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The Golden Dawn

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Number 12 Grimmauld Place stood quiet and solemn in the early morning hours of late summer, unseen by her somewhat less maudlin neighbours whose electricity chased away some of the gloom with artificial warmth. London had been saddled with near constant rain since the peak of summer, leaving the city grey and with an atmosphere not unlike when one had been entertaining an unwanted houseguest for far too long. Despite the ill-favoured weather, the most noble House of Black was gloomier still than her neighbours, eternally tainted by the dark wizards who had long ago moved her into the magical realm.

In the darkness of the smallest bedroom on the second landing, years and miles away from the cupboard under the stairs at Privet Drive, Harry Potter came awake with a shout that shook the very foundations of the house he had inherited. Disoriented as he was, wand outstretched almost wildly in his left hand, the wizard took no notice of the lingering trembles of his dreams as his wide, green eyes searched the room. Slowly, his harsh breathing evened out as he registered where he was and that no enemies lingered in the darkness of his room. Holding his breath briefly, he released it and lowered the Hawthorne wand once more, setting it down on the mattress so he could reach for the potions lined up at his bedside.

Awkwardly unstopping the first potion with only his left hand, he tossed it back, swallowing thickly before coughing out a gruff, “Kreacher.” He grimaced at the answering crack that announced the Apparition of his house-elf and muttered, “The lights. And tea.”

“Yes, Master.” The oil lamps illuminated at once, and the fire in the small grate at the opposite end of the bedroom came to life for good measure. Another crack followed after a few moments as the elf left to acquire his tea, though not before Harry heard him muttering, “My poor master is in such pain…cannot sleep through the night…what can Kreacher do to ease his suffering?”

Sighing irritably, Harry picked up the second of the two Blood-Replenishing potions and tossed this back as well, relaxing back into his pillows as the malignant pain in his wand arm faded to a dull throb. He ran his fingers lightly over the heavily charmed bandages encasing the damaged limb, wondering how much the angry black and purple curse lines had spread during the night. Though he recognized the paranoia for what it was, Harry couldn’t help but feel as though each dawn a little more of him had been consumed by the dark magic.

Sitting up fully at the third crack into the pre-dawn quiet that announced his tea, Harry reached for his Anti-Paralysis potion next and shuddered at the taste of it sliding down his throat. With great effort, he carefully opened and closed the cramped fingers of his right hand with excruciating slowness, feeling the shards of holly in his palm and wrist as he did so. Looking over the silver tray Kreacher was levitating onto the bed beside him, Harry saw that the house-elf had actually plated an overlarge slice of treacle tart beside his steaming tea and felt his lips twitch in the ghost of a smile. Sneaky little bugger.

Despite that his stomach was turning itself over with the remnants of his nightmares and his potion regimen, he took a careful bite of the tart under Kreacher’s watchful eye, then thanked and dismissed the house-elf. Even the small bite sat like a lump inside him, but Harry pushed the feeling aside as he washed it down with his tea, eyeing his remaining potions with an unkind gaze. Resolutely, he reached for the Murtlap Essence next, followed by Star Grass Salve and a small vial of Skele-Gro. He let his fingers linger for a moment on the Draught of Peace, frowning severely at it before he pushed it further back on the nightstand and picked up the last of his tea instead.

Every morning and evening he went through this, with additional Blood-Replenishing doses throughout the day. His mouth felt like the bottom of a first year’s cauldron and Harry knew he had lost more than a little weight from the curb to his appetite. Honestly he imagined if it were not for his beard, he would not look that far removed from when he’d been in the Dursleys’ tender care. Harry gamely tried a second bite at this thought, before dropping his fork back to the plate, taking up the Hawthorn wand he had set aside and levering himself out of bed.

Despite that it had been close to two years since Belize and the curse that had reshaped his life again, Harry still found operating with only his left-hand gave him an off-balanced, clumsy feeling. In the bathroom he splashed some cold water onto his face, cupping a handful to press over his eyes for a long moment before he let it fall and dried off. Taking up his glasses from the shelf below the mirror, Harry stared at his reflection as though he were a stranger.

His face was gaunt and somewhat hollow with exhaustion and the near-constant pain that was his life now, his green eyes over bright behind his square, frameless spectacles. He honestly wasn’t sure whether or not the short beard covering the lower half of his face helped to hide or accentuate the state of his physical health.

The beard had come in overnight when he had turned twenty-five. It had alarmed him initially to wake up to, given that his father had been clean-shaven in all the photographs Harry had ever seen of him. But his father had been murdered at twenty-one…it was entirely possible that this was a trait he would have shared with him, had James Potter been given the chance to live so long.

His beard, much like his hair, tended to do whatever it felt like doing on any given day and only accepted the barest of suggestions from Harry himself in the styling. Shaving was wholly ineffective beyond the span of a day, but his beard did appreciate a good brush to smooth down into something presentable. There were times when Harry wondered if he would end up like Dumbledore…his hair growing ever longer and wilder as he hit certain milestones in his life. He was used to the short beard now at twenty-eight, but he would prefer things stay as they were before disguising himself became more trouble than it was worth.

Some of the tension began to ease out of his body as the potions and the little food he’d managed worked through him and for a moment Harry simply leaned against his sink and breathed, resting his forehead against the cool surface of the mirror. It murmured soft encouragements to him, but Harry tuned it out, his mind turned inward. Once he was ready, he leaned back and began Transfiguring his features with careful movements.

Harry had been fortunate that Aurors were trained to use their wands in their non-dominant hand, but the loss of his wand meant that he couldn’t be as casual with the movements as he might once have been with the wand of Holly and Phoenix. The Hawthorn and Unicorn wand had been with him for over a decade now, but he had used it so rarely prior to his accident that it was still not fully comfortable to him. Some part of Harry suspected that the wand knew how he resented having to use it and reacted in kind, but that could be the paranoia.

Regardless, Harry was talented in his disguises, especially as he had been using the same particular Transfiguration off and on for years now, and almost daily the past eighteen months. This face, after all, was that of the J. S. Evans, Private Investigator.

Despite his skill, Transfiguration did not take well to Harry, thanks to the peculiarities that came with his father’s pureblood heritage. They would last at least until nightfall, but the further after sunset he remained disguised, the more those who recognized Mr. Evans would begin to remark at how his hair seemed darker and his eyes brighter and greener. The lightning shaped scar that marred his forehead was given a layer of Muggle make-up and a Disillusionment charm. Even more than the rest of his features, that particular part of him resisted magical means of disguise.

When Harry was finally finished, he bore the gloriously non-descript face he had long ago created when the weight of his infamy felt as though it were going to crush the life from him. At first it had been a whim, even a bit of a laugh to hide in plain sight, but as time wore on it became more and more necessary to be anyone other than himself. Now he did not enter the world without it, to the point where Harry wasn’t entirely sure when he’d last felt the sun on his actual face.

Breathing easier under his disguise, Harry found himself moving a little easier as he returned to his room to dress for the day. His Muggle clothing was charmed against the damp weather, though the overcoat he pulled on over his useless right arm was not. He found that having the outermost appearance of being wet and miserable to be enough to fool Wizard and Muggle alike, as Muggles had no reason to suspect that he was actually fully protected against the elements and most Wizards simply wouldn’t think to leave a single layer of their clothing mundane in the name of illusion. Usually Harry took the time to put his injured arm through the sleeve of his coat, but lately it had been aching so badly that he had no interest in having it exposed in any way.

Making his way down to the front door, he called for Kreacher, though Harry saw as he neared that the house-elf had already been waiting for him. The ancient old elf held up the steel thermos that held his doses of Blood-Replenishing potion out to Harry, muttering to himself about the state of his ‘poor master’ as he did so. Harry took it with a nod and held up the canister in a salute to him.

“Ta, Kreacher.”

“Kreacher has also made soup for Master Harry…” the ancient elf gestured at the thermos, then rubbed his old, gnarled hands together. “Kreacher will make a pie for supper…”

Harry barely resisted sighing and carefully unscrewed his thermos one way to see that he had indeed filled it with a steaming soup, then screwed the cap back on until it came off again to reveal the Blood-Replenishing potion. Usually he liked to keep both compartments filled with potion in case something were to prevent him getting back to the house, but Kreacher was clearly going to keep at this feeding business until he was satisfied.

“Right. Kreacher, you will take time to rest today above all else. You remember what Healer Winky said about over exerting yourself.”

Kreacher sniffed at this, looking away from Harry. “The healer is a free elf…cannot be trusted, no…such a disgrace… But…Kreacher will do as his master commands. Kreacher is a good, proud house-elf…”

“Thank you, Kreacher,” Harry replied tiredly, putting his thermos into the inner pocket of his coat once the lid was properly secured once more. “And…thank you for the, ah, soup.”

Giving the house-elf a final nod, Harry opened the door and stepped out onto the landing, turning on the spot immediately to Disapparate before he could be spotted. These days, and with the weather especially, there was usually only one or two Witches or Wizards staking out his home. These tended to be the most junior members on staff with the Prophet or Witch Weekly, and he suspected they might actually be satisfying their internships by trying to catch a word with the reclusive Chosen One. They looked younger all the time, though some part of Harry wouldn’t put it past a Dark Wizard to use a disarmingly young appearance to get a shot at him. Most mornings he would leave his home by way of his Invisibility Cloak so that he could inspect his ‘stalkers’ more closely and check his wards, but today he didn’t have the patience for it.

Letting out a pained breath as he landed in the alleyway outside his office building, Harry put out his hand to brace himself on the damp brick as he waited for the pain to stop arcing through his arm. Big magic had that effect on him now, which was the other reason he usually walked to the Tube. It passed more slowly than he would have liked, feeling exposed in the open as he was, but Harry was moving again as soon as he could shake it off.

The building was already open, as the cleaning service had come to see to the lobby and those businesses within who paid to have their studios and offices cleaned as well. Harry was not one of these, as he used just enough household cleaning spells to keep his own rooms mostly presentable. Truthfully, he’d rather work under a thick layer of dust than allow strangers access to his offices, Muggles or not. Stopping only long enough to get his post, Harry gave the cleaners a brusque nod before unlocking the door emblazoned with ‘J. S. Evans, Private Investigator’ and ducking inside to shut and lock it once more behind him.

Almost at once, a small green square of paper shot off his desk and came to flutter about his head. Grimacing, Harry stuffed his post into his pocket and snatched at the appointment slip, which read ‘St Mungo’s, 9:00 AM Thursday, Healer Abbot’ in neat script beside the crossed wand and bone emblem of St Mungo’s Hospital. He briefly considered cancelling the appointment, but his arm throbbed in a way that suggested it would be quite foolish to do so. Besides which, Hannah would most likely come to find him if he tried to dodge her.

Crumpling the appointment slip irritably, he tossed it aside, ignoring the paper as it smoothed itself out again and followed him over to his desk, hovering just in view and out of reach as he switched on his electric kettle. Most of the objects in his offices were Muggle in nature, like the kettle, which gave him the ability to use an ancient computer to check his business’ email. His clients found the big, boxy display rather amusing, but newer technology was far more likely to short itself out in his presence.

While the kettle heated, Harry pulled the post from his pocket once more and awkwardly looked through what little he had. He paid an obscene amount of money to a private firm who sorted through the numerous letters he received and forwarded only what was relevant in nature. It was also run through a number of tests to ensure that nothing he received was cursed, hexed or spelled in any way. All Aurors were given a similar service while in the employ of the Ministry of Magic, though Harry had strongly believed they used it primarily as a way to read through employee correspondence. He trusted his own firm well enough, though he also never received anything he felt would compromise him as it was.

The first letter was from Hannah and was perhaps the kindest threat he’d ever received, should he decide to miss his appointment today. Snorting softly, he gave the appointment slip hovering off to his right a look and then picked up the next letter. This one he set aside unopened as soon as he recognized Hermione’s neat writing. Harry didn’t feel nearly awake enough to deal with that particular headache. The last letter actually brought a smile to his lips as he recognized Teddy’s untidy scrawl.

Teddy was joyful and warm even in his childish writing as he described how his summer had been going and his excitement for the upcoming school year. With a start, Harry realized as he read that Teddy was about to head into his first year at Hogwarts. Was he really already eleven? He seemed so much younger now than Harry had ever been. Tucking the letter into his coat, he promised himself that he would write back when he returned home that evening, and send an additional letter to Andromeda to see what he might gift his godson as congratulations on his entrance to Hogwarts.

His mood and health buoyed far more than any of his potions had done for him thus far, he finished making his tea and sat down at his desk to check his Muggle correspondence and email. It was mostly bills and adverts, though he had received yet another letter of invitation to apply to the Association of British Investigators. They always amused him to read through, imagining what exactly the ABI would think if they knew the sort of cases he took or the methods he had for solving them. He rather thought he might not live up to their standards of credibility to the industry had they any idea that the majority of cases he took on were for Muggles affected by the magical world.

Speaking of cases…he had two new inquiries waiting for him in his inbox once his computer finally finished booting up. The first seemed to be a fairly routine inquiry from an elderly chap who almost certainly had a boggart in his attic. The second however…

Harry was fairly simmering with rage as he stepped into the front lobby of St Mungo’s from the Muggle department store that quickly disappeared from view as he crossed over. People instinctively moved out of his way as he stormed through reception and headed straight for the lift without a word to the Welcome Witch, who looked rather glad to be excluded from his flight path. Everyone else waiting to go up to the other levels suddenly seemed to remember that they had somewhere else to be as he strode onto the lift and jabbed at the dial for the Fourth Floor.

He felt a curl of satisfaction in some dark place that he went unchallenged, angry as he was to take time out of his day to have to be there. Harry wanted to be out on the streets working his new case, not poked and prodded at like some kind of specimen. When he reached Spell Damage, having passed Floors 1, 2 and 3 without any other passengers willing to take him on, he stalked out onto the landing and headed for the Margo Elliot Ward, which specialized in curses and dark magic.

Hannah was immediately visible at the reception desk, her fair head bent over a number of scrolls before her. She looked up with a frown as though sensing his approach, and it only deepened at the sight of him before her eyebrows rose in recognition of his disguise.

“You’re in a right strop today, aren’t you? Come on then, let’s get you to the exam before someone calls a security troll.”

Some of his anger deflated and Harry let out a harsh breath, but nodded and followed her down the passageway to a private room. “Sorry. There’s a case and I…let’s just hurry and be done with this.”

“Oh yes, let’s rush the extremely delicate lifesaving procedures because you’re a very busy person with many important things to do,” she replied brightly, shutting the door and gesturing for him to sit on the table. “Get your kit off and let’s have a look, shall we?”

“Hannah…” Harry began, but was cut off almost immediately.

Harry…” she imitated him in an exaggeration of his tone. “The sooner you stop being a right arse of a patient, the sooner you can be on your way, yes? Now get your kit off. It’s nothing I haven’t seen.”

His rage fully spent now, Harry sighed tiredly as a sort of numbness settled over him. He began taking off everything above the waist with slow, pained effort. “I should request a new Healer…isn’t there some rule about relationships with patients?”

“Ah, but you weren’t my patient when we were together. And besides, no one else here would put up with your bloody dark moods. Or worse, they’d start falling all over themselves to treat you once they found out who you were and let you have your run of the place.”

As soon as he’d removed his clothing, the Healer began to unwrap the spelled bandages on his arm with professional efficiency and Harry couldn’t help but smile a little. They had only dated a brief time several years back, barely dipping into the beginnings of intimacy when he’d re-introduced her to Neville at a pub night. She’d broken things off with him a few days later and though Harry thought he ought to be offended, he rather felt that he’d gotten what he deserved. After all, they’d first gone out after he’d met her again through Ernie Macmillan, who Harry had been shagging at the time.

His smile slipped away quickly as he heard her intake of breath and looked upon the ruin of his arm. Harry didn’t think now that it was his paranoia telling him that the blackened area of the curse wound had spread further up his arm, shot through with angry violet except in places where the shards of his wand were still lodged in his skin. When he’d first been brought in for treatment, there had been some debate on whether or not to remove his wand where it was imbedded in him. Eventually the Healers had come to the conclusion that, whatever the reason may be, they were the only thing keeping the curse from spreading faster than it was.

“Well,” Hannah said after a moment, breaking the tense silence they’d fallen into looking at the damaged limb. She began moving her wand in slow, practiced movements over him, taking diagnostics. “It doesn’t look that much worse, but obviously it hasn’t gotten better. How’s the mobility?”

“Limited. It’s been worse with the rain,” Harry admitted, managing a slow flex of his hand to show her.

“I know I’ve said it before, but keep it moving as much as you can manage. Circulation is just as important to preventing atrophy as it is to keeping the potions moving through there. Do you think the bandages have been helping? I’d like to try a new sequence of runes, I think…”

“The muscles cramp more with them on, but I do think it’s been helping to slow the spread.”

“Good, that’s what we’re aiming for right now. And the potion regimen?” she asked as she began to carefully spread a silver salve over his skin with gloved hands.

“Awful,” he glowered at her, then sighed. “But essential. I’m up to six full doses of Blood-Replenishment a day now.”

“You know that you wouldn’t have to take so much if you improved your diet,” she said sternly, giving him a knowing look. “You look like you’ve lost a stone since I saw you last.”

Harry only shook his head and looked away in reply, his mouth tight. Truthfully, he doubted managing a few more crisps would do much to improve things. The problem wasn’t that he was losing blood…it was that his blood was becoming useless. It had taken the Healers some time to realize what was happening, that the curse was pulling oxygen from his blood. Slowly suffocating him from the inside.

Hannah sighed and put aside the silver salve, giving him an earnest look. “Harry, I can’t force feed you, but you’re bloody well old enough to know that you need food to survive. Let me give you a Nutrition Draught at least if you can’t manage eating.”

A wave of revulsion went through him at the thought of the potion with had the exact taste and consistency of paste. “How’s Neville?” he asked abruptly in a desperate attempt to change the subject.

The Healer gave him a withering look at the transparent move, but then her eyes softened with affection and she smiled. “He’s just fine, thank you. Misses you, of course,” she said this with a pointed look and raised her wand to begin bandaging his arm in a fresh length of linen, tracing complicated runes in glowing lines. “This time of year is always a bit hectic for him with school about to start. He makes noise about having to spend so much time away from me, but I know that he loves teaching and all the chaos that brings.” She hesitated a moment and seemed to be weighing her words before she spoke again. “Actually…rumour has it that Madam Pomfrey is set to retire after this year. I’ve been thinking about applying for the job, if she does.”

She glanced up at him at this, as though she worried he might feel betrayed that she was thinking of leaving St Mungo’s to be nearer to her husband. It did pain him briefly to think of having to go through this with someone else, but Harry couldn’t find it in him to be at all upset. He managed to give her a warm, genuine smile and nodded. “You’d be a wonderful Matron of the Hospital Ward. They’d be mad not to hire you on.”

Hannah relaxed and gave him an equally warm smile in return. “That’s very kind of you to say, Harry… I’m still sending you home with Nutrition Draught.”

Harry’s arm was throbbing dully as he got back into the lift, a far more healthy ache than he’d come in with, if such a thing were possible. He knew from experience that the feeling wouldn’t last, but he savoured the relief while he could. His mind started drifting back towards the new case, looking at it more calmly now that the initial wave of rage had passed through him. Lost in thought as he was, he almost didn’t notice when the lift stopped at the First Floor and the doors slid open to reveal Draco Malfoy.

For a moment Harry stared, unmoving from his position near dead centre of the lift, completely caught off guard to see the wizard there. Noticing his stare as he stepped inside, Malfoy tensed, jaw tightening, and then gave him a haughty look that was devoid of recognition.

“May I help you with something?” he sneered, arching a pale eyebrow coolly.

Startled into movement, Harry remembered that he was disguised and stepped backward to give Malfoy room, averting his gaze. “No. Sorry,” he replied gruffly, lowering his voice in case it gave him away.

Malfoy’s lip curled, but he turned to face the doors, stiff and clearly avoiding acknowledging Harry’s presence any further. A hand shot between the golden gates before they slid fully shut and a harried looking Mediwitch pushed them apart again.

“So sorry, Professor! I forgot to give you this!” She hurriedly pushed a vial into Malfoy’s hand and dipped into a brief curtsey before she spun on her heel and bustled off again. Malfoy slipped the vial into the pocket of his robes and Harry could see glimpses of a bandage starting at his wrist beneath his cuff.

“Professor?” Harry blurted out in surprise, staring at him openly again.

Breathing out shortly through his nose in exasperation, the grey-eyed wizard shot him a withering look. “Yes,” he drawled scathingly. “At a school, even. Perhaps you’ve heard of those? It’s where one learns such valuable lessons as to mind one’s own business.”

A flush crept up Harry’s neck and he opened his mouth to retort when the lift reached the Ground Floor and Malfoy abruptly strode out of the lift without waiting for the doors to fully open. Feeling an irrational urge to chase after him and have it out like a teenager, Harry stomped out of the lift and glowered after Malfoy’s retreating back. Suspicion started to blossom low in his gut as he wondered what exactly Malfoy had even been doing there, finding himself drifting toward the Welcome Witch before he caught himself and reigned in his paranoia. It did spark an idea however, and he walked over to the wary looking witch.

“Is…there something I can help you with, sir?” she asked cautiously, clearly remembering the state he’d been in upon arrival.

Harry pulled his Private Inquiries and Investigations license from the Ministry of Magic from his jacket and held it out. “I need to know the names of any wizards who have been treated recently for facial staining caused by Muggle means.”

Veronica Ware was putting herself through university by working as a barista during her free daylight hours and picking up shifts as a barmaid at her local pub at night. It wasn’t unusual for patrons to chat her up and it was usually harmless and led to better tips. While she was always polite and friendly, she was always quick to signal the doorman if anyone tried to get fresh. Truthfully she had never really had any problems, until a few weeks ago when a strange man called Bryndon came to her caff.

Though he claimed to have travelled no further than Cambridge, he wore strange clothing and had seemed almost like a tourist, looking at everything with jejune interest, Veronica included. Used to seeing other university students on some substance or another while working the pub, she tried to be kind and patiently answered all his questions as he lingered far longer than any of the other patrons. When she finally had to explain that she needed to close up shop so that she could go to her second job, he offered to escort her and she refused. That was when things had changed.

She didn’t see him again that night, but the following evening he showed up at the pub and the stalking began. Though Veronica didn’t see Bryndon every day, he began routinely inserting himself into her life, asking questions as though their first conversation had never quite ended.

Nothing she did seemed to make any difference. The doorman would come over when signalled, but then would grow confused as he neared and turn to go back to his post. The policeman she solicited never managed to do anything to intervene at the caff, and after several attempts she was warned that they would charge her if she kept having them on. Even direct confrontation made no difference, as Bryndon would laugh her off and tell her not to be ridiculous…that she was only a ‘muggle’ and should be honoured, really.

It had gotten to the point that Veronica quit both of her jobs, afraid to be anywhere that Bryndon would know to look for her. For the better part of a week she’d had some peace until he’d broken into her flat four nights ago, unlocking the door as if by magic and demanding to know where she had been. Then he’d pointed something at her and she didn’t know how exactly it happened, but she started to do whatever he asked of her. It was like being in a waking dream, but part of Veronica kept fighting against the strangeness in her head until suddenly she was herself again. Desperate to escape before she was caught up in whatever drug he’d used the first time, she got hold of her defence spray.

Getting Bryndon full on in the face until the can was empty, Veronica had made a run for it and hadn’t been home since, sleeping in hotels and burning through what savings she had the last few days. She’d tried going to the hospital to be tested, but they’d found no evidence of a drug in her system and the police claimed that according to their databases, Bryndon didn’t even exist. Sending her email to Harry was her last, desperate hope to wake from the nightmare her life had become.

Harry had been accused more than once of having a bit of a saviour complex, but he was feeling far from noble as he cornered Bryndon Rowle in a side street only a block away from Veronica Ware’s flat. His arm was throbbing sharply from having already disarmed the wizard, but it only helped to focus his anger. He cast the Muffliato Charm around them for good measure, and just in time as it were.

“How dare you! Do you have any idea who my family is? I’ll see you in Azkaban before the night’s end for this!” the wizard hissed at Harry, though his eyes darted around for an escape. Rowle’s trip to St Mungo’s had removed most of the staining from Veronica’s defence spray, but there was still a faint pink tinge to his pale face. He’d been caught red-handed. “What are you after? Money, is it?”

Levicorpus,” Harry bit out in reply, flicking the Hawthorne wand and watching with relish as Rowle was yanked up by his ankles. He stepped forward slowly as the wizard sputtered indignantly. “Bryndon Rowle…have you been casting Unforgivables on Muggles?”

Rowle’s eyes widened with sudden understanding, then he sneered, despite the fact that he was currently dangling by his ankles. “So that’s it, is it? Feeling tender over some stupid joke on that cow?” he laughed coldly, looking almost relaxed now that he knew Harry’s intention. “Go ahead and take me in, then. I’ll never see the inside of a cell…my family could buy and sell the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and the bloody Wizengamot twice over.”

Harry’s blood went cold at the implication, though he kept his face impassive. He didn’t trust the Ministry, as the Ministry was well aware, but had they really sunk so far as to being bought and paid for by pureblood tossers like Rowle? Part of the reason he had begun working as a private investigator was to help those Muggles who were affected by magic and ignored by the Ministry…but were they really overlooking Unforgivables?

“You’re right about one thing, Mister Rowle...” he mused with a mirthless smile, leaning towards the upended wizard. Harry’s eyes, still Transfigured a deep brown, were filled with dark intent. “You won’t see the inside of a cell.”

The sky was darkening as Harry stepped up to the Hour Glass Hotel, the exterior lamps lit rather cheerfully against the ruddy brick. The pub at the ground level was beginning to empty of the local nine-to-fivers who’d come directly after work, leaving that small gap in business before the regulars would emerge for their late night drinking. Not for the first time, Harry rather wished that he could carry a cell phone so that he might have called ahead, especially when he saw that the desk clerk had apparently abandoned their post.

He made sure to tread heavy up the stairs to make his presence known, stopping on the second landing and knocking gently on number 203. Hearing rustling on the other side, he tried to look as non-threatening as possible, mentally distancing himself from the agony of his right arm. All the big magic he’d used in the last few hours, including the Apparation of the last few minutes, had largely undone all of Hannah’s careful work.

After a few moments a timid voice came from the other side of the worn old door, paint chipped and scratched. “Y-yes?”

“Veronica Ware?” Harry asked gently, attempting a smile that he thought might at least be neutral, if not comforting or friendly. “I’m Evans…the investigator you contacted?”

“Oh! Oh of course!” There was the sound of a chain and lock being undone and a tired looking young woman opened the door. “I’m sorry, please come in… I…I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

By her tone, Harry doubted she had expected to see him at all, given the response she’d received from all other avenues. “I’m sorry for dropping by unannounced, but I like to work fast when I’m concerned for my client’s safety,” he explained, stepping inside the small room.

Her blue eyes widened and reminded him uncomfortably of Luna as she gave him a cautiously hopeful look. “Then you…you believe me?”

“I believe you,” Harry assured her firmly. “And I’ve handled the situation.” He held up Rowle’s wand, careful not to point it at her as she flinched. “Is this what you saw the night he broke in?”

“Y-yes! I…I can’t believe… You found him?” She took the wand from him carefully when he held it out for her, sitting down on the bed in shock. “I’d started to think I was going mental…I really did… What…what is this thing?”

“A sort of…hypnosis device. Black market stuff. I’ve relieved Mister Rowle of it and ensured that he won’t be able to come after you again. You’re safe, Miss Ware…it’s over.”

Veronica stared at the wand, hands tightening on it until it rather abruptly snapped in half. “Oh! I…I’m so sorry, I… This was probably evidence, wasn’t it? I just…” Her shoulders shook slightly and she bit her lip as tears welled in her eyes.

Harry carefully reached out and put his good hand over hers, crouching before her. “No evidence…this is off the books. Mister Rowle’s family has quite a bit of money…it’s why the police couldn’t get involved. But I…well, I worked around that system.”

Taking a shuddering breath, she swiped at her eyes and nodded, firming her chin to look at him squarely. “Is he dead?”

“I wouldn’t tell you if he were,” Harry said firmly, holding her gaze. “Just know that you can go back to your life now without fear of his return.”

She stared at him for a long moment, then dropped her gaze back to the broken wand in her hands, nodding slowly. “Right. I…I can live with that,” she decided after a few moments. Holding out the pieces of wood to him, Veronica seemed to gather herself, walling off her emotions in a way Harry knew all too well. “It will take some time for me to make good on your payment, but if you’d be willing to accept a payment plan-“

“That won’t be necessary, Miss Ware,” he cut her off, accepting the broken wand and tucking it into his jacket. “When I said ‘off the books’, I meant it. Not on record, not in my ledger…and not in your memory, should you want.”

Veronica looked taken aback by that, eyes widening. “I…what…what do you mean?”

“I’m sure when you contacted me you knew that my services are a bit…different than most private investigators. That I’d be willing to take on an unusual case like yours because of that,” he paused while she nodded slowly in assent. “Part of those services is that I can help you forget about this experience. Let you go back to your life without the memory to keep you moving forward.”

She stared at him for a long while as she processed this, running an unsteady hand over her untidy hair as she did. After a while, she drew in a breath and closed her eyes, shaking her head. “No, I…I don’t want to forget. Or I do, but…I shouldn’t forget. I can’t just be who I was before, not anymore.”

Harry nodded, careful not to show his relief to hear it. Memory charms had always made him feel ill, but since his injury it had gotten far worse. “You know how to reach me if you change your mind,” he said, and turned to the door. He stopped a moment later at the hand on his arm however, looking back at her and seeing the determination to survive clear in her face now.

“Thank you, Mister Evans.”

Harry was feeling fairly exhausted by the time he returned to his office, fully intending to use the Portkey he kept in his desk rather than go through the pain of another Apparation. He briefly considered using his Invisibility Cloak to take the Tube, but between the rain and the thought of being closed in with all those strangers, he banished the thought almost as soon as it had formed.

The building itself was still unlocked, as the dance studio on the second floor began their last class at half past eight on weeknights. That wasn’t to stay the simple Muggle lock would have stopped him, but he tried not to do anything so obvious as breaking and entering when he could avoid it. Putting his hand on the door to his office, Harry froze, his adrenaline picking up. There was someone inside.

Drawing his wand, he pointed it at the door and moved fast as it flew open with a shuddering bang, a non-verbal disarming spell leaving the end of his wand in a streak of red. It collided with a shield charm, but he stopped abruptly as he caught sight of bushy brown hair and wide, frightened brown eyes. Harry stared at Hermione Granger for a long moment, her own wand held out in a somewhat unsteady hand before he used his foot to close the door.

“Do I want to know how you got in here?” he asked roughly, not willing to lower his wand while hers was still raised against him.

“W-what?” she said in surprise, wand trembling slightly before her eyes widened with recognition. “Harry? Oh, Merlin, Harry you scared the life out of me bursting in like that!” She put a hand to her chest as she finally lowered her wand, leaning back against the desk.

“How exactly were you expecting an ex-Auror to react to someone breaking into their office, Hermione? Aren’t you supposed to be the smart one?” he asked as he moved around his desk, never turning his back to her, though he did put his wand away. Pulling out his thermos, he opened it awkwardly to drink down the last of his Blood-Replenishment potion.

Hermione looked a bit flustered at his words, but raised her chin stubbornly. “Kreacher said that you hadn’t come home yet and I wasn’t about to stand in the hallway all night waiting for you. Charms was always my best subject, you know that…it was hardly any effort at all to get in,” she said primly, folding her arms across her chest and watching him drink from his thermos with a disapproving air. “You’re really going full Moody with that, aren’t you? Don’t tell me you’ve started hexing the bins, as well.”

Harry wanted to be angry, even annoyed, but he couldn’t help a snort of amusement as he shook his head, taking a seat behind his desk and forcing himself to ease off his adrenaline and paranoia. “It’s the Blood-Replenishment. I have to take it every few hours now. Rather thought the thermos was more acceptable to polite society than a flask. Civilized, even.”

Seeing that Harry wasn’t outwardly upset with her, Hermione relaxed and rolled her eyes fondly as she sat down across from him. “Quite. I am sorry for breaking in, Harry…but I did write to say that I was coming today. Haven’t you been getting my letters?”

His eyes flicked guiltily toward the still un-opened letter and then shrugged in a non-committal way. “I had a busy morning…didn’t get much chance to go through the post.”

“Oh, Harry…I sent that ages ago! This security screening you’ve set up really is taking far too long,” she bemoaned in exasperation. “Please tell me you’re still taking the Draught of Peace I’ve been sending you.” Hermione could see immediately from Harry’s expression that he had not and frowned deeply at him. “Mental health is a serious matter! It’s not a sign of weakness for you to treat-“

“Hermione,” Harry cut her off before she could settle into her scolding. “Did you really come here tonight to chat me up about my mental state?”

“I…well, no. No, I didn’t,” she said softly, suddenly seeming both very young and very worn at the same time. “It’s…I’m actually here to hire you, Harry.” She looked up into his surprised face, her brown eyes welling with tears. “I believe s-someone may be trying to…to kill me.”

Chapter Text

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had been a haven for Hermione Granger in a way that she had never fully shared with her friends. Growing up in the Muggle world had been difficult for her, unable to explain the strange things that would happen when her childish emotions got the better of her. Despite the assurances of her parents that she simply had an incredibly active imagination, Hermione knew that something was different…something was wrong with her.

Avoiding other children, Hermione had dedicated her time to discovering some explanation, some shred of logic behind the inexplicable happenings. When at last she had received her invitation to Hogwarts and a Ministry worker had come to explain the existence of the magical world to her bewildered parents, Hermione had felt almost viciously satisfied. She had been right, despite the books and the teachers and the other children and her own parents. The Ministry worker had given her a copy of ‘A History of Magic’ and Hermione had dedicated herself to it with as much fervour as she had to her Muggle schooling.

Coming to Hogwarts, having access to this world that had been hidden from her for so long had been a balm on her soul. With effort, Hermione had begun opening up to people again, though she found many of them to be just as resentful of her knowledge as her Muggle classmates had been. Eventually the hurt that others could be unkind because she wanted to learn faded and she refused to feel ashamed of her talents.

Hermione was proud of her heritage, her dedication to knowledge, and her beliefs and she had more than enough courage to stand up for them in the face of adversity. After the end of the war, she had elected to return to Hogwarts to make up the year she had spent in the pursuit of Horcruxes, despite that Harry and Ron had decided to go straight into the Auror program on Minister Shacklebolt’s offer to waive the N.E.W.T. requirements for veterans of the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry confessed to her that he couldn’t stand to see the castle wounded and broken as it was and Hermione rather felt it was too much a reminder of all that Harry had lost. As for Ron…however much he loved her, she knew that he would inevitably follow Harry once he’d made up his mind.

And so Hermione went in to her final year of classes alone, or at least without the two people she’d spent the majority of her waking hours with those past seven years. It gave her the opportunity to get to know students from other houses in a way she hadn’t before, the ‘Eighth Year’ class slowly becoming united in their decision to finish out their education. They had been largely responsible for the repairs to the castle, under the instruction of the Headmistress and her staff, and the Sorting Hat was right chuffed.

When, at the conclusion of the year, Headmistress McGonagall had offered her a position on staff, Hermione had been sorely tempted, but regretfully declined. There was so much she wanted to change in the magical world and the Ministry of Magic was where it needed to happen.

To the surprise of no one who knew her, she began working at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Along with the rights of house-elves, she pushed tirelessly for a reclassification of creatures with human-level or greater intelligence to be reclassified from ‘magical creatures’ to ‘wandless magical beings’. Though she had some success in her endeavours, enough in fact that it was well known she was being looked at for Deputy Head of that Department, Hermione had abruptly left her post three years ago.

If anyone asked her, Hermione always told them the same thing…prejudice had to be curbed while the mind was still developing. And so Hermione had returned to the best place she could think of to institute that mind-set: Hogwarts.

“At first I thought it was just Peeves,” Hermione said quietly, taking the cup of tea Harry offered her and wiping at her eyes. “It’s unusual for him to turn his attentions on the professors, but not unheard of. And it was just little things to start with… My chair sliding out from under me as I went to sit down or a sudden draft catching my papers. But over the last year it started to escalate…staircases going smooth while I was transiting, metal objects going hot in my hand, a tooth-elongating hex on my spoon at breakfast…”

Harry didn’t say anything as Hermione shuddered, taking a slow sip of her tea before continuing. “The staff has started coming back to the school this past week in preparation for the upcoming term. It was the first time I had been back all summer, and I found that my classroom had been cursed.” She took a pair of dragonhide gloves from her pocket and put them on, then drew out a familiar beaded bag. Reaching carefully inside of it, she drew out a textbook titled ‘Getting On with Goblins: Understanding the History and Culture of our Goblin Allies’. “Could I borrow a biro?”

Fishing one from his desk, Harry handed the Muggle pen over to Hermione, watching her closely. She thanked him and opened the book, carefully raising several of the pages with one hand and drawing the pen along the edge of the paper with the other. Sliced neatly in two, the other half fell onto the book. Hermione picked it up, cast a repairing charm on the severed writing utensil and handed it back to Harry.

“Severing Charm?” he asked quietly, eyeing the book.

Hermione sighed and nodded. “Every book, every bit of parchment in my classroom, is sharp as a razor. I nearly lost a finger before I realized it. This isn’t a prank or a bit of fun…this was meant to hurt, Harry. This was meant to hurt me.

“And you think they mean to kill you,” Harry finished, leaning back in his chair. “But I don’t understand, Hermione…why me? You’re married to an Auror, surely the Ministry-“

“No!” she said swiftly, her eyes widening. “The Ministry can’t…why would you even… But then…you don’t read the papers…or my letters, it would seem. Harry…” She gave him a pained look, eyes bright with unshed tears again. “Ron and I…we’ve been separated for quite some time. Since not long after…after what happened.”

Harry was floored, feeling a wave of guilt settle heavy in his abdomen. “I…I’m sorry. It…I never wanted that, you know that, right?”

She gave him a rather watery smile and shook her head, sliding the cursed tome back into her beaded bag. “Of course not, Harry. And what happened between us, well…I won’t lie and say that you weren’t part of it, but Ron and I had other reasons. More reasons than we had to stay together, as it were. So, please,” Hermione looked at him earnestly now. “The Ministry cannot know about this. Ron…Ron cannot know.”

“Alright,” Harry agreed after a long moment. “We won’t involve the Ministry. But, Hermione…Hogwarts? How exactly do you plan to have me investigate a possible threat against you there? Why would anyone even want to-” Suddenly, Harry’s paranoia was like a live wire at the base of his skull, every instinct telling him that Hermione Granger was not to be trusted and he abruptly got to his feet, snarling at her and drawing his wand. “What have you done, Hermione?!”

Pulling back in alarm, Hermione stared at him wide-eyed and then quickly got to her feet as well, determination in her gaze. She roughly pushed her hand inside her bag again and pulled out a vial of the Draught of Peace, thrusting it at him. “Harry James Potter, you take this Draught right this second or I will haul you into St Mungo’s myself!” Her voice rang with authority that must have come with having to instruct eleven to seventeen year olds on a regular basis.

For a long moment, they stared at one another, the disguise all but faded from Harry now so that they saw each other just as they were. Slowly, excruciatingly so, Harry lowered the Hawthorne wand and set it on the desk, rather than stowing it in his pocket. Extending his hand, he took the milky white potion from her, pulling out the stopper with his teeth. He froze with the vial against his lips, the air heavy with tension, then finally tossed it back and swallowed.

Almost at once his mind became untangled and tension left his body, though the relaxation sank too deep, as it always did, leaving him feeling as though his thoughts and feelings were wrapped in wool. Still, it was enough to clear the snarled web of mistrust and he sat down, shamefaced.

“I…I’m sorry, Hermione,” he said at last.

Hermione slumped back into her chair as though her strings had been cut, taking a calming breath. “It’s alright, Harry…I know it’s been difficult for you the past few years. But the Draught will only help so long as you take it regularly,” she stressed, her expression pleading.

Harry cast the empty vial aside and rubbed at his forehead tiredly. “I know, believe me, I know… But I hate this feeling…or lack of them, rather. It leaves me so…numb.” He snorted self-deprecatingly and gave her a helpless look. “I must sound mental…wanting to feel paranoid and anxious over nothing at all.”

Guilt washed over her expression, but Hermione shook her head. “It’s not mental, Harry…you’re not mental. I’ll work on a better Draught, I promise. Just, please…you’re too powerful to risk losing control. We both know that.” She took a fortifying breath, then sat up straighter. “Now then, I do actually have my suspicions about why this is happening. Do you remember what subject I teach?”

Feeling even more exhausted now that his mind wasn’t racing, Harry reached forward and took up his now-cold tea. “Yes. Muggle Studies, wasn’t it?”

“Not just Muggle Studies, Harry! Honestly…” Hermione gave him an exasperated, though fond, look. “I reshaped the curriculum entirely. I teach The Study of Muggles and Wandless Magical Beings. Which is a required subject now, I might add, and not an elective. Really they should be two separate classes, but progress is progress.”

“Right, then…that,” Harry managed with a small smile that was more of a grimace. “And you think…what? That someone is trying to sabotage your instruction?”

“I do,” she replied seriously. “You don’t understand the opposition I underwent when I was working at the Ministry…every single measure, every amendment or addendum to Wizarding Law was questioned and scrutinized with near fanaticism if it involved the rights of Muggles or Wandless Magical Beings. I think someone is trying to ensure I don’t ‘corrupt our youth’, as it were.”

“Fair enough,” he agreed, thinking of a few hours earlier and how sure Rowle had been sure that the Ministry would let him buy his way out of his crimes against a Muggle. “But that doesn’t solve the problem of me conducting an investigation inside Hogwarts.”

“No,” Hermione replied simply and, reaching into the pocket of her robes this time, produced a letter with a wax seal. “But I believe this will.”

Harry took it from her with a look, noticing the Hogwarts crest pressed into the wax with a pang of familiarity. Fitting his thumb under it, he broke it open and managed to work the letter out, his now green eyes scanning its contents. After a long silence, he looked up at Hermione, who sat impassively in her seat.

“Hermione…this is an Offer of Employment,” he said slowly.

“Yes,” she replied, unmoved.

“An Offer of Employment to Hogwarts.” She nodded her assent. “In the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts.”

“Which I’m sure you have been offered previously, if I know Minerva,” Hermione stated with a nod. “The letter is genuine, I assure you. The Headmistress is aware of the situation and quite eager to solve it before my predicament goes public and risks my removal by the Governors, or worse.”

“This…this isn’t just about an investigation, Hermione! If I accept this…I’ll be contractually bound to serve on staff through the school year,” he explained, as though she somehow weren’t catching on.

“And would that be so terrible?” she asked seriously. “Harry you’re an excellent teacher, of which I know you are well aware. The students would be lucky to have you. You remember what a difference it made when we had Remus teaching us in our Third Year…you learnt to cast a corporeal Patronus at thirteen!

He tossed the letter onto his desk angrily. “Except that I threatened your life just minutes ago! And what, suddenly you trust me with children?

“But you didn’t attack me, Harry. And if you keep taking the Draught you won’t be at risk of harming any of the students. Or faculty, for that matter,” she insisted. “I’m willing to quite literally bet my life on that.”

“I…I really need to think this over. You aren’t just asking me to save your life, Hermione…you’re asking me to give up mine. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.”

Mouth tight with unhappiness, Hermione got to her feet and gestured around at his office. “And all this? This is making you happy, is it? You aren’t living your life, Harry…you’re hiding from it.” She shook her head sadly and moved to open the door, looking back at him only briefly. “Please let me know when you’ve decided, Harry.”

And with that she was gone and Harry was alone.

Kreacher was beside himself by the time Harry finally took the Portkey to the sitting room of 12 Grimmauld Place, so much so that he made the ancient house-elf sit down and drink a glass of water in case he might combust. Too exhausted to argue with the elf, he let Kreacher plate him some steak and kidney pie, managing to stomach just enough that his stomach began cramping at the addition of heavy food. Choking down his nightly round of potions eased the searing pain of his arm down to a steady throb and soon enough he was lying awake in his bed, utterly drained and unable to sleep.

Usually his mind was far too spun up to give up consciousness so easily, but the Draught of Peace had calmed that storm. Instead he found himself retracing the day over and over with careful intent, trying to pinpoint the exact moment he’d lost control of this tiny world he’d been living in.

Harry thought of Draco Malfoy again, replaying the mere minutes he’d shared with the wizard as he attempted to sort out exactly what had seemed off about him. It was strange how a person could be so changed, yet completely familiar at a glance. He hadn’t seen Malfoy in a decade, not since Harry was made to give testimony at the Wizengamot for a number of Death Eaters and Voldemort supporters, Malfoy included.

Even still it was hard to remember just how Malfoy had looked back then…the year following the end of the Second Wizarding War was blurred between the press and the trials and his Auror training. Regardless of his shoddy memory of that time, he knew the man he’d seen today had been a far cry from the scant memories he had of a gaunt, frightened teenager.

Malfoy had seemed taller and broader today, but that might just as easily have been from no longer bearing the weight of Voldemort’s presence in his life. His hair had been longer as well, reminding Harry uncomfortably of Lucius, though it hadn’t been nearly so pristinely groomed and he’d clearly not shaved in several days. He had seemed tired and worn about the edges, though if he were being treated at St Mungo’s for some injury then it had likely kept him up through the night, maybe more than one. Harry considered the flash of bandages under the sleeve of Malfoy’s robe and it came to him.

It was his clothing. Malfoy had always dressed in new robes whenever Harry had seen him, perfectly tailored and cleaned and appearing to have never before been worn. But while his robes had certainly seemed as fine enough, Harry remembered seeing the wear of use on his clothing today, beyond what a stay in St Mungo’s would have afforded.

With a frustrated sigh, Harry rolled onto his left side and dismissed the thought. The day had not gone pear-shaped because Draco Malfoy hadn’t been wearing new robes. The whole of it would have been very different had he simply taken the time to read Hermione’s letter that morning. Wincing, the letter brought to mind that he had not kept his promise to write Teddy that night and the guilt followed him into sleep as he finally drifted off.

The Hogwarts Express was rolling slowly through the Belizean jungle, pushing through dense growths of ferns and vines that slid wetly against glass and steel. Through the window of his compartment, Harry thought he could see something moving through the trees, easily pacing the train’s sluggish progress. A dark, flowing shape that seemed to glide formlessly just out of view.

A sound on the bench across from him alerted Harry to the presence of another passenger, a man sleeping under a worn cloak. Something in Harry’s chest constricted in a way that felt very much like hope and he leaned forward, reaching out a hand to jostle the sleeping man.

“Professor…?”

“Potter!” the man spat and Draco Malfoy sat up from under the cloak, tired and shabby and sneering at him. “Can’t you mind your own business?”

Outside the window of the train, something flashed by much closer now and Harry got to his feet with a start, backing out of the compartment away from Malfoy and the thing beyond the glass. His footsteps echoed weirdly and he looked down to see he was now standing on an old tile floor. Glancing up again, he saw he was no longer on the Hogwarts Express, but in the Dai Llewellyn ward on the First Floor of St Mungo’s, bubble lights bobbing in a cluster on the ceiling.

Hermione was sitting beside a heavily bandaged man with ginger hair and listening attentively as a Trainee Healer held up a needle and thread. “It would be no trouble at all to stitch him back together, ma’am.”

“Oh no, we’re separated…I really don’t think that would be appropriate,” she explained, sounding apologetic around her elongated front teeth, which seemed to be growing ever longer as she spoke.

Harry heard the quiet murmur of conversation behind him and his heart leapt when he saw Remus Lupin standing beside a hospital bed, conversing softly with a bandaged wizard lying there. He started toward them until he realized the wounded man was Malfoy, his lip already curling at the sight of Harry.

“Harry Potter…have you been casting dark magic on Purebloods?” he drawled slowly, glancing over at the corner of the room where Bryndon Rowle was dangling by his ankles.

Jaw tight, Harry resolutely turned away from them and found himself standing in room 203 of the Hour Glass Hotel. Veronica Ware sat on the hotel bed clutching Rowle’s broken wand in one hand and her can of defence spray in the other as she looked tearfully up into Hermione’s determined face. Gone were Hermione’s elongated teeth, but she was bleeding from a series of razor sharp cuts all over her brown skin as she held her wand steadily on Veronica.

“I have to do it. I’m sorry, Harry,” she said firmly, iron in her voice. “It’s a chance we can’t take, not when we’re so close.” Her wand swung up and away from the crying Muggle to aim directly at Harry. “Obliviate.

Harry woke himself screaming as something dark and flowing shot out of Hermione’s wand and raced toward him, his wand hand coming up defensively. A shield charm exploded out of him, pushing all the furniture away from his bed and cracking the plaster in the ceiling and walls. Panting heavily, he blurrily took in the glowing sphere of energy that pulsed around him in time with his heartbeat before it shattered abruptly, leaving him in near darkness except what light came in from the streetlamps and the nearly full moon.

He had managed only a little more sleep in the night and eventually had gotten up to write out correspondence. Or rather, to dictate to his Perfect Penmanship Quill. His handwriting had never been especially good, having spent the first eleven years of his life using only Muggle writing utensils, but attempting the same with his left hand was simply atrocious and only to be done in extreme cases of need. The quill had been Hermione’s suggestion not long after he was released from St Mungo’s and he’d never been so grateful for her quick thinking.

His first letter went to Teddy, telling him all the things he thought an eleven year old should hear from their godfather without feeling much of it at that particular moment. He hand signed that one, however, and promised to be in touch again soon.

The second parchment he addressed to Andromeda, making polite inquiries after her health and Teddy’s and asking what was left that he might procure him for school. He ended up scrapping the letter partway through however, realizing her answer would probably not make it through his screening in time. He would have to make a Fire-call to her.

Not relishing the thought of opening his Floo to stick his head in for an extended period of time, he drafted his third and final letter. This one went to Hannah, inquiring after whether or not he could add Dreamless-Sleep to his current regimen. He suspected her answer would be firmly negative, but he had to ask.

What had happened after his nightmare was…unusual to say the least. Harry honestly thought he had imagined it until he’d had Kreacher light the lamps and had put on his glasses to take in the state of his rooms. It wasn’t the first time he’d produced magic from his wand arm since being cursed, but it was the first time he’d cast an actual enchantment. On the rare occasions it had happened in the past, the magic had always been wild and dangerous. However much he wanted to hope that it was a sign he’d regain the use of his wand arm, Harry couldn’t risk lashing out after his nightmares.

Though he knew he ought to be taking this time to consider Hermione’s case, he instead studiously avoided thinking about it. Harry didn’t want to return to the public eye, and there were few places quite as public as standing the head of a classroom full of magical children. Why not apply for another position at the Ministry as well? Or the Daily Prophet? And yet…some part of him had ached for Hogwarts as soon as he’d seen the Offer of Employment, wanting it in a way he hadn’t thought possible any more.

Resolutely pushing these thoughts from his mind, he went up to the topmost floor to find his thrice-cursed raven. In the years following Hedwig’s death, he had never found another owl he felt comfortable trusting with his post the same way he had the snowy white bird. Part of the hesitation came from the near certainty at the back of his mind that someone would be watching for his correspondence, be it the Ministry or the press. Even Hedwig hadn’t been infallible, but she had been loyal to a fault. Loyal to her death, as it were.

Anorak, his raven, had been Ginny’s idea, though to be fair she’d been having a laugh at the time. She’d been shocked as anyone when he took her comments about choosing a bird less obvious and more intimidating than an owl to heart and had come home from a trip to Diagon Alley with the beetle black creature cawing endlessly from his cage. Teddy had been the one to bestow the bird with his name, having just learned the word for the hooded jumpers his Muggle neighbours sometimes wore when it rained and still utterly enamoured by the sound of it.

“Anorak,” he called warily as he opened the door to Sirius’ old bedroom. “I have a nice shiny button for you…”

Sirius’ room was the only one that Anorak found even remotely tolerable in the whole of Grimmauld Place, despite all the renovations. Attempting to keep him anywhere else resulted in riotous disagreement from the blasted fowl, followed by ridiculously elaborate escape attempts that were generally successful. Eventually Harry had given up trying to change the daft bird’s mind and had charmed the window so that it allowed entry and exit only to Anorak.

The bird in question ruffled his feathers darkly from across the room where he perched on Sirius’ old bed post. Despite what he’d initially expected when he’d allowed the bird to stay in the room, Anorak kept the space fastidiously tidy, neater even than when Sirius’ himself had lived there. Harry could only surmise that in doing so, Anorak could best admire his strange collection of treasures. Neat rows of shiny baubles and buttons and coins and whatever else the odd bird could take up in his beak lined nearly every available surface, grouped together in ways the raven must have found pleasing.

Holding out the button in his palm, Anorak cawed at him and made as though to launch off the bedpost, but Harry quickly closed his fist about it and shoved it in his pocket. “Post first, Anorak. Then the button.”

He pulled his letters out from under his arm and waited for the bird to decide. When he received what sounded like a reluctantly agreeable croak, he held out the letters. “This first one is for Edward Lupin, who lives with Andromeda Tonks. You’ve been there before, so don’t be smart and rush off to the first Teddy Lupin you can find.”

The raven squawked indignantly and flew across the room to try snatch the letter from Harry with his beak, flapping about his head with obvious annoyance when he wouldn’t relinquish them yet.

“I’m not finished, you fool of a rook!” Harry shouted at the bird, waiting until he’d settled again, murder in his dark, beady eyes. “The second letter is for Hannah Abbott, the Healer at St Mungo’s. If you deliver both of these and wait at least half an hour each for a reply to carry back to me, I’ll give you a doughnut along with the button. Fair?”

Harry took the resulting croak as agreement and this time he let Anorak take the letters from him, scowling after the bird as it soared out the open window and into the lightening sky. He watched as the bird rapidly disappeared from view, then reached out and knocked over a tin soldier with malicious satisfaction.

Her quiet morning abruptly disturbed, Andromeda Tonks let out a scream of surprise when Harry’s gruff, bearded face appeared in her fireplace and sneezed loudly. Wand out and tea all over the floor, she stared at him until recognition kicked in, then put her hands on her hips.

“Harry Potter, you…you… It is not even five o’ clock in the morning!” she whispered fiercely at him, drawing her dressing gown more tightly about her and flicking her wand to repair her broken teacup.

“Er…yes. So it is. So sorry, Andromeda,” Harry managed awkwardly. “I forgot to look at the time. Did you…want me to call back later?”

“No, no…but if you were hoping to talk to Teddy you’re out of luck, young man. He’s staying over at the Burrow so that Molly can take him shopping for school.” She drew up a chair and sat down, summoning up a fresh cuppa.

“Molly’s taking him? Well, I guess she has a lot of experience with it…” He couldn’t help but feel guilty, knowing that it ought to be him taking Teddy into Diagon Alley.

“Mm, yes I suppose she does… I try not to go out into crowds if I can avoid it. Too many people confuse me for my sisters and it isn’t good for Teddy to see that kind of behaviour.” She waved a hand at his expression. “Don’t bother getting offended on my behalf, Harry. Things are as they are and all we can do is our best.”

“I…I’m sorry, Andromeda. I had no idea. I should-“

“Harry,” she cut him off gently, but firmly. “That’s enough of that. Now what has you turning up at this most indecent hour?” Her small, mothering smile let him know that she wasn’t angry with him.

Harry let out a breath and hesitated a moment, then forged on. “Right. I only wanted to see if it would be alright for me to send Teddy a gift. Something to…let him know how happy I am for him. To be off to school,” he finished lamely, glad that the green flames would hide the flush on his face.

Andromeda’s smile grew, her eyes soft and warm. “Oh Harry…Teddy adores you without you needing to get him anything at all. You do know that, don’t you?”

Shifting uncomfortably in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place, Harry scowled. “I know, but I…just need to. Want to, I mean.”

“I see…” she said softly, taking a slow sip of tea and regarding him. Finally, she sighed. “Well he has been after one of those horrid bits of fluff George sells in his shop. Goes on and on about them after every trip there.”

“A Pygmy Puff?” Harry asked in surprise. He clearly remembered the squeaky little Arnold, Ginny’s long time pet.

“Got it in one,” she confirmed, nodding. “Apparently they’re now available in teal and Teddy has been beside himself ever since. He’s even gone so far as to keep his hair that colour.” She rolled her eyes in exasperation, but Harry could see there just as clearly.

“A Pygmy Puff it is, then. Thanks, Andromeda…I really appreciate it,” he said honestly. “I’ll make sure it arrives before he heads off to school.”

“I’m sure he’d love to receive it in person,” she hedged, running a finger around the rim of her mug.

Harry’s expression stiffened, but he nodded in acknowledgement. “I’ll keep that in mind. I’ve got to go. Give my love to Teddy.”

“I always do, Harry,” she sighed, smiling at him sadly. “I always do.”

Augustus Price was a fairly cantankerous old man who had lived in the borough of Enfield long enough that he remembered when it was part of Middlesex and greatly resented the dilapidation that had followed the change in boundaries. Despite his rough demeanour, and frequently belligerent expression, he was not a cruel man, often yelling at the neighbourhood kids only because he felt they were going ignored by their overworked and underpaid parents.

For the longest he had helped them make a little pocket money by tending his square of grass or moving the bins down the block, but as times changed they asked more than his pension could afford. Still he offered what guidance he could, whether or not it was wanted or heeded, his cane always in hand and ready to be waved at a passing youth.

Augustus had been living a fairly unremarkable retirement until a few months ago, when he’d gone up to his attic to find the largest rat he’d ever seen. He’d nearly tumbled down the stairs upon seeing it and had gone straight to his bedroom and locked the door, refusing to come out for half a day. The size of it boggled his mind and he felt sure that he must have had some kind of walking dream or even hallucinated the rodent. But sure enough, when he’d attempted to go back into the attic, the rat was there again and seemed even bigger than he’d previously guessed.

The exterminator had been called and had seemed jovial and patronizing as he’d listened to Augustus’ assurances that it was the ‘biggest bloody rat in all of England and Wales, and that’s the solemn truth’. With a placating smile and a gentle guarantee that it could not possibly be that big, but that these things sometimes seemed bigger when one lived alone, the exterminator went up into the attic to handle the rodent. Whatever he saw, Augustus had no idea, for he’d run screaming from the house a few moments later and refused to accept his calls from that point forward.

Three more times Augustus went through this process, with three different exterminators. After that, no one in the whole region would accept his calls, the rumours spread far and wide over the terror that lived in Augustus Price’s attic. Funnily enough, they ranged from all manner of horrors, from dead bodies to spiders to clowns of all things.

Completely at a loss and feeling like a prisoner in his own home, Augustus had gone to the nearest library and begged the aid of a tech savvy youth to search the web for a solution. They had stumbled upon reviews for J.S. Evans and his talent for peculiar inquiries and Augustus dictated an email that the boy dutifully transcribed for him. He was at his wits end and if an investigator couldn’t solve it, he had no idea what could.

Harry could hear the boggart before he even finished climbing the stairs to the attic and he set the box he’d been carrying down at the top of the landing. He had absolutely no desire to actually take on the creature at the moment, finding it difficult to focus his mind to the task from the unfortunate combination of the Draught of Peace and sleepless night. Thus, he’d brought the Clap-Trap, a product of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes he found particularly useful.

The Clap-Trap™

Bothered by Boggarts? Done with Doxies? Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes is happy to help! Simply hold your palms to the clearly marked Synchronizing Squares for 3-5 seconds, place your Clap-Trap™ in the vicinity of an undesirable creature* and- CLAP! Just like that, your pesky pests are gone and away humanely into the Clap-Trap™ for easy disposal or relocation. Any confined creature will be promptly released again with two claps once you have reached your intended destination.

Warning: Three or more claps will immediately capture and release any nearby creature, thus requiring a re-calibration. Not recommended in large demonstrations where audiences may be prone to applause.

*The Clap-Trap™ is not effective against any non-human defined as a Wandless Magical Being by the Ministry of Magic. Any attempts to use the product in this manner will result in embarrassment, insult, inter-species war and probable death.

He had tested the product soon after he’d gone into business, as Muggles were far more accepting of someone showing up to catch a pest in a box than they were of a bearded mad man waving about a stick and shouting gibberish in their living room. Many had inquired after where they might purchase their own Clap-Trap, but Harry would politely explain that it required a special license and could only be owned and operated by trained professionals. Bringing up terms such as ‘license’ and ‘regulation’ were sure fire ways to appease Muggles’ curiosity toward anything unusual.

His own Clap-Trap had been specifically attuned to Harry by George Weasley so that he would be able to operate it regardless of whatever spellwork Hannah had within his bandages on any given day. The only difficulty was opening his right hand to get a firm clap, but he’d taken an extra dose of Anti-Paralysis potion that morning in preparation for this.

Bending forward, Harry pressed his palms to the wide green squares painted on either side of the box until he felt the enchantment ready itself. Trap set, he straightened, thrust open the door, and kicked the box inside. With a snarl, the boggart began to convalesce into a humanoid shape, but before it could fully form itself, Harry brought his hands together smartly.

With a loud bang and a flash of light, the boggart vanished into the box, which smoked faintly as Harry walked over to it. Bending to pick it up, he glanced about the room, then paused and frowned. He had fully expected the attic to be a dark and musty room filled with half-forgotten things, but that wasn’t the case at all.

A worn and comfortable looking chair sat beside a short bookcase of dog-eared books that had clearly been read many times and were lit by a warm, amber reading lamp. The floor was carpeted in a mustard yellow shag that had probably once matched the curtains, though they were sun-bleached by the window looking out over the street. Photos on the wall showed a much younger Augustus with his fellows, a portrait of the Queen and several military medals lined up in a tidy shadowbox.

Near the door Harry had entered he saw a broken mug and a rolled up newspaper, stained brown with spilled tea. It looked as though the old man had been carrying a cuppa with the intention to sit and read the news the first time he’d come up to stumble upon the boggart.

This room was not only consistently occupied, but Harry thought that it might have been Augustus’ preferred room of the small house. So how was it that a boggart powerful enough to be fully perceived by Muggles had ended up there? A square shadow through the curtain drew his attention to an object on the window sill and he cautiously drew the fabric aside to see what it was.

“Mister Price,” he called to the floor below. “Have you had any unusual visitors lately?”

Ester’s Engaging Estates appeared to be a rather plain looking street front business that sat between a sweet shop and a salon, giving the air within a rather unfortunate scent of sugared ammonia. Harry could feel the strong Muggle-Repelling Charm as he stood in the waiting area while Ester Eckles finished a Fire-call behind her office door, or so the house-elf who had greeted him claimed. He thought the charm an interesting juxtaposition to the gold-framed certificates on the wall proclaiming Ester Eckles as a seven time winner of the Muggle Integration, Relations and Relocation of Residence Award of Excellence.

“Admiring my MIRRORs?” a cheerful voice came from the now-open office doorway and Harry turned to see a witch standing there. “I have always been a firm believer that Muggle relations are the key to property management.”

The witch, who could only be Ester Eckles, was wearing an alarming amount of make-up under a stiff blonde beehive. She extended a slim hand with gem bright nails that matched her severe turquoise robes perfectly. “I am so sorry to keep you waiting. My name is Ester Eckles and I would be so happy to assist you in finding your new dream home! Mister…?”

Rather than take her hand, Harry handed her the empty matchbox he’d taken from Augustus Price’s windowsill. Her perfectly drawn brows furrowed in confusion as her practiced smile froze.

“I’m sorry, I don’t-“

“Understand? I had a hard time of it myself trying to sort out how a boggart ended up in a Muggle home,” he said coldly, watching her expression. “Until I found that. Martin’s Matches for All Occasions…an odd thing to find in a Muggle home, wouldn’t you say? But you know, I think a boggart would find a box like that quite agreeable.”

Paling, Ester took a step back, shaking her head in denial. “I’m quite sure I-“

“The Muggle in question,” he cut her off again. “Remembered that a very odd woman had come inquiring after his property the same day a rodent of unusual size ended up in his favourite sitting room. He, of course, had been polite in letting her view the property despite his better judgement, but had been very firm in that he was not at all interested to sell. Fortunately she left her card in case he found reason to change his mind.”

Harry fished in his pocket and drew out Ester’s business card with two fingers, holding it up. The witch looked between his face, the card and the matchbox a few times, her throat clicking as she swallowed. Then, with effort, she plastered her smile back in place and regained the saleswoman demeanour.

“I assure you that everything about my business is completely legal. I would never Confund or Obliviate any Muggle.”

“But using magical creatures to chase them out and terrify them into selling their homes is quite acceptable, is it?”

“These Muggles are living in areas that have been forgotten and uncared for by their own government,” Ester said confidently. “With my help they can relocate to a new, more suitable living arrangement and a nice wizarding family can take their place, thereby improving the overall quality of the whole neighbourhood, to the benefit of all!”

Staring at her for a long moment, Harry shook his head a little in disbelief. “So that’s what this is about, is it? You’re enacting gentrification on Muggle neighbourhoods.”

“Not gentrification, no!” she exclaimed with a laugh, waving a hand as though he were just the silliest thing. “That’s a Muggle term, of course. No, no…those in my profession call this process purification.”

Harry felt cold as the word slid like ice down his spine, staring at the witch. Though he kept his expression carefully impassive, waves of horror and revulsion turned over in his stomach, making him swallow reflexively.

“Now I admit that I got a bit carried away with Mister Price,” she managed to sound regretful at this, though it came off as false as her smile. “But the family interested in his property offered so much that I quite lost my head. Please do forgive me…I can assure you I won’t do anything further to upset him.”

“No,” he agreed calmly, drawing out his wand. “You will not.”

Anorak was screeching and cackling in the kitchen of 12 Grimmauld Place when Harry returned that evening, flapping about from perch to perch as Kreacher shouted and chased him with a broom. Staring at the chaotic scene for a beat, Harry closed his eyes and counted back from ten, then raised his wand.

Tempus Caesum!” he roared, and both Anorak and Kreacher stopped abruptly, frozen in time.

Sighing in relief at the sudden quiet, he walked across the kitchen to pull open one of the drawers, fishing about inside until he’d come up with a bit of parchment, quill and ink. Ignoring the awkward handling of his left hand, Harry managed to scratch out four words.

’I’ll take the case.’

Chapter Text

Tempus Caesum, the Time-Stop Charm, was a spell that Harry had developed with Hermione, Ron and Ginny during the three years they had lived together at 12 Grimmauld Place. They had been some of the best years of his life, with other members of Dumbledore’s Army staying over in one of the many bedrooms for however long they needed as they all went through the painfully awkward transition into post-war adulthood.

The charm had first come up as they’d been celebrating Ron’s 20th birthday with an overabundance of goblin-made honey mead and he’d drunkenly lamented that he wished he could stop time in that moment. The next morning they had awoken, heads throbbing from their poor life choices, to find Hermione bent over a pile of books, her quill dashing over a length of parchment. She’d looked up at them with wide, bloodshot eyes and her bushy hair flying about in wild disarray.

“But what if we could,” she insisted, holding up her notes and diagrams. “Stop time, I mean.”

And so for months it became a hobby that quickly slid into the realm of obsession as the possibility of creating their own spell, of stopping time, seemed less a passing fancy best kept in the Department of Mysteries and closer to reality. Though they’d all had little glimpses of progress and near success, Ginny had been the first to manage to stop a housefly for a split second when it had annoyed her to the point of retaliation.

From there it had been a rapid path to success until Harry stopped a sparrow transfigured from a spoon for a full five minutes. Ron had been so over the moon that he’d kissed all three of them and then hugged Kreacher for good measure, much to the house-elf’s dismay. Though they could all cast the charm to some degree, Hermione with the most precision of the four of them, only Harry could hold it for longer than a few minutes at a time.

Because time magic was so strictly controlled, they could never easily go public with their discovery, and honestly might end up before the Wizengamot if they did, much to Hermione’s dismay. Regardless, it was endlessly useful, especially for Harry and Ron when they were out in the field. Ginny had probably used it the least of them simply because it was hardly appropriate in her line of work…professional sporting events had rather strong opinions on stopping the flow of time.

The unfortunate bit about the charm, Harry mused as he found the letters Anorak had dropped in his flight about the kitchen, was that once the charm ended, those suspended in time would continue on as though nothing had happened, totally unaware that they’d been frozen at all. Not yet willing to assault his ears with the cacophony waiting for him, Harry willed his arm to hold out a little longer with the strain of the spell and opened the first of the two replies, which was from Hannah.

Harry,

It’s 4AM and your bloody bird is completely round the bend. Never write me in the middle of the night again.

Hannah

P.S. You can take a quarter dose of Dreamless-Sleep on a full stomach. Neville sends his love.

Harry grimaced and rolled his eyes as he tossed the letter aside in disgust. Of course food would be a requirement for a decent night’s sleep…he wondered if Hannah too had been offered a spot in Slytherin when she was eleven. It had to be unnatural for a Hufflepuff to be so cunning otherwise. He saw Anorak’s wings twitch briefly out of the corner of his eye and quickly picked up the next letter while he still had some peace and quiet.

He was relieved to see that the raven had indeed found Teddy, having wondered if he would make the effort to search out the boy staying over at the Burrow. As he read through his letter he was equally pleased to see that Anorak had not managed to find him until later in the day, when Teddy had already received his Pygmy Puff.

Following his Fire-call with Andromeda, Harry had put one through to George Weasley, who had been equally thrilled to have a caller so early in the morning. After enduring a rather impressive string of slander and vitriol, Harry asked the one-eared wizard to set aside a teal-coloured Pygmy Puff in case Molly brought Teddy through her son’s business during their shopping trip today.

George had assured him that he would be charging him triple the cost and shoved him out his grate again, leaving Harry sprawled on the floor of his own kitchen. Considering he still received regular pay-outs from his investment in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Harry rather thought it was a bit redundant to charge him extra, but was grateful all the same.

Teddy had decided to call his new pet Lorry, which was, he assured Harry, the best and most useful of all the Muggle vehicles he’d yet seen. He’d even managed to include in a rather good drawing of the fluffy creature and Harry glanced up at the raven, wondering just how long he’d waited around for this reply. He had always suspected that Anorak had a soft spot for the young wizard…far more than he had for Harry, at any rate.

His musings came to an end as, with a sudden flurry of sound and motion, the charm broke and both raven and house-elf continued on as they had when Harry had first come down to the kitchen. He stood up from his seat at the table with a thunderous expression.

Enough,” he roared, startling them both into silence to see him there as though he’d just popped into existence. He picked up the scrap of parchment he’d written out and jabbed it at the bird. “Take this to Professor Hermione Granger at once and then come straight home. And you-“ He pointed at Kreacher. “Sit down and relax or I will summon Healer Winky.”

Without a single sound of complaint from either of them they did as he asked, though Anorak’s beak pinched at Harry’s fingers in reproach and Kreacher glared malevolently to be threatened with the healer. Harry waited until the bird had flown up the stairs, then rounded on the house-elf.

“What in Merlin’s name were you doing, chasing him like that? You know full well that in no way constitutes resting.”

The ancient old elf wrung his hands together. “Kreacher was trying to send a message to Master Harry… Master Harry has told Kreacher he is not to leave the house, so Kreacher thought to send his cursed raven…” He scowled and muttered darkly under his breath just what he thought about having to stay indoors for his health and the quality of ravens.

“I imagine he didn’t much care for that idea, then,” Harry sighed in understanding. Kreacher was far too old to be Apparating all over London, which he would certainly do if Harry didn’t order him to remain in the house. Healer Winky had told him in an aside that she didn’t think he had more than a few years left in him, old as he was. “What was the message you were so desperate to pass then?”

“That the Ministry Examiner will be here to see Master Harry at half past six.”

Harry froze, his blood going cold, and quickly jerked his head round to check the clock on the mantle. Twenty past the hour. He had ten minutes before the Examiner would arrive.

“Kreacher! The Pensieve!”

The crack of Apparition still ringing through the kitchen, Harry put his wand to his temple and began pulling memories from his mind. The most pressing were the cases of Victoria Ware and Augustus Price, which he drew out in their entirety, along with anything that would give away the location of his business or the Transfigured disguise he spent his days wearing. He lowered all these into the swirling silver basin as soon as Kreacher had returned with it and breathed out in relief. They were the most dangerous of his memories at present, though after a moment he brought the wand to his temple again and carefully took the first half of his conversation with Hermione the night before, leaving only the discussion of his leaving Grimmauld Place to teach at Hogwarts.

Feeling a bit dazed once that was done, he instructed Kreacher to hide the Pensieve once more and took out his thermos to replenish his blood. He would need as much fortification as he could manage in the next three minutes. Jaw tense, he debated with himself and then raised his wand to summon the Draught of Peace from his bedroom, hearing the bell ring out as he swallowed a dose. Letting the potion help to calm his mind, Harry took slow, meditative breaths as he heard Kreacher answer the door and let in the Examiner on the floor above.

Straightening, he smoothed his good hand over his clothing, wishing he’d had time to change out of his Muggle wear and into some proper robes, but the Ministry Examiner knew that he’d been raised a Muggle and likely wouldn’t question the choice. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out an odd, fleshy glove and worked it over his right hand, flexing the fingers slowly as the enchantment took effect and gave the appearance of a perfectly normal hand. Only Hannah and, unfortunately, Hermione knew the full extent of his injuries, though a select few he’d been close to at the time of the incident had some idea of them. That done, he started up the kitchen stairs, remembering at the last moment before he was visible to clear the waning Transfiguration from his features, so that he stepped out into the light as Harry Potter.

“Master Harry,” Kreacher said with a deep bow that caused his long, hooked nose to brush the carpet. “Romilda Vane from the Ministry of Magic is here.”

“Thank you, Kreacher. Some tea, if you please. We’ll go up to the drawing room,” he said politely, then held out his disguised right hand to Romilda, every ounce of his will focused on making the motion seem easy and natural. “Miss Vane, pleasure to see you again.”

“Oh Harry,” she cooed, taking his hand with a small squeeze. “We’ve known each other for ages. I do wish you’d call me Romilda.”

And he wished that he’d never have to see her again. But wishes would not grant goblins riches and Harry only gestured to the stairs in reply as he led her up to the drawing room.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Miss Vane?” he asked, waiting until she’d taken one of the winged chairs to seat himself. “I didn’t think I was due for another Examination for some months.”

Ministry Examinations had begun a few years after Kingsley Shacklebolt’s appointment as Minister of Magic in response to the lingering fear and mistrust that still laid heavy in the hearts and minds of the magical population. Too many had seen people they thought they could trust aligned with the wrong side in some way, including a large portion of the Ministry workforce. The Examinations were deemed a necessary evil to ease the fears of the public before they led to further unrest. Any Ministry employee with undue contact with or around dark magic was subject to regular screenings by a Legilimens to ensure their faculties were intact. Harry thought it astounding how many witches and wizards in Ministry employ were deemed to fall into this category.

“The Ministry may have decided to reduce your required Examinations to be an annual check-up, but we must still conduct assessments at random,” she said with falsely apologetic nicety, taking a notepad and quill from her bag. “After all, we wouldn’t want any leftover anti-Ministry sentiments from that curse to creep up and lead to another attack on an employee, now would we?”

While Ministry Examinations could only legally be conducted on Ministry employees, there were addendums specific to any person who was deemed potentially dangerous to the greater public. Harry, of course, fit into this loophole nicely.

Gritting his teeth, Harry shook his head once. “No…no we would not.”

“I’m so happy you agree,” she simpered and opened her notepad, setting it on the table and activating her quill. “Now then, how have you been feeling lately?”

“Tired,” he responded easily. “My old injury makes it difficult for me to get a full night’s sleep when it rains like this.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Romilda said sympathetically as the quill began scratching along her notepad. Kreacher appeared with their tea and she took up her cup politely, as did Harry. “Your curse wound still causes you pain?”

“Yes,” he replied tightly. It was essential that he be as truthful as possible without giving her anything to use against him. “On occasion.”

“Would you say that this pain and lack of sleep has recently impaired your judgement in any way?”

Something pulled at him and Harry recognized the hole where a memory should be, grateful he’d managed to get to the Pensieve in time. “No.”

“Wonderful. And have you had any episodes where you lost control of your temper?” She took a slow sip of her tea, watching him over the rim.

Again, he felt the holes in his memory, but this time he hesitated before answering. “I…have been a bit short with Kreacher the last few days. And I was rude during my appointment at St Mungo’s, but no…I haven’t lost control.”

“Thank you for being honest with me, Harry,” she smiled, her red-painted lips stark against the paleness of her skin. “Now then, just one more little step and our examination is done.”

Harry tensed as she set aside her cup and took out her wand, forcing himself to stay still. “Miss Vane…Romilda…is this really necessary?”

Her eyes sharpened and Harry knew at once that he shouldn’t have said anything. She looked just as thrilled to have him use her given name as to have him question her methods. He understood suddenly that she wanted that control over him.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, but you see…protocol is protocol. Legilimens.

The world fell away as Romilda invaded his mind, forcing her way through to his thoughts. Before his first experience with a Ministry Examiner, he thought he’d never again have to experience the loss of control that came with having another mind inside his own and so had never bothered to further educate himself in the art of Occlumency. In the past two years he’d learnt his lesson on that front and he could at least manage a bit better now than he had as a teenager.

Harry let the numbing calm of the Draught of Peace help him to show Romilda exactly what he wanted her to see, memories that aligned with his interview. But he could feel her dark determination and suddenly she was pushing through him like a Muggle bullet, going in much deeper than she’d ever attempted before.

Hermione handed him an Offer of Employment to Hogwarts; Draco told him to mind his business; Hannah spelled bandages round his arm; he walked into the empty office space and felt a wave of determination; his bandaged right fist connected with Ron’s left eye in an explosion of magical power; Ron was bleeding from his injuries and shouting behind him in the Belizean jungle as Harry raised his wand to block them from an inbound curse; the marriage bond glowing bright under his skin before it shattered into nothing; Ginny, white as bone, reaching out in pain and horror-

NO!” Harry shouted vehemently and the magic rebounded into Romilda. For an instant all he saw was the sun, dawning blazing gold over a dark horizon before he was abruptly cast out of her mind.

Panting and pale, Romilda took up her tea in a shaking hand and took a steadying drink. “S-so sorry, Harry…” she said softly, clearing her throat lightly. “I…lost control there for a moment, so silly of me. It’s been such a long day…”

Harry glared at her fiercely, his breathing hard and fast as pain arced between his head and mangled arm. He knew she was lying, knew she’d done everything she’d meant to except to let him into her own mind…and he knew he could say and do nothing in return.

Smoothing back her dark curls as though she couldn’t see his ire, Romilda flicked her fingertips at her quill to start it up again. “Was that Hermione Granger-Weasley I saw? I didn’t realize you were still in contact.”

“Yes,” he ground out through his teeth. “We’re friends.”

“Are you still? But then of course, Auror Weasley did separate from her,” she mused thoughtfully and wrinkled her nose as the quill promptly crossed out ‘Weasley’. “Why did she come to see you?”

A missing memory pulsed bright and hot within him, but Harry ignored the pull. “She was delivering an Offer of Employment from Minerva McGonagall.”

Romilda’s dark eyes widened at this news and she glanced over at her quill as though ensuring that it hadn’t missed that. “I see… And will you be accepting this offer?”

“I am strongly considering it,” Harry replied confidently. Honestly if he hadn’t already decided to do it before, her reaction to the news just now would have guaranteed it.

“While the Ministry has no say in the hiring of faculty at Hogwarts, we will of course be required to forward any disciplinary reports on former employees. It’s only protocol, you understand.”

“Of course,” he agreed dully. “Protocol.”

“Well I think that will be enough to satisfy our Examination requirement for today,” she said, taking up her quill and closing the notepad to stow both away again. “If there are no…complications in your being hired to teach at Hogwarts, I will be sure to include you in my regular schedule of Examinations there.”

“It’s fortunate I won’t be putting you out,” he replied darkly, a sinking feeling in his stomach. Harry started to get to his feet to show her out, but Romilda waved him back down.

“I can show myself out, please don’t trouble yourself. You’re looking a bit peaky, to be honest,” she smiled, as though she were being kind. “Pleasant dreams, Harry.”

 

It was some time before Kreacher brought the Pensieve into the drawing room despite not having been ordered to. The old house-elf apparently had given up on waiting for Harry to do so and his concern was clear in the way he wrung his gnarled old hands together. Despite Kreacher’s hovering, it was even longer still before he managed to bring himself to fish his memories out of the basin, replacing them in his mind with a shudder. He frowned once he’d found the last of them, prodding at the silvery pool in confusion. There was one missing…he was almost certain of it.

“Kreacher...you’re sure the place where you’ve been hiding the Pensieve is secure, aren’t you?” he asked the elf, who managed to look rather insulted by the question.

“Master Harry does not trust Kreacher...Master Harry thinks Kreacher is not capable of-”

“Yes, alright,” Harry cut him off with a sigh. “Forget I said anything.”

The downside of using a Pensieve to store one's memories, however temporarily, was that the longer the mind went without them, the more difficult it was to figure out where the gap was. Eventually he had to give it up, as it was clear that he hadn’t stowed away any more of his memories that evening, nor could he find any obvious holes in his mind. Staring down at the still, empty basin, Harry struggled for a long moment with the desire to pull out the most painful moments from his past where they burned in him after Romilda’s toxic touch.

At last, he asked Kreacher to hide the Pensieve away once more and announced that he was going to bed. Of course, upon exiting the drawing room he walked right into Anorak, who was absolutely beside himself. Harry could see why at once, as it appeared there was a scroll securely tied to his right leg. Realizing that Hermione must have used the Time-Stop Charm to ensure the bird would carry back her reply, whether he liked it or not, he managed to placate his raven so that he could remove the parchment from his avian person. He handed over the promised button and doughnut in return, both summoned from his coat pockets. Anorak carried them off in a huff, his beak and the button thrust through the hole of the pastry.

Harry awkwardly unrolled the parchment as he walked into his bedroom, just barely managing to catch a sewing needle as it tumbled out from inside the folded roll. He stared at it and had a brief lapse where he wildly considered that it might be somehow cursed. Then Harry felt the latent hum of an inactivated Portkey and frowned, setting it down on his end table so he could read Hermione’s neat handwriting.

Harry,

Please join me for Elevenses with the Headmistress tomorrow at Hogwarts to discuss your position on staff. The enclosed Portkey will activate at half past ten. Do try to be presentable.

Sincerely,
Hermione

 

By the following morning, Harry’s stomach had wrung itself into tight knots and he found himself staring at the Portkey, the clock ticking ever closer to the time of activation. He felt unnaturally stiff in his proper wizard’s robes and had to take effort to keep from constantly checking himself in the mirror. Distantly he was aware that his anxiety and discomfort had far more to do with his face than his clothing, though the knowledge did nothing to ease him.

This was the first time that Harry Potter would be leaving his house undisguised in almost two years. More than that, he’d taken the time to painstakingly shave his beard that morning, leaving his jaw smooth and oddly vulnerable. He had even put on an older pair of glasses with thick black frames rather than his usual, frameless pair. Oddly enough, he found the borders surrounding his vision to be a small comfort.

Glancing at the mirror yet again, he had to admit that the food and sleep had vastly improved his constitution. In preparation for his meeting at Hogwarts, he had choked down one of Hannah’s foul Nutrition Draughts in order to add the dose of Dreamless Sleep to his nightly regime. Harry honestly could not remember the last time he’d had so many consecutive hours of sleep in a row and was grateful for it, despite the way the lingering effects of the potion dulled the keen edge of his mind.

His mirror seemed to agree, for it sighed out, “Don’t fuss, dear...you look charming.”

Turning his back resolutely on the reflective surface, he checked the spelled glove on his hand yet again to be sure it was covering any sign of injury. He honestly had no idea why wizards had ever thought it a good idea to enchant their mirrors in the first place.

His breath stilled in his throat as the Portkey began to glow a soft blue, his left hand darting toward it, then pulling back again. Closing his eyes with a quick shake of the head, he steadied himself, then took hold of the needle. Magic tugged at him, hooking in behind his navel and pulling him sharply through space. Harry loathed travel by Portkey more than any other method of travel, as it always reminded him unpleasantly of being a terrified fourteen year old boy clutching the corpse of Cedric Diggory.

He was immediately on edge as he landed, wand drawn to take in his surroundings. He relaxed by degrees when he saw that he was within the castle and not outside the gates as he’d expected. Harry turned in a slow circle to take in the room, which appeared to be the office of a professor, though he didn’t recognize it. Despite the unfamiliarity, he could feel that he was in Hogwarts now, and just as confidently he knew that this had to be Hermione’s office.

