‘Danger and delight grow on the same stalk’ – old Scottish proverb.
The relative hush of Draco’s classroom is disturbed by an irritatingly familiar crackling sound and he looks up from the stack of fourth-year essays he has been marking. For a moment, he regards the group of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor students, all of whom are supposed to be engaged in a simple theory exercise. Most of them are scratching away with their quills or frowning at their textbooks or biting their nails, and though the latter makes Draco’s nose wrinkle, he knows that they are, at least, attempting to understand the fundamentals of organic-to-non-organic Transfiguration. Which is, as usual, more than can be said for Jasper Bracknell and his little band of followers.
Jasper, one of the many banes of Draco’s existence, is leaning back in his chair and obnoxiously popping bubbles of acid green exploding gum as he conducts a muttered conversation with his friend in the row behind him—a conversation which Draco is certain has nothing to do with Transfiguration, organic or otherwise. The thing about Jaspers, Draco thinks, pinching the bridge of his nose as another series of crack-crack-bangs issues from his student’s mouth, is that there is one in every class. And they are almost all Gryffindors. Not that he’s biased. No, if he’s honest, he finds nearly all of his pupils completely maddening.
Crackle-pop-bang, goes Jasper’s bubblegum, and now all the students within a two-chair radius of him are looking up from their work and murmuring gently. Draco sighs.
“Mr Bracknell,” he says quietly, taking some satisfaction in the fact that the classroom falls immediately silent.
Jasper continues to lean back in his chair but his impudent blue eyes swivel to meet Draco’s. “Yes, sir?”
“Tell me you are not eating that disgusting green gunge in my class again,” he demands, covering his weariness with severity.
Jasper blinks. Shrugs. Grins. “Okay. I’m not,” he says, and his friends titter appreciatively.
Draco grimaces, feeling a headache blooming behind one eye. “Be grateful for the fact that your friends find you so hilarious, Mr Bracknell, because you are unlikely to amount to much without your Transfiguration OWL, which you are highly unlikely to achieve without an understanding of Lockheed’s Law.” He pauses, relishing the puzzled expression twisting the usually smug face. “If you could apply yourself to your textbook for a moment or so, you might find it illuminating. In the meantime, I think that’s five points from Gryffindor.”
“Sir, that’s not fair! It’s always...” Jasper falls silent, mouth twitching.
“What is it?”
“Oh... nothing. I think I’ll just have a look at the old... Lockheed... erm... sorry, sir,” Jasper mumbles, frowning and pulling his textbook towards him.
Instantly suspicious, Draco looks around. Nothing seems amiss, but he is unsettled as he returns to his marking, and the next few essays in the pile are subject to a more savage application of red ink than usual. When the giggling starts, his uneasiness turns to alarm.
Gripping his quill hard, he looks around at his class.
“Settle down,” he says sharply, drawing down his eyebrows and shooting them his tried and tested silencing look. Inexplicably, this only makes them giggle harder. Every single person in the room seems to find him an object of amusement. Even the quiet, generally well-behaved Ravenclaw girls at the front are watching him with bright eyes and ill-concealed grins. Equal parts cross and anxious, he stares wildly around at his students. They’re laughing at him. He has no idea what to do with that. After ten years of teaching, he’s used to be feared, disliked, and occasionally respected, but this is something completely new, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Desperately, he turns to Jasper, who is smirking heartily and making a show of staring at his textbook.
Draco throws down his quill and presses his hands against the familiar grain of his desk. It’s reassuringly solid and takes the weight he rests on it without complaint. Or giggling. When the bell rings some minutes later and the classroom empties of students and their strange amusement, Draco waits only seconds before locking the door behind them and stalking around the classroom, searching for clues to the unwelcome hilarity. Finding nothing beyond a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary unflattering drawing of himself, he heads for his rooms. A giggle or two along the way only fuels the suspicion that something is very wrong, and when he arrives in front of his bathroom mirror, that suspicion is quickly confirmed.
His eyebrows have been turned red. Bright red. Gryffindor red, in fact, he realises as he stands there and seethes at his own reflection. He looks ridiculous, and he knows exactly who is to blame.
Furious, he storms out of his quarters and through corridors packed with students looking for mischief with which to occupy their afternoon breaks. He knows exactly where he is going, and despite the whispers and glances, he doesn’t think to correct his eyebrows until he is already halfway across the lawn, and by then, he’s built up far too much momentum to stop and think of a spell to reverse such a ridiculous curse. The grass is springy and damp under his feet as he approaches his target, and he can already feel the wet hem of his cloak slapping heavily against his legs but he doesn’t care—he can see Potter now, and, more importantly, Potter has not yet seen him.
And of course he hasn’t, because at a time when all other students have gleefully abandoned their professors for more diverting company, Potter’s class of first-years are still gathered around him, eager faces turned up to their favourite teacher as he clutches a stack of school brooms and chats away to them as though he hasn’t a care in the world. Perhaps he hasn’t, Draco thinks irritably, as he draws close enough to the group to hear a Hufflepuff boy cry, “That’s so cool, Professor Potter!”
Potter laughs, lifting a hand to scrub at his ridiculous hair as the fresh autumn wind catches and pulls at it, making him look like an over-eager scarecrow. No wonder he’s happy, the lazy bugger. No lesson plans, no marking; nothing to do, in fact, besides supervising first-years on broomsticks. No wonder he has time to cook up juvenile eyebrow-reddening schemes.
“Professor Potter,” Draco snaps, just about managing to remember his manners in front of the students. As Potter turns, the wind whirls savagely across the lawn and flips Draco’s sodden cloak over his head. Growling inwardly, he yanks it down and wipes his damp forehead, noting with resignation that the few students who weren’t already laughing at his impromptu Dementor impression are now giggling at the sight of his eyebrows.
“Hello, Professor Malfoy,” Potter says, blinking his ridiculous green eyes innocently. “Is something the matter?”
Draco grits his teeth, feeling multiple sets of expectant eyes all over him. “Could I speak to you alone for a moment?” he manages. “The bell has gone for afternoon break, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, we were just getting to know each other a bit,” Potter says mildly, glancing at the first-years, who are now following the exchange in pin-drop silence. Realising that Draco isn’t going anywhere, he sighs and turns to dismiss them. “Off you go, then. I’ll see you next time.”
Amid some grumbling and disappointment, the group disperses and Draco watches them meander across the lawn for a moment before he turns back to Potter, who is now grinning. Draco drags in a breath of cold, woodsmoke-scented air and refocuses. Fuck, he hates Potter. Well, perhaps hate is a very strong word, but there’s no denying that Potter is the most infuriating and idiotic person Draco has ever known, and he has known plenty of contenders in his thirty-two years on this earth.
“What do you want, Malfoy? I’ve got stuff to do.”
Draco snorts. “Like what? Counting broomsticks? Checking which way is up? Making sure... actually, that’s all I can think of. What is it you do, exactly?” he snipes, temper compounded by the wind blowing his hair across his forehead and his wet cloak and the mud on his shoes and the fact that Potter seems to be experiencing the same with no concern at all.
“I don’t think you came storming over here to tell me what you think of my job,” Potter sighs, adjusting the broomsticks in his arms. “For one thing, I already know how low an opinion you have of me, and for another, I can’t see you getting your feet wet just to snipe at me.”
“No,” Draco grinds out, hating that Potter has him bang to rights for once. “Perhaps I’d just like to know what the hell you think you’re playing at?” he says softly and with venom, lifting one scarlet eyebrow in inquiry.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Draco fumes. “What—did—you—do—to—my—eyebrows?” he demands.
Potter’s mouth twitches slightly at one side but he shrugs. “Nothing. It’s a good colour on you, though.”
Irritation raging through his veins, Draco clenches both fists at his side and inhales sharply with the effort of keeping the worst of his feelings—the humiliation, the frustration, the sense of being bested—inside and away from Potter.
“I know it was you, Potter.”
“I don’t think you do.”
“So it’s merely coincidence, you’re suggesting, that the very day after our... discussion about certain people’s bias in removing house-points, I take points—quite rightfully so—from a student from your House and I am immediately rewarded with this?” Draco snaps, indicating his eyebrows and then folding his arms, waiting for Potter’s response.
“It wasn’t me,” Potter says evenly.
“Really.” Potter takes a better grip of his broomsticks and turns to leave. “Like I said, I have things to do.”
“I know it was you, Potter, and I’m not going to forget it,” Draco calls after him, infuriated.
He watches the retreating figure until it stops, halfway across the grass towards the castle, and turns.
Draco sighs. “Yes?”
“You do take too many points from Gryffindor.”
By the time Draco makes it back to his rooms and locks the door behind him, his fury has simmered down to a more manageable level of prickly irritation, and he feels almost calm as he stands in front of his bathroom mirror and carefully strips every last trace of red from his eyebrows.
“That’s better,” he murmurs to his bedraggled reflection. He attempts to spell his hair back into place and sighs, letting it flop damply against his forehead as his own eyes stare morosely back at him. “That may have to be given up as a bad job.”
Tack-tack-tack, comes a familiar clicking sound from the corner of the bathroom. In spite of himself, Draco almost smiles as he turns to regard the oversized beetle that is currently trying to climb out of his basket of clean towels.
“I’m very tempted to let you struggle, Stanley,” Draco says, even as he strides over to the flailing creature and bends to pick it up. “I don’t know how many times we’ve been through this—you may be able to climb in but you cannot climb out.”
Tack-tack, clicks Stanley, pressing his six little feet against the front of Draco’s robes and waving his antennae in the air. His willow patterned shell, the result of a first-year’s botched attempt to turn a simple mint leaf beetle into a cup, glows beautifully in the low light of Draco’s quarters, and he appears to be in good spirits after a good nap in the towel basket.
Letting out a tiny, reluctant smile, Draco carries the beetle, now the size of a small cat, through to his living room, enjoying the familiar weight and the rhythm of contented soft clicking noises. It’s been almost four years since he rescued Stanley (or Stanley Seaton’s Screw-up, to give him his full title) from his human namesake and he has never regretted it. The daft beetle makes for surprisingly satisfying company, and Draco has lived with far more irritating habits than extreme clumsiness and a penchant for hiding mint leaves in unusual places.
“Here,” he says, setting the beetle down in an armchair and absently patting his shell. The temptation to sink into the other chair and light the fire pulls at him like the tendrils of a persuasive plant, but the sound of the bell echoing through the corridors beyond his little sanctuary puts paid to any such idea. He’s going to be late for his own class, and, more importantly, he has a counter-strike to plan.
Having made it just in time and set his students to work on some advanced cross-species spells, Draco picks up his quill and begins to scribble, aimlessly at first, noting down ideas and dismissing them, drawing little beetles and Potters down the sides of his parchment. Evil little Potters and ferocious, man-eating beetles. He does, however, count himself lucky that Stanley is not a carnivore, like many of the varieties of beetle used in school. He chose the mint leaf variety merely because it was, with its shiny green shell, a little more stylish, but these days he is grateful that gathering food for his pet only involves scavenging around the grounds for garden mint, rather than hunting for insects and grubs and such.
As for Potter... well. If pressed, he thinks he would admit to extreme pettiness and immaturity, but no-one is asking, so that’s fine. The unpleasantness of the past is far behind them—at least, he thinks it is. On the surface, it is—but it’s not as though they have ever discussed it, nor have they ever discussed the fact that they just do not get along. Because it suits Draco just fine. Gryffindor and Slytherin have always had a contentious time of it, and there isn’t much more Gryffindor than the head of Gryffindor. Draco doesn’t expect to get near the head of Slytherin position until Slughorn carks it, and probably not even then. Which is fine, because such a position can only mean more time with the students, more time with the other teachers, and many other things he’d rather not think about.
He’s a teacher. He’s a good teacher, he thinks; he knows how to impart knowledge, how to make it stick in young brains; he knows how to keep order and how to mete out discipline (though, he thinks, instinctively touching his eyebrow, he might just lay off taking house-points for a little while). It’s just people, if he’s honest. People are difficult and messy and he doesn’t much care for the way they look at him. Including Potter. Especially Potter.
So he schemes, because he has reasons. Not that anyone will ask what they are.
“Oh, Magnus... no,” protests Ivy Baron, a tiny red-haired sixth-year, addressing her neighbour without looking away from her work. Draco continues to write, keeping one eye on them.
“What? Do you think she’s weird as well?” Magnus whispers, letting his attention drift until his rat grows so long that it begins to slide off the desk. He rescues it just in time and Draco bites his tongue hard, thinking of his eyebrows. Magnus is a Hufflepuff, but Draco just isn’t risking it.
Ivy grins. “Seriously. I’ve heard things.”
Magnus clamps down a hand to prevent his elongated rat from clambering onto Ivy’s desk and ruining her work. “Like what?”
Ivy casts a nifty little freezing charm on her snake-in-progress and turns to look at her friend. Impressed, Draco continues to watch, attempting to ignore the small explosion that has just issued from the back of the room.
Eyes bright, she crosses her arms and smiles slyly. “I heard her say that she wants to tie you up so you can’t move and then have her way with you,” she says under her breath.
Draco muffles a cough with some difficulty.
“That’s... whoa. It’s... well. I suppose it could be weirder,” Magnus says, sounding unconvinced.
Ivy’s smile becomes a shark’s grin as she clearly prepares to deliver the coup de grace. Draco listens intently, all at once quietly loathing himself and dying to know what’s coming next.
“And then there’s the gravy,” Ivy says, and Magnus’ eyes grow dangerously wide.
“The gravy?” he whispers.
Draco closes his eyes, locates his professional pride, and fixes them both with a stern gaze.
“Miss Baron, Mr Humphries,” he says loudly, and they both snap around to face him, “if you could keep your private lives out of my classroom, that would be just wonderful.”
It’s in the mumbling of sorry, sirs, the general air of surprise that no points have been lost, and the smell of burnt hair which now pervades the classroom that Draco has a wonderful idea.
“What are you doing, Zarenski?” he demands, getting up from his desk and going to investigate the disaster with a smile on his face.
Much of the evening is spent perfecting the tricky little curse he plans to use on Potter, and by the time Draco retires to bed, removes three slightly chewed mint leaves from under his pillow, and pulls his embroidered autumn quilt up to his chin, he is feeling rather serene about the whole thing. The following night’s sleep is the best he’s had in a long time, and he is positively cheerful as he strides around his rooms the next morning, humming as he stands under the gargoyle in his bathroom and lets the hot water and steam envelop him and chatting away to Stanley as he sits on the edge of his bed and fastens up his boots.
“I suppose it’s quite a simple concept, but I am rather proud of the spellwork,” he says. “The Full Body-bind is such an underused curse, and it will drive Potter to absolute distraction. I’m setting it to release after a minute, but I think that’s long enough to teach him a lesson about taking points from Slytherin, don’t you?”
Tack-tack, offers Stanley, trundling along Draco’s sideboard and sending a comb, two books and a box of teabags clattering to the floor in his wake.
“Stanley, you are a menace to both the living and the dead,” Draco sighs, but he doesn’t bother to check his smile when the infernal beetle clicks ingratiatingly at him, because no one’s here to see it.
Stanley hops from side to side and flaps his (non-functioning—Draco has checked) wings in a well-worn entreaty to be picked up and carried around, but receives only a stern look in response.
“I don’t think so. I’m going to breakfast and you can’t come with me. You will be seen and I will be in trouble—or worse, everyone will want to be your friend and I will never see you again.”
Tacking gently, Stanley waves his antennae, sending a roll of parchment flying, and Draco raises his eyes to the ceiling. Relenting slightly, he picks up the beetle and sets him on the rug before he can do any more redecorating. He will, no doubt, climb back up onto the sideboard, but it will take him a good while to do it.
Some minutes later, Draco takes his seat near the end of the staff table in the Great Hall, distractedly chewing on a triangle of toast as he waits for Potter, who is always late. He is down to the last crust before he realises he has forgotten to butter it, but eats it anyway, washing it down with a gulp of mud-like coffee. Potter arrives, looking scrubbed and irritatingly healthy, just in time. He is literally pulling out his chair next to McGonagall when the sound of wingbeats announces the arrival of the post owls, and what better time to sneakily curse a colleague than when he and every other witness in the room is distracted? Draco hardly ever has any post—his mother prefers the occasional firecall these days, and his Potioneer’s Weekly always comes on a Friday. Today is no exception, and he seizes his opportunity as Potter is opening yet another intriguing-looking package.
He knocks his fork off the table, and, on the pretext of picking it up, bends and casually flicks his wand in Potter’s direction, mumbling the words to the curse as he gropes around on the cold floor for the dropped fork. Nothing happens, but he feels confident that it won’t be long. Straightening up, he smiles, inhales the deliciously savoury air, and politely asks Slughorn for the bacon platter. It may be a little bit premature, but he feels like celebrating.
There are few things more satisfying than being right, and barely two hours have passed before Draco is proved just so. As he steps out into a sunny courtyard for some fresh air between classes, he is greeted by a mob of furiously whispering students, and, when they part for him at his severe look, there is Potter, leaning against a wall, startled and blinking. The second he spots Draco, his puzzlement turns to rage and he beckons Draco over with a silent gesture. Amused but poker-faced, Draco crosses the cobbles towards him unhurriedly, heart racing with secret delight.
