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Merlin Works in Mysterious Ways

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Part 1: Bound By Blood

Harry wanted to die.

He’d woken up some time ago, but hadn’t been able to make himself get out of bed. His head was aching murderously, as if a mad dwarf with a hammer had taken up residency inside it, and when he opened his eyes, arrows of pain seemed to shoot through his eyeballs and optic nerves directly into his brain. With a groan, he closed them again, grabbed the second pillow lying beside him, and pressed it on his face. Sweet, sweet darkness.

For a while, he simply stayed like this, wallowing. His eyes were throbbing, his tongue was sticking to his gums, and he knew if he were to get up, he’d feel shaky on his legs and entirely too exhausted to get down the long flight of stairs to the kitchen.

It was his own fault, as Hermione would undoubtedly tell him, for drinking too much when he knew full well that he couldn’t stomach it. Over the past years, there had been many a joke about Harry being unable to hold his liquor ever since two glasses of Firewhiskey had made him sing an offensive song about goblins and try to snuggle up to Head Auror Elmira Ruskin in a decidedly inappropriate fashion at the department’s Christmas party. Ron had dragged him away before he’d made even more of an ass out of himself, and fortunately, Ruskin had been amused rather than angry.

But the Harpies had won the League Cup yesterday – Ginny had caught the Snitch – and at the victory party after the game she had invited him to, one of their Chasers, Valmai Morgan, had kept flirting with him, offering him one glass of champagne after the other. The further the evening had progressed, the deeper Harry had looked into her brilliant blue eyes – and the bottle. He wasn’t certain how he’d got home, and he vaguely remembered Ginny teasing him about a hangover as early as 9pm. He’d not listened – the evening and Valmai had been too lovely to care.

Still, Hermione would say, a beautiful woman wasn’t a reason to –

Hermione!

Harry pushed away the pillow and sat up abruptly, causing his head to spin and his stomach to lurch dangerously. He forced himself to take a few deep, slow breaths before he blindly reached for his alarm clock on the bedside table.

Hermione and Ron had wanted to stop by today for a late lunch after returning from a holiday in Egypt just last night, and he’d forgotten to tell Kreacher, meaning that Kreacher wouldn’t have thought of waking him on time but let him sleep in, as he always did on a Sunday.

Harry could only hope it wasn’t anywhere near 2pm already – he would hate to have to face them like this. He’d never hear the end of it. Bracing himself, he opened his eyes, tried to ignore the pain, and looked at the alarm clock. 8:23am. Great. With a sigh, Harry let himself fall back on the pillow. He must have slept for less than five hours, and knowing himself, he wouldn’t manage to go back to sleep any time soon. He might as well get up.

Even after he’d made the decision, it took him about another ten minutes to motivate himself to move, and when he finally shuffled into the kitchen, the smell of bacon and eggs almost sent him staggering back out.

“Ah, Master Harry.” Kreacher, who was standing at the old-fashioned cooker, paid no attention to the fact that Harry was clinging to the doorframe, trying to get his stomach under control. “Kreacher thought Master Harry would need a proper breakfast to help him. When Miss Ginny brought Master Harry home a few hours ago, she woke Kreacher and told him about the champagne, and Kreacher knew what to do immediately.”

He waved his hand, the door of one of the cupboards opened, and a plate floated to his side. The amount of eggs, bacon, and beans he heaped on it filled Harry with trepidation.

“Kreacher would have kept it warm, but it’s best when it’s fresh out of the pan.” The plate settled down in Harry’s favourite place at the table, where a large glass of water was already waiting.

“Ugh,” Harry managed to say. Kreacher nodded.

“Yes, Kreacher knows Master Harry’s not feeling well. And Master Harry knows this is how it goes after too much to drink. Kreacher promised Miss Ginny to make sure that Master Harry eats a large breakfast. She agreed that it’s what Master Harry needs, and even if Kreacher hadn’t done this before, he would think that she must know best.”

Resigned, Harry sat down and took the fork. The worst thing about it was that Ginny was right – after two years of living together as a couple at Grimmauld Place and another four as good friends, she was who knew him best, apart from Ron and Hermione. He was glad about it, glad that they’d split amicably and were still in each other’s lives, but right now, he resented her conspiring with his house-elf against him. If Kreacher hadn’t known, Harry could simply have skipped breakfast and contented himself with the headache potion he’d taken before coming downstairs. Not that it would have been enough to make him feel better. He still wasn’t sure why, in a world of magic that even had invented something to re-grow your bones, nobody seemed to be able to come up with a decent hangover cure.

Harry sighed, listlessly spooned some beans onto the fork, and stuck it in his mouth.

Ten minutes later, he was halfway through the second helping, had asked Kreacher to fry some tomatoes, and was thinking of buying Ginny flowers to thank her for taking care of him.

He had just started on the tomatoes when the doorbell rung. Although he felt halfway human again, he didn’t particularly care for visitors right now, and his mood didn’t rise when he opened the door and found himself faced with Draco Malfoy.

They hadn’t met since the battle of Hogwarts nine years ago – none of the children of Death Eaters had attended school to take their N.E.W.T.s. Harry had glimpsed him a few times at the Ministry or at Diagon Alley, but it had always been from afar, and they’d never talked or even acknowledged each other. There was no reason why Malfoy should turn up at Harry’s door or why they would ever have anything to do with each other again.

“What do you want?” Harry didn’t care much about being polite, and from the way Malfoy was glaring at him, the sentiment was mutual.

For a few moments, Malfoy said nothing, then he took a deep breath. “I’ve come to accept your proposal.”

“What are you talking about? Which . . . proposal?” They hadn’t spoken once since the Malfoys had awkwardly thanked him for speaking on their behalf at their trial after the war – not that it had helped them much.

Malfoy drew himself up to his full height. There was a strange pink tinge to his pale cheeks. “Your proposal of marriage, of course.”

Harry stared at him, dumbfounded. Was this some kind of joke? A prank played on him by . . . but who of his friends would employ Malfoy for such a thing? And why would Malfoy play along?

Or had Malfoy simply gone mental?

Had Harry gone mental?

“I must be hallucinating,” he finally got out.

“You’re not, Potter. I’ve come to accept your proposal of marriage. I had hoped I wouldn’t have to do it, but the circumstances leave me no choice.” When Harry didn’t reply, Malfoy rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Judging by the fact that you’re wearing the same dazed expression your friend Longbottom used to in Potions class, you haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m talking about, right?”

“Right,” Harry echoed. He must be hallucinating. Surely, he hadn’t been drunk enough last night to propose to anybody, let alone Malfoy. Had he? Not to mention that Malfoy hadn’t been at the party. As far as Harry could remember, at least – which wasn’t all that far.

“I’ll explain it to you, but only after you let me in,” Malfoy demanded. “I don’t appreciate having to wait on your doorstep as if I were asking for alms. You were the one proposing to me, after all.”

Harry had the overwhelming desire to simply slam the door in Malfoy’s face and return to the kitchen. Kreacher could make him tea and he could watch some TV and just laze around for some hours until Ron and Hermione would arrive. He’d tell them about this outlandish episode and they’d all have a good laugh at the idea of Harry proposing to Malfoy. He definitely hadn’t been that drunk. Definitely.

But for whatever reason, he felt that he couldn’t do it. For all of Malfoy’s snappy arrogance, there was something off about him, about the way his posture was just a bit too rigid, his fists clenched too tightly by his sides. After three years of Auror training and five years in the actual job, Harry, like many of his colleagues, had developed a sixth sense for such things, and now he had the distinct impression that in fact, Malfoy was feeling that he was ‘asking for alms’, as he’d put it.

“Fine,” he said, stepping away from the door. “Come on in. Let’s talk.”

In the kitchen, Malfoy sat down stiffly on the chair Harry offered him, and Harry, who’d sat down as well, was just about to ask him what the hell this was all about when he noticed something else. Malfoy was shaking. Not much, but it was there, although he seemed to try to hide it by tightly folding his hands in front of him on the table. He was staring straight ahead at Harry with an expressionless face, but hadn’t he looked at the leftover eggs and beans on the cooker a little too long when they’d come in?

It was only now when Harry paid closer attention that he realised that Malfoy was too thin, almost haggard. His face had become even more pinched, eyes lying deep in their sockets, and his fingers looked too long and spidery. Harry couldn’t remember him ever looking quite like this, not even at the end of the war.

It wasn’t a conscious decision when he asked, “I was just having breakfast. Do you want some?”

“I am not . . .” Malfoy began, and Harry already expected that he’d refuse. But then Malfoy fell silent, pressing his lips together in a thin line. Harry could see he was fighting with himself, not wanting to admit anything that could be regarded as weakness in front of Harry. Considering he’d been talking about marriage only a minute ago, it seemed all the more bizarre, but by now Harry felt sobered up almost completely and was certain that something must be seriously wrong and that he couldn’t make any assumptions.

“Yes,” Malfoy said now. “Breakfast doesn’t sound that bad.”

At first, he ate slowly, obviously trying to maintain his dignity, but after only a few forkfuls, he dug in as if he hadn’t eaten properly in a week. Harry watched him with growing unease and ordered Kreacher to fry a few sausages and more eggs, and when Malfoy was done, Harry waved Kreacher to fill up the plate again. Malfoy seemed about to object, but then stayed silent and went on shovelling food into his mouth.

In the end, Malfoy put down the fork, but he didn’t look up, staring at his empty plate instead. He must be terribly embarrassed, Harry thought, and while part of him was gloating, he didn’t really like that part very much right now.

“Kreacher’s a wonderful cook,” he said. “I just had two helpings myself before you came. You should see Ron – he slips into a food coma most times he’s here.”

“You’re being pathetically obvious,” Malfoy said, but now he did look at Harry.

Kreacher had, without being ordered, made a pot of tea and left the kitchen to let them talk, and Harry now poured them both a cup.

“So,” he said when he was done. “What’s going on? What’s with me proposing to you? I never did that, and you know it. I wasn’t that drunk last night. This has got to be a joke.”

Malfoy nodded. “I should have known that you would be woefully uneducated concerning these matters, even though it’s about your own family history. Saviour of the Wizarding world and all, but no clue about anything, let alone who you are.”

“Look, Malfoy! I don’t know what you’re going on about and frankly, I don’t care much.” Which was a lie. It was all bogus, of course, and he was still seriously wondering if Malfoy was quite right in the head. But this was . . . interesting. “What I do know is that I’m not going to let you insult me in my own house, so either you spit it out or you can leave again.”

Malfoy’s grip around his cup tightened visibly, but he nodded. “All right. You do know that your father came from a long pure-blood line, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know. But what does that have to do with you and me?”

“Everything. Only 150 years ago, the Potters were one of the most respected pure-blood families, right up there with the Malfoys and Blacks.”

“How the times have changed,” Harry couldn’t keep himself from saying.

Malfoy grimaced, but didn’t respond to the bait. “They weren’t just one of the richest and most respected families,” he went on, “they also were deeply entrenched in Dark Magic.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Is it? Why? Just because your parents were fighting the Dark Lord, do you think their forefathers had to be like them? Think about your godfather. He came from one of the darkest Wizarding families in this country’s history, and he turned from them when he was still a kid.”

“I don’t believe you,” Harry insisted. “Somebody would have told me. Sirius or the Weasleys, or maybe Dumbledore.”

“Why would they? Black and your Weasel friends probably wanted to spare your feelings, and as for Dumbledore, wasn’t it more convenient for him that you didn’t know?”

Damn Malfoy, but he did have a point.

“Still, even if it were true, which I don’t believe, what does it have to do with anything?”

Malfoy sighed. “There are traditions. Traditions that aren’t upheld by anybody but pure-blood families anymore, and specifically those who are regarded as ‘dark’. One of them is the Blood Proposal.”

“Blood Proposal.” Slowly but surely, Harry began to doubt that he had, in fact, sobered up. Maybe he was still asleep and all of this was nothing more than a particularly strange dream brought on by too much alcohol.

“You remember, I suppose, casting a certain spell on me in our sixth school year,” Malfoy said. “One that slashed my chest open and nearly had me bleed to death.”

“You’re not telling me . . .”

“Yes, Potter. I know it wasn’t your intention, but after the old ways, that was you proposing to me. A wizard proposes to a witch by casting a dark spell that will spill her blood. Usually it’s a lot less blood, as I may add.” Malfoy absently rubbed his chest. “There are also some traditional words going with it, but they’re not essential, the spell is. By spilling her blood, the wizard vows to protect her and her family in exchange for a blood heir to continue their lines. If she wants to accept, she has to cast the same spell on him. That seals the engagement.”

Clearly, Malfoy must have lost his mind. But at least it answered the question about last night.

“There’s that Longbottom-look again,” Malfoy said.

“Excuse me, but it’s just a tad hard to believe that there’s a way to get accidentally engaged by attacking someone. And anyway, why – if you’re actually serious, which I find hard to believe – why would you want to accept it? Why marry me?”

“I will tell you once you stop looking at me as if I were some creature from that ridiculous Quibbler magazine. For now, why don’t you call for your house-elf if you don’t believe me? Ask him about Blood Proposals. He is old enough to have seen generations of Blacks go through the ritual.”

Harry felt a small amount of dread sneaking into him, but told himself not to be stupid. Even if these Blood Proposals were how it had worked in the past – always provided Malfoy didn’t actually belong in St Mungo’s – his parents hadn’t been dark wizards, and he wasn’t one, either. This particular tradition didn’t affect him, and on the whole, to think that accidentally spilling somebody’s blood with a hex immediately meant a marriage proposal was absurd.

“Fine, I’ll ask him.” Harry called Kreacher, and the old house-elf appeared with a ‘pop’ next to Harry’s chair.

“Kreacher,” Harry said, “can you tell me anything about Blood Proposals?”

Kreacher’s watery eyes went wide, but he nodded, answering immediately. “Kreacher knows all about Blood Proposals,” he said. “He has seen many of them, since he was a small elf helping out in the kitchen. Kreacher wishes he could have seen Master Regulus perform the ritual, but the last one he witnessed in this house was when Master Orion proposed to Mistress Walburga.” He smiled, quite obviously remembering the day fondly. Harry shuddered, thinking of the screeching portrait of Mrs Black which had been hanging in the entrance hall and had now been banished to the attic.

“Malfoy said it’s a tradition upheld in families that practise Dark Magic. I’m not from one, so even if it exists, this whole thing doesn’t apply to me, right, Kreacher?”

To Harry’s dismay, Kreacher began wringing his hands, looking decidedly uncomfortable.

“Well?”

“Kreacher knows about Master Harry’s unnatural dislike of Dark Magic, so he’s not happy to tell him that his family has always been practising Dark Magic, over many generations, until very recently. Kreacher has seen many Potters in this house over the years, since they were good friends with the Blacks.” Now Kreacher looked up at Harry, whose heart sank more the longer he listened.

“Kreacher knows that Master Harry saw the family tree tapestry and the name Charlus Potter on it. He was Master Harry’s second cousin, but he died in a fire with his wife and son before Master Harry was born. Kreacher watched as Master Charlus performed the ritual of the Blood Proposal with Mistress Walburga’s aunt, Mistress Dorea.”

Harry’s head was swirling as he tried to make sense of the complicated family relations. He’d never known much about the Potters, only what Sirius had told him: that they came from a long line of pure-blood wizards, and that his grandparents had been old when they’d had Harry’s father, even for Wizarding standards. They’d passed away from a Wizarding disease only months before Harry had been born. It did fit with what Kreacher was saying, though. He vaguely remembered the birth date next to Charlus on the tapestry being something like 1914 or 1915, and if he was indeed Harry’s second cousin, it meant that he’d been an adult for almost thirty years before Harry’s father, his uncle, had even been born.

“Master Charlus followed the old ways, after his parents,” Kreacher went on, “but his great-uncle, Martinus Potter, Master Harry’s grandfather . . . he had turned from the family. He did marry a pure-blood wife, but Kreacher heard that there was no Blood Proposal, and they never came to visit or even spoke to the rest of the family anymore. Kreacher heard it said that Master Martinus was obliterated from the Potter family tree. All hopes were resting on Master Charlus, and when he died with his family, his parents were devastated. They believed that the Potter family had come to a ruinous end, and . . . Kreacher is sorry to say, but they drowned themselves the very same year. That way, Master Harry’s grandparents and father were the last Potters. And Master Harry, of course.”

The headache was returning, and Harry pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a few moments. This was why he hated the whole focus on blood-lines – it was too damn confusing, and it all ended in tragedy far too often.

“So,” he said, taking a deep breath, “is it at all possible to . . . get engaged by accident? Say, a wizard attacks someone with a slashing hex, a dark one, but he didn’t actually mean to propose.”

“Oh, Kreacher has seen something like it,” came the reply, and Harry slumped in his chair, burying his face in his hands. “It’s how old Master Sirius, Master Regulus’s great-grandfather, got to be married to Hesper Gamp. They were actually fighting, trying to kill each other. Their families had been bitter enemies for generations. Mistress Hesper provoked Master Sirius so much that . . .” Kreacher hesitated, but then went on, “Master Sirius took leave of his senses and used a dark slashing hex. He met his target, but once Mistress Hesper realised what had happened, she disarmed and bound him and delivered him to his family. The next few weeks, she visited every day and took great pleasure in taunting him with the fact that he had bound himself to her for life if she so chose, and that she would see him miserable much rather than simply see him dead. Master Sirius was bereft, but in the end, he had to marry her.”

“All right, thank you, Kreacher,” Harry said. “You can go now.”

There was another ‘pop’, and when Harry opened his eyes, there was only Malfoy, watching him attentively.

“Look, Malfoy . . .” Harry wasn’t quite sure what to say, but he wanted to get rid of him as quickly as possible. Right now, he wasn’t particularly interested anymore in finding out what, precisely, Malfoy was planning or why. He’d learnt too much in too short a time, and nothing of it was pleasant. It wasn’t that he was horribly shocked or sad about his family’s past, and he still wasn’t seriously considering that anything Malfoy could have told him in regard to the two of them was valid – although a nagging voice of doubt had settled somewhere in the back of his mind. Mostly, he was confused and tired, and he wanted some time to think things through without having to deal with Malfoy, of all people. “I don’t think I —”

“I know you’re rattled,” Malfoy interrupted him. “But I can’t wait anymore. I have waited as long as I could – I didn’t want to come. But I didn’t have a choice. We’ve got to talk this through; I’ll explain what happened, and why. You can’t send me away now.”

“I can.” Harry got up and started towards Malfoy. “I could have when you were standing on my doorstep. I’ve got no obligation. I didn’t propose to you – I’m not a dark wizard, so whatever it might have meant even if it was accidental, it doesn’t mean anything when it comes to me.” He’d arrived next to Malfoy, who’d got up as well, glaring at Harry from eyes shining with . . . anger? Despair? Harry wasn’t certain. “I can see you’re not doing well, and I’m actually rather sorry for you. But it’s not my problem.”

It wasn’t, and it shouldn’t be. He’d done more than enough for Malfoy’s family. Still, Harry found that he couldn’t simply throw Malfoy out like this. He no longer thought it an option that the man had somehow snapped. As he’d suspected earlier, something was indeed very wrong, and Malfoy must be desperate to have come to him; Harry was certain that he was the absolute last option. Malfoy himself had said that he hadn’t wanted to do it. And marriage – just what kind of problems did he have that he’d consider something this ludicrous rather than face them?

“If you need help, just . . . come back tomorrow evening, tell me what your problem is, and I’ll see what I can do, all right?” And hopefully, with that, the whole affair would be brought to an end.

They kept staring at each other for a few more moments, then Malfoy slumped ever so slightly, and when he ran a hand though his hair, Harry could see that it was trembling again.

“I will come back tomorrow,” Malfoy said. “But there is no other solution. It’s clear you wouldn’t believe me if I explained any more, so ask your elf, or if you don’t believe him either, ask your know-it-all friend, Granger. I’m sure she can tell you all about why you do have an obligation and what happens if you don’t honour it.”

“Is that supposed to be a threat?”

Malfoy didn’t answer, but turned away and left the kitchen. Some moments later, Harry could hear the front door falling shut behind him.

He took the teapot and his cup and went to the living room, where he slumped down on the green velvet couch in front of the telly with a groan after he’d put them on the coffee table. Why did he have to get up? But if he’d been unavailable and Kreacher had sent Malfoy away, he’d only have come back later. At least now, Harry thought as he reached for the remote, he could ask Hermione right away if she knew anything about Blood Proposals.

Half an hour later, while The Simpsons was running, Harry had fallen asleep again.

.-.-.-.-.

Harry was sitting in the kitchen with Ron and Hermione, drinking butterbeer and eating delicious sandwiches and cheese canapés Kreacher had prepared while he had been sleeping. The two had told Harry about Egypt, and he’d let them talk, letting their stories about exotic creatures and old tombs distract him for a while. In the end, though, he’d brought up his bizarre morning visit.

Both Ron and Hermione had put their sandwiches down and stared at him in confusion when Harry had mentioned the words ‘proposal’ and ‘marriage’, but when he came to the part about his family having been entrenched in Dark Magic and mentioned the ‘Blood Proposal’, Ron started choking and spitting pieces of toast and tuna everywhere.

“You’re kidding!” he finally gasped, after Hermione had slapped him hard on the back several times. “Blood Proposals are serious stuff. They’re Unbreakable Blood Contracts – it doesn’t get any more serious than that. Mum told me about Uncle Ignatius Prewett proposing that way to Lucretia Black. She was Sirius’s aunt, I think.”

“You’ve got an uncle who’s practising Dark Magic?” Harry asked.

“Uh, we don’t like to talk about him so much anymore. Before he married, he was okay; Mum and Dad even named Percy after him. But once he married her, he got all weird. Well, he moved away to the Orkney Islands after she died over fifteen years ago. Said he’d live in a hut alone on a small island hiding from his Muggle neighbours rather than watch his family and Wizarding Britain fall further into decay. Nobody’s seen him since, and if you ask me, it’s good riddance.”

“Well,” Harry said, “that uncle used Dark Magic on purpose when he proposed, no? I didn’t. I’m not a dark wizard, even if my ancestors and my cousin were. It’s got nothing to do with me. I mean, I can’t just somehow have performed some Dark Ritual without even knowing. Malfoy was making that up.”

Hermione and Ron shared a worried glance that Harry didn’t like one bit.

“Tell me!” he demanded.

“It’s not that easy,” Ron finally muttered after some awkward seconds of silence.

“Ron is right,” Hermione cut in. “If a family has been practising the Dark Arts for a long time, it’s hard to renounce them completely. Even if you never perform any dark spells again, and even if generations pass and nobody touches Dark Magic . . .” She shook her head. “As much as I hate to say it – you know I hate this circus around blood-lines – but it stays in a family’s blood. You could call it a special talent for Dark Magic. It’s like magical evolution, if you want.”