Artefacts from numerous magical species lined shelves on either side of the room, all of them bearing neat placards with their description and creators, if they were known. Harry thought he could place those that were of goblin-make, and he certainly recognized a trident as belonging to the merfolk, but the majority of items were unknown to him. With a pang he noticed a framed sock with the placard:

Clothing belonging to Dobby
Free Elf and Hero of the Second Wizarding War
c. 1998

Hermione’s desk itself was almost painfully organized, lesson plans and textbooks arranged neatly to one side to leave room for her writing pad, quill and parchment. Curiously, Harry noticed that she had a Sneakoscope and what looked to be a miniature Foe Glass no larger than a portrait frame at the corner of her desk.

On a small, square table beside her desk chair, Harry saw what looked to be a smaller version of Molly Weasley’s kitchen clock, except that it appeared to have only six places. These read Delayed, Distressed, Danger, Dying, Dead, and Don’t Interfere. Currently there were only two hands…Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley. Feeling off-kilter at the sight of his clock hand sitting at Distressed, he looked up and away from the little clock.

Several prints of famous Muggle artworks were neatly arranged along the wall behind Hermione’s desk, along with technical diagrams of a few Muggle inventions that included an aeroplane and a stopwatch. He didn’t know the names of the artwork, though he knew enough about Muggle artists to place Picasso, Pollock and Dali. He stared at the image of melting clocks until a voice behind him broke his reverie.

The Persistence of Memory,” Hermione spoke up softly, as though reluctant to break the stillness. She put a hand on his arm as she came to stand beside him, smiling up at him with tears in her eyes. “Oh Harry, it’s so wonderful to see you here…”

Harry felt alarmed and unnerved, though he couldn’t say for sure if it were the painting, the clock, the Portkey or the tears shining in Hermione’s eyes. He stepped back and her face fell, but he pushed aside the guilt that threatened to rise in him.

“Your office is…nice,” he managed lamely.

“I like to use art as a way to show the students that Muggles perceive and create magic in their own way,” she replied, her voice taking on more of a lecturing tone that Harry found far more comforting than the vulnerability she’d shown. “And to help them understand that Wandless Magical Beings are just as capable inventors, artists and craftspeople as wizards, if not more so in many cases.”

His lips twitched in amusement at Hermione in her element and he held out the needle to her. “Thank you for arranging things so quickly. I’m surprised you were able to get approval for a Portkey inside Hogwarts. It was, er...quite sharp.”

She took the now dormant Portkey from him and looked a bit flustered. “Yes, well…being Deputy Headmistress does have some benefit to it. Shall we go?”

Harry’s eyebrows rose rapidly up his forehead. “Hang on. Deputy Headmistress?” His mouth spread in the first real smile he’d shared in some time. “That’s brilliant…you sure someone isn’t trying to kill you for managing that before you even hit tenure?”

A girlish giggle burst out of Hermione before could help it and she swatted at his arm, looking horrified. “Harry that isn’t funny!” she protested. “You can’t make jokes about…about attempted murder like that!”

Shrugging, Harry gave her a look, feeling more like himself than he had in years. “I’ve lived most of my life with some person or other trying to kill me…or successfully killing me, however briefly. I think I’m allowed a laugh.”

Hermione huffed and rolled her eyes, but allowed him a small smile. “Oh fine then. Laugh if you must. Now let’s go before Minerva starts deducting points from my house on principle.”

 

Stepping into the Headmistresses Office gave Harry an off balance feeling as he was faced with a space so unrecognizable and yet completely familiar. The portraits were unchanged, Albus Dumbledore already smiling at him, but the rest of the office was an amalgam of what he remembered of Dumbledore and McGonagall’s offices.

Gone were the many trinkets and delicate instruments Harry had once smashed in a fit of rage and grief. Gone was Fawkes’ perch and the elaborate claw-footed desk with its candy dishes. Instead the desk was plain and functional, though clearly well-made, and the fireplace had been expanded and filled the room with warmth and light. Photographs from students of all houses filled several bookcases and a number of Snitches sat inactive in a display case.

At the centre of the room a table had been set up with three chairs, laden with tea and biscuits and a tiered tray of finger sandwiches and tiny cakes. Minerva was sitting there and she rose to give him a severe look as he and Hermione neared.

“Mister Potter,” she began. “You are very nearly late.”

Harry instinctively stiffened to attention, eyes widening slightly. “Sorry, Prof- Ah, that is…Headmistress.”

She maintained her stern expression for a beat and then smiled and threw her arms around him in a quick squeeze. “Oh Harry, how you’ve grown! You look so much like your father, my boy,” she exclaimed as she released him, her eyes suspiciously bright. “Come and sit down. You didn’t come all this way to reminisce, of course.”

“No, I…it’s really good to see you…Minerva?” he hadn’t meant it to come out a question and winced as he took his chair.

“You might as well get used to saying it if you’re to work here, Harry,” she agreed, flicking her wand to pour tea for the three of them. “Hermione tells me you’ve agreed to accept the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts.”

Harry glanced briefly at Hermione, who was helping herself to a finger sandwich, and nodded his affirmative. “I have, but with conditions,” he said.

“Conditions?” Hermione wondered, sandwich hovering near her mouth.

“I won’t be teaching as Harry Potter,” he explained seriously, watching their reactions. “Nor do I want the rest of the staff to know who I am.”

“Harry…” Hermione began, but Minerva cut in.

“This is most unusual, Harry,” she said doubtfully. “I know that in your time here at Hogwarts we had some difficulties with our Defence Against the Dark Arts professors, but really…a false identity?”

“Yes,” he said simply. “But I do need you to first hire me on as Harry Potter. When you submit your final roster to the Ministry of Magic, they’ll send you my disciplinary reports. Honestly they might already be on their way now…but when you receive them, you’ll rescind your Offer of Employment and hire on Jameson Evans.”

“Harry you cannot be serious,” Hermione exclaimed. “This is completely unnecessary.”

“I’m done with Examinations, Hermione,” Harry stated firmly. “If these conditions aren’t acceptable, then I’ll be leaving the country. Tonight, most likely.”

Understanding lit in the faces of the two women and they exchanged a look between them, seeming to communicate silently. Finally, Minerva broke the silence, taking up her teacup as Hermione sighed and pushed her sandwich into her mouth.

“Then I suppose I’m left with no choice but to accept, Professor Evans,” Minerva raised her teacup in a toast. “And I suppose you’ve got a plan for throwing the Ministry off your scent once you’re instated here, then.”

With a smirk, Harry took up his own teacup. “I’ve got a few ideas about that. Have you heard from Mundungus Fletcher lately?”

 

“We’ll need to establish you more fully with the Ministry, of course,” Hermione ticked off her fingers as they walked back through the empty halls, having been making plans from the moment they left the Headmistress’ office. “I’ve got a contact that should be able to help us there. It’s fortunate we’d already put in the work of having your Private Inquiries and Investigations license established under your pseudonym. I took the liberty of preparing your lesson plans in advance for the first half of the school year as we’re on such short timing now before the start of term. The lists have already gone out though, so you won’t be able to add on any texts unless you order them directly yourself.”

She stopped suddenly and sighed, shaking her head to give him a helpless look. “Are you certain this is the only way, Harry? It really is a terrible plan…I would have had you figured out before the winter holiday!” she bemoaned, running her hands over her bushy hair.

“But you were, and are, extraordinary,” he told her honestly. “Whereas they are a bunch of normal magical children who are not attempting to subvert the Dark Lord. I think we’ll be fine on that end.”

Hermione ducked her head a little, but looked pleased by this assessment. “Well I’ll do all I can to help you in this fool endeavour…it’s the least I can do in exchange for you taking my case. And I do understand… The Examinations are…trying, to say the least.”

Harry looked at her in surprise. “You’ve been through an Examination?”

“Several,” she affirmed, nodding tiredly. “Ron and I both were both made to after the incident, due to how close we were to you at the time. They wanted to ensure we hadn’t been exposed to your curse, or so they said. I’m still required to receive mine annually.”

“Same,” he sighed with a scowl. “Though apparently they can show up whenever they feel it necessary to conduct a ‘random’ Examination.”

“Well that’s just lovely,” Hermione replied, looking just as pleased as Harry. She pulled out a small box and handed it to him. “I’ve got to get to another meeting, but inside this is your Portkey back to Grimmauld Place when you’re ready.”

“Thanks, Hermione,” he said honestly, grateful for a lot more than he was comfortable saying aloud right then. “I think I’ll go down and see Hagrid before I’m off…it’s been ages.”

“Oh, good, he’ll really like that!” she nodded with a warm, approving smile. “He really was afraid that he wouldn’t have the chance to see you before he left.”

“Left?” Harry asked in surprise. “Left where?”

Hermione stared at him in an equal amount of surprise, then sighed in exasperation. “Oh honestly, Harry… Hagrid is moving to France.

 

“France.” Harry was dumbfounded as he looked around Hagrid’s cabin, which was almost completely packed away into an enormous trunk, the rooms bare but for his well-worn table and bench. “Hagrid...I...why are you moving to France?”

Hagrid had been, as Hermione guessed, completely over the moon to see Harry at his door. So much so that it took a fair bit of shouting to get the half-giant to come back to his senses and put Harry back down on solid ground again. He made a number of apologies as Hagrid mopped at his face with an enormous handkerchief, apparently driven to tears by his appearance. Honestly Harry felt awful, but he hadn’t heard from Hagrid in so long that didn’t think he’d been missed.

His face still blotchy from tears, Hagrid paused in setting out his rock cakes, the kettle he’d unpacked already boiling though Harry had insisted he’d just had tea and was fine. His brows, which were shot through with more grey than they had been the last Harry saw him, furrowed in confusion.

“But…’aven’ you been readin’ my letters, Harry?” Hagrid sounded hurt.

Harry was taken aback by this. “Your letters? No, sorry, Hagrid. I can’t remember the last time I got a letter from you, honestly. Sorry…” he apologized again, frowning.

Hagrid seemed to relax at that, relieved Harry hadn’t been purposefully ignoring him. “Been writin’ every other week since I saw you las’. T’was every week, but when you didn’ write back I thought maybe it was too much, didn’ I?” He put a hand on Harry’s shoulder, though it covered a fair amount of his back, and squeezed reassuringly. “It was prolly that ruddy bird of yours chasin’ off my owl. Don’ trouble yerself over it none. Yer here now, and tha’s wha’ matters.”

“Right…” Harry replied distantly. He was going to have words with his firm if they’d been purposefully screening Hagrid’s letters. “So then, why the move?”

“Well,” Hagrid’s eyes went bright with unshed tears as his whole face lit up, pleased as punch. “I’m goin’ teh be a father!” He laughed joyfully and clapped Harry on the back, knocking the wind from him a bit. “An’ I wan’ yeh t’ be the godfather, Harry!”

“Hagrid, that’s...wow! Congratulations!” he said in surprise. It pained him a little to think that Hagrid thought so much of him that even after nearly two years of silence, he still wanted Harry to be the godfather of his child. “I...I’d be honoured, I really would.” He grinned up at him. “Guess things sorted themselves with Madame Maxime in the end.”

A beet red blush bloomed over the visible parts of Hagrid’s bearded face and he nodded enthusiastically. “Olympe an’ I’d been talkin’ on an’ off fer years an’ then this summer I wen’ on holiday with her, see…an’ ‘t jus’ sor’ of...happened!” Harry was grateful he didn’t go into further detail. “Course I love Hogwarts, bu’ I never though’ I’d get the chance to be a da’. Can’ let tha’ pass me by.”

“I’m really happy for you, Hagrid. You’re going to be a wonderful father,” Harry told him honestly, though he hoped Maxime could keep Hagrid from bringing any dangerous beasts around the baby. “Is Professor Grubbly-Plank going to take over for Care of Magical Creatures, then?”

“Abou’ tha’…” Hagrid began, but just then there was a noise from outside the cabin. A hippogriff shrieked proudly as it landed with a soft whump out in the pumpkin patch, distracting Harry enough that he didn’t notice how Hagrid shifted rather nervously.

“Ah, well...tha’s him now, I expect…”

Hagrid got up quickly to get the kettle, which had been whistling for some time now, not looking at him. Footsteps came up the path and the door opened abruptly, causing Harry to get to his feet in surprise.

“Rubeus, have you seen-”

Everyone froze as Harry and the newcomer caught sight of one another, then Hagrid cleared his throat and spoke up.

“Ah, Harry...yeh remember Draco, don’ yeh?”

Chapter Text

To say that the Ministry of Magic had been in a state of chaos at the end of the Second Wizarding War would have been a gross understatement. So many of its employees were unsure of whose side they’d been working on, of what orders had been legitimate workings of government and which had been machinations of the Dark Lord. Because of this, it was eight months before Draco Malfoy was given a trial before the Wizengamot.

After his time spent awaiting trial in Azkaban, he had been completely unconcerned with a community sentence of five years, despite that he would additionally not be afforded the use of a wand in that time. Anything was better than cold iron walls that had spent hundreds of years soaking in despair and insanity and it was honestly better than he could have hoped for in an underage Unspeakable conviction. He’d even been cautiously hopeful when it came out that Headmistress McGonagall had offered to allow Draco to serve out his sentence at Hogwarts, though he couldn’t think of why she had.

Then he’d found out that he would be working with Hagrid, whose classes had been a near-constant source of terror for him throughout his education, and realized that this was less community payback and more punishment. Word got round that Hagrid had actually volunteered to take him on to help in the duties as Gamekeeper out of respect for Draco’s mother. He had, after all, been witness to the lie that had saved Harry’s life and led to the fall of Voldemort.

The first few months with Hagrid had been awful, to say the least. School was still in session after all and most of the students had reason to hate him, including the blasted ‘Eighth Year’ class. Draco wanted nothing to do with any of it, wishing he could just forget the nightmare that had been the last few years of his life rather than waking up in a panic every morning from dreams of fire and red eyes and Bellatrix whispering in his ear.

At first he’d thrown all his efforts into maintaining the grounds, finding that manual labour exhausted him to where he’d be able to manage a few hours of genuine sleep, his body too exhausted to let his mind run rampant. Draco had outright refused to work with any of Hagrid’s ‘bloody monsters’, but in watching the half-giant work, he started to understand them.

Understanding how things worked, be it people or magical artefacts, had always been a talent of Draco’s; ironic considering how long it had taken him to fully understand that he was operating on the wrong side of history. The prejudices and pride that came with his upbringing had always been the obstacle in being wholly successful with people, but he was starting to understand the creatures on the grounds and in the Forbidden Forest with startling alacrity.

A thestral had no knowledge that he’d let a group of Death Eaters into a school full of children with the intent of murdering an old wizard. Bowtruckles couldn’t be bothered with the hours he’d spent under the watchful eye of the Dark Lord turning his wand on Muggles. And while he suspected that the hippogriff ‘Witherwings’ might have taken offence at his attempt to turn over Harry Potter to that same Dark Lord, a few strips of raw meat and a good brush would sort him out again soon enough. All of the magical beasts and birds and darker things were simply creatures living out their lives with no care of him whatsoever, unless he learned to understand them. In that, Draco found power he had always desired and never before managed to obtain.

“Potter,” Malfoy said coolly after a long moment of silence, nodding his head once.

Harry only stared at him uncomprehendingly, attempting to reconcile this version of Draco Malfoy with the one he’d seen not two days ago at St Mungo’s. Instead of proper wizard’s robes, Malfoy was wearing a belted grey tunic over darker grey trousers that he had tucked into dragonhide boots. He’d been in the process of pulling off matching dragonhide gloves when he came in the door and he absently tucked these into his belt now, his expression going stony at Harry’s continued shocked silence. Harry noticed the flash of bandages at his forearm as Malfoy tugged his shirtsleeves into place as though self-conscious about his appearance.

“You…” Harry began, looking between Malfoy and Hagrid, who was nervously holding his kettle with both hands, despite how they dwarfed it. “You are the Care of Magical Creatures professor? You. Draco Malfoy.”

“Well spotted,” Malfoy sneered at him, his lip curling. He turned his attention to Hagrid. “I didn’t realize you had company, Rubeus. I’ll come back later.”

“Aw, don’ be like tha’ you two…” Hagrid chided them both, waving a hand. “’s been years since the war, isn’ it? Draco here ‘as been ruddy good to ‘ave abou’ Hogwarts, Harry. Been fillin’ in for me for years, ‘asn’ he, when I needed to see to Gwarp. An’ he always gets glowin’ reviews from the kids. ‘spect they think he’s ‘cool’, don’ they.”

Malfoy’s mouth was pressed into such a tight line that Harry could see a muscle jump in his jaw, a flush starting in at his ears. “While I’m sure Potter is terribly interested in your assessment of my performance, I think I’ll leave you to it.” With that, he turned sharply on his heel, but stopped in the doorway, sighed, and turned back reluctantly. “Have you seen the goblin-made diamond file?”

Hagrid looked sheepish and rubbed a large hand over his beard. “Ah, tha’s…well I think I migh’ have packed it…” he admitted, gesturing at the trunk.

To Harry’s surprise, Malfoy nodded curtly and walked over to the trunk to begin searching through it by hand, rather than using a summoning charm. He pulled out the large, shining file after a few moments, as well as several other items, giving Hagrid a withering look.

“You will not be caring for acromantula in France, nor anything more deadly than a kneazle while you within the general vicinity of your infant child,” Malfoy lectured scathingly. “Thus you will not be needing the tools to do so.”

Though Harry agreed with Malfoy, he still felt indignant on Hagrid’s behalf. “You can’t just-“

Can’t I, Potter?” Malfoy cut him off sharply, levelling a fierce look at him. “Or did I somehow misinterpret where you have been absent from this particular narrative for some time now.”

“Now, Draco, tha’s not nice…Harry’s been busy, ‘asn’ he… An’ he wasn’ gettin’ my letters, see,” Hagrid tried to wave it off, but Malfoy wasn’t having it.

“And his own weren’t getting through either, I take it? Or his Fire-calls? Perhaps a visit during the holidays.”

“Draco…”

“No, Hagrid,” Harry said quietly, looking down at his hands where they gripped the edge of the table. “He’s right…he’s absolutely right. I may not have gotten your letters, but I didn’t make any effort on my part to contact you… I’m sorry.” He looked up and caught Malfoy’s displeased expression. “And…I’m sorry for being rude, Malfoy. I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t a qualified teacher. Or…I did, but it was stupid of me.”

Malfoy’s grey eyes narrowed at him, but after a while he simply nodded in acknowledgement. Looking up at Hagrid, he pointed the glimmering file at him. “I’ll be searching the rest of your trunk before you go, Rubeus.”

With that, Malfoy strode out of the cabin again, slamming the door a bit behind himself. Harry and Hagrid both stared at it before they looked at one another again. Hagrid seemed mollified that they’d managed to be at least a little civil in the end.

“I can’t believe you’ve been working with him,” Harry shook his head in amazement, taking his seat once more. “How long has this been going on?”

“Ah, well…tha’ is…suppose it‘s been abou’…ten years?” Hagrid admitted, finally pouring their tea just to have something to do other than look at Harry.

Ten years,” he repeated incredulously.

“An’ a few months, I guess…”

Though Hagrid offered to make a meal for him, Harry rapidly declined, remembering some of the half-giants more questionable tastes in cuisine from his childhood. He was still feeling a bit off-kilter besides from the events of that afternoon. It pained him to think that he’d been so wrapped up in his own affairs for so long that he hadn’t known that Hagrid had been working with Malfoy almost since the end of the Second Wizarding War. To be fair, Hagrid had admitted to Harry that he never mentioned it because Malfoy had once asked him not to, but…he had been an Auror, damn it. Even now, Harry was supposed to be a Private Investigator, yet he’d somehow missed such a major factor in Hagrid’s life.

Malfoy was still in the pumpkin patch with Witherwings when he left the cabin, though the grey-eyed wizard was studiously ignoring Harry. He seemed to be filing the hippogriff’s talons, his motions becoming a bit sharper as though he felt Harry’s watchful gaze. Witherwings made a discontented sound and rapped Malfoy on the head with his beak, which earned him an answering tap from the file. The wizard did force himself to relax however and he returned to his work more carefully.

Breaking his gaze away with effort, Harry started back up the path toward the castle. It was clear Malfoy didn’t want to speak with him and honestly…he wasn’t even sure what he would say to him. Some dark part of him wanted to fight, to shout and carry on and throw jinxes, but they weren’t children and there wasn’t really anything he could think to argue on which hadn’t been lying dead between them for more than a decade.

Rather than use the Portkey now stowed in his robes, Harry followed the long path down past the gates and Hogwart’s innumerable wards. He had other business to attend to and he might as well do it while his mind was clear and his arm throbbed with a tolerable level of pain. No sooner had he passed the boundary was he turning on the spot to Disapparate.

He appeared in the lobby of Boulder and Pinklily, which was fortunately empty of any of their clients. Being that his firm dealt primarily in discretion, it was unusual for anyone to drop by unannounced…but at this particular moment Harry couldn’t care less about the social niceties.

Almost at once, a house-elf in a neat tea towel emblazoned with the firm’s crest appeared before him, bowing low. “Harry Potter is to be welcoming back to Boulder and Pinklily. We is not to be expecting you today…this is being most unusual, Harry Potter. Tremble’s masters is not being available now.”

“Then they had best make themselves available with speed, Tremble,” Harry stated simply. “Post haste, as it were.”

The house-elf looked a bit alarmed, as though unsure whether he should be seeking out punishment. “B-but, Tremble’s masters is-“ At a look from Harry, the house-elf squeaked and then Disapparated with a crack.

Harry checked to be sure his magical glove was still in place as he waited, his breathing deliberately slow and even to keep the rage within him from bubble up like a potion gone wrong. He had to stay in control long enough for the Ministry to process his employment with Hogwarts. His plans hinged upon the events of the next day or two, part of which was his certainty that Romilda would ensure prompt response from the Ministry in an effort to assert her control.

After about ten minutes of waiting, the ornate double doors at the far end of the waiting room opened and his solicitors walked quickly through them, looking mildly alarmed. Tabitha Boulder was a tiny, yet formidable Korean woman in modestly cut grey robes, her long black hair shot through with strands of silver and braided neatly down her back. Lionel Pinklily on the other hand was large and broad and dark-skinned, his head shaved smoothed and his robes a deep umber patterned with geometric designs of scarlet, green and gold. They were like a mismatched pair of socks that had long ago lost their mates in the wash, yet they worked together as though they were of one mind.

“Mister Potter!” Pinklily exclaimed, his deep voice echoing slightly in the oak and marble lobby. “We are most sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“It has been some time since you’ve visited us in person, Mister Potter,” Boulder said gently, her voice soft and sweet in counterpoint to her rather sternly professional manner of dress. “Has something happened?”

“That is exactly what I am attempting to find out,” Harry said firmly. “Why is my post from Professor Rubeus Hagrid being screened?”

Boulder and Pinklily shared a look between them, then Pinklily spoke up. “Please, come and sit down with us. Can we get you some tea?”

“Why does everyone keep offering me tea today?” Harry asked, some of his frustration leaking through. “No, I don’t bloody well want tea, I want to discuss the matter at hand and be done with it!” He took a slow, calming breath as the two stared at him in alarm, then sighed. “Some camomile will be fine if you can manage it.”

They both smiled politely and Pinklily nodded, gesturing him into their office. It was easily twice as large as their waiting room, with two desks at opposite ends of the expanse. Each side matched their occupant, warm and inviting or cool and comforting, meeting somewhere in the middle to a set of comfortable leather couches around a low, square table. The duality of the aesthetics had appealed to him when he’d first hired on the firm, as had their strange partnership.

Taking a seat on one of the couches, he watched them as they summoned Tremble to see to their refreshments. Harry couldn’t help but feel sour and foolish now that he’d trusted the witch and wizard so easily, even in as much turmoil as he’d been in when he’d first darkened their doorstep some years past. He should have known better than to trust them simply because he felt comforted by their presence, as though the persona presented was one that could be relied upon.

Once they were settled and Boulder had summoned Harry’s file to them, Pinklily summoning a second, thicker file, Tremble returned. Harry watched his solicitors closely as the house-elf used his wandless magic to levitate the pot and pour out three cups politely, adding two lumps of sugar to Pinklily’s cup. Though the two had schooled their expressions into professional masks of politeness, a nervous energy thrummed through the pair.

The elf vanished and Boulder spoke up again, leaving her tea where it sat. “Mister Potter,” she began in a polite and distant tone. “As you know, we are contractually obligated to ensure that your post is properly screened for any letters which are deemed threatening, hexed, or otherwise unsuitable for view. Part of this includes the screening of excessive and unnecessary fan letters.”

Harry could feel a twinge in his jaw as it tightened. “And I thought part of that included a list of pre-approved contacts whose letters could be sent through without undue precautions.”

“It did indeed, sir,” Pinklily agreed, taking a slip of parchment from Boulder and passing it to Harry. “If you’d like to review it now, please feel free to do so.”

Taking the parchment from Pinklily, he saw that there was a second slip of parchment that had been affixed to the bottom with a light sticking charm.

The Ministry is watching and we are magically bound to obey their laws. Please be cautious. -B&P

Harry felt something tighten in his chest, though he managed to keep from showing much more outward reaction than to cast a brief glance at the two of them. There were only more questions rolling through him now and he knew he could not ask them if there were a possibility they were being observed. How long had it been since the Ministry had first started twisting their laws to monitor him in this way? Why hadn’t he been watching them more closely in return?

Scanning over the list, he saw that Hagrid and every member of the Weasleys’ had been crossed out, with the exception of George, who instead was circled and had a notation of ‘business associate’ in the margins. Several other names on the list were circled as well and after a few moments Harry recognized that they were all the former members of Dumbledore’s Army. Given Hermione’s complaint about the delay in screening, he thought this correspondence must be undergoing direct scrutiny by the Ministry.

“Why have there been edits to this list? And on whose authority?” Harry asked, watching them both.

Boulder gave the slightest shake to her head as she leaned over to pick up her teacup, though she did not drink from it. “As your solicitors we are duty bound to ensure that a wizard of your standing is not troubled by those who are, shall we say, of a lesser calibre.”

Fury burned bright in him at the words, so much so that he had to close his eyes briefly, fist clenching tightly around the parchment still in his grasp. Whatever it was the Ministry was doing, they clearly had provisions in place to keep the two from elaborating fully, even when questioned directly.

“So it was decided that half-giants and blood traitors were considered of a lesser calibre, was it? How long have these changes been in effect?” he demanded, his voice beginning to rise.

Pinklily’s eyes found his partners, then Harry’s. “After your injury and subsequent…retirement, it was decided to take better care to screen the quality of post coming through to you.”

Since he’d left the Ministry, then. Or been sacked…he generally considered them to be one in the same. He gestured at the thick file Pinklily was still holding on his lap. “That’s the rest of my post then, is it?” At an affirmative nod, he held out his hand for the file, shrinking it and the parchment of names down with a tap of the Hawthorne wand to pocket them.

A soft sound drew his attention to Boulder, who was lightly tapping her soft pink nails against the file housing Harry’s contract. The impatient gesture coming from the composed witch had to be deliberate and his mind raced to try and catch her meaning. It was getting difficult to think clearly around the snarling storm of dark anger spinning up in his head and he wished he’d thought to take a dose of his Draught of Peace before coming here.

“I will not be requiring your services any longer,” Harry began, because he felt that would be safe to say regardless of any Ministry spies listening in. “What you’ve done…the changes you’ve made…” It came to him finally why Boulder had been drawing attention to the contract. “You’ve changed the terms of our contract without my explicit written or verbal consent. Further, I’ve never signed an amended version of that original contract, which means that I consider it to be null and void.”

The relief was plain on his solicitor’s faces for a beat too long for Harry’s comfort, but they got themselves back under control soon enough. Boulder quickly moved the file to the coffee table as the magical properties of the contract caused it to combust at Harry’s words. Pinklily, for his part, held up his hands as though attempting to placate Harry, though he looked highly satisfied.

“Mister Potter, please…I’m very confident that we could draw up a new contract-“

“No, I don’t think so,” Harry cut him off firmly, getting to his feet. He gestured at the smouldering ruins of his contract. “Does that break the enchantment drawing my post here?” They both nodded an affirmative and made to rise, but he waved them back down. “Then our business is concluded. I’ll see myself out.”

Harry’s curse wound was very much making itself known by the time he Apparated into the entryway of George Weasley’s spacious flat. Gritting his teeth, he managed to get out his thermos and take a long pull of his Blood Replenishment, his vision swimming with dark spots. As the potion got to work, he heard tiny feet go sprinting away from him and deeper into the flat.

“Papalee! Papalee there’s a bogeyman!” a small girl’s terrified voice rang out and Harry winced.

He knew he should have Apparated down into the shop at the very least, but he hadn’t been able to stomach the thought of dealing with his notoriety just then. Heat bloomed in his pocket and he moved his thermos under his arm to awkwardly fish out the false Galleon there. Hermione had given him the coin during their meeting with the Headmistress, having insisted that they cease other methods of communication while putting his ‘ludicrous’ plan into effect.

She had improved upon the original design of the Protean-charmed coins that she’d made for Dumbledore’s Army in his Fifth Year, allowing him to convey the date of their next meeting without drawing the attention of Dolores Umbridge or her Inquisitorial Squad. This newer coin reacted specifically to his magical signature and Harry could see now what she had meant by that. He felt the faint draw on his magic and then the seemingly ordinary face of the Galleon shifted to reveal a message.

Disciplinary reports received. Copied to Governors. Offer withdrawn by AM.

The Ministry had done him a favour, it seemed. By forwarding his disciplinary reports to the Governors as well as the Headmistress, they had made it even more plausible that his employment would be rescinded even this close to the start of term. Hearing footsteps coming back in his direction, Harry pocketed the false Galleon and thermos once more.

“I’m sure there’s no bogeyman, Roxy… Oh!” Lee Jordan stared at Harry in surprise for a long moment, jaw dropping open.

“See? See, I told you, Papalee!” the little girl wailed from his side, half hiding behind the wizard and tugging at his robes.

Remembering his daughter, Lee shifted to put his hand on her head, her thick black curls bound up into two round poofs. “No, Roxy, that’s Harry Potter and you’ve met him before, though you don’t remember. It was a good guess though,” Lee said with a grin, coming forward to offer his hand to Harry. “Hullo, Harry! It’s been a minute! You remember Roxanne.”

Harry couldn’t muster the movement with his right hand just then and offered a pained, apologetic smile instead. “Yes, of course. Hello, Roxanne…you’ve grown quite a bit since I saw you last,” he said to the little girl, trying to appear non-threatening. “Sorry to drop by unannounced like this, Lee. I was hoping to speak to George.”

The wizard glanced at Harry’s right hand a moment, then nodded and bent to look at his daughter, who was eyeing Harry mistrustfully. “Roxy, can you run and fetch Da for me?”

The young witch hesitated, then nodded quickly and sprinted past Harry and down the stairs toward the shop below, already bellowing for her other father. Lee watched her go with a fond smile, then gestured for Harry to follow him into the flat.

“Sorry about that. She’s reached an age where she’s decided not to trust anyone who is not in her immediate family. Didn’t even want to go to Shell Cottage with Fred this morning. How’s the glove holding up?” he nodded at Harry’s right hand.

Harry personally thought that was a good trait for the child to have, but did not speak this aloud, instead flexing his fingers slowly. “It’s been bloody useful, really. No one has noticed the difference yet. I do have to be mindful of my sleeves, though…perhaps the next version could go a bit further up the arm.”

Lee nodded thoughtfully as he led Harry into their office, snatching up a bit of parchment to take down a few notes. “Shouldn’t be too much trouble, that. George and I could probably get a new one worked up by next week.”

Nodding idly, Harry looked around at the different sketches and notes and prototypes that littered the workshop before his eyes landed on a photo of the family of five. George and Lee had been living with Angelina Johnson in the rooms above Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes for a decade now; the two wizards running the joke shop together while Angelina coached the Holyhead Harpies. Though George had married Angelina to ensure their children would have no trouble inheriting his estate under Wizarding Law, he had never made it a secret that theirs was a polyamorous household.

This arrangement had been the source of some discomfort for Molly, but after the birth of Fred Weasley II she’d come to accept their arrangement as being ‘terribly modern’. George of course had told her laughingly that actually they were terribly old-fashioned, as such couplings had not been uncommon in times long past. Fred was George’s biological son and Roxanne was Lee’s, but Molly loved the little witch as much as any of her grandchildren and treated both Angelina and Lee with the same distant judgement she reserved for all her sons and daughters-in-law.

“How have things been with the shop?” Harry wondered, examining the schematics for some sort of mechanical spider.

“Brilliant,” Lee enthused with a bright grin. “And not just the joke products, but the Defence Line as well. Angie has us starting in on Quidditch supplies now. Seems to think the normal manufacturers aren’t pushing themselves to be innovative and wants us to bang up some competition.”

Shaking his head, Harry remembered with a bittersweet pang how Ginny used to complain about Angelina’s demands as her coach. “Angelina can be damn scary when she puts her mind to something…you’d better not disappoint her.”

“No kidding…” Lee agreed honestly.

“Lee?” George called from down the hall, sounding bemused as he walked through the flat. “Why does this child think you are in mortal peril?

Laughing, Lee rolled his eyes and called back to him. “Because Harry Potter has come to call, George. We’re in the workshop.”

“Harry? You sure? I’m pretty convinced Harry Potter’s living in a cave among his fellow trolls where he Fire-calls at all hours, yet never writes or visits.” George was already grinning broadly as he came around the corner, bending to slide Roxanne off his back. “Off with you, wee witch. You know you’re not allowed in the workshop.”

Roxanne looked thoroughly put out and gave Harry a fierce glare, holding her ground for a long, stubborn moment before she ran off again. The wizards watched her go and then looked at one another, George’s eyes falling to the glove much like Lee’s had. Harry felt self-conscious at the scrutiny, but supposed inventors must not be able to help themselves from checking over their products.

“So, Harry,” George began, arms crossed casually across his chest as he stepped inside the workshop. “It’s been a while since you darkened our doorstep. I do hope you haven’t come for an eye, because I’ve already lost the ear.”

Harry stiffened and he saw Lee’s dark skin go rather ashen out of the corner of his eye, the wizard clearing his throat. “Oh what’s that? I think I hear Roxy calling for me,” he said hurriedly, escaping the workshop. George’s eyes never left Harry’s, sharp and focused despite his seemingly genial smile.

Taking a measured breath and starting to question the wisdom of his choice in coming here, Harry started, “What happened with Ron-“

“Ron is a prat,” George said emphatically. “And from all accounts it sounded like he got what he deserved. We all know that what happened was an accident, Harry. I wouldn’t have made you that if I had thought you’d done it deliberately.” He gestured to Harry’s wand hand. “Or at least not without some serious and unpleasant jinxes worked in. Yet you somehow decided that after what happened with Ginny and then with Ron that you could just stop being part of this family. And that’s not how this works.”

Harry was completely taken aback, throat working as he struggled to find words to respond. It had honestly not even occurred to him in the aftermath of everything that happened that the Weasleys would want anything to do with him. Harry barely wanted anything to do with himself most days, but he supposed that his perception was more than a little clouded.

“My daughter doesn’t even recognize you, Harry,” George continued with a sharp gesture, a bit of anger leaking into his tone. “Teddy’s the only one who still has total faith in you…and even he’s learned not to mention you in front of Mum. She lost two sons that day, both by their own volition. What do you think that does to a woman of her advanced age, eh?”

Wincing, Harry looked away from him, his chest constricting at the thought of bringing Molly Weasley pain. He could still clearly remember her in Grimmauld Place during his Fifth Year, sobbing as the boggart in the study turned into Harry’s own corpse.

“George, I…I never meant for that. For any of it…not with Ron, not with…” he took a shaky breath, emotion threatening to take hold of him. But he had to see this through…it was already in motion and Hermione’s life might be in danger besides. “Things are going to get a lot worse…and I don’t think that I’ll be able to recover from it. Not as Harry Potter.”

“That’s cheery,” George replied blandly, looking him over. “Never a dull moment with you, Harry. I’m guessing you can’t tell me what it is that’s happening, then.”

It wasn’t a question, but Harry nodded his agreement anyway. “It isn’t safe for you or your family to be involved. To be honest I don’t fully understand what it is I’m facing just yet.”

Frowning a little at his words, George’s ginger brows furrowed in confusion. “Then why are you here now?”

Squaring his shoulders, Harry gave the inventor a tight, mirthless smile. “I have an idea for a new product.”

It was fully dark by the time Harry left Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, secreted under his Invisibility Cloak. He was too far gone to Apparate any more today and he couldn’t stomach the thought of another Portkey at this point. George and Lee had offered to let him use their fireplace, but he’d closed off his connection to the Floo Network after making his Fire-calls the previous day. Keeping it open made him extremely uncomfortable and he avoided it at all costs.

It was strange to step out into Diagon Alley after so long removed; the shops finishing up their sales for the day as families and groups of witches and wizards carried their purchases toward the public fireplaces to disappear in flashes of green fire. Harry watched them all as he walked toward the Leaky Cauldron, wondering how many of them thought down on Muggles like Bryndon Rowle or Ester Eckles. How many of them were being manipulated by the Ministry like Boulder and Pinklily? How many were being monitored like Harry?

The Galleon burned in his pocket again as he carefully edged through the crowds of the Leaky Cauldron, though he waited until he was back in Muggle London before he withdrew the coin to check it. The Muggle world never seemed to slow down in the city, despite the foul weather, but he stepped close to a streetlamp to keep out of the way of foot traffic as he read the changing surface of the coin.

Mundungus found. The Drowned Elf, Eavesdown Docks, 5AM.

Harry had forgotten how scarily efficient Hermione could be when she put her mind to it, a skill that had only grown over time. She’d told him and Minerva that she thought she might know a way to track Mundungus Fletcher down and sure enough, half a day later she’d proven true to her word. It gave Harry some small flicker hope that they might succeed in this, a welcome relief from the despairing weight the rest of the day had brought down that sadly didn’t last.

The rest of his journey home passed in a slog of rain and pain and creeping fog that he wasn’t quite sure wasn’t just in his vision rather than the tactile world. Barely glancing at the bored young witch stationed across from his home, Harry went inside and slumped back against the door with a sigh, sliding off the Invisibility Cloak. Harry was tired and pained through to his bones and he wished for nothing more than a few moments of relief. Even the post still weighing heavy in his pocket didn’t bring him any satisfaction from the day, reminding him instead of everyone he’d let down and the lie he’d been living in that he was in any way out from under the Ministry’s thumb.

He knew dimly that Kreacher was speaking to him somewhere below his navel, but he couldn’t bring the elf into focus and his ears felt stuffed with cotton. Recognizing that he might have expended himself to the point where he was in danger of falling unconscious, he managed to croak out an order for the house-elf to take him to his bed. He groaned with pain as Kreacher took hold of him and Apparated there, stumbling heavily onto the mattress.

Cool glass was pressed into his left hand and he grasped at it desperately, bringing the potion to his mouth and welcoming the taste of salt and iron for once as the Blood-Replenishing brew went to work. Kreacher diligently kept passing bottles into Harry’s hand, one after the other until he was conscious enough to stop the elf handing him any Dreamless-Sleep.

“Not that one…not tonight…” he said softly, managing to toe off his shoes at the very least. Harry thought maybe he managed to thank the old elf before he fell into darkness.

The moon hung swollen and foreboding in the sky above him, casting the clearing into stark relief and draining all colour from the landscape. Jungle surrounded the clearing, thick and verdant and unnaturally silent and Harry felt hopelessly, crushingly alone. A flutter of movement caught Harry’s eye and he thought he saw something like the edge of a cloak in the trees, blacker than the night around it.

A soft scraping sound seemed more like a wand blast in the stillness and he spun around to see Draco Malfoy sitting on the corpse of an enormous nine-toed rat. He was using the goblin-made file on his own hand and Harry saw that he’d sprouted thick, yellowed claws from the tips of his fingers. Glancing up at Harry, he thought he caught sight of a flash of gold before the wizard returned his attention to his work.

“Are you?” Malfoy asked calmly.

“Am I what?” Harry shook his head uncomprehendingly.

Malfoy raised his hand to inspect the claws, admiring them in the moonlight. “Alone. Or...” Before Harry had even realized he’d moved, Malfoy was standing before him. “Are you absent?

He suddenly gripped Harry’s wand arm, the claws sinking deep into his flesh and Harry cried out in pain. “Stop! You can’t!”

The wizard grinned at him sharply and leaned in close, his breath ghosting over Harry’s skin. “Can’t I, Potter?”

Jerking back sharply, Harry stumbled into the offices of Boulder and Pinklily, his breathing harsh and echoing in the darkness. Malfoy was nowhere to be seen and he looked down at his arm, putting a hand over the wound the wizard had given him even as his blood spilled wetly onto the floor.

“Be careful, Harry…” Romilda Vane said from beyond the double doors that led to the lobby. “We wouldn’t want you to let it in, now would we?”

Light blazed out from the other room, limning the seams of the doors and spilling into the office before they suddenly flew open. Romilda was standing in front of the rising sun, burning a blinding gold and casting a terrible shadow forward and away from the witch. It fluttered and stretched and broke away from her, rushing at Harry even as he turned and crashed through the window, falling into darkness.

He landed on barren, dark earth that was beginning to lighten with the coming dawn. Getting to his feet, Harry saw a distant shore, so still that it perfectly mirrored a rocky crag that rose in sharp relief to the flat emptiness around him. The sound of ticking came in time with the beat of his heart and the dripping of his blood onto the flat, brown earth and Harry turned to find a clock melting slowly over a large, grotesque face half buried in the dirt.

The eye of the face flew open to fix on him and Harry recoiled in horror, raising his bleeding arm defensively. He blinked and then Ron Weasley was standing where the face had been. The ginger-haired man grinned at him, seemingly unconcerned with the fact that there was a hole where his left eye should be, tunnelled clean through his skull.

“Alright, mate?” he asked jovially. “You get my letter?”

Harry was still staring in horror through the hole in Ron’s head and realized suddenly that he could see a wand pointed at him through it. He backed away as Hermione levelled her wand from behind Ron, her face set and determined.

The Persistence of Memory,” she said as the dawn burned ever brighter around them. “It’s a chance we can’t take, not when we’re so close. Obliviate!

12 Grimmauld Place shuddering around him, Harry woke himself screaming and did not dare try to fall asleep again.

Chapter Text

For close to a year Harry and Ron had been working the case that took them to Belize, tracking the movements of a dark witch or wizard who the press had unfortunately taken to calling Spider. The investigation had come about after the suspiciously similar deaths of three witches and wizards, two low-level Ministry members and a Healer who worked in Records at St Mungo’s, whose dark and shameful secrets were released through various forms of magical media before the bodies were even cold. And hadn’t that lot been fun to sort through. But it hadn’t been until Barnabus Cuffe, the editor of the Daily Prophet, had been killed inside his Diagon Alley office late one afternoon that the story went public; and with the revelation of the linked deaths came the moniker.

Spider’s victims died from an injection of acromantula venom introduced into the bloodstream via two small entry wounds on the dominant hand, resembling a spider bite. The bodies had been discovered safely locked away in their homes or offices with no sign of physical or magical forced entry, further adding to the mythos that later had people questioning whether the culprit was human or beast. What the pair of Aurors had successfully kept from the public when the story broke was that the wounds were caused by a cursed quill that paralyzed the victims until the venom had done its job. They had also managed to hide the fact that the victims were being blackmailed, hoping to avoid hysteria and a rash of false reports that would only delay their investigation.

Harry and Ron’s biggest breakthrough in the case had been the death of Barnabas Cuffe. Usually there was no trace of evidence at the scene beyond a body with twin punctures and the lingering, acrid stench of something recently burnt. Being in the wizarding newspaper business as he was, Cuffe had placed a rather enthusiastic number of very strong wards in his office to prevent any chance of fire. This meant that the blackmail letter had remained laid out accusingly on the editor’s desk when the pair of Aurors arrived on scene; the parchment hot to the touch but very much intact. The cursed quill had remained as well, glowing with heat and hovering uncertainly over the dead wizard’s left hand now that it had fulfilled its task.

They hadn’t been able to remove letter or quill from the office without the risk of losing these crucial clues in their case, but members of the Magical Artefacts Division analysed as much as they could while the Curse Breakers attempted to reverse the dark magic. It had been enough to find out that the letter utilized the same charm as the Unbreakable Vow, creating a binding magical contract between Spider and his or her victims that was sealed when they signed with the quill. A razor-thin paper cut on the editor’s finger, something they had overlooked in previous victims, must have provided the catalyst to activate the charm when the letter was opened.

Without the other letters there was no way of knowing what Spider had hoped to gain from the three earlier victims. In Cuffe’s case, however, Spider had wanted full control of the Prophet; complete manipulation of the press. Cuffe could sign and live by those terms or refuse and die with the knowledge that his most shameful secrets would be publicized by his own paper. The worst part of discovering all this was the dreadful understanding that they had no way of knowing how many others had signed the contracts. Countless witches and wizards weaving Spider’s web, as it were.

Their sudden breakthrough in the case was immediately followed by their biggest setback. The magical signature the combined efforts of the M.A.D. and the Curse Breakers uncovered led the pair to a block of flats in the heart of Muggle London, the residents Confunded and the rooms in question abandoned. The newly christened Spider, having somehow guessed that they’d been compromised, had fled.

Harry and Ron had spent months tracking the blackmailer afterward, following every lead with frustratingly slow progress until they came to the conclusion that Spider was no longer in the country. Crossing into Europe and Asia meant that the matter had become one of international consideration, and so they were then teamed with the International Magical Police. It had taken some months to discover that in the end they had not been chasing Spider, but Mundungus Fletcher.

“I can’t believe you found him so quickly…” Harry commented into the early morning quiet, looking up at The Drowned Elf. The inn did look rather waterlogged and bloated; an ugly building the shade of gutter water at the edge of the Eavesdown Docks that probably would have been long since condemned in the Muggle world.

“He’s still on Ministry watch lists from that Spider business,” Hermione explained tiredly, her arms wrapped about herself as she, too observed the building. “Which is exactly why this isn’t a very good idea, Harry.”

Ignoring this, Harry glanced down at her. “Did you bring what I asked?”

She sighed heavily, but nodded and reached into her robes. Harry couldn’t help but flinch a bit when she did, giving her pause as he looked away again. His nightmare had him feeling trapped in his own skin, uneasy and on edge despite the extra dose of Draught of Peace he’d taken. It wasn’t fair to Hermione when the tired lines of her face told him how much effort she’d been putting into his plan. He felt her put a gentle hand on his arm and squeeze reassuringly just once before she pulled away and he relaxed slightly, knowing without words that she understood at least a little.

“Here. It should be enough for nine doses of thirteen hours each, so long as he measures it correctly,” she said, holding out the potion.

“Thirteen?” Harry said in surprise. “That’s longer than I’ve ever seen.”

She gave him a somewhat haughty look. “Honestly, Harry…I’m not twelve anymore, am I.”

Taking the bottle from her, he managed a ghost of a smile. “Ta, Hermione,” he said gratefully. “For everything, I mean it. Thanks.”

Hermione looked a bit flustered and tossed her hair with an air of nonchalance. “Oh, don’t. It’s really all for my benefit in the end, isn’t it? I don’t especially want to die by mysterious means while at Hogwarts, after all. I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to die there years ago and I meant it.”

Harry huffed in amusement, giving her a wry look. “I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. Highly overrated.”

A wizard pushed a large cart of still wriggling creatures toward the market area of the docks, carrying the pungent air of fish and seawater. Hermione looked like she might just go green and she covered her nose and mouth quickly, trying to gather a bit of her sleeve to breathe through. The Eavesdown Docks in general were an olfactory offense, packed as they generally were with witches and wizards and Wandless Magical Beings from all over the globe. Nearly all goods too large for safe transport via Apparation or Portkey were transited in and out of Great Britain from the docks, and many who could not afford to travel by International Portkey sought passage on various passenger transport. From where they stood they could see innumerable ships of both air and sea in every style imaginable.

Harry could hear Hermione gag a little as another vendor pushed a three tiered cart filled with eggs past them, ranging in size from those as large as a Quaffle to ones that could easily sit inside a thimble. He awkwardly patted her on the back.

“You can go, Hermione… You’ve already done more than enough already,” he said uneasily, honestly afraid she might sick up right there.

She waved him off and squared her shoulders determinedly, the effect somewhat ruined by the sleeve of her robe still held against the lower half of her face. “I’m quite alright, thank you,” her muffled voice came primly. “Shall we go in before Mundungus catches sight of us?”

Nodding, Harry glanced around again, as he’d been casually doing since his arrival across from The Drowned Elf, and headed for the inn. They were both in Transfigured disguises today, though Harry had chosen one different than he used as J.S. Evans. He had also shaved his beard off again that morning, and he suspected that tomorrow it would come back wild and unkempt just to spite his face.

It was strange seeing Hermione in disguise, but her skills had naturally eclipsed what he’d remembered of her Transfiguration on Ron before they broke into Gringotts and she looked wholly unrecognizable. Her normally brown skin was many shades lighter now and coated in a rash of freckles; her bushy hair reformed into abundant strawberry-blonde curls. If Harry had seen her in passing he might have thought her a distant relative of the Weasleys and wondered if it weren’t a subconscious response to missing Ron. Harry had gone for a far more nondescript look initially, but upon seeing Hermione he had adjusted his disguise in the darkness of the street until his colouring was similar enough to hers that most would assume them siblings.

The pub that made up the lower portion of the inn was deserted at this hour of morning, with the exception of a witch well past her cups that was snoring by the fireplace. The innkeeper emerged from the kitchen at the sound of the door and paused when he saw them, giving a slow, wary nod of greeting.

“G’mornin’…” he said gruffly, wiping his hands on a cloth looped over his apron strings before resting them on the counter between them. His accent made it sound rather like he was trying to talk around a set of marbles. “’ow can I help such fine folk as yerself. Dun usually serve breakfas’, bu’ I go’ las’ nigh’s mea’ pie. Jus’ dun ask wha’ sor’ o’ mea’, eh?”

Harry stepped up to the bar and set his own hand upon it, the clink of Galleons obvious as they hit the wood. “My sweet sister and I be lookin’ ta find a certain sort of gentleman,” he lilted his voice a touch, leaning in. “Sort of gentleman who you’d be watchin’ round the silverware less he try an’ sell it back t’ya, if yer takin’ my meanin’.”

The innkeeper dropped his eyes to Harry’s hand where it still rested over the Galleons, then back up at the two of them, brows furrowing. “Dun wan’ no par’ in any trouble…” he said doubtfully.

“We only be wantin’ to talk at him, good man,” Hermione jumped in with a passable accent of her own. “Fair’s fair…you understand. No fuss, no mess.”

“’e ‘asn’ paid up ‘is room…” Hermione promptly added a short stack of her own Galleons to the bar and the Innkeeper nodded finally. “T’ird floor, las’ door on the righ’.”

“Cheers,” Harry lifted his hands off the coin to give the Innkeeper a small salute, then put his hand on Hermione’s arm to head toward the stairs. He ducked his head and quietly murmured to her, “Bribing the barkeeps now, Professor? How scandalous.”

Never tell Seamus we tried to pass for Irish,” she whispered back with a small, wild laugh.

“No promises. We need to hurry though, you paid him too much.”

“W-what?” she said in surprise, taken aback, but hurrying up the stairs after him.

Harry was taking the stairs two at a time and still only just managed to burst into the room at the end before Mundungus slipped out the window. “Petrificus Totalis,” he cast swiftly and sighed in relief as the scraggly wizard froze at attention and fell over.

Hermione came to a panting halt beside him, casting her wand first inside the room and then behind them at the hall to be sure no one from the other rooms was going to come to the thief’s aid. “That man…I can’t believe he’d… Oooh I gave him five Galleons!” she said in a tiff, casting a non-verbal Muffliato Charm around the room.

“Like I said...you paid him too much,” Harry grinned at her pout. “He won’t come up to help, though. And he certainly won’t call the M.L.E.P.”

“How much did you pay him then?” she demanded as Harry searched the room for any surprises.

“Three,” he said with a shrug as he bent to search Mundungus, relieving him of his wand and a wicked little knife.

Three!” she hissed, but desisted with a sniff at his look. That brought Mundungus’ sour stench to her though and she blanched, flicking a swift Scouring Charm at him and sighing in relief. “I’d forgotten how bad he smells. People will notice that.”

“Might do,” he agreed and, satisfied that the room and Mundungus presented no threat, summoned ropes to magically bind the bedraggled wizard before releasing his Full-Body Bind curse.

Immediately the wizard began to struggle against his bonds, swearing up such a storm that had Hermione’s lightened skin flushed a deep red. Harry watched him mildly, levitating the thief into a seated position on the bed, then tapping his wand lightly against his own thigh while he waited for him to die down.

“Get that out of your system, did you? We’re clearly not Ministry, Dung. You’d be on your way to booking if we were.”

“Who are yeh then?” Mundungus demanded. “I didn’ take it, whatever ‘tis!”

“That’s convincing,” Harry said mildly as he reached up tug a few hairs out of his own head.

Handing the strands to Hermione, he drew out the potion she’d given him and opened it so she could drop them inside. The potion turned gold, as it had on the night he’d left Privet Drive for good; or the Battle of the Seven Potters, as they called it now. The sight of the golden liquid eased a tension within him Harry hadn’t realized he was carrying. It wasn’t as bright as it had been on the edge of seventeen, but his essence still looked to be mostly good.

Harry walked the now-completed Polyjuice potion over to Mundungus and held it to the wizard’s lips. “Drink this,” he ordered.

Mundungus gave the potion a mistrustful look, lip curling as he craned his neck away from it. “That Polyjuice? I’m not drinkin’ that shite! Must be off yer rocker!”

“You can drink it now or wait until I Confund you and drink it anyway,” he stated, ignoring Hermione’s distressed sound from behind him.

Swearing again, the sneak thief finally held open his mouth like a big angry toddler and shuddered when Harry poured some of the potion inside. He stubbornly held it in his mouth, but a look from Harry had him swallowing nervously, coughing and gagging as it slid down his throat. Harry wondered if he should be offended that Mundungus found him distasteful, but thought it might be psychosomatic more than anything.

Almost immediately the sneak thief’s skin began to bubble and melt like wax and Harry pocketed the potion bottle to draw his Hawthorne wand again, flicking it at the bindings to loosen them in preparation for the change. Mundungus howled when his robes went tight; rather an exaggeration Harry thought, as he wasn’t that much larger than the other wizard, but he simply vanished the foul, stained robes in response. They’d looked to be in as worse a state as Harry had ever seen them in, anyway.

“Oh really, Harry!” Hermione protested, covering her eyes in embarrassment as her Transfigured features blushed crimson again. “That’s hardly necessary!”

“It’s hardly a loss, either,” he told her, nonplussed to see his own bare form.

Being that Mundungus was a mite healthier than Harry at the moment, the thief looked better than he did himself in a similar state of undress. Harry was interested to see that while Mundungus’ right arm bore the scars Harry had obtained during the attack in Belize, it retained none of the discoloration or hindrance of movement, at least inasmuch as Mundungus could move it while bound.

“Why can’t I see nuthin’?” the thief asked as he finished adjusting to his new body. “And what’d yeh do t’my clothes?”

“Right, you might need these,” Harry remembered and pulled out the same pair of older glasses he’d worn to Hogwarts just yesterday, placing them on Mundungus.

Squinting at him, Mundungus frowned with Harry’s face. “But yer not wearin’ glasses…”

“Contacts never really made the crossover to the magical world. Too foreign and invasive, I suppose,” he said with a shrug, not elaborating any further. “As for the clothes, I’ll be supplying you with some of mine.” Waving his wand in a circle, he cast a Reflection Charm before Mundungus so he could see his appearance at last. “Congratulations. You’re Harry Potter.”

What?” Mundungus exclaimed, staring at his reflection in shock. His almond-shaped green eyes shot back up at Harry, then at the mirror again. “Yeh… I…what?! Like fucking hell I am! After all the pain and suffering yeh and that bloody ginger fuck caused me yeh bloody gobshite, yeh-“

Hermione’s face went extremely pale this time as Mundungus explained with great detail exactly what he’d like to do to Harry and Ron. Harry meanwhile waited calmly while the thief shouted until he was nearly purple, finding it oddly fascinating to watch his own face contort and carry on. Finally fed up with the situation, Hermione let out an exasperated sigh and held her wand out.

“This clearly isn’t working. Let me Obliviate him and we’ll-“

NO!” Harry shouted, flinching bodily away from Hermione as his nightmares reared up and threatened to choke him. The volume of it startled the other two into stillness and they both stared at him; Mundungus warily and Hermione with surprise that ebbed into guilt.

“No,” he said again, more calmly. “That won’t be necessary. Mundungus is going to play the role he’s been given and he’s going to be bloody brilliant at it.”

“Think so, do yeh?” Mundungus barked a harsh laugh. “Yeah, I’ll bite, then. Why? Why would you think I’d ever help you after you brought the Ministry and the bloody fucking IMPs down on me? Three months in Dasbuut deciding I’m not the bleedin’ Spider, followed by six months in Azkaban deciding I’m still not the bleedin’ Spider and even then I only get out because you go and get your brains blown out in South America by the actual bleedin’ Spider. At least I assume that’s what bloody well happened since yer off yer fucking nut!

“They put a Trace on you, didn’t they? When they released you from Azkaban,” Harry realized suddenly, looking back at Hermione. “You said he was on a watch list… That must be how your contact found him so quickly.” He turned back to the naked wizard and gave Mundungus a serious look. “Do this and I’ll remove the Trace.”

Hunger flared sharply in Mundungus’ eyes and Harry knew he had him, though doubt still lingered all over his face. “It’s yer bloody fault I have it, yeh should be doin’ that anyway.”

“Dung, have you ever been adored? Respected? Even feared? Have you ever really, honestly imagined what it might be like to be someone else? To be Harry Potter?” he asked him, crouching before him so that the thief would be looking down on him. “The Chosen One…the saviour of the Wizarding World. Can you even fathom it?”

Mundungus licked his lips and an almost obscene greed replaced the doubt on his face. “What exactly are yeh askin’ me t’do?”

“What you do best, Dung…I’m asking you to hide. Better than you’ve ever hidden before. Consider it an extended holiday. No stealing, no dirty deals, plenty of hot baths…just you playing the part of ‘Harry Potter Hiding from the Ministry’. I have a bag here of all the immediate essentials, including a purse of Galleons and a miniature Vanishing Cabinet.” He took the small rucksack in question out from under his robes and set it on the bed. Like Hermione’s old beaded bag, it had been charmed with an Undetectable Extension Charm. “I’ll use the cabinet to restock you with Polyjuice and keep your coffers full up.

“The Ministry will figure you out eventually, sooner if you don’t do your best to play the part, but I’ve got a plan in the works that will delay them some time. Once you’re burned, destroy the Vanishing Cabinet, sell everything else and escape back to being Mundungus Fletcher…or make a new identity for all I care. I won’t seek you out after this. I swear it,” Harry finished, getting to his feet again. “Well?”

Harry was feeling drained and surprisingly hungry by the time he and Hermione left The Drowned Elf; Hermione glaring daggers at the innkeeper as they passed through the tavern once more. Removing the Trace had expended a considerable amount of energy, but watching Mundungus climb out the window as Harry Potter had felt strangely…freeing. Harry had booked him passage on an airship that looked like a large, clockwork firefly bound for China and Mundungus had seemed pleased when he’d looked over the ticket, already murmuring to himself about the Forbidden City. Harry only hoped that his greed for celebrity standing and a steady stream of Galleons would be enough to keep the sneak thief out of trouble.

“Well, that was foul,” Hermione commented idly as they stepped into the full bustle of the Eavesdown Docks. “I can’t believe you just…sold your identity that way, Harry. After everything you’ve done.”

“Evans,” he corrected her, his eyes automatically scanning the crowd. “You might as well get used to saying it now before term starts next week. And technically I didn’t sell my identity…I paid heftily to be rid of it.”

“Even still, Evans,” she stressed the name with a roll of her eyes. “I can’t help but worry that the likes of him will end up tarnishing the memory of your name.”

He was quiet for long enough that he could see Hermione glance at him, worried she’d given offence, before he spoke again. “That’s all my life has been really. Living memory. My parents, Voldemort, the prophecy…my whole life built on the memories of other things. There was never really any choice than for me to be their Chosen One.” Shaking his head, he sighed. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be maudlin, it’s just… We’re not far off from thirty now, Hermione. I rather thought I’d have it all…sorted, you know?”

“I know,” she said thickly and Harry was horrified to see that tears had filled her eyes to burst, slipping down her cheeks. “I do know.”

“Oh…no. Hermione, no, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to-“ he was cut off as she flung her arms around him to sob into his chest and Harry looked around as though one of the strangers in the crowd might help save him from the distressed witch. Awkwardly, he patted at her back, rubbing a little between her shoulder blades. “Hey…no…it’s really not all that serious…”

After a few minutes of this, she pulled back abruptly and scrubbed at her blotchy, tear stained face. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get so e-emotional…” she sniffled, slowing her breathing with effort. “I just didn’t get much sleep…what with all this and the start of term and the thought of someone at Hogwarts trying to...” She hiccupped, looking miserable.

Harry gave her shoulder a final, hopefully reassuring squeeze before he ran a hand nervously over his hair. “Actually that reminds me of an idea I’ve been milling over,” he said quickly. “I already know what you’re going to say, but hear me out on this. Have you considered that it might be Malfoy?”

Hermione blinked a bit, then gave a surprised half-laugh, half-sob. “I-is that supposed to be a joke, Ha- Evans? Because it’s terrible…”

“Just listen, remember how I was taking the piss yesterday about you being targeted for getting Deputy Headmistress so quickly? From what Hagrid told me, Malfoy’s been working there at Hogwarts practically since the end of the war, yet he only just managed to get a position on staff this year. Meanwhile a Muggle-born who he hated all through school goes off to start her career in the Ministry, only to suddenly change her mind and come into teaching, changing up the curriculum and making such an impact that she’s made Deputy Headmistress in a matter of months.” He nodded toward her. “And you even said that there had been a tooth-elongating hex used…not unlike when Malfoy hit you with Densaugeo in Fourth Year.”

Her tears were fully gone now and she was giving him an exasperated look. “Which he was aiming at you, if I remember. I only got caught in the crossfire of one of your silly duels-“

“Because he called you a Mudblood,” he reminded her, whispering the word harshly, though she didn’t even flinch. “Hermione, all these indirect methods seem right in line with when he was trying to assassinate Dumbledore.”

“Harry,” she said seriously, her look daring him to correct her using his proper name. “This isn’t Sixth Year and there is no Dark Lord torturing a scared sixteen year old boy so as to punish his father. Yes, he said horrible things and treated me as less than a person in school. No, we will never be the best of friends, but we are colleagues and I trust him. Draco Malfoy hasn’t the stomach for that level of violence and he never has. If I’m being quite honest, I would sooner believe you were trying to kill me than Draco.”

Harry took a step back as though she’d struck him, his chest tight with hurt. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Hermione’s Transfigured face went white as a sheet. “I-I didn’t-“

“Didn’t what?” he demanded sharply. “Didn’t mean to imply that you think I’m so far gone that I could be a murderer?

Her eyes had gone glassy with unshed tears again. “N-no, Harry, no… I’m sorry, please don’t-“

“Forget it,” Harry cut her off again, shaking his head. “I have to go. I’ll see you at Hogwarts.” And with that, he turned on the spot and Disapparated.

If Harry had been asked, he would have guessed that the most difficult part of this transition was going to be convincing Anorak to leave his roost in Sirius’ old bedroom. He would have been wrong. Kreacher was being absolutely unreasonable. Harry hadn’t even managed to finish explaining what he needed the elf to do in its entirety before Kreacher was throwing a fit worthy of any magical child, complete with small explosions and bits of furniture flying about the room. Finally fed up with the ancient house-elf, Harry ordered him to sit down and be quiet and to remain seated until he told him otherwise.

That done, Harry was left with a modicum of peace and quiet as he prepared to leave 12 Grimmauld Place. There wasn’t much that he actually intended to take with him beyond his potions; packing his suitcase mostly with his various magical photographs, dark magic detectors, Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes products and one or two gifts he’d received throughout the years. He needed none of the furnishings and planned on acquiring all new clothing; though he would actually be purchasing second hand to ensure that nothing had the appearance of newness to it.

Harry honestly debated on leaving his Firebolt and the Meteor XIII Ginny had given him behind, the sight of the two brooms a stark reminder of something else he’d lost when he’d been cursed, but in the end he could not bear to be parted with either of them. The important bit was to make things look as though he’d left in a hurry and in anger, which made the damage Kreacher had caused to his benefit. He even went so far as to crumple the letter rejecting his employment to Hogwarts, tossing it just carelessly enough into the kitchen fire that it only blackened a little instead of burning altogether. When he was at last satisfied, Harry went upstairs to deal with Anorak.

It wasn’t that the bird was easy to deal with by any means, but after some shouting and wand waving and outright bribery, he had finally convinced the raven that they would be moving to Hogwarts. Harry wasn’t sure yet how he was going to make good on his promise of securing Anorak his own room apart from the Owlery, but that was a problem for another day.

Anorak spent an infuriatingly long time looking among all his treasures before he finally decided on a favourite to take with him and soared out the window for the last time; Harry magically sealing it shut behind him. He pocketed a few of the other trinkets that the raven had lingered over, fully intending to present them in a blatant obvious effort of peace-making later.

Once his effects were packed, the bird gone and his afternoon potions drunk, Harry reluctantly returned to try and reason with Kreacher again. He was immediately taken aback to see the house-elf sobbing softly, heartbreak clear in every line of his old, heavily lined face. Moving quietly, he knelt before the small, stooped figure and put a gentle hand on his knobbed knee.

“Kreacher…it’s going to be alright, I promise… Missus Figg is a very kind lady.”

“Master Harry does not want Kreacher… Master Harry wants Kreacher to die alone in the house of a S-Squib…” Kreacher moaned sadly.

“A Squib who looked after me half my life…saved it a time or too, as well,” he chided him gently. “And I don’t want you to die, Kreacher. I want you to be safe and no one will think to look for you there. Besides…Missus Figg is quite old, with no one but her half-kneazles to care for her. I’m trusting you to look after her for me.”

The house-elf sniffed loudly and drew his bony arm under his nose, giving Harry a watery look. “B-but who will look after Master Harry?”

“If I need help, I promise that I’ll call for you. And should you have a dire need, I give you permission to come to me as well.”

Finally seeming to calm, his look became more solemn and serious. “Will Master Harry give Kreacher his proper house-elf honours when Kreacher is gone?”

Harry swallowed thickly with emotion, surprised to find how much the idea of the ancient elf’s death bothered him. They’d lived together for more than a third of his life. “Better than, I swear it. I’ll bury you proper, Kreacher…same as I would do for a wizard.”

Kreacher’s eyes filled with tears again, but this time he was smiling.

It had been Ginny that had first inspired Harry to reach out to Mrs. Figg. He had told her everything about his childhood once when they’d lain awake well into night, when the world was stillness and quiet that made it easier to talk old hurts. When he’d finished, she hadn’t said anything right away, but then after a while she had sighed and slid an arm around him.

“Poor Missus Figg…” she murmured into his chest.

“‘Poor Missus Figg’?” he replied incredulously, staring down at her. “I’ve just told you about years of child abuse and neglect and all you can think to say is ‘Poor Missus Figg’?” He pinched her side playfully and she laughed, swatting at him in return. “I’m starting to suspect that you don’t really love me at all!”

Rolling her eyes, Ginny leaned up to kiss him, then tweaked his nose. “You’re so needy. Just think of what it must have been like for her, Harry… Watching those people be horrible to you, knowing what you meant to the world, the life you could have had… She’s probably one of the only people in the whole Wizarding World that knows you as a little boy who grew up in a cupboard under the stairs.” She cupped his face gently, her hand a bit rough from Quidditch. “All those years watching you grow up, worrying over you, protecting you...and then one day you were grown up and gone away.”

Apparating onto Privet Drive now felt surreal, the rain making everything seem even dourer than he remembered it. Though he’d been in correspondence with Mrs. Figg for years, he had never visited her here and instead had always sent her invitations to come round the Burrow or made arrangements to meet up when she had business in London. This was the first time he’d seen the house of his childhood since the Battle of the Seven Potters, and he didn’t think he’d really remembered how painfully ordinary it was.

When Harry had first written to Mrs. Figg, he hadn’t been altogether surprised to learn that the Dursleys had safely returned to Privet Drive after the Second Wizarding War. He remembered all too well how proud and possessive they were of their too-clean house of peach and salmon. Mrs. Figg had continued to tell him of the Dursleys in her first few letters until Harry finally had to give her a Fire-call to explain that he hadn’t reached out to her in order to spy on his estranged family. She had been shocked and pleased to learn that Harry genuinely wanted to know more about her life and to share some of his own. Every now and again his aunt and uncle still slipped into correspondence, but it was usually because they’d done something to offend the old Squib. Mrs. Figg never mentioned Dudley, but Harry had to assume that his cousin had his own life separate from his parents and wouldn’t be bothered to make the effort to visit.

Looking across the street now, Harry saw that the lawn and the garden of agapanthus and pansies where he’d once lain, listening desperately for news in his Fifth Year, were still tended with tense precision, though the weather had waterlogged the plants to a degree. The curtains were drawn, which meant that both of the Dursleys were out, as they kept them closed for fear of attracting burglary. In all honesty the house was actually a bit bigger than he remembered after being in the magical world for so long; it had seemed so small in his memory...so insignificant after everything he’d seen.

Kreacher shifted beside him and Harry remembered the house-elf suddenly, releasing his gnarled hand beneath the Invisibility Cloak. He’d insisted that Kreacher would travel via Side-Along Apparation to lessen the stress on his old body. The elf was surveying the Muggle neighbourhood unhappily, looking up and down at the rows of identical houses.

“It isn’t so bad,” Harry murmured to him lamely and received a withering look for his troubles. He opened his mouth to say something else, but fell silent as a painfully ordinary looking car came up the street and pulled in to park at 4 Privet Drive.

Harry’s uncle had lost considerable weight since last Harry had seen him, his large umbrella actually managing to cover the majority of his mass as he levered himself out the driver’s side door. His hair was grey and thinning now, though he brushed it in such a way as to disguise this as much as possible, but even his walrus moustache seemed deflated. Given his pallor, Harry didn’t think that the change in his weight had been deliberate, but rather due instead to his declining health. The human body could only withstand so much strain on the heart and bones for so long before it would start to give in, especially when it came to Muggles and Uncle Vernon had never been especially cautious of his diet or his drinking. Harry tried to feel either pity or satisfaction, but found that he couldn’t muster any emotion at all at the sight of the ill man.

Aunt Petunia on the other hand looked as though she’d finally managed to gain a little weight, though it had settled almost entirely about her hips. Still Harry rather thought it was an improvement; far more than the dye she was using to mask the grey in her own hair. His breath caught as Petunia paused beside the car, looking out across the street with her brow furrowed, as though she somehow sensed Harry standing there. Without really thinking about it, he pulled off the Invisibility Cloak, letting it fall so that Kreacher was still hidden in its folds.

His aunt startled in surprise to see him suddenly appear there, bringing a hand to her throat as she took a step back. He had already removed that morning’s disguise in anticipation of meeting with Mrs. Figg and he could see Aunt Petunia’s eyes widen as she recognized him, her thin mouth forming his name. Uncle Vernon turned at the front door to see what was keeping his wife and noticed Harry as well. He goggled at him for a moment, then determinedly turned back to the front door as though Harry didn’t exist.

“Petunia!” he said sharply, thrusting open the door and stepping inside.

She hesitated, but only briefly, giving Harry one final glance before she turned and followed her husband inside. Rage and hurt flared brightly in Harry’s chest and he wanted to rush across the street to her, to make his aunt acknowledge that he was her family, her blood! She had wronged him out of pettiness and jealousy and no matter what she did then or now, Harry would always be tied to her. But he only stared numbly as Aunt Petunia disappeared inside 4 Privet Drive and closed the door behind her. He could hear it lock behind her even as rain slid down his face like so many tears.

“Harry? Harry, dear, is that you?” Mrs. Figg’s scratchy voice came from behind where he stood still on the pavement and he turned to face her. “Goodness, you’ll catch your death standing in the rain like that! Come in, come in quick and I’ll put a kettle on!”

The pain and hurt of a child’s longing to be loved by his family eased just a little inside of Harry and he bent to pick the extra folds of the Invisibility Cloak up off of Kreacher, who was grumbling and fussing under the heavy cloth. Giving the old Squib a small smile, Harry walked up the path to her front door and it almost felt like coming home.

Chapter Text

One of the happiest memories of his life was in the week Harry had spent repairing Sirius’ flying motorbike with Teddy and Arthur Weasley. After the third time watching the shed catch fire in a month, Molly expressly forbade the experimentation with, or building of, any Muggle vehicles without the immediate supervision of someone raised by Muggles. Neither Harry nor Hermione understood the workings of motor vehicles beyond basic operation of course, and for months they both begged off various excuses to their father-in-law to avoid being blown up themselves. Then one day Harry had spotted a manual on motorcycle repair in a Muggle shop front and thought…well how hard could it be?

It was intensely difficult, as a matter of fact. The first roadblock they hit was that they didn’t appear to have most of the tools required to fully take on the task, though Harry and Arthur did their best to transfigure the ones they did have into facsimile substitutions. The second was that the various illustrations and diagrams did not account for a motorbike that was a hybrid magical artefact.

Despite the seeming impossibility of the task and their continual failures, it was some of the most fun Harry had ever had. Teddy had been all of five, but his childlike delight and wonder was easily eclipsed by Arthur’s as they immersed themselves in the task. Working side-by-side with Arthur, laughing at Teddy’s wild ideas on how they could improve the bike, defending their progress to the various other members of the Weasley Clan who came to see what they were up to…all of it was just what Harry had always dreamed that having a family could mean.

When they got the motorcycle aloft at last, it was easily as satisfying a flight as it had been when Harry had first kicked off on a broom at eleven. The three of them spent hours up in the air; Arthur and Harry holding Teddy on their laps in the sidecar in turn. They only came back to earth when Molly’s badger Patronus chased them down and demanded that they return for dinner before someone alerted the authorities.

They all stayed up late that night, laughing and talking out under the summer stars until Teddy had fallen asleep on Harry, his small body boneless and his canary yellow hair still windswept from their flight. Looking down at the boy, Harry felt such aching tenderness in his heart and was completely caught off guard by the sudden surety that he wanted to be a father. Caught aback by the intensity of it, Harry looked up in surprise and his eyes found Arthur’s, who was watching him with a knowing smile.

“And that, my boy…is how you know you’re ready.”

Harry was mostly reconstituted after tea and scones with Mrs. Figg, but still very much feeling the strain of the day when he Apparated into the backyard of the Tonks residence. The sky here was clouded, but it appeared they’d missed the worst of the day’s rain thus far, though the scent of it was heavy with promise on the breeze. Teddy seemed completely unperturbed by the threat of being caught by the storm and was presently stretched out on his stomach beneath a tree, sketching on a pad with Lorry the Pygmy Puff perched on his shoulder.

He glanced up idly at the sound of Harry’s Apparation, then blinked rapidly a few times as his brain processed the sight of Harry standing there. All at once Teddy jumped to his feet and ran at Harry, Lorry clinging onto his shoulder with a surprised squeak of protest.

Harry!” Teddy yelled happily as he threw his arms around him, knocking Harry back a step in his enthusiasm.

Grinning rather helplessly down at the boy, Harry hugged him close as he could manage with his right arm, resting his left hand on Teddy’s bright blue hair. As promised, it was the exact shade of turquoise as the Pygmy Puff still perched on the young wizard’s shoulder.

“Hiya, Teddy,” Harry greeted him, his voice warm, if tired.

“I kept telling Grandromeda that you’d come before I left for school! I just knew you would!” He pulled back to lean around Harry when he heard the back door open, his grandmother drawn by his shout. “Gran! It’s Harry!” He did not ever refer to the witch as Grandromeda within earshot, as he was still technically grounded for letting George Weasley hear him use the nickname years ago.

“Harry?” Andromeda sounded taken aback, her handsome features a bit wary. Harry had always felt that her suspicion was one of Andromeda’s best qualities.

“I’m sorry to drop in so suddenly. After our Fire-call the other morning I thought I’d take your advice,” he said, nodding to her as she relaxed slightly.

“You called? Gran you didn’t tell me Harry called!” Teddy accused, looking put out.

“And I’m just expected to tell you absolutely everything am I, Master Edward, Lord of the Household?” she countered, folding her arms and giving her grandson a look that had the boy grinning sheepishly in turn. “Supper is nearly ready, go and wash. You’ll be joining us, won’t you Harry.” It was clearly not a request.

Harry didn’t especially relish the thought of forcing down a full meal, but he wisely nodded his assent. “So long as it’s not too much trouble.”

He followed Andromeda back inside the house while Teddy dashed back to get his sketchpad, then ran past them and upstairs to clean up. Harry grinned at his enthusiasm and was taken aback when he looked to Andromeda and saw that she was giving him a solemn expression.

“Andromeda, I-“

“Stop,” she said and held up a hand. “Harry, I know that look you’re wearing… I saw that expression on Ted’s face before he went into hiding, saw it on Remus more than once…even saw it on Nymphadora the night she-“ Breaking off, she shook her head gently, voice thick with emotion. “You’re wearing the mask of a person about to leave to do something foolish and deadly. I know you’ve come to say goodbye.”

“W-what?” Teddy’s voice came from the hall and they both turned to see him standing there, shocked. “Goodbye? But…but Harry’s only just arrived.” He looked up at Harry, his vivid hair going sullen and dark. “What does she mean, Harry?”

Harry exchanged a look with Andromeda, who looked apologetic and regretful, then sighed. “I’m sorry, Teddy.”

No!” the young wizard shouted in vehement denial, spinning on his heel and running up the stairs to his room.

The adults winced as a door on the floor above them slammed shut and Andromeda smoothed a hand over her robes. “I’d better go and get him sorted. I’m sorry, Harry…I shouldn’t have fussed at you.”

“You weren’t wrong to, Andromeda. Let me go…I’m the reason he’s upset,” Harry admitted, starting toward the stairs.

It had been a long time since he’d last been to the Tonks residence, but he remembered all too well where to find Teddy’s room and headed up the stairs. He paused as a photograph on the upper landing caught his eye; his younger self laughing on the motorbike with a beaming Teddy now on the verge of turning nine and straddling the seat before Harry, arms stretched wide to grip the handlebars. It had been taken the last time he’d seen Teddy in person, before he and Ron had left for Belize, but he’d never seen the result.

The younger version of himself pictured there was practically a stranger to him now, yet he recognized the faint lines of tension in his seemingly relaxed body and the still healing hurt behind his eyes. Most casual observers wouldn’t know it to look at him, but this Harry had been cracked down the centre…on the verge of shattering. Yet there he was, laughing as though none of it mattered and he was happy and whole. That was the peace and simple joy that his godson had always managed to coax out of Harry.

Knocking lightly at Teddy’s door, Harry opened it slowly, peering inside, “Teddy? Can I come in?”

Teddy didn’t answer him, but Harry could see him nod from where the young wizard sat on his bed, head bowed. Lorry was purring consolingly in his lap, nuzzling the boy’s hand as he gently stroked the creature’s fur. Stepping inside the room, Harry spent a moment taking in the changes since he’d last been there, seeing that the boy had begun to develop his own tastes beyond what the adults in his life had surrounded him with.

Gone were most of the Quidditch posters and pennants, though Harry’s chest constricted slightly when he saw that the one remaining was an older portrait of Ginny in her Holyhead Harpies kit. In place of the Quidditch memorabilia were Muggle posters of varying locomotives and a large crosscut diagram of an engine that Harry suspected had come from Hermione. Many of Teddy’s illustrations were also pinned to the walls, alongside numerous professional Magizoological drawings of magical creatures. He spied a book with a silver moon emblazoned on the cover and picked it up to read the spine.

“’Le Loup-Garou Modern: Séparer le Mythe et le Monstre’ by…D.L. Malfoy?” Harry finished in surprise, flipping open the book as though the title page would somehow read differently.

“Victoire got it for me on holiday,” Teddy said dully. “It’s banned in the UK…”

Harry wondered if it had been banned due to the author or the content and found that either way it bothered him. He carried the book with him to the bed, sitting down beside the young wizard. “He’s teaching at Hogwarts, you know. I bet if you took this with you he’d autograph it.”

Teddy looked over at the book, then up at Harry, smiling just a little. “Really? I’ve read all three of his books. Well…Victoire’s read them to me,” he admitted. “But I’m learning French.”

“Hagrid says he’s a really good teacher,” Harry told him, setting the book between them. He drew in a breath and held it, then released it in a rush, shaking his head. “Listen, Teddy…I’m sorry I’ve got to go away. I’ve been a crap godfather to you the last few years-“

“No, Harry! You haven’t!” Teddy protested in earnest. “Grandromeda told me…about how you got hurt in Central America a lot worse than the papers or anyone at the Burrow will say. About how you had to stop being an Auror… And Fred said that he heard you got into a big fight with Ron and that’s why he stopped coming round, too.”

“That doesn’t excuse any of it,” he groused, shaking his head as dark memories flicked across his mind. “And…it doesn’t change that I have to do this now. You might hear about me in the news before long, but…whatever happens, I want you to understand that I love you. Okay?”

Teddy sniffed and swiped the sleeve of his robes under his nose, but nodded. “I love you, too,” he said easily, far easier than Harry would have managed at that age and the deception of it all broke his heart a little.

Harry put an arm around the young wizard and held him close. “I’m sending Anorak to keep an eye on you at Hogwarts. I won’t always be able to write, and he’s hardly reliable, but if you pass him a letter now and again I’m sure he’d get it to me. He actually likes you.”

“I just don’t pick on him like you do,” Teddy teased him gently. “If you were nice to him, you wouldn’t have so much trouble.”

“That bird is evil and I don’t know how he has you fooled,” Harry deadpanned, earning a laugh from the young wizard.

Rubbing a hand over his face, Teddy took a deep breath and then looked up at Harry hopefully, his hair lightening from black to a midnight blue. “You really think Professor Malfoy will sign my book?”

“I surely do,” Harry told him, with absolute confidence. He didn’t think Malfoy so changed that it wouldn’t please him to be admired.

Harry spent the rest of that evening at the Tonks residence, laughing and reminiscing over better days. By the time the waning moon was high and Teddy looked as though he might nod off at any moment, Harry felt calmer than he ever had after a Draught of Peace. When Andromeda asked him to stay the night, he hesitated, not wanting to run the risk of a nightmare while under their roof. Eventually he agreed, but insisted that he would sleep on the sofa rather than upstairs in the guest room so that he could depart with the dawn.

Teddy’s eyes were glassy with emotion and the need for sleep as he hugged Harry so fiercely he wondered if he might bruise. Even Andromeda gave him a fierce squeeze, whispering a firm order that he be safe. It was a bittersweet feeling to know that Harry would be seeing Teddy again within a week, but this might be the last time he’d get to see him as Harry Potter.

At last the two of them headed up to their beds and Harry got out his potions from the expanding pocket in his robes. He felt tired down to his soul, but the food he’d managed to eat and the company he’d kept was enough to get him through his nightly regime, including some Dreamless-Sleep. Setting a spell to ensure he’d wake early enough to slip away without further goodbyes, he collapsed under his cloak on the sectional and was asleep within moments.

What felt like mere minutes later a loud crack rang out through the dark sitting room and he startled awake, wand out and at the ready. Winky, the house-elf and Healer, squeaked in surprise at the wand pointed right between her enormous eyes, pale with fear. Harry lowered the wand slowly, seating his glasses firmly on his face to stare at her in confusion.

“Winky…? What are you-“

“Harry Potter is to be coming with Healer Winky right now!” she insisted and reached for him.

Harry flinched back away from the house-elf, but she paid him no heed as she reached out to seize him by the arm. Knowing better than to try and fight while being Apparated Side-Along, Harry forced himself to relax into the elf’s magic, but he was more than ready for a fight by the time he landed in what he immediately recognized to be Hermione’s office.

“Harry, please!” Hermione pleaded desperately as soon as she saw him. “I can’t hold it!”

