Harry stared at the crisp white card on the table. He had the odd desire to reach out and run his fingers along the embossed, gold print, but he refused out of spite.
“Why is there an invitation to Malfoy Manor sitting on my coffee table?” he asked the room at large.
The room did not answer. After several long seconds of tense silence, he fire-called Hermione.
“Why is there an-”
“You have eyes, don’t you?”
Harry glared at her. The effect was somewhat diminished by the crackling flames licking across his face. She gazed passively down at him. Harry could see a familiar white card sitting on the coffee table beside her.
“Yes, I have eyes, but-”
“You can still read?”
“Hermione!” Harry protested, coughing as the logs shifted and a large cloud of smoke hit him in the face. “Of course I can read the bloody invitation - you’re missing the point!”
“No, Harry, you’re missing the point.” She narrowed her eyes at him. He noticed, too late, that her arms were folded. “Draco has invited you to his twenty-first birthday party, and you’re going to attend.”
“But, Hermione.” Harry was appalled to detect a note of whinging in his voice, but he pressed on, nonetheless.
Hermione’s voice rose. “If you snub him, Harry James Potter, then the entire wizarding world will begin to snub him, and that’s a cruel thing to do to someone who is genuinely trying to improve, just because you don’t want to go to a party! You worked with him recently and you managed not to kill each other; surely one night isn’t too much to ask.”
Harry’s mouth opened and shut like a fish, but he knew she was right. He had no real reason not to attend Malfoy’s party, and if he didn’t go, then his absence would be noted. Merlin help him, he had reached the age where he had to care when his absence was noted. When had that happened? He had thought that by avoiding the Ministry office and the desk job and everything else that had been laid out in a neat little path for him, he might also have avoided the politics. Sadly, it would seem that Harry Potter could not avoid politics, no matter how hard he tried to disappear.
He mumbled his acquiescence to Hermione and withdrew from the fire. It was only when he had picked up the invitation, turning it over in his hand and fighting the urge to tear it into pieces, that it occurred to him that he wasn’t the only one who was unable to escape the slimy obligations of the political world. He smirked, feeling light again for the first time since he had laid eyes on the damn card; Draco Malfoy, without a doubt, did not want him there either.
Harry rolled his eyes as a silver platter bedecked with Muggle pastries and held aloft by a fully-clothed house elf went hurrying past, toward the stairs, and marvelled anew at how quickly people forget.
The sound of raised voices caught his attention, and he stepped back into the shadow of the doorway behind him, thankful that he had been hovering at the very end of the balcony instead of in the middle near the stairs. Immediately, he realised that he could hear the voices clearer in this room, and he turned around to see that he was in some kind of parlour with French doors that were partially open. The two figures arguing on the other side of the doors had their backs to him, and he was able to quickly walk over and duck into the corner, next to the glass, before they noticed anyone else was there.
“Have you looked out there?”
It was the first time Harry had heard Malfoy’s low drawl tonight, as the guest of honor had been remarkably difficult to locate in the crowd. Harry wondered if he had been hiding up here the whole time.
“Draco,” Narcissa’s voice was a warning.
“I mean, honestly,” Malfoy went on, a note of hysteria creeping into this tone, “have you looked? Even Potter’s out there. It’s the most strategic selection of people I’ve seen since the bloody Dark-”
Narcissa cut him off. “You will not say his name in this house.”
There was a tense silence. When Malfoy next spoke, it sounded as though it was through gritted teeth.
“While I recognise there may be some sense in approaching every social event with the kind of shrewdness one uses when preparing for a war, surely some events are sacred.”
“Not this one,” Narcissa replied, her tone sharp.
There was a rustle of fabric, and Harry imagined she had left the room. After a suitable length of time had passed, Harry crept back toward the doorway and onto the balcony.
The blond figure standing there turned before Harry could duck back into the room, and he was left staring at Malfoy, whose face was contorted in furious realisation.
“Enjoy listening to other people’s conversations, do you?” he spat.
“I prefer it when the people are interesting,” Harry shot back before he could stop himself.
“What are you even doing up here?”
Malfoy’s eyes were cold and unusually clear-sighted considering all the alcohol floating around. He mustn’t be drinking, Harry thought, even at his own birthday party.
“Looking for a bathroom,” Harry said with a shrug.
Malfoy’s expression changed into one of horror. “If you just pissed off the side of the outdoor balcony, Potter, I’ll disembowel you.”
Although he had done no such thing, Harry grinned. The light from the many hundreds of candles suspended in the chandelier flickered across Malfoy’s face, highlighting his scandalised disbelief. His lips parted, and for a moment, he was stunned into silence.
“You actually did, didn’t you? You absolute peasant.” Malfoy’s lip curled. “This is just like the other week, when you couldn’t wait a whole three minutes for the wards to come down, and you pissed in that hydrangea bush.”
Harry rolled his eyes. “We worked together for an entire month at Broadmoor Manor, and I behaved like a saint; trust you to remember that small detail.”
“Small detail?” Malfoy’s eyes flashed. “Sure, act like a common animal, and it’s a small detail; make one, tiny, reasonable suggestion for the work flow, and suddenly I’m a monster.”
“Reasonable suggestion?” Harry’s eyebrows shot up. “You told the Ministry that I was stealing potions from the Alcove! I don’t even work for the Ministry and I nearly faced an enquiry!”
“I did nothing of the sort. I told them that you were spending too much time enjoying the scenery-”
“You said stealing.”
“Enjoying the scenery, stealing the scenery - what’s the difference? You were dragging your arse, Potter, and it’s lucky I was there to kick you into gear.”
Harry scoffed, shoving his hands in his pockets and leaning back on the wall behind him. He bumped a painting and hurried to grab it before it fell. “You’re there to remove curses, Malfoy,” he said patiently, eyeing the painting with suspicion before slowly taking his hand away. “It doesn’t matter how long I take to find all the hidden rooms; you can just go away and come back later.”
Malfoy turned away, muttering something under his breath that sounded an awful lot like “as if I’d leave you to get all the glory”, but Harry decided not to pursue it. He walked forward - a careful distance away from Malfoy - and peered over the edge of the balcony. He should probably rejoin the party-goers.
“Well, it certainly has been pleasant talking to you,” Harry said drily, “but-”
A loud screeching sound suddenly burst from the centre of the room, smashing several windows and sending the guests falling to the floor, cowering in fear and alarm. Harry and Malfoy covered their ears, screwing their faces up at the sound and looking around for the source.
Harry’s eyebrows drew together just as Malfoy sucked in a breath of recognition.
“It’s been a while, boys,” the witch said pleasantly, pushing silver hair out of her eyes. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
Harry had last seen the owner of Broadmoor Manor - the last descendant of the Broadmoor family - more than a month ago when they had begun their project. The Ministry had immediately taken her away for questioning, and Malfoy and Harry had continued their job without seeing her again.
“Oh, not in the slightest,” Malfoy said acidly, brushing pieces of broken glass from his sleeves. “Can I get you anything? Champagne? Nibbles? A kick in the teeth?” He squinted. “You do still have teeth, don’t you?”
The witch laughed. It sounded like the wind howling through an empty castle.
“You left so quickly, boys, I didn’t get a chance to talk to you properly.”
She perched herself on the balustrade, her quick movements belying her wrinkled skin. Harry could see the people below stirring and beginning to hurry up the stairs, but an unseen force stopped them halfway.
“A fast job’s a good job,” Harry said distractedly, watching Ron hurl a chair at the invisible barrier and nearly get hit by the rebound.
The witch’s eyes flashed and her face grew dangerously still. “Is it?”
She stood again and walked toward them. When she passed by Harry, a faint odour of rancid meat wafted his way. Harry wondered if it was the hag blood.
“Is it good when you steal my possessions? Is it good when you tear through wards my family has maintained for centuries?”
She lifted a bony hand and gripped Malfoy’s chin tight between her fingers. Malfoy whimpered, his knees giving in slightly even as he fought to hide it.
“Is it good when you destroy every last shred of my history and leave me to answer to bumbling fools who possess less magic than a newt?”
Harry raised his wand and fired a Stinging Hex at the witch. She pulled her hand back and turned slowly to Harry.
He lowered his wand. “Yes,” he said calmly, “it is good, because your wards were failing, and your possessions were killing people.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Malfoy standing up straight again, seemingly renewed by the evidence that the witch could be hurt.
“And your history, to be perfectly honest,” Malfoy drawled, “was uninspiring. I hope I’m not the first to tell you,” he dropped his voice to a dramatic whisper, “but I don’t think your bloodline is as pure as your daddy told you.”
With a sharp movement, the witch raised her hand, gripping the air, and Malfoy’s arrogant smirk dropped from his face. He began to gasp, his hands clawing at his throat while he fought for breath. The witch twisted her outstretched hand, and Malfoy fell to his knees.
“Your pure blood is no match for my ancient magic,” she whispered.
With a flick of her wrist, she let Malfoy go. He sucked in a coughing, spluttering breath, before slowly rising to his feet. Harry let go of the breath he hadn’t known he was holding, and for several moments, none of them moved.
The witch’s gaze never dropped from Malfoy. “He may simply be doing a job,” she said, jerking her head roughly towards Harry without looking at him, “but you, boy - you have no heart.”
Malfoy laughed, the sound rasping through his bruised vocal chords. “Who needs a heart?” he spat, lifting his chin high into the air. His face had resumed its cold, aristocratic glare. “You’ll only end up like the idiot Golden Boy, here.”
Harry’s brow furrowed, and for a moment, he forgot about the witch. “Because it’s such a prize, to be a goddamn coward like you,” he snarled, eyes flashing.
A terrible stillness fell upon the balcony, and Harry and Malfoy turned as one to see the witch’s eyes grow white and still.
“As you will, so shall it be.”
Her voice was horribly light, like a young child’s, and Harry cringed to hear it emerging from the hag’s wrinkled mouth.
“Two to lose, and two to see.
We cherish what we recognize,
And value not what we despise.
But shades of grey are lined with silver,
And worth will hide ‘neath scornful fervour.
As distance grows, shall too your fate.
Learn fast, lest wisdom come too late.”
And then, with a final, hideous peal of laughter, she was gone.
Harry and Malfoy stared at the empty space for several seconds before they burst into argument.
“How dare you let her curse us, Potter, I swear-”
“I should never have come to your fucking party-”
“Oh, so it’s my fault for having a party?” Malfoy threw a mock bow. “So terribly sorry to inconvenience you, your fucking highness. I wasn’t aware us mere mortals weren’t allowed to have birthday parties-”
“Oh, shut up, Malfoy, you melodramatic twat. What did she curse us with? Something about beware of distance?”
Malfoy rolled his eyes. “You know what? I think I’ll happily bear whatever agony she inflicts on us if I know it’s also inflicted on you, and it means I don’t have to look at your horrible face for one moment longer.”
Before Harry could stop him, he Apparated away. Harry tensed in anticipation, but nothing happened.
“I guess it was just a threat,” he muttered to himself, looking over to see that the barrier had disappeared, and Hermione and Ron had reached the top of the stairs.
He lifted a hand to wave, but suddenly cried out as an excruciating pain burst through his chest. He clutched at his shirt, falling to his knees and sobbing as wave after wave of pain split through his body. It felt like something deep inside his chest was tearing its way out. He could hear Ron and Hermione grabbing at him, shaking him and yelling, but they sounded as though they were miles away. All he could hear was a ringing in his head.
“Get Malfoy,” he tried to say, but his mouth couldn’t form the words, and he was falling over.
Movement caught his eye, and he looked down to see black ink spreading along his forearm, the terrifyingly familiar shape of snake and skull etching itself onto his skin. The last thing he saw before it all went blank was Malfoy’s terrified face Apparating into view, and a pulsating, bloody heart held in his shaking hands.
The voice sounded very far away. The dull echo of pain throbbed in his chest, but it was more a memory than anything else.
“Harry! Wake up! What happened?”
“Potter, it was only a vision. Wake up!” Malfoy’s voice was shaky, his aristocratic tones wavering and bordering on panic.
Slowly, Harry opened his eyes to the concerned faces of Ron, Hermione, and - of all people - Malfoy. The memory of what had just happened hit him at the sight of Malfoy’s green-tinged cheeks, and he looked down at his own chest in horror, pulling at his clothing with fingers that shook and caught in the folds.
Strong hands gripped him and hauled him upright. Strong, pale hands. “It was a vision,” Malfoy repeated, his words drowning out Hermione and Ron’s demands for answers. “It’s over now. You’re okay.”
Harry’s eyes met his, and the meaning of his words finally sunk in. “A vision?” he repeated.
Malfoy nodded. Now that Harry was coherent, Malfoy seemed to suddenly realise what he was doing, and let go of Harry quickly, pushing away so that there was distance between them again. His lips resumed their usual sneer, and his cheeks looked a little less green.
“A vision to impress upon us the truth of the curse,” he said bitterly.
“What curse?” Hermione demanded.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Ron rested his hand on Harry’s knee, looking up at him with serious, concerned eyes. “Let’s find somewhere quieter, and I’ll make us some tea.”
Harry smiled, grateful. “Yeah, okay.” He stood up, brushing down his clothing.
“I’ll Apparate us back to the Burrow,” Ron said, grabbing hold of Harry’s arm.
“No!” Harry and Malfoy screamed in unison.
Ron and Hermione jumped, their eyes widening, before Ron held up his hands in acquiescence. “Alright, it’s okay. Just… Malfoy, can we go somewhere quieter?”
Ten minutes later, Harry was holding a steaming mug of tea, courtesy of Ron, which contained what Harry suspected to be an entire jar of sugar, and staring around the room at three anxious faces. Malfoy was clutching his own mug of tea and leaning against the back of the room, his face blank as he looked down at the steaming liquid.
“You have been cursed,” Narcissa repeated, looking between the two of them for confirmation. The careful enunciation of her words - so polite and refined - did nothing to mask the horror Harry could hear in her voice.
“Yes,” Malfoy spat. “And the witch is part hag.”
Narcissa’s lips pursed into a thin line.
“What were the exact words of the curse?” Hermione interrupted. “Maybe we can find the counter-curse.”
“There is no counter-curse!” Malfoy set his cup down on the corner table so violently it nearly shattered. He folded his arms and leaned back against the wall again. “It’s hag magic. You see it through to the end, for better or worse.”
Hermione looked like she was about to argue, but Ron nudged her, and she fell silent. Harry watched Ron as he studied Malfoy and Narcissa in turn, chewing on his lip in the same way he did in chess when he was contemplating a new strategy. Of the three of them, Ron was the most familiar with the ancient magic, and his bleak expression wasn’t making Harry’s confidence soar.
“And what is the end?” Ron asked finally.
Malfoy stared at him for long seconds before sighing and moving over to join them on the seats in front of the fire. He sat down heavily on a patterned armchair, running a hand wearily across his face.
“As you will, so shall it be.” Malfoy said, his tone flat. “Two to lose, and two to see. We cherish what we recognize, and value not what we despise. But shades of grey are lined with silver, and worth will hide ‘neath scornful fervour. As distance grows, shall too your fate. Learn fast, lest wisdom come too late.”
“Alright,” Ron said slowly, “so it has something to do with what one of you said. Don’t you know to watch what you say in front of a hag? And the rest sounds like a lesson curse.”
Hermione and Harry turned to Ron in surprise. He gazed back steadily.
“Did you know this?” Harry asked Hermione.
“Well I don’t know everything,” Hermione mumbled fiercely, cheeks flushing.
“Weasley’s correct,” Malfoy drawled. “We’ll both lose something, unless we learn what she wants us to before it’s too late. It’s a lesson curse.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Harry offered.
Malfoy barked a laugh, the harsh sound at odds with the refined decor of the room. “If you’re going to be an idiot, at least keep it to yourself.” He glared at Harry. “A hag’s lesson is incomprehensible at best, and you know exactly what it is that you’ll lose if we don’t keep to the terms of the curse.”
Harry swallowed, feeling his stomach churn at the memory of Malfoy’s hand gripped around his still beating heart.
“I think one of you had better start from the beginning.” Narcissa’s quiet voice interrupted.
The two boys stared at each other for long moments before finally Malfoy took a deep breath and recounted the conversation with the witch from start to finish, including the vision. Hermione and Ron’s faces were very white by the end, and even Narcissa’s marble exterior seemed newly fragile.
