Sometimes, when Harry walked down the stairs from his bedroom, past the dining room and all the way down to the kitchen, it felt as though he was walking down into the past. The tang of pipe smoke from Order meetings still seemed to hang in the air; he half expected to hear hushed voices from the dining room, or find Molly Weasley cooking with a strained look of worry on her face. This day was worse than most: he’d dreamed of Sirius the night before. The rasp and bite of Sirius’s voice still sounded in his ear. Grimmauld Place might not be haunted, but it was still full of ghosts. Every room had so many miserable memories that Harry didn’t know if his own unhappiness came from living amongst painful reminders of the past, or if he was tainting the whole house with his constant moping and misery.
Remembering the affability of Nearly Headless Nick, Harry wondered if ghosts might have been easier to bear than memories. At the bottom of the stairs Harry pushed the kitchen door open, to find, as usual, Kreacher standing at the stove. Kreacher turned, his tea-towel loincloth firmly knotted, and the lines of his face seeming as dust-filled and worn-looking as the rest of the house.
“Will Master be wanting bacon with his toast this morning?”
Harry nodded mutely. Kreacher stared at him a moment, his eyes bright but watery. He took a breath as though about to say something more, but instead turned away. Harry was used to this, to the many unsaid words that filled the room.
“Two sugars in my coffee,” Harry said. “I think I’ll need them today.”
Kreacher didn’t say anything, but Harry knew he was listening. Kreacher listened to every word Harry said, remembered every detail of his day. Harry found it exhausting, this level of attention. As Harry sat and scraped his chair closer to the table, Kreacher sent a coffee pot floating over to fill his cup, completing the same morning ritual he and Harry had been in since Harry moved in after the war.
Harry ate his breakfast in silence. He missed the noisy clatter of the hall at Hogwarts, or even the quiet strain of a bowl of cereal in the tent with Hermione. Kreacher creaked and muttered in the corner, but it wasn’t the same. Harry’s shoulders tightened at the sound, and he wondered as he did every morning what on earth he was going to do about Kreacher. He didn’t really want a house-elf, wasn’t comfortable having someone cooking and cleaning for him. The little space Kreacher slept in reminded him too much of a cupboard under the stairs; he didn’t want to be reminded of his childhood, nor be the person on the other side of the cupboard door.
He’d moved into Grimmauld Place because there’d been nowhere else to go. It felt too much to be at the Burrow, full as it was with people and mess and the raw grief of a son dead and gone. In Sirius’s old house, Harry had thought, maybe he could have a small part of that dream he’d had since the third year, the dream of a home of his own. He’d always imagined it with Sirius though, and every room, with its reminders of the time Sirius had spent here without Harry, screamed of his godfather’s absence. Worse than absence really; each room was filled with Sirius’s pain.
He drank the nearly-scalding coffee, and blinked, trying to think about something else. Over and over again he’d come back to images of Sirius, sitting in the dark with Buckbeak, or Sirius, angry, desperate, and trapped in the home he hated, and each time it hurt so badly Harry felt he was squeezed out of his own body. Harry pressed his hands against his eyes, willing it all away. Work, Harry could think of work.
Joining the Aurors had been his dream for years, and it was in many ways like all the good bits of all the lessons he’d enjoyed at Hogwarts: practising duelling, defensive spells, learning cool ways to disguise himself and hide. The latter had been useful over the years, because no matter where he went in the wizarding world, as soon as people saw his scar they knew who he was.
The combination of cold and damp felt as though they had worked their way through all the layers of Harry’s clothes. No matter how fast he walked, or how far he thrust his hands into his pockets, he couldn’t get warm. The sky was so dark it felt more like twilight than morning, and London looked grey in the half-light. It was hard to believe it was June already, but the trees were heavy with broad green leaves. Warm summer days seemed far away when it was like this, and Harry hurried on, eager to get to the Ministry. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Harry walked faster to avoid the coming storm.
“You’re not getting any sympathy from me.” Ron leant back in his chair. “Some of us are sensible enough to Floo in, without bothering to walk through thunder and lightning to get here.”
“Some of us need the space to think.”
“And some of us still can’t Floo without falling arse over tit.”
“That’s just…” Harry flung his coat over the back of his chair and sat down heavily. “True, actually. I hate it.”
Ron chuckled, and turned back to his paperwork. Harry considered going to the break room to get a coffee, but knew it would look bad if he wasn’t at his desk when Robards walked through. He should at least look like he was doing some work. Right on cue, the door to the right opened, and Robards stood surveying the office for a moment before making his rounds of the room.
Harry finished up a memo asking for some records to be sent up, then tried to make his origami bird a little less lopsided than usual. The bird flew off limply just as Robards made it to his desk. He stood there, looking impressive, his heavy green-and-purple paisley robes giving him the air of a dignified tapestry or firmly-upholstered chair.
“I’d like a word with you, Harry, when I’m done. See you in my office at 10, okay?”
Harry mumbled a yes, then searched for something else to do so that Robards would go away. He pulled the nearest file towards him, which threatened to send the others in the paperwork mountain into a slow slide to the floor. Harry leant out of his chair to scoop the pile back.
Robards frowned, but didn't say anything. The familiar ache and stab of a headache began around Harry’s temples, and he rubbed at his head as soon as Robards began to walk away.
Once the door to Robards’ office was shut again, Ron let out a long breath of relief. “My stack’s much higher than yours, I was sure he was going to call me in, too.”
“He’s never complained before.” Harry didn’t like having attention drawn to him, on the field or in the office. He didn’t like it anywhere, but given that everyone had known who he was before he even did, he didn’t have much choice about it. In the wizarding world, anyway.
“It’ll be nothing. It can’t be, you’re Harry Potter.”
Harry half-grunted in answer, and turned back to the papers. He only had an hour until his meeting with Robards, and he had no idea where to start. He went to get a coffee instead, reasoning it would be more help. While he was in the break room he had a look through the cupboards for a headache potion, but it was a futile search. He took his coffee back to his desk, hoping the caffeine would be enough to ease his aching head instead.
“It’s not the paperwork, Harry,” Robards said, after Harry had been ushered in. His office was crammed full of filing cabinets, but Harry had no idea what was inside them: all the case files were kept in a dusty room on another floor. Posters of varying ages were tacked to the wall, and sometimes Harry wondered if there was one of him as Undesirable Number One under all the layers. All in all, the clutter and constant movement from the posters were distracting. Harry’s eyes ached in their sockets, and his back felt tight with cold again. Robards was still talking, but Harry hadn’t heard what he’d said. “…well-respected. But quite frankly you don’t seem well.”
There was a pause, which led Harry to believe he should respond. What did ‘well’ mean, anyway?
“I’m fine,” Harry said, automatically. What it really meant, of course, was ‘leave me alone.’
“I don’t think you are,” Robards said. “You’ve got dark circles under your eyes, you’ve lost weight, you’re always wearing an extra jumper, even in June, and half the time it’s like you’re not here anyway.”
“I…” Harry fell silent. He couldn't argue any of those things. Robards said nothing, but instead smiled kindly. And waited.
Bastarding interrogation techniques.
“I’m just… It’s hard.” Harry swallowed, and stared hard at the stains on the battered desk. He didn’t like talking about any of this, tried not to. No one wanted to hear about the loneliness of the middle of the night, or the way a house could be haunted without any ghosts. “Some days it’s a struggle to get up, to get here.” He didn’t want Robards to think he didn’t care about his job. He did. It had been his dream for so many years, if only he weren’t so empty, so tired. “I’m not sleeping well,’ he added.
Harry nodded numbly.
“We’ve all been through a lot, these past few years, but you’ve been through more than most.” Robards sighed. “Minerva wanted me to hold off inviting you into the Aurors, did you know that?” He went on without waiting for an answer. Harry held still; he hadn't known that, and wanted to hear more. “She said you needed some time, a rest. I said we could trust you to make your own decisions, and that maybe you needed to keep busy.” Robards’ body seemed to sag, and he looked sad. Defeated, almost.
They sat, the two of them in the over-full room, without talking. Harry looked back at the desk, where countless cups of coffee and snatched lunchtime sandwiches had left their mark. It didn’t look too different to any of the desks on the main floor. A clock ticked loudly behind Harry’s head, measuring out the seconds where nothing was said. The throbbing across his forehead intensified. He could picture Professor McGonagall, sitting in a chair by the fire in her office, trying to protect her students even after they had left school. The thought of it left him with an ache for Hogwarts, for the times he’d felt safe there. Eventually, Harry looked up. Robards was looking at him.
“And… now?” Harry said.
“And now…” Robards sighed. “I can't help but wonder if she wasn’t right. I thought she was being overly-protective, but anyone can see that you are plain worn out.” He paused. “Not by the job. By life.”
Harry’s eyes were like two shooting pains in his head. They grew tighter and tighter until he felt tears spill down his face. His forehead felt as though it was expanding and contracting with pain, and his throat was high and tight and painful, too. He tried to speak, but no words would come out. Robards produced a handkerchief - neatly folded, clean - from one of his robe pockets, and handed it over. Harry wiped at his eyes, then clenched it tightly in his hand.
“Look, Harry, I want to talk to you as a friend. As someone who cares. You need a break. You need to take that time you should have had before you came here.”
“It’s not my work, is it?”
“Your work’s fine, Harry. I do wonder sometimes, how much more fine it would be if you were rested. Rested, and happier than you are now.”
Harry shook his head. He couldn't imagine being rested. Or happy, especially happy. He didn’t seem to feel much, anymore. Other than this headache, the cold, his tiredness. “Work keeps me busy,” he said. He could hear his pulse now, the thudding mingling with the throbbing of his head. Sometimes work was felt like the only thing that kept him going. What would he do if he didn’t have work?
“I’d like you to have three months off. A sabbatical, we’ll call it.” Robards said. He held his hand up to Harry’s protest. “Kelvin agrees.” Robards slid a parchment over, signed at the bottom by the departmental Healer.
“I could tear this up, refuse to take it.” The protest sounded weak, even to Harry’s ears.
“Take it,” Robards said.
“OK. But I do love being an Auror, you do know that, right? I’ll come back when I’ve had this time.”
“I know you will, Harry.”
They sat together a while Harry collected himself.
Harry didn't know how to face the rest of the office when he’d finally finished with Robards. His face was tight with dried tears, he had his boss’s hankie, now covered in snot and tears, in his pocket, and his head was so painful he could barely see straight. Ron looked up as soon as the door opened, and was turned in his chair, waiting, when Harry got back to his desk.
“I’m going home,” Harry said, before Ron could say anything. “Headache.” He winced, and rubbed his temples.
Ron looked as though he was going to ask something, but all he said was, “Get Kreacher to find you some headache potion. You look like shit, mate.”
Harry nodded. “I’ll speak to you later.”
His head was hurting enough that Harry overcame his usual aversion to the Floos, and stumbled out of his fireplace. The charred Black family tree provided his welcome, and Harry scowled at it before staggering to the bathroom next to his bedroom. He had a piss, found a bottle of headache potion and took it with him to his bedroom. Undressing seemed like too much bother, so Harry got straight under his covers, put his glasses and wand on his bedside table, took a swig from the bottle and closed his eyes.
Hermione stood at the sink of the small studio, filling the kettle to make tea. Bright light filled the room, clear blue skies filling the large windows at the end of the room. She turned, and leant against the counter, and looked Harry over. “You don’t look well,” she said.
Harry half-shrugged and looked around the room rather than answer. He was wedged into his usual corner of Ron and Hermione’s tiny home. Ron sat on the bed that took up most of the room, giving Harry a marvellous view of his toe peeking out of a hole in his socks. They were so proud of their room, of the way it represented independence from Ron’s family. Even the small size meant something: they’d refused to bend the rules, and as it was a Muggle flat it couldn’t be magically altered or extended.
A huge stack of books covered the table. Harry smiled to himself: it was quite possible that Hermione would keep studying forever. She’d already been at uni for undergrad and a masters studying history and politics, and gave no sign of finishing any time soon. The collection of letters after her name - both Muggle and wizarding - was going to be impressive. Her current study of House-elf history had her totally engrossed.
Once Hermione stopped studying and started earning - whenever that might be - or Ron rose in the Auror ranks, they’d move on, but Harry suspected they found it romantic having their very own hideaway.
It was cozy, and however small, it felt more of a home than his ever did.
“You can’t go on like this, Harry,” Hermione said, a frown drawing her face tight. “You’re not looking well. Are you… are you sleeping, at all?”
“I do sleep,” Harry said. He left out that sometimes it was all day, and sometimes it wasn’t until dawn was breaking, the sky hollow and empty apart from the early calls of birds.
“Mate,” Ron said. “You don’t look any better than you did that last day at work. You need to rest, like Robards said.”
Hermione nodded, giving Harry a look of concern as she passed him his tea, then leant back against the counter.
“It’s not as simple as that.” Harry had spent the past week lying in bed. At night he lay there, revisiting every painful feeling, every shitty moment and decision of his life, and then when he was so raw and wrung out with it all he would curl up under the blankets and sleep the daylight hours away. Kreacher left food on a tray outside of his room, but half of it went uneaten. “This is the first place I’ve come all week.” It had been so hard to shower and get dressed. He could imagine it getting harder and harder. “What if I spend the next three months wallowing under my duvet and then…”
“And then I can’t stop. What if I end up shut up in number twelve with nothing but Kreacher and my memories for company?”
“We’ll be there for you,” Ron said.
Harry shook his head. “You’re both busy. You’ve got work.”
Hermione’s head dipped, and she pursed her lips together for a moment before speaking. “You’re right,” she said. “We can’t be there for you, all the time.”
Ron turned sharply to her, looking shocked.
“Oh come off it, Ronald, you know how hard we both work. I think you’re right, Harry,” she said again. “You can’t stay shut up in that gloomy old house. You need to get out.”
“I’ve come to see you—”
She shook her head. “No, that’s not what I mean. You can’t live there,” she said softly.
Harry looked around their room. They barely fit in it. “But where?”
“Not here, sorry,” Hermione said. “If we had more space…”
Ron was watching them, frowning. “Mum would have him back,” he said slowly.
“I don’t want that.” Harry hugged his tea to him. “Your family deserve their space, too.”
“You are family!” Ron protested, but Harry shook his head. It was a different son that Molly needed, and that one would never come home again. Deep under the sadness, in a thought that he’d never shared with his friends but that he’d worried over enough times in the middle of the night, Harry felt that if only he’d been able to defeat Voldemort sooner, Fred and all the others would still be alive. It twisted, a tight pain, within him.
“Maybe you could find a room somewhere,” Hermione said. “Live with Muggles, even.”
Harry thought of watching TV, never having to talk about the war or having his scar stared at. The tightness inside of him loosened slightly at the thought of it, at the thought of stepping out of his life, just for a while.
“Perhaps,” he said. But then he thought of looking, of reading through ads in papers or having to talk to letting agents. “We’ll see.”
Ron and Hermione exchanged a glance, and Harry pretended to ignore it. He loved them, he really did, but they had each other and he knew he was on the outside of that. He knew he was alone, even in their concern for him.
A thick haze hung over London. It wasn’t hot exactly, but close and humid; the air felt squeezed down, as though there wasn’t quite enough. Harry felt sticky and sweaty in his t-shirt, for once feeling too warm as he walked down the road.
After seeing Ron and Hermione, he knew he needed to change something about this life. It was too much, the thought of having to find somewhere else - no matter how much a part of him was attracted to the idea - but he knew that simply getting out of the house would do him good. He remembered how he used to do this when he was younger, spending all day out to avoid Dudley and his gang. So, the past few days he’d made a point of putting on his trainers and heading out. In his pursuit of fresh air and a change of scene, he felt he was retreading old freedoms, and learning London in way he had never done before.
His aimless wandering had so far involved walking from one grim high street to another, with long roads of houses all the same in between. This particular high street in south London looked like all the others: pound shops with their wares displayed outside, mops and buckets, stacks of plastic bowls and boxes in every size; chicken shops selling greasy strips of fried chicken; and the odd pub belching out the stench of smoke and stale beer from its etched-glass doors.
Walking past the large plate-glass window of a laundrette, he looked in idly, noting the grey peeling paint on the walls and one solitary man sitting on a bench amid the rows of shiny-faced washing machines and driers.
A shock ran through Harry as the man looked up and met his eye. He was thinner than Harry remembered, but those thick eyebrows, the brutish chin and the soft mouth brought back hundreds of memories. A giant pile of birthday presents; an ill-fitting uniform; the cut-glass of a trifle dish.
Dudley’s mouth opened, then closed, as he stared back at Harry. He raised a hand, and gave a half-wave, his hand sinking back to his side as though he’d forgotten he was waving.
Harry could walk on, he knew. Tell his friends he’d seen his cousin, tuck this memory away with all the others. He hadn’t seen Dudley for years, not had the slightest inclination to go anywhere near Privet Drive again. He had not, indeed, spared a thought for his cousin or aunt and uncle in all the time since he’d last seen them.
Hot, damp air, scented with the bright floral soapiness of a dozen different detergents all at once, greeted him as stepped inside. Dudley’s washing thudded around in a drier, while Dudley himself stood, much taller than Harry remembered, and continued to stare.
“You look…” Different, Harry wanted to say. Dudley didn’t look like a boy anymore, even a hulking big teen bully of one, as Harry last remembered him. He looked like a man. An ugly, big brute of a man, but the sneering curl of the lips was gone, and he looked far less gormless than Harry had ever remembered him.
“You too,” Dudley said, his voice unexpectedly deep. He gestured to the bench behind him, and they both sat. “It’s been how long? Five years?”
Harry nodded. “Something like that.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.” A shadow passed over Dudley’s face. “Not after how we treated you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Harry. “The past is the past.” To Harry’s surprise, as he spoke the words, he realised he meant them. But Dudley shook his head.
“No. It was a huge shock, when we were taken to the safe house. Even though there was that time when we met those demented things, I’d never thought of what you did—” he waved a hand in the air “—as involving anyone else, and suddenly all these people were rushing around being so serious and worried, talking about people dying.” Dudley’s eyes were bright. “They all talked about you as though you were their… hero. As though you were the one in the greatest danger of all.”
Harry wanted to deny it, but he heard again his name being whispered in that sibilant voice, echoing over the grounds of Hogwarts. “There were a lot of heroes. A lot of people who died.”
“I’m sorry,” Dudley said, looking genuinely remorseful. “I’m sorry I was so mean to you, and I’m sorry your friends died.”
The machine thudded on, but the room felt silent as Harry thought of his friends again. Dudley sat quietly, scratching the side of his nose but not saying anything.
“What happened to you?” Harry said. “This isn’t how I remember you, at all.”
Dudley let out a short huff of a laugh. “A lot happened.” He glanced over at Harry, as though deciding whether or not to tell him something. “For one, I came out to my parents. I’m, er, I’m gay.”
“Oh.” Harry froze, uncertain how to respond. Something lurched inside him and he had to put a hand down to steady himself. He and Ginny had broken up within a year of the war - grief, it turned out, wasn’t great for romance - and he’d not been with anyone since. He didn’t need to be with anyone, though, to know that sometimes his eye followed men down the street as well as women. It was yet another part of himself boxed up, unspoken. The bitter feeling sweeping through him was envy: Dudley had been able to say something. He didn’t know when he would or could himself.
“Yeah.” Dudley sighed. “I… er, well let’s just say that it didn’t go well.”
“I can’t imagine your parents being very…”
“They weren’t. Long story short, I haven’t seen them in a couple of years myself.”
“Don’t be. I’m much happier now. Much less of an arsehole, too, to be honest.”
Harry laughed, surprised to be finding that he enjoyed this more chilled version of his cousin. “So what are you doing now, if you’re not in Little Whinging anymore?”
“This and that. I’ve been working in a pub, saving up enough cash to go travelling,” Dudley said. “I want to see the world.”
Harry looked at Dudley. He could see how Dudley had an easy charm about himself, and he could imagine Dudley being at home in a bar, on a train, sitting in a laundrette in a strange city and making friends.
“Are you going to do it?” said Harry. “Where do you want to go?”
“Everywhere!” Dudley said, with a low rumbling laugh. “And I’ve enough saved up, but I can’t quite go yet.”
“I need to let my room out. Cover my rent. Plus my housemates are away, and I need someone to feed the cat.”
An idea began to form in Harry’s mind. “And this is all that’s stopping you?”
“Yep. I can work for another few months though, save the rent for when I’m gone, and of course Dick and Blaine’ll be back by the end of the week so I don’t need to worry about the cat.”
“What if... What if I were to say that maybe you could go this week. Tomorrow, if you wanted to?”
“You know someone?” Dudley’s voice lifted, but then he sighed. “I can’t rent my room out to just anyone though. Even a friend of yours, Harry.”
“What about me? Would you vouch for me?”
“I—” Dudley looked at Harry. “Yes, I would.”
“Well, that’s settled then, isn’t it? I need somewhere to live—”
“It’s only for a few months,” Dudley said. “I can’t afford more than that.”
“That’s perfect,” Harry said. “I just need a bit of a break. Get myself back on my feet.”
Dudley scratched at the stubble of his cheek again. “It’s a bit rushed. And my housemates are… well, they take getting used to.”
“It can’t be worse than where I’m living now,” Harry said. He could hear the whine, the desperation, in his voice. Suddenly the prospect of freedom loomed, and he didn’t want to let it go. “And it doesn’t matter what they’re like. I’ll stick it out, pay your rent. I do really need this break too.”
Dudley seemed to decide. He held his hand out, and Harry shook it.
Harry looked at the piece of paper Dudley had scribbled on earlier. “124, Buttercup Road,” he said. “This is it.”
The quiet residential street ran along a slight hill, so that from where they were standing they could see the rest of the street rising away from them. The houses were terraced, a hundred or so years old, and not beautifully kept like the tall houses around Grimmauld Place; these were family homes, with bins and bikes outside, flaking paint on window frames and net curtains hanging behind them.
Broken paving stones lined the path to the front door, which was itself not the original with a stained-glass inset, but plain wood, badly painted white, with three diamond-shaped panes instead. A doorbell hung from a wire at the side of the door. It was pretty much what Harry had expected for a house where Dudley lived. He could imagine that Dudley, like him, had wanted to get as far from the neat blandness of Privet Drive.
Harry decided to forego ringing the bell, and knocked instead. A minute or two later the door opened. Dudley filled the doorway, tall, broad, looking relaxed in a faded grey t-shirt and jogging bottoms.
“Hey, Harry,” he said. “Come in.”
Stairs rose up halfway along the hall, and the walls were bare except for a plain mirror with a candle sconce on either side. Harry hesitated before coming further in. “Are you sure about this?” Harry said.
“It’s the least I can do, giving you a proper place to live, after… well, everything. Plus you’re doing me a massive favour, you do know that, right?”
“I guess,” said Harry.
“Then stop being such a plonker and come in. I’ve got a train to catch, but not for a while yet. Let me give you the tour, make you a cuppa, and get you settled in.” Dudley glanced at Harry’s bag. “Is that all you’ve got?”
“Er, yes,” said Harry, deciding that Dudley probably didn’t need to know about Shrinking charms.
The two main rooms on the ground floor had been knocked together, bay windows and a marble-framed fireplace in the front half, and narrow French windows onto a shaded garden to the back. The wooden floorboards had all been painted black - many times judging by the patchy, flaky look of them - but the walls were smudgy white. Doors, window frames and skirting board were all painted grey. Overall the effect was one of dull, monochrome light. In what seemed an effort at cheerfulness, a line of cacti lined the top of the mantelpiece, and a tube map was framed on the wall. The sofa facing the fireplace looked squishy and comfortable, but the small sofa and armchair by the window looked as though they’d been pulled from a skip. Harry eyed the small TV set in the corner with greedy eyes; it had been years since he’d watched any television. A small round table and chairs and a blank space where a fireplace would once have been were all that were in the back half, making it a dining room of sorts.
“It’s nice,” Harry said. “I didn’t know you had so much space.”
Dudley laughed his low rumbling laugh. “Wait until you see the rest of the place. This room raises expectations a bit too high.”
When Harry stepped into the kitchen, he could see what Dudley meant. A dark, yellowish beige covered every available surface. The tiles on the walls had windmills on them, a tiny breakfast bar broke the narrow room in two, and haphazard shelves and cupboards seemed to spring up everywhere. Harry took an involuntary step backwards.
“Hideous, isn’t it?”
“Um. It’s very… it’s got all the necessary things.”
“The bathroom’s through that door,” Dudley said, pointing to the end of the room. “There isn’t one upstairs, sorry.”
“Um, OK?” Harry knew that some older houses had been built without bathrooms, and then had them tacked on wherever they could be fitted.
A low rattling feeling seeped up through Harry’s feet, up through his legs, and his hand went to his wand holster before he even realised it. Dudley, who’d moved to the sink and was filling the kettle, spoke without turning. “Can you feel that? Strange, isn’t it? It’s only the tube train running beneath us. You’ll get used to it.”
Harry slid his wand back the inch he’d pulled it out of its holster.
Dudley stuck the kettle on. “Let’s have a cuppa, then I’ll let you know all about the cat, before I grab my stuff and show you up to my room. Your room for now, I guess.
“Felix mostly does his own thing: he uses the cat flap so there’s no need to worry about letting him in or out.” Dudley paused, as though trying to remember what else he had to say. “Oh yes, he eats twice a day,” Dudley said. “I swear that cat can read the time: if he isn’t fed breakfast and dinner on time you won’t hear the end of it. He can be very loud, sorry about that.”
“Er, it’s fine. What does he eat?”
“Dried stuff. Smells horrible, chuck out what he doesn’t eat, or Dick’ll do one of his speeches. Give him fresh water, too.”
Harry nodded, understanding about half the words Dudley was saying.
The kettle began to boil, and Dudley asked Harry how he took his tea. After all the countless cups of tea Harry had made for Dudley’s parents, there was a strange symmetry to him being made one by their son. On reflection, Harry decided he liked it. A soothing sense of peace radiated out from inside him, unwinding a little more of the tension in his shoulders.
Dudley handed him his mug, then looked around the kitchen and shuddered. “Let’s go in the other room. No need to prolong the agony of being in here.”
As Harry walked back through the dark hallway - wondering, halfway down, why a section of the floor was marked off with hazard tape - a slim black cat came towards him from the other direction.
“And here he is,” Dudley said. “King and master of us all. He’s friendly enough, once he gets to know you.”
Felix seemed to lift his nose further in the air, and trotted past Harry without more than one dismissive glance. Harry hoped the other occupants of the house were a little more friendly.
Dudley’s room, it turned out, was the small one at the back of the house above the kitchen. A flat roof jutted out under his window, the modern extension that housed the bathroom. According to Dudley it made it possible for Felix to come in and out of the bedroom window, if Harry didn’t mind. He then muttered something about not letting Dick know. Harry was beginning to think that this Dick person sounded like a bit of a… well a dick.
The garden was no more than a tiny paved yard, filled with pots full of dead plants and with overgrown climbers on the wall around. It was also, Dudley told Harry, north-facing, so dark and damp the whole year round. Harry had secretly hoped for a garden with enough space to lie out on the grass, or better still in a hammock, but knew it was wishful thinking in this part of London.
Even though it was the smallest bedroom he’d had since… well, since Privet Drive, Harry felt that he could be comfortable in it. The room comprised of more dreary off-white walls, a single bed, a large window overlooking the back gardens of south London, a desk, a slim wardrobe and a framed picture of a lake on the wall. All the woodwork was painted a dark blue - dark-painted woodwork being a theme of the house, Harry had noticed. The only note of extravagance in the room were the long, heavy blue-silk curtains; when Harry asked about them, Dudley shrugged and said they’d come with the room.
He put his bag on the desk, while Dudley hauled a huge rucksack from his bed and carried it back down the stairs with him. Keys passed over, cat food located, and phone numbers exchanged, it was finally time for Dudley to go.
“The others are away for some family thing. Should be back in a day or two,” he said. Harry admired how chilled Dudley was about everything, and wondered if his cousin had turned into a complete stoner. He bet he had.
“Anything I should know about them?”
“They’re cool. Bit weird, but nothing you can’t cope with. I’m sure you’ll get on fine. Just give them the rent money at the end of each month and it’ll be fine.”
Harry stood in the doorway, and watched Dudley walk down the street, his head almost totally obscured by the top of his bag.
He shut the door, and turned to face the empty house. It felt so different to Grimmauld Place. It felt younger somehow; even a Victorian terrace was young compared to a creaking old Georgian mansion. Harry smiled. This already felt like an adventure, like a change, and he could see it could do him good. He mulled over his day: first he would make another cup of tea, then see what was on the telly. And maybe he could have a takeaway curry. Yes, this was going to work out just fine.
After that first evening of curry, telly, and a beer, Harry slept better than he had in months. Not brilliantly, but he got in four solid hours, then dozed on and off for a few more.
Few a few delicious minutes, he lay in bed savouring the feeling of being in a fresh space. Harry stretched out. The night before he’d left the curtains and window open, wanting to see the sky as he fell asleep. The sounds of the city filled the room: birds chirruping, the drone of a plane, cars swishing by, voices from another open window. Although all the gardens here were small, there were enough trees dotted among them that he saw green leaves when he finally got out of bed to look at the view; this made Harry happy. Grimmauld Place backed onto more sedate gardens, hard spaces for people to ignore or to entertain in. This mess of washing lines, tall thin sheds, rangy trees, walls and fences had more heart, he felt.
A meowing from the stairs brought him down to the kitchen, where he fed the cat then padded around barefoot making himself a cup of tea. He sat down with a bowl of cereal and again revelled in the feeling of being in a purely Muggle house, with no Prophet, no Floo, no portraits watching him. It reminded him of the days that the Dursleys had gone out, leaving him home alone; the irony of the fact that a Dursley had again left him alone in a house didn’t escape him.
