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Pride & Prejudice and Dementors

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“Did you hear, Arthur? The Malfoy boy has taken back the Manor.”

Molly’s voice floats down to his spot in the grass from somewhere not far above, likely the window to Arthur’s study. Harry is lying on his back in the lukewarm sunshine, letting his good snitch hover over his face for a few moments before snatching it out of the air with a lazy hand, again and again.

He’d flooed over to the Burrow from Grimmauld an hour or so before. He’d had intentions to ask Ginny if she’d like to have a quick Seeker on Seeker game before sunset, but she’d pushed him off, muttering something about getting ready for the Lovegood’s solstice fete and calling after him to ‘Have Neville run a comb through that mop, Harry! For goodness and all our sakes.’

Harry has no intention of listening, of course, but it’s just as likely she'd known that before she’d said it.

“Arthur, are you listening?” Molly’s high voice reaches him again. “Stop playing with that muggle death stick and listen to me.” 

Then, Arthur’s deeper one - “It’s called a rifle, dear.”

“As if I have any care for what it is called. Regardless, it cannot be as important as what I am attempting to talk to you about. Were you listening, just now?”

“You were speaking of the Malfoy boy and his return.”

“Yes I was. And so ,” she adds, expectantly.

A short silence follows before Arthur’s distracted reply. “So?”

“So, what have you learned of him?” Molly huffs impatiently. “Is he attached?”

“Attached to what? I think if he was unable to move about freely it would have been very difficult for him to travel here from France.”

“Don’t be insufferable, Arthur. You know precisely what I mean. Does he intend to find a partner here, in England, now that he’s come to reestablish himself? Or is he already matched with one of the party he’s  brought with him?”

“How should I know, dear - and what should it matter? We’ve been married close to five and forty years, I think the ship has quite sailed on your opportunity to make advances for his hand.”

“You aren’t funny, you horrible man. You know very well I intend the thought for Ginny or Harry. Or Percy, even! He’s bound to do for one of them.”

“Yes, well. I have heard nothing of the man’s current state of attachment, or lack thereof. I also cannot speak to his designs on future engagements, nor can I attest to his compatibility with any of the aforementioned persons, however -”

“That settles it then!” Molly cuts him off abruptly. “For surely one of us would have heard something of the matter by now if the man  wasn’t fair game. So - a rich, single wizard with a nice education, attempting to restore his family’s blighted name - you cannot deny the prospect has definite potential, Arthur."

“Only as any romance has potential, my dear. And you speak of the poor lad as if you had designs to truss him up like a chicken, rather than matchmake him to whatever of our offspring you find closest at hand.”


“Romance? Who is talking of romance? I’m talking about suitability,” Molly offers in her no-nonsense tone, ignoring the comment about the chicken. “We have three children desperate to be partnered and upon us comes a genuine opportunity. Surely they must meet, at the very least. Do you know if he and his companions are to come to tonight’s ball?”

Arthur hums. “As I was not even aware that we were scheduled to attend, how should I know of some other fellow’s invitation status?”

“Of course we’re going!” Molly exclaims. “One does not get children married by staying comfortably at home! I sincerely hope Mister Malfoy and his companions will be attending. Perhaps I will owl Xenophilius - chances are he will prove to be a sight more helpful than you in ascertaining an answer.”

“Doubtless he shall, as I have none to speak of.”

“Stop speaking, then.”

“You first, my darling.”

Harry snorts at the dryness of Arthur’s reply and Molly’s responding huff of reluctant laughter.

Their voices drift off as they move deeper into the house and Harry’s boredom returns. He props himself up on his elbows with a sigh, mourning the loss of direct sunlight on his skin as dusk starts to settle in the treeline.

He rises from his patch of grass with a groan, resigned now to head back home and ready himself to attend the Lovegood’s party. He has no personal desire to go - or indeed to meet this Malfoy fellow, whoever he is - but knowing of Molly’s enthusiasm spurs him to act in accordance.

In these types of situations one often finds it best to show up of their own volition, thus saving everyone the trouble of Molly’s inevitable running to ground.

She’s very fond of the indiscriminate Howler, Molly is. And her tracking charms are uncanny.

Harry pulls his shrunken broom out of his pocket and spells it to size, deciding to fly back to London as a way to soak up the last sliver of peace in his day. He also suspects it would be prudent to avoid going back into the Burrow to use the floo and risk running into Molly.

Or Ginny, for that matter.

Or, worse, both of them together. His hair would never escape unscathed.

He grimaces - remembering last time, and the ribbons - before kicking off from the ground and rising swiftly into the slowly-darkening sky.

---

Harry arrives by floo to the Lovegoods, Neville close on his heels, relieved to find the party already in full swing. Chances are they’ve managed to miss some of the inane chatter and pomp, at the very least.

They step out of the house onto the Lovegood’s shabby grounds, which have been festooned with tables of food and drink and the odd hovering chair for the older wizards and witches. Everlasting Lumos lamps float above the tables, and hoards of fairies twinkle their lights in the hedges and trees.

Harry’s ears catch the trill of instruments being tuned from the direction of the barn, which has doubtless been cleared out and enlarged for the dancing.

Neville makes an immediate beeline for Luna, for whom he likely has an inquiry of a botanical sort.

At least, that’s what Harry supposes it to be about. Neville had expressed his thoughts about the subject to Harry over the dinner table in the hour before, but Harry had been too distracted in trying to get Kreacher to desist attempting to de-mud his boots under the table to pay all that much attention to the full content of Neville’s speech.

The Lovegood’s annual event typically attracts a good crowd of British wizarding society, and it appears that this year is no different.

It takes Harry a good half hour to make it fifteen paces from the house, waylaid as ever with persistent inquiries, fawning compliments, and the general natterings on of the ‘Would you please, Mister Potter’s and the ‘Is it true, Mister Potter’s - not to mention the ‘I say , Mister Potter’s.

It’s enough to make Harry loathe any social gathering larger than a Burrow family dinner.

Ginny pulls up at Harry’s elbow as he finally escapes to a drinks table, where he’d intended to refresh himself with a bowl of butterbeer. Or perhaps something stronger, he thinks, as the elderly witch he’d been trapped by for the past quarter hour follows at his elbow, apparently hellbent on continuing their ‘conversation’ despite the fact that Harry has ceased responding entirely.

He turns to Ginny in greeting, passing her a goblet of Firewhiskey as he does, the twin to his own.

“Cheers,” she toasts him, clinking her cup against his and taking a large swallow.

Harry mirrors her, downing a substantial portion of his drink in one gulp as he scans her attire head to toe.

Ginny has clearly made an effort with her appearance this evening; her breeches are freshly pressed and her jacket brushed; her long, flowing locks dropping in a blazing glory around her shoulders and perfumed lightly with bergamot. It makes Harry want to lean into her and take a deep whiff, but surely that would be indecorous in public assembly, not to mention would add the risk of passing on his own chronic dishevelment like an ague.

He doesn’t want to risk her definite and likely painful retribution if he flaws any inch of her careful dressing. Harry doubts a bat bogey to the face would improve his own appearance any.

Though truthfully, Harry’s as unsure as ever as to what the state of his own dress matters. No level of personal fastidiousness is going to stop people from bothering about him, in any case.

Apparently it matters in some regard, as the first thing Hermione does upon appearing is tut ‘Oh, Harry ’ and begin removing burrs and twigs from his hair with studious concentration.

Once groomed to a threshold that forestalls her fretting, she pulls back and lets him join the conversation around their newly-gathered circle, the current topic of which seems to be Ron and George’s ongoing argument about the expansion of their magical curio business.

“We aren’t ready,” Ron is saying, mouth pulled into a frown as he addresses his brother. “It isn’t feasible at the moment and it’s unlikely to become more so at any time soon, given that both our wives are expecting -”

“If we are to wait for Weasleys to stop being abundantly fertile we’ll be waiting forever,” George counters, earning him a rebuking slap to the arm from Molly and her lacy fan.

He carries on, undeterred, “And we must develop a London presence if we are ever to become competitive in the market! Really, Ronald, it’s an obvious step - we must take it. Harry already said he’d loan us the portion we’d need to get started. We might as well let him help - after all, it’s not as if he himself has a profession to fill his idyll hours.”

Harry pauses in the act of retying back his hair with the bit of twine to grouse ‘Hey!’ at him, mildly offended, even though he can’t really blame George for taking a swing at so easy a mark.

The trajectory of Harry’s adult life is the subject of curiosity to everyone, it seems - possibly with the exception of himself. After all the faff with Voldemort had come to an end, Harry had found it difficult to focus on any one passion for any length of time.

He hadn’t even lasted a full year with the Auror regiment, deciding swiftly that he’d much rather observe the actual good of his varying charitable trusts than align himself with the Ministry’s mercurial relationship with the concept of justice.

Unfortunately the amount of time the oversight ends up actually occupying is rather nil, and Harry can’t really bring himself to be bothered busying himself with much else.

All in all, he can’t say George is altogether incorrect.

The group moves together into the barn, where the gathering is localizing in anticipation of music and dancing. The timbered eaves are alight with floating candles, and in the improved light Harry can see that Ron’s face has taken on a hint of pink.

“Harry needn’t assist us with something so unnecessary,” Ron continues emphatically, scowling still at his brother.

“It is necessary!” George exclaims. And if it eases you to involve him more substantially, let’s just make him a partner and install him in town to assist with the initial set up of the shop. He already lives there, and it will be good for him to have an occupation in between answering fan owls.”

George meets Harry’s eye and winks, forcing Harry to grin reluctantly back at him. The tosser.

Ron does look slightly warmed up to the idea at this point, the color receding slightly from his cheeks and a considering look lifting his eyes.

Which perhaps prompts Molly to say, “Yes, why don’t you involve Harry a bit more, dear. It’s not as if he currently has a spouse of his own to occupy his days,” she adds, with a calculating edge to her tone on the word ‘currently’ that Harry notes with chagrin.  

With four of her children happily married, Molly has recently turned her special, and singularly avid, attention to the remaining singletons of her flock: Percy, Ginny, and - though not officially her offspring by blood - Harry.

Harry knows she would employ her machinations in Neville’s best interest as well, if there were any hope of Neville displaying even the smallest indication of interest in - well, anyone. So far as Harry can tell, Neville has not yet intimated to fancying anyone in his life, nor does he seem at all bothered to begin presently.

Oddly, Molly seems to understand this and thus far has let him be.

Harry himself isn’t exactly resigned to bachelorhood these days, per say. But his reticence concerning the prospect of courting is entirely justified, so far as he’s concerned.

Being who he is earns him an excessive amount of attention, it’s true, but very little of it proves to be the kind Harry actually wants to be the recipient of. Harry often finds it difficult to trust the motivations of new acquaintances, the sincerity of their interest in him; that their affections could apply to himself specifically, and not to some idolized vision they have of the ‘Boy Who Lived.’

As for his established connections - well, they’re family, aren’t they? Harry couldn’t possibly attempt to court any of them.

Harry isn’t too keen on a repeat performance of his failure with Ginny, especially given how keen Ginny is on reminding him of the first one.

All told, Harry isn’t sure why Molly cannot apply the same leniency of expectation to his situation as she has to Neville’s. Unfortunately, expressing this annoyance only ever leads to both Ginny and Molly informing him repeatedly that ‘bitterness and indifference aren’t the same thing.’

They have privately - and publicly - assured themselves that Harry is lonely.

Harry has assured them both that they should mind their own business.

At this point their conversation is interrupted by a general pleased outcry at the arrival of fresh faces in the entrance of the barn. Harry turns toward the hubbub, eyes landing on the small, unfamiliar party as the three of them enter the fray.  

He surveys the newcomers in turn.

There’s a dark and handsome man whose beautiful countenance and graceful bearing almost force Harry to roll his eyes. Surely it’s ridiculous that someone should be so appealing? Excessive, in Harry’s opinion.

Next, a tiny woman with her hair cut in a dramatic bob in a manner that is leagues beyond the current fashions of England, a style echoed by the severe cut of her expensive robes.

And between those two persons, the third: a tall, severe looking gentleman with a shock of carefully set, white-blond hair.

The hair in itself is striking, as are the eyes - ice grey and intelligent - but paired as they are with the ugly, self-important sneer the mouth is wearing, Harry cannot say that his initial impression of the man is at all favorable.

He leans over to Luna and whispers, “Which one is the priggish beanpole who looks like he’s got the better part of a broomstick up his arse?”

Luna smiles her soft, cheerful smile and says in her slow, tempered way, “That’s not a very kind observation, Harry.”

She pauses to consider the man, her large, clear eyes unblinking. “But neither does it ring untrue. That is Mister Draco Malfoy, heir to the Malfoy and Black fortunes and recently arrived back from France. His parents had a spot of bother with the British Ministry during the first war, I’m afraid - they’ve been exiled to France for almost the entirety of the man’s life.”

Harry snorts despite himself. Only Luna could describe someone enthusiastically aligning themselves with an evil regime to such a degree that they were forcibly banished from British society as ‘a spot of bother.’

Luna ignores him, continuing, “But it looks as if he’s returned to have a go at distinguishing himself from his family’s follies. Rather brave of him, do you not think?”

“Mhmm,” Harry grunts, noncommittally.

He regards the man again from head to toe. He’s suspiciously well set up - not a single seam or hair out of place.

Harry’s heard of the Malfoys before, of course; their involvement in Voldemort’s initial rise to power and their subsequent trial and exile; the general, mundane surprise that they hadn’t broken legality to return to assist with Voldemort’s second coming.

Such knowledge does advocate in favor of the man’s possible character, Harry supposes. Obviously something in the family sentiment had changed enough in the intervening years to keep them from repeating their initial mistakes when the opportunity presented itself, and it would be unfair of Harry to automatically assume that the son shares in his parent’s past or present bigotry.

Likely a completely accurate assumption, he assures himself privately - but unfair, true.

Though judging by his current look of haughty disdain, said son doesn’t appear to be much more pleasant of his own accord.

Harry turns his attentions back to the other newcomers. The woman’s bearing is just as pompous as the Mister Malfoy’s, but the other man’s beautiful face remains pleasantly genial as he looks around the gathering, greeting the first bustling round of persons rushing forward to make introductions.

“The others are Mister Blaise Zabini and Miss Pansy Parkinson,” Luna adds to Harry, noticing his shifted gaze. “Their families were tangentially connected to the first Voldemort regime as well, but were sensible enough to remove themselves from damning entanglements - and the country - before meeting the Malfoys’ fate.”

Harry grunts in understanding. Aha . “So what you’re telling me is that we have now have three Slytherins in our midst? No wonder they all look so unpleasant.”

“Don’t be silly, Harry,” Luna replies good-naturedly. “They didn’t go to Hogwarts and therefore can’t have been Slytherins, of course. They likely all went to Beauxbatons - that’s probably where the three of them became acquainted.”

“Yes, well. Based on what you’ve just said, they would have been Slytherins - it’s obvious. Not to mention all the scowling. Who scowls that much upon first meeting a bunch of strangers? Who scowls that much at all? Slytherins, that’s who.”

“You’re an awful Gryffindor snob, Harry, and you always have been. Besides, you scowl quite frequently.”

Harry scowls. “I do not. And my house preferences are entirely objective - everyone knows Slytherins are a bunch of horrible, incorrigible sods.”

“But they aren’t Slytherins. And you haven’t even spoken to them yet.”

Harry shakes his head, confident. “They surely would have been, I’m positive.”

Luna rolls her eyes and turns to talk to Ginny. “Did you hear? Harry is the new Sorting Hat.”

“He is looking similarly manky around the brim,” Ginny responds distractedly, though she still manages to adeptly sidestep Harry’s retaliating punch to her arm. “C’mon, Luna. Let’s dance.”

She pulls Luna off into the crowd, Luna’s skirted robes swishing in their wake.

Harry turns back to his family, eyes landing on Molly and stomach dropping as he takes in the calculating look on her face as she carefully observes the newest arrivals.

Merlin, she’s going to want to introduce them all.

Harry suddenly connects the appearance of the new party with Molly’s animated prodding at Arthur earlier. He likely should have deduced this immediately - ‘Malfoy’ being as singular a name as it is -  but sometimes Harry has trouble bothering to think much on things he cares little about.

He certainly isn’t any keener to be introduced to this Malfoy person now that he knows Molly's objectives for matchmaking.

He struggles with the very idea; surely she can’t think that that gangly arsehole is a good candidate for courting? With his family past? With the current evidence of his sour disposition? Harry cannot see a situation in which he will be at all compatible with anyone in their circle.

Though, Harry thinks to himself, the fellow’s hair is rather unique.

And he is very - tall .

And he has returned to England, knowing that his reception will be tempered with the expectation that he prove himself different from his family before him.

Perhaps he is different. Perhaps Harry’s being too hasty to judge.

Still, it’s with no true enthusiasm that Harry allows himself to be towed along toward the visiting party by Molly’s sudden death-grip on his arm.

Harry makes a grab at Neville’s elbow as he walks fortuitously past, eager for company during the pending ordeal, and causing Neville to slosh some of the lurid blue punch - Luna’s creation, no doubt - from his bowl.

“Oh dear,” Neville mumbles, wiping ineffectually at the front of his splattered waistcoat and allowing himself to be dragged sideways in Harry’s grip.

“Mister Malfoy, welcome back to England! Mister Zabini, Miss Parkinson - welcome, welcome!” Molly cheerfully exclaims as they pull up in front of the newcomers, beaming at them warmly.

“May I present Mrs. Arthur Weasley, Mister Neville Longbottom, and Mister Harry Potter,” Xenophilius introduces them with a familiar bow.

Harry, watching the Mister Malfoy’s face closely through the introduction, does not fail to notice the stern mouth tighten unpleasantly at hearing the name ‘Weasley.’ Harry bristles, and has already given in to his own frown by the time the grey eyes swivel in his direction.

Their gazes meet and Harry feels a strong shock of - recognition? familiarity? - something register in his mind like the far off tolling of a bell.

He isn’t sure what shows on his face, besides the initial frown, but Malfoy simply stares coldly back at him, his expression unchanging aside from a minute narrowing of the eyes.

“Er,” Harry mumbles, realizing that the rest of the group have begun staring at him as well, likely due his lack of appropriate response. “Ah, how do you do?” he asks, weakly.

“So wonderful to meet you all,” Mister Zabini addresses them warmly, deftly saving Harry from the attention. Harry favors him instantly.

“Charmed,” Miss Parkinson offers, voice as dry as powdered Bicorn horn as her dark eyes flick over them in disinterest.

Mister Malfoy inclines his head in a stiff nod, saying nothing.

“Yes, lovely to make your acquaintances, to be sure,” Molly replies brightly. “I have several other children, but they’re already dancing,” she tells them happily, waving a hand toward the milling crowd.  

It isn’t hard to tell who she means - the bright, telltale heads of red hair shining in the candlelight as they shift through the press of bodies around them.

Ron and Hermione make an attractive pair, grinning and close, made all the more appealing by their obvious absorption in one another. The deep purple hue of Hermione’s dress compliments her dark complexion beautifully, even as it contrasts the flame of Ron’s hair.

Luna and Ginny twirl past. Ginny lifts Luna easily into a turn, both of them flushed and pretty, standing out bright as Patronuses in the crowded room.

Ginny throws a wink to Harry as she catches his eye before sending a pointed, sharp grin in Miss Parkinson’s direction. Harry glances toward the woman to catch her reaction, noting a subtle pinkening of her cheeks, even as her mouth retains its stern line.

Unsurprising, that. Ginny does always stray toward brunettes.

Reminded of this, Harry reaches up to scratch a hand along his jaw, itching at the two-day stubble there. He likely should have shaved again before he left Grimmauld.

He catches Malfoy watching him then, eyes narrowed slightly as they follow the path of Harry’s hand over his prickly face, his mouth pulled tight in what Harry assumes is disapproval at this display of dishevelment.

Dropping his hand, Harry attempts a polite smile at the man.

If anything this just makes the grey eyes go even more stony.

Excellent start.

Unfortunately at this point Harry notices that Neville and Molly are wrapped up in a discussion with Zabini about family lineages, and Xenophilius has pulled Miss Parkinson into an exchange - if Mister Lovegood chattering exuberantly in her direction while she stares boredly over the rim of her glass can be called an exchange.

Which means it falls to Harry to engage with the robotic blond. Wonderful.

“Do you dance, Mister Malfoy?” Harry hears himself ask politely. Never let it be said that he doesn’t have manners.

Malfoy scrutinizes him for a second before replying in a deep, crisp voice, “Under normal circumstances, yes.”

Harry waits in vain for an addition to this. When it becomes clear that none is forthcoming, Harry is unable to help lifting an incredulous eyebrow and teasing, “And is there something abnormal about the current situation, Mister Malfoy?”

Malfoy’s lips compress briefly, but still he makes no reply - the boring sod.

Harry barely refrains from laughing as he gives a perfunctory bow and turns hastily away. Can the snob not even bring himself to attempt conversation?

Not even a pace away, Harry finds himself quickly folded into the center of a ring of chattering older witches, all insisting that he must meet this or that niece or nephew, praising him effusively for his deeply heroic, capable demeanor, and imploring him to please tell them what hair potions he uses, so effortlessly stylish . Harry would be deeply annoyed if he wasn’t in their debt for helping him escape Malfoy’s many charms.

He bears with the ladies for as long as possible before excusing himself, ducking out the back entrance of the barn and into the cool night beyond.

He walks quickly around the side of the building, pulling out the invisibility cloak from a pocket and swinging it over his shoulders as he goes. He leans against wall of the barn and closes his eyes, sighing with relief for the moment of semi-quiet, without the press of bodies and demand for palaver.

The muffled laughter and music from inside wafts happily around him, mingling pleasantly with the night noises from the surrounding fields. He breathes in time to the rushing sounds of breezes through the tall grasses and the chittering of early-season insects.

After a moment the cloak rustles around him and Ginny pops up inside, pressing up against his shoulder with a whispered, “There you are. What are you doing in here?”

Harry sighs, eyes still closed. “Hiding out from general splendor.”

Ginny snorts. “You antisocial ogre.”

“Yes, well I would be - and rather comfortable in the role - if you hadn’t barged in and foiled my plan.”

“Are you calling me general splendor?”

“Oh, I think we both know your splendor has a great deal of specificity to it.”

“I’m choosing to receive that remark as a compliment,” she replies archly. “And anyway, I’m family. I’m not supposed to count in terms of society you’d occasionally like to avoid. You’re supposed to suffer my presence continuously, regardless of your ever-changing disposition.”

Harry takes his turn to snort, pivoting his head to look at her.

Ginny performs a complicated little eyebrow shrug that Harry can only just make out in the moonlight.

“Although if that were true maybe we’d still be engaged,” she quips.  

He grins at her. “Yes, perhaps. Though I was under the impression that had less to do with us being perennially annoyed with one another and more to do with you turning out gayer than a Christmas ribbon.”

She grins back. “I think we both can agree that you are far more annoying and far gayer than I could ever hope to be.”

“Since I’m the one with a preference to partners of either sex, technically that can’t be true.”

“Your exclusive and embarrassingly fixated ogling of the male members of our newest party tells a different story.”

“I wasn’t ogling, I was scrutinizing,” Harry objects, maturely refraining from pointing out her own obvious interest in Miss Parkinson. “And I don’t think too much of the haughty bunch thus far, let me tell you.”

“So you weren’t thinking of asking the blond to dance?” she asks with a knowing smirk.

“That boring prat?” he scoffs. “He’s about as animated as a tree, if of a height. Absolutely no-”

Harry is cut off by the arrival of the blond in question around the corner of the building, Mister Zabini following a pace behind. The moonlight bounces off Malfoy’s bright head, catching Harry’s eye with the movement.

Apparently Malfoy’s reserve does not apply with those he is intimately acquainted with - the man is talking so fast Harry can barely keep up with the content of his speech.

“I’m only saying, after decades of hearing the gushy praise and avid fawning over the ‘godly’ Chosen One from everyone and their bloody aunt, I’d expected to find him exceedingly more impressive - formidable, perhaps - or at least handsome. And here he is, failing on all counts,” Malfoy hisses, coming rigidly to a stop only a few yards from Harry and Ginny’s place.  

Harry’s cheeks burn at Malfoy’s words. He resolutely does not meet Ginny’s eye.

“Oh, I don't know,” Zabini pipes in in an amiable tone. Harry notes that his accent, though just as posh, is more watered-down than Malfoy's. “Personally, I find him quite well set up - and I’m very intrigued by his coiffure. Rather wild and dashing, I think.”

“That birdsnest? Coiffure barely warrants the name,” Malfoy scoffs. “And you’d be keen on a Dementor if it had nice enough teeth, Blaise - you are the least discerning individual I’ve ever met. Speaking of which, I’m honestly surprised you managed a spare second to develop any opinion of Potter, let alone a favorable one, given your obvious fixation on the Longbottom creature. Of all people,” he finishes, the sneer in his voice so obvious it sets Harry’s teeth on edge and makes Ginny stiffen beside him.

Zabini sighs beatifically, seeming unphased by his friend’s unpleasant tone. “I’m quite overcome. Really, Draco, do you mind checking me for hexes? I feel positively enchanted.”

Malfoy laughs without humor. “I think you’ve had positively too much wine. Though I don’t know how you’ve managed to stomach it - this vintage is abysmal.”

“Don’t get all techy on me just because I’ve had the luck of becoming besotted while you remain obstinately intractable, even in a room filled with quite a number of intriguing persons,” Zabini chides him. “Remember, my friend, you’ve come here to make a go of it, but you’re by no means starting with a clean slate. Given the depth you’ll have to dig out from the hole your parents left you here, I think it may be wise to lower your own lofty expectations to a more reasonable height. I am quite amazed and flattered they have received us all with such good humor - don’t ruin the favorable beginning by being so hard to please yourself.”

Malfoy’s outline stiffens even more severely as he replies, “I’m not going to lower my standards of polite society just because my family legacy in these parts is - troubled.”

Blaise snorts at his choice of word, increasing Harry’s opinion of his nature tenfold.

Malfoy continues, voice gone so soft and intense that Harry almost misses it, “I’m not my father.”

Zabini clearly doesn’t miss the change in tone, reaching out to place a hand on Malfoy’s elbow.

“No - you aren’t,” he replies with quiet confidence. “But they don’t know that yet, and they’re still giving you the benefit of the doubt. Let them have a chance to see that you deserve it on your own merits, before you lift your nose so high they cannot meet your eyes.”

Malfoy shifts on his feet. “You’re calling me a snob again.”

“Yes, and it won’t be the last time,” Zabini says, a smile clear in his voice. “C’mon, you grumpy thing. Give these people a chance - they seem a kindly sort. I know it isn’t France, but you’re the one that’s dragged us here in the first place.”

“Don’t remind me,” Malfoy grouses bitterly before throwing back the rest of the wine in his glass in one swallow.

“But surely, Blaise, you must admit that Potter himself is a disappointment,” he continues emphatically. “Did you see the state of his pantalon ? He’d brought in half the countryside on them like some common oaf.”

“I thought him charming, if slightly more informally clad than the standards you and I are accustomed to,” Zabini says brightly. “Though I can’t say I have much previously rendered opinion on which to compare him to - I never did share your obsession with his story, in school.”

“I did not obsess ,” Malfoy objects in clipped tones. “If you’d spent your childhood hearing your own father tearing on about him, and the rest of your life in a wizarding world so obsessed they teach about him in the bloody school curriculum, you’d have developed a bit of interest as well. It was enough to make me want to escape to the colonies, just to find peace from the mention. And now that I know how little he warrants the awe I’m revisiting the inclination again.”

“So you’re saying you aren’t going to ask him to dance?” Zabini says, and Harry catches the flash of his smile in the dim light.

Malfoy’s silence is pointed.

Zabini laughs. “Well, I think I shall, if you don’t mind.”

“As you would,” Malfoy sighs as the pair of them rounds the corner of the barn. “We’ve already discussed just how dismally easy you are to impress.”

The quiet of the countryside rings in their wake.

“Um.”

“Ginny,” Harry cuts her off tersely, trying not to meet her eye.

Ginny is looking at him askance, the coloring to her cheeks so visible even in the darkness that Harry can tell she’s struggling between humor and pity.

“Well,” she says quickly, breaking the tense silence again. “He didn’t say you were ugly or tragically disfigured or anything, he just said you weren’t -”

Ginny.

Harry swallows loudly, trying to tamp down his embarrassment with healthy dose of irritation.

What does Harry need to care for such an opinion, anyway? Harry doesn’t need to be handsome. What good does being handsome do?

And it’s not as if little lord Malfoy is exactly a prize in his own merits - all pointy and horribly pale, like some sort of albino stick insect.

Not to mention the clearly detestable personality.

Yes, what good would it do for Harry to have someone like that find him handsome, even if such a thing did matter? Harry would rather be generally unappealing than of any special interest to that absolute prick.

“I agree entirely,” Ginny says, patting him firmly on the shoulder. “An absolute cad of the first order.”

Harry startles a bit at her touch - he hadn’t realized he’d been speaking aloud.

“Yes, quite,” Harry offers lamely. He clears his throat and tries again, with more confidence, “Indeed. Well, let’s not let that insufferable arse cast a pall over the evening. Not that he could, even if he did find me remotely appealing.” He snorts derisively at the notion.

“There’s the spirit.” Ginny grins at him. “I’d see it as a blessing, actually - if he did fancy you you’d be burdened with his attentions.”

Harry grins back, doing his best to shrug the last ten minutes from his mind. “True - can’t say I mourn the loss of the prospect.”

“C’mon,” Ginny pulls at him, dislodging the cloak in a swift movement. “Let’s get you a whiskey.”

They return to the crowded interior of the barn, Harry’s thoughts instantly and pleasantly drowned in the onslaught of stimulation and company. Luna takes one look at his face and quickly pulls him onto the floor as the next song begins, whirling him around with her usual manic enthusiasm and making him laugh, despite himself.

Harry knows himself to be a rather poor dancer, but he enjoys it anyway. Besides, when one is dancing with Luna ‘skill’ fails to be the chief concern of the moment.

Harry does his best to keep pace as she takes turn giving up the lead at random, making silly faces at him at every pass and leaning so hard into her exuberance that Harry is forced into his own.

They’re still giggling as he tows her off the floor for a rest, grabbing bowls of sparkling punch off a disembodied tray as they find a clear space to recover themselves.

“Oh hello, Draco,” Luna says as she finishes a panting sip of the drink, her bright eyes directed somewhere just over Harry’s shoulder.

Harry steels himself to maintain a pleasantly placid face as he turns toward the man.

Malfoy looks a little startled at being informally addressed by her, but not nearly as surprised as Harry would have expected from his horrible, prissy demeanor.

“We’re cousins,” Luna adds to Harry, as if that somehow explains a multitude of unasked questions. “Did you know?”

Harry is careful to smile genially at the both of them. He downs the remainder of his punch and clears his throat.

“No, I did not,” he responds smoothly, proud of the lack of waver in his voice. “Malfoy failed to include that detail during our extensive conversation earlier,” he adds in mock innocence. “He was too busy regaling me with his excessive fondness for dancing. Positively loquacious, he was.”

Malfoy’s permanent frown deepens at this, though Harry could swear he catches a corner of the man’s mouth twitch. Doubtless he is mistaken.

“Is that true?” Luna inquires of Malfoy, not waiting for an answer before continuing, “How delightful, Draco - a passion we have in common! Must be a family trait. I cannot wait to discover how much more we share, now you are returned to England.”

Harry snorts openly at this; he cannot imagine a person more dissimilar to Luna than the priggish ascetic before him. Pale hair notwithstanding.

Malfoy nods his head slightly toward her in agreement, but says nothing.  

Luna, undeterred by his woodenness, goes on, “I would absolutely insist upon you accompanying me in the next round, cousin, but I have promised myself to Ginerva for a few reels. I was supposed to take the next with Neville, but it looks as if he’s found another partner for present.”

Harry turns his head to follow her gaze, startled - Neville never dances with anyone but Luna.

But there he is a few paces from them, a look of studious concentration on his face as he turns in the arms of Mister Zabini.

Zabini, smiling hugely, leads him through it, as graceful in his movements as Neville is bumbling.

Fascinated by the sight of them, Harry almost misses Luna saying, “So, Draco, are you going to ask Harry or not?”

Harry whips back around, just barely stopping himself from barking out a refusal. No way in Godric’s fancy drawers is he going to agree to that .

He finds Malfoy and Luna staring at him, the latter with a too-innocent smile hiding behind her cup, and the former with a scowl that must mirror Harry’s own.

At this point Mister Malfoy’s good manners - the few dregs he can possibly own - take hold. Harry can see the resignation in his eyes as he decides to acquiesce.

Harry doesn’t give him the chance.

“Oh, no - I’m sure Mister Malfoy can find a much more suitable partner than myself, at present,” Harry says hastily, his voice coming out much more pleasant and measured than he feels. “I’m sure there’s a candidate more graceful - or at least handsome,” he adds with mean satisfaction, watching Malfoy’s pointy face shift as the words register. “After all, I’m just a common oaf. Excuse me.”

He stiffly bows and turns quickly away, noting as he does - and with no little pleasure - the slightly slack-jawed quality Malfoy’s frown has taken on, as well as Luna’s corresponding confused expression.

No bother - Harry will explain himself to her later.

As for now, he slips quickly out of the barn before anyone can stop him and heads across the lawn toward the house, intending to floo home. He finds himself quite suddenly exhausted.

He pulls his wand out to conjure a patronus, sending it off toward the barn to tell his goodbyes to Luna and the Weasleys. He briefly considers going back to ask Neville if he’d like to accompany him back to London, but drops the notion as he catches sight of Neville himself, now standing in the soft light under the trees, still in the company of Mister Zabini.

Harry stops, watching them for a moment; the dark and fair heads bent toward one another, the gentle smile shared by both faces through their animated conversation.

He continues on, smiling to himself now as he steps into the fireplace and reaches for the bowl of green powder. Zabini does seem a good sort, and Neville has always been a good judge of character; perhaps their newest acquaintances aren’t a total loss.

As for the others, well - Harry can’t say he’s at all eager to deepen his association.

“Grimmauld Place,” Harry announces, steeling his stomach against the spin as the floo ushers him home.

A nauseating moment later he steps out into the darkened kitchen of number twelve, eager for the quiet comfort of his bed and for sleep to settle him from the events of the day.

As he climbs the stairs to the second floor the winking reflection of his lumosed wand in the landing’s mirror stops him in his tracks. He leans toward its blotted surface, scrutinizing himself closely for the first time in as long as he can remember.

He looks himself over; the dark brown skin marred by the stark, jagged line of the curse scar; the unnaturally-green eyes behind the rounded, wire spectacles and their perpetually-smudged lenses.

And then there’s the hair - a right bird's nest, even at the best of times.

He sighs, watching as his nostrils flare.

Harry has never been a vain man, and he isn’t inclined to start now. He’s had to deal with worse in himself than the odd cowlick and debilitating nearsightedness - he’d had to share this body with a mad megalomaniac’s soul for goodness sake. Anything about his mere appearance just fails to bother him in comparison. And why should it?

The opinions of poncy, semi-translucent, quasi-French arseholes notwithstanding.

“That hair needs combing, love,” the mirror interrupts his survey in a tinny voice.

“Oh, sod off,” Harry tells it, moving off toward his bedroom door without a backwards glance.

“I say,” he hears the mirror say in a scandalized tone before he slams the door shut behind him.

The posh accent of the mirror has his mind alighting on fair, polished hair, shining under the moon’s glow - on cold eyes and colder words - but he pushes the thought away resolutely. The deep quiet of his bedchamber is soothing after the over-stimulation of the evening. 

It’s just as well Malfoy harbors no interest in him, Harry tells himself, as he has no wish to lay eyes on the fellow ever again.

He pulls off his tight stock with relief and unbinds his hair, throwing himself down on the bed as soon as he shimmies the breeches off.

No, Harry is absolutely better off without that horrible man’s regard, to be sure.

He couldn’t have wished for it to be any other way, quite honestly.

“Nox.”

He turns over, gazing up at the familiar bed curtains above his head. The sheets feel cold and lifeless around him.

Harry sighs into the dark.



Chapter Text

By the following morning Harry has entirely forgotten about pompous blond arseholes so far up themselves they’d need a Lumos to find their way out.

Almost entirely, anyway.

He dresses with his usual lack of care and heads down to the kitchen for a bite to eat before deciding how exactly to not spend his day.

Neville is already down, munching on toast and reading out of the Daily Prophet to Kreacher; the elf has a particular fondness for the marriage and death announcements.

Neville raises his teacup with green-stained fingertips in greeting as he intones about ‘Mister Edward Merrythorpe’s disastrous and ultimately fatal attempt to domesticate a juvenile Erumpent,’ as Kreacher grimly deposits a plate of eggs and ham in front of Harry’s place at the table.

Like every morning Neville attempts to hand over the copy of the Prophet once he has finished, and like every morning Harry refuses it with an eye roll. That rag - Harry hasn’t picked one up in years.

He favors The Quibbler, especially now that Luna has gotten her dainty hands on the editing. Her comb appears to be even wider-toothed than Xenophilius’, bless her.

Harry grabs this week’s copy from the side board and tucks in.

“Did you, er - have a nice time last night?” Neville breaks the comfortable silence halfway through the meal. Harry glances up at him over the top edge of The Quibbler’s purple pages.

He finds Neville looking at him in a shifty, apologetic way that tells Harry he knows all about what happened outside the barn yesterday evening. Neville’s about as good as Molly at leaving well enough alone when he thinks someone is upset.

