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By the time dusk falls, it’s clear that even Dumbledore’s magic will be unable to hold the spell within the barrier set around Malfoy’s bed in the hospital wing. The first thing Dumbledore does is make up a false notice from the Ministry of Magic requesting Dolores Umbridge’s presence in London.

As soon as she’s off the grounds, a staff meeting is called, due to be held at the large round table in the teachers’ lounge. Tea is dispersed as people trickle in and bide their time with various amusements as they wait for the meeting to begin: Professor Vector is completing the number puzzle in the most recent volume of Arithmancy Yay! Journal, while Professor Sinistra seems on the verge of putting her head down for a nap. Professor Flitwick has conjured several little snails and is playing marbles with Professor Trelawney, whose gift of divination apparently did not foretell her somewhat dramatic defeat at his hands. Dumbledore is passing around several of his many candy dishes, probably with the idea that there’s nothing like a sugar rush to calm the mind, although he saves one dish for his very own.

Finally, Professor Snape swoops in, eyes glittering with fury, mouth twisted up as though he’s eaten something sour, and roosts in his chair like a giant man-eating bird. Madame Pomfrey comes in immediately after him with flushed cheeks, her little cap slightly askew, giggling behind her hand. The other teachers stare at her with wide eyes as she sits down, but after a minute she manages to compose herself, and gives a grave shake of her head.

“I apologize,” she says, and flushes even deeper, this time from embarrassment, no doubt. “I was unable to arrest the effects.”

“So it is only a matter of time,” Dumbledore says heavily.

“Yes, Albus,” Pomfrey agrees.

“A matter of time until what?” Flitwick asks, sounding concerned even as he flicks another snail-marble. He watches where it goes with one eye, then lifts both arms in the air and whoops when he knocks one of Trelawney’s snail-marbles aside. Then he returns his gaze to his Headmaster and asks, “What is this about?”

Dumbledore steeples his fingers. “Earlier this afternoon Pansy Parkinson attempted to curse Ginny Weasley in the Potions corridor. Miss Parkinson missed, and accidentally struck her own housemate, Draco Malfoy. And it is only a matter of time until the curse begins to spread to others.”

“What curse?” Trelawney asks, blinking owlishly and trailing her sleeve in her teacup.

Inebria Abyssi,” Dumbledore says heavily, and there’s a soft round of gasps and murmurs. Madame Pomfrey nods, confirming the problem, while Snape eyeballs them all suspiciously, as if convinced that they have each played a part in the underhanded deed.

“Eh?” Trelawney asks, looking around the table.

“It’s a lust spell,” McGonagall says, but Dumbledore raises one hand.

“Not exactly, Minerva,” he says. “Let us not limit our problem-solving with brute definitions, hmm? More precisely, it is a curse meant to force the victim to glut him or herself on whatever it is that he or she needs most, and until the victim is able to do so, the effects of the curse will span out and affect those nearby. While it is a very rare, dark spell, we know enough about it to project a fairly accurate timeline of the symptoms. First there will be a staggering but short-lived burst of giddiness and irrationality, immediately followed by a loss of impulse control. There’s then a marked increase in honesty, which will lead to profound self-indulgence in mental urges—vis a vis playing games and having fun—and finally a profound self-indulgence in physical urges—a craving for tacos and the like, for example—and culminating, well, unfortunately, in rather a spot of—”

“Orgies,” McGonagall snaps. “Because it’s a lust spell.”

“Rather,” Dumbledore says apologetically. “And so it will go on until Mr. Malfoy—being the original victim—is able to obtain all that he can stomach of whatever it is that he wants most. Eventually, all who surround him will fall completely insensate with ill-gotten pleasures. There are tales of the spell growing to affect whole towns—I think once, long ago, the afflicted wizard most wished to travel in space. You can guess how well that worked out—”

“Is it fatal?” Sinistra interrupts. She lifts her fingers to her mouth, although it’s difficult to say whether she’s worried or covering a yawn. It is surprising that a morning person would choose to become an astronomy teacher, but then—oh, it is definitely a yawn.

“Not usually. The effects will be arrested in everyone afflicted as soon as Mr. Malfoy is cured; the problem is that there is no quick or easy cure for this curse—it is very rarely used. The fastest and most effective method of resolving this situation will be to figure out what it is he wants most—”

At once, Professors Snape, McGonagall, Flitwick, Sinistra, and Sprout all say in unison, “Harry Potter.”

“—and give it to him,” Dumbledore finishes.

“Oh, dear,” Flitwick mutters.

“Indeed,” Snape replies darkly.

“And how have we come to this conclusion about Mr. Potter?” Professor Vector asks. She’s counting something off on her fingers. Oh, no, there’s just a bit of jam there, leftover from her biscuit. She rubs it on Trelawney’s robes when the other woman isn’t looking.

“You’ve never had the two of them in class together, have you, Septima?” Snape asks silkily. “They are like carnivorous beasts locked together in a cage. It’s constant complaints and distractions.”

“Is that reason enough to suspect Mr. Potter is the right choice?” Vector asks. “My ex-husband would bitch incessantly about the skunk that lurked outside the cottage windows. Didn’t mean he wanted to pork it.”

“Delightful,” McGonagall says, frowning.

“It’s our best guess,” Dumbledore says. He pauses, working his lips thoughtfully as he searches through a bowl of candies with a long finger. “I don’t think we need a weathervane to see which way the wind blows. The more difficult question is to ascertain how aware of this need Mr. Malfoy is—if he already knows of his own feelings and is eager to embrace them, this will be far more swiftly dealt with. I’m inclined to be pragmatic about this.”

“The Malfoys will be livid,” Snaps intones, eyeing Dumbledore as the old man selects a candy, pops it into his mouth and begins sucking loudly. “And well within their rights to raise an enormous commotion over the situation. Being purebloods, their response to their son’s…degradation will be considerable. That it will be at the hands of Mr. Potter will increase their rage—”

“That’s assuming the boy’s even still a virgin,” Flitwick mutters, sounding doubtful. “If he’s already been…ahem, plucked…then the Malfoys can hardly claim the loss of his virtue.”

“Of course he’s a virgin,” Snape barks. “Why on earth would you think otherwise? He’s fifteen!” He pauses, looking up at the ceiling with a squint. “Sixteen? Born June something or other, isn’t it? Fifteen. Bugger, he’s getting old.”

“Do be careful whom you’re calling old, Severus,” McGonagall says, sounding irritated. “And the issue of the Malfoys’ impending rage is a question for a later time, I should think. Right now, we need to focus on what to do.”

“What does that make me, then?” Dumbledore asks Snape, looking honestly interested.

“Older than the tapestries,” Snape replies readily. “And the hills. And possibly the moon.”

“Severus,” Dumbledore says affectionately, waving a hand. “You do tend to go on.”

“Fifteen,” Snape says again, face screwed up as if at any moment he’s likely to start using his fingers. “I swear that I could count this morning.”

“It’s the spell,” McGonagall says sharply, smacking Severus on the elbow. “It affects higher brain function.”

“That’s going to ruin your hat,” Professor Sprout says to her sadly.

Everyone pauses to look askance at her, then as one, turns back to Dumbledore, who nods and says definitively, “Grape. I thought that was what I was tasting. Could’ve been strawberry, wasn’t sure. Now, I think we’re all agreed that Miss Parkinson shall be expelled?”

There’s a general murmur of agreement.

“And that the other students should be kept in the dark as to the nature of this situation as long as possible? I fear we shall have to send them home.”

“We’ll never be able to keep it a secret if that happens,” Flitwick says.