Felix, his own breakfast finished, curled around Harry’s legs then sauntered off. From where Harry sat at the breakfast bar, he could see that the cat walked around the hazard tape as he had done.
Washing up brought a simple joy to him, and Harry wondered whether this was all he’d needed to break free of his unhappiness. All that time feeling miserable: if only he’d taken the time to wash up a bowl and a mug or two, he’d have been fine. He smiled sadly at the thought, because he knew it wouldn’t have been enough.
Standing there, tea towel in hand, a barrage of images hit Harry: standing at the kitchen sink as a child with a huge pile of washing up to get through; wearing Dudley’s old clothes; his bed under the stairs. Sadness welled up in himself, for just how lonely he’d been for so much of his life..
The door to the cupboard under the stairs in this house looked much like the one at Privet Drive. As he left the kitchen, Harry came to a stop and stood before it, his pulse fluttering. He hadn’t seen one like this for years, and it brought the old feelings back more powerfully than he’d thought possible. He felt again, the way the dark, cramped space had been both safety and a source of fear, how all the noises the night could make had kept him awake. He remembered his few hidden treasures, broken toys and a few crayons he’d taken home from school. He remembered slipping them in his pocket, unnoticed as he seemed invisible to most people. His teachers included.
He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, and reached out to open the door. As the door swung out, the first thing to hit Harry was the smell, slightly fusty and so evocative of his childhood years. He found the light switch just inside the door, and turned it on, illuminating a collection of paint pots, a vacuum cleaner, a mop and bucket, an ironing board, and a selection of dusty tennis rackets and boxes. Tears sprang, unbidden, and Harry slid down to sit on the floor of the hallway, looking in at the sad little space. He’d been like that mop, he thought: only wanted for cleaning, and hidden away the rest of the time.
What did Dudley think, when he looked into this cupboard? Did he remember locking Harry in one like this, then standing outside taunting him? The feelings of warmth and gratitude that had filled Harry only a few minutes before swirled and mixed with older, more complicated emotions. How could you have done it? How could you have done it to me? The faces when he thought this were of his aunt and uncle, more than his cousin. He felt again the pain of just wanting to be loved, and finding nothing but rejection instead.
A warm movement made him look down. Felix brushed against his legs, walking past then turning and coming back again, pushing his head against Harry’s pyjama’d leg over and over again. A small smile eased onto Harry’s face, and he began to stroke Felix. He enjoyed the feeling of this warm creature, the softness of his fur, the gentleness of his purr. The whole floor began to purr then, as a tube train rumbled below the house.
Harry sat back. Perhaps this whole feeling-happy thing wasn’t going to be as simple as living like a Muggle or avoiding his past. His past, it seemed, was going to keep turning up no matter what he did. As if sensing Harry’s mood, Felix climbed up on his lap, sharp claws digging through fabric and skin alike.
Walking had been helping, so maybe that’s what he needed to do now. Walk away from having to think about cupboards and childhoods. He could focus instead on the feeling of moving, his feet hitting the pavement, and the sights and smells of the town.
Harry had already walked down the local high street - it was where he’d seen Dudley in the laundrette - so he decided instead to head into town. The main road was broad, busy with buses and trucks, cyclists and a mix of tired-looking town houses, shops, and offices. The skies though, were high and clear above; overnight rain had cleared the worst of the thickness from the air. There came a point, after a particularly busy junction, when more restaurants and sleeker-looking shops appeared on either side. Tall trees in full leaf provided shade, and Harry walked on, lost in the rhythm of his feet. The smarter the area became, the closer he thought he must be getting to the river. Soon enough he came to the back streets of Southwark, and correspondingly, large groups of tourists.
Harry considered taking a detour to walk through Borough market. Maybe he’d walk back through the market, find something special to cook. What he really wanted though, was to see the wide murky water of the Thames reflecting the sky. He still missed the quiet depths of the lake at Hogwarts, and though the Thames was nothing like a lake, he found peace in being near it. Winding his way through narrow streets and out onto the Embankment, Harry made his way to the old wharf where it was still possible to climb down to the river shore. Peering over the edge he saw that the tide was out, green algae and mud the only sign that any of the steps or narrow beach had ever been under water. Stepping around a Spanish family taking photos of each other, Harry carefully made his way down the steps - they could be slippery - to the pebbled beach below.
Some of the pebbles at his feet were not stones at all, but instead were the worn-down fragments of Tudor bricks, and all kinds of other flotsam and jetsam from the centuries this city had stood here. He nudged them idly with his foot, wondering how they had ended up being swallowed by the Thames.
As he came back up the steps to the main walkway overlooking the river, Harry paused. Surely ahead, that wasn’t… He squinted, not trusting his eyes. Yes, that pale blond hair was distinctive, but Malfoy couldn’t be the only man in the country to sport such a head of hair.
Harry’s life, it seemed, was a constant walk down memory lane. First Dudley, then the cupboard, and now he was thinking he was seeing Draco Malfoy in the middle of London. Maybe he was going mad after all, all the stress of the war or the lack of sleep driving him to relive all the worst bits of his life, over and over again.
The sun was behind Malfoy - or whoever it was - making his pale hair glow. It twisted, like a knife in the gut. How Harry had hated Malfoy over the years. He’d always stood out amongst all the other students, in the Great Hall, in classrooms, in the air. Even now Harry felt the old pull, the familiar need to know, and wondered what Malfoy could be doing leaning out over a railing in the middle of London.
A cloud passed in front of the sun and the hair-halo glow faded. Now Harry could see clearly the pointy chin and thin nose that meant it really was Malfoy. He was looking out across the river, his face calm and thoughtful, the slight breeze ruffling his hair. Harry considered saying something, calling his attention. He couldn’t imagine the conversation that would follow. Would Malfoy still have that tight, angry sound to his voice? Would the edges of his eyes tighten? Or would he be changed by his experiences, as undone as Harry himself?
Harry took a step forward, his feet leading him back up to where Malfoy stood. Before he reached him though, Malfoy straightened, gave the river one more glance, then turned quickly. He held his head high; there was nothing cowed or defeated about him. Within seconds he had disappeared into the crowd.
From the spot where Malfoy had been standing, the river looked peaceful. St Paul’s rose, dirty grey, over the river. The familiar arch of its dome seemed to anchor the other buildings around it, and Harry wondered what Malfoy had been thinking, if he too had looked at the cathedral and felt a sense of home. This big, noisy, chaotic city gave Harry a place to hide. Did Malfoy feel the same?
Harry’s feet carried him further along the river, all the way to the looming gothic edifice of the Houses of Parliament. So many secrets hidden behind heavy wooden doors, here and elsewhere, Harry knew. As people swarmed around him, he tried to imagine what would his life would be if he lived as a Muggle. What if he were Obliviated to forget all trace of the War, of magic? The thought didn’t bring comfort. Instead, he felt a wave of panic at the idea of not having all the wonder of magic available to him. Without thinking, he patted the place where his wand was hidden.
With aching legs and tired smile, Harry walked to the Apparition point tucked down one of the side streets, ducking behind some scaffolding, and Disapparated. There were always advantages to magic, and he’d never want to be without it.
The curry from the day before was even better reheated. Harry left the takeaway containers scattered on the kitchen counter, revelling at least a little in not having Kreacher hovering around him, tidying and fussing and worrying about Harry the whole time. He sank back into the sofa, plate on his lap, remote control to hand. In his time, Harry had been forced to make adult decisions, carry adult responsibilities. But he never got to slob about like this. It was glorious.
He put his feet up on the coffee table. They still ached, as did his legs, from his long walk to the river. For the first time in a long time, Harry felt the pleasant ache, the restfulness of the moment, with no thoughts buzzing around. Even the heavy feeling he’d been dragging around with him since the war seemed more distant.
Harry was trying to work out the Countdown conundrum when he heard the key in the door. He froze, then quickly took his feet off the coffee table. Felix, who’d been snoozing on the armchair, sprang to life and jumped onto the floor. Harry could have sworn that he looked guilty as he did so. This must be one of the housemates. The footsteps passed the living room, heading straight to the back to the house. Harry grinned; he bet this particular housemate was desperate to pee. He wondered if this one was Dick or Blaine, and whether he was as laid-back as Dudley.
“What the fuck!” The words rang out, with cut-glass enunciation, from the kitchen. It sounded, Harry could have sworn, just like Draco Malfoy. He shook his head: seeing him earlier must have really stuck with him to think that.
A second later, Draco Malfoy walked into the living room.
“What do you think you’re doing, Dudley? The kitchen’s a mess—” He stopped, all colour draining from an already pale face.
Harry took in the paleness, the emerald-green polo shirt, the way some hair fell across Malfoy’s face. He took in the fact that Draco fucking Malfoy was standing in front of him.
“What are you doing here?” Harry said, his brain struggling to make sense of it all.
“You don’t get to ask questions. I ask questions.” Malfoy’s words slowed, spat out deliberately as though Harry were a stupid child. “What are you doing in my living room? Eating on the sofa? Where’s Dudley, the stupid Muggle arse?”
“This is your living room?” Harry said. He was still trying to adjust to the fact that Draco Malfoy was standing in front of him. HIs voice was struggling to come out, the words squeezed tight in his throat. “But Dudley said his housemates were Dick and Blaine…”
“He calls me Dick.” Malfoy swept a hand through his hair, pushing it off his face. He looked as dignified as possible while saying, “Apparently it’s short for dickhead.”
“I’m… I…” The words weren’t coming out at all now.
Malfoy glanced at the TV. “And fuckit, I’ve missed Countdown, haven’t I?”
Something was happening in Harry’s gut. A churning, spinning feeling was growing; the walls seemed to move. It took a moment to work out that in part it was the shaking of another train passing beneath the house.
“You’re Dudley’s housemate… and Blaine?”
“Blaise,” said Malfoy shortly. “Zabini,” he added with an eye roll. “From school. Dudley can’t seem to get anyone’s name right. Stupid Muggle,” he added, but Harry couldn’t tell if it was said with a sneer or fondly. Perhaps with Malfoy there was no difference.
The old familiar resentment and dislike curled through him; the memory of years of taunts travelling through his body. He stared at Malfoy. Nothing about this made sense. “You live with Dudley Dursley?” Harry’s voice rose higher. “And he has a nickname for you?”
“Are you going to keep repeating every single thing I say?” Malfoy said. He frowned, and peered at Harry. “Did you get some spell damage during all the…” he waved his hands. “Actually, aren’t you an Auror now? Have you had a stunner to the head today?” He pulled back. “Actually, I don’t care. Tell me why you’re here and how you know our stupid Muggle housemate.”
“He’s not stupid,” Harry said automatically, even though he’d spent years thinking that Dudley probably was.
“Whatever,” Malfoy said.
“He’s my cousin.”
Silence greeted this revelation as Malfoy stared at Harry. “What?” Malfoy barked the word out with a surprised huff. “Did you say cousin?”
Harry nodded again.
“He didn’t mention it.” Malfoy’s eyes widened. “And we’ve been so careful to not even mention magic for months. Are you telling me, not only does he know about magic, but he’s Harry bloody Potter’s cousin to boot?
Harry raised his hands and shrugged his shoulders. “Er, yep.”
Malfoy sat down heavily beside Harry. “Fuck.”
“Why is my cousin living in a house with two Slytherins?”
“Gregory Goyle brought him home, felt sorry for him. Insisted we give him his room when he fucked off to live with his girlfriend. They worked together. Bouncers.” Malfoy’s eyes were still wide, and he was staring at the TV. Harry suspected none of the adverts were going in though.
On the telly, a woman in a bright yellow kitchen mopped a floor. Everything felt surreal, yet Harry could imagine them together, Goyle and Dudley. They’d both spent their teens threatening to beat him up, after all.
“So where is he, then? And why are you sitting in here making a mess and watching our telly?”
“Er…” Harry paused. It was rapidly becoming clear that his cousin had neglected to tell anyone about subletting his room. “Well, er, the truth is I’m renting his room from him, while he goes travelling for a few months.”
“No.” The word was firm, final, from Malfoy’s pale, pinched lips. “You’re not living here.”
Keys jangled, and the front door rattled as it opened and shut again. “Anyone home?”
Malfoy folded his arms and sat stiffly as Zabini walked in. He wore the same emerald-green t-shirt as Malfoy, but it was more filled by muscular arms and a solid-looking torso. Zabini took in the sight of Malfoy and Harry sat on the sofa together, blinked, walked out of the room then back in it again.
“Tell me, Draco, am I really seeing Harry Potter sitting on our sofa? Eating… curry?” He shook his head. “Don’t answer that yet. I don’t want to continue this without a drink.” He glared at Harry, took his plate from him, then left the room, and came back a minute or two later holding a glass of amber liquid. He did not, Harry noted, bring any for anyone else. Typical selfish Slytherin bastard.
Malfoy was still staring blankly at the television. Zabini sat down, and regarded Harry with puzzlement. The TV continued to blare, and Harry turned the volume down.
“I’ve rented Dudley’s room while he goes travelling. I’m covering his share of the rent. And, er, he’s my cousin.”
Zabini took a long drink and winced - whatever it was, it was strong, and perhaps not meant for swigging - before responding. “So, if we want to pay the rent, we’ve just got to accept that you’re living here for now?”
Malfoy scowled. “I said he was a stupid Muggle.”
Malfoy had said that one too many times, and Harry felt something ugly tighten within. The floor rumbled. His hand tightened into a fist then loosened again, and he stared at his fingers.
“Well.” All the air seemed to huff out of Zabini, and he shook his head. “And I thought my mother’s umpteenth wedding was enough drama this week. But at least Pansy will be amused.” He glanced over at Malfoy. “She’s going to laugh so hard she wets her knickers.” He leant into the armchair and took another, smaller, sip of his drink. Felix began to stalk around Zabini’s legs, emitting a loud purr as he did so. Zabini looked amused. He seemed to be taking this better than Malfoy, whose face had remained immobile, hard and pale as though carved from stone.
“It’s not ideal,” said Harry. “But I don’t want to let my cousin down. And I like your cat. I can try to keep out of your way. I’d like to stay, but if you really don’t want me here I’ll go.”
Malfoy and Zabini exchanged a long glance. A decision seemed to be made, because Malfoy turned to Harry with a tight expression on his face. “You can stay,” he said. “As long as I have your assurance that you’re genuinely here because of that stupid Muggle—” He stopped, as he saw the look on Harry’s face. “Apologies, I mean because of your cousin. You are not,” he prodded the air, “here in any capacity as an Auror, or with some anti-Slytherin vendetta, or to investigate us?”
“Of course not!” Harry said. “Although if I see any sign of criminal behaviour—”
“You’re not doing much to put our minds at rest,” said Zabini. “It sounds like you’ve already made your mind up about what you’ll find here.”
“I’d have to say that to anyone. And, er, actually, I’m on a…” he tried to remember the word, “sabbatical from the Aurors.”
Malfoy made a noise that sounded like a snort that had been hastily stifled, but Harry decided to ignore it. All the goodwill and relaxation from before had ebbed away, leaving just the aches and exhaustion. It was still light outside, but Harry stood unsteadily. He wasn’t going to fight Malfoy; he felt drained, and just wanted to go sleep. “It’s been a long day,” he said. “I’m going to bed.”
“Not until you’ve cleaned up that mess in the kitchen,” Malfoy said sharply. “We’ve got standards here, you know.”
Harry suspected that saying he’d leave it to the morning would not go down well. He washed up, sloppily, and left the plate and cutlery to dry. The takeaway containers he binned, although he did notice that one had been sitting in a rim of spilt oil. The yellow oil, bright with turmeric, had left a stain on the worktop. Bollocks. But the kitchen was already such a nightmare of shelves and windmills he was sure no one would care. Not even Malfoy could be precious about a room this ugly.
Before he shut his bedroom door, Felix slunk in.
“I’ll leave the window open,” he said solemnly to the cat. “Not leaving my door open with those two fuckers out there. You can get out that way if you want to.”
Felix merely regarded Harry as though responding were beneath him, but when Harry got into bed Felix settled on the duvet by his feet.
Harry lay awake for a long time - the sky outside was still light - his body heavy but his mind a swirling mess of bitter memories and an ugly feeling of.. Well, he wasn’t sure what it was. Hatred? A kind of horrified fascination? Pity, as he’d felt directly after the war when he’d seen Malfoy so subdued? When he did eventually fall asleep, he slept restlessly, and dreamt of pointy chins and giant curry stains under windmills.
Dudley, Harry decided, was absolutely right: Malfoy was indeed a complete and utter dickhead.
The uncanny sensation of the whole floor vibrating was doing nothing for the throbbing in Harry’s head. He’d blearily staggered down the stairs, almost drunk with tiredness. Maybe drinking like Zabini had done would have helped him sleep, but Harry doubted there was anything out there strong enough to obliterate the knowledge that he was now living with two Slytherins.
Harry didn’t know why he was surprised to find Malfoy sitting at the table downstairs, obviously waiting for Harry. His lean frame was almost quivering, his back rigidly upright. Ink, quill and what looked suspiciously like a set of rules were laid out on the table in front of him. For a moment, Harry was reminded of Hermione.
“I’ve been up for hours, Potter. It’s given me some time to come to terms with you being here.” He scowled. “And of course I can’t get away from the fact that we need to cover the rent.”
“Ri-ight.” Harry squinted, trying to block out some of the too-bright light flooding the room.
“Blaise had to go to work, but he’s given me carte blanche to deal with you as I see fit.”
“Deal with me? I’ve done nothing wrong, and I don’t need to be dealt with by you or anyone.” Harry kept his voice low, trying to keep his body as still as he could. Sitting would be easier than standing, he decided, so he fell into the chair opposite Malfoy. He pressed a hand to his eyes, but it didn’t seem to help.
“Merlin, always so full of drama,” Malfoy said. “You’ve been in bed for hours, don’t tell me you’re not feeling well.”
“I only came down to get some water,” Harry said. “Not to be interrogated by some Slytherin with a stick up his arse.”
“I don’t care,” Malfoy said, his voice as thin and pointed as an arrow. “If we are going to live together, you have to know what rules we live by. It’s as simple as that. Blaise wanted to break you in gently, but I think you are as capable of subtlety as a Bludger.” He held a hand up as Harry began to protest. “It was hard enough with your cousin. If you are feeling unwell, might I suggest some Pepperup potion if you have any, or some Muggle medicine. I can wait.”
All the words were making Harry’s head worse, but he pulled his wand out and Accioed some Pepperup Luna had given him. Her one always tasted of cinnamon and he much preferred it to the shop-bought stuff. He caught the phial, and yanked the cork out. He downed it in one, aware all the time of the frozen look on Malfoy’s face again. Sod him: he probably took his potions off a golden spoon.
Harry rubbed at his face, and this time nothing throbbed. The rather strange sensation of steam dribbling from his ears started though, like some soft-spoken whisper on his skin. “Yes,” he admitted reluctantly. “Thank you for suggesting it.”
Malfoy sniffed; the matter was clearly beneath him. “I’ve taken the liberty of drawing up a few house rules. It did not escape my notice yesterday that you are obviously unclear about the standards expected here.”
Harry scratched at his bollocks through his pyjama bottoms, mostly to elicit the grimace Malfoy made at the sight.
“Number one: wash up straight away. Dry and put away all dishes, pots, pans, and cutlery you use. Number two: no eating on the sofa. Food is to be consumed at the table, only. Number three—”
“How many numbers are there?” Harry asked, yawning loudly. “Only I think I need to go to the loo.”
“Oh for fuck’s— Go on, hurry up.”
Harry left Malfoy drumming his fingers on the table, and went for a piss. The bathroom tiles, rather like the rest of the house, were a dingy white, while a collection of freestanding shelves housed rather a lot of bottles of potions and lotions. Harry wondered if Malfoy still kept a bottle of the stuff he’d used to slick his hair back in school. He snorted at the memory: Malfoy had been an arse for a long time.
“I did wash my hands,” Harry said as he returned to the table. Malfoy’s lips twisted. “You’re welcome.” Harry rather wished he’d stopped to make himself a cup of tea or a coffee on the way back, but he suspected that Malfoy wouldn’t have survived the extra two-minute wait.
“Where was I?” Malfoy said, running his hand down his list.
“Number three.” Harry sat back, his head feeling clear now. It looked as though there were plenty more than three items on Malfoy’s list, but Harry wasn’t going anywhere. He might as well get this over and done with.
“Number three.” Malfoy turned his sharp little face up at Harry, and Harry was reminded of the ferret from fourth year. He hid a smile, channelling all his Auror-learnt skills into keep his face schooled in an expression of bland interest. “All personal belongings, including food, must be kept on or in the allotted shelf, cupboard, or room.
Number four: Keep all shared areas tidy. And related to this, number five: do your cleaning task, as per the rota, each week.”
“Four and five, clean and tidy. Got it,” said Harry. “Is that it?”
Malfoy ignored Harry and sailed on through his list. “Six: pay your share of the bills on time. Seven: same goes for the rent.”
Harry rubbed at his chin. He probably needed to shave. Not going into work each day had broken his routine in the morning. After another yawn he reflected that he probably needed to brush his teeth as well. Looking up, he saw that Malfoy had stopped talking and was staring at him. “Go on, go on,” he said.
“Eight, keep the noise down. Nine, be considerate about visitors. No parties without consulting the others.”
“How many more are there?”
“Ten.” Malfoy tapped the paper. Harry hoped this meant rule number ten, not that there were ten more. “And this one is of paramount importance.”
“Respect others’ property. That means,” he said icily, “you do not ‘borrow my shoes’ to go to the corner shop, or use my hairbrush, or eat my food.”
“Dudley?” asked Harry. “I can imagine him doing all that.”
“Your cousin took some housetraining. As, I suspect, will you.”
Harry folded his arms. He’d spoken in the trials, after the war, lent his support to the Malfoy family. Somehow, when - if - he’d ever imagined meeting Malfoy again, he hadn’t expected it to be like this. He’d imagined something sombre, or Malfoy being filled with gratitude and remorse, or at least a bit… subdued. “After everything that’s happened, you’re still looking down your nose at other people?” Harry almost wished he could take his testimony back. Except he didn’t. No one else he could think of had gone against their own side the way the Malfoys had. Lying to Bellatrix or Voldemort, for whatever reason, had been hugely risky. Harry remembered Neville, that time in their first year, defying his friends and smiled. His mind though, skittered away from any thought of Snape; Snape was his own bundle of complicated feelings, and Harry was struggling enough with the ones he had about Malfoy.
“It’s not that,” Malfoy snapped. “I just…” his pointy nose trembled as he smoothed a hand over the paper. “I need things to be in good order.”
Harry sighed. He knew he was being a bit of an arse himself, but he was tired and sitting through a lecture on rules wasn’t his idea of a gentle wake-up. He was still the interloper in this house, he knew enough to know that. “I suppose I have come into your home rather unexpectedly.”
“Precisely,” Malfoy said. He picked up the list. Even though he held it low, it still felt as though it were a shield between him and Harry. “Numbers eleven to fourteen have… evolved, as we’ve lived here. Nothing,” he glared, “to do with looking down my nose at anyone.” He cleared his throat. “Eleven: nudity to be kept to individual bedrooms.”
“That one wasn’t Dudley, was it?” said Harry, struggling to imagine Dudley running around naked.
“You’d be surprised,” said Malfoy dryly. “Although to be honest it was mainly Blaise. Although your cousin did used to have a tendency to sit down in the altogether on any available surface at one point.”
Harry just stared as Malfoy shuddered.
“I hexed him and told him he was getting boils from doing it. He stopped. Anyway,” Malfoy said, perhaps seeing the look on Harry’s face, “Twelve: Felix is to be adored. He is our lucky cat.”
It took Harry a beat to make the connection. “Felix Felicis!”
“A little joke at first, but now… well, don’t do anything to harm that cat or I may harm you, hero of the wizarding world or no.” Malfoy pulled himself even more upright. “Thirteen, related to twelve: no overfeeding of that cat. Although actually, that’s more to do with his tendency to sick up any extra food.”
Harry pulled a face.
“And finally, fourteen: don’t step on the bad bit of the floor in the hallway.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“But I do.”
“Fine. Greg dropped something there when we first moved in. A potion. The magic seeped right into the floorboards, and we don’t know how to fix it without ruining them. We don’t want to lose our deposit, and the effects are… interesting. ”
Harry blinked. “And you’ve been able to keep this from Dudley?”
Malfoy shrugged. “We told him he’d fall through the floor if he stood there.To be honest,” Malfoy’s eyes slid to one side, “we don’t really use much magic.”
Harry didn’t know how to feel about any of this. There were so many rules, they’d already become tangled up in his mind: don’t borrow the cat… or step on people’s belongings. He sighed, guessing that he’d soon find out what the important ones were. Harry was a great believer in learning by doing, after all.
Harry wanted to believe that Ron and Hermione simply couldn’t hear him over the roar of the Friday night crowd in the Leaky Cauldron. Judging by their frozen faces and the way all colour had drained from Ron’s face, he was guessing it was a bit more than that.
He took a deep breath.
“I’vemovedoutofnumbertwelveintoaroomIrentedoffmycousinandDracoMalfoyandBlaiseZabiniaremyhousemates,” said Harry, again, and even more quickly this time. It had seemed wisest simply to leap head first into his explanation.
“That’s what I thought you said,” Hermione said. She sat still and silent, her sharp eyes fixed on him.
“Did you say Malfoy and Zabini?” Ron said at the same time. His brow was knotted in a confused frown. “And your cousin? What, your Muggle cousin?”
“He’s the only one I’ve got.”
“And you’re all living together.” Ron’s frown grew even tighter, along with his voice. His pint was held at a precarious angle, and Harry had to resist the urge to straighten it.
With one eye on Ron’s pint, he added, “Dudley’s not there, he’s off travelling the world. There is a cat though.”
“In south London?” Hermione said. “South of the river?”
“Of all the things to focus on, that’s the one you choose,” Harry said.
Ron noticed his pint beginning to spill, and set it on the table. He drew a shape in the spilt beer, then looked up at Harry. “So what’s it like?”
Harry took it as a good sign that no one was shouting, and thought about his new neighbourhood. “Um, not too different to north London, to be honest. I don’t really know what the fuss is about.”
“Not south London, you plonker, your house of Slytherins.”
An image of the house, the neat way each cushion on the sofa was arranged, the tidiness of the kitchen, formed in Harry’s mind. “It’s… well, I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s very clean. There are a lot of rules about that.”
Hermione glanced at Ron, but he had returned to drawing circles in the beer. She looked rather as though she might start pulling her hair out. “And the Slytherins?”
“Well.” Harry thought of the way Felix curled around Zabini, what ever Blaise was doing, or the way Malfoy seemed to be watching everything, all the time. It was hard to describe, the atmosphere of his new home. “They mainly keep to themselves,” he said. “It’s all a bit strange, to be honest.”
“But no hexes flying? No punch-ups?”
“Do you remember that right hook you gave Malfoy in third year? Genius, ‘Mione.” Ron looked at her fondly, and she met his eyes then patted his hand. Harry felt his usual mix of warm-and-sad at the sight: warm for his friends, sad for not having anything like that in his own life.
“Much as he deserved it for being a prejudiced tit, I’d hoped we all moved on a little since then,” Hermione said. Her mouth always went a bit tight at any mention of her punching Malfoy. Harry suspected that she had developed Rather Strong Views on hitting people. Malfoy had totally deserved it though.
“That reminds me: Dudley has a nickname for him. Calls him ‘Dick’.” Harry grinned. “It’s short for ‘dickhead’.”
Ron guffawed, but Hermione stayed silent. A table the other side of the room started singing a drunken Happy Birthday to someone called Sam.
“Harry,” Hermione said, once they’d stopped. “You are being careful, aren’t you? I mean… after the war and everything… you’re not trying to restart any old fights, are you?”
“No.” Harry sat back, taken aback by her questions. He didn’t know what to think. “Why would I want to?”
“None of us… it was hard for us all,” she said.
All of a sudden Harry remembered the absence of sound after he died: not quiet, but a silence the like of which he’d never encountered before or since. The pub sounded echoey and overwhelming all of a sudden, and he shook his head in an attempt to clear his ears.
“Sorry,” she said. “I know you don’t like to talk about it. I guess that’s it: old wounds, and the like.”
“I don’t think they want to talk about it, either,” said Harry. “And I guess… well, they might be a bit strange or dickish, but that doesn’t make them Dark wizards, either.” He stared ahead without really seeing Ron or Hermione. “I don’t know if Malfoy ever was, exactly,” he added quietly.
Hermione made a little sound that could have been an ‘aha’ or an ‘oh’, and Harry looked up. The sharp look came to her face again. “You were always so drawn to him,’ she said, cogs almost visibly turning in her head.
Harry had felt a rush of nervous energy in the build up to telling Ron and Hermione about his move, but now it turned into something more unsettled. Or unsettling. He had argued with Malfoy, hated him for years at school. He remembered Malfoy sneering the word ‘Mudblood’, the way his lips had hardened around the ugliness of the word. But he also remembered following him around corridors, across a map.
He remembered how often his thoughts had returned to Malfoy, and how this had coincided with the time that he’d begun to realise that it wasn’t just girls he thought of in his daydreams. Harry took a long draught of his pint, trying to avoid what he rather feared was a knowing - or at least curious - glint in Hermione’s eye. He didn’t want to get sucked into this, not here, not now. All this swirling mix of hate and… whatever else had taken so much of his time and energy already. He’d rather enjoy his evening.
“How’s your research into house-elf history going, Hermione?” he asked.
She gave him once last narrowed-eyed look, but then the draw of talking about her pet project overcame any other objections. Harry listened, but a part of him continued to dwell on the past. If he drank enough, maybe he could tamp it down, and forget for a little longer.
Harry got a regular night bus home. He’d rather stick to Muggle transport than suffer through being recognised while pissed on a Friday night. Hermione had done that special frown of hers when he’d suggested Apparating, and it was true that he couldn’t walk in a straight line. Luckily Flooing wasn’t even an option. He truly hated Flooing, having long decided that if it were possible to avoid doing, he would take any other form of transport rather than fall through a fireplace.
