On Thursday night, the gentle pitter-patter of rain, like the scurrying of little mouse feet, fell upon Gryffindor Tower. The large gold clock above the mantel read half past one in the morning.
Harry and Ron were sat at the foot of the large armchair by the fire, staring blearily at their half-finished Potions essays. Classes had been unrelenting, but the warm fire and red wool were cozy, and the two were fast becoming lulled into a stupor.
From the armchair above them, there came a sudden gasp.
Rubbing his eyes, Harry looked up and saw Hermione clutching a slip of parchment. His Potions book lay open on her lap.
Shit. Harry’s heart thudded to his feet. Any sign of sleep left him at once.
Hermione was staring at him beseechingly, her warm brown eyes round and her cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry, Harry, I didn’t mean to read it!” she squeaked. “I just opened your book—to look up the ingredients for Stomach-Settling potion, I haven’t got mine with me—and this fell out.”
Harry willed his heart back to his chest. The initial alarm he’d felt upon seeing her discovery had faded—there was no way for her to know who the note was from—but he felt strangely uncomfortable, as if she were looking at him naked. He itched to grab the scrap of parchment from her hands.
Hermione’s face was pink, and her gaze combed him relentlessly.
“What’s happened?” yawned Ron. “And why are you looking at Harry like he’s told you he thinks McGonagall’s fit?”
Hermione started, seeming to realize that she had been staring at Harry rather peculiarly. “Um, do you mind, Harry…?”
Yes. Harry didn’t want Ron seeing it. He didn’t want anyone seeing it. But he couldn’t very well tell his friends that.
Ron sighed exasperatedly and grabbed the note. “Honestly, you two, what—”
Red patches appeared on his freckled face as he read it.
“Blimey, Harry, who gave you this? Because that’s sure as hell not your handwriting.”
Harry’s gut twisted. Give it back. He mussed his hair, feeling the need to do something with his hands.
Hermione, who continued to stare at him, recited breathily, “If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave.”
Heat crept up Harry’s neck as the words coiled around him once again. The image of Malfoy, unbidden, surfaced: his slender fingers gliding along parchment, and then sliding down to touch Harry’s, slipping the note into them.
His hand had been so warm. Harry flushed gently, and his fingertips tingled.
“Harry, who—?” She paused. “Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.”
“Uh, what-what-what?” Ron swiveled to face her.
“It’s a quote from a book.”
“Yes, a book, Ronald. A thing people read?” Her eyes still hadn’t left Harry’s. “Granted, it’s a muggle book.”
“I know what you meant,” Ron grumbled. He grinned conspiratorially at Harry, wiggling his eyebrows in a way that Harry didn’t care to see ever again. “I just assumed it was a steamy note some bird passed Harry. Now, which bird is the question—a kinky one, no doubt.”
“Women aren’t birds,” she said automatically. “...And it is, essentially.” She blushed. “Harry, you haven’t said anything.”
Face hot, Harry cleared his throat. Feigning nonchalance, he said, “What’s to say?”
Hermione’s eyes narrowed, and the fever that seemed to have taken over her passed as quickly as it came. Absentmindedly, Harry pitied her future children; his best friend was like Fang with a bone.
“What’s to say?” she asked, incredulous. “I don’t know, let’s start with who wrote you this? And why haven’t you told us about her?”
Her. Harry felt ill.
Ron snorted, itching his nose with his quill. “Give him a break, ‘Mione, you sound like Mum. He’ll tell us soon enough. Won’t you, Harry?”
“Right,” he said. He couldn’t help but feel a little guilty: Ron looked especially guileless with ink all over his face.
Hermione squinted at Harry, but then shrugged as if she couldn’t have cared less. She delved back into the book. Ron seemed to contemplate Harry for a moment. Then he handed the note to him and resumed gazing listlessly at his Potions essay. Harry thought Hermione’s nose seemed too deeply buried in the book to actually read it and, ruefully, pictured gears turning in her head.
No matter. She wouldn’t have even been able to conceive the possibility. Harry could barely believe it himself.