“For their own good, Filius, for their own good. I’d rather the story get out than there be a gluttonous orgy in the Great Hall.”

“You would prefer a staid orgy, I suppose?” Snape mutters.

“It will take time to arrange a mass exodus of the school,” McGonagall says. “And there’s no way we’ll be able to arrange an evacuation of Hogsmeade before the effects travel that far. We must deal with the spell directly, and sooner, rather than later. Although I shudder to think that we might be forced to compel…does anyone have any other ideas?”

There’s silence but for the sound of Dumbledore’s jaws crunching his candy.

“Isn’t there a potion, Severus?” Trelawney asked dreamily. “The inner eye sends me thoughts of another option…”

“Your inner eye needs a monocle, then,” Snape says. “The only cure is the one we’ve all been dancing around.”

“And we’re really sure Malfoy’s a virgin?” Sprout asks, and Flitwick nods.

“I’ve already said that he is,” Snape bites out. “Why do you keep suggesting otherwise?”

Sprout considers this, then says, “He’s awfully…slinky. For a virgin, I mean.”

“Slinky,” Flitwick agrees. “Good word, Pomona, good choice.”

“Slinky,” Snape repeats flatly.

“Green would suggest lime, don’t you think, Minerva?” Dumbledore asks, rooting about in his candy dish again.

“I think I’m the only one who still has a working hat here,” McGonagall snaps. She blinks, then corrects herself. “Head. Although, I do like the idea of a working hat. Hats really should be doing more for us, don’t you think?”

“That’s the spell,” Dumbledore points out, nodding, still swirling candies with a long finger. “Resulting behaviors may include excessive cake-eating, exaggerated calisthenics, a lack of good judgment, laughter at jokes that aren’t actually funny, overwhelming truthiness, and the choosing of inappropriate sexual partners. I should perhaps mention that none of us are in any state to use heavy machinery at the moment. Ooh, purple.”

“He is a virgin,” Pomfrey interrupts everyone. “I checked, and he’s…well, remarkably innocent for his age. Judging from his reaction to my questions about his previous experiences, I’m not sure he’s even aware of the existence, let alone the mechanics of, ahem, intercourse between males. Someone will have to explain to him what will be required. Severus?”

Snape goes white. “What makes you think I should be responsible?”

“You’re his Head of House,” Pomfrey says.

“It’s a medical issue! I’m not qualified! I don’t want to!”

“He trusts you! And I don’t care if you don’t want to. I’ve about had it with you lot. Always leaving the unpleasant things to me. Do you think I enjoy giving contraceptive potions to the little tarts in your houses? No. I don’t. They always look at me like I’m some dried up old biddy who wouldn’t have the first clue what to do with a penis if I saw one, and believe me, I do.” She pauses to catch her breath. “I mean that I know what to do with them, not that I see them. Although I do. See them, I mean. So many penises.”

Snape’s staring at her now.

“Well, I’m not doing it,” Flitwick decides out loud, not having noticed that no one has asked him to.

“Colleagues, please,” Dumbledore interjects in a calming tone. “I realize that the task of explaining what must happen will be difficult, but we should think about what will help minimize the discomfort for the boy. As such, I think perhaps you should both be present.”

At least, that’s probably what he says. It’s rather hard to understand him, as he now has several candies in his mouth, rolling amongst his teeth with a clatter as he sucks. Snape makes a face and uses one stained finger to wipe a fleck of spittle off his cheek. “Fine,” he says, glaring at the table. In a low voice, he adds, “I never get to do the things I want to do.”

“Even if you could, you’d only be sitting in a dark room,” Pomfrey snaps.

“It would be a nice dark room, though,” Snape mutters. Professor Sinistra, sitting on his other side, has put her head down on the table and fallen asleep, and Snape uses the opportunity to steal her last biscuit.

Dumbledore turns to McGonagall. “Minerva, I think we should speak to Harry together.”

“Coerce, you mean,” McGonagall said, although her tone holds neither judgment nor blame—only disgust for the situation at large. “As if Harry would refuse either of us such a request even if the effects of Miss Parkinson’s spell wouldn’t spread to others. And Malfoy. Merlin knows I’ve no particular liking for that little beast, but he cannot give consent, Albus, not in his current state.”

Dumbledore nods heavily. “It’s true.” He pauses, then says, “I wonder if the board of governors will want to sack me again. It’s been a while. What do you think, Minerva?”

McGonagall whacks him with one hand. “I think we’re running out of time. Here’s what we’re going to do. I will speak with Harry. Severus, you and Poppy will speak with Mr. Malfoy to teach him about queer mechanics. Filius, you will arrange for the removal of the students from the school, and as soon as Severus and I are finished with the boys, we’ll come and assist. Everyone else, please prepare the students for going.”

“And just who put you in charge?” Snape asks, folding his arms across his chest. “I’m not doing anything you tell me to do.”

“You look like a beetle,” McGonagall tells him coldly. “And as I am the deputy hatmistress, I am clearly in charge when Albus is befuddled, as he clearly is, being older than the moon.”

Trelawney says, “It’s quite a nice hat, actually. It’s the feather, I think.” Everyone ignores her.

“Dismissed,” McGonagall barks, and stands up, putting her hands on her hips and nodding decisively, seeming quite pleased with herself. “I do enjoy a spot of efficient task delegation, particularly when it leads to sound fiscal leadership.”

McGonagall pauses, surveying her colleagues over with a discriminating, doubtful eye. Trelawney is sucking tea from the damp sleeve of her robe, Vector is licking all the lemon jam out of the biscuits, and Snape is pouting, Dumbledore has so many candies in his mouth he can’t close his lips, Flitwick and Sprout are whispering inappropriate things about Malfoy behind their hands, Sinistra is asleep (and drooling), and Pomfrey’s delivering a muttered soliloquy on the advantages of sex with mature women that no one is listening to.

After looking all of this over, McGonagall says, “We should make badges so we all know our proper jobs. Someone conjure some construction parchment. I’ll get the glitter.”

“That’ll be Granger in fifty years,” Snape says crossly under his breath, making Sprout giggle. Sinistra begins to snore.

*

Harry’s achy, his left kneepad’s top strap has snapped, and he’s got mud all over his Quidditch uniform, but he’s in rather a good mood. If it weren’t for this blasted cut bleeding all over the place, he’d be in a great mood, because the Gryffindor team has just had an absolutely superb practice.

They’re gonna beat the bollocks off of Slytherin in the next match.

He waves off Ron at the stairwell, assuring his mate that he does not actually need assistance fetching a bandage. Big boy and all. Leader of Dumbledore’s Army. Quite proficient with the walking. And talking. He can do lots of things, actually.

Ron gets bored and wanders off before Harry’s halfway through his speech about how capable he is of feeding himself, regardless of what certain adults might think this year, so Harry continues down the hallway alone, mumbling to himself.

There are a lot of students wandering the corridors, considering it’s very nearly the dinner hour and most everyone should be heading downstairs. Harry goes around the corner, heading for the hospital wing, and stops short when he sees Cho Chang sitting on the floor in the hallway.

She’s crying quietly and eating chocolate frogs—many chocolate frogs, judging from the number of wrappers scattered around her. Harry thinks he should tell her that chocolate only helps people afflicted by Dementor attacks, not dead boyfriends, but she’s making rather a lot of noise. Despite entertaining several pleasant fantasies about kissing her, he doesn’t actually want to go anywhere near her while she’s like this. He’s not very good at patting shoulders. That’s more of a Hermione thing.

So he turns his back to Cho, passing her by walking sideways down the corridor—very sneakily, only tripping over his shoelace once—hoping that she won’t recognize him from behind. When he’s gone far enough, he faces forward again, relieved.

