Disclaimer: Characters from the Harry Potter Universe belong to JK Rowling and are used without permission but with no intent to defraud.
Many thanks to my fantastic beta bewarethesmirk.
Hooded figures stood in a tight circle. The only sounds: muffled shuffling of feet, and the odd indistinct cough.
It was an anticipatory silence that had fallen over the waiting group. Eyes hidden by masks were trained on the solitary figure at their centre, waiting for his signal to Apparate.
The figure pulled up his hood, covering his long, white-blond hair with a shroud of black, and readied his wand.
The Dark Lord would be pleased when he returned to find Harry Potter languishing in the dungeons, and the recalcitrant Malfoy heir returned to his rightful place at his father's side, suitably repentant.
Yes, Lucius Malfoy decided, he would be very pleased indeed.
"Is that another letter from him?"
Harry looked up from the piece of parchment he was reading and carefully placed it on the bed at his side. His expression was tight when he answered Ron's question. "Yes, this is another letter from Draco. Please tell me you're not going to start on this again."
Ron made a face, turning away to fold his Quidditch robes and tuck them in the side of his already bulging trunk. "I was just asking."
Harry scowled. "You're never just asking anything. I don't see what your problem is."
There was a pause as Ron seemed to debate his reply. He finally muttered, "He's my problem."
"Oh, for fu-" Harry bit back the word. "It's not like this is new; you know I've been seeing him for a while now, Ron."
"I don't trust him," Ron said flatly, turning around to face the other boy, his arms folded.
"Well, I do."
"And so that means the rest of us are meant to?"
"Frankly, Ron, I don't care what you do." Harry was tired of this argument. "I just know I trust him."
"That's bloody nice, that is. You don't care about us now, is that it?" Ron's face was flushed. "Now that you've got him."
"Jesus, Ron, I didn't say that." Harry paused. "Okay, maybe I did, but I didn't mean it like that. It's just… think about what he's given up. He's got Voldemort and his dad after him, no money, no family – and all because he's with me."
"The Order's protecting him," Ron argued. "And how do you know it's not some big plan? V- V- You-Know-Who could've sent him to… y'know…"
"To what, Ron?" Harry snapped, and the guilt he was feeling vanished in an instant. "Corrupt me? Shag me stupid so that I can't think straight, then take me straight to Voldemort so he can kill me? Or maybe you think he's trying to make me join up. Is that it?"
He didn't give Ron a chance to reply, words spilling out, uncensored, in his growing anger. "You know, maybe you're right. How the fuck could I have been so stupid to think someone might actually like me? Especially someone like a Malfoy. Imagine a pureblood wizard actually wanting to be with half-blood scum like me."
"Harry, mate, I didn't-"
"Don't fucking 'Harry, mate' me. I've just about had enough of your stupid conspiracies. Either you trust me, or you don't; and if you don't, then there's the door." He jerked his head at the closed bedroom door.
When Ron didn't move, Harry let out a long breath. "Lupin trusts him, Snape trusts him." Ron screwed his face up, and Harry went for the jugular. "Your mum and dad believe him." He couldn't go as far as to say 'trust', but the Weasleys had typically taken him under their wing, much to Draco's horror.
Ron's shoulders sagged. "Yeah, I know. But me and Hermione think you should be careful, that's all. She's worried about you." ‘She’, of course, meaning them both.
Feeling his anger ebbing away, leaving a feeling of tired resignation, Harry looked at his friend. "Is this about Draco, or is this about me not telling you two about Draco?"
"We're your best friends. You should have said something," Ron answered.
Harry's eyes hardened. "What? Like you told me about you and Hermione?" He saw Ron's defiant gaze slide to the floor and he continued. "What was it? Six months before I even knew you were dating? And that's only 'cause Ginny pointed it out."
"It's not the same thing."
"Because it's Malfoy." Ron seemed to think that was reason enough.
Harry shook his head exasperatedly. "You're just going to have to deal with it, Ron. He's not going anywhere."
"More's the pity," Ron said under his breath, but thankfully Harry didn't hear him.
The two boys lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Harry returned his attention to Draco's letter, and Ron proceeded to haul the entire contents of his trunk onto the floor, determined to make more room to fit everything in.
They were alone. Most of the other Gryffindors were in the common room celebrating the imminent Christmas holidays, Hermione was helping Madam Pince in the library, and Neville had taken up residence in one of the greenhouses, hand-feeding a newly flowered Snapping Squirtle.
