All the Answers by Maxine Summary Finding himself saddled with Draco Malfoy is just about the last

thing Harry expected to happen this year. Too bad ignoring the git is something he’s never been able to do. Horcruxes, war, and teenage hormones – no one ever said this would be easy! 7th year fic. Harry/Draco main pairing...eventually. Notes This is a post-HBP 7th year fic that is not compliant with Deathly Hallows /at all/. The first 16 chapters were written before that book even came out! Starts out slightly Harry/Ginny but doesn't stay that way for long. Mentions of past Draco/Pansy. Enjoy! Thoughts are always appreciated! Chapter 1 He hadn’t intended to dance with Ginny. He really hadn’t. Honestly. She’d been trying to corner him for at least five songs now, though, and

Harry figured it would probably be considered quite rude if he turned her down after she had finally managed to catch him. And he’d already danced with Hermione, hadn’t he? Fleur as well, and her younger sister, Gabrielle. Even Mrs. Weasley had managed to drag him out of his seat and onto the floor for one of Celestina Warbeck’s numbers. So, because he didn’t want to be perceived as ill-mannered, here he was, clumsily twirling Ginny around the dance floor and wishing he didn’t miss the way her smaller body fit snuggly against his own when he pulled her back towards himself. It also would have been nice if her hair didn’t smell so good that he was tempted to bury his nose in it when Ginny leaned her head against his shoulder like that. And really, did she have to look so damn gorgeous tonight? Harry was positive she was stealing the spotlight from Fleur, and it was Fleur’s wedding, after all. Plus, she was giving some of those Delacour boys the wrong idea… “–and then there was that time that those Death Eaters used giant pink elephants to stomp around outside of our house in hopes that the ensuing earthquake would wipe out everything for miles.” Harry blinked and looked down into Ginny’s amused eyes. “Sorry,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “Were you trying to talk to me?”

“Trying would definitely be the appropriate word there,” Ginny replied with a roll of her eyes. “What were you thinking about?” She pressed herself flush against Harry as they spun a little too close to another couple, and Harry’s breath hitched. “Nothing in particular,” he said, tightening his arms around her waist. Ginny looked up at him again, and suddenly her eyes were much too close. “Harry…” she murmured, and Harry quickly squeezed his eyes shut and looked away. “Ginny, don’t–” he began to say, warningly. “What?” Ginny snapped, familiar irritation creeping into her voice. “Ginny don’t /what?/” “Don’t do this,” Harry said tiredly. “And what is /this/?” “Don’t start this again, I’ve already told you–” “Oh, I know what you already told me,” Ginny said irritably. She sighed, and then said in a gentler tone, “I just don’t understand…” “You said you did,” Harry reminded her, starting to get a little annoyed himself. “You said you were alright with it.” “I did not! I never said I was /alright/ with it. If I remember correctly, I pretty much remained silent while you ran

away!” “I didn’t run away!” Harry exclaimed. “The conversation was over, so I…I left, yeah, but I didn’t /run away/. It’s not like you had much else to say.” “I was still letting it sink in,” Ginny said angrily, her cheeks beginning to flush a light pink. “You said you’d known it was coming!” “Well…I mean, yes, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to fight you about it!” With an agitated sigh, Harry took Ginny’s hand and began leading her off the dance floor, away from the curious eyes that were now staring at them. “Why can’t we still be together?” Ginny asked once they were seated at a table tucked away in the corner. “Do you really think YouKnow-Who’s going to come after me? That’s ridiculous, we’ll be at Hogwarts and–” “Yeah, a Hogwarts that no longer has Dumbledore there to protect it,” Harry snapped. He glanced away for a second, fighting down the boiling hatred and remorse that seemed to erupt within him every time he accidentally thought of Dumbledore or, subsequently, Snape. “And anyway, that’s not the point,” he said after a moment. “I’m not going back to

Hogwarts, I’ve already told you that.” “…I didn’t know you were being serious,” Ginny said quietly, looking slightly surprised. “You’ve only talked to me about two times since you got here, I thought you just said that because…because of… you know, Dumbledore being gone… What do you mean you’re /not going back/?!” she suddenly exploded. “You can’t just not go back to school! It’s your last year, you have to take your N.E.W.T.s and–” “Fred and George never took theirs,” Harry pointed out. Ginny laughed harshly. “Yes, well, Fred and George have never really put much stock in school, have they? You…you wanted to be an Auror, didn’t you?” Harry sighed deeply, looking away from Ginny. “This is just something I have to do. It’s something Dumbledore wanted me to do…” They were silent for a moment, before Ginny spoke again. “Well…did you have to break up with me, then? Couldn’t we have had the summer together, at least?” “There isn’t a summer for us to have,” Harry said as he rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses. “I’m going back to the Dursleys’ tomorrow for the rest of the month, and as soon as I turn seventeen…I’m leaving. I’m…Ginny, I’m sorry. I told you it was like living in a dream,

being with you. But…it’s time to wake up.” Ginny looked miserable, which in turn made Harry feel miserable. He wished she’d never started this conversation; they were doing just fine with the dancing until she’d started talking. And now she looked like she was about to cry, which would just be /horrible/… “Can you give me today, then?” Ginny said softly, looking pleadingly at Harry. “Just today. Or right now, at least. Can I have right now? Can I kiss you one last time? You didn’t even let me do that at the funeral…” Harry looked at her. His gaze traced over her features, darting from her eyes to her mouth and back again, and he swallowed somewhat nervously. “Yeah, alright,” he found himself saying before the words had even registered in his mind. Ginny gave him a brief smile, and then she was in his lap and her mouth was on his and /Merlin/, did it feel good. God, he’d missed this, and it had only been a few weeks since he’d last kissed her. How could he possibly survive the rest of the year? Horcruxes weren’t that important, surely. Harry could go back to school, no problem. Maybe the whole Voldemort issue would just resolve itself if left alone for awhile… Someone cleared their throat from nearby, and Harry tore

himself away from Ginny, wondering absently how his hands had ended up buried in her hair, and looked up at Hermione. With a rush of embarrassment, Harry realized that his friend had caught him snogging his exgirlfriend in very a public place where, God forbid, even Ginny’s /mother/ could have seen them. He fervently hoped that wasn’t the case. “Er – Hermione – This…it’s not–” He stopped himself before he could stutter anything else, because really, it wasn’t like he had to explain himself to Hermione, of all people. “I just thought you two would like to know that Fleur’s about to toss the bouquet,” Hermione said, grinning. “If you want a chance at catching it, Ginny, you’d better get over there.” Ginny returned Hermione’s grin, and then, giving one last quick kiss to Harry, she stood and smoothed down her dress. “You’ll come back to me when this is all over, right, Harry?” she asked, looking imploringly at him. “Yeah,” Harry found himself saying breathlessly. “Of course.” She gave him a brilliant smile before turning to leave. Harry watched her as she walked off, and then gave Hermione a dirty look when she laughed at him. “Shouldn’t you be over there, as well?” he said, slightly annoyed.

“Right, right,” Hermione replied, still smiling, before she turned to follow Ginny toward the growing crowd of girls. *** Harry left the Burrow early the next morning. He’d discussed his plans with Ron and Hermione late the night before, and though they’d been against him going back to the Dursleys’ alone, he insisted that they both spend the remainder of the month with their families. After a brief argument, they’d decided that they would meet up with Harry on the 29th so that at least he wouldn’t be spending his birthday alone. Now hours later, Harry gently let the front door shut behind him. He hadn’t mentioned that he wanted to leave early, but it was easier this way. No one else in the house was awake yet, so he’d be able to go without anyone trying to stop him. Or rather, he’d be able to go without /Ginny/ trying to stop him. And actually, if he was being completely honest with himself, it wasn’t so much that she would be a problem, but that Harry didn’t think he’d be able to walk away from her again. He already sorely regretting kissing her, because that brought back memories that he’d been trying too hard to move past. He’d only just recently managed to stop

dreaming about her, for one thing, and the last thing he needed was for that to start up again. With an agitated sigh and a quick shake of his head to clear it, Harry deftly spun and with a crack disappeared from the Weasleys’ lawn. He reappeared outside the gates of Hogwarts, glad to find himself all in one piece. Obviously he still had a few weeks to go before he could try for his Apparating license, but he was confident enough with his abilities now that he wasn’t worried about splinching himself. Harry cast a quick look around before heading up the worn path to Hogwarts. Technically he wasn’t supposed to be here; he’d told everyone he was going directly back to the Dursleys’, and he while he was going to eventually, he had a quick stop to make first. Dumbledore’s tomb stood gleaming in the sun around the opposite side of the lake. Harry made his way towards it slowly, almost cautiously, as if he was afraid that some sort of alarm would go off once he got too close to it. But nothing of the kind happened, and soon he was standing beside it, trying awkwardly to form words, but unsure exactly of what he wanted to say. “I wish you were still here, Professor,” he murmured

eventually, sliding down to sit in the grass at the foot of the grave. He leaned back against the cool marble and sighed deeply. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do – well, yes I do, but I’ve no idea where to /start/. And Ron and Hermione want to help, but I’m only going to put them in danger. They’re stubborn, though. They’ll come with me no matter how much I don’t want them to.” A gentle breeze blew by, ruffling Harry’s hair, and he closed his eyes and tilted his head back to enjoy it. “I need help, Professor. But I don’t know who to go to. You said I shouldn’t tell anyone else, and I haven’t – I won’t – but it’s so frustrating. Especially now, being stuck at Privet Drive and not being able to do anything. I’ve got a few books from Hermione, but I don’t know what good I’ll be able to do. Got a few weeks still till I’m seventeen, so no magic, anyway.” He sighed again, banging his head back against the marble. “God, I wish you were still here. I wish you hadn’t protected me up on the tower. I wish I could have…could have saved you…” Harry had thought it was going to be hard coming back to visit Dumbledore’s grave. He hadn’t seen it since the day of the funeral, after all. It was surprisingly easy, though, to sit here and talk to him

like he was suddenly going to pop up and provide an answer. He stayed there for a little longer, just enjoying the summer warmth, but eventually he figured he needed to get back to the Dursleys’, as unappealing as the thought was. Harry stood, brushing off his trousers absently, and turned back toward the path. He was halfway there when he decided that since he was here, he might as well go visit Hagrid (despite the fact that he’d just seen him the day before at Bill’s wedding). Hagrid’s hut looked only marginally better than it had the night the Death Eaters had invaded Hogwarts. Most of the back half was still charred, and much of the roof hadn’t been replaced yet. In its place was a sort of makeshift tarp that Harry assumed was mostly held up by magic. It almost hurt to look at, as it only brought around painful memories from that night. Harry quickly jogged up to the front stoop, but when he knocked on the front door there was no answer. Harry couldn’t even hear Fang’s barking from inside. Odd, that. Still, it would be rude to just leave now without even saying ‘hello’, so Harry sat down on the wooden steps leading up to the door to wait.

“I’m not stalling or anything,” he mumbled to himself, lying down on his back and resting his feet on the floorboard so that his knees were propped up. “Just going to wait till Hagrid gets back, that’s all.” He scooped up a random rock from the dirt near him, and began tossing it up aimlessly, only to snatch it out of the air again once it fell halfway back down. “Kind of like my dad with that snitch,” he said aloud, snickering. Of course, thinking about that particular memory of his father only brought thoughts of Snape around. Harry frowned, catching the rock again and holding it in the air above him. “Bastard,” he muttered, imagining that the rock was Snape’s face and he was crushing him in his hand. The sudden sounds of lumbering footsteps coming out of the forest had Harry sitting up abruptly and whipping around to face the newcomer. He couldn’t stop the grin that split across his face. “Hagrid!” he called, waving at his friend when he appeared at the forest’s edge, dragging something behind him and Fang running around at his feet. Hagrid paused. “Harry,” he boomed. “What’re yeh doin’ here? I though’ yeh were stayin’ at the Weasleys’.”

“I was,” Harry replied, hopping down the steps. “I’m supposed to be going back to the Dursleys’ today, but I took a little detour – Hagrid.” Harry stopped abruptly, having just noticed that whatever Hagrid had been pulling along behind him had gone suddenly still. “What’s that?” “What’s what? Oh.” And he turned, yanking one completely dirty and unkempt Draco Malfoy out into the open. “/Malfoy?/” Harry cried, mouth gaping open, and was promptly greeted with a sneer. “Found ‘im in the forest,” Hagrid said, his great first still wrapped around the entire length of Malfoy’s arm. “He was wanderin’ close to ol’ Aragog’s lair, an’ like I told yeh, they don’ take too kindly ter me anymore. He’s lucky I happened to see ‘im, ter be honest. Wouldn’ tell me what ‘e was doin’ back there, though.” Harry stepped forward some more, his jaw snapping shut with an audible click and his mind whirling. “I thought you were with Snape,” he said in a low voice, almost forgetting that Hagrid was even there and talking to Malfoy like they were alone. Malfoy actually laughed at him. “Snape?” he repeated, his voice slightly hoarse, like he hadn’t used it in some time. “Why the fuck would I be with /him/?”

“But – I thought – he told you to run. I thought that meant run somewhere where he was going to meet up with you.” “It probably did,” Malfoy grunted, tugging at his arm in an effort to get it free. It was a useless battle, though, because Hagrid’s grip only tightened. Malfoy winced. “But I’m not so stupid that I was actually going to go with him,” he continued. “Why not?” “Because – bloody hell, it’s not really any of your business, is it, Potter? /Ow/, and for fuck’s sake, would you let go of me, you great oaf?!” Malfoy spat at Hagrid. “You’re going to crush all the bones in my arm!” “Wouldn’t be anythin’ less ‘en yeh deserve,” Hagrid muttered darkly. “No, Hagrid, it’s fine,” Harry said, pulling out his wand. “You’re not of age yet, you can’t use that,” Malfoy sneered. “I’m not going back to school anyway, they can expel me for all I care,” Harry said flatly. “Hagrid, let him go.” Hagrid looked doubtful, but released him anyway. “No funny business outta yeh.” Malfoy yanked his arm to his chest, rubbing at it, and peered

at Harry. “What do you mean you’re not going back?” he asked sharply. “What, Dumbledore’s dead, so suddenly it’s all useless? Afraid you won’t be teacher’s pet anymore?” “Shut up, Malfoy.” Harry paused for a moment, finally taking in the boy’s appearance. His clothes were torn and stained with mud. His hair was in total disarray, and he was even thinner than he’d been when Harry had last seen him. His skin still had that grayish tint to it. He looked absolutely terrible. “Have you been in the Forbidden Forest since you first ran off?” Harry asked, eyes going a little wide. Malfoy looked as if he would have liked to retort, but Harry jabbed his wand at his chest and instead he huffed, shifting his gaze off to the side for a moment before replying with a sullen, “/Yes/. And it’s not like it’s been that long. Can’t have been more than a month, at most.” “Well yeah, but still…” Harry gestured fruitlessly at Malfoy’s appearance. “Have you even eaten anything since then?” “Some,” Malfoy said shortly. “What’s it to you?” Harry arched his eyebrows. “It’s a bit pathetic, is all. I don’t understand why you didn’t go with Snape.” “Because I–” Malfoy cut himself off abruptly, jaw clenching

as he glared at Harry. When the other boy showed no signs of letting this line of questioning drop, Malfoy muttered something under his breath and then finally said in a louder voice, “Because I /failed/, Potter, alright? I was given a task to… Well, it doesn’t matter now. I wasn’t able to do it, and you don’t go back to the Dark Lord after failing him.” “A task to kill Dumbledore?” Malfoy’s eyes went wide, and what little color was left in his face faded. “Guess all your following me around last year paid off, then, didn’t it?” he asked faintly, swallowing nervously. Harry shook his head. “You asked why there were two broomsticks on the tower that night,” he said slowly, and then shrugged, watching as Malfoy’s eyes went even wider. “There’s your answer.” There was silence for a moment as Malfoy’s mouth opened and closed several times, as if he was searching for something to say. He only managed a choked-sounding, “But–” before Harry interrupted. “I can take it from here, Hagrid.” “Wha?” Hagrid blinked, clearly startled. “Take it from ‘ere… But I was goin’ ter take ‘im up ter Professor McGonagall, an’ see what she wanted

ter do with ‘im.” Harry looked at him sharply. “No, Hagrid, it’s fine, really. Don’t…don’t tell her he was here. I can handle him.” “/Handle/ – I’m not a piece of /meat/, Potter!” Malfoy spluttered angrily, but he was ignored. “Harry, are yeh sure? He’s up ter no good, I’ve known it ever since he tried ter get ol’ Buckbeack done in–” “Hagrid, really, it’s /fine/,” Harry said, slight irritation evident in his voice. Hagrid frowned. “Alrigh’ then,” he murmured, stepping back. “Yeh’ll be wantin’ his wand, I s’ppose.” He pulled it out of one his pockets and handed it over to Harry, Malfoy watching closely the entire time. “You didn’t break it, did you?” he said, sneering. Harry examined the wand closely. “Looks fine to me.” He tucked it away in his robes, and glanced back up at Hagrid. “Yeh should get on yer way, Harry. People’ll be wonderin’ what happened to yeh.” “Right. Thanks, Hagrid. Don’t tell anyone he was here.” Hagrid waved his hand absently. “Sure, sure. I’ll be seein’ yeh, then.”

He clomped up the stairs to his hut, Fang following. Harry waited until the door shut behind them, and then he turned back to Malfoy. “What’s the big idea, Potter?” Malfoy spat, eying Harry’s wand somewhat warily. “Wanted to turn me in yourself?” “I’m not turning you in,” Harry replied, grabbing hold of Malfoy’s cloak and yanking him along toward the gates. “I’m taking you back to…well, to where I’m staying at the moment.” “And who says I’m going with you?” Malfoy said angrily as he stumbled along behind Harry. He dug the heels of his feet into the ground, forcing Harry to stop, and glared at him when he turned around. “I do,” Harry said simply, hand tightening over Malfoy’s shoulder. “Unless you don’t want your wand back.” They glared each other down for a few seconds, and then Harry sighed. “I still don’t get why you didn’t just go with Snape. Oh, wait – is this about you thinking he wanted all the /glory/ or whatever for himself?” There was a pause, before Malfoy said slowly, almost appraisingly, “You cottoned on to a lot more than I thought you had, Potter. I’d congratulate you, but frankly I don’t think you need all that extra ego-boosting going to your head.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “So that’s it, then?” “Yes,” Malfoy replied, eyes narrowing a bit. “My aunt warned me about him. Said Snape would do his best to make it seem like he was on my side, and then turn on me in the end.” “Bellatrix?” Harry said sharply. “What?” “Your Aunt Bellatrix, that aunt?” “…Yes.” “She’s crazy, you know that, right?” “Well, yes, obviously. She was locked up in Azkaban for fourteen years, you know. It happens.” “She deserved every second of time she spent there and more,” Harry spat, releasing Malfoy’s shoulder as his hands closed into fists in memory of old wounds that were, even more than a year later, still sore. Malfoy peered at him, brow furrowed, and then continued, “Well, anyway, she told me not to trust him, and even though I didn’t he still managed to fuck me over in the end.” “He killed Dumbledore for you.” “Exactly,” Malfoy said in a low tone.

Harry arched an eyebrow. “One would think that’s a good thing, seeing as how that was your mission, after all.” “But I didn’t do it, that’s the whole point. /I/ failed.” Harry wasn’t quite sure he understood the line of thought behind that, but then again, he wasn’t trying too hard to understand the way Voldemort’s mind worked. “Whatever, Malfoy. Let’s go.” He turned to walk back towards the gates, but Malfoy’s sharp laugh stopped him. “I still don’t know what makes you think I’m going with you,” Malfoy said, crossing his arms across his chest. “Wand or no wand, I can manage well enough on my own.” Harry eyed him thoughtfully. Frankly, he was surprised Malfoy managed to say alive this long by himself, and he doubted he’d be able to do it much longer, especially without his wand to help. “Hagrid said he found you near Aragog’s lair,” he said. “Do you know what Aragog was?” “Another one of that oaf’s crazy and dangerous pets?” Malfoy guessed, arching an eyebrow. Harry nodded. “Yes, actually. He was an acromantula.” Malfoy’s eyes went wide. “An /acromantula/? What – but –

Merlin, I /told/ you he was insane!” “Yeah, well, in any case, there’s probably a hundred of them at least back in the forest,” Harry said offhandedly. “If you really want to go back there…” “No – um… Well, I wasn’t actually planning on staying there too much longer. Just – I kind of got…lost?” He sounded almost uncertain about it. “/Lost/?” Harry repeated. “You got lost for an entire /month/?” “No! Not the entire month! Just the past couple of days,” Malfoy said bitterly. “I was looking for this plant – was going to try and make a healing salve, and – well – anyway, I was going to leave. Eventually.” “You could have Apparated somewhere else, you know. Somewhere other than wherever Snape was going,” Harry said, walking slowly backwards towards the gates. Malfoy followed absently, like he wasn’t aware his feet were even moving. “I mean, I know you haven’t got your license yet, but still.” “I’m…not very fond of Apparating,” Malfoy muttered. “Wasn’t really concentrating on it too hard during lessons and I’m not… terribly good at it…”

“Oh. Well, I am,” Harry admitted. “Side-along, too. So I can Apparate us back to my place.” Malfoy glanced around, startled, as he clearly hadn’t realized that they’d walked all the way beyond the wards while they were talking. Then Harry grabbed hold of him, his fingers wrapping around Malfoy’s forearm, and Malfoy yelped loudly, yanking his arm back just as Harry’s free hand flew up to his scar. “Ow – /shit!/” Harry gasped, pressing the palm of his hand against his forehead, trying to quell the sudden burning. Malfoy looked at him, his face pale and panicked, hand still clutching his wrist to his chest. “You feel it, too?” he grunted, face screwing up in pain. “This is bad – really bad.” “What – was that…?” Malfoy grimaced, slowly lowering his arm. Harry could make out half of the Dark Mark scarring the boy’s pale skin, the other half covered by the edge of his cloak, and he felt sick. “You actually got it,” he murmured, shocked even though he’d known all year long. “Of course I did,” Malfoy said between gritted teeth. “The Dark Lord

wouldn’t have entrusted me with that task had I not – /fuck/, Potter, we have to get out of here.” “Has it ever done that before?” Harry asked, rubbing viciously at his head as it throbbed again. “No, never,” Malfoy panted. “Not like this. It burns when he calls a meeting, but–” He gasped and Harry winced as a particularly painful stab of heat swept through him. “He’ll think I called him,” Malfoy continued frantically, his eyes wide. “He can find us through this. Potter, we have to leave. /Now/.” Harry nodded and didn’t wait for further instructions. He reached for Malfoy’s other arm, hooked his own around it, and concentrated on the Dursleys’ house. *** They appeared with a loud crack in the middle of Harry’s room. Harry stumbled towards his bed while Malfoy fell to his knees. There was silence for a moment, save their panting breaths, before Harry finally managed to pull himself up and lean against one of the bedposts. He could feel the pain quickly fading from his scar, and a glance at Malfoy showed he was okay, too. He was sitting back on his heels on the floor, still holding his arm, and peering down at the Dark Mark.

Harry thought he could see it moving on Malfoy’s skin. “Alright?” he asked tiredly. Malfoy looked up at him sharply, as if he’d forgotten Harry was there, and abruptly yanked the sleeve of his cloak back over his arm. “Yeah,” he muttered, dragging a hand through his hair and pushing himself to his feet with effort. He looked around the room and his lip curled in disgust. Harry knew why; the place was a mess, as it was wont to become when Harry was in one of his moods. Books were strewn about, his trunk looked liked it had exploded, several shirts and pairs of trousers littered the floor. Luckily Hedwig’s cage was clean, since she’d been with him at The Burrow. “Where the hell are we?” “Er… We’re at my aunt and uncle’s. This is my room. Um… sorry for the mess…” he murmured. Not that Malfoy was really worth apologizing to, but still, the room was…well, it was /bad/. Malfoy glanced at him sharply. “Don’t you live with /Muggles/?” he asked, and Harry didn’t miss the dangerous edge to his voice. He slid to the ground instead of answering, and began gathering up his stray clothes. “I do,” he answered eventually. Malfoy groaned. “You brought me here on purpose, didn’t

you? You’re going to try and make me see how Muggles aren’t all /that bad/.” Harry laughed shortly. “Oh yeah, right. Trust me, if I was going to try and turn you into a Muggle sympathizer, this is the absolute /last/ place I’d bring you. No, I have to stay here until my birthday, and then we’re leaving. Unfortunately, that’s still two weeks away, though.” “The Dark Lord can’t get to you here?” “Nope. As long as I’m here, /Voldemort/ can’t touch me.” Malfoy winced at the name, but Harry ignored him. “You’re sure?” Malfoy asked. Harry looked up at him, noticing that he was still fairly pale beneath all the dirt and grime. “I’m sure,” he said softly. “You’re safe for now. That’s as good a reason as any for you to stay here, isn’t it?” Malfoy shrugged, looking around the room in distaste again. “I suppose,” he murmured, trailing his hand along Harry’s dresser absently as he moved toward the window. His frown deepened as he looked outside. “You want to take a shower or something?” Harry offered tentatively. “I can lend you a change of clothes.” “Like I really want to be running around in your raggedy,

second-hand attire,” Malfoy sneered. But then he grimaced, looking down at himself. “Although… I suppose a shower would be nice…” Harry hid his smirk by turning back to his trunk and digging around for something suitable that Malfoy could wear. He turned back around just as Malfoy pushed his cloak off his shoulders. He still had the Hogwarts uniform on underneath it, and Harry’s eyes narrowed and then abruptly widened when he saw that the long streak of what he had mistaken for mud on Malfoy’s side was actually dried blood. And there was a lot of it. “God, Malfoy, what the hell did you do?” Harry blurted, and he was at Malfoy’s side in a second, the clothes he’d been holding now in a pile on the floor. “Ow! Don’t touch it, you idiot!” Malfoy yelped, smacking Harry’s hand away. Harry ignored him. “Let me look at it. Shit, it’s probably all sorts of infected. When did it happen?” “A couple of days ago.” Malfoy winced as Harry gently pulled his shirt away from the wound. The material was kind of sticking to his skin. “Sorry,” Harry murmured. “Here, take this off. What’d you do? Is this

why you were trying to make a healing salve?” “…Slipped on some rocks,” Malfoy muttered, nimbly undoing the buttons on his shirt and shaking it off. “And yes.” “These rocks had razor sharp edges, did they?” Harry asked, eyes narrowing as he got a look at Malfoy’s side. He sucked in a breath, taking in the several long gashes and torn skin traveling from just above Malfoy’s trousers almost up to his armpit. “Must have hurt.” He trailed his fingers over it, not exactly touching, but close enough that Malfoy could feel it. “You think?” Malfoy said, unable to stop his squirming. He looked down and promptly winced again as he caught sight of the damage, swaying a little. Harry almost reached out a hand to steady him, but then Malfoy shivered and Harry drew back instead. “It doesn’t look… Well. I can fix it up for you after you shower. I don’t think it’s infected, at least.” “Don’t you know any healing spells?” Harry’s eyes narrowed at his tone. “Don’t you?” “It’s not my area of expertise…” “Oh, right, I forgot.” Harry frowned. “It’s not an Unforgivable, so of course you wouldn’t be good at it.”

“I’m good at plenty of spells other than Unforgivables, thanks very much,” Malfoy spat. “Other Dark Arts?” Harry shot at him. Then he sighed, shaking his head a bit. “Never mind. In any case, I can’t do magic on my own yet, and no one knows you’re here, and I don’t want to get pinned for something you did.” “Thought you didn’t care about getting expelled?” “I don’t. Not really. But I’d rather them not have an excuse to snap my wand in two or something.” “And yet you don’t seem to mind Apparating all over the country.” “Yeah, well…” They were silent for a moment as Harry continued looking at his wound, and then Malfoy shivered again. “Oh, right.” Harry turned back to the clothes he’d dropped and scooped them up. “Come on.” Chapter 2 Harry scoured the kitchen for food while Malfoy was in the shower. He was relieved the Dursleys were out at the moment. He had no idea where

they were or what time they’d be back, but then he didn’t particularly care, either. There wasn’t much food around, though, so he hoped they were out grocery shopping. Dudley wasn’t on a diet nowadays, so that was always a likely option. Still, Harry managed to slap together some sandwiches and grab a half-empty bag of chips before he made his way back upstairs. The water was still running in the bathroom, so he took the time to straighten up his room a little bit more. He tossed the books Hermione had lent him onto his bed, and was just contemplating whether or not he should grab the spare mattress from Dudley’s room when Malfoy strode through the door and dropped his old clothes into a sodden pile on the floor. Harry arched an eyebrow. “Feel better?” “A little,” Malfoy replied, shrugging. He was clad in a pair of Harry’s old sweatpants, which actually meant they were Dudley’s old sweatpants and therefore far too big for either of them, and they hung low on Malfoy’s hips. Harry’s gaze moved up to the boy’s naked chest – he was holding his shirt in his hand – and his eyes went wide. “Is – is that…?” “What?” Malfoy glanced down, and Harry saw his grip on the shirt

tighten. “Oh. /That/. I never did properly thank you for that, did I? I mean, I always wanted to have a matching scar like yours. No, really,” Malfoy held up a hand when Harry opened his mouth to talk, “/Thanks/. Thanks ever so. It’s fantastic,” he said flatly. “Really.” Harry swallowed and felt like he might be sick. “I didn’t mean to…” he said faintly, pushing a hand through his hair. He tried to look away, but his eyes were glued to the slightly silvery scar on Malfoy’s chest. It started to the left of his neck and ran diagonally down his chest, before jutting back up again until just beneath his left nipple, where it changed direction once more and then finished down to the right of his navel. It looked disturbingly like a lightning bolt. “I suppose having the Dark Lord mark me wasn’t enough; you had to have a brand of your own,” Malfoy blathered on, either oblivious to Harry’s distress or just outright ignoring it. “I’m sorry, alright!” Harry burst out, rubbing his own chest distractedly. “I didn’t know what that spell was going to do, I was just trying to stop you–” “/Stop/ me?” Malfoy repeated, his eyes narrowing. “Clearly I was in no state of mind to do much of anything to you! I was just trying to get

you to leave me alone–” “You tried to use the Cruciatus curse on me!” Harry cried. Malfoy blinked. “I did not–” “Yes you did,” Harry interrupted. “You started to say /Crucio/ and have you ever been under that curse before? I have, and I wasn’t too eager for it to happen again, so you’ll have to excuse me if I tried to defend myself!” Malfoy stared at him for a moment. “It’s not like it would have worked, anyway,” he muttered eventually. “I’ve never really been able to master that one…” “Well you’re pretty good at Imperius, aren’t you?” Harry snapped. Malfoy shrugged, and Harry’s brow furrowed. “…And the other one?” he asked quietly. “Avada Kedavra, can you do that one?” There was silence, and then Malfoy whispered, “Yes. On – on small things. Animals. Never really had a chance to use it on a human before. Use it /properly/, I mean…” They stared at each other again, the silence thick and somehow deafening around them. Harry was the first to drop his eyes. “Let me see your side,” he said softly, and Malfoy turned, lifting his

arm so that Harry could get a better look at it. “Christ, Malfoy. You really should’ve tried to wrap this or something. Not much I can do now, but I’ll put some disinfectant on it anyway.” “Disin-what?” “Disinfectant. Muggle medicine.” Malfoy dropped his arm abruptly, backing away. “Muggle medicine? I think not, Potter.” “It’s nothing bad,” Harry said exasperatedly. “Well, I mean it might sting a little, but you’ll be fine. Come on, I’ve been tending to my own injuries this way since I was five, I think I know what I’m doing.” Malfoy still looked doubtful, but he stepped back toward Harry anyway, lifting his arm warily. “Make it quick, then.” The corner of Harry’s mouth tugged up and he dropped to his knees so that he could reach under the bed for his first-aid kit. He pulled it out and busied himself with getting a cotton ball ready while Malfoy cast bored looks about the room. “Are those sandwiches?” he asked when he noticed the platter resting on Harry’s bed. His stomach grumbled and Harry looked up, grinning as Malfoy’s cheeks went pink.

“Yep. But you can’t have any until I’ve finished this.” “Well get on with it then!” Harry grinned again and moved forward, dabbing at the gashes. Malfoy hissed, the muscles in his shoulders tensing and his belly going taut. “Sorry,” Harry murmured absently, blowing on the other boy’s skin. “There. That should be good. I haven’t really got any bandages we can put on it, so it’ll have to do anyway. We can check it again later.” “Can I eat now?” Harry nodded, and Malfoy all but dove for the sandwiches. He paused for only a moment to pull his shirt on over his head, and then he ate three of the sandwiches so quickly Harry thought he might have just swallowed them whole. “My cousin has an extra mattress is his room,” Harry said as he sat down on the opposite side of the bed. “I was thinking I could just bring it in here and you could sleep on that. “Yeah, alright,” Malfoy said absently, licking the crumbs off his fingers. “Did you want one of these?” “No, you can finish them.” He didn’t add that it was probably the last bit of decent food he’d have until they could get out of here.

Uncle Vernon put up enough of a fuss with only Harry to feed; Harry couldn’t imagine what he’d do once he found out there was another wizard staying under his roof. Speaking of… “Oh, great, I think they’re home,” Harry muttered. He stood and crossed to the window, watching as the car he’d just heard pull into the driveway parked and three of its doors opened. “Who’s home?” Harry swallowed. “My relatives.” *** “WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S ANOTHER – ANOTHER /WEIRDO/ STAYING HERE?!” Uncle Vernon roared, his face going blotchy purple and his mustache twitching. “Vernon! Vernon, the neighbors!” Aunt Petunia said nervously as she cast apprehensive looks out the window. Dudley was sitting at the kitchen table, watching eagerly. “I WON’T HAVE IT! I WON’T, I TELL YOU! I’VE PUT UP WITH YOU LONG ENOUGH; I WON’T PUT UP WITH ANOTHER ONE!” “Vernon!” said Aunt Petunia shrilly.

“Uncle Vernon, /please/,” Harry asked tiredly, not really giving a damn what the man’s answer would be, because as far as he was concerned Malfoy was going to be staying there no matter what. “It’s only going to be for about two weeks. You’ve already said Ron and Hermione could come–” “Who? Who did I say could come? THERE’S GOING TO BE MORE OF YOU?!?” “You agreed to this already!” Harry said in exasperation. “They’re coming for my birthday, and then I’ll be out of your lives forever! It’s just for a few days!” “Vernon, perhaps we should just let the boy do as he wants,” Aunt Petunia cut in, laying a hand on Uncle Vernon’s shaking arm. The man was literally trembling, he was so angry. Aunt Petunia looked about anxiously. Harry thought she might be afraid that Dumbledore was going to pop up suddenly. She’d been like that for much of the summer, usually caving to whatever Harry needed in fear of being reprimanded again. If she only knew, Harry thought bitterly. He would have given anything for Dumbledore to suddenly appear like that. “It’s only for two weeks,” Harry repeated. “Dad!” Dudley cried suddenly. Harry looked at him, blinking at his pale face. He was pointing at something behind all of them, and

Harry whipped around. Malfoy was leaning against the doorframe, his wand dangling precariously from his fingertips. Uncle Vernon spluttered. “What’s that?” he asked quickly. “Why’s he got his – that – that /thing/ out? You can’t use it! I know you can’t! Not outside of that freaky school of yours!” Draco arched an eyebrow, and Harry silently begged him to go back up to his room, where he’d told him to stay. It didn’t work. “Potter there might not be able to,” Malfoy said snidely. “But /I’m/ of age, so I can.” He raised his wand a bit, and Harry’s eyes went wide. Draco met his gaze. Harry shook his head almost imperceptibly, and Draco rolled his eyes before dropping his wand again. Everyone in the kitchen seemed to let out a collective breath. Draco sneered at them all. “Is that him, then?” Uncle Vernon asked, turning back to Harry and ignoring Malfoy completely. “This is the boy you want to stay here? Even after he /threatened/ us?” “I didn’t threaten you!” Malfoy snapped, crossing his arms. “Malfoy!” Harry said sharply. “He’s got a tattoo!” Dudley spoke up again. “Dad, I saw it, he’s got a tattoo!”