He hears her say, “Hi, Harry,” in a weepy voice.

He winces, calls back, “Hi, Cho,” and darts into the hospital wing to hide.

The wing is silent. There are no students that he can see, although there’s a bed at the end hidden by rolling screens. There’s no sign of Madame Pomfrey. He sits down on a chair nearest the door, swinging his feet and making sucking noises with his mouth—he fancies he looks a bit like a duck, huh—while he waits.

But after a couple of minutes he gets tired of sitting and decides to snoop. He’s not being rude or anything. It’s always possible that Death Eaters have infiltrated…oh, he doesn’t even care. Coming up with lies gets exhausting after a while. He just wants to see what’s in the drawers.

He goes to Madame Pomfrey’s office and opens the door, leaving a bit of blood smeared on the handle. “Oops,” he says, but he’s not in the mood to clean it up, so he leaves it there. Someone else will get it sooner or later. It’s not like blood’s just left lying about on things. It’s bound to be a proper job. For someone. Blood cleaner-upper. Yeah.

He wanders over to Madame Pomfrey’s desk, noting belatedly that she isn’t present. She’s got loads of files strewn about, and a bunch of jars and things. He opens a few, sniffs them, then puts them aside—they’re all stinky. He pulls open drawers, makes apologetic faces when he bleeds on some of her papers, and eventually comes to three conclusions. First, Madame Pomfrey’s office is boring. Second, there is now blood everywhere and that’s gross. Third, he should get a bandage. Fourth, that he’s got an itch that he can’t quite reach between his shoulder blades. Fifth, it has occurred to him just now that spotted dick really is unfortunately named. And sixth, the Chudley Cannons are the most wretched team ever. He should tell Ron that.

He returns to the ward, singing to himself a song that he’s making up as he goes and which he should write down when he gets a chance, because it’s the most brilliant song about Quidditch that has ever been composed. The chorus is about grabbing balls. He’s quite chuffed about it.

Madame Pomfrey still isn’t here, so he goes to a nearby glass cabinet and starts rummaging through the jars. He finds one marked “Cuts and Scrapes,” and pulls it out. There’s a helpful set of directions quilled on the back in a familiar handwriting—Harry’s gotten enough comments back on his potions essays to recognize it—but he’s not in the mood to read any of Snape’s rules, so he just pours a bunch of the glop over his hand. It mixes with the mud that is now mostly dried, and he takes a moment to think that he probably should have washed up first.

The cut seals up anyway.

“That’s a relief,” he tells no one in particular.

“Is someone there?”

Harry drops the jar when he hears the voice, which comes from the curtained-off bed at the far end of the ward. Harry stares down at the shattered glass and splattered mess, thinking that someone’s gonna get it, and he resolves not to be here when that happens. So he goes over to the curtained bed.

He notices first that there’s a faint blue line—evidence of spell work, no doubt, as it’s glowing—set in the floor all around the curtained area. He pushes one of the wheeled curtain thingies aside so as not to cross the line inadvertently, and blinks.

It’s Malfoy. Pale and pointed and white-blond-headed, sitting up in a hospital bed in one of those long white pajama things that Madam Pomfrey gives out to patients. There’s a book open on his lap. His hair is mussed and his face is screwed up in a scowl, but it’s not as awful a look on him as usual for some reason.

“Oh, it’s you,” Malfoy drawls. “It would be. Well?”

“Well what?”

“Well, get me out of here before I die.”

Harry studies him for a second. “That’s not what I’d call proper motivation for me to do anything, Malfoy. And besides, all that sitting there doesn’t look especially fatal.”

“Shows what you know. I’ve been here for ages and people keep vanishing.”

“Then in that case, I’m definitely leaving you here.”

“Ha bloody ha. Come on, get your wand out and do something about this. It’s getting late and I haven’t eaten and I’m so bored.”

“Not my problem,” Harry says, and for a second he has to close his eyes to fully enjoy the glorious burst of happiness he feels at being able to tell Malfoy to sod off. Then he realizes that he hasn’t actually told Malfoy to sod off, so he says, “Sod off.”

Malfoy blinks at him. “But you have to help me.”

“No, I don’t.”

Malfoy just keeps blinking. “But…yes, you do.”

“We’re not friends,” Harry points out. “You’d leave me in there to rot.”

“Obviously,” Malfoy replies. “But there’s a difference nonetheless.” He slides to the edge of the bed, his long, white legs emerging from the sheet, narrow feet touching cold stone. “You’re good, Potter.”

“What of it?”

“You’re one of the good guys. You can’t leave me here. Something could happen. There could be a fire. I might die.”

Harry makes a face. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Dumbledore was here and he said he’d be back in a little while, but he hasn’t.”

“He probably realized he doesn’t care about you because you’re a git,” Harry says helpfully.

“Snape hasn’t come back either. And Pomfrey’s been gone for hours,” Malfoy says, and there’s a thin thread of something besides boredom and frustration there in his voice. “No one’s coming back.”

“Of course someone’s coming back.”

“You don’t know that. Maybe something’s wrong.”

Harry thinks about Cho crying in the hallway, the portraits giggling, Ron walking away in the middle of Harry’s sentence, the fact that there are students everywhere but he hasn’t seen a single teacher. Something could be wrong.

His pulse jumps. Oh, yeah. Something could definitely be wrong.

“There it is,” Malfoy murmurs. “Predictable Gryffindor. Give you a potential crisis and you’ve got a redwood in your pants.”

“What?”

“You can’t just leave me here, Potter. If you fail to save the world or whatever, I’ll die of dehydration.”

“You can’t make water with your wand?”

“No. There’s a rule about it. And besides, if I had my wand,” Malfoy says through his teeth. “I wouldn’t be here right now, would I? They took it away. Come on, Potter. You have to help me. It’s what your lot do.”

Reluctantly, Harry goes over to the blue line, pausing with the toes of his trainers just at the edge. He lifts his wand, then stalls out. “Maybe you’re meant to be in there. Maybe you’re contagious.”

“I’m not contagious,” Malfoy says, exasperation turning his skin faintly pink. “Merlin, I always knew you were smart.”

He falls silent, looking confused at what he’s said, and Harry frowns. “Thanks?” he asks, because he thinks that’s the first time Malfoy’s ever said anything nice to him.

“I meant to say you were stupid,” Malfoy says a second later.

“Oh.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t.”

“Okay.”

“Are you going to let me out?”

“What if you get people sick?”

“Look at me, Potter. Do I look sick to you?”

Harry takes a careful, thorough look. Malfoy’s white-blond hair is shining in the sunlight pouring in through the windows, his eyes look normal, and he seems impatient rather than agitated. The pink flush on his skin—darker now, from a blush that rose when he’d accidentally complimented Harry—looks healthy. Downright robust.

“No,” Harry mumbles. “You don’t look sick.”

“Then what’s anyone going to catch from me? If anything, I’d think you’d want me to spread a little Malfoy culture through the halls. It’s the only way some of you are ever going to learn any manners.”

“Bye, Malfoy.”

“Oh, for fuck’s—Potter, wait! All right. I’ll be…nice.”

Harry has to laugh at that. Malfoy sounds like he’s agreeing to go to the dentist. A muggle dentist with lots of wires and tools.

“You have to be nice,” Harry says, getting into the spirit of the thing now. “And you have to do what I say. And if you start feeling sick, you have to come back.”

“Sure,” Malfoy says. “Anything you say.”

Harry squints at him. “Really?”