“Hello, Potter,” he says pleasantly. Potter has started a game of ‘what, me?’ and he has no idea what his opponent is capable of.
Potter’s mouth presses into a hard line as he brushes dirt from the back of his trousers, and, in doing so, displays grazed knuckles that almost draw a wince from Draco.
“I know this has something to do with you,” he says quietly, darting a hunted glance around at the students who have, Draco suspects, witnessed the entire thing.
“Malfoy,” Potter hisses.
“So this is your revenge? Because you think I did something to your eyebrows yesterday?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Draco shrugs. “Perhaps someone thought you looked better flat on your back,” he adds, lowering his voice.
“You think you’re funny?” Potter sighs. “You think you’re funny. Right. Okay. This is not over, Malfoy.”
Draco lifts an eyebrow. “I’m terrified.” He turns to leave, unwilling to give Potter a second opportunity to walk away from him.
“Thanks, Professor Malfoy!” Potter calls after him. “It’s always nice to talk to you!”
Draco scowls, then smiles. He can’t quite decide. It would have been nice to have seen it happen, but one can’t have everything. Unless Potter decides to risk taking points again, but he doubts even Potter is that stubborn.
Unfortunately, underestimating Potter has always been his downfall. Not that he would ever admit as much even to Stanley, just in case someone was listening. In this case, Potter (and he knows it’s Potter—no one else has such an impatient knock) is at his classroom door by six o’clock that evening and Draco doesn’t know whether to be exasperated or delighted.
“Come in,” he calls without looking up from his marking. He doesn’t need to look up, anyway; he can feel Potter’s restless energy and smell the outdoors on him as he stomps into the room.
“How long are you intending to keep this up?” he demands.
Draco finally allows himself to look up. Potter looks a little more dishevelled than usual, if that’s possible. He has heard whispers this afternoon, but he hardly dares to believe that Potter has pig-headedly continued to take points from Slytherin in his usual overzealous fashion.
“I really don’t—”
“Right, you don’t know what I’m talking about. I’d believe you, only...” Potter’s shoes squeak on the polished stone as he comes to stand in front of Draco’s desk with his arms folded across his chest. “Wait, no, I wouldn’t, because pretty much everything that comes out of your mouth is a lie.”
Draco leans back in his chair, stung. Something inside him tightens as amusement turns to resentment and he suddenly wishes he’d never thought to retaliate so that Potter would never have thought to come to his classroom and wouldn’t be standing here now, looming over his desk and insulting him. What really bites is that he very rarely lies, not any more, and if Potter knew him at all, he’d know that.
“It’s interesting that when you pull an idiotic stunt to humiliate me, it’s all fun... but when you think it’s the other way around, the claws come out,” Draco says stiffly, picking up his quill just so that he has something to play with. He resists standing in order to avoid looking up at Potter because there’s no way he’s letting on that he’s even the slightest bit rattled.
Potter blinks, startled, and then appears to shake off whatever emotion had attempted to take hold of him. “Malfoy... I don’t know what you’re trying to do here but this body-bind thing has happened to me three times since lunch. Enough is enough! Whatever happened to your eyebrows, I’m pretty sure it was only once!”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t taken any points since then,” Draco says, forcing a shrug. “Maybe you should try that.”
Potter gapes, arms falling to his sides. “You mean it wor—erm... the point is, Malfoy... the point is—are you insane?”
Draco grants Potter a half-smile, one borne of satisfaction and of finally feeling solid ground beneath his feet for the first time since Potter entered his classroom.
“It’s interesting you should ask that, because I happen to have read that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” he says calmly.
Potter flushes. “Never mind that. Just stop it. Stop it now.”
“Like I said, I have no idea what you’re talking about. And I have things to do,” he adds, relishing the chance to throw Potter’s dismissive words back at him, and oh, this whole thing is childish, but he can’t help enjoying it. He flicks his wand at the door and it flies open, swinging back and forth on its hinges.
Potter storms towards the door, pausing just outside it. “Malfoy, if you don’t sort this out—”
“You’ll do what? Run to McGonagall?” Draco interrupts, making a show of turning back to his marking.
Potter snorts. “No, but I wonder who she’d believe—you or me?”
The comment stings, just as he supposes it was meant to, and Draco bites his tongue hard as he looks slowly around at the doorway. To his surprise, Potter’s face is twisted into a cringe and his mouth is half-open as though there should be more words but they have been stolen away.
Catching himself feeling sorry for Potter, Draco stops and glares. “I can fight my own battles these days, Potter. Maybe you should try the same—it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
As soon as the words are out, Draco wants them back, but it’s too late, so he looks away from Potter’s staggered face, lifts his wand and spells the door shut with such force that the frame rattles. Alone once more, he abandons his essays and rests his elbows on the desk, dropping his head into his hands with a heavy sigh. He’s an idiot, and so is Potter. He’ll undo the spell in the morning.
That night, he sleeps fitfully, tossing and turning and rearranging his pillows in between restless snatches of dreams about Potter and McGonagall holding hands and slamming doors in his face. Sore-eyed and cantankerous, he rises at first light and spells fire into the grate, sitting in his favourite armchair with his dressing gown wrapped around himself and his feet pulled up onto the seat. The blood red corduroy is soothingly rough against his skin as he tucks himself in tight and rests his chin on his knees. There’s something uncommonly comforting about this chair, with its overstuffed cushions, patches worn through from years of fireside sitting, and the fact that the seat is just a little higher off the ground than perhaps it should be. It makes Draco feel safe inside this huge, lonely castle, and is his favourite thing in these three rooms of his, beside Stanley, who is sleeping peacefully on top of the wardrobe.
Surprising as he knows many of his colleagues would find it, Draco isn’t much bothered by things. He has grown up surrounded by fine furniture he wasn’t allowed to sit on and exquisite objects he wasn’t allowed to touch; even his own bedroom was—and still is, he supposes—a testament to elegance rather than comfort or practicality. When he left home, it was easier to let his mother keep the undamaged parts of the house exactly as they were and let her get on with restoring the rest. He doubts his childhood bedroom has been touched in over a decade.
Most of the furniture in his rooms was already here when he arrived, and he’s always been just fine with that. He has his clothes, his quilts, his cups and teapot and copper kettle, and his chair. The thing about the chair, he supposes, is that it was the first grown up purchase he had ever made on his own. It’s his ‘yes, I am a man, actually’ chair; his ‘I went into a shop and chose this without a parent present’ chair; his ‘I can curl up here and spill drinks if I want to’ chair. He realises it would probably sound faintly ridiculous if he had to explain it to another human being; surely surviving a war and the company of Volde-fucking-mort are the experiences that mean something, not buying an armchair. But it doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone.
He sighs, resting his head against the back of the chair. It smells comfortingly of the fire and unsurprisingly of garden mint. The trouble is, he may have a grown-up chair but he’s not sure he really feels like a grown-up. Maybe that’s the problem with him and Potter—one of problems, anyway. Their relationship, if one can call it that, has never really grown up. He closes his eyes. It’s not as though he wants them to be friends, but...
With the weak morning sunlight filtering onto his face and the fire crackling at his side, Draco allows his exhaustion to take him before he even finishes the thought.
He wakes to the sound of hungry tacking and an insistent pair of antennae waving under his chin. He feeds Stanley, showers and dresses and heads for breakfast feeling restored, ravenous and resolved—just for this once—to be the bigger man. No doubt there will be numerous other opportunities to get back at Potter.
His boots click satisfyingly on the stone of the Entrance Hall and he picks up his pace as the alluring scent of fried mushrooms drifts into his nostrils, turning his head briefly to check on the four hourglasses as he passes. He slows momentarily to note that Slytherin are in the lead, and then something incomprehensible happens.
Right in front of his eyes, all of the emeralds drain away, leaving the Slytherin hourglass empty. Horrified, he spins around to see who has done such a thing, but he is alone in the Entrance Hall. Surely it’s some kind of despicable prank; after all, who would take so many points from Slytherin all at once? Draco’s fingers curl into his palms as he lets his eyes close for a second.
“Fucking Potter,” he mutters, fury overtaking hunger as he turns on his heel and stalks off in search of the obstinate idiot. He can’t believe anyone would be so... but it’s Potter... so anything’s possible... but still. He hopes for Potter’s sake that he finds him sooner rather than later, because he’s only growing angrier with every step.
After fruitlessly checking the staff room, the Quidditch pitch and the Gryffindor common room, startling several students along the way, Draco is heading for the kitchens, just in case Potter is having breakfast with his house-elf friends, when he impulsively sticks his head into the courtyard where he and Potter had argued the day before. It is immediately clear that something has happened, and, judging by the small crowd that has gathered, something interesting at that. He can’t see Potter, but something like panic flutters in his stomach as he walks slowly across the cobbles and ushers the students aside. He isn’t wearing a watch but he knows he has been running around the castle for at least five minutes, and he has a very bad feeling about this.
“Miss Baron, step aside, please,” he instructs, waving the girl away and swallowing hard as she obeys and there, sure enough, is Potter, lying flat on his back on the ground with legs rigid and arms clamped tightly to his sides, glasses askew and eyes staring fixedly at the sky. Taking a deep breath, he draws his wand and casts the counter-curse. When nothing happens, he tries it again, attempting to ignore the speculative whispers of the students who have now crowded back in around him.
“How long has he been like this?” he asks, not caring who answers.
“About five minutes,” Ivy says, and he turns to look at her. Her long red hair flickers around her panicked face in the breeze and she clutches her wand to her chest.
“What did you do?”
“She didn’t do anything,” insists the much taller girl at Ivy’s side. “It was all a misunderstanding! Some horrible boys were trying to curse Ivy’s sister bald, and she cast a Shield Charm, and Professor Potter was over there—” She points across the courtyard, “doing some spells with Magnus, and he thought Ivy cast the curse so he took ten points from Slytherin and then he just fell down like this!” she finishes, breathless and twisting her tie around her fingers anxiously.
Draco frowns, looking around at the group, which, he now notices, contains an even tinier version of Ivy, wearing a Ravenclaw tie and a terrified expression.
“Alright, thank you, I’m sure Miss Baron has a tongue in her head,” he says eventually, and the tall girl closes her mouth firmly. “What I meant was have you cast any spells on him?” The crowd lets out a collective gasp, and he adds, “To revive him! Did you cast any spells that I need to know about?”
“Just Enervate,” Ivy says quietly. “But it didn’t work.”
“What’s wrong with him?” asks someone behind Draco. He doesn’t turn.
“This happened before,” offers someone else. “Yesterday, in our flying lesson. But he came out of it really quickly.”
“Yeah, and yesterday at morning break!” adds someone else, and suddenly the whole group is aflutter, swapping sightings and theories. Only Ivy, her tall friend, and her sister remain silent, and they are all staring at Draco as though he is going to do something miraculous.
He sighs, gazing down at Potter and feeling just a little bit sick. He’s breathing at least, but there’s definitely something terribly wrong. “I don’t suppose you thought to send for—”
“She’s here!” yells someone, and seconds later Magnus Humphries is charging through the crowd with all of his usual grace. He is, thankfully, followed by Madam Pomfrey.
“Alright, alright, out of the way,” she calls, bustling through the crowd with her wand held aloft, and Draco’s brief surge of relief quickly gives way to anxiety as she pulls up beside him and shoots him a sharp look before crouching to examine her patient. It’s as if she knows it’s his fault, and perhaps she does. Pushing his panic aside, he answers her questions and watches vaguely as she prods Potter with her wand, producing a variety of coloured lights that would be rather pretty in different circumstances.
At last, Pomfrey hauls herself up from her crouch and turns to Draco, lips pursed and expression grave. “Professor Malfoy, perhaps you’ll help me get him up to the hospital wing?”
Draco nods stiffly and together they levitate the rigid body of Potter, conveying him carefully back towards the castle at a steady three feet above the cobbles. At the stone archway that leads back into the corridor, Draco pauses, conscious of the gathered students, who have turned to follow their progress in a watchful silence.
“Ivy,” he says, voice sounding uncomfortably loud in the hush. “You’d better come with us. The rest of you—classes will be starting soon. This is not an excuse to be late.”
Ivy, apparently startled to hear her first name, hesitates for a moment before separating herself from the grumbling crowd and tacking herself onto the back of the odd little procession. She doesn’t speak and Draco is grateful; his mind is already racing out of control and it’s all he can do to keep up his stern expression and his end of Potter, whose staring eyes are now thankfully obscured by the reflections of the gloomy corridors in his spectacles.
The path up to the infirmary is mercifully clear, and Draco concentrates on the sound of his footsteps on the stone, keeping time with the squeak of Pomfrey’s sensible shoes and forming an odd, syncopated rhythm with the steps of the much shorter Ivy, whose sharply clacking heels make Draco suspect that she is, perhaps unsurprisingly, breaking the uniform code yet again. His suspicions are confirmed when, at the top of the stairs, she darts around them to pull open the heavy oak door and leans against it, giving Draco an unobscured view of her very stylish and not very Hogwarts pointy-toed, aubergine coloured, high-heeled mary-janes. He sighs and says nothing, and is immediately assaulted by the voice of Potter inside his head, demanding to know whether he would have let such an infraction slide for a Gryffindor.
“Shut up, Potter,” he mutters under his breath, earning himself an odd look from Madam Pomfrey as they lower him onto a bed and put away their wands.
At the end of the bed, Ivy wraps small hands around the metal frame and stares at Potter.
“Am I in trouble?” she asks suddenly. “Because it’s true what Madeleine said—I was only casting a Shield Charm—”
“That’s not why you’re here,” Draco interrupts. “You’re here because you saw what happened and you are to tell Madam Pomfrey everything. When you have done that, you will go to your morning class. Do you understand, Miss Baron?”
“Yes, Professor,” Ivy says, seeming to shrink slightly before him.
Draco inhales slowly. The air here smells like ointment and potions and unfamiliar magic, just like it has always done, but it fails to calm the restless tangling in the pit of his stomach. He knows he’s being unpleasant but he’s not sure how to stop, or indeed how else to be. He stares at Potter’s still form and closes his eyes as an unpleasant realisation rakes over him: if this is the body-bind curse, then Potter may not be able to move or speak, but he remains fully aware of his surroundings, and can hear every last word that is being said.
Draco startles. Pomfrey is standing right next to him and scrutinising him with intelligent blue-grey eyes.
“I was just asking—are you going to stay with Professor Potter while I run through a few tests?”
Heart speeding, Draco glances back to Potter for a moment. “Er... I’d better not. I have a class starting in...” At that moment, the sound of the bell echoes through the castle and Draco rejoices inwardly. “Well, there’s the bell—I wouldn’t want to be late! Sets a terrible example, you see, and I must...” Draco is still muttering to himself as he lets the doors close behind him and clatters down the steps towards his classroom. It’s not his first choice of hiding place, but for the moment, it will have to do.
Even if it is the class that contains Jasper Bracknell and friends. Draco takes a deep, steadying breath as he rounds the last corner, stalks past the line of waiting students and into the classroom, leaving it open for them without a word. As he settles himself at his desk, he catches sight of the neat scrolls in the hands of the well-behaved Ravenclaw girls and vaguely recalls setting homework during the last class. Well, if nothing else, collecting it will give him a moment or two to put aside this Potter mess and possibly remember his lesson plan for today.
Irritated, he draws his wand and looks around at his students. He’s always organised. He’s always been organised. This is ridiculous—one idiotic accident and all his order, his schedules, his systems, are shot to hell. He just won’t have it. Potter will be fine in no time, anyway; Pomfrey may be an old bird, but she’s a shrewd one, and he would bet his favourite chair that she’s sorted out stranger messes than this one.
Then again, he thinks, this is Potter, and he always has to be different in one way or another. And, of course, when McGonagall hears about it... Draco’s jaw clenches tight as something unpleasant swoops through him. Good grief. McGonagall. She will definitely not be amused. He is just wondering if it would be prudent to tender his resignation straight away when someone in the class coughs and he remembers where he is.
Homework. McGonagall. Humiliation. Potter. Fuck.
No... homework. Silently, he flicks his wand and several rolls of parchment fly through the air before landing neatly on his desk. He casts an eye over the pile and, sure enough, there is one missing. He knows, he already knows before he even looks up, but he looks anyway, and there is Jasper Bracknell, leaning back in his seat and wrinkling his stupid nose under his stupid shaggy eyebrows, trying—Draco thinks—and failing to look charming.
“Yeah, the thing is...” Jasper begins, but Draco is already there.
“You haven’t done your homework.”
Jasper leans forward, gazing steadily at Draco through a swathe of messy hair. “Well, no, but the thing is...”
“I do not want to hear your excuses, Mr Bracknell. I am not in a good mood.”
“When are you ever?” Jasper asks innocently, and all at once he has the entire class in the palm of his hand.
Draco narrows his eyes, opens his mouth to deliver a few harsh words of his own and then closes it again. McGonagall, Pomfrey, Potter—they’re all in there, staring daggers into him and throwing him completely off his stride. Teeth gritted, he folds his arms on top of his desk and regards Jasper.
“Your assignment will be on my desk first thing tomorrow,” he says simply, and is gratified to find that Jasper has no response to offer as Draco rises from his desk, spells the blackboard clean and begins the lesson.
