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A Family Like None Other

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Mmmmm. House-elf cooking really was good, thought Harry as he licked the last traces of salt from his fingers. His father would have given him a look for that, at the very least. His brother would have sneered, or more likely, said something scathing about Gryffindor manners.

As it was, though, both Snape and Draco had already finished lunch and left the table. If Harry listened closely, he could hear the sporadic sound of chopping coming from Snape's private potions laboratory, and the slight rustling of robes as Snape moved from one counter to another.

His hearing wasn't good enough to discern what Draco was doing in the bedroom, but Harry figured he was probably writing a letter to Rhiannon. He wrote one almost every day, after all. Long letters, sheet after sheet of parchment filled with Draco's graceful script. He even wrote the letters by hand instead of dictating them to the spelled quill he tended to use for his essays.

Harry didn't think that was because Draco favoured the personal touch, however. More likely, he just didn't want Harry hearing the content of his letters. They were definitely love-letters, and Harry didn't need to read--or hear--them to realise as much. He knew just from seeing Draco's expression as he rolled up the scroll.

Head over heels. No other way to describe it, really.

Then Draco would notice Harry looking, and his features would shift into aloof lines, as if he were embarrassed to have been caught looking so love-struck. The expression of cool disdain never really worked, though. The giddiness still dancing in Draco's eyes gave him away every time.

So far, Harry had managed to ignore the impulse to tease Draco about it. Harry wouldn't have thought twice about teasing Seamus or Dean or Ron, but Draco? He was more brittle, somehow. Plus, he was likely to take it wrong, considering how critical Harry had been of his relationship with Rhiannon.

Harry still had his doubts, still thought that Draco was on the rebound from Pansy's betrayal, but now, he saw that there was no point in saying so. All that would do was alienate Draco. Harry nodded to himself, determined. He liked having a brother. Loved it, in fact, and he wasn't about to do anything that would drive Draco away.

Not one negative word about Rhiannon, Harry promised himself. Not a single one.

Harry glanced at his empty plate, wondering if he should ask the elves for more chips. That was one of the best things about being back at Hogwarts--no more cooking duties. Not that Harry minded so very much; he was used to that after all his summers with the Dursleys, but it was also nice to know that if he wanted food now, all he had to do was toss some powder into the Floo and announce his order. That would change when school started, of course. Harry would move back to Gryffindor and except for the occasional meal down here, he'd eat in the Great Hall with everyone else.

Well, when he wasn't sneaking down to the kitchens for a bite of this or that.

After a moment, Harry decided he wasn't feeling peckish enough for a second helping of chips. Really, he ought to write some letters of his own. It had been almost a week since the Order meeting, and apart from Percy's memorial service, Harry hadn't set foot outside the castle. He wondered how Ron was holding up.

Harry dragged some parchment from a drawer and tried to think of what to write. Trouble was, he couldn't think of anything. Ron knew that Harry hadn't liked Percy much, so sympathy was bound to sound fake as hell, even if Harry meant it in the best way. Even worse, if Harry just wrote a regular letter, ignoring the horrible events at the Ministry . . . well, that would be awfully cold, wouldn't it?

Maybe he should write to Hermione, instead. Yeah, that was easier. So much so, in fact, that Harry wasted no time getting started.

    Dear Hermione,

    How are you? I hope Draco isn't driving you mental with his constant stream of letters to Rhiannon. When you agreed to make sure his post got passed along, you probably weren't expecting him to write almost every day. Knowing you, though, I suspect you're not too annoyed.

Of course she wasn't. After all, the letters proved that Draco was becoming more attached to his girlfriend--and by extension, more tolerant of all things Muggle.

    So, seventh year. You know, part of me really can't believe it's already here. Maybe that's because I spent so much of sixth year out of classes. Not that I really regret it--what I ended up with is worth more than what I missed out on, but I still do a double-take when I realise that this next year is really my last. I don't know, maybe I'd feel the same way in any case. It's hard for me to think of leaving Hogwarts, even though I do have another home, now.

    Draco spends hours every day reading those Muggle Studies books you gave him, and I've been steadily working my way through your translation of the Bulgarian mirror book. With N.E.W.T.s this year, I think I won't have much time to devote to that once term starts, which makes me wish I had more time to figure out the mirror, first! Mastering a mirror is turning out to be practically impossible, by the way. You know how my magic is these days! I dropped the mirror you gave me, but I have another one to practise with, now. Fat lot of good that does me. The mirror won't listen to me no matter what I try.

Harry sighed, biting his quill for a few moments before he resumed writing.

    Say hallo to your parents for me. Are you writing Ron? I can't think of what to say to him, even though I feel horrible about Percy dying. You know what I mean, I'm sure.

    Well, here's something that ought to make you smile, anyway. Draco wants me to go live in Slytherin, this year. He knows perfectly well that I won't, of course, but he's brought it up three times since we left Devon. He says it would only be fair, claiming that since I'll be on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, the school as a whole will need some kind of reminder that I'm in Slytherin, too. I've told him that my special crest will have to be enough, and that's that, but you know Draco. He's not likely to give it up unless Dad tells him to, full stop. And you know, I don’t think Severus would ask me to move to Slytherin, but he gets this --look-- in his eye when Draco goes on about people needing to believe I'm a Slytherin in more than name only. I’m actually a little worried about what it might mean. Maybe he just wants me to eat at their table more, you think?

    Enjoy the rest of your summer and whatever you do, don't study too much!

    Love,

    Harry

Harry blew on the ink to dry it, then tapped the parchment with a finger, murmuring the incantation to roll and seal the scroll.

"Owl this with yours, would you?" he asked as he opened the door to the bedroom he and Draco shared.

Draco hadn't been writing a letter at all, though. He was sitting cross-legged on his bed, holding his ferret on his lap.

"No, Loki," Draco was saying, clearly exasperated. "You can't play with Sals like that. Harry'll have my head."

Harry dropped the scroll on his night table as he shook his head. "Was your pet trying to eat mine? Again?"

Draco glanced up. "I told you, Loki's just playing--"

"Yeah, with Sals between his jaws. I'm not exactly brimming with confidence in his intentions." Focussing on the snake image in the corner of his glasses, Harry started hissing. "Sals. Where are you, Sals? It's all right. The big rat can't get into your special box, you know. You'll be safe in there."

Sals came peeking out from beneath the bed, her tongue flickering as she bobbed her head to and fro as though checking for the "big rat." Harry wasn't trying to be snide when he put it that way. It just seemed that Parseltongue had no more exact word for ferret.

Scooping Sals up, Harry held her cradled in both his palms as he sat down on his bed. Since she was still moving in restless circles over his skin, Harry whispered to her a bit more, promising that Loki wouldn't hurt her.

Meanwhile, Draco lowered Loki to the floor, stroking the length of the ferret's back once before he let the animal go. Then, he leaned back against his headboard, his arms crossed as he studied Harry. "You don't know how easy you have it, being able to have a proper conversation with your pet."

"Sure I do." Harry tickled Sals under the chin one more time, and then gently set her next to the glass box he'd charmed to keep her safe. He watched as she slithered inside and coiled up. "I can't speak to owls, you know."

"Ha. With your history, that'll be next amazing talent you sprout."

"Well, it's not as though you have no talents of your own," said Harry, smiling. Now that he knew Draco, he could understand their past enmity quite a bit better. How many times had the other boy used hatred and cruel remarks to cover up jealousy and insecurity?