Raucous laughter drifted up the stairwell and Harry scowled at it. He slumped back on the bed, with his feet dangling over the edge, and glared up at the twinkling strands of enchanted tinsel wrapped around the wooden frame.
Bloody Voldemort, Harry thought. Another Christmas spent trapped in Hogwarts 'for his own protection' - how he'd come to hate those words. He had no choice; he was painfully aware that he was dependent on the generosity of others, and if the Weasleys were not willing to take the risk and invite him to their home, then he had no other option but to stay in the castle.
He wasn't being fair, and he knew it, but bitterness still rolled in his belly like a coiling snake every time he saw a reminder of what he was going to miss.
And yet, he knew that wasn't really what he was upset about. He knew where he really wanted to spend Christmas – and it wasn't with the Weasleys – but he didn't need anyone to tell him that the risks were far too great, that for once he wasn't the only person in whom Voldemort had an interest.
His hand clutched Draco's letter tightly to his chest, and he looked up into the canopy of the bed, fervently wishing his boyfriend was lying beside him and not hiding away in Grimmauld Place.
Harry, don't be such a girl. He could hear Draco's voice in his mind and a small smile flickered across his face. Draco would arch an eyebrow and sneer, but unlike their younger years, his eyes would be glowing with undisguised humour.
Harry closed his eyes. Draco would be sprawled against the pillows, smirking down at him; gesturing with long, elegant fingers for Harry to come closer and-
A muffled explosion rocked the room, the sound reverberating through the castle walls and leaving the bed curtains flapping back and forth. Harry pushed himself upright, staring across at Ron, who looked equally startled.
"What was that?" Ron whispered, his knuckles tightening on the wand in his hand, the bundle of clothes he'd been levitating now a tangled mass on the floor.
The noise from the common room had abruptly ceased; they couldn't hear any voices. It was as though the entire castle had been frozen into an uncertain silence.
Harry slid off the bed and moved over to the bedside cabinet, picking up his own wand. It felt reassuring in his hand, and he turned around to face Ron. "What do you th-" he started to speak, but cut the words off abruptly as the air around them began to shiver with a shimmering light.
Particles danced in the air around then, pulsating through shades of colour in a stroboscopic dance of light, flashing faster and faster until suddenly, with a piercing blast of white, the particles vanished.
Immediately, a shrill alarm began to sound throughout Hogwarts. It galvanised Harry into action. He started towards the doorway, reaching it at the same moment as it swung open and a breathless Seamus stumbled in. Clutching at Harry's robes as he tried to get his breath, he gasped, "There's Death Eaters in the castle; the Portraits are screamin' we've all to go to the Great Hall."
"Death Eaters?" Ron repeated, staring at Seamus in horror. "How…?"
"Dunno." Seamus was already turning to go, but stopped short when he realised he still had a hold of Harry's sleeve. He stared down in surprise and let go, muttering an apology.
"'S okay," Harry said, waving him off. "I thought we were getting out of here?"
A pink-faced nod and Seamus turned back to the open door. He took one step and yelped, crashing back onto Harry's foot, as a stream of white shot out of the stairwell and streaked between them into the room. All three boys swung around, Harry and Ron raising their wands automatically.
"Wha...?" Seamus stuttered, staring at the shimmering illusion of a cat, perched on top of Ron's trunk, and looking directly at them.
"It's all right," Harry said, lowering his wand. "It's Professor McGonagall's Patronus. She must have sent a message."
Almost as though it were listening, the cat's ears twitched and it opened its mouth, speaking words with the Professor's familiar clipped tone. "Mr Potter, as you are no doubt aware, the protection wards of Hogwarts have been thwarted, and Death Eaters are inside the castle. I believe it is you they seek, so it is imperative that you leave before they find you. Unfortunately, the anti-Apparition wards are still in effect; therefore, I suggest you use your broom and get to a safe distance from where you can Apparate to you-know-where. Oh," the cat paused, as though it was adding an afterthought - and not the absent Professor, "take Mr Weasley with you. Good luck to you both."
The cat snapped its jaws closed and began to dissipate into the air, leaving Seamus and Ron staring at it in bemusement.
Harry, however, looked tense. "They're after me," he said. "Again. Don't they have anything better to do?" He pushed his glasses up his nose and distractedly rubbed at the scar on his forehead, the shrill alarm making his head hurt.
