Hermione Granger-Weasley had spent the better part of three years weaving a dangerous web. In truth, this had begun long before her departure from the Ministry, perhaps even so far back as Eighth Year at Hogwarts, but it was only in more recent history that she had started to realize the true nature of the long game. Even now Hermione had not fully worked out who were the pawns and who were the players, but she did know one thing for certain. She had come too far and sacrificed too much to allow herself to be fooled now.
“Finite Incantatum!” Hermione cried and Harry gasped as he felt a sliding sensation descend from his scalp to run the course of his body as his disguise fell away, vision blurring when the corrective charm on his sight winked out.
Instinctively, Harry rolled back and away from Hermione to present a more difficult target, though his body gave a twinge of protest to enact combat manoeuvres after so long removed from the field. Drawing his own wand, he held it at the ready, crouched low so he could dodge whatever else the witch had planned for him. His right hand felt hot where the shards of holly lay under his skin and he could feel his magic waiting there like a wild thing, nearly distracting him from his defence.
“Harry?” the blur that was Hermione asked tentatively, then the witch sagged back against the door with relief, lowering her wand. “Oh thank goodness…”
“What in the hell are you on about?” Harry demanded of her, slowly rising from his crouch, though he kept his wand out and ready. Clumsily, as his right hand was still rather unwieldy from atrophy, he found his glasses from where he’d tucked them into a pocket of his robes and pulled the frames free, jamming them on his face to clear his vision.
Hermione looked greatly relieved, if rather contrite at his obvious upset, and she bit her lip, offering him a weary, sheepish smile. “I…well, I was worried that you might have been…replaced. Or ensorcelled.”
“I’m sorry, Harry it’s just that you’ve been acting strangely all morning. After the attack and the Ministry investigation and then not seeing you the last few days, I suppose I rather…overreacted.”
“Overreacted?” Harry repeated in consternation. “Hermione, you’ve just attacked me in the Staff Room! Literally anyone could unlock that door and all the effort we’ve put into Mundungus Fletcher will have been for nothing!”
Mouth twisting into a moue of displeasure, Hermione checked the lock self-consciously and snapped, “I know that, alright? I’m sorry! It’s just…I’ve had a rather a crap few days and it’s left me feeling more than a little paranoid. You of all people should understand.”
“Don’t even think about turning this back on me,” Harry warned, tightening his hand on his wand and causing her to flinch slightly. He sighed after a moment and forced himself to relax his features, if not his guard. “Have I really been so off?”
“At least three different staff members, two ghosts and any number of paintings have mentioned it to me this morning. I, well…I suppose no one is used to seeing you…happy,” she admitted with an embarrassed grimace.
Harry could not even begin to fathom how he ought to take that bit of news. Though he wasn’t entirely certain that he would describe his mood that morning as happiness, it was certainly a measure of…contentment to which he’d become unaccustomed. While he considered her words, Harry cast a Reflection Charm before himself, using the time he needed to Transfigure his features back into those of Jameson Evans to decide what he wanted to tell her about all that had happened. A prickling feeling of unease burned at the base of his skull, but as he finished with his disguise, he reluctantly held out his pale, weakened right hand to her, flexing it carefully.
“I suppose there’s some things we ought to talk about,” he said rather wryly, remembering again that despite his nightmare, they’d not yet spoken about what had happened after the attack in the Great Hall. “I ought to have done so sooner, I expect.”
Tracking the movement of Harry’s hand, Hermione’s eyes widened in surprise and she stepped forward to get a better look. “Oh Dumbledore…your curse wound! What on earth happened?”
“I wouldn’t even know where to start. Let’s just say that it’s been an eventful couple of weeks which culminated in the curing of my malady. And apparently in a vast improvement of my general demeanour, besides.”
“Ha- Jameson, that’s wonderful,” Hermione told him earnestly and Harry tried not to flinch when she clasped his hand, turning it over to examine the silvery scar on his palm. “I can’t believe it’s finally healed…was it Hannah? This is far more than I could have hoped for when I got her onto the grounds.”
“Partially,” he hedged, feeling strangely reluctant to mention Draco’s involvement.