Too many to count, Harry was starting to think. "What was it that Dad said a couple of days ago? Makings of a Potions Master if you apply yourself?"

Draco scoffed. "As if I'd want to teach at a wizarding school. I'd have to live in, and I don't imagine that would fit in well with Rhiannon's opera career. No, I'm set on a brilliant rise to become the Ministry's top-ranking Auror."

"Going to out-rank your own brother, are you?" Harry laughed as he kicked off his trainers and stretched out on his bed.

"Of course I am," said Draco smugly. "Don't worry, though. I'm not in the least opposed to nepotism. I'll give you all the choice assignments. Though possibly not the ones investigating illegal brewing, not unless you get quite a bit better at Potions."

"Not much way to avoid that, is there? Seeing as I have to take the class even though it's not even required any longer." Harry's frown grew even more pronounced. "And as if that's not enough, Dad has to have me brewing during the summer, too! I didn't mind helping out with the Wolfsbane project before we went to Devon, but I didn't expect to have to brew all sorts of other things now that we're back. Before we know it, school'll start up again. I'd rather have my holiday actually be one."

Draco shrugged, which sparked Harry's sense of outrage even further. It was all well and good for Draco, who actually liked brewing. "If we hadn't got away to Devon, Dad would have had me slaving over a hot cauldron every day this summer, I bet!"

Draco rolled his eyes. "You really are dense sometimes. You mean you truly didn't realise?"

The question--or maybe the knowing way Draco asked it--made Harry's gaze narrow. He hated it when Snape and Draco kept things from him. "Realise what?"

"Severus wanted to make sure that you weren't brooding about what happened at the Burrow."

Harry swallowed. Yeah, the memorial service for Percy had been awful, all right. Somehow, Harry hadn't expected it to be. Maybe because at the Order meeting, the Weasleys had been holding up pretty well. The ones he'd seen, at least.

To tell the truth, Harry's biggest worry when they Apparated to the service had been about Draco. The last funeral he'd seen had been Pansy's, and Harry figured that Draco would be reminded of how much he'd loved her. Of how much he'd lost.

But no, Draco hadn't been bothered at all to sit through the memorial service.

Harry had, though.

Pansy Parkinson's funeral had been a rather restrained affair, he realised now. Perhaps that was the Slytherin way to go about things. The Weasleys were about as far from Slytherins as anyone could get, though. They were heart-broken with grief, and didn't try to hide that fact.

Harry still ached with sympathy when he remembered the way fat tears had oozed out Ron's eyes and rolled down his cheeks.

Suddenly, Ron doesn't do subtle wasn't so amusing, after all.

All the Weasleys had been crying, but Ginny had positively wept, and Mrs Weasley had actually thrown herself onto the empty casket and wailed. But then, she had every cause. Losing a child was her very worst fear, and now, it had come true.

Harry had shuddered, remembering the boggart he'd had to deal with during Aran's test near the end of the last term. If his father died, he didn't know what he'd do, but he doubted he'd handle it much better than Molly Weasley was dealing with this death.

"You would," said Snape firmly once they'd made it back home and Harry had admitted what was on his mind. "You must understand, Harry, that what the Weasleys are mourning now is not merely Percy himself. They're mourning the death of possibility. He died estranged from them, siding firmly with Fudge despite the man's obvious incapacity for logical thought, and because he's gone, they'll never have a chance to reconcile. It's a double death, in a way."

Harry had nodded his understanding, but scowled when he caught the look on Draco's face. "Shut up. Right now."

Draco had raised his chin. "Oh, I like that! I didn't even say anything!"

"You were going to," Harry had retorted, eyes narrowed. "I can tell."

"And what was I going to say, then?"

"That weeping and wailing like that is very lower-class!"

Draco's voice had taken on a distinct chill. "In point of fact, I would describe their behaviour as weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. But if I looked disgusted just now, it was at the thought that were I to die, my own mother would sit stone-faced and beautiful all through my funeral, breaking up only on the inside! And of course Lucius would only ever have thought that if I lacked enough cunning to figure out how to stay alive, then I bloody well must have deserved an early grave!"

"Oh." Harry had gulped, ashamed of jumping to conclusions. "Er, sorry, then. But . . . well, not that I'd want you to die, but when you do, your funeral won't be like that. You have me now, and Dad, and--"

"Oh, you'll weep buckets, I'm sure," said Draco, and not sarcastically. But then his voice shifted. "And you, Severus? Will you drop Slytherin decorum for a few seconds if you lose a son?"

Snape's eyes had flashed a warning that this was no joking matter. "I am not going to lose a son. The two of you are strong and healthy and more than twenty years my junior. Now, as it's late and we have a long day of brewing tomorrow, I suggest you both get some sleep."

Long day of brewing . . . Snape had explained that by stating that their summer practicals had been "woefully neglected," but now that Draco had explained, Harry could see the ploy for what it had been. Snape hadn't wanted Harry and Draco dwelling on death the day after the funeral.

"Would you really drop Potions if you didn't care about Severus' good opinion?" Draco suddenly asked, moving to the edge of his bed and leaning forward a bit. "I can't believe that. You may not enjoy the class, but you're certainly clever enough to decide that being over-qualified for the Auror's programme can only be to your benefit."

Harry rolled onto his side, one eyebrow cocked. "I thought you believed I'd get in on my name alone, no matter what."

"Oh, I do believe that," Draco freely admitted. "But you don't like that idea, so you'll make yourself as qualified as possible, I thought."

"Yeah, probably so." Harry chuckled. "Potions isn't so bad, these days. When I talk about dropping it if I hadn't been adopted, I really mean, I'd drop it if I still hated the very thought of walking into that room. Severus really wasn't very nice to me, you know. Hell, you were there!"

"And thought you deserved every point lost, and twice as many detentions," said Draco, chuckling too. "I'm happy we're past all that. Though, I don't know. Maybe without the old enmity to keep things lively, classes this year will just be . . . boring."

"Oh, I don't know. Things were pretty lively last year after you got admitted into classes again--"

"Only because we had the world's biggest git for Defence."

Harry smiled, popping his hands behind his head as he lay on his back again. "Yeah, but Dad was really something, eh? When I think back to Aran, that's what I remember. But that reminds me . . . I wonder what this Maura Morrighan'll be like. Would it be too much to ask, you think, that we end up having two decent years of Defence instruction? Just two out of seven?"

"One, you mean," said Draco, a little darkly.

Harry quickly rolled on his side to face his brother. "Remus was excellent!"

"Says the boy who got private tutelage." Draco sniffed.

"Oh, like you wanted private tutelage from him!"

"Touché."

Uh-oh. Draco looked like he was about to start brooding about his mother unknowingly having to live with Remus, so Harry spoke quickly to distract him. "I wonder what's going to be wrong with Morrighan? Probably Dumbledore knows by now to be careful that she's not some Death Eater on Polyjuice, and since she's a shepherdess and with animals all the time, I doubt she's prejudiced against Parselmouths--"

"A shepherdess?" asked Draco, his voice going a little bit squeaky. "You can't be serious."

"She's got a herd of hippogriffs or something."

Draco blanched, perhaps remembering his run-in with Buckbeak. "What's she going to teach us, some version of Care of Magical Creatures?"

"I had pretty much the same reaction," said Harry ruefully. "But Dumbledore seemed to think she'd be great."

"What a relief," drawled Draco. "His judgement's never once been in error before!"

"Yeah, I know. Dumbledore approving of her isn't exactly a glowing recommendation. Well, what the worst case? Er . . . she's never even heard of Voldemort?"