Ron nodded. “Mum said the Prewetts haven’t been dark in over six hundred years, but before that . . . apparently, they were the equivalent of what’s been the Blacks in recent times. And there have always been black sheep since then, like Uncle Ignatius. The way she explained it, even distant relations using Dark Magic strengthens the tendency in your children’s blood. If my parents had wanted it, they could have easily got blood-bonded too, what with the Prewetts on Mum’s side and the Blacks on Dad’s. And his grandmother was a Yaxley.”

“But I still don’t—”

“It’s in your blood, Harry,” Hermione said. “It’s, well, you could say it’s an inherited genetic trait, like green eyes. The way I understand Blood Proposals . . .” She took a long swig of her butterbeer. “I’ll have to look at it again, it’s in Blood Magic: The Pulse of Wizardry, but I think I remember it correctly. I was researching Blood Magic for my own book – by the way, did I tell you I found some fascinating scrolls about the origins of some curses in a bookshop in Cairo? I have to include them – there’s something about the Imperius Curse I’d never have found out otherwise.”

“That’s great, but I’ve got other problems right now. Bigger problems. Can we go back to the Blood Proposals?” If Hermione started on her book, it could take forever, and Harry didn’t fancy another lecture about The History of the Dark Arts: A Comprehensive Guide to the Origins and Usage of Dark Magic from Roman Times to the Present.

“Sure,” Hermione said, blushing slightly. “Sorry. So, if somebody like you, who is only two generations away from those who last practised Dark Magic habitually, performs a Dark Ritual, the ritual will work. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s on purpose. The magic will . . . recognise you, I suppose that’s the best way to put it. It recognises you as a member of your blood-line, and if there’s a propensity to the Dark Arts, then it will automatically work, no matter your intent.”

“So, why aren’t people getting accidentally engaged like that all the time? It makes no sense!” Harry insisted. “Kreacher told me he’d seen it once, but with all the fighting and wars going on, shouldn’t it happen much more often?”

“Well, there’s certain criteria that need to be met,” Hermione explained. “But if they are . . .” She looked at Harry unhappily. “As far as I know, it has happened accidentally a few times in the past, and also under the influence of the Imperius Curse. But usually, because of Blood Proposals, nobody in their right minds who can still be blood-bonded would ever use a dark slashing hex in battle.”

Harry shook his head incredulously. “What about Snape, then?” he wanted to know. “He created Sectumsempra ‘for enemies’. Why? I mean, he must have known, he was intrigued by the Dark Arts. So much so that he made up his own dark spells. Wouldn’t he have known that he’d just have offered marriage to everyone he used it on?”

Hermione shrugged helplessly. “I’m not entirely sure,” she said, “but I suppose his Wizarding family never was all that dark. In such cases, intent does matter, and if the hex isn’t answered with the same hex, there’s no Blood Contract. Plus, let’s face it: that curse was made to kill with. If someone is dead, it doesn’t really matter anyway.”

“They should teach us that stuff at Hogwarts. I mean, it’s important!” They were taught total flim-flam like Divination, but not this? It was absurd. Maybe there was a point in learning more about the Dark Arts than only how to defend yourself against them. “So what are the criteria?”

“Firstly, a Blood Proposal has to be executed by Dark Magic. Defensive spells won’t do, and there are more than enough attack spells which could cause bleeding without them being dark. The Sectumsempra you used is an extremely dark curse, which probably helped the whole thing along, too. Next, Blood Proposals only work between witches and wizards from dark families these days, or at least families that used to be dark. You’ve got to be a pretty powerful wizard with some serious determination to make it work even without a tingle of Dark Magic running through your veins.”

Harry wondered how many families like that actually existed. Among the pure-bloods, certainly no more than a handful, what with all the intermarrying.

“Most people other than pure-blood families stuck in mediaeval times – like the Blacks or Malfoys – don’t care anyway,” Hermione went on. “Blood Bonds were mainly invented to ensure blood purity. The wizard who proposes vows to protect the witch and her family, and if she accepts, she vows to bear him an heir if he demands it. As Ron said, a Blood Proposal is an Unbreakable Blood Contract. Once the engagement is sealed, sex with anybody else will cause something . . . well, it’s like a horrible hangover, only worse and it lasts longer. Incredibly painful. Most won’t subject themselves to it. It’s the perfect way to ensure marital fidelity and a pure blood-line. That’s why Blood Proposals only work between virgins.”

“Hah!” Harry thrust his index finger in her direction and jumped up from his chair in excitement. “Blood purity! Heirs! Damn, I knew I’d forgotten something. I’m such an idiot!”

“What do you mean?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” How couldn’t they have thought of it? And why hadn’t he sooner? “All this talk you just did, about how a wizard proposes to a witch like this – Malfoy said the same thing. A wizard and a witch! And it’s all for continuing the blood-line. Well, we’re two men, we can’t do that! We can’t have kids together!” He was grinning widely, feeling as if he’d jumped out of the way of a terrible hex just in time. “Malfoy was trying to diddle me! I can’t believe I didn’t notice. And how come you fell for it, with all that you know about this stuff?”

There they went again, exchanging looks Harry didn’t like at all.

“What now?”

“Bad news, mate,” Ron said dejectedly.

“You’re not serious.”

“I fear yes, Harry,” Hermione said. “Two wizards can have children together, as can two witches. There are spells to make it possible, even though it’s complicated. Gay couples aren’t particularly well-liked in pure-blood circles, but it’s not unheard of. And it’s tolerated by most as long as there are children.”

“Anything so the blood-line continues,” Harry said flatly, sinking back down on his chair. More and more, all of this seemed to be a huge effort of the universe to gang up on him.

“Yes. Although there are families who won’t have it, children or no. When I researched the Black family tree for my book, Kreacher told me something interesting.”

“Let me guess: one of those erased was actually gay?” It wasn’t particularly surprising, Harry thought, that the Blacks of all families would have a problem with this.

“Marius, Sirius’s great-uncle – the brother of Dorea who married your cousin. They later said he was a Squib, but that is nonsense. He was homeschooled, like all of his siblings, so he never went to Hogwarts, but there are enough people who remember him being a fine young wizard – the Blacks didn’t manage to Obliviate everyone outside the family. He formed a Blood Bond with Clarence Rookwood when he was nineteen, and after his family threw him out, they decided to leave. They went abroad and were never heard of again, but they stayed just long enough to let everyone see that Clarence was pregnant.”

Harry said nothing for a while. The idea was all too bizarre. Before his inner eye, the picture of a pregnant Malfoy began to form, and he shuddered. It was simply too ridiculous. Not to mention creepy. And based on the premise of him and Malfoy having sex.

No. He wouldn’t go there. He wasn’t even attracted to men, never mind Malfoy! He’d always only found women attractive, hadn’t even experimented with a man and – wait!

“I’m not a virgin! And I bet neither is Malfoy. I was back then, but now . . . If this is all for the blood line – if the Proposal exists but hasn’t been accepted, couldn’t they go around and have sex? Have kids with somebody else? How can it still be binding then?”

Hermione shook her head. “Once a Blood Proposal has been made but is not yet sealed or rejected, well . . . you can have sex with somebody else. But it won’t result in children, ever. Your magic prevents it. It’s frowned upon because it essentially counts as marital infidelity, and there have been proposals that were rejected because of it. But it’s doesn’t automatically nullify the contract.”

“So what, it makes you temporarily infertile too?” This was insane! “There’s got to be a way to take it back.” Harry couldn’t believe that although nothing about this damned thing was going according to how it was supposed to traditionally be, he still couldn’t find a loophole to get out of it.

“There isn’t.” Hermione was looking even unhappier now. “Once a Blood Proposal has been made, if all criteria are met, the final decision lies entirely with the party it was made to. It’s the single most binding magical contract ever formed. Harry . . .” She was shaking her head, biting her lower lip uncomfortably. “If Draco really wants it, you’ll have to marry him, and with Blood Bonding, divorce isn’t an option.”

“That’s bollocks!” Harry snapped, jumping up yet again. “I’m not marrying that twat! You can’t seriously tell me that I’m screwed because my ancestors were idiots?!”

Hermione didn’t answer, and neither did Ron.

“Well, I won’t do it. It’s as simple as that. I’m not marrying Malfoy, and that’s the end of it.”

“Then you’ll die.” Ron’s voice was flat and dead serious, and it completely took the wind out of Harry’s sails. He sat down hard, almost missing his chair so that he sent it swaying and had to hold on to the edge of the table for support.

“It’s true,” Hermione said, and there was the same sense of dread in her voice. “If you don’t honour a Blood Contract, you’ll die. You can’t prevent Draco from accepting, and if the Blood Bond isn’t finalised in the amount of time he names when accepting, your own magic will kill you. You’ve got no choice.”

.-.-.-.-.-.

Harry let Malfoy enter without a word.

It was 8pm on Monday evening and he’d come home from the Ministry an hour ago, where he hadn’t worked but tried to find out everything he could find about Blood Proposals and his own wretched family.

The results had been devastating. It was precisely as Ron and Hermione – and Malfoy – had said: Harry had entered into a binding magical contract with Malfoy, and if he broke it, the fact that it was a Blood Contract would turn his magic against him and make him die a gruesome death. He’d read a report in the Ministry archive about a wizard dying four hundred years ago due to stepping back from a sealed Blood Engagement, and the description had almost sent him throwing up his lunch.

When he’d consulted with somebody from the Legal Advice Office and asked how it could be possible that accidents like this had such dire consequences, the only answer he’d been met with had been that ignorance was no excuse in law. He’d wanted to hex the old hag; preferably in a way that would cause her to spend some time at St Mungo’s and ponder the joys of being able to use the loo.

Shortly after he’d arrived home, Hermione and Ron had turned up, revealing that they hadn’t had any luck trying to find a way out either. Harry was trapped. His only hope was to talk Malfoy out of this ludicrous plan.

Now Harry led him to the kitchen again, where Ron and Hermione were waiting already. Malfoy stopped dead when he saw them.

“What are they doing here?”

“They’re my best friends,” Harry said. “We’ve got no secrets, and since you’re trying to coerce me into marrying you, I feel like I’ve got the right to have some support. We can either talk with them present or you can leave.”

Malfoy seemed to consider for some moments, but in the end, he sat down at the opposite side of the table, ignoring the two.

“So,” he asked, “is it clear to you by now that you’ve got no choice but to stand by your offer?”

“I did my research, yes.” Harry sat down next to Ron and Hermione. “Seems that if you insist, I’ll have to be married to you. Blood-bonded, even. But I’ve got no clue why you’d want that. Obviously, you can’t stand me, and I assure you the feeling is mutual.”

“Oh, the surprise.” Malfoy’s lips curled into a sneer. “Unfortunately, as I told you before, I have no choice, either. Oh, don’t think it’s not fun for me to see you writhe like a worm on the hook, but I would much rather have avoided the whole business.”

“Right,” Ron cut in. “Why don’t I believe you?”

“Because you’ve got the cerebral capacity of a flobberworm, Weasel. I wonder what your wife sees in you – an amusing pet, maybe?”

Hermione put her hand on Ron’s arm as he tried to draw his wand. “Don’t.”

“Shut it, Malfoy!” Harry snapped. “This isn’t helping.”

Like the day before, Malfoy seemed to fight with himself, but then he nodded. “You’re right.” He ran his hand through his hair, which was hanging limply down to his jaw. Harry couldn’t help but notice that again, he seemed to be shaking. Hadn’t he eaten since yesterday morning? And why did Harry even care?

“It’s not as if you wouldn’t tell them anyway,” Malfoy said. He folded his hands in front of him on the table, looking down on them in obvious resignation. “The truth is: I don’t know what to do anymore. I always told myself it wouldn’t come to this, but I knew that maybe at some point . . . It’s why I never rejected the proposal when I realised what had happened, and I only truly thought about it when the war was over.”

“Is it because of the Reparation Laws?” Hermione asked softly and with entirely too much sympathy for somebody whose husband Malfoy had insulted only moments earlier.

“Of course it is. We made it somehow, I always managed to scrape enough money together, but recently it’s been close to impossible, and now that Mother is too sick to leave her bed . . .”

“Wait,” Harry interrupted. “What are those laws? What do they say?” He knew that the fortunes and estates of all Death Eaters had been seized and redistributed by the Ministry as war reparations to the families, Wizarding and Muggle, who had lost loved ones or their own homes, but he’d never bothered with details and had believed that that was all. Surely, the Malfoys could survive on a normal salary like everyone, even without the family fortune in the background.

When he said so, there was an exasperated sigh from Hermione, and Malfoy looked up at him with an expression of utter disbelief. “You want to be an Auror and don’t even . . . Merlin! How do you survive?”

“Better than you, apparently,” Harry returned, but it was a cheap shot, and he knew it.

“You don’t say. It’s not as if you are restricted by a set of laws which in essence aim at killing your family. No, don’t even start,” Malfoy said as Harry wanted to interrupt him, “it’s true, and Weasley’s wife knows it.” He grimaced in a way that might be interpreted as a wry smile. “She protested against it at the Ministry, of course completely unsuccessfully. If Minister Shacklebolt hadn’t died he might have stopped this, but Hollingberry seems to take great pleasure in tormenting us.”

To Harry’s astonishment, Hermione nodded her confirmation, and Malfoy went on. “You probably know that my father died four years ago in Azkaban, so he is out of the picture. The Prophet made a spectacle out of it. Dedicated Death Eater finally meets his rightful end, and so on and so forth. Our manor and all money were taken by the Ministry right after the war. And yes, Mother and I could have survived without that, like other people. Being rich doesn’t mean you’re incapable of working. If they would let us work, that is.”

Harry was feeling decidedly uncomfortable by now. There were so many things going on which he apparently didn’t know anything about, but could have if he had paid more attention. And the idea that the Ministry was specifically targeting the families of Death Eaters . . . as an Auror, how could he not have noticed?

“Have you ever looked around with your eyes open since the war, Potter?” Malfoy asked. “How many former Death Eaters or their children have you seen working anywhere in our world? No Wizarding employer will take us, and I’m fairly certain it’s not only because we weren’t allowed to take our N.EW.T.s and the Ministry restricted our magic to using the Floo and household spells. I applied for almost a hundred positions during the months after the war, but I had no chance. The same goes for all the others. And we’re forbidden to build up any business of our own.”

“Well, what about Muggle jobs?” Harry wanted to know. “Are those beneath you?”

Malfoy snorted. “I’ve spent the last nine years in and out of Muggle jobs, the ones you don’t need any Muggle education for. I’ve waited tables, stacked boxes, sold everything from McDonald’s hamburgers to sex toys, and – I’m sure this will delight you and Weasley particularly – I spent five months cleaning Muggle toilets. Without magic, of course. But it kept us fed and I could buy Mother’s medicine, so I couldn’t complain.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that it has been illegal for almost the last three years, ever since Hollingberry became Minister!” Now Malfoy’s pale face was flushed, his eyes burning. “We’re not allowed to work for Muggles anymore, or to live on Muggle dole. It’s illegal for us to ‘profit from them’, as the Ministry puts it. Of course, everyone is doing it anyway, but these last years, I had to quit every single job at some point because those Ministry snoopers were after me. I couldn’t risk being caught by them a third time. It would have meant half a year in Azkaban, and who would have taken care of Mother, then? They had caught me twice already, made me quit and confiscated my pay. Mother almost died without her medicine! If her sister hadn’t given us money . . .” Again, he raked a trembling hand through his hair. “They are trying to kill us. They hope that we’ll just starve somewhere out of sight and no longer bother them.”

Harry didn’t know what to think or to say. How could he have been so entirely clueless? This was more than cruel, and he couldn’t believe that the public would simply accept it.

“Hermione, why didn’t you tell me?” he finally managed to ask. If she had protested against these laws . . .

“You weren’t here when the laws were put in place,” she said softly. “You were so busy in New York, and then there was . . . Lizbeth. It was only two months after I’d handed in the protest, and then I couldn’t . . .” She trailed off, and Ron put his arm around her and kissed her temple.

“I understand,” Harry said. He’d been overjoyed to hear that Hermione was having a baby, and even though he had indeed been extremely busy at the Auror exchange programme with New York, he had come back to England for a weekend when they had shared the news and asked him to be the godfather. After that, he’d Firecalled regularly and promised to be there when the baby would arrive.

But one day, when she had been six months along and they had long picked a name, there had been a distraught Firecall from Ron: Hermione had lost the baby and survived by only a hair’s breath. After that, it had taken her months to get out of St Mungo’s, and over a year to get back to a relatively normal life. Harry had visited her several times at the hospital and offered to come home permanently, but she hadn’t wanted to hear a word about it.

“Why don’t you leave the country?” Harry asked Malfoy. “It seems like the best option. Start fresh somewhere else.”

“You still don’t get it, do you? They want us to die; they are doing everything they can other than having us all be Kissed by Dementors. We’re not allowed to leave the country, and if we’re caught trying, it means five years of Azkaban without even a trial. Pansy and Theodore tried to leave for his relatives in Germany a year ago; now they’re locked up for another four. I can’t risk that, not with Mother being so sick.”

“This is . . . it’s a travesty!” Harry still couldn’t understand how it could have happened. The former Death Eaters deserved punishment, yes, but not a slow death sentence. “I’ll go to the Minister, hand in a protest myself. This can’t go on, something has to be done!”

“Yes, you try that. I’m sure they will listen.” Malfoy looked less than convinced. “You’re their hero, sure, but don’t flatter yourself. When it’s your approval versus the punishment of us ‘monsters’, even Weasley could figure out the odds.”

Harry had to admit that Malfoy had a point. He was popular with the general Wizarding public and mostly well-liked at the Ministry, but it didn’t mean he had any true political influence. Minister Shacklebolt had been an experienced, capable man who was in no need of advice from a young man barely out of his teens, and now that there was a new Minister Harry didn’t even know, there was no good reason why his opinion should count. Still, he’d try it. He had to.

“But how can they just accept this? Why didn’t people protest? This is just as bad as what Voldemort wanted to do! It’s not right.”

“Don’t be naïve, Potter.” Malfoy didn’t even sound angry anymore, only resigned. “They lived through two wars in which Death Eaters destroyed their homes and murdered their friends and family members. They hate us. If they could, a lot of them would gladly finish us off with their own hands. They’ll never speak on our behalf or agree with anybody who does, and you’re an idiot if you believe you could change it.”

Harry didn’t reply – what could he have said? Malfoy went back to staring down at his hands.

In the end, it was Ron who got up and started fumbling with the kettle to make tea. Harry hadn’t had supper yet, and although he didn’t feel hungry anymore in the slightest, he got up as well and started putting cups, plates, and cutlery on the table. Kreacher had made roast beef sandwiches before he had come home, and now Harry put them on the table together with some cheese and grapes.

They didn’t speak during eating. Ron and Hermione had eaten already and only sipped their tea, and Harry forced down a sandwich without tasting anything. Malfoy, on the other hand, ate with ravenous appetite again, not looking any of them in the eye.

Harry tried his best not to stare at him, but found that he couldn’t help it – he’d dished up supper only because he was now convinced that Malfoy hadn’t had anything since the breakfast Harry had invited him to, and Harry wondered what it must feel like to be so hungry. Not that he hadn’t gone without far too often at the Dursleys’, but he’d never truly had to worry about where his next meal would come from, he’d never feared that he might starve.

Malfoy didn’t deserve this. Now that he knew the reason why he was trying to force him into this marriage business, Harry found that he pitied him and wanted to help him somehow.

Was there really no other way for him to survive other than marrying Harry? Malfoy himself didn’t seem to think so, and he’d had years to try out every alternative, had somehow eked out a living and taken care of his sick mother, always hiding from the Ministry, while Harry had lived without a care in the world most of the time.

It wasn’t right – the thought had gone through Harry’s head during the Malfoys’ trial already – it wasn’t right that Malfoy should be punished like this essentially because he’d been born to the wrong parents. If Harry had been born into an old pure-blood family with Death Eaters as parents, would he have acted any differently? He’d like to think yes, but he knew he couldn’t be certain. More than that, he knew that it was rather unlikely.

Watching Malfoy take bite after bite, chew, and swallow, his eyes fixed on the food in front of him almost as if it might vanish if he looked elsewhere, Harry realised that his anger was more and more diminishing. Malfoy wanted to use him, yes, but if Harry was in the same situation and saw no other choice, wouldn’t he do the same?

But didn’t Malfoy have anybody who – wait, hadn’t he said something about Andromeda giving him money? If they had reconciled enough for her to help her sister and nephew out in the past, why wouldn’t Malfoy ask her for help?

When the last sandwich and the last piece of cheese were gone, Malfoy wrapped his hands around his teacup and instead stared into the tea. He didn’t seem to want to continue the conversation, and truth be told, neither did Harry. But they had to come to some kind of conclusion, and so Harry drank the last sips from his own cup before he asked, “What about Andromeda? You said she gave you money before. Couldn’t she help you?”

“It’s illegal,” Ron said. He’d been surprisingly quiet, not reacting to the last insult Malfoy had thrown at him, and Harry had been grateful for it. “It’s illegal for, well . . . anybody to give him anything, even relatives.”

“Yes. That didn’t stop her from doing it several times, but . . .” Malfoy shook his head tiredly. “They caught us. Threatened her with taking away the boy, Teddy. Somebody who would aid Death Eaters couldn’t possibly be fit to raise a child, that’s what they said. After that, she couldn’t risk it anymore.”

Harry was stunned. Why hadn’t Andromeda told him about it? They’d developed a friendship since Teddy had come to live with her, and he’d visited regularly about twice a month before he had left for New York. Even then, he’d stopped by every time he had returned for a visit. He hadn’t seen them since he’d come back to England for good two months ago, but he’d been thinking of Firecalling this week.

“They finally allowed her to take Mother in a few weeks ago,” Malfoy went on, “but only after months of appeals to the Ministry, and after they had made absolutely certain that even if she had access to proper food and medication, Mother couldn’t possibly recover.” He was clutching his cup so tightly Harry though it might crack at any moment. “All those medical consultants from the Ministry circling her like vultures, subjecting her to useless tests although the Healers had made it clear years ago that she only had a few years left, no matter what. But they ‘had to make certain everything was going according to the law’.”

“I’m sorry, Draco. That’s horrible.”

Malfoy looked at Hermione with an indefinable expression that Harry interpreted as a mixture between disgust and gratitude.

“At least she’s well taken care of now,” Malfoy said. “But I can’t put Andromeda and Teddy in danger, and I can’t risk going to Azkaban and missing Mother’s . . . I have to be here when it is time.” He pressed his lips together for a moment and swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing visibly on the thin neck. “And even after that, I don’t think I can go on like this.”

He’d forced out the words, and Harry knew it must have cost him every ounce of willpower to admit these things in front of him, Ron, and Hermione of all people.

“I want to help you, I really do,” he said. “All of this is terribly wrong.”

“Then form the Blood Bond with me. It’s the only way.”

By now, Harry had realised that there truly seemed to be no other option than for Malfoy to marry somebody who’d support him, but there was one thing that he still didn’t understand.