Sure enough -

“Ginny told me what Malfoy said about you,” he says in a rush, looking at Harry with soft, earnest eyes. “Ghastly manners - that must have been rotten to overhear.”

“Yes, right charming he was,” Harry sighs, making sure to keep his tone light so Neville knows just how unbothered he is about it. “Luckily I could give a full toss what that posh git thinks, so no harm done.”

“Mhmmm,” Neville mumbles, still looking conciliatory.

Harry sighs; if he isn’t quick about it Neville will likely start hovering like a mother hen, pushing restorative herbal teas on him and forcing him to go on scenic walks.  

“Really Neville, I could tell from the first second I watched that lot walk in - they’re far too full of themselves for my tastes. I can’t say their own opinions matter all that much to me.”

Neville nods at him, then clears his throat twice. The shiftiness hasn’t faded from his expression.

“Did you - I found Mister Zabini quite pleasant,” Neville says haltingly, eyes glued to his plate as he moves a bit of egg around with his fork. There’s no missing the sudden blush creeping over his cheeks.

Harry understands what’s bothering him now. He grins behind his goblet before taking a sip.

“No - Zabini was alright. Very genial,” Harry concedes, once he’s swallowed the mouthful of pumpkin juice. He keeps his eyes on Neville’s face as he continues, “Not to mention conveniently gorgeous, well-mannered, and clearly arse over tit for you from the word go.”

Neville’s blush blooms scarlet.

“He was not ,” he replies, a bit squeakily. “He isn’t - Why would he fancy me? We’ve only just become acquainted - and we have barely anything in common.”

Harry shrugs at him. “You needn’t share every habit to be compatible. If there’s a sympathy between your dispositions - well, that’s all that matters. And why wouldn’t he fancy you? You’re very fanciable. I’d fancy you, if the repercussions weren’t vaguely incestuous.”

Neville chuckles, his embarrassment receding with the tint of his cheeks. He sits back in his chair, teasing, “That’s just ‘cause you favor blondes.”

“I do not,” Harry objects, thinking on Mister Malfoy’s horrible, pale head. “Ginny isn’t blonde, is she?”

“No,” Neville agrees, smiling as he crunches into a bit of toast. “But I don’t think I need remind you that you and she were engaged for less than twenty minutes.”

“Yes, but that had nothing to do with the colour of anyone’s hair.”

Neville actually snorts at this, grinning cheekily at Harry over the rim of his teacup. “No it didn’t, did it?” he quips, half-muffled by the porcelain.

Harry kicks at his shin under the table.

“Leave off or I’ll tease you more about Zabini,” he warns him with a joking glare.

Neville smiles shyly down at the remains of his breakfast, a peaceful quiet once more settling in around them, broken only by the sound of chewing.

Harry has re-focused on the Quibbler’s coverage of Hermione’s latest efforts with the Order for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures’ systems reclassification - unsurprisingly and incongruously followed by an at-home remedy for the treatment of Dragonpox with a combination of teacakes and levitation - when a tapping at the window draws his attention.

He turns to find the sill occupied by - a raven , of all the needless, ostentatious things.

Harry has a good idea which household it’s been sent from before Neville even manages to pull off the ribbon-tied scroll and unroll it.

“It’s from Miss Parkinson,” Neville explains, answering Harry’s suspicions. His doe-eyes have gone comically wide; he always bears a certain resemblance to Pigwidgeon when agitated.

Harry kindly refrains from mentioning this.

“What does she want?” he asks instead.

“She has invited me to dine with her,” Neville answers, peering down at the parchment as if Parkinson had proposed dining on him instead.  

He blinks up at Harry, his trepidation obvious. Harry doesn’t blame him, as sharing a formal meal with the steel-eyed Miss Parkinson would not be high on his own list of happy occupations.

“That’ll be Zabini, no doubt - he’s just using Parkinson to get you there,” Harry tries to soothe him. “These posh idiots never do anything in a straightforward way.”

Neville frowns slightly, holding out a corner of his toast to the coal-black bird, who turns up its elongated nose at the offering.

“If that’s true I don’t see why he wouldn’t just owl me himself.”

No sooner are the words out of his mouth than a second bird appears in the window, this time a stately horned owl with a carefully folded note in its beak.

Harry stands to read over Neville’s shoulder as he unfolds the tidy little parchment.

 

Dear Mister Longbottom,

Forgive the possible confusion of Pansy’s missive. She insisted that ‘the niceties must be respected’ and I find women generally - and with absolute specificity, in this case - easier to live with when they are listened to.

As for the true reason we are writing you: we have found a Venomous Tentacula in the Manor’s abandoned medicine garden, and the general consensus - after the accustomed period of arguing that a Malfoy requires - has been to implore your skilled and knowledgeable self to helping us deal with the nasty thing. Draco insists he can figure out its removal on his own, but he’s not exactly the ideal candidate for getting his hands dirty and I didn’t at all mind telling him so.

Though, having an excuse to request your company may have played no small part in my insistence.

Fondly,

Blaise Zabini

 

“See? I told you,” Harry informs him smugly, before plucking the bird-refused crust from Neville’s hand and popping it in his own mouth.

“I - they just need some help with the Tentacula, that’s all,” Neville says softly, still staring at the paper. He reaches up to absentmindedly brush away the crumbs Harry is getting on his shoulder.

“Oh tosh, he says right there he wants to see you. Being quite frank about it too - Parkinson’s niceties be damned, it seems.”

“Do you think he’s being impertinent?” Neville asks him, eyebrows drawn together.

“No, I think he’s being enthusiastic, which is no less than you deserve. You should lean in to it, my humble friend.” Harry pats him on the elbow in encouragement. “Unless you aren’t interested in the fellow - which you are also allowed to be,” he adds.  

Neville’s cheeks are flaming once more as he replies stiffly, “I would not object to - to further developing our acquaintance.” He swallows, starting to fold the letter up carefully. “He is - I am always fond of making new friends.”

Harry smiles at the back of his dear head, deciding not to push further.

Even knowing Neville so well as he does, Harry doesn’t truly know how far his reticence toward intimacy goes. He’s an affectionate man with his friends, but caution is as easy to read off him as his love of all things green and growing.

Given what he does know of Neville’s losses - of what they all suffered during the war - Harry cannot fault Neville’s guardedness, or claim not to understand it.

Neither can he claim not to hold his own. Harry is well aware that his own struggles with celebrity, as well as his early experiences as a ward of his Aunt and Uncle - not to mention the war itself and his painful role within it - has not engendered easy trust in him, whether of himself or others.

Harry tries not to let such things sour him into bitterness, but the doubts never recede far from his mind. The wariness is always present; he can understand Neville, in this.

He leaves Neville to pen his replies in peace, grabbing his broom from its hook in the hall and stepping out onto the flagstones of the back garden.

The little space is Harry’s favorite part of the house.

They’d managed over the past decade to knock Grimmauld into decent shape, chasing out the mouldering darkness with a combination of Hermione-regimented renovations and Harry’s magical bullying the of house into finally acknowledging him as the true master. Now days the townhouse is brimming with cozy clutter and sunlight, more resembling Gryffindor tower than the musty, evil wreck it had been.

The garden though - despite all of Neville’s gentle encouragement and Harry’s hacking - remains wild, dark, and creeping around the edges; Harry is perversely proud of its resilience against them.

He tilts his head up, closing his eyes against the sharp, cool-smelling breeze and trying to decide whether to fly or floo to the Burrow, or to apparate somewhere closer for a spot of recreation.

He’ll need to stop by his solicitors later to sign some papers pertaining to  new orphanage, but that is his only obligation for the day - for the week, really - so he has time.

He wishes he had someone to fly with, but he knows none of his friends will be suitably enthusiastic or available. Neville is not one for the air himself; Harry is familiar from the last go-round how reluctant Ron is to leave Hermione for even a moment during the late stage of her pregnancy; Ginny is with Luna for the day, performing some apparently ‘urgent’ Nargle hunting in Lavender Brown’s apple orchard.

Harry knows Ginny’s whereabouts from the invitation to help he was issued, in the form of a letter that popped through his bedroom floo early this morning, startling him awake as it relentlessly pelted against his bed curtains.

Harry loves Luna. Harry does not love Nargle hunting.

He decided promptly that taking his chances with Ginny’s Bat Bogey would be worth an afternoon free of wading through damp heather, picking up more ticks than any supposed invisible pests.

Besides, he’s eager to test out the newest trick-snitch George had sent him, and he wants to practice his standing dismount without anyone around to laugh at him if he fumbles.

That’s decided then: he’ll apparate to his favorite copse in South Downs. There’s a small grove there full of soft grasses perfect for breaking falls.

He summons his much-loved copy of Quidditch Through the Ages before he goes, thinking he might like to take a kip in the sun after he runs his drills.

Harry tries not to feel preemptively lonesome at the prospect of lying there in the quiet breeze - contented, but alone.

He closes his eyes and spins, disappearing into the fresh air with a soft ‘pop.’

---

When Harry apparates back to Grimmauld for supper he finds the house empty, Neville obviously having submitted to the invitation to Malfoy Manor for the evening.

Not wanting to eat alone, Harry floos over to the Burrow for the company and a slice of Molly’s signature chicken pie. He’s at the table, in conversation with Arthur about the Kenmare Kestrals’ chances against Montrose in the fortnight, when Zabini’s owl finds him.

It flies through the open side door and alights on his shoulder, dropping a tiny scroll into the lap of Harry’s breeches and helping itself to a sip of his pumpkin juice without waiting for an invitation.

Harry eyes the bird suspiciously, but lets it pick through the remaining shortcrust crumbles on his plate as he unrolls the parchment.

 

Mister Potter,

Neville requested that I write to inform you that he will not be returning this evening, due to an altercation with the hideous vine that called him here.

He seems quite alright, aside from a great swelling of his right hand - thus the reason I am penning this missive for him - which I have insisted be seen by a healer before he leaves. I have instructed my personal healer in Paris to come and have a look. She will arrive by international portkey tomorrow morning.

Neville is resting now in reasonable comfort - his insistence, though personally his condition does appear unpleasant, if not readily life-threatening. I have not seen a hand so big since I met my former Headmistress’ husband, and on such a typically-sized one as Neville it is a bit frightful to behold.

I will write to you with an update on the morrow, after he has been seen to by Madame Bern. Please trust he is in good hands.

Regards,

Blaise Zabini

P.S. The plant itself has been subdued, much to Neville’s regret. You are likely to understand this reaction better than I, having been in his acquaintance longer.

 

Harry chuckles, thinking of last week - of watching Neville cooing over the tiny jumble of Devil’s Snare he’d found in an unexplored corner of Grimmauld’s cellar, as it desperately tried to strangle one of his ears off.

Familiarity with Neville’s strange affinities does not mean Harry remotely understands them.

He is glad to hear his friend is being well looked after, though he doesn’t miss Zabini’s familiar use of ‘Neville’ - and thrice in one letter. Good hands indeed.

No doubt the smooth bastard is using the unfortunate incident to his advantage by insisting Neville remain in his company for his recovery. Neville probably isn’t even that ill.

“Summoning his healer all the way from France? Rich git,” Harry mumbles, handing the parchment into Ginny’s outstretched hand.

“Rather thoughtful, I think - he can’t know any healers in this area as of yet, and obviously he is keenly invested in Neville’s care,” Molly points out quickly, though her brows are furrowed in concern. “Any of us would do the same for a friend in need, if we were able.”

“Mhmm,” Harry agrees, weakly, looking again on Zabini’s letter. Trust a Slytherin to make a show out of a favor, no matter how genuinely intended.

“A Venomous Tentacula?” Percy says from across the table, frowning. “Their sap is a Class B certified magical poison - I will have to inform the Minister of its presence at -”

“Neville dealt with it already, Perce,” Harry cuts him off quickly, angling to avoid yet another diatribe about the sainted Minister. “He just managed to get himself - bit? stung? - partially maimed in the process. Not altogether unsurprising. It’s Neville, you know.”

Molly leans over Ginny’s shoulder at she bustles around gathering now-empty plates.

“So Mr. Zabini did invite him to poke through the Manor gardens?” she asks Harry, with a slightly smug lilt to her tone that raises his eyebrow.

“Your doing, I presume?”

She shrugs but there’s still a smile hidden in one corner of her mouth, leaving her looking just the slightest bit like the kneazle with the cream. “I merely suggested to Mister Zabini that if he ever had any inquiries of a herbological nature, that he might call upon Neville’s expertise,” she replies with faux innocence.  

Harry catches Arthur’s eye over the rim of his goblet of ale and they share an amused shake of the head.

“You should go and check in on him, Harry dear,” Molly continues, handing him a fresh cup of tea. “Besides, you could use the opportunity to develop your acquaintance with Mister Malfoy - I saw you two talking, last night,” she adds, a foreboding glint still in her eye as she mentions Malfoy’s name.

Harry considers regaling her with just how much he enjoyed Malfoy’s talking the previous evening, but decides that retelling the whole ordeal would be as embarrassing for him as it would be damning to the French git.

He shoots Ginny a quelling look, hoping to forestall her own reenactment - Neville’s reminder this morning had been enough for one day - and sighs instead, “I can’t say I developed too much of an interest in the man, mum.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Molly asks quickly, narrowing her eyes at him.

“He was a bit, you know, posh - affected.” Harry shrugs. ‘More up himself than Percy is up the Minister,’ he wants to add, but doesn’t, given that Percy is sitting just there. “Besides, with his past - I doubt we’d have more in common than I do with Zabini’s owl, here.”

“But we don’t know his past, not fully,” Molly insists. “We know of his parents of course, and their circumstances, but we must give the Younger a chance to make an independent impression.”  

“Oh, he made an impression, alright,” Ginny mumbles around her forkful of pudding.

Harry aims a kick for her shin under the table, stubbing his toe against the hard tip of her boot instead. She smirks at him.

“I’m only saying, Harry dear, there is no guarantee that Mister Malfoy is at all like his family before him. He’s clearly trying to distance himself, by his own actions. And there are often exceptions to how far the apples fall from the tree,” she adds teasingly, shooting Ginny’s striped waistcoat a pointed look.

Ginny sticks a tongue out at her, making them both laugh.

“Regardless, Neville should be fine for the night, given what I’m sure is the great fastidiousness of Zabini’s care. I will drop by tomorrow, to see what the healer has made of it.”

“Yes, well, be sure to give them all a kind word from us,” Molly implores him, in a confident tone that tells him this will not be last he hears from her of the sorry bunch.

Harry sighs. He would like to check in on Neville, he supposes.

And he wouldn’t say no to a chance for more conversation with Zabini - the chance to get the measure of him, to make sure he’s worthy of Neville’s interest.

Perhaps Malfoy won’t even be there.

Perhaps he splinched himself getting home from the party, and is stuck somewhere with half of one of his knobbly limbs missing. 

Not that it matters, of course - Harry won’t be affected by the man’s presence in the slightest.

Not in the slightest .

---

The next morning Harry apparates to a point just outside the Manor’s grounds, per the instructions on the backside of Zabini’s letter, as the complicated wards Malfoy has just had installed on the place prevent direct floo access to first-time visitors.

Harry lands quite a distance away from the intended spot, thinking that a little walk might settle him for the oncoming awkwardness.

Besides, he knows this house and the way to it. He’s been here before.

He feels the new wards’ intrusive pulses wash over him as he moves down the lane to the front drive - wide enough for two carriage tracks, of course, fancy bastards - the magic pulling at him strongly before it ultimately permits him to pass through.

The sensation feels a bit like having been doused in cold water, and it doesn’t seem to fade even as he progresses forward toward the Manor’s marble-stacked facade. Bloody Malfoy.

Why does Malfoy have the place warded to hell and back to begin with, Harry wonders. He and Neville have harsher ones on Grimmauld, it’s true - as does the Burrow - but that’s the war, isn’t it? They have their excuses to be over-cautious.

Malfoy, on the other hand, has spent the entirety of his life to this point being safely babied in France. What on earth does the git have to be afraid of - someone coming to steal his hair potions?

Harry is let in by a young house elf, who shows him into a large, echoing parlor off the main wing.

He enters the room on the elf’s bare heels, to find it occupied by Malfoy and Miss Parkinson, sat down at a small table toward the rear windows.

“Mister Potter is being here, Sir and Miss,” the elf announces in a strongly-accented voice.

There’s a screech of wood on stone as Malfoy shoves his chair back, moving hastily to his feet.

He’s taller than Harry remembers from last night, standing rigidly in his crisp suit with the filtered sunlight streaming in behind him.

Harry blinks at him, startled; he’s quite used to pomp and commotion in response to his presence, unfortunately, but he’d never have expected it from Malfoy. Manners, now?

Perhaps Malfoy finds him less ugly in the daylight, Harry thinks to himself with an internal snort. Fat lot of good it would matter, anyway - the spindly, translucent git.

For her part Parkinson doesn’t stand, just looks at Harry sedately over the rim of her steaming teacup.

Neither of them says anything.

Slytherins, the both of them, most assuredly.

“Er, good morning,” Harry greets them, trying to prompt them into a reaction.

Malfoy nods his white-blond head bruskly. Still neither of them speak.

Another long moment passes and Harry starts to feel slightly flustered, shifting on his feet and noticing with a small amount of pleasure that his boots are leaving mud all over the smooth floor.

He tries again, “Um. So Neville got himself bit by something poisonous, eh?”

“Venomous,” Malfoy corrects curtly.

And succinctly, it seems. Harry would wonder if the man actually knows much English if he hadn’t heard him spouting off insults about him with expert fluency the night before.

Perhaps Harry should try out the phrase or two he knows in French - Fleur taught them to him over one of her and Bill’s tippling teas, so they’re likely to be crude enough for Harry’s current mood.

“Right,” Harry replies. “Well, I’ve come to check in on his recovery, so if you could show me -”

“Yes - Ignace, please show Mister Potter to the guest wing,” Malfoy directs the small elf with a lazy flip of his hand. “Blaise is taking tea with him there,” Malfoy adds to Harry with another short nod, and Merlin, Harry’s met portraits who’re better communicators.

“Yes, at his bizarre insistence,” Parkinson huffs quietly, her eyes dropping away from Harry and down to the stitching hoop propped in front of her, silver thread on black velvet.

Harry nods back at them both, congratulating himself at his restraint for not openly rolling his eyes as he does so, then follows the elf back out into the hall.

Harry hears Parkinson’s drawl ring out, not at all hushed, before the door swings shut of its own accord behind them.

“Was that a leaf? In his hair?

Ignace ushers Harry through a wide, breezy hallway lined with french doors on one side, sunlight washing merrily onto the bright parquet of the floor.

Harry looks around in awe as they walk. He cannot believe the change that’s overcome the house since the last time he’d stepped foot here.

He, Hermione, and Ron had been taken here by a group of snatchers toward the end of the war. It’s an experience Harry doesn’t like to remember, if he can help it, but walking through the familiar halls brings that day forcibly to mind.

Bellatrix had been using the place as her lair, and in Harry’s memory the house had mirrored her unpleasantness to a visceral degree - its cold expanses ghoulish, dark and imposing, every window shuttered and horrible things lurking in every shadow.

Not anymore, however; every room Harry has seen is light and airy, if too overly festooned with gilt for his tastes. There’s art hanging in ornate frames on every wall and elaborate arrangements of flowers on numerous, thin-legged tables, their petals perked and vibrant as if they’re under stasis.

They walk past a series of portraits as they move toward the guest wing, most of them a now-familiar pale blond and all of them currently snoozing in the buttery sunlight that’s pouring in across the space.

It’s clean and rich, to be sure, if not entirely homey - more like a museum than a lived-in house.

Still, Harry would prefer any version of it to the last.

After walking for an seemingly endless amount of time - Godric’s knickers, the place is enormous - they arrive in a small alcove of doors. The second opens almost the instant Harry sets eyes on it, Mister Zabini stepping out with a covered tray in his arms, a pleased smile still tucked in the corners of his beautiful face as he closes the door softly behind him.

“Mister Potter!” he exclaims, spotting Harry, the smile blooming into a beam as he does.

“Good Morning, Mister Zabini.” Harry nods at him, smiling back. “I’ve come to check on our ailing hero.”

“I suspected as much. He’s just inside. My healer has seen to him and assures us all of his guaranteed recovery, though it will likely take more time than first expected,” Zabini explains, a frisson of concern knotting his clear brow. “Rest is paramount, as you can imagine, so I’ve invited him to stay for as long as he needs.”

“We are all grateful to you and your care,” Harry tells him sincerely, then jokes, “Is he giving you much trouble?”

“Oh, he’s an exemplary a house guest as I would have expected.” Zabini grins again, his handsome face shining with it. “And holding up with remarkably more grace than I would in such a situation, the brave man. I am not pleased that he is hurting, of course, but I am beyond happy to be of service to him in his recovery, in any small way that I can.”

Now that Harry has no trouble believing. He smiles at Zabini once more.

“I am perfectly positive he appreciates the sentiment immensely.”

“Go on in to him,” Blaise urges him warmly. “I was just stepping out to fetch us a bit more tea.”

Harry enters the second doorway to find a sparsely decorated bedroom with two large windows that face outward toward the Manor’s expansive grounds.

Neville is reclined on a bed across from the view, dressed but with a heavy wool blanket tucked over his knees. His right hand is propped up on a pillow beside him, bandaged and wreathed with a glowing-blue, faintly-pulsing spell.

He does look a bit peaky - slightly green about the gills - but his expression brightens as he turn toward Harry in greeting.

“Hello, Harry,” he says cheerfully.  

“‘Lo, old friend. I’ve come to check on the invalid - have you seen him?”

“Ha ha. I told Blaise not to exaggerate when he wrote you, but I’m starting to learn that simplicity is not natural to his character.”

“I’m not sure he exaggerated at all, now that I see you for myself,” Harry chides him, getting a better view of the bandaged hand as he sits down on the side of the bed; it’s the size of a dinner plate, and a Weasley one at that. “Is that all you under there, or did the Gallic healer have you over-amply cocooned?”

“A bit of both, I’m afraid,” Neville admits, looking down at the hand and wincing as he shifts it. “It did swell rather frightfully, at first. But it’s gone down quite well, if slowly. And the fuchsia colour had faded perceptibly, last time we took the dressing off.”

“It was bigger than this?” Harry raises an eyebrow at him. “Are you in much pain?”

“Oh, I’m perfectly fine,” Neville grouses a bit irritably, as if it’s not the first time today he has uttered the words, nor the second. “It was just a scratch,” he says confidently.  

But there’s a queasiness that creases his face as he tries to sit up, belying his ease, and Harry feels worry start to percolate in his stomach. He’s suddenly immensely grateful to Zabini for insisting Neville stay and wait for a healer. If this is better, Harry can’t imagine how horrible the injury was upon first sustaining it. A scratch forsooth.

“Was the healer able to create an anti-venom?” he asks.

“She tried her best,” Neville sighs. “Unfortunately Blaise and Mister Malfoy had eradicated the Tentacula before she arrived, so she was unable to procure a sample of its sap to use in tailoring her counter-potion. What she did create has helped somewhat, though not as quickly as she or I would have liked. There’s a few soothing spells she gave us to continue the progress, but all that’s left to do now is wait, I’m afraid.”

“Well, you needn’t worry over much I think - you’ve always had a strong constitution. And I don’t think it would matter to Blaise if you were stuck here another week,” Harry assures him teasingly, making sure to emphasize the use of Zabini’s given name. “A month, I think, would be his preference.”

Neville colours slightly, but objects, “I can’t imagine he at all enjoys my prolonged infringement on his and Mister Malfoy’s hospitality.”

“As for Malfoy I wouldn’t bother thinking on it - it’s not as if the dandy doesn’t have the space for you in this massive place. And he’s shoved you far enough away from the main part of the house, you certainly won’t be getting in his way. And Zabini clearly loves having you here. Maybe this was his aim all along - he seems the conniving sort,” Harry jokes.

“He does not,” Neville stammers, blushing. “And I cannot imagine this incident has improved his opinion of me any - he likely thinks me a bumbling clod.”

Harry pats his uninjured arm.

“You can be a tad ungraceful at times, but that’s just part of your charm,” Harry assures him. That Neville has two left feet is an undeniable fact, but not one that should lower anyone’s esteem of him. “You’re a perfectly capable wizard, Neville - this was just an unfortunate accident.”

“I suppose,” Neville mumbles, not looking soothed.

Harry smirks at him. “Do you want me to tell him about Nagini?”

“Oh, hush.” Neville shoves at him with his good arm, grimacing as the movement tugs at the spell on his bad one.

“Sit still and rest,” Harry rebukes him, tucking the blanket in more firmly around his feet. “And you’re a fool if you can’t perceive Zabini’s regard. The fellow just went to get you tea himself - don’t these rich prats have elves do everything for them? Personally lifting fingers is surely a posh’s gesture of love.”

Neville averts his eyes down to the coverlet, his blush expanding up his freckled cheeks.

“I don’t blame him for worrying about you, though,” Harry continues, “You do look right pathetic. Lying there, all clobbered by an evil bush.”  

“It wasn’t evil , the poor dear. And this wasn’t even its fault - I tripped over my own awful feet and startled it.”

“I’m assuming by ‘poor dear’ he’s referring to the venomous beast that’s ruined his wand hand at the least provocation?” Zabini rings out as he reenters the room, unfortunately this time with the looming form of Malfoy at his elbow.

Neville sighs, straightening up as Zabini gets closer to the bed. “I wish you wouldn’t keep calling it that - ‘venomous’ has such dour connotations. The poor creature was merely trying to defend itself.”

“And what should I call it, to suit your regard?” Blaise asks him, dark eyes sparkling as he jests, “Sir Tentacula?

“Oh stop,” Neville giggles, rolling his own eyes at Zabini, who smiles down at him, undeterred.

“Too formal? How about Gerald? Horace? Emir?”

“You’re horrible,” Neville laughs, his round face gone alight with an openness Harry has rarely seen in him.

“Harsher words for me than for the leafy bugger that’s left you in such a state?” Zabini exclaims in tones of mock hurt. “You wound me, sir.”

Harry glances back and forth between their shyly smiling faces, then offers in a teasing tone, “Zabini, would you like to hear the story of the time Neville took on a massive snake?”

The three of them eye him askance.

It takes Harry a moment to realize why.

“Er, an actual snake, I mean. You know, like, with the scales. On the ground. Ah.”

An awkward beat passes before Blaise starts to laugh uproariously, head thrown back.

Neville flushes the color of a beetroot but giggles in a strained way, managing to to wheeze out ‘Honestly, Harry ’ as he tries not to jostle his arm.

For his part, Malfoy is staring at Harry as if he’d just grown a second head.

“Yes, Harry ,” Zabini says, still laughing. “Would you like to stay for lunch? Perhaps there will be enough time for the tale while we eat. I believe Ignace has prepared sausages, so our meal would be keeping within the theme.”

Merde ,” Malfoy mutters from his spot in the corner, turning on his heel and stalking back out the door.  

---

Harry stays.

Over lunch Malfoy proves himself to have at least cursory conversational skills, through which he also proves himself to be terribly uninteresting.

Harry may be a little biased considering the result of their first meeting, but really, the man is a comprehensive bore.

Zabini is clearly the jewel of this lot, talking and joking with Harry while Malfoy and Parkinson sit rigidly at the other end of the table, the dull buggers.

He is trying not to be biased, at any rate. He truly is.

Harry can be pleasant. Harry makes conversation with people he doesn’t like all the time.

After all, he survived years of being taught by Professor Trelawney without hexing her, and he likes to think age has improved his temper no little amount.

They retire to an elaborately decorated sitting room after the meal, Zabini requesting Harry for a game of Gobstones. Malfoy and Parkinson join them in the room, though Harry hasn’t any true idea why, as they don’t seem keen to engage with Harry in any real way. Malfoy especially.

The stony arsehole doesn’t laugh at any of Harry’s jokes and only sighs in a beleaguered manner to Blaise’s. The only person he responds to with any regularity is Miss Parkinson, but Harry has to note that this is mostly due to the sheer volume of the woman’s talk: it skews the ratios.

God forbid she ever be in close quarters with Molly, Harry thinks, or the rest of them may never find an opening to speak ever again.

Harry would normally be annoyed by her incessant chatter, but the book he found amongst the shelves after he and Blaise tired of the game is unfortunately rather boring - listening to her provides at least a small modicum of interest to the day.

Currently she is volleying questions at Malfoy, who has set himself up at a small writing desk between the Harry and Blaise’s chaises.

He has already written four long letters so far today, and is quickly launching himself into a fifth.

In fact, the man seems to be making up tenfold for the lack of what he says out loud.

Harry wonders at this. Is it possible that this is not Malfoy’s normal disposition? Harry has caught Blaise throwing Malfoy a few puzzled looks over the course of the day.

Perhaps Harry’s presence is stilting Malfoy’s behavior, somewhat. Does the man really find him that repulsive? Or is he so lacking in humor that he disdains polite conversation?

He wants to ask Blaise about this, but he’s unsure if they are well acquainted enough yet for such inquiries of character. Besides, Blaise currently has his nose buried deep in his own book - a Herbology tome, Harry notes with amused interest.

“Who are you writing to now, Draco?” Parkinson asks him from her seat by the window.

“Millicent,” Malfoy responds distractedly.

Harry wonders if this Millicent is a paramour of Malfoy’s. He wonders how attractive Malfoy finds her .

Harry gets back to his book.

“Do tell her I miss her dearly,” Pansy sighs looking absently out onto the rolling grounds. “And please also include that I hate her to my very core and I hope she dies altogether miserably in some very unimpressive, pedestrian way.”

“Why is it this time?” Draco asks in a bored manner, not looking up from where his quill is dancing over the page.

“She stole my second-best filigree cloak fastener - swiped it right out of the trunk I packed of last-minute essentials. I knew she was up to something, as she was dead smug when we said our goodbyes, and Theo’s last letter confirmed it.”

“I very much doubt Theo has ever uttered the words ‘filigree cloak fastener’ once in his life, let alone committed them to print.”

“Well, he said he saw her over dinner at Hippolyte’s and that she looked ‘well-pleased’ - that was enough for me to pin her as the culprit. And now I shall have to go about in my first-best more than once, like some sort of mendiant . Rotten, horrible cow. I wish she could have joined us.”

“I will let her know of your steadfast regard,” Malfoy assures her. Then, after a small pause, “Did Theo happen to mention how Hippolyte was fairing?”

“What, has he recovered from your harsh, unyielding rejection of him?” Parkinson asks with a wry quirk in one carefully-sculpted eyebrow.

Harry tries hard not to let his interest pique at this detail, and fails miserably. He’s not even pretending to read his book any longer.

“And how on earth was I supposed to take on a French fiance when I am moved permanently to England?” Malfoy sighs, looking far less interested in the subject than Harry feels.

“Oh, I suppose asking him to join you would have been out of the question,” Pansy asks in a bored way.  

“It was - he’s a high ranking member of the French ministry, as you know.” Malfoy turns the parchment over, beginning to write on the other side. “He could not simply leave the continent, no matter the reasons why for. No matter how - interested he may be in entertaining those reasons.”

“And you simply didn’t think his interest was worthy of yours in return,” Parkinson insists shrewdly.

“We were not a good match,” Draco says with finality in his deep voice, tapping the parchment with his wand in a resigned way so that the ink dries for folding.

Harry is privately assured that this Hippolyte person is all the better for this assessment, for who would want to be a good match with such a stuffed up, arrogant priss?

Doubtless being married to a giant Bowtruckle would be more comfortable, not to mention more engaging.

“Well I know that,” Parkinson admits with a flippant toss of her dainty hand. “But I also know that your concept of a good match is a tedious, complicated one that defies normal comprehension. Can you not just harbor common crushes like the rest of us?”

“Common crushes do not a husband make - if they did you’d be married to Blaise,” Malfoy drawls, attention still fixed on his letter as he fold crisp edges into it with long, pale fingers.

Parkinson shoots Zabini a sharp smile and sighs at length. He waggles his eyebrows at her jauntily.

“Yes that was a folly, wasn’t it?” she says. “But mieux vaut avoir aimé et perdu à l'homosexualité than to never have loved at all, don’t they say. It’s not the fault of the rest of us that your expectations for intimacy are so exceedingly ridiculous. Better to shorten your checklist of requirements, Draco dear, before you end up an old spinster with one too many kneazles. You know their fur makes you sneeze.”

Harry snorts aloud at this, unable to help himself.


“May I ask what is so amusing, Mister Potter?” Malfoy asks loudly, not looking up from the page before him as he begins yet another screed.

“Nothing at all, Mister Malfoy,” Harry responds, smiling gamely at the man, though he still hasn’t looked up. “Though I can’t say that I’m shocked at your being hard to please. Rather I’m wondering what it is that you think you have to offer a potential match in return.”

“As if being rich and handsome weren’t enough for the majority,” Parkinson snaps at him, going instantly defensive on Malfoy’s behalf. Harry is positive at this point that her Patronus is some sort of cat. “What are you expecting, Mister Potter, a list of Draco’s personal merits? Can you really see none of them for yourself?

“It’s not that I am denying Mister Malfoy having any attractions,” Harry tells her, unflinching under her hard gaze. Malfoy darts a look at him here, so quick Harry could almost believe he’d imagined it. “It’s just that I’d quite like to hear what he himself thinks they are. If his own affections are so hard to gain, I am sure it’s because he comprehends a great deal in the worthiness of his own stock.”

Malfoy is gazing at him intently now, his quill hand paused in mid-air over the desk. “I do not find myself faultless, Potter, if that is what you are implying.”

“No, I daresay you don’t. Tell us, which is the one foremost on your own mind?”

Malfoy’s nostrils flare as he looks at Harry, holding his gaze long enough that Harry starts to feel the slightest bit guilty about his goading.

Then Malfoy looks away abruptly and speaks in a serious, soft voice; if Harry knew him better he might think the man was attempting sincerity.

“Perhaps it’s that I care very little for being agreeable. I am much more interested in living by my own sense of rightness, than by being likable or amusing,” Malfoy says.  

Harry pauses, unable to find a retort to this.

He finds he can’t really fault such a sentiment, when he thinks about it. When he thinks of his own experiences - of the fawning masses that don’t really know him, of how their regard always irks, never feels true - of how his own outlook is much the same, if he’s to be honest.

Harry shifts in his seat and tries to recover his footing. “Well, that’s all well and good,” he admits, then tries again,“But I was rather hoping you could give me one more readily teasable. Like your hair - as a for instance.”

Blaise laughs outright at this, smiling at him over the top edge of his book and forcing Harry to grin back.

Malfoy doesn’t smile, of course, but Harry could almost swear he sees one corner of his thin mouth twitch.

Perhaps there is a shred of humor in the bugger after all.

“You are one to talk,” Malfoy says a minute later, quietly, such that Harry thinks he may be the only one who hears.

“That’s true,” Harry concedes, letting the amusement show in his own voice - attempting to show that he doesn’t mind it, laughing at himself. That it could be worth a try, if the man is brave enough to have a go at it.

Harry reaches up to tug self-consciously on his messy fringe, and Malfoy’s eyes dart back over to him, following the movement of his hand. He looks away again presently, still unsmiling.

Their eyes do not meet again for the rest of the afternoon, up until the point Harry excuses himself for supper with Neville in his quarters.

Harry isn’t sure why this bothers him so much, in the end.

---

Harry takes up Blaise on his urging to stay the night, sleeping in the room next to Neville’s. He finds the situation surprisingly comfortable and, for all his bad memories of the place, passes the night without incident or troubled dreams.

He floo-chats with Ron and Hermione before breakfast, as is his usual routine, and spends the rest of the morning playing endless games of Gobstones with Blaise at Neville’s bedside, watching through the large windows as the stormy deluge outside flattens the summer grasses of the grounds.

They take lunch and tea again with Parkinson and Malfoy while Neville rests.

Malfoy speaks even less than he had the day before, seeming to prefer communicating with them all in a series of frowns and unhappy sighs.

At one point Harry catches him glowering down at the sideboard and its spread of treats sent up from the kitchens. Harry watches him for a long moment, staring down at a treacle tart as if it’s a puzzle to work out, and an insultingly obstinate one at that.

Really, Harry cannot begin to understand the grumpy sod. Who takes issue with treacle tart?

Harry, having already taken his fill of the pie - four entire slices, to be exact, and several petit fours, he must commend the Manor’s cook elves - reclines on one of the sofas near a large window, playing with one of the snitches he keeps always in his coat pocket.

He flicks the snitch lazily up into the air, watching as it zooms in a swift arc through the room, twice around the decorative, carved columns, before boomeranging back toward him, to be caught out of the air once more by his practiced hand.

On one turn the snitch zags wildly on a sudden wet breeze snaking through the propped-open window, just escaping Harry’s reach. He turns quickly, searching the air, only to find Malfoy stood just a pace from his comfy perch, facing him silently.

Malfoy looks perfectly poised, as ever, not a drop of ink marring his shirt or fingertips, even though he’s spent yet another morning bent over the small desk. He’s cut like a statue out of the air, standing beside Harry’s seat posture-perfect. And in those long, ink-free fingers: the struggling form of the tiny, golden snitch.

Harry blinks up at him, surprised. This is one of the faster balls in Harry’s collection, the newest and best of Quality Quidditch’s selection.

His eyes lock onto Malfoy’s, the only part of him that’s the least bit animated, though Harry still cannot tell with what.

“Do you play?” Harry asks helplessly, looking back toward the fluttering wings of the snitch and the pale hand holding it.

“I - used to. In school,” Malfoy says quietly, little to no emotion in his voice. “Neither Blaise nor Pansy are much interested in flying. And I find the game to be less - enjoyable, alone. I fly, of course, but I haven’t taken up a snitch in years.”