Any trace of sleep was well past Harry now as he took in the scene with the tactically trained mind of an Auror. Hermione had her wand out and both her arms extended toward a ball of fire just above her desk, holding it trapped in the Time-Stop Charm. The charm was failing by degrees, the flames sluggishly pushing outward and fighting against the witch’s magic with tooth and claw and some distant, horrified part of Harry realized with that it was Fiendfyre. The bestial fire was far too close to Hermione for him to risk casting the countercharm, which must have been why the witch hadn’t done so herself in the first place, so he changed tactics in an instant.

“Hold your breath!” he roared, sweeping the Hawthorne wand in a wide circle about the cursed flame. “Vacivus!

He didn’t have time to draw a breath of his own as the air was sucked abruptly from the room, slamming shut the open window and door to Hermione’s adjoining bedroom. Hermione lost control of the Time-Stop Charm as she started to suffocate and the cursed flames attempted to charge and grow and devour them both. Without oxygen in the room to act as a catalyst, the snarl of fiery beasts could only spark helplessly before it died, leaving the space shimmering with heat.

Dark spots were swimming in his vision as Harry finally released the spell, falling to the floor when his knees buckled and gasping in a ragged lungful of air. It was still blisteringly hot and burned as it entered his body, but the Fiendfyre was well and truly gone. Hermione collapsed back into her chair with a hand to her abdomen, panting and trembling with exhaustion and lingering terror.

“I-it came in the open window…” Hermione said shakily, her voice high and thready as she looked out at the early morning sky beyond the glass. “I was going through your p-paperwork and...i-it happened so s-suddenly.” She blinked rapidly to stave off tears, looking at her burned hands. “I…I only just managed to catch it…it was so close…”

“Too close,” Harry rasped as he stumbled back up onto his feet, his wand arm awash with agony. He desperately needed his morning round of potions, but he shuffled over to the window to look out across the slowly lightening grounds. “Whoever it was will be long gone by now…otherwise they would have cast a second curse as soon as they saw you hold off the first. You were lucky…extremely lucky.”

Frowning, his eyes found the unconscious body of Winky, the elf not having been prepared for the sudden oxygen deprivation, and the threads of suspicion started to tangle in his mind. How had Hermione summoned a free elf to her…and how had that elf in turn found him so quickly? Following his gaze, Hermione made a distressed sound and sat forward, struggling to stand.

“Winky! Is she-“

The elf groaned and stirred, putting a hand to her head. “Nnngh…Mistress?” Winky asked groggily.

“Mistress?” Harry looked between the elf and the witch, giving Hermione a searching look that she staunchly ignored.

“I’m here, Winky. Are you alright? You must have blacked out when Harry created the vacuum,” she said gently, keeping her eyes firmly on the house-elf.

Winky pushed herself to her feet quickly, looking up at Harry with horrified realization. “Oh, Mistress! Healer Winky is so sorry! Healer Winky knows she is not to be calling her Mistress by title in front of others! Bad Winky!” she wailed in her high, squeaky voice, tugging at her pointed ears cruelly.

“That’s enough, Winky,” Hermione said sharply, regaining enough of her strength to stand, careful not to touch anything with her burned hands.

“Oh my poor Mistress…you is being burned! And Healer Winky is not licensed to heal humans! Healer Winky is so sorry, Mistress,” the elf sniffled, mopping at her eyes with the skirt of her tiny healer’s robes.

“It’s quite alright,” the witch said kindly, giving the elf a faint, strained smile. “Madam Pomfrey will sort me out just fine. Why don’t you go and make sure none of the other elves were injured in the attack just now?”

“Of course, Mis-“ she glanced at Harry nervously and caught herself this time. “P-Professor Granger.” Winky executed a wobbly curtsey, then Disapparated with a resounding crack.

“Hermione…” Harry began, but the witch waved him off.

“Oh please don’t start, Harry! I’ve narrowly escaped being burned alive just now and I…I don’t want to hear it! Yes,” she said angrily, tears in her eyes, “Winky is my elf! Yes that means I’m participating in the same system of…of slavery that I’ve spent half my life fighting against! And no I didn’t tell you or anyone else because I knew how you’d all react! Freeing an unwilling house-elf is one of the cruellest things a wizard can do because we’ve spent centuries changing the very core of their magic! Winky was going to drink herself to death in the kitchens and I…I just couldn’t let that happen.”

Hermione slumped back down in her chair with a sob, shivering a little with the stress of everything that had just happened. “My hands hurt…

“I…was actually going to ask how she found me so quickly,” Harry said, rubbing his hand over his face as though that would sort out the mess in his head.

Biting her lip, Hermione wiped at her eyes with her sleeve, then took a deep, shuddering breath and looked up at him. “Because I’ve placed a Trace on the Galleon I gave you,” she said honestly. “But please, Harry…please take your Draught of Peace and the rest of your potions before you say anything because I…I just can’t right now.”

Harry’s hands fisted at his sides and he actually had to close his eyes for a moment against the storm that raged inside of him, the stones under his feet shuddering slightly. With effort, he walked to the far side of her office and got out his potions, setting them carefully out on a shelf and taking them mechanically in order. Though he refused to look directly at Hermione, Harry kept the witch within his field of view and refused to turn his back on her. Once his veins were inundated with the magical missives, Harry took a few minutes to simply breathe, waiting until it no longer felt as though there were a band of iron constricting his chest.

“You’re tracking me,” he said finally.

“Yes.”

Why? After I’ve agreed to do this…after I’ve uprooted my whole life to come here and help you! Why, Hermione?” Harry demanded of her. Though the Draught of Peace had stilled the storm of suspicion and paranoia, the anger and hurt at Hermione’s deception remained in full force.

“Because I…I was worried about you, Harry! The way you were so ready and willing end your life as Harry Potter…it was as though you’d planned it all for some time. I…I worried that you might…that you wanted to…”

“You thought I wanted to kill myself,” Harry realized suddenly, giving her a stunned look.

Yes,” Hermione sobbed and with a moan of anguish, she leaned forward and buried her face in her arms, shoulders shaking.

For a moment, Harry stood frozen, still too shocked to think that Hermione had genuinely thought he’d been contemplating suicide, then he walked back across the room and gathered the witch into his arms for the first time in years. He held her close as she wept brokenly into his chest, rubbing a soothing hand along her spine. Some part of Harry understood that this was more than just concern for him, that Hermione was also weeping for Ron and the attempts on her life and the shame of owning an elf and everything else she’d bottled tight inside of her, waiting for this catharsis. When at last she’d calmed, Harry set her back and stroked back her bushy hair gently.

“I don’t want to die, Hermione…so many people put so much effort into keeping me alive, even after I died the first time. Things are pretty grim right now, that’s no lie, and if I’m honest, you’re right in thinking that I don’t want to live as Harry Potter anymore, but I promise you…I want to live. And I want to keep you in a similar state, yeah?”

Giving Harry a watery smile, Hermione nodded. “Y-yeah… I…I’m so sorry I deceived you like that, Harry.”

“Yes, well…bloody good thing you did in this particular instance. But next time…I’d much prefer you just asked me,” he told her and a small, but genuine, smile. “Come on…I’ll get my disguise on and we’ll go to the Hospital Wing.”

“You’re coming up with the explanation,” she told him seriously, holding her hands curled to her chest. “I can barely think right now.” Something came to her and Hermione hesitated, biting her lip before she spoke again. “Harry…about what I said yesterday…”

“Don’t, Hermione,” Harry told her gently. “I know you didn’t mean it like that and…there was some truth to it. I don’t know if it was spending so long a Horcrux or the years I worked as an Auror or what happened to me in Belize…but…” He shook his head and looked past her, to where The Persistence of Memory hung on the wall. “There’s a part of me that’s…dark. However much I want to deny it, I can feel it there inside me.”

She watched him while he studied the painting and let out a soft sigh, bowing her head. “I know, Harry… I know.”

The halls of Hogwarts echoed weirdly about them as Harry and Hermione made their way to the Hospital Wing a short while later, the corridors seeming cavernous without students filling the space. Even the portraits seemed subdued, mostly lounging about or conversing quietly amongst themselves as they enjoyed the last of their holiday. Despite the emptiness of the castle, there was an underlying current of anticipation, as though the very stones themselves knew that they’d soon bear the weight of its many charges again.

Poppy Pomfrey was wearing far more casual robes than Harry had ever seen the matron in; the unfortunate exception being when he’d seen her in her dressing gown while the occupant of one of the many empty beds. She was also conversing amiably with a tall, lanky figure that Harry recognized immediately as Neville Longbottom, his gardening smock stained with dirt and various plant matter. Catching sight of their approach, they both fell silent, surprised to see an unfamiliar face.

“Hiya, Hermione!” Neville greeted her warmly.

“Good morning, Neville, Poppy,” she nodded her head to them both, then inclined it towards Harry. “This is Jameson Evans, our new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.”

Harry nodded to them both solemnly, feeling a little odd to be treating them as strangers, Neville especially. Hermione had argued against not telling him, especially given his relationship to Hannah, but that was precisely why Harry needed to deceive the Herbologist as long as possible. Neville had never been one to do well at keeping a secret, at least not one he didn’t want to tell, and he was absolutely rotten at keeping anything from Hannah. And Hannah was going to be livid when his plan went full into effect, so Harry planned to avoid that confrontation as long as possible.

“Jameson, eh?” Neville grinned at him amicably. “Like the whiskey! Er…Muggle whiskey, you know? Some of my mates gave me a bottle a few years back…” He trailed off awkwardly as they all stared at him.

They exchanged mild pleasantries until Poppy caught sight of Hermione’s hands and gasped. “Goodness, Hermione…are those burns?

Hermione looked abashed and held out her cracked and blistered skin with a pained smile. “Ah…yes. I was hoping you might have some Essence of Dittany.”

“For Heaven’s sake you should have started with that, dear!” the matron exclaimed and bustled off. “You stay right where you are, young lady!”

“I’m twenty-eight…” Hermione groused quietly, then coughed as Poppy shot her a stern look over her shoulder.

Neville was looking between Hermione’s burns and Harry with a frown, a curl of suspicion brewing behind his eyes. “How did you say that happened again?”

Honestly, Harry couldn’t fault Neville his mistrust, especially considering the time the Herbologist had spent as an Auror. He knew that ‘haggard’ would have been a kind description of his appearance right about now. The morning’s events had left him looking even more gaunt than usual, his eyes bloodshot and deeply shadowed after being woken from Dreamless-Sleep. As he’d suspected it would, Harry’s beard had come back in twice as wild as usual after two days of shaving and his hair wasn’t much better at present. He was probably the most suspicious looking Defence Against the Dark Arts wizard to have yet taken the post, and that said something.

“It was my fault, actually,” he said gruffly, having swallowed a little Croaking Juice to change the timbre of his voice. “Professor Granger sent me an invitation to view the grounds this morning and I hexed my reply to combust after reading…but forgot to include a warning in the post script.”

“Oh please call me Hermione, Jameson…I’ll hear plenty enough ‘Professor Granger’ from the students here soon. And really there’s no need to make a fuss over this. Just an honest mistake,” Hermione said, waving her injured hands a little.

“You…hexed your post to combust after reading?” Neville said slowly.

“It’s an old habit…and a bad one, clearly,” Harry explained. “I’ve been working as a freelance agent in Private Inquiries and Investigations and it’s led to some…trust issues.”

Because he was already registered with a P.I.I. license through the Ministry of Magic as J.S. Evans, Hermione had asked her contact in the Records department at the Ministry to expound upon the paperwork and fully craft his new identity. She’d walked Harry through a brief history of his new life while he’d Transfiguring his face and robes in her office. Fortunately he was saved from having to test his new knowledge of ‘himself’ with further questions by Poppy’s reappearance.

“It looks like I should have just enough left here to sort you out, Hermione,” she said kindly, unstopping the bottle to begin applying a thin layer over Hermione’s burns. “Can you grow a fresh crop of Dittany for me, Neville dear? Draco has gone through most of my supply the past few months, I’m afraid.”

“I’ll add it to the list,” Neville agreed, pulling a narrow scroll and a bit of charcoal from the pocket of his smock to jot it down.

“Draco?” Harry wondered, remembering again Malfoy’s bandaged arm as he left St. Mungo’s.

Hermione gave Harry a look, which he ignored, but smiled at him with almost exaggerated politeness. “Draco is our Gamekeeper and Care of Magical Creatures teacher,” she explained with unnecessary emphasis. “Quite a lot of teeth and claws involved, you know.”

“He ought not to make such fuss over a few scars, but he refuses to show his injuries to me and insists on treating himself,” Poppy complained. “I’m sure the children would only find him more interesting with a few good scars to show off. Hagrid never scarred much with his heritage, but he was certainly big enough to make a lasting impression.”

“I think his fan club is already plenty impressed with him, Poppy,” Neville laughed, rolling his eyes.

“Haven’t you all got anything better to do than stand around gossiping?” Malfoy drawled as he entered the Hospital Wing. Again he had foregone proper wizard robes, though this time he did have a hooded half-cloak on over his dappled brown tunic and trousers. He caught sight of Harry immediately as he walked over to the four of them. “So…is this who you’ve hired to replace the Chosen One, Granger? Fully Ministry approved now, are we?” He looked over Harry slowly and Harry didn’t think he imagined that Malfoy’s eyes narrowed with recognition.

“Good morning, Draco,” Hermione said mildly, keeping her hands steady as Poppy wrapped them in clean, white bandages. “This is, in fact, our new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Jameson Evans. Jameson, this is Draco Malfoy.”

“So…it would seem you do know what a school is after all,” Malfoy commented, drawing looks of confusion from Hermione and Neville.

“I have always wanted to further my education in minding my own business,” Harry replied mildly. “I hope I can manage to fit in a few lessons.”

A smirk curved across Malfoy’s mouth and he turned his attention to Hermione, motioning to her hands. “Finally drowned McLaggen in a pot of boiling oil, did you?”

Neville barked out a laugh as Hermione pursed her lips to keep from smiling. “If only!” the Herbologist enthused.

“None of that now!” Poppy protested sternly, giving all of them a severe look. “Mister McLaggen is a member of this staff and should be respected thusly.”

“Oh, didn’t you hear, Poppy?” Malfoy continued, unrepentant. “Our resident Flying Instructor prefers to be addressed as Sir McLaggen.”

Poppy didn’t even hesitate as she finished doing up Hermione’s bandages. “Fat chance.”

Once Hermione was patched and on the mend, she and Harry left the Hospital Wing to ‘continue their tour’ with both Neville and Malfoy in tow, the latter having fulfilled his purpose in delivering a braid of unicorn hair to the matron for her stores. Neville got his list back out as they walked and began questioning them all on their botanical requirements for the term.

“Hermione?” he asked expectantly.

“Nothing unusual for me this time round, thanks.”

“Draco? Don’t say Devil’s Snare unless you plan on being the one filling out the Ministry forms this time,” Neville added quickly.

Folding his arms, Malfoy looked thoughtful. “Mandrakes and Venomous Tentacula, then. And…” he smirked at the Herbologist’s groan, “the Whomping Willow for Combos.”

“Oh come off it!” Neville protested, looking agonized. “Not that mad old tree!”

“And here I thought you liked plants, Longbottom. A few Combos on the ‘mad old tree’ ought to make the students think twice about ever planting one,” Malfoy insisted.

Neville sighed heavily, but made his notes and then looked uneasily at Harry. “What about you, Jameson? I know Hermione told us at the Staff Meeting yesterday that you’d be following what was already drafted out for first term, but I can get something prepared for next term. Any plants you’ll need for our Combos?”

“Combos?” Harry asked in confusion, looking to Hermione for clarification.

The look on Hermione’s face expressed that she had certainly told him about this at some point in the past few years, but she managed a patient smile. “Combined Content Courses, also known as ‘3Cs’ or ‘Combos’. I don’t think I elaborated on them when we were discussing the curriculum. O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. level students are required to take a certain number of amalgam courses dedicated to more complex thinking on how differing areas of Magical Theory are applied in the real world. For example, Neville and Draco use their Combos to cover the care and handling of sentient plant life.”

“And when I do Combos with Hermione, we go over how W.M.B.s and Muggles practice Herbology compared to wizards,” Neville explained.

“That’s...rather brilliant,” Harry said in surprise, looking at them all. “So I’ll have Combos with Herbology?”

“With all of us, actually,” Malfoy clarified, watching him closely. “All of the current core subjects, excepting History of Magic. Charms, Herbology, Potions, Transfiguration, Care of Magical Creatures and Muggle Studies.”

“The Study of Muggles and Wandless Magical Beings!” Hermione protested.

“Defence Against the Dark Arts has the highest number of Combos due to the broad effect of the Dark Arts on other fields of Magical Theory,” Malfoy continued, ignoring Hermione. “And so we can all keep a collective eye on the student's education, given the exceptionally high turnover rate of that particular subject.”

“It’s not as bad as it used to be,” the witch sighed. “But it is true that no one has managed to find tenure in the position. Lavender was doing an excellent job of it before she decided to spend more time at home with her family.”

“So then...Herbology…” He looked at Neville thoughtfully and saw dawning horror on the Herbologist’s face.

“Don’t tell me,” Neville shook his head in resignation, pulling out his scroll.

“Devil’s Snare sounds like an excellent start.”

Harry begged off breakfast when Neville brought it up and the four of them parted ways, Malfoy deciding to make his own meal down at his cabin when he saw Cormac McLaggen heading for the Staff Room. As it was explained to Harry, when school was not in session the teachers all tended to dine together in the Staff Room rather than the Great Hall, though they could also request the house-elves bring something to their rooms. Hermione offered to walk Harry to the front gates, but he told her to get some rest and that he would come to see her when he returned that evening. Though he was wary of leaving her alone in the castle after that morning’s attack, Harry still had to settle accounts at his office and purchase what he’d need for the upcoming term.

Unfortunately, choosing to leave without Hermione meant that he ended up walking alongside Malfoy and the awkward silence seemed to press in on Harry. He almost wished Malfoy would be horrible to him just so they could move to more familiar ground, even as long past as that time was. Finally he cleared his throat slightly, eliciting a sigh from Malfoy.

“We don’t have to talk,” he told Harry blandly.

“What? Ah, well…I just thought we might discuss our…Combos,” Harry replied, though he wished he hadn’t said anything. “Did you…have any ideas?”

“No, I rather thought I’d just let them all show up and come up with something on the spot,” Malfoy said sarcastically. He waved a hand dismissively, looking mildly annoyed. “Lavender and I had everything planned out before she decided to get pregnant again. I’m sure Granger has other ideas for you, though. Best not to work against her.”

Harry frowned at this and stopped to look at him fully. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Stopping as well, Malfoy raised an eyebrow and folded his arms across his chest. “You’re an investigator, aren’t you? I suppose you could always investigate,” he said pointedly. “But if you want my advice, I’d stay well out of it.”

Turning away, the grey-eyed wizard continued walking down the hall, not caring whether or not Harry continued to follow him. Harry watched him go, feeling a chill slide up his spine as Malfoy’s parting words echoed back down the corridor to where he stood frozen.

“You don’t want to get caught in that spider’s web.”

Chapter Text

Despite that he had been unlicensed, and in fact still employed as an Auror when the incident occurred, Harry had always thought of the disappearance of Sheldon Shelby to be his first case as a private investigator. Sheldon had been a Squib that Harry often saw selling copies of various magical publications from a cart he kept parked across from the Visitor’s Entrance to the Ministry of Magic. Since Aurors were expected to keep their routines random to avoid attack or attempted replacement, Harry and Ron would sometimes enter through the abandoned phone booth that marked the Visitor’s Entrance or even take the seldom used underground toilets at Whitehall station.

Before Sheldon, no one had really thought to capitalize on the fairly consistent stream of magical guests who would use the Visitor’s Entrance throughout the day. The Squib had invested his life savings in the cart, which had included his business permits and the Muggle-repelling charms that he could not cast himself. It was rare for a Squib to manage to find a way to successfully participate in the magical world and Harry had often stopped by for a quick chat and to pick up a copy of The Quibbler, which was the only publication he read outside of the occasional Quidditch mag.

Then one day, Sheldon and the cart were simply…gone. At first Harry had accepted Ron’s musings that the Squib had gone on Holiday, but it bothered him more and more each time he passed the place where the cart used to sit. After nearly two weeks and no sign of Sheldon, Harry left the Visitor’s Entrance to find that another cart was suddenly parked near where the first had sat, this one operated by an overly jovial wizard called Anders that Harry immediately mistrusted.

Ron had been at first amused and then mildly concerned by the way Harry had started to subtlety interview this new proprietor, inquiring with seeming interest as to how he had procured the permit for the space. Unbeknownst to his partner, Harry had returned again later in disguise to question the man again and both times the wizard told him the same story: he had been lucky enough to get the permit as soon as it came available.

A trip to the Independent Businesses Permit Office in the Department of Commerce got Harry the information he was looking for on the premise of investigating an official Auror case. Anders had put in multiple requests over the previous months to obtain a permit that would allow him to operate a cart in the same area as Sheldon Shelby. The requests had all been denied, as a second kiosk could not be installed within a close radius and anything beyond that radius was deemed out of the acceptable boundaries placed by the International Statute of Secrecy. Anders had even petitioned to have the proximity rule changed on the grounds that his business was owned and operated by an actual wizard.

That night, Harry had waited under his Invisibility Cloak for Anders to close up shop, keeping an eye on the wizard as he packed away his cart and then vanished the whole thing. His Disillusionment Charm was one of the best Harry had ever seen, leaving behind no trace of the cart whatsoever and that made him wonder. Casting a general counter-spell where the former cart had stood lifted the glamour to reveal it once more and Harry had Anders.

When the wizard had been unable to start up his own business where Sheldon Shelby had seen so much success, he’d tried to buy out the cart from the Squib. When Sheldon refused, Anders had grown so angry at his perceived injustice of it all that he’d Transfigured the Squib into a squirrel on the spot. Damage already done, Anders had realized the opportunity for what it was and took it without hesitation. Sheldon had, along with the Muggle repelling charms, commissioned a Permanent Sticking Charm on his cart to keep from having to push it home every night. Unable to move the other cart off its spot, Anders had instead hidden it away, then waited until enough time had passed that Sheldon’s permit was once more available to the public.

The Daily Prophet had, of course, taken great pleasure on running a story on The Chosen One rescuing Sheldon Shelby the Squirrel Squib. In general everyone Harry spoke to seemed to find the whole situation quite amusing without a second thought toward the greater implications. No one at the Independent Business Permit Office had taken any steps to report Anders behaviour after Sheldon’s sudden and inexplicable disappearance, even after Anders had immediately claimed the abandoned permit. The simple truth of it all was that no one had cared what happened to a Squib and Harry started to wonder who it was that people like Sheldon could turn to.

Standing in his office now, Harry had to ask himself that very same question as he looked around at the business he spent the better part of the last two years building. There wasn’t another witch or wizard he’d heard of that dealt in peculiar cases as he did. Who would the unwanted, forgotten and ignored go to without him here? Harry could only hope that at the end of this, he might be able to return here to salvage the life he had made for himself, helping others in the way he chose.

It was almost too easy to close up his business, settling his accounts and ensuring that the office would go undisturbed. He was fortunate in that he had not received a new case in the past few days, though some part of him wished that he had. Despite that morning’s events, there was still a part of Harry that wasn’t ready to let go of this life and fully reintegrate himself into the wizarding world.

Harry took special care to make sure his office would be secure once he had left, though he wondered if there was any point in it. Hermione certainly hadn’t had any trouble breaking in and even given her talents, that didn’t bode well for any others that might do so. The best he could do was to shrink down his case files to make sure that his clients would be protected, putting them into the same pocket that still held his unopened mail recovered from Boulder and Pinklily.

The last thing Harry did was to Transfigure the gold lettering on his door from ‘J.S. Evans – Private Investigator’ to ‘Closed for Renovations’. He touched the lettering with a soft sigh and looked back through the doorway into the office, as though committing it to memory. In so many ways this simple office with its peculiar combination of magic and mundane had been his salvation…his redemption, even. What would he find now in the once-familiar halls of Hogwarts? Closing the door, Harry locked up his office for the last time and turned, walking away from this chapter of his life.

By the time Harry walked back through the gates of Hogwarts, he was more than done with playing nice with the public. After closing up shop, he’d spent the day travelling from Diagon Alley to the Eavesdown Docks to Cranbrook Cranny and stopping finally in Hogsmeade to purchase the last of his items from Septiumus’ Second-hand Sundries. Everything ached and he was in no mood for pleasantries whatsoever as he stomped through the castle to Hermione’s office in the West Wing.

Harry found himself wishing strongly that he could drink as he pushed open the door to Hermione’s office without so much of a knock. He longed for that disconnected feeling that alcohol brought, the relief of being separated from the rest of the world. Hermione had her wand out in a bandaged hand when he came in unannounced and he scowled fiercely at her, waving his throbbing wand arm to knock it aside in a careless display of wild magic.

Hermione looked shocked and more than a little afraid. “H-Harry?” she asked uncertainly.

It was a struggle to rise out of the unpleasant snarl of his mind, but Harry grunted at her. “Retail,” was all that he offered in explanation.

Relaxing, Hermione slowly placed her wand back in her robes and nodded. “I see… Tea?” she offered, giving him a hesitant and strained smile.

Harry took a deep breath and released it, then nodded, making an effort to try and relax. “Fine,” he said shortly, seating himself in one of the chairs before her desk, still singed from that morning’s excitement.

Nodding, Hermione smoothed a bandaged hand over her bushy hair and nodded, then summoned one of the Hogwarts house-elves, speaking with them quietly as Harry stewed in his chair. Even when he had been a total stranger, there had been something wholly unpleasant about witches and wizards talking at him all day. This time of year before the start of school seemed to bring the masses out in droves and some part of Harry still felt as though he were surrounded by the lot of them, poking and prodding and asking what it was he was looking for.

With careful slowness, Hermione set out a Draught of Peace on the desk before Harry. He glared at her balefully and instead pulled out his thermos to take some Blood-Replenishment. Once that was down he did reluctantly reach forward to take up her offered potion, swallowing it down and sighing at the way it immediately swaddled the storm in his mind.

“Are you planning on replenishing all my potions this term, then?” he asked her, annoyed that he felt more relaxed now as the numbness set in.

“I-if you like,” she offered cautiously, taking her seat once more on the other side of her desk. She folded her bandaged hands before her and thanked the house-elf that returned with their tea and a plate of biscuits. She waited until the elf had gone before speaking to him again. “You might consider asking Horace, however. Once classes begin I’ll be full up and I don’t want to forget something by mistake.”

Harry grimaced at the thought, but nodded and reached forward to pour their tea so that Hermione wouldn’t try to manage the delicate teapot with her burned hands. “Slughorn is still Potions Master then, is he?” he asked irritably, not relishing the thought of asking the man for a favour.

“For now, yes,” Hermione agreed. “He’s certainly spoken of a second retirement more than once…but I think he’s afraid to miss out on adding another student to his ‘collection’ before he gives it up wholly. I rather believe he plans to ensure that his retirement is floated comfortably on the accomplishments of others, for which he will no doubt take undue credit. He still invites me to his little parties, of course, but I suspect he’s just about given up trying to sway me in his favour.”

“Lovely. That ought to be a pleasant conversation. He won’t want anything to do with me as Evans, which is only fortunate up to the point where I could actually use his talents,” Harry sighed, taking up his tea and sitting back in his chair. “Perhaps I ought to just ask Poppy to procure them for me.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” she admitted, inclining her head. “But be cautious…Poppy serves the letter of the law when it comes to healing and she’ll refuse you if she feels it oversteps her position. She might even report you, to be honest.” Hermione hesitated a moment, then continued, her tone overly casual. “You know, I’m sure that Neville would be more than happy to-“

“No,” Harry refused immediately, giving her a look. “I’ve said it before and I meant it. I’m not involving Neville or Hannah in this. Whatever it is that’s happening to you and I could be far larger than we’ve realized.”

“They both volunteered for Dumbledore’s Army as children, Harry…you ought to give them the courtesy of making their own decisions as adults.”

“Their willingness to sacrifice everything back then is exactly why they can’t be trusted to be rational for once! You chose not to include Ron in this, Hermione…so respect my wishes when I say that won’t involve them,” he said seriously.

Hermione’s lips thinned as she pressed them together, but she nodded primly. “Very well. Then we’ll just have to do our best to keep you healthy on our own. I expect you’ll be wanting to see your rooms then?”

“Yes,” Harry said tiredly, rubbing a hand over his face and scratching at his beard. “I’ll be needing the map back as well.”

“The map?” Hermione repeated in surprise, taken aback.

“Is that a problem?” he asked her, frowning.

“No…no, of course not. It’s rightfully yours, after all. Just a moment,” she said and pushed back from her desk to get to her feet, disappearing into her adjoining bedroom.

Harry had actually given Hermione the Marauder’s Map twice over in the past eleven years. The first had been when she was set to go back to Hogwarts to complete her education, unable to shake the lingering feeling that something might still happen to her there. The second had been three years previous when she’d taken up her new teaching position. He, Hermione and Ron had gotten together to celebrate and Harry had presented her with the map in case she should end up with any meddlesome students.

“Students like us, you mean,” Ron had said with a wide grin and clapped Harry on the shoulder. It had been one of the last times the three of them had been together before Belize.

Hermione returned after several minutes and held the old parchment out to Harry, wiped blank for the moment. “I haven’t been able to catch sight of anyone out of the ordinary,” she told him, sighing. “But there’s only so much time one can spend staring at a map. Hopefully you’ll have more luck.”

Taking the map from her, Harry nodded and tucked it away into his robes. “Ta. Where have you got me staying then? Lupin’s old rooms?”

Straightening her robes, Hermione didn’t look at him. “About that…”

Absolutely not,” the portrait of Severus Snape hissed at them from behind the desk as Hermione ushered Harry inside. “I refuse to let him in my rooms. I demand that you leave at once.”

“Professor, we’ve been over this,” Hermione spoke primly, her chin held high. “You knew when you requested that your portrait be moved here from the Headmistress’ Office that you would have to share with one of the staff.”

“With a proper professor, yes,” Snape spat angrily. “Not with a blundering idiot playing pretend at education!”

“Furthermore,” Hermione continued. “While it may be indelicate, I feel I must remind you that as a painting you are not actually alive and therefore do not have any rights toward property. If you have a complaint I suggest you take it up with the Headmistress.”

“Oh how a little power does change a person, Miss Granger,” the Potions Master sneered at her.

“Professor Granger,” Harry corrected mildly.

“Shut. Up. Potter,” Snape snapped each word succinctly.

“I’ll be going by Evans while I’m here, thanks,” he said evenly, staring down the portrait.

Snape’s sallow skin seemed to go even paler in his frame. “You…how dare you take her name!” he seethed in cold fury.

“Seeing as how Lily was my mother I rather feel that I’m entitled to,” Harry said bluntly, raising a brow in challenge. He let out his breath in a sigh as Snape abruptly walked out of his portrait, robes billowing behind him. “That went well.”

“As well as can be expected, I suppose,” Hermione said softly, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Harry…Cormac took Lavender’s rooms over as soon as she left and these are the only ones left that are suitable.”

“It’s alright,” he waved her off, stepping more fully inside the office and looking around. “Honestly these are easily some of the most defensible rooms in the castle. Given the choice I might have picked them anyway.” Harry rubbed the back of his neck tiredly. “Do all the portraits know about me, then?”

“Only the former Headmasters and Headmistresses,” the witch replied, looking at Snape’s empty portrait again. It was, Harry was glad to see, the only portrait in the office. “They’re all bound to serve whoever is currently in charge of Hogwarts, so they’ll keep your secret safe.” She rubbed at her arms from the ever present chill that seemed to linger about the dungeons. “You sure you’ll be alright down here?”

“You’ve already said that it’s the only option, Hermione,” Harry reminded her wryly. “I’ll be fine. And I’m sure Snape will sort himself out.” He gave Hermione a grim smile. “He spent years in the supposed service of the most wretched creature imaginable, I’m sure he can come to terms with Harry Potter sharing his office.”

Harry awoke the next morning feeling pained and cold and very nearly called for Kreacher out of habit before he stopped himself. Levering himself up slowly, he felt for his glasses and looked about the room, relieved to see that there didn’t appear to be any damage. Though he’d been unable to take any Dreamless-Sleep the night previous, having no desire to send for a meal, Harry had been so exhausted that he hadn’t even had the energy to dream.

Casting a nonverbal spell to light the sconces, Harry started through his usual morning regime as he took in his new bedroom. It was strange to sleep somewhere new after so many years at Grimmauld Place, even stranger still to think that this had been where Snape had once slept. He honestly had a hard time imagining the man doing anything so ordinary as sleeping. For some reason Harry had expected the whole thing to be covered in dust like some forgotten tomb, but of course the house-elves had kept them diligently clean over the years.

The walls were stone and mostly bare, with the exception of a large painting depicting a grassy meadow bordered by a forest and leading into a lake. It seemed to have been given atmospheric charms and the scene was currently in the grey light of predawn as mist rolled over the scene, nearly concealing the doe that drank gracefully from the water’s edge. Harry had never really cared for keeping magical paintings in his rooms since the summer he spent being secretly observed by the portrait of Phineas Nigellus, but he found this one rather calming.

The furniture was all dark and angular, from the four poster bed to the workbench and shelves and even the short table and chairs seated before the fireplace, but it was not uncomfortable. Harry had been too tired to notice the night before, but there were actually thick curtains hung about the bed that would keep out the draft when he closed them. The chairs too were thickly cushioned and did not look uninviting, and a number of carpets covered the floor to keep the cold from settling in. All the shelves and tables were empty, Snape’s possessions long since changed hands, though there was an old chessboard on the table between the cushioned chairs. Harry wondered if Snape had played Dumbledore here, or if the board had made its way into the rooms after their deaths.

Rising from the bed, Harry flexed and stretched his right arm as he made his way to the adjoining bath, trying to work out some of the cold. The bandages were beginning to itch slightly and Harry knew he’d have to figure out a way to change them. He didn’t know what would happen should he go without the dressings, but he couldn’t just stew in them either. Taking off his glasses, Harry put in his contacts with a grimace, then set about getting washed up and disguised for the day.

Once Harry was cleaned up and dressed and had given his beard a good brush to try and tame it back into some semblance of order, he left his rooms to walk back to his office. One of the things he liked best about these rooms was that unlike the other teachers, the office and bedroom were separate rather than adjoining. His bedroom and sitting room were further down the hall from his office and concealed behind a false wall, though the office did have an adjoining room that most would assume to be his quarters. The design was wholly paranoid and very comfortable.

Entering his office, Harry looked up at the portrait of the Potions Master automatically, but only saw the flutter of robes as the wizard walked out. Sighing, he shook his head Snape’s stubborn determination not to associate with him, but at least Harry wouldn’t have to fight so early in the morning. He spent some time fully exploring the space while he had it to himself, searching out its secrets. Harry was pleased and not at all surprised to find several false walls concealing hidden compartments in the cupboards and desk, though he was sure there was more to be found in time. Maybe Harry could even convince the old spy to tell him what else was hidden here.

Content that there was nothing unpleasant lurking in his office, Harry summoned a house-elf from the kitchens to bring him some tea and began to set his wards. It took several hours and nearly two pots of tea before he was satisfied, his dark detectors and the majority of his books now unpacked onto the shelves. He even put the boggart, along with several other creatures still safe inside their Clap-Traps, into one of the cupboards. Harry hadn’t known why he’d saved them over the years, but he was glad now that he had.

When Harry was satisfied and comfortable that his office was securely his, he sat down at the desk and got out the Marauder’s Map, his case files and the stack of mail from Boulder and Pinklily. The case files were locked away into the desk and his mail was quickly sorted into piles by sender, Hagrid’s being the largest by far. He promised himself that he would read through it all, but he didn’t feel much up to it at the moment and instead placed the sorted letter piles into his desk as well and spread out the map instead.

Harry cast a surreptitious glance over his shoulder at Snape’s empty painting, despite knowing that there was no way the map could be used against him now. Still, he couldn’t help but feel a bit exposed as he tapped the parchment and muttered, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

“Of that I have no doubt,” came Snape’s sneer from behind him and Harry sighed.

“Were you just waiting on the right moment for a dramatic entrance, then? So sorry to hold you up,” Harry groused, bending to look at the map and keeping his back to the painting.

“So this is their masterwork,” Snape mused, ignoring Harry’s jibe. “I saw it only briefly the night I followed Remus into the Shrieking Shack. Activated by a passphrase…simple, yet effective.”

“It wouldn’t have worked for you,” Harry told him as he looked over the castle and grounds. “It was also charmed to insult you and repel your use, if you’ll remember.”

“Imagine what those four could have managed if they weren’t such massive prats,” Snape sneered. “That talent was wasted on the lot of them.”

“Careful, that could almost be interpreted as a compliment,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder at the portrait. “Wouldn’t want anyone to think you were painted to be soft-hearted.” Harry received a glare for his troubles and he turned back to the map with a small grin.

Being that only the staff was on the grounds, there wasn’t much to see on the map just now. Most everyone was still in their rooms, but Harry couldn’t find Malfoy or Neville on the map at all. He frowned when he found Cormac and saw that he wasn’t alone.

“Marietta McLaggen… Cormac got married then.”

“To someone with exceedingly poor taste, I’m sure,” Snape muttered darkly.

Harry looked back at him, brows furrowed. “But what is she doing here? Is it usual for staff to have their spouses in the castle?”

“Because they should be expected to devote every moment of their adult lives to thankless brats?” the Potions Master said sarcastically, folding his arms across his chest. “Of course members of staff can have their partners in the castle. Every teacher has a fireplace in their rooms for this very reason. They can be connected privately to their homes and are fully active on days when classes are not in session. The rest of the time they are open to Firecall.”

“That explains where Neville’s gone off to. What about Malfoy, is he married?”

“Why Mister Potter,” Snape began with a cruel smile and Harry suddenly felt like a child again. “Imagine the scandal were the greater wizarding world to find out their Chosen One asking after a pureblood bachelor. And here we all thought you had an unfortunate penchant for witches with vague resemblance towards your parentage.”

Harry could feel a flush rise up his neck and he glared up at the painting. “That’s not what- He just isn’t on the map,” he ground out, waving a hand at the parchment.

Snape gave him a narrow, piercing look that did nothing to dissuade Harry’s flush, then raised an eyebrow coolly. “If it were my business or yours to know, which I assure you it is not, I would speculate that Draco is at Malfoy Manor.”

“Right. His parents,” Harry said gruffly and turned back to the map again. Nodding a little, he tapped the parchment. “Mischief managed.” He folded it all up again as the map wiped clean and glanced back up at the portrait, who was in turn watching Harry silently. “Er…thanks. That was actually…helpful. Mostly.”

Snape looked rather sour at the gratitude and walked out of his painting again without a word. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Though Harry knew he ought to be looking over his upcoming course schedule or looking for clues into who might be after Hermione, he instead found himself wandering the castle halls. Over the last few days he hadn’t really had a chance to look around properly, finding what was familiar in his memory and what was new, rebuilt after the ravages of war. To the students he was sure it all looked the same, but he could spot the differences easily as his memory overlaid rubble and fire and the bodies of the fallen as he walked.

So much of that final battle had been such chaos that it was hard to tell sometimes what was memory and what was nightmare when he thought back on it. There were days when he couldn’t bear the weight of everything that happened and he’d pull every single bit of the war from his mind just to breathe easier for a few hours. Harry could never release the memories for very long, though he knew there were some who had. St. Mungos had a whole ward dedicated to those who had carelessly carved out parts of their mind to try and keep their memories from swallowing them whole. Some days Harry pitied them…some days he envied them.

“Hello, Harry Potter,” came a dreamy voice from off to his left.

Harry froze in surprise and looked up to see that Luna Lovegood was coming down the corridor in her graceful, weightless way. She was rather like a flower that had suddenly bloomed out from between the stones of the castle, colourful and soft in robes of violet and yellow under an artist’s smock. Her hair was braided in a dozen plaits of various thickness and complexity, tied together with string in every colour of the rainbow. In addition to her smock, Luna also appeared to be carrying a bundle of brushes and a basket that Harry had to assume was holding some kind of paint.

Knowing it was useless to try and deny it, Harry shook his head, helpless but to smile at her. “How do you always know it’s me?” he wondered.

“Because you never really change,” Luna told him with an airy smile. “Not where it matters. This new face is interesting, though…very ordinary in the extreme.”

“Thank you, I suppose,” he said, chagrined. “I would very much appreciate it if you called me Evans, though. Or Jameson.”

“If you like,” she agreed amicably. “Are you saving the world again?”

“I certainly hope not,” he told her honestly. “Hiding from it, more like…I’m teaching here this year. What brings you to Hogwarts?”

“Draco asked me to come,” Luna said with a faint smile.

“Draco?” Harry asked in surprise. “You and Malfoy are…friends?”

“Well…I like him and I suppose he must like me. So yes…I suppose we are,” she mused, looking thoughtful. “We’ve collaborated on several books now. Draco is a proper Magizoologist and I take the Naturalist approach, so it’s always interesting when we work together. But today,” she held up the basket and brushes, “we are painting a cabin.”

“So it doesn’t bother you that he…held you hostage in his cellar?” Harry blurted out without really meaning to.

“What is wrong with you, Jameson Evans?” Luna asked him seriously, a frown marring her normally placid expression. “Because I know that you remember the war as it really happened and that you don’t actually feel that way.”

“No,” he agreed, rubbing at his eyes tiredly. “I don’t…and I’m sorry that I said it. It’s just being back here at Hogwarts. Remembering everything that happened…I’m starting to see that there’s some issues I never really resolved. Things that I left behind here and didn’t really expect to face again.”

Luna’s face softened again and she looked around them as though she too was finding the blood and the bodies and the suffering of that endless night. When she looked back up at him again, her eyes were bright and glassy, but her smile was peaceful.

“The war broke us all in different ways,” she said softly. “But that doesn’t mean that we weren’t remade into something more lovely than before. You just need to learn to see your kintsugi, Jameson Evans.”

Harry blinked a bit, then shook his head. “Sorry is that…like a Nargle?”

Smiling faintly, Luna shook her head. “Not at all. It’s a form of art Muggles practice in Japan. When a piece of pottery breaks, the artist mixes precious metals into the lacquer they put along the edges to rejoin the pieces.”

Luna set down her basket and brushes and reached for his wand arm, sliding her hand inside the sleeves of his robe to unerringly rest her fingers over where one of the largest shards of his wand lay embedded under his skin. Harry was frozen, watching her in surprise even as she smiled dreamily back up at him, completely unperturbed by the magical glove or his bandages or the cold radiating off his cursed flesh.

“Rather than try to hide the break, it becomes part of the pottery’s history, and it is all the more beautiful and precious for the scars of reparation.”

“Luna…” Harry breathed out, completely taken aback. “I-“

“Evans are you starting in on guests now?” Malfoy’s voice was cold as it came down the corridor. “Don’t tell me you’ve set her on fire as well.”

Luna released Harry and stepped back to smile at Malfoy, who seemed to relax a little when it was clear she was unmolested. “Hello, Draco,” she said peaceably, looking him over. “You must have spent the night at the Manor…you look dreadful.”

Malfoy looked immaculate, as a matter of fact. This version of Malfoy looked exactly how Harry had expected him to look when first he saw the grey-eyed wizard again after so long. His hair was smooth and lay artfully about his shoulders and the angular lines of his face were free of any trace of stubble. Malfoy was wearing neatly pressed robes the colour of seafoam, and though Harry could still tell with careful study that these were not brand new, they were still far finer than the robes he had worn in St. Mungos. This was Draco Malfoy, pureblood wizard and heir to a noble household, not the Care of Magical Creatures professor who painted cabins with Luna Lovegood.

“Your flattery leaves much to the imagination,” Malfoy snapped at her and now Harry could see what Luna had meant. Despite his appearance, there was tight displeasure around Malfoy’s eyes and mouth, the lines of his body rigid with lingering tension.

“Another marriage interview, then?” Luna wondered idly, bending to pick up her brushes and basket again.

Malfoy’s eyes snapped sharply over to Harry and then back at Luna, but he still answered her through gritted teeth. “Yes.”

“That’s a shame…” she commiserated, then looked up at Harry. “Draco’s parents are very old fashioned and they want him to marry another pureblood. They don’t really approve of all this, even though Draco’s a very good Magizoologist, as I said.”

“If you’re quite finished telling my personal business to strangers,” Draco seethed, squaring his shoulders. “I’m sure Evans has more important things to do. Such as preparing his lessons.” With that, Malfoy spun on his heel and stalked off back the way he’d come.

Luna watched him go with a small smile. “Draco’s kintsugi really is quite lovely, don’t you think? I only wish that the Malfoys’ saw it that way,” she mourned softly.

Looking after the wizard, Harry thought that maybe he was starting to see it, too. “Please don’t tell him about me, Luna. Or anyone.”

“As you wish,” she agreed dreamily. “I’d better go, but it was so very nice to see you...no matter what your face looks like now.”

“And you, Luna,” Harry said honestly, nodding at her. “I’ll think about what you said.” He watched her go, but then a thought occurred to him and he called out after her. “Luna! Do you know a good place in the castle for an anti-social raven to make a home?”

Ravenclaw Tower was not, as it turned out, solely made up of the Ravenclaw common room and attached dormitories. There was a little used stairwell whose entrance lay behind a suit of armor some ways away from the entrance to the Ravenclaw common room, well out of sight of anyone walking to and from there. The somewhat gaudy armor had apparently had been made for a unicorn at some point in the distant past, but Harry rather felt that it had likely been made in vain, as he couldn’t imagine a unicorn ever deigning to wear anything made by humans, much less charging into battle for them. At the top of the concealed staircase he found, as Luna had said he would, an unlocked door that she had long ago painted a sunshine yellow and patterned over with sunflowers, completely at odds with the medieval castle around him.

Luna’s secret sanctuary was a small atrium with large windows that would have let in a great deal of sunlight were it not for the storm clouds overhead. She had painted murals over all the available wall space, most of these still portraits of witches and wizards, many of whom were familiar to him, along with various plants and animals. Harry even saw a portrait of Dobby as he’d looked in Malfoy Manor the day of his death, standing brave and tall in the face of his former masters. There were numerous smaller paintings dispersed among the larger pieces as well; a delicate teacup, a stylized sunrise, a shining apple, a cocoon and countless others.

The room was airy and beautiful, but also incredibly sad. How alone Luna must have felt at school before becoming friends with them in his Fifth Year. Luna had always been considered strange and Harry would be lying if he hadn’t thought that himself more than a time or two when they were children. But in all honesty, Luna was probably the purest and most true person he’d ever known. She knew exactly who she was and she wasn’t afraid of being seen like that in the least.

Feeling a pang of regret, Harry opened one of the windows and began casting charms on it for Anorak. The majority of ravens in the area preferred the Astronomy Tower for their roost, though there was apparently another unkindness off in the Forbidden Forest. Harry half expected Anorak to have gone and joined one of them, but no sooner had he finished placing the last of his charms than the thrice cursed bird was sailing inside. Cawing wildly around the trinket in his beak, Anorak beat Harry about the head with his wings in greeting and then soared in a circle around the room, inspecting it.

Reminding himself that Teddy would have a fit if he killed the damnable creature, Harry counted backwards from ten and watched the bird with a sour expression. “Well?” he demanded finally. “Will this suit you or not?”

Anorak perched on the back of a worn, high backed chair and set down his bauble carefully. Harry thought he recognized the small plastic wolf as something Teddy had once carried around in his pocket, utterly enamoured by the Muggle figurine. He rubbed a hand over his beard to hide a small smile at the thought that the raven might have stolen it at some point in time and watched as Anorak adjusted the toy with his beak until he was seemingly satisfied.

“Right then,” Harry said with a nod. “Home it is.”

The next few days seemed to blur together in a rush of activity as the castle made its final preparations to begin the new school year. In between various staff meetings and lesson planning with the other teachers, Harry took Malfoy’s advice and studied his curriculum. This was completely removed from anything he’d ever attempted before, whether it was Dumbledore’s Army or the few classes he’d held for the Junior Aurors during his tenure at the Ministry of Magic.

Harry’s Combined Content Courses, which made up the entirety of his classwork with years five through seven, were all double period classes that operated on a three week rotation. The Fifth Years, in preparation for their O.W.L.s, operated on a different rotation than the Sixth and Seventh years, as they were preparing for N.E.W.T.s and needed similar coursework. All in all Harry would be partnering with four of his six counterparts every week, though always in the same pairings. Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures were always in the same week for the same year group, as were Transfiguration and Charms, and Potions and the Study of ‘Whatever it was Hermione Taught’. Harry never could keep it straight and had given it up in the greater scheme of things for now.

It was enough to make Harry more than a little nervous for what was to come. How on earth was he supposed to keep all this straight? If only they hadn’t accidentally destroyed the Time-Turners in the Department of Mysteries…some extra hours to make sure he attended all his scheduled classes in the right order sounded pretty helpful. The bright side of all this was that he was so exhausted at the end of every day that he barely had room in his mind for anything more than a few hours sleep before he started the whole process over again.

Whoever was after Hermione had either been confident in their success and vacated the premises or was simply too nervous to try anything else so soon after the failed attempt. Harry rather thought it was the latter, but was grateful for the time it gave him to shore up for the school year. Hermione was even able to remove her bandages without having suffered any further damage before Staff Night.

Staff Night, Harry found out, was a traditional gathering of all the members of staff the night before the students were due to return to school. Even the ghosts and many of the portraits of former Headmasters and Headmistresses were in attendance and it quickly became obvious to Harry that it was an excuse to get thoroughly soused. Grateful to have the excuse of being new on staff to avoid having to refuse drinks, Harry kept to the wall and wondered how long he’d have to stay. Honestly the thought of the impending start of classes had him teetering back and forth between trembling excitement and unadulterated terror.

“Alright, Jameson?” Hermione asked as she came up beside him. She was not drinking either, though she had something fizzy that smelled of ginger in hand. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Oh yeah. Loads,” Harry deadpanned, getting out his thermos to take a drink of Blood-Replenishment. “This happens every year?” He looked doubtfully over where a joyfully tipsy Neville was trying to convince Susan Bones, the Transfigurations professor and Head of Hufflepuff house, to start up a game of Exploding Snap with him.

“Just wait until you see what happens at Year End,” Hermione said with a knowing smile.

“Oooh, Hermione!” Professor Flitwick’s voice came from below their navels as the tiny man came up, his cheeks flushed with drink. “Did you hear? Remus’ boy is starting this term! Do you know what that means?” He took a long drink, then shuddered. “Weasleys. It’s high time I retire, I don’t know I can survive another round of them!”

“Don’t worry, Filius, It’ll just be Victoire at first,” Hermione assured him in amusement. “She’ll be no trouble. At least not until she’s old enough to start dating…” She exchanged a furtive grin with Harry.

“Not George Weasley’s son, then? There’s a relief,” the Charms Master sighed in his squeaky voice. “We have a hard enough time with Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes in the school, I can only imagine what it will be like to have the man’s own progeny! Such excellent charms work, too…and to think he never even finished his education!” His lament died out when he suddenly seemed to notice Harry standing there. Flitwick swayed a little as he took him in, then reached out to pat Harry’s knee consolingly. “Don’t worry there, Jameson…you’ll soon know the horror of joke shops.”

“Er…” Harry felt suddenly abashed for his part in bringing said joke shop into being.

“Filius, perhaps I could get you some Gillywater…” Hermione cut in smoothly, hiding a smile as she started leading the tiny wizard away. Over her shoulder, she whispered to Harry. “It’s okay if you go…no one will mind.”

Her laugh suggested that the relief was plain on his face and Harry quickly muttered his thanks and edged around the milling throng to the door. He let out a sigh of liberation as he shut the door to the Staff Room behind himself, allowing his shoulders to sag slightly. His reprieve was short-lived however as a voice came out of the darkened hallway.

“Enjoying the festivities, I see…” Malfoy said dryly, his arms folded across his chest as he leaned up against the wall.

“And you,” Harry pointed out gruffly, annoyed to have been found out.

“Yes,” he agreed with a smirk, pushing himself off the wall. “Is it all you hoped for?”

“What, the job? We haven’t even started yet, have we?” Harry shrugged. “Can’t really say.”

“I meant the school, actually. It must be different from what you’re used to…Ilvermorny, wasn’t it?”

“Partly,” Harry said warily, wondering where Malfoy was going with this. He was now very well versed in his new identity, but that didn’t mean he especially wanted the Gameskeeper to start asking him questions. “I also attended Castelobruxo and spent a year under home instruction. Schools are schools, but I suppose this one is very old. The castle is more…alive than I’m used to.”

“Indeed… You know, it’s rather odd,” Malfoy began, walking closer to him. “Luna had absolutely no opinion whatsoever after meeting you the other day… Why do you think that is?”

Harry stared at Malfoy blankly, even as he felt his heart rate pick up. “Luna? She’s that blonde witch who came to see you? Why would I care if she has an opinion on me or not?” he asked flatly.

“Luna has an opinion on everyone,” Malfoy stated, his eyes fixed on Harry’s. “Everyone except for Jameson Evans, our mysterious new addition who managed to find Ministry approval over the Saviour of the Wizarding World.”

“Is there a point to all this, Malfoy?”

“I don’t trust you,” he said bluntly, standing close to Harry and lowering his voice. “And if I suspect that you intend harm towards the students or the staff, they will never find your remains.”

Harry opened his mouth to retort, finally feeling that he might be justified in giving in to the urge to have it out with Malfoy, but the words died out in an instant when he caught sight of the open throat of the Gameskeeper’s storm green tunic. There, resting just below the pale hollow of his collar bones, lay the Resurrection Stone.

Malfoy possessed a Deathly Hallow.

Chapter Text

Though Harry had used the Elder Wand only once in his life, he never forgot the feel of its power. The rush of old magic flowing through him as he set the Deathly Hallow to the simple task of repairing his unfixable wand of Holly. At that moment it had barely been noticeable in the mild state of shock he’d been operating under following his duel with Voldemort, but in dreams for weeks afterward he remembered the feeling. Even though the wand had remained entombed on the Hogwarts grounds in Scotland, Harry still felt its call when he returned to England, lingering at the core of him.

It unnerved him at first, reminding him far too much of having that connection to Voldemort as a Horcrux, but the wand wasn’t…alive, per se. It was simply an instrument of pure magic, bound to a master and waiting to serve, and carried with it that hint of sentience that all such objects did. If he focused too much on the bond, the Elder Wand called to Harry more strongly, heady and enthralling and incredibly dangerous. The understanding of what was being offered and what that sort of power was capable of was enough to push Harry to train as hard as possible. He could not risk it falling into the wrong hands through defeat.

All that changed after Belize. Harry’s memories around the time of the attack were fragmented at best, flashes of dark jungle and blood and fire and over bright hospital rooms. His clearest memory by far was waking up to the realization that he had been defeated and thus the bond had broken, an emptiness carved from his core. Spider was now the master of the Elder Wand.

It was little consolation to think that Spider was still on the run from the Ministry, if they were even still alive. Much more comforting was the knowledge that most of the magical world believed that the Deathly Hallows were nothing more than a children’s fable. Only a handful of people knew that the Elder Wand was one of these and fewer still knew that the wand lay in Albus Dumbledore’s white marble tomb.

Despite that he had been in possession of two of the three Deathly Hallows for the majority of the past eleven years, Harry still never expected to see the third again in his lifetime. He especially had not thought to ever see the Resurrection Stone tied to a leather thong and strung about the neck of Draco Malfoy.

“Careful, Evans…” Malfoy said after Harry had stared at his throat for far longer than was reasonable. “A wizard might take the wrong impression, being examined this way.”

Harry’s eyes snapped up to meet Malfoy’s, which were narrowed in consideration. He abruptly took a step backward, away from the Gamekeeper. “I should go. I’ll need to be well rested so as to avoid being done away with for my dark scheming. That is if you’re quite finished making threats against my person.”

Smirking, Malfoy tilted his head and nodded once. “For now. Sleep well, Evans,” he drawled, eyes glittering in the dark hallway. “Do try not to burn anyone on your way down.”

Harry rather thought he had the right to blame Malfoy when the dream took him later that night. He’d spent some time pacing about his rooms after escaping the dark corridor and the Gamekeeper’s calculating gaze. Even longer was the time he spent staring off into the darkness provided by the curtains closed about his bed, considering the implications of the evening’s revelation.

Malfoy couldn’t know what it was that he had, Harry was almost certain of it. He had given no indication that he was being haunted by the dead…and anyway who would Malfoy even summon from beyond the veil? The only people Harry could think of with his admittedly biased and limited knowledge of the wizard were Bellatrix Lestrange, Vincent Crabbe and Severus Snape.

Anyone feeling sentimental over the loss of Bellatrix was quite possibly the most ridiculous idea that crossed Harry’s mind in recent memory, regardless of the blood ties Malfoy might have to his aunt. Crabbe was more likely, but he had turned on Malfoy just before his untimely demise, hadn’t he? Harry rather had the impression that Crabbe and Goyle had been enforcers and bodyguards more than childhood friends as it was. As for Snape…it seemed rather odd to think of someone going through the trouble when the wizard’s soul had already been imprinted onto his portrait. And besides that, Harry could hardly see the former spy going along quietly with being drug out of his well-earned rest among the fallen.

A brief, horrifying flicker of thought that Malfoy might have summoned back whatever remained of Voldemort danced across his mind just before sleep overtook him, so it was no surprise that red eyes were waiting for him in his dreams. The graveyard was silent and empty, the cold prickling over Harry’s skin as he stood alone, but for the wizard before him. For a wild moment Harry thought that he was standing in front of a mirror, until the image smiled independently of him and the visage wavered. Harry stared at Tom Riddle numbly and felt a wave of pure denial flood through him.

“No,” he told Tom firmly. “There isn’t anything of you left. Not in me…not anywhere. You made your choice.”

“No? Are you so sure, after what you’ve felt inside of you?” Tom hissed, gliding forward and circling Harry as he slowly transformed into the twisted being that had destroyed himself with the Elder Wand. “Do you believe that I am gone because Dumbledore said it to be true?”

His certainty faltered at that because hadn’t Dumbledore spent most of Harry’s life manipulating him for the ‘greater good’? Would Albus really keep such a thing from him, knowing the risk to the world were it true? Mist rose thick and cold and cloying about them, filling his throat and lungs so that he started to feel suffocated. Shapes loomed up in the darkness around them like enormous black gravestones and Harry heard the telltale death rattle of Dementors.

“They’re yours…” Voldemort hissed in his ear, gripping Harry’s wand arm with a bone-white hand. “Your Dark Army...waiting for you to rise as their Lord…”

“No!” Harry shouted it this time and jerked away from Voldemort, falling through the mist.

Without really thinking about it, he reached out and caught at his old Firebolt as the Dementors swarmed in his wake, balancing unsteadily with only his left arm to guide the broom as he shot up and away. A glow lit up the mist, burning steadily through it and Harry only just managed to pull away from a jet of Fiendfyre, the heat of it nearly as suffocating as the dense fog.

Warmth lit along Harry’s back and he flinched away, thinking his robes had caught fire before arms wrapped tight about his middle and Malfoy shouted into his ear. “Don’t get caught in her web!”

Harry looked back at him and caught a flash of yellow in the wizard’s eyes before he saw that Malfoy was pointing and his breath caught. An enormous fiery spider was emerging from the fog, the lines of her web shooting outward into the darkness. At the great acromantula’s centre he saw a witch with her arm raised toward them, the Elder Wand in her grasp. She yelled something that was lost over the roar of the flames and Harry dove when something dark shot out of the Elder Wand toward them.

The broom hit the ground with a sickening crunch and Harry rolled painfully, before skidding to a stop, tearing the bandages along his right arm. Behind him Malfoy landed much more smoothly and turned a somersault into a crouch with almost bestial grace.

“Wand. Stone. Cloak,” Malfoy said, the Resurrection Stone hanging at his throat. “Careful, Potter…you aren’t the Master of Death anymore.”

A line of gold started to break over the distant horizon as Harry struggled back to his feet, just as Voldemort landed behind him. Harry tried to go for his wand, but found that it was gone as Voldemort caught hold of him, one hand clawing at the back of Harry’s neck as the other gripped the blackened flesh of his wand arm.

He is also yours…” Voldemort murmured, his voice high and cold as he turned Harry toward Malfoy. “A failure and a traitor cannot be trusted…” Pale fingers digging into his flesh, Voldemort raised Harry’s wand arm toward Malfoy where he still crouched, watching them. “But they can be punished. Sectumsempra!

Harry shouted as the spell slashed out in a wave of killing force from his right hand, though it was easily drowned out by Snape roaring at him as the dream faded to reality.

“WAKE UP, POTTER!” the spy shouted from where he stood in the tall grass of the painted lakeside meadow, looking absolutely furious as light flashed over him. “Wake up NOW you infernal idiot before you tear a hole in the damned castle!”

Disoriented, Harry realized his wand arm was still outstretched, the bandages shredded back from his hand as power sliced out of him over and over in flashes of light that pulsed with the beat of his heart. Gasping, Harry jerked his arm back and the spell broke, casting the room into darkness once more. The pain was excruciating and he worried for a moment that his teeth might crack as Harry tried to breathe through it, jaw clenched. Dimly he realized that Snape was still yelling at him over the ringing in his ears. Harry wasn’t sure how much time had passed before he finally raised his head, the room dark and silent.

“Snape?” he asked hoarsely, not sure he had the energy to cast a spell for light.

“Cognizant now, are we?” the painting sneered in reply.

“What...what happened?”

“I was rather hoping you’d tell me that, Potter,” Snape pointed out sardonically.

“Evans,” Harry reminded him, reaching out a shaking hand to find his wand.

Snape continued as though he hadn’t heard him, “What I do know of what just happened is that all of the Dark Detectors you left in my office started going off. Simultaneously one of my old warning spells activated, which led me here. The room was shaking when I arrived and shortly thereafter you began wandlessly, non-verbally and apparently unconsciously casting a curse of my invention.”

Harry felt cold to his core at the thought that he’d been setting off his instruments from down the hallway and beyond the wards of the office and his bedchambers. “You haven’t told anyone?” he asked, taking up his wand and managing to raise a small flame in the fireplace, casting some light into the room.

“Amazingly I am rather well versed in discretion,” Snape reminded him and Harry might have felt foolish if he weren’t so drained. “Though I’m not sure that it’s entirely warranted in this case…” The painted figure looked around at the damage in the room with a wary expression.

It wasn’t difficult to understand why he might think that...and honestly Harry was inclined to agree with him as he donned his glasses to take in the remains of his bed frame. The spell had sliced through his curtains and one of the four posts, deep gouges scored into the ceiling and the far wall. Even now the stones were limned with energy from where his curse had met the centuries old magic of Hogwarts. He’d only narrowly missed cutting through the painting where Snape now stood by scant centimetres.

“I...I was dreaming,” Harry spoke numbly, looking at the blackened skin of his hand, visible now under the torn bandages. The muscles had cramped and his fingers remained clawed and contorted as though his hand was completely separate to the rest of him.

“Good to see you’ve not managed to improve your skill in Occlumency in the thirteen years since I attempted to drive it through your thick skull,” Snape hissed at him.

Thinking of Voldemort in the dream trying to convince Harry he still existed within his mind sent a cold shiver of dread through him. “Why would I practice Occlumency for my nightmares? Voldemort is gone.”

“Of course the Dark Lord is gone,” Snape said impatiently. “But you’re even more incompetent than I’ve always suspected if you think that something so simple as dreaming caused what I just saw. Come here and show me your arm.”

Harry looked at the painting in surprise, curling his hand in closer to his chest. “What?”

“Your arm,” Snape gestured impatiently. “It was clear even before this that you were suffering from an injury. The portraits up in the Headmistress’ Office were all worked up a few years ago about an attack on your person…I assume from what I’ve seen that you sustained lingering damage to your wand arm.” The painted wizard drew himself up to his full height, folding his arms imposingly and looking down his hooked nose at Harry. “Given that of the two of us I have proven more than capable of containing curse wounds while you have continually shown that you possess all the self-preservation skills of a house-elf, I rather think that I am more than capable of assessing the wound. Now show me your arm.

For a few moments there was silence between them and then Harry snorted out a laugh quite without meaning too. Snape looked positively apoplectic and Harry held up a hand to stay him storming off even as he choked through unwilling chortles.

“No, sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just…” Harry shook his head helplessly, the sudden humour leaving him as quickly as it had come. “I’m not a child anymore. I’m not eleven and just entering the magical world...not a throwback to my father ready to take on your grudge. I’ve played my role for Albus Dumbledore as surely as you did yours and we both died for our efforts. Without you I wouldn’t be here many times over, I’m well aware, but I’ve no interest in rehashing our history. There’s too many years and too much pain since then to go back.”

Taking a steadying breath, Harry managed to straighten up as much as he was able and looked at Snape full on, as though he weren’t sitting in the ruins of the former Potion Master’s bed. “I believe you are one of the bravest men that I’ve ever known and I would be grateful for your help. Even more so to learn what you might have taught me years ago if things had gone differently between us. But as your peer, Severus. Not your student, not your rival’s son.”

Silence stretched between them for long enough that Harry was sure Snape would now refuse him, stubborn as the Potions Master had always been. Then, unexpectedly, the painted figure said again, “Show me your arm.”

It took some doing to actually be examined by the painting. Harry was still weak from the night’s events and had to take his morning round of potions before he could successfully move from the bed and closer to the painting. Of course, he then also had to explain to Snape what each one had been prescribed for. He did not bring out the Draught of Peace, nor did Harry mention that he took it. The dream and Snape’s discovery of him had left Harry feeling quite vulnerable enough without admitting that he needed treatment for his mental state as well.

Once Harry was mobile, he lit the sconces by hand so that there would be sufficient light, stoking the fireplace while he was at it. Neither of them suggested moving to the office, despite that there was better lighting and a larger portrait for Snape to view him from; there was no chance of him correctly Transfiguring his disguise in his present state. Harry did manage to lengthen the legs of one of the chairs so that he could sit up close to the painted meadow and once he was seated there he slowly unwound the remaining bandages.

The length of his arm, from fingertip to bicep looked burned it was so black, but the skin was ice cold to the touch. His hand was still cramped into a clawed position, but he straightened and spread the fingers with effort at Snape’s direction, slowly turning his arm this way and that as best he could. Harry had to act as the former spy’s other senses, describing the smell and feel, both internally and externally, with as much clear definition as he could manage.

“The pale, scarred areas…what are they?” Snape asked, as close to the canvas as the enchantments binding him allowed.

Harry traced one of the raised areas where the shards of his wand were embedded in him, the skin pale and surrounded by lines of angry violet that reached out into the blackness. “When the curse hit, my wand sort of…exploded. The fragments are embedded in me now.”

“Exploded?” Snape repeated with a frown. “What happened exactly?”

“I…don’t fully remember,” Harry admitted, lowering his arm to give the screaming muscles a rest.

“As much as you can then and in as great of detail as you can recall.”

Closing his eyes, Harry tried to think back to the dark jungle, his brow furrowed. “Ron had been hit by…something. A knife or some kind of cutting curse, because I remember there was blood. I moved to defend him and raised a Shield Charm and then…” He struggled to grasp hold of the fragments of his memory, of Ron’s pained gasps behind him where he was pressing his hands to a deep wound on his thigh, still trying to get to his feet as Harry’s shield shimmered around them. Then burning fire and cold blackness and a figure with their wand raised. The chair he was on rattled a little and Harry opened his eyes again, pale and shaking slightly.

“Potter?” Snape asked warily, watching him closely.

“Evans,” Harry gasped out, taking a steadying breath. “Or Jameson, if it really bothers you that much.”

Snape’s lip curled mockingly and he folded his arms. “Your skill at creating a false identity is truly astounding. What just happened? Why did your magic start to go wild?”

Ignoring the jibe, Harry shook his head and admitted, “I…I don’t know. Maybe it was from trying to piece the memories back together.” Harry rubbed at his forehead as he tried to verbalize what he’d seen that night. “I remember…fire. Or an explosion, like I said. It had to have been my wand…I remember it being hot in my hand,” he murmured, running his fingers over the scars again. “Then darkness…not just the night, but something unnatural and cold… I know I saw Spider there, but I can’t remember anything more of what they did. No wand movements, no verbal spellcasting…just that they were standing there. I’m not even sure why they didn’t finish us off. I must have lost consciousness because there’s nothing after that. Not until I woke up in St Mungos almost a week later.”

“I see… So this Spider managed to cast a curse so powerful that it broke through your shield and shattered your wand in one…”

“Yes,” Harry affirmed and shuddered slightly. He had never thought of it in quite that manner before, but the implications of what a wizard like that was capable of were alarming to say the least.

“Yet there’s been no rise of a new Dark Witch or Wizard…no rumours of a power brewing in the world. You would think that the defeat of our ‘Saviour’ would have been the catalyst toward establishing a new world order,” Snape mused, studying Harry’s arm again. “Cleanse your arm now. Use Terego to remove the salves on the skin, then a washcloth and hot water. I’ll be back in a moment, I need to think.” He strode off toward the painted forest and disappeared from view, presumably to return to his regular portrait.

Harry was still processing Snape’s words as he stared into the now empty meadow lit in the growing light of dawn, his heart racing. Had he a little more strength, he probably would have gone to the white tomb at once, possessed with a sudden need to see that the Elder Wand was safely out of Spider’s hands.

…a new world order…’

Shuddering, Harry shook his head to chase away such thoughts and got to the job of cleaning his arm as Snape had directed, feeling very little of it over the ache in his atrophied muscles. By the time the Potion Master had returned, Harry had fully washed up and taken his Draught of Peace to keep his mind to task. If Snape noticed the change in his demeanour, he did not comment on it, though he immediately began barking orders at him.

“Play the chessboard in exactly the order I tell you. Begin with white first and move between the colours in turn,” he instructed, barely waiting for Harry to sit down at the board before he began. “Pawn to E4, pawn to E5. Knight to F3, knight to C6. Bishop to C4, bishop to C5. Pawn to B4. Good, now take the White Queen from the board and place it on the mantle.”

The carved figure slapped at Harry’s fingers when he tried to grab her at the crown and he apologized reflexively to lift her by the base instead, feeling the faint tingle of an activated charm under his fingertips. Carrying the piece to the mantle, Harry set the queen down and heard a faint pop and a hiss of old air before a hidden compartment slid forward. A half dozen vials lay within on a bed of black velvet and Snape made a frustrated sound when he tried and failed to peer down at them from the canvas.

“Lift them up so that I may see their seals,” he instructed and squinted at them each in turn as Harry did so. “Yes, fine. Shake that one three times. Good…yes… No, that one’s off colour. Toss it in the fire and don’t breathe the fumes. Yes, but set that one aside, it’ll need an hour of sunlight.” They continued in this manner until Snape had inspected them all and nodded in satisfaction. “Now un-stopper the golden potion and do not drop it.

Feeling a nervous prickle at his scalp that he might drop it just because Snape had warned him not to, Harry did as he was told. “Is this the same potion you gave Albus for his curse wound?” he wondered, vaguely remembering that Snape had fed a potion that looked like this to the former Headmaster in his memories.

“It is,” Snape confirmed with a raised brow, clearly not having expected Harry to recognize it. “Though you will be utilizing it as a topical application rather than ingesting it. This potion is called Donum Vitae, or the Gift of Life, and requires ingredients harvested from a unicorn foal willingly sacrificed. This makes it exceedingly rare so take care not to waste it. There should be a pipette in that compartment, use it to apply a drop to each point of entry for your wand. Then, using only your first and third fingertips, you will spread it outward from each point using a counter-clockwise motion. Do you understand?”

“One drop to each bit of wand, first and third fingers, counter-clockwise,” Harry confirmed with a nod. “Exceedingly rare, don’t cock it up.”

Snape expelled a breath through his hooked nose in a way that very nearly conveyed a sense of humour, but he only inclined his head. “You may begin.”

Glad that he’d taken the Draught of Peace to allow his mind to focus beyond the anxiety of utilizing such a rare potion, Harry took out the pipette and began to apply the golden drops to his skin. He and Snape were both silent as he worked, watching his progress closely. It was immediately apparent that the use of only his first and third fingertips forced him to keep his movements light as he spread the faintly glowing tincture over his skin. He let out a faint sigh of relief and relaxed slightly as almost immediately he could feel the concoction working, the angry lines of violet fading away to leave only the blackness and the pale, scarred areas. Even the darkness marring his flesh began to shrink as he moved over the length of his arm, until it had shrunk back to his forearm.

Grinning broadly as some feeling returned to his hand, Harry let out a laugh of relief. “Brilliant!” he exclaimed and beamed up at the portrait. His smile faded at the look on Snape’s face, because the wizard was frowning in displeasure. Clearly this had not been the intended result. “What? That’s good isn’t it? Feels better than it has in ages.”

“That isn’t a curse wound,” Snape told him flatly, his black eyes finding Harry’s. “I’ve never seen a curse wound react in that way. This looks like an infection.”

As he was not a Head of House, Caretaker or Gamekeeper, there was very little that Harry had to do to help with the arrival of the Hogwarts Express, except to show up to the Great Hall at the appropriate time. Admittedly, he almost failed in even so simple a task as that when the time came. Harry had spent the day analysing, treating and re-bandaging his arm under Snape’s direction until they were well sick of one another and no closer to having discovered the cause of Harry’s ailment. His infection…Harry felt unclean every time he thought of the word, hardly able to look at his right arm without it rising in his mind again.

The Great Hall was the one place in the castle that Harry had been actively avoiding since his arrival and he realized now that waiting until the one night he had to go in was a mistake. It took twice as long to concentrate on his proper Transfiguration as it usually did, as he kept flubbing the shape of his nose and the colour of his hair. Even once that was done, Harry paced about his rooms rather than go to get his seat with the rest of the staff before the students filled in and might not have left at all if Snape hadn’t come back from his usual portrait to shout insults at him.

Suffice it to say Harry was in a foul mood when he shoved open the staff entrance to the rear of the Great Hall and stepped inside, and his temperament certainly didn’t ease up when all the students fell silent. The Sorting of the First Year students was already in progress and Harry immediately saw Teddy standing among the other young witches and wizards looking fearfully up at him. This did not improve his disposition, but he quelled slightly when Hermione turned and shot him a severe look where she was standing and reading out the names.

“Gryffindor!” the Sorting Hat called out cheerfully, oblivious to the new arrival.

There was only a faint smattering of applause and the young witch looked disappointed as she took off the hat, though she caught sight of Harry when she turned to set it down and paled, quickly hurrying off again. Jaw tight, Harry tried to make his expression something a good deal south of murderous and took his seat at the end of the staff table. He was glad to see that Malfoy was seated at the far distant end as the other junior member of staff, though he knew without looking that the Gamekeeper was watching him all the same.

Hermione cleared her throat to draw attention back to the matter at hand and called out, “Calcifer Bullstrode.”

“Quite an entrance there...” Cormac McLaggen murmured as he leaned toward Harry with an infuriatingly smug grin plastered across his face. “That ought to keep them well behaved through the first week of your classes, at least.”

Harry simply stared at the Flying Instructor until his smile faded somewhat and he sat back, picking up his goblet of pumpkin juice with nonchalance as he returned his attention to the Sorting. Feeling a small curl of satisfaction, Harry focused on his breathing as he looked about the Great Hall for the first time since the end of the Second Wizarding War.

The most immediate and obvious change was that there were seven tables laid out beyond the line of First Years now, each holding a mixture of all four houses by their year group. Though many of the students still grouped together by their houses, it was clear that there were many friendships held between them, especially among the younger students. Hermione had mentioned to him that this was a change she had worked with Minerva to implement, which meant that the older students had started out segregated by their houses.

Thousands of candles floated in mid-air above the seven tables, as they had done in his time at Hogwarts, making the golden plates and goblets glitter on the tables. Beyond the candles, where once a sea of stars might have stretched beyond the flickering lights, there was now only a vaulted ceiling, impressive and dishearteningly ordinary. A large portion of the Great Hall had been destroyed in the final battle and no one had managed to recreate the enchantment that had once made it seem as though the hall opened up into the heavens. To make up for the loss, many more windows had been added, interspersed with large stained glass portraits of the four Heads of House and scenes of valour from the Battle of Hogwarts.

Harry was saved from glaring at one of the three glass portraits of his own face by Hermione calling out, “Edward Lupin!”

Teddy’s hair had gone a bit green with nervous excitement as he stepped up to lift the Sorting Hat and Harry spied Lorry peeking out from the chest pocket of his school robes. Feeling rather tense with anticipation himself, Harry got out his thermos to have something to do as he waited, wishing that the students faced the staff rather than their peers during the Sorting. After only a slight moment of hesitation, the Sorting Hat declared ‘Hufflepuff!’ and Harry hid his proud smile into the mouth of his thermos as Teddy’s new house applauded throughout the hall. Susan Bones was clapping vigorously herself for her new addition and Harry realized suddenly that Teddy was a bit of a celebrity, at least among the staff and those students who had studied the role the Order of the Phoenix had played in both the First and Second Wizarding Wars.

Once the Sorting Ceremony had concluded, Hermione took her seat once more and Minerva rose to address them all as Headmistress. “Good evening and welcome to another year of what is sure to be a fine showing of magical education. A few introductions and announcements to make before we may all tuck in. We have two new additions to our staff this year.” She gestured toward Harry and he stood stiffly.

“Professor Evans will be teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts this year,” the Headmistress announced to more than a little nervous mutterings and only a scant bit of applause, “and Professor Malfoy, who our returning students are already familiar with, is our new Gamekeeper and Care of Magical Creatures teacher.”

Harry tried very hard not to feel annoyed as he reclaimed his seat and the students erupted into happy applause, refusing to look over at Malfoy. Of course they would cheer, hadn’t everyone already fallen all over themselves to say what a bloody great teacher Malfoy was? Interestingly, Cormac didn’t look any happier about the warm reception than Harry did, which only irritated him more because he did not want to find common ground with Cormac McLaggen.

“Yes, alright that’s quite enough of that,” Minerva scolded once she’d felt the students had carried on long enough. “Flying Lessons will be held on alternating Fridays for First Year students, beginning with Slytherin and Hufflepuff. Apparation Lessons will be held this spring for Sixth Year students, with licencing to follow for those students who will be of age at that time. The Forbidden Forest and Seventh Floor corridor are off-limits to all students without escort from a member of staff. Our Caretaker has posted a new list of banned items…”

Letting his attention drift as the Headmistress continued into the old, familiar speech, Harry pondered what she had said about the Seventh Floor corridor. That hadn’t really come up in any of the meetings he’d been to, likely because the rest of the staff assumed he already knew why it was off limits. Since he wasn’t about to ask Cormac about it, Harry made a mental note to ask Hermione about it later and let his eyes drift over toward the First Year table.

Harry had been careful to keep from watching Teddy throughout the Sorting Ceremony, despite how much he wanted to guess at how his first night at Hogwarts was going. It was going to be difficult to ignore his love for his godson and he supposed it really was a good thing he’d be studying Occlumency under Snape again to better partition off his emotions. When Harry casually glanced toward the young wizard, he was taken aback to find that Teddy was watching him closely. For a moment Harry feared that he’d somehow released his disguise until the boy quickly dropped his gaze to the table, his hair darkening even as his ears went red. Harry frowned at this strange display until it suddenly hit him. Teddy had been watching him the same way Harry had once watched Severus Snape.

Teddy didn’t trust him.

It was lucky for the Fifth Year students that their first Combined Content Course with the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher was with the ever patient and vastly more experienced Professor Flitwick, because otherwise Harry might have expelled the lot of them. Never in his life had he seen such careless disregard for rules and safety and the dangers that the Dark Arts presented.

“They’re horrible,” Harry complained loudly to Hermione over lunch, which he’d all but begged her to take with him in the Staff Room, rather than the Great Hall. “Monsters, the lot of them. Please tell me we weren’t like that at fifteen.”

“To be fair, at the time I’m fairly certain you were suffering PTSD in addition to the Dark Lord sharing residency in your head,” Hermione commented blandly, taking a sip of tea.

“Yeah, well…I doubt any of them have such an excuse,” Harry groused, stabbing at a cherry tomato with excessive force. “On top of all that, Flitwick won’t even duel me properly for demonstrations! I asked him about it and he said he ‘doesn’t feel comfortable’ with practical performances. What, it isn’t practical to give them a proper bloody appreciation on how to keep from getting hexed?”

“Filius is less than half your height and four times your age and he doesn’t know you, Jameson,” Hermione reminded him gently. “Any one of those would be reason enough to put a wizard off wanting to duel, even as a demonstration.”

“He used to be a Duelling Champion, Hermione. I can’t make him that nervous,” he sighed in frustration, then looked up sharply as an idea came to him. “You can duel me!”

Hermione choked on her toast and brought up her napkin quickly as she coughed, eyes wide. “W-what? No, don’t be silly! I’m not going to duel you.”

“No, listen,” Harry said excitedly. “Just come to one of my Charms Combos and duel with me, like in the DA meetings. I’m sure after Flitwick sees that I’m not some lunatic who’ll be casting Unforgivables on him he’ll agree to practical demonstrations.”

“Even if I wanted to duel you, which I assure you I don’t, my schedule wouldn’t even allow for me to come to one of your Combos. I always have classes during first and second period.” She hid a smile when Harry groaned in frustration and reached over to touch his hand lightly. “You’re awfully keyed up today…is everything alright?”

Harry scowled and pulled his hand away to scratch at his beard, looking away from her. “I have the first year Hufflepuffs and Slytherins next,” he muttered, not looking at her.

“Oh, Ha- Jameson…” Hermione said knowingly. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine and Teddy will be fully impressed by you. As for your duelling problem…” Looking off into the distance thoughtfully, she tapped at her teacup. “You might try asking Neville?”

“This term we will be focused on the most commonly used curses, hexes and jinxes you might expect to see, as well as their counter-curses. We will also spend some time focusing on pests of the magical household and how to deal with them both with and without the use of a wand,” Harry said as he flicked his wand at the chalkboard, causing several different pieces of chalk to begin writing out the syllabus for the school year.

“Throughout the course of your education here at Hogwarts, your lessons will go greater in depth into the Dark Arts and an O.W.L. of at least Exceeds Expectations is required to advance to the N.E.W.T. level courses. The better your foundation now, the more successful you can hope to be in what is, perhaps, the most important of all your subjects here.”

A Slytherin boy sniggered and Harry’s eyes narrowed as he focused in on him. “You disagree, Mister Bullstrode?”

The boy’s ears pinked as the other students glanced over at him nervously, but he raised his head with the familiar pride of a Pureblood. “I just don’t really see the point, sir,” he said boldly. “Any proper wizard would never have to worry about magical pests and it isn’t like we’re taught to use the Dark Arts. Everyone already knows it’s wrong, so why would anyone use them anyway?”

Glancing about the classroom, Harry could plainly see that the young Slytherin wasn’t alone in this thinking…and why would he be? These children hadn’t grown up under the shadow of Voldemort. “Fair enough. Does anyone think they know why we still teach Defence Against the Dark Arts?”

Looking among all the faces it was easy to see that Teddy wanted desperately to say something, which didn’t surprise Harry in the slightest. After all, Remus Lupin had taught the subject himself so why wouldn’t his son want to defend it. Harry wasn’t disappointed when he finally gave in and his hand rose with the nervousness of calling attention to oneself on the first day of classes.

“Mister Lupin?” Harry called on him.

“Because the Dark Arts exist in the world already, sir…even if we don’t use them. Pretending that a thing doesn’t exist doesn’t make it so,” he said slowly, but confidently.

“Five points to Hufflepuff. Mister Lupin is entirely correct. The Dark Arts exist throughout the world and the creatures in it. No, I won’t be teaching you to perform the truly Dark Arts and such things are never really learned under such instruction as it is. Witches and wizards who seek power in those arts have to learn it on their own and accept the consequences that go alongside them.”

There was a murmur throughout the classroom at that as the students all looked at one another. All the knowledge they had of the Dark Arts thus far had come from their families, and Harry imagined that it had all been somewhere along the lines of ‘dark magic is bad and you’ll go to Azkaban’. He very much doubted anyone had ever spoken about the subject so frankly before.

“Sir?” a young witch raised her hand this time, another Slytherin. “If there are consequences, then why do people practice the Dark Arts?”

Expression darkening, Harry thought of Voldemort, sacrificing parts of his soul in exchange for immortality. Of Snape speaking of the Dark Arts with an almost sensual affection. Of Bellatrix telling him that he had to mean it and then understanding exactly what she meant when he’d cast Crucio on Amycus Carrow. Of Bryndon Rowle dangling by his ankles in an alleyway.

“Because casting dark magic feels good,” Harry said quietly, not looking at them. “It makes you feel powerful. And sometimes that feeling is worth knowing that your soul will pay the price.”