When the bell rings for morning break, Draco locks up his classroom and hesitates in the corridor, torn between heading up to the hospital wing to check on Potter and making a break for his rooms. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter, because within seconds there is a cold hand on his shoulder and a crisply-voiced, “A word, Mr Malfoy?” in his ear. The words wrap around his heart and yank it slimily down through his body. Doom, he thinks quietly, but he turns to McGonagall with a polite smile.
The journey to the headmistress’ office is silent and laden with tension. Determined to hold onto his composure despite the fact that he is almost certainly about to lose the only proper job he has ever had because of some ridiculous schoolboy retaliation, Draco forces himself to stay still, to stand erect, to look straight ahead. The office is much the same as it has always been; in fact, he doesn’t think anything has changed since the last time he was here, and that was... Draco sighs gently. Nine years. Nine years since those fortnightly meetings stopped. Nine years since he was trusted to strike out on his own. Nine years since McGonagall decided that Draco Malfoy no longer needed her close guidance, and look at where that has landed them both.
“Tea?” she asks, cutting into his thoughts, and he nods wordlessly. She is already pouring, and the smoky scent of her favourite Lapsang is already filling the room and pulling Draco inescapably back to his first meeting here with her, delicate cups and steam and confusion, a twenty-two-year-old Draco and an ageless, severe lady with a wall of watchful portraits. Tiny sugar cubes and fearful questions and the words Draco has never forgotten: ‘Mr Malfoy, I have a proposition for you.’
Draco shivers. He forces himself to look over at McGonagall, who is now sitting behind her desk. A familiar carved chair has appeared opposite hers and she gestures him into it with a significant look over the top of her glasses. He hastily takes his teacup and saucer, knowing from experience that hesitation is likely to offend, and the last thing he wants to do right now is make things worse.
“We need to talk about Mr Potter,” she says, setting down her cup and lacing her fingers together.
Draco bites down on several ill-advised responses to that statement. “Of course,” he repeats weakly.
“Harry is currently in the hospital wing, under the care of Madam Pomfrey.”
“I know,” Draco says, pressing his fingertips to the burning china of his cup.
McGonagall inclines her head. “Yes. Well, I thought you should know that he will be remaining there for the time being, as, after consulting with Madam Pomfrey and examining him myself, we are rather at a loss for how to proceed.” She pauses, fixing Draco with a particularly hawklike gaze. “I have also spoken to Ivy and Holly Baron, Madeleine Kettleworth and Magnus Humphries. Is there anything you would like to add to their accounts of what happened this morning?”
Draco avoids her eyes, which turns out to be a fatal error, as he immediately finds himself staring into the face of Dumbledore’s portrait, which has just woken up. He swallows dryly and sips his tea. It needs sugar, but he isn’t about to ask for it.
He steels himself and turns back to McGonagall. “I wasn’t there when it happens,” he says. Hesitates. “But... well, it sounds rather ridiculous—”
“Then it probably is, Mr Malfoy,” she interrupts, and some of the portraits laugh softly. “But do continue.”
“Alright. Well, we—Potter and I, that is—we were...” Draco stops, flushing lightly, feeling inarticulate and furious with himself. He tries again. “Potter and I were having a minor disagreement. About house-points. He cast a silly curse on me and I cast one back. Beyond that, I’m not sure what went wrong. I certainly didn’t intend for any lasting harm to come to him,” Draco finishes, staring at her face and trying to decide whether or not she believes him.
“I see. And what exactly did you intend?” she asks sharply.
Draco hates himself. He really does. “It was supposed to just...” Oh, fuck, this is pathetic. “It was supposed to cause a body-bind whenever he took points from Slytherin,” he says quietly. “For a minute,” he adds quickly. “Just one minute, that’s all.”
McGonagall leans back in her chair and drinks her tea in silence for what seems like several hours. Her eyes never leave Draco and he feels his insides shrink in horror as he realises that she is not angry but disappointed, and that is so much worse.
“I’m sorry,” he offers into the silence.
For a long time, she says nothing, and then she drains her cup and leans towards him once more.
“Well, Mr Malfoy; if nothing else, we can now put the pieces of the puzzle together. Unfortunately, we are no closer to a solution.”
“What exactly did happen?” Draco asks, curiosity overriding the desire to appear meek.
Pressing her lips into a hard line, McGonagall seems to consider him for a moment. Finally, she appears to concede. “Harry was helping Mr Humphries with an Extensor spell this morning,” she begins, and Draco’s mind is already racing ahead.
He hasn’t needed to use an Extensor spell in a long time, but he knows that they are used to prolong the effect of one spell while another is cast, essentially allowing a person to cast two spells at the same time. He supposes Magnus had needed the spell for his NEWT Charms class, but he has no idea what any of it has to do with bloody Potter. Not that it matters—the important thing is this: if Potter was casting an Extensor at the moment he tried to take points from Ivy Baron, the whole thing almost makes sense. It explains why all the points disappeared from the Slytherin hourglass and it explains the drawn-out effect of Draco’s body-bind curse.
What it doesn’t explain, however, is how long the adverse effect is likely to last, and how it can be countered. If at all.
In a daze, he nods as McGonagall explains the situation, following the same progression of logic and arriving at the same unnerving conclusion.
“I have contacted St Mungo’s and they have promised that a Healer will be with us in the morning,” she says. “In the meantime, you and I have much to discuss.”
“I’m sure,” Draco sighs, forgetting himself as he experiences a sudden and unhelpful wave of irritation towards Potter. Harry bloody Potter, always getting himself involved in anything and everything that doesn’t concern him—if he’d left well alone, Draco would have removed the spell at breakfast and everything would have been back to normal by now. “Why was he messing around with Extensor spells, anyway?” he demands before he can stop himself. “He’s a flying instructor, not a—”
“He likes to use his knowledge to help the students, Mr Malfoy, which is more than I can currently say for you,” McGonagall says acidly and Draco falls silent. “More tea?”
Draco holds out his cup, stung. “Thank you.”
McGonagall pours and then sets down the teapot with a soft clank. “So, I find myself in a difficult situation: one teacher incapacitated for goodness knows how long and another setting a dreadful example for his students by perpetuating ridiculous, and quite frankly damaging, house rivalries.” Her eyes seem to glitter dangerously as she stares into him. “What would you do in my position?”
“I don’t know,” he admits, and he cannot recall ever feeling smaller. It’s not even surprising, because ever since she brought him here she has had the power to make him feel proud, accomplished, or ashamed in ways that no previous authority figure has ever managed. It’s not surprising, but it steals his breath and his fight all the same. He rests his cup and saucer on his knee and looks her in the eye. “I understand if you want me to leave, but I would be very sad to do so.”
One of the portraits coughs and Draco ignores it. He knows it’s Dumbledore. McGonagall ignores it, too, letting out a small sound of irritation.
“And how would that help me, exactly, Mr Malfoy? I would be two good teachers down!”
Startled, Draco steadies his teacup before it slides to the floor. “I was under the impression that you thought I was a bad teacher,” he says, refusing to allow himself to feel relieved. Not yet.
“No,” she says, not unkindly. “But I do find it interesting that that is what you heard. No, Mr Malfoy, you are a very good teacher. Your students’ OWL and NEWT results are the best in the school. However...”
Draco looks at his hands, sagging slightly. “However?”
“Hogwarts is more than a school,” McGonagall says, tone softening a little. “Our students live with us for months at a time; we have to provide them with more than the skills they need to pass their examinations. You have more to give these children than an instruction in Transfiguration, Draco,” she says, and he looks up.
“I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean,” he hedges, pushing down the instinctive tingle of horror that is already beginning to wrap around his spine.
McGonagall eyes him sharply. “If that is true, which I highly doubt it is, then I’m afraid I am not planning to allow you your ignorance for a moment more. I have had some time to think about this and I have arrived at a mutually beneficial solution,” she says, and there is something in the curve of her lips that makes Draco want to leap from the chair and flee from the room. “Your silly rivalry with Mr Potter has cost me a valuable member of my staff team,” she says and arches an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Draco says quietly.
“It has also come to my attention that my Transfiguration professor has been shirking his extracurricular and social duties for far too long.” She pauses again.
“Okay,” Draco concedes, fingers clamping around the delicate handle of his cup.
“We are in agreement, then,” she says briskly. “You will take over Mr Potter’s duties until such time as he is fully recovered.”
Draco blinks. Swallows. Bites down on his tongue and forces his instinctive dissent back down his throat, because it could be a lot worse. He could be out on his ear, and instead, he just has to cover a few flying lessons. He can do that.
“I’ll be happy to take Potter’s flying classes until he’s better,” he says evenly.
McGonagall grants him a small smile. “Wonderful.” She reaches into a desk drawer and retrieves a stack of shiny folders. “And these, of course,” she adds, pushing them across the desk towards Draco where they slide into a messy cascade.
Draco stares. “What are these?”
“Mr Potter’s records,” she says airily, and though her mouth is hidden by her teacup, Draco has the horrible suspicion that she is enjoying herself, and that cannot bode well for him.
He picks up the topmost folder and opens it. “Gryffindor Quidditch team,” he reads, dismay mounting as he flicks through the team profiles, sketches of various plays, training schedules... He stares at McGonagall, aghast. “I can’t coach the Gryffindor Quidditch team!”
“Of course you can. You were a very talented player in your time,” she says, expression daring him to argue. “There is a very important game in two weeks’ time and I happen to know that Harry was attending training sessions in order to help prepare. I don’t see why the team should suffer because the two of you have had a silly disagreement, do you?”
Draco swears as loudly as he can inside his head and smiles tightly at McGonagall. “No, I suppose not.”
“Well, that’s settled, then. You will also have responsibility for the first-to-fifth-year Duelling Club, maintenance of school brooms and Quidditch equipment, and house-elf relations,” McGonagall says, and Draco can’t help it, he lifts a hand to his forehead and pinches the bridge of his nose, allowing his eyes to close for just a moment.
“And, of course, you will also be the acting head of Gryffindor,” she says with relish.
“What?” Draco stares, hoping against hope that he has misheard.
“You are now the acting head of Gryffindor House.”
“That... that just won’t work!” he insists, damp fingers sliding on the shiny cover of the folder in his lap.
McGonagall fixes him with a look that can only mean business. “You had better make it work, Mr Malfoy.”
Draco takes a deep breath, trying not to let the panic in. “I’ll have to rearrange a few things and...” and give up sleeping, and try to lead a group of students that includes Jasper sodding Bracknell and all the other ones that hate me, he thinks mutinously. “Will Potter be enjoying the same... experience when he emerges from the hospital wing?” he asks as politely as he can.
“Mr Potter is already being punished, don’t you think?”
Chastened, Draco says nothing. He stares down at the Quidditch folder and then slowly returns his cup to the desk and takes the others, piling them into his lap and wrapping his fingers around the sharp edges. This is going to be a nightmare—in fact, it already is, and he hasn’t even begun the terrifying business of attempting to be a role model to a bunch of bloody Gryffindors.
Still, it is his own fault. And Potter’s. For a moment, Draco wonders who has been landed with the more unpleasant end of the deal. He stops when he realises that whichever conclusion he comes to, it doesn’t make him feel any better about any of it.
“Bad mistakes provide a man with quick experience, Mr Malfoy,” McGonagall says, and when he looks up at her, her face is kinder than he has seen it in a long time.
When the last student leaves his classroom that afternoon, Draco spells the door locked, folds his arms on his desk and drops his head down onto them. He doesn’t even begin his new schedule until tomorrow and yet he’s exhausted, anxious and tight with tension just at the thought of his additional responsibilities... or, perhaps more accurately, at the thought of spending so much time with the students in environments so far out of his control. He shudders. His life is ordered, quiet, restrained—the only bit of chaos he allows comes in the form of Stanley, who will, no doubt, be wanting his dinner by now and will probably be getting up to all sorts of mischief in order to obtain it.
Stretching wearily, Draco leaves the comfort and the scent of chalk behind him and walks at a reluctant pace back to his rooms, where he finds the dreaded files waiting for him on his coffee table but no Stanley anywhere to be seen.
Draco looks in the bathroom, the bedroom, and in all Stanley’s favourite hiding places before giving in and reaching for the bag of mint leaves that he keeps in his tea cupboard.
“Come out, you little bugger,” he calls, taking a leaf and crushing it between his thumb and forefinger, releasing the sweet smell of mint into the air and waiting. For a few seconds, nothing happens, and then Stanley flings himself out of the fireplace, sending coals clattering everywhere and tracking sooty little footprints across the hearthrug as he scuttles towards Draco.
Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack! comes the enthusiastic greeting as the beetle nearly tips himself over in his efforts to nuzzle Draco’s ankles and leap for the leaf at the same time. He is covered in soot and is smearing it all over Draco’s trousers but for once he doesn’t really care. Stanley is pleased to see him and is reassuringly easy to predict, and today, that will do for Draco. He relinquishes the crushed leaf and shakes several more out onto the floor for good measure. When every last bite has been gobbled up, he flings his cloak, waistcoat and shirt over the back of a chair, picks up a filthy, wriggling Stanley and deposits him in the bath. Usually, a quick wipe of his little feet and a polish of his shell with a soft cloth is enough, but not today.
“You’ll never believe what I have to do,” he confides, filling the bath with a couple of inches of warm water in which Stanley immediately begins to splash gleefully, despite his initial protests.
Tack-tack, he offers, swishing his antennae through the water and sending up a stream that neatly hits Draco in the face.
“Yes,” he mutters, wiping his face with his forearm and wrinkling his nose. “It felt quite a lot like that, actually.”
When Stanley is finally clean, they decamp to the living room where Draco pulls on a soft jumper and drops into his favourite chair with the shiny folders of doom. He knows he has to look through them sometime, but his motivation seems to have left him. Maybe it’s up in the hospital wing with Potter. Thoroughly fed up, he leaves them on the table, where Stanley tacks gently over each one and then settles down to sleep on top of the pile.
Draco glances at the clock on the mantel and groans. It’s only just gone four and for once, he has absolutely no idea what to do with himself. He taps his fingers on the arms of his chair for a minute or two, attempting to resist the urge that has leapt unbidden into his head, but it’s no good. He rises, and seconds later, he is making his way up the stairs to the hospital wing. Seeing as this whole mess is at least half Potter’s fault, it makes sense to be where he is. Sort of.
The sun is setting as he lets himself into the infirmary and the whole room is ablaze with golden light; the stark white of the bed linen seems softened as it pulls tight across four empty beds and drapes over the forms of Potter and a girl with two long plaits—Hufflepuff second-year, he thinks—who is occupying the bed farthest from the door. She glances over at the sound of his footsteps and quickly looks away. Oddly irritated, Draco approaches Potter’s bed, which is set between two large windows.
His stomach twists as he gazes down at the motionless form. It’s unsettling, because as many times as he has accused Potter of being lazy, it’s rare to see him not moving. His clothes are sitting in a pile on the chair at his side and he has been redressed—Draco imagines by Madam Pomfrey—in a pair of light blue pyjamas. He looks strange in such a soft colour, but that’s not the reason Draco feels as though something is very wrong. He can’t quite pin it down for a moment, and then there it is. Potter isn’t wearing his glasses. He isn’t wearing his glasses and his eyes have been closed—they hadn’t been closed when Draco left, he is certain of it.
Squeaky footsteps make him turn just in time to see Madam Pomfrey walking over to Potter’s bed with a potion bottle in her hand.
“Good afternoon,” she says briskly.
Draco nods, and then he asks—he can’t help it. “Why have you closed his eyes? He’s not dead.”
Pomfrey gives him an odd look and then softens, granting him a little smile. “He can’t blink, Professor Malfoy. I closed his eyes to stop them getting dry and sore. The eyes aren’t usually affected by petrificus totalus but this is a rather unusual case.”
Draco scans her face, searching for the reproach he expects to find there, but Pomfrey’s expression is clear and open. “Yes, I suppose it is,” he says at last, and she turns away to administer the potion via a funnel-like contraption. The closed eyes still do not feel right, though. Potter looks strangely vulnerable and so unlike himself.
He hangs around at the bottom of the bed until Pomfrey has finished her task and moved on to her other patient, but he doesn’t feel any less unsettled than he had in his rooms. He turns to leave—perhaps a walk around the grounds will help—and stops abruptly, halfway across the floor.
He frowns. “Good evening, Potter,” he says, and leaves, feeling like an idiot.
The announcement comes at breakfast the next morning, approximately two minutes after Draco’s Potioneer’s Weekly magazine has dropped onto the table and upended his half-eaten bowl of cereal. He has spelled away the spilled milk and is glaring at the soggy magazine, wondering why the hell he still has a subscription anyway, when McGonagall stands and silences the chattering masses with three crisp words:
“Good morning, everyone.”
“And a fine morning to you, too, Professor,” someone says heartily. Draco rolls his eyes.
