And, On the Other Side, A Welcoming Voice
'… for many a time: I have been half in love with easeful Death.'
John Keats, 'Ode to a Nightingale'
The pain was so engulfing that Draco did not really feel it. More, he saw it as a burst of white light, with the words of the curse etched silver across it. He was almost pleased to find he wasn't going to manage any last words, as 'That's very hard to read' were not the ones he would have chosen.
And then there was a blackness – so quiet and still – then a different white light, gentle and calm this time, and a face that he had not seen in two decades and on which no years had written, looking at him with familiar annoyance.
'Absolutely not your time,' said the face, and then Draco knew nothing at all for some time.
When he woke, and it could only have been seconds later, there were Aurors shouting and boots running past him. A pair of freckled hands cradled his head, one of them reaching for his throat, surprisingly gently.
'He's alive!' shouted a voice – Ronald Weasley, Draco realised – and then there were mediwizards and Potions and Apparitions. And then he felt what was left of the pain.
Weasley came to see him in hospital that first night. Draco blamed the Potions they had dosed him with for what happened next.
'I saw Potter,' he said, cutting off Weasley's announcement they had caught the culprits and apology for arriving too late to thwart the attack.
'You what?' Weasley replied, eloquent as ever.
'Potter,' Draco repeated. 'I was dead and Potter was there.'
Weasley paused, thrown. 'What, like, welcoming you into the light with all your departed loved ones?' He was clearly sceptical.
Draco shook his head. 'No loved ones. Only Potter. And he wasn't welcoming. He told me to go away.'
Weasley smiled despite himself. 'Well, yeah, that does sound like Harry, then.'
It took Draco a moment to realise he was being teased, and that there was no malice in it. He returned a half-smile. 'That's what I thought. Looked like him, sounded like him, acted like him.'
'So you think he's just been hiding out in the anteroom of the afterlife for twenty years, then?' Weasley asked, returning Draco's half-smile. 'That's a bugger, I bet George fifty Galleons Harry wasn't dead.'
'Not dead,' Draco insisted, conscious he wasn't making a lot of sense.
Weasley patted his shoulder. 'Employed as a celestial bouncer, was it? I can see that. I always said he had run away to do something different after the war.'
Draco frowned at Weasley, wondering if his recent trauma meant he was misunderstanding the Auror, or if Weasley was simply mad. Potter had disappeared half a lifetime ago, in the same instant Voldemort had fallen to the ground. Draco had been watching – Potter standing there, wand outstretched and voice desperate one second, nothing the next. It wasn't as though he had slipped out for a cheeky gap year and forgotten to come back for a generation. He realised Weasley was still teasing him. 'I didn't imagine it!' he protested.
Weasley's hand gave a last reassuring squeeze. 'I'm sure you didn't,' he said, calmly. 'But it's been a hell of a day, and I wouldn't be surprised if you're a bit confused. I've heard from Hogwarts. Scorpius is fine, and my Rose and Ginny's James are keeping an eye out for him, along with all the teaching staff and a squadron's worth of hit wizards. Not that they're needed, because I am convinced we have all culprits in custody. So I'm going to head off for the night and come back tomorrow. And when you feel up to it, I'll take your full account of what happened and I'll have someone from MLE talk with you about how the case will be prosecuted and how what victim support we can offer you – relax, it's mostly good biscuits and covering your out-of-pocket expenses, no counselling unless you want it. But for now, just concentrate on getting well.'
Weasley being professional and kind was almost as disconcerting as seeing Potter had been. He had read about the man's promotion to Head Auror, and sputtered that it was clearly yet another sign of the end of days (though in the privacy of his own heart, he admitted that it was one political decision he could see the sense of, as the man was too thick to be corrupt and too pigheaded to be lazy, both qualities of value in an Auror.) Until now, he had not seen him in action. To give credit where it was due, he was clearly diligent, if not as timely as he might have been.
Draco felt tiredness begin to overwhelm him. 'It was Potter,' he slurred.
'Of course it was,' Weasley said. 'He was always keeping an eye on you, why stop now, eh, Malfoy? Malfoy? Malfoy!'
Draco could hear the shouts, but distantly, as though through a thick wall. He tried to focus, but his brain resisted him, and his thoughts, rather than marshalling, began to slide away into nothingness. It did not feel like sleep.
The light was back, and he moved towards it, this time more nervously. 'Potter?' he whispered.
'Not here,' said a familiar voice beside him. 'You're hallucinating.'
Draco jumped, and then went to complain, and then realised he had no idea what to complain about first, so he poked Potter in the arm and met exactly the amount of resistance his somewhat hazy understanding of physics had led him to expect.
'You're here,' he said.
'True,' Potter replied. 'And for the second time today, so are you. And you're still not meant to be.'
'But you're real, I can touch you,' Draco said. 'I'm not hallucinating, you are physically here.'
Potter's expression became sympathetic and he looked over Draco's shoulder. Draco turned, and realised he could see himself lying in the bed on the other side of the room, with a tall mediwitch pouring something down his throat while Ron Weasley held him upright. He didn't seem to be doing very well.
He grabbed Potter's arm. 'How do you know I'm not meant to be here?' he asked. 'Are you dead? Is this hell?'
'I'm not dead. This is St Mungo's,' Potter said, watching as Ron stood back to give the mediwitch room to cast a spell at Draco's body.
'Are you sure?' Draco asked, starting to feel a little hysterical and not really blaming himself. 'Only it's worth fifty Galleons to Weasley.'
Potter frowned at him. 'Why would Ron bet on me being dead?'
'Alive,' Draco corrected him. 'But if you are, how do you know I'm not meant to be dead?'
'It's the job,' Potter muttered. 'There you go, she's finally twigged. I think that one's going to work if you give it a minute.'
Draco glanced in the direction Potter was looking and watched, appalled, as his body was rotated and blue liquid evacuated from it via every pore. 'That's …' He realised he was being distracted. 'You. Where are you? Are you trapped? Do you need help getting back? What is happening with you? What can we do?'
A smile grew across Potter's face, and Draco was struck dumb by it. 'Astoria told me you'd changed,' Potter said.
'Astoria? How?' Draco demanded, but the light was gone and he was no longer on the other side of the room, but rather in his own body and trying very hard to draw a breath.
'They said it was an allergic reaction,' Weasley told him, hours later, after his team had searched the hospital and interrogated the staff. 'I suppose it might have been. Once the Potion was out of your system, you recovered quickly. My team are testing samples now, they'll know soon if there was any contamination.'
Draco wanted desperately to sleep, but he wanted to talk with Weasley even more. 'Can you shut the door?' he croaked.
Weasley did, and poured Draco a glass of water for good measure. 'I've heard back from Hogwarts,' he said, holding onto the glass so Draco could sip from the edge. 'Totally quiet. Scorpius can't work out why James Thomas followed him around all evening, and he had a big argument with Rose over their Potions homework, but it was all patched up.' He shrugged. 'Ravenclaws, who can explain them?'
Draco took a few small swallows and felt his throat open a little. He pushed the glass back into Weasley's hand. 'Thank you,' he whispered. 'And please thank your daughter and nephew.'
Weasley smiled briefly. 'They like your boy. It's rebellion, I'm sure.'
Draco managed a swift smile in reply, but there was no time for parental pride. 'Weasley, you need to kill me again,' he insisted.
Weasley took a step back. 'Steady on,' he said. 'And what's this "again" business? One punch, years ago.'
'Potter,' Draco snapped, and the word was enough to stop Weasley. 'Potter, he was there again. He said he was alive. He said he spoke to Astoria about me. He said it was his job.'
It took a long moment for Weasley to stop shaking his head and start speaking. 'That's not possible,' he said at last.
'I wouldn't have thought so, either. But it's what it is. You need to kill me again so I can find out more.'
Weasley stepped back, lifting his hands. 'Whoa, big brake on here. Whatever is going on, no-one is killing anyone. There's probably another explanation. We'll get them to run tests. I always thought you were obsessed with Harry, maybe it's just your subconscious telling you that it's time to give into your well-groomed leanings, if you take my meaning.'
Draco wished he was strong enough to throw something at the man blathering beside his bed.
Weasley kept going. 'So, we'll check on you, and we'll check on…' He looked around the room, as though expecting a ghostly apparition. 'The hospital. It's probably pretty spooky here if you're sensitive to that sort of thing. I'll have someone like Padma or Parvati come in and give it a lookover.'
'There is nothing going on in my subconscious,' Draco insisted. 'It was Potter, he was here, and he said that knowing when people are supposed to die was his job. That he talked to Astoria about me. I wouldn't imagine that. If I imagined it, Astoria would be here.'
He could see the moment at which Weasley began to hope. And he could see the following wave of common sense that tried to snuff that hope out. And yet … 'I could have someone take a look and see if there have been other reports,' Weasley said. 'If what you say is true, then other people who have had near-death or briefly dead experiences would have seen the same thing.'
Draco felt sleep and relief fall on him in equal measure. 'Thank you,' he managed. 'He's…'
He couldn't finish the sentence, but there was enough consciousness left in him to feel Weasley patting his knee and muttering 'You poor bastard' before everything drifted away.
The sun was rising as Ron made his way home. The gritty, grotty feeling of a night without sleep, rest or washing was in contrast with the clear light illuminating the streets. Birds sang, dawn cyclists and delivery vans whizzed past, and a barista blasted the day's first shot of espresso through a machine behind an open shutter.
Ron checked his pocket. There was enough Muggle money there for a coffee for him and a pastry for Hermione, so he stepped up and placed his order, grateful that the man behind the machine seemed wholly uninterested in pleasantries.
An ancient Ford Anglia lumbered by, and Ron had to stop himself from laughing. Maybe Malfoy was right and it was a Sign from the Other Side.
'Macchiato and a Chelsea bun,' said the barista, pushing a cardboard cup and paper bag across the counter.
'Cheers,' Ron replied, paying quickly and resuming his walk.
It had been a long time since his last all-nighter. He'd thought things were calming down again, and now two hate crimes in the one month. At least the other one had just been property damage. And at least both had been by the same group. Attacking Malfoy had been a step too far for one of them, who was happy to burn textbooks, but not curse actual people. Or, at least, not pure-blood wizards. If only his conscience had stung him into action ten minutes faster.
Ron sipped at his coffee as he went, welcoming its warmth and wishing it could take away the bad taste of watching his community once again slip into schism and violence.
It wasn't a long walk home. They had closed up the country house and moved to the city during the school term. Hugo was having a year at Hermione's old primary school – where he was excelling at everything except Citizenship. Hermione's frustrated, 'Oh, Hugo, I just don't know what people have been voting for anymore, let alone why,' resonated with him deeply. Their own people had knocked her back for Minister for Magic when Kingsley retired the other year, and it still rankled with him, though she said it was perfectly understandable given her relative youth.
The porch lights were on, and the front room, which meant that she'd either left them that way to make it easier for him to see his way around if he came home in the middle of the night, or she'd woken early and decided to sit up for him. Probably the latter. He was glad he'd thought of the bun. She worked so hard, baked goods were very literally the least he could do.
He heard her footsteps as he opened the front door. She was still in her pyjamas, but had been up long enough to brush her hair, and teeth, judging by the smudge of white on her top.
'Morning,' he said, kissing her.
'Morning,' she replied a moment later, resting her face against his chest and holding him a little longer. 'I missed you. Bad night?'
'Brought you a bun,' he said, kissing the top of her head, then stepping back and presenting the bag.
'You're a gem,' she said, and the corners of her eyes crinkled in the way he could look at all day. 'Come on out to the kitchen, I'll have some breakfast, you have whatever meal you're up to, and you can tell me all about it.'
He traded her five minutes of putting on the eggs while he had a shower for doing the dishes and getting Hugo to school after she went to work, and so it was a slightly more human version of himself that sat down to eat in the kitchen. 'Another attack against Muggle-born services,' he said, knowing that it would hit her desk the moment she walked into her office, so there was no point trying to shield her. 'They went after Draco Malfoy this time, after his comments in the paper the other day. We were lucky, we had a tipoff that let us get to him before too much damage was done.'
'That's awful. Is he all right?'
Ron buttered his toast, unsure how to answer her. He settled on 'Mostly,' and stuffed the toast in his mouth so he wouldn't have to give details immediately.
'And the culprits?' she asked.
'Caught,' he said, chewing on one side of his mouth and speaking out the other. 'All of them.'
'You're a good man and a better Auror,' she said, pouring him a cup of tea and winking.
There was a rustle at the back door. Hermione opened it and let the Owl Post in. Four letters, the Prophet and the Quibbler were all dropped on the table and the owl perched on Hermione's chair back while she popped coins in its pouch and passed it a treat in thanks.
'You spoil those birds,' Ron told her, as it flapped back out the door.
'You'll notice they never crap on the floor,' she said.
'Fair point,' he conceded, reaching for the post.
His wife was faster and snapped up a thick letter with a pony on the envelope – Rose was still using up the last of her childhood stationery on her parents, saving her tasteful grey and cream paper for her friends and her cooler relatives.
'Extra letter! It's not even Monday. I'll read it out,' Hermione said.
'It's addressed to me,' Ron pointed out, knowing it was futile.
Since his wife didn't even acknowledge he'd spoken, he was right. She unfurled the pages and began to read. 'She says Quidditch is going really well, but Harry Jenkins is the most useless Beater in the history of the world and Harry Speedwell should be a permanent part of the team, not just a reserve, but Harriet Baxter is the Captain and she has the hots for Harry Jenkins and so they're just going to have to wait a year for those two to leave school, unless we could talk to Neville and he could make their NEWTs homework so hard they don't have time for the team anymore.'
She looked up at her husband. 'Bit cheeky, given how often she's begged us to shut up about things and not make her look special.' She looked back at the letter. 'Oh, this bit's for you. She says, "Dad, the hit wizards are still here, but I convinced Scorpius it's because they're doing training with Mr Creevey. I hope you send someone to talk to him tonight or first thing tomorrow, because if it's in the papers that his dad was attacked before he hears about it, he'll be really upset with me and I've got him as my partner in Potions all this month."'
Hermione put the letter down. 'Did you deputise our daughter to guard Scorpius Malfoy?' she asked.
Ron swallowed the last of his egg and toast. 'Of course not. I sent hit wizards to guard him. I asked her and James to distract him so he didn't notice all the guarding going on. Professor McGonagall had Professor Sinistra check in on them a few times through the night, and all was well, I'm told. Sinistra had a quiet chat with Scorpius first thing this morning once we knew Malfoy was going to be all right. He's probably on his way down to St Mungo's with some of our people even now.'
'You could have told me,' Hermione said, frowning.
Ron didn't even try to argue. 'You're right, I should have. I'm sorry.' He found himself continuing to talk even though he hadn't meant to. He blamed both tiredness and guilt. 'Malfoy said something funny. He said he saw Harry while he was dead.'
Hermione nearly spilled her tea. 'Dead?' she asked. 'And what do you mean, saw Harry? But first, what do you mean by dead?'
Ron had to talk her through the details of the evening, pausing for frequent questions. He had expected surprise, maybe even excitement, but Hermione's frown grew deeper as the discussion went on.
'That's just cruel!' she declared when he finished. 'I thought he'd reformed. It's not funny.' She took a deep breath. 'Maybe it was just the trauma. Do you think it could have been just the trauma?'
Ron reached across the table and took her hand. 'It's all right, love, I don't think he was trying to be cruel. Or funny. I shouldn't have told you.' He squeezed her hand, and smiled crookedly at her until she smiled back. 'It was probably just the trauma,' he agreed.
Hermione squeezed his hand in return, mollified. Then her grip grew firmer and her face more serious. 'Unless…'
'It's probably not true,' Ron warned her.
She nodded. 'But you're going to look into it, aren't you?'
He nodded back. Upstairs the floorboards creaked as Hugo finally gave up on sleep. They held each other's hand for a moment longer, before separating and facing the rest of the day.
Draco woke to the worried face of his son. The light streaming in through the west-facing window told him he had slept, and the strain on Scorpius's young face told him the boy had not – or at least, nothing like enough.
'I am perfectly fine,' he said. 'You should be at school.'
Scorpius darted forwards and hugged him.
Draco hugged him back, holding on as tightly as he dared. They rarely hugged, despite his son's willingness to embrace others, he had always been … embarrassed, Draco supposed, to do the same with members of his family other than his mother. And since Astoria had died …
'I am fine,' Draco reiterated, speaking into his son's messy hair. 'Truthfully. Ronald Weasley led the team that rescued me, and he was very competent. For once.'
Scorpius sat back, 'Mr Weasley? So that's why Rose and James were sitting on me last night. Dammit.' He frowned. 'Not literally,' he added hastily at his father's confused expression.
'Why so upset?' Draco asked. A thought occurred to him. 'Were you hoping it was another type of interest? You can tell me, I'll only be mildly horrified. Which one?'
Scorpius looked as though he was wishing Draco might slump back into unconsciousness. Draco smiled brightly. Teasing his son was one of the great joys of parenthood.
'Rose,' Scorpius finally admitted. 'She's not interested in me, except as a friend, but I think she's really pretty. And clever. And don't worry, she's really not interested. She thinks boys are stupid. Actually, she thinks most people are stupid, but boys especially.'
Draco managed not to smile. 'Well, she's young. I remember her mother wasn't at all interested in boys until Viktor Krum came to our school, and she was in Fourth Year by then.
Scorpius slumped. 'Marvellous. Just two more years until I know she doesn't fancy me personally rather than in general.'
Draco couldn't hold his smile in at that. 'Cheer up,' he said. 'If you're very lucky, there'll be an international Quidditch star to sweep her off her feet in front of you.'
'Gah!' Scorpius dropped his head down onto Draco's blanketed legs.
Draco reached out and ruffled his son's hair. 'As you may recall, Rose's mother did not marry Viktor Krum. So there's hope for you yet. No point worrying about it now. Anything could happen in the future.'
Scorpius looked up, smiling. 'That's what I tell myself.'
It was impossible that this delightful young person could be his, Draco thought. He remembered sitting beside his crib with Astoria, the two of them gazing in besotted wonder at the miracle they had wrought. And now, twelve years later, that baby was a boy well on his way to becoming a young man. He knew very well he had done nothing to deserve such goodness.
'You should be at school,' he said again. 'Term's only just started, you'll be missing vital learning.'
'Rose is taking notes for me,' Scorpius said. 'Professor Sinistra said I should stay down for the weekend and she'll bring me back up Sunday afternoon.'
'Well, we wouldn't want to argue with Professor Sinistra,' Draco replied. 'Why don't you pop outside and find someone who can tell me when I can go home, so you don't need to be stuck in here.'
The mediwitch who had saved his life last night had gone home, but Sebastien Malus was on duty, and he was one of the more skilled mediwizards Draco had met. 'Two more tests to come back,' he announced. 'They should be done within the hour, and if both of them are clear, I'm allowed to set you free. You've been remarkably lucky.'
Draco was aware of that. He took up Malus's offer of showing Scorpius around the hospital and used the opportunity to use his private room's bathroom He wasn't sure he felt up to taking a shower, but a wash with a flannel revived him enough for him to feel up to transforming his hospital gown into an elegant set of grey pyjamas. Which he was grateful for when he left the bathroom and found Ron Weasley in his room.
'Are you meant to be out of bed?' Weasley asked him.
'They've said I can probably go home this afternoon,' Draco replied.
'Well, that's good. But you should get back in, or sit down, or something. You still look a bit wobbly.'
Draco's expression must have shown a flicker of irritation, because Weasley's tone became apologetic. 'Not that that's any surprise. I mean, you've not had the best twenty-four hours. Most people would be flattened rather than wobbly.'
'I do feel a bit flat,' Draco confessed, climbing back into bed. 'But they've sent Scorpius to visit from school, so I thought it would be better for him if we got out of here. The House Elves can help at home. If we get desperate, I can even call for my mother.' He smiled. 'You must have done a good job keeping it out of the papers, I was expecting an "I told you so" from her well before now.'
Weasley smiled back. 'We have some ability to keep things quiet when it's an ongoing operation. If you're really lucky, something big will happen in the next day or so, because once we send our reports through to the Wizengamot, it will be picked up quickly.'
Draco nodded. 'Thanks for the warning. I'll send her a letter tonight, so she knows beforehand.'
He looked at Weasley, and realised the man looked nervous. 'Why are you back here?' he asked.
'I…' Weasley looked over to the door, then flicked his wand to shut it wordlessly. He pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat in it. 'I asked around,' he said, quietly. 'I had Mari Cohen go through the hospital records of near-death and revival experiences and there wasn't much there, but she told me that she wouldn't expect there to be, because people don't tell their doctors anything that makes them look crazy. Which makes sense. So, I realised I work with some of the witches and wizards doing the most dangerous work in the country.
'I went back through our records and I found four people who might have fit the profile. Two had no recollection of anything, out cold the whole time. But the other two were cagey at first and then they told me they had seen Potter, and he'd told them to go back. I don't think you're mad or lying. I think you saw him.'
Draco tucked his legs under himself and leaned forward. 'It felt real,' he said. 'I could touch his arm, I could see what was happening to me. You were helping the mediwitch, and Potter, he understood what she was doing.'
Ron nodded. 'Right. So, maybe he's seen a lot of things happen here?'
Draco was startled. Weasley's conclusion seemed obvious now he'd stated it, but not something that would ever have occurred to him. 'I think you're right,' he said. 'How did you get people to talk with you about this? Did you tell them…'
'Oh, no. Don't worry, your secret's safe. I told them Hermione was doing some sort of paper on how your cultural experiences are reflected in important life moments, including expectations of death. I read an article in a Muggle paper on that once, and it seemed like a good explanation.'
Twice in two minutes Draco had been surprised. 'Granger's really rubbed off on you,' he said. 'That's very good thinking. So, what do we do next?'
Weasley flopped against the back of the chair. 'I don't know,' he said. 'Talk it over with Hermione? Ask Luna if she has any idea how to contact a person who says he's alive but only hangs out with the dead? See if Professor Trelawney can give us any guidance?'
'Or…' Draco began.
'Yes?' said Weasley.
'You could just kill me again.'
The Weasley house sat in a quiet Highbury street and, while plottable, had clearly had some spellwork added to make it not very noticeable to the Muggles passing by. That, or the neighbours were remarkably at ease with a landing platform on the roof. Draco could see it clearly as he walked up the street from the park he had Apparated to. Perhaps Granger had explained it away as an alfresco dining area, Draco wouldn't put it past her.