Malfoy rolls his eyes. “I’m turning over a new leaf, Potter. I want to be good.”

Harry scoffs. “You just said you thought I was smart.”

Malfoy sighs hard. “Please, Potter? I’m going mental in here, and it’s…sort of creepy here by myself.” He looks down, stiff and unhappy and annoyed and Harry finds himself softening despite his best intentions.

“Please, won’t you help me?” Malfoy asks. “I’ll do whatever you want.”

For some reason that makes Harry’s stomach lurch pleasantly.

“Even help me solve the mystery of whatever’s going on?” Harry asks.

Malfoy exhales dramatically. “Yes. We’ll pack up the family portkey and prance about the countryside solving crimes. We’ll make a proper business of it. Whatever. Just finite this wanker and get me out of here.”

Harry lifts his wand, then pauses, sidetracked by an extremely important thought. He asks, “What should we name our business? It’ll have to be good or no one will bring their mysteries to us. The best name we can come up with.”

“Draco Malfoy,” Malfoy says promptly.

“Oh, for the love of…you would want to name it after you. I’ll bet you have an entire house of pets at home and they’re all named Draco.”

“No,” Malfoy says scornfully, then frowns a little, looking a bit sad. “My parents wouldn’t let me.”

“Oh.”

“Said it was a bit weird to have your peacocks named the same as your heir.”

“Well.” Harry never thought he’d agree with the Malfoy Seniors about anything, but he sort of thinks that they’re right about this. What would you do if you called your child to breakfast only to get to table and find a peacock sitting there? But Harry doesn’t want to say so, because Malfoy’s sort of pathetic all of a sudden, slouching there in his white, scratchy hospital pajamas, barefoot and wistful about his stupid name. So Harry says politely, “I rather like your name.”

“It is nice, isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh.”

“So we can name it that? The business?”

“No,” Harry says. “Sorry.”

“All right.” Malfoy’s face scrunches up and he adds sourly, “I suppose you want to name it Harry Potter.”

“Malfoy, you’re complete shit at naming things. I suppose that comes from generations of recycling family names for your offspring. Never an original thought in the gene pool. I was thinking The League of Most-Worthy Crime Stoppers.”

Malfoy looks taken aback for a moment, and then he says, “Well, it’s a bit garish, isn’t it? Still, better than naming it after you.” He fiddles with the edge of the sheet, then gives Harry an enormously exasperated glare. “Unless you’re going to spell some business cards, can we move on to the part where you get me out of here?”

“Oh, right.” Harry casts a quick Finite Incantatum, and the blue line vanishes. Malfoy smiles fiercely and goes to the far side of the bed to collect his clothes. He walks back over, arms laden, and presses a quick, hard kiss against Harry’s cheek.

“Cheers, Potter. Now give me a mo’ to get dressed and we’ll go figure this whole thing out.” He whips one of the wheeled curtains between them, but sort of haphazardly, so Harry winds up staring at the break between two joins of fabric, watching as Malfoy shrugs out of his pajamas. Harry gets an eyeful of acres of milk-white skin and long, lean limbs and narrow hips, and the whole time, part of his brain is stuck, repeating, over and over, Malfoy kissed me on the cheek, Malfoy kissed me on the cheek, he didn’t try to kill me or anything, just kissed me on the cheek.

He lifts a hand to touch the afflicted area; there’s no sign of warmth or dampness or anything, but Harry still feels scalded. He’ll know that spot for the rest of his life. He’ll be sixty and he’ll be shaving his gray whiskers and looking in the mirror, but he’ll actually be thinking about how that spot just above that freckle is where Malfoy kissed him.

Lots of white skin. And pointy elbows. And very round, firm buttocks.

“Merlin,” Harry whispers.

When Malfoy emerges in black trousers, a wrinkled white button-down, and a barely-knotted green and silver tie, Harry tells himself that he isn’t sorry at all to have Malfoy dressed again. They have very important things to do, and stopping to bite Malfoy on his thighs will not get any of those things accomplished, however nice it might be.

It occurs to Harry that his thoughts are a bit odd. The very idea of wanting to be around a naked Malfoy is perplexing, and it strikes him as out of character. In fact, as Harry watches Malfoy attempt to neaten his hair, Harry decides something very odd is—

“So?” Malfoy asks, interrupting Harry’s train of thought as he leads them out of the Hospital wing. “What next?”

Since Malfoy’s never solved a mystery or a crime, Harry volunteers to be the leader, prompting Malfoy to suggest that he be the treasurer. This is seconded by Cho, who is still crying and eating chocolate frogs in the hallway, although Harry’s not sure she follows their explanation about the League of Most-Worthy Crime Stoppers. Given the state she’s in, she might’ve seconded anything, but being put in charge of collecting dues seems to make Malfoy happy, so Harry doesn’t mention Cho’s lack of attentiveness.

“Where does one look for clues in a crime?” Malfoy taps his finger thoughtfully against his chin, professor-like. “I mean, finding missing teachers isn’t exactly a murder scene, is it?”

Harry frowns. “I see your point. I suppose we should start with the obvious places first. Just to rule them out. Where are normal places for teachers to go?”

“The bog,” Malfoy suggests.

“Good thought,” Harry says. “Nearest loo is right around the corner.”

“That’s a student loo, you twat,” Malfoy says. “Teachers have their own.”

“You sure?”

“Don’t you think you’d have noticed Dumbledore shaking it off in the next stall over?”

Harry’s mind revolts at the image of his esteemed Headmaster shaking anything, and he says, “Right. So where do teachers go?”

Malfoy shrugs. “You’re the leader. I collect the dues.” He frowns. “You’ve not paid yours yet, you know. Be just like you, too, to try and get out of it.”

“I would never!” Harry says hotly, and Malfoy jerks back. He blinks his gray eyes a few times, then makes a soft, contemplative sound.

“I’ve hurt your feelings, haven’t I?” he asks.

“No, you’ve made me mad.”

“You’re mad because I’ve hurt your feelings.”

“Well, yes.”

“I should say I’m sorry.”

“You’re not,” Harry replies sullenly. “You’re awful.”

Malfoy’s cheeks go white, and he swallows hard. It makes Harry feel a bit guilty, actually, the way the other boy is so visibly upset. Like he’s been struck. Then Malfoy says in a low voice, “I know.”

“What?”

“I know that I’m awful to you. I’m not really sure why.” Malfoy glances away, staring down the hall to where Millicent Bulstrode and Anthony Goldstein are making out in the alcove. “I’m not normally so wretched, I promise. It’s your fault. Something about you makes me have to say mean things.”

Harry’s not sure what to do with this—either Malfoy’s uncharacteristic honesty or the blame. Part of him wants to deny that any cruelty aimed at him could be his fault, but another, louder part of him has to acknowledge that Harry is simply a difficult person to love. Loads of people are mean to Harry, and he’s the common denominator, so that has to make it his fault. There’s no one else to blame. Even Dumbledore, who Harry had once counted as a friend of sorts, has been avoiding him this year.

So it must be Harry.

He just wishes he knew what he was doing that made other people dislike him so. He’d stop doing it, really.

“Oh,” Harry says finally. “That’s all right, then, I s’pose—”

Still looking down the hall, Malfoy adds conversationally, “I try to stay quiet sometimes. But it never really works, because when I don’t say anything, you don’t even look over.”

Harry’s mouth snaps closed. It doesn’t make any sense, but there’s a sweet flare of heat in his belly at the idea that Malfoy would want him to look over. If it were Cho saying things like that, he would probably try to summon up the nerve to kiss her right now, but Malfoy’s not a girl. Still, looking at the long, pale line of Malfoy’s throat and those soft pink lips pursed in an unhappy moue, he’s having a hard time remembering why he should care that Malfoy’s male.

