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When Draco Malfoy approaches Harry two days after their first successful Dumbledore's Army meeting near a rusty suit of armor in the Charms corridor telling him that he knows of the existence of their clandestine Defense Against the Dark Arts group, Harry's first instinct is to panic.

When a moment later after Harry's outrage and indignation at the integrity of the students he pulled together for the club appears on his face and Malfoy tells him he wants to join, his panic is quickly overridden in favor of his bewilderment.

"Potter," Malfoy mumbles directly to the suit of armor after having cornered Harry in a nook in the wall, eyes failing to make sturdy contact with Harry's. "I know about your secret defense group."

"You know—"

"None of your little friends snitched on you," Malfoy snaps, looking rather unimpressed with Harry's surprise at the idea of disloyalty. "I just overheard a few Hufflepuffs who were worried about jeopardizing their Prefect status talking about it."

Harry thinks of Zacharias Smith and Ernie Macmillan and their initial unease at signing Hermione's list of members and Ernie's reticence since his Prefect position could very well be in danger should he be caught dabbling in underhand groups after Umbridge passed Educational Decree Number Twenty-Four to ban student-led organization, and wonders if Hermione's jinx placed on the list still affects those who were overheard gossiping if not sharing the information with Umbridge outright. Harry takes a moment to silently fret and wonder over exactly how many other students were overheard whispering about the group after their first meeting in the Hog's Head and how many others with intentions as nefarious as Malfoy's eavesdropped on such incriminating evidence.

He considers denying the claims of sponsoring any such illicit meetings, but Harry knows perfectly well that with or without Harry's confirmation Malfoy could easily scamper off to Umbridge, who would readily expel Harry and his friends even without a solid confession that the group exists.

"What do you want for not telling?" Harry asks in a low whisper, sending a look over the suit of armor in case chattering students or teachers are rounding the corner. The idea of bribing Malfoy is not one he would have entertained if not for the fact that Harry has not only his own protection to worry about, but also that of the thirty other students who would be suspected to be part of the group should Harry let Malfoy saunter off with his secrets.

The idea of bribery doesn't affront Malfoy, however, and instead, he begins seesawing back and forth on his feet and gets shiftier still. Harry looks down where a one of Malfoy's white-knuckled hands is wrapped securely around the hilt of his wand hidden in the folds of his cloak but ready to strike should an unwanted listener trespass on their conversation.

"Gold?" Harry proffers when Malfoy remains wordless.

"I won't tell if you let me join," Malfoy says, and that's when Harry realizes that the edge in the Slytherin's step is not only out of a lack of desire to be seen talking civilly to the Boy-Who-Lived, but also out of a poorly veiled presence of fear. "Those are my conditions, no haggling. Take it or leave it and I go straight to Umbridge, Potter."

Harry wants to ask questions, for not only do Malfoy's intentions still smell foul, but he can't fathom exactly why he'd want to join a Defense Against the Dark Arts group led by the very boy he's spent five years taunting and loathing. He wonders, a little sadly, if Malfoy is really that afraid, and if he is, what it is he's so frightened of.

On his robes, the shiny, polished Inquisitorial Squad pin gleams proudly. Harry stares at the twinkling I and thinks, morosely, that even if Malfoy is planning to ruin Harry's organization from the inside and play double agent to the toad who's offering him extra credit, he has no choice but to put his faith in the very boy he's vowed to never trust ever since the midnight duel fiasco in First Year.

"All right," Harry admits, begrudgingly at best. "Next meeting is Wednesday night. Room of Requirement."

Oddly enough, Malfoy looks hardly pleased that his blackmail has been accepted; if anything, he looks even more uneasy than before. He saunters off with a stilted swagger to his step leaving Harry even more befuddled at the enigma that is quickly becoming Draco Malfoy.

-

On Wednesday night promptly after supper in the Room of Requirement, Malfoy appears, looking very much like only snake in the birdhouse.

His discomfort, however, is not secluded only for him. As undoubtedly the only Slytherin among a mass of blue, yellow, and red robes, the whispers begin immediately as the group files in and takes notice of his presence. They cast a wide berth around the boy, Lavender instantly grabbing Parvati's arm and whispering in her ear while several affronted Ravenclaws exchange miffed looks as if they were under the impression that their leader was astute enough not to let cunning Slytherin archenemies into their prestigious club. For a moment, Harry wants to explain to them that the only reason Malfoy's even been inducted into the club is for their own safety against expulsion, but he decides against it.

Hermione and Ron look possibly the most uncomfortable out of all of the students casting Malfoy shifty glances as if he's a particularly nasty boil sitting in the corner of the room as they survey Malfoy up and down and wait for the inevitable enlightenment from Harry as to why the boy keen on ruining Harry's life for more than five years has been trusted to keep the secret of Dumbledore's Army, or better yet, why the boy is even in the club in the first place.

"This just doesn't seem to be his type of club, you know," Ron mumbles to Harry as more students file into the room and begin buzzing with gossip concerning their newest member while Malfoy stands not three feet away, reminding Harry once more that he is working, after all, with a room full of gossipy adolescent teenagers. "You'd think he'd be more into Dark Arts, not Defense Against the Dark Arts."

"It does seem suspicious," Hermione agrees. "Did you tell you why he wanted to join?"

"Hermione, all he told me was that if I didn't let him join, he'd go straight to Umbridge," Harry says, and Hermione's eyes soften as he recounts the details of Malfoy's trickery once more in exasperation. "He's agreed to sign the jinxed list, he's got to be serious about this."

"Y'think maybe he's here to tell his father what his classmates are up to?"

Discreetly, the three of them peer over their shoulders at Malfoy standing, expectedly alone, in the corner while he sends glowers at the people who are daring enough to throw him suspicious glances upon entering the room.

"He looks scared," Hermione points out.

"Not of us," Harry adds. "He's scared of what's out there. I can feel it. If he's frightened enough to ask me of all people to join my Defense group, clearly it's a big deal."

"What's he frightened of?" Ron asks. "His git of a father's got all kinds of influence."