“Yes, thank you, Mr Bracknell. Now, if I could have your full attention for just a moment—I’m sure some of you have been wondering about the whereabouts of Professor Potter, and I would like to reassure you that he is in no danger but is unwell and currently unable to perform his duties.” In the brief pause that follows, a ripple of concern passes through the room and McGonagall has to raise her voice in order to continue. “Professor Potter will be returning to us as soon he can, but in the meantime, effective from Monday, his classes and extracurricular activities will be taken by Professor Malfoy, who will also be standing in as the head of Gryffindor House. I am sure,” she adds, tone sharpening as she looks around at the startled students, “that you will all support him as best you can.”
She sits back down, and the moment she does, the Great Hall seems to erupt in whispers and darting glances. The occupants of the Gryffindor table in particular look shocked and less than thrilled by the news. Draco, for once, absolutely empathises with them.
Friday’s classes seem to float by in a haze. Draco teaches, marks, prepares and advises as usual, but by lunchtime, he can’t seem to remember any of it. He vaguely recalls remarkably similar exchanges with a couple of his braver students, along the lines of:
“Are you really the new head of Gryffindor?”
“Yes, for the time being.”
“But... aren’t you a Slytherin?”
“I am a Transfiguration professor. And a flying instructor. Please get on with your work.”
“He’s not dead, is he? Professor Potter?”
Draco sighs and hurries the last student out of his classroom. There’s a rather wonderful savoury smell drifting down the corridor from the Great Hall, but he shakes his head and walks in the opposite direction. The St Mungo’s Healer must have arrived by now, and he is, for reasons he can’t quite put into words, quite anxious to speak to him or her. As he climbs the stairs, the object in his robe pocket rustles against his thigh and he can’t control a small smile as he acknowledges the minor miracle that had been sitting on his desk first thing this morning.
Jasper Bracknell’s essay. Finished. Legible. Not at all bad, in fact.
When he reaches the doors, Draco shoves the miracle deeper into his pocket and pushes his way expectantly into the hospital wing. To his surprise, the light-drenched room is almost completely empty—in fact, the only person in the whole place seems to be Potter; the girl from yesterday has disappeared and the Healer is nowhere to be seen.
Somehow sensing his presence, Madam Pomfrey bustles out from her office and stops short, expression one of unvarnished bewilderment.
Draco shifts slightly on the spot, feeling awkward. “Yes. I was wondering if I might have a word with the Healer from St Mungo’s.”
“Oh,” Pomfrey says, face clearing a little. “I’m afraid he’s gone.”
“That’s right,” she says, squeaking over to Potter’s bed and rearranging his sheets. “He was only here for a few minutes—took one look at Harry, asked Professor McGonagall a few questions and then he was off. He said there was nothing he could do.”
Draco’s stomach drops. He’s killed Potter.
All of those people with their fiendish plans who failed anyway and he has managed to do it by accident with a spell that a first-year could manage.
“Professor Malfoy, are you listening to me?”
Draco shakes his head numbly. He wonders how long Potter has. Or, indeed, how long he has now that McGonagall knows that Potter can’t be fixed. Or maybe it’s worse than that—maybe Potter isn’t dying; maybe he’s just locked inside his own useless body for the next hundred or so years. Horror and guilt swipe at Draco’s insides and the room seems to grow darker around him as he stares over at Potter’s bed.
This time, Pomfrey steps right into his personal space and coughs loudly. Draco jumps.
“I think you ought to sit down,” she says, eyebrows knitted, but when she tries to take Draco’s arm, he pulls away instinctively.
“No, I’m fine, really. I just—”
“Sit. Now,” Pomfrey interrupts, enclosing his wrist in terrifyingly strong fingers and propelling him over to the nearest empty bed.
Too startled to argue, Draco allows himself to be pushed down onto the firm mattress and sits there quietly as Pomfrey takes his pulse and feels his forehead with the back of her hand. He grimaces when she starts pulling at his eyelids, but she still has his arm and he’s a little bit afraid of what she might do with it if he resists.
“I’m fine,” he insists, but his words are muffled by the thermometer she has just thrust into his mouth.
“Shush,” she admonishes, and finally he elects to behave himself because the sooner she can get on with her unnecessary examination, the sooner she will be finished, and the sooner he can make a break for his rooms where he can start panicking properly.
“Well, Professor, it seems you are quite alright after all,” she says at last, releasing him and standing back, and he doesn’t think he imagines the look of slight disappointment on her face.
“I did say that,” Draco sighs.
“Yes, well, your pulse is rather fast and you did turn a terrible shade of grey,” she counters. “It would have been remiss of me to let you leave, don’t you think?”
Draco nods vaguely, pressing his fingers to the cool cotton of the sheets and testing the resistance of the mattress against his weight. These beds are rather comfortable, from what he remembers, but there’s a world of difference between a night and a lifetime. Then again, he doubts Potter will have to stay here forever. Perhaps he could help to find a place...
Draco’s eyes snap to hers. “Young man?” he repeats incredulously. “I’m thirty-two!”
“You are a young man to me,” Pomfrey says. “And if your focus continues to drift, I will have no choice but to admit you.”
“I’m fine!” he explodes, but something in her expression tells him she is not kidding. He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you, but I can’t help feeling it’s understandable to have some sort of reaction to the news that you are responsible for the permanent paralysis of the most popular man in the wizarding world,” Draco says, loathing the resentful sound of the words as soon as they leave his mouth.
Pomfrey frowns. “What on earth are you talking about, permanent paralysis?”
Draco stares up at her, baffled. “You said—”
“Goodness me,” she murmurs, shaking her head. “No wonder you turned such a funny colour. This is what happens when you don’t listen,” she tells him, resting her hands on her hips. “Now, Healer Talbot has examined Professor Potter and assured us that no permanent damage has been done,” she says deliberately, and Draco says nothing; he’s too busy holding his breath. “He left because there is no treatment he can offer—Harry will recover, but there is no way of knowing how long it will take. There is nothing for us to do but make him comfortable and wait.”
Draco grips the sheets tightly, suddenly hyper-aware of everything from the slight roughness in the cotton to the warm pine scent of Pomfrey’s uniform and the harsh sound of his own breathing as a sweet, sharp tide of relief crashes over him. He closes his eyes.
“I haven’t killed him.”
“No. I think he’s made of sterner stuff than that, don’t you?” Pomfrey says brightly.
Draco looks up, shooting her a tight smile. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Pomfrey smiles back and then snaps into her usual no-nonsense setting. “According to Healer Talbot, the recovery time will depend on the strength of the curses cast—yours and Harry’s,” she explains, and this time there is a flicker of exasperation in her eyes that makes Draco want to look away from her, but he doesn’t.
“I see. And did Healer Talbot have anything else to say?” he asks instead.
“Yes. He said we should talk to him.”
“To Professor Potter—to Harry,” she clarifies. “Listening is about the only thing he can do for the time being, and it’s as good a distraction as any.”
Draco exhales slowly, quite unsure what to do with that. “Right.” He stands up, carefully avoids looking over at Potter, and sidles around Pomfrey towards the exit. “I’d better be going—I have tests to mark before the next lesson.”
“You have lunch to eat before the next lesson if you know what’s good for you, Professor Malfoy,” she calls after him, and the order, combined with the memory of that delicious smell, ruins his good intentions in an instant.
“I will do that.” He pauses at the door and offers a polite nod. “Thank you, Madam Pomfrey.”
“You know,” she says, just as he is about to pull the door open. “You don’t have to call me Madam Pomfrey any more.”
Draco frowns. “Excuse me?”
Pomfrey shakes her head and folds her arms across her sturdy chest. “I don’t pretend to have a talent for remembering dates, Draco, but I know you’ve been teaching here for a good few years. We’re colleagues. I do have a first name, you know.”
“I know,” Draco says, discomfort making his voice small. He shrugs. “I’ve always called you Madam Pomfrey.”
Unexpectedly, she laughs. “I know.”
Draco hesitates. He has no idea what to say to her. He hadn’t anticipated this strange little confrontation and on top of everything else that is jostling for space in his head, there’s just no way of coming up with anything logical.
“It’s just... well, most of the other teachers call me ‘Mr Malfoy’ or ‘Professor Malfoy’... like you do...usually,” he finishes, absently lifting a hand to pinch at the bridge of his nose.
Pomfrey purses her lips. “Has it ever occurred to you that we are formal with you because you are so formal with us?” she challenges.
Draco says nothing. He can’t.
Pomfrey tilts her head on one side and regards him with a stare that is made up of equal parts sympathy and curiosity. “You still don’t feel like you belong here, do you?” she says softly.
Draco says nothing. He catches his breath. Frowns. Opens his mouth and closes it again.
“Maybe you should think about that,” she says, and turns on her heel, squeaking back into her office before he can even formulate a sentence, let alone get one out.
It’s not true, anyway, and he tells himself that it isn’t as he obediently walks down to the Great Hall and eats a plate of cottage pie in silence. He does belong here, he knows he does, and he tells himself that as he teaches his afternoon classes, marks his tests and forgets to give his first-year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs any homework for the weekend. In fact, he reminds himself as he sheds his outer robes and curls up in his chair to enjoy his last peaceful Friday night, this is the place he has always felt most at home, and how can he not belong when he was asked to return by McGonagall herself?
He might not have the sort of cosy friendships with his colleagues that Potter clearly enjoys, but he’s alright with that. He’s always been alright with that. If he’s honest, he’s not sure he’s ever had a proper friendship and perhaps he doesn’t want one. He’s fine, and Pomfrey doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He’s fine, and he just wants to read his magazine and look at potions he is never going to make. Which is exactly what he is doing when someone knocks at his door.
He stares at it in consternation for a second or two before propriety forces him out of his chair and across the floor, all the while wondering who on earth would want to speak to him on a Friday evening. Perhaps the Gryffindor madness has started early, he thinks, opening the door and steeling himself.
All things considered, he thinks he hides his surprise rather well.
“Granger, Weasley,” he says stiffly, glancing at each of them in mute alarm. He probably shouldn’t be surprised at all; they have obviously come to see Potter’s condition for themselves, and no doubt McGonagall has told them exactly where to come to air their grievances. “How can I help you?” he manages, biting back a tangle of irritation and anxiety at the expression on Weasley’s face.
“Can we come in for a moment?” Granger asks, and Draco steps back to let them pass without a word, even though no one comes in here. He can’t even remember the last time anyone came in here, and doesn’t seem right that these two people are the first to invade his little sanctuary in fuck knows how long. Still, they’re here now, and he supposes he ought to be polite, for Stanley’s sake at least.
“Have a seat,” he says as casually as he knows how, and Weasley does just that, throwing himself into the nearest chair, which happens to be Draco’s favourite.
“Ron, no!” Granger cries, catching his arm and stopping his backside from hitting the seat.
“What?” Weasley mutters, hovering awkwardly. He looks bewildered, just as Draco has always remembered him, but when a pair of crossly-waving antennae appear over the arm of the chair, followed swiftly by the rest of Stanley, all becomes clear.
“You nearly sat on Malfoy’s... erm... pet,” she says uncertainly, releasing Weasley into the chair once Stanley has settled himself on the padded arm, tacking irritably.
Resisting the urge to pick up Stanley and check him for injuries, Draco satisfies himself with a quick visual inspection before he moves away. Besides, Weasley seems rather alarmed by the presence of the beetle, which is all the more reason to leave him where he is. Granger regards him with open curiosity, settling herself on the unoccupied arm of Draco’s chair and resting her hands in her lap. Draco contains his wince as he perches on the edge of the chair opposite. He knows that his lovely corduroy chair is perfectly capable of supporting Granger’s slight frame on its arm, but he still wishes she wouldn’t.
“Where did you get him? He’s very unusual,” Granger says, reaching out tentative fingers to touch Stanley’s shell.
“One of my students made him. He was intended to be a cup,” Draco says, knowing he sounds stilted and awkward. He hadn’t been expecting pleasantries—just accusations—and this is very strange.
Granger lets out a surprised little smile. “Goodness. He’s lovely.”
“He’s massive,” Weasley says, eyeing Stanley suspiciously. “Is he poisonous?”
“No, Weasley, he’s just a beetle,” Draco says with as much patience as he can muster, then sighs as Stanley launches himself into Weasley’s lap. Then Weasley yelps, and it’s all Draco can do to hide his amusement.
“It’s on my knee,” Weasley murmurs, eyes wide and arms held well clear of Stanley, who is turning in haphazard circles in the way that he always does when he is settling down to sleep. “Hermione... bloody hell... it’s... bugger...”
“He is not an ‘it’, Weasley, he is a he and his name is Stanley. But I doubt you came here to talk to me about my beetle, did you?” Draco says, addressing his question to Granger, who is unsurprisingly the more composed of the two in this moment.
Granger nods, glancing briefly at Weasley and then back at Draco. “No. McGonagall told us about Harry this morning and we came as soon as we could. She told us what happened and it didn’t feel right to leave without at least talking to you.”
Draco looks at Granger, at his chair, at his traitorous beetle sleeping happily in Weasley’s lap. He can’t help feeling as though he has already been defeated, even if he does have enough walls to hide behind for the next century or so.
“I don’t know what I can say,” he offers at last. “Yes, it was mostly my fault...”
“Mostly?” Weasley mutters under his breath. Draco ignores him.
“Yes, it was mostly my fault. No, I didn’t intend to hurt him. Yes, I am sorry for what happened, and I am most certainly going to be learning my lesson, as I am sure you have heard from McGonagall already.” Draco shrugs and gives up, trying instead to read the rapid flickering of expressions across Granger’s face.
“Honestly, though, Malfoy, what the hell did you do it for?” Weasley demands, finally managing to tear his eyes away from Stanley.
“Ron, that’s not helping,” Granger says quietly.
“I’m hardly going to make things any worse, am I? The thing is, Malfoy, Harry’s spent all these years you’ve been teaching together telling us that you’re alright, that you’re not the dick you used to be, and then you go and do something bloody stupid like this!” Weasley snaps, and the volume of his voice disturbs the sleeping beetle, who flicks his antennae, making Weasley jump again.
Draco opens his mouth to speak, even though he hasn’t quite processed the idea that Potter has been defending him in private, but Granger jumps in, and Draco begins to wonder if either of them ever manages to finish a sentence without being interrupted by the other.
“Oh, please,” she says wearily. “Like the three of you haven’t done worse to each other in your time.”
“Yeah, when I was an idiotic teenager,” Weasley protests. “Not now.”
Granger snorts. “So, it wasn’t you who put a drawing pin on George’s chair last week?”
Draco glances between them with interest. He has the feeling he could just step out into the corridor right this minute and the discussion would just carry on without him.
Weasley’s face reddens. “Well...”
“You put a drawing pin on your brother’s chair?” Draco asks before he can stop himself.
“Yeah, but he deserved it,” Weasley says defensively.
“He nearly had to go to St Mungo’s!” Granger cries. “When his... never mind.” She flushes and falls silent.
Slowly, Draco meets Weasley’s eyes and they exchange a series of illustrative glances and eyebrow-lifts, culminating in the first wince that the two of them have ever shared.
“Good grief,” Draco says quietly, desperately resisting the urge to shift around in his chair.
Weasley nods. “To be fair, it was only because he tested some stuff on me for his shop that made me go blind for two days,” he advises.
“Potter... Potter gave me red eyebrows,” Draco says, and Granger rolls her eyes.
“Is that it?” Weasley says, incredulous.
“Like I said, what happened was an accident,” Draco says faintly, but he suspects Weasley is no longer listening, because Stanley has begun to tack and twitch in his sleep.
“We didn’t come here to apportion blame,” Granger says, dark eyes terrifyingly earnest as she gazes at Draco. Weasley makes an odd little noise. “Well, maybe a little bit,” she admits. “What’s happened to Harry is just so frightening. It’s horrible just thinking about it.” She shudders.
“I know. Look...” Draco hesitates, fighting against the fragile honesty that seems to be trying to punch a hole through him. “I apologise... for my part in this. I regret it, and I would like to see Potter back on his feet as much as you. Not least because I have to manage the Gryffindor rabble until then.”
“We heard,” Granger says, failing to conceal a small smile. “Madam Pomfrey says the best thing we can do is—”
“Talk to him, I know.”
“We’ll be back, then. Every weekend, for as long as it takes,” Granger says firmly.
“We will. Though it doesn’t mean I don’t still think you’re an idiot,” Weasley adds, looking thoroughly relieved as Stanley stirs and climbs down to the floor.
“That’s good to know, Weasley,” Draco says, feeling rather relieved too.
“Ron,” Granger sighs, but she nods to Draco and gets to her feet, and Weasley follows her.
“I like your chair,” she says at the door, frowning at him and chewing on her lip. “Draco,” she adds firmly and steps out into the corridor, tucking her arm through Weasley’s as they walk away.
Draco stares after them, silent and uncertain.
Tack-tack-tack, goes Stanley as he capers around Draco’s feet.
Draco closes the door and looks down at him. “You are a bad beetle,” he declares solemnly.
Unfortunately, Stanley isn’t listening. Either that, or he just doesn’t care.
In the interests of organisation and of distracting himself from the weirdness he has somehow invited into his life, Draco spends much of the weekend surrounded by folders and bits of parchment as he sits cross-legged on his hearthrug and thrashes out a new schedule for himself. Stanley watches from a chair and does not even attempt to get involved, which only fuels Draco’s nagging fear that he has already been usurped in the beetle’s affections, and by sodding Weasley at that.
