Ron followed his gaze and frowned. "Great. As if going back to school isn't bad enough."
"Ronald!" Hermione, who had worked hard to convince the two of them to return with her for their eighth year, sounded scandalised. Harry grinned. He didn't know why Ron was so upset as it wasn't like he had to go back to Hogwarts. He was only really doing it to appease Hermione and to spend more time with her. She'd suggested that if he took Kingsley up on his offer to join the Aurors right away, they'd likely never see each other, what with her NEWTS and his rigorous training schedule. Harry rather thought Ron had got used to sleeping beside her, and faced with never seeing her, he'd chosen the most palatable option.
"What?" Ron said. "It's true. You might like school but I don't and – besides the meals and Quidditch – I've never pretended otherwise. You're the only reason I'm going back and now I find out Malfoy will be there too. He already took his seventh year. What does he need to be here for?"
"Really, Ron? You think anyone learned anything but a few basics and how to torture Muggles last year?"
"Well, it's not like that'd be much different from what the ferret learnt at home."
Harry scowled. "That's not fair, Ron."
"What's not fair?" Ginny asked as she sneaked up behind Harry.
"Harry thinks I'm being mean to Malfoy."
"I said unfair, not mean."
"Figures," Ginny said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Ignoring Harry's question, Ron said, "Did you forget he tried to kill me?"
"And Katie," Ginny added.
"He wasn't trying to kill anyone. Not really."
"Actually, Harry, he was." Hermione joined the argument. "He was after Dumbledore as you well know."
Harry sighed. He thought they'd got past this. "It was a half-arsed effort at best."
Ron sputtered incredulously. "I almost died!"
Harry waved him off. "But you didn't. And –" He raised a hand to stop Ron's argument. "—he wasn't trying to kill you. Dumbledore knew what Voldemort had asked Malfoy to do and he was already dying."
Ron picked up his bag and made for the train. "I don't believe you, sticking up for that – that –"
That what Harry didn't know because Ron stalked away without finishing his thought. Ginny glared at him and followed her brother onto the train.
Hermione shook her head. "Oh, Harry."
He dragged his hand through his hair, barely resisting grabbing a chunk and pulling. "Look, I'm not saying Malfoy wasn't a prat, it's just –"
"But that's what it sounds like to Ron. And don't forget what happened to Ginny in the Chamber."
"I know." He didn't bother pointing out that Draco wasn't Lucius. She knew that well enough. He glanced over at Malfoy and caught the other boy staring. Then, to Harry's surprise, he lifted his chin in greeting. Harry nodded in response. Hermione pursed her lips as she looked back and forth between them, a sure sign of her disapproval.
Before he could ask what that was about, however, she picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. "We'd better get on board before we're left without seats together."
Harry was about to argue that Ron would have saved them seats, but then reconsidered. He heaved his rucksack over one shoulder and trudged along behind her. What a stellar start to the year.
After a solid half hour of frosty silence, Harry'd had enough. "Ron, I know Malfoy's an arse."
Ron's snort in response caused Hermione to jump. Harry suppressed a laugh.
"I'm not trying to defend him."
"Could've fooled me."
Harry bit his tongue. "He did stupid things that harmed other people – you, Katie and Bill among them."
"You forgot Ginny."
"No, I didn't. But you seem to have forgotten that was Lucius, not Draco."
"Like father, like son."
The memory of James Potter hoisting Snape upside down for all to see invaded Harry's thoughts. The resulting treatment Harry had received at Snape's hand remained a sore spot. "Draco may be a twat, but he's not Lucius."
"There you go, defending him again!"
"I'm not. Really, I'm not. I just think you need to separate the two. Lucius handed his son over to Voldemort to be marked. Lucius would have killed Dumbledore directly, looking him straight in the eye and enjoying every minute of it. He would have revelled in the glory of killing and torturing, and he did do all of those things. Willingly. Draco didn't. He couldn't. Not without distancing himself and not without feeling that he had no choice. Dumbledore saw it and he said as much. And I saw quite a bit through Voldemort's eyes. Draco is not a killer."
Ron pursed his lips and stubbornly crossed his arms across his chest, refusing to listen.
"I still think he's an idiot, but he did suffer too." Harry tried to shake the images of Draco being forced to torture others out of his mind, but it seemed they were there to stay. "And I think you might want to consider the possibility that he feels badly about the choices he made and the people who got hurt along the way."
"I don't have to consider anything."
Harry cast Hermione a desperate look, a silent plea for help. She shrugged, then tried her best. "He did apologise publicly, and sent each of you a personal note."
"I know it wasn't much, and that alone doesn't make up for what happened, but it was something." When he didn't respond, she continued. "Perhaps we can all just agree to disagree on the topic and move on. You can avoid Malfoy, and no doubt he'll do the same for you."
Ron stewed for a few moments before muttering, "Fine" under his breath.
It was something.
After another hour of watching Ron brood, Harry got up and left the compartment.
As soon as he walked about ten paces down the aisle, the whispering started. Compartment doors began opening and whispered "That's Harry Potter" and "It's him" followed him through several cars. When one tiny runt of a boy practically squealed and his friend sputtered out a shaky, "Mr Potter?" Harry'd had enough and he slipped through the next slightly open compartment door and slid it shut. He turned round and collapsed against the door, breathing as though he'd just run the length of the train.
"Escaping your hoard of fans, Potter?"
He opened his eyes to see – oh, for the love of Merlin – Malfoy, Zabini, Parkinson and Goyle all gaping at him, Zabini looking particularly amused. "Must be so difficult having firsties chasing you down in the streets."
"Fuck off." It wasn't much, but it was all he had. He was surprised he'd even managed that.
"Tut, tut. Language, Potter. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth? Oh, wait –"
And to Harry's surprise, Malfoy elbowed Zabini – hard – and told him to shut it.
Zabini stood up and brushed something unseen from his jumper. "Well, as pleasurable as this little interlude has not been, I think I'll go stretch my legs." He shot Malfoy a glare.
Parkinson jumped to her feet and pulled Goyle up by his shirt. "We'll be going too."
Harry would have protested, but he was frankly too shocked to form words. After all, he was the intruder. It would have made more sense to kick him out.
Goyle mumbled something that sounded like "Don't wanna," but then Parkinson pinched him and he yelped and complied.
Zabini led the way followed by Goyle whom Parkinson pushed along. Just as she left the compartment, she turned back. "Potter, I … last year … back at … well … you know … I … didn't mean … I just wanted ..." She stopped speaking and looked down at her feet.
Harry'd had time over the summer to replay the events leading up to the final battle and he'd found himself surprisingly calm about it all. He was angry too, but not so much at the people who'd been backed into corners. Yes, Parkinson had tried to hand him over to Voldemort, but she'd only been trying to save the rest of them. He'd never like her, but he didn't hate her either. He shrugged. "It's ancient history." Her head shot up and she looked at Harry with a mix of curiosity, skepticism and, if he wasn't mistaken, a hint of hope. He held her stare and added, "No need to revisit it."
She opened her mouth as if to say something, changed her mind, nodded and scarpered out the door.
Well. That was awkward. Speaking of awkward …
Harry turned around to face Malfoy. Who was looking utterly dumbfounded at him. "What?"
"Did you just forgive Pansy?"
"Forgive is a bit of a stretch."
"But what you said –"
"I just don't want to relive it, okay? It's over. It's done." He ran his hand through his hair and tried to calm his voice. "She made a choice she thought was right at the time. It wasn't, but she didn't know that. I guess she figured it was the fastest way to end things. Or maybe she just really wanted to see me get mine. I don't know, and at this point what good will it do to dwell on it?" As the words spilled forth, he realised he meant them.
When Malfoy didn't say anything, the awkwardness of being alone with him pressed in around Harry. "Look, I'll just leave." Malfoy didn't argue and Harry opened the door to go.
As he watched Pansy fumble with what must have been meant as an apology, he could only stare in horror. Sincere or not, she'd certainly looked contrite. After she left, he had to ask, "Did you just forgive Pansy?" He wasn't entirely sure he'd have done the same. It's not like anyone would take her word over Potter's if he decided to hex her instead.
Potter explained himself and Draco found himself agreeing. He didn't much want to revisit what had happened either. Then again, Potter had saved him. More than once.
He'd nearly stepped through the door when Draco finally found his voice. "Potter, wait."
Potter turned around hesitantly. "What did I do?"
"Nothing. I just … well, I wanted to say thank you." Potter frowned but said nothing. "For saving my life."
Potter blushed. "It's nothing."
Draco clenched his teeth. This was hard enough without the stupid git tossing aside his thanks like it meant nothing. "Perhaps my life is nothing to you, Potter, but I assure you it's not to me."
Potter gaped at him before composing himself enough to reply. "No, no. That's not what I meant."
Draco raised a brow. "Really? And what did you mean?"
"I meant that you don't need to thank me. I would have done the same for anyone."
Well, that was just great, wasn't it? Draco apparently ranked no higher than some first year Hufflepuff.
His annoyance must have shown because Potter quickly attempted a recovery.
"Look, Malfoy, it's no secret that we don't like each other. In the past we'd as soon hex as look at each other. During the war I had to do things I'm not proud of, and I know you did too. But at that moment, when we were surrounded by Fiendfyre, I didn't stop to think whose side we were on. I just saw fellow human beings – my classmates – in danger of dying. And I saw the chance to save them. So I did. I didn't think about it – I just did it."
Draco recalled Weasley arguing with Potter at the time. And the punch he got in the face later in the castle. "Against Weasley's better judgement."
Potter hesitated for a moment, considering his answer. "Yes."
"But he did what you wanted anyway."
Potter looked more than uncomfortable. He never was good at hiding his emotions. Something was going on with him. Before he could fully contemplate whether he wanted the answer or not, he found himself asking, "So do you regret it? Regret saving us?"
Potter scowled. Then his eyes narrowed and he took a few paces closer. He stood with his hands balled into fists, taking slow, measured breaths as his eyes bored into Draco's. Draco found himself riveted to the spot, unable to move, even while wondering if Potter was about to hit him.
"No. I don't regret it. Enough people died that day." He looked away then, body still stiff but eyes aimed over Draco's shoulder, staring off into the past. "I wish that hadn't happened. I wish every day that I could go back and undo so much of what led up to that. Maybe save a few more people. But I can't. All I can do is look forward. Make sure all those deaths weren't in vain." He turned back to face Draco once more. "There were some people who deserved to die, some people I might have considered leaving behind in that fire. But not you."
With no further explanation, he turned around and made for the door.
Potter stopped but didn't face Draco. "You already thanked me. I got your note."
Draco scoffed. The note. His mother had made him write ridiculous notes to everyone he'd slighted. Not that they hadn't deserved his apologies or, in Potter's case, his thanks. But it seemed so old-fashioned and impersonal to do it by correspondence. Not that that had stopped him. Appearances had to be maintained. And, truth be told, he wasn't sure he could have faced everyone. But, as always, Potter was different. Much as Draco didn't want to admit it to himself, Potter deserved better.
"I thought you deserved more than a note. After all, there's that whole life debt business."
Potter tensed and slowly turned round. Confusion written all over his face, he asked, "What life debt?"
Draco studied his face, looking for any sign he was having him on. "You don't know?" Curious.
"Know what?" The familiar irritation that usually peppered Potter's tone when he spoke to Draco began to surface.
"You saved my life. Now I owe you a life debt." He tried to keep the desperation out of his tone. After all, he didn't want to be tied to Potter for the rest of his life.
Potter relaxed a bit then. "We're square. You didn't identify me at the Manor. I pulled you out of the fire. Your mother lied to Voldemort and told him I was dead."
"But they aren't the same thing. My mother did it to save me, not you. Not really."
"And I wasn't sure if you really were you."
Potter snorted. "Yeah, right. You keep telling people that." He tilted his head as he scanned Draco's features. Draco tried not to squirm under his scrutiny. At length he said, "I would have recognised you, no problem. And I don't believe for a minute that you didn't recognise me."
Caught out, Draco attempted a recovery. "Even if I had, I was doing it to save my family being tortured if we called the Dark Lord and you turned out to be someone else."