“Why does it have to be a Blood Bond?” he asked. “Why not simple marriage? I marry you, we keep it up for a year or two, then we divorce. While we’re married, I buy you a nice house that you can keep, and we’ll set up a marriage contact in which I agree to pay you alimony for as long as you live in case that we separate. That way, you won’t have to worry about anything and we can both go on with our lives.”

Part of him still couldn’t believe that he was even making the offer – this was Malfoy, after all. But Harry pushed those thoughts aside; they were childish and inappropriate in a situation like this. He could do this. He could be married to Malfoy for two years, and he could definitely spare the money. It wouldn’t be that big of a sacrifice, and it would save Malfoy and his mother. Not to mention himself.

Slowly, Malfoy raised his head. He seemed to look even worse now than before eating: drawn, humiliated, and plain tired. He didn’t even have to say the words for Harry to understand.

“It’s too easy,” Harry said, and now all that he felt was dread. “That’s it, right? Find somebody willing to keep up a sham marriage for some time, then separate and arrange it so the former Death Eater is taken care of financially. It’s forbidden for you to simply marry.”

Malfoy nodded. “They only allow us to marry somebody who wasn’t a Death Eater when it’s a Blood Bond, so that we can’t trick them. So that the other person only marries us if they really mean it. Once you are blood-bonded, you can’t divorce – it would kill you. As would living apart for too long, eventually, like it did with Father. The only way to break the bond is through death.”

“Malfoy . . . Draco.” Harry knew it was useless, but he had to say it nonetheless. “I don’t want this. I can’t. Not for life.”

“I know,” Malfoy muttered, eyes returning to his tea. He sounded almost ashamed, but there was a steely edge underneath. “I don’t want it either. But I will force you if you won’t do it voluntarily. I have to. Just this once, I have the law on my side, and I’ve got to save myself.”

.-.-.-.-.

“The Healer is here.” Ron entered the living room of #12 Grimmauld Place, followed by a tall grey-haired woman in green robes.

It was ten o‘clock in the morning on Friday, September 3rd, 2007, five days after Malfoy had come back into Harry’s life with the demand that he marry him. And today would be their wedding day.

Ron and Hermione had arrived an hour ago, finding Harry and Ginny in the kitchen, picking at their breakfast. Harry had asked Ginny to spend the night – just as a friend, nothing more, and they had mindlessly watched TV on the couch until after midnight. At some point, Harry had cried, and Ginny had held him until he’d been able to calm down again. She had kissed him, then, a long, gentle kiss, and he had asked her to sleep in his bed. They had lain in the dark, Harry’s head between her breasts, and talked about Hogwarts and Quidditch. After a while, Harry had fallen asleep with Ginny stroking his back.

In the morning, he had awoken at six with a sense of complete surrealism, and it had only intensified when Malfoy had turned up at nine-thirty, looking pallid and bleary-eyed. Harry had wondered what he might have been up to the previous night. Go out and pick somebody up to have sex with a partner of his own choosing for the last time without being punished? Harry had thought of doing it, but had realised he wasn’t in the mood.

Or maybe – it had been the first time the idea occurred to him – Malfoy had a relationship he had to break off for this? Maybe he’d spent this last night with his partner? Suddenly, Harry had been very glad that he wasn’t in any kind of relationship himself. He couldn’t imagine having to give up the person he loved forever for a union of necessity, and he didn’t even want to begin thinking about the fact that he very well might fall in love again at some point in his life. For now, all he wanted was to get through the day.

“Harry?” He blinked and found that it was Ginny, who was touching his arm. “The Healer is here. Are you all right?”

He almost would have laughed in her face, but pulled himself together just in time. He still couldn’t believe it was actually happening – that he was getting engaged and then married to Malfoy. And not simply married like normal people, but blood-bonded for life to somebody he couldn’t stand, and who couldn’t stand him. The first thing he’d done on Tuesday morning had been to hand in a formal protest against the Reparation Laws, but Percy Weasley, who was the person dealing with such matters, had crushed his hopes.

“They won’t even look at it," he’d said unhappily. “Never mind your name being on it. Anything concerning Death Eaters that’s not about worsening their lives is going straight into the bin. I can’t do anything about it. I’m sorry, Harry.”

“Yes, don’t worry,” Harry said to Ginny now.

The Healer’s name was Mercer, and she didn’t seem to be particularly taken with the whole affair. When Harry had made the appointment with her two days ago, she had stared at him quite incredulously when he’d informed her for what he would need her, and that hadn’t changed when he had told her who it was he would be blood-bonded to. But her business sense had won out, she had gathered herself and even managed a smile as she had educated him on the dangers of the ritual as it would take place and the procedure she would perform on him to heal the wound.

“Mr Potter,” she now greeted him, and then nodded into Malfoy’s direction. “Mr Malfoy.”

Malfoy didn’t react. He was sitting in one of the red armchairs next to the bookshelves at the other end of the room, looking ahead with a slightly vacant expression. Harry wondered what he might be thinking. Maybe it was the hex he'd have to cast now - on Wednesday morning, they'd gone to the Ministry together and announced their intention to get blood bonded. There had been a lot of disdainful looks and whispers, and it had taken almost five hours until they had been able to leave with the information that on Friday, between ten and eleven in the morning, the restrictions on Draco's magic would be modified so that he would be able to cast the Sectumsempra curse for this one hour.

“Are you certain you want to go through with this?” Healer Mercer asked.

“I am. You brought everything?”

She nodded. “I’m well prepared, you need not worry.”

“All right. Then I suppose we should start.”

Hermione, who had listened, went over to Malfoy, talking to him softly. He blinked a few times in confusion, but then nodded and slowly got up.

Harry began taking off his shirt. It was more than unfortunate that the engagement had to be sealed with the same hex Harry had used on Malfoy – there were enough dark hexes less severe than this. But Healer Mercer had a good reputation, and Harry trusted her – and, if need be, Hermione – to take care of him properly.

“Good luck,” Ginny said. Her face was very serious and her eyes very dark, and when Harry wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her, like she had done the night before, she didn’t resist. Her body was warm and solid against him, and for a moment, he felt as if his legs might give in. But the moment passed, they pulled apart, and Harry walked away from her to stand before the red couch that belonged to the reading corner.

Malfoy had taken his position in front of the opposite wall, and now Ron and Hermione came over to Harry, standing on both sides of him to support him once he would fall. Healer Mercer was standing only a few steps to the side, her bag next to her, wand at the ready.

Ginny had taken a parchment from the coffee table, which contained the traditional words for the acceptance of a Blood Proposal.

“Are you ready?” she asked Harry.

He nodded.

She turned to Malfoy. “And you?”

Another nod.

“All right.” She raised the parchment. Her voice was shaking, and she stumbled a little over the old-fashioned words as she read.

“Dost thou, Draco Malfoy, accept Harry Potter’s Blood Proposal? Dost thou accept his vow to provide for thee, honour and protect thee and thy family from this day forward until death do ye part? And dost thou vow to provide him with a blood heir if he so desireth, and to honour him and his family from this day forward till death do ye part?”

“I do, and death shall take him if we are not bound within the week.”

Malfoy’s face was set into an expression of grim determination, and Harry gritted his teeth and braced himself against the pain.

“Be strong, Harry,” Hermione whispered. He felt her and Ron’s hold on him tighten, their fingers digging into his naked shoulders. “Remember, we’ve got the Healer here. It will hurt, but nothing serious can happen.”

Harry nodded, then he saw Malfoy take a deep breath before he raised his wand.

Sectumsempra!”

.-.-.-.-.

When Harry came to, he felt dizzy and disoriented. His sight was blurred, there was a dull pain in his chest, and when he instinctively tried to sit up, a feeling of weakness rushed through him, making him slump down again. A hand touched his shoulder, squeezing gently.

“Harry, don’t.” Ginny’s voice. “You need to lie down for a while.”

He blinked, and the world slowly came into focus. There was Ginny, sitting next to him on the edge of what he now realised was the red couch in the living room. Healer Mercer was standing behind her, as well as Ron and Hermione, looking down on him with a frown on her face. When he turned his head, he could see that Malfoy was back in the armchair, bent forwards, his face hidden in his hands.

“How do you feel?” Mercer asked.

“I’m . . . okay, I think. Weak and exhausted. A bit dizzy. And my chest hurts.”

She nodded. “I can give you a painkilling potion if you want. It should last for another few hours, and I’ll leave you some here for the weekend. Mr Malfoy did well – there was only one slash, right across the chest, and the essence of Dittany worked perfectly. There won’t be any scarring if you keep the bandages on long enough. And you didn’t lose too much blood. I’d say you will be fine come Monday, but I’d prefer if you stayed in bed for the rest of the day.”

“No.” They had planned everything before, and both Harry and Malfoy had agreed to seal the engagement and then go to the Ministry to sign the papers and finalise the Blood Bond on the same day. They both wanted it to be over with before either of them could do something stupid. “I’ll go to the Ministry this afternoon, as planned. We’ve got an appointment at five.”

Mercer sighed. “As you wish. If you eat a proper meal or two and don’t strain yourself before you leave, it shouldn’t be dangerous. But don’t be surprised if you feel dizzy or faint.”

“We’ll be going with them,” Ron said. “We’ll take care in case something happens.”

“All right, then,” Mercer said. “If you need anything, you can always Firecall me over the weekend. And make sure to keep the bandages on until tomorrow evening. If the healing process is disturbed, there will be scarring despite the Dittany treatment.”

“Thank you, I won’t forget it. And I’d appreciate it if you left some painkillers here.”

Mercer rummaged in her bag and put several small flasks on the coffee table. “I’ll be back on Monday, then.”

When she was gone, Ginny handed Harry one of the flasks for the pain in his chest, and Ron vanished to the kitchen to make tea and get some of the leftover breakfast for Harry. “You heard the Healer,” he said when Harry protested that he wasn’t hungry.

Harry just wanted to ask Hermione if she would mind giving him his shirt when he noticed that she was with Malfoy now, kneeling in front of his armchair and talking to him in a low voice. Malfoy hadn’t moved, his face was still buried in his hands, but after a while there was a muffled answer.

Hermione nodded, got up and quickly left the room. What could they have talked about?

“Harry?” Ginny had cupped his cheek and was looking down on him with tears in her eyes. She’d been much calmer than he had expected when he had told her about it all on Wednesday afternoon, and she had comforted him when he’d needed it yesterday. But now she suddenly seemed shaken.

“I didn’t . . . When we were together I never doubted we’d have children one day. I never told you, but even when it was over, even though I wanted it to be over, somehow, I still thought that maybe, one day . . .” She shook her head with a sad smile. “It didn’t quite feel real last night, but now . . .”

“Now it is,” Harry murmured. A thick strand of copper hair had fallen into her face, and he reached up and tucked it behind her ear. He felt awfully tired. “You’ll find someone and have wonderful children. And nothing will change between us, I promise. We’ll always be family.”

He didn’t want to think about it, about how they’d lain in bed after sex, talking about starting a family one day, about how many kids they wanted, about names for girls and boys. Somehow, although he hadn’t wanted to be with her anymore these last years, now it seemed to hurt almost more than when they’d split up. It made no sense, and Harry hated it, and also Malfoy for causing all of this. Now he would never have children – not that he and Ginny could ever have had them without Malfoy rejecting the Blood Proposal.

“You’ll be their favourite uncle,” Ginny said, taking her hand away from his face to wipe at her eyes.

“M-hm . . .” Harry didn’t want to talk any longer, or think; he only wanted to sleep. Breakfast could wait. He closed his eyes and thankfully, Ginny stayed silent and it didn’t take long before he dozed off.

.-.-.-.-.

The Ministry clerk, a small man with shifty eyes in a rodent-like face, was looking down at the forms on his desk with a frown. He’d spent the better part of ten minutes rummaging through cupboards and drawers before finally, he’d found what he had been looking for, all the while muttering about outdated rituals and backwards attitudes.

His frown only intensified when he finally looked up and his eyes met Harry’s.

“Are you certain you want to do this, Mr Potter?” The man cleared his throat, his eyes wandering over to Malfoy, mouth twisting into a grimace as though he were looking at a disgusting insect he wanted to squash. “Are you certain you want to marry one of them?”

“Actually, yes,” Harry said. “I’m very certain.” Certain that he didn’t want this at all, but that wasn’t any of this bigoted little rat’s business. He still wished for nothing more than to wake up and realise this was all a bad dream, but the disdain oozing from the clerk’s every pore infuriated him. It was precisely that attitude which had brought him here.

“And if you don’t mind,” Malfoy said acidly, “I’m right here. I can hear you. So I’d suggest you refrain from any inappropriate remarks and simply do your job. If your curdled little brain permits it, that is.”

The clerk didn’t bat an eye, but looked down on the forms again. “Very well. There’s nothing legally wrong with the marriage contract.”

He managed to make it sound as if it went without saying that any document which granted somebody like Malfoy a reasonable monthly allowance, a third of his spouse’s fortune in case of death, and full spousal rights in all other matters – except for medical decisions – was one of the most morally reprehensible things ever to be conceived of.

“All I need are your respective signatures to make it official. And also signatures here on the marriage registration form, and here, to confirm the Blood Bond.” He shoved the papers to the edge of his desk, and Harry leant forward on his chair and took the waiting quill.

‘This is it,’ he thought when the quill scratched over the paper. Now it was official. When he handed the quill to Malfoy, his head was spinning, and he had to close his eyes. He wasn’t quite sure if it was residual weakness due to the Sectumsempra earlier in the day or because of the madness of it all.

“Now there’s the final sealing of the Blood Bond,” the clerk said when he’d put the Ministry’s official stamp on all three documents. Harry had briefly glimpsed the signature Draco Malfoy-Potter and his stomach had clenched into a tight lump. “If you would please rise.”

Harry did, and watched as the man pulled out his wand and performed a cleaning spell on the small ceremonial dagger and the golden goblet he’d previously found in one of the cupboards in the far corner of the room. They were both coated in dust and obviously hadn’t been used in quite a while.

Hermione, who had kept to the background with Ron and Ginny until now, stepped forward and put a bottle of red wine and the box with the rings on the desk. Harry had asked her to get the rings for them during the week – he’d not felt capable of doing it himself.

Once the clerk had poured wine into the goblet, he got up as well and held out the dagger to Harry, while holding the parchment from which he read in the other hand.

“Wilt thou, Harry Potter,” he intoned, “mix thy blood with Draco Malfoy’s blood? Wilt thou grant him thy name and protection? Wilt thou bind thyself to him irrevocably, in full knowledge of all that a Blood Bound entails, to be thy lawful wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do ye part?”

“I will.” Harry’s hand was shaking when he received the dagger, and for a second, he feared he’d cut off his index finger, but then he managed to only prick the tip of it. Ten droplets of blood fell into the goblet which Hermione was holding for them, then the clerk closed the wound with a simple spell.

“And wilt thou, Draco Malfoy mix thy blood with Harry Potter’s blood? Wilt thou accept his name and protection? Wilt thou bind thyself to him irrevocably, in full knowledge of all that a Blood Bound entails, to be thy lawful wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do ye part?”

“I will.”

Harry gave the dagger to Malfoy, who repeated his actions.

“Then drink now from this cup to seal the bond between you.” The clerk pointed his wand at the goblet. “Sanguis coniunge!”

A bright red light engulfed the goblet, and to Harry’s amazement, two figures formed in this light which he recognised as himself and Malfoy. They were facing each other, their hands entwined, and they leant in and kissed before dissolving into light again. Moments after, the light dimmed down to a faint glow.

It was a cruel farce – he and Malfoy would never be like this, nor would he have it with anybody else. At this moment, Harry felt as if he’d never hated anybody more than Malfoy, not even Voldemort.

Hermione handed the goblet to him, and instead of throwing it on the floor like he wanted to, he raised it to his lips and drank, although he felt as if he’d have to gag if he swallowed even one drop. But he managed to force down a mouthful before giving the goblet to Malfoy, whose face had adopted a greenish tinge. When their fingers brushed, Harry noticed that his skin was icy cold.

Malfoy, in contrast to Harry, did gag and choked on the wine, and tears were running down his cheeks by the time he could stop coughing and drank. His eyes were burning as he looked at Harry over the goblet, and Harry was reminded of the fact that he wasn’t the only one who hated all of this.

The same red light as before now began pulsing around Harry and Malfoy. It seemed to be seeping from their skin, their auras of light growing wider and wider until they touched and then melted into each other. For the fraction of a second, Harry felt an incredible heat rush through his veins, then the feeling vanished, and with it the light, which got dimmer and more translucent before it extinguished completely.

“Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy-Potter, your bond has been sealed and you are bound by blood forever.”

It sounded like a prison sentence.

“May this union be a happy one,” the clerk droned on, clearly unconvinced, as Harry and Malfoy took the golden rings, “may the sun and the moon rise over it for many years. May it be blessed with pure children to continue the line of both families, and may the joint line never end. So mote it be.”

Harry drew a shaky breath before he and Malfoy put the rings on each other’s ring fingers and repeated in unison, “So mote it be.”

.-.-.-.-.

Harry was sitting on the couch in the living room, staring at the TV without truly taking in the programme. After the ceremony, he’d sent Ron, Ginny, and Hermione home; he’d no longer been able to stand their worried faces and – albeit unspoken – pity. Later, Malfoy and he had stared at the supper Kreacher had prepared until it had gone cold, and then they’d agreed on watching TV. Harry had felt no desire to talk to his ‘husband’, and Malfoy seemed to share the feeling. They’d simply sat in silence, watching the pictures flicker over the screen.

For a while, Harry had been absorbed with going over the ritual in his mind. It had been completely absurd: the drinking of each other’s blood – he’d been relieved it was no more than a few drops, but it had still been disgusting – the ancient English, the phrases full of ridiculous pathos. So mote it be, seriously.

Now it was around eleven in the evening, he was tired and should go to bed, but he didn’t quite feel up to it.

The problem was Malfoy.

He was sitting next to Harry on the couch, and once Harry went to bed, he’d have to come with him.

Both Healer Mercer and the Ministry clerk had stressed the fact that Harry and Malfoy would have to spend the next 24 hours close to each other for their magic to settle down properly after forming the bond. They’d gone through an unpleasant experience after the others had gone home, when they’d collected Malfoy’s few things from his old flat – a tiny dump in a shabby Muggle neighbourhood – where he’d lived with his mother. Malfoy had gone to the loo, and immediately after the door had closed behind him, Harry’s head had begun hurting madly and he’d felt chilled to the marrow. A short while later, Malfoy had stumbled out of the bathroom pressing both hands to his temples – he’d looked close to vomiting to Harry. From then on, they had been careful to never be more than two feet apart.

Walking side by side, sitting next to each other at the kitchen table and on the couch – it was strange, but he could deal with it. Sleeping in the same bed, though . . . Harry rubbed at his eyes and tried to focus on the telly. The action film had given way to an animal documentary in which an alligator had just caught some kind of gazelle, dragging it underwater.

There was an abrupt movement beside him, and he saw that Malfoy had grabbed the remote from the coffee table. They telly was switched off.

“I’m tired,” Malfoy sad. “We’ll go to bed now.”

“No,” Harry heard himself say. “I want to watch that. Give me the remote.” He held his hand out, all the while asking himself what he was doing. He wasn’t interested in the documentary, and he was tired enough to fall asleep on the spot. But he’d be damned if he let Malfoy order him about like this. If he let it happen on the first day of their marriage, he’d only set a precedence.

The rational part of his brain told him that he was being ridiculous. There was no use fighting simply out of spite, and tomorrow evening, the whole matter of being stuck together would be over with. He’d never have to even look at Malfoy again if he didn’t want it.

Only it would never be over, not really. He’d be stuck with Malfoy for the rest of his life, quite possibly over a hundred years. He would never be free again.

“Just come to bed,” Malfoy insisted.

Harry shook his head and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Stop dishing out orders, you arrogant prick! I’m not your house-elf!”

“I haven’t owned a house-elf in nine years, in case you’ve forgotten! Now come! I’m sick of us sitting here and brooding, and you are too. You’re tired, I can see that, and it’s no use fighting now. What is it with you?”

You! It’s you, you git!” Harry snapped. He couldn’t contain his anger any longer – the entire week, he’d pulled himself together, had told himself that Malfoy didn’t like this any better than him, that he didn’t have a choice, that Harry might do the same if he had to. But now all he felt was rage, and it had to get out. He’d jumped up from the couch, glaring down at Malfoy, stabbing his index finger into his direction. “You’re in my house on my couch telling me what to do, after you forced me to bind myself to you forever! I can’t marry, I can’t have a girlfriend, I can’t even kiss without my magic whacking me over the head! And I’ve got to live with a snooty bugger who worked cleaning toilets and still thinks his shit smells better than others’!”

Harry knew that he was being unfair, but right now all that he wanted was to hit Malfoy’s sore spot, punish him for ruining everything. “You ruined my life because your family was too dumb to make the right choices! Your parents threw their lives and yours away because they thought they were better than everyone else – well, look where it got them! And look where it got you. This is ridiculous! We’re married, and we hate each other! And it will go on for the rest of our lives; we’ll be resenting the hell out of each other for existing! I know I do! I wish I’d left you to sizzle along with Crabbe!”

It was only when he fell silent that Harry realised he’d been yelling – and what exactly he’d said in the end. Malfoy didn’t respond, but was looking back at him with a stony expression. Slowly, he rose from the couch, eyes still glued to Harry’s, only to then turn and walk away without a word.

Immediately, the headache set in, and Harry groaned in pain.

“No wait!” He stumbled after Malfoy and reached out, grabbing him by the wrist.

The punch was hard and sudden, hitting him right on the eye and sending his glasses flying. Harry staggered, but caught himself and reflexively swung and punched back. There was a yelp and a disgusting crunching noise as his fist met with Malfoy’s face, and then Malfoy went down.

The room was spinning before Harry’s eyes, and he, too, slumped down on the thick carpet. Luckily, the dizzy spell was over within a few moments, and the headache was abating as well. He touched his eyebrow and winced; he’d definitely get a black eye if he didn’t apply a magical salve quickly. But when he reached for his wand to summon it from the upstairs bathroom, his eyes fell on Malfoy, who was bent forwards, his face between his legs, hands fisted around bushels of his hair. His breathing was shallow, and blood was gushing from his nose.

Damn. This wasn’t good at all. The majority of his anger at Malfoy evaporated as suddenly as it had flared up. He hadn’t wanted to seriously hurt him – or well, he had, but not like this. Harry quickly took his wand out of his pocket and summoned his glasses, which, as he found, were broken. He repaired them, put them back on, and then turned his attention to Malfoy.

“Are you okay?” He got no answer.

Carefully, he scooted closer, but when he touched his arm, Malfoy flinched and curled up tighter.

“Don’t touch me!” he hissed.

“Don’t be daft. Your nose is bleeding, maybe it’s broken. I got some training with healing charms in the Auror programme. Let me have a look.”

Malfoy stubbornly shook his head, and Harry sighed in frustration. He wouldn’t be able to do anything but sit here with him until Malfoy would decide to get up again. This fight was a decidedly bad start to this marriage business, and it certainly couldn’t go on like this.