He'd seen his son off less than an hour ago, and would have loved nothing more than to sit down for a quiet Sunday evening with a book, but Weasley had invited him to what he called a strategy meeting, and he would have had to have been considerably more exhausted than this to not go.
He rang the doorbell of number 23.
Hermione Granger-Weasley opened it.
She took one look at him and promptly shut it again.
Draco took a breath and knocked politely. The door re-opened. He smiled, as civilly as he could manage. 'Good afternoon,' he said.
'You're an idiot,' she told him.
'You've been telling me this for years,' he replied.
With a sniff to acknowledge the truth of it, she stepped aside and let him into the house.
Weasley had assembled his team in a comfortable sitting room, around a table covered in snacks and drinks. Draco recognised everyone: Luna Lovegood, who was probably the person he would have called first, too, when it came to dealing with the uncanny; Padma Patil, who had turned an argument with her sister into a career debunking – and sometimes proving – the more esoteric parts of the magical world; Parvati, who had become a medium, Draco suspected entirely out of a desire to annoy her sister; Neville Longbottom, probably because he was nearly as good at potions as Draco was and better at herbs besides, but perhaps also because there was usually a Neville Longbottom involved with Weasley and Granger these days. And one person he hadn't expected, Dennis Creevey, his son's Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.
'Good afternoon,' Draco said, handing over a box of savoury tarts to add to the table.
Reactions divided along the lines he expected. Weasley, Luna, Longbottom and Padma gave courteous nods – Luna's might even have been described as friendly – while Parvati, Granger and Creevey were tight-lipped and perfunctory.
He sat in the armchair between Luna and Longbottom, The invitation from Weasley had come as a shock, but it was only now, looking at the serious faces around the room, he fully realised what it meant. Weasley believed him. Weasley was going to help him.
'So,' said Weasley. 'That's everyone. Thank you for coming. I know that most of you aren't sure why I've asked you here this afternoon …'
'More confused as to why you've asked him,' Creevey said, with a nod at Draco.
Weasley held up a hand. 'I did invite him,' he said, 'which makes him a guest in my house, and I expect everyone here to treat him with courtesy.'
'Yes,' Granger chimed in, to Draco's surprise. 'Malfoy is a part of this. We don't have to like him, but we should at least respect the time and money he's poured in to his late wife's charities, if nothing else. If you can't be polite, you should go now.'
Draco smiled at her.
'I still think you're an idiot,' she told him, but the worry in her eyes told him that her husband had shared everything Draco had said with her.
Creevey flopped back against the sofa. 'Fine. Lovely to see you, Mr Malfoy. For Ron, Hermione, and your son's sake, I won't hex you.'
And Draco liked him for that, because anyone who was willing to make an exception for him on Scorpius's account couldn't be all bad.
'So,' said Weasley. 'Again, you may be wondering why I asked you all here.'
'The killer is…' Granger muttered, earning a quick frown from her husband, who decided to ignore her and keep talking.
'On Wednesday night, Mr Malfoy was attacked by a group of miscreants who opposed his work funding and championing Muggle-born causes. What you didn't read about in the papers was the fact that the spell used on him was one that made his heart stop. For a few moments he was technically dead.'
Draco was pleased to see that even Creevey and Parvati looked concerned at this revelation.
'Now, before we go on,' Weasley said, 'I need to swear everyone here to secrecy. What you're about to learn cannot go outside this room. Not even to family. Not even to partners. At least not until we know what we're up against and have a lot more answers.'
This discomfited the group even more than news of Draco's brief death. 'It's not illegal, is it?' Padma asked.
Granger looked at her. 'Would the Head of Magical Law Enforcement and Head Auror gather you all into their sitting room to plot something against the law?'
Padma replied with a slow eye roll. 'Obviously.'
'Fair enough,' Granger admitted. 'But no, not this time.'
Padma grinned. 'In that case, where do we sign?'
Granger passed around a sheet of paper, with a promise that none of them would reveal what was discussed unless she, Weasley, or – and Draco was more surprised than anyone to read this – Malfoy gave permission. One by one, they signed it, with more than a few eyes cast his way wonderingly.
'All right,' said Weasley once he had the paper back. 'I'm going to let Malfoy talk us through the next bit. Just… tell everyone what you told me.'
Which was easier said than done, because then he had been in a haze of pain and medication and Weasley had been there in the middle of the experience with him, and now he had to recount the whole thing to six more faces, who were all looking at him with calm curiosity … Buggeration. There was no easy way, so he launched into as unembroidered an account of the experience as he could manage.
When he finished speaking, there was a long silence. He had expected anger, or pity at his delusion. Instead, there was interest, and hope.
'You really think it was him?' Luna asked.
Draco nodded. 'It looked like him, sounded like him, acted like him, felt like him…'
Eyebrows were raised at this last, but it was allowed to pass.
'But you say he hadn't aged,' Padma said.
'That's what it looked like,' Draco replied.
'So you could have been hallucinating him based on your experience of him twenty years ago.'
Draco allowed that this was possible. 'Though surely I would have hallucinated my wife if that's all it was?'
Padma chewed on her thumb thoughtfully.
'What if…' said Luna, 'if Harry's trapped in a place without time?' She looked around the circle. 'Our universe has time as a constant reality, but what if others don't? He could be in a universe alongside ours where time doesn't work the way it does here.'
Before Draco could point out that it had felt very much as though time was passing to him, Creevey had shaken his head.
'Doesn't make sense. It's more likely he's dead and doesn't know it. It could have been a ghost that Malfoy saw.'
Which had been Draco's first thought, but … 'He said he was alive. He certainly felt solid. Though I admit that I may not have been corporeal myself at that point.'
'Why does he keep turning up just for you?' Parvati asked, which Draco thought was an excellent question.
'He doesn't,' Weasley replied, and began a rundown of other near-death Potter sightings he had been able to document over the last few days. From a young boy who claimed to have been told to return to life by the famous Hero of Hogwarts after falling into a lake, to an elderly witch who had been found by her neighbour after accidentally overdosing on her SleepEasy and complained that it was bad enough she had to spend the night in St Mungo's, but being lectured by that ghastly Potter boy was beyond the pale.
In all, there had been fifteen near-death cases he had been able to find easily where the language and events described had led Weasley to think that Potter had really been there.
'And then,' he said, 'there were hundreds more over the last twenty years where nothing happened, or where they saw other people, shining lights, angels, all the things you'd expect. There were even a few that said they'd seen Harry and that he was golden, like an angel, and carrying the Deathly Hallows and welcoming them to the afterlife.'
Draco stared at him, appalled.
'Of course,' Weasley continued, 'when I investigated further, those people were all known Potterites, so I've written them off as basic wish-fulfilment types. But there's enough there to make it look as though something is genuinely going on, which is why we asked each of you here today to help us sort it out.'
Padma, Parvati and Luna all nodded. They were obvious choices in a case like this. But Longbottom and Creevey exchanged confused glances, wondering why Weasley had asked them.
Draco had his own suspicions, which were confirmed when Weasley said, 'Neville, you've been doing a lot of research into poisons, haven't you?'
Longbottom looked at him with deep suspicion. Weasley faltered in the face of it, so Draco stepped in.
'Since we know he comes for me,' Draco said, 'I told Ron we ought to kill me again. I think he's looking for as safe a way as possible of doing that.'
'Brilliant plan,' said Parvati, and Draco wished for a brief moment that his family had imprisoned her for months during the war instead of the blameless Luna.
'And then trying to bring me back, with Potter if we can manage it,' Draco clarified. Parvati shrugged, making it clear that she considered this part of the project optional.
'So that's why you asked me here,' Creevey said.
Weasley nodded. 'You were already doing brilliant work with your revival spellcraft when you were in Auror training. Professor McGonagall says you've kept up your research. You're not a mediwizard, so you haven't taken any vows that will put in an awkward ethical position.'
The side of Creevey's mouth tilted upwards, as though he would like to make a joke at that point, but Parvati had beaten him to it.
'So our plan for finding – or rescuing, or whatever – Harry is that we kill Malfoy and then we bring him back?' he asked.
'Pretty much,' said Weasley.
'You are both idiots,' Granger muttered.
'I accept it's not the best plan,' Draco admitted. 'But…' He tried to marshal his thoughts. So little of what he wanted to say had any basis except in his feelings.
'Potter said he wasn't dead,' he said. 'If he's not dead, then he shouldn't be in the world of the dead. It's not a place where you can live any sort of life. I think the reason he looks the same as he did during the War is that he is trapped outside of life.'
Granger gnawed on her lip and nodded. 'So, you think he might just be making the best of a bad lot by talking to dead people?'
A smile bloomed unbidden on Draco's face. 'Merlin, can you imagine if he appeared to my father?'
Surprise flashed across Granger's face, and then a polite sympathy made an attempt at a show, but it was over-ridden by a bubble of laughter she couldn't hold down. 'I don't know which of them would be more appalled,' she said between giggles.
'Oh, I do,' Draco assured her. 'My father always believed in the likelihood of hell, and it would have just confirmed all his darkest suspicions.'
'Perhaps they reconciled at the end?' Luna suggested, ever the optimist, setting Granger off on another round of laughter that Draco nearly joined in.
'It's possible,' he said, smiling at her.
She winked at him, and he had the distinct suspicion his leg was being pulled.
But the mood had lightened around the room. Creevey was giving Draco a calculated look. 'So, you're thinking that if we can work out a way to kill you briefly, you can gather information from Harry and we can find out if there's a way to bring him back?'
'Yes,' Draco replied.
'Why you? Why not one of us?'
'Because I've seen him twice. You heard Weasley, most people who had near-death experiences didn't see him at all. This is not going to be easy, so we should start with the subject that has the highest likelihood of success. Besides, I thought it would be easier to convince you to kill me than Weasley or Granger.'
Creevey smiled at that, and nodded his acknowledgement of Draco's point scored.
'We could kill me,' Longbottom said. 'You have a son. Ron and Hermione have two children, and so does Luna. Parvati just got married, Dennis has a boyfriend. Padma and I are the only ones here without responsibilities.'
'Don't bring me into it,' said Padma.
'I'm serious,' said Longbottom. Draco remembered hearing that he and Hannah had separated, but he had assumed it must have just been a quarrel. Now it looked more serious, and Draco was surprised at how much the news saddened him.
'Neville, we need you on hand in case something goes wrong,' Weasley said. 'Much as it pains me to admit it, Malfoy really is the best choice. And if I'm the one saying he's a good option for anything, you know it must be true.'
'I've done some research,' Draco said, before anyone else could start with the self-sacrificing. 'Most of the witches and wizards who've died and come back have had bad reactions to potions, or overdoses. Now there are a few with known antidotes that seem to be fairly reliable in terms of getting you back if you're treated in time, but there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to organ damage, which I'd like to avoid if possible.'
He pulled a scroll from his pocket and dropped it on the table. 'I took a look at Muggle research, too. Don't give me that look, Granger, there are more of them than us, it would have been idiotic to discount them. They've been doing a lot of work on preserving life through hypothermia, but there are side effects: heart damage and neuropathy, mostly, and I'm not attracted to either.
'But that got me thinking. Animals hibernate over winter, and they don't freeze themselves. There's a biological signal for their systems to shut down safely. So, I thought we could try to replicate that, and minimise the risks.'
Longbottom, Creevey and Padma were all nodding at him thoughtfully. 'It's a good idea,' Longbottom said. 'I have a lab at school where we could run some basic tests.'
Creevey looked at him. 'But just preliminary ones, yes? We're not going to drag Malfoy up there, are we? If we're going to actually do this, it should be somewhere away from Malfoy's son and as close to St Mungo's as possible in case everything goes horribly wrong.'
'Or St Mungo's itself,' Luna said. 'There would be people there who would help.'
Granger held up both her hands. 'Absolutely not. This cannot get out. Aside from everything else, could you imagine what the Potterites would be like?'
And they could, so Luna dropped it and everyone focused instead on ideas for replicating hibernation.
By the end of a long meeting they had three promising research protocols for Longbottom and Creevey to pursue; a plan for Parvati and Luna to inveigle their way into St Mungo's under pretext of researching a Quibbler story so they could look for Potter's presence; and an appointment for Padma to spend the following afternoon with Draco in a bid to see if she could discern any trace of Potter hovering nearby.
The two teachers were the first to call it a night, having to Apparate back to Scotland in time for a good night's sleep. The Patil sisters followed close behind, while Luna stayed to help with the tidy-up. Draco found himself loitering, even when Weasley ducked out to pick up Hugo from Granger's parents. He pretended to be busy collecting plates and mugs of half-drunk beverages and taking them out to the kitchen.
'You're looking well,' Luna told him.
'And you,' he replied. He hadn't seen her since Astoria's funeral, but she hadn't changed a bit, despite the fact twin toddlers must be running her ragged. 'How are the boys?'
'Very well. We're all just back from a tour of Iceland and Lorcan has learned how to magic his trousers off, which Rolf has very nearly convinced him is a talent that should be kept for bathtime.'
Draco smiled. 'They're such appalling nudists at that age,' he said, remembering Scorpius. 'Is it a boy thing, do you think?'
'No,' Granger said, coming in with the last of the glasses. 'Rose was the same.' She put them down in the sink with the rest of the dishes and started a spell to clean them before turning to Draco.
'I don't like it,' she said.
'It's just a phase,' he replied, deliberately obtuse.
'You know what I mean. I don't like the idea of killing you. But I like the idea of Harry being trapped somewhere even less.'
Draco nodded. 'I'm… the same,' he admitted. 'Look, we'll try it once. If he's happy there and doing what he wants, then that's it and we will just all go off and become Potterites, though I am not going to draw a scar on my head on Saturdays.'
'And if he's not?' Granger asked.
'Then we get him back,' Draco said, certain it was the only obvious answer.
Granger frowned at him. 'And then what?' she asked.
And Draco had to admit that he did not know. And neither did she.
It had been years since Ron had been part of a secret campaign. He had almost forgotten how exhausting it was remembering who was and wasn't allowed to know what. In a bid not to attract suspicion, they had held most of their briefing meetings at his and Hermione's house, since it was easily accessible by everyone except Dennis and Neville, and those two had let everyone believe that they had embarked on an epic bromance while Dennis's boyfriend was in Botswana.
Even Rose had mentioned it in her letters and said that people were happy to see Professor Longbottom looking cheerier, though they still hoped he could patch things up with Madam Abbott.
Malfoy had been vastly less objectionable than he remembered. Though Ron was prepared to admit that some of his willingness to see the best in Malfoy came from his own sense of guilt at not having been in time to stop the attack on him. Ron would have thought it fair if there had been complaints, but there hadn't been a word.
Hermione had reminded him that in the past three years the man had lost his father and then his wife and now his son was away at school and his mother was going for a full fifteen years of disapproving when it came to his pro-Muggle-born activities, so perhaps they were looking at someone whose priorities had changed more than a little since they knew him.
Padma had spent days following Malfoy around, looking for the faintest hint he was being haunted by Potter. She had delighted in telling Ron and Hermione that it had got to the point where Malfoy was nervous about taking a shower in case a familiar face was hiding in the steam. Hermione had then asked why Padma was following Malfoy into the shower and Padma had remembered she had an urgent appointment elsewhere.
Luna and Parvati were no closer to an answer with their research at the hospital. They could sense the porous veil between life and death within its walls, but not see through it in any useful way. And there was certainly no trace of Harry haunting the halls. They wrapped up their investigation after two days and Luna wrote a lovely article on the value of British Medical Magic and the many people who make it work, which at least served to quell the chatter of budget cuts that Ron had been hearing from some parts of the Ministry.
When Neville owled him two weeks after their first meeting with notes of his research and successes, Ron had a moment of excitement that they finally had results. He had written most of his message to Malfoy before the rest of his brain caught up with the implications of the news. He put his quill down and stared at the paper for long enough that Hermione noticed.
'What's wrong?' she asked, coming over to stand beside him.
'I'm having trouble wording this,' he admitted. 'How do you say "So I thought four would be good if it's convenient for you to be murdered briefly this afternoon?" It sounds as though we're trying to fit him in around our Sunday commitments when we're talking about playing with the man's life.'
'He volunteered it,' she reminded him.
Ron looked at her, hoping for something more helpful. She smiled and took his hand. 'Tell him we can all go to his house if he'd be more comfortable. It won't make any difference if we have to transport him to St Mungo's, and he probably has more space. Plus, his house elves will be valuable if we need emergency Apparation.'
Ron returned her smile. 'See, you're feeling guilty about it, too. I mean, aside from everything else, it's Harry. I should be the one who gets himself killed to see if we can bring him back.'
Hermione stopped smiling and pinched his hand sharply. 'You do and you won't need Neville, because I will kill you myself.'
'But you're fine with Malfoy doing it?'
'And I can't?'
'No, you can't. I care less about what happens to Malfoy, and I don't care if that makes me a terrible person and a terrible friend. Harry would understand.'
Ron took her hand again. 'It does. It makes you a ghastly person. But an excellent wife.' He pulled her down into his lap and rested his head on her shoulder. 'I wouldn't let you do it, either,' he admitted.
'Good,' she said, kissing the side of his forehead. She sighed. 'I suppose the real question is, should we let Malfoy? We've all been so carried away with the idea that Harry is out there that we haven't stopped to think about what it would mean if we brought him back.'
'You mean Ginny?' Ron asked. 'I've been worrying about that, but we can't talk to her until we have a clear idea of what's going on. I know she'll try to throttle me for not telling her, but it would be worse if it turns out that we're wrong.'
Hermione shook her head slightly, but carefully, so as not to hit him with her chin. 'Not just Ginny. The Ministry will be interesting if they suddenly have a live Harry to deal with. And let's not talk about the Potterites.'
'Let's not,' Ron agreed. He breathed in the familiar vanilla fragrance of Hermione's shampoo and gave her a quick squeeze before setting her back on her feet. 'You're right,' he told her. 'You're entirely right, but…'
'But we have to know,' she said.
He nodded. 'We have to know.'
'Finish your letter. Tell Malfoy that we'll go wherever he prefers, and we can stay the night to watch out for him if he'd rather. Mum can get Hugo off to school in the morning, he likes her breakfasts better than yours, anyway.'
Ron smiled at her. 'I love you,' he said.
'So you ought to,' she answered. 'I'm marvellous.'
Draco read Weasley's letter twice to make sure he wasn't imagining things. No, there was definitely a tone of friendliness there. It was just as well his father was already dead, but he wished Astoria could have seen this, she would have been delighted.
He asked the owl to wait for a few minutes, and had a quick think about his options. The library would work well: there was a chaise that often did double duty as a day bed when he was reading something dull. Plenty of room for as many people as wanted to come, plus – and he didn't under-rate this – ready access to some of his biological spellcraft research in case of an emergency.
Of course, it would mean opening up his home to half of Dumbledore's Army. Only the owl saw the smile of amusement that crossed his face at that thought. His childhood self would have been whipping out the detention forms and planning which teacher to report this infraction to. He wondered if he ought to pull tapestries and Dark artefacts out of storage to dress the house as Creevey and Parvati at least would expect, but he decided to leave it with the light, book-laden minimalist styling his little family had preferred.
'How many letters can you carry?' he asked the owl, who looked at him with disdain. 'I'll have six,' he said. 'But I'll pay extra and I'll make them small. Can I interest you in a slice of rabbit jerky?'
Yes he could, and it was all Draco could do not to watch in fascination as the owl tore the dried meat into strips and snapped them down a beakful at a time. But before it had completed half the bag, Draco had finished six notes inviting the members of the conspiracy to his house at four if it was convenient for them. To Ron and Hermione, he appended a thanks for their offer, and a hope that it would not be necessary, but a willingness to take it up should he appear to need it.
He hoped whatever Longbottom was planning worked, because he was looking forward to hearing what Potter had to say about having Weasley houseguests. Padma had wondered aloud to him at length how much Potter could see of the living world: if it wasn't much, Draco was tempted to pretend that he and Weasley – Ron – were bosom friends now, and that Longbottom was in training to take over the Malfoy Dark Artefacts Collection.
Draco sealed up his letters, aware that he might be just a touch hysterical with nerves. He paid the owl and sent it away with its post, and with the rest of the bag of jerky. He had told everyone they did not need to reply if they planned to attend, and so when no further deliveries had arrived by three, he set one of the house elves to work on preparing drinks and snacks, while he arranged the library to suit.
He covered the chaise with a good linen sheet – Merlin knew what mode of waking Creevey had in mind, so it was as well to be prepared for mess. He positioned a couple of chairs beside it, for Neville and Creevey to oversee their work, then arranged eight chairs and a table in a conversational grouping at the other end of the library. The fewer people who were standing around his unconscious body, the happier he would be.
Dead body, his treacherous mind corrected him. What in Merlin's name was he doing going along with this scheme? It's not as though he owed Potter anything. That thought lasted less than a second before it was howled down by reality. He owed Potter his life, and in more ways than one. It wasn't just a hand dragging him out of the fire, it was not having to live under the horror of Voldemort, and having the chance to hope a young woman could love him, that they could create a family together, that he could be worth the trust of his wife and son. And then there were all the conversations they had been cheated of after the war, the why did you save me? and what did you save me for? that he had always thought would one day happen.
Draco took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He could do this and, working with the others, they could find out what was going on.
Weasley and Granger were the first to arrive. Draco noticed Ron had brought a small canvas bag, which he suspected contained overnight wear.
'Banana bread,' Granger said, handing over the brown paper bag she was carrying. 'My mother baked it, so it's actually edible.'
'The sum total of my kitchen ability is cheese fondue in a cauldron,' he told her, earning a half smile. 'Astoria was just as bad. Scorpius was ten before he realised humans were allowed into kitchens, and that only happened because my Aunt Andromeda took pity on him and showed him how to fry an egg.'
The other half of the smile emerged on Granger's face. 'Ron's not a bad cook, but I've just never bothered to learn. And there are so many good basic spells to make ingredients into meals…'
Draco nodded. 'Exactly. Come on through, we're in the library.'
The Patil twins and Luna were next. Parvati handed over a bag of herbal tea made from her garden, and Luna a homemade apple crumble. Padma shrugged, and Draco had to admire her lack of concern for propriety, even if it had led to her following him into the bathroom once too often the other week. Creevey and Longbottom arrived just as he was about to close the door behind Luna, and he ushered them in as a group.
'We've brought everything,' Longbottom assured him.