Draco sighs. It won’t do to fret about it, and besides, he has more pressing issues right now, such as how on earth he is supposed to fit all of his old and new obligations into the time available. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Draco rubs his weary eyes and picks up his quill to extend his workday further into the evening. If he shifts all the flying lessons to four o’clock and sees the house-elves after dinner, then...
As soon as his last Transfiguration lesson is over, Draco races to his rooms and changes from his teaching robes into a warm, lightweight jacket, a less formal pair of trousers and a pair of boots with soles that he thinks will just about cut it on wet grass. He hasn’t dressed for the outdoors in years and he feels extremely self conscious as he walks through the castle, out to the broomshed (which is an absolute state) and strides out to meet his first years.
These students are a mixture of Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, who will take lessons with him on Mondays and Wednesdays, leaving Tuesdays and Thursdays for the Gryffindors and Slytherins, and Fridays for broomshed maintenance. Having just seen the condition of the broomshed, though, Draco is already wondering if he should have scheduled more time for it.
The wind is particularly cold today, even for September, and the children have huddled into little knots in which to whisper and wait, but they all fall silent when they see Draco, and he is treated to the unnerving experience of twenty-odd pairs of eyes raking over his outfit at once. He looks down at his perfectly serviceable trousers and his plain, moss green jacket and frowns. In their collective time at Hogwarts so far, which amounts to less than a month, he doesn’t suppose they have ever seen him out of black robes, but really, there’s no need to stare.
Dismissing the very real urge to walk quickly back to the castle and sit in his chair until McGonagall comes knocking, he nods briskly at the children and starts handing out broomsticks.
“Good afternoon,” he says finally, raising his voice above the wind.
“Good afternoon, Professor Malfoy,” comes the uncertain response.
“Right. Well, as I’m sure you are aware, I will be taking over your flying instruction until Professor Potter has recovered. Could someone tell me where the class was up to?” he asks, thinking mutinously of Potter’s notes, which, while extensive, appear to be written in code. Or by a drunken spider; it’s difficult to tell.
“Most of us were just getting comfortable with hovering in the air,” offers a girl with freckles and a light Scottish accent. Draco can’t remember her name—he’s still sorting out most of the first-years from one another at this point in the year—but he will learn it, of course he will.
“Hovering,” he repeats, slightly incredulous. By the time he was eleven, he could... he exhales slowly and shakes away the unhelpful thought. His eleven-year-old self is hardly a good example of anything to these children.
“Sir? When is Professor Potter coming back?” asks a chubby boy, and Draco is almost certain he is the one who nearly fainted in his first Transfiguration lesson.
Draco isn’t really surprised by the question, or by the hopeful faces that suddenly surround him, but it still stings a little bit to be such a huge disappointment before he has even started.
“I don’t know,” he says shortly. “When he’s better. Let’s all mount our brooms and get on with this, shall we?”
The order is quickly obeyed, but no one looks happy and Draco has a horrible suspicion that the chubby boy is sniffling as he instructs the group to rise slowly into the air.
The combination of cold wind, snivelling children and pitiful flying mean that Draco is extremely relieved when the lesson is over and the class have scuttled back into the castle for dinner, leaving him alone with his stack of muddy broomsticks.
“This has only just begun,” he mumbles to himself as he wrestles the brooms back into the crammed shed and goes straight to the Great Hall without even bothering to change his clothes. He’s ravenous, and he eats his dinner in five minutes flat, even though it’s corned beef hash, which he hates, and even though the other teachers are staring at him with unguarded curiosity, which he hates even more. He doesn’t have time to think about it, because there is a pile of marking waiting for him on his coffee table, and if he’s efficient with his time, he may be able to squeeze in a quick shower before he has to brave the kitchens.
He makes it with five minutes to spare, but remains more nervous than he wants to be as he lets himself into the kitchen. For perhaps half a second there is a massive flurry of movement, and then... nothing. The pots and pans gleam in the lamplight, there are half-finished bowls of bread on every surface, and the kettle in the corner is whistling merrily as it boils, but there is not a house-elf to be seen.
“Hello?” he calls, frowning and stepping out into the room.
From behind a stack of casserole dishes comes a muffled squeak, but nothing more. He rubs at his damp hair, irritated. This is ridiculous. He had shown McGonagall his schedule and she had promised that the house-elves would be ready for him. Where the hell are they?
“Is anyone there?” he demands of the apparently empty room. The kettle is screaming now and he silences it with a flick of his wand. He already has a headache, thank you very much. “Look, I’m here to discuss the menus—Professor McGonagall must have told you—”
“She did, sir, she did,” says a small figure, emerging from behind the leg of a vast table. “The problem sir is having is that the house-elves is wanting to speak to Harry Potter.”
“I know you,” he says, narrowing his eyes.
“Yes, sir is knowing Kreacher. Kreacher is knowing sir, and the others is also knowing sir, and they is preferring not to come out,” the elf says, large eyes fixed beadily on Draco.
Draco lets out an impatient breath. “Well, that’s great, but Potter isn’t available, so you’ve got me. Believe me, I don’t want to be here any more than you want me to be here, so why don’t we get this over with as quickly as we can?” he suggests, attempting to ignore the slight.
“We is hearing about what happened to Harry Potter,” Kreacher says, twisting his long fingers in the fabric of his... garment. “Many of the others is not happy about what sir has done to Harry Potter.”
“It was an accident,” Draco says through gritted teeth.
“Kreacher is not believing in accidents,” the elf says darkly, and there is another squeak from the back of the room, followed by a series of whispers. Kreacher swivels his ears to listen for a moment and then turns his attention back to Draco, all the while giving the impression that he is enjoying Draco’s discomfort a little more than he should.
“What’s the problem?” Draco demands. He’s hot and bewildered and exposed, and this is ridiculous. Surely these creatures are supposed to be co-operative at the very least. This is nothing short of mutiny.
“They is not wanting to come out, and they is not wanting to help sir,” Kreacher says flatly.
“And what about you?”
“Kreacher is a free elf,” he says, pulling himself up proudly. “But Kreacher sees that sir is descended from the noble and most ancient house of Black.”
“Er, yes, that’s right,” Draco says, at last remembering where he has seen the elf before, many, many years ago. “Does that mean you’ll help me?”
Kreacher pulls an ugly face. “Kreacher does not like sir. No. But Kreacher will... try.”
“Well, that’s something,” Draco sighs, perching on the edge of the nearest table and opening the folder marked ‘house-elf welfare/menu planning’. He still can’t read most of Potter’s notes, but it can’t be all that complicated. “So...according to this...” He squints at the rows of terrible handwriting in the poor light. “These menus are supposed to rotate through weeks one to four until the end of term—hang on a minute—if there are four weeks’ worth of dinners, why does corned beef bloody hash feature approximately every three days?” he demands.
His words are greeted by more whispers, clanks, and then a loud crash as a stack of metal pans is knocked over.
Kreacher scowls but says nothing.
“And while we’re on the subject, what is your fascination with treacle tart? There is not a single week of these menus—and I’ve looked through last year’s as well—where it doesn’t appear!”
“Treacle tart is Harry’s Potter’s favourite, sir,” Kreacher says, somehow managing to look down his bulbous nose at Draco, even as he looks up at him from the floor.
Draco sighs. Of course it is. He could change the whole thing now, of course, but he doesn’t much fancy the idea of trying to start a food revolution in such a hostile environment, and apart from anything else, Potter is lying up there in the hospital wing and wouldn’t be any the wiser, which rather takes the fun out of it.
“Right, well, I’m going to run through these and you can tell me what you need to order,” Draco says finally, regarding his one-elf-team with resignation. He doesn’t know the first thing about cooking, but he’s not about to admit such a weakness in the presence of so many unfriendly entities.
“Harry Potter doesn’t do it like that,” Kreacher says.
Draco takes a deep breath. “Well, I’m going to do it like that.”
“Harry Potter makes tea and we sits around the table,” Kreacher continues, ignoring him. “Harry Potter asks Kreacher how he is, and asks the others also how they is. Harry Potter finds out what we needs.”
“Anything else?” Draco asks, trying and failing to keep a low growl out of his voice.
“Yes. Harry Potter is also telling stories about the misses and misters. Harry Potter is laughing at Vronky’s jokes, even though Vronky is telling terrible jokes,” Kreacher advises. He doesn’t bother to lower his voice in order to insult his colleague, and sure enough, there is a small sound of displeasure from inside the larder.
“I haven’t got time for that,” Draco groans. “Do you have any idea how much I have to do tomorrow?”
Kreacher shrugs and scratches lazily at his wrinkled face.
Draco stares wearily down at the pages of notes until they begin to swim in front of his eyes. He hasn’t slept properly since this ridiculous thing started, and with each extra hour of consciousness, his patience stretches ever thinner.
“I can’t do this,” he says quietly. He twists around to gaze into the depths of the kitchen. “Can’t they come out and just help me for a minute?”
“Not without Harry Potter,” Kreacher says, and something fragile inside Draco snaps. He gets to his feet and throws the folder down on the table.
“Why is everything about Harry Potter?” he yells, and even Kreacher takes a step back. “All I want to do is sort out a few meals like I’ve been asked to, and every single one of you little buggers is being completely un-fucking-helpful!” His words echo around the room and he knows exactly how angry and petulant he sounds, but he just doesn’t care. He points at the open folder and addresses Kreacher. “You sort it out. And don’t you dare tell McGonagall that I didn’t try to reason with you.”
With that, he stalks out of the kitchens and is halfway back to his rooms when he realises that he doesn’t trust them an inch not to do just that, so he turns abruptly and makes his way to the Headmistress’ office. She lets him in without a word and just allows him to stand there in front of her desk and rant himself hoarse while she calmly composes a letter, glancing up every now and then as though to check that he’s still there. When he has run out of steam, she puts down her quill and regards him over the top of her glasses.
“Have you finished?” she asks pleasantly.
Realising he is shaking, Draco pulls his breathing under control and nods. “Yes. But I just can’t reason with them.”
“It’s just a matter of patience, Mr Malfoy, and I am certain you have some in you somewhere,” she says, and he can’t work out whether she is teasing him or scolding him.
“But the house-elves... they’re...” Draco searches in vain for the end of his sentence and instead offers McGonagall a wordless shrug.
“Hold your nerve, Mr Malfoy. The cow may want her tail yet,” she says, eyes gleaming.
“What does that mean?”
“Get some sleep, Professor,” she orders, returning to her letter, and Draco knows he is being dismissed.
When he gets back to his rooms, Stanley has managed to pry his way into the tea cupboard and there are mint leaves everywhere.
This time, when Draco strides out onto the lawn at four o’clock, he is ready to have his outfit stared at, and he isn’t disappointed. His Gryffindor and Slytherin first-years are just as disenchanted with him as their Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff counterparts, and this class also has the distinction of containing one of the clumsiest and most accident-prone students Draco has ever seen, and another who refuses to do anything beyond standing on the ground with his broomstick clamped between his knees because he is so petrified of heights.
Afterwards, Draco puts away his pork chops and slightly odd-tasting jam roly-poly in record time once again, and he’s halfway to Duelling Club before he realises that the odd taste was the salt in the custard. He walks into the Room of Requirement, wondering about having Kreacher stuffed and mounted, when a jet of red light hits him in the shoulder and slams him back against the—thankfully padded—wall with surprising force.
“Levinson!” he growls, picking himself up and locating the source of the spell.
“Sorry, Professor Malfoy,” the boy calls, scrambling over to Draco’s side and looking him up and down with a gratifying expression of panic.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing, casting so close to the door? If I’d been a first-year you would probably have knocked me out!”
Levinson grimaces, worrying his dark curls with the handle of his wand. “I’m sorry, sir, it’s just that... well, everyone’s here already. Me and Ivy took the register,” he explains, pointing to a piece of parchment that has been pinned to the wall.
“Hi, Professor Malfoy,” Ivy Baron says uncertainly, appearing at his side.
“What are you doing here? I thought this was club was for first-to-fifth years?” Draco says.
“It is. I’m just helping out this year because my sister wanted to come along, but she’s a little bit nervous. Professor Potter said it was okay,” she adds, eyes turning anxious.
“I didn’t know that,” Draco says, frowning. Ivy is one of his favourite students, but he never knew she had anything to do with duelling. Or Potter, for that matter. “Hang on a minute,” he says, turning back to Levinson. “You took the register and started without me?”
Levinson glances at Ivy, who shrugs and smiles guiltily. “I think Holly wants me,” she says, and slips away.
“Erm... well... okay. Sorry about this, Professor Malfoy, but we didn’t think you’d come, so we just carried on as normal on our own,” Levinson admits.
Taken aback, Draco says nothing for several seconds and listens instead to the sound of running footsteps and Ivy’s voice as she attempts to corral the younger children.
“You didn’t think I’d come?”
“No, sir. Sorry. But you did, which is... great,” Levinson mumbles, scratching his head with his wand again, tempting Draco to reach out and take it away from him before he blows his own head off.
“Well, Levinson, thank you for the vote of confidence,” he says acidly, walking over to a bench in the corner and leaving the fifth-year alone and embarrassed in the middle of the room.
“What do you want us to do?” Ivy asks, and suddenly every eye in the room is trained upon him. He can almost read their thoughts, especially the thoughts of the ones who have seen him for Transfiguration and flying lessons already today: please not him again.
“Whatever you usually would,” Draco says with a little more bite than he intends. “I’ll be watching.”
He doesn’t think he imagines the ripple of nervousness that passes around the room before the activities start up, and for some reason it soothes him. They are, of course, terrible, and by the time the club is over and he escapes back to his rooms, he wants nothing more than to flop face-first onto his bed and groan until there is no sound left inside him. Some of them know what they are doing, he supposes; Levinson, despite his haphazard spellwork, is patient with the little ones and possesses excellent reflexes. Many of the first-years clearly want to learn, but the overall technique leaves a lot to be desired and Draco is horrified by the number of third and fourth-years who still cannot produce a half-decent Shield Charm.
“Your turn tomorrow, Stanley,” he mumbles into his quilt. “And I’ll sleep in front of the fire all day.”
Tack-tack-tack, Stanley offers, scuttling up the bed and climbing into the small of Draco’s back.
Draco closes his eyes. When he wakes, it’s three in the morning, he aches like hell, and there is no chance of him falling asleep again. He crawls beneath his quilt and sticks his head under his pillow anyway.
He wonders if Potter is sleeping.
After a particularly gruelling series of Transfiguration lessons, Draco practically has to drag himself out onto the grass for his four o’clock flying class. Jasper Bracknell, seemingly recovered from his foray into decent essay-writing, is up to his old tricks once more, and Draco thinks he might find it reassuring were he not exhausted, frazzled and covered in bruises from carrying stacks of brooms and slipping on wet grass. Today the world is covered in a fine mist of drizzle and the enthusiasm of the flying class seems about as damp as his own, but he presses on, just like he imagines Potter would do.
Dinner both looks and tastes bizarre, and he has a feeling there are strawberries in the pasta sauce, but he doesn’t ask. He does, however, notice the confused expressions of some of the other diners—among them Flitwick and Sprout—and wonders if he should at least try to find out what is going wrong in the kitchens.
He soon forgets about it, though, when he returns to his rooms and finds that a small queue has gathered there. He watches them from the corner for a moment, wondering whether he should just turn and make a run for it, when he remembers that Wednesday is the night he has scheduled for what Potter calls ‘Gryffindor Open House’. As Head of House, he is now available to hear the questions, complaints, worries and problems of any Gryffindor who might want to share them with him.
He hadn’t thought anyone would actually come, and now that he sees the little buggers waiting for him, the urge to run away is almost irresistible. He won’t run, though, and not just because McGonagall will have him murdered. He won’t run because he is a professional. Yes he is.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Draco sweeps past the line and into his rooms, quickly shutting his bedroom and bathroom doors and picking up anything he thinks a student might find a little too interesting. It’s alright for McGonagall, Slughorn and the like—they have offices in which to perform this horrifying task. He has to invite students into his living room and let them... have their problems everywhere. Draco stands in the middle of the room, pinching the bridge of his nose and taking slow, even breaths. It will be fine. As long as Stanley stays in the bedroom, and as long as none of them try to sit in his chair.
When he opens the door again, the line seems to have lengthened, and Draco is baffled. Who on earth would want to speak to him? Still, they’re here now, and by the time twenty minutes have passed and he has seen the first two students, he is beginning to relax a little. The first is a panicky fourth-year who wants advice on her NEWT subjects, and the second wants to drop Divination but is convinced that Professor Trelawney will put a curse on him if he does.
Draco is hiding a smile as he lets in the next student, a tiny boy who is now vaguely familiar to him from Transfiguration and flying lessons. He clambers onto the spare armchair and stares at Draco, face pinched with anxiety.
“How can I help you, Mr Burtweed?” Draco asks, wondering which subject will be the problem this time.
“Well,” the boy whispers. “It’s just that I...”
“Speak up,” Draco says briskly.
The boy’s dark eyes widen and he glances around at the closed door. “It’s just that... well, it hasn’t started.”
Draco frowns. “What hasn’t started?”