“Alright, keep your secrets then,” she said in fond exasperation, rolling her eyes a bit. “Seems all you Auror types end up reticent…but then, I suppose I’ve deserved it just now.” Her brow furrowed in concern and she gave him a searching look. “Harry…you haven’t given up your Draught, have you? What happened in Belize certainly exacerbated things, but...”
“Leave off, Hermione,” Harry said sternly, pulling his hand free of her grasp.
“I’m being serious. You cannot simply upend the chemistry of your brain on a whim,” Hermione replied with equal severity. “You might feel perfectly well just now, but that could change in an instant.”
Recognizing the logic in that did not warm Harry to the idea in any way and he scowled stubbornly. “I’ve already got a Healer and I’ll keep to her recommendations, if you don’t mind.”
Hermione’s mouth pursed in displeasure, but she nodded once in acceptance. “Very well…but I will have you suspended if I suspect you unfit for teaching.”
Expression darkening, Harry’s eyes narrowed at her warning. “Of course, Deputy Headmistress. If you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to managing not to be mentally unfit to teach.”
Her hard gaze softened and Hermione caught his arm before he could pull away from her, looking regretful. “Harry, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean it like that. I just…I worry about you. You’re my oldest friend. I can’t help but worry, really.”
Jaw tight, Harry tried to remind himself of that fact even as some part of him shied away at her touch, his nightmare flashing vividly in his mind.
“I have been keeping things from you since I was eleven years old, Harry Potter. I rather think I’ve done a good job of keeping you alive thus far.”
Determinedly, he pushed the dream and the lingering fear that accompanied it away, hardly wanting to prove Hermione right immediately after dismissing her concern that he hadn’t taken his Draught. Hermione had been an easy target for his paranoia for years in part because she had been supplying him with the Draught of Peace to keep it off his official medical record. Though records were supposed to be held with the utmost confidentiality, Harry’s mistrust of the Ministry had been strong enough that he’d leapt at the opportunity when Hermione had offered. In part, it had been guilt over his attack on Ron that had made him so eager to take on her suggested treatment, though over time he’d been unable to deny the erratic thread that pulsed in his mind like a live wire. It had made him an excellent detective and a poor friend.
“I’ll be more mindful,” Harry conceded finally, drawing a slow, calming breath.
“That’s all I ask,” she replied softly, squeezing his arm once before she released him. “Let me replace your Corrective Eye Charm and we’ll head back to the Great Hall.” Without waiting for his acquiescence, her fingers danced lightly before his face and Harry recoiled as he magic settled over his eyes. Biting her lip, she put a hand blushingly to her mouth at his reaction. “Oh! Sorry, I…of course you’d still be rather on edge. I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s fine,” Harry ground out and took off his now-useless glasses, shoving them back in his robes. Though his adrenaline spiked hotly through him again from the simple spell, he could admit that her charm was much more effective than his own had been. “Let’s just…go.”
Eyes downcast, Hermione nodded and went to unlock the door, holding it open for him. The tension between them was very nearly a physical presence, but Harry couldn’t help but feel disquieted by his friend’s obvious misery. After a minute or two of awkward silence, he cleared his throat lightly.
“How have you been since…what happened?” he asked lamely.
“About as well as could be expected,” Hermione sighed out, sounding exhausted. “I’ve spent the last few days filling out an obscene number of Ministry reports while Minerva dealt with the Governors and made an official statement to the press. The Howlers from concerned parents have started coming in this morning, so I expect we’ll be bogged with correspondence for the next week.”
“Glad I got the easy bit, then,” Harry teased, though he was only half-joking.
Hermione let out a surprised giggle and gave him a dirty look, the tension easing between them. “All things considered, I can’t really complain seeing as how it means that I am very much alive to do it. Though I did agree to have dinner with Cormac at the end of the week, so perhaps I ought to reconsider.”
Giving her a horrified look, Harry exclaimed, “You did what?”
“It was an accident!” Hermione moaned, covering her face with her hands.
“Hermione, how could you possibly have accidentally agreed to dinner with Cormac McLaggen?”
Sighing heavily, Hermione shrugged rather helplessly. “He’s been so mindful ever since what happened in the Great Hall…going on about how we’re all stronger together and how quickly our safety can be put in jeopardy. To be honest I’ve only been half listening to him, but this morning he was talking all about how we ought to do more to strengthen our bonds as members of staff or something along those lines. And before I’d realized what I was agreeing to, he’d invited me round to sup with his wife this Saturday!” She paused and gave him a pleading look. “If he invites you, you simply must go, Jameson. He calls his house Lion’s Den and I can only imagine it’s going to be decorated in the same vein as Gilderoy Lockhart’s old office.”