"Because she's been living out in the wilds with her herd!"

"Well, not exactly the wilds. Dumbledore told me she was from Ireland."

"Same thing! That's the absolute back of beyond, don't you know--"

Harry frowned. "Don't let Seamus hear you say that. You're lucky enough he didn't crack your skull open when you called him a potato-head last year."

"I did not call him anything quite so plebeian," drawled Draco. "Potato-head, honestly. I have much better insults at hand."

"You called him exactly that. When you flooed up to Gryffindor that time, when Dad's mark was burning."

"Oh." Draco swallowed. "All right. I'll admit that in the stress of worrying about Severus, I might have said a thing like that."

Harry chuckled, seeing right through the excuse. "Sure it wasn't the stress of being without a wand and surrounded by Gryffindors who thought you'd snuck into the tower to kill me in my sleep?"

"Oh, no, that couldn't have had anything to do with it," said Draco, his tone light and breezy.

Harry grinned at that, and let it go. Sitting up, he grabbed the notebooks stacked on his night table. Just as he'd told Hermione, he'd been reading them every chance he got, but it was tough slogging. He didn't think he could fault Hermione's translation, though. The subject matter was just so technical. Who would ever have guessed that mirrors would be so difficult to enchant?

"Yeah, I'd better get back to it, too," said Draco, pulling a Muggle Studies text off the pile on his night table. "I want to be caught up to seventh year before term starts."

"Learn anything interesting, yet?"

"Mostly, that I wouldn't understand the subject at all if I hadn't spent time with Rhiannon this summer. Can you imagine? The first book I read tried to explain a telly, and didn't even have any pictures go with the explanation! I'd never have caught on properly if I hadn't watched one for myself." Draco slanted him a glance as he settled in to read. "Did you know they're fairly new? Just fifty years or so."

"Uh, yeah. I didn't know how new exactly, but yeah."

Draco nodded. "All right, then I'll believe the book. But I thought, you know . . . I don't know, I just sort of thought that Muggles had almost always had them."

"I think the Muggle world changes a lot. Faster than this one, at any rate."

Draco looked mildly horrified. "You mean everything I'm studying is going to be out of date soon?"

"Probably not that soon, but someday, yeah." Harry shrugged. "But the history stuff, that won't change, right?"

"A good thing fourth year seems to focus on history, then," Draco muttered. "Quiet now, Harry. I'm trying to concentrate."

Harry shot Draco a mild glare. He wasn't the one nattering on about the telly . . . but he wanted to concentrate too, so he didn't make a fuss.

The room lapsed into silence as both boys began to study in earnest.

---------------------------------------------------

"Anything in the post?" asked Draco the next night when Snape came in from a meeting with the headmaster.

Strange, thought Harry. Draco asked that all the time, of course. He was always hoping for a letter from Rhiannon. Usually, though, he sounded almost chirpy at the prospect. Tonight he sounded cautious. Or maybe, resigned.

Snape shook his head. "Nothing."

Draco sighed, but not theatrically, not this time. "All right. I wish that owls could deliver things down here, that's all."

"They don't deliver to Gryffindor either, if that's any consolation," said Harry.

"It's not."

"It's not always convenient dealing with the owls and their routines," said Snape, sounding cross. "Now, if you'll excuse me?" He whirled and went down the hall to his bedroom.

Harry raised an eyebrow. "I wonder what's got into him?"

As it turned out, Harry didn't have to wonder long. Snape was still scowling as they all sat down to dinner that night.

Harry wasn't exactly sure he should ask, but the man had said he didn't want to be a closed book, so . . . "Dad? Something on your mind?"

"I've received my class lists."

Oh. That didn't sound so bad.

"My advanced courses have dropped to fewer than half the usual number of students."

Harry frowned, thinking that over. "Just because the Ministry dropped the Potions N.E.W.T. from Auror apprentice requirements? I'm pretty sure Draco and I are the only ones interested in applying for that, and we're both still in your class--"

"Besides," Draco put in, "weren't the offices of MLE destroyed along with all the rest? So maybe the new policy got . . . er, blown to bits?"

"A pity MLE wasn't blown to bits before they formulated their asinine new policy," said Snape coldly.

"Dad!" Harry tried for a laugh, but it came out like a weak, strangled thing. "You don't mean that--"

"I think you're old enough to understand macabre humour. And no, Draco, the policy stands. It was published in the Ministry career circulars that go out across Britain, which makes it official until rescinded. As for my class lists . . ." Snape sneered. "Another bloody circular was distributed a few days ago. The new heads of several other departments have decided that if MLE felt my Potions curricula to be too challenging, it must be so. Never mind that they've barely got their feet wet and are in no position to be changing things already."

"They did it for something to do," said Draco after a moment, his voice contemplative. "So nobody could accuse them of sitting about on their hands while the Ministry is physically rebuilt."

Snape's face creased as he scowled. "They wouldn't have done it at all if MLE hadn't taken it into their daft head to muck about where no mucking was needed."

Harry nodded. "They think if MLE did it, it must be all right, as ideas go--"

Snape snorted. "As if you, in particular, haven't made it perfectly clear that you agree with this nonsense about my courses being too challenging."

Harry winced. "It's not that I agree, exactly. It's just . . . I'm not like you and Draco, naturally good at Potions and eager to spend hours brewing them."

"And do you suppose that the province of a father is to allow you to give up on worthwhile endeavours merely because they don't come to you as easily as speaking to snakes and throwing off Imperius?" Snape's gaze abruptly sharpened. "You do agree it's worthwhile, one would hope."

"Yeah, of course," said Harry, stung. "All I have to do is think of Remus!"

"Of course," drawled Snape.

"I know you don't despise him as much as you used to, so enough with the attitude. It's just--" Harry ran his hands through his hair, mussing it. He decided to ignore Draco's blatantly fastidious shudder. "Not everybody needs to be an expert at it, all right?"

"Aurors who wish to survive the war do," stressed Snape, speaking at the same time as Draco.

"You're just used to everything coming easy," the other boy said, raising his chin. "Flying, and getting on with snakes and hippogriffs, and all the rest! Well, sometimes magic is actual work, Harry."

"I know that, or did you not notice how hard I had to work to get mine back?"

Draco scoffed. "And then you end up with powers like Merlin's own. Yes, I do so pity you, Harry."

"Shut up--"

"Yes, well I shall, just as soon as you stop insulting Dad, whinging on about Potions being such a bane to your existence!"

"Now, now, Draco," said Snape in a suspiciously cheerful tone. "If your brother wishes to express in no uncertain terms his utter failure to appreciate the fine discipline of Potions, he is at liberty. After all, I did tell him that here in the privacy of his own home, he has leave to say any stupid thing he likes. "

"Yes, I suppose--"

Harry crossed his arms tightly in front of him. "I don't appreciate being called stupid just because I don't much care for brewing."

Snape raised an eyebrow. "I consider your comments, not you, to be idiotic. I think you understand that perfectly well."

"Yeah, yeah . . ." Harry relaxed his arms, shrugging for good measure. "So who's on the list, anyway?"

Snape wordlessly withdrew a narrow scroll from his robes and passed it to Harry, who winced a little when he saw just how short the list of names for seventh-year was. "Ouch. I see what you mean. Just me, Draco, Hermione, Neville, Ernie, Padma, and Terry. What happened to Ron?"

The Potions Master shrugged. "He has apparently declined."

Draco looked happy about that, blast him, though he did say, "Still, why is Longbottom bothering to keep on? At least Weasley had a smidgen of aptitude."