“My... the other boys said it should have started by now and I’m worried there’s.... something wrong with me,” Burtweed says, voice dropping back to a whisper, and Draco is nonplussed.
“I have no idea what you are talking about. What hasn’t started?”
Pained, the boy glances into the fire and then back at Draco. “My period,” he whispers.
Draco blinks, uneasiness beginning to creep in. “Excuse me?”
“Do you think it’s because I’m so small?” Burtweed asks, small hands knotted together in his lap.
Draco sighs. He doesn’t want to be head of Gryffindor. He never did. In fact, the only thing he wants to do right now is to crumble into a pile of ash on the floor and have done with it. But he can’t—he has to... oh, good grief.
“Mr Burtweed,” he begins carefully. “I don’t know what your friends have been telling you, but boys do not... er... menstruate.”
Burtweed’s eyes grow large. “What?”
“They do not... have periods. The other boys have been teasing you—admittedly rather unpleasantly. I would advise you not to give it another thought,” Draco says, hoping it’s not obvious that he is way out of his depth here.
“There’s not anything wrong with me?” the boy says, a note of hysteria in his voice.
“No, but if you...” Draco trails off as Burtweed leaps out of his chair and dashes for the door, expression caught somewhere between relief and righteous indignation.
“Thanks, Professor!” he calls, and slams the door behind him.
Draco slumps back in his chair and covers his face with his hands.
Draco stands under the shower for a good half an hour that evening, turning the temperature up as hot as he can bear it and letting it wash away the memory of all those problems and all of his godawful advice. He doesn’t know how to help these children—he doesn’t know how to help anyone. He just wants to be left alone. He scrubs and scrubs at his skin and nails, trying to shift the mud that manages to ingrain itself further with each day that passes, but he still doesn’t feel clean as he emerges into his living room and puts on his night clothes. It feels oddly quiet in here, too, now that it’s just him and Stanley again, but that’s perfect, because he’s going to bed and he’s bloody well going to go to sleep tonight.
He dims the lights and climbs under the covers, stretching against the aches in his back, legs, and shoulders. He can hear Stanley in the living room, knocking things over in protest at being shut in the bedroom for several hours, but otherwise the castle seems unnaturally silent. He closes his eyes.
Immediately, he wonders how Burtweed has fared with his friends. Whether Miss Neall is sleeping or sitting up in her common room with the ‘Navigating Your NEWTs: a students’ guide’ booklet she had been clutching throughout their conversation. What he might find on the breakfast table tomorrow. Whether or not he’s ever going to get Winston Camberwell into the air. How the hell Potter manages all this and looks so relaxed.
Draco opens his eyes but the racing of his mind goes on unchecked.
“Enough,” he mutters, throwing back the covers and hunting around for shoes and a robe. If he can’t sleep, neither will Potter. He stomps past a startled Stanley and makes his way to the hospital wing without even bothering to light his wand. When he steps softly into the ward, there is no one there but Potter, lying perfectly still on his back, skin ghostly pale in the moonlight.
Draco shifts the pile of clothes from the bedside chair and sinks down into it, already feeling more at ease than he had in his own bed. He inhales the cool, crisp air and tucks his feet up underneath him.
“I know you’re awake, Potter.”
There is, of course, no answer, and Draco stares irritably at Potter for a moment before leaning over to his bedside cabinet and examining the collection of potion bottles that sit there in neat lines. He wonders if Pomfrey has decided to actually knock Potter unconscious at night but he cannot be certain either way, even after surreptitiously sniffing each of the liquids in turn. He doesn’t suppose it makes much difference—either way, he’s sitting here next to a man who can’t answer back, and there’s something about that that’s rather liberating.
“Well, Potter, here we are,” he says at last, resting his chin on his knees and gazing at the unnaturally still figure through half-closed eyes. “It’s Wednesday the twenty-sixth of September, in case that’s of any interest to you. It’s about eleven o’clock at night. There’s no one here but you and me, and that’s a first, because we’re not arguing.”
Draco sighs, breath warm against the soft flannel of his pyjama-clad knee. The silence is unnerving, so he whispers, “Shut up, Malfoy’ and immediately feels better.
“I’m only saying this because you can’t say anything back, but... you know what, Potter? I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t. The Gryffindors are needy and neurotic and bizarre, none of the first-years like me, the students from the Duelling Club would have preferred it if I’d not turned up and the house-elves apparently think I tried to murder you and refuse to speak to me at all.” Draco glares ineffectually at Potter, who looks so serene with the moonlight spilling over his face that Draco wants to start flinging potion bottles in every direction.
“Of course, it’s only Wednesday. I haven’t had my first Quidditch team practice yet. I bet you think that’s hilarious, don’t you—the idea of me trying to coach a group of Gryffindor tearaways who aren’t going to listen to a word I have to say? Yes, I bet you’d love to be there, wouldn’t you?” Draco grumbles, and then falls silent. Of course he would—in fact, he’s pretty sure that Potter would rather be anywhere but here. Caught between remorse and nonchalance, Draco hesitates, and then tries a different tack. “Just so you know, your broomshed looks like it has been raided by trolls. Don’t you ever tidy up in there?”
Suddenly feeling like an idiot, Draco closes his mouth and keeps it closed for several minutes. He watches the gentle, rhythmic rise and fall of Potter’s chest and soaks up the healing atmosphere of the infirmary. It’s been a long time since he spent a night here, he thinks, instinctively closing his fingers around his left forearm and pulling himself into a tighter ball. A long time. So many things have changed since then that his life is almost unrecognisable, but the familiar sting of fear has followed him here and made itself at home, and he hates it.
“They all just want you, you know. All I hear is ‘when is Professor Potter coming back?’ or ‘Professor Potter does it like this, not like that’.” He pauses, imagining a smile curving Potter’s lips. “Yes, I thought you’d like that. Everyone thinks you’re a better teacher, which is nice for you. I never wanted to be a teacher anyway, did you know that, Potter? I’ll bet you think I just love striding about in my black robes and taking points away from Gryffindors for no good reason. Pretending to be Snape...” Draco hides a smile against his knee. “Well, maybe a little bit. Of course, the two of you could never get along, but Severus was a truly astonishing person. I suppose you could say he was my inspiration. He never really meant to be a teacher, either, but Hogwarts has a way of... seeking people out, I suppose.
“I have been here longer than you have, Potter. How is that even possible? Of course, you just turned up one day with your trunk and the rest was history. The truth is, I know what really happened. I know that Madam Hooch had a job offer to coach the Harpies, and I also know that she accepted on one condition—that Harry Potter would come to Hogwarts and be her replacement. You didn’t know that I knew about that, did you?” Draco says, enjoying the surprise he is imagining on Potter’s face. “You were headhunted, weren’t you, because you’re just that...”
Draco stops as a creak issues from the other end of the ward. Pomfrey.
He untangles himself with some difficulty and gets to his feet, creeping as quietly as he can across the floor and holding his breath as he lets himself out of the hospital wing. He doesn’t exhale until he is safely down the stairs and into the first floor corridor that leads back to his rooms. He feels rather daft as he locks the door behind him and closes his eyes, because his heart is racing and his skin is tingling like he’s been up to something wicked, but there’s just no word for how embarrassed he would have been if Pomfrey had caught him sitting at Potter’s bedside in the middle of the night.
Draco snatches a couple of hours of sleep after his late night visit to the hospital wing and makes it through his morning lessons with incident. By mid-afternoon, though, he has begun to flag, and lets his last two classes off without homework because the thought of all that marking just makes his brain hurt. In the shed, four muddy old brooms roll from the top shelf and clonk him thoroughly in the side of the head, leaving him seeing double for the next two hours, and quite frankly, one flightless Gryffindor is quite enough to be going on with.
The output of the kitchens only seems to be operating on a downward trend, as evidenced by tonight’s toadless toad-in-the-hole and the suspiciously meaty rice pudding. Ravenous, Draco attempts to eat his way around the disasters but it doesn’t take long until he, too, has to push his plate away and escape from the Great Hall before the glares of his colleagues can become too much. Instead, he storms down to the kitchens, ready as he’ll ever be to give house-elf communication another go.
“Kreacher!” he yells, letting himself in and just about catching sight of the others as they hide themselves away once more.
Kreacher waddles into a patch of light, dragging a vast sack of muddy potatoes behind him. “Sir?”
Draco scowls. “What are you planning to do with those? Potato jelly? Mash with marshmallows? Chips and custard?”
“If sir is wanting to add things to the menu, sir will have to wait until next week,” Kreacher says solemnly, reaching into the bag and picking up a potato in his spindly fingers.
Infuriated, Draco takes a step towards him and then stops. Patience, McGonagall had said. Hold your nerve. He sighs gently.
“No. I do not want to add anything to the menu. I also want you to stop... improvising with the menu. Do you understand?”
“Perhaps. Sir is angry with Kreacher?”
“Yes... no. No, I’m not angry, but some of the food this week has been pretty bizarre, and it’s getting to the point where no one wants to eat it. So... no more strawberries in the Bolognese sauce, no more salt in the custard, no more bacon in the porridge, and no more sausages anywhere they don’t belong. Okay?”
“It is not Kreacher’s fault,” the elf says, face twisting as he dumps the potato back into the sack. “No. The others lack direction without Harry Potter. Some of thems are very upset. Kreacher has tried, sir, but all the things are not as they should be.”
Draco squints into the dark corners of the kitchen, reaching for his long-forgotten diplomacy skills.
“Listen—all of you. You don’t need Harry Potter. You can manage just fine without him. If you’d... if you’d go back to making those lovely, edible meals, I’d be very grateful.”
He waits, encouraged by the increased sound of scuffling and whispering.
“All sir needs to do is be a bit more like Harry Potter,” Kreacher offers, hauling his sack over to the table and starting to sort through it.
Draco stares at him. “I’m going now,” he says quietly.
“Kreacher will see sir on Monday. Yes.” Kreacher mutters to himself as Draco lets himself out into the corridor.
“There he is!”
Draco looks up just in time to find himself surrounded by tiny people. They are moving a lot and all talking at once, but after a moment he manages to separate them out and identify them as three members of his Tuesday/Thursday flying class.
“Yes?” he says, automatically addressing the small Indian girl in the Slytherin tie, and oh, good grief, it’s Surya Khan, the clumsiest thing on a broom since Neville Longbottom.
“Professor Malfoy, can we speak to you?” she asks pleasantly, and as Draco’s eyes flick to her two companions, he barely suppresses a groan. He can’t remember the blonde girl’s name, but the other one is none other than Winston Camberwell. Which cannot be good.
“Yes, if you’re quick,” he says, mentally calculating how long he has until Gryffindor Quidditch practice (not long enough, as far as he’s concerned).
The two Gryffindors look at each other and then at Surya, who continues. “The thing is... before he got ill, Professor Potter said we could have some extra flying lessons because we were...” She looks at the floor, frowning. “Struggling a bit.”
“Right,” Draco says, already wary.
“Well, we waited a little while to see if he would get better, but he hasn’t, and so... we were wondering if you’d help us, Professor Malfoy,” the blonde girl says, all in a rush.
“I don’t know...” Draco hedges, fighting to keep the dismay from his face.
“Sir, Professor Potter promised,” Winston says, cheeks reddening as he forces himself to look up at Draco.
“He did,” Surya agrees. “He said it’s nothing to be ashamed of—some people just need a bit of extra help.”
“That’s true, isn’t it?” Winston asks anxiously. “We’re not just... you know...”
“Don’t, Winston,” the blonde girl remonstrates, tucking her arm through his. “It’s not true what those people said to you.”
“What people?” Draco asks, narrowing his eyes.
“No one,” Winston says firmly. “Are you going to do lessons with us? Please?”
Draco lifts a hand to his forehead and prods ineffectually at the bridge of his nose. “Fine. But I can’t do it now, I’ve got a Quidditch practice.” He sighs, thinking of the tiny wedge of free time he had planned for tomorrow evening, and watching it disappear before his eyes. “Tomorrow. Six o’clock.”
The three students beam and Draco waves them away before he can change his mind. He wonders if Potter has made any other promises.
As he had suspected, the Quidditch practice is an absolute shambles. All seven members of the team are fine flyers, he has to admit, and their Seeker is a nippy little thing who can catch almost anything, but there is no order, no discipline, and no respect for authority—at least not his. Their captain, a fifth-year girl who plays Chaser, is able to command their attention for minutes at a time, but none of them are the slightest bit interested in Draco’s opinion. At least half the team seems to be of the opinion that he is spying on their tactics for the Slytherins, and when he tries to tell them that he has had nothing to do with team Quidditch since he returned to Hogwarts, they almost laugh him off the field.
What really bothers him is their insistence on all talking at the same time, and when he finally gives in and raises his voice above the babble, they become taciturn and sullen, opting to run drills and exercises without him. When the practice is over, Draco makes his way, cold, dejected and prickly, up the stone staircase to McGonagall’s office where he slumps into the offered chair and complains until he is sick of the sound of his own voice.
“I can’t do this,” he repeats wearily, watching her through one eye as she polishes her favourite teapot. “No one is listening. I don’t see the point.”
“You are doing fine, Mr Malfoy,” she says, and he’s almost tired of arguing with her. Almost.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the food.”
“The food is perfectly fine,” she says, frowning as she rubs at a stubborn grease spot.
Draco lets out a small, strangled sound of disbelief. “None of the house-elves will talk to me—still! Well, except Kreacher, and he’s useless. I keep telling them, I’m not Harry Potter! I’m just... not! Aren’t house-elves supposed to be helpful? Obedient?”
McGonagall glances up at him. “Tread on a snail and he’ll shoot out his horns,” she advises.
Draco rubs at his hair. There’s a leaf in it. He sighs. “Am I the snail or is Kreacher?”
McGonagall smiles, and there’s a soft rumble of laughter from Dumbledore’s section of the wall.
“Alright, I’m going,” he says, giving in and trudging back to his rooms. He already has a feeling that he’s going to be visiting Potter again tonight, but he thinks it may be politic to give Stanley some attention, especially if he doesn’t want everything he owns to be reorganised onto the floor while he’s out.
“Where were we?” Draco asks the statue-like Potter, yawning and stretching as he curls up in the bedside seat and wraps his robe more tightly around his body. He doesn’t know why he’s talking to Potter, or indeed, why he’s here at all, but it beats lying awake in his bed and staring at the ceiling, and for that reason alone, he’s prepared to go with it. “We were talking about teaching.”
Potter breathes steadily, and Draco casts an eye over his bedside. He has a new potion since yesterday. Draco uncorks it, sniffs the liquid inside and wrinkles his nose. Potter can keep that one.
“It’s Thursday, you know. Nearly midnight. Your Quidditch team are a bloody rabble. I only hope they listen to you better than they listened to me. And thanks for promising extra flying lessons to three hopeless cases—that was a lovely surprise.” Draco yawns and closes his eyes, feeling warm and lightheaded. “Like I said, I never wanted to be a teacher. I’ll tell you what I wanted to be, Potter, because you’ll like it,” he murmurs, words falling from his mouth unchecked now. “I wanted to be an astronaut.” Draco laughs softly against his own knees.
“When I was six years old, I had a governess called Ingrid. She was rather a progressive type—my mother hired her, of course. One day she took me to a Muggle library in town and let me loose in the children’s section. After that, I did nothing but dream about space. Of course, my father soon... persuaded me out of the idea,” Draco mumbles, grimacing. “Ingrid was gone within the week. Shame... I liked her. And all those stars and planets... fascinating.” Drowsily, Draco forces one eye open. “I always loved Astronomy. Goodness knows how I ended up with Transfiguration. Well, not really. McGonagall needed a Transfiguration teacher, but that’s another story. I suppose the bigger question is, why choose someone like me?”
Outside the window, a bat flaps its wings, casting odd shadows over Potter’s face.
“I like a good snail proverb, don’t you?” Draco mumbles, summoning with some effort the energy required to get up and get out before he falls asleep.
Potter, unsurprisingly, doesn’t answer.
Following another fractured night’s sleep, Draco makes an early morning detour through the kitchens to borrow a large metal pot and enough coffee to see him through the rest of the day. He restrains himself enough to avoid snapping or mentioning Potter even once, but this does not stop the elves from going into hiding, nor does it stop the breakfast marmalade pots from being filled with piccalilli or the lunchtime sausages from being served with tapioca pudding instead of mash.
“They was not having any potatoes,” Kreacher shrugs, when Draco storms through the door after lunch, still feeling the accusing eyes of his colleagues and students all over him.
“You had a big bag just the other day!” Draco insists. “I saw you!”
Kreacher just blinks and shrugs, and Draco slams back out into the corridor, fuming quietly.
His vat of coffee manages to keep him awake during his afternoon classes, but it is helpless against the exhausted fuzziness of his mind, and by the time he reaches the last class of the day, he is losing minutes at a time, staring vaguely out of the windows with his chin propped up on one hand. When he walks around the classroom to check on the spells in progress, he manages to nod silently at each one, and, on examination of the inevitable disaster produced by Zarenski, has nothing more to offer than: “Well, that certainly is different.”
He misses dinner, deciding to raid his biscuit jar rather than attempting to force down whatever the house-elves have produced, and then heads reluctantly for the broomshed. He realises he could postpone the dreaded maintenance until another day, but this is the time he has scheduled for it, and there is something just a little bit comforting about clinging to his plans in the face of this gale-force uncertainty.