“You worshipped Lockhart back then, mind. If he invites me, I’ll hex him on the spot,” Harry promised, ignoring her piteous moan. “Why don’t you just tell him something’s come up?”
“Well it’s not very professional, is it? After all I am Deputy Headmistress and I’ve never met his wife…and I oughtn’t burn any bridges besides,” she sighed, looking put out by the fact. “Besides it…might be nice to get out of the castle.”
Given that Hermione had likely spent a fair portion of the last few days conversing with Romilda Vane, Harry could hardly blame her the sentiment. Even without a Weasley shaped shadow, the Examiner was trying at the best of times. “I still think you’re mad to even consider it,” he assured her in a low voice as they drew nearer to the Great Hall.
“Duly noted,” she replied with a small, sardonic smile. “Speaking of mad…you and Draco seem to be getting on rather well. I suppose he’s no longer arsed about the, ah…werewolf incident?”
“Not if the official Ministry report is to be believed.”
“I did wonder about that…” Hermione glanced up at Harry, her eyebrows lifting. “How much is to be believed, exactly?”
“Exactly?” Harry repeated quietly as they stepped through the staff entrance into the Great Hall. His eyes fell at once to where Draco was quietly conversing with Susan Bones. As though sensing his gaze, grey eyes rose to meet his own and Harry didn’t think he imagined the way Draco’s lips curved upward at the sight of him. “I’m still figuring that out.”
Harry stared down at the parchment before him, his Perfect Penmanship Quill quivering as it waited for him to dictate the letter to his godson. So much had happened in the weeks since he’d received Teddy’s letter that it was difficult to know where to even begin. Sighing, he scrubbed a hand tiredly over his face and let his eyes drift around the atrium, the dying light of day casting the room in scarlet and shadows.
“I’m glad that you’ve been enjoying your time at Hogwarts,” he began, listening to the soft scratch of the quill as it moved across the paper. “The years I spent there changed my life forever, and I like to think it was for the better. I’m sorry that I’ve been distant and that I can’t say anything about where I am or what I’ve been doing. I read in the papers that there was some sort of incident in the Great Hall and I want nothing more than to be there and see that you’re safe.”
Pushing to his feet, Harry sighed and paced over to the window, leaning against the chill glass as he looked down onto the grounds below. “Merlin, I’m terrible at this…don’t write that!” he added sharply, glancing back at the quill and scoffing when it brusquely crossed out the words. Pinching at the bridge of his nose, he deliberated more carefully over his words before he continued.
“It’s important that you trust your instincts, but it’s also important that you trust in your professors. Not blindly, mind you, but Professor McGonagall is a formidable witch that does not trust easily. In my day, Professor Dumbledore was powerful enough that he could afford to gamble a little when it came to new hires and I honestly couldn’t begin to guess how much of that was planned. I believe that McGonagall would not lightly bring a new member onto her staff.
“Don’t waste your childhood looking for mysteries and monsters like I did. So many of us gave up so much of ourselves to try and make the world a better place so that you would have the freedom to learn out from the shadows of war. No, cross out that last bit,” Harry said in frustration and took a slow, steadying breath as he thought about what he most wanted to tell his godson. “Focus on the things that make you happy, Teddy. You don’t have to be…to be burdened by expectations or flying lessons or dark wizards. You are an incredible young man and I’m so proud of you, just as you are.”
Bending to scoop up the letter from under the quill, Harry perused it again and gave it up as a bad job, taking up the quill to scrawl his signature before he could second guess himself and set the bloody page alight. “I know how it feels now, Sirius…” he muttered to himself, shaking his head and folding up the parchment. “Come on then, Anorak. Let’s get this done.”
The raven croaked at him rather judgementally and Harry smiled slightly as he handed over the letter. “Try to fly around a while before you give it to him, yeah? Needs to look as though it’s come a long way,” Harry told the bird and received a nip to his fingers for the trouble.