"A Potions N.E.W.T. must still be required to go very far in Herbology," murmured Harry as he scanned the rest of his father's class list. "And Ron was already a little iffy about whether he needed more Potions at all, since he's not sure what he wants to do after Hogwarts."

"Perhaps Mr Longbottom's summer session has rendered him more prepared than usual," said Snape.

Harry threw his father a grateful smile, hoping that Neville had learned a lot, and hadn't been too miserable doing it. But things in Austria had probably gone well, since Snape had said he'd tried to find a tutor whose teaching style would work better for Neville. Harry went back to looking at the list. "Oh. As far as I can tell, you have all the seventh-years in your ethics course."

"Only because Albus has made it an absolute requirement," said Snape, his tone sour.

Harry grinned. "You know, Dad, you never have struck me as the kind of teacher who longs to be popular. But if you do want that, all you have to do is ask to teach Defence. You were brilliant last year, absolutely bloody brilliant. I bet you'll get another standing ovation when the headmaster makes the announcement, and--"

"It was hardly a standing ovation. And you know I've no real desire to devote less time to Potions--"

"But we need some decent Defence instruction for once! Look at what just happened to the Ministry! If this Rufus Scrimgeour is a hard-nosed practical kind of leader, like the headmaster seemed to think, he ought to make sure we get a good teacher, especially now that the war's on in earnest. I mean, we haven't had anybody worth a grain of salt since Remus--"

"The Ministry has interfered enough in Hogwarts already, in my view," drawled Snape.

Oh, right. That had been a particularly bad argument to use, Harry realised.

"You're forgetting about the curse, Harry," said Draco.

"No, I'm not. Dad could always go back to Potions after one year of teaching Defence--"

"Do you know that for certain? Have you analysed this curse, then? Do you know exactly how it operates?" Draco's glare was fierce. "Severus might end up unable to stay at Hogwarts at all. And isn't that a good idea, with the war and all, to remove a place of refuge, not to mention that this insane idea of yours could undermine the adoption wards!"

"Well, you know we could always ward the cottage," Harry pointed out. "Er . . . why haven't we done that, by the way?"

"Don't you recall our discussion about my rooms here regarding me as the owner? Twenty years of habitation?"

Harry thought about that for a moment. "But you said the warding spells could attach themselves to the Dursley house no matter how long they'd lived there, because they held clear title."

Snape gave him an incredulous look.

"What?"

Draco actually made a choking noise.

Harry shot him a nasty look before gesturing for Snape to answer.

"Do you really think," his father finally asked, "that I would have brought you, injured and bleeding, to any place that Voldemort could possibly associate with me?"

"But it's Unplottable, and under Fidelius--"

"Plots within plots, I told you," murmured Draco, shaking his head.

"I arranged for the title to be clouded, long ago. I knew the cottage might need to serve as a bolt-hole at some point. I wanted it to have every protection possible, mundane as well as magical."

Harry had to admit, that did make sense. "And you haven't lived in the cottage enough for it to believe you're the owner regardless. Right."

Snape shrugged. "Besides which, any attempt to ward the cottage would require your cousin's presence there. Since the attempt would doubtless fail, it seems foolish to endanger him."

"Well, we'd have to include Dudley in the Fidelius spell, of course--"

Snape's lips tightened, the expression grim. "I can tell you from personal observation that Voldemort does not possess much respect for Light magic. He believes, for example, that torture combined with Legilimency can overcome the strictures imposed by Fidelius. The results are far from pleasant."

"All right, all right." Harry gave up, on all of it. He wouldn't get his Dad teaching Defence again. He just hoped that they'd get somebody decent.

Maura Morrighan . . . Harry had his doubts.

Draco tilted his head a little to one side, looking at the scroll Harry was still holding. "Maybe it's a good thing that your sixth- and seventh-year classes are so small, Severus. Don't you always say you have too much marking to do? Considering that you're taking on this ethics course, you probably need to be reading fewer Potions essays."

Snape's scowl actually got worse. "Which brings me to the subject of this afternoon's conference with the headmaster. He has determined that as my advanced classes are so reduced in size, the sixth and seventh years should be combined, thus reducing my teaching load to compensate for the addition of ethics!"

Harry blinked, and looked at the parchment in his hand again. "Oh, we'll be in class with Luna."

"That nutter who was hanging about in whatever classes she felt like, last year?" Draco barked a laugh. "Please. How did she earn an Outstanding on her Potions O.W.L.?"

"My personal theory," drawled Severus, "is that she bribed the scoring committee."

"Luna wouldn't do that."

Snape's voice went completely dark. "Are you quite certain?"

Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, quite. The way Luna tends to think, that wouldn't even cross her mind. And if it did, she'd offer them a radish."

Snape inclined his head as though to concede the point.

"Must've been luck," Harry decided.

"The purpose of the O.W.L. requirement is to winnow out students who depend on luck--"

Harry couldn’t help but laugh. "Oh, come on. You've invented a bunch of potions, and improved the Wolfsbane and all that. Are you going to tell me that you've never had a bit of luck when you were trying new things?"

"Inspiration," corrected Snape coolly. "Intuition, gleaned from long years observing the interactions of potions components--"

"There's some luck in all that."

Snape sighed. "I can see I'll never make a true brewer out of you. Alas. Well, at least you'll learn to master the challenging seventh-year potions I assign. But enough of that. Draco, would you set the menu for us?"

"I want a hamburger," called Harry as Draco got up and moved toward the Floo.

"We'll see if you really do want that. You're getting whatever suits."

Interesting, Harry thought. Apparently he'd wanted a steak and chips, while Draco ended up with a hamburger. Not with chips, though. His was accompanied by roasted baby red potatoes flecked with some green spice. Parsley, Harry decided when the scent of it came wafting his way. And probably some garlic, too.

Still, Harry couldn't help but laugh. "You really wanted that, Draco? I remember you thought it was disgusting to watch me eat one."

"I don't think I did want this," said Draco slowly. "I was thinking of something more like braised quail, or perhaps a fillet of sole in a light cream sauce . . ."

"You didn't want it at all?"

Draco cleared his throat. "Well, I was reading about Muggle foods a few days ago, and I remember thinking I should probably have tried one of these while it was summer and I had the chance. But I haven't given it a thought, since."

"First time we've ordered whatever suits in a while, though." Harry grinned. "The elves are keeping track, you think?"

"That's a bit creepy." Shrugging, Draco looked down at his plate, then picked up his knife and fork.

"Oh, come on. Pick it up with your hands, already! You know that's the way, you've seen me eat them!"

"I've also seen you chew with your mouth open. Forgive me if I don't consider you to be the epitome of fine manners." With that, though, Draco did set down his utensils and reach out with his fingers. He picked the hamburger up gingerly, like he thought it was a snake about to bite him.

It was a bit of a struggle, but Harry managed not to laugh. He turned his attention to his own meal and asked Snape how things were going with re-building the Ministry. The Obliviators who hadn't been at work on the day of the blast had been working 'round-the-clock shifts ever since. Because the Muggle news had widely reported the explosion--no way around that, as the streets surrounding the Ministry had caved in--there wasn't much chance of making all Britain forget the entire incident. The Obliviators, however, had managed to persuade the news media that the cave-in was the result of a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, the Ministry structure itself was being re-built as quickly as possible, the layout and design precisely as before.

"For expediency's sake, I imagine," murmured Draco as he set down his hamburger and started in on his potatoes.