Hermione visibly drew herself together and spoke. “So you’ll lose your heart, Harry, but what will Malfoy lose?”
Malfoy looked at Harry, his eyebrows drawn together. Harry hadn’t told him about the black ink that had pooled slowly on his arm, and the distraction of the bloody heart meant that it was unlikely Malfoy had noticed it at all.
“It’s not clear,” Malfoy said slowly.
Harry interrupted him. “Your Dark Mark. It inked itself onto my arm just before I passed out.”
There was silence.
“Not to point out the obvious,” Ron said weakly. “But that seems a little one-sided.”
Harry jumped as something smashed onto the floor near him. He looked up to see Malfoy running his hand furiously through his hair and staring at the pieces of the shattered vase he had just knocked off the table.
“This is why hag magic is so dangerous,” Malfoy hissed through gritted teeth. “Because it doesn’t fucking make sense.” He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “We’re both meant to lose something of value; that’s the way these things go,” he continued, his eyes still closed. He gave a humorless laugh. “What could possibly be bad about losing the Mark?”
“She accused you of having no heart,” Harry said quietly. “Losing the Dark Mark is probably just symbolic. It ties in if you think about it - it’s like the opposite of empathy and self-sacrifice. You gain a heart, and you lose the Mark. Maybe we have to teach you to care about others.”
Malfoy’s eyes snapped open, and Harry was sure he had never seen them look so cold.
“Saint Potter’s School of Sainthood, you think?” he said acidly. “Fuck off. I’m fine the way I am.”
It was testament to the seriousness of the situation that nobody snickered.
“There is no point discussing how to end the curse tonight,” Narcissa said, coolly authoritative. “Though I would encourage you to broaden your minds and think a little beyond your childlike perceptions of good and evil.”
She turned to Harry, and he felt oddly chastised.
“And I assure you,” her eyes bore into Harry’s, though he had the strangest feeling her words were meant more for her son than for him, “before this curse is through, it will rob you both of that which is most precious to you - that which is integral to who you are - unless you can open your minds to what the curse seeks to teach you.” She looked away sharply, and Harry felt like he could suddenly breathe again. “That is the nature of hag magic. We will reconvene in the morning. I will thank the guests for coming and say you have taken ill.” She stood up and smoothed down her robes. “Sinka will make up two beds in the East Wing guest room. Until we know the exact distance the two of you can hold between you, I think it wise to remain in the same room at all times.”
Harry gaped at her; across the room he could see Malfoy doing the same. Before he could form the words to complain, all his protests faded away - she was right.
Hermione and Ron stood awkwardly. “We’ll come back tomorrow,” Hermione said, crossing the room and giving him a hug.
Narcissa waited by the door while Ron clapped Harry on the back and pulled him into an awkward one-armed hug.
And then they were alone.
“Lead the way,” Harry said.
Malfoy turned wordlessly, and Harry followed as he led him through the maze of corridors that was the Manor’s upper floor, and into a room that was presumably the East Wing guest room.
“Bathroom’s through here,” he said, walking through an adjoining door and slamming it in Harry’s face. “I’m first.”
Harry rolled his eyes and moved to sit down on the closest bed when the door suddenly whipped open again. Malfoy stood in the doorway, looking stricken.
“Did you-” he began, looking at Harry’s chest.
Harry’s stomach flipped. What if Malfoy hadn’t realised? He raised a hand to his chest and tried to slow his breathing.
“No,” he said finally. “I didn’t feel anything. I think it’s safe to use the bathroom.”
Malfoy stared at him a moment more, and Harry wordlessly stood and moved closer to the door. Malfoy closed it, but was out again, wearing black, satin pajamas, in record time.
Harry found himself moving doubly fast as well, even though he was sure this distance was fine. When he emerged, Malfoy was hovering in the middle of the room, staring at the bathroom door like it might explode. When he saw Harry, he grunted and turned away, climbing into the nearest bed.
Harry moved around him and lay down in the other. The room was eerily quiet, the sounds of the dwindling party too far away to be heard through the stone walls.
“Night, Malfoy,” he said into the silence.
There was a long pause before Malfoy finally spoke. “Night, Potter.” Another pause. “Don’t Apparate in your sleep.”
Harry closed his eyes, screwing his face up tight and willing sleep to come. Oddly enough, it wasn’t easy.
What could the curse possibly want from them? Despite what Narcissa said - that the curse would rob them both of something equally precious - it was clear that he had gotten the raw end of the deal. Malfoy had said it himself - what was bad about losing the Mark?
Harry sighed and tried to ignore the unfamiliar light that dappled through the curtains, distracting him even though his eyes were closed. He’d been a fool to think he could finally catch a break. Three short years of peace, and now this: cursed by a malicious witch with a chip on her shoulder. And without even meaning to, she had picked the worst possible terms for the curse.
His eyes snapped open to stare at the ceiling, and he was no longer able to ignore the truth that had been spinning around in his head, screaming for acknowledgment ever since the vision had revealed the conditions of his imprisonment.
He was bound to Draco Malfoy.
Malfoy stood by the car, watching as Harry traipsed back and forth between the front step of his house and the boot of the car, carrying boxes and bags and packing them neatly into the boot and back seats. He folded his arms and looked behind him, inspecting the car for signs of dirt or grime, before leaning back gingerly against the front passenger door.
Harry paused in his loading of the car to give Malfoy a withering look, but said nothing.
“I’m only saying this for the good of your health,” Malfoy continued, eying the rolled up, tattered sleeping bag Harry had just thrown in the back seat. He gave a small shudder. “Since we’re trying to find a solution to this curse before it kills you, the least you could do is put your job on pause for a few weeks.”
“You’re not putting your job on pause.” Harry placed a wooden box carefully into the back seat and wedged it between two pillows. Its contents rattled.
“I’m a Curse Breaker,” Malfoy said with a roll of his eyes. “And we’re trying to break a curse. Surely even you can see that it’s helpful for me to continue clearing the curses from the witch’s possessions while we try to figure out exactly what she’s cursed us with. I might find a clue, and anyway- Potter, will you fucking look at me?”
Harry dropped the last bag onto the ground with a heavy thud and turned to glare at Malfoy. “What do you want me to do?” he snapped. “You get to keep doing your job, so I get to keep doing mine.”
“What do I want you to do?” Malfoy repeated incredulously. “How about not drag me hundreds of kilometres across the goddamn countryside? You might find enjoyment in this strange fucking career of yours, but I certainly don’t. You’re making me leave my office, my home, my family-” he trailed off, his face tight with emotion.
Harry took a deep breath. For the last two days they had tried to locate the witch and find an answer to the curse, but with no luck. They had managed to work out that they could stretch their proximity to ten yards before Harry’s chest started to hurt, which at least allowed them some space, but being in such close quarters with Malfoy had nearly killed both of them, and Harry had finally reached a point where he couldn’t take it any longer.
“Malfoy,” he said slowly, pinching the bridge of his nose, “if I stay close to you, I’m going to kill you. If I leave you, it’s going to kill me. The only compromise we can reach that might save both of us is if I at least don’t have to deal with anyone else. It’s why I took this strange fucking career of mine in the first place. Can we please just get on with it?”
Malfoy stared at him, a strange look on his face. “You don’t like being around people?” he asked finally.
Harry grunted. “Force of habit,” he muttered, turning his back on Malfoy’s puzzled expression and throwing the last bag into the car. “Are you ready?”
The wind gusted over the top of the car, sending the fashionable tails of Malfoy’s tailored robes billowing. He studied Harry for a beat longer before finally rolling his eyes and getting into the car.
Harry slowly let out his breath and counted to ten before joining him.
The thing gave a particularly loud rattle, and Malfoy clenched his teeth so hard that Harry could hear them crunch. His fingers clenched tighter around his book, but neither of them said anything. Harry stared straight ahead at the road, watching the bitumen disappear beneath the car as the bushes by the road slowly gave way to taller trees. They had well and truly left London behind now, and even though the freeway was busy, Harry could already feel the grit of the city fading.
A dip in the road appeared on the horizon - a pothole. Harry smirked and swerved towards it. The car bounced and the thing crashed into something metal and echoic while Malfoy swore loudly and slammed his book down on the dash.
“Will you do something about that incessant cacophony?” he burst out, turning to Harry and glaring at him.
“Like what?” Harry asked mildly, secretly hoping Malfoy would know a housekeeping spell that would tidy everything. Harry had never been very good at those.
“Like pull the car over and Apparate like a normal wizard.”
Harry shook his head. “Driving is better.”
He waved his hand, casting a wandless Cushioning Charm on their luggage. The rattling stopped.
“I can’t honestly believe you think that.” Malfoy’s tone was dripping with disgust. “You’ve decided to drive just to spite me. Not only that, but we were staying at Wiltshire quite happily, and then we had to Apparate back to London to pick up your car, and then drive all the way to bloody Bath. Don’t think I didn’t notice your stupid itinerary, Potter. We were right next door.”
“Believe it or not, not everything I do is to spite you.”
“What possible reason could you have for driving two hours when you could be there in seconds?”
“Because it takes two hours.”
Harry ran his thumbs across the steering wheel, enjoying the feel of the smooth leather beneath his skin. He could feel Malfoy staring at him, waiting for an explanation. He was vaguely surprised that Malfoy cared enough to want one, instead of just retreating to his book and seething over Harry’s little idiosyncrasies.
“If I get there instantly,” Harry began, clicking on the indicator and overtaking an Aston, “then I have to start instantly. If I start instantly, then I finish quickly, and I can move onto the next job. Which I also get to instantly. I can fit more jobs into a week, a day.” He lifted his right hand off the steering wheel and began to click his fingers in quick succession. “Job after job after job after job. It’s insane. The wizard work ethic is insane. You’re so intent on making things quicker and easier that you forget to stop and enjoy what’s in front of you.”
“We,” Malfoy corrected, staring at Harry like he had transformed into the Queen.
“We’re so intent. You’re a wizard as well.”
Harry shrugged. Malfoy continued to watch him.
“Normally, people just limit the number of jobs they take on per day,” Malfoy said finally. “It’s called a balanced work practice. They don’t feel the need to regress to cavemen methods of transportation just to gain a little breathing space.”
Harry smiled, his eyes flicking up to a flock of birds circling a tree. “Then you’re scheduling in your down time. Forgive me if I don’t want a schedule at all.”
The car was perfectly silent now, the Cushioning Charm gently cradling their luggage and even the subtle squeaks of their seats. The road roared softly beneath them, and dark clouds began to sweep across the horizon.
“What do people say when you tell them why you travel like this?”
Harry glanced at Malfoy. He was staring ahead, his elbow crooked on the window and his head leaning on his palm. Over the last few minutes, the acerbic cynicism had gradually given way to genuine curiosity, and he seemed to have abandoned his book.
“Well,” he said, grinning suddenly. “It’s essential, you see? My equipment simply doesn’t stay in tune if I Apparate or Portkey. Such a shame.”
Malfoy’s head turned just enough so that he could watch Harry out of the corner of his eye. A small smirk tugged on his lips, but it didn’t have the same arrogance it usually did. “Why, Potter,” he said, “how very Slytherin of you.”
Harry’s stomach gave an odd jump at the comment. It was said so casually, almost like they were friends, and coming from Malfoy, it was undeniably a compliment, even if it was over something unimportant. It made Harry feel strange.
The conversation lapsed into silence, and it wasn’t long before the rain began to pelt down, long streaks sliding across the windows. Malfoy fell asleep, his head propped up against the glass and his arms folded in across himself.
The bushes gave way to fields, and then to spindly trees lining the narrow road, and it wasn’t long before they were pulling into the inn Harry had chosen. Malfoy woke up as the car began to slow, gravel crunching beneath the tyres as they came to a stop. He blinked slowly, as if he had forgotten where he was, and then the familiar, cold mask slid back into place, and he turned to Harry with a sneer.
“Is this place Wizarding or Muggle?” he asked.
Harry rolled his eyes. “It’s Muggle. I thought it would be really fun to explain all the levitating equipment in my trunk.”
Malfoy huffed in response, opened the door, and climbed out, stretching.
It was a nice inn. The drive was lined with neat bushes, and the stonework was well-kept. The house that Harry was mapping wasn’t far, and he hoped that it took a couple of days at least. He had stayed here before - it was comfortable and relaxing, and he was far enough away that people didn’t try to tie him down for social engagements in between work.
The serene voice of Esmeralda, the inn’s hostess, came floating over from the stairs. Harry looked up with a smile, taking in the sight of the graceful woman in her tailored jacket and fashionably striped dress. He felt Malfoy stiffen beside him as he noticed her obviously Muggle attire, but even Harry knew that she was so immaculately styled Malfoy wouldn’t be able to find fault with it.
“Welcome to the Sunset Dream,” she said with a genuine smile, waving her hand so that the more robust pieces of Harry’s luggage floated out of the car and stacked themselves neatly in the air beside him. “I’m so pleased to see you back here. Am I correct in guessing that you’ll want to transport the remaining items by hand?”
“Thanks, Esmeralda,” Harry felt himself relaxing as the witch took over the check-in process with her calm, efficient manner. “I’m glad to be back. Yeah, I’ll take the rest up myself, thanks. Same as last time. These ones are a bit delicate.”
“And this is Mr. Malfoy?” Esmeralda asked once the luggage had floated itself up to the second floor and through the window. She reached forward gracefully, and they shook hands. “It’s a pleasure.”
“Likewise,” Malfoy said, looking up at the building. “You keep a lovely inn, Miss-” he paused.
Esmeralda smirked. “Don’t make me do the ‘Ms Loveridge is my mother’ line,” she said drily. “Esmeralda is fine.”
Malfoy blinked in surprise. Harry found himself watching the exchange with a frown; he hadn’t expected to see Malfoy so polite, particularly since he clearly didn’t want to be here. But then, social situations were the man’s forte.
Esmeralda showed them the reception and dining room, largely for Malfoy’s benefit as it wasn’t all that long ago Harry was here, and left them at their room.
“So where are you dragging me to now?” Malfoy asked with a sneer.
Whatever strangely companionable mood had seemed to fall between them in the car had clearly passed.
He hoisted his trunk next to the only desk and enlarged it so that he could begin to rummage carefully around for whichever cursed item he was working on at the moment. “And will there be space for me to keep working?” He held up a hand, pausing in his search. “Let me rephrase that - I will need space to work.”
Harry rolled his eyes and dropped down onto the bed, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. “Don’t rush - we’re not leaving now. I don’t start until night time. We can transfigure you a bed in the room, and you can go to sleep.”
Malfoy raised his eyebrow, but said nothing. Over the last couple of days, Harry had - against his will - begun to learn some of Malfoy’s ticks. And he had to begrudgingly admit that Malfoy was at least trying not to let the animosity between them reach unmanageable levels. Harry could now tell when he was approaching the limit of what he could handle - his jaw gave a little twitch, and he became uncharacteristically silent. It would appear that neither of them wanted to risk the other Apparating away in a moment of forgetful anger.
Malfoy turned away, beginning anew the process of disassembling the cuckoo clock he had been working on for the past three days. Harry closed his eyes, listening as the sound of the rain outside began to change from steady drops to a more insistent roar, clattering onto the tiles above.
He never started a job in the daytime. There were lots of different ways to map a room that didn’t exist in the visible, tangible plane of existence, and most of those methods traced their origins back to the time of seafaring and adventure. New methods simply didn’t work; the magic that concealed the room interfered with compass readings and location charms, and tools that relied on sight were useless, for obvious reasons, unless one only wanted to map the area within the hidden space.
That left the most ancient and reliable method of orientation: the stars. Harry always began his mapping at night, so that he could work on a solid foundation. After that, it was a matter of slowly calculating, cross-referencing, and then finally building an image of the internal workings of the Hidden Alcove.
This internal map was still important, but not essential when compared with charting the location of the hidden space as it overlayed the everyday world. Concealment charms and wards decayed over time, unless renewed, and when long-forgotten spells disintegrated, exposing secret dungeons and spaces that were even more fickle in their movement than the Room of Requirement, there was nothing to prevent innocent people from becoming trapped where no one in living memory would think to look.
In the United Kingdom alone, there existed centuries’ worth of hidden space stacked on top of each other, with no overarching Ministry regulation to record its existence or the spells involved in its creation, and the resulting effect was something of a minefield.