“Look,” he tried, “I didn’t mean . . . I’m sorry. For what I said about your parents. It was completely inappropriate. And what I said about you . . . I didn’t really mean that either. Well, I did, but was mad and I snapped, you’ve got to understand that.”

Malfoy didn’t say anything, but at least he was listening. And Harry did mean what he said.

“I can’t really imagine what it must have been like to realise you’d have to come to me to save yourself. And you’ve got to admit that’s it’s just as bad for me. We’ll never be friends, but we both know that we’ve got to learn to get along somehow. Maybe we can just . . . try not to fight? Try to respect each other?”

While part of him was telling him how absurd it was to talk about respect with Malfoy of all people, Malfoy finally looked up and nodded slowly.

“Not one word about my parents,” he said. “I don’t care what you say about me, but I’ll break more than just your nose if you ever insult them again.”

It wasn’t exactly what Harry had meant by ‘getting along’, but it was probably all he would get.

“Fine,” he said. “Now let me have a look at your nose.”

The nose was indeed broken, as Harry learnt when he cast a simple diagnostic spell, but he did have a bottle of Skele-gro in his medicine cabinet in the bathroom, and he managed to stop the bleeding with another spell.

The fake domesticity they were forced into by the bond when they got ready for bed was unnerving: brushing their teeth together, taking the remedies for their injuries as well as painkilling potions, changing into their nightclothes while carefully turning their backs to each other. They got a second duvet from the room Malfoy had chosen as his and put his things into – at the other end of the corridor – and then it was time.

Luckily, the bed was big enough to give them both ample space, and when the lights were switched off and Harry had closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was alone.

“Potter?”

“What?” Harry sure hoped Malfoy wasn’t the type to get all talkative in bed – not that he’d have to endure it more than once.

“What about children? Do you want any?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Good.” Malfoy sounded clearly relieved, as much as Harry felt. At least they agreed on something about this marriage.

Pulling his covers up to his nose, Harry refused to think about how he’d planned children with Ginny, as well as the idea that surely, Malfoy had planned to continue his line. This was how it would be. They’d have to deal with it.

Malfoy had shut up now and thanks to the painkilling potion, the eye didn’t hurt and the dull ache in his chest, which had returned while they had watched TV, had vanished again. Much to his relief, he was tired enough to fall quickly asleep.

.-.-.-.-.

“Hi, Uncle Harry.”

At nine years old, Teddy felt a little too grown-up for hugs from anybody but his granny, Harry had learnt that when he’d come home to England for a short visit on Teddy’s birthday. Now though, not having seen Harry for almost four months, he seemed to have forgotten it and flung his arms around him.

“Hello Teddy, what did you do with your ears?”

Teddy grinned widely, freeing himself from Harry’s embrace and stepping away from the door to let him in. “It’s great, isn’t it? I finally did it, when you were still in America! I can do more animals too, do you want to see me as an elephant?” He gave Harry no time to answer, but screwed his eyes shut tightly, nose scrunched up in concentration. Slowly, the white rabbit ears sticking out from under green hair turned grey and then bigger and bigger, until they hung down over his shoulders.

“That’s quite the sight,” Malfoy said behind Harry.

Teddy opened his eyes again. “Uncle Draco? Do you want to visit your mum?”

Malfoy nodded, closing the door behind him. “We both do. Where is your grandmother?”

“Upstairs, with Aunt Cissa.” Teddy looked a bit uncomfortable, and his ears shrunk to their normal size. “She just had a bath.”

“Tell you what, why don’t you and . . . Harry go and catch up? I’m sure he’s got a lot to tell you about his last months in New York. And I will go upstairs.”

“Good idea,” Harry agreed. “And I want to hear all about those new ears and if you can change anything else I don’t know of.” He herded Teddy in the direction of the kitchen while Malfoy climbed the stairs to his mother’s room.

It was Sunday, two days after the wedding, and Harry had agreed to visit Malfoy’s mother. She knew that they had married, Malfoy had told him – in fact, Hermione had sent her an owl from Grimmauld Place right after the engagement had been sealed – though he’d said that she didn’t know how much Harry resented the fact.

“She somehow got it into her head that you’re doing it out of the goodness of your heart,” he’d said when he had brought up the subject during supper the previous day. “That you did it to help me. I’m not quite sure why, it doesn’t make any sense. But the Healers said she might, well, not be quite rational anymore at some point.”

He had fixated Harry with a hard glance. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t say anything to the contrary. She doesn’t need to know, she would only get upset.”

It hadn’t been an unreasonable request, and – partly out of guilt over what he’d said on Friday evening – Harry had agreed to go along with it, as had Andromeda, according to Malfoy.

For about half an hour, Harry sat in the sunlit kitchen, drinking pumpkin juice, telling Teddy about hunting Wizarding criminals down in the New York sewer system – never mentioning how eerie it had been and how frightened he had actually felt – and appropriately admiring all the different animal ears he was shown.

“And I want to have the elephant trunk to the ears,” Teddy was just saying. “I can only turn my nose grey so far, but if I practise every day I can get there in a month. Granny said that’s how long it took Mum.”

“Well, I’d like to see that grey nose of yours now already.”

Hearing Malfoy’s voice, Harry turned towards the door to find that he and Andromeda had joined them, and he got up and hugged her. “How are you?”

“All right,” she said softly enough so that Teddy couldn’t hear her. “I’m glad they allowed me to have her here, but it’s hard to see her like this.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, holding her a bit tighter for a few moments before letting go.

She nodded. “We’ll manage. Teddy likes having somebody else to show his metamorphic skills to, and Cissa can feel like a grandmother for a while.” She managed a small smile. “Thank you, Harry. Draco told me you won’t tell her the truth. That’s . . . it will mean a lot to her. And to Draco and me.”

Harry shrugged awkwardly. “It would be cruel. There’s no need.”

“Do you want to go and see her now? She’s expecting you.”

“Yes. Is there anything I should watch out for?”

“She shouldn’t get upset, that’s all. If you need me, just call. It’s the old guest room right next to the bathroom.”

“All right.” Before he made for the door, Harry looked over to Malfoy, who was just explaining to Teddy, that yes, he and Harry were really married now, and that no, they hadn’t been thinking about how to have children yet.

“When I asked Aunt Cissa, she said there are spells.”

Harry left it to Malfoy and Andromeda to find some excuse for Teddy and left the kitchen. Upstairs, he hesitated for a few moments before he knocked and then carefully opened the door to Mrs Malfoy’s room. He didn’t look forward to lying to her, and to having to accept her gratitude for something he didn’t do.

The room was as sunlit as the kitchen, the drapes pulled back from the high window. It looked very tidy and clean, a vase of bright yellow tulips was standing on the old-fashioned dresser on the opposite wall of the bed, and the white sheets and covers on the bed were crisp and spotless. The window was open and fresh summer air filled the room, but still, there was an underlying hint of the unmistakable smell of illness, and the bedside table stood full of potion flasks and other utensils.

And there was no mistaking that Mrs Malfoy must be very sick. Her skin barely stood out against the sheets, she was too thin, and Harry couldn’t shake the feeling that he was looking at a much older woman. Her hair had lost its shine, hanging over her shoulder in a thin, fraying plait, and when Harry came closer, he saw deep lines around her mouth and eyes. She was leaning against several pillows propped up high behind her back, and while she smiled when she saw him, he didn’t miss that she looked strained, as if sitting like this were too taxing.

There was a beige chintz armchair standing next to the bed, and he sat down, not quite knowing what to say.

“Mrs Malfoy . . .”

“Please, call me Narcissa.” Her voice had aged as well, sounding brittle and tired.

“Narcissa, then.”

“Did Teddy show you his elephant ears?” she asked.

“Of course, he entertained me with all the ears he can do.”

“Me too – I’m certain I have seen at least two dozen. He’s a sweet boy; it’s good that I finally got to know him. I should have reached out much sooner. By now it seems very foolish that I turned from my sister in the first place.”

There was an uncomfortable silence; Harry had not been expecting any such private confessions.

“Harry, I know this must be very awkward for you. I haven’t forgotten what my family . . . after everything that happened . . .” She trailed off, apparently trying to compose herself. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said quietly after a while.

“You shouldn’t.” There was nothing he should be thanked for; wanting to save his own life wasn’t heroic at all. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You saved Draco,” she insisted. “These last years . . . He tried so hard to provide for us, he worked all these Muggle jobs, and he would have managed if there weren’t these new laws. And maybe if I hadn’t got sick . . .”

“It’s not right,” Harry said softly, careful not to show just how angry he got even thinking of these laws which had trapped him in this. “He doesn’t deserve that, none of you do.”

“I knew you would think so. When Draco first mentioned that he would go and call on your proposal, I knew you would understand.”

Harry had no idea what to reply; could she honestly believe that he had simply agreed to be bonded to Malfoy, to give up his own dreams of a relationship and family for somebody who hated him? But he was spared the answer: while he was still searching for words, she went rigid and began coughing, a harsh, hollow cough deep in her chest that was painful to listen to. It didn’t seem to stop; she went even paler, and droplets of sweat began to form on her forehead.

Harry wasn’t sure what he should do – should he call Andromeda or Malfoy? But just when he was about to get up, the coughing finally stopped. Narcissa took a few deep, wheezing breaths and reached out for him, thin hand trembling slightly.

Her skin was cold to the touch and he would have expected her grasp to be weak, but her fingers closed around his with surprising strength. “I know it was a hard decision, Harry. You wouldn’t have chosen him if things were different. I’m not stupid. Lucius and I did not choose each other either. In my sixth and seventh year at Hogwarts, I was quite madly in love with a young wizard from another house. He loved me as well, but he was bound by a Blood Proposal already. And Lucius had been promised my sister Andromeda. He was fond of her, but she cared nothing for him. When she ran away, I was the second prize, so to speak. We were both miserable on our wedding day.”

She closed her eyes, and her grip loosened. The shadows under her eyes seemed darker now, the lines around her mouth more pronounced. “It is hard when there is nothing between you in the beginning, but if you try . . . we managed. We had a child, and we belonged together, and after some years . . . He wasn’t perfect, but he tried to be a good husband and father, and I tried as well, and we did come to love each other, eventually. And you cared enough to do this for Draco.”

At least she hadn’t been forced into the marriage under a death threat, Harry thought. He couldn’t imagine ever developing any kind of tender feelings for Malfoy. They might come to tolerate each other, live separate lives in the same house without fighting, as they had agreed upon when they had talked the arrangement over and drafted the marriage contract, but anything else seemed too far-fetched.

“I’ll try my best,” he said. “I’m sure Draco will too.”

Narcissa nodded; her hand had gone limp in his and she was lying back heavily against the pillows. It seemed as if his short visit had used up her strength. “Would you please send him to me now? I would like to sleep.”

“All right.” Harry carefully put her hand back on the sheets. “I’ll . . . if you want, when I come to see Teddy and Andromeda, I could . . .”

“Thank you. That would be lovely.” She smiled weakly without opening her eyes.

“I’ll see you next time, then.”

Damn! Why had he offered to visit her? Harry shook his head to himself when he had left the room and descended the stairs. It would only be horribly awkward. But when he entered the kitchen and Malfoy turned to look at him with an expression of anxious anticipation, nervously running his hand through his hair, he realised that it was the right thing to do. He could visit with Narcissa for a few minutes every two weeks.

“It went well,” he said. “And she wants you now. She’s tired.”

Malfoy put his glass away and got up. When he passed Harry, he stopped for a moment.

“You didn’t tell her?”

Harry shook his head. “She doesn’t suspect anything. She deserves to believe we’ll be fine.”

Malfoy hesitated. “Thank you,” he finally said.

oOoOoOoOoOo

 

Part 2: Down The Drain

“Tell me one good reason why I should get you out of there!”

Harry was glaring at his husband of four years, who was currently inside a holding cell at the Auror Department, sitting cross-legged on the wooden cot and grinning at him through the iron bars. It was the third time in as many months that he’d been arrested, and it seemed that this was becoming a pattern.

“How about you’ll miss me tonight, Potter?” Draco slurred. He was – unsurprisingly – drunk.

Harry snorted. “Right. That’s convincing.”

Ever since the first day when they had been forced to be close for 24 hours and share a bed, they hadn’t spent more than a couple of hours together, never mind in the bedroom.

For almost two years, it hadn’t even been all that bad. They had been wary around each other, there had been constant jibes from both sides and several heated arguments, and they usually hadn’t spoken much during the meals they’d sometimes taken together. But there had been no violent fights, and they had managed to uphold a certain measure of civility most of the time. Every now and then, they had even visited Draco’s mother together, making small-talk and calling each other by their first names in front of her. That, together with Teddy and Andromeda calling him Draco, was probably how Harry had come to no longer think of him as ‘Malfoy’ – which was still rather weird.

During the day, Draco had seemed to busy himself mostly with reading; whenever Harry had entered the library, there had been another book lying on the small table next to the black leather couch in front of the fireplace, and often enough he’d found Draco there when he had come home from work.

When Harry’s friends were visiting, Draco would usually vanish into the library as well or into his room, although a few times, Harry had found him in conversation with Luna – she later told him that Draco had protected her once from Bellatrix when she had been imprisoned at Malfoy Manor.

Come spring, Draco had taken up the task of bringing some life back into the neglected garden, cutting back the lignified rosebushes and removing the weeds which had run riot on the lawn.

“I learnt some gardening from the house-elves during the summer holidays,” he had told Harry.

A few times, on weekends, Harry had decided to help, and they had shovelled and weeded in a not altogether uncomfortable silence. After that, they’d eaten together and watched TV. Harry hadn’t expected for them to become good friends, but slowly, he had dared to hope that maybe his life wouldn’t be the catastrophe he had imagined.

But during the summer two years ago, things had changed inexplicably. Without any obvious reason, Draco had become sullen and outright hostile, insulting Harry and Harry’s friends at every opportunity. He had stopped reading much and caring for the garden and instead begun going out frequently, often coming home drunk. More and more often, Harry had found glasses with the remainders of what smelt like Firewhiskey strewn around the house. After a few months, he’d attempted talking to Draco, but to no avail.

“It’s none of your business,” had been the answer whenever he’d tried, and a while after Luna had told him that she, too, had failed to get Draco to talk, he had given up. It wasn’t as if he much cared, and if Draco wanted to live like this, let him. Harry had his work, he had his friends and their children who loved him, and he wasn’t his fake-husband’s keeper.

Only recently, it seemed that that was what he had become.

“What was it this time?” The other two times Draco had got arrested, it had been for disturbance of the peace by night. Harry had collected him from two different Muggle police stations, just as inebriated as he was now.

“He pissed into the fountain in the Atrium,” said a male voice, and Harry turned to see Auror Pollack, grinning from ear to ear. “Flooed in, made a ruckus. Said that the Ministry was shit and everyone who worked here was shit, and that he’d show us just how much he shat on us if only he hadn’t taken a dump at home already. But that he’d gladly give a demonstration of how much we pissed him off.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope.” Pollack was still grinning. “He’s got some balls – it’s not as if I hadn’t felt like it sometimes.”

Harry wished it had been Pollack; at least then he might get fired and Harry wouldn’t have to see his stupid face around at work all day. And he wouldn’t have to deal with this mess.

“Did you even think for one second about the consequences?” he snapped into the cell. “This is going to end up in the Prophet, and what if your mother sees it by accident? Do you seriously want her to get upset over something like this? Now, when she’s so much worse? Do you want her to die?”

The smug grin slowly drained from Draco’s face, being replaced with horror.

“Shit.”

“Indeed,” Harry said sharply, turning away to leave the cell block. “You’re a bloody idiot. Cross your fingers that I’ll be able to make this go away.”

Harry did manage to make it go away, at the cost of a 1,000 Galleon-fine to the Ministry and by promising the Prophet an in-depth interview about his experiences in the war in addition to letting a reporter come and take photos of the inside of his house – both things he had carefully avoided before now.

Why was he even doing all of this, he asked himself on his way back to the Ministry. He was walking part of the distance, trying to cool off after the talk with the editor at the Prophet, who’d been so chuffed about the outcome that Harry had wanted to punch his face in.

It certainly wasn’t for Draco. A week or two in Azkaban – now that there were no longer any Dementors – would serve him right. Maybe it would teach him a lesson. Harry sighed, rounding the corner to see the telephone booth that would take him inside the Ministry. It was because of Narcissa. For some reason, she had grown rather fond of him, and, truth be told, he of her.

After she had lost everything and all that she had believed in had gone down the drain, according to what Harry had gathered from Draco and Andromeda, she had never complained. She had taken up a job at a Muggle fashion shop for a while, until the separation from Lucius, whom she had been forbidden to visit on Ministry orders, had made her too sick to work.

“They planned that, of course,” she had once said matter-of-factly to Harry. “Most Death Eaters were blood-bonded to their spouses, so what easier way to kill them than to forbid them to see each other for years? Minister Shacklebolt was against it, but he was overruled. Lucius got sick much quicker than I because they wouldn’t allow us to send him medication that would have helped with the effects of our separation. And also because of the bad conditions in Azkaban. It’s a terrible place even without the Dementors. When he died, the bond was broken and I might have recovered, but I was weakened already, and the Healers said I had no chance against the disease when I caught it.”

It was preposterous, as were most laws concerning former Death Eaters, and Harry had tried to talk about it to Minister Hollingberry personally. He’d actually got an appointment, but the Minster had been very clear on the matter: everyone was extremely grateful to Harry, and what he had done would never be forgotten, but it did not give him any kind of influence, and nobody cared whether or not he found fault with the law. He’d embarrassed himself and the Auror Department enough already by marrying Draco Malfoy, and it would do neither his position as an Auror nor his ‘Death Eater relations’ any good if he tried stirring up trouble.

Well, Harry thought as he stepped out of the lift and made for the holding cells, at least he had enough influence left to spare Narcissa the heartache of hearing about her son making an utter ass out of himself in public. Harry and Andromeda had kept all of Draco’s escapades from her; she deserved better than that, even Draco had admitted to that in a moment of guilt.

Harry could only hope that he’d be able to bring him home without too much of a fuss now. If he was lucky, Draco might go to bed and sleep off the alcohol.

When he arrived at the cell, he found Draco sitting on the cot with his head bowed and his hands in his hair – his usual position when he was worried or upset, as Harry had learnt.

“Come on out,” Harry said before he unlocked the cell with his wand. “You’re free to go home, no thanks to you.”

Slowly, Draco got up, swaying a bit before he managed to walk to the door.

“The Prophet?” he asked with so much worry that Harry almost – but only almost – felt something like pity.

“They won’t print it. I promised them something else instead. Something about me they’d been after for a long time. Thank you very much for that,” he added. “I’ve always dreamt about bailing my Death Eater husband out of media attention by stripping my soul bare to the likes of Rita Skeeter.”

“Just shut up,” Draco muttered. He swayed again, and Harry grabbed his arm, holding on only tighter when he met with resistance.

“Let’s go home. You need to sleep and sober up.”

Draco didn’t answer, but he complied when Harry led him out of the cell block and through the Ministry to the fireplaces, and he let Harry Floo them home and bring him to his room, where he curled up on his bed silently.

“Sleep,” Harry said. “Don’t do anything stupid for a while. We might not be as lucky the next time.” When he was met with no reply, he left the room, hoping for the best.

Looking at the grandfather clock down in the living room, he realised that he was already ten minutes late. He’d been invited for supper at Luna and Percy’s, and especially their two-year-old, Frederica, would be waiting for him impatiently. For reasons unknown to everyone, he’d been her favourite ‘uncle’ from the start, and when he was there, she wouldn’t play with anybody else or let anyone but him help her or bring her to bed.

Hopefully, Draco would simply be sleeping when he came home.

.-.-.-.-.-.

When Harry entered the living room the next morning, he only needed one glance to grasp what had happened. He should have known, he told himself. He really should. It wasn’t as if this was the first time.

Two naked bodies were spread out on the big green velvet couch, barely covered with a blanket that had mostly slipped off during the night. One was Draco, the other’s face was pressed into a pillow so only the black hair was visible. Harry doubted that he knew him, though – he never did.

Wonderful. He almost wanted to leave them to their own devices, but it was unwise, especially if the stranger was a Muggle. And considering the state Draco would be in once he awoke . . .

Sighing, he approached the couch and carefully touched the black-haired bloke’s shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, trying to speak softly despite his irritation. “Wake up.” The answer was a sleepy moan, and Harry shook him slightly. “Come on, wake up.”

The stranger turned his head and blinked slowly. “Wha . . .?”

“It’s morning,” Harry said, taking his hand away. “Time to leave.”

“Who . . .” The bloke sat up abruptly, making the blanket slip fully to the floor and revealing his toned body. Absently, Harry registered that he was shaved. “Who’re you?”

“His husband.” Harry picked up the blanket and offered it to him. “And you’re naked in my house. I’d prefer if you left.”

It didn’t matter to him in the slightest that Draco was sleeping with somebody other than him, and he wouldn’t have bothered with any of this if it weren’t for the Blood Bond. The worst hangover was nothing against the pain Draco would be in once he woke up, and he wanted to get rid of this man as quickly as possible before having to deal with it.

The stranger stared blankly at him for a few moments before he looked down at himself, flushing furiously, and then grabbed the blanket and quickly wrapped it around himself.

“His . . . h-husband?” he stuttered. “He never said . . .”

“He tends to forget when he’s drunk. Now if you wouldn’t mind, your clothes are . . .” Harry looked around to see them strewn across the carpet close to one of the armchairs, “over there. Do you want me to call you a taxi?”

“Um . . . yeah. Please.” The man got up and looked down at Draco for a few seconds before he shook his head. “This is awkward.”

“Yes,” Harry agreed. He seemed to be lucky today, though. There had been enough of them who’d made a scene, especially when they had been wizards and Draco had woken up before or along with them. A few times, Harry had witnessed some guy yelling at Draco for not telling him he was blood-bonded, while Draco had been curled into a ball of agony on his bed or one of the couches in the living room.

The man had collected his clothes, and Harry just wanted to tell him he’d leave him to dress and call the taxi, and to please not wake Draco.

“Master Harry? Kreacher has made the usual Saturday morning breakfast. Will Master Draco eat with Master Harry?”

Draco’s one night stand shrieked and dropped his clothes.

A Muggle, then. Lovely.

“Kreacher!” Harry couldn’t help snapping at him as he turned around to the elf standing in the doorway. “I’ve told you a thousand times not to come out of the kitchen in the morning without checking for Muggles!” House-elves could do that, they could magically feel if a Muggle was in their house. Inexplicably, Kreacher seemed to forget it again and again these days.

Kreacher’s face fell, the long ears hanging down even lower. Harry saw that his hands were trembling. “Kreacher is inconsolable!” he croaked. “Kreacher will go and iron his hands immediately! And he will . . .”

“No, wait!” Mentally counting to ten, Harry tried to calm himself down. A shocked Muggle, Draco soon in the throes of magical infidelity punishment – he couldn’t need a house-elf who would look for creative ways to castigate himself all day long on top of that.