'Including a Pensieve,' Creevey added, 'so you can share everything you learn with us.'
It was another clever idea that he had failed to have first. Draco wondered if he was losing his touch, or if these people had always been brighter than he gave them credit for, Granger and Padma aside – he had never thought them less than brilliant, regardless of how little he had wanted to admit it.
He had set up a glass board beside the chairs in the library, with the chalk markers Scorpius bought by the dozen from Flourish and Botts. 'I thought we should come up with a list of questions to ask Potter before we go any further,' he said, and he could see the idea was popular, both for its practicality and because it put off the casual killing until later in the day.
'Where is his body?' Granger suggested as a starting point.
'Can he only appear to the dying?' Ron said. 'And is it Muggles, too?'
'Where is he when he's not at a deathbed?' Neville asked.
'Is he alone, or is Voldemort with him?' Padma added, and then everything stopped for a few minutes, because none of them had even considered this question before and it was horrific enough to require tea and some cake and some nervous words of assurance that it couldn't possibly be the case and even if it was, surely he wouldn't have any power, having been so roundly defeated by Potter and the Elder Wand.
Only Creevey had another question to add to the list after that. 'Can he only talk to the dying? Or does he also talk to the dead? Could he take messages?'
Draco added it to the list on the board, then turned to Creevey. 'I'll ask him,' he said. 'I'd like to know, too.'
And they nodded at each other, and there was never a time after that when they lost that quiet understanding between the two of them.
Too soon, everyone had eaten and they had run through all stages of the plan. Longbottom's potions were elegant in their simplicity. The first used similar proteins and hormones to those employed by hibernating mammals to protect Draco's organs, the second mimicked the effects of hypothermia, but without the actual cold to damage the nerves in his extremities.
'I've tested it on gnomes and Kneazles up to forty-five minutes with no ill-effects, but you're my first human subject, so I thought we'd play it safe and go for three to five minutes. Even if the protective potions fail, that's within the normal limits of what your body can endure without damage.' Longbottom had brought his experimental ledgers to show his results, and Draco had to admit they looked splendid in theory, he just wished he wasn't the one providing the final evidence.
Creevey added a scroll to the pile on the table. 'Once you reach the time limit, I have a set of protocols to revive you. The first is very gentle, it reverses the hypothermia spell and encourages your heart to start up again. Then they get progressively more emphatic if that fails. I suggest we begin revival at three minutes on this run to give ourselves a two-minute window for extraordinary actions, should they be required. As long as we've just stopped your circulation, I should be able to get you back. It's not as though you're dead dead, your cells will just all be paused.'
Draco nodded. 'And if that doesn't work?'
Hermione pulled the canvas bag out from underneath her chair and removed a white Muggle device from it. 'Defibrillator,' she said. 'It will shock your heart into action. My parents tell me it's very easy and safe to use.'
It reassured him that she had gone the extra distance in considering his safety. And surely Potter would have dropped some sort of hint had he meant 'Your time is not now, it's in about a fortnight.'
Draco realised they were all looking at him.
'All right,' he said. 'Let's get started.'
It was a surprisingly long walk to the other side of the library. Draco wondered if he ought to have dressed for the occasion, but the most sensible thing to wear would have been pyjamas if Granger was planning to smack him in the chest with that contraption, and you couldn't host an afternoon tea in pyjamas unless you were an artist or a teenager, and bloody hell, he had genuinely volunteered to let Neville Longbottom kill him.
Two weeks ago, this had seemed like a very good idea.
Draco sat on the chaise and tried not to look nervous. Longbottom was making the same effort, with slightly less success.
'None of my test subjects showed any negative effects,' he assured Draco. 'Of course, they weren't people…'
'It'll be fine, Longbottom,' Draco said, with more confidence than he felt. 'Let's just do it before we all realise how terrible an idea this is.'
The first potion, Draco could drink himself. It tasted pleasantly of strawberries. The second, Longbottom held to his lips and as soon as the first mouthful passed his lips, Draco realised why as his body became rigid with cold. He swallowed, automatically, then fell back against Longbottom's supporting arm and felt himself being lowered.
'Three minutes,' said Creevey, and Draco heard a click from the other side of the room, which he guessed was some sort of timer, but then his ears stopped working and his eyes saw only black.
And then the light again.
'What the hell do you think you're doing?'
'No time,' Draco said. 'We have under three minutes, and I have a lot of questions to ask you.'
'No time!' Draco snapped. 'Are you really alive?'
He could see Potter properly now. They were standing in the sunlight that streamed in the library window, except that there was no light there in reality, because he had drawn the curtains before anyone arrived. He was wearing clean robes, not the filthy Muggle garments he had worn at the Battle of Hogwarts. He looked so young, except for his eyes. They looked older than they had any right to be. And they were narrowing with thought, but he answered anyway.
'I didn't die, so I must be.'
'Where's your body?'
Potter frowned. 'I think it's here with me. I'm pretty sure I haven't left it lying around anywhere, I would have noticed.'
Draco nodded. 'Good. OK, we're getting somewhere. Do you only appear to the dying?'
'Yes,' said Potter, then, 'though once, there was an old witch who could see me for weeks as she hovered on the edge. We had a lot of good conversations. She found it comforting.'
Draco nodded, filing that information away. 'Only witches and wizards? Or Muggles, too?'
'Some magical, some Muggles. And Squibs, I saw Mrs Figg when she died,' Potter said. He was starting to smile at the interrogation.
'And where do you go when you're not doing this?' Draco asked, waving his hand between them to indicate what this might be.
'This is what I do,' Potter told him, and his voice was serious again.
'What, hang around telling people it's the wrong time? Or "Congratulations, this is your moment!" That's… weird.' Draco was fairly sure that there was a much better word, but he was damned if he knew what it might be.
'I help them move from one world to the next,' Potter said. 'And sometimes I point out they're going in the wrong direction. Which brings me back to what the hell are you doing? Is that Neville? Is that Ron?'
Draco caught sight of Creevey standing up and worried they were running out of time. 'Yes, both of them. We're all working together on this. There are more questions. Is Voldemort there?'
Draco let go of a fear he hadn't wanted to admit he was holding. 'That's good. And these people that you help, can you talk to them afterwards? Can you find out how they are? Tell them we miss them?'
Potter shook his head sadly. 'They go on, I stay here.'
'Are you alone?' Draco asked. 'When there's no-one who needs you, are you there by yourself?'
Potter shrugged. 'I must be, but it doesn't feel like it. I don't think that time works the same way here. I've spent what feels like weeks talking to a person as they take their final breath, but I know it must be seconds. And then, it only feels as though I've been here a few weeks, when I suppose it must be, what? At least four or five years?'
Draco found himself nodding in cowardice. 'Something like that, yes. Can we get you back?'
Potter shrugged again. 'I have no idea. I haven't been able to manage it, and I've tried more times than I can remember.'
'Granger's here, too. And the Patils and Luna. We'll come up with something.' Draco had no idea why he was making promises, except that he was desperate to get away from the fact that Potter had been in limbo for half his life and appeared not to know it.
'Can you… Can you tell them I miss them? I do, I miss them.'
'Fine, great. You miss them, I'll pass it on. Could you focus on the problem?'
'Why are you doing this?' Potter asked.
Draco glared at him. 'You save my life, defeat the Dark Lord, saving all of us, disappear into nothing, turn up years later to tell me I'm not dead, that you spoke to my late wife, and then expect me to leave it at that as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened?'
Potter started to grin. 'Has a lot happened?' he asked.
And Draco panicked, because everything had happened. 'They started a religion after you,' he blurted. 'It's terrible. You should sue them over the posters alone.'
Creevey was definitely about to do something now, Draco could see. He reached out and grabbed hold of Potter's hand. 'Try and follow me back!' he said, and then there was a jolt and a rush of warmth and he was breathing and Potter was not there.
The Pensieve had been a good idea, Ron thought, as he watched Malfoy's memories a second time. The man himself had gone upstairs to nap for a little, saying the experience had been more tiring than he expected, and Neville and Luna had gone with him after their first viewing.
'It's really him,' Hermione said, her voice sad and happy at the same time.
Ron groped for her hand, without taking his eyes off the conversation playing out before them, and held it tight.
'I could sense something,' Parvati muttered, 'but nothing definitive.'
'And then Malfoy just tried to pull him out of there,' Creevey said, as they reached the end of the memory again. 'Can you imagine?'
'It was worth trying,' Padma said, impressed.
They all sat up, shaking their heads to clear them of the borrowed experience and return them to the real.
'All right,' said Padma. 'This is going to require a lot of instrumentation. From what Harry said, it sounds as though he is in a plane very close to this one, but kept apart. If we can find a way in, he can find a way out, so detection is our priority.'
Hermione was still holding Ron's hand, so he could feel her twitch at that. 'What about if we could provide him with a way back to this plane?' she asked. 'Construct some sort of portal that he could come through?'
Parvati shook her head. 'I think we need to understand a lot more about the circumstances of his disappearance,' she said. 'That's what Draco should ask him next time, what he remembers about what happened. Once we know that, we'll have some concrete information to base our plans on.'
Next time, Ron thought. They were all taking it for granted they would be doing this again. Success had sent all their caution scurrying. 'I'm going to check on Malfoy,' he said.
Creevey nodded, but the others didn't even look up from the scroll that Padma had begun to take notes on.
Malfoy's house was large. Of course it was. But it wasn't ridiculous. Things were more or less where Ron expected them to be and he found Malfoy, Neville and Luna in the second bedroom he tried. Neville was just putting his wand away as Ron came in.
'Clean bill of health,' he reported. 'Luna and I have run every diagnostic we could think of and Malfoy's in surprisingly good condition. We suspect he secretly works out.' The last of this was said with a grin towards the man resting on top of his bedcovers.
Malfoy grinned back. 'Lot of running away from people who want me to invest in their bad projects,' he said. He yawned. 'I think I'll stay up here for a little. I just need a bit of time and then I'll come down and join you.'
'Sleep if you need to,' Luna told him. 'There's plenty of food downstairs. If you're not down in an hour, I'll come and wake you.'
She followed Neville out the door and turned to wait for Ron, but he waved her off, saying he'd be down in a minute. He went over and sat in the chair beside Malfoy's bed, for the second time in under a fortnight. 'You really all right?' he asked.
Malfoy nodded. 'Just tired.'
'I…' Ron stuttered to a pause. 'I saw what you did,' he said, getting it right on the second try. 'You tried to bring him out with you.'
Malfoy shrugged. 'Didn't work.'
'Dennis thought it was a good idea.'
'He's got a good head on his shoulders.'
Ron shook his head. 'I still find it weird, you being a human.' He smiled to show there was no malice in his words.
Malfoy smiled back. 'You're having trouble? Spare a thought for me, I'm choosing to spend time in your company and trusting my personal safety to your competence.'
'You're probably doomed,' Ron agreed, and they both ended up shaking their heads at the sheer oddness of the moment, before lapsing into comfortable silence for a minute or so.
'Did it help?' Malfoy asked
'I think so. I left them downstairs arguing over plans.'
'I think next time, we could go for longer. Longbottom's potions worked as they were meant to. I thought we'd try five minutes next, then ten if that works.'
Ron thought before he spoke. 'Do you think there should be a next time?' he asked.
Malfoy rolled over to look at him. 'Since we got exactly nowhere on the rescuing Potter plan, yes, obviously,' he said.
'We killed you, Malfoy,' Ron said slowly. 'And while I will admit there was a time long ago when I would have been fine with that, it's long gone. The people we both were then are also long gone. The whole world that Harry knew, gone.'
He took a breath. 'We don't even know that he wants to be rescued. You heard him, he's saving people from fear. That's the sort of thing he liked doing.'
Malfoy looked at him with interest. 'Potter said he's tried to escape. I had a strong impression that he would be happy to leave.'
Ron nodded. 'But you didn't tell him how long he'd been there.'
Malfoy looked away briefly. 'No.'
Malfoy shrugged. 'What would I have said? "Oh, Potter, you know how you saved our world? Well, now very few people in it remember you as you actually were, and, rather than talking about a young man who sacrificed everything, you're more likely to be invoked as some sort of rarely appropriate talisman by political parties or, and you'll love this, actually prayed to as though you were a god. I told you it was a good one." Yes, I can see that going very smoothly.'
Ron couldn't even argue, it was all true. 'You told him about the Potterites,' he said.
'He's going to want an explanation,' Ron warned him.
'I'm considering telling him it's all some sort of weird sex cult,' Malfoy confessed.
Ron burst out laughing.
'Seriously, everyone has a bad haircut and wears glasses and you have to go out with people you have nothing in common with.' Malfoy was having a hard time not laughing himself.
'Harry and Ginny had things in common,' Ron said, still laughing.
Malfoy's face grew unexpectedly serious. 'They had you, and being possessed by Voldemort,' he said.
'That's not true. There was more than that.'
'Quidditch. Getting on well with Granger. Hating me. That's almost all of it.'
Ron wanted to argue, but he was a fundamentally honest man. 'They didn't have much chance, during the war,' he said. 'Afterwards, it would have been fine…'
And Malfoy's face softened at that. 'It probably would have been,' he admitted. 'From what I've learned, Potter always wanted a family, and your sister was married and having kids before you were. But he didn't get the chance, did he?'
Ron looked down, remembering everyone else who hadn't had a chance. 'No.'
'So, I think we should give him one.'
Ron looked up and met Malfoy's gaze. 'I don't like the idea of killing you,' he said. 'Even if there's really no danger, I still think it's wrong.'
'Then we'll have to work out a solution quickly,' Malfoy said, rolling onto his back and closing his eyes.
Ron thought he might be drifting off to sleep and wondered whether he should go back downstairs or stay and watch over him. But then Malfoy's hand lifted off the bed and pushed his hair back before dropping over his head in a posture that looked particularly young, the sort of thing Hugo would do.
'He misses you,' Malfoy said.
'I heard him, in your memory.'
Malfoy shook his head slightly. 'No, it wasn't just words, I could feel it. He really misses you. He misses having you in his life. I think he's worried that the only time he'll ever see you again, it'll be… well…'
Ron dropped his head against the back of the chair. 'Merlin…' he whispered.
'Yeah,' said Malfoy. 'We need to get him back.'
And Ron nodded, which Malfoy couldn't see through closed eyes, but he had the strong suspicion the man knew he was doing it anyway.
If Astoria were alive, she would have been in real danger of exploding with delight, Draco thought as he looked at the invitation to join 'Ron and Hermione' for dinner.
He considered flying to the Granger-Weasley residence and taking advantage of their roof, but he was still nervous about all the cameras around the city. Scorpius had pointed them out over the summer holidays and now they were all he could see. He wondered if anyone human watched their films, or if they were all supervised by computers. Were there people or programs confused by the sudden appearances of witches and wizards in dark corners? Did the disruption of magic show up as a pattern of interference in their surveillance? Was it something that someone had recognised? Had been gathering information on? Was even now fomenting a plan for?
He wanted to scold himself for paranoia, but anxiety was the only rational response to these times.
The street in Highbury remained reassuringly free of threat. Delicious dinner-time scents wafted out of the houses as Draco walked past, and a boy playing with his dog in their patch of front garden paused to nod good evening. Draco stopped for a moment to pat the dog's head and tell the lad he owned a fine-looking animal.
He had never known, before Scorpius, how easy it was to lift or crush the young. His own childhood had been one of such unrelenting scrutiny and demand that it had never occurred to him to look for kind words and welcoming smiles, but now he knew their value, and he tried to give out his share. Astoria would have said nothing, but held his hand a bit tighter, had she been there.
Merlin he missed her.
Number 23 had the lights on out the front. It was getting dark earlier now, and the stairs were shadowed from the streetlights by a densely planted little garden. The white flowers of Japanese anemone bobbed in the twilight, and he could smell phlox as well. For all that they couldn't really cook, someone in the house was a dab hand in the garden.
He rang the bell, and Granger opened the door a moment later. 'Come in,' she said, and this time she sounded welcoming.
They had set the table in the kitchen for a mid-week meal, and Weasley was busily moving between the cooker and the sink, straining vegetables, stirring gravy and asking Hugo to please move that plate of potatoes onto the table.
'Hello,' he called over his shoulder as Draco and Granger came in. 'Sorry for the muddle. I thought I had another half hour up my sleeve, but everything's ready now. We're having roast, because even I can't stuff that up.'
Draco took the seat Granger indicated and tried to keep himself as much out of the way as possible. 'It smells good,' he said, encouragingly.
'I've followed Mum's instructions,' Weasley said, pouring gravy from a pan into the gravy boat. 'All right, sit back for a moment, everyone.' He flicked his wand and plates flew from the warming drawer onto the table. A platter heaped with roast beef, parsnips and onions floated gently to the centre of the table and bowls of broccoli and Brussels sprouts bracketed it. Ron put the gravy boat down carefully, nearest to Draco, before taking his seat.
'Two, four, six, eight, bog in, don't wait!' Hugo chanted cheerfully.
Draco, startled, looked to Granger. 'Never send your parents to Australia,' she intoned darkly. He nodded, taking the advice on board.
Weasley passed his son a bowl of sprouts. 'Hugo, this is Mr Malfoy. He was at school with us, and now his son Scorpius is at school with Rose.'
'Pleased to meet you Mr Malfoy,' Hugo said, ladling a mound of sprouts onto his plate and following it with a generous serving of melted garlicky butter from the bottom of the bowl.
'And I you,' Draco replied, lifting the plate of potatoes for Granger to serve herself. She flicked the choicest selection onto his plate with a neat piece of wandless domestic magic and he smiled his thanks.
'Is your son Scorpius?' Hugo asked.
'Yes. He's in Ravenclaw with your sister.'
'Yeah, I know. Rose says he's the least-horrible boy in their year and that he is lots cleverer than Harrison Winterbottom. I'm going to be friends with him if I get into Ravenclaw when I go to Hogwarts.'
Draco filed away the information on Rose's preference for the next time Scorpius was feeling dispirited, and assured Hugo that he was certain they would get on, even as Weasley suggested that maybe they could all still be friends while Hugo enjoyed his school life in Gryffindor.
'But Gryffindor's boring, Dad,' Hugo sighed, and it was all Draco could do not to laugh. He covered it up by passing Weasley the gravy boat after pouring a serving for himself.
'It was the place to be in my day,' Ron told him. 'Winning the Quidditch and the House Cup, saving the world.'
Hugo rolled his eyes, and Draco could only imagine the number of stories the boy had had to sit through. Still, he was willing to bet they had been a damned sight better than 'When the Dark Lord…'
'What house were you in, Mr Malfoy?' Hugo asked.
'Hufflepuff,' Draco answered smoothly, taking a bite of the beef.
To his left, Granger choked on a laugh and a mouthful and had to sip from her water to keep everything going in the right direction.
'Good beef,' Draco told a startled Weasley, who was blinking at him.
Hugo looked suspiciously at his parents. 'Was Mr Malfoy really in Hufflepuff?' he asked.
Granger took a longer sip of water and answered him, eyes still dancing with laughter. 'Mr Malfoy was in Slytherin, and he studied very hard. He was a prefect.'
'Cool!' said Hugo, a new respect for Draco on his face. 'Did you know any Death Eaters?'
'Hugo!' Weasley snapped.
But Draco spoke directly to the boy instead of looking at his father. 'Nothing about the Death Eaters was cool,' he said simply. 'Some of them didn't really want to be there, but they couldn't help themselves, because they were trapped by other bad people. And remember, there were a lot of Slytherins who fought against the Death Eaters, too.'
'Yeah, I know, like Snape. He was really cool,' Hugo said, glancing to his left to see if his father was mad or not. Draco did the same, and saw that Ron looked sad instead.
'He was the bravest teacher we ever had,' Draco said. 'Even a little bit braver than Professors McGonagall and Flitwick, and Professor Lupin.'
'Was that Teddy's dad?'
'That's the one.'
'Weren't you all scared?' Hugo asked, and Draco could see that whatever stories there had been in this house, they had been limited in their scope.
'We were at the end,' Draco admitted. 'But most of the time it wasn't that bad. I made up a song about your father in fifth year when he was the worst Keeper in the history of Quidditch.'
Hugo's jaw dropped. 'He told me he was the best!'
Draco shrugged. 'In fairness, I should admit he improved a lot over the course of the year. I think it was my encouragement.'
Weasley glared at him, but it was mostly for comedic effect.
'Anyway, Hugo,' Granger said, 'I hope this shows you that you don't need to worry about what house you're in, because there's something good in all of them.'
'Yes, Mum,' Hugo said, and they all got on with eating for a while, with Hugo leaning across the table once or twice to quietly ask Draco if the Slytherin Common Room was really under the lake and could they see Merpeople or the Giant Squid through the windows?
Dessert was shop-bought, and Draco recognised the steamed chocolate pudding from the new cake shop on Diagon Alley that had attracted a lot of his own custom. 'Not quite as delicious as the roast potatoes,' Draco complimented Weasley, 'but an excellent way to finish up a fine meal.'
'Cheers, mate,' Weasley said automatically, then thought about it for a moment and smiled to show he wasn't going to retract it.
It was a school night, and so Hugo was sent off to shower, brush his teeth and get ready for bed once he had finished eating. 'He takes forever,' Granger said, as she shooed him from the table.
'Reading a book?' Draco asked Hugo as he pushed his chair back in.
'It's really good!' Hugo assured him.
Draco smiled at Granger. 'Scorpius was the same. Still is. The first spell he ever asked me to do for him was to make his books waterproof so he could take them in the shower.'
Weasley laughed. 'No need for that in this house, someone has protection spells on every piece of paper that comes in here.'
Granger pulled a face. 'That's because someone else is very careless with mugs of tea.'
'It must be nice still having him at home,' Draco said, before they could start to argue.
'We're going to miss him terribly next year,' Granger said. 'You know what it's like.'
And Draco nodded, because he did. 'There's such a long time between September and Christmas,' he said.
They talked about children for a while, all the usual things that any parent could discuss. Did you make them work for pocket money? (Yes for all of them, though the Granger-Weasleys rewarded household jobs, while Draco had Scorpius help him with potions and searching for and through books.) Did you let the actual Tooth Fairy in or play it safe and just slip money under the pillow? (None of them were prepared to risk it.) Were you worried about who they'd bring home one day? (Aren't we all?) Did you talk about the War? (Sort of.) Did you talk about what was happening in the world now? (Sort of. How did you explain these things to children without making them feel unsafe? Feel like we felt? Would we ever have the language to tell them what it was like for us? Could we stop them ever needing to know?)