"Sirius thinks there's going to be a war," Harry says. "He probably knows it too, and we all know what side he's on. He's in over his head."

"Harry, I see where you're going with this, and if he really is starting to see exactly how dangerous the other side is, that's great, but," Hermione trails off, looking rather unnerved by the circumstances. "Are we really going to teach the other side what our methods are? If he goes back to his father and tells him what we're up to—even if we're not expelled—their side is going to know exactly how to protect themselves and counteract us."

The potential aftermaths slowly begin to sink in like melting ice trickling over Harry's limbs. The suspicion is glaring in his face pointing neon arrows straight at the culprit standing lonesome in the corner, a boy who surely could be placated and bribed with other means should Harry try hard enough.

"Look, I know as well as you guys how suspicious this looks," Harry agrees, lowering his voice to a whisper. "But we don't have a choice."

Ron and Hermione exchange another dark, worried glance as if to silently agree that Harry's acceptance of Malfoy's presence in the club will be their ultimate doom, but before Harry can assure them that he's got the entire situation under control, a firm hand clasps itself onto his shoulders and wheels him roughly around to meet Zacharias Smith's enraged countenance.

"Malfoy? You invited Malfoy?" Zacharias spits, knotting his hands through his hair as if occupying them is the only way to resist the urge of giving Harry a good hit to the nose to wheel his brain back on its axis. "Might as well just send an owl to Umbridge with the details of what we're doing! You're going to get us all expelled, Potter!"

Ron steps up behind Harry at the first sight of Zacharias' aggression, but before Ron can perform the obligatory Standing Up For Friends speech for Harry and tell him to clear off, Harry plants his palms on Zacharias' chest and shoves him back to a friendlier distance.

"He wouldn't even be here if you and Ernie could keep your voices down when you talk about this place!" Harry hisses, and Zacharias has the decency to flush red at the accusation. "And if we're lucky, he's the only one who heard you!"

Zacharias readjusts his robes, smoothing out any wrinkles Harry's pushes inflicted on the neat state of his clothing, all signs of guilt washed from his face and replaced with a lofty dismissal of any loud gossiping he and Ernie may have accidentally created in public corridors in lieu of an apology.

"All right, everyone," Harry addresses the audience after Zacharias wanders back over to Ernie to whisper furiously with him about them inadvertently instating Draco Malfoy into Dumbledore's Army. "Today, I thought we would practice disarming a bit more since a lot of you could still use some more practice from last time. So, just concentrate on the wand movements and the words and I'll come around to help you guys."

The students separate into pairs and Harry sends one more helpless look over his shoulder at Ron and Hermione's worried faces as the bad feeling begins to settle in his stomach.

-

Despite being the quietest, most lonesome member of Dumbledore's Army, Draco Malfoy also happens to be Harry's hardest student.

Even when compared to Neville's seemingly hopeless attempts to get his wand to do his bidding properly, Malfoy's obstinate nature and repulsion of Harry and the rest of his friends never fails to get in the way when Harry tries to coax him into performing a successful counterattack or a protective spell.

"Malfoy, try again," Harry says as gently as he manage when his frustration is boiling up to eruption point and Malfoy's default sneer is doing little to mollify him. Malfoy grabs his wand, jerks his wrist, and a shower of red sparks fly out. "You're not doing it right."

"Scarhead, I swear to Merlin—"

"Calm down!" Harry snaps, and across the room Hermione and Ron send him sympathetic glances as Malfoy once more flicks his wand with little to no effect spurting from the end. "You have to focus! You're not focusing!"

"I am very well bloody focusing, Potter, I just can't—reducto! Reducto!" More sputtering embers of fiery crimson go shooting from Malfoy's wand, sprinkling directly over Parvati's head, who promptly shrieks and scuttles to the other end of the room. "Out of the way, Patil!"

Harry exhales slowly, breathes a deep sigh that somehow manages to soothe his whole ribcage, and takes Hermione's supportive glance as encouragement as he approaches the hot-tempered boy and seizes his wrist before he waves his wand again and sets Parvati's robes aflame.

"Don't take it out on her," he tells him softly, and Malfoy looks at him, a hint of remorse visible underneath his outrage that Harry is not only grabbing his forearm but also giving him orders. He's never been this close to the boy before, only ever sharing heated glowers across the Quidditch pitch or along the length of the Great Hall, and as he looks directly into his eyes and wordlessly pleads with him to control his temper, Harry sees the vaguest flash of a human being under a signature Malfoy snarl.

"This is complete rubbish," Malfoy mutters, avoiding Harry's gaze.

"Then why are you here, Malfoy?"

Malfoy promptly wrenches his arm out of Harry's grip, the inquiry clearly going beyond the bounds of his comfort especially when he's in the room with a myriad of witnesses who, when Harry checks over his shoulder, have abandoned their spell-casting to sneak peeks over at Harry and Draco's altercation.

"You have no idea what it's like," Malfoy hisses under his breath after sending a pointed look over Harry's shoulder that has most of the others bustling back into their pairs and returning to their practice.

"You're scared," Harry says bluntly, not even bothering to form the statement into a question that lets Malfoy feel as if he has the upper hand in the situation and that his secrets aren't out for Harry to discover and decipher.

"I'm not scared, Potter, I—" Malfoy's rendered momentarily speechless, a faint, rosy coloring rising to the surface of his pallid ears as he ducks his head to stare resolutely at the bookshelf holding sundry hoary tomes specialized in recognizing the effects of dark magic. He's silent for a moment, his eyes conveying the turmoil of a silent, mental battle that tell Harry he's hit Malfoy's emotions on the nose, when he breaks free of his thoughts and yells, "Oh, for Salazar's sake. Reducto!"

The bookshelf collapses in a heap of powdered smithereens and wooden splinters, the books crashing down onto the sandy pile of the shelf's remains with gentle thuds. At the other side of the room, Fred mumbles, "Looks like Malfoy's actually got it in him."

Malfoy stares at the dust settling on the floor for a good minute before he turns around to glance at Harry, the small, nearly undetectable ghost of a smile playing on his face at his accomplishment.