He fumbled with his keys at the front door, in the end settling for glancing around then pulling out his wand and casting a quick Alohomora. About three locks clicked open, and Harry rolled his eyes; he could just imaging Malfoy setting all the locks despite knowing that Harry was out for the night. “Dickhead,” he muttered under his breath.
Felix was nowhere to be seen when Harry stumbled into the dark hallway. Since Zabini had appeared, the bloody cat had forsaken Harry for the stupid bastard instead. Why were both the Slytherins such bastards? Zabini was all charm but Harry didn’t know him, not really. As for Malfoy… he was undeniably irritating and yet there was something about the way the light caught his lashes that always made Harry look for that bit longer. He reminded Harry of a snowflake: all sharp and icy corners, but beautiful and delicate too.
Merlin, he was drunk. He hoped he didn’t remember this ode to Malfoy’s fucking eyelashes in the morning. It had just been too long… not that Harry really looked at anyone. Too busy being miserable. Except now here he was, with charming bastards and lovely lashes all around him.
The kitchen, too was full of sharp corners. He managed to walk straight into the breakfast bar, letting out a loud ‘Ooph’, before managing to push the bathroom door open so he could piss. Everything was still dark, and the thought of a bright light was too much. He swayed, standing at the toilet with one hand braced on the wall for support, for a while after he’d finished.
“I should eat something,” he said. His voice echoed in the little bathroom. “Soak up the alcohol.” He tried to remember what he had to eat: there was some bread left. And something in the fridge?
Opening the fridge revealed a large slab of cheddar, and Harry looked up at the shiny toastie-maker sitting on top of the fridge. He could just picture it now: lovely oozy cheese, with those little crisped bits of browned cheese at the edges. He was, he realised, smacking his lips at the thought of it.
Ten minutes later, Harry had his toastie. He sat at the stupid breakfast bar - “I know the fucking rules, Malfoy,” he’d said to the wall before doing so - and ate it with great relish. And then he staggered off upstairs to bed.
Harry’s sleep was fitful: apparently neither six pints nor an excellent cheese toastie could keep nightmares at bay. In his dreams, all he could hear was crying. He kissed Ginny through her tears, all too similar to his first kiss with Cho, and felt again the inevitability of the ending of his relationship with her. Salt on his tongue, an ache inside, eyes tired and hot.
He woke, head filled with a dull pain that got worse when he moved, to the sound of shouting. Even through the floor Harry could hear crashing as cupboard doors were slammed, each bang punctuating another stream of yelling. He considered staying in bed, casting a silencing charm of some kind and trying to slip back into sleep. Bitter experience though, had taught Harry that there was no slipping back into sleep after a night like that. For one, he needed a glass of water and a trip to the loo. Which meant going through whatever was happening in the kitchen.
Harry almost trod on Felix, who was asleep halfway down the stairs. He pulled himself back on the hand rail, then stepped over the oblivious moggy. His stomach was now spinning as well as his head. Everyone in this house was obviously determined to be as difficult as possible.
As soon as he walked into the kitchen, the yelling stopped.
Malfoy was stood by the sink, his lips a thin angry line, his face tight. Blaise looked up when Harry came in, nursing a coffee from his perch at the breakfast bar. Harry was thankful to see a full cafetière beside him, and amended his plan: pee, get a glass of water and a coffee, escape as soon as possible.
When he emerged from the bathroom a short while later, Malfoy’s arms were folded and he stared at Harry with such malice that Harry felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Instinctively, he checked for both his wand - left on his bedside table, again - and Malfoy’s. Thankfully it too was nowhere to be seen. Dodging hexes would not help the banging in his head or lurching in his stomach.
“You,” Malfoy said. “You utter pig.”
Zabini rested his head in his hand. “Draco,” he said.
Malfoy turned to Zabini. “Don’t you ‘Draco’ me, Blaise. You know how angry I am.”
Zabini shook his head, not raising it from his hand.
“I’ll just get some water,” Harry said, moving towards the sink, “And get out of your hair.”
Malfoy’s hand shot out, blocking Harry’s access to the taps. “Don’t think you can get out of it this easily.” He pointed at the stool beside Zabini. “Sit.”
Harry considered pushing past, legging it up the stairs to his room and locking the door. He really didn’t need this. But then he looked at Malfoy’s face, and for a second what he saw wasn’t anger or pettiness, but pain. He knew what pain looked like; he’d seen it in the mirror enough times.
“Fine.” He sat, and waited. Zabini pulled down a mug from the shelf behind him, filled it with coffee and slid it over to Harry. He took it gratefully, flashing Zabini a quick smile.
“Did you, or did you not read the full list of house rules, just the other day?” Malfoy said.
Harry rolled his eyes. Malfoy, it seemed, was going to be that housemate. Zabini avoided meeting his gaze. “Yes,” he said, “I did: love the cat, don’t be naked, tidy up after yourself.”
“Then what,” Malfoy said, “is that?” He pointed to the toastie machine. Harry did vaguely remember using it, but he didn’t remember it looking quite that… debauched. A crust of cheese lined most of its edge, with long, hardened strands of cheese hanging off the sides. Greasy finger prints glinted in the harsh light of the kitchen’s neon strip.
“I…” Harry trailed off. It had been pristine, he remembered from his tour of the kitchen. But then everything in this bloody house was. He looked at Malfoy, at that look of pain in the tightness of his face, and understanding dawned. “Oh, it’s yours, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s mine. But that shouldn’t make a difference.” It rather did though, Harry thought. “You agreed to our rules. Let me draw your attention back to rule four: don’t leave a mess in any shared area, and rule ten: respect other people’s property.”
Harry deemed it better to say nothing; he was still trying to process the knowledge that Malfoy owned a toastie maker and could enjoy such a plebeian dish. Also, he thought it better to allow Malfoy the chance to air his grievance in one go.
“You might be the big hero, but you can’t treat other people like this. Everyone deserves the same respect, especially in their own home.” Harry hated when people called him a hero, whether that was in praise or bitterness. It felt as though he’d swallowed a stone, and the image of his lonely cupboard flashed into his mind. He sagged his head.
“I— I agree,” Harry said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t really think when I got in. I was a bit pissed, to be honest.”
“Oh, we know that, old chap,” Zabini said. “We heard you crashing about.”
“My bedroom isn’t even the one above the front door,” said Malfoy. “And it still shook when you slammed it on your way in.”
“Oh god,” Harry muttered to himself. This was worse than he imagined living with Hermione could ever be. “Look.” he ran his hand through his hair. “I’m going through a bit of a tough time at the moment, and I probably drank too much last night. This is all… confusing, living here.”
Malfoy snorted at the word tough.
“I’m sorry,” Harry said. “I’ll look after your things better in the future.”
“You won’t sodding use them, especially not without asking!” Malfoy spat out.
“I think that’s reasonable,” Zabini rumbled from next to Harry. “Ask Draco if you want to use something of his. Or just don’t ever touch any of his belongings again.” He sighed. “Is this over now? Can I go?”
Malfoy nodded, his lips tight.
Harry suspected it wasn’t over, but took the opportunity to leave as quickly as he could. After he’d washed, dried, and put away his coffee cup, of course.
After the cheese-toastie incident, Harry tried to keep his head down. June slid into July, eased by a string of rainy days, fat raindrops plopping noisily through the full-leaved trees behind the house. Harry knew he didn’t have to live in Dudley’s house, but some part of him stubbornly clung to the promises he’d made. And even with Malfoy being all highly-strung and obsessed with tidiness - he wasn’t even going to think about Zabini’s casual nudity - it was still a less lonely and hollow experience than living at number twelve with only Kreacher for company.
Malfoy, Harry discovered, was a man of routines. He watched Countdown every day, ate a cheese toastie at least once a week, always went to Sainsbury’s on a Saturday morning. He had a job, about which he was vague although it involved Blaise and the wearing of green polo shirts. Harry suspected that they worked in a Muggle shop but were too proud to admit it. Occasionally Harry felt as though he were living some odd parallel life to his sixth year, where he noted all of Malfoy’s movements but didn’t think he was up to no good. More than anything, Malfoy seemed more miserable than evil.
Sometimes, Harry risked actually interacting with Malfoy about more than the angle at which all towels in the bathroom must be folded.
“Cup of tea?” Harry asked. He was careful not to look directly at Malfoy; rather as though he were a wild animal, Harry didn’t want to startle him. Countdown was due to start after the advert break, and Harry had decided that just because Malfoy always watched it didn’t mean that he couldn’t, either.
“Oh.” Light streamed in, the adverts obscured by the bright reflection of the windows. It also lit Malfoy’s face, giving it the illusion of being as translucent as alabaster. A faint flush coloured the paleness. “That would be nice. Yes please.”
“Milk, no sugar,” Malfoy said.
When Harry returned to the living room bearing two cups of tea, Malfoy stared down at his for a while before putting it on coffee table at their feet. Harry squinting slightly in an effort to see the screen better. “Mind if I pull down the blinds?”
Malfoy shook his head.
They sat, side by side, in silence as the opening credits rolled. The screen was a lot easier to see with the blinds down, and the sofa was the best place to watch TV from. Even so, Harry was aware of how close they were sitting, and how strange it was to sit together in what for all intents and purposes was a companionable silence. Every now and then, he glanced over at Malfoy, although he was not sure exactly why he did so. Checking that it was still safe to do so, perhaps? Certainly he’d seen Malfoy’s mood change quickly before. Malfoy, Harry noted, had picked up his tea, but not drunk it yet.
Malfoy’s mouth moved soundlessly as he tried out different letter combinations during the letters round, and Harry hid a smile.
“I don’t like Richard Whiteley’s tie,” Malfoy said. “It’s the same colour as the set.”
Harry couldn’t see anything offensive about the orange stripes. “Maybe he wanted to match?”
Malfoy made a small noise in response, then switched to intense stillness for the numbers. Harry liked Countdown, but Malfoy was more of a fan than he’d ever be. He practically quivered until the first contestant gave his method. “Rubbish!” he said. “He’s missed how you could have used the two.”
Harry couldn’t see how you could use the two. In fact, he couldn’t see how to make 387 at all. Malfoy preened as the second contestant explained their simpler method.
“That’s how I did it,” Malfoy said, sounding satisfied.
“You say that, but it’s a bit too easy to say that after the fact, isn’t it?”
Malfoy glared at Harry. “I’d like to hear you try, Potter.” He took a sip of his tea - which surely must be stone cold by now - and grimaced. Harry tried not to take it personally.
By the time they’d got to the second numbers round, Harry was trying hard to keep up with Malfoy. Malfoy, though, was far more practised than Harry. Either that, or he was just better at maths, but Harry decided that with a bit of application, he himself could near the dizzy heights of Carol Vorderman herself. Well, that or at least beat Malfoy once in a while.
Malfoy got the Countdown conundrum before either contestant, and as the ads came back on again he picked up his cold tea. “We have to talk about this,” he said.
“I just need a bit of practice with the numbers, I don’t watch it every day like you.”
“Not the numbers, you numbskull, your tea-making skills.”
“If you don’t like it, don’t drink it.”
“I know you didn’t.”
“I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the offer and the making of the tea, just that it doesn’t quite—”
“Meet your standards?” said Harry, having heard the bloody phrase ad nauseam over the past week or two.
“Quite.” Malfoy put the cup down. “You make it just like your cousin, which isn’t surprising I suppose. It’s not much of an adjustment, I merely require a particular brewing time to achieve the right colour, and the correct amount of milk. I’ve learned the hard way not to request proper tea, but maybe one day I’ll make you a pot of Assam that’ll knock your socks off.”
Harry had lived in the house long enough to know that it was useless trying to argue with Malfoy any time the word ‘standards’ came up. However, that didn’t mean he had to give in without a bit of a fight. Secretly, he rather enjoyed winding up Malfoy. It made him almost feel that he was back at Hogwarts.
“Nasty piss-weak tea and fannying around with little leaves? I’m surprised you can stand the cleaning.”
“Don’t mock me. And there doesn’t have to be anything weak about properly brewed tea. The flavours can pack as much punch as the tannin in those hideous tea bags of yours.”
“You can just say no, you know.”
“I’m not saying no to a cup of tea. I’m not a total snob, whatever you think. All I’m asking is that you do it properly.”
Harry felt caught: for anyone else, he would have been happy to take into consideration how they liked their tea. This was Malfoy though, and the way he issued orders and complained got under Harry’s skin like nothing else.
“Fine,” he said in the end. “Come to the kitchen and educate me on what you think a cup of tea should look like. Not your fancy-pants version, just tea bags, OK?”
“They don’t really go for grace in Gryffindor, do they?”
Harry snorted. “Nor Slytherin.”
They walked to the kitchen, bickering the whole way.
“Blaise!” Malfoy’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “Clothes!”
This would be as good a time as any to go down to make dinner, Harry decided. He’d been for a walk in the morning, then come back and got straight into bed. If Malfoy wasn’t so strict about taking shoes off at the front door, he’d probably have got under the duvet with them still on. He’d been staring at the flat grey square of sky visible through the window for so long that when he closed his eyes, he could see its shape. His thoughts were still churning heavily, not really settling on any one thing but a mess of old regrets and losses.
Zabini and Malfoy had got in from work about half an hour before, and he’d heard the boiler going and guessed one of them was in the shower. Once they got home, the house felt different. It seemed more… alive. Noises rose up from below, and before the shower he’d been able to hear the murmur of conversation. It felt comforting, knowing he wasn’t alone. It felt more like a home, somehow.
Zabini, still dripping, was wrapped in a towel and heading up the stairs as Harry walked down. Harry got an impression of white teeth as Zabini flashed him a grin, before bounding upstairs. The man had an easy charm that was mesmerising. Like a snake, Harry thought sourly. Bloody Slytherins. He was still finding it a little shocking to find the people from some of his less pleasant memories wandering around the house, whatever they looked like.
“That man is the worst exhibitionist I’ve ever met,” Malfoy said as Harry walked into the kitchen. “And he’s the messiest, too. It’s what comes of having house-elves to pick up after you all your life.”
“You did, too, didn’t you?” asked Harry, genuinely curious. His voice felt croaky, and he realised it was the first time he’d spoken out loud all day. He cleared his throat, and continued, “Have house-elves to pick up after you, I mean. And I wouldn’t call you messy.”
A closed look crossed Malfoy’s face. “I’ve always liked things to be tidy,” Malfoy said. “Whatever you think of me or my family, my mother taught me not to leave everything lying around for the elves. And then…” He folded his arms, and seemed to go inward on himself. “I spent a year hoping no one would notice me,” he said. “It… it would not have been good to have been noticed.” Malfoy seemed to be somewhere else now, his eyes pained and faraway. He shook himself, and turned away from Harry. “It’s not really an experience I want to revisit.”
Harry’s heart began to race, an instant thrumming patter in his chest. He remembered noticing Malfoy, hiding around corners and telling himself he had to do it, he had to check on Malfoy constantly. He had told himself that Malfoy was up to no good, and it had been true, but there was something else beneath it all, something about the way the light had always caught on that hair, the way Harry had always known which way to look to catch sight of it and the pointy face below. Swallowing helped push down the feeling, but standing so close in a quiet room Harry could feel it nonetheless: a low, fluttering sensation, threatening to rise up through his body. He swallowed again, suddenly painfully aware of how long he’d felt this strange pull towards Malfoy. Ever since their first year, really.
Malfoy straightened the tea towel hanging from the oven door, his back now completely turned to Harry. A crash from overhead, along with a muffled swear word, broke the silence. Dinner. Harry needed to make some food; maybe the churning feeling in his stomach was purely down to the fact that he had not eaten all day. He busied himself filling a pan with water, glad that Malfoy couldn’t see his face and whatever emotion was probably writ large across it.
After a minute Harry heard Malfoy move again, and they both quietly got on with preparing their meals. Harry noted, with some disapproval, that Malfoy was having some form of breakfast for dinner again. Sometimes he had toast and jam, occasionally he went as far as a bacon sandwich, but today he was going with his most frequent choice: a bowl of cereal.
“Do you ever eat real food?” Harry asked, as he put some pasta on to cook. He began to chop some vegetables to add to the pan.
“And you call that a real meal?”
“It’s not anything you’d get in a restaurant but it’s better than a bowl of cereal.”
“It’s none of your business what I eat.” Malfoy said. He took his bowl into the other room, and didn’t talk to Harry again the rest of the evening.
Zabini, however, knocked on Harry’s door before he went to bed. “You still awake, old chap?”
He hadn’t been sleeping, no. He’d been trying to write a letter to Hermione, who insisted on such things. It was probably about half crossings-out, but he could always copy it out. Sometimes being her friend was a bit like having perpetual homework, but it was worth it. He’d got as far as describing Malfoy’s Countdown skills - he suspected this would impress her - and had been stuck as to what to say next anyway. To be honest, he’d been distracted by thinking about Malfoy, and still felt unsettled by their conversation in the kitchen.
“Zabini. It’s OK, come in.”
The door swung open.
“Please, call me Blaise. I think I’m in trouble when I hear ‘Zabini’.” Blaise stood in the doorway, looking around. “Of course, sometimes I am in trouble. It’s neater than when Dudley was here.” He sniffed. “Smells better, too.”
Harry wasn’t sure it was much of a compliment to be be less of a pig than Dudley. He’d grown up with Dudley, after all, and knew just how disgusting his room could get.
“I…er, it is OK me being here, isn’t it?” Harry was aware that Malfoy and Blaise had not been consulted when Dudley offered him the room. He suspected that if they had been, he wouldn’t be sitting here now.
“Oh yes. As long as the rent gets paid, I don’t care who’s in here. It could be old Umbridge herself. I’d even buy her one of those kitten plates.”
Blaise looked over his shoulder, came in and closed the door. “Do you mind?" he said, nodding at Harry’s bed. When Harry shook his head, Blaise crossed the room, sat on the bed, and gave Harry a thoughtful stare. “Draco… Draco will be fine,” Zabini said. “He just needs time.”
“I think you only saw one side of him at school.” The evil one, Harry thought to himself. But then had it only been fear of wrongdoings that had prompted Harry to follow him around for a year? This was a question Harry had never really been able to answer. “But he’s always been a bit… preoccupied with order. I think it’s partly why all the Death Eater stuff was so attractive to him. He knew where he stood.”
“At the top with all of us beneath him?” Harry said.
“Yes,” Blaise answered. “But he wasn’t, really.” He sighed. “Look, have you ever wondered what we’re doing in this crappy house, living like Muggles? This wasn’t in my life plan, and it wasn’t in Draco’s either. We’ve had to make a lot of… adjustments. You being here does complicate it all again. It was simpler with Dudley. He thought we were dickheads, but not murderers or evil. He wasn’t scared of us.”
“I’m not scared of you.”
Blaise rolled his eyes. “I know you’re not scared of us. I should think you’re not scared of anyone. You’re a Gryffindor, you defeated Voldemort, you’re the hero of the wizarding world. Of course you’re not scared of us.”
“I didn’t mean it like—”
“It doesn’t matter. The point is that there are some places we can’t go, anymore. Have you ever been spat at in the street? Jinxed every time you walk down Diagon Alley? It’s not too bad for me, but for Draco…” He sighed. “I came here to say whatever you think of Draco, he’s… vulnerable. OK? Just be careful. I don’t want him to get hurt.”
Harry had no idea how he could possibly hurt Malfoy, but nodded anyway. He’d never really thought of Slytherins caring about each other; all he remembered from school was the way Malfoy ordered Crabbe and Goyle around, and the mindless way they trailed after him.
After Blaise left, Harry pushed aside his letter to Hermione, and thought about what Blaise had said, and about what had happened earlier with Malfoy. Harry felt bad. He didn’t seem to be able to get it right with Malfoy. They weren’t exactly enemies anymore - he didn’t hate him - but at the same time they weren’t friends. Most of the time, a kind of spiky back and forth seemed the easiest way of communicating, but then Malfoy would react like that and Harry would feel he’d got it all wrong. He couldn’t work Malfoy out: was he sharp and defensive or more fragile than that? All Harry knew is that whatever he did, Malfoy would end up lashing out.
Any half-remembered… fascinations, or whatever had driven that need to follow Malfoy around, would have to stay in the past. The reality of Malfoy was that he was impossible to know, impossible to live with. Harry would just keep himself to himself, and leave it at that.
The sun was barely up when Harry pushed open the kitchen door and stepped into the small paved garden. The chill in the morning air was enough to make Harry inhale sharply, the cool burning in his lungs. Of course, this was partly why he had come out. He wanted to feel alive after another night of half-sleep. The soft coos and calls of birds in the trees in the neighbouring gardens surrounded Harry as he made his way to the bench by the wall. He stepped carefully to avoid the early-morning snails tracing silver paths across the rain-damp paving stones.
He felt out of place. When he’d wakened, he’d expected to see the heavy drapes and dark wood of his room at Grimmauld place. Instead he’d blinked at the blank walls and window of Dudley’s room. Being so lost hadn’t helped with the hollowed-out feeling he’d brought with him from sleep.
In his dreams the night before, he had fallen through the veil with Sirius into a void where there was no one, no sound, nothing but blankness. He sat up in the little bed, with its grey sheets and duvet cover mirroring the sky outside, his face wet from tears, and felt utterly alone in the world. He still missed Sirius, felt the ache of his loss deep within. In his darkest moments, he wondered if he also felt the loss of that blankness, too.
Everything ached. He was empty and tired but also full, full of a sadness that seemed to touch every part of his body. No one ever seemed to understand how hard it still was for him: it was like everyone knew the story of Harry Potter, but no one ever imagined it went beyond Voldemort’s death. In many ways his story had begun again, this time with no prophecy or Dumbledore to guide his fate. Instead there were all these threads to Harry’s life, none close to being neatly tied off, and none having any clear direction or aim. He sighed. His life was a messy tangle of unresolved threads, and a sadness that had never really gone away.
Being outside helped, and Harry continued to take deep breaths of crisp air. Its wonderful, distinctly autumnal-not-summery fresh coolness filled his body, and with each exhalation a little of the ache and the sadness seeped away. He listened to the birds. Nature hadn’t exactly featured highly in his childhood, but some mornings he’d lain in bed, hearing the birds through the open window.
Once feeling calmer, Harry opened his eyes and looked around. Thick clematis grew all over the old brick walls of the garden, and Harry was reminded of a story about a secret garden his primary school teacher had read to the class. Occasional white flowers bloomed amongst the leaves. Although the whole garden was paved, planters and pots of various shapes and sizes were placed all around its edge. The only thing growing in them appeared to be weeds: tall spindly grass gone to seed, the tall pointed leaves of dandelions, small creeping plants that filled all the space, and the prickle of brambles from one tall pot in the corner.
What if… what if, like in that story, Harry made the garden a bit nicer? He could feel the wild energy of summer all around him, even in this shaded little space. Gardens could look nicer than this, whatever the amount of light or the season, Harry was sure. In fact, there was a garden centre down the road, he’d walked past its sad railings and drab car park enough times. From the front you didn’t see any plants, but who knew what he could find inside.
He sat on the bench a while longer, looking around the garden and imagining broad leaves, tall plants, and bursts of colour. In his mind’s eye it was a tangle, but one that moved and grew, not one that trapped like the ache in his chest. This could be a place to sit, a place to rest.
The door creaked as it opened, and Blaise stepped out, wrapped in a huge fluffy dressing gown.
“Do you ever sleep?”
Harry shrugged. “Occasionally.” He didn’t really want to talk about it. Nine times out of ten it became all about ‘have you tried’ and a list of suggestions that made Harry feel that it was all his fault he couldn’t sleep. If he’d had a choice about it, there’s no way he’d have chosen the way he never had enough sleep, the way the world always felt blurry as a result.
Thankfully, Zabini looked around the garden rather than interrogate Harry. “My mother has a garden - she lives in Italy - filled with climbing vines and beautiful flowers. It runs down a hillside, with a path that runs alongside a series of fountains and pools. At the bottom there’s a stand of pine trees, and then the sea. Even now if I walk under a pine tree I can close my eyes and I’m there.”
“This doesn’t really compare.”
“Not really, but at the same time it’s green, it’s growing. I loved Herbology at school. All that life, teeming and pushing through in the most surprising of ways.”
Harry hadn’t felt one way or another about the subject. He’d certainly never loved it like Neville did. But then Neville was teaching Herbology now, which along with his tendency to go on field trips in the holidays meant another friend he never saw.
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” said Harry. “But I was thinking, just now, of trying to do something with this space. I mean…” he hesitated, unsure of going on.
“You don’t think it’s pointless as I’ll not be here that long?” Dudley had been vague about his return date. The odd postcard had arrived from various corners of Europe, and Harry didn’t know how much further his cousin planned to travel.
Blaise rubbed his chin. “Summer will be winding to a close within a month or two. But there are some plants that flower in the autumn, some that have beautiful leaves all through the winter. You can plant to enjoy the garden now, and you can also plant for the joy of the beauty to come. Whether you see it or not.” He laughed then, the sound warm and comforting in the chill of the morning. “It’s a bit of a passion of mine. Although I’ve not touched out here, if you’d seen my room you’d know how much I love growing things.” He smiled at Harry. “Come up in a bit, I’ll show you. And if you want to do the garden, I’m happy to help.”
Harry sat for a while more, looking around and how the garden could look. When he did go in, he almost fell over Felix on the stairs again - that cat really did like to sleep in the most inconvenient of places - but managed to uphold whichever rule it was that involved no harm coming to the house cat. Not that he would have wanted to: Felix had been the friendliest housemate so far.
Harry knocked on Blaise’s door. Now fully dressed, Blaise smiled as he opened it. He stepped aside, and Harry couldn’t help the small gasp that escaped his mouth at what he saw. Everywhere he looked was green. Plants grew from pots everywhere: on the floor, on shelves, on the mantelpiece, on top of the wardrobe, on a chest of drawers, and hanging from the ceiling. Leaves large, small, delicate, pointed and every imaginable shape filled the room. He didn’t recognise any from Herbology; these were all Muggle plants.
“It’s… I had no idea.”
“If I could, I’d spend all my time with plants,” Blaise said. “Maybe it’s the Slytherin in me: this room is a bit green, isn’t it?”
“This is nothing like the dungeons,” Harry said, turning around to notice the shelf built above the doorway. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Blaise raised an eyebrow. “And what would you know about the dungeons?”
“Oh, did I say that? Er, an over-active imagination?”
Blaise just stood there.
“And a bit of underage Polyjuicing?”
“Ah, that sounds more like it.” Blaise brushed his hand against a large cheese plant, then touched the soil with a practised hand. He let it rest there a few seconds, a thoughtful look on his face. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but are you sure you shouldn’t have sorted into Slytherin?”
“The sorting hat thought so,” Harry said, with a grin. He had, he realised, been waiting years for a chance to say this. “But I was very stubborn and Gryffindor about it and insisted on something else.”
“A pity for us as a House, but perhaps not for people in general,” Blaise said. “All things considered.”
There were so many plants in the room, that even the light was green, filtered as it was through myriad leaves.
“Who knows,” said Harry. He’d never really thought about what would have happened about Voldemort if he’d sorted into Slytherin. The same thing, he thought suddenly. But maybe it would have been smoother or messier or… his head spun with it all, and he shoved the thought aside. No point dwelling on it now.
Blaise picked up a watering can from near the window, and added some water to the pot he’d just been tending.
“I’ve enjoyed finding out about Muggle plants. And Muggle life. None of us really knew anything about it. But there’s something to be said for a world where if you want something to happen, you can’t just wave a magic wand.”
“Sometimes there are things even we can’t fix with magic wands,” said Harry.
“I know.” Blaise pushed some leaves aside to show Harry scarring down the side of a plant. “I found this out on the street. One side was crushed with half the leaves ripped off.” He let the leaves fall again, hiding the scarred side. “It’s still a beautiful plant. It’s still growing, and will for many years more.”
Harry nodded. And then he noticed Felix, no longer asleep but stalking proudly, half hidden among the greenery. “That cat adores you,” he said.
“What can I say?” Blaise shrugged. “He has good taste. Now,” he said, putting his watering can aside. “If you don’t mind, I need to get ready for work.”
Harry went back to his room, which looked even more sparse and boring than normal. Maybe, he thought, he’d get a plant to brighten it up a little.
Hermione’s reply, when it came, was so neatly written that Harry wondered if she’d had to copy hers out, too. Reading about how her job was going, and her plans for Halloween, along with her gently probing questions about how he was doing, Harry was reminded about just what he liked about her. He smiled as he read her thinly-veiled comments about his obsession with Malfoy. It wasn’t his fault that Malfoy continued to be such a git, was it?
He quickly scrawled a note and tied it to the owl’s leg, then watched it fly away. He was ready, he thought, to have them over. Then he remembered his housemates. Bollocks. He’d have to talk to them and check it was OK to invite his friends for dinner. It was his home too, Harry told himself, but he could never quite get away from the fact that Malfoy and Blaise had no say in his living there. He looked down at the ink splattered on his hand. He didn’t have a choice about avoiding anyone now, and he’d acted as though he hadn’t heard a single thing Blaise had been saying to him.
Harry went to look for Blaise, but found Malfoy instead. “I, er, I invited my friends for dinner. Ron and Hermione.”
Malfoy looked up from the book he was reading, marked his page with a red phone box bookmark, and put both hands on the closed book. “When?” His voice sounded dull. Lifeless.
“Um, tomorrow night? I hope it’s not too inconvenient.”
“Inconvenient? No, it’s fine. I can read in my room. Blaise will polish his leaves or something, he’s always got something to do in that jungle of his.” Malfoy looked up again. “He told me he showed you his room.”
“You might be welcome in his, but keep out of mine. I’ll keep out of your way, and you do the same for me. That’s the only way I see this being workable, you being here.”