He pauses, twisting his wrist to examine the ball twitching in his grasp.

Harry realizes he could easily fill this pause with an invitation to play - surprised almost, with how easily the notion comes to him. It could even have been Malfoy’s angle in approaching him, Harry supposes, but he stays his tongue just in time.

Is that what he’d really want, to subject himself to additional time with the git?

Harry fights against the little voice in his mind that says ‘yes.’ He’s just a competitive bloke, is all. But as much as he’d relish the opportunity to best Malfoy at a game, he isn’t sure the chance of victory would be worth all the rest.

And so he turns away with a polite ‘Mhmm’ of acknowledgement instead, hoping to avoid seeing a look of disappointment - as if he’d ever feel such a thing, thinking of Harry as he does - flash in Malfoy’s grey eyes.

“Potter?”

Harry swivels hesitantly back toward him, wondering if Malfoy’s actually going to ask him - but he’s just holding out his arm toward Harry, the caught snitch still lazily attempting to escape his long-fingered grip.

Harry reaches out to take it, their hands brushing.

He would have expected Malfoy’s touch to be cold - as cold as his demeanor, or as the icy hue of his eyes. It isn’t.

The skin that brushes against Harry’s is warm, so warm it burns.

Harry pulls his hand back quickly, knocking his elbow against the curved wooden arm of the couch in his haste.

“Ow.”

Malfoy raises one eyebrow a fraction of an inch, then turns away, stalking on soft feet back to his desk. Harry watches him for a moment before settling back down into the comfortable cushions.

He decides he’ll take up the book from yesterday instead now, returning the snitch to his breast pocket for safekeeping.

He finds that his hand keeps straying to the pocket as his mind wanders through the pages, as if checking to ensure that the ball is still there, tucked in solid next to his heart.

---

Harry stretches his legs on his own for a spell after their afternoon tea, walking the wide, empty halls, stopping every so often to chat with one of the livelier portraits or to listen to the cheerful patter of raindrops against the glass of the french doors.

At one point he walks past a set of stairs in the large foyer, sweeping steadily up to the second floor of the house, and pauses; there’s a small door set into the wall beneath the rise of the staircase, waist-height, with an elaborately ornamented door handle in a shining bronze.

Harry looks at the tiny doorway, wondering how he could have missed it on his other passes by this spot. Had it only just appeared? He reaches forward and turns the handle, feeling only slightly guilty for his intrusiveness,  which pops open soundlessly to reveal a tidy little nook.

It seems the perfect size to store flying equipment - or a young boy, Harry thinks ruefully.

He peers into the small space, noting with satisfaction the two sturdy broom hooks, alongside the shelves with exacting cut-outs for a quaffle, two bludgers, and a snitch. There’s even a low cubby that would be ideal for the storage of two pairs of flying boots.

It’s pristine - and empty. Either Malfoy isn’t the flier he claimed to be, or he hasn’t found this particular space at all useful.

Harry couldn’t imagine why, as it’s in the exact right location, so close to the do-

“I say .”

The quiet voice behind him makes Harry whip his head around, a few stray locks of his hair bobbing around his face with the motion.

Malfoy is standing a pace away, staring into the cupboard with a look of shocked interest.

“I thought the house had revealed all its hiding spaces to me already,” Malfoy says, as if to himself, looking quizzically between Harry and the tiny closet.

There’s no anger or derision in his tone or expression as he speaks, simply - interest. Curiosity.

It’s not a bad look on the man, Harry finds. It reminds Harry of someone else, though he cannot place whom.

He smiles at Malfoy as softly as he can, trying not to scare the pleasantness away.

“I think perhaps I just have an affinity for this type of closet,” Harry offers, attempting levity, but something in him flattens it. Perhaps the same thing that makes him add, “When I was growing up as a ward of my Aunt and Uncle - the cupboard under the stairs was my place.”

The tiniest lift of one side of Malfoy’s mouth brightens his entire countenance. His eyes are very grey.

“Like a hideout?” he asks Harry, voice still soft and slightly amused, with no meanness in it.

Harry smiles at him, acknowledging the gentle tease and wishing he could affirm it.

“Er, no, I’m afraid. It was - that was where I slept. They - well they weren’t very fond of me, I suppose.”

Malfoy’s face shutters instantly, his soft mouth hardening into a frown. His gaze shifts from Harry’s face back into the shadowed interior of the cupboard.

Harry wants to say something - something to forestall the possible pitying remark Malfoy may now be considering, something to bring back the niceties of the last few seconds. They’d almost been on their way to a conversation , the two of them, and Harry had to go and bollocks it up with the truth.

“Is it true that you grew up without magic?” Malfoy asks, still not looking at him.

“Er - yes.”

“With muggles?”

There isn’t any inflection, one way or another, to Malfoy’s tone, but the word choice makes Harry remember who he is talking to. Malfoy is the son of a Death Eater; a man likely raised in disgusting prejudice and just as likely still holding it today.

Harry feels himself stiffen at the reminder.

“Yes, muggles ,” Harry replies, hearing the sudden ice in his own voice.

Yes, his Aunt and Uncle were horrible - but they weren’t horrible muggles , they were horrible people - and Harry doesn’t want to hear whatever insult Malfoy was surely about to fling out. He doesn’t want to hear it.

The change in tone makes Malfoy jerk his head back up. He holds Harry’s eyes for a long moment, his expression placid and inscrutable once more, before looking abruptly away, out the window at the end of the hall.

He sighs heavily, Harry watching the rise of his chest under his crisp, white stock.

Then, “Potter?”

“Yes?” Harry prompts tetchily, already stealing himself for an unpleasant, tedious exchange.

But instead -

“Does it just - always rain?” Malfoy asks, sounding vaguely irritated.

Harry laughs, taken aback by this neutral tangent.

“Well, yeah,” he confesses, looking past Malfoy and out onto the downpour with a strange sort of pride. “The charm of the kingdom, I suppose.”

“Hmmm,” Malfoy grunts, frowning his perennial frown.  

The both of them pause here, unspeaking, listening to the continuous lashing of the water against the panes for a long beat before continuing on down the hall in separate directions.

Malfoy doesn’t speak to Harry again for the duration of the afternoon.

---

The arrival of the next morning sees Neville not much better off than the day before, his hand still swollen alarmingly and with an odd, violet tinge to the skin. Blaise refreshes the soothing charms on it every few hours as instructed, but little to no effect seems to follow his careful ministrations.

Harry is starting to worry a bit at the slow progress of Neville’s recovery, and is getting even more agitated in their needing to remain here. It’s a very boring household, all told.

Zabini has stopped playing Gobstones with him, taking instead to hovering at Neville’s bedside all hours, plying him with countless cups of tea and reading aloud to him from an abridged collection of wizarding histories.

It’s quite cute, watching them watch each other, and Blaise is a very entertaining reader - doing a cracking job at character voices and accents - but there’s only so much observing of other people’s sickly sweet courtship that Harry can take.

He starts wandering around the house on his own again; not prying, exactly, just exploring at will. His thorough investigations reveal no vestiges of dark magic in the place to make him suspicious, but he decides quickly that the lack of suspicion makes him suspicious.

Surely the place is too changed, too clean? Malfoy had only returned to England a few short weeks before the Lovegood’s gathering - how much could he reasonably have done to the house in such a short spanse of time, within normal magical means?

It’s entirely possible the rich twat paid someone to come in and spruce the place up prior to his return, of course. But it occurs to Harry that it is also entirely possible that Malfoy may be up to something. He remembers their exchange from the day before, the sound of ‘muggles’ falling from Malfoy’s thin lips in his posh, cut-glass accent. He remembers the unsociable way Malfoy had acted at the Lovegood’s, even before insulting Harry, and all the endless letter-writing back to France.

Why had the git even come to England, at this point? He likely would have been better off to remain on the continent with his severe lack of charm and Slytherin-y, brie-loving mates.

Harry isn’t sure what the man could possibly be up to, but something - and very doubtfully a positive something. Of that Harry is convinced.  

Luckily Harry finds out what the something is not long into his search, though the resulting conclusions do not support his suspicions in the slightest.

He rounds a bookshelf in the large library in the southern wing and almost stumbles directly over the man in question, who is spread out with a mess of books on the marble-tiled floor.

Malfoy is seated, cross-legged in an aisle between two shelves. He blinks up at Harry, startled, though as annoyingly put together as ever, his stock knotted perfectly and his hair carefully set, and wearing -

A pair of gold-framed spectacles. Half-moon shaped, like the kind Dumbledore used to wear.

“Er,” Harry says, in greeting.

Malfoy actually blushes at this, his pale cheeks tinging the faintest rose where the swooping curves of the lenses rest against them.

He gamely holds eye contact as he stands, however, and too gracefully to be at all normal, the prat. Really, the man moves like a bloody swan.

“What are you doing?” Harry hears himself ask, caught off guard by the spectacles and the sudden reminder of Malfoy’s looming height as he unfolds himself.

Harry doesn’t think he’s stood quite this close to the man before now.

“Reading,” Malfoy responds, with his usual economy.  

Distracted again by the spectacles and the amount of effort he is putting in to not being thoroughly charmed by them, Harry finds himself repeating, rather lamely, “Reading?”

“Yes, Potter, it is something one does with books, you see,” Malfoy says slowly, drawing the sentence out in a dry, infuriating way, as if trying to explain something to a more intelligent Flobberworm. “That’s what the words are for.”

Harry glares at him before dropping his eyes to the book still in Malfoy’s hand, then to the tomes still spread around their feet; every single one is open to a page regarding the anatomy and life cycle of the Venemous Tentacula.

Harry’s mind stutters. Is the shifty bastard planning on using the venom for some ill end, after all? Had he saved some of the plant in secret, to sell to dodgy persons for dodgier potions? Should Harry alert Percy at once?

Harry narrows his eyes at the man, opening his mouth to issue some kind of warning, but Malfoy cuts him off with a sigh.

“I was looking for something that may aid in your friend’s healing,” he explains, unprompted.

“Oh,” Harry manages, suddenly unsure of what else to say.  

Is the arse actually attempting to be helpful?

It’s just slightly hard for Harry to believe. Even if he is, it’s likely just with the aim of getting Neville and Harry out of his fair hair all the faster.

Oddly, Malfoy looks as embarrassed as if he had in fact admitted to a nefarious poison-trading scheme.

“I was just thinking,” he continues hurriedly, seeming almost unable to help himself from speaking. “I’d seen something similar in one of my field studies a few years ago, not with Venomous Tentacula but with a varietal of venomous shrubbery that was used to guard the entrances of wizarding crypts in one of Paris’ older graveyards - the concentration of the permanent magic included in the other protective spellwork wreathing the structures appeared to have increased the potency of the plants’ secretions, due to long exposure to the spells’ enduring vibrations. Given the obvious irregularity of the effect this Tentacula venom is having on Mister Longbottom - the lasting duration of its impact, beyond the usual recorded increments - I was inclined to think that something similar may be happening in this case.”

Malfoy pauses here, looking down at the book. Something about the intensity of his face again rings the bell of recognition in Harry’s mind, but still he cannot place it.

After a beat Malfoy continues, flatly, “I understand that this house and its grounds were the site of - a great deal of intense and lasting magic, in previous years. My thought was that this may have had some cumulative effect on the plant’s potency.”

Harry cannot fail to notice his careful avoidance of the words ‘dark magic’ or ‘war’ in this little speech.

Harry wonders how much Malfoy knows of it, of everything that had happened here while he was in France. He wonders how much his parents told him, what they told him, what he thought of it then; he wonders what Malfoy thinks of it now.

He wonders if the man could ever possibly understand. He wonders if he’d want him to, even if he could.

“Right,” Harry says, dragging his thoughts back to the information before him. “Is there anything you think might hasten his progress in healing?”

“Well, the counter-venom cure is right, so far as my research finds.” Malfoy shakes his head slightly. “It’s only that this particular venom compound may be just a little more stubborn to break down than most of its like. The spellwork Madame Bern added should have done the trick by now, but,” he trails off, scrutinizing the pages open in his hand once more.

Then he looks back up into Harry’s face. “If I’m right it may just need a - more potent magical signature to encourage its decomposition.”

At this the grey eyes flick briefly to the scar on Harry’s brow. Malfoy’s expression shutters as quickly as his glance, as if he’d been trying hard not to look.

Harry smiles at him, feeling the strangest bit smug; something about the word ‘potent’ said in Malfoy’s crisp, affected tones; something about the way he looks like he hates himself for having said it.

Harry grins harder, watching the thin mouth sour further into a frown in response.

“There’s only one way to find out, I suppose.”

--

The swelling reduces considerably on Harry’s first attempt at the spell, to great relief of everyone present, excluding Malfoy, who looks torn between pleasure at this proof of the rightness of his deductions and annoyance at Harry for being the one to prove it.

Harry keeps trying to slip the word ‘potent’ into the celebratory conversation when he can, just to drive the point home. He’s enjoying watching Malfoy’s eyebrow twitch, every time he says it.

The lot of them, Neville included now, have retired to the sitting room to make arrangements for getting Neville gently back home when Ignace pops suddenly into the room, announcing the arrival of ‘a Missus Weasley, a Miss Weasley and a Mister Weasley’ in their high-pitched, accented voice.

Upon Malfoy’s grim nod of acquiescence the elf apparates back out, only to walk through the double doors a minute later with Ginny, Molly and Percy in tow.

Harry had owled them as soon as Neville had been fully restored, of course, but doubtless they couldn’t resist coming to verify it for themselves. That, and to gawk at Blaise and Neville’s budding affections. Harry cannot help smiling at Molly’s excited, flushed face as she enters the room, beaming around at all of them beneath her wide-brimmed summer hat.

“Goodness, it seems that Weasley’s are multiplying before my very eyes,” Parkinson drawls meanly from her spot on the corner settee. “Any more red hair in this room and the glare would give me the vapours. I’m liable to faint.”

“Go ahead, I’m a good catch,” Ginny informs Parkinson wryly as she drops down onto the couch beside Harry, shooting her a wink.

Pansy opens her mouth but seems unable to continue, her cheeks colouring as she turns away toward the window.

Ignace brings tea for everyone, effectively deciding for them all that the visit shall be of the lengthier variety.

Harry watches Malfoy’s brow furrow deeper and deeper as the elf pours yet another cup full. Harry himself is torn between enjoying the growing awkwardness and tension from the Slytherin side of the group, and wanting to get them all out of there as fast as humanly possible.

“What a lovely room,” Molly gushes politely, halfway through her cup. “Such exquisite furnishings. You must have done a great deal of hard work to it, Mister Malfoy, when you first came back. A well spent effort, it seems.”

Malfoy nods at her stonily, but says nothing. Of course.

Harry rolls his eyes internally, then takes another good look at the room itself - the high, gracefully curved ceiling, the gleaming windows draped in panels of yellow-striped silk. In truth Harry much prefers the close comfort of the Burrow, or Grimmauld now, though he can admit the Manor looks leagues better then it had during the war.

Though, being held at wandpoint with a hexed face hadn’t put him in much of a position to appreciate the decor, on his last visit.

“You should hold a ball here. It would be good for people to see it so transformed, under your hand,” Ginny says, looking up at the intricate molding, her mind clearly echoing some of Harry’s thoughts. “It’s much nicer without old Snake Face and his lot hovering about. They did rather detract from one’s peaceful admiration of the carved wainscoting.”

Blaise smiles charmingly at her, his white teeth flashing. “I do keep telling Draco it would be lovely to host a society event here - so that everyone may see how the house has blossomed under Draco’s presence. Even we can see that a cloud of sorts has been lifted from the place, though it may be our first time here ourselves,” he adds, his face gone suddenly serious and somber. “Do you think the community would welcome it? We wouldn’t want to overstep, of course.”

“Oh yes,” Molly answers him brightly. “I think many would welcome the chance to see the house under such happy circumstances. Such changes can only be welcome, I’m afraid,” she continues quietly, the shadow of her losses passing over her rounded face, chased quickly away by her friendly smile. “You could count on the Weasleys’ attendance, to be sure, ball or not.”

“Balls are such frivolous affairs, though,” Percy sniffs from Harry’s other side, where he’s sat in an ornate, sumptuously padded chair that makes him look like a tiny, knobbled doll in comparison. Perhaps one of a muggle clergyman. “What would you think of a Ministry function instead? The Minister does a weekly public tea. Not everyone is fond of dancing, at any rate.”

“Everyone likes dancing except you, you boring sod,” Ginny teases him. “Even Harry, when he can find a partner to keep up with him.”

Harry can’t resist flicking an eye toward Malfoy at this, who is standing as rigidly as a sculpture again in his corner, face impassive.

“Besides, a ball is an excellent excuse to make new friends,” Ginny continues to the group at large, eyes lingering once more on Parkinson as she smirks. “Or to improve upon previous acquaintances, if that is your aim.”

She winks at Harry before looking between Neville and Blaise, sat on the couch opposite them; there’s a decent yard of space between them, but their bodies are both turned just slightly toward the other, knees pivoted in, eyes constantly seeking the other out.  

“I shall take your advice into consideration,” Malfoy informs them gravely, but with a polite nod of his head.

Harry can guess that very little will result from that consideration, given Malfoy’s behavior at the last gathering. The fancy sod probably doesn’t even know any country dances, and would likely be too proud to learn.

Harry doesn’t think any of them will be missing out on whatever stuffy affair he’d host, no matter how impressive the Manor’s ballroom might be.

Tea wraps up with only a modicum of pain from that point, hastened along by Harry and Neville’s combined prodding. They manage to get Molly standing and reasonably close to the door within an hour, and moving toward the front drive within another half.

Malfoy had rather graciously offered them all use of the Manor’s magic carpet for transporting Neville back to London safely,  as it would likely be easier on Neville’s still-tender arm than flying, flooing, or apparating would be.

Harry watches Neville make his blushing, stuttering goodbyes to Blaise out of the corner of his eye, amused - Blaise had offered a small packet of cuttings from the Manor’s gardens to him as a parting gift, and poor Nev has been practically nonverbal ever since - then moves to make his own.

After curt words to Malfoy and Parkinson, and some warmer ones with Blaise, Harry follows the others onto the waiting carpet, glad to be heading home.

Harry, the last to board, lifts his foot to step onto the hovering fabric and trips with a sudden lurch, his other foot slipping abruptly out from under him. He stumbles heavily to the side for a wild instant, before a warm hand grips his elbow, hard - another coming up to rest steadily on the small of his back.

The presence holding him is solid, towering, and Harry turns his head to find himself looking up into Malfoy’s cold eyes, startlingly close. Harry can feel the warmth of him, pressed just close to his back.

Harry feels even more wrong-footed than he had a second ago, his stomach lurching strangely.

There’s a wordless pause from both of them before Harry pivots in Malfoy’s steadying hold, getting a safe foothold onto the plush weave of the carpet, the built-in cushioning harms bolstering him as he clambers up.

Malfoy’s hand drops quickly from Harry’s arm as Harry seats himself, breaking eye contact without a blink, his body turning away even before the ghost of his touch has faded.

Harry watches the back of his blond head disappear into the house as the carpet rises steadily into the sky, an odd, tilted feeling in his chest. He senses Molly waving and calling out goodbyes from her spot beside him, but cannot make out the individual words.

It’s just the carpet, no doubt - Harry is bound to feel weird, airborne without the steadying weight of a broomstick beneath him.

That must be it, he assures himself, pulling his eyes away from the Manor’s stately facade, now shrinking into the distance, a glimmer of white marble under the early-afternoon sun.

He faces forward, closing his eyes into the rush of the wind.

He’s glad to be rid of the place, and the company, all told. He’s looking forward to a simple tea in his comfortable kitchen with his cranky old elf, and a fly in one of his favorite, hidden spots.

Yes, Harry shan’t miss anything about the past few days. Not one thing.

It’s likely just his imagination, but his elbow tingles all the way to London.


 

Chapter Text

Harry stays relatively busy over the next fortnight, dropping by the new orphanage to finish installing the wards and to get distracted from installing the wards by entertaining children, meeting his solicitor at Gringotts to have more money exchanged for the War Reparation Fund for the muggle families affected by the Second Wizarding War - quite a tricky business, gifting funds or supplies to people who were not permitted to know why they deserved to receive them, and who had often been Obliviated to that end - as well as helping Ron and George look for a suitable property in town for their second shop’s location.

They’re finishing their third bout of renter visits in one of Diagon’s newer side streets when they decide that all the talk of square footage and trying to look official and mature has made them extremely thirsty. They set off toward the Leaky with the last property owner regretfully in tow - he’s attached himself to Harry’s elbow and is in the midst of a rather verbose tangent about ‘noble and courageous deeds’ that began sometime around their review of the second story casement windows - ducking in as a group to a crowded Flourish & Blotts in an attempt to shake him.

“It’s actually great that we’ve popped in,” Ron says, looking avidly over the shelves as Harry very pointedly asks one of the sellers for a volume on property law, causing the muckled-on renter to detach from his arm in haste. “I should get Hermione another stack, now that the healer is demanding that she keep her feet up for the remainder.”

“Still no moves from the little sprog yet?” Harry inquires, moving freely now with relief to his side. “Must be soon - Rosie was so punctual, I’d have thought this one would be the same.”

“The third time I asked her how close she was feeling yesterday her response was, and I quote, ‘about as close as you are to sticking your bonce up your own back end, Ronald, dear.’ This morning all I got was a glare.”

“You likely deserve it,” Harry snorts. “Poor Herm, must be dreadful uncomfortable.”

“Yes, I think she’s going to insist I have the next one, at this point. Anyway, grab anything you think might interest her - we’ll make a bouquet of books! A book-et! That ought to help,” Ron insists, though the faint worry-lines around his eyes belie his easy confidence. “She’s devouring a mass of them a day - she’s even taking notes , the daft genius. Between the belly and the scrolls of parchment I can barely fit into the bed myself. I have to enlarge it every night before I climb in, lest I be prodded out in favor of a volume on Ancient Mermish -”

“Ancient Mermish? What’s she want with that?”

“Merlin knows. Perhaps she’s planning on teaching it to the baby. Rosie’s already advancing on her Gobbledygook - at this rate my children will end up even more intimidatingly intelligent than my wife, bless them. It’s a good thing I’m ravishingly handsome, as I am destined to be the least impressive member of my household, yet again,” Ron sighs in an exceedingly chuffed way, beaming from ear to ear, the way he always beams when he’s talking of his family.

Harry smiles back at him, a tiny finger of envy pressing against his heart. Harry knows they’re his family too, all of them, but Ron and Hermione’s marriage, their sweet children - he’d be lying if he said he didn’t often wish for such connection himself. He’d like to be so secure in his value to another person, so assured of his absolute necessity to a partner, for no other reason but himself.

Harry knows those who have it are lucky to have found it, and even luckier to fully trust it. Most days he isn’t sure he’ll ever come across such a love, other days he worries that he won’t be able to distinguish it even if such a one popped up and shouted into his face, as jaded as he is.

Though he needn’t fuss too much over it at the moment, he admits to himself, as genuine candidates aren’t exactly lining themselves up at his door.

He leaves Ron in the language section and heads toward the shelves labeled ‘Brew Theoretics, Botanicals, etc,’ hoping to find Neville’s most recent publication on the ‘Practical Applications of Mimbulus Something Sap on Something Something,’ or something like. Hermione is sure to appreciate the finer points better than Harry had during the editing process, though perhaps not so well as Neville himself.

He’s scanning the spines at eye level, wondering if he should summon one of the hovering ladders and have a look further up, when his chest comes up hard against someone’s firm shoulder.

“Oh, pardon me, I wasn’t really looking -” he trails off, glancing into a handsome, somehow familiar face, with striking, golden-brown eyes under a mop of tawny curls.

“Harry Potter!” The man smiles at him, grinning in a knowing way, a charmingly crooked set to his right incisor that reminds Harry of -

“Zach Smith?” he says, his memory landing somewhere in the halls of Hogwarts. A Hufflepuff, wasn’t he? A chaser, too, and a good one. He’d been in the DA as well, now that Harry remembers the face - a bit of a twat about it in attitude, but he’d been there.

“Harry Potter ,” Smith says again, nodding. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for afternoon book-browsing. If I remember well enough from school, you were never one for reading,” he teases, a playful gleam in his eyes.

Harry laughs, surprised. “No, I wasn’t. Always more inclined toward making trouble and skiving off Potions.”

“Not to mention saving the world,” Zacharias adds with faux-insouciance, a smirk tucked in to one corner of his plush mouth to show he’s teasing again. To show that he remembers that, but not only that.

Sure enough -

“Are you still as deadly a Seeker as you were back then?” Smith adds. “ I’ve never seen someone move quite so instinctual on a broom - it would have been quite annoying, at the time, if you hadn’t looked quite so good doing it.”

Harry feels the blush rising into his cheeks, the pulse suddenly pounding in his ears.

Did the man really just -

Smith’s smile lingers, his face open and guileless, eyes warm - and he had, hadn’t he?

“Er,” Harry manages, trying and failing to think of a reply wittier than ‘No, you ’ and generally feeling like he’d eaten one too many Fizzing Whizbees.

“He’s even better now,” comes Ron’s voice as he rounds a shelf into their corner. “He’s got enough free time to practice all the new tricks - no kids,” he explains with the air of a sage. “Wotcher, Smith. How about you, eh? Married? Any bouncing, Hufflepuffian progeny? Or are you still up for the taking?”

Ron ,” Harry scoffs, seeing right through this very finesse-free question and the blatant, smug glances Ron is throwing between him and Smith.

“Oh, free and clear myself, I’m afraid,” Smith responds evenly, though with enough humor to show that he had also divined Ron’s blunter-than-a-spoon point - and hadn’t been offended by it, Harry is pleased to note. “I’ve only just returned back from my cursebreaking apprenticeship in France, though. It’s still early,” Smith adds, with a private smile for Harry that starts his heart skittering around his chest.

“Excellent!” Ron exclaims, a bit too loudly.

“Ronald,” George calls from behind the shelf, “come and help me decide if Angelica would receive this recipe collection as the joke it would be intended for, or if she would hex me right off.”

“Ah, I’d better go an assist with that. His wife’s an even worse cook than mine, but with an even stronger temper. Excuse me,” Ron tells them, moving away. “Not a wise jest, George,” he calls back as he goes, “I tried that one on ‘Mione last yuletide and my eyebrows were green until May .

Harry watches him disappear with relief before turning back to Smith with an embarrassed clearing of his throat.

“So - France?” Harry asks politely, though privately hoping he’s not about to be burdened with another Francophile. Hearing Parkinson go on and on for three days about how ‘England cannot possibly compare, it’s a wonder any of these people even manage to make it through the day - a veritable tourbière , honestly - and the cheese is positively ghastly, I cannot begin to understand it, these cows must be ill’ for three days had already put Harry off brioche for life.  “How did you find it?”

Charmant , but not home,” Smith offers, turning to smile beatifically out the shop window at the sodden, grey street with a wistfulness that makes Harry smile. He is rather fond of rain himself.

“Glad to be back, then?”

Smith looks toward him, a fair curl falling across his forehead as he moves.

He and Harry are of a perfect height, exactly eye to eye; Harry finds he likes it.

“Oh, yes,” Smith answers. He looks Harry up and down in a deliberate and flush-inducing way. “And getting gladder by the moment.”

Harry is saved from whatever incoherent response he would have dredged up to that by the reappearance of Ron, this time with George and a few wrapped parcels in tow.

“Ready, Harry?” Ron asks, still grinning between him and Smith with an easily readable glee that makes Harry want to shove at him. “We’re headed to the Leaky for a pint and a bite - I’m famished. Smith, would you like to join us?”

“Thank you, but I’d better put in my request for the titles I’m in need of - they don’t seem to have them here and it’s of an importance to me, I’m afraid,” Smith explains, waving a hand at the pokey bookshelf beside them.

“Another time,” Ron says, with feeling, then, “There’s a ball coming up, as well. You should attend - get reacquainted with the old gang, ask Harry for a dance, ask Harry for a second dance, et cetera. I’ll owl you the details.”

Harry is torn between pulling out his wand to curse Ron in the teeth and running straight out the door in sheer embarrassment. He settles for nodding awkwardly and offering a perfunctory ‘Smith’ in goodbye.

“Zacharias, Harry, please,” the man himself offers, eyes shining in the dim light as he nods back in a parting bow.

Harry follows Ron and George out onto the wet, crowded street, forcing himself not to look back through the shop windows like some sort of over-eager crup.

“Subtle, Ronald, thank you ever so,” he grumbles, trying to get a foot between Ron’s to trip him up.

Ron laughs and side steps away from Harry’s kick. “Only trying to help, mate. I always endeavor to be the wind beneath your broom -”

“The wind out my arse, more like,” Harry grits out, resorting to elbowing his friend hard in the side when he gets close enough. “And what ball?”

“The big to-do at Malfoy’s, innit? Didn’t you get your invitation?”

Harry hadn’t yet, he didn’t think. But he’d slept in almost to the point of his meeting with Ron and George this morning, and so had hurried out before asking Kreacher for the new day’s correspondence.

He wonders briefly whether Malfoy had invited him at all, considering his initial opinion of Harry, then wonders at more length why he would even care if the git hadn’t - why Harry would possibly want to attend some stuffy hoopla at the home of grumpy buggers who think he isn’t handsome and go around making people oddly aware of their elbows for days on end with no reasonable explanation.

No, Harry won’t be the least bothered if he didn’t make the cut for the guest list. Not one scrap.

If Zacharias will be in attendance, though…

“Right,” Harry responds, fighting the urge to apparate straight home and leaf through the mail. “Go on ahead, I’ll meet you at the pub - I promised Nev a treat.”

He pauses to duck into the bake house to grab a few of the sweet baps Neville is fond of, as well as a Pumpkin Pasty for himself, before stepping back out into the mizzle with the lumpy package tucked safely under one arm. Then he turns to head up the street and directly walks full-on into what appears to be a pointy, velvet-clad post.

“Oof!” he exclaims, tottering for a moment as he cranes his neck to look up, and up - into the slate-dull eyes of one Draco Sodding Malfoy, annoyance incarnate.

Malfoy frowns at him, seemingly unruffled by their collision. His hair is swept back as perfectly as ever, and - dry, Harry notes with suspicion. Has the bloody toff been walking around with a permanent Impervious? Poncy prat.

“From all the puffed-up tales I’ve heard of your Quidditch prowess, Potter, I’d have expected you to be a bit more graceful on your feet,” Malfoy drawls in greeting, staring at him down the long bridge of his pointy nose.

“I’m pretty sure you’re the one one who walked into me ,” Harry retorts tetchily as he swiftly steps back, just barely retraining himself from adding ‘you great, lumbering twig.’

“Hardly,” Malfoy offers in his robotic tone.

Then - nothing. Of course.

Draco Malfoy, paragon of stimulating conversation.

“Right, well. It’s been an absolute joy seeing you, Malfoy - truly the highlight of my day. But I really must be -”

“Harry!” a voice calls out behind him, and Harry turns to see Smith moving toward him, that earlier affability still written all over his handsome face.

“I was actually thinking I might take you lot up on that -” Smith breaks off abruptly, all the pleasantness sliding out of his expression in a great rush as he takes in the man beside Harry.

Malfoy stiffens perceptibly beside him as well - an impressive feat for a man with the general posture of a fence rail - and Harry eyes him askance. If he’d thought the man’s demeanor cold and humorless in the minutes before, Harry finds him now gone positively glacial. He stares down at Smith with an ugly sneer overtaking his thin mouth, the eyes above gone unyielding as stone.

Malfoy and Smith stare at one another across the few yards of wet cobblestone, the air between them gone crackling and virulent, as if they are seconds away from casting the hexes they look capable of.

“Erm. Allow me to introduce Mister Zacharias Smith?” Harry offers into the tense silence. “Smith, may I present Mister Malf-”

“We’ve met,” Malfoy cuts him off, in a low, venomous voice that manages to make the simple words come out like a curse. The danger in it makes something cold skitter down Harry’s spine, but Malfoy doesn’t move, continuing to stare ice daggers at Smith.

“Er, okay. I -” Harry begins, not sure himself what he was possibly about to say, but he’s cut off again, this time by Malfoy quickly spinning on his heel and stalking away down the street without another word.

Harry watches him go with a confused sort of relief.

“Ah. I take it your previous meeting was not a pleasant one?” he asks Smith.

“Oh - not at all, I’m afraid.” Smith blinks dazedly, still watching Malfoy’s tall, proud back move off through the bustling crowd. “I think it’s safe to categorize every interaction with that man as unpleasant.”

Harry gives a short huff of laughter, hoping to dissipate the heavy mood that had settled over them like the clouds above. “I don’t disagree, though I’ve only known him a short while. Do you, er, know him well?”

“Too well, I should think. We studied under the same Master, in France,” Smith explains briefly, shooting one last dark, complex look in the direction Malfoy had gone. “Anyway, the Leaky?”

The smile Smith offers him and the warm hand he places on Harry’s elbow almost makes him forget the strange exchange. “Yes, alright.”

Maybe it’s only that their instructor had favored Smith and Malfoy hadn’t stood it well, Harry muses as they walk. It’s not that difficult to fathom; Harry truly wouldn’t blame anyone for preferring Smith to Malfoy. Even if the git is - tall, and occasionally helpful with abnormal plant-poisonings and embarrassing carpet-tripping incidents. He’s still a disagreeable sod.

Yes, likely that’s the trouble between them - Malfoy is simply bitter over Smith’s superior likability. Too bad for Malfoy then, Harry thinks, as it is no doubt entirely the man’s own fault. Unsociable pillock.

Harry purposefully pushes Malfoy from his mind as he follows Smith into the pub and out of the rain. The warm smile Smith throws over one broad shoulder also helps to shove thoughts of the other blond even further from Harry’s notice.

He feels his cheeks heat in response to Smith’s - Zacharias’ , Harry corrects himself with an odd little thrill - obvious regard, and finds himself hoping that the two of them do end up at Malfoy’s ball.

Host aside, Harry doesn’t think he’d at all mind a night of dancing. Hopefully with a good-natured Hufflepuff without dubious family connections and of a perfectly reasonable height.

Harry’s always preferred brown eyes, anyway.

---

Harry does indeed get an invite to the ball at Malfoy Manor, and the next weeks pass in a flurry of anticipation. Harry hasn’t seen Smith in anything but passing since their shared afternoon at the pub, but he’d be lying to say he wasn’t eager to spend more time with the man.

It’s only - nice , talking to someone who understands what they all went through, who went through it beside them, but not so close beside that Harry already knows everything there is to know about him. Smith is interesting and smart and has a wry sense of humor that suits Harry’s own. He plays Quidditch and he’s easy to talk to and he seems genuinely interested in Harry, just Harry.

Not to mention the lovely hair.

At any rate, Harry’s not not looking forward to Malfoy’s ball, is this point.

When the day arrives, Harry finds himself cowed into attending Molly and Ginny at the Burrow, who take turns beating him over the head with brushes and lassoing him with ribbons until they deem him suitably attired for the festivities. Harry isn’t sure why exactly they’d been so keen to fuss -  he had changed into a less obviously battered pair of breeches and stockings and he’d given his beard a cursory trim, so as far as he was concerned he’d gone above and beyond in terms of sartorial effort - but he does have to admit they’ve given him a certain polish.

He looks himself over in the spotted mirror in Ginny’s room, rather liking the way his eyes are brought out by the emerald-coloured hair ribbon Molly had finally settled on. Ginny had done a quick cleaning spell on his lenses, too, so the eyes in question are perfectly visible, which he is rather ashamed to admit is a change.

All in all Harry feels rather satisfied with his appearance; he may not be termed ‘at least handsome,’ but he’ll do. He hopes Zacharias will think so, anyway.

Luna drops by with a carriage to convey them all to the Manor as a group, her Thestrals merrily jangling their reins as they pull up in front of the Burrow. Harry does manage to get the slightest bit disheveled when he quickly mounts one of the scraggly, old crab-apple trees to grab the beasts a treat before they all climb aboard, earning him an upsetting tirade of abuse from the female contingent of their party.

Harry doesn’t think Ginny’s threats especially are at all warranted - it’s just a few twigs, and he hadn’t lost the ribbon. He’d only tangled it the slightest amount. Very slight. Besides, Harry’s positive that hitting him with a Melofors would only be counterproductive to her point.

When Neville finally surfaces from his fit of giggles long enough to climb into the magically-enlarged interior, the group of them set of in a general mood of excitement and playfulness.

“I like what you’ve done with the carriage, Luna,” Harry comments, looking down at the now-transparent floor. It doesn’t offer much of a view beyond the grassy, gravelly tracks they’re moving over, and the occasional Thestral patty, but it’s an interesting conversion, to be sure.

“The Minister’s is twice this size,” Percy adds from his spot in the corner.

“Luna, dear, can we go any faster?” Molly asks, fidgeting with impatience in her seat beside Arthur.

“Oh, I’m afraid not, Molly. I instructed the old girls to take whatever pace suited them best. No doubt they are enjoying the change in scenery.”

Luna and her father run an informal rescue for retired carriage-Thestrals from their barn, letting the creatures wander freely about their fields and only occasionally requesting their help with bits of recreational travel.

“- I managed to convince Draco to take on a few mares from Hogwarts, as well. His stables are so much bigger than ours,” Luna is saying to Ginny.  

Harry whips his head toward her at the name.

“Malfoy?” he says incredulously. “Luna, is that wise? The bastard might boil them down for glue.”