Absolutely no one spoke up after that, nor did they dare talk amongst themselves as they hurriedly left the classroom after the lesson had ended, casting nervous glances back at their teacher. Harry knew without looking that Teddy was giving him that same, mistrustful look again and couldn’t find it in himself to blame him.

Classes did not improve much throughout the rest of the week. Nearly all of the students found him to be at least a little terrifying, even if they did have an interest in the subject. Neville had flat out refused when Harry had tried to raise the subject of duelling over breakfast and Flitwick changed the subject whenever he brought it up. He had similarly been refused by Slughorn when Harry had inquired as to whether he could commission the potions he needed to maintain his health, which of course Snape had found out about.

“Perhaps if you had spent less time swanning about the school with a blatant disregard for rules and more time studying the art of potion making you would not now find yourself in this predicament!”

A particularly low point for Harry came mid-week when Malfoy swooped into their first Combo on the back of a hippogriff while leading a herd of thestrals like the damned show off that he was. The students were all so enamoured at this display that none of them really cared that they couldn’t see the thestrals. The exception to this was a Ravenclaw girl who had seen her grandfather pass that summer and promptly burst into heavy sobs when Harry gently questioned her about it.

On top of the dismal run he’d been having as a teacher during the day, his evenings were spent alternating between Occlumency lessons, potion brewing and research into magical illnesses with Snape. Harry had made the mistake of complaining about the students once and Snape had taken no small delight in tormenting him with tales of exactly what sort of student Harry had been at every available turn. So needless to say he was not in the mood for Cormac McLaggen’s shit come Saturday morning.

“It’s just such a shame, really,” Cormac lamented to the Staff Room at large, where some of the teachers were taking a weekend reprieve from the students. “In my day kids really knew how to handle a broom, even at a young age. I can understand those unlucky enough to grow up in Muggle homes, but to come from a wizarding family and struggle to even call the broom up...” He shook his head in dismay and gestured toward Susan Bones.

“I hate to speak ill of any house, Susan, but the Hufflepuffs especially were having a hard time of it yesterday,” he confided as though he were being kind.

“I…I beg your pardon?” she said, a polite smile frozen on her face.

“It isn’t your fault, of course, and don’t think I’m saying that it is. Take the Lupin boy, for example,” Cormac began and Harry’s hands tightened reflexively around his mug. “It’s really not too surprising that he’d struggle with a broom, considering his parentage. A werewolf and a metamorphagus…hardly a winning combination for a natural born flyer, is it?”

“R-Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks were heroes!” Susan stammered out, red-faced and quivering slightly.

“Well of course they were, Susan…no one is saying that they weren’t. What I’m talking about is genetics,” Cormac condescended. “A metamorphagus is an unusual mutation among wizards, but not detrimental to a bloodline, by any means. But lycanthropy is an infection after all.”

Cold, focused rage had been rising with every word Cormac spoke, flooding through Harry’s veins like snowmelt and a faint cracking sound came from the ceramic in his hands as his tea froze over. Just when he thought his magic might burst from him and strike at the Flight Instructor, a cool drawl came from across the room.

“And where were you during the Battle of Hogwarts, again?” Malfoy wondered from where he sat in the windowsill. The morning sunlight streaming through the glass turned his pale hair into a halo, though his eyes were sharp and calculated.

Cormac cleared his throat a little and straightened up. “Well I had already graduated, of course. I was picked up by Puddlemere United straightaway,” he bragged, running his fingers through his golden curls.

“Oh yes, I suppose you were…and how did that work out for you?” Malfoy asked with mock civility.

The anger slowly faded from Harry because he knew exactly how that had gone for him. Cormac had been just as unpleasant a professional Quidditch player as he’d been during the brief period he’d played Keeper under Harry on the Gryffindor team. Given the contract the Puddlemere United had signed Cormac in on they couldn’t just do away with him without an actual breach of the terms, but they’d made him second string after only two games and kept him there until it was up. It had been particularly satisfying when Ginny had then been picked up by the Holyhead Harpies as first string and been invited to play for England during the World Cup. Twice.

“Well I was injured, unfortunately. Happens to the best of us. Lucky that it happened when it did, or Hogwarts might not have a Flying Instructor or Quidditch Referee,” Cormac said, still holding up a magnanimous smile as though he’d done them all a service.

“What a pity that would have been. I wouldn’t worry about it, McLaggen. What is it they say? Those who cannot fly...teach?” Malfoy smirked rather nastily and Harry’s lips twitched in response.

Cormac on the other hand glared at Malfoy in a flash of hot anger before he smiled again and this time it was all teeth. “Oh that’s right…Lupin is your cousin, isn’t he, Draco? I really didn’t mean to offend.”

Malfoy’s eyes widened mockingly. “No? That’s unfortunate…I did.” He remained seated even as Cormac shoved up to his feet, only smiling at him in smug satisfaction until the wizard finally turned and swept out of the room.

“Thank you, Draco,” Susan said quietly, giving the Gamekeeper a small smile.

“He’s a prat,” Malfoy replied simply, shrugging. “Sorry. Sir Prat.”

Harry could see that Susan was still upset, even as she rewarded Malfoy with a small giggle, and he empathized with her. He too wished that he had done more to shut up Cormac. If he were honest with himself, it was only the progress he’d managed that week in Occlumency that had allowed Harry to separate off his emotions as long as he did. Looking down at the frozen block of his tea, he felt a sudden need to change the subject before he really did give himself away.

“Why is the Seventh Floor corridor off limits to students?” Harry wondered aloud, still looking at his mug. Silence followed his query and he raised his gaze to find the other teachers staring at him. “Sorry, no one ever mentioned it during my orientation. Just…thought I’d ask.”

A slow smile spread across Malfoy’s face and Harry felt a little nervous at the clear sign of a plan being formed. “But of course…you would be the perfect man for the job, now wouldn’t you, Evans?”

“Draco…” Susan said worriedly, looking between the two of them. “I don’t think-“

“Nonsense, Bones. He’s our resident Dark Arts expert, we should have asked him straightaway,” he mused, getting to his feet and smoothing a hand down his front. “Come on then, Evans…allow me show you the Room of Hidden Things.”

Chapter Text

In the weeks and months following the Battle of Hogwarts there was much discussion over the Room of Requirement as the magical world struggled to return back to normalcy in the wake of the war. Far too many students had seen the room that final night to cover it up now, some even having lived within the safety of its walls out of necessity during the reign of the Carrows. Fortunately, in the chaos of the final battle, most of those who had used the passage between the Room of Requirement and the Hog’s Head couldn’t quite remember how it was they had gotten to safety that night. But that certainly didn’t stop them trying to find it again.

The press was the biggest problem, as they so often were. So many journalists and photographers had been attempting to sneak on the grounds as it was and the thought of being the first to cover a mysterious room that had offered such safe haven in the war had them chomping at the bit. Finally the portrait of Albus Dumbledore convinced the Headmistress to draft a statement to say that the room had been something of his own invention, and that it could open only when the students were in great peril. As a point of concession, he would ‘assist the staff’ in re-opening the room again once a year on the anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts as a Memorial of the Fallen.

This, coupled with the Age Lines put in place to prevent students from entering the corridor after hours, worked for the most part in allowing the Room of Requirement to pass from somewhat common knowledge to Hogwarts legend. Unfortunately, more stringent protections were required after Professor Trelawney turned to drinking when a particularly nasty exposé was released by Rita Skeeter. As she had in years past, the gauzy woman attempted one night to hide her empty bottles of cooking sherry in the Room of Hidden Things once she was well and thoroughly sauced.

The Fiendfyre that tore out into the corridor did not injure the Divination teacher too terribly, for the door knocked her flat onto her back as it burst open. Edgar Mulligan, the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at that time, had not been so lucky. Having happened to hear the sound of the cursed flames raging in the corridor from nearby, the teacher came running and managed to cast the counter-curse, but not before being badly burned.

The damage caused by the curse in the corridor prior to the door’s closure and Professor Mulligan’s counter-curse obliterated the charms that had been laid for the students, and the staff found it difficult to apply any further spellwork even after they’d repaired the damage. It was then that the written ban on students entering the corridor without escort was passed, under the guise of keeping the curious children from attempting to break into the Memorial of the Fallen before the anniversary. Professor Mulligan was transferred to St Mungo’s under the guise of class preparation gone awry and Professor Trelawney, devastated by the havoc she’d inadvertently caused, finally resigned her post.

Harry had never gone to the annual remembrance of the Battle of Hogwarts, nor had he ever seen the Memorial of the Fallen, though he’d heard about it from Ginny and the others. Supposedly it was actually quite…nice. He supposed that shouldn’t surprise him, given that the Room of Requirement would be able to create exactly the sort of memorial people needed. But he had not, in all this time, heard any rumours about the Room of Hidden Things and so Harry watched with more than a little trepidation as Malfoy paced back and forth down the corridor, looking far too pleased with himself. The last time he’d been in the room with Malfoy, it had been very much on fire following an unsuccessful attempt on the other wizard’s part to capture Harry for Lord Voldemort.

“Do I want to know what it is you’re doing right now?” he asked dryly from where Malfoy had instructed him to stand, out of the way of the room’s magic.

“Scared, Evans?” Malfoy asked with a mocking smirk, glancing over at him briefly. “Who would have guessed all it takes to make you nervous is to walk back and forth.”

“I suppose I should just be grateful that you aren’t making me do it. Or is that you actually meant to have me be the one to wander about like a prat, but flubbed the execution?”

Casting him a withering glance, Malfoy stopped once he’d finished the required movements past the hidden door and folded his arms to smirk in satisfaction as it appeared. “After you,” he said generously, gesturing casually toward the newly fashioned doorway.

The once sturdy, non-descript door now looked to be singed about the edges and Harry cast his eyes warily between it and Malfoy. “Is this the part where I disappear and no one finds the body? Because I honestly had no intention of making Miss Greystone cry, I assure you.”

“You have been making such an impression on the students…but I thought I’d at least give you a month. Finding a replacement will be far easier then,” Malfoy drawled lazily and Harry wasn’t entirely sure that he was joking. “Remember that you were the one who wanted to see why it was this corridor is out of bounds. I am simply doing you the great courtesy of showing you.”

“Thanks?” Harry said uncertainly, but he walked forward to carefully put his hand on the doorknob. It was warm beneath his touch, though not scalding, and he turned it cautiously before edging it open.

A wave of dry heat washed out of the room, the acrid stench of burned things filling the corridor. When he didn’t immediately sense any danger, Harry pulled the door open wider and looked inside. The Room of Hidden Things was a ruin of charcoal and ash, red coals still burning throughout the large, dark room. Harry thought he could hear odd murmurs echoing throughout the space, as though a crowd of people were holding whispered conversation. He started to look back at Malfoy in confusion when the coals nearest the door suddenly shifted and he realized that they were alive. The whole room was covered in snakes the pale-grey shade of ash, their eyes glowing red as embers. Sensing the change in the air from where he stood looking in, dozens of the serpents started to slither toward Harry and he promptly closed the door.

“Why,” Harry began, giving Malfoy an incredulous look, “does Hogwarts have an entire room full of ashwinders?”

Malfoy’s mouth twisted into a rather condescending smile. “Given that you’ve identified them as such, I rather thought you could sort that part yourself,” he pointed out. “But let us say that war causes people to make foolish missteps, which sometimes includes filling a large, magical chamber with a large, magical fire.”

“The war ended eleven years ago,” Harry said in exasperation, shaking his head.

“That’s the trouble with a magical chamber,” Malfoy sneered. “It doesn’t recognize time in quite the same way we do. Once the staff realized the fire was still burning, they imposed the restriction on the corridor, lest some idiot child or drunken fraud stumble upon it.”

Raising a pale hand, Malfoy ran it over the burned edges of the door lightly, standing close to Harry now. “A few years ago I found myself curious and opened it up to see for myself. That’s when I found the infestation,” he explained, brow furrowed as though troubled by some memory. “It was inevitable that ashwinders would rise from such a fire at some point. Since then I’ve been going in every once in a while to clear out some of the nest and collect as many eggs as I can manage, but there’s far too many of them and the peculiarity of the room seems to keep them alive longer than usual. They’re certainly not as dangerous as Fiendfyre, but the nest is more than capable of burning down a good portion of the school should they escape.”

Harry looked between the Gamekeeper and the door, then felt a sudden wave of his old reckless bravery rise up. “Duel me,” he said firmly.

“I beg your pardon?” Malfoy asked, giving Harry a look of clear disbelief.

“For my Charms Combo,” Harry clarified quickly. “I have one on Monday morning for the Fifth Years, Slytherin and Gryffindor. Duel me in a practical demonstration and I’ll clear the nest.”

Malfoy stared at him as though trying to determine whether or not he was taking the piss. “Just so we’re clear,” he began slowly, “rather than clearing out the nest because it’s a threat to the school, you’re offering to do it in trade. For a duel. In front of students.”

“Yes,” Harry assured him firmly, refusing to be deterred.

Glancing at the blackened door and then back at Harry again, Malfoy’s sceptic expression turned contemplative, as Harry had hoped it would. “Very well,” he said after a long, silent deliberation. “In return for your extermination services, I will embarrass you in front of a group of fifteen year olds. IF,” Malfoy smiled with rather malicious glee, “you can clear out every single one.

“Deal,” Harry said promptly and began unbuttoning his robes. He ignored Malfoy as the Gamekeeper watched this in surprise, then consideration. Feeling a flush rise on the back of his neck to be regarded so closely, Harry gave him a pointed look, “I’m not trying to catch fire here.”

“No, please, don’t let me stop you stripping within these hallowed halls of learning,” Malfoy mocked with a sly smile, folding his arms and leaning up against the wall.

Studiously ignoring him only by focusing on the fact that he’d be able to knock Malfoy on his arse come Monday, Harry continued to remove his clothing until he stood in his trousers and an undershirt, both an unremarkable black. He knew that Malfoy would see his bandaged arm in this way, especially since Harry had to remove the enchanted glove lest he damage it, but it was a risk he was willing to take. As he’d thought, Malfoy made no comment of it, though his grey eyes did travel the bandages running from fingertip to shoulder. Harry knew that Malfoy remembered being seen at St Mungo’s and suspected it would be enough to keep unwanted questions at bay on either side.

Touching the Hawthorn wand sheathed at his thigh, Harry nodded to the Gamekeeper. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said politely.

“Oh, I’m most definitely coming with you,” Malfoy said, pushing off the wall and dusting lightly at his tunic.

“You’re what?” Harry asked, taken aback.

“It would hardly be responsible of me to let you go in there and die alone,” he replied nonchalantly, pulling his half-cloak from a small pocket on his belt and shaking it out. “And besides I’ll need to verify that you hold up your end of the bargain.”

Harry scowled at him, because he very much did not want Malfoy going in there with him. On his own, he would simply use Parseltongue to command the lot of them into a massive, easily obliterated pile and be done with it. With Malfoy there, Harry wouldn’t be able to do anything that would reveal him as a Parselmouth. Mundungus had been doing a fair job of getting just enough attention on him that people believed Harry had left the country, but Parselmouths were far too rare and while Harry had a great many adjectives he might use to describe Draco Malfoy, ‘idiot’ was sadly not among them.

“Is this really necessary?” Harry questioned with a weary sigh, already knowing the answer even before he asked it.

“Most assuredly,” Malfoy responded, donning his half-cloak. The fabric seemed to shift under Harry’s gaze and he realized it had some sort of camouflage spellwork woven into the fabric. While Harry found this enchantment curious, and wished he could himself reveal his own distinctive Invisibility Cloak, he also found it an odd precaution. Ashwinders, like non-magical snakes, relied far more on taste and smell than sight.

From another pocket on his belt, Malfoy drew a shining silver knife, giving it a small shake so that it suddenly extended a sword’s length. “Shall we?”

Feeling foolishly unprepared now, Harry closed his eyes to centre himself, narrowing his focus in on his breathing as he cleared his mind. He had not been in a true battle since Belize, and he would be fooling himself if he thought taking on a room filled with magical creatures was to be anything less than a battle. Honestly Harry wouldn’t even be considering this if not for the progress he’d managed to make with Snape, his arm far more mobile and his mind clearer than it had been in years. He could do this, he was certain of it.

Nodding, Harry opened his eyes. “Let’s go.”

This was completely foolish and they were both likely to get themselves killed on a Saturday of all things. It occurred to Harry as he wielded a whip of water from the end of his wand that he might not be entirely capable of making calm, rational decisions when Malfoy was involved. There was really no other explanation for him to be panting harshly through ash and acrid, bitter air as he narrowly avoided the open jaws of a striking ashwinder twice as long as he was tall.

Harry was supposed to be on a case. He was supposed to be lying low and teaching classes and preventing one of his oldest friends from being murdered. He was not supposed to be making deals with old rivals and showing off like he hadn’t spent the past two years without full use of his wand arm.

An ashwinder managed to graze his calf over the protection of his dragonhide boots with sharp, burning teeth and Harry kicked at it, knocking it back and into the downward arc of his whip. Off to his left he could see flashes of silver where Malfoy was still culling the nest alongside him, despite his seeming disinterest in the corridor outside. It was obvious that Malfoy had never trained for battle, but it was equally as apparent that the Gamekeeper knew how to read the creatures well enough to hold his own. They were both beginning to tire however, and the ashwinders only seemed to be getting more vicious, growing inexplicably larger the deeper they moved into the room.

Growing frustrated and concerned in equal parts, an idea suddenly came to Harry and he backed up a few steps to give himself a span of seconds for the wandwork before shouting, “Diluviortia!

The dry, burning air was suddenly saturated with moisture as a deluge broke overhead, rain pouring out over them. With effort, Harry focused more of his power into it, feeling pain shoot up his right arm in answer, until the rainfall spread out over all the glowing red eyes he could see gleaming in the burned out room.

“Not the eggs, Evans!” Malfoy complained in exasperation, drawing up his hood to keep from getting soaked.

“We aren’t here for potions ingredients, Malfoy!” Harry shouted back at him, releasing the spell and panting with exertion as the rain continued to fall around them.

Looking around, he saw that the summoned storm had done its job and that the ashwinders had dissolved as their bodies cooled. Slicking his soaked hair back, Harry grinned over at Malfoy in triumphant satisfaction as the rain slowed to a light drizzle.

“Well, I think that settles it, then,” he commented, feeling rather smug. “Every single one, you said?”

Malfoy had still been looking warily about the room and turned to scowl at him at this, then his eyes widened slightly. “That’s right, Evans…every last one,” he replied and gestured with his sword into the darkness beyond Harry.

A feeling of unease settling in his belly, Harry turned slowly to look at the pair of enormous eyes staring out at them in the darkness. Steam started to curl throughout the room as the last of the rain hissed upon the burning scales of an ashwinder the size of a basilisk, moving toward them in a sloshing slide of scales over wet stone. Harry was frozen to the spot simply because of the sheer impossibility of its size, standing still even as it drew ever closer.

‘My children…’ the creature whispered, flicking out a glowing red tongue to taste the air. ‘Where are my children…’

“Evans!” Malfoy hissed, jerking him backwards in a strong grip as the enormous ashwinder struck out at Harry. “Don’t start daydreaming now or we’re both dead! Come on!” He pulled Harry along with him as he started to run back toward the door, splashing through the muck the water and ash had made of the floor.

The ashwinder spat angrily to be denied her prey and moved with terrifying speed, surging through the slog to cut them off. Tongue flicking out again, she must have caught and recognized Malfoy’s scent because she suddenly cried, ‘Thief! THIEF!’

Malfoy cursed and shoved away from Harry as she dove for them again, knocking them both to the floor, and Harry lost his grip on the slender Hawthorn wand. The ashwinder ignored Harry and struck out at Malfoy this time, catching his sword in her massive jaws and pulling it away from him to clatter to the floor, burning heat rolling off of her in waves. Rising high above the Gamekeeper, she bared her fangs, glowing red with heat in the darkness of the room.

‘You DIE!’ she hissed with vicious triumph, mouth open wide as her massive head dove downward in a killing blow.

STOP,” Harry roared in Parseltongue and the ashwinder froze as though he’d used the Time-Stop charm.

Her head swung toward him in curiosity and anger in equal parts, but Harry was already moving. Pushing up from the floor, he sprinted forward and dove for Malfoy’s sword as the ashwinder realized the danger he posed with the power to command her. She went for him even as Harry took up the sword and spun to face her. For a moment, time seemed to stand still, caught between the present and the past as he stared up at both the ashwinder and the basilisk of his youth, sword in hand. Then it was gone and Harry yelled out a wordless challenge as he thrust the sword up into her gaping maw, waves of heat rolling over him, burning at his flesh and threatening to melt his contact lenses.

The heat faded as the great serpent’s body crumbled into cold, wet ash, leaving him standing there panting until Harry’s knees gave out and he slumped to the floor. He and Malfoy stared at one another from where the Gamekeeper was still sprawled upon on the floor, pale and breathing just as hard as Harry. They were both absolutely filthy, soaking wet and smeared over with ash and charcoal and blood from where the creatures had managed to get in a bite or two.

A small, wild laugh escaped Harry to see the state Malfoy was in and once it started he was helpless but to give into it. Malfoy gave him a look that suggested Harry was completely mental, then rolled his eyes and chuckled a bit himself. Pushing up to his feet with effort, Malfoy limped over to Harry, offering him a hand up.

“Thanks,” Harry said roughly as he accepted it, getting unsteadily to his feet. “Nice sword.” He looked it over, feeling the hum of magic in the weapon, then handed it back to Malfoy, who was watching him strangely.

“Thank you…” he replied softly, flicking his wrist so that the sword shrank back into a silver knife once more. “That spell you used…the one that stopped the ashwinder. What was that?”

Feeling a trickle of nervous energy slide like ice down his spine, Harry shrugged and looked away, his eyes searching the mess on the floor until he spotted his wand. “Not sure, really. I’m sorry to say that was wild magic… I dropped my wand when she knocked us over,” he explained, retrieving the wand and waving it a little.

“Ah,” Malfoy nodded once, his eyes following Harry’s movements as he wiped off the wand and sheathed it again. He cast his pale eyes about the room, which had already begun to cool off now that the infestation of ashwinders had been cleared out. “It seems I’ll be seeing you at class on Monday,” he said grudgingly, giving Harry an annoyed look.

Harry beamed at him in return, sure that he looked a dreadful sight. “Can’t wait,” he enthused and honestly meant it.

Snorting at Harry’s glee, Malfoy waved a hand at him as he headed for the door. “You best clean up your wand, then. Don’t want to give the students a bad impression.”

Putting a hand to the wand in question, Harry’s smile slowly faded to an expression of horror as he watched the Gamekeeper walk away. Harry was carrying Draco Malfoy’s wand.

“I need a wand,” Harry blurted out as he entered Hermione’s office later that afternoon, once he’d cleaned himself up and seen to his hurts.

Hermione glanced up from where she’d been reading the Daily Prophet to frown curiously at him. “You…have a wand?” she reminded him with a questioning lilt to her tone.

“A different wand,” he clarified, coming to sit before her desk with a frustrated sigh. “I challenged Malfoy to a duel.”

“Well that didn’t take long,” Hermione sniffed, returning her gaze to the wizarding newspaper.

“Hermione, I’ve still got his wand,” he stressed, irritated that she didn’t seem to be taking in the seriousness of the situation.

“Then perhaps you shouldn’t have challenged him to a duel,” she pointed out with a disapproving look. “I haven’t got any extra wands lying about, Harry. And he would most certainly recognize mine. Anyway, I was hoping I’d see you today. I assume I have you to thank for this?” Hermione handed the paper over to him.

Harry, who had been about to correct her on the use of his real name, froze as he read the headline. ‘Rowle Heir Disappears, Is Someone Targeting Purebloods?’ was printed in large, boldfaced letters over a portrait of Bryndon Rowle looking handsome and charming, as though he never used the Imperious curse on Muggles. His mind raced even as his chest constricted with anxiety that shot like fire through his veins, trying to work out how Hermione had known before a flashing ad below the article caught his eye. The panic eased as abruptly as it had come as Harry suddenly understood what Hermione had been referring to.

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Though Harry couldn’t help but grin a little by the time he’d finished reading it, a glance at Hermione confirmed that she was not so amused. Shrugging, Harry schooled his expression and handed the paper back to her.

“I told you that I had a plan to keep the Ministry from finding Mundungus too quickly,” he reminded her.

“And your plan was to make George and Lee culpable?” she said disapprovingly, looking down at the paper again. “There’s no chance the Ministry won’t come down on them for this.”

“It’s entirely legal,” Harry assured her, though he’d be lying if he said the whole thing hadn’t made him uneasy as well. “The Ministry will have to literally alter their laws to go against them and their brand is globally recognized. They won’t cross them lightly, not knowing the backlash they’ll face from the public.”

Hermione sighed and shook her head, but let the matter drop. “They’ll be all over the school by the end of the week,” she mourned softly. “Despite whatever restrictions we put in place.”

“Won’t that be interesting…” Harry mused with a frown. He was not particularly looking forward to seeing his own countenance popping up for a laugh and he sincerely hoped that he did not end up accidentally hexing a student on instinct. His reputation was bad enough as it was.

It took Harry until early Monday morning for him to give in and ask Snape for help. They had agreed on Friday to take a break from their projects over the weekend for the sake of their sanity after Harry’s rather abysmal first week of teaching. Instead Harry had spent the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday with the Hawthorn wand weighing heavy on his mind. Ordering a wand by either school owl or his raven on a rush order would be akin to lighting a beacon on the situation, and Snape had warned Harry against further magical travel until they understood the nature of his infection. Harry thought this precaution to be overzealous, but Snape hadn’t been wrong thus far and it seemed foolish to start second guessing him now.

That left Harry with the very real and imminent problem of the wand, however. While he was sure that Malfoy hadn’t been able to get a good luck at before now, given that there wasn’t much need for Harry to use it during their Combos and the Room of Hidden Things had been dark and hectic, there would be no hiding it during a duel. He could simply tell Malfoy he’d changed his mind about it, but Harry thought it just as likely Malfoy would find that to be equally suspicious.

Finally, after a night of pacing about his rooms and entertaining such wild thoughts as breaking into Dumbledore’s tomb to take the Elder Wand, Harry pushed open the door to his office and looked up at Snape. The portrait gave him an irritated look in return, folding his arms and staring down his hooked nose at Harry expectantly.

Harry pressed his lips together for a long moment, then sighed and finally conceded, “I need help.”

Again,” Snape stressed with a smirk. “What is it now?”

“I’m supposed to be duelling Malfoy in a couple hours,” he began, then held up a hand when Snape gave him a severe look, “as a demonstration for my Charms Combo. Flitwick has been refusing me, so I’ve asked Malfoy to do it in hopes that Flitwick will see how I’m not a lunatic.”

“And you’re afraid of losing to Draco, is that it?”

“Not in the slightest,” Harry stated honestly, shaking his head.

“Then why is it you need help?” Snape asked even as he scowled at Harry’s confidence.

“Because…” Harry grimaced and took out his wand, showing it to Snape. “This was his.”

Snape stared at Harry incredulously, looking between him and the wand. “You…captured Draco’s wand and now you want me to help you because you’ve challenged him to a duel as though you aren’t carrying around his stolen property. Does that summarize the situation appropriately?” the Potions Master sneered.

Sighing heavily, Harry put the wand away again. “I wasn’t thinking, alright? After the war I just sort of…forgot that I had it. And then when I remembered, so much time had already passed that it seemed foolish to give it back. Turns out I needed it in the end,” Harry muttered darkly, brushing his fingers over his bandaged arm. “I know I should have gone to get a new wand before coming here, but I’ve had his wand so long that it didn’t cross my mind. Can you help me or not?”

The portrait’s dark eyes were unfathomable as he stared at Harry silently, though anger was clear in his posture. Harry was about to give up and go to find Malfoy when Snape finally spoke again, his tone harsh, “I should make you concede.” He abruptly walked out of the painting in a swirl of robes and Harry’s heart sank, except that the portrait then swung forward on an unseen hinge.

Surprised, Harry stepped forward cautiously to look into the space beyond, his eyes widening slightly at what he found there. Suspended by magic, a slender wand of Willow sat upright within the hidden compartment, surrounded by a wreath of enchanted lilies, ever blooming and fragrant. Emotion swelled in his throat at the sight of it and Harry knew even before he reached out to touch the wand that it had been his mother’s. He had never before even considered what must have happened to his parents’ wands after their deaths and to be confronted with it now was a bittersweet pain in his heart.

Lifting the wand gently out of the magical field that held it aloft, Harry’s eyes blurred with tears as he felt the magic of the wand reach out for him as though in embrace. He shut them tightly and revelled in the feeling, trembling even as he silently wept. Harry remained standing there with the wand for a long time before he finally felt the emotion recede to a gentle ache, wiping his face and carefully swinging the painting shut over the compartment once more. The frame was still empty, but Harry had a feeling Snape hadn’t gone far.

“Thank you,” Harry whispered, resting his forehead against the canvas. “I’ll bring it back, I promise.”

Flitwick was not at all pleased with Harry when Malfoy turned up in the Charms classroom, but he was far too professional to call him out in front of the students. Admittedly, Harry should have gone to talk to his colleague before springing this on him, but in all the worrying over his wand he’d rather forgotten the courtesy. The students were practically buzzing with excitement as soon as they realized they were to bear witness to a duel, many of them already calling out their support of the Care of Magical Creatures teacher.

“Now, now,” Flitwick chastised them in his squeaky voice. “Settle down, everyone! The art of duelling is not one to be taken lightly and while it will be utilized for a practical demonstration today, it is essential that you understand such things are not tolerated among the student body. In preparation for your O.W.L.s, you will need to know how to disarm an opponent at the very least. Basic shielding and counter-charms will also be essential to scoring high marks.”

“I hope that none of you will ever need to use what you learn here,” Harry added honestly. “But it’s better to be needlessly prepared than hopelessly outmatched should the time come.”

Some of the students shifted nervously at Harry’s words and he could see Malfoy roll his eyes with an exaggerated effort, relieving some of the tension Harry had raised. Feeling another prickle of annoyance that the students preferred the grey-eyed wizard over him, Harry turned to face Malfoy and bowed, wand at the ready. A smirk on his lips, Malfoy bowed as well and Harry wondered what his twelve year old self would have thought to know that he’d someday duel the pureblood with proper courtesies.

“Bowing and holding one's wand at the ready is an accepted combative position within a formal duel, showing respect and readiness,” Flitwick instructed the class. “Often times each of the duellists would have a second at the ready should they fall, but this is only a practical demonstration, of course. Professor Malfoy, your wand?”

Malfoy shook his head and Harry realized suddenly that he hadn’t seen the Gamekeeper hold his wand even once since he’d returned to Hogwarts. “It isn’t practical to always have a wand out, Professor Flitwick,” he drawled, rolling his neck and shoulders to loosen them.

Professor Flitwick coughed to hide a small smile and nodded. “Yes, of course, very well. On my mark then, gentlemen. One, two, begin!”

Harry was caught off guard because he hadn’t anticipated to be on the attack, seeing how he was the defence instructor, but he was left no other options with Malfoy currently unarmed. His slight hesitation went to Malfoy’s advantage as the Gamekeeper rushed Harry, clearly recovered from his injuries over the weekend as he caught Harry’s wrist with startling speed, pivoting to get a shoulder under Harry’s outstretched arm and throwing him like a Muggle.

The class erupted while Harry stared up at the ceiling, mildly winded and utterly incensed at Malfoy’s sheer cheek. The infuriating wizard came to grin down at him, raising his brows and offering him a hand up as Flitwick got the students back under control. Scowling, Harry rolled to his feet on his own and got back into position, growling a low, “Do it properly,” as he passed.

“Physical contact is, of course, not permitted in a formal wizard duel,” Flitwick managed to get out with a straight face. “Though is always an option in a real world situation. Thank you for the demonstration, Professor Malfoy. Let’s move on to disarming and shielding now, yes?”

Malfoy bowed with a mocking smile, but finally acquiesced to draw his wand. “As you say, Professor.”

Harry’s own bow was much stiffer this time, partly because his body was still protesting at having been thrown, but mostly because he was fed up. Flitwick counted them in again and this time he didn’t hesitate at all to call out, “Expelliarmus!

The class was not as enthused by the jet of red light as Malfoy’s wand flew easily out of his hand and into Harry’s own. It seemed reproachful at his touch and Harry wondered whether the wand somehow knew that he’d taken one previously from its master. He walked over to Malfoy as Flitwick explained some of the history of the Disarming Charm to the class, handing it back to him.

“Satisfied?” Malfoy asked him, reclaiming his wand and pocketing it again.

Harry frowned at him. “We haven’t even managed an actual duel yet, Malfoy. You could have easily blocked me. Don’t tell me you’re afraid to really take me on,” he challenged, raising an eyebrow.

“Hardly,” Malfoy scowled at the suggestion and Harry could see his jibe had the intended effect. “If it will end this little game, then very well. We’ll have an actual duel.”

Their expressions were far more serious when they returned to position this time, both bowing rather rigidly as to keep their eyes on one another. The room went very quiet when it was clear that the teachers weren’t going lightly into this round and even Flitwick seemed hushed as he cleared his throat to begin the count.

“Ready?” the tiny professor asked needlessly. “One…two…begin!”

Levicorpus!” Harry shouted first, a flash of green light leaving his wand.

Malfoy was pulled off his feet by the ankles, but he was already casting down at them, “Finite!” He dropped and rolled back into a crouch before quickly casting, “Wingardium Leviosa!” at Harry’s robes of all things.

Very glad that he had never been comfortable wearing robes in the traditional style and therefore was firmly wearing both trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, Harry slashed out with his wand and rolled backward out of the garment just in time to avoid the sweep of Malfoy’s leg. He flicked his wand at the robes, which attempted to strangle the other teacher, but Malfoy used a second counter-spell to send them into a harmless pool of fabric upon the ground.

Irritated that Malfoy still wasn’t duelling him directly, he remembered a spell the Gamekeeper had once used in their duel as children and yelled, “Serpensortia!

Several gasps and screams came from their audience as an enormous snake the same bottle green shade as Nagini shot from the end of his wand, hissing angry epithets at Malfoy that only Harry understood. Malfoy drew his silver knife in a fluid motion and threw it at the snake without a thought, killing the conjured beast and levelling his wand at Harry.

Something snapped inside Harry to be staring down a wand and suddenly he wasn’t sure whether or not he was in one of his nightmares, staring down Voldemort or Spider or Hermione. Power pulsed down his wand arm and Snape’s slashing curse erupted from him. With a gasp, Harry came back to himself and quickly shouted, “PROTEGO!” to cage in the spell before it could reach Malfoy.

The curse railed against the shield, cracking it and rebounding to slash at Harry and the stone floor. Gritting his teeth, he lost his concentration on the shield charm as his own power lashed back at him painfully, cutting into his flesh. Flitwick quickly brought up another, larger shield charm to protect the class as Malfoy roared, “EXPELLIARMUS!

Harry’s wand flew from his hand and he felt a sharp tug in his wand arm as well that abruptly cancelled the non-verbal curse. Panting and bleeding, Harry braced his left arm on his thighs as he bent over, right arm dangling uselessly. Distantly, he heard Flitwick working fast to get the class under control, quickly explaining the dangers of wild magic as though everything that had just occurred had been entirely intentional. Boots appeared in his field of vision and Harry looked up to see Malfoy holding out his wand with an unreadable expression.

“I rather think your wand might not approve of me, Evans,” Malfoy commented mildly as he handed it over to him. “Satisfied?” he asked for the second time that lesson.

Reclaiming his wand, Harry swallowed and wordlessly nodded, not able to look the other teacher in the eye as Malfoy turned and left the classroom. Harry stared at the deep cuts on the stone floor and felt numb inside.

Being placed on academic probation his second week of classes was probably the most humiliated Harry had ever felt, but he felt he’d wholly earned it. Technically he was on bed rest due to his injuries, but Harry could see the truth of it clearly enough he did not wonder if it was paranoia. He spent the rest of the week holed up in his rooms and working with Snape, who made it clear that he was doing so because it was obviously necessary to keep Harry from accidentally massacring the staff and students. Harry said nothing to deter Snape’s cold fury toward him, glad for it even as he healed up under repeated doses of Dittany.

Come Friday, after Snape had finally snapped and called him out for his cowardice, Harry went to find Flitwick and apologize for all that had happened. The tiny professor seemed a bit wary of Harry, but also had an air of understanding about him.

“Hermione warned us all before start of term, Jameson,” he explained kindly. “And many of us can relate, of course.”

“Warned you?” Harry asked in confusion, his stomach dropping.

“That you were suffering from past trauma,” Flitwick clarified. “A number of us fought here in the war…we understand what it’s like to struggle through these things.”

“Oh,” Harry said numbly, nodding slowly. “Right, I…I didn’t realize.”

“That’s why I didn’t want to duel you,” the tiny professor admitted. “I did worry that it might trigger some reaction in you. But I saw how your first instinct was to keep your magic from harming others when it went wild. I think with some planning, we might start including practical demonstrations between us. If you know what to expect, I think we’ll do quite well working together.”

“Thank you, Filius,” Harry replied with a small, grateful smile that he feared didn’t really reach his eyes. He’d finally gotten what he wanted, but it was hard to be glad of it in light of the fact that Hermione was still keeping things from him. “If you’ll excuse me, I wanted to go apologize to Professor Malfoy.”

Nodding in understanding, Flitwick waved him off with a smile. Harry did fully intend to make amends to Malfoy for what had happened, but that wasn’t his current destination. He couldn’t believe that Hermione was still manipulating him this way! How easy would it have been for her to explain the steps she’d taken when he’d first brought up the matter of duelling, thus avoiding this whole mess? Harry was fairly vibrating with anger as he rounded the corner to Hermione’s office, but it abruptly faded into cold shock when he who waited there.

Standing still and stern outside Hermione’s office door like some sort of tall, unfriendly statue was Ronald Weasley, Auror of the Ministry.

Chapter Text

The last time Harry had spoken to Ron, it hadn’t been a pleasant conversation. Honestly it hadn’t been a conversation at all, so much as a shouting match in the foyer of the Ministry of Magic. Something about what had happened that night in the jungle had changed Ron as surely as it had Harry, and their broken, jagged pieces no longer fit together. Looking back on it, Harry couldn’t even be sure when exactly their quarrel had begun, his memories hazed in the aftermath of his injury, but he knew that he’d been the one to bring it out in the open.

Hurt and anger had warred together in equal measure as Harry had stalked off the Ministry’s golden lifts, his eyes searching out ginger hair among the various witches and wizards milling about the foyer. Ron was always easy to spot, given his height and colouring, and it was only moments later that Harry caught sight of him near one of the fireplaces, helping Hermione out of the Floo grate. Reckless with anger and the constant pain he’d suffered since waking in St Mungo’s, Harry stalked toward them, uncaring that they would not by any means be afforded privacy there.

“Ron! Oi, Ron!” Harry had yelled out over the everyday din of people conversing and going about their day.

Turning, Ron’s expression closed off when his eyes lit upon Harry, but he turned to face him, folding his arms. “What do you want?”

“What do I want?” Harry echoed in stunned disbelief. “A bloody explanation might do to start! The hell do you get off going behind my back to request I be taken off the Spider case?”

“Harry…” Hermione interjected softly, a pleading expression on her face. “Perhaps we should go somewhere more private.”

“You should have requested it yourself, if you had any decency,” Ron stated coldly, ignoring the way Hermione sighed and looked around them worriedly. “Your wand is gone, your primary arm is useless…if you were anyone other than the beloved Harry Potter you would have been force into retirement soon as we got back.”

“Ron, please-“ Hermione tried again, but was quickly drowned out by Harry.

“So that’s it, is it? I get injured saving your stupid life and you go do your best to make me redundant?” Harry demanded, his voice raising in volume.

Ron threw up his hands, rolling his eyes with an exaggerated effort. “Here we go again, you never can get enough of playing up the saviour bit, can you? Just like we’re bloody teenagers again,” his voice rose mockingly, “‘Who saved the school, Ron? Who won the match for Gryffindor? Who saved Ginny?’ Lot of good that did her in the end, eh Potter? It’s your fault she-“

The ringing in his ears wasn’t quite enough to drown out the cruel, ugly words coming out of Ron’s mouth now, but it was a close thing. Everything seemed to tunnel in around Harry as something dark and violent lashed through him. Cold fire burned down the length of his arm before the world suddenly exploded in white light. Harry didn’t even realize that he’d hit Ron at first, not in all the pain and confusion of wild, angry magic surging through his body. Dimly, he could hear Hermione screaming as he stared down in shock at Ron’s crumpled form, blood and vivid red sparks of primal magic marring his form.

It had been the last time Harry had exchanged words with his best friend and partner. After his subsequent arrest, release and sacking at the hands of the Ministry, he’d immediately gone to see Ron in the hospital, still in a daze of shock and horror. Hermione was sobbing quietly at his bedside when Harry arrived, clutching at Ron’s limp hand with one of her own as the other gently stroked what little hair was visible from under the great swaths of bandages wrapped about his head. She looked up when Harry entered, agony clear in her brown eyes, and Harry tensed as she lurched to her feet, ready to take whatever punishment she flung his way. Instead, he found her suddenly in his arms, face buried in his chest.

“It’s all my fault…” she whispered brokenly. “I’m so sorry… It’s all my fault…”

“Hermione, no…I’m the one that’s sorry. I didn’t…I never wanted to hurt Ron,” he pleaded with her gently, guilt and sorrow threatening to choke him. “This could never be your fault. Hell, the whole bloody Ministry saw me attack him… I’m so sorry…”

They held onto one another for a long time, until Hermione had finally calmed and pulled away from Harry to wipe at her face. “I-it isn’t your fault, Harry… I know…I know it was an accident. But I...” she drew herself up slightly, as though finding her strength. “I think it might be best that you stay away from him. I’m sorry.”

And so Harry had done just that, withdrawing into solitude at Grimmauld Place, keeping an eye to his post in case Ron reached out to him without expecting anything there. Their friendship lay shattered in the chasm between them now. What he’d done, however monstrous Ron’s words, had been unconscionable and part of Harry hated himself for it. Another, darker part had felt wildly vindicated, and that only served to sharpen his self-loathing.

Seeing Ron standing in Hogwarts now, Harry saw for the first time what the aftermath of his attack had wrought as the wizard turned to look at him. It was as though the colour had been blown away from Ron’s face where his fist had struck the left side, his skin and hair gone startlingly white from brow to crown. The eye itself was gone and a golden orb rotated in its place, covered in runes and symbols that caught the light briefly as they passed.

For a wild moment, Harry was sure that Ron could see him through his disguise where he stood frozen on the spot. Then the Auror nodded in simple acknowledgement to his presence and Harry swallowed thickly, forcing himself forward again.

“Is Professor Granger available?” he asked gruffly, very glad he’d never shown Ron this particular guise. Harry had always been better at Transfiguration between the two of them and he remembered suddenly how he’d used to do Ron’s disguises as well.

“Hermione is currently undergoing an Examination,” Ron replied solemnly, his eye spinning in such a way that Harry thought he was looking back through the door. “Looks like they’ve just finished.”

Panic flashed through Harry and he barely had enough time to remember Snape’s lessons, clearing his mind hard and fast as the door opened and Romilda Vane stepped through it. Distantly, Harry felt his stomach turn at the sight of her but merely inclined his head politely as she closed the door behind her.

“Oh. Hello there,” she said softly, running her eyes over him curiously. “I don’t believe we’ve met…”

Harry reached out to take her hand as she offered it, shaking his head. “I’m new on staff this year. Evans,” he told her curtly.

“Evans…yes, I think I remember seeing something about a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher,” she mused, pursing her red-painted lips. “I’m Romilda, Ministry Examiner. Such a pleasure to meet you… And you’ve already met Auror Weasley, of course.”

“An Auror,” Harry repeated, as though it were news to him. “Why would an Auror need to escort an Examiner?”

Romilda’s lips curved into a smile even as Ron frowned at him. “That’s Ministry business,” he replied coldly.

“One cannot be too careful these days, Professor Evans,” Romilda added. “Members of prominent wizarding families gone missing, respectable businesses cursed…and now Harry Potter has abruptly left the country after being relieved from his position…your position, as it happens.”

Harry grunted softly at that, shrugging. “So I’ve heard.”

“Ron?” Hermione’s voice came tremulously from her office as she pulled open the door again, her face ashen. She noticed Harry and her eyes widened slightly, but otherwise she gave away nothing. “O-oh, hello, Jameson. I’m afraid I’m not one for company right now.”

“That’s alright,” Harry told her gently. “I’ll come back later.”

Giving him a pained grimace of a smile, she nodded, then her eyes flicked over to her husband again. “Ron, might…might I have a word?” Hermione asked hesitantly.

“Oh dear,” Romilda said in false dismay, stepping closer to Ron’s stiff form and curling her hand possessively around his upper arm. “I don’t think that would be appropriate, Miss Granger.”

“Professor Granger-Weasley,” Hermione corrected her tersely, her jaw tight.

“Is it still?” Romilda wondered idly, as though none of them could hear her.

“I’m working, Hermione,” Ron told her curtly, his face turned away from her.

Romilda smiled demurely at Hermione, but her eyes were triumphant. “We’re on a schedule, you see…I still have Professors Longbottom and Malfoy to visit today. It would hardly be professional of us to keep them waiting.”

Hermione looked up at Ron, who hadn’t looked at her even once during the exchange, and seemed to deflate, dropping her eyes. “Y-yes, of course. I’ll not delay you further,” she murmured and stepped back, pushing the door closed once more.

Feeling as though his skin were crawling now, Harry could sense the boil of his emotions under the careful blank slate of his mind and knew he needed to get away. “Well,” he said abruptly. “I shouldn’t hold you up any more either. Pleasure meeting you.” Nodding at them both, he turned on his heel and walked away.

Harry had wholly intended to return to his rooms and stay there until he could be certain that Romilda and Ron had left the premises, but inexplicably found himself walking out of the castle toward Hagrid’s cottage. Or rather, Malfoy’s cottage. This was utter folly, the sort of half-baked and entirely impulsive scheme that Harry would have come up with in his youth, but even the acknowledgement of that had yet to stay his gait. There was no time to get to the greenhouses and find an appropriate place to spy upon the proceedings of the Examination, but he should have more than enough time to prepare things at Malfoy’s cottage. Assuming he even let Harry cross the threshold after their disastrous duel.

The only Examination Harry had ever borne witness to had been his own since the time of their creation, but he had never before heard of an Auror being called in for added protection. And for the Ministry to pull this kind of stunt at Hogwarts of all places…Harry wanted to know exactly what it was Romilda was up to. It was possible the witch had brought Ron with her specifically to weaken Hermione’s mental defences before their session, but somehow he thought that while she may have chosen the particular Auror, one would have been sent along in either case. Was the Ministry really so shaken by his absence?

His mind was still spinning the problem about as he distractedly stomped up to Malfoy’s front door, rapping his knuckles sharply on the wooden surface without a thought. As the Gamekeeper pulled open the door in answer, Harry suddenly realized that he had absolutely no idea what it was he was supposed to say to the pale wizard.

For a long moment, they simply stared at one another, until Malfoy gave Harry a pointed look. “Yes?”

“Hi,” Harry said dumbly in answer.

“Hi,” Malfoy repeated, his tone flat. “Was there something you wanted?”

“Yes,” Harry replied confidently, even as he cast about wildly for some sort of idea. “Might I come in?”

“That depends,” Malfoy drawled, leaning against the doorframe and raising a pale brow at him. “Are you planning to lose control of your magic and destroy my cottage?”

“Er…no,” he said lamely, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Not today, I think.”

Snorting at that, Malfoy rolled his eyes and went back inside, leaving the door open to Harry as he did. Stepping inside after an awkward pause, Harry closed the door behind himself and looked around curiously. The cabin was so clean and orderly that it he felt almost as though he needed to step back outside to check that it was indeed the Gamekeeper’s dwelling that he knew from childhood.

When he was younger, Harry had rather thought that Hagrid’s home was like something out of a Muggle storybook, crammed full of curious creatures and their parts such as one might expect of a hedge witch. Now the walls were white washed and the floors cleaned and polished to gleaming, golden boards. Luna’s paintings decorated the space with various depictions of magical creatures, some scientific and some whimsical, but all of them still and non-magical as the airy witch’s art always seemed to be. There were a few other paintings besides the creatures that Harry spied as well, such as a stylized sunrise beneath the easterly window frame, but they now made up the majority of the wall space.

There was actually a surprising amount of room without Hagrid’s overlarge furniture to take up the space. Malfoy now kept a row of workbenches and a small table with three chairs in the main room, a heavy grey curtain blocking off his bedroom from view. Various herbs and braids of hair and other natural things still hung from the rafters, but they were all neatly arranged rather than haphazardly placed. In addition there were even more curiosities held in jars set in rows on shelves over the workbenches, bringing to mind Snape’s private potions stores.

Harry flushed and cleared his throat when he realized Malfoy was watching him look around with a bemused expression, gesturing feebly. “It’s…nice,” he said, wincing around the word.

“I’m so very glad that you think so, Evans,” Malfoy commented blandly, rolling his eyes. “I hope you didn’t come down from the castle just to tell me how nice my cottage is.”

“And here I thought you’d be pleased someone was paying it any mind at all,” Harry said tetchily. “No, Malfoy, I rather have better things to do than wax poetic about your hut.”

Malfoy smirked at that, seeming to relax as he gestured toward his kettle. “Well, I’d offer you tea, but I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that you should make yourself comfortable.”

“I only…that is…” Harry realized suddenly that he actually did have something he’d needed to say to the Gamekeeper and looked away uncomfortably. “I came to apologize.”

Grey eyes watched him with a rather inscrutable look, then Malfoy grimaced and turned to begin boiling water. “Maybe I do want tea, if you’ve come to be nobly repentant,” he muttered.

Harry took the opportunity presented by Malfoy’s turned back to execute his plan, swiftly and silently placing two of his Three Monkeys. “I hardly think it’s noble to have put you in harm’s way, but I will take the tea if you’re offering.”

“I’m not,” Malfoy said shortly, tension in his shoulders. “I have an appointment actually, so you won’t be staying long.”

“The Examiner,” Harry agreed, glancing out the window back toward the castle. When he looked back, he found Malfoy staring at him and shrugged. “I met her outside of Hermione’s office and she mentioned coming here.”

“And so you then decided it was the perfect time to come and apologize,” Malfoy finished flatly, giving him a sceptical look.

Harry shrugged defensively, frowning. “I wasn’t sure whether or not you knew she was here for you…I thought I might warn you. She seems…unpleasant.”

That made Malfoy laugh harshly and he shook his head. “Oh she is, I assure you. Fortunately, she is also required to notify the school of her schedule prior to arrival,” he said acidly. Considering Harry a moment, Malfoy’s brow furrowed slightly. “So you came down here to apologize for narrowly avoiding causing serious harm during a duel you blackmailed me into…all while knowing that there is currently a Ministry Examiner on the premises who may be here to see me?”

“That was hardly blackmail,” Harry protested. “It was a mutually beneficial bargain.”

“Except that one of us chose a task to benefit the school at large, while the other endangered it,” Malfoy pointed out. “Regardless, one would think you a bit foolish to risk drawing Ministry attention…or do you not know what an Examination entails?”

Harry was getting pretty tired of Malfoy being right. “Ah,” he grunted in answer, glancing out the window toward the castle, then back at the Gamekeeper. “Right, then…I suppose I’ll leave you to it.”

“Yes,” Malfoy agreed, the ghost of a smirk on his face. “I suppose you shall.”

Standing under the Invisibility Cloak just inside the Forbidden Forest, Harry watched Romilda and Ron approach the cottage, still feeling rankled from his talk with Malfoy. It truly was foolish for him to have brought up the duel just before a Legilimens was about to try and push her way into the Gamekeeper’s mind. Harry felt he was entirely off his game ever since the disaster of a duel, and the cascading events of the day certainly weren’t helping matters. It was imperative now more than ever that he remained diligent. Romilda was dangerous and could easily expose him should he misstep now. Letting that thought firm his resolve, Harry focused on clearing his mind and crouched down to be sure he would be well hidden from Ron’s magical eye.

From within his robes, Harry drew out a pair of gold rimmed spectacles and donned them, tapping the sides three times in concert to activate the charm on his Three Monkeys. Hearer came online first, just in time for Harry to hear the light rapping of Romilda’s knuckles at Malfoy’s door. He saw Malfoy cross the room with forced casualness as Seer flickered to life soon after.

The Three Monkeys were a product George and Lee had developed a few years ago, but it had been immediately apparent that the charm was too dangerous to be marketable to the public. It consisted of three small, seemingly ordinary figurines of simian creatures, each with differing exaggerated features, and a pair of glasses to which they were all bound in a variation of the Protean Charm. Seer, Hearer and Speaker would quickly crawl away to hide themselves when placed in a room, waiting for the charm to be activated.

Seer, equipped with large, round eyes, allowed one to see everything within the statue’s field of view. Similarly, Hearer had overlarge ears that could pick up conversation in about a ten foot radius without loss of clarity. Speaker, still in Harry’s pocket and equipped with a comically large mouth, acted as a speaker box and was the only one of the Three Monkey’s that had actually gone into full production at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, as it made for a great party gag. They were incredibly useful, though hampered slightly by needing to remain within a certain proximity when activating the charm.

“Draco…” Romilda purred as the door opened, stepping inside before he had even made room for her to enter. “How lovely to see you.”

“Madam Examiner,” Malfoy replied coolly, eyeing Ron distastefully before shutting the door firmly on him. “I see that you’re accessorizing now.”

“Oh, Ron’s been so worried about me lately, ever since one of my clients went rogue,” she explained flippantly, looking around the cottage idly. “I like what you’ve done in here. It doesn’t feel like I’m at risk at catching fleas anymore.”

“Thank you,” he said, and though Harry couldn’t see his face he thought it might be carefully blank. “Might I offer you some tea?”

“Please,” she replied, leaning against a workbench fetchingly. “My reception elsewhere in the castle has been so cold. No one seems to have good manners anymore.”

“Perhaps you might chose a different companion next time,” Malfoy suggested, preparing their tea by hand. “I imagine Granger and Longbottom have rather strong feelings about this one.”

“Hmm…I suppose you have a point. It’s a shame they can’t maintain their professionalism like Ron can,” she commented, taking the delicate teacup from him when Malfoy offered it to her. “Or you, for that matter. Living here like this, answering to a Muggle-born when you ought to be living the leisurely life of a Pureblood heir… I can’t imagine how you do it.” She sounded wistful as she spoke, running her fingertips delicately around the lip of her cup.

Malfoy’s expression was faintly haughty and Harry wondered if it were only for Romilda’s benefit. “Yes, well I expect that’s what happens when you come out on the wrong side of popular favour,” he said blandly. “Shall we get on with it? I’m sure you must have a full schedule these days.”

Romilda sighed and ran her fingers through her fall of dark hair. “I do… It shouldn’t be this hard for people to stay loyal to the Ministry. And it’s such a shame that someone like you, who has clearly shown repentance all these years is still on my docket just because of a slip up in your youth,” she simpered, putting a sympathetic hand on Malfoy’s arm that had Harry frowning where he sat concealed. “But you’re right, we should get these unpleasantries out of the way…I would hate to hold you up on a Friday.”

Setting her cup aside, Romilda drew out her notebook and quill, placing them on the worktable. “Now then…do you feel remorseful toward your actions during the Second Wizarding War?”

“Yes,” Malfoy replied calmly.

“Do you regret having used an Unforgivable?”

“I do,” he agreed.

“Are you harbouring anti-Ministry sentiments?”

“Taxes are higher than I’d like…and the funding for my programs are abysmal,” Malfoy commented dryly, folding his arms.

Romilda smiled coyly at him and asked, “Do your feelings toward the current state of the Ministry cause you to entertain any thoughts of overthrowing the current regime?”

“Most assuredly, but no more than any other common worker, I’m certain. No grand plans of treason for me.”

“You ought not to tease such things, Draco…imagine if I took you at your words alone. Now then, would you care to have me examine your mind or your wand first?” she asked, pulling out her own wand.

Harry stiffened in surprise at her question, his hand gripping at the bark on the tree he crouched beside as though to ground himself. He knew full well that examining a wand was not part of the standard protocol. When he’d realized he would undergo Examination, Harry had been sure to read through the laws governing the program very closely. Nowhere in their convoluted text had it ever mentioned examination of a wand as well as the wizard. How long had Romilda been violating Malfoy’s rights in this way?

In the cottage, Harry watched as the Gamekeeper shrugged as though unconcerned. “Whatever you like. I’ve no preference.”

“Very well. Legilimens.”

It was strange watching someone else undergo Legilimency, something Harry had never gotten the chance to witness like this before. Legilimens were notoriously private when it came to their work, and it was hardly as though Harry could have supervised his own sessions with Romilda over the last two years. From the outside it appeared as though Romilda and Malfoy were simply staring at one another, locked in an intense gaze. Malfoy somehow managed to look both relaxed, yet focused intently on the witch, giving off an air that he was in control of what was happening to him.

This continued as the minutes stretched onward until they both relaxed suddenly and Romilda nodded, running her fingers through her hair again. “Thank you, Draco. That new teacher truly is curiously magnetic, I’ll admit. Do you know his heritage?” she wondered, and Harry felt a twinge of awareness prickle along his neck to overhear her speak of him.

“It hasn’t come up,” Malfoy drawled lazily. “We’ve hardly spoken to one another…you understand how people can be sensitive about interactions with former Death Eaters.” The comment caught Harry off guard briefly until he realized that Malfoy was deflecting for him.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Draco,” Romilda said sympathetically. “Such prejudices are his loss. Your wand, please.”

The tension in Malfoy’s body was clear to Harry even as he appeared outwardly nonchalant in drawing his wand from his belt, handing it over to her. Of course Harry had never thought to consider this scenario before, but he knew suddenly that this was the reason he had never seen Malfoy use his wand prior to their duel. To be monitored like a common criminal had to be humiliating and Harry felt a swell of fresh regret to have pressured Malfoy into their duel.

Priori Incantatum,” she cast, holding her own wand to Malfoy’s. Watching closely, she verbalized spells as they appeared so that they would be notated by her quill and Harry wondered if Malfoy had begun casting simple, household magic as soon as he’d known of her coming. When Malfoy’s wand gave off a jet of red light, she stopped, watching it with a pregnant pause. “Disarming Charm,” she said softly, and it was clear from her tone that this was a problem.

“Madam Examiner,” Malfoy began, only to be cut off.

“The Disarming Charm is a Class II incantation. The use of this spell violates the terms of your probation,” Romilda told him firmly, handing back his wand.

“The charm was used only for instructive purposes, not in practice, Madam Examiner. If you would speak with Professor Flitwick, he-“

“Your subject matter does not include the instruction of magic, Professor Malfoy,” she cut him off again, all the earlier warmth gone now, though her voice was still sickly sweet. “And any such use of instructive spellwork should have been filed with my office three weeks prior to use. I’m afraid this will have to be included in my report.”

Harry felt numb with shock and anger and guilt as he watched Malfoy, trying to guess what emotions lay under the blank slate of his face. “I understand,” he said finally, taking his wand and putting it away a touch roughly.

Nodding curtly, Romilda gathered up her quill and pad to leave, but then paused, her gaze drawn to the easterly window as though a thought had come to her. She broke free of her reverie after a thoughtful moment and regarded him closely.

“But perhaps…some note of the circumstances could be included,” she conceded, causing a flicker of surprise to dart over Malfoy’s face. “After all, you’ve had no incidents in quite some time, Draco.”

“I… Thank you, Madam Examiner. I appreciate the courtesy,” Malfoy said slowly, clearly taken aback by the sudden change.

“Of course, I will need to return again before the end of this year, I think. So do try not to make any more lapses in judgement,” Romilda sighed, reaching up to touch his cheek as though she had every right to.

Harry watched as the two parted ways, Romilda collecting Ron from outside the cottage to walk back across the grounds as the sun began to set. Malfoy returned to his worktop as they left, and though Harry knew he should break the charm now that they’d gone, he watched all the same. Body tense and trembling as a live wire, Malfoy braced himself against his workbench, head hanging between his shoulders. After a long, tense time in this pose, he suddenly turned into a whirl of motion, seizing the cup Romilda had been drinking from and smashing it against the far wall with an animalistic snarl of rage.

Getting to his feet as Malfoy marched across his cottage and burst out of it, Harry quickly pulled off the glasses from underneath the Invisibility Cloak, briefly disoriented before his gaze lit upon the Gamekeeper where he was stomping away from his home and right at Harry. Harry froze, shocked into stillness, but then Malfoy went past him and into the Forbidden Forest as had clearly been his intention from the start, roughly jerking up the hood of his half-cloak as he passed. Harry hesitated only briefly and then followed him into the darkened wood.

Dying rays of sunlight played through the gloom of the Forbidden Forest in small patches, catching now and again on Malfoy in patches of gold and umber as Harry tracked him deeper into its depths. He avoided the beams of light as much as was possible, despite trusting the Invisibility Cloak’s magic to conceal him. Soon the sun would fully set and leave them both in darkness and Harry wanted to keep his eyes as sharp as possible. It would take but a moment at this distance to lose sight of the Gamekeeper, especially in the enchanted hood he wore for camouflage.

It grew ever darker as dusk settled in the sky above and Harry was about to stop and cast a Heat-Seeking Charm on his eyes to make up for the lack of light when Malfoy finally stopped. Cautiously, Harry drew closer, careful of every placement of his feet. He was well aware that he should not be here and that Malfoy would be understandably furious should he be caught. A flash of pale gold caught Harry’s eye as the Gamekeeper pulled off his hood to reveal his pale hair, folding it up to a seemingly impossible size before he placed it into a pouch on his belt.

As he neared, Harry saw that Malfoy was standing before the largest Hawthorn tree he’d ever seen, so large in fact that it took him a moment to place the tree’s species. It looked out of place among the ancient Fir and Oak that towered about them, but there was a wildness to the Hawthorn tree that seemed well at home in the Forbidden Forest. Settling himself a safe distance away, not crouched or hiding now that the potential of being spotted by a magical golden eye had passed, Harry watched as Malfoy rolled the sleeves of his tunic and approached the silver-barked trunk.

The bandages Harry had seen weeks before were gone now and he could just make out faint lines scoring Malfoy’s left forearm where he must have been clawed by some creature. Any curiosity Harry felt toward the marks was abruptly replaced by ponderous fascination, because Malfoy had placed his pale hands on the trunk of the Hawthorn tree and it came alive. It wasn’t the sentient mobility the likes of the Whomping Willow, the branches still and rustling faintly in some unseen wind rather than thrashing about. But the leaves, which had been a dark green on the turn to fall foliage, exploded in orange and red and deep purple, lit by silver fairy lights that began to spiral outward from where Malfoy’s hands were pressed to brighten the grove they stood in.

It was easily one of the most eerie, beautiful things Harry had ever witnessed to see the tree begin to cycle through its seasons under Malfoy’s touch, flowering and ripening with deep red berries before they fell to the earth in turn while the leaves changed ever more. The Gamekeeper began to tremble, gasping softly until he finally collapsed to his knees, resting his head against the smooth, silver bark as the tree’s foliage settled back to fall. One by one, the fairy lights slowly winked out until darkness lay over them once more.

An orange spark of flame came from where Malfoy sat as he lit a lantern, looking tired and fey beneath the boughs of his tree, his pale hair in wild disarray. Harry felt a strong urge to go to him, to ask what the hell all that had been about, but he wisely remained in place. After sitting there a while longer, eating a few of the fallen flowers and berries as he did, Malfoy shakily got to his feet and drew out his half-cloak once more, donning it. He brushed his pale fingers over the bark in a last caress, drawing a small shiver of sparks from the boughs, then turned and walked back into the forest, his lantern held aloft.

Harry watched him go, knowing that he should follow and knowing he would remain all the same. Curiosity toward the unknown was part of what had led him to being an investigator and all the common sense in the world could do nothing to keep him examining the tree up close. He waited until the orange glow of the lantern had faded from view entirely, then stepped toward the tree, drawing his wand and letting the cloak fall away to a silvery pool of fabric.

Lumos,” he whispered, bringing a small light to bear and holding it aloft.

The Hawthorn tree looked even larger standing beneath its wide canopy and Harry was sure that it had grown larger from Malfoy’s touch. He could see wicked thorns hidden among the leaves, long as his hand and sharp as daggers. Crouching, Harry picked up one of the red, ripe berries, turning it over in the light of his wand before cautiously bringing it to his lips. The flavour burst in his mouth when he bit into it and he grunted softly in surprise, feeling a tingle of magic still upon the fruit as it slid over his tongue. He ate a few more of them and a flower as well, but Harry knew he was just holding off the inevitable.

Tucking away his wand, Harry drew a slow, calming breath, releasing it just as consciously before he reached out to lay his left hand upon the bark. The air stilled in his throat and he stumbled against the tree as it reached for him, feeling for his magic in a way that was alien and familiar all in one. It was an overwhelming sensation, being filled and studied in a way that was beyond any conception of pain or pleasure. Distantly, he knew that the tree was giving off a faint, golden glow, but Harry could barely process his other senses. Cold agony flared up with an almost panicked frenzy as the tree’s magic tried to feel along his wand arm to the shards of Holly and the shock of it was enough that he was able to stumble backwards, falling to the forest floor and gasping for breath.

Harry knew somehow that his disguise had been stripped away as he lay there, staring up at the faintly glowing Hawthorn tree, which shivered and shook off the gold light limning its leaves into a shower of sparks. Should Malfoy come back now he would be wholly exposed, but Harry rather felt that way already after the tree’s tender care. Pushing himself upright with agonizing slowness, Harry drew out his wand to summon his cloak over to him, then froze, staring down at it. Suddenly he understood why the overwhelming power of the tree had felt familiar…it was reacting to him in the same quasi-sentient manner as a wand.

The Hawthorn tree was a conduit of magic. Malfoy’s magic.

Chapter Text

Strangely, returning to class after the disaster of the duel and the events that followed was suddenly much easier. Harry was still rather crap at instructing the students without scaring them half the time, but he simply stopped caring quite so much. It occurred to Harry that the professors who had frightened or unnerved him in his youth had really done the most to shape him. In this seeming time of peace, perhaps the best thing he could do for the magical youth was present a picture that things were not as well as they’d been led to believe. The benefit of being feared was that his students had studiously kept from bringing any joke shop products into his classes, especially after he’d hexed three students using Potter Pops in the span of a single day. The first two had been accidental…the third he claimed to have been so.

The visit from the Ministry Examiner seemed to cause a wave of subdual throughout the rest of the staff; the exception being Cormac, who seemed even more arrogant and annoying than usual. Malfoy had hardly spoken to Harry at all except during their Combos and admittedly he was a bit glad for it. Some part of him was afraid that the Gamekeeper would simply know that Harry had followed him out to the Hawthorn tree. Hermione, too, had been keeping to herself since her Examination, and Harry felt for her pain and loss enough that he let go of his previous anger for her secrets rather than confronting her. He had spent so long caught up in his own suffering at Romilda’s hands that he hadn’t considered whether anyone else was going through their own battles with the witch.

In the last week of October, more than a month since the discovery of the Hawthorn tree, Harry checked in on Anorak and his ever-growing nest of trinkets to find the raven hoarding a letter from Teddy. His classes with his godson had proved to be the greatest challenge he faced even after close to two months of school behind him. It killed Harry a little every time he saw Teddy cast him a wary glance or frown suspiciously whenever Harry did something the boy found particularly troubling. Begging Anorak off with a scone as payment for services rendered, Harry sank into one of the empty chairs in the airy, painted room and opened Teddy’s letter.

Harry,

I hope you’re doing well. The papers seem to think you’re in India now, but no one is really sure now that everyone is trying Potter Pops. Some of the seventh years got a big order in before they were banned at school and use them to give us younger kids encouragement if we get homesick or have trouble with our coursework. It’s mental to keep seeing you in the common room…but kind of nice, too.

Classes are going well. Professor Malfoy signed all my books, just like you said he would! CMC (that’s what we call Care of Magical Creatures) is definitely my favourite class here. Professor Malfoy is a really good teacher, but he was sick a few days this month and you’ll never guess who subbed in! It was Luna!

Harry grinned to remember when Luna had indeed been on the grounds in early October. Malfoy had indeed ended up confined to bed rest for three days, as had Neville. The pair of them had apparently been recovering from a bad row with the Whomping Willow while prepping for Combos and thus had their classes subbed for them. Along with Luna, the former Professor Sprout, rosy-cheeked as ever, had graciously come in out of retirement to assist with Herbology for Neville. While Harry couldn’t approach Madam Sprout as anything other than a stranger, Luna had been a welcome and highly entertaining addition to the staff table, and it had admittedly been nice to have someone else on the grounds who knew the truth of him.

Teaching children is actually similar to communion with the Whomping Willow, of course,” she had told them over tea in the staff room. “You have to approach from a place of both empathy and authority. Upset the balance too far in either direction and-“ she struck the table so that their cups rattled in their saucers, “-you’ll be walloped for your troubles.

I take it you think I’m not being empathic, then?” Harry had wondered, picking up his cup before she knocked it over entirely.

Oh no, quite the opposite,” Luna disagreed airily, shaking her head so that her earrings swayed. They looked to be Quaffles painted in the Holyhead Harpies colours. “This isn’t secret DADA lessons in the war, of course. You’re their teacher, not their peer. You care too much whether they’re comfortable with the subject when it truth it doesn’t really matter what they think, because they are children and you are a full-grown wizard who knows exactly how important it is.

I’m not sure most of the creatures she taught us about have officially been discovered yet, but I’m sure she’ll find hard evidence soon! A lot of the other students thought she was a bit mad, but they just don’t understand her, is all.

Next to CMC, I think Hermione’s class is probably my second favourite. Did you know Muggles went to the moon just to put up a flag? Six times! I hope I get to see a space shuttle someday! They’re wicked! I haven’t had a lot of luck with flying lessons just yet, but my friend Cal says it’s probably just because the school brooms are old (he actually said ‘crap’, but I know that’s what he meant). I bet I’ll pick it up soon.

Have you ever heard of someone called Jameson S Evans? (I don’t know what the S stands for, sorry.) He’s the DADA teacher here and I don’t trust and I heard from some of the other students that he brought a boggart to his fifth year Combo with CMC, but when he got too close the boggart turned into you!

Harry paused to grimace at that, thumping his knuckles against his forehead. That had been a grave miscalculation on his part… In reviewing previous years of coursework, he saw that the older students had yet to do any practical work with a boggart, and thus Harry had seized upon the opportunity. Malfoy had looked curiously sceptical when he’d brought it up, but acquiesced and adjusted their course plan to fit it in. The boggart, which Harry had been keeping in his Clap Trap since taking it from the home of Augustus Price, had diminished slightly in strength while unable to feed and was more than eager for a go at the students.

At first, everything had gone according to plan. The students had confronted their fears and made mockeries of them in turn, laughter coming easily for the first time in one of his classes. Then poor Wanda Weir’s worst fear turned out to be the death of her beloved dog, and the shock of it caused her to burst into wailing sobs. Without thinking, Harry stepped between Wanda and the boggart, shielding her from its view before it occurred to him that a Dementor was hardly going to help the situation. Drawing his wand, he prepared to cast the spell before the boggart could fully form, but froze into stillness when an actual human face appeared…his own.

It was not like looking into a mirror, at least not one that reflected him as he truly was. The version of himself the boggart showed him now was pale and cold and had a sharpness to his smile that spoke of dark intent. Harry knew with sudden surety this was the Dark Lord Harry Potter and his stomach twisted in fear. Distantly, Harry heard the rest of the class murmuring and shifting uneasily behind him before Malfoy’s confident, “Ridiculos!” came clearly over the din. The boggart promptly hiked up his robes to perform a ludicrous French can-can, complete with red and gold garters and voluminous satin pants that were generously frilled. The roar of shocked laughter made it all too easy to drive the boggart back into the Clap Trap.

Malfoy hadn’t mentioned the boggart to him since it happened, but the list of things that went unsaid between them seemed to be growing longer by the day. Hermione had been exasperated, but not too terribly concerned when he’d told her what had happened.

The way the Ministry has started to turn the press, it won’t be long before all manner of people will start to fear you. If anyone does bring it up, you’re just going to have to convince them that you’re a conspiracy theorist who believes Harry Potter has gone dark,” she told him sensibly. “Honestly I don’t think anyone will need to stretch their imagination too hard….you’re earning yourself a bit of a reputation.

You must know him if he’s afraid of you, right? I tried talking to Hermione about him, but she told me being your godson doesn’t mean I have to go looking for trouble where there’s none to be found. Neville wouldn’t say anything about him either, but I think he agrees with me….Professor Evans might be a Dark Wizard.

“I’m positive he agrees with you…” Harry muttered unhappily.

Neville’s unwavering honesty had always been one of the things Harry had most admired about his friend, but there were some days where he felt close to grabbing hold of the Herbologist and shaking him like a rattle. Though the violence had been too much for Neville to handle after a few years, he’d made a fantastic Auror for a time. His instincts were always spot on as to when a suspect was hiding something and Neville made it painfully obvious now that he knew Harry was hiding something and didn’t trust him.

You’re hiding something,” Neville had in fact told him bluntly after classes when Harry had tried to make friendly conversation. “I don’t know what it is yet, and I don’t expect you to tell me, but I don’t trust you because of it. Sorry.

It was entirely Harry’s fault, of course. He could just be honest with Neville, but an explanation of who he was would lead to discussions of why he was here. Having an extra set of trained eyes would surely be a boon, but it might just as easily make Neville a target. Or worse, Hannah. She may have been a member of Dumbledore’s Army, but she wasn’t an Auror and she was well removed from their protection should she become entangled in what was happening. Despite that there hadn’t been another attack on Hermione since the Fiendfyre, Harry had to assume that her aggressor was still on the grounds…and tied to Romilda. He may be paranoid, but the Ministry Examiner’s visit so soon after his duel with Malfoy had been a little too well-timed.

I don’t want you to worry, though. You’ve always said Hermione was the smartest witch you know, so if she’s not afraid, then I guess we’re safe. Still, if you feel like coming to Scotland to check him out, will you let me know? I miss you.

Love, Teddy

P.S. If you are in India, make sure you give Anorak a good rest and some nice raw meat before you send him back. You feed him too many pastries.

P.P.S. It’s Hallowe’en here on Friday! Do they celebrate Hallowe’en in India?

P.P.P.S. Almost forgot to tell you that DADA = Defence Against the Dark Arts

Abruptly Harry’s vision tunnelled and went a bit grey with shock as he reread the post script, a loud ringing in his ears. Hallowe’en...Hallowe’en was on Friday. Hands shaking, he numbly folded up the letter again as panic flared hot and ugly in the pit of his belly, racing along his spine to burn at the base of his skull like a thousand stinging needles. Struggling to breathe around the steel band on his chest, Harry fumbled through his pockets until he managed to find the Draught of Peace he’d taken to carrying on hand at Hermione’s suggestion. He nearly couldn’t manage to choke it down, but Harry felt the potion begin to work through him as soon as it passed his throat, building a wall of wool between him and the panic attack.

Even the Draught wasn’t enough to entirely calm him down, but at least Harry now merely felt wrung out instead of on the verge of incapacity. Bracing his elbows on his knees, Harry covered his face in his left hand and let the right dangle, focusing on the pain of his physical body to use Occlumency for the last wall between his mind and the ragged edges of his emotions. Breathing slowly, Harry waited for his muscles to release their tension, then shakily pushed to his feet.

Anorak cawed in a way that was almost cautious as he tilted his head in avian regard of him. Shaking his head, Harry answered him hoarsely, “Nothing you need concern yourself with. Thank you for the letter.”

Almost in a dreamlike state, Harry walked the corridors to the Headmistress’ Office, ignoring student and staff alike as he passed. Hallowe’en was on Friday and he had come very close to forgetting the significance of that. Was he really so comfortable here behind Hogwarts’ walls? Stopping only once he’d reached the gargoyle standing guard, Harry blinked as though bringing the world back into focus.

“I…I’m sorry, I don’t remember the password,” he told the unmoving stone lamely.

“Violet Abbey,” come a thick brogue from behind Harry, and he turned to see the Headmistress standing there. Her eyes widened at the sight of his expression and she stepped forward to rest a hand on his arm as the gargoyle leapt aside to let them pass. “Oh my…you’d better come in, my boy.”

Escorting him upstairs, she bundled him up in a tartan and set him in one of the two thickly cushioned chairs by the fireplace. Distantly Harry rather thought that this was excessive, but supposed he must look a fright if she was treating him as though he were in shock. Starting a little when Minerva pressed a cup of hot tea that smelled faintly of brandy into his hand, he realized she might not be far off. Taking the cup, he looked up at her, lines of concern clear on her normally severe countenance.

“Thank you,” he said faintly. “I’m sorry to trouble you like this.”

“Harry, my dear boy…you should know that any number of my staff should feel they can come to me in times of need, whether or not they were once in my House,” she told him firmly. “In fact I would prefer that they do so before wandering the corridors looking as though they’ve been drained of life.”

“Yes, you’re right. Of course you’re right… This just…caught me off my guard,” Harry admitted. Bringing the tea to his lips, he took a slow swallow and was glad for the burn of the brandy, despite knowing that Hannah would have a conniption.

“These things sometimes do,” Minerva said in understanding. “Tell me what’s happened, Harry.”

“I…I need to take a personal day this coming Friday,” he told her, closing his eyes.

“It’s Wednesday now,” she said in surprise. “We won’t be able to secure a substitute for your classes by then.”

“It’s Hallowe’en,” he whispered in anguish, opening his eyes to look at her pleadingly. “It’s Hallowe’en and I…I can’t…”

Minerva was taken aback by the emotion in his gaze, then her brows rose in sudden understanding and she leaned forward to put her hand on her knee. “Yes…yes, of course, Harry. I’m so sorry to have forgotten. Let me check the schedules,” she said swiftly, getting to her feet and walking over to her desk. Pulling out a parchment, the Headmistress examined it and nodded. “Hermione and Draco have free periods on Friday and are qualified in the subject. I would do it myself in a moment, but direct intervention by the Headmistress requires a report be filed to the governors and the Ministry, as it was when you were injured last month.” She kindly did not mention the academic suspension.

“It would draw too much attention,” Harry agreed numbly, focusing on the problem to take his mind off of things. “I’ll speak to Hermione.”

“Are you certain, my boy? It would be no trouble to do so myself,” she assured him.

“The more I keep moving, the less time I have to stop and think,” he said, taking another swallow of tea before he set it aside. “Thank you, Minerva.”

“Please don’t hesitate to come to me in the future, Harry,” the Headmistress said earnestly, coming forward as Harry stood to pull him into a warm, if brief, embrace. “I want very much to see you happy.”

Harry thought that made one of them, but wisely did not share this sentiment aloud.

Upon entering the Study of Muggles and Wandless Magical Beings office, Harry immediately regretted not going to Malfoy first, because Hermione was crying. This was absolutely the last thing he needed to take on, but Harry crossed the room to stand beside her all the same. Hermione looked up at him, but couldn’t even manage to speak as she buried her face in her hands, a smooth, undecorated silver disk hanging from a chain like a pendant wound in her fingers. On the desk before her were a series of press clippings and at a glance Harry realized suddenly that they were all of Ron…and Romilda.

Weasley’s New Woman – Who is Romilda Vane?

An Enchanted Evening: Auror Weasley Romances Examiner Vane at Ministry Ball

Granger Betrayed! How Hogwarts Sweetheart Broke Her Heart

Pureblood Wizarding Heroes Find New Love: Muggleborn Wife on the Outs!

All the press clippings included photographs of Ron and Romilda in each other’s company, dancing at a party or walking arm in arm in Diagon Alley. The last clipping featured a truly unflattering photograph of Hermione scowling at whatever photographer had managed to catch her off guard while out in Wizarding London. Harry was about to ask why Hermione would have tortured herself by gathering these together when he caught sight of a slip of parchment underneath them. Reaching out, he slid it forward and his jaw tensed. Scrawled in large, angry letters were the words ‘MUDBLOOD SLAG’.

“I-I don’t know what to do,” Hermione whispered brokenly. “I t-thought I could be strong enough, b-but I…I can’t do this, Harry.”

Putting a hand on her shoulder, he squeezed it gently. “Is this the first one you’ve received like this?”

She wiped at her face, biting her lip as she shook her head. “It started a few weeks ago. Compared to what was happening before it just seemed so…so silly. Hate mail in my office, I mean really…” Drawing a shuddering breath, she looked down at the articles again and choked back a sob. “I should have told you. I’m sorry.”

“I’ll take them…and you’ll give any others you receive to me straight away,” he told her, not unkindly.

She nodded numbly, the trembling in her shoulders starting to level out. “I will, I promise. D-did you need me for something?” Hermione asked in a wavering tone, looking up at him.

Harry didn’t even hesitate before he shook his head, offering her a small, pained smile. “Nothing worth mentioning,” he assured her. She nodded and dropped her eyes to the pendant still clutched in her hands and Harry debated with himself a moment before he lay a gentle hand over hers. “You have to let go, Hermione…”

Eyes wide, Hermione looked back up at him in surprise. “L-let go?”

“The marriage bond won’t break unless one half is gone…or unless you both choose to let it go,” he said, though he regretted the words as soon as they passed his lips.

“Oh, Harry,” Hermione cried in anguish, getting to her feet unsteadily and pushing past him. A fresh sob wracking through her, she threw open the door to her bedroom and slammed it shut behind her, the sound seeming to reverberate through Harry’s chest.

Harry sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, staring at the door a beat before he shook his head and gathered up the clippings. “Brilliant, Harry…well done,” he murmured to himself. His eyes fell to the small clock sat beside Hermione’s chair, unsurprised to see that ‘Harry Potter’ still sat at ‘Distressed’. Even as he watched, ‘Ronald Weasley’ slowly rotated around the clock face from ‘Don’t Interfere’ to join him there.

It was nearly full dark by the time he came to the Gamekeeper’s cottage, the sun lowering ever earlier as they moved toward winter. He could see smoke rising from the chimney and nearly turned back to leave it until morning. It wasn’t as though it would be any easier to do this now than later, but at least if he was turned down, Harry wouldn’t have to immediately roll into a full day of classes with it weighing on his mind. Digging deep into his reserves for some old Gryffindor bravery, Harry took a slow, steadying breath and then knocked gently. Malfoy didn’t look particularly surprised to open the door onto Harry and after only a moment’s pause, he turned and walked away, leaving it open to him.

“I was just sitting down to supper,” Malfoy said, not looking at Harry as he stirred a wooden spoon in a heavy black pot that hung over his fire. It gave off a hearty, beefy smell.

“I didn’t know you cooked,” Harry commented, stepping in and closing the door.

“Stew is hardly cooking. It’s essentially a potion made of vegetables and animal by-product,” he replied blandly, giving Harry a smirk before getting a bowl down from an overhead shelf and filling it.

“Sorry to disturb, all the same. I won’t stay long,” Harry assured him.

“Sit down, Evans,” Malfoy directed and set the bowl down on the table. Harry realized that there had already been a setting in place for the Gamekeeper. “Stay for supper.”

Taken aback, Harry stared at Malfoy, then at the table and back again. “A final meal before you do away with me?” he asked, not entirely sure that he was joking.

“My murder plots typically don’t involve having extra dishes to wash,” the Gamekeeper replied sarcastically, cutting him a thick slice of bread and setting it down on a plate alongside the bowl. “It isn’t terribly complicated. You’re here, I’ve just set down supper and there’s easily enough for two. I wasn’t raised a savage.”

Harry wasn’t sure he could stomach food at the moment but his body disagreed as a growl left his abdomen, reminding him that he’d been neglecting it again. Flushing and studiously ignoring Malfoy’s smug amusement, he walked around the table and took a seat, murmuring a cleaning charm over his hands. He thanked the Gamekeeper softly as Malfoy poured him a glass of cold pumpkin juice, sitting stiff and awkward while his host took his seat at last.

Fidgeting with his spoon slightly, Harry cleared his throat and found it oddly difficult to look at Malfoy from where they sat across from one another. “I came to-“

“Ah, so you were raised a savage,” Malfoy cut him off, buttering his bread with an elegant turn of his wrist. “Etiquette demands that we save business until after our meal, Evans.”