-

"It is a bit odd, isn't it?" Hermione pipes up after the fourth successful D.A. meeting while everyone files out in an orderly, inconspicuous fashion to avoid suspicion being drummed up by a watchful Filch while Hermione and Harry stay back to clean up the pillows littered about the floor as protection from their Stunning practices.

"What's a bit odd?" Harry asks over his shoulder while Hermione idly fluffs a purple cushion and levitates it back over to the neat pile in the corner.

"Malfoy," she says. "I really thought he'd be trouble for the club, but so far it's been okay."

"Okay?" Harry parrots, rather surprised by her description of Malfoy's attitude after several nights of fruitless attempts to coax Draco into obeying his commands and swallowing back his swollen ego long enough for Harry to properly instruct him. "Are you serious, Hermione? He's the most stubborn person here and will hardly listen to a word I say!"

"But he's still here," Hermione says, a small, imperceptible smile on her face. "I hadn't thought about it this way before, but he really could have asked for gold or your humiliation when he wanted to bribe you. But he wanted to join. I think you were right, Harry, he's just really scared."

Harry thinks back to their last few meetings, Draco's behavior and actions and even facial features constantly stuck between a desire to learn and arm himself against whatever dark horrors may lurk within his very family and an equally strong yearning to insult all of the Weasleys, defy Harry's leadership, and succumb back to being the Slytherin son his father would be proud to raise as a Death Eater and quit rebelling against what is surely his inevitable future. For the first time since taking on the monumental task of agreeing to teach Draco Malfoy defensive strategies and protective spells against the dark forces that reside in his very home, Harry feels a pit of consternation churn unpleasantly in his stomach at the thought of the inner turmoil someone like Malfoy must be feeling that all of the others in Dumbledore's Army couldn't dream of, their rebellion ten times less severe than Draco's since his involvement in such a club is an enormous slap to the face of any Malfoy relative ever to have lived and graduated from Slytherin house. Harry supposes that in his own life, his lack of parental guidance left Harry to make all his own choices and decisions—a burden he had always regarded as a curse rather than a blessing—but in Draco's case, he has no trouble reasoning that his parent's deep involvement with dark magic and positions in Voldemort's inner circle during the first war left Draco little to no wiggle room when choosing sides or even formulating an individualistic mindset whilst growing up as an impressionable child in a house that symbolized and glorified the epitome of dangerous dark power.

For a Slytherin, a house Harry has always automatically associated with cowardice and iniquity, Draco Malfoy mustered up a surprising bit of Gryffindor audacity when he cornered Harry in the corridor the other day and demanded to be part of Dumbledore's Army, even if he had resorted to manipulation and blackmail to secure a spot, since he had been going against every Malfoy grain on his flesh when he had requested Harry Potter to be his teacher in fighting the dark arts.

"I think he is too."

"I mean, we were all worried about him telling Umbridge about us, but I don't think any of us considered exactly how much worse it might be if someone told his father what he's doing. He might be disowned!"

Harry wheels around from where he's staring at the neat Draco Malfoy written in blue ink at the bottom of the Dumbledore's Army list tacked up onto the wall, the last y curving off in a jerky swoop. He approaches Hermione, opens his mouth, closes it again, and opens it once more when he decides to voice his thoughts.

"Hermione, do you think we could convince him to… you know, change sides?" Harry blurts out, and Hermione instantly looks up from the pile of maroon cushions, lower lip trapped in between her teeth as if she was expecting this certain characteristic of Harry's constant need to save others who aren't his to save to arise again once they began discussing the ambivalent loyalty of Draco Malfoy.

"Oh, Harry, I don't know," she says, not bothering to mask her worry at the idea of Harry attempting to fix Malfoy when she clearly suspects failure to be imminent during such a project despite the obvious maturity Draco had to have acquired when he joined Dumbledore's Army. "I mean, think of his family. I just have trouble believing that he'd betray them when he's so, well—spoiled. Not to mention scared. It's not like our side would accept him considering no one takes to him very well even now."

"So you still think that teaching him all this will come back to bite us one day when we're on two different sides?"

The slew of such exhaustive questions seems to greatly unnerve Hermione as she realizes that it won't be easy to placate Harry when all of her answers are the ones that he isn't willing to hear. With a hefty sigh as she places the last cushion atop the heap, she turns to him and says, "I don't think you'll regret having him here and teaching him, Harry, I just think… I just think he's got a lot of more growing up to do before he'll ever join our side and fight alongside a bunch of Gryffindors."

Unfortunately, Harry thinks she's right.

-

"Concentrate, Malfoy!"

"Yeah, c'mon, Malfoy, we all know how much you'd like to see Harry Potter lying on the floor at your mercy!"

"Don't listen to them, Malfoy, just do it," Harry urges across the Room of Requirement while Draco poises his wand after sending a few angry sparks directly at the chest of the Ravenclaw who taunted him a moment before, Harry's own wand pocketed while he awaits the blow.

It's become a bit of a habit for the two of them to partner up whenever Harry isn't fixing Neville's pronunciation or Ginny's tendency to flick her wand too extensively while casting spells, mostly because no one trusts him enough to work with him, determined to keep him a pariah, and Harry seems to the be only one who Draco can tolerate in the entire group of Dumbledore's Army members even when he seems to simultaneously detest Harry just as much. It's a riddle that Harry has given up on deciphering on the grounds that he's certain that Hermione has already found a logical conclusion and  simply refuses to tell him as to why Draco prefers the very boy he's been teasing and insulting for years over sundry other mild, even-tempered students who wouldn't bully him for his Slytherin status or his questionable intentions with the club. Draco's feistiness, were Harry to refer to it in the kindest and flattest way possible, is surely the biggest challenge there is to overtake in the entire room, for the boy always has an opinion on Harry's teaching techniques and still seems to be battling with himself on the treachery he's committing against his family and his obligations even just by standing near Harry Potter without using the opportunity of their close propinquity to hex him.