They stopped at the sound of Hugo's tread on the stairs. He came back in, cleaned and pyjama-ed and smiled sleepily at them all. 'It was nice to meet you, Mr Malfoy,' he said, giving Draco a swift, unlooked-for hug.
Draco was touched by the gesture. 'It was nice to meet you. We'll have to make sure you all come over during the holidays so you can be friends with Scorpius before you start school.'
'Excellent! Night, Mum.'
Granger kissed him and sent him up to bed with his father. She looked at Draco appraisingly. 'You're good with children,' she said.
'Astoria taught me,' he replied.
'She was a remarkable woman,' Granger said, and she clearly meant it.
'Yes,' Draco said, and looked for a change of topic that wouldn't end in tears. 'Thank you for this. It's been a lovely evening, and a fine meal.'
Granger shrugged. 'It's the least we owed you,' she said.
Draco frowned. 'You don't owe me anything,' he said.
She looked at him. 'Perhaps not in terms of you genuinely wanting to help here, but…'
Draco thought about what she might not be saying. 'You feel guilty it was me and not you volunteering?' He saw the prevarication on her face and came up with a more accurate surmise. 'You feel guilty you were a bit pleased it was me you'd be killing and not you or your husband.'
Draco smiled. 'If our situations were reversed, I would feel exactly the same.'
Granger smiled back at him. 'I liked Astoria,' she said.
'She liked you. She said you were very capable and considerate.'
' …' Granger hesitated. 'I wish I'd acted more quickly. I always thought she and I would end up friends, but by the time I knew her well enough…'
Draco didn't want to talk about this, but he could see that Granger needed to. 'There was no point trying to keep her illness quiet,' he said.
'I didn't want to intrude,' Granger apologised.
'There was no wrong decision,' Draco told her. 'She would have been delighted to know you thought of her as a friend, even at the end, but at the same time, she was so happy for every free moment she had to spend with Scorpius. She was so determined to send him off to school last year, even though she knew she didn't have long, so she loved having all those months of his company uninterrupted beforehand. I think he knows more of her secrets than I do.'
Granger nodded, but still looked sad.
'She knew you respected her, and she was proud of it,' Draco told her.
Granger spoke as though she were choosing her words very carefully. 'When I saw how you were with her, and how much she loved you, I liked you a bit,' she admitted.
Draco smiled. 'I liked you a bit when I saw how impressed you were by her.'
Granger smiled back. The moment held. 'We're not going to hug are we?' Draco asked.
'God no, but we should do dinner again, this has been better than I expected.'
'Agreed.' They could hear Ron's tread on the stairs now.
'What's agreed?' he asked, taking his seat again.
'More dinners,' Granger told him.
A very slight look of panic crossed Weasley's face.
'At mine next time,' Draco said, forestalling the man's fears about constructing another meal. 'I need some human company these days, it would be a kindness.'
'Well,' said Weasley, 'It's the least we can do…'
'We've already gone down that path,' Granger interrupted him, exchanging grins with Draco.
Weasley looked at each of them. 'Right. Well, drink?'
It was a weekday, so they settled on an ale apiece and didn't bother moving from the kitchen table, though Granger sent all the dishes piling into the sink and put a washing charm to work on them.
'I'd like to go straight for ten minutes the next time,' Draco said, getting straight to business. 'But I think Longbottom will want to be more cautious.'
'Neville and Dennis both,' Weasley said. 'And I agree with them. I'd rather we take a lot longer working on this than put you at any more risk than we need to.'
'We could up the pace,' Draco said. 'Let's try again this week. Longbottom and Luna both said there were no ill-effects, and aside from it being a bit tiring, I certainly haven't felt anything. Maybe we try Saturday and Sunday?'
Weasley and Granger looked doubtful. 'We could try Saturday and see how it went,' Weasley said, 'But I'd be nervous about putting you through it two days in a row.'
'We don't have enough data,' Granger agreed. 'What if it's like concussions, where the cumulative effect can be more significant than any single incident?'
'Then we need a diagnostic for that,' Draco said, and they both agreed.
By the end of the evening two more ales had followed the first and they had a plan for the weekend that involved as much investigation of Draco's health as it did questioning of Potter.
'I forgot to say,' Draco said as they walked up the hallway, 'your house is really nice. I like a place with lots of books and art.'
'All Hermione,' Weasley said. 'My contributions are the racing broom selection, dented body armour and Chudley Cannons memorabilia.'
'Effective use of orange highlights.' Draco said.
'That's what I tell her.' Weasley opened the door. 'Well, thanks for coming. It was a good talk.'
'It was,' Draco said, shaking Weasley's hand.
He turned to Granger, who was looking at him with mild amusement. 'We both voted for you,' he said. 'I wish you'd won.'
She shrugged. 'Who knows what would have happened? Though you probably wouldn't have been attacked, and we wouldn't be doing this.'
Draco thought about the burned schoolroom that had met his Muggle-born students and their parents as they turned up for their last day of pre-Hogwarts preparation. 'A lot of other things would have been better,' he pointed out.
Granger looked away, and he could see how much the loss had hurt her. But then she looked back, and her gaze was straight and true. 'They will be,' she said. 'We're not done. We're all still here.'
And Draco grinned, because they were, and they were all on the one side this time.
There was no argument about maintaining the Malfoy house as their centre for the experiments. And so on Saturday afternoon, he again drank potions that would stop his heart. At least this time he remembered to lie back before he drank the second one.
It was different this time. They were in the Potions classroom at Hogwarts, but everything was spotlessly clean and silver. Potter was glaring at him.
'You cannot keep doing this,' he said.
'Won't have to once I get you back,' Draco told him. 'We've got five minutes this time, but more questions.'
'I'm not sure I can keep appearing for you if I know you're faking it,' Potter said. 'That's not the job.'
'Good man, that's question number one. You said this was a job, what does that mean?'
Potter looked at him. 'Why are you here?'
Draco looked around. 'Hogwarts? No idea. I thought we'd be in my library again. I assumed you controlled the locations. Don't tell me this is part of my subconscious…'
Potter's gaze was gentle. 'Is it because of Astoria?'
Draco frowned. 'Why would it be because of Astoria?'
'You must miss her terribly. How many weeks has it been?'
'Nearly a year,' he answered before he thought, and immediately regretted it.
Potter frowned. 'I see.'
He looked at Draco intently, and Draco knew he wasn't hiding the truth very well. 'How long have I been here?' Potter asked.
Draco didn't want to answer. 'You must have seen a lot of people come and go,' he said, trying to get back to the list he had memorised.
'More than ten years?' Potter asked.
'More than twenty?'
Potter sat on the edge of a desk. 'So when Astoria said you had a son, she didn't mean a baby?'
'Scorpius. He's in second year at Hogwarts, with Rose, Weasley and Granger's daughter.'
Potter smiled at that. 'They have a child!'
'Two, there's also Hugo, who's turning eleven in January and thinks Snape was cool.'
'I think they wanted to call him Harry, but … there are a lot of Harrys.'
Potter's expression was unreadable. 'There's always Remus, or Severus, or Albus…'
Draco rolled his eyes. 'If you want to give your child a lifetime of anxiety over being named after the dead, then yes. As it is, the sheer ubiquity of Harrys protects the poor little buggers. And even then, I've heard several of them insist they were named after the prince.'
Potter looked at him closely. 'So, you're thirty-eight,' he said.
'So are you,' Draco reminded him.
Potter looked down at his white, unlined hand and raised an eyebrow to show his doubt.
'Oh, like you really look like this,' Draco snapped, aware that this had all somehow gone entirely off-programme.
'I… ' Potter started, then he paused. 'I don't,' he said, as though remembering, and in the space between blinks he was suddenly the scruffy, mud-smeared boy who had stood in the Great Hall, tattered jeans and the remnants of a robe over a bloodied top, staring at the two wands in his hand.
Draco was particularly aware that his heart wasn't beating at that moment, as there was nothing to skip.
'But this was then,' Potter said, and he changed once more, shoulders broadening, face easing from the sharp lines of youth. 'This feels right for now,' he said.
Draco was struck by the strangeness of Potter's older face. It looked exactly as he had imagined the man would, but he had imagined seeing it age, and the fact that all those years were lost struck him anew.
'It's not fair,' he said.
'It's not,' Potter agreed.
'You have to come back,' Draco told him. 'We need you to.'
Potter's eyes danced. 'I don't know, if the DA have recruited you, I'm guessing the lot of you can handle most things.'
Draco flopped down into the chair beside the desk Potter was sitting on. 'No we can't,' he sighed. 'It's all gone stupid. Everything, everyone, as though rationality just went out of fashion one day. They use you as an excuse, Harry, and everyone who really knew you knows that it's all lies, but the more you point out the truth, the louder they shout the lies until no-one's listening to anyone anymore.'
'And you're helping Muggle-borns,' Potter said.
Draco shrugged. 'Astoria had set up such a good system. Someone had to keep it going.'
Potter smiled at him. 'It's good. I'm impressed.'
'Marvellous, so will you answer my question? How is this a job?'
And Potter propped his feet on the chair beside Draco's and tried to explain. 'I'd been here before,' he said. 'When Voldemort tried to kill me in the forest. It looked like Kings Cross Station that time. Dumbledore was there, and he told me I could go on or go back. So when I ended up back here, I looked for him, but I was alone. And then I realised, I hadn't died. Riddle had killed himself, not me. So I thought it was probably all just an hallucination, but then the first person came through. It was Lavender Brown, and she was so angry, because she'd thought she was going to survive and she'd held on for so many hours. But when she saw me, she was less upset, and we talked about what had happened, and she told me she was going to be reincarnated and come back as someone who was unbelievably good at self-defence.
'And when she went on, she seemed at ease. So when the next person came through, I did it again. And I could never keep track of when anything was happening, but it was easy to remember the who's, because they all had their stories.
'Sometimes they just wanted to check they were dead and then bounded off to wherever they thought they were going. And other times, they weren't meant to be here and needed to be told to go back.'
'Which you do well,' Draco told him.
Potter smiled. 'So that's it.'
'But you don't see everyone?'
'I don't think so. By my maths, there are a lot more people dying than the people I talk to. And they're practically all British, even if they're not all magical.'
'I don't get it,' said Draco. 'Why would you appear to Muggles? Were they people you knew?'
Potter shook his head. 'I got the impression they just expected someone to talk to, so they got me.'
'Just you. Looking like you? You don't have a cowl and scythe that you trot out for special occasions?'
'Just me,' Potter said.
The next question on the list was about what Potter could see in the living world. Draco didn't ask it. 'Did you see my father?'
'Was it bad?' Draco could remember his father's conviction that there would be a reckoning, and his mother's inability to convince him otherwise.
'He wanted it to be,' Potter said, his voice gentle. 'But I asked him if he felt regret, and he said he did, for so many things. So I told him I forgave him. And he should forgive himself. He didn't really believe me, but he seemed less frightened when he left than when he arrived.'
And Draco could only nod, and squeeze Potter's hand sitting on the edge of the desk.
Potter's fingers curled around his. 'Tell me Ginny got married,' he said.
'She did. Dean Thomas.'
'Good. And kids?'
'Two. Freda and James. James is after you, sort of.'
'Good. I worried. Worried she might wait…'
Draco shook his head. 'Most pragmatic witch I ever met.'
Potter nodded agreement.
Draco felt a sudden wrench in his chest. 'Dammit … I'm out of time …' He gripped onto Potter's hand tightly, resisting the call back to his own body in a bid to ask at least one more question from the list. 'We need more information. Were you really dead in the Forbidden Forest?'
'Ask your mother,' Potter said, and Draco was so surprised he forgot to not start living again.
'I'm not happy about this,' Dennis told Ron. 'It took three tries to get him back.'
'He was holding on intentionally,' Ron tried to reassure him, though, in truth, he didn't like it, either. 'All the diagnostics say he's fine.'
'In body, maybe, but they don't tell us anything about his mind or his soul.' Creevey looked at him seriously. 'He called him Harry.'
Ron pressed his lips together.
Creevey looked at him suspiciously. 'Is there more going on here than you've told us? Because we all heard the rumours back at school. I have to tell you it was one thing I liked about it not being you or Hermione we were sending in there, not having to worry about emotional attachments.'
'What rumours?' Ron wiped the tiredness from his eyes. It had been a mistake to head down the pub with Dennis after everything had broken up. Too many early mornings made late nights punishing these days.
'They were completely obsessed with each other,' Dennis told him, polishing off his pint. 'And you might say that I'm projecting, but even back then there was a lot of weirdness between those two.'
'You're projecting,' Ron said. 'Not that I have the faintest idea what that means, but I distinctly remember them basically at each other's throats and if you remember differently then I'm not sure what you were seeing.'
Dennis looked doubtful.
'Oh, come on…' Ron said.
'It would explain a lot,' Dennis insisted.
'Well, you can raise it with him over brunch tomorrow. Maybe after we've spoken with his mother about whether she can remember if Harry was dead or alive.'
'We?' Dennis looked nervous. 'I thought he was going to do the speaking and we were going to sit around looking official, so she'd think it was important and answer him as fully as possible.'
Ron frowned. 'Why would she think Sunday brunch was official?'
'I thought you'd be wearing your Auror uniform.'
Ron dropped his head into his hands. 'I am nowhere near drunk enough for this conversation.'
There was a sudden shout from outside. The patrons nearest the door craned round to look, but the curtains in the front window blocked the view from Ron and Dennis's seats. They saw the shadows of figures running past and the flash of what looked like hexes. Ron was out of his seat and running for the door before Dennis could even ask what was happening.
People jumped out of his way and he made it onto Diagon Alley before the last of the runners Disapparated away. Hoods, he thought. Nothing good ever came of running figures wearing hoods.
To the right of The Hippogriff's Honour, a trail of knocked-over people and stalls littered the alley. Madam Malkin stood in the middle of the road, breathing heavily, wand drawn, George was standing beside her.
'Problem?' Ron asked.
'Just a bit,' his brother replied.
Ron took a moment to send his Patronus to the Ministry to summon the Aurors on duty and then followed George and Madam Malkin to her shop, helping to right a few of the street vendors as they went. Damages were superficial to both people and property, which was something to be grateful for.
'I was working late in my studio,' Madam Malkin told him, 'and I heard noises out the front. And those devils were besmirching my shop! I gave one or two of them what-for, I can tell you. I doubt the first one will be able to sit down for a week!'
'It's true,' George said over her head.
'But there were others skulking in the background and things might have gone very badly for me had your brother not appeared.'
'Always happy to help, Madam Malkin,' George said.
She looked at him with dancing eyes. 'Yes, well, it makes up for last year's colourful farts potion, which I will grant you was a product awaiting its moment, but did you have to release it the month before school started when they were all in having their robes altered?'
They had reached the neat little clothing shop by then. In lurid green letters on the front window was the legend 'Stop Diluting Magic', with 'Witches and Wizzards Only!' in red on the neighbouring wall.
'They could at least spell it correctly,' Madam Malkin tutted, but her eyes were hard.
'Are you all right?' Ron asked her, aware he should have done so earlier.
'My grandmother was Muggle-born,' she said. 'If she were still alive, she'd have sent boxes of pins into all of their posteriors and clipped them round the ears with tailors' hams.'
Ron didn't even try not to smile at the image.
'But yes, thank you Mr Weasley, I am all right.'
'More than all right,' George assured them. 'She was magnificent. If I weren't a happily married man…'
'Get away with you,' she said, laughing. She turned to Ron. 'Can I scrub this off?'
Ron shook his head. 'I have Aurors coming, they'll do it after they check to see if they can learn anything – aside from poor literacy.'
'You know what irritates me about this?' George asked. 'Their whole argument is that the more magical your lineage, the better. Well, mine's as magical as it gets and I want them to piss off, but do they listen to a word I have to say?'
'You sound like Draco,' Ron muttered.
George paused. 'Malfoy? Well, he holds very solid views on the topic these days.'
Small implosions of air heralded the arrival of three Aurors. Ron briefed them on the events and handed Madam Malkin into their care, with a thanks for her courage. He stepped aside with George for a moment.
'She lives above the shop, doesn't she? Is there anyone who can stay with her?' he asked.
George smiled at him. 'I'm going to take her home to stay with us. Angelina would want me to.'
'Nice. Had you seen them before?'
George shook his head. 'I didn't really see them this time. Just robes and hexes. But one of them is going to have an almighty bruise on his bum thanks to my redoubtable fellow merchant, and another one will be vomiting up slugs for the next three or four days.'
Ron remembered the hex from his childhood and almost felt a pang of sympathy for the miscreant. 'OK, well, I'll leave you with these three. Let me know if anything else happens. I'd better go and find Dennis.'
'You free tomorrow?' George asked.
Ron shook his head, and George looked curious, but did not ask.
Dennis was halfway back down the alley, helping a nice old witch gather her trayful of hot rolls. They had all been wrapped in waxed paper, so most were salvageable, but she was bemoaning the loss of trade with the night's excitement.
'Normally I get a big rush as people head from the Leaky to the Hippogriff,' she said. 'But with Aurors and Merlin knows what else going on, most people will head straight home tonight.'
Dennis dutifully bought four lamb and gravy rolls and a custard-stuffed brioche for afters.
Ron teased him all the way back to the pub, so Dennis forced one of the rolls onto him and they sat on a bench outside to eat.
Wilson, the youngest of the Aurors, nodded respectfully as he went past with George to the point where the attackers had Disapparated. Ron nodded back, aware there would be a detailed report waiting for him in the morning.
'We can't do this again,' Creevey said, watching the investigation happening before them.
'I don't know, it's not a bad roll.'
'You know what I mean.'
And Ron did. 'We're doing what we can,' he said. He just hoped it would be enough.
Draco was certain his mother still loved him. He wasn't sure she liked him these days, but she didn't need to. He knew she would come if he asked, so he did, and she did.
She was less than thrilled to see Weasley and Creevey in his sitting room.
They stood up and bowed slightly as she came in, which mollified her somewhat. Draco hadn't even needed to drop a hint, which spoke well for parts of their upbringing.
'Gentlemen,' she said, inclining her head. 'I was expecting only family.'
'We need your help, Mother,' Draco said. 'Sorry, but we don't have time for all the conversational niceties. Harry Potter's alive, we need to rescue him, you have information we need.'
The haughty mask that had become so familiar to him wavered at that. 'Potter?' she asked, and it was as though they were back in the War, when they could trust only each other with short, whispered words of solace shared in corners.
He nodded. 'He said to ask you whether or not he was dead in the forest. He said you'd know. I don't know what he meant, do you?'
He should have made time for niceties. His mother's hands started to shake. Weasley had just poured her a tea, but he put it on the side table beside her and looked to Draco for guidance.
'Are you all right?' Draco asked her.
'I'm perfectly well,' she replied, pressing her hands onto her thighs. 'Why do you need to know? And what do you mean, Potter's alive?'
'Just what I said, Mother. He's alive and he's trapped outside our reality. We've found a way to communicate with him, and we need more information to get him free. He said that what you know might give us some clues. Was he dead or alive in the forest?'
'Alive,' she said, tersely. Then, as he looked at her, her face softened. 'But You-Know-Who had cast the Killing Curse, and Potter did nothing to protect himself. They both fell at once. When he recovered, he sent me to see if Potter was alive or dead. I told him the boy was dead.'
'You lied to Voldemort?' Weasley had blurted out the question before Draco could.
Narcissa lifted her chin. 'I did what was necessary to to find out if my son was safe.'
And Draco wished he could undo a great many things, because what did any of their arguments matter in the face of that?
'But,' she went on, 'when I touched him, he was as cold as death. I think that he had died, and that he was allowed a resurrection to defeat the evil that needed to be vanquished, and once that was done, his time was over.'
There was a long silence. 'Mother, you sound like a Potterite,' Draco said at last. He had felt such relief when she had said he was alive, but if she was right about him having died …
'Don't be ridiculous.'
She drank her tea then, and told them what details she could recall. No, they had not seen him come through the woods. Yes, Voldemort had dropped to the ground just as his curse struck Potter. No, he had not moved for several minutes, there had been panic.
'Why did you never tell me this?' Draco asked after she had run through the events several times.
'What good would it have done?' she asked.
'A lot,' Draco replied. 'I thought you were disappointed with me for not coming out to fight with you.'
'Oh, Draco…' She shook her head. 'We have never found it easy to talk openly about matters.'
'No,' he agreed.
She looked at him. 'Do you think we might, in future, try?'
When it took Draco a moment to answer her, Weasley's long leg snaked out across the distance between them and kicked him lightly in the ankle.
'I have more that needs doing with this Potter business today, Mother,' Draco said. 'But if you were available tomorrow?'
'I can easily re-arrange my schedule,' she assured him.
Weasley and Creevey took that moment to explain they had urgent work to do in the library, so there were a few minutes of only semi-awkward chat to fill. Assurances that he and Scorpius were both well were sought and given, and that Weasley wasn't involving him in anything unsavoury. By the time he had seen her out the door he had committed them to visit for Christmas Eve through Boxing Day, provided that Andromeda and Teddy were there, too.
Creevey was waiting for him as he walked into the library. 'So, assuming Harry wasn't our Lord and Saviour, granted half an hour to rise from the grave and walk among us before ascending, I think we need to investigate what was going on with that Killing Curse.'
Draco nodded. 'Discounting the divine option, which I think we all agree we ought to, do you think, perhaps, we ought to be concentrating on the Elder Wand? Potter said it had already given him its allegiance before the battle, so when Voldemort cast the Killing Curse, perhaps what came out was something different?'
'That's what I'm thinking,' Creevey agreed. 'Potter still had that wand, didn't he?'
And Draco realised that the others must be looking at his Pensieve memories closely, because he hadn't consciously registered the presence of the two wands until now. He had a moment of wondering what else they had seen that he hadn't.
Weasley had been on the other side of the library, re-ordering the questions from Saturday's list and adding more. He looked at the board, then spelled everything down a spot and added Has he used the Elder Wand to attempt escape? at the top.
'Are you sure you feel up to this?' Weasley asked Draco, which was kind of him, but it was the fourth or fifth time that day.
'I'm fine,' Draco assured him. 'Would you rather we discuss the possibility my mother's right and Potter really did die and he's wrong about all this? Or should we just have lunch?'
Lunch won the vote unanimously.