“Aha! So being a weirdo wasn’t enough, was it?” Uncle Vernon exclaimed. “You had to go and be a /freak/, too!” “What, you mean this?” Malfoy asked innocently. He held out his arm, and as if it knew it was being watched, the Dark Mark wavered a bit, the snake swaying first in one direction, and then the other. Uncle Vernon and Dudley gasped; Aunt Petunia screeched. Harry moved hastily toward Malfoy and shoved him out into the hall. “We’ll stay in my room!” he called back to his stunned relatives. “You won’t even know we’re here!” He herded the other boy back up to his room, Malfoy snickering the entire way. “I told you to stay in here, Malfoy!” Harry growled, slamming the bedroom door shut behind him. “Is it really that hard to listen to me?” “I don’t have to do anything you tell me to, Potter. That’s one thing you’d best understand straight away.” Harry’s eyes narrowed, and before Malfoy noticed anything amiss Harry had stomped over and snatched the boy’s wand away. “Where did you get this, anyway? I thought I–” “You left your robe out,” Draco interrupted, looking sourly at Harry. “I don’t suppose you’ll let me have it, will you?”

“No!” Harry blurted. “Of course not! I don’t trust you by a long-shot, Malfoy, you really think I’m going to let you wander around with your wand?” “It was worth a shot,” Malfoy mumbled. Harry knelt in front of his chest and after tossing Malfoy’s wand inside, made sure it was shut tight and locked. Draco rolled his eyes. “So, Potter, your relatives. Are you sure you’re even related to them? I wasn’t aware you were part /whale/.” Harry rolled his eyes. “I wish I wasn’t,” he said, standing again so that he could plop down onto his bed instead of the floor. “I think I’d rather be related to /you/ than them. Well, maybe not…” “Ha ha,” Malfoy said flatly. He moved to sit behind Harry, further up on the bed against the pillows. “Now what?” Harry laughed, completely without humor, and fell backwards so that he was lying on his back. “Malfoy, welcome to summer with the Dursleys. The next two weeks will probably consist either of this–” He gestured vaguely at the bed. “–or this.” Reaching to the side, he grabbed one of the books Hermione had lent him and propped it open on his chest. The rest of the books he shoved off the bed and onto the floor, grinning to himself as he imagined the horrified look on Hermione’s face if she knew how he was treating her precious reading material.

“Reading, you mean?” “Mhmm.” “Fun.” “Yep.” Harry rifled through the pages until he found where he thought he might have last left off – he wasn’t really entirely sure if this was even the right book – and began the endlessly boring task of research. He heard Malfoy shuffle about a bit, but ignored him. It wasn’t until several hours later – he wasn’t sure exactly how many – that Harry finally closed the book with a sigh. He honestly didn’t know what good all this reading would do, especially when he wasn’t even sure what he was looking for in the first place, but Hermione had insisted he might come across something. And truthfully, he had nothing better to do. It helped the time pass, in any case. But there was only so much Harry could read about Hogwarts’ ancient past in one sitting, and it was by far time for a break. Harry sat up, yawning widely and stretching his arms out. He twisted around, grimacing as he heard his spine pop, and then nearly fell off the bed when he saw Malfoy still lying there.

“Christ, Malfoy,” he muttered. “Completely forgot you were here.” Malfoy didn’t reply, and when Harry leaned closer it was easy to see why. The other boy was fast asleep across Harry’s pillows, his face tucked into the crook of his arm. He looked different, more relaxed than Harry had ever seen him. It was a far different picture than the memory of Malfoy up on the tower, wand out and shaking in front of him. Harry sighed. There was no point in moving Malfoy when he was obviously exhausted. It was only just beginning to grow dark outside, and Draco showed absolutely no signs of waking up anytime soon. Harry’s mouth quirked upward and he slid off the bed, going to get the spare mattress from Dudley’s room. He could sleep on it tonight. *** Three days later, Harry was in a horrible mood. He’d woken up on the mattress /again/, which, he’d discovered, was incredibly lumpy and really uncomfortable. Having a sore back was almost inevitable now, seeing as how Malfoy had refused to give up the bed. Not that Harry couldn’t force him out of it, but he really couldn’t be arsed to. He still had the boy’s wand, and Draco hadn’t really tried too hard to get it back, so he could let the bed issue slide.

But just because he wasn’t being annoying about getting his wand back didn’t mean he wasn’t an unbelievable /git/ about everything else. They were constantly bickering over things Harry didn’t even think about most of the time, they were so insignificant. He thought Malfoy might just be trying to make his life as difficult as possible, what with him being miserable about being stuck inside a Muggle household and all. He clearly didn’t appreciate that Harry had brought him here, and Harry was pretty sure that if he /did/ have his wand, he’d leave. Which made it all the more curious that he wasn’t trying to get it back. “God, Malfoy, would you bloody /shut up/!” Harry snapped, interrupting an ongoing rant of Malfoy’s about the substandard way that Muggles prepared their food. “You’re fucking lucky my aunt’s even bothering to cook for you. Usually I’m on my own.” Ever the proper hostess, even if Malfoy /was/ a wizard, Aunt Petunia had made sure they got at least one meal a day. Which still wasn’t all that great, but it was something at least. As long as they didn’t bother the rest of the family with their presence at suppertime, she made sure there was something leftover for them afterwards. “At the manor we had house elves to cook dinner for us,”

Malfoy said snidely, completely ignoring Harry. “You know, /house elves?/ You have one, don’t you? I know you stole one of ours, and then there was this really old, decrepit looking one that was skulking about the manor last year – fifth year, I mean – didn’t you inherit him? I think that’s what my mum told me. Why couldn’t /they/ cook for us?” “I’m not bringing a house elf here just for the two of us,” Harry said in a tight voice. He thought Hermione might kill him if he did, anyway. “And especially not /that/ one.” Malfoy ‘hmphed’ and then went quiet for a few glorious seconds. Of course he ruined it by opening his mouth again. “Why did you bring me here, Potter?” It was an unexpected question, and Harry actually had to blink at Malfoy a few times before it registered. “What do you mean?” “Well… I thought you were going to try and question me or something,” Malfoy admitted, idly tracing the pattern of the quilt on the bed where he was sitting. “But you haven’t tried to do anything yet, and it doesn’t really make much sense for me to just /be/ here…” Harry cocked an eyebrow. “Do you /want/ me to interrogate you?” “Of course not,” Malfoy said, his nose wrinkling. “But there

has to be some reason I’m here.” “You’re here because I brought you here,” Harry said, glancing away. To be honest, he hadn’t exactly figured it out himself. He doubted Malfoy had any useful information anyway, and the boy seemed to believe that Voldemort would kill him on sight if he ever found him, so Harry felt vaguely guilty about forcing him back out into the world again without…without some sort of…protection… Oh. In his mind’s eye he could replay that entire night almost perfectly clearly, if he really wanted to. He had revisited the tower several times in his dreams at the beginning of the summer, and it seemed like every specific detail was still there. From Dumbledore growing steadily weaker, to Malfoy’s wand wavering and then eventually lowering that slight bit, to Snape bursting through the doors, and then even to Dumbledore begging Snape not to kill him. Actually, now that he thought about it, he very much doubted that Dumbledore had ever begged for anything before, and it seemed unlikely that he would have resorted to doing so, even for his own life. It just wasn’t his style…

Harry’s brow furrowed, and then Malfoy snapped, “Potter!” and effectively broke him out of his musings. Why had he been thinking about that night in the first place? Oh, right, Dumbledore offering Draco protection. Could Harry really do the same? Malfoy hadn’t gone back to Voldemort, at least. That had to count for something… “/Potter!/” “What, Malfoy? For God’s sake…” “I want to know why I’m here! ‘Because you brought me here’ is /not/ an explanation.” “It’s all I’ve got for you at the moment.” Harry didn’t think Malfoy would really appreciate Harry offering to protect him right now, and he didn’t exactly know how he’d manage to do so anyway. “Do you not want to be here or something? Do you want to leave? Because I can give you your wand and kick you out the door if there’s somewhere else you’d really rather be.” As tempting as the thought was, Harry doubted he’d ever actually do it. Malfoy looked slightly chagrined and mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like a “no.” Harry grinned to himself, and went back to his reading.

*** About a week after that, Harry woke up to something scratching on the window early in the morning. Groaning a bit, he rolled over, peering blurrily as he tried to make out what it was. “Bloody owls,” Malfoy muttered from somewhere above him. Harry yawned and pushed himself to his feet. He gave the bed where Malfoy was sleeping an annoyed look before trudging over to the window and opening it. “Hey, Pig,” he murmured, recognizing Ron’s owl immediately, even without his glasses on. “What’ve you got for me?” “Close the damn window, Potter, you’re letting all the cold air in,” Malfoy said, sounding as if he was still half asleep. Draco Malfoy was /not/ a morning person, Harry had discovered. Not in the least. “Shut up, Malfoy, you’ve got plenty of covers,” Harry said absently. He walked over and sat down heavily on the bed, causing it to bounce beneath him. A blond head poked out from under the bundle of covers, hair tousled and eyes glaring. “Stop it,” he snapped halfheartedly, before burrowing back into his cocoon of blankets.

Harry leaned back against the bedpost and kicked at what he thought might have been Malfoy’s shin. “Wake up, you lazy arse.” Malfoy grumbled indistinctly, and Harry unfurled the letter Ron had sent him and slid his glasses on. There wasn’t much to it, just basically a confirmation that he and Hermione were definitely going to be flooing in tomorrow, and to have the fireplace ready this time around. And there was a footnote, written in Ginny’s neat handwriting, saying that she missed him and couldn’t wait to see him in a few days time. Harry frowned, immensely grateful that she wasn’t coming with the other two. “Alright, Pig. There you go.” He shooed the owl off in the direction of Hedwig’s cage and folded up the letter again. “What the fuck type of name is /Pig/ for an owl?” Malfoy asked grumpily, poking his head back out again. “It’s short for Pigwidgeon.” “…That’s even more idiotic.” “Yeah, well... Get up, would you?” “Why? All I’m going to do is sit around and watch you /read/ some more,” Malfoy groused. “This is so boring. I was having more fun in the Forbidden Forest.”

“This isn’t exactly supposed to be a holiday getaway for you, you know,” Harry pointed out. “That’s not why I brought you here. And I’ve already said you could leave if you wanted to.” “You still have my wand,” Malfoy muttered, which they both knew was a lousy excuse because Harry had told him several times that he would give it back if he really wanted to go. This was mainly when Malfoy was annoying the piss out of him, which had been so often that they’d somehow managed to turn /I’ll give you your wand back!/ into a threat. “Potter, why am I here?” Harry sighed. This again. They’d had this conversation almost every day since Malfoy had first brought it up. “Why is it such a big deal?” he snapped, annoyed. “Why can’t you just accept that I brought you with me? Would you really rather I’d let Hagrid take you to McGonagall? You’d probably be in Azkaban right now.” “At least then I’d be with my father!” “I don’t think they have family holding cells. Though you might be able to hear him screaming and moaning from down the hall, I suppose.” Malfoy sat up and whipped his head around so quickly that Harry was sure he must have given himself whiplash. He could see the other boy’s hands

closing into fists, and they glared at each other for only a brief moment before they both turned away, Malfoy breathing harshly through his nose. Harry had discovered over the past week or so that the best way to deal with Malfoy was to simply forget about certain things. Malfoy had figured this out, too, and somehow they’d formed an unspoken agreement that some things were just never to be mentioned between them. Like Lucius Malfoy being in prison, Sirius and Dumbledore being dead… Snape was a rather taboo subject on both of their parts, as well. In fact, most of sixth year was. Generally, if they could just forget about each other’s pasts and avoid talking too much about the future, they managed to get along alright. Most days. Which was kind of necessary, seeing as how there wasn’t much to do in the house and they rarely ventured outside of it. Thus they were holed up together, and being next to someone you were supposed to hate left a lot of room for pent-up anger. So they’d become good at ignoring what they didn’t like about each other to avoid that. “You know,” Harry said eventually, “you could always go to the Order for help. If you explained to them – and I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt that you’ve been with me – you could explain what happened

and…” “And what?” Malfoy arched an eyebrow. “And hope they’ll take mercy on me and only torture me for two hours instead of five? “They wouldn’t torture you,” Harry snapped. “That your side’s style, not mine.” “My side’s style,” Malfoy repeated. He glanced away. “My side…” Harry sighed, pressing the heel of his hand against his eye. He could feel a headache coming on. “Never mind.” he said. “Come on, let’s go get breakfast.” “There’s nothing decent to eat in the house,” Malfoy reminded him, sliding out from under the covers and rubbing the back of his neck. “There’s a café not too far from here. We can go there.” Chapter 3 “Wait. Hang on, you mean Weasley and Granger are coming here /today/?” “Yep.” “And you never thought to tell me this?!” “Must have slipped my mind.” Harry grinned as Malfoy stared at him with wide eyes.

“You absolute /prat/,” he said, face a little pale. “I can’t believe you. They’re going to curse me on sight. They’re going to think I’ve…/brainwashed/ you or something. They’ll think I’ve got you under the Imperius – do they know about that?” “Yeah, I think I told them about it,” Harry said offhandedly. They were down in the living room, Harry idly flicking through channels on the telly and Draco steadfastly ignoring the strange Muggle contraption. Uncle Vernon and everyone else had vanished sometime earlier, as they were wont to do whenever Harry and Malfoy decided to grace the rest of the house with their presence. Harry had a feeling they’d be gone for a particularly long time today, seeing as how there were two more ‘freaks’ coming by. “How’s your side today?” Harry asked suddenly, gaze darting down to Draco’s hip. “What? Oh. It’s fine,” Malfoy replied distractedly. He lifted his shirt a bit so that Harry could see how the gashes were healing. They didn’t look half as terrible anymore. “Are they really coming today?” “Yes.” Harry went back to watching the television, choosing to ignore Malfoy’s nervous antics. The boy kept shifting around and

looking at the fireplace nervously. “Look, don’t worry so much about it,” Harry finally said, because as amusing as Malfoy’s panicking was, he didn’t want the boy to start hyperventilating or something. “They’ll understand. I’ll just tell them that you…um…” “That I what?” Malfoy arched his eyebrows. “That I’ve switched sides? That I’ve decided to protect Mudbloods and Muggles and puppies and bunnies?” Harry looked at him, surprised. “Have you?” “Of course not,” Malfoy scoffed. “I’m here /not/ of my free will, remember?” “Oh, right. Well, I didn’t see you trying very hard to leave,” Harry pointed out. “Even though I’ve told you numerous times that you’re quite free to.” Malfoy sniffed, raising his chin a bit. “Well, other than the company available, this place hasn’t been /too/ horrible, I suppose.” Harry snorted. “You know, I wasn’t aware Voldemort had anything against puppies and bunnies.” “I’m sure he does. They’re cuter than he is after all.” “Don’t let him hear you talking like that.” “I don’t think it would make much of a difference at this point.”

Harry was quiet for a moment, before saying softly, “I suppose it’s hard, isn’t it? Not being able to go back to him, but not joining the other side, either. Where does that leave you?” “Nowhere,” Malfoy said tiredly, pushing his sleeve up a bit so that he could stare down at the black mark on his skin. “It’s still not too late, you know,” Harry said tentatively. “You can always go to the Order–” “I’m not going to your stupid Order,” Malfoy snapped, yanking his sleeve back down and glaring at Harry. “Stop trying to make me.” “Look, if you’re going to come with me, I have to be sure you aren’t going to go back to /him/,” Harry said in a hard voice, turning around to look at Malfoy. The television was forgotten in the background. “I’m trying to give you a chance here, Malfoy.” It was the first time he’d used that particular phrase, and Harry watched as Draco’s eyes went wide with what he thought might have been sudden understanding, though he wasn’t exactly sure what Malfoy thought he understood. “A second chance, is that what this was? I was beginning to think it might have been out of pity or something, and as much as I loathe the thought of you /pitying/ me, at least I might have been able to handle

that. But no, you’re trying to be like Dumbledore!” His voice was shaking a bit as he spoke, though there was a dangerous edge to it. “You said you were up on the tower that night,” he continued softly, speaking fast. “If you were there, why didn’t you do anything?” “I was frozen,” Harry replied bewilderedly, unsure where this line of questioning was going. “Dumbledore made sure I was out of the way before you burst through the door.” “So – you /were/ there, then. The entire time, you were there. You heard everything.” It wasn’t so much a question as it was a statement of the truth, but Harry nodded anyway. “You bastard,” Malfoy spat, so quietly he was practically whispering. His eyes were still wide. “Malfoy–” “No! You…you’re offering me a second chance, but I don’t want it! Do you – do you realize that–” He cut himself off, breathing heavily. His cheeks were slightly pink now. “I /failed/, Potter. That might have been all well and good for your side, had Snape not showed up, and it might have even turned out okay for me, but that’s not what happened. I fucked up! I couldn’t do it, and the moment Snape said the words and sealed the deal, my family got screwed over. Do you know that my parents might not even be /alive/ right now?”

Harry stared at him. “I…hadn’t thought about it–” “I know you haven’t!” Malfoy exclaimed. “But I think about it /all the time/. You’re offering me a second chance because… because for one second I thought there might be a way out, and I took it! You might call it brave, not killing him, and say that I deserve another shot, but – but I feel like a fucking /coward/. In that split second, in the time it took for me to decide /not/ to kill him, I all but sentenced my parents to death! And if I keep screwing up – /no/. No, I don’t want it! Stuff your second chances, Potter! I’m not going to join your fucking Order!” “Alright, alright, fine,” Harry said hastily. “I’m sorry, I didn’t… You don’t have to–” “You’re such a fucking /bastard/, you know that?” “Yes, okay, I’ve got it. I’m sorry!” He scowled. “And for the record, it hadn’t even crossed my mind to give you a second chance. I mean – a second chance for /what/?” “You liar!” Malfoy cried. “You /hate/ me, so there has to be some sort of – sort of reason that I’m here! If it’s not because you’re trying to be a goody-two-shoes and offer me another chance, then /why is it?!/”

“I swear that’s not what I’m offering you,” Harry said. He was trying to gather his thoughts together. He knew what he’d been /thinking/ of offering Malfoy, but he still didn’t know how he’d pull it off. Still… “I’m offering you protect–” “If you say /protection/, so help me God,” Malfoy hissed, looking even angrier than he’d been before. Harry let out a frustrated breath. “You, Potter, are /not/ Dumbledore. He /might/ have been able to do something useful for me and my family. I very much doubt there’s anything you’ll be able to do.” “Who said anything about your family?” Harry snapped. He crossed his arms across his chest, more to keep himself from lashing out at Malfoy in irritation than anything else. “And why do you think I never mentioned it? I agree, I don’t think there’s much I can do, but I figured I could wait until we got…out of /here/ to work on that. You weren’t going to kill him–” “Don’t,” Malfoy said sharply, eyes snapping around to glare at Harry. “You weren’t, Malfoy, I saw you lower your wand–” “/Stop it/.” “You couldn’t do it!” Harry said loudly, ignoring the other boy. “And

I’m sorry you think that’s a bad thing, but in my eyes it means you’re innocent!” Malfoy fell back against the couch, still wide-eyed, and pushed a hand through his hair. “Shit,” he murmured. “You’re innocent, Malfoy,” Harry repeated, quieter this time. “Maybe you haven’t realized that.” “I’m a Death Eater, Potter. I’ve got the mark. That’s hardly the equivalent of being /innocent/.” “You were forced to get it, weren’t you?” “Irregardless… I almost killed two people.” “/Almost/. They’re both alive and fine now.” “I used an Unforgivable curse.” His voice was starting to rise. “Because Voldemort was threatening your family,” Harry insisted. “I let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts!” “Yeah, but…” Harry glanced away. “It was the one already there who killed him.” There was silence for a moment, and then Malfoy tried again. “I…stole Polyjuice potion from Professor Slughorn.” Harry laughed. “I stole the ingredients to /make/ Polyjuice potion from

Professor Snape.” He grinned, spreading his arms. “And I’m still here.” Draco looked at him curiously. “When did you make Polyjuice potion?” “Second year. Long story.” Harry waved it off. “Fact is, Malfoy, you haven’t actually done anything other than fucked up a few half-arsed attempts at killing someone–” “Attempted murder,” Malfoy interrupted. “There you go; they don’t let that off easily.” Harry rolled his eyes. “Well I’m not saying you’ll be able to run around scot-free in the Ministry anytime soon. But it’s enough that I might be able to convince the Order to leave you alone.” “I guess… I mean, I’ll think about,” Draco said tentatively, though he looked doubtful. “We’ll see how Weasley and Granger take it first…” Harry winced slightly. Now that he thought about it, it probably would have been a good idea to tell them about Malfoy being here beforehand… “Yeah, but I’m sure I’ll be able to convince them.” He hesitated, and then asked, “Malfoy, do you…do you really think that your parents…?” “I have no idea,” Malfoy replied shortly, and that was the end of that. An awkward silence surrounded them suddenly, and Harry

was still watching Malfoy worriedly out of the corner of his eye a few minutes later when Ron and Hermione tumbled out of the fireplace. “Hello, Harry,” Hermione greeted cheerfully as she brushed the soot off of her clothes. “Hey, mate,” Ron said from behind her. He glanced around the living room in interest, having never actually gotten the chance to see it properly, and when his eyes landed on Malfoy – who suddenly looked as cool, calm, and collected as ever – lounging against the arm of the couch, he froze, blinking several times. Hermione gasped from beside him, and Harry stood up slowly. “Guys–” “Harry, why is he here?” Hermione asked quickly, eyes darting from Harry to Malfoy and back again. “He’s… I ran into him after the wedding and…” Harry fished around for something to say, but came up blank. Draco snorted. “Good show, Potter. I thought you had this all figured out.” Harry shot him a look. He realized Malfoy was still annoyed with him, but this really wasn’t the time to be an irritating little pillock. “Harry?” Ron asked, his brow furrowing.

“Look, he’s not going to do anything, alright?” Harry said shortly. “He’s been here for almost two weeks and he hasn’t even done magic once–” Because he didn’t have access to his wand, but Harry neglected to mention that. “–let alone tried to kill me in my sleep or anything.” Not that Harry would have been prepared for that if he had, he realized with a start. He hadn’t even considered the idea. “He’s been here for /two weeks/?” Hermione asked shrilly, her eyebrows disappearing beneath her fringe. “And you never bothered to tell us?” Ron continued in the same tone. Draco gave Harry a smug look. “Don’t worry; he neglected to tell me you both were coming here today, too. I told him he should have.” “Who the hell cares what he didn’t tell /you/!” Ron exploded. “Harry, why the fuck is he here?!” “Ron!” Hermione admonished. “Hermione, he’s got a Death Eater staying in his house and he didn’t tell anyone about it!” “Shut up, both of you!” Harry finally shouted, exasperation evident in his voice. “This is exactly why I never said anything!” They stared at him, wide-eyed, while Draco snickered. “Shut it, Malfoy! Ron,

Hermione, come with me.” They followed him into the kitchen where he fidgeted under their stares for a moment, unsure of what to say. “Er… Can I get you guys something to drink?” he asked tentatively. Hermione looked at him flatly. “I think you know what we want,” she said gently. “Harry, why didn’t you just /tell/ us he was here? We could have been a little bit more prepared that way, at least!” “I…didn’t know how to tell you,” Harry admitted, leaning against the counter and scuffing his foot against the ground. “I’m still not one-hundred percent sure myself why I brought him back with me, but… Look, I stopped by Hogwarts on the way back from Ron’s–” “You weren’t supposed to do that!” Hermione cut in. “What if something had happened, no one would have known where you were–” “Hermione, it was two weeks ago and he looks perfectly fine to me, so obviously nothing happened,” Ron said dryly. Hermione ‘hmphed’ and Harry looked gratefully at Ron. “Anyway, Hagrid had just found him in the Forbidden Forest. Apparently he’d been there since the night Dumbledore died.” “But that’s…” Hermione did some quick calculation in her

head. “Harry, that’s nearly a month! It’s a wonder he didn’t get himself killed!” “I know,” Harry said, pushing himself up to sit on the counter. He gestured wordlessly at the chairs near the kitchen table, and Ron and Hermione each helped themselves to one. “He looked terrible, you should have seen him. I think he’s managed to gain a bit of weight back since he’s been here, but he’s still really skinny.” “Harry, /please/ tell me you didn’t take him in like he was a stray puppy or something,” Ron said imploringly. “Well, I–” Harry glanced warily towards the living room and then continued in a quieter voice, “I guess I kind of felt bad for him, yeah.” “/Harry/,” Hermione said exasperatedly. “No, you don’t understand,” Harry insisted. “There’s…there’s something I didn’t tell you. About that night, when Malfoy confronted Dumbledore.” “What else is there to know?” Ron asked flippantly, leaning back in his chair and glancing up at the ceiling. “Malfoy couldn’t off Dumbledore, so Snape did it for him.” “No – Ron – it wasn’t that Malfoy /couldn’t/ kill Dumbledore. It was that he…/didn’t/.” Hermione and Ron looked at him blankly,

so Harry explained further. “Dumbledore told Malfoy that he would be able to keep him and both of his parents safe. He offered Malfoy protection and…well…Malfoy accepted it a second too late. He lowered his wand, just as the other Death Eaters showed up.” “Are you sure his hand didn’t just…accidentally fall when he was distracted by the others’ sudden appearance?” Hermione asked doubtfully. Harry shook his head vehemently. “No, he definitely lowered his wand. And he’s told me as much, too.” “So…you’re trying to offer him protection as well?” Ron asked, sounding dubious and with an arched eyebrow. “No. Yes. Well – I mean, I don’t know. Maybe? I just… He wasn’t going to do it, in the end. Even after the others all got there and were urging him to get on with it.” “Maybe he was scared,” Hermione suggested. “Well of course he was!” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “His parents were going to be killed if he didn’t do it, but at the same time Dumbledore was telling him he didn’t have to!” “Wait, Harry, /are/ his parents dead?” Ron asked. “We don’t know,” Harry admitted. “They could be.”

“I don’t know.” Hermione sighed, looking thoughtful. “It’s still rather risky, if you ask me. Do you trust him?” Harry snorted. “Not hardly.” “I thought he was with Snape?” “He ran away from Snape that night. Hasn’t seen him since.” “Or so he told you,” Ron muttered. He went ignored. “Have you told him anything about…about what we’re doing?” Hermione asked. “Not a thing.” “You /have/ been reading those books I gave you, right?” “/Yes/, Hermione. Not that they’re doing any good.” “I haven’t found anything either,” Hermione said softly. “All these books on the Hogwarts founders, and barely anything about their personal lives. We need to find out more about their personal belongings, I think…” “I don’t think now is the right time to talk about that,” Ron said loudly with a meaningful tilt of his head in the living room’s direction. “Ferret-face might hear.” “Ron, don’t,” Harry said tiredly. “We’ve managed to get along pretty well since I brought him here.” Which was a blatant lie, but Harry didn’t bother correcting himself. “Don’t start anything,

please?” Ron sighed and rolled his eyes. “I still think this is a horrible idea. He could go back to You-Know-Who at anytime.” “But he hasn’t so far, and that’s what matters,” Harry said softly, hopping off the counter. “Besides, I’ve got his wand and he hasn’t even tried to get it back.” “Well, that’s good, at least,” said Hermione, who looked proud of him for finally managing to do something right. Harry rolled his eyes and headed back into the living room. “All done talking about me?” Draco quipped, looking up from where he was fiddling around with the remote control. “For the moment, yes,” Harry replied. Behind him Ron and Hermione exchanged a glance, and then moved to sit down on some of the other chairs in the room. *** “So, I’ve made appointments for you and Ron to go for your Apparating licenses on the second. That’s on Saturday, okay? So don’t forget. Oh, and I suppose Malfoy can go with you as well. It’s not like there’s actually a price on his head yet, maybe they won’t notice it’s him...”

Harry nodded vaguely and flipped another page in the book he was thumbing through. He was on his stomach on his bed, Ron beside him. Hermione was sitting on the floor, leaning back against the leg of the bed as she spoke, and Malfoy was lying on his back on Harry’s mattress, ignoring everything going on around him. “Think you’ll manage not to lose half of your eyebrow this time?” Harry asked, nudging Ron in the ribs. Ron scowled at him and rolled onto his back. “I hope so. That would be rather pathetic, wouldn’t it?” “Weasley, everything you do is /rather pathetic/,” Malfoy said dryly, still staring up at the ceiling. “In fact, your whole life is one rather pathetic mess, I’d say.” “Luckily no one’s asking what you’d say,” Harry interrupted quickly, before Ron could say something that would start a fight of which the end result would be the entire house going up in flames. He’d been doing this, playing mediator between the two of them, since Ron and Hermione had arrived yesterday. It was kind of exhausting. “Anyway, you’re the one who should be worrying, Malfoy. Didn’t you say you weren’t very good at Apparating?” “He’s not?” Ron sat up, looking as if Christmas had come early. “What’s

wrong, can’t remember the three D’s?” Malfoy narrowed his eyes. “Actually I was too busy almost killing you last year to concentrate much on Apparating.” There was a sudden flurry of motion, but before Harry could put a stop to whatever was happening, a loud /slap/ echoed through the air, and everyone froze. Ron was halfway off the bed, in mid-lunge toward Malfoy. Harry was right behind him, holding on to his upper arm tightly. On the floor below them were Hermione and Malfoy, Hermione’s hand still aloft in the air, and Malfoy’s face turned all the way to one side. There was a visible red handprint on his cheek. “Don’t you dare,” Hermione hissed icily, her eyes hard and glittering. “Don’t you /ever/ say something like that again.” “Hermione…” Ron said, an awed tone to his voice. Malfoy turned his head back slowly, his lips pursed together and his brow furrowed. “That’s twice now that you’ve slapped me,” he said quietly, drawing in deep breaths through his nose. “Try it again and I’ll show you just what all I’ve learned serving under the Dark Lord. He’s got special curses saved for Mudbloods like /you/.” Ron lunged forward again, but Harry beat him to it. His hands curled

into the thin material of the shirt Malfoy was wearing and he hauled him to his feet and pushed him in the direction of the door. “Hands off, Potter, I can walk on my own,” Malfoy snapped, shoving Harry off him and stomping out into the hall. Harry followed, pausing only once to turn back to his friends. “I – Hermione – sorry,” he said jerkily. “I’ll…I’ll be right back.” He slammed the door shut behind him and then grabbed hold of Malfoy once more and pulled him towards the bathroom. “Get off me,” Malfoy muttered once they were there. He walked over to the sink, grasping the sides of it, and stared down into the basin. “For what it’s worth,” he said before Harry even opened his mouth, “I didn’t mean anything by that comment.” “Which one?” Harry asked angrily. “The one about nearly killing Ron? Or the one about how you’re going to kill Hermione?” “I didn’t say anything about killing Granger, I only mentioned ‘special curses,’” Malfoy spat. “And I made that up, anyway. But no, I meant I didn’t mean anything by what I said about Weasley. I didn’t think you all were so sore about that…” “You really did almost kill him, you know,” Harry said, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall for a moment. “I

know I said yesterday that he’s alive and fine now – and he /is/ – but if I hadn’t… If it had just been one second longer – he was really, really lucky.” Malfoy must have noticed the shakiness in his voice, because he looked up into the mirror, meeting Harry’s eyes over his shoulder. “Granger’s got quite an arm on her,” he said after a moment, laughing shortly. He gingerly touched his cheek, wincing a bit. Harry smirked. “You should know. Listen, you can’t call her that.” “I’ll call her whatever the bloody hell I want,” Malfoy declared. “Where does she get off slapping me like that?” “You deserved it, you prat. And I mean it, Malfoy, you can’t–” “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Potter!” Malfoy interrupted, spinning around and glaring at Harry. “You’re not the boss of me! And if you think this little two-week retreat is going to change the way I feel about Muggle-borns, you’ve got another thing coming!” “You’re not with Voldemort anymore–” Harry started to say, his voice rising. “That doesn’t matter!” Malfoy exploded. “I’m allowed to hang on to my beliefs! The world isn’t split up into good people and Death Eaters, you know!”

The words hit Harry with such force that they very nearly sent him reeling. He stared at Malfoy wide-eyed, and then drew in a shaky breath and tried his best to block out the memories that were trying to surge forth. “Of course,” Malfoy continued in a softer tone, oblivious to Harry’s reaction, “I /was/ a Death Eater, so I suppose that’s a bit of a moot point.” “Look,” Harry said tiredly, dragging a hand through his hair. “You’re entitled to your own opinions, everyone is, and I guess as long as you’re not acting on them and trying to kill all of my friends it’s all well and good. But…I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t… call her that.” “I only called her it because she slapped me,” Malfoy admitted, his eyes shifting off to the side. “Don’t do it again.” Malfoy shrugged but didn’t agree or disagree. Harry sighed. “Whatever. Come on.” *** Harry’s birthday passed uneventfully, much to his relief. He just wanted to be free from the Dursleys’, and stepping foot outside the

following morning and knowing that he wouldn’t ever have to return was a better present than anything anyone else could have given him. “Ready?” Hermione asked, stepping up beside him and grinning. Harry smiled back down at her and nodded. “Where are we going?” “The Burrow, of course,” Ron said, appearing at Harry’s other side. “Where else?” “I wasn’t sure if we were going to Grimmauld Place first or not.” “Nah. I’ve got to warn you, Harry, mum probably has a huge birthday dinner ready for you.” “And don’t be surprised if a lot of the Order members are there, too,” Hermione added. “Professor Lupin’s been asking about you.” “Order members?” a fourth voice asked, and the three of them turned around to see Malfoy standing behind them. He looked at them flatly. “Forgot about me, did you?” “Shit,” Harry said plaintively. “Yes, actually. Just for a moment. Er, Ron? Will Bill and Fleur be there?” “Doubt it. They’re still on their honeymoon. Then they’ll be in France with her family for awhile.”