“Oh.” Harry’s stomach dropped. He felt… disappointed? What was there to feel disappointed about? It’s not like he’d asked Malfoy and Blaise to dinner with his friends and been turned down, or even that he wanted to see in Malfoy’s room.
“Don’t worry about it,” Malfoy said. He stood up, a sudden and neat unfolding of limbs as pointy as his face, and left the room.
It was only later, while he was brushing his teeth, that it occurred to Harry that maybe he could have invited Malfoy and Blaise. That maybe they would have wanted to be included, or enjoyed the chance to meet his friends. The sinking feeling from before came back, but this time he wondered if the person he was disappointed in was himself.
“So, this is your Slytherin den,” Ron said as soon as Harry answered the door.
“Shh,” Harry said, glancing up the stairs. He knew how much noise from the hall travelled. The feeling of having a heavy stone in his stomach still hadn’t lifted, not entirely.
“It was nice to take the Tube,” Hermione said. “It’s been ages since I’ve done that.”
“You think you’d be connected up to the Floo network here.” Ron looked almost as dishevelled as Harry usually did; Harry knew he didn’t enjoy the Tube half as much as Hermione or even his dad.
“Well,” said Harry, “this is a Muggle house, more or less.”
“More or less?”
“Apart from that spot back there,” he pointed at the taped-off section of floor. “And the fact that three wizards live here.”
“Is that so?” Hermione looked intrigued.
“I don’t really know the particulars,” Harry said, still aware of the strong possibility that Malfoy and Blaise were sitting in their rooms listening to every word they were saying. “Why don’t you come into the living room?”
Ron and Hermione made all the appropriate oohs and ahhs, although Harry did also notice a certain hardening in Ron’s expression when he saw that the living room was the size of their entire studio flat.
“So where are they?” Hermione whispered loudly. Of course she’d whisper now, when they couldn’t be overheard anymore.
“In their rooms. I, er, think they’re a little shy,” Harry said. Either that or they hadn’t been invited or made to feel welcome in their own home. He squashed that thought, as best he could.
“Maybe you made it all up,” Ron said. “I bet your housemates are really two old ladies called Ethel and Gertrude.”
“Yeah, right. What a laugh,” Harry said.
Ron grinned and poked Harry in the side. “C’mon, mate. You know Hermione’s been bursting with curiosity ever since you told us. She has a lot of questions. A lot.”
Hermione looked over at Harry, and Harry could see them: queued up in her eyes and ready to fall off her tongue at any moment.
“Er, I think they’re staying out of our way tonight. You might see them, I don’t know.” He felt strangely protective: Blaise and Malfoy were not creatures at the zoo, to be ogled by his curious friends, after all.
The room began to rattle, which gave Harry the chance to steer the conversation in new directions.
Harry was wrong though: both Blaise and Malfoy did appear before the timer had pinged for the oven.
They came down the stairs together. First Blaise, then Malfoy appeared around the side of the door. Malfoy looked suspiciously like he had just been prodded; he wore a look of faint annoyance, with a slight pinking at his edges. In the soft light of lamps and candles, he looked more translucent than normal. He looked like deliciously blushed alabaster. Or some such thing.
As Harry dragged his eyes away from Malfoy, he became aware of the speculative look that Hermione gave him. He scowled. She never said anything outright, but he knew she had all kinds of theories about him and Malfoy.
“We’re heading out,” Blaise said. “Meeting up with—”
“Friends.” Malfoy’s face looked pinched. Harry wondered if it were Pansy Parkinson they were going to meet. They had both mentioned her a few times, but no one had mentioned how she’d tried to give Harry up to Voldemort.
Blaise came into the room, sat on one of the dining room chairs in the other half of the room, and picked up their wine bottle. He nodded at the label, and put it back down. “Not bad,” he said.
“I chose it,” Hermione said.
Felix came around Malfoy, who was still standing stiffly by the door. As usual, he walked around Blaise’s legs, then jumped on his lap. Blaise gave him a fond smile. “Not on my best trousers, you stupid thing. I’m going to be covered in cat hairs now.” Harry had noticed that Felix’s black hairs, despite being only one colour, still showed up on everything. Blaise did nothing to move Felix, despite his words, and Harry felt strangely warmed by the sight.
“Do you ever worry about the house falling into the tunnel below?” Ron asked as another rattle reminded them about the tube line below.
Blaise, Harry, and Malfoy all froze, and stared at Ron.
“Er, no, old chap,” Blaise said in the end. “I can’t say I’ve even thought about it before.”
“It’s rather unusual for south London to have any underground tunnels. Most of the land isn’t suitable. However, it’s been just fine for the last hundred years,” Malfoy added. “I’m sure it will manage for a few more.” His fingers drummed on the door. “Come on, Blaise, we’re going to be late.”
“We’re not,” Blaise said, but then he looked at Malfoy thrumming and tightly held together. His face softened a fraction, and he stood up. Felix bounded to the floor, and Harry hoped he’d get a chance to get cat hairs on him, too. “We can go now,” Blaise said.
“Good.” Malfoy turned to the others. “Weasley, Granger. Good night.” Harry couldn’t help but notice that Malfoy did not look at him, let alone say his name. He gritted his teeth. Malfoy was such a prickly bastard, and was obviously going to keep on ignoring Harry as much as possible. The old competitive spirit blazed up in him, an irrational urge to somehow best Malfoy. Harry wasn’t much of an ignorer though.
He realised he was staring again. After Malfoy and Blaise had left, Hermione turned to Harry. “Well that was interesting.”
“Yes, well, every day here is ‘interesting’, if that’s what you call it.”
“Oh yes,” Hermione said, “I’m sure it is.”
The room rattled again. “You’re sure we’re safe?” Ron asked.
“You get used to it,” Harry said. “And yes, I pretty sure we are.”
“Is it always like that, then,” Hermione said. “You and Malfoy?”
“Cut the tension with a knife,” Ron said.
“We’ve never got on, you know that,” Harry said.
“Hmm.” Hermione narrowed her eyes. “He was a bit of a bastard at school. Didn’t seem so much of one today, though.”
Harry decided he’d had enough talking about Malfoy. It was bad enough living with him, he didn’t need him to hijack the topic of conversation with his friends, too.
“How are the Aurors bearing up without me?” He asked.
“Well,” Ron said. “First of all, we’ve had a bit of problem with the tea trolley. Not that that has anything to do with you. But Robards…”
Harry let Ron’s chatter about the office float above him. He kept thinking about how uncomfortable Malfoy had looked. He felt awful, he realised, that it might be his fault. Since when did he care how Malfoy felt? Malfoy had been nothing but irritating since Harry had moved in, and yet… Harry wanted to see him relax. See him smile.
He tried to nod at the right times, laugh at the right moments, but Harry was distracted all evening.
The room filled with the pale light of a full moon, reminding Harry of other sleepless nights. Even now he still missed the scratchings and soft calls of Hedwig. He wondered if that was why he liked to leave the window open at night: not because he expected her return, but because it reminded him of when she had swooped in and out of his bedroom at Privet Drive. For so many lonely summers, she had been his only real company.
Neither Malfoy nor Blaise had owls at the house, nor had Harry seen any visit them. He supposed that was normal when you lived in a Muggle area; he’d been a bit uncomfortable with Hermione’s owl tapping at the window.
A slight chill cooled the night air. Summer was everywhere, but it was also starting its languid draw to a close, Harry realised; all of a sudden time seemed to lurch. For a while everything had felt the same, and Harry had almost thought that summer would continue indefinitely, sunshine and rainy days intertwined into a single, endless, backdrop for how he’d been feeling.
His three months would be up by the time the leaves started to change. That was only a few weeks away, and then what would he do? The thought was enough to shake the last vestiges of sleepiness from Harry’s body.
An occasional car passing outside helped mark the passage of time. On nights like this, when he came fully awake in the dark as though the sun had risen outside, Harry knew it was better to not even attempt to go back to sleep. He made his way downstairs, treading carefully for sometimes Felix was about.
A light was on in the kitchen, and Harry found Malfoy making a pot of tea.
Blank grey eyes lifted to meet his own. Malfoy blinked, taking in Harry in his pyjamas. “It’s three in the morning,” Malfoy said. “Can’t sleep, either?” A small flush rose to his cheeks, and Harry wondered how irritated Malfoy was to have his quiet kitchen time interrupted.
“Would you like some tea?” Malfoy continued swishing hot water around the tea pot, then poured it out into the sink. “If you would, get a cup.”
Harry fetched a small cup with bright birds painted in a messy line around its base, then watched Malfoy’s careful movements. Each gesture was practised, and filled with grace. “For someone who doesn’t like cooking, you seem the opposite when it comes to making tea.”
“My mother taught me how to make tea,” Malfoy said. His thumb brushed the side of the teapot tenderly. “I’ve always loved the ritual of it. I find it soothing.” He laid out the teapot, the two cups, a small jug of milk, and bowl on a tray. “What I really need is a timer,” he said, looking over at the mechanical tomato that sat by the cooker. “I don’t really want a bell ringing loudly in the middle of the night though.” He glanced over to Harry. “I don’t suppose you have your wand on you?”
After the years of waking and reaching for his wand, of looking for Voldemort and Death Eaters in every shadow, Harry’s fingers still found comfort in curling around its familiar knots and grooves. Without it, he felt strangely naked, more vulnerable. It was as though without it he might revert to the Harry Potter who had never heard of magic.
“I can cast a timing charm.”
“That would be helpful, thank you. Four minutes should do.” Something crossed Malfoy’s face, a look of regret or perhaps longing when Harry pulled out his wand. As quickly as it appeared, though, it was gone. “Let’s go in the other room,” Malfoy glanced at the walls. “Even though these are Muggle tiles I keep expecting the windmills to start turning.”
The living room looked different in the middle of the night. Strange shadows fell, the light of the streetlights a harsh glare outside. Harry opened the window, in the hope of catching some of that cooler breeze he’d felt upstairs. His t-shirt clung slightly to his body in the still heat of the night. Malfoy switched on the small floor-level paper lamp by the armchair, and the room instantly transformed into a cosy and warm cave in its half-light. The tube was closed now, Harry realised, so the room remained still and unshaken.
They sat side by side again, and Malfoy tucked his feet beneath him. He reminded Harry of Felix for a moment, graceful and self-contained. A soft chiming broke the silence, and Malfoy unfolded himself to lean forward and removed the basket of tea leaves from the teapot. “Milk? Sugar?” Malfoy asked, and Harry mumbled his answer.
Heat and steam rose from the cup Malfoy handed Harry. The tea smelt like tea, but more fragrant somehow. Harry hugged his little bird-cup to him, turning his body so he was half-facing Malfoy. Once more Malfoy was curled in place, looking more relaxed than he normally did.
“Is it just tonight,” Harry said, “that you’re awake in the middle of the night?”
Malfoy blew across his own tea. “No,” he said. He looked up. “Nor for you.” He paused. “I hear you sometimes, tripping down the stairs or filling the kettle downstairs.”
“I try to be quiet,” Harry said, feeling defensive.
“Oh don’t get your knickers in a twist. I didn’t say you were like an elephant, I just said that sometimes I hear you. Because I’m lying awake in bed, stupid. I also hear the cat tearing around.”
“I thought I was the only one who couldn’t sleep.”
“I usually stay in my room. I only came downstairs tonight because I’d heard you do it on other nights.”
“You thought you might meet me?” Harry said, looking up through his eyelashes while simultaneously cringing at how much like flirting this sounded. Which it obviously wasn’t: he was only asking a question.
“No, it’s more hearing you I realised that I didn’t need to stay in bed. Merlin, after a few hours of staring at them, I begin to really hate the four walls of my room at night.”
Harry had never seen inside Malfoy’s room, he realised. He’d not ventured into the other bedrooms when he’d moved in - not for want of trying, they’d been locked - and Harry wondered if it was full of green hangings and pictures of snakes. Not that his room was all red with loads of lions. Perhaps the old house stereotypes were a bit too simplistic after all. It didn’t matter anyway, as Malfoy had expressly forbidden him from entering it. Which of course, now Harry remembered, made him all the more curious about what might be in it.
“Yeah,” Harry said. “At night everything seems different.”
Malfoy nodded. “Worse.”
The air cooled slightly with the dark night air from outside as they sat in silence, sipping their teas. It was, Harry had to admit, exceptionally good: fragrant, delicate, yet still tea-like enough to be comforting. There was no way he was going to let Malfoy know he was right though.
Malfoy settled his tea cup on the coffee table, then took a moment to neaten the arrangement on the tray. Everything, Harry noticed, was lined up with equal gaps and parallel lines.
“You like things neat,” Harry said.
“When everything else is such a mess, at least this doesn’t have to be,” Malfoy said quietly. “I feel calmer when I see it like this.” He touched each item, one by one, in order.
Harry nodded slowly, understand dawning. “Sometimes I just want the world to slow down. Keeping things the same helps.”
Malfoy looked over at him. “Is that why you don’t go out?”
“I go out for a walk every day.”
“Not that. I thought you would be busy. But all I’ve seen you do the past few weeks is mope around the house.”
“It’s… it’s complicated. I’ve gone from working all the time to… not. I don’t really know what to do with myself.”
“When you’re not fighting Dark wizards.”
Harry gave a crooked smile. “When I’m not fighting Dark wizards. Exactly.” He looked over at Malfoy, at how he held every part of his body as neatly as the tea tray. “And you?”
“I’ve never fought Dark wizards.”
“That’s not what I’m asking, and you know it.”
“I work. I work with Muggles, did you know that?”
“I’d guessed.” Harry had heard them talking about the Muggle money, mobile phones, and how people always wanted to buy postcards of Big Ben.
“I’m a tour guide, for Muggles that is.”
Harry tried to picture Malfoy telling Muggles about Buckingham Palace, or Dickens. It was impossible, but then he remembered seeing him by the river. Perhaps he’d been giving a tour that day: he’d certainly looked at home amongst the crowds of Muggles.
“It’s been… well, I’m still learning.” He gave Harry a sad look. “One thing I’ve learned is that I never knew anything about Muggles. About what a life without magic is really like.” He looked, Harry thought with surprise, as though he might cry.
He turned Malfoy’s words over in his mind, along with what he’d noticed over the past couple of weeks. That look of sadness, of longing on Malfoy’s face; Malfoy asking Harry if he had his wand on him. He spoke slowly as the dots began to join. “I… I haven’t seen you use magic here.”
Malfoy’s head tipped forward so his hair obscured his face. “I don’t really, anymore.”
“You’re not allowed to?” Harry was shocked. He couldn’t imagine even the Wizengamot handing down such a punishment.
“No, it’s nothing like that.” Malfoy pushed the hair out of his eyes. “No one told me to do it. I… I haven’t been welcome in the wizarding world. So I decided I should try to live as a Muggle. Not just with Muggles, but as one.”
Understanding dawned. “You’re punishing yourself.”
Malfoy winced. “I don’t know.”
Malfoy sighed. “A sulk, maybe.”
“So you really don’t do any magic?”
“Oh, I do a little. But I don’t have a supply of potions for headaches and hangovers, and my wand is crappy anyway.”
Malfoy’s wand: the one Harry had returned to him after the trials. The one he’d won from Malfoy. “Is that because… I’m sorry—”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Malfoy said. “I could have replaced it. I haven’t.”
Harry was quiet. He was imagining his life without magic, and he couldn’t. He kept returning to his aunt’s house in his mind, to the pattern on the wallpaper and the smell of boiled cabbage. It was beyond comprehension that Malfoy would willingly relinquish it. “I never thought you might live as a Muggle,” he said in the end.
“Nor did I.” Malfoy laughed. “And yet here I am.” He straightened his cup again, then sat back. “Enough about me,” he said. “What about you? What are you going to do? I can’t believe the wizarding world has left you alone. At the very least I thought you’d be joined at the hip to your friends. You seemed pally enough the other night.”
“I rather think they’re joined at the hip to each other.”
“Ah, I see.” Malfoy’s eyes seemed keener as he regarded Harry. “What about the rest of the Weasleys? Or what about all those Gryffindors you were always crashing around with?”
Harry shrugged. “Everyone has their own lives now. I go for Sunday lunch sometimes at the Burrow - with the Weasleys. But, er, since… well since Ron’s brother died, it’s all a bit…”
“Oh. Right.” Malfoy’s body sagged. “It always comes back to the war, doesn’t it.”
“Yeah, it does,” said Harry. He sighed. “I’m not angry with you about that, you do know that? We were both so young. We were both asked to do more than anyone that age should be.”
Malfoy’s eyes were sharp and grey even in the dusky half light. “You mean that?”
“I do,” Harry said, and as he said it he knew it was true by the way a strand of tension within him uncurled and faded away.
When Harry climbed the stairs to bed, before the stars had faded but after he’d closed the living room window to Malfoy’s satisfaction, he felt lighter than he had done in a long time. He’d never thought he’d be able to have a conversation like that. He didn’t, he realised, have anywhere to air his feelings about seeing Ron and Hermione together, or how lost and unfinished some parts of his life still felt. Yet Malfoy seemed to understand. He seemed, in his own way, lost and unfinished too.
Harry surveyed the garden. A small corner of it did get some sun, a triangle of light that travelled across from front to the back. Right now it was nearer the end than the beginning of its daily journey. He’d been to the supermarket, and then the garden centre for tools. Buying plants too had been a bit beyond him, this time; even with lightening charms managing a whole load of bags at once had been tricky. He hadn’t really thought it out, his shopping trip. Instead he’d seen where his feet had taken him. Next time he’d plan it better.
Blaise had given him some advice about Muggle methods of pruning and weeding, along with information about which charms from Herbology he could use. Armed with this knowledge, Harry set to tidying the garden as best he could. After an hour - or possibly two - Harry had worked up enough sweat to make his hair damp despite the relative coolness of the day, and a satisfying set of aches in his muscles. Walking had kept him active, but this was better. This had purpose.
Harry washed up as best he could, scrubbing away at his nails to remove the dirt that seemed to have embedded itself around them. Perhaps he ought to have bought some gloves, too. Then he remembered that Felix slunk in and out of the house and probably used the garden to… He cast a Scourgify on his hands, the sting of the cleaning charm hopefully meaning that the last of the dirt was gone. Maybe it was Malfoy’s influence, or rather the thought of the tightening around the eye that would definitely happen if Malfoy saw he had dirty hands.
As he put the kettle on, Harry heard the Countdown theme tune and smiled. Excellent. In the spirit of whatever strange rivalry he still had with Malfoy, he’d taken to joining Malfoy on the sofa every day. Just the other day he’d made a six-letter word when Malfoy had only made a five-letter word. He’d more or less given up besting Malfoy with the numbers, but then again Harry was a perpetual optimist and believed that if he watched enough, it could happen. One day.
More than that though, since they’d met in the night he’d felt a strange sense of connection to Malfoy. He’d felt more himself with Malfoy than he had with anyone else for a long time. He was, he realised, looking forward to seeing the bugger.
When he got in the living room though with two cups of tea, he found his end of the sofa occupied.
“Everywhere I went this summer, the rain followed. I never thought I’d be glad to get back to this country just to avoid the damp.” The sharp and sure voice of Pansy Parkinson stabbed through the air. Her hair was cut in the severest of bobs, and her shirt was buttoned up to the neck. She looked, Harry thought, rather scary. She was talking to Malfoy who wasn’t looking at her, his eyes fixed on the screen. And he had the cheek to berate Harry for his lack of manners.
Pansy looked up when Harry cleared his throat. “Oh,” she said. “So it really is true then.”
“Yep.” Harry wondered why nobody seemed capable of believing that he did actually live in this house. He also looked for where he could sit. “Er, do you want a cup of tea?”
“As long as it’s not that gnat’s piss Draco likes.”
Malfoy glared at her. “Don’t be nasty.”
“You can have my one, if you want,” Harry said. “Not gnat’s piss. Although,” he added thoughtfully, “Malfoy’s tea is actually really nice.”
Parkinson ignored that, focusing instead on the mug in his hand. “Does it have sugar in it?”
“Er, yes,” Harry said. “Two.”
“Perfect.” She took the tea, near enough snatching it from his hand, and tucked her feet under her. “Potter here is a proper host, Draco. Unlike you.”
“Don’t you start that again.” Malfoy gave her an affectionate smile, which seemed at odds with the way she was talking. Harry supposed they had been friends for a long time, and who knew what passed for pleasantries for Slytherins. He turned to Harry. “Pans here looks like she never eats, but she’s got the sweetest tooth I’ve ever met. She’s been berating me for the paucity of my biscuit selection.”
“All I said was that I fancied a custard cream, or a chocolate hobnob.”
“Oh,” said Harry. Those were his favourites. “I’ve got both of those.”
She practically purred.
As Harry made himself another cup of tea, and arranged the biscuits on a plate, he wondered just how he had ended up running around after the woman who’d been willing to hand him over to Voldemort. Still feeling stunned by the whole thing, he brought the biscuits into the living room, plonked them on the coffee table and then himself on the small sofa in the bay window.
On the screen, Richard Whiteley was telling a long and rambling joke. When he got to the punchline - a pun of course - his wide face creased up on screen, as he laughed at his own joke. He was the only person who did, as usual, and Harry smiled. He loved the quiet feel of this program, the way it was a comforting and calm blanket at the end of each afternoon. He glanced over at Malfoy, who wore a similar expression on his face. How much of enjoying watching this every day was down to the company? Harry wasn’t sure he’d enjoy it as much without Malfoy scoffing at Richard’s ties, or trying to compete with Carol’s maths.
As though reading his mind, Malfoy snorted. “What is that man’s obsession with diagonal stripes?”
Harry was about to say something, but Malfoy shushed him as the last ‘Consonant please, Carol’ was uttered. Glancing at the letters, Harry’s mind went blank. He watched Malfoy and Parkinson instead, remembering many other occasions when he’d seen them absorbed in something together, across the hall at Hogwarts. How strange, now, to be sitting alongside them.
As the counter began to click round, Malfoy and Parkinson both sat forward and began to shout out words.
“Ghost.” Pansy sat back with a biscuit, looking pleased.
“Hostage,” Malfoy said. Pansy rolled her eyes.
Malfoy was pleased with his seven-letter word, right up until the guest in dictionary corner came up with a nine-letter word. “Apothegms?” Malfoy said. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Just because you didn’t get it,” Harry said. “Nobody could get that word, I don’t even know what it means.” He half-heard the explanation on the telly about witticisms, but who used words like that, anyway? “He always gets annoyed if someone gets a longer word than him,” he said to Parkinson.
Parkinson waited a beat before saying, “I bet,” and Harry felt his cheeks heat. That wasn’t what he’d meant. She winked at him.
“It’s not that,” Malfoy said. He sniffed. “I’m surprised they’ll allow it, it’s the American spelling.”
“Such a snob, always,” Pansy said.
Sometimes Harry felt a bit thick compared to Malfoy. He would never, not even if his life depended on it, admit it.
During the ad break, when Malfoy presumably went to the loo, Pansy turned the volume down and fixed Harry with her steely gaze.
“So,” she said. “You and Draco.”
“Me and what? Me and Dra— Malfoy?” Harry gave a shaky laugh. “What?”
“Ah,” she said, looking uncannily like Hermione of all people. “I see, it’s like that, is it.”
“Look,” Harry said. “It’s not like anything. I know it’s strange that we’re all living together, and it’s not entirely by choice, but it’s not as odd as I thought it might be. Malfoy’s… OK. There’s so much history between us, but in a way, that makes it… easier? At least we both know what a mind-fuck it all was.”
“Hmm.” She twisted her lips and looked away. Her voice sounded less certain as she added, “And… what about with me?”
“Right. That.” Any peace Harry had got from watching TV seemed to evaporate, replaced by a sense of heaviness.
“I’m not good at this.” Pansy smoothed her hands over her lap. “Look, I was scared. I did something stupid, very publicly. I’m sorry. And I’m glad you defeated He-who-shat-on-all-our-lives.” She gave him the knife-edge look again. “That’s it. I’m not grovelling, and I’m not having this conversation again.”
“Um. OK?” Harry cast about for something to say as he watched her blinking away what he suspected were tears. He couldn’t think of a single thing. She wasn’t the only person who he’d had these little conversations and confessions with. Hannah Abbott had once told him that she’d spent the Battle of Hogwarts hiding in a cupboard. “We were all young,” he’d said in the end to Hannah, and he said it now to Parkinson. “It was frightening,” he added.
She nodded, and looked away.
When Malfoy came back in, Pansy got up and headed out of the room. Harry saw her from the dining room window, going into the garden. Maybe Malfoy was right, and it always did come back to the war. The way he’d spoken to Malfoy - or rather the way they had spoken to each other - in the middle of the night felt different to this heaviness. He thought again of unfinished strands, of feeling lost. Maybe it wasn’t so different after all.
“She can’t go ten minutes without a fag,” Malfoy said. “Filthy habit.”
Harry didn’t say anything, but when she came back in he’d made her a fresh cup of tea and left more biscuits next to her mug.
Later, after Pansy had gone out with Blaise but not Malfoy, it occurred to Harry that her filthy habit, as Malfoy called it, might have resulted in a mess in the garden. He went out to check. The garden was lit with the semi-golden light of the magic moment before the sun goes down; the edges of the leaves glowed warmly, and it was as though time stood still. Looking down however, Harry found a couple of fag ends next to the bench. Annoyance bloomed: he’d spent hours taking care of this space and he couldn’t believe she’d happily littered it like this. Glancing up at the neighbours’ windows, he couldn’t see anyone, and surreptitiously slipped his wand out so he could get rid of the mess.
Harry jumped at the sound of Malfoy’s voice. He went to stow his wand, suddenly feeling guilty, but stopped when Malfoy touched his arm.
“Sorry about her,” Malfoy said.
“You don’t need to apologise for your friends.”
“You worked so hard today,” Malfoy said. “I saw, from the window.” He hesitated, then before Harry could react, took Harry’s wand from his hand. He Vanished the cigarette butts, then handed it back.
“You took my wand without asking!” Harry said, shocked. It was an unspoken rule that one didn’t touch another wizard’s wand. Even disarming was done at a distance, with magic.
“They were irritating me.” Malfoy looked down at his hand, as though only now realising what he’d done. “I took your wand,” he said, sounding surprised. “I used magic.”
“Malfoy, when was the last time you used magic?”
“Months ago,” Malfoy said. “But now… I wonder…” He turned, and ran off indoors. Harry followed, bemused. What was Malfoy up to?
A moment later, Malfoy came bursting back into the kitchen, brandishing his own wand.
“Wingardium Leviosa!” Malfoy pointed his wand. Apples rose in the air, bobbing and spinning slowly above the fruit bowl. He turned to the sink. “Aguamenti!” Water spurted out of the end of his wand, as the apples tumbled back down behind him. “It works,” he said, grinning at Harry.
Everything about Malfoy looked different. He seemed taller, his face more open, his smile lifting every pointy part of him. He seemed lit from within, with a brighter light than the warm glow outside.
“You’ve had a problem with your wand.”
Malfoy nodded, turning his wand over in his hand and looking at it as though he’d only just got it. “Ever since you disarmed me.”
“And when you snatched my wand from me…”
Harry got his own wand out, and sent a stream of sparks flying just to check that it still worked fine. It did: privately Harry wondered if being master of the Elder Wand meant that he would always be able to master any wand. He was glad though, that Malfoy had been able to win his own wand back.
Malfoy shot a spray of flowers across the room. “I can use my wand again!” Malfoy sang, dancing around and swishing his wand. He added a flock of green parakeets, and Harry set the pans to dancing in their racks to the beat of Malfoy’s feet. Soon the room was filled with petals and feathers, rattles and clangs, as the two of them laughed in childish delight.
“I haven’t had that much fun in years,” Harry said, nearly wheezing with laughter and sliding down to the floor It had felt strangely right to be casting spells alongside Malfoy, rather than at him.
“I’m so happy I could kiss you, Harry Potter,” Malfoy said. As soon as he’d said the words his mouth clamped shut; the atmosphere in the room changed, the laughter turning to a sudden quiet.
Malfoy sat there, feathers and petals still settling around him, looking more vulnerable than Harry had seen him yet. Without meaning to, Harry was drawn to Malfoy’s lips, noticing their rosy warmth. He looked back up at Malfoy’s eyes and saw pure panic.
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t.” Malfoy stood, and began to brush his trousers down. For a split second, Harry wondered if he might like to be kissed by Malfoy; if he might have liked to have leaned forward with all that chaos and colour around them, and hooked his arm around Malfoy, and If he might have enjoyed the feeling of warm shaky breaths mingling with his own, and the taste of those trembling lips on his own. Harry swallowed.
“Um…” A whirl was setting up in his stomach, a low, dizzying spin into confusion.
Malfoy cleared his throat, and turned away. “Look at this room, what a mess! Best get it sorted right away.” Malfoy gazed at his wand, then began to swish it around the room. The piles of red roses disappeared, as a flock of parakeets flew out of the open back door. “Much better,” said Malfoy. “And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading I want to get done.”
Harry was left standing in the middle of a spotless kitchen, wondering what the hell had just happened. Nothing was out of place; it was as though Malfoy had never been there at all. And yet, in its tidiness, Malfoy was there in every neatly aligned mug and perfectly squared tea-towel. Harry had never known he could have such widely conflicting feelings about a tidy room.
He returned to the garden instead. The sun had dipped over the houses to the left, leaving it half-lit by the dimming sky. Harry ran a hand through the clematis that still ran riot over the wall, albeit more neatly than it had done in the morning. The springy tendrils slipping through his fingers helped to calm him, as did the evening scent of a day passed, combined with the lingering echoes of turned soil and clipped leaves.
A green feather floated down, and Harry caught it. He stared at it until he grew cold, standing in the garden. Quietly he put it in his pocket, and went back inside.