It was the Potions classroom again.
'I've been experimenting,' Potter told him, before he could say a word this time. 'I can't touch the others, and they can't touch me.'
'What?' Draco asked, gracelessly.
Potter grabbed his hand. 'Touch,' he insisted. 'No-one ever reached out to poke me in the arm before you, so I didn't realise. But there have been two people since I saw you. One a Muggle and one an old wizard from Horsham. I reached out to both of them, all I got was a sort of tingly feeling. Not like this, where I can feel your flesh and bone.'
Draco looked at their hands, and they both became suddenly aware of the holding and let go.
'Well, that's a thing,' Draco said. 'Were they properly dead?'
'Do you think that might be the difference? Maybe you can touch people who aren't yet all the way through the… the process.'
'Why do you keep risking it?'
Draco shook his head. There wasn't time for introspection. 'Listen, we have to do some questions this time. Neville's given me seven minutes today. Are you all right about… you know… I mean, you don't have to be all right, but can we crack on with getting you out of here first and then you can be upset later?'
Potter smiled. 'Sounds sensible.'
He was still wearing his older face. Draco wondered if he had kept it on for the wizard from Horsham, or if he had appeared to him as the boy whose face everyone knew, everyone remembered. It made it easier talking to him like this: his seventeen-year-old self had been too close to the surface when looking at youthful Potter.
'You still have the Elder Wand. Have you used it to try to escape?' Draco asked.
'Only once,' Potter replied. 'It didn't like to be used here, and it didn't work. Most of the time I tried using your wand.'
Draco opened his mouth to talk about that, but the realisation that Dennis Creevey would be watching the conversation later stilled his tongue. 'What spells did you try?' he asked instead.
Potter ran through the list. From a simple Apparation to the most complicated exorcism he knew – and Draco had to wonder what Potter and Granger had talked about on those long lonely nights of hiding in the forest that he had learned things like this – but none of them had worked.
'My mother said you were alive in the forest, but cold as death when she felt you. What happened after Voldemort cursed you?'
'What I told you. I came here, or at least, the Kings Cross Station version of here.'
'And you chose to go back?'
Potter nodded. 'Dumbledore said it was up to me which way I went, so I chose to fight.'
'And when he tried to kill you in the Great Hall, but the wand turned. I remember, you reached out and you caught it and that was the moment the sun lit everything and you were there and then you weren't, and Mother said "He's dead" and I realised she meant Voldemort.'
'You were watching me?'
Draco looked at him. 'I was making sure you didn't hurt my wand,' he said, and was rewarded with a smile.
'Nothing changed for me,' said Potter, 'except that one moment I was there, and the next I was here.'
Draco leaned across and put his fingers to Potter's neck. It was warm, and a pulse beat steadily through it. He put his hand to his own neck. Warm, but no pulse. 'Right,' he said, trying not to be disconcerted by the sensation of Potter's smooth throat under his fingers. 'So it certainly looks like you're currently more alive than me. OK, you've tried to break through from this side, so maybe we should try to bring you back through from our side. Granger and the Patil twins have an idea about creating some sort of portal. Is there anything you've left behind that you were so attached to they could use it as a focal point?'
Potter thought, and then shrugged. 'Only my friends.'
'Yeah, I'm not convinced that it's a good plan if we get you back and we vapourise Ron and Hermione in the process.'
'I mean, he makes really good roast potatoes, it would be a waste.'
Potter looked at him in astonishment. 'What has been going on with you?' he asked.
'I grew up,' Draco said. 'Padma has a whole set of instruments scattered around my library at the moment. If she's right, then some of them will be able to detect where you are. She thinks she, Luna and Granger might be able to create a pathway for you.'
Potter frowned. 'I'm not sure you can make a window into the afterlife.'
'Maybe not,' Draco admitted. 'But this seems to be death's reception hall, so we might have more luck.'
Potter looked around. 'Looks like Potions to me, again. Why here?'
Draco wasn't sure. 'I think it might be because this is where I think of you being?'
'Here? Not during the Battle? Not Petrified on the train? Not… not in Myrtle's bathroom?'
Draco shook his head quickly. 'I try not to think about those things. I suspect both of us would change some of them if we could. Here you were just you. I was just me. It was all normal. You were irritating and Weasley was inept and Granger was a swotty know-it-all and it was just so safe and easy. Plus, Snape was always ready to take ten points from Gryffindor.'
'Bastard,' Potter said, with a smile.
Draco focussed his thoughts and they were back in the library, with Padma and Parvati casting spells and Luna, Ron and Hermione taking measurements while Neville and Dennis hovered over his body. Potter looked around with surprise.
'Everyone's doing their best,' Draco said.
'It's a lot of effort for an uncertain outcome,' Potter said. 'Even if you get me back, I've no idea how I'm meant to slot back into life.'
Draco snorted. 'You won't be alone in that. I think very few of us know what we're doing. I don't know whether I've changed to believe the Muggle-born deserve every assistance we can give them, or whether I just loved my wife and I want to keep her causes going.
'Weasley thought he was going to grow up beside his best friend, and now he seems to be living the life you would have had instead. Granger thought she was going to lead Magical Britain, and it would have been a damn sight better for everyone if she did, but she lost and now she has to keep going in her smaller sphere knowing that everything she does could be overturned by people with precious little understanding or capacity and that, at a time when we need to plan for the future more than ever, they are bent on reinstating a past status quo that never really existed.
'And then Neville, he just wanted a happy life, but his wife is so filled with anger at the world that she can't even stand to be in the country right now and has gone off to share medical spells with people in Uganda in hopes they can learn from each other and, if nothing else, they'll have an extra pair of hands with this year's crisis.
'He deserved better. We all deserved better, but none of us got it. I don't think it matters what any of us thought we'd be doing, it's what we do next that will count.'
Potter was smiling at him. 'This is good. I like this. I always thought you'd be worth talking to if you ever stopped talking rubbish.'
Draco shook his head ruefully. 'Turns out twenty years is long enough to start missing you,' he said, though it was a lie, he had missed Potter from the first instant.
Potter's smile crinkled at the corners. 'It's weird seeing you look like this. It's not bad –' he added hastily, 'it's just not what I have in my head.'
'Same,' Draco admitted.
'Did they really start a religion about me?'
'And the posters?'
'Just awful. You remember that photo of you in the Prophet from the Triwizard Challenge? The one where you were looking up at the dragon and seemed baffled and pained all at once? It's their favourite.'
Potter sighed. 'Merlin's pants…'
'Cheer up, it could be worse. They're mostly harmless. And I'll grant you they're good little donors to Muggle-born causes. If it's a choice between nutters who think you ask them to live moral lives and wear unnecessary glasses and politicians who bleat about honouring your sacrifice at the same time as revoking rights for all the people you fought for, I'll take the nutters every time.'
Potter's expression had grown serious. 'If you bring me back, we need to be kind to these people. The Potterites, not the politicians. The politicians can get what's coming to them.'
Draco started to smile. 'You know, a second coming would be a really effective way of overthrowing the Ministry.'
And Draco started to laugh as Creevey's spell caught at him, because he had outraged Potter, and that was a status quo he recognised as real.
'I think I've got it,' Padma said.
Ron stopped writing up his notes of Malfoy's memories and looked up at her.
They had spent the last two hours checking every measurement and comparing them with the readings Parvati had taken looking for Harry and Malfoy's spirits in the room. There were definite signals, and some correlations, but to Ron it looked like a complex set of only semi-related figures.
But Padma's eyes were alight. 'Hermione, check my figures …' She held out a sheet of paper covered in Arithmantical equations.
Hermione looked sceptical at first, but as she read, her expression changed to interest and then excitement. 'This could work,' she said.
She showed the paper to Ron. 'You can see here, Parvati was able to get a strong sense of the two consciousnesses as they neared Draco's body. If she's able to tell Padma when and where they're detectable, Padma can create a "door" into wherever they are.'
'I think it's the Elder Wand,' Parvati explained. 'They've both been masters of it, so there is a resonance between each of their spirits and the wand, which is what I'm detecting. Padma thinks she can tap into the same frequency.'
Ron looked at the equations for long enough to pretend he understood some of them, then looked at Padma. 'And you think Harry will be able to come through that door?'
'Should do,' Padma said.
Ron nodded. 'We'll try it next.'
Padma stood up. 'I'll go and fetch Malfoy.'
'Wait…' Ron caught at her arm as she walked past him. 'Not now. He needs to rest.'
She sighed, but sat back down. 'I liked it better when we didn't care about him,' she said.
'I wish I'd been able to get to know him like this back then,' Hermione said.
Padma looked at her in surprise. 'Really? But…'
'Oh, it wouldn't have happened,' Hermione conceded. 'He'd have called me a Mudblood, I'd've bloodied his nose. But I just wonder if they'd had those meet-ups back then, like they do at the Greengrass School now, where the Muggle-borns can get to know the kids who'll be in their year before it's all House Cup and different coloured ties. If there had been some way to meet on neutral territory, and become friends before we became enemies, just imagine all the awful things that wouldn't have happened.'
'Idealist,' Padma said, but she was smiling.
'Somebody has to be,' her sister said. 'And it's nice that it doesn't have to be me or Luna for once.'
Hermione laughed. 'You're very welcome. Though, I think, Parvati, it comes a bit more naturally to the two of you. But I've had to learn it. It's hope or despair these days, and I am not giving in.'
Parvati raised her glass of wine in salute. 'Well said! So, what do you think? Through the week? Next weekend?'
All eyes turned to Ron, and he wished Neville wasn't still with Malfoy, because he would have liked someone else to make the decision. 'I think we should wait until the weekend,' he said.
'Fair enough,' Parvati agreed. 'We should probably start wrapping it up for the day, then.'
'Hold on,' Ron said. 'I need to talk with everyone first. There aren't any laws against what we're doing, but we can't pretend it won't have any impact.'
'Good impacts,' Luna said from the doorway. 'Surely we're all agreed on that ?'
Ron pushed his hair back and tried to think how to say what he had to. 'Yeah, look, all of us want Harry back. We need him. But the thing is, if it looks like this will work, then everyone needs to have a think about whether they're all right with me having a very difficult conversation with my sister.'
Confessing to Ginny was less awful than Ron had expected. Hermione and Luna volunteered to sit with him. Neville and Malfoy offered, but although they would certainly have explained everything as logically as was possible, Ron strongly suspected that was not what would be required.
Ginny rapped on the door with the delicacy of a childhood spent evicting brothers from their shared bathroom. Ron jumped up to answer it, and was nearly there when the hammering began again. 'I'm here,' he shouted, opening the door.
'Are you dying?' Ginny demanded.
'What?' Ron looked at her, confused.
'Is Hermione? Rose? Hugo? Mum? Dad? It's not George is it? I could stand it if it was Percy, but not George.'
Ron reached out and grabbed her arm. 'Come in. Stop shouting on my doorstep. Nobody is dying!'
She allowed herself to be dragged inside, giving him a dark look as she was. 'You summon me to your house on a Sunday night, saying you have something important to tell me and that I have to leave my husband at home, and you don't think that's the sort of thing that might lead a woman to think the worst?' Her eyes narrowed. 'You're not getting divorced are you? I will kill you if you are getting divorced. I will be Team Hermione and I will tell your children you're an idiot.'
'Would you shut up? I'm not getting divorced!'
'Good, because Hermione is too good for you and you'll never do better.'
'I know that! Merlin's sake. In the kitchen. God, it's like talking to Mum sometimes!'
And it was just as well that Luna had come to meet them because he could see a particularly nasty hex brewing in Ginny's gaze at that moment.
'Hello, Ginny! I've just made tea. Come on through, I have to tell you what Lysander did this morning.'
And Ginny shot him a questioning look, but allowed herself to be handled into the kitchen.
Hermione had clearly been listening to them, because she was trying very hard not to laugh as he came back to sit beside her. He elbowed her gently in the side and she ruffled his hair. By the time Luna had poured everyone tea and set out two plates of biscuits, Ginny had stopped glaring at him.
'So, what's going on?' she asked. 'The three of you have conspiracy written all over your faces. Are we overthrowing the Minister? I can have a PR team assembled within the hour, and Dean and Seamus have always said they found the voting tallies highly questionable. I think we can very easily spin it as a rebuilding faith in democracy response rather than booting out an incompetent.'
Hermione shook her head. 'We're not overthrowing the Ministry,' she said. And then, because she was honest, added, 'Yet.'
Ginny picked up a chocolate biscuit and put her elbows on the table, waiting for the rest of the story. Hermione and Luna looked to Ron.
He sighed. 'All right, so, I think you're going to love this and hate this in equal measure, but this is what's been happening…'
They had at least planned well. Neville and Dennis had left the Pensieve they had borrowed from Hogwarts with them, and Draco had added his memories of the first two times he had died. All of them viewed the set at the same time. Ginny didn't say much until she heard Harry ask after her, and Malfoy's response. Ron had worried she would be upset at being thought pragmatic, but it made her smile, as did Harry's reply.
'They get it,' she said, looking at Ron. 'They both really get it. What sort of fucked-up thing would it have been if I'd sat around wailing after Harry had died so we all wouldn't?'
He held her hand, and was quietly very proud of her.
At the end of the memories, she sat back and pressed her lips together for a moment. 'You think you can get him out of there, don't you? That's why you're telling me now.'
'Yes,' said Luna.
'And you didn't tell me before because…?'
'We thought it would be cruel if we told you about it and then there turned out to be nothing we could do,' Hermione said.
'That makes sense.' She took a deep breath. 'I would have hated you if I found out about it one day, but it would have hurt a lot less than knowing. All right, what can I do to help?'
And Ron wanted to say 'Nothing', because he didn't think it would be a good idea to have her in the room when Harry came back, but Hermione was already talking.
'We'll need a strategy if we get him out of there. We can't keep him secret, unless we lock him up or ship him off to Fiji. But we also can't just walk down Diagon Alley with him and pretend nothing happened. We'll need some sort of official announcement and it is going to have to be the most finely nuanced thing you have ever written if it's going to avoid having the Minister declare the lot of us potential terrorists, or the Potterites turning up in droves demanding miracles.'
Ginny nodded. 'I'm guessing you'd rather I didn't talk to Dean about this?'
Ron squeezed her hand. 'The fewer people who know the better.'
'That makes sense. Do you want me to mention all of you and all of this? Or should I just come up with some sort of story that he's been found wandering on some wild Hebridean shore?'
'Ooh!' said Luna. 'That hadn't occurred to us! Might be a good way of getting around all the trickier metaphysical issues. I don't think Harry will be too pleased if he has to spend the rest of his life telling people about the last messages from their loved ones. And they will ask.'
Hermione looked thoughtful. 'Maybe come up with two approaches? One that's based on the truth and one that's not?'
'Can do,' she said. She looked down at the table for a moment. 'Is it OK if I don't want to be there when you get him back?'
'Yes,' said Luna.
'It's only …'
'It's OK,' Hermione assured her.
Ginny smiled at them. 'I mean, I am pragmatic, but I'm still human, and there's no point complicating things.'
'Gin,' Ron gathered her in for a one-armed hug, 'you're a bloody marvel is what you are.'
'I am, it's true.'
She smiled at all of them. 'So, how long do I have to get this done?'
Draco was the one who decided that Wednesday should be dinner for all and then a quick death after pudding. 'I know that it's an imposition on Dennis and Neville having to come down and then get back up to Scotland in the evening, but I feel I might explode if I have to wait till the weekend,' he explained in the group Floo-call. When nobody argued with him, he knew the sentiment was shared.
'It'll mean leaving Hugo out of dinner,' Draco apologised. 'Since we're all agreed on not traumatising the younger generation, I don't think we can in good conscience have him come over for a meal and then kill the host afterwards.'
'My parents can take him,' Hermione said. 'They're loving seeing him so often now, and it's balancing things out a bit against all the Weasley holidays.'
'Will you be ready, Padma?' Ron asked.
'The spell is ready now,' Padma told them. 'But it might take us time to get the frequency right. I can't guarantee we'll get him out of there on the first go, but it will be obvious whether or not we're on the right track. Once we know that, it's just a matter of fine-tuning. Two or three attempts at most, I'd say.'
'Draco, is that all right by you?' Longbottom asked.
He noticed they did that now: forgot, and called him by his first name. He'd started noticing it when he found himself doing the same thing.
'It's fine,' he assured them. 'You keep telling me I'm passing the health tests with flying colours. I haven't noticed anything peculiar.' Which was a lie, because he had been thinking about Harry Potter at levels bordering on obsession, but that wasn't so strange when you thought about it.
'Wednesday it is, then,' Luna said, and they had a brief squabble over who should bring what, which was ended with Draco saying that the meal was his treat and the others dividing up the wine and beer additions between them.
Come the day and Draco spotted a familiar figure as he strode towards home through the wilds of Hammersmith. 'Padma!' he called.
She turned and waited for him to catch up. 'I was just headed to yours now,' she said.
'You're an hour early. Not that you're not welcome…'
She smiled as they resumed walking. 'Of course I'm not welcome. Nobody wants that person who turns up an hour before they're meant to. I just realised I should talk to you before everyone else gets there, run you through a few things. I tried to reach you on the Floo, and when I couldn't, I thought I'd try in person.'
'It's absolutely fine. I've got house elves doing all the actual work. I just stepped out to grab some Pep-You-Up in case Neville drinks all the cider again.'
Padma nodded sympathetically. 'I wish Hannah would come back,' she said.
'Don't we all?'
He could see the moment at which she remembered Astoria, because of the look that flashed across her face. He waited for the standard apology, but it didn't come.
Instead she said, 'Luna says I would have liked your wife. Do you think that's true?'
Draco thought for a moment. 'Probably,' he said. 'She was very clever, and could be every bit as stubborn as you, but for the right reasons, like you. She was a lot more easy-going than you are, but not when it came to causes she believed in. Then she was a fighter, and I think you would have helped her in those fights if you'd known her.'
Padma nodded. 'I think I missed out,' she said.
'Definitely,' Draco agreed.
'My fault for being put off by you being such a wanker.'
'Absolutely. Though, to be fair, I was a massive wanker.'
And Padma laughed out loud at that, holding onto his arm for balance as they walked.
A weasel-faced man sneered at her as he passed them. Once he had cleared them by a few paces, he turned around and shouted, 'Go back to where you came from!'
Her face changed in an instant from good humour to contempt. 'What, Chelsea?' she spat. 'Plan to. Scrotes like you can't afford it.'
His face flushed and he looked as though he wanted to take a step towards them, but the presence of Draco was putting him off. Not half as much as the presence of the large policeman who stepped out of the side street did, though.
'Are you all right, madam?' the policeman asked. 'This gentleman causing you any bother?'
Padma narrowed her eyes at the man, but shrugged. 'He's a racist, uneducated fool,' she said. 'But I imagine the courts are already overcrowded with his ilk.'
The policeman smiled at her. 'Right you are, then.' He turned to the man. 'Jog on, sunshine. Thank whatever pond scum populates your ancestry that none of us are prepared to waste time on you.'
Which wasn't quite true, because Draco had just made a small gesture with the sleeve he kept his wand up and the man had had a strange look come into his eyes.
The policeman stayed with them for a few minutes handing over his card, letting Padma know she could change her mind, that he had a photo of the man, that this sort of thing was completely unacceptable, and that while he was unable to officially agree with her assessment of the gentleman in question as a tiny-todgered toerag, she did look like an intelligent woman who was probably right about most things. Draco half suspected they were flirting with each other by the time the policeman finally moved on.
'Does that happen often?' Draco asked Padma after they had resumed walking.
'More these days,' she said. 'About what you'd imagine.'
And Draco didn't answer her, both because he couldn't imagine and because he knew all too well there was no difference between this and between the boy who had once found it all too easy to use the word Mudblood.
'Did you see the other people, though?' she asked him. 'I mean, it was great that Constable Carswell was there, because the look on that little rodent's face when confronted with a great slab of the Metropolitan Police Force was something that will stay with me for years, but the tall blond man who was walking past us stopped to see if we needed his help. The couple who were walking towards us were all prepared to wade in. And there was a little old woman coming out of that chip shop who wouldn't have come up to your elbow and I swear she was planning to kick him in the unmentionables and shout something about fighting Hitler. It's not all bad. You have to remember that. Most people remain decent.'
'Except that the ones who aren't aren't ashamed about it anymore,' Draco muttered.
'Sadly, yes.' She looked up at him and smiled. 'What did you do?' she asked him.
'I felt the spell, but I didn't catch what it was. You gave him something, what was it?'
'Crabs,' Draco admitted.
Padma took his arm. 'I take it all back,' she said.
'What in particular?'
'All of it, Every last word. You're all right, Malfoy. Luna was right, and I was wrong. You actually are one of the good guys. And I'm not just saying that because you're a bit of a hottie. Not that I want to do anything about that, it's just fun to look at you.'
Draco smiled, and kept smiling all the way home while she explained how he would need to make Harry use the Elder Wand so that they could calibrate their 'door' towards it. He sat her at the chair next to his for dinner, and when it came time for pudding, he made sure she received the portion with the most sauce.
'I am not participating in this scheme any further if you plan to have me act like a religious figure,' Potter warned him the moment he appeared.
Draco grinned. 'I want to say that it would be a great plan because you could enact all sorts of edicts along the lines of "Bad musicians must practice no fewer than 400 yards from habited areas, or one mile in the case of bagpipes", but you're looking all cranky, so no. We don't plan to. Ron, Hermione and Luna have someone working on a scheme to reintroduce you as calmly as possible. Apparently there's an option to pretend you've just been lost in the wilderness the whole time.'
'Working on a scheme?' Potter shook his head. 'I'll need more in the way of beard and tan.'
'We'll worry about it after we get you out of here,' Draco told him. 'Padma says she wants you to use the Elder Wand, so that she can zero in on its signal.'
Potter frowned. 'I'm not sure that's a good idea. It doesn't enjoy being used here.'
'I remember you said that. But then, I thought, you were using it to try and escape. Maybe it knew you couldn't get out that way, and that's why it felt resistant. But if you used it for something simple, it might be all right.'
Draco shrugged. 'New shoes? Change the colour of your hair? Conjure up seats? I think I've realised why I was taking us to a memory of Hogwarts rather than leaving us in my library all the time – we had places to sit down there.'
Potter looked at him. 'New shoes. With the Elder Wand.'
'You think of something, then.'