“Oh, Harry, what a ghastly imagination you have. Draco is excellent with them - and enthusiastic too. He even offered to show me the wild herd that lives on the edges of the Manor’s grounds, but you know how much I dislike flying. Spending too long at a height can induce backwards dreams.”

“Mhmm,” Harry mumbles, feeling mean. “Still, that grumpy bugger wouldn’t be my first choice for trusting the safekeeping of innocent animals. He seems like the type to have a coat made out of crups”

“That’s a rather harsh assessment, Harry, even from you,” Parvati tuts, regarding him with a shrewd expression as she readjusts the pleats of her formal robes. “I know that Malfoy isn’t your favorite, but I’m beginning to regard the force of your ire as a ‘doth protest too much’ sort of scenario.”

“Nonsense,” Harry splutters. “It’s not my fault you are all so tolerant of the git. Besides, I’m not the only one who thinks he’s a right foul arse - Zacharias agrees with me.”

“Oh Zacharias does, does he?” Ginny queries, adding a simpering note to the name that makes Harry’s cheeks heat.

“Oh, sod off, Gin. I’m not nearly so bad as you with Parkinson, of all people. Or anything like Neville and Blaise.”

“Blaise and I have become excellent friends,” Neville says primly, though his eyes stay fixed on his knees and his cheeks have gone rosy beneath his freckles.

“I’d be a bit more effusive in your regard, Nev, else Zabini won’t know you want him whisk you directly to the nearest chapel before mounting you like a Niffler in heat,” Ginny comments offhandedly, tucking an errant seed pearl back into the hair of her temple.  

“Ginny!” Molly chides her.

“I - I want nothing of the sort!” Neville protests weakly, though his cheeks redden further with every passing second. He places his hands over them with a giggled, “Oh dear.”

“Blaise isn’t anything like a Niffler, anyway,” Luna adds dreamily, staring out the floor. “His energy is much more like a Hippogriff - or a Sphinx. Something regal, with a tail.”

“I think you’re right, Lu,” Ginny agrees, smirking at Neville again. “How long do you think Blaise's tail is, Nev?”

Neville winks back at her through his blush with a bawdy humor he doesn’t often display. “Long enough.”

Parvati hoots with laughter and Harry cannot help but grin.

“Simple friends or not, the bastard’s certainly rubbing off on you,” he tells Neville, thinking of Blaise’s penchant for ribald jokes and stories.

“Not as much as he’d like him to be,” Ginny mutters in poorly executed sotto voce, causing Neville to tackle her into a giggling heap on the bench.

Molly clears her throat pointedly, trying to settle them.

“Ginevra’s lewd extrapolation aside, I do think it wouldn’t hurt for you to display a tad more enthusiasm where Mister Zabini is concerned, Neville darling,” Molly instructs him soberly once he and Ginny have relaxed back into their seats. Despite the regular lurching of the carriage she’s sitting on the very edge of her bench, trying to avoid wrinkling her voluminous skirts. “In my experience, romance can use all the prodding along it can get.”

“Oh c’mon, Molly,” Harry argues, squeezing Neville’s shoulder as he speaks. “Allow Neville to take things at his own pace - if Blaise has the regard for him we all suspect, he won’t mind in the slightest.”

Neville smiles at him gratefully, his round cheeks still stained a pretty red.

Harry smiles back.

---

The drive is packed with carriages and hovering carpets when they arrive, a swarm of people milling about the front steps, their colorful dresses, suits and robes a merry patchwork in the light of the torches and the setting sun.

Harry looks up at the facade of the building as he helps Molly down, eyes drawn to the clean, stark lines of it. The Manor does look beautiful tonight, all lit up from within. Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe what it once had been, or what had once happened within its walls.

They move as a group into the bustling crowd, the rest doing their best to shield Harry from the worst of the attention-seekers as they go, mounting the sweeping entry stairs to the vaulted anteroom where Malfoy and his company have lined up to greet them.

Harry scans the mass of bodies for a particular golden-tressed head as they make their steady way along, barely noticing through his avid scrutiny when his own turn with the receiving line arrives.

“Looking for someone?” comes a crisp voice to his right, and Harry turns toward it to find Malfoy staring at him in curiosity.

“No!” Harry blurts, oddly embarrassed to have been caught out by him. “Just, er, taking it all in. Lovely um, sconce things,” he adds halfheartedly, waving at the wall. “Very nice.”

Malfoy raises one bleach-blond eyebrow. “Finding the surroundings a cut above your usual standards, oh Chosen One?” he mutters, low enough so that only Harry hears.

“The decor? Oh, most assuredly.” Harry nods, then looks Malfoy up and down with a rude smile. “The company is decidedly on the other end of the scale, but I suppose a personality cannot be purchased as easily as an embroidered cushion.”

The corner of Malfoy’s mouth gives a little twitch. “A pity that fame doesn’t earn you one either.”

Harry snorts, despite himself.

“Well, don’t let us keep you from your chosen society,” Malfoy says with a dismissive nod of his head, before turning to the next body in the line.

“As if,” Harry mutters, nodding back with an added eye roll, though he looks up to find that his friends have indeed managed to disappear during the short minutes of their interaction. “Er, right.”

Harry hurries past Parkinson and the assembled, livery-clad house elves and into the first set of open rooms, scanning his eyes over the milling crowd for any familiar, Weasley-red heads - and perhaps still a less familiar, curly blond one.

He finds Luna by the punch bowl, rather conspicuously spiking it with a vial of something iridescent and unnaturally purple. Harry decides he will be sticking with ale for the evening, as usual.

“Luna, any chance you’ve seen -”

“Mister Smith isn’t coming tonight, Harry, I’m sorry,” she interrupts him, her voice gone gentle in a practiced way that makes Harry feel a bit foolish.

What, has he been walking around with the words ‘I am searching for the bloke I fancy’ written in flashing script over his head? He really shouldn’t be so easy to read; it’ll be all over the Prophet next.

“Oh,” Harry says, unable to hide his disappointment, even from himself.

“I met with him at the bakery this morning,” Luna starts to explain, “They have these lovely buns with currants and golden raisins at the one in the Muggle village near our house. Have you ever had golden raisins, Harry? They are quite delicious, even if the color does remind me unpleasantly of Billywig eggs. Which the Billywigs only lay, of course, on nights of the waning gibbous moon and -”

“Luna.”

“Oh, yes - anyway, he mentioned that he’d be leaving to visit his mother in Bath this very evening. I was going to tell you in the carriage but I didn’t want you to get irritable if everyone saw the face you’re making.”

“I don’t - I’m not making any face.”

“Yes you are - you look as if Molly’s just told you she’s made baked apples instead of treacle tart.”

“I - Mister Smith is not a tart, Luna.”

“No, he isn’t. But you like him,” she says simply, looking at him with that keen, clear stare.

“Well, yes. Yes I do,” he admits, sighing. “But it’s all right, just a pity he isn’t here, I suppose.”

“I know,” Luna offers sweetly, patting his arm. “But look about - there are plenty of other non-tarts in the room for you to take a turn with. Starting with myself - come on.”

Harry does, and spends the first dozen sets dancing with Luna, Ginny and Blaise and dodging the usual flock of devoted Savior-worshipers and other hangers on, with a general if not fully-realized sort of enthusiasm.

He isn’t bereft, or anything. It’s only that it had been exciting to be looking forward to something - to the chance of a flirtation, to butterflies and sparks. It’s been quite some time since he’s been so eager to advance his intimacy of someone, is all - silly as it may be.

He’s thinking about this as Ginny tows him highhandedly from room to room in search of drinks, while also trying to school his face away from anything resembling the sort of dessert-disappointed-ness that will cause her to start asking him teasing questions, when they come to an abrupt stop in front of a familiarly narrow and pristinely buttoned chest.

“Potter,” Malfoy says stiffly, looking down at him with a face as blank as Harry’s mind suddenly becomes. “Would you do me the honor?”

Harry barely manages to withhold replying ‘of what’ before he remembers where they are and what they’re all doing here. “Um,” he blurts, feeling a bit as if he’d walked into a wall instead of stopping short of Malfoy’s lean chest. “I suppose.”

Malfoy nods once and then stalks away through the throng of revelers.

Harry immediately grabs Ginny’s hand and all but drags her into a less-crowded corner of the room, conveniently opposite the direction Malfoy had taken.

“Did I just agree to dance with Malfoy ?” he hisses to her.

Ginny shrugs, clearly not sensing the gravity of the situation. “I think you did.”

“That’s terribly unfortunate, as I detest every element of his presence!” Harry exclaims with feeling, fully appalled with himself now. An hour of self-pity and he’s gone fully round the twist.

Ginny barks a laugh before pulling at his hand again and ushering them back toward the ballroom. “Well, you’ll just have to detest it in motion then. You never know, maybe he’s a proficient on the dance floor.”

“But I’m not, as we both well know!” Harry contests, trying to dig his heels in to stall their progress, but unfortunately carrara marble does not appear to offer much by way of traction. “Merlin, he’s just going to - it’s just going to be more ammunition for him to poke fun! Fuck it all.”

“I very much doubt that’s the reason he asked you,” Ginny insists, giving him another firm tug forward with a deceptively strong, lace-festooned arm.

“Why else?” Harry grumbles, tugging back.

“Well I think it has something to do with the fact that he’s not nearly the monster you paint him to be, and everything to do with how lovely your pert arse looks in those trousers.”

“Ginny!”

“Mine looks better, of course, but yours is still deserving of praise tonight. Doubtless it has attracted Draco’s singular interest.”

Harry manages to shrug off her loosening grip at this point, but it’s no use, as they have in fact made it back into the ballroom, the music trilling loudly around them and making Harry’s nerves skyrocket further. He crosses his free arms over his chest, distinctly aware of how visibly he’s pouting but unable to stop.

“Oh - fuck right off,” he snaps at her as she tries to unwrinkle his stock.  

“I’d better.” Ginny laughs, reaching up to have a try at smoothing his hair, then leaning in to whisper, “Your Romeo awaits,” before waggling her eyebrows at something over his shoulder.

Harry turns to find Malfoy standing a pace behind him, his somber face aglow in the floating candlelight and his hand proffered politely.

Harry takes it with a gulp and the two of them step out onto the floor as the previous dance assembly disperses, positioning themselves in the line of gathering couples. The music starts up once more, an ominous reverberation of strings, and the lot of them wade in, a few dozen steps clicking in time on the polished floor.

Harry does his best to follow at a controlled pace, forcing his face into seriousness and trying not to stare down at his feet too obviously. He manages a solid two minutes before his nerves get the best of him and he finds himself unable to hold silence a moment longer.

“Well, this is nice.”

No response; Malfoy doesn’t even glance in his direction, his face directed decorously forward as he pivots Harry’s grip in his.  

“I thought you didn’t dance?” Harry points out, trying to make it sound scathing but only succeeding in making it sound like ten questions in one.

“Clearly I do,” Malfoy retorts, and he does manage scathing, the comprehensive toad.

“Pardon me, just trying to make conversation,” Harry sniffs, counting steps into the turn and only managing to miss one. “I should have guessed you wouldn’t recognize the art. Here, let me help - I’ll say something and you can attempt a response of more than a few grunting, derogatory syllables. Sound good? We’ll start with a question - tell me, did they not teach tête-à-tête at wherever you obtained your skills in linen starching? Nice cravat, by the way - it’s a wonder you haven’t poked anyone’s eye out with it.”

Malfoy lets the pause drag for a beat before asking, “Tell me, is incessant chatter while dancing a personal habit, or just part of the regional charm?”

“And what’s the vogue in France, these days - acting a pedantic bore?”

“I was merely attempting to point out how impressive your multitasking is - being able to carry on inane dialogue and count steps at the same time. Shockingly adept.”

Of course Harry chooses this moment to stumble over his own foot as he attempts a back-step. He feels his face heat, but presses on.

“Not all of us had the benefit of dance study - being hunted by an evil arsehole wasn’t exactly finishing school. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” he adds pointedly.

“At least I know the difference between a quadrille and a waltz.”

Harry barely manages to stop himself from replying ‘a what?’ He raises his chin gamely, retorting, “My apologies for not being nimble-footed. Faffing about in ballrooms isn’t exactly a favorite pastime of mine.”

Malfoy’s tone is dry as dust when he asks, “Then why are we doing this, Potter?”

“You asked!”

“And you acquiesced.”

“Yes, well - not all of us are so quick to slight everyone directly to their faces. I’m polite.”

Malfoy actually lets out a snort at this - a surprisingly indelicate sound. “So this is you being mannerly?”

“This is me taking the excuse to step on your toes,” Harry grumbles beneath his breath, though not far beneath.  

“No need to get tetchy, Potter,” Malfoy chides, and Harry could swear he can almost hear the ghost of a smile in that crisp voice. “I was rather enjoying hearing you explain how difficult it would have been for you to say ‘no’ to my invitation.”

“I believe what I was saying was that it was difficult to say yes, but I did it anyway.”

“And do you often make a habit of doing things you don’t want to do?”

Caught up in trying not to trip again, Harry is a bit more honest than he intends to be when he replies, “A certain amount of discomfort comes with the title, I suppose.”

He sighs, thinking of all the pomp and circumstance he’d suffered after the war - the accolades and the fawning that he wanted no part in. All for performing a role he would have wanted no part in, had he ever been given such a thing as a choice.

“How unfortunate,” Malfoy replies in his clipped tones, but with an undercurrent of sincerity that Harry is surprised to hear; surely he’s being mocked.

“Careful, Malfoy, or you’ll give the impression that my comfort is something that you care for.”

There’s a pause before the man answers, voice soft as he says, low, “And would that be so disagreeable a thing?”

Harry whips his head around to look at him. The pale, pointy face is as placid as ever, but something about the set of the mouth has changed, something that makes Harry’s heart speed up uncontrollably.

He looks forward again, eyes darting quickly back to his feet.

“It,” he starts, trying to recover from the strange disorientation. “It would be a - a shock, I suppose. First and foremost.”

“Well, I’ll endeavor to afford you more clarity about such cares in the future,” Malfoy replies simply - as if it’s a completely normal thing to say. As if he hasn’t just knocked Harry sideways from a height.

“Merlin forbid the surprise offend your delicate constitution,” Malfoy adds after a beat, and this time Harry can read the humor in it plainly.

Harry snorts at the quip, but eyes the man askance once more. This time he finds Malfoy looking back at him, the light eyes unfathomable in the candlelight, looking down at Harry past the knife-bridge of his nose.

His hand tightens in Malfoy’s of its own accord, and Malfoy responds by pulling Harry fractionally closer. It’s barely the shadow of a movement, but Harry feels it fizzle through his entire body, nonetheless.

They finish the dance in silence, eyes locked, and when the music warbles to a close Harry drops Malfoy’s hand like a hot stone, stepping back from the man so fast he stumbles.

Malfoy’s expression is inscrutable once more, as impossible to puzzle out as the sudden twist of Harry’s own emotions. He feels dizzy, like he’s pulled unbalanced out of a Wronski Feint. Like he needs to get back to ground.

“Er,” Harry says, lamely. He bows gracelessly in his haste to move out from under that piercing look and the way it makes him shiver. “Excuse me.”

As Harry walks quickly away through the throng he swears he can feel Malfoy’s gaze on the back of his neck, tingling there like the ghost of a touch; l ike the echo of Malfoy’s hand as it had rested briefly, pressing, to the small of Harry’s back.

Harry strides between the press of bodies without faltering, until he steps through a set of double doors onto a deserted balcony. He stands there, breathing slowly, relishing the cool air on his face and the deep, night smell of the sprawling grounds around him.

He stands there, the back of his neck still pulsing with an odd sensitivity, in time with his heart.

---

He wanders through the darkened grounds for a while after that.

He isn’t hiding, exactly - just taking some air in private. It’s not his fault that the best air appears to be behind this very conveniently placed, bush-filled giant urn.

He does wish briefly he’d thought to have brought the invisibility cloak. It is helpful for private air-taking, after all.

Though, on second thought, perhaps his current position isn’t so private -

“Draco, you can’t be serious,” comes a scathing voice from around the nearest corner of the building. “When I teased you about your lofty expectations I wasn’t pitching the idea that you lower them into the dirt . Literally dirty - he has twigs in his hair! Just, all the time! All the time twigs!”

“You needn’t tell me I’m being ridiculous!” Malfoy responds grouchily, his low voice and gravel-crunching footsteps nearing with every word. “It’s not as if he’d ever - I do not need a detailed list of why I am being deeply idiotic. But -”

“But? But what?” the other voice asks, sounding scandalized, and now Harry can identify it as belonging to Parkinson. “Draco, are you telling me you actually feel -”

But Harry never gets to hear what Malfoy actually feels, as the pair of them move on past him quickly, just out of hearing distance.

Harry breathes quietly for a long moment, his back pressed against the cool stone of the urn, wondering in a detached sort of way who Malfoy and Parkinson could have been discussing, trying in vain to cut off the strange tendril of hopeful - something that is taking root in the center of his chest. A tender, new growth unfurling against the inside of his ribs.

He makes his way back toward the house still in a daze, back up the path Malfoy’s footsteps had just disappeared down. He tries to forget about that, just as he tries to forget about the exact stormy shade Malfoy’s eyes had been during their dance, of the depths of them coming alive under the candles’ glow.

Of the way Harry’s skin had tingled oddly under his hand, a rushing like the flow of magic down his wand-arm as he casts, intentional and instinctive all at once.

He allows Luna to pull him back into the fray of dancers when he returns inside, and the rest of the evening passes in a colourful swirl of robes and skirts.

And if Harry has a touch more firewhiskey than is normally advisable? Well, he doesn’t have to explain himself, does he. It’s a party, isn't it?

He goes back to the Burrow with Ginny in the wee hours, their limbs wobbly from drink and dance exertion as they stumble out of the floo, giggling like school children. They bump around the dark kitchen for a bit - neither of them seeming able to cast a Lumos - whispering loudly in between bouts of spontaneous hilarity, with Ginny slurring something about ‘not waking the Nargles’ that they both seem to think is the most amusing thing either of them has ever heard.

They needn’t worry about waking anyone, actually, Harry figures; Molly and Arthur had still been dancing when he and Ginny took their leave, the indefatigable buggers. Percy is likely home, having disappeared from the Manor sometime around midnight, but his bedroom is at the top of the house, anyway.

He and Ginny finally manage to mount the rickety stairs to the upper floors after a time, Harry taking the bed in Ron’s old room, as he often does.

He barely manages to toe off his boots before falling into a deep, spinning, dreamless sleep that absolutely does not feature anything of long-fingered, pale hands and curious grey eyes aglow with feeling.

---

Harry awakens mid-morning to the sound of soft, domestic shuffling from below, which is doing nothing to improve the bone-shaking pounding coming from the interior of his skull.

Neither is it improved when Ginny barges in a moment later, groaning in a brown, embroidered housecoat. She tosses a vial of teal liquid onto his chest with a thunk that makes him wince and bellows at him, “C’mon, then. Mum’s made breakfast.”

“No,” Harry responds, to the world in general. “ No .”

Ginny snorts, the sound blaring in Harry’s ears like a demolition curse. “Drink that and come down.”

Harry struggles into a sitting position and downs the hangover cure she’d pitched him. Five minutes later he’s recovered enough to marginally appreciate the smell of frying pork fat drifting up the stairs, and he makes his way down to the kitchen in bare feet. It’ll be nice to give himself something to sick up later, in any case.

Harry slumps down in a chair next to Ginny, wondering how Molly and Arthur can even be awake, let alone coherent enough to be amassing fry-ups for bedraggled children. Was there some sort of spell they'd not bothered to teach him, or was aging like a bell curve?

“How was your night, Harry, dear?” Molly asks brightly, sliding a few eggs onto his plate.

“Indulgent, it would seem,” Harry sighs, swallowing a corner of his toast carefully.

It doesn’t seem to want to climb immediately back out, so he takes another bite.

“You young people have no stamina,” Molly remarks, patting at his head gingerly with the wooden spoon she’s using to dish out her pan. “And did you meet anyone promising? Anyone of interest to you?"

“I don’t think I’d remember it that well, even if I had,” Harry tells her honestly, trying to dredge up any memories of the previous evening aside from the acrid taste of whiskey, Luna’s tinkling laughter in his ear as she’d twirled around him, and Malfoy’s dour face, close and looking at him.

“I had hopes that you and the young Malfoy would have developed some kind of rapport,” Molly comments, as if reading his mind, “but it doesn’t seem to have happened. The two of you only danced the once .” She sighs disapprovingly, as if the fact had been an insult to her personally.

Harry wants to say something about the once being more than enough, but his mouth is too full.   

“Yes,” Ginny mumbles ahead of him and around a wad of bacon. “But that was the only time Mister Malfoy danced at all, so I don’t think we can discount  -”

Harry pinches her arm under the tabletop to stop her from finishing the thought and she slugs him in the thigh in retaliation.

“Yes, I noticed that,” Molly says, a perplexed furrow forming between her ginger brows. “But they spent the whole turn frowning at one another. The lack of chemistry was obvious,” she sighs again, looking more irritated than upset. “Really, Harry, would it hurt to make more of an effort in advancing your intimacy with someone? At this rate you won’t be married until you’re half Dumbledore’s age - and you won’t have all your natural hair forever.”

“I’m not exactly desperate about it, Molly,” Harry hedges. “But I promise you the instant I get an offer from someone even remotely more plausible than Draco Malfoy - which I assure you is not a high bar - I will snap them up in an instant. I’m also not sure that baldness wouldn’t improve the matter, slightly,” he adds, running a hand through the thoroughly slept-on mop that currently resides on his head. The green ribbon is still in there somewhere, he thinks.

“Nonsense, you’ve lovely hair. If a bit - wayward.” She eyes him with a distinctly scissor-happy look.

“You have to say that, you’re my mum,” Harry points out. “Can you pester Ginny now? She somehow tricked Parkinson into several dances - some of them consecutive, even. What do we all think of that?”

“She is a tough nut,” Ginny sighs beatifically, freckled chin propped on one hand. “But I’m cracking her, I think. I managed to make her laugh eight separate times. I kept a tally.”

“Courting is not a Quidditch game, darling,” Molly sighs, bustling around the room, though she does have a self-satisfied sort of smile tucked into the corners of her eyes.

“I beg to differ,” Ginny parries back, “though there certainly are less balls in my version.”

Molly sighs once more. “Charming.”

---

Harry takes a brief kip on one of the sitting room sofas after breakfast and wakes to find Ginny perched on the arm by his feet, gazing at him while she works her way methodically through a bowl of fruit and cream.

“What?” he groans at her, wondering what sort of compliment would be more likely to sway her into getting him a bowl, or if there is a compliment flattering enough to get her to share her own.

“Percy asked me to ask you to meet him in the back garden,” she mumbles around a large hunk of strawberry, the juice of it staining the corner of her lips a charming pink.  

“Why?” Harry blinks at her, puzzled. “And why outside? Percy doesn’t like outside.”

“I haven’t the foggiest,” she replies, punctuating her words with a careless wave of her spoon. A dab of cream lands on Harry’s big toe. He attempts to surreptitiously wipe it off onto Ginny’s pant leg.

“And why does Percy do anything?” Ginny continues, unperturbed. “He’s probably got an ‘inquiry on behalf of the Minister’ which you will summarily reject, as is your want.”

“Ugh, I already told him last month there is no way I’m speaking at a tea,” Harry groans, pressing his face into a lumpy cushion. “They always want me to talk about the war - it’s inappropriate. Not to mention terminally boring. I’d rather make conversation with a room full of Nargles.”

“That could be arranged,” Ginny tells him. “I’m sure Luna would love it.”

“She would. Don’t you dare propose such a thing.”

“Too late, I love that idea. Mark your calendar.”

“Absolutely not. I’m a terribly busy man, surely I will be committed elsewhere.”

“Just not for tea with the Minister.”

“What?”

“Percy,” she explains, jerking her head toward the window.

“Oh, right.” Harry gets up and heads out into the yard, grabbing a heel of bread from the kitchen as he goes.

“Wotcher, Perce,” he says around a crunchy mouthful, as soon as he find Percy sitting on the bench between the holly bushes. “Listen,” he starts, aiming to be firm. “I know you mean well, and the Minister too, but I really can’t -”

Percy stands briefly, his face gone funny and paler than usual, before going down on one knee in the grass.

Harry stares at him for a silent moment. “Er - you alright? Something the matter with your leg?”

Percy blinks up at him, seeming to struggle with the words, “Will you do me the honor.”

“The honor of what? I’m shit at healing spells, mate. Did you pull something at the ball? You were dancing more than I’ve ever seen you -”

“Will you do me the honor,” Percy tries again, his ginger brows drawing together in a confused sort of frustration, “of accepting my hand?”

“What?” Harry blurts, the knut dropping. He almost fumbles his bread. “No!”

Percy frowns up at him.

“But you said - plausible. Surely such a match would be advantageous to us both,” he states, with a look of the same sober sincerity Harry has seen him apply to a discussion on Galleon exchange rates.

“I - I didn’t - why ?” Harry rasps out, wondering wildly whether the drought Ginny had given him had the side effect of inducing unfortunate hallucinations.

Percy clears his throat and starts in, stiffly, as if he had rehearsed, “I’ve been thinking for some time that marriage would be a positive development in terms of my career - the Minister looks favorably on those with stable family ties for positions of seniority - and it would certainly be beneficial to your charitable exploits to be partnered with someone who has Ministry connections. Besides, you have long been family in all but name, as it is. Surely making things official would - suit everyone. I know Molly would like it.”

Harry stares at him, not entirely convinced he is not still asleep on the sitting room couch. “Er, yes that is all very - sound reasoning, I suppose,” he offers weakly. “But I think we’re ignoring something rather important.”

Percy merely blinks up at him blankly. “What?”

Harry blinks back. “Perce, do you - do you love me?”

Percy shrugs in a way that reminds Harry strongly of Molly. “Romantic passion is not necessarily a requirement for a successful match. We do care for one another, of course. I do not see why the degree of care should be an impediment.”

“Of course we care for one another,” Harry assures him, trying to be gentle. “As brothers, as family. But marriage is supposed to be about more than that. Do you really think we could make one another happy?”

Percy shrugs again, seemingly unmoved. “Happiness is fleeting no matter your state of attachment -”

“Yes, but - okay then, do you think we could make each other feel anything other than basic contentment?” Harry presses, starting to feel a bit frantic. “If you are to go out of your way to tie yourself forever to someone, beyond the bounds of mere friendship or family, it should be with someone who - who riles you. Someone who stirs up something in you that no one else can. Don’t you want that for yourself, Perce? To find someone you really want to be with, all your days? Not just someone you could ?”

“I cannot say my personal goals are so fanciful,” Percy declares, with a certain degree of offhanded derision that Harry cannot help but feel insulted by. They live in a world where people fly about on sticks and vanish into thin air at will, surely believing in love doesn’t make him a quixotic fool?

“Mine are,” he insists, firmly, but as politely as he can manage. “I’m sorry, Percy. I care for you deeply and I am honored by your offer, but if I’m going to marry someone, it’s going to be for something - more. More of what I cannot say, but more.”

“I see,” Percy says, looking away, though he appears more contemplative than put out.

Harry reaches out to pat him gently on the shoulder with the hand not still holding the hunk of bread. “Listen, Perce - this isn’t going to be awkward, is it?”

Percy turns back. “I don’t see why it should have to be,” he replies, with a pragmatic sort of pluck that makes Harry want to hug him.

He doesn’t, as he worries this would be construed as mixed messaging.

“Excellent,” he says instead, as cheerfully as he can muster. “Now will you please for the love of Merlin stand up - seeing you down there is making me feel an absolute lunatic.”

Percy glances down and frowns. “My leg’s gone asleep.”

Harry offers a hand and helps him clamber to his feet. They peer at one another for a beat before turning in unison and heading side by side back into the house.

Percy stops him just inside the door with a look of businesslike resignation. “Best not mention this to Molly, I shouldn’t think,” he says, hushed. 

“Oh Merlin, no let’s - let’s not,” Harry agrees, thinking that very little good would come of her knowing. She’d have an announcement in the Prophet by tomorrow morning. “Dear lord.”

Percy nods to him stiffly then retreats up the stairs to his room; Harry watches him go with a confused mixture of relief and sympathy. He really is too hungover for this.

“What did Percy want?” Ginny asks when he finds his way back in the sitting room. She’s taken his spot on the settee.

“Oh not much,” Harry sighs, really wishing the Burrow had a fainting couch for him to fling himself dramatically onto. This situation seems to warrant one. “Just to marry me.”

Ginny’s eyebrows disappear into her hairline. “What?”

What? ” comes a shocked gasp from the doorway to Harry’s left.

He whips his head around to find Molly standing just over the threshold, gaping at him.

“Oh good grief,” Harry mumbles, hurrying on in the hopes of mitigating the damage, “Molly I -”

Too late.

“That actually makes a lot of sense,” Molly says, her eyes gone a little unfocused as she considers something only she can see.

“No, it doesn’t!” Harry exclaims, realizing belatedly that he should have just apparated away straight from the garden. Or possibly that he shouldn't have bothered waking up this morning, full stop.

Molly eyes have refocused on him now, filled with a worrying amount of hard-headed resolve. “Yes it does!”

“Even if it did, I - since when is this sort of thing supposed to be sensible!” Harry splutters at her.

“Well why shouldn’t it be? You could suit one another’s needs, you’d be a Weasley officially - it’s a very reasonable offer, if you think -”

“I’m not in love with him and he isn’t in love with me!” Harry points out, feeling his temper rising. “He just admitted as much outside -”

“So?” Molly interrupts, crossing her arms over her chest in a manner that forces Harry to mirror her.

“So, setting aside the matter of my own feelings, I’d like a potential partner to be convinced of their affection for me in themself, at the least! Even if I or everyone else have a hard time believing it!”

“Affection isn’t everything!”

“It is to me!” Harry shouts, his voice filling the small, cluttered room. He deflates a bit, wincing at how petulant he sounds but unable to concede his point.

“Listen, Molly,” he tries again, striving for patience. “I’m - If I am going to be married, it’s going to be because I want to be married. It’s going to be to someone I want , not just need. And hopefully someone who wants me in return. I’d rather be wanted begrudgingly, than needed halfheartedly. Percy may pursue whatever manner of match he likes, but surely I am allowed to do the same.”

“Well of course you are allowed, Harry,” Molly offers, voice gone soft, and she says ‘Harry’ the way she always does - as if she’s saying ‘dear boy’ instead. The warmth in the word soothes him, a little.

He shrugs, dropping his arms. He feels his face heat at the notion, but forces himself to add, “And I sort of - I sort of thought I already was a Weasley, in every way that really matters.”  

“Of course you are, darling,” Molly whispers, coming forward and reaching up to place her small hand against the side of his face. “Forgive me - I got too enthused by the prospect. It would be an uncomplicated match, is all. And I still don’t think it’s the worst possible -”

“What’s going on?” Arthur asks as he also rounds the door frame into the room. He’s holding a muggle shoe horn in one hand and his wand in the other, for reasons only he could know.

“Er,” Harry starts, really hoping they could avoid going into it again; he’s already feeling the need to lie down somewhere dark.

Ginny flips a hand between Harry and Molly, her eyes back on the contents of her bowl. “Oh not much, Harry is just refusing what mum would call ‘a perfectly reasonable marriage proposal’ and what the rest of us would call ‘have you been Diffindoed in the head.’” She takes a long, slurping bite off her spoon before continuing, “Really, mum, that was one of the worst notions Perce has ever had, and he’s voluntarily chosen to keep that haircut all these years.”

Molly rolls her eyes, her cheeks gone slightly pink now. “I didn’t say it was a perfect idea, I said it was reasonable - and it is!”

“My dear, I think we know Harry well enough by now to understand that he is much more likely to prefer something unreasonable,” Arthur insists, shooting Harry a knowing wink.  

“Yes, exactly,” Harry sighs with relief. “Thank you, Arthur.”

“Mhmm,” Molly sighs too, with significantly less relief. “I suppose I’ll go check on Percy.”

“I think he’s alright, like I said he isn’t - he won’t be heartbroken or anything,” Harry tells her. “I mean it’s me , and it’s Percy - and are we even really having this conversation? I feel like I’ve been concussed.”

Molly sends one last huff in his direction before heading off up the stairs, Arthur following sedately behind with his horn.

“You did fall pretty hard during one of your later spins with Luna, last night,” Ginny grunts, stretching out. “But I should have thought the only side effect would be bruises, not deranged proposals from family members.”  

“Ta, Gin. You’re a comfort,” Harry assures her, voice muffled by his palm as he slides a hand over his tired, aching face. “Anyway, I’m off to go remove this episode into a pensive and then have a nice, soothing self-Stupifaction to cap the day. See you all in a few months - or whenever else the embarrassment wears off.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Harry,” Ginny says, propping her bare heels up on the arm of the sofa. “At least you can rest easy knowing there’s a new reigning champion for Most Ill-Conceived Intra-Weasley Offer of Marriage - I think Perce has very deftly unseated the one you made me.”

“That doesn’t really make me feel any better.”

“It should. Anyway, you ought shove off before mum comes back and tries another angle. We both know she only had a go at the shouting first because it’s the weakest tool in her arsenal - she likes to hone in as she goes.”

“Merlin’s arse.”

“Quite.”

Harry takes her advice and flees back to Grimmauld with haste. In his rush he does manage to knock his head against the inside of the floo, which puts his earlier claims of concussion into rather harsh perspective.

The black-and-blue lining of it all is that he needn’t bother with Stupefying himself in the end, as the resumed pounding in his head puts paid to any dwelling he might have done on the subject of Malfoy, Percy or Molly, for the remainder of the day.

Well, almost.

“Merlin’s hairy, sagging arse ,” he mumbles again, pulling his bed curtains closed around him so that he is plunged, blissfully alone, into the soothing dark.

--

Friday-week arrives at long last, and with it Harry’s standing supper plans with Andromeda and Teddy. The three of them manage to share a meal twice or more a month - the months Teddy isn’t away at Hogwarts nowadays, that is - and Harry looks forward to their time together with a gladness he reserves for little else.

Which is probably why he is readying himself to leave for their cottage just after one o’clock.

A bit early for dinner, he supposes, but he doubts Andromeda or Teddy will mind.

He and Teddy can fill the time with some quaffle practice in the back garden, he muses hopefully, though it’s possible Andromeda won’t be overly keen on the prospect, considering what they managed to inflict on her begonias the last time.

Harry finishes rounding up the trinkets and books he’s collected for Teddy since they last met, and sets off to ask Neville if he wants to join him, as he often does.

He finds him in the back garden, as per usual, re-potting Flutterby seedlings and - humming to himself softly, in a manner not at all usual.

Harry watches him quietly for a moment, enjoying the evident happiness suffusing every inch of his friend’s dear, round face. Even his eyebrows look jauntier of late, and it’s not difficult to surmise the reason why; he and Blaise had danced the entire night together at Malfoy’s ball and have found an excuse to visit one another almost every day since.

Harry is almost surprised Blaise isn’t here now - he’s been by the last three afternoons in a row, sitting on a stool he’d dragged out into their little yard, reading aloud to Neville from the Quibbler while he’d gently pruned something heinously spiky and worryingly sentient.

“Oy, Nev,” Harry calls to him from the doorway, “Do you want to join me over at Ted’s for supper? You needn’t come now, of course, but feel free to drop ‘round later.”

Neville beams over at him from beneath the wide, floppy brim of his gardening hat.

“Oh, thank you, Harry, but Blaise is going to show me a grove of unusual Dirigible Plums he’s found on the Manor’s grounds,” he tells him with evident excitement.“They’re producing fruit in triplicate per branch, which is aberrant for a cultivar of its type in Wiltshire’s regional subclimate,” he adds, as if Harry is able to understand more than one word of the set.

“We’ll likely be a while,” he concludes, with a steady, joyful assurance that warms Harry’s heart to hear.

“Alright, have it your way,” Harry relents, smiling back. “And be gentle when fondling Blaise’s plums - wouldn’t want them to bruise, it would ruin the mood.”

Harry ducks back in to the house quickly, hearing Neville’s retaliating hex hiss against the empty doorway as he goes. He pops out of Andromeda’s kitchen floo still laughing, bumping his head painfully against the low lintel as he stumbles out. These bloody country cottages - how short had the builders expected visitors to be? Harry knows he isn’t any taller than the average, as loathe as he is to admit it.

He rubs, wincing, at the perennially-reforming bump and calls out, “Ted? Where are you, mate?”

He heads into the cozy sitting room across the hall, expecting to find Teddy spread out with his head buried in one of the many books Hermione is always sending him, but instead comes face to face with -

“Malfoy? What in the bloody hell are you doing here?”

“Good afternoon to you as well, Potter,” Malfoy responds in that dry-as-toast voice. There’s a teacup in one of his hands and a saucer in the other, and he’s sitting with his legs crossed primly on Andromeda’s tufted settee as if he’s been there a million times before.

“I’m visiting my aunt and cousin. Obviously,” he adds with targeted emphasis, as if Harry is a complete idiot for being the least bit surprised.

But Harry is surprised. He’d known that Malfoy was related to Andromeda in a superficial, theoretical way, but it’s another thing entirely to see the man sat on the same cushion where Harry had helped Ted learn how to read - to realize with a pang of recognition that Malfoy has Teddy’s narrow chin. Harry struggles to take it all in, distracted also by the shine on Malfoy’s fair hair from the sunshine streaming through the diamond-paned window behind him.

Harry hasn’t seen the man since the ball - fourteen and half days ago, to be exact, but who’s counting - and the suddenness of his appearance has him reeling in a distinctly odd sort of way.