It all started, like everything always seemed to, with Harry’s plain bad luck. Their Potions professor Nimeria Boughbranch, who’d replaced Slughorn after last year forced him into retirement in Majorca, had allotted the class a mere forty-five minutes to brew Derma-Gro, a topical burn-healing potion. Now, this wasn’t nearly enough time. It wasn’t his fault. Not to mention that none another Malfoy had been seated next to him, after Ron and Hermione took the only other available table with only a couple of guilty glances back at him. And Malfoy was purposefully unnerving Harry, with his studied silence and covert glances.
So if anyone were to blame when the cauldron exploded, it most definitely was not Harry. There was a deafening bang, and he and Malfoy were suddenly engulfed in a bubble-gum pink, curiously minty-smelling concoction that immediately began to smart and sizzle. At once, Professor Boughbranch doused them off in an icy jet of water that left Harry shivering, soaked, and more than a little embarrassed.
“Nice one, Potter,” spat Malfoy.
“Speaking now, are you?” Harry muttered as Boughbranch stalked over to them.
“If you needed my help, you should have just asked for it. I’d forgotten how pitifully useless you are. Now, thanks to your fat head, my potion’s gone to the dogs.”
“What a marvelous idea, Malfoy,” said Boughbranch. “Maybe if you lent some of your no doubt esteemed expertise to Potter, you could tell him not to add the dittany on high heat and why.” She stood, waiting for an response. Harry was bemused—it almost felt as if she were blaming Malfoy for his potion exploding (not that he didn’t, but that was beside the point). Malfoy looked similarly confused, his wet, white-blond hair plastered to his forehead.
“No?” asked Boughbranch, her raised brows especially frizzy. “Pity. You’ll both have to brew it again here at nine tonight.”
When she swept away, Harry swore that he got the foulest look from Malfoy that he’d ever received in his entire life, and that included the time he’d tried to Crucio him. Harry thought Malfoy might curse him right then and there, Broughbranch or not. But instead he began cleaning in stony silence, and when class ended, strode away with only a parting venomous glare.
Rather tame for him, Harry thought, as he packed up and hurried away, Ron and Hermione in tow.
“Detention with Malfoy,” groaned Ron. “It’s first year all over again.”
“Except I’ll be alone. Just Crucio me, it’ll hurt less,” said Harry moodily. “Way to abandon ship, you two.”
“Sorry,” said Hermione unconvincingly. “Could you blame us, though?”
Nine-o-clock came reluctantly that night, and Harry set off for the dungeons. When he arrived, he saw Boughbranch seated at her desk, with two cauldrons on adjacent tables front of her. Malfoy had yet to show up.
“Thank you for being on time, Potter,” said Boughbranch. “You may begin.”
Ten minutes passed, and Harry had just finished up preparing his ingredients when Malfoy sauntered in. Sparing Boughbranch a careless apology, he retrieved his ingredients from the store closet and began chopping. Harry snuck a glance over and realized he’d forgotten his sandthorns; he quickly grabbed them and ignored Malfoy’s low snort.
A knock at the door sounded, and a third-year girl with blonde ringlets entered. When she saw Harry, her face turned the color of his potion (a deep red rather than the pale pink it was supposed to be).
“Professor,” she squeaked. “The Headmistress is asking for you.”
Boughbranch frowned. “Thank you, dear. I’ll be there in a moment,” she said, and to Harry and Malfoy, “Thirty minutes, boys, and those potions best be passable. Or you’ll both be back tomorrow.” She left along with the beet-faced girl.
Harry glanced over at Malfoy and noticed his was an infuriating candyfloss pink. It only fed his annoyance. It was already October, and Harry was getting no better at Potions. He’d thought he’d almost had it this morning—until his potion had decided to explode. And this effort so far seemed to be going worse than the previous one.
Harry had always contributed his failures at Potions to Snape, and then again to his over-reliance on the Half-Blood Prince his sixth year. But he was rapidly beginning to accept that he was just shit at it. If he closed his eyes, he could see his future aurorship soaring away on the back of a hook-nosed owl.
“You’re stirring the wrong way,” said Malfoy suddenly.