Though his grey eyes were laughing, Harry could tell that he was completely serious and sighed irritably, letting the annoyance draw him out of the awkwardness to stab his spoon into his stew. He took a bite pointedly and rolled his eyes, leaning back to chew the thickly cut meat and vegetables. It was hardly a remarkable meal, but it was hot and hearty and Harry was still rather unsettled that Malfoy had made it.

Smirking at his display, Malfoy began to eat with the utmost refinement, as though they weren’t currently dining in a rustic cottage on the edge of the forest. Setting down his spoon a moment to delicately touch a napkin to his lips, he regarded Harry almost curiously. “Why did you become involved in private investigation and inquiry?”

Harry scowled at him, tearing off a chunk of bread and dunking it in his stew just because he knew it would rankle Malfoy’s high class breeding. “I thought we weren’t talking.”

“I said we weren’t discussing business, Evans, do keep up. There’s no reason we can’t share polite conversation.”

Grunting, Harry ate the stew-soaked piece of bread just to give him a moment to contemplate while his mouth was full. Unable to find any harm in it, he shrugged idly and said, “I saw that there was a need to help those forgotten or ignored by wizarding law. Problems needed solving and no one cared enough to bother.”

“How very noble,” Malfoy replied with a smirk, picking up his pumpkin juice and giving it a small swirl before taking a sip.

“Why did you become a Magizoologist?” Harry countered.

Malfoy tapped the edge of his glass, looking off into the middle distance. “I suppose that I wanted to be forgotten,” he mused softly. “Or rather…forgotten as I was to be remembered as I am. I spent the first part of my life looking down on the world, unwilling to admit how badly I was blind to it. Angered by how all that challenged my ingrained perceptions unnerved me. Magical creatures I found especially distasteful. Once I found myself without a pedestal on which to stand, I found them more forgiving than most of the magical world.”

Harry didn’t bother to pretend not to know Malfoy’s history…he didn’t want to talk about the war. “Where did you study?” he asked instead.

“Here, initially, by correspondence. Minerva arranged for it on Rubeus’ recommendation. Once my community sentence was over, I managed to receive authorization to complete my higher education in France. I think they were rather hoping I wouldn’t come back,” Malfoy said with a wry smile.

“Why did you?” Harry wondered.

Malfoy cocked a brow at him. “Because this is my home,” he said as though it were obvious. “I’m not going to be pushed out just because the Ministry finds me inconvenient. I was on the wrong side of the war and I paid the price, less than they might have liked and perhaps less than I deserved, but paid all the same.”

“Do you regret it?” Harry asked.

The Gamekeeper regarded him for a beat, running his finger over the edge of his cup. “No,” he admitted and Harry believed him. “I feel remorse, yes, but not regret. There’s no point in my regretting all that happened. I was a child then, despite whatever I might have thought, and acted in kind. Regret gains me nothing, action is far more meaningful.”

Harry thought of all the things that he regret in his life, all the ways in which his guilt sank hooks into the fabric of his soul, tearing as it dragged ever downward. He thought of his father and Snape and Dumbledore; all wizards he respected and all guilty of misspent youth. Had they thought like Malfoy did? Not Snape, Harry supposed…the old Potions Master seemed to have lived his life tortured by the decisions he had made, not unlike Harry found himself doing more often than not. If he could accept those darker moments instead of regretting them, forgive himself his trespasses and focus on moving forward…

“Fair enough,” he said gruffly and returned to his meal with new hunger.

Whether it was the food, the company or the confession it was hard to say, but something seemed to have relaxed between them and they finished their meal in comfortable silence. Harry was surprised to find that he’d done so easily for once and the persistent pain in his arm dulled to a low, steady throb with the warmth of a full meal of actual food in his belly. There were still any number of things that Harry wanted to ask his host, but none that he could bring to light without revealing himself or the things he’d seen and heard in secret. Helping Malfoy clear the table, he raised an eyebrow as the Gamekeeper poured them each a glass of wine.

“On a school night? What a scandal,” Harry said dryly.

“I won’t tell the Headmistress if you don’t,” Malfoy replied sardonically, handing Harry the glass of deep red liquid.

Taking it from him, Harry murmured his thanks and brought the glass to his lips, imagining the fit Hannah would have had as he took a sip. A familiar feeling of magic burst across his palate and he drew back the wine in surprise to look at it, then at Malfoy. It was just like the berries from the Hawthorn tree.

“What is this?” he asked in surprise.

Malfoy smiled, looking pleased by his reaction as he took a slow sip of his own wine before replying. “Hawthorn berry wine. I just finished aging this bottle.”

“I’ve never had anything quite like it,” Harry only half-lied, taking another sip. He’d never drank anything like it, anyway. His arm twitched in a painful spasm as though his ailment remembered the touch of magic that left his lips tingling.

“I am fairly creative in the selection of my ingredients,” Malfoy agreed. “Now then...it is appropriate for us to discuss whatever it was that brought you down from the castle tonight.”

Harry had done a good job of not thinking of the storm in his heart with dinner as a distraction, but though he felt the dark, desperate sadness return, the events of the evening had left a balm over the wound. He tapped his finger lightly against the edge of his glass and took a breath.

“I came to ask a favour, actually,” he admitted. “Can you cover my classes this Friday?”

Raising an eyebrow, Malfoy gave him a rather mocking smirk. “A favour? Not a trade? There’s a pack of Dementors in the Forbidden Forest that need clearing out…”

“Please, Draco,” Harry said softly.

Grey eyes searched his questioningly and Harry keenly felt the valley of all that went unsaid still there between them, even if they’d bridged it somewhat tonight. After a pause, the Gamekeeper nodded and silently lifted his glass to him, as though in acknowledgement of whatever he saw in Harry’s expression.

“A favour then.”

Harry was up well before the sun on Hallowe’en, though truth be told he’d barely slept the last two nights. The previous evening had found him again at the Gamekeeper cottage, sharing another meal as he showed Draco his lesson plans for the next day. He’d altered them in advance to ensure there would be no cause for the wizard to use any spells that might catch Romilda’s attention the next time she darkened the halls of Hogwarts. Being that none of his Friday classes were Combos, Draco would only be dealing with the First through Fourth Years.

I’m not giving all your classes surprise exams, Evans,” the Gamekeeper had told him in mild annoyance when he’d seen the initial plan. “You can’t trick me into losing favour with them quite so blatantly. You do realize I was in Slytherin, yes? You’ll have to be far more devious than that.

The rest of the evening had been spent over another glass of Hawthorn wine as they shared stories of their profession in turn. Draco had been particularly amused by a case he’d had where a wealthy Muggle had been robbed blind by the niffler he’d unknowingly bought his daughter for her birthday. Harry in turn had a raucous laugh at the tale of when Draco had once covered classes when Hagrid had spent the night previous getting royally pissed…only to have the half-giant stumble half-naked out of his cabin and send twenty First Years screaming into the Forbidden Forest.

Though it was strange to have spent the past two evenings now in the not-unpleasant company of a man who had once been his boyhood rival, Harry was glad for the diversion it had given him. Donning the Invisibility Cloak now, he felt stronger than he would have guessed possible given the state he’d been in Wednesday afternoon.

Harry hardly needed the protection of the cloak at this hour as he made his way through the castle to slip out the front doors, his path unchallenged by anyone, living or ghost; though Harry did catch a brief glimpse of Peeves the Poltergeist cackling to himself down a corridor. It was still a necessary precaution all the same, as he had not applied any disguise to his features. He never did on this day, out of respect for the dead.

The grounds were quiet and dark as Harry took the path down to the main gates, the few remaining stars holding their last in a sky that threatened the approaching dawn. He’d always found peace in the early morning, even as a child in the Dursley household. There was a sense of possibility in such times, when the day was new…a feeling of hope in the mist and dew yet untouched by the sun. When Harry stepped out of the gates and beyond the field of Hogwarts’ protective magic, he closed his eyes and took a slow, steadying breath to let the cool air fill his throat and lungs. Holding it trapped inside his body until it began to burn, he released it just as slowly and then turned on his heel and Disapparated.

Godric’s Hollow had grown more than a little in the years since Harry’s first visit, both in an accommodation to tourism after the end of the Second Wizarding War and for older families who found the encroaching Muggle developments and technology elsewhere in the country to be too much to contend with. There were only a few mostly wizarding villages in the United Kingdom left now, but none were quite so old or famous as Godric’s Hollow. The deep-rooted magic of the village kept the modern technology at bay to some degree, but layers of new spellwork had to be laid continually to adapt for things the witches and wizards of old could never have predicted.

The sky was lighter now, though sunrise was still a short while off, and the village was just as empty as Hogwarts had been, but the first flickers of lamp light were just starting to come on in the upper windows of cottages Harry passed. Cheap Muggle decorations of plastic were displayed on some of the residences, though Harry knew from experience that the interiors of the wizarding households would have far more lavish decorations to celebrate the day.

The church stood a solemn, ever watchful guard over the sleeping village, cold and somehow vaguely disapproving of the pagan holiday, but her parishioners were magical and Muggle alike. Harry didn’t glance up at the stained glass windows as he entered the churchyard, but the coloured light shone down onto the pale headstones, casting them in kinder shades than bone-white alabaster. The graveyard was still free of snow at this time of year, but frost made the grass crisp beneath his feet.

Each step seemed heavier than the last as he neared his destination, the tombstones bearing silent witness to his passing. And there she was, as he’d known she would be, as he always found her on this day. Passing the headstone of Lily and James Potter, he stopped before the smaller, newer headstone that lay beside them with a sorrow laden heart.

Taking a shuddering breath, Harry reached out and put his arm around Ginny Weasley, drawing her under the Invisibility Cloak, though she was already shrouded by her own. She relaxed into him easily, resting her head upon his shoulder.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” she whispered softly.

Harry pressed his lips to the top of her head, recognizing her scent even through the mantle hiding her from view. “Always,” he murmured, and together they stood a silent vigil over the grave of their son.

James Sirius Potter
13 October 2003 – 31 October 2004
Semper

Chapter Text

Finding out Ginny was pregnant was one of the happiest moments of Harry Potter’s life. He was going to be a father...going to have a family. It wasn’t that the Weasleys hadn’t made him feel as though he had a rightful place in the Burrow and he was grateful for every moment spent with them, but it was different to know that there would be a person in the world tied to him by blood that loved him. At least, that was the hope. Every parent feared that they would lose their child; that the bond they shared would fray and thin as the baby they’d loved and raised became an adult who wanted little to do with them. Or worse, that they lost them entirely. Nothing in his life could have possibly prepared Harry for when it actually happened.

They had moved from Grimmauld Place before James was born, despite the many years Harry and Ginny had spent ensuring it was clear of dark magic, often with the aid of Ron and Hermione. Neither of them could see any benefit to living in a home that had been so dark for so long when there was even the slightest possibility that harm would befall their son. Kreacher hadn’t been at all pleased by the move and at first he remained a stubborn guard of the noble House of Black unless called, but even the sour old elf had been swayed the first time he’d seen little James. Soon enough the stooped little figure was often seen slinking about the Nest.

Their home, known among their friends and family as the Nest, was a small house in the Muggle village near the Burrow. With Harry’s inheritance and their steady income they could have easily found something large and affluent, but neither of them found the idea of a large estate particularly appealing. Ron thought he was terribly clever when he’d come up with the name for the cottage, which was surrounded by a dense thicket of dry bramble as a result of Harry’s attempt at landscaping. Ginny insisted that the only thing her brother had been was terribly drunk.

The day they’d lost James had been one like any other, totally unremarkable if not for the fact that it had happened to be Hallowe’en. Harry had stayed behind at work when an office Hallowe’en celebration had unexpectedly disrupted his day, despite that he’d likely been told about it a half-dozen times leading up to the event as per usual. He tended to lose track of what was happening socially outside of his young family, though James was then just over a year old.

The extra hour spent catching up on his reports at the Ministry meant that he wasn’t able to Apparate to the Burrow to walk home with Ginny, as was their habit. The Chaser had been back with the Harpies part-time for a few months now, hoping to get in another season before they tried for a sibling for James, and Molly had been all too eager to sit her grandson during the day. Apparating outside the cottage, concealed from the Muggle children darting here and there in their costumes by his Invisibility Cloak, Harry smiled at the festivities and got the post. Ginny almost never remembered to check for the Muggle post, given her magical upbringing, but Harry always got a small thrill out of opening his letterbox. The simple sight of his name printed on an envelope pulled at the heartstrings of a child who once resided in a cupboard without expectation of recognition.

“Gin?” Harry called as he entered the house, slipping off his cloak and storing the shimmering, translucent fabric up on its usual peg.

A happy squeal sounded from the sitting room and Ginny laughed. “We’re in here, Harry,” she answered him.

Grinning, Harry tucked the post under his arm and followed the sounds of his family to find them both on the carpet, James lifting his chubby arms to try and catch a kaleidoscope of shimmering bubbles Ginny was conjuring for him. Seeing Harry, the baby bounced enthusiastically and abandoned the bubbles to reach for him with a happy gurgle of ‘Da!’. James could now manage a few stumbling steps when vertical, but he hadn’t quite mastered the art of getting to his feet.

“Hullo, chap,” Harry said with a bright smile, bending to scoop the baby up into his arms. He gave James’ cheek a comically enthusiastic kiss to earn a delighted squeal before setting him back down again. “Sorry I’m late. Needed to get the final report on that Graverobber case in.”

“Probably good that you were…Mum was going to try and lure us into tonight’s Hallowe’en feast,” Ginny replied, tilting up her face to accept his chaste kiss of greeting when he bent toward her. “I was able to use the fact that you’d be here all alone and not knowing where we were to escape.”

Harry grimaced at that, nodding. “Happy to assist.”

It wasn’t that Harry didn’t enjoy dinner at the Burrow, quite the opposite in fact, but Hallowe’en celebrations made him feel strange. The knowledge that it shared an anniversary with the night his parents had fallen victim to Voldemort hadn’t affected him much as a child, but that changed the older he got. Getting caught in the office celebrations had been bad enough without having to sit through a dinner as well, but had he been faced with Molly, he would have given in straightaway. His complete inability to refuse his mother-in-law when invited to sup caused his wife no end of exasperated affection towards him.

Noticing the letters still tucked under Harry’s arm, Ginny winced and nodded toward them. “I forgot again. Anything interesting? Dad loved that electronics catalogue we gave him.”

Straightening to stand, Harry pulled out the post to leaf through it, smiling down at his son when James took the opportunity to heave himself up to standing with the aid of Harry’s robes, bobbing a little in place. There was another catalogue, this one for women’s clothing, along with the usual assortment of bills and adverts. There was an actual bit of mail mixed in the lot as well, which Harry pulled free of the stack curiously.

“Looks like one of the neighbours gave us a card,” Harry said, showing her the orange envelope. The shape and rigidity suggested that it was a Muggle greeting card, though it had no stamp and no return address listed. “Must be for Hallowe’en, given the colour.”

Ginny gave it a curious glance and shrugged at him. “It was probably that stuffy Muggle family up the hill. That woman is always trying to bring the village round her house for picnics and dinner parties. Evelyn or Katlyn or something. I bet it’s an invitation to a Muggle Hallowe’en party...Dad will be beside himself when he hears we didn’t go.”

Snorting in amusement at her assessment, Harry ran a finger under the flap to tear the envelope open and pulled out the card, a shiny silver skull printed on a black background in stark relief. Curiously, he opened it and a paper spider slipped out before he could catch it, drifting toward the floor with legs outstretched. Harry glanced at it only briefly and then looked at the inscription inside the card, printed in the same silvery material as the skull.

Trick or Treat

“What is that?” Ginny wondered, leaning forward to look at the spider.

Feeling unnerved, Harry bent to pick it up, but James was far closer than he. Entranced by the bit of paper that had fluttered down before him, the baby released Harry’s robes to catch it in his tiny fists, just as he’d done with his mother’s conjured bubbles. In a flash of blue light, the Port Key activated and their son was simply...gone.

It took Kreacher thirty-three hours to find the body.

Everyone working the case assured them that their son, their baby boy, had died almost instantly from whatever trap had been set for Harry. That he hadn’t been afraid or in pain...as though that would be a comfort to them. It wasn’t.

Five years distance between that day and this one and Harry still found no solace in the thought. Someone had stolen his world away…there would never be a time when he would find peace in the how of it. Ginny pressed her fingers lightly into his ribs and he came back to himself, easing his hold on her where it had tightened uncomfortably. The sun had risen fully now, only to hide behind flat grey clouds that cast the world in dull tones, the bite of winter’s first snow lingering expectantly on the air.

Harry felt Ginny shift her head to look at him, still concealed by her own invisibility cloak. “Come back to mine?” she asked, though her tone made it clear it was more statement than request.

It was the first time she’d made the suggestion in five years, though Harry felt that he should have expected as much after all that had been going on in the papers recently. “Indecent. What will the neighbours think?” he teased her gently, his voice was subdued.

“I think you’ll stay under your cloak,” she told him seriously, but he could hear the smile. Pulling away from him, she sighed. “The flies are already starting to gather.”

He’d noticed them as well, though he had deliberately kept from paying the witches and wizards lurking about the edges of the graveyard any mind. Every year it was the same…they’d learned after the first time not to come here without concealment if they didn’t want their grief splashed on the front cover of every magical publication but the Quibbler. Rita Skeeter in particular had written an article so vile on the first anniversary that, after having managed for months to ignore her venom following the abduction of James, caused Harry to have her arrested as an unregistered Animagus. The irony of that was not lost on him, but he hardly cared.

“Diagon Alley,” she reminded him, sliding out from under his Invisibility Cloak while remaining hidden by her own. “Meet me just outside Fortescue’s.”

“I remember,” he assured her, stepping away to give her the space to Apparate.

After James’ death, their marriage became less a partnership so much as two people lost to pain and guilt, yet unwilling to reach for the other. Ginny had admitted to him after some months that the sight of him was almost too much to bear, a constant reminder of her loss. Harry could hardly fault her, as he rather felt the same every time he caught sight of himself in the mirror and wondered if his son would have favoured him as he did his father before him. He in turn had kept Ginny well beyond arm’s length as though the distance could protect her from befalling a similar fate.

The marriage bond broke just before what would have been James’ second birthday. Harry remembered seeing it glow bright upon his skin before it shattered with perfect clarity, and the utter relief that accompanied it. Though the memory of the comfort he’d found in being alone again often caused a pang of guilt, it was rarely bound up with regret. The less Ginny was tied to him, the less at risk she would be.

They’d sold the Nest through a solicitor and Ginny had moved to a flat above the parlour where Florean Fortescue had once sold such wonderful ice creams; purchased, renovated and named in his honour by Roger Davies a few years after the end of the war. Davies told anyone that asked how he had always been a Fortescue fan and wanted to preserve the legacy of a fellow Ravenclaw. Harry had always suspected he was merely shrewdly aware that the lure of nostalgia would serve to draw as much business as the product itself, if not more.

Apparating far enough away from it that he didn’t run the risk of bowling someone over, Harry spied the tell-tale distortion of Ginny’s concealing shroud and reached out to place a gentle hand at her back so she would know that he was there. She found his hand to squeeze in acknowledgement, then led him across the mostly empty street, the shops only just starting to come alive for the day. Her wand emerged, along with her hand, to tap at the bricks at the side of the parlour and a staircase emerged, granting access to the flat above.

Harry hadn’t been back here since he first helped Ginny to move, so he had only ever seen it as a set of rooms and not a home. He was a bit taken aback by the difference when he stepped inside, closing the door behind him. There was an abundance of life here, the kind of strange sensation borne of a contained ecosystem, like walking inside a greenhouse. The scent of cream and sugar from the parlour below was all but lost to the smell of earth and plants and other living things, so completely unexpected from what he thought he knew of his ex-wife.

Pulling off his Invisibility Cloak, Harry opened his mouth and turned to ask her about it, but went abruptly still at the sight of her. Ginny had cut her long hair into a short, fashionable bob that accentuated the graceful line of her pale throat as she pulled her scarf free to hang it alongside her cloak. Her robes erred to the side of function rather than fashion, but they flattered her well and Harry spied the tell-tale spattering of ink at her fingertips and cuffs that were the marks of her career change from Quidditch to journalism. But all these little inconsistencies of a person who had lived and grown in the five years they’d spent apart were not the change that had shocked him into stillness.

Ginny was pregnant.

“I should have told you,” Ginny said softly as she pushed a cup of tea into his hands, easing herself down into a chair across from him.

Seeing the state of shock Harry was in, she had quickly and gently herded him into her kitchen, the rest of the flat sliding past unseeing eyes in a blur of light and colour. The world had begun slowly emerging from the tunnel of his thoughts and Harry curled his fingers about the mug, recognizing it by touch as one Teddy had made for her some years ago, the base wide and the handle lopsided.

Taking a slow, shuddering breath, Harry shook his head. “We aren’t married anymore, Gin…you don’t owe me anything.”

“I owed you this. I’m sorry, Harry.”

He let out a shaky laugh, scrubbing a hand over his face and shaking his head. “For Merlin’s sake, don’t apologize! You deserve to be happy and I…I am happy for you. It was just…a shock,” he admitted. And it was true, Harry really was happy for her the more that he thought about it. “I…didn’t know you were seeing anyone.”

“I’d like to point out that the two are not mutually exclusive,” Ginny said smartly, giving him a wry smile and then pinking somewhat. “Though as it happens…I am seeing someone. I have been for a while now. I…I wanted to tell you but…I never found the right time for it.”

“The last few years have been…trying,” he agreed. “Just…tell me it isn’t Viktor Krum.”

Ginny barked out a surprised laugh at that. “Viktor Krum?” she asked, incredulous. “Because he asked after me at Bill and Fleur’s wedding eleven years ago? Don’t be stupid, Harry… Though even if I were seeing him, you’d have no room to criticise, given that you were photographed snogging Zacharias Smith at a pub like a bloody teenager. In fact, are there any Hufflepuffs from our year that you haven’t chatted up at this point?”

It was Harry’s turn to flush now and he coughed, glowering down at his tea. “I went through a bit of a phase,” he groused sourly.

It hadn’t been intentional to make a trail through the Hufflepuff class of 1998 and at least Harry liked Ernie and Hannah…Zacharias had just been there at the time, one of the few true regrets Harry held in what had passed for a dating life after separating from Ginny. Avoiding her knowing gaze, Harry lifting the mug to take a slow sip of his tea and looked about the kitchen.

The airy room, well-lit by the large windows and a number of glowing amber orbs that floated about the ceiling, had been painted a bright, sunshine yellow with a spray of strawberries wound whimsically over vines along the edges and around the windowsills. The little red fruits, the same colour as Ginny’s hair, remained stationary under his eye, painted by hand and utterly non-magical. A number of plants, both magical and ordinary sat upon the sills to soak up the grey light of morning, their pots also painted with stationary illustrations. These depicted a number of magical creatures; doxies and Cornish pixies and what looked like a…

“Crumple-Horned Snorkack,” Harry murmured to himself, then the pieces all clicked together and he looked at Ginny in surprise. “Luna. You…you’re seeing Luna.”

Ginny flushed nearly bright as her hair and ducked her head almost shyly, though she gave him a rather peeved look. “Don’t analyse my flat to learn my secrets, Harry…it’s rude,” she scolded him, but her tone was affectionate and teasing. “Yes, I’m seeing Luna. We’ve been together for nearly three years now.”

“Wow, I…wow,” Harry repeated, stunned. “I didn’t know you… And her, well, I…I guess I never really pictured Luna being with anyone, honestly.” He knew he’d gone off track and quickly backed up his rambling commentary. “But it’s great, really! Brilliant, even.”

Rolling her eyes, Ginny huffed out a breath. “You didn’t get exclusive rights to expanding your sexual identity post-marriage. Though as it happens our relationship is romantic, but not...physical,” she admitted, blushing and putting a hand to her cheek. “Luna isn’t interested in physical intimacy and I...I shouldn’t be talking about this with you.”

Harry couldn’t help but grin to see her so flustered. “We were friends before we were ever together, Gin. You can talk to me about your life without me falling apart,” he told her honestly.

“We are friends,” she corrected him and reached out to take his hand, squeezing it briefly. “I’ve missed talking with you.”

“I’m sorry I pushed you away,” he said softly, turning his hand to hold onto hers. “I thought if I could bury myself in work, I could escape it all.” Closing his eyes, Harry bowed his head and let himself feel the depth of the wound on his soul for a moment. “When we got the Spider case I had myself convinced that solving it would get me the answers I so desperately wanted.”

“You thought Spider was somehow connected to James,” Ginny said it like a statement, a confirmation of a fact she already knew.

“Yes,” he whispered. “I got too close...I stopped looking at it objectively. And Ron...Ron tried to show me that.”

“I won’t say that I forgive you for what happened with Ron, because it’s not my place to exonerate you,” she spoke with a sigh, releasing his hand to lean back in her chair. “I will say that I know you didn’t intend to cause the damage you did...and that he might have suffered far worse if I had been in earshot.”

In his mind, Harry could still see the anger on Ron’s face, the intention to hurt, to wound even as he spoke. “It’s your fault she lost her son! You killed James!” The last words Ron had ever spoken to him as Harry Potter. The words that had so enraged him that he’d half-blinded his best friend.

“He didn’t mean it,” Harry lied. “He was just...angry. We both were.”

“I might believe that if not for everything that followed. Cutting off the family, leaving Hermione, this...thing with Romilda Vane. It’s been far more distressing than it ever was with Percy on his worst day. You and Ron might have gone into the jungle together two years ago, but I’m not confident that both of you returned.”

Harry couldn’t help but think that perhaps neither of them had. Instead of giving voice to his thoughts, he pinched at the bridge of his nose. “Do you regret it?” he asked hollowly. “Marrying me.”

“You’re the worst, Harry,” she told him seriously. “The absolute worst. I regret losing James. I regret letting you pull away. I regret that I wasn’t in your life to stop you getting hurt. But I could never regret marrying you. I’m happy now...I really am. Luna is...Luna.” Her eyes were soft and loving in a way he remembered, though he knew it wasn’t for him. “I’ve loved you since I was ten years old, Harry Potter. But you only ever noticed me after Tom tried to take control of your mind. There was always a part of me that resented that...that wondered if it was even you that wanted me at all.”

The words slid like ice down his spine and he shivered, staring at her in horror. “Sometimes, I…” he licked his lips, throat gone dry. “Sometimes I wondered that, too. There are days I look in the mirror and I can’t be sure that some part of him isn’t hiding there. Lingering inside me like a virus.” He cast his eyes at his right arm, as though he could see through to the darkness there. “Like an infection.”

“You aren’t him, Harry,” Ginny said firmly. “And you didn’t kill James. Terrible, horrifying things happen in the world every day, whether or not you’re in it.” She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, shaking it out. “This isn’t why I asked you to come here. Where have you been?”

Pushing away dark thoughts of dark lords, Harry’s brows rose in surprise. “Luna didn’t tell you?”

Ginny’s eye twitched in a way that Harry well remembered, and he felt briefly guilty for the argument that was awaiting Luna upon her return. “Luna is...frustratingly loyal to her friends. If you asked her not to tell anyone, she wouldn’t. Not even when she really ought to. I want to know what’s going on.”

He didn’t pretend not to know what she was talking about. “That might be difficult, seeing how I haven’t managed to fully suss that out myself, as of yet. But I’ll give it a go...you want the long version or the synopsis?”

Pursing her lips slightly, Ginny folded her arms over the swell of her belly. “Synopsis first and we’ll go from there.”

“I’m teaching at Hogwarts under a false identity.”

“Hogwarts?” she repeated in surprise. “Right. This...is worse than I thought. I’ll put another kettle on.”

It took the better part of the morning to explain everything that had happened after Belize and his withdrawal from the wider magical world and Harry felt far lighter for it once he was through. He hadn’t been truly honest with someone in as long as he could remember, but it had always been easy to lay everything bare before Ginny. Bryndon Rowle’s cruelty, Ester Eckles’ indifference, Romilda’s examinations, Boulder and Pinklily’s warning, Mundungus’ deception, Hermione’s attacks, Malfoy’s threat, Snape’s instruction, the duel, Ron’s stoniness, Teddy’s distrust, Harry’s injury, his teaching, his nightmares, everything. Everything...but Draco’s Hawthorn tree. That wasn’t his secret to tell.

“I’m worried about Hermione,” Ginny said when he was through, unconsciously rubbing a hand over the swell of her belly. “She’s not being fully honest with you.”

“I know,” Harry sighed, scratching at his beard. “And I don’t know how I can convince her to trust me when I’m not entirely certain I trust her.”

“Trust me, then...Hermione is still on the right side of this, I know it. I’m just...not sure that I know what this is.” She ran a hand through her coppery strands, then seemed to make up her mind and pushed herself to her feet. “I want to show you something.”

He got up to follow her when she gestured for him to do so, crossing the colourful flat to a more subdued room that felt so wholly Ginny he knew it had to be where she wrote. A number of photographs of Quidditch players and teams were framed up on the wall, most autographed to Ginny, as well as her jerseys from the Harpies and the England national team. The first declared her as Weasley, the second as Potter. He smiled a little to see them both, feeling a familiar swell of pride at all Ginny had accomplished.

Ginny walked over to a large cork board that contained various notes and article ideas, drawing out her wand and tracing the edge of it. The surface shimmered and then shifted as though the top layer had slid away, revealing a web of coloured thread bound between tacks. Harry stepped closer to look at it, frowning when he saw photographs of Ministry members, socialites, journalists, Healers, potion makers and numerous others who were not and had never been involved with Quidditch. Harry even saw himself and Ginny and many of the other members of Dumbledore’s Army among those pictured. Notes and interviews and article clippings were pinned in among them and bound in similar threads, the whole of it linking into a strange puzzle.

“And here I thought you only covered sports…” Harry said slowly, following the connections with his eyes.

“That’s true of the Prophet. I’m covering a far broader subject for the Quibbler, under a pen name.”

Harry stiffened when he saw Rita Skeeter’s infamous article and followed a red thread that connected it to the word ‘SPIDER’ scrawled on a bit of parchment. There were dozens of red threads spanning out from that focal point, as well as a few others in black that Harry guessed were confirmed connections.

“You’ve been hunting Spider,” he whispered, looking over at her. “You think it’s connected to James, too.”

“That’s how it started,” she affirmed, reaching out to tap the tack holding ‘SPIDER’ on the board. “But Harry...it’s so much bigger than that. I don’t know how deep it goes or how long it’s been happening...but something is happening. And it has something to do with this.” Ginny rested her fingertips on a note written in her own hand.

Something prickled at the back of Harry’s mind as he read the words aloud, his brow furrowed. “‘What is the Golden Dawn?’ You think that’s the source of all this?”

“I had a contact,” she pointed to a photo of a nervous looking man with an unfortunate haircut, “a Ministry clerk who overheard a conversation referencing the Golden Dawn. He refused to go into any detail over firecall and insisted that I meet him in person the next day. That night, he received one of Spider’s letters.”

“They’re monitoring the Floo Network,” Harry said, almost disbelieving at the illegality of it.

“I’ve kept ours closed ever since,” Ginny rubbed a protective hand over her belly. “And I haven’t opened an unscreened letter in five years, but...I don’t think they knew who he was talking to. The tap must be on members of the Ministry. Probably an addendum written into their employment contracts that no one has noticed.”

“I don’t claim to have kept up on wizarding news, but I thought Spider went inactive after Belize.”

Ginny’s mouth thinned and she shook her head. “They haven’t. The Ministry is keeping it out of the papers. Ron is keeping it out of the papers,” she said bitterly.

Seeing her expression, Harry turned toward her. “You can’t think he’s been compromised,” he said askance, but her countenance never wavered. “Gin, no. Ron would never sign one of those contracts. His pride wouldn’t allow it even if he suddenly lacked the courage not to deal with the devil.”

Folding her arms over her belly, Ginny looked away. “What if they didn’t threaten his life, Harry...what if it was Hermione’s.

Harry tried out the idea against everything that had happened and found that it fit. Maybe not perfectly, but enough to consider the thought. “It’s possible,” he admitted. “But that would mean that either the attacks on Hermione are unrelated to all this, or that it somehow doesn’t contradict the contract if Spider isn’t involved directly. One of the only things I am certain of is that Spider isn’t responsible for what’s happening at Hogwarts. The feel of the magic I’ve seen aimed at Hermione is...different. Hateful...almost like a vendetta.”

Ginny nodded in acceptance of that and they both contemplated the board silently for several moments. “What does Luna think of all this?” Harry wondered, gesturing at the web.

“Oh, you know Luna,” Ginny sighed in fond exasperation, rolling her eyes. “She loves a good conspiracy. Or a bad one. To be honest it’s a relief sharing this with you...I was starting to think I was losing my mind, jumping at shadows.”

“I don’t know that I’m the best vote of confidence,” he told her wryly. “Hermione tells me I’m getting a reputation at the school.”

“Constant vigilance?” Ginny teased, smiling at him. “Moody would be proud.” Tilting her head as though in thought, she hummed softly. “I hear Draco Malfoy has a reputation himself.”

“Mm,” Harry grunted noncommittally. “His is a good deal more favourable than mine.”

“You think he’s a werewolf,” she said pointedly.

His eyes flicked over to her at that, because it certainly wasn’t something he’d said out loud to anyone, even himself. “The thought had crossed my mind, yes.”

“Have you asked him if he’s a werewolf?” she wondered, looking smug at her own cleverness.

“No,” he said irritably. “And I don’t plan to.”

“Why not?”

“Because it doesn’t matter if he is a werewolf,” Harry replied, exasperated.

“It would hardly be his worst character flaw,” Ginny agreed amicably. “But it might matter if you sleep with him.”

Ginerva,” he said severely, aghast. “I am not having this conversation with you.”

“Whatever you say, dear,” she placated him with a mockingly innocent grin, but let it go. Ginny rubbed at her belly in slow, mindless circles and caught Harry watching the motion, nudging him with her shoulder. “It’s alright to ask, Harry.”

Harry was glad for the change in subject, but immediately flushed and rubbed a hand at the back of his neck. “Sorry, I...thought it might be weird if I did. Still not sure it isn’t.”

“You’re ridiculous,” she assured him. “I’m guessing you’re halfway between ‘when am I due’ and ‘who is the father’.” Harry’s blush deepened and she laughed at his embarrassment to have read him so easily. “They’re the most popular ones I get. The answers are December and Lee, respectively.”

“Lee?” Harry repeated in surprise. “George didn’t mind?”

“It isn’t as though I slept with him, Harry,” Ginny said witheringly. She caught his uninjured hand before he could protest and brought it to her belly, holding it there and smiling at him softly when the baby shifted against Harry’s palm, then kicked at him. “She’s strong. Already trying to fight her way into this world.”

“She?” Harry wondered, his eyes soft.

“She,” Ginny confirmed. “Rose.”

Darkness had settled back over the grounds by the time Harry made his way back across the grounds to slip unseen into the castle. It was not so late that the halls were empty as of yet, so he carefully wound his way through the students and staff, cheerful from the night’s festivities and scattered about the passages. Everything about Hogwarts seemed to radiate a feeling of safety and comfort, but his long conversations with Ginny had him all but holding his breath until he was safely back in his empty corridor. People rarely found reasons to linger near his office, where the cold seemed to rise up out of the stones and seep through the body. Harry intended to go straight to his rooms and try to make up for the sleep lost in the nights previous, but was brought up short.

There was someone in his office.

Searching through his robes until he found his spectacles, Harry placed them on and drew his wand to activate them. Seer, hidden on a shelf inside his office, came online first and the tension immediately eased when Harry recognized Draco sitting at his desk, bent over what looked like a stack of exams. He was wearing robes for once and looked a proper professor in slate grey and amber, which Harry realized Draco must have worn to sub his classes. Curiosity warred briefly with impropriety as Harry saw his lips move and discerned Draco must be speaking with Snape, but he kept the charm active and Hearer came online soon after. They were in his office, after all.

“-don’t know why you’re going through all this trouble,” Snape sneered from his painting, watching Draco with clear disapproval.

“I won’t have anyone accuse me of leaving a job half finished,” Draco commented blandly, making a mark on the page before him.

“You don’t owe him anything. You don’t owe any of them anything.”

“I already hear this lecture from my father every time I step foot in the manor, Severus. I certainly don’t need to hear it from you, also.”

“You were meant for greater things than Gamekeeper, Draco,” Snape told him seriously.

“Yes, well...being a Death Eater went out of fashion, I’m afraid,” he replied.

The Potions Master scowled at this and folded his arms. “That is hardly what I meant.”

“I find satisfaction in teaching, Severus. Far more than you ever did, to be certain. It is my intention to live in my cottage and write my books and master my field of study. And yes, to maintain the grounds as Gamekeeper,” Draco said plainly. He returned Harry’s quill to the inkwell and sighed, looking back over his shoulder at the portrait. “I love my father, but I have no desire to play his role. Or yours.”

“Granger has other ideas,” Snape warned.

“I’m sure that she does and she can weave her web as she likes,” he said dismissively, rubbing tiredly at the bridge of his nose. “I made my Vow and I’ll keep it, but I’ve no interest in being her spy.”

Snape regarded him for a long moment, then inclined his head slightly in acquiescence and let the matter drop. “You aren’t using enough magic,” he said instead.

Sighing irritably, Draco waved a hand and turned back to his exams. “Death gave you such a nagging tongue. I’m in no danger of becoming an Obscurial, I assure you. Besides,” he said bitterly, making a particularly harsh mark on the hapless exam at hand. “Tomorrow is the full moon. I’ll have no choice in the matter then.”

Harry pulled off the spectacles before he could hear any more, frowning into the dimly lit hallway and regretting his choice to listen in. It didn’t matter. It honestly didn’t matter if Draco Malfoy was a werewolf. So why was it so difficult to dismiss the thought from his mind now? It was as though hearing Ginny give voice to his suspicions had opened a door in his mind that he found himself unable to shut again.

Part of the problem, Harry surmised as he returned to his rooms, was that he’d always had the desire to know things. To sort out the mystery and uncover secrets...though usually Hermione figured it out long before he did. His natural curiosity had been part of what led him to become an Auror and an investigator afterward. When it came to Draco Malfoy, Harry’s curiosity had, in the past, admittedly bordered on obsession. Given that Draco had been hatching a dark plot and subsequently succeeded in enacting it, Harry rather thought he deserved a pass on that. He did not have a similar excuse now.

Taking his potions methodically, Harry tried and failed to turn his thoughts away from the man sitting in his office down the hall, dressed to play the role of teacher as a favour to him. Settling into the bed, he stared up at the darkness of his room for a long time, his thoughts storming in his head. Light fell upon memory at odd intervals in the landscape of his mind, their edges cast aglow from both the silvery cast of the moon and the golden warmth of dawn until they blurred into dreamless sleep and the certainty of what he would do the following night.

It didn’t matter...but Harry had to know.

Chapter Text

Working as an Auror it was sometimes difficult for Harry to remember that Remus Lupin had not been an exception to the rule when it came to the dangers of lycanthropy. The full moon invariably heralded the potential for a string of brutal, horrifying attacks against the Muggle and magical community alike. It wasn’t a common occurrence, despite the hysteria presented in the media every time a werewolf attack came to light, but the cases that required an Auror to be called in were always some of the most trying. The worst by far were those attacks which transpired wholly by accident.

Sean Lassiter had been on holiday in Italy with some mates from rowing club when their campsite was set-upon by a bear. Or at least, that was what the Italian Muggle authorities had determined to be the case. While there were wolves in the Apennines, the damage done simply could not be explained by the attack of a lone wolf and the trace evidence of saliva in the wounds had all come from the same creature. Some suggested that the wolf could have been rabid, despite nearly two decades without a reported incident of rabies in the region, but no trace of the disease could be found in Sean or his friends and so a bear took the blame.

Such cases were usually discovered and corrected by the magical populace, but the Ministero Della Magia had been grossly understaffed due to a conflict with the goblins of Banca Moneta di Pompeii. Cut off from their budget, the Ministero Della Magia simply didn’t have the resources required to keep abreast of local Muggle events. Sean had not been the sole survivor of the attack, but while he recovered from his wounds in the weeks following, the others succumbed inexplicably to an infection that resisted all treatment.

Heartbroken and healing from his injuries, Sean opted to skip the upcoming semester to focus on his health, returning home to his parents and baby sister, who was then just entering primary. It was rare for a Muggle to survive long enough to become a werewolf, rarer still for the Ministry not to notice and take action, but Sean Lassiter had been unlucky enough to manage both.

The MLEP should be handling this,” Ron groused as he rubbed at his eyes. He was usually belligerent and unhelpful until at least seven in the morning. “Or someone from the Beast Division, even. We’re dark wizard catchers, aren’t we?”

“Shut up, Ron,” Harry said reflexively, drawing his coat tighter about him as he caught the scent of blood on the breeze. Aurors typically used long Muggle coats in the field rather than robes to keep from drawing unwanted attention if their Disillusionment charms failed, the garments worked through with defensive spells and charms.

“I’m just saying…he’s a Muggle, after all,” Ron grumbled, but relented and held up his hands peaceably at a look from Harry. “We aren’t even supposed to be on call tonight, is all.”

“Just…go make sure they’ve got enough precautions in place to keep the media out, then,” he said, not about to get in the same tired argument they’d had a half dozen times before. Ron gave him an irritated look, but then stomped off to do just that, glad not to have to go in the house just yet.

It rankled Ron that they were still being given cases meant for Junior Aurors, knowing that they were more than capable of taking on more challenging tasks. Of course it also bothered Harry, but he understood the reasoning behind it just as much as Ron did, despite his whinging. Minister Shacklebolt had already landed himself in some hot water when he’d allowed survivors of the Battle of Hogwarts to undergo Auror training without having undergone the N.E.W.Ts, meaning everything else had to hold to the absolute letter of the law. The fact of the matter was that at only four years in the Ministry, the first three of which had been dedicated to training, he and Ron still were Junior Aurors and hadn’t yet reached the tenure that would afford them more difficult work.

“Evening, Auror Potter,” an unreasonably cheerful voice greeted him as he came through the front door, carefully stepping over the tacky pools of blood drying on the floor. “Or I guess that’s morning now, isn’t it?”

“Miss Katz,” Harry greeted the witch with a nod, looking around the once ordinary sitting room, now spattered with gore. “I take it from your presence that there weren’t any survivors.”

Lee Katz worked for Magical Incident Mortuary Services, a firm that the Ministry contracted out when Muggle deaths needed to be covered up in order to preserve the International Statute of Secrecy. They specialized in the restoration or alteration of human corpses, both magical and non-magical, that had been damaged through magical means. Needing to cover up a Muggle death was fortunately a rare enough occurrence that the Ministry could rely on MIMS rather than devoting internal department resources to the task. Harry had always found the MIMS morticians to be a bit off, but Katz was particularly unnerving in her overly causal relationship with death.

“Mm, no, the last one died before I got here, though that other Auror gave it his best,” Katz mused as she knelt over the remains of a Muggle woman, her wand giving off a faint blue glow as she deftly knit dead flesh back together. Her long black hair was loose and very nearly dangling into the carnage about her and Harry swallowed back the urge to request she put it up. “This attack was just classic werewolf, like you always read about. It’s a good thing they’re Muggles or the public would go rabid, you know?”

Harry’s mouth tightened and he started to take a slow breath, then thought better of it when the strong scent of viscera threatened to choke him. “Other Auror?” he managed to get out, clearing his throat.

“The one that called me in,” she explained, waving a hand toward the stairs. “Surprised they sent in more of you, but then I suppose he does look pretty hairy.”

Frowning, Harry nodded once in acknowledgement and thanked her, turning to head upstairs, the steps smeared by bloody paw prints. It was almost surreal to see the seemingly ordinary Muggle household filled with such evidence of violence and death. Harry could almost see the house on Privet Drive overlaid with this one; the drying spatters of scarlet lit harshly in the over-bright cast of electric bulbs. He followed the bloody trail to a child’s room and found the other Auror there, sitting shell-shocked on a small bedframe and all but covered in blood.

“Neville…” Harry breathed out, crossing the room to crouch before him, checking the Auror over for injuries.

“One of the neighbours is a witch…” Neville said numbly, staring blankly at the bloodstained carpet. “Heard the attack and cast Unbreakable Charms on the windows and doors before she called it in…she didn’t know…she didn’t know the little girl was still alive…” He looked at Harry then, his eyes haunted. “I couldn’t save her, Harry…I-I…” His expression seemed to crumple in on itself and he gasped a shuddering breath. “I can’t…I can’t do this anymore…”

“Oh, Nev…” Harry wrapped his arms about Neville as he let out a harsh sob, holding him tightly. “I’ve got you… You did all you could…”

“I-I didn’t,” Neville gasped out, his voice gone high with despair. “She died in my arms and I…I couldn’t even…” He flinched bodily when something shifted and groaned on the floor above them. “I wanted to…I wanted so badly to kill him…” Shaking his head, Neville pressed his face into Harry’s shoulder as though to hide from the truth of his own words. “It’s worse that he’ll live…knowing what he did…”

“I’ll sort it,” Harry promised him, grim determination in his heart. “I’ll sort it all.”

True to his word, Neville submitted his resignation to the Auror Office that same day and Harry, true to his, handled the matter of Sean Lassiter. Seeing Neville now, smiling brightly as he laughed with a brunette witch outside the Staff Room, Harry was grateful that he’d left when he had. People like Neville deserved far better than the horrors the world had to offer and it pained Harry to be so close and yet so removed from his old friend. Though he’d been prepared to walk straight past rather than start his morning faced with the Herbologist’s cold suspicion of him, Harry suddenly realized that he actually knew the witch Neville was speaking with.

“Lavender!” Harry blurted in surprise before he could catch himself. The pair stopped their conversation to look at him, Neville with the expected distrust and Lavender with polite confusion.

“Sorry…do I know you?”

Lavender Brown was still as soft and pretty as she’d been while Harry had known her at school, a tell-tale swell in her robes putting her somewhere in her second trimester. Rather than leaving her with the happy glow people loved to attribute to expectant mothers, Lavender’s pregnancy seemed to have left her rather run down and exhausted, her hair half unravelling out of a messy braid. A pendant in swirling loops of gold hung about her throat in an odd counterpoint to robes that were stained at the shoulder with what Harry suspected might be pudding and he guessed that this was not her first child.

“No, sorry, I...” shaking his head, Harry gestured at her lamely. “They said that you’d left due to pregnancy, so I sort of thought it might be you.” In actuality, Harry had completely forgotten that he’d meant to ask after her ages ago when Hermione first mentioned the last Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher had been called ‘Lavender’.

“Lavender, this is Jameson Evans, the one who’s been filling in for you,” Neville clarified and Harry felt an irrational surge of irritation at the implication he would not remain in the position.

“Oh, that explains it,” Lavender said with a smile. “They mentioned you were an investigator before…well spotted, then. I hope it hasn’t been too much trouble.”

Harry opened his mouth, closed it, then sighed and scratched at his beard. “Well, no one has died,” he said gruffly.

“Yet,” Neville muttered under his breath and Lavender bit her lip on a smile.

“I wish I could assure you that it gets easier, but honestly I find children to be absolute nightmares when they run in packs,” she confided.

“One would think you would stop being so insistent on having them, then,” Draco’s drawl preceded him down the corridor.

“Don’t be jealous of my marital bliss, Draco. You’ll wrinkle,” Lavender teased.

“Jealous?” he scoffed, folding his arms haughtily as he came to stand beside Harry. “Don’t be absurd, you married a Muggle. I’m sure that you spend all your time removing food from plastic and sitting around telling visions.

“Television,” Harry supplied helpfully. “They sit around televisions.”

“Why is it you’re all loitering about the corridor anyway?” Draco wondered, ignoring Harry. “There’s a perfectly good Staff Room with tea service just there.”

“I’ve just come from there, actually,” Neville said, nodding toward Lavender. “Found this one hovering about as I left.”

“I simply can’t stay away. Run away with me now and we’ll start our new lives, Neville. The child is yours!” Lavender hung off Neville’s arm dramatically and he laughed even as his ears went red. “No? Then walk me to Hermione’s office, at least.”

“Spare me,” Draco said in disgust, pushing past Harry to pull open the door of the Staff Room. “Surrounded by bloody Gryffindors at this hour…”

“Nice to finally meet you,” Harry said to Lavender, dipping his head to her and Neville before he turned to follow Draco into the Staff Room.

The Gamekeeper had already descended upon the breakfast bar the house elves laid out for staff on weekends, a strip of bacon hanging out of his mouth as he piled on his plate. Harry stared at him openly from the doorway, sure that he had never once seen Lucius Malfoy’s sole heir reduced to the same barbarism he would have expected from Ron. Catching him staring, Draco glared irritably and bit through the bacon, dropping the rest of the strip onto his plate.

“What?” he asked testily, carrying his plate calmly over to a table as though he hadn’t been savaging his food moments earlier.

“I…wanted to thank you,” Harry said slowly, looking away from Draco to approach one of the teapots instead. He tapped a squat green pot with his wand and murmured, “Earl Grey, hot,” then filled two cups. Levitating them to the table rather than try to hold his right arm steady so early in the day, he sat down across from Draco, who had begun to eat his breakfast with more decorum. “For yesterday, I mean.”

Draco inclined his head and smirked at him, taking the mug out of the air to blow gently across the surface. “I’m fairly certain you’ve already thanked me a time or two already, Evans.”

“You graded all of the exams,” Harry pressed, holding his own cup to let the heat sink into his hands. “I saw them on my desk this morning.”

“I said that I wasn’t going to give any exams,” Draco reminded him. “It was only fair that I marked them.”

“Why did you?” Harry wondered, leaning back in his chair. “It looked like just the First Years.”

Scowling, Draco stabbed at a bit of quiche with his fork. “The Bulstrode boy thought he could get smart with me in your absence.”

That brought a surprised grin to Harry’s face, though he quickly hid it behind his cuppa. “You let an eleven year old goad you into giving a pop quiz?” he asked, feeling a small thrill of victory that Draco, beloved by the students, could also lose his patience with them.

Grey eyes narrowed as Draco looked him over. “You certainly seem in a better humour than you were.”

Lifting a shoulder in a casual motion, Harry ran a finger round the lip of his mug, smiling a little. “Yesterday was…cathartic,” he admitted softly. “Far more so than I could have expected.”

“Hm,” Draco hummed noncommittally, but seemed a bit pleased.

“Thank you,” Harry said again in earnest.

“You said that already,” Draco reminded him.

“I thought I might offer to make dinner tonight, as thanks,” he offered casually, though he watched the Gamekeeper closely.

Draco’s eyes widened very slightly in surprise and he set down his fork. “Dinner,” he repeated.

Shrugging, Harry willed himself not to flush. “You’ve fed me twice now, so really I ought to repay the favour,” he pointed out.

“You cook?” Draco asked, lips quirking in a small smirk.

“I do,” Harry affirmed, though he hadn’t cooked in years.

“I…can’t,” Draco said and actually sounded regretful as he dropped his eyes to his plate. “Not tonight. I have a…previous engagement.”

“Ah,” Harry said and felt the final thread of resolve weave into place.

“Perhaps another time,” Draco offered and Harry nodded, getting to his feet.

“Sure,” he agreed. “I should go. I have essays to grade.”

“Evans,” Draco said, calling him to a halt. “I prefer French cuisine, when I’m not brewing stew and calling it supper.”

An odd warmth spread out his chest and Harry ignored it, instead rolling his eyes with an amused grunt. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he told him wryly and Draco granted him a haughty smirk in return.

“See that you do.”

This was, of course, a terrible idea. But knowing that something was a terrible idea had never stopped Harry before, which was why he was now standing at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, dark and imposing despite the silvery light cast by the full moon. He had in fact spent the day catching up on his grading, but Harry had also kept an eye on the Marauder’s Map throughout. It had become his usual routine since he and Snape had agreed that they would break from Occlumency, potion lessons and their research into magical infections on weekends to allow them time without direct interaction.

It was strange to think of working silently with the old spy in the room as comfortable, but there was an odd peace to going about his business while Snape brewed in his portrait. After spending the last two years with none but Kreacher for company, Harry found some small contentment in the quasi-companionship. Though Snape was just a captured impression of the man he’d been in life, Harry thought it possible he too might not be wholly opposed to the break in his former solitude.

Normally he watched the Marauder’s Map in hopes of catching sight of someone out of place, someone who could be responsible for the attacks on Hermione, but today his eyes kept wandering toward ‘Draco Malfoy’ pacing restlessly about his cottage. As soon as the sun started to set, Draco’s tiny footprints left his home to head directly into the Forbidden Forest and Harry felt a small anxious thrill go through him. Closing up the map, he got to his feet, gathered up his Invisibility Cloak and made his way out of the castle.

Once he came to the forest’s edge, Harry hesitated, staring into the dark undergrowth as the last light of day slipped away to leave the sky an inky black, broken by cold, flat clouds gone silver from the moon. This was foolish. Incredibly foolish…and dangerous besides. Harry ought to leave now, to return to the castle and his investigation and leave this obsession well enough alone. The last several days had afforded him something very close to friendship, and a friendship with Draco Malfoy was not something he had ever anticipated.

“Don’t be stupid, Harry…” he muttered softly to himself. “Go back in.”

Letting out a slow breath, he sagged slightly and scrubbed a hand over his face, turning away from the forest. He froze on the first step when he heard a howl sound through the night, long and low and mournful. The hair raised at the back of his neck and he turned back slowly, his eyes scanning the trees, though the howl had come from some ways off. For a few moments he stood frozen, listening, then another howl came and Harry was moving forward, cursing at himself.

“Fucking nosy git,” he growled, pulling off his cloak and robes to roll up his right sleeve. “Can’t just leave it bloody well alone.”

Getting out his wand, he tapped at the bandage on his arm to spell it off, shivering a little as the cold immediately seemed to seep in deeper. Staring at the angry black lines on his skin, Harry carefully flexed his hand a few times, then bundled up robe, cloak and bandages with a frustrated sigh, spelling them up in the branches above. Closing his eyes, he reached inward for the wild tangle of magic he’d ignored for more than two years, sinking into it, learning the shape of it all over again until it washed over him and he fell forward onto all fours.

It was like slipping into an old jumper, the familiarity of the form coming back in a rush as his senses adjusted to the night. Raising his head, Harry felt the weight of his antlers and let a shiver run through his body as he pawed lightly at the ground a few times. For so long he’d avoided this, sure that his injury would somehow prevent him doing it, but as Harry took the first few tentative steps forward his front right leg held beneath him. It ached faintly, but the change in form left him feeling lighter, freer than he had in such a long time. His flank quivered as he took a few deep breaths and then he was bounding forward along the forest’s edge, flying over roots and brush that were fully visible to him in the dark where normally he’d be all but blind.

He slowed to a walk after a few moments of this, turning inward and becoming a silent, hulking shadow in the dark. Harry was careful not to tangle his antlers in the branches above as he moved through the trees, wishing that his form didn’t stand quite so tall. Becoming an Animagus had been somewhat of an obsession while he, Ron and Neville had undergone the long, intense years of Auror training. Something about seeing the shades of Sirius and his father at the end of the war, before his death, had woken a strong desire to connect with them as he’d been unable to in his life. Ron had been game to try it, but when they’d brought it up to Hermione, she asserted that she’d had quite enough law breaking to last a while and Ginny told them she didn’t much see the point. An Animagus had to be willing to give up a certain amount of control, to let go of their humanity for the wild instinct of bird and beast and bug, so Harry thought he understood the lack of appeal for either witch.

The stag had not come naturally to Harry, but he’d learned the shape regardless, more desperate for that lost connection than he would care to admit out loud. Despite however large and impressive they could be, cervoid mammals were still prey in the end and that chafed at Harry after having spent so much of his life feeling vulnerable. The first time that he and Ron had transformed for Hermione and Ginny, Hermione had looked afraid for him.

Please be careful, Harry,” she’d stressed once they changed back. “A Muggle hunter would go for you in an instant if they ever saw you! Oh, I wish you’d at least chosen something more practical.”

“I don’t think there’s much about being an unregistered Animagus that is practical,” Ginny had mused and bussed his cheek affectionately. “But it’s certainly lovely.”

“Mine is practical,” Ron had pointed out gruffly, looking a bit put upon.

“Yes, dear,” Hermione had agreed peaceably and slid her arm around him. “Do try not to shed on the furniture.”

The stag’s instincts pulled him to an abrupt halt and Harry’s ears curved forward as he waited to see what it was that had grabbed his attention. He heard the sound of something shifting its weight and caught a flutter of movement in the trees. Cautiously moving closer he spied a cloaked figure standing close to a large tree, wand out and waiting as they warily watched the deeper woods. Harry froze as one of his hooves came down on a fallen branch and snapped it in two, painfully loud in the silent night. The figure whirled, wand at the ready, but they were still far enough back to struggle making him out among the trees.

“Draco?” the figure whispered roughly and Harry was surprised to recognize Neville’s voice. “Lumos.”

Neville’s wand tip ignited and Harry’s instincts pulled him to a full stop as it blinded him, wide pupils struggling to contract against the sudden, jarring light. He heard Neville’s breath catch in surprise and knew what he was seeing from a picture Ginny had once taken of him. Harry’s hulking form stood six feet at the shoulder with a wide, wild tangle of antlers spread over his head. His hide was a deep russet, broken at his chest and forehead with a shock of white from where he’d twice been marked by the Killing Curse. He could never use this form to blend in as a simple red stag, far too large and fantastical to go unnoticed by wizard or Muggle. Harry looked magical in this form.

“Wow… Look at you,” Neville breathed out in awe, dimming the light after a few moments so that Harry could see again. Seeming to shake himself out of a daze, Neville flapped his hands at him a little, as though trying to scare him off. “It isn’t safe in these woods tonight. Go on…shoo!”

Torn between amusement and the indignity at being shooed like a bloody pigeon, Harry snorted at Neville and tossed his head to display his antlers in challenge before continuing deeper into the woods, all but daring the Herbologist to stop him. Honestly if Neville were to try and stop him with magic he probably could do a decent job of it, but it was difficult for Harry to use the same logic he would as a man while inhabiting the stag’s form.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Neville sighed as he passed, dousing his light fully to resume his silent guard.

And he was standing guard, Harry realized as he headed deeper into the forest, having felt a slight tingle of magic when he passed Neville by. He was faced away from the Hogwarts grounds, as though in wait for something to come out of the depths. Harry remembered suddenly that both Draco and Neville had been given bed rest after the last full moon, supposedly due to the Whomping Willow. Neville was somehow involved in this, but why? Werewolves typically only posed a danger to humans, regardless of magical ability, where Harry shouldn’t have any difficulty while assuming animal form. If Draco was a werewolf and foregoing Wolfsbane Potion, having Neville standing solitary guard was incredibly dangerous.

It was true that Wolfsbane Potion remained very difficult and very expensive to brew, though attempts were made after the war to better support those cursed by lycanthropy. Despite the sacrifice Remus Lupin had made in support of the Order of the Phoenix, the magical community at large found themselves unwilling to forgive all those who had joined Voldemort’s forces, disregarding that it was the current state of legislation which had been the leading cause of their support.

Even knowing this, Harry found it difficult to imagine Draco lacking in either the skill or salary required for the brew. Draco had always done well in Potions, and not simply because of Snape’s obvious favouritism, and beyond that, he was still a Malfoy. Even should the royalties from his manuscripts or his pension with Hogwarts not be sufficient, Harry couldn’t see Lucius and Narcissa depriving their son of the funds to acquire the necessary ingredients or the finished potion itself. Should Draco somehow lack the funding or competency to complete the potion on his own, he currently worked alongside Horace Slughorn, who would have been more thrilled at the chance to have an internationally recognized Magizoologist and Old World heir ingratiated to his favour. But if Draco was taking Wolfsbane, why would Neville need to stand guard?

Harry was so preoccupied by this new piece of the puzzle that he didn’t realize he was being hunted until the pack was nearly upon him. It was true that werewolves did not become feral and attack other animals on sight, but they could still get hungry…and a pack would not see Harry’s imposing frame as deterrent enough to stay away. There had always been rumours of a werewolf pack that ran in the Forbidden Forest, but Harry had never really put much stake in the talk. Possibly if Harry had ever read Hogwarts: A History he might have felt differently.

He heard them before he saw them and was running before he’d fully processed the muffled fall of paws sprinting toward him, leaping forward in time to narrowly avoid the snap of powerful jaws at his tendons. Giving chase, the wolves yelped and growled to spur him on, intentionally trying to drive him into a panic, to wear him out and trip him up. Harry’s Occlumency training reflexively came to bear as he began to partition his rational mind from the wild instincts of the stag, turning sharply to charge one of the wolves on his left. It quickly ducked out of the way with the sort of speed and intelligence that went against what Harry knew of werewolves, with or without Wolfsbane.

Harry kept as close of an eye on the ground as he was able, knowing that a misstep in his flight would spell disaster. If he went down, it was over, the combined weight of his body and antlers would take far too long to heave back upright before the wolves set upon him. His foreleg was beginning to burn and ache with a growing intensity and Harry knew he was running out of time. He didn’t dare turn back towards where he knew Neville to be, nor in the direction of the Hogwarts grounds at all. He was gaining ground however, the pack began to realize that he was not the easy prey they intended, but Harry was so focused on his footing that he forgot to keep track of his antlers.

An animalistic scream of pain tore from him as he was pulled up short by the Acromantula web his rack tangled in, wrenching his neck as the powerful strands held firm. The wolves howled in triumph from a short ways off, their hunt suddenly renewed with victory so close at hand. Harry tried to pull himself free in vain as they slowly encircled him, cautious of the damage his powerful legs could still inflict with a well-placed kick. Able to see them more closely now, Harry realized that these wolves were missing the shorter snouts and tufted tails that denoted a werewolf, which only made him angrier. He was damn well not going to be eaten by ordinary bloody wolves after everything he’d managed to survive.

A low, bone chilling growl came from directly in front of him and he saw the true werewolf at last. It snarled with an edge of madness, of lunacy that the others lacked, less a wolf and more a monster. Stamping at the ground, Harry bellowed a warning at the werewolf, willing it to see the danger he still posed, even caught as he was. The werewolf merely snarled in answer, teeth bared and gleaming white in the light of the silver moon, stepping closer, preparing to strike. Harry would have to transform, to try and climb out of their reach before they could take him and he tensed as he prepared to do just that.

Green fire streaked through the darkness between Harry and the werewolf, the red-orange intensity of the flame lost to Harry through the more limited colour range of the stag’s eyes. The air rippled as Draco’s camouflage broke from his rapid movement as he darted into the circle of wolves, another bout of flame bursting from the tip of his wand in warning.

No, Lavender!” he said sharply, even as the werewolf snarled at him violently, incensed by his very presence.

The other wolves immediately broke from their attack pattern surrounding Harry to instead defend Draco, driving the werewolf, driving Lavender away from the Gamekeeper. Breathing hard, Harry watched and ceased his struggles against the snare of the web in his antlers, his muscles quivering with the effort. Draco let out another gout of green flame as Lavender made for Draco again and Harry bellowed reflexively even as the other wolves whined and yelped and nipped at her legs to drive her off.

“Get her away from the colony!” Draco snarled at the wolves. “Go find her some damned rabbits instead of something that can gore the lot of you! Go!”

Draco kept his wand out and pointed toward the pack as they continued to drive Lavender off, the werewolf struggling against them before she finally gave in and ran off into the darkness with a frustrated snarl. The Gamekeeper watched the woods surrounding them as the fires he’d summoned slowly burned out, his stance defensive and unmoving until they were once again in darkness and the sound of the wolves had faded into the stillness of night once more. Letting out a shaky breath, Draco’s shoulders slumped slightly and he turned to approach Harry, who flinched away on instinct, snorting wildly. Moving confidently, Draco cupped his free hand over Harry’s muzzle, speaking with a gentleness Harry had never heard from the Malfoy heir; a hand sliding soothingly down the long line of his strained and aching neck as magic curled about his body.

“Hush…it’s alright, I have you now…” he murmured as Harry breathed in the scent of him. Despite the shock of it, Harry could feel his body relaxing beneath the warmth of his touch, helpless but to breathe him in with every pull of his powerful lungs. “You beautiful creature…where did you come from?”

Draco’s hands moved over him in wide, confident strokes, rubbing gently where he found strained muscle as he checked Harry over for injuries. Draco calmed him by degrees, his voice a low, steady murmur of gentle, appreciative words and Harry relaxed into the touch as Draco’s magic eased the pain in his body; the wild, panicked part of him settling enough that he felt rather embarrassed to be looked over in this manner. Harry flinched when a flash of silver let him know that Draco had put away his wand and drawn his knife, but the Magizoologist cupped a gentle hand over his muzzle again.

“Shh…stay with me, lovely,” he intoned softly, flicking his wrist to extend the blade fully. “Let me get you free.”

Raising the blade slowly, Draco braced himself on a tangle of roots for added height and carefully cut away the web from about Harry’s wild antlers, pausing now and again to stroke a hand over his broad frame and assure him that he was safe and gorgeous and soon to be free. Harry couldn’t help but watch him, his pale face a wash of soft blues in the darkness, the pointed, angular lines tranquil in his work in a way Draco had never shown Harry as a man. The surety, the gentle determination and care was so enthralling that for a moment Harry wanted Draco to see him. Really see him, not the stag, not Jameson Evans. Soothed as he was, Harry stood with unnatural stillness and watched Draco, inclining his head slightly to make the final cuts to the web above easier without realizing his mistake.

It had been Draco, not Hermione, to first discover Rita Skeeter’s secret and to exploit the advantages posed by her ability to stalk out a story as a beetle. Harry had always assumed that she’d revealed herself to the pureblood, knowing that Draco would have no qualms in giving up the juiciest bits of gossip, but Harry would have been wrong. Draco had always been excellent at noticing the unusual, at solving problems others did not realize existed and had Harry not been watching him so closely, he would not have seen his calm expression tighten with suspicion, then understanding. As the last strand of webbing fell away, Harry bolted into the trees and only narrowly avoided Draco’s snarl of, “Revelio!”

Draco knew he was an Animagus.

Harry succumbed so swiftly to dreams that night that it was lucky he had made it back to his rooms at all. After running from Draco, he’d quickly made his way back to where he’d first transformed, exhausted from his endeavours and desiring to be well out of the woods now that he’d been caught. It was true that Draco had no way of knowing for sure that he was the Animagus, but he also wasn’t an idiot. All Harry could do now was to return to his rooms and hope that he seemed as though he’d been there all the while.

His injury nearly laid him out at the edge of the Forbidden Forest instead, the pain upon his return to human form so strong that it drove him to his knees. Gasping, he’d fumbled at the bundle of his robes and cloak until he found his potions, choking through them as quickly as he could manage to stave off the waves of black agony that rolled over his body. Shakily and sloppily, Harry bound the bandages about his arm again, though the spellwork upon them was far weaker after having sat out in the open a while.

It was through sheer force of will that Harry made it back inside the castle beneath the comforting fall of his Invisibility Cloak, his vision tunnelling with the effort as he stumbled through the corridors to the dungeons. Because it was the weekend, the castle was a bit busier and louder than it would usually be at night, students using up every last moment before curfew while they had the chance. It helped to muffle his less than silent progress, though more than once he heard someone question whether or not Peeves was about and up to mischief.

All but falling into his rooms, Harry managed to down most of another Blood-Replenishing tincture before he slumped headlong into bed. At once Harry was bound there, straining against the sticky ropes that held his arms locked firmly in place above him, the spider’s silk like ice against his bare skin. He struggled upon the web as a voice in the distance snarled at him to steel his mind, but Harry was caught and bound and helpless and-

“Hush….” Draco murmured into his ear, the warmth of his body suddenly covering Harry’s, fighting back the cold. “I have you…” He loosely covered Harry’s nose and mouth with a hand and Harry made a strangled, desperate sound at the familiar scent of hawthorn and dragonhide leather.

“Draco…” he whispered brokenly, his lips brushing Draco’s palm and was rewarded by that same hand dragging down over his throat and across his chest.

“You beautiful creature,” Draco said appreciatively, both hands moving over Harry’s body now, learning the shape of him.

“Please,” he gasped, arching into him, pulling at his bonds again and straining against the web.

Harry’s arm was burning, the cords of icy webbing lacerating him through to the bone in counterpoint to the heat and pleasure being trailed over his skin. His breath fogged as it left him and the sound he made was less a moan and more a death rattle. The sound echoed back at him a hundred fold and he looked up to see a great whirlwind of Dementors swirling overhead like they had the night Sirius had nearly been Kissed.

“Stay with me, lovely,” Draco crooned into the shell of his ear, cupping a hand between his legs. “Let me get you free.”

“Don’t-“ Harry tried to warn Draco even as his other hand produced a blade, the hard edge of hot against his skin as it cut through the icy tangle of the web.

“He is yours,” Tom whispered triumphantly in Harry’s other ear as he was cut free and pain arched in waves of cold agony between his arm and his curse marks.

With a breathless, rattling cry, Harry rolled onto Draco and pinned him against the web, the shimmering light of his pleasure pulsing about him in a borealis of silvery blue and green and violet. Harry’s hand was black and skeletal as he slid it into the pale, silken strands of Draco’s hair, holding his head firmly, though the other made no effort to resist him. Hips rolling against the wonderful, burning heat of him, Harry bent and Kissed Draco, pulling at his soul, drinking of it like hawthorn wine.

“Potter…” Draco breathed into his mouth and Harry gasped, jerking away from him and toppling off the side of his bed.

The wind knocked from his lungs by the impact of the stone floor, Harry gasped for breath and struggled to make out the tangle of his curtains above him, the last vestiges of the dream attempting to give it a Dementor’s form. But the curtains were simply fabric and Harry was alone in his cold, dark rooms, the fireplace empty since he’d foregone that particular measure before blacking out. A faint rattle went through his chest as he managed to pull in some air and he watched his breath fog as he laid there, aroused and trembling and horrified by the fading echoes of Draco’s hands on his skin and Draco’s soul on his lips.

“Bollocks,” he said succinctly when he had the breath for it and felt it was a fair assessment of the situation.

Why did Ginny always have to be right?

Chapter Text

When it came to relationships, Harry couldn’t mark their passage as simply as being ‘before and after Ginny’. He couldn’t even think of his relationship with Ginny as a singular event, because there was so much in his life that changed who Harry was as a person during their years together. When he thought about it in retrospect, Harry supposed that he would mark his time with Ginny as a triptych: Beginning, Middle and End.

The Beginning started with Hogwarts. Friendship followed by discovery and the birth of the dark beast of jealousy; the bright, consuming love of a young man that flared and was banked by circumstance until it could be rekindled. When the war was over, their fledgling relationship seemed to begin over and over as they were drawn together and pulled apart, learning to navigate the waters of adulthood. Always lingering, but rarely fulfilled.

The start of the Middle was marked by the moment Harry had realized he wanted to marry Ginny. It was as though some assumption of that outcome had always been there, but it came upon Harry quite suddenly one day how much he truly wanted that. Wanted to be bound to her, to build a life with her. The transition was hardly perfect, filled with gentle bickering and the occasional real argument that hallmarked a life shared with someone. They learned their new roles as fiancées, then newlyweds and finally new parents, growing and learning and loving together. Harry unequivocally considered this period of time the best point in his life, the time when he was the best version of himself…and what came after, the worst.

The End began the instant James was stolen from their lives, a stark timestamp like that on the report filed away in the archives of the Ministry of Magic.

Harry lost himself in his work, as though by solving cases and making arrests he could somehow create enough of a counterbalance for all he’d lost to be made whole once more. He worked too hard, slept too little, and drank too much until Ron threatened to move back into Grimmauld Place if Harry didn’t start taking care of himself. So Harry started accepting invitations out into the world again, saving his drinking for the social rather than the solitary...until the night he kissed Zacharias Smith. Or rather, the night Zacharias had kissed him, but it amounted to the same thing.

It had been so long since he’d been kissed that the ache of loneliness had overwhelmed Harry’s better judgement and he’d ignored his instincts, because of course he’d always known Zacharias was a massive prat. When pictures from the photographers Zacharias had tipped off splashed themselves garishly across the front page of the Prophet the next morning, Harry had cursed himself a fool in every way he knew how. The shame burned at him, and Harry had to firmly remind himself that it was not because the wizarding world was now fully aware that his preferences were unhindered by gender, despite the whispers at the back of his mind that spat out words like ‘abnormal’ and ‘freak’ in the Dursleys’ tender tones. In truth, the root of his shame was that Harry didn’t want to be that person, the one who sought comfort in drink and the warmth of a near stranger in the wake of his shattered life.

For a brief time following his forced outing, Harry withdrew from social niceties with the magical and half-heartedly tried dating Muggles, but those relationships were doomed to fail before they even blossomed. There was simply no way for him to have a real connection with a Muggle, hiding the truth of himself and the world he belonged to. The world he loved despite all that had happened. Resigned that the best course of action was to remain on his own despite the growing ache of loneliness within him, Harry surprised himself when Ernie McMillan approached him some months later to apologize for the appalling actions of his housemate by asking the equally surprised former Hufflepuff out for coffee.

Ernie was comfortable and warm and rather boring, but Harry enjoyed being with him for the brief months they were together, allowing him to soothe away at least a little of his heartache. There wasn’t a real spark between them, but their relationship was fun and physical and when Harry admitted to Ernie that he was interested in Hannah, the wizard simply smiled, called Harry a tosspot, and kindly offered to set them up. Hannah, of course, ended up doing the very same thing to Harry a few months later, but Harry hadn’t called her any names. After Hannah there was only Spider and he didn’t even consider allowing anyone else into his life as the case consumed him until he was broken and bleeding in the Belizean jungle.

It wasn’t necessarily that he believed himself impotent after the attack, but the lasting, growing pain undeniably shaped his world in the aftermath and companionship was leagues away from what Harry wanted. Or told himself he wanted. Now this was ill-timed and ill-conceived and Harry was struggling to accept that he’d been turned on his head by Draco Malfoy, who by all accounts ought to be the very last person to do so. Try as he might, Harry could no longer ignore the spark of attraction his dreams had so plainly highlighted from the moment their lives had intersected once more and the very notion of it was terrifying.

In the wake of his dream, and the mounting agony in his arm, Harry had slept very little by the time a sharp, angry knock came to his door early the following morning. Harry would have guessed it was Draco even if his wards hadn’t already relayed the familiar tingle of his magic. Rubbing a tired hand over his face, Harry gave himself a cursory glance in the mirror to make sure he’d gotten his Transfiguration settled in, a precaution he’d taken in case of this very scenario, then went to open the door. Draco immediately shoved through it and grabbed Harry by the front of his dressing robe, slamming him against the wall.

“What did you think you were doing?” Draco snarled at him and Harry realized he’d drawn his wand when he felt the point of it press up under his jaw.

“Good morning, Draco,” Harry replied wearily, feeling utterly exhausted. He tried not to think about the dream, hardly wanting to dwell on the awkwardness of such an occurrence while the Gamekeeper was so incensed.

Don’t. Don’t you dare pretend that you aren’t fully aware why I’m here, Evans!” Draco roared, eyes flashing with anger.

Harry looked at Draco, seeing the lines of exhaustion written deep on his face after a full night of watching over Lavender Brown in the Forbidden Forest, pale hair dishevelled and falling about his face. His brow furrowed slightly as his mind caught on that detail, turning it over until recognition sparked.

“Your hair…” he said distractedly. “You cut it?”

Draco was briefly taken aback, then his lip curled in a sneer. “Became rather necessary after Acromantula web fell into it. Now how do you suppose that happened?” he asked cuttingly. Where before it had fallen well past his shoulders, usually bound up in a tail, Draco’s hair had been severed at the nape of his neck.

Swallowing thickly around a swell of guilt, Harry lowered his eyes in shame and defeat. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, his voice rough with the honesty of his words. “It was a mistake.”

“A mistake,” Draco repeated in disgust, lowering his wand at last and shoving away from Harry. “Lavender could have been injured. Her child could have been injured. And you…” He shook his head in frustration, shoving his wand back into his belt. “What were you doing out there?”

“Following you,” Harry admitted, abruptly exhausted by the mire of his falsehood. “I…I thought you were a werewolf.” At Draco’s incredulous look, he pressed on. “When we first met at St Mungo’s, you were coming from the first floor, where creature-induced injuries are treated. I’ve seen new werewolves treated in the Dai Llewellyn ward there before. That was the day after the full moon.”

“I teach Care of Magical Creatures,” Draco pointed out scathingly. “I’m a rather frequent guest of that particular floor.”

“You also published a book on werewolves,” Harry countered gently. “A book written with the intent to overturn myth and misconception on those afflicted. Then you were put on bedrest after the last full moon and with the way you were all but attacking breakfast yesterday…” Shaking his head in frustration, Harry sighed. “You told me to investigate while I was here and I did.”

“I didn’t mean me! If all that bothered you so much, why didn’t you simply ask me?” Draco demanded.

“It didn’t bother me. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are a werewolf, I just…I needed to know,” Harry finished lamely.

“Why?” Draco asked, his gaze sharp despite his exhaustion. “Why did you need to know so badly that you followed me?”

Harry’s mouth opened, then closed and he swallowed thickly, looking at him helplessly. The tense silence stretched between them for a long moment, then he said softly, pleadingly, “Draco.”

“No,” Draco said, shaking his head in denial. Darkness rippled over Harry’s vision briefly and he flinched, closing his eyes tightly a moment before opening them once more to find Draco looking at him intently. Anger burned a vivid red about him, sparked through with sour green bolts of hurt and betrayal. “A proper apology would be delivered on your knees, Potter.”

Cold prickled at the back of Harry’s neck and his breath stilled before escaping him in a rush. “W-what?”

His vision rippled again and Draco was looking at him strangely, no longer wreathed in his emotions. “I said, we’re done here. Stay away from me, Evans,” he said icily and turned on his heel to wrench the door open once more.

Flinching when it banged shut behind the Gamekeeper, Harry put his head in his undamaged hand, feeling unsettled. What had happened just now? Had he just experienced some kind of waking dream? It certainly felt more a dream than a hallucination, yet he was still struggling to assure himself of what had been real.

“What did you do?” Snape accused him from the painted meadow across the room and Harry sighed, glancing over at the small figure.

“Weren’t you listening?”

Snape’s dark eyes narrowed and he scowled at him. “Listening to what?”

“To whom, actually,” Harry corrected faintly, frowning in confusion. “What are you talking about, then?”

“Your Dark Detectors have been flashing on and off sporadically since night, but they came on again just now in spite of the fact that you are clearly awake,” Snape pointed out needlessly. “So I can only assume that you have done something wholly ill-advised and exacerbated your condition somehow. What is it you’ve done?”

Harry considered keeping the night’s events from the old spy just to be contrary, but his arm gave an icy throb and he gritted his teeth against the pain, more severe than it had been in months. “Something foolish,” he admitted, shrugging off his dressing gown to show Snape the sorry state of his bandages. “I might as well tell you now that I’m an Animagus.”

He thought he saw Snape’s eyebrow twitch and wondered if it was the admittance or haphazard bandages that caused it. “Of course you are. And I suppose that you, in your infinite wisdom, decided that the full moon was a good time to remove your bandages and change form?”

“That about sums it up, yes,” Harry agreed in soft defeat and started to unwind the nearly useless strip of cloth. “Will you help me? Please.”

“I’m not sure why I ought to bother, given your complete disregard for your own continued health and well-being,” Snape told him caustically. He drew in a sharp breath through his hooked nose as Harry’s arm was revealed. “You stupid boy.”

Looking at the ruin of his arm, Harry couldn’t find it within him to even feel slighted at the insult. Where they had managed to before contain the infection to his forearm, it had now spread once more over the entirety of his hand and clear up his shoulder. The scars over his wand shrapnel still stood out in pale relief against the blackness, but they were not shot through with angry lines of violet as they had been when he’d first arrived at Hogwarts.

“I’m guessing we’re beyond Donum Vitae, then,” Harry lamented, too tired to be angry at himself.

Fortunately, Snape was plenty angry enough for the both of them. “Yes,” he said tightly, his voice low and seething. “You can use what little remains at the shoulder to try and drive it back, but I doubt we’ll see much success. At this point I believe we should start considering amputation.”

Amputation,” Harry repeated in horror, flinching back from the painting as though he’d been struck. “It’s my wand arm!”

“And you can live without an arm,” Snape reminded him coldly. “I very much doubt your chances should the infection reach your heart or brain, however. What little of it exists, at any rate.”

“No, I…no. I’m sorry, but I can’t accept that,” Harry denied adamantly. He turned to play the Evans Gambit on Snape’s chessboard, roughly moving the white queen to the mantle so as to pop open the hidden compartment and the figure stabbed at his fingers reproachfully with her small sword. Not bothering to apologize, Harry pulled out the small vial of golden liquid and forced himself to set it carefully on the mantle before unstopping it.

“Harry,” Snape said softly and the sound of his given name was so startling that Harry froze, looking up at the painted figure. His sallow expression was drawn and Harry was horrified to see a glimmer of empathy for him there. “We need to be realistic.”

“I…I can’t, Severus,” Harry whispered in denial. “I can’t.”

“Then we need help,” he told him flatly, folding his arms. “Because you’re running out of time.”

“Ha- Jameson!” Hermione greeted him in surprise as she opened the door to her office. Despite the early hour, she was already in her robes, though her hair was still in some disarray. “Come in, I was actually just about to see if you were up to join me for breakfast.”

Caught a bit off guard at this, Harry looked at her in wary surprise. “You were?” he asked doubtfully. He’d foregone his Draught of Peace this morning and could feel the prickle of suspicion set its claws into his psyche. Was Hermione bugging his rooms? His arm almost seemed to itch beneath clean and freshly spelled bandages at the thought.

Closing the door behind him, Hermione wrung her hands together, biting her lip. “Yes, I…I wanted to apologize, Harry. I’ve been such a terrible friend.”

“You have?”

Her eyes were bright with tears as she swallowed thickly. “Hallowe’en,” she lamented and wrapped her arms about herself. “I had completely forgotten until Minerva mentioned it. That was why you came to my office last week, wasn’t it? To ask me to stand in and instead I…Merlin’s pants I’m always crying these days!” She used the sleeves of her robes to scrub at her eyes in frustration. “I promised myself I wouldn’t!”

The buzz of paranoid suspicion melted as quickly as it had come, chased off by an ache in his heart at the reminder. “Hermione…it’s alright, really. Draco covered for me, it wasn’t an issue at all,” he assured her gently. Putting his good arm about her, he squeezed her shoulders gently. “You can’t take on the burden of the world, you know.”

“L-look who’s talking,” Hermione chided with a sniffle, giving him a watery smile. “How are you, Harry? Really.”

Shrugging, Harry tried for a smile and managed a grimace. “I’ve certainly been better,” he admitted. “But Hallowe’en was actually…good. Ginny and I spent the day catching up.”

“Ginny?” Hermione asked in surprised, a guilty look coming to her face.

“Yes, I know about the baby,” Harry confided wryly. “Don’t fuss, it wasn’t your secret to tell.”

If anything, this caused Hermione to look even guiltier, but she nodded and drew away from him, smoothing back her bushy hair. “Still, I wish you hadn’t found out then, of all days.” Searching his face, Hermione bit her lip again and reached up to touch his cheek. “You don’t look as though you’ve slept.”

Grimacing, Harry ran his hand through the wild tangle of his hair. “I…did a foolish thing last night.”

Pursing her lips at him, Hermione folded her arms. “Of course you did. Do I want to know what it was?”

“I suppose that depends on whether or not you know why Lavender Brown comes back to Hogwarts during the full moon.”

Eyes widening, her breath caught in surprise. “Oh Harry, you didn’t.” His expression must have made it plain that he had, so she covered her face in her hands. “You could have been killed! Please tell me you at least went out as a stag.”

“For all the good it did me. I certainly wasn’t expecting there to be a pack. Honestly I’m not sure what I expected.”

Sighing, Hermione walked back over to her desk and tapped the teapot she’d abandoned there when he’d knocked at her door, warming it back up. “I suppose I should explain,” she admitted softly.

“That would be nice, thanks,” Harry said dryly, lips twitching when Hermione shot him a look. “I’d like to point out that I wouldn’t have had reason to go looking for trouble had I known it was there.”

“And I suppose it’s too much to ask that you not stick your nose in other people’s business,” she chastised, taking her seat. “You remember that Lavender was attacked by Fenrir Greyback in the final battle, of course.”

“I do…but I also remember that he was human at the time, same as Lupin.”