“I want you to go to the kitchen and stay there. Wait for me. Have a cup of tea. Do not punish yourself, do you hear me? That is an order.”

“Yes, Master Harry,” Kreacher muttered unhappily before he disappeared.

Now for the Muggle. Harry drew his wand.

Obliviate!”

.-.-.-.-.

“Another one?” Ron asked as he reached for the teapot. “How many does that make now?”

“Seven.” Harry looked down at the strawberry cake with cream dejectedly. It was his favourite, which was why Hermione had made it, but he didn’t feel at all hungry.

“If they were wizards at least, it wouldn’t be so bad. But he keeps bringing home Muggles. To Grimmauld Place! It’s so stupid! He could just dump them at the Ministry or in Diagon Alley as well, for what it’s worth. The house breathes magic.”

After it had happened for the second time, Harry had realised he’d have to do something. He had banned all magical paintings, all magical objects, in fact, from the ground floor (with the exception of his study and the library) as well as the upstairs corridor with the bedrooms, and he’d ordered Kreacher to check for Muggles every morning. Still, it hadn’t been enough.

“At least he made no scene. Only asked me again who I was, and when I told him he said again how awkward this was and yes, he’d like me to call him a taxi. Draco kept sleeping, luckily. Woke up right after the door closed behind him.”

Which had led to the next highlight of the day. Draco had begun throwing up only moments after opening his eyes, and when the worst was over, Harry had been faced with the task of bringing his naked, shaking husband who couldn’t take even one step on his own upstairs and to bed. Once there, Draco had buried his face in his pillow, sobbing with pain, wailing for Harry – or anybody at all – to make it go away.

Harry knew perfectly well how horrible he felt. He’d had sex with a witch about a year ago, when his own hand simply hadn’t seemed to be enough anymore and he’d been growing increasingly frustrated with Draco’s insults and hostility. The sex had been glorious, but it hadn’t been worth it. Nothing could be worth this kind of pain. It really was the perfect way to ensure fidelity and blood purity.

“I’ve got no clue why he keeps doing it. But I suppose he gets so shit-faced most nights it happens that he simply forgets. Makes the whole drinking business even dumber.”

Knowing that admonishments were worthless at the moment, Harry had put the covers over Draco and left. Painkillers wouldn’t help; nothing would help for the next five days. All that could be done was to make sure that Draco drank regularly and somehow made it to the loo on time. In the past, Harry had mostly left that task to Kreacher, but now he wasn’t so sure anymore.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he told Ron and Hermione after he had eaten his slice of cake after all. “He keeps forgetting all kinds of things, he’s burnt food several times, there’s dust all over the library and the upstairs rooms and . . . well, he just isn’t himself. It’s been going on for months, but I didn’t truly notice at first because it was only little things. But now . . . Do you think he is sick? Are there Healers for house-elves? He keeps insisting he’s fine, but I think he’s hiding something.”

“He sounds like Tiddy,” Ron said thoughtfully. “Grandma Cedrella brought her with her from the Black family when she married Grandpa Septimus. They removed her from the family tree and refused her her dowry because she married a Weasley, but they couldn’t take Tiddy from her because she was her personal house-elf. Tiddy was old, almost 500, and she died only a year before Grandma. I was eight, but I remember she was just like that, like you described Kreacher.”

“500?” Harry was dumbfounded. “I had no idea they could get that old!”

Hermione nodded. “House-elves can live to be 550, though most of them die somewhere between 450 and 500. Kreacher, if I remember correctly, should be around 520. I think it’s old age, nothing more.”

“What do I do now? He obviously doesn’t want me to know, but I don’t want him to feel overwhelmed with the work.”

“Seriously, Harry?” Hermione sounded amused as she answered. “Twelve years of living with a house-elf and you suddenly can’t clean up after yourself anymore? Perform some cleaning spells, how about that? Dusting, mopping the floor, laundry – they’re all things that can be done with magic in no time. You don’t have to talk about it with him, that would only make him feel humiliated. Let him take care of the kitchen and don’t allow any discussion. If he’s really that forgetful by now, he might not even notice and think he just did it already.”

Harry grinned sheepishly, but then an idea came to him that made him shudder. “When Black house-elves get old . . . you think he’ll still want . . .”

Ron’s eyes grew wide. “Would you do it?”

“What are you talking about?” Hermione asked.

“Remember the heads?” Harry answered.

“Harry!” Her teacup clattered on the saucer as she put it down rather forcefully. “Promise you wouldn’t.”

“Of course not!” The mere thought of Kreacher’s stuffed head hanging from the wall on a plate for him to look at every day made him feel sick. “I had all the heads put up in the attic with Mrs Black’s portrait and some other stuff, and I’m not adding to them.”

“Good,” Hermione said. “It’s barbaric.”

Harry had the decided feeling that Kreacher would argue she didn’t know what she was talking about, but he didn’t want to think about it any longer.

“I’ve got to go home. I don’t think Kreacher should be looking after Draco on his own. Maybe I can get some days off work; I worked loads of overtime this year.”

“Have fun with that,” Ron said and ducked as Harry whacked him over the head.

.-.-.-.-.-.-.

The next weeks went by quietly, much to Harry’s relief. There were no more arrests or public scenes from Draco, and no sex with strangers, be they wizard or Muggle. In fact, he didn’t seem to be going out at all. When Harry came home in the evening, he often found him in the library again, or on the green couch in the living room with a switched-on telly.

He was mostly quiet and gloomy-looking; often he was sleeping and a glass of Firewhiskey was standing close by, but still, this was better than how it had been before. Harry hoped it might last for a while.

December came, London disappeared under a blanket of crisp snow, and while they were watching TV on the Sunday before Christmas, after they’d visited Narcissa together for the first time in months, Harry asked if Draco wanted to come to the Burrow for Christmas Dinner. Narcissa had got even worse – now she was coughing up blood, and the Healers said it was a matter of months, maybe weeks.

Draco had been silent for the rest of the visit with Teddy and Andromeda and also for the rest of the evening, picking at the supper he’d taken together with Harry and watching the thriller Harry had switched on without complaint.

“I’d spend the day in a cupboard with Kreacher rather than set foot in that pig-sty full of Weasels,” he now snapped.

He got up and left the room, and shortly afterwards Harry heard the front door slam shut behind him. Draco didn’t return before he went to bed, and in the morning, Harry stepped into the corridor to see a stranger in billowing robes storming out of Draco’s room and towards the stairs.

“I don’t get it,” he told Ginny when they were sitting in the kitchen of the Burrow after Christmas Dinner over a bottle of butterbeer for him and a glass of wine for her. Arthur had got everyone else to set up the large electric train set Percy and Luna had got him. “It’s as if he wants to hurt himself.”

“Maybe he does.” She held her glass up against a candle, swirling the dark red wine thoughtfully. “Or maybe he wants distraction, no matter what kind. Drinking, sex, pain . . . His mother is dying. And did you consider that he might be lovesick?”

“You mean . . .”

“Why not? Maybe he’s met someone, and now they can’t be together. You’d feel miserable too, I’d wager.”

“True. But he knew what he was getting himself into. He chose my Gringotts vault over his freedom.”

“He chose your vault over starvation,” Ginny said with a frown, “and you can’t tell me you wouldn’t at least have considered the same.”

“Maybe,” Harry conceded.

“Anyway, I think it’s possible. After you two got married, I went out a lot, had a lot of sex to distract myself. I wasn’t over you, not really. Not until a few months before I started going out with Neville.”

Harry smiled at the thought. Neville was in the living room as well, probably trying to set up the small generator with Mr Weasley. He and Ginny were a lovely couple, and Harry was glad for them – and not just a little envious.

“I wish he’d stop,” he said. “Kreacher’s not really up to taking care of him anymore, I noticed that the last two times, and I can’t take time off work every time he slips. Plus, it makes him unhappy, whether he wants the distraction or not. He doesn’t do any of this because he likes it, that much is obvious. He’d rather bite off his tongue than tell me that, but he’s a picture of misery. It’s hard not to notice when you live with him. And his mother isn’t blind, she noticed it too. She asked me what’s wrong with him. And he feels guilty for making her worry.”

How had it come to this? Him sitting and discussing Draco Malfoy’s psyche on Christmas Day?

“Maybe if you two got along better –” Ginny began, but Harry cut her off.

“I try! I even invited him here, and not only this year. Your parents allowed it. He’s the one who keeps being difficult! He doesn’t want anything to do with me, and he refuses to talk about it.” With a large gulp, Harry emptied his bottle. “What more do you expect me to do? I’m being civil, I protect his mother from his stupidity, and now I even take care of him after he has sex. And it’s not as if I had to! I could just leave him to deal with all of it by himself.”

“Then why don’t you?”

There were whoops and cheers from the living room, Mr Weasley’s voice shouting, “It’s running!” and George saying, “Told you the cable had to go there, Dad.” Everyone was laughing and sounding happy, and Harry felt a rush of fierce gratitude that he was here, that he belonged to these people, to this family. And, as he realised, that was probably the answer.

“He doesn’t really have anyone else. You said it yourself, his mother is dying, and Andromeda . . . I think he doesn’t want to burden her. She’s already taking care of her sister when he believes he should be able to do it alone.” Andromeda had told him that Draco had rejected her invitation as well and would only stop by shortly on Boxing Day to visit Narcissa with Harry. “I know it’s silly and I don’t even like him, but he is my husband, even if it doesn’t really mean anything.”

Ginny smiled. “I suspected as much. He’s a fool for not realising what a kind man he’s married to. Just promise me you won’t get sucked in too much. If he doesn’t want your help, there’s nothing you can really do.”

Ginny was right, Harry told himself the next evening, when Draco vanished once again after they had visited his mother, probably to some club as he usually did. He couldn’t get too involved; it would only tear him down as well. Still, he was relieved when Draco returned alone only a few hours later, and he was relieved as well when the following weeks passed quietly.

He believed it might be because of Narcissa – the bad news could come any day, and Draco probably didn’t want to be caught incapacitated. He now visited with her almost every day and appeared to have cut down on the Firewhiskey too, from what Harry could tell.

He hadn’t tried talking to him again, but he made it a point to be in the kitchen as well when Draco ate, and while during the previous two years, Draco more often than not had left with his plate when Harry had entered the room, he now stayed. A few times, they ended up watching TV together again.

The back and forth between outright hostility and a wary, silent truce was unnerving, but there were things Harry was more preoccupied with. Kreacher seemed to be slipping more and more, however much he was trying to hide it, and one evening when he came home, Harry found supper burnt on the cold cooker while deep, croaking sobs were emerging from Kreacher’s cupboard.

With a sigh, Harry approached and knelt down before the cupboard. He had hoped he wouldn’t have to have this conversation, but had known it would probably come at some point. When he opened the door, he found Kreacher sitting in a corner of the small space with his face buried in his hands, long nose sticking out between them.

“Kreacher . . .”

The sobs got louder, and Kreacher turned away from him, trying in vain to scoot even deeper into the cupboard.

“Kreacher, please.” Harry had no idea what to do or say. “Please, don’t be so upset. It’s not the end of the world.”

Obviously, that had been the wrong thing to say. “K-kreacher is old!” the house-elf wailed. “Kreacher is useless! Burning food, forgetting things that are important to Master Harry. And Master Harry is cleaning!”

Damn, so he had noticed.

“We all get old,” he tried. “It’s normal, really. And I don’t mind the cleaning; it’s only a few spells.”

Kreacher shook his head, still not turning around to face him. “If this were the old days, Kreacher would be put out of his misery. House-elves shouldn’t be left alive when they’re too old to be useful! Kreacher is so ashamed!”

Harry had expected this, but still, he didn’t quite know how to answer. “I can’t possibly kill you!”

By now, the sobs had stopped, and Kreacher was only sniffling weakly. “All the Black house-elves were beheaded in old age. It’s an honourable passing, Master Harry. Kreacher’s ancestors would be appalled if they knew of his indignity.”

“I can’t kill you. I can’t kill anyone. That’s my last word.” It was more than enough that he’d killed Voldemort, and he never wanted to even contemplate doing anything like it again.

Kreacher nodded. “Kreacher knows,” he said dully. “It’s why he didn’t want to tell Master Harry. Master Harry didn’t grow up to honour the old traditions. He can’t understand.” He sobbed again, quietly this time.

Harry felt like a heartless monster.

“Look, I really can’t kill you. It’s wrong. You’re, well, a friend. But what if I . . . when you’re dead, if I put your head up into the attic with the other heads? With the portrait of Mrs Black?” He couldn’t believe he was even considering this, but Kreacher seemed so utterly miserable that it felt cruel to deny him this as well. He’d never have to look at the head or even tell anybody. Certainly not Hermione.

Kreacher turned around slowly, lowering his hands from his face. His bulging eyes were still swimming with tears, and there was something wet hanging under his nose Harry didn’t want to think about.

“Master Harry would do that for Kreacher?” He sounded so incredulous and hopeful that Harry couldn’t help but reach out and put his hand on one skinny shoulder.

“Yes. You’re a friend and you’ve always been a good house-elf. I’d be a bad master if I refused. I’m sorry I can’t do more than that.” To his own surprise, he realised that he meant every word as he said it.

Kreacher’s wrinkled face worked hard for a while, and Harry suspected he was trying not to burst out crying again. “Master Harry has a kind heart,” he finally croaked. “Kreacher will endure the shame of Master Harry cleaning without complaint if he promises to stuff Kreacher’s head and put it with those of his ancestors.”

“I promise,” Harry said, squeezing Kreacher’s shoulder slightly. “Just don’t tell anybody, all right? Hermione would have my head if she knew.”

To Harry’s relief, Kreacher nodded, and he pulled his hand away. “Then we’ll make a deal: I clean the rest of the house and do the laundry, and you’re responsible for the kitchen. I could never cook as well as you, and if you don’t have to worry about other things, I’m sure you won’t burn the food.”

Again, Kreacher nodded, and Harry got up. “Great. Then how about another try at supper?”

“Right away, Master Harry!” Kreacher said as he crawled out of his cupboard. “Right away!”

.-.-.-.-.-.

Narcissa died on a cold Thursday night during the last week of February.

Harry came home from work to find Draco sitting in the kitchen, watching as Kreacher prepared supper. When he entered the room, Draco turned to look at him.

“It’s time,” he said flatly, and Harry immediately knew what he was talking about. “They say she won’t survive the night. I just came to get you. She wants to see you.”

“All right.” Harry didn’t want to do it, but he felt that he owed it to Narcissa – and somehow, even to Draco. And he knew he would hate himself if he didn’t go.

They Flooed over to Andromeda’s house, where they were greeted by the two Healers who had treated Narcissa over the last few years. Andromeda was upstairs, and when Harry made for Narcissa’s room, he found her coming out of it.

“I had Molly get Teddy,” she told Harry after they had greeted with a hug. “He shouldn’t be here tonight.”

Harry nodded. “Can I go in?”

“Yes, she keeps asking for you. I was just about to go and Firecall you, ask you to please come quickly. I’m not sure . . .” She drew a shaky breath. “It won’t be more than a few hours.”

“I’m so sorry.” It wasn’t right – her husband and daughter had died, and now she was losing her second sister.

“Well, we all knew it was coming. And at least we could reconcile; I’d never even hoped for that. Now go in, don’t keep her waiting. I’ll go downstairs to Draco.”

When she had descended the stairs, Harry waited for another minute, trying to mentally prepare himself. He had last seen Narcissa a month ago, and even then she had been incredibly weak and barely able to talk.

Finally, he took heart and opened the door. The room was as tidy as ever and lit by gently flickering candlelight, but the air was thick, and even from the door, he could hear Narcissa’s laboured breathing. Her eyes were closed, and she didn’t appear to notice him when he approached and even when he sat down carefully on the edge of the bed.

While she had been fragile when he had met her after the wedding, now she was emaciated, paper-thin skin stretching tightly over her skull. Her hair had thinned even more and lost all colour, and her mouth was standing open, pale gums having receded from her teeth. When Harry took her hand into his, he was almost afraid he might break bones.

“Narcissa?” he said softly. “It’s Harry. I’m here now.”

There was no answer, and none either when he repeated her name. She seemed to be asleep, and he wondered if he shouldn’t let her be. But it had been so important to her to see him, and this would be the last chance.

“Narcissa?” With his free hand, Harry cupped her cheek. She whimpered, slightly turning her head into his touch, and he felt a thick lump in his throat as he remembered how strong and proud she had been when he’d seen her for the first time at the Quidditch World Cup. “It’s Harry.”

After a few moments, her eyes fluttered open – they were glassy and unfocused, and Harry had to lean forward to hear her when she spoke.

“Harry?”

“Yes, it’s me. Draco said you wanted to see me.”

“I . . . I wanted to . . . apologise.”

He had no idea what she was talking about. “There’s nothing to apologise for.”

She wanted to answer, but instead she coughed, her thin body shaking under the covers. Harry quickly grabbed a paper tissue from the box on the bedside table and held it before her mouth and when she could finally stop and he took the tissue away, it was stained with fresh blood.

For a minute or two, all she could do was draw shallow, wheezing breaths with closed eyes, and Harry wondered how often Draco had simply sat here with her during the last years, watching her and listening to her life tick away breath for breath. Was it really such a surprise that he’d thrown himself into distractions, however destructive they were? Harry couldn’t imagine seeing his own mother like this.

At last, she opened her eyes again.

“Th-thirsty . . .”

There was a feeding cup with water on the bedside table, and Harry let go of her hand and took it instead. He carefully slipped his free hand behind her head and lifted it a little before he put the spout to her mouth.

“Here.”

She drank a few sips, and when he’d put the cup away and lowered her head on the pillow, she reached out for him. Harry quickly took hold of her hand again.

“I know . . . Draco forced you into marriage,” she whispered. “It couldn’t have been . . . any other way. I knew it the moment . . . he told me that . . . you said yes. But . . . it’s so . . . so important to . . . him that I believe . . . he wouldn’t do such a thing. You mustn’t . . . mustn’t tell him, Harry.”

“Narcissa . . .”

“Promise . . . me!” She sounded agitated and even tried to lift her head, and Harry nodded hastily.

“I promise. Please, don’t get upset. I won’t tell him.”

“Thank . . . you.” Much to Harry’s relief, she relaxed again, and her eyes closed. “Will you promise me . . . something else?”

“Whatever you want; if I can do it, I will.” Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t have said anything else.

“Take care . . . of Draco. I know he’s . . . difficult and not . . . kind to you. You two never . . . fooled me.”

Harry hesitated. He didn’t know if he could do it, and he didn’t want to. It couldn’t go on the way it had been before Christmas. He couldn’t shoulder that kind of burden.

“Please,” Narcissa urged him. She opened her eyes, again, looking at him intently. Her hand in his was shaking, her voice barely audible, and Harry got the impression that it took all of her strength to speak. “He’s got . . . nobody else. Andromeda . . . has lost so much already . . . and she’s got Teddy to take care of. I know . . . I know it’s wrong of me to ask . . . but I need to know that . . . he’ll have somebody. Please, Harry.”

“I promise.” He couldn’t refuse. Already, he inwardly cursed himself, but there was no way he could say no to her. “You needn’t worry about him. I’ll be there.”

Again, whatever she wanted to reply was cut off by a violent coughing fit, and when it was over, she appeared to fall asleep. She didn’t speak anymore and her eyes stayed closed. Harry thought it would be best to leave, but when he wanted to let go of her hand and get up, she squeezed weakly, and he leant down again to be able to understand what she said.

“I miss . . . Lucius. Now when I go . . . to him, I won’t be . . . scared. I’ll tell him . . . how much you’ve done for . . . for our family. We didn’t . . . deserve any of it. You have . . . a kind heart.”

Harry wanted to be far away from here, or to tell her that he couldn’t keep this promise. A kind heart – Kreacher and Ginny had said the same, but it seemed that all it did was manoeuvre him into responsibilities he didn’t want.

“You needn’t be scared,” he repeated instead. “I promise I’ll take care of Draco. Now should I get him for you?”

She nodded and didn’t resist this time when he let go. Harry got up, but couldn’t make himself leave. Instead he looked down at her in the soft candlelight that smoothed at least the harshest lines from her ravaged face. She had saved his life once, and after the war he’d come to respect her for the strong woman she was. They had almost become friends over the years, and he couldn’t quite believe that this should be the last time he saw her.

Following a sudden impulse, he leant down one last time and kissed her clammy forehead. “Goodbye, Narcissa.”

He didn’t wait for an answer, but straightened himself and almost fled from the room. As he closed the door behind him, he found that he was fighting tears, and he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. It didn’t help much, but he managed to calm down enough so he could go and get Draco quickly. Narcissa shouldn’t be alone for any amount of time.

Downstairs, he found the Healers gone and Draco and Andromeda in the dimly lit living room, both with an untouched cup of tea before them.

“Draco? You should go to her.”

Immediately, Draco got up and brushed past him without a glance. Harry took his spot on the couch next to Andromeda. They didn’t speak, since there was nothing to say, but when he took her hand, she held on tightly for a long time.

It was shortly past four in the morning when Draco returned to the living room. He didn’t say anything, but there was no need. He moved slowly, as if in trance, and Harry could have sworn that it wasn’t only the lack of light that made his face look almost as shadowed and tired as Narcissa’s had been.

Andromeda had been sitting with her teacup clutched tightly on her lap, and now she rose without paying attention to it, making it fall and break on the wooden floor. She rushed to Draco, and Harry was expecting for them to hug, to touch, anything – but Draco backed away. It was only a tiny flinch, but enough for Andromeda to stop in her tracks. For seconds, they looked at each other mutely, then Andromeda turned away from him and left; Harry could hear her climb the stairs while Draco stood like frozen.

Upstairs, a door opened and closed, and Draco started moving again, slowly shuffling to the couch and sitting down on it heavily next to Harry. He leant forward and supported his head with his hands as usual. Watching him, Harry was unsure of what to do, if anything. He didn’t want to provoke any outburst, but he felt that he couldn’t simply do nothing.

“Draco?” he tried in the end. “I’m sorry. She didn’t . . . it’s not right.”

Draco didn’t react in any fashion, and Harry already thought he’d ignore him. It was better than snapping at him, at least.

“The worst thing is that I wanted for her to die.” Draco’s voice was monotonous, lifeless – as if something inside him had been switched off. Harry said nothing.

“At first, I wanted for her to get better, of course. When she could still walk, and even when she was bedbound, in the beginning. But the last half year . . .” Draco ran all ten fingers through his hair, then assumed the same position as before. “I couldn’t take it anymore, to see her like this. I wanted her to die, so that she’d stop hurting. So that I would stop hurting because of her. What kind of son wishes his own mother would die?”

Carefully, Harry scooted closer to him. His mind was blank – it wasn’t that he hadn’t wondered a few times if it wouldn’t be better if the end came quickly, that he hadn’t wished for it once or twice, but it wasn’t the same as for Draco. It couldn’t be.