“Is it my turn to put the bins—”
Harry stopped talking. Blaise looked up from his newspaper, took in Harry standing there gawping and Malfoy fresh out of the shower. He smirked and bent his head back down again.
Malfoy’s forearms, Harry realised, were tanned the finest of golds. His chest was much paler, and Harry could see the line where his t-shirt sleeves ended. The translucent quality of Malfoy’s skin was even more marked on his body, lending it a sculpted air, but there was something about the pale gold of his face and arms that made Harry think of the glint of bright sunlight. Malfoy’s Dark Mark was so faded it was barely visible, just a shadow snaked across his arm.
It wasn’t the pale skin or even the Dark Mark that had stolen Harry’s words though. Thin white lines, the finest of scars, ran down Malfoy’s chest, as though he’d been cut open at some time in the past. As Harry knew he had been.
Malfoy drew himself up, wrapped the towel tighter. His eyes flicked down to his own chest.
“Admiring your handiwork?”
“I’m sorry,” Harry said. “I was the minute it happened; I had no idea what that spell did. If I had—”
“You would have used something else to injure me? Let’s be honest, Potter. We weren’t friends then, we can’t—”
“Don’t say that!” Harry stepped forward.
“I don’t want your pity, either. I did what I did, you did what you did.” Malfoy’s pointy chin rose higher.
“I don’t pity you, either. Like you said, we both did what we did. Look,” Harry sighed, “the past is a mess. A real mess, I know. But it’s not where we are right now.”
“And where are we right now?”
“Here, in this ugly kitchen. Housemates. We haven’t tried to kill each other once since I moved in, have we?”
“I was tempted after the cheese-toaster incident.”
Blaise made a noise from the corner of the room, but Harry ignored him. He had forgotten he was there, and anyway he didn’t really care what Blaise thought. All that mattered was what was happening between Harry and Malfoy. Harry stared at Malfoy, as though trying to impart some serious message. What the message was, he had no idea.
And then Malfoy’s face opened and warmed and wrapped itself up in a wry smile. “You have to admit, Potter, you took some frightful liberties with my main cooking implement.”
“I…” Harry almost laughed in relief. “I am sorry. About both things.” He couldn’t believe he was putting using a slicing spell alongside misusing a sandwich toaster, but maybe that merely reflected how much Malfoy had changed since they were teenagers.
“It’s in the past, as you say.”
Harry smiled back at Malfoy, who acknowledged it with a half-nod, then shivered.
Harry’s eyes were drawn to the curve of the lines where neck met body, where collarbones left an almost-hollow. Kissing spaces, Harry thought to himself, before catching the thought and stowing it away alongside the memory of feathers and petals. It was bad enough that he’d hurt Malfoy in the past, no need to start perving after him now.
“You must be cold,” Harry said, “standing around half-naked in the kitchen.”
“And whose fault is that? Is this conversation over, or are there any more horrible parts of our past you want to bring up?”
There were more, of course. Like the time Malfoy had broken his nose. Harry sighed, and stepped aside.
Malfoy’s eyes were cool, but he wore a half-smile as he went past Harry out of the room. As he swept past, Harry couldn’t help noticing the way that goosebumps dotted Malfoy’s skin., as though someone had just blown across it. He half-shivered at the thought.
“Is it always going to be like this?” Blaise asked. “You two staring at each other, being all moody?”
“We’ve got a lot of history,” Harry said. “It’s… complicated.”
“I’ll say,” Blaise said into his newspaper. “Oh, and Harry—”
“It is your turn to put the bins out.”
By the time Harry reached the front door, sweat was running down his back and he could feel the heat radiating from his cheeks. Everything about his walk had been too much: too bright, too hot, too noisy. His clothes stuck damply to him; despite the heat he’d hurried to get back in time to watch TV with Malfoy.
He came into the living room to see that Malfoy was already in place, a cold glass of water on the coffee table and Felix settled in a puddle on his lap. Malfoy looked up, his eyes travelling over Harry’s sweaty body. Harry wanted to step away, hide from his gaze. Instead of the nose wrinkle he was expecting though, a delicate pink flushed Malfoy’s cheeks.
“You’re all sweaty, Potter.”
“It’s hot out.”
“I hope you’re going to shower before coming anywhere near me.”
“A bit of sweat too much for you?” Harry stepped forward, aware of how much heat he was giving off, of the slight steaminess around him.
Malfoy swallowed. “You’re dripping.”
The countdown music began. “I’m going to miss it,” Harry said.
“What?” Malfoy’s eyes flicked towards the TV. “Oh that.” He cleared this throat. “I’m not sitting next to you while you’re all damp and hot and exuding…” Malfoy hesitated. “I bet you smell…” he bit his lip, “…ripe.”
Harry didn’t like the feeling he got when he cooled down in sweaty clothes, and watching TV without being next to Malfoy would be pointless, really. “I’ll be quick,” he said. “Really quick.”
As he left the room he heard Malfoy groan slightly, and the thud of Felix jumping down to the floor. Maybe Malfoy had got too hot, sitting there with a sleeping cat on his lap; he had started to look rather flushed towards the end of that little exchange.
After his shower - more of a quick sluicing rinse than anything - Harry stopped in the living room to see how the contestants were doing before heading upstairs for a clean change of clothes. He’d hung the towel neatly in the bathroom, and had his sweaty clothes clutched to him for decency’s sake.
Malfoy was still on the sofa, staring at the TV almost as though he didn’t really see it. He turned to face Harry, then swore. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Watching TV? Have you worked out how to do the numbers?”
“I wasn’t really—” Malfoy scowled. “Why are you standing there, dripping? Can you not walk into this room without being all… wet?”
Harry didn’t know why Malfoy was staring so much. It wasn’t like the other day, with the thin white scars. Malfoy had hurt Harry in the past, but not scarred him. They’d both spent years at school showering with classmates and Quidditch teams, so it couldn’t be anything as mundane as a half naked body. Especially not his, it wasn’t anything special. Just a tan, and some scars, and ribs that probably showed a bit too much.
“Go put some clothes on,” Malfoy said in a strangled voice. “Now.”
Harry returned, a few minutes later, with shorts and a t-shirt on. His hair was still damp, but Malfoy didn’t comment on it.
“Stink-free enough now?” Harry sat in his usual place and stretched out, putting his feet up on the coffee table.
“Don’t do that.”
Harry promptly removed his feet, wondering when he had become as well-trained as the cat. Probably, he reflected, around the time he’d begun to think that curling up on Malfoy’s lap wouldn’t be that bad a thing to do.
“Yes.” Harry hadn’t stopped to get water in the kitchen, because he hadn’t wanted to lose any more of this time with Malfoy.
A shy smile spread over Malfoy’s face, and he took out his wand and stared at it for a second before conjuring a glass and filling it with water. He looked like a child who’d got a new toy or mastered a new trick. Warmth that was nothing to do with the August heat filled Harry, and he took the glass with a smile.
As they watched TV, Harry glanced over to Malfoy from time to time. Malfoy was once more engrossed, his skin still slightly pinked, his pale eyes focused on the TV. Every now and then a small smile skated across his face, and his wand was still lightly gripped in his lap. Harry’s private memories of laughter and a kitchen full of exploding and floating colour were nothing more than fantasy, he knew. While he was here, what was wrong with a bit of daydreaming, or enjoying the warmth of sitting besides someone he found… well, irritating, sometimes, but also fascinating?
Once Harry had removed his gardening gloves he sat a little heavily on the bench, and looked around him with satisfaction. He was proud of his garden. The plants he’d bought were all safely planted in pots or the ground, and everything was doing well: Japanese anemones with large white flowers balancing atop spindly stems, broad leaves at their bases; a curling, spreading fern that reminded Harry of Blaise’s room; a small shrub with tiny dark green leaves that would grow little hanging clumps of orange berries in the autumn; full-leaved hostas; spreading wild geraniums; and a toad lily, which had been Neville’s recommendation.
Now, rather than a barren patch of paving stones, the garden was filled with leaves and dots of colour. Blaise had promised some bulbs, and that he would help plant them in the soil at the base of the fence, as well as in some of the pots. “It will be some colour for Spring,” he’d said.
Harry was sad at the thought of spring, because he wouldn’t be there. He had a meeting with Robards booked in for the following week to discuss his return to work, and he was sure that Dudley would be back soon. The thought of the long dark hallways of Grimmauld Place made him shiver: it was too close to the dark spaces of his nightmares.
But Dudley wasn’t back yet, and Harry could always find somewhere else to live. He’d have to face number twelve, and Kreacher, at some point. When he was ready. And he’d have to work out what to do with the house he’d inherited if he didn’t want to live in it. Hermione had been right, the change had done him good. Robards, too, if Harry was being truthful with himself: he loved being an Auror, but his heart hadn’t been in it for months.
From where he sat on the bench, he could see a flock of green parakeets in the neighbour’s tree. One squawked, and then they all flew off, strangely at home in this English setting. The breeze picked up, and a spot of rain fell on Harry’s nose: time to go in. He’d heard a few rumbles of thunder, and it seemed likely another storm was headed their way.
Malfoy came into the kitchen halfway through Harry making himself an omelette. Harry nodded at him, then continued what he was doing. Malfoy busied himself on the other side of the kitchen.
They ended up sitting together in the dining room.
“I could teach you,” Harry said, not quite daring to meet Malfoy’s eye. He’d just watched Malfoy butter some toast, adding it to the week’s tally: it was the fourth time he’d eaten toast for dinner. “How to cook, that is.”
“You’re assuming I can’t cook?” Malfoy asked in icy tones.
“Well, can you?”
After a pause, Malfoy looked down. “No,” he said to the table. He glared back up at Harry. “Happy now? Something else to pity about me?”
“Oh don’t start with that,” Harry said. “I don’t pity you.” He cleared his throat. He couldn’t quite name what it was he felt, but… he found Malfoy distracting, sometimes. And noticed when he didn’t eat properly, which was always.
Malfoy picked up his toast, took one dainty bite, and sighed. “I do miss proper food,” he said. He stared at Harry’s plate.
“Would you like to share my omelette with me?” Harry said. “And my salad?”
“You can have some of my toast.”
For some crazy reason, Harry almost wanted the slice with the neat bite taken out of it, but Malfoy passed over the unblemished piece of toast instead. He cut his omelette in half and divided it between the two plates.
Lightning flashed, like a flicker of a lightbulb, but there was no thunder, not yet. Harry tried to ignore the coming storm, focusing instead on Malfoy’s expression as he poked at the omelette with his fork.
“So, you never learned to cook?” Harry asked.
“Obviously not. We always had the house-elves to cook for us, at home and at school. Spanky always made the best puddings.”
“I have no idea how they choose their names. Father refused to call him by his name. But then,” Malfoy’s face darkened, “he was never exactly polite with any of them.”
Harry remembered Dobby, but then he remembered Sirius and Kreacher. He felt uncomfortable with the idea of house-elves, and he knew it was another reason to want to avoid Grimmauld Place.
Thunder rumbled, but Harry managed not to jump. He hoped Felix was OK, he hated thunderstorms. He always streaked out of the room when it started, running to wherever it was he liked to hide.
Malfoy took a bite of omelette, and his eyes shut for a moment as he hummed to himself in pleasure. It was distracting enough a sight that Harry stopped mid thought and watched him chew instead. He swallowed as Malfoy did, even though he didn't have anything in his own mouth.
“Eggs,” Harry said, his voice a little raspy.
Harry nodded, and cleared his throat. “Let’s start with eggs. Boiling, scrambling, frying, and so on.”
“I’m not eating eggs every day.”
“But you’ll eat toast and cereal every day?”
“Why not?” Malfoy gave an elegant shrug. “Many people do, you know.”
“For breakfast, Malfoy, not for three bloody meals a day.”
“I eat a sandwich at work,” Malfoy said. “And I eat fruit.”
Harry took a deep breath. “Whatever you choose to eat is fine. I’m offering to teach you a few extra things to cook, so you can choose them, too.”
“That sounds… acceptable.” Malfoy took another, just as distracting, bite of the omelette, and chewed. “Very acceptable,’ he added.
“Deal,” said Harry. He held out his hand.
Malfoy stared at his hand for a moment, then put his fork down and shook it. His hand was warm, the handshake surprisingly firm. “Deal.”
For a while the rain, wind, and the clatter and scrape of their knives and forks were the only sounds in the room. A particularly heavy burst of rain hitting the window with force made them look up.
“Do you think he’s OK?” Harry said after a moment.
“Hmm? Felix, do you mean?”
“Yes. I set up a silencing charm under my bed for him. He waits out storms there.”
Whatever Harry had thought of Malfoy in the past, the man he was now was nervy but kind. Harry was glad to be in this house, with this man. The drumming of the rain made it sound terrible outside, cold and stormy. But inside, in the dining room sitting opposite Malfoy and eating together, Harry felt warm and cosy. He smiled at Malfoy, and Malfoy smiled back.
“What in Merlin’s hairy beard are you doing in here?” Blaise stopped in the doorway, blinking as he peered into the kitchen.
“Chopping onions,” Harry said, at the same time as Malfoy said, “What does it look like?”
They looked at each other and laughed. Both had a huge pile of onions they were working through, and both had tears running down their cheeks.
“I can see that,” Blaise said slowly. “But it’s seven o’clock in the morning! And it’s a Sunday!”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Malfoy said. Harry nodded. Although he had begun to sleep better, especially once he’d started working in the garden, he still had nights when he would wake in the dark. Except more times than not he wasn’t alone; he’d find Malfoy downstairs, or hear his tread on the stairs as he came to join him.
“Thought we might as well make use of the time,” Harry added. “It’ll be worth it when we’re tucking into French onion soup at lunchtime. You’ll see.”
Blaise groaned, walked through the kitchen to use the bathroom, then disappeared back upstairs, presumably to bed, as quickly as he could.
“It’s very cathartic, this,” Malfoy said. “An excuse to have a good cry without having to feel sad.”
“It’s not exactly proper crying though, is it?” Harry wiped at his face with the back of his hand. “It’s more a horrible stinging feeling, isn’t it?”
“It’s like being back in bloody Potions with that friend of yours who always blew things up.”
“Poor Seamus, he never had much luck with Potions.”
“Nor did you,” Malfoy said. “Until that year you did.” He blinked out a few more tears, and began to peel another onion. “How did you do that, by the way?”
“Oh, that? I cheated,” said Harry. “Did Snape not tell you that?”
“He wasn’t in the habit of confiding in me, no.”
“I used his old school book. It had all these little notes in the margins.” Harry saw again the words for enemies. There were no more enemies. He looked up at Malfoy, his eyes pink and his lashes wet and darker than normal: perhaps Malfoy had never been an enemy at all. He coughed. “It drove Hermione mad that I was doing better than her.”
“Not just her. I hated you that year.”
“It was some year.”
“That it was. Does this mean,” Malfoy looked up, his knife in one hand and an onion in the other, “that you really weren’t the golden boy everyone thought you were?”
Harry grinned. “Guess not.”
“Who’d have thought that we’d end up here?” Malfoy laughed again. It was an open sound, like a tight knot unravelled. Harry resolved to find more occasions to make Malfoy laugh.
While the onions cooked - Harry insisted on a full hour to get them as sweet and soft as he wanted - they took turns stirring.
“I’ll make you some breakfast,” Malfoy said. “It’s the least I can do. And it is, as you are always so keen to point out, the one meal I know how to make.”
“There’s more to breakfast than toast and cereal,” said Harry. “We haven’t even started yet. There’s pancakes and French toast, there’s eggs Benedict and a good old-fashioned fry-up. There’s—”
“Coffee,” said Blaise, walking into the kitchen. “None of them count without coffee.”
“I can make coffee,” Malfoy said. “And toast. That’ll do for today.”
Harry hadn’t been made breakfast - by someone other than a house-elf - in a long, long time. He didn’t want to say this to Malfoy though, because how pathetic would that sound?
As they continued to stir, and grate, and grill, the house filled with the smell of soup. The sound of laughter chased it from room to room, and at some point that day the house began to feel like a home.
Harry was laughing when the living room door swung open, and Malfoy walked in. His laugh fell away as he saw the look on Malfoy’s face. It was one of fear more than irritation; Malfoy seemed to shrink away as he took in everything that was happening in the room.
“What,” Malfoy said between clenched teeth, “is going on?” He dropped the carrier bags he had been carrying. It was, Harry had to admit, rather an alarming sight: their house was full of people.
Blaise had put some music on, and the lights were dimmed. Pansy was sitting on the armchair, her feet tucked under her. Hermione sat cross-legged at her feet, and a bottle of wine sat on the coffee table beside her. Over on the other side of the room, Blaise and Ron were enthusing about the music.
“I think,” Harry muttered back to Malfoy, “that our friends are getting on with each other.” He surveyed the room. “At least Blaise has clothes on?” he added, trying to make the best of the situation.
“I meant why is there a Weasley in my home? Again? Have you forgotten rule nine?”
Yes, Harry remembered rule sodding nine, and he had checked with Blaise first. “Blaise was OK with it.” Annoyance flared but then faded just as quickly. Malfoy might sound like his teen self, but Harry knew him well enough now to understand that all this bluster was merely a front. Harry laughed. “Anyway, you live with me; I think it’s a bit late to be complaining about sharing your space with Gryffindors.”
“Weasley hates me. Granger punched me once.”
“You had just called her a Mudblood.”
“Oh.” Malfoy’s face clouded. He sighed. “You see, Potter, these are the reasons I can’t go back.”
“You wouldn’t do it now, would you?”
“I’ve lived for four years as a Muggle, near enough, and you ask me that?”
“It’s not the same thing and you know it,” Harry said. “How you live isn’t necessarily the same as what you believe.”
“Isn’t it?” Malfoy grimaced. “I return to my original question: what is everyone doing here?”
“Ah, well, that. I visited the Ministry today, and I bumped into Hermione and we got talking and—” Harry stopped when he saw the look on Malfoy’s face. “Er, long story short, after we spoke she decided she’d surprise me and get the house connected to the Floo network as a late house-warming gift.”
The colour drained from Malfoy’s face. “She did what?”
“And then of course she and Ron had to check it worked properly,” Harry spoke on in a rush, “and then Blaise insisted that Pansy try it out too, and then he opened a bottle of wine, and here we are.”
“This isn’t a Muggle house anymore,” Malfoy said, looking shocked.
“Er, no, I guess not,” said Harry. He had been worried about Malfoy's reaction, but then Hermione had been so enthusiastic and it would be a help. “Do you.. mind?”
“I…” Malfoy’s mouth open and shut a few times. “I guess…”
Harry saw the look of frustration and… something else flicker across Malfoy’s face, and understanding dawned. “Oh. Is it that you can’t punish yourself by living as a Muggle anymore?” he said gently.
“That’s not what I’ve been doing!”
Harry suspected otherwise, but Malfoy’s face was now stony enough that he knew he couldn’t push this any further.
“Potter, I realise the world revolves around you, but did you consider asking Blaise and myself if we were OK having our house connected to the Floo network?”
“Blaise seems fine with it.”
“Maybe I’m not.”
Harry wished Malfoy could be. “You can’t be scared all your life, Malfoy.”
“I’m not scared, Potter. Right now I’m just tired and annoyed. I’m going to put this shopping away, and then as we’re obviously not going to be having a cooking lesson I am going to make myself a cheese toastie. After that I’m going to bed, sod the lot of you.”
“Oh come on,” said Harry. “Look; I’ll help you put the shopping away, and I made a lasagne for everyone to share. If you want I’ll make you a cup of tea, then come and meet everyone. It won’t be the same without you.”
Harry was aware that this was borderline begging, but he had missed Malfoy’s presence, and maybe Malfoy would drink some wine after his cup of tea and do some more of that brilliant laughing, the kind where he threw his head back and all those little worries seemed to fall away. Maybe he’d be OK with the Floo connection, after all.
In the quiet of the kitchen Malfoy looked small and lost in the pale light of twilight. Harry switched the light on, but that made it worse. Malfoy now looked tired and washed out under the fluorescent bulb.
“So let me get his straight: you were at the Ministry today, and somehow this ended with us being connected to the Floo network.”
“There are three wizards living here.”
“It’s a Muggle house in a Muggle area.”
“It’s only a temporary connection. Hermione thought it would be a good idea to make getting to work eas—” Harry broke off, realising he’d said too much.
Malfoy froze, and his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Work? What’s this about work?”
Harry hadn't wanted to tell Malfoy like this. He’d not really thought he’d still be living here when he went back to work, for one. On his way back earlier he’d imagined sitting down with Malfoy, just the two of them, all cosy with Richard Whiteley’s terrible jokes on in the background. In his mind, he’d seen the way Draco’s face expressed so much, and the way Harry could gently calm him when he began to seem anxious. Like this, though, with all these extra people and the news about the Floo, Malfoy seemed beyond his abilities to soothe.
“I’m going back to work next week. As an Auror,” Harry said, wanting to kick himself for being so pathetic in naming his profession. Of course Malfoy knew what he did.
“But you can still live here?” Malfoy said. “Even though we’re… I’m...”
“Slytherins?” Harry tried to keep his tone light. His conversation with Robards earlier in the day had been… difficult. “I don't think which House you were in has any bearing on my job.”
“What about my having been a Death Eater?” Malfoy asked quietly, looking down at his arm.
“I spoke to Robards about it. He… He’s fine with it.” Harry didn’t mention how he’d had to play the Harry Potter card, reminding Robards how much the world owed him, or how Robards had made him promise he’d keep an eye on Malfoy.
“If you’re sure…”
“I’m sure.” Harry stepped closer to Malfoy, and touched his arm near the faded Mark. Malfoy shivered. “The past is what it is, but the present… it can be different.”
Malfoy smiled, and Harry stepped away.
“I will take that cup of tea,” Malfoy said, “As soon as all this is put away.” He nudged one of the plastic bags with his foot. “It’s the least you can do after foisting your friends and a bloody surprise Floo connection on me.”
He perched on a stool, and watched as Harry complied. Harry was fairly sure he heard the words ‘Bloody act-first-think-later Gryffindors’ muttered, but elected to ignore them. Malfoy was probably right about that.
Two minutes later, Malfoy was ensconced in his spot on the sofa with Harry in beside him as usual, nursing his tea in a somewhat sulky manner. The quiet of the kitchen was forgotten in the noise of the living room.
“I’ve had a long day at work,” Malfoy said. “And I’ve missed Countdown. All I want is some peace and quiet.”
“We can turn the music down,” Ron said. He’d watched Malfoy as they’d walked back into the room, glancing over from where he sat with Blaise. Harry saw curiosity in his face, and he knew that Ron was more observant than people thought. Or at least, he was with the benefit of Auror training behind him. There were times at school he’d been oblivious to everything around him - particularly anything to do with Hermione. Poor sod.
“Oh, ignore him,” Blaise said. “He’s like an old lady sometimes.”
“I am not,” Malfoy said frostily. The room quieted, and Harry felt all eyes on Malfoy. He also felt Malfoy squirm under the scrutiny, felt him stiffen up.
“What do you do?” Hermione said, into the silence. Harry loved her a little for trying to be friendly, at least. “Harry hasn’t said.”
Harry hadn’t said, because he’d never really talked to Malfoy about his job. He knew it was something to do with tours, and that Malfoy had regular Monday to Friday hours, but didn’t know what it involved. Any time it had come up in conversation both Malfoy and Blaise usually changed the subject. Seeing the look of polite interest on Hermione’s face, he felt like a terrible person for not even asking. He’d had a vague idea that he’d wanted to respect whatever Malfoy’s reasons were for not talking about it, to show Malfoy he trusted him. Perhaps though, he’d just come across as uninterested or selfish.
It was possible that he, as well as Ron, had the emotional depth of a teaspoon.
“Oh.” Pink spots lit Malfoy’s cheeks. “Work.” He glanced over at Blaise.
“You don’t rob banks, do you?” Ron said. “Because if you are involved in any criminal activity, I’ll have to—”
“Yes, yes. Potter’s already given me the talk. Don’t worry, it’s nothing like that.”
“Then why all the mystery?”
“Draco’s still smarting from how his mother reacted when she found out.”
“Oh shut up.” Malfoy threw a cushion at Blaise. He turned to Hermione. “It’s nothing really, and now Blaise has built it up like this it’ll sound even more silly.”
“See?” Blaise said. “Silly. He thinks what we do is silly. He is ashamed.”
Harry was fascinated. What was it about what they did that it would make Malfoy blush so prettily, and worse still, make him disrupt the perfectly organised sofa cushions? Maybe he should have asked earlier, just to see this reaction.
“As it happens,” Malfoy said with his chin held high, “Blaise and I run tour groups in London.”
This wasn’t news to Harry, but Ron looked puzzled. “For Muggles?”
“Yes, for Muggles. Do you think a wizard would go on a tour led by a Malfoy?”
“What do you know about London?” Hermione asked. She’d put her wine glass down, a sure sign that she was interested and wanted to know more.
Malfoy hesitated before pulling himself up proudly. “The question, I think you’ll find, is what don’t I know about London. We research routes, historical events, interesting titbits, and of course we have to consider how to keep the attention of a group. It’s true my parents… struggled, with my choice of job, but…” His lips thinned. “You could say that I struggled with some of the choices they’ve made, so there you go.”
“What you don’t know about Draco,” Blaise said in a conspiratorial whisper that could be heard by everyone, “is that he is terribly competitive. He’s banned from watching Mastermind or University Challenge.” He shuddered. “Believe me, you don’t want to see what happens when he does. Poor Dudley.”
“Dudley?” Harry’s head had shot up at the mention of his cousin.
“Reduced to tears,” Blaise said in his sonorous whisper.
“I am still here, you know,” Malfoy said acidly. “And let’s face it, Potter, your cousin isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the box.”
“Ooh, good Muggle phrase,” Hermione said. “Maybe you have done your homework.”
Harry felt, rather than saw, Malfoy’s internal battle to accept the praise. Malfoy had testified about what had happened to the Muggle studies teacher, he remembered. His housemate’s relation to all of this was definitely complicated. He tried to remember what Draco had said… oh, about his cousin.
“Dudley’s not that bad,” Harry said, a little too late. “I mean, he’s a nice enough bloke. He’s changed a lot from how he was before.”
“Still doesn’t make him clever, though,” said Malfoy.
Harry poked him in the side, and Malfoy squeaked as he moved aside. The way he squirmed reminded Harry of being on the kitchen floor, surrounded by petals and feathers, and Malfoy saying I could kiss you, Harry Potter. Maybe Malfoy remembered too, because his cheeks went pink again and he turned away.
Harry happened to look over to see Hermione and Pansy both sitting with exactly the same grin on their faces. He would go as far as to call it smug, in fact.
Why had Harry ever thought it a good idea to bring his friends and Malfoy’s together?
“Draco,” Pansy said, “could you settle something for Hermione and I?”
Malfoy stiffened again beside Harry. “That depends on what it is.”
“Do you still call Harry ‘Potter’, and he you ‘Malfoy’?
“And what if we do?” said Harry, feeling the question was as much directed at him.
“What he said.” Malfoy leant back and sipped his tea. “I don’t have the energy for this tonight.”
Malfoy harrumphed. “Right.” He leant forward. “Anyway, I have a question for you: how did you all become so friendly so quickly?”
“Oh that,” Pansy said. “You missed a punch-up before you arrived.” She laughed. “You should see your face! We didn’t fight. We drank a bottle of wine together, and bonded over certain… theories.”
“Theories?” Harry said. What had they been discussing when he, Ron, and Blaise had been looking at the hexed floorboard in the hallway? Ron had some ideas about counter charms that might work, and for a while the hall had been lit up like a Christmas tree while they tried a few of them out. This conversation between Hermione and Pansy on the topic of theories sounded like something to worry about; they were both still looking rather smug.
“Don’t worry, Potty. Hermione’s been telling me about her research, and I’ve been telling her what I know about house-elves.”
Harry doubted that was all of it, but maybe he was wrong and they hadn’t been exchanging theories about… well, him and Malfoy. Not that there was anything to theorise about, of course.
“If you call Harry ‘Potty’, do I get to call Draco ‘Malfy’?” Hermione asked. Harry wondered how much she’d had to drink. He suspected that she and Pansy were well on their way through a second bottle.
“No one is calling me Malfy,” Malfoy said. “That is just ridiculous.” His fingers, Harry noticed, were curled around the edges of one of the sofa cushions. The knuckles were pale and rigid, his grip was so tight.
“Just call us by our names,” Harry said wearily.
Felix walked into the room, padding around the coffee table, his back slightly arched as he studiously ignored each person he walked past. He settled against Hermione, who gave him a soft smile, rolling into a comfortable shape as the room began to rattle.
“It still does that, then,” Ron said.
“And the house is still standing.” Malfoy rubbed a hand across his forehead.
“I hardly notice it now,” Harry said. “And when I do, most of the time it’s kinda comforting.”
“Most of the time?”
Harry thought of the times he forgot and instantly assumed he was in the middle of some life-or-death situation. “Er, sometimes I still go for my wand.”
“See!” Ron rounded on the room. “It is creepy. Must be our Auror senses, Harry.”
Harry rolled his eyes but looked at his friend with affection. Maybe it was his Auror senses; maybe they were slowly awakening after a long spell of being asleep.
“Pour me some wine, and tell me about your day,” Malfoy said quietly from his side. “Please, I can’t keep talking to everyone like this all evening.”
Something twisted in Harry at these words. Of course it would make things simpler if Malfoy could get on with Ron and Hermione, but he couldn’t assume it would happen easily — or at all. So Harry settled into a description of what had happened in that day’s episode of Countdown - which he’d watched with Hermione - and what he’d done in the garden. Malfoy nodded along, and after a while seemed happy to relinquish the cushion he’d been clutching so tightly. Harry chanced a look across, and was relieved to see Malfoy’s face look softer, more relaxed.