"Maybe if you'd shut your trap, Potter, I'd be able to concentrate," Malfoy snarls, and Harry refrains from breaking out in a few forbidden snickers at the sight of what must surely be Malfoy's expression of utter concentration, eyebrows knitted close together and eyes alight with a fierce light that complements his set jaw well to create an overall aura of a small child screwing up all of his focus in one face while he attempts to solve a basic math problem.

Still, Harry complies, awaiting the moment when Malfoy drums up enough energy to Stun him, and he's about to take a few steps closer to correct Malfoy's grip on his wand when the blond sharply cries, "Stupefy!" as Harry attempts to approach him, and before he can take another step closer to readjust Malfoy's grip, he's being hit square in the chest with a flash of red light that promptly sends him careening onto the floor.

He misses the cushions by at least two feet, and by the time he comes to, the back of his skull is throbbing with the ache of a powerfully swollen bruise sure to leave a noticeable protrusion sticking out of his head for a few days and Malfoy is lounging lazily by him on a velvet pillow that was surely his intended target upon tipping backwards after Malfoy's spell him directly on one of his ribs.

"You've Stunned me," Harry says to the room's vaulted ceiling, equal parts impressed and displeased as his skull pounds in protest while his fingers feel for engorged bumps on the back of his head.

"I'm flattered, Potter," a voice drawls, and that's when Harry sits up and realizes that room is entirely abandoned with the exception of a mass of magenta pillows scattered about the floor instead of neatly stacked against the wall, Draco, his own pulsating head, and himself.

"Where is everybody?"

"Back in their dormitories, I suspect," Malfoy says. "I think you hit your head a little harder than anyone expected. Weasley wanted to bring you to the hospital wing but Granger thought it would look too suspicious so I convinced them to leave you here with me until you woke up so everyone could get some rest."

"You convinced them to leave me here with you?" Harry repeats, somewhat incredulously, for Hermione and Ron's looks of mistrust at the idea of leaving their friend at the mercy of Malfoy instantly flit through his mind.

"I didn't hex them, if that's what you're implying."

"Okay," Harry accepts, relieved to find that there's a distinct absence of shimmering blood on his fingertips when he pulls his hand away from the burgeoning bruise on his head. Beside him, regally stretched out on a plushy cushion, Malfoy fiddles with his wand, passing it in between his fingers and sending miniature, glimmering fireworks into the air with twiddles of his hand.

"So are you going to congratulate me on Stunning you so well we couldn't wake you up for two hours or what?"

Harry gives a dry chuckle, watching the tiny showers of iridescent fireworks bursting from the tip of Malfoy's wand before spluttering to a death in the air like bubbles popped by the breeze. "Good job," he says, chancing a look at Malfoy. "For how badly you drive me mad, you've really improved."

The next batch of fireworks, a brilliant shade of teal shimmering in the sun, splutters to an end after dancing by the ceiling in a waterfall of sparks. Malfoy lowers his wand to his side, and when Harry looks over at him he notices that the lamps alight on the walls are licking light up the left hemisphere of Draco's face all the way up to his pointed nose and defined cheekbones in a fashion that highlights his attractive features, features Harry had yet to notice before now. He wonders, briefly, when he grew from the haughty boy still padded with youthful pudge on his cheeks throwing around careless insults about Hagrid's savagery and his enthusiasm about being sorted in Slytherin in Madam Malkin's when Harry first met him into the teenage boy he is now.

Harry watches him, astonishingly silent, and wonders if this is the longest they've ever gone without insulting each other's families or attempting to jinx the other's nose into a snout. The civility is not something he's used to when he's sitting next to Draco Malfoy in the middle of the Room of Requirement after having just been knocked out cold by a spectacular Stun cast by the aforementioned boy, and if someone told him years ago that he'd be teaching Draco Malfoy how to defend himself against the dark arts in a covert defense group and actually enjoying it, he'd have no problem asking them if they'd been strongly Confunded.

Crabbe and Goyle's absence, Harry reasons, is probably an enormous contributing factor into his endurable behavior, as this is the closest to pleasant Harry has ever seen him act around a Gryffindor, not to mention someone like himself who Malfoy has always zeroed in on when it came to finding targets to terrorize. Ever since Malfoy had been snubbed on the train by Harry's rejection when he came offering his friendship and had proceeded to find the beefiest, burliest First Year boys on the train to label as his accessories, Harry had found him triply irksome, but alone, the boy is much more subdued without his cronies to chuckle and chortle behind him.

"So are you going to tell me why you're here yet?" Harry asks, hoping his prodding won't scare Malfoy off or set his temper flaring, rather enjoying the halcyon company that presents itself when Malfoy isn't bragging over the size and capability of his broomstick or how many sweets his mother sends to him each week in care packages.

For a long time, there is silence, a pause so lengthy Harry almost believes Malfoy has no intention of acknowledging that Harry is still asking questions that he's waiting for answers for, and then Malfoy lets out a small exhale akin to how a sixty-year-old man might sigh after a long, gruesome day with knots forming in his back, and when Harry looks over and examines him, he realizes that there are many things he has never bothered to learn about Draco Malfoy or even consider how the burdens in his life tend to impact his hostile behavior.

"You already hit it right on the nose, Potter," Malfoy finally admits in a small voice, so small Harry has to crane in his direction to hear the uncharacteristically soft-spoken confession escape Malfoy's mouth. "I'm scared.  At home, I learn how to perform dark spells. Not what we learn here. There are things expected of me that I know I'm going to have to do sooner or later, and I'm not ready."

For a moment, Malfoy's eyebrows twitch and he appears as if he's slightly surprised with himself for sharing such intimate details, with Harry Potter no less, and then he resumes his task of fingering his wand and sending a feeble shower of dazzling, pearly sparks into the air that sizzle to nothingness a moment after they shoot out into the air.

"Will you ever be, do you think?" Harry asks. He wonders exactly what things could be expected of a boy as young as fifteen, a boy who has hardly had the chance yet to stumble through puberty and worry about school examinations, his mind coming up with various scenarios, all as cruel as the last. He wonders if Lucius has ever seen his son like this—petrified, reserved, and most of all, inexplicably young, too young to make his own choices, too impressionable to form his own opinions, and Harry contemplates if Draco will ever have the chance to become his own person. It sends what feels remarkably like gusts of icy air whistling through his ribcage and the room's temperature down by twenty degrees at the realization that Hermione was probably right—Draco Malfoy is a boy who simply can't be saved.