He has a dizzying moment in which he precisely recalls the feel of Malfoy’s long-fingered grip in his own hand, palm warm where it met his. The same palm that is now wrapped around one of Andromeda’s delicate porcelain cups painted round with lupines and ferns, the cups that Harry has clumsily broken and spell-repaired a thousand tea-times before.

“Teddy’s my godson,” Harry blurts, answering the question Malfoy hadn’t asked. Or perhaps he had; Malfoy could have been reciting the Cannon’s full season scores for all that Harry’s registered of the past few minutes.

Maybe Harry is an idiot.

“Yes, I know,” Malfoy says quietly, his grey eyes as inscrutable as they had been the night they’d danced. “This is Theodore Nott, by the way - here on a visit from France. Theo, this is Harry Potter - not sure if you’ve heard of him.”

Harry rolls his eyes at the jab and then turns to the man on the other end of the settee, whose presence is only just penetrating the fog in Harry’s brain.

“Er, yes.” He nods to the man, who is perched with the same exacting grace as Malfoy, his robes pressed and spotless where they drape elegantly across his shoulders. Another toff, then. “Hello, there. How do you do?”

Nott simply smiles at him from beneath his dark mop of hair. “Quite well, Mister Potter. A pleasure,” he responds, in an accent as crisp as Malfoy’s own.

“Excellent,” Harry hears himself say, feeling congenitally wrong-footed at this point. “Er, where are Andromeda and Teddy?”

“Young Edward had an arrangement to spend the afternoon at a friend’s, I gather,” Malfoy explains politely. “My aunt left to escort him there. She’ll be back momentarily.”

“Oh. Right. Great.”

Harry is pondering whether it would be more embarrassing to hurl himself back into the floo post haste or to trudge on through the immense awkwardness of this interaction, when Malfoy speaks again.

“And may I also ask - in a perhaps a more civil manner than yourself - why you are here? It appears that I am to be constantly plagued by your presence,” Malfoy sighs deeply before taking another sip. He turns to Nott. “I cannot seem to shake him.”

Harry rolls his eyes yet again and throws himself down into a chair by the window, determined now to wait it out, even if just to spite the git.

“I’m here for dinner - and what great luck that I have arrived early enough to be discommoded by your company. Such a perfectly horrid surprise,” Harry comments with a forced smile. “And where is Blaise today? I can say with certainty we all would prefer his company to your own.”

Malfoy stares impassively back at him for a long moment before replying. “Blaise has gone back to France.”

Harry feels the fake smile slide off his face. He thinks of Neville with a pang. “What? Why?”

“A personal matter, I’m afraid,” Malfoy says, looking away, with an edge to his tone that seems designed to deter prying.

“Well I certainly hope everything is alright - and that he’ll be back with us shortly,” Harry offers sincerely, and he lets the matter to drop for now. He turns back to Malfoy’s new company instead. “How about you, Nott - did you come to chaperone Malfoy in Blaise’s absence, then? Is he entirely incapable of sociable interaction without friendly supervision? He seems hardly capable of it with supervision, I have to tell you.”

Malfoy shoots him a murderous glare, but Nott just laughs softly, a husky, genuine sound.

“Our group is rather codependent, I’m afraid,” Nott replies, sounding more amused and genial in that one sentence than Harry can guess Malfoy has ever sounded in his life. “A hazard of expatriation, surely. I’ve come to see how this one has settled himself. Tell me, has he been as taciturn as I could have expected?”

Malfoy turns the glare on his friend instead.

“Likely worse.” Harry beams at Nott, liking the man already. “Would you like to hear the details of our first conversation? I’d love to give them, but I’m afraid we haven’t had one yet.”

Nott laughs again. “Who was less commodious at first meeting - him or Pansy? I can’t say I’d favor either of them for a successful first impression.”

“Hmmm.” Harry pretends to think. “Parkinson was certainly more loquacious -”

Malfoy snorts and mutters into his teacup, “No one talks as much as Pansy.”

“But it seems if you get Malfoy around to insulting you he barely pauses for breath.”

Malfoy sets his cup into its saucer with a terse clink of porcelain on porcelain. “You’re one to complain,” he says, frowning at Harry again. “We’ve hardly had a single interaction that hasn’t involved you openly rolling your eyes in my direction.”

Harry rolls his eyes. Honestly, if he spends any more time in this man’s presence he’s going to pull something. “And you’ve deserved every one.”

He looks toward Nott and finds him glancing back and forth between he and Malfoy with an amused smirk.

“So, what do you do these days, Potter?” Nott asks, the smirk still tucked in to one side of his mouth. “Still in the business of smiting evil nuisances, or have you retired that particular hobby?”

“Oh, barely any smiting at all, nowadays - more’s the pity,” Harry sighs. “I’m become dreadfully boring in my middle age, though I cannot say I’m too put out about it.”

Nott raises a dark eyebrow. “I’m surprised to hear that, actually - your reputation precedes you quite colorfully. Across an ocean, even.”

“Yes, well, Dark Lord vanquishing sets one up for a certain amount of popularity,” Harry laments honestly; he does wish the press would shake its fixation with him, and he isn’t exactly glad to hear the obsession remains of international proportions.

Honestly, he hasn’t miraculously murdered an immoral tyrant in years. 

“As it should, quite a feat,” Nott commends, nodding. “But I actually meant your adeptness at annoying Draco here into fits. I haven’t received a single letter in the last month that fails to mention you.  Aie!

Harry watches as Malfoy re-crosses his legs after issuing Nott a swift kick to the shins.

“Well I could hardly fail to keep you abreast of the local celebrity,” Malfoy says to Nott with a strained sort of insouciance. “And there isn’t much more to the scene aside from Potter. These parts are exceedingly dull.”

Harry smirks at him, feeling oddly smug. “Gratified to hear I’ve been less dull than whatever other company you’ve been keeping in the whole of England, Malfoy. It feels a bit like praise, coming from you.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Malfoy mumbles, eyes fixed on his knees. “I only bestow praise upon those who can manage to stay continuously upright for the duration of a dance. Not a very high bar, but above your disheveled head nonetheless.”

Harry huffs at the reference. He’d only stumbled the once during his turn with Malfoy, anyway, and he hadn’t tripped headlong until his last round with Luna - and surely that had been more the fault of drink and her rather unpredictable, exuberant form.

“It’s too bad you’ve come too late to attend the ball Malfoy hosted for us at the Manor,” Harry addresses Nott, aiming for a lightly-teasing tone. “We were all exceedingly entertained by the festivities. All except Malfoy, likely, but I don’t think he’s been remotely entertained once in his entire life. He firmly refused to dance at the first gathering he attended, and only did so once at his own ball.”

Malfoy looks up at this, directly at Harry.

Harry realizes too late that he’s taken the wrong tack; the implications of their dance in this light and the knowledge that Harry had noticed and noted it passes conspicuously between them, making Harry feel pinned by the weight of Malfoy’s stare.

Again he feels the phantom heat of Malfoy’s hand in his own.

Malfoy looks away again and the spell breaks, but not entirely. 

He speaks again, voice gone candid and soft, “I am still newly arrived here, fresh among people I have never met before.”

‘And whose view of me is likely skewed by my family’s past,’ he doesn’t say, because he doesn’t need to. Harry cannot look away from his face.

“Surely I am allowed as many social anxieties as the next.”

“Of course you are,” Harry agrees after a beat, and when Malfoy meets his eyes again it feels like a success of some sort. “But courage does not require proficiency, only effort,” he adds quietly, making sure to hold that grey gaze with his own as finishes on a smile.

The moment stretches tight between them, and Harry can almost see the responding smile start to catch on Malfoy’s face like a rising flame. It’s there, shifting in his eyes and -

“Harry, darling!” Andromeda exclaims from the doorway, startling Harry back into his chair.

He hadn’t realized he’d been leaning so far forward.

“You’re here early,” she comments, unpinning her hat and hanging it from the door handle as she moves into the room.

“I came looking for my best mate, but I hear he’s gone and made other friends his own age,” Harry grouses, grinning up at her as she takes his chin into her hand.

“Yes - some wee bloke called Ernest. I left them plotting something messy and enthralling with a toy potions-kit. I can’t say I’m too put out at their not staying here to do so. So you’ve all met, yes?” she asks, smiling around at the three of them.

“Er, yes.” Harry nods, wondering if he should explain when and where - wondering how to describe any of it, now.

Luckily Andromeda continues on without him, pleasantly, “I did want to introduce you both at Draco’s ball, but having a twelve year old with an aversion to crowds does put a damper on one’s glittering social schedule. I was sorry to miss it.”

Tea passes pleasantly enough after that, Andromeda taking the reins on the majority of the conversation, and soon enough Harry is watching Malfoy’s and Nott’s backs walk down the front path to apparate away past the wards.

He isn’t quite sure how to name what he feels, watching them go.

---

Teddy returns before sundown and the three of them settle in to their usual dinner routine, Andromeda assembling ingredients for stew and Harry and Teddy making nuisances of themselves with various vegetable-related tasks.  

Afterward, Harry takes some air in the back garden, enjoying the warm night breezes while Teddy readies himself for bed.

Ted’s insisting on him staying to read a story before he heads off, which he can easily recognize as a thinly-veiled placation of Harry’s own bruised nostalgia. Ted’s so grown up these days - too grown for bedtime stories, no doubt. Nonetheless, Harry doesn’t see any trouble in letting Teddy humor him. He’ll take what he can get.

He sits down on one of the stone benches with a sigh, looking up into the clear, dark sky with a pleased sort of reverence. He’s scanning around for Sirius’ constellation, as he always does, wondering if Neville will still be awake when he gets home for him to pester about Blaise’s reasons for leaving and how soon he’ll be returning, when he hears soft footsteps on the path behind him.

Harry swivels around to find -

“Malfoy?”

He’s standing silently a few paces away, his pale face just visible in the starlight and the faint candle-glow coming from the windows of the house.

“You’re back,” Harry points out, hoping to prompt some sort of response.

After a long moment: “Yes.”

Then silence once more.

“Um, and it’s night now,” Harry tries again, waving a general hand at the blue-black haze of shrubbery around them.

“Yes,” Malfoy says again, gazing around with a glazed look, as if he’d only just realized they were standing here in the dark. “Yes. And are you - are you having a pleasant evening?” he asks haltingly, his eyes coming back to Harry’s face.

His long fingers are twisting anxiously in the leather of what Harry recognizes as flying gloves. Had the odd bird taken a broom here? It’s nearing ten in the evening.

“Ah, indeed. Very decent,” Harry answers, wondering just what is wrong with the man - more so than usual, anyway. Harry stands and takes a step toward him. “Er, Malfoy? Is everything alright?”

“Yes!” Malfoy barks suddenly, eyes gone slightly wide. “Yes, I. This garden is - charming, is it not?”

Harry blinks at him. “Er, yeah? Yeah it’s - perfectly lovely. I think your Aunt has done a lot to it in recent years. I helped plant those hydrangeas - which is probably why they look rather sad, actually. I don’t exactly have Neville’s green thumb,” Harry hears himself blabbering on.

For his part Malfoy keeps standing there, silently twitching and gaping at him like some gangly, decidedly non-aquatic goldfish.

Helpless in his growing confusion, Harry rambles on, “I mean, no one’s thumb is quite so green as Nev’s, of course, but mine is decidedly - not green. Red? Pink? Normal thumb coloured, I suppose. I’m pretty pants at being nurturing all ‘round, I reckon - it’s a wonder I never dropped Ted on his head when he was young. I mean, I almost did, the first time he turned his hair blue while I was holding him - the shock - but I didn’t actually, so.”

He swallows thickly, starting to feel distinctly sweaty, stood there with Malfoy just - staring at him blankly, like he’s been petrified.

Harry hasn’t heard anything about a Basilisk running amok around Chippenham, but perhaps it’s something he should look into. After he figures out what this bloody Malfoy-shaped statue wants, anyway.

“Listen, Malfoy, are you going to say anything? Because if you don’t I’m just going to keep yammering at you like some sort of verbal-incontinent, and I honestly don’t think you or I want that. I mean - do you?”

Malfoy looks back at him for a long moment, still expressionless, before something quite miraculous happens:  Malfoy’s thin lips tremble slightly and then, all in a rush, a blinding, toothy grin spreads across his face.

It’s genuine, if faltering, and warm, and it softens the harsh angles of his aristocratic face, altering his countenance so fully it’s all Harry can do to manage a strangled gasp before Malfoy says, already stepping back, “Goodnight, Mister Potter.”

“Bye?” Harry offers dazedly to the empty air, Malfoy’s back already disappearing around the door frame and into the house.

“What on earth did you do to poor Draco?” Andromeda asks him wonderingly, appearing in the doorway a moment later.

“I have no idea,” Harry assures her, feeling as if he’s just had a run-in with a Basilisk of his own. He almost wants to ask Andromeda to go and grab one of the roosters from their pen, just to be sure.

Andromeda raises a suspicious eyebrow at him. “He just ran out of here like you’d hexed him in the soft bits.”

“I didn’t - I haven’t done anything with his soft bits!” Harry swears, but weakly, his head suddenly aching like he’d met the wrong end of a Beater’s bat.

Andromeda laughs brightly, her eyes sparkling now. “Harry dear, is there something you’d like to share?”

“No! I’m just - he didn’t even - I don’t! I’m going to say goodnight to Teddy.”

And he does, which isn’t really as enjoyable and helpful as it could be, as Teddy has changed his hair to an unmistakably familiar ice-white hue and obstinately refuses to change it back, possibly because Harry obstinately refuses to actually ask him to. It’s all very bothersome and not entirely unpleasant, and Harry ends up back at Grimmauld Place in a strange kind of tizzy, pacing the floor of his bedroom until he collapses in the wee hours.

He lies back on his coverlet, staring blankly at the bed curtains above him, and doesn’t manage to drift off until the slight pinkening of dawn starts to creep its way around the room, making shapes out of the darkness.

Small mercies, he doesn’t dream.

---

He rises late the next day, stopping in the kitchen to cajole some scones from Kreacher before wandering around in search of Neville.

He isn’t in the garden, but he clearly has been, and recently. Harry finds him sitting quietly in their small library, his straw hat still perched on his head and his hands still clad in dirt-smeared gloves as he leafs through the massive botanical tome he has open on the hassock between his knees.

Harry watches him from the doorway for a silent minute. He’s wilting very obviously in Blaise’s absence, even his hat seeming to droop dejectedly around his ears. Harry had expected some measure of pining, but the comprehensive sadness written all over Neville’s frame sends a twist of pain through his own chest.

Poor, moping bugger.

“I heard about Blaise going back to France,” Harry says as he steps into the room. “I’m sure he’ll be back presently. Did he say how many weeks he’d be away?”

Neville’s shoulders stiffen and he doesn’t look up. It takes him a few moments to answer.

“He won’t, and he didn’t.”

Harry steps closer, another pang hitting him with the hollowness of Neville’s voice. “What?”

“He isn’t coming back to England,” Neville intones carefully, as if he’s been rehearsing the sentence in his head, waiting for Harry to ask.

“What?” Harry blurts again, his confusion spreading. “How could he - what reason did he give you?”

Neville laughs, a wisp of humorless sound.

“He didn’t give me any reason. He didn’t say anything to me at all.” He turns another page of the book, eyes still focused upon it. “I got a letter yesterday afternoon - from Pansy. Saying how ‘perfectly pleasant’ it was to meet us all, explaining that she and Blaise had decided to end their visit. How they would have made an effort to offer their goodbyes in person but that Blaise ‘in particular’ was in haste to be back home. For good.”

Harry feels his jaw click as he swallows. “I don’t - I cannot understand.”

“Here, read it if you must,” Neville sighs, groping in the pocket of his apron before holding out a crumpled scroll to Harry, the small parchment streaked with mud. “It says no more than what I’ve told you.”

Harry grabs the letter, opening it to read. It is as Neville had described: a short, prosaic missive, barely three sentences in length.

Harry frowns down at it, instantly seething. “Clearly Parkinson was ushering him off! I cannot fathom Blaise going - and without letting you know from his own mouth - unless he was bullied into it!”

“And what cause would she have to do such a thing?” Neville asks, but there is no true interest in his voice, empty as a husk.

“I don’t know! Posh fucking twats,” Harry grumbles, mind groping for something, anything to explain this. “She and Malfoy weren’t exactly discreet about their distaste for England, no doubt she finally demanded to be taken back to her precious Paris and shuffled Blaise off with her without giving him a chance to refuse.” He takes a step closer to Neville’s chair, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder in sympathy. “He’ll come back for you, Neville, I know it.”

“I very - I very much doubt that, Harry,” Neville replies in a small voice, a rueful certainty to it that breaks Harry’s heart to hear.

Harry watches the knuckles of his own hand go white on Neville’s shoulder as he grips it. “He loves you, Nev! Do not give up!”

Neville sighs and stands, closing the book as he goes. He stops at Harry’s elbow, still not looking at him. “Clearly he does not. I was a fool to hope - I was being foolish. But it’s okay, I’m done being foolish now.”

He leaves the room then, not looking back, his shoulders drooping like the petals of some cruelly-clipped flower.

Harry lets him, watching him go. 

---

He doesn’t want to leave Neville in his state, but he seems committed to brooding and Harry cannot think of much to say, in any case. He embarks to Diagon for a few errands, with plans to find Ginny and bring her round to Grimmauld after; perhaps between the two of them they can rout Neville’s apathy, maybe convince him to go after Blaise himself.

He stops in Gringotts first, halting just inside the entryway to the large, echoing lobby when he spots a familiar face.

“Zacharias!” Harry calls to him, stepping toward the small alcove Smith is leaning against.

“Harry!” Smith greets him, his voice tinged with the same gratifying warmth it had held at their last meeting, making Harry grin.

“I - we missed you at the dance, that night,” Harry says once he reaches his side, only remembering as he does so that he had even worried at Smith’s absence for a moment.

Harry had been distracted, that was all. Distracted by graceful, inscrutable tree-like persons who may or may not have gently flirted with him at his ball and who had definitely smiled at him not twenty-four hours ago.

Not that a smile is that momentous of an interaction, generally - but it does feel sort of momentous, specifically.

It’s just that Harry can’t seem to stop thinking of it - or of their dance, which was weeks ago, and stupid anyway, as it was just one dance, after all, and he hadn’t even wanted to dance it - not with that particular person anyhow, he would much rather have danced with Smith, for instance - Smith, who is stood in front of him right now, and who is still speaking, apparently, while Harry goes on to himself internally about quasi-French, impossibly pale idiots who are actually sort of pretty, if he is forced to admit it, saying -

“- afraid I was called away unexpectedly for a family matter. Though I cannot say I was - overly unhappy to miss it,” Smith finishes, expression clouded by something as he speaks.

“Oh?” Harry murmurs, trying to focus. 

“Yes. In fact - I was rather surprised you all were so eager to attend, given the nature of the host,” Smith adds haltingly. “But I suppose that’s everyone’s individual prerogative - associating with such persons.”

There's a gravity to his tone that Harry doesn't quite understand. 

“Malfoy? Well, he isn’t so bad. I mean, yeah, he’s a right tosser. But he isn’t - he isn’t the worst tosser that’s ever been tossed, I shouldn’t think,” Harry finds himself struggling with the words, every passing second leaving him wishing more fervently there was a convenient Ginevra Weasley around to hex him in the face.

He also doesn’t think verbalizing ‘but he’s sort of engaging to squabble with, I think perhaps it’s his choice of diction’ or ‘but he smiled at me once and it was sort of brilliant’ would lessen his embarrassment any.

“No, he isn’t horribly unbearable company, when he aims to be,” Smith replies, his mouth gone sour and pinched. “But don’t you think that’s what makes stomaching his past all the more difficult?”

“What, his parents?” Harry asks, starting to feel more confused at Smith’s insistence. “Disappointing sods, I suppose, but that isn’t necessarily his fault.”

“Draco Malfoy has more than enough personal faults to credit him, I’m afraid.” At this Smith gives him a calculating look, as if weighing something in his mind. “So you don’t know either? I see the bastard hasn’t become any more forthcoming since his arrival here. I should have guessed, it’s not often a toad changes his spots.”

Smith sighs staggeringly, looking away as if pained. “Though this particular toad couldn’t even if he wanted to. He wears a Dark Mark, Harry.”

Harry’s stomach drops out, leaving a biting swathe of cold in its place.

“One day we were dealing with potions - it was warm in the room and he - forgot himself, I suppose, and rolled up his sleeve. I saw,” Smith continues, quietly explaining. “I was - very angry, as you can imagine. I felt betrayed.”

The numbness is spreading out from Harry’s gut, billowing up into his head and leaving his thoughts a stuttering void.

“We were close, you see,” Smith goes on. “We had already worked together for a year and developed a rapport - I had become part of his circle, made friends of his friends. It’s not that I don’t believe such a person shouldn’t ever be forgiven for their past actions - he was a boy during those years of course, as we all were - but I believe that I deserved to know the sort of man I was dealing with, that I had been caring for. To have been given the respect of honesty between us. After what we have been through, I think we all deserve that.” Smith pauses on another sigh, his eyes shadowed in memory.

Harry knows that shadow himself, all too well. 

Smith's voice is harder when he speaks again, a knife’s edge to the fine accent, definitive and unyielding. “But with any feeling toward the boy who had taken the mark aside, his reaction to my disapproval settled my opinion of the man he is now. He laughed in the face of my anger, my frustration at his deceit - displayed a clear lack of remorse or guilt. He turned his friends against me, poisoned my world there with his spite. My threats to expose him to our mentor are likely the only thing that stayed his vengeful hand, in the end.”

He looks at Harry closely, his handsome face drawn in tight. Harry still cannot speak.

“You really didn’t know?” Smith asks quietly. “I am sorry to have been the one who told you. You, of all people, would deserve the truth.”

“But how - he wasn’t here ,” Harry finally grits out past the blank wall of feeling in his chest.

But suddenly in his mind’s eye he can see it, l it up with detail like a Pensieve memory: Malfoy's pale face standing across from him, their wands drawn in enmity. Across the Great Hall, across a battlefield, across a bare patch of forest floor that was supposed to have been the last thing Harry would ever see. A younger face, thinner, maybe - gaunt with it, as they’d all been, in those days - with that pink mouth pulled tight, not around a wry smirk but a grimacing sneer, a cruel and unrepentant twist of thin lips.

Harry can see it clearly, can see it as if it had actually happened, and he hates it.

“He meant to be, I gather, but his mother saved him somehow. I know not the details,” Smith explains simply, his brown eyes clear when they fix back on Harry’s. “It didn’t go much farther than the Mark for him, but I’m of the mind that that is quite far enough.”

Harry agrees, of course, wants to verbalize the obvious ‘Yes, quite’ that’s forming between his teeth, but it gets lost somewhere in his haze of his emotions.

“Excuse me, Smith,” he says instead. “I must - I have to go.”

He turns away from Smith’s hesitant nod and heads toward the banking counter. He finishes his transactions in a daze, the goblin clerk having to ask him more than once for the proper paperwork before Harry remembers what exactly he’d intended to do.

He wanders back out onto the street in a fog of thoughts, walking aimlessly past the shops and wondering why exactly he is reacting the way he is to the news, and if he could even name just what his reaction is, if pressed.

It’s not as if Harry should care, not really. He’d known already that Malfoy was a first-rate arsehole, and yes, a Dark Mark is a completely different level of loathsome altogether - but it’s not as if Harry should feel disappointed, or betrayed himself.

He hadn’t made friends with the man, after all. He doesn’t even like him. This development, though unexpected, doesn’t really change anything - it couldn’t . It’s not as if Harry had been taken in by the scoundrel's utter lack of charm, or lithe grace, or surprising humor -

No, the man had nothing to credit him before, and even less to credit him now; it was not exactly as if there had been hopes to let down.

It’s not as if Harry is of the habit of routinely storming ‘round Gregory Goyle’s, to yell and rage and remind him of just what a horrible, cruel bigot he’d been at sixteen, and likely still is now. That’s all buried, long since a thing to matter, and Goyle hadn’t mattered much to Harry to begin with.

So why should Harry feel such a strong desire to shout Malfoy’s door down, demanding explanations that do not exist? Besides learning that the man is a more deeply detestable fuckwit than Harry had originally thought, nothing has actually changed.

Then again, Goyle had ceased to cause trouble in over a decade, nor had any word reached Harry of him trying to; last he’d heard, the man had opened a bread shop somewhere up near Inverness, as incongruous as that mental image may be.

It occurs to Harry as he thinks this to wonder at Malfoy’s current motives, at whether he could in fact represent a present threat.

After all, why had he returned to England now? Was he planning something? His bullying of Zacharias had been recent and pointed to a distasteful level of intolerance and temper.

Harry may not be an Auror any more, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost his instincts. Knowing what he knows now, he’d be perfectly in his rights to suspect Malfoy of prevailing ill-will.

Harry has a brief flash of their moment together in Andromeda’s shadowed garden - of Malfoy’s white teeth, with that one too-sharp canine, bared in that sudden, shocking smile, the warmth of it crinkling the skin around his eyes - but he pushes the memory away with resolve. Harry couldn’t trust any of that, now.

And he hadn’t before, had he?

Perhaps he should investigate. Of course if he’s going to investigate, he should be calculated about it, not show his hand by immediately searching him out and cursing Malfoy between the eyes.

Not for the first time he’s wishing he had a Marauder’s Map for general life when his musings are cut short by the sound of his name in a friendly but unfamiliar voice.

He turns, blinking, to find Theo Nott walking toward him, a cheerful smile lighting his narrow face.

Salut , Potter,” Nott calls to him genially. “Listen, I don’t mean to keep you - I was only wondering if you’d want me to include a line to Blaise when I send this paquet off at the Owlery? I’m sure he’d enjoy hearing from you.”

Harry looks at him, the words just barely penetrating the blur around his brain. “Blaise?”

“Yes, he’d gotten the taste for some of your English treats during his stay here, and he’s implored me to send some along, given he won’t be back. I do hope they’ll cheer him up - he was grouchier than a constipated Hippogriff, the day he took his leave.”

“Cheer him up?” Harry parrots back, feeling his eyebrows draw together as he tries to focus on what Nott is saying.

Nott shrugs amiably, unfazed by Harry’s stilted manner. “He hadn’t wanted to leave, I gather, but Draco insisted. It seems Blaise got himself entangled in an - undesirable intimacy while he was here. Draco managed to convince him it was wisest to duck out before it was too late, but he didn’t relish the change.”

“Undesirable?” Harry realizes he must sound odd, just repeating Nott’s words back to him, but he can hardly bring himself to muster anything else around the cold stab of pain taking root in his chest.

Oh, Neville .

“There were some objections to the match, I gather. Not altogether surprising, to those of us that know him. Blaise can be a bit - free with his affections, occasionally to his own detriment.” Nott sighs ruefully, something dark flashing in those intelligent eyes before he continues, “It’s lucky he has Draco around to level out his more fanciful notions. They balance each other nicely - I don’t think Draco has been anything remotely approaching ‘free’ with a single one of his emotions, a day in his life.”

Nott smiles at him encouragingly at this, hoping to catch Harry up in the joke. But Harry is feeling a world away from amused, at this moment.

The fug from his conversation with Smith has burned away into an ice-cold fury that is eating him away from the inside out. He feels sick with it, resisting the twist of pain of it in his gut to no avail. He has to get out of here, has to be free of the sight of Nott’s face and all it’s easy associations, it’s increasing look of concern.

“Excuse me, Nott, I have - I must go,” he scrapes out, repeating himself now. His jaw tenses as he turns and stalks away, blind anger navigating his steps through the crowd of shoppers as he marches toward Diagon’s south apparition point.

He makes it there in short moments and has to pause, breathing heavily and forcing his fists to unclench at his sides. He stills himself, calling his magic forth, then closes his eyes and thinks of the Manor, those high marble walls, that imposing and impersonal tomb - the place Hermione was tortured , fucking bloody hell , for all the quaint dancing and sunshine it’s seen of late - and apparates.



 

Chapter Text

 

Harry ends up apparating to the same spot he’d done the first time he’d visited the Manor, all those weeks ago. He lands just outside the grounds, far enough down the lane that the house isn’t yet visible. It’s raining heavily in Wiltshire, a steady thrum of droplets pattering down on the leafy bushes and grassy expanses around him. Harry’s shoulders are soaked within moments. 

He starts walking, the fury that had driven him to come draining out of him with every step. 

What is he even doing here? 

What did he think he was going to do - confront Malfoy, get him to confess all his dastardliness? Get him to take it all back? 

He couldn’t, anyway. The damage is done. Harry feels cold with it, numb with the pointlessness of it all. 

Eventually he hits the outer reaches of the wards, Malfoy’s magic tingling suddenly around him, warm and welcoming around the cold slick of the rain. Harry shivers, hating it; hating his impulse to lean into the pull of it, that instant recognition that makes his own magic surge to the surface of his skin. 

He turns on the spot and retreats. 

He keeps walking for a long ways, the slow consistency of his gait and the thrumming sound of the downpour soothing to his agitated nerves. He keeps his mind carefully blank as he goes, breathing deep of the country air as he follows the track between fields. 

At one point he stops, closing his eyes as he leans against a tree in the small copse he’d reached. 

He lets himself take pause, focusing on the deep brown smell of the rain-soaked leaf mulch beneath him, on the steady in an out of his own inhalations. 

In, out. In, out. 

A twig snaps suddenly behind him and he whips toward the sound, blinking water off his lashes. 

He’s standing a few paces from Harry’s tree, stock-still in an ungainly sort of way, as if poised on a step half-taken. 

Malfoy’s fine hair is plastered, sopping, to his forehead, the color of it darkened with the wetness. He’d clearly forgotten to employ his careful umbrella charm, this time. 

Harry stares at him, still oddly numb. 

Malfoy stares back, helpfully. 

Malfoy bears a strong resemblance to the silver birches around him in this moment: tall and spindly, if in a stately way, their bark streaked dark with the damp. The wet shoulders of his dove-grey coat rises and falls as he breathes. 

“Er,” Harry says after a few dragging moments of mutual blinking. “Yes?” 

“Potter,” Malfoy says, still staring and breathing. Then he pauses abruptly and breathes a bit more. 

Harry makes a show of glancing around the dripping, barren thicket. “Ah, yes. That’s me. Can’t be anyone else, I’m afraid.” 

Malfoy blinks and - that’s it, really. 

Harry shakes his sodden fringe out of his eyes, spattering more drops onto the lenses of his glasses. His earlier fury isn’t making an appearance, but Malfoy’s uncustomarily owlish expression makes a flicker of irritation pull in his gut. 

Harry realizes that he likely should have started yelling at him on Neville’s behalf from the get go, but the man is behaving so oddly that Harry isn’t quite sure how he wants to proceed. He can’t exactly start hurling obscenities, however warranted, if Malfoy insists on acting like he’s been Confunded. It wouldn’t be very sporting, for starters. 

“Have you - did you follow me out here?” Harry prods, narrowing his eyes at the man. 

“No,” Malfoy responds hastily, then grimaces, a bit of austere focus coming back into his eyes. “Well, a bit. Yes. You triggered my wards.”

“Mhmm,” Harry relents, his agitation building. “Well, was there something about my company that you desired specifically? Or did my traipsing around through the muddy downpour look so enjoyable that you just had to follow my lead?” 

To Harry’s immense surprise, the man actually smiles at this. It’s quick, the barest lift of thin lips - but it’s there, chasing away the strange, poleaxed expression with a fleeting brightness before his usual businesslike grimness settles once more over the pointy features. 

Malfoy clears his throat once. Twice. “I wanted - I desire to ask you a question.” 

He pauses again and Harry feels his jaw clench in response. What is the bastard waiting for, a confirmation? An invitation? 

“Well, I wasn’t exactly in the middle of anything out here, but I can’t say I’m too keen on standing around and waiting for you to -”

“I love you,” Malfoy blurts, as abruptly as his pause, sounding like the words have been punched out of him. “Deeply and - almost ridiculously, I’m afraid. It’s insufferable, actually.” 

Malfoy pinches the bridge of his nose as if his sheer disbelief at his own behavior has twisted him into a nervous headache. 

Harry can’t believe him either. At present he himself feels as if he’s taken a bludger directly to the face. 

He refrains from pointing out that that wasn’t in fact a question in favor of saying, rather eloquently, “What?” 

Malfoy drops his hand and his grey gaze pierces into Harry’s as he carefully enunciates, “I love you. And I must beg you to accept my hand.” 

Make that two bludgers. 

What? ” Harry manages to squeak out again. 

Malfoy shakes his head slightly, as if agreeing with Harry’s abject confusion. “It’s true that begging is terribly uncouth. It’s just that I feel uncouth - something which I am sure is entirely your fault.” 

Harry still isn’t sure what’s happening, and is less sure of what Malfoy is accusing him of here, but he bristles on principle. Surely he’s being teased. “My fault?” 

“Yes - you’ve clearly infected me with your frank and informal ways. I’d say I don’t mind it, but that wouldn’t be quite true,”  Malfoy replies, the barest hint of humor in his tone. 

But surely if the bastard was teasing he would give some other indication? Such as a smile , or at least a smirk - or any hint at all of having the slightest redeemable quality to his disposition. Instead of just standing there staring at Harry like some sort of earnest gargoyle, speaking gibberish as if its intent may be discerned by the sheer force of Harry’s inclination to think well of him. 

Well, Harry hasn’t the faintest inclination of the sort. 

“Is this - is this a proposal ?”

Malfoy has the gall to look confused. “Yes.”

“A proposal of marriage ?”

Malfoy raises a pale eyebrow at him. “Yes, Potter - what other kind of proposal is there?” 

Harry crosses his arms over his chest and frowns. “I haven’t the faintest idea - but I would have guessed such a one to be flattering, rather than accusatory.” 

The ghost of good humor fades from Malfoy’s expression and he crosses his own arms in mirror to Harry’s stance. “If I thought flattery would break through your bullheadedness I would have tried it.” 

Harry blinks at him. He can feel his anger returning in hot surges, bubbling in his belly like Polyjuice. “And you think this,” he waves a hand between them, indicating their tense stances, Malfoy’s rigid jaw, “is a tactic that will work better?” 

There’s a slight pause before Malfoy answers, in that crisp, unaffected drawl of his, “I was hoping you’d take my honesty as a sign of heartfelt intent.” 

Harry almost laughs. 

“What, that I’d enjoy hearing about how much you dislike liking me?” he asks, making sure his incredulity shows plain. “Honestly, Malfoy! Either you are taking the piss, or this is by far the worst proposal anyone has ever heard!” 

At this Malfoy’s cheeks color deeply, that familiar sneer returning in full. “Because you’ve heard so many, I suppose!” 

Harry feels his own face grow hot. “I’ve heard enough from you to know that no magic in the world could compel me to accept this one!” 

Malfoy breathes heavily for a moment, the blank mask once again shuttering his features. 

Harry’s indignation slips crazily to the side for a split second, strange with the sudden desire to see that flinty spark, that snide anger, a sincere expression - to see it back . No matter how much Harry loathes that look, it’s better than this one. 

“So that’s it,” Malfoy continues in a dead voice. “A rejection?” 

His cold, clipped tones rile Harry further, his fury returned in full force now, hot bile in his throat.

He feels himself step closer to the man, burning with it. “What tipped you off? In fact, what ever made you think I’d consider you for a moment?” he growls. “You, who sneer at my friends, my family, who mock me at every turn? You, who single-handedly destroyed Neville’s chance for happiness - as if you’d even deserve to lick his boot, let alone get a voice in what he deserves!” 

Malfoy doesn’t deny it, doesn’t bother pretending not to understand what Harry means. Harry clenches his fists tight against the desire to punch him. 

“And what about what Blaise deserves?” Malfoy counters, stepping in as well until they’re nose to nose, making his height advantage more readily apparent than ever and sending another scalding surge of loathing through Harry’s chest.  “How is my defending my own friend’s happiness somehow less worthy than you advocating for yours!” 

“What’s wrong with Neville?” Harry shouts back, incensed at the implication. 

Something flickers over Malfoy’s features before his mouth pinches tight, saying enough about the length of his list of precisely what’s wrong with Neville that Harry feels his hackles rise. 

He braces for Malfoy to articulate the insults, but instead hears him say, “Only that it was obvious his attachment was more superficial than Blaise’s.  I didn’t wish to see my friend’s hopes dashed if it turned out the man was just trifling with him.”

Harry takes a second to decide whether or not to be outraged by this. 

“Trifling with him?” he parrots, landing on ‘yes, most assuredly.’ “You don’t know how rare it is for Neville to share his true feelings because you don’t know him . And how dare you assume to! After all he’s been through - he’s just careful! Timid! That doesn’t mean his affections aren’t genuine!” He looks into the coldness of Malfoy’s stare and spits, “Which is more than I can say for any of yours.” 

Malfoy flinches back as if stung, though not far. “And what would you know of -” 

Harry just barely stops himself from poking the man hard in the chest. “How am I to believe a single word from you, knowing what I do - knowing what’s on your arm? Knowing you have the gall to hide it, and to play the victim - to retaliate - when someone calls you out for the vileness that it is,” he hisses out. 

Malfoy stills at the words, his spine gone rigid. 

“Ah,” he says, voice flat and frigid. “Am I to understand you have been talking with Mister Smith?”

“Yes, I have - he told me all about you. Everything.”

“Yes, Zacharias claims to know quite a bit, doesn’t he.”

“Do you deny it?” 

Malfoy’s eyes are hard as steel. “No. No I do not. I didn’t try to then and I won’t try to now. Do tell me if this is not enough to dampen your temper.” 