He doesn’t have long now that he has promised those extra flying lessons, but it is long enough to assess the situation. When he opens the door, five broomsticks and an old Quaffle tumble out onto the grass. Draco sighs. He rolls up the sleeves of the practical outfit of which he is already sick to death and makes a start, wrenching the muddy brooms away from the tangle one at a time and throwing them down on the grass beside him. After twenty minutes, his arms are red and raw from the wind, his hands are filthy and grainy and his fingers are dotted with splinters. His chest aches and his breath comes in short, sharp bursts and he just wants to sit down. Strike that, he just wants to abandon the brooms to the elements and curl up in his chair by the fire with Stanley and a cup of tea. All that coffee has just given him a headache and made his mouth dry and foul-tasting.
He stares into the dark, musty shed and curses Potter silently, and then a couple of times out loud, just for good measure. It’s not, he concedes, Potter’s fault that Draco isn’t as fit as he used to be, but surely it wouldn’t have been too much to ask to keep his brooms in some kind of order. As he stares deeper into the gloom, following the path of an obscenely large woodlouse across the floor, he realises that, actually, somewhere underneath this top layer of chaos is a pattern... a system.
Lifted, he plunges back into the mess with renewed vigour, flinging brooms this way and that and forcing his way into the back of the shed, where he can just about see the neatly-labelled shelves and racks and the few pieces of equipment that have managed to stay in their proper places. When he finally gets there, scratched and perspiring, he runs his fingers along those labels and realises that every single one of them has been written by Potter. This place has known order after all. Draco leans heavily against a set of dusty shelves and wonders what went wrong.
Nobody’s perfect, says an insistent little voice in his head. Not even Potter.
“Especially not Potter,” Draco mumbles automatically, but there’s no edge to the words. Perhaps the idiot did have too much to do, after all. Perhaps.
With a sigh, Draco returns to his task, clearing out the brooms and Quidditch paraphernalia until he can—carefully—walk from one end of the shed to the other without tripping over anything. The sides of the shed are still littered with junk and the place is filthy, but it’s a start. He draws his wand to cast Tempus and there’s a brief rattling sound, just before an unsecured Bludger pelts out from under a pile of broken brooms and narrowly misses knocking him over. By the time he has steadied himself and wrestled it back into its box, it is ten past six and he is late for his blasted flying lesson.
Any hopes that the first-years might have given up and gone inside are dashed when he walks out onto the field with three brooms and sees them standing there, shivering and hopeful, waiting for him.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says briskly. “Please remind me of your names.”
“Surya Khan,” says the hopelessly uncoordinated one.
“Winston Camberwell,” the boy says quietly.
“I’m Emilie Alderson, sir,” says the last, short blonde waves blowing around her head like some sort of sea creature.
Alderson, Draco thinks, frowning. He’s heard that name before but has no idea where.
“Right,” he says at last, wishing he knew how to talk to such small people. For some reason, having them in such a little group only seems to make it more difficult. “I suppose Professor Potter identified some specific difficulty each of you were having to warrant these lessons?” he asks, deciding it’s probably better to pretend he hasn’t noticed Winston’s phobia or Surya’s inability to stay on her broom.
Winston glances up at the grey sky and shivers. “I’m... well, I don’t really like heights. But I want to learn,” he adds anxiously, looking up at Draco. “My dad says it’s really important to be a good flyer. He has his own business doing aerial mapping—you know, from a broomstick—and I think he wants me to...” Winston falls silent, as though he’s said too much, but Draco says nothing, feeling a surprising twinge of empathy for the boy. It’s almost as though a part of him wants to nod and say, “Well, my father was a bit like that, too,” but he doesn’t.
“Balancing on a broom is really hard,” Surya says stridently. “Especially if you have a low centre of gravity like me.”
“A low centre of gravity?” Draco repeats, nonplussed.
Surya nods. “Yes. That’s what my sister said. I think it just means I have short legs.”
Emilie giggles and Surya turns sharply to look at her.
“I’m not making fun of you,” the blonde girl says earnestly. “I’m no good at all. Am I, Winston?”
“No, not at all,” Winston says, shaking his head furiously. “Rubbish.”
Surya blinks, surprised. “Oh. Okay. I like your coat.”
Emilie beams. “Thanks. My granddad gave it to me just before I came here.” Draco watches them for a moment or two, startled by how easily some Gryffindor/Slytherin alliances are forged.
“Shall we begin, then?” he says at last, handing out the brooms and faltering for a moment at the sight of their eager faces. It’s as if they don’t know him at all, and of course they don’t. Neither do the rest of the first-years, who would have clearly preferred Potter, but this odd little trio almost seem as though they want to like him. It’s very strange indeed.
“I think it would be best if we started from the beginning. There’s no use learning fancy flying tricks without a good foundation,” Draco says, coming to stand opposite his students on the grass. “The first important thing is to be in control of your broom. If you think about riding a horse—”
“My Auntie Susan’s got a horse,” Winston puts in. “It’s massive.”
“Good,” Draco says faintly.
“Has she?” Surya says, leaning forward to look at him. “Have you been on it?”
“Too high up,” Winston admits, and beside him, Emilie grins.
“Right, well—we’re getting off the point,” Draco says sharply, and all three pairs of eyes snap to him. “The point about riding a horse and riding a broom is that you need to be in charge. Your broom has its own magical energy, and when you find your own broom, you will learn everything about the way it behaves, which allows you to work as a partnership. In the meantime, these brooms just need to know that you are in command.” Draco pauses and folds his arms. “Or else you won’t be.”
“Wow,” Winston says softly, and then reddens. “Sorry.”
“So, hands out over your brooms, concentrate hard, stand up straight, Miss Khan...”
“Will my broom know?” Surya interjects, correcting her posture immediately.
“Just do it,” Draco sighs. “And now... up!”
“Up!” calls Surya, and her broomstick rises unevenly into the air, leading first by the bristles and then by the handle until she closes her fist around it and it merely tips slowly back and forth.
“Up!” says Emilie, and despite her uncertain expression, her broom flies easily into her hand.
“Up?” mumbles Winston, and his broom doesn’t move an inch.
“Maybe your broom knows you’re scared, Win,” Emilie whispers, just loudly enough for Draco to hear.
“Speak up, Miss Alderson, especially when you’re right,” Draco says. “You are not commanding your broom to go up, you are wondering if it might, perhaps, possibly, feel like making its way into the air—but only if it wants to. If you can’t summon up some confidence, Mr Camberwell, you will never learn to fly.”
Winston’s eyes turn shiny and he gulps quietly. “Sorry, Professor Malfoy.”
Draco stares down at him, alarmed. “I don’t want you to be sorry, I just want you to listen.”
“He’s trying,” Emilie says, large blue eyes narrowing.
“Well, that’s all I ask,” Draco says stiffly, already feeling them slipping away from him. Even Surya is now regarding him with uncertainty rather than eagerness, and though Draco thinks he should feel better—after all, this is the way his students usually relate to him—all he feels is confused and regretful. With a cleansing gulp of fresh air, he rubs his cold arms and collects himself. “Miss Khan, Miss Alderson, we are going to rise into the air and hover at a safe distance of three feet. Mr Camberwell, I would like you to keep practicing that command until you are sick to the back teeth of hearing it. It needs to be louder, it needs to be stronger, and it needs to sound like you mean it.”
“Yes, sir,” Winston whispers, and Draco forces himself to turn away.
Surya quickly gets her broom off the ground and for a second or two it seems as though she has nailed her balance problem already, but then her broom tips and she overcompensates wildly, throwing herself forward and sliding down the handle.
“Lean back,” Draco instructs. “Don’t panic.”
“Okay,” Surya calls, but she leans too little, and then too much, and all of a sudden she’s tumbling down onto the grass. It’s not a long fall but it’s an awkward one, and Draco holds his breath, but Surya twists in the air and catches herself on hands and knees with a squelch and a thump.
“Are you alright?” he asks, looking her over as she gets to her feet. Her hands, knees and socks are smeared with mud, but she seems oddly unconcerned.
“I’m pretty good at falling,” she says brightly, and looks up at Emilie, who is hovering neatly with her feet tucked up behind her.
She seems to be doing fine, Draco thinks, and he is just about to comment when he catches her eye and she suddenly begins to wobble all over the place.
“I’m not sure about this, Professor Malfoy, I think I should come back down,” she says, descending back onto the grass before Draco has a chance to argue.
“Up,” Winston attempts. Nothing happens.
“Again,” Draco instructs, and the two girls rise slowly into the air once more.
Night has fallen by the time they all head back to the castle, and Draco is still puzzling over Emilie’s wobbles. He has watched her do the same thing over and over again, and he just can’t figure out what is going wrong. She is walking more slowly than the others as though lost in thought, and Draco finds himself staring at her coat as he walks behind her. It’s a nice coat—merino wool in French blue—and it fits as though it was made for her.
Draco tips his head back for a moment, relieved to have finally caught the end of that irritating thought. He knew he’d heard the name Alderson before, and now he remembers. The Aldersons own a very high-end tailor’s shop, and have done for generations. His mother used to have her clothes made there all the time. Emilie’s grandfather didn’t buy that coat for her—he probably made it for her. And not only that, if memory serves, the Aldersons are a very old pureblood family with a huge involvement in the Quidditch League. Emilie has probably been flying since she could walk.
The little bugger.
Determined not to be outmanoeuvred by a Gryffindor, at least not for any longer, Draco calls out to her. “Miss Alderson, do you have a moment?”
“Yes?” She slows and allows him to fall into step beside her.
“You don’t need any help, do you?”
She glances up at him for a moment, clearly startled, but then looks back at the ground.
“You can fly perfectly well, can’t you?”
She looks at him again but still says nothing.
Draco tries again. “How do you think your mother and father would feel if they knew you were lying about this?”
Emilie’s lips scrunch into a moue of distress but still she keeps her silence.
“Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?”
She exhales softly and tucks her hands into her coat pockets. “I didn’t want Winston to be on his own. He gets frightened—he’s a bit frightened of you, actually, but when I said I’d come to the lessons he felt better about them. He knows I’m pretending but if he finds out you know I’m pretending he might stop coming and then he’ll never learn to fly,” she says, frowning at the ground.
“I see,” Draco sighs. “And do you realise you are asking a teacher to lie for you?”
Emilie looks up at him, eyes fierce. “I’m not a liar, Professor Malfoy. I hate lying. But Winston is my friend and that’s more important. Please?”
They stop at the edge of the lawn and Draco gazes down at her. He really has had enough confidences for one week. Potter’s head must be full of other people’s bloody secrets. Still, one more probably won’t make things any worse than they already are.
“Leave it with me, Miss Alderson. We will get Mr Camberwell into the air one way or another.”
Emilie grins, and for a horrible moment Draco thinks she is going to hug him.
“Thanks, Professor Malfoy! You’re brilliant!”
She turns and runs towards the castle and Draco just watches her, bewildered. As he sets off to follow her back inside, the light in the window of Hagrid’s hut catches his eye and reminds him that his supply of mint is running dangerously low. He supposes he might as well stock up while he’s already half frozen, so he turns and walks around the back of the hut, where the leaves grow in abundance. He has never thought to ask Hagrid if he minds, but then they aren’t exactly close and there is so much mint that Draco doubts he has ever noticed a few leaves missing here and there.
Shivering, he Transfigures a handkerchief into a cloth bag and crouches in the grass, picking the cool leaves by the handful. Stanley loves the leaves when they are fresh, and he will feast tonight.
“Who’s there?” Hagrid’s voice fills the air and his heavy wooden door creaks on its hinges.
Draco freezes. He knows he isn’t technically doing anything wrong, and that Hagrid is probably more concerned about forest creatures or stray students than leaf-stealing teachers, but it still feels wrong somehow to be caught sneaking around behind someone else’s house. The trouble is, he doesn’t think he can get back to the castle before Hagrid sees him, and there is nowhere to hide, so he doesn’t have much choice but to brazen it out.
Quickly stuffing a few more leaves into his bag, he levers himself up and walks resignedly around to the front of the hut. There’s a clank and a scrape from the doorway, and when he sees Hagrid, framed in the light from the house, he takes a small step backwards, because clutched in his hands is the biggest crossbow Draco has ever seen.
“Good grief, there’s no need for that,” he says, softening his voice to avoid startling Hagrid.
Hagrid relaxes, swinging the vast weapon at his side. “Oh, Professor. It’s only you. Sorry to frighten yeh, but yeh can’t be too careful when the moon’s like that,” he says, waving vaguely at the dark sky with his free hand.
“Well, absolutely, can’t be too careful,” Draco echoes, taking another step backwards. “I’d better be going then...”
“Did yeh need somethin’?” Hagrid asks, puzzled frown just visible beneath immense beard and huge, bristly eyebrows.
Draco hesitates. He’s never been caught before but he’s been caught now, and he supposes he has two choices: one—the truth, or two—some variant of ‘well, I was just skulking around behind your house for no reason’. He’s almost certain there is a way to make this Potter’s fault, too; he just hasn’t come up with it yet.
“I was gathering a few mint leaves,” he says, holding up the bag. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind?” Hagrid repeats, swinging the crossbow in wide arcs now. “Not a bit of it. They’re out of control, them mint leaves—’ave as many as yeh want. I’ve got a bigger bag if you like,” he offers, looking back into the hut.
Relieved, Draco shakes his head. “No thanks, he’ll never eat them all before they start to go brown,” he says, and then wishes he could have the words back.
“Who’s eatin’ ’em? Don’t you want ’em for a potion?” Hagrid asks, curiosity clearly piqued.
“No, they’re for my... I have a pet,” Draco says awkwardly. “They’re for him.”
“I don’t know of anythin’ what eats mint but little insects and such,” Hagrid says, and it occurs to Draco that this is already the longest conversation the two of them have had since he came to work at Hogwarts. It’s not as though he avoids Hagrid on purpose, though he does feel more than a little idiotic about some of their past interactions, but Transfiguration and Care of Magical Creatures rarely overlap, and it has never occurred to Draco just to strike up a conversation for the hell of it. But he’s here now, and it suddenly becomes obvious to him that if anyone is going to appreciate Stanley for the oddment he is, it is this man.
“He’s a beetle. A rather oversized one,” Draco admits. When Hagrid’s eyes light up with genuine interest, he adds: “His name is Stanley.”
Hagrid puts down his crossbow and rubs his huge hands eagerly on the front of his gargantuan bobbly jumper. “Can I meet ’im?”
Draco blinks, slightly taken aback. “Now? I don’t have him up my sleeve, Hagrid; he’s about the size of a cat.”
“Wonderful,” Hagrid rumbles, beaming. “Yeh can fetch ’im out ’ere if you like. Fang won’t ’urt ’im, he’s far too soft.”
Draco tightens his hold on the cotton bag and realises that he can no longer feel his fingers. There’s something about Hagrid’s enthusiasm that is appealing in a way it has never been before, but there is also no way he is returning to the warmth of the castle only trudge out here again.
“Be that as it may, I am freezing. If you want to see Stanley, you will have to come with me,” he says, feeling fairly certain that Hagrid will make his excuses and retreat into his hut.
“Lemme get my coat, Professor, and I’ll be right with yeh,” Hagrid says, and Draco is left staring at an empty doorway, reflecting that maybe Pomfrey was right, and that it is a bit weird to be called ‘Professor’ by a man who was your teacher when you were thirteen years old. Then again, he’s never asked Hagrid to call him anything. This is just the way things are. It’s always felt perfectly normal until recently.
“Potter,” Draco mumbles under his breath.
“What’s that?” Hagrid asks, slamming his door and starting across the lawn in long, easy strides.
“Nothing,” Draco gasps, having to break almost into a run to keep up with him.
The corridors are quiet. Draco imagines most of the students are keeping warm in their common rooms, sitting around their crackling fires in their soft, squashy chairs, playing chess or reading books, drinking hot cups of... fuck, he’s freezing. And he’s inviting an insanely enthusiastic, terrifyingly hairy man into his rooms. Of course, it all started with Weasley and Granger, followed by a parade of angsting Gryffindors and he has no idea where the madness will end. Still, Hagrid ducks into his quarters and looks around with obvious appreciation at Draco’s plain but comfortable living space. It immediately becomes obvious, however, that Draco does not own a chair big enough for him.
“Sorry,” he says, feeling the inadequacies of his living arrangements for the first time.
Hagrid merely grins through his beard and settles himself on the ring of stone that runs around the hearth. “It isn’ a new problem. Where’s this beetle, then?”
Draco looks around. “He could be anywhere. I’ll just...” He reaches into the bag of mint and then stops. Frowns. Offers the bag to Hagrid. “If you crush a leaf in your hand, he’ll come running. He doesn’t meet many people, but I think he’ll probably like you.”
Hagrid nods and says nothing as he takes a leaf and rubs it between work-roughened fingers, but Draco can feel his surprise as though it is rising through the air and rushing over him, lifting from Hagrid’s coat and spiralling like warmth and wood smoke and moss and wet dog. After a few seconds, the sweetness of mint rises above it all, and there is the scrabble of little feet on wood as Stanley barrels out from under the sofa and towards Hagrid at high speed.