“Honestly, Potter, can’t you read? Three stirs, alternating clockwise and counter.”
Harry glared at Malfoy suspiciously. If it had been anyone else, he might have accepted the help.
“Suit yourself,” shrugged Malfoy.
Harry squinted at his book through the fumes and noted that Malfoy had been right. He stirred clockwise, counted thrice, and then stirred counter clockwise. The potion frothed and lightened a shade.
Harry looked at it, then at Malfoy. “And why are you helping me?”
“You heard Boughbranch. I’m not coming back here,” said Malfoy. “And your half-witted arse needs all the help it can get.”
“Ever the pompous prick,” said Harry, but there wasn’t much bite to his words.
He’d noticed that, recently. He and Malfoy had always traded insults like chocolate frog cards, but now there was something unspoken between them. Perhaps it was Malfoy trying to Crucio him, Malfoy cornering him in the Room of Requirement, and Malfoy lying to his father that night in the manor.
And Harry slicing him open, seeing him bleed out, his blood swirling on the wet tiles; Harry watching him point his wand at Dumbledore, then faltering; Harry coming back for him in the Fiendfyre, pulling him out of the scorching flames as they licked at their ankles.
There was—putting it mildly—never any love lost between them, but now the vitriol in their words had lessened. Something had changed.
“Hellooo—Earth to Potter? Fantasising about your fan club? What, that thirteen year old turn you on? Your potion’s boiling over, peabrain.”
And yet nothing had. Malfoy was still a right arsehole. There was some comfort in that, mused Harry.
“How’s your month been, Malfoy? The Slytherins treating you alright?”
Malfoy scowled and said nothing.
Harry allowed himself a little victory. He’d suspected as much. Lucius had ratted out half their parents, after all, and had gotten just a few years in Azkaban for his trouble.
“What, being a snitch doesn’t make you popular? Could’ve fooled me.”
“Speaking of popular, how’s your Boy Hero fan club?” Malfoy sneered. “Got any more girlfriends besides that ginger bint of yours? What’s her name again—Gilly?”
“Don’t call her that,” snapped Harry. “Better yet, don’t even talk about Ginny.”
“Ginny? Bloody hell, what a terrible name. I suppose when you breed like rodents you run out of ideas. It’s a wonder one of the Weasleys wasn’t put down to save them a few knuts—”
Malfoy seemed to realize what he’d said before Harry did. He fell silent abruptly.
Harry felt his anger drain away from him. A sudden tiredness overwhelmed him, and he was quiet for a few moments.
“One day, Malfoy,” he said at last. “You’ll lose someone you care about.”
The two resolutely avoided each other’s eyes. They continued to brew in silence. Harry thought he might have heard a faint “I did” from Malfoy, but it could have very well been the sizzling of the flames beneath his cauldron.
And when Boughbranch returned, declaring both brews passable, he slipped from the room before Malfoy had even begun to clear up.
“How was detention?” Hermione asked on their way to breakfast the following morning.
“About what you’d expect,” said Harry.
“I’m starved,” said Ron.
Owls were already swooping ahead with the morning paper by the time they reached the Great Hall, and heads were bowed all around. At their table, Harry snatched up an abandoned Daily Prophet and read the headline emblazoned on the front page:
MIDNIGHT MURDER OF MALFOY MASTERMIND?
“Can’t be,” gasped Hermione.
“It is,” said Ron. He grabbed the paper.
“‘Ministry officials report that former Death Eater and Ministry informer Lucius Malfoy was found dead in his Azkaban cell last night. A source tells your steadfast reporter that foul play is amiss…’ Malfoy’s past work at the Ministry yada yada… ‘found dead at ten past twelve’...‘Mrs. Malfoy held since for questioning’...‘egregious irresponsibility’...you’d think it’d have more information...”
“Fat chance, it’s a Skeeter article,” said Hermione. “You know, I think that woman’s getting better.” She frowned then. “Do we even know it’s a murder?”
“Wouldn’t be a surprise,” said Harry darkly. His eyes searched the Slytherin table for a familiar blond head, but it was nowhere in sight.