"I don't know," Draco murmurs at his lap.

Harry always, even when he denied sympathy and compassion from others, pitied himself. When he was rotting away in a dank and moldy cupboard for the first decade of his life, when Dudley lumbered after him and tackled him to the ground as Saturday routine, when he found out that his parents were ruthlessly murdered before he ever had a chance to remember the sound of his mother's kind laugh or be taught Quidditch by his father. But he has a choice, his own choice, one that no one else could make for him, and for once Harry is grateful that he was given the opportunity to ignore outside influences and family obligations and focus on exactly who he was and what he stood for when never before had he noticed that others couldn't share the same luxury.

"There's going to be a war," Harry mentions, and the rumination of what terror and division such destruction would create seems to finally ram into his brain when he imagines the aftermaths. He sees faceless bodies, Killing Curses soaring through the air, and flames shooting from the windows of houses harboring innocent families. He wonders if he'll be there too when it's all over, or if he'll be another sacrifice to the cause like Draco's already become.

"I know," Draco says, and there's a slight quiver to his voice that he instantly bites back and replaces with an artificial fortitude. "I know he's back. I know he is. My father—"

He stops himself. Harry can presume a number of words that would accurately finish Malfoy's broken sentence. My father talks about his return. My father's part of his inner circle. My father's gotten me in too far.

Harry thinks back, and even the days when he was smuggling illicit dragons off the Astronomy Tower or brewing Polyjuice Potion in the abandoned girls' bathroom seem like simpler times, and he takes a moment to wonder when his life became so complicated when he wasn't paying attention and if Hermione and Ron have had similar insights that their childhood has been essentially stolen from them.

"What do you miss about your childhood?" Harry inquires.

"It was… simple," Draco answers, voicing every thought in Harry's head, and then, as an afterthought, he softly says, "The albino peacocks were also nice."

"The—the albino peacocks?"

Draco looks at him, as if suddenly aware that peacocks aren't typically seen strutting through family abodes or waltzing through someone's childhood as a contributing factor to one's happiness, and a faint, amused smile splits his face.

"At the manor. We have peacocks."

Harry's first desire is to demand pictures of a young, pint-sized Draco chasing after a generously plumed and Sardanapalian peacock with his feathers poised in traditional haughty Malfoy fashion; his second desire is to mirror Draco's smile on his own face and grin at the bizarre nature of his statement. He indulges in the latter.

-

Before Christmas vacation appears on the horizon, Draco Malfoy succeeds in making the effort to voice his amazement at the adequacy of Hermione's Protean Charm on each member's ersatz Galleon instead of making jabs at her blood status, quelling his insults at the Weasleys regarding the state of their tattered robes and what tomato garden they had to marinate in to achieve such bright red hair, and in mastering the Impediment Jinx.

His progress, Harry thinks, is greater than that of anyone else in Dumbledore's Army.

-

There are certain skills that Harry thought upon the commencement of Dumbledore's Army, unlike the thorny concentration that influences a Patronus Charm or the honed reflexes required for a successful shield charm, don't need to be taught to a room full of perfectly astute students, such as not to set the Room of Requirement on fire.

Apparently, he had been mistaken when he has assumed so.

He's startled away from his covert attempt to smile at Cho while he passes her friend Marietta for the third time by the quick succession of the sounds of enormous, sizzling flames and the hasty dousing of the fire by the Weasley twins who swiftly brandish their wands and set a few jets of water at the charred bookcase in the corner singed black and still angrily smoldering in the wake of the flames.

"Bloody hell, Malfoy, are you trying to kill us all?"

Harry swerves around to see Malfoy, drawn up with a withering sense of pride as the thick odor of wooden smoke wafts around his nostrils and clutching his wand, and feels as if he should have known before confirming his suspicions that the lone Slytherin had been the one to miscast a spell and nearly burn the entire left hemisphere of the room to a crisp.

His Malfoy Temper Senses tingling as Draco promptly feels the need to defend his honor against Fred's accusations in the most abrasive way he can manage, Harry abandons his attempt to compliment Cho's disarming and hurries over to the developing quarrel by gently pushing Fred toward his brother before turning around to fix Draco with an authoritative glare he hopes will subdue Draco's frustration.

"You cast the fire?"

"I didn't mean to," Draco mumbles, looking much less like a teenage boy and rather like a petulant child caught feeding a baby cockroaches. "I was going for the Shield Charm and had a bit of an accident."

Harry peers over his shoulder to catch sight of the blackened bookcase, several books caught in the damage and also surrounded with soft tendrils of smoke curling upwards toward the ceiling. He turns back around to Malfoy, who's doing a spectacular job of fixating his gaze on Ernie MacMillan attempting to pronounce a series of spells correctly instead of addressing Harry.

"Got a bit frustrated when you couldn't get it right?"

"I was doing just fine," Malfoy corrects, rather bitterly, and Harry once more feels the amiable, tolerable side of Malfoy slip away in favor of his delicate ego.

"Just let me help," Harry says, in no mood for dealing with Malfoy's mood swings after furniture is still sputtering scorching embers as the aftermaths of his exasperation, and despite Malfoy's protests and refusals of his aid, he comes closer and outstretches his arms expectantly for the spell to hit him.

"Protego!" Malfoy shouts after a good minute of cantankerously emphasizing the P in Potter to convince him to continue doing his rounds about the room and help a student in dire need of his know-it-all mentoring while Harry tunes out the abuse and waits. A cool breeze whips his face like a slab of ice feebly slapping his cheek and a white mist that could have been a protective aegis solidifying around Malfoy's form dissolves into the air.