Harry was not unnerved at all when he came back from the loo later to find Hermione in his spot, practically curled up next to Malfoy with her head bent close. He couldn’t make out their words, but she threw her head back and laughed after every single thing he said. As for Malfoy, his cheeks were pink and his eyes bright as he talked. His hands moved quickly through the air, drawing pictures as he went.
This Malfoy was one familiar to Harry from quiet, purposeful moments, but not one he’d had to share before. The wine: it must be the wine. Harry sat in the armchair and watched… watched his friends. Malfoy, he realised, was included in that description: Malfoy was a friend.
Ron came to join him. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Ron said, a tender smile lighting his face. “I love it when she’s happy like this.”
“Oh yes,” Harry said, watching the way Malfoy grinned and looked up at the same time. He looked as though he were up to mischief. Delightful mischief. “They seem to be getting on.”
“Mione’s probably pumping him for info on house-elves. She’s thrilled you’ve shacked up with a load of snooty old purebloods—”
“They’re not snooty.”
“Yeah, mate, whatever. Don’t think I didn’t notice the linen napkins.”
Harry had noticed Malfoy getting them out too, and was already preparing himself for the day of grumbling about stains and cleaning to come. “I know, but look at this house. It’s not exactly posh, is it?”
“Not exactly,” Ron said, and Harry remembered that he lived in a room half the size of this one. “Anyway, my wonderful other half has a whole notebook of questions to get through. They don’t know what they’re in for.”
“I don’t think they’re talking about her research topic,” Harry said, as another peal of laughter rang out across the room.
“Maybe…” Ron stilled, and his smile faded. A trickle of anxiety formed in Harry’s gut at the change. “It’s strange being here,” he said. “And…” he paused. “And maybe I’m just going to have to trust your judgement on this.” He nodded at Malfoy. “About him. You’re the one who lives with him.”
“Yes,” said Harry. “I am. He’s… I like him, Ron. He’s scared of living, most of the time, and then I see him like this and he’s so different. It’s strange, when I first moved in I thought Blaise was really protective of him, and now I get it. I’m protective of him, too.”
Ron was looking at Harry, a small frown on his face that Harry recognised. Ron was thinking, thinking like he did when working a case or playing chess. Harry watched an idea work its way into being across Ron’s face.
Ron put his drink down, and when he spoke his voice had weight. “I… I do trust you, Harry.”
“I know you do,” Harry said, strangely touched. His eye was drawn again to Malfoy and Hermione together on the sofa. He was still staring at them as he said again, “I know you do.” Something that had felt off-balance inside him seemed to even up. He stood up, feeling more sure of himself, even when the floor started to shake again. “Another drink?”
Ron nodded, and as Harry made his way across the room he felt a sense of peace at seeing all his friends together.
In his dream, the rooms opened one onto the next; a series of dark spaces, all wood panels and thick drapes. However fast he ran, he could never catch up with the figures ahead. He could hear their voices though; it sounded like an Order meeting was happening in the next room. Tonks, Sirius, Lupin… even Snape. If only he could find them, see their faces. Talk to them one more time.
Harry woke, his heart aching with the freshness of their voices. He sat up in bed, trying to blink away the images of Grimmauld Place from his mind.
“Lumos.” The light flicked on, the room suddenly too bright. Perhaps though, it would help drive out the thoughts of other, darker rooms.
A creak in the hallway outside - too slow to be Felix, who tended to be more skittish at night - let him know that Malfoy was probably awake. Once he’d shaken off this dream, Harry would join him downstairs for one of their chats. Instead of hearing the creaks continue to the stairs, though, a quiet knock came at the door.
“Are you awake?”
The door opened, and Malfoy came in. His hair was tousled, like pale straw, and his pyjamas looked crumpled and still-warm.
“Me too.” Without asking, Malfoy came in and sat on the chair by the desk, turning it first to face the bed. He put his feet up on Harry’s bed; his feet were pink and pale, just like the rest of him. “I dreamt about my mother,” he said. “She was crying, and couldn’t stop.” He took in a shuddering breath, and rubbed at his eyes.
“I dreamt about my house. My other house. And… my godfather, and other people. They’re all dead now.”
Malfoy’s face, already looking sad and young, fell further. “Oh.” He stared down at his hands. "Sirius Black. He was a cousin of mine, of sorts,” he said.
“I know. There’s a tapestry with the family tree on it at Grimmauld Place.” He looked up. “You’re on it.”
“The Black family?”
Harry nodded. “Some of the names are blasted off though. Not yours, but Sirius, and Andromeda.”
Malfoy’s expression changed, becoming slightly less pained, more wistful. “My aunt.”
Malfoy looked over at the photo of Harry’s parents that Harry kept on his desk. “My mother had a photo of her with her sisters. She put it away, after…”
After. There was always a before and after.
“Do you see your mum much now?”
Malfoy shook his head. “A couple of times a year. Birthdays and Christmas, mostly. They moved away, out of England, but in many ways I moved further. You know, with Muggles.”
“They don’t approve?”
“They talk about rehabilitating, but… I don’t think my father can quite forgive me for actually believing in the importance of getting to know Muggles. My mother…” Malfoy paused to wipe at his eyes again. “My mother just loves me, regardless.”
“I know,” said Harry quietly. “She was willing to defy Voldemort, for you.”
Malfoy winced as Harry said Voldemort’s name, but not in the way most people did. Malfoy’s reaction was much more personal. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“Andromeda is bringing up her grandson - Professor Lupin’s son.”
Malfoy nodded. Harry wasn’t sure how much of this was known or talked about publicly: he was so used to having all aspects of his life discussed by strangers, but didn’t know how far that applied to others around him. He sighed: his life was strange.
“And do you see them much?”
Harry shook his head. “I should do,” he said. “But I’m not very good at doing it.” He thought again of Remus and Tonks, laid out in the Great Hall. “I…” he tried to swallow down the pain that felt so close, that hovered in his throat threatening to escape. “Her grandson is my godson. I’m supposed to see them, but I haven’t gone since Teddy’s birthday in April. I think it might be one of the reasons I can’t sleep.”
“Guilt,” Draco said after a moment. “Yeah. I know about that.”
They sat in silence.
“Maybe I should do it, go to see them.” Harry said. “I’m feeling… the break from work has done me good.” He looked up at Malfoy, who was slouched on the chair, all crumpled-looking and pale. You’ve done me good, he added mentally.
Malfoy wriggled his toes, stretched his feet, making the bed beside Harry shift.
An idea suddenly came to Harry, a way to make it possible. Malfoy had been good for him. With Malfoy he felt… more whole, somehow. The pain of the past seemed more bearable.
“Would you… I mean…”
“Spit it out, Potter.”
“Will you come with me when I see them next?” he asked.
“Are you mad?” Malfoy almost displaced Harry’s duvet entirely as he moved his feet off the bed in indignation. “You are several herbs short of a full brew, you know that don’t you? She might be my aunt, but I’ve never spoken to her, never even met her.”
Harry pulled the duvet back up. “Because she was disowned for marrying a Muggle, right? But you live as one now.”
“You think it’s really as simple as that?”
“What do I know of family?” Harry said. “Please.” He gave Malfoy his most entreating look.
“You are a horrible Gryffindor, I hope you know that. Far too scared, and not opposed to a bit of emotional blackmail. The only thing you do well is the stupidity.”
Harry hid a smile. If Malfoy had got to the point of calling him stupid, he must be near giving in. “I’ve never claimed to be particularly brave or clever.”
“You are impossible. But I suppose you I could help you. If my aunt will see you with me present, I’m sure there’s nothing she can say to me that’s worse than anything I’ve already thought.”
“Thanks,” Harry said, his smile finally spreading wide. “You’re brilliant.”
Malfoy flushed, then drew his feet up under him and wrapped his arms around himself. “You’re a great big wimp, that’s what you are.”
Harry laughed. “I don’t get called that much.”
“Then not many people know you very well, do they?”
Harry could be brave, whatever Malfoy said. He looked him over, at how his hands were rubbing his arms as though to get warm. “It looks cold there,” Harry said, as Malfoy shivered. “It’s warm in here.” He pulled back the duvet, and moved over. “I think you could fit in.”
Malfoy looked shocked. “I’m not getting into bed with you.”
“Why not? I still can’t sleep and I want to keep talking, but you’re distracting me with your shivering.” Distracting him with his pointy nose and deliciously ruffled hair, more like. Harry decided it best to keep this observation to himself. A tingling had taken up in his fingers and his toes, at the thought that Malfoy might take him up on the offer.
“If you didn’t leave your window open all the time, it wouldn’t be so bloody freezing in here.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of fresh air,” Harry said. He tapped the space beside him. “Come on. Your toes are beginning to look a bit blue.”
“I—” Malfoy shivered. “Fine. But only because you won't shut up about it otherwise.”
The tingle had spread all over Harry’s skin now. The bed dipped as Malfoy sat on it, then got under the duvet.
“Ow!” Harry pulled away from Malfoy’s icy feet.
“Oh,” said Malfoy in a bland voice. “I thought you knew my feet were cold.”
“It wasn’t an offer to personally warm them.”
They sat quietly while the bed and Malfoy warmed up a little, without any further assistance from Harry. It was a small enough bed though, that they were pressed against each other, side to side. Harry’s skin felt extra sensitive; he could feel his pyjamas, and the soft weight of the duvet, but more than anything else the solidity and angles of Malfoy beside him. He concentrated on keeping his breathing even.
Malfoy shifted a little, so he faced Harry more. “I’ve not heard you talk about your old house before. You’ve not been… you’re not thinking about moving back there, are you?
“Not until I have to.” Harry went quiet as he thought about how each of Dudley’s rare postcards was from further and further afield. He wondered how much further he wanted Dudley to go. Was the moon a possibility?
“But you’ll be moving out when your cousin gets back, and then your little Slytherin holiday will be over.” It was a statement more than a question, delivered with a dull finality.
“Don’t be an arse about it. I want to stay.” Harry’s eyes met Malfoy’s. He tried to smile, to lighten the mood. “And why would I move out before you’ve mastered bread-making?”
Draco pulled his hands from under the duvet, wiggling his long, thin fingers. “These hands are too fine for kneading dough.”
Harry snorted. “Your hands are perfectly capable of kneading. I’m sure you could pound with the best of them.” His cheeks flamed as he realised what he’d said. “That is, er…”
Malfoy made a fuss of tucking his hands under the duvet again, and getting into more of a comfortable position. “I had thought that now you’re going back to work, you might change your mind about wanting to live here with us if-you-break-any-rules-I’m-watching-you people.” He mimicked Ron’s tone perfectly.
“I’m sure you’re not up to anything at all,” said Harry, also wriggling into a more comfortable position. He yawned; he was beginning to feel a little drowsy.
“Yes, we are an exciting bunch, aren’t we? What did the evil Slytherins do today? Mess up ciabatta!”
“You’re not still going on about that, are you?” Malfoy had experienced his first cooking disaster that week, after which he’d gone silent and refused to cook for the rest of the day.
“I’d rather bake cakes than make bread.”
“Cinnamon buns? We could make cinnamon buns. They’re halfway between the two.” Harry pictured Malfoy licking sugar from those long thin fingers, and his breathing became shaky for a moment.
Malfoy pouted. “That might do. Can we make them really sticky, with extra—” He stopped. “Are you changing the subject?”
“You’re the one who brought up bread.”
“We were talking about you leaving.”
“I’d rather not.” Harry yawned again. “Do you mind if I turn off the light?”
Malfoy was quiet for a moment before answering in a whisper, “No.”
Harry fumbled for his wand, cast a Nox, then lay there even more conscious of Malfoy’s warm presence by his side. It wouldn’t take much to reach out; Harry wondered what Malfoy’s face would feel like in the dark. He wondered how soft his lips would be.
“You’ll stay?” Malfoy’s voice was small, but more vulnerable-sounding in the dark
“For as long as I can.”
Harry settled down and into the darkness and the sound of Malfoy’s breathing beside him. Eventually, their breathing slowed; Harry drifted into a warm sleep, comforted by Malfoy, warm and solid, by his side.
When he woke in the morning, Harry was disappointed to find his bed empty, a cool hollow beside him the only sign that Malfoy had been there. But then a small crash and the words ‘bloody cat’ came up the stairs, and Harry smiled in relief. Malfoy was still in the house, and Harry hadn’t scared him off.
When he came downstairs, he found Malfoy sitting in the garden, staring at the Japanese anemones.
“My mother grew these, at the Manor.”
Harry sat beside Malfoy, close enough that their hips and legs brushed. Malfoy didn’t move away: in fact, Harry thought he felt Malfoy lean in. Harry held his position, not daring to move a muscle.
“Did you sleep OK?”
Malfoy regarded him through pale lashes. Every part of him was neatly back in place, with no sign of a crumple or crease anywhere. And yet… there was something of the closeness of the night before, in the way they were sitting, in the look they shared.
“Yes,” Malfoy said. “Once I fell asleep, I was… warm. Comfortable. I slept well.”
The tingling feeling had sprung up again, and was travelling along Harry's arms and legs like little zingy energy bolts.
“Good.” He watched the dipping of the flower heads in the invisible breeze.
“Did you mean what you said, last night. Will you come with me, to visit Andromeda?”
“I meant it.” Malfoy's voice was so quiet, Harry almost didn’t hear him.
“What about if we went today?”
“Gryffindor, remember? Strike while the iron’s hot and all that.”
“Worried you’ll chicken out, more likely.”
Harry didn’t admit it, but Malfoy was right. When they rolled up to her door later that day, he had owled first, but not given her enough time to reply. It was cowardly, he knew, but he couldn’t face Andromeda telling him Malfoy wasn’t welcome. If he didn’t see her now, he couldn’t see how he’d ever get the courage to do it again. And having Malfoy there helped.
She opened the front door, looking greyer and older than she had done last time he’d seen her.
“Harry,” she said, opening her arms for a hug. She enveloped him in the smell of warmth. “You came.” She beamed at him, then turned her attention to Malfoy. “And brought a friend.”
“Andromeda,” Malfoy said, holding out his hand. Harry could see the effort it took to do so. Malfoy’s hand, Harry would warrant, would be cold and shivery however mild the day.
“Cissy’s boy,” Andromeda said, with a sound of wonder in her voice. She stared at the hand, then took it in hers. “You have your father’s hair, but your eyes…” She gave his hand a gentle shake, looking over his face the whole time, as though she could drink him up.
Malfoy’s eyes, too, were tracing her features. Harry was reminded of the first time he’d met Andromeda, how he’d seen both her sisters in her. How he’d also seen her softness, too. What was it like, he wondered, to see someone who looked like one’s mother, but so soft and warm at the same time? Narcissa Malfoy had never struck Harry as either.
“Harry, Harry, Harry!” A small voice broke through, and then the sound of running feet, followed by a small boy with black hair appearing at the door.
As they walked into the dark hallway, Harry's arm tingling again as they brushed up against each other, Malfoy whispered, “I thought you didn’t see them much?”
“Teddy has a bit of a Harry Potter crush,” Harry said. “He’s got toys.”
“Do I want to know?”
“I’m sure he’ll show you.”
Two small sofas faced one another in the living room, and photos of Ted, Lupin, and Tonks were spread over bookshelves, window sills and the mantelpiece. The space was cramped, the furniture tired. With the rest of her family gone, and having to take care of Teddy, Harry didn’t know what Andromeda did for money. He didn’t dare ask, either.
Harry and Malfoy sat together - in the same positions they did at home - as Andromeda went to the kitchen to get tea. Harry’s skin felt super sensitive after a torturous day of tingling from every accidental touch. He was aware of Malfoy’s elbow pressed into his side, of the way their thighs were solid in their closeness.
Teddy climbed on the back of the sofa, then slid down between them, breaking the connection.
“Who are you?" he said to Malfoy. “I’m Teddy and this is my house.”
“I’m er, I’m your cousin, Draco. Draco Malfoy.”
Teddy nodded solemnly. “Drackee Malfee,” he said. “Drackee Malfee, Drackee Malfee, Drackee Malfee!” He smiled up at Malfoy, his teeth tiny and white. “You’ve got a funny name. I like it.”
“Me too,” Malfoy said. “And I like your name as well.”
“Draco’s mum is my sister,” Andromeda said, coming back in with a tray of tea things. Harry noticed it contained all the same things Malfoy used to make tea, only they were scattered on the tray in a most unordered way. He wondered if Malfoy noticed, too.
“Can we have the biscuits now?” Teddy asked, a naked look of possible-joy on his face.
“Yes. Why don’t you get them? They should have cooled by now.”
Andromeda waited until he’d left the room. “Draco, Harry tells me you’re living as a Muggle now.”
Malfoy shot Harry a look. “Yes, I have been for a while.”
“How strange that a Malfoy should choose to leave the wizarding world.”
Harry felt Malfoy’s arm make contact with his side again, and this time it was he who leaned into Malfoy.
There was a small quiver to Malfoy’s voice as he replied, “No stranger than a Black doing so.”
She smiled sadly. “For different reasons though.”
“I don’t think we can really help the family we are born into,” Malfoy said. “But maybe we can live differently.”
“You’re not like your parents.”
“They’re not as you remember them, either.”
Malfoy was trembling slightly at Harry’s side. It must be so strange, to talk to his aunt like this. To meet her for the first time, with the unspoken extra aunt hanging in the air.
“Look!” Teddy ran back into the room with an enamel tin full of biscuits. “We made them scar-shaped!”
Andromeda had the good grace to look embarrassed. “They came as part of a set,” she said. “People do keep buying him Harry Potter things.”
“Can I show Drackee Malfee my room?” Teddy asked after he’d smashed a biscuit into his face in a manner reminiscent of Ron. Andromeda nodded, and Teddy grabbed another biscuit before leading Malfoy away. Malfoy looked pale and a little scared, but took Teddy’s hand when offered and let himself be pulled away.
“I am…. surprised to see that you are spending time with my nephew,” Andromeda said. “I can see that you two are quite close..”
“Yeah, I guess we are.” Harry chewed on his scar-shaped biscuit. It had a faint lemony tang, and a crunchy sugar layer. He took another one. “We live together. That is, er, we’re housemates. I thought it was a Muggle house.”
“You’re not at Grimmauld Place anymore?” Her voice sharpened, and suddenly Harry saw her resemblance to Malfoy. And her sisters.
“Er, no,” he said. “It was… I needed to be with other people for a while.” He didn’t know how to say how alone or miserable he’d been there. It was, after all, a house she knew too.
“He’s still there. I think he’s trying to make it a bit nicer, it got a bit neglected in the past.” Harry didn’t know, actually, what Kreacher was doing, but admitting that felt like a failure.
“I remember it being a beautiful house,” Andromeda said. “Full of scary things though. Are the elf-heads still there?”
Harry shook his head. “I put them in the attic.”
“One time we slid down every flight of stairs, from the top of the house all the way to the bottom. We got in so much trouble! It was worth it though.” A soft look crossed her face, but then she frowned, and sighed. “It’s like the girls I remember us being are strangers now.”
Harry couldn’t imagine having family that grew up to hate and kill each other. Dudley being a bully and even his aunt and uncle shutting him away seemed like nothing compared to Bellatrix.
“It’s a big house,” he said. “I bet it was fun.”
“Too big for you?”
“Too… empty, maybe.”
“I’d like to see it some time, if I may. I don’t have anything else to remember my childhood by, and maybe it wasn’t all bad, after all.” She drank her tea, looking lost in her memories. Harry took a sip of his own tea, which tasted just like the fancy one Malfoy made.
“And now you live with Draco, and you are… friends? You brought him here.”
“It felt strange, the idea of coming to see you but leaving him at home. And yes, he is my friend. He’s been good for me.” It was more than that, though. Harry’s mouth felt dry, and he licked sugar away from his lips. “I know I should have come sooner,” he said quietly.
“We’ve missed you.” It was and wasn’t a reproach. Guilt curled within Harry; he knew not seeing Andromeda and Teddy was one of the reasons he couldn’t sleep at night. The sense of duty was like a dead weight, pulling him down.
“It’s just…” he looked around the room at all the smiling, waving portraits of Teddy’s dead family. “I find it hard.”
“So young to have to live with so much death. How old were you, Harry, when you first saw Thestrals?”
“Fifteen,” Harry replied. “After I saw Cedric Diggory die.”
“Most people go to Hogwarts without ever knowing what one looks like.”
Harry wondered how many of the older years at Hogwarts saw the Thestrals now. A whole generation had lost their innocence, not just him. “I don’t think that’s true anymore.”
She dipped her head, looking regal for a moment. Then she picked up some knitting, and looked decidedly less so. “You’re always welcome here, Harry. But I don’t want it to be an obligation.”
“I’ll try harder,” Harry said. “I’ve had some time off work, I haven’t been feeling very well.” They sounded like excuses to him. The grip of guilt was still tight and heavy in his gut. “I’m feeling a bit better now. I’ll try to come more often.”
“When you’re ready,” Andromeda said. She counted her rows, lips pursed as she muttered the numbers to herself.
“Ganma! Ganma!” Teddy exploded back into the room, his hair now the same silver-gold colour as Malfoy. In his hands though, was a miniature Harry Potter in Hogwarts robes. Harry was pleased to see he hadn’t been totally usurped in Teddy’s affections.
“His collection was most impressive,” Malfoy said. “I especially approve of how everything is displayed.”
Harry turned to Andromeda, who lowered her knitting and smiled fondly at her grandson before twinkling her eyes at Harry. “All in height order,” she said. Harry could see how Malfoy would like that, how it would appeal to his need for order.
“I half think that Malf— Draco is going to want to put me in order now,” said Harry.
“As if that’s possible,” said Malfoy. “Even your hair won’t stay in order.”
Teddy giggled, then repeated his sofa climbing and sliding.
“No climbing on the sofa!” Andromeda said, but Teddy just grinned and slid between Harry and Malfoy again.
Harry moved up so there was more space for his wriggly little hot body. Sitting back on the sofa, Teddy’s legs only just reached the each of the seat cushions. He only stayed there a moment before wriggling some more until he’d turned around and could slide off the sofa onto the floor. Even watching him move was exhausting, and Harry had no idea how Andromeda kept up with him.
After drinking another cup of tea, and telling Andromeda about his little garden, Harry and Malfoy made ready to depart. Teddy, who’d sat on the floor by their feet playing with building blocks that looked old enough to have belonged to Tonks, rushed to the door to give them both a hug.
Andromeda put her hand on Harry’s arm before he left. “You are always welcome here, Harry. And… so is Draco. He isn’t responsible for his grandparents’ or mother’s behaviour.”
“Thank you, that means a lot,” Harry said.
As they walked through the first of the fallen yellow leaves of autumn, down the path to the gate, Malfoy poked Harry in the ribs. Electricity travelled from the spot he’d touched, radiating all through Harry’s body. “I can’t see why you made such a fuss about going.”
“It’s complicated.” Harry glanced over at Malfoy. He was the most complicated part of all.
“Everything’s complicated for you. It isn’t, but you make it so.”
Harry shrugged. Any lingering feelings from the visit were overwhelmed with the rising giddiness he felt around Malfoy. “Drackee Malfee,” he said, wanting to see what reaction he got.
“You are not going to call me that.”
“No? I think it has a lovely ring to it.”
“Will you go again?”
“I… think so. It felt different this time.”
“I’d like to explore Teddy’s Harry Potter collection some more. Did you know he had a scar-shaped cushion, a picture book about your life, playing cards with you and your friends on them, a pair of glasses like yours but with blank glass in them, and at least five different dolls—”
“Those aren’t dolls,” Harry sniffed. “They’re action figures.”
“They’re dolls. Andromeda had knitted them teeny tiny little jumpers and scarves. He got me to undress and redress one for him.”
“You stripped me?”
“I did indeed strip you, quite naked.”
“Oh.” For a second, Harry pictured being stripped, quite naked, by Malfoy. He blinked.
“It wasn’t a very impressive sight,” said Malfoy. “Under all that knitting.”
“It was a doll, Malfoy.”
“Aha! You admit it was a doll.”
“Shut up, Drackee.”
Harry’s heart was tight and full in his chest; it felt as though it could burst at any moment. He swung the gate open with a flourish, and took advantage of Malfoy then being ahead of him to admire his whole figure. How could grey wool suit someone so well?
Maybe Malfoy was right. Maybe he had been making his life too complicated; maybe it was time to try to live differently.
The Atrium looked different somehow. As well as his long maroon cloak, Harry felt as though he were wrapped in the constant travelling tingles and shocks he’d been feeling every time he was near Malfoy. He felt alive with it, as though powered by the buzz of it all.
“Good morning!” He smiled at the Welcome Witch. She smiled back; it was probably the first time he’d acknowledged she was alive all year.
His desk, last seen drowning in files, was blissfully clear. Carefully Harry unpacked the plants he’d shrunk and placed in his pocket. His friends who’d seen his gardening efforts at home had given him a range of plants as gifts: a cactus from Ron, a rangy succulent from Blaise, huge leafy peace lily from Hermione, and an impossibly demanding bonsai ficus from Malfoy, of course.
Looking at them lined up, he decided that they made an oddly-matched collection, but it worked. Harry wondered if he meant the plants or his friends, but on reflection it didn’t really matter. Maybe he fitted in best with an irregular group than a regular one.
“I haven’t worked out whether it’s that the plants that make your desk look different, or if it more that you’ve changed,” said Ron as he came to greet Harry. “The break’s done you good.” He smiled.
“A bit of both?” Or maybe it was something else, something… blonder. Harry touched the soil of the bonsai one more time, hoping he’d got it right this time. There was a light smattering of leaves on his desk at home, even though it had sat there for only a short amount of time.
“Whatever it is,” Ron said, “I’m glad you’re back.” He gave Harry a warm smile.
“Me too,” said Harry. “Me too.”
After he’d enquired about Ron’s weekend and heard all about how Hermione had taken him to the old Mimsy-Porpington seat - the ruins of Nearly Headless Nick’s old house, as Ron had explained when Harry looked puzzled - he returned to his paperwork. As a gentle return to work, he was to review files, which meant spending more time in the office than usual. Surprisingly, Harry was fine with this. Without the extra pressure of being miserable, he found he could concentrate without it feeling as though his head might implode. He’d always liked the active part of Auroring, but now he was enjoying this part too. All the careful thinking and attention to detail made him think of Malfoy, and as he picked up the case with the missing potion ingredients, he wondered what Malfoy would make of it all.
“As we’re always either having a cooking lesson, or you’re making the things you’ve already learnt, which are basically all the things I make anyway…”
Harry and Draco stood side by side in the kitchen, peeling vegetables for a Sunday roast. Draco, not Malfoy; at some point in the week, between the shy glances and electrifying accidental touches, Harry had begun to think of Draco as Draco, and that had been that. Aloud however, had been another matter. A nervous energy that wouldn’t dissipate had Harry on edge; his leg kept jigging and he’d been finding things to do all morning. The build up of tingles, zings and zaps had Harry almost on edge now. He was jumpy, and Draco had begun to notice.
“Get to the point, Potter.”
“You know, every time you say that I hear ‘Potty’ now.”
“I don’t care,” Draco said, picking up another carrot. “Just finish what you were saying before.”
“I was thinking, maybe we should cook together?”
“We are cooking together, right now.”
“I mean every day. Shop for food together, and cook together. For each other. Eat together, too.” It was what Harry wanted, more than anything else.
“What about Blaise?”
“He manages just fine.” Every week, Blaise made a huge pot of stew or curry, then froze it in portions and ate the same thing every day. It was efficient, but Harry couldn’t bring himself to eat the same meal for a week. He enjoyed cooking, and he enjoyed having variety in his life. “Besides, he says we fuss like old ladies when we cook.”
“He says everyone acts like an old lady. He has the most unoriginal range of insults.”
“A bit like his cooking.”
“What are you two old ladies wittering on about?” Blaise said as he walked into the kitchen, and Harry and Malfoy looked at each other and smiled. Harry was still aware though, of the tingling build-up of magic. His foot began tapping on the ground, and he made an effort to still it.
“I’m, er, suggesting that… Draco and I cook together.”
Both Draco and Blaise’s heads whipped round.
“Draco?” Blaise said.
“It’s that or Malfee” Harry said. ‘Malfoy’ seemed too… cold, or distant somehow. “Sorry. Between Pansy and Hermione saying it so much, and then Teddy with his ‘Drackee Malfee’s…”
“Honestly!” Draco pouted. “Is no one capable of calling me by my name?”
“I just called you ‘Draco’,” Harry argued.
Draco gave Harry a heavy look. “That doesn’t count, not from you. Are you going to expect me to start calling you Harry, too?”
The thought was tantalising. Harry wanted to hear Draco say his name. He wanted to hear it said softly, shouted loud. He wanted to hear it in the middle of the night, in the dark. Harry shrugged, as nonchalantly as possible. “It is my name.”
“So’s Potter. I ought to call you Potty just for this.”
“Whatever you say, Malfee.” He chanced a side-glance at Draco. Pink spots marked his cheeks.
“That was uncalled for.”
“It’s the choice, I’m afraid.”
“Malfee,” Draco muttered. “Ridiculous.” He glared at Harry. “Fine, call me whatever you want. I can’t speak for the consequences though.”
Harry grinned. “That’s good enough for me. And what about the cooking?”
“It’s a possibility.” Draco’s eyes narrowed. “But why now? Something’s up. You’ve been as fidgety as a Snidget all day long.”
Harry’s stomach tumbled over again. “Er, well…” He searched for something to say. He couldn’t exactly say ’Draco Malfoy, I think I might be forming a bit of a crush on you. I get all tingly on my skin when I’m near you.’ Draco would run a mile, and think Harry was a bit of a creepy nutter to boot. Better to keep it to himself.
It was Harry’s turn to glare at Draco. “I thought you said you’d call me Harry.”
“I said you could call me what you wanted, I never promised anything for myself.”