This sort of minefield was one that the Ministry was only too happy to ignore, because unearthing the various and varied magic that was keeping many old, wizarding manor houses standing - often unbeknownst to the current generation residing there - meant months and months of paperwork determining what was legal then but illegal now, and what really should have been illegal then but had slipped through as a loophole, and what they really wanted to be illegal, but no one had ever bloody thought of.
It meant conversations like, “I know it hasn’t been relevant for two centuries, but one’s just popped up in Oxford, so do you think we could tweak amendment thirty three to make sure portcullis doors aren’t allowed to have poison-dipped spikes, or do we really have to approve this updated housing plan? Because I’m positive that door is going to kill someone.”
Which meant arguments like, “Acromantula poison has been dripping into my sewers for decades and naturally fertilising my garden, and how dare you demand I destroy my portcullis on my own property when ain’t no one going down there but me, and I’ll have you know it’s been in the family for generations.”
Which meant the Ministry had put out a call to outsource the entire thing, rather than deal with it themselves.
So, when Harry had looked around the Auror Training Room one morning and come to the sudden realisation that he hated every fucking detail of the Ministry, right down to the shiny boots of his Captain, he had been only too happy to seize the opportunity to become the only wizard cartographer in Great Britain, and take on the entire project.
And what the Ministry didn’t know didn’t hurt them; Harry only reported the strictly illegal properties, and let the grey ones pass, with their area mapped and locatable and, more importantly, wardable. So long as it wasn’t directly endangering anyone, it didn’t concern him, and he had developed something of a fondness for mildly dangerous non-sentient things, after so many years spent alongside such things as the Whomping Willow and the Hogwarts stairs.
What had threatened to become a bureaucratic nightmare for the Ministry miraculously dissolved overnight, becoming nothing more than a set of neat housing plans that appeared monthly on someone’s desk, ready for stamping and filing.
In return, Harry was able to spend days at a time where he didn’t have to speak to a single soul, where no one asked anything of him, or demanded that he be someone he wasn’t. No one followed him or took pictures of him or saw him as anyone but the solitary cartographer who needed to concentrate, but who enjoyed a good cup of tea and a long chat once the work was done.
He got to meet wonderful people, but he was never hounded by them, never overwhelmed by them, and could make his own pace instead of being caught up in the eddies and whirls of someone else’s plans.
Harry soon fell asleep to the sound of Malfoy quietly working away, and woke to a soft knocking on the door.
“Room service,” a disembodied, high-pitched voice called, and a heavily-laden tray materialised on the cabinet in the corner of the room.
Malfoy stared at it with narrowed eyes. “Do they think if we can’t see the house elves we can’t complain about their ill treatment?” His voice was thick with cynicism.
Harry snorted. “Like you care.” He climbed off the bed, shaking his head to clear the sleep away, and reached for a sandwich.
Malfoy looked affronted. “Why would you assume I wouldn’t? Have you not seen the elves at the Manor?”
Harry took in the slight tinge of pink on Malfoy’s cheeks, the small frown on his forehead, and the flash of anger in his grey eyes - he was serious.
“I-” he began, blinking stupidly. “I assumed they were for show.”
Malfoy made a noise of exasperation. “You and my mother should get together some time,” he muttered, snatching a sandwich off the plate and chewing it furiously.
Harry took another sandwich and said nothing. Was Malfoy really trying to claim a moral high ground? After a tense silence and much consideration, he said, “You are a dickhead, though. Why would you care?”
Malfoy paused, his sandwich held halfway towards his mouth, which was currently open in an expression of incredulous anger. “I’m a dickhead,” he deadpanned. “An eloquent summation. Pray tell, how am I a dickhead?”
A small piece of lettuce sailed across the room as Harry gesticulated dramatically to encompass all of Malfoy’s person. “You know,” he said, shoving the rest of the sandwich in his mouth and talking around the mouthful. “You’re you. You think you’re better than everyone else, and you kick people when they’re down, and you manipulate people into doing stupid things and then laugh when they get into trouble. Why would you care about house elf welfare?”
It was fascinating, seeing someone’s nostrils flare so widely in quick succession. After several short breaths, Malfoy finally spoke through gritted teeth. “I think I’m better than everyone, as opposed to you, who is so short-sighted that you genuinely think people are fundamentally good and harmless without even bothering to make a closer assessment? And if you’re referring to the sort of things I did to you at school, you might want to examine a little more closely the satisfaction you and your friends would have had, had those same things happened to me. Just because I’m honest with my own emotions, doesn’t change the fact you’re as vindictive as I am.” He threw down his sandwich, his eyes flashing. “And none of those things have anything to do with my moral compass.”
Harry stared pointedly at Malfoy’s left arm. “No,” he said, his mouth twisting in anger at Malfoy’s refusal to concede the obvious. “But that does.”
The room was so quiet that for several long minutes all that could be heard was the sound of harsh, ragged breathing. Harry didn’t know who the sound was coming from, but judging from the expression of fury in Malfoy’s eyes, and knowing it was reflected in his own, it was probably both of them.
“Fuck you, Potter.” Malfoy’s voice was low and dark, all emotion gone.
“Back at you,” Harry said sharply, looking away before either of them could take this too far, and knowing undeniably that he already had.
The rest of the day passed in horrible silence, and by the time night had rolled around, Harry was wondering if it wouldn’t be better if he just skipped day one altogether. But he was itching to get back to his work, and hopefully Malfoy would just go to sleep without causing any trouble. Besides, they were just as likely to get into an argument here as they were anywhere else, even if they were meant to both be asleep.
Harry sighed and stood up. Malfoy followed, packing up his equipment with an efficient flick of his wand and tucking the resulting small box under his arm.
Together they left the hotel, each grabbing an umbrella from the stack by the door and walking out into the rain. Shadows raced across the fence-line from passing cars, creating a strange sense of urgency in contrast to the quiet night.
Malfoy stiffened in apprehension every time a car swerved near a puddle, and Harry snickered silently as he cast a light shield between himself and the road. After a moment, Malfoy copied him. It made Harry wonder how often Malfoy ever visited Muggle areas, that he wouldn’t even think to cast a shield if the water bothered him that much.
The lamp lights flicked on one by one, eclipsing the glow of the stars, and after three blocks they reached the house. It was a small townhouse - nothing much to look at, and very similar to Grimmauld Place. Owned by the Atkinsons, they had inherited it as a small benefaction through their distant relation to the Crouchs several centuries ago, when it had gone from being less valuable to the Crouchs as a fourth summer town house than as a political gift. Several months ago, the youngest Atkinson, Coda, had reported seeing a strange light flickering behind the cracks in his walls. When they had tried to remove a section of the wall to discover the source, they had been repelled by vicious magic that sent screams echoing around the house and resulted in several unexplainable bleeding wounds and many sleepless nights for the family until someone had finally suggested they contact Harry.
It was probably quite valuable that Malfoy was with him, in the end, since the report indicated there were most likely a number of curses on the Alcove as well as the wards, and a Curse Breaker would then have needed to be called in anyway.
They climbed the steps, and Harry knocked on the door. He had warned Mathilda Atkinson - Coda’s mother - that he would be coming in the evening, and that she needn’t wait up for him if she was happy to loan him a key, but she had insisted on being there to greet him.
The door opened to a frizzy-haired young woman who was frantically motioning behind her to someone out of sight. “It’s on top of the drying rack!” she yelled, before turning back to Harry with a harassed sort of smile. “Sorry, Harry - can I call you Harry? Sorry, Coda just spilled his hot chocolate everywhere and we couldn’t find a towel. Come in. Sorry about the mess.”
Harry couldn’t help but smile, reminded of a younger Mrs Weasley. “Don’t worry about it. You’re Mathilda?”
Mathilda raised a hand to her chest with a gasp as she stepped back to let the two of them through. “Gosh, I didn’t even say, did I? Yes, I’m Mathilda.”
They followed her down the hall as she called out brisk instructions to someone who remained, for the moment, unseen, telling them where to find the stain remover and how long Coda’s new hot chocolate would need to be heated for. It was strange, walking into a client’s house for the first time with someone by his side. He could see Malfoy looking around, his eyes wandering to the family photographs on the walls and the torn pieces of wallpaper that were falling away in strips. It made Harry tense and annoyed for reasons he couldn’t explain, even though Malfoy wasn’t saying a word, and his face was set in the usual calm mask he reserved for the public.
A high-pitched cry echoed down the long hallway, and suddenly the space opened up into a dual kitchen and living room, where a small child was wailing hysterically at the sight of a broken mug on the ground.
“Honey, you’ve got to get out of the way or I can’t clean it.” A woman who looked very similar to Mathilda was hovering over the child, trying to coax him away from the mess.
“I broke it!”
“And I can fix it if you just stop crouching over it.”
“I broke it, I broke it, I broke it!”
Mathilda threw her head back and mouthed something unintelligible at the ceiling before waving her wand. A silver hawk burst into existence and glided over to Coda, captivating his attention for just long enough that the other woman could quickly duck in front of Coda and clean up the mess with a few short flicks of her wand.
“Jeremy’s away at the moment,” Mathilda said, as if this explained everything, “so Anna’s helping look after Coda while we’re all still a little-” she pulled a face, “unsettled.”
Harry nodded, recognising the genuine fear behind the facetious explanation. Living with unknown curses wasn’t pleasant, no matter how easy they were to avoid. And with a young child like Coda, Harry imagined it wasn’t easy to stop him from investigating unusual lights and sounds whenever their backs were turned.
“That’s what we’re here for,” he said lightly. “If you can show us to the entrance, we can make a start. We’ll let ourselves out at the end - it will take most of the night, so I don’t want to keep you up.”
Mathilda waved her hand. “I’ll be up and down anyway. Haven’t been able to sleep a full night since we found the rotten thing. It’s just up the stairs if you want to get started.” She suddenly seemed to notice Malfoy. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”
Malfoy smiled - Harry was surprised to notice how genuine and warm it appeared. “Draco,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Mathilda gave a flustered smile, not seeming to know how to respond to such aristocratic manners, although there was a flicker of recognition at the name. She beckoned as she led the way back to the hallway stairs, and together they climbed up to the third level.
After Mathilda had shown them where the entrance was and left them to it, Harry began setting up wards and silencing charms so that they could work in peace without disturbing the rest of the family. The only place they had seen the lights was the wall in Coda’s room, so Coda was now sleeping in Mathilda and Jeremy’s bed until the issue was resolved. Why they hadn’t just left and rented a hotel, Harry wasn’t sure, but the worn state of the furnishings and Mathilda’s clothing was giving him a fair idea.
Malfoy perched on the edge of the bed and studied the crack in the wall. “You think there’s a door behind there?” he asked.
“Looks like it,” Harry grunted, casting the final spell and sealing them in the room. “Let’s find out.” He turned back and cast three spells in quick succession.
The wall glowed blue, but nothing else happened. Then a low rumble began to fill the space, followed by a wailing that grew so intense both men had to cover their ears. Just as suddenly, it died down.
“Your nose is bleeding,” Malfoy said when they could talk again.
Harry wiped his face with his sleeve and glared at the door. “Guess it’s a good thing you’re here,” he muttered. “What sort of curse do you think it is?”
Malfoy stood up and leaned forward to inspect the wall up close. “It’s not doing any serious damage,” he said, his voice vague and distracted. “So I’d guess it’s something from the Monitum branch.” He tapped on the plaster, watching it crumble away. The light behind it shone brighter. “Susceptible to physical damage,” he murmured.
The shadows in the room flickered, growing and shrinking as Malfoy cast flames against the wall for no reason Harry could determine other than to see what happened. After several more experiments with water, blood, and a strange wind that was searing hot to touch but left ice in its wake, Malfoy gave a satisfied nod and stepped back.
“Watch out.” He waved his wand and the wall lit up with a bright white light as the floor shook in protest.
Harry smiled as a wooden door appeared in front of them. “Nice work,” he said unthinkingly, pleased that the first step had gone so smoothly.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Malfoy turn to look at him sharply, but he was too distracted by the door to pay attention. After a few careful taps with his wand, he determined that the curse had been tied up with the ward on the door, and both had been dissolved with Malfoy’s spell. Holding out his wand, he pushed open the door with his foot.
A strangled gasp sounded behind him, and even Harry was astonished enough that he felt his jaw growing slack.
“Well now it makes more sense why the Crouchs had a holiday house in the middle of Bath,” Malfoy said drily, stepping through the doorway after Harry. “I wonder why they ever gave it up.”
Harry looked around at the private beach hidden inside the dingy old townhouse. “I suspect the knowledge that the new owners would never be able to enjoy it helped soften the blow,” he said faintly, holding his hair down with one hand as the warm breeze tossed it about.
He set his suitcase down on the sand and enlarged it while Malfoy strolled down toward the water. The lid of the trunk popped open to reveal a small brass bowl. As Harry lifted it out and placed it on the sand in front of him, tiny pinpricks of light began to glow through the metal. If you looked closely, and you had a good understanding of Astronomy, you would be able to see how they mirrored the sky above.
In the distance, he could see Malfoy had taken off his shoes and was walking in the shallows up the shore, head bowed in thought. That took care of any distractions, so Harry lay down in the sand next to the bowl, folding his arms behind his head and gazing up at the sky. The fact that he could see the stars at all told him this beach was nowhere near Bath. There was no smog for the light to filter through, only clear, bright starlight shining down on the silent beach.
He lifted one hand and lazily twisted it in the air. A piece of parchment unfolded itself from his trunk and hovered above the bowl. He swept his hand in an arc, covering all points of the horizon he could see without moving his head. One by one, some of the constellations in the bowl began to glow brighter, shining tiny dots onto the parchment that etched themselves into place with a soft curl of smoke.
Closing his eyes, he reached out slowly with his magic until he had filled the entire Alcove, and waited. He felt a shiver to his right, near the doorway, and with another flick of his wrist he sent the bowl floating over with a new piece of parchment above it.
Soft footsteps in the sand distracted him, making him remember that he wasn’t alone. He turned to see Malfoy sitting down at a careful distance, his eyes bright in the moonlight.
“What did you do?” he asked softly.
Harry frowned, confused.
“I can feel you. You’re everywhere in here.”
Harry stared at him, caught by the open surprise on Malfoy’s face, unable to look away for fear that when he looked back, the cold mask would have returned. He didn’t know what it meant that he suddenly couldn’t bear to see that.
Malfoy cleared his throat and looked away, and the moment was gone.
“It’s a temperature spell,” Harry said quietly, recalling the bowl and parchment with another twist of his wrist. “Amongst other things. The scent, the density, the warmth of the air tells me where it changes. Some Alcoves span several geographical locations. This one only crosses two.”
He hovered both pieces of parchment in front of him and began to make quick sketches onto a third. It looked like nothing more than a series of rapidly interlacing triangles, but coupled with the star chart, it told Harry exactly where this place began and where it ended.
He held up the resulting outline to Malfoy with a grin. “Only the first metre inside the doorway is in Bath. The rest of this place belongs in rural Australia.”
Malfoy’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know they had palm trees,” he murmured, looking around with poorly disguised wonder.
Harry finished sketching the outline, tweaking sections until he was happy that he had all the lines just right. By the time he had finished, Malfoy was stretched out beside him in the sand, eyes dark as they scanned the sky with the constellations mirrored in their depths.
Harry mentally shook himself, gathering up his things and announcing that he was finished. It took a second before Malfoy heard him, and it seemed as though he had forgotten where he was. Then, he stood, and they left, waving a silent goodbye to Mathilda who was resting in an armchair, gently rocking a sleeping Coda back and forth while Anna considered the chess board between them for her next move.
The rain had stopped by the time they got outside, so they hooked their umbrellas over their arms and walked in silence, Malfoy carefully avoiding the puddles while Harry sloshed through them, enjoying the sound.
They were both exhausted when they arrived home, and went to sleep with nothing more than a murmured ‘good night’.
Harry vaguely knew he was dreaming, but it was a distant knowledge that was made irrelevant by the fact that there was a warm, male body pressed against his. They were standing in a small space somewhere Harry didn’t recognise. It felt like a broom cupboard.