“Only at the same time, I wanted her to stay,” Draco went on, still in this flat, toneless voice. “I didn’t want her to leave me like Father. Like everyone. But that was selfish of me; she was suffering so much. It made me feel just as rotten as hoping it would be over quickly.”

Harry reached out hesitantly, thinking that this was more likely than not a huge mistake. But Draco didn’t even react to the hand on his back.

“Now I feel glad that she’s at peace, and mad with her for leaving, and guilty for all of it. Life’s a pile of shit.”

No words would come to Harry, and so they sat in silence, Harry’s hand still on Draco’s back. Tomorrow, there would be a funeral to plan, and Harry wondered if Draco would be up to the task. Andromeda would probably help him, and if he let him, Harry would as well. Who would come other than them and Teddy? Was there anyone left? Old friends from before the war maybe? Draco appeared to have lost all contact, and neither Narcissa nor Andromeda had ever mentioned anyone.

“Potter?”

“Hmh?” Harry snapped out of his thoughts to find Draco looking at him as if he’d only now realised that he wasn’t alone.

“Did she know?”

“Know what?” Harry believed that he knew perfectly well what Draco was asking, but luckily he had the presence of mind not to give himself away.

“That I forced you into this marriage. Did she ever say anything?”

“No,” Harry heard himself say. He sounded sincere and it was far easier than he’d have imagined. It was the only possible answer. “She didn’t suspect anything. She never even asked. And when I was with her earlier she only thanked me again. Asked me to sit with her for a bit. Nothing more.”

Draco nodded, and then, to Harry’s utter surprise, very slowly, he leant against Harry, into the embrace he’d half-offered when he had touched him. It was so surreal that Harry barely dared to breathe, but then he got a grip on himself and carefully wrapped his other arm around Draco as well, pulling him in closer. Draco didn’t resist; he was rigid in Harry’s hold, his fists clenched and pressed against his own chest, but bit by bit, as the minutes went by, he relaxed. In the end, his arms sneaked around Harry’s waist and he turned his face so it was hidden in Harry’s robes.

Andromeda found them like that an hour later; Draco was sleeping by then, lying against Harry heavily. At some point, he’d drawn up his feet on the couch, and Harry had summoned a blanket and wrapped it around him.

Harry could see that Andromeda had cried, but she looked composed now. “Will he let you take care of him?” she asked. “I tried, but we’re not close. The only thing connecting us was Cissa.”

Harry shrugged very slightly. “I’m not sure. It seems so, for now.” He hoped it would last for a while at least. It would make keeping his promise to Narcissa easier.

“He’s lucky to have you. Cissa thought the same.”

If only she wouldn’t say anything about him being kind-hearted, Harry thought, but fortunately, she did nothing of the sort.

“I’m going to make us a fresh pot of tea, and then we should talk about the funeral.”

“All right.”

.-.-.-.-.

Narcissa was buried four days later, in the Black family crypt on an old, hidden Wizarding graveyard in the heart of London. Since the Malfoy family crypt was situated on the grounds of the Manor, she, and before her Lucius, couldn’t be buried there, and at Draco’s request, Harry as the Head of the House of Black had given official permission to the Malfoys to use the crypt of the Blacks. Lucius, who had been buried on a shabby Muggle graveyard, would be transferred later this week.

It had been Andromeda and Harry who’d organised everything; Draco seemed incapable of doing much at all. He spent the days – and nights – between his mother’s death and funeral on the green couch in the living room of Grimmauld Place, sometimes watching TV, but mostly lying down, staring at nothing. While there was always a glass of Firewhiskey close by, he only sipped from it occasionally, unlike the previous years. A few times when Harry sat down with him, he curled up against him without a word, and most of these times, he fell asleep eventually.

He barely spoke and he never cried, from what Harry could tell: he simply seemed numb and almost like a sleep-walker. His behaviour worried Harry, but he didn’t know what to do about it and hoped that with time, he would go back to normal – though he couldn’t help but think that he still liked him better like this than the Draco who’d done nothing but cause trouble for them both.

As Harry had suspected, nobody attended the funeral but himself, Draco, Andromeda, and Teddy. It was a depressing affair; the weather was gloomy and wet, a constant drizzle combined with fog clouding the sight, and the ancient tombs and crypts on the graveyard, together with the weathered, moss-covered trees towering over them, created an eerie atmosphere.

Before the coffin was brought into the crypt, the speaker Andromeda had hired for the occasion talked about Narcissa’s life and the people she had loved, as well as her magical accomplishments and her and her husband’s blood-line – an old tradition Draco had insisted on.

Teddy was sobbing weakly and holding Andromeda’s hand despite disliking such displays at the age of almost thirteen. He’d come to love his great-aunt dearly, and in the morning, Harry had accidentally witnessed him yelling at Andromeda for sending him away during the night she had died. Andromeda herself did her best to appear composed, as she had over the last few days. Her black robes were free of any crinkles and she was standing very straight under her black umbrella, but her face had lost all colour, and when Harry looked closer, he saw tears running down her cheeks as well.

In contrast, Draco seemed as emotionless as he had since his mother had died. He looked straight ahead, dry-eyed and silent, and Harry wondered what Andromeda might think of him. He was standing right next to Draco, arm wrapped tightly around his waist to prevent him from falling – when they’d wanted to leave the house, Draco’s legs had simply given in.

When it was finally over, they went home separately. Harry had asked if Andromeda wanted him there, but she’d told him to take care of Draco. Molly Weasley would come over – they’d become friends over the years.

At home, Draco went straight for the liquor cabinet in the living room.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Harry asked, but Draco ignored him, and although he felt as if he might soon have to tackle the drinking issue – it had been more than obvious that Draco was an alcoholic for quite a while – Harry didn’t feel like starting a fight. The one thing he would do was make sure Draco didn’t run off to find somebody to have sex with. Not tonight.

For now, though, it seemed safe to leave him on the couch with the bottle of Ogden’s, and Harry made for the kitchen to get some sandwiches for supper. Draco hadn’t yet eaten anything that day.

Harry walked into the kitchen – and screamed.

When he could think again, he found that he was standing with his hand clapped over his mouth, heart beating wildly in his throat as he looked down on Kreacher, who was lying in front of the cooker with his eyes wide open and not breathing.

Not this, too.

But there was no denying it, Harry had to realise when he knelt down next to Kreacher: the house-elf was dead. There was an unsettling feeling deep in his stomach when he realised what he’d have to do next.

It was only five-thirty, and the shops were still open. If he wanted to, he could take Kreacher’s body to Knockturn Alley right away. At the beginning of February, he’d reluctantly gathered information about where you could get your house-elves’ heads stuffed and had found out – relieved and appalled in equal parts – that there was a nameless shop belonging to a wizard named Kilgore he could turn to.

The mere thought of what would happen there and what he’d have to take home in a few days made his stomach lurch, and he had to close his eyes and fight down the nausea. He couldn’t do this. He wouldn’t.

Only he’d promised.

.-.-.-.-.-.-.

When Harry came back, Draco was still on the couch, clutching the bottle of Firewhiskey. The telly wasn’t switched on, but he appeared to be looking at it intently, not moving when Harry entered the room, nor when he sat down next to him.

“Kreacher’s dead,” Harry said. “Found him in the kitchen.” And because he had to share it with somebody: “Don’t tell anyone, but I brought him to Kilgore’s to take care of his head. I promised it to him.”

A hand appeared in his field of vision, holding the bottle out to him. Harry grabbed it and downed a big gulp. The Firewhiskey burnt down his throat pleasantly and within moments, his upset stomach settled. Encouraged, he took another gulp.

He’d wrapped Kreacher into a blanket he’d summoned and Flooed to the shop’s address through the fireplace in his study. Mr Kilgore, a man who looked like a friendly grandfather with spectacles and tufts of white hair sticking out around his bald head, had listened and nodded, sworn secrecy, and named a price. In a week, Harry could come to collect Kreacher’s head.

The question of what to do with the body had arisen, and Kilgore had asked if Harry wanted him to ‘dispose of it’. Admonishing himself to stay calm, Harry had ground out that he’d take it home to bury, which he would do close to the garden wall under a rosebush. Kreacher might not have liked it, but Harry felt that he’d done his duty there.

“Potter.”

“What?”

“The bottle.”

Harry handed it back and heard Draco drink. He wondered if he should go to bed now – he’d locked all doors and fireplaces after he’d come back from Knockturn Alley and warded them with spells more complicated than Draco could undo with the household magic he had left. There was no way he could get out without Harry’s help. But he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, and he’d have felt guilty to leave Draco alone tonight.

“He was a good house-elf, you know. Once he stopped acting crazy.” The bottle appeared again, and Harry took it and drank without thinking before handing it back. “And he remembered stuff. My and all my friends’ birthdays. And yours. He made us birthday cakes every year, and one for Ron and Hermione’s anniversary too. Before he started getting forgetful.”

“Mhm,” Draco grunted into the bottle.

“I can’t believe I’m letting that old man cut his head off. But he was almost begging, I couldn’t say no.”

“Shut up, Potter.” Despite the words, Draco’s voice was soft, and Harry only sighed and accepted the bottle again. He’d get drunk if he swallowed as much as one more mouthful, but he didn’t particularly care. After today, he needed it.

They sat and drank until the bottle was empty, and Harry didn’t protest when Draco summoned a second one. At some point during that one, Draco switched on the telly, where he zapped through the channels until he ended up at Comedy Central UK, and for a while, they watched Leslie Nielsen embarrassing himself playing a ridiculous vampire count.

It was just when the gormless servant began eating flies at the asylum that Harry realised he was crying. He leant his head against the backrest of the couch and closed his eyes. The world was spinning around him thanks to the Firewhiskey, but the closed eyes didn’t help. Now he was seeing Kreacher prepare breakfast, saying, ’Master Harry knows this is how it goes after too much to drink,’ in his deep, croaking voice; then the scene switched to him leading the army of house-elves at the Battle of Hogwarts. ‘Fight! Fight for my master, the defender of the house-elves! Fight the Dark Lord, in the name of brave Regulus! Fight!’

Harry had lived with him for twelve years, and while he’d been dotty and unpleasant to look at for human eyes, it was true what Harry had told him shortly after Christmas: he had become a friend.

You didn’t have a friend’s head chopped off and stuffed like an animal’s. You didn’t.

It was just when he began sobbing that Draco leant against his chest like he’d done during the previous days. Harry wrapped his arms around him and cried into his hair, holding on tightly more for his own than for Draco’s sake while Draco stayed silent. He was warm and his hair was soft, and his arms around Harry’s waist were strong and comforting.

“You know,” Harry finally muttered in a slightly slurred voice, when the tears had stopped and he’d spelled the snot out of Draco’s hair, “you’re not all that bad, for a git. We should just get along. We are married.”

Draco lifted himself to look at Harry. His eyes were dark and his drawn face glowing with a faint pink flush.

“You are such an idiot.” The way he said it sounded like a strange mixture of fondness and hurt; then he learnt in and his lips were on Harry’s.

Harry was too dumbstruck to react at all and simply held still, trying to figure out what was happening though the alcoholic haze. He was being kissed and a soft tongue was probing gently. Harry whimpered low in his throat. It had been so long. He opened his mouth.

It was intoxicating, and while somewhere back in his mind a tiny voice told him that he wasn’t attracted to men, he couldn’t care even one bit. Not with these lips and tongue and teeth, licking and nibbling and sucking and caressing. Not when gentle hands were mussing his hair and a warm, heavy weight settled on his lap, pressing against his hard cock.

“Oh God,” Harry moaned. Every brushing of tongues seemed to wander down there directly, and then the kisses wandered over his cheek to his neck, making him first shiver and then moan again when they turned into tantalising little bites.

The kissing stopped and there were hands fumbling with his robes’ buttons, and Harry found that his own hands were busy doing the same thing with Draco’s. They were both uncoordinated and it took far too long, so when the robes finally came off, all Harry wanted to do was touch. Draco’s narrow chest was smooth and almost hairless, and it didn’t matter that there were no breasts – it felt weird only for a few moments. Then Harry couldn’t withstand anymore and bent down to kiss while supporting Draco with both arms, preventing him from falling backwards. There was a gasp when Harry’s lips closed around a small, pink nipple, and soon, Draco was panting harshly as Harry kept teasing with his teeth and tongue.

Eventually, Draco leant forward again, pushing Harry back against the couch and kissing him greedily.

“Let me,” he whispered breathlessly when they broke the kiss. “Let me . . .” He didn’t go on, but slid down from Harry onto the floor, and before Harry could protest, Draco had pulled down his boxers.

‘Wait,’ he wanted to say, the last rational bit of his mind making a feeble attempt at being heard. But the only thing he got out was a deep groan as Draco’s hot mouth closed around his cock and all thought left him. This was heaven.

From there on, things were fuzzy in Harry’s mind. The blow-job was incredible, but it ended too soon without him having come, and then, somehow, Draco was on his back on the couch and Harry above him. There were mutters of “please fuck me” and “waited too long”, hungry kisses and cocks grinding together. From somewhere, a jar with a sticky substance floated towards them.

Harry had no idea how he ended up with his cock inside Draco’s arse, but it was hot and tight and perfect, and he fleetingly thought that he hadn’t known what he was missing out on, before once again all thinking stopped. There were only heated kisses, clinging, scratching fingers, smooth skin and deep thrusts, and finally, finally, a climax that made Harry slump down on Draco in blissful exhaustion. He was tired and sated and still far too drunk, Draco was the perfect pillow, and he almost would have gone to sleep.

Then he heard it.

Confused, he struggled to open his eyes and catch a clear thought.

Draco was crying.

Why? Was something wrong? This had been lovely.

Harry tried to lift himself, but was pulled back down abruptly – Draco was clinging to him with all his strength. It was awkward; by now Harry could feel sticky come between them, and his position was beginning to get uncomfortable. He slowly slid down from Draco, next to him on the couch, being careful to stay as close to him as possible. When they were lying side by side and Harry wrapped his arms around him, Draco all but crawled into him, fingernails digging deep into Harry’s back.

“Don’t . . . go!” His face was pressed against Harry’s chest, voice muffled and barely understandable between sobs. “Don’t go! Now I’ve got only you.”

Oh.

Draco tried to press even closer, and Harry, in turn, tightened his hold. Somehow, one of his hands found its way into Draco’s hair.

“Shhh. I’m here. I’m not leaving, promise.” He had promised it to Narcissa, and right now, it didn’t seem so bad. He didn’t want to go anywhere; all that he wanted, he thought dazedly, was to somehow make things better. Make Draco stop hurting.

“I couldn’t help her,” Draco sobbed, “I couldn’t. I tried so hard . . .” And then there were only sobs left, making him jerk harshly in Harry’s embrace while Harry kept murmuring softly and stroking Draco’s hair. He wouldn’t leave, he’d take care of him, everything was going to be all right.

Eventually, after what felt like a very long time, the sobs died down to sniffling and whimpers, then silence. Draco’s desperate clinging loosened as well, enough so that Harry could summon his wand and, subsequently, a blanket which he wrapped around them. He felt exhausted and dizzy and didn’t care anymore about them being a mess of come, tears, and sweat. By now, Draco was limp and warm against him, and Harry barely managed to stay awake.

“Harry . . .” Draco whispered hoarsely.

“I’m here. Now hush, we’re going to sleep.”

There was no protest; Draco only wriggled a bit, snuggling comfortably into Harry’s arms. It was nice, Harry thought. He’d missed this. And then he was asleep.

.-.-.-.-.

Harry wanted to die.

It was his first clear thought through the horrible headache, and he groaned when he realised what had happened.

He’d got drunk. Why? He never got drunk anymore, hadn’t in years. It was never worth it.

Slowly gaining more of his senses, he noticed that he was not in his bed: there were no smooth sheets beneath him, but something soft and plushy. And he was naked, with somebody just as naked cuddled up to him. For a few moments, that fact didn’t fully register with him. It was warm and felt almost cosy, despite the pain he was in.

Then there was an abrupt movement, the body next to him vanished, and a sharp voice like a knife cut into his brain.

“What the fuck happened?”

Harry blinked and groaned again as light flooded his stinging eyes. Right before him, he could make out something blurry and human-shaped, and when he blinked and focused – his glasses were still sitting on his nose – it turned into Draco, who was glaring down at him, apparently uncaring of his lack of clothing.

“Draco, what . . .”

“I said, what happened?” Draco snapped. “How come I’m waking up naked with you, Potter?”

Slowly, Harry struggled into a sitting position, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples to lessen the pain at least a little. “I think . . . we had sex.” Bit by bit, it was coming back to him. “We came home from the funeral and there was Kreacher . . . he was dead. I brought him to . . . well, away. We drank together. A lot. You kissed me. And then . . . then it happened.”

His explanation was met with silence, and he raised his head after a while. Draco was paler than ever and looking at him with such burning hatred that for a second, Harry feared he’d attack him. But Draco stood still, fists clenched, lean body trembling barely noticeably.

“Don’t ever touch me again,” he finally hissed through gritted teeth. “Got that? Don’t ever!”

“What?” This was making no sense at all. “Only last night you said –”

“Shut up! I don’t want to hear it!”

“Please, Draco.” The raised voice sent pain though his head and nausea rolling in waves over him. Harry was in no condition to fight. “Can we just stay calm and talk?”

“Talk about what? About how you exploited me being drunk after my mother’s funeral?”

“You’re always drunk. And you started it. Begged me to fuck you.” It wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but he could barely think, his head was hurting that badly. And it was the truth.

“Because I wasn’t right in the head!” Draco screamed. “I was pissed to the gills, my mother had just been buried, and you thought it was a good idea to go along with that shit?” He raked his hands though his hair, which was sticking up into all directions. “I thought you didn’t even like men anyway. What kind of pervert are you?”

“I’m not!” Now it was Harry’s turn to get angry. “We were grieving, we were both drunk, we both needed comfort –”

“Comfort!” Draco spat. “Yeah, I remember. ‘I’m here. I’m going to take care of you. I promise’,” he cooed, his voice sickly sweet. “Is that what you promised her? To play the martyr? Be there for her wayward son because he’s so pathetic that he’s got nobody else? Well, I don’t want you. I don’t need you!”

“Draco –” Harry hoisted himself to his feet, trying not to fall as he was hit by a dizzy spell.

“No, stay away from me! You can keep your pity!”

“It’s not pity!” Harry insisted. It wasn’t, hadn’t been last night. “We’re married, and I promised I would –”

“I married your money and your protection! I married your name, not you! You’ve got no obligation beyond that, why can’t you get that into your thick head?”

Hearing that hurt. It wasn’t that Harry hadn’t thought of it like this. He had, in the beginning. It had been realistic. And when Draco had changed for no reason and everything had begun going down the drain, he’d almost resigned himself to the fact that this was how it would always be. But last night, Harry had dared to hope . . . what? That they’d be lovers? No, he realised, not that. What had happened had been facilitated by alcohol and pure need. He wasn’t attracted to Draco or men in general. But friends? Yes, he’d hoped they might be friends after all.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with you ever again!” Draco’s harsh voice tore him out of his thoughts. He had picked up his clothes and was clutching them to his chest. “Just leave me alone. Don’t talk to me, don’t try to take care of me! I can take care of myself and you’ve got better things to do anyway. And if you dare touch me again, I will find a way to hurt you, magic or no! Is that clear?”

He didn’t wait for an answer but stalked out of the room stiffly, leaving Harry to stare after him speechlessly before his legs gave way and he found himself sitting on his butt.

Shit. Somehow, within a few days, everything had gone to shit even more than it had during the previous years. Narcissa was dead, Kreacher was dead, Draco hated him worse than before. His home life would be hell, as it had been since he was a child, always.

Naked as he was, Harry curled up right there on the carpet, but he couldn’t even cry.

.-.-.-.-.

“Please, Hermione. I don’t know who else to ask, and I can’t do it. The Russians are due this morning, in half an hour, so even if I could squeeze some more days out of Ruskin at any other time, it’s not happening now. Please.”

Hermione shook her head for the third time. “No. He’ll never learn anything if you keep trying to help. He needs to get through this alone.”

“He can’t stay alone, it’s too dangerous. Remember what he did to make the pain go away the one time I tried that? I’ll have to send him to St Mungo’s again if you say no, and you know the risks. It wouldn’t be right. Please, this last time.”

“It’s not right what he keeps doing to you, Harry.” She sighed. “All right, this last time. But promise me it will truly be the last. Promise you’ll get him into rehab directly after, no matter what he does or says. Stun and bind him on Thursday, if necessary. There won’t be a free space so quickly again, I’d wager. And don’t feel bad about it. It’s necessary, and you’re doing nothing wrong. As his bond partner, you’re within your rights, you know that.”

“I know.”

They’d gone over it a dozen times during these last weeks. During the eleven months after Narcissa’s death, Draco had brought home a one night stand eight times, and Harry had no idea if that was all. He disappeared for days, sometimes up to a week, and when he was home, it seemed that all he did anymore was drinking.

Harry had used up all of his free days for this year to take care of him – and a few more he’d managed to amass with working plenty of overtime. When he was half crazy with pain, Draco didn’t care that it was Harry, and afterwards, he never said anything. The last three times, Harry’d had to resort to asking Hermione for help, since as an independent researcher for the Ministry, she was the only one of his friends who wasn’t currently working fixed hours. She had agreed grudgingly and borne Draco’s ceaseless insults with stoic demeanour, but she’d been clear about the fact that this couldn’t go on. Draco had spiralled out of control entirely, and Harry had let himself be dragged down with him. ‘Co-dependent’ Hermione had called it. It was time to change that.

It had been her who had given Harry the brochures, and he’d latched on to the idea almost desperately. The place was called Hecate Domicile and it was a private facility for the wealthier members of Wizarding society who found themselves afflicted with all kinds of addictions. It promised good medical care during the detoxication period and professional help with the aftermath for both in- and outpatients.

Immediately, Harry had looked into it and found that you could send your blood-bonded partner to a rehab centre without their consent if it was medically proven that they were suffering from an addiction. Apparently, addictive substances – and especially magical ones, of which he’d found an impressive and frightening list – could do damage to the bond and both partners’ life expectancy.

With Draco, there would be no difficulty proving the medical necessity, and after some stern, honest talks with Hermione and Ginny, Harry had decided that this was what he would do. He’d felt dizzy with relief when they had Firecalled him two days ago and informed him of a free place next Thursday. His life was a train wreck, and he hadn’t even understood how stressed and plain burnt out he was until their owl had delivered the confirmation letter in the evening, only hours after the Firecall.

He had Firecalled Ginny and asked if he could spend the night, and like he’d done the night before his wedding, he had been able to let go with her, even more than he could have with Ron or Hermione. This time, though, there had been no kisses, only a comforting embrace and a warm blanket spread over him after he’d fallen asleep in her arms on the couch.

“Next Thursday it is,” he now promised Hermione. “I’ll do whatever I have to. Will you be there? Please?”