"Eh, maybe not," said Harry. "That's kind of a government thing, isn't it, that they don't much like change. I remember in primary school, we learned that when parts of Parliament were destroyed during World War II, they were re-built to look exactly the same as before, even though . . . huh, can't remember. Something about how all the members didn't even have a seat."

"World War II?" asked Draco, his voice completely blank.

"Oh, come on, you've got to have heard of that." Harry frowned. "You told me once that Muggles had weapons that could level whole cities. I'm pretty sure that's World War II stuff, right there."

"I don't know about the war," said Draco stiffly.

"It's only the biggest event of the entire century!"

"For Muggles, so I expect I'll get to it as I keep on with the books Hermione gave me. We wizards most likely had other things on our minds."

"Grindelwald, for example," said Snape, who had just polished off the last of his endive salad. "His rise and defeat occupies roughly the same time period, I believe."

Personally, Harry thought that if most wizards had never even heard of the world wars, then Muggle Studies should probably be a required class. But he didn't have much hope of winning that argument, so he skipped to the other thing that was bothering him.

"The terrorist attack explanation," he said, a little slowly. "That's . . . I don't know. It seems a bit harsh to make Londoners think the city has been targeted like that, when it hasn't. Well, not exactly."

"The most successful sort of lie is usually something close to the truth," said Snape, sipping the tea that had appeared for him. "It was an attack, and Voldemort isn't far removed from a terrorist, as I understand the term."

"He's not, but it still just seems . . ." Harry shivered.

"Like war," said Snape softly. "I've lived through one; I know how unsettling it can be to adjust."

"Yeah, maybe that's it." Harry tapped his fingertips on the table, but stopped when he realised it would look like he was brooding.

"Dessert?" asked Snape, clearly changing the subject. Harry shook his head.

"None for me either, thank you," said Draco. "I want to write to Rhiannon again."

Harry's lips turned down. He wasn't going to speak against Draco's romance, but he did think he ought to point something out, particularly since Draco had been so anxious, earlier. "You're writing her almost every day."

"So?"

"Well, how many times has she written you?"

"Two, not that it's any of your concern."

Harry cleared his throat, wondering if he ought to scrap this whole line of thought. In the end, though, he couldn't. "Is a letter a day such a good idea? You don't want Rhiannon to end up wondering if you're, you know, obsessed or something. I mean, enough to let her know you haven't forgotten her and you miss her and all that, but . . . she might think it's a bit weird, getting so many letters all the time."

"She'll think I'm in love."

"Well, I think--"

"I do believe Draco understands what you think," Snape interrupted. "He's an adult, in case it slipped your notice. He's able to decide for himself exactly how often he will pen letters to his petite amie."

"Quite so," said Draco smugly. "Well-said, Severus."

Snape's brow furrowed. Harry could tell it meant he was annoyed by the flattery. "Furthermore," the man went on without a pause, "Draco is perfectly well-aware that the Grangers are doing him an enormous favour in helping to transfer his post. I feel certain that he will not continue to inconvenience them with an excessive number of letters to pass along, particularly since their daughter will soon return to school."

Harry could almost, almost, hear Draco gulping.

"All right, I'll be more considerate," he finally said, his voice grudging, that time.

"Quite so," said Snape, almost as smugly as Draco had. One tap of his wand and the table cleared itself.

Harry abruptly stood up. "I . . . actually, I . . . er, I have some things for you, Draco."

"Hmm?"

Harry wasn't sure why he felt quite so embarrassed and tongue-tied. That was one thing that really set him apart from Draco, who had practically delivered a speech when it had been his turn to give presents. "Yeah. You know, for your birthday. It is your regular one today. I mean, it's your former birthday, you know. The eighth of August?"

"Is it? I hadn't given it a single thought," said Draco, chin lifted high, even as he adjusted his sitting position so he could shove his hands into his pockets. His expression was almost completely shuttered. Closed-off, like he was too proud to show that he was hurt.

But why should he be hurt? Harry couldn't have given him presents when he'd turned seventeen, considering that Draco had aged himself in secret. And he couldn't have had them ready for their dual party, since that had been a surprise to him as well.

Waiting until Draco's proper birthday rolled around had been the best Harry could manage. And what was Draco expecting, anyway? This was the usual day for him to get his presents, wasn't it . . .

Oh. Oh, no.

Harry saw then, what he hadn't seen before. No wonder Draco had asked specifically if anything had come for him. For once, he hadn't been thinking of Rhiannon at all. He'd been thinking of people who'd known him all his life. People like his mother.

Harry's stomach felt like it sank into his toes as the full truth came to him. Draco had been waiting all day, hoping to get a gift, or maybe even just a card or a letter. Something, anything, that would tell him that his mother was thinking about him, that she wished him well.

And that woman . . . that goddamned horrible woman hadn't sent a thing!

Harry clenched his fists, wishing he could blast Narcissa Malfoy across whatever room she was in, at the moment. She knew it was her son's birthday, damn it all! She didn't have any excuse for neglecting him like this, since she had no way of knowing that Draco had taken the aging potion. Well, unless she happened to be looking at his birth certificate, but that hardly seemed likely, considering she was in France and it was almost certainly tucked away somewhere at Malfoy Manor.

Of course, she might have felt her parental burden lift, the way Severus had . . . but no, probably not. After all, Narcissa Malfoy had given up her parental rights when Draco had been emancipated. The Wizard Family Services casewitch had made the whole thing sound like it had been done in a legal, official manner, too. Like a binding magical contract, something like that.

So as far as Draco's mother could possibly know, today was Draco's birthday. And not just any birthday, but his coming of age! That was supposed to be a highly significant day for wizarding families! Narcissa Malfoy had to acknowledge it in some way, didn't she?

A card, a note, even just an owl Draco would recognize, so he'd know his mother was thinking of him!

And instead, he'd received nothing. Absolutely nothing.

When Harry glanced at Draco, the other boy's face looked chiselled from stone. Unfortunately, that made him resemble the statue of Lucius standing beneath the Owlery.

In that moment, Harry hated Narcissa Malfoy like never before.

"Yeah, I have some presents for you," he said, feeling horrible that he hadn't handed them over sooner. What had made him think that waiting for Draco's "real" birthday had been such a good idea? He wanted to kick himself.

Hard.

"There's no need," said Draco in a dull voice. "That is, I appreciate the sentiment, Harry. Of course I do. But you've given me so much already that I . . . well, gifts aren't what makes a family real, in any case."

Harry wondered if Draco was thinking of his mother when he said that.

"Maybe not, but they're important all the same," said Harry, trying to smile. He suddenly saw what had never been clear to him before. It was all right, sometimes, to want presents. It didn't make you just like Dudley. Or, that was, like how Dudley used to be.

"You don't have to rub it in--"

Harry shook his head. "I wasn't. I didn't mean . . .oh, hell. Let me just go get your presents."

As Harry pulled them out of their hiding places, he thought it was likely a miracle that Draco hadn't found all of them, every last one. But that, of course, was why he'd been extra careful when he'd owl-ordered. He'd arranged for his purchases to go directly to Dumbledore, and then he'd snuck them down to the dungeons at times when he was sure that Draco was busy in the Potions lab. Still, it had been a bit tricky managing the whole thing.

Though, it had given him a chance to have a couple of chats with Dumbledore, so that was all right.

"And I think it wisest, in the circumstances, that she come here at intervals, rather than have you go to her--" Snape was saying as Harry came back into the living room, three brightly wrapped packages in his hands.