The man began to shift against him. Harry felt warm, but not uncomfortably so, and strangely restless. Then the man moaned, and Harry no longer felt half asleep and confused. The man moaned again and pressed harder against him, and Harry gasped as the man’s thigh rubbed against his cock, which was almost painfully hard. Barely thinking, he grabbed hold of the man’s hips, holding him there as he began to thrust slowly against the stranger, his face buried in the man’s neck.
There was a strangled sound, and the man braced himself with both arms on either side of Harry, leaning against the wall behind him, and began to grind against Harry’s hip, soft whimpers falling from his lips.
“Oh god,” Harry murmured, his voice breaking as he began to lose control.
“I’m nearly-” the man broke off in a gasp, his hips pumping furiously as he cried out in Harry’s ear, Harry following soon after.
The man leaned back, his face tinged pink with pleasure and a little sheepishness. “I’m not usually-” he began in a drawl, and then froze at the sight of Harry.
Harry stared back, his mouth feeling comically slack as the familiar blond hair and grey eyes emerged, undeniable, from the shadows.
Malfoy gaped, and he seemed unable, for the first time Harry had ever seen, to think of something to say. Harry felt a strange surge of fear rising inside him, more than he would have expected to feel even in this. Long seconds passed before Malfoy, his face white, finally began to speak.
But the dream dissolved, and the cupboard faded away.
Harry’s eyes snapped open, and he stared at the ceiling, his heart racing. The sheets were sticky with sweat and the evidence of just how real the dream had felt. It was the first time Harry had ever had a dream as vivid as that. About anyone. Certainly not a man, and certainly not Malfoy.
He listened closely, hoping he hadn’t said anything aloud or - Merlin help him - moaned, but the room was silent. Long moments later, he heard Malfoy snore, and he breathed a sigh of relief and cast a quiet cleaning charm.
Then he realised that his chest was hurting. With a choked gasp, he threw back the covers from the bed and padded into the bathroom as quietly as he could. They had measured the room carefully when they arrived, and by moving the beds a couple of metres they had been able to ensure that neither of them would accidentally stretch the curse in the middle of the night.
The floor still had drops of water on it from when they had brushed their teeth last night. Hardly any time had passed since Harry had fallen asleep. Harry pulled off his t-shirt and looked at himself in the mirror, staring at his chest as if a cavernous hole might suddenly appear in the centre. He could see his heart thudding where his skin jumped rhythmically - the only movement in the still night. It made him feel unsteady, but it was proof that his heart was still where it was meant to be, and he slowly began to relax.
A shadow on his left forearm caught his attention, and he lifted his hand unconsciously to inspect.
He wasn’t aware of making a sound, but he must have said something because seconds later Malfoy was at the doorway, eyes bright with adrenaline in spite of his sleep-tousled hair.
“What is it?” he snapped, stumbling and holding onto the doorway to keep himself upright. “What happened?”
Harry held out his arm, unable to look away or to form coherent words. Malfoy went pale.
He held out his own arm, but despite the faint lines inked into Harry’s arm, the Dark Mark was still there, harsh against Malfoy’s white skin.
“What does it mean?” Harry asked.
His voice sounded ragged and hollow. His heart had started racing again, and Malfoy’s eyes were drawn to the movement. He stared at Harry’s chest, a strange expression on his face, like he wanted to reach out to touch it for reassurance. Again, Harry felt that peculiar surge of fear - stronger than he had ever felt before, amplified but muted, like it belonged to someone else.
Then Malfoy shook his head, as if to clear it, and attempted to twist his face back into its usual mask. It didn’t seem to work, and it was strange to see so much emotion on his pointed features. The moonlight slanting in the windows made everything feel surreal, almost slowed down, despite the urgency, and Harry found himself struck by the idea that Malfoy was so shaken he couldn’t regain his usual composure. It made him think of that day at the Manor, and all the things that he and Malfoy fought to forget when they were together, lest they end up in an argument that would put the curse itself to shame.
“I think we’re okay,” Harry said finally, when he was convinced that the lines on his skin had grown no darker and his heart was still beating inside his body. “But I think we need some help.”
Malfoy nodded, his lips pressed tightly together and a small crease between his eyebrows. “We need to move faster,” he agreed, before turning and leaving Harry standing alone in the moonlight.
“Don’t you need to-” he mumbled, waving his hand in vague circles, “ward it or something?”
Malfoy raised a delicate eyebrow and waited, before it became apparent no further explanation would be forthcoming. He tutted and held up the wrapped clock. “You mean this?”
“It’s a cursed object,” Malfoy said, as if that explained everything. “It doesn’t need to be warded; it just needs to be left alone. Contrary to popular belief, most curses aren’t designed to latch onto the first hapless soul that passes by. They might have a trigger - a Muggle-born, for example - but mostly they’re content to leave you alone so long as you don’t try to disturb them.”
The vaguely affectionate expression on Malfoy’s face wasn’t doing anything to endear Harry to his bizarre outlook. “I don’t get it.” Harry stood up and stretched before Accioing a fresh pair of jeans.
“Of course you don’t.” Malfoy’s teeth sounded gritted, but for reasons unknown he pressed on in his explanation. “When does a cursed necklace curse you?”
“When you put it on.” Harry ran his tongue over his teeth experimentally - they didn’t feel clean. He didn’t feel like breakfast yet, so he cast a freshening charm and looked around for the star charts he had made last night.
“Precisely. When does a cursed box curse you?”
“When you open it.”
“Give the man a cigar,” Malfoy drawled.
Harry rolled his eyes.
“Cursed objects aren’t going to bother you if you just leave them alone.” He tucked the clock safely back under his arm. “And they’re happiest when they have company. The blanket was used to cover the bird cage next to the clock, so if it’s wrapped up in that then it’s perfectly content to leave me be.”
Harry squinted at the blanket. “I thought it looked familiar,” he muttered. “Alright, fine, but if it chews off anyone’s nose, it’s on your head.”
Malfoy smirked. “The clock isn’t going to chew anyone’s nose, Potter.”
He opened the door for Harry to step through, giving a mocking little bow as he did. Harry ignored it.
“It’s going to rip off your ears.”
When Coda had seen the hidden beach, his eyes had gone bright with excitement, and they’d been hard-pressed to stop him diving into the water fully clothed. Now the three of them were splashing in the shallows some distance down the beach, while Malfoy and Harry sat up on the sand and worked on their projects.
“Have I shown you my new bike helmet?” Mathilda’s voice carried across the beach as she chatted happily with Anna, their robes tied loosely around their knees as they walked up and down. “It looks like a Muggle speed racer.”
Anna dropped her head into her hands. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, because even though I have no idea what that is, knowing you, it’s going to be in incredibly poor taste.”
Mathilda grinned. “It’s even better than usual,” she confided, and the two women burst into muffled giggles.
Harry looked over at Malfoy, who was secluded in a bubble shield five metres across, and laughed. “I thought you said cursed objects don’t bother people if they’re left alone.”
“Children bother people by simply existing,” Malfoy muttered as he tapped a thin metal rod against the top of the clock, listening each time to the resounding note that rang through the air.
“I refuse to be held accountable because my clock is particularly grouchy around tiny elephants.”
“Elephants?” Harry frowned, bewildered.
“Have you heard them?” Malfoy pulled a face and imitated a high-pitched squealing noise that was alarmingly similar to an elephant trumpeting.
In the distance, Coda shrieked in delight and trumpeted back. Despite himself, Harry laughed.
As if prompted by the care-free mood, Harry’s brain suddenly reminded him why he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt in the sun, and his thoughts soured. Malfoy paused mid-tap and looked up cautiously.
“Try not to think about it,” he said, his voice quiet.
“How do you suggest I do that?” Harry asked drily.
Malfoy seemed to consider it for a moment before he waved his wand and sent the clock soaring through the air toward Harry, who scuttled backward.
“Admire my work,” Malfoy suggested, smirking at Harry’s attempt to escape. “It’s finished.”
“No more ear readjustments?” Harry asked cautiously, peering at the clock which hovered innocently in front of him.
“No more ear readjustments,” Malfoy agreed. “No matter how much of an improvement they are.”
Harry reached out to pluck the clock from the air, and turned it over in his hands. It really was quite a beautiful clock. It had hung on the wall above the bureau in the hidden bedroom at Broadmoor Manor, next to a dilapidated, empty bird cage.
“There are initials carved into the back,” Harry said, peering closer. “G.G? I thought the Manor only ever belonged to the Broadmoors?”
Malfoy pulled his knees up to his chest, feet crossed neatly at the ankles, and hugged them loosely so that he could lean his face back into the sun. “Probably an heirloom from some branch of the family tree,” he said with a disinterested shrug.
Harry set the clock on the sand between them and turned back to his maps. The outline was nearly complete, and then he need only chart the coastline within, and he was done. He rummaged in the trunk beside him absently, still staring at the star chart and running mental calculations, before he pulled out a set of identical sand timers.
“Come on,” he said to Malfoy. “This will only take a second.”
Malfoy groaned but stood and followed Harry to the entrance. Harry set one timer down on the ground just inside the doorway, and stepped through, turning the other over as he went.
It was surprisingly cold back in Coda’s bedroom. Thin tendrils of icy air whispered through the cracks in the walls, and it made the two of them shiver at the sudden contrast to their summery day on the beach.
“Won’t be long,” Harry muttered, setting the other timer down and perching on the edge of the bed to watch the sand fall.
The door creaked as Malfoy crossed his arms and leaned back against it, one eyebrow raised. “What’s the timer for?” he asked.
Harry’s eyes slid, unbidden, to Malfoy, taking in the slight tilt to his head and the relaxed lean of his body. Just like the last few times Malfoy had chosen to ask him a genuine question, free of malice, there was that strange, light curiosity to his tone. It was as if there was something about Malfoy that just liked to know things, and the fact that it was Harry he was asking didn’t even seem to bother him - his curiosity outweighed their mutual hatred, or maybe he just temporarily forgot.
He turned back to the hourglass. “The layers are separated by magic. Each layer of coloured sand marks a minute,” Harry explained. “The black is one minute, the red two, the green three, and so on. We’ll go back in after one minute and see if the sand is falling at the same speed.”
Malfoy’s eyes widened, but he said nothing, though Harry could almost see his thoughts spinning.
After the last grain of black sand fell through and the red had started, Harry picked up the hourglass and they stepped back through the doorway.
Harry grinned at the sight of the red sand just beginning to trickle into the bottom. “Perfect,” he said, making a note on his chart. “The beach is obviously out of time - or else it wouldn’t match up to day and night here in England - but at least it’s maintained its consistency over the years. We won’t end up with the family spending a week in here and coming back to find everyone they ever knew has died of old age.”
Sharp light hit Harry square in the eyes, and he looked up, squinting, to see Malfoy turning the hourglass around in his hands with a look of begrudging admiration. The sunlight bounced off the glass, hitting Harry’s eyes again, and he turned away with a sigh. Malfoy seemed so different when he wasn’t in front of other people. He was no longer out to prove something. It almost made Harry forget how annoying the git was.
“So, now that you’ve had your chance to run away from the real world,” Malfoy said conversationally, “do you think we could go back to living like normal wizards again? Or do you need longer to sulk?”
Harry took it back. He took it all back.
“Only you could possibly call that disgustingly huge manor ‘living like normal wizards’,” Harry spat.
“Like you’d even know. You barely even think you’re one of us.” Malfoy’s face twisted in fury, but before he could say anything else, a silvery otter burst into the room.
“I need to talk to you, Harry!” the otter whispered in Hermione’s voice, and Harry felt his blood run cold.
One look at Malfoy’s face told him he was just as concerned, even if he was fighting to look only bored.
Harry quickly packed up his equipment and walked over to where Mathilda was helping Coda build a sand castle.
“It’s nearly finished,” he said, forcing a smile onto his face. “And we’re certain there are no curses still active - you’re safe to stay in here as long as you like.”
The smile Mathilda gave him warmed him despite the icy tendrils of fear that still clutched around his spine.
“Thank you,” she said, standing up and dusting the sand off her hands. “Coda’s already sleeping better, and I think he might even be ready to go back to his own bedroom, although now the problem might be keeping him out of here.”
She laughed brightly, and Harry felt himself relax just a little bit. There might be something awful waiting for him back at home, but at least he had done this. And wasn’t that more important?
“I’m glad,” he said, shaking her hand when she reached out to him.
He felt something little attach itself to his leg, and looked down to see Coda hugging him furiously.
“Thank you for giving me a beach, Mr. Potter!” Coda’s voice was muffled against his jeans, but Harry heard him well enough.
He laughed and ruffled Coda’s hair. “Technically I didn’t give it to you,” he said, not wanting to take too much credit. “It was already here.”
Coda shook his head, frowning. “It wasn’t here. You made it appear.”
Harry shrugged at Mathilda, who waved her hands in a “what does it matter?” sort of gesture.
They said goodbye to Anna and left. Harry didn’t remember the walk back to the hotel - it seemed to pass in seconds - and before he knew it, Malfoy was holding out his hand to him, one eyebrow slightly raised, and they were Apparating back to Hermione and Ron’s flat.
“Mary, mother of Jesus!” A surprised yelp, followed by the sound of something crashing and breaking, announced their entrance to the apartment.
Harry couldn’t help grinning at the sight of Ron lying on the floor of the living room, broken glass scattered around him as he stared up at the two of them in shock.
“Mary, mother of Jesus?” Harry repeated, holding out a hand to help Ron up. “Exactly how much time have you been spending with Seamus lately?”
Ron rubbed the back of his neck, looking sheepish. “A bit, yeah,” he muttered, repairing the glass with a flick of his wand and putting it back on the coffee table. “I didn’t know you were coming. Has something happened?”
The door flew open and Hermione burst in, her arms loaded with books. “I found something!” she said breathlessly.
Ron’s expression of confusion instantly sobered, and Harry felt Malfoy grow tense beside him. He hadn’t said a word since they had arrived, but Harry didn’t have time to ponder why. They sat down while Hermione arranged the books on the coffee table.
“So, I know we agreed to let you both come to terms with the bond before we started trying to influence it,” she said in a rush, “but I’ve been doing a bit of research, and I think I know what kind of curse she’s put on you.”
“We already know that,” Malfoy drawled. “It’s a lesson curse. We’ve established this. Do you have anything more to add, or have you dragged us halfway across England for nothing?”
Harry looked at Malfoy in surprise. Three days ago, he would have said Malfoy was being a git for the hell of it, but he had learned a little more about Malfoy over the last couple of days, and his voice sounded shakier than usual. Beneath the harsh veneer, he sounded afraid.
Hermione’s cheeks went pink, but she didn’t rise to the bait, and merely shook her head at Ron when he opened his mouth angrily. “There are three kinds of lesson curses,” she went on. “And it depends on the people involved as to which kind you have. There are curses for feuding families - you’re not that - there are lesson curses for lovers-” Harry felt his stomach suddenly flip, and he shoved all thoughts of the dream from his mind. “You’re obviously not that either, and there are lesson curses for, well, enemies.”
Malfoy lifted an eyebrow while Harry made a noise of protest.
“We get along pretty well now, though,” he said, looking at Malfoy. “Nothing like at school.”
Hermione looked apologetic. “It’s just how the curse categorises your relationship. It doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate. Anyway, curses on enemies are always more-” she hesitated, before lifting her eyes to Harry’s and taking a deep breath, “volatile. The curse works off your emotions, as well as the fact that being forced into the same space for days on end is more difficult for you than the other two kinds, and, look, basically, you have even less time than you thought.”
Harry blinked slowly at her. They already thought they didn’t have much time. How much less did they have?
“How long?” Malfoy asked, his voice strangely raspy.
“Maybe another week?” Hermione whispered.
The room felt suddenly too cold and too small. Harry couldn’t get enough air. He stood up, running his hand through his hair and backing away from the group. “A week?” he repeated. “A week to figure out some cryptic message to do with my heart and Malfoy’s Dark Mark, and then that’s it? I’m dead?”
“We have to find the witch,” Ron said, his face white. “It’s the only way. Hag messages never make sense. You can’t possibly figure it out in time. We’ll hunt her down.”
“Hunting her down won’t solve it.” Malfoy’s voice fell flat into the silence.
Harry turned towards him, disturbed by the lack of emotion in his tone.
“She can’t revoke the curse, and giving us the answer voids the contract. We figure it out ourselves or not at all. What else did you find out, Granger?”