Potter grinned and shrugged. "Whatever helps you sleep at night. I know what happened and we're even. No debt."
Then Potter breezed out the door, his voice trailing behind. "Don't make me regret it."
"To our new students, welcome. To our returning students, welcome back. It is wonderful to see so many familiar faces. As always, the Forbidden Forest is off limits to students, as are the areas of the school still under repair."
At the back of the room, Filch huffed importantly, Mrs Norris winding around his feet.
"We had hoped to have everything ready before the start of term, but the damage proved to be too much. We have set up temporary structures on the grounds to house some of your classes until the rest of the castle is habitable. We expect that to be complete by month's end."
Hermione looked concerned. "Do you think it's safe to sleep in the towers?"
"All areas open to students have been deemed safe. Those that are off-limits are strictly off-limits for everyone's protection."
All the teachers at the head table nodded in agreement and Heads of Houses cast meaningful looks at their students' tables. No one looked like they were going to argue.
Ron nodded. "There you go. Safe." He yawned and stretched his arms over his head. "How long do you think she's going to prattle on?"
Hermione smacked him.
"This year marks a time of healing, a time of coming together, a time of reflection. I look to the staff and all of you students, house affiliations aside, to work together moving forward. More about that later."
Harry wasn't sure, but thought she held his gaze for a bit longer than necessary as she spoke.
"On a more sombre note, we will be having a memorial service in the new South Wing this Saturday. Everyone is expected to attend in honour of those who lost their lives during the war, in particular those from our Hogwarts family." She looked around the room, acknowledging each of those who had lost a family member. "Anyone wishing to say a few words, and is comfortable doing so, should advise their Head of House to make the arrangements."
Ron looked horrified. "You don't have to speak," Hermione reassured him. Then she turned to Harry. "But you probably should."
"Me? Why me?"
She rolled her eyes. "Really? You don't think everyone looks to you for words of comfort after what happened? Particularly the little ones."
"No," Harry insisted. The last thing he wanted to do was call even more attention to himself. "It's not about me."
She bit her lip, looking poised to argue, but then relented. He suspected she wasn't going to let it go that easily.
"Good night and I look forward to working with all of you throughout a successful year at Hogwarts."
The Sorting had gone rather predictably, with very few new students added to the Slytherin ranks. Draco suspected that some families from a long line of Slytherins had sent their children elsewhere – probably Durmstrang – after what had happened during the war and since.
Small wonder, after the series of articles the Prophet had run. Some hogwash about Hogwarts houses and how each had played a part in the war. Gryffindor saved the day, as always, flanked by legions from Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. Slytherin, in contrast, had been the home of the Dark Lord and no one from there had ever amounted to any good. Draco had been livid when he'd read that.
Then, to his utter shock, that rag put out by Lovegood's father had run an article listing all the Slytherins that had helped in the war, not least of whom was Severus Snape. That had gone some way towards calming him at the time. But honestly, who read that paper?
Nevertheless, he and his fellow snakes welcomed the newcomers with enthusiasm, determined to prove the Prophet wrong. They remained a proud house, no matter what anyone else thought.
Thankful the place was noisy enough to make a conversation possible without being overheard, he joined her. "Can I ask you something, Hermione?"
"Hmm?" She hadn't looked up from her scribblings. What she could possibly be writing about already when their classes hadn't even started, he didn't know. He decided not to ask.
"Have you ever heard of a life debt?"
"A what?" Still her eyes remained on her parchment.
"A life debt. When someone saves someone else's life and they owe them a debt."
This finally got her attention and she put down her quill. "Would this be some old Muggle movie life debt or a wizarding one?"
With what he felt was the utmost patience, Harry frowned and looked at their surroundings. Wizarding, obviously. Figuring it would be best not to antagonise the person from whom he needed information though, he bit his tongue. "Is there a difference?"
She nodded. "Those depicted in old movies tend to be based on some intangible honour code. One is 'honour bound' or expected to honour such a debt by presumably paying it off in some manner, like through another act. It should be significant, but not necessarily saving the other's life."
That sounded reasonable. He tried to recall any such instances he might have seen in movies or on television. "So someone might pay a large sum of money or help a family member of the person or something like that?"
She considered his suggestions before nodding. "Yes, I think that would constitute payment in lieu of saving someone's life, provided it was agreeable to both parties."
"But it's different in the wizarding world?"
"Oh, yes." Isn't it always? "A debt remains until it is paid in full through the saving of the other's life. There are stories of wizards and witches remaining tied to each other for the rest of their lives."
Of course there are. His head began to ache.
She carried on. "Some sort of pull towards each other whenever danger approaches."
Harry thought about those he'd saved and those he'd lost and wondered if he'd ever be free of these invisible bonds. His concern must have shown, as Hermione reached out and touched his arm. "These aren't facts, Harry. They're more like folklore."
He breathed a sigh of relief. "So it's not really a thing?"
"I wouldn't go that far," she said. "After all, most folklore has at least some basis in fact."
"Oh." Just great.
Then his mother's trial and his own. Potter had testified for them both. At first, Draco had been angry that he hadn't also testified for Lucius, but he didn't have to think much about it before realising that he was being unreasonable. His father had made his own bed.
Recalling his own trial, Potter's testimony came back to him as if it had been only yesterday. It had been surprisingly accurate. Who knew Potter could be so perceptive?
He'd told the Wizengamot that Draco had been raised to believe the Dark Lord was to be the saviour of the wizarding world. He'd spent his childhood emulating and trying to win the favour of his father, a devout follower of the Dark Lord. He supposed that part hadn't required much thought or observation.
But then he'd gone on to talk about how Draco had been under extreme duress, with his father imprisoned and house taken over, every move monitored. The Dark Lord had tasked him with the impossible – to kill Albus Dumbledore.
Draco had been forced to watch the torture and murder of Muggles, witches and wizards. He'd have been asking for a slow and painful death if he'd defied the Dark Lord's orders.
When Potter had explained he'd been inside the Dark Lord's head, seen and felt what he had, the court had let out a collective gasp. There had been all sorts of speculation before that, but when Potter had told the court in his own words, it had shocked everyone. Draco had felt ill then, his mind conjuring up images of what it might have been like for Potter to feel the rage and hate inside.
Before he could contemplate it much, Potter had started to describe how sickened he had felt, watching what Draco had been reduced to. Then he stunned Draco by saying how strong and intelligent and full of life Draco had been in school, only to be crushed under the force that was the Dark Lord.
All Draco could think of was whether he would have done the same for Potter, if their roles had been reversed. Would he have defended this person who had made his life miserable, whenever possible, all through school? Would he have had a single kind word to say? Would he have even cared enough to try?
On the day his verdict was read out and he was free to go, after disengaging himself from his mother's tight grasp, he'd caught up with Potter as he exited the court. "I want to thank you for giving me my life back."
Potter had leaned in and said, "Buy me dinner sometime, and we'll call it even."
He'd not seen the man since, until the platform. And then again during that strange encounter on the train. He'd obviously not taken Potter's dinner remark seriously, but a part of him – that little boy who'd held out his hand in an offer of friendship those many years ago – wondered if such a thing might be possible.
What, did she think he'd forgotten overnight? "Yes, I remember."
"Well, I've found out more."
Harry smiled. Hermione could always be counted on to dig up all the details on a subject. "And?"
"And it's more complicated than a simple quid pro quo."
"It's not a simple exchange – one thing for another, this for that."
Harry didn't like where this was going. "And?" he prodded.
"According to what I've read – certainly not all there is on the subject, since it's not something usually discussed at school, and Hogwarts' library doesn't hold a huge amount of information about them – a deep bond is formed."
"Yeah, you said that before."
"It's more than just a connection, though. It's like some sort of draw between them."
He held up a hand to stop her progress. "I can't see how that's the case, because all sorts of people did things to save me during the war and I don't feel a particular draw to anyone." He'd thought about that after they'd talked the night before.
She looked excited now. "But you see, that's just it. It's all about intent."
"I'd have thought that was obvious."
"No, Harry. During wars, people often save other people and these supposed bonds aren't formed."
She looked at him, clearly wanting prompting to carry on. He waved his hand to get her to continue. He was hungry and wanted to get to breakfast.
"If the intent is to win the war or protect the interests of the other person, as a means to an end, no bond is formed. But if the intent is to save that individual, for no other reason than to save them, it becomes personal and a bond is formed."
This was all very complicated. "You mean like when my mother saved me?"
"Well, yes and no. A bond already exists between parent and child so the magic acts differently in those cases."
"Your protection became stronger, even beyond her own death. Life debts end with the death of the other, though there is said to be an impact on the living person as well, if it was something that they could have prevented, but didn't. But that's going off track."
Harry's stomach rumbled. "Could we walk and talk? I'm starving."
She jumped up. "Sorry."
"So, if I hear you right, what you're saying is that I don't have some life debt obligation to hundreds of people because of the war."
"Oh, you don't have a life debt to anyone."
"Like I said before, this is folklore. Stories handed down for generations, but without proof of their existence."
He huffed out a breath. "You could've started with that, you know."
She shrugged. She probably wanted to get some mileage from her research and just had to tell him at least some of what she'd learned.
"Some of the stories were fascinating – people bound together for life, looking out for one another in good times and bad. Deep friendships and sometimes even romantic relationships formed. Of course, that might all be explained by the draw one feels towards another after a shared traumatic experience."
She was on a roll now. "But the important thing is that there's no such thing as a life debt bond, or at least nothing beyond honour and shared experiences," he said hopefully.
"Not that I could find."
"Brilliant." They'd reached the Great Hall and he quickly got to his seat and gathered up some food before it disappeared. "Thanks, Hermione."
Her face fell. "But don't you want to hear about all the stories I found? There are some quite lovely ones."
He didn't, really, but she had been helpful. "Sure. You can tell me all about them while I eat."
Before she'd managed to get through a handful of love stories, a first-year rescued Harry. Harry recognised him as one of the star-struck youths that had watched him and whispered about him on the train. He approached looking terrified and handed Harry a note. "Headmistress McGonagall would like to see you in her office as soon as you're done with breakfast."
Harry frowned at Hermione, feigning a desire to remain and listen to her go on at length about these relationships borne of shared trauma. She shrugged.
Ron, who'd appeared out of nowhere, said, "Better eat up there, mate." And he scooped some bacon from Harry's plate before sitting down.
His mood didn't improve as he entered the Great Hall for breakfast to find people watching him warily and mumbling warnings to each other under their breath. In his fifth and sixth years at Hogwarts, this might have amused him, knowing that people feared him. But now it simply caused his stomach to clench even more.
In contrast, he watched students – and even some professors – gawp and whisper about Potter, faces full of awe and amazement rather than irritation and thinly-veiled contempt. The all-too familiar feeling of being bested once more assaulted him and his head began to throb.
Draco had spent a lot of time over the summer looking back on his life and the choices he'd made. Much as he hated to admit it to himself – and he'd certainly never admit it to anyone else – he'd been jealous of Potter. Jealousy bred contempt, wasn't that how the phrase went? He'd hated Potter with every fibre of his being, but in retrospect he doubted hate had much to do with it at all. And then the stupid git had saved his life – more than once! And if that hadn't been enough, he'd testified on Draco's behalf, just because it had been the right thing to do.
Potter wasn't the one Draco hated.
Before he could delve into his newly-realised self-loathing too much, a young Slytherin approached him, arm held out, paper shaking in her hand.
"What's this?" Draco asked.
Her voice quavering nearly as much as her hands shook, she said, "P-Professor McGonagall wants to s-see you in her office." She dropped the paper and scurried away.
He frowned as he read the paper. What did she want? He hadn't even had a chance to settle in, never mind bring the ire of the Headmistress upon him. His stomach roiled again and he pushed aside his food. Might as well get it over with.
He passed Pansy, Greg and Blaise sauntering in for breakfast as he left. He didn't pause to properly hear what Pansy called to him as he went.
As he stood at the bottom of the staircase to the Headmistress's office, pondering how he was expected to gain entry, the one person guaranteed to make his morning even worse approached.
Malfoy sighed. "Same thing as you, I expect. I was summoned."