“Why are they important?” Malfoy asked. “Um…” Harry bit slightly at his lower lip. “Do you remember when you told Dumbledore that you stepped over a body?” “Yes…” “Well, that was Bill that you stepped over. Ron’s older brother.” Draco’s eyes went wide. “I stepped over a dead person, though.” “Not a dead person, just an unconscious one.” “Though it was still your fault,” Ron cut in, crossing his arms. “Thanks to you he got mauled by that damn werewolf.” It was the first time he’d spoken to Malfoy since the slapping incident, because he and Hermione had taken to acting as if Malfoy didn’t exist whenever he was around. Harry wasn’t complaining; things were a lot quieter that way. “Greyback, you mean?” Malfoy asked warily. Ron nodded. “God, he probably /would/ be better off dead.” “Actually,” Harry said quickly, cutting off anything Ron might have said, “the only person who did die was one of the Death Eaters. We all got off okay.” “Harry, not that this isn’t important, but we’re due back at the

Burrow,” Hermione spoke up, glancing down at her watch. “You know how Ron’s mum will worry if we’re not there.” “Right,” Harry said hastily, and he grabbed hold of his trunk. “I’ll take Malfoy; he doesn’t know where it is–” “Wait, Potter!” Malfoy interrupted. “I mentioned them for a reason – /Order/ members? You’re honestly going to take me to a place full of Dumbledore supporters and Aurors and Merlin knows who else? I don’t see that going over very well.” “He’s got a point.” Hermione sighed. “They probably shouldn’t see him right away like that.” “I don’t think /hiding/ him would be very good for the whole ‘he’s safe, really!’ image you’re going for,” Ron said, brow furrowing a bit. Malfoy looked amused. “Going to try and prove my innocence, Potter?” “There’s nothing to prove,” Harry said. “I’ve told them already that it was Snape who killed Dumbledore in the end, and we’ll tell them you were coerced into helping under threats against your family. I don’t think they know about the necklace and the mead. At least, /I/ never mentioned it to anyone. Other than, you know, right when it happened and I went around telling everyone it was you.” He gave Ron and

Hermione an annoyed look. “No one believed me, though.” They at least had the decency to look ashamed. “Still,” Hermione said after a moment. “Maybe you should take him straight to Fred and George’s old room. Just until we can see who’s actually there. They’re not staying the night, right, Ron?” “No, they’ll be going back to the shop.” “Aren’t there wards up?” Harry asked. Ron shook his head. “They’re taking them down until we get there.” “Alright. Ready then, Malfoy?” “Do I have a choice?” Malfoy muttered. Harry gave him a lopsided grin. “You always have a choice. The trick is making the right one.” Malfoy blinked, staring at him, and then stepped forward so that Harry could grasp his arm. “Okay. To the Burrow!” Chapter 4 The wide-eyed looks of disbelief and something that could easily give way to anger that he could see growing in the Weasleys’ eyes nearly had

Harry grabbing Malfoy’s arm and Disapparating on the spot. Since that was hardly an option, he forced himself to stand his ground and instead looked at Remus, who appeared to be more curious than anything else. He was glad he had waited until after dinner to do this, because by now the other guests had cleared out of the Burrow. Beside him, Malfoy was shifting his weight from one foot to the other and doing his best to appear unaffected by the tension in the air. “I promise he won’t do anything,” Harry said for the third time. “I’ve got his wand and everything – look, there’s nowhere else for him to go!” “Harry,” Mr. Weasley said slowly, “We could /find/ somewhere else for him to go. It’s good that he’s decided to switch–” Malfoy looked up sharply before the man could finish. “Who said anything about–” “Shut it,” Harry hissed, digging his elbow into Draco’s side. “/Really/ not helping your case here.” Malfoy subsided and settled for glowering at nothing in particular, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. “Harry, dear, it’s just that – you know what happened to Bill, we can’t–” Mrs. Weasley fretted, wringing her hands as she looked at her

husband. “We need to inform the rest of the Order,” Mr. Weasley said. “If he’s got the Dark Mark we can’t just ignore that. They’ll be able to find a place for him – a safe house, maybe.” “The Burrow is the most protected place there is right now, you’re not going to find anywhere better!” Harry exclaimed. “Please, Mrs. Weasley – he didn’t /know/ Greyback was going to be there, he didn’t mean for Bill – or anyone – to get hurt!” “Just Dumbledore,” Remus spoke up, and Harry couldn’t help shooting him an annoyed look. “Fine,” he said. “We all knew what he /meant/ to do but the fact is that he /didn’t/. He lowered his wand, I saw it! And anyway, his family was being threatened by Voldemort.” Harry looked imploringly back at the Weasleys. “What if it was Ron? What if something happened to the two of you and Voldemort tried to use you against him? Don’t you think he might panic and do something rash?” “Plotting someone’s death and very nearly going through with it is a little more than what I would call a /rash/ action, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said tiredly. He ran a hand over his face and then gently took Mrs. Weasley by the elbow and led her to the table in the middle

of the kitchen. “Here, let’s all sit. Harry, I’m not sure I understand why you don’t want to go to the rest of the Order with this. It’s not as though we’re saying you should toss Draco back to You-Know-Who. We’re still willing to help.” “And this is /quite/ an attitude change from last year,” Remus added. “You can’t blame us for being curious.” “I just–” Harry sighed, reaching out to tug Malfoy along with him and push him down into a chair. He plopped down into the seat beside him. “It’s better this way.” Which wasn’t much of an answer at all, Harry knew, so he tried to elaborate. “The less people who know he’s here, the better. If Voldemort finds out…” “He’ll kill my parents for sure,” Malfoy finished for him, finally looking up at the other people sitting around the table. “Desertion is worse than just – disappearing. If he thinks he can still lure me back by keeping my parents’ welfare on the line, then at least they’ll still be /alive/. If he knows I’ve gone to you people for–” Help. Protection. All the things he didn’t want to admit he was here for. He opted for scowling instead of finishing his sentence. “But you didn’t,” Remus said. Malfoy looked at him. “You didn’t come to

us; Harry said that Hagrid found you. In fact, you had more than a month to make this exact decision and you didn’t.” For a moment, Malfoy shifted his gaze to the side, his fingers tapping agitatedly against the tabletop. “Your point?” he eventually said. “How do we know you wouldn’t go back to him if Harry were to give you your wand back?” “…You don’t,” Malfoy said. “And what does it matter anyway? I could sit here all day making promises, but it wouldn’t do any good because /none/ of you would believe me. Not to mention the rest of your precious Order, if you told them.” Harry sighed, rubbing at his eyes beneath his glasses. Leave it to Malfoy to be utterly unhelpful. “I promise you nothing bad will happen while he’s here,” he said yet again. “I’m just trying to do what I think Dumbledore would have wanted done.” Mr. and Mrs. Weasley looked at each other, apparently having some sort of silent conversation between them. It was Remus who spoke again. “If I recall, you’re a fairly talented wizard, Mr. Malfoy.” Draco raised an eyebrow. “More than,” he said. “And smart.”

“You would know, /Professor/.” Remus nodded, watching Draco for a brief moment before he turned to the Weasleys. “He doesn’t have his wand,” he said. “If it remains that way for the time being, then I think–” “/Remus/.” “No, Arthur.” Mrs. Weasley laid a hand on his arm. “I agree, I think it’ll be alright. If he has nowhere else to go – maybe it’ll be good for him.” “/Good/ for me – ow!” “So he can stay?” Harry asked, withdrawing his hand from where he’d pinched Draco underneath the table. Mr. Weasley shared yet another long look with his wife, and then sighed. “He can stay.” “And you won’t tell anyone?” “For now,” Mrs. Weasley said. “But Harry, if something comes up, or if we feel the need to inform other people, then you need to trust us and let us do what /we/ think is right, too.” “Of course.” Harry nodded. “Of course – Mrs. Weasley, Mr. Weasley, you’ll see, it’ll be fine. Thank you!”

Draco seemed surprised, like he hadn’t actually thought they’d agree. Harry didn’t wait around for him to open his mouth and say something that might ruin everything. Instead, he grabbed the other boy by the arm and hauled him up. “We really appreciate it,” he said as he pulled Malfoy out of the room. “Remus, I’ll see you soon?” He only just caught the man’s amused nod as he let the door swing shut behind them. “Get off me,” Malfoy said once they were alone, shoving Harry away. “What’s with the manhandling? Perhaps it’s escaped your notice, Potter, but I /can/ walk on my own.” “Sorry,” Harry said cheerfully. He headed for the stairs, pausing when Draco didn’t follow. “…Problem, Malfoy?” Malfoy, who’d been looking back towards the kitchen, shook his head. “No… They’re really going to let me stay here?” “That’s what they said.” “They’re far too trusting.” “Is there a reason they shouldn’t be?” Draco turned back to face Harry, staring at him with a somewhat perplexed look on his face. “…Let’s hope not.”

*** Ginny took the news even worse than her parents did. “How could you have brought him here?” she asked angrily, pacing about the floor in her room. Harry watched her from where he was sitting on her bed. “You /know/ what he did to Bill. Harry, it’s because of him that Professor Dumbledore is dead! He let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts!” “Funnily enough, it was the Death Eater Malfoy /didn’t/ let in that killed him,” Harry pointed out. “In fact, aside from what happened to Bill – and did I mention that Malfoy hadn’t planned on Greyback tagging along? – anyway, aside from that, the only thing the other Death Eaters managed to do was kill one of their own!” “Aren’t you getting tired of sticking up for me yet, Potter?” Ginny spun around abruptly, and Harry turned to see Draco leaning against the doorjamb. “Get out of here, Malfoy!” Ginny spat. “No one asked you to eavesdrop on us!” “Then maybe next time you should shut the door if you don’t want the whole house to hear you,” Malfoy suggested dryly. Harry honestly hadn’t been expecting Malfoy to venture out of Fred and

George’s room for the rest of the night, so seeing him again so soon after he’d left him there was somewhat of a surprise. He frowned over at him. “What do you want, Malfoy? Something wrong?” Draco adopted a look of faux innocence. “Just taking a tour of my new…place of residence.” “Finding it to your liking?” Ginny asked tightly, her eyes narrowed. “It’ll have to do,” Malfoy said with a shrug. “Smaller than I’m used to, of course. More cluttered. And the company is subpar–” “/Malfoy/,” Harry interrupted, having solved that mystery quickly enough. It didn’t take much to realize that the only reason Malfoy was bothering them right now was so that he could irritate the hell out of Harry’s girlfriend. Er – ex-girlfriend. Right. Draco smirked. “Sorry,” he said, sounding anything but. He leaned further into the room, as if examining the interior decoration. “So was that a little lovers’ tiff I just interrupted?” Ginny opened her mouth to reply, but Harry beat her to it. “We’re not together anymore,” he said, and then when Ginny glared at him he added quickly, “At least, not for right now…” “Shame, that,” Draco said, and he couldn’t have sounded more insincere

if he’d tried. “Harry, where’s Malfoy sleeping tonight?” Ginny asked, apparently deciding to follow Ron and Hermione’s lead and just ignore Malfoy altogether. “Fred and George’s room.” “And where are you staying? With Ron, I suppose?” “No, actually. Er, I’m staying in Fred and George’s room, too.” “…Excuse me?” Ginny asked dangerously. “/Why/?” “Ron and I agreed it would be best if someone stayed in the same room as him,” Harry explained hastily. “Plus, their room already has two beds in it, and Ron’s room always gets too cramped when you try to stuff another bed in there. And Ron didn’t seem to mind too much, anyway.” “That’s only because he’s going to sneak Hermione in there later on,” Ginny groused, crossing her arms across her chest. “And /that/ was entirely too much information,” Draco quipped, turning on his heel and leaving. “I’d better go, too,” Harry said. He stood and crossed to where Ginny was standing, trailing a hand softly up her arm before his fingers closed gently around her shoulder. Bending down, he

pressed a quick kiss against her cheek. “Night, Ginny. I’ll see you in the morning.” “So I’m down to the cheek, am I?” Ginny asked, just as Harry was halfway out the door. He paused, turning slowly back to look at her. “Ginny…” “Harry, please.” Harry stared at her helplessly. He shouldn’t, he really shouldn’t, he knew that. He was already at the door, all he had to do was take one more step and he could go back to his room. Willpower, Harry, come on, /willpower/. A familiar flowery scent drifted by, and Harry briefly squeezed his eyes shut before opening them again to look at Ginny. Her bottom lip had disappeared in between her teeth as she stared at him. Harry shut the door behind him without even realizing it. And he could hate himself all he wanted, but somehow the way Ginny’s smile lit up her face like that made it all worth it. *** He stumbled into Fred and George’s room nearly an entire hour later, shutting the door and then leaning back against it. His hair was still damp from the cold shower he’d just submersed himself in.

It took a few minutes before he realized that Draco was sitting up on his bed – George’s, he thought – and staring at him with raised eyebrows. “What?” Harry asked, a defensive tone in his voice. One corner of Draco’s mouth tugged up. “Did you just fuck your ex-girlfriend?” Harry swore and felt his cheeks burn as he moved to his own bed and collapsed on top of it, promptly burying his face into the pillow. “You did!” Draco said gleefully, and Harry could almost /hear/ him smirking. “I didn’t know you had it in you, Potter! I thought for sure you’d be a virgin for the rest of your life. Not that I often think about your virginity, but if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have thought you’d lose it so quickly–” “I didn’t,” Harry interrupted, though his voice was muffled by the pillow so it was hard to make out. “What was that?” “I said I didn’t.” Harry flipped onto his back and stared at the ceiling. “We didn’t do…/that/…” “But you did do something?” Harry groaned. “I’m not talking about this with /you/ of all

people, Malfoy.” “Well who else are you going to talk to? Weasley?” Draco snorted. “I don’t know how well he’d take that.” Harry’s insides twisted at the idea of Ron knowing anything of what his little sister did with him. He also didn’t like thinking about what the rest of her brothers would do, either. For God’s sake, she had /six/ of them. It certainly wouldn’t be a pleasant day if they ever found out. He’d seen how Fred and George had questioned her last summer... “Remembering your little tête-à-tête with the Weaselette?” Harry jerked, having forgotten that Malfoy was even in the room, and Draco snorted again. “Merlin, you do zone out easily, don’t you?” “Shut it, Malfoy.” “So what /did/ you do, then?” Draco pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on them. “Come on, tell me!” Harry’s cheeks warmed and he averted his eyes. Draco’s grin widened. “We didn’t do much,” Harry said hesitantly. “Just…kissed and… stuff.” “Stuff?” Draco repeated. “Such as…?” “Malfoy,” Harry groaned, covering his face with his hands.

“Did she suck you off?” Harry bolted up into a seated position, glaring at Malfoy from beneath his fringe. Malfoy’s grin became more of a leer. “I’ll take that as a yes,” he quipped, and Harry rolled his eyes and let out a long breath. “Yes, fine, alright,” he snapped. His face had to be bright red by now, he just knew that it was. “And did you go down on her?” He could still taste her on his tongue, actually, but he wasn’t about to mention that. “Why do you want to know?” he asked instead. “I don’t really,” Draco admitted airily. “But this conversation is embarrassing the hell out of you, which makes it fun. And as I’ve been bored out of my mind for the past two weeks, anything fun is a /very/ good thing right now.” He smirked at Harry again, peering at him so hard that Harry thought he might be trying to read his mind to see what had happened. And actually, seeing as how Malfoy was supposedly good at Occlumency, the idea of him being able to use Legilimency probably wasn’t too far-fetched. Harry abruptly tried to clear his mind, but he hadn’t practiced Occlumency since fifth year so he was sure it was

a weak attempt. Draco’s smirk widened. “Fess up, Potter. Why didn’t you two just go all the way?” “Why didn’t who go all the way where?” a third voice asked, and if possible, Malfoy’s smirk went even wider. Harry’s eyes widened and he tried to communicate silently to Draco that if he even dared mention in the slightest what had happened, then Harry would have to kill him. “Nothing, Ron,” Harry said, turning to look at his friend, who had apparently managed to crack the door open without Harry noticing and was now leaning halfway through it. Harry swallowed nervously and tried to look like he hadn’t just almost had sex with his best friend’s little sister. “It’s not important. We were just…talking.” Ron peered doubtfully between Harry and Malfoy, like the idea of the two of them /just talking/ was about as likely as Hermione deciding to give up S.P.E.W. “Well,” he began to say, still looking uncertain, “I just wanted to make sure you were alright. You disappeared after dinner, Harry; we weren’t sure where you went.” “Yeah, they were real worried, Potter,” Malfoy said snidely. “It only took him two hours before he was able to tear himself away

from Granger so that he could go looking for you. God forbid you might actually be in danger.” Ron’s cheeks flushed slightly, but he ignored Malfoy and continued talking to Harry. “I figured you were with Ginny or something–” Either realization had suddenly come to Ron or he’d just been bit on the arse by Ginny’s Pygmy Puff, because he cut himself off abruptly as his eyes widened. Harry’s mind ran through a string of curses. He could feel his cheeks going warm again, no matter how hard he tried to keep his face blank. “Right,” Ron said, blinking. “Okay. Um. Goodnight then. See you.” And then he was gone, the door closing rather loudly in his wake. Harry winced. Draco let out a low whistle. “That was fun,” he said, turning back to Harry, who glared at him. “So you didn’t answer my question. Why didn’t you–” “Because I’m not going to sleep with her in her /parents’/ house, Malfoy!” Harry finally bit out, falling back onto the bed again. “It’s amazing we actually managed to get that much time alone as it is. And I shouldn’t have done it anyway. She’s – I mean, we’re not – we’ve /broken up/,” Harry said determinedly. “We aren’t together anymore. I can’t let that happen again.”

“Who exactly are you trying to convince here?” Draco asked, lying back down in his own bed. He yanked the covers up to his chin and then promptly turned away to face the wall, leaving Harry with his thoughts. “Night, Potter.” Harry sighed, trying to calm himself. He bit his lip, remembering the way Ginny’s hair had been tangled in his hands, the way her pale, freckled skin had fit so well beneath his hands, the way– No. None of that. He could feel himself growing hard again, and he quickly pulled his own covers up. He couldn’t let anything with Ginny happen again. There were more important things going on. “Night, Malfoy,” Harry said quietly, and then he rolled over and tried to fall asleep. *** “Harry, are you even sure Grimmauld Place is safe anymore?” Hermione asked after lunch the next day. She’d blushed furiously and then promptly grinned at Harry when he had first spoken to her in the morning. Whether it was because of something Ron had said or because Ginny had told her everything that had happened the previous night,

Harry didn’t know. Frankly, he didn’t /want/ to know. He’d be mortified if Hermione knew anything about his activities in the bedroom. “Why wouldn’t it be?” They were sitting around the kitchen table, Hermione, Ron, and him, discussing what they were going to do for the rest of the summer and how they were going to go about finding the Horcruxes. Ginny had gone off to a friend’s house earlier, for which Harry was very glad. Not only did he plan on never involving her in what he and the other two were doing, but he wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to last in her presence before he made a fool of himself somehow. Malfoy was also absent, but that was because Harry had left him up in their room and he was pretty sure the other boy was afraid to venture out into the rest of the Weasley household alone. “Well… I mean, Professor Dumbledore was the Secret Keeper, and…I’m not sure what happens when the Secret Keeper dies. Will anybody be able to get into the house now?” “I think someone would have mentioned that to us, if it were the case,” Harry pointed out. “I doubt they’d just let it be open to the public for a month-and-a-half.”

“We could ask my dad,” Ron spoke up. He’d been suspiciously quiet around Harry during breakfast, but once Ginny had left he seemed to have opened up again. “He’s in the Order after all, and haven’t they been using it this summer anyway? It has to be safe then.” Hermione still looked doubtful, so Ron sighed and pushed himself away from the table to that he walk over to the stairs. “MUM!” “You called, Ron, dear?” Mrs. Weasley said, a bit sarcastically, as she appeared around the corner. “I was doing the laundry, so be quick.” “Mum, has the Order been using Grimmauld Place?” “Of course we have,” she answered promptly. She glanced between the three curious expressions leveled on her, and raised her eyebrows. “Why wouldn’t we?” “Because Dumbledore was the Secret Keeper and now he’s dead?” Ron supplied, as if it were obvious. “Oh, I see.” Mrs. Weasley smiled. “Secret Keepers have a way of passing on their duties. It’s very much like how Sirius passed all of his property over to you, Harry–” She glanced at him briefly. “– even though rightfully it should have gone to the next person in the Black family line. Just a bit of old magic, is all.”

“So who’s the Secret Keeper now, then?” Harry asked, his brow furrowing. He felt that someone should have mentioned this to him by now, but then again he was used to the adults leaving him out of things. He didn’t bother hiding his scowl. Mrs. Weasley faltered. “Well… See, we’re not…entirely sure,” she admitted. “What do you mean?” Hermione asked quickly. “Mrs. Weasley?” “The thing is, Dumbledore didn’t tell anyone, at least that we know of, that they were going to be the next Secret Keeper. And generally, the person obviously needs to know ahead of time. So…” “So you don’t know who it is,” Ron clarified. He let out a heavy breath. “Dumbledore /would/ do something like that.” “Well, who do you think he could have made Secret Keeper?” Hermione asked, looking thoughtful. “It would have to be someone he trusted implicitly, of course…” And just like that, Harry knew who it was. In fact, he couldn’t believe no one else had thought of it yet. “It’s Snape,” he said in clipped tones, before groaning and burying his head in his hands. “/Fuck/, who else would it be?” “Harry James Potter!” Mrs. Weasley exploded, and Harry

started because he’d honestly forgotten she was there for a moment. “You watch your language, young man! I don’t want to hear you talking like that again!” She thwapped him across the back of his head. Ron snickered, and Harry shot him an annoyed look. “Sorry, Mrs. Weasley,” he mumbled, but then looked at her sharply. “That’s who it is, though. It has to be.” She looked uncomfortable for a second, and Harry wondered if maybe they /had/ thought of it already. “Yes, Harry, we… Well, that’s the general consensus. That Severus is now the Secret Keeper.” “And you’re still using the place!” Ron’s eyes were bulging. “You could have all been /killed/, mum! You’re crazy!” “Oh, no one’s going to get killed,” Mrs. Weasley scoffed, which Harry thought was a bit rich considering what her boggart had turned into two summers ago. “You’re not saying that you trust him, are you?” Harry said angrily, half rising out of his chair. “He killed Dumbledore, in case you forgot!” Mrs. Weasley sighed deeply, and reached over to push Harry back into his seat. She left her hand on his shoulder, saying calmly, “Harry, dear, no one’s forgotten what he did. And certainly no one’s forgiven

him. We’ve put extra wards up around Grimmauld Place, and while it won’t keep Severus from telling anyone where it is, we don’t think he’s going to. I don’t want to upset you, but…some people in the Order believe that… Well, just let me say that there’s reason to believe that Dumbledore had an Unbreakable Vow with Severus that may or may not explain a lot of what went on a few months ago.” “An Unbreakable Vow?” Hermione repeated. “But then… there must have been a Bonder.” “Exactly.” Mrs. Weasley nodded. “And who that might have been, we /really/ don’t know.” “Do you have any guesses at least?” Hermione asked. “Harry, what do you think?” But Harry wasn’t listening. The words ‘Unbreakable Vow’ had sparked a memory inside of him that he’d nearly forgotten about. It took a second before he realized that he was staring at Ron, and Ron was staring right back at him with a knowing look in his eyes. Harry glanced up at the ceiling. “I’ll be right back,” he murmured. ***

Draco was reading one of Harry’s books when Harry threw the door open so hard it banged off of the wall behind it, and he literally jumped at the sudden intrusion. “Bloody hell, Potter! Give a bloke a little warning before you come barging in like that–” “Malfoy,” Harry interrupted, walking over until he was standing directly in front of him. Draco peered up at him curiously. “What were the conditions of the Unbreakable Vow that Snape took with your mother?” Draco’s eyes went impossibly wide. “How do you know about that?” “Not important,” Harry said, his own eyes narrowing. “Just tell me.” “I…I don’t really know,” Draco said, closing the book he was holding and setting it off to the side. “I didn’t – it was Snape who told me there even was a Vow, and I didn’t really stick around long enough for him to tell me about it.” Harry sighed agitatedly and sat down on the bed across from Malfoy. “I know that already,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “That was after Slughorn’s Christmas party; I followed you and Snape.” “Oh, of course.” Draco scowled and rolled his eyes. “You and your little

stalking adventures last year.” “He never told you anything else about the Vow?” “Never mentioned it again. Not that I ever really talked to him much last year.” Harry sighed again. “Damn. What did he say to you that night? That he was trying to help?” “Or some such bollocks like that, yeah,” Draco said, nodding. “Why is this important?” Harry ignored him. “What did he say that night…?” he said slowly, trying to remember. “/I’ve got an Unbreakable Vow with your mother/… Something like that…” “No.” Draco frowned. “It was… He said he was trying to help me. /I swore to your mother I would protect you. I made an Unbreakable Vow/. That’s what he said.” “He said he’d help and protect you?” Harry repeated, arching his eyebrows. Draco blinked. “Yeah,” he said slowly. His brow furrowed. “Killing Dumbledore would have been helping me, wouldn’t it? Since it was my task and I…couldn’t do it…” Harry leaned back against the footboard of the bed. “It could be

considered protecting you, too, since you were supposed to do it and if it didn’t get done, Voldemort would have killed you.” “Yeah, right, protecting me.” Draco scowled. “Completing /my/ mission was just like sentencing me to death, I don’t see how that’s /protecting/ me.” “Well, I doubt those were the exact terms anyway. Maybe he swore he’d do it if you couldn’t…” Harry trailed off as he remembered a conversation from months ago. There was something Hagrid had said to him… What was it? It had been important at the time, so surely he could remember… And then it hit him. /I jus' heard Snape sayin' Dumbledore took too much fer granted an' maybe he – Snape – didn' wan' ter do it any more… Dumbledore told him flat out he'd agreed ter do it an' that was all there was to it./ “Oh God,” Harry said, feeling sick. His mind whirled. “There’s no way…” “What?” Draco asked, startled. “What are you on about?” Harry looked at him sharply. “Would your mother have asked Snape to do what you were supposed to if it seemed like you were going to fail?” “I…I don’t…” His eyes went wide. “I don’t know. Do you think that’s what it was?”

“I have no idea.” Harry shook his head briefly, trying to get his thoughts in order. “That would…” /Severus… Severus…please…/ “Shit,” Harry said despairingly. /Yes, Harry, blessed as I am with extraordinary brainpower, I understood everything you told me. I think you might even consider the possibility that I understood more than you did./ “Potter?” “He /knew/,” Harry moaned. “Oh God, he knew the entire time. How many times did Dumbledore tell me he trusted Snape? How many /fucking/ times?! Over and over and over, no matter what I said to him.” /DON’T CALL ME COWARD!/ “Snape had to have told him. That’s probably the first thing he did. And Dumbledore told him to stick with it. Even in the end, he fucking /asked/ Snape to kill him so that /Snape/ would fulfill his vow!” “What the bloody hell are you /talking/ about?” Draco asked, sounding slightly bewildered. “Dumbledore was begging for his life, not asking Snape to /kill/ him. How does that make any sense?” It felt sort of odd realizing that Malfoy knew exactly what

Harry was talking about since he had been there as well, but Harry didn’t have time to focus on that. His mind was working too furiously at the moment. “Say that again,” he said in a low voice, turning to Draco. “What–” “What you just said, say it again.” “Which part?” “The Dumbledore was begging for his life part.” “That was all I said.” Draco’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Dumbledore was begging for his life.” “Okay,” Harry said, breathing quickly. “Okay, say it again, and /listen/ to what you’re saying.” “Dumbledore was begging for his life,” Draco said slowly, looking at Harry as if he’d just sprouted wings. “/Listen/,” Harry repeated. Draco huffed and rolled his eyes, and then said, deliberately pausing between each syllable, “Dum-ble-dore. Was. Begg-ing. For. His. Life.” He paused then, blinking, and Harry nodded eagerly at him. “Dumbledore was begging…” Draco blinked again. “That doesn’t really fit, does it?”

“/No!/” Harry exclaimed. “No, it doesn’t! Not at all. Dumbledore never would have begged for /anything/, not like that. And he told me once that death was only the next great adventure.” He stood abruptly, crossing to the door, and called downstairs, “/RON!/” Then he turned back to Draco. “Dumbledore would have wanted Snape to go through with it,” he explained quickly. “So that he could stay undercover.” “Undercover?” Draco muttered, arching an eyebrow, but Harry ignored him. “It would have kept you safe, for one thing. Dumbledore’s big on the innocence of youth, and he’d just promised you protection and all that. And he was dying anyway, I think – oh.” Harry’s eyes widened and he paled so quickly that Draco actually stood and took a step toward him in case he fell over. “/Shit/. Fuck. Oh my God.” He met Draco’s eyes. “I killed Dumbledore.” Both of Draco’s eyebrows went up this time, just as Ron and Hermione appeared outside the door. They glanced at Draco briefly, who was still staring dumbly at Harry, and then Hermione spoke up. “Harry… Did you just say that /you/ killed Dumbledore?” Harry turned to face them, a wild look in his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.” Hermione and Ron exchanged glances. “Harry,” she said

slowly, but he shook his head quickly. “I’m not crazy,” he said, pulling them into the room so that he could shut the door. He ushered them over to his bed and made them sit down, while Draco slowly sat back down on his own. “I don’t mean I /literally/ killed him. But – I mean, I just as good as.” He began pacing the length of the room. “You remember what I told you about that night? When Dumbledore and I were getting the Horcrux?” He heard Hermione gasp and out of the corner of his eye he saw the way Draco’s eyes widened, realizing belatedly that he probably should have made the boy leave the room. But it was too late now and Harry’s mind was working too quickly for him to pause long enough to shove Malfoy out. Ron shushed Hermione, giving Draco a wary glance, and Harry continued. “I had to force-feed him that potion, do you remember? I think... I’m pretty sure it was poisonous. It had to have been. Dumbledore was growing weaker and weaker throughout the entire ordeal, but he knew that – that if he just let go and died, then I would have blamed myself.” Harry choked on the last word, his eyes squeezing shut, and paused in the center of the room. “He kept telling me he needed to see Snape.”

/It is Professor Snape who I need/. “Over and over, and I said I’d take him to see Madam Pomfrey, but he refused.” /Severus… I need Severus./ “He knew what was going on, too, when we heard about the Dark Mark. He probably realized what was happening, that Malfoy had made his move. And even after we saw it, he /still/ ordered me to get Snape.” /Go and wake Severus. Tell him what has happened and bring him to me. Do nothing else, speak to nobody else, and do not remove your cloak./ “Because he knew, don’t you see?” Harry opened his eyes and looked at Hermione and Ron. They stared back at him, wide-eyed, and Harry was surprised to notice that his eyes felt wet. “He knew what Malfoy was going to do, Snape had told him. And he knew he was going to die, because the potion that /I/ forced him to drink was slowly killing him. I forced it down his throat, even though he was screaming for me not to…” “Harry…” Ron said, but Harry shook his head quickly. He opened his mouth to talk but was unable to form words. Hermione picked up where he had left off, speaking carefully, her brow furrowed. “So Dumbledore was already dying, Malfoy was /trying/ to

kill him, and Dumbledore wanted you to get Snape – why? I don’t understand where it connects…” “We think that Snape’s Unbreakable Vow with my mother might have been something along the lines of him swearing to kill Dumbledore if I couldn’t,” Draco spoke up, pale and looking like he was about to be sick. “What?” Ron said sharply. “No,” Hermione gasped. “He wouldn’t have–” “He /would/ have,” Draco snapped. “You lot don’t get it, he’s a /Death Eater/, he’s not on your side!” “/Listen!/” Harry yelled, interrupting them. “Snape’s a good actor either way, and I still don’t trust him but – but Dumbledore did, so this…/theory/ still works. Dumbledore wanted Snape there so that when Malfoy failed – because he knew you would.” He directed that at Draco, who scowled. “So that when he failed, Snape would be there, ready to go through with it. To kill him and–” “And subsequently protect both you /and/ Malfoy,” Hermione breathed, sudden understanding dawning in her eyes. “Yes – Harry – that…that makes sense! Sort of. I mean – it’s kind of far-fetched, but it /works/.”

“Do you know what this means?” Ron asked, looking from Harry to Hermione and back. “Snape might not… I mean, he might still actually be…on /our/ side.” There was silence for a moment, before Harry dropped down onto the bed beside Malfoy and buried his face in his hands. “I don’t want to believe it,” he mumbled. “I still hate him for what he did.” “But it is a possibility,” Hermione said gently. Harry nodded slowly. “It’s /not!/” Draco exploded, standing up so that he could tower over the three of them. “Snape works for the Dark Lord! He always has and he /always/ will! Why do you think my mum went to him? Because she knows that he’s still loyal to Him! My aunt tried to persuade her otherwise, but in the end he went through with it. He agreed to that vow because he’s an evil, sadistic /bastard/. You can’t just /stop/ being a Death Eater, you know!” “So I reckon we should throw you out then, yeah?” Ron said, his eyes narrowing. “Since you’re so evil and all.” Draco visibly faltered, his right hand clasping unconsciously over his left forearm. “You just don’t want to admit that you actually should have listened to him,” Harry said softly. Malfoy flinched. “Don’t worry, I’m not sure if

I entirely believe it myself,” he continued, looking tired. “Dumbledore said it was important that Voldemort still thought Snape was loyal to him, but how far can an act like that go? Would he really have killed the only person who actually believed in him? The only person who /trusted/ him?” But as soon as he said it voices of the past swept through his mind again. /DON’T CALL ME COWARD!/ /I jus' heard Snape sayin' Dumbledore took too much fer granted an' maybe he – Snape – didn' wan' ter do it any more…/ /DON’T–/ /Snape didn' wan' ter do it any more…/ /–CALL ME–/ /*…didn' wan' ter do it any more…* / /*–COWARD!* / “Fuck…” Harry murmured, pushing his glasses up onto his forehead and rubbing his eyes. “I still don’t believe it,” Draco muttered. “You haven’t been around Death Eaters like I have. Some of them… You can’t just… And – and the Dark Lord is one of the most powerful Legilimens around, how would Snape have been able to hide something like that?”

Harry didn’t reply because the answer was obvious. Voldemort may have been a powerful Legilimens, but likewise, Snape was probably just as proficient an Occlumens. “Perhaps we should just leave it for now,” Hermione suggested. “It sounds like the Order isn’t worried about Snape, so we shouldn’t try to cause trouble. Besides,” she glanced down at her watch, “your Apparating appointment is in an hour. We should get ready to go.” Harry wasn’t sure he’d be able to concentrate much on Apparition at the moment, but he also didn’t like thinking that maybe he really had been judging Snape wrongly all these years – it gave him a headache remembering all the different times he’d thought the man was evil, before grudgingly having to accept at the last minute that he wasn’t, only to suspect him for something else yet again the following year. Back and forth, back and forth. Would he ever really know? “Finally,” Ron said, a grin splitting across his face. “First thing I’m going to do when I get my license is pop in on Fred and George. And then I’m going to do it again. And again. And once more, just because I can. See how they like it.” Hermione smiled indulgently at him, but Harry caught her rolling her

eyes once Ron’s back was turned. “Malfoy, are you coming?” he asked, standing and stretching his arms above his head. Draco shook his head. “You honestly think they’d see my name and /not/ bring me in for questioning? No, I think I’ll stay here, thanks.” “Suit yourself,” Harry said, shrugging. “We’ll see you at dinner.” Chapter 5 Despite all his worrying about being able to focus, Harry had found the Apparating exam to be surprisingly easy. Both he and Ron passed with no trouble at all. “Both eyebrows still intact!” Ron crowed while they were eating supper at the Leaky Cauldron. They’d decided they might as well celebrate while there was still something /worth/ celebrating, and had eaten out instead of going back to the Burrow. Afterwards, Ron had wanted to show his parents he’d passed by suddenly showing up in the kitchen, but unfortunately there were still anti-apparition wards up on the house, so they were forced to Apparate to a hilltop about a half-mile away and make the trek back from there. By the time Harry made it back up to his and Draco’s room,

he was exhausted from the day’s events. He’d avoided thinking about Snape all through the Apparating test and dinner, but now that he was back here he couldn’t keep the thoughts from circling in his head. Maybe he’d bully Malfoy into a game of chess or something, to keep his mind off of it… “Took you long enough, Potter. What happened, you weren’t /determined/ enough?” Malfoy said as soon as Harry appeared in the doorway. Harry paused, leaning against the doorjamb, and couldn’t help the amused grin that spread across his face. “What’s got your knickers in a twist? Upset we didn’t make it back for dinner?” Draco scowled. “Just annoyed at being left in the mercy of that tubby old woman. She actually had the nerve to /force/ me to go down and eat with them, and then she kept trying to drag me into conversations.” He shuddered. “Mrs. Weasley means well,” Harry said. “And at least it’s better food than that slop we got at my relatives’ house.” “True,” Draco conceded. “She does make a decent treacle tart, I have to admit.” He looked Harry. “You passed then, I assume?” “Yep. I can now cart your pureblood arse around /legally/.