“No,” said Hermione softly. Her eyes followed Harry’s. “Can you imagine finding out about your parent’s death this way?”
“Many did,” said Harry. He didn’t know how to feel. The plate of bacon in front of him looked like bits of flayed skin.
Malfoy was nowhere to be found that day. In fact, he wasn’t sighted anywhere in the castle in the month that followed.
Hogwarts was abuzz as the news was pieced together over that time. The Carrows and Yaxley were suspected, and their trial was yet to be held. The funeral took place on the Malfoy Manor grounds. Narcissa and Draco Malfoy attended.
“I hear his mother doesn’t want him back at Hogwarts,” whispered Parvati during Potions one Friday morning.
“Why?” asked Harry.
Parvati gave him a look. “Why else? Whoever killed Lucius Malfoy...is coming for his son, the Death Eater,” she said with relish. “He’d be safer at Durmstrang.”
“Better there than here,” said Ron, but he looked distinctly uncomfortable.
“My father says he was killed by Fudge’s clone, the one in Azkaban,” said Luna.
“Why ever would that, in any scenario, be a possibility?” sighed Hermione.
“To cover up Fudge’s goblin murders, of course,” said Luna. “Lucius Malfoy was the only one who knew about his plot to seize Gringotts.”
“Quiet please,” called Boughbranch as Hermione opened her mouth. “And bring up your vials.”
With a familiar dread, Harry poured his brownish sludge into a glass vial. It looked distinctly chunky.
His partner as of late was seventh-year Slytherin Newt Arleigh, whose idea of working together was sniffing contemptuously at Harry’s repeated failed efforts and remarking at how fascinating it was that the boy who supposedly defeated the Dark Lord couldn’t brew a simple potion.
If only he’d had Hermione, but there was no separating her and Ron nowadays.
Boughbranch eyed his vial sadly. “And what color is this meant to be, Potter?”
“Green?” said Harry hopefully, ignoring Arleigh’s snort.
“I’m afraid not,” sighed Boughbranch. “D again, my boy, and my office at nine tonight.”
“Why aren’t you taking Potions again?” groaned Harry after dinner, stretching over Ginny’s lap. “Then I’d have a decent partner.”
She pinched him. “For the tenth time, because I hate it. And I don’t need it to play for the Harpies, whatever Mum says.”
“You’re taking Defense. And Transfiguration. And Charms.”
“Yes, because I like them. And I can’t hex McLaggen with a potion.”
Ginny was the new captain and seeker of Gryffindor team. Eighth years weren’t permitted to compete, much to Harry’s and Ron’s dismay over the summer. (“You’ll have more time to study for your N.E.W.T.S.!” Hermione had said brightly.)
“Remind me again why you two aren’t back together,” said Ron, eyeing Harry’s head in his sister’s lap.
“Not everyone needs to be practically married,” said Ginny.
Ron squinted at her in vague suspicion before laying back down on the carpet with his Charms book over his face.
Harry felt Ginny’s gaze on him, but he pretended he didn’t notice. That was another can of slugs he’d had yet to open, and he was perfectly alright with leaving it closed for the time being.
The portrait hole swung open, and Hermione climbed inside.
“I’m back,” she said unnecessarily. “And guess who else is—Malfoy. I saw him leaving Professor Flitwick’s office.”
“I wanted to guess,” came Ron’s muffled voice. Hermione stalked over and snatched the book from his face.
“You told me you were studying.”
“I tell you a lot of things.”
Harry grinned at Ginny, who mouthed, “married,” and pushed him off her lap. “Down to the dungeons you go,” she said. There was an edge to her voice where there hadn’t been before.
Harry groaned, bid his farewells, and made his way to detention.
When he arrived, he was dismayed to see Malfoy sulking at his desk once again. He didn’t look the least bit surprised to see Harry.
“Wonderful of you to join us, Potter,” said Boughbranch. “Well, what are you two waiting for? Get to work. I’ll be in my office.”
As she retreated to her study, Harry eyed Malfoy. He didn’t look too worse for wear, considering, he thought. Perhaps a touch paler than usual.