Malfoy huffs and blows a wayward strand of strikingly blond hair out of his forehead. He looks rightfully disheveled, school tie crooked and robes discarded in favor of excessive movement, ready to curse the next person to graze him so their hair turns into a pot of flowers, and underneath the aggravation at his own inability to properly focus on his spell work, Harry spies the underlying emotion behind all of Malfoy's aggression and smiles when he realizes it's determination, a commendable trait that he's never seen in Malfoy's lazy demeanor before.

"It's just the way you're moving your wrist," Harry tells him, sliding closer and approaching him from behind to fold his arm over Malfoy's and navigate his hand with his own. "You've got the concept down."

Malfoy tenses the moment he feels Harry's body sidle up against his backside, and Harry realizes a moment later that perhaps it was not the cleverest plan he had ever cooked up to invade the personal space of the most temperamental student in the room to guide him through wand movements, but before he has time to apologize and hurry off to busy himself across the room with Dean Thomas' faltering Impediment Jinx, Malfoy visibly relaxes in his grip and waits for Harry to finish coaching.

"It's because I've got no one to practice with. It's a lot harder—"

"I know. It's okay. Just—" Harry says softly, suddenly very much feeling the awkwardness that goes with standing this close to another fifteen-year-old boy when at this point in his life all contact that is acceptable is brief pats on the arms and manly punches in the stomach, especially when he breathes out directly on Malfoy's neck and the boy can't seem to suppress a small shiver that Harry sees ripple through the skin of his shoulder. "Just move your hand like—like this."

He cups Malfoy's hand in his own as he firmly grips his wand, very much ignoring the palpable heat emanating from Malfoy's backside directly onto his chest or the soft blond strands tickling his chin as he leans forward and gently moves Malfoy's wand for him in painstaking slow motion, as if anything faster would break the wordless agreement they seem to have reached that Harry can remain this close to Malfoy's body if he doesn't yell in his ear or do anything rash with his hands.

"Protego," Malfoy whispers as Harry moves his hand, fingers furled around the pale wrist underneath his grasp, and a silvery circle momentarily engulfs both of their forms in a nearly tangible shield before it flickers away. Malfoy lets out a soft sound of accomplishment.

Harry lets go of Malfoy's wrist and steps back the moment after the shield pops back into nothingness, ankles and thighs feeling like they've been Transfigured into a wobbly bowl of Christmas pudding and palm instantaneously sweaty.

The sensation is worrying at the very least.

-

Even after facing dragons, hordes of dementors, and Voldemort in the flesh himself, Harry doesn't remember the last time he was confronted with a situation like this that he literally had no idea how to handle.

He's standing in the middle of the Room of Requirement, the sound of others idly wishing him happy holidays and a good Christmas fading to a cumbersome silence as the last of the students grab their things and slip out the door in inconspicuous pairs, leaving him unspeakably alone with a sobbing Cho Chang.

Any tingles coursing through his toes and flutters of Snitches in his stomach seem to be quickly doused and flushed away as the idea of sharing heartfelt holiday sentiments and perhaps exchanging a brief hug seems to be stampeded into the ground to make way for what is rapidly becoming reality: Cho weeping in the corner with tears blubbering down his front. Never before has this been what Harry's daydreams turn out to be when he imagines Cho and him alone together with nothing but their mutual adoration for one another to fill the room.

She's in the middle of mopping her eyes on her sleeve, already horrifyingly damp with salty tears, as if she went from peachy to miserable in under three seconds flat, and Harry feels compelled to help and equally urged to go flying from the room pretending he had never seen her crying broadly for him to witness. The push to be a gentleman and show empathy for her despair seems meek at best, mostly because Harry knows that whatever could possibly make a girl dissolve into wretched sobs in the blink of an eye can't be a petty matter easily fixed with a few words of understanding.

He's about to muster up whatever manners he has so he can approach Cho and perhaps tenderly pat her on the shoulder when he's saved from the trouble of mentally choosing a method of comfort appropriate for mollifying a sniveling girl by a silky drawl voicing itself behind him.

"Do you fancy her, Potter?" Malfoy asks quietly and Harry jumps at the voice, certain that the room had already been empty save for he and Cho, turning around to face a rather cross pointed face staring directly at the distasteful sobbing occurring in front of them both.

"Er," Harry says eloquently, and before he can deny or concur to Malfoy's question the boy huffs as if he already knows the answer and is rather bothered by Harry's poor taste in females.

"I'd have thought you'd go after someone with a bit more finesse," Malfoy says bluntly, and Harry's about to ask when Malfoy had taken the time to consider what type of woman Harry would most likely find attractive when Cho gives a soft gasp followed by a pitiful hiccup as she catches sight of Draco also present in the room.

"Oh," she says, quite nasally, her entire left sleeve sopping in tears as she wipes the fabric hastily over her blotchy face as if to hide the evidence of her tears in front of a Slytherin boy, and quickly grabs her bag. "Uh. Happy Christmas, Harry."

She hurries from the room with the hem of her sleeve still dabbing under her nose and Harry's left wondering if he should be pleading for Cho to come back or grateful that Draco's presence shooed her and her stream of tears away even if his opportune chance to woo the girl and perhaps confess his infatuation with her has dispersed.

"I daresay she fancies you," Malfoy says, a hardly concealed edge of disgust dripping from his voice. "I suppose she wanted you to console her when she started crying like that."

"I wouldn't have known what to say," Harry admits, feeling a little lost as he stares at the spot that Cho wavered on a few seconds ago as if expecting to see a salty puddle left behind.

"Don't have a lot of experience with girls, Potter?" Malfoy asks. "Too busy chasing Dark wizards?"

"Something like that," Harry dismisses, and with a great sigh, he shakes the encounter with Cho from his mind before he begins to wonder what would have happened had he approached her and asked her what the matter was, over a million possibilities crossing his mind, ranging from trivial topics such as concern over a Charms project to discussions as heavy as sharing the details of the night Cedric was killed, conversations Harry generally discourages having with any individual no matter the attraction he feels for them.

"She was a bit too weepy for you anyway," Draco dwells, and this is when Harry realizes that Draco should have left with everyone else who packed up and sent a few merry goodbyes to Harry over the Christmas holiday, and that he's currently having the pleasant conversation he yearned to have with Cho with Draco Malfoy instead.