Bully for us, eh?” Draco rolled his eyes, and Harry finally noticed that he’d been reading something before Harry had shown up. “What’s that?” “Oh.” Draco glanced down at his lap. “It’s… My mother sent me an owl.” Harry’s eyes widened. “An owl? Bloody hell, Malfoy, why didn’t you just send /her/ one? I can’t believe you didn’t think of that before!” Draco huffed. “I don’t /have/ an owl. Not with me, at least.” “Well, you could have asked.” Draco shrugged, but didn’t say anything. Harry continued, “Anyway, that’s a good thing isn’t it? Now you know she’s alive.” “Yeah…” He furrowed his brow. “She sounds rather frantic, though. Demanding to know where I am and if I’m alright… I can’t tell her I’m with you, obviously. The Dark Lord might find out.” “Well, where is she? Still with him?” Harry paused. “Do they just…I mean, do they /live/ with him? Always?” Draco’s eyes darted up to meet his. “What, not your idea of a good time?” he asked dryly, before looking back down at the letter. “He tends to keep certain people closer than others. My parents – my mother used to be able to come and go more than most, but now…” He

sounded worried. “I’d imagine he’s got both of them under close watch.” “Not close enough that she couldn’t send that, at least,” Harry said. He opened his mouth to continue talking, but at that moment a very familiar flowery scent drifted by, sidetracking him completely. He glanced around, looking for its source, and sure enough Ginny came strolling down the hall a few seconds later. “Harry!” she greeted, smiling widely. “Hermione told me you passed. Well done!” She leaned forward, giving him a brief kiss on the mouth, before pulling back and giving Malfoy a narrowed look. Draco smiled a completely fake smile at her, and she scowled. “Did I miss something?” Harry asked faintly, looking back and forth between the two of them. Draco’s grin turned feral. “Little Miss Priss and I were discussing the difference between /on a break/ and /broken up/ over dinner,” he said, still smirking. “She seems to think that you two are, in fact, only briefly parting ways whilst you take care of that pesky Dark Lord problem. I was trying to explain to her how you were so very insistent last night that you weren’t together at all anymore. She thought I was lying.” “It’s not that I thought he was lying,” Ginny snapped, turning away from

Malfoy to look at Harry. “You’ve told me several times that we’re not together anymore, I know that. But he was making it seem like we’d /never/ get back together, and /that/ I don’t believe for a moment.” Harry swallowed nervously as Ginny continued to stare at him. “Er – right. Of course. Only on a break. Just…didn’t want to put you in danger, is all.” He chuckled a bit, though it sounded forced, but it seemed to satisfy Ginny. She gave Draco a triumphant look, kissed Harry one more time, and then continued on down the hall. Harry watched her go, before quickly shutting the door and leaning back against it. “/God/,” he muttered absently, dragging a hand through his hair. “You are such a liar, Potter.” Harry looked up to see Malfoy smirking at him. “You’re never going to get back together with her; you know that as well as I do.” “I am too!” Harry said indignantly, pushing away from the door so that he could begin getting ready for bed. “I – I mean… Ginny and I… Erm… You have no idea how I feel about her!” “Who the fuck cares how /you/ feel about /her/,” Draco said. He tucked his mother’s letter beneath his pillow and pulled off his shirt, tossing it at Harry. “You know what she’s like. Give me another shirt;

I need something to sleep in.” “We’re going to have to buy you some new clothes,” Harry said absently, pointedly ignoring the scar on Draco’s chest and instead surreptitiously checking the mostly healed wound on his side as he handed over some clean pajamas. “You can’t keep wearing my things. And what do you mean /what she’s like/?” Draco rolled his eyes. “Do you honestly think she’ll be able to go the whole year without a boyfriend? Even the Slytherins know about her reputation – God, I wouldn’t be surprised if /Blaise/ managed to snag her while you’re gone. Ever since she’s discovered blokes it’s just been one after another. Maybe she’ll hit Finnigan next, isn’t he the only one in your dorm she hasn’t been with?” “What – no! She hasn’t been with…uh…” “Weasley?” Draco snickered, and Harry scowled at him. “No, she hasn’t been with Neville!” “She went with Longbottom to the Yule Ball–” “That doesn’t mean anything! I went with Parvati Patil, and look how that turned out–” “BUT,” Draco interrupted loudly, “she /left/ with Michael Corner. Then

she dumped him and went out with Dean Thomas. And then you. Your girl gets around, Potter.” “That’s hardly a lot of people. Three boys, and all fairly longterm relationships. Sort of.” “She rebounds easily enough, though. You watch, either she’ll get back with Dean, or she’ll end up with Blaise. I think she likes black blokes.” Harry scowled, tugging on some pajama bottoms, and climbed into his bed. “Whatever, Malfoy. I think you’re jealous. When’s the last time you had a girlfriend?” Draco blinked, looking slightly uncomfortable all of a sudden. “Well – I mean there was Pansy, but I don’t know if you’d count that…” “Pansy Parkinson?” “Do you know any other Pansys? Merlin, Potter, our class wasn’t /that/ big. You’d think you’d know who people are.” Harry ignored that. “Why wouldn’t you count her?” Draco shrugged, pulling up his covers and then crossing his arms behind his head. “I never exactly asked her out. She just kind of…/assumed/ she was my girlfriend.” “Was there anyone else, then?” Harry asked, stifling a yawn

behind his hand. Draco shook his head. “No.” “Oh.” It occurred to Harry, in the silence that followed, that he had just had a conversation with Draco Malfoy of all people about their respective girlfriends. He never even talked with /Ron/ about things like this – mainly because Harry’s only true girlfriend to date was Ron’s younger sister, and Ron’s only girlfriend had been Lavender, and why on Earth would they want to talk about /that/ mess? – so why the /hell/ was he talking to Malfoy? With a frown, Harry murmured /Nox/ to put out the lights, and then he lay in the darkness for a while, waiting for sleep to overcome him. *** “What’s a Horcrux?” The question came so sudden and unexpectedly the following morning that Harry nearly choked on his toast. Hermione’s eyes went wide, and Ron actually snorted his pumpkin juice up his nose. “W-what?” Harry spluttered. Draco looked at him calmly. “What’s a Horcrux?” he repeated. “You mentioned it yesterday when you were talking about Snape. What is it?”

“It’s – nothing important…” Harry said, meeting Ron’s eyes across the table and raising his eyebrows in alarm. “Bollocks!” Draco snapped. “You said you and Dumbledore went to get one, and whatever happened while you were gone ended with Dumbledore being poisoned because you were forcing some sort of potion down his throat! So it was obviously important, don’t lie to me!” “You /do/ listen well, don’t you?” Hermione said, an impressed look on her face. Ron rolled his eyes and scowled. “Apparently somewhere along the line, Malfoy got the idea in his head that we actually have to include him in what we do,” he said. “What do you think of that, Harry?” “I think he needs to realize that he’s not nearly as important as he thinks he is,” Harry muttered into his glass. He ignored the annoyed look Draco gave him. “Is it some sort of weapon?” Draco plowed on, regardless of the way the other three were now pointedly not paying any attention to him. “Something of the Dark Lord’s? Something Dumbledore /lost/, for Merlin’s sake? Answer me!” “Malfoy, we’re not going to tell you,” Harry said simply. He thanked

Hermione as she picked up his dishes, and once the table was cleared they headed up to Fred and George’s room. “Is that why you’re reading all of these books?” Draco asked once they were there. He picked up the one he’d been flipping through yesterday and shoved it in Harry’s face. “Why are you reading about Hogwarts’ founders?” “Bloody hell, Malfoy,” Ron said, irritated. “We’re /not going to tell you/!” “Is it something of /theirs/?” “Would you shut up already?” Harry snapped. “Tell me!” “NO!” *** “Harry, look, it says here that Godric Gryffindor had an array of weapons, all of which he made himself, that had various magical properties. He rarely let anyone else look at them, let alone use one.” Ron looked up from the book he was reading. “Maybe one of those is still around?” “Dumbledore said the only known relic of Gryffindor’s was that sword I got from the Sorting Hat. He said he was confident that it was the only

thing of Godric’s left.” “So it /is/ a weapon then?” “…Shut up, Malfoy.” *** “‘Rowena Ravenclaw was a woman of little known material value,’” Hermione read aloud. “‘It is said that she valued education and knowledge above anything else, and spent much of her vast fortune on the impressive library that used to reside in the Ravenclaw mansion. Unfortunately, the mansion, which had been preserved for over eight generations, was lost during Grindelwald’s reign of terror when a mysterious fire overtook it. Everything inside was destroyed, including the last remaining descendents of Ravenclaw herself, who did not survive it.’ Oh, how awful!” “Yes,” Ron said lazily from where he was half-hanging off of Harry’s bed, reading upside-down. “Those poor, poor, books.” “Ron!” Hermione screeched, while Harry snickered. “Ron, that’s not funny!” “Yeah it is,” Harry and Ron muttered in unison, giving each other amused looks. “Books aren’t a weapon,” Draco said, glancing up from whatever tome he

had managed to pilfer from them today. “They could be. Knowledge is power, after all,” Hermione said loftily. Draco gave her an incredulous look, his nose wrinkling. “I already told you we aren’t looking for a weapon, Malfoy,” Harry said. “What /are/ you looking for then?” “It’s–” he started to say, but paused immediately when both Ron and Hermione gave him quelling looks. “Uh – nothing. Don’t worry about it.” *** “God, now I know why Hufflepuffs are so annoying,” Ron said, slamming one book shut and quickly picking up another. “Helga seems like a right nutcase, if you ask me. Did you know she tried to shoot down Gryffindor’s and Slytherin’s plans to start up the Quidditch teams at Hogwarts? She claimed it was a sport that was – what was it? Oh – too violent in nature and detracted from the many more /sensible/ things that students could be doing in their free time. Then she went and started up the first ever Herbology club, in which she introduced this one plant that was so vicious it sent seven students to the hospital wing within fifteen minutes after the first meeting started.” Harry snorted. “What was wrong with them?”

“They’d all had their fingers bitten off trying to feed it. Actually this one girl lost her entire hand…” “What book was that?” Hermione asked curiously. She leaned over to pick up the book from where Ron had dropped it. “/Perilous Plants of the Past: A Study of the Most Fiendish Foliage to Ever Exist./” “Sounds staggeringly stupid if you ask me,” Draco muttered. “Absolutely absurd, even. Why were you reading about /plants/ anyway?” “My question exactly,” Hermione said. “Hermione, I don’t even look at the covers anymore,” Ron groused. “I just pick up a book and go.” “How incredibly idiotic.” “Shut up, Malfoy.” “Goodness, you’re a grumpy git, aren’t you?” “Shut /up/, Malfoy!” *** “Are you sure Slytherin didn’t leave anymore of his possessions lying about?” “Pretty sure, yeah. I mean, we already know two of the Horcruxes were made from things of his, so–”

“/Two/ of them?” Draco interrupted. Ron let out an agitated sigh while Harry closed his eyes and silently counted to ten. “How many of these things are there?” “Seven,” Harry snapped, before Ron or Hermione could stop him. “There, are you happy? I’ve finally answered one of your questions. There are seven Horcruxes. Well, actually there’s only six; Voldemort himself is the last–” “/Harry/,” Hermione hissed, interrupting him. Draco didn’t miss a beat. “The last what?” he asked promptly. “Never mind,” Harry mumbled, and Draco pursed his lips together, looking angry. “I could help, you know,” he said. “Whatever it is you’re looking for, I could help you find it. I can read, too.” “We don’t need /your/ help,” Ron said. “We’re managing just fine on our own.” Draco snorted. “That’s the biggest load of shit I’ve ever heard. It’s been nearly a month, and unless I missed something, you lot haven’t found a thing.” Harry blinked, startled. Had a month really passed already?

He glanced at questioningly Ron, who looked like he was doing some quick mental calculations. “He’s right,” Hermione spoke up. “Ginny leaves for Hogwarts in two days. It’s nearly September.” There was an awkward moment of silence after Hermione mentioned Hogwarts. Harry had always known he wasn’t going back, and obviously so had Draco, but for his friends things were different. Harry wasn’t sure if Hermione’s parents even knew that she wasn’t returning to school, but Ron’s mum… Well, Mrs. Weasley had not taken the news well. They’d had a huge row about it the week before, when they’d all received their Hogwarts letters but only Ginny had wanted to go shopping for school supplies. Mr. Weasley had had to step in and remind his wife that technically Ron was of age and could do whatever he liked. Eventually she had grudgingly accepted that yet another child of hers wouldn’t be finishing his N.E.W.T.s year. Harry cursed. “We need to get a move on,” he muttered. “Voldemort’s not going to stick with these attacks on random villages for long, there’s sure to be a full-scale battle soon.” “I don’t know if he’s got a big enough army yet,” Hermione pointed out.

“I mean, well, obviously he got the Dementors back again, but Hagrid’s still trying to work things out with some of the Giants, and the Goblins are still undecided…” “I agree with Potter,” Draco said loudly. “You need to hurry things up. Which means you need help. And I’m here, and I’ve certainly got nothing better to do.” He turned to look Harry straight in the eye. “Let me help.” “Malfoy, look,” Harry said tiredly, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “It’s not that I don’t trust you – well, actually it is, because I /don’t/, but that aside… I promised Dumbledore I wouldn’t tell anyone other than Ron and Hermione about this. Not even the rest of the Order knows. It’s too risky, I think, to let many people in on it. Voldemort can’t be given the chance to catch on to what we’re doing.” Draco let out a frustrated breath. “So then don’t tell me /exactly/ what you’re looking for or what it does, just – I mean, obviously you’re looking for certain kinds of objects. Stuff that belonged to Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, or Hufflepuff. Just give me a general idea, maybe?” He pushed a hand through his hair, glancing off to the side and continued, “I’m so fucking /bored/ just sitting around. I have to be doing something. I can’t stand this waiting and not knowing what’s going

on. It’s driving me mad!” Harry looked over at Hermione, a question on his lips, only to find that she was already staring at him. She smiled a bit when he met her eyes, and then shrugged. Ron groaned from beside her. “Oh – no, Harry, don’t–” he started to say, but Harry interrupted him. “You’ve got most of it right,” he said, and Ron threw up his hands with an exasperated look on his face. “We’re looking for artifacts that belonged to any of Hogwarts’ founders. Things that may still be around today, that’s the key. Not stuff that’s already been forever lost or destroyed or something.” Draco blinked and looked at Harry for a long moment, before dropping his eyes. “Thank you,” he said softly, quickly, before glancing up again and smirking. “Was that so difficult?” “You can’t tell anyone, you hear, Malfoy?” Ron demanded. “Nothing of what we do leaves this room.” Draco pursed his lips. “Would you like me to make an Unbreakable Vow?” he asked sardonically. “That won’t be necessary,” Harry said, just as Ron muttered, “Probably a good idea…” “You know, our manor has a pretty extensive library. I bet

you could find some useful information there.” “Okay, no, /that/ is where I put my foot down,” Ron said quickly. “There’s no way we’re going to Malfoy’s house just for some books. Right, Hermione?” Hermione looked like the idea of an /extensive library/ was very appealing, and it seemed to pain her to shake her head. “Yes, of course, you’re right. We can just…get more books from Hogwarts or something…” “Don’t worry, Ron,” Harry said, amused. “I wasn’t going to agree that we should go there.” “You’ll regret it,” Draco said archly. “You wouldn’t believe some of the books we’ve got there. Some are so ancient I’m sure they’re the actual first print.” Hermione’s lower lip disappeared in between her teeth, but Harry shook his head. “No,” he said sternly. “We’re not going.” “Suit yourself. Just imagine all that information about Slytherin and the others going to waste. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if we actually had some old manuscripts that /they/ wrote!” “Shut it, Malfoy,” Ron snapped. “You’re so full of shit. Stop trying to tempt her.” Hermione’s eyes had all but glazed over by now.

Harry wouldn’t be surprised if she started foaming at the mouth soon. He snorted at the thought, and Draco snickered. “Fine,” he said easily. “You don’t know what you’re missing, though.” Harry rolled his eyes, and with a long-suffering sigh went back to his reading. *** The last day before Ginny was supposed to return to Hogwarts was one of the prettiest days they’d had all summer. The sunlight filtered in through the slightly open window, the gentle breeze rustling the pages of their books. Harry couldn’t concentrate on whichever one he had in front of him now; the words were beginning to blur and run together beneath his eyes. It didn’t help that they had just eaten lunch, so he was already drowsy to begin with. He yawned and stole a look at Ron, who was blatantly staring out the window with a yearning look on his face. Harry knew the feeling; it was perfect flying weather. So when Ginny appeared in the doorway half an hour later, demanding that they get some fresh air, Harry could have kissed her. He refrained though, because, after all, they /had/ broken up – were on a break – whatever.

“We can play Quidditch or something,” Ginny was saying. “I mean, I’m leaving tomorrow and I’ve barely seen you at all this past month. And Quidditch is going to be a disaster this year, I bet, so I might as well get some good flying in before all that starts.” “We can play two-on-two,” Ron agreed eagerly, already up and halfway out of the room. “Me and Hermione versus you and Harry. Or maybe it should be you and me, since Hermione isn’t that good…” “I’m not playing,” Hermione spoke up. “What – why not?!” “I can’t stand Quidditch, you know that,” she said primly. “I’m going to bring this book outside with me and read under one of the trees. “But…” “Right,” Draco said, smirking. “She doesn’t like Quidditch, just Quidditch /players/.” Ron gave him a dirty look, but Hermione just turned her nose up. “Hermione, we need four players!” Ginny said. “Please–” “No.” “But–” “No!”

“Wait,” Harry said, glancing around at Draco who looked like he was trying to appear like he had no interest in the conversation. “Malfoy can play.” Ron and Ginny gawked at him, while Draco blinked. “Are you crazy?!” Ron exclaimed. “I’m not playing with /him/!” “Then don’t, Ginny can be on his team,” Harry said. “Look, at least that way we have four people who actually /play/.” “He’s got a point, Ron,” Ginny said tentatively, though she looked unhappy about it. Draco nodded fervently. “Yeah, he’s got a point, Weasley.” Ron looked pained. “Well he’s not riding any of my old brooms…” he groused. “Wouldn’t want to, anyway,” Draco said, shuddering solely for effect. “Haven’t you got a – what? – Shooting Star or something? A Silver Arrow, maybe?” “Silver Arrows were before even my /dad’s/ time, Malfoy,” Ginny said, scowling. “Ron has a Cleansweep 11, and I think the twins left their old Comet 260s in the shed, since they got new brooms.” “Comet 260s?” Draco repeated. “How am I supposed to play against Potter on one of those when he has an effing /Firebolt/?!”

“I can use one of the twins’ brooms, too,” Harry said. “That makes it fair. Not that you’d beat me anyway, but at least that way you’ll feel like you have a chance.” He smirked, while Draco glowered at him. “Watch me,” he snapped. “Give me a house broom, I’ll /still/ kick your arse!” “When’s the last time you even played, Malfoy?” Ron asked as they made their way outside and down to the broom shed. “You weren’t at any of the matches last year – though I suppose now we know why…” “Doesn’t matter.” Draco took the broom that Harry offered him and shouldered it, before marching off towards the open field behind the Burrow. “I don’t need to practice, I have natural talent!” “The sad thing is he’s right,” Ginny muttered to Harry and Ron as they trailed after their fourth player. Both of their heads snapped around so they could stare at her in disbelief, and Ginny rolled her eyes. “What?” she said defensively. “The only person he’s ever lost to is Harry; he has to be /somewhat/ good…” “Are you lot coming or what?” Draco yelled. He was already up in the air doing figure-eights, and at one point swooped down so low that Harry had to duck lest he get rammed into.

“Annoying git, isn’t he?” Ron said offhandedly, throwing a leg over his broom. Harry rolled his eyes and watched as Draco zoomed through the air, his white-blond hair glinting in the sun and whipping around his face. He wasn’t smiling, per se, but there was a definite relaxed look on his face and his eyes were wide and bright. Harry couldn’t wait to wipe the pitch with him again. *** They flew for nearly two hours, passing a Quaffle back and forth and racing each other around the field, before Ron said he reckoned Hermione could use some help and left the game. Ginny smirked after him, saying in an undertone to Harry how it wasn’t /help/ Ron wanted to give her. “Are they together?” Draco asked as he flew up to where the other two were still hovering on their brooms. Harry and Ginny glanced at each other, shrugging. “They just kind of…/are/,” Ginny said. “Don’t know if Ron will ever work up the balls to ask her out for real.” “They’ll probably dance around each other for ages before one of them finally caves,” Harry added. “Don’t know what’s taking them. Hermione’s all but said she wants to be with Ron, but he’s as clueless as a

flobberworm.” Ginny rolled her eyes and snorted. “Ron’s always been like that,” she said. “That’s why there was that whole mess last year. Lavender, I ask you! What was he thinking?” “He was probably hoping for an easy lay,” Draco drawled. “Lavender Brown? She has an even worse reputation than /you/, Weasley.” “/Excuse me/?” Ginny spluttered. “What the hell is /that/ supposed to mean, Malfoy? Harry!” “Shut your mouth, Malfoy,” Harry said obligatorily. Draco smirked at him, and Harry turned to Ginny. “Just ignore him,” he said. “Come on, let’s practice your Seeker skills.” They spent the remainder of the afternoon chasing a beat-up old Snitch, one that Harry had smuggled out of Hogwarts, around the pitch, Harry trying to help Ginny spot it and Draco beating her to it almost every time. Chapter 6 By the time they had their first real fight, not the usual bickering that occurred nearly every other hour each day, almost two more weeks had gone by. Had anyone asked Harry about it, he would have had to admit

how impressed he was that it had taken that long in the first place. Draco had been cooped up inside with three people he’d previously hated, with no wand, for about two months now. And it went the other way, too. Harry, Ron, and Hermione had done a decent job of blatantly ignoring Draco when he got to be too much, but nonetheless he was always /there/, ready with a snide remark or a disdainful glance if the situation called for it. So when it all fell apart one day in the middle of September, Harry couldn’t really say he was surprised. “I swear to God, Potter, if you don’t let me go down to the village to post this owl, I /will/ kill you,” Draco said calmly, aside from the fierce, almost frantic, look in his eyes. Harry stood his ground in the doorway, refusing to let the other boy pass. “You can’t leave the Burrow,” he told him, his eyes narrowing. “I told you that already. I’m sure Hedwig or Pig will be back from their hunting soon–” “I don’t give a /fuck/ what you told me, Potter!” Draco snapped. “I need to send this /now/, and if–” “Why didn’t you just use the owl your mum sent?” “Because she sent it this morning and I didn’t read the letter

until half an hour ago!” It was well past dinner now. Harry blinked. “Well, why’d you wait so long?” “I don’t know!” Draco exploded. His fist clenched around the note he held in his hand, crumpling it around the middle. “I didn’t think it was anything important, and you all were in the room and – just let me go!” “Malfoy, even if it wasn’t a Muggle town I still wouldn’t let you go, but that hardly matters anyway because guess what? It /is/ a Muggle town,” Harry said, in what he thought was a perfectly reasonable tone. “They won’t have an Owlery; that’s not how Muggles send their post.” “What do you mean, it’s a /Muggle/ town? Loony Lovegood lives around here! And don’t tell me she doesn’t, because I know your girlfriend kept going over to her place!” Harry rolled his eyes. “Yeah, Luna lives here, and so do the Diggorys,” he said. “But it’s still mostly Muggles.” “Damn it all, let me floo to Diagon Alley, then,” Draco said, and he was starting to sound desperate. “It’ll take me fifteen – no, /ten/ minutes, I swear, then I’ll be right back!” “Malfoy,” Harry said firmly, “You can’t go. Hedwig will be

back within the hour–” “I can’t wait for your bloody owl!” Draco interrupted, his eyes squeezing shut. “What’s so important that it can’t wait?!” Harry finally caved and asked in an exasperated voice. “That’s…” Draco floundered. “That’s none of your business. Come /on/, Potter. I’ve been good, haven’t I? I haven’t asked for my wand back once, I haven’t tried to steal anyone else’s, I haven’t – /hurt/ anyone! Don’t you trust me at all?” “What – /no!/” Harry said wildly, his eyes going wide, as if the answer were obvious. “No, I don’t!” That seemed to bring Draco to a halt. He blinked rapidly a few times. “You…you don’t? Not at /all/?” “Of course not!” Harry said. “You were a /Death Eater/. As long as you’ve got…/that/ on your arm, I can’t trust you! I /can’t/, Malfoy, I won’t!” “But it – it’s not like it’ll just come off, Potter,” Draco said faintly, clutching his forearm so hard Harry thought he could see his nails digging into his skin. “I can’t – that’s not how it works; I can’t just wave my wand and hope it’ll be gone!”

Harry shrugged, crossing his arms. “Not my problem; you never should’ve gotten the damn thing in the first place.” Draco’s eyes widened a bit. “Fine,” he whispered, backtracking into the room. “Fine. Give me my wand.” Harry snorted. “Yeah, okay,” he said sarcastically. After all the fuss they’d made about the bloody thing that summer, Harry doubted Draco actually wanted it. He was just putting on a show, that’s all. “I mean it,” Draco said, still talking quietly. “I’m serious, Potter, give me my wand.” “What are you going to do with it? Hex me?” He arched his eyebrows. “No,” Draco replied. “I’m leaving. So give me my goddamn wand!” Harry paused, his mouth opening to retort and nothing coming out. He tried again, but he still couldn’t think of anything to say. His brow furrowed. “You’re – /leaving/? You can’t leave!” “Try and stop me!” Draco snarled. He stomped over to the wardrobe he’d been using, snatching Harry’s old bag up along the way. Throwing the doors open in a haphazard manner, he began tossing all the clothes inside it – some of which were Harry’s and the rest what Mrs. Weasley

had been kind enough to get him using Harry’s money – into the bag. “You know,” Draco started to say, and Harry could actually see his back shaking, “I thought – for a bit – that this might actually work. I didn’t much believe it when Dumbledore offered me protection that night, but I grabbed at the chance anyway because – because I was so fucking /desperate/ and…and a coward and it was a terrible choice to make–” “It was a choice that saved your life–” Harry cut in, but Draco interrupted him just as quickly. “It was a choice that sentenced me to /death!/” he said, whirling around to glare at Harry. “At least if I had killed the old man I’d have someplace to return to, and the Dark Lord would have been /proud/ of me. I would have been revered, Potter!” He turned slowly back to the wardrobe, reaching for more of his belongings. “But no, I had to go and /believe/ that old fool, I had to /trust/ him, and look where it got me! I’m not safe, no matter where I go. The Dark Lord wants me dead, your side couldn’t care less about me – Dumbledore might have, for a second–” “Dumbledore didn’t give a /damn/ about you,” Harry spat, anger welling up inside him with startling speed. He was furious, even though he didn’t fully understand why. What was Malfoy getting at? Did he think

that Harry owed him something for not killing Dumbledore? “He was only trying to stay alive for a few minutes longer, /that’s/ why he even bothered telling you he could protect you!” Harry sincerely doubted that was the case, but the words kept coming and in his anger he didn’t bother to censor himself. “Thank you, Potter. Not like I hadn’t already thought of that myself but it really helps to have it /yelled/ at me,” Draco muttered angrily. His hands were shaking badly now as he reached for the last of his clothes. “Where are you going to go, then? Huh?” Harry asked when Draco pushed past him and walked quickly towards the stairs. He grabbed the back of his shirt when Draco didn’t answer, yanking him to a stop. “Answer me!” “I don’t have to tell you a bloody thing!” Draco snapped, twisting out of Harry’s grip. “Yes, you do!” Harry clawed for the other boy’s shirt again. There was a desperate edge to his voice. “You know too much, if you think I can just /let you go/–” “I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING!” Draco roared. He lurched away and there was a loud ripping sound since Harry was still holding on to his shirt. “You wouldn’t fucking /tell/ me anything, so what is there for me

to know?!” “You know we’re looking for Horcruxes–” “I don’t know what the hell a Horcrux is! You never told me!” “That doesn’t matter!” Harry shouted, and he really was getting desperate now. He could feel the situation spiraling out of control. “If Voldemort finds out that we’re looking for them – where are you going, Malfoy?!” “Away from here!” he finally spat. “I’m going to go where people trust me!” “You’re not going back to /him/, not after all I’ve done for you–” “Oh, fuck you, Potter, throwing that in my face – /no/, I’m not going back to him!” They were outside now. Harry had just sped by a startled looking Ron and Hermione sitting at the kitchen table and now he was hurrying along behind Draco across the Weasleys’ property. “Damn it, Malfoy, you can’t just leave!” “Give me one good reason not to,” Draco hissed, spinning around so quickly that Harry nearly ran straight into him. “I’m not needed here, that much is obvious–” “You’re not really needed anywhere, are you?” Harry

snapped, and then immediately regretted it and clamped a hand over his mouth. Draco pursed his lips, breathing quickly, his face pale. “You don’t need me here,” he repeated. “You’re not going to /protect me/, or some such rot. I don’t know why I thought you could. The rest of the Order still doesn’t even know I’m here!” “Because you agreed it wasn’t a good idea to tell them!” Harry cried in exasperation. “Don’t pin that on me, /you/ didn’t want a lot of people knowing where you were!” “Well, maybe we were wrong!” Draco burst out. “Maybe that was a bad idea! Maybe this entire thing was just one big /awful/ idea. It was clearly never going to work!” “You don’t know that–” “I think it’s pretty fucking obvious at this point.” Harry frowned, his mind working furiously. How could he make him stay? There had to be a way. “I – I still have your wand,” he tried, grasping at straws now. “Keep it,” Draco muttered. “I’ll get a new one. Somehow.” “You – but – you can’t Apparate! You aren’t any good at it!” “Then I guess I’ll have to learn rather quickly, won’t I?”

Draco said, his voice rising. “Fuck you!” Harry finally snapped. “I hope you splinch yourself, damn it, and I won’t give back your parts if you do!” “I’ll try to leave my arse behind,” Draco drawled, “so you can just go ahead and kiss it!” “Fine,” Harry said quietly, his hands closing into fists at his side. “Fine. I hope you rot in hell, Malfoy. Or Azkaban, which I’ve heard is just as bad. If you’re having trouble finding people who want you, I’m sure there’s always room /there/. You’d get to visit your father, at least.” What little color had been left in Draco’s face faded, and he nodded once before turning away from Harry slowly. Harry winced a little and cursed to himself. He thought he could hear Draco muttering the three D’s under his breath – “/Destination, determination, deliberation. Destination, determination, deliberation/…” “Malfoy.” Draco looked at him out of the corner of his eye. Harry pushed a hand through his hair. “If you – I mean – um… Don’t tell anyone. About – about the Horcruxes.” Draco blinked, and Harry thought his face might have softened a tiny, tiny bit. “I won’t,” he said, and then his lip curled and he

sneered at Harry. “/Trust/ me.” Harry tried to say something – /anything/ – but before he could Draco had squeezed his eyes shut, spun on the spot, and – /crack!/ – disappeared. Harry glanced nervously down at the grass where the boy had been standing, half expecting to see a severed leg there or something, but there was nothing. Draco was gone. *** “Oh, Harry, you should have just Obliviated him!” Hermione said, wringing her hands. “Are you sure he won’t tell anyone, mate?” Ron asked. “Yes,” Harry replied, even though he wasn’t sure at all. He slammed the lid of his trunk shut. “Are you both ready? We need to get going.” Draco had been right about one thing, Harry knew. They hadn’t made any progress in the month-and-a-half of reading they’d done. Hermione had a list of artifacts that could possibly be Horcruxes, but that was about it. If those artifacts were even still around, Harry thought bitterly. Somehow they not only had to locate these long-lost items, but they also had to determine whether or not they actually contained a

piece of Voldemort’s soul. That was Hermione’s job, finding a spell that would be able to verify if something was a Horcrux. Personally, Harry doubted there was any such spell, but Hermione was still optimistic, so he hadn’t said anything. What they needed was someone on Voldemort’s side, someone close to him, who might know where, or at least /what/ the Horcruxes were. Harry’s mind instantly flashed to Snape, because the answer was obvious, but he still refused to trust the man. He hadn’t really thought about him since that night in August, and he wasn’t going to start now. “How exactly are we /getting/ to Godric’s Hollow, Harry?” Hermione asked, shrinking all three of their trunks so that they could carry them easily. “I’m sure you don’t actually remember being there…” “No,” Harry agreed. “I don’t.” He pulled a picture out of his pocket, handing it over to his friend. “I’m not entirely sure it’ll work, but I thought that if we concentrated on an image of the place we wanted to go to, we’d…end up there.” Hermione arched her eyebrows. “It’s possible, I suppose. Of course things might have changed in sixteen years. And, Harry, isn’t this a

picture of…your house?” Harry glanced over at the photo. It was one of the ones from the album Hagrid had given him all those years ago. He was extremely little in it, probably less than a year old, and his mother was holding him. His father wasn’t in the picture, so Harry assumed he was the one taking it. They were outside of a quaint looking house, and from the look of it there weren’t many other homes around. “Yes,” he replied. “What of it?” “Well…it’s just that – I mean, wasn’t your house destroyed?” Harry pursed his lips. “I think so, yeah. So just…concentrate on the field around it or something.” “But what if there are Muggles around–” “Hermione!” Ron interrupted, snatching the picture from her. “Just do it, alright? It’ll be fine.” Hermione sighed. “Alright, alright. Are we going then?” Harry nodded, and with a final look at the photograph, the three of them Disapparated. They landed in what was apparently someone’s back yard, and the dog that was there yelped in surprise and then immediately starting barking at them. Harry cursed, and they quickly scurried around to the

side of the house, pressing themselves flat against the wall. “Brilliant, Harry,” Hermione snapped. “Wonderful plan.” “Shut it!” Harry hissed, glancing around. It was still early in the morning, and the sun was only just beginning to show in the horizon. There was no one out that they could see. “Ron, your mum knows to put the wards back up, right?” “Yeah, I told her we’d be gone by the time she woke up.” Harry nodded. The dog had quieted down again, so he pushed away from the wall and walked to the front of the house. “Guess you were right, Hermione,” he murmured. “It looks like it /has/ changed a bit.” He could recognize from the picture that they had indeed made it to the right spot, but apparently the area had been built up in recent years. There was a neat little row of houses along the street, and though the field was still at the back of the houses, it was significantly smaller, because on the other side of it was another row of quaint houses. For some reason it made Harry uncomfortable to look at. “Come on,” he murmured. “Let’s go into town.” ***

He didn’t want to stick around long. It was obvious now that there wasn’t anything left of his once-home here. Still, maybe someone in the town would remember the Potters. Maybe there was a cemetery he could go to. Harry didn’t know why he’d never thought of it before, because his parents had to be buried /somewhere/. They explored the town throughout the morning, waiting until a little after lunchtime before they started asking questions. There were more people out and about then. Harry could tell instantly that this was the sort of town where everybody knew who everybody else was. People were constantly stopping to greet someone as they bustled along down the sidewalks. It would have been a nice place to grow up. There were no signs of a wizarding quarter here, though. They chose a little café-slash-inn joint to eat lunch at, a place that Hermione said was “cute.” As they sat down at the bar and waited for someone to take their order, Harry thought he could see why. There were all sorts of knickknacks and trinkets adorning the walls, items that looked like they’d been collected over a great number of years by someone who had thought them fascinating at the time, before later realizing they were generally worthless. Harry quickly grew bored of examining them, though Hermione’s burgeoning interest

was palpable, as she kept pointing different things out to Ron. After a bit, a little old lady turned up beside them, asking in a croaky voice what they wanted. When she returned with their drinks, Harry spoke up. “Excuse me, ma’am, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about – about the Potters, would you?” “The who?” the lady spoke up, cupping her ear. “Er – the Potters,” Harry repeated, feeling awkward. “They used to live here. Um, about sixteen or seventeen years ago?” “Seventeen years ago?” she repeated, laughing. “Son, I don’t remember what happened /yesterday/, much less seventeen years ago!” She tottered off, still chuckling. Harry frowned and rested his cheek on his fist, his elbow propped up on the table. “Don’t let it get to you,” Hermione said gently. “It was a long time ago, of course it’s hard for people to remember.” “You’re asking about the Potters?” a new voice asked. Harry glanced around at whoever had interrupted their conversation, and found a different lady standing behind the bar, drying a glass. She was older, but not completely grey and wrinkled like their waitress was. There were wisps of white in her auburn hair, all of which was pulled into a tight

bun at the nape of her neck. Her eyes had small wrinkles around them, like she had spent most of her life smiling. When Harry looked at her, she peered at him for a long moment before her eyes went wide and the glass she had been holding fell abruptly from her suddenly limp fingers. “Well I’ll be,” she murmured, a grin spreading across her face. “If it isn’t Lily and James’ boy! Hey, MARK!” she turned and called down to the other side of the bar. “Get over here!” She turned back to Harry, and surprised him by leaning over and ruffling his already messy hair. “Harley, wasn’t it? Lord, I’d recognize that hair anywhere. That’s James’ hair! You look just like him, too, darlin’. Has anyone ever told you that?” Out of the corner of his eye Harry caught Hermione and Ron grinning, and he felt his cheeks warm. “I’ve heard it once or twice, yeah,” he mumbled, trying not to pull away from her touch. He didn’t want her to think he was rude or anything. “And it’s Harry, actually. Um, I’m sorry, you are…?” “Marsha, sweetness. Just Marsha.” She moved her hand down to cup his cheek, letting out a tremendous sigh. “Lord, what’s it been, fifteen years or something? Too long, I say, too long.”