Hermione started before giving her head a small shake and turning back to the books. “Not much,” she admitted. “Only that you will definitely lose something of value as well, Malfoy. Even if we can’t figure out what it is.”
Harry snorted. “Since he’s not the one losing his life, I’m pretty sure I still come out worse in this one.”
“It’s not a fucking competition, Potter,” Malfoy said through gritted teeth. “You think I want you dead?”
“It’s hardly going to affect your life very much,” Harry spat back.
Malfoy’s mouth fell open incredulously. “How much of a cold-hearted arsehole do you think I am? You think I could stand there with your bleeding heart in my hand, watching you crumple to the ground, and not be upset? You think it wouldn’t affect me, no matter who it was?”
Harry pretended to think about it. “Yes,” he said, vaguely acknowledging that they were both yelling now, but not caring enough to stop. “Yes, I do. When have you ever cared about anyone except yourself, Malfoy?”
The room no longer felt cold - it felt burning hot. Ron and Hermione were trying to calm him down, but he could barely even hear them.
Malfoy’s face twisted into a hateful sneer. “I know it’s an unusual sensation for you, but if you’d stop to think for five seconds, maybe you’d realise that everything I ever did in Voldemort’s name was to save someone I cared about. It might not fit your black and white, saintly view of morality, but don’t you dare say that I don’t care.”
It was too much - the audacity of Malfoy’s attempts to justify his past, the knowledge that he only had a week left before he was likely dead, and his complete inability to do anything to change it, was all too much, and for a second, Harry forgot. He began to turn, thinking only of Grimmauld Place and peace and quiet.
Time slowed down. He saw the horror on Ron and Hermione’s faces, but it was nothing compared to the sudden transformation that came over Malfoy. Harry had never before seen an expression of such intense agony, and it was enough to make him stumble, falling forward even as the room began to blur and Malfoy launched himself across the coffee table at him.
And then he was falling sideways, his head slamming against Ron and Hermione’s hardwood floor, strong arms pinning him to the ground.
He felt weak, sick with the horror of what he had nearly done. Malfoy wouldn’t even have been able to Apparate through the wards of Grimmauld place. He turned, his head throbbing with pain as his eyes met Malfoy’s, and he took in the sight of his pale face drained even further of all colour. For long seconds, they stared at each other, and Harry noted distantly that this was the most vulnerable he had ever seen him. He looked lost, his gaze unyielding, until the sound of a choked sob from the pair on the couch made them both remember where they were.
They stood up slowly, but remained standing close together, neither wanting to move very far from the other. No one said anything.
Harry broke the silence. “We’re going to go,” his voice sounded shaky, even to him. “If you find anything, let us know. I think it’s best if we’re alone.” He didn’t look at Malfoy. “If it’s just the two of us, it’s easier. We’ll talk, and maybe we’ll figure this thing out.”
He held his hand out to Malfoy, who took it immediately, and together, they Apparated away.
Several seconds passed with the two of them standing in the centre of the room, hands still clasped together, before they seemed to realise they could move, and broke apart. Malfoy sat down on the edge of the bed while Harry went to make them both a cup of tea.
What they had learned today, what Harry had nearly done, and the new marks on Harry’s arm that he had forgotten to show Hermione were all slowly piling together to make the curse seem more real than it had so far. He had thought it just another one of the strange things that happened to him, and he’d figure it out one way or another. But they were running out of time, and there was no loop-hole in this magic that they could find. The only way out was to listen to the curse.
The kettle whistled, and Harry watched the steaming water as he poured it carefully into two mugs. He felt like every little detail around him had somehow grown in size in the last few minutes; life in all its miniscule moments felt huge and overpowering, and the thought that he could lose it all so soon over nothing more than a capricious witch was almost too much to accept.
He brought the mug over to Malfoy, who took it without a word, and sat next to him on the bed.
“So there’s no point finding the witch and trying to apologise?”
Malfoy laughed without humor. “No point whatsoever.”
Harry blew on the top of his tea, but it was still too hot. He clasped it between his hands, relishing the warmth.
“Do you think we’re going to solve this?” The words escaped him before he could stop them.
Malfoy turned to look at him, and Harry noticed for the first time how grey his eyes were. He thought, somewhat stupidly, that people were wrong when they likened blue eyes to the sea or to two pools - blue water was only a reflection of the sky. The grey of Malfoy’s eyes was like the depths of the sea: vast and inescapable, and it pulled you down with it.
He was saying something, and Harry had missed it.
“Sorry, what was that?” Harry asked, having forgotten even the question.
Malfoy’s brow furrowed. He stared at Harry, but he didn’t look scornful. He looked confused and lost, like he had lying atop Harry on the living room floor.
He repeated the quiet words once more. “No, I don’t think we’re going to find the answer. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying.”
There was a strange ache in Harry’s chest when Malfoy looked at him like that, so sincere and thoughtful. He turned away.
“I’m sorry about what I said.” Harry hadn’t known that it was bothering him until he said it out loud. “I know you did it all for your family. I just forgot, I guess.”
Malfoy’s eyebrow lifted. “You mean, because I don’t care about many people, you forgot I’m capable of caring at all?” he drawled.
To his surprise, Harry realised there was actually some truth to Malfoy’s words. “Yeah, I guess.” He scrubbed the back of his neck. “In my defence, you don’t care about many people at all.”
Malfoy sniffed. “And why should I?” He took a gulp of tea; it must be cool enough by now. “People have to earn that sort of attention. You can’t just give it out to everyone you see, like you do. It means nothing then.”
The accusation seemed to surprise Malfoy just as much as it surprised Harry, because he stared into his mug with widened eyes, like he hadn’t meant to say it at all.
“I don’t care about everyone,” Harry protested, acknowledging faintly that this was a very strange conversation.
Malfoy made a rude noise. “Yes you do. You’re the poster boy for ‘bleeding heart’. You’d give the shirt off your back to someone who thought the weather was a little nippy.”
Harry slowly took a sip of tea. It burnt his tongue.
“Alright,” he said carefully. “So I care about a lot of people. What’s wrong with that?”
Malfoy stared at him flatly, like he was missing something obvious. “What’s wrong with that?” he repeated. “You don’t even like to be around people. Look at you - you run away to be on your own all the time. It’s like you give everything that’s in you for the people around you, and you have nothing left for yourself, so you have to hide for days at a time to recuperate.”
Harry blinked at him. The words had an uncomfortable amount of truth to them; Malfoy seemed to be good at that today.
“It’s not really like that. I mean, yeah, a bit,” he admitted, “but that’s not why I like to be alone. I’m just used to being alone. Six years at Hogwarts doesn’t suddenly erase eleven years of solitude.”
He had expected Malfoy to interrupt him at this point, or to make a scornful noise, or do something to indicate he didn’t care enough to listen to an answer, but again Malfoy surprised him. He simply sat and listened. It was very disconcerting.
Harry cleared his throat awkwardly. “I like people, I really do. If I had a job that was entirely by myself, I’d go insane. But the constant chatter and expectation… I find it a bit hard to deal with. This way is much better. I get to appreciate people without being, I don’t know, overwhelmed by them.”
Something about Malfoy’s face had changed; a shrewd sort of awareness that made Harry uncomfortable.
“I spent a lot of time alone while I was growing up,” Harry said with a shrug.
Malfoy continued to study him, eyes narrowed in thought. “Now that you mention it, I can see that. You love being around people, but the longer you are, the more tense you become. Why is that?”
“Malfoy, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harry fought to keep his voice steady. “Just drop it.”
The rain had picked up while they were talking, and it clattered down onto the roof, filling the silence.
“Alright, so what’s the plan?” Malfoy said suddenly. “Just keep having heart to hearts in the hope that we talk our way out of the curse?”
Harry laughed humorlessly. “I don’t know what else we can do.”
“She accused me of having no heart.” Malfoy spoke slowly, thinking it through out loud. “That has to be key.”
“But we’ve already established you do care,” Harry said with a wry twist of his mouth. “So if that were the problem, we’d have solved it by now.”
Malfoy snorted. “It will be more complicated than that,” he said quietly. “What did she say to you? Anything?”
Harry shook his head. “Nothing.” He wracked his brain, trying to think back to the conversation that night. “I did call you a coward,” he said finally. “Just before it hit. Could that mean anything?”
The tapping of Malfoy’s fingernails against porcelain was just beginning to send Harry over the edge when Malfoy finally spoke.
“It might, actually.” He looked down at his arm. “If a heart is meant to represent the love and care that she found me lacking in, I can think of little else the Mark could represent but fear.”
Harry didn’t know what to say to that.
They came to an unspoken agreement to leave off the discussion there, and went back to their respective projects. Malfoy had pulled out a hairbrush with a silver handle, and was eyeing it with deep suspicion, while Harry was inking in the final lines on the map.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to scalp me,” Malfoy muttered after an hour or so of silence broken only by the wind that made the branches of the tree outside their window scrape intermittently against the glass.
“Not surprising,” Harry replied absently as he cast a spell on the parchment to set the ink.
“No, I mean it’s going to scalp me when I touch it, not when I use it.” Malfoy was glaring down at the hairbrush as if it had just insulted him. “This is the most cantankerous cursed object I’ve ever seen.”
Harry frowned in confusion. “Do you have to touch it to break the curse? Can’t you just spell it from a distance?”
Malfoy muttered something rude under his breath, involving the words ‘intelligence’ and ‘flobberworm’.
“I can hear you,” Harry said mildly.
“Good,” Malfoy responded. “Learn from it.”
Harry sighed. “I’ve just about finished the map,” he said, leaning back and stretching. “I just have to go back there tonight to check everything, and then we’re done here.”
That got Malfoy’s attention. He looked up in surprise, an almost wistful expression on his face. “That was quick.”
“Don’t tell me you’re going to miss it here,” Harry said with a grin. “After all your complaining.”
To his surprise, Malfoy gave him a wry smile in return. “It has a sort of rustic charm.”
There was no wonder Malfoy was good at understanding cursed objects - his moods were just as fickle as the damn items themselves. Harry stood up and came over to inspect the hairbrush. It was a delicate, silver brush, with fine bristles and the initials S.S carved into the handle.
“G.G and S.S,” Harry muttered. “Neither of those are Broadmoors. Do you think they were guests?”
“If they were, they were very close to the family, to leave their possessions in the hidden bedroom,” Malfoy said thoughtfully. “But you could be right - it might be a hidden guest room.”
“Why hide a guest room?” Harry wrinkled his nose.
“Why hide any room?” Malfoy responded with a shrug. Then he paused. “Wait a second-” He leapt over to his suitcase and pulled out a small box. “This was sitting next to the bird cage, but it wasn’t cursed so I just shoved it to the back.”
Harry leaned over to watch as he opened the box and slid a sheaf of letters out. He filtered through them until he found one that he was looking for.
“G,” he read in a bored tone. “I’ve made contact with an old acquaintance - one of my father’s business associates - and he has advised that if you really want to bless that sword – and I recommend you do – you’re going to need to blah, blah.” He shifted through the letters. “That wasn’t it. Oh, I think it was this one. G, I’ve made arrangements for us to stay at the local inn during the final stages of construction, so that we can be there the second the last stone is laid, and witness the moment the castle truly becomes ours, blah, blah, oh, here it is: I know you like staying with your cousins, but I feel I haven’t seen you properly in months, and you know the Broadmoors and I don’t see eye to eye.”
Malfoy threw the letters back into the box and shoved it back into the suitcase. “There you are; G had a cousin at the manor, and liked to stay there. They must have shared the room at some point, and left half their possessions there while they were off galavanting, building castles and blessing swords. At any rate, this hairbrush is very pissed off and I’m quite loathe to touch it at the moment. Will we go and finish your map?”
Harry cast a look outside and saw that the stars were nearly out. He nodded, and they collected their things and left for the house one final time.
“The curse has to have something to do with the witch’s Manor,” Malfoy said suddenly. “Either the items or the space itself - something about our invasion there made the witch so angry that she cursed us. Whatever we said to her that night comes secondary to that, I’m sure.”
“So you think you might figure it out when you finish with the cursed items?” Harry asked, feeling a twinge of hope in his chest.
“Maybe.” Malfoy didn’t sound as confident as Harry felt, and the hope began to die. “But more to the point, I think we should go back to the Manor.”
Harry pulled a face. “What if she’s there?” She could cast something else on them.
“Then I promise to turn the other way while you hex the living daylights out of her,” Malfoy said mildly, and Harry stifled a laugh.
“But let me have a bit longer with the cursed items, first,” he said after a pause. “I might be able to get some information off them that could help us, instead of charging head-first back into the place that started it all.”
They arrived at the townhouse and said hello to Mathilda, who was, for reasons unknown, baking what looked like enough cakes to feed all of Hogwarts. She waved them on upstairs, accidentally knocking flour all over the floor, before turning back to the oven with a murderous look. They made their way quickly upstairs and let themselves into the secret beach.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Harry felt the tension of the outside world fade away. There was something about these secret places, hidden outside of time and sight, that made his problems seem distant and surreal.
He set up his map with the brass bowl hovering above this time, pinpricks of light lazily stretching down onto the parchment. He waved his wand three times above it, before turning away to see Malfoy watching him, his face shadowed against the moonlight.
“I have to leave it for a few minutes,” Harry said, wondering why he felt so unsettled. He couldn’t seem to look at Malfoy, his eyes falling instead to his chest, while his heart fluttered in a way that felt uncomfortably familiar, like an old ache, long forgotten. “Did you want to go for a walk?”
He thought Malfoy must be staring at him, but the shadows hid his expression, and he didn’t say a word. The moment felt oddly poised, like it was waiting for one of them to move, or speak, but Harry had no idea what he was meant to say.
Then Malfoy nodded and turned towards the shore, and Harry had no choice but to follow.
A strange shadow caught his eye, and he turned to look at one of the trees that lined the water. He frowned; two of the small shadows on the trunk looked like letters.
“Have you seen this?” he called to Malfoy, walking closer and tracing the letters with his fingers.
“G.G?” Malfoy lifted his eyebrows, leaning forward to inspect the carving. “Either these initials are more common than we thought, or this G.G person gets around.”
Harry lifted his wand, muttering ‘Lumos’ so they could see the carved letters clearer. Malfoy’s eyes widened. The shadows had hidden the rest of the carving - G.G & S.S.
They looked at each other, neither needing to speak to know that they were thinking the same thing: there was no such thing as coincidences.
They looked around the rest of the tree, but couldn’t find anything else. The map was still calibrating, and so they headed back down to the shoreline.
They walked along the shallows in silence, the waves lapping at their bare feet, shimmery in the moonlight. It was warm here, even at night, and soon they had both removed their coats and jackets until they were only wearing their shirts with the sleeves rolled up. The lines on Harry’s arm looked darker, his skin reflecting the pale light of the moon so that the harsh strokes of ink stood out against it. He saw Malfoy looking at it, and abandoned his attempts to ignore the obvious, holding out his arm and running his fingers along the lines.
He felt his heart spike in fear, but it was strange, because he didn’t feel afraid, only tired.
Harry wasn’t sure how long ago they had stopped walking. Malfoy was standing with his back to the water, his eyes on Harry’s arm. Somehow, Harry didn’t find it strange - only inevitable - when Malfoy reached out his hand to Harry and began to trace the pattern, as if to make sure it was really there. His fingers were cool and light, and their touch sent shivers down Harry’s spine. He bit down on his tongue and fought to keep from speaking, even though it seemed impossible that Malfoy could be oblivious to what was happening between the two of them.
“Does it hurt?” Malfoy asked, and for a second Harry thought he meant his touch, and he nearly ruined it all by saying it felt wonderful.
He cleared his throat. “No. I can’t feel it.”
Malfoy nodded, waiting several seconds before speaking again. “It always hurts.”
Harry looked up at him, drawn by the shudder in his voice. “Even now?”
Malfoy withdrew his hand, and Harry had to force himself not to tell him to stay. They turned around and began to walk back. Looking down, Harry noticed there were tiny shells buried in the sand. Hundreds of tiny shells, neither one the same no matter how similar they looked. Coda would probably have a collection of them already.
“I didn’t only do it for them.” Malfoy’s voice was resigned, and Harry knew what he was saying before he had to say it. Strangely, it didn’t make him angry, like it would have only a day ago. “I did it for me as well. I was scared, and I wanted to live.”