“I will. I would even if you hadn’t asked; I need to know he’s truly going. The things he’s put you through, all the one night stands, all the arrests these last months . . . he’d deserve St Mungo’s.”

“You don’t mean that, not really. It would be one thing if they were to let him know how much they despise him – I’d not say anything. He’d deserve that, even though it’s for different reasons. But we can never know which of the Healers or nurses –”

“I know, and you’re right,” she conceded. “Whatever he was in the past, he doesn’t deserve to be mistreated because of it while he’s helpless like this. But that is the only reason I’m doing it.”

When all his days of leave had run out and Draco had got himself into trouble again with another man, Harry had seen no other option but to send him to St Mungo’s to recover. It had been a big mistake. On the evening of the second day, when he wanted to see how Draco was doing, he’d witnessed two of the nurses hitting him viciously. They were Muggle-born and Death Eaters had murdered their parents.

“Now go to work, Harry,” Hermione said. “I’ll get my things and Floo over to him. But this means you owe me. Big time.”

“You’re a life-saver.” Relieved, Harry hugged her before he made for the fireplace. Maybe he could squeeze in a cup of coffee before the Russian exchange Aurors would arrive.

.-.-.-.

Eight days later, on Wednesday evening, Harry was nervously pacing his study. Draco had been gone for two days, which was unusual. Normally, after five days of excruciating pain, he’d rest and stay home for several days. This time, he’d taken off the very next day, before Harry could prevent it. It didn’t fit with his plans at all. He’d hoped he would be able to surprise him in bed on Thursday morning. The rehab centre was awaiting them at 9am, and Harry had planned everything carefully to make sure Draco wouldn’t stand a chance against him and Hermione. Maybe they could even make him see reason. Harry knew that he didn’t like living like this.

Now, though, it seemed as if plans would have to change. This morning already, he’d set Hermione on locating Draco, but so far, she’d had no luck at all. Harry had only come home from work to change clothes and grab a sandwich, then he’d Floo back to the Ministry and try some locating devices they had only there.

He had just decided to leave the half-eaten sandwich on his desk and get going when something rapped at the window. Harry wasn’t expecting any owl-post, but it was a large Eagle Owl, which was carrying a parchment and took off immediately after dropping it on Harry’s desk.

Harry was tempted to leave the parchment and only look at it the next morning – he really needed to try and find Draco. But then he grabbed and unrolled it. Five minutes wouldn’t hurt.

At first, his only thought was that this had got to be a joke, although he couldn’t imagine anybody he knew doing something like it, not even Draco. Or would he? But what would be the purpose of it?

Shaking his head in confusion, he read the letter a second time.

Potter,

We’ve got your husband. If you want to get him back alive, bring 250,000 Galleons to the crossroads five miles south of Ottery St. Catchpole. There’s a large stone directly under the signpost. Under the stone, there’s a hollow big enough for the money if you shrink it. Put it in and then leave. Come alone or he dies immediately. Don’t bring your friends. Don’t go to the Aurors. We WILL know. Bring the money at 11pm sharp. If you meet our demands, he’ll be delivered to your home at 11.30. You know how to verify this letter.

And under that:

They’re serious. Please do what they say.

Draco

That short note more than anything else made Harry worry and consider taking it seriously after all. It was without a doubt written in Draco’s spidery handwriting, and not in ink, but in a red colour which a part of Harry had recognised immediately upon reading the note for the first time. Together with the bit about him knowing how to verify the letter, this fact made all of this not a bad joke but a very serious matter. So serious that he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the implications at the first reading.

A Blood Quill.

As an Auror, Harry had worked on several kidnapping cases, most of them over in New York, and in two of them, the kidnappers had made the victim use a Blood Quill to prove that they were serious and indeed were holding the person in question captive.

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he drew his wand, pointed it at the parchment, and spoke the necessary incantations.

It was indeed blood, and it had been taken by force. With growing dread, Harry took his letter opener and pricked his finger, letting one droplet of blood fall on the lower left corner of the parchment, away from the writing. If it was truly Draco’s blood, its magical signature would match Harry’s due to the Blood Bond.

It did.

“Bugger!”

Harry flopped down on the chair in front of his desk and buried his face in his hands, trying to think. It seemed likely that Draco might be in true danger. It wasn’t completely inconceivable that somebody should try something like this. Harry was rich and he had made more than enough enemies during the war. If one twisted the facts enough, some people might even argue that since it was he who had defeated Voldemort, the dismal conditions under which the former Death Eater families now had to live were essentially his fault. And what better way was there to punish him and at the same time get a source of money?

What should he do?

For one horrible moment, a cold voice spoke in the back of his mind, telling him that he shouldn’t do anything. Let the deadline go by, ignore any following letters. This was his chance to be free, maybe the only one he’d ever get.

No. “I won’t,” Harry whispered. It would be like murder, like he did it himself.

He’d try and save Draco, it was the only way. But how? At work, they always told relatives not to comply without notifying the authorities. Concealed Aurors supervising the handing over of the ransom were a vital security measure and had resulted in capture of the kidnappers more than once. On the other hand, there were those cases in which things had gone wrong and the presence of Aurors had, in fact, meant the victim’s death. Harry shuddered as he remembered the one time he’d had to deal with this. He couldn’t let it happen to Draco under any circumstances.

It was only when he reached out to read the parchment a third time that Harry noticed he was shaking. He couldn’t think clearly, that much was obvious. Before his inner eye, the image of a dead Draco formed, and then a funeral at the same graveyard as eleven months ago, only this time it was Draco, not Narcissa, who was lowered into the dark, cold crypt.

No. He couldn’t allow that. But what should he –

Hermione and Ron! He’d ask them for advice! Ron was a fellow Auror, and Hermione was always far more level-headed than either of them. They should be home now; Ron had left work at the same time as Harry to grab a bite before he’d meet with him at the Ministry again to aid him in his search.

Harry got up and rushed to his fireplace.

He found his friends in their kitchen, eating leftover black bean soup from the previous evening when Harry had eaten with them. They both looked up in surprise when Harry stormed into the room.

“Did you find him?” Ron wanted to know.

“No. Look!” Harry thrust the parchment at him.

Ron stared at it in confusion.

“Take it!”

Ron obeyed, and as he read, his bewildered expression turned serious. “Bloody hell!”

“What?” Hermione asked “What’s wrong?”

Ron handed her the parchment. “It’s a ransom note. And it looks as if was signed with a Blood Quill. Harry, did you verify it?”

Harry nodded. “It’s Draco’s.”

“Damn!”

Hermione, who’d finished the letter, had gone white. “This is very serious, Harry. I think it’s legit.”

“So do I,” Ron said. “It fits the usual pattern, it’s Malfoy’s blood, and as your husband, he is the perfect target.”

Harry’s heart sank. He had expected that they would say it and still, somehow, he’d hoped that they would convince him that it wasn’t true. That it was a mystery that might be solved in some other way.

“You have to inform the other Aurors. You should go to the Ministry right now.”

“I don’t know, Hermione,” Ron said. “It might not be the best idea.”

“How can you say that? You’re not seriously suggesting he should go alone? It’s far too dangerous! What if – ”

“What if they kill him?” Harry interrupted. “I can’t risk that! And it can happen, it’s realistic. The last time Aurors got involved, we got involved, a woman died. Remember the Laverick case?”

Hermione nodded unhappily. “Still, I think it would be wiser –”

“Harry’s right,” Ron said calmly. “That case was a disaster, and it could happen here too. We’ve got no idea who these people are and what they’re capable of. We can be happy they only used a Blood Quill to make sure Harry understood they’re for real.”

Hermione stayed silent for a few moments, thinking.

“All right,” she said in the end. “Let’s assume he goes alone, no Aurors and neither you nor me under his Invisibility Cloak. What if the delivers the money, comes back safely, and then they won’t hand over Draco? What if they think if he pays this much, they can try and get more out of him? And don’t tell me that doesn’t happen.”

“It does,” Harry conceded, “but we’ll have to risk it. And I don’t care about the money; all I want is to try and get Draco to safety. If they want more, I can give them that. If I don’t give them anything, Draco dies anyway.” And that was something he simply couldn’t let happen. “I promised to protect him, not only when I married him but to his mother, on her deathbed.”

“It’s a lot to risk for an arsehole like him, even if you made a promise,” Ron said.

“I know. But if this were a case, don’t tell me you wouldn’t try your damndest to get him free. You’d risk your life for him as well, we all would.”

“Oh, I would. He’s an arsehole, but he doesn’t deserve to die.” Ron smiled grimly. “I got over that phase. Now, 250,000 Galleons, that’s a lot. Almost a million Muggle pounds. Can you pay that, and more if need be?”

“Uh, yeah. That part is no problem.” Although he was glad that he could afford it without thinking twice, Harry felt somewhat uncomfortable nonetheless. With the money he’d inherited from his parents and especially from Sirius, he was far too rich for his own tastes. If he didn’t want to, he’d never have to work again and still wouldn’t be able to spend it all. “And the goblins keep Gringotts open until nine, that’s in . . .” he quickly glanced at the ticking clock. “Almost an hour. I could get the money if I went right away.”

“I think you should do it,” Ron said. “Deliver the money just as they demand, then go home and wait for Malfoy. We’ll allow for a 20-minute delay, then Hermione and I will Floo over to your place. It’s better if we don’t get there before you come back, just in case somebody is monitoring the house. If Malfoy’s not there by the time we come, at 11:50, we’ll Floo straight to the Ministry and alarm the guys on night shift. It means they either want more money or, well, they killed him.”

Harry nodded, trying to swallow the lump in his throat. He was glad Ron’s professional side had taken over, but hearing it like this was still dreadful. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Why do you think they chose Ottery St. Catchpole?” Hermione asked.

Ron shrugged. “Could be any reason, but I doubt it’s because any of them lives near there. They usually aren’t that stupid. My guess? It’s because Harry’s familiar with the place. Everyone who bothers knowing a little bit about him knows he’s been spending time with our family there for years.”

“That makes sense.”

“I’ll get the money now, before it’s too late,” Harry said.

“Should one of us come with you?” Hermione suggested.

“No. They might be monitoring Diagon Alley. Gringotts. To see if I’m getting the money. I should be alone.”

“All right.” Hermione got up from her seat and hugged Harry tightly. “Take care,” she whispered. Her voice was trembling. “I don’t want to lose you.”

He distanced himself slightly and looked at her. “You won’t. I’ll be home safely when you come, and so will Draco.”

“I hope so.”

After he and Ron had exchanged a fierce hug as well, Harry left, Apparating directly to the Apparition Point close to the Leaky Cauldron.

It wasn’t a problem at all to get the money he needed, and Harry was glad that the goblins never asked any questions. By 8:40pm he was home again and began restlessly pacing the living room, going over a hundred ways how things could go wrong in his mind. They were very different scenarios, some involving former Death Eaters, some his Auror colleagues, but all of them ended with Draco dead and him organising another funeral.

9:07pm. Time seemed to creep like a snail. Watching TV didn’t help; he couldn’t concentrate on the programme.

At 9:36, he began counting the shrunken Galleons, making little piles of 50 around him. They looked like strange golden miniature pennies.

10:24. This was ridiculous. Harry quickly shovelled the Galleons back into the old leather bag he’d brought with him to Gringotts. He began pacing again.

At 10:58pm, Harry Apparated.

He knew the crossroads the ransom note had mentioned perfectly well – he and Ginny had liked to take extended walks through the area and having picnics while they had been together.

Now, nothing was further from his mind. It was cold and pitch-black – no snow even in January – and Harry drew his wand and performed a Lumos charm to be able to orient himself. He was standing in the middle of the crossroads where the two dirt roads met. Just in front of him, he could make out the signpost with the rock underneath. Straining his ears, he tried to listen for any noise, however small, but there was nothing.

And it wasn’t as if he was here to do anything but place the money and go home again. They could try and get the bastards later, when Draco was safe. Harry took a deep breath. His mouth was incredibly dry. He slowly approached the signpost and was able to roll the stone to the side, and as the note had said, there was a hollow, apparently freshly dug only hours ago.

Harry licked his dry lips and carefully placed the bag inside it – and just as he made to get up again, something heavy hit him straight over the head. The world faded to black.

oOoOoOoOoOo

 

Part 3: A Study in Silence

He was floating in darkness.

There was nothing – no sound, no image, no sensation. Only darkness and the light, soothing feeling of floating through it, wrapped in soft wadding.

He didn’t have words for any of this, no concept of what he was feeling. No name for himself. He existed, he felt, and for the longest time, that was the entire world.

The time came when sounds invaded this world, and slowly, slowly, they morphed into voices.

“Coma” . . . “six weeks already”. . . “can’t be certain” . . . “was so, so stupid, such an idiot” . . . “might be damaged beyond” . . . “not even with magic” . . . “please, Harry, come back!”

He understood nothing of what they said; they washed over him and he didn’t know they belonged to humans, or what humans were.

As time went on, he learnt to differentiate between them. Some changed, but a few always stayed the same. They were vaguely familiar, as if he were supposed to know them from somewhere.

One was soft and pleasant, a steady flow of words that never stopped, and he liked listening to it.

Another was just as pleasant, but it spoke less and broke often. Sad. The word came to him as he listened. It sounded terribly sad. With it often came one that was deep and gentle, and it was sad in another, quieter way.

Then there was the angry voice, and at first, it had scared him. It was harsh, often loud unexpectedly. But there was a time when the first, pleasant voice interrupted, and by the time it stopped speaking, the loud voice made strange, wailing sounds. Crying. It was then that he realised that all of the other voices had done the same. From then on, this voice was still angry, but less so, and without understanding how or why, he knew that it wasn’t truly angry – it was sad as well.

All the regular voices were sad, and, as he realised slowly, also most of the others, and he began wondering why. He wasn’t sad – he was nothing. Only dark, floating. Comfortable.

There was one more voice coming often – more than all the others – and this one was even sadder than them. Many times, he could barely hear it, and many times, it wouldn’t say anything, only cry. More and more, the idea formed that he wanted to reach out to it somehow, make the sadness go away, but he didn’t know how that could happen.

The colours were new and confusing as they bled into his mind. They seemed to belong to the voices: each voice had specific ones belonging to it. He didn’t see them – it was still dark all around – but in a way, he knew they were there.

Soft brown for the pleasant, flowing voice, accompanied by a smell that was old and dry. ‘Of books and parchment,’ something deep down supplied.

Red for the second soft voice as well as for the angry one, fiery and glittering in the light like molten copper. Earthy browns and greens for the deep voice that belonged to one of the red ones.

And a confusing mixture of grey, blond, and green. ‘Green like Slytherin.’ Slytherin – what was that? This was the saddest voice, the voice that needed comfort. More and more often, the pleasant brown voice seemed to provide it. It talked softly, and the crying would stop. He was glad.

“Harry.”

It was the first word that began to make sense. He’d become dissatisfied with merely listening, listening to sounds he could not understand. He was tired most of the time, and he always drifted to sleep while the voices were still speaking. But when he was awake – he’d found out the difference between them only recently – he would strain, trying to think. Trying to understand.

“Harry.” They said it again and again. Why? It must be important.

“Harry, I’m sorry.” – “Harry, we miss you.” – “Harry, wake up!”

He was Harry.

The realisation came so strong and sudden that every other thought was wiped from his mind for a while. The voices became less important. He was Harry. He had a name. He was a person – and with that realisation, many things seemed to fall into place. There were memories, of his own face and others, all faces he knew, and they, too, had names.

Names were words, and words had meaning. They became understandable, first single ones, but soon all of them.

“Harry.” It was the soft red voice. “It’s been so long, almost three months. We can’t lose you. Please . . . please try.”

Ginny.

A flood of memories came rushing back. A small red-headed girl, too shy to speak to him. A beautiful teenage girl smiling at him over her Potions homework. A woman flying on a broom – ’playing Quidditch’ – and naked with him in bed. Names for children. A quiet goodbye. A friendship.

After that, all the voices became names, got memories attached to them. Every time he was awake, he remembered more, his mind getting clearer.

Hermione was here, reading to him nearly every day. He knew some of the books; she’d chosen his favourites. Her hand was a gentle weight on his arm – another change. He’d begun to feel touch, was no longer floating.

Ginny and Neville, often visiting together.

“I don’t want to visit him like I do with my parents, for years,” Neville said.

“It won’t happen. He’s strong, he’ll fight this.” Ginny’s hand was cupping his cheek, caressing gently. “He’ll be there at our wedding, we just have to postpone for a while, you’ll see.”

Mrs Weasley, sobbing and kissing his cheeks. “You’ve always been our boy, too, Harry. Always.”

Mr Weasley, squeezing his shoulder, speaking quietly. “Don’t give up, son.”

George and Charlie came with their parents.

There were Bill and Fleur, and Luna and Percy, who’d had their second girl, Adelaide, some months ago, as Harry remembered.

Andromeda, Seamus, Hagrid, Headmistress McGonagall, his colleagues from work – even Pollack stopped by one day.

Ron’s large, warm hands, enveloping Harry’s. “Come on, mate. You can do this! I can’t . . . don’t you dare die on me! I won’t lose another brother!”

Dying?

It was the first time that Harry questioned himself. Why was it dark? Where was he? Why was he here? What had happened? Why was he like . . . this?

“The search for Muggle doctors who’re willing to have a look starts tomorrow.” It was Hermione, speaking to Ginny. “Hollingberry finally caved in to our appeals to let them into St. Mungo’s, but I doubt it would have worked if it were anyone but Harry. The article about his refusal was published today, have you read it? It’s vicious. Hollingberry Firecalled St. Mungo’s administration at 9am this morning, probably right after he read it and the first protests came in. Luna and Percy hit gold with that idea. At least Rita Skeeter is good for something, for once.”

Doctors. St. Mungo’s. He was injured. Badly, as it seemed. If they were bringing in Muggle doctors, that meant . . . what? The Healers didn’t know what to do and needed help? From Muggles?

Harry panicked.

‘What’s going on?’ he wanted to ask. ‘What happened? Somebody tell me!’

There was no sound. He couldn’t speak. He wanted to get up, get out of bed, but nothing happened. He couldn’t move. And why was it always dark? There was only one answer: he hadn’t even been able to open his eyes once since he had woken up! Why hadn’t he noticed?

‘Help me!’ he tried again. ‘HELP!’

Nothing. Not even a moan. Anything.

The panic grew stronger, his chest tightened. Breathing became hard and almost painful. He needed to calm down. He was safe, right? He was at St. Mungo’s, his friends were with him. The Healers were working hard, and they’d get assistance from Muggle doctors. They had methods Healers knew nothing about – maybe they’d find a way to help him.

He was safe. Everything would be all right. His friends were here, and the Healers would find a way. He was safe. Slowly, the panic subsided. Everything would be all right. He was safe. The pain in his chest ebbed away, and he could breathe more freely again. Everything would be all right.

Harry’s head was aching from all the thinking, and he felt hot and exhausted. In the background, Hermione and Ginny spoke softly. Their presence was soothing. He was safe. They’d take care. He was safe . . . and then, thankfully, he slept.

When he woke up for the next time, there were gentle fingers running through his hair. Who was it? Harry tried opening his eyes, but it didn’t work. Again. When he tried to say something, make any sound to make himself known, nothing would come. He remembered the panic from yesterday and tried not to get upset, although fear was welling up inside him.

At least he was awake again, right? He’d woken up after sleeping every time so far. And he wasn’t alone. The stroking was nice, calming.

‘Don’t stop, please.’

It didn’t. It went on, slow and rhythmic, and as time went by, Harry realised that he knew this. It had happened before, many times.

This was Draco.

Draco, who’d been so crushed ever since Harry had woken up and learnt to recognise his voice. Who’d say “I’m sorry” and “It’s my fault” almost every time he was here.

Why would he think that? He hadn’t done anything to Harry, had he? And why was he here in the first place? What did he have to do with Harry?

“I’m sorry,” Draco now whispered, like he did so often. “I should have known better. I should have known that as your husband I’d the perfect bait for people who wanted to hurt you. With all the enemies you made during the war, I should have known it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. I should have taken more care. If I’d thought of you for one minute instead of only myself . . .”

Husband?

And then it all came back. The Reparation Laws, the Blood Bond, their wedding. Narcissa asking Harry to take care of Draco. Draco drinking himself into oblivion, getting arrested, fucking like a rabbit without care for the repercussions. Them having sex. The kidnapping. And then . . . Harry couldn’t remember.

Draco had said something about bait and people wanting to hurt him. So that was what the kidnapping had been all about? Somebody using Draco as bait to get to Harry? Apparently, it had worked and they had hurt him, but he’d been saved, they had both been saved. Again, his head began aching. He wasn’t used to thinking anymore, that must be it. It was hard and tiring, and already, he felt fuzzy and like dozing off again. Draco was still petting his hair, and while right now, Harry felt resentful towards him, he still didn’t want it to stop. It was comforting and helped with the headache.

“Please wake up soon, Harry. Please.”

He would, soon. He’d show them that he was awake. He’d make it. But right now, all that he wanted was to sleep. Draco was talking more, but he couldn’t listen. Slowly, he drifted away and to sleep again.

When Harry once again woke up to darkness, he didn’t know whether it was day or night, as always. Sometimes, like now, nobody was there with him, but that didn’t have to mean anything. He tried to strain, listen for noises outside his room; maybe the bustling of St. Mungo’s might give him a clue.

There was the sound of the door opening, and footsteps approaching his bed, more than from only one person.

“Good morning, Harry.” Andromeda. And with her . . .

“Hi, Uncle Harry.” Teddy.

There was an awkward silence, the screeching of chair legs over hospital floor, and more silence.

“I didn’t think he’d look like this,” Teddy said softly after a while.

How did he look?

“He was gone for five weeks, and they probably didn’t give him enough to eat,” Andromeda explained. “And then his body had to deal with all the injuries and didn’t accept food well. He’ll gain weight when he’s better.”

So he was thin. Well, that made sense.

“How is he eating anyway?”

A good question. The answer was probably magic.

“They spell potions directly into his stomach. They contain everything he needs.”

“And how . . .” Teddy began, but then trailed off. “Never mind. Why are his hands like that, Gran?”

Like what?

“I’m not sure. The Healers said it’s because of the brain damage.”

Brain . . .

“Is that why his mouth is open and he’s drooling so much, too? Why he’s wearing that bib?”

What?

“I think so, yes.”

Cloth gently wiped over his chin and cheek, and only now did he realise that this had happened before, many times.

He’d not noticed for weeks that he couldn’t move or open his eyes, he hadn’t noticed people had wiped his chin constantly, he had no idea what was wrong with his hands, so what else didn’t he notice? What else might be wrong? He felt people touching him – and sometimes not, apparently – but he still didn’t truly feel his body, himself. If he didn’t know he was lying down because somebody had said so, would he have noticed that?

Brain damage. The Healers resorting to help from Muggle doctors because magic didn’t take them any further. If his brain was injured and magic was failing . . . Harry was terrified again.