“Right.” Harry swallowed back his frustration, deciding to fight one battle at a time. “The thing is, well, I was wondering if you’d like to come to the Burrow for lunch with me next weekend?”
He almost clapped his hand over his mouth, because he had no idea where that had come from. As soon as he could, he was going to have to drop to his knees, stick his head in the Floo, and beg Molly Weasley to extend her Sunday lunch invite to Draco, too. He gritted his teeth, but the alternative - telling Draco why he’d said such a ridiculous thing - was unthinkable.
Confusion chased across Draco’s voice, followed very tentatively by hope. “The Weasley residence?”
Harry nodded, his heart a bit heavier at lying to Draco.
“Weasley’s parents want to invite me to lunch?”
Harry had no idea where this was going to lead. Was he going to get a dinner invite from the Malfoys? He hoped not.
“Er, they know we’re friends?”
“Friends,” Draco repeated, half to himself. He tentatively smiled, as though not quite believing it.
Harry really hoped Molly would be OK with this. Pulling in the opposite direction to the worry though, was the happy glow he felt seeing Draco say that one little word: Friends. That look of surprised pleasure suggested that maybe it meant something to Draco, too.
“Friends,” Harry said, as definitively as he could. “It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
Molly had surprised Harry by agreeing at once. She had a lot of questions about Draco, and Harry suspected that he’d be in for a bit of an inquisition when they went for lunch. She asked so many questions, that Harry wondered what Ron and Hermione had been saying to her about Draco. He hadn't really thought about it before, but of course his friends and family - the Weasleys were family - were interested in who he was living with.
Draco, for his part, began a tidying frenzy that went beyond the normal one-room-each-plus-vacuuming rota that they normally stuck to.
“They’re not coming here,” Harry said, after he found Draco wiping down the insides of all the kitchen cupboards. “And even if they were, no one would look inside the cupboards.”
“I would,” Draco said, his voice half-muffled from inside a cupboard. He sat back on his heels, peeled off one rubber glove, and wiped sweaty hair away from his eyes. He looked slightly debauched, all flushed and mussed up, as he sat back on his knees. “And anyway, I know they’re not coming here. I’m not doing this for them.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“Because it’s the only thing I know how to do when I feel like this,” Draco said. “I’ve never planned on eating with the Weasleys, or going to their home. I spent years sneering at them,” he hung his head down, “and surely they must hate me. After all, my aunt…”
“Yeah,” said Harry. “But you’re not your aunt. And anyway, maybe it goes both ways: Molly did…” Harry mimed waving a wand, not really wanting to say ‘Kill your evil aunt’ out loud.
Draco’s face twisted into a bitter smile. “It was a relief to learn that she was gone. It is complicated, though.”
“I thought I was the one who had the complicated life.”
“You don’t have a monopoly on being complicated. And besides, yours is a doddle.” He closed his eyes as though remembering something, and when he opened them again, he looked sad. “I… well, I resented it, for a while, how much you moped when you had such an easy time.”
“Living with Voldemort in my head wasn’t easy.”
“I didn’t say it was. I mean now.”
“I don’t mope.”
Draco regarded him quietly for a moment. “Not so much now, but when you first moved in you did.”
“Why are we talking about me, anyway?”
“Can’t even talk about it,” Draco muttered. “Fine.” He snapped the rubber glove and put it back on. “Go find someone else to bother, I’ve got to get all the cupboards finished and then I want to wash the ceiling before I go to bed.”
“It doesn’t matter what you say, Potter, they are all going to hate me. Everyone hates me.”
“Andromeda didn’t hate you.”
“It’s not the same, you know that. She’s family. And she can’t hold Bellatrix against me in quite the same way, seeing as she was her own sister.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“And you’re a foolish Gryffindor with insomnia.”
Nothing he said would reassure Draco. “And you’re a fussy Slytherin, also with insomnia.” He went to leave the room, but stopped at the door. “I really don’t hate you, you know that right?”
“I know,” Draco said, his voice muffled again and his bum sticking up in the air. “Like I said, foolish Gryffindor.”
“Can I at least make you a cup of tea?” Harry asked.
“No. Just go away and stop hovering,” Draco said. “It’s bloody annoying.”
He gave up. He hadn’t been able to do or say anything right, all week. As he went back up to his room, avoiding the stair where Felix was curled up asleep, Harry hoped that it would all be OK.
It had to be.
“Harry,” Molly greeted him warmly at the door. She smiled at Draco, too, but it was a little tighter around the mouth. “Draco.”
“Mrs Weasley.” Draco held out the bunch of dahlias he’d bought for her.
“They’re lovely. And please do call me Molly, everyone else does.”
Looking around the Burrow, Harry suspected that maybe Molly had spent the week in a similar fashion to Draco: every surface gleamed.
Lunch felt more stilted than it usually did. George was conspicuous by his absence, and Harry supposed that Draco wasn’t entirely incorrect about his presence at the Burrow being complicated.
“So, Draco, Ron tells me that you give tours to Muggles?” Molly said.
Arthur’s eyes lit up at the word ‘Muggles’.
Ron and Hermione exchanged a look.
Draco looked at his plate as he spoke. “I give tours of different parts of London, or on different themes.”
“Like a certain group of people or period of time.” Draco looked up.
“Fascinating. And how do you find the Muggles?”
Draco shrugged. “They’re just people, all different.”
“I have to say,” Molly said, “that’s not something I ever thought I’d hear a Malfoy saying.”
Beside Harry, Draco squirmed in his chair. For a second, his leg touched Harry’s, and the all-too-familiar sparking sensation travelled up Harry’s leg. A moment later it was gone, and Harry focused on cutting a roast potato in half to calm himself. It was ridiculous that he hadn’t got used to this response yet. Then again, it was ridiculous that he was having it, anyway.
“I’ve learned a lot about Muggles,” Draco said.
“What do you know about plugs?” Arthur said. “Would you, for example, know how to wire one?”
“Excellent, excellent,” Arthur said. “Maybe we can go out to the shed after lunch.”
Molly shook her head ruefully. “You and that shed.” She smiled, with exasperated affection. “Don’t think I don’t know what you get up to in there.”
Harry had heard this exchange before, and smiled to himself for the feeling of comfort he got from it. Arthur continued tinkering with Muggle rubbish, and Molly’s perpetual complaints about it were the bread and butter of Weasley life.
“Everyone needs a hobby,” Arthur said, completing the familiar routine. He helped himself to some peas, and smiled to himself.
Harry ate some Yorkshire pudding - it was better than his, he hated to admit - and sat back. Maybe it would be OK after all.
A moment later, Draco knocked over his water glass. He fussed at the wet patch, apologising profusely. Harry felt his leg jitter, felt the tingling again, didn’t know where to look or what to do. After a moment, Draco remembered his wand, and he cleared his mess with an embarrassed cough. Beside Harry, his body stilled, but bowed a little.
Or maybe it would always be complicated.
The trees wore golden crowns; the leaves were turning from their tops down. Once Arthur had taken Draco out to the shed, Hermione had dragged Harry away out to the woods near the Burrow for a walk, which he knew was code for a talk. He didn’t feel great, leaving Draco in the lion’s den, so to say, but both Arthur and Hermione had been very insistent. Harry looked back in the direction of the house; he was just going to have to trust Draco to be fine on his own.
“It will be Halloween soon,” said Hermione.
Harry trudged on, enjoying the crunch of leaves beneath his boots. He didn’t want to think about Halloween, it was always a bit of a strange time of year for him. “I can’t believe I’ve been living with Draco and Blaise for five months now. I thought Dudley would be back by the end of August.”
“Is he OK? You don’t think—”
“Oh, we get a postcard every now and then. Last one was from Thailand. He said he’d got some bar work. I guess he’s made enough money to stay away a bit longer.”
“What are you going to do when he does get back?”
“I don’t know.” Harry thrust his hands in his pockets. “I like it there, Hermione, I don’t want to leave.”
“You like the house, or a certain someone who lives there?”
Harry was silent. Even the thought of Draco made his whole body ache with wanting to be tucked up beside him on the sofa, or standing by the cooker bickering about whose turn it was to stir.
“I don’t know,” he said, although of course he did. He knew that at night he lay in bed and thought about pale limbs, that over breakfast he watched the way Draco buttered his toast, that while Draco leant forward as he tried to work out the Countdown conundrum, Harry was staring at his neck and thinking about how it would taste, how it would smell. “He’s just… I feel protective.”
“You’ve spent the last half hour telling me how fragile he is, how you never really knew him before, how scared he seems of everything.” Hermione stopped, letting a short man with two dogs pass by. She prodded Harry in the chest. “You, Harry James Potter, are the one who’s scared. You’ve been playing it just as safe as Draco ever has done.”
“I… no I haven’t.”
“You’ve never said anything, to me and Ron, but here we are talking about your relationship with a man.”
“There is no relationship!”
“Because you are a scaredy cat, Harry.”
“Sorry, but that’s precisely what it looks like from the outside. You hid away in Sirius’s miserable old house for years, you plodded to and from work while growing paler and the circles under your eyes ever darker. And when you did finally change something - by chance, I might add - it did you the world of good.”
She started walking again, so fast that Harry struggled to keep up.
“You’re angry with me,” he said, trying to match her strides.
“Yes I am.” Her breath was coming faster, her cheeks heated in the autumn air. “It’s not the stupid rattly house that’s helped, it’s living with some impossible mirror-image that’s done it.”
“We’re nothing alike.”
“No?” She laughed. “You’ve both been scarred by living with Voldemort, one way or another. You were both totally obsessed with each other at school—”
Harry opened his mouth to protest, but Hermione, threw an arm out in front of him, as though to physically prevent him from going there.
“Don’t you even think about interrupting me!” She was, Harry could see, now in full flow. “You’ve met your match, Harry, and you’re terrified. Look, I understand. How many years do you think I pretended that Ron was just a friend, just an idiotic boy?”
“He was pretty idiotic—”
“That’s not the point! He was my idiotic boy. And I think Draco is yours. And to be honest, you are being so thick-skulled about this I rather think that you’re matched on the idiotic front, too.”
They both veered to opposite edges of the path to avoid a huge patch of thick black mud. Hermione glared at Harry. He walked carefully to avoid becoming stuck, or worse slipping, but Hermione didn’t seem to care and marched onwards, the tip of her rust-coloured scarf bouncing behind her.
“It’s… it’s all a bit much,” Harry said as he caught up with her. “I’ve never.. It’s really…” He almost tripped over a root. “Oh fuckit,” he said. “Okay. I like Draco. I really like him. Happy now? I like boys as well as girls, and the totally idiotic boy I like is that messed-up, nervy, tidiness-obsessed Slytherin.”
“Was that so hard, Harry?”
“Yes, it bloody was.” Now it was Harry’s turn to be angry. “I was getting there on my own, I didn’t need your help. Besides, what’s the point? I might have a crush on my housemate, but what use does that do me when it’s not going to go anywhere?
“How do you know if you don’t even try? That’s what I’m trying to say.”
“I… I… I don’t know.” This part of the woods ran alongside a large field, and Harry looked out at the long furrows and distant hedgerow. “It’s complicated.”
“It feels risky, I understand that,” Hermione said. “But sometimes it’s worth the risk.”
“What if I ruin everything? What if I end up back in Grimmauld Place with Kreacher, alone and miserable?”
“Oh, Harry.” Hermione threaded her arm through his and hugged it close. She felt solid and warm at his side. “Whatever happens, you won’t do that. You’ve found a way to move away, and I don’t think you’ll ever move back.”
As she said it, Harry realised it was probably true. Sirius might have wanted him to have the house, but too much had happened since then. He didn’t want to live there, it was as simple as that. His throat grew tight, and his eyes hot. Of all the things he thought they might end up talking about, he’d never imagined it might be this.
He was never going back to Grimmauld Place, not to live.
When they got back to the Burrow, Harry hung back. “I’ll come in soon,” he said. “I just need some time to think.”
He sat on the bench behind the back door, and looked out over the fields and trees. In the distance, a crow cawed. Now he’d stopped walking, Harry could feel the cold. He rubbed his hands together.
Sadness weighed him down, like a wave breaking. His time at Grimmauld Place was over. He watched the clouds glide by, their pace glacial. The tears he’d held back with Hermione came now, only a few but wrung from a deep place. He’d thought once, that Sirius was his hope, his home. And now…
Now it was a rattling house with an aloof cat, and at its centre, Draco. Beyond the clouds, the sky was a bright, clear blue. Maybe what he was feeling was just a strange and tingling-skin crush, and maybe it would pass. But then again, maybe it was a chance for something new in his life… maybe it was hope. Sadness mingled, bitter-sweet, with longing. And threaded through both, a deep fear that somehow this couldn’t be, that Harry didn’t really deserve any of it.
He’d been lauded for bringing down Voldemort, fêted and given an Order of Merlin. Through those long, hard months of funerals and eventually, trials, Harry hadn’t felt he’d deserved any of that celebration. He’d done what he could, but was it enough when so many he, and others, loved were dead?
But when he closed his eyes, he saw Draco. He saw someone who knew, too, this heavy feeling, and who still looked at him with bright eyes, despite the trembling scars.
Harry stuck his hands between his knees, his eyes still shut tight, and let himself drink up images of Draco. Pink cheeks, pointy nose, scared eyes, proud chin. A cloud of feathers and petals.
I could kiss you, Harry Potter.
Maybe there was hope, after all.
When Draco walked up with Arthur - his face flushed and, rather unbelievably, Arthur’s arm slung about his shoulders - Harry’s heart trembled and lifted. Arthur went inside, leaving Harry and Draco alone by the back door.
Harry looked over at Draco, unsure of what say while his heart was full of fragile possibilities. The crow in the nearby field cawed again.
“You survived, then,” Harry said.
“I can’t believe you abandoned me like that.” Draco sounded more incredulous than annoyed.
“I’ve done my time in Arthur’s shed.”
“He wasn’t anything like I thought he’d be. I—” Draco stopped himself, and came to sit beside Harry on the bench. He continued in a quiet voice: “My father used to say terrible things about the Weasley family. And so did I… that they’ve let me into their home—”
“—yes, and shed,” Draco rolled his eyes. “I’m trying to say something important here, you idiot.”
Harry shrugged and smiled, secretly thrilling at being called an idiot. It tended to be one of Draco’s fonder insults. Harry knew he was deflecting away from their difficult past, but… that was how the tug went, between wanting to run away from the past and wanting to face it if it meant being closer to Draco. Silly jokes aside, he was interested in what Draco had to say, however uncomfortable it might be. “Sorry. Go on.”
“They’ve welcomed me today. Mr Weasley was so enthusiastic about his collection of lawnmowers and toasters, and he didn’t seem to care that I’m a Malfoy at all. It… wasn’t what I was expecting.”
“You thought they’d call you names?”
“I thought it would be… difficult.” Draco stared out into the distance. “I was terrified, you know, of coming here today.”
Harry knew he had been; he knew what an effort it had taken for Draco to step into the Floo and come here. “I’m glad you did,” said Harry.
“Me too,” said Draco. “I’ve not been near anyone wizarding for so long, I thought I didn’t belong there, anymore. But maybe I was wrong.”
The chickens pecked around at the end of the yard, and above their heads smoke rose from the chimney. Harry was growing chilled after his walk, but didn’t want to move. Not yet. It was good to be sitting like this, looking out over fields and hills with Draco.
Draco nudged Harry slightly, and smiled. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this,” he said, hesitating before continuing, “But for someone who works with Muggle artefacts, Mr Weasley is, er, spectacularly misinformed, isn’t he?”
“Well…” Harry couldn’t argue with this. He remembered what Blaise had said about how hard it had been for him and Draco to fit into Muggle life. “I guess you don’t have much to go on, do you, as wizards?”
Draco shook his head. “Even if I had paid attention at school, I don’t think I would have understood. It’s like… it’s like going to another country,” he said. “Everything’s different: the money, the names for things, how things are done.”
“But you did it,” Harry said softly.
Harry looked over at him. The colour was fading from Draco’s cheeks, and his hands were rubbing together as though to ward off the cold. A faint puff of white came out with each breath; everything about him was enchanting.
“Maybe I should write a guide: How to Live Like a Muggle, or Which Way Up a Toaster Goes.”
Harry laughed. “Arthur would love that.”
The door creaked open, and Molly stuck her head out. “What are you two boys still doing out there? Come back in before you catch a chill.”
Harry stood, and held his hand out for Draco to go in first.
Maybe there’s hope, Harry thought, as he watched Draco duck back into the Weasleys kitchen, for both of us.
Harry’s body ached, a twinge that occasionally passed through his left side after he’d caught a Stunner earlier in the day. He yawned, easing his body into its tiredness, savouring the bone-deep satisfaction that came from having earned it.
Being back with the Aurors brought its own set of challenges. The things that had made it hard before - the paperwork, the feeling of being closed-in at the office, coming home to Kreacher every night - weren’t a concern anymore. And as for the field work, Harry had forgotten just how much he loved running down alleys with his wand out, and the thrill of solving a crime. He’d forgotten how easy it was to work with Ron, or any of the other Aurors. It was a surprise, in a way, not to have any of them argue back or insist on calling him ‘Potter’.
The problem wasn’t the job at all. The problem was Draco.
“Good day at work?” Draco looked up from his perch on the sofa, already changed out of his own work uniform. His fine, soft jumper clung to him in just the right way, and all Harry wanted to do was burrow into Draco’s side. Instead though, he sat beside Draco, hiding a wince as he did so.
Draco looked up sharply. “What stupidity have you been involved in today?”
“Bollocks. You’re hurt.”
“You always say that.”
“And I’m always fine. You’re just fussing.”
“I do not fuss.” Draco drew himself up. “Malfoys do not fuss.”
“This one does.”
Once Harry had gone back into the field, Draco had become more and more convinced that his job was incredibly dangerous. Most of it was paperwork, but Draco wouldn’t believe him.
Harry tried to give a reassuring smile. He couldn’t mention the Stunner, it would send Draco into a tailspin.
“Turn the telly on,” Harry said. Draco was still frowning, and Harry rolled his eyes. “It was just a long day. Chased down someone who was stealing potion supplies. Still haven’t worked out what they were for.”
“Right.” Draco’s eyes narrowed and Harry knew he didn’t believe him. It was the truth… only minus the bit where he’d been Stunned, crashed to the ground, and had to be Revived, and then checked out at St Mungo’s.
He settled back, trying to keep as relaxed as possible. The room rumbled quietly as as a train passed beneath them. He sat a little apart from Draco, trying to avoid the tingling zing if possible. He didn’t hear a single word any of the contestants said, or any of the terrible jokes. Instead he sat there, aware of Draco, wanting to sit nearer but dreading it at the same time.
He stared blankly at the screen. Carol laid out number cards; beside him, Draco started talking but Harry didn’t hear a word of it.
What was he going to do? Was Hermione right, should he risk everything, risk this time sat together watching Countdown, or the quiet hour spent cooking each day? What if Draco rejected him? His brain stuttered to a halt when he tried to consider the alternative: when he tried to consider Draco feeling anything towards Harry other than prickly, slightly over-protective friendship.
Now the anagram that ended the program was on the screen. Harry wasn’t quite sure how half an hour had passed so quickly, but it had. He hadn’t a hope of untangling the letters, but the conundrum in his life was sitting beside him. Draco was a mystery.
Either he or Draco had moved, because he became aware of tendrils of sensitivity running from every point of contact with Draco. Harry could feel the tension in Draco’s body, knew without looking over that he was leaning forward, elbows on his knees and chin in his hands. He looked over anyway, wanting to see the small frown, the slight twist to the lips.
Harry swallowed. He felt hot, all of a sudden. “What?”
“Partydive. The conundrum, it’s depravity.”
“Oh, right, I see.”
Draco’s glance slid over to Harry, just as the Countdown clock ticked down and he was proven right. Harry quickly looked ahead, hoping he hadn’t been caught staring at Draco.
“You’re not even taking this seriously, are you?” Draco said.
“How can you say that? I’ve watched every episode the past three weeks.”
“You’ve not even attempted the letters this week.”
“I, er, it’s stressful being back at work.” This was utter bollocks, but had been a useful excuse recently. Sitting next to Draco every day like this had been a delicious torture. The only real countdown in Harry’s life was the number of hours until the next TV-cooking-eating evening together.
“I do hope you’re not this addled at work, isn’t the safety of wizarding Britain in your hands?”
“Hardly. I mean, I’m perfectly fine at work. In fact, I’m using my brain so much—”
Draco snorted. “It is possible to concentrate on one’s job without draining one’s intellect completely.”
“Depends what you do.” Harry couldn’t resist looking over at Draco again. Draco was smiling, regarding Harry with what Harry hoped was warmth. His insides flickered and danced.
“You think my job isn’t draining?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I’ll have you know that Blaise and I work very hard on our tours. We’re not delivering somebody else’s tours, it’s all our own material.”
“I’ve seen the index cards.” There was a huge box of them, all colour coded. Draco and Blaise would sit with them, choosing which tours and routes to offer each week. Blaise maintained that a bit of variety was important, but Harry suspected that Draco would have been happy giving the same tour, day in day out.
“And it took a long time to put them together! It’s an art form, holding people’s interest and choosing exactly which information to share.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure,” Harry said. The credits had finished, and the ads were rolling.
“—I said, turn the telly off, we’ve got to get dinner done. Honestly, Potter, you are useless.”
“Oh right, yes.” What was it, Harry wondered as he turned off the TV, that stopped him from being ‘Harry’ to Draco? He thought back to how Draco behaved in the kitchen. He would glance at Harry to check he was stirring right, then act triumphant every time he mastered a new skill. It felt like such a balancing act between tight nerves and a looser, more joyous version of Draco. He looked over at Draco, and saw someone too scared to call him by his name. It was like being in the presence of a skittish animal, always unsure of where danger lay.
What then, was the danger for Draco in calling him ‘Harry’?
Harry’s breath caught at the sight of Draco. He wore a tight-fitting set of wizarding robes and trousers in some kind of thick, heavy fabric, a dark grey that made Draco’s eyes seem like points of light. Shiny silver buttons ran down the front, and at the pockets neatly angled on Draco’s hips. Harry watched as Draco carefully examined then put on a long cloak - the same grey as his clothes - that seem to all fall from the shoulders, where a silver chain closed to join the front.
“Don’t start, OK? I’m stressed enough as it is.”
The word beautiful died on Harry’s lips. Draco did though: he looked slender in a way that fitted his pointy nose and chin, and the sharpness of the tailoring gave him an air of authority that felt new to Harry. It was… well, it sent a shiver travelling up Harry’s spine.
Draco smoothed his clothes and cape, and checked his hair in the mirror. “I’m not looking forward to this.” He slid his wand into his sleeve. “It has to be done, though.”
“What does?” An image from the trials came to mind, of Draco trembling and slight. And alone. Harry’s pulse picked up. Draco wasn’t in some kind of trouble, was he? He wasn't going to do something stupid?
“It’s my mother’s birthday today,” said Draco. “She’s having a party.”
“A what?” Relief and confusion flooded through Harry.
“Don’t be an idiot, Potter, I don’t have time for it today.” Draco’s face was pinched, as though he had a headache. He wouldn’t meet Harry’s eyes.
Without further explanation, Draco took a pinch of Floo powder, muttered a name Harry couldn’t quite catch, and stepped into the fireplace.
Haunted. That was the word Harry wanted to use. Draco had looked haunted.
Time passed differently without Draco there to talk to, Harry realised. He wondered how the party was going. He considered going for a walk, but on looking out of the window decided that he didn’t want to; it didn’t really feel like November outside, it was too mild and wet. Harry wanted crisp autumnal days, but instead it was all wet leaves and dark skies.
He’d actually got a pinch of Floo powder in his hands to so he could chat to Ron and Hermione - or snag a cup of tea - when he sat back on his heels and decided against it. Whatever he did, he kept returning to that scared look Draco had worn as he left. What was Draco doing? Was he OK? Maybe he was having fun, meeting a load of snooty purebloods and hobnobbing with people who also insisted on linen napkins.
Harry picked up a book on caring for bonsai trees he’d got from the library, and looked at it without reading any of the words or even taking note of the pictures. The problem was, he was worried about and for Draco. There wasn’t a single memory he could find of Lucius Malfoy being anything other than a conniving bastard, not that he’d expressed this sentiment directly to Draco, of course.
He sighed, and put the book down. He didn’t want to leave home, as he wanted to be there when Draco got back in case he needed a friend, but he also couldn’t concentrate on anything or sit still.
The memory of Draco with his head in the cupboard surfaced, and Harry almost groaned into the empty room. This was how Draco had been before their trip to the Burrow. Perhaps, then, he could take a leaf out of Draco’s book. Harry wasn’t going to scrub out any cupboards, but he could dust and vacuum, wipe and mop. If Draco was stressed, coming home to a tidy home could only help.
As Harry dusted the dining room though, he wondered why he bothered. Everything was so clean already. It was as though someone far more fastidious than he had been through and done all the cleaning already… Of course: Draco had known he had this party to go to, hadn’t he?
The image came to Harry of Draco with his bum sticking out of the cupboard. It was a very nice bum, all pert and lovely. Why it had to be attached to such a frustratingly opaque man, he had no idea. He stood by the shelves, hand stilled mid-wipe, thinking about Draco.
Harry was going to be, as Draco called it, a foolish Gryffindor. Tonight, he’d do or say something. He couldn’t go on in this strange limbo anymore, his skin alive with every touch, his mind always on Draco, his every moment filled with nerves and hope and doubt. He had to know how Draco felt about him, if there was any chance that Draco and he could—
A crash brought him out of his reverie: he’d knocked a box off one of the shelves. His stomach dropped when he looked down and saw what seemed like hundreds of index cards, all different colours, spread out over the floor.
Draco and Blaise’s tour cards. Harry knew, as surely as he knew anything else, that Draco would have had them in a very precise order and would immediately notice if they had been messed around. He dropped the duster and knelt down, trying to scoop them up so they stayed together in the right order. Some did; he could see that all the blue cards had fallen into a neat fan. The yellow and pink cards however, had fallen against the shelves and scattered.
With trembling hands Harry retrieved some of the green cards from where they had slid, perilously, into the gap between the painted floorboards. This was going to be a disaster: Draco was already going to be in a terrible mood, what with seeing his parents, and when he saw this… Harry couldn’t declare anything, he couldn’t ask anything of Draco. He lay the green cards on top of the others, then gripped one hand with the other. He was shaking now, and he didn’t want to knock anything else over.
Instead, Harry sat there and stared at the two sets of handwriting: Blaise’s heavy lines, the thick loops of the Ls and the small dark curves of the ps and ds; and Draco’s delicate, perfectly-formed-but-tiny words. Draco always made notes when they cooked. He had a narrow black notebook which he filled with recipes, measurements, timings and his observations. Harry smiled, because he could picture Draco sitting at the dining room table, a small frown on his face, quill in hand.
He slowly deciphered the words, the meaning coming gradually as the angle the card was at meant turning his head at a slightly awkward angle.
St Paul’s Cathedral. Symbolic of London; actually built after a firm of architects saw the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, & thought that it looked ‘right’ for London. A case of life imitating art.
Harry rubbed his eyes: surely he’d read wrong.
When he read over the words again - risking turning the card to a better angle to do so - they still said the same thing. He picked up another card, then another, forgetting all about order and tidying up.
Every one of the cards he picked up contained incorrect facts, ridiculous histories, and laughable information.
Fire of London, 1666: Londoners were called to raise their skirts and lower their britches, and urinate for their city. The streets ran yellow with piss, and the stench afterwards rivalled that of the burnt wood.
Was this what Draco and Blaise so earnestly did for work? Harry’s heart lurched, out of rhythm, in what felt like a hollow chest.
The words seemed to blur in front of his eyes, twisting as he stared at them. Harry had to put a hand on the floor for support, feeling suddenly light-headed. Questions flooded his mind in a noisy whirl: What was Draco doing? Why was he lying to Muggles? What was he up to?
An old, horribly familiar feeling grew in his gut, warring with all the other feelings he had, of longing and the skin-memory of electric tingles.
Draco had said he was living as a Muggle, had sounded as though his whole attitude to Muggles had changed, but here he was feeding them any old tripe. What was going on? Tears sprang, unbidden, to Harry’s eyes, and he wiped them away as a distraction. Was this tour guide business just a chance to laugh at Muggles?
Stupid Muggle. The words Draco had used to describe Dudley came back to Harry. Maybe Harry should have paid more attention, rather than being blinded by pointy chins and the joy of meeting someone totally unphased by who he was.
But none of this made sense. He knew Draco. He did. Draco wasn’t the sneering boy of his youth. He was scared and far gentler than… Harry just wanted to protect him. And yet the cards were still lying around him, with all those ridiculous things written on them. He couldn’t deny what he could see. He groaned; he needed to work out what was going on. Sort it all out in his head, make sense of what he was seeing and hearing. Rational thought wasn’t exactly possible though, not while Harry’s gut was churning and trembling waves of what-the-fuck kept tumbling through him.
Outside clouds passed, bringing the odd patch of lighter sky, along with more wet weather. The room went from dark to light and back again; at times it shook with trains, before returning to a sullen stillness.
Harry sat on the floor until his legs had gone numb, his fingers cold, and his back had begun to ache. He stared at the cards; he stared unseeingly at the room.
Eventually he carefully gathered up the cards, stacked them in colour order, and put them back in the box. There was no way he could recreate Draco’s original order, but he could at least not leave them in a total mess. The card at the front - the one about St Paul's - was slightly crumpled from where he’d gripped it too tightly in disbelief. The rest were still pristine, apart from the odd corner that had got caught when he’d picked the card up. There was no major damage to any one card, though.
Felix came in, and stalked back and forth a few times before climbing onto Harry’s lap. Harry shifted, trying to get comfortable. Pins and needles began prickling up his legs, painfully so. It seemed best to ride them out, so Harry stayed where was, stroking Felix until his legs began to feel a bit more normal again.