“Hers was an unusual case. Greyback was human when he attacked, but only because he couldn’t force the transformation outside the full moon. It should left her in a situation similar to Bill’s, where she had been infected with the virus, but it wasn’t fully active. There’s several theories as to why that didn’t happen, but I believe that the fact that he savaged her in the heat of battle with his teeth to the point where she very nearly died is what turned her. It’s hardly as though such a thing has been extensively tested…most werewolves aren’t like Greyback,” she explained, Transfiguring a piece of parchment into a second teacup and filling it with hot brew for him.

“She had a hard time of it, of course. Lavender comes from a pureblood family and despite that she was a war hero, they wanted her to cover it up,” she said, old anger in her voice. “They even tried to keep her coming back for that Eighth Year, but she was of age and they really didn’t have any say. I helped brew her Wolfsbane potions while we were at school that year, but she drew away from the magical world for a time afterward and we fell out of touch. I think she felt betrayed that her own family would turn on her so quickly.”

“Draco mentioned that she’d married a Muggle,” Harry remembered, taking up his tea simply to hold the warmth against his pained right hand.

“She did, but she’s never mentioned anything more about him. I think the Patil twins were the only magical persons she invited to the wedding. Lavender had already married by the time I started working here at Hogwarts.”

“Hang on, you weren’t the one who got her the job?” Harry asked in surprise.

Shaking her head, Hermione gave him a wry smile. “No…that was Draco.”

Draco?” Harry repeated, perplexed.

“From what I understand, he interviewed Lavender when he was writing his book on werewolves. I suppose they must have hit it off, because Draco recommended her to Minerva when they lost her predecessor, Edgar Mulligan.”

Harry’s brow furrowed as he processed that, staring down into his cup. “So if you made her Wolfsbane potions back during that Eighth Year, why aren’t you doing that now?”

Raising an eyebrow, Hermione gave him a patient look. “Because she’s pregnant, obviously. Wolfsbane is poisonous to humans and her unborn child is, of course, human. Lycanthropy is only passed from mother to child if said child is conceived during a full moon. Though of course, the father would have to be a werewolf as well. Those children are, however, born as wolves with human intelligence, as you surely saw last night.”

Remembering how the wolves had worked together with a higher understanding than should have been capable for mere beasts, Harry nodded. “So the pack in the Forbidden Forest is made up of werewolf children…”

“Which you would have already known, had you ever bothered to read Hogwarts: A History,” Hermione pointed out primly, sipping at her tea while Harry scowled at her. “The first pregnancy was easier… I had just arrived at Hogwarts and I offered to be her surrogate during the full moon so that she could ingest Wolfsbane safely. She was able to spend her full moon nights with the pack in the forest while still in control of her faculties. In fact, she only had to miss the back half of second term.”

“Her surrogate? How did that work?” Harry wondered.

“It’s an old spell that I reworked slightly to suit our needs. Essentially, it allows a foetus to be tied to multiple wombs simultaneously, so that a mother may shift her child to the safety of her surrogate should she feel herself in danger. A sort of…internal Portkey, if you will.”

Understanding dawned in Harry and he looked at her closely. “That’s why Lavender had to leave this time…why she has to go through the full moon without the use of Wolfsbane. You weren’t a safe option.”

Hermione looked pained and lowered her gaze. “A child would be just as much at risk with me now, given the circumstances. Unfortunately it takes a witch of a certain…ability to manage such a spell. There simply wasn’t anyone else suitable.”

“So Draco and Neville go out on full moon nights to make sure the pack keeps her away from the castle. And the Acromantula colony,” Harry surmised with a sigh.

“Yes, and Witherwings makes sure they steer clear of any centaur hunting parties. It’s hardly ideal…but it was the best we could think up, given the circumstances,” Hermione finished tiredly. They were both quiet a moment, but before Harry could ask her anything further, there came a soft knock at the door. Startling a little, Hermione frowned before her eyes lit knowingly. “That’ll be Lavender now. Come in!”

Lavender looked ashen with pained fatigue as she pushed open the door, her tired smile faltering when she caught sight of Harry. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you had company. I don’t want to intrude.”

“Not at all, it’s only Jameson,” Hermione assured her, ignoring Harry’s indignant sound of protest. “Can I get you some tea?”

Shaking her head, Lavender smoothed a hand over her messy plait self-consciously as she joined them at the desk. “No, I must be getting back. I only came to pick up my jewellery.”

“Yes, of course, I’d nearly forgotten.” Taking out her wand, Hermione tapped the top drawer of her desk to unlock it, then out a wedding ring and the pendant of swirling gold that Harry had noticed Lavender wearing the day prior.

“Thank you for keeping it safe for me,” Lavender said gratefully, taking them from Hermione. She immediately slipped the ring back on her finger and looked rather relieved by its presence there as she turned her attention to the pendant. Watching her idly as she put it on, Harry realized that the golden lines actually formed a stylized letter ‘D’ in a formal script.

“Big D…” he murmured to himself, hardly realizing that he’d spoken aloud except that Lavender froze. They stared at one another in shock for a long moment and suddenly, despite how seemingly impossible it was, Harry just knew. “Lavender…you…didn’t marry Dudley Dursley…did you?”

Trumpington was lovelier than Little Whinging by far, at least from what Harry could see from the road as he was Apparated in via Lavender’s Side-Along. He had, of course, offered to Apparate on his own or travel there by Floo to make it easier on her, but Lavender was understandably wary of giving him her address. Harry could hardly blame her, but despite this he had frequented Cambridge enough over the years that he thought he recognized the village. They had landed under cover of a large tree across from a lovely detached period house of brick and timber and Harry could feel the protective charms woven over the home and walled-in garden even at this distance.

“Dudley wanted something a bit more modern,” Lavender said nervously as she released Harry’s arm, fiddling with the end of her plait. “But it’s just so hard to lay proper spellwork on anything constructed in the last two centuries. And most modern houses here are attached besides, which-”

“It’s a beautiful home,” Harry assured her honestly, cutting off her anxious chatter. “We don’t have to do this if it’s too much.”

It honestly pained him to say the words, for Harry thought he might not actually be able to draw himself away if she denied him now. With the revelation of Lavender’s marriage, all sense and reason had utterly flown his mind. Gone were all thoughts of Draco and his arm and werewolves and everything beyond the knowledge that Lavender Brown had apparently gone and married Dudley Dursley and they had started a family. The very concept was likely to drive him mad if he didn’t drill it down to the source.

“It’s just that…well he never talks about you, Jameson. He’s never even told me your name and always changes the subject if it’s brought up. If it weren’t for Hermione vouching for you…” Shaking her head with fierce determination, she took a breath and marched forward with all the stubborn Gryffindor bravery he would have expected of his former housemate. “Let’s be done with it, the anticipation has me all woolly.”

Sagging slightly in relief, Harry followed closely behind Lavender, careful not to outpace her in his eagerness. She fished out her keys from a pocket to unlock the door and they stepped in past the silencing charm on the threshold, a cacophony of sound rising to greet them.

“Now we don’t turn the bunnies blue, dear and-ouch!” A child squealed with laughter as a rhythmic thudding came, as though someone were hopping on one foot.

Lavender gave him a shy, embarrassed smile and then cleared her throat to call out. “Duddy Darling, I’m home!”

“Mama!” the child cried happily and came toddling in from the adjoining room excitedly, dressed in a yellow romper and preceded by three rabbits in varying shades of blue. They darted about Lavender’s feet, then dashed off past them, making a hard right at the end of the hall that had them slipping about on the polished wood floors as they made for the dining room.

Scooping up the little girl, Lavender smiled and heaved her up over the swell of her belly, planting kisses on her cheek. “Hello, Daisy Dear. Were you a good girl for Daddy?”

“We played babbits!” she reported happily, her lopsided red pigtails bobbing.

“That’s rabbits, dearest and oh!“ Dudley said in surprise as he came through the doorway and caught sight of Harry. “Who’s this then?”

Harry quickly held up his hands, the right arm protesting the movement more than a little, when Lavender stiffened and whirled on him. Clutching her daughter protectively to her, she drew her wand and Harry quickly said, “I can explain.”

“You had damned well better!” she snarled at him and Harry could see that she was not fully unaffected by the moon as of yet.

“Mama?” the child asked uncertainly, curling up against her mother as Dudley approached warily from behind.

Closing his eyes, Harry took a deep breath and let his disguise fall, scrubbing his left hand across the Muggle make-up concealing his scar for good measure. Hearing Lavender’s surprised intake of breath, he opened his eyes once more and looked past her to Dudley, who was stood stock still behind his wife.

“Ha…Harry?” he breathed in surprise, floored at the sight of him.

“Hi, Dudley,” Harry replied with an awkward nod.

He barely recognized the man as the same pudgy boy he’d known in his youth. Dudley had the broad bulk of a man who had been an athlete for years before letting his body go soft and one of his ears was misshapen so that it now resembled a cauliflower. Harry thought that given the evidence, Dudley must have continued boxing well into university. His hair was still blonde as it had been when they were boys, but his moustache was red and both were kept short and neat with a fastidiousness that spoke to his mother’s near mania with cleanliness.

“Harry Potter,” Lavender said, stunned. She stared at Harry uncomprehendingly, then rounded on her husband. “Your cousin is Harry Potter?

“Er…well, Lav…that is…yes?” Dudley hedged nervously, face flushing a ruddy shade.

Why is your cousin Harry Potter?” she demanded, then shook her head. “No, I mean, why didn’t you tell me? And you!” She turned on Harry again. “You’re at Hogwarts! And…Dumbledore’s beard if the press finds out…”

Breathe, Lovey,” Dudley said with some concern, scooping their daughter out of her arms easily with one arm while he put the other about her. “Let’s sit you down. You know that stress isn’t good for the baby.”

“I’m a werewolf, Duddy. I’m made to be stressed round this time,” Lavender grumbled, but let herself be led to the sitting room.

Shifting awkwardly on the landing, Harry followed them wordlessly, helpless but to continue down this path now he’d started it. “I’ve no intention of letting anyone get wind of me at Hogwarts, Lavender,” he assured her, watching in bewilderment as Dudley helped her into a soft, squashy armchair. “And the press has never managed to catch wind of my Muggle relations before, so I don’t see why that should change. I had my records sealed years ago.” He didn’t feel it appropriate to mention that he’d done so out of embarrassment to be associated with the Dursleys, rather than a desire to protect them.

“Does Hermione know? Yes, of course she does, that’s why she vouched for you…but Neville thinks you’re awful!” she exclaimed, then winced. “Sorry, but it’s true.”

Harry sighed and folded his arms with a scowl. “I’ve no doubt.”

“I can’t believe you haven’t told him…I thought you were friends!” Lavender scolded him.

“It’s…complicated.”

Standing awkwardly beside his wife with the toddler still in his arms, Dudley looked back and forth between them uncertainly. “So…I take it you know each other,” he said rather glumly and Harry suddenly realized that Dudley was jealous. Of Harry.

Utterly bewildered by the situation he found himself in now, Harry explained, “We were in the same year at Hogwarts.”

“Harry was in the same House as Pavarti and I, but…you must have known that, Duddy,” Lavender said, frowning up at him.

“We never talked about school,” Harry offered, which was kinder than saying that they’d never spoken much at all except to insult one another.

Dudley shot him a grateful look and stooped to set his daughter down in the chair with Lavender as the child started to squirm and fuss. “You know what my parents are like, Lovey… No one was allowed to talk about magic at home. Dad told everyone Harry went to St Brutus’s Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys.”

Lavender’s face darkened at the mention of Vernon and Petunia and she gathered her daughter protectively to her. “But still, you must have guessed,” she pressed on. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

It was something Harry wanted to know as well, though at least part of him thought it must have been that Dudley didn’t want to be shown up. It was clear in the way that he hovered how Dudley adored Lavender and Harry could understand that it might be difficult for a Muggle to mention that he had a wizard cousin. A famous wizard cousin, no less and one he’d treated abominably.

“Well, it’s just…it wasn’t safe, was it?” Dudley said sheepishly, looking between them. “We went into hiding in ’97 because that Moldywart fellow and his lot were after Harry. When they said it was all over and we could go home, Mister Diggle warned us that there were still plenty of your kind out there who would use us against Harry if we went flapping our mouths. Mum and Dad had no problem pretending Harry didn’t exist, of course, and everyone I knew was Muggle anyway. That is, until I met you and...well…I didn’t want to put you in danger, Lovey. Or my Daisy Dear.”

Looking up at her husband lovingly, Lavender’s expression melted and she took Dudley’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “Oh darling, you’re such a good man.”

“All this time you…were protecting me?” Harry asked him carefully, his chest oddly tight.

“You never came home, so I…I thought it was the least I could do,” Dudley said uncomfortably. “Harry, I’m s-“

“We were kids, Dudley,” Harry cut him off firmly. Despite all that had happened between them, he knew that Dudley had been a product of his environment and he had no desire now to shame the man in front of his family. “Besides...I’d much rather talk about how you came to be married to Lavender Brown.”

While Harry was off hunting Horcruxes, the Dursleys had lived under guard in the civil parish of Fordwich, northeast of Canterbury and about as far removed from Surrey as anything Dudley had ever experienced. Gone were the cinemas and shopping centres and modern amenities that had so distracted his childhood, replaced by sleepy Kentish countryside and 16th century architecture. The cottage they lived in was old and damp and magic, much to the Dursley’s horror. As such, it did not have the electricity required to power Dudley’s television or computer or game consoles.

It was, in a word, boring.

There were few children living in Fordwich then, and none of Dudley’s age, so he spent a great deal of time on his own for the first time in his life, wandering about the countryside when the restlessness of being stuck indoors outgrew his fear of getting snatched up by some dark wizard. He found and joined a local rowing club and though he was easily the youngest person by a number of years he found that the physical activity helped make up for the fact that he had nothing in common with them. It was some months before he realized that either Hestia Jones or Dedalus Diggle would always follow after him to ensure his safety, concealed or disguised as they were. Though the witch and wizard assigned to their protection made him nervous, Dudley had cautiously began speaking with them simply because he was desperate to converse with anyone other than his parents and the men of the rowing club.

Though they were hesitant at first, both Hestia and Dedalus proved more than happy to answer all the questions Dudley had always wondered about the magical world, but been utterly unwilling to ask of Harry. They were especially enthusiastic in telling him about Harry specifically most of all, finding it intolerable that his own family knew little to nothing about his importance in the war against Voldemort. In turn, they started asking him their own queries about the mundane world and Dudley was relieved to find some way to be impressive. He eagerly started taking apart his various electronics to show them the inner workings, not realizing that he was teaching himself as much as them in his desire to feel important.

When the war was over and they were free to return to their lives, Dudley found himself at a loss. His parents wanted very much for everything to go right back to the way it was before, to ‘normal’, but his eyes had been opened to the wider world. Rather than join the workforce, Dudley managed to convince his father to help him into the University of Surrey. He’d needed tutors in every subject to make up for the years he’d neglected his schooling, but Dudley managed to scrape by while maintaining scholarships for his performance in the rowing and boxing clubs. His performance was just good enough that he managed to get into a graduate program at Cambridge after completing his undergrad in Electronics Engineering, though it was a very close thing.

“That’s where I met Lav,” Dudley told Harry, giving his wife a fond look. They had moved into the kitchen for tea and set around the table with a plate of turkey sandwiches. “Caught her hexing a computer in the library.”

“I thought working as a librarian would be easy enough,” she complained, but smiled a little. “I was terrified at first of being found out, but Duddy was just falling all over himself to try and explain it all to me.”

Dudley flushed and played with the end of his moustache rather bashfully. “Well a very pretty witch was in distress.”

“To be honest I didn’t really believe him when he mentioned that he had a cousin who was a wizard,” Lavender confided. “Thought it was a line, but that’s me shown. I was extremely hesitant to get involved with anyone, of course…but when I finally admitted to him that I was a werewolf, all Duddy asked was whether it was anything like being a Dementor. Well, he said ‘demented’, but I guessed what he meant.”

“I already had some idea of werewolves from telly and the like, so I figured it wasn’t so bad. Most girls turn into monsters once a month as it is.”

“No hitting, Mama!” Daisy chided from her high chair as Lavender slapped her husband’s arm in retaliation.

Harry hid a smile behind his mug as Lavender stifled a laugh and reached over to smooth a hand over her daughter’s lopsided pigtails. “You’re right, Daisy Dear, I’m sorry. Mama was a bad girl.”

“How did your parents take it?” Harry wondered, though regretted it almost immediately as Dudley’s expression fell.

“You remember how Mum and Dad are, I’m sure… Lav didn’t want much to do with your lot, so we didn’t tell them for a long time. After we got married, Lav met up with a bloke who wanted to write about werewolves and she decided to give it all another chance. She started working at the school, Hogwarts, I mean, but still…we waited until she was pregnant with Daisy before bringing it up with my parents. I suppose I thought…well she’s their grandchild,” he said angrily, his hands fisting on the table.

Lavender laid her own hand over Dudley’s and he relaxed it to hold hers. “They said that I’d tricked him…used my magic to ensnare him into marriage.”

“What? Why?” Harry asked, baffled and unnerved the thought that his aunt and uncle believed that their son could be caught up in a scenario similar to that which had born Tom Riddle.

“For Muggle money, of course. They’re rather obsessed with it and Dudley had started working for the Aurora Corporation in Silicon Fen by that time. He’s an Engine Rear,” she told Harry proudly.

“Engineer,” Dudley corrected her fondly and they smiled at one another as though it were an old joke, the tension brought about by the Dursleys easing out of them. Looking back at Harry, his expression was firm with determination. “Haven’t spoken to them since. I thought Mum at least might come round, but…” He shook his head, sharing a look with his wife. “I don’t want Daisy to grow up hearing their vitriol if they can’t keep a civil tongue.”

Looking at Daisy, Harry watched as she dismantled her sandwich into separate parts, then started to eat each layer on its own, a pang of longing in his heart. “They’re fools to miss out on this. She’s beautiful.”

Dudley’s expression softened with such loving warmth that he looked a total stranger as he smiled at his daughter proudly. “She favours Mum’s family with that colouring, but the eyes are all Lav, to be sure. Your mum was a redhead too, wasn’t she?”

Swallowing thickly, Harry nodded and tried to ignore the way his vision wavered briefly, surrounding the three of them with a buttery yellow glow of happiness and love. “Yes,” he managed gruffly, closing his eyes until the feeling past. “She was.”

Harry’s footsteps seemed leaden when he returned to Hogwarts that afternoon, and at least a little of it was due to exhaustion and the pain now radiating along his arm in waves. Snape had warned him against magical travel months ago, yet Harry had Apparated five times in the past three days in addition to his foray in the forest the night previous. Despite that, Harry regretted exactly none of it, because whatever the damage he’d caused, both to his arm and his burgeoning friendship with Draco, he’d gained something he thought impossible in the day’s unexpected reunion.

Harry had family. Family bound by blood that actually…wanted him. Had invited him round for Christmas, even.

In a daze, he wound his way down to his corner of the dungeons, trying to wrap his mind around the concept so that he could figure out how he was going to explain to Snape that he’d not spent the day seeking help from Hermione, as had been his intention that morning. In fact, given the magical strain he’d put his body through, Harry was even worse off than he’d started, but…he simply could not bring himself to care just then.

The portrait was, fortunately, empty when Harry entered his office and he let out a soft sigh of relief. He wasn’t sure where it was Snape went when not in his frame, but he guessed that it wasn’t to play bridge or drink with the monks in the East Wing. Smiling a little at the thought, Harry went to his desk and considered writing something to Teddy, remembering his letter from earlier in the week. No sooner had he sat down than his office door banged open, causing Harry to lurch back to his feet in surprise and alarm.

Wand out, he stared down the length of it at Neville, who stiffened and grabbed his own with an Auror’s ingrained reflexes, though he kept it at his side. Slowly, Harry lowered the Hawthorn wand and tried to calm his racing heart, his right hand twitching slightly from the adrenaline.

“All right, Longbottom?” Harry asked him cautiously.

If Neville, like Draco, had somehow managed to come to the same conclusion about his presence in the forest last night, then he wasn’t sure how this was going to go. He clung to the fact that Neville hadn’t had his wand out when bursting in here and hoped that he wasn’t going to have to defend himself against the man. Harry was the better duellist between them, but he was also dead tired and sorely in need of his potions.

Shutting the door with more care than he’d opened it, Neville stared at Harry closely, as though searching for something. It was unnerving and Harry had the distinct urge to check a mirror, but he knew he’d been careful to re-establish his disguise before leaving Trumpington. As though deciding something, Neville put up his wand and crossed the room in only a few long strides. Tensing, Harry had just enough time to wonder if Neville was going to hit him before the Herbologist suddenly pulled him into his arms and held him fiercely.

Harry,” he said and there was so much emotion packed into that single utterance of his name that Harry thought he felt something break inside him.

Holding tight to Neville with his left arm, Harry was surprised to find himself swallowing back tears and closed his eyes. “I...I’m sorry, Nev. I’m so sorry,” he whispered, not wholly sure what he was even apologizing for as the weight of the past two years all came crashing in on him at once. Just as Harry had done the night Neville had realized he couldn’t continue as an Auror, Neville held him tightly in the warm circle of his arms, until Harry’s breath no longer shuddered with silent sobs.

Drawing back, Harry scrubbed at his face self-consciously, though Neville’s eyes were bright with tears of his own. “Sorry,” Harry said again and managed a real smile. “It’s been a hell of a day.”

Chapter Text

Though his seventh year had easily been the worst in his life, it had also greatly defined the man Neville Longbottom would become. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t realized his bravery up to that point, as his courage and willingness to fight for what he believed in had only grown over the course of his education, but solely as a follower. Neville had always been happy to follow Harry’s lead, or Hermione’s, but all at once he’d been on his own. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Neville found the leader within him rise to the challenge.

So many of his classmates were at a loss, unprepared to be facing this madness, this uncertainty of the state of the wizarding world without the shield of Dumbledore’s very presence to protect them. They still expected that they would somehow be saved by a higher authority, but Neville knew from running at Harry’s heels that they could only save themselves. He learned not to fear pain or reprisal, but to be ready and willing to take it in place of those he could save. The other members of Dumbledore’s Army began to look to him almost without realizing it themselves and Ginny especially was there to stand alongside him to take on whatever came their way. Together they defied Snape and the Carrows and when the pretence of Hogwarts acting as a school crumbled away to reveal the ever present threat to those who would defy Voldemort, Neville found them a sanctuary in the Room of Requirement.

The transition back to normalcy at the end of the war was…difficult. Still riding the thrill of victory and unwilling to dwell over all that he’d faced in his final year, Neville had been more than happy to follow Harry and Ron into the Auror program. For so much of his life he had felt a disappointment to the memory of his parents and all they had lost fighting for that which they believed so fiercely in. At last he felt himself worthy of the Longbottom name and saw no better course of action than to see it through, taking on the profession where his parents had left off. It was a mistake.

Neville was a good person, a kind person. Someone who believed that most others were, at their core, good people as well. But being an Auror meant that he dealt only with the worst that the magical world had to offer. No matter how hard he fought, how brave he was, there would always be another case, another atrocity. There was no respite, nothing but an unending war and it took four years before he realized how badly he needed peace. Leaving the Aurors was terrifying, given that he had no alternative plan for his life, but it afforded Neville the opportunity to seek out self-care.

That year he visited the Memorial of the Fallen on the anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts for the first time and it was there that he met with Professor Sprout once more. They struck up a rapport and she was very pleased to find that Neville had continued his studies in Herbology as a hobbyist, chatting him up for hours in the subject until the day’s subdued festivities had long since passed. A few days later Neville was shocked to find that he had an Offer of Employment to assist the rosy-cheeked witch, as well as a referral to a higher education correspondence course. Neville accepted, though reluctantly, as he hardly thought himself old enough to work at Hogwarts. In fact, he hardly felt he was much in the way of an adult…at least until his first day of classes. They were all so young.

Though Neville had always been an honest sort, his years as an Auror had better trained his tongue to twist his words when necessary. It was a skill that came in handy upon occasion, especially when working with children that sometimes asked him wildly inappropriate questions about the war, but there was one line, one person that he would never cross. Not for Harry, not for anyone.

“Harry, I have to tell Hannah,” Neville said seriously once they had broken apart. “Honestly, you should tell her. She’s been in a right state since you disappeared.”

Sighing, Harry rubbed at his eyes tiredly and shook his head, sitting on the edge of his desk. “Nev, I didn’t even want you to know. How did you find me out, anyway?”

Neville gave him a look. “I was an Auror, you remember. You and Ron were always on about being Animagi at the Auror Academy…and then a bloody big stag appears in the Forbidden Forest, just months after we’ve had the creepy new teacher? I’ve seen your Patronus, Harry.”

Harry inclined his head to acknowledge the point, then raised his brows at him in amusement. “Creepy?”

“Well…” Neville started with a sheepish grin. “You have been rather creepy. I should have guessed sooner by the way Hermione wouldn’t hear me out, but…well the Prophet has made a pretty convincing show of you being abroad. How have you managed that?”

“It’s a long story, Nev,” Harry said tiredly. “And I don’t want to draw you into it.”

“Pretty sure I’m already in it, mate,” Neville told him seriously. “And Hannah should be in it, too. How’ve you been managing with the arm, anyway?”

Grimacing, Harry tried to distance himself from the gnawing pain, a part of him longing for Hannah’s healing touch just then. “It was better before I decided to stick my nose in Draco’s business last night.”

“Can’t imagine changing into an animal was part of Hannah’s recommended care,” Neville agreed. “So that’s why you were in the forest last night? You were following Draco?”

“He didn’t tell you?” Harry asked, frowning.

Neville’s eyebrows rose and he shook his head. “Didn’t mention it at all, though I did ask if he’d seen you. Not you specifically, of course. I didn’t sort that out until I woke up this afternoon.”

Brow furrowed, Harry wondered what that meant. Did Draco not trust Neville enough to share his suspicions? Draco clearly trusted him enough to stand guard with him in the Forbidden Forest, so why lie about whether or not he’d seen Harry? Was he…protecting Harry?

“I take it you know about Lavender, then,” Neville surmised.

A small warmth fluttered in his chest at the mention of Lavender, but Harry tried not to let himself become distracted thinking of his newly discovered family. “Only because she tried to eat me. I thought Draco was the werewolf,” he admitted.

“Draco? A werewolf?” Neville laughed at the very notion and shook his head. “Merlin’s beard, could you imagine? Bad enough Lavender managed to scratch him a few months ago…now he’s a right arse when the moon comes round.” At Harry’s look, Neville laughed again. “Okay, so he’s always been an arse, but now with the added benefit of being short-tempered.”

“So…shall we go and see Hannah, then?” Neville pressed again.

Harry sighed and glowered at him. “You’re really not going to let this go, are you?”

“Nope,” Neville replied cheerfully. “Not if I value my own well-being. And yours, obviously.”

“Just…give me a little more time to try and sort this. A month.”

“A week,” Neville countered sternly, frowning at him. “You’ve had two months already.”

Harry recognized the stubborn set to Neville’s jaw and knew it was the best he was going to get. Grimly resolved, he nodded. “A week.”

Though Harry was feeling cautiously hopeful after the events of the last few days, he made sure to add Dreamless Sleep back into his regimen that night, though he hadn’t needed it for well over a month. The haze of pain on his mind was such that he wasn’t confident in his ability to employ his Occlumency lessons against his dreams. It left him feeling sluggish and cold come morning and Harry hardly felt rested at all. He was grateful that his first two periods were spent in his fifth year Combo with Hermione, though she admittedly looked rather peaky herself. It hardly quelled her passion for instruction, however and Harry guiltily left the bulk of it to her, vigilantly watching her interact with the class as Neville’s deadline loomed in his mind.

This was one of his largest classes, as the use of Dark Magic against Muggles and WMBs had begun to feature heavily on the O.W.Ls shortly after the end of the Second Wizarding War. Unfortunately, it was always held on Monday mornings and featured the whole of fifth year, so it largely consisted of glassy eyed fifteen year olds who were trying their best not to nod off onto their notes. Despite the prevalent boredom, none of the children looked dismissive or scornful of the subject and in fact there were quite a few who seemed quite interested, their expressions attentive.

“Who can tell me what this is?” Hermione asked and held up flat, rectangular object. Glancing over, Harry recognized it as a mobile and raised a brow at her.

The class shifted and murmured a little amongst themselves before a boy finally raised his hand. “That’s a telephone, Professor. Muggles use it to talk to one another, like a fire-call.”

“Ten points to Ravenclaw, Mr. Chan.”

“But…it hasn’t got a tether,” a girl protested, then flushed and raised her hand to continue speaking. “Sorry, it’s just…I thought telephones were tethered inside Muggle homes and well…bigger.”

Hermione smiled encouragingly and nodded. “An excellent observation, Miss Havisham. Five points to Gryffindor. This,” she took out her wand and enlarged the device so that the class could see it better, levitating it before her, “is a mobile phone. It is, in fact, a far more effective means of communication than fire-call, for Muggles can carry it with them wherever they go. I would argue that it is more effective than any means of communication that the magical world currently possesses.”

A buzz of shocked muttering washed over the lecture hall at this and Harry watched them all closely for any signs of anger or disgust at her words. Mostly they just seemed surprised and quickly quelled under his watchful eye. Harry rather wished that he could sit under his Invisibility Cloak to take in their reactions undiluted by the fear of reprisal from their ‘creepy’ teacher.

“In addition,” Hermione continued once the class had settled, “this device is perhaps the most dangerous weapon a Muggle has in this day and age. Who can tell me why?”

This time the class was silent, avoiding their gaze in the way students often did when they were afraid to be called upon to answer something they didn’t know. Hermione looked a little disappointed, but turned to glance at Harry, raising her eyebrows at him in a silent query.

Having an idea where she was going, he cleared his throat a little, then spoke gruffly. “Because it isn’t just a phone,” he said slowly and at Hermione’s nod, he elaborated. “It’s also a camera…with recording capability and…remotely connects a Muggle to the Internet.” Having not fully considered these implications before, Harry looked at her almost in surprise. “And millions of Muggles are carrying them.”

“Nearly forty million in the UK alone, and that number is expected to double in the next decade,” Hermione said seriously. “Muggles have had the ability to photograph and record for over a century now and the magical world has managed to uphold the International Statute of Secrecy in spite of this. But with such easy access to the so-called world-wide web their world is changing rapidly…and perhaps faster than our own can adapt.”

“Well that was cheering,” Harry told her mildly as the class filtered out. “I thought I was supposed to be the paranoid conspiracy theorist.”

“It’s hardly a theory, Jameson,” she sniffed primly, waving her wand at the board to change it for her next lesson. “It’s not a question of if the International Statute of Secrecy will fail…but when. This is a risk every single witch and wizard will face when they go out into the Muggle world now. The least I can do is try to prevent one of my students from becoming the catalyst.”

Harry held up a hand in surrender. “I’m not disagreeing with you, Hermione. It’s just a bit dourer than your lessons tend to be.” His brow furrowed in concern. “Did something…”

She relaxed with visible effort and sighed, rubbing lightly at her temple. “No, there’s been nothing since you found me last week. I’ve just had this dreadful headache a while and this particular topic is just one I feel very strongly about besides,” she explained, then waived a hand dismissively. “Anyway, how did things go yesterday?”

Glancing at the empty classroom to be sure they were alone, he shrugged. “Good, I suppose.”

“You suppose?” Hermione repeated, raising her brows.

“It was just…strange,” Harry admitted, scratching lightly at his beard. “After everything that happened when we were kids, Dudley’s rather living the life I thought I’d have. And instead I’m…this.” He gestured at himself, mouth twisted deprecatingly.

Hermione’s eyes softened at this. “Oh, Harry…”

“I suppose I’m not used to being jealous of him. Even as kids it was hard to be jealous when he and his parents were just so…horrible. But I’m happy for him, really. For both of them,” he said earnestly. “I never thought I’d get another chance with anyone on my mum’s side and now…they’ve invited me round for Christmas.” He shook his head, still a little bewildered by the notion. “Between them and Neville my current social circle has suddenly doubled.”

“Neville?” Hermione asked in surprise. “You mean he…”

“He figured me out,” Harry admitted wryly. “Came round after I got back.”

“Well good, I’m glad for it. Have you told Hannah yet?” At his expression, she sighed in exasperation. “Oh, honestly…”

“I have a week to sort this out before Neville will turn me over to her,” Harry groused.

“She’s your healer, not the bloody Ministry. She’s been hiding the extent of your condition for years.”

“All the same,” he said stubbornly. “I would greatly appreciate it if you let me know immediately should anything occur.”

Hermione rolled her eyes rather more severely than Harry felt was warranted. “I assure you if I suddenly receive a full confession from the killer that I will pass it along straightaway.”

The next few days proved to be as frustratingly fruitless as the months previous and Harry’s mood was soured by the looming deadline as much as the relentless pain building in his arm. Despite that he’d been prepared to ask Hermione for aid on that count before the revelation of Lavender’s marriage, some stubborn curl of mistrust refused to let him reach that point again. He knew in his gut that she was keeping things from him and didn’t want to give her additional leverage over him by revealing the severity of his current predicament. Because of this, and his unwillingness to involve Hannah besides, Snape had taken his leave of him after a vicious row.

If you think I have any interest in loitering about watching you kill yourself, you are sorely mistaken, Potter,” he’d said with a cold sneer before striding from his pane in a swirl of painted black robes. Harry hadn’t seen him since and his office had felt cold and empty for it.

Though it was reassuring to now have Neville on pleasant terms, Draco seemed rather determined to act as though Harry simply didn’t exist. As luck would have it, this week was the rotation in which his Tuesdays and Thursdays were split between Combos with Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures, a test to his patience on both counts. He’d had to warn off Neville twice for being far too friendly, growling out, “They’ll think I’ve bewitched you,” under his breath after the Herbologist had openly grinned at him for the third or fourth time.

It’s not as though it’d ruin your reputation,” Neville had murmured back, but he’d made a concentrated effort to subdue his happiness thereafter.

Conversely, Harry wanted to shake Draco and demand that he acknowledge his presence, for the Gamekeeper had not so much as looked at him since confronting Harry in his chambers. Harry didn’t think there had ever been a time in their history when Draco simply refused to pay him any mind whatsoever and it rankled despite knowing the reason for it. Their Tuesday Combo with the seventh year class had been so uncomfortable that he’d given up trying to teach entirely and had hung around at the back until it was over with. However enamoured the students were with Draco's shocking and wildly popular new haircut, it was hardly enough to keep them noticing his drastically altered opinion of Harry.

As a result of his sudden change in familiarity with both Neville and Draco, Harry had come under sly scrutiny from the students and most of the staff, which was especially unhelpful in trying to solve this bloody case. Come Thursday he was in a right strop as he shoved his eggs about his plate, appetite fully spent after sleepless nights and mounting agony, so much so that Cormac had subtly shifted his chair further away from him. Harry wanted so badly to tie everything back to Cormac, his dislike of the man admittedly leading him to spend most of the last two nights pouring over every bit of evidence he had to see if he might somehow link it to the Flight Instructor. He was just so…intolerable.

“Jameson!” Neville greeted him brightly, oblivious to Harry’s mood. “Good morning!”

Harry could tell that Cormac, and most of the damned hall, was watching them and glared sourly at Neville. “What is it, Longbottom?” he said harshly, though he immediately felt sorry for it when Neville’s expression fell.

“It…well…” Neville floundered a little and Harry sighed and tried to make his face a little less threatening.

“Get on with it. I haven’t even had my tea,” he grumbled and Neville relaxed slightly, glancing at Harry’s untouched cuppa.

“Right, sorry. It’s early still. I just…well remember how you wanted to add Devil’s Snare into our Combos? I found a copse in the Forbidden Forest!” he told Harry eagerly. “No Ministry paperwork required! And since we’ve got the seventh years today, we can make an excursion without fuss. What do you think?”

Taking a group of seventeen year olds into the Forbidden Forest sounded like the absolute last thing Harry needed at the moment, but Neville looked so pleased by the idea that he found himself nodding. “Fine,” he said gruffly and pushed to his feet. “I’ll meet you down there.”

“Your tea…” Neville reminded, but Harry ignored him and left through the staff entrance. Harry had absolutely no desire to eat or drink anything just then, but he did need to take his Draught of Peace if he was going to manage to keep from upsetting Neville over the next few hours.

He was feeling calm by the time Neville led the seventh years down to the forest’s edge, the jagged edges of his mind swaddled in wool. Neville looked rather uncertain and Harry managed to give him a small smile that was more a grimace, nodding in welcome before gesturing into the trees.

“After you, Professor,” he said mildly and Neville relaxed.

After they had both thoroughly remanded their small class to stay close to one another and not wander off, Neville led them in. Harry kept a close eye on the trees about them, but the forest was almost chipper at this hour of the day while the darker things slept, faint trickles of birdsong echoing through the branches. After less than a half-hour’s walk, Neville brought them to a halt, the forest darker here and chilled in the early November air, a thick canopy above leaving them in eerie twilight. A massive sprawl of Devil’s Snare had made itself home here in the dark part of the woods, a few tell-tale lumps giving hint of hapless prey that had fallen into it.

“Now then…who can tell me what this is?” Neville posed, turning to face them. Most of the students quickly raised their hands and he smiled and nodded to one. “Go ahead, Miss Nguyen.”

“Sir, that’s Devil’s Snare, that is,” she said confidently and smiled when Neville gestured for her to continue. “Grows in darkness and prefers the damp…and stranglin’ the ever loving piss out of yeh, of course.” The other students laughed and she flushed, ducking her head sheepishly. “Er…sorry, Professor.”

“Alright, settle down, everyone,” Neville said reproachfully, just barely managing to pull a straight face.

“That’s what makes it so effective for assassination,” Harry commented dully, effectively cutting off the student’s mirth. “The Death Eaters used a cutting to strangle an Unspeakable recovering in St Mungo’s during the Second Wizarding War, but Dark Wizards have been using it against Muggles for centuries.” His vision wavered and he was briefly swarmed with unease and fear in shades of yellow and umber. Rubbing at his eyes to clear them, Harry shook his head. “I imagine that’s a terrifying end.”

“Ah…right…thank you, Professor,” Neville said warily, casting him an odd look before giving the students a reassuring smile. “As witches and wizards, we do have an advantage should we ever find ourselves ensnared. Who can tell me why?”

Harry turned away and looked out among the trees as the class continued, feeling almost devoid of emotion as a chill settled into his bones, the iciness burning beneath his bandages. A flutter of motion caught his eye through the trees and for a moment he was worried he’d fallen into another waking dream, cautiously drawing his wand. Then it came again and one of the students screamed, pointing fearfully into the shadows.

“D-Dementor!” she cried out, backing away from the thing floating toward them. She screamed again when she stepped back too far and the tendrils of Devil’s Snare snapped tight around her ankles, holding her fast.

“Neville!” Harry said sharply as he sprang into action, letting his wand fall in an arc that drew fire like a whip down upon the plant. With a high, unearthly whine, the plant released the girl and coiled back in on itself fearfully. “Get them out!”

“Back to the castle now!” Neville called to the other students, catching the arm of the student who’d been entangled and pulling her along. “Stay together and move quickly!”

The Dementor made to follow the children and Harry moved firmly into its path, wand out and at the ready. “Expecto Patronum!” he called instinctively…but nothing happened. Harry did not have even the slightest happy thought held to bear against the encroaching despair that enfolded the wraith as surely as its shroud, stripping the power from his words.

A thread of fear bound tight across his chest, constricting his breath, which fogged in the approach of the Dementor. Desperately, Harry tried to bring some happiness to bear, to partition the weight of dark depression out of his mind, but his Occlumency failed with the Draught of Peace still thickly laid within him. He thought of Teddy and the motorbike, of the day James was born, of peaceful meals with Draco and the taste of Hawthorn berry wine on his tongue, of the safe circle of Neville’s arms as he wept for all he’d lost, but he couldn’t drudge up a single memory untainted by some darker emotion. His mind caught on Dudley and Lavender and he clung to the image of Daisy Dursley, whose colouring favoured his mother and it was enough.

Expecto Patro-aaaaaugh!” The spell died in an agonised shout, cold fire lancing through him from beneath his bandages, so that Harry half expected to see them alight.

His knees gave out and he fell before the Dementor, who loomed above him, weightless and hovering. The shrouded creature bent over him, but Harry could do nothing in its wake but stare up helplessly into the void even as some part of him welcomed the darkness home. Though he expected to feel the Dementor’s Kiss, the wraith simply looked at him in whatever way it was the thing could see. A dry, rasping click came from the Dementor’s horrible mouth and some part of Harry processed that it was some form of language even as something cold surged up the ruin of his arm to meet it.

Expecto Patronum!” a voice cried out confidently from his back and a silver mongoose dashed before Harry, blindingly bright and nearly as agonising as the Dementor’s presence. A shriek came from the ghastly creature and some similar sound tore free of Harry even as strong hands pulled him to his feet. “Harry!” The voice called in terror and Harry barely registered that it was Neville as the Patronus chased the Dementor off. “Harry say something, please!”

“Nev…” he croaked out hoarsely, leaning heavily upon the Herbologist. “’m alright…”

“Dumbledore’s ghost, Harry…I thought it Kissed you!” Neville said anxiously, putting a burning hand to his forehead. “You’re like ice. We need to get you to Poppy straightaway.”

No,” Harry gasped vehemently, struggling to secure his footing. “She’ll report me…please…”

“You’re a stubborn fucking bastard,” Neville told him angrily, keeping a wary eye out for more Dementors as he started pulling Harry back the way they’d come, awash in worried blues with a thread of red frustration.

Though Harry could recall little of their progression back through the Forbidden Forest, but by the time they came free of the trees he was walking under his own power again. The students were still gathered about near the forest’s edge, talking over one another to give harried explanations to the Headmistress in fearful swirls of vivid yellow. Poppy was there as well, calmly passing out bars of chocolate, and Draco, who caught sight of them first and quickly approached, looking them over brusquely before searching the trees.

“Did it follow?” he asked Neville quickly, his tone low and even so as not to stir the students up any further.

“No, we scared it off,” Neville replied, which Harry thought unduly generous of him.

“Just the one?” he pressed.

“Just the one,” Neville assured him. “Must have wandered off from the pack. I wasn’t expecting one to come so near to the school.”

“They’re getting hungry,” Draco said, his mouth a tight, unhappy line. “At least no one was hurt. They’re frightened, mostly. Poppy is sorting them now, but I expect the Ministry will want a report, which means the Examiner is likely to follow in short order.”

“Brilliant,” Neville said sourly, shaking his head. “This is my bloody fault… I shouldn’t have rushed us out there."

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Draco agreed flatly, then turned his sharp, grey eyes on Harry. “What, Evans?”

Harry startled a little and realized he’d been staring at the complicated borealis of emotion that lit over Draco, Neville tensing worriedly at his side. “What?” he repeated raspingly.

Draco scowled at him, but then shook his head and turned away from them in disgust as the Headmistress took notice of their presence and called them over. Poppy pressed the rest of her chocolate into their hands and then hurried the children back toward the castle. Minerva looked between them worriedly, her expression drawn and worried.

“What happened in there?” she asked, cobalt in her concern. “The students thought they heard a man scream.”

Grimacing, Harry both wished Draco had gone with the students so that he could speak frankly and was glad for the excuse to lie. “A stupid mistake,” he said gruffly before Neville could answer her. “I fell back onto the Devil’s Snare while I was warding off the Dementor. Lucky Professor Longbottom came back for me when he did.”

“It was likely holding a grudge after that bit with the fire,” Neville said to back him and Harry was grateful for it.

“Goodness, Jameson…are you alright? Perhaps you should follow Poppy back to the Hospital Wing.”

Harry held up his chocolate to forestall any agreeance on Neville’s part, shaking his head. “I’m fine, Minerva, really. I was fairly winded, but I’ve not suffered anything more serious than a few contusions. Some chocolate will set me to rights.” More importantly, Harry wanted to get where he could take his potions as quickly as possible.

Minerva looked them over with no small amount of concern, but she nodded finally and folded her hands before her. “Very well, take third period to get yourselves sorted then, the both of you. I’ll not have you back before a classroom until after lunch. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better go and draft a letter to the Governors. It’ll be all over the school by supper.”

Harry rather thought it was likely to have spread throughout the school by the end of lunch as he watched the students gossip amongst themselves, their heads close together except when they cast furtive glances toward him and Neville at the staff table. He would have skipped lunch entirely if he hadn’t known with surety that Neville would have come round to try and question him again. He had kept close to Draco and the Headmistress all the way back to the castle to be avoid being asked questions whose answers he could not bear to consider just then.

Escaping to Ravenclaw tower, Harry hid like a wanted man in Anorak’s aviary to take his potions and calm the maelstrom of his mind, knowing that no one would think to look for him there. He guessed that he had at least until lunch before Neville would enlist the aid of Hermione or Minerva in flushing him out and with the aid of the portraits and house elves behind them, it would be nigh impossible to go undisturbed. Harry felt oddly detached from himself, as though the Dementor had indeed Kissed him, only to leave his soul hanging above him on a tether. His vision likewise remained clouded by the waking dream of coloured emotions that left Harry unsure of what was real.

Once he’d taken his potions, Harry tried to eat the chocolate Poppy had given him, but the sickly sweet smell of it turned his stomach and he’d cast it aside in disgust. Even now, hours later, he couldn’t stand the thought of forcing any food past his throat and merely moved it about his plate while he tried to clear his mind. The Great Hall was a wretched kaleidoscope of emotion that clamoured at him, making his fingers itch to snuff it out, to devour it. Hermione especially was almost painfully bright to look at, her head a haze of anxiety and careful consideration while her body was wreathed in a soft pink of pure, innocent love, marred only by threads of hurt and sadness.

Cormac, conversely, was almost pleasant to look upon and Harry was glad for once to sit beside him. The boastful man was a wash of ugly pride and cruel satisfaction, though with a lingering taint of unfulfilled desires and other, darker things. Some part of Harry thought that he ought to try and pick apart the strands to see where they led, but he couldn’t be certain they weren’t merely a construct of his damaged mind. Minerva and Draco had not joined them to sup, but Neville kept casting glances his way so that Harry suspected that if he’d not already contacted his wife, he surely would before the day was through.

Overwhelmed by the stimulation of his ravaged senses and struggling to fight past the disconnection he felt to the world about him, Harry cast his eyes up at the ceiling instead, high enough that the sense of emotion dimmed somewhat. It was lucky that he did so, though at first he thought the wavering he saw was only another fluctuation of his sight. The immense glass windows at the height of the Great Hall were rippling, shallowly at first, but growing in strength before they suddenly bulged inward and Harry launched to his feet.

The world snapped back into sharp, singular clarity and without a thought he thrust his wand hand forward and the Time-Stop Charm ripped from it as shards of glass began to rain down. The bandages and the sleeve of his robe shredded as a blinding wave of red power burst free of him, his blackened arm paling with the force of his magic, the slivers of wand white hot beneath his skin.

Everything stopped. The glass, the students, the faculty, every last mote of dust within the Great Hall stood frozen in the wake of Harry’s power, which continued to pulse out of him in waves that raced out with his heartbeat. Panting harshly through his teeth, Harry stared at the scene in shock as he struggled to take it all in, already feeling the strain of effort from holding it all in place. Great shards of glass, some as long and sharp as swords, were angled unnaturally from where they’d broken free of their panes, aimed not downward as gravity would call, but toward the staff table. Toward Hermione.

Soft footsteps sounded from the passageway leading to the staff entrance, startlingly loud in the utter silence of the frozen room and Harry heard Draco’s sudden intake of breath. “Draco,” he breathed out bleakly, forcing the word past the clench of his teeth with effort. “Help me… The glass…I can’t hold it…”

There were a few moments hesitation where Harry wondered very seriously if Draco would come to his aid, half-afraid that he’d caught the Gamekeeper just as surely within the spell, yet he was unable to pull his eyes from the scene before him to check. Then Draco’s footsteps sounded again as he came quickly to Harry’s side, standing close enough that he could feel the warmth of the man.

“Give me my wand,” he demanded in a sharp whisper.

Harry faltered, nearly dropping the spell in his shock. “What?”

Potter,” Draco snarled at him and Harry was suddenly seventeen again, cornered in the Room of Hidden Things. “Give. Me. My. Wand.”

Swallowing thickly around a throat gone suddenly dry, Harry made an abortive gestured toward his waist with his unfettered hand. “Here,” he breathed, barely a whisper. “It’s here.”

Draco pushed his hand into Harry’s robe and felt for the holster at his hip, pulling his wand free with an unconscious sigh of relief that brushed over Harry’s cheek like a tangible thing. A silver mist wafted from the length of Hawthorn and then Draco held it aloft and began weaving the wand in a complicated pattern that Harry recognized after a moment as an unbinding, meant to reduce an object to its base form. It was highly advanced magic and despite the cold shock still gripping him, Harry couldn’t help but admire Draco for it. Above them, the shine of the glass dulled as it reduced to sand, still caught in shape by Harry’s charm. The pulses of red light started to come more sluggishly as the strain caused his heart to slow, a fine tremble working its way down the length of his arm.

“Draco,” he gasped out warningly.

“Nearly there,” Draco muttered, his wandwork coming more swiftly now as he hurried to finish the last of it.

Draco,” Harry stressed, a beat of sound flaring for an instant, accompanied by a brief flicker of motion.

Not yet, Potter!” he snapped sharply, but he finished the spell at last and turned to shove the wand back into Harry’s robe, sheathing it once more. “Wait until I’ve gone.”

Panting shallowly, Harry listened to the quick fall of his feet and held it until he was fairly sure that Draco was out of sight and then let his arm fall, pulling it into the fold of his robe to shield it as the room exploded into pandemonium. Screams of terror from those who had seen the glass break free turned to startled cries of uncertainty as sand rained upon them. His eyes moved over them rapidly, searching for anyone out of place, anyone who looked as though their machinations had gone awry, but they were just…kids.

Most of the staff had gotten to their feet along the table, but Cormac remained where he was, staring up at the gaping windows, free of glass now. Harry dropped his eyes to him in suspicion, but the Flight Instructor wasn’t even holding his wand, as stunned as any of them by what had just occurred. A wave of exhaustion threatened to overtake him and Harry turned on his heel, staggering away from the staff table and out the back entrance as Hermione, Neville and the other professors tried to call the Great Hall to order. He expected to find Draco there – Draco, who knew – but the passage was empty.

The map. He needed the map.

Vision tunnelling, Harry dragged himself swiftly through the corridors to his office and the Marauders’ Map. He had to get to it while there was still a chance he might see the witch or wizard responsible for the attack just now. It had been desperate and heavy handed…one with little regard to collateral damage or witnesses. The Ministry would be on site within the hour and there was a strong possibility the school would face closure after such violence. Now might be the only chance Harry had to see the killer revealed to him.

Shoving open the door to his office, Harry almost fell into it as his vision swam, light-headed and spared from agony only through what Occlumency he could draw upon just then. He needed his potions with some urgency, especially the Blood-Replenishment to restore the flow of oxygen through his veins, leaving him weak from the deprivation. Staggering around his desk, he unlocked it and pulled the map from within, shaking open the blank parchment roughly. He was so focused on his task that he failed to realize that he hadn’t closed the door until the spell hit him.

Stupefy!” a high voice, a woman’s voice cried out and Harry flew back from the parchment, still blank upon the desk. His head connected sharply with the frame of Snape’s empty portrait and he fell into a dream.

He was back in the Forbidden Forest, or perhaps it was the Belizean jungle, dark and cold and damp with the near choking scent of earth about him. Harry stood before the Dementor again, numb and disconnected from himself as faced the creature. Figures emerged from the trees behind the wraith and approached Harry; a man, a monster and a dozen more Dementors, gliding soundlessly out of the darkness.

The man, Draco, met Harry’s eyes with a sneer, the Resurrection Stone at his throat. “Give me my wand, Potter,” he demanded and reached into the Dementor’s tattered shroud to pull it free, though Harry could feel the hot brush of his fingers against his own body. “You’ve no need for it anymore.”

The monster, Voldemort, gestured around at the army of Dementor’s, whose ranks were only growing as the moments passed. “They wait for you…to rise,” Voldemort hissed in triumph, his eyes bright with malice. “Your Dark Army.”

Their words came to Harry strangely, as though they were at his back, but he could not find his own voice to answer them, his breath a dry rattle in his chest. Harry and the Dementor before him each lifted a hand toward for the other, but his fingers found only glass. A mirror.

Harry’s eyes flew open, nigh unseeing and he opened his mouth to scream, but could not draw breath past his lips. “K…Kr…” His throat clicked uselessly as panic flared bright in him, cold darkness flooding over his body, consuming his flesh in a frigid wave.

Alone in his office, Harry stared at the ceiling in horror and suffocated.

Chapter Text

There were any number of words that Draco Malfoy had heard used to describe his person over the course of twenty-eight years, but he rather liked to think that simple was not one of them. Though he had initially believed Jameson Evans to be a Ministry man, another pair of watchful eyes for their dear Examiner, he had lived long enough in Harry Potter’s shadow to know the cast of it. Draco had been without his wand of Hawthorn and Unicorn Hair for so long that he hadn’t immediately recognized the curiously familiar tingle of magic that brushed against his senses whenever Evans was near. That changed the day he’d taken the man to the Room of Hidden Things.

His doubts had first crept up that morning, watching how Evans was affected by Cormac’s prejudicial blabber toward Teddy Lupin. Or rather, his careful lack of reaction highlighted by a single spark of wild magic, unnoticed by Cormac or Susan. It was an odd thing to see in a wizard who had supposedly been abroad during the Second Wizarding War, and therefore should have no particular loyalty toward Remus Lupin. Draco had supposed that Evans might have some other loved one whose life had been irrevocably affected by lycanthropy; a feeling he empathized with easily. It was enough to spark his curiosity where before there had been only scornful distaste of the man, so Draco had decided to see how Evans would handle his little ashwinder problem.

From the moment Evans had drawn his wand, Draco’s wand, it had called to him like some half-remembered song whose name hovered upon his tongue. Caught up in the fray, there was hardly time to think upon it until he was lying on his back beneath the nest mother and heard Evans call out in what could only be Parseltongue. A mysterious man called Jameson Evans, who is unduly sympathetic toward Remus Lupin’s only son, shows up to teach the exact subject recently denied one Harry Potter…and he just so happens to be a Parselmouth? Of course it was Harry and Draco hated that he hadn’t seen it immediately, because Hermione Granger always got her way.

And now, months later, Draco had finally tipped his hand. At first the information had simply been too valuable not to keep undisclosed, but as the days and weeks passed, Draco found to his surprise that Harry’s company was not wholly unpleasant, if rather dour at times. There were moments he even forgot why it should be strange that they might come to friendly terms. Then Harry had followed him out on the full moon and he forcibly remembered how infuriatingly intrusive the man could be; all stubborn, stupid, reckless nerve that was the failing of so many Gryffindors.

Damn the man for dragging Draco into his tireless need to play the hero.

After leaving the Great Hall, he’d made haste out of the castle and back to his cottage, wanting to be well clear of the place before anyone thought to place him there. If Romilda Vane caught even the slightest hint that he’d been involved with the attack, he’d likely end up shackled and wandless once more. He fully expected Harry to confront him soon and only hoped he had enough sense to do it before the Ministry arrived. But an hour passed undisturbed and Draco paced about his cottage like a caged beast, unable to keep to the busy work that he’d set himself to.

“Coward,” he snarled into the empty air and was unsure whether he meant Harry or himself.

A flicker of movement on the grounds caught his eye and he steeled himself as he recognized Romilda descending from the castle, flanked not only by Weasley, but two other Aurors besides. Taking slow, calming breaths, he quieted his mind, preparing himself for the Examiner’s less than delicate touch. A loud crack sounded at his back and he whirled to see an ancient old elf there, wringing his gnarled hands and weeping. Draco thought that the elf looked vaguely familiar, but could not immediately place him.

“Leave at once,” he snarled at the creature, glancing back at the group of wizards coming ever closer.

Please,” the elf sobbed and reached up to pull at his drooping ears in a way that suggested he was breaking rules in being there. “Master is dyingPlease… Kreacher does not know how to help him…”

A cold weight settled in Draco’s gut and his breath caught as he suddenly remembered the elf from a lifetime ago. Remembered seeing him at the last battle, leading the house-elves of Hogwarts into the fray. Remembered him paying respects to his mother afterward, as a lady of the House of Black.

“Harry…” he breathed out without meaning to, then glanced sharply back out the window.

The approaching witch and her escort were still at a distance to not have heard the crack of Apparation or to clearly see through his windows, but within moments that would no longer be the case. Hesitation lingered in him only briefly, as it had in the Great Hall, caught in the knowledge that the life he’d struggled to build was rapidly slipping away from him. Then Draco moved to take up the dragonhide bag in which he kept his veterinary supplies and held out his hand to Kreacher.

“Take me to him,” he commanded and the house-elf gratefully took hold of him and Disapparated.

Draco stumbled briefly as they landed in Harry’s office and quickly looked around, not seeing him at first. Then Kreacher was tugging him around the desk and he could see Harry sprawled there, hear the terrible sound of him trying and failing to breathe. His eyes were wide and unseeing as his mouth worked uselessly to try and draw air into his body, an oddly bluish cast to his skin. Blood pooled on the worn stone beneath Harry’s head, but it was abnormally dark. Glancing quickly at the painting mounted above them, Draco cursed to see that it was empty and moved to his knees beside Harry’s prone form.

“Severus!” he called sharply, setting down his bag and carefully feeling at Harry’s throat for obstruction, the skin like ice beneath his fingertips. “Severus!

What, damn you?” the old spy demanded as he finally stepped back into frame, then froze at the tableau before him. “Draco? What’s happened?”

“Would that I knew!” Draco snapped at him, glaring up at the painting. “Potter is dying. Tell me what’s wrong with him.”

Severus didn’t do him the discourtesy of feigning any ignorance, his eyes flicking over Harry critically. “An infection in his right arm, magical in nature, but we haven’t learned anything more than that. It strips the oxygen from his blood, cramping the muscles in his arm, and influences his dreams. I suspect it also affects his appetite, but he claims that’s due to the potions he takes to manage the symptoms.”

“Potions aren’t worth a damn now if he cannot breathe,” Draco muttered as he bent over the prone wizard.

He intended to try and force air into Harry’s body, but at the touch of his lips Harry’s lungs suddenly expanded and he felt a sharp, unnatural tug from a place he’d never consciously felt before. Pulling back sharply, Draco gasped and put a hand to his mouth, watching wide eyed as Harry’s hands clawed and a low, terrifying rattle sounded in his chest. Kreacher moaned fearfully, battering his head against the wall as he watched his master suffer helplessly.

“This isn’t an infection…” Draco whispered almost to himself, then tore his eyes away from Harry to look at the elf. “Stop that immediately. Can you go into the Hospital Ward without being seen or heard?”

“Y-yes, Master Draco…Kreacher can do this,” the house-elf affirmed, wringing his gnarled old hands again.

“Go at once and look for the braid of unicorn hair Madam Pomfrey keeps in her stores. Take seven unbroken hairs from it without disturbing the weave and return here with them.” He waited as the elf bowed low and vanished, then pulled the knife from his belt.

“Draco?” Severus asked, watching him closely as he cut open Harry’s clothing at his throat and shoulder, baring the darkness that had spread up from his wand arm toward his head.

“Central America,” Draco said in answer and lifted Harry’s head very slightly to feel the wound at the back of it, relieved to find it scabbed over. Pulling open the bag at his side, he pushed into a hidden pocket to withdraw a small, shining vial of gold. Unstopping it, Draco smoothed a hand over Harry’s disguised brow, then held him firmly in place. “I don’t envy the headache you’ll have upon waking.”

When Harry woke, he found himself in his bed and was mildly surprised to find that he considered Snape’s former quarters to be his own. It was almost more unexpected than the fact that he was certainly alive, for he knew from experience that death was not nearly so painful. He tried to sort out his thoughts to determine how he’d come to be in bed when he rather thought he ought to be…somewhere else. Harry remembered the Great Hall and Draco, remembered the agony of his body afterward and then…dark dreams and cold suffocation. His eyes were very dry for having had his contacts in so long and they grated within his sockets as he looked about the room, lit by firelight.

The painted meadow showed that dusk had fallen in a sky that was grey and cold with the threat of snow, the doe bedding into the thick grass for warmth. A chair was missing from the fireside and Harry realized he was not alone, shifting his eyes to the pale wizard seated at his bedside. Draco’s brow was furrowed slightly, but his eyes were closed and his breathing slow and deep; asleep, but not heavily so. A wheezing cough drew his gaze to his other side and Harry was stunned to see Kreacher abed beside him, laid out on a pillow with his own share of the quilt. The sight was so surprising that he must have made some noise, for he heard Draco shift and come awake in the chair.

Looking at him rather helplessly, Harry spoke slowly, his tongue heavy in his mouth. “Is this a dream?”

Draco raised an eyebrow coolly, sitting upright. “Dream of me often, do you?” he asked mockingly, but his voice was soft and weary. “How do you feel?”

Harry tried to catalogue all that he was feeling, but his body felt rather as though it had reached a point where it was no longer certain how to express its displeasure with all that had happened. “Wretched,” he said honestly. “But…alive. Apparently.”

“Despite your very best efforts, I’m sure.”

“Did you…” Harry had to stop and swallow around a swell of emotion that pricked at his eyes. “Did you take my arm?” He’d been terrified to look at it since waking, tucked under the quilt except for his arms and shoulders, which were laid beneath a white sheet that smelled of the Hospital Wing.

Draco looked a little surprised, then his eyes softened just so and he shook his head. “I haven’t dismembered you, Potter.”

Tension slipped out of him and Harry let out a shuddering sigh of relief, whispering, “Thank you.” He took a few moments to calm himself, then licked his paper-dry lips. “What happened?”

“Your house-elf felt you dying and broke his orders to come to you. When he realized that he couldn’t save you, he instinctively went to the next in line,” Draco explained, sitting forward and summoning a cup of water, helping Harry take a small sip. “Heir to the most noble House of Black. I got you breathing again and brought you back here. Oh, and we’re lovers now.”

Harry choked on the water and coughed violently, too shocked to glare that Draco had clearly done so on purpose, given his smirk. “We’re what?

“If you’ve a better explanation for why the Aurors found me locked up with you in your quarters, I’ll humour you to listen, but it makes little difference now,” Draco told him pointedly, sitting back in his chair. “According to the official report, we had recently been on the outs which was regrettably apparent in our joint coursework, but I was so very distraught when I overheard what had happened in the Great Hall and went to find you straightaway. You had, of course, collapsed in your office after overtaxing yourself while heroically saving the students from peril with a wandless casting of extremely high level magic. Being a licensed investigator, your first thought was to take note of everything that had happened before it slipped your memory, which is why you returned to your office instead of reporting to the Hospital Wing or assisting the rest of the staff in the Great Hall.

“Unfortunately, you overestimated your abilities, my dear Jameson,” Draco continued sarcastically. “You fainted straightaway and hit your head quite soundly on Severus’ portrait besides. When I found you there I was terribly overcome with emotion, but I employed my experience as a Magizoologist and Gamekeeper to ensure you were not in any jeopardy, then moved you here and asked Severus to call for Poppy.”

Draco gestured at the sheet laid out over Harry and he realized that the Matron must have examined him at least a little. “She, of course, agreed with me that you certainly should not be moved, nor disturbed by the Aurors until you are recovered,” he finished, looking pleased with himself.

Taking it all in, Harry’s thoughts tugged at him at the mention of hitting his head, but the memory of his fall was blurred and he only nodded slowly in acknowledgement of the tale. “The Ministry believed it?”

“They might not have, except that my favourite Examiner just so happened to be on site and was most helpful in offering to complete my required Examination,” Draco sneered, lip curling at the memory.

Harry stiffened at the mention of Romilda, his eyes widening slightly. “You were able to convince her of all that?”

Draco gave him a rather withering look. “Potter, I was trained with the intention of guarding my thoughts against the Dark Lord. I’m hardly fussed by Romilda Vane,” he said scathingly, then smirked at him. “Unfortunately she did manage to uncover the most…lascivious memories of us, darling. It was terribly awkward for her.”

What memories?” Harry balked in surprise.

“Memories…concepts…it really is difficult for one to sort the difference when attempting to read a skilled Occlumens. Don’t worry, dearest, my imagination is highly detailed. And creative.”

Closing his eyes, Harry counted backward from ten as his face flushed, then opened them to glower at Draco once more. “Thank you, I suppose…” he groused, unable to remain flustered overlong with his body in its current state. “What actually happened, then?”

“You very nearly died,” Draco told him seriously, sobering. “It was clever for Severus to have thought you suffering a magical infection…but he was mistaken.”

Leaning over Harry, Draco turned down the sheet to reveal his arm. It was black from fingertip to bicep, where pearlescent runes had been sewn into Harry’s skin, shining faintly in the low-light of the fireplace.

“Unicorn hair,” he explained. “It won’t hold permanently, but it should buy us some time.”

“What is it?” Harry asked softly in horror, looking at the runes stitched into his flesh.

“A parasite,” Draco said matter-of-factly, as though the word weren’t enough to make Harry’s skin crawl. “You were wounded in Central America, yes? The papers printed nothing else for weeks.”

“In Belize,” Harry confirmed hoarsely, trying to stay calm.

Draco nodded and sat himself on the edge of the bed, looking down at him. “There are a few magical creatures that live solely in tropical climes such as are found in Central America and the Caribbean. One of the most elusive of these has in fact never been successfully captured for study.”

“I feel like I’m in class…” Harry mumbled, a little light-headed with shock.

“Then you should know better than to interrupt,” Draco said pointedly before continuing. “It is called a Lethifold or the ‘Living Shroud’. They resemble black cloaks and usually attack at night, suffocating their victims as they sleep and devouring their remains. They’ve long been thought to be related to Dementors in some capacity, but none have found the connection as of yet. A theory among the Magizoological community is that when the Lethifold comes upon an unconscious witch or wizard, they form a symbiotic relationship that consumes host and parasite both, giving birth to a Dementor.”

He gestured at the raised scars on Harry’s hand, where the shards of his wand remained. “I believe that when you were injured in the attack, a Lethifold, perhaps in its infancy or a piece ripped from a larger beast, entered your body through a wound on your hand. Whether because of its size, because of your magic or because it was inside you, the Lethifold was unable to kill you as it was meant to. A problem a great number of Dark Wizards can empathize with, I’m sure.”

Harry swallowed thickly, the urge to claw the thing free of his arm making the fingers of his left hand clench into the quilt. “How do we get it out?”

“My best guess is that you’ll have to cast a Patronus with your wand arm to force it out. I was able to chase it back into your arm with what little unicorn blood I had – oh don’t give me that look, it was willingly given to me by a foal whose mother I buried. It was my best guess at saving your life, but the only known way to effectively drive off a Lethifold is through the use of a Patronus, same as a Dementor.”

Closing his eyes, Harry shook his head. “I’m not sure that I can…I tried to cast one today in the forest, against the Dementor there. I couldn’t rouse a happy memory strong enough…and what little I managed to scrap together hurt so badly that I couldn’t complete the spell.” Letting out a soft, mirthless laugh, Harry brought his left hand to his face, scrubbing over it. “I thought I was going mad… It’s as though I knew I was becoming a Dementor, but the very idea of it was so…” He shook his head again and dropped his hand back to the covers, looking up at Draco. “Thank you. For saving me.”

Draco flushed very slightly at the raw, earnest way in which Harry thanked him, turning his eyes aside. “I owed you a debt,” he said simply, getting to his feet. “Get some rest…you’ll need to be sharp for the Examiner once you’ve mended.”

“Draco,” Harry forestalled him gently. “When did you know? About me, I mean…”

Snorting softly, Draco looked back and raised a brow critically. “It’s so difficult to determine the precise moment in the face of such overwhelming evidence. Shall I draft you a list, Potter? I assure you that it will be most problematic to decide whether to place your dreadful choice in pseudonym before or after the fact that you still carry my wand.”

Closing his eyes, Harry grunted softly in defeat. “Never mind…I’m not sure I want to know.”

When next Harry roused, it was to the warm brush of a hand across his brow, stirring him from his blessedly dreamless sleep. “Draco?” he murmured, instinctively tilting his head toward the touch.

“Wrong blonde,” a woman’s voice said gently from above him. “You massive prat.”

“Hannah…” Harry breathed out and opened his eyes to look up at her.

Hannah was wearing ordinary robes rather than her Healer’s uniform, her blond curls twisted back in a loose bun. She looked tired, but her eyes were bright and shone with tears even as she tried to give him a stern look. “I can’t believe you, Harry… You are, without question, the worst patient I am ever likely to have.”

“Here’s hoping…” He looked to the chair at his bedside, but it was empty. “What time is it?”

“Just past three,” Hannah told him, taking hold of his chin to turn his face back toward her again, shining the lit end of her wand into his eyes. “I sent Draco off to get some sleep in Neville’s room. The castle is locked down at the moment…no one in or out.”

“You’re here,” he pointed out, grimacing at the light.

“Yes, well we both know Hermione is too clever for the Ministry to contain. Officially I’m here to assist Poppy in screening the children. They’re all to be looked at to ensure none of them suffered any unseen damage in the attack.” She frowned and lowered the wand. “What on earth have you got in your eyes?”

“Contact lenses. They really are past due to come out,” he said, struggling to push himself upright. After a few moments, it was apparent that his body was not cooperative and he slumped back with a frustrated sigh.

“Got that out of your system, have you?” Hannah was unrepentant in the fact that she’d merely watched his attempts to sit up. “Your body is oxygen starved, massively dehydrated and malnourished, Harry Potter. You’re just going to have to lie there and look pretty a while.”

Harry glared at her half-heartedly, but could hardly argue the point. “Some bedside manner this is. Are you certain you’re a licensed practitioner?” he groused.

“Feel free to file a complaint with the Healer’s Guild,” she said archly. “Accio contact lenses.”

Fuck,” Harry growled in surprise as his lenses popped free, a shock of sensation that wasn’t painful, but was hardly pleasant either. “That’s not how you take them out, Hannah!”

“These are horrific,” Hannah gasped, examining the lenses in her hand. “It’s no wonder your eyes look ghastly.”

“Just put them in their bloody case,” he ordered gruffly, unable to glare at her properly now that the world was a blur. “It’s there in the bedside drawer. Get my glasses, would you?”

“A ’please’ and ‘thank you’ certainly wouldn’t be remiss,” she chided him, but opened the bedside drawer to fetch the little plastic case. She opened it curiously, giving the little pools of cleaning solution a perfunctory sniff before depositing his lenses and replacing it in the drawer. Finding the bottle of saline, Hannah read through the label. “I take it you’ve been using this to counteract the dryness?”

“By ‘this’ I’ll assume you’re referring to my eye drops, given how you’ve blinded me,” Harry grumbled at her.

“You’re certainly melodramatic after a brush with death. Look up,” she instructed him, then carefully applied the solution to his eyes.

Harry sighed at the immediate relief the drops provided, blinking a few times as Hannah replaced the bottle and got his glasses for him, setting them on his face. “Thank you,” he said and adjusted the frames with an unsteady hand.

Hannah watched the trembling of his fingers with a critical eye, frowning at him. “I think it best we sort the nourishment first,” she decided and turned to rummage through a bag Harry hadn’t noticed before, potion bottles clinking together faintly. She drew out a Nutrition Draught and Harry grimaced, but took it meekly at her sharp look. “Drink that slowly or your stomach is likely to cramp.”

He rather thought that he wouldn’t have been able to drink it quickly if he tried, but Harry managed to take slow, shallow swallows despite the foul texture and utter lack of taste. Admittedly, he began to feel better almost immediately, though a little giddy with the way his body began to rapidly to process the draught into much needed energy. Handing her the empty bottle, he gratefully took the glass of water that followed to clear his mouth, careful to sip at it just as slowly.

They continued in this vein for a while, Hannah passing him potions and fluids that Harry slowly consumed until he felt overfull, but clearer than he had in days. His body was heavy with exhaustion, but no longer pained now that he’d had enough Blood-Replenishment to restore the oxygen in his blood. Harry even managed to sit himself upright with minimal assistance from Hannah and he watched as she examined his arm.

“This rune work is bloody brilliant,” she said admiringly, checking the stitches for any sign of infection. “Brutishly efficient, but then Draco was always top of the class in Ancient Runes. After Hermione, of course. Does it hurt?”

“It’s more unsettling than anything else. The arm is…numb,” Harry admitted, flexing the fingers with great effort. “I think it should be hurting, but it just feels dead.”

“I expect that’s the unicorn hair shielding you, then,” Hannah surmised and pulled out the jar of silvery salve she had used on him in the past. “It’s so frustrating to misdiagnose someone like this… I should have realized.”

“You should have realized that I was proving some obscure Magizooloical theory about the missing link between Lethifolds and Dementors?” he asked teasingly, raising his eyebrows at her.

“Yes, alright,” she said, rolling her eyes. Spreading the salve over the blackness of his skin, Hannah began massaging it in. “But I was so caught up in the thought that we were working with curse damage that I never even considered the alternatives. It was short-sighted of me and I’m sorry.”

“You saved my life, Hannah,” Harry assured her. “I wouldn’t have made it this long without you.”

“I did notice how you very nearly died the moment you left my care,” she ribbed him, but there was hurt lingering in her eyes.

“I’m sorry…” he said gently and meant it. “Don’t be cross with Neville…I was trying to keep you both out of this mess.”

“I’ll damn well be cross with my husband if I so please,” Hannah said sternly. “We’re adults, Harry. You don’t get to make these kinds of determinations for us. We deserve better…we deserve to choose.” She shook her head in frustration. “When you disappeared and the papers started writing all that rubbish, I thought…I thought you had given up.” Hannah’s mouth tightened and she looked as though she were swallowing back tears before she let it go with a sigh. “You don’t always have to save everyone…”

Harry looked away from her at that and his eyes fell to Kreacher, who still slept on the other side of the bed. A pang of regret went through him to see how frail the old elf looked. “Is he going to be alright?”

Hannah looked over at the house-elf and her expression told him enough. “I’m not an expert in house-elf biology, Harry…but he doesn’t look well. He’s very old and suffered a nasty shock, I’ve seen similar responses in elderly patients. I think the best that we can do now is to make him comfortable and let him rest.”

Nodding numbly, Harry couldn’t help but feel that all his attempts to keep those around him safe from harm ultimately seemed to be leading them to be worse off than they were. He was quiet as Hannah bandaged his arm, then slipped his back-up glove onto his hand. Realizing she must have seen it in the drawer and guessed its purpose, he flexed his fingers lightly to activate the charm. The glove shimmered, then settled into the illusion of false skin. He would have to get a replacement from George; the longer glove that he and Lee had made for Harry had been shredded along with his bandages and sleeve in the Great Hall.

“Try to get some more sleep,” Hannah said gently, packing up her bag once more. “Poppy and I should be able to keep the wolves at bay until this afternoon at least.”

“How much does she know?” Harry asked, having wondered since Draco first mentioned her involvement.

“Enough that we can trust her discretion, but the truth of your identity is safe, if that’s what you’re asking.” She put a gentle hand on his cheek, warm against the chill that lingered on his skin. “The people who know you still believe in you, Harry…the Prophet won’t change that. You could do with a few more allies.”

“I’ll think about it,” he promised her, passing her his glasses and easing back down on the bed. Harry was surprised to find that he actually meant it.

The Room of Requirement had a chill in the air, being on the cusp of Christmas, but it was a welcome relief with the number of duels going on throughout the space. Harry walked slowly among the ranks of Dumbledore’s Army and the Living Shroud glided over the stone beside him like a shadow. They were so young…all of them no more than kids. How was Harry supposed to prepare them for the world and the dangers in it? How was he supposed to save them?

Harry ran his eyes over the pairings; Ron and Hermione, Neville and Hannah, Cormac and Marietta, Dean and Seamus, Luna and Ginny… He stopped and frowned, looking back at where Cho Chang faced off against Marietta Edgecomb, then shook it off after a moment, continuing on. At the back of the room, Draco was faced away from him, looking up at a bough of mistletoe with some interest.

“We’re lovers now,” he drawled, turning at his approach to smirk at Harry mockingly. Harry’s breath stilled because Draco was bleeding from deep cuts that marred the length of his body, cuts that Harry knew he had opened on him. “You can’t save everyone, can you?”

“I didn’t want to put you in danger,” Harry whispered and leaned toward him even as the Lethifold rose behind Draco, dark as night. Their lips met beneath the mistletoe and it was wet with blood.

Potter,” Draco said with some urgency and gripped his shoulder. “Wake up.”

Coming awake with a gasp, Harry stared up into Draco’s somewhat blurred face and for a moment he was confused by the lack of crimson there. “Draco?”

“Time to put your face on,” he told Harry seriously, pressing the Hawthorn wand into his hand. “The Examiner is coming.”

Cursing, Harry levered himself upright and accepted the shirt that Draco passed him, awkwardly pulling it on to hide his bandages. “Mirror,” he said gruffly and Draco hesitated a moment, then drew his wand to conjure one.

It took more effort than usual to apply the changes to his features once Harry had cast a decent enough eye-correction charm to do so, and he honestly wasn’t sure how much of that was the current state of his magic and how much of it was the knowledge that Draco was watching him. Hannah’s efforts toward his recuperation had left him stronger, healthier than he’d been in days, but he was still exhausted from his efforts in the Great Hall and all that followed.

“Scar,” Draco reminded him and Harry nodded, summoning his Muggle make-up to mask it, much to the pureblood’s amusement.

“Shut it,” Harry growled at him, though Draco hadn’t actually made a comment.

Smirking at him, Draco moved around the bed and carefully scooped up Kreacher, pillow and all. He carried the house-elf over to the wardrobe, placing him gently beneath the fall of Harry’s robes and casting a silencing charm to muffle his wheezing. Turning back to Harry, he banished the mirror with a nod of satisfaction and sat himself on the bed, checking over his features.

“Good. How’s your mind? Severus has been working on your Occlumency, I presume.”

Harry’s mouth pressed tighter and he shook his head. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a Pensieve lying about,” he grumbled and sighed at the frown Draco gave him in return. “I imagine you’ll not be surprised to learn I’m rather thick headed when it comes to Occlumency.”

“A failing of our Chosen One? Lucky you Rita Skeeter’s still in Azkaban,” Draco drawled, then shifted closer to Harry on the bed. Harry stiffened in surprise when pale fingers slid over his jaw and neck to hold his face at either side, his eyes widening as Draco leaned in close enough that they shared the same breath between them.

“Your heart is a stone, never showing,” he intoned softly, like a mantra, and Harry shivered as the words seemed to slide over his lips. “Your thoughts are a river, always flowing. Let some truths be found as moss on the stone. Keep your secrets within; unseen, unknown. Thoughts slide as water past fingers questing. You are the master of this testing.”

Harry felt himself sink into the words, as though the world had narrowed down to just the two of them in that moment, unable to look away from the grey of Draco’s eyes. His words finished in a whisper, but Draco remained where he was, looking at Harry just as closely. Involuntarily, Draco brushed his thumb against the softness of his beard and Harry’s breath caught.

“Draco,” he breathed out and realized how close they’d gotten when their lips brushed.

A sharp rap of knuckles sounded at the door and Draco drew away from him, leaving Harry a little chilled for the loss of contact. “Good luck, Evans,” he said softly, his face impassive.

Harry nodded, recognizing the bite of Ron’s magic at his wards and took a steadying breath. “Thank you,” he murmured and the Gamekeeper nodded once before standing to go answer the door.

“Good afternoon, Draco,” Harry heard Minerva say from the corridor. “How is Jameson faring?”

“He’s awake and coherent, Headmistress, but he should still be resting,” Draco replied disdainfully.

“Yes, of course, but I’m afraid Madam Examiner insists,” Minerva said scornfully and Harry couldn’t help but smile a little at the heavy disapproval in her tone.

“Apologies, Headmistress, but my office received instruction to conduct an Examination as soon as possible, given the circumstances,” Romilda crooned with false sincerity. “Were it up to me I would delay it, but it is a matter of policy, I’m afraid.”

“I’m certain your hands are tied, Miss Vane,” Draco said, his voice utterly polite to a fault. “Would it be feasible for me to remain for the Examination? I hate to leave him alone just now.”

“That’s terribly sweet, Draco, but I simply cannot allow it.”

“It’s alright, Draco,” Harry called from the bed, his mind as calm as it was going to get. “Let’s get this over with, I’m sure the Examiner has more important things to do.”

“He hasn’t had his tea,” Draco murmured to Romilda as he let them in and Harry glowered at him when he came back into view. “Makes him terribly ill-tempered.”

“Quite understandable, given the circumstances,” Romilda assured Draco, then smiled at Harry as she stepped close to the bed. “Professor Evans, how lovely to see you again.”

“Were that it was under better circumstances, Miss Vane,” Harry replied gruffly, his stomach tightening at the sight of her.

“Indeed… From what I’ve heard so far, you should be commended for your actions.”

“Looking up at the right moment hardly warrants acclamation. I just happened to see it and react first.”

“Such humility is to be expected from one who chose to work in Private Inquiries and Investigations, rather than with Magical Law Enforcement,” she said with a smile, then turned to the others. “If you’ll all excuse me, I’d like to begin.”

“I’ll be right outside, Jameson,” Draco told him for Romilda’s benefit, but Harry felt a small comfort for it all the same. Ron, who had been looking around the room at the back of the group, waited to ensure the others had left before following them out, shutting the door firmly.

“Now then,” Romilda began and sat down in the chair Draco had used the night before and Harry’s jaw tightened to see her there. “I won’t trouble you overlong, as I’m sure you need your rest.” She pulled out her writing pad and quill and behind the walls he’d built in his mind, Harry cringed. “Tell me what happened yesterday afternoon.”

“I went to the Great Hall for the mid-day meal and happened to be staring up at the windows when I saw them explode inward. Instinctively, I stood up and let loose a Matter Reversal Charm and nearly blacked out from the effort. As soon as I was able, I went for my office to write down as much as I could remember, but I must have been more done in than I realized. I don’t recall much between then and waking up in bed.”

“Did you see who cast the curse on the windows?”

For a moment Harry almost thought of…something, but he shook his head. “I only saw the staff and students, but I don’t recall any of them looking up before they heard the glass shatter.”

“Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to do such a thing?”

From some dark corner of his mind, Tom smiled at Harry. “Attack a school in broad daylight? Can’t say that I’ve heard of any witch or wizard living that would fit such a profile.”

“Who do you think was the intended target?”

Harry looked at Romilda carefully, her usual crafted poise just ever so slightly wrinkled, but he wasn’t certain whether it was from eagerness, anxiety…or wrath. “Are you suggesting that this was an assassination attempt, not a terrorist attack?”

She averted her eyes to her writing pad, her voice forcibly professional. “I’m not an Auror, Professor. It isn’t for me to determine the nature of the attack, but I feel it best to cover every possibility when conducting interviews.”

“If this was meant for a sole victim, then they know their would-be killer,” Harry said almost to himself, the thought not unfamiliar since finding the clippings left for Hermione. “That would make this a crime of passion…someone so angry, so spiteful that they would risk everything in a moment of desperate action to see their victim dead.” Which raised the question…who hated Hermione Granger that much?

Her crimson lips pursed with displeasure and Harry’s gut told him that while she might know more than she was letting on, Romilda Vane was not behind the attack. In fact, Harry would be willing to bet that she was upset by what had happened. For a moment, she only watched the scratch of her quill finishing up her notes, and then regained her composure to smile genially at him.

“I think that should do just fine. Now my office is requesting that I complete a full Examination on you as the prominent party in this matter.”

“I assumed as much. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to see the truth of this brought to light, Miss Vane,” Harry told her seriously. Whatever this was, whomever was involved, Harry was going to force it to the light of day.

For a brief moment Romilda looked unnerved by his vehemence, but then drew her wand with a nod. “Then let us begin. Legillimens.”

Chapter Text

Severus Snape was, in all honesty, a horrid teacher.

This wasn’t to say that he wasn’t brilliant, for Harry would be one of the first to admit that he was, but that brilliance came with a rigidity that ensured Snape would teach a subject in only the way in which he understood it. That Harry had at sixteen learned more about the art of potion making from Snape’s boyhood footnotes than he had in five years of lessons from the man himself was a testament to the fact. Whether or not his students managed to comprehend his way of thinking had ever been of little consequence, for it could only be assumed that if they did not understand, then they were clearly idiots and there was very little Snape could do about that. This didn’t mean that Snape hadn’t successfully taught others, as Harry was also a prime example of that, but it was more to do with the student making an effort in adjusting their own way of thinking to learn.