“Oh,” Harry says again. “You know, things are a bit strange.”

“How do you mean?”

“Do you have any, er, weird feelings?”

“My left foot fell asleep earlier,” Malfoy says.

“I hate that.”

“Yes.”

“But that’s not what I meant. I mean about…anything.”

Malfoy lifts an eyebrow. “English, Potter. Use it, don’t abuse it.”

“Do you want to do stuff that you normally wouldn’t do?”

“Like?”

Like bite someone’s thighs, Harry thinks, but doesn’t say. Until he hears Malfoy choke, and realizes that he did say it out loud after all. “Oh, Merlin,” he mutters, right about the time that Malfoy turns bright red.

“Why on Earth would you want to bite someone’s thighs?” Malfoy stops short and eyes him. “Are you turning into a beast?”

“What? No. You’re the one who was in quarantine, you berk.”

Malfoy looks mollified. “Good. Because even if your hair is already rather untamed, I don’t think I’d fancy you with a snout.”

Harry doesn’t know how to take that, so he says, “Let’s go find the teacher’s bog.”

*

They can’t find it. They do, however, find the teacher’s lounge. Or rather, they find Filch, who tells them rather cheerily where they can shove the teacher’s lounge. But when they argue that they won’t be shoving the teacher’s lounge anywhere if they can’t find it first, he gives them directions and sends them on their way.

The lounge is a cozy room full of shining mahogany furniture and windows spelled to look like the outdoors. There’s a pantry with food kept under a cooling charm, a bookshelf filled with books that are hugely boring, lots of plants in elaborate stone planters, and, stretched out on one of the plush couches with one long leg trailing off the edge onto the rug, there’s Professor Sinistra. Asleep.

“We should whisper,” Malfoy says, not whispering at all. “It’d be polite.”

“When’s that ever bothered you?”

Malfoy thinks about that. “With low people, almost never.”

Harry snorts. “Figures.”

They start rooting around looking for clues, but the findings are a bit thin. Finally, when they’ve finished looking under the planters, behind the bookshelves, and inside the cabinets, Malfoy thinks to check on top of the table, where they find a hefty stack of letters:

Dear Parents and Guardians of Hogwarts Students,


I’m sorry to inform you that during the morning class change, one of our pupils discharged a spell at another pupil. I also regret to inform you that the spell causes orgies. It’s going to be a problem, but I, Minerva McGonagall, am in complete control of everything even though all of my colleagues have clearly been affected. Dumbledore has eaten far too much candy, and I think I heard Snape actually laugh earlier. It’s a travesty. But I’m going to fix it, because I have a hat and it’s my responsibility and I have a badge. It’s all very—

That’s where it stops.

“I guess she got bored?” Harry suggests.

“I would too,” Malfoy replies. “That’s a horrible letter. You’d think writing about an orgy would be more fun.”

Harry bites his lip. Malfoy’s fingers are very slim on the parchment, and Harry’s having a difficult time looking away from them. He has an odd urge to take them in his own, to see how strong the bones and tendons are, if they’ll flex under his grip or stay straight. “D’you think we should, er, um, look for it?”

“Look for what?”

“The, er, orgy.”

“You want to see it?”

“Maybe that’s where all the teachers went,” Harry says quickly, because even though the idea has a squirrelly sort of feeling growing in his belly at the idea of seeing an orgy, Malfoy’s looking doubtful, and he doesn’t want to be made fun of or anything. “It could be the clue we need to find out what’s making everyone act so weird.”

Malfoy’s nose wrinkles. “What if we see Snape and McGonagall snogging?”

Harry’s eyes start burning instantly. “No. No, I don’t. No, no, no. Plus she would never.”

“Hey, she’d be lucky to get a guy like Snape! He knows all the dark spells!”

“He’d be lucky to get McGonagall! She’s great! Shut your face!”

Malfoy scowls at him. Harry scowls back.

Then a head pops up from the other side of the couch. Sinistra’s tall witch’s hat sits askew on her golden curls and her eyes are heavy. “What the bloody hell are you two doing in here?”

“Solving crime,” Malfoy says. He stops scowling, which is a relief. Harry much prefers Malfoy’s face when it isn’t all scrunched up.

“Solve it someplace else, would you?” Sinistra asks plaintively. “I’m tired and you’re loud.”

“Just one question first, professor, please?” Harry asked. “Where are all the other teachers?”

“Well how should I know? I’m not their babysitter. It’s hard enough keeping you lot from murdering each other. Why?”

Harry opens his mouth to explain about the orgy, but Malfoy elbows him hard in the back first. “Be professional,” Malfoy hisses, and Harry has to admit that orgies are hardly the kind of conversation to be expected from a responsible crime fighter.

So he says, “We’ve noticed something weird is going on and we’d like to stop it.”

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Sinistra says, her tone sour.

Harry exchanges a look with Malfoy. Harry says, “Talk about what?”

“The weirdness. It’s stupid and I’m tired.”

“We’re not going anywhere until you talk to us,” Harry says boldly, and Malfoy nods in agreement. Sinistra’s whole body slumps against the cushions dramatically, arms flinging wide.

“Fine. There was a meeting,” she says balefully.

Malfoy’s eyes narrow. “Where were you while this was going on?”

“At the meeting, Malfoy,” she says, and sighs. “Don’t get all squinty.”

Malfoy gets even squintier. “Can anyone confirm your whereabouts? Do you have an alibi?”

“Oh, good one,” Harry tells him, and Malfoy’s squint vanishes as he goes pink and shy, his lips parting on an unsteady breath. He looks sort of pretty like that, Harry decides, and then it’s Harry’s turn to squint.

Sinistra snorts. “And Flitwick used the word slinky. Bloody idiot.” She gives Malfoy a suddenly perplexed look. “You’re not even supposed to be out of bed, let alone wandering around accosting innocent teachers.”

“Oh,” Malfoy says, as if he’d forgotten. He swallows and leans closer to Harry, not quite touching, before blurting. “Am I dying?”

“I dunno,” Sinistra says. “I fell asleep by that part. I think. Or maybe I just didn’t care. I don’t remember.”

“You’re not dying,” Harry says, noticing the way Malfoy’s forehead furrows. Then—somehow—they’re holding hands. Malfoy’s fingers aren’t hard or straight at all, surprisingly. They’re soft and curved in Harry’s, warm and slightly sweaty, and they…well, they cling rather nicely, actually. Harry’s heart has gone a bit quick like a rabbit’s at the touch, but he doesn’t let go.

"I do wish people would concentrate,” Malfoy says, slightly tremulous, and he takes a small step closer to Harry.

“You’re very demanding,” Sinistra tells him, and lies down to go back to sleep. Malfoy’s worry fades instantly under the dirty look he sends her and he kicks the couch hard enough to startle her back upright. They spend a few seconds glaring at each other, and Harry doesn’t interrupt, because he thinks Malfoy’s moment of fragility is probably done, and once he realizes that, he’ll probably take his hand back.

Harry doesn’t consider why he doesn’t care for that idea; it’s enough to know that he doesn’t want to let go.

Malfoy glances up at Harry. “I don’t know why you Gryffindors keep getting wrapped up in these murder things. They’re frightfully annoying.”

“Sometimes.”

“Although I suppose no one’s been murdered yet.”

“No,” Harry says sadly. “Not yet.”

“Not really much interest to it until there’s been a death or something, right?” Malfoy asks.

“It’s usually better then,” Harry agrees. “But we should try to prevent it if we can, don’t you think?”