He moved again to stand at the window so that he could watch Anorak’s dark, winged form disappear into the darkening sky, wishing he’d said more and less in turn. If he was ever afforded the chance to be a proper godfather again, Harry promised himself that he would do better. Thanks to Draco, that seemed less like a fantasy and more like a real possibility than it had since Belize.
As though summoned by his thoughts, Harry caught a flash of movement on the grounds below and watched as the Gamekeeper in question left his cottage to meet Witherwings at his paddock. An idea took shape in Harry’s mind as he watched Draco bowing deeply to the hippogriff and with a small smile, he turned to leave, already thinking over what he would need.
Stepping through the doorway of his cottage, his hair windblown and cheeks pinked from the chill night air, Draco paused and raised an eyebrow at Harry, a heavy measure of judgement in his gaze. “You’ve broken into my home,” he stated and sounded unimpressed by the fact.
“I’m…making coq au vin?” Harry offered in explanation and held up the spoon he’d just been using.
“Are you?” Crossing the short distance, Draco examined the contents of the Dutch oven Harry had borrowed from Hogwarts’ kitchens and gave it a cursory sniff before plucking the spoon out of his grasp. Ladling a small portion of broth onto it, he blew across the liquid to cool it, then tasted it. Harry felt rather as though he were suddenly back in school, awaiting Snape’s scathing verdict on his latest attempt at potion making. At last, Draco nodded once and returned the spoon to him. “You may stay,” he said decisively and Harry grinned.
“Ta. Should be ready in ten.”
“I’ll open a bottle of wine,” Draco decided with a nod. “Assuming you haven’t used it already.”
“I wasn’t quite that presumptuous,” Harry assured him, smiling a little. “How is it you learned to make wine, anyway?”
Pausing from where he’d been about to pull the cork from his bottle, Draco stared at Harry in exasperation. “You aren’t serious.”
Brows lifting, Harry sensed that he’d again stumbled into an area of the magical world in which he was found wanting. “Aren’t I?”
“Did you, in fact, study any magical history while you were a student here?” Draco wondered peevishly. “Or did it simply never occur to you to be at all curious as to the source of my family’s affluent wealth?”
If Harry were being quite honest, he had rather supposed that many wizarding families, and especially influential pureblood families like the Malfoy’s, had a family vault much like his own. A legacy of old money passed along generations and invested into various commodities throughout the magical world. His own coffers hadn’t netted a loss in the last decade thanks in large part to his long time investment in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, though he also spent very little of it. Money, as a whole, made him singularly uncomfortable and he tried not to let his thoughts dwell on it overlong.
Draco rolled his eyes and sniffed rather haughtily. “Yes, Potter. Wine. Malfoy Apothecary was founded over four hundred years ago, once providing all manner of elixir. That is until my forbearers decided to focus their efforts on winemaking once Armandine Malfoy convinced an elvish vintner to pass his secrets to her,” Draco clarified and Harry had to wonder at the manner of ‘convincing’. “Except for a brief period after the war, the Malfoys have been the foremost human winemakers in the whole of the magical world. We have twenty hectare of vines in our Bordeaux vineyard and another fifteen in Vallée de la Marne.”
“Very impressive,” Harry told him, grinning.
Scoffing at his cheek, Draco poured a glass and held it up to the light with a critical eye. “Essentially wine is just another type of potion. A collection of ingredients combined with precision and left to ‘brew’, if you will.”
“Considering you previously compared making stew to potion brewing, you’ll forgive me if I’m disinclined to believe you,” Harry teased, accepting his glass when it was handed to him.
Draco hummed faintly and poured a second glass, leaning against his worktable to watch Harry. “Yet more proof that you are, and have always been, a horrible student. Perhaps I ought not trust your cooking at this point.”
“Is it better or worse to say that I was taught to cook by a Muggle?” Harry wondered, taking a sip of wine while carefully giving the pot a stir, marvelling a little at the way he was able to use both hands in doing so.
Pale brows lifted in some surprise to the claim and the pureblood tilted his head. “I suppose that depends entirely on the Muggle.”
“My aunt had me in the kitchen as soon as I could use a stool to reach the countertops. I think she found it the easiest way to keep an eye on me whenever I wasn’t at school.” Harry gave their meal a rather brittle smile. “That stopped after I was accepted into Hogwarts…I suppose she didn’t trust me not to pour a potion in their food.”