"Rhiannon's coming here to visit Draco?" he asked, a bit confused. "Er, won't that require reciprocal magic, like with Dudley?"

"Not Rhiannon," said Draco in heavy tones. "Marsha. How's this for a birthday surprise? Apparently Severus thinks we're both still mental enough to need professional assistance--"

"I did not say that, nor do I think it," Snape interrupted, shaking his head. "The good doctor has helped you both; that is what I think."

"Is it safe for her to come here, though?"

"Honestly, Harry." Draco rolled his eyes. "I know you think I ought to pay less attention to blood status, but you ought to pay a little more, as there are actual ramifications. She's a squib, and squibs have no trouble seeing or entering Hogwarts."

"I meant," said Harry, setting down the presents since the biggest one was making his arms start to ache a bit, "is it safe for her to be seen coming here? If any of the Death Eaters get wind of the fact that she's our own personal therapist, I can't imagine what they'd do. Oh, wait--I can imagine! And why's that, hmm?"

"Oh." Draco's voice was very small. "I didn't think of that."

"Appropriate measures are being taken to safeguard the good doctor."

Harry nodded, deciding he didn't need to know the details. More information was better than less, but sometimes, the best course of all, he thought, was for him to trust his father to handle things. Sitting down at the table, he gestured toward the gifts. "So . . . happy belated birthday!"

Draco didn't make a move to take them, which was so different from his antics at Christmas that it said a lot. The Narcissa factor was getting to him, obviously. Or maybe he was even thinking about Lucius, dead now, but not quite gone, on account of that portrait. Either way, he needed a distraction.

Harry pushed the presents across the table. "Really, I am sorry I didn't have them for you at our party. But, perils of a surprise party, I guess."

Draco's expression cleared, like he was making a conscious effort to put his troubles from his mind. "Well, let's see. The last time you chose a present for me, it ended up saving my life. Quite a legacy, Harry. I can't think how you'll top it."

Harry just smiled. He'd been a bit worried, when Draco had started speaking, that the other boy was going to complain that Harry's Christmas present had scarred him. He certainly did still feel self-conscious about the large marred area on his chest, Harry knew. He'd kept it concealed all summer.

Rhiannon had never even seen it, or at least, not as far as Harry knew.

"You'll just have to open them," said Harry, resisting an urge to smirk.

"I know that look!" accused Draco. "You got me something made by the Weasley twins!"

"And if I did? Those chocolates that make me speak Parseltongue could be dead useful."

"True, true." Draco flashed him a quick smile, then finally reached out for one of the three gifts.

"No snitch wrapping paper, this time?"

Harry shook his head. He hadn't taken his business back to that shop, that was for certain.

Draco drew in a quick breath when he'd torn off the plain green wrappings and lifted off the top of the large, flat box. "New Quidditch robes? Oooh, really nice ones, too."

Harry grinned. "Well, you know. You're definitely going to lose against Gryffindor, but you might as well look good doing it."

"Wanker."

"Prat."

"So good to see you both behaving as adults," drawled Snape.

"All in good fun, Severus. Thank you, Harry."

"That's the present present," replied Harry.

"Pardon?"

"You're my brother past, present, and future? That bit?"

"Ah." Draco pulled another wrapped box towards him and looked at Harry in question.

"Past."

"Do tell. Whatever could it be, whatever could it be . . . a ferret, perhaps? That would be unoriginal of you, but then, you are about three-fifths Gryffindor, by my reckoning . . ."

"That's right, it's the world's smallest ferret."

"Sure it is." Draco had got into the box by then. "Oh. Gloves. You must have been in a mood to attire me?"

"Not particularly."

"You didn't think to borrow a pair of my own, to measure?" asked Draco as he tried to tug them on. "Bit snug, these are."

"They're my size."

"Come again?"

Suddenly nervous, Harry cleared his throat. Time for the speech, then. Not that he'd really prepared one. He knew what he wanted to say. "It's just . . . well, I could hardly put my actual hand in the box, but what I was trying to say was . . . I wish I'd given it to you already, Draco. When you first asked? You remember, my hand, that day on the train?"

"I haven't forgotten," said Draco, shaking his head. "It's just as well you turned me down. Better, probably, considering that Lucius was the one who told me to befriend you. He never did explain his exact plan, but I somehow doubt it would have been to your benefit."

Harry made a face. "Yeah, I can't really imagine that."

"So you see?" Draco gave him an encouraging nod. "We'd never have become real friends if you'd shaken my hand, that day. Sooner or later, Lucius would have ordered me to betray you, and back then I'd have done it, no questions asked. So . . . it's like Severus says. Even unfortunate decisions can turn out for good when you take the long view."

Harry shot their father a glance. "I see we both get the same lectures."

"Not all the same. I'd definitely bet my vault on that." Draco's voice lightened as he continued. "But thank you for the gloves, Harry. I appreciate the sentiment. Truly."

Harry nodded as he pushed the last present over. The biggest box of all. "Now, for your future."

"I can't imagine . . ." Draco pulled the wrappings off a little more slowly, this time. Harry wasn't sure if he was trying to make his birthday last, or if he was a little reluctant to face Harry's vision of his future. When he lifted his last present out of its wrappings, though, his reaction was a little anti-climactic. "What is it?"

Harry pulled the boom box towards him and pointed at the controls as he talked. "Well, this knob here tunes the radio. . . er, that's like a Muggle wireless. And in here is where you put CD's, which are disks with music recorded onto them. I got you some to start you out."

Draco fished until he found them. "Beetles is spelled wrong--"

"No, it's not."

"Yes, it really is."

"Trust me."

Draco's smile at that was slight, but somehow very warm. "I do. Good feeling, really."

"Yeah, for me, too."

Using a perfectly manicured fingernail, Draco slit the plastic wrapping on the CD case and pulled the disk out. Harry showed him how to load it. "You push here to make it play."

Draco pressed the button three times in a row. "It doesn't work."

"It's not plugged in."

"And not likely to be," put in Snape, giving Harry a pointed look.

"Oh, right. Electricity," Draco said, nodding like he thought knowing the word made him wise beyond his years. "Can't it use batteries?"

Harry whistled. "You have been studying. And yeah, it can, but like Dad said, not here. Too much magic around. I thought you understood about that. You knew you'd have to call Rhiannon from Grimmauld Place if we could find you a mobile . . ."

"I was just asking if it would function on batteries, not expecting them to work here." Draco ran his hands over the portable stereo, sighing. "So this is my future, eh? Muggle accoutrements? You've changed your mind about Rhiannon?"

Harry had no trouble, that time, interpreting his father's glance. A warning, pure through. Not that Harry would have said anything to upset Draco on his birthday--or sort-of birthday.

"I don't know what'll happen, romance-wise," Harry said softly. "But I do know that you've taken a giant step into a new world. Whatever happens, I don't expect you'll step back, eh?"

Draco smiled. "Muggles are actually quite interesting when you look at them with an open mind."

"An open mind?"

"Well, more of one, anyway," admitted Draco. "Did you know, all these machines and such are fairly new? It's not just the telly. Go back just a few hundred years and Muggles were living much more like we do, only without the magic."

"Industrial Revolution, yeah."

Draco's smile grew wider. "Now I'm thinking it's a good thing you were Muggle-raised. I mean, I'd hate to have to go to Hermione with every question."

"She wouldn't mind."

"Probably not." Standing, Draco scooped up his presents. "Thank you, Harry. It was good of you to remember."