“My temper?” Harry scoffs. “Don’t you dare try to spin this into an issue of my response and not what you have done to deserve it!” 

“I know far better than you what I have done, Potter!” 

“Then you should know how hateful it is! What are you - are you proud of it?” 

Malfoy’s stance goes even more wooden, the angles of his face as sharp and dangerous as a knife’s edge. “I cannot - you cannot have it both ways, sir! You cannot in one breath accuse me of hiding it and in the next skewer me for boasting!” 

“Forgive me for not understanding just what it is you are trying to do in acting as if I am out of line for pointing out faults you are claiming not to hide!” 

“I’m trying to be forthcoming about my character! I would rather be true and damned for it than to lie and grovel and pretend!” he shouts, stepping closer to Harry, the flint in his eyes struck and blazing once more. “Yes, I took the Mark, and voluntarily. I was sixteen and stupid and bigoted to a fault, my prejudices so well routed in my father’s views I am sincerely glad that circumstance did not provide me with many chances to act on them. It pains me to say it, to know it about myself, but it is true. I do not deny my faults, nor do I claim any pride in them. I understand the follies and flaws of my previous beliefs and I will not paint my past self with a rosy brush just to make me more palatable to others. Would you rather I was disingenuous?” 

“I would rather you’d never thought such abhorrent things in the first place!”

“And would that we all had such strength of will! And if not the will, the luck to never have had our will tested in the first place. Not all of us have grown up with the luxury of knowing our relatives to be heroes on the side of right!” 

Harry can hardly believe his ears. “ Luxury - my parents are dead! I didn’t get the chance to grow up with them at all!” 

“And do you think it is any easier to learn to detest loved ones for their ill characters than it is to have mourned those with noble ones? Do you think I should have been able to defy them from the cradle on the basis of aligning with some general sense of moral superiority? Do you think it has been simple for me, to realize that their love for me and mine for them does not exempt us from being the villains of the greater narrative?”

“I know that no matter how much you disagree with them you wouldn’t rather have them dead ,” Harry flings back. “Which is a conviction I am sure of, even despite the luck, as you say, of never getting the chance to disagree with my own.” 

Malfoy deflates by degrees, his eyes searching Harry’s face. 

“No. No I wouldn’t,” he mutters, low. He takes a breath, the rise and fall of his chest the only movement in his frame. “My father was wrong, and I was wrong to have heeded him for so long as I did. Had I been through the thick of it alongside you, had I been held to your standards - I wouldn’t have met them. I’m man enough to admit it, now.” He swallows, Harry tracking the movement of his pale throat before locking eyes with him once more. “Are you man enough to admit that you should never have been held to such a standard in the first place?” 

“What?” Harry asks, his feet shuffling beneath him, thrown by the question. 

Malfoy’s face softens as he goes on, “Are such tidings as you have seen but a normal evaluation of character? The things that were asked of you, the things you’ve suffered - I’m sorry for it. War, senseless violence, sacrifice - it isn’t something any of you should have had to bear. Would you have liked to have seen me thus tested?” 

Harry does not answer. He cannot. 

Malfoy’s voice drops as he continues, almost at a whisper. “I am not my father. I took the Mark and I should not have. But it did not go any further, for me. It could have, it’s true, and I do not deny it. But it did not. Would you rather that it had? That I had returned, and fought against you, and committed all the horrible acts that we both expect I had been capable of? Enacting and suffering violence and evil opposite you - is that what you’d have wished for me?” 

Harry has a flash where he can see it - standing across from Draco, a line of blood and curses drawn between them, bearing down on one another in mutual brutality - and he hates it, just as he had before. 

“No,” he replies, meaning it.  

Malfoy pauses, his eyes again scanning Harry’s face. “And if I had? If I had done any of the things I fear I could have - a fear I have taken to heart, and have checked in returning here - would you have been able to forgive me?” 

Harry concentrates on his breathing, on the heavy, tight band of tension that has wrapped itself around his chest.

He thinks of Nagini’s coiled, muscular bulk, of the sword Neville used to sever it. He thinks of the way his heart had tried to escape him, on that walk into the clearing; he thinks of the tremble in Hagrid’s strong arms as he had carried him out of it. 

He tries to think of words. 

In the end he cannot answer, or perhaps his expression answers for him, as Malfoy continues on anyways, “And I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself, either, of that I’m certain.” 

He looks away from Harry’s face for the first time since he stepped into the copse. 

“There - a thing we could have had in common, after all,” he adds, distractedly, his adam’s apple bobbing above the knot of his cravat as he swallows. “I, for one, thank Merlin it never came to that. As for what it did come to.”

Malfoy looks back toward him, over the tiny, untraversable space between them; looks between the two of them, standing here in the rain, shouting abuses at one another. 

At odds still, even if there is no longer such a thing as sides. 

He doesn’t step back physically, but something in him recedes, slipping back behind that stoic mask and away from Harry like the rush of a tide. 

Suddenly Harry finds himself leaning across the small gap between their chests, reaching up with one trembling hand. He can feel himself wanting to shove at the man, wanting to push him away, wanting - wanting

Instead his hand presses against Malfoy’s breastbone, over the narrowing collar of his waistcoat. The need to do something wells up in him again as the startling heat of Malfoy’s chest registers to his palm, but now Harry cannot identify it.

He doesn’t shove him away, that’s for certain. 

Instead he feels Malfoy’s breath hitch under his palm, feels the stuttering exhale across his cheek. Feels as if his own breath has stopped entirely. 

He watches Malfoy’s mouth fall open on a silent word, lips pinker than the pale face should allow for, body warmer under Harry’s hand than his cold demeanor could ever suggest. 

They stay like that for a moment - motionless, rigid, close - before Malfoy pulls back abruptly, just far enough to be out of reach. 

His eyes are lifeless and his voice is steady once more as he says, softly, “If you cannot forgive me for what I could have been, for what I am in acknowledging it - well, I suppose I do not blame you. Please allow me to apologize for taking up so much of your afternoon, sir. Excuse me.” 

Harry watches him turn, watches his long-strided gait as he moves away through the trees. 

He watches him not look back. 

An icy finger of rain snakes down the back of his collar, straight through his sodden stock, following the dip of his spine. Harry shivers, chest tightening as he lets out a shaky breath. 

The wood is very empty around him. 

---

Harry stands in the grove for enough time that the rain shower passes on, the constant pattering of drops giving way to a silence that turns eerie as his emotions swirl louder and louder through him. He feels like a tolled bell, hollow but vibrating, brimming over with a deep thrumming resonance not coherent enough to be music. 

He shakes his head against the buzzing in his ears and apparates, heading for the only place he can think of where sense might be found. 

He pops into Ron and Hermione’s front hall still dripping, leaving a muddy swipe of leaf mulch on the wide floorboards as he goes. He spares a quick cleaning spell for his feet and calls out, “‘Mione? Ron?” 

He starts up the stairs two at a time, almost reaching the second floor landing before he hears Ron’s voice ring out behind him, “Haz? That you, mate?” 

Harry turns and thunders back down, remembering as he does that the two of them had moved their bedroom furniture into the front sitting room after Hermione had grown too big to manage the stairs. 

He bursts in, finding Hermione abed with her feet propped up and an enormous book pillowed on the distended mound of her belly, and Ron cozily ensconced in a wing back chair to one side, a quilt tucked around his knees. The sideboard has been pulled up between them to support a tray bearing a squat brown teapot and a plate of biscuits. 

Harry stares at the little table with its two cups in their two saucers, then at Hermione, who is putting her book aside as she says, tutting, “Harry, you are absolutely soaked through! What have you been doing? Ron, help him dry off!”  

Ron lurches to his feet, crowding Harry and starting to gingerly blot Harry’s sodden coat with one edge of his quilt, a bleary sort of look on his face that tells Harry he’d been taking a kip not long since. Harry, for his part, aids the proceedings by holding his arms out stiffly for Ron’s pats, trying not to move too much lest he start forming a puddle on the carpet. 

Honestly ,” Hermione tuts, drawing both of their eyes to her exasperated, amused face, “Are you two wizards or not?” 

Ron glances back to where he now has the quilt waded up and wiping against the side of Harry’s face, forcing his glasses askew, before huffing, “Oh, right,” and pulling out his wand. 

One quick flick of Ron’s wrist and Harry is pleasantly dry and warm, the updraft from the lit hearth playing with the no longer dripping ends of his curls. 

“Thanks,” he manages, his throat feeling thick. He blinks at the two of them, the confused ache in his chest still roaring along. 

Hermione narrows her eyes at him shrewdly and asks, “What’s wrong, darling?” 

The gentle concern in her voice makes Harry’s eyes sting for one brief, strange moment, and he struggles to remember just what he was planning on saying once he had them both near. Here in the quiet warmth of the familiar room, in the warm company of his familiar friends, his earlier agitation seems in equal turns foolish and frantic. 

What ought he to tell them? Malfoy proposed to me in a wood; Malfoy was almost a Death Eater; Malfoy’s skin is warm enough to burn through layers of cloth and buttons? 

How ought he describe his feelings when he can hardly name them himself? 

He settles for articulating the most pressing detail on his mind. 

“Malfoy has a Dark Mark,” he says, his voice sounding rough and small to his own ears. 

Hermione and Ron look back at him, worry still creasing their features but expressions otherwise unchanged. 

Harry looks between them and realizes. “You knew?” 

A small divot appears between Ron’s eyebrows as he replies, haltingly, “Well, yeah. Did you - you didn’t?” 

Ron shares a look with Hermione that Harry can’t decipher; he feels cold again, his hands hanging clammy at his sides. 

“Harry, do you really never read the Prophet?” Hermione asks him softly. 

The blank look on his face must answer her, for she continues on, explaining, “When he first returned from France he’d been called to attend a formal hearing at the Ministry in order to claim official ownership over the Manor, as the estate had been seized when his parents were exiled. The formalities included a thorough interview process, and Draco even volunteered for Veritaserum, but they ruled it unnecessary, given his ready compliance.” She pauses here, still looking intently into Harry’s face. “He requested the transcript of the hearing be published publicly - they ran it in the Prophet the next day. Just a week before we met them all at the Solstice party.”

“I,” Harry tries, the words stoppered up in his throat. “So - so you all knew? You knew the whole time?” 

“Yeah,” Ron answers, still looking puzzled and oddly apologetic. “Mate, we thought you did too. It was obvious you didn’t like him, and we figured that was part of it. Could hardly blame you, of course.” 

Harry swallows against the lump in his throat. “And you’re all just - everyone’s just fine with it?” 

“No,” Hermione says, still speaking in that soft and measured way, as if Harry is a spooked Hippogriff she’s trying to settle. “It wasn’t - digested easily by many. There’s still some places in Diagon that won’t admit him or take his coin, and plenty of people were quite - vocal, about their affront. Didn’t you notice that the Lovegoods’ party was far less attended than any other year?” 

Harry shakes his head once, stiffly. Every gathering he’s ever been to has felt overcrowded for his tastes, too many people pressing in on him, demanding his attentions - he can’t say he’d noticed any changes in that regard, that night at the Luna’s. 

“And many people rejected the invites to his own ball, I gather,” Hermione adds, shooting Ron another glance. “As for us -” 

“We aren’t - happy about it, obviously,” Ron says, a little moue of distaste pursing his mouth. “But,” he sighs, sounding suddenly exhausted; exhausted in the way they all are, oftentimes, in the way Harry has been for the best part of a decade; weary as the old soldiers they had been, weary from a war that they could sometimes swear had no true end. “It doesn’t change the fact that he’s a grumpy, self-important sort of arsehole, of course - but he’s been forthright, and he seems sincere, in his actions.”  

“Actions?” Harry manages, mouth dry. 

Hermione looks back to Harry, one hand gone to rest on the swell of her belly. 

“He’s volunteered his services to the Ministry as a cursebreaker, to deal with residual hexes left over from the war,” Hermione says, shooting a quick glance toward the stack of correspondence piled on a nearby shelf, the tell-tale burgundy of Ministry seals peaking out between folds of parchment. “He specializes in generational and geographic magic, the kind of nasty things the Death Eaters left behind to haunt specific families, specific homes. We’ve been having a scourge of them in the northern hamlets, of late.” 

She frowns and her hand tightens reflexively on her stomach. Harry can tell she’s itching to reach over and rifle through the pile of letters and fret over their contents; she hadn’t taken easily to the distance from her work during her last confinement either. 

Ron tutts gently at her and reaches over to cover her hand with his. She smiles at him a bit wanly. 

“He’s been working with Bill, from time to time,” Ron tells Harry. “Even up at Hogwarts. Bill said he’s turned down all offers of compensation as well” 

Harry doesn’t know what to do with this information. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. 

He feels - tired, mostly, a great wave of exhaustion thrown over him, a mantle not unlike the warmth and weight of his cloak. He sighs against the pull of it.

He considers telling his friends about the proposal, about Neville and Blaise. Considers apparating straight back to Grimmauld and having a lie down that lasts several days. 

Instead he looks down at the forgotten plate of biscuits between Ron and Hermione’s seats and asks, “Can I have one of those?” 

Ron smiles at him and holds out the dish. “‘Course.” 

Harry takes one and chews it thoroughly, the crunching of the buttery crumbs between his jaws a pleasant distraction from the oppressive silence between his ears. 

Hermione reaches out a hand toward him and he goes, allowing her to pull him down into a seat next to her on the bed and fuss at the lapels of his coat with her delicate brown hands. Her belly presses warm and round against his forearm, its occupant giving a lazy kick to his elbow that makes the both of them laugh. 

“I’m sorry you hadn’t known everything, darling - that must have been an unpleasant thing to learn, at this point,” Hermione soothes him, petting at the back of his hand, just over the faded line of Umbridge’s scar. 

Harry doesn’t ask what she means by ‘this point.’ He’s not sure she’d meant anything by it at all. Surely it would have been a disagreeable bit of information to discover at any stage. 

Surely it is a fact that would make many people feel wrong footed, appalled, disappointed - no magic in the world .

He swallows, feeling his face heat with a rush of blood. 

“I was only - I was surprised, is all,” he mutters, shrugging. “I suppose it is some consolation to know I was right, though. He would’ve been a Slytherin,” he jest weakly, suddenly beyond eager to be lying down. 

Hermione shoots him the ‘yes, dear, certainly’ smirk she usually applies to Ron, but doesn’t stop her gentle ministrations to his hand. 

“D’you want to stay for dinner, mate?” Ron asks him, levitating a few more logs onto the fire as he settles back into his chair. “Mum said something about dropping ‘round a pie - venison, I think. Shortcrust always has a way of settling one’s spirits, I find.” 

“Thanks, but Neville is likely expecting me back,” Harry tells him, ignoring the gut twist he feels at the thought of Neville’s pale, distressed face. He’ll agonize about that later; he isn’t quite sure that bit of information is his to tell. 

Hermione insists he stay for a cuppa, and she and Ron take turns attempting to distract Harry’s wretched mood with the latest stories of Rosie, who is spending the afternoon with Ginny and Luna.

He floos back to Grimmauld in a bit of a daze, not trusting his knackered limbs to cooperate with apparition with any grace. 

Neville has already retired to his room for the night, the closed door managing somehow to look dejected and wan. Harry’s stomach pulls up tight in sympathy as he passes it, pausing just outside for a long moment of agonizing over whether to knock. He still isn’t sure what he would say. 

He seeks out his own rest instead, summoning a bap from the kitchen in lieu of dinner and heading straight for his bedroom. 

There’s a letter sitting on the sill of one of his open windows, perched there still and unassuming in the waning evening light. It’s clear the sender must have cast an impervious on the missive, as the parchment isn’t the least bit damp, though the mizzle outside persists. 

Harry breaks the purple seal with a finger, straining his eyes to make out the image pressed into the wax; he thinks he can discern the folds of wings, perhaps the curve of a long, scaly tail. He unfolds the letter, several pages worth of dense, carefully-laid copperplate script. 

Something about the delicate but resolute slant of the handwriting makes Harry’s chest constrict.

He sits heavily on the edge of his bed and begins to read. 

 

Potter, 

I do not wish to further discommode you by continuing our earlier conversation, but I found that I could not rest easily this afternoon, and bringing quill to paper seemed the only thing to do. If you do not wish to know the contents of my thoughts - and in fact if you were to throw this parchment directly into the nearest hearth - well, I could hardly blame you. 

I will not use this space to reassert the declarations that were so abhorrent to you, but I would take it to address the offences you have led against me, if I might. I do not intend the following information to act as an excuse for my past, but perhaps it may provide an explanation as to my present. 

My father is a difficult man, but not a complicated one. His motivations have always been singular and all-encompassing. I have taken after him in a variety of respects, but in this most of all - where my father has desired power above all else, I have desired to make my father proud. We have the both of us erred in our respective focuses - focuses which are inherently flawed in themselves. The actions I was willing to allow myself in my pursuits taught me that well enough. 

The first war and his subsequent exile only succeeded in honing my father’s ambitions against the fractured edges of his pride, and my own led me to mirror him for far too long. 

My father’s continued grasping at his former avenues of power took the shape of a specific plan around the time of my sixteenth birthday, a plan of which I was to be the specific - and regretfully willing - subject. It was that I would take the Dark Mark as my father had, and as an agent of the Dark Lord would allow myself to be transferred to Hogwarts from Beauxbatons for the remainder of my schooling. Placed there, near you and other innocents, it was intended that I would create opportunities for harm, the specifics of which I was not privy to at the time. 

The Dark Lord traveled to France himself for my initiation. I cannot say that the boy I was was at all ignorant of what his campaign of bigotry and hate entailed, but my removal from direct contact with such machinations until that point - aside from my father’s grandiose rhetoric on the subject, designed specifically to inflame my own immature conceit - had kept me from appreciating the true depth of the evils promised. 

In this one meeting the full concept of triumph at the Dark Lord’s hands, and my own involvement to that end, went from a hubris-humoring abstract to blood-chilling reality. I’m sure I do not need to explain the effect his presence had on me - you have encountered him yourself, and far more intimately than I. 

I do not know, if left to percolate on their own, if these misgivings would have been enough to dissuade me at this juncture. Likely not - I was young, and arrogant, and stupid, and I loved my father. My devotion to him and the weakness of my own character could have led me to more malignant ends than those I did achieve, of that I’m certain. 

For me to renounce the evil he displayed, the evil that I supported of my own volition, would have and did require a deep upheaval of my spirit. After all, I had gone with him that far. Had the following reality not come to light, it is imaginable that I would have gone further. 

But as it was, the only thing of similar importance to me was at that moment confined in our chateau, Imperiused and Incarceroused at the hands of my father. 

My mother is a very dedicated woman. Her affections for my father brought her to many regretful choices of her own. Her love for me, and mine for her, saved me from him - and myself. 

Unbeknownst to me, she had rejected the idea of my father’s plans for involving me with the Dark Lord’s activities, to the point where she had threatened to divulge my father’s transgressions to the Ministry. He retaliated against her, silenced her effectively, and took me along with him against her wishes. I had not known, at the first, either my mother’s objection to his aims or the violence with which he suppressed her. If I had - well. 

Returning home from my branding to discover my mother listless and bound, and my father the cause, effectively settled me to the gravity of the path my father and I were treading. I realized then that his hunger for power would permit him to do anything - to her, to me, to himself - and that my own hunger to please him was just as blind, and just as dangerous. 

We fought, my father making it clear that he demanded my compliance and myself making it clear that I would rather die than allow for the opportunity for my mother to be hurt again. Whether it was my newfound strength of self or a faltering of his own that decided him, I know not, but he relented, if bitterly, and we went into hiding as a family. 

I had been keen to embark with my mother alone, but she refused to leave him, for whatever reason of her heart. As for why my father agreed to stay with us rather than returning to the Death Eater’s ranks alone - they do say love is a strange thing. 

I do not know why Voldemort never came after us, demanding that we finish what we had started. Perhaps he saw the plan for the risk it would have been, the risk my father’s zeal had ignored - perhaps we never mattered much to him to begin with. Perhaps giving me the Mark, irreparably sullying me, had been simply a means of revenge on my father for his failures during the first war. Nevertheless, Voldemort’s indifference to our escape was the final straw that broke my father, I believe - the thing that finally nipped his ambitions, if not his bigotry, once and for all. 

Nevertheless, we remained out of the Dark Lord’s grasp for the remainder, just long enough for you to put a definitive and blessed end to his reaching. Afterward, we resumed the quiet life we had built in France, where I finished my education at Beauxbatons before continuing on to further Cursebreaking study, and the forward progress of time marched resolutely along. 

Coming to Zacharias’ part in this - I am certain he informed you that we met under the tutelage of the same Master in Paris, several years ago. That part, at least, is true. 

I am not an easily trusting person. Less so when I have cause to feel wrong-footed within myself. Mister Smith was the first person I became intimately acquainted with with true experience of what you all suffered here in England, at the heart of the war. How my past choices would be received by him brought me no little apprehension, no less so because I sought to make a colleague of his person. Nonetheless, I was resolved to honesty - I was a man by then, and had learned the importance of truth in the search for true respect. So I mustered what little courage I possess to explain myself to him, to detail my family’s past sympathies and my own part in them. I did so only a few short weeks into our acquaintance. 

Mister Smith responded with understanding and civility, at the time - so much to my relief that I felt indebted to him. We became close - friendly, even - and in so doing he was introduced to my circle. 

He and Blaise developed a quick and earnest connection, or so it seemed. My friend was very taken with Mister Smith and his charms, and it did appear that his affections were reciprocated in full. They were never formally engaged, but there was an understanding of sorts between them, such as I understood. 

However, just before our second Season together, a family friend informed me they had heard of Smith making private inquiries into the state of Blaise’s finances. I did not know what to think of this, at the time - it was possible that this person was mistaken, that some innocent explanation had been misconstrued in one way or another. 

It was only when Pansy came to me soon after, distraught for herself and for her friend, to tell me that Smith had proposed to her, that my misgivings about the quality of Smith’s character truly took root. 

Pansy is to inherit almost twice the amount Blaise is set to, you see. Her family’s prospects were less tarnished by the First War than Blaise’s, a fact which would have taken the work of a moment for any enterprising blackguard to discover. 

I confronted Smith about his actions, making a point to ensure him that I would endeavor to protect my friends financially from his rapacious clutches, even if Blaise were to forgive him for the emotional toll of his betrayal. Our exchange was heated, and it was then and only then that Smith chose to retract his previous acceptance of my person and my past. We parted on bitter terms. 

I must thank him in the end, for it was he that convinced me that ignoring the past does not allow us to grow from it. It was freeing, in a way, to be reminded that my transgressions would never be fully forgotten, or forgiven, even by those close to me. I had remained in France through adulthood cowed by this very fear, and it was somehow perversely comforting to have it confirmed. There would never be any erasing or denying my flaws and faults, there would only be moving forward with them in tow. 

It was due to this realization that I made the plan of returning once and for all to England. Staying in France would have been an easy choice; I resolved to make a better one. One that I could take pride in for its own sake, and for the sake of the growth it would challenge me to achieve.

So I left and took the only avenue I could - claiming the family property my father had forfeited the rights to when he and my mother were banished from the kingdom. My father did not support my choice, but in no way could he stop me; the Manor is the only asset he could not bar me from, as he had no remaining legal claims on it himself. It was a gamble, of course, as the Wizengamot was required to approve me, and the house itself had to accept my stewardship. I took the challenge and the risk, attempting to prove to myself and anyone else that there is more to me than the worst things I have done. I am still trying. 

As for the Mark - I do not hide it now, aside from times when I think it prudent to protect others from reminders of their own unpleasant memories. Had I ever done something so uncouth as to go sleeveless, you would have seen it before now. Had you asked me about it, I would have told you. 

I wouldn’t have hidden it from you. Surely you can deduce from my stated desires that I could never have planned to. 

 

Here Harry is reminded that if he had accepted Draco’s proposal, it would have given him more chance and reason to see the Mark in person than most. A flare of heat blooms in his stomach, souring against his confused guilt, as he thinks of the implications of Draco out of his shirtsleeves. 

Of Draco, bared to the skin - all his pale expanses on display. Bared for him

He pulls his mind away from this distracting image, cheeks heating, and refocuses on the letter. 

 

As for the trouble with Blaise and Neville - if you can believe it, my actions were chiefly motivated by concern for a dear companion, rather than any true objection to Mister Longbottom himself. You spoke of Longbottom’s tactful reticence of feeling, which now knowing I cannot fault or disrespect. 

In response I can only tell you of my own knowledge, that of my own friend’s character and my responding motivations. Blaise’s manner differs from what you have told me of Mister Longbottom’s rather strongly - if anything he displays his heart too readily, and too hastily, even if his own motivations remain sincere. This ready vulnerability I also cannot fault, and can only fear those circumstances in which they will be taken advantage of, or abused. In my actions in this case, I can see that my fears made me quick to distrust. Forgive me, I merely wished to protect him. 

Perhaps you did not need to know this entire story. Perhaps you have already ceased reading this. Perhaps all you need know of me is the ugly mark I bear - the ugly character I displayed in obtaining it. And yet I felt driven to put this down, to detail this part of my history for you, and you alone. 

As to why - perhaps I was hoping that the telling of it could show that this facet of myself, the worst and most hateful, is just that - a part. I have endeavored to build better versions of my self-respect and of my loyalties. And though it is folly, given your abject rejection this afternoon, I suppose I cannot resist wanting you to know these other parts as well. 

Foolish, likely, but I have been told the heart often is. 

Again, I do not intend my words here to act as any sort of justification for my actions or attitude, and I cannot say they were put down with any true hope toward altering your opinion of my character. I do not assume myself an easy person to like, and I can admit that my behavior toward you has not always been well-intentioned or well-handled. 

I should not have been so surprised to hear your doubts in my sincerity, as I am sure that my first - and likely second, and possibly up to the fifth - impression left much to be desired. Returning to England was never going to be easy for my pride, and encountering you specifically was a test I did not set myself up to enjoy. 

You have always represented an ideal to which I could never have lived up, and green has never been a good color on me, contrary to Pansy’s fashionable opinion. To have bettered our acquaintance only to find you more genuine and more lovely than I could have previously lamented - well, suffice it to say my feelings on the subject of you have altered deeply, but I have already promised not to revisit those sentiments here. 

If you have read this far,  I would thank you for listening. It seemed that I could not help myself from speaking. It seems that there are many things I cannot help, where it comes to you. 

I will not let myself forget my past follies, but neither will I apologize for the work I have done, to change, to hold myself accountable for my own and my family’s mistakes. That is where my pride lives now; I will not give it up. I lament that it is not enough to garner your respect. I wish that it were, and not only because you have mine, so deeply and irrefutably. I wish that I were enough for you as I am. But I have retained too much of my self respect, and too much stubbornness besides, to pretend to be anything else. 

Yours, 

D.M. 

 

Harry reads the letter through. Once, twice. Three times. 

His heart catches on specific phrases, sharp burs clinging fast to tender spots, his eyes tracing the lines again and again, as if to soothe the sting. It doesn’t. 

He finds himself thinking back to the day they’d quit the Manor after Neville’s convalescence, of the moment he’d tripped and Draco had arrested his fall. Had the man grabbed him with his left arm, or his right? The arm with the Dark Mark, or the arm without? Did it matter? Could it matter? 

It’s full dark by the time he sets the parchment down. He doesn’t remember casting a Lumos, but his wand is beside him on the bed with its tip glowing, faint but warm.  

Harry sits there in the dark next to the steady nimbus of his magic, the letter on his lap, until the grey light of dawn rises to touch him.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry wakes late into the day, feeling the particular sort of discomfort that comes from sleeping in one’s shoes. Remembering the circumstances under which he’d fallen asleep fully dressed does not lessen his discomfort to any degree. 

He turns over gingerly, wincing against the myriad of twinges in his back and thighs. He gazes unseeing into the space above him and sighs. 

He can hear Neville bumping around downstairs and vaguely considers going down to join him, but the prospect of facing his friend’s confused and dejected face makes him want to pull the covers up over his head and remain abed for a week. 

He briefly considers heading to the Burrow to see if either Molly or Arthur have any use for him around the house, but quickly drops the thought on the basis of the Percy of it all. 

Merlin, two refused proposals in less than a week; this is really becoming the more unpleasant of habits Harry’s ever had, and that includes the teenage penchant for running headlong into things trying to murder him. 

He struggles out of his boots and shirtsleeves and crawls beneath the quilt, shoving his head under a pillow for good measure. Unfortunately the pillow, though providing a decent barrier against the sun, as well as proper breathing ability, does not shield him from the barrage of thoughts traipsing about between his ears.

The thought of Malfoy is a lancing sting, a thorn driven through the meat of his palm. He feels foolish and angry and deeply, strangely morose about the whole thing. Everyone else had known about him, about the Mark, and Harry had been an ignorant fool. 

He has the uncomfortable thought that the feeling of being left in the dark about the matter bothers him more deeply than the facts of it, but he dismisses the possibility with a disgusted huff. 

Malfoy had been a Death Eater - or almost-Death Eater, Harry corrects himself. 

Still, even if he hadn’t really become a Death Eater, he’d meant to. And even if he’d meant to because it was expected of him as an impressionable, idiotic teenager - Harry had been an idiotic, impressionable teenager too, hadn’t he, and he’d still done the right thing. As had Hermione, and Ron, and Ginny and Luna. And Neville. 

Oh, Neville. 

Harry feels no qualms about holding onto his anger about Malfoy’s actions there. Which just goes to show that, no matter what Malfoy had been as a young man, the adult he’d become isn’t without his own glaring, damaging faults. 

Harry knows there’s a difference between being a stuffy, quick-to-judge berk and being Voldemort. But just because Harry can admit he doesn’t want to vanquish Malfoy doesn’t mean he has to condescend to marry him. He doesn’t even have to like him, if he doesn’t want. 

So why does he feel so guilty? He and Malfoy had a completely merited falling out, so what - it couldn’t even be termed as such anyway, as they’d never had a falling in . Harry is entitled to think as ill of the man as he pleases. 

Even forgetting what he’d done in the past, which Harry has no intention of doing, there’s the matter of what he is now - a stubborn, irritable know-all. 

Then again, Hermione is a bit of a know-all, and Ron has been known to be irritable, and Harry can definitely be stubborn on the odd occasion of generally always. 

As for what the man has actually done - what was that, exactly? Been raised by the wrong people, in a bubble of contentment that rarely tested the opinions they bestowed to him, knowingly estranged from his homeland? Grown within that knowledge, learned to question it, learned to question himself? Challenged himself enough to return to a place his family was cast out of, that likely would have ruined him, had he returned for any other reason? 

Had loved both his parents deeply, and had let that love guide his choices, for better or for worse? 

Harry isn’t sure, on this score, if it is at all his place to judge. 

He wants to paint the man a villain entire, but he can’t, can he? People aren’t so simple, and they aren’t so simple to write off. 

He finds himself thinking of Snape for the first time in years - of that horrible, sorry man. Of the good he’d managed and the skewed motivations behind them. Of all the complexities he’d thought he’d had; of all the complexities he had had, in the end. 

Was it really so wrong, for Draco to try to make the best of his life? To move on from his poor choices, so long as he never forgot them. Could Harry really begrudge him that ability? 

He rolls back over, dislodging the pillow. He hears a subtle crash from the garden and a quiet curse as Neville trips over his stack of empty pots. 

Harry’s heart clenches, thinking of him. 

As for Neville - Blaise might have been convinced by his friends, but the end result is the same. He had left, and Neville had been left behind. 

Blaise had gotten bad advice, surely, but he had heeded it. 

Harry considers going down to tell his friend the details he has learned, but dismisses this as well. Would it really be any better for Neville to know that Blaise was spurred on by his friends’ poor opinions, if it wouldn’t change the fact that he’d walked away, and with no sign of turning back?

Harry groans loudly, letting himself indulge in a bit of self-pity for his current position, and stares out the window until he falls back into a fitful sleep. 

---

The next few days are a torment, Neville moping around distractedly and Harry dithering over what he could possibly say or do to help. He doesn’t think he can even bear to mention the most cursory details of his meeting with Malfoy, lest it drag the whole confusing thing back out into the light, so he settles for saying as little as possible. Neville doesn’t appear to notice. 

A pall settles over the house, assisted by the fact that Grimmauld itself takes to acting strangely. 

Harry wakes three days after the proposal to find that the drapes in his bedroom have gone a washed blue-grey that he puzzles at the familiarity of for some time, before he realizes it to be the exact shade of a certain lumbering pillock’s eyes. 

The next morning the desk in the corner unrolls it top spontaneously just as he is considering rereading Malfoy’s letter. He ignores the parchment and ever-inked quill the desk is offering him and retreats into the second floor drawing room - which provides no respite, as the Black family tapestry seems determined to show Malfoy’s embroidered name and visage no matter where Harry’s eyes land on the wall, the woven strands of Malfoy’s bright hair shining where the sun’s rays touch it. 

Once he realizes that Malfoy’s letter itself has begun following him around the house, appearing miraculously on whatever surface is nearest him, Harry gets fed up. 

“I know you’re upset with me, alright!” Harry announces to the house, feeling ridiculous and shame-faced and ridiculous about feeling shame-faced. “I know you would have liked me to marry the arsehole, but it isn’t going to happen! I know how chuffed you would be to have the true Black heir swan in to take the mantle and schmooze his way into your good graces, but that’s not what I want. You’re just going to have to settle yourself to the idea.” 

The house seems to sigh dejectedly around him, the drapes fluttering. 

“Oh sod off,” Harry growls. 

He stomps over to his desk to compose an owl request, resolutely ignoring Malfoy’s letter, which is currently bobbing along a few inches from his right ear - Kreacher’s doing, he suspects - and packs a bag without waiting for a response. 

---

Seamus and Dean have a sizable cottage and a parcel of land in Yatesbury, with an airy barn Dean has outfitted as a workshop. Harry has stayed with them many a time, when he has for one reason or another had a hankering to quit the crowded fug of town, enough that the two of them don’t bat an eye when he arrives just a few minutes after the owl he’d sent. 

“Thank Merlin ye’ve come, Harry,” Seamus groans upon sight of him. “Dean’s been ignoring me for a fortnight while he finishes his latest - I’ve been bored out me goddamn gourd.” 

Dean sighs good-naturedly. “It wouldn’t have taken me so long if you hadn’t insisted on distracting me every hour, making sure you haven’t blown off any of your appendages -” 

“One has to keep his husband’s attention somehow, doesn’t he? It’s not my fault ye only reliably respond to a decent explosion. Five years of marriage, I’ve got to keep you on your toes.” 

“Just so long as you keep all of your toes, dearest.” 

“My fella the sweetheart.” Seamus grins at Harry. “He’s a quick hand at stitching ‘em back on too. So, Harry, what’s the craic? It’s your job now to keep me entertained.” 

“Oh nothing much,” Harry answers quickly, “Just thought I’d do for some fresh air, is all.” 

Dean and Seamus share a quick look that indicates they know he’s lying - or that they’ve heard something of his current mood from Hermione or Gin - but they don’t push the point. Harry isn’t sure whether or not to be grateful for it. 

“Well if you aren’t going to be interesting the least you can do is help with supper,” Seamus teases, grinning and pulling him toward the kitchen. “Any chance ye know Molly’s recipe for cottage pie? Ron brought hers on his last visit and I’ve a hankering.” 

Harry thinks. “Er, I’m sure I could approximate? We can always floo her if we get lost in the mutton.” 

“Grand. G’won and feck off back to yer canvases, Dean, you’ve been replaced.” 

“Mhmm,” Dean hums, bending to drop a kiss to Seamus’ ear before heading for the door. “It’ll never last - Harry is much less handsome and much less tolerant of singed eyebrows than I.” 

Seamus tilts up his chin. “Harry could hardly judge me a few scars, him being riddled with them as he is.” 

“Yes, but Harry’s were bestowed via unavoidable plagues of dark magic, not because he thought he’d have a go at Reducto-ing a potato.” 

“I was tired of chopping!” 

The next few days pass without incident, Harry helping Seamus prune and de-pest the apple trees he keeps for cider, and talking through the theory of his latest set of experimental spells while Dean clatters around his work space, emerging in the evening covered in paint and varnish. 

Harry watches them with one another, the soft familiarity of their touches, the way they subtly bend toward one another whenever in proximity, the way flowers lean their heads toward the sun. Harry watches them, with a strange ache in his gut he cannot name. 

The third afternoon of his stay, the three of them take to the skies for a leisurely fly, looping lazily above the treetops and pausing every so often to take in the view. 

“C’mon you lot,” Dean calls after a time, “follow me.” 

“Where to?” Harry calls back. 

Dean nods his head to the north. “Just over a ways - Malfoy Manor.”

Harry’s grip falters on the handle of his Firebolt and he drops a few feet with a startled yelp. 

“What?” he manages, righting himself. 

“I have to drop of Draco’s painting,” Dean says he pats his breast pocket, where said painting must be, shrunken down for portability. 

Harry is filled with questions, not the least of them why Dean is suddenly calling him Draco , as if he and the man are somehow familiar with one another.  

“You finished it?” Seamus exclaims, voice slightly muffled as a gust pushes him a bit to the left. “Why didn’t ye show me?” 

“I’ll show you when we get there - come on,” Dean shouts over the wind, flying off  and leaving Seamus and Harry to follow. 

“Wait! We can’t - I don’t want -” Harry tries, but the other two have already sped away out of hearing distance. 

Harry dithers for a long moment before leaning forward after them. He considers turning around, but it would certainly be strange if Harry just disappeared on his friends, wouldn’t it? It definitely wouldn’t escape comment, in either case, so he continues on, feeling suddenly sweaty and sick. 