“I’m – er – I’m seventeen, actually,” Harry said. “So it’s been about sixteen years.” Marsha rolled her eyes. “Close enough, close enough. Mark, there you are! Come here!” An older man with grey hair and narrow glasses walked up, giving Marsha an indulgent smile. “You called, dear?” he asked in a somewhat exasperated, yet amused voice. Marsha grabbed him by the arm, pointing in Harry’s direction. “Look there, Mark. Look at who that is!” The new man, Mark, peered at him. “No one I’ve ever seen before,” he said, his voice deep and throaty. “Not in fifteen years, no. That’s Lily and James’ son!” Mark blinked and adjusted his glasses. “My God,” he breathed. “You’re right! Look at him, he looks just like James! Henry, was it?” “Uh…it’s Harry…” “Harry, Harry, of course.” The man beamed at him, as did Marsha. Harry squirmed uncomfortably. “Oh, dearie, look at me,” Marsha said suddenly, clasping a hand to her chest. “How rude, here we are staring at you like you’re a wax figure on

display. I’m Marsha–” She thrust a hand in Harry’s face and he shook it warily. “–and this is my husband, Mark.” “Your father, James,” Mark said, pumping Harry’s hand up and down, “he used to come in here all the time. We’d watch the football matches on the telly. Somehow he always knew which team was going to win, your dad.” He sighed. “Good man, good man. He was always bringing his friends in here, too. One of them had a motorbike, I remember.” “Your mother, too,” Marsha added. “She’d come in sometimes. Such a nice woman. Had the best recipe for pumpkin bread, she did. Never could make it exactly like hers, though.” They stared at him for another moment, while Harry fidgeted nervously and listened to Ron and Hermione chuckling openly now. He was beginning to regret his decision to come to Godric’s Hollow. “Er…” “Oh, there I go again with the staring,” Marsha said abruptly, grinning widely. “You look so much like him, though. From what I remember…” Harry and Ron exchanged glances, their eyebrows raised. “So, Harry, you haven’t spoken to us at all yet!” Harry thought that was unfair; it wasn’t like they’d given him much of a chance to. “Talk to

us! Who’re your friends?” “Oh, sorry. This is Ron and Hermione,” Harry said, gesturing at them both in turn. “They’re friends of mine from – from the boarding school we go to.” “Boarding school, eh?” Mark rumbled. “That’d explain why you’ve never been back to see us.” Harry refrained from pointing out that he didn’t really even know who /they/ were. “Yeah,” he said instead. “Sorry about that.” “So what brings you back now?” Marsha asked, leaning against the bar. “Oh – um – well, I…I guess I wanted to come and see where my parents were buried.” There was a sudden silence after he said this, and he glanced up to see Mark and Marsha staring at him wideeyed. “/Buried/?” Marsha repeated. “They – they’re /dead/?” “Um… yes?” Harry said uncertainly. “They…well, I thought they died here. I grew up with my relatives, and they don’t really talk about my mum and dad.” “Oh.” Marsha rubbed her neck distractedly. “Oh, how awful!” “They didn’t die here, son,” Mark said. “They moved when you were just a little tyke. About one, I’d say. Don’t know where they went,

actually. They told us they’d probably move back one day.” Hermione leaned across Ron, saying to Harry in a low voice, “They obviously never moved, so that’s probably when they got their Secret Keeper.” Harry nodded. “I’m sorry,” he said to Marsha. “I didn’t realize you didn’t know.” “They were terrific people,” she replied, sounding choked. “Oh, listen to me! Twenty years since I’ve seen them and I’m still about to start blubbering here. Got my hopes up, see? I saw you and thought maybe you’d all decided to move back in! ‘Course you would have had to find a new house, anyhow. There was some sort of gas explosion at your old one awhile back…” Harry exchanged glances with Ron and Hermione. Gas explosion, indeed. “Oh,” Harry said uselessly, not knowing what else to do. He waited for a moment before tentatively speaking again. “Well… Look, is there a cemetery or anything around here? Just so I can…go check…” Mark nodded. “There’s one down at the end of River Street. Sort of big; we get people from the town over, too, see.”

“Are you going to go see it tonight?” Marsha asked, wiping her eyes. “I’ll make you a picnic dinner, how’s that? It’s the least I can do. And if you need somewhere to stay afterwards, you come right back here! Got it?” They talked for a bit more, but eventually Marsha said she had other customers that she needed to get to. “Be sure to come around again, alright?” she called after them as they left the café. “Yeah, sure,” Ron muttered, sharing an amused smirk with Harry. Hermione rolled her eyes at them, and they began making their way towards the cemetery. “You know, I always thought Godric’s Hollow was a wizarding village,” Ron mused as they went. “I mean, you know, Godric Gryffindor?” “I think it makes more sense that Harry’s parents were trying to hide out among Muggles,” Hermione said. “You’d think someone around here would remember that night,” Harry muttered, kicking at a rock. “/Gas explosion/, I ask you.” “Well, if they’re all Muggles, they would have been Obliviated, wouldn’t they?” Hermione pointed out. “Oh yeah…”

They reached the cemetery gates around half past three, and then spent nearly an entire hour looking for his parents’ graves. When they finally found them, Harry could only stand there and stare. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Maybe it was what was before him; maybe it was nothing at all. Their graves were nothing special. Just two marble markers, about three feet tall, with their names and dates of births and deaths. Harry couldn’t imagine that their funeral had been anything spectacular either. Sirius had probably already been in Azkaban at that point, and Remus would have thought that he’d just lost two of his best friends while the third had betrayed them all… “Harry?” Hermione said softly. “Do you want to be alone for awhile?” Harry stared at the graves for a moment longer, and then shook his head. “No,” he murmured, feeling something in his chest loosen a bit. He felt lighter than he had all summer, more carefree, if only for a minute. “No,” he said again. “Stay.” He dropped to his knees in front of the gravestones, running his hand along his parents’ names. “Hey, Mum,” he whispered. “Hey, Dad.” And even though his voice caught in his throat and his eyes felt wet, he was still happier than he’d been in awhile.

“This is Ron and Hermione,” he continued in a choked voice. “They’re my best friends.” He felt Ron kneel down on one side of him, Hermione on the other. “Hello,” she murmured, smiling. “Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Potter,” Ron said. He grinned, clapping Harry on the shoulder. “We’re taking good care of your son, don’t worry!” “Tell Sirius we said hi, won’t you?” Hermione said, and Harry couldn’t help the chuckle that tumbled from his lips. “Yeah,” he said softly. “I bet he’s with you right now. Hi, Sirius.” The breeze blew through the trees that were scattered through the cemetery, gentle and surprisingly warm for the season. Harry grinned as it ruffled his hair. He felt Ron’s grip on his shoulder tighten, and Hermione had one hand resting gently on his knee. They didn’t get ready to leave until it was dark and all the food Marsha had packed for them was gone. “I suppose the only place to go now is Grimmauld Place,” Hermione said, standing and brushing random blades of grass off her clothes. “Guess so,” Harry agreed. “I admit, I was sort of hoping that…that that my mum and dad’s old house was still here. I thought we’d

be able to use it, because Grimmauld Place might be too crowded. The Order, you know…” “They use it more for meetings than anything else,” Ron pointed out. “We’ll still be the only people there most of the time.” “I hope so,” Harry said, sighing. He glanced back at the graves for a long moment, and then took a deep breath and turned away. “Alright. Shall we go, then?” A few minutes later they were cautiously walking through the entry hall of Sirius’ old house. Mrs. Black’s portrait was still on the wall, for one thing, but they also weren’t sure if anyone else was around. “I don’t think anyone’s here,” Hermione whispered, waving her wand so that some of the lights turned on in the hallway. “It’s rather…creepy in here at night, isn’t it?” She giggled nervously. “Guess we’re on our own,” Harry murmured. “Ron, if we’re the only ones here, do you reckon we can have our own rooms?” “Yeah, I don’t mind,” Ron replied. “It’s nice to have a bit of privacy every now and then.” He grinned impishly, and Harry rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I bet,” he said. “Alright, well, I’m knackered. I think I’ll go ahead and turn in.” He headed for the stairs, before pausing

and turning back to the other two. “Um…thank you,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “For coming with me. I know we didn’t really get anything done, but still…I’m glad we went.” Hermione smiled at him. “We’re glad you brought us with you.” Harry nodded and gave them a small smile. “Alright then. Good night.” Chapter 7 The next couple of days were interesting ones, as they were never really sure who would be showing up or when they would be popping in. Often times they’d wander into the kitchen and find Tonks sitting there at the table, sipping her tea, and other times they’d head into the living room, only to find Moody holding some sort of impromptu meeting with several other people, none of whom they knew. Then there were the days, sometimes two or three in a row, where no one would come by at all and they would have the entire house to themselves. These were the days that Harry liked best, because he never had to worry about anyone overhearing their conversations. Not that there was really anything to overhear. They still didn’t have any solid leads on where or what the remaining Horcruxes

might be. On the bright side though, at least Grimmauld Place had a much larger library to choose from than what they’d previously had access to. Though saying /library/ gives the wrong impression. What Grimmauld Place had were boxes upon boxes of books, stacked up in the attic from their frantic cleaning spree before fifth year. Harry remembered that Sirius had wanted to burn the lot of them, but had been persuaded otherwise by Remus and Hermione. And so, it was back to reading. They scoured the stacks up in the attic, leaving no cover untouched and no page unturned. Or that was the plan, at least. Many of the books were useless, containing information on par with something Gilderoy Lockheart might have written. There was a collection of books about the Dark Arts in one box, a set of encyclopedias on Old Ritual Magic in another. There were some tomes that looked so old it seemed they would crumble into dust at the slightest touch. In short, there was a lot more up there than Harry remembered packing away. “We’re never going to get through all of these,” Ron moaned one afternoon toward the end of September. “It’s impossible! We’ve been up here for a week already. I’m bloody /tired/ of reading!” Hermione sighed, slamming the book she was reading shut

and setting it aside. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but…so am I.” She ignored the gaping look that Ron was giving her and rested her cheek on her fist, casting a sidelong glance at Harry. “Harry, do you think we’ve been going about this the wrong way? I don’t know how much we’re going to be able to find out from books.” Harry blinked. “Right…” He arched an eyebrow. “Okay, who are you, and what have you done with Hermione?” Hermione rolled her eyes and huffed. “I mean it. Since when have you not been able to find the answer in a book? The library’s never failed you before!” “Well, it has this time,” Hermione said, frustrated. “Unless you can find me something titled /My Seven Horcruxes and Where to Find Them/, written by T.M. Riddle, I doubt we’re going to have much luck here.” “Six,” Harry murmured distractedly. “There’s only six Horcruxes. The seventh part of Voldemort’s soul is the bit in his body.” “And how do we even know if that’s true?” Hermione cried, turning to face him. “That’s an assumption Dumbledore made based on a memory of Voldemort when he was, what, /our/ age? That was before your parents’ time, even! Harry, he could have split his soul into /thirteen/ parts, for all we know. That’s a fairly significant number too, isn’t

it? And that would make /twelve/ Horcruxes!” Harry scowled. It wasn’t like he hadn’t thought of that before, he just…preferred to believe what Dumbledore had come up with. He still didn’t know how he was going to go about finding the remaining four Horcruxes as it was, let alone having to worry about six more of them. “Lay off, Hermione,” Ron spoke up. “We’re all frustrated about it.” “I know, I know,” Hermione said, calming down a bit. “I’m sorry. It’s just that… Harry, I think we need to stop worrying about the /other/ Horcruxes for a while, and concentrate on finding the one we /do/ have a clue about.” Harry’s eyes slid shut as he breathed in deeply. This had also been plaguing him recently; he was surprised it had taken Hermione so long to bring it up. He didn’t like thinking about the one Horcrux they actually might be able to find, simply because it reminded him too much of the disastrous failure that night had been. Hermione hadn’t mentioned it since they’d left Hogwarts. The last time they’d discussed the note, and the mysterious R.A.B. who had written it, had been when Hermione had told him she couldn’t find any significant person whose initials matched.

“Alright,” Harry said, opening his eyes again and looking at his friends. “The locket, then.” Ron and Hermione exchanged glances, before Hermione stood and brushed the dust off her clothes. “Let’s go downstairs. We need to find out who this R.A.B. person could be.” They headed downstairs, making a stop in the kitchen first to whip up some sandwiches for lunch. “Okay,” Ron said, once they were seated with their food on the couches in the drawing room. “Let’s get straight to it, yeah? R.A.B. Who is he?” “Someone close to Voldemort, obviously,” Harry said. “Otherwise I don’t know how he would have even known about the Horcrux thing.” “So probably a Death Eater, then,” Hermione murmured. “Do you think he had any help? I mean, from what you described, it sounds as if it’s almost impossible for one person to go in alone.” Harry shrugged. “Maybe if they were extremely determined or something...” “I dunno, mate,” Ron said. “You’d think Dumbledore would have been alright by himself, then.” Harry sighed and pushed a hand through his hair. Standing,

he walked over to one of the cabinets, gazing absently at its nowempty shelves. “Dumbledore might have already been weakened towards the Horcruxes,” he said slowly. “He never did tell me how he got rid of the ring, but whatever he did – something about that Horcrux cursed him. And I think it was incurable. It was probably still affecting him when we went into the cave.” “Still,” Hermione said, looking at Ron, “I think Ron’s right. If one of the most powerful wizards in the world wasn’t able to get it by himself… I definitely think R.A.B. had help. Who it was, though…” “That might not matter,” Harry pointed out. “He may have just used the Imperius curse on someone.” “True…” Harry sighed again and walked over toward the tapestry on the wall that they’d never been able to get down. *The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black*. He snorted, running a hand along the fabric down to where Sirius’ name would have been, next to Regulus’. It was hard to imagine that Sirius had even had a brother. Harry wasn’t sure why; probably just because he’d always imagined Sirius as an only child, sort of like himself– Wait.

Harry’s eyes darted back to Regulus’ name. Regulus. Regulus Black. His eyes widened. But no… No, he couldn’t jump to conclusions. That never led to anything good, only disappointment… Harry spun around to face his friends. “Hermione,” he said slowly. “Do you think…?” He trailed off, frowning, and shook his head a bit. “No, never mind.” It was entirely too farfetched, not to mention it would be too easy and when did anything /easy/ ever happen to him? “What is it, Harry?” Hermione asked, her brow furrowing. “Nothing.” He began pacing around the room, running his hand absentmindedly along the various cabinets and bare bookshelves. “I had an idea, but it’s not…” He paused, standing in front of another empty cabinet. His eyes narrowed. “Harry?” They’d been at such a roadblock these past couple of months, with no clues, no ideas, and absolutely no leads on where any of the Horcruxes

might be. So as much as Harry tried not to dwell on it, he couldn’t help turning the same thought over and over in his head. Was it possible that one of the Horcruxes had been right under their noses the whole time? Well, not the Horcrux itself, but the clue to finding it? He peered at the cabinet, running his eyes over its bare shelves, trying to remember… They’d tossed out an awful lot of things when they’d cleaned this room. They hadn’t really even stopped to consider that they might be important. Hadn’t there been… Harry felt his eyes widen, and he knew his face must have paled, too, because Hermione and Ron were looking at him, worried. “Everything alright, mate?” Ron asked tentatively. Harry swallowed. “No…” A locket. There had been a locket. A heavy gold locket. They hadn’t been able to get it open… He turned back to the tapestry, hoping but not daring to believe it quite yet… Regulus Black. What was his middle name? Harry threw caution to the wind and prayed that he wasn’t about to be sorely disappointed.

“KREACHER!” he bellowed, making his friends jump. Hermione nearly upset her tea when the decrepit elf appeared in the middle of the room. “Master is calling Kreacher?” the old elf croaked, before adding under his breath, “Ungrateful little brat that he is…” “What was Regulus’ middle name?” Harry demanded, storming over to where Kreacher was and staring down at him, hands clenched. “Kreacher! What was his name?” “Master Regulus?” Kreacher repeated, blinking. “Master Regulus was a good master, not like these Mudbloods and blood traitors living here now. Oh, my poor Mistress, what would she say? She’d have Kreacher’s head, she would, allowing these misfits into her house–” “/Kreacher!/” Harry interrupted. Kreacher looked up at him balefully. “Master is wanting to know Regulus’ middle name? Kreacher is not sure he remembers…” He turned his chin up and looked away. Harry pursed his lips and tried to refrain from strangling the stupid thing. “You don’t remember one of your old masters’ names?” he asked tightly. “I’m not sure your mistress would appreciate that. If she were alive, she might even give you clothes for being

so…/dishonorable/.” Kreacher’s eyes widened. “No!” he screeched. “Kreacher is /never/ forgetting his old masters’ names – his /true/ masters’ names! Regulus was being born Regulus Arcturus Black. Kreacher remembers. Master Regulus was a good baby, Kreacher is not forgetting!” But Harry wasn’t listening anymore. He lifted his gaze, staring across at Hermione who looked as shell-shocked as he felt, and he knew instantly that she understood. “Hermione,” he said, breathing quickly. “You get it now, right?” If she did, if she knew what this meant, if it was /plausible/… Maybe they’d finally be able to get their hands on one of the Horcruxes. Hermione nodded frantically, and Harry felt a strange sort of elation bloom in his chest. “Yes – yes, I do! Harry – didn’t Sirius say that Regulus deserted the Death Eaters? And no one’s really sure how he died…” “Wait, what’s going on? What’s this about Regulus?” Ron cut in, looking confused. They ignored him. “And do you remember,” Harry said, stalking over to the cabinet, his heart pounding, “when we were cleaning all this out – Hermione, do you remember any of the things we threw away?”

Hermione followed Harry’s gaze, her brow furrowed. Harry could tell the exact moment that she remembered. “There was a locket,” she breathed, eyes wide. “We couldn’t get it to open…” “What locket?” Ron asked, clearly frustrated. “What are you two going on about? Harry, you’re starting to worry me, you’re looking like Hermione does when she’s just figured something out but refuses to talk about it!” “/The/ locket, Ron!” Harry replied. “The one we’re looking for – it was /here/, do you remember?” “What – that one that we threw out? That was just… I mean, I don’t remember anything special about it. It looked old and tacky, to me…” “Of course it was old,” Hermione said impatiently. “It belonged to /Salazar Slytherin/, for God’s sake. Harry, do you know what this means? This could be really bad, it could be /anywhere/ now!” And just as quickly as his hopes had gone up, they fell again, plummeting at an alarming rate and hitting rock bottom with such force that Harry nearly keeled over from disappointment. He frowned, rubbing a hand across his face. “Well, shit,” he said in a dismayed tone. “Hang on,” Ron said, his eyes going wide. “Regulus – you think /he’s/

R.A.B.?” “Took you long enough,” Harry muttered. “Damn it, now what?” “Harry,” Hermione said, and when Harry looked at her she tilted her head in Kreacher’s direction. “Oh. Forgot he was here. Kreacher, you can–” “No! Harry, he was nicking things from us left and right. Maybe…maybe he took it?” Harry arched his eyebrows, but refused to get his hopes up again. “Maybe… Kreacher!” “Yes, /Master/?” Kreacher said sourly. “What happened to all the things you took from us when we were cleaning this room out?” Kreacher blinked slowly. “Kreacher is not sure what Master is asking…” “Two summers ago,” Harry said, trying to remain calm, “when Sirius was here. We were cleaning out this room. You kept running off with stuff. There was a locket. A heavy gold locket. /Did you take it?/” “Kreacher remembers the locket. Kreacher remembers helping get the locket.” “You – wait, you /helped/?” Harry asked.

Kreacher shuddered suddenly, turning his eyes to the floor and muttering under his breath. Harry thought he heard the word ‘poison’ mumbled more than once and cold horror washed over him. Well, that explained who exactly had been Regulus’ accomplice. “Kreacher…” Harry said slowly. “Did Regulus make you drink the potion?” Hermione gasped from where she was sitting on the couch, but Harry ignored her. “/No/,” Kreacher said fiercely, his head snapping up so he could glare at Harry. “/No/, Master Regulus was a /good/ Master, he was always making Kreacher’s poor Mistress proud! Master Regulus wasn’t making Kreacher do anything, Kreacher only had to get the locket home after – after–” “After /Regulus/ drank the potion,” Ron finished for him. Kreacher shot him a baleful look but didn’t disagree, and Hermione made a small, dismayed sound. Harry let out a breath. “So that’s how he died, then.” Which meant he had probably become one of the inferi Harry had fought off last year. The thought alone made him sick. “And it explains how the locket made it back here, but Kreacher, do you still have it?”

“Kreacher gave the locket to his poor Mistress.” “And she kept it as an heirloom or whatever, /we know/, we saw it! What I need you to tell me is if you took it when we were trying to clean up in here!” Kreacher gave a slow blink of his large eyes. “Kreacher doesn’t have it.” Harry made a frustrated sound and dug his hand into his hair. “Wait, Kreacher, you mean you don’t have it /now/?” Hermione asked in a gentle tone. “Or you never took it at all?” The elf narrowed his eyes at her, but then turned up his nose. “Kreacher is not having to answer to Mudbloods, filthy creatures that they are. Oh, Kreacher’s poor Mistress, what would she do–” “Kreacher, did you take the effing locket?!” Harry burst out, chest heaving. Kreacher looked shifty. “Kreacher might have. But Kreacher is not having the locket now.” “What did you do with it? Where is it /now/??” “Kreacher does not know where it is now.” “/Damn it/, if you don’t–” “Kreacher returned it to its rightful owner, but Kreacher doesn’t know

what is happening to the locket after that.” “Its rightful owner?” Ron asked faintly. “Merlin, please don’t tell me you gave it back to You-Know-Who!” “Who did you give it to?” Harry said slowly. “Tell me. /Now/.” Kreacher sniffed. “Kreacher is bringing it to the other members of the most noble family of Black. Master Regulus was telling Kreacher to bring the locket back and protect it, so Kreacher did.” “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ron muttered, dragging a hand through his hair. Harry had gone still where he was standing. “Kreacher wasn’t seeing Master Regulus again after that night,” Kreacher said, turning his eyes to the floor again. “Master Regulus was a /good/ Master, not like Master Sirius. He was breaking his mother’s heart, oh, my poor Mistress!” “Enough about your Mistress already,” Ron grumbled. “Harry?” Hermione asked tentatively. She’d apparently noticed his sudden silence. Harry blinked at her, and then trudged over towards the sofa. “It’s at the Malfoys’,” he said slowly, sinking down onto the cushions. He buried his face in his hands, so his voice was slightly muffled when he spoke again. “He gave it to Narcissa.”

“Kreacher didn’t give it to anyone!” Kreacher said suddenly, abruptly stopping his monologue about Mrs. Black. “Kreacher is hiding it in Mistress Malfoy’s room!” He cackled loudly. “No one is getting Regulus’ locket now! Kreacher is protecting it perfectly!” “So… I guess we /will/ be going to Malfoy Manor, then,” Ron said, slightly amused despite the situation. “The wards will be stopping you,” Kreacher spoke up in a sing-song voice, still laughing a bit. “You isn’t getting in without help, and Kreacher can’t be helping because Kreacher isn’t a Malfoy elf! Though Kreacher is wishing he was. The Malfoy boy, what a good Master /he/ would be!” He cackled some more, and Harry rolled his eyes in disgust. “Dobby, then,” Hermione said promptly, and Kreacher’s laughter died rather quickly. “Alright,” Harry said, nodding. “Alright, Kreacher, go back to Hogwarts and tell Dobby I need to see him–” “NO!” Kreacher screamed, falling to his knees and banging the floor relentlessly. “No, Kreacher won’t! Kreacher won’t, Kreacher won’t, Kreacher /won’t!!/ Kreacher is /protecting/ Master Regulus’ locket, not helping nasty little brats looking for it!”

“Tell Dobby I need to speak with him /immediately/,” Harry said loudly over Kreacher’s yelling. “And I forbid you to tell anyone a single word of what we said here today. You tell /no one/, got it?” Kreacher looked up at Harry furiously. “Kreacher understands,” he bit out, and then with a crack he was gone, and not twenty seconds later Dobby was standing in his place, ten hats, Weasley sweater, mismatched socks and all. “Harry Potter is wanting to see Dobby!” the little elf cried, bounding over and hugging Harry’s legs. “Dobby is so happy!” Harry pried Dobby away, ignoring the amused look Hermione was giving him. “Yes, /yes/, Dobby, I wanted to see you.” He hesitated, and then plowed on, “We have a favor to ask.” *** “Harry, do you think maybe we’re rushing into this a bit too quickly?” Hermione asked three days later. It was nearly midnight, and they were waiting for Dobby’s signal. “We’ve wasted enough time as it is,” Harry replied from where he was pacing back and forth in the drawing room. “We’ve got pretty solid evidence; what else do you think we need?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Hermione said. She leaned forward, resting her chin on her fist. “It just seems too…/easy/.” Ron barked out a laugh. “Easy?” he repeated. “Yeah, we’ve only got to sneak into Malfoy’s house undetected, scour his mother’s room where she’s probably going to be sleeping, and then make it back out of the house with the Horcrux, again /undetected/. Yeah, that’ll be easy.” Hermione rolled her eyes. “I was referring more to us being able to find the locket again so quickly after deciding to look for it. Are you sure Kreacher was telling you the truth? And what about the wards, how do we even know that Dobby will be able to get us in?” “Dobby’s already scouted the area, and he knows more about Malfoy Manor than any of us do,” Harry pointed out. “But what if the wards have changed since he left? Harry, that was four years ago!” “Dobby told us he’d be able to get us in,” Harry said tightly, pushing a hand through his hair. “I trust him.” “I’m not saying that I don’t.” Hermione sighed. “I just think this is very, very risky.” “At least he didn’t just storm over there the minute he found out about

it,” Ron said. “We actually sort of have a plan this time.” “And we have an outside source, not just visions floating around inside my head,” Harry muttered. “Your /outside source/ is Kreacher,” Hermione said flatly. Harry opened his mouth to say something about Hermione’s sudden lack of benevolence towards the old elf, but before he could get any words out Dobby loudly appeared in the middle of the room, the sound of his Apparation startling them all. “Is Harry Potter ready?” Dobby asked, eagerly bouncing on his toes. “Yeah, we’re ready,” Harry said, quickly moving toward him and getting down on one knee so he could face him better. “How are we doing this?” “Dobby is bringing Harry Potter and his friends to the Malfoy gates,” Dobby said, obviously excited to be helping with such an endeavor. “Harry Potter can be getting into the manor with Dobby’s help, but Dobby can’t be entering. The other house elves might be noticing Dobby’s magic.” “So you’re going to wait for us outside then?” Ron clarified. Dobby nodded so rapidly that three of the hats on his head toppled off. “You is looking for Mistress Malfoy’s room?”

“That’s right.” Dobby snapped his fingers and up popped a threedimensional translucent model of what had to be the biggest house Harry had ever seen. It floated in the air before them as Dobby twirled his finger to make it spin. “Mistress Malfoy is living in the East Wing,” Dobby said, pointing at it. “Fifth door on the right on the third floor. Dobby is bringing you here.” He jabbed at a section of the gate near the East Wing. “Harry Potter is being able to Apparate, yes?” “Yeah, I can,” Harry said distractedly. He was trying to ignore Ron’s bulging eyes and muttered, “/That’s/ Malfoy’s house?” “Good,” Dobby said, nodding. “You is being able to Apparate into the manor, then. Dobby can remove the anti-Apparation wards for…maybe two hours, Dobby is thinking, before the other house elves is catching on. Now,” he spun the model again, pointing at another section, “the Malfoy boy is sleeping here. You isn’t needing to go that way, so he shouldn’t be waking up.” “The Malfoy boy?” Harry repeated. “Malfoy’s there?” Dobby looked up at him. “Master Draco,” he said, and then looked as if he was trying to refrain from saying something bad about his former master. His eyes darted back and forth, probably looking for

something to whack himself with, Harry knew. “I didn’t realize he’d gone back to the manor,” Harry said quickly, before the elf could try to punish himself. “I thought he was trying to stay in hiding.” “Dobby isn’t knowing why Master Draco is there,” Dobby muttered. Harry glanced up and Ron and Hermione, both of whom shrugged. “Has anyone else been to the manor, Dobby?” Harry asked. “Dobby isn’t seeing anyone other than the Malfoys, last time Dobby checked.” Harry’s brow furrowed. “Odd…” “Harry, we need to get going if we want to get this thing tonight,” Hermione said. “It’s after twelve already.” “Right.” Harry stood, making sure he had his Invisibility Cloak stashed away in his robe pockets. “How are we getting to the manor, Dobby?” “Dobby is Apparating you to the gate.” He held out his hand expectantly. Harry exchanged glances with his friends, and then tentatively the three of them reached out and touched Dobby’s upturned palm. A split second later there was the familiar feeling of being compressed all around, and

then they were outside in the darkness, a large, slightly creepy looking mansion looming before them. “Wow…” Ron murmured, staring up at it wide-eyed. Harry looked down at Dobby, whose eyes were squeezed shut as he concentrated on something. After a minute or so of this, he snapped his fingers. “There,” Dobby panted. “The wards is down. Harry Potter should be able to Apparate inside.” “Thank you, Dobby,” Harry whispered quickly. Dobby beamed at him. “We’ll be as quick as we can.” He turned to the others. “Let’s go.” They crept up to one of the large windows and peered into what seemed to be some sort of large living room. “Okay,” Harry whispered. “Apparate in there.” “Here’s hoping Dobby got the wards down correctly,” Ron muttered, and then the three of them spun and seconds later they landed inside the room they’d just been staring into. Harry lifted a finger to his mouth, listening carefully for sounds that anyone had noticed them coming in. After a minute of silence, he pulled out his wand. “Disillusionment Charms on, I think.” “Okay,” Hermione said, once they were ready. “We need to find a staircase…”

They moved as quickly as they could down the hall, Hermione casting Silencing spells on their shoes as they went. The corridor seemed endless. It stretched on and on, and just when Harry was beginning to think they’d never reach the end of it, they spilled out into an open foyer of sorts. There was a spiraling staircase in the middle of it, and if they stood at the bottom of it and looked up, there was no telling where it ended. The place had to have at least five floors, Harry imagined. Plus a basement. And possibly an attic. It was enormous. Harry gestured to the staircase, and he could make out the shapes of his friends moving towards it. Just when he was about to start climbing though, something caught his eyes on the other side of the room. There was another door, one that either led to another room, or possibly the other half of the endless hallway. Whatever it was, there was a faint light shining out from beneath it. “Wait, wait,” Harry whispered, grabbing the back of Ron’s robe. “Look.” “Harry!” Hermione hissed. “We need to get what we came for and leave; we can’t spend time exploring the rest of the hou–” Ron shushed her abruptly, clamping a hand over her mouth and meeting Harry’s eyes. Harry knew why. “You hear it too?” he asked in

a low voice. Ron nodded. Harry looked back at the door. Unless he was very much mistaken, he’d just heard voices coming from that direction. Heart pounding, he moved closer toward the door. He could feel Ron and Hermione at his back. “/Harry/,” Hermione hissed again, sounding worried. “Harry, this isn’t a good idea…” But Harry wasn’t listening to her. Wand out and at the ready, he very slowly inched the door open. There was no one on the other side. Harry released a breath he hadn’t realize he’d been holding. It was just another hallway, not a room. He could still see the light coming from a little ways down, though, and as he followed its source, his eyes eventually landed on a halfway open door. The soft light was pouring out of it, leaving a rectangular shaped yellow spot on the otherwise black floor. And the voices were definitely coming from there. Voices that were too deep and gruff to be Draco, and, from what Harry remembered, too shrill and nasally to be Narcissa. There were other people in the house. “I thought Dobby said no one else was here!” Ron said frantically,

laying a hand on Harry’s shoulder. His other hand, Harry could see out of the corner of his eye, was wrapped tightly around Hermione’s. “Maybe they just showed up,” Harry murmured. He took a step closer to the room, and this time both Ron and Hermione stopped him. “Harry, you /can’t/,” Hermione insisted. “They won’t be able to see me.” “No – Harry, /no!/” Harry had already broken free from their grasp, though, and was creeping closer to the open door. Once there he paused, taking a deep breath, and then he slid into the room, keeping himself pressed against the wall. He couldn’t see anything right away, because the door opened on the far right side of the room, and there was a large cabinet of some sort directly next to it. That actually helped, Harry supposed, because he was able to stand behind it and lean out to see the rest of the room, whilst still able to avoid being seen himself. Of course the Disillusionment Charm might have also had a hand in that. “What do you see?” Ron asked quietly, and the voices in the room paused suddenly. Harry widened his eyes and made shushing

gestures at Ron. After a moment, the voices started up again, and Harry finally peered around the side of the cabinet. He was quite unprepared for what he saw. Fenrir Greyback’s hair was more matted than the last time Harry had seen it, but his teeth were as yellow as ever as he smiled nastily at his companion, Bellatrix Lestrange. Just the sight of her made anger and boiling hatred spring up inside Harry so quickly it nearly overpowered him. He managed to keep it down and control himself, but only because of the other two people in the room. Something must have happened, something important, because Harry could see no other reason for Bellatrix to have her wand trained on her own sister. Narcissa was backed against the wall, her face slightly pale, though Harry thought that was more because her son was currently being held in a stranglehold by Greyback than because her sister looked like she was about to hex her. “I will not ask you again, Narcissa,” Bellatrix was saying. “The Dark Lord says it’s here; now where is it?!” Harry quickly sidled back out of the room, facing Ron and Hermione with

wide eyes. He ushered them a bit further away, before he began talking. “Bellatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback are in there,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “Greyback’s got Malfoy, and Bellatrix has her wand pulled on Narcissa.” Hermione gasped, clamping a hand over her mouth, as Ron said, “/What/?!” in a startled tone. Harry nodded. “Yeah,” he said, thinking quickly. “This might be a good thing, though. Ron, do you remember where Dobby said Narcissa’s room was?” “Third floor, fifth door on the right,” Ron answered promptly, his eyes wide with understanding. “She’s not there right now. You want me to go look for the locket?” It wasn’t so much a question as it was a statement, but Harry nodded anyway. “You should be okay to search for it. I’m…I’m going to stay here and see what’s up.” Ron rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised?” he muttered. “But at least you’ve got your priorities straight; you haven’t forgotten about the Horcrux in any case. Where do you want Hermione?” Harry glanced at her, but she answered first. “I’ll stay down here. There’s no way I’m leaving Harry alone with a bunch of Death Eaters. I

think you’ll be alright on your own, don’t you?” “Of course,” Ron said cheekily, grinning. He turned to leave, and then paused. “Just…don’t do anything – /stupid/. Okay? Promise me, Harry. Promise me that you won’t try to take them all on by yourself or something.” “I promise,” Harry said quickly. “Now go!” Ron grinned again, gave Harry a quick mock solute, and then ran off down the hall. “Okay,” Hermione said once he was gone. “What’s your plan?” “Don’t have one,” Harry muttered, walking back towards the room. “I just want to see what they want. It didn’t look like Malfoy and his mum were expecting them.” He slid into the room again, Hermione at his back, and together they peered around the cabinet. Draco was stark white and shaking in Greyback’s grip now and Narcissa was still pressed again the wall, her face blank. “Bellatrix, I’ve /told/ you,” she said, and Harry was startled to hear the slight tremor in her voice, because she looked fairly calm otherwise, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about! You would have to ask Lucius, and he’s obviously not here at the moment–” “Don’t lie to me, sister,” Bellatrix said silkily. “You’re of no

value to the Dark Lord, you know. He’s very disappointed in your family, and he gave me permission to do whatever it takes to get that book back.” /That book/. Harry’s eyes widened. The diary? But Voldemort knew it had been destroyed, didn’t he? Dumbledore had said… “Why do you think I brought Fenrir with me?” Bellatrix continued. “He does so love children, I’m sure you’ve heard.” “I’m not a /child/,” Draco spat, struggling in vain against the hairy arm wrapped around his neck. “Draco, be quiet,” Narcissa said firmly, without a glance in the boy’s direction. Greyback leaned closer to Draco, his mouth right against the boy’s ear as he rasped, “You’d best listen to your mother, boy. And stop struggling, lest you find my teeth /accidentally/ slipping.” He dragged a long, yellow nail down Draco’s cheek, leaving a faint pink line, and Draco stopped moving abruptly, his eyes wide with fear and panic. “Children. So young. So /naïve/.”