“I’d heard the rumours that you were raised by Muggles, though I suppose I didn’t really give them much thought. Were you an especially troublesome child?”
“I was…different. I existed there, but it was clear that I didn’t…belong. Not knowing that magic existed, I had no context for the inexplicable things that would happen around me. Even after finding out the truth of everything, it was difficult as a child to comprehend that my aunt and uncle…feared me. That they hated what I was, what my parents had-” Frowning suddenly, Harry shook his head and looked up at Draco. “Sorry, I don’t know why I even thought to bring them up. It’s not exactly riveting dinner conversation.”
“Family can be complicated,” Draco told him simply, which Harry rather thought was a gross understatement on both sides.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Harry agreed and set down his glass. “Help me plate this. My hand isn’t very steady just yet.”
“A shame we aren’t capable of using magic,” Draco derided, but gamely laid down his own glass and got them a pair of bowls from his cupboard.
Ignoring the jibe, Harry carefully ladled their meal into the crockery and covered up the Dutch oven to keep, following Draco over to his usual place at the table with their wine in hand. It was oddly domestic to set down for a meal together in this way and the warmth of it chased away the memories Harry had inadvertently drudged up. For a while they turned to idle chatter as they ate, discussing coursework and the planned restoration of the windows in the Great Hall, but as they finished their meal, Draco sat back with a rather satisfied sigh.
“Not that I’m complaining, but why exactly did you break in here to appropriate my rather limited cooking facilities this evening?” he asked before draining the last of the wine from his glass.
“I suppose I wanted to show my appreciation in some small way.” Looking down at his hand, Harry noticed that it trembled faintly from the exertions of the day. “What you did for me…there’s no way I can repay that.”
“You can, actually,” Draco corrected him, looking amused.
Taken aback, Harry blinked twice, then snorted and nodded toward the Gamekeeper. “Go on then. Exactly how indebted to you am I?”
Seeming to deliberate, Draco tapped thoughtfully at the edge of his empty glass, looking Harry over. “I’m not entirely certain what the going rate on the life of the Chosen One is these days, but I wager it’s worth at least two spells.”
“Spells?” Harry repeated in some surprise. He remembered suddenly how Romilda still monitored the use of Draco’s wand and frowned in contemplation. “You…want me to cast them for you?”
“I want you to teach them to me.”
“Really? Which ones?”
Draco held up two pale fingers, ticking them off in turn. “The spell that you used to stop time in the Great Hall…and the Patronus Charm.”
“You never learned the Patronus Charm?” Harry asked in some surprise, brows lifting.
“Potter, you may have noticed that we had vastly differing educations while we were students here,” Draco pointed out sardonically. “That particular charm is strangely not one that was brought up while my father’s estate served as base of operations for the Dark Lord. Nor was it included in the lesson plans of the Carrows. I’ve read the theory behind the charm, but…” He waved a hand dismissively and Harry nodded with growing understanding.
“You think that using your old wand will prove to be more conducive, like it was in the Great Hall,” he offered. It wasn’t that Harry wasn’t well aware that he should just admit to Draco that he knew how the Ministry was grossly abusing their power by examining his wand, but still he hesitated. Even knowing it would only work against him in the end, Harry found himself unwilling to fracture the fledgling bond between them just yet.
An almost imperceptible line of tension eased out of the Gamekeeper to not need to explain why he needed to use the Hawthorn wand and he nodded once. “Yes… It is still my wand, after all.”
The rest of the week fell into something like normalcy as the novelty of Peeves’ supposed attack faded to the routine of classwork and the approaching end of term. Harry’s appetite, like his mood, had returned in full force now that it was no longer dampened by the parasitic presence of the Lethifold. After so many months of meals barely touched, the house elves seemed all too pleased to bring him snacks from the kitchens between classes. Harry managed to make it until lunch on the third day before Neville managed to quite literally corner him.
“Out with it then,” he said determinedly, arms folded across his chest as he blocked Harry’s path.
“Out with what?” Harry replied reflexively, glancing about the unfortunately deserted hallway.
“If you think I’m above going to my wife with your sudden change in disposition, you’re well off, Evans,” Neville warned, raising a brow sceptically.