Potter pulled the wand from his pocket and looked at it. After a moment's thought, he waved it in Draco's direction. Nothing happened.
Draco wished he was breathing at that moment, because he felt the need to take a deep one. Potter looked at the end of the wand, frowning.
'What did you try to do?' Draco asked.
'I was going to make your hair turn green,' Potter confessed.
'And innocuous. Which was my goal.'
Draco granted that it was a good goal. 'But it didn't work. Why not?'
Potter thought for a moment. He pointed the wand at his shoes and whispered a quiet spell. They turned red. He pointed it at the floor beside them and whispered the same spell, nothing happened.
'I think it might be because you're over there, not really here,' Potter suggested, nodding at the chaise where Draco's body rested. 'Whereas I'm really here. Which means we're up for an entertaining game of technicolour shoes.'
Draco was puzzled by the wand's refusal to act on him. 'But you can touch me,' he said.
'We thought that was probably because you're only semi-dead,' Potter reminded him. 'Looks as though we were right. But that's life I'm touching, I suspect the wand might need actual matter to work on.'
Draco pointed at the wand. 'Keep going,' he said. 'Granger, Luna and the Patils said they thought it would help them calibrate the spell.'
Potter changed his shoes to blue, to green, then started on an exciting series of striped combinations.
Draco reached into his own pocket. His wand was there, as he had expected it to be, but it was also over there, with his body, probably leaving another indent in his bum as he lay there, since he had forgotten to shift it into a side pocket again. He took it out and cast the same spell Potter was using on Potter's shoes. Nothing happened. He tried his own shoes.
'Pink pony skin,' Potter said. 'Interesting choice.'
'Oh, shut up,' Draco muttered. 'I was going for the most ridiculous thing I could think of.'
'Didn't change my shoes out there, though.'
'No,' said Potter, still casting spells wordlessly, but looking at him with interest. 'Did you think you might be able to affect your body?'
Draco considered the problem. 'Probably not. I don't even know if I just did magic or if my shoes changed because I thought they ought to.'
'Oh, well that's depressing.'
'Now I don't know if I'm actually doing any magic here or if I just expect this to work.'
Draco rolled his eyes. 'You expected it to work when you went to change my hair, it didn't. So you're more likely to have expected it not to work when you went to change your shoes. It's like talking to a child with you…'
Potter smiled. 'What's it like?' he asked.
'What's what like?'
'Talking to a child, having a son.'
'Oh.' Draco found himself smiling, too. 'Good. Great, but also terrifying. I live in a constant state of flux between delight in everything he says and does, and fear I will irredeemably bollocks it all up.'
'You'll be fine,' Potter said.
'Easy for you to say.'
'Yes, it is. Because I know how much your mother loved you, and you got to grow up with that.'
Draco looked at him. On the one hand, Potter was a bit right. On the other hand, Voldemort in the manor. But if he'd had a third hand, it would have been holding a card saying 'orphan under the stairs', which would have trumped the other two. He settled for shaking his head.
'It helps sometimes, and then other times, I feel as though I have no idea what I am doing. Which wasn't so bad when Astoria was there, but now…'
Potter left off changing his shoes for a moment. 'What do you do to stop feeling lonely now he's at school?'
Draco couldn't stop he laugh that bubbled out of him. 'This,' he said. 'I associate with a small group of past enemies and let them kill me so I can try and rescue a man who isn't sure he wants to be rescued.'
'I haven't said that,' Potter protested.
'Yes you did. And you won't let me use your alleged godhood to stop bagpipers. Honestly, I don't know why I put myself through all this.'
'I wish you wouldn't,' Potter said, suddenly serious.
'Get back to changing your shoes,' Draco instructed him. After a moment, he added, 'It's safe.'
'No it's not,' Potter replied, changing the colour of his shoes randomly, but looking at Draco. 'If you can't get me back, are you going to stop doing this?'
'We're nowhere near giving up yet,' Draco said. 'We've barely begun.'
'And you're just going to keep dying?'
Draco pushed his hair off his face. 'Well, as long as I'm enjoying our little talks…'
'That's what she used to say,' Potter told him.
'The witch I told you about. The one who spent weeks hovering on the edge. She was one hundred and sixty three. She'd lived a lot of life and was letting go of it gently. You're thirty eight. You've got a lot of life left to live!'
'That's what I'm doing!' Draco protested.
'You are literally dead,' Potter said.
'Fine, but I've had dinner with more adult human beings in the past month than I have in the past year, so that has to count, too.' Draco had a sudden memory of words shouted half a lifetime ago across the body-strewn hall of a school by a madman. 'You are not endangering me,' he said.
'I'm pretty sure I am.'
'No. I am. I am making this choice and it is a thing I want to do. And I trust the people I am doing it with. They are clever and capable and they will do everything they can to keep me safe and get you back. You deserve a life and I want you to have one.'
Potter glared at him, but there was no logical argument he could make in reply.
The hazy shapes of the living people in the room seemed to hit a peak of activity, and even Potter noticed it. 'Do you think…?'
A faint yellow glow between them and the chaise removed the need for the rest of the question. It sputtered in and out of focus for a few moments and then disappeared.
'I think they're getting close,' Draco said.
Potter frowned. 'Do I still have a house?'
Draco spoke quickly, certain they would both be out of there soon. 'Yes. Granger and Weasley fixed it up after the war. Your godson Teddy lives there, he and my Aunt Andromeda used to have it as their holiday house, but he says he's an adult now. Your house elf is still alive. They say he has awful manners, but is a magnificent cook.'
Potter smiled at that. 'What would I do with myself? I'm too old to start a career.'
'No you're not. Anyway, you're rich. You might be dead in the history books, but you're not in law, since there wasn't a body and nobody tried to claim your estate. So all your Galleons are still in Gringotts. You can help fund my school and we can go and shout at people together about Muggle-born rights. It'll be perfect, everyone who doesn't want to talk to me loves you, and everyone who hates you loves me.'
That brought a smile. Draco was more disconcerted than he ought to be by it.
'Harry…' Draco wasn't sure he should ask, but… 'When you leave, what will happen to the people who see you now? You know, here.'
Potter shrugged. 'I don't know. Whatever used to happen, I imagine. Maybe Dumbledore will be back on the job?'
'Can I ask you something? How do you know where you're needed? With this job, I mean. How do you know when to turn up?'
'I just turn up,' Potter said. 'Sometimes when I get there, I know it's a mistake, that the person is there too early. Usually I can fix those, or, at least, I convince the person to go back, so we fix it together.'
'So… you have an idea of when they're meant to be there?'
'Are you trying to ask me if I know how long you'll live?'
'I don't know,' Potter said. 'Not in any sort of detail. And if I did, I wouldn't tell you.'
'Do you know how long you'll live?'
Potter shook his head. 'Though I get the sense that if I stay here, I'll never die. I mean, I forgot to even age until you reminded me.'
Draco was astonished at the man's casualness. 'So, you could be immortal.'
'Or I could have a life. That's what you've been telling me, isn't it? If this fails, I'll go on helping people here. But if it works, then I get to go back into the world. To do things. To eat, to dream, to touch…'
Draco stepped beside Potter and leaned against him, feeling the solidity of the man from thigh to shoulder. He could only imagine what it must be like to have not touched another human being for twenty years. 'Keep changing your shoes,' he instructed.
After a moment, he added, 'I'll keep coming here for as long as it takes, and you can poke me in the arm as much as you like until we get you home.'
He could see Potter's smile out of the corner of his eye. 'That's ironic,' Potter said.
'Remember the first train to Hogwarts?'
And Draco did. So well that he burst out laughing. 'We were awful!' he said. 'I was such a jumped-up little twonk, and you were pretty self-righteous, you know.'
Potter bumped his shoulder against him. 'We've both improved.'
'We have,' Draco agreed.
'Creevey's getting up.'
'What? But they haven't …'
'They probably need to do more calibrating,' Potter said, which sounded reasonable. 'Hey, before you go…'
Draco looked at him. 'Yes?' It was so strange looking into those familiar eyes again. He'd only seen him this close a few times before in their lives, and they had all been moments of imminent peril.
'Who's coming up with the scheme to reintroduce me to the world?'
'If it's Goyle, I'm staying put.'
'No, it's Weasley's sister.'
'She writes for the Prophet these days.'
Draco could see the amusement growing in Potter's eyes. 'How the Boy Who Lived became the Boyfriend Who Skived, special exclusive, page three!'
'Yes,' Draco said around his laughter. 'I believe that is exactly what she is planning. Along with a photo feature of Why Dean Thomas is a Major Hottie and Totally Not Speccy.'
'That's fair, Dean's very good looking.'
'Even better these days.'
Potter's voice softened. 'Is she OK with it all? It can't be easy.'
'Ron says she is. What about you? Can't have been easy for you, either.'
Potter shrugged. 'I never expected to leave here after the first few days. Even when I didn't know how long I'd been here, I still wanted everyone to go on without me. It's good she did.'
Draco could tell that Potter was both lying and telling the truth at the same time. There weren't any words, so he leaned his head towards Potter and Potter leaned his towards Draco until they were resting against each other in shared loneliness. Neither of them moved until Creevey jolted Draco back into the world of the living.
'Told you,' Dennis said, as he and Ron watched through the Pensieve records for a second time. The others were busy on the other side of the room, questioning Malfoy, who had declared he was fine and could stay downstairs for now.
Ron gave him a look. 'The man has just lost his wife. Harry never had a chance to get his. They're bonding.'
'Right.' Dennis's expression was highly sceptical.
'Why are we friends?' Ron grumped.
'Shared trauma and a relationship born out of understanding each other's experiences,' Dennis answered without hesitation. 'And yet, you'll notice I'm able to keep my hands off you.'
'I've never looked at you that way.'
'Shut up some more.'
'Though if I do, you'll be in trouble, if you know what I mean. Though not half as much as I'll be in if Bevan ever finds out.'
'When's he due back from his trip?'
'I imagine he'll keep you from us for some time. Any chance he could cut things short?'
The memory ended at that moment, so Dennis punched Ron in his arm in reality, though less firmly than he might have.
Luna looked at them curiously from the other side of the library and they both busily pretended to be doing something incomprehensibly blokey until she looked away.
'Has you sister come up with a plan for what we'll do if this works?' Dennis asked, quietly.
Ron shook his head. 'She's tossing up between coma and trapped in the middle of the Amazonian jungle at the moment.'
'I don't envy her,' Dennis said. 'Come on, we should go and join in before they wonder what we're up to.'
Malfoy and Padma were in the middle of a very polite argument.
'But it was working,' Malfoy was saying. 'We could see your spell coming through. Why did you stop?'
'Because we needed more data!' Padma insisted. 'Quite aside from everything else, we haven't even briefed you on what you should do when you see the door materialise.'
Malfoy looked as though it was requiring an effort of will for him not to roll his eyes. 'Go through it, I would imagine.'
She tapped his knee with her forefinger, as though he were a naughty child. 'Harry, yes. You, I don't know. It could pop you straight back into your body, it could deliver your spirit here to wander aimlessly forever, unable to return to its fleshy abode. What say we don't experiment on that front?'
'You make a compelling argument.'
'Good. I don't fancy your mother murdering me and all my friends if we actually kill you permanently. So my suggestion is, once we establish the door, you give Harry a damn good shove in its direction and Dennis will whip you out of there in time for you to see him coming through on this side.'
'You can join the welcoming party, Draco,' Luna said.
'Fine. But no fireworks in the library.'
Neville was looking at Malfoy closely. 'I think you should go and rest,' he said.
'But we're so close,' Malfoy protested.
'Yes, and the rest of us need to fiddle around with figures and plans and spells. But you've done your work for tonight. And I'd feel a lot more comfortable if you took a rest.'
Malfoy smiled at him. 'And I said I would listen to you,' he said. 'All right. I could do with a kip. Are you going to run the usual gamut of tests?'
'I'll do it,' Dennis volunteered.
'And I'll help,' Hermione added. 'Come on, Draco. Let's go and find something outrageous in your house that I can report to Hugo to make up for him missing dinner.'
Ron came and sat beside Neville once they had gone. 'Is he all right?' he asked.
Neville shrugged. 'As far as I can tell. But I'd prefer it if he didn't push himself. From what we can tell, the effect of all this is like strenuous exercise. He benefits from some recovery time, and I think we should insist he takes it.'
'Are you all right?'
Neville smiled. 'Do I look as bad as all that?'
Ron began to disagree, but honesty compelled him to say, 'I've seen you look better.'
'It's just the not knowing,' Neville said. 'If Hannah's ditched me forever, then I'll grieve and move on. But if she's coming back, then I just need to have some idea of how long I'll have to wait.'
'Can't be easy.'
Neville's smile broadened. 'That's what I thought a month ago, but now we learn Harry's been trapped in limbo for twenty years and we're killing Draco Malfoy a couple of times a week. My problems seem quite manageable by comparison.'
Ron grinned at him. 'You know, when we get Harry back, things with us won't change. You'll still be part of our family.'
'I know. Your daughter would never speak to you again if you tried to ditch me, I am her key to all the points for extra homework.'
Ron took his hand and held it. Neville looked at him. Ron let go. 'Yeah, no, Sorry. Dennis was right, that was odd.'
'If there's something you need to tell us…' Neville began. 'No judgement.'
Ron flicked him in the forehead, and sat still while Neville flicked him much harder on the side of the head. It was thoroughly deserved.
'Do you think Padma's right?' Draco asked Creevey and Hermione.
'Yes,' said Hermione. 'Your mother will definitely kill us if we let anything happen to you. She'll probably kill us if she ever hears about this, actually. I'll get Ron to leave a note in the Aurors' office in case we start disappearing.'
'Ha ha,' Draco intoned.
'About the door?' Creevey asked.
Creevey shrugged. 'I think she's right in saying that since we know so little about what we're doing, it would be idiotic to introduce more factors we can't control. We know my methods work, so let's just keep using them. I've met your mother, I wouldn't want to upset her.'
He let them measure his heart rate and check that all his organs were hale and hearty – or kidneyey, lungy or livery – before he spoke again.
'But if I…'
'No,' Hermione said.
'I was just…'
'Thinking you didn't want to leave Harry alone in case he bottled it at the last second?'
Draco looked at her in surprise.
She shook her head, smiling. 'It's not Legilemency, I thought the same thing. But the fact of the matter is, if he does, we can send you back in a few days and you can shout at him. If you come through and it kills you permanently, there's nothing we can do to fix that.'
'What will happen to Malfoy if Harry goes through the door while he's still dead?' Creevey asked.
They both looked at him. 'I hadn't even considered that,' Hermione confessed.
'Right,' said Creevey. 'I'm pulling you out of there the moment the door's established.'
'Cheers, mate,' said Draco, and Creevey smiled at him lopsidedly.
Hermione sat on Draco's bed near his feet. 'I know that you're finding this frustrating, Draco. I can't tell you how much I respect your courage over the past month. You could have kept this all quiet, but instead you came and sought us out and you convinced us, even when some of us weren't particularly welcoming.
'And you've been patient, and gracious, and I am choosing to spend time associating with you, and I strongly suspect your mother and my mother-in-law are both going to explode when they find out we've become friends. We should definitely make sure that happens somewhere public and sell tickets in advance. Stop laughing. You, too, Dennis.
'I say all this so you won't take what I have to say next the wrong way. But sometimes it takes more than weeks to solve a problem. Sometimes it takes months. Years. And you just have to plug away at it bit by bit. I've been here before, during the War and in my career. You think, Yes! This is it! and then there's a giant snake, or some moron steals your election.
'And I know that you understand that sometimes you need to work for things. I've seen what you've done with your school. But I also see how excited and hopeful you are about this. And maybe you're right, maybe we are nearly there. But maybe we aren't. I remember in the War, Dumbledore told us we had to kill all the Horcruxes and it was taking so long. We spoke with Luna's father and he convinced Harry that the Deathly Hallows were the key to everything, and he and Ron wanted to set off on a wild goose chase to collect them and I had to just keep them focused or we never would have defeated Voldermort.
'So I'm just saying, have patience. Don't take risks where you don't have to. Aside from the obvious, which I still think is idiotic, but it doesn't seem to have done you any harm. We need you alive. Your son does, all those Muggleborn students do. We do.'
Draco smiled at her. 'That is definitely the nicest thing you've ever said to me.'
Hermione smiled back. 'Not hard, given previous things I've said to you.'
Something tugged at Draco's memory, but he couldn't grasp hold of it, and the idea ran from him.
'Good thing we told you you were fine first,' Dennis said. 'I'd've been worried she was about to tell you it was all looking very grim for you with a speech like that.'
'The thought had crossed my mind,' Draco confessed.
'Don't be ridiculous,' Hermione said, grinning more cheekily than Draco had previously imagined her able. 'I would have had Ron tell you. Can't have any hugging!'
Draco's bark of laughter startled Creevey, but he didn't mind. It was worth it for the fact that he and Granger now had their own private joke.
'You may as well head back downstairs,' he told them. 'I'm just going to rest for ten minutes or so.'
Hermione stood up, patting his shin. 'Thanks for not arguing.'
Draco shrugged. 'It would be stupid to, you're right. I may not like it, and I may hope that we'll be luckier than that, but you're still right.'
She smiled at him, and then at Dennis.
'I'll follow you down,' Creevey said. He waited till she left before he took her spot on the end of the bed and looked at Draco in a calculating fashion.
'What?' Draco asked, mildly worried that something was secretly grim after all.
'Have you given any consideration to what you'll do once Harry is back in the world?' Dennis asked.
'Be happy I won't have to keep dying in the library?' Draco hazarded.
'True,' Dennis acknowledged. 'But have you thought about how you'll feel when he can talk to other people? Touch other people?'
Draco felt a blush creeping up his neck, and was appalled at himself. 'Surely that's the whole point of the exercise?' he asked, a little more tersely than he had intended.
Dennis nodded at him, without speaking.
'It's not like that,' Draco said, then wished he hadn't spoken.
Dennis patted his leg, in almost exactly the same way Hermione had. 'Perhaps you might want to spend the next few days thinking about what it is like?' he suggested.
And Draco rather wished he knew Dennis a lot better, because he could have very much benefitted from a conversation that began with the admission he had no idea what 'it' was like anymore.
'Dennis,' Ron told Hermione, 'thinks there's something going on between Harry and Malfoy.'
Hermione rolled over and peered at him in the dim of midnight. 'Is that because of all the touching?' she asked.
Ron sighed at having had half his story pre-empted. 'But, listen, he doesn't just think Malfoy – which, not a shock, he is ridiculously well groomed – he thinks that Harry…'
'Yep. Like Sixth Year.'
'Not you, too…' He lifted himself further up on his pillows while she snuggled against his chest. 'Why am I the only person who doesn't see these things?'
'Because you are a sweet, innocent lamb,' she murmured sleepily.
'I'm an Auror,' Ron protested.
'You'd have noticed in a heartbeat if he was cursing anyone or smuggling Billywigs,' she said, yawning.
'Don't let me disturb you,' he said, and she didn't even try for words in reply, just made an indistinguishable sound as the full weight of her head slumped against him.
He smoothed her hair back and kissed the top of her head. When they had first lived together, it had been impossible to get her to bed before two in the morning, and she would often leap up before him at eight, declaring sleep was for the weak. Now she swore that eight hours a night was the only thing standing between her and mass homicide. Blessed Hugo had always been a keen sleeper, but before Rose went to school, Ron had been the one to slip out of bed at the first sound of childish footsteps in the hall.
He half-missed their mornings of father-daughter experimentation with breakfast, even though their pikelets had been classified inedible and used as throwing discs in the park for weeks until that unfortunate incident with the goose. Now there was porridge, which even he couldn't get wrong, or eggy bread, which Hugo had learned from one of his grandmothers, and fresh fruit, which Hermione insisted on at the start of every day.
He breathed in the fragrance of his wife's hair, and wondered how Malfoy could get out of bed every day, having known what this was like, and then having lost it.
Because no matter what he said to Dennis, he knew that must be infinitely worse than Harry's never having known.
'You k bt Lvder?' Hermione muttered into his chest.
She lifted her face slightly, but didn't bother to open her eyes. 'Are you OK about Lavender?' she said.
'What? I thought you were asleep.'
She smiled. 'Mostly. Just thought you might be sad. Because of what Harry said.'
He patted her hair. 'I was sad back then. Twenty years ago. Because she was a good person, who deserved to live, even if she never spoke to me again. But no, what he said, I was just… happy she got to have a bit of a rant at someone about the unfairness of it all, really.'
Hermione kissed his collarbone. 'Love you,' she murmured, and he was fairly sure that this time she was genuinely falling asleep because there was a little of the snuffling that was nothing like a snore until he wiggled around so that her head rested at a better angle for breathing.
She had been half-right. He was sad. But because of something Draco had said. One day, each of them would die, and unless they could make this work, that would be their only chance to ever speak with Harry again. And it was awful enough to think that he might outlive her, but even worse to imagine standing in the afterlife saying 'Great to see you, mate! I know it's been (let's hope) the better part of two hundred years, but I'm going to cut this short, because Hermione…'
Padma seemed so sure, though. Maybe it was worth hoping?
He tossed up the idea of dropping around to see Malfoy in the morning. Just to see how he was. Check everything was all right. See how much he was hoping. What he was hoping for. Because maybe Dennis was right. And maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing.
Ron and Hermione arrived early on Saturday, and Draco was pleased, as he needed their advice. 'I've received notification the trial is coming up in two weeks. Is there anything I should practice? Or anyone I should talk with?'
Hermione ran him through the standard forms of a Wizengamot trial, reminding him on which days he might expect to be called and shaking her head when he started to feel sorry for the accused. 'They tried to kill you,' she reminded him.
'They did kill him,' Ron reminded her. 'Just ineptly. But yeah, don't feel sorry for them just because you came out of it well.'
'My social circle has dramatically improved as a result of the attack,' Draco pointed out. 'It had previously been reduced to grateful students and parents, and a few devoted house elves.'
'We are definitely better looking,' Ron agreed. 'But attempted murder should definitely be met with a reasonably severe punishment. I hate to sound like a cliche, but there's no point recognising the social origins of individual ills if it means some nutjob is still out roaming the streets happy to use a hex that stops hearts.'
Draco surrendered the point. 'You're right, both of you. I just wish there was a way to share that reasonably severe punishment with the people who make those big, empty speeches about protecting the rights of British Wizardry. Because I know that the people who attacked me have never liked me, but I also know that before this year, they didn't feel emboldened to do anything about that.'