“Leave him be!” Narcissa cried. “He’s done nothing to warrant this–” “Well, that’s half the problem, isn’t it, Cissy?” Bellatrix interrupted, tapping her wand against her hand. “He did /nothing/. He took the coward’s route–” “He’s just a /boy/,” Narcissa said, and there was a desperate edge to her voice now. “He was only sixteen years old!” “I’m /seventeen/ now, Mother!” “Now is not the time to talk back to me, Draco!” she said in a rush. Bellatrix sighed. “It’s like this, Cissy. The Dark Lord wants the book. He entrusted it to Lucius years ago, before the Potter brat interrupted things, and Lucius failed. The book was destroyed, according to your dear husband, and now the Dark Lord wants to be absolutely sure that it’s gone.” “Bella, I do /not/ know where it is,” Narcissa said imploringly. “Lucius never said anything to me.” “Very well,” Bellatrix said heavily. “You leave me no choice. You understand that if you don’t hand it over, I’m to allow Fenrir to have his way with your son.” Harry watched as Draco visibly jerked and Greyback grinned

a very feral and pointy-toothed grin. Narcissa’s face paled, the first crack in her calm mask. “My son, /your/ nephew!” she whispered harshly. Bellatrix laughed shrilly, the sound of it sending a shiver down Harry’s spine. He felt Hermione clutching the back of his robe. “And you think that will stop me? Ah, Cissy, this is why you never would have succeeded as a Death Eater. I suspect it is also the reason your son did not succeed.” “I was given a nearly /impossible/ task–!” Draco choked midword as Greyback tightened his arm around his throat. He clawed at the arm, but apparently the pressure didn’t let up because Draco’s face was slowly going red. “Let go of him!” Narcissa exclaimed, her eyes wide as she lurched forward, one hand out as if she could stop him. “/Crucio!/” Bellatrix snapped, effectively halting her sister. Narcissa fell to the ground, screaming and writhing. Draco’s eyes bulged. “Mum!” he clearly tried to yell, but nothing came out. His lips formed the word, but all they heard was a rasping, choked sound, and he fought even harder against Greyback. Bellatrix lazily lifted her wand, leaving Narcissa panting on

the floor. Harry suddenly realized his fingernails were cutting into his palms from his hands being clenched so tight. “Now, Narcissa,” Bellatrix said, and there was nothing friendly in her voice now. They might as well have been complete strangers as opposed to sisters. “You will bring me to this book of the Dark Lord’s. He no longer trusts it in your family’s hands.” “You speak as though you aren’t part of that family,” Narcissa said slowly, pushing herself up onto her hands and knees, and from there standing shakily. Bellatrix eyed her coldly, her wand still out. “I’m not. I’ve found something better.” “Bella…” Narcissa said brokenly. “The book, Narcissa. I won’t repeat myself again. If you truly don’t know where it is, then bring me to Lucius’ study instead. We will search for it there, and if we don’t find it then we’ll move onto the next room. And the next, and the next, and so on until we find it. We’ll search the entire bloody manor if we have to, but I am /not/ returning to the Dark Lord without that book!” “How does he even know it’s here?” Narcissa asked. “What

proof does he have? Why would Lucius have kept it if it was destroyed?” “He would have to be very stupid to get rid of something so important, destroyed or not,” Bellatrix said dangerously. She narrowed her eyes. “Do you doubt the Dark Lord?” There was a slight pause, almost unnoticeable but there all the same, and then Narcissa said, “Of course not.” “Liar!” Bellatrix hissed. “I’ve had enough of your insolence, dear sister!” She turned to Greyback. “Do as you wish, Fenrir.” Draco had gone deathly pale and was struggling against Greyback with renewed strength. His knuckles were white as he pulled at the thick arm around his neck. His feet kicked at the ground as tried to tear himself away from Greyback’s grip. Greyback was leering at Draco now. Harry absently thought he looked more like a vampire than a werewolf, the way he was opening his mouth against Draco’s neck. Draco bucked some more, and Harry noticed with a sort of detached horror that Draco was seriously about to be bitten. Harry knew that Draco couldn’t actually become a werewolf from Greyback biting him when he was human, but it didn’t stop the images of Bill’s horribly scarred face from rushing to the forefront of his mind. His

drooping mouth, his eye that could barely open, the still unhealed wounds marking Bill’s once handsome visage – it was easy for the lines to blur and for Harry to see Draco there instead, injured beyond even the most magical means of healing. Greyback had worked one gnarled hand beneath Draco’s shirt and was tightly gripping Draco’s waist to hold him in place as he spoke. “You’re lucky, young one,” he growled into Draco’s ear, so softly Harry almost couldn’t hear it. “The first full moon’s in two days. I’ll be able to help you through it. I’ll have to bite you that night, of course, but I can give you a sample now, if you like…” His mouth opened, his teeth were pressing against Draco’s skin, Draco looked like he was seconds away from passing out… A flurry of thoughts went through Harry’s head. Should he help? Should he walk away? Hermione would kill him if he jumped into view now, but could he really just stand by and watch a fellow classmate get mauled, even if that classmate was Draco Malfoy? He had just made up his mind when everything went crazy.

Chapter 8 Harry clenched his hand around his wand, just as Hermione’s hand tightened around the fistful of Harry’s robe she was still grasping. He was just about to move out into the open when Narcissa lunged forward instead. “/NO!!/” she yelled, moving faster than Harry would have thought she’d be able to. She grabbed at Greyback’s arm and tried to pull him off. It didn’t work. “/CRUCIO!/” Bellatrix screeched, and Harry knew instantly that the spell was more powerful than it had been before. Narcissa screamed. She screamed unlike anything Harry had ever heard before, and it jolted through him, filling him with ice. Narcissa collapsed to the ground, writhing, still screaming, her face twisted with pain and tears streaming from her eyes. Draco went limp in Greyback’s hold, staring helplessly, and the desperate look on his face was what finally kicked Harry into action. “/EXPELLIARMUS!/” Harry bellowed, ripping away from Hermione and springing out from behind the cabinet. “Harry, /no!/” Hermione hissed behind him, but she was ignored.

Bellatrix’s wand was arching through the air towards him. He reached out to catch it, but– “/Accio/,” Greyback rasped calmly, before Harry had realized what had happened. The wand slapped against the werewolf’s outstretched hand. Greyback still had his other hand wrapped around Draco’s bicep, but the boy was on his knees on the ground, frozen in shock as he stared at Harry, one arm still reaching for his mother. “Well, well,” Bellatrix said lightly, stepping over her sister so she could accept her wand back from Greyback. “I have to say, /this/ is unexpected. Hang on…” She peered at them. Harry knew they had to be hard to see, because they still had the Disillusionment Charms on. “I’m told there are usually three of you who actively go looking for ways to cause problems. You seem to be missing someone.” “Congratulations,” Harry said, holding his wand out in front of him. “You can count.” “Ooohh, look at wee little Potty! Cracking jokes now, are we?” She narrowed her eyes. “You meddlesome little /brat/.” “Can I have them, too?” Greyback asked as he hauled Draco to his feet. “They’re the same age as this one here.”

“Steady on, Fenrir!” Bellatrix said lightly. “That’s Harry Potter, remember. The Dark Lord wants him for himself. But if I’m not mistaken, the girl’s a Mudblood. You can do what you want with her.” Greyback licked his lips. “Excellent,” he murmured. Harry felt Hermione shudder behind him. “Potter,” Draco suddenly croaked, and Harry really wished he hadn’t. Bellatrix glanced keenly back and forth between them, and suddenly she smirked. “Oh, Draco,” she said, shaking her head. “Draco, Draco, Draco. My dear nephew. Tell me you’re not asking /him/ for help.” Bellatrix turned to Harry, taking a step toward him. “Tell me, Harry Potter, what is it about you that makes people so eager to join your fight? You have so many people looking out for you, do you know that? I’m not sure you’re really aware of the effort your side has exuded to protect you. /You/, a sixteen-year-old /child/.” “I’m seventeen,” Harry said tightly, accidentally repeating what Draco had said earlier. Bellatrix arched her eyebrows. “Oh, /are/ you? Well, that just makes you all grown up now, doesn’t it? You’re able to do magic and everything.” She leered at him. “How…/exciting/.” She paused for a

moment, taking another step closer. “So, Harry. What brings you to my sister’s humble abode at this late hour? Isn’t it past your bedtime?” “If you think I’m telling you, then you’re madder than I thought!” Harry spat, raising his wand. “Manners, Harry,” Bellatrix cooed, and with a flick of her wand Harry’s mouth abruptly filled with the unmistakable taste of soap. He gagged, bubbles frothing at his mouth, and was eternally grateful when he felt Hermione’s wand hand twitch a bit, no doubt casting a nonverbal /Finite/ spell. Harry spat at Bellatrix’s feet, trying to remove the awful taste from his mouth. She snickered at him. “I think dear Sirius would be disappointed with how rude you’ve become.” “Really?” Harry raised an eyebrow. “I think he’d be downright proud.” He cast a quick look at Narcissa, suddenly noticing that she’d been oddly silent and still ever since Harry had intervened. “You know,” he said, looking back up at Bellatrix, “you seem to have a bad habit of attacking your own relatives.” “Hmm.” Bellatrix nudged Narcissa with her foot, grinning when Narcissa moaned. “I do believe you’re right, ickle Potty. There’s just

something about that moment when you have complete power over someone else that I find so…/gratifying/. It’s only better when it’s someone you personally know. I like watching them break,” she said in a disturbingly frank tone. Her eyes looked a bit wild; there was a fire burning in them that only blazed brighter with each word she spoke. “I like seeing the shock at being betrayed overcome them. I love watching them /fall/. It’s…so very empowering, that brief, split second when they finally crack.” Her lips curled slowly upward into a sadistic grin and she lifted her chin, making it seem like she was able to stare down at Harry when in reality Harry was taller. “Have you managed to experience that moment yet, Potter? I remember it didn’t work so well the last time you tried.” Harry saw Draco’s eyes go wide out of the corner of his eye, and he felt Hermione tense behind him, but he didn’t answer. Narcissa groaned again at that moment, rolling over and pushing herself to her knees. She looked at Harry. “Harry Potter,” she murmured, wincing as she rose to her feet. She fell back against the wall behind her to brace herself. “I cannot…even begin to fathom…how you ended up in my home,” she continued slowly, panting with the effort to stay on her feet. She had a familiar look on her face, like she was

concentrating hard on something, and Harry suddenly recognized it as the look Dobby had had earlier when he was trying to dismantle the wards. “Yes, it is a mystery, isn’t it?” Bellatrix said, scratching idly beneath her chin with her wand. Narcissa blinked suddenly, looking a great deal more alert. And that was when Ron appeared. Harry only knew he had showed up because Bellatrix had focused on something over his shoulder, and he heard frantic whispering going on behind him. “Ah, there’s the third one!” Bellatrix said, smiling tightly. “Now that we’re all here–” “Harry, he found it!” Hermione whispered anxiously into his ear. “He found it, so let’s go! We need to get out of here.” “–I think it’s time for some answers!” Harry nodded, backing slowly towards the door. Not that he thought Bellatrix wouldn’t notice, but he just needed a few seconds… “Apparate outside,” he murmured out of the corner of his mouth, turning his head just slightly toward Hermione. “You’ll know when to. Get Dobby and go. Don’t wait for me, I’ll go straight back to Grimmauld Place.” There was a pause, and then, “You’d better, Harry, or I

swear to God–” “You know,” Harry cut her off loudly, meeting Narcissa’s gaze across the room and holding it, “I don’t think we really want to tell you anything.” Bellatrix barked out a laugh, and leveled her wand on Harry. Her voice was cold when she spoke. “You don’t really have a choice, Potter.” Harry stared at Narcissa, desperately hoping that she could see him through the charm, that she somehow understood… He knew immediately that she did when her eyes slid briefly to Draco and then back again, her eyebrows rising inquiringly. And just when Harry was about to nod, he had a sudden moment of indecision; it couldn’t have lasted more than a second, really, but it happened all the same. Did he really want to take Draco back with him again? What good had it done last time? It looked like he hadn’t gone back to Voldemort, but what if he was planning to? Flashes of images sped through his mind, fast and blurred together as Harry’s resolve tiptoed along the thin line of uncertainty. Their first proper meeting on the train. Malfoy, young and hopeful and /so/ obnoxious, holding out his hand with every confidence that his greeting would be returned.

Malfoy on Crabbe’s shoulders, pretending to be a dementor. In fifth year when he’d joined the Inquisitorial Squad, smirking and proud and even /more/ obnoxious, handing Harry over to Umbridge. Malfoy on the tower, wand out in front of him, hand shaking, lowering… Just this past summer, when he’d been stumbling along behind Hagrid, clothes torn and bloodied, hair a mess, and far too skinny. The two weeks after that he’d spent hogging Harry’s bed, looking more relaxed than Harry had ever seen him before, his nearpermanent sneer finally wiped away in sleep. Lying in a pool of his own blood, pale and scrabbling at his chest, and later the thin, upraised scar on Draco’s chest. Laughing on a broomstick, the wind pushing his hair back from his face and looking carefree for once. The multiple times Harry had caught him running a finger along the edge of his Dark Mark when he hadn’t known Harry was watching, looking utterly miserable. Draco lowering his wand… Blinking, Harry stared at Narcissa, and before he could change his mind, he nodded, just once, a quick jerk of his head more than

anything. But she saw it. Bellatrix opened her mouth. “/Petri/–” “/SOLARIUS!/” Harry yelled before she could finish. He squeezed his eyes shut as a blinding white light filled the room. Bellatrix screamed, Greyback cursed, and there were three quick /cracks/ as people Apparated from the room. “/Finite!/” Bellatrix screeched with a vicious slash of her wand. The blinding brightness in the room abruptly faded, and once she was able to see again, she cursed. “Fuck!” Bellatrix spat, looking around wildly. “They’re gone, all three of them! Doesn’t this fucking place have anti-Apparation wards on it?!” “/Mum/,” Draco moaned, staring across the room. Greyback hadn’t let go of his arm. Bellatrix spun on her heel and stared at the empty space where her sister had previously been standing. “That sneaky little bitch,” she murmured, eyes wide. She turned back to Draco. “And here I thought she’d do anything for you!” “Apparently not,” Greyback rasped, chuckling. “She up and left him to us.” He ran his fingers down Draco’s face again, and the boy shuddered.

“We’ll have fun together. No worries.” He grinned, showing off his pointed teeth. Draco trembled again, the look on his face one of someone who had just been utterly betrayed. His eyes were wide and dismayed, his face was pale, his mouth hung open in shock… It was like he’d been sucker-punched in the gut by his own father. It almost made Harry want to throw off his Invisibility Cloak right there so that Draco would know he hadn’t been left behind. “We still need to find that bloody book,” Bellatrix groused, pacing the length of the room. “I suppose now we’ll just have to do it ourselves.” She paused in front of Draco, smiling sweetly at him. “And I’m sure my dear nephew will be glad to help us!” Greyback growled. “Does that mean I can’t have my way with him yet?” he grumbled. Bellatrix shot him a glare. “Absolutely not,” she snapped, resuming her pacing. “If you think I’m going to search this whole fucking manor on my own – damn the Malfoys for being so wealthy!” Harry crept across the room, being careful not to bump anything. He knew he probably only had another minute at most to make this work. Dobby would be putting the wards back up soon.

Praying to all things holy that Draco wouldn’t make a big scene, Harry simultaneously grabbed the boy’s free arm and jabbed his wand in Greyback’s direction, muttering a quick, “/Stupefy/,” under his breath. Draco jumped at the sudden touch, yelping a bit, just as Greyback hit the ground with a loud thud. Bellatrix turned, a questioning look on her face as she murmured, “Fenrir?” Harry felt as if things were moving in slow motion. He saw Bellatrix’s eyes widen, he saw her wand come up. Her mouth opened, but before she could say anything Harry quickly wrapped his other arm around Draco’s waist, and, hoping that the wards were still down, he spun. *** They reappeared just as the sun was beginning to show over the horizon on the hilltop beside Ron’s house, because Harry remembered at the last possible second that Draco wouldn’t be able to get into Grimmauld Place. As soon as they landed Draco tried to jerk away from Harry as fast as he could, but Harry held on tight. His cloak slipped from his shoulders, pooling at his feet. “What – what the bloody hell–?!” “Calm down, you’re alright–”

“No!” Draco grunted. “Let go of me!” He got one arm free and started clawing at Harry’s hand on his other arm. “Malfoy!” Harry said loudly, attempting to grab hold of Draco’s wrist. “Malfoy – /stop/ – Malfoy, it’s me!” “Let – go – of – me!” Draco growled, struggling against Harry’s grip. Harry let out a frustrated breath and with his free hand waved his wand above his head. He could feel the warmth trickling over him, signifying the Disillusionment Charm’s reversal, and he quickly stowed his wand away so he could grab Draco more easily. “Stop it – /Malfoy/ – look at me!” He managed to get hold of Draco’s shoulders, shaking him a bit, and finally Draco stopped fighting. “Potter?” he breathed, staring at him wide-eyed. “That – that was you? But I…I thought you – you complete /jerk!/” he suddenly exploded. He lunged forward, fists out in front of him, and Harry unexpectedly found himself trying to fend off an enraged Draco Malfoy who was doing his best to beat the hell out of Harry’s chest. “You prat! You complete and utter /pillock!/” Draco yelled, fists moving wildly. “You’re such an arsehole! You – you – I can’t believe you…” Draco gradually slowed down, though Harry could see that he was shaking. Then, rather abruptly, Draco

just stopped altogether and went limp. He fell forward against Harry, resting his forehead against the boy’s collar, and Harry felt his stomach do an odd sort of flip. Draco wasn’t about to start /crying/, was he? “Malfoy–” “I thought you’d /left/,” Draco moaned, his hands curling into the material of Harry’s robe and holding on tight. “I looked up and – and even my /mother/ was gone and I thought you all had left me to that /werewolf/. I thought – I thought, ‘he couldn’t /possibly/ hate me that much! He wouldn’t just leave me here!’ But you /did/ and – and I thought I was going to die!” Harry’s heart was pounding against his ribs, and he swallowed awkwardly. “I…I didn’t leave you, Malfoy,” he said, wrapping an arm uncertainly around Draco’s trembling shoulders. “I did have a plan. Sort of.” “Stuff your plans! I was… That was…” Draco looked up, still breathing quickly, but his eyes were surprisingly dry. “Don’t ever do that to me again!” Harry blinked. “Er…I won’t?” “Promise me!”

“Um…I promise, Malfoy…” Draco nodded. “Good,” he said, rubbing at his eyes. He released a shuddering breath. “I don’t suppose my mother is here…is she?” “Er…no. I’m not sure where she went,” Harry admitted. “No, you wouldn’t. We were going to leave the country,” Draco said absently, finally breaking away from Harry. He stumbled on the first step he took, and Harry quickly grabbed hold of Draco’s arm to keep him from falling. “Steady on,” he murmured, but Draco scowled and immediately shook him off. “I’m fine,” he muttered, running a hand through his hair. “I’m fine, just – a little shocked, I guess.” He made his way to a large boulder some ways away, collapsing down onto it, and Harry followed, slowly sitting down beside him. “You were going to leave the country?” he asked, arching his eyebrows. “Yeah,” Draco said, nodding. “We were only at the manor for a couple of days, getting our stuff together and all that.” “Are you... Your mother… Did you want to try and find her?” Draco paused for a moment, and then shook his head. “No… No, I wouldn’t

be surprised if she was already in France by now.” He glanced at Harry. “Guess you’re stuck with me.” Harry didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, so he decided to just remain silent. “Hey, how’d you get into the manor in the first place?” Draco asked, casting a look around the hilltop they were on. “And where are Weasley and Granger?” Harry’s eyes went wide. “Oh /shit!/” he exclaimed. “Bloody hell, I completely forgot!” He jumped up, spinning around to face Draco. “Look, Malfoy, wait right here, okay? I need to go get them. I’ll be right back, I swear!” Draco blinked, his brow furrowing, but he nodded. Harry didn’t bother waiting for a verbal confirmation, and he quickly Apparated to Grimmauld Place. Ron and Hermione were going to /kill/ him. *** Grimmauld Place was in absolute chaos – that was the first thing Harry noticed when he crept into the foyer. He winced when he heard Mrs. Black’s portrait screaming about blood traitors and Mudbloods, and over that he could hear his friends yelling at each other and

Dobby wailing about something or other. Taking a deep breath, Harry slowly made his way to the drawing room, trying to make out what his friends were saying. “Ron, we have to go back for him! He should have been back by now – oh, this is bad. This is so, so bad!” “Dobby is a bad elf!! He is failing Harry Potter! He is not getting out before Dobby replaced the wards!!” “I’m sure he’s fine, Hermione, we just need to stay calm – no, Dobby, you don’t need to punish yourself!” “But Dobby is leaving Harry Potter with the bad people!” “See?! Even Dobby understands the danger Harry’s in!” “You can’t Apparate back anyway, Dobby put the wards back up, remember?” “We’ll have to find another way in, then!” “Look, Harry knows what he’s doing. If he’s not back in another ten minutes then we can go looking for him, but until then I say we – /put down the vase, Dobby!/” “Dobby must be punishing himself!” “You don’t need to punish yourself, Dobby,” Harry spoke up from where he was standing awkwardly in the doorway. “I got out just fine.”

Ron gestured at Harry and arched his eyebrows at Hermione in an I-told-you-so sort of way, but it went completely unnoticed as Hermione all but threw herself at Harry. “/Harry!/” she cried, and he had to catch himself from toppling over backwards when she threw her arms around his shoulders. “Oh, thank God! I thought we’d just allowed you to get captured or something!” “Nah, I’m alright,” Harry said around a face full of her bushy hair. He stumbled a bit again when Dobby ran forward and clung to his legs. “Harry Potter is okay!” the elf wailed, sobbing into his trousers. “Dobby is so relieved!” “I tried to tell them, Harry,” Ron said, amused. He walked over and clapped Harry on the shoulder, and Harry eyes were immediately drawn to the locket dangling around his neck. “Knew you’d be alright.” “At least /someone/ has faith in me.” He tipped his head toward Ron’s neck. “So you really did get it, then?” “Get – oh! This.” Ron lifted it over his head and handed it to Harry. “I reckon that’s the right locket, yeah?” He shivered a bit. “It’s got a…creepy feel to it.”

“I hope so…” Harry peered at it. It certainly looked like the right one. It had Slytherin’s ornate ‘S’ on it and everything, and it was definitely the one that they had tried to throw away two summers ago. “Where was it?” It seemed to pulse slightly in his hand. Creepy indeed. Ron snorted. “In her /jewelry box/, mate. Don’t know what Kreacher was thinking, putting it there. Of course, it /was/ rather large. More like a small jewelry /wardrobe/, actually. Guess that’s why Malfoy’s mum never noticed it.” “Guess so,” Harry said, chuckling a bit, but he stopped abruptly when Hermione finally pulled away from him and then promptly smacked him upside the back of his head. “Ow! Bloody hell, Hermione!” “You deserved it!” she snapped. “Harry James Potter, I cannot /believe/ you! What on Earth were you doing that took so long?” Harry blinked, still rubbing the back of his head, and tucked the locket into one of his pockets. “Oh. Right. I think we’re going to have to go back to the Burrow for a bit, Ron.” “Why’s that?” Ron asked. “Er…” Harry shifted uncomfortably, reaching down to pry Dobby off his legs. “Because Malfoy isn’t going to be able to get into Grimmauld

Place,” he mumbled. They heard him anyway. “…/Malfoy/?” Ron repeated. “Oh, Harry, you didn’t…” Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose, letting out an exasperated breath. “Why am I not surprised?” “Well, I couldn’t just /leave/ him there!” Harry exclaimed. “He was about to get bitten by a werewolf, you know!” “Nothing he wouldn’t deserve,” Ron muttered, while Hermione stared at Harry incredulously. “Yes, a /werewolf/, Harry!” she exclaimed. “Not a vampire! It’s not like he was going to become a werewolf himself just from that – there’s no full moon tonight! I can’t believe you risked yourself to save him–” “Oh, so I guess I should have just let him get mauled then, yeah?” Harry snapped, cutting Hermione off. She visibly faltered, and Harry continued, “Nice, Hermione. Real nice.” Hermione at least had the decency to look slightly ashamed of herself, but she crossed her arms stubbornly and didn’t take back anything she’d said. There was a moment of awkward silence between them, before Ron sighed heavily. “Alright, the Burrow it is, then. Shall I get our trunks?”

*** Mrs. Weasley was more than happy to have them back in her home again, though she looked a bit bewildered to see them all trudging in so early in the morning. Her eyes lingered on Draco, but if she was surprised that he was with them again she hid it well. Exhausted from the night’s events, the four of them didn’t even bother stopping for food, and instead headed straight to bed. They reverted back to the sleeping arrangements they’d had before, Harry and Draco in the twins’ old room, and Hermione in Ginny’s. For most of the time they were in their room, Harry and Draco didn’t talk much to each other. There was an awkward sort of silence around them, as though neither knew what to say. They’d just changed into pajamas and had climbed into bed when Draco finally spoke up. “I didn’t tell anyone about the Horcruxes,” he murmured, pulling the covers up to his chin. Harry rolled over to face him, leaning on one elbow. “You didn’t?” “No.” “…Thanks,” Harry said, unable to keep the surprised tone from his voice.

He fancied he could actually see Draco scowling, even though the room was fairly dark. “I mean – don’t think I was doing you any favors, Potter. It’s not like there were a lot of people I could tell. I only actually saw my mother. Until tonight, that is…” “Well, I appreciate it, nonetheless.” Harry paused for a moment, and then spoke again. “Why were you in such a hurry to write to your mum, anyway?” Draco hesitated. “It was… She…she said she’d heard rumors that the Dark Lord was going to send people after her, because she’d gone to Snape about my…mission. So she was planning to leave, and I guess I just – panicked.” “You wanted to make sure she was okay?” Harry guessed. “Something like that. I just needed to get that letter sent and you were being so…/frustrating/ about it, and – I really probably shouldn’t have left.” Harry scowled. “You think?” “Shut it, Potter,” Draco groused. There was another moment of silence before Draco asked, “So…about the Horcruxes… Have you had any luck?”

“A bit,” Harry admitted. “Though it worries me that Voldemort is looking to get that diary back…” “Diary?” “The book that your aunt kept referring to. It was one of the Horcruxes. I destroyed it, er, back in second year.” There was sudden rustling coming from the other side of the room as Draco sat up. Harry sighed, sitting up himself, and cast a quick /Lumos/ so that he could see the other boy better. “/Second year/?” Draco repeated, his eyes wide. “How the bloody hell did you pull that one off?” “Um…long story. You remember the whole Heir of Slytherin thing?” “How could I not?” “Well…” Harry had to wonder why he was even telling Draco this, but he plowed on anyway, “It was actually Voldemort controlling Ginny through the diary.” Draco blinked. “Ginny your girlfriend, Ginny?” “Ex-girlfriend,” Harry corrected. “And yes.” “And the Dark Lord was actually the Heir of Slytherin.” Harry nodded. “Got it in one.”

“But…how did you even know it was a Horcrux?” Draco asked incredulously. “And what the bleeding hell /is/ a Horcrux?! I meant to look it up while I was at the manor, but obviously some other things came up…” “I still can’t tell you that,” Harry replied, rolling his eyes. “And I didn’t know it was one. Dumbledore only told me about the Horcrux thing this past year.” “Oh…” “Anyway, we found another one tonight. That’s why we were at your house.” Draco’s eyebrows arched. “Really? But – I mean – how did it end up /there/?” “That’s… Well, it’s another long story, and frankly I’m too tired to tell it. I’m absolutely knackered. Remind me to tell you some other time.” Harry yawned then – perfect timing, he thought – and collapsed onto his pillow, moaning contentedly. Draco snorted from the other side of the room as he settled back on his own bed. “Alright then,” he said. “And, um…Potter?” “Hmm?” Harry cracked one eye open. “Well…/thanks/. You know. For not leaving me to be killed tonight…” Harry’s other eye opened as well and he stared at Draco in

utter shock for a moment. Draco chose to steadfastly ignore him by staring intently at the ceiling. “You’re welcome…” Harry murmured eventually. Draco visibly relaxed after he said it, and he glanced briefly at Harry out of the corner of his eye. Harry felt his mouth tug upwards on one side. “Also remind me,” Harry began to say as he rolled over to face the wall, “to give you your wand back tomorrow. It’s still in my trunk.” He didn’t hear a reply to that for a long while, but just as he was finally beginning to drift off to sleep, he was almost positive he heard Draco faintly saying, “…Thanks, Potter.” Harry slept very well for the rest of the day. Chapter 9 The one bad thing about being back at the Burrow, as Harry was quickly reminded, was that there were only two bathrooms. One might think that, what with Ginny back at Hogwarts and therefore there being one less girl in the house, this really wouldn’t be an issue. But then one would be wrong. Harry huffed, letting his head fall forward to bang against the door. “Malfoy,” he said between clenched teeth, “I know it must be a terrible

inconvenience for you to have your shower cut off an hour earlier than usual, but really – /Get. Out. Of. The. Effing. BATHROOM!!/” “What was that, Potter?” a muffled voice called over the sounds of running water. “I’m sure you said something, but either it wasn’t important enough for me to acknowledge, or – no, wait, I’m pretty sure it just wasn’t important enough for me to acknowledge.” Harry drew in a breath slowly and tried to count to ten. He made it to three before he decided that tactic wouldn’t work. “/Merlin/, see if I ever save /your/ arse again!” he burst out. “I was better off leaving you to Greyback!” “Oh, come off it, you don’t mean that!” Draco said, sounding completely unconcerned that Harry might have been serious. “I do mean it, and if you’re not out of there in the next minute I’ll bring you back to him myself!” He sighed, pushing his glasses up and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Sod it, I’m coming in.” “What?! Don’t you dare!” “Come out here and stop me, then!” “Yeah, like I’m going to fall for that. And anyway, the door’s locked–” “/Alohomora!/” Harry spat at the doorknob. He heard it click,

and Draco made a protesting sound. “/Potter/–” Harry ignored him, shoving the door open and storming inside. He made it as far as the sink before he paused, floundering a bit. Okay, so he was inside… Now what? Draco poked his head out of the shower, looking disgruntled. “Why are you so impatient?” he groused, the soap suds in his hair dripping down his neck and slowly forming small mountains of foam on his shoulders. Harry’s eyes followed one of the globs as the spray from the shower caught it, pushing it down his chest along that thin, upraised scar. It disappeared behind the shower curtain that Draco had pulled in front of his stomach, shielding anything below from view. “Potter!” “What?” Harry said, startled, his eyes snapping up to meet Draco’s. His cheeks looked a bit pinker than usual. Harry guessed it was from the heat of the water. “I asked you why you’re so impatient,” Draco replied after an awkward beat of silence. He pulled the curtain a bit farther across his chest. “I’m almost finished.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Your /almost finished/ means I’ll still be waiting another half-hour,” he said, moving forward. “And where exactly do you think you’re going?” Draco asked, his voice slipping up a notch as his eyes widened in alarm. Harry stopped in front of the toilet. “I’ve had to pee all morning,” he said bluntly. “You’re off your rocker if you think I’m waiting any longer.” Draco’s nose wrinkled. “Is there something wrong with the /other/ bathroom?” “Ron and Hermione are using that one.” “God, not /together/, I hope!” Draco exclaimed, his face twisting in disgust. Harry shrugged, but honestly, he had no idea. He rather hoped they weren’t. Another few seconds of silence passed, before Harry arched an eyebrow at Draco. “Were you just going to stand there and watch?” “Ew, you were being serious?” Draco asked, his nose scrunching up again. “How am I supposed to shower when you’re taking a piss right next to me?!” Harry looked incredulous. “Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but didn’t you live in a dormitory for the past six years? Unless Slytherins get their

own personal bathrooms or something…” He sounded as if the idea wasn’t all that farfetched. “We don’t,” Draco said, lifting his chin. “But, remember, I was a /Prefect/ – and you were not – so I got to use the /Prefects’ bathroom/ – while you did not.” Harry let out an exasperated breath, glancing up at the ceiling. “Yeah, well, /you/ remember that I was Quidditch captain last year – and you were not – so I also got to use the Prefects’ bathroom. Which, you may also remember, consists of a giant bathtub, a row of showers, and a row of stalls. Much like /every other bathroom/ in Hogwarts.” He paused, and then added, “Aside from the giant bathtub, that is.” “But…” Draco fished around for something to say. “But, Potter, I’m /naked/.” Harry gave him a blank look. “You should be; you’re taking a shower.” Draco stared at him flatly, and Harry blinked. “God, is /that/ what’s got your wand in a knot? It’s not like I haven’t seen a naked boy before!” “You’ve never seen /me/ naked before!” “And let’s keep it that way, yeah? I’m not exactly planning on jumping in there with you, you know.” Harry faced the toilet finally, hands already moving towards the elastic band of his shorts. Draco

promptly ‘hmphed’ and disappeared back into the shower again. Once Harry was finished, he propped himself up on the edge of the sink, kicking his legs back and forth and willing Draco to hurry up. The water shut off a few minutes later, and there was a brief pause before Draco spoke. “Potter?” he asked tentatively. “Yeah?” “Damn it, you’re still here?” Harry grinned. “Thought it might encourage you to finish quicker.” “I’m sure.” There was another pause, and then, in an agitated voice, he asked, “Will you hand me my fucking towel, then?” Harry glanced around, spotting Draco’s towel, clothes, and wand lying in a pile on the other side of the sink. Grabbing the towel, he hopped off the counter and held it out for Draco. “Here.” Draco snatched it from him, and after giving Harry an annoyed look, he let the shower curtain fall shut again. Harry shrugged, chuckling, and wandered back over to the sink. He pulled off his shirt, dropping it carelessly beside Draco’s, and peered at himself in the mirror. His hair was sticking up even more than usual since he hadn’t

bothered to put a brush to it since he woke up, but that wasn’t anything unusual. Raising his eyes, he stared at his scar for a bit. He hadn’t felt it twinge too much lately. There hadn’t been any attacks in the Daily Prophet recently either. He wondered what Voldemort was up to, what horrible plan he’d come out with next… “You can get in now,” Draco grumbled, coming up behind Harry. His towel was wrapped precariously low around his hips, and his wet hair was sticking to his neck, sending rivulets of water dripping in trails down his chest. “Alright,” Harry said, yanking off his glasses and leaving them on his shirt. He grabbed his own towel and moved towards the shower, wrapping it around his waist and dropping his shorts in one fluid motion. He thought he heard Draco cough slightly, but he didn’t much care since he was more concerned about /finally/ getting to take his shower. He let the curtain fall shut behind him, only sticking his arm out to drop his towel on the floor. The instant the hot water hit his skin, Harry sighed in relief. The best way to really wake up, he thought, was by taking a shower. It relaxed and energized him at the same time, washing away all of his problems, if only for a moment.