All the tiny choices people made, desperate to have someone show them the way, when really all they could ever do was throw themselves into the wind and hope that someone caught them.
“I don’t blame you,” Harry said, and found that he meant it.
Back at the hotel, Malfoy decided to leave the hairbrush for tonight, rolling it carefully up in a velvet cloth without touching it, and leaving it at the top of his suitcase. The day had felt surprisingly long, and Harry found he was asleep not long after his head touched the pillow.
He dreamed again. They were in that tiny space once more, and although he couldn’t see into the shadows of what was around him, the moonlight shone down on the man in his arms, so he had no chance of denying what he already knew.
“Malfoy,” he breathed, and the answering moan made him shiver.
Malfoy pulled back, bracing himself with his hands on either side of Harry, like he had the night before, and stared down at him, grey eyes deep and watchful. Harry realised suddenly that they were both naked, and he felt himself flush in embarrassment.
“I don’t think this is a dream,” Malfoy said quietly, looking down at the pink spreading across Harry’s neck. His own face was flushed as well, his pupils blowing wide as he spoke. “I think this is real.”
“Of course it’s a dream,” Harry shot back, forcing himself to look Malfoy in the eye and to ignore the reaction his body was having. “It’s just like the other night.”
“Exactly,” Malfoy said, and then he leaned forward and kissed him.
Harry stiffened in surprise, before he brought his hands up to Malfoy’s neck, twining them into his hair and pulling him closer. His lips parted, and Malfoy’s tongue slipped inside, accompanied by a gasp of pleasure that made Harry feel weak. Despite their position, Malfoy felt hesitant, his movements slow and cautious, and it was making Harry feel limp with want. He had never imagined that Malfoy would be so attentive with his partners - had never imagined Malfoy at all, but if he had, he would have guessed he would be snide and cruel, looking down on whoever he had deigned to bed that night.
Instead, when Malfoy pulled back, his eyes were alight with awe, and Harry felt his chest grow light at the gentle smile on his lips.
“I’ve seen the way you look at me, Potter,” Malfoy whispered, his breath tickling along Harry’s neck as he dipped down to rest his lips in the hollow of his collarbone. “I didn’t know you were gay.”
“Neither did I,” Harry admitted, and Malfoy laughed, the sound warm and carefree.
“I can feel your heart. Did you know?” Malfoy was standing again, his lips hovering against Harry’s, his eyes closed as his fingers gently tweaked a nipple. “I thought I was going insane, having all these strange surges of affection for people, and then I realised I wasn’t feeling it - it was you. All these years, I thought you had to be faking it. How can you care so much about everyone and not drown under the weight of it?”
Harry gasped as Malfoy’s hand slid lower, teasing the small trail of hair below his belly button. “I think,” he began, losing his words as Malfoy’s other hand slid behind his neck, holding him still as his teasing grew closer to where Harry was achingly hard. “I think I can feel your fear. It’s making me tense when I wouldn’t normally be. Why are you always so afraid?”
Malfoy huffed a laugh. “You do have a stupidly poor sense of self-preservation,” he said wryly. “It’s probably a completely new sensation for you, you bloody git.” And then his hand closed around Harry, and Harry could hear nothing else.
His arms dropped from Malfoy’s hair to his shoulders, and he gripped the sweat-soaked skin beneath his fingers, trying to hold still and not give him the satisfaction of knowing how far gone he was. But Malfoy somehow knew, and he slowed his fingers down until they were barely touching him, sliding teasingly across his slick cock until Harry broke down and moaned, grinding his hips forward until Malfoy finally gripped him properly, smirking and pumping him faster.
Harry dropped his head to Malfoy’s neck and slid his hand down to where Malfoy was slowly rutting against his thigh. The answering moan nearly sent him over the edge, but he held on, desperate to see that cold, aristocratic mask finally break. It didn’t take long. Malfoy’s face turned towards his, as if he were about to kiss him again, but instead his mouth dropped open, his face vulnerable and ethereally beautiful in the moonlight.
He whimpered, grey eyes closing as he bit down on his lip, and Harry knew in that instant that it didn’t matter that he hated the prat and that this was all just some stupid dream - he was utterly fucked either way because he was falling in love with Draco Malfoy.
And then Malfoy kissed him, spilling over into his hand as Harry followed quickly after.
Harry didn’t want to let go. He didn’t want Malfoy to step back, out of reach of Harry’s arms, but he did. They both muttered a cleansing charm and stared at each other, naked and flushed.
“You think this isn’t real, don’t you?” Malfoy asked, watching Harry carefully.
“Of course it’s not real,” Harry said with a bitter laugh. “I’m just dreaming.”
“Do you wish you weren’t?”
Harry pulled a face. “Can you imagine if we were really doing this?” The thought should make him hysterical, but instead it only made his chest hurt. “We’d kill each other.”
Malfoy’s eyes dropped unerringly to Harry’s heart, like he could see the ache there. “Of course,” he said with a sneer. “Couldn’t think of a more stupid idea.”
The dream dissolved, and Harry didn’t need to look at his arm to know that the Mark had grown stronger.
Or worse, if the curse had somehow extended to their dreams, and it truly had been real.
Harry sat up, no closer in understanding what was going on, and pushed back the covers so he could cross the room and let in the impatient owl. It hopped onto the desk and stretched out its foot dramatically, refusing to look at him as he took the letter, as if it had been out there for hours instead of minutes.
He couldn’t help but smile, his heart hurting as he thought of Hedwig.
“What is it?” Malfoy asked sleepily, and Harry’s heart went from a twinging a little to ratting madly around in his chest.
“Letter from McGonagall,” Harry said, turning around and sneaking a look at Malfoy.
He looked exactly the same as he had yesterday. He didn’t look embarrassed or uncomfortable or anything at all like he had been up half the night jerking Harry off. It must have been a dream after all.
The letter was brief, though friendly, and requested that Harry pop by when he could to help with the small situation of a newly discovered room. Harry did wonder a little if he need only bring the Marauders map and copy the schematics over from that, but he decided to give the Headmistress the benefit of the doubt and bring everything along with him.
The rattling in the car had stopped and had been replaced by a humming that sounded like it was coming from every direction. Malfoy tried silencing it directly, but eventually gave up and stuck a privacy charm over the two of them, which seemed to drown it out well enough. The upside of this was that the sounds of the traffic was muted as well, and it felt like they were locked in their own little bubble, flying down the freeway and on toward the horizon.
Malfoy had the hair brush suspended in the air in front of him, twirling slowly so that he could examine it from all angles.
“If it starts to rip your hair out, I can’t guarantee I can pull over in time,” Harry warned him. “Why don’t you just wait until we get to Hogwarts?”
“Forgive me if I feel a little uncomfortable working on a cursed object inside those walls again,” Malfoy pointed out without looking at Harry, and Harry thought it a fair reason to drop the subject altogether.
A couple of hours later after scribbling calculations across several notebooks, Malfoy made a satisfied noise and prodded the hairbrush with his wand.
By the time Harry had got the car pulled over and assessed for any damage in the form of scalping, the hairbrush had resumed its form - no trace of shattered silver anywhere - and was back to hovering innocently in the middle of the car. Harry and Malfoy stared at it, breathing hard and needing a minute or two to calm their nerves. It was a particularly disconcerting sensation for Harry, as what he had told dream-Malfoy last night was true - he could feel Malfoy’s fear. At its worst point, it was like having two hearts racing inside him.
He wondered if Malfoy could feel his care and affection, like he had said in the dream, but that would suggest that maybe the dream really had been real, and Harry didn’t want to go there.
“They’re missing something,” Malfoy spat out through gritted teeth. “They’re all missing something and I don’t understand what it is.”
“Maybe they’re missing home?” Harry suggested, more for something to say than as an actual solution.
Malfoy shook his head. “It’s not that,” he muttered, staring murderously at the brush. “I’m going to have to think on it.”
He packed the brush away and they drove on in silence.
“So,” Harry said after a while. “We can pull into a hotel, or we can drive through the night and check in at Hogsmeade. I quite like the long drive. Their after hours system is simple - I’ve used it before.”
Malfoy frowned at him. “You’re the one driving,” he pointed out. “If you think you can stay awake, then fine.”
Harry smirked. “I’m pretty sure you would have put up more of a fight at the start of this trip,” he mused. “Look at us getting along.”
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Malfoy’s lips quirking into a smile, even though he tried to hide it.
Just as he had on the drive down to Bath, Malfoy fell asleep before long. Harry got rid of the privacy charm so that he could hear the sound of the rain beating down on the car. It was a misty, dreary sort of rain, that made him think of mid-winter at Hogwarts. It felt strange to be going back there with Malfoy, and stranger still that the silence between them had become companionable.
Harry had expected that after several days of little to no privacy, he would be getting more and more tense, unable to escape the pressure he felt to do something, give something, be something to all the people around him, but he didn’t feel any of that from Malfoy.
He knew it was mostly, if not entirely, in his head. He knew that he didn’t need to always be the one to save people, but it was easy to forget when the whole wizarding world knew your name and saw nothing wrong with asking you for help.
It was strange how nothing between them had changed, and yet everything had changed. Maybe that was why. They had got to know each other, and found the companionship surprisingly pleasant when they weren’t arguing. For once Harry - just Harry - was enough.
Malfoy shifted in his sleep, turning toward Harry, and something about the slackness of his jaw, relaxed and vulnerable, made Harry think of the dream he was trying to forget. Who was he kidding? He didn’t simply find Malfoy’s company surprisingly pleasant - he found him intriguing, mesmerising, and undeniably attractive. Sure, he was a cynical prat who hardly thought the common people were worth his time, but where that used to make Harry withdraw in disgust, it now made him curious. What answers would he find if he bothered to ask why? Why are you always so afraid?
He could feel his eyes drifting closed and they were only a few hours into the long drive, so he took the next exit and found them somewhere to stop for lunch. Malfoy seemed content to settle for pie and chips eaten at a small park behind the truckstop, and Harry was grateful for the chance to go to sleep on the back seat for half an hour.
When he woke up, Malfoy was studying the hairbrush again with a look of fierce concentration.
“Any luck?” Harry asked, pushing his hair back out of his eyes.
Malfoy looked up, his mouth open to answer, and stopped, staring at Harry with his lips slightly parted. He recovered quickly, giving himself a little shake and frowning down at the hairbrush, though Harry couldn’t help but wonder what had passed through his mind.
“No luck,” he said thoughtfully. “But I think I know what it’s missing. I think I know what they’re all missing.” He pulled a face. “Their owner. Can you believe it?”
“You mean the witch?”
Malfoy shrugged. “I’m not sure. If it feels a bond with her, then yes, but given the depth and intricacy of this curse, I’d suggest it’s been on here for centuries. I think it misses its original owner.”
They climbed back into the car, Malfoy stretching luxuriously while Harry struggled to process what he had said. “You make it sound like it cursed itself,” he said finally.
Malfoy froze partway into the car, the wind whipping his hair around his face and making him look like a madman. “That would make sense, actually.”
“Curse Breakers never bother to track the origin of curses unless there was malicious intent - usually they’re ancient objects that have been cursed so long there’s no point in trying to punish the perpetrator. But what if they simply developed their own curses? Centuries surrounded by magic would make anything possible.”
“They wouldn’t really be curses then,” Harry said, frowning. The wind was making his ears hurt and he couldn’t think straight. “They’re more like… hackles.”
Malfoy gaped at him, and Harry could see the cogs turning in his mind. It struck him how different this Malfoy - the one he had come to know over the past few days - was. He had a boyish enthusiasm for what made things tick. It made him think of Arthur Weasley, but he would never tell either of them that.
“Hackles,” he said slowly. “You’re right. That’s why they’re so happy when they’re left alone. Merlin, Potter, I think we’ve just revolutionised the Curse-Breaking industry.”
Harry dropped into his seat; it was too cold to stay outside. “Hooray,” he said flatly, grabbing his coffee and casting a warming charm on it. “Does that mean the hairbrush is going to listen to you now?”
“No, it means it’s less likely to listen to me,” Malfoy said cheerfully, slamming the door behind him and levitating the hairbrush in front of his face. “But at least now I know why.”
The mountains in the distance always made him think of second year, flying the stolen car with Ron, but the memory was so far in the past that it was free of all the panic and excuses, and instead they were simply flying well above the rest of the world and ever closer to home.
He cast his eyes lower, toward the road, and the wispy blanket of stars on the horizon reminded him that it wasn’t second year, and that Ron was far away, with his wife, but that only gave the memory a different sort of potency. He felt both young and old at once, with a new future stretching just ahead of him. It made him feel wrapped in the endless calm of the night, like he was swimming through an ocean of magic.
Malfoy stirred beside him, and he felt his heart stammer in recognition. He turned to see the starlight reflected in Malfoy’s gaze, and wondered how he could have possibly lived so much of his life without being in love with Draco Malfoy. Then, of course, he had to wonder how he could go on with the rest of his life knowing this, and knowing the futility of any sort of relationship between the two of them.
Assuming, of course, that he had a life to live.
“Do you think Muggles drive through something like this and believe in magic?” Malfoy asked, his voice just loud enough to be heard above the steady rumble of the road.
“Probably,” Harry agreed.
“Maybe that’s why they invented cars. So they could feel like they were flying.”
The turn-off to Hogsmeade cut through the mist, a shadowy path fading into the dark, and Harry nearly missed it because he was too entranced by the look in Malfoy’s eyes.
He kept his eyes on the road from then on, and they made their way to the inn and upstairs to their room without hassle or waking anyone up, collapsing onto their beds with little more than a murmured good night.
Harry couldn’t look at Malfoy. The moonlight was shadowed by the myriad stars reflecting all around them, and Malfoy was too bright, too bright to look at in the midst of this shadowed, tiny space.
“Look at me, Potter.”
Strong fingers gripped his jaw and tilted his chin up until he was staring into grey eyes that swirled like muted fire.
“Why won’t you admit it?”
“What’s the point?” Harry gave up trying to look away, and knew that he was lost.
There was barely space to move, but the sound of Malfoy’s bitter laughter echoed as if they were in the Great Hall after curfew. “What’s the point?” he repeated. “Perhaps so that I can feel you beneath me where it’s real, where it counts, instead of like this.”
Harry shook his head. “We’d only crash and burn,” he said with a wry grin. “Besides, I’m probably going to die in a week.”
They were even closer now, their bodies pressed up against one another in a strange half-struggle, half-embrace. Malfoy made a furious snarl at the back of his throat.
“You don’t even care, do you? You’re going to die, and you don’t even give a shit. How can you not be afraid?”
Harry shrugged. “I’ve seen it all before,” he admitted. “Died before. It doesn’t hurt. So long as I don’t take anyone out with me, what does it matter?”
Malfoy’s eyes widened, his lips twisted in a grimace of fury. “You’re lying,” he spat. “How can you care so much about others, but not about yourself?”
Harry shoved him back, stumbling for balance at the sudden loss of the firm body in front of him. “Of course I care. I’m terrified. It’s just not important in the grand scale of things.”
Malfoy shook his head slowly, his expression twisting into the pensive face he wore whenever he was working on a curse. “I don’t think you know the meaning of fear.” His tone was the same as the one he had used earlier that day, when he had talked about revolutionising the world’s understanding of curses.
“I should just ask you then, I guess?” Harry shot out, taking a step away lest he reach out and draw Malfoy to him. “Why are you always so afraid?”
“Why are you always so eager to sacrifice yourself?”
The dream faded away, the stars shining brighter one by one until all Harry could see was a bright white light that he eventually realised was the sun telling him that morning had come.
Harry stared into the cavernous space below the owlery and wondered what exactly had happened to make the castle think it needed to create a new Hall.
“It’s a bunker,” Professor McGonagall explained calmly once she had noted his confused expression. “Traditionally speaking, a bunker would lie below the castle, which is why - we assume - Hogwarts saw fit to make the door in one of the highest towers, where invaders are less likely to be searching for an entrance. The bunker itself rests, as far as we can tell, somewhere below the Great Lake.”
Harry stepped back from the room, sobered by the knowledge of why the castle had constructed a new addition. He didn’t look at Malfoy, but he could feel him stiffen as he peered into the opening and took in the vast weight of the room.