What if he wouldn’t get better? What if he’d just stay like this forever? For the rest of his life, lying in bed, paralysed, drooling – shitting himself!? Was he wearing nappies? – without even being able to make a sound or see? Without anybody ever knowing that he was aware?

No. No, he couldn’t allow himself to think like this! If he just lay here freaking out and being afraid, that wouldn’t help him one bit, he told himself. He couldn’t panic all the time. He couldn’t. He needed to think. It was exhausting, but the only thing he could do at the moment. Stay calm. Think.

If only he could open his eyes, then maybe they’d realise he was awake and would talk to him, explain everything. He couldn’t rely on listening to their conversations and maybe overhear some little detail, and another, and another. He might get things wrong. And he hated being talked about as if he wasn’t even here. He was here, he was awake!

He’d make them understand. Already, he’d come from a coma lasting weeks to waking periods, from merely hearing them speak to understanding, from not knowing who any of them were, who he was, to remembering everything. He could do this. He needed to keep himself together. Focus. Try hard until he made it. Until he could speak or open his eyes. Something that would get their attention.

The idea made him feel better. He had a plan, something to work towards, and he had determination. The Healers would go on trying to find a way to help him, his friends would watch over him, and he would do his part. They could do this, together.

He hadn’t paid attention to Andromeda and Teddy while he’d been thinking, and when he focused on them again, he found that they were discussing Draco.

“But it’s not his fault,” Teddy was saying. “He can’t perform any powerful magic, so he couldn’t defend himself against them. And he didn’t expect it to happen. How should he have known?”

It sounded logical to Harry – it was what as an Auror he’d told kidnapping victims who had blamed themselves for their inattentiveness once they had been freed.

“You’re right. Everyone sees it that way, we’ve all told him that. And I’m sure Harry would say the same if he could. But it’s hard on him. You know, he thinks if he’d paid better attention, taken better care of himself . . . you do know he wasn’t well these last months.”

“I know. He was drinking too much. It’s why he’s checked himself into that rehab centre Hermione told him about when they found him and Uncle Harry.”

So Draco was going through rehab? Those were good news, at least. Harry was certain that everything would most likely have happened exactly like this even if Draco had been perfectly abstinent and alert, but he couldn’t help feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude. Draco had turned both their lives into a train wreck for years, and he deserved beating himself up over it.

“Yes,” Andromeda said, “and I’m glad about that. He’s getting better, and when Harry wakes up, maybe they can figure things out between them.”

“That would be good. You think he’ll wake up soon? It’s weird to think he’s been like this for weeks. He just . . . isn’t like Harry.”

“I hope so, Teddy.” A hand touched Harry’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “We all hope so.”

And no one more than Harry.

.-.-.-.-.

Days passed, maybe weeks, he couldn’t be certain. Harry drifted in and out of consciousness. Whenever he was awake, he tried his best to concentrate – stay awake longer, think sharper, listen to what people were saying. And his eyes. He needed to open his eyes. So far, he’d not managed that, but he was more alert and awake for much longer. He didn’t simply doze off after a short while, and thinking was no longer causing his head to hurt, most of the time.

He’d gathered more details about what had happened to him and what was happening in his friends’ lives as well.

Neville and Ginny had been on holiday on Fiji when he and Draco had been taken. Neville had proposed to her there, and they had planned an August wedding for this year. But with Harry still showing no visible signs of improvement now in early July, they had put off the date indeterminately.

“I’m not marrying without you,” Ginny had said. “I refuse, we both do. So you’ve got no choice. You said you wanted to see me happily married – well, you’ll have to make it happen now.”

“Help me out here, mate,” Neville had added. “I really do want to get married, but not without you, like she said. And I don’t want to visit you at this place for too long anymore.”

Hermione was the one who had brought up the idea of consulting Muggle doctors to see if they could help. Apparently, Muggles had made huge progress concerning coma cases, and when the Healers had realised that they couldn’t find out even with magic what was going on – the brain was too complex to be fully understood even in the Wizarding world – they had agreed to give it a shot.

Minister Hollingberry had tried to prevent it, citing the International Code of Wizarding Secrecy as a reason and threatening legal consequences to everyone going against it. Then Luna and Percy had suggested they go to the media. Percy, who worked closely with the Minister’s secretary these days, had said that Hollingberry, while he managed to suppress discord inside the Ministry with an iron fist, thrived on popularity and wouldn’t weather a storm of public protest.

Luna had contacted Rita Skeeter, who had agreed to write an article making propaganda against Ministry policy under the condition of being allowed to publish a picture of Harry along with it – something that made him sick with disgust when he heard it first. The entire Wizarding world had seen him lie here like this?

It had proven to be the way to success, however: the Prophet, the Quibbler, and a few other small Wizarding papers and magazines had published the story, and not even an hour after the first of them had come out in the morning, public outrage had hit the Ministry – there had even been death threats against Hollingberry.

“The Muggle doctors are due in three days,” Hermione finally told him. “They’re all neurology specialists and highly acclaimed in their countries. I’m sure they can tell us at least something. You’ll see, Harry.” She kissed his forehead gently. “I promise we’ll find a way.”

“She picked them all personally.” Ron’s voice. “Researched them on that . . . that internet thing, wrote them electric letters and phone-called. She wouldn’t stop bothering them until they agreed to come.”

Harry smiled in his mind. This was the Hermione he knew. She’d be like this. And Ron . . . From what his Auror colleagues told him when they visited and talked to him, Ron had been amazing. Ruskin had put him in charge of finding Harry and Draco, and it had been the right decision. He’d worked tirelessly day and night, five long weeks until they had found them. He’d gone after every promising lead, had used every source of information and done some brilliant strategic thinking. When they’d found the hideout and taken the kidnappers down, he had been the first to go in.

“Man, you should have seen him,” Auror Breckenridge said. “He stormed in there like a wild lion, like Godric Gryffindor himself. Took two of the six out before we were even inside.”

Harry was still surprised to learn just how loved he was. How important to a large number of people, all visiting him, telling him they missed him, asking him to fight and come back to them. It was overwhelming – he’d known they were his friends, his family even, but somehow, he had never realised what it truly meant.

And then there was Draco.

Harry’s schadenfreude was long gone; by now, all he wanted in regards to Draco was that he’d stop blaming himself. It was painful to listen to, every time more so. I’m sorry. I should have. If only. Just as he had when Draco had been nothing but a sad, unintelligible voice, Harry wished he could do something. Tell him to stop worrying, that it wasn’t his fault. Comfort him.

And wasn’t that bizarre? He was the one who was hurt, he was the one who couldn’t move a muscle, and he was still scared shitless. And yet, he wanted to help others, even Draco. Was that who Harry was? Was that what the war, what Voldemort and Dumbledore had shaped him to be? Or would he be like this even without those experiences?

And did it truly matter?

Luckily, there were others to do the job for him, and luckily, Draco let them – Ginny, Neville, Mr and Mrs Weasley, and first of all Luna and Hermione. Harry wouldn’t have believed Hermione and Draco would ever be civil; especially that Draco would accept her had seemed beyond the realm of possibility. But it was what had happened.

It was Hermione who kept telling him that there was nothing he could have done. That he’d never have stood a chance against the kidnappers. They would have got him no matter whether or not he’d been drinking. No matter whether or not he and Harry were getting along. That nobody blamed him. That Harry wouldn’t, never. And more and more, Draco seemed to want to believe her.

If there was one good thing amidst all of this mess, Harry thought, it was this. Draco getting sober, getting a grip on himself. Leaving behind whatever it had been that had screwed him up before. Accepting others trying to help him and being his friends. Maybe once Harry was out of here, they could have something like a bearable life together.

But for that, Harry really needed to make progress.

.-.-.-.-.

“Tomorrow, the Muggle doctors are coming first thing in the morning.” Draco was petting his hair like he always did, and Harry could feel his other hand on the back of his own. He was leaning in closely, emitting the pleasant, familiar scent of his cologne. “I don’t believe that they could find out anything that magic can’t. I don’t really understand Muggle technology, but it can’t be as good as magic. It’s coming from Muggles, after all.”

Shouldn’t Draco have left such silly ideas behind after nine years of living and working among them? Surely, he’d come into touch with impressive technology he couldn’t dismiss.

“But you never know,” he went on. “These computers they have . . . to me, they almost look like magic.”

And the same went for most Muggles, Harry thought with faint amusement.

“So, I think it was a good idea Hermione brought them in. And going to the press like that to put Hollingberry under pressure was genius. Your friends, they really are something.” Draco sounded thoughtful, and his caresses on Harry’s hair slowed down. “Even Weasel – I mean Weasley. He’d still like to punch me every time he sees me, I can tell, but he was the first to tell me I couldn’t have changed anything. That he’d had several cases like this and even people who could use all their magic and were sober couldn’t see it coming.”

He sighed deeply. “He’s right. They all are. It’s just . . . hard to accept. They weren’t there. They didn’t see what happened, what those bastards did to you . . .”

He didn’t go into detail, he never had, and Harry was glad about it. He didn’t remember anything, nothing between placing the ransom under the stone and waking up here, and he didn’t fancy the idea of that ever changing. The kind of torture that could put you into this state was something nobody would want to remember. The left-over Death Eaters who had captured them – nobody had mentioned their names – were now in Azkaban, Ron had told him. Their trial had been swift and without mercy; Hollingberry had been useful for that at least. They would never see the sunlight again. To Harry, that was all he ever needed to know.

“I really was an arsehole, you know,” Draco said. “You were civil, heck, you were even friendly. After I’d threatened to kill you if you didn’t agree with the Blood Bond, you still tried to get along. Visited my mother, protected her from my nonsense. You were there the night after she died, you held me and told me I wasn’t alone. And I . . .”

‘Shut up, will you?’ Harry thought. ‘Don’t let this turn into the usual.’ He was so tired of hearing it.

Slowly, Draco’s hand wandered down from Harry’s hair to his cheekbone. It vanished for a moment, then Harry felt how his cheek and chin were dried carefully with the bib. He’d have to get rid of that as soon as possible, too.

“I’ve been thinking a lot,” Draco went on. Now his hand was cupping Harry’s cheek, soft and warm. He should have felt annoyed that everyone thought they could touch him, and with some he did, but for some strange reason, Draco of all people didn’t belong to them.

“I’ve been doing nothing but thinking. The Hecate Domicile is a good place for that. If you make it through this . . . no, when you’ve made it through this and are back home . . . I know we can’t be lovers. I know that. But I’d like to try and be friends. You tried to be friends, only I was too stupid to . . . well. Anyway. I hope once you can hear me, you’ll want the same.”

Harry did. He really did. Maybe he shouldn’t, after Draco had been blundering around like the greatest idiot on earth for years, but he found that he didn’t care so much about that. They were young and would be married for a very long time. It would be so much nicer to be married to a friend than to a hostile twat or even a civil stranger. And Draco was sincere, Harry knew it. This time, they would have a chance.

If only he could finally open his eyes, he thought for what must be the one millionth time. How could it be that hard? He’d done it for over thirty years without thinking – now it seemed to have turned into rocket science. A process he couldn’t get behind, no matter how hard he tried.

He’d done this so often: focused on the thought of his eyes. How they were covered by his eyelids, how these eyelids were supposed to work, to rise, and then there would be . . .

Light.

There was light!

It was stinging in his eyes, making his head hurt more than he’d thought possible. But he couldn’t care. He’d done it. He was seeing!

There was a blurry shape in black robes and with blond hair. Slowly, it became more focused – though not completely without his glasses – and turned into Draco. Draco who was looking at Harry wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as if he had just turned into Voldemort.

“H-Harry?” It was barely a whisper, and his voice was shaking. “Harry, are . . . are you awake? Can you understand me?”

How could he let him know?

“Harry! I’m . . . I’m getting the Healers. Don’t fall asleep! Don’t close your eyes, do you hear me?”

Draco vanished from Harry’s field of vision, and there was the crash of a chair falling over and hitting the floor. The door opened abruptly and Draco was gone. Harry could hear him hysterically yelling through the corridors for the Healers.

He’d done it. He had really done it! And even while somebody was here with him. Harry was ecstatic. Now they’d realise that he’d been in here all along. Things were going to go uphill from here, he just knew it!

When the Healers rushed in only a minute later, his head felt close to exploding and his eyelids were as heavy as lead. He was trying with all his might to keep them from closing – at least until the Healers had seen him like this and maybe had an idea as to how to communicate. There would be a next time – there had to be a next time – but he wanted this now! He had waited long enough.

“Mr Potter?” It was Healer Dubois; Harry recognised the calm voice with the slight accent. When the face belonging to it turned up in front of him, he could just see him clearly enough to know that he man had grey-streaked black hair and a black full beard. “If you can understand what I say, can you blink twice?”

Could he?

Harry concentrated. Nothing happened. He tried again, and again. Nothing.

Damn! Why wasn’t this working? And why did his head have to hurt so much? He could barely focus anymore, he was in so much pain and so tired. His eyelids were growing heavier by the second, but he had to do this now, he had . . . and then his eyes slipped closed. Harry slept.

.-.-.-.-.

“. . . decorticate rigidity. It’s a definite sign of brain damage, though it might be less severe than if he were decerebrate . . .”

Harry woke up slowly, to a number of voices he hadn’t heard before.

“. . . might be ready in a few years’ time, but right now, the technology isn’t sophisticated enough to differentiate between . . .”

Technology?

“. . . impressive what they’re able to find out with only a few spells, but some things are not quite . . .”

“. . . generator is working properly, but you’re right. I can’t imagine living without electricity. Think of how much our medicine relies on . . .”

Generator, electricity – this had to be the Muggle doctors.

“And you say he opened his eyes, but didn’t blink when you asked him to?”

“Yes.” Harry recognised Healer Dubois’ voice. “But it was most likely the first time, and we can’t be sure what it means. It might simply have been too exhausting to even try. He was unconscious for months and if this was the first time he woke up at all . . .”

But it wasn’t, Harry thought, and this was the perfect opportunity to prove it. The residual sleepiness was gone as he focused on opening his eyes. For a few moments, he feared it wouldn’t work, but then, like the previous day, there was light.

“Dr Mason, look! He’s opened his eyes again.”

There was an excited buzz of voices, and soon, the heads of three men and a woman appeared in Harry’s field of vision, looking down on him.

“He should have his glasses,” the woman said. A hand appeared and handed them to her, and she carefully put them on Harry. The world swam into focus.

“Let’s try blinking again first,” she said. “Mr Potter? Harry? If you can understand me, please blink twice.”

It didn’t work, again. Damn, why wasn’t this working? He could open his eyes but not blink at will? That made no sense.

They tried again, several times, apparently assuming that maybe even if he was awake, he needed some repetitions to understand them. It frustrated him – he was perfectly clear in the head! – but however much he tried, he couldn’t blink voluntarily even once. There was one time when he blinked out of reflex right after they asked, but it was only one blink, and they discarded that, since it was a single occurrence. Another time, he managed to close his eyes, but couldn’t open them for a while. They thought he was falling asleep.

“Can you stick out your tongue, Harry?”

“Can you move anything? Maybe a finger?”

“Can you make any sound?”

Nothing.

“Let’s try the mirror,” the woman, Dr Mason, said in the end. “Can you elevate the bed so that he’s half sitting?”

“Yes, I can spell it,” Healer Dubois said. “Take a step back.”

There was an incantation, and then Harry felt how he slowly rose into a reclined, half lying and half sitting position. It made his stomach lurch and his head swirl – he’d not done anything but lie down in months.

A minute later, a mirror appeared in front of his face, and while he was still trying to get a grip on the dizziness, he forgot about it completely once his eyes focused on his mirror image.

This was supposed to be him?

His face was pallid and thin, his nose sticking out prominently, eyes lying deep in their sockets behind the glasses. His mouth was wide open, his chin glistening wet with drool; a thick thread of it was hanging down on the piece of white cloth that was fastened around his neck. And just at the right edge of the mirror, on the bib on his chest, there was part of what looked like a tightly clenched fist.

This was awful. It couldn’t be him. It was too grotesque. It couldn’t!

Only it was. Harry remembered his friends’ and the Healers’ conversations about how he looked well, but hearing and seeing were entirely different. This was who they had visited for months? Who they had touched? Who had been on the front page of the Prophet for the entire Wizarding world to see? He wished the mirror would disappear, and if he’d been able to, he would have smashed it into a thousand pieces. A hand appeared and wiped his chin with the bib. It made him furious and he felt the strong impulse to bite it.

“Harry? Can you track yourself with your eyes in the mirror?”

Slowly, the mirror moved to the right, and while Harry didn’t want to look at himself any longer, he realised that he’d have to try. He couldn’t turn his head, but he should be able to move his eyes, right?

He wasn’t. Bit by bit, the mirror disappeared to the right, while Harry kept staring straight ahead. Then it came back, wandering from right to left, until it disappeared again.

“He’s not tracking.”

“Let’s try again. Harry, can you . . .”

Like the other tests, they repeated this multiple times, but in vain. With every time he failed to respond in a way they’d understand, Harry felt more desperate.

There were more tests – swallowing, painful stimuli, others he didn’t really understand, with Muggle contraptions of which he had no idea what they might be for. In the end, after he didn’t know how long, but long after another headache had set in, Harry’s eyes closed against his will and he could only listen.

Draco and Hermione came in after the tests were over, beginning to ask questions. The doctors reported what had happened to them. They seemed to be no wiser than the Healers.

“He could be hearing us and be unable to respond,” one of the men, a bald doctor with glasses, said. “But it’s just as likely, maybe even more so, that the open eyes don’t mean anything. He could be in a vegetative state.”

“What is that?” Draco asked.

“It’s complicated to explain, but basically, it would mean that his brain was damaged so much that it only performs basic functions. Keeping him alive, keeping his body functional. He might open his eyes, be ‘awake’ during the day and sleep at night, even seem to look at you, move when you touch him, make sounds, swallow. But those would be nothing more than reflexes. He’d not be aware – of himself or anything around him.”

“We’ve had cases like that in the Wizarding world,” Dubois added. “Even with magic, we can’t figure out whether they’re like what you just described or whether they’re aware.”

“So do Muggles have a way to determine the difference?” Draco asked.

“Not yet.” It was the woman again. “We’re making progress concerning computer science. We hope than in a few years, we can develop software that is sophisticated enough so it will be able to interpret brainwaves in such a fashion that we’ll be able to tell if a person understands what they’re told. But we’re not there yet.”

“So there’s no way to tell?” Hermione asked.

“I’m sorry, but right now, no. We’ll stay a few more days, like we agreed. We’ll perform more tests. Today might simply have been a bad day. Many people, even if they’re aware, have problems processing what’s happening and might not always respond. Maybe tomorrow will be different.”

“I see. Thank you.”

There was the shuffling of feet, the door opening and closing, and the room went silent – but Harry felt that he wasn’t alone.

His hair was touched. “I can’t believe you could be gone forever.” Draco. His voice was trembling, and he sounded as frightened as Harry felt. “You’ll show them, won’t you? Tomorrow will be different, like the doctor said.”

It wasn’t. The same tests were performed, with the same results. More and more, Harry felt like screaming with frustration and fear. How could this be happening? And why to him? What had he done to deserve it? Hadn’t he been through enough?

The third day came, and it went by like the previous ones. On the fourth day, the Muggle doctors paid their final visit.

“Of course he might need a few weeks until he can respond,” Dr Mason said. “Or maybe months. It’s impossible to tell. But if nothing changes at all . . .”

“. . . then he’s most likely not aware and never will be,” Hermione finished softly. “That’s what you wanted to say, isn’t it?”

“I’m sorry, but yes.”

What if he’d never manage to make any sign? Opening his eyes hadn’t changed anything, and if things went on like this, they might come to believe that he was a vegetable. He still might be stuck here, like this, forever.

For weeks, Harry had tried to be optimistic, tried to keep up hope, but right now . . . right now, for the first time, he wondered if it wouldn’t have been better if he had died.

.-.-.-.-.

The next weeks went by without change. Every day, the Healers would try to get him to blink, to move, track a mirror. It never worked.

Hermione – of course – began reading books, telling them about things they could try to make Harry react.

On her advice, Draco brought the portable CD player from home and they started playing Harry’s favourite music. It was relaxing and helped with the boredom, but he wondered what they were expecting. That he’d break out into song all of a sudden?

They brought scented oils and perfumes for him to smell, holding them close under his nose. Some were okay, but most only gave him a headache.

Then Hermione got it in her head to see if tasting things might somehow help. They stuck something into his mouth that looked like some kind of swab and tasted of lemon. After a few times, Harry felt his mouth close reflexively.

“Maybe he could eat by himself?” Hermione said.

They tried giving him thickened nutrient potions in a feeding cup – the same stuff the Healers spelled into his stomach. It was messy, but then he swallowed without his own doing when they stroked his throat. The potions were flavoured: vanilla and chocolate were nice. Orange was bearable. Strawberry tasted like vomit and made him gag, but since he tended to gag on the others as well, it didn’t make any difference.

More and more, Harry wished they would simply stop and leave him alone. The way they were handling him made him feel like a bizarre breathing doll, and it was obvious that nothing of it helped. He was truly stuck, and with every day that went by, he was losing hope – as were his friends and Draco. They tried not to show it; they rarely spoke other than optimistic in his presence these days. But he heard it in their voices, saw it in their eyes and strained smiles when they were close enough so he could look at them. At some point he noticed that Ron began coming less often.

“You mustn’t give up,” Hermione admonished him one day, in a hushed voice Harry could barely understand. “He might be in there, he might notice. You wouldn’t want him to see you abandoning him.”

“I just can’t, Hermione! Don’t push me.”

“I know how hard it is on you. It’s the same for me, for all of us. But you must think of Harry. What if –”

“I’m thinking about nothing but Harry!” Ron snapped. “The way he’s just lying there . . . This is worse than Fred! At least Fred’s gone and buried. Harry . . . it’s like he’s dead, only he’s breathing, but there’s nothing there.”

“Ron, we can’t know if –”

Look at him!” he yelled. “There’s nothing there! Stop deluding yourself!” He was silent for a moment, then added much quieter, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore.”

There were quick steps and the door slammed shut. Ron had left. Hermione was crying. Ron was right, Harry thought, that was the worst thing: this was worse than Fred. For both him and Harry.

August came and went by, then a week of September, and another. Slowly, the Healers began suggesting that there was nothing to be done anymore. That most likely, Harry wasn’t aware and that this was as good as it would ever get.

He should have been upset, outraged that they were giving up. He should have been desperate. But all he could feel was relief paired with a strange, growing numbness. This was how it was. Nobody could change it. Not Healers, not Muggle doctors. Not his friends with whatever they tried, and not Draco, no matter how much he was despairing, growing more and more silent with every day. And least of all Harry.

This was how it ended, how his life would be until the day he would die: in a bed at St Mungo’s, looking at a wall with an enlarged magical photo Hermione had put there. It showed him with her, Ron, and Ginny, laughing and waving into the camera in front of the Black Lake. Harry wished that somebody would take it away.

 

~TBC~

 

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