"Good morning, gentlemen," McGonagall said as she swept past them, mumbling the password so neither he nor Malfoy could hear. "Come along, then, both of you."
As they followed her into the office, she told them to take a seat. "This won't take long."
They sat silently, waiting as she rustled some papers around on her desk. Harry looked up at Dumbledore's portrait but their former Headmaster steadfastly feigned sleep. As he glanced to the other portrait immediately behind McGonagall, he saw that Snape was doing the same.
She finally broke the silence. "Right, then. I brought the two of you here because, frankly, you rather famously – or infamously, as the case may be – spent years demonstrating just how divided we can be when we put our minds to it. Your antics and animosity towards one another were well known and perpetuated the rivalry between houses. And as much trouble as you may have felt you got into, I don't believe your punishments were nearly severe enough."
Dumbledore fidgeted slightly in his frame, but said nothing. Harry looked at Malfoy whose face stayed blank, but not without a tightening of his jaw and slight red flush to his skin. Harry's anger bubbled to the surface. Surely she didn't mean to punish them now, as adults, for their actions as children.
He knew he should keep his mouth shut like Malfoy, but this was beyond the pale. "So, what? You're going to give us detention now because you didn't then?"
Malfoy shifted in his seat and when Harry glanced over, he saw a twitch of his lips. Well, really. It had to be said.
"No, Mr Potter, I am not doling out belated punishment." Her icy voice cut through him. "And if you don't want any new ones, I would suggest you keep your tone in check. Adult or not, you are my student, and I will not be spoken to in that manner. I won't warn you again."
Chastised, Harry nodded. "Sorry, Professor."
"Right then." Her tone lost the icy edge but was not warm. "My purpose in calling you both here today is twofold. First, I want to be clear that I will not tolerate any shenanigans, no matter who you are." She stared pointedly at Harry as she said this. "Second, I expect your cooperation."
Harry turned to Malfoy and his perplexed expression reflected his own feelings. "How so?"
"I will leave that to the two of you. I still believe in the house system, and in the sense of family it instills. However, there remain deep divides and I would like the two of you to lead the charge in building bridges."
Harry opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. What the hell did she expect from them?
"I want you to work together, show people you can get beyond your past and move forward. Enlist the help of your friends as well."
Malfoy spoke for the first time. "Did you want something in particular – events and such – or more of an overall sense of cooperation?"
"As I said, I'll leave that to you. But I rather think a combination would work best. Something tangible to show progress."
Malfoy nodded. Harry had no idea what he was agreeing to, but he did the same.
"Very well then," she said, standing up to conclude the meeting. "I look forward to your success."
"Oi! Malfoy, wait up."
Oh, for the love of – "What do you want, Potter?"
Potter's buggy eyes would have been comical if not for the situation. Honestly, what did the Headmistress expect from them? They'd be hard-pressed not to kill each other, never mind work together. Right now, Draco just wanted to get as far away from Potter as he could before he said something he'd regret.
"I thought … well, I don't know what I thought." As articulate as ever. Apparently the additional fame hadn't improved his vocabulary. "What did we just agree to in there?"
Draco let out a deep, long-suffering breath and tried not to react out of habit. "I would have thought that rather obvious." When Potter continued to stare blankly, he continued. "We agreed in part not to kill each other or attempt to do so. I think we can both agree to that."
Potter nodded. "Well, obviously."
Draco was beginning to wonder just how obvious that was. "And – this part will be more difficult – we agreed to set an example for the rest of the school by getting along famously and showing everyone else that Slytherins and Gryffindors can be the best of friends."
Potter choked. "What?"
"Quite." Draco crossed his arms over his chest, hoping to resist the urge to punch Potter in the face. "But we've agreed nonetheless, so I suggest we go our separate ways for now – to ensure we keep to that first part of our agreement – and come up with ways we can look like we don't hate each other." As an afterthought, he added, "Get Granger to help you."
Potter scuffed his feet. "I don't hate you."
"Don't be ridiculous," Draco said. "Of course you hate me. As I hate you. It's how things are. It's how they've always been. And it's how things shall stay. But – here's the key part – we must pretend not to hate each other."
"Pretend to be friends?"
Draco rolled his eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, Potter. Not even McGonagall actually expects that. I imagine she'll be pleased enough if we are civil towards one another."
"I can do that."
Draco raised a brow. "Really? It might be harder than you think."
Potter stood up straighter now. "If I can be civil with the Ministry, I'm sure I can be civil with you."
"Good. I can as well. But, so as not to push our luck with this civility thing, perhaps we should part ways and come up with some teamwork things to pursue."
Draco resisted the urge to pull out his hair. "Teamwork. The Headmistress wants us to lead by example, get along, and find some ways to bring people together. Again, I suggest you talk to Granger."
"I—" Potter looked poised to argue, or something, but instead looked like a fish out of water, mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out.
"Never mind. I'll talk to Hermione and you talk to Parkinson and maybe this won't be as painful as it sounds."
Once he caught up with her and explained the situation, Pansy, traitor that she was, actually thought it would be a fantastic idea. Women!
"I think it's a brilliant idea," Hermione said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"If a professor says it, it's brilliant."
Harry tuned out their bickering. Some things never changed.
But some things did, and this was huge. How the bloody hell were he and Malfoy supposed to avoid riling each other up, never mind encourage teamwork?
Harry's mind had been so focused that he hadn't noticed Malfoy's approach and the ensuing silence that resulted.
"Oi! What are you doing here, Ferret?"
Harry's head shot up at Ron's outburst, along with most of the others at the table. Hermione groaned. Ron's face was quickly flushing a dangerous level of red.
"Potter, a word?"
Harry, not eager to witness Ron going off on one, stood up quickly. "Sure." He ignored the collective stares of incredulity and followed Malfoy out of the room.
"Hold up," he said as Malfoy marched quickly down the corridor. "Where are we going?"
"There's a disused classroom round the next corner. I thought we could speak there, without prying eyes and ears."
He looked back towards the Great Hall and noted that some people had come through the main doors to watch the two of them. Much as he didn't want to acknowledge the fact, Malfoy was right. "Fair enough."
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "So glad you approve, Saint Potter." And he was off again.
"Don't call me that," Harry grumbled as he made to keep up as they entered the classroom and Malfoy closed the door behind them.
"Right, let's get working on this," Malfoy began.
"I thought we were going to get Hermione and Parkinson to help with this."
Malfoy placed his hand on his head as though to stop it from exploding. "Yes, well … we may yet, but right now I can't deal with Pansy's enthusiasm."
"She giving you a hard time?"
"Quite the contrary. She thinks this is a bloody brilliant idea and can't wait to get started. I cut and ran as quickly as I could."
Harry laughed. "She and Hermione will make a great team."
Malfoy groaned. "What is it with women and teamwork and getting along?"
"Search me," Harry said with a shrug. "But give Hermione something to take charge of, be creative with and boss people around about on the side, and she's in heaven."
"Merlin, they will get along."
"McGonagall is evil," Harry said. "And manipulative."
Malfoy snorted. "Finally figured that out, did you?"
"Nah, I've known that about her for a while. It's just –" Harry narrowed his eyes, "—she's being particularly evil this time."
"You don't think Dumbledore and Snape?"
Harry nodded. "Definitely."
They spent a good hour talking about what they might do to satisfy McGonagall's request. The first thing they'd agreed upon, which would come as no surprise to anyone, was a friendly Quidditch league, with each team a mix of students from all houses. They'd sign up relatively equal numbers from each house, divided by years – first and second years in one grouping, third and fourth another, fifth and sixth another, and seventh with the returning eighth years.
That settled, they tossed about a number of other ideas that might bring other students together. In short order, recognising that they were utterly useless at such things, they agreed to defer to the women in their lives – namely Hermione and Parkinson – to lead that charge. Pleased with their progress, they parted ways.
Only later did Harry reflect that they might actually be capable of working together. In fact, without the cloud of war hanging over them, they might well get along.
Millicent agreed. "It's like she's punishing you all over again."
"Oh, I don't know," Blaise mused. "It seems to me Draco doesn't look too bothered by the prospect of cozying up to Potter."
Pansy giggled and Draco stormed off to his room. Truth be told, their first meeting had gone well. Not once did he have the desire to throttle Potter.
Choosing not to dwell on that – or Blaise's comments – Draco pulled out his notes and started work on his Arithmancy assignment.
"Wonder what's hiding behind there," Ron said.
He wasn't the only one curious. The whispering and finger pointing spread as more students entered and the room began to fill.
"I'm sure we'll find out soon," Hermione said. "Let's take our seats."
McGonagall nodded at Harry and cast a final questioning look in his direction. She had, as Hermione had predicted, asked that he speak. While clearly disappointed, she'd accepted his reasons and let it go. Until now, apparently. He shook his head and she nodded again.
"I told you that you should speak," Hermione insisted for about the tenth time.
"Let it go," Ron said. Harry was grateful for his support, because one more time and Harry might have bitten her head off. Sometimes she was a bit too pushy for her own good.
Hermione pursed her lips but said nothing more.
The memorial service was nice, with a handful of people getting up to speak, but mainly focused on the same message: working together and moving forward.
"I wish to offer my thanks to you all for coming today, in remembrance of those we've lost," McGonagall said after everyone was done.
"Didn't give us much of a choice, did she?" Ron complained. Hermione shushed him.
"Before you go, I would like to present this Wall of Honour, a gift dedicated to those who fought for and lost their lives at Hogwarts during the last battle."
She waved her wand and the drapes dissolved, revealing a grey marble wall covered with the faces of those who had died. Unlike the many colourful portraits in the castle, these were understated. Simple carvings etched into the stone, faces that moved unhurriedly, each with dedicated space separate from the rest. Fred's was easy to find, near the bottom. His face, as it had so much in life, smiled at the crowd, then tilted back in soft, soundless laughter, before returning to a motionless smile. Then the loop began again.
Harry watched Ron fixate on his brother, his eyes shining. "Let's get closer," he suggested.
They walked together to the wall. Beneath Fred's face were the words, "Fred Weasley. He brought laughter to so many. May he smile always."
Ron's hand reached out to touch the words and Ginny, who had silently joined them from her place in the crowd, put her arm around Ron's waist. "It's beautiful."
Hermione, her tears flowing freely, said, "It really is."
Harry motioned her to leave and she followed him out, leaving the two siblings to mourn their loss.
"Why didn't she say something?" Pansy asked, glaring at McGonagall.
"I told her not to."
She moved in front of him, blocking his view, hands on her hips. "Why would you do that?"
"Because I'm not my father."
She let out an exasperated sigh. "What's that supposed to mean?"
He watched the students walk up to the wall, find their loved ones, and read the captions. Those had taken a lot of work, but with the help of the staff, he thought it had turned out perfectly. Some reached out to touch the faces they could no longer touch in life.
He looked back to Pansy. "Because it's not about me."
The most unusual friendship to come of this endeavour was his and Malfoy's. It should have come as no surprise that they were now the topic of conversation, but it did.
"I don't understand it," Ron griped, not for the first time.
Seamus agreed. "It's not natural."
"It is rather odd," Dean added, though his heart wasn't in it. Harry suspected he was simply agreeing in order to avoid a row with Seamus.
"Oh, please," Ginny said as she plunked herself down next to Ron. "How could this possibly surprise you?"
Ron gaped at his sister before recovering. "It's Malfoy."
She smiled. "Exactly."
Hermione chimed in. "Harry's always been obsessed with Malfoy. You've said it yourself."
He was not obsessed. But before he could jump to his own defence, Ron responded. "Yeah, but that was different."
"Oh, I don't know." Ginny winked at Hermione as she spoke. "Fine line and all that."
Hermione sniggered. "Too true."
Harry stood up, fed up being the topic of conversation yet again. "We're friends," he said. "People change. What's so strange about that?" And he left.
"But I don't understand. They hate each other."
Pansy patted Greg's leg in what might be considered a comforting gesture. "It's okay, Greg. Someday you'll understand."
"Understand what?" Blaise asked as he sauntered into the room and tossed his rucksack onto the floor.
"Draco's obsession with Potter."
"Oh, that. How can you not have noticed that, Greg? It's been years."