The three of them alight on the outskirts of the grounds, a well-manicured grassy expanse Harry isn’t sure he’s seen before. Again Harry feels the warm wash of Malfoy’s ward magic tickle over him, thorough but unintrusive, like the sort of touch checking for a fever or a bruise. 

Harry startles a bit at the feeling, surprised Malfoy hadn’t decided to bar him entirely after their last encounter. 

He gets a brief flash of Malfoy’s eyes as he’d uttered the first of his proposal, those unfathomable, silvery depths, before he swallows back another rush of nausea and the matching surge to run away. He shouldn’t be here. 

He tries to voice his objections to the others once more, stuttering over them, but Dean cuts him off, “Relax, Harry. I know how you feel about the man, but you needn’t worry - he’s in London this week. I’m to leave it with his housekeeper. You won’t see him.” 

Harry relaxes somewhat, though he continues feeling eyes on the back of his neck, like he’s doing something he shouldn’t.  

The Manor is as beautiful in the daylight as it had been the night of the ball, if not more so. The sprawling, lush grounds, the high windows letting in cheerful sunshine as they are ushered into a parlor by the housekeeper, an elf, insistent on giving them tea in the small guest parlor near the entrance to the back garden. 

Dean takes out the painting, propping it up against the silk cushion of an elaborately carved chair before whisking the cloth covering off with a dramatic flourish that succeeds in making Seamus laugh. 

Harry doesn’t laugh, himself, the breath stuck suddenly in his throat. 

The painting suits its rich surroundings, its colors deep and pure, the skill of Dean’s artistry stark in every brushstroke. It’s a muggle-style portrait, unmoving, but it possesses a magic all the same. 

Harry stands back slightly from the other two, transfixed. 

On the canvas a young Malfoy and his mother stand side by side, her small, cream-white hand tucked into the crook of her son’s tiny arm. He’s still a head shorter than her at this stage, but holds himself with a strict sort of seriousness and composure that seems at odds with the lingering roundness of his young cheeks, the large ears he would grow into with his height. Mrs. Malfoy has the slightest smile lifting one corner of her lips, as if in response to Draco’s earnestness. 

Harry knows, without being sure how, that Draco has commissioned this for the woman painted next to him. 

Harry takes it in, wondering if Malfoy had asked Dean to capture an exchange like this, if he had told Dean stories of warmth and humor; if he had given Dean a Pensive memory that included the details of the slightly upturned slant of his tiny nose, of his mother’s shining curtain of hair falling back from her high brow. 

He wonders what Malfoy had said of his young self, at the sort of complex, devoted affection that would inspire the commission of such a gift. 

He thinks of his own mother, of what sort of gifts he would have given her; of what he would still give to have her back. 

Harry snaps out of his reverie, feeling heat rise into his face when he registers just how long and how intently he must have been staring. Thankfully his friends don’t comment upon it, already having moved off around the room for a perusal of the parlor’s other paintings - Dean exclaiming over them, explaining styles and artist’s backgrounds to Seamus, who follows along attentively, with a look on his face that clearly indicates that he is more so listening to the sound of Dean’s voice than to the content of his speech. 

Harry tears his eyes away from the boy in Dean’s work and walks to the window, trying very hard to think of nothing at all. 

He looks out onto the grounds, watching as the trees at the border sway their branches in the gathering breeze. 

A sudden movement to his right draws his eye: a door has materialized from the wall beside him, an unadorned expanse of warm, dark wood. 

As Harry looks on the latch clicks and swings open silently. Harry pauses, unsure, but the magic emanating from the doorway is calm, welcoming somehow. It’s beckoning him. 

He glances behind him, but Dean and Seamus have moved out into the hall, their voices exclaiming over something or other that they’ve found there. 

Harry turns back to face the new door and steps through. 

It’s another parlor, but this one clearly not intended for visitors. It’s filled with more homey touches, more casual and cluttered, like the soft underbelly of the house, turned up only for those it trusts. 

There’s art here too, but less showcased: smaller portraits asleep in their frames crowd one wall, a quiet landscape on the other, bracketed by shelves crammed with books. A potted plant, tall and leafy, stands by the large desk, humming quietly to itself, a pleasant thrum that makes Harry want to smile. 

It’s no less rich or intentional a space but it’s - cozy. Vibrating with a close, warm sort of magic that speaks to comfort and specificity. It’s private , Harry realizes with a confused twinge. 

He clearly shouldn’t be in here - but the door had let him in, hadn’t it? 

His curiosity gets the better of his manners and he walks further into the room, eyes roaming greedily over its details. He picks a discarded snitch up off the desk, the well-worn, clearly well-loved metal of it gleaming. 

It’s warm against his palm, ever so slightly warmer than his own skin. Harry recalls the snitch in the forest, the stone, the engineering of touch-memory. He wonders if what he’s feeling is the heat of Malfoy’s touch, if that’s what this snitch remembers, or if it’s just his own mind playing tricks. 

“Harry!” 

Startled by the voice Harry drops the snitch, which extends its wings and zooms madly away from his hand, fluttering around him in a glint of gold as he turns to find - 

“Teddy?” 

Teddy rushes forward, barreling into his midriff for a hug. 

“I didn’t know you’d be here!” Teddy exclaims excitedly. “Did you come to visit me? Did Draco tell you I’d be coming? We’ve a whole day planned - Draco promised me he’d show me the secret parts of the Manor and then we are going to have a French tea! And we’ve just returned from the stables - I met the thestrals! I couldn’t see them but they ate apples from my hand!” 

Draco brought you -” Harry starts, cut off as the man himself enters the room. 

He’s clad as informally as Harry has ever seen him, his stock loosened, boots muddy, the knees of his breeches stuck all over with burrs. His hair is tousled by the wind, one shining lock of it falling forward over his pale brow. 

The sight of him interferes with Harry’s breathing. 

“Oh,” Draco murmurs softly, stopping in his tracks as he catches sight of Harry, Teddy still plastered to his front.  

Harry almost trips over the boy. 

“Erm - I,” he hastens to explain, wondering what sort of excuse -

“Hello, Potter.” 

Teddy steps back from Harry, turning toward Draco. “Draco, can we show Harry the thestrals?” he asks on an ecstatic breath before swiveling back to Harry. “And you can join us for petty forts!”

Petite fours ,” Draco corrects the boy gently, his eyes still on Harry’s face.  

“Yes, those!” Teddy agrees. 

Harry’s still caught on the sight of the man before him; he looks touchable, accessible, though his face stays carefully blank. Harry can see it now, though, the effort involved in maintaining the impenetrable composure, the edges of the mask. He’s looking, and he can see it. 

“I suppose if - Harry wants to,” Draco says, blinking his storm-bright eyes, and the way he says Harry’s given name - the first time he has heard the man use it - makes Harry’s heart surge up high in his chest, tight and hard like the stone of a peach, the fruit around it bruised and tender. 

Draco raises an eyebrow at him, looking so tentative and real that Harry cannot stand it. 

He moves Teddy carefully aside, saying quickly, “No - sorry, Teddy, I must - I have to be off, now. I’ve got to - but I’ll see you this weekend, yeah?” he adds to forestall Teddy’s pout. “Have a good day with Dr- Malfoy.”

Harry darts a bow quickly in Malfoy’s direction and ducks through the side door into the visitors’ parlor, walking quickly past a startled Dean and Seamus as he makes for the entrance hall. 

His broom is no longer by the front door - the elf must have magicked it somewhere for safekeeping - and he’s standing there, considering just Accio-ing it to himself when careful footsteps echo suddenly on the marble behind him. 

Harry steels himself and turns, an apology already on his lips as he turns to Draco. 

“I’m so sorry -” 

“Potter, I -” 

“We were just dropping off the painting! And I didn’t want to - to tell them -” 

“You can stay if you wish, I don’t mean to make you feel as if -”

“And Dean said you were in London!” Harry all but shouts. 

Draco nods. “Yes, well, I was supposed to be. I didn’t feel - I decided to drop ‘round to my aunt’s beforehand, and I was telling Edward about the thestrals and, well - he was very insistent,” Draco adds, a helpless smile lifting one corner of his mouth. 

Harry is startled by how much the expression softens him, his pointy edges smoothing with the humor. 

“Yes,” Harry agrees, smiling back, also helplessly. “He is that.” 

Draco clears his throat and takes a small step closer. “I don’t - please don’t feel unwelcome. If you wish to spend time with Teddy today you are welcome to join us,” Draco says, stiffly but with a sincerity that pangs in Harry’s temples. 

He winces against it, and strives for manners himself. “I don’t want to - to interfere with your time with him. I - just barging in like this. I didn’t mean to intrude.” 

He yearns to turn away, the awkwardness unbearable. The shine of the weak sun in Draco’s disheveled hair - unbearable. 

“Do you wish me to -” Draco makes an aborted gesture, indicating the notion to show him the way, to accompany Harry to the apparition point outside the gates. It would be the proper thing for a gracious host to do. 

Harry doesn’t think he could handle proper, just now. 

“No!” Harry blurts. Then, softer, watching Draco’s expression falter, “No, I’m - I’m okay alone.” 

Draco looks at him, eyes roaming his face.

“Yes,” he says, an indiscernible catch in his voice, “Yes, I know.” 

They bow quickly and stiffly to one other and Harry moves off, as fast as he can without outright bolting. 

He can feel Draco’s gaze on his back as he goes, soft and catching as the summer breeze around him.

Dean can bring him his Firebolt later. 

---

Dean and Seamus arrive back at the cottage a time later to find Harry very studiously feigning relaxed concentration on a book about pedigree crup rearing in the front room. 

“There he is,” Seamus tuts, tossing Harry what turns out to be his shrunken-down broomstick. 

Harry fumbles with the catch as he tries to keep his hold of the book he hasn’t been reading. 

“Why’d ye run off?” Seamus asks in an accusing tone. “I know you don’t like him, but he’s not that bad. A bit boring - stuffy. Unfortunate family, of course. But he’s smashing at Exploding Snap - I still haven’t beaten him.” 

“Not to mention you left young Teddy a bit bewildered at your abrupt departure,” Dean adds. “Luckily Draco was more than adept at distracting him. Would tea really have been so unbearable? Just a half hour of miniature cakes and comparing notes on the Kestrals’ chances against the Wasps in a fortnight? I think you’ve handled worse, Harry.” 

Harry gapes at the two of them, feeling his cheeks heat. He stutters on a reply, completely at a loss for how to explain himself. 

Not to mention how to explain everyone else’s behavior - since when had Draco gotten chummy with everyone in Harry’s vicinity? When did his friends all get to see this easy side of the man, these everyday, human things? Why hadn’t he ever shown Harry? 

Had Harry ever given him the chance? 

Dean sighs at his lack of response and turns away to start rummaging through the hutch in the corner. “He has the absolute best collection of muggle art I’ve ever seen - a Lawrence, right there in his parlor! He is rich, I suppose - but he can’t help that. And at least he has the taste to match his funds. A Lawrence , Merlin’s pants. Beautiful.” 

“It wasn’t - I didn’t - I was taken with a sudden headache, is all,” Harry lies weakly. “In fact, I still feel a bit, er, peely-wally. I think I’ll retire early this evening.” 

“It’s not even gone five,” Seamus points out, freckled forehead wrinkled up. 

“Yes. True. I’ll just - have a bit of a lie down, then, and rejoin you for supper. Possibly.” 

“If you’re trying to get out of helping Seamus with the root veg again you can just say so, Harry,” Dean jests, jumping sideways as Seamus goes to elbow him. “We could always put a containment charm around him to help limit the shrapnel - Oy!” 

Seamus lands a punch to Dean’s upper arm then, and Harry manages to slip out of the room in the ensuing scuffle, the sound of their laughter and groans following him to the guest room. He lays sideways across the bed in a slanting patch of sunlight and tries again to clear his mind of all and sundry. It works even less than it had in Malfoy’s parlor. 

Bother. 

He stares at the ceiling unseeing until the square of sunlight quits him for a spot further up the bed. It takes him a while to realize he’s cold. 

---

The next evening Harry is coming in from the orchard with an armful of apples when he hears a familiar voice in conversation with Dean coming from the front hall. He briefly considers ducking into the nearest cupboard to hide or possibly disfigure his face and personality beyond recognition with a few choice spells, but Seamus must have heard his steps on the flagstones, for he calls out from the other room, “Harry! We’ve company!” 

He rounds the door frame slowly, trying to steel himself and keep a grip on the fruit pressed against his chest. 

“Er, hallo,” he manages, to the room at large.  

“Good afternoon, Potter,” Draco greets him softly. He’s standing very still between Dean and Seamus, his hands clasped behind his back, the day’s dying light throwing all his angles into sharp relief. 

Harry tries to will his cheeks not to blush a deeper red than the apples, the effort of it feeling a bit like trying to cast a Patronus while thinking of Umbridge. 

“Draco is here to invite us all on an expedition to see a herd of wild thestrals that have been spotted in the area,” Dean explains, looking at Harry with poorly-concealed curiosity. 

Draco nods. “They’ve been skirting the Manor’s grounds for a few days, and I’ve taken to monitoring them. It’s quite a sight. I thought you may enjoy it.” 

He announces this ostensibly to the three of them, but he’s looking at Harry as he says it, with something like warmth and apology in his eyes. 

Harry fumbles the apples, a bit. 

Why on earth would the man go out of his way to be around Harry, after everything? Why does the prospect of spending the evening in his proximity send Harry’s stomach fluttering around his belly like an over-excitable owl? 

He tries to think of what to say, some response that could convey his own apology, and with the same grace and dignity that Draco seems to bring to everything he does. 

In the end what he comes up with is - 

“Okay.” 

Draco visibly relaxes at his word, something about him brightening, and Harry has to quickly look away before he drops the apples altogether - or worse, says something else. 

Unfortunately his eyes land instead on Seamus, who is regarding him with nonplussed sort of giddiness that succeeds in making Harry instantly and acutely nervous. 

His friend does manage to hold his tongue on whatever he’s thinking, however, though Harry does catch a deal of obvious if silent conversation going on between him and Dean as the two of them walk alongside Harry and Draco out to the broom shed. 

The four of them push off, Draco taking the lead to show them the way. Harry makes a point to keep his eyes fixed on the pinkening horizon and definitely not in the direction of where a certain lanky gentleman is displaying exceedingly adept and innate handling of a very sharp-looking broom, the model of which Harry doesn’t recognize. Something French, no doubt. 

They turn slightly over the crest of one wooded hillock and suddenly - there they are. 

A herd of about thirty individuals, clustered together in a sprawling pasture dotted with verdant clumps of vetch and gorse. The adults are grazing contentedly, their long, skeletal necks bent to the earth, while a few of the colts bound excitedly between, their spindly legs and thin wings looking impossibly delicate from this distance. 

Harry is spellbound. The creatures of this type he has encountered before have been majestic in their own right, but the wild grace of this particular sight resonates with an acutely beautiful sort of ache, straight to the core of him. The magic of them drifts in waves up to where they sit watching, as palpable and unfettered as the light of the setting sun. 

Not a word passes between the four of them as they look on, but the melancholy joy at their shared ability to perceive this particular sight flickers between them as something unsaid. A moment passes, then another. 

Suddenly he feels Malfoy come up beside him, the twin swoops of elation and anxiety in his gut balancing each other out into a kind of vague numbness that tingles all along Harry’s side. 

Then again, it is a bit cold up here. 

The two of them hover silently for a while, taking in the sight below them. Harry is vaguely aware that Dean and Seamus have moved off to get a closer look, but he finds himself too elated by the beauty before them and too distracted by Draco’s nearness to care. 

The sunset deepens as they watch, dusty gold giving way to a mercurial pink that reminds Harry of one of Luna’s sets of color-changing robes. 

A few of the thestrals neigh and whicker amongst themselves, gathering family groups to bed down for the night, their calls a haunting, intangible sound like the wind itself. 

Mon Dieu, ” Draco whispers softly beside him, and Harry turns to find him looking rapt at the scene below. 

“Why don’t you speak French more?” Harry blurts out despite himself - glad only that he has voiced this and not ‘why don’t you speak more to me, in any language?’ or ‘why do I anticipate the sound of your voice with such strange and lasting eagerness?’  

Draco looks at him, a faint smile tucked into the corner of his mouth. “In truth?” 

Yes, Harry thinks, yes

“I miss it too much. It reminds me of home - of my mother, of my friends. It reminds me of the comfortable life I left, in coming here. I miss it terribly, and I dislike how much. It makes me feel weak. I do not like feeling weak. I have not worn weakness well, in the past.” He sighs, brief and rueful. “I came here to respect myself more, not less - so I avoid it, and the reminder, when I can.” 

Harry stares at him, unsure whether to regard it as brave that Draco is choosing to bully past the awkwardness between them by referring directly to one of the very things that has caused it - or annoying, as it will force Harry to meet him. It would hardly do for Draco to be the more courageous of the two, taking into account the Gryffindor of it all. 

Harry opens his mouth to say - something, but Draco cuts him off. 

“It is - difficult not to, sometimes. I often find myself having more conversations in my head than out of it,” he says, before smiling a small, lonely sort of smile. 

Harry remembers that loneliness, from all those years in the cupboard. He remembers it from now - from those occasional, horrible moments when he wonders if anyone, even amongst his friends, those who had stood and suffered beside him, could really understand him, of all he has felt and been. Those horrible, occasional moments when he isn’t sure he’d want them to understand, for fear they’d leave him. 

“D’you think we’d have got on as kids?” Harry asks impulsively, trying for courage and landing somewhere around rash instead. Oh well. “If you’d never gone to France, I mean,” he adds. 

He does not add ‘if your parents weren’t Voldemort's followers,’ or ‘if I weren’t the sacrificial teenage lamb for the cause,’ or even ‘if we’d gotten the chance to be normal kids, untouched by the brutal schemes of an older generation.’ He doesn’t need to. 

Draco regards him for a long moment. 

“I don’t know,” he says simply, then, “What were you like, as a child?” 

Harry thinks on this, pleased somehow that Draco has thought to ask - that he hasn’t assumed to know, as so many do, the truth of the Boy Who Lived. 

Harry wonders how best to describe his young self. Should he say lonely? Ignored up until the point he was hounded? Estranged from the world he was born into? Groomed for something he didn’t understand by the only adults he’d been given to trust? Still loyal to their wishes even once he’d been shown the truth? 

Possibly very much like Draco himself?

“Stubborn,” he says instead, letting himself smile. 

Draco laughs. “I would never have guessed,” he says dryly. “Setting aside what younger me would have made of that, I’m quite assured you wouldn’t have enjoyed me - I was an insufferable know-it-all with a penchant for dramatics. Still am, I’m afraid.” 

“Me too. Well - the dramatics bit, definitely,” Harry clarifies, wanting with a sudden fierceness to match Draco’s honesty. “Possibly not the know-all bit - these days I am quite comfortable with admitting that I know next to nothing. Barely understand myself half the time,” he hears himself finish, possibly too honest. He looks away, feeling himself blush. 

Malfoy looks at him for a long time - Harry can feel his gaze on the side of his face. When Harry gets up the nerve to look back he finds Draco staring off at Dean and Seamus. They’re huddled close together in the air a little ways off, Seamus distractedly holding the handle of Dean’s broom to keep it level while the latter casts warming spells over the both of them. 

“I have often been envious of those for whom trust is an easily accessible thing,” Draco says suddenly, low, breaking the silence between them. “I often wonder - what sort of man I would be today, if that ability had never wavered in myself.” 

Harry takes this in, wonders what sort of man he’d be - if he’d ever been allowed such an ability to begin with. 

They do make a pair, the two of them. Draco, raised in security only to have it shattered from within; Harry, raised shattered, inwardly never secure in anything. 

Merlin, what is it about this man that so vexes him? That makes Harry want to peel back the layers of himself, but also leaves him feeling further from his own center with every conversation? 

It is not a comfortable thing, this needling between them, the sharp edges of their mirroring, but Harry must admit it is still - addictive, electric and engaging. It’s like magic, he thinks, with its tendency to make you feel as if you are the source and the vessel all in one. 

Harry stares at the man next to him, startled by the thought that no other person has ever made him feel quite this much at once. 

“OY! Haz! Draco!” Seamus’ shout reaches them, startling them both. “Will ye come about? My clackers are shrivelin’ up like bezoars in this chill - and this broom isn’t doing them any favors.”

Draco snorts beside him as he turns, Harry following. 

“Lead the way, Finnigan,” Draco calls back. “And just think - if they shrink overmuch you can just add them to your Gobstones collection. Perhaps they’d bring you enough luck that you could actually win a game or two.” 

“I’d come over there and stick this broom up your arse if it weren’t already up mine - fecking hell, how d’you lot go the full Quidditch on these things? More uncomfortable than a shite in the gorse.” 

“I suppose our posteriors simply have more stamina than yours,” Draco replies blithely, before looking to Dean and adding, “Condolences, Thomas.” 

“The cheek on you, Malfoy!” Seamus hollers, zooming after Draco as he speeds off, leaving Harry and Dean behind in a fit of laughter. 

“Two!” Harry hears Draco shout gleefully over his shoulder. “And a sight sturdier than yours, apparently!” 

Dean shoots Harry a giddy grin, and the two of them race to follow. 

---

They land a little ways from the cottage, walking together through the dusk with the brooms over their shoulders. 

Harry finds himself next to Draco once more, the two of them falling naturally into step a yard or so behind the others. 

The elation of their fly and shared quips has worn down into a comfortable silence, the summer night coming in cool and hazy to fill it. Harry struggles for a way to restart their conversation, wanting to extend the tentative knowing they’ve begun, to expand the even footing between them. 

“Are you - are you going to visit the thestrals again tomorrow?” he finds himself asking. 

Draco shakes his head. “Tomorrow I’m called north on assignment, I’m afraid.” 

“Ah,” Harry says, hoping his disappointment isn’t as easily readable as it feels. “I heard - I heard you’ve been working with the Ministry. Cleaning up curses,” he adds, realizing that he wants to know more - anything, really. 

“Malfoy’s do not work, Potter - we’d never do something as plebeian as ask for a profit. I volunteer,” Draco says archly, but Harry can tell now, when his eyes are smiling. 

He snorts in response, making Draco’s mouth flicker in a smirk. 

It turns to a frown as Draco continues, “An unpleasant case, unfortunately - but I hope we’ll have it cleaned up in due time.” 

It’s the easy ‘we’ - the lack of hesitation, the substantial determination in that dry, posh voice - that decides him. Draco is brave, Harry sees it now. Not shying away, letting himself be seen. Letting Harry look, even after all that he had said and implied. 

Harry feels the knowledge of it shift inside him, his stomach swooping as if he’s still a hundred feet in the air. 

“Harry.” 

The sound of his name snaps Harry from his thoughts and he looks up. 

Ginny is sitting in wait on the bench by the front door, the twilight shading her in blues. She springs up as soon as she catches sight of them, her face drawn and anxious in a way that makes Harry’s wame drop in fear for the first time in years. 

He hurries forward to meet her. “What is it?”

“Teddy, he -” 

“What’s - 

“He’s fine, at the moment. It’s just - this was published today.” 

She hands him a sheaf of paper, tapping it quickly with her wand so that the text is suddenly back-lit, easily readable in the waning light. 

It’s a section of the prophet, a small column to one side of a large, moving illustration of Gwenog Jones’ winning score in last Saturday’s game. 

 

 

UNDERAGE AND UNDER SUSPICION

- Submitted to this Publication by Anonymous Owl the Morning of August the 27th- 

 

‘ It has come to the attention of this reader that an incident of grave register

occurred last Friday-week in the vicinity of the wizarding settlement at Marshfield.

A young man by the name Edward Lupin grievously violated the Decree for the

Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery - as well as the Statute of Secrecy, as according

to several witnesses the incident did potentially occur within view of  several Muggles. 

 

A common bout of accidental underage magic is perhaps not so dire an occurrence,

however the subject of this particular case calls into question whether the episode

should be allowed to pass by without due attention: Young Mister Lupin’s parents, now

deceased, were both afflicted with conditions of volatile and very potentially dangerous

magic - conditions which they appear to have passed on, at least in part, to their son. 

His current parental figure is his grandmother, she who was a direct relation - a sister

in point of fact - to the notorious and vile Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange. Additionally, both

members of this little family have recently been seen in the company of one other unsavory character 

of the Black lineage, one who himself had direct association with He Who Must Not Be Named’s ranks. 

 

It is unclear yet whether the Wizengamot will choose to make a formal investigation of this ‘accident,’

but it is the opinion of this reader that such blatant disregard for community safety by this particular child

cannot pass by without ramifications. It must be questioned whether such an outburst of uncontrolled magic

by an individual of such dubious birth and social circle can be tolerated within the peace of our post-war society.

It is my humble opinion that the word of the Hogwarts Headmistress should be sought as to whether such a reckless

individual should be allowed free-run of the school - or indeed should be permitted to be in the company of his vulnerable

and impressionable young peers altogether.  I ask, as a concerned citizen, only that due process be observed in this case. '

 

 

Harry looks up at Ginny over the edge of the paper, aghast. It’s a wonder the pages don’t spontaneously erupt in flames beneath his hands. “Dubious - What - what did he do? He’s twelve, he can’t have done -” 

“He took a walk with Luna into the village while Andromeda and I were weeding the garden,” Ginny hastens to explain, her eyebrows drawn close together. “She was wearing her bright teal robes and he wanted to match her. He’d changed his hair - the both of them forgot to take notice of it until they were passing a few houses. They weren’t positive that anyone had seen him before he changed it back, but someone must have.” 

Dean gingerly takes the paper from Harry - they had begun smoking a bit, at the edges - and reads, Draco and Seamus leaning in beside him to read also. Their faces crease in three mirror images of disdain as their eyes flick across the page. 

“Luna feels horrid about the whole thing,” Ginny frets, reaching for Harry’s hand. 

He squeezes it, unable yet to form more words.  

“It isn’t her fault,” Dean says for him. “The only blame lies with the person who wrote this piece of filth - not to mention the paper for publishing it. What type of berk attacks a child like this?”

“Anonymously too - fecking cowardly maggot,” Seamus growls. 

Harry abruptly finds his voice, practically shouting but unable to help himself. “The way it talks about Remus and Tonks - and without even having the decency to name them! ‘Afflicted with conditions of potentially dangerous magic’ - they were war heroes! And Andromeda was one herself - not to mention the mother and widow of others!” 

“I know, Harry,” Ginny tries to soothe him, grabbing his hand in both of hers. “It’s fucking heinous. No one with an ounce of sense will take it seriously.” 

“Of course they won’t,” Dean says, vehement. “C’mon - let’s get inside and make some tea.” 

Harry hesitates to follow, his anger a heavy, choking thing that he isn’t sure will fit within the cozy confines of the house. 

Malfoy pauses at the door as well and Harry turns to him, meeting his eye. 

The look Draco wears is as grave as Harry feels, but tinged around the edges with regret and - guilt.

“This is my fault,” he says, his deep voice pinched with emotion. 

“I - what?” Harry manages. 

“I took Edward to Diagon twice last week - he had his list of school books to acquire and I wanted to - I should have known not to associate myself with him so publicly. To bring the stain of my past upon him. ‘Unsavory character’ - that can mean only me, of course. It was stupid of me to think I could - to think the scrutiny I move under wouldn’t transfer to him in my company,” Draco sighs, sounding pained. 

Harry’s heart turns over and he takes a step closer to the man, almost reaching out to clasp his arm. “No - nothing could justify this - this vilification of a child. Ted hasn’t done anything wrong! And you - you should be able to bond with your family, if that is what you wish.” 

Draco shakes his head, no longer meeting Harry’s gaze. “Should I? If it taints them with my mistakes? Perhaps true care for them should have meant keeping well away. Perhaps I shouldn’t have come back - for their sake.” Draco swallows, tremulously, and Harry can read his next thought plainly off his face before he even speaks. “Perhaps I should re-” 

“No!” Harry shouts, stepping even closer. “No - you shouldn’t have to flee because of other people’s narrow-mindedness! And you can’t stop seeing Teddy - Teddy likes you! Besides, this isn’t - this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, not now.” Harry turns away, overwhelmed by the frustration of it. “I didn’t die to have these snide prejudices wedge their way back between us all - to have us maintain the lines around everything, to have us stagnating in the past!” 

He huffs, turning back toward Draco, the anger leaking out of him when he catches the look on the other man’s face. Draco is staring at him, his face as calm and open as Harry’s ever seen it. 

“You really are, aren’t you?” he says, soft and wondering. 

“Are what?” Harry asks, feeling stunned by that look, by the awe in it. 

Draco closes his mouth, shaking his head as if he hadn’t meant to have spoken. 

They regard one another for a quiet moment. Harry is quite sure they’re both blushing, but it’s too dark now to tell. 

“We have to fix this,” Draco offers quietly, after a beat. 

“How?” 

“I don’t know, but we must try. I’ll go now, write to Blaise - he has a contact at the Prophet. Perhaps we can bully them into revealing any details they might have of the ‘anonymous’ writer. Branleur ,” he adds under his breath in scathing tones. He steels his shoulders, posture straightening and mouth thinning into a determined line. 

Harry straightens too, bolstered by him. “I’ll go to Hogwarts - talk to McGonagall.” 

Draco nods, solemnly. “Give my leave to the others. Goodnight.” 

“Goodnight,” Harry replies, watching as Draco moves off into the quiet of the night. 

---

Harry apparates to Hogsmeade and makes his way into Hogwarts on foot, hurrying across the darkened grounds in haste. 

He bursts into the Headmistress’ office, thankful the password hasn’t been changed since his last social call, to find McGonagall at her desk, attending to an enormous stack of letters that hovers at her elbow with the help of a hazy purple spell, her half-touched plate of supper sitting under a warming charm off to one side. 

He skids to a halt in front of her and blurts, “You can’t expel Teddy!” 

McGonagall regards him for a long moment, her eyes as shrewd as always behind the glint of her spectacles. After a while she refocuses on the paper before her, resuming her careful quillmanship. 

“Honestly, Potter, I’m insulted you even felt the need to come here and submit your opinion on the matter,” she tuts, continuing her writing. “Mine could hardly be different from yours. Of course I will not be barring Mister Lupin from his attendance here. Edward is an excellent student and very well behaved - much more so than you or any of your cohorts were, I will mind you - and even if he were neither of those things, he would still deserve the opportunity to learn. No matter the petty and suspect opinions of anonymous, would-be journalists that aim to rouse the sort of bigots that would ostracize a twelve year old.” 

Harry swallows, still panting a bit from his rush. “Oh. Well, good. Yes. I - I only -” 

She looks up at him again, the candlelight shining on the tight set of her hair. “I understand, Potter. Caring for young people is never an easy task - least so when they are facing attack. I do not blame you for rushing to Mister Lupin’s defense. I was merely pointing out that you needn’t do so with me - we are united in that pursuit,” she adds gently, giving him a tiny smile.  

Harry sighs, relief coursing through him. “Of course. Thank you, Professor.” 

“No thanks necessary, Mister Potter. And need I remind you yet again that you can call me Minerva?” 

“Oh, I really don’t think I could, Professor.” He smiles. 

McGonagall huffs but smiles back, regarding him keenly over the silver rims of her glasses. “Setting aside the matter of Mister Lupin’s quasi-scandal - have you given any more thought to our previous conversation? Madam Hooch has confirmed with me that she will be stepping down from her position after this year. I’m sure she’d be glad of an assurance that she has someone reliable to pass the Quaffle to, as it were. I’d be glad of it as well.” 

Harry nods, dropping her eye. He’s flattered by the proposal, of course, but he still isn’t sure. He’s not convinced that it would be - good for him, to be back in this place with any degree of regularity. The amount of memories he has built into these stone walls, all the comforts and the losses it represents; he isn’t sure how he’d respond to it, if he’s being honest. The prospect makes him nervous. 

He thinks of Draco suddenly, of the look on his face as they’d sat together in the air, talking of the life he’d left behind; his stubborn determination to move forward, his resolution and his courage. 

Harry sighs and meets the Headmistress’ gaze once more. “I haven’t decided yet. But I am considering it.” 

“Mhmm,” McGonagall relents. “Well, in the meantime please tell young Edward not to fret, and that we shall see him at the start of term next week.” 

“I shall. Thank you, Minerva.” 

“Your welcome, Harry. Be in touch, young man.” 

Harry takes his leave of her office, walking slowly through the dim, empty corridors toward the entrance hall. The castle seems lonely without its crowd of students, the magic of it reaching out to him for company. He reaches back as he walks, focusing on the happy swoop of his positive recollections of this place - his first home. He thinks of Ron and Hermione, of the three of them running up and down these steps on tiny feet. 

Merlin, they were so young. No older than Ted when they’d faced trial and danger. 

It hadn’t been fair - Malfoy was right about that. Harry would be damned if he’d let Teddy face the same tests. 

He stops at the Three Broomsticks for a restorative pint on his way, then heads straight to Andromeda’s by floo. 

He finds her in the kitchen, clearing up the remains of their recent cooking while a knitting project clacks away busily on the table by the hearth. 

She smiles at him wearily as he steps out and he goes to her for a hug. 

“Is he alright?” he asks into her hair. 

“In bed already.” She nods against his shoulder, leaning into him. “I didn’t let him read it himself, but I told him what it said. He seemed more incensed than anything - his hair’s been a defiant teal all evening,” she chuckles. 

Harry huffs a laugh, pulling back. “Good. Little bugger.” 

“You’ve only just missed Draco.” 

“What, already?” His trip north couldn’t have taken more than a few hours. 

“He discovered the identity of the prick who wrote it in.” 

“What? Who? ” 

Andromeda shakes her head. “He wouldn’t say, only that he should have guessed it from the first.” 

Harry stomach sinks, realizing with a sharp pang that he should have guessed as well - that the village Andromeda and Teddy call home is naught but a short ways to Bath, the very place where a certain blond Hufflepuff had retired for an extended visit to his aunt. A blond Hufflepuff with a vendetta against Draco, and past behavior displaying a decided lack of moral scruples. 

Zacharias had sent Harry an owl from his aunt’s Bath house not two days past, asking him if he’d like to join him there for a fly. Harry had Incendioed the letter before he’d even managed to finish it. 

“Draco assured me that he’d taken care of it - that this particular individual won’t be bothering us again,” Andromeda continues, giving Harry a meaningful look. 

Harry swallows, wanting to object - wanting to know just how much gold Smith had managed to swindle from Draco in his vile machinations. Wanting to know what exactly Smith’s decency - if it could be called that - had been worth. A generous sum, Harry has no doubt. 

“He apologized for his role in it, the noble idiot - as if the blame lies at his door,” Andromeda goes on, huffing fondly as she speaks of Draco. “He also said he’d gotten word that the Prophet will be publishing a retraction in tomorrow’s edition - some tripe about it ‘not being in the spirit of the paper to target innocent schoolchildren.’” She rolls her eyes, her resemblance to Draco jumping out strongly with the gesture. “They can shove their apologies back up their arses with their integrity, as far as I’m concerned.” 

Harry snorts. “Agreed.” 

“Have you eaten? I could fix you something.” 

“Mhmm, stopped into the Three Broomsticks for a pint and you know what Rosmerta is like. Came with ‘just a wee sandwich’ that was bigger than my head.” 

Andromeda chuckles. “You can’t fault people for wanting to take care of you, my dear - you’ve that look about you.” 

“What, the Harry Potter look?”

“Well, that, for some I’m sure. For most I think it’s the shy-puppy eyes you pull off so well. I’d accuse you of being dreadfully manipulative if I had any thought of you knowing you’re doing it.” 

“I do not -”

“Just as I said. It makes us all want to pet at you and coo. Even Draco asked if -” she cuts herself abruptly, turning toward the fire so that he cannot see her face. 

“What?” Harry asks, suddenly fixated. Needing to know. “What did Draco say?” 

She turns back to him with a tired smile. “Oh nothing, darling. I can hardly remember, now that I think on it. Now - feel free to check in on Teddy if you’d like, but I’m off to Bedfordshire. It’s been a day. Be a good lad and shut the floo behind you on your way out?” 

“Of course,” Harry tells her, bending his cheek toward her as she leans up for a parting kiss. 

He watches her move off down the hall, a candle floating above her to light the way. He wants to call her back, wants to ask again, wants to say Draco’s name out loud once more into the quiet of this familiar place. He doesn’t.

He pokes his head in to Ted’s room, to assure himself of the boy’s safety, cozily ensconced inside his quilts. Harry watches him for a long time, confirming the unperturbed rise and fall of the tiny chest by the light of a Lumos, then lets himself out. He goes home. 

---

Harry rattles around Grimmauld in a state of nameless agitation for the next few days, starting projects only to abandon them, wandering from room to room in search of nothing in particular. 

Neville rouses himself from his depression just long enough to share in Harry’s rant about the Prophet article, but subsides back into his listless gardening and forlorn sighing almost immediately. It still hurts Harry to look upon his longing-creased face, and he hardly knows how to comfort his friend when he feels so discomfited himself. 

The week passes slowly, the two of them bumping about the house like a couple of sad boggarts sharing the same closet. 

It’s Thursday-next when Harry goes to look absently out the window and freezes, caught by the sight of Draco Malfoy and Blaise Zabini standing next to the gate for Number Nine across the street. Harry’s heart jumps into his throat, his pulse pounding suddenly. 

Why are they here? And what are they doing dithering out there on the street? 

Are they having trouble getting the house to show itself? Seems very unlikely, given Blaise has been to visit them before with no sign of difficulty. And as for Malfoy - well, Harry wouldn’t put it past Grimmauld to reveal itself readily to Draco with or without the Fidelius in place, given how bloody obsessed it is with him. 

