hermione’s question took him by surprise. They were having tea at a shop near the Ministry—Earl Grey for Harry and hot chocolate for Hermione today.
'I’ve got a heavy caseload right now. That’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about. You see, there’s this little girl...'
'You look very tired.' Hermione gave him a reproachful look. 'But tell me about the girl.'
'Right. She’s the one who came into the hospital with a severe magical storm surrounding her.'
'The storm that put you in bed for five days?' Hermione’s disapproval was evident.
'Yeah.' Harry gave her a sheepish look. 'But it’s really amazing stuff for a nine-year-old. Malfoy and I’ve been trying to figure out—'
'Malfoy?' Hermione’s mouth pinched. 'Draco Malfoy? What does he have to do with the case?'
Harry ran his hand through his hair. 'Well, we’re working together.'
Hermione raised an eyebrow. 'Are you sure that’s wise? He always seemed like a self-centred git who would do anything that was to his advantage.'
'Well, yeah.' Harry nodded. 'But he’s a very smart self-centred git. And I think he’s changed. He’s the only one who’s really taken the time to get involved with this little girl and to try new methods to help her.'
'Really?' Hermione appeared unconvinced.
'Yeah. I’ve had a lot of internal opposition. I’m having huge problems convincing Healer Shepwillow that this case is a case for St Mungo's and not just a temper tantrum.'
'Well, perhaps she’s right. Have you thought of that?'
He knew Hermione was trying to help him think it through, but Harry found himself growing defensive. 'Yes, I’m sure. This is a little girl with a serious neuromagical condition who’s clearly had a rough time of it. She won’t even speak to anyone.'
Hermione thought for a moment. 'What do the Aurors say about the case?'
Harry started to answer, then stopped. He hadn’t seen anything from an Auror file in the records, now that he thought about it.
'Hermione, that’s brilliant. Of course!' Harry paused. 'How do I get it?'
'You can ask Ron directly. He may need to have an official request, but I think the rules for medical emergencies are also a bit looser. Doesn’t she have parents?'
'No. She doesn’t. We know only her name and her last-known address. She was brought in by a neighbour, we think.'
'Have you talked to the neighbour?'
Harry was realising that he should have thought about this from a legal standpoint as well as a medical one. 'No. We usually don’t do that. But you’re right, perhaps we should.'
'And you haven’t had a visit from Wizarding Child Protective Services yet?'
Harry paused. 'Actually, no.'
'Every Wizarding child should be looked after by the agency if there are no parents.'
Harry could see Hermione getting engaged in the situation. For a moment, he was afraid that, if she got personally involved, this could become a Legal Issue. Then again, that might be best for Lila as well. But he had this strange voice in his head that told him that Hermione was trying to take this from him. He shook off the odd thought and gathered himself, glancing at the clock. He was due back on ward in ten minutes.
'Shit. I have to get back, Hermione. You’re amazing!' He stood up and slung his bag over his shoulder, leaning down to kiss her on the cheek. 'I’ll send Ron an owl this afternoon.'
'All right.' She touched his arm. 'Take care, Harry. You don’t seem quite your old self yet.'
Harry was afraid he was far too much his old self, possibly, but he didn’t want to talk about it right now. 'Don’t worry about me.' He started for the door, his tea still in hand.
'And do keep me advised,' she called after him.
* * *
The takeaway was easy to get but sleep eluded him. When he finally managed to nod off, the nightmares returned.
He was inside the hallway again, but this time Umbridge had threatened him that someone would be killed if he did not go inside. He was still not sure what he was looking for but he knew it was very important. No one would tell him what it was. He tried to ask before he went in, but everyone turned away. And Umbridge had taken away his wand.
The hallway was brighter now, a bizarre light flooding everything so he couldn’t see. He thought he saw Albus Dumbledore at the far end, but he wasn’t sure. As his eyes adjusted, he saw pieces of human flesh propped against the wall, limbs and body parts, curiously bloodless and arranged like sticks or extra pieces of furniture. Somehow there weren’t any heads, and the closet was gone. The figure at the far end beckoned and Harry realised it wasn’t Dumbledore, but Voldemort, and he didn’t have a wand.
'I’ve finally killed them all,' Voldemort said in that strange, sibilant, unforgettable voice, his wand fixed on Harry. He smiled coldly. 'You’re the last one.'
Harry woke up shaking and breathless, mouth open in an attempt to scream. He wasn’t sure he hadn’t.
He got up and poured a large glass of brandy, which he drank with quivering hands. He hadn’t seen Voldemort in a dream in over a year.
* * *
'Sorry. I wasn’t paying attention. What…' He looked across the work table to Malfoy, who had a stack of parchment in his lap and was sorting through and annotating onto a new sheet.
'You were almost totally asleep,' Malfoy said. 'You started slumping in your chair and I thought I’d better wake you.'
Harry ran a hand over his face. 'Sorry. Yeah. I guess I’m not…'
'You haven’t been on call this week, have you?' Malfoy inquired. 'Or at least, not more than usual?'
'No. Not at all.' Harry poked a wand at the cup of cold tea in front of him and mumbled a quick spell to reheat it.
Malfoy scowled and banished the cup with a wave, then summoned new tea. 'Even you and your lack of taste receptors can’t want to drink that.'
Harry pulled the warm cup to his lips and took a sip. His consciousness was slowly returning but his head was muzzy. He was in Malfoy’s office, in a cushioned chair. He saw notes in front of him, on the table, and remembered that he had been writing up an interview report. He scrounged around for his quill, which he must have dropped when he dozed off.
'Is there anything you’d like to talk about?' Malfoy asked sharply as Harry looked at the floor.
He spotted the green edge of the feather, under the desk. He reached down and tugged the quill out of its hiding place, the straightened up. 'No. Not particularly.'
When Malfoy raised an eyebrow, Harry asked, 'Why? Do you need to get something off your chest?'
Malfoy frowned and cocked his head. 'I didn’t think the subtle approach would work with you. Very well. Potter, clearly something fairly significant has been disrupting your sleep patterns during the past few days, and as you don’t seem giddy or particularly euphoric, I doubt it’s a new love affair. So the question is, what?'
Malfoy waved a hand. 'Don’t bother. Nightmares. Probably repetitive and fairly major, likely occurring during your deep REM cycles in the early morning hours and keeping you awake afterwards. You live alone, don’t you?'
Harry nodded. He was oddly deflated by the brisk manner with which Malfoy was handling the situation.
'Right. So no one is there to make you talk about them. You haven’t really had them for a while now, but you’re used to functioning with them. Only this time they’re worse.'
'How can you possibly know that?'
'You’re falling asleep in my office. Really, Potter, it doesn’t take a genius.'
'But how can you know that I’ve had them for a while, or that I’m used to functioning with them.'
'Because we all are.' Malfoy’s grey eyes were dark and intent. 'But if you have to ask, it’s also because you’ve been growing progressively more exhausted and you haven’t said a thing about it. We see each other every day, so I’ve had ample time to observe.'
'That still doesn’t mean I’d tell you.' Harry’s mouth tightened.
'No, but you’ve not said a thing and it’s been at least five days. Not a syllable, not a word, not a peripheral mention? That’s hiding, Potter, and you do it in plain sight. Rather well, I might add.' Malfoy looked back at his papers, pausing over a line on a new parchment, then resuming the scratching of his quill.
'How do you know I haven’t told Ron. Or Hermione?' Harry’s arms were folded across his chest.
'Have you?' Malfoy inquired.
'No.' Harry felt a flare of irritation. He lifted his chin. 'But I might have done.'
'Yes. You might have.' Malfoy let the pause lengthen. 'But you haven’t, have you?'
Harry realised that Malfoy was right, and he was furious. Malfoy was just so calm, so poised, so ethereally detached. 'You’re just guessing. You want to make everything significant.'
Malfoy watched Harry neutrally as he grew more and more agitated. The more neutral and reasonable Malfoy’s demeanour was, the angrier Harry grew.
As he was about to protest, Malfoy said, 'You’re having trouble controlling your temper as well.'
'WHAT BUSINESS IS IT OF YOURS IF I AM?' Harry shot up out the chair, which toppled from the force of his violent movement. He could see nothing but red, all around him. He didn’t even pause to gather up his papers but strode blindly toward the door.
As he stormed out of the office, he saw Malfoy resume writing, light spilling over the parchment as he concentrated on the motion of the quill.
* * *
He and Malfoy were in an office at Hogwarts. There were kittens everywhere, but the office, Harry knew, was somehow attached to St Mungo's, too. Malfoy was writing notes, but it was with a Blood Quill. Instead of his blood, however, it drew Harry’s. Harry screamed as the pain seized his body, blistering across him in a web of fiery words. Malfoy wrote the report all over Harry's body, but when Harry tried to read it, all he could see on his skin was 'lies.' Malfoy looked sad, but he kept writing.
And then Shepwillow was coming. She was just a little way down the hall, purposefully striding toward that office and she was going to find him and the evidence, and he had to hide it from her at all costs. He had to get the report off his skin so she couldn’t see it. His scar burned as he frantically tried to scrub the marks off.
Harry woke drenched in sweat. It took a good half an hour for his breathing to settle from the panicked gasps. He couldn’t fall asleep until the sky began to lighten in the grey promise of dawn and he only had two hours before he had to get ready for his shift.
* * *
Harry took the potion with his tea and his morning rounds seemed to go much better despite his lack of sleep. When he stopped by Lila’s room, she was unusually calm and seemed quite happy. He smiled at her and sat in the corner to watch her playing out a scenario with the dolls that were gathered in the little room. Several dolls had to play double roles by the look of it.
As he was leaving, Healer Laycock took him aside. 'It’s the bedtime story.'
Harry blinked at the normally sedate Healer, who had an excited expression on her face. 'Come again?'
'She’s acting out her bedtime story. She’s actually getting the dolls to play the story of Tiny Ina and the Magic Bat.'
'Who’s been reading her that?' Harry asked.
'Oh.' Healer Laycock looked surprised. 'There’s a volunteer program, Healer Potter. Older witches and wizards come in to read bedtime stories and visit patients. Lila had a visit last night.'
Harry smiled in understanding. 'So she’s interacting with the story the volunteer read her?'
Healer Laycock nodded, a pleased grin spreading across her face.
'That’s brilliant!' Harry knew it wasn’t enough to build a case on, but any form of interaction was a victory at this stage.
On a whim, he walked up to the fourth floor before lunch to leave a message for Malfoy. He could have owled it, but he wanted to leave it himself.
As he was trying to place the parchment under Malfoy’s door, a dry cough came from behind him. As luck would have it, it was Malfoy himself.
Harry stood up and handed Malfoy the folded message. Instead of waiting, Malfoy unfolded it and scanned the lines with Harry standing in front of him, trying not to squirm or run away like a Hogwarts first-year caught passing notes.