"Did you need something?" Harry asks him, a tad suspicious at Draco's willingness to spend more time than necessary with Harry when the random weekly D.A. meetings already seem to be enough of Harry's face to grate on his nerves.

"I just wanted to see if Chang really would try to snog you when she's still in the middle of crying."

"I'm sure it would have made your Christmas," Harry says dryly.

"Possibly. I would have preferred a new broomstick."

"You know, you've made a lot of progress since we started Dumbledore's Army," Harry says, ignoring Draco's comment. "I can't believe it's already winter holidays."

"Apparently you're not a completely shite teacher."

They share a glare that, surprisingly enough, lacks heat. Harry says, "After Christmas we'll start on Patronuses. Are you looking forward to it?"

"Probably won't be able to make one. My life's not exactly full of cheery memories, Potter."

Harry looks at him and notices a second later that despite a childhood full of bullying his parents into spoiling him rotten with sweets and broomsticks, he's not joking. Even his own life, wracked with ruin and despondence, is riddled with simple pleasures and innumerable moments that swept him away from reality whenever he soared on a broomstick or laughed with Ron and Hermione in the common room.

"I'm sure you have something," Harry protests, imagining that even vindictive memories of watching Slytherin win Quidditch matches or Trip Jinxing unsuspecting Gryffindors should allow Draco's chest to swell with a memorable bliss that could suffice for a Patronus.

"A Patronus is a symbol for hope, Potter," Malfoy says, "And it just so happens that I have none of that."

"You don't—"

"I've told you before. There are things expected of me that I can't get away from, and at the end of the day, I'm a Slytherin. I'm not some brave Gryffindor who can rise above whatever peer pressure is influencing me or a happy little Hufflepuff who can push it all aside. I would've thought you'd realize that, Potter. I'm the only snake in the entire group."

For a moment, Harry is stunned, for never before has he heard even a stutter in Malfoy's house pride, a boy swollen with the implications of cunning greatness that come with being a Slytherin. From the first day Harry met the boy as a midgety child in Madam Malkin's raving about the idea of residing in Slytherin house, he had battled nastily for house points and never failed to tease and taunt the less than admirable characteristics of those in other houses that he clearly believed to be weaklings when compared to the strength of the serpent.

The ramifications of stereotyping and dividing young, pliable children seem to suddenly hit him. How judging and characterizing youngsters by one blossoming trait can damage more than it ever has united, how it creates judgment and discrimination among growing children who need not assessment of their best and worst traits, but camaraderie and concord. He wonders if, had he been sorted in Slytherin, he would have fulfilled the prophecy the Sorting Hat had inadvertently provided him and become a different man, a darker one, and made different allegiances.

Students at Hogwarts, Harry realizes, never seem to consider life after school is over, too consumed with thoughts of winning the House Cup and maintaining animosity against Slytherins while perceiving all Hufflepuffs to be dunderheads and Ravenclaws to be constantly situated in library corners. The real world isn't made up of four school houses and yellow, blue, green, and red, and the same can be said for individuals—no one is so very one-dimensional they fail to relate to all houses and their crowning qualities in some way. Even Draco Malfoy, a boy who Harry once saw only as a superficial villain brought onto the earth to challenge his patience, has not only Slytherin attributes that Salazar himself would find worthy, but also the fleeting courage of a Gryffindor and the wit of a Ravenclaw and perhaps even the loyalty of a Hufflepuff were Harry to begin insulting the intelligence or geniality of his friends. He's more than just green, more than just a common venomous serpent in a garden, but dabs of all color, iridescent when held up to the light.

"You're not just what your house represents, Malfoy," Harry tells him, and the words seem to surprise Draco when he catches Harry's eye. "You're your own person too."

For a few silent seconds, Draco looks like he wants to say something in return—a thank you, a dismissal, a scoff, a reactionary opinion, but whatever words come to mind seem to die on his tongue as he bites back any replies he's thinking of sharing out loud, and instead, without a shred of warning, his hands grab Harry's face and his fingernails dig crescents into the sensitive flesh of his cheeks and their mouths press together hard.

It takes Harry a moment to collect his scattered thoughts and sensations before he realizes that he's in the middle of being kissed, rather fiercely, by Draco Malfoy. His lips are one firm, insistent line against Harry's, intending to be acknowledged and mirrored, and when Harry finally has his thoughts back in order, he does the unthinkable and kisses back.

The kiss is nothing at all like what he ever imagined having with Cho, of which his mind only ever helpfully produced innocent images of chaste, tender kisses, maybe even slightly wet, salty kisses if Harry had approached her whilst she cried only a few minutes ago in this very room. Either way, it would have easily lacked the unbridled heat that Malfoy seems to be pouring into their demanding kiss without reserve, every single angry and happy and frustrated emotion seeping out through his mouth for release. The hand on Harry's face is suddenly fisting the side of his jumper and hitching it up so two slender fingers are sliding over his exposed sliver of skin by his stomach, eliciting a gasp out of Harry that Draco interprets as his ticket to deepen the kiss and angle his nose so their mouths slot together more securely than before, a single flicker of a warm tongue brushing against his before one of them—maybe both of them—pull back as if the consequences and the very comprehension behind what it is they're doing abruptly settle in.

Draco looks flushed, dots of pale pink on his normally pallid face, lips shining with what Harry realizes with a jolt is most probably his saliva, and the blush turns contagious to Harry's cheeks the moment he wonders if he has the same wet shine bedaubing his own lips marking where Draco's tongue slid a moment before. The fact that he just snogged Draco Malfoy is still having trouble being processed by his brain.

"Well," Draco says breathlessly, and all sense of Malfoy snark and narcissistic drawl is gone from his voice as if Harry swallowed it away a moment ago without permission. "Happy Christmas, Potter."

He's out of the Room of Requirement and gone before Harry has the chance to ask questions since he certainly has no answers to mollify his brain with, left with nothing but the phantom sensation of Draco's lips pushed hard against his own in the first kiss he's ever had the pleasure of sharing with somebody.