Harry peers at them through the part in the curtains; they appear to be having some sort of halting discussion, heads been close and looks of concentration creasing both of their faces. 

Harry pulls back, considering. Ought he go out and invite them in? Ought he to change first? He should likely put a jacket on, at least, if he’s to be receiving company - 

The door charm rings out into the silence of the house, startling him. He hears Kreacher pop into the entryway and open the door to greet them. 

Harry wants to roll his eyes at the almost fawning nature of Kreacher’s tone as he says, “Welcome, Master Malfoy,” but every muscle in his body seems distracted in trying to usher him down the stairs as fast as his feet can carry him. 

He clatters down with his usual grace, coming to an abrupt halt on the carpet of the foyer and - there. 

Draco meets his eye, face pleasantly passive, the light from the windows around the door limning his perfect posture against the dark wall of the narrow hall. 

Some of the light, anyway, the rest seems to have gathered in his hair; parted carefully and gleaming, a lovely contrast to the dark grey of his coat. 

A trailing tendril of one of Neville’s plants reaches out toward him from its shelf with a soft leaf to his shoulder. Draco glances toward it with a small smile that creases a dimple into his left cheek. 

Harry is so, so stupid. 

Grimmauld is practically singing its approval of Malfoy’s arrival around them - in fact, Harry can just make out the chiming notes coming from the dusty piano forte in the second floor drawing room, the melody just barely audible over the blood pulsing in his ears. 

He is suddenly and deeply nervous for Draco to see his home. It’s not that he’s embarrassed of it’s untidiness or it’s humble status in comparison to the stately Manor, but rather that he’s embarrassingly eager for Draco to see it - to take in and perhaps appreciate all the little homely touches that Harry’s life marks on the place.  For Draco to see him in it, to feel the way Harry had felt upon wandering into Draco’s private study the day of Teddy’s visit to the Manor. 

To see him. 

Harry is so deeply, deeply stupid. 

“Hello, Mister Potter,” Blaise says, breaking the silence with a strange, strained sort of formality, so uncharacteristic for him. “We’ve come to -” 

He’s cut off by Neville rounding the corner of the hall, coming in from the back garden. 

“Haz have you seen my shears with the built-in cauterizing charm? I need them for -” 

He trails off as he sees the three of them standing there, his wide eyes locked on Blaise. He’s got his straw gardening hat on, the one with the ear-flaps for Mandrake pruning, and there’s a wide swipe of dirt across his left cheekbone, more of it staining his shirtfront. 

Blaise takes a long look at him, then quickly sinks down to the floor - onto one knee. Right there on the worn rug of their foyer. 

Malfoy sighs beside him, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his straight nose between his finger and thumb. “Blaise that is not at all what we - did you listen to a word I said, outside?” he whispers wearily, sounding pained. “You were supposed to ask for a private moment, not just get right on with it in the bloody hall -” 

“I’m quite done with your advice, my friend - as well meant as it may be, it is the reason it’s even come to this, after all,” Blaise says to him steadily, his eyes never leaving Neville’s. 

“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Malfoy sighs, stepping back from him. “Carry on.” 

“I shall,” Blaise says, then clears his throat once, pointedly. Harry steps further out of the way as well. 

“My dear Neville,” Blaise begins steadily, though emotion colors his voice. “Please let me start by saying that I would have done this months ago - that I should have done this months ago. That I could have done so the very night we met.” 

Neville takes a step toward him, his cheeks flushed but his eyes warm and wet. 

“My reasons for waiting were confused, and my reasons for leaving were childish in the extreme. I wanted to give you time, I wanted to be sure you felt the same, I wanted to do it properly - but I wanted you, all that time I wanted you. I want you still. I’ve let my self-esteem get the better of me these past few weeks, and I shouldn’t have - I should have trusted this thing between us, should have trusted you to be true to your own -” 

“Do you ever stop talking?” Neville interrupts with an exasperated huff, though his eyes have gone fond and wet. 

“No,” Blaise answers, staring up at Neville beseechingly. “Would you want me to?”

Neville smiles wide, lips quivering only slightly. “No.” 

They stop to gaze at one another the air around them suddenly suffused with such exuberant joy that Harry feels intrusive. He gestures silently to Malfoy and they move together for the door. 

They step out onto the front steps, Harry closing the door behind him to give their friends a bit of privacy. 

A front stoop isn’t exactly private, but he and Draco are alone now, for all intents and purposes, and Harry’s stomach flips with the knowledge of it. Harry turns toward him, overly conscious of the two feet of space between them, of the gravity of the exchange taking place in the hall behind them. 

“Well,” Harry starts, unsure of where to go next, distracted by the way the breeze is pulling at the ends of Draco’s hair. 

“Yes.” Draco nods. 

“I -” 

“I don’t -” 

“Smith?” Harry blurts.

Draco’s nostrils flare briefly in distaste and he nods once, confirming Harry’s suspicions about the steps Draco must have taken to silence the bastard. “I should have exposed him long ago,” Draco mutters, “Would have, if I hadn’t been afraid of the fallout drawing attention to my own past. Too late on both counts, I suppose. Still, what’s done is done. It’s taken care of, for now.” 

“I,” Harry tries again, wondering how he should go about - 

“I should be off, I suppose,” Draco cuts him off in a low voice. “My assistance here is certainly not required further - it was rather superfluous to begin with,” he adds ruefully, his eyes smiling. 

“You’re going?” Harry blurts. “So soon? I mean, you can - you are free to stay, to wait for Blaise. If you’d like.” 

“I have a feeling that Blaise will insist on remaining in Mister Longbottom’s company for quite a while longer. The rest of his life, if he has anything to say about it.” 

“Ah. Well then, I do doubt you’d want to remain here all that time,” Harry concedes jokingly, feeling his cheeks heat in a blush. 

When he dares raise his eyes to Draco’s once more, he finds the man looking at him with a deeply serious expression. 

Draco doesn’t say anything, no words of agreement or departure. He makes no move to turn away. 

The heat of Harry’s blush drops through him like a comet, settling into his stomach and starting to fizz like a Whizbee. 

Draco steps back slowly, down one stair, breaking the spell slightly. The moment doesn’t fracture altogether, their shared gaze still hanging heavy between them, intensified by the fact that Malfoy’s change in step has put their faces on equal level. 

Harry breathes deep against the pull of the tension, wondering if he should say anything else. Wondering if he should thank Draco for Teddy, for today. Wondering if he should just ask - 

“Good day, Harry,” Draco says carefully, stepping backwards and down off the stoop. 

Harry stops just shy of reaching out to stop him, closing his eyes once Draco turns away so he doesn’t have to watch. 

He doesn’t open them again until he hears the muffled pop of Draco’s apparition. 

The street is buzzing with late afternoon activity, carriages moving to and fro and people on foot carrying themselves homeward. 

It seems empty to Harry, nonetheless. 

---

Blaise leaves just before suppertime, looking equal parts irrepressibly joyful at the state of the world and painfully regretful about his having to quit his current company in particular, such that Harry has a hard time looking directly at him. Neville looks much the same. 

They part with a mutual clutching of hands and soft murmurings that Harry can tell are being politely subdued for his benefit. 

Neville stands for a while at the door, gazing wistfully in the direction Blaise had taken until long after he had vanished in a turn of Apparition. 

Harry, who has been waiting leaned against the wall in the foyer behind him, watching and deciding just how best to tease, finds he can do nothing more than smile back at his friend and say, “Happy?”

“Positively sick with it,” Neville sighs, looking like he’d been blasted with a St. Mungo's caliber cheering charm. 

Harry snorts, wondering how much Nev’s jaw hurts from all this deranged grinning. “Would you like a restorative tea? Should I take you for a walk?” 

“Not even your jests can dampen these spirits, sorry,” Neville tuts good-naturedly, pushing past him toward the kitchen. “Is this what catching the snitch is like? Perhaps I should have taken up a broom after all.” 

“Hmm, I couldn’t say for sure, as I’ve never been proposed to by the love of my life,” Harry points out, before swallowing down an impending thought as his chest tightens. Not now. 

“You ought to give it a whirl, Haz, it’s pure magic,” Neville sighs again, digging through the basket Molly had sent over the day previous for a bread roll and a hunk of cheese. He tosses Harry a bap and hops up to sit on the table. “I’ve half a mind to make a Pensive memory. Merlin, does that make me an irredeemable sap?” 

“Possibly, but I think you're fully allowed - if for today only. Besides, of the pair of you you’re easily the more reserved - I guarantee Blaise has already made one and is planning on wearing it in a gilt vial around his neck for the rest of his days.” 

Neville groans and flops back onto the table with his arms spread out, the cheese dangling from one limp hand. “I’ll die. I’ll just die. No one can be this happy.” 

Harry laughs. 

“Neville Longbottom, champion of the battle of Hogwarts, slayer of demonic and gigantic serpents, was taken down by a barrage of sweet nothings and hand holdings. He is survived by thirty-seven plant children, all poisonous, and one besotted Frenchman, all handsome,” he intones gravely, making Neville giggle. 

Harry leans over on his chair to meet Neville’s eye with a smirk. 

“Speaking of snakes - can’t perish yet, Nev, you haven’t gotten to the wedding night.” 

Neville kicks out ineffectually with one hanging foot, aiming for Harry’s knee. Harry squirms out of the way, still laughing and stands, making for the door. 

“I’m so glad for you, Neville,” Harry says sincerely, turning back at the doorway. He truly is; such a deep and earnest love is no less than what his sweet friend deserves. 

“Thank you, Harry,” Neville offers quietly, satisfaction and excitement radiating off him in waves, and smiles. His forehead creases slightly as he continues, “I’m sorry he brought Malfoy with him - I know he isn’t one you’d choose to be around.” 

“Oh, I don’t - I didn’t mind it, as such,” Harry manages haltingly, his stomach gone to stone and sinking through him like a rock. All at once, choice seems to have nothing and everything to do with it. 

He thinks of Draco standing in his front hall, the whole house clamoring with welcome around him, Harry’s heart pulled along with it. Pulled along somewhere out of his own reach. 

“Neville,” he starts, his throat stoppered up with the gravel of his emotions. “Neville, I -” 

“Harry? What is it?” Neville asks, sitting up with his face wreathed in confused concern. 

“I,” Harry tries again, but cannot seem to make it any further. He wants to explain himself, to tell it all to Neville - if only to have his friend reflect it all back for him, that he himself might see it more clear. He wants the guidebook to his own heart laid out before him, so that he might see what roads are available to him, where he might go from here. 

He wants to say Draco’s name out loud, again and again until it fills the room enough to make up for the presence of the one he’s missing - suddenly and incongruously and deeply, profoundly missing. 

Choice forsooth. 

“Nothing,” he says instead, his voice sounding hollow to his own ears. “Goodnight, Nev. See you in the morning.” 

He turns out of the room, and heads upstairs for sleep. 

---

The room is still pitch dark around him when he jolts awake some hours later, a ringing in his ears and his heart pounding madly. He summons his wand and lights it, ears straining for the sound that had so rudely pulled him from slumber. 

“Potter! POTTER! ” 

There it is again: a bellowing screech of his own name in a half-familiar voice. For one quick moment Harry wonders if Walburga’s portrait has found a way to drag herself out of the attic - nightmarish possibility that it is - before he realizes it's coming from the first floor, in the direction of the kitchen. 

He springs out of bed and out the door, all the while that voice yelling imposingly from below, “Potter! Potter! Pot-TER

Slipping wildly on the flagstones in the hall as he rounds into the room, loudly grumbling, “Who in the absolute bloodiest hell is -”

There’s a head flickering in the flames of his kitchen hearth. 

One look tells Harry exactly who it is. The man is wearing an older version of Draco’s thin face, his longer hair pulled back into a severe queue that makes his widow’s peak stand out sharply on his forehead. 

Lucius Sodding Malfoy. 

You,” both men say in unison, in equal tones of scathing reproach. 

“I’m pretty sure you dropping your head in uninvited violates the terms of your parole - not to mention certainly violates my wards!” Harry splutters around a wave of indignation. “How did you even - how did you know my address?” 

The head in the floo sneers at him, an ugly twist of thin lips. “I wouldn’t trouble yourself with my means except to know that I have them, Potter, and can and will use more direct methods than this!” 

Harry gapes at him. “Are you threatening me?” 

“Harry, waz - who’zzat?” 

Neville appears behind him, stumbling in in his nightshirt and rubbing sleep from his eyes. 

Harry crosses his arms over his bare chest and sends the grate the most poisonous glare he can muster. “ That would be Mister Malfoy,” he tells Neville, hissing the words out. 

Neville blinks blearily. “Draco, but why - wazze done to his hair?” 

“No not Draco - the elder. And I’m about to banish him post haste, so you can go back to bed now,” Harry instructs him, raising his wand menacingly toward the hearth. 

“You, sure?” Neville yawns. “Do you want -” 

“I’m fine Nev, go.” 

“You listen here, Potter,” Lucius spits, interrupting. “Word has reached me of your - interference with my son, and I am here to tell you that I will not stand for it! Such a disgusting farce of a match could not be borne!” 

Harry’s cheeks burn, his gut churning. 

If Harry had any doubts before now that he’d been wrong about the coldness of Draco’s eyes, he is sure of it now. For here before him he has a true example; the face in the flames, so like Draco’s, but vastly different from it, all the same; a rictus of cruelty, a dead-eyed glare that makes a chill run through Harry’s chest to observe. 

Draco’s eyes aren’t cold, not really. Or if they are - not cold like ice is cold, but rather cold like steel is cold. Not frigidity due to lack of heat, but rather strength forged of it. 

Harry sets his jaw and grits out, with exaggerated formality, “Just what is it exactly that you are accusing me of, sir?” 

“This engagement! This intention of yours to be bound with my son - such a laughable, repellent concept that it is!” 

Harry gapes at the man, at a complete loss for what to counter to this. 

“He’s using you, Potter,” Lucius continues, contempt dripping from every word. “This dalliance could be nothing more than his attempt to get in on the winning side, to secure himself a position in your ranks! This ridiculous notion of a return to England is nothing but pretense - it’s not who he is. ” 

Harry almost laughs at this ridiculous contradiction of this speech. “You’d think if that was the case that you would encourage him for pulling one over on the Golden Boy! What, is his operating on the lowest of his character only acceptable to you when you yourself are the architect of it?” he scoffs. 

Lucius ignores this, nostrils flaring, and goes on, “I will not see him sully himself with the likes of you just to ingratiate himself to your side! You half-blood, posturing excuse for a -” 

“The war is over, old man!” Harry bellows. “It’s been over! There are no sides!” 

He pauses for a breath but soon finds himself hurtling on, needing to say, “Draco wasn’t even properly on yours - which lost , by the way, twice - to begin with! He was a kid, and he was fucking stupid, and full of the shite you stuffed his head with! But he’s more than that now. And the man he is has absolutely nothing to do with you!” 

This time he does pause, breathing heavily for a few beats and taking in Lucius’ sputtering, irate expression with no small degree of satisfaction. 

“No,” he admits, stepping closer and hunching down in close to the fire. When he speaks again he lowers his voice, filling it with his deep conviction, hoping to drive the point home. “No, that’s not true is it - he has designed himself specifically to be as little like you as he can manage. And he’s all the better for it. And if we were engaged - if we were , I’d be proud of it. Because his value cannot be reduced to his role in some demented fight that was started before he was even born. He’s more than that - he’s made himself more than that. More than you could ever hope to be.” 

The two men stare at one another for a long moment, a silent battle Harry has no intention of losing. 

The face in the flames swallows convulsively, then speaks. “So you are not - you are not tied?” 

Harry swallows his own pang or regret and flare of temper that wants to ask just what business it would be of this vile toad’s anyhow, in favor of saying, simply, “We are not. Bully for you. May it be a comfort to you in your cold, festering lack of a heart. Goodnight, sir.” 

He flicks his arm wand in a definitive gesture, smothering the fire in the hearth with a resounding whoosh.

The smoldering ashes stare back at him, lifeless and silent. 

Harry stays there, crouched in the dark, for a long while. 

---

He ends up in the back garden after a time, sitting on the low stone wall that encircles Neville’s plot of slightly less dangerous, slightly more edible cultivars. Harry can smell the heady musk of the rosemary to his right, the clean snap of the spearmint behind him. 

He breathes in deeply, wondering if he should go upstairs and try for a few hours rest. The world around him is turning over fitfully, just on the underside of waking. He can just make out the outlines of the leaves and stems around him, the stark lines of Grimmauld’s walls rising above. 

He sighs, feeling no tiredness, and uses his wand to summon a jumper and his broom. 

He kicks off with no real destination in mind, but once he rises above the sleeping streets of London he finds his broom handle pointing westward. He thinks of the herd of wild thestrals Draco had shown them, the glorious charm of the sight - of the way the awe had brightened Draco’s eyes, their silver shifting soft - and flies on.  

He finds the thestrals not far off where they’d last been, roaming and grazing on a hillside covered in checkered lilies. He hovers above them a little ways off, soothed by the sounds of their munching and the waking birdsong from the row of trees to the south. 

Suddenly something catches his eye and he turns his head, squinting his eyes against the early dim. 

There

It’s Draco, on broomstick, approaching slowly in the blue-tinged light of pre-dawn.  

He’s still in his nightshirt, the collar of it undone and the hem tucked haphazardly into a pair of linen breeches. He looks soft, and steady, and Harry’s heart clenches painfully warm at the sight of him. 

He comes within a few feet and pauses, hovering just out of reach. 

“I couldn’t sleep,” Harry manages, in lieu of a greeting. 

Draco’s stare on him is a blissfully weighted thing, bolstering him against the light breeze and the tumult of his own cresting feelings. 

“Nor I,” Draco tells him, his voice as soothing as the birdsong. He grimaces. “My father -” 

Harry smiles, letting the grimace in it show. “Yes, he popped his head in.”

“I figured as much, considering the length and content of the Howler I received in the early hours,” Draco sighs. “Wondering how I had duped the Boy Who Lived into sticking up for me. You’d think if I actually had managed such a feat he’d be proud of my trickery.”

“That’s what I said,” Harry offers, still smiling.  

They grin at one another, caught on it, before Draco continues on gravely, “I’m sorry he involved himself with you. His hateful presence isn’t something I’d wish anyone to bear - least of all you.” He swallows, looking away, toward the horizon. “But I must admit that his - intervention, and your supposed reaction to it has given me - well, something akin to hope. Hope that I have scarcely allowed myself until now.” 

He looks back to Harry, eyes as depth-less as a Pensive. 

“I know enough of your stubbornness that nothing could have altered your inclination toward despising me except your own bullheaded free will,” Draco jests, a weak grin trembling on his lips. “And if that has changed, if you no longer detest me so fully, than perhaps - perhaps there is some hope that we might - that we might go forward. Together.” 

Harry wants to speak, but he finds he has no words, his throat stoppered up with a hot lick of joy - sparking warmth through him like one of Hermione’s conjured blue flames. 

Draco continues, hesitant, “If friendship, or even mere acquaintance is as far as you are inclined to travel, I will take it, and with joy. But I will tell you that my own - that the direction of my wishes has not altered. Even if my sorry opinion of your birds nest of a head has.” 

Harry smiles at him, his own eyes gone watery and hot. “You know, you haven’t really gotten any better at this.”

“I know.” Draco shrugs gracefully, the corner of his mouth pulling up in a small, devastatingly uncertain smirk. “I was rather hoping you had.” 

Harry flies just a bit closer. “If this is going to work you can’t always rely on me to be the brave one. Just ‘cause I was a Gryffindor in school.” 

“Yet again I will remind you that I did not attend Hogwarts, Potter, and haven’t the faintest idea what you mean with all your Griffin-whatsit talk. Though from your attitude I can only conclude that they are - without exception - a lot of foolhardy prats.” Draco flies closer still. His voice is low, ringing with sincerity when he goes on, “I will also remind you that a specific foolhardy prat once told me the most important thing to do was try - not that I had to be good at it.” 

Harry answers this by inching forward again, until their knees are touching, hovering there beside one another in the morning air. 

Draco inhales sharply at the contact, then whispers, “I was just hoping this time you’d see it, even if there isn’t much of it to look at.” 

“Well,” Harry says, letting the word hang in the air for a moment, letting the possibility of it bloom between them. “Sit still and let me look,” he adds, feeling his happiness bloom with it, wide over his own mouth. 

The matching smile dawns over Draco’s face like the sun. 

Harry feels blinded by it. Against his own words he closes his eyes, leaning forward to press his forehead to Draco’s chest. After a beat he feels Draco lower his head, pressing his cheek to the crown of Harry’s. 

It’s precarious, holding still together at a height, and Harry can feel them start to sink slowly earthward as they fail to break their tentative embrace. 

The hillside has come fully awake around them; the thestrals grazing, the birds calling raucously in the trees and dipping down to rustle the dew-damp grasses; the sun shining steadily upon them as they float, unmoving, heads bent close. Facing one another. 

---

“Harry, have you gone out of your mind?” 

“No - firmly in it. I had them check after I ousted the Dark Lord - make sure he hadn’t taken any of me with him,” Harry jests, tapping a finger against his temple. 

Arthur frowns, clearly unwilling to let Harry make light of the situation. 

“I was quite positive you hated the man. You were very insistent upon the point, if I recall,” he says, going slowly as if reminding Harry of something akin to ‘the sky is blue’ or ‘Ginny dislikes skirts.’  

Harry sighs. “Er, yeah. I’ve come ‘round.” 

Is he really going to have to say it? He hasn’t even said it to Draco yet. 

“I distinctly remember you referring to him as ‘a stuck-up, posturing pillock with a chin that could only be the result of dedicated inbreeding’ -” 

“I love him,” Harry blurts, not wanting to hear further rehashing of his previous opinions in Arthur’s concerned tone. “Even though he is a bit of a pillock. I rescind the comment about the inbreeding. I quite like his chin. And the rest of him, actually. I’m really - exceedingly mad for him, Arthur.” 

Arthur looks at him with a grim set to his jaw, as if he’s contemplating the need to physically overpower Harry and drag him to St. Mungo's. 

“Listen - are you only doubtful due to my past behavior?Or do you have any objection to him yourself? I do value your opinion,” Harry says with sincerity, though he tries not to huff with impatience at this conversation in general. He’s suddenly furious with Draco for insisting they go immediately to the Weasley’s to secure ‘their blessing’ even though they’re both adults and can very well get married if they damned well please and without input from third parties of any kind. 

After all, it isn’t as if Harry is going to be doing the same with Lucius. 

“Not if you want to retain all of your limbs,” Draco had snorted when Harry had said as much. Then he had frowned nervously and said in a small voice, “I do hope you’ll be willing to meet my mother, someday?” 

“Of course I will,” Harry had assured him, reaching for his hand. “I just don’t see why we need to approach it as if we are asking permission -” 

“They’re your family,” Draco had insisted again for the fourth time during their stroll. “They matter to you, and that matters to me. I know you are a tragic orphan with a contempt for formality, but - 

“If rules weren’t meant to be broken, why are they always getting in the way?” Harry had pointed out, also for the fourth time in the last hour. He had thought the point valid enough to forestall argument the first time he’d said it. “Speaking of which - I cannot believe you made us stop to change.” 

“I am not attending your family on this matter in my nightshirt ,” Draco had said, in tones so scandalized Harry had had to laugh. 

He’d leaned in to straighten Draco’s somber formal cloak, giggling, “You look like a vicar.” 

Draco had shot him a wavering glare and warningly announced, “Divorce.” 

“We aren’t even married yet!” 

Draco had answered this one by tucking an errant lock of hair behind Harry’s ear with a fondly exasperated sort of expression that had made Harry forget he was capable of speech or laughter altogether. 

Harry sighs at himself, remembering this, before refocusing his attention on Arthur, who is still contemplating him in a highly serious manner that is making Harry want to fidget. 

“I can’t say that I have any personal protestations, no,” Arthur offers, slowly. “We all know him to be a proud, grumpy sort of bugger. Dubious past, of course. But all of that pales in comparison to your evident feeling - we could all only want happiness for you, dear boy. Do you really - do you love him, truly?” 

Harry heart catches, both on the earnest warmth in Arthur’s words and on the weight of the truth that sits in his gut. 

“I do. He’s - we’re of a pair, him and me. I don’t know why it took me so long to see it.” He pauses swallowing against a rush of emotion. “No, I do - it’s because we’re both stubborn, stupid prats, just as bad as each other. But I see it now - I see him. And even with his mistakes, past and present, he’s trying. He tries so hard. Everything he’s done, these past weeks, he’s - I can’t -” 

“Circe, you really do,” Arthur says, wonderingly.  

Harry’s smile is watery. “Yes.” 

Arthur smiles back, beaming. “You do know Molly is going to be insufferable about this, don’t you? Ecstatic.” 

“You think?”

“I know. She’ll likely be convincing everyone she had a hand in it, too.” 

“Well it was her notion, at the first. Though I don’t think anyone could have dictated this particular turn of events. It hardly feels as if Draco or I had a say in it, to be true.” 

“Hearts do have a way of making up their own minds,” Arthur agrees, grinning in a knowing and distinctly soppy sort of way. Harry feels tears prick at his eyes once more. “I’m overjoyed for you, dear boy. Such a happy match is no less than you deserve, and exactly what your parents would have wished for you. I did not know them so well as others, but I know that much.” 

“Thank you, Arthur.” 

Arthur stands and reaches out to clasp a hand on Harry’s shoulder, squeezing. “Now let’s go out and find your Mister Malfoy, before Molly asphyxiates him with her glee. Or possibly with an entire roast chicken - she has mentioned her opinion of his ‘underfed state’ on more than one occasion. You can be assured she will try to rectify that, now they are in closer acquaintance.” 

Harry snorts. 

They extricate themselves from Arthur’s study and find Draco in the parlor, standing stiffly with his arms out as Molly flutters about, measuring different lengths of Draco’s frame with a glowing spell. 

“Green,” she is muttering, “green most assuredly. To match Harry’s eyes.” 

“Surely not that green, Madam - I’d run risk of looking like an enormous Bowtruckle,” Draco says politely, sounding a bit strained. 

He glances over and meets Harry’s eyes, the look on his pale face equal parts terrified and dutifully eager. Harry can’t help but beam at him. 

Draco, it seems, can’t help but beam right back. 

“Bottle green then, as opposed to emerald,” Molly goes on, nodding as she moves around Draco’s torso. “Still striking, but that little bit subdued.” 

“Draco doesn’t like green,” Harry says, moving further into the room and propping himself against the mantle to watch. 

“That’s not entirely true,” Draco replies, eyes never leaving Harry’s his grin unfaltering but going softer somehow, deeper. “I can think of a few notable exceptions.” 

If it were possible to cast a Patronus wandlessly, Harry thinks his own would have manifested spontaneously between them. Harry feels lit up from within, warm and tingling and wanting to get at Draco with his hands. 

Which is of course an embarrassing sort of mood to be caught out in in front of your adoptive parents, so he clears his throat and looks away from Draco before the feeling can get any more acute. 

“Harry!” Molly gushes, turning to him. “Oh Harry, I’m so happy for you, darling! The pair of you! I did say it - I did - oh, happy days!” 

“Thanks, mum,” Harry says, hugging her and dropping a kiss to the top of her bright head. 

“And thank you, Haz, for affiancing Malfoy just so I can get closer to Parkinson,” Ginny teases as she comes into the room, angling close to Harry’s side for her own tight embrace before turning to Draco with a smirk like a shark’s. “Jolly good of you. So, Draco, when will she be returning from France? Has she mentioned me in your correspondence? How many times has she mentioned me?” 

Draco turns to her, looking hasty to get some distance between himself and Molly’s questing pins. “She has plans to travel back to England early next month, and by my count she has very deliberately and conspicuously not mentioned you roughly two dozen times.” 

Ginny winks at him. “Excellent. Luna will be pleased.” 

“Hush, Ginevra, Harry and Draco don’t want to talk about Miss Parkinson right now,” Molly tuts lightheartedly, then her brow furrows. “Though that would be a most splendid match - what do you think, Draco? Do you know anything of Miss Parkinson’s inclinations?” 

Harry laughs around at the group of them, brimming with an effusive sort of joy he can barely contain, as bright and capable as the magic in his veins. 

The group around him laughs back, each caught up in the shared happiness of the occasion, their glowing, familiar faces warming him like a charm. 

Across from him Draco’s smile again takes up like a flame, lighting his face like the spark of a candle. Lighting the room like a Lumos in the dark. 

---

Some time later, after they have extricated themselves from the well-wishes and good-natured prying of Harry’s family, Draco and Harry apparate together to Grimmauld Place. They walk slowly down the little street towards Harry’s door, savoring the moment, neither at all inclined to rush toward the stoop and the eventual point of Draco’s parting. 

The evening is touching down around them, the soft afternoon light rounding the edges of everything it touches, the city’s bustle quieting perceptibly as it settles into night. 

Their elbows brush on every other step, and Harry’s whole being trills with the contact. 

They arrive ultimately at Harry’s door, both hesitating to lay their goodbyes, the polite foot of distance between them singing. 

“When did you know?” Draco asks suddenly, soft with a shyness Harry has not often seen on him. 

Harry knows what he is asking, but is unsure quite how to answer. He thinks back himself, over the short time of their acquaintance, all their rustling and teasing, the push and pull of their ungainly dance. He looks into Draco’s light eyes, studying the way the sun’s late glow sparks and smooths them, one and the same. 

This steel bright man, this man before him. His

Harry has someone now, someone for his own. Someone strange and lovely; someone annoying and true; someone he can love and be loved by, for nothing but themselves and the affinity between them. 

He wonders at the path that had taken them here - long and winding, disparate and fraught - wonders how he could have walked so long, facing backward. 

He supposes that it doesn’t matter, so long as they’ve found their direction. So long as they’ve found a way to face one another. 

“I know now,” Harry replies, sure with it, strong with the conviction of his own furnace-hot heart, of the thing they are forging between them. 

Draco smiles, the slightest thinning of pink lips. Harry leans across the space between them for a taste. 

Draco meets him, mouth magic-warm under Harry’s own, the day’s last light bathing them both in gold.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry awakens to find the bedclothes had turned maroon around them overnight. 

“Ugh,” Draco moans, seeing them as Harry swishes his wand to part the curtains and let in the soft morning light. “This house is starting to favor you. Gryffindor red, how gauche,” he adds, in as scathing a tone as he can muster with his throat still thick with sleep. 

“How would you know,” Harry questions, swiftly pushing his face into the soft spot between Draco’s jaw and shoulder, away from the sudden glare of the sun. 

“I’ve been reading Hogwarts, A History,” Draco informs him smugly, stretching against him with a yawn. He cracks his toes one by one, the way he does every morning. 

Harry snorts at his clear self-satisfaction, wondering if he got the idea from Hermione. He’ll likely claim to know more about the castle than Harry, once he’s finished with it. 

They make no move to rise, languishing in the shared moment of lassitude. 

Harry dozes while Draco rubs at him, tracing mindless symbols and the occasional letter onto Harry’s bare shoulder. 

It takes Harry a moment to register when Draco starts spelling out his name: H - A - R - R - Y.

Harry smiles into the crook of his neck and says, offhandedly, remembering, “It’s ‘Hari’ actually. H-A-R-I.” 

Draco’s finger stops its glide abruptly and his body stiffens under Harry’s. Harry looks up to his face to find his grey eyes gone comically wide. 

“Don’t fucking tell me I’ve been spelling your name wrong this entire bloody time ,” Draco gasps out, looking mortified. 

Harry snorts and re-buries his head into Draco’s nook. He yaws against him, feeling some of the tension leave Draco’s body at his easy reaction. 

“No, my legal name is ‘Harry’ - proper British, it’s in the records. But I found some letters in Sirius’ things at Grimmauld that my grandmother and Da had sent back and forth during the war, and they call me ‘Hari’ in them. I don’t know if it was simply a nickname they had for me or something more. She moved back to Dhaka before my father died.” 

Harry swallows, feeling the soothing slide of Draco’s hand begin again between his shoulder blades, somehow even softer. 

“Hmmm,” Draco hums encouragingly, but Harry doesn’t continue. 

They’re quiet for a long moment, listening to the calls of the morning birds outside. 

“Is there anything else I need know about my own husband?” Draco asks after a while, gently teasing as he scritches his fingernails against Harry’s nape. “A secret fluency in Portuguese, perhaps? Hidden birthmarks?” 

Harry arches into the tickling touch, smiling. 

“I don’t recall ever learning a single word of Portuguese,” Harry tells him. “And as for birthmarks - I’m fairly certain you would have found them already.” 

Draco gazes down at him through half-lidded eyes, one corner of his mouth tucked in on a sly smirk. 

“Yes, I suppose I would have.” 

He moves quickly, flipping Harry beneath him in a swift motion that makes Harry squawk in surprise. 

“Though I suppose there is no harm in having a long and thorough search,” Draco mumbles, his mouth already moving down Harry’s chest. 

Harry squeaks a bit before ultimately giving in to the siege, as he always does. He’s already sighing like a maiden when Draco makes his way back up toward his face, peppering kisses over Harry’s throat, then the bridge of his nose. 

Si beau,” Draco states casually, gazing at him with an intensity that is anything but. 

It makes Harry want to preen and hide in equal measure. He settles for a combination of the two, feeling his cheeks heating in a blush as he basks in his husband’s admiration. 

He supposes Draco is allowed to fawn over him, from time to time. 

Just as he is allowed the opportunity to tease Draco in turn, as often as he likes. 

“When we first met you called me ugly,” Harry reminds him with a smirk, watching as the tiny furrow dents Draco’s brow.  

“I did not,” Draco says with crisp confidence, but the tips of his ears have colored slightly; Harry knows to look for that now. 

Harry raises an eyebrow. 

“Not to your face, anyway,” Draco teases him back with faux-innocence, then yips, “Aie!” when Harry gives his right nipple a quick twist. 

“No, you’re right - what you did was refer to me as decidedly ‘not handsome,’” Harry quips, squirming a bit, hoping to tickle Draco into a full-on blush. 

“Yes, I was exceedingly charming - I am so fond of you reminding me,” Draco mumbles, rolling his eyes at his past self before dead-weighting onto Harry’s chest, so that he can hide his reddened face into the pillow under Harry’s head. 

Harry laughs, trying to dislodge him enough to make eye contact again. He manages to wrestle Draco to the side a bit, so they’re lying chest-to-chest. 

Draco sighs ruefully and continues, “What actually happened was that I’d grown up hearing all about your far-off heroics and singular talents and generally feeling wholly inadequate in comparison. I consoled myself by imagining you some kind of demigod - someone whose superhuman abilities would forestall comparison altogether. It was a very soothing outlook, bolstered by the assurance that I’d likely never be required to meet you face to face.” 

He reaches up to trace an absent finger down the bridge of Harry’s nose. 

“Then we did meet, and I found you so sweetly human and charmingly unaffected by it all, thereby proving I was wholly inadequate. And so I decided to dislike you, as a matter of principle. I’m too vain creature I’m afraid, to have handled meeting you in all your state with anything but ill grace. Not the best color on me, but there it is.” He sighs again, but this time a smile brightens his face, even as his eyes drift shut sleepily. “Then you had to go and be all lovable and ruin it.” 

Harry decides it’s his turn to blush. He squirms again in Draco’s grasp, insisting, “So you’re saying I’m not ugly?” 

Draco cracks an eye and peers over at him with an exasperated expression. 

“I say, you’re an awfully needy man for someone so sure of himself all the time,” he grouses quietly, as if to himself.  

He rolls even closer to Harry and looks him straight in the eye, pinning him, as he continues, “You are perfectly beautiful, among your many other accomplishments. It’s quite annoying, actually, if I think too much about it - the icing sugar on top of an already well-festooned cake. Surely you don’t need me to tell you your attractions are boundless, I’ve already made that case by acting a complete fool over you - I think I’ve done enough on that count to tide us for the rest of our lives.” 

Harry doesn’t agree. He’d quite like to see Draco be foolish over him again. He’d liked it enough the first time - well, actually, he hadn’t, convinced as he was of Draco’s unredeemable priggishness, but retrospect is everything. 

Knowing him as he does now, loving him as he does now, Harry thinks he wouldn’t mind at all seeing the depth of Draco’s regard. Now that he can trust it. 

Harry still hasn’t quite gotten over the novelty of it yet - this feeling of being adored in a way he can believe, can luxuriate in. It feels foreign, and risky, and so lovely he could burst with it. 

“Maybe I want you to tell me,” he says, aiming for a confident, teasing tone, but something in his voice must give him away. 

Draco looks at him as if he can read the inside of his head. Harry loves it, and hates how much he loves it, and then loves it even more. 

“What is it you want to hear?” Draco asks softly, gazing at him, gazing through him. “Would you like to hear about my delight in looking at you? In just getting to see your face, knowing you are close enough to touch? That I can touch? That you’ll want it - that you’ll be looking back at me?”

Harry does so now, feeling as if the breath has stuck in his chest, the focus of Draco’s grey eyes stoppering him up like a bottle of champagne. Everything in him suddenly fizzing, rising the surface. 

Draco slides up over him once more, entangling their bare legs and propping himself over Harry with a hand pressed steadily to his chest, right over his heart. 

“Do you want to hear of how happy I am to be near you, always?” Draco continues, his sleep-graveled voice calm and sure. “How deeply, completely, incandescently happy you make me, just by being you?” 

Harry breathes under him, feeling the surge of his own blood, effervescent in his skin. 

“Yes,” he says, swallowing against the joyful bubbles in his veins. “Yes, I think I would.” 

 

 

The End