Oh, now that's just –
Draco's thoughts were interrupted by the mention of Potter's name whispered behind him. Adjusting his focus to the other conversation, he wished he'd heard the start of it. "I overheard someone at the last club meeting. He won't be around much longer."
"Is he leaving school?"
"You might say that, yeah. But it sounded more permanent than that."
Before Draco could see who it was that had spoken, Pansy snapped her fingers in front of his face to get his attention. By the time he turned back, the girls were gone.
Draco ignored Pansy and fled the room in search of Potter.
"He's not that scary," Harry interrupted. The smaller of the boys jumped. "He just likes people to think he is."
"Really?" the bigger boy asked. The little one looked incapable of speech.
Harry nodded. "Really. In fact, he's not so bad at all."
"But I heard," he whispered, "that he was a Death Eater."
Harry nodded again. "He was. But I'll tell you a secret."
The boys' eyes grew huge. "What?"
"He wasn't very good at it."
The bigger boy giggled and the smaller boy smacked him, looking straight up into Malfoy's approaching form.
"I should hope not," Malfoy declared, causing the little boy to jump again. Malfoy chuckled. "It wasn't exactly my life's ambition, you know."
He grinned at the boy but the child remained frozen in place. The other boy looked pleadingly into Harry's face.
Harry, in an attempt to diffuse the situation whilst trying not to laugh, said, "You always were better at sneaking up on people."
Malfoy laughed – actually laughed! "No one beats you at that, Potter. You and your cloak." He turned to the boys conspiratorially. "He has an Invisibility Cloak, you know. You should get him to show you sometime."
Not until supper did he locate Potter again. He dragged him off to the disused classroom, arguing all the way.
"What the hell, Malfoy? I only just got my food."
"This is important."
"More important than my starving to death?"
Draco rolled his eyes. "You're not that scrawny waif from first year anymore, Potter. You'll survive a missed meal. Better yet, put your cloak to good use and nip over to the kitchens later."
Potter looked down his front, then back up to Draco. "Are you saying I'm fat?" The horror in his voice would have made Draco laugh had the situation not been so dire.
"No, you idiot. I'm saying you're fit. You've got plenty of muscle on you now so you won't waste away to nothing if you miss supper once."
Potter looked at Draco curiously, a faint blush painting his cheeks, but said nothing.
Draco, amused by his obvious discomfort, extended the silence until finally Potter broke.
"So what's the emergency? Why did you drag me away from that promising looking Shepherd's Pie?"
"Someone's trying to kill you." He'd planned to ease into the revelation, but the words spewed forth instead.
"I said that someone is trying to kill you."
Potter laughed. "Very funny."
Draco shook his head, wanting to scream. "No, it's not, actually. I'm serious."
"Alright, Malfoy, I'll bite. Who's trying to kill me?"
"I don't know."
"How are they planning to do it?"
Draco resisted the urge to bite his lip. "I don't know that either."
"I don't suppose you know when this will occur?"
He hadn't thought this through before chasing after Potter, too worried something might happen to him whilst Draco tried to work things out. "I don't know that either."
Potter's lip twitched in amusement. "Then how precisely do you know someone is going to try this?"
"I overheard two people talking about it." He relayed the whole chain of events, then waited for a reaction.
Potter listened to the tale, then ran his hand through his hair. "Sounds pretty cryptic to me. Maybe someone is trying to get me kicked out of school or something. That makes more sense than murder. After all, the war is over."
Unable to argue the point, but frustrated with Potter's lack of concern, he said, "Just watch yourself, Potter."
And Harry had the map. He hadn't used it much this year, but in the past couple of weeks, he'd carried it with him. Sure enough, whenever Malfoy wasn't in class, he hovered somewhere near Harry's location.
"Why is the ferret stalking you?"
"He's not stalking me."
Ron snatched the map from Harry's hands, looked at it briefly and announced, "Aha! Right there. Oi, Malfoy! Get out here!" The dot on the map took off in the other direction.
"He's trying to save me," Harry said when Ron announced he was going after Malfoy.
Ron laughed at that. "Him?" He buckled over. "Save you?"
"Yes, he says someone's trying to kill me."
"And who might that be? His dad?" His laughter died down to a soft chuckle. "Oh, wait, he's in prison. Couldn't be him."
"He doesn't know who or when or how," Harry explained. "He just overheard something and he thinks it means I'm in some kind of danger."
Ron stopped laughing and scowled. "He's just looking for attention. He's nobody here now and that eats him up. Now he's saying, 'pay attention to me' because he can't say, 'My father will do such and such.' Honestly, Harry, you should stay away from him. He's nothing but trouble."
Not long ago, Harry would have agreed. But he'd been getting to know Malfoy and the man he was now bore little resemblance to that spoiled child of their youth. "He's not that person any more, Ron."
That, apparently, was the wrong thing to say. Ron's face turned an angry shade of red and he balled his hands into fists. "Stop defending the turd." And he stormed off.
But Malfoy wasn't that same person, was he? No, he wasn't. Harry might not have believed it a year ago, but people change. Malfoy had changed.
And if Harry really believed that, which he did, what did that mean? Was there really someone after him? After all, why else would Malfoy shadow him like he was doing?
A voice in his head that sounded distinctly like Ginny's reminded him that he'd been the one stalking Malfoy not that long ago.
He found himself smiling, despite everything, oddly comforted by the fact that Malfoy, of all people, cared enough to spend his free time watching out for Harry.
It was true. Ever since he'd heard that conversation, he'd been looking over his shoulder – well, Potter's shoulder – but he'd seen and heard nothing out of the ordinary. It had been a fortnight and he'd taken to shadowing the other man. Right now he was scanning the crowd as Potter flew up high above the crowd at this week's friendly match between the seventh and eighth years.
Draco's own team didn't play until the following week. In one respect it was good, because he could watch the crowd, but … well, it's not like he could fly beside Potter to prevent anything from happening.
He jumped. "Sorry, Pans. What was that?"
She huffed. "I said – and I must say your reaction rather proves my point – that you're extra twitchy these days. What's wrong?"
He continued scanning the crowd but saw nothing that caused him concern. If one didn't count the fact that large crowds did cause concern. He'd soon found it difficult to watch everyone all the time, especially since even now, months into the school year, his fame continued to mean daily hangers-on trailing Potter's every move. The fact that Draco now fit that description wasn't lost on him.
He'd recalled the club the two girls spoke of and managed to find out all the members. He then began tracking them. That didn't guarantee that the would-be assassin was among those he watched. After all, there could be more than one person involved. Or the person overheard by the person he overheard could have been talking about someone outside the club, having only heard the conversation while at the meeting. His head ached as his thoughts bounced around incoherently.
What else could he do? He was one person trying to watch more than a dozen others while continuing to keep an eye on hundreds more, just in case. And following Potter around. And, despite several more desperate attempts to get Potter to believe him, the man continued to show little regard for his own life. It was quite maddening.
Which brought him here.
"I'll tell you all about it after the match." Maybe Pansy could help him. Or perhaps she could tell Granger; the two of them had become fast friends since he and Potter had enlisted their help. Certainly she'd get further with her than Draco would.
"Why not now?"
He looked around at the closely-packed crowd around them and gave her a why do you think look. "I don't want to be overheard."
She pursed her lips but didn't argue. "Oh, alright then."
After the match, he dragged her off to the same disused classroom he and Potter had taken to using whenever they wanted to talk privately. Oddly, he felt strange bringing Pansy there, but he didn't have time or the inclination to examine his own feelings on the matter. Once behind closed doors, he told her about what he'd overheard.
She laughed. He wished people would stop doing that when he was being serious. "Oh, is that why you watch every move he makes now?"
"Pans, I'm being serious."
She patted him on the arm. "You keep telling yourself that. You might even be able to convince yourself."
"What are you getting at?" He didn't have time for her nonsense. He needed her help.
Still smiling, she looked him over for a long while before answering. "You mean to tell me that this latest foray into Potter-watching has nothing to do with how gorgeous he's become?"
When Draco's eyes bugged out, she nodded. "I know. It positively pains me to admit it, but he really is quite fanciable. Apart from his personality, that is."
"There's nothing wrong with his personality," Draco found himself saying, quite unbidden. Shit. He winced.
Pansy snorted. The bitch. "I notice you didn't argue the fanciable part."
He'd noticed it too. "Would you believe me if I had?"
"Then what's the point?"
"The point is, my darling friend, that you aren't fooling anyone with this half-baked story of yours."
"But it's not –"
"Even if it were true –"
"Potter killed the Dark Lord, remember? I'm pretty sure he can handle a student or two."
She had a point. Potter had lived through a war and he'd had a very powerful megalomaniac after him since he'd been a baby. Surely he could deal with a couple of amateurs. Still, the tightness in his gut didn't ease with that revelation.
"But he was expecting it then. He knew the man who'd killed his parents wanted him dead, had tried to off him before. Now he's not. I mean, look at him, flying around on his broomstick and wandering off into the Forbidden Forest. And who knows what he gets up to when he wanders the castle at night under that Invisibility Cloak of his."
When Pansy chuckled, he realised he'd run off at the mouth again. He hadn't intended to reveal just how much time he'd been spending Potter-watching. "Are you sure you aren't concerned for the wrong reason?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"It sounds to me like you might be jealous of what he's doing when you're not around." Under her breath, she added, "Not that you let that happen too often."
Draco scowled, though he wasn't sure if he was annoyed more by her lack of concern or her insinuation regarding Draco's motives. "I'm not," he insisted. "Potter is in danger." He sounded petulant, even to his own ears, but he didn't care.
She raised a brow, then placed one hand on each of his shoulders, holding him in place and looking him straight in the eye for a long moment. "Do yourself a favour. Tell the man you want to shag him senseless and get it out of your system. Then we can all get on with our lives."
She released him and pulled open the door as he stood rooted to the spot, unable to respond. As she walked down the corridor, her voice carried back to him. "And for the love of Merlin, do it soon, while you still can."
Finally he regained use of his legs and went after her. But before he could ask what she'd meant by that, she'd disappeared around the corner.
Right on cue, Potter appeared, looking disheveled, presumably having just missed colliding with Pansy as he rounded the same corner. He looked at Draco exiting the room and back towards Pansy walking away. Then back to Draco. He picked up his pace as he approached Draco. "Putting the room to good use, I see." He sounded annoyed for some reason.
Draco looked dumbly between Potter and the classroom, remembering his own discomfort at bringing her there and Pansy's parting words echoing in his head. He couldn't bring himself to speak right now if he wanted to. He didn’t trust what he might say. Instead, he stood there trying to process what the hell Potter had just said.
"I thought you two weren't together anymore."
This conversation – one-way such as it was – was becoming bizarre. Finding his voice at last, Draco asked, "What?"
"You and Parkinson back together?" He glared at the classroom as though it had offended him somehow and Draco's brain finally caught Potter's meaning.
"Oh, that?" He motioned to the room. "No. I just needed to talk to her privately and the Slytherin Common Room may very well be the least private place in the school."
Potter continued to look annoyed at the room. "I see. Well then."
And the conversation ended just as bizarrely, Potter stomping off without another word.
Draco's parting "Nice game today" hung in the air.
But then Parkinson had nearly mowed him down in the hall, looking smug, full of confidence and smiling. He tried to recall her ever looking so happy. Admittedly, most of the time she looked at Harry as though he were something nasty that had crawled out from underneath a rock. She'd been better lately, but still … he didn't think he'd ever seen her looking so pleased with herself.
Then he'd seen Malfoy standing outside the classroom – their classroom, as he'd come to think of it after months of meeting there whenever they wanted privacy – looking distinctly out of sorts, face flushed.
Parkinson's words as she'd come barrelling round the corner came back to him then. "Do it now while you still can." Do what now? And why had Malfoy looked so stupefied? Harry's brain supplied several possibilities that, for some reason, did not sit well with him.
Then when he'd asked if they were back together, Malfoy had dodged the question. Harry had stormed off after that, wanting to get far away from the room. And Malfoy. Not even his congratulations on a good game had improved Harry's mood. And now he sat brooding in the blessedly empty Common Room.