Malfoy, good news! Lila is interacting! It’s a bit of a long shot, but it involves a bedtime story she was read last night. Let’s discuss it when you have the time; I’m wondering if you caught anything on your monitors.
PS I’m sorry about last night. I was out of line. HJP
Harry could feel the blush splashing across his cheeks as Malfoy reread the hastily scrawled lines. He was beginning to regret his cavalier manner and what now seemed a woefully inadequate apology for his behaviour.
PPS Thanks for the potion—it was a lifesaver.
Malfoy’s eyes met his and after a moment, his mouth curved in a small smile. It was a blissful sight and Harry was quite undone by surprise for a moment. He was even more surprised when Malfoy clapped him on the shoulder—usually he kept an invisible physical perimeter of distance between them.
'That’s fantastic!' Malfoy said. 'You’ll have to explain it to me. Wait, have you had lunch yet?'
Next thing Harry knew, they were sneaking into the ward director’s Floo to go to a proper place for celebration, as Malfoy had declared the canteen 'utterly unfit for such news.'
* * *
Malfoy had made a Firecall to Zabini and wedged them into the busy lunch schedule of a famous bistro in a Wizarding boutique hotel. Most of the information they had had to discuss had been traded before lunch. Malfoy had peppered him with questions before their food arrived. Harry had brought up Hermione’s input on the Auror files and the possibility of talking to the WCPS. Now they had settled into a comfortable silence.
Malfoy was concentrating on a creamy raw milk cheese from his plate with a look of unadulterated pleasure on his face. Harry, on the other hand, concentrated on Malfoy, marvelling in a vague sort of way that he would have never guessed that the buttoned-up, terribly professional Malfoy had this side to him, indeed, so many sides to him. Perhaps they really were growing up, or perhaps Harry didn’t know Malfoy nearly as well as he thought. Pity.
Malfoy looked up to Harry watching him. He pursed his lips in thought, as if weighing something, then spoke. 'Potter, do you remember when I first mentioned the monitoring spells?'
Harry took another sip of port and nodded, feeling pleasantly calm and quiet. He knew he would have to be alert again soon, but he wasn’t rushing it right now. After the twilight state of the last few days, a bit of post-meal relaxation was lovely.
'Mmm. Well, I was having problems adjusting them at first, I think you’ll recall.'
Harry nodded again, letting Malfoy’s words swirl around him.
'What I didn’t tell you at the time was that I was catching odd neuromagical bursts with the spells, really strong, uncontrolled energy.'
Harry frowned as the import of this sunk in and disrupted his sense of calm. 'Why didn’t you tell me at once, Malfoy? She could be in danger. We’re on such thin ice as it is.'
'I didn’t tell you because I soon realised that it was not her neuromagical bursts I was catching.'
Harry froze, mouth suddenly dry, unwelcome possibilities and half-guessed horrors beginning to form in his mind. 'But we’ve checked so carefully for Imperius!'
Malfoy shook his head. 'Potter, the neuromagical spikes I'm catching with the monitoring spells are yours.'
When Harry said nothing, Malfoy looked at him almost apologetically. 'I’m sorry I didn’t tell you at first. I wanted to be very sure, so I kept a record of everything. I adjusted the spells to track you separately, to keep the data out of her record.'
Harry’s heart began pounding at a furious rate. 'Are you very sure?'
Malfoy spoke quietly. 'Yes. I wish it were otherwise. But yes.'
'Then...' Harry’s thought was lost with the appearance of a paging owl at their table.
The letter opened itself, much like a Howler. It was Healer Shepwillow’s voice.
'Healer Potter. Come to the third floor side corridor immediately.'
Harry scowled as waves of anger roiled within him. All of his peace, all of his calm had been shattered and he did not know how to go forward. 'I am getting really narked at Umbridge, I mean, Shepwillow. I wish there was something to be done about her.'
Malfoy stared at him.
'Sorry. Just a bit tired. Where’s the...' Harry took a deep breath and stood to go.
Malfoy shooed him in the direction of the Floo. 'Over there, behind the palms. Go! You’ve only four minutes for an in-hospital response.'
Harry nodded dumbly and strode off in the direction of Malfoy’s emphatic gestures.
* * *
Healer Laycock looked up at Harry from notes she was writing. 'What's with you and Shepwillow?'
Harry frowned at his own notations and took a moment to answer. 'How do you mean?'
'Dunno.' Healer Laycock shrugged and made a notation on the parchment in her hand. 'Things just seemed a little off.'
'I'm not sure myself,' Harry admitted.
He was genuinely surprised that anyone had noticed his behaviour—he thought he had been discreet. The more he thought about it, the more her comments unnerved him. He knew he needed perspective on the situation and he wanted to ask Healer Laycock her opinion, but he knew that nothing travelled faster than ward gossip, not even Ministry owls, and he was afraid of starting something that might land back in Shepwillow’s lap.
As an assistant stopped Healer Laycock for a question, Harry made his getaway. She looked after him over the head of the assistant, but didn't wave him back.
Harry's heart was pounding by the time he made it into his office. His worst fears had been realised—someone had noticed something was wrong. Possibly everyone had. He had tried to avoid unnecessary contact with his supervisor and keep their interactions professional, but he felt an inexplicable anger. He was preternaturally aware of Shepwillow watching him on ward now and he waited for her criticism. Every comment seemed barbed now, every glance hostile. When he saw her, he frequently thought of Dolores Umbridge and had an almost visceral reaction of disgust and loathing. He knew the two were nothing alike and that it really had to be in his head, but he couldn’t stop the irrational association.
Harry didn’t know what he could do. The situation was preposterous—he knew that. He was sleep-deprived and likely ascribing a bit too much intentionality to everything. It couldn’t be that bad. When they were training, it would always happen during the worst and longest shifts—they called it apprentice paranoia and it usually went away with sleep. Also, he couldn't just stop speaking to Healer Shepwillow and maintain his clinical standing. He had to keep on the best footing he could with her to keep the Pearce case under his supervision.
The rage that he felt surprised even him and he wished he had someone to go to. If he talked to Hermione about it, she would tell him to take time off, and while she might be right, he didn't want to hear that right now. Ron wasn't at his best with talking, although he was great for a night out and time spent doing things without talking. Luna was out of the country on a project in Africa for a few months and Dean and Seamus were busy with their newly adopted son. He didn’t really talk to Andromeda about his work life, although they had grown quite close over their shared interest in Teddy, and Molly Weasley would only worry.
It was with some surprise and no little trepidation that Harry found himself in front of Malfoy's office that afternoon. The early December dark had come quickly, and the hospital seemed oddly muted as Harry had made his way up to the fourth floor. None of the other neuromagical Healers were about, but a thin slice of warm light spilling into the hallway from under a closed door told Harry that Malfoy was in his office.
Harry steeled himself and knocked before he could think about it what he was doing or why.
The door opened and a long nose poked out. Two steely grey eyes regarded him.
'May I come in?'
Malfoy stood for a moment longer than was strictly courteous, but moved aside to let Harry come in. He gestured vaguely towards a green side chair with worn upholstery, and Harry sat, waiting for Malfoy to settle himself behind his desk. Piles of paperwork teetered precariously from Malfoy’s writing surface, and the dregs of tea were visible in a china cup. Journals and parchment rolls overflowed the shelves lining the walls and were ordered in stacks on the floor. Malfoy himself looked tired and a bit worn. He flared his nostrils at Harry, which Harry had learned he did when he was trying to make himself more alert as well as to show anger or annoyance. Either could be happening right now.
'You're right,' Harry said before Malfoy could ask anything. 'I'm having repetitive nightmares.'
Malfoy regarded him levelly, although one of his pale eyebrows twitched. 'Yes.'
'And I've been having violent thoughts and irrational responses to Shepwillow.'
Malfoy rubbed the bridge of his nose and nodded. 'Okay. And you're here to tell me this because...'
'I don't know, really.' Harry found he needed to talk more to keep his nervousness at bay. 'I needed to tell someone because it seemed so unreasonable to associate Shepwillow with Umbridge, and I know it’s not really happening, but somehow in my mind it is. I think it’s because of the nightmares, but I didn't really know who I could tell about them. Hermione and Ron have Rose to worry about and I can’t tell anyone on ward or it will blossom into a blood feud by morning. But when you mentioned the neuromagical burst on your monitors, I figured you might already know something was going on so I thought I would come talk to you about it.'
He leaned back in his chair, breathing out.
'What do you want me to say?' Malfoy’s expression was guarded. 'The last time we had a discussion like this, you stormed out of my office.'
Harry winced in recollection and nodded. He could understand how that might make Malfoy careful in his reactions now. 'Sorry about that. I’m not really sure. Maybe I just want you to listen and then tell me to get the fuck over it.'
Malfoy nodded again. 'Okay. Get the fuck over it, Potter. There are potions for this sort of thing.'
Harry frowned. 'I know. And I’m trying. But I can't, or at least, can't seem to. I don't know. I thought I had this all under control. I thought I knew but I think I don't know myself.'
The more he spoke, the less sense he seemed to make, and yet, he had a strange compulsion to communicate something to Malfoy about the situation.
'So you've had problems like this before?' Malfoy inquired mildly.
'Yeah. Of course.' Harry shrugged. 'I mean, I'm always a bit like this. I’m oversensitive and I have trouble keeping my temper.'
On the other side of the desk, Malfoy seemed to be struggling with composure. A brief smirk curled the corner of his mouth and Harry grinned quickly in response. Some of the tension left the room in a whoosh and Harry was emboldened.
'So yeah, I’m always like this. But it's just a little worse now. I think it might be the work with Lila, especially since you picked up my odd responses in her room. I hope I’m not doing it all the time, but I don’t know. I thought about it and I trust you to tell me if I’m being a giant arse.'
Malfoy pursed his lips. 'Please don't ask me to answer that.'
Harry laughed. 'Seriously, though, what do you think?'
'At the risk of being too formulaic, Harry, what do you think? Have you thought that your behaviour might be a problem?' Malfoy fiddled with a quill on his desk but was clearly devoting his mental attention to Harry. In fact, he looked to be concentrating quite intently on what Harry was going to say.
Harry sighed and then looked at him quite earnestly. 'I'm beginning to think it might be.'
'Mmmm.' Malfoy said.
'What?' Harry asked. 'What’s ‘Mmmmmm’?'
Malfoy smiled quickly and not unkindly. 'It means, it's probably good you're thinking about it and you would do well to be aware of the connections you’re making or things that feel like they might be out of your control but really aren’t. You can't change things you're not conscious of.'
Harry knew Malfoy was right but he really didn’t like the answer. He wanted someone to care about how he was feeling or be dramatic about how serious it was. Instead, Malfoy was precise, clinical, and completely underwhelmed. It was as though they were discussing Quidditch statistics, although Harry would bet he showed more passion then.