“Congestion potion,” muttered Malfoy as they retrieved their ingredients from the storeroom. “A Pepper-Up Potion would do the deed. I don’t understand why I’m meant to be here with the likes of you.”
Harry sniffed a leaf that seemed sufficiently like eucalyptus, and left the storeroom.
“...bloody waste of time,” Malfoy continued as they prepared their ingredients. “Filthy muggle rubbish.”
“It’s not rubbish just because you don’t know how to do it,” said Harry before he could stop himself.
“I know how to do it,” said Malfoy. “You most likely blew up your cauldron again, no surprise there, but this old bag wants me to brew what I’ve missed in class. Don’t know how this is meant to help us pass our N.E.W.T.S. It’s positively paleolithic if you ask me.”
“Yeah well, I didn’t, so shut up about it,” said Harry. “No one cares about how much you hate muggles or how filthy you think they are either.”
“I don’t hate muggles because I think they’re filthy. I hate them because they’d blow us all up in our beds if they had the chance. Their primitive minds couldn’t handle us living alongside them.”
“Not all muggles are like that. Or even most of them.”
“No? Ask your dear auntie and uncle. They lock you in a closet for ten years because they liked that you were a wizard? That you were better than they were?”
Shock caused Harry’s knife to slip. He winced as it grazed his thumb. “Been reading my biographies, have you?” he managed.
“Some of us do read, Potter. I know that’s difficult for you to comprehend.”
“What, Quidditch Through the Ages? Twenty-One Ways to Keep Your Arse On Your Broom?”
Harry scowled. “And what do you read, Malfoy? How to Be a Prick?”
“Something like that,” smirked Malfoy as he steadied his brass scale.
There was quiet for a solid ten minutes after that. Harry spent a good portion of that time sneaking glances over his shoulder to make sure Malfoy was making the same steps he was. He didn’t want to come back here any more than Malfoy did.
“Shit,” Harry cursed under his breath. In his endeavor to scrutinize Malfoy’s potion, he’d been inattentive to his own. He was supposed to add the dried ancho seeds before the potion had begun to boil. He hadn’t realized that his heat was turned up higher than Malfoy’s, and now his potion was bubbling happily while Malfoy’s remained at a gentle simmer.
“Lower the heat, throw in the ice-steeped Tulsi, add the seeds, then crank it up to a high boil quickly,” said Malfoy with a cursory glance.
“Stop it,” said Harry through gritted teeth. “I don’t need your help.”
“Right,” said Malfoy tartly. “That’s why you insist on staring into my cauldron.”
Harry flushed. With reluctance, he did as Malfoy said.
“I have to ask again how you and Weasley made it in here,” continued Malfoy as if Harry had spoken. “Granger’s help, I suppose. I wonder, are all the Weasleys this useless?”
Harry ignored him resolutely.
“I mean, did they have so many kids that each one came out more dim-witted than the one before? Those twins were the start of it, to be sure. Didn’t even graduate, did they?”
Anger flooded Harry. He curled his fist so tightly pain stung his palm.
“Not another word, Malfoy.”
“What did I say? Oh—that again. George, was it? Or Fred?” Malfoy shrugged carelessly. “Not much difference either way, is there?”
“You should be thanking Fred. And the Weasleys. If it weren’t for them, and everyone else who saved Hogwarts, you’d be rotting in the dirt with your father.”
Malfoy froze for a moment, and Harry felt a sordid sort of satisfaction.
Malfoy resumed stirring. “Perhaps,” he said with feigned lightness.
“You would be,” continued Harry mercilessly. “And still all you do is mock everyone. Make jokes at their mothers’ and fathers’ and brothers’ and sisters’ grief. You should be on your hands and knees. You deserve nothing. And yet you stand here, a coward, and laugh at their tears.”
Harry stopped, stunned by his own words. Yet there was nothing he had said that rang false.
Now when he looked at Malfoy, he saw his face turn parchment white.
“And who cried for Crabbe?” Malfoy said softly. “Who remembered him when he burned to death, screaming? You?”
Harry said nothing.