“Hey, Potter,” Draco said suddenly, and Harry remembered with a start that the other boy was still in the bathroom. He sighed, and grabbed the shampoo. “What?” he replied, pushing his hands through his hair and lathering up. Draco hesitated, and then asked quickly, “Do you think I should owl my mother?” Harry paused. “If you want to,” he said carefully. “I’m sure she’s fine, though…” “I know, it’s just that – I mean, she was in pretty bad shape, wasn’t she? When she Apparated?” Oh. Harry had almost forgotten she’d been under the Cruciatus curse. “She seemed–” Harry was going to say /fine/ again, but at the last second he decided being honest might be a good idea. He sighed, his eyes falling shut as he tipped his face up into the spray. “Yeah, she was in pretty bad shape,” he admitted softly. “Bellatrix had her under it for a while…” Silence answered him and Harry was beginning to wonder if Draco had left, when suddenly the shower curtain was yanked to the side.

Harry yelped, nearly losing his balance on the slippery floor, and cried, “/Malfoy!/ What the hell?!” “What if she didn’t make it?” Draco demanded, ignoring Harry’s panicked face. His hand clenched around the curtain. “What if she didn’t get far enough? What if she collapsed somewhere along the way? What if she /splinched/ herself? What if–” Draco’s eyes went wide. “What if the Dark Lord has her?!” “Malfoy…” Harry pried Draco’s fingers off the curtain and pulled it mostly shut to give himself some privacy. Draco blinked, his face flushing as if he hadn’t realized what he’d just done, but then he narrowed his eyes at Harry and waited for an answer. Harry sighed. “I doubt Voldemort has her,” he said. “Give it a couple of days, let her get situated. If we don’t hear from her in a week or so–” “A /week/?” Draco cut in. “A week,” Harry replied nodding. “If she doesn’t send you something, then you can owl her. I just… I don’t think it’s a good idea to attract attention to the fact that she’s gone right now.” Draco huffed and leaned back against the wall opposite the shower, crossing his arms across his naked chest – Harry finally noticed that he

was still only wearing the towel. “Potter. Why…” He paused briefly, and then plowed on, “Why did she leave without me? She couldn’t have known you were going to stay behind. She /knows/ I can’t stand you.” “I think…” Harry’s brow furrowed, and he ducked back into the shower so that he could rinse the soap out of his hair. “I think she knew I was going to get you out of there. I mean, I don’t know how much your father tells your mum, but between the Chamber of Secrets thing and the Department of Mysteries fiasco, I’m fairly certain she understands that I’ve got a bit of a…/saving people thing/.” He frowned, thinking of Sirius, as Hermione’s voice whispered the words in his head. He knew well enough that they were true, though. “Besides,” Harry continued after a bit, “we sort of had a moment back there–” “You and my mum had a /moment/?” Draco interrupted incredulously. “Well – yes,” Harry said awkwardly. He shut off the water and wasn’t all that surprised when Draco thrust his arm into the shower, Harry’s towel in his hand. “Thanks,” he muttered, taking it and drying off. “Anyway, I was staring at her, trying to get her to understand that I was about to let off that spell so she’d be able to leave, and she – she was watching me, and then…and then she looked at you.”

“At me?” “Yeah. At you, and then back at me, and I…I guess I understood what she was asking.” “I told her I’d been with you the whole time she thought I was missing. I figured it was okay, since it was face to face and not in an owl that might have been intercepted.” Harry wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped out of the shower, finding Draco dressed now. They were standing close enough that Harry could mostly make out Draco’s features, but he was still a bit blurred around the edges. “She entrusted me to you,” Draco said slowly. “First she entrusted me to Snape, and now to you.” He sighed. “I wonder when she stopped being able to take care of me herself…” Harry gave him a lopsided grin. “Guess I’ll have to keep you all in one piece for her, then.” Draco rolled his eyes. “Please. I can take care of myself,” he said, smirking. “Well, by all means, if you want to leave again…” Harry gestured at the door, raising his eyebrows. Draco snorted.

“I think I’ll stay here this time, thanks.” Harry let out a long-suffering sigh. “Fine, fine,” he said easily. “Now out of my way; I can’t see a bloody thing without my glasses.” Draco snickered, but moved toward the door. “I’ll let you get dressed,” he said. “Not necessary,” Harry said, sliding his glasses on. “I didn’t bring a change of clothes.” Draco shrugged, opening the door, and after making sure his towel was still tightly wrapped around himself, Harry followed. “Oh, Harry, there you are!” Ron called, and Harry and Draco turned to see him coming down the hall. He stopped abruptly, though, his eyes widening and looking slowly from the door of the bathroom to the two boys and back again. “Did…did you two just…?” Harry blinked. “Just what?” “Did you both just come out of the bathroom–” Ron swallowed. “–/together/?” “What?” Harry looked back at the door, his brow furrowing. “Yeah, we were showering. Why?” Ron’s eyes went even wider, and he floundered. “But…” “God, Weasley, not together as in /together/!” Draco spat.

“For Merlin’s sake. We were just talking.” Ron still looked doubtful, and Harry finally caught on to what he was thinking. “Oh, Ron, /no/,” he said quickly, his nose scrunching up in distaste. “He was taking forever and I was tired of waiting, so I forced my way in, is all.” “Into the shower?” Ron asked faintly. “Into the /bathroom/,” Harry and Draco said simultaneously, exasperated. “Oh. Right.” Ron nodded. “And then – and then Malfoy finished and you two were talking and that’s why he was still in there. Yeah?” “Yeah,” they said together again, and then promptly gave each other annoyed looks. Ron glanced back and forth between them, his expression doubtful, before he turned away. “Well…alright then. Mum says breakfast is ready, whenever you are.” He headed back downstairs, and Draco immediately moved to follow. Then he paused, realizing he was still holding his pajamas and damp towel, so he turned and thrust them into Harry’s arms. “He’s daft, that one,” he said, smirking a bit. “Take those back to the room for me, would you?”

“Yes, master,” Harry said sarcastically, eying the outfit Draco had on for the first time. “Hey – those are /my/ clothes!” “Well, what did you expect?” Draco said loftily, plucking at the shirt he had on. “I packed up all my stuff when I left, remember? And now it’s all at the Manor.” “You mean you haven’t got any clothes again?” Harry asked in disbelief. “Fuck, Malfoy!” “I figured you’d lend Mrs. Weasley some money so she can go shopping for me again,” Draco quipped, and then before Harry could answer, he turned and hurried off down the steps. “Hurry up, Potter, or I’ll eat your share!” Harry sighed, staring down at the pile of clothes in his arms, and headed off to his room to see if there was anything left for him to wear. *** The next week passed in a fairly quick blur. They’d gone back to doing research again, though now Harry was more concerned with finding information on how to /destroy/ Horcruxes rather than how to find them. He had the locket wrapped up and tucked away in the bottom of his trunk so that Mrs. Weasley wouldn’t accidentally stumble upon it while she was cleaning. He didn’t like having it nearby, anyway. Sometimes

it made his scar itch uncomfortably, and when he’d shown it to Draco the other boy had taken one look at it, clasped his hand over his Dark Mark, and told him to get it the hell away. Unfortunately, the research was proving as fruitful as before. Draco was helping again, though as the week wore on he became less and less useful. He was very on-edge lately, and each day he grew more tense and anxious. Harry had given up talking to him altogether by the fifth day (Hermione and Ron had given up by the end of the third) because every conversation ended with Harry being snapped at. He tried not to blame him, though, because he knew it was just because they still hadn’t heard from Draco’s mother. Day six came and went with Harry, Ron, and Hermione sitting on opposite sides of the kitchen table as Draco. On day seven they didn’t even stay in the same room. When day nine rolled around and they still hadn’t heard from Mrs. Malfoy, Draco didn’t even leave the bedroom. “You reckon something happened to her?” Ron asked over breakfast on day ten, shoveling some kippers into his mouth. Harry shrugged in reply, pushing his own food around his plate.

“To be honest, Harry, I really thought we would have heard from her by now,” Hermione said softly. “Maybe you should let Malfoy owl her.” “/Let/ him owl her?” Harry repeated, glancing up. “Hermione, I’m not his keeper! He doesn’t need my permission. I only suggested he wait a week, but after that I said he could owl her. It’s not like I’m /forcing/ him to refrain from writing her,” he finished, muttering at the end. “He’s probably nervous,” Ron spoke up again, waving his fork around. “What if he writes her and never gets a reply? She could be dead for all we know.” “Thanks, Weasley, for that vote of confidence,” Draco snapped, appearing in the kitchen doorway. “Malfoy!” Harry said, surprised to see him. “Er – d’you want to eat something?” “No, I…” He hesitated, chewing on his bottom lip a little. “I wanted to ask if I could borrow your owl…” Harry blinked. “Sure. I don’t mind. Um, I’m not really sure where she is, though.” Come to think of it, Harry hadn’t seen her in a few days. He turned to Hermione. “Has she been through here recently?”

Hermione shrugged, looking concerned. “You could use Pig,” Ron offered, gulping down some pumpkin juice. “He hasn’t had any work to do in a while.” Draco grimaced, but looked resigned. “I appreciate the offer, Weasley,” he said stiffly. “I’m not sure how far he’ll have to go, though. Are you sure that…bird can make it?” Harry snorted, hearing Draco’s ‘/small, pathetic excuse for a/’ go unsaid in that slight pause. “Pig’s pretty reliable,” Ron said, obliviously. Draco opened his mouth to retort, but before he could a loud screech sounded and Hedwig swooped into the room and landed on the kitchen table. “Speak of the devil,” Harry murmured, running a finger over the owl’s soft head and then letting her nibble it. “Harry, she’s got a letter for you,” Hermione pointed out. Harry looked at Hedwig’s leg. “More than one, by the look of it.” He untied the letters, and was suddenly overcome with the flowery scent that he immediately associated with Ginny. Sure enough, as he flipped quickly through the three letters he’d received, one of them was from her. “Wait!” Draco said suddenly, lunging forward and grabbing the bundle from Harry’s hands. “I thought – I thought I saw–” He let out

a triumphant cry, dropping the two unneeded letters to the table. “It’s my mum’s handwriting!” He tore the seal off and scanned the writing on the page, his shoulders slumping in obvious relief. “Well?” Ron demanded. “She’s alright,” Draco said absently, still reading. “She said there was a change of plans and she’s staying with a /trustworthy friend/ in Spain – /Spain?/ We were supposed to go to France!” “At least she’s okay, though,” Hermione said. “Yeah.” Draco frowned, reading through the rest of the letter. “She left a footnote for you, Potter.” He thrust the letter in Harry’s direction, and he accepted it, startled. “Why did she–” “Just read it.” Harry’s brow furrowed as he glanced down at the elegantly penned words.

/Mr. Potter~/ /I apologize for seemingly leaving my son in your care again so easily. It was not a choice that was easy to make, but given the short amount of time I had to decide things, it seemed the best route to take. I’m still unaware of how you managed to get into

my home, Harry Potter, but there are a great many things I’m not sure how you’ve managed to accomplish. When I noticed that the wards were down, however, I had a brief feeling of hope. Draco had informed me of your willingness to protect him throughout the summer, and I can only hope that this show of benevolence will continue. I was in poor condition, I admit, after being under that curse, both from suffering it and because I never thought my sister would turn against me in such a way. I confess I thought there was still some good in her. I see now that the Dark Lord has erased it entirely./ /I’ve taken my leave from this war, Mr. Potter. I know that is something you will never be able to do, and I know my own son well enough that I can accept that it is something he would not have been able to agree to for long either. Because of this, and because it would have been impossible for me to escape safely with my son by my side, I leave him to you. It pains me to do so, but Draco’s safety is and always has been my first priority. This may contradict the idea of leaving him in the war zone that Britain now is, but getting him away from that werewolf was first and foremost on my list of worries. I have complete faith that when this letter finds my son, you will be sitting there beside him./ /I expect to be able to return to a wizarding world devoid of evil megalomaniacs soon, Mr. Potter, and I expect my son to be exactly the way he was when I left, with not one hair out of place./ /In all sincerity, Narcissa Malfoy/

“A footnote? More like she left me an entire second /letter/,”

Harry muttered, unable to help glancing through Draco’s portion as well. It seemed she’d explained to Draco why she had left without him, using much the same reasoning Harry had that day in the bathroom, though she used phrases like ‘/he’s so obviously a Gryffindor/’ rather than ‘/he has a people saving thing/.’ “And I love how she expects me to take absolutely perfect care of you, /orders/ me to, in fact, when I’m the one who took the risk of saving you in the first place!” “I told you, I can take care of myself!” Draco said, rolling his eyes and snatching the letter back from Harry. “I’m still trying to figure out why she’s in /Spain/ of all places. We don’t know anyone in Spain, I’m sure…” “Mate, you’ve still got two other letters to worry about,” Ron pointed out. “Well, one other letter.” He picked up Ginny’s note, frowning at it, and glanced curiously at the final letter still left on the table. “It doesn’t say who it’s from,” Hermione said needlessly. It was quite obvious that the only thing visible on the folded white parchment was a quickly scrawled /H. P./ “Wait a second,” Harry murmured, reaching it for it. Hermione quickly slapped his hand away.

“You can’t open that, Harry!” she exclaimed. “We don’t know who it’s from–” “/I/ do!” Harry interrupted, grabbing it before she could stop him again. Of course he recognized that writing. He’d studied it again and again, despite Hermione’s orders not to, for the entire past year, hadn’t he? “It /does/ look familiar,” Ron said, narrowing his eyes. Draco nodded. “I think I’ve seen it before, too.” “How can you possibly recognize it from /two letters/?” Hermione scoffed, looking annoyed that the boys weren’t listening to her. “It could be cursed or – or maybe it’s a timed Portkey! Harry, /you don’t know who it’s from!/” “It’s from Snape!” Harry said loudly, earning gasps from around the table. Suddenly the letter was no longer in his hands, but floating in the air in front of Draco, who had his wand trained on it. Harry hadn’t heard him perform any spells, but then again it was entirely possible he’d done a nonverbal one. “Never mind, I agree with Granger,” he said flatly. “You shouldn’t open it.” Hermione blinked, but looked grateful that someone was siding with her.

“What – /Malfoy!/” “It’s his letter, Malfoy; he can do what he wants with it!” Ron said, making a halfhearted grab to get the letter back. Draco moved it away with a small flick of his wand, and Ron didn’t reach for it again. Harry suspected his friend was only agreeing with him for the sole sake of /not/ wanting to agree with Draco. “At least let us check it for hexes,” Hermione said in a placating tone. Harry huffed, sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. “Fine,” he snapped. Ron let out a breath in obvious relief. He tried waiting patiently, but by the time Hermione and Draco had cast /every spell ever invented/ on the letter, he was bouncing his foot up and down and tapping his arm anxiously. “Aren’t you finished yet?” he asked, unable to help himself. “Oh, shut it, Potter, it hasn’t even been five minutes,” Draco said absently, his wand still held aloft as he cast another spell. “It looks alright to me,” Hermione said reluctantly, just a few seconds later. “I guess you can open it…” She glanced at Draco, who shrugged and sent the letter flying back to Harry. “/Finally/,” he grumbled, grabbing it and opening it quickly.

He ran his eyes over the two lines of text written, and gave the others an annoyed look. “Because that was /so/ worth having a fit about,” he groused, tossing it onto the table. Draco, Ron, and Hermione immediately crowded around it, eager to see what Snape could possibly have written about.

/Meet me at the Hog’s Head – Friday, 2pm sharp. Come alone. Don’t be late./

“He didn’t even sign it,” Hermione spoke up after a moment. “Because he knew I’d recognize his handwriting,” Harry said with a roll of his eyes. “I had his Potions book all year, remember?” Ron snickered, while Hermione said in a testy voice, “How could I forget?” “You had his Potions textbook?” Draco repeated, looking curious. “How come?” “Ron and I didn’t buy books at first, because we didn’t think we’d be in the class,” Harry explained. “So we borrowed some of the old ones, and somehow I ended up with his.” “I told him to return it,” Hermione added, obviously still annoyed. “Why did it matter?”

“It had all sorts of nifty spells in it that the author had written in the margins,” Ron said eagerly. “We didn’t know it was /Snape/ who’d come up with them.” Harry suddenly felt cold, remembering what one of the spells had been. He coughed and tried to change the subject. “Er, yeah, the spells. Well, anyway–” “What sort of spells?” Draco said loudly, overtop of him. His eyes had a hard glint to them, and were narrowed slightly. /He knows/, Harry thought, biting his lip. “There was one that makes a person’s tongue stick to the roof of their mouth,” Ron said, oblivious to the tension suddenly surrounding the table. “There was also another one that muffled noise–” “There didn’t happen to be one that could, oh, /slice a person open/…was there?” Draco asked innocently. Silence. “Er…” Ron mumbled. “Look, Malfoy, I already apologized for that–” “You got that spell from a /book?!/” Draco exclaimed, turning to face him. “And you didn’t know who had written it?! You idiot!”

“I told him to hand it back in,” Hermione said quickly. “He was using those spells left and right and half of them I don’t think said what they did.” “That’s a load of bollocks, Hermione!” Harry said quickly, angrily. “I knew very well what they did!” Draco gave him a look that was somehow furious, incredulous, and shocked all at the same time, and Harry floundered. “Erm – what /some/ of them did,” he corrected himself. “Not – not all of them. And not /that/ one. It just said /for enemies/.” “For /enemies?/” Draco repeated, wide-eyed, and Harry realized he’d only made things worse. “/ENEMIES??/ Bloody hell, Potter! You almost killed me!” “I told you, you were about to use the Cruciatus curse on me!” Harry yelled. “I panicked!” “The book also had modified potions instructions in it,” Hermione cut in nervously. Harry knew she was just trying to stop them from fighting, but really, couldn’t she have said something else? /Anything/ else? “They had little hints in them, and short-cuts and such–” “You’re not helping, Hermione,” Ron interrupted as Draco’s face went red. “/That’s/ why you were doing so well in Potions last year?” Draco said

tightly, as if he was trying to refrain from exploding. “Because you had Snape’s personal Potions for Complete Idiots handbook?” “Um…yes?” Harry said tentatively. Draco breathed in slowly. “That figures,” he said. “That just absolutely figures.” He fumed silently a bit more, while the other three watched him anxiously. After a minute or two of this, Ron cleared his throat. “There’s – uh, there’s still the matter about Snape’s letter…” Oh yeah. “Right,” Harry said, quickly taking advantage of the distraction. “I’m assuming he means this Friday, yeah?” “What – Harry, you can’t possibly be thinking of /going/,” Hermione said incredulously. “That’s…that’s /dangerous/, and–” “And he might be able to help us,” Harry pointed out. “Look, I don’t trust him either–” “Then why go?!” Hermione cried. “We’ll find something soon, I’m sure.” “And what about the other Horcruxes?” Harry demanded. “Do you think we’ll be able to find /them/ without some sort of help? If Dumbledore told anyone else about the Horcruxes, it’s Snape. He’s the only other

person Dumbledore trusted implicitly.” “I don’t think you should go, Potter,” Draco said quietly. “At least…not without backup.” “I agree,” Ron said quickly. “You can’t actually go alone. So–” “–I’ll go with you!” Harry blinked, looking back and forth between Ron and Draco, who were staring at each other in shock, and then he gave Hermione an inquiring glance. She shrugged, smiling a bit. “You /both/…want to come with me?” Harry asked carefully. “Yes,” they said in unison again, completely ignoring each other. “I always go with you, Harry,” Ron said, his eyes bright. “What makes you think I’d stay behind this time? “And there’s no way you’re leaving me!” Draco said quickly. “I need to see Snape again, too.” “But…he told me to come alone…” Ron rolled his eyes. “So we’ll go under the Invisibility Cloak!” Draco suddenly looked a lot more excited about sneaking along. “Yeah, even Snape won’t be able to see through that!” Harry looked at Hermione again. “Well?”

She grinned. “I’ll stay behind this time. Let the boys bond, and all that.” “Guys night out?” Ron added, looking mischievous. “Hey, Harry, maybe we can stop by Hogwarts! We could go see Neville and Seamus and – everyone!” “Yeah, Potter, you could visit your girlfriend,” Draco added, smirking. “Ex-girlfriend,” Harry said absently, before continuing, “I somehow doubt we can just waltz right up to Hogwarts and expect to be let in.” “You’re still students there,” Hermione pointed out. She sounded excited. “I bet you could talk to Professor McGonagall – oh! Maybe she’ll give you some study materials! You know, preparation exams for the N.E.W.T.s or something! We’ll have so much to catch up on when all this is over, it’d be good if we worked studying into our regime somehow…” She trailed off, obviously already thinking up ways to get them involved in study sessions again. Ron and Harry exchanged panicked looks, though Draco didn’t seem too upset by the idea. “Er – sure, Hermione. If I get a chance to go to Hogwarts, I’ll be sure to talk to McGonagall for you,” Harry said, glancing at Ron again and

rolling his eyes. “It’s Tuesday now,” Hermione said absently, not listening to him any longer as she stood up and headed for the door. “If I write her now she should be able to get things prepared…” Harry sighed, but he was grinning. “Alright,” he said, looking between Ron and Draco. “Friday it is.” Chapter 10 The Hog’s Head looked the same as it had the last time Harry had stepped foot inside it. It was still dusty and grimy, though even emptier than it had been two years ago. In fact, Harry realized, as he glanced around the room tentatively and carefully held the door open long enough so that Ron and Draco could slip through, the only other person actually present was the bartender. He gave Harry a suspicious look, never pausing as he pushed his dirty rag along the outside of the glass he was holding. “Can I get you something?” he asked gruffly after a moment of scrutiny. His voice struck a chord somewhere deep inside of Harry. He didn’t know why, and he certainly couldn’t place it, but something about that old man’s voice sounded very familiar…

“Er, no thanks,” Harry replied, trying to refrain from shuffling his feet nervously. “I’m just – uh – meeting someone here. Soon.” Soon as in five minutes ago, in fact. Where was Snape? “He’s with me,” another voice spoke up from behind Harry. A voice that, though he hadn’t heard it in months and was no longer in school anyway, still made Harry feel like a first year all over again. It also set a spark burning in the pit of his stomach. He could feel the anger beginning to boil, and he quickly pushed it aside so he could deal with the more important matters at hand. “Professor Snape,” Harry said levelly, turning on his heel to face the other man. He then immediately winced, one because he definitely hadn’t meant to call him /Professor/, and two, he could have just completely blown Snape’s cover. Snape didn’t look too worried, though. In fact, he didn’t even have the hood of his cloak up. He’d be easily recognized anywhere, Harry thought wildly; what was he thinking?! “Severus,” the bartender said, nodding in greeting. He didn’t seem perturbed at all by the fact that a wanted Death Eater had just stepped into his bar. Snape nodded in return. “May we make use of your backroom?”

“Go right ahead.” He gestured to a door behind the bar that Harry hadn’t noticed before, and Snape moved swiftly towards it. “Come along, Potter, I haven’t got all day,” he spat back at Harry when he didn’t move from the spot he was standing. This couldn’t possibly be safe, could it? He was meeting with Albus Dumbledore’s murderer in the backroom of a shady bar where the bartender very obviously knew who Snape was and apparently had no qualms about letting him into the establishment. How was that in any way a good idea? “Potter!” “Right, I’m coming!” Harry snapped. Merlin, what was he getting himself into? Snape was already seated on the opposite side of a small, rickety table when Harry finally closed the door behind him. He gestured at the only other chair, clearly meaning for Harry to sit down as well, but Harry didn’t budge. Snape snorted, peering at Harry for a long moment, and by the time Harry had figured out what he was doing, it was too late to do anything about it. “The hell – get the fuck out of my head, you bastard!” Harry exclaimed, gripping the back of the chair and doing his best to clear his

mind. Snape withdrew, chuckling, and crossed his arms across his chest. “I see you’ve gotten your hands on another one of the Horcruxes. That’s very good, Potter. I confess myself vaguely impressed.” Harry stared at him, trying not to let panic overtake him. Dumbledore trusted Snape, he had to remember that. /Dumbledore trusted Snape/. “So he did tell you about them, then,” Harry said in a rush. “The Horcruxes. Dumbledore told you what he has me doing?” “Of course he did,” Snape said, the corner of his mouth curving upwards into a sardonic smirk. “He all but ordered me to assist you. Apparently he didn’t fully realize what an appalling fiasco the whole Occlumency ordeal turned out to be.” Harry stared at him for another moment, before Snape rolled his eyes and looked pointedly at the chair again. “Sit down, Potter. We need to talk.” Harry finally sat down tentatively, his wand still tight in his grasp. “Why did you want to see me?” he asked warily. “To see how much progress you’d made, of course.” “But – but then – if you’re really supposed to be /helping/ me, then why didn’t you try to contact me before?” Harry asked, his brow furrowing.

Snape arched an eyebrow, giving Harry a cool glance. “I suppose I assumed that if I tried to get in contact with you as early as, say, July, then there was a high chance that you would have either outright ignored me, or, and I daresay this is more likely, you would have shown up and then promptly tried to kill me. And I do stress the word /tried/,” Snape said dryly. “Given a little bit of time to mourn your Headmaster’s death and to come to terms with what has happened, I had hoped you would be able to look at things in a different light.” His gaze hardened. “Am I correct?” Harry shrugged, unable to meet Snape’s eyes. “I’ve… Ron, Hermione, and I have talked about… I mean.” He released a breath, blowing the hair off his forehead briefly, and faced Snape. “We’ve come to the agreement that it’s…/possible/…that you might have killed – /murdered/ – Dumbledore because you had an…an Unbreakable Vow with him?” He was unable to keep the thread of hope from entering his voice at the end of his question, because as much as he despised the man, and as much as he /wanted/ to hate him… The profound /relief/ he felt that, oh God, finally, /finally/ there might be someone to help him find these damn Horcruxes was completely overwhelming.

Snape studied Harry for a moment, and then he leaned forward, folding his arms across the top of the table. “There’s someone I want to introduce you to, Potter,” he said lightly, and Harry immediately tensed and tightened his hold on his wand again. “You can come in now, Aberforth!” Hang on – /Aberforth?/ The door opened and the Hog’s Head bartender stepped into the room, and suddenly all the agonizingly familiar details he’d noticed in fifth year slid into place. “You – you’re–” Harry stuttered, his eyes wide. “/You’re/ Aberforth Dumbledore? Professor Dumbledore’s brother?!” “I am,” Aberforth said gruffly, meeting Harry’s eyes briefly before looking away. He stuffed his hands into his pockets as if he wasn’t sure what to do with them when he didn’t have a glass to clean. “Er… I…” Harry floundered, unsure what he was supposed to say in this situation. Should he offer his condolences for Aberforth’s loss? He supposed that might be a bit awkward, since the person behind his brother’s death was sitting just on the other side of the table… “Aberforth was the Bonder of the Unbreakable Vow that Dumbledore and I

took,” Snape said suddenly, still watching Harry with a careful gaze. Harry’s eyes napped back to Snape. “Unbreakable Vow…” he repeated faintly. “So…there /was/ one. Dumbledore made you agree to go through the Unbreakable Vow you had with Malfoy’s mum.” Snape’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly. “Among other agreements, yes, that was one of them.” He narrowed his eyes again almost immediately. “How did you come to know about that, Potter?” “I have my ways,” Harry said after a beat, his gaze sliding briefly off to the side before focusing on Snape again. He decided to play dumb. “Is Malfoy with you now?” Snape looked faintly disgruntled, and Aberforth took this moment to conjure up another chair beside Harry’s. It was a far cry from the sort of purple armchair his brother would have made; this one looking far more appropriate for the seedy bar they were currently in. “Mr. Malfoy,” Snape began to say slowly, rubbing distractedly at his chest in what appeared to be an unconscious manner (Harry suddenly noticed just how tired the man looked – he hadn’t been /worried/ about Draco, had he?), “disappeared some time ago. I heard rumors that he was recently at Malfoy Manor with his mother, but I’ve yet to hear from –

any people who were actually present.” Bellatrix and Greyback. That’s who he was referring to. And possibly Narcissa, herself. Harry frowned. Did they correspond with each other? “Anyway, we haven’t much time,” Snape said continued. “I called you here to make sure you were aware that, as unlikely as it may seem, we still share the same goal. As per Dumbledore’s request, you now know about the Unbreakable Vow–” “You didn’t tell me what the rest of the vow was, though,” Harry interrupted. “Did I say I was going to?” Snape retorted coolly. “Still as impertinent as ever, I see. Believe it or not, it doesn’t concern you.” Harry’s brow furrowed. So he was just expected to believe all this? To not question anything? What if Snape had Aberforth under the Imperius curse or something? He needed /proof/, not just Snape’s word. “I don’t believe you,” Harry said bluntly, lifting his chin a bit and giving Snape a level stare. “You can’t possibly expect me to trust what you say–” “No, I don’t,” Snape cut in smoothly. “And if you did I’d be disappointed.” He smirked. “It’s good to know you’re still on your toes,

Potter. And you’ve matured some. The impudent brat I had the misfortune of teaching would have attacked me as soon as I walked through the door.” Harry bristled at the insult, but managed to keep his mouth shut. Aberforth was still sitting there beside them, and for some reason Harry didn’t want to make a bad impression in front of him. He wondered if that wasn’t the reason Snape had called him in here. “I have something for you that I thought would be useful in your search,” Snape said, reaching into his pocket. “Maybe it will help convince you of my loyalties.” He held out his hand. “Potter, you bloody idiot, /don’t accept it!/” cried a voice from the corner, and Harry instantly withdrew his outstretched hand as Draco bolted out from beneath the Invisibility Cloak. Aberforth cast a curious glance in the boy’s direction, while Snape’s eyebrows flew up. “Oh, brilliant, Malfoy,” Harry snapped, feeling his face burn for some reason. “I thought Slytherins were supposed to be subtle!” “And I thought the stories about Gryffindors being /absolute idiots/ were only partially stretched,” Draco threw back at him, storming over to the table with his wand held out in front of him.

“Whatever he was about to give you was probably a Portkey, you daft git.” “It wasn’t a Portkey!” Harry said angrily, though the thought jolted him. What if it /was/ one? “Don’t tell me you actually believe his cock-and-bull story!” Draco exclaimed incredulously. “It’s a load of crock, if you ask me. Why would Dumbledore’s brother be a bartender of all things at /this/ seedy old place? That’s probably an imposter.” He jabbed his wand in Aberforth’s direction, but the older man merely looked amused. Harry pinched the bridge of his nose. “For God’s sake,” he muttered under his breath. “Where’s Ron?” “Here,” came his friend’s voice, and then Ron’s head appeared, looking sheepish, from under the cloak. “I was debating whether or not I should just Apparate out and save myself the embarrassment of listening to Malfoy rant.” He took a tentative step in their direction, glancing at Snape. “Hullo, Professor,” he mumbled in greeting. Snape spared him a nod and then immediately looked back at Draco, obviously still surprised to see him. “This is…unexpected,” he finally spoke up, his eyes narrowing. “When I set the wards to allow for two extra people, I thought it would be Miss Granger sneaking in with Mr.

Weasley. Not you.” He stood up abruptly, slamming his hands down onto the table. “What the /hell/ are you doing here, Draco?!” Draco’s jaw jutted out stubbornly. “I came with Potter,” he said waspishly, pointing his wand back at Snape again. “What do you care?” “Clearly you came with him,” Snape said coldly. “I want to know /why/. Don’t tell me you’ve actually been with him all this time! Do you know how worried your mother was?” Draco scoffed. “Mother’s fine. I just saw her last week, and she’s out of the country now.” He jiggled his wand a bit, grinning cruelly. “Seems you’re a bit out of the loop, Professor.” “Don’t you backtalk me–” “I’ll talk to you however the hell I want to!” “As entertaining as this is,” Aberforth suddenly spoke up, “we really must get a move on.” He made a slight motion with his wand and had Draco disarmed before the other boy could so much as blink. Draco’s wand went flying through the air as he watched in outraged shock, and slapped against Aberforth’s palm. “I do need to open up shop again at some point, Severus,” he continued, twirling the wand and sounding almost bored. Ron snickered, completely ignoring the dirty look Draco

directed his way. Snape, however, now looked thoroughly annoyed. He jabbed a finger in Draco’s direction. “Does he know what you’re looking for?” he asked Harry angrily. “You were under specific order not to tell anyone! /Especially/ not–” “No!” Harry interrupted quickly. “No. I mean.” He bit his bottom lip. “Well, he does know /what/ we’re looking for, but he doesn’t know what they are…” he continued nervously, fiddling with the cuff of his sleeve. “Horcruxes, right?” Draco said defiantly, crossing his arms. “Yeah, I’ve been helping.” “What’re you so huffy about?” Ron directed at Draco, looking amused. “Seriously,” Harry agreed, arching an eyebrow. “What’s your problem?” “My /problem/,” Draco said tightly, “is that you might actually believe /him/.” Well… Harry didn’t. Not really. Though it would have been nice if he could really trust Snape, but… In any case, Harry couldn’t figure out why /Draco/ was so against believing the man. Hadn’t Snape been Draco’s favorite professor back at

Hogwarts? “You’re not still bitter that Snape /stole your glory/ or whatever, are you?” Harry hedged, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “Of course not!” Draco snapped. “I just don’t think–” “You know, maybe if you’d shut up for a minute, they could finish talking,” Ron suggested lightly. Draco scowled at him. “Both of you,” Aberforth waved his wand again and two more chairs popped up, “sit down. Let Severus finish.” “Thank you, Aberforth.” Snape waited until both Ron and Draco sat, Draco taking a little longer to do so and scowling the whole time, and then he began speaking again. “I still fail to see why exactly you have Draco with you,” he said, rubbing his temple with the pads of his fingers. “Your hatred for each other over the past six years hasn’t been some sort of elaborate ruse, has it?” Ron snorted. “Yeah, sure.” “Yes, we love each other, really,” Draco agreed, heavy on the sarcasm. Harry just rolled his eyes. “I…ran into him accidentally back in July,” he said, deciding to be helpful. “He was in bad shape–” “I wasn’t /that/ bad–”

“Yeah, you were,” Harry retorted, giving him a look that plainly said to /shut up/. “So I took him with me, and – and that’s that, really.” It wasn’t, obviously, but he didn’t feel the need for many details. “Back in July,” Snape said flatly. He was looking at Draco, who flushed slightly and stubbornly refused to meet his gaze. “Where have you been staying?” he asked. Oh. Right. “At the Burrow, but I was really hoping you could tell him where Grimmauld Place is.” Snape’s eyebrows arched, and Harry faltered a bit. “Er... You /are/ the Secret Keeper now, right?” Snape nodded. “I am. And you know this how?” “My mum says that some of the Order suspects that you are,” Ron spoke up. “We can’t figure out why they’re still using that place if they all believe you’re evil.” “That would be because of me,” Aberforth said dully. “And Moody knows the truth as well,” Snape added. “He was present when we made the vow.” Wait, /Moody/ knew?? “Why doesn’t he just tell everyone the truth, then?” Harry asked,

confused. “Wouldn’t that make things easier?” “The fewer people who know, the better,” Snape replied. “I can keep my cover more easily that way.” “Does Professor McGonagall know?” Snape paused briefly, sitting back in his chair. “Minerva does not know,” he said slowly. “Nor does Lupin, before you ask.” “So did you become the Secret Keeper when Dumbledore died?” Ron asked. “Weasley, I’ve been the Secret Keeper of Grimmauld Place since last October,” Snape said dryly, with a slight roll of his eyes. Harry blinked. “What?” “Albus knew that it was quite likely he’d be dead by the end of the school year,” Snape explained. “And when a Secret Keeper dies, the secret dies with him.” “Well, that’s dumb,” Draco spat. Harry gave him a sidelong glance, but ultimately ignored him. Snape nodded. “It does seem impractical, but then nobody ever said magic could be easily explained. Suffice it to say, Dumbledore transferred the right over to me before it would be too late to do so.” “You’re really okay with everyone believing you betrayed Professor

Dumbledore?” Harry asked suddenly, unable to avoid the question. Snape looked at him, his dark eyes unreadable. “Do you believe I betrayed him?” Harry opened his mouth to respond, but then hesitated. “I did…” he said slowly, glancing down at the table. “Even coming here, I still did. It’s what I /want/ to believe, because…well, because I don’t like you.” Ron snorted from beside him, and the corner of Snape’s mouth curved upwards. “It’s why I let Ron and Malfoy come with me, in case this was some sort of trap.” “As if I would plan something so disgustingly obvious,” Snape said flatly. Harry rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, anyway… I – I guess I…I guess I believe that you had to kill him. Because of the vow.” His brow furrowed. “I think I’ve known that for a while now, actually…” “Potter–” Draco started to say angrily, but Harry interrupted. “No, look, Malfoy,” he said quickly, turning to him. “I don’t think you understand. None of you do.” He glanced at Ron briefly when he said this. “We got lucky with the locket, but if everything had gone how it was supposed to back in June, we’d have had that Horcrux anyway. We’re

stuck, alright? We’ve got no leads, and no way of finding the rest of the Horcruxes. If Snape says he can help us…well, I can’t afford /not/ to believe him. Otherwise all we’re doing back at the Burrow is wasting time. I don’t even know how to /destroy/ the damn things,” he finished bitterly, kicking at the leg of the table. “You don’t?” Snape spoke up, sounding vaguely surprised. Harry looked up, eyes wide. “No. Why, do you?” “Of course,” Snape said easily. “It doesn’t take a genius to work it out. The Horcruxes contain a piece of the Dark Lord’s soul, correct?” “/What?!/” Draco exclaimed, the color draining from his face. Snape arched his eyebrows at him. “You weren’t aware of that?” “I just told you he doesn’t know what the Horcruxes are!” Harry said in exasperation. “You’re chasing after bits of You-Know-Who’s /soul/?” Draco asked Harry, looking at him in complete disbelief. “You’re insane. You’re bloody /insane/! What if he finds out? What if he catches on?!” “That would be why I told you not to tell anyone what we’re doing,” Harry explained slowly, as if he were talking to a two-year old. “And I /have/ to go after them. Otherwise I’ll never be able to kill

Voldemort.” Draco shook his head, his eyes still wide. “Insane,” he repeated again. “Completely off your rocker.” “Too much for the would-be murderer to handle?” Aberforth said, smirking a bit when Draco gave him a furious look. “I can handle it!” he snapped. “I just think it’s stupid.” “Clearly,” Snape said. “But, in desperate times…” “So how do you get rid of them?” Ron asked, directing them back to the original issue. “You kill them,” Snape said simply. There was a startled moment of silence, before Harry said eloquently, “Huh?” “Kill them,” Snape repeated. “How did you destroy the diary?” “I…” Harry’s eyes widened. “I stabbed it with a Basilisk fang.” Snape nodded. “Albus cast the killing curse on the ring.” “Then…why was his hand messed up if that’s all he had to do?” “That injury was received in retrieving the Horcrux.” He gave Harry a pointed look. “Much like there was the poison for the locket, there were other trials he had to undergo to get the ring.”