“It won’t take long to map, Professor,” he said. “There isn’t much to the room, and then you’ll know exactly where it’s located in case anyone gets trapped in there.” He shuddered at the idea. “When did it appear?”
“We think the castle had been building it ever since your final term in your sixth year,” she said, closing the door and sealing it with a flick of her wand. It looked just like any other part of the wall. “It obviously sensed the coming danger, but unfortunately could not construct the safe house in time. We discovered the entrance when a second year tripped over the perches in the far corner and dived headlong through a wall."
The birds shuffled, cooing softly as the three of them made their way back out through the perches to the staircase. Harry mulled the pieces of the puzzle over in his head, working out the likely wards on the place. “What was the student writing home about?”
McGonagall quirked her lips in the barest of movements, giving him a proud smile. “She was being bullied,” she said soberly. “And she wanted to come home for the weekend.”
“Sanctuary.” Harry nodded. “At least it seems like a straightforward warding spell.”
The staircase swung around, taking them toward the kitchens, and Harry noticed Malfoy seemed increasingly uneasy, even though McGonagall had been nothing but welcome to him. He supposed the castle held memories Malfoy would rather forget, so it would do well for them to finish as quickly as they could.
“There is one more thing,” McGonagall said as they reached the Entrance Hall. “The bunker has a stasis charm on it so that you need neither food nor water nor medicine while you’re hiding inside.”
Harry nodded. “Hogwarts thought of everything,” he said with a grin.
McGonagall smiled at him; there was a sadness in her eyes, like there was something she hadn’t yet told him. His chest tightened with unease.
“You should visit Rubeus. He’ll explain everything.”
The walk across the grounds felt surreal with Malfoy by his side. Part of Harry was terrified that he would do or say something to make Hagrid unhappy, but part of him knew that he was beyond that now, and would treat the interaction like he treated every other necessary social nicety. He squashed down the part of him that wished Malfoy would genuinely like Hagrid, and pushed on.
“Harry!” Hagrid swept them both into the hut with barely a glance at Malfoy.
McGonagall had been told about the curse, and had presumably passed the information on to Hagrid, who was taking it in his stride as best he could - by ignoring it.
“S’good to see yeh.” He clapped Harry on the back so hard it sent him into a coughing fit.
By the time he’d recovered and said hello, Hagrid had already set three mugs of steaming hot chocolate on the table and a plate of rock cakes alongside. Harry considered trying to warn Malfoy about the rock cakes, but decided it would be funnier not to.
“McGonagall told yeh all abou’ the eggs, then?”
“Eggs?” Harry frowned.
Hagrid leapt up from his seat, sending the table crashing into Malfoy and Harry so hard it winded them, but he was too excited to notice Harry’s confusion or the murderous look on Malfoy’s face. Suddenly, the sound of chirping filled the air, and a tiny crate filled with even tinier balls of fluff was placed reverently in the centre of the table.
“Those aren’t eggs,” Harry said stupidly.
Hagrid gave the chirping fluff-balls a fond smile, reaching in with his finger and tickling one of them. A beak emerged and bit down on Hagrid’s finger, but he hardly noticed.
“We could’n’ believe it when we heard ‘em,” Hagrid continued. “Had to see it fer oursel’s, but should’a known it were true. She was a smart bird.”
Harry held up his hands, stopping Hagrid mid-speech. His head was spinning - Hagrid couldn’t possibly be saying what he thought he was. “Hagrid, what are you talking about?”
Hagrid gave him a surprisingly understanding smile. “The room started to appear in yer las’ year at school. An’ animals always know more ‘an we give ‘em credit fer - particularly the magic ones.”
“You’re saying these are…” Harry couldn’t finish the sentence. To think that she had known the danger, had sensed the sanctuary coming into existence beside her, and-
“Believe it or no’, these are ‘Edwig’s. Soon as they’re old enough, yer can take one o’ ‘em home with yeh.”
A knock on the door interrupted Harry’s stunned acceptance, and before he knew what was happening, the room was overrun with what looked like first year students. They quickly surrounded the crate, chattering in hushed tones as they leaned over with pipettes of a mushy food. The owlets began to screech for attention, stumbling over each other to get to the food.
Hagrid ushered Harry and Malfoy outside. “Some o’ the firs’ years are ‘elping. They do a brillian’ job o’ it. Couldn’t’a done it without ‘em.”
Malfoy cleared his throat. Hagrid turned to look at him, a frown on his face for the first time, like a warning.
“They’re Squibs,” Malfoy said bluntly.
Hagrid lifted his nose into the air. “They’re brillian’ Care of Magical Creatures studen’s.”
Harry blinked. “You’ve got Squibs here at Hogwarts?”
“Well, why no’?” Hagrid said, beaming at him. “They can do jus’ as much as the other studen’s, so long as it’s not summat like charms or transfiguration.”
Harry watched Malfoy closely, mesmerised by the range of emotions travelling across his face. His gut reaction was made obvious by the involuntary sneer at the corner of his lips, but his forehead was creased in thought, and Harry had learned to read him better now. He saw how Malfoy was chewing the inside of his lip in indecision, and he saw too the way he straightened his shoulders, set his jaw, and made a difficult, but firm decision.
He wondered how many times Malfoy had done this over the last few years - how many times he had been forced to think for himself, in situations where he had previously spent so long following patterns that were safe and familiar to him, and that, through his security and sheltered upbringing, he had been given no reason to question.
“Makes sense,” Malfoy said, and his tone was sincere.
After several seconds of stunned silence, Hagrid suddenly beamed and clapped Malfoy on the back. “Well who’d’a thought it? Young Malfoy ‘ere’s alrigh’.”
Malfoy smiled up at Hagrid awkwardly and bit down onto a rock cake.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Harry lay back on the floor of the bunker, waving his wand in faint circles above him until the ceiling began to fade and become see-through.
He set up the bowl and parchment with another flick of his wand, and watched as the pinpricks of light burnt small circles onto the chart. After a moment, Malfoy lay down beside him.
“This will be done by tomorrow,” Harry said, ignoring the way the echoes of the bunker made him think of the echo of Malfoy’s voice in his dream. “Then we can go to the Manor, if you’re ready?”
“I think so,” Malfoy said. “I’ve looked at the other cursed objects, and they don’t seem any different from the clock or the hairbrush. Much as I hate to say it, I don’t think it’s going to reveal much more. I could spend days trying to remove the curses, and find it was a complete waste of time.”
He didn’t need to add ‘and then you’ll be dead’; Harry heard it all the same.
“So how does a hag curse end?” Harry asked after a while, when he had stared so long at the stars that the stone walls of the bunker had faded out of his vision and he felt like was floating in a black abyss. “Do we just… learn something? And then it goes away?”
Malfoy huffed a laugh, but it wasn’t malicious. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I think it has to be said aloud - words have weight, and all that. But beyond that, I don’t know. And if you get the words wrong, it won’t work, or if you don’t mean them, it won’t work either. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, as well. A gesture of some sort, no doubt.”
“To each other or to her?”
He felt Malfoy’s shoulders move in a shrug. “Who knows?”
The star chart was finished quickly, and since no time had passed inside the bunker, there was still time for dinner when they emerged.
“Ron and Hermione wanted to meet us and Neville in Hogsmeade for dinner,” Harry said, a little apologetically. “Is that alright?”
Malfoy lifted an eyebrow. “Do I get to bring my friends as well?”
Harry was taken aback, but pleased that Malfoy would want to. “Sure.”
Less than an hour later, Harry was seated at the strangest gathering he had ever witnessed. From the look on Pansy and Blaise’s face, it was unusual for them as well.
“I heard that you two had gotten yourselves cursed,” Pansy said in a laconic drawl, “but I’ll admit I didn’t quite believe it until now.”
She flicked her wand idly at the red lanterns in the centre of the table, making the fire blaze fiercely and sending shadows across all their faces. Blaise was already in conversation with Hermione about his latest business proposal, and even Ron looked comfortable as he watched the band playing old wizard pop songs on the rickety old stage in the corner.
Neville arrived with their drinks, winding his way through the huddle of people perched on cosy arm chairs by the fire, ducking under the garland of silver stars, and squeezing himself into a seat at the end of their table.
“You can all find your own,” he mumbled, pushing the drinks into the centre. “I remembered what you wanted, but damned if I’ll remember who wanted what.”
Harry smirked at the sight of Malfoy’s eyebrows raising just a little at what, for Neville, was a shining display of confidence. It would seem that it wasn’t only blond gits who had changed over the last few years.
“So which one of you moronic Gryffindors thinks they can beat me at darts?” Malfoy drawled, looking up and down the table.
Then again, perhaps when he was with his fellow Slytherins, Malfoy hadn’t changed at all.
“Potter?” Malfoy bared his teeth in a grin.
Harry gave a mocking bow and crooked his finger at the hovering dart board so that it bounced its way to the end of their booth. Hermione cast shield charms around them all, and with a flourish, Malfoy jumped up and perched on the back of his seat. Harry mirrored him, and then the darts flew into their hands and they were off.
Wizard darts was a little different to Muggle darts, as Harry had realised a few years ago. Wizard darts was a bit of a mix between jousting, sword fighting, and darts. The dart board moved, and any time your opponent landed on the board, your vision became blurrier, which meant that the goal was to knock your opponents dart out of the air while still aiming for the target yourself. Add to that the fact that your vision was likely going to be getting blurrier regardless, and it was lucky that the darts were spelled not to stray too far from the board.
Harry knocked Malfoy’s first two darts out of the way, but missed the next ones, and he ended up nearly falling off his chair as he tried to lean closer to the fuzzy board. He could hear Malfoy cackling hysterically beside him, and he turned with a grin to shove him off his chair, but he froze at the sight of Malfoy staring straight back. His hair was messy from running his hands through it too many times, and his eyes were bright with laughter, but behind it all there was an expression that Harry had only ever seen before in his dreams, where Malfoy was looking at him like he was the only other person in the room.
Harry swallowed and turned away. He saw Pansy watching them with narrowed eyes, but everybody else was too busy talking and drinking to notice the two of them unless they were arguing. Which they didn’t seem to do much anymore. It had barely been a week, but Harry thought that over the last few days he could more easily remember times when they had attempted to understand each other, than times where they had fought without backing down.
He lifted his arm to throw again, but misjudged the angle and ended up toppling sideways. With a shout, he reached out to balance himself on Malfoy’s shoulder just as Malfoy brought a hand up to steady him. He stilled, the sensation of strong arms braced around him at once familiar and unsettling. He could feel his heart racing, and he knew Malfoy could feel it too, just as he could feel the cold spike of Malfoy’s fear below the warmth of his arousal.
“Careful, Potter,” Malfoy’s voice was pitched too low for the rest of the table to hear. “You’ll fall.”
Harry bit down hard to stop himself from responding. He was already too drunk to guard his thoughts properly, and he could feel the words on the tip of his tongue: I’ve already fallen.
“You two seem to be getting along well,” Pansy said with a smirk, sending two shots of Firewhiskey across the table to them. “To lowered inhibitions.” Her eyes flashed in the lantern-light as she toasted them, her lips staining her own glass red as she downed it without looking away.
The shot glass was shockingly cool compared to the fiery liquid on his tongue, and Harry felt like he was drowning in a sea of noise and laughter. Steady fingers came to rest, casually, on his arm, and he looked up to find Malfoy watching him, his face a calm island in the midst of the chaos around them.
They smiled at each other, and then a song that Pansy knew began to play, and she pulled them all up onto the dance floor with a shriek, bustling them into the centre until they were all moving to her satisfaction.
“She gets like this,” a fond voice murmured in his ear, but he couldn’t see where Malfoy was. He could only feel firm hands resting lightly on his waist, on his shoulders, ensuring none of the writhing, faceless bodies would have the chance to separate them.
Harry was half asleep by the time they arrived back at their room, although he remembered someone guiding him to his bed and tucking him in. Then the dream began, and he felt his body warming in anticipation of the feel of the lips and hands that had teased him all evening.
But something was different, and instead, Malfoy was withdrawing from him, backing away and watching him with sombre eyes.
“You don’t want this,” he said flatly. “It’s not real.”
“It is real,” Harry protested, but Malfoy had already faded away.
He snapped his eyes open, drawn by a noise in the bathroom - the sounds of someone taking a shower, even though it was hardly long enough for the water to have heated and would surely have been cold. He sat up and leant back against the headboard, feeling as sober as if he had just drunk a hangover potion.
Malfoy stepped into the doorway, his face shadowed by the light behind him. He saw Harry and clenched the towel tighter around his waist, water dripping down his torso and onto the floor. Harry couldn’t see his eyes, but he knew that he was watching him, waiting.
With a sigh so quiet Harry could hardly hear it, Malfoy turned away and began to walk toward his bed.
“Wait,” Harry said.
Malfoy stilled and turned back, and this time the light illuminated his face, bringing with it all the pain and hope that was written across his features.
Harry wondered if, amongst the miniscule number of people Malfoy cared about, there were any who had presented such a risk as this, as him. He wondered if there was ever a time before this where Malfoy had chosen to simply trust, instead of calculating and planning and listening to his father’s advice.
He could feel Malfoy’s pulse skittering about in fear, and some barrier inside him gave way. The sudden shock on Malfoy’s face told him that he knew exactly what Harry’s heart was feeling in this moment - what Harry was finally allowing it to feel - and when he crossed the room, Harry was already halfway off the bed, grabbing him by the waist and pulling him down on top of him.
“Are you sure?” Malfoy asked, his voice even huskier than it was in his dreams.
“Certain,” Harry said, before reaching up to brush his lips against Malfoy’s.
With a moan, Malfoy braced himself on top of Harry, their legs tangling together as the towel slipped away, forgotten, onto the floor. Surprisingly tender, Malfoy lowered himself until their lips were barely touching, bringing his arms up so that he was leaning on his elbows while his fingers threaded through Harry’s hair. It made him shiver, and in the second he closed his eyes, Malfoy crossed the distance between them and kissed him.
Their lips parted as they gasped and moaned, and their tongues slid eagerly together as they moved, slow at first and then faster, hands clasping desperately at skin that felt at once familiar and new.
“I know you think we’re going to be a disaster,” Malfoy breathed as he tore at Harry’s clothing, ripping his shirt up and over his head and moving lower, to his trousers.
His breath hitched, and he paused with his hands in Harry’s waistband, eyes frozen on the sight of Harry, long and hard, pressed against the fabric.
“But I disagree,” he finished, slowly and reverently as he slipped Harry’s trousers over his hips and knelt down to mouth him through his pants.
Harry cried out, unable to keep himself from arching up into the warmth. Then Malfoy slid his pants down too and slipped his fingers lower until they were running back and forth across Harry’s entrance. He whimpered, reaching down to grasp Malfoy’s hair and try to pull him back within his reach.
Kicking the blankets out of the way, Malfoy simply smirked and dropped lower still, whispering spells that Harry had never heard before and swallowing him just as his slick fingers pressed inside.
Gripping the pillow, Harry pulled it in, turning to bite it so that he didn’t cry out any more than he already was, quiet whimpers falling unbidden from his mouth as Malfoy worked him in slow, steady strokes.
Just when he thought he was getting close, Malfoy pulled out and sat back on his knees. Harry watched, half in fear and half in breathless anticipation, as Malfoy slicked his cock and leaned back down to press slowly in. Their breathing was ragged now, filling the quiet emptiness of the room, and then Malfoy moaned and thrust forward, picking up into a steady rhythm. Harry brought his arms up around Malfoy’s neck, pulling him down into another kiss that was all tongues and teeth and breathless gasps while Harry’s cock slid back and forth between their stomachs with almost unbearable friction.
“I know how to break the curse,” Malfoy whispered into his ear, slowing down until they were barely moving, riding the edge. “Your heart holds you back, did you know? Just like my fear does to me. But feeling your heart, these last few days... I understand you better now." Malfoy leaned back until all Harry could see were steady, grey eyes gazing into his. "I can break the curse; you just have to trust me.”
And Harry couldn’t help but think how ironic that was, when it was clear that Malfoy was the one with trust issues, and surely that was what the witch had meant for him to learn - even if she hadn’t meant for him to learn it quite this way - but it was all too much to take in with Malfoy’s voice sounding so rich and hoarse in his ear, and with a long cry, gripping on tightly to Malfoy’s shoulders, he came.