Harry protested. 'But it's so unpleasant to really look at it.'
'Welcome to normal life. Not even the Saviour has an easy time.' Malfoy looked up to the holly hung in the corner of his office, then cast a weary eye over the pile of paperwork in front of him.
Harry frowned. 'Ha ha. Are the Saviour jokes special for Christmas or do you make them all the time and I’ve not been listening?'
'I was serious, actually.' Malfoy hmphed. 'But if we're quite finished, I've got an end of the month write-up due.'
'That's all,' Harry said, feeling oddly deflated but strangely not minding it.
Malfoy nodded and turned his attention back to his paperwork. He picked up a quill and began writing small, precisely curled notes on a long parchment with several seals, a complex case with numerous transfer orders by the look of it.
Harry watched Malfoy at work for a moment, enjoying the intensity of his focus and the precision of his movements.
Malfoy looked up and his grey eyes were inquisitive. 'Was there something else?'
Harry wished there were suddenly, but that was selfish given how much work Malfoy had in front of him. 'No. Sorry.'
He stood up to leave, quite a bit lighter than when he’d come in. 'And Malfoy. Thanks.'
Malfoy looked up again, puzzled, and cocked his head. Harry smiled at him and walked out of the room.
* * *
'Potter, I’ve got it!'
Harry’s exhausted synapses perked up immediately. Somehow seeing Malfoy always made him feel better recently: he looked particularly fetching with a wild grin on his face and was clearly in an excellent mood.
Without waiting for an answer, Malfoy plunked himself down in the wooden side chair across from Harry’s desk.
'There’s a pattern of response to practitioners and visitors by age and gender. I ran the response curves through an analysis of those factors and it’s crystal clear.'
Harry looked at the parchment Malfoy shoved under his nose with growing excitement.
Malfoy interpreted the results. 'See, here’s the visitor and the age range, here’s the gender, and here’s the level of generalised anxiety based on these clinical factors.'
Harry took another moment to process the graph and then spoke. 'That’s amazing. Seriously, Malfoy, I can’t believe you’ve correlated that out of thin air, as it were.'
'She obviously feels safer with women and older women in particular.' Malfoy gestured to the chart with a long finger.
'What are these?' Harry singled out a row of underlined, low readings.
Malfoy smiled triumphantly. 'Those are the evenings that her volunteer comes to read to her. It’s the closest we’ve got to her actually interacting and I’ve established that the volunteer is female and over 65.'
'So, what can we do with this?' Harry looked at Malfoy.
'I don’t know exactly, although I think we can use it to help her care. For starters, we could try to see if the presence of an older female Healer or mediwizard might help her respond, even with non-verbal cues.'
Harry was crushed as he realised, belatedly, that he fulfilled neither criterion.
'Shouldn’t she be most anxious about me, then? Seeing as how I’m male and young?' Harry tried not to let Malfoy see how this upset him.
Malfoy shrugged and kept grinning. 'Yes. But she isn’t. She actually seems to trust you more that most of the other providers. You might congratulate yourself for that. You’re beating the numbers a bit. I just think we could do better.'
Harry smiled at Malfoy as warmth spread through his limbs. If he had to put a name to it, he felt curiously happy. The progress was small, but it was progress, and they might be one step closer to helping.
'Who do we choose, then?' Harry pondered the rota of staff in pædiatrics and related areas.
'I have an idea,' Malfoy said. 'I can’t tell you until this afternoon for sure, but I think I know someone who might be able to help us.'
Harry nodded eagerly. 'That’s great. We should have Auror results this afternoon, too.'
'Really?' Malfoy regarded him with interest, his grey eyes keen and curious.
'Yes. Ron owled to say he’s bringing them over personally. On a whim, Harry added, 'Would you like to be here when he presents them?'
Malfoy was surprised by the question and took a moment to answer. 'Yes. Yes, I would. Very much.'
'Good. He’s coming at half-three this afternoon.'
Harry stood up as Malfoy did, and they faced each other across the table in the small room, a curious tension in the air that Harry could not name. Neither spoke for a long moment.
'I’ll... I’ll be there then.' Malfoy was the first to break the silence.
'Er, right!' Harry said, thinking that perhaps he was a little more tired that he thought as he was staring at the strands of hair in Malfoy’s face and the movement of his lips. 'That’s really good. I think we both... We should both hear it.'
Malfoy gave Harry another long look and then nodded. 'Thank you.'
Harry found himself staring at the door after Malfoy left, wondering what had just happened.
* * *
Ron’s face was unusually drawn. He was holding a large box with several scrolls of parchment.
Harry clapped him on the shoulder in welcome.
As Harry started to speak to his friend, Malfoy greeted the new arrival from the corner. 'Auror Weasley, a pleasure.' His voice was dryly amused.
Ron did a double-take—he apparently had only seen Harry when he entered. 'What? Why do you have the Ferret here?'
Harry winced as Malfoy stiffened and brushed an imaginary speck of dust from his spotless robes.
'Healer Malfoy is here because we’ve been working together on this case. We’ll both hear the results since they’re very important to our joint diagnosis. I’m glad you have information. Why won’t we like it?'
Ron eyed Malfoy warily, and then turned back to Harry.
'Harry, this little girl is supposed to be dead.'
A shiver ran down Harry’s spine and he stepped back a pace. 'What?' as a similar protest escaped Malfoy’s lips.
'According to our records, Lila Pearce died in a fire at her foster home two years ago, at the age of six. She had been through four fostering situations in five years and was deemed uncontrollable by many service workers.'
Harry blinked. 'How is that even possible?'
'I don’t know, mate.' Ron said. 'But given the circumstances, I’m a bit worried she might have done something.'
Harry shook his head. 'There’s no... But she’s a child.' He thought suddenly of the tempest in reception and the magical restraining screen.
'A very difficult and angry child with a lot of magical power, by all accounts.' Ron dropped a thin file on Harry’s desk.
Harry was shocked. He’d never foreseen these results. 'What do you want us to do?'
'I need to have a forensic expert question her and I’d like to talk to you about how to do this.'
'Ron, she barely trusts me enough to look at me. She doesn’t talk. At all. We’ve just, that is, Healer Malfoy has just figured out a pattern to adults she seems less anxious around.'
Ron frowned. 'Can we use a potion on her?’
Malfoy interrupted at that point with a small huff. 'Veritaserum is not safe for children, at any dose. It’s also been proven not to be effective, as their brains are still flexible on the divisions between true and fantasy worlds, especially with traumatised children.'
Harry was at a complete loss. The whole case had suddenly been turned on its ear. A fire and a presumed death? As the higher parts of his brain were drawing the larger implications, a little voice inside of him said, Four foster homes in five years? That’s an awful lot for a small child. And she was only two when it started.
'What do you suggest we do, then, Healer Malfoy?' Ron’s voice was tinged with irony, but no outright sarcasm.
'If you genuinely want my opinion,' Malfoy looked down his nose at Ron, 'we should call in a memory expert who has empathic abilities. I have a colleague who has clinical and forensic experience in such affairs, Cleodoxa Williams. Perhaps you’ve heard of her work?'
Ron tilted his head and thought for a moment. 'Yeah, I have. She did that work with the Pembroke family and that horrible trial last year.'
'Precisely,' Malfoy said. 'I’ve already corresponded with her about Lila and she is willing to come to London to see her. I would suggest that we set up a safe scenario for a consult, with Healer Williams’s advising, and create an appropriate record for legal purposes. We’ll have a legal representative from the WCPS here.' Malfoy gave Ron an even look. 'Your wife was kind enough to send us a referral.'
Both Ron and Harry were flummoxed by that one, although so well used to being outpaced by Hermione that they merely nodded after a moment of surprise.
'I think that’s for the best, probably,' Harry said.
'Yeah.' Ron said slowly, 'It would have been necessary eventually, so I suppose it’s best to have the legal angle now. Right. I’ll leave what I can with you now and we’ll talk tomorrow, Malfoy, about setting up the interview with Healer Williams.'
Malfoy nodded. 'We do need the patient’s consent, you know.'
Ron sighed. 'I do. I also know it can be obtained by legal means, but I would really prefer not to go that route. Please, Harry. Try to make sure we don’t have to bring that before the Wizengamot, if at all possible.'
Harry felt roundly in the middle of everything and completely confused, as if struck dumb by a Confundus Charm. 'Okay. Will do,' he said automatically, although he’d no idea how.
* * *
They lengthened the desk in Harry’s office, turning it to fit in the space and each taking one end. Parchments and records boxes piled up quickly.
'Malfoy, do you have the Danish data on responder care and trauma protocols?'
'Here.' Malfoy waved his wand without looking up from his parchment. 'You’ll want the American treatment study as well.' Another roll landed in front of Harry.
A little while later, Malfoy said, 'Harry, what data do you have for the traumatic loss of speech?'
Harry shuffled through a pile and found what he was looking for. 'Here. I think these are the best. There’s a write-up of two pædiatrics cases from America where patients spontaneously lost the ability to speak and another similar case from a German Journal of Magical Pædiatrics.'
They continued in this manner until one in the morning, when Harry straightened up from his parchment. He was wired from lack of sleep and nervousness, although his eyes were beginning to get bleary.
He stretched his arms in his chair and stood up, pacing the length of the table a few times to stretch his legs.
Malfoy stood too, unrolling his spine in increments. Harry stopped right before Malfoy, the words in his throat catching, his eyes held by Malfoy’s.
The tension between them crackled with an intensity several times that of the brief morning incident. Harry almost jumped in surprise. The electricity of Malfoy’s stare went straight to his cock. Harry bit back a groan.
Malfoy licked his lips and appeared suddenly nervous. He gestured with a quick flutter of his hand and seemed to be trying to put on his professional mask again. 'Perhaps we should both get some rest. I think we’ve got enough now. I’m sure we’ll both feel better after...'
Harry took a step nearer and Malfoy stilled. A wave of energy surged through Harry, raising the hackles of his neck and prickling his skin.
When he leaned in to kiss Malfoy, the silence of the world deepened until he could hear his heartbeat in his throat and Malfoy’s soft, scratchy breathing against his lips. After a few awkward, mutual feints, Harry raised his hands to hold Malfoy’s broad shoulders, pulling him forward to press his body against him while he sought Malfoy’s lips.
Several soft, stolen kisses later, Malfoy pulled out of his grip, and Harry was momentarily disorientated. He blinked his eyes and realised that Malfoy was panting with the effort. Or perhaps something else. Harry dropped his hands.
'No. Not... Not tonight.' Malfoy's eyes were wide, pupils dilated. A strand of his pale hair, usually so tidy, was hanging in his face. 'This is not a good idea. It’s too tied up with the case and the review.'