When it came down to it, Snape had possessed neither the desire nor temperament to teach, despite that it had been his primary vocation for the majority of his adult life. He was vindictive and impatient and unabashedly biased, but his occupations, both public and private, had been decided by his debt to Albus Dumbledore. Death had not greatly improved his capacity to teach, but at least Harry was better able to weather the storm of his ill temper now that he stood on more level ground. But where his potion making had come leaps and bounds, Harry’s progress in Occlumency had been far more hard won.

Though it was utterly ridiculous to even consider now, the first time Harry had ever undergone an Examination, he’d actually been relieved to find that it would be with Romilda Vane. In the midst of his recovery and in the wake of his attack on Ron, the thought that his Examiner would be at least a little familiar to him was a small comfort. Romilda had, after all, joined Neville and Ginny’s reformation of Dumbledore’s Army in the final year of the war. It had been an entirely foolish misconception, because Harry should have stopped to consider why it was that Romilda Vane, who was two years his junior, had risen to the top ranks of the Examiners so quickly and was assigned a fair number of high profile cases.

Back then, there had been a vindictive edge to her as she’d forced her way into Harry’s mind, a sort of proprietary satisfaction that he hadn’t thought to consider. They were far removed from their days at Hogwarts and it never occurred to Harry that Romilda might still want him. She’d only been a girl when she’d tried slipping him love potions in his sixth year and in the wake of all that happened after, he’d very nearly forgotten about it. Romilda had not.

Your heart is a stone, never showing.

Feeling her slip into his mind now was nothing like it had been back then. Jameson Evans was a stranger to Romilda and though she hardly had cause to trust him, she also had very little reason to suspect him. More than that, Harry realized with some surprise that he could sense that his Examiner actually trusted Draco to some degree as she started to sift through his memories, her bias curbing the voracity of her work.

Your thoughts are a river, always flowing.

Oh.

In all the time that he’d spent learning Occlumency from Snape, Harry’s biggest failing, and the spy’s greatest frustration, was that he could never manage to fully separate his conscious mind from the storm of his emotions. Harry felt things so strongly that it seemed unfeasible to be able to simply stop feeling and focus only on directing his thoughts. It had never occurred to him that he might simply be overthinking the issue until Draco had summed up the interminable days and weeks and months of lessons into little more than a nursery rhyme.

Let some truths be found as moss on the stone.

Within the landscape of his mind, Harry thought of the painting on the wall opposite where he now lay, of the forest, meadow, river and doe. The doe was what he wanted Romilda most to see and in his mind’s eye he painted it with fragments of memory from the Great Hall, showing it to her as though he had acted alone in an instant to dissolve shards of glass into sand in a single burst of wild magic. The meadow became inconsequential truths from his day to day life at Hogwarts; dining in the Great Hall, tea in the Staff Room, his classwork, staff meetings and long nights spent marking.

Keep your secrets within; unseen, unknown.

In the bed of the river and in the darkness of the forest Harry hid the truth of himself, laid over with his thoughts and memories of Draco. Meals shared in the cottage, stories exchanged over wine, the self-assured way in which he handled the students, the gleam in his eyes when he provoked Harry, the whisper of breath over his lips, dreams of hands upon his skin and heated words in his ear.

Thoughts slide as water past fingers questing.

Harry could feel Romilda attempting to learn more from him, to uncover what truths she could while she had him here and seemingly at her mercy. With growing realization, Harry found that her efforts were very nearly inconsequential. Every attempt to go deeper into the world he had created was countered as he simply shifted the mindscape to deter her, placing what he wanted her to see in her path while his true thoughts and emotions remained safely buried in the hidden places.

Harry was in control.

You are the master of this testing.

With a surge of sudden confidence, Harry rebounded Romilda from his mind and cast himself forward into her own. The sun blazed a brilliant gold as it crested over the horizon, dawning bright over a bleak and barren landscape. Romilda stood before it, flanked on either side by a pair of witches whose features were shadowed in the brilliant flare, yet Harry was certain that he knew them. He could feel her deep concern over the attack, her fear that it would lead to ruination of her desires, but Harry knew instinctively that she was not responsible for what had happened in the Great Hall…at least not directly. It had caught her off guard as much as any of them. Whispers echoed all around her mindscape, snatches of thought and memory in a multitude of voices from which Harry could only take in so much.

“…we could guide them…”

“…lead them…”

“…symbol of hope…”

“…the Golden Dawn…”

With a loud cry, Romilda broke free of Harry and the world came back into sudden, sharp focus, nearly assaulting his senses. Harry realized that he was panting heavily, his body tense as though he’d been physically exerting himself and he forced himself to calm his breathing, never taking his eyes from the Examiner. Romilda in turn looked back at him with wide eyes, panting just as hard and looking almost frightened of Harry…or frightened of what he might have seen in her.

There was a loud bang as the door flew open and Ron came charging in from the corridor outside, though Draco and Minerva were right at his heels. Wand at the ready, Ron took in the pair of them with an assessing look, his golden eye spinning about to check the surrounding room. Seemingly satisfied, yet still wary, he moved to Romilda’s side, putting a steadying hand on her shoulder.

“All right?” he asked her, his voice hard and clipped. “I heard you shout.”

Romilda stared up at Ron uncomprehendingly for a moment before she nodded tightly, licking her lips in an uncharacteristically nervous gesture. “I’m fine,” she said shortly, looking back at Harry again.

He slumped back against the bed as though exhausted and was grateful when Draco moved to his side at once, leaning into him when the Gamekeeper put a hand to his forehead as though to check his temperature. Honestly Harry didn’t have to try very hard to look fatigued by what had just happened, his body still drained despite the way his mind was racing now.

“Jameson, are you quite well?” Minerva asked worriedly, giving Romilda a disapproving glance.

“I’ll be fine, Minerva. That was just more taxing than I was expecting.”

“Did you get everything you needed, Miss Vane?” Draco asked her, keeping a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Jameson should be recovering.”

The Examiner seemed hesitant, but then nodded slowly, composing herself once more. “Yes…yes, of course. I do apologize, Professor Evans. I fear I may have overwhelmed your mind just now in my eagerness to learn more on the situation,” she said, putting away her quill and pad and getting to her feet.

“I understand, Madam Examiner,” Harry replied seriously as he caught her eyes. “Hogwarts holds a special place in the hearts of those who were taught here. Especially to those who lived through her darkest hour…at least, from what I’ve seen.”

Romilda gave him an inscrutable look and Draco’s hand tightened slightly on Harry’s shoulder, though he couldn’t be certain if it were in warning or solidarity. The tense moment was broken as Ron stiffened and turned suddenly toward the door, causing the room’s other occupants to look at him with varying degrees of confusion. A moment later, their unasked questions were answered as Neville came jogging in through the open doorway, bracing himself against the wall to pant red-faced from the exertion of running through the castle.

“Sorry…Headmistress…you’d better come quick…” Neville got out between breaths, straightening after a moment and setting his robes to rights.

“What is it?” Minerva asked quickly, looking alarmed. “Has there been another attack?”

Neville shook his head quickly, holding up his hands to forestall her distress. “It’s not that,” he assured her. “There’s been a confession.”

“I can’t believe it was Peeves,” Hannah remarked as she ran her diagnostic spells over Harry, checking the injury at the back of his head. “He’s always been such a pest, but this…”

“I don’t think it was Peeves,” Harry commented with a frown.

“Of course it wasn’t,” Draco scoffed from where he sat near the fire, leafing through a stack of books. “Don’t be thick.”

Harry shot him an annoyed glance, adjusting his glasses with his good hand. “Figured it all out then, have you?”

“I’m not the investigator, so it’s hardly my job to do so,” Draco replied with a smirk. “But anyone who’s bothered to do the research on poltergeists would know that what happened in the Great Hall was well beyond Peeves’ capability. I’m sure they’ll argue that it’s because he’s been with the castle for so long, and it’s in the nature of Hogwarts to be inexplicably powerful, but even a poltergeist of his age and ability could never come close to that level of power or control.”

Brow furrowed, Hannah sat back from where she’d been leaning over Harry, turning to look at Draco in confusion. “But why confess to Hermione? And then again to the Aurors?”

Draco snapped his book closed with a pointed look and Harry thought it over, frowning slightly. “Because Hermione always gets her way…” he said slowly and Draco afforded him a wry smile.

“I suppose you aren’t as dim as you look, darling.”

Harry gave Hannah a dirty look when she failed to stifle a giggle at his expense and she coughed innocently, ducking her head to pack up her Healer’s satchel. “She was the target of the attack, but she doesn’t want the Ministry involved in it,” he guessed.

It was strange to voice his suspicions aloud, but there was little point in keeping it from them now that they had each become involved in their own way. The companionship left him feeling a little nostalgic, remembering the long years he’d spent with Ron and Hermione, conversing and postulating in a similar manner.

“I expect Hermione isn’t too keen on the school being shut down, either,” Hannah mused thoughtfully. “She’s always been rather obsessed with education.”

“Fair point,” Harry sighed, reclining back against the headboard. “I’m sure that she’s taking great comfort in the fact that we’ll all be pretending that it’s business as usual again on Monday.” He rubbed at his forehead tiredly, shaking his head. “This is exactly the sort of thing that would have driven us mad as teenagers…everything going to hell and the teachers carrying on as if nothing has happened.”

“We had better hope that none of the students are anything like you then,” Draco mocked. “The last thing we want is some hot-headed children sticking their overly concerned noses in places they don’t belong.”

“Much as I’m enjoying your company right now, is there no place else you could be?” Harry asked him irritably.

“Undoubtedly,” Draco agreed, his eyes narrowing. “But seeing as how I’ve just outed us to the Ministry and, by extension, the school, I’ve little choice in the matter. Unless you don’t think it would seem at all suspicious that I abandoned you to your recovery immediately following the conclusion of our very recent Ministry lock down.”

“He has you there, Harry,” Hannah pointed out needlessly and grinned at him when he glared.

“A proper Healer would be on my side,” he groused and she laughed, her eyes bright with amusement.

“Nothing about my presence here is proper, Harry Potter,” she reminded him and patted his scruffy cheek.

Harry opened his mouth to retort, but the words died away when a wheezing moan came from the other side of the bed. Draco had moved Kreacher out of the wardrobe and back onto the mattress once everyone had departed, but the house elf had yet to fully wake. Over the course of the day there had been a few moments where he’d seemed to rouse, muttering and sometimes weakly pulling at his ears, but there was never any lucidity in his gaze.

“Master…” Kreacher moaned weakly, moving his head blearily from side to side. “Master is gone…”

“I’m here, Kreacher,” Harry said gently, his heart twisting to see the old elf so distressed. “I’m right here.”

With effort, he managed to move his bandaged hand to lay over one of Kreacher’s, squeezing the gnarled fingers reassuringly as best he could. It was difficult to judge his success without being able to feel anything below his bicep, but the ancient house elf slowly relaxed with another piteous moan and went still. Harry watched him for a long while to be sure he had only fallen asleep, then drew his hand away again with a sigh, looking back to the others. They were both subdued; Hannah resigned with the air of one familiar with the signs of encroaching death and Draco…Harry didn’t think he’d ever seen the man look regretful and the sight of it ached in him.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” Hannah said gently, putting a hand on his shoulder to squeeze gently. “I wish that there were something more I could do for him.”

Harry nodded in acknowledgement, still looking at Draco, who stared back at him in turn, his expression turning into a carefully neutral mask. Finally, the Gamekeeper dropped his gaze, his mouth tightening somewhat as he fingered the spine on the book he held.

Hannah sighed and squeezed her grip again before she drew away, gathering up her bag. “I best be getting back. Try to get some sleep,” she insisted gently. “You’ll need your rest if you’ve any hope to be back in the fray come Monday. I expect you to firecall me immediately should your condition in any way decline. And of course you’ll come to dinner next weekend.”

“Thank you, Hannah,” Harry said earnestly and Draco got to his feet to see her out.

Settling back against his pillow, Harry could hear them murmuring softly at the door, but he wasn’t able to make out what they were saying. Though to be honest, he didn’t try very hard. It was strange to consider, but at the moment Harry rather felt that they were two of the few people he actually trusted in this. After a few minutes Harry could hear the latch of the door and Draco came back, taking up the chair beside Harry rather than return to his place by the fire. Harry watched him and waited wordlessly as the pureblood stared at Kreacher’s listless form, his expression conflicted, though he remained silent for a long while.

“It happens sometimes,” he said finally, breaking the quiet between them. “Especially in house elves of an advanced age. Disobeying their master’s explicit command causes the magic that binds them to rebound and…breaks them.” Draco looked at Harry finally, some unnamed emotion clouding his normally keen gaze. “If I’d acted sooner, he might…” His mouth tightened around the words, forestalling them and Harry realized suddenly that this was guilt.

“Draco…” he breathed out, taken aback. “This isn’t… You aren’t responsible for this.”

“Aren’t I?” he replied tightly. “I didn’t even hesitate to order him about yesterday.”

“And that probably saved my life,” Harry told him pointedly.

“Which I clearly prioritized over his,” Draco bit out heatedly. “I never even paused to consider-“

“Stop,” Harry cut him off firmly, levering himself up onto his good arm to frown at the Gamekeeper. “I’m the one that gave him the order to stay behind. I’m the one who charged him with maintaining the secrecy of my identity. Believe me, I’ve seen what discrimination against house elves looks like. Bloody hell, your father is a prime example of that.”

Draco’s face went hard and he paled slightly in his sudden anger. “Don’t speak about my father, Potter,” he said in a low warning.

Harry could feel his own expression going stiff with the innumerable things he could say about Lucius Malfoy, but he didn’t press the issue. “My point is that you aren’t responsible, Draco,” he said determinedly and nodded towards Kreacher. “This is the result circumstances beyond your control…not malice. I know that he would feel the same.”

They stared at one another for a long, tense moment and then Draco finally nodded once in acceptance and got to his feet, turning to go. He paused briefly, then spoke over his shoulder rather than look back toward the bed. “The books that were written after the war…they all said that you buried Dobby.”

Harry swallowed thickly around the old pang of loss for the elf that had lost his life in saving them, nodding tightly, though Draco couldn’t see him. “I did.”

Draco nodded as well, his body stiff with tension. “I didn’t know him, not really. In truth I hardly noticed his absence once he was gone, but…I remember that he was kind to me, when I was very young. Kinder than I ever did anything to deserve,” he stated softly, without inflection. “Will you bury Kreacher?”

Though Harry knew rationally that that day would soon be coming, it still hurt to hear the truth of it aloud. For the last two years, Kreacher had been the only constant in his life…Harry wasn’t ready to let him go. But then…would he ever be ready? Had he ever been ready before?

“Yes,” he said softly after the seconds had ticked by in silence, bowing his head.

Nodding again, determination settled over the Gamekeeper and he turned just enough to give Harry a resolved look. “When the time comes, I’ll help you.”

It was well into the night that Harry came suddenly awake with the surety that he was being watched and he tensed, disoriented enough that for a moment, he wasn’t entirely certain where he was. Then a hand lightly laid itself over his and he flinched, turning his head to see the blurry shape of Hermione sitting at his bedside. The tension remained in his body for a few long seconds, but her eyes were bright with emotion and Harry relaxed slowly as he looked back at her.

“I suppose my wards are done in,” he murmured softly, affording her a wry smile.

“Draco let me in,” she admitted, smiling tremulously in return. “But…yes, they did seem a sorry state. Your parade of visitors no doubt had a hand in that.”

“I’m so terribly popular,” he said sardonically, pulling his hand from hers so that he could push himself upright. Thanks to Hannah’s efforts, it was hardly any trouble to do so now and he reclined back against his headboard with a tired sigh, finding his glasses where he’d left them to bring her into focus. “All right?”

Hermione bit her lip and nodded, a sheen of tears in her eyes catching the firelight, though he was relieved to see that she wasn’t actually crying. “Thanks to you,” she told him earnestly. “Oh, Harry…you saved my life. Again. And the students…there would have been serious injuries to the students and faculty besides.”

Though he personally felt it was equally thanks to Draco, if not more so, Harry didn’t correct her. It didn’t seem as though Draco had confided the full extent of his involvement to anyone thus far and considering he owed the man his life, Harry was in no hurry to force the issue. Instead he simply nodded once and gave her a small, measured smile.

“It’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?” he teased, but then the thought stuck with him and his smile slowly faded. “That…is what I’m here for…right?” Doubt swirled in his mind and the fingers of his left hand curled against the sheets as though grasping a wand. How he wished he’d thought to ask Hannah or Draco to place it in his reach.

Hermione looked caught off guard by the question and for a moment Harry thought for sure that he saw something in her expression before it was masked with gentle confusion. “Harry…” she began, reaching out to lay her hand over where his had fisted. “You’re here because I need your help. We still don’t know who’s behind these attacks.”

Feeling suddenly flush with anger, Harry pulled his hand roughly away from her and frowned sharply. “But we do know, don’t we? Or did I mishear the part where you got a confession out of Peeves,” he bit out caustically.

Her mouth thinned, but Hermione raised her chin with a determined air rather than look abashed by her actions. “They were going to close the school, Harry. I couldn’t let that happen.”

“No of course not, this is where you have the most power, isn’t it? The centre of your bloody web,” Harry spat, shaking his head. “How long are you going to keep hiding things from me, Hermione? Until someone gets killed?

Though she looked for a moment as though she would deny it, Hermione finally lowered her eyes to rest upon her hands where she’d clasped them before her. “It’s not that simple, Harry.”

“Isn’t it?” he demanded, incensed. “You are not Albus bloody Dumbledore!”

Her eyes flashed hot with stubborn pride and she spat back, “And you are no longer the Chosen One!”

The words stung more than he would have expected, but he gave her a hard look. “You think I don’t know that? It hardly seems to stop anyone from manipulating me though, does it?” Harry shook his head in frustration and asked, “How many would have lived if Dumbledore had just been honest with me from the start?”

Jaw set, Hermione was unwavering in her resolve. “How many more would have died if he had?” she countered coldly. “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.”

“What is the Golden Dawn?” he asked her suddenly and the reaction was immediate and visceral.

Her face going ashen with shock, Hermione flinched back away from him as though he’d slapped her, her eyes wide. “W-where did you hear that?” she asked, barely more than a whisper.

Harry’s heart hammered in his chest and he leaned forward intently, not taking his eyes off of her. It had been a gamble, a suspicion that had been growing in the back of his mind ever since he’d spoken to Ginny. “Tell me, Hermione! Tell me the truth! What is the Golden Dawn!” he shouted at her and through all the heavy magic laden on his arm, he felt the shards of his wand pulse in response to his anger.

No!” she denied him and pushed suddenly to her feet, nearly unbalancing herself in her haste.

Drawing her wand, Hermione trained it firmly on him and for a moment, Harry’s mind went blank as he lost all sense of where and when he was. He was in Belize and his bed and his office and St Mungo’s and Ron was at his side, both bleeding and whole as he said, ‘Hermione…what are you doing?’ and Hermione was determined and frightened and shadowed and scarred as she replied, ‘I have to do it. I’m sorry, Harry.’

“Hermione,” Harry whispered as his memories warred with one another in the maelstrom of his mind. “What did you do? What have you done?

For a moment, Hermione looked terribly young and fearful, but then her expression hardened with utter conviction as she answered, “What I had to. Obliviate!

Harry jerked awake with a start, crying out as he flung a hand before his face as though to shield away a blow. From the fireplace, Draco shot to his feet at the sound of his alarm and crossed swiftly to the bed, his face a tight mask of concern.

“Harry! Harry, what’s wrong?” he demanded, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder.

Wide-eyed, Harry flinched at the touch, then relaxed into it, anchoring himself in the present as he panted harshly, casting his eyes about the blurred chamber. “W-where…” he started, disoriented by the nightmare. It had been so real.

“Hogwarts,” Draco assured him, keeping his voice low and calm. “You’re at Hogwarts, Harry… In the dungeons, in your bedroom.” He cupped the side of his neck, calming him as he searched Harry’s face. “Are you with me?”

“I… Y-yes…” Harry managed after a few moments, the frantic beat of his heart slowly calming as he stared up at Draco, terror receding to lingering dread. “I…I get nightmares sometimes.”

Mouth tight in an approximation of a smile, Draco nodded in understanding, brushing his thumb against the soft whiskers of Harry’s beard. “So do I,” he admitted softly.

Nodding as well, Harry forced his body to relax back into the bed, taking slow, measured breaths as he calmed. He regretted it almost at once when Draco took this as a sign to withdraw, very nearly begging him not to go when the Gamekeeper released him, but it was only to move to the chair at his bedside. Licking his lips lightly, Harry ran a shaky hand over the wild tangle of his hair, staring up into the blur of the canopy above him.

“What do you dream about?” he wondered hollowly, hardly expecting an answer.

The Gamekeeper was silent for a long while and then he said softly, “Fire, mostly. Sometimes it’s my aunt and sometimes it’s-“ Draco broke off and Harry didn’t need to hear him say ‘Voldemort’ to know who haunted him. “But most often, it’s fire.”

Harry turned his head to look toward him and nodded numbly, because he’d had similar nightmares for years, especially in the time just after the war. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve failed to reach you,” Harry admitted softly.

Draco’s expression was inscrutable in the blur of Harry’s poor vision, but he could see the play of firelight over the angular planes of his face. Finally, Draco sighed and pushed to his feet. “You should try to get some more sleep, Potter.”

“Wait, I…could you…” Letting the words die out, Harry shook his head with a flush of embarrassment that he wanted to ask the man to stay. Harry was no stranger to nightmares and he felt the fool for letting this one get him so unsettled that he would fear to be alone like a child. “Never mind. Sorry, I’m still rattled, I suppose. You think I’d be used to it by now.”

Saying nothing, Draco looked down at him with a considering expression on his face for a beat, then sighed and nodded at him. “Budge over.”

Eyes widening in surprise, Harry hesitated, but Draco bent to remove his dragonhide boots and so he did as he was told, shifting further into the bed until he could feel the dim warmth of Kreacher’s slight form at his shoulder. Straightening to remove his belt, Draco laid it and his tunic over the chair beside him, then got onto the bed in his shirt and trousers, stretching out alongside Harry.

“If you tell anyone about this…”

“Everyone will believe me because you’ve told the Ministry we’re shagging?” Harry murmured teasingly and Draco scoffed in amusement, settling in until he was comfortable.

“Go to sleep, Potter,” he said irritably, but Harry could hear the smile in his voice.

It was unspeakably comforting to feel the weight and warmth of life on either side of him; tangible proof that he was not alone in this. Harry realized with some surprise that he honestly could not remember the last time he’d shared a bed with anyone. Hannah, maybe? He’d very nearly forgotten what it was like to share so close a space with someone, to have an implicit trust between you in the knowledge that you would both be at your most vulnerable. The reassurance of it was jarred suddenly as the hard determination in Hermione’s eyes rose unbidden in his mind, the memory of his dream causing his breath to falter.

“Draco,” he said as a bead of panic flared in him.

“Hm?”

“If Her…if anyone should come to the door… Please…don’t let them in,” Harry whispered hoarsely and in his mind he was staring down the length of Hermione’s wand again.

Draco pushed himself up on an arm to look down at him, close enough that Harry could make out the troubled furrow of his brow, concern written clearly there. “I won’t,” he promised softly and laid down again. “Go to sleep.”

Kreacher died the following morning.

It was the coughing that woke Harry, a weak hacking of lungs struggling and failing to properly take in breath. Coming to groggily, Harry barely noticed the arm that had been cast over him as Draco removed it and got up, climbing over his prone figure to help the elf sit up.

“Easy,” Draco said soothingly in the gentling tone Harry remembered from the forest, putting his arm around the frail form. “Slow, steady breaths now, come on.”

Harry came more fully awake, pushing himself upright and fishing blindly for his glasses. “Kreacher?” he called to the elf worriedly, finally finding the frames and settling them on his face to bring the world into focus.

The coughing slowed to a pained wheeze and Kreacher’s eyes were open now, casting about the room in a daze. “Master…” he rasped weakly. “Kreacher is…” He devolved into a few more hacking coughs.

Taking up his gnarled old hand, Harry gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m here, Kreacher. You don’t have to speak…you should save your strength.” He tried very hard not to phrase his words in what might be perceived as an order, afraid of what the strain of it might do to him.

“K-Kreacher is…s-sorry…” the elf managed to force out and he focused his eyes blearily on Harry. “Master is gone…”

“No, Kreacher, I…I’m right here, see? You saved me,” Harry stressed, his chest tight.

“Kreacher failed Master…” he wailed in a small voice, tears welling up and spilling over his wrinkled cheeks. “Master was taken and Kreacher was supposed to find him…but Kreacher failed…”

“No, that’s not…” Harry drifted off as his face drained suddenly of all colour, the realization hitting him with guttural force as he looked at Draco helplessly.

Shaking his head a little in confusion, the Gamekeeper couldn’t do more than frown back at him uncomprehendingly. He didn’t understand…couldn’t possibly have understood that Kreacher wasn’t talking about Harry. He was talking about James.

Swallowing thickly around the tears that clotted his throat, he took a shuddering breath and squeezed the old elf’s hand again. “Y-you did find him, Kreacher…you found James. You…you brought him home…”

“No…no…” Kreacher moaned, shaking his head as he struggled for breath. “Kreacher… Kreacher never found Master…” He gave Harry a last, desperate look, the life already fading from his eyes. “Kreacher only found a…body…” Seeming to crumple in on himself, his hand went slack in Harry’s hold and then the house elf moved no more.

Harry couldn’t breathe. It seemed utterly impossible that he should be able to draw in air past the band of hot iron constricting his chest. All this time…all these years and he’d been so wrapped up in his own pain that he’d never realized what James’ death had meant to Kreacher. He’d told him that night, no, Harry had ordered the elf that horrible night to bring his son home. And all this time Kreacher thought that he’d failed him in his task.

A hand touched his face and he dimly focused on Draco through the blur of tears, realizing the wizard was speaking to him. “Breathe for me, Potter…just breathe,” Draco was saying gently in a low, soothing mantra, still holding Kreacher cradled in an arm. He carefully pulled off Harry’s glasses, setting them aside so that he could wrap his hand around the back of his neck and pull him unresisting into his shoulder. “It’s over now…let it go.”

His breath hitched into short, painful gasps and then the guilt and anguish boiled over and Harry cried bitterly into his shoulder, fisting a hand into Draco’s shirt as though it were a lifeline. He wept for James and the life that was stolen from him, for the years of fruitless searching for answers, for a resolution that would always be out of reach because no power on Earth could ever truly restore the dead. And he wept for the creature who had wordlessly borne the weight of that failing alongside him, had cared for him in his own way when Harry hardly cared for himself.

James was gone. Kreacher was gone. And Harry had failed them both.

His hand a firm, steadying weight at the back of Harry's neck, Draco held onto elf and wizard both and sat a silent vigil to his grief.

Chapter Text

For nearly two thousand years, the plot of land dedicated to the final resting place of those who could claim the bloodline of the House of Black had never suffered the presence of so much as a Half-Blood, much less a Muggle-born. It was a claim made by more than a few of the noble wizarding families that made up the Sacred Twenty-Eight and may have even been true before the conclusion of the Second Wizarding War. The centuries deep wards on such places always demanded a blood price, to prove the purity of the witch or wizard who crossed them, but it was a proven fact that such spells could only detect ones magical nature and would in fact let any magical person through. In the aftermath of the war, many of the old graves and mausoleums were desecrated by those too young, too ignorant or too angry to have a care for the dead.

Early on, when Harry was halfway through his courses at the Auror Academy and had begun to receive minor cases to investigate, he and Ron had been assigned to investigate reported disturbances in the Crabbe family plot. The activity had been reported not by the Crabbe’s themselves, but by Muggles in the nearby village, who had claimed to have heard several small explosions. The team who had turned over the case to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had already seen to the Muggles in question, leaving it up to the Aurors-in-Training to determine whether or not Dark Wizardry was to blame.

“Bet you five Sickles that they’ve been digging up some Dark Artefacts,” Ron whispered excitedly as the pair of them crept through the eerily silent cemetery.

Harry, who already held no fondness for graveyards, found that his mood was in no way improved for having had to been the one that tripped the security golem at the front gate and thus paid the blood price. “Bet you it’s ruddy Muggle teenagers having a laugh.

“Muggles get turned away from these lots, same as Hogwarts,” Ron said, shaking his head. “I’m surprised they even got close enough to go reporting whatever happened. Besides, I think we’d have gotten a much different report if some kids woke the golem like you did.” At Harry’s withering look, Ron laughed and elbowed him. “Hey, I said I was sorry, didn’t I? I forget you may as well be Muggle-born sometimes.”

“Anything else you ‘forgot’ to mention about wizarding graveyards?” Harry asked him coolly.

Shaking his head with a sheepish grin, Ron rubbed at the back of his head. “Not unless you were planning on burying someone here.”

“Just you…” Harry muttered and hid a grin when Ron yelped indignantly.

Their humour died away abruptly when they came to the newest section of the cemetery and saw clearly that they were dealing with a case of vandalism. The Dark Mark had been painted crudely in blood red onto several of the grave markers, along with a slew of words that magically shifted from ‘PUREFILTH’ to ‘TRAITOR’ to ‘MURDERER’. Even worse was that lightning bolts had been blazoned in stark, bone white over the bloody skulls, as though to sanction the defilement with Harry’s name. Several of the stones were cracked or pock marked and a marble bust had been blasted off one of the newer tombs to lie brokenly at their feet. Harry felt numb to see that it belonged to Vincent Crabbe.

“Bastards!” Ron hissed out suddenly from between clenched teeth.

Harry turned at the vehemence in Ron’s tone and was surprised to see that his friend was so angry that he was shaking slightly. “Ron?” he asked hesitantly.

“Even…even at their worst, they never…” He seemed to be having a hard time formulating words past his temper and shook his head. “The only grave I ever heard about them touching was Dumbledore’s, but that…that wasn’t a family crypt.”

“You’re talking about the Death Eaters,” Harry realized and Ron nodded jerkily.

“It’s just…it’s not done, Harry. What was the point of all this if we’re bloody well going to end up worse than them?”

“Bones of the father,” Harry murmured to himself as he looked back at the desecrated tomb, brow furrowed in thought. He’d always assumed that on the night of Cedric’s death and Voldemort’s resurrection, the wizard had been unable to call his Death Eaters to him before regaining his form. Now he wondered if that hadn’t been by design…if he’d been uncertain of their reaction to the defilement of his father’s grave.

Ron bent to touch the cracked marble bust, fitting two of the pieces back together with a furrowed brow, the hot burn of his anger settling into disheartened resignation. “The Crabbe family…they had to have known this was happening. Why didn’t they report it?”

“Would you, if the other side had won? Anyone who had family ties to Voldemort is doing their level best to distance themselves.” Stooping beside his friend, Harry put his hand on Ron’s shoulder and squeezed. “Come on…we’ll get this sorted. We’ll make it right.”

“How?” Ron wondered bitterly.

Harry gave him a wry smile, raising his eyebrows. “What’s the point in being famous war heroes if you can’t champion the media to a cause?”

Disavowing the vandals proved very effective in reversing the trend, though that didn’t stop Corban Yaxley from spending nearly forty minutes dressing them down for making a statement to the press without approval from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Unable to officially reprimand them, lest it appear that the Ministry did not support their resident heroes of the Second Wizarding War, Yaxley instead spent the next few months ensuring that no case more taxing than a cursed tea cosy crossed their desk. Despite that and the few Howlers that the pair of them received from those who’d felt betrayed by their seeming champions against the dark, neither Harry nor Ron had any regrets. Which was partially why he felt so discomforted now to stand outside the Black family graveyard, watching Draco cut into his palm.

“Are you sure about this?” Harry asked uncertainly.

“Are you going to keep asking me that?” Draco countered, letting blood pool into his cupped hand.

“It’s just…when you offered to help, I didn’t think you meant…”

Arching a pale brow at him, Draco pushed his bleeding hand into the open mouth of a gargoyle seated before the high, wrought iron gate. “You didn’t think I meant to take you to a suitable gravesite?” he challenged and was seemingly unconcerned by the stone maw that suddenly closed about his flesh.

Harry was far less prepared for the sight and startled, nearly dropping the bundle in his arms. “Your hand!”

Toujours Pur,” Draco said to the gargoyle, who released him and licked its reddened teeth. The scrape of stone against stone grated at the ears and Draco’s jaw tightened with displeasure as he pulled a small vial of Dittany from his belt and spared a drop for the wound in his palm. With a grumble of satisfaction, the gargoyle turned and unlocked the gate, pushing it open so that Draco could enter. He turned and gave Harry a look when the other hesitated to follow. “Well?”

“I…” Harry looked up at the Black family crest mounted upon the gate and could just make out the remnants of paint that had been recently scrubbed away. He hoped beyond measure that it hadn’t been a lightning bolt. “It’s sacred ground, Draco… I don’t want to violate the Black family’s resting place. Kreacher would never forgive me, for one thing.”

Looking mildly surprised by his reticence, Draco gestured with a finger to nudge Harry forward with his magic, not trusting that the gargoyle wouldn’t snap the gate shut again if he walked back through it. “Potter, are you or are you not Sirius Black’s named heir?” he asked pointedly.

“Yes, but-“

“Which makes you, legally, the heir to the male line and head of the House of Black,” he continued, ignoring Harry’s protest. “Meaning that you have every right to be here. As heir of the female line through my mother, I am currently your successor until you name another, so I’m well within my rights to be here as well. Neither one of us is trespassing.”

Eyeing the leering gargoyle as he stepped past it to join Draco, he tightened his arm around the bundle he carried. “I don’t think that means I’m welcome to break hundreds of years of wizarding tradition,” he said doubtfully.

Giving Harry a rather haughty look, Draco closed the gate behind him so that they would not be disturbed. “Thousands of years,” he corrected dryly. “But if you have a better suggestion, I’ll hear it.”

That was hardly fair, because his inability to come up with an alternative had led them here in the first place. When Harry had first become aware that Kreacher’s advancing age meant that he would lose the house elf sooner rather than later, he had assumed that he would bury him at Grimmauld Place. It seemed only fitting for how much the old elf had loved the house and the family he served there, but to return to his home now would be massively stupid. Harry didn’t even entertain the idea of taking him to Shell Cottage. Not only was he certain that neither Dobby nor Kreacher would have appreciated their sharing a resting place, but Harry rather thought Bill and Fleur would be equally displeased by their garden becoming a house-elf graveyard.

It would have been simplest to bury Kreacher at Hogwarts, but that felt…wrong. Kreacher had never liked Hogwarts, despite leading the house-elves in the final battle of the Second Wizarding War. Too many were buried there already besides, and some of those were not by choice. When Draco said that he had an idea of where they might go, Harry hadn’t expected to be Side-Alonged to an actual cemetery, much less one belonging to the House of Black.

Seeing the doubt still heavy in Harry’s expression, Draco sighed and laid a hand lightly on the linen wrapped bundle he carried. “Kreacher served the Black family for over six-hundred years, Potter. A family that has traditionally mounted the heads of their favoured servants like animals. The bloodline of that family will continue through myself and Edward, and I can assure you that I find that particular tradition to be wholly distasteful. If you wish to bury him, then I feel he deserves to be buried here.”

Letting out a slow breath, Harry nodded and felt some of the tension fade away. “You’re right. Sorry.”

“For wanting to respect the customs of pureblood families?” Draco asked, amused. “How completely dreadful of you, Potter. I’m appalled.”

Given the season and the earliness of the hour, the graveyard was understandably quiet, devoid of birdsong or the chitter of small creatures now that the chill of winter was approaching. Even the crunch of their footsteps on the thin layer of brittle snow seemed muffled, as though all sounds of life were encroached upon by the weight of the dead. It was rare for wizarding ghosts to bother with cemeteries, tending instead to linger in the place that they died, but still Harry could not help but feel that they were watched as they wove through the ancient tombstones.

“I haven’t been here since mother laid Aunt Bella to rest,” Draco commented idly as he led Harry into the newer section.

Harry stopped in his tracks and stared at him. “Bellatrix is buried here?”

Giving him a look, Draco halted as well. “She was a Black.”

“She was a murderer,” Harry said vehemently.

“I’m aware,” Draco snapped coldly. “That doesn’t change her lineage. There are markers laid for Sirius and Nymphadora, also.”

Taken aback, Harry’s brow furrowed and he shook his head in confusion. “But Sirius was disowned and Tonks was a Half-Blood.”

“Mother insisted,” Draco told him simply, shrugging as though it posed no significance whatsoever that the Half-Blood daughter of a disowned witch held a grave marker in a pureblood family plot. “I think she wanted to ensure the legacy of the Black family through its ‘heroes’, as much as its villains. She’s spent a good portion of the last decade tracing other lines that ended in disavowal. Genealogy has rather become a hobby of hers.”

Something hot and tight twisted within Harry’s chest at the thought of Sirius and Bellatrix being laid to rest within the same burial ground, despite knowing that his godfather’s grave would be empty. Doubt crept up in him again and he let his eyes settle on Kreacher’s bound form in the crook of his arm. Taking a slow breath as an idea came to him, he looked up at Draco once more.

“Does Regulus Black have a marker here?”

It took the better part of the morning to dig out Kreacher’s grave, in part because it took them a while to figure out the warding on the grounds, which prevented their being able to dig up the earth. Draco had looked aghast when he realized that Harry’s intention was to dig the grave by hand, despite the fact that they were wizards and his right arm was all but useless. He had promptly relieved Harry of his wand, which was technically Draco’s by right, and insisted that he cease all efforts toward manual labour.

“I am hardly in the mood to dig two graves today, Potter. You might as well resign yourself to standing about sulking,” he’d told Harry resolutely.

As it turned out, Draco proved to be rather effective at wielding a shovel, though he drew the line at leaving the ground frozen beforehand and had cast a quick warming charm upon the earth. Harry tried not to stare too openly as Draco neatly worked a hole into the earth before Regulus Black’s grave marker, sleeves rolled and cloak set aside. He was wholly unsuccessful in the endeavour however and Draco’s eyes flicked up to catch him in the act.

“That doesn’t look like pouting to me,” Draco said, pausing in his work to stretch out his back.

Feeling a flush creep up his neck, Harry scowled at him. “I was just wondering how many other professors you’ve offed before me to have gotten so good at digging.”

Scoffing, Draco pushed his shortened hair out of his face, giving Harry a look that suggested he was being particularly dense. “While I understand that you’ve had a trying couple of days, I would remind you that I am the Gamekeeper of Hogwarts. Shovels do occasionally come into play while tending the grounds, as it happens.” Surveying the hole that he’d made, Draco nodded in satisfaction. “This should be deep enough.”

Harry tightened his hold on the slight weight Kreacher made in the crook of his left arm, looking down at the shroud wrapped figure. Nodding tiredly, he carefully knelt down and lowered the body into the grave, giving Draco a nod of thanks when the wizard steadied him. Using his good hand, he pushed the loose earth slowly into the hole, grateful that Draco didn’t try to stop him, needing to have some tangible part in laying the house-elf to rest. Sitting back on his heels when it was done, Harry struggled to find words, wishing absurdly that Luna were there to help him.

“Kreacher was an awful sort,” he began, staring down at the newly turned earth. “For the majority of his life he lived with the worst kind of wizards and became just as dark and twisted as any of them. But he changed…more than six centuries old and he was still able to change for the better. I won’t absolve him of his wrongdoings or the beliefs he held for so long, but I will say that he was always loyal and that he tried to be decent in the end. That’s more than can be said for a lot of witches and wizards alive today.”

Laying his hands against the ground, Harry closed his eyes and pushed out with his power, searching for the wards they’d opened and drawing them closed over the grave once more. “Thank you, Kreacher…for looking after me and mine. I hope you find the peace you deserve.”

There was a faint cracking sound and Draco hissed in a sharp, surprised breath from where he’d silently observed the proceedings at Harry’s side. Opening his eyes with a frown, Harry found the headstone to be the source of the noise, for even now it was rearranging itself before their gaze. Smiling grimly, Harry finally felt all trace of lingering doubt melt away from him and knew now that bringing Kreacher here had been the right choice.

Here Lies
Regulus Arcturus Black
Beloved Son
&
Kreacher, the House-Elf
Loyal Servant and Friend

In the Darkness, they found Light.

Neither one of them spoke on the way out of the graveyard, though Harry could feel questions lingering in the air between them as Draco cleared away their footprints, lest someone see them before the next snow. Harry was grateful that they went unasked, because he wasn’t entirely certain that he had the answers. Mostly he just felt tired, physically and emotionally wrung out from all that had happened. The gargoyle relinquished his grasp on the gate once more to allow them out of the cemetery, but refused to hold it shut again until Draco had given him another blood price.

“Sometimes I really hate magic,” Harry muttered in disgust as he glared at the grotesque leer of the stone golem while Draco used another drop of Dittany on his palm.

“At least this sort is straightforward about the cost,” he replied mildly, then gave Harry a searching look. “What was that back there?”

“What was what?” Harry hedged and sighed at the withering look he received in return. “I just…closed the wards.”

“That wasn’t how we opened them, Potter. You used wild magic. You directed wild magic, which rather goes against the definition.”

“I didn’t intend to change the marker,” Harry argued, shaking his head.

“Didn’t you?”

Sighing in frustration, Harry made an impatient gesture. “What does it matter, Draco? It makes no difference in any of this.”

Scowling with displeasure, Draco shook his head. “This is exactly what I always hated about you in school. Saint Potter and all his many gifts. How it pains him to be so very special,” he sneered.

Harry opened his mouth to retort, then paused and started to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Startled by the reaction, Draco’s eyes widened, then narrowed suspiciously at him, which only riled Harry further to think of all the times he’d seen a similar expression on him during the course of their schooling. Finally, Draco sighed irritably and folded his arms, resigned to wait for Harry to calm down.

“I’ll not be held responsible if you’ve finally cracked,” he stated plainly.

“Dumbledore’s beard,” Harry gasped, wiping at a tear. “Sorry, it’s just…I forgot that you used to call me that.” He shook his head a little, smiling at the memory. “’Saint Potter’…really, Draco, you were just the worst.”

“Thank you for that assessment,” Draco replied blandly, arching a brow at him. “Since you’re feeling so very amused, perhaps now would be a good time to cast the Patronus Charm.”

That sobered Harry quickly enough and he grimaced, flexing his wand hand, though he barely felt the motion. He hardly thought that a giggle at Draco’s expense had him in the right frame of mind to produce an effective Patronus after the morning he’d had, but it was as good a time as any he was likely to get. At least they were alone out here and a good ways off from the nearest village.

“Might as well,” he agreed. “Though I don’t know what we’ll do with the Lethifold, should I manage it.”

“Likely it will go into the cemetery to escape the sunlight. I’ll come round with a Clap-Trap later, if it comes to that.”

“I still can’t believe you use George Weasley’s products,” Harry muttered, turning to face the high stone wall surrounding the Black family plot.

“It’s not as though I go shouting recommendations from the rooftops,” Draco scoffed. “His merchandise is, regrettably, far too effective for me to snub simply because I find him to be an insufferably common bore of low breeding.”

“Are you being deliberately awful just to ensure I’ll succeed?”

“Is it working?”

Harry quelled a small smile and shook his head, raising his arm with an effort. Shutting his eyes, he reached for a happy memory, letting Snape’s lessons in Occlumancy help to further separate himself from the lingering sorrow of Kreacher’s death. He went first for the memory he’d nearly succeeded with in the Forbidden Forest a few days earlier, of his unexpected reunion and the discovery of Daisy Dursley. The thought warmed him and he felt the faintest twinge in his arm, as though the Lethifold were reacting to that bit of happiness, but he felt the moment was tainted now by his encounter with the Dementor.

Frustrated, Harry cast back deeper into his memories and drew the happiest to mind, letting the faint prickles of pain in his arm spur him on, but every bright spot he found seemed to be darkened in some way. He was hardly skilled enough in Occlumency to untangle the complicated weave of emotions that surrounded his memories, if such a thing were even possible. Though he’d carefully avoided the muddled memories surrounding his attack in Belize, he couldn’t help but find himself dwelling there, on the night the Lethifold had first crawled under his skin. The more he thought on it, the more he felt like there was something…missing.

With a sigh, Harry finally gave up and opened his eyes, only to shout in alarm when he found himself standing in the dark, wet jungle of Belize, staring down the length of his wand arm to a woman standing opposite. The sun rose behind her and the blinding light of dawn kept her shielded from his sight, but he was certain that he knew her. The vision faded abruptly as Harry stumbled back in surprise, flinching instinctively when Draco steadied him.

“Potter?” he queried in concern, giving Harry a searching look.

Casting his eyes about wildly to be sure that there were no other phantoms lurking in the waking world, Harry shook his head quickly. “Sorry, I…I think I’m overdue for my morning potions,” he said shakily, taking slow, deliberate breaths to calm his racing heart. “Though I doubt they’d do much to help me find a happy memory, at this point.”

“You looked as though you’d seen a boggart,” Draco pressed and Harry rather wished that he wouldn’t be quite so observant.

“My imagination has been a little overactive as of late,” he hedged, rubbing at his temple and the growing headache that was building there. Another sign that he was past due for his tinctures. Wanting to change the subject, Harry blurted the first question that came to mind, looking rather surprised by it even as the words formed in his mouth. “Have you ever heard of the Golden Dawn?”

Draco blinked at the diversion, then his brow furrowed slightly in confusion. “Yes, what of it?”

Shocked, Harry looked at him sharply, which only heightened Draco’s perplexity of his behaviour. “What?” he demanded, aghast. “How do you…what is it?”

“Surely you’re joking,” Draco said, then sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose when Harry’s expression made it clear that he wasn’t. “If you’re going to be the hero of the wizarding world, you could at least pretend to care about its history. You were an Auror, for Merlin’s sake.”

The confusion fell to Harry now and he scowled. “What do the Aurors have to do with it?”

“Potter, it’s in the very etymology of the title itself. Honestly your education is appalling. I’m sincerely doubting your ability to teach at this point.”

“Draco,” Harry growled warningly and the Gamekeeper relented with a sneer.

“Muggle relations began to experience a swift decline in the fifteenth century, which ultimately led to the signing of the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy in the late seventeenth century,” he explained.

“Yes, I know that bit,” Harry said sourly.

“At this point I would hardly be surprised to learn otherwise,” Draco taunted and then continued. “A number of families, my own included, were opposed to the Statute and continued to seek legislation to reverse the law. Several different movements rose during this time, but the most prominent among them was known as The Golden Dawn.

“In truth they were nearly fanatical in their belief that it was the destiny of wizardkind to lead the Muggles into the dawn of a new era of peace and prosperity, for those of magical power were obligated to serve the greater good of humanity by virtue of their abilities. Eventually, the movement and all other opposition to the Statute died out as the magical community adjusted to being removed from the Muggles, but the ideals of The Golden Dawn inspired Minister Diggory to establish an order of witches and wizards sworn to protect both magical and Muggle communities from Dark Wizardry.” Draco gave him a pointed look and finished by saying, “He named them Aurors, from the Latin aurora meaning ‘dawn’.”

Aureum aurora,” Harry groaned suddenly, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I’m so bloody thick…it’s on the damned crest.” Draco gave him a look that suggested he’d been saying as much for years, but Harry chose to ignore this in favour of sighing, because it just didn’t…fit. “You’ve not heard of it being used in present day?”

“Present day?” Draco repeated, frowning slightly. “No, certainly not…and it’s hardly dwelled upon in the curriculum Binns puts out. The Ministry would naturally prefer an abbreviated history to show that the Statute was ingratiated into wizarding society without much fuss, but the Governors are the only outside entity with any say in the matter.”

“They wouldn’t prefer it be removed?” he wondered.

“Why?” Draco asked, raising an eyebrow in challenge. “Because the Governors come from old, pureblood wizarding families?”

“Well, yes. That thought did occur to me.”

Scoffing, Draco gave Harry a look that spoke volumes. “Preservation of our history is the ideal, not the eradication of it, especially when Muggle relations are involved. Some are still against the Statutes to this day.”

In Harry’s mind, Hermione echoed, “It’s not a question of if the International Statute of Secrecy will fail…but when.”

Shivering as a sudden wave of foreboding washed over his body and left him chilled, Harry found himself rubbing at his right arm and stopped with an effort. “Thank you for the history lesson, Professor,” he told Draco with a wry smile.

“Clearly someone has to see to your education, given how it is noticeably lacking,” Draco derided him, but held out his arm with a smirk all the same. “Shall we?”

The grounds were empty as the pair of them made their way up to the castle from the Apparation boundary near the Hogsmeade gate. With the lockdown lifted the day prior, Harry hadn’t bothered to make use of his Invisibility Cloak on their earlier exit, able to hide the slight bundle of Kreacher’s still form beneath the thicker fall of his winter robes. He felt heavier with each step, worn and exhausted, but though his head was starting to ache from the delay in his morning potions, his arm at least was still mostly numb below the cuff of runes still sewn into his skin.

“Is it really so difficult for you to think of a happy memory?” Draco wondered suddenly, breaking the quiet of wintry air in a puff of warm breath. “I would have thought otherwise.”

“I have plenty of happy memories,” Harry sighed, shaking his head. “But in the moment I’m casting the spell, I can’t seem to hold onto any of them. My mind turns to darker things…I have plenty of that also.”

“I suppose that two years hosting an embodiment of misery might provide some…difficulty,” he mused thoughtfully.

Harry halted his steps, shaking his head in wonderment. “I hadn’t even considered it, but you’re probably right. I’ve been unwillingly harbouring the worst kinds of feelings in my own skin…it’s a wonder I’ve been able to manage any sort of gladness at all.”

“Gryffindors are rather well known for their stubbornness,” Draco commented mildly. For a long while, Draco said nothing as they continued on their path to the castle, his brow furrowed as though he were puzzling through a problem. Finally, he broke the silence with a sigh and gave Harry a resolved look as they drew near. “Meet me at my cottage tomorrow afternoon, we’ll say three o’clock.” He thought for a moment more, then added, “Come undisguised. And clean-shaven.”

Harry stared at him outright, utterly baffled by the request. “Why?”

Rolling his eyes, Draco walked away from him, his irritation clear in every line of his body. “Because I’m going to save your life, you pillock.”

It was with no small amount of trepidation that he made his careful way down to Draco’s cottage the following afternoon, well hidden beneath the fall of his Invisibility Cloak. Though he’d spent most of Saturday unconscious after returning to his rooms, the thought of what Draco might have planned for him was never far from his thoughts, especially as this plan seemed to directly involve Harry Potter. Even beneath the familiar weight of his cloak, he felt oddly exposed, to the point that he’d very nearly resorted to a second dose of his Draught of Peace.

The school was cautiously beginning to come to life again after the harrowing events of that Thursday, which had taken longer than Harry would have expected. He had to remind himself that the vast majority of these children had grown up in peacetime and their lives had never before been so disrupted by sudden violence. Though it bothered him to think of it, Harry was well aware that when he returned to classes on Monday, he was likely to face a new wave of suspicion from the student body after his actions, both with the Dementor and in the Great Hall. And honestly…it wasn’t as though he could blame them for it. At their age, Harry undoubtedly would have been feeling the same.

Trying not to dwell too heavily on such thoughts, Harry took a deep breath and knocked lightly at the door to Draco’s cottage, glancing back to be sure he hadn’t missed any of his tracks in the snow. Winter made sneaking about in the Invisibility Cloak more trouble than it was worth, but at least the spell to mask his path wasn’t particularly draining. There was a fall of footsteps from within the cottage and then the door opened to reveal Draco, who stared out into the seemingly empty air before he smirked and stepped back enough that Harry could come inside.

“Embarrassed to be seen lurking about my cottage, Potter?” he murmured, taking the opportunity to banish the snow from his front steps entirely before closing the door behind them.

“I’m supposed to be abroad, Draco,” Harry said irritably, flicking his wand at the curtains to draw them shut before he removed his cloak to glare at the Gamekeeper. “A fact that I sincerely hope you hadn’t forgotten when you were making this plan.”

“Assuredly not. Now, if you would be so kind as to disrobe,” he said calmly, his expression giving nothing away.

“I…excuse me?” Harry blurted out, a flush of heat that had nothing to do with the fire crackling merrily in the hearth rising over him.

“Disrobe,” Draco repeated, raising an eyebrow in challenge. “It means to divest yourself of your garments.”

“I obviously know what it means!” Harry whispered furiously, though he couldn’t have said why he thought it necessary, given that they were alone. “How exactly does stripping off my clothes lead to you saving my life?”

In answer, Draco merely smirked and unbuckled the belt from around his tunic, setting it on one of his worktables. Harry watched as the Gamekeeper’s boots and bracers followed, feeling his eyes grow ever wider from behind his glasses as each item was removed. The flutter of nervous anticipation that had been swaddled by his earlier Draught went decidedly south of his brain when Draco pulled off his tunic and Harry hesitated a moment longer before finally setting his body into motion.

“This is mental,” he muttered to himself as he jerkily undid the buttons of his robes with his left hand. “This is completely and utterly insane.”

“That’s likely true,” Draco agreed in good humour, his eyes glittering with amusement and something sharper.

Relieved, or maybe disappointed, when Draco stopped once he was standing in his undergarments, Harry stripped down to his vest and pants and tried very hard not to fold his arms across his chest like a nervous schoolboy. “Well?” he asked, his voice a touch rougher than he would have preferred. “Now what?”

“Now,” Draco very nearly purred, which did nothing to help the growing problem that Harry was already trying very hard not to encourage any further. “You drink this.” He picked up a vial that Harry hadn’t noticed sitting in wait on the worktable, an unappealing grey paste that he immediately recognized to be Polyjuice. As he watched, Draco unstopped the vial and plucked a pale hair from his head, dropping it inside. The magic caught hold and turned the potion a smooth, silvery hue, as though it were made of mercury. “And then you put those on,” Draco finished and nodded toward the clothing he’d just removed from his person.

“You…want me to Polyjuice into you?” Harry asked in dawning realization, looking between Draco and the vial in shock.

“Top marks,” he replied blithely, stepping in close to hand him the vial.

“I…but…” Harry’s brow furrowed as the ‘why’ of it was suddenly overshadowed by a glaring hole in the logic. “Draco, I don’t need to be undisguised or clean-shaven to use Polyjuice.”

Draco smiled at that, then let his eyes glide slowly up Harry’s scantly clothed body until he met his gaze once more. “I’m aware, Potter,” he agreed softly, then turned and walked into his bedroom, disappearing behind the curtain that divided off the room.

Struck dumb and very flustered, Harry stared after him and wondered wildly if he was supposed to follow before he let his gaze fall upon the cool vial in his hands. He still had no idea what Draco could possibly have planned for him, but he’d already gone this far, hadn’t he? Taking a slow, calming breath, Harry tipped back the potion and shivered as it slid down his throat, cold as ice and tart with the bite of hawthorn wine. He closed his eyes and tried not to clench his jaw too tightly as the change came over him, the worst of it stemming from the lengthening of his bones as he grew several inches taller. Polyjuice transformations were never pleasant and Harry was grateful that the two of them were of a similar enough build that it didn’t take overlong. He was panting lightly from the strain of it all the same by the time it was over and when he opened his eyes, it was to see Draco standing before him again, dressed once more.

“Well, that’s certainly odd,” he said, looking at Harry with a disconcerted gaze before handing him the shirt and breeches he’d been wearing previously.

“It was your idea,” Harry reminded him and pulled off his now useless glasses, unnerved to hear Draco’s voice come out of his mouth. “Which you still haven’t explained.” It was oddly intimate to put on clothing that was still warm with someone else’s body heat, but the recent pain of transformation kept Harry from embarrassing himself twice in one day.

“Ah, yes, I suppose I should,” Draco agreed and glanced through the curtains toward the castle. “Being that young Edward is nearly here.”

Harry froze in the act of pulling on Draco’s tunic, staring at him in shock. “Teddy?” he said in surprise, looking past Draco to see that his godson was indeed heading toward the cottage through the snow, a pair of school broomsticks clutched in either hand. “But…why?

“Because, Potter, you are going to teach your godson how to fly.”

Chapter Text

Of all that the world of magic had to offer a boy who had lived in the cupboard under the stairs, flying was easily the best bit. There was little else that could possibly rival the freedom of being on a broom, nimble and free as any bird, bound only by the limitations of his magic. For a very serious moment, Harry had looked at the possibilities of his future and thought that a career in Quidditch might well do the job. It was a deep seated feeling of obligation to the wizarding community that drove him toward service in the Ministry instead, though if he were wholly honest with himself, his fondness of the sport was born solely out of a genuine love of flight.

Harry wasn’t like Ginny, who found the strategy and competition to be a driving force in the pursuit to do better, to fly faster and harder and to win. She had been an excellent Chaser for the Holyhead Harpies because of it and a clear choice to play for England, besides. That same passion was just as obvious in her work on the sports pages of the Daily Prophet and she’d been invited more than once to commentate over the wire. Quidditch was certainly fun, but Harry was fairly certain he wouldn’t have found it nearly so enjoyable had he played in any position other than Seeker. Most of the time, the other players had simply become obstacles, elements to test his ability to seek and find the ever elusive Snitch. Ginny had often lamented the fact that Harry had the talent to play professional, but none of the drive, though she’d been at least a little mollified that he was always happy to train with her.

The worst part of it was that Harry had always intended to teach Teddy to fly. When he was younger, the thought of being able to give his godson the experience he so desperately wished to have shared with his own father had always given him a rush of fond anticipation. Having already lived through the terror of teaching Tonks to fly as a child, Andromeda had been adamant that her grandson be at least of a height to use a proper training broom. Though Teddy often complained of this rule, Harry had been grateful for it, hardly wanting to be responsible for any grievous harm that might befall the boy on one of the less reliable toy brooms so many parents bemoaned after trips to St. Mungo’s.

A few months before Teddy was finally of a height, Harry left with Ron for Belize. He hadn’t ridden a broom since.

“I…” Harry struggled for words, half-dressed and struck dumb as he watched his godson approach the cottage through the thin layer of snow. “Draco, I…I can’t.” The admission pained him and he was filled with such sudden longing that for a moment he had to swallow back a swell of frustration that burned at the corners of his eyes.

Taken aback by the desolation in his tone, Draco stared at him openly, then set him back away from the window. “Why? Because of that?” he asked in consternation, gesturing at the swath of bandages on Harry’s right arm. “Don’t be absurd.”

“Draco…” he started in frustration, but the Gamekeeper cut him off again.

“No, I refuse to entertain this foolishness,” Draco told him scathingly. “I have seen you fly without the use of either hand on several occasions and in far more strenuous circumstances than basic flight instruction.” He jabbed at Harry’s chest with a finger as he spoke, as though to physically punctuate his words. “You are…” Draco paused to grit his teeth and then ground out, “a natural flyer. So you are going to stop wearing that ridiculous expression on my face, finish getting dressed and go out there without making me look like a fool. Do you understand?”

Staring at Draco in no small amount of surprise, Harry felt a flush rise on his cheeks and nodded once. “I…yes, Professor,” he replied with a small smile. He started to pull Draco’s tunic up over his head, then paused to look at him. “A natural flyer?”

Glaring fiercely, Draco shoved past him to go and collect Harry’s clothing, grumbling, “I regret this already.”

Grinning to himself despite the nerves still jangling about at the thought of what he was about to do, Harry quickly finished pulling on the rest of Draco’s kit while his own was hidden away in the Gamekeeper’s bedroom. Fortunately, the simple, working clothes Draco seemed to favour now had very little in the way of buttons, which were troublesome with his unwieldy arm. The sleep he’d gotten over the last day had done wonders for his energy and mobility, but the pain had begun to creep back in as the rune work sewn into his bicep slowly lost its strength. He did have some trouble when he got to the belt, but Draco’s long fingers batted his own away to deal with the buckles himself before he knelt without a word to help Harry with the boots. Were he not so nervous, Harry might have found himself flustered by the assistance, but as it was he mutely nodded his thanks.

“Well? Do I pass muster?” he asked, holding out his arms for inspection.

Eyeing him critically, Draco rose to his feet once more, Harry’s Invisibility Cloak draped over his shoulder. “Try not to look as though you’ve got a chocolate frog lodged in your throat,” he said testily.

“I can’t change the way you look,” Harry teased, but focused on clearing his mind as much as he could.

“Git.” They both stilled as a hesitant knock came at the door and Draco put a finger to his lips to keep Harry from answering. “Just a moment,” he called and then shook out Harry’s cloak, disappearing beneath it. Harry found it rather odd to watch someone else disappear beneath the heavy fabric and stiffened in surprise when Draco stepped in close to murmur in his ear. “This batch of Polyjuice should last four hours, but get him back up to the Great Hall before supper. My gloves are on the shelf by the door, along with my cloak. Do try to keep from raising the boy’s suspicions, Potter. ”

“No promises,” Harry muttered softly as he turned to pull on the gloves, hiding his bandages. “I seem able to do little else with him.” Drawing the warm, winter cloak about his shoulders, Harry took in a deep breath, simultaneously comforted and unsettled by the way Draco’s scent wrapped about him. Pulling open the door, he schooled his expression and nodded to Teddy, who shifted about nervously on the stoop. “Good afternoon, Edward.”

“Ah, h-hi, Professor Malfoy,” Teddy smiled up at him, holding up the broomsticks. “Sorry I’m late, it took longer than I thought to get the brooms.”

“Oh? Did the Flight Instructor give you any difficulty?” Harry asked, feeling a familiar twinge of annoyance and distaste toward Cormac McLaggen.

Teddy’s face went scarlet in a guilty flush and he dropped his gaze. “I…um…I didn’t ask Sir McLaggen. Michael Donnelly checked them out for me.”

“I see,” Harry said, recognizing the name as Hufflepuff’s current Quidditch Captain. “If any trouble comes of it, please do let me know. Are you ready to get started?”

His hair had been a bit dull on his approach, but it brightened to an uneasy shade of green as Teddy nodded. “Y-yes, I think so.”

Harry stepped fully out of the cottage and waited a moment to be certain Draco could exit behind him before he pulled the door shut. “You’ll need more confidence than that if we’re to have any luck.”

Ducking his head shyly, Teddy flushed and admitted, “It’s just that…well, I’m not at all good at it, sir.” It was painfully obvious that he didn’t want to look foolish in front of his professor and Harry couldn’t help but smile a little to see how clearly Teddy idolized Draco.

“That is, as it happens, why I’ve offered to help you,” Harry told him. “Come, let’s go around back. The ground is more even there.”

Bobbing his head in a quick nod, Teddy hurried alongside Harry, the brooms making mess enough of the snow that Draco would have no difficulty hiding his tracks. “I heard that you played Seeker when you were at school,” he said eagerly.

“I did, until my sixth year,” Harry agreed, remembering how frustrated he’d been when the Reserve Seeker, Harper, had started showing up to matches in Draco’s stead.

“Why did you stop?” Teddy wondered and Harry barely restrained a flinch, feeling Draco’s glare upon him like a physical weight.

“I was preoccupied with an extracurricular project,” he hedged and kept his expression schooled when Draco jabbed him sharply in the back, quickly changing the subject. “Here, this should do.” Taking one of the brooms from Teddy, Harry moved a few feet away from him and laid it down in the snow.

Looking nervous again, Teddy copied his movements and stared glumly down at the broom, shifting restlessly in place before it. It pained Harry to see him so clearly unhappy at the thought of performing something that had once filled his godson with such excitement. Still uncertain about his own ability, despite Draco’s fervent assurance earlier, Harry sincerely hoped he wasn’t about to ruin the experience for Teddy entirely.

“Have you learned to call up your broom?” he asked gently, not wanting to embarrass the boy.

“I…mostly, Professor,” Teddy replied with a sigh.

Nodding, Harry held his left hand out over the broom, watching Teddy slowly do the same. “On three then,” he said and Teddy nodded his understanding. “One, two, three…up.” A wave of relief washed over him when the broom came sharply to call, just as it had when he’d been Teddy’s age. His wand arm throbbed a bit as though to protest the brief giddiness he felt and Harry wondered suddenly if the years long belief he’d fostered of being unable to fly had stemmed from the depressive force of the Lethifold. Flying had always brought him joy, which would hardly make him a suitable host for the dark creature.

A nudge to his shoulder brought his attention back to bear and he looked up to see that Teddy had not had the same success. Mouth pressed in a tight, unhappy line, he was glaring down at the broom through a thin sheen of tears, his cheeks ruddy with embarrassment at the way the shaft bobbed uncertainly a few inches off the ground. Letting his own broom sink back to the snow, Harry crossed to the boy and put his hand on Teddy’s shoulder to forestall him.

“Te- Edward, stop, it’s alright,” he told him gently, nearly forgetting that Draco never used the boy’s nickname in his worry. “There’s no need to get upset.” Taking a shuddering breath, Teddy let his hand fall and ducked his head to hide his face, nodding miserably. “It’s only a broomstick, it hardly matters at all.”

“But it does!” Teddy burst out, catching Harry off guard by the vehemence of his tone. His hair went scarlet and then black as he shot Harry a quick, guilty look. “S-sorry, Professor.”

“Tell me what you mean,” he pressed, his voice soft. “Why does it matter?”

“It’s just…” Teddy sighed, staring off into the Forbidden Forest. “My whole life, people have been talking about Quidditch. How great it is to fly and how they bet I’d be brilliant on a broom when I got to Hogwarts. And I’m really not, I’m just…I’m pants at flying.” He shot Harry an embarrassed look, his hair curling a little. “Sorry. I…I meant rubbish.”

“Why should it matter if you’re…rubbish at flying?” Harry asked him, affording the boy a small, teasing smile.

Teddy grinned briefly in relief before his expression clouded again and he lowered his gaze sadly. “Because…because my godfather really is brilliant at flying. Everyone says so.”

The steady throbbing in Harry’s arm could hardly complete with the pain Teddy’s words caused him; to know that, however inadvertently, he had been the one to cause the boy such distress. “The youngest Seeker in a century,” he quoted bitterly and held up his hands when Teddy shot him an indignant look at the tone, as though prepared to defend Harry even now. “It’s what they used to say.” Crouching in the snow before the boy, Harry looked up at him earnestly. “But regardless of whatever your godfather did or didn’t do at Hogwarts, this time you spend here is yours, Edward. The next seven years are about learning what kind of wizard you would like to become, not living in the shadow of those who came before. Absolutely no one expects you to repeat the disastrous education of Harry Potter.”

Tears welled slowly in Teddy’s eyes again, but he blinked rapidly to keep them at bay as he whispered, “B-but what if he’s disappointed in me?”

Harry never wanted so badly to be able to reveal himself to his godson than in that moment and he swallowed thickly before gripping the boy by the arms, ignoring the way his right hand protested the movement. “Then he’s a bloody idiot,” Harry said frankly and meant every word.

Teddy stifled a laugh and shook his head, scrubbing his sleeve over his face. “I-I don’t think you’re allowed to say that, Professor.”

“Why, because he’s famous?” Harry rolled his eyes and got to his feet. “I’ve called him far worse, believe me.”

Biting his lip, Teddy looked a bit uncertain and asked, “Professor, do you…hate him? I…a lot of people have said you hate each other.”

Going still at the question, Harry suddenly wished desperately that he’d thought to set up a communication spell between himself and Draco, because he had absolutely no idea how to answer that. He was fairly certain that Draco didn’t hate him, or else he had a highly confusing way of showing it, but he was also unsure whether the Gamekeeper would openly share such a thing. After a moment of deliberation, Harry felt a gentle touch brush along his spine and relaxed slightly, considering his words before he spoke.

“Perhaps we did, when we were young. When you’re growing up it’s difficult to really understand the concept of hating someone, because you’ve not yet experienced how dark and terrible the world can be. In our case, we had the additional bonus of being in the midst of a war, where the dark and terrible things only ever seemed to get worse as time went on. He and I…we didn’t really know each other then. We barely knew ourselves beyond what everyone else expected of us, if I’m being quite honest, but we almost always managed to show each other the worst parts of who we were. So when I tell you that your godfather is far from perfect, I hope that you’ll understand that I don’t mean to imply that he is a bad person…so much as to say that he is a person and people are generally flawed.”

Teddy mulled that over for a long moment and Harry was relieved to see his hair slowly lighten once more, even if it didn’t fully make its way back to teal. “I think I’m ready to try again,” he said finally, looking up at Harry determinedly. “Not because I think I have to…but because I’d like to.”

“That’s a good reason,” Harry told him approvingly, stepping back to give him room. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Nodding determinedly, Teddy put his hand out over the broom again and took a steadying breath. “Up!” The broom floated gracefully up to bear after a moment’s hesitation and Teddy’s face split open in a wide smile as he gripped the shaft, turning to beam up at Harry.

Fierce pride and pleasure bubbled in Harry’s chest as he grinned back at his godson and nodded his approval. “Five points to Hufflepuff.”

By the time the shadows stretched and the cold began to settle in earnest over the grounds, Teddy was comfortably managing slow circuits about the cottage, his cheeks flushed bright from the winter air. He lacked the instinctive sort of athleticism that all decent Quidditch players carried and would likely never be one for trick flying, but once he had calmed, Teddy proved to be a fairly graceful flyer. The boy couldn’t stop grinning even as Harry called them to a halt, looking happier than Harry had seen him in months. He himself couldn’t keep from smiling if he tried as they flew back up to the castle, barely registering the ache in his arm over the lightness of his heart.

Touching down lightly, Harry handed Teddy his borrowed broom once he’d dismounted. “You did very well today, Edward. I’m certain your godfather would be proud.”

Flushed with pleasure, Teddy’s hair went sunny yellow as he ducked his head in a grateful nod. “Thank you, sir. I…I really appreciate your help.”

Nodding, Harry wished that he could assure the boy that he would always be there to help him and felt a pang of regret that he wasn’t in his own skin to do so. “Be sure you get those back to Mister Donnelly,” he said instead, gesturing at the brooms. He turned to head back toward the cottage, but paused when Teddy called after him.

“I, ah…” Teddy shifted nervously, then gave him a hesitant smile. “I know that I’m probably not supposed to talk about it, but…I-I’m really glad that you’re my cousin, Professor.”

Harry blinked at him in surprise, then smiled warmly and wished Draco could have heard that. “So am I, Teddy,” he admitted honestly, before he could second guess himself. He was certain that he knew Draco would agree, even if he might not have said it aloud. “I’ll see you in class.”

Beaming, Teddy dipped his head in a quick nod and hurried inside the castle as a bell chimed its warning of the approaching evening meal. Harry watched him go and then turned to follow the path back to Draco’s cottage, barely feeling the cold over the warmth curled within his chest. Night had fully fallen by the time he crossed back over the grounds, the light cast by the waning moon giving the snow a peaceful luminescence. A flutter of movement at the treeline caught Harry’s eye and he diverted his course to meet Draco near the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Standing with Harry’s Invisibility Cloak draped over one arm and a Clap-Trap tucked under the other, Draco raised an eyebrow at him in a silent inquiry rather than disturb the silence of the night around them. Smiling, Harry nodded in answer and the pair of them headed into the forest.

They didn’t go far, only needing to be sure they were well out of sight of the school, both to keep from being disturbed and to ensure the safety of the students, should they succeed. Draco stopped them when they’d reached a suitable clearing and set down the Clap-Trap, priming it for use. Setting aside the heavy winter cloak he wore, Harry shivered at the chill air and rolled up his sleeve to unwind the bandages on his arm, his skin blacker than the shadows of the trees about them. The last remaining threads of unicorn hair glittered in the light of the moon, but the dark magic of the Lethifold had very nearly eaten them away entirely, sending a fissure of fear through Harry. This had to work.

Stepping before him, Draco took his hand and turned it over to inspect his palm and the flash of silver was the only warning Harry had before the Gamekeeper made a swift, clean incision across the width, careful not to cut through any of the shards of holly. Grimacing, though Harry could barely feel the way his nearly bloodless flesh yielded to the knife, he nodded in acknowledgement of the exit point Draco had made for the creature. It perturbed him to see the way his palm paled as the Lethifold drew stubbornly away from the open air, but tried not to dwell too heavily on his unease.

“Ready?” Draco asked him whisper-quiet.

Looking up at him, Harry took a steadying breath and nodded. “Thank you, Draco. Whatever happens…thank you for today.”

Smiling very slightly, Draco inclined his head in acknowledgement, then pulled away, moving safely to one side. Setting his feet, Harry slowly raised the blackened ruin of his arm, a few drops of blood darkening the snow as it dripped from his palm, dark as pitch in the moonlight. Closing his eyes, Harry focused on the warmth that still lingered within him, on the happiness he had revelled in over the last few hours. He thought of the love he held for Teddy, of the pride he’d felt in watching his godson call up his broom and kick up off the ground for the first time, of the laughter they’d shared when Harry had overbalanced on a sharp turn and tumbled arse over teakettle in the snow.

He thought of Draco, of the trust the wizard had placed in him in allowing Harry to wear his face, of the efforts he’d gone through to…to bring him joy. Opening his eyes, the world seemed to go utterly still, as though the forest itself held its breath in wait and Harry knew before he opened his mouth that he would succeed.

“Expecto Patronum!”

Agony like nothing he’d ever felt lashed through his body, but it was gone as suddenly as it had come as light swelled within him, racing down along his arm and bursting free of his palm, preceded by a writhing, seething shadow. His legs gave out and Harry fell heavily to his knees, staring dazedly up at the silver stag above him. The Patronus stamped at the ground and bellowed soundlessly at the Lethifold, its massive antlers lowered protectively to ward the creature away from Harry where he knelt, bleeding faster now into the snow. Harry barely registered the sharp crack of Draco striking his palms together to activate the Clap-Trap and capture the creature, his mind reeling with a rush of endorphins and utter, blinding relief.

A cloak settled about his shoulders and Harry slowly came back to himself as Draco knelt before him, his voice low and urgent with concern, though the words themselves had little meaning. Blinking up at him, Harry was suddenly certain he’d never seen anything quite so striking as Draco in the moonlight and may have told him so, because the pureblood’s grey eyes widened slightly. Laughter bubbled up in him at the utter lightness of his heart and the sheer, blinding pleasure of being happy, unburdened by the pain and sorrow that had plagued him for so long.

A smile on his lips and his Patronus standing guard, Harry Potter swayed forward to kiss Draco Malfoy and had not a care in the world.

The persistent throb of a headache roused Harry from slumber and he groaned pathetically as, for a bleary moment, he presumed that he was suffering a massive hangover. It was the only immediate explanation for the cramp in his stomach and the horrid dryness of his mouth, except…Harry hadn’t drank in years, had he?

“Back amongst the living, I see,” a voice commented idly and Harry’s eyes shot open in surprise to take in an unfamiliar room.

Sitting up sharply, he gasped as the room swam, gripping the bedclothes to anchor himself as his blurred vision set itself to rights. “D-Draco?” he asked as he made out the figure in the doorway, limned in light from the adjoining room. “I…where am I?”

“In bed,” Draco told him in amusement. “And well on your way to being late for class if you don’t get out of it.”

The blurred form tossed something at him and Harry felt for his glasses when they hit his chest…his bare chest. Sliding the frames onto his face, Harry’s suspicions were immediately confirmed. “Draco…why am I in your bed?”

Putting a hand to his throat as though scandalized, Draco gave him a horrified look that was far too sarcastic to be genuine. “You mean you don’t remember our night of passion? I’m wounded. I should have known you’d cast me aside in the light of day.”

“Draco,” Harry growled, clutching the covers about his person and grateful to note that he was still in possession of his pants at the very least.

Smirking, Draco sipped at a mug he held, looking highly amused by Harry’s discomfit. “You collapsed in the forest and I bloody well wasn’t going to carry you unconscious and bleeding through the castle. My reputation hasn’t recovered quite that much.”

“And my clothes?”

“As I said, bleeding. And given that they were my clothes, thank you ever so much for ruining them,” Draco jeered at him.

Flushing, Harry scratched at his beard, which always itched unpleasantly after an overnight regrowth. “I’ll replace them,” he promised.

“Yes, you will,” Draco confirmed and sipped at his mug some more, watching Harry with a considering gaze. “I suppose that confirms the old rumour that Euphemia Potter was part Changeling.”

Blinking rapidly as though it might help him make any sense of that, Harry finally shook his head in exasperation. “Sorry, am I supposed to have any idea what you’re on about?”

“Euphemia Potter,” Draco repeated unhelpfully, then gave him a severe look when Harry only shrugged in return. “Oh, for...your paternal grandmother, you mooncalf.”

Harry’s eyebrows rose in surprise before furrowing indignantly. “Well it isn’t as though I’ve ever met her, have I?”

“More the fool am I to think that an investigator might have looked into his own family,” he replied scathingly.

Scowling, the truth of that did little to improve his mood while his head still throbbed the way it did. “Get on with it, Malfoy. You’re clearly dying to.”

Draco smirked at him, but his desire to prove his superior knowledge kept him from leaving Harry in the dark out of spite. “I’ll assume that you’re ignorant to the fact that a Changeling is a child born of Wild Magic, resulting in witches and wizards of unusually strong affinity for nature-based magic. It was long rumoured that Euphemia was descended from a Changeling, if not a Changeling herself, which led her to be somewhat of an outcast in pureblood society. For whatever reason, Changelings have always been considered to be on the verge of non-human, despite that Magizoology has definitively proven that to be utter drivel.”

“So how is it I’ve confirmed the rumours as true, then?” Harry wondered, brow raised in query.

“Because last night I put you to bed clean-shaven and this morning you’ve a full beard,” Draco said, gesturing at the fresh growth on Harry’s jaw. “It also explains your difficulty with Occlumency and how you resealed the wards over Kreacher’s grave. I suspect that’s also why your Transfiguration starts to fail after sunset and possibly even why we’ve had such a rash of bad weather this year. Have you always been resistant to illusion-based magic? Anything designed to manipulate the natural?”

Harry thought about learning to throw off the Imperius Curse from the false Mad-Eye Moody in his fourth year and nodded slowly. “I never really thought of it in those terms before…but yes. I suppose I have.”

Nodding in satisfaction, Draco raised his mug in a mock toast. “Well now you know why. Congratulations.”

Rolling his eyes, Harry sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. The potential revelation of his heritage in no way eased the ache between his ears. “Merlin, I feel wrecked.”

“That will be the withdrawal,” Draco agreed and nodded toward his nightstand, where Harry’s usual potion retinue waited, minus the Draught of Peace. “I owled Hannah last night and you’re to continue her prescribed medicament until she can come and evaluate you. Given that you missed last night’s dosage, I imagine your body is most displeased.” He didn’t sound at all sorry for Harry and indeed seemed to find the whole situation unreasonably entertaining.

Glaring half-heartedly at the overly satisfied wizard, Harry reached out and let himself relax into the familiar routine, grateful for the way it grounded him in the face of this highly unusual morning. It wasn’t until he was three potions in that he remembered his arm, and he paused in the motion of taking his Star Grass Salve to stare at the unnaturally pale length of it. His skin was pallid from having been bandaged for so long, the muscles withered with atrophy and the lumps that denoted his wand pale and oddly smooth in the way of old scars. The limb was stiff and ached as he slowly flexed it, but the bone-deep ache of the Lethifold was gone. Turning over his hand, Harry stared at his palm, marked with a faint, silver line that suggested Draco had used Dittany to close the wound through which the creature had fled his person.

“It worked,” he breathed out slowly. “It really worked…”

“Of course it did. It was my idea,” Draco pointed out and got Harry’s clothing from where he’d hidden it away the day before, laying it out on the bed for him before disappearing back through the heavy curtain dividing off the rest of the cottage.

Harry stared after him, feeling rather as though he were in a dream. He had spent so long plagued by his injury that he found himself disoriented to be suddenly free of it. Dazedly, he finished taking the last of his potions and pulled on his clothing, mulling over the events from yesterday until he froze, breath catching. He…he’d kissed Draco without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

Anxiety turning over on itself in his stomach, he hurriedly pulled on the rest of his clothes and pushed through the curtain into the main room. “Draco…” he started uneasily, but found himself caught off guard when the Gamekeeper pressed a cuppa into his hand.

“Eat quickly if you don’t want to be late,” he said distractedly, gesturing at the table where a bowl laid in wait. “I hope you can stomach porridge.”

“Draco, I…about last night,” Harry pressed, curling both his hands around the mug.

“Yes?” Draco asked, looking over at him, then frowning. “You haven’t Transfigured yet.”

“I…no, no I haven’t,” he replied, taken aback.

“You’re going to be completely useless today, aren’t you?” Draco sighed and scowled peevishly at him. “More so than usual, at any rate.”

“Damn it, Draco, I’m trying to apologize!” Harry burst out in frustration.

Halting in surprise, the Gamekeeper gave him a searching look, brow furrowing. “Why?”

“Because I…it was wrong of me to…” He sucked in a breath, then let it out forcefully to steady himself. “I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

Grey eyes narrowed slightly at him, but then Draco shrugged dismissively. “Potter, you had just expelled a physical embodiment of pain and despair and you were more than a little…euphoric in the aftermath. Likely you would have done the same no matter who had been out there with you last night. Lucky for you it wasn’t Rubeus, though I can admit that being kissed by my own doppelgänger was not something I had ever anticipated.”

He turned as though to leave and Harry quickly reached out to snag his hand, forestalling him. He had the feeling that if he let the Gamekeeper walk away now, he would be regretting it for a long time to come. “No, that isn’t…I don’t mean that I shouldn’t have kissed you at all,” he said quickly and felt a flush creep up his neck as he pressed on. “Just…not like that.”

Something indefinable relaxed in Draco’s expression, his lips curving upward slightly as he regarded him. “Oh? And how should you have kissed me, Harry?”

Words seemed utterly out of Harry’s grasp as he simply stared at the Gamekeeper, caught in a spell of his own weaving. Tightening his hold on Draco’s hand, Harry shifted toward him slightly, then froze as the morning bell tolled over the grounds.

Amused, Draco pulled himself free of Harry’s grip and stepped back. “You’re going to be late, Professor.” With a smirk and a swirl of fabric, Draco settled his winter cloak about his shoulders and slipped out of the cottage without a backward glance.

Feeling rather dazed, Harry stared after him, then at the cooling bowl of porridge he’d have no time to eat, and finally at the mug he still grasped. “Bollocks.”

Class was well underway by the time Harry burst through the doors to the greenhouse, where he was supposed to be teaching his fifth year Herbology Combo with Neville. Harry had actually intended to slip inside quietly so as not to disturb the lesson, but the sudden absence of the Lethifold in his arm left him rather uncoordinated, as though a sudden weight had been lifted, and the door clattered horribly as it flew inward and struck a stack of terracotta pots.

Unfortunately this was proving to be par for the course this morning, as Draco’s class had also been in progress upon his departure from the cottage. Had Harry been more in his right mind, he would have thought to search out his Invisibility Cloak from Draco’s rooms to make a more…discreet exit toward the castle greenhouses. Instead, he had marched determinedly past Draco’s third year Gryffindor and Slytherin class once he realized it was far too late to correct his error, trying and failing to ignore the way they immediately broke into whispers at the sight of him stumbling out of the Gamekeeper’s cottage. He had pretended that the flush on his face was borne of the chill morning air and kept his eyes firmly fixed in the distance while he hurried past the lot of them, knowing that Draco was probably smirking after him in that damnable way of his.

He couldn’t decide if this was better or worse, as every eye in the greenhouse swiveled toward him like some kind of horrid nightmare. It left Harry feeling as though he ought to be checking to ensure he was still wearing his robes and he froze guiltily in place. Neville’s eyebrows had climbed high upon his forehead the longer Harry stood there, but the Herbologist thankfully saved him further embarrassment by clearing his throat.

“Good morning, Professor Evans,” he greeted politely, though there was some concern in his gaze. “I wasn’t certain you would be joining us today. I thought perhaps you might be under the weather.”

“’m fine,” Harry grumbled and squinted slightly as he glanced about the room, gesturing vaguely and closing the door with careful deliberation. “Overslept. Don’t stop on my account.” He had managed to save a little time in getting there after his Transfiguration was in place by foregoing a return trip to his rooms for his contact lenses, choosing instead to cast a quick corrective charm on his eyes. It itched rather unpleasantly and left his eyes slightly narrowed from the strain, but it would do in a pinch until he could nip down to the dungeons.

Neville still looked more than a little concerned and Harry was sure he’d be accosted as soon as the double period was through, but for now he simply nodded. “Right. Now then, where were we…yes, Miss Peters?”

“Did you really save Tilly Eaves from a Dementor, sir?” the fifth year Gryffindor asked Harry boldly, apropos to nothing.

Staring at the girl, Harry blinked a bit, rather taken aback by the sudden question. With the madness of the last four days, he’d very nearly forgotten about the incident with the Dementor that started off the mess. “Ah…no, that was Professor Longbottom. I only got her out of a patch of Devil’s Snare. She’d likely have done the same herself a few moments later.”