“I cannot believe you are threatening me with your wife, Longbottom,” Harry groused, folding his arms. “I’ll have you know that she’s already been made aware of the improvement to my health.”
“Really,” Neville said, his tone flat and disbelieving.
“Is Hannah in the habit of giving you particulars about my health?”
Neville had the good grace to look abashed and rubbed at the back of his neck when it and his ears reddened. “Well, no…but I worry about you, Ha- Evans,” he corrected himself quickly, looking about. “Can’t help it, really. Between that business with the Dementor and then the Great Hall, I…”
Relenting somewhat, Harry clapped a hand to Neville’s shoulder and gave him an encouraging squeeze. “’s alright, Nev,” he assured the Herbologist. “If I’m being honest, I wasn’t even the one that gave Hannah the update, so you’re not wrong to have your doubts. Suppose I forgot what it was to have people worrying after me.”
“I hear that can happen when you hide away for a couple years,” Neville pointed out, but his smile was wry. “Who would have thought Draco Malfoy would be the one to draw you out again.”
Clearing his throat, Harry glanced about the deserted corridor, feeling the heat rise up his neck to blossom beneath his beard. “That’s not- Well we’re not…that is…” Harry sighed and folded his arms. “There are bigger issues at hand than my…personal life.”
“What, like a load of windows exploding in on a room full of schoolchildren?” Neville’s brows lifted in jest and grinned a bit. “It’s just a bit of a relief is all, given that you’ve not been seen with anyone since Hannah.”
Neville wasn’t the only member of staff to bring up his relationship with Draco throughout the week. These conversations began in the vein of accolades toward his quick reaction in the Great Hall, but inevitably drifted toward prying chin-wag. This ranged in discomfort from Minerva reminding him of the Code of Conduct for Staff-
“I hope that I do not need to go into great detail over which provision in particular I am referring to, Professor.”
-to Horace Slughorn, who had previously shown little interest in Harry, but could now see his potential usefulness.
“I wonder if perhaps you might be able to put in a good word for me with Draco. I used to have a mutually beneficial relationship with his predecessor, Hagrid, regarding particularly rare ingredients, one that sadly dried up once our young mister Malfoy returned from his study abroad. He’s completely cornered the market on Acromantula venom, yet he hasn’t fully pressed his advantage on that. With a more experienced business partner, such as myself, he could rake in the Galleons…”
By the end of the week, the students avid interest in him and his classes waned somewhat, like he’d known that it would. They were still far more attentive than before, showing genuine interest in the curriculum for the first time, but it was clear they had recovered quickly from the excitement of the week prior. A number of the younger students still kept a fearful eye around them during mealtime, but Flitwick had placed a lasting Shield Charm over the tables in the interim, and the constant shimmer of its presence calmed their nerves.
In the evening, without really meaning to make it routine, Harry found himself cooking a meal in Draco’s cottage while the Gamekeeper tended to the grounds and the various beasts and sundry that fell under his purview. After supping together, the pair of them would review their lesson plans and grade whatever coursework they had from the day until it grew late enough to slip into the Forbidden Forest without much concern with being overseen. As an additional precaution, Harry always wore his Invisibility Cloak when moving in or out of the forest; something Draco found terribly amusing, but never protested. There wouldn’t normally be anything wrong with what they were doing, but questions would be raised if Draco were seen using the wand of ‘Professor Evans’ and Harry had no intention of drawing Romilda’s attention back upon them.
It came as no surprise that Draco picked up the particulars of the Patronus Charm quickly and was able to produce a decent silver mist by their second night of practice. Draco had at one time been second in their year, after all, and his spellwork in the Great Hall was easy proof that his skill had only improved. Despite this, come Friday night he had yet to produce a corporeal Patronus and his mounting frustration was beginning to show.
“What am I doing wrong?” he demanded of Harry accusingly, gesturing sharply at the cloud of silver mist hovering stubbornly a few feet away.
“Some people never produce a corporeal Patronus, Draco,” Harry sighed, scratching at his beard. “It took Neville years to manage it.”
“Remind me at what age you taught this to all your little friends, Potter?” Draco sneered peevishly, folding his arms.
“Er…that is…fifteen,” he admitted with a wince.