Harry just looked at him. 'Malfoy, we both want this. What we’re working on has something to do with it, but I don’t think it accounts for everything.'
The conflict of motivation and desire was written on Malfoy’s face. He turned his head and gave Harry a side-long look, eyes wild. His lips opened, perhaps in protest, but no sound came out.
Harry was seized by a sudden fear that Malfoy would walk out, and everything would be worse than it had been before. He had to say something, keep him here somehow, wedge something in the door to keep Malfoy’s face from closing again. 'Stop overthinking everything. Trust me.'
Malfoy shook his head, once, as if to clear it, and then seemed to make up his mind. 'Right. Overthinking.'
He stepped forward and pulled Harry onto his tiptoes with rough hands on his arms, locking his lips onto Harry’s. And then they were biting, sucking the air from each other’s lungs and Harry had never felt so hungry for the skin of another person, so terrified by the force of his physical response. It was earth-shattering, moving against Malfoy and sensing his equal desperation, the press of his erection against his thigh, the sharp bliss of his teeth in Harry’s lip. Harry found himself hanging on to his control by a thread.
'Merlin.' Harry gasped.
And then it stopped. Malfoy stood, having gently detached himself from Harry. Harry blinked at him in total lack of comprehension.
'We can’t complicate things like this. It’s too much. I have rules about mixing work and pleasure.' Malfoy smoothed his hair and didn’t look directly at Harry.
Harry was panting and still seeing stars. He struggled with intelligible speech. 'Merlin, Malfoy. So do I. I haven’t, I mean, I'm not...' He wasn’t sure what he was exactly at that moment, other than gagging to have Malfoy’s hands back on his body.
'Don’t tell me you’re a lost straight boy, Potter.' Malfoy shot him a sceptical look. He appeared calm and collected, although his lips were unusually pink and his face was flushed.
'No.' Harry scowled, gradually sinking from the high of arousal. 'But I haven't been seeing anyone lately. I sort of gave it up after a bad spell. With Eoin Murphy, if you must know.'
Malfoy raised an eyebrow incredulously. 'Didn’t he leave the country a while ago?'
Harry did up his robe. He didn’t care any longer what Malfoy thought. 'I haven’t had sex in almost a year, okay, so I’m just as surprised as you are at this,' he said with no little petulance.
Both of Malfoy’s eyebrows shot up towards his already receding hairline. 'What? How is that even possible?'
'I don’t know. I think my inhibitions are really low right now.' Harry chose not to answer what he was asking, inwardly cursing himself for telling Malfoy the truth. He’d probably tell everyone now, and the last thing that Harry needed was more exposure.
Malfoy shook his head, hands moving to tidy his robe. 'No wonder. But I think you do need sleep. Go home, take dreamless sleep and use a timed waking spell. It’ll be better than sex.'
'Ha ha.' Harry said as Malfoy gathered his things.
When Malfoy was about to go, he paused with his hand on the door. 'Potter, I...'
'Don’t worry about it, Malfoy. Harry waved a hand and tried for a quick grin, although he was sure he looked like a maniac and he certainly felt like one. 'You’re right, it’s a very stressful time right now and we’d probably regret it in the morning et cetera. Ruining a good working relationship and all that.'
Malfoy blinked. 'To be sure.' He turned and walked into the hall, disappearing with long, near-silent strides, and was gone.
'But I do want you.' Harry said softly to the now-empty office. 'Terribly.'
* * *
He had been in his office ten minutes before the rap on the door came. It was Malfoy, impeccably turned out and seemingly full of energy, though Harry could see the drawn look about his mouth and the corners of his eyes that indicated he likely hadn't slept much either.
'We're meeting in the Galen Room.'
Harry looked at Malfoy in surprise. 'Won't that be far too large for...'
Malfoy nodded. 'But not for the chiefs of staff, the combined departments of pædiatrics and neuromagicology, a few eminent guests from allied departments, a contingent from the Aurors, a legal representative, and the witch from WCPS.'
Harry's stomach turned as Malfoy counted them all out on his long fingers.
'How do you know?'
'I have my ways.' Malfoy pursed his lips.
Harry suspected that one of those ways was the Chief Healer's assistant, who was an Old Slytherin. He was about to say so when Healer Shepwillow appeared in the doorway.
'Ah. Healer Malfoy,' she said, and Malfoy nodded politely. 'I see you've already brought my news.'
She turned to face Harry. 'There will be a full hearing of the case in the Galen Room. The legal representatives asked to attend the case review and the chiefs of staff became interested in the affair. Also I suspect they've seen the bills for the repairs to reception.'
Harry blinked. He was having trouble not shouting at her about finding this out a quarter-hour before the review.
'I assume you and Healer Malfoy are well prepared. This will be a bit more formal, but not substantially different from an internal review.'
Malfoy glanced at Harry and, when Harry failed to answer, said, 'Yes of course, Madam Healer. We're quite ready.'
Healer Shepwillow turned to face Malfoy then and her gaze was guarded. 'Very well, Healer Malfoy. I'll see you both in twenty minutes—you may wish for a little more time to discuss your presentation and I believe the chiefs of staff are running late.'
She swept out of the office in a rustle of green robes and Malfoy rolled his eyes.
To his surprise and mortification, Harry snorted. It may have been nervous tension and it may have been the sight of Malfoy exasperated at a senior Healer and the whole damn apple cart of officials they were about to face, but Harry couldn't help laughing.
Malfoy cast a quick Muffliato and looked down the hall to make sure they were not overheard. Then he let a quick huff of amusement escape and smiled at Harry warily.
After a few more laughs, Harry composed himself. 'Sorry, Malfoy. It must be nerves.'
Malfoy raised his eyebrow, amusement curling the corner of his lip.
Harry looked up at him thoughtfully.'It's almost absurd, isn't it? This enormous interdepartmental gathering for one little girl.'
Malfoy frowned. 'Not really. I actually think it's a good thing that all of the departments are involved. I think someone finally realised that this was a serious and multifaceted case. You realise that this could determine hospital practice—we've never had cognitive wizards and memory regression consults at St Mungo's. It's still quite experimental.'
Harry quieted. He suddenly didn't want to think at all about the weight of what lay before them.
'Let's go over the presentation sequence again,' Malfoy suggested. 'And we should talk about how we will wish to divide questions, although I suspect that will be up to the presiding Healer—'
Harry reached for his notes.
* * *
Malfoy nodded to several people on the way but Harry was almost unable to distinguish faces, too focused was he on a sudden attack of nerves and a sense of purpose. When they walked into the large auditorium, Harry did recognise Ron and was cheered to see him in the front of the room. Next to him sat Blaise Zabini, who was working in the MLE’s solicitors department. Harry recalled Ron saying something about Zabini and cooperative work on cases, but he was surprised to see them seated so collegially together. He could not believe the former enemies worked so well together, much less across departments.
Zabini winked at Malfoy and for a moment, the crisp mask of efficiency dropped from Malfoy's long features and he grinned openly at his old friend. Next to him, Harry burned with jealousy and something more—he wished he could make Malfoy look like that and wished he could see that look more often. As he watched Malfoy, he suddenly became aware of Ron watching him, a shrewd look on his face. Harry looked down at the file in his hand and began to think in talking points.
As the Head Magical Counsel administered the oath according to the code of Chiron, assuring the confidentiality of the proceedings and the obligation of all concerned to observe the ethical practice of healing, Harry found himself looking at the bust of Galen which peered down at them from a large niche in the center of the back wall. A plaque was affixed under the perceptive and hook-nosed figure. ἄριστος ἰατρὸς καὶ φιλόσοφος. Harry remembered enough from his exams to know that the inscription translated roughly to 'the best Healer is also a philosopher' and was taken from a title of a work attributed to Galen, although he couldn't remember if it was by Galen himself or a member of his school.
The meeting was formally convened by Healers Shepwillow and Whitcombe, the head of Neuromagicology. A list of Healers and other people present was read. The departments were introduced and then the proceedings opened. Harry wiped his damp hands across his legs until Malfoy narrowed his eyes at him.
Healer Shepwillow presided over the case presentation. She introduced Lila’s case in summary form and then called Harry and Malfoy to give a fuller account of treatment.
Harry gave the first presentation on the clinical picture from a pædiatric standpoint with possible related cases in the scientific literature, then turned over the stage to Malfoy, who presented the neuromagical screening results. Together, they strove to show the definite links to patterns of affect and trauma and the neuromagical diagnostics procedure.
Harry presented the results of the interview and examination process and the effect of the interaction with the volunteer. He also mentioned the request to the Aurors for more background information, whereupon Healer Shepwillow said, 'We are expecting a report from the Deputy Head Auror after the review process.'
Malfoy discussed the experimental nature of neuromagical diagnostics and memory work, particularly in children. When he said that a memory expert from Cardiff was willing to consult, a wave of whispers coursed through the room. Harry was surprised that most people gathered seemed to recognise the work of Healer Williams.
The question session after their presentation was gruelling—Harry could barely remember what he said and to whom, but he was incredibly grateful to have Malfoy next to him, fielding questions. The debate over the efficacy and legality of memory regression was particularly fierce and Malfoy spoke impassionedly about the need for better clinical procedures in trauma diagnostics and healing.
And then their part was over and Healer Shepwillow was addressing them.'I have to admit, I’m impressed. You’ve found a lot of leads and built a difficult picture and also created a link to emerging work.'
Harry nodded, waiting for the negative statements to come. Malfoy stood stiffly by his side.
'We would like to commend you and encourage you to continue your joint work with the consultation of Healer Williams. Please keep careful records as they may one day be important for similar cases and procedural review.'
Harry looked up, mouth open. They'd survived review.
Healer Shepwillow smiled. 'That is all. And now we'll hear from Deputy Head Auror Ron Weasley.'
Relief coursed through Harry's body like a wave and Malfoy's long exhalation signalled the same emotion. They stumbled back to their seats between departmental rows as Ron stood up and took the podium.
After Ron's presentation had begun properly, Malfoy inclined his head and shot Harry a careful smile. Harry stared straight ahead but his cheeks were heated and he hoped that no one, including Malfoy, noticed the colour.
* * *
Under supervision by Malfoy and the legal representative, and accompanied by Healer Laycock and an older assistant, Harry entered the small room.
Lila looked up and, particularly uncannily, looked over Harry's shoulder to the corner of the wall where Malfoy and the lawyer were monitoring behind a heavy Notice-Me-Not shield.
Harry drew Lila's attention back to the room. 'Lila, I have to ask for your help with something.'
Harry didn't know whether he was imagining it, but she seemed a little surprised. She listened to him with a bit more interest than usual, but as always, without meeting his gaze.
'We want to have a Healer come look at you who can tell us about what happened to you before the hospital.'