Malfoy seems torn about this for a heartbeat, but he doesn’t get a chance to argue before Sinistra says, “There’s little point in trying. All living things die. It is the nature of existence to be transient. The only things which are eternal are the stars and planets within the heavens. Soon enough we’ll all be long-forgotten piles of dust. If you only have a heartbeat’s time with which to live, you might as well live.”

Harry and Malfoy stare at her. After a moment she wipes her mouth and adds, “I think I have ennui.”

Harry wants to ask her what ennui is, but she looks sort of miserable all of a sudden and he doesn’t want to interrupt. He gives Malfoy the side-eye, wondering if the pale boy will think Harry is stupid for not knowing the definition, but when Malfoy catches him looking, he uses his grasp on Harry’s hand to tug him close. His other hand cups Harry’s temple and then Malfoy’s warm, slightly-damp breath is brushing against the sensitive skin of his ear.

“It’s when everything’s going fine but you want to feel bad anyway,” Malfoy whispers. His lips brush Harry’s lobe and Harry shivers. “It’s French.”

Harry stands very still, wondering if Malfoy will find something else to say. He sort of wants him to; it’s not unpleasant having Malfoy that close—just the opposite, in fact—but Malfoy seems done. He pulls away slowly, though, his fingers lingering to straighten Harry’s collar before releasing him.

Feeling wonderfully unsettled, Harry blurts, “That’s very clever of you, Malfoy.”

Malfoy’s face turns red. “I like it when you say things like that to me.”

Harry can feel his own face turning red as well. “I-I suppose I like saying things like that to you.”

“Oh, get a fucking room,” Sinistra says, and lays back down.

For a second Harry stares at the back of the couch, wishing he could look through the leather to see her expression on the other side. He knows what the literal meaning of her words is, and he’s even heard it in conjunction with couples before, but he’s not—he and Malfoy aren’t—they’re not like that. They’re only holding hands because Malfoy had been scared of dying alone, and that’s—certainly that’s reasonable. So he’s not sure what she means, exactly, and judging from the confused, flustered look on Malfoy’s face, he’s not sure either.

“Um,” Malfoy says.

“Er,” Harry says.

There’s a moment of intense, awkward silence. Malfoy pulls his hand away from Harry’s, whose palm immediately feels chilled. The separation is nearly as unpleasant as it is reassuring.

“Want to play Quidditch?” Harry blurts, and Malfoy says, “Merlin, yes, let’s go.”

*

As they pass the Great Hall, they can hear raucous cheers and a squeaky voice giving directions over the roar thanks to a well-applied Sonorous.

“In this corner, we have the broad and bantam…er, what’s your first name, Crabbe?” There’s a pause. “Right. We have Vincent Crabbe. And in the other corner, at a much greater height but much thinner weight, we have, um, what’s your name? What? Oh, I can’t bloody hear you anyway. In this corner we have this guy. Surrender your wands, gentlemen and Slytherins. Fisticuffs only.” Then, suddenly, and with a break in his voice as sharp as shattering dishes, the announcer shrieks, “FIGHT!”

Harry catches Malfoy looking curiously at the doors.

“What is it?” he asks.

“I’ve never seen fisticuffs,” Malfoy says. “Father says only Muggles fight that way. It’s common.”

Harry thinks about that wistful note in Malfoy’s voice for a moment. It makes something in his chest tighten, and he finds himself pausing. He’s never really considered the idea that Malfoy might wish to be other than who he is. There are so many benefits to being rich and slimy that it hadn’t occurred to him that there could be drawbacks.

He’s equally confused by the fact that he wants to take that wistfulness away and replace it with something else. Although part of him rebels against it—he’s not sure why—he gestures towards the packed Great Hall. “Um, we could do. If you like.”

Malfoy looks startled. “Oh, is that—did you want to? I didn’t mean we should—unless you want to.”

“No, I’d rather—I mean we could if you want. But I’d rather, um, play Quidditch with you. We don’t really get to play that much. Not nicely anyway.” Harry stands there and fidgets for a moment. “You’re good.”

Malfoy makes a tiny sound—sort of an eep—and it makes Harry shiver for some reason. He takes a step forward, his chest tightening. “Is that a bad thing to say?”

“No,” Malfoy replies immediately, flushing pink once more. His eyes linger on Harry’s face for a long, pregnant moment. “That’s good. It’s, um. I’d rather do that too. Play, I mean. Because you’re good as well.”

“Okay,” Harry says, releasing the breath he’d been holding. “Okay.”

The announcer shrieks, “And the blood-soaked winner is the skinny guy! Let’s hear it for skinny guy!” The crowd takes up the chant, yelling, “Skinny guy! Skinny guy!”

Harry barely hears it. As they walk towards the front doors, Malfoy’s hand has somehow wormed its way back into his, and the rumble in his stomach makes everything else in the world sort of fade away.

*

The day is bright and clear with singing birds and warm grass underfoot. Harry pauses to tip his face up to the sky and close his eyes for a moment, relishing the light, friendly breeze teasing the hair at the nape of his neck.

He’d gotten so used to the constant undertone of dread this year that he’d forgotten what it could feel like without it. All of it—Umbridge, Dumbledore’s cold disinterest, the stress of leading the DA, the dreams, the disbelief aimed at him for daring to speak of Voldemort’s return—fades. He’s been exhausted and heavy for so long, and now it all seems so small.

They don’t talk as they make their way down the big hill, but there’s something delicious about the silence. Harry’s reluctant to break it, even if it means the tension might fade slightly. He almost wishes they hadn’t arranged to play Quidditch after all—he sort of wants to stay here in the quiet, just the two of them, where the rest of the world is kept firmly at bay and all of Harry’s attention is taken up by this strange, bubbling feeling that Malfoy’s sparking within him.

But he doesn’t know how to say any of that.

When they get to the pitch, they have to pull away from each other to get through the heavy doors to the locker rooms. Again, Harry’s hand feels unpleasantly empty—almost as empty as the rooms themselves. All of the equipment is gone.

It’s unsurprising, in retrospect, as the half of the school that isn’t watching fisticuffs in the Grand Hall seems to be out here running into each other on their brooms. Bludgers are flying around knocking people every which way, and Lavender Brown is in front of one set of Keeper’s rings telling off a fourth-year boy for pulling her hair in order to let a friend get a quaffle past her. The boy yells back, and then they’re suddenly kissing, bobbing in mid-air and nearly plummeting to their deaths before managing to somehow lower themselves to the ground without separating their lips.

“Odd,” Malfoy says. Then he shrugs. “It’s very crowded here. Um. Want to take a walk instead? There’s the side path to the greenhouses.” He’s studying the trampled mass of grass beneath his feet as if it’s fascinating. “There wouldn’t be so many people, I don’t think. It would be more private…um, quieter! I mean quieter. If you want.”

Harry’s tongue goes numb for a moment. It’s almost as if Malfoy’s read his mind, and Harry’s struck anew by how easy it is to be on level ground with him today. He manages, “That could be okay.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

So they walk. The trees and bushes on this part of the grounds are ragged and overgrown. Beautiful, in a lush, untamed sort of way. Like Malfoy, Harry finds himself thinking, and even though that’s obviously weird, he doesn’t take it back. Malfoy is untamed, in a way. He’s not held back by the rules and conditions that govern most people, and that makes him sort of pure. An arse, most of the time, yes, but a pure one. A pure, untamed arse. A lush, pure, untamed arse.

Harry frowns. He’s pretty sure that train of thought got away from him a little. But he stops for a second to let Malfoy get ahead of him so he can stare at Malfoy’s lush, pure, untamed arse.