He doesn't know which is worse—the fact that he just had the moment he was supposed to have with a pretty, very female Cho with Draco Malfoy, or that he enjoyed it.

-

The kiss before Christmas isn't mentioned after the break ends, nor is it mentioned during the holidays when Harry visits Mr. Weasley at St. Mungo's and Draco presumably spends his Christmas sponsoring a pureblood family reunion at Malfoy Manor.

Harry also makes the decision not to tell Ron and Hermione of the fleeting encounter after he returns to Gryffindor Tower later that night after making a quick detour to the bathroom in order to smooth away any incongruous wrinkles, tuck his shirt back into his pants, and wait for the swollen, thoroughly kissed look of his lips to evaporate.

When his appearance finally returns back to its former, casually untidy state, he clambers into the common room and is promptly bombarded with Ron and Hermione asking him what conspired with Cho after everyone vacated the Room of Requirement and Harry blushes a fierce shade of scarlet on the back of his neck that he silently thanks the cosmic deities for not revealing for his friends to see since unbeknownst to them, the Room of Requirement was never fully vacated and was harboring a nosy blond Slytherin long enough for nothing to happen between him and Cho, tears aside.

He tells them that she was rather weepy and leaves it at that, but from Ron's smirk and Hermione's knowing glance, he thinks that they've inferred that there was definitely a bit of snogging occurring that Harry's failing to mention, which, he thinks, is entirely true, minus the one flaw in their imaginations where Cho is the person pressed sweetly up against Harry.

When break ends and students begin filing back into the school before the start of classes, Harry sees Draco at the Slytherin table chatting with Blaise, looking pale and pointy as always, and looks away before Draco notices his observations in his direction.  He ruminates over how Draco's Christmas was—if Lucius opened Christmas Eve celebrations with a toast to the Dark Lord's return or if Draco received many valuable, dark artifacts or family heirlooms as presents to urge him on his destiny of becoming a faithful servant to Voldemort much like his father and his aunt did.

When the first D.A. meeting of the new year begins, Harry is soon faced with the epiphany he had not realized before—that even if he seeks to continue or even discuss their kiss before Christmas with Draco, he hardly has the opportunity to with more than a dozen others constantly swarmed around them both with their wands aloft and spells shooting merrily through the room. The idea of even whispering with Draco about their snog to find some clarity in the matter and being overheard by Ron or Ginny or a gossipmonger Lavender Brown is enough to make him steer clear of Draco during their meetings.

Still, now and again, they brush by the wrist or fingers when Harry corrects Draco's wand's flourish and feels a jolt of electricity sizzle through his system at the touch that he knows, without anyone teaching him so, is most definitely a forbidden sensation when he should be enamored with the sight of Cho's ebony lashes or keeping his distance with the Slytherin boy he should very well detest.

-

When Draco skips their last D.A. meeting before Easter, Harry's not alarmed.

He's been absent from meetings before, whether it be to avoid casting suspicion on his random disappearances when he's surrounded by people like Blaise Zabini who apparently is as observant as McGonagall and is not nearly as deaf to deductions as Crabbe and Goyle are when it comes to questioning the purpose behind Draco's random departing after dinner on unpredictable weeknights or because he's failed to keep his trick Galleon with him when it burns hot and changes dates because he's concerned that he'll mistake it for his own pile of gold.

When Hermione asks Harry where he is and he tells her amid the flock of wispy Patronuses galloping through the room that he's probably not coming, she doesn't take the news as the casual information it is, but rather appears quite worried the moment Harry reports his absence.

"Why do you think he's not coming?"

"I dunno," Harry shrugs, ducking out of the way of Cho's swan splashing toward the ceiling with silvery tendrils chasing its tail. "Probably didn't want to learn how to perform a Patronus."

Hermione doesn't look mollified.

Ten minutes later when Dobby comes storming through the door alerting Harry of Umbridge's newfound knowledge of the illicit group and Harry feels a chunk of ice clutch and crush at his heart, he knows that Hermione was right in harboring concern.

He knew, Harry thinks as he's careening through the corridors with dots of sweat forming at his wrists, his hairline, his shoulders, not from the exertion of his scurrying, but rather out of the terror of being found alongside thirty other guilty students racing from the scene of the crime. He knew that Umbridge found out. He knew. He could have told me—

The bathroom up ahead, the innocuous boys' bathroom that he could take refuge in and use as his sanctuary to prove his innocence in the matter as long as he would be found strolling innocently out of a stall, is coming closer, and the desperate yearning that the others that he can still hear pelting down the halls—or is that the drum of his heart stampeding blood through his veins in his ear—have also found cover in the Owlery or in their dormitories or the library courses through him right before his ankle snags on a seemingly invisible wire and he falls flat on his face, cheek slapped onto the hard floor and glasses snapping.

He groans, bones that took the brunt of his fall throbbing and flesh purpling into bruises as he rolls over and catches sight of a smug Slytherin boy—Wellington, as Harry remembers his name to be—and his agleam Inquisitorial Squad pin.

Harry is hauled to his feet by the boy's rough hands and thrust into Umbridge's satisfied face and instantly scans the halls for sight of a tuft of blond hair, a familiar Slytherin tie, a smirk that is no longer foreign to his eyes as he's seen it up close, but all traces of Draco Malfoy are gone, apparently absent from both Dumbledore's Army and the Inquisitorial Squad for a day. He wonders for a fleeting moment if he's now sporting a spectacular exhibit of mottled pimples on his cheeks thanks to Hermione's jinxed parchment, and remarkably enough, more than anything he wants to see those marks on another's face, a sign, a reassurance that Draco's loyalty hadn't merely been a game to manipulate poor Potter into getting all of his dearest friends expelled. Marietta Edgecombe's face, turned into a billboard for the pimply, blotchy word SNEAK relieves him for a transitory second while he stands, helpless, in Dumbledore's office.

Draco, slippery like all Malfoys tend to be, doesn't approach Harry again, and Harry is reminded once more that even with ephemeral moments of bravery that separated him from his fellow Slytherins, some people, like Draco Malfoy, are simply beyond saving.