Lila frowned and poked at the tufts of the colourful rug she was sitting on.
'Her name is Healer Williams and she helps see the things that happen to people, sometimes things they can't remember or things that are really hard to talk about. She uses this to help them feel better.'
Lila didn't move.
'But I need your help. This is a very special woman and she needs to know that it's okay with you for her to look at your memories, the things you know about what happened to you before the hospital. No one is going to punish you for them. We only want to help.'
Lila turned her back on Harry and began to toy with a small tableau of figures and dolls on the floor.
Harry was at a loss. He knew it wouldn't be easy, but he couldn't figure out what to do.
'If you'd like, I could talk to the Healer first and you can see how she looks at me.'
He surprised himself with this offer. Lila turned and looked at him directly.
She almost nodded. He was sure she almost nodded. Healer Laycock was barely breathing behind him.
'If you think it's all right that I go first and then you talk to her, please pick up the Tiny Ina doll.' Harry said. 'If it's not okay with you, pick up the bear.'
Lila turned and he couldn't see what she was doing and his heart sank. He didn't know how he would explain to Malfoy that he couldn't even come up with a way to communicate. He hoped that somehow the diagnostic spells were catching something positive although he strongly doubted it.
And then Lila turned around and she handed him the small figure of a girl with dark hair and a red dress and a necklace of flowers and he realised he had done it after all.
* * *
Malfoy had explained the situation to Healer Williams in advance of her visit and she introduced herself to Lila the minute she came into the room.
'You must be Lila,' she said quietly, leaving plenty of space for Lila to avoid her. But Lila didn't; Lila watched her very carefully and with growing interest. The more consideration and space Healer Williams left between them, the more Lila seemed to approach her to watch. Harry marvelled at Healer Williams's body language and her ability to encourage natural trust.
She gestured for those gathered to sit and stood up to explain the process. Harry, Malfoy and Lila were seated in the front of the room with Healer Williams. A bit further back, behind an observation screen, sat two Aurors, the legal representative for Lila, and several staff members from St Mungo's. From this vantage they could see the procedure but not the specific results, which allowed any questions about the legitimacy of the process to be satisfied while guaranteeing patient privacy.
'Magical traumatography is still in its infancy as a field. It is a new magical discipline to explore the contours of the human mind and chart the psychological fields of damage. Similar to a survey, it seeks the points of older and more recent trauma and gets some sort of sense of what is at the root of trauma. It is not always easy to read, but it is precise in its charting of the brain's functions and it can be a great tool for healing and for integration.
'My particular area of expertise is developmental traumatography. As we all know, the mind can only hold so many things and the developing mind is an extremely delicate and flexible place; nevertheless we can get an outline of major traumatic incidents, as well as perhaps clinically less dramatic but much more lasting forms of subtle trauma, abuse, and neglect—the colouring and the emotional weight of a child.'
Quills scratched across parchment, the Healers, Aurors, and legal staff were all taking notes.
Healer Williams continued. 'I cannot go into the mind itself and take memories, such as a Legilimens might. It would be far too unsafe and damaging to the mental structures built up around them. One cannot retraumatise to heal, although if someone has been recently retraumatised, it can help spotlight older damage.'
She paused. 'What I can do is take a snapshot of how the mind functions around its memories and get a surface picture of what some of the obstacles and also layers of the events are—the brain's own reflection of its development around and through difficult events.'
Lila was clearly trying to follow the explanation, although the details were too advanced for her. When she had finished the explanation for the adults, Healer Williams stopped and explained in more age-appropriate terminology for Lila. The little girl listened intently and showed no signs of discomfort.
'First I am going to show you how one performs a developmental traumatograph on Healer Potter, who has kindly volunteered for the procedure.'
A whisper went through the onlookers—they hadn't been advised of this in advance and were clearly surprised. Harry's legs felt jelly as he stood up and walked to the chair in the center of the room.
Healer Williams cast a relaxing spell and something that he didn't recognise, giving him soothing verbal cues. He reclined in the chair and the room darkened a fraction. He knew from her prior explanation that there would be a map on the table that would show the contours of his memory and chart various areas of the brain, and that some fuzzy details of past incidents might be visible and could be captured in a memory thread. When Healer Williams had performed the process, there would be a report and a glass phial of strands for him.
It felt like being naked, although he, Malfoy, who was assisting, and Healer Williams were the only ones who would see the result. And Lila of course, although Healer Williams had seated her away from the side where Harry's thoughts were visible in a pensieve-like device. Still, she could see most of the process.
Harry himself would not be able to see anything as he would be in partial hypnosis. This aspect frightened him—he remembered having Voldemort's thoughts intrude into his mind and the terrible rigours of training with Snape in Occlumency. He was still wide open to such things, although Healers learned a fair amount of Occlumency during their initial study. Still, his patients were usually young enough that they did not try to intrude upon his mind. He hadn't had anything like the horrors of the last years of the War and wasn't sure he was ready for it.
He followed the thread of Healer Williams voice into the labyrinth of quiet and he was still for a long time.
When he heard her voice again, calling him to alertness, he slowly became aware of his body again and gradually opened his eyes. He couldn't remember shutting them. His body was heavy and his mind was strangely tired, but not unpleasantly so. He blinked a few times and then sat up.
Healer Williams was observing him carefully. Malfoy gave him a strange and compassionate look and even Lila seemed more concerned and perhaps more empathetic. He wasn't sure. Perhaps he had become a bit suggestible during the process. He moved from the chair and sat in the open observation seat. Healer Williams suggested they take a short tea break while she finalised the report and prepared for the next one.
Once the tea caddy arrived and Harry and Malfoy took their tea. Lila ate chocolate biscuits and drank a small cup of milky tea. She waved her feet below her chair as she sipped carefully, eyes darting to follow Healer Williams at her work, not with fear but with curiosity as far as Harry could judge.
When they'd drunk their tea, the tea things were cleared away by the hospital elves. Healer Williams had finished cleaning and sorting her apparatus. She looked over to Lila, who'd been watching her the whole time.
'Are you ready to try it?' Healer Williams asked kindly but with no solicitation.
Lila nodded and jumped off her chair, walking solemnly over to the large chair and seating herself in it. Healer Williams spoke to her softly, narrating what the spells were and what they would do. As Lila slowly leaned back, Harry had the feeling of intense magical vibration, but then it shifted and the room was still.
Malfoy and Harry watched the images fleet across the surface of the memory threading element. They were all from the perspective of a small child, fragments really. Harry wondered what had come up in his own reading, but suppressed the thought and focused on Lila and the process underway. He saw shadowy shifting images, looming and threatening, moving across the quicksilver surface.
The sensitive quills that responded to Healer William's direction charted jagged, broken patterns. Harry could not decipher them but Malfoy inhaled sharply as he watched the patterns emerged, clearly understanding what the areas and aspects signified.
After twenty minutes, the pictures were complete and the surface of the memory device stilled. Healer Williams looked serene but quite tired.
She called Lila slowly back into consciousness.
Lila had tears in her eyes when she opened them and Harry was surprised. Had she sensed more of what happened? He hadn't had that response at all.
Healer Williams knelt down and offered Lila a tissue, which she took carefully.
Their heads bent together, one dark, one brown streaked with grey. Harry stared, then glanced to Malfoy who was wide-eyed, as a croaky whisper came out of Lila's mouth to answer Healer Williams.
She smiled at Lila. 'You can talk, can't you?'
'Yes.' The reply was almost inaudible.
Healer Williams watched Lila's face carefully. 'Why did you stop?'
Lila nodded and answered in a scratchy, small voice. 'I didn't think anyone was listening.'
Healer Williams said, 'We will all try to listen to you and do our best to make things right.'
When she looked over for confirmation, Malfoy and Harry nodded and said, 'Yes. Yes, we will.'
'Okay.' Her brown eyes were still wet.
* * *
Harry was still shaking from the experiences of the afternoon. He hadn't wanted to show his consternation in the session with Lila, but he had had a distinctly negative reaction to seeing even the vague figures visible in the memory recording device. And he had no desire to think about what his own results might be. Healer Williams had handed him a file as he left, with an attached phial of small silver threads, shorter and less fluid than ordinary memories.
He sat at his desk and put his face in his hands. He really was going to have to get a grip on his own feelings. They were becoming a bother and somehow he could not shove them down as easily as he always had before. For one thing, Malfoy kept prodding him to be conscious and wouldn't let him disappear into clinical vagueness. For another, he was beginning to wonder what lay at the roots of his little quirks and quandaries. The more he saw traumatised children and adults, the more he wondered about his own state, although he was wary of the Healer's twin banes of overdiagnosis and hypochondria.
With a sigh, he opened the records box on his desk. A small note in neat cursive as affixed to the top parchment.
Dear Healer Potter, it was an honour to work with you. I thought you might like to have someone to help you interpret and discuss these results. May I recommend Lavinia Tranchet? She used to lead the psychological healing ward at St Mungo's, in the early days. She still sees patients privately in Shepherd's Bush.
An address followed and a Firecall exchange.
Harry stared at the note for a moment longer and shut the box.
The light in the room suddenly grew a bit darker and he realised a shadow was being cast on his desk. When Harry looked up, Malfoy was standing in his doorway.
'May I talk to you?'
Harry frowned up at Malfoy, then nodded. Something about the look on his face did not bode well.
Malfoy closed the door and cast a strong Muffliato, then turned to face Harry, nostrils flaring.
'For FUCK'S sake, Potter, when were you going to tell me you'd been abused as a child?'
Harry blinked as his mind numbed. The day had been interminably long and taxing and he was not prepared for anything like this. After a moment, he heard his own voice as if from far away say to Malfoy, 'I don't even know what you are referring to.'
'The procedure, the memory thread, the patterns of emotional and physical neglect. The cruelty. The physical violence. And surely even you've realised that you were malnourished as a child and that you would likely be much taller if you hadn't been.' Malfoy's look was poised somewhere between fury and pleading.
Harry shook his head slowly. He had sudden thoughts of being hungry and being sent to bed without food often, but he had no real idea what Malfoy meant. Nor did he care to think about it.
'I'm sorry, Malfoy. Did I miss the point where I signed on as one of your patients? How is this any of your business?'
'You became my business when we started working together, Potter. In fact, before then, when you nearly got yourself killed by being a foolhardy cretin and I had to lift the darker layers of magic from you. How do you think I recognised your protective patterns?'
Malfoy was nearly shouting at this point and even though he knew he shouldn't, Harry stood up to shout back. 'Well then STOP working with me, Malfoy. You clearly don’t think I'm competent to handle anything and I only get myself into trouble.' All of the hate, all of the difficulties and the set-backs, all of the fury came back to Harry and he found himself teetering on the brink of a black rage.