"I should have had them ready earlier."

Draco shook his head. "No, I understand. Twelve times an hour, at least, I remember the attack on the Ministry and wonder what the Dark Lord is planning next. You've had a lot on your mind . . . I think everyone must, these days." He gave a wan smile.

The other boy was thinking of his mother again, Harry just knew it.

And as much as Harry detested Narcissa Malfoy, he suddenly wished she would get in touch. For her to abandon Draco like this . . . well, she'd done it before, so it wasn't as though Harry was in any doubt about her utter selfishness, but he still ached for his brother. In fact, he ached so much that he wanted to do or say anything he could to make things better.

"Er, maybe your mother did send you something. The package could have gone astray, or maybe that redirecting spell lingered on as an echo after Dumbledore cancelled it, and your present got sent to Devon, or--"

"Harry," said Snape in a warning tone.

Draco just shook his head. "It's all right, Severus. If Harry's astute enough to read my mood . . . well, that sorts. We are brothers, after all."

"I just wish--"

That time, Harry stopped on his own.

"I'm sure my mother has her reasons," said Draco, shaking his head. "She must feel she needs to stay underground, and she knows well enough that even anonymous owls can sometimes be traced. Besides . . ."

"Besides?" prompted Snape, standing up and coming around to Draco's side of the table.

Draco's smile that time was still wan, but somehow lopsided, as well. "I haven't written her on the Continent, you see. A Malfoy family owl could likely find her, but I'm supposedly estranged from my father, so it would raise eyebrows for me to have access to one. But if she wrote me first, I'd feel I have to reply. And if that got noticed . . . it'd raise questions best left unasked, you see? She's supposed to be a loyal Death Eater, and I'm the enemy, these days."

"She is a loyal--"

"Harry," Snape said again.

"She's doing her best!" snapped Draco. "She is, and until you know differently, Harry, you ought to give her the benefit of the doubt. That's what I'm doing regarding your werewolf friend, you'll notice. For all I know, he did something to drive my mother straight out of Britain, it was so awful!"

Harry shot to his feet. "Remus wouldn't do anything awful!"

Snape drew in a sharp breath, but remained in his chair. "He wouldn't do anything unwarranted, of that I have no doubt. Awful, however . . . well, that's a matter of interpretation, isn't it? It all depends on circumstance."

"Are you trying to say that he's touched my mother? That way, and that's why she left the country?" Draco bared his teeth. "To get away from his rabid paws?"

"Definitely not. You may rely on me in this regard, Draco; Lupin is not in any way attracted to your mother."

Draco's fists, Harry noticed, were still clenched. "How can you know? Legilimency?"

"Not as such. But I do know Lupin. Do you trust me, Draco?"

The boy hesitated, but then he nodded. Reluctantly, but he did do it. Then, he gathered up his presents. "Thank you, Harry. I think I'll turn in, now."

"Good night," said Harry and Snape both, in unison.

Once the bedroom door had shut behind Draco, Harry eyed his father carefully. "When you said awful, you were talking about what Remus did at the Ministry, weren't you?"

Snape moved into the living room, taking a seat in his favourite chair, releasing a slight sigh as he relaxed into it. "I was actually speaking in more general terms than even that. This is war, Harry. Sometimes, the greater good is something almost unthinkable in times of peace. And yet, it is the greater good. Or perhaps, the only viable choice at all."

Harry wasn’t so sure about that. But as he sank down onto the couch, he remembered something that made his father's words snap into vivid focus. "Like holding me down on Samhain."

"Like that, yes. Unthinkable."

"And the greater good," finished Harry. "Yeah . . . it was. Is this the kind of thing you're going to teach in your ethics class?"

"I don't think ethics can be taught in quite the way you envision. But this is the sort of thing we'll be discussing, yes. Your own experiences could provide apt illustrations, if you're willing to share them."

Harry winced. "People don't understand when I explain. They think it was all thrilling and exciting and . . . glamorous or something, and they refuse to believe me when I tell them it's not like that at all."

"You speak from experience?"

"D.A."

"Ah."

"Should probably start that up again, though," Harry realised. "Assuming that Defence this year is a joke, which is a pretty sure bet considering we're getting a shepherdess in to teach. Er . . . would you care to help us? That way, you know, you could teach Defence and still avoid the curse."

Snape slanted him a glance. "Forgetting something, aren't you?"

Harry puzzled over that for a moment. What could his father mean? Not the curse; Harry had mentioned that . . . "Er . . . no?"

"You're to play a part come September first," snapped Snape, clearly annoyed that Harry could overlook that. "As far as outsiders are concerned, you're a weak wizard. Keeping Voldemort convinced of that may well prove critical."

"Shite," groaned Harry. "Oh! Er, sorry, sir. Um, I mean Dad, that is."

Snape gave him a level look and didn't say anything at all. Somehow, that was more of a rebuke than words could be.

On the heels of that, an alarming thought occurred to him. Or two, actually. "Do you think I'd better pretend I can't Apparate well when I get tested? And, er, I have been Occluding pretty successfully, you know. For a long time, with just that one lapse. Don't you think Voldemort's probably already figured out that I'm not as weak as he's heard?"

Snape paused to consider that. "He tends to believe what his followers report. I should know," he added dryly. "From what I learned of him, I would expect him to harmonise all this information by assuming that your improvement in Occlumency is due to my shielding you."

"You . . . shielding me," Harry said, fairly goggling. "Any reason why you didn't just shield me, then, year before last when I was having such an awful time? Voldemort wouldn't have been able to trick me, then! Sirius would still be alive!"

Another level stare, but at least this one wasn't so silent. "It requires a certain level of intimacy. I know your mind well enough now to manage it, I would think. But then? I didn't know you, let alone the rather meandering pathways your mind tends to wander."

"Oh."

Snape's eyes darkened. "You must learn to forgive yourself, Harry. What happened to Black wasn't--"

"Yeah, yeah, wasn't my fault. Believe me, I know the lecture by heart--"

"Wasn't born of malice, I was going to say," interrupted Snape. "It was an error in judgement, and your failure to apply yourself to Occlumency two years ago was another, and my failure to make more of a genuine effort to teach you . . . that was an error in judgement of my own. One of many, I quite assure you."

Snape leaned forward, his hands clasped tightly together. "You must forgive yourself, Harry. You meant to do only good towards Black, but you are as capable of error as anyone else. It's all a part of being human."

Then I don't want to be human, Harry immediately thought, his own hands clenching. He didn't say it, though. From the distance of more than a year, he could see that yelling it at the headmaster had only made him seem every bit the child. And since he was an adult now . . . "But Hermione tried to tell me! She thought it was probably a trap," he said instead, every word painful. He wasn't sure he'd admitted the full truth to his father before, wasn't sure he'd told him how stupid, how absolutely brainless he'd been, how he'd ignored every bit of good advice he'd got--

"Yet even thinking that, she accompanied you to the Ministry," said Snape, very softly.

Harry smiled, the ache in his heart easing a little. "Yeah, Hermione wouldn't let me walk into a trap alone. And now you're thinking, I bet, that figures, since she's an idiot Gryffindor."

"In fact, I was as that moment thinking: points to Gryffindor."

Harry's smile grew wider. "Really? You'll give us some points?"

"In my view, Minerva already awarded ample." A ghost of a smile briefly curled Snape's lips. "But for me to think of Gryffindor in that context is quite alarming. I do believe I must have forgiven Miss Granger for her rash letter-writing last year."