No sooner had he thought that than Ginny climbed through the portrait and threw herself dramatically onto the sofa beside Harry. "Someone kick your crup?"
So much for alone time. He recalled what Malfoy had said about needing privacy and Harry wondered if every common room was the same. His hands clenched as he thought of Malfoy.
Ginny raised her hands in mock surrender. "Whoa, there. I'm just asking what's wrong."
"Nothing." He didn't feel like talking about it.
"What did he do?"
Had she been following him? "What did who do?"
"Malfoy, of course."
"Why of course?"
She took a long-suffering breath and began speaking to him like he was a child. "Because you just won a friendly game of Quidditch, your team is improving all the time and it's a beautiful day out. And Malfoy is the only person that can get under your skin so quickly and thoroughly."
He scowled at her. Partly because it felt good to scowl and partly because he knew she was right. It pissed him off that she could read him so well.
"He didn't do anything."
"So if not Malfoy, what has you in such a mood?"
"I'm not in a mood."
She snorted and made a poor attempt at covering it with a cough. "Suit yourself."
They sat in awkward silence for a few minutes before he couldn't stand it anymore. "Why are you staring at me?"
She smirked. He didn't like it when she smirked. She always said something uncomfortable following a smirk.
She didn't disappoint. "You two should just shag already. Get it out of your system."
"What?!" Where the hell had that come from? He hadn't said anything. Hadn't even hinted. Sure, they'd grown close and Harry had thought there might be something more to it, particularly lately. But he was pants at reading people.
"You're both gagging for it," she went on. "Everyone can see that."
"W-what?" he said again. Not much of a comeback but it was all his brain-to-speech function could muster after that.
"Okay, maybe not Ron – he doesn't see anything – but everyone else sees it. Except, apparently, the two of you."
"But he's with Parkinson. I just saw them together."
She burst out laughing. "So that's what put you in a mood. It all makes sense now."
"What makes sense?" He shook his head to clear it. It didn't work. "None of what you're saying makes any sense."
She tried to compose herself but a knowing grin remained. "Pansy and Malfoy are not together. They never have been." Before he could argue that Parkinson had hung all over Malfoy years before, she continued. "She pretended to be with him so he could maintain his cover with Lucius and later with the Death Eaters. Whatever you think you saw, you didn't. They're friends, nothing more. Malfoy is gay."
Despite his earlier suspicions, at the most he'd thought Malfoy might be bisexual like he'd recently come to accept about himself. At worst, he'd thought that he was completely off the mark, that he'd been imagining something between them. But most of the time he figured, no matter Hermione's assertions to the contrary, that it might have something to do with the life debt business and Harry was simply mistaking that for something more.
"Earth to Harry. Come in Harry."
"What?" He seemed to be saying that a lot today.
Ginny rolled her eyes and stood up. "I can see your thoughts are elsewhere, as usual."
Several people entered the room loudly then. She leaned down and whispered in his ear. "Do something before it's too late. I may not like the twat but I can't deny he's hot. And you know it too. Sooner or later some other bloke is bound to scoop him up."
She left him there with his jumble of thoughts, suddenly in a much less sour mood.
He was gorgeous – Witch Weekly, The Prophet and every wizarding magazine across Europe hadn't been wrong when they'd said as much. When exactly that had happened, Draco wasn't sure. Probably when he'd been so preoccupied with having Death Eaters and the Dark Lord take over his home, his sanctuary.
A wave of guilt flooded Draco as he remembered a conversation he and Potter had had not long ago. He'd read some ridiculous article about Potter's childhood that turned out not to be so ridiculous after all. It turned out Potter never really had a home before Hogwarts – if you didn't count his parents' home before they were killed. And Draco had been the one to let the Death Eaters into the school. He'd apologised – another in a string of awkward conversations the two of them had had – and Potter had accepted that, saying he didn't blame Draco for trying to save his parents. He didn't know what he would have done if faced with the same choice.
Potter didn't have a clue. He was twice the man Draco would ever be. No matter how many letters he sent or projects he funded. Which was why this notion of Pansy's, of the two of them together, was utterly ridiculous.
Only, a voice in the distant recesses of his mind reminded him, Potter was his friend now. Something he'd thought impossible for years. Who knew what could happen next?
More unnerving were the dreams Harry had begun having about a certain blond and things the two of them got up to that friends didn't usually do.
Inevitably, the day after such dreams, Harry would become fixated, wondering if, in fact, Malfoy looked as good under his robes as Harry imagined.
He was, in Ginny's words, hot. And Harry's imagination had taken up the challenge of filling in the blanks with fervour. He'd taken to watching Malfoy's mouth as he spoke, wanting to run his tongue along his lips and taste him, wondering if those lips were as soft or demanding as in his dreams. He didn't hear much of what Malfoy said.
Unfortunately, Weasley caught sight of that and ran after them. "Malfoy, what's your problem?"
Draco sighed. He didn't have time for this. "What have I done to offend your sensibilities this time, Weasley?"
"What is all this bullshit about some plot to kill Harry?" Draco winced and motioned for him to keep his voice down. "No, I don't think I will. Go somewhere else for attention."
Draco's back tingled and his wand hand itched to hex the little shit. "Pardon me?"
"You heard me, Ferret. Stop making up shit to get Harry's attention."
Just then, Pansy waltzed over, apparently drawn by the commotion Weasley was causing. "My, my, but you're loud today, Weasley. What's the matter? Not getting any?"
Draco nearly laughed, then an unbidden picture of Weasley and Granger getting down to business flooded his mind and he had to fight not to gag. Pansy looked amused.
Weasley whirled on Pansy. "Just tell your boyfriend to stay away from Harry and to stop making shit up."
Pansy's eyes narrowed. Never a good sign. "Draco didn't make up anything," she said. "And last I checked, Potter was capable of figuring out whom he wants as a friend."
"Friends? With him?" Weasley waved a hand in Draco's direction. "As if."
Ouch. Normally what the weasel said to him didn't matter, but …
"Ron." Potter had moved between Weasley and Draco, though which one of them he was protecting was unclear. "Let it go."
"No, I won't. He doesn't deserve to be your friend or anyone else's."
"Ron, he is my friend."
"No, he's not. You're just faking it for McGonagall's sake."
Shit. How could Draco have been so stupid? Of course Potter wouldn't want him as a friend, never mind anything more. He'd been faking it all along, just like they'd talked about doing that first time McGonagall talked to them.
"You're wrong. We are friends. He's not the person he was. Hell, none of us are. Don't you see? We've been given a chance to start over, or at least move forward. He's trying his best and I, for one, accept that. You should too."
What the hell? Did Potter just stick up for him? Weasley looked as stunned as he'd ever seen him. Well, maybe not. That time with the slugs was rather memorable.
Pansy stepped into Weasley's personal space then. "Listen, you holier-than-thou jackass." She was winding up now. Good. He deserved it. "Draco is twice the man you'll ever be. Do you even know what he's done since the war? Do you?"
Weasley looked confused, even more so than usual.
"No? I didn't think so."
Draco stepped forward, "Don't."
"Why not?" she said. "Why shouldn't people know what you're really like?"
"Because it's not about me."
Pansy crossed her arms over her chest and huffed. "Well maybe, just this once, it should be." She turned to Weasley. "You know that memorial wall down in the new wing? Well, guess who paid for it? Guess who commissioned all the art and worked with the teachers on all the captions?" She glared at Draco, daring him to argue, then back at Weasley. "Draco did. And you know why?"
It was Potter who asked, "Why?"
"Because it was the right thing to do." She looked close to tears now. "And because he could and nobody else would. That's why."
"Did you really do that?" Potter asked, looking at Draco with astonishment.
Pansy didn't give him a chance to answer. "Yes, he did." Then she stabbed her finger into Weasley's chest. "Think about that the next time you go see your brother."
Then she stormed off.
Ron stared at Malfoy for a long moment before turning around and leaving without another word.
Potter opened his mouth to say something, but Draco stopped him with a raised hand. "I don't want to talk about it."
"But it's such a wonderful thing that you did."
Draco nodded. He knew it was true. "But it's not about me."
That Potter seemed to understand. "Okay then."
"Can we talk now?"
Potter followed him to the classroom and he launched into his spiel again. He'd been pleading for the last ten minutes, yet again, for Potter to take him seriously and be more careful. Potter watched him speak but didn't seem to hear anything Draco said.
He clapped his hands loudly and Potter jolted out of his reverie. "Have you been listening to a word I've said?"
Potter's face reddened and he blinked. Perhaps sensing defeat, he apologised. "Sorry. I've been distracted." His face went redder. It reminded Draco of what Potter looked like in his fantasies, those unbidden imaginings no doubt fueled by Pansy's suggestion. He shook off that thought.
"So I've noticed. You know, I wish you'd be more focused. I'm worried about you."
"Worried? About me?"
Had Draco actually said that? How unlike him. But it was true. "Yes." He threw up his hands in exasperation. "Someone's trying to kill you and I don't want that to happen."
Before he knew what was happening, Potter took three steps forward – and kissed him. It was more like an attack than anything else and it threw Draco off kilter. Why was Potter kissing him when he should be focusing on staying safe, staying alive, protecting himself?
An instant later, Potter pulled back looking horrified.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have done that."
And he fled.
Only then did Draco realise that he'd not kissed back. Well, fuck.
He'd been staring at Malfoy's mouth – again – and then he'd told Harry he was worried about him and that he didn't want him to die. Before Harry even thought it through, he'd reacted, closing the distance between them. He'd clamped his lips to Malfoy's – not the most romantic thing in the world, but it had sort of worked for him once before. Then again, he'd known how Ginny had felt about him for years. All he knew about Malfoy was what Ginny had said, which was hardly definitive proof.
The proof had been when Malfoy hadn't responded at all. He'd just stood there, not pushing Harry away but certainly not welcoming the kiss. It was worse than with Cho, he reflected miserably. At least it hadn't taken long for self-preservation to kick in. He'd apologised weakly and scarpered out of there like a first-year girl. Now he'd probably messed up the friendship they'd built over the past few months. Bollocks. Why had he listened to Ginny? He would have to kill her later. Slowly and painfully.
Now he worried constantly, because Potter had that damned cloak. Draco suspected he was trolling about the castle even more than before. And not watching out for himself. And Weasley clearly didn't take him seriously, so he was of no help.
As he lay awake in his bed, having woken from a particularly disturbing dream involving Potter dying over and over again in a variety of bloody and painful ways, an idea came to him. If Potter wouldn't look out for himself, Draco would have to do it for him. When he couldn't wait any longer, he got dressed and went in search of help.
Draco stared at the wall then began pacing. Potter had told him that the room wasn't just for hidden things. Also known as the Room of Requirement, it promised to provide whatever someone required.
He'd gone over exactly what he needed in his head repeatedly, wanting to get it right, and was satisfied that he had come up with the solution to his problem. He paced back and forth saying, "I need a way to keep Potter safe at school until I can work out how to prevent someone killing him."
After the third pass, the familiar door opened and he went inside.
When he got out of the shower, the same silence greeted him. And again in the Common Room. And the corridors. He picked up his pace, unease creeping in. The Great Hall lay empty before him: no food, no people, nothing.
Unease became panic as he wandered the corridors then went outside to find no one. No signs of life at all. No sign of Hagrid or Fang inside his hut. No one at the lake, the greenhouses, the Quidditch pitch or anywhere else on the grounds.
He must be dreaming. Some alternate reality dream.
Curse Dean for all his science fiction talk. It must have worked its way into Harry's subconscious. He wished for one of his more interesting dreams to take over; he'd much rather be doing things with Malfoy. Things Malfoy didn't want in reality, obviously, but still did in Harry's imagination.
Strange, but the longer he wandered the grounds, the less like a dream it felt. Strange yes, but still real.
Getting rid of his life debt was an added bonus. Admittedly, a pretty big one. This bond of theirs had gone too far. Draco had given the situation much thought over the past few days. He'd certainly spent a good deal of time imagining kissing Potter, though not the way it had happened. For some reason, it had always been Draco who'd initiated it – perhaps because of what Pansy had said or maybe something else. Whatever the case, he'd always been a willing participant. Not once had he stood there motionless.