Malfoy’s fingers gripped the sheets and he stilled, moaning into Harry’s chest as he followed.
They lay there for what felt like hours, until Malfoy finally had to move before he suffocated Harry beneath him.
They stared at one another, and although Harry knew it should feel strange and awkward, it felt instead like something that was always going to happen between them, it was just that he had never realised until now.
Malfoy smiled at him and drew the blankets up, pulling Harry close to him as he did so.
Harry wasn’t sure if he was meant to hear the whispered words that fell next to his ear; they were so soft it sounded like the wind fluttering through grass in a field. But he did hear them, and as his heart thumped wildly at the admission, Malfoy pulled him closer still, smiling into his hair as their hearts beat together and they slowly fell asleep.
“What is it?” he asked, sitting up slowly, heart thudding.
Malfoy remained braced on one elbow, staring at the wall behind the bed with his eyebrows knitted together. It was the look he wore just before a cursed object either glowed or exploded.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said slowly, reaching out his hand to thread his fingers through Harry’s, even though he still wasn’t looking at him.
Harry released a breath at the evidence that Malfoy wasn’t regretting last night, and turned to see what had captured his attention. He froze.
“I had forgotten how close the pureblood families were, centuries ago,” Malfoy mused, staring at the initials carved into the wall. “It was quite common to stay for months on end at distant cousin’s townhouses.”
He finally broke away from the G.G & S.S that was etched in adolescent handwriting into the wall and pushed himself up to lean against the pillows, his eyes bright with new ideas. “And don’t you think that the Hogsmeade inn would be the exact place that our Hogwarts founders would stay while they were overseeing the building of the castle?”
Harry’s mouth fell open. “You mean,” he said slowly, “Salazar Slytherin and Godric Gryffindor?”
“Why not?” Malfoy asked, lying back down on the pillows. “It would explain why the contents of the room were so important to the witch - they’re more than family heirlooms; they’re history.”
“Maybe,” Harry said, leaning back next to Malfoy. He couldn’t help smiling when Malfoy slid an arm over his chest, curling into him. “But surely there are other people with those initials?”
“Undoubtedly,” Malfoy admitted. “But you’ve forgotten the letters. How many other G.G and S.S’s would be referring to a castle being built and the blessing of an important sword? It shouldn’t have taken us this long to realise.” His voice became suddenly distant, like he had forgotten Harry was there. “I didn’t think it mattered who they were; it was just some old story the witch had tied us up in, and we had to give it all back. But this makes sense now. It makes sense that it’s us.”
Harry frowned. “What are we tied up in?”
Malfoy didn’t answer, but lay staring at the wall, deep in thought.
“If that is true, the fact that the guest room was hidden would make sense,” Harry mused, giving up on that particular mystery for now. “They obviously didn’t make their, er, relationship public. I guess-” A violent pain suddenly spread through his chest, and he doubled forward, clutching at the sheets and coughing uncontrollably.
Malfoy leapt from the bed, frantically searching through his suitcase, but by the time he had found the potion he was searching for, the fit had passed.
Harry opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Malfoy let out an inhuman shriek, dropping the potion to shatter on the ground as he stared down at his pale, blood-soaked hands.
They stared at each other, chests heaving, before they wordlessly sprang into action, dressing themselves and coming together in a tight embrace as they apparated back to Broadmoor Manor.
It creaked open at their touch, and they crept cautiously inside.
The manor was as eerily empty as when they had left it. The grandfather clock ticked solemnly in the hall, and the soft carpet muffled their footsteps as they padded up the corridor. It likely also muffled anyone else’s footsteps, but Harry tried not to think about that.
“Is your chest hurting?” Malfoy asked quietly.
“A little,” Harry admitted, rubbing his collar, where it felt like something was clawing its way slowly down. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think we have much time.”
A soft creak was all the warning they had before the lanterns in the wall sconces suddenly blazed and a familiar voice sounded from behind them.
“I’d say you have no time left at all.”
They turned to see the witch leaning on a cane at the foot of the stairs, watching them with black eyes.
They walked slowly back until they were standing just before her.
The hag grinned. “Enjoying each other’s company?”
“Shut up, you old crone,” Malfoy spat.
Harry elbowed him sharply, although he found he couldn’t do much more than glare mutinously at the witch, knowing that she had done this to them and would happily watch them fail.
The witch laughed, the sound echoing round the cavernous entryway. “Surely you’ve learned not to insult me by now.”
Malfoy sneered. “You don’t care what we say to you; this was never about what we said.”
Her smile was like a wolf’s, and Harry fought not to shudder in response.
“One gold star to the little blond,” she rasped, her words carrying a terrible weight. “What else have we learned?”
Somehow the wind had swept through the cracks beneath the door and the windows, and it was starting to whistle, sending their clothing whipping around their ankles.
Malfoy waved his wand, and his suitcase suddenly appeared in the hall. The witch’s eyes flashed bright with something unidentifiable, and Harry found himself wondering exactly how long ago Malfoy had figured it all out. Surely he would have told him?
“We’ll revise the Ministry’s report,” he drawled. “You can have everything back, curses untouched.”
Harry frowned in confusion at the witch’s delighted smile. “Why do you want them to stay cursed?” he asked, but both Malfoy and the witch ignored him.
Something that Harry couldn’t decipher passed between them.
“He hasn’t figured it out, has he?” Her words fell like the words of a prophecy, and Harry couldn’t shake the sensation that he had somehow disappointed her.
The wind had picked up around them. It howled through the bannister, tearing wallpaper from the walls and sending paintings flying from their hooks. He could hear the witch screaming, but her mouth was closed and all he could see were her terrible eyes, staring straight into his soul.
“I don’t know how else to show him,” Malfoy said, his voice breaking.
Harry turned to Malfoy, reaching out to him, trying to tell him that it was okay, it would all be okay, and he wasn’t really afraid to die, but Malfoy wasn’t looking at him. He was looking at the witch, pleading with her with unspoken words.
She turned to Malfoy, and Harry found himself silently begging that she would see that Malfoy had changed, and that he didn’t see a heart as a weakness anymore but a strength. He begged her silently, but he knew she wasn’t listening; she had eyes only for Malfoy.
“As you will,” she said quietly, raising her hand to point a quivering, bony finger at Malfoy, “so shall it be.”
Then Malfoy disappeared.
Harry was struck for several long seconds, unable to move, before he stumbled forward, reaching for the witch who seemed suddenly to be standing miles away from him. “Where did you send him?” he yelled. “Send him back! Send him back!”
The witch smiled at him. “I thought you weren’t afraid to die. Is the Saviour nothing but a liar after all?”
Harry stumbled and fell, clutching at his chest as violent pain began to shred through his ribs. “I’m not,” he spat through gritted teeth, but as he fell forward onto the carpet, all he could think of was Malfoy’s pale face as he clutched Harry’s blood-soaked heart, and he found that it wasn’t true.
He was terrified.
He was terrified for Malfoy, who would be forced to hold Harry’s heart as the life slowly bled away from him. He was terrified for Malfoy, who was about to lose the first person he had trusted to love him unconditionally, when there was no reason for it to work and every reason for it to fail. He was terrified for Malfoy, who, against all logic, loved Harry, and was now about to lose him.
Harry had always mattered to people. He had always been important. He had always been a hero. But he had always been worth more as a sacrifice.
Something had changed over the last few days. Something had grown between the two of them that even Harry was almost too scared to put a name to. He thought of Ron and Hermione, of the Weasleys, of Remus and Sirius and his parents. He thought of the love he had always felt for them, and the love he knew they felt for him in return.
And he thought of Malfoy.
No matter how much the people he loved loved him in return, he had never been someone’s everything. He had never known he could be.
With that thought, and with the knowledge that for once his sacrifice would destroy far more than it could possibly save, came the realisation that he was not only terrified for Malfoy, but for himself. He deserved more than his.
He clutched his hand to his chest, curling in on himself as the pain became too much to bear. He needed to save himself. Malfoy obviously couldn’t reach him, so he had to hope that he thought of the same place.
Gathering his strength, he Apparated to Coda’s room, distantly thankful that they weren’t home, and stumbled forward through the door and onto the beach. Lightning split the sky, and the air felt electric. Harry thought he saw a figure standing on the beach, by the tree, and with an agonizing cry he ran forward, falling at the last second and collapsing onto the sand.
He grabbed onto the trunk and looked up. “Malfoy-” he began, but choked on the words as he realised it wasn’t Malfoy.
The ghostly figure stared through Harry at the tree. Harry turned and saw the carved initials beneath his fingertips, and sucked in a breath at the realisation of why the ghost looked so familiar. He had seen him in paintings.
“Godric?” he rasped.
Godric ignored him. “It’s not real,” he whispered. “We will never last. How could we?”
The words were an echo of Harry’s dreams, and he could almost see Malfoy standing in front of him, his face shattering into a million pieces as Harry’s heart refused to let him in.
“It is real.” Harry’s voice was rough, and he didn’t know why the words mattered so much to him, but they did. “You will last.”
Godric turned to him then, silver eyes shining with tears that could never be shed. “I know you,” he said with a frown, then realisation dawned on his features. He shook his head. “No, I do not, but you are a mirror.”
“I’ve been cursed,” Harry said, somehow knowing what Godric meant. His chest gave an awful lurch, and the beating of his heart began to fade.
“Not a curse. A memory.” Godric’s eyes were sad. “Memories cannot change.”
“Of course they can,” Harry spat, his voice fierce. “You think that you’re too different, you and Salazar. That’s bollocks. When has that ever mattered?”
He had to raise his voice to be heard over the thunder and the wind that howled around them. The tree bent viciously beneath the onslaught, and Harry struggled to remain upright.
“Good and evil are only how things look on the surface,” Harry went on, his voice growing weak. “And you’re using it as an excuse to walk away and blame each other.”
“His fear makes him weak.” Godric’s voice sounded suddenly like thunder.
Harry laughed. “You call yourself brave, but you don’t know the meaning of fear. And here’s the thing: you can’t live if you don’t know how to be afraid, because you’ll just give it all up the second you feel you have to. You care too much about others and not at all for yourself.” He coughed, huge hacking coughs that seemed like they wouldn’t stop. “And if you can’t realise that,” he said finally. “Then no, it won’t work. It’s not real. Because you’ll never be able to understand his fear. You’ll never be able to understand him at all.”
Godric’s eyes were wide, and he appeared frozen in place. “He cares too much about himself.” The words fell unbidden, a broken whisper amidst the howling of the storm.
“Only because love is too precious for him to risk.”
There was a shimmer in the air next to Godric. A ghostly hand reached out to clasp Godric’s between his fingers.
Harry felt his lips curving into a smile, relief coursing through him. “You understand now?”
Godric turned to him, his face finally peaceful as he drew the still faint Salazar closer.
“Then you’ll be fine.”
Godric turned back to him, head cocked in confusion, already beginning to fade into the night. “I’m only a memory,” he repeated, his eyes boring into Harry’s as if there was something Harry was missing. “Memories cannot change.”
A sharp crack of thunder filled the air, and the last thing he saw was Malfoy, Apparating into view, but he was too far away, and Harry couldn’t see his face.
The voice interrupted his dreams, and he shoved blindly at the air, trying to push the intruder away.
“Harry, wake up.” The intruder was laughing. They had a nice laugh.
Suddenly, his memory returned to him and he sat bolt upright, gripping the carpet beneath him so he didn’t fall over. “What happened?” he rasped, the words tumbling over each other in a sleepy mumble.
“We broke the curse,” Malfoy said smugly, and Harry opened his eyes to see that he was lying on the floor in the Alcove at Broadmoor Manor.
After a second, Harry grinned, reaching out and yanking Malfoy into a rough kiss. “Really?” he mumbled against Malfoy’s lips. “Are you going to tell me how?”
He felt Malfoy’s mouth curve into a smile, but Malfoy gently pushed him back and straightened his shirt.
“Well,” he began, obviously relishing the attention. “Perhaps I should say we’ve nearly broken it. There are a couple of things left to do before the curse is broken.” He stood up and reached his hand down to help Harry.
“Not a curse,” Harry said distantly, standing up and looking around the room. “A memory.”
Malfoy nodded soberly. “This room had been hidden for centuries, forgotten ever since Godric and Salazar went down in flames and sealed up their guest room in bitter anger. We should have felt it - the sadness seeps from the walls.”
“We let it out,” Harry said, eyes wide as the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place. “We opened up the room and let all the anger and pain back into the house.”
“I think it had been seeping out for a while, actually. We just sped it up.”
In the middle of the room sat Malfoy’s suitcase, and they walked quickly over to open the lid. Everything they had taken from the room sat inside, and when the lid popped open it was like the walls breathed a sigh of relief.
“I think the witch knew,” Malfoy said quietly as he began to unpack the items, setting them carefully back where they belonged. “It must have been a family secret, if Salazar and Godric spent as much time here as their letters suggested. She saw something in us, something that could lance the wound and help the Manor heal.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Harry asked, wondering again how long Malfoy had known.
Malfoy sighed. “Hag magic,” he said in disgust. “If I tell you the answer, it makes it void. I could see the curse on you reaching out to the clock and the brush. I thought it was just because they were both from the manor, but then it was just too strange, finding the initials everywhere when they were on the items as well.”
“So she tied us into the memories,” Harry said, draping the dusty blanket back over the bird cage. “She tied it into a lesson curse. The dreams, the carvings we kept finding - we were following their memories around without ever knowing. What was she hoping we would do? Lie their spirits to rest?” He felt sad at the thought of what Godric and Salazar had lost, even if their ghosts had finally found each other again.
“That,” Malfoy agreed, “but I think she also wanted us to understand why the items needed to be returned.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Can’t you feel it?”
Harry could. The room had felt tight with anticipation ever since they had first opened it up, but now it was different. Although the sadness still lingered, it felt comforting, like looking through his parents’ photo album. If they had stripped the possessions of their curses and memories, it could never have felt like this. It would have been Obliviated rather than healed.
It would be like losing the Dark Mark, and forgetting all about the murky path that fear can lead you down, and all the reasons why you chose to change.
Suddenly, he froze. “If she wanted us to solve the curse,” he said slowly. “That means you wanted her to make you disappear.”
Malfoy swallowed, lips pale. “I couldn’t think of another way to get you to realise what you meant to me.”
Harry was silent, horrified at the knowledge that Malfoy had begged the witch to push it all the way to the end, trusting and hoping that Harry would realise before it was too late.
“It’s impossible to be afraid,” Malfoy said quietly, “when you don’t place any value on what you have to lose. I was trusting that you’d seen yourself through my eyes enough by now to realise how wrong you were.”
Their eyes met, and Harry had the strangest feeling that the room was listening in. Memories can’t change, but the future can.
“It’s a strange thought,” Harry said, turning away and looking at the room, at how it would have looked to Godric and Salazar all those years ago, “that the right answer was to leave the curses on the items.”
“If we remove the curses when they don’t want to be removed, then we’re denying them the right to their sorrow,” Malfoy said simply. “They’re entitled to only want each other’s company. When a tired dog growls at you, you back away. You don’t chastise it for being antisocial.”
Dust motes swirled through the air, catching the light like tiny stars in the mist.
Harry closed the suitcase and stood up. “So the curse is broken?”
“We honoured the memory,” Malfoy said, hovering the suitcase in front of him. His words sounded prophetic in the quiet of the room. “We set their spirits to rest and realised the value of what we each had to lose, as well as what we were missing all along.”
“It’s funny how understanding each other means being both right and wrong at the same time,” Harry said drily.
Harry looked up to see that Malfoy had moved quietly until he was standing in front of him. His breath hitched, and he felt his heart begin to race. Malfoy reached out his hand, and without a word, they Apparated back to the inn.
“So, do you want to tell Ron and Hermione, or will I?” Harry asked with a smile as they collapsed backward onto the bed.
Malfoy leaned forward and tilted his chin gently up so their lips met in a slow, delicious kiss.
“About the curse, or about this?” Malfoy asked, grinning wickedly back.
The soft pattering of rain on glass filled the room, and Harry sank back down into the bedsheets. They were in no rush to be anywhere.
“I think,” Malfoy said thoughtfully, “that if you want to have an easier time winning Pansy over, we should let her tell them.”
Harry laughed, letting Malfoy pull him down on top of him. “Deal.”