“Look at you,” Hagrid enthuses, gazing down at Stanley as though he’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. “Shall I give it to ’im?” he asks, flapping the mint leaf that is currently just inches out of Stanley’s reach.
“He’ll probably love you forever if you do,” Draco says, hoping the beetle will remember which side his mint leaf is buttered on after meeting all these new and exciting people. “Would you like some tea?”
“That’d be lovely,” Hagrid murmurs distractedly, leaning down to carefully lift Stanley as he munches on his prize. “Come up an’ sit with me so I can ’ave a good look at yeh.”
Feeling oddly conflicted, Draco leaves them to it and makes a pot, rummaging through his cupboard and finding the largest cups he possibly can. When he returns, Hagrid is mumbling softly to Stanley, who is tacking back as though they are conducting a very important conversation. One massive hand rests on Stanley’s patterned shell as he sits comfortably on Hagrid’s thigh, dwarfed by the vast man and looking as close to his intended size as Draco has ever seen him.
When he sets down the tea tray, Hagrid looks up, smile faltering when his eyes fix on something at Draco’s waist-level. Puzzled, he looks down, blood turning cold as he realises that his sleeves are still rolled to the elbow and Hagrid is looking at the faded Mark on his left forearm. Hastily, he pulls down his sleeves and shoots Hagrid a weak apologetic look, but Hagrid has already returned his attention to Stanley. Draco watches him in silence as he sinks into his usual chair. He seems unperturbed, as though he was surprised to see the Mark and then chose to be uninterested, and perhaps he is. Then again, Draco thinks, digging his fingers into the corduroy arms of his chair, he can’t quite remember when he rolled up his sleeves. He’s always so careful.
“I see,” Hagrid says seriously.
“TACK-tack-tack-tack-tack,” says Stanley.
“Bugger,” mumbles Draco. It was the broomshed. That’s when he rolled his sleeves up, which means that he spent the entire flying lesson with those three first-years with the fucking Mark on display. What’s really strange is that not one of them seemed to even notice it.
“He’s a marvel, Professor,” Hagrid says, cradling Stanley against his chest with the utmost care as he reaches to take his mug from the tray. It’s the biggest one Draco owns but it still looks like something from a dolls’ house with Hagrid’s massive fingers wrapped around it.
Draco takes the other mug and, with some effort, makes himself comfortable in his corduroy chair.
“Yes, I’m very proud of him,” he says. “Especially when he behaves himself. Listen... you really don’t need to call me ‘professor’, Hagrid. It’s not as though I’ve ever afforded you the same privilege. I’m not sure if it’s too late to apologise for that but I’d like to try.”
Draco holds his breath as the small, dark eyes search his face at length. “That’s nice of yeh, Professor... I mean... well, there’s no need,” Hagrid says, clearly discomfited. “Anyway, what else would I call yeh?”
Draco grips his hot cup tightly. “Well, ‘Draco’, I suppose. That is my name.”
Hagrid nods, slurping at his tea and then setting his mug down on the rug so that he can resume his examination of Stanley. “So it is. If it’s all the same to yeh, I’d prefer Hagrid. I never ’ear ‘Rubeus’ unless I’m in bother with someone.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Draco says, longing to kick off his boots and tuck his cold feet up underneath himself, but not yet certain enough about this tentative... thing to dare. Instead, he points his wand at the fireplace and angles his body into the flames, reflecting that whatever this is, he never expected it to be now, and he certainly never expected it to involve a person he has always believed so very different from him. Just then, Stanley swivels around on Hagrid’s lap and tacks softly at Draco, letting him know he hasn’t been forgotten.
Ah, if his father could see him now. Draco grins to himself and offers Hagrid a biscuit.
“Thanks, I’m starvin’,” he enthuses, taking a ginger nut and appearing to swallow it whole.
Amused, Draco continues to hold out the jar. “I suppose you’ve noticed the food, then.”
Hagrid crunches, frowns, and gives Stanley another mint leaf. “’Ow do you mean?”
“Well, it’s been pretty strange this week. I’m supposed to be looking after the house-elves while Potter is in the hospital, and they’ve rather taken against me. Haven’t you noticed?”
“It’s been a bit different, I’ll admit, but I’ve enjoyed my dinners. Always do,” Hagrid says with a huge shrug that almost dislodges Stanley from his lap.
“Even the sausages and tapioca?” Draco asks, incredulous, though it occurs to him that none of the dark looks in the dining room have ever come from Hagrid’s direction.
“I’m not fussy. I like bangers; I like tapioca,” he says easily. “It’s all food, Pr—Draco.”
“Oh, to be so laid-back,” Draco murmurs, surprised to find himself laughing.
“Well... forgive me for sayin’ so, but yeh’ve always been a bit ’ighly strung,” Hagrid says cautiously, and Draco just laughs again.
“You’re probably right. The trouble is, when it comes to food, I’m not the only one. I daren’t go to the Great Hall any more for all the daggers I’m getting. Staff and students, at that,” Draco says, meeting Hagrid’s eyes. “We’re going to have an insurrection on our hands if I don’t fix things soon.”
Hagrid laughs this time, and it’s a deep, throaty sound that Draco rather likes.
“I’ve no idea what ’Arry does to make ’em like ’im so much, but I’ll tell yeh what I do know. House-elves love mendin’ things. They can’t resist it. If yeh can get ’em int’rested in fixin’ something, I reckon yeh’ll be ’alfway there.”
“Really?” Draco demands, sitting up straighter and staring at Hagrid, who has now managed to upend Stanley and begun idly scratching his underside.
“Yeah. It’s worth a try, anyhow. S’gotta be somethin’ interestin’, though—they won’t use their magic for a broken cup or a run in yer cloak. ’Ouse-elves are clever, you know, and the ones ’ere ’ave got as they like to be respected. Which is right an’ proper, I think, but it means yeh got to think about what yer doin’,” Hagrid finishes, draining his mug and gazing anxiously at Draco.
“That’s brilliant. Do you really think it will work?”
Hagrid exhales heavily, blowing all the air out of his mouth and making the flames in the fireplace next to him waver alarmingly. “I can’t guarantee anythin’ but I’d say it’s worth a try.”
“Anything’s worth a try at this point—the food’s just getting weirder every day,” Draco sighs.
“Tell yeh what—if it really gets so it’s inedible, I’ll let yer know,” Hagrid promises, letting out a bark of laughter. “An’ in the meantime, I could always try puttin’ in a word for yeh. I’m not sayin’ they’ll listen to me, but—”
“Would you really do that?” Draco interrupts, staggered by this unexpected kindness.
“Yeah.” Hagrid shifts his great bulk awkwardly on the hearth stones and focuses his attention intensely on Stanley. “Yeah. Course.”
Draco doesn’t know what to say... or do, or even think. “Thank you,” he manages at last, and it feels woefully inadequate.
“S’alright. Never mind that, anyway.” He picks up Stanley, sets him down on the floor and reaches for another leaf. “Tell me all about where yeh got ’im.”
When Hagrid leaves, Draco heads automatically for the shower, shedding his muddy clothes with relish and dropping them all straight into the laundry basket. Body drained but mind whirling, he stands under the gargoyle and lets the hot water rain down on him until the whole day, including the unexpected interlude with Hagrid, begins to feel like a strange dream. Clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, he impulsively picks up Stanley and dances him around the living room until he starts to feel dizzy and Stanley is tacking to be put down.
He already knows where he’s going, and he can’t even be bothered to think too much about it, so he walks through the moonlit corridors and up the stairs, and before too long he is settling himself in the chair at Potter’s bedside. He has new pyjamas again—red ones this time—and his hair is lying across his forehead at quite the wrong angle. Something compels Draco to lean forward and rearrange it for him, but he resists.
“Hello, Potter,” he says, yawning and wrapping his arms around his knees. “Today’s Friday the twenty-eighth... just about. It’s pretty late. I have had a very strange day. Would you like to hear about it?”
Potter says nothing.
“Of course you would. Now, where to start...”
Draco isn’t sure how long he talks for, but he tells Potter about Hagrid and Stanley and scheming first-years and splinters in the broom cupboard, and all sorts of other things. He talks until he is barely aware of moving his lips, until his muscles are stiff and his fingers are numb with the cold. Every now and then, he closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, the scene is unchanged. Potter is still there, his chair is still uncomfortable, the darkness is still pressing at the windows, and it’s all rather reassuring.
At least it is, until there is a firm hand gripping his shoulder and shaking him, and he snaps his eyes open to find that sunlight is now streaming into the ward and he and Potter are no longer alone. Hurriedly, he attempts to straighten his arms and legs but a bolt of pain down each one persuades him to stay put for a moment longer. Surely he hasn’t spent the night here... just... surely he hasn’t, he thinks desperately, but the look on Pomfrey’s face is quite illustrative as she continues to shake him.
Why is she still shaking him?
“Good grief, I’m awake,” he tries to snap, but it comes out as more of a hoarse whisper.
“Up you get, then,” she says briskly, peering down at him with her hands on her hips.
“I will in a minute, I promise. My legs are a little bit stiff,” he admits, but there is not a scrap of sympathy to be seen on her well-scrubbed face. She looks so energetic and healthy, too, the rotten bugger.
“That is why sensible people sleep in beds, not in chairs,” she says, and Draco thinks that if his knees weren’t so stiff he would be tempted to kick her.
“I didn’t plan to sleep here,” he says, feeling suddenly and unhelpfully like a sulky teenager. “And anyway, I doubt Potter minded.”
“Be that as it may, I am a nurse, not a hotelier, Mr Malfoy,” Pomfrey says, stepping forward as though she is planning to hoist him out of the chair herself.
“What, no breakfast, then?” Draco asks before he can help himself.
Pomfrey tuts and walks away, and he stands slowly, wincing and groaning as he attempts to ease each group of muscles back into its intended shape.
“Catch!” calls Pomfrey, and Draco turns just in time to see a small green projectile heading his way. He catches it in one hand, amused to see that it is an apple from the fruit bowl on the windowsill. “Now, off with you!” Pomfrey orders, and Draco obeys, dropping the apple into his pyjama pocket and casting one more glance back at Potter before he walks out into the corridor and straight into Weasley and Granger.
They step back as one, taking in his sleep-ruffled hair, his pyjamas, his tired eyes, and, no doubt, the fact that he has just emerged from the hospital wing at what can’t be more than eight o’clock in the morning. Aware that the quicker he makes this, the fewer awkward questions they can ask, he nods politely to both of them and makes for the stairs.
“Are you ill?” Granger asks, and he pauses.
“Er... no. No, I just... you know, I’m going to be late for my Quidditch practice,” he stumbles, and almost throws himself down the stairs in his hurry to get away from them.
He makes good time along the corridor (because nobody else—especially not a student—needs to see him in his sodding dressing gown) but not quite good enough to miss Weasley’s thoughtful voice as he muses, “That man just gets weirder every time I see him.”
It really isn’t the best start to the day, and things don’t improve much when Draco puts on his practical clothes yet again and makes it to the pitch for practice just in time. The team, however, are way ahead of him and are already warming up, flying around the goal hoops in long, swooping circles, yelling to one another and laughing as though they haven’t a care in the world, much less a crucial match against Slytherin just one week from today.
“There’s really nothing to worry about, Professor Malfoy,” the team captain says blithely, when Draco gives up on waiting and grabs his own broom, kicking up into the air to fly beside her. It’s been a while, at least two or three years since he flew, and he grips the handle tightly, caught somewhere between exhilaration and anxiety.
“What do you mean, there’s nothing to worry about?” he yells above the wind. “There’s always something to worry about. I don’t know how the Slytherin team are playing at the moment but there’s every reason to believe that they’re very good! You can’t afford to be complacent!”
The girl turns to Draco, long, dark ponytail whipping behind her. “No offence, Professor, but of course you’d say that. If anything, you want us to lose. You know, no one will mind if you just sit this one out. We all know you’re just doing this because Professor McGonagall told you to.”
“For your information, Miss Ainsley, I am doing this because this team needs a leader while Professor Potter is unwell.” And because Professor McGonagall told me to, he adds silently.
“We’re fine,” she insists, edging her broom forward and increasing her speed. “I’m their leader. We really don’t need any help,” she calls, and then she accelerates rapidly, leaving Draco hovering in the air alone. He doesn’t follow her.
Instead, he traces a slow circle around one set of goal hoops and then the other, keeping an eye on the team as they gather in the middle of the pitch and begin to practice feints and various other evasive manoeuvres. They’re so bloody arrogant, like seven little Potters, he thinks, and then stops. Seven young Potters. The Potter he knows now—the one with whom he’s shared a ridiculous but comfortable rivalry for the past decade—is... well, Draco isn’t sure how to describe him, but ‘arrogant’ isn’t the first word he would reach for these days.
Torn between trying again to push his way into their practice and leaving them bloody well to it, Draco just watches. They don’t think he’s on their side and they don’t think he knows anything about Quidditch any more—to them, he’s just an old man who teaches them a stuffy old subject and cannot be trusted with anything more exciting. And maybe he is, but he’s not quite ready to give up.
Quietly, he coasts over to the edge of the group and just hovers there, eating the apple Pomfrey gave him and making mental notes on what he sees. The team seems happy to ignore him, and he is equally happy to let them get on with it for now. He still has two more practices before the game, and the wind and the cold and the apple have at last woken him up.
Hopeful for the first time in a long time, he heads to the Great Hall for lunch. True, he doesn’t know what he might find there, but the cold air and exercise have made him hungry. He opts to keep Hagrid’s ‘it’s all food’ philosophy with him as he sits down to eat, and he thinks he’s going to need it, because the soup is a very odd colour and the sandwiches appear to contain nothing but...
“Is that turnip?” comes the unmistakeable voice of Weasley.
“Raw turnip,” Granger clarifies, and Draco turns slowly to see them poring over a sandwich just a few seats down from him.
“It’s my fault,” he says before anyone else does. “I thought you’d have gone home by now.”
“Oh, no, we’re staying tonight,” Granger says brightly. “The house-elves have made up a room for us.”
Draco frowns. “I thought you didn’t approve of house-elves.”
Weasley glances at him, amused. “You remember that?”
“Of course,” Draco says, peeling apart his sandwiches and flicking the slices of turnip onto his plate. “You had a society of some kind—SNOT, wasn’t it?”
Weasley laughs—no, he giggles—and he carries on giggling even when Granger rolls her eyes and looks pointedly away from him.
“Spew,” he rasps breathlessly, still grinning.
“It was called ‘SPEW’. Sorry, Hermione, but it was pretty funny, looking back.”
“Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare,” she sighs, cheeks flushing lightly. “I’ll admit I was a bit of a pain back then, but none of the rest of you were a perpetual delight, either.”
“I concede,” Draco says, picking up a piece of buttered bread and gnawing on one corner. “What do you do these days, anyway?” he asks, genuinely if inexplicably curious.
Granger flushes harder. “I work for the Ministry, liaising with magical creatures and beings.”
Draco laughs, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “What else could it have been? What about you, Weasley?”
“It’s Ron,” he says firmly, patting Hermione on the back in a clumsily affectionate gesture. “And I’m in Magical Games and Sports.”
“You play for a living,” Draco assesses, reaching for his tea.
“I don’t really think—” Granger begins, but Ron rubs her arm, silencing her.
“I do, pretty much. There’s a fair bit of admin involved, obviously, but mostly we’re travelling around, officiating at tournaments, setting up great big privacy charms, that sort of thing. The last World Cup was spectacular. Bulgaria versus the USA, and their head of sports decided to have the whole thing in Death Valley. Bizarre, but brilliant,” Weasley—Ron?—finishes, eyes bright with the zeal of a fanatic discussing his obsession.
“It sounds fascinating,” Draco says, fighting the temptation to ask Weasley if he can see some pictures from the event.
“It was hot,” Granger says darkly.
“I know,” Weasley agrees, grinning. “Mum and George made a fortune selling refillable perma-iced drinks and sunglasses.”
“How very enterprising of them,” Draco says, secretly impressed.
“How nice to see the three of you getting on so well,” McGonagall says, effectively ending the conversation as she looms over them on her way to the exit.
Draco, Weasley, and Granger look at each other, somewhat startled. Draco can only imagine that the awkwardness written across their faces is all over his, too, and he doesn’t know what to do with the fact that he had actually been enjoying a conversation with them. All of this is very strange, and he can’t be sure whether he likes it or not.
“I’d better get going,” he says a little too quickly as he gets up and backs away from the table. “I’m sure Potter will be pleased that you’re here.”
And he is, because Potter will be, but at the same time, there’s no way he’s going up to the hospital wing tonight. The last thing he needs is to run into them half-dressed again, and he doesn’t even want to think about what they’d say if they caught him actually sitting at Potter’s bedside, talking away to a man who might not even be able to hear him.
Draco frowns. This means that what he’s doing is a secret. He and Potter have a secret. Determinedly ignoring the little flip of his stomach, he unlocks his door and walks into his rooms to hear a frantic tacking coming from the bedroom, and he follows it to find that Stanley has managed to get himself stuck on top of the wardrobe. Finally, something familiar.
TO BE CONTINUED
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