“I’d like to think that I am somewhat more proficient than Neville Longbottom at fifteen!” Draco hissed and his ire was such that the silvery cloud of his Patronus dulled significantly.
“Look, we’ve been at it all week, so maybe we should give it a rest for now,” Harry offered in a placating tone. “When I was working with Snape on my Occlumency and potions, we would break on the weekend. Give time for frustrations to settle.”
“Is that so?” Draco asked archly. “And how is Severus’ frustration faring now?”
Rubbing at his hand, Harry shrugged very slightly and averted his gaze. “We…haven’t spoken. Not since shortly after the full moon.”
“What? Whyever not?”
“We had a bit of a row about my arm and he left. He’s always kept clear of my rooms as much as possible and…well, I haven’t been back in my office yet to see if he’s come back,” Harry finished lamely.
“Avoiding your office hours, are we, Professor?” Draco taunted, though his brow furrowed very slightly. “I wouldn’t have thought the memory of a dead man could so easily chase you away.”
“It’s…not that I’ve been avoiding my office, or at least…not because of Snape,” Harry corrected himself, because the more he thought on it, the more he realized he had been avoiding his office. Looking down at his palm, he traced the silvery scar on his palm, barely visible in the light cast by Draco’s Patronus. “I suppose it’s because I nearly died there. You’d think I’d be used to nearly dying at Hogwarts.”
Draco considered him for a long moment, then shook his head. “You’re the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met, Potter.”
“Thanks for that,” Harry said dryly. “Are we done, then?”
“Not in the slightest. If you’re determined to take the weekend, then I’ll simply have to perfect this tonight so that we can progress to the Time-Stop Charm come Monday,” Draco insisted and lifted his chin with just enough haughtiness to make it clear he would argue the point.
Harry rolled his eyes, but gestured magnanimously for Draco to proceed with the charm again. “Then by all means…”
Smirking with satisfaction, Draco closed his eyes and relaxed by degrees as he evened out his breathing. Harry watched him closely, as he had done the last week, and could tell even before Draco shifted the grip on his wand and moved into the motions that this attempt would also be unsuccessful. There was, he’d noticed, just the slightest hesitancy whenever Draco cast with the Hawthorn wand. Given the number of years he’d spent having his wand use monitored, Harry could hardly fault him for that.
Harry’s sigh was lost to Draco’s emphatic curse as another formless cloud of silver mist gathered into the air. He was reminded suddenly of the almost desperate frustration he’d witnessed the first time he’d followed Draco into the forest and a glaringly bad idea began to form.
“I think…I might know a better way for you to learn this.”
“Draco…” Harry began a short while later and was immediately cut off.
“I honestly don’t know why I’m even surprised,” Draco spat as he whirled, pinning Harry with an angry glare. “Despite that you’ve shown no interest in learning about the heritage and history of your people, you’ve not had the same qualms about sticking your nose in our private lives. I’ve only been out there thrice since you’ve been back, so when-“ He stopped and shook his head knowingly, lip curling at whatever he saw in Harry’s expression. “Of course…after my Examination. I suppose you looked in on that, as well. You already knew about the bloody restrictions on my magic use.”
“Yes,” he admitted easily, seeing no point in trying to keep it secret any longer.
“Why?” Draco demanded in return, his lips pressed thin in his ire. “Why have you been investigating me?”
“I was curious about you.”
That gave the Gamekeeper pause and he gave Harry a rather searching look. “Curious.”
“If I’m honest…I’ve been curious since seeing you step into the lift at St Mungo’s.” Scoffing slightly at himself, Harry scratched lightly at his beard. “Ginny would probably say that I’ve been curious since I first saw you getting fitted for robes in Madam Malkin’s. You don’t know this, probably don’t even remember the time we first met, but after Hagrid, you were the first wizard I’d ever had a conversation with…certainly the first my own age. Merlin, but you were a right arse about it, too. Made me think twice about the whole Hogwarts business.”
For a long while, Draco simply stared at Harry in silence as he mulled over his explanation until at last he sighed, shaking his head. “You aren’t always going to get away with things simply by being charming, Potter. Despite all evidence to the contrary.”
“You think I’m charming?” Harry teased with a small smile.
“A charming, irritating sneak,” Draco clarified with a derisive sneer and turned away. “Come on then…let’s try this ‘brilliant’ plan of yours.”