'We can't solve anything like this.' Malfoy bit the words off. 'ANYTHING unless we're willing to be honest about ourselves. And you've clearly not done enough reflecting about what that might mean.'
Malfoy’s fury shook Harry to the core and as they threw words at each other, more hate and more dark seemed to come into the room.
Harry held his hands up in a gesture of frustration. 'How, Malfoy, HOW can you assert that we cannot solve anything on the day when we make astounding progress? WHY do you need to RUIN it all and suddenly blame me for things that AREN'T EVEN HAPPENING?'
Malfoy inhaled sharply. When he spoke, his eyes were wide and high spots of colour appeared on his cheeks. 'Oh, things have been happening all right. You've been projecting your own problems onto Lila. We've managed to find some clinical avenues despite your inappropriate emotional outbursts which border on malpractice.'
Something inside Harry broke at this. He was vaguely conscious of the light fixture flaring above his head and then going out. He sat down heavily in his chair and stared past Malfoy, suddenly unable to speak, suddenly unable to protest. Somehow, the fight drained out of him and he could feel nothing except heaviness.
He rubbed his face. 'What would you suggest, Malfoy? Now that you've accused me of malpractice and proven you have evidence of my lack of control. Would you like to have me censured? Removed from the case? Struck off?'
Malfoy's shoulders sagged a bit and he looked at Harry for a long while, seemingly weighing his words. Then he spoke. 'You have to admit there’s a problem first, Potter. How you fix it is not my job, but until you know it’s there, there’s nothing that can be done. And you’re not safe until you do something about it.'
Harry thought for a moment. 'What do you mean, "safe"?'
'You can’t function with adult means when there’s a child raging inside you. You just can’t. You have far too much power and far too little insight over your own internal struggles. You went into healing to heal yourself. Eventually you'll want to come to terms with that.'
Harry could feel himself growing defensive, although Malfoy's words rang strangely true. 'Oh, and you went into healing for what? The most noble and purest of motives I suppose.'
'No, Potter. I went into healing after losing my mind and slowly reconstructing it.' Malfoy looked out of the open window, then back to Harry. 'Perhaps it was easier for me to see how I'd cocked up. Several months of inpatient care in Switzerland after trying to off myself with potions helped no end.'
Harry stared at Malfoy. He was at a loss suddenly. He'd known that Malfoy had disappeared after the War, but he'd always thought...
Well, he wasn't sure what he'd thought, but he hadn't imagined that.
While Harry sat in stunned silence, Malfoy continued. 'I’m a neuromagical spell-damage expert, not a psychotherapeutic wizard. I know a fair amount, but I also know what a Healer can't do. You need help, but some of this you have to do on your own. No one can go into your mind and solve these problems.
'But don’t you dare think you can Gryffindor bluff your way through this. Or coop it up in a secret room until it destroys you. It’s eating you alive, Potter. You don’t know what it’s like because you’re blind to your own insides, but they’re painfully apparent to people who know how to look. The energy that is coming off of you is serious. Haven’t you noticed all of the flickering lamps and backfiring spells?'
Malfoy gestured to the dark fixture on the ceiling above them. 'Magic warps in the presence of intense inner conflict, and you’ve got a continental rift of tension inside of you waiting for an earthquake.'
Harry was riveted by Malfoy's words. He had known the nightmares were a problem, but if he tried to think about it, he had to admit there was an unusual count of odd spellwork issues lately. Nothing critical, nor truly dangerous, but he could count four easy things in the past two days that had gone wrong.
Malfoy pushed his hair out of his face with a long hand. He looked tired and less angry, though still dangerous. 'My suggestion? Piece by piece. Start with the little things so it doesn’t eat you alive. And do not try to push yourself. That will not work here. All of your usual coping methods are useless and the sooner you realise you are fighting a VERY different kind of war, the better.'
'I don’t know what you mean,' Harry said quietly.
'Potter, you had no family.' Malfoy sat across from him. 'You were treated as worthless. Even at Hogwarts, you had nothing. You were empty inside. Everyone thought you were wonderful but inside you were so hollow. You were persistently psychologically abused from early childhood. How could you possibly trust and show trust? Even now, you try to solve everything. And then you were given the burden of defending the world. Most children only FEEL that way. You actually had to DO it.'
Harry was shocked to his marrow. 'I'd no idea you'd thought about me so carefully.'
Malfoy's eyes narrowed. 'Of course I have. I've always kept a close eye on you, especially when we were enemies and then afterwards when I had to come to terms with what I'd done.'
It seemed reasonable, if completely unexpected. But Harry was learning that nothing was as he expected it to be and he feared that might be a permanent condition.
'But,' Harry protested, 'how did you... Didn't you have the same problems?' He didn't like to think about what his former opponent had done that he had to atone for, but he was sure that Malfoy'd been under enormous pressure as well and although they'd seemed ancient at the time, now they seemed so cripplingly young.
Malfoy sighed. 'I had a difficult family, yes. My father was severe and cruel and he exposed us to so much danger. It was a terribly warped situation, violent and viciously dangerous. But my mother was resilient and I never doubted that I was loved, no matter how terrified I was. I was missing several crucial features of childhood trauma that you have. There was only one war for you, I think, and it's never stopped.'
Harry nodded slowly, his head aching. He could sense his mind sealing around the wound of Malfoy's words. 'But why now, Malfoy? Why now after all of this time?'
Malfoy expelled his tension in a quick laugh. 'All this time? It’s six months until the tenth anniversary, Potter. All of our war-related trauma cases are up. I’ve been waiting to crack up myself. We’ve all been having problems. You just haven’t noticed.'
He leaned forward, his long elegant hands folded on the surface of the desk. Harry reached out a hand and awkwardly laid it over Malfoy's for a moment before swiftly pulling it back.
'I’m sorry.' Harry could feel tears behind his eyes although he never cried.
Malfoy shook his head. 'Don't be. If anything, I should be sorry. But do do something about it. Please.'
He stood up and gave Harry one last, searching look before turning on his heel and leaving.
* * *
Cleodoxa Williams sent her report on Lila Pearce's traumatograph to the pædiatrics department and a sworn testimony to the Auror Office that she saw no evidence of intentional harm in the patient's profile. The death of her last caretaker had led to the violent rage that occasioned her admission to St Mungo's. In Healer William's analysis, the harm that occurred was entirely situational. Her report to the hospital included an outline of treatment protocols for Harry and Malfoy and suggestions for implementing them at St Mungo's. She also declared herself quite willing to be consulted on any aspect of the case and the ensuing treatment.
Her suggestions included an integrated team of Healers and specialists to help develop a plan for Lila's socialisation and further care. Healer Williams included a detailed map of the overlapping clinical competencies and research specialities on her team and a dossier of internal write-ups used in team training.
Malfoy and Harry assembled their own team—including a psychotheraupeutic witch trained by Williams—and spent several late nights drafting treatment plans and joint protocols for approval. By tacit understanding, they worked alone and although they shared all of their results, they did not meet in each other's offices again. After the intense disturbances of the past weeks, the surface of their clinical interactions stilled and ceased to reflect the depths they'd glimpsed in each other.
Based on the Cardiff protocols, Malfoy used mind-training to help Lila, much like Occlumency, but targeting an interior foe, the disordered messages of the brain, rather than an external source of attack. The hope was that continued positive reinforcement methods and persistent thought-screening would help control the developmental damage to her brain and magical system and undo some of the effects of developing under violence.
While Malfoy focused on methods to undo damage and used neurological tools to strengthen Lila, Harry did step-by-step work with her to control her magic. As suggested by Healer Williams, Harry worked on the combination of practical exercises to help Lila develop a sense of her magic in her environment and cognitive practice to help her decide when and how to use it. Even though she wouldn't be in proper magical training for several years, Lila needed the help and nurture of adults to help her understand her abilities. And they were impressive—Harry was frequently astonished at the force evident in his young patient and the powers of her concentration when she did focus.
In talking to Lila, too, Harry had breakthroughs. She talked about her last caretaker, whom she called her grandmother, more frequently and the things she liked about their life together. A small bubble of trust seemed to have open up between Healer and patient and as it grew, Harry was acutely aware of the responsibility of it.
Malfoy continued to observe and chart Lila's magical field variance and developed neuromagical cues to calm her, which he had Harry reinforce in their work together. When Harry looked at Malfoy's suggestions, he found himself wondering whether they would work on him.
One evening Harry was on ward later than usual. He'd stayed to write up a set of questions for Cleodoxa Williams and to catch up on his paperwork for his other cases, which he'd been avoiding. After he turned in his overdue reports, he walked past Lila's room and met Mrs Shacklebolt, Kingsley's mother, at the station outside preparing to go in.
'Mrs Shacklebolt, what a surprise!' Harry said, as it genuinely was.
The older woman smiled and adjusted her large pink handbag. 'Harry. Lovely to see you again. How is your godson?'
Mrs Shacklebolt worked with several children's charities and Harry and Teddy had been volunteering for years to help her in initiative for war orphans.
'He's enormous—he had a growth spurt this year and is now among the tallest in the class. He's also learnt to turn his hair plaid.'
Mrs Shacklebolt laughed. 'I'm sure his grandmother enjoys that talent.'
Harry smiled. 'She does, actually. He recently ventured into herringbone to match her suit and she bought him an ice at Fortescue's as a reward.'
'You deserve an ice yourself for the work you're doing here.'
Harry was caught off guard. 'I didn't know you were following the case here.'
Mrs. Shacklebolt nodded. 'I've been reading to Lila for over a month now and she's almost an entirely different little girl. You've worked wonders.'
Harry was dumbfounded. So this was the mystery volunteer reader who had occasioned their first breakthrough! 'I'm honoured that you think so. I've had an immense amount of help. And you have been incredibly important to her, you know.'
'Thank you, Harry. That's kind of you to say so. But I can tell how much you have been working with her and it's quite impressive. She's started talking about you and another Healer as well.'
'Yes. Draco Malfoy has been managing Lila's care with me.'
Mrs Shacklebolt's look was serious. 'So it's true. I knew there couldn't be two Healer Malfoys and I'd wondered if Lila had got the name wrong.'
Harry shook his head. 'One is more than enough. But Draco, I mean, Healer Malfoy, has been incredibly helpful. He's equally responsible for the success with Lila's care.'
'Very interesting.' Mrs Shacklebolt shifted her bag and the book she was holding. 'I have to go in now—Lila will be wondering where her story is. But I'd like to talk to you about this again. Our conversation has given me a few ideas.'
After they parted, Harry watched the straight-backed, kindly figure walk into Lila's room and wondered what might happen. Mrs Shacklebolt's ideas tended to be the active sort that turned into projects and special task forces.
* * *
With a deep breath, he leaned on the door handle and stepped through.