“Whatever these cards say,” Harry said to Felix, “it isn’t a lie, the time I’ve spent with Draco. None of this makes sense, but it will do. I’ll make sure it does.” He rubbed between Felix’s shoulder blades. “I just hope it’s not… I hope it doesn’t change things.” The last words came out tight and pained.
Felix rubbed his head into Harry’s hand. Harry let his hand travel through the soft fur, over and over again as his eyes began to tear. Felix stood, circled, then settled into Harry’s lap and began to purr.
“And now you’re talking to cats,” Blaise said from the doorway. “I always knew you’d end up sitting on the floor conversing with felines.”
“You talk to Felix all the time,” Harry said with his head hung down so Blaise wouldn’t see his tears. He tried to wipe them away without Blaise noticing.
“He’s my friend.” Blaise came to sit on the sofa. “As is Draco.” He paused. “I can’t believe my cat is being such a tart with you.”
Harry wondered sometimes, what Harry thought of the way he and Draco spent so much time together. “Like… Draco?” Harry managed to ask.
There was nothing of the charmer when Blaise answered, a weary expression on his face. “I tried to tell you once, how fragile he is. I’m telling you again: be careful. Don’t hurt him.”
“You don’t entirely trust me, do you?”
“I don’t know if I can.” Blaise’s eyes darted to the index box by Harry’s legs. “I do like you though, Harry. I’d like to think we’re friends.”
“We are friends. Or… I thought we were.”
Blaise’s sigh was heavy. “And there you go. I’m not sure you trust me, or Draco, either.”
Harry remained silent. Because how could he answer that, after what he’d just read?
“But Felix trusts you,” Blaise said. “He’s a good judge of character. I’m going to have to go with that. Look, when Draco gets home, he’s going to be in a bad way. You two need to sort this out, but give him a bit of space first. OK?”
Blaise left, and Felix hopped off Harry’s lap to follow him. Harry was left alone with nothing but his thoughts for company.
Harry left the box of index cards in the middle of the table. He was going to have to face Draco about this: there was no point putting it off. With one final glance around the room he turned the light off, and headed up to bed.
Sleep though, didn’t come. Harry sat by his window, watching the sky turn from day to night. At one point, he heard Draco come back, heard his step on the stairs and then the soft thud of his door shutting.
Harry stayed where he was, staring at the far-off stars. In his hand, he held a small green feather. He sat there for a very long time.
In the morning, he walked into the living room dreading what he would find. Draco was sat at the dining table, pale, pinched, arms crossed, and the box of index cards in front of him. The crumpled green card sat beside it. It reminded Harry, painfully, of how Draco had looked the first morning when he’d gone through the house rules. Had everything that had passed since then come undone?
“Sit.” The way Draco said it, it didn’t sound as though there was any alternative. Harry sat opposite him, his hands clenched tight in his lap.
Neither spoke. Felix came in, curled up in a sunbeam on the floor, then promptly fell asleep. A car drove by outside. Harry could feel a slight chill from the draughty window.
Draco spoke first. “What the fuck is this, Potter?” He nodded down at the table.
Harry swallowed. He couldn’t bring himself to meet Draco’s eyes. “The things written on those cards—”
“I mean, what the fuck were you doing snooping through my things?” Draco’s voice was tight with fury.
“It was an accident. I was cleaning, and the box fell down. I knew the cards would be messed up - their order, I mean - and I was trying to get them back as best I could. And… and I read some of them.”
“The green ones?” Draco asked. “Like this one?” He nodded down to the crumpled green card on the table.
Harry nodded. “All night I’ve been trying to work out what it was I read on those bloody cards. I thought we… I thought we were getting on well.” His words didn’t make sense, but then neither did his thoughts. “I hoped— But now… I have to wonder if you saying you respect Muggles was some elaborate… I don’t know.”
“So you immediately, what, assumed I was up to no good?”
Harry cringed at how close Draco was to what he’d been thinking the day before.
Draco continued. “It doesn’t matter what you say, Harry, you obviously do care about this.” He lifted up the arm Harry knew held the faint grey lines of the faded Mark. “I can’t believe I let myself fall for yo— for your talk of new beginnings, and your bloody Gryffindor friends, and sodding cooking lessons. What a load of bollocks it all was, after all.”
“It wasn’t…” Harry said, but he could hear how feeble the words sounded. He stared, wordless, at Draco.
Anger shifted into something more fragile as Draco dropped his head into his hands. “I went to the Burrow to prove that I’d face my worst fears to be with you, but it was for nothing, wasn’t it?”
“No?” Draco laughed bitterly, his head coming up so that he could glare at Harry.
Harry felt something twist terribly within his chest. Half of him wanted to rush to Draco’s side, and reassure him that he didn’t mean any of it, that he did mean every minute of their time together. But then he remembered how he’d felt when he’d read the cards, and the other half heard Robards’ voice the day he’d told him he was living with Draco, saying ’Just be careful, Harry, you don't really know how much you can trust him.’
“It’s just…” Harry wanted to cry.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” Draco said. He covered his face again, and when he spoke again his voice was dull. “But I can. I shouldn’t have—”
“I… I don’t understand,” Harry said. “I don’t understand about why you’d have those cards.” It was one of the questions that had kept him up all night. No matter what he thought, he couldn't quite escape it.
Draco looked up, his eyes fierce. “And you can’t just ask, without jumping to conclusions?”
“It wasn’t a small thing I read, it was a huge whopper of a lie.”
“The most ridiculous things possible about Muggle history, right?”
“I…” the wind went out of Harry. “Yeah. As though... you think Muggles are… idiots.”
“That’s what you thought.” Draco’s voice was flat, and heavy. The words sounded final.
“What else am I meant to think?”
“Fuck you, Harry Potter.” Draco stood, moving so suddenly the table wobbled. He stood with his back to Harry, looking out of the window onto the side of the house.“Maybe my father was right about you, maybe you’ll never do anything else but look down your nose at me.”
Harry’s temper flashed at the mention of Lucius Malfoy. “I’ve never done that, and you know it. You’re the one who used to look down on me, and my friends. You’ve called my cousin a stupid Muggle, over and over again. It always sounded as though… well, as though both words were meant to be an insult.”
Draco was quiet. “I like Dudley,” he said in the end, turning to face Harry. “He reminds me a bit of… well, me, actually. He told me once, how he and his friends used to treat other people.” He looked at Harry. “He meant you, didn’t he?”
“He didn’t really discriminate: he picked on everyone. But yes, that included me. A lot.”
“I could hate him for that.” There was something fierce in Draco’s tone that made Harry look up, that made his heart pick up for a moment, impossibly.
“I want to be wrong about this, I do. I want to trust you,” Harry said. “It’s just… there’s something about it that makes me think it’s true. In some way. You think he’s stupid - he is a bit - and you think his being a Muggle is a shortcoming, too.”
“What do you want me to say, that I do hate them sometimes?” Draco said, his voice rising. Then he seemed to shrink back into himself, as if scared by his own anger. He sighed, and came to sit back down again, holding his arms even more stiffly around himself. “I’d be lying if I said I never did. Sometimes.. sometimes I’m with Muggles and they are so blissfully free of all the fear and crap of our history, they don’t care what my name is, and they think I probably got this tattoo to annoy my father.” He rubbed his arm and laughed a humourless laugh. “And at those times, I almost hate them for how… how free they are.”
Something within Harry tore a little, as Draco spoke. He felt… pain, pain for Draco.
“I…” Harry stalled.
And maybe pain for himself, too. Sometimes Harry envied other people - Muggles - their ignorance and anonymity. Hate didn’t seem that far from the bitterness he felt at times.
Draco’s cheeks bore points of colour; he was still angry. “You’ve lived with us for what five, six months? How many questions have you asked about our jobs, Harry? How many?”
“You didn’t want to know. You don’t really care.”
Harry felt something in him break. Was that what Draco thought? Worse still, was Draco right? Was he really that self absorbed? “I do, I just—”
“Please, save me the excuses. They might work on your friends, but I’m not one of your fans and I won’t buy any old bullshit.”
No, he wasn’t, he didn’t, and it was one of the best things about him.
“I didn’t want to pry.”
“You didn’t want to pry, and yet you’re sitting there all serious as though I’ve committed some major crime. Don’t give me that crap, Auror Potter.”
“If you’d bothered to find out about my job - like your friend Hermione did, by the way - you would know that we do a monthly special where we offer a ‘100% Untrue Guide to a London you Never Knew’. They book up early; the punters know exactly what they’re getting.”
“Oh.” Harry sat back. He remembered Hermione cosied up to Draco, and the two of them laughing. Had they been talking about the tours, all the way back then? A novelty tour made sense. More sense than all the thoughts that had gone through his mind. A sick feeling of shame climbed and gripped Harry from the inside.
“I haven’t hidden anything from you. If you haven’t known what I’m doing, then that’s on you, not me.”
Harry nodded without looking up. He didn’t know what to say to Draco. The only thing he really knew, was that this was a horrible mess now. He didn’t know how they could go back to how things had been.
Foolish Gryffindor indeed.
A low rumbling rattle filled the room as a train went past, and it seemed fitting somehow. Harry felt as shaky and unsettled as the room. With everything lost, with everything stripped back and fallen away, what did Harry have to lose? Everything, and nothing. He’s spent all night thinking about this, and he dug deep for the resolve he’d found as the rising sun had lit the sky. Maybe he just hadn’t been foolish enough yet; maybe he didn’t want things to go back to how they had been.
Tendrils of energy travelled through Harry, even though they’d not touched.
“It’s not about the cards, or the tours,” Harry said. “Not really. You’re right: I never did ask about your job. Do you want to know why?” He didn’t wait for an answer. If Draco spoke, he might not be able to go on. “I was scared that I might find out something that would mean that I had to go away, or that you would.”
Draco shook his head. “All that time you were willing to think the worst of me.”
“No, not that at all. All that time, I was desperate to think the best of you. I was willing to overlook anything if it meant I could stay here. With you.”
Draco looked up, fiercely. “That’s not what you’re saying. You couldn’t trust me, that’s what you’ve just told me.”
“Can you blame me? After everything we’ve been through? Our pasts are an ugly tangle, there’s no getting away from it.”
“It’s complicated?” Draco said with a sad smile.
“It’s complicated. And… it’s more than about just cards, or Muggles, or trust.” Harry uncurled his hand, showing Draco what he’d carried down from his bedroom.
A single green feather sat in the palm of his hand, sticking slightly to his clammy skin. Their eyes met, and for a second Harry saw again laughter and flowers, and the flight of a flock of green parakeets.
“You kept this?” Draco hesitated, then reached out, and touched the feather. As he did so, his fingertip brushed against Harry’s palm, the barest whisper of a touch. Immediately, tingling warmth engulfed Harry’s hand and travelled along his arm, across his body. The zing of it was electrifying and comforting all at once. When he felt like this, Harry realised, he felt more alive than he had done in years. A moment later, and Draco's finger was gone, and the sensation faded.
“Do you feel that, when we touch?” Harry said. “Every touch of your skin is like lightning to me.” He reached out, touched the back of Draco’s hand. Draco snatched his hand away, and Harry sighed. “Why won’t you call me by my name? Why won't you call me ‘Harry’?
Draco looked down at his hand, slowly stroked the spot Harry had touched. “I can’t,” he whispered.
“I wish you would,” Harry said.
Draco just shook his head.
“I don’t think you trust me, either,” Harry said. He thought of his conversation with Blaise the day before. “I don’t think you trust me not to hurt you.”
“And I’m right, aren’t I?”
Harry took a deep breath, breathing through the hurt of hearing Draco say that aloud. Because he was right, of course. “I’m sorry about jumping to conclusions. But you know, although I was confused, I couldn’t really bring myself to truly believe that you were out there fooling Muggles. I knew there must be some other explanation.”
“Why would you?”
“Because… last night, I went to my room and I tried to work out what I wanted to do. It turns out my heart speaks much louder than my head, and what it was saying, over and over again was—”
Harry could see that Draco was shaking now.
“I don’t want to be your friend, Draco. When we touch I feel as though my skin were on fire. When I’m with you, I’m happy. And… I think you feel the same.”
“You can’t know how I’m feeling.”
“No, but I know how I’m feeling. My heart, what it said was me that I should trust you. I...”
He handed Draco the green feather.
“The day you Conjured this,” Harry said, “you said—”
“I could kiss you, Harry Potter,” Draco whispered, without looking up.
The breath caught in Harry’s chest; the air in the room itself seemed to still.
Draco took a deep breath. “I could kiss you, Harry Potter,” he said again, a little louder. He didn’t, however, move.
Harry got out of his chair, came around the side of the table. He crouched next to Draco, his head below Draco’s. He took Draco’s hand in his, ignoring the tingle to look straight up into Draco’s eyes.
“I can’t promise you won’t get hurt. I can’t guarantee that I won’t mess up. I already know that your father is going to hate me.” Harry paused as Draco gave a ragged little laugh. ”But I want to be with you. I want magic and bad jokes. I want to know what it feels like to touch you for more than a second. I want you with all your fussing and need for order.”
The only sound, the only movement in the room was Draco’s shaky breath mingling with Harry’s, as Harry waited.
“Harry,” Draco said, softly. Harry’s heart sang at the sound of his name. “Maybe you could shut up now, and we could get on with the kissing?”
Smiling, Harry raised his face to Draco, who cupped it with his hand. Draco leant down and pulled Harry to him. Harry could feel every hair follicle on his body, every skin cell, every drop of blood as it rushed through him. Gently, slowly, their lips met. Harry closed his eyes and breathed in Draco, the scent of mint and tea, tears and a trembling, uncertain hope.
They separated, and looked at each other.
“Was that so bad?” Harry asked.
“No, no it wasn’t,” said Draco. “In fact, I’d quite like to do it again.” He smiled, and time picked up where it had left off: no longer standing still, it felt as though clocks had started ticking again.
Clouds, blank and white, had flattened the day, while the very last leaves of the year clung to straggling trees. Harry Apparated to the river for his lunch break, returning to the spot he’d first seen Draco in the summer.
Even without the promise of summer sun the promenade by the river was busy. Peeking over the wall Harry saw that the tide was out, just as it had been that day that everything had changed for him. He walked down to the small shore, aware of how differently he walked and felt. Where before he’d been exhausted, worn-out and defeated, now he felt calmer. For the past few weeks he had been floating on a strange kind of hope, of possibility. It felt like walking on air: impossibly light, and utterly terrifying in equal measures.
Sky and city were reflected in choppy parcels across the brown and murky water, and it gave him a feeling of space he’d missed; he realised he’d felt a little hemmed in, being in the office all morning. Harry breathed deep, hands in his pockets, and closed his eyes. The sounds of boat engines, chatter, and the odd cry of a seagull washed over him.
A familiar voice, spiked and sure, brought him out of his quiet reverie. Harry smiled, because of course Draco was here. It was as though he’d conjured Draco from desire alone. Although if he was honest with himself, he had come here hoping to see Draco.
“As you see, standing majestically within the London skyline, the famous dome of St Paul’s Cathedral dominates our view.”
Draco sounded so confident. Harry looked up, craning his neck to see Draco by the wall, in his green fleece. Beyond him Harry could make out a small group of heads, all fixed on the view across the river.
“What many people don’t know is the unique history of St Paul’s. Used all over the world as a symbol for London, it was actually built after a firm of architects saw the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, and thought that it looked ‘right’ for London. A case of life imitating art, as they say.”
Of course Draco was giving this tour.
“The stone came from a quarry just south of London: it has since been built up as the town of Little Whinging. Sadly ever since the town has had a propensity for sink holes.”
Harry snorted: this was a new one.
“The area we are looking at is the old part of London; the area where the Fire of London burned. A large portion of London was totally destroyed, although of course compared to the size of today’s city, it seems almost small.”
Harry knew now, just how much Draco actually knew about London history. No wonder he could slip little nuggets of truth into this tour. His room had a whole wall of books, and most of them were of Muggle history. Running along the length of the room was also a desk, on which Draco kept neatly ordered sets of notes.
“In order to put out the fire, Londoners were called to raise their skirts and lower their britches, and urinate for their city. The streets ran yellow with piss, and the stench afterwards rivalled that of the burnt wood.”
Harry hadn’t asked about the notes until the third, or maybe fourth time in Draco’s room. Before that he’d had… other distractions.
They had been lying on Draco’s bed - it had still been Draco’s bed then, not their bed - legs entangled and clothes mostly on, when Harry had propped his head up on one elbow. This had prompted a fiery set of kisses, light as butterflies, along his neck. But when he’d opened his eyes again, he’d seen the folders and notebooks and asked Draco what they were for.
“The famous London Bridge, with its rickety old houses and 19 arches, is no longer to be seen. Sadly, one day it began to sink into the river. Year after year it sank another few inches, until people could only cross the river from hopping from one rooftop to another. There was a gap part way along that had to be swum, and an enterprising family of ferry men offered a crossing for a small coin.”
Draco did talk some rubbish in this tour, but now Harry understood how much of it was about the art of storytelling, of weaving nonsense out of air. The book he had begun writing, though, wasn’t nonsense. It was a guide to Muggles for wizards, the one he’d first talked about at the Weasleys. All those notes Draco had taken during their cooking lessons would inform the chapter on food and cooking, the Muggle way. The thing that made Harry the proudest, and the saddest, was that the book was to be dedicated to the memory of Charity Burbage.
“And we’re lucky today, to have one of their descendants among us. Behold,” Draco said with a flourish, his voice louder as he leant over the railing, “the famous Harry Potter, of the river Potters.”
It was all such glorious bollocks, and fun to be the famous Harry Potter while being nobody at all at the same time. Harry smiled as climbed the stairs to join Draco and his group. He squeezed Draco on the arm, wondering how anyone in the group could possibly mistake them for anything other than lovers when Draco’s face lit up in a dazzling smile in response.
“My great-great-however-many-times grandfather would take people over during daylight hours only.” Harry pointed out to the river, aware that they were nowhere near London Bridge, new or old. “But if he didn’t like someone, or they had paid with bad coin, he would wait until no one was looking… and push them in.”
A woman with short blonde hair smiled as he said this, and Draco gave him an encouraging nod. Harry wondered how Draco was coping with something being added to his tour that hadn’t been written on a card first.
At the end of the tour, the group following Draco dispersed, but not before there had been some hearty handshakes and one particularly vigorous back-pat. They left, smiling and laughing.
“What are you doing here?” Draco asked.
“Lunch break. I was hoping I’d find you.”
“So, what did you think?”
“It was great! And they seemed to have fun.”
They had just enough time to grab a quick sandwich, walking together towards the meeting point for Draco's next tour. When their arms touched as they walked, the familiar sparking sensation began. Whereas before it had been startling, now for Harry it was as normal as his own skin. It was, he realised, the feeling of being alive, truly alive.
Harry would always have time for Draco, and his glorious bollocks.
In the cool December light, filtered green by the plants on the shelves across the window in their room, Harry felt as though he and Draco were swimming under water. He traced the thin white lines on Draco’s chest with a finger, remembering the day in the bathroom, and the day he’d first seen the scars.
“You’re not going to get all moody and start talking about complications again?” said Draco, the words tumbling out slowly, and a rasping burr in his quiet voice. Harry smiled to himself: Draco was too undone to even put on a show of snark. His finger drew a new line through a fine sheen of sweat, a line dragged lightly on heated flesh. Draco shivered, and Harry’s finger paused. “Don’t stop,” Draco whispered, and Harry continued, tracing ribs, circling Draco’s navel, and travelling down through blond hair to Draco’s exhausted prick.
He drew soft circles over prick and balls, thigh and hip.
Draco hummed, and his body shifted under Harry’s hand. “Harry,” he said.
Grey eyes under light lashes in the watery light stared up at Harry, and he could feel himself falling into them. He leant down and kissed Draco softly, savouring the taste of sweat on Draco’s lips. Warmth spread through him, from his inside out. Tendrils of electricity, lazy and sated, tingled across his skin, and his hand began to move with more purpose.
Draco groaned. “Harry, Harry, Harry.”
“I love hearing you say my name.”
Instead of answering, Draco craned his neck up and took another kiss. Harry could feel the hunger under the sweetness, and he pulled Draco closer. His own prick, which he had thought used up and wrung out, stirred slowly.
“Draco,” Harry whispered into Draco’s hair. They found each other’s lips again, began to move against each other in a slow, unhurried way. This could lead anywhere or nowhere at all, it didn’t matter. What mattered was being wrapped up in the touch and smell and taste of each other, in this endless winter morning.
Harry was dimly aware of the front door opening and closing. He’d lost track of where Blaise was, and wondered if he was leaving or arriving. Either way it didn’t matter: everything that Harry needed was right here.
Heavy footsteps bounded the stairs, and Harry stilled and frowned. It didn’t sound like Blaise’s little cat-steps. In fact it sounded more like—
“Why’s my room empty?” Dudley’s voice boomed from the end of the hallway. “Did my cousin fuck off?”
Draco sniggered. “He fucked something,” he whispered.
“Shh.”’Harry held a finger to Draco’s lips. Draco stopped talking, but rather distractingly licked Harry’s finger instead, then sucked it into his mouth. Now it was Harry’s turn to groan.
Let Dudley stomp and storm around the house. Harry had other things to occupy him, and his cousin could wait until later. Harry, after all, wasn’t going anywhere.
A second later however, it became clear that Dudley wasn’t going to let Harry have this moment.
“Oy, Dick, do you know where—” The door swung open and Dudley froze at the sight of Harry and Draco, naked and entwined, on Draco’s bed.
Dudley blinked, stepped back, and closed the door.
Harry groaned again, this time in frustration and with a slight laugh. Dudley always did have terrible timing and no sense of personal space.
A knock came at the door, and Draco snorted. “A bit late now,” he whispered. Harry bent down for just one more kiss; he really didn't want to have to let anyone into their little bubble, and he knew Draco didn’t either. Reluctantly, he reached for the duvet - long since abandoned on the floor - and covered the both of them.
Draco looked at Harry once more, planted a kiss on the end of his nose, then raised his head and said, “Come in!”
The door opened slowly this time, and Dudley stepped into the room.
“Are you in bed with my cousin, Dick, or am I having some weird kind of out-of-body experience?”
“I am indeed in bed with your cousin. If you’d come in a little earlier, you’d have found him insi—”
Harry elbowed Draco, who thankfully shut up.
“Harry?” Dudley looked a little wild about the eyes.
“Er, hi?” Harry waved, careful to stop the duvet from revealing too much. “You’re back then?”
Dudley nodded dumbly.
“Your room’s free. I’m not staying there anymore.”
“My room?” He stood there, his mouth hanging open for a second. “Oh, right.” He turned as though to leave, but stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “Sorry, but what the fuck is going on?”
“Er,” said Harry. “Well, when a boy likes a boy—”
“We’re together,” Draco, taking Harry’s hand and holding it. Harry turned and smiled at him.
“We are,” he said softly.
When he turned back, Dudley looked a little green. “So while I was away, you two got together, and now you’re shacked up together and… we’re housemates, Harry?”
“No calling me names this time.”
“No. And you and Dick—” He stopped. “Sorry, it’s just, I never thought… I never even knew you were gay, Harry.”
Harry shrugged, not knowing what else to say. He remembered his quiet envy at Dudley having been able to come out. That tightness had disappeared in himself: he’d told everyone who mattered about him and Draco. The papers were yet to find out, but when they did, Harry was ready.
“How was your trip?”
“My trip?” Dudley grinned. “It was awesome. Whenever you two love birds are dressed, come find me and I’ll show you my photos.” He yawned. “I’ve been travelling for about 48 hours to get back in time for Christmas, though. I think I’ll have a lie-down first.” He frowned. “You two aren’t noisy, are you? I need to sleep.”
Harry laughed, not quite believing he was having this conversation with his cousin.
Draco however, answered by pulling out his wand. Dudley stared at it.
“Oh my god,” he said. “You’re one of them? Like Harry?”
Draco nodded. “Blaise too.”
Dudley nodded slowly. An enormous grin broke out on his face, and he burst into laughter. “My mum would hate everything about this house. Awesome!”
After he had gone, and Draco had cast a silencing charm, Harry forgot all about Dudley, or his aunt. Instead he lost himself, again, to the electric, magic, all-consuming sensation of Draco’s mouth all over his body.
He was home, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
Bare trees stood stark against the street below. Harry stepped back from the window, and turned to Andromeda. He took a deep breath, preparing to say the words he’d been rehearsing ever since they’d walked through the front door together. He’d run through them when Kreacher had bowed low, when they’d been on the stairs, even when she’d stopped to cry while touching the burned spots on the family tree.
“I want you to have the house,” Harry said. He looked around Sirius’s old room. All he saw were the unhappy memories; he didn't know how he’d ever lived in this place. “I think it means something different to you than it does to me.”
Andromeda’s eyes were bright as she looked around the room, then settled on Harry. “I remember being a young girl, and playing with my sisters on the stairs while the adults talked in the drawing room. And I remember visiting my cousins. I was a few years older than Sirius. As a seventeen-year old I wasn’t that interested in spending time with a nine-year old.” She smiled sadly. “From what you’ve told me of him, we might have been friends, he and I, as the outsiders in this family.”
“He told me once that you were his favourite cousin,” Harry said.
“He did?” A wistful smile lit her lips. “He was fun, I do remember that. And I suppose I wasn’t as dismissive as my sisters.”
“I think if he hadn’t gone to Azkaban things would have been different, “ Harry said. The thought of what Sirius might have been without that was almost too painful; if Sirius hadn’t been imprisoned, maybe also his own parents could have lived, too. This line of thinking was well trodden from the middle of many long and dark nights. “But…” Harry paused, uncertain of how to say this next part out loud.
“But the past…” Harry scuffed at the dust with on the floor. “The past is the past. I can’t change it, no matter how much I want to. No matter who… who died.”
“Like Sirius, my husband… my daughter.”
Harry nodded. He could add other names to the list: Lupin, Dobby, Fred. There were others, too. Too many to name. A tear rolled down his cheek.
“I—” He took a deep gulp of breath, his throat tight. “It feels too much sometimes, knowing how much everyone expected of me. Knowing that if only I had worked things out sooner, or…” He wiped away the tears that were now running down his face, one after the other. “But what was the point of it all if we can’t get on with living?”
“And you can’t live here?”
“I have another life,” Harry said, thinking of pale hair and tidy rows of tea cups. “I… I don’t want to live in the past anymore. Mine, or anyone else’s.”
“I see.” She sat on the bed, the springs sagging and creaking beneath her.
“I didn’t come to see you and Teddy for a long time, because every time I looked at Teddy I saw his parents. And I didn’t do enough to save them.”
“Oh, Harry, is that how you see it?”
Harry half shook his head, half let out a shuddering sigh. “Yes. No. Maybe. Since I’ve got to know you and Teddy a bit better, I see that he’s not me, alone in the world and unloved as a child. He has you.” He smiled, remembering seeing Andromeda playing with Teddy by the fire. “And when you talked downstairs, the house seemed alive in a way I’ve never known it. Kreacher spoke to you so warmly, with such fondness. And I’ve been imagining it, all the way up the stairs: Teddy running from room to room, the house being full of the sound of laughter.”
“I was angry, at my daughter, at her husband, for a long time after they died. How could they leave their little baby like that? How could she leave me like that?” A fierceness broke through in Andromeda’s voice, and for a moment Harry could see how she had stood alongside her sisters in her youth. “But time… it doesn’t change things, exactly. I've got a Dora-shaped hole in my life, and I always will. But I’ve also got Teddy, with his jokes and his love of brooms, and his warm hugs at the end of each day.” She stood, and walked to the window, peering through the dirty panes. “The view looks the same,” she said, “as it did when I was a child. Except the trees are taller.”
Harry crossed the room to join her. The street was quiet below, parked cars and the little square framed by the bare lines of winter branches. “Do you think you could be happy here, you and Teddy?”
“I… When I’m here I feel I’m less alone. Even though Aunt Walburga was vile, even though they burnt me from the family tree, the ghosts I feel are the ones of childhood. A simpler time.” Her hand found Harry’s, and they stood together, watching the cars pass.
He squeezed her hand, feeling its strength. “I don’t want to live with ghosts anymore,” he said.
“I have so little family left. I think it would be a comfort to me, even to have the ghosts.”
Harry’s throat felt even tighter at the word ‘family’. He’d given up on having one when Sirius had died. Somehow the strength he felt flowing from her hand to his gave him the courage to say, “I know I’ve been rubbish so far, but do you think I could be family, too?”
“You and that nephew of mine? Whatever you say, don't think I’ve missed how you look at each other, or how you sound when you talk about him.” Andromeda’s fingers trembled in Harry’s hand, then held firm again. “Whatever the rest of my family have been like, I have to have faith that the future doesn’t have to be the same. And what could be more important than love?” She squeezed, then released Harry’s hand, and turned to him. “It is love, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he admitted, finally. “It is.”
“Well, go then,” she said. “You go be with your love. And yes, thank you very much, Harry Potter. I think I will live here, with Teddy.”
“It’s yours,” Harry said. “And his.”
She nodded, and he stepped away. He left her at the window, and made his way back down the stairs by himself. At the bottom, Kreacher was waiting with his coat.
“Harry Potter is leaving now.”
Harry didn’t miss that Kreacher omitted the word ‘Master.”
“Thank you, Kreacher,” he said. “Thank you for looking after me when I was barely able to look after myself.”
Kreacher quivered and his face transformed into the grimace that was his smile. “It was an honour after you stood for the house-elves.”
Harry nodded in acknowledgement. He could live with this reason, far better than he could with ideas of servitude. “You take good care of your new Mistress and Master,” Harry said.
Kreacher bowed low.
As Harry left the house, the sounds of traffic, aeroplanes above, birds in the trees and the general din of the city all rose to envelope him. He let the sounds of life carry him all the way home.