“Draco,” he halted the wizard to give him a more serious look. “I am sorry for invading your privacy the way I did. You’re not my case; you never were and I shouldn’t have used that as an excuse to look in on you as I did.”
The tension in the lines of Draco’s body eased somewhat and he nodded once in curt acknowledgement. “I won’t lie and tell you that any of this is fine. It isn’t fine. I’ve spent years cultivating what little privacy the Ministry will afford me. This…innate need you have to know what’s going on around you is one of your best and worst qualities. You would have done well in Slytherin.”
“You aren’t the first to say so,” Harry sighed.
“I’m certain that’s true.”
They passed the rest of the way through the Forbidden Forest in not uncomfortable silence, Draco’s lamp illuminating the trees just enough to get by until the hawthorn tree came into view. Despite the approach of winter, the tree still clung stubbornly to its leaves, as though unwilling to reveal the wicked thorns hidden within. Whatever lingering strain remained in Draco seemed to pass as they came to stand beneath the boughs of his tree and Harry couldn’t help but watch him surreptitiously.
“You’re allowed to ask me questions, Potter,” the Gamekeeper told him wryly. “I only ask that you give me the courtesy to choose whether or not to answer.”
“It’s just…” Harry looked up at the tree, shaking his head a little. “I know that this is a conduit for your magic, but I don’t understand why that is. Or how, for that matter.”
Stepping in close to the tree, Draco let his hand rest against the silvery bark, letting out a slow breath as a soft glow rose up in answer to his touch. “That’s a longer story than I care to get into, but…this was an accident that became something of a necessity. Years ago I found a dying unicorn mare here. It happens sometimes in pregnancy that the foals will develop their horns prematurely and cause a rupture to the uterine artery. I tried to save her and the foal, but…unskilled as I was, my efforts likely only killed them faster.” He soothed his fingers over the bark as though in apology.
“You buried them here,” Harry guessed, watching him closely.
“I worried my actions meant whatever scavengers that came to feed off the carcass would be cursed, as though they’d slain the mare. So I buried her and her foal and pulled up a nearby sapling to mark the grave. I…didn’t have use of my wand just then, so I poured my magic into the sapling, willing it to grow enough to keep them being easily dug up again. And thus…” He gestured at the mature tree, smiling a bit wistfully.
“It really is remarkable, Draco,” Harry told him in earnest, looking up at the lights that were coalescing to descend in drops like rain upon them. “Makes me wonder if this is how ancient wizards learned to use wands.” Harry held up a hand when Draco immediately opened his mouth as though to correct his assumption, forestalling him. “Please just let me compliment you without pointing out some very obvious bit of magical history I’ve missed.”
Lips quirking upward in amusement, Draco tilted his head toward Harry. “So that’s your plan then, is it? You think that I can use my tree like a wand to better cast the Patronus Charm?”
“I don’t see why not,” he agreed. “Despite what I said before, it’s clear that you’ve got all the skill required to produce a solid Patronus, but it’s almost as though…well, it’s as though you won’t let yourself.”
“Interesting theory,” Draco remarked dryly.
“You’re the most yourself when you’re here.”
Draco was taken aback by the claim and gave Harry a searching look before he snorted softly, shaking his head and stepping back from the tree. “Well go on then.”
It was Harry’s turn to be caught off guard and he blinked a bit. “What, you want me to…” he gestured toward the tree.
“You’ve already gotten quite familiar with one wand of mine, Potter,” Draco reminded him in amusement, folding his arms across his chest expectantly. “So let’s have it.”
Harry looked between Draco and the tree, then nodded and approached it with more confidence than he currently felt. Taking a steadying breath to brace himself, he let his fingers slowly rest upon the smooth, silvered bark and was instantly swept away by the magic surging into him. Gasping a little for air that seemed suddenly stolen from his chest, Harry distantly felt his manufactured disguise melting away as it had when he’d first been here. With eyes unseeing, he stared up into the canopy of leaves that limned in a golden and shivered as though in anticipation of his intentions. Filled as he was with the heady flavour of Draco’s magic, it took effort to coalesce his thoughts into purpose, but when he finally opened his mouth he felt as though he could see the words lighting upon the air in a whisper that was somehow deafening.