Seamus looked over at him, with pity and a certain amount of nervousness. Distant shouts and bangs echoed through the castle, and it was obvious from the way he was fidgeting, he was itching to leave.
Harry shook himself out of his momentary gloom, waving a hand in the direction of the stairs. "Go, Seamus. Get to the hall."
Needing no further encouragement, with a strained grin of thanks, Seamus was off down the stairs in a clatter of footsteps.
Squaring his shoulders, Harry turned and pointed his wand at the window, spitting out a couple of spells. "Engorgio," and the window stretched wide, "Accio broom," and his broom flew across the room and slapped into his open palm.
Ron was still frowning at the fading cat, and Harry snapped at him. "Get a move on, Ron."
"Sorry," Ron said, quickly summoning his own broom. He still looked disconcerted, and he held back as Harry started towards the window.
"What about Hermione?"
Harry stopped abruptly. "She'll be all right," he said, but couldn't look at his best friend, knowing that his own doubts would be clear on his face. He was certain of one thing though. "She'll be a lot safer if they think I've gone." He turned and met Ron's gaze. "I'll understand if you stay," he said.
For a moment, Ron looked torn; his usually uncluttered expression blurred with doubt. "McGonagall will protect her, won't she?" He didn't wait for Harry to answer. "And she said I've to go with you."
"You don't have to…"
"No." Ron shook his head, setting his jaw. "No. I'm coming. Besides, Hermione would kill me if anything happened to you."
Harry couldn't help but smile: Hermione probably would. "Okay then, let's get out of here."
He pointed his broom towards the window and took off, hearing the swish of air as Ron followed.
They streaked out of Gryffindor Tower and high into the sky above Hogwarts, piercing alarm vanishing as soon as soon as they were free of the building. At any other time it would have been the perfect night for flying: the moon was bright, not a cloud marred the sky, and a gentle breeze gave the air a refreshing chill.
Unfortunately for Harry and Ron, the clarity of the sky meant that the instant they flew from the window, they were spotted by the Death Eaters stationed outside the doors of Hogwarts, who had obviously been warned that they would try to escape on their brooms.
A curse blasted upwards and Harry had to swerve sharply to avoid it, feeling the burst of energy as it skimmed through the air past him.
"Watch out, Ron!" he yelled, dodging another curse and spiralling his broom vertically through the sky to try and get out of range. When he felt the air settling, he pivoted back around and looked for Ron, expecting him to have followed. His stomach clenched as he saw Ron below him, zigzagging back and forth in an attempt to evade the barrage of spells being fired in his direction, now that Harry was too high for them to target.
Several Death Eaters were clustered together and firing hexes one after the other, forcing Ron to react defensively, not giving him a chance to break free.
Rage bubbling inside, Harry flattened his body flush with his broom and aimed it at the ground. Holding on with one hand, the other clutching his wand in a white-knuckled grip, he shot downwards towards the group of masked figures. With his wand aimed into their midst, he began to shout a litany of every destructive curse he could think of:
"Expulso! Incendio! Stupefy!"
They scattered, one fell, another crashed backwards into a tree falling into a lifeless heap on the ground.
"Diffindo! Sectumsempra! Reducto!"
Cloaks ripped and masks askew, the panicking Death Eaters ran in all directions. Another fell, horrific screams piercing the air and Harry felt a surge of malicious satisfaction.
With Seeker's reflexes, he lifted the broom moments before it hit the ground, skimming across the surface of the grass before tilting the broom back to the sky. Adrenaline coursing through his body, Harry flew back up to a pale-faced Ron, and jammed his wand into the waistband of his trousers.
The two boys shot across the grounds towards the castle boundary, Ron flying as close to Harry as he dared.
"What the ruddy hell did you think you were doing?" he shouted, the words whipped away by the rushing wind, aborted fragments reaching Harry's ears. "Wha' – hell – think – doin'?"
It was enough for Harry to get the gist.
"Saving you," he yelled back.
"I didn't need-" Ron began to reply, but was suddenly slammed to the side as Harry swung his broom and barrelled into him. Ron let out a shout and toppled to the side, barely keeping hold with sweat-slicked palms.
He could smell scorched birch, and flecks of charred wood hit his face as he righted himself. They'd been hit by a curse – that much was obvious – and Harry must have seen it coming, pushing Ron out of its path.
Harry? Where was Harry?