“You said it yourself that day. You hoped I’d know what it felt like to lose someone.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“You did. To you he may have been just a Death Eater, Potter, but to me he was my father,” said Malfoy bitterly. “And Crabbe was my friend.”
Harry didn’t know what to say. “I’m—sorry,” he muttered at last.
Irritation swelled up in Harry once again. “And how many times have you wished Ron or Hermione dead? How many times have you made fun of my parents for dying?”
“It’s not like you could ever remember them,” sniffed Malfoy.
“Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.”
“Poor Potter. Poor you and your dead mum and your dead dad,” mocked Malfoy. “Dead parents can’t die, Potter. Our parents made their choices.”
It took all of Harry’s will to simply say quietly, “As did you.”
Malfoy cocked his head at Harry. “Yes, I did,” he said flatly. “You knew everything you were doing, and so did I. Now we live with that.”
“Thanks to people like your father, not everyone has that chance.”
“My father chose what he thought was the winning side. That’s what people with half a brain do. He played his cards wrong is all, and he paid for it. You want me to apologize, Potter? To beg for your forgiveness? I’m so sorry, my Golden Savior, I’ve fed a poison tree and I can’t come back. Forget it.”
“A poison tree?” asked Harry, now confused.
“From that old poem—of course, I don’t expect you’d know it.”
“You about to recite poetry to me, Malfoy?” he said with a humorless laugh.
“You wouldn’t know poetry if it hexed you in the arse.”
“Like you would. Let’s hear it, then.”
“... I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow / I water’d it in fears, / Night & morning with my tears: / And I sunned it with smiles, / And with soft deceitful wiles…In the morning glad I see / My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree. There,” spat Malfoy. His cheeks had taken on a faint pink tinge.
Surprise abated Harry’s anger. He paused for a moment. “You know, we’re really not like that.”
“Astounding observation, Potter. If only your skill in Potions matched that of decoding literature.”
“What’s with you and books all of a sudden?”
“I’ve always read. Not that you’d know that.”
“And you know everything about me?”
“I know you worship muggles and your broomstick. And shag your ginger girlfriend Gilly while picturing Granger and the Weasel every night.”
“Ginny,” corrected Harry automatically. “And we’re not together.”
Malfoy quirked a brow. “No? Trouble in Potter’s perfect paradise?”
Harry was flummoxed by the sudden turn the conversation had taken. “Don’t talk about things you have no idea about, Malfoy.”
“I don’t know, Potter, two girls in eight years—well, one—Chang was always too good for you, so no surprise how that one turned out.”
“You know an awful lot about my relationships.”
“I know about the lack thereof. But still, one girl in eighteen years...and you as famous as you are. It’s a bit odd, isn’t it?”
“Are you arriving at a point or do you need me to help you get there?”
“Just imagining the Daily Prophet headline: CHOSEN ONE CHOKES ON COCK. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
“I—” Harry spluttered, flabbergasted. “What do you care? You’re the one reciting poetry.”
“I am,” said Malfoy. He gave Harry an incomprehensible look.
Harry could have brewed a hundred more failed potions for Broughbranch when she strode in at that moment.
“Ten minutes, boys,” was all she said. Their conversation halted at once, but Malfoy’s words ran circles in Harry’s head. He decided it was too irritating to dwell on for long. It was making him feel a bit nauseated.
When their time was up, Boughbranch inspected their cauldrons and nodded approvingly.
“Good,” she said. “Glad to see Malfoy here is having a positive influence on you, Potter.”
Harry didn’t need to see Malfoy’s face to know that he was smirking.
“Which is excellent,” she continued. “Because I’ve decided you’ll be joining me for Remedial Potions for the next couple of weeks.”
This time, there was no mistaking Malfoy’s low snigger. Harry felt embarrassment wash over him like a hot wave. His relief at for once brewing a passable potion disappeared. Remedial Potions—Malfoy would never let him live it down.
“Joined, of course, by Malfoy, who’ll be making up the considerable amount of coursework he’s missed as of late.”
Even Malfoy’s palpable dread couldn’t make Harry feel any better.