In his own defence, he'd been caught completely off guard. He'd been so wholly immersed in keeping Potter safe that when he'd kissed Draco, Draco had been stunned into immobility. Or so he told himself. By the time he'd registered what was going on, Potter had bolted. And with him had gone what Draco was sure had been his only shot.
He'd stewed on his own stupidity for an entire day before concluding that it might have been for the best. This life debt business must be drawing them together more than he'd realised. He recalled stories of supposed great loves resulting from a debt, but how real could it be in the end? Potter didn't want him; he was just reacting to the draw of their bond. Draco needed to break it, as much for Potter's sake as his own. But now the room had failed him and he'd run out of ideas. He couldn't keep up his watch, particularly now that Potter was avoiding him.
He was halfway to the Great Hall when he registered a lack of activity. No noise, no movement, nothing. Surely enough time had passed that people were getting up for the day. How odd.
Malfoy jumped at the sound of his name. Once the initial jolt wore off, his expression melded into that of intense relief. Had he been wandering around looking for people too? Were they really the only two here?
"What's going on?" he asked once he caught up to Malfoy.
Malfoy's hands shook slightly. "No idea."
"Have you seen anyone else?"
He shook his head. "I've been looking for hours and you're the first sign of life I've seen."
"I've seen bizarre before, but this is a new one."
"Maybe it's all a dream."
Harry looked around. "Not a very interesting dream, is it?"
Malfoy choked out a laugh. "Must be yours, then. I always have deep, meaningful dreams."
"Oh, really?" Harry raised his brows in challenge. "Do tell about these meaningful dreams of yours."
Malfoy's face flushed, which made Harry wonder what sort of meaning Malfoy's dreams held. Then he felt his own face warm as he recalled his own dreams.
"Honestly, Potter," he deflected. "At a time like this, you want to talk about our dreams?"
Now Harry's face burned. When put that way, it did sound … well. "Whatever, Malfoy. You're just dodging."
"I've never heard of something like this happening before. Where is everyone?"
Harry listened to the utter silence around them. "And everything."
"Listen." He strained to hear any hint of movement, of life, besides their own breathing. "There's nothing else here. No people and no animals. No birds, no insects, nothing."
They sat quietly for a while, listening to nothing. As creepy as it was, Harry found himself more relaxed now that he'd found Malfoy. Facing the silence wasn't quite so bad with another person there. Even if it was Malfoy. In fact, having Malfoy with him was rather soothing. The silence wasn't awkward. He imagined being there with Ron and how much he'd be freaking out right now. Or Hermione. She'd be nattering on incessantly and combing through books for answers, sighing and moaning when she couldn't find anything.
"What's with the grin?" Malfoy asked.
Caught out, Harry scrambled for some excuse, but opted for the truth. "I dunno." He shrugged. "I guess it's kind of amusing that, of all people, I'd be stuck here with you."
"You mean I'm stuck here with you."
Harry chuckled. "Sure. It just figures that it would be the two of us. It always seems to be that way, doesn't it?"
Malfoy gave him a curious look. Harry wasn't sure what it meant, but it was definitely curious. "And you find that to be something to smile about?"
Harry shrugged again. "It's not awful having you around."
"Well, there's a compliment."
Harry laughed. "Take it while you can get it."
Malfoy smiled. "I think I will."
Potter was right. It did always seem to be the two of them, somehow. Only this time, instead of being at odds with one another, they were in this together.
"So what do you think is going on?" Potter asked, not for the first time. "Why the two of us? What could it be – presuming neither of us is dreaming this bizarre but still boring situation?"
Draco wondered the same thing. "Where do you think everyone's gone?"
Potter shrugged. He did that a lot. "Maybe we're the ones that went somewhere."
"But we're still here. We haven't gone anywhere."
"But are we really still here?" Potter asked cryptically. "I mean we're here, but is this the real Hogwarts? Maybe we are in some alternate Hogwarts."
"What would be the point of that?"
Potter picked some grass off his trousers. "Not a clue, but do you have a better explanation?"
Draco shook his head. He didn't. He wasn't sure interdimensional travel was possible, but likewise he wasn't entirely sure that it wasn't either.
"What would have prompted this to happen all of a sudden? I went to sleep, then I woke up to this. No one around for hours, until I saw you. Why us?"
Draco stiffened. Oh, shit. He'd been so caught up in trying to find someone – anyone – that he hadn't given much thought to where he'd been. Then when he ran into Potter, he'd forgotten altogether. Surely this couldn't be his doing. Or, rather, the Room's doing.
"What is it?"
Draco started as Potter interrupted his thoughts. He frowned. Could all of this be his fault? What had he said outside the Room?
"Malfoy? Hello? What's wrong? Did you figure something out?"
He couldn't tell Potter. Not yet. Not now that they'd become friends. Not now that he didn't hate having Draco around. He'd been enjoying their time together and wasn't quite ready for it to end. And end it would. As soon as Potter heard what a colossal idiot Draco had been, he'd write him off for good.
Never mind the fact that he didn't know it had been him. He needed to figure that out first. It could be a coincidence. Just because the two events appeared to coincide with each other didn't mean there was a direct cause and effect relationship between the two, right?
He didn't believe his own reasoning, but it was all he had. If he and Potter were going to go back to hating each other – or at least to Potter hating him – Draco wanted to be sure he deserved that.
Then there was that kiss that wasn't. Potter hadn't tried that again. Draco still kicked himself for not responding properly, even if he did think it was the whole life debt thing that prompted it. He was still a Slytherin, after all. He should take full advantage of the situation. Which gave him a brilliant idea.
He angled himself towards Potter and spoke directly into his ear. "I'm still leaning towards you having oddly boring dreams about me that your sheltered Muggle upbringing prevents you from making truly interesting." The blush that ran up Potter's neck was so worth it.
He turned his head slowly, until their lips were a mere breath apart. He looked from Malfoy's eyes to his mouth, then back. He ran his tongue over his lips, all the while watching Malfoy for a reaction. The hitch in his breath and the fact he hadn't moved away spoke volumes. Harry smirked. "I can assure you, Malfoy, I have quite interesting dreams." Malfoy's eyes widened. "Especially when you're in them."
Then, without another word, he stood up and brushed the grass off his trousers. "Shall we do something about this situation, then?"
Malfoy's face was now as red as Harry's felt and his pupils were so dilated they nearly took over his irises. It was a good look on him. "W-what do you have in mind?"
Several ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with figuring out what was going on, and everything to do with discovering what lay beneath those Slytherin robes, ran before Harry's mind. He dismissed them for the moment. "Let's see what lies beyond the grounds. See if Hogsmeade has some answers."
Harry tried not to read too much into the look on Malfoy's face. If asked, he'd have described it as disappointment, but since he couldn't read people to save his life, he didn't want to get his hopes up.
Had he just thought that? After that fumbling disaster that was his attempt at a kiss, did he really want to go down that road again? No, he didn't. At least not the way it had happened that day. Malfoy's reaction just now suggested he might want the same thing, but Harry couldn't be sure.
He reached his hand out and when Malfoy took it, Harry hauled him to his feet. "To Hogsmeade."
When he'd suggested they do something about this, Draco had thought he meant something promising. But then his words brought Draco back to reality. Potter was having him on, trying to disorient him, though Draco couldn't imagine why. And now he wanted to go to Hogsmeade?
He took Potter's hand and was promptly hauled to his feet.
They walked in silence to the edge of the castle grounds and stepped onto the path leading to town.
And found themselves standing in the Room of Requirement.
"What the --?" Potter said.
"Well, fuck me."
They tried again and once more found themselves in the Room. They tried the Hogsmeade path, through the forest, over the hills, and each time they reached the edge of the grounds, one more step found them back in the Room.
"What's going on, Malfoy?" Potter asked after the fourth time. "I know you're hiding something."
Draco deflated, knowing this was it. This was the end. He had to tell Potter what he'd done, Potter would hate him forever, and he'd probably have to leave the school. What he would do after that would be anyone's guess.
Sighing, he admitted, "I did this."
Potter crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Draco. "Yeah, I'd worked that much out for myself, thanks. Now tell me what you did."
And Draco told him. Only, instead of getting angry with him, Potter seemed to calm as Draco explained himself.
"You did this for me?"
Draco, dumbfounded by Potter's reaction, merely nodded.
"But why would you do something so stupid?"
Draco's back stiffened. Here it came. "You wouldn't listen to me."
"I told you people wanted you dead, but you wouldn't listen. And Pansy wouldn't listen. And then, after that … that … kiss, you wouldn't talk to me. You just went around the castle with your stupid cloak and could have got yourself killed. You never think anything's going to happen to you and you trust people too easily and you rush in and do stupid things, and you could have died."
"You didn't kiss me back."
"What?" Draco couldn’t believe that was the only thing Potter took from that whole rant.
"You didn't kiss me back, so I thought I'd overstepped and that was the end of whatever friendship we had, so I avoided you."
"Stupid," Draco said, though a voice in his head was screaming that Potter hadn't regretted kissing him, only that Draco hadn't kissed him back.
"I know. I never should have done it."
Wait, what? "That's not what I meant. What was stupid was that you avoided me later and started taking even more chances with your life."
"You mean you aren't mad that I … well, that I kissed you?"
"Focus, Potter!" Honestly, this is what he's worried about right now? "Someone or several someones want you dead. You saved my life. I am bound to save yours."
"Oh, right. You have to save me."
Oh, for fuck's sake. "Yes, I have to save you. We have this bond, you and I. Which explains your sudden desire to kiss me out of the blue."
Potter's eyes widened. "You think …?"
"Of course I do. Why the hell else would you be interested in me? But never mind that. We need to focus on saving you. On solving this."
Potter narrowed his eyes. "So we can get out of this mess."
"You think the Room is keeping us here – or everyone else out – until we solve this?"
"What exactly did you ask the Room for?"
"For a way to keep you safe here until I could figure out how to prevent someone killing you."
"And you didn't think maybe just coming to talk to me might work?"
"Argh!" Draco resisted the urge to shake Potter. "I did come to you and you wouldn't listen!"
"So you enlisted the help of a magical room that had been severely damaged mere months ago, a room that might turn out to be unpredictable?"
"I didn't stop to think," he said honestly. "I was desperate. I just wanted to save you."
"Because of the bond?"
"You realise the whole 'bond' thing is folklore, right?"
"Some believe so. But even folklore is based in fact, Potter."
Besides, as soon as Potter had kissed him, he knew it had to be true. No other explanation made any sense.
More importantly, was it true? Hermione had also said that folklore is based, however loosely, in fact. Was Harry's interest, rather than being based on some growing relationship between them – admittedly, something he'd never have thought possible even a year ago – instead based on some magical bond?
He didn't believe that, but who knew? Probably best to take this all one step at a time.
"Okay, let's figure this out." There would be no more talk of kissing.
As they wandered the castle over the next several days, they confirmed what they already knew and what the map had shown: they were the only ones present. Which meant making their own meals – thankfully the House Elves kept a well-stocked kitchen.
"You can cook?" Malfoy said that first night.
Malfoy dropped his fork at that. "What do you mean, you had to?"
Harry nodded. "At home with my aunt and uncle. They made me cook and clean. They figured it was the least I could do since they took me in and fed me for all those years."
Malfoy had sputtered incredulously at that. "But … but you were a child!"
Suddenly uncomfortable, Harry asked, "Could we drop it, please? I'd rather not relive those days, if you don't mind."
"So the rumours were true. You were treated horribly. I always thought …"
"Again, can we leave it, please?"
"Oh, sure. Sorry."
When he explained that he'd had to cook as a child, Draco recalled articles that outlined all the horrid things he'd had to live with growing up. At the time, Draco figured the articles were nonsense, written to build up the character of the boy hero. But now he wasn't so sure. And Potter didn't want to talk about it. Then again, he supposed Granger and the Weasel knew all about Potter's family. Draco suppressed his jealousy; it wouldn't serve any purpose now.
"This isn't working," he told Potter. They'd spent two days wandering aimlessly, looking for clues to solve the mystery of who wanted Potter dead. "We need a better plan."