And then he wished he hadn't spoken, because Hermione looked so sad, and Ron looked so defeated. 'It will be better when we get Potter back,' Draco promised.
'If,' Hermione hedged.
'When,' Ron agreed. He exchanged grins with Draco, then remembered something and went rummaging through his bag. 'Choc-chip banana bread,' he said. 'Hermione's mum is so pleased you keep stealing us away and giving her Hugo time, she's started seriously baking for you.'
Draco had rarely received a finer gift.
The others arrived in short order at the appointed time. The sense of expectation was so strong this time that the snacks and drinks were barely touched before they were looking at Draco expectantly. Except for Luna. Her look held nothing but concern.
'Are you sure you're all right to keep doing this, Draco?' she asked.
'I'm fine,' he assured her. 'You heard Neville. Clean bill of health.'
'But what about your soul?' she asked, and he could only smile in answer, because 'I'm pleased to find I have one' was too flippant by half.
'You good to go?' Creevey asked him. Draco nodded in reply, understanding passing between them. Perhaps it would be possible to have that talk after all, though later, not now.
Padma lifted her wand to attract everyone's attention. 'Just so we're clear,' she said. 'I want to run through the plan one last time. Neville and Dennis, you help Draco set off. Draco, you encourage Potter to come close to your body and to use the Elder Wand. Hermione and Luna will call out readings from the instrumentation, and when everything is aligned as well as it can be, Parvati will assist me to create the door. Ron, you will look out for anything going wrong and step in as a reserve if anyone starts to flag. If you're not needed as a reserve, then I want you ready to catch Potter as he comes through the door. Does everyone understand?'
'Yes, Padma,' they all dutifully intoned for the fourth time.
It was, Draco thought, better to be overcautious than otherwise, but before she or anyone else could run through anything just one last time, he nodded at Neville. 'Let's do it.'
Neville nodded his assent and passed Draco the first of the potions.
There was light again this time. The library was suffused with radiance, and in the centre of it, on what appeared to be a sunbeam, stood Potter, who looked to be aged somewhere around twenty-five and was dressed entirely in glowing white. He had grown his hair to his shoulders and, as Draco appeared, affected a pose that was something akin to Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.
Draco had no idea how he could laugh himself breathless without breathing, but he managed it.
By the time he had finished, Potter was his real age again, and dressed in his normal clothes
'Were you practicing?' Draco asked. 'You've taken pity on me and plan to at least help with the bagpiping situation, yes?'
'I'm regretting my comedic efforts already,' Potter said.
Draco grinned at him. 'No you're not. You know that comedy is the only thing that can get us through these dark times.'
'I did try rationality, but you weren't interested.'
Draco shrugged. 'You're not the only person who can save people, you know.'
'So, tell me about the Potterites,' Harry said. 'Should I be worried?'
Draco smiled. 'Not too much. I mean, they will go somewhat mad at your return, and there will probably be a not-insignificant amount of being followed around, though they may well do it at a distance, as they're very polite.'
'What do they actually do?' Harry asked.
Draco shrugged. 'I've never been sure. They insist you're God. Or at least, a god. A lot of fake scars. They made July 31 a public holiday. Your parents are treated as saints, which I have always found hilarious, because I know people who met your father. They are genuinely good with the Muggle-borns, though. They give generously to causes like mine, they insist their kids help them at school, they run outreach to the parents.
'I think… I think that some of the stupidity that is going on out there happened because the Potterites were so decent. They thought it was so obvious that all we needed to do was to just get along and treat everybody well that they forgot there are people in our world who enjoy hating. Who feel they need to have someone to blame.
'And, of course, no-one's allowed to hate you. You're perfect Harry Potter. So I copped some of it, for being a blood traitor, or for dirtying your cause with my Death Eater taint. But it's nothing compared to what actual Muggle-borns have had to deal with. And the Minister pretends none of this is happening. We're a post-Voldemort nation, you see. Therefore, by definition, there can't be any problems. I may one day have to kill him if you don't come back.'
Harry smiled at him. 'You used to hate me,' he said. 'I'll never forget what it was like for me to go to school, and all of a sudden there were three people my own age who cared terribly about me. Two of them were my best friends, and one my cranky, pointy would-be nemesis. It was an amazing feeling after years of being disregarded.'
Draco smiled back. 'Give yourself some of the credit, you were tremendously easy to hate back then.'
Draco's smile faded. 'I hate that you're here. I hate that I didn't know you were here. Sometimes I hate you for not being there after the war, when I wanted to talk with you about everything, and say that I was sorry, and thank you, and I was wrong. But that wasn't your fault. I just hate that there wasn't a chance for us to find out if things could have been different. After everything that happened, I thought we'd at least get that one day.'
Potter was still smiling, though gently now. 'We did. It's now. And it is. It's all different. Besides,' mischief crept back into his smile, 'you're forgetting how easy you were to hate back in the day!'
'Oh, no, I have fairly clear memories of it all.'
Potter rolled his eyes. Then his face grew serious. 'When I leave here – if it works – this isn't going to change, is it? I know I'll have Ron and Hermione, and Luna, Neville, everybody… But, you're not going to disappear are you?'
'Not unless you want me to.'
Potter shook his head. 'I really don't want you to.'
'Then I won't,' Draco said, and he wished he could think of something funny to say because it was all a bit terribly serious.
'Is there a plan?' Harry asked.
'Yes! Merlin, I was meant to tell you. Sorry. Can we stand over near my body and start doing the shoe thing again with the Elder Wand. Padma says that will be enough to let her focus. Once she establishes the doorway, Dennis will pull me out of here, in case things go pear-shaped as soon as you leave. Then all you have to do is step through the door.'
Harry nodded. 'Sounds easy enough.' They moved the few feet over to be close to the chaise where Draco's body lay. Potter started casting spells on his shoes. Mischief crept back into his expression. 'Of course, I was really asking if there was a plan to dispel rumours of my divinity.'
'Oh, absolutely,' Draco assured him.
'Can you tell me?'
'We start the Church of Severus Snape. You and I will be its major prophets, me the boy he fought for, you the boy he died for. His chief miracles will be done very secretly and his worshippers will be encouraged to wear only black, embrace sarcasm and learn everything possible about Potions.'
'Genius,' said Harry. 'We'll never pay taxes again!'
'Again?' said Draco. 'We have so much to talk about when you get out of here.'
'We really do,' Harry agreed. He looked at Draco. 'You never asked me what she said, you know.'
'Astoria?' Not that Draco really needed to ask. He thought for a moment. 'We said our goodbyes. I think whatever she said here was private, for you, not for me.'
Harry nodded. 'She was a good person,' he said. 'She made you better.'
Draco nodded, not trusting his voice.
'She told me that she thought you'd never really let me go…'
'Can we talk about this later?' Draco asked.
Harry nodded. 'Just… when she said that, I was happy to know you still thought of me.'
Draco very much feared that the expression on his face was saying everything he didn't trust his voice to.
A ball of golden light began to form to Potter's left. As they watched it, it expanded, then started to form into a door. Draco could see Dennis standing up. 'I'll see you soon,' he said quickly.
Harry nodded, and was about to say something, but Draco was jolted back into his body.
Padma and Parvati were standing a few feet from him, wands raised, a golden door forming before them. As Draco watched, his breath far too loud in his ears, it opened.
Nothing came through.
'Maybe he bottled it?' Neville suggested. 'I mean, it's a hell of an ask to step back into life after twenty years. He might need to think about it some more.'
Draco didn't argue, he'd been thinking exactly the same thing.
'I think we screwed up the spell somehow,' Padma said. 'Maybe the connection wasn't strong enough for him to come through. Or maybe we screwed up the time and he'll show up some time next month. He said time moved differently there.'
'Oh, well that's reassuring,' said Dennis. 'Draco will be doddering over his memoirs a century from now and Harry will show up wondering what we plan to do next. Brilliant.'
'You didn't screw up the spell,' Luna said. 'Hermione checked all your calculations, and so did I. Draco saw the door form on the other side. All it means is that there was something stopping Harry coming through. Neville might be right and he had to think about it, or there might be something magical. The next time Draco talks to Harry, we can find out what happened from his point of view. Isn't that right, Hermione?'
Hermione wasn't paying attention, instead, she was looking around the dining room. 'Where's Ron?'
And Draco suspected that all of them knew the moment she asked, but he was the one who was on his feet first. 'Probably in the loo, I'll just go and check…'
Dennis and Neville made equally feeble excuses, and they all caught each other's eyes as they walked into the corridor, making it out of the sightline of the door before they broke into a run for the library.
And there was Ron, lying on the chaise, familiar vials beside him.
'No, no, no, no, no…' Neville rushed over to his side. 'Dennis!'
Creevey ran to join him.
Draco turned around. Hermione was standing there, her face ghostly, mouth open and head shaking, breaths coming too shallowly. He put an arm around her and held her tightly. 'It will be all right,' he said. 'They know what they're doing.' Her hand reached up to his one on her shoulder and gripped it tightly.
Creevey muttered the words of his first revival spell. Nothing happened. Draco frowned. But Creevey had a list. There were more to try. And a defibrithingy. It would be fine.
'None of it is calculated for him,' Hermione whispered hollowly.
When the third spell failed, Draco realised why.
'Luna!' he called.
She appeared at his shoulder, and he passed Hermione to her. 'I know what's wrong,' he said. 'I'll get him back.'
Draco went straight to Neville's bag. To his relief, there were still multiple doses inside. He took a pair of vials.
'No,' barked Neville. 'We've got enough problems.'
'You know I'm safe for at least fifteen minutes,' Draco said. 'Keep going with Ron. Ignore me. I think I know why it's not working and I think I can fix it.'
He drank the potions in quick succession and regretted not sitting down first as the second one took effect and he collapsed. His last sensation was of Longbottom catching him.
It was different this time. No light, no Potions classroom, no glamorous effects. It was just his library, and yet it was not. Everything was blurred, and the colours were entirely wrong. All the living people were shaded gently in blues and greens, while in front of him Ron stood, holding Potter, all the colours of the dawn.
Potter looked up at Draco's arrival. 'Make him leave,' he begged.
'I've got fifteen minutes!' Ron said, his face in Potter's shoulder. 'It's barely been five.'
'It's been eight at least,' Draco corrected him. 'And this potion was designed for me, not you. We have no idea how you'll react. Hermione is right there and you are scaring her.'
Ron let go of Potter and turned around, and there were tears running down his cheeks.
'Back. Now,' said Draco, not letting him speak.
Ron nodded, and turned for one last look at Potter. Creevey hit Ron's body with something bright and then Draco was alone with Potter and everything else had faded from view.
'This ends now,' Potter said. 'No more. You all have lives, go and live them. I don't want to see you again.'
'I want to see you again,' Draco said. 'Can you get that through your head? You're not the only person here. What happened? Why didn't you come through?'
Potter looked a little abashed. 'I tried, but nothing happened. I stepped through, and it was just stepping through a shape. Afterwards, I was just on the other side of it.' Potter took a step towards him as if to demonstrate. He shook his head. 'This has to be it, Draco. I won't have you endangering yourself any more. I can't let you. Just accept that things are as they are.'
'Yes. Forget all this. Forget your little battles. Forget your mad religions and Ministries. Just find someone who makes you happy and have a life!'
Draco was filled with a sudden fury he hadn't felt in years. 'Fuck that, fuck the Ministry and fuck the Potterites, I want to see you again, in the world, alive and having a life and with us. I want you to have a chance! I want there to be some fairness in it all!' He had closed the distance between them and was all but shouting from inches away.
'There is no fairness, Draco,' Potter said, as gently as a feather.
'Then I will make some,' Draco told him, and it was worth defying the laws of nature for the amusement that crept into Potter's eyes.
The room around them regained focus. They could see Ron sitting up, and Hermione slapping and kissing him. Potter smiled at them. Draco could see his whole body lean slightly their way, like a plant towards sun, an orphan towards love. He had never fully appreciated the grace of Potter's body …
'Where's your wand?' Draco demanded, having suddenly seen what he wasn't seeing.
'My what?' Potter turned back, which brought him up against Draco, and he put a hand onto Draco's chest to balance.
'Your wand,' Draco repeated, suddenly finding it hard to concentrate. 'The Elder Wand.'
'It's here,' Potter said, and the wand materialised in his hand. 'See?'
Draco caught the tail of the idea that had been darting in front of him since Hermione told him about the War. He stepped back, needing to concentrate and finding it impossible with Potter's hand resting on his chest. 'Your Invisibility Cloak, it's not just any cloak, is it?' he asked. Potter shook his head slightly. 'Good,' said Draco. 'Is it here?'
'And the Resurrection Stone? I know you had it, it's the only thing that makes sense of it all, unless the Potterites are right and I refuse to believe that.'
Potter smiled slightly. 'I had it, I don't anymore.'
'Do you know where it is?'
Potter looked at him suspiciously.
'Oh, for crying out loud. I don't want it, but you need it. Just give me a rough idea, I'm reasonably certain you'll just need me to be near it.'
'What are you going to do?'
'Get you back once and for all and stop all this rubbish. Tell me. Tell me or I'll just start randomly killing myself in probable locations over and over until I pick the right one. You know I will. And you know Creevey will help me.'
Potter's expression was dubious, but he answered. 'In the forest, close to where your mother found me. But …'
'I won't tell them. Your secret is safe,' Draco promised.
'Aren't they watching all this somehow?' Potter asked.
'Only as memories in a Pensieve, and some of us listened to Snape when it came to Occlumency.'
Potter blinked at him. 'So you've been editing as you go?'
'Not up to now, I wanted to give Padma and Hermione all the information possible.'
A hint of a smile darted across Potter's face. 'So there'll be a few awkward explanations…'
Draco blinked at him distractedly. 'What? Why?'
Potter smiled properly now. 'Well, that's even more awkward.'
And Draco couldn't stop himself smiling back as his brain caught up with his ears. They gave themselves a moment where nothing was said, just the start of a shared understanding, and the knowledge that neither of them was alone in their feelings.
'We'll need to talk about this when I get you out of here,' Draco said.
'I imagine so,' Potter agreed.
'It's almost certainly teenaged angst, mixed with… adult angst… It's been a long time since anyone attractive wanted to touch me, you know. I'll probably regain my senses the moment I set foot inside a club or a party. You're not that good looking, you know. And you'll probably run off with one of your acolytes, because neither am I.' Draco didn't want to waste his hopes, since they were meant to be focused entirely on getting Harry out of here. But it was hard to remember that when the man was smiling like that.
'Very likely,' Potter agreed. 'But I suspect it might be worth some reasonably thorough discussion when time allows.' Harry looked over at the chaise, with Draco's body lying alongside it. 'Have they forgotten you?' he asked.
Draco shook his head. 'They're still running diagnostics on Ron. I told them to leave me until they were certain he was fine.'
'Your plan …' Potter looked back at him. 'How do we keep them all out of it and keep you safe? I need you to be safe.'
'We don't keep all of them out of it,' Draco said. 'Only most of them.'
And then Dennis turned to Draco's body and he was back in it just as Potter had been reaching for his hand.
'You're a bloody idiot, that's what you are.'
Ron nodded. It was Padma's turn to shout at him and he was determined to let everyone have their go. Only Luna and Draco seemed unwilling to join in.
'Anything could have happened if Draco wasn't so brave and clever!'
Ron caught Draco's surprised and faintly alarmed expression and found it hard not to smile. 'I know, I know,' he said. 'I wasn't thinking clearly. It won't happen again.'
'It most certainly won't,' Padma said. 'We're pulling the plug.'
There were noises of incoherent complaint from the others, but Padma turned her glare on them. 'We've spent the last three weeks repeatedly killing Draco, Doesn't that bother any of you?'
There was an abashed silence from most of the people in the room, but Draco gently pointed out, 'It didn't bother you until Ron decided to join in.'
Padma's shoulders slumped a little. 'Because you were dealing with it so well, and the small risks seemed worth it. But now…'
'We should take a break,' Draco said. 'Review all our data, look at all our plans, come up with alternative strategies and consider that this might be a long-term project. It's one of the first things Hermione told me, we might not solve this in days, or weeks, or even months. If there is one thing we know Harry has, it's time. Nothing can hurt him where he is. Besides, if we get him back in December, we can pass it off as a Christmas miracle.'
'Did he say that?' Dennis asked. 'While we were helping Ron, is that what you talked about?'
Draco nodded, but Ron had the strong impression that had not been all they talked about. He tried to picture having dinner at Harry and Draco's, and his brain reminded him that it was already having a trying day and could he come back later with these radical new ways of seeing the world?
'I think we should all go in to dinner,' Luna said loudly. 'There's been a house elf hovering at the door for the last five minutes and I think she's trying to tell us it's time to eat.'
Ron blessed her good sense. Draco and Luna promised to be back in a minute with trays so Ron could rest up and Hermione could continue slapping him if she needed to, and then he was alone with his wife, who was still holding his hand and looking as though she might yet murder him.
'I just had to see him,' he tried to explain again.
'I saw the potions and I thought it would be all right.'
'I had every confidence they would be able to bring me back.'
He put her hand against his cheek. 'I never want to leave you,' he told her.
And at that she frowned as though she was about to say something angry, then dissolved into tears. He pulled her onto the chaise against him and held her.
'I know it was stupid. It was the stupidest thing I've done in years. You can berate me about it forever. He told me I was a bloody idiot, too.'
He could feel her start to laugh at that. 'And what's worse,' he added, 'now we have to be permanently grateful to Draco twice!'
She laughed more at that. 'Good thing he's turned out decent.'
'And brings you food,' Draco said from the doorway. He and Luna were carrying a tray each, which extended neatly as they put them down to form a nice little table at just the right height for the chaise.
'How are you feeling?'
'Stupid,' Ron confessed. 'But glad I saw him again.' He looked down at his plate for a moment, thinking, then looked back up at Draco. 'Did you mean what you said? About keeping going in the future?'
Draco nodded. 'But with more caution. I've told Neville to keep all of his equipment away from all of us. And Dennis is going to keep an eye on him, to make sure he's not tempted.'
'And I've asked Rolf to have his friends in Uganda track down Hannah and have a word,' Luna added.
'You didn't shout at me,' Ron said.
Luna smiled. 'That's because Draco's not a hypocrite and I'm not a fool. I know exactly how much the idea of seeing someone one last time calls to us. I also know exactly what Draco's thinking on this. We can't blame you at all.'
Ron smiled at her.
'But don't do it again,' she added.
'I won't,' he promised.
Luna's face grew serious. 'Ron, I don't think you know how important you are to all of us. Tell him, Draco.'
Malfoy, bless him, looked like a pigeon who'd just flown into a broomstick. 'Um…' he began, and Ron began to grin in sympathy. 'No, wait,' Malfoy said, 'I actually do have an opinion on this.'
He moved the chairs Dennis and Neville usually sat in from their positions at the head of the chaise and placed them on the other side of the table for himself and Luna. 'I think,' he said, sitting down, 'that you forget about yourself a lot, Ron. You're busy being a good dad, a good husband, and a good Head Auror, a good brother, a good friend… it's a long list. I think that a lot of the time you define yourself by those relationships. And you should be proud of them, you are an amazing father – my son tells me stories about your daughter, and I've seen you with your son. You were actually someone I looked to when I wasn't sure how to be a good husband, because even when I didn't really like either of you very much, I could see that you set the gold standard for working together to make a marriage strong.
'But don't forget about your value as you. I've liked you barely for a month and yet my heart was in my mouth when I saw you lying there. Your decency, your integrity, your lightness of spirit, your faith that things can be better and your willingness to work as hard as it takes to make them so, these are all rare qualities, and we need more of them now than ever. So you have to value yourself more highly. You can't take dumb risks like this, because we need you more than we need most people.'
Ron wasn't sure he trusted his voice to speak right then.
'That's beautiful, Draco,' Hermione said. 'And so true.'
'Mate…' Ron made it through one word.
Draco waved it away. 'Eat some food. You'll feel better after some food and a bit of a rest with no-one shouting at you.'
Ron nodded. Draco smiled at him, and he and Luna headed off to rejoin the others.
'Well…' said Hermione.
'Tell you what,' Ron told her, 'I'm even gladder I saved him after that.'
'You are lying, Draco Malfoy,' Luna said, taking his arm as they walked along the corridor to the dining room. 'And there is no point lying to me, because you are as a pane of glass to my eyes.'
Draco smiled. It was a reasonably true statement, as they had learned during the war and she had proved on several occasions since.
'Stay after dinner. You, Neville and Dennis. We need to shift the others. It's all going to be all right.'
She looked up at him. 'Do you think so?' she asked, and there was interest as well as hope in her expression.
'Fairly sure,' he replied.
Dinner was a strange affair. Guilt and shock held Padma and Parvati's tongues, while Dennis made several abortive forays into questioning Draco's method of forcing Ron to return. Neville and Luna tried to keep conversation flowing with inconsequentialities and, as a result, Draco learned more about the flora and fauna of West Scotland than he had ever imagined existed.
Anticipating success, he had ordered a treacle tart for pudding, and its appearance was Parvati's excuse to break down in tears. Padma told Draco it was fine, and absolutely not his fault, but she packed their equipment and took her sister home early. The rest of them took the pudding in to Ron and Hermione, who ate small slices, then apologised again for the fuss and headed off home.
'She's either going to slap him again or shag him senseless,' Dennis observed as they heard the front door close.
The others looked at him. 'You're right,' he said. 'I don't know why I'm pretending there's an or there. Anyway, should be heading back.'
'Can you wait ten minutes?' Draco asked. 'You, too, Neville.'
They could. 'You're not giving up, are you?' Neville asked, looking at him intently.
'I can't,' Draco admitted. 'Not now, I think I've finally worked it out. But Ron can't know, which means Hermione can't know, and I can't explain everything about it to all of you, because I promised, which means the Patils can't know because they'd never be OK with that.'
'But you think we will be,' said Dennis.
'I hope you will be,' Draco clarified. 'There are things about what happened when Voldemort tried to kill Harry in the forest that should stay forgotten. I think one of them is the key to getting him back, and that I've worked it out, but it's not something people should know about.'
'So you want us to trust you?' Dennis asked.
'Yes,' Draco answered, hoping they could.
Dennis shrugged. 'You trusted me with your life, I think I can trust you with keeping a secret Harry wants kept.'