“Nice,” he mumbles to himself.

“What?”

“Nothing!” Harry hurries to catch up. “Just…nice bushes.”

“They stick out a bit. Like your hair, I suppose.”

Harry puts a hand up to his head and tries to smooth the wild strands. “That’s—”

“No, don’t,” Malfoy says softly. “I like it. It’s nice.” He seems to realize what he’s said, and quickly adds, “It’s horrible hair, objectively. You should probably know that. But it’s also…nice.”

Harry isn’t sure whether to be offended or flattered. He peers at Malfoy’s face, trying to get a sense of how to take it, and finds himself staring into warm gray eyes. Harry hadn’t realized gray could be such a warm color; he usually thinks of it as foggy and cold. But now, looking at Malfoy, it’s hard to think of it as anything else. Or maybe it’s just the way Malfoy’s eyes are making Harry’s skin feel sort of hot. He should probably look away.

The path leads them through the bushes and down a soft slope. They’re heading roughly in the direction of the Forbidden Forest, although eventually they’ll curve back around toward the Greenhouses instead. The noise from the Quidditch pitch has faded; other than the occasional shout of glee or fury, there’s little sign of the outside world. Harry’s not even sure they’ll be visible from the castle in a moment when they get to the part of the path where the trees thicken.

“Is it true you live with Muggles?” Malfoy asks.

“Yes.”

“What’s that like?”

Normally, Harry’s pride wouldn’t allow him to admit such an obvious weakness, but for some reason there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to lie. So he says, “Awful.”

“I thought it would be.”

“But not because they’re Muggles,” Harry adds, annoyed. “They’re just horrible people. There are horrible witches and wizards, too.”

“That’s true,” Malfoy says, a little uncertainly.

“Don’t you ever wish you didn’t hate Muggles all the time?”

“I don’t hate them,” Malfoy says, blinking.

“You say mean things all the time about them.”

“Not all the time. I don’t…I guess I don’t think of them most of the time. And when I do, I don’t say mean things because I hate them. It’s only because they’re beneath me.”

“They aren’t, though. You can be wretched, Malfoy, really wretched, and some Muggles are amazing people. It’s not about that. Don’t you see? It’s about who you are, not how you were born.”

“And who I am is better,” Malfoy says, slow and disgruntled, like he’s explaining a simple concept and he’s not sure why Harry can’t keep up. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand things. Muggles can’t contribute to the greatness of the world. Maybe it’s not their fault that they’re so ordinary, but they don’t have magic, Potter. There are things they’ll never know. And even among wizards, my family’s important, Harry. I don’t understand why you’re always acting like it’s a bad thing. You should like that about me.”

“I don’t like it because we have different ideas about what makes someone important. You think it’s money and being able to make people do what you want. I think what makes someone important is the things they do to help others and how they make the bad things into good things. Take your family and your money away for a minute, Malfoy, and tell me what you’ve done to make the world a better place. Not your father, not your name, but you.”

Malfoy’s mouth opens to retort and then he pauses. He stands there on the path in his crumpled white shirt, his hair mussed, and his hands knot at his sides. His chin begins to wobble and he glances away, squinting into the sun. “Nothing, I suppose,” he says finally.

Harry’s heart clenches in his chest like a fist. He hadn’t—he’d only wanted to make a point. He hadn’t meant to hurt Malfoy in the process. “Maybe you could change that?” he asks more gently. “Maybe be the first Malfoy to make things better for the Muggles instead of treating them like muck under your heel. Imagine all the lives you could make better with all that money and power. That’d be a good thing, wouldn’t it?”

“How?” Malfoy asks, sounding miserable. He’s still staring out into the distance. “Should I just tell my father that I’m going to be nice to all the Muggles today? Can’t you picture what he’d do? He’s a great man, my father. He’s done so many important things. I’m—one day I’ll do important things, too, you know, but not like that. He’d…he’d hate me.”

Quietly, Harry says, “That’s a very sad thing, Malfoy.”

“He’s amazing, Potter. You don’t know. He’s the best man in the whole world. He’s smart and powerful and he’s important—he’s so important. The things he’s doing, they matter. They are going to make the world better…”

On the surface, those words seem heavy with devotion, but Harry gets rather a different feeling from the way Malfoy’s saying them. As if he’s trying to convince himself more than Harry. As if he desperately needs to believe it. His lower lip trembles.

That trembling sends a guilty, oddly affectionate pang through Harry.

Harry circles him so that they’re face to face once more, and reaches up without thinking to presses two fingers to that lip. Malfoy goes very still.

“You’re scared,” Harry says softly.

“No, I’m not, I’m really not. Your stupid face is so nice, Potter.”

Harry gets an urge to do something so beyond bizarre that on any other day he’d squash it flat. But at the moment it doesn’t seem all that odd to give in. So he hugs Malfoy. The other boy goes stiff as a tree in his arms but Harry only squeezes tighter until he begins to relax. Their bodies arrange themselves neatly then, as if all the planes of their chests and arms and thighs were made out of interlocking puzzle pieces. Harry likes the way Malfoy feels against him—slightly smaller, his body leaner than Harry had expected so that there’s something defenseless about him.

He wonders if the defenselessness is new. Some product of the day. Or perhaps it’s always been there and he’d just missed it.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says softly. “I wasn’t trying to make you feel bad.”

“But I do!” Malfoy murmurs. His breath puffs against Harry’s ear, and it gives him a shivery-warm sensation in his belly. “It’s always like this with you, Potter. You get all stupid and, and, and kind and good, and then I feel like this, and I always want to touch you, but I always want to kick you, too, and I don’t know where one feeling starts and the other one stops. I got tired of being awful to you a long time ago, but when I’m not, you don’t look at me…” Malfoy trails off, so Harry leans away to peer at his face, searching for the meaning of the unsaid words. Malfoy stares back, then whispers, “Especially not like you’re looking at me now.”

Harry’s gaze drops to study Malfoy’s mouth, and his lips are full and pink and soft, and he…well, now Harry’s skin feels downright hot. It’s funny that he can’t get much fresh air, seeing as they’re outside.

“Have you ever kissed a girl?” Harry asks. That’s maybe a weird question. He can admit it. But he can’t make himself mind, not with Malfoy right here, inches away, licking his lips and murmuring, “No,” in a cracked, hoarse voice.

“Oh.”

“Why?” Malfoy shifts his weight. It makes his shirt brush against Harry’s. He’s suddenly painfully aware that his heart is pounding.

“Well.” Harry has to scramble for an excuse all of a sudden, because he knows he can’t give his real reason—I want to put my tongue in your mouth. The real reason has only just occurred to him anyway, and the thrill of it, the odd-good feeling of picturing it—pushing Malfoy gently against the trunk of the nearest tree so he can’t get away, and then kissing him, putting that pink mouth warm against his own, and then maybe getting Malfoy to open up for him so he can—would it be gross, kissing a boy? Would it be wet and slick in the same way he’s always imagined kissing a girl would be?

He can’t imagine it would gross kissing Malfoy. He’s so damn pretty. And right now, when he’s being so open and vulnerable and honest, he’s strangely sweet, too. Harry wants to keep him sheltered and safe until this foreign bit of goodness in Malfoy, this potential to be something better, has a chance to take root and grow. He wants to see Malfoy outside of the shade of his family and father. Wants to see Malfoy become.

He wants to kiss Malfoy.

He creeps forward, a millimeter at a time, testing the waters, so to speak, and Malfoy’s eyes just get bigger and bigger as he gets closer, some mixture of fear and breathlessness spanning the distance between them, filling the air.