Harry chuckled. "I should have reminded you sooner that Hermione went to the Ministry with me."

Snape sat back, his hands no longer clenched together. Instead, he lightly drummed his fingertips together. "Quite possibly," he finally said. "Loving you as I do . . .it's difficult to hold a grudge against anyone who would risk their life for you."

"Remember that the next time you're annoyed with me, then," called Draco, strolling back into the living room. He looked like he'd showered and washed his hair, but he'd obviously been eavesdropping for the last little bit. "I faced Lucius down for him, remember."

Harry turned to study his brother. Yes, Draco had faced Lucius down, but his way of doing it had been to pretend to crumple. Still, there was a time and place for stealth, Harry supposed.

You are foolish to overlook any tactic that may win us this war, he heard Snape say inside his mind, the words an echo from a long time before. They took on a new significance now. Draco understood about cunning, a lot better than Gryffindors did, anyway, and an awful lot of the students in the D.A. had been Gryffindors, hadn't they--

"That's it!" Harry suddenly exclaimed. "Draco can lead the D.A.! We'll say I'd be pants at teaching Defence since my magic's gone wonky, and I'm passing the baton to my brother!"

Draco looked up, his expression about as condescending as Harry had ever seen. "In the first place, I don't want your baton, whatever that is. And in the second, you're barking mad if you think that Dumbledore's Army is going to listen to a word I say. Inquisitorial Squad, Harry?"

"No, no, it's perfect," Harry went on, turning in his chair. "Look, Hermione trusts you these days, and Ron knows you're on our side even if he doesn't like you so well, and oh, I guess Ginny might think you're all right, but--"

"Your point being?"

"Everybody else in Gryffindor still has their doubts about you. This'll show them, like nothing else could, that your change of allegiances is for keeps. I mean, think about it, Draco! You know scads about dark magic, but instead of using it against them, you're showing them how to defend? How to defeat Death Eaters? And won't it look great on your application to the Auror programme, that you can say you had a leadership position teaching students Defence?"

"Hmm . . ."

"That last gambit was your most effective yet," drawled Snape, clearly enjoying their bantering. "However, I know you can do better, Harry. You've tried to manipulate me a few times, as I recall."

"Tried, ha. Did," said Harry, grinning, ignoring Snape's glare. He could tell it was more mock than real. "About this, though . . . oh, I know. Draco?"

The other boy met his gaze, one eyebrow raised. "Think you have me, do you?"

"I know I have you."

"Do tell."

Harry rubbed his hands together. "You'll get to lord it over a bunch of Gryffindors who think they're better at magic than you are. You'll get to show them just how wrong they are. And what's more, you'll get to boss them about. I know you loved that part of being a prefect, so how can you resist?"

Draco glanced at their father. "Tell me I can take points, eh? All I like."

"No."

Draco made a face, but then he shrugged. "That's a blow, but regardless, you've almost persuaded me. I think all I truly need is an assurance that my excellent work and dedication will be rewarded with points for Slytherin at the leaving feast, and perhaps I shall gracefully accede to your request."

"Perhaps you can also talk normal English."

"One says words and talks with friends, but speaks a language, Harry."

Harry was just about to make a rude gesture when Snape spoke. "Albus' penchant for awarding last-minute points is his own prerogative, Draco. I'm not about to waste my breath petitioning him, though I've no doubt the attempt would amuse him greatly."

"Oh, very well. I'll do it anyway," said Draco. "And in the interests of amicable inter-house relations, I'll even dumb my vocabulary down to words that the average Gryffindor can understand. Two syllable limit, Severus? Or do you think I'd better reduce that to one?"

Harry did make that rude gesture, then. "You know what? You're a right arse."

Draco laughed. "One syllable it is, based on Harry's dominant speech pattern!"

After that, though, he quickly sobered. "I'll do my best for Dumbledore's Army, Harry, but persuading your little friends to let me teach them? That's another matter entirely."

"Oh, I'll be there," said Harry. "I'll Slytherin them into it."

"Watching that should be entertaining. And Severus? You'll be there as well? To help, as Harry was asking? You know, I rather fancy having you for an assistant."

Snape's answering smile was razor sharp. "Yes, I'd be pleased to duel you."

"Duel?" Draco's voice squeaked. "I didn't say duel, did I?"

"You're probably stuck with it. At least you won't have Dad and me and Hermione and Ron all firing curses at you at the same time!"

"Yes, my heart weeps for you. Those dark powers of yours are quite the trial. Now, perhaps you didn't notice, but Dad never did actually say that he'd come to these D.A. meetings."

Huh. Harry hadn't noticed that. "Well?"

"I've no particular desire to teach Defence at all," answered Snape. "But as this project is worthwhile, yes. I will help you."

"Thanks, Dad."

Snape gave Harry an annoyed look, but didn't remark on that. "Time for bed, both of you. Someone from the Department of Magical Transportation will be coming here tomorrow to examine your Apparition skills."

Harry bounced a little as he sat there. "Tomorrow, really?"

"Yes, but save your thanks for Albus."

"I'll do that," Harry promised, even as he remembered what they'd been talking about before. "Um . . . should I fake being kind of bad at it, you think? For appearances' sake?"

"Apparating well enough to be licensed is no great matter."

"That's right, Harry. It's not as though the examiner will ask us to Apparate to Outer Mongolia, though with your powers you just might make it there." Draco glanced from Harry to Snape and back. "Well then, thank you, both of you, for helping to make my birthday so wonderful. Good night, then."

As the bedroom door softly clicked behind Draco, Harry turned to his father. "Both of us? Did he mean the surprise party?"

"I suspect he meant that I let him have a bit of a lie-in this morning."

That's right . . . Snape had. And in doing that, he'd given Draco something familiar for his birthday. Something he'd have got from Narcissa, if he still lived with her. Snape had realised, all along, that Draco might be a little sensitive today. And he'd realised that Narcissa would probably ignore Draco's special day. "You really are a good dad," Harry said finally.

"I enjoy telling myself that I'm at least learning by experience," said Snape dryly. "You should likely go to bed as well, so you're at your best for the examiner tomorrow."

"In a minute. I was wondering about what Draco said, about Apparating all the way to Mongolia. My dark powers wouldn't help with that, would they? There's no incantation to cast in Parseltongue."

"I don't know," said Snape slowly. "You appear to break all the rules, Harry. And I don't mean school rules."

"I can break those too--"

"Yes, I am aware," drawled Snape, standing and stretching before pinning his dark gaze on Harry. "I would hope you've grown out of such nonsense."

"I only break them in a good cause--"

"Let's hope that you will have less cause now that you have an adult you can trust."

"Yeah, me," quipped Harry, but then his voice softened. "And you. Of course. I can't imagine life without you, and Draco, and . . . and this," he said, sweeping an arm in a half-circle to indicate his home. He didn't want to say thanks again, but he did want to get the point across. "Er . . . sometimes, I even think that never having it must have made me a little bit mental."

"Don't ever think that." Snape walked the short distance to where Harry was sitting and laid a hand on his shoulder. "You have issues, but so does everyone who's ever lived. I think that growing up the way you did merely makes you more aware of how rewarding it can be to have a real family." Snape gave him a long, guarded look. "In that, we are alike, you and I."

Harry smiled as he looked up at his father. It wasn't exactly an open discussion about Hostilian, but he thought it was a start. "Yeah. That we are, Severus. 'Night, then."

To Harry's surprise, Snape squeezed his shoulder again, and then actually bent to drop a kiss on the top of his head. "Good night, Harry."