So he knew about the poison… Harry wasn’t sure if he wanted to know /how/ Snape knew about that. Pushing the thought aside, he nodded slowly. “But I…I can’t cast the killing curse,” he said, a quick shiver running through him. “Then you will have to learn,” Snape said, as though he were suggesting Harry learn how to throw a Quaffle. “Otherwise, how will you kill the Dark Lord?” “No, I know I’ll have to learn it eventually,” Harry said, despite how uncomfortable the idea made him. “I just…I don’t know it /now/ and I want to destroy the locket…” “I can do it,” Draco said abruptly. “I can cast it on small things, remember?” “Indeed,” Snape said in a low voice. “Your aunt mentioned as much.” Draco’s entire expression darkened. “Don’t you dare speak to me about /her/,” he spat, folding his arms across his chest. “I’ll be glad if I never have to look at her ugly face again.” And just like that, Harry thought he understood why Draco was so against trusting Snape. It was because his aunt had betrayed /him/, wasn’t it? She’d told Greyback that he could do what he wanted with

him, she’d turned her wand against her /own sister/, had tortured her right before Draco’s eyes… It made sense that Draco wasn’t feeling all that benevolent towards Death Eaters now. A beat of silence passed, before Snape spoke again. “Potter, one of the things I would like to eventually set up is some…/training/ for you. You’ve had a lot of luck in your meetings with the Dark Lord until now, but I fear you have a lot to learn if you want to be able to best him.” Harry nodded. “I can get Remus to help me,” he said, and then added hesitantly, “Unless…unless you were offering?” Snape looked thoughtful. “That might be something to involve Lupin on, but I do want to be present. No doubt he would skip something important.” “Something important?” Harry repeated. “Like what?” “I wouldn’t be surprised if instead of strengthening your ability with the Cruciatus curse, for example,” Snape gave him a pointed look that clearly said he knew exactly when and where Harry had last attempted the Unforgivable, “he’d probably teach you something as inane as insect repelling charms.”

Ron was quick to jump to Remus’ defense. “Hey! Professor Lupin was the best Defence teacher we ever had!” he blurted, and then immediately looked like he regretted it. After all, Snape had been their DADA teacher for sixth year… Harry grudgingly had to admit to himself that Snape had been a much better Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher than he had been a Potions teacher. But that certainly didn’t mean he was ever going to /tell/ Snape that. “In any case,” Snape said, continuing as if Ron hadn’t said a word, “we can discuss it at a later time. However, speaking of Lupin, have you heard from him recently?” Harry paused. Come to think of it, he hadn’t. Not in a few weeks, at least. He hadn’t been at Grimmauld Place at all when they’d been there. Harry’s eyes widened. Had something happened to him? “I take it from your gob-smacked expression that you haven’t.” “No,” Harry said, shaking his head. “Not – not since the summer…” “That’s a good thing,” Snape said. “It probably means he’s lying low. Still, you might want to inform him, when you get the chance, that the Dark Lord himself wants him dead. He wasn’t very pleased

when Greyback informed him of Lupin’s spying,” he finished darkly. Harry swallowed nervously. “I’ll…I’ll let him know.” Snape nodded once. “Now then, you wanted me to let Draco into Grimmauld Place, correct?” He folded his hands on top of the table. “Oh, right. Yeah, could you?” “What makes you think that’s a good idea?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious. Draco scowled, and Snape spared him a look out of the corner of his eye. “What makes you trust him?” “Er…” Harry paused, exchanging glances with Ron. Draco tapped his foot impatiently, arching an eyebrow. “Well…I never said I trust him, exactly,” Harry said slowly, watching as Draco rolled his eyes. “I mean – well… I don’t think he’s going to run away, and especially not back to Voldemort. I guess I trust him on that.” He frowned. “I still don’t like you, though,” he said to Draco, who smirked at him. “Thank Merlin for that,” he quipped. “He’s still a right git,” Ron added, crossing his arms. “But I reckon it’s alright if we keep him around. Especially if he can get rid of the locket for us.” Snape nodded, looking thoughtful. “I suppose he could help you with your

Occlumency, since clearly you’re still awful at it.” Harry scowled. “Well, you know, I’ve never had a decent teacher…” Snape glared at him. “The methods I employed were perfectly justifiable. If you weren’t such a dimwitted /child/ who refused to practice and instead wasted time by sticking your nose in things that were /none of your business/, you could have mastered Occlumency by the end of the year.” “If the only way to learn it is by having your mind practically /raped/ by another person,” Harry retorted furiously, “then you can just forget about it!” “You’ll want to learn Occlumency,” Aberforth cut in as he glanced down at his watch. “It’s dead useful. Severus, are you almost done?” Harry continued glaring at Snape, and Snape at Harry, until Harry finally dropped his gaze, his jaw clenching, and stared at the table instead. Snape nodded once, and then turned to Aberforth. “There’s just one more thing,” he replied, and he held out his hand to Harry again. “It’s not a Portkey,” he added wryly. Harry, still frowning and feeling Draco’s watchful eyes on him the whole time, reached forward and accepted the vial that Snape was holding. His

shoulders slumped in relief when he remained firmly in his chair. “What is it?” Ron asked curiously, leaning over the side of Harry’s chair to look at it. “Dunno,” Harry replied. He turned the vial over in his hands, eying the greenish-blue liquid inside warily. “It’s a potion, obviously,” Snape said, his eyes slightly narrowed. There was a look in his eyes that Harry didn’t understand, but he wasn’t sensing any bad vibes so he didn’t worry about it. “When the Dark Lord first started recruiting people, we used to meet up on the continent. There was a cave in the southeast of Belgium that he favored. In the mountains of the Ardennes Forest. I have a feeling one of the Horcruxes might be there.” Harry’s gaze snapped up to meet Snape’s. “Really?” he asked eagerly, his eyes wide. “You really think one might be there?” “I’m not positive,” Snape said slowly. “But it’s a place to start looking, at least. Albus and I have checked many other obvious locations, such as the orphanage where the Dark Lord was raised, but we’ve come up with nothing. Aside from the ring.” “And how exactly are we supposed to get over there?” Draco asked snidely.

Snape gestured at the potion in Harry’s hand. “You’re going to Apparate,” he said simply. “Normally the distance would be much too far, but a sip of that will boost your ability to Apparate for half an hour.” “Why can’t we just Apparate our way to the shore, and from there to Europe?” Draco pressed, his eyes narrowing. Snape’s brow furrowed, and when he replied it was obvious he was getting annoyed. “If you think you can cross the channel, then by all means, try it. Of course by that point, if you have not already gotten yourself hopelessly lost, you will be exhausted from your previous trips, so the chances of Splinching yourself go up immensely. But if you wish to be that foolish, no one’s stopping you.” Draco’s jaw snapped shut with an audible click, and he glowered. “So it’ll just be a one-time trip?” Ron spoke up. “There’s not too much in there…” “There’s enough for you to get there and back,” Snape replied. “So yes, a one-time trip. I suggest packing enough for at least a week, because you’ll probably have a lot of searching around to do.” “How will we know where to go?” Draco asked again, apparently determined to be as difficult as possible.

Snape frowned, but hesitated. “That poses a bit of a problem, actually. The Dark Lord is very well educated in the way magic works. There were spells, some of which I’m still not sure what they were, that he used to keep us from knowing exactly where we were. So that we couldn’t tell anyone else, I suppose. I’ve narrowed it down as much as I could, but the best I’ll be able to give you is the location of the forest the cave was in.” He closed his eyes then, and very suddenly an image popped up in the forefront of Harry’s mind. “Remember how that looks,” Snape instructed, opening his eyes again. “That’s where you’ll Apparate to, so don’t confuse it with something else. I suggest side-along, if one of you isn’t confident enough.” “What about Hermione?” Ron asked, and Harry realized that Snape must have put the very clear image of a specific pattern of trees in both his and Draco’s minds as well. “Draco knows Legilimency,” Snape replied. “He can show it to her. If all four of you are going, you should split up into two groups. Otherwise there’s no telling how long you’d be searching. And don’t,” he said sharply, “go farther than ten miles in any direction from the point I showed you. I’m sure I was able to narrow it down that much.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Draco said slowly, leaning forward onto his elbows. “You’re sending us over to Europe with nothing but this potion to get us back, and telling us that we have approximately three-hundred and fourteen square miles to explore /by ourselves/?” Snape looked like he was doing some mental calculations, and then he nodded. “Yes,” he said bluntly. “Perhaps you should pack enough for two weeks.” Draco scowled. “And I suppose you believe him, right, Potter?” “It’s the only lead we’ve got,” Harry pointed out. “So, yes. I do believe him.” /I have to/, he thought to himself. /No matter how much I don’t want to./ “If we give Hermione enough time to plan things out, she’ll probably be able to look up all sorts of tracking spells and such,” Ron said. “So that we won’t accidentally cover the same ground twice.” He sounded excited about the prospect of gallivanting throughout Belgium for two weeks. Harry couldn’t help smiling himself. At least they finally had some sort of a plan. “When you return, owl me,” Snape said, conjuring a piece of parchment

and scribbling something onto it. “We will discuss where to go from there. Even if you find yourself unsuccessful, I have some other ideas of where you can look.” “Well, I’m off,” Aberforth said, standing and pushing himself away from the table. He paused by Draco on his way out, holding his wand out to him, and once Draco had snatched it back he headed toward the door. “Nice to have met you all.” Harry watched as the door closed behind him, feeling slightly bemused by the man. “He’s an odd sort of chap, isn’t he?” Ron asked, obviously feeling the same way Harry did. “Dumbledore implied that he was,” Harry said, remembering the one time he’d ever heard the Headmaster mention his brother. “He was very quiet,” Draco added. “I still don’t trust him.” Harry rolled his eyes. “Whatever, Malfoy.” “He does take a bit of getting used to,” Snape said dryly. “He and Albus could not have been any less similar. Here.” He handed Harry the parchment he’d been writing on. Harry glanced down at it, brow furrowed.

/The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, London./

He looked up quickly, eyes wide. “Thank you, Professor,” he said, feeling slightly surprised. “This – it’ll be really helpful. The Burrow tends to be too crowded sometimes…” Ron leaned over. “Brilliant!” he exclaimed, grinning. “That means Hermione and I can – er…” He floundered, laughing sheepishly, and Harry snorted. “God, keep it to yourself, Weasley,” Draco said. “No one else wants to know what you and Granger get up to in your spare time.” “Agreed,” Harry said good-naturedly, because, really, /he didn’t want to know/. “So, I’ll be able to get in now?” Draco asked, accepting the parchment from Harry and staring down at the words. “Memorize that, and you will,” Snape replied. “And I mean memorize it /now/, because that parchment is to be burned before we leave this room.” Draco nodded, quickly running his eyes over the writing a few more times. “Alright,” he said after a moment. “I think I’ve got it.”

He waved his wand over it, watching as the parchment went up in flames. “Then we’re done here.” Snape stood up, pulling his hood over his head. “Don’t lose that potion,” he warned. “And be sure to Owl me when you return.” “Professor,” Harry said quickly. Snape paused at the door, glancing him inquiringly. “Um, I was just… I mean, do you have any idea which Horcrux we might be looking for?” “Hufflepuff’s cup, I believe,” Snape said. “If Albus was right and Nagini is one of the Horcruxes, then I might be able to help you with that one. That leaves the unknown Horcrux, which will no doubt be more difficult to find.” Harry nodded, and Snape turned to leave again. “Professor!” “Yes?” came the slightly testy reply as Snape paused once more. “Er. Thank you. For…you know. This.” Harry swallowed nervously. Snape stared at him for a long moment, and then he nodded. Then without another word, he swept out the door. Harry released a breath and turned back to Ron and Draco, only to find Draco already standing right in front of him.

“Potter,” he said abruptly, gasping him by the shoulders. “I’m asking you seriously, and I expect you to look me right in the eye when you answer.” Harry blinked, finding himself a bit bewildered to suddenly be staring at Draco from so close a distance. It wasn’t often he had another bloke getting all up in his personal space… It was kind of unnerving. “Oh – um, okay,” Harry stammered when he realized Draco was waiting for some sort of response. “What is it?” Draco’s eyes slid shut briefly as he let out a breath, and then he opened them again and pinned his most piercing stare right on Harry. “Do you honestly believe everything that Snape said here today?” His hands tightened on Harry’s shoulders. “I – what?” “Do you believe what he said?” Draco repeated. “Do you really believe there’s a Horcrux in /Belgium/ of all places? Do you think this potion will actually get us there and back in one piece? It could be some sort of poison for all we know!” Harry considered this, gaze drifting off to the side for a moment, before he met Draco’s eyes again. “No,” he said simply,

watching the tension drain from Draco’s shoulders. “I don’t fully believe everything he told us.” “Thank Merlin,” Ron mumbled, collapsing backwards into one of the chairs. Draco released Harry, stepping back and crossing his arms. “You don’t /fully/ believe him,” he said. “What does that mean?” “It means I still intend to check out this lead.” /Because it’s the only lead we’ve got/ remained unsaid. “But I’m not about to just drink this potion without knowing exactly what it is.” “Good enough, I suppose,” Draco said, sighing. “But if you ask me, I think Snape’s just trying to get us out of the way for a bit or something.” Harry rolled his eyes. “Luckily nobody’s asking you,” he quipped. Draco scowled. “Are we going back to the Burrow, then?” Ron asked, stretching his arms above his head. “I want to go see Grimmauld Place,” Draco demanded. “Let’s go there.” “I still kind of want to go to Hogwarts…” Ron added with a sigh. Harry paused, looking thoughtful. Then he grinned. “Actually, Ron, maybe

we /should/ stop by,” he said. Something had just clicked in his mind; he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before. “But then I have to get under the cloak again!” Draco exclaimed, looking extremely put out. “It was awful enough being under there once with the Weasel; I’m not doing it again!” “Oi!” Ron snapped. “It wasn’t exactly a picnic for me either, what with your bony elbows jabbing into me all the time!” Draco’s mouth fell open. “I have /not/ got bony elbows!” he cried. “And at least you didn’t have to deal with feet the size of a baby giant’s treading all over yours all afternoon!” “You were only under there for maybe half an hour,” Harry interrupted, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Remember, Malfoy? You kind of blew your cover right at the beginning of the meeting.” “Well, it turned out for the best, didn’t it?” Draco asked, lifting his chin a bit. Harry rolled his eyes. “Ron doesn’t need to get back under there anyway,” he added. “Only you need to this time.” He headed for the door, Ron following and Draco pulling on the Invisibility Cloak with an agitated sigh. “Why do you suddenly want to go to Hogwarts anyway?” Ron

asked. Harry grinned and pulled the door shut behind him. “There’s a certain portrait I want to talk to.” Chapter 11 Of course it /would/ be the one day out of the entire year that Hagrid was not outside near his hut. Or inside it. Or anywhere on the Hogwarts grounds at all, apparently. “Damn it,” Harry muttered, gripping the gate with one hand and giving it a shake. “There’s got to be /someone/ around.” “Maybe you could try the Patronus thing,” Ron suggested, leaning against one of the trees along the path. “You’re good enough at it.” “Oh.” Harry glanced down at his wand. “That’s a good point…” “I hate your Patronus,” said Draco’s disembodied voice. “It nearly killed me that one time.” “Are you part Dementor?” Harry asked, quirking an eyebrow in the direction he thought Draco might be. “No…” “Then it didn’t almost kill you. And that was your fault anyway.”

“Dead funny, though,” Ron said, chuckling. “Hmph.” “Alright.” Harry lifted his wand, looked across at the lake, and tried to remember the days when he, Ron, and Hermione had sat sprawled out along the beach, doing their studies. “/Expecto Patronum!/” “Look at that. It wants to attack me again,” Draco muttered, slipping the cloak off his head. Indeed, the stag Harry had just produced had immediately turned in Draco’s direction and was, for all intents and purposes, sniffing the air suspiciously. “Stop being shifty, Malfoy,” Ron said, grinning as he walked over to where they were standing. “And pull your cloak back up,” Harry added. He turned to his Patronus. “Um. Go find Hagrid,” he said awkwardly, not really sure how he was supposed to do this. “Er… Tell him – I mean, bring him back here. Yeah.” To his surprise, the stag didn’t run off in the direction of the school. Instead it darted back towards Hogsmeade. “Huh,” Ron said, watching it go. “That may or may not have been a good idea…” Fifteen minutes later, it turned out to be a perfectly fine idea.

“Harry! Ron!” a booming voice called as Hagrid came lumbering into view. “Was jus’ havin’ a pint down at Rosmerta’s. Recognize tha’ Patronus anywhere, tho’. Didn’ know yeh’d be coming for a visit!” “We didn’t tell anyone,” Harry said, grinning widely. “It’s good to see you, Hagrid. How’s school been?” Hagrid’s smile faded and his eyes seemed to go a bit duller. “It’s jus’ not the same without ol’ Dumbledore,” he said, and sniffed loudly. Harry hoped he wasn’t going to start crying all over him. “An’ the students aren’ allowed outside anymore, so my class has pretty much been cancelled.” Harry and Ron exchanged glances. Harry couldn’t imagine anyone was particularly upset about that… “What do you mean no one’s allowed outside anymore, Hagrid?” Ron asked. Harry’s eyes went wide. “Does that mean there’s no more Quidditch?” “S’been cancelled, too,” Hagrid said sadly. He gave them a pitiful smile. “Guess you’re glad you didn’ come back, eh?” Harry sighed, looking back at the castle. “I still miss it,” he said softly. “We were hoping to visit some people. Can you let us in?” “Course,” Hagrid said, moving towards the gate. “Jus’ be

sure to visit Professor – eh, sorry – Headmistress McGonagall. Don’ think she’d like yeh wanderin’ the castle without her knowin’.” They waved goodbye to Hagrid after he let them in, and then trudged up the sloping hills to Hogwarts’ main entrance. “You think we should have asked him for the password?” Ron pointed out a bit later when they found themselves blankly facing the stone gargoyles that guarded the Headmistress’ office. “Er,” Harry said intelligently. “Sherbet lemon?” he offered tentatively. “Sweets were Professor Dumbledore’s way of assigning passwords, Mr. Potter.” Harry whirled around, finding himself face to face with his old Head of House. She peered at them. “Surely you do not think I would use the same method. Don’t tell me you’ve already forgotten what Gryffindor’s passwords used to be.” “Professor,” Harry and Ron said simultaneously, both grinning at her. Her lips quirked upward slightly in return, and Harry was suddenly very aware of how tired she looked. She seemed to have aged years in the span of just a few months. “It’s good to see you, Potter, Weasley.” She nodded at each in turn. “I see Miss Granger is not with you. I have her study package

ready.” Ron blanched. “Study package?” he repeated. “I can’t believe she actually owled you.” The corners of McGonagall’s mouth tightened, like she was trying to suppress a smile. “She was very thorough in the books she asked for. And there are prep N.E.W.T.s exams from at least the past decade also included.” “Oh man,” Ron groaned. “We’re not giving it to her, Harry. We’ll just have to conveniently forget to bring it back with us.” Harry chuckled. “She’d only come back and get it herself.” “Potter.” Harry turned to McGonagall, arching his eyebrows questioningly. She frowned at him, watching him closely. “How have you been these past few months? Has your – /task/ been going well?” Harry knew that she still was hoping he’d tell her what exactly he had to do, but he stood firm by his decision to remain quiet. “It’s going alright,” he said. “We’ve run into some dead-ends here and there, but I think we’ll get by okay.” Actually, he had no idea if they would get by at all, because this plan of Snape’s was still kind of iffy, but he didn’t want anyone worrying unnecessarily about him. “If I can help you in anyway–”

“I’ll definitely let you know,” Harry cut in. “And there /was/ one thing I was hoping I could do here.’ “What is that?” Professor McGonagall asked. Harry took a deep breath before answering, “I was hoping I could speak with Professor Dumbledore’s portrait. Er, you know, the one that’s up in his – /your/ office.” “We were also wondering if we could go visit the Gryffindor common room,” Ron added. “Of course, Weasley, by all means. You’re always welcome there,” McGonagall said. “And…Potter… Come with me.” She turned toward the gargoyles, muttering the password under her breath. Harry turned to Ron. “Go visit Slughorn first, would you?” he asked, pulling the potions vial from his pocket and handing it over to Ron. “See what he makes of that. And,” he lowered his voice, “make sure /he/ stays with you.” Ron nodded, tucking the vial away. “Aye aye, captain!” he said cheerfully. “Should I meet you back here?” “Yeah,” Harry said. “I shouldn’t be too long.” “Alright then.” Harry stepped onto the spiral staircase once it spun into

view, making a valiant effort not to be obvious that he was trying to keep any invisible people out of the way. “It might be a bit of a shock,” McGonagall said softly. “He remembers everything from when he was alive, of course, but…the fact that he is a /painting/…is hard to grasp…” Harry swallowed nervously. “I think I’ll manage,” he said. “Is it alright if I talk to him by myself?” McGonagall nodded. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll just see you through. The books Miss Granger requested are on my desk.” She led him up to the large oak door and swung it open. “Oh, and Potter?” Harry paused, looking at her. She gave him a tight smile. “Do come back and visit us again.” Harry nodded, and McGonagall nodded once in return, and then the door shut quietly behind him and he was left in a room filled with portraits of dead Hogwarts Headmasters. “Harry, my dear boy,” said a very familiar voice that made Harry tense up. He turned slowly, almost afraid to see it, but somehow he managed to meet those twinkling blue eyes squarely. “Hello, Professor Dumbledore.”

Dumbledore looked as if the entire past year had not happened. The drawn tiredness that had lined his face in the last few months of his life was gone, leaving him looking refreshed and /alive/ and– And it was still a painting. Dumbledore wasn’t alive now, and he never would be again. As good as this portrait made him look, he’d still disappeared over the edge of the tower all those months ago. “Harry,” Dumbledore said again, folding his arms across the bottom of his frame and smiling gently at him. “I admit, I rather thought I’d see you in here sooner. That I haven’t gives me great hope that you’ve been faring well these past months.” Harry shrugged noncommittally, suddenly unable to find his voice. “Professor…” he eventually croaked, and to his horror he felt his eyes burn. “Oh God,” he gasped, pushing his glasses up and pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. “I’m sorry – I don’t–” “Quite alright, quite alright,” Dumbledore said softly. “I know this must be hard for you.” But Harry couldn’t stop. He didn’t know what was wrong with him – if he’d had any idea that just seeing Dumbledore’s portrait would affect him this much, he never would have come! “I’m sorry!” he gasped again,

staggering over to the desk to brace himself. “I’m so sorry – Professor, it’s all my fault! If I hadn’t – that potion – if I didn’t–” “Stop right there, Harry.” “But–” “No,” Dumbledore said firmly. Harry glanced up at the painting, still dragging his hands across his eyes in an attempt to stop the tears that just seemed to keep coming. “Harry, none of this was your fault, you must understand that. None of it. It is Voldemort’s, and Voldemort’s alone. The blame lies entirely with him.” “I – I know that,” Harry murmured. “I just…” “Put it from your mind.” “It’s not that easy!” Why did he have to fall apart like this /now?/ He hadn’t come to see Dumbledore just to cry in front him like a little kid. “I understand,” Dumbledore said. “Seeing me like this was of course a shock for you.” “I…I didn’t think it would bother me so much,” Harry admitted, sniffing and rubbing his arm across his face a final time. “I’m sorry. That – that was unexpected.” He pushed a hand through his hair, embarrassed. “But…Professor… I have to know. Was it – did the potion–”

“Not important. I suggest you do not ask me again.” “But, Professor!” “Harry.” Dumbledore lowered his glasses, peering at Harry overtop of them. “I will not answer that question.” “But…” Harry tried again. Dumbledore arched his eyebrows, and Harry huffed. “Oh…fine. Alright then.” “Good,” Dumbledore said cheerfully, pushing his glasses back up. “Now, I believe you had something you wanted to ask me?” “Oh. Right.” Harry frowned. “I was wondering… Professor, the Horcruxes – I don’t know…” He trailed off, chewing his lip. “Severus is helping you with that, is he not?” Dumbledore asked. Harry blinked. “I – what? I mean, yeah, he is. Sort of. I just met with him today. But…” Dumbledore chuckled. “You do not trust him.” “Well, I – no! Of course I don’t!” Harry spluttered. “Professor, I watched him /kill/ you!” “Hmm.” Dumbledore folding his hands in front of his face and rested his chin on them. “Yes, I suppose that does make things difficult. You must understand, Harry, that I had planned on that happening.”

“That’s what Snape said,” Harry said sullenly. “But how can I just believe him?” “Believe /me/.” “I do!” Harry insisted. “But what I’m saying is… What if – what if it was just an easy out for him? What if you were actually completely wrong about him? Professor, how can you be so /sure/ about it all?” “Consider it an old fool’s bad judgment if indeed Severus is on the other side. Which he is not.” “That doesn’t make me feel any better…” Dumbledore smiled, his eyes twinkling, and Harry sighed. “Alright, fine,” he said, lowering his eyes. “I trust you. Not /him/, but you.” “I’m glad I inspire such faith,” Dumbledore said wryly. The corner of Harry’s mouth tugged upwards against his will. “Now, what was it about the Horcruxes you wished to know?” Um, everything? Harry coughed slightly. “Well... We’re having some trouble… finding them,” he said helplessly. “We need help. /More/ help,” he added, knowing Dumbledore would probably just tell him to go to Snape. “I don’t even know where to start. We have the locket, but…”

“Harry.” Dumbledore looked vaguely amused. “Don’t you think that if I had known where and what all the Horcruxes were, I would have gathered them all myself as soon as possible?” Oh. Well, shit. “I…didn’t think of it that way,” Harry mumbled. Of course. Why had he assumed Dumbledore would know anything more than what he’d already told him? “I shared all of my information with you, Harry,” Dumbledore said. “I’ve shown you all that I know of Voldemort’s – of Tom Riddle’s – past. I showed you the sorts of things he considered important. I told you where the other Horcruxes were found. It is to your advantage that he hides his Horcruxes in the landmarks of his past; otherwise this search would be much more difficult.” Harry nodded, looking thoughtful. “That’s right. Well, aside from the diary, but then he did entrust it to his right-hand man. But yeah, the ring was in his mother’s old home, the locket was in that cave that was sort of connected with the orphanage where he grew up… Snape is sending us to the area where Voldemort first used to meet up with his Death Eaters to look for another Horcrux.”

“That sounds promising.” “I hope so.” Harry sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “I guess I don’t have anything else to ask you, then.” “I wish I could be of more help, Harry, truly I do,” Dumbledore said. “Unfortunately I am doomed to remain behind this beautifully painted desk for the rest of my days. Perhaps I will take a visit to that portrait of me that’s in the Ministry. I have the most comfortable armchair in that one.” Harry smiled, but it was halfhearted. “Well, it was good seeing you, at least.” “And you as well, my boy,” Dumbledore said, nodding as Harry moved towards the door. “Oh, and Harry?” Harry turned back to face him. “Just because there’s no information I can share with you now does not mean you cannot bring your troubles or questions to me in the future. I’ll always be glad to assist you in any way I can.” Harry’s smile widened. “Of course,” he said. “Thank you, Professor.” “You also would not want to leave that impressive stack of books on the desk,” Dumbledore said, gesturing towards what had to be the study package McGonagall had mentioned. Harry had carefully been ignoring it

up until that point. “I believe Miss Granger is expecting it,” Dumbledore continued, looking amused. Harry grimaced. “Here I am trying to defeat Voldemort, and she’s only worried about her studies,” he said in an exasperated tone. Dumbledore chuckled. “I think it’s very admirable of her.” Harry grumbled something that may or may not have been a vague agreement, and hefted the stack into his arms. “You could shrink it,” Dumbledore suggested. “I’d rather see the look on Ron’s face first,” Harry said, grinning. “Ahh.” Dumbledore smiled. “Carry on, then.” “Bye, Professor.” “Goodbye, Harry.” Harry shut the door behind him, and then stood there for a moment, leaning his head back against it. He tried to ignore it as his eyes starting burning again. *** “So, did you find anything out?” Ron asked the minute Harry stepped off the spiral staircase. “How’s Dumbledore doing? Did he look anything different? What did he tell you? Is–” He cut himself off abruptly as his eyes landed on the books piled in Harry’s arms, then

swallowed nervously. “What…? Um, Harry… That’s not – is it?” Harry nodded, smiling ruefully. “It is. Brilliant, eh?” “Oh yeah,” Ron said slowly, eyes wide. “Absolutely fantastic. Merlin, Harry, put them away! Makes me itch just looking at them.” “What, are you allergic to books now?” Harry asked as he pulled out his wand and shrunk the books until they were almost too small to see. “They’d be so easy to just accidentally lose…” Ron nodded eagerly. “I won’t say anything. We can even rip a hole in your pocket to give us an excuse.” “Hermione would see right through it.” “Oh…yeah.” Ron sighed. “You’re right; she wouldn’t believe it for a second.” He scowled, shoving his hands into his pockets, before remembering what he’d originally asked and perking up again. “Anyway, what about Dumbledore? How does he look?” “Ron,” Harry said, amused, “he’s a painting. He looks exactly the same as before.” Ron visibly deflated. “Oh. Right. I forgot.” “And I don’t think he’s really going to be much use,” Harry continued, walking down the hall and away from the disappointments of Dumbledore’s

old office. “Why not?” “Well… I’ll say it like he said it to me. Don’t you think if he’d known what and where the Horcruxes were, he’d have gotten them all already?” “Oh. Oh yeah.” Ron slowed down, eventually stopping. Harry turned to look at him. “So…he’s not very helpful, then?” Harry shook his head. “Not a bit. He’s told me everything he knows already.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking again. Ron followed. “What about you?” Harry asked after a minute. “What did Slughorn say?” “Oh, right!” Ron pulled the vial from his pockets, looking a great deal more excited. “Apparently this is the real deal, Harry! Slughorn seemed kind of surprised that we had it; he said it’s a really rare potion and it’s hard to make. Has to brew for three months. He wanted to know where we’d gotten it.” “What did you tell him?” “I told him you made it,” Ron said sheepishly, grinning. “Of course then he got all disappointed that you didn’t go down to see him. But he believed me, so I guess we’re okay.”

Harry nodded. “Three months, eh?” “Yep.” “Hmm.” Maybe that was one of the reasons Snape had taken so long to get in contact with him… “Hey,” Harry said, finally noticing something. He spun around, glancing down the hall. “Where’s Malfoy?” “Oh.” Ron paused, following Harry’s gaze. “He was with me when we were in the dungeons…” “I’m here,” Draco said dully, pulling off the hood of his cloak. “How much longer are we sticking around here? It’s incredibly boring under this thing.” “It’s better when you’re trying to sneak around the place,” Ron said, chuckling a bit. “Not that you should go sneaking off,” Harry added. “And pull that back up, do you want someone to see you?” Draco rolled his eyes. “We /are/ leaving soon, though, aren’t we?” Ron and Harry exchanged glances. “We’re going by Gryffindor first,” Harry said, finally realizing just where his feet had been leading him. “Hooray,” Draco said flatly. “Just what I always wanted, to see the

inside of the infamous Gryffindor common room.” “Shut up already,” Ron said. “Someone will hear you.” Draco sighed loudly, but then obediently kept his mouth shut. “D’you think the Fat Lady will let us in without the password?” Ron asked. “Doubt it,” Harry replied. “We’ll have to find someone who’s wandering the corridors.” “They’ve been kind of empty,” Ron pointed out, glancing around. “There’s probably a new rule that you can’t be out without a Prefect or something.” Harry shivered. The castle suddenly seemed unusually cold. And empty. The shadows stretched along the wall, their voices echoed down the corridor. He was used to the hustle and bustle of students scrambling to get to their next class or down to the Great Hall for dinner. Harry couldn’t remember many times when he’d been in Hogwarts while it was /this/ quiet. “We’re here,” Ron said softly as they climbed the last of the steps and stood before one very familiar painting. “Oh.” The Fat Lady peered down at them with narrowed eyes. “It’s you. I thought you didn’t come back this year.”

“We didn’t, obviously,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “Otherwise you would have seen us sometime in the past two months.” The Fat Lady bristled, but before she could say anything somebody came clambering loudly up the steps behind them. “Who’s that? H-Harry?” Neville panted, bent slightly at the waist with his hands on his knees as he halted at the top of the stairs. “What – what are you doing here? Is something wrong?” “Nothing’s wrong, Neville,” Harry said, feeling a grin stretch across his face. “Just came for a visit.” He shook hands with Neville once the other boy recovered from his sprint up the stairs, while Ron clapped him on the shoulder. “Good to see you, Nev!” he said cheerfully. “How’ve things been? Been taking care of Gryffindor for us?” Neville smiled, and Harry abruptly noticed just how much he had grown over the summer. He was nearly as tall as Ron now, and gone were the oversized shoes and the baby fat of his cheeks. “It’s been alright. It’s really not the same without you guys, though. There are only three of us in the room now!” “Blimey,” Ron said, his eyes wide, and as he looked Neville over from head to toe it became clear that it wasn’t the number of

people in their old dorm he was referring to. “Exactly what did /you/ do over the summer, Neville?” Harry was glad he asked, because otherwise it would have been the next question out of his mouth. Neville flushed, his grin turning sheepish. “Practiced outside a lot, mostly,” he said. “And I did a lot of gardening. I hadn’t noticed anything different, but people keep gawking at me, so…” “Practiced what?” Harry asked curiously. “Defence stuff,” Neville said, shrugging. “Mostly things you taught us. And…Professor Snape