“Professor Evans is being modest, of course,” Neville countered with a playful edge to his smile and Harry scowled at him indignantly. “By taking immediate action, he allowed our seventh year Combo to escape without harm. Beyond Miss Eaves’ sprained ankle, of course. I was able to assist once I ensured their safety due to his distraction.”

“Professor Longbottom is being generous,” Harry ground out in annoyance, but the fifth years were already throwing up their hands as they began talking over one another to ask more questions.

“What was it like fighting a Dementor?”

“I heard you saved us in the Great Hall, too!”

“Was it a Dementor that attacked in the Great Hall?”

“Don’t be stupid, that was Peeves!”

Dumbfounded by the excited undercurrent of the class, Harry looked at Neville rather helplessly, though he was of absolutely no assistance whatsoever with the way he seemed to be trying and failing to hide his amusement. It was rare for any student to ask him a question, much less do so with such obvious interest. Feeling rather like he and Neville had lost control of their class entirely, Harry held up a hand to quiet them.

“Would I be correct in assuming that the events of this past Thursday have not been explained adequately to you all?” Harry asked slowly, looking around the room to gauge their reaction. The students rapidly affirmed in the negative and he scratched at his beard with a sigh. He could remember being this age and all the uncertainty that came with it, aggravated by adults who told lies and half-truths about the goings on in the world. “Right, then. I will explain this exactly once, so I expect you all to listen closely and pass it to your fellows accurately once class is dismissed.”

Neville looked uncertain at this announcement, but he didn’t try to censure Harry as the class quickly agreed to his terms, their lesson all but forgotten. Harry appreciated the trust his friend placed in him, but he almost wished that Neville would deny him this so that he could escape the intense scrutiny he now faced. Taking a deep breath, Harry thought carefully about what it was he wanted to say, without betraying any confidences owed.

“I’ve already explained to you my version of events with the Dementor, so I won’t go into that again, except to say that I would not be standing here now if it weren’t for Professor Longbottom,” he said earnestly and gave Neville a warning glance when the Herbologist opened his mouth to protest. Closing it with a wry smile, Neville shrugged and mutely accepted the gravity of his role in the affair. “That afternoon, as you all know, the windows of the Great Hall burst inward. It happened that I was looking up at them when it occurred, which afforded me time to react. An inquiry was made into the attack by the Ministry and sometime later, Peeves the Poltergeist confessed.”

“But-“ a Slytherin boy protested, then hesitated until Harry nodded his acquiescence at his interjection. “But did he do it, sir?”

As much as Harry wanted to be honest with them, he didn’t actually have the freedom to do so. “He confessed, Mister Dodd,” he replied simply.

“But do you think he did it?” the boy pressed and Harry felt rather pleased by his doubt in what was presented as fact versus what was actually true.

“I think that I didn’t see who cast the curse or hex that blew the windows in,” Harry told them, looking around at the attentive faces.

“What if it happens again?” a nervous looking Gryffindor asked, reminding Harry very much of Neville as a boy. Were they ever that young? “How are we supposed to defend ourselves from…from Dementors and curses?”

Blinking a few times, Harry’s brow furrowed in exasperation. “What is it you think I’ve been teaching you?” he wondered, mystified. “My classes might seem like an exercise in pointless ‘what if’ scenarios, but the intention is to give you a foundation that will enable you to react on instinct should you ever find yourselves in danger. Hogwarts is one of the safest places in the magical world, but only because a great number of talented witches and wizards died to make it that way.”

Sighing into the complete silence that had befallen the greenhouse, Harry shook his head, feeling the old pain of regret for all that was lost in the war. However lighter his heart might be without the Lethifold preying upon him, there was no shortage of sorrow waiting in his memory to weigh him down. “It isn’t fair to expect you to prepare for every eventuality, and you’ll grow old before your time if you live your life in wait of something terrible lurking in every shadow you cross. But the better you apply yourself to your studies while you’re here, while you’re protected, the better your chances of survival should the worse occur.”

For an extended, heavy moment, no one said anything, then Neville cleared his throat lightly to recapture the attention of his wayward class. “Which is an excellent segue back to our lesson on- Yes, Miss Peters?” he said resignedly, nodding toward the Gryffindor girl again.

“Is it true you’re seeing Professor Malfoy, then?” she asked to a wave of giggles from the class and even Neville flushed for Harry’s benefit, shooting him a rather wide-eyed look.

Harry felt a smile stretching across his face, which, given the startled and almost frightened looks he received in return, was far more troubling than a scowl might have been. “That will be ten points from Gryffindor, I think,” he said pleasantly, to a chorus of pained groans and sniggers. “For being damn well none of your business.”

The rest of Harry’s morning was rather…relaxed, for a change. He and Neville completed their double period Combo without further incident, the students far more invested in the lesson than usual with Harry’s warning fresh in their minds. Though he was certain it wouldn’t last, he hoped that they might at least try to take it to heart. Neville, to Harry’s relief, seemed willing to hold off on any interrogations as to his lateness while they still had classes to contend with, though he doubted he’d be able to dodge the Herbologist past supper. Still, the unexpected pleasantness of his first class left his mood buoyed into third period, where Teddy did not seem wholly distrustful of him for once. In fact, if he had to hazard a guess it would be that his godson seemed cautious, which was a grand progression in his mind.

Harry found himself relaxing into his instruction as he’d yet to manage since the beginning of term and more than once he noticed the students regarding him with some surprise when he smiled or made some light-hearted comment. None of the first year Slytherin or Hufflepuff students were so bold as to ask after the events of last week, but they did shyly ask after how one might fight off Dementors and Devil’s Snare, showing far greater interest in the subject of Defence Against the Dark Arts than they ever had previously. It rather reminded Harry that he had enjoyed providing instruction, in days long passed.

By the time Harry made his way toward the Great Hall for lunch, he was feeling happier than he had in ages, smiling and nodding greetings to the other members of staff as they crossed paths. Some part of him knew that he was drawing undue attention to himself, but he could hardly bother to feel troubled by it just now. It had been so long since he’d felt well, so why shouldn’t he indulge in the novelty a while? A gentle hand at his arm forestalled him entering the Great Hall and rather than flinch away from the unexpected touch, he merely tensed a little before turning calmly to see Hermione standing at his back.

“Professor Granger,” he greeted her with a nod, raising an eyebrow in silent query.

She gave him a rather searching look while trying to seem as though she weren’t trying to scrutinize him and Harry felt some anxiety rise up in response. “Professor Evans,” she said in return, withdrawing her hand from his arm. “I was hoping you might join me in the Staff Room.”

A swirl of doubt and suspicion clouded Harry’s good mood and he remembered suddenly that he hadn’t taken his Draught of Peace that morning. Still, the nightmare he’d had seemed worlds away now and he rather found himself feeling regretful that he hadn’t sought out his old friend sooner, given what had happened. Her expression was pinched and her eyes were shadowed, as though Hermione hadn’t been getting much sleep, leaving her skin rather ashen. Clearly her dealings with the Ministry over the weekend had worn her down, no doubt exacerbated by Ron’s presence on the grounds.

Harry found himself nodding at her and felt a little better when she gave him a tight smile, turning to lead him back down the passage to the Staff Room. He noticed with some concern that Hermione seemed to be holding her weight rather gingerly, her gait splayed wider than usual as though her back pained her and Harry wondered if she’d suffered another attack while he had been recovering. That would certainly explain her obvious desire to speak to him privately.

Stepping inside the Staff Room, Harry looked to see who else might have escaped to the privacy afforded by the space, but after Thursday’s excitement, it was clear that none of the faculty seemed to be comfortable leaving the students unattended in the Great Hall. Satisfied that they were alone, Harry turned back to Hermione and his brow furrowed with worry to see that she was locking the door. Certain now that something must have happened, Harry opened his mouth to ask after his suspicions, but didn’t get any farther than her name before the witch suddenly whirled on him, a hard determination writ across her expression. Cold fear pierced through Harry as he stared down the length of Hermione’s wand as he had so often in his nightmares, but before he’d fully processed the significance of that, her spell hit him full in the face.

Chapter Text

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.”

What?

“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.”

Teddy,

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.

“I’m thinking…wine?”

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.

Expecto Patronum!”

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.

Expecto…Patronum…”

Chapter Text

In the fifteen years since he’d first mastered the charm, Harry’s corporeal Patronus had never once appeared as anything other than the stag, standing proud and fearless with a crown of many pronged antlers whenever it burst forth from his wand. This fact had never bothered him, for though Harry hardly claimed to be an expert on the Patronus Charm, some part of him still believed that it was some remnant of his father’s love for him. Perhaps it was the wishful thinking of an orphan; that just as his mother’s love had laid protective magic over his flesh, his father’s affections similarly defended his soul. Regardless of the reason for its form, the presence of his Patronus had always brought a modicum of comfort to Harry, a reminder of those who had loved him unconditionally…and sacrificed everything to try and save him.

As the magic of the charm pulled from him now, Harry could feel that this was different. He could sense the path of it drawn out of him in long, shimmering lines of power, twined and tangled into the magic Draco had spent years pouring into branch and bark and root. Distantly, he heard Draco’s breath catch in surprise and wonder as a veritable silver cloud lifted from the tree, rising above them both. A wash of light fell over them as though the moon were hung just overhead, growing ever brighter as the Patronus took form.

A shuddering breath spilled from his lips as the magic slipped fully free of him and Harry stumbled back from the tree on unsteady legs, looking up at the silvery creature. It was something like a deer, or it was antlered at any rate, a dense thicket of branching horns woven above its heavy mane and hominid features. The thick fur of its hide gave way to scales on its forelegs and ended in splayed reptilian feet, tipped with powerful claws. For a long moment, the Patronus regarded them with a seeming intelligence of its own, ancient and wild in the sudden, unnatural silence its summoning had brought upon the forest.

Lifting his hand, Harry watched with bated breath as the silvery figure lowered its head to meet him, resting its flat muzzle against his palm and the scars there. Shards of holly burned beneath his skin, though not unpleasantly, and Harry could feel the tangle of his magic and Draco’s sing through his body once more.

Opposing. Complimenting. Bound.

Harry had no idea what the creature was, though it had come from him, but before he could even think to ask, he heard Draco say, “Leshy.” There was a strange note in his hushed tones that Harry couldn’t recall ever hearing before. Something almost…hungered.

Then, as if released from the Time-Stop Charm, the dark creatures who made the Forbidden Forest their home came suddenly alive once more. The Patronus lifted its head when the distant wail of furious, terrified Dementors cut through the night, then silently ambled forward with ethereal grace toward the sound. Within moments, the bright silver cast of the Patronus was concealed within the abundant growth of the forest, leaving them in the gentler cast of the Hawthorn tree’s fairy lights.

An electricity seemed to hum beneath his skin as Harry watched it go, leaving him overly aware of his surroundings, as though his senses had been awakened. Still it surprised him when he turned to Draco, only to find the other wizard already upon him, crowding him back against the tree. His breath left him in a surprised huff when his back met bark, caged in by Draco’s arms where the wizard splayed his hands to either side of Harry. Though they weren’t actually touching, the innate power of the tree flowed through them both in turn, sliding over them in slow waves; its former intensity gentled by Harry’s recent casting.

Leaning in until they were close enough to share breath, Draco’s mouth hovered just out of reach, drawing a shiver out of Harry when their noses brushed together. He could feel the spell building before Draco’s lips parted to whisper the casting between them and was unsure whether he heard or felt the words.

Expecto Patronum.

Silver light flooded over them again, but Harry was blind to it, lost in the slide of magic flowing over and through him once more, his senses saturated by Draco. It was too much. It wasn’t enough. Numb fingers twisted into the folds of Draco’s cloak to remove what little space yet remained between them and their lips met and met and met. Everything that had come before that moment and all that yet awaited them melted away as their mouths sought and yielded and tasted, magic singing between them in counterpoint. Neither of them saw the Patronus and neither of them cared in the slightest, kissing until the glow faded away to enfold them in darkness once more.

Drawing back a little, Draco nosed along Harry’s beard and brushed his lips over an ear, his voice thick and deepened with want. “Come home with me, Harry.”

Shivering, Harry licked his lips and nodded once, feeling the burn of the words low in his hips, more demand than request. “Yeah,” he breathed shakily. “Alright.”

Rather than attempt to reapply his Transfigured disguise, Harry followed Draco back through the forest beneath his Invisibility Cloak, mindful of root and bramble in the low light of the Gamekeeper’s lantern. Neither of them spoke as they walked, a thrum of anticipation and latent magic still palpable in the air between them. From deep in the forest came the occasional shriek of a frantic, hunted Dementor and other, darker things; the faint tug of the charm still hooked into the well of Harry’s magic. Though he wondered if Draco felt similarly, Harry didn’t raise the question in the quiet space between them.

The immediacy of their moment beneath the Hawthorn tree ebbed as they walked and by the time Draco opened the door to his cottage, pausing long enough that Harry would be able to follow him in unseen, there was a small furl at his brow. Closing the door firmly, the Gamekeeper moved across the darkened room to his hearth and coaxed the fire back to life with a small push of magic, using a heavy iron poker to stoke the embers. Hesitant still to break the silence, Harry remained beneath his cloak as he watched this process, hardly daring to breathe. It had seemed so simple while their magic had been entangled, the inexorable conclusion to their long history, but here in the walls of Draco’s home, Harry felt suddenly uncertain of his welcome.

The furrow at Draco’s brow had deepened by the time he had straightened and turned, casting his eyes slowly about his cottage. His jaw worked a moment as though chewing distastefully before he finally gave in, sounding doubtful and frustrated as he ground out a short, “Potter?”

Doubtful because he wasn’t certain Harry was still there. Oh bollocks, Harry was such a thoughtless git.

Stupidly relieved, Harry stepped toward him, causing the Gamekeeper to flinch slightly when the cloak unexpectedly brushed against him. The tension in Draco’s frame eased when Harry leaned in and softly kissed him through the silken fabric, his lips ticking upward at the absurdity of it.

“Take that ridiculous thing off,” Draco murmured, a thread of amusement in his tone as he pushed Harry back a step. “I hardly think we need go so far to keep your identity clandestine.”

“Sorry,” Harry chuckled, grinning sheepishly as he emerged from the cloak. “Old schoolboy fantasy, I suppose.”

Smirking, Draco arched an elegant brow at this. “While I am certain I would find it terribly enlightening to know what pubescent filth once lurked at the edges of your mind, I’m far more interested in the here and now.” Stepping closer, he let his fingertips brush lightly over Harry’s robes, fingering the wool blend as though testing the weave. “Unless you’re having doubts.”

“I’m not,” Harry said with more confidence than he strictly felt. He caught one of Draco’s hands in his own, holding it against his chest. “I only wonder if… Is it too much, too soon?”

“Too soon?” Draco repeated in devious delight, giving Harry a sardonic look. “It’s been seventeen years, Potter. I’m fairly confident that’s excessive even by Muggle standards.”

“Merlin, you’re a prat,” Harry complained and pulled Draco in, kissing the mocking smile from his face. He nipped at the Gamekeeper’s lips until he’d silenced his soft, taunting laughter, then found himself quite breathless when Draco slid an arm about his waist and began to kiss him in earnest. They remained entwined as they were for several long minutes until Harry had to take a moment, gasping against Draco’s mouth. “Sorry, I…it’s…been some time.”

Huffing out a soft, amused breath at this, Draco licked lightly at his lips, then nosed along the soft bristles of his beard to the shell of his ear. “I’ve every confidence in your aptitude, Professor,” he murmured, sending a shiver through Harry. Drawing away, Draco took Harry by the hand and pulled lightly, leading him back through the heavy curtain that divided his bed chamber from the rest of the cottage.

Harry supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised by how easy it was to follow, to fall into Draco in the dim light of his room, grinning and gasping and grabbing at the other wizard. Despite voicing his slight trepidations on whether they’d come to this too suddenly, it didn’t feel rushed…it felt inevitable. All of the mistakes and triumphs and tragedy and joy that had come before had led them to this moment, the tangible intimacy of two lives that were already inescapably bound.

Clever fingers worked quickly over the fastenings of his robes and waistcoat and the eagerness in them helped to ease the discomfit Harry still felt within his own skin. Five days of a renewed appetite had gone a good way toward putting some weight back on his frame, but divested of his clothing the toll taken while hosting the Lethifold became all the more obvious. He was well removed from his Quidditch days or the peak of his Auror career and felt rather more akin to the underfed boy who had swam in his cousin’s oversized clothes.

“Don’t be dull,” Draco complained against Harry’s shoulder as he pushed his shirt off to pile unceremoniously atop the robes already on the floor. Humming a little in satisfaction at his efforts, he slid work roughened palms down Harry’s chest in a slow caress. “I can hear the gnomes turning wheels in your head.”

“Then I suppose you’ll have to work harder to distract me, Professor,” Harry countered and felt Draco’s lips curve against his skin before he was unceremoniously tipped back onto the bed.

His expression shadowed in the darkness, Draco flicked his fingers toward the candle on his nightstand, setting it alight to take in the sight of Harry properly. “I think I’ll manage,” he mused softly and divested himself of his belt.

Pushing himself back upright, Harry carelessly toed off his oxfords as he watched Draco pull off both shirt and tunic in a single, sinuous movement. Unlike the day of Teddy’s flying instruction, he wasn’t wearing a vest and Harry reached out to pull Draco to stand between his thighs so that he could lay heated kisses against the bare expanse of flesh. Any hesitation he felt in the face of this change in their status quo was fast fading in his sheer want of Draco and Harry tried to somehow convey that through his touch. If he were honest with himself, some small part of Harry still wasn’t wholly convinced that this wasn’t another dream. That he wouldn’t wake up empty and alone as he had for too long.

Arching into him with a pleased sound, Draco pushed the fingers of one hand into Harry’s hair while the other kneaded at the back of his neck. Harry had been hesitant thus far to touch him with his scarred wand arm, but Draco caught his wrist and drew it up, carefully brushing his lips against the scar he’d left on his palm.

“Does it hurt?” he wondered, lightly fingering the scarred places where Harry’s wand lay embedded still.

Shaking his head so that his beard brushed back and forth against Draco’s chest, Harry grunted. “Not as such and nothing like before besides. Just looks a fright.”

Humming at that, Draco pressed his lips to the three raised scars in his palm before nipping teasingly at the heel of Harry’s hand. “If you give me a rash, I’ll be most displeased,” he warned, though his tone was rather fond.

Harry lowered his head to suck a bruise on him and grinned when it made Draco hiss and tighten his grip. “Not my fault your skin is so posh,” he murmured, palming at the flesh in question until it had gone all rosy. “I promise to rub a nice salve on it later.”

“How very reassuring,” Draco drawled, releasing his hand again.

Chuckling, Harry trailed his mouth lower, sucking a few more marks into the smooth, pale skin. While his own body had a fair amount of hair, Draco’s was both sparse and light, only a shade or two darker than was to be found on his head. Running his thumb along the trail it made down from Draco’s navel, Harry looked up at him questioningly, fingers resting on the waist of his trousers.

“By all means,” Draco all but purred, a languid smile on his lips.

Rising back to his feet to taste the curve of it, Harry licked into his mouth while he slipped the knot that laced his trousers and slid his hand inside to palm him, breathing in Draco’s gasp of pleasure. Already he’d more than half filled, but it didn’t take long for Harry to coax him to full arousal, teasing back his foreskin to rub at the sensitive head.

“I want you inside me.” He breathed the admission into Draco’s mouth, eliciting another soft gasp. “But I want to taste you first.”

Harry,” Draco groaned in answer, fisting his hand in his hair to kiss him hungrily. He rolled his hips against the drag of Harry’s palm a few times as they kissed, then released his hair to push him back onto the bed, flushed and panting. “And here I was concerned that you might prove to be shy.” Bending to pull off his boots, Draco cast them aside, then pushed the last of his clothing down off his hips to join the growing pile on the floor.

“Gryffindors and boldness or some rubbish,” Harry said rather breathlessly, slipping forward to kneel atop their discarded garments and sliding his palms up Draco’s thighs.

Draco moaned deeply when Harry licked a hot stripe against his flesh before fisting him, threading his fingers through the wild tangle of his hair once more. “I rescind every unkind word I’ve ever said against your house,” he panted, rocking his hips forward when Harry pressed a wet kiss to the head of his cock.

A huff of laughter escaped Harry at the sentiment, but then he opened his mouth to draw him inside, a somewhat embarrassing moan working out of him. Merlin, but it had been an age since Harry had last done this and the shocking intimacy of pleasuring another with his mouth made him almost dizzy. He didn’t realize that he’d closed his eyes until Draco cupped his face, stroking along his beard and rubbing against his lips where they closed around his flesh. Giving the Gamekeeper a rather dazed look, Harry took him in deeper, using his hand to keep from embarrassing himself by taking too much.

Grey eyes luminescent where they caught the candlelight, Draco watched him with a heated intensity, tracing his fingers over Harry’s features in a way that felt breathtakingly proprietary. “You beautiful creature,” he breathed, his voice pitched low. “How is it you’ve possibly ended up here?”

Harry exhaled sharply through his nose as something very close to a whine caught in his throat, the praise sending a flush of shameful heat licking along his spine. Of course Draco would know exactly where to needle him, would find the part of Harry that he tried so hard to hide. The neglected boy in a cupboard under the stairs that so longed to be wanted. To be cherished. Loved.

Releasing Draco with an obscenely wet sound, Harry turned his face away from the gentle fingers and their seeming reverence, panting against the Gamekeeper’s thigh. “Don’t,” he protested softly, almost brokenly. “Please don’t tease me.”

Taken aback, Draco stilled for a long moment, then carded his fingers through Harry’s hair, drawing him away. “Harry,” he chided, tilting his face up to give him a gentle, if unyielding, look. “In case I have failed to make it perfectly clear, I want you. Not Jameson Evans, not the Boy Who Lived, and certainly not the bloody Chosen One. Just you, however broken or damaged you think you are. And I rather think you want me, too.”

Nodding a little, Harry licked his lips, almost hesitant to speak with how Draco’s words seemed to settle in his chest, tightening his throat. When Draco raised an eyebrow pointedly, apparently dissatisfied with his lack of answer, he finally gasped out, “Yes. Yes, I want you. I’ve wanted you for…for some time.”

Smirking in satisfaction, Draco nodded and stroked his hair soothingly, almost rewardingly. “Good. Then get in my bed and allow me to further elucidate, Potter.”

Glad for the distraction away from his embarrassing bout of insecurity, Harry huffed in amusement as he rose from the floor, shifting back onto the mattress. “No one uses four syllable words for seduction, Malfoy.”

“Are you suggesting that I am sesquipedalian?” Crawling onto the bed after him, Draco slowly stalked him along the length of it until Harry’s back met the pillows. “I retain a transient velleity that you will sanction me to alleviate your regrettable misconceptions of the eloquence to be found in an articulate soliloquy.”

A deep laugh bubbled up out of Harry and he shoved at Draco’s shoulder with a broad grin. “Shut up and kiss me, you posh git.”

Winding his arms about the Gamekeeper, he bit teasingly at the self-satisfied smile on his narrow face and drew Draco atop him. It didn’t take long for him to regret not having divested himself of his trousers while he’d had the chance, because the muted feel of Draco’s bare skin pressed against the cradle of his hips was rather maddening. Still he didn’t try to break away to rectify the problem, too unwilling to lose the contact of their bodies as they kissed. Finally, when it seemed Draco was far too content to do no more than drive Harry slowly mad with his hungry mouth and the slow grind of his hips, he pushed the Gamekeeper back enough to pant against his mouth.

“Help me get my kit off, damn you. I’m ten seconds away from vanishing these bloody trousers,” he warned, drawing a chuckle from the other wizard.

“That would be a sight to see come morning,” Draco mused, but he relented and sat back on his heels to stroke his hands down Harry’s chest, pulling lightly at the hair to send prickles of sensation across his skin. “Merlin, but you’re hairy.”

“Well…yes. Suppose I am,” he replied cheekily and Draco groaned, making as though to leave. “Oh come on, you all but gift wrapped that, you did.”

“You are one bad pun away from being ejected from this cottage, Potter,” Draco warned, but the threat didn’t hold much weight when he was undoing the button of Harry’s trousers.

“M-my lips are- nnnh!” Harry broke off to groan as Draco palmed him through his pants, teasing through the thin cotton. “F-fuck, Draco…”

“Language, Professor,” Draco chided, pulling at the elastic of his waistband with a distasteful moue before letting it snap back against his skin. “I can’t believe you wear Muggle underclothes.”

“If you find them so offensive, feel free to take them off,” Harry stressed, lifting his hips impatiently.

Draco raised an eyebrow and looked overly pleased by Harry’s eagerness, but hooked his fingers in to tug down pants and trousers both. Despite that it had been his goal, the sudden shock of air on his bare flesh left Harry feeling rather flushed and he swallowed thickly as Draco shifted back to pull off his clothing entirely, leaving him in his socks.

“I half expected suspenders,” Draco taunted, sliding his fingers along Harry’s calves to remove his socks as well, which was strangely intimate on its own.

“If anyone in this room is likely to own sock suspenders, it’s bloody well you,” Harry groused, a little breathless to be completely exposed before the Gamekeeper now.

Sniffing haughtily at that sentiment, which only furthered Harry’s point, Draco ran his hands slowly up his legs as he took in the sight of him, though he stilled in surprise when he got a good look at Harry’s cock. “Oh,” he said, taken aback and Harry sighed, having nearly forgotten this bit.

“Sorry,” he began and resisted the urge to cover up. “I know it’s not done among wizards, but sometimes Muggles get the idea that being uncircumcised is…unclean.”

Though he had never even considered the possibility of asking his aunt and uncle whether they’d had the procedure performed after being left on their doorstep, he could only assume it to be the case. Harry hadn’t even known to question it before living in the dormitories at Hogwarts and it had come as a surprise to nearly every partner he’d had since.

“That’s barbaric,” Draco pointed out, tightening his hands on Harry’s thighs. “The more I hear about these Muggles, the less I understand why you champion them so.”

“To be fair, my aunt and uncle are unpleasant by anyone’s standards, Muggle or otherwise. And it’s not really common practice, not in England, at any rate. Anyway, you don’t have to-“

“Don’t be absurd, Potter,” Draco cut him off, curling his fingers about Harry where he’d started to flag without further preamble. “You’re quite mad if you think a bit of missing skin in any way detracts from you.”

“N-noted,” Harry gasped out, his hands fisting into Draco’s blankets.

Rubbing his thumb along the underside, Draco explored the exposed head curiously, stroking until Harry’s cock was filled and flushed. Looking satisfied once he had Harry hard and aching once more, Draco leaned over to look through the vials on his shelf, humming in appreciation when Harry took the opportunity to mouth at his chest again. Finding what he was looking for, he slid down to catch Harry’s lips with his own, licking at him as he worked the jar open. Harry’s breath caught when Draco nudged his thighs wider, caught off guard to feel his fingers rub slickly along his taint to tease at his opening. None of his previous magical partners had favoured manual preparation to the ease and brevity of a few muttered spells, but he was far from disappointed to feel Draco’s fingers work inside him now.

“Fuck!” he moaned, drawing up his heels to roll his hips to meet the intrusion. “Ah, fuck that’s- Draco!

“Who would have guessed you had such a filthy mouth, Potter?” Draco murmured against his cheek, thrusting his fingers languidly inside him.

“I’ll bloody well show you filthy, you-“ Harry let out a cry when Draco curled his fingers just so, pressing his thumb to his perineum to increase the stimulation. “F-fuck, Draco, please!

“Shh…” Draco soothed him, nuzzling at his throat even as he worked in another finger. “You’re doing so well for me. Just a little longer, darling.”

This time Harry did whine, magic sparking along his wand arm, wild with want and pleasure. Vines crept round the posts of Draco’s bed, twining around the bollards to flower into delicate, fragrant blooms. Draco’s breath caught and he faltered at the sight, pupils blown wide at the flagrant display of power he’d drawn out of Harry. Giving up his tortuous ministrations, Draco withdrew his fingers and shifted more fully between Harry’s legs, drawing his hips up over his own pale thighs. Finding the jar again, he gathered more of the lubricant than was strictly necessary and slicked it over himself and Harry, leaning back to watch as he slowly eased inside.

“Please!” Harry gasped, reaching out to try and draw Draco closer as though the distance between them could not be borne. It took a few moments of discomfort for him to remember how to relax his body in the right way, but he moaned as he managed it, drawing Draco deeper.

Despite Harry’s near desperation, Draco kept his movement slow until he was fully seated, panting a little and shuddering at the tight heat of him. Lowering so that they were pressed close again, Draco caught his lips in a soft, wet kiss, sliding his arms around Harry’s shorter frame to cradle him close.

“Shhh…I have you,” he whispered as Harry’s body tightened and relaxed around him, adjusting to being filled. “I’ve got you, darling.”

Draco,” Harry whispered, shuddering. Looking up at him almost wondering, he touched Draco’s face, close enough to share breath as they had in the forest and thought very seriously that this might be something dangerously close to love.

Instinctively, Harry reached for him with his magic and Draco’s eyes widened fractionally as it wove together just as easily as before. Then they were moving together, the room silent but for the slick sound of skin and soft gasps for air, desperate, yet hushed. Draco caught Harry’s scarred hand and twined it with his own and the connection between them only flared brighter, drawing out a cry of pleasure that started somewhere in the one to end in the other. It was a wild power that pulsed through them; Old Magic and more dangerous than either could know, but in that moment it was beyond them to think of any possible consequences. There was only Harry and Draco and the bond of their magic as they spilled over and into the other.

Harry awoke from blissfully dreamless sleep sometime later to a clean and pleasantly aching body and the brush of fingers against his scar. Not the scar on his forehead, as he might have expected, but the flowering lines like lightning over his heart. The mark of Voldemort’s final, and most successful, attempt upon his life. Though he didn’t open his eyes, Draco must have realized he was awake, for he spoke softly after a few moments.

“Mother always swore that you were hit by the Killing Curse during the last battle. Father insisted that you simply dodged it convincingly enough. A Seeker’s reflexes,” he mused, tracing the lines until they vanished into the thatch of hair on Harry’s chest.

“Do we have to talk about your parents while we’re starkers?” Harry grumbled and opened his eyes to squint up at Draco where he was propped up beside him. The candle had soldiered on while they dozed and cast a flickering glow over them even now, softening the Gamekeeper’s sharp features as he regarded Harry contemplatively.

“How did you do it?” he wondered, resting his palm over the breadth of the scar. “How did you survive the Killing Curse?”

For a moment, Harry hesitated, expecting to feel the usual flare of suspicion that accompanied such questions, but was surprised to find himself relaxed. Sated, perhaps, by the lingering memory of Draco’s touch on his skin, coaxing pleasure in the candlelight, but more than it was startlingly clear to Harry just how much he’d grown to trust his former rival. It ought to be quite mad, yet he genuinely felt a foreign sense of security as he lay naked in the bed of Draco Malfoy. Thinking back to the way their magic had been entwined, Harry tried not to dwell overlong on the heady feelings he’d all but lost himself in. The thought was…a little overwhelming, to say the least.

“Well…I didn’t, to be honest,” he admitted at last, staring up at the thatched roof. “The first time was my mother…she invoked Old Magic by sacrificing herself to protect me when she could have lived. The second time…I died.”

Draco brushed his thumb back and forth lightly over Harry’s collarbone as he considered this. “You’re remarkably fit for a dead man.”

Huffing out a soft, amused breath, Harry looked over and his eyes fell on the stone at Draco’s throat. “I was given a choice to come back. One I earned partially from this,” he said and lifted a hand to touch the Resurrection Stone lightly, barely brushing it with the tips of his fingers as Draco stilled, taken aback. “Do you know The Tale of the Three Brothers?”

“Fairy stories, Potter? Really?”

“Stories often have an element of truth to them. In this case, the three gifts the brothers ‘received from Death’ were the Deathly Hallows…and uniting these makes one a Master of Death.”

“And you united them,” Draco guessed, though he sounded doubtful.

Harry gestured at his person as though presenting himself in evidence. “Apparently.”

Eyes narrowed in thought, Draco regarded Harry in silence for a long moment, as though searching for some flicker of deceit in the tale. At last he scoffed softly and shook his head, giving Harry a wan look. “As though you needed another title,” he said sarcastically. “I’ve been wearing the Resurrection Stone for nearly a decade now, you’re obviously still in possession of your blasted Invisibility Cloak and I can only assume the wand was Dumbledore’s, given the Dark Lord’s obsession with it.”

A flicker of unease settled in his belly at the mention of the Elder Wand, but he nodded lightly. “I went looking for it once…the stone. After…after my son-” Harry blinked back a swell of tears as the words stuck in his throat and he swallowed thickly around them.

Sliding long fingers soothingly through his dark, riotous hair, Draco’s eyes softened. “Do you want it now?” he asked seriously, despite all the power he now knew it possessed.

The breath went still in his throat at the offering, but Harry shook his head soon enough, catching Draco’s hand to lace their fingers together. “No,” he whispered gruffly, his voice still heavy with grief. “I…it was foolish of me to have ever considered it. He was…James was so small when we lost him. Bringing him through the veil would be cruel and frightening.”

Nodding in acquiescence, Draco let the matter drop, which Harry was wordlessly grateful for. He had heard so many variations of ‘sorry for your loss’ throughout the years that he ought to be desensitized to it, but even after all this time such empty sympathies struck a visceral chord of rage within his heart. A solemn silence fell over them where they lay and Harry found the solid warmth of Draco’s form entwined with his own far more comforting than any platitudes.

“The Patronus,” he said after a time, eyes open, but unfocused. “In the forest earlier…you called it a Leshy?”

“A forest-dwelling creature,” Draco affirmed. “Northern European variant, I should think. Though it’s hard to be certain given that they’re believed to be all but extinct.”

“Deforestation?” Harry guessed.

“It would be easy to blame the Muggles, but many were hunted by alchemical poachers, among others. There’s an old legend that Leshy gifted magic to the first witches and wizards at the birth of civilization.”

Curious, Harry tilted his head to regard the Magizoologist. “Do you think that’s true?”

Lifting a shoulder dismissively, Draco shook his head. “It’s as plausible as anything. Clearly an ample portion of the magical community thought it credible enough that they’ve spent millennia seeking to capture or kill them in hopes of gaining more power. And I’m not just talking about wizards. Goblins in particular once held massive Leshy hunts.”

“I didn’t know it was possible to conjure anything other than mundane creatures for a Patronus,” Harry admitted thoughtfully.

“That was hardly a mundane casting of the charm, Potter,” Draco pointed out wryly and Harry chuckled.

“True enough. Did you see your Patronus when you cast it? I’m certain it was corporeal.”

Eyebrow lifting sardonically, Draco shook his head. “I was rather distracted, you’ll remember.”

Heat bloomed across his face even as a grin stretched his mouth wide. “I might need a reminder, actually,” he said casually and Draco’s lips curved upward in amusement.

“Do you now.”

Humming in affirmation, Harry leaned closer to brush their lips together, lightly at first, then more firmly. They kissed languidly, mouths pressing and pulling at one another with the kind of lazy satiation one might expect in the early morning hours after rather more desperate lovemaking. Nudging Draco onto his back, Harry moved half over him, bracing himself on his good arm while clumsy fingers, still recovering from injury, slid lightly over his skin. Raring as he’d been before to chase the culmination of months of flirting, he hadn’t had much of a chance to really explore the topography of Draco’s form and he did so now at leisure.

They both had their share of scars marring their flesh, but while Harry’s were fairly prominent as a result of both field medicine and the resistive tendencies of curse wounds, Draco’s were nearly invisible. Though there was a part of him that wanted to ask after the history of the faint lines he could feel beneath the slide of his fingertips, he hesitated to do so, certain that more than a few had been drawn by the lash of his own power. Smoothing his scarred palm along Draco’s arm with the intention of tangling their fingers, he paused when he came to a rougher patch of skin and the Gamekeeper stiffened in response.

Withdrawing slowly from the kiss, Harry regarded the carefully blank mask of Draco’s face for a moment, then turned his head to look at the Dark Mark. Time and the true death of the creature that had once been Tom Marvolo Riddle had faded the once vividly black Mark to the colour of an old bruise, but the magical brand would never truly fade. A furl of sick unease in his belly, Harry let his fingers press into the mark and pushed out with his magic, seeking a connection that had been burned out of him eleven years ago.

“You aren’t him,” Draco murmured and Harry’s eyes snapped back to him in surprise.

“Draco, I-“

“I’ve seen your boggart,” he reminded him and Harry grimaced at the memory. “I spent months at his side, Potter…you’re nothing like him. Darkness like that, it leaves a stain on everything it touches.”

The words were meant to be a comfort, but they left Harry feeling cold. Draco, after all, couldn’t possibly know that Harry had spent all but one of the first seventeen years of his life as harbinger to a piece of Voldemort’s soul. Who knew what sort of ‘stain’ that left in him? Hallows were one thing, but Harry was in no way ready to broach the subject of Horcruxes.

Despite this, he found himself murmuring, “I’ve been in contact with the dark my whole life, in one way or another. Who’s to say I won’t just tip over into the void?”

His pale eyes searching Harry’s, Draco looked troubled as he cautiously lifted a hand to cup his cheek, as though Harry were one of his creatures. His thumb brushed gently under his eye to draw away the wetness Harry hadn’t even realized was there. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” he asked gently.

Taking a shuddering breath, Harry shook his head a little, licking his lips. The memory of his power lashing out at Ron’s face came immediately to mind, but no matter how terrible, it had in the end been an accident. “I…I don’t know, I…the Unforgivables, I suppose?”

“All of them?”

“I…all but the Killing Curse. During the war.”

Nodding once in acknowledgement, Draco gave him a steady look. “Do you regret using them? Be honest, not noble. Given the circumstances of their casting, do you regret it?”

Brow furrowing, Harry thought about it objectively, thought of his attacks on the Carrows and Bellatrix, his manipulation of Travers and Bogrod the goblin and shook his head after a moment. “No. Not really. It was war and I…I didn’t see any other options at the time. I regret not being better prepared, I suppose. Attacking you was worse. That…that I truly regret.”

Draco arched an eyebrow at him critically. “Are you referring to the duel in which I had been about to cast the Cruciatus Curse on you?”

“That doesn’t excuse my actions.”

“No, but it wasn’t unwarranted. We weren’t just children throwing jinxes and serpents, Potter…we were attempting harm that day. Lucky for me you were quicker or I’d have ended up in Azkaban a great deal sooner.”

Scowling down at him, Harry felt a churlish need to prove that he was in fact capable of becoming what he feared most and blurted, “I turned Bryndon Rowle into a pig.”

Taken aback, Draco stared up at him a moment, then inclined his head. “I…beg your pardon?”

Groaning, Harry slumped to the mattress beside the Gamekeeper, scrubbing a hand over his face. “He was stalking a Muggle woman, Veronica Ware. Broke into her flat and used the Imperius Curse on her. He made it clear that he had little cause to fear repercussions from the Ministry, so I…I cursed him. Turned him into a pig and sold him.”

“To a butchery?” Draco wondered, looking thoughtful and Harry balked.

What? Merlin, no!” he denied, horrified. “To a farm! A Muggle tourist farm that sells miniature pigs as pets.”

Amusement washed over Draco’s expression until it finally spilled forth in a laugh, long and loud, making the bedframe shudder slightly with the intensity of it. “B-beware the Dark Lord P-Potter!” he gasped out, wiping at a tear of mirth.

Glaring at the laughing wizard, Harry sat upright. “Well I really must be going,” he groused irritably.

Looping an arm about his waist, Draco pulled him back down, pressing a Cheshire grin into his shoulder. “No, please, stay and regale me with more tales of your wicked deeds.”

“I don’t know what I see in you, honestly,” he grumbled, but made no further move to leave. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, then?”

“Tortured nearly every Muggle I’ve ever met, for a start.” Though the mirth had drained away in an instant, the words still came lightly, seemingly unaffected.

Harry’s breath stuttered as though he’d taken a blow, a sick feeling twisting in his belly. “I’m sorry, I... I wasn’t thinking. But that…you didn’t have a choice, Draco.”

Snorting derisively, the Gamekeeper gave him a withering glance. “Don’t be simple, Potter. There is always a choice. I chose my own survival over theirs and would almost certainly do so again.” He slid his palm over Harry’s scar again, the contact seemed a heavier weight for the gravity of their candlelit rumination. “But you wouldn’t, you sacrificial bore. Questionable acts of vigilantism aside, you’re too bloody focused on being the saviour, the martyr that you’d never manage anything so selfish as world domination. You don’t crave power…in fact I’d hazard to say that you resent the power you’ve got, ungrateful fool that you are.” There was something like fondness wound into the sharpness of his words.

“A Leshy is a guardian, Harry. You might not be wholly footed in the Light, but you’ll never be a Dark Lord.”

“Thank you,” Harry whispered into the space between them, threading his fingers gently through the pale strands of Draco’s hair. “You aren’t like him either, you know.”

“Obviously,” Draco said with an arrogant sniff. “I have a nose.

“Prat.” Harry laughed and shoved at him lightly, feeling an inexorable swell of affection in his chest.

Twining their bodies together once more, they lay in comfortable silence, sleep chased away by the weight of memory. After a time, Harry found himself tracing the mark again, oddly comforted by the lack of power he felt in it. Thin, ragged scars that must have been caused by some form of claws, scored the skin from wrist to elbow, yet curiously, the mark itself was unmarred. Harry guessed that the curse-like nature of the Dark Mark kept it from being easily disfigured. There were older, uglier scars he could also feel in the surrounding flesh, but could not guess their origin.

Tracing over the claw marks with his fingers, it struck him suddenly as odd that Draco had been treated in St. Mungo’s for this injury in particular, when he had first seen the wizard again after so many years. It was clear that he had no difficulty in the regular application of Dittany and Harry couldn’t imagine he’d be in the slightest bit eager at having the Dark Mark gawked at, even by trained Healers. In fact, Harry distinctly remembered Pomfrey making mention of the fact that Draco never allowed her to tend to his wounds. He found it hard to believe anyone would find the cold and clinical St. Mungo’s more appealing than the Hogwarts Hospital Wing. Considering the wide variety of injuries Harry himself had been seen for at both locations in his life, he vastly preferred Hogwarts.

Unable to let go of the idea now that his inquisitive mind had seized upon it, Harry asked, “Why were you in St. Mungo’s that day?”

“And which day would that be?” Draco wondered archly.

“Don’t be a git,” Harry chastised, knowing full well Draco understood.

Raising an eyebrow at Harry, the Gamekeeper looked wholly unimpressed. “Why did you come back to Hogwarts?” he countered.

“Really?” Harry asked in surprise. “Quid pro quo?”

“Must I remind you that I’m not a mystery for you to solve, Potter?” Draco asked acerbically.

‘This innate need you have to know what’s going on around you is one of your best and worst qualities.’

Grimacing to remember that only a few hours earlier Draco had somewhat forgiven him for his transgressions into the Gamekeeper’s privacy, Harry nodded his concession and sighed. “Sorry. It’s…habit, I suppose.”

Relenting somewhat, Draco brushed his fingers over the back of Harry’s neck, a small smile breaking the curve of his lips. “Hardly a new one. I can’t remember a time when you’ve ever not been too inquisitive for your own good. At least this time I’m fairly confident I’ve done nothing nefarious to earn it.”

“Only fairly confident?” Grinning teasingly, Harry leaned into the light touch until it firmed into a grounding caress. “I…was asked to return to Hogwarts, but…” Harry hesitated, unsure how to put it into words. “I think I needed to come back, even if I didn’t want to admit it. Hogwarts was my first real home and I’ve been...lost for some time. Hiding from my life instead of living it.”

He gave Draco a wry, brittle smile, feeling as though he were exposing himself beyond his skin now. “At the same time, I think I needed to feel…useful again. I spent the last few years trying to make some difference for those the Ministry has forgotten or ignored, yet nothing has changed from when I started. Honestly I think there might be something really rotten lurking in the heart of the magical world, something that’s linked to Hogwarts, but whether or not I’m the one to sort it is debatable. It’s not as though I’ve been able to do much to solve my own problems. Frankly you’ve done more to sort my life in the past month than I’ve managed in years.”

“Compliments will get you everywhere, darling,” Draco purred, kneading at the base of Harry’s skull. “In some ways, we’ve always brought out the best in one another. Usually by being the worst, but the truth of it remains.” His expression became more serious and he tightened his grip somewhat, not enough to hurt, but enough to be noticed. “But I’ve no interest being part of another war.”

The cold reality of what could be coming sent a small shiver down Harry’s spine and he licked his lips, gone suddenly dry. “I’m not asking for that.” Though he meant it honestly, the words sounded hollow even to him.

“Not yet,” Draco corrected, though not unkindly. Relaxing his grip, he lightly scratched at Harry’s scalp instead, seeming to debate with himself for a few moments before he spoke. “Poppy maintains a well-stocked infirmary, but she doesn’t keep powdered silver or a discretionary tongue. Not when it comes to injuries of dubious legality, anyway.”

“Powdered silver?” Harry repeated, brow furrowing a little as he tried to remember the significance of that while Draco’s short nails sent shivers of sensation along his scalp. “Wouldn’t Slughorn keep it on hand?”

“Horace Slughorn is a glory-seeking arse suckling at the teat of those with far greater talent and significance,” Draco insisted. “I wouldn’t ask him for table salt, much less powdered silver.”

“Powdered silver and Dittany,” Harry remembered suddenly. “For sealing wounds caused by a werewolf. Lavender?”

“Yes,” he agreed, inclining his head slightly. “It…wasn’t the first time I’ve been exposed to injury by a werewolf. It’s important for me to seek treatment quickly when it happens. Though it is rare to be turned by claw instead of fang, it’s not impossible, especially when one already carries the virus. I wasn’t lying when I said before that my profession means that I am a fairly frequent visitor of the Dai Llewellyn ward, but I am particularly cautious of those injuries caused by werewolves. On the occasions I’ve sought their aid, the Healers there have also given me a somewhat experimental tincture of silver, asphodel and aconite that has thus far helped ensure the virus remains inactive.”

Thinking back on the last few months, he bit back a rather cheeky smile. “Except for a quick temper and fondness for meat on the full moon?”

Arching a brow, Draco gave Harry a considering look. “Think you’ve learned something, have you, Potter?” he drawled and drew in even closer, letting his teeth brush over his neck a moment. Harry’s chuckle of mirth caught to instead draw in a quick breath, a flush of heat seeming to radiate out from the contact. “I suppose it’s entirely possible I become a bit…feral around that time.” His hand slid down to cup at Harry, who hissed and bucked into the contact. “That doesn’t seem to bother you. Another old schoolboy fantasy?

“You’re such an arse,” Harry complained, turning his head to seek out Draco’s smirking mouth. He tried to wind his arms about the capricious wizard, only to have his hands caught and pressed above his head. With the state of Harry’s recovering body, Draco was easily the stronger of them and Harry tried to pretend that his pulse didn’t quicken to be so easily pinned in place.

“Let me,” Draco insisted softly and shifted one of his hands back down to slide over Harry’s body in a measured, covetous caress.

Nodding rather breathlessly, Harry was all too happy to do so.

The Room of Requirement was warm and hazy, oddly soft round the edges considering that it housed an army. Along one wall, Ginny was building a web out of red thread while Luna painted long lines in bright yellow paint radiating out on the floor around her like the rays of the sun. Hermione was readying for a duel with Marietta near the centre of the room, Ron and Cho standing by as their seconds, though Harry failed to see how Ron was going to be of much use with a hole in his head. Nearby, Neville and Hannah were trying to help Lavender hide the moon under her robes, but it bulged out too obviously no matter how they draped them.

Harry watched over them all idly from where he sat entangled with Draco, the Marauders’ Map spread out over their laps. He listened to the soft sound of Draco’s fingertips trailing over the map’s surface, tracing the patterns of movement.

“I can’t believe she took his name,” he drawled in annoyance, shaking his head. “Dursley…how dreadful.”

“Could do worse,” Harry replied, looking down to where Draco was tapping lightly on the cluster of names. Neville Longbottom. Hannah Longbottom. Lavender Dursley.

“You’re right about that,” Draco mused, brushing his fingers along Harry’s cheek to tease at his ear. “Could be McLaggen.

Though he knew he ought to laugh, his brow furrowed as he tried to focus on the jibe because there was something there. Something he needed to remember. But wool wrapped around the dream as surely as if he’d taken his Draught of Peace and Dumbledore’s Army faded away in a haze.

“Henri,” Draco’s voice came chidingly. “Stop that. He’s not for you.”

The pressure against Harry’s ear lifted and he opened his eyes to find himself back in the Gamekeeper’s cottage just as Draco shooed away a horrifying creature. Head still fuzzed over, the sight of it still gave Harry a bit of a shock as he jerked back slightly, coming fully awake.

“What is that?” he demanded hoarsely, voice rough with sleep.

“Henri is a Swooping Evil and he’s terribly rude,” Draco explained as the creature folded itself back into a small cocoon, which the wizard moved up to hang on a shelf. “I’ve trained him to help with nightmares, but I don’t normally have houseguests. Clearly he hasn’t yet learned to differentiate between whose nightmares he ought to feed upon. Your mind’s likely to feel a bit swaddled for a few hours until the venom wears off.”

“I can’t decide whether to be impressed or horrified,” Harry grumbled and scrubbed a hand over his face. His eyes felt over dry from having slept in his contacts and he was beginning to feel the effects of having skipped last night’s potions, but at least the Swooping Evil venom felt enough like the Draught of Peace that it wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Looking Draco over, his brow furrowed a bit. “You’re dressed.”

“You’re amazingly astute in the morning,” he replied, his smile somewhat tight. Pristinely clean and garbed in his nicer robes, Draco was already holding himself differently and Harry immediately wished they could go back a few hours.

“You’re going to the Manor,” he guessed and it came out like more of an accusation than Harry meant it to.

Inclining his head, Draco gestured vaguely toward the main room of his cottage. “I received an owl this morning,” he confirmed, his expression carefully neutral. “My presence is requested.”

Remembering the last time he’d seen Draco dressed like the pureblood heir he was, Harry scowled a bit. “A marriage interview?” he wondered waspishly.

A small smile softened Draco’s expression and he hummed lightly, leaning over him. “Why, Harry Potter…are you jealous?” he purred, stroking a hand over Harry’s beard.

“Should I not be?” Harry asked in irritation, though he still leaned into the caress.

Smile widening, Draco huffed a soft laugh against Harry’s lips as he kissed him slow and sweet, then withdrew, looking more himself now. “I’ll be back later tonight, a bachelor still,” he promised and moved toward the doorway. Pausing there, he seemed to take a moment to drink in the sight of Harry in his bed for a long, lingering moment that sent a faint shiver of heat through him. “Perhaps you can use that time to settle things with Severus, no?”

Harry’s eyes narrowed at the challenge in his tone, but Draco only smirked at him and slipped through the heavy curtain dividing off the room. A few moments later, the door to the cottage opened and closed and Harry was left utterly alone with the dark beast of jealousy curled within his breast.

“Bollocks,” he muttered unhappily and slumped back upon the pillows to sling an arm over his face. He was mad on Draco Malfoy and there was no possible way it could end well.

Chapter Text

Love may have saved Harry’s life and been the catalyst of Voldemort’s defeat not once, but twice, but it was also inherently dangerous. Though Draco would surely tease him relentlessly to hear it, Harry had always equated love with flying. The same joy bursting through his chest as he lifted high into the air, the sense of freedom, of fulfilment, could so easily turn to pain and sickening fear should he slip and fall. The cautionary tale of Severus Snape had remained with Harry throughout his adult years as a reminder that love, when allowed to fester and consume until it was something poisonous, could lead to utter ruin.

There were any number of reasons it would prove a terrible idea for Harry to fall in love with Draco Malfoy, but the most prevalent was simply that he was a Malfoy. It wasn’t that Harry couldn’t empathize with a less than desirable family- not with Vernon and Petunia Dursley being both examples A and B- and there were any number of individuals in his life who had escaped becoming the product of their environment, to include Draco himself. The problem wasn’t even that Lucius Malfoy was one of the worst wizards that Harry had ever had the misfortune to make acquaintance with…it was that Draco genuinely loved him.

Discovering that his own father, and Sirius besides, had been rather insufferable while they attended Hogwarts had shaken the core of Harry’s seemingly unwavering loyalty to their memory, but the shock and scorn of truth had faded the more he himself grew up. The further removed from his teenaged years, the easier it was to forgive James and Sirius for being horrible in their adolescence, especially given the obvious efforts made to be better than they were prior to their untimely deaths. Hell, Harry certainly wouldn’t be falling for Draco if he were the same prat he’d been as a teenager. But no one could possibly mistake it as a folly of youth when Lucius Malfoy had passed Tom Riddle’s diary to Ginny, nor could they suggest that he was acting out of fear for himself or his family when he’d nearly murdered Harry in a fit of pique that same term.

Yet Draco loved him. Unquestioningly and seemingly without reservation.

Though Harry had hardly paid attention to the wizarding rags the last few years, he knew well enough that Lucius had largely withdrawn from society, seemingly content to allow Narcissa to play centre stage for the good of the Malfoy name. It wasn’t as though Harry could begrudge her manipulation of public opinion for saving his life, especially when he was genuinely grateful for the lie that had allowed him to defeat Voldemort. Yet the fact that Lucius had made no effort to even pretend at reformation beyond reclusion was telling. That he could be utterly blind to Draco’s obvious unhappiness at being fettered by familial duty even more so.

Despite however clear it was that Draco no longer held interest in following his father’s ambitions any more than he seemed keen on maintaining traditions, he still proved ready to play the part when called upon. Harry found it very hard to believe that when pressed, Draco would not choose his family first, even into an unwanted marriage.

Slumping back onto the mattress they had quite thoroughly exercised in the preceding hours, Harry glowered up at the thatched roof and reminded himself that he was a grown man and certainly not having a sulk. Despite his rather rude awakening by the Swooping Evil, Harry’s body was still lax with the night’s activities, pleasantly sore in ways that made Draco’s departure needle all the more. He would have liked a bit of a lie in and perhaps some breakfast with the blasted man before having to leave his little bubble of contentment. Whatever he might have expected from the morning, being immediately abandoned for matchmaking efforts at Malfoy Manor had been far from his mind, though Harry supposed now that it ought not to have been.

Still…the way his jealousy had warmed the pureblood countenance Draco had assumed made Harry think it unlikely that the Gamekeeper had wished for this particular end to their night together. Clearly not enough to defy his parents, but at least it was something. With a sigh, Harry sat himself upright and shoved away the bedclothes with determination.

“Harry Potter, you are not going to lie about like some lovesick mooncalf,” he grumbled sternly. “You are going to get dressed, fix your face and go apologize to a portrait that mostly hates you.” Getting up from the bed, he saw that Draco had at least gathered up his discarded clothing and left the pieces folded in a neat pile and smiled slightly before he schooled his expression again and started to dress. “And you will bloody well catch whoever it is that’s trying to murder Hermione, while you’re at it.”

“How very inspired,” Draco’s mirror intoned sarcastically from where it was tucked against the wall.

Harry blanched a bit to see it there, having not noticed it previously and felt very relieved that it had not chosen to make any comments the night before. He should have known Draco would have a cheeky arse of a mirror. Spying a slip of cloth lying beside the silvery surface, Harry realized Draco must usually keep it covered. No doubt he’d wanted to check his appearance before his bloody marriage interview. Scowling again, he sighed and used the mirror to school his features into those of Jameson Evans, then covered it up perfunctorily, to which it sighed.

“I’ll just go bugger myself then, shall I?”

Snorting, Harry cast around to be sure he hadn’t left anything necessary behind, then moved out into the cottage proper to lay out his potion retinue. Despite his argument with Hermione earlier in the week, he still hadn’t taken to carrying the Draught of Peace on his person the way he did the others, but then he hardly needed it with the Swooping Evil’s venom still swaddling his mind. Admittedly, the woollen cloud about his thoughts did help to quell the anxious turn in his belly at the thought of going back to the castle; back to the reality he had managed not to dwell upon for a time. Swallowing back a sigh behind some tepid tea from the pot Draco must have brewed - and abandoned as surely as he had his bedpartner - Harry nabbed a bit of bread and jam from the larder. In truth he was rather more peckish than bread would satisfy, his appetite bolstered by the night’s activities, but Harry didn’t fancy lingering in the cottage much longer. Bad enough that he could still smell Draco on his skin.

Merlin, he was pining.

Shoving the rest of his toast into his mouth, Harry brushed away the crumbs determinedly and headed out to face the day. It must have snowed in the night, for he was nearly blinded by the brilliant luminescence of late morning sun upon a pristine blanket of white. The sky was unusually clear; the sun warm against the skin where the wind was still chill enough to chafe, so it was unsurprising to see that a number of students had already begun to filter outside to take advantage. Which meant that Harry would be spotted leaving Draco’s cottage after having quite obviously slept there. Again.

Abruptly abandoning his earlier stated plans, Harry instead turned on his heel and walked brusquely away from the cottage, heading toward the lake. The absolute last thing that he wanted today was another mortifying lecture from Minerva on faculty fraternization. One would think that after spending an immoderate amount of time sneaking around Hogwarts throughout the course of his education, he would be a mite better at doing so now. What was the point of even having an Invisibility Cloak if he wasn’t going to bloody well use it before he walked out into the open?

“Get your head on straight, Potter,” Harry grumbled under his breath, trying not to focus on the lingering ache from the night’s undertakings.

Though it wasn’t without effort, Harry slowly managed to let his mind relax into the simple serenity of a morning walk, something he’d hardly afforded himself in…far too long. Hogwarts had always been achingly beautiful no matter the season, but there was something special about seeing the grounds blanketed in a swath of fresh snow. Without really intending to, Harry found his steps carrying him toward the northern shore of the Black Lake, and the white tomb that laid there. By the time he gathered his thoughts enough to notice exactly where he was headed, Harry also realized that the ossuary was not unoccupied.

Firenze’s eyes were just as vividly blue as Harry remembered them when he turned toward the approaching wizard, though the lines of the centaur’s face ran deeper now with age, silver beginning to thread through the blond of his hair. His palomino hide had a good deal more white in it than Harry remembered as well, the coat thick and long from the threat of winter and broken by an old, ragged scar on his flank. A remnant of the final battle when Harry had seen him last.

“Time seems to have changed you a great deal, Harry Potter,” the centaur said by way of greeting, inclining his head toward the wizard.

Sighing, Harry glanced about them reflexively, then came to stand alongside the former Divination professor, rubbing his hands together to ward off the chill air. “I suppose it has. Though clearly not enough to keep you from recognizing me, despite the disguise.”

“If it consoles you, it was the stars and not your manner that betrayed the truth of you,” Firenze offered, letting his face tip upward, though the cosmos were well hidden by the light of day.

An icy sliver of unease cut into the contented warmth of his belly to be saddled with such portents and Harry studied the centaur closely. “I’d really rather they didn’t…I had hoped to be done with such things.”

Seeming amused by this, Firenze looked down at Harry with a knowing gaze. “That has never been your path, which I believe you know. You have always possessed a sensitivity to the Sight, at least by human standards.”

“I’ve tried not to put too much stock into Divination,” Harry baulked. “It’s everyone else that’s insisted on tying me up into prophecies.”

“And what of your dreams?” Firenze wondered, inclining his head.

Jaw tensing, Harry averted his gaze, looking instead to the white tomb and the lake beyond it. “Dreams are just that. Nothing more.”

“As you say,” Firenze replied peaceably, casting his own gaze out over the water.

They stood together in silence, watching idly as the giant squid cracked at the thin ice that had formed atop the lake for several long minutes before Harry finally sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. “What do the stars say about me, then?” he groused.

Firenze, to his credit, was nonplussed as he said, “That the world is changing, and rapidly. That you will be a catalyst for this change…and will shape the outcome.”

Harry let out a breath, shaking his head. “No pressure, then, yeah? Merlin, but you know how to ruin a morning, don’t you?” The centaur didn’t reply, though Harry hadn’t expected him to. After a few moments, Harry sighed again, nodding to himself. “Thank you, for telling me.”

“Why is it you came here today?” Firenze asked.

“For guidance, I suppose,” Harry admitted with a sheepish grimace. “I’ve been feeling rather lost. Stuck on a problem I can’t seem to solve.”

“A problem you might have once taken to Albus Dumbledore?” The centaur gestured toward the tomb, stark and unyielding in a way Dumbledore had never been, and yet was entirely.

“It’s a bit mad, isn’t it? His portrait is in the castle, same as others I’ve relied upon, yet if I’m honest I’ve actively avoided seeking him out there.”

“And why is that?” Firenze wondered patiently, as though aware he was merely a sounding board for a conclusion he’d already foreseen amongst the stars.

“Because, I…even after all this time I can’t wholly trust that he isn’t involved in some way. I respect Dumbledore and all that he did, I really do, but…” Harry sighed and shook his head, folding his arms across his chest. “The first seventeen years of my life were very much dictated by Dumbledore’s stratagem. I won’t argue the necessity of it, being his child soldier, his sacrifice for the greater good, but I had rather thought I could live my own life once the dust had settled.”

“Would seeking Dumbledore’s counsel be a concession that you are once again held hostage by some larger purpose?”

“Maybe,” Harry admitted honestly, giving the centaur a tight, lopsided smile. “Though from what you’ve said, I imagine that’s rather a moot point now.”

“Indeed it is,” Firenze agreed and though it was callous by human standards, he merely spoke with the guileless honesty preferred by his own kind. He gestured a hand toward the white tomb, inclining his head with a modicum of empathy toward Harry’s plight. “If it is of any comfort, you can at least be assured that Albus Dumbledore remains undisturbed in his final resting place. It would be rather extraordinary for him to be involved now.”

A small furrow dented Harry’s brow at that and he felt a sudden rise of apprehension as his eyes sought the tomb, though he nodded politely for the centaur’s sake. There were, after all, only three people living who knew that Dumbledore’s remains were not the only thing resting in the tomb. Undisturbed.

Though he had spent the better part of a week actively ignoring his Draught of Peace, it became the sole focus of his attention once Harry returned to the castle some hours later. He needed to concentrate, to try and think about this clearly which was next to impossible while his heart was pounding with unspent adrenaline, his mind spinning so quickly that he felt nearly feverish with anxiety.

The Elder Wand was gone.

Harry had waited until Firenze’s departure to open the tomb, chatting idly about the centaur’s life back amongst his people after the end of the war, though truth be told he could hardly focus on the conversation. His former professor had never shown himself to be anything other than trustworthy, but when it came to Hallows, and the Elder Wand especially, he was reluctant to allow even the possibility of betrayal. Of course, he needn’t have bothered, because no sooner had he opened the tomb did it become glaringly apparent that the stark white marble no longer housed the wand. The most powerful wand ever crafted, gone. And Spider was its Master.

Besides Harry, there were but two people that had known the truth of the Elder Wand, along with its final resting place. At most, he felt he could assume that Minerva may have been informed of it later, given that Dumbledore’s portrait, and those other witches and wizards who had once been head of the school, had been present when making their plans. But though the current Headmistress of Hogwarts may have known that Dumbledore’s wand had been returned to his gravesite at the conclusion of the war, he sincerely doubted that she knew, or believed, that it was the Elder Wand. Harry himself had told Draco of the wand mere hours ago, but certainly hadn’t breathed a word of where it lay.

Which left Ron and Hermione.

Ron, who was working for Romilda Vane, distant from his wife and hadn’t spoken a word to Harry in years. Hermione, who had kept secret after secret from Harry since bringing him back to Hogwarts.

The more he turned over that fact, the stronger his need to get to the Draught became. A balm for the fever pitch of his mind. Harry stood adrift in the torrent of his thoughts, which broke upon him and scattered away out of his grasp, leaving him dazed as he hurried unsteadily through the castle toward his rooms. It was early evening now which blessedly meant that the majority of the school was just tucking into the Great Hall for supper, leaving fewer obstacles between Harry and his goal. His potion. He had to get to his potion. Once he did, the fire in his brain would calm and he would think about this clearly, because there had to be another answer.

Stoked to a frenzy by his mania, his magic lashed out wildly at the door to his rooms before Harry came to it, blowing the door open so sharply that it struck loudly against unforgiving stone. As soon as he’d stepped through, it slammed shut once more, but he paid it no mind. Every part of him was focused on the milky white potion sitting untouched at his bedside and it flew into his grip without a single word or gesture.

With shaking hands, Harry unstopped the Draught of Peace and brought the vial to his lips, actually eager to calm the storm surging in his mind for once, but was pulled up short when a sharp voice asked, “What is that?”

Tensing in surprise, Harry looked up to see Snape frowning down at him from the painted meadow above his mantel, likely drawn by the noise. Having been actively avoided the past few weeks, he had completely forgotten to even check for the former Potions Master’s presence before getting his Draught, something he’d always been so careful of in the past.

“Severus, I…”

“Show me,” the painted figure snapped impatiently, still frowning at the vial held in Harry’s faintly trembling hand.

Feeling a swell of shame, Harry swallowed thickly, then stepped closer to the mantel and held up the potion for Snape to see. “Look, I just…sometimes my thoughts get tangled up and I-“

“Who brewed that?” Snape asked severely and Harry felt a cold stone of unease sink into his belly.

“What?”

Giving him an irritated look, Snape repeated himself slowly, as he sometimes did when Harry was being particularly thick-headed. “Who. Brewed. That. Because that is not the Draught of Peace, which you undoubtedly believe it to be,” Snape told him in no uncertain terms. “The Draught of Peace, when brewed properly, has a pearlescent shimmer that is unmistakable. What you’re holding has an opalescent shine that is almost certainly an indication of the addition of Swooping Evil venom.”

The turmoil of Harry’s thoughts slammed to a sudden halt as the shock of Snape’s words sank in. “She…she said that she wanted to help me…that we could keep it between us,” he murmured to himself, staring at the vial in his hand. Harry hardly noticed when it slipped from fingers gone suddenly nerveless and smashed upon the floor, coating the stones in Hermione’s betrayal.

“Harry,” Snape said more gently, a glimmer of concern in his expression. “Who made this?”

“You already know, don’t you? Or you’ve at least guessed,” Harry replied with a bitter, mirthless laugh. “Why has Hermione been erasing my memory?”

Snape, of course, had no answer for him, his eyes dark and inscrutable as he studied Harry, who felt a different sort of calm settle over him than his tainted potion would have provided. Without another word, he turned and walked out of his rooms with less force but greater focus. The door to his office opened as expediently as his quarters had, though with more care, but the moment Harry stepped inside, his newfound resolve suddenly faltered.

The last time he’d been in this room, he’d been dying.

More cautious now, Harry approached his desk and moved around it, his eyes searching out bloodstains on the stone. They were absent and he frowned at this. To anyone else it might have seemed a strange thing to find unsettling, but his office and personal rooms had been warded against the castle’s house elves, Harry vastly preferring his privacy at the easy cost of his own cleaning. A sharp pain went through his chest as he realized it was likely Kreacher who had cleared away whatever mess Harry had left upon the cold stone. Swallowing thickly, Harry closed his eyes a moment, then pushed the flash of grief aside. He’d come here for a reason; to find Hermione. And the quickest way to do that was his father’s map.

Snape emerged in his portrait frame as Harry turned to unlock his desk, only to find that it wasn’t locked at all. “No,” he whispered in horror, a sick feeling in his throat as he pulled open the drawers, one by one. No case files. No letters. No map. “No!

“What is it?” Snape demanded, before Harry could do something foolish like take apart his desk splinter by splinter as though it would give him answers.

“It’s all gone!” Harry snarled out in frustration, striking his fist against the desk and rattling his Dark Detectors. “The Marauders’ Map, my personal letters, my bloody case files! The last two years of my life! Gone!” He cast about the room a moment, then looked up at Snape. “The day of the attack in the Great Hall, the day I almost- Were you in here? Did you see anything?”

Brow furrowing in thought, Snape let his eyes drift over the room more slowly than Harry had. “No. With the exception of your body and its various leaking fluids, this office looked no different when Draco called me here.” He focused his attention in on Harry again. “I realize you were dying at the time, but you need to think back to those last moments before you lost consciousness. What do you remember?”

For a moment, Harry felt another wave of compulsion to take his Draught of Peace and shook his head to clear it, trying to organize his thoughts. “I…I don’t know, it’s all…fragmented.”

“Clear you mind!” Snape snapped testily and Harry winced. “I spent months training you in Occlumency for moments expressly like this one!”

A wholly unhelpful retort as to this being a direct reflection on Snape’s obvious lack of teaching ability died in his throat as Harry did as he was bade, closing his eyes to take slow, deliberate breaths. The near overwhelming distraction of his emotions were packed away neatly, to be untangled and processed when they would not threaten to compromise him. Almost at once his heart rate began to slow and as the sick feeling in his stomach settled, Harry thought back to the attack in the Great Hall.

He remembered the agony of holding the hall frozen in time, the focused strain of effort on Draco’s face from the corner of his eye and the shock on Cormac’s once Harry released his magic. “I remember making my way back here after it happened, though I think I was only barely conscious at that point,” Harry said softly, talking through it as much for his own benefit as Snape’s. “I was trying to get to the map, trying to see who was out of place and-“

‘Stupefy!’ a voice cried out in his memory, jarring in its clarity.

Breath catching, Harry’s eyes flew open as he remembered coming into his office and unlocking his desk, remembered jerking open the drawers to draw out the map, but that he hadn’t shut the door. Hadn’t kept out the woman who had followed him there. Harry hadn’t fainted that day, he’d been hexed and suddenly all of the pieces fell into place with sudden, sickening clarity, because he’d seen her. For that split second before the red light of her hex had struck him down, Harry saw the witch who had been trying to kill Hermione.

“Oh Merlin…it was right in front of me the whole time! She took his bloody name!” Harry ground out and then he was in motion, ignoring Snape’s shout at his back as he ran from the office. He might already be too late.

The problem inherent to the Marauders’ Map was that it always displayed a witch or wizard’s true name. This had confounded Harry as a student in the case of both Peter Pettigrew and Barty Crouch Jr when they had been disguised as Scabbers and Alastor Moody, respectively. Names were important in the magical world, their unique bind to an individual’s magical signature facilitating the movement of post and binding of contracts, among a myriad of other uses. This made the use of an assumed identity, epithet or suffixes irrelevant to the complex charm work of the Marauders’ Map…but the same could not be said for marriage.

Witches and wizards who underwent traditional weddings were magically bound to their spouses, making it one of the few times that a person could alter their true name. Harry had experienced this first hand after his own marriage, had seen Ginny’s true name on magical documents change from Ginerva Weasley to Ginerva Potter and back again years later. Harry had known this and still he hadn’t thought to consider that Hermione’s tormenter might have done the same.

The missing Elder Wand and Hermione’s tainted potions were summarily shoved to the back of his mind as he concentrated only on saving her life. Whatever her crimes, Harry would deal with them later. It was this determination that pushed him through the wards on Cormac McLaggen’s rooms with almost no effort, searching them only long enough to ensure that they were empty before he found the pot of Floo powder on the mantle. The Floo Network might be inoperable on Hogwarts grounds, but special exceptions were made for married professors, which meant that Harry did not even need to call his destination as he threw the powder into the fire. Pulling his wand, he took a single breath to centre himself and then Harry dove into the green flames, rolling into the Lion’s Den.

Expelliarmus!” he roared before he’d even fully processed the scene before him.

Hermione was seated at the dining table, bound and gagged and ashen with fear, but though her cheeks were wet with tears, a fierce determination to survive blazed in her wide, brown eyes. In an odd contrast to her obvious distress, the table before her was ordinary in the extreme, set for polite company with a roast and some veg, the only concession to the clear intentions of violence being an incongruous basket of dinner rolls that had tipped to one side in the scuffle. A witch standing near Hermione whirled toward Harry too late to keep from losing her wand to him and Harry straightened from his crouch as he caught and pocketed it. Cormac, lurking uncertainly to one side, made as though to lurch toward him, but Harry gestured at him sharply, magic lashing out from his scarred hand. Without a word, the Flight Instructor crumpled to the floor, stunned.

You!” the woman hissed, her pale face contorted in rage beneath her reddish-blonde curls. Her anger caused a flush to rise in her skin, bringing out the scars on her forehead in stark relief and Harry knew that if he looked closely enough, they would spell out the word ‘SNEAK’.

“Hello, Marietta,” he said calmly, stepping forward.

Grasping behind her desperately, Marietta McLaggen - née Edgecombe - grabbed up the carving fork from her dining table and brandished it toward Hermione, who whimpered when the sharp tines grazed her cheek. “Stay where you are!” she demanded, her eyes wide and wild as she gripped Hermione’s bushy, brown hair in her other hand, holding her fast.

Like a feral beast, Harry’s magic lurked just under his skin, ready to lash out at the former member of Dumbledore’s Army, the only one ever to have betrayed them. Though it tempted him to use the power waiting there, he was half afraid that if he set his magic loose now, it wouldn’t discriminate between the two witches.

“You’ve lost, Marietta,” he told her steadily, keeping his voice low, but firm. “Let Hermione go…don’t throw your life away.”

The witch released a burst of bitter, mirthless laughter at that. “My life? What life? You have no idea what it’s like living in this world once you’ve become undesirable.”

That was patently untrue, but Harry didn’t argue the point. “Then explain it to me,” he said instead, edging slightly closer. “Why Hermione? Why all of this?”

For a moment, Marietta hesitated, the former Ravenclaw seeming at war with herself before she burst out, “I was sixteen when I went to Umbridge to protect my mother! My mother! Umbridge would have seen her ruined because I wanted to be supportive of Cho and her little fixation. Not that you would understand what it’s like to fear for a parent, would you?” she added cruelly and smirked triumphantly when Harry flinched. “Oh yes, I know who you really are. I knew it as soon as I saw that map. You may never have shown us how to make it work, but I expect we’d all recognize the cut of it, filled or clean.”

“Hermione warned all the members of the DA that there would be consequences if anyone betrayed us. She didn’t jinx you out of spite, you signed your name to the parchment, same as everyone else,” Harry reasoned, though his heart was racing.

“And that’s such a consolation! I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about what it’s like to be a teenaged girl, but I should hope you’d understand a little about living with something grotesque on your face. Having everyone stare and whisper as you pass,” her words became rather hollow with remembered pain and of course Harry did understand, better than most.

“Yes,” he agreed softly. “Yes, I know what that’s like.” Taking a small step forward, he kept his eyes on her. “You realized who I was, yet you haven’t told anyone, have you. It would have incriminated you if you did, so you’ve kept my secret. Even from your husband.” Though it was only a guess, Harry was confident of the truth of his words and was fractionally gratified when she nodded shortly, lip curled.

“Cormac doesn’t understand the value of information like that. He would have jumped at the opportunity and set us back years again.”

“Again?” Harry questioned, but she only shook her head, eyes narrowing with displeasure. Taking a slow breath, he switched tracks. “I feel for what happened to you, Marietta, but doing this will gain you nothing, you have to see that.”

“Satisfaction isn’t nothing, Potter. Do you know what the worst part of it was? I couldn’t even remember why it had happened,” Marietta snarled, old frustrations evoked as she shook her head. “Shacklebolt robbed me of my memory, kept me from even knowing why it was I had to be punished!” Another bitter laugh tore free of the witch and her mouth twisted in something like a smile even as her words dripped with disgust. “A man so very skilled at modifying the memories of young girls, and they make him Minister.”

Edging closer still, Harry kept his expression open, his voice empathetic and even encouraging. The longer he could keep Marietta talking, the more her guard would drop and he needed it down before he could attempt to disarm her. Even now she kept the sharp tines of the carving fork pressed so closely to Hermione’s face that the skin dimpled. “You remember now though.”

“Only because she helped me, remember,” Marietta said carelessly.

“Because who helped you? Hermione?” Harry asked quickly, but Marietta had caught the slip and her jaw firmed along with the grip on the carving fork. Seeing Hermione flinch in his periphery, he changed tactics. “Is that why you started after her at Hogwarts? Because you remembered?”

“It was supposed to be Cormac,” she said distastefully, though there was some concern in her eyes as she glanced over at her husband’s unmoving form. “He was supposed to chase her out of Hogwarts, but he didn’t have the stomach for violence.” Her lip curled with a derisive snort. “So much for bravery. I was more than happy to fill in when he failed. You’d be surprised how many of us are just bursting for the chance to get even with you and yours. The way you all faffed about the school, impervious to consequences while the rest of us had to try and navigate the fallout of having dared to cross you lot.”

“Seems to me that you’ve cared less about chasing her off than outright killing her,” Harry pointed out cautiously, to which Marietta laughed.

“Yes, well…you spend enough time obsessing over someone, you tend to get a little pent up. Besides, it accomplishes the same thing really. Easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission,” she murmured, almost to herself, and tightened her grip on Hermione’s hair.

“Beg forgiveness from who?” Harry burst out desperately, seeing that he was losing Marietta to her own mania. “The Golden Dawn?”

It was a mistake that would haunt him for a long time to come.

The change in Marietta was immediate, her breath catching as her skin went bone white with shock. “N-no!” she gasped and stared down at Hermione in horror. The carving fork fell with a clatter as she suddenly scrabbled at her throat with wide-eyed desperation. “No, I didn’t- I didn’t betray you! Please!

Even as Harry moved to grab her, a froth rose to her lips and she convulsed sharply before collapsing, a dead weight in his arms. For a shocked beat, Harry stood stunned, as though he’d been caught in a Time-Stop, his mind struggling to catch up with the speed at which it had all happened. Swiftly lowering the witch to the floor, Harry waved his wand over her, attempting all of the basic first aid he’d ever learned as an Auror to try and resuscitate her, but to no use. She was gone.

Staring down at the lifeless witch, her body twisted in an unnatural rictus, Harry felt his hands shaking slightly from the adrenaline crash, his breath coming quick and shallow. Behind him, he could hear Hermione sobbing as she curled in on herself as much as she was able, but couldn’t think to move away from the dead woman. Slowly, with a clinical detachment, Harry searched Marietta’s throat, pulling back her robes where she’d been so desperately clawing in her final moments. Her nails had scored deep grooves against her skin, though only a small amount of blood had welled there without her heart to pump it to the surface, and straightaway Harry saw the apparent cause of her death.

There over her sternum, undisturbed by her frantic scrabbling, lay a golden pendant styled like a rising sun, the rays piercing into her flesh. Something about the pendant pulled at him, but was largely overshadowed by the dark veins snaking out from the golden tines. “Acromantula venom,” he said aloud into the deafening stillness that had fallen over the room, silent but for Hermione’s muffled sobs.

Exactly the same as Spider’s victims, but for the method of delivery.

Even as he watched, the necklace began to glow with heat just as Spider’s cursed quills had and Harry scrambled back from the corpse, nearly knocking over Hermione as he raised a hand to shield his face from the sudden blaze of heat. A bright flame blossomed beyond the cover of his hand and faded just as quickly. When he dared to look again, the pendant was gone and Marietta’s chest a smoking ruin.

Bile rose in his throat at the stench of burnt flesh and he could hear Hermione retching against her gag, turning her face from the remains on the floor and shuddering bodily. A sudden, rhythmic thudding came from down the hall and Harry whirled at the sound, scrambling to his feet and gripping his wand anew. It seemed the fight wasn’t over yet. Wood groaned under protest somewhere in the house, then splintered and cracked under whatever weight of force or magic had been brought to bear against it, seeming to echo into the calm that followed. Though Harry felt nearly deafened by the roar of his own blood rushing in his ears, the slow tap-tap-tap of footsteps on polished floors was unmistakable.

Hardly daring to breathe as he watched the doorway leading into the hall, Harry was strangely calm, the swirl of his magic strong enough that the air seemed almost to shimmer and vibrate about him in anticipation. At his back, Hermione had quieted except for small, pained gasps and Harry wasn’t certain whether he was regretful or relieved that he’d yet to unbind her. The approaching tread halted just outside the doorway and his mind cleared of everything but the readiness to fight.

That clarity shattered in an instant when Draco stepped forward.

“No,” Harry groaned brokenly, shaking his head in denial as his wand wavered. “Not you. Please…not you.”

His own wand raised, Draco’s eyes widened very slightly at the sight of Harry, then flicked about the room, taking in Cormac, Marietta and Hermione at a glance before they fixed upon him once more. He was still dressed just as finely as he’d been when he had left Harry with a kiss and a smile that morning and for a fleeting moment, Harry hoped that he might be dreaming. Hallucinating as he had when the Lethifold had been killing him. The Lethifold that Draco had discovered; had saved Harry from.

“Harry,” he said slowly, much in the way Harry had spoken to Marietta just scant minutes earlier. “I need you to lower your wand.”

“I’m certain that’s true,” Harry snarled, but his hand shook slightly. Even now he could feel an undercurrent in his magic, a longing to reach out toward the wizard, to bind them together as it had in the night.

Something like hurt or maybe even fear flickered across Draco’s face before his eyes dipped to Hermione again and his mouth firmed. “Hermione needs your help, Harry,” he tried again. “Why haven’t you released her?”

Anger flared tight and hot in his breast and he shouted, “Maybe because I like my memory intact!” At his back, Hermione moaned in pain or anguish and a dark part of Harry revelled in it.

“I don’t know what you’re on about, but-“

Don’t you?” he roared and his wand became far steadier. “She just happened upon the Swooping Evil venom she’s been slipping in my potions then, did she?” Draco went pale with the accusation and for a moment his eyes flashed angrily as he glanced toward the witch, but Harry hardly noticed. “Was it all some sick game these past few months? Was any of this real?”

“Is that really what you think?” Draco asked him and his voice was so calm and cold that Harry’s temper faltered. “Is that who you believe I am?”

“I-“ he hesitated, but Draco shook his head sharply once to silence him.

“Listen to me closely, Harry,” he said firmly, the hard lines of his angular face cold and beautiful. “Because I will afford you this choice only once. You can elect to trust me now, to trust in me and in my reasons for being here. Or you can choose to believe that I’m lying. That I’ve used you to my own ends.” Chin raised and wand steady, his eyes seemed to cut straight through Harry. “Decide now. Do you trust me?”

Time seemed to waver slightly and Harry had the absurd feeling that he was eleven years old and Draco Malfoy was offering his hand. Did he trust him? Could he? Like he had trusted Ron? Like he’d trusted Hermione? The last few months seemed to flicker behind his eyes in little bursts of memory and he thought of battling ashwinders and confessions over dinner. Of hawthorn wine and duelling practice. Of graveyards and moonlit forests. The sense memory of his Polyjuice was nearly as clear as the taste of Draco’s skin still lingering on his tongue even now and this was exactly the danger presented by the possibility of love, because Harry wanted so desperately to believe him.

How could he trust Draco when Harry wasn’t certain that he trusted himself?

It was at this moment, at the height of Harry’s indecision, that Cormac came round. “Crucio!” he snarled by way of greeting and Harry couldn’t be certain who he’d even intended his target to be. It hardly mattered in the end, because Harry’s all at once magic instinctively reached for Draco’s just as the Gamekeeper’s sought his own, meeting in the space between them and coalescing into a shield so strong, it was nearly opaque. It burst as the Unforgivable struck, but not before Cormac’s curse rebounded back at him, his agonized shrieks echoing terribly from the walls around them.

Expelliarmus!” Harry cast instinctively as he realized the curse would feed on itself until Cormac’s magic was spent. Muscles drawn tight in his self-made torment, Cormac’s wand remained firmly locked in a death grip where he writhed and twisted unnaturally.

Realizing what Harry had intended, Draco flicked his own wand toward the screaming man and snapped, “Relashio!” It was enough to force open Cormac’s grip and his wand clattered to the floor, his tortured cries dying out to small, pained whines.

Expelling a breath, Harry lowered his wand and stepped in close to Draco, who flinched, but didn’t draw away from him. Gripping the back of his neck, Harry pulled him in, bowing his head to Draco’s shoulder as he whispered, “I trust you. I trust you.”

The Gamekeeper was tense against him, but relaxed after a moment and slid his arms around Harry. For a few seconds Draco held him with a fierceness, as though he felt the same thread of fear that it could have easily been one of them twisted in agony upon the floor. That he could have arrived too late and found only Cormac, vengeful and triumphant. Then he eased his hold, smoothing a hand over Harry’s hair. “Thank you,” he murmured, and Harry closed his eyes against the sting of tears when he felt Draco’s wand press lightly to the base of his skull. “Stupefy,” Draco whispered and Harry fell into darkness.

When he woke, it was to the haunting sound of Hermione’s scream.