* * *
'Mr Avemarie and I have been discussing Lila's future after St Mungo's. The improvement your clinical teams have achieved is impressive, but we know that she cannot stay here forever. Which is why we've begun seeking a place for her in a special Wizarding residential facility and children's home in Warwickshire. Of course, places are quite difficult to come by, so we're currently drawing up a list of fostering situations for review.'
Malfoy watched without response. Harry opened his mouth to protest, but Malfoy laid a quick hand on his thigh and he was surprised enough to hold his tongue.
'Healer Potter and I,' Malfoy said evenly, 'are both committed to the highest level of care for Lila. While she is progressing at a good rate, she will need more work here before it is safe for her to be transferred to a facility where she is among other children and adults, much less a family who are not trained in magical restraint and guidance.'
'Nonetheless,' Avemarie said, 'as Ms Murphy has so aptly pointed out, we need to move to the next step in her treatment plan and make arrangements for her outside of St Mungo's. She needs socialisation with other children and adult caretakers.'
'She needs a secure environment.' Harry had to say something this time. 'Her magic is incredibly strong and still very unpredictable. She's finally begun to trust us. We can't just let her go now. She might hurt herself or others.'
Murphy and Avemarie exchanged glances.
'Healer Potter, we understand that you've become very attached to your patient in the time you've worked with her, but a time will come soon when she is not going to be your patient any longer. She is a little girl and she needs a place to live. She cannot grow up in hospital.' Murphy's face was compassionate but quite serious.
'It's possible,' Malfoy suggested, 'that she might have a foster family while she's still learning to control her magic, but she would have to make more progress. We've only just taken some of the highest level magical restraints off of her room here, and we're professionally equipped to manage the worst-case scenario.'
As Malfoy tried to convey the importance of further training and proper settings and the counsel and the social worker tried to impress upon him the importance of placing her somewhere else, Harry's mind was abuzz with thoughts.
And then it was very clear.
'She could come live with me,' he said simply.
The room was silent. All three faces turned to stare at him. Malfoy had a curious expression on his face, and Harry had the sense that he might have anticipated this outcome, but he couldn't be sure.
'Healer Potter,' Murphy said, 'the sentiment is admirable, but you do not seriously think at your age and in this stage of your career that you could foster one of your patients.'
Harry tensed. 'Ms Murphy, with all due respect, I do. I've been helping to raise my godson since his parents were killed in the war and I've a bit of experience with orphans and difficult situations myself.'
The room quieted again, and then Avemarie, with a questioning look at Murphy, said, 'If you do wish to foster Miss Pearce, we will need to hold a formal hearing into your suitability.'
Harry nodded. 'Yes. I understand. When would that be?'
'Shortly after New Year's, most likely in the second or third week.' Avemarie made an apologetic gesture. 'We need to move quickly. There are several families looking for a little girl and it's important that she have the best shot possible at finding a good fit.'
Harry bit back a rejoinder about the quality of her foster care situations hitherto. He knew the system was overtaxed and Ron had told him that Lila's foster families were unofficially arranged and therefore not under proper supervision of the WCPS agencies.
'Very well,' Harry said. 'I will need time to make my own arrangements. How will you let me know?'
'We'll owl you when we've settled something, likely in the next few days.'
As he and Malfoy left the WCPS offices, Malfoy pulled Harry aside. 'Are you mad?' he asked.
Harry looked at him levelly. 'No. I'm really not. I think she needs a special place and I don't see how we're going to find someone with the right training at short notice.'
Malfoy didn’t say anything for a moment, then he sighed. 'You're stupidly brave, you know. Hopelessly insane, of course, but brave, nonetheless.'
Harry grinned. 'Thanks, Malfoy. I'll take that as a compliment.'
Malfoy raised his eyebrow and pursed his lips. 'Don't let it go to your head. We've work to do.'
* * *
He took a quiet time in the afternoon to bring Lila her Christmas presents and sweets. Molly Weasley had made her a small sweater and Harry had consulted Hermione and Andromeda on appropriate, fun toys and books for nine-year-old girls. Harry hadn’t been certain about some of his choices, but at Lila’s wide smile and quiet thank you, Harry he grinned and patted her gently on the shoulder. She surprised him by hugging him quickly and then turned her attention to the pile of presents. He left her room bemused, content, and with a strange and unfamiliar weight in his chest.
At five o'clock, Harry was about to join the other Healers for a festive meal when the reception intercom sounded. 'Emergency. Pædiatrics. Request assistance in reception. Potions ingestion, 3 children.'
Harry took one look at his fellow Healers and mediwizards. 'I'll go.' He rushed into the stairwell.
Several hours later the two little girls and boy were sleeping angelically on ward, their parents had been sent home, and Harry was exhausted and surprisingly hungry. His shift was almost over, but he needed to find something other than cake and sweets to eat.
As he neared his office, an impossible, delicious and savoury scent wafted to meet his eager nose. He thought he might be having an olfactory hallucination –it didn’t smell like hospital food. He opened the door to his office. A tray overflowing with covered dishes and ramekins filled his small desk.
A note was perched on top of the largest covered plate.
Happy Christmas, Potter.
Thought you might need proper sustenance. If you want pudding, you'll have to come fetch it yourself.
Harry resolved to ponder the meaning of the last sentence after he inhaled everything on the tray.
His appetite fully sated with rare beef with Yorkshire pudding and candied lady apples and chestnuts and pheasant pie and roasted vegetables, all washed down with good claret, Harry sat back in a new state of bliss. Everything wasn't necessarily right with the world, but it was a damn sight better than it had been last year and that was a start.
He hadn't been aware that he'd nodded off in his chair until he heard Malfoy's voice.
'Potter. Wake up.'
Harry shook himself. He must be having a strange dream. He blinked his eyes a few times and stretched, but Malfoy was still there.
'Malfoy. What time is it? And what're you doing here?'
Malfoy was dressed in a charcoal jumper and a nicely tailored pair of wool trousers, a black robe hanging elegantly from his shoulders. Harry thought vaguely that he looked particularly fit in something that wasn't green and loosely cut. Malfoy's blond hair was mussed and his cheeks were rosy. The sly smile on his face and his teasing suggested he'd been drinking enough to overcome his natural reserve.
'It's almost midnight and I've come to check on the status of my ancestral china.' Malfoy said pompously and then ruined the effect by laughing. 'The expression on your face! Actually, I had thought you were stopping by for pudding and I wondered where you were.'
Harry knew he must look terribly perplexed. Malfoy turned the note from the tray over, handing it to him. Malfoy's Floo coordinates were on the back.
'Ohhh.' Harry said, suddenly blushing. 'I was wondering... I mean...'
Malfoy cocked an eyebrow.
'I didn't understand what you'd written and I obviously didn't see that,' Harry admitted.
Malfoy nodded and held one finger in the air. 'Patient appears oblivious to attempts to engage in simple flirtation.'
Harry gaped at this. 'But, what was that about business and pleasure and the not-mixing?' He held his index fingers up and made a motion of interchanging positions.
'This is all pleasure, Potter.' Malfoy said confidently, sitting on the corner of Harry's desk and leaning on his hand. Harry quickly rescued the tray from sliding off the desk and shattering the china Malfoy purported to be looking in on.
He placed the whole affair carefully on the floor. 'Malfoy, are you drunk?'
Malfoy waved his hand dismissively. 'Hardly. That would defeat the purpose. I'm pleasantly tipsy.' When Harry looked sceptical, Malfoy said earnestly, 'I think the problem is, you haven't had enough yet. You didn't finish the claret, did you?'
Harry laughed. 'No. I'm on ward here, if you hadn't noticed.'
'But it's Christmas,' Malfoy said.
'It is,' Harry agreed with a small smile. A merry Draco Malfoy was a sight that should be savoured. 'Do you have any Christmas wishes?'
Malfoy smirked. 'Why, do you want me to sit on your knee?'
Harry held Malfoy's gaze. 'Maybe.'
Malfoy licked his bottom lip, and looked away, swallowing hard.
'Circe,' Harry whispered, and he reached out to touch Malfoy's cheek. His skin was warm. Soft. And when Malfoy turned his head to press his mouth against Harry's wrist, Harry couldn't stop the shiver that ran through him.
He pulled Malfoy into his lap. Malfoy landed heavily, his long legs sprawled over Harry's thighs.
'So that's a yes, then?' Malfoy said, grey eyes darkening, and he draped a hand on Harry's shoulder and drew him close before pressing his mouth to Harry's in a brandied haze of lust.
Harry groaned, cupping Malfoy’s face in both hands. He kissed him eagerly, meeting Malfoy's desperation with his own, until he leaned too far and Malfoy lost his balance, nearly falling off Harry's lap.
Malfoy stood shakily and Harry hastened to follow, moving closer and then leaning in to kiss him. Malfoy wrapped an arm around Harry's waist, rocking into him. 'We should probably go more slowly,' he whispered against the curve of Harry's throat.
'Probably.' Harry's hips rocked forward against Malfoy's, obeying a primal urge deeper than any well-intentioned thought.
Malfoy shoved Harry up against the edge of the desk then, the slim length of his body pressed against Harry as they grasped and clawed at each other’s clothing. Harry wrapped a leg around Malfoy's, pulling him closer.
'Greedy, are we?' Malfoy murmured against Harry's swollen mouth.
'Get stuffed.' Harry spread his legs wider, leaving more space for Malfoy to press between his thighs. With a flick of long fingers, Malfoy opened the clasp of Harry's robe at the neck and leaned in to lick a trail to his collarbone.
'I'd like that, actually.' He laughed against Harry's throat. 'In fact, I'd say that might have been the whole point behind the invitation to pudding, if a certain thick bastard had actually realised...' His hand slid over the bulge in Harry's trousers, squeezing lightly.
Harry gasped. 'Oh, Merlin.' His hips arched to Malfoy, his back braced against the long-suffering desk which shuddered as they moved against each other. A cascade of parchments rustled to the floor. Malfoy barely looked down to see the fallen rolls as his mouth caught Harry's again, his teeth sharp against Harry's lip.
'Satisfactory?' Malfoy asked, breathlessly. His fingers teased Harry's cock, slipping down to cup the weight of Harry's balls in his palm.
With a hiss Harry twisted beneath him. 'If you don't put your hand down my trousers—'
He broke off, his head falling back as Malfoy’s fingers pulled at his zip, sliding between the dark wool of his fly. Malfoy rubbed firmly along the ridge of Harry’s cock, his pants the only separation between their skin.
Harry groaned as Malfoy's thumb swept across the head, dragging the damp fabric across the tip. Malfoy pulled back, looking down at Harry's prick, his eyes dark. His fingertips circled lightly across the wet cotton.
'You want this,' Malfoy said, his voice hushed.