When their mouths connect, Malfoy makes a muffled squeaking noise, and Harry shifts backwards, worried that he’s hurt him or offended him, his throat closing with nerves. Malfoy’s eyes are huge and startled, his breathing too quick, and then he says, wonderingly and low, as if he’s just grasped a difficult concept in class, “Oh.”

And then he kisses Harry back. Awkwardly, at first, and with too much force, but Harry manages to cup his chin and ease him off without breaking the kiss. Malfoy makes a small humming sound, and Harry wants to catch that sound, wants to taste it, so he licks at Malfoy, who—in an uncharacteristically obliging move—both parts his lips and makes the sound again.

It is wet and slick, just as he’d imagined, but it’s also hot and overwhelming, starting up this electric feeling in his belly that Harry rather likes. He presses closer until Malfoy stumbles backwards a bit, catching his heel on a root or a rock or something, and Harry sort of clutches him and lowers him at once, and somehow they’re on the sun-warmed, sweet-smelling grass without ever losing track of each other’s mouths for more than a heartbeat. Malfoy’s beneath him, moving and shifting and sighing, and Harry hovers above him on his hands and knees to kiss him again and again. There’s too much saliva and it’s clumsy, Harry can feel how clumsy it is and he wishes he knew how to do it better, but it’s also very, very nice, and he doesn’t much care about anything else.

Malfoy’s hands land on the small of Harry’s back, light and fluttering as butterflies, and that’s nice too. He especially likes how the grip of those hands tightens when Harry pulls away from Malfoy’s mouth to kiss his throat.

Harry’s brain abandoned him some time ago, which might be why it seems like a great idea to unbutton that white shirt and spread the plackets open. Malfoy’s skin is pale in the sunshine, his nipples pink and small. He’s slim and muscled from Quidditch, his chest mostly hairless but for a small, springy trail of gold leading from his belly button to his waistband.

Harry’s dropping kisses all over Malfoy’s shoulders now, fumbling at the fabric to make room, and he can hear Malfoy murmuring to him, hear the plaintive pleas Malfoy’s whispering to the sky as his back arches.

“I didn’t know,” Malfoy’s murmuring. He sounds shy and embarrassed, and it makes Harry happy. “I thought…I don’t know what I thought. But it wasn’t this.”

“It’s all right,” Harry says, and kisses Malfoy again. His mouth is hyper-sensitive and he can’t help pulling back over and over to look at Malfoy’s face, looking for any sign that Malfoy isn’t okay. But Malfoy is okay. Happy even, if Harry can tell anything by the way Malfoy sighs and leans in, his lips soft and trembling.

“Merlin,” Malfoy gasps, and they kiss again and again and again.

This, this is what magic’s really supposed to feel like. This is power, and importance, right here. This is a dark thrill like none he’s ever known, with Malfoy crushing himself against Harry so there’s no space between them, Malfoy with his lavender eyelids fluttering against the sun, his white teeth just visible behind his slack lips when he tips his head back and moans. He’s vulnerable and open in a way that Harry’s never seen anyone, and it gives Harry a sense of stillness that grounds him, that cements his place in this tumultuous year.

“I want to do this all the time,” Harry says aloud, wondering at it, and Malfoy says distantly, “Okay.”

Then there’s just the sun and the grass beneath him and Malfoy slowly subsiding against him. They’ve been kissing for so long that his mouth is sore. He’s hard in his pants, but it seems far away and unimportant. Malfoy’s holding his hand and he looks sleepy and happy all at the same time. A bee is droning nearby and his back is sweaty and a little itchy, but the idea of moving is utterly unconscionable.

“All the time,” Harry mumbles. “We should do that all the time.”

This time, Malfoy doesn’t sound far away at all when he says, “Okay.” He sounds thick and lazy and content.

There’s a sudden, almost painful throb of energy in the air just then, a sort of electrical-burnt jab, and Harry jumps. “What was that?” he asks, sitting up.

“No idea,” Malfoy says, propping himself up on his arms, his brow furrowed as he looks all around them. “It was like lightning.”

“Yeah.”

But nothing else happens, and some part of him whispers insistently that something important has changed. That he should look around and take stock and think. But he doesn’t want to. The air between them has become dangerously tentative since that burst of energy, and his instinct is to hold onto that lovely lightness before it can slip away.

Malfoy’s wearing a tiny, frightened scowl, and Harry—well, Harry’s always trusted his instincts. So he lies back down and pulls Malfoy close. He shouldn’t, he knows, but he wants it. And he thinks Malfoy wants it too, because he sighs and sinks into Harry’s arms as if he’s made of honey, pliable and warm.

It seems like ages pass in the afternoon sun, but it might only be minutes. There’s a faint clamor starting in the back of Harry’s brain, the beginning of noise and pressure and responsibility, but Merlin, he wants this, wants to stay close, so he tells that part of him to shut up.

“Do you still want to do this all the time?” Malfoy asks eventually. His fingers tighten on Harry’s forearms.

“Yes,” Harry replies honestly. “Do you?”

There’s a long pause, and then Draco’s silky hair moves against Harry’s chin as he nods. “Yes,” he whispers. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“Yes.”

“What if people get mad?”

“Well, whenever someone tells us no, we’ll have to stand up to them.”

Draco sighs very quietly. “I’m not very good at standing up.”

“I’ll help you.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Draco rolls over and kisses him, and Harry kisses him back. Again and again.

By the time the afternoon turns from orange to pale blue, Harry has begun to realize that his arms will never feel right again without Draco in them. He’s also begun to realize that something very odd has happened to them over the course of the day. He’s afraid to mention it, terrified, actually, but as they reluctantly separate to dress, it becomes painfully obvious that they can’t ignore the reality of it forever.

They’ve got to go back to the castle and their lives, and this tentative peace might not hold up any longer. Any minute now, Draco might turn back into Malfoy and it’ll all be gone, this lovely, perfect, indulgent day, revealed to be an illusion as fleeting and fragile as a soap bubble.

“He really is back, you know,” Harry says, because he can’t leave well enough alone and he’s stupid and—mostly—because it’s the one thing guaranteed to get between them, the one thing he can’t get past. “Voldemort. He’s back. Truly.”

Draco considers that for a very long minute. Then his shoulders square and his chin comes up and he says, “I know. He’s been living in our mother-in-law cottage.”

Harry stares at him. Draco’s chin drops half an inch.

“He’s been whispering with my father about something to do with the Department of Mysteries,” Draco says.

Harry stares at him. Draco’s shoulders curl inward. Quietly, he adds, “He’s telling everyone that he has to stay hidden for now. He’s weak, still.”

Harry keeps staring at him. Draco’s skin goes white.

“He’s there right now,” Draco adds. “You could…you could send someone…if you promised to leave my parents alone…”

Harry can’t do anything but stare. And stare and stare.

Until Draco’s expression abruptly twists and he kicks Harry hard in the shin. “Would you stop looking at me like you’re a half-deranged blast-ended skrewt, you twit. You told me to stand up and now I’m standing up, but you’re not helping like you said you would. It’s just like a Gryffindor, too, to be full of big promises, and then to cave like a—blurmpff—”

Harry kisses him. He kisses him and kisses him and kisses him. He kisses Draco gratefully and in amazement and with a rapidly-growing need in his belly. He kisses Draco until Draco’s moaning and clinging, and panting, “That’s better, I like this better, you have to keep doing this, all right, Harry, no matter what anyone else says or does. Promise?”

“I promise,” Harry murmurs against his lips and keeps kissing him. Somewhere in those kisses, the sun goes down.