Neville was still looking focusedly at him. 'If this doesn't work,' he said, 'are you going to keep trying?'
'We're not out of options,' Draco reminded him. 'It's just one failure. I've failed more often than that in the past.'
'And you've succeeded in the end,' Luna said, smiling at him. 'What do you want from us?'
'I'm going to try my plan, and I'm going to need your help.'
'Are you going to the Forbidden Forest?' Dennis asked, jumping to the right conclusion.
'Will you still need our help with potions and revival?' Neville asked
Draco nodded again. 'And we'll need Luna there, too.'
'How can I help?' she asked.
'I'll need you to convince my mother not to kill anyone when they kill me.'
He took Luna with him to see his mother.
It was both caution and cleverness on his part, she was unlikely to hex him in front of a bystander, and he had seen his mother be as kind as she could be to Luna and Ollivander during the war. Luna had assured him that she would help, and so when they sat down in the breakfast room of Malfoy Manor – Draco had insisted there was no need for fuss, but there were crumpets and sliced fruit – she was the one who took his mother's hands and said, 'Mrs Malfoy – Narcissa if I may – your son has very nearly worked a miracle. You must be so proud!'
It was a good strategy, confusion and pride both danced into his mother's features, and he was impressed when she smothered them both under a knowing nod and asked, 'Are you close to succeeding in that project?'
'Very,' Luna assured her. 'But we need your help for the last of it. Draco didn't want to bother you, because he is worried it will be too distressing, but I reminded him how strong you are – and we will need that strength, because what we propose to do is hard.'
His mother was leaning forward and listening intently by then, and Draco began to hope they would get through the discussion without her being outraged by his foolhardiness.
Luna outlined the plan, making it all seem as though they would use Draco as the test subject for the first time in the Forbidden Forest. 'Draco has calculated that something was lost near the place where Harry was killed, and he believes it's the key to bringing him back. Do you think you could find that place for us?'
'This thing you plan, is it safe?' Narcissa asked, gripping Luna's arm.
'Neville and Dennis have had complete success with every animal trial and with the five attempts using wizards they have run so far,' Luna said, mostly truthfully if you ignored the plural. 'The science is very sound, and the magic is solid.'
'And Draco?' she looked at him.
'I want to do it, Mother,' he said. 'I owe him. We both do. He deserves a chance.'
His mother nodded at that, her expression sombre. 'But you want me to take you into a dangerous place and let others stop your heart.'
'Yes,' he answered simply.
The corners of her mouth tilted up slightly. 'I suppose it's no more than what he did for us.'
And Draco hadn't thought of it that way at all before. His heart felt suddenly heavier as he imagined Harry all alone, walking through the dark trees towards his enemies and facing what he would have felt was certain death.
'It's not like that,' he told his mother, reaching out for her hand. 'I'll be safe. I'll have you there.'
'Of course you will,' she told him, fingers closing around his. 'I'll always be there for you.'
And then Draco remembered Luna, and her mother, and he looked to her in apology, but she was smiling at them, as though this was exactly what she had hoped to see, and it was all he could do not to burst out with the fact she was easily the best person he knew.
It was a Sunday, so they had to coordinate their arrival at Hogwarts carefully. Neville had stayed up late to speak with the centaurs and ask their permission to go into the forest. He had, he told Draco and the others as they met at the gates of Hogwarts, expected it to be much harder, but Bane had told him he had borne the guilt of Hagrid's words for many years, and that they had seen this would be a path to repaying their debt.
'Not that he gave me a bloody clue about whether or not it would work,' Neville muttered.
'Centaurs have never been generous with sharing their wisdom,' Narcissa told him. 'I have often wondered if that was because they are not actually as wise as they pretend.'
Draco was glad they were all wearing hoods to keep their identities from any of the children who might be down by the gate; he didn't want to know if his mother was making jokes, today was already stressful enough.
Neville smiled, though. 'I've wondered the same, Mrs Malfoy. My friend Firenze tells me that he sometimes suspects it, too.'
'I'm glad to hear that some of them have sense.'
'Should we…?' Dennis asked
'Yes,' Narcissa said. 'Because if I keep thinking of what we are about to do, I won't be able to do it.'
Neville and Dennis led them through the school grounds, as far from the castle as they could, past the Quidditch pitch, where Draco caught a glimpse of a girl who had to be Rose Weasley, and heard her yelling, 'Harry, for the love of Kneazles, will you pay attention?!' He suspected her mother had said the same more than once to the lad's namesake. Scorpius was probably somewhere close, so Draco kept his head down and let the folds of his hood conceal his face and hair.
Neville didn't let up the pace until they had reached the woods. There he stopped. He turned to Narcissa. 'We were inside the castle when you…'
She nodded, saving him from having to say which side she had stood, if not fought, with. 'I think we emerged further round,' she said. 'There was an alder…'
Draco's mother took the lead now, and he was surprised to see how swift and nimble she was. He realised that they had not gone anywhere together in years, just sat in stern rooms with his father between them, even after he had gone. This… this was another thing he could not lose now he had found it.
'Here,' she announced, pointing at an overgrown path that emerged beside an alder tree. Once she had indicated it, Draco could see the faint marks left from the Death Eaters, where a fireball had been used to light the path, a tree pushed out of the way to make the going easier. It looked darker and more forbidding than the forest he had been terrified of as a boy, and he could not imagine what it had been like to walk through it at night behind a madman, knowing you had already betrayed him and clinging to the slimmest of hopes.
'It's not far,' Narcissa said. 'Less than half a mile. Perhaps much less, I couldn't tell time or distance that night.'
She led them through the forest, unsure at first, and then able to recognise trees, rocks. 'We're close,' she said after ten or so minutes, and then a few moments later the forest opened and they were in an ancient clearing, pock-marked with abandoned tunnels. Keeping her eyes on the ground, Narcissa continued walking until she found a patch of blighted earth where nothing wholesome grew. 'This is where he fell to the ground,' she said.
'Harry?' Neville asked.
Narcissa looked at the tainted soil and then back at Neville.
'Riddle,' Neville said, and Draco saw his mother nod, a small satisfaction at the choice of name.
She stood behind the spot and turned. 'He was facing this way when Harry Potter came through the trees.' She walked in the direction she was facing, careful to jump across the taint. She turned back, seeing a small army of the dead ranged in her mind's eye. They were clearly still too close. She took a few more steps then looked again. 'Here,' she said, nodding. 'Here is where he fell. We saw him appear not three steps before. If it has not been taken, then it is here.'
Draco couldn't help himself. He looked down at the ground, where flints and pebbles littered the soil. Luna's hand touched lightly on his shoulder.
'Even if you could find it, what would you do with it?' she asked, and it was then he realised that his obfuscation had counted for nothing, and that she – and probably Neville and Dennis – had guessed his plan.
'Nothing,' he promised her. 'The cost is too high. But I think that Potter may be able to manage to cheat Death with it – that's what all the old stories say, isn't it?'
Luna rested her head on his shoulder. 'Yes. And he is too wise to abuse a victory like that.' She squeezed his arm, then stepped away and used her wand to create a nest of fallen leaves and dried grasses. She threw her cloak over the top of it, and smiled at her handiwork.
'Thank you,' Draco said. He exchanged quick glances with Neville and Dennis, then turned to his mother. 'Mummy,' he said, not caring that he had not called her that in thirty years, 'it will be all right. Just have faith in us.'
She took her cloak off and covered the rest of Luna's makeshift bed before she looked at him. 'I do. But I will still worry, because my love is stronger than my faith.'
He kissed her forehead, but did not hug her because he did not trust himself to let go. 'All right,' he said to Neville, sitting on the leaf bed. 'I'm ready.'
There was a moment when all was darkness and he was alone, but before he could worry, a golden glow dawned and there was Harry, standing in the thin warmth of a crisp autumn morning. In deference to the weather, he had added a jacket over his jumper, but his shoes were still the unmatched puce and mint of the day before.
'Here again,' he said, and Draco wasn't sure if he meant the two of them or the woods, but both were true.
'I had help,' Draco told him.
'She said we owed you, that it was what you did for us.' Draco wasn't sure why he was defending his mother, especially as Potter had not attacked her.
Potter was apparently thinking the same thing. 'She's paid any debt a thousand times already,' he said. 'But I am grateful she came. This must be frightening for her, have you set a time limit?'
'So, what's your plan?' Potter asked.
'You take out the wand, find the stone, put on the Cloak, and you leave here. I don't know if you'll just be able to step out, or have to Apparate, or something else, but I think you'll see a way once you have all three Hallows,' Draco said.
Harry's smile crept up one side of his face. 'I'm not sure I'll be able to hold the stone, given that it's in the real world and I'm not.'
'It's Death's and you're deadish,' Draco countered. 'I'm fairly sure it will be fine.'
'And what about you?' Harry asked. 'When will they take you out of here?'
'Five minutes. I didn't want Mother to have to wait fifteen.'
'So I won't leave before you do, I'm not going to risk that.'
Draco shook his head. 'I think, that if you are holding all the Hallows, you might actually be the master of Death, which should include the temporarily dead, if I am any judge.'
'I'm not going to risk it,' Harry repeated.
They looked at each other for a long moment, and the shy smiles of the previous day returned.
'How's Ron?' Harry asked.
'Good. Embarrassed, I had an Owl from the two of them this morning apologising for all the fuss. If I play my cards right, I think I can convince him to not arrest us while we found the Church of Snape.'
Harry laughed at that. 'I suppose it's as good a career as any.' He paused for a moment before speaking on. 'I can't keep fighting, you know. If that's what you want – I come back and I lead us all against the Ministry – I don't think I can. I think I need…' He trailed off, unsure.
'Rest,' Draco said. 'You need to finally find yourself safe at the end of the war, with no duties, no-one to save, no great quest. Just a chance to find out about the little things that are meant to make up life.'
Harry's smile came back. 'Yes. That sounds good.'
'The thing is,' Draco said, 'we don't need you to be there to fight our fights for us. We can do that ourselves. But we need you to be there to remind us of our own strength. You made Hermione human even when she was being superhuman. You gave Ron and Neville cause to find their courage. You gave me reason to hope, and that kept me alive, taught me that my life was worthwhile. But it's easier for all of us to do those things when you're there, with us.'
'So, you're inviting me back to watch you overthrow the Ministry?'
Draco grinned. 'I can't promise I won't.'
Harry grinned in reply. Draco liked the way his eyes crinkled in this manly face. 'Good.' He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Elder Wand, then under his jumper and removed the Cloak that had not shown before that moment. 'If this doesn't work …'
'I'm going to keep trying,' Draco interrupted him. 'I'm not going to do anything stupid, I'm not going to contract some lingering disease so we exchange pleasantries at my bedside every evening as I slip away, but I am going to keep looking for a way to get you back. And I'm not going to stop.'
Potter didn't say anything.
Draco wasn't sure he should say anything more, either, but he did anyway. 'I loved my wife. Properly loved her. She was my reason to get up most days. And I will still see her every day in Scorpius's eyes and in my work, and in the way I remember to listen to people now, before I decide what I think about them.
'But the thing is, one of the reasons that she could love me was you. Because you taught me there was always the possibility of grace. That you could make terrible mistakes, but that no single moment defines us, just the choices we make, day after day. You were always with me, in the way that she will always be with me. But I would really like the chance to see if we could actually be, and not just have you as a life lesson.'
Harry dropped the wand and cloak. One of his hands caught Draco's arm and the other slid through his hair to pull their faces together. The kiss was clumsy at first, and eager, and right, and over far too soon, though it was probably just as well because he really needed to have a pulse for this sort of thing. Draco could feel the smiles on their faces even before they moved back a little, foreheads still resting against each other.
'It's been a while,' Harry said. 'I'll need to practice.'
'We can arrange a schedule,' Draco told him, pushing messy hair back behind Harry's ear. 'Intensive workshops. I'll tutor you.'
Draco began to laugh gently. 'It's probably a terrible plan. There will probably be hexing within the month, and protests outside the house from enraged devotees, but I don't care.'
'Neither do I,' Harry told him, and for the first time in a very long time Draco felt as though the world was all right and that anything was possible within it.
Harry stepped back, though Draco wished he wouldn't. 'It's nearly been five minutes,' he said. He picked up the wand. 'Accio Resurrection Stone,' he said, and a small stone flew through the air, Harry catching it neatly in his left hand. He looked at Draco. 'You were right. Nearly there.'
Draco was glad he wasn't really breathing, because he didn't think there was room in his chest for air. 'I …'
'So do I,' Harry said, and they leaned towards each other.
And then Dennis moved, and Draco could feel himself being dragged back into his own body, feel the thump of his heart and the pulse of his blood, feel the drag of his lungs as they expanded and the clutch of his mother's hand on his chest as she felt life return to him. But he couldn't open his eyes until he was sure.
It was Luna who saw him, who cried 'Harry!' and whose feet he heard running. He opened his eyes in time to see Neville and Dennis moving away from him, but there was his mother, and she was whispering 'Draco…' so it is was her he sat up and held. And as he felt her hands move around his back and hold him, he looked up. And there he was, mismatched shoes and all, with his arms full of friends, looking at Draco and smiling.
Neville had a coin. Draco had realised quickly that Ron and Hermione needed to know, and the Patil sisters, too, but had been damned if he knew how to go about it other than sending Dennis running for the Owlery. But then Neville had reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin and tapped it and apparently the message was sent, and at least Hermione ought to get it.
'Brilliant,' Dennis said. 'Can't believe I didn't think of that.'
'I can't believe they still work,' Harry said, smiling at it.
Luna was still holding onto his arm, so she only had one hand free to fish under the collar of her shirt and pull out a coin on a chain. 'We kept hoping,' she told him. He hugged her lopsidedly, smiling at the fact he could do so, or perhaps he was smiling at the sun and air, the everything…
'They'll be here in a few minutes,' Neville said.
'Thank you,' Harry said. He looked past him. 'Mrs Malfoy, thank you.'
'Thank you,' she replied, then, to Draco's astonishment, stepped forwards and hugged Harry. It was all very solemn for a moment, then they both began to laugh, and Harry picked her up and swung her around, to everyone's surprise except hers.
'This is much better!' she exclaimed as he put her down, and Draco didn't think he had ever seen her smile so broadly. She and Harry touched each other's cheeks, and then she stepped aside.
Suddenly there was no-one standing between Draco and Harry, and they both stepped forwards and their faces were tucked into each other's necks and hair, and arms holding each other tightly. Draco felt Harry's hand sink into his hair, and no matter what happened, he would always remember this.
He heard his mother whisper 'Oh…', and Neville say 'It's a thing they're doing now', and Dennis and Luna chuckling affectionately, and then there were rushes of air, as of brooms flying past, and Draco lifted his head a little and saw that Padma and Parvati had arrived. 'Our friends,' he whispered in Harry's ear as he drew his head back, and felt the man's smile against his cheek.
And then he stepped back and Harry was swamped by the twins, and Dennis was standing next to him and saying 'Let's grab a drink sometime this week,' and Draco was tremendously grateful, because he was going to need a good talk with someone, if only to be told that things were clearly doomed and he should quit now while it was all going well.
A sudden movement on the other side of the clearing resolved into Ron, Hermione and Hugo, running from somewhere nearby. Padma and Parvati cleared the way. Ron was faster, by virtue of longer legs, but he had not let go of Hermione's hand and so they stopped in front of Harry together.
'How?' asked Hermione
'Magic,' said Harry, laughing, and then the three of them were hugging and laughing and there may even have been dancing. Neville went and stood with Hugo, who was asking if that was really Harry Potter, and did that mean they wouldn't get fireworks on Harry Potter Day anymore, and then Ron dragged him over so he could meet his Uncle Harry, and then Hermione started to talk about Rose, and James Thomas, and all the other cousins, and Teddy, who was living with Victoire and Fleur was quietly outraged, and Ron stepped away and came over to Draco and enfolded him in a hug and said 'Mate…' and it was all quite a lot like a good Christmas, really.
Everything was so loud for a few minutes that no-one noticed the other broom landing at first, and then Draco saw them standing there – Ginny Thomas, with her husband a step behind her, smiling nervously and holding a coin. 'It worked,' she said as Harry looked up and saw her.
'You haven't changed a bit,' he said.
'Liar,' she said. 'I've changed entirely.' And then she hugged him like a sister and Draco could see that Dean was the most relieved person in the clearing, and then she hugged her brother and her sister-in-law and nephew, friends, and even Draco and his mother, who was startled enough to tell her she looked lovely, dear.
Someone had sent word to the castle, Draco never learned whether it was Neville or one of the centaurs who had been watching at a distance, and Professor McGonagall appeared, followed by Professors Flitwick and Sinistra.
The Head Mistress stopped well before she reached Harry, who was being hugged again by Luna at that point, most of those present having just decided to take it in turns. 'I always hoped,' she told him, and he ran across the distance and lifted her off her feet, and she laughed, and told them they were all in trouble for invading her school and would have to take detention with her over lunch.
Which was mostly a good idea, even if it did involve a long interrogation from Scorpius – picked up on their riotous journey back past the Quidditch fields – as to why he was only now learning that they were family friends with the Weasleys and, no, seriously, Dad, is that really Harry Potter? And then Ron telling Rose she had to sit with Scorpius and listen quietly while he and her mother explained things, and Scorpius looking as though he, too, thought Christmas had come early, even when James and Freda Thomas came and sat beside them.
Yes, there was that awkward moment when some of the Potterite students prostrated themselves on the ground before Harry, but his calm suggestion that they should get up because he had been assured that there was treacle tart and roast potatoes on offer at lunch effectively defused any sense of the numinal.
Which was how they came to eat a meal during which almost every student of the school crept shyly up to the head table, which had been set on both sides and at which no-one was staying in their assigned seats, and told Harry their name, and shook his hand, and forever after they would be able to say they had been there.
Draco held his mother's hand, sure that she, too, was remembering the last time they had been here. 'This is much better,' he told her. And Harry heard him, and he leaned across the table to take Draco's other hand.
After a moment, he looked as though he remembered something, and reached into a pocket. He placed a wand in Draco's hand, and Draco realised it was his old one. 'But…' he said.
'I don't need it anymore,' Harry said, taking out another wand. 'I fixed mine.'
'And the other one?'
Harry shrugged vaguely, taking Draco's hand again.
Draco smiled at him. 'The stone?'
'But you still have the Cloak, yeah?'
Harry nodded. 'I will always have the Cloak. Though, just for the moment, I suspect I probably need to be seen.' He looked down at their joined hands. 'I want to be seen.'
At which point Harriana Percy asked if Harry could please sign her cast and Ginny Thomas dropped into the seat beside Narcissa to share a slice of cake, and Draco suspected he had been wrong from the start and this might well be some sort of miracle after all.
'Hurry up, Hugo!' Hermione exclaimed the following Saturday. 'Everyone will be at Harry and Draco's before us!'
Ron's tired brain mentioned that it had warned about this sort of thing, but he decided to ignore it. It just made sense that Harry would stay at Draco's, the house with the best protections and most space. All of them had spent some of the week there with them, and if it didn't always look as though the bed in Harry's room had been slept in, then Ron was going to put that down to very efficient house elves and come to grips with the whole situation later, at his own pace.
He tidied a stack of Prophets off the kitchen table, noting the full-page advert they had all paid to run every day this week. Ginny had done a brilliant job with the text:
Mr Harry Potter wishes it to be known that he has not been dead, has not risen from the dead and, as a person unresurrected, has not the slightest trace of divinity.
It is true that he has spent the past twenty years trapped in what he describes as a 'Cosmic Waiting Room', which may possibly be a part of the general end of life experience. However, he was most definitely alive when he entered this place and while he was there, and has continued living since his return.
Mr Potter recalls almost nothing of his time in this place, except a deep feeling of peace and joy.
He wishes to thank those who did not give up hope of seeing him again and those who worked to effect his return.
He would not dream of telling the members of a religious organisation what to do, but reiterates that he is in no way divine. At the same time, he thanks those who have supported Muggle-born causes in his name and will be devoting himself to similar work in the future.
He asks that the use of 'Harry Potter' as a political and commercial slogan cease and desist at this time and will be giving legal instructions to enforce same after a grace period of two weeks has elapsed.
While Mr Potter is extremely touched by and grateful for the many kind messages he has received since his return, he would like to reintegrate into society in as quiet a manner as possible and thus asks that his privacy be respected at this time.'
Harry had granted Ginny and Luna an exclusive interview that ran identically in the Prophet and Quibbler, in which he had been staggeringly dull about everything that had happened since the battle in the Great Hall, saying that it was a blur, a mystery, a time of vague pleasantry, during which some force must have acted to keep him in good order, as here he was, hale and hearty. And that yes, while losing twenty years was an inconvenience, it was nevertheless an improvement on much of his childhood.
They had been suitably vague about how Harry had been brought back. Rumours had ranged from Dennis and Neville practicing Dark Magic in the forest to the centaurs fulfilling a prophecy. Minerva McGonagall had been approached by other journalists for a comment and had sent them off with literal fleas in their ears; semi-indestructible ones, by all reports.
There had been some consternation in Potterite circles, but Ron had just yesterday seen the Church of Harry Potter Youth Centre on Diagon Alley changing its signage to the Friends of Harry Potter Muggle-Born Outreach and Advice Centre. He had reported as much over dinner last night and been baffled when Harry burst into laughter and Draco had tutted and said 'Too late! Poor Snape!' Quite possibly that would all be explained at some point.
Hugo came galumphing down the stairs, carrying two novels, in case the adults were boring. 'I'm ready,' he announced.
'About time,' said Hermione. 'You right, Ron?'
'Absolutely,' Ron said, picking up his jacket.
'Mum…' Hugo said, 'what does it mean when adults hold hands a lot? Is it just for friends or because they like each other the way you and Dad do?'
Here we go, Ron thought, surprised it had taken this long given how much time they had all spent at Malfoy's.
'It depends, Hugo,' Hermione said. 'Sometimes it's because they're being friendly, sometimes it's for reassurance, and sometimes it's because they like each other the way your dad and I do.'
'So which is it with Uncle Neville and Mrs Malfoy, then?' Hugo asked.
Ron's brain decided that it did not want to hear the answer, and he wrapped his long arms around those members of his family present and chivvied them out the door, assuring his son that no-one in the world liked anyone as much as he liked Hermione, so there was absolutely no point making comparisons. And if a least two of the people they would be sitting down to lunch with were determined to make a liar out of him, well, he could live with that.