Harry's fingers curled around the nape of Malfoy's neck as he pulled him into a rough kiss.
As Harry tried to hold Malfoy's lips, Malfoy's fingers slipped under the elastic of his pants. Quickly Harry grabbed his wrist. 'No.'
Malfoy's look was petulant. 'Oh, Christ, Potter. You can't mean to...' He trailed off in a huff. 'Look, I was an idiot that night. I know I shouldn't have stopped things when I did.'
A wry smile curved the corner of Harry's mouth. 'Do you ever shut up?' He kissed him again.
Malfoy moaned as Harry undid his robe, then pushed his jumper and white shirt up, flattening his hands on Malfoy's skin.
Malfoy shuddered under Harry's touch, his breath catching. 'Fuck! Your hands are cold.'
Harry laughed. 'Warming charms or fucking, Malfoy. Your choice.'
Malfoy pursed his lips and reached for his wand, flicking it slowly—and the room was at least five degrees warmer. He looked back at Harry. 'Both.'
'Now who's greedy?' Harry twisted, pushing Malfoy hard against the desk, his mouth on Malfoy's throat. 'You do realise you have too many clothes on, yes?'
'You could always fix that.'
Harry held Malfoy's gaze while slowly peeling the black robe from his shoulders and setting it aside. He tugged Malfoy's jumper over his head, smiling as Malfoy's always perfect hair tumbled over his cheek. He reached for the crisp white shirt, hearing Malfoy's breath hitch as he undid the buttons slowly.
'Potter,' Malfoy said softly, and when Harry leaned in to swipe his tongue roughly over the pale pink nub of a nipple, he was rewarded with a stifled moan. He thumbed the wet surface while licking the other, then buried his nose in his armpit as Malfoy's hands clenched in his hair.
At Malfoy's ragged gasp, Harry stopped. He looked up at his colleague's flushed cheeks, and then down to the fly of his trousers. He applied himself methodically, rubbing at Malfoy's straining erection as he undid one button then waited, then another, until Malfoy grew impatient and wriggled out of his pants and trousers in one quick motion of his slim hips.
Harry spread Malfoy out on the desk, and Malfoy hooked a long leg over his shoulder.
Looking at the vision before him, Harry almost forgot to breathe. 'Circe, you're gorgeous,' he murmured, tracing the fine golden hairs on the inside of Malfoy's thigh, the angular plane of a hipbone. Something scratched at the back of his brain, something he'd forgotten.
'Bollocks! Lube.' Harry knew that the ward potions dispensary was two floors away and he would be far too obvious removing anything at this hour.
Malfoy smiled lazily. 'In my pocket, Potter.'
Relief rushed through Harry, then realisation. 'Prepared, were we?'
'I'd hoped this would happen at my flat, but you made me wait too long.' Malfoy drew him down for a slow kiss. 'Idiot.'
Harry accioed the small phial wandlessly, still kissing Malfoy.
'Eager, are we?' Malfoy smiled against his lips.
'Yes.' Harry stood up. Malfoy raised up on his elbows, watching as Harry as coated his fingers with the clear fluid. When Harry put his slick fingers to Malfoy's arsehole, Malfoy closed his eyes and sank back onto the surface of the desk, torso shifting and pulse beating rapidly in the hollow of his outstretched throat.
In the stillness of the room, with only the sounds their joint, laboured breathing, Harry slid the tip of an index finger into Malfoy, then the whole finger, knuckle by knuckle. He hadn't done this in seemingly forever and he was completely entranced, watching Malfoy's body open to accept first one, then a second finger, and hearing Malfoy's soft, stifled cries.
After three fingers, Malfoy begged. 'Merlin, Potter. Please.'
As if snapping out of a fog, Harry stood and hooked Malfoy's other ankle over his shoulder. As he lined himself up, Malfoy pulled gently at his hip. Harry guided himself into Malfoy slowly, watching the tight ring of muscle press around his cock and the shifts on Malfoy's face, the biting of his lip, the soft language of his body clenching and relaxing.
As Harry thrust fully into Malfoy, he threw his head back with a groan. When Harry stilled, Malfoy said, 'Keep. Going.'
Harry complied, pulling Malfoy's hips towards him as he fucked him, first carefully and then more forcefully. Malfoy whined and moaned under Harry, body vibrating with the force of his thrusts. He pulled Harry down to kiss him, turning to bite his neck, hands scratching into Harry's back as the pace accelerated.
Harry's stomach muscles ached with the effort. Malfoy was bent near-double beneath him, cursing, then begging Harry to fuck him harder as he snaked a hand between them to jerk his own cock, his body opening and his orgasm visibly approaching.
'Merlin. Yes, Potter. Give me your cock.' Malfoy's body shuddered against Harry. 'Just. Like. That.'
With a low moan, Harry leaned back and pushed Malfoy's hand away. Before he could protest, Harry started to wank him himself, his hand wrapped tightly around Malfoy's impressively hard and hefty length. Malfoy came undone, thrashing and gasping on the table. He reached his arms over his head and grasped the edge of the table, forcing his body down onto Harry's. He looked utterly angelic and simultaneously completely debauched, stretched out and writhing as filthy demands poured from his pink lips.
With an almost inaudible cry, Malfoy began to come. His body shook and his arms tensed as white spurts of spunk shot through Harry's grasping fingers to coat his flat stomach.
It had been all Harry could do to hold on and as he looked down into Malfoy's flushed face and the slick trails on his stomach, he felt the shudders seize his body. Harry choked out a cry, almost surprised, almost faint with the utter release of it. 'Oh, God, Draco,' he gasped, feeling his body clench, and then he came harder than he had in years.
Slowly, in near-blind satiation, Harry collapsed onto Malfoy, inhaling in great gasps. A soft kiss from Malfoy roused him and then he heard a quiet laugh. 'You're a beast, Potter. Get off of me.' Malfoy's hand stroked his cheek and then pushed him away.
As Harry slid out of Malfoy's body, there was come everywhere: on Harry, on Malfoy, on the desk, on the rug.
Malfoy sat up with a wince, raising himself up onto his elbows. 'Clean me off—' He broke off as Harry leaned in to swipe a swathe with his tongue through the come pooling on his stomach. He inhaled sharply, his eyes wide. 'Well. That wasn't exactly what I meant, but...'
Harry licked his lips and grinned. 'Come home with me.'
* * *
In an icy and hard-fought battle, his side won, 230—175. Ron caught the Snitch to George's colourful curses and Bill's laughing admonition not to ruin his daughter's vocabulary any more than he already had. The Bludger action had been hot and heavy but, unlike last year, no one had needed Harry's professional skills.
Later, as Charlie and Ron were setting up the fireworks display in the garden, Harry took the opportunity to talk to Hermione. As they sat on the overstuffed sofa with Rose, they could hear the bustle and clink of the cleanup of the giant lunch that seemed to have been assembled from at least two normal-sized Christmas dinners.
'Have you spoken to Gracia Shacklebolt recently?' Hermione asked, a mug of hot tea cupped in her hands. She tucked her feet up beneath her.
Harry looked up from where he'd leant to help Rose with her teddy bear. 'Yes, actually. About a week or so ago. Why?'
'She contacted me to help with a charitable campaign.' Hermione watched him carefully
'What is she doing now?' With a flick of his wand, Harry set the teddy bear dancing across the floor, much to Rose's delight.
'She's formed a group to establish an Ariana Dumbledore Ward for Developmental Trauma at St Mungo's. The papers were just registered with the Ministry and St Mungo's on the twenty-third. I think she means to involve you as well.'
Harry looked up in surprise. 'Really?'
Hermione nodded, smiling. 'I said yes. Just in case you were wondering.'
'You're a gem.' Harry leaned over and kissed her cheek. He settled back on the sofa, lifting Rose into his lap. She twisted and whined, digging a foot painfully into his thigh before she draped herself over the sofa arm, eyeing Crookshanks curled comfortably beneath the Christmas tree. The elderly Kneazle had found a new home at the Burrow when Hermione had discovered she was pregnant. She'd been worried about how Crookshanks would adapt to a baby. She needn't have, in Harry's opinion—the once-fierce furred menace of Gryffindor tower tolerated Rose surprisingly well.
Harry looked at Hermione. 'I may be helping to foster a child.'
'You? Fostering?' Hermione raised her eyebrows. 'How did this come about?'
'My young patient, Lila, needs a place to go.'
'Oh.' Hermione took a moment to reflect. 'Do you think that's wise?'
'I'm probably mad,' Harry said, 'but I really think it's an important step.' He hesitated. 'I know it'll be hard, especially with my schedule, but Shepwillow's already said we can make arrangements for that. A smaller load for a bit, perhaps, and some teaching duties.'
Hermione looked at him thoughtfully. 'Single mothers do it all the time. Look at Luna.'
Harry nodded. 'Although I haven't the faintest idea how to be a good dad.'
'Of course you do.' Hermione laughed. 'Look at you with Rose. You're the only one who's kept her from being a complete terror this afternoon.'
They watch Rose, her hair tumbling into her face as she stretched over the sofa arm, reaching for Crookshanks. 'Ookshan,' she said, bouncing on Harry's thigh. ''Arry. Ookshan!'
Her dress was rucked up in the back, revealing a plethora of ruffles on her tights. Harry smoothed the skirt down with a smile and glanced back to Hermione. 'I've been thinking about how much has changed. You know, ten years ago today, we found the sword of Gryffindor. And Ron returned.'
Hermione picked up her mug of tea, taking a sip. 'I still can't believe he came back.' Her voice caught and Harry touched her arm.
They sat quietly for a long moment.
'Ten years,' Hermione said finally. She shook her head. 'Things have changed indeed. I never thought I'd be coordinating legal counsel for children with Draco Malfoy.'
Harry nodded. Rose slid off his lap, holding on to the sofa as she toddled towards the Christmas tree.
'Malfoy's really changed, hasn't he?' Hermione asked. 'Not quite the little shit he used to be. And he's an excellent representative for neuromagic.' She looked at Harry. 'He likes you, you know.'
'Really?' Harry feigned innocence as images of the morning played through his head, Draco spread out on his bed in the sunshine and the 'one more time' that occasioned his late arrival. He couldn't stop his wide smile, though.
'Really.' Hermione narrowed her eyes, her gaze stopping on a spot below his chin. 'Harry James Potter, is that a love bite?'
'I'm not sure it's love.' Harry deadpanned, then stopped. 'Then again, I'm not sure it's not.'
Hermione smacked his arm. 'You—' A crash and a howl interrupted her. Crookshanks sped past, an orange streak headed for the kitchen. Hermione jumped up, wand out, just in time to rescue the sagging Christmas tree from shattering against the floor. 'Oh, Rose—'
Harry laughed, reaching for his goddaughter.
Life, he thought, was about to get interesting.