Potter snorted. "I didn't know we even had a plan. I just thought we were riffling through stuff until we found something."
"Shut up." He was right, though. "Maybe there's something in the library that could help us."
Potter laughed. "Sure you're not channelling Hermione?"
Draco shuddered. "Perish the thought."
"Hey!" Potter scowled. "She's brilliant, you know."
"Yes, yes, Potter. Granger is brilliant. But that hair! Surely my hair is not that unwieldy."
"Oh. My. God. Did you seriously just say that?"
"What?" Draco ran a hand over his well-coiffed locks. "Her hair is atrocious. And she is capable of bringing it into line, as proven by her appearance at the Yule Ball in fourth year. That girl should take some care." Then he looked at Potter's mop. "You might introduce yours to a comb on occasion, too."
"Piss off." Potter blushed and ran a hand through it, causing even more bits to stand on end. "I try, you know, but it just does whatever it wants. As a kid, whenever my aunt made me get it cut, it just grew back the same way."
"Are you a wizard or not?" Draco asked. "Honestly, capable of saving the wizarding world but defeated by unruly hair."
Looking abashed, Potter said, "When you put it that way, it does sound rather ridiculous."
"As does this conversation. I say we end it now and move on to saving your life."
"And getting out of whatever this is we're stuck in."
Guilt immediately overtook that feeling. "Where do you think everyone else is?"
"I have no idea."
Malfoy pushed aside the tome he was reading. "Really, Potter. I have never heard of such a thing happening, and I don't know what's going on. Everyone might still be at Hogwarts, and we're in some copy of it. Or the other way round. Or … well, I don't know what else."
"You don't think they're in danger, do you? Or worse?"
"No." Malfoy said it so abruptly and so emphatically that Harry believed him. "The Room would never have been granted such power."
Harry thought about the Fiendfyre and what it might have done to the Room. "But –"
Malfoy put up a hand to stop him saying any more. "The Room may be broken, in the sense that its magic now extends beyond the confines of its own space to cover the entire grounds. But the nature of the magic itself hasn't changed. It provided me with what I needed to achieve my goal. As unconventional as its methods are, it's still fundamentally helping, not harming."
Harry nodded, though not entirely convinced. The sooner they solved this problem, the sooner everyone would be back. He hoped.
"What is it? Did you find something to get us out of here?"
"Not quite, Potter. But I did find a detection spell."
"Excuse me if that doesn't sound like much of a big deal."
Ignoring Potter, he went on. "I don't know why I hadn't thought of that to begin with."
"No, I was just blindly looking for something to help, not really knowing what I was looking for."
"So what is this, something like a Sneakoscope?"
"Not exactly." He flipped the page over, reading the details of the spell and its purpose. "A Sneakoscope would only detect something if the person were here – that would have come in handy had I thought about it before everyone was gone."
To his credit, Potter didn't rub that one in. Instead, he asked, "So this spell you've found, what will it detect?"
He turned the book so they could both read it. Potter moved closer – close enough for some of those wayward strands of hair to tickle Draco's cheek. "There." He pointed to the spell and Potter read it.
Draco took the time to watch his features as he did so. He wondered idly if this new fascination with Potter would end once he saved his life and broke the bond. He knew more about Potter now, and appreciated that he was much smarter than Draco had ever given him credit for. He would retain that knowledge, but would that be enough? Would he still be interested? Though he wanted to be free of this magical connection, and to know he was acting of his own volition, a small part of him was saddened by the thought of losing what they had now.
"So this can direct us to anything – an object, a written plan, a potion – associated with the plot to kill me, presuming that there is one?"
"Apparently so. We just need to know the intent and the target and the spell will guide us to people, places or objects."
"It sounds too easy."
Draco agreed. He suspected, though it looked perfect on paper, it might prove to be a bigger challenge in practice. "Where's that Gryffindor 'act now, ask questions later' resolve?"
"I think you're confusing that with Hufflepuff blind optimism."
Draco laughed. "Too true."
Several hours later, potion complete – a clear blue solution that released a calming scent, a mix of mint and a cool winter breeze – and incantation, inflection and wand movement hopefully mastered, Malfoy yanked a piece of Harry's hair out and added it to the mixture.
"Ow." Harry rubbed his head.
"Don't be such a baby."
He watched the hair dissolve slowly in the mixture. "I'm not a baby. It's just that a little warning would have been nice."
Malfoy waved his hand in a dismissive gesture and stirred the solution with his wand.
Nothing happened. They watched for a full five minutes before Malfoy swore and tossed the book and his wand aside.
As they sat brooding on the sofa, saying nothing, a light humming began emanating from a chair. Harry zeroed in on the source. "Your wand!"
Sure enough, Malfoy's wand had begun to glow softly with the same blue hue as the solution. He scooped it up and dragged Harry off the sofa. "Let's go."
As they rounded yet another corner, Malfoy with his wand leading the way, Harry noted that they were heading towards Ravenclaw Tower.
"You know Potter, this is just what you've always wanted: to be able to sneak around the castle and never get caught." He turned round and grinned. Then he frowned. "Oh, no, wait. You already did get away with that."
"Piss off," Harry said, but laughed while he did. He'd noticed, having now spent some time with Malfoy, that he had a wry sense of humour. He still could be nasty at times, but he wasn't evil like Voldemort or cruel like his father. He just didn't hold back much where others might have. Harry kind of liked that about him.
He was finding it increasingly difficult to be around Potter and not … well. He'd blown everything when he'd not responded to that kiss, but then that look Potter had given him earlier, the lick of his lips, and the promise of another? It had been a close one that time. Thank goodness Potter had jumped to his feet at that moment, as Draco had been about to do something colossally stupid.
Not that Draco didn't want … something. But this tie between them complicated things. He wanted rid of it. At first he'd wanted rid of it to be free of Potter. Now he just wanted to do away with it so he could know for sure that what he felt and did, and what Potter felt and did, was of their own free will. None of this magical bullshit in the background.
Not that he'd mind a fleeting thing with Potter, but he needed to know that's what it was before acting. And would Potter want something like that? Probably not. And if he didn't, and they did, that would be the end of whatever it was they did currently have. Not that he could say what that was exactly. It might be nothing at all. It might all be because of this stupid life debt. His head hurt thinking about it.
His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of the door to Ravenclaw Tower. He'd known that's where they'd been heading, but it still surprised him to imagine the would-be killer of Potter coming from Ravenclaw. After all, they were supposed to be smart. Who in their right mind would want to kill him?
"You have to knock once," Potter said, motioning to an eagle head knocker on the door. "Then it will ask you a question."
Potter nodded. "And you have to get it right or wait for the next person to come along."
"How do you know – never mind. You wouldn't happen to know the answer, would you?"
Potter shrugged. "The eagle hasn't asked the question yet."
"Ravenclaw Tower is entered by answering a riddle. It's different every time. If you don't know the answer, you wait and then you learn from the next person."
"Good thing neither of us is in Ravenclaw, then."
Draco looked at the knocker, then back at Potter. "Not such a good thing right now."
"Er … right."
Draco reached for the knocker and banged it once against the door. At once, the eagle's beak opened and a soft voice asked, "Why should I grant you entry?"
Draco whirled on Potter. "I thought you said it was a riddle!"
"I don't know." Potter waved his arms. "Luna said it asks a riddle every time. When I was here, that's what it did. How am I supposed to know it's going to change its game plan?"
Draco shushed Potter so he could think. "Is there a time limit?"
He thought about what Potter had said, and suddenly it came to him. "So we may learn."
The eagle seemed to consider this for a few moments then opened the door.
"Not just a pretty face, then."
It took a moment for Draco to register Potter's words. "Handsome," he corrected.
"I have a handsome face, Potter, not a pretty one."
Potter tilted his head first one way then the other, squinting his eyes and examining Draco's face. "More pointy than anything, if you ask me, but we'll go with handsome."
Draco smacked him in response.
The wand led them to a book tucked away on a shelf near the tallest window. Draco Accioed it down and mumbled a few more words to his wand. When it didn't respond, he turned to Potter. "Right, let's take this back to the Room."
"What if there's something else here?"
"There isn't. The wand found nothing beyond this book."
Potter hesitated, then nodded and led the way out without further argument.
"Here we go," Malfoy said at length. He'd been turning pages and scanning the contents of the book for a while now. Harry had given him some distance, since he knew Hermione hated it when he watched over her shoulder. "It's a handwritten note attached to one of the pages."
Harry leaned over to look at the note. "MPP 283. What does that mean?"
"My best guess is that it's a reference to another book, maybe a page number."
Harry groaned. "Great. It's like a treasure hunt. Such fun."
"I thought you liked doing shit like this. Didn't you start in your first year with the Philosopher's Stone? Or do you only like saving other people instead of yourself?"
Harry knew he was irritable. It's just that he was getting more frustrated by the day. Never mind that, by the hour. He didn't know whether the draw he felt to Malfoy was because of the life debt business. He thought Malfoy felt the same thing, but there was no way to be sure. He just wanted this whole thing over with.
Another part of him wanted to stretch things out. Make it last. Because he didn't know what would happen if the only thing causing them to get along was some invisible magical force messing with their minds.
"Moste Potente Potions!" Malfoy announced. "Let's go to the library."
"That one's in the Restricted Section," Harry said without thinking.
Malfoy stood gaping at Harry. "All your years of rule-breaking and what, you've suddenly grown a conscience? There's no one here to stop you getting a restricted book, remember?"
"Oh, right. Sorry." Feeling like an idiot, he followed Malfoy back to the library.
"There is no known cure for this poison, though a Bezoar will slow its progress, buying the victim a few more days of life," he read aloud.
Potter's face paled. "They really were planning to kill me."
"You mean they are planning to kill you, Potter. Keep up. What did you think, I made it all up to get attention?" Potter didn't reply. "Oh, my god, you did!"
Potter put up his hands. "No, no. Ron thought that, remember? I told him --"
"What did you tell him?"
"You heard what I told him, that you'd changed." Potter shuffled his feet and did not make eye contact. "And before that, I told him I thought your days of attention-seeking were over."
Draco wanted to argue, but what could he say? Potter was right. Instead, he just said, "Why won't anyone listen to me?"
"I will from now on. No arguments."
Draco rolled his eyes. "Let's not get completely carried away. You not arguing with me seems a near impossibility."
"I'm amusing like that."
"Yeah, I've noticed that about you lately."
"Oh, really?" Draco raised a brow. "And what else have you noticed about me lately?"
Potter turned red and looked away again. "That you're still a pain in the arse."
"I don't know. Same answer I gave you last time you asked: because we haven't figured out a way to stop it yet?"
"That's rather hard when the person isn't here. How can the Room expect us to stop them if they aren't here to stop? What does it want from us?"
"Maybe we need to come up with a way for them not to get to me?" Harry asked hopefully.
"I wish I could go to the Manor. The library there is bound to have something to work with."
"Can't you just wish for some solution here?"
Malfoy tossed aside the tome he'd been reading and it thudded loudly on the table. "No!"
"It's like sixth year all over again." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he paled and looked away.
"What do you mean?"
"We both know what happened then. There's nothing to hide."
He glared at Harry. "Perhaps I just don't want to relive it."
Harry put his hands up to show he didn't mean to fight. "I'm not asking you to."
Malfoy's expression softened slightly. "It's just … I knew they were in danger, my parents, and the Room didn't help me then. And now it's happening all over again."
Harry put a hand on his shoulder. "But this time we're not dealing with Voldemort. This is some kid from Ravenclaw who – for some reason – has a beef against me. Even if we can't figure out a solution, there's no guarantee their plan would work anyway. They'd still have to get the poison to me and now I'm prepared for it."
Malfoy considered what he said and nodded. Then the relief on his face – so fleeting – vanished. "Only now I've managed to screw things up in a whole new way."
"My request was too specific. Not only must I figure out what the plot is, but I have to be able to save you."
Harry swooned, then deadpanned, "My hero."
Malfoy ignored him. "Now we have to find the solution or be stuck here, alone, together. Possibly forever."
"Gee thanks. I didn't realise I was such shoddy company."
Malfoy smacked him. "Piss off. You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do." Harry looked around for some sign, some indication that something in this room could help them. He ran his hands through his hair in frustration.
"You know you look like a porcupine when you do that."
"Thanks. That's just the look I was after."
They sat in silence for a good twenty minutes, both alternately gazing around the room and staring into space, before Harry spoke. "You know what we need?"
Malfoy didn't look up. "What?"
Malfoy did look up at that. "What did you have in mind? What with there being no one else here?"
Harry raised a brow. "Scared, Malfoy?"
"More like intrigued."
"C'mon." He grabbed Malfoy by the wrist and dragged him back to the Room of Requirement. He paced back and forth, focusing on his absolute need at this moment. When he walked through the door, he smiled.
"Yep. Ogden's finest."
"Why did you do it?" Harry asked some time later, trying unsuccessfully not to slur his words. They'd polished off a good portion of the bottle over the past hour.
"Do what?" Malfoy blinked as though trying to focus.
"Try to save me."
Malfoy fidgeted in his seat looking distinctly uncomfortable. "Hello? Life debt. I want it gone."
Harry shook his head. "No, I don't buy that." He took another swig. This stuff was really good. "I already told you I don't expect anything. You owe me nothing."
Rather than getting angry like the last time Harry had said that, Malfoy sighed and swirled the amber liquid around in his glass. "It doesn't work that way. And I just … well, I don't want this looming over my head for the rest of my life."
Harry frowned. He was honestly perplexed. "But it's not like you'd feel some sort of draw towards me, some need to make sure I'm okay."
"I already do," Malfoy mumbled into his glass.
Harry tried to process what Malfoy had just said, but his addled brain told him he must have misheard. "Hermione said the literature on life debts is rather sketchy at best. It started as an honour thing, sort of a promise one made to the person that saved him. Then somewhere along the way, some guy was asked to prove his intent by adding a bonding spell of sorts as a pledge to protect the other. Then it became common practice for a time. Even after that fell out of favour, the idea that one would be drawn to the other was passed down through stories, but there doesn't seem to be any definitive documentation that a life debt is ever actually created without the extra bonding spell."
Malfoy raised a brow. "Definitive documentation?"
Harry cleared his throat. "Hermione's words."
"That doesn't explain …" Malfoy's thoughts seemed to drift away with his words.
"Doesn't explain what?"
"Never mind." He shook his head as though to shake the thoughts away.
He watched Potter playing with a Snitch he'd nicked from the Quidditch shed while they'd wandered the grounds the other day. He released it, let it get nearly out of reach, then snatched it back. The last time, his shirt rode up revealing toned abs that Draco wanted to touch.
This was too much. He needed to stop drinking, now, before he did something stupid.
Apparently his body had other ideas, because he found himself crossing the room, coming to a stop in front of Potter. Then he reached down and tucked a particularly annoying lock of hair behind Potter's ear.
For some reason, he hadn't yet pulled back his hand. Even as Potter looked up, then stood up, Draco's hand remained on that bit of hair. "Everything okay?" Potter asked.
"Fine," Draco answered lamely. "That tuft's been driving me nuts for an hour."
Potter's mouth split into a grin and his tongue darted out for just a second. "Has it now?
Draco nodded, eyes transfixed on Potter's mouth. "Mm hmm."
And then he kissed Potter. It was inevitable, really. In fact, as their bodies drew closer, melding into one, and his hands cupped Potter's face, he couldn't for the life of him remember why he'd been resisting.
Potter responded and this was definitely more like how Draco had imagined their first proper kiss could be. Better, in fact.
Potter's porcupine hair was softer than Draco could have imagined, and he ran his fingers through it, knowing he may never have another opportunity. The voice in the back of his head, the one that told him to tread carefully, could fuck right off, thank you very much.
He wanted to devour Potter. And based on his enthusiastic response, Potter wanted to do the same to him.
Before he knew it, he'd backed Potter up to a sofa and they collapsed onto it. They laughed as their mouths broke apart, and then Draco found himself looking down into Potter's green eyes that looked close to black right now. Potter rolled his hips up against Draco's and he groaned. Potter's hands brushed Draco's hair back and he asked, "Are you sure?"
Fuck, yes, he was sure. "I've never been surer of anything in my life," Draco said. He might not be sure tomorrow, but right now he wanted Potter. He'd wanted him for so long, he couldn't remember when he hadn't. He knew there had been a time – they'd met as children, after all. But when it had all changed, he couldn't say. And right now, as Potter drew him in for another kiss, he didn't much care.
He rolled his hips and felt Malfoy's hard length press against his own. Then he heard Malfoy's groan and he swallowed. "Are you sure?" he asked. He needed to know, needed to hear the words. He'd imagined this moment a thousand times before, but that last time, when Draco hadn't responded ... He needed to know that he wanted this as much as Harry did.
When Malfoy said, "I've never been surer of anything in my life," Harry lost all control. He pulled Malfoy down into a crushing kiss. Easing up a bit – no need to attack him, after all – he eased his tongue past Malfoy's willing lips and explored. His hands did the same, deftly slipping beneath the waist of Malfoy's pants and grabbing his arse – and what a fine arse it was – pulling him closer and pressing their erections together once more. This time Harry moaned and he felt Malfoy smile against his lips.
"You like that, Potter?"
"Then let's try it without these pesky clothes between us, yeah?"
"Mm. Definitely." That was the most brilliant idea ever.
When they'd shed their pants – they didn't waste time ridding themselves of their shirts – and come together again, Harry said, "Best idea you've ever had."
Malfoy chuckled. "Oh, I've got a whole lot more where that came from."
"Mm, sounds good to me."
Malfoy didn't need any more encouragement. He reached down and wrapped his hand around both their lengths and began stroking.
"Fuck." If that wasn't the best feeling ever, Harry didn't know what was.
"Not tonight," Malfoy said. "But someday. If you want."
"Mm. I definitely want."
Harry wrapped his own hand around Draco's and they brought each other to climax, first Harry, then Draco not far behind. The last thing Harry remembered Draco saying before he drifted off was, "I hope so."
When Harry awoke, it was still dark and the two of them lay entwined on the sofa in the library. Malfoy had evidently cleaned up their mess and covered them with a blanket.
They lay together for some time, Harry watching Malfoy sleep, before he reluctantly nudged him awake. "We should go back to the Room."
"Like it here," Malfoy grumbled before nuzzling in closer.
Harry chuckled. "I never would have taken you for a cuddler."
That got him. "I am not a cuddler. I was just warm. And you disturbed me."
Harry brushed the hair back from Draco's forehead with a smile. "If you say so. But we should still make our way back to the Room."
"Have the others returned?"
"I don't know. I didn't hear anything, but I wasn't about to go check like this."
Malfoy looked down the length of their bodies, then rubbed against Harry in a very tempting way. "No?"
"No. I don't fancy anyone catching us this way, do you?"
Malfoy looked put out but then shook his head. "I suppose not."
They got back to the Room, encountering no one else along the way, and Harry stopped Malfoy from conjuring the space. "Let me," he said. He paced back and forth, then opened the door to reveal an opulent bedroom.
"I'm impressed," Malfoy said, and they both climbed into the luxurious bed before them.
Just before he drifted off, Malfoy whispered, "I think I may keep you, Potter."
"Oh, really?" Harry smiled, though Malfoy couldn't see with his head resting on Harry's chest. Definitely not cuddling him.
"Mm hmm. I might have to put some sort of spell on you, though. Something to alert me when someone with nefarious purpose is trying to get to you."
"Will you now?"
"Mm. Can't have anyone trying to take you away from me."
Harry laughed. He rather liked the sound of that.
"They're back?" Draco asked.
"Seems like it."
Draco looked back at the Room. "We weren't dreaming."
Though a bit fuzzy on a few of the details just before falling asleep, Draco definitely remembered what they'd done in the library. And they'd slept together all night. Nothing more, just sleep, but he'd awakened feeling more refreshed that he had in months. Strong arms surrounding him evidently did something for Draco.
As they made their way through the castle, no one was giving any indication that anything was or had been amiss. In fact, it quickly became apparent, through listening to several people's conversations, that no time had passed for the others at all.
"Does that mean we were the ones taken away?" Potter asked.
"Do you think the Room just needed to reset overnight or something?"
"I haven't a clue. It was either that or …"
Potter smiled and whispered into Draco's ear, "Or it liked the idea of you casting a spell on me to keep me all to yourself."
Draco groaned. Had he really said that? He'd rather hoped his addled brain had concocted that in a dream or something. "Shut up or I will cast a spell on you."
Potter held out his arms. "As you wish."
Draco spun his head around to see who might be looking. "Someone might hear you, you know."
Potter chuckled. "Relax, no one knows what's going on."
Just then, Draco's wand started to hum and glow blue. He pulled it out and it drew Draco's gaze over Potter’s left shoulder, where a tall, brown-haired boy in Ravenclaw robes with a sneer on his face and some sort of container in his hand was glaring at them and tensing up to throw it. Without thinking, he took aim and cast a protective charm around Potter, then aimed the wand at his would-be attacker, stunning him.
It was all over in a heartbeat, but there in the Ravenclaw boy's gloved hand, rested a ball that Draco would bet contained a certain antidote-free poison. He must have had it with him when the Room had done whatever it did, so they hadn't found it during their search.
Potter quickly sent a message to the Headmistress and, upon her arrival accompanied by several of the teachers, she directed Slughorn to run tests on the concoction.
Sure enough, for reasons of his own, the boy had planned to toss the canister at Potter, then leave the scene. The poison's delayed effects wouldn't kick in for hours and by then, he had hoped to have either fled the school or been well enough hidden to not be suspected.
Thanks to Draco and his Seeker reflexes, however, Potter lived to see another day.
And, if he was not mistaken, his life debt was now paid in full.
Something prevented him from telling Pansy or anyone else what had transpired in the 'other' Hogwarts. At least for the time being. It was enough that he'd spotted someone looking suspicious and had acted. No one seemed to require any additional information, since he'd already been saying someone was after Potter.
McGonagall wasn't pleased that he hadn't gone to a Professor about it, but the gods were appeased, he was now free, and so was Potter.
The boy would remain at St. Mungo's indefinitely, in the secure ward for criminals. His fate was yet to be determined, but it didn't look good.
Meanwhile, Harry had chosen not to share what had happened with anyone else. He probably should, given the Room's extra power. But for now, he wanted to keep it between the two of them. At least until they talked about it. If they ever talked again.
Perhaps it was true. Maybe the life debt had caused some feelings to develop that weren't sustainable once that bond had been broken. That didn't explain Harry's continued desire to see Malfoy, though. It also hadn't stopped his dreams, now based on a lot more than simple imagination.
Every night since, the last voice Harry heard as he drifted off to sleep was Malfoy's, telling him that he had all sorts of good ideas. And every day they avoided each other, and Harry became more miserable.
Nearly a week later, Ginny plunked herself down on the sofa in the Common Room next to Harry. "You're a Gryffindor, aren't you?" she said without preamble.
He looked around the Common Room, then at his Gryffindor robes, then back to her. "Obviously."
"Then for the love of Merlin, would you just go after him already?"
"You want him, right?" Harry nodded, seeing no point in fighting it. "Then go tell him so. And stop moping. Even Ron would rather have you with Malfoy than brooding all the time."
He choked out a laugh. "I seriously doubt that."
She shrugged. "He told me about the Wall of Honour, that Malfoy paid for it. He's been trying to wrap his head around how someone like Malfoy could do something like that and then not claim the accolades for it."
She nodded. "There's also that thing he did – saving your life and all that. It's not like anyone could say he's totally bad for you." She winked at him. "Not anymore."
With the help of the Marauder's Map, Harry had no trouble finding Malfoy pretty quickly.
"Oi, Malfoy! Care to share some of those great ideas you have in that head of yours?"
Draco smiled, and Harry could tell by the look in his eyes, he was going through a few of those ideas in his mind already. "Don't mind if I do."
And then, in front of everyone, Harry marched up to Malfoy, took him in his arms and kissed him. And this time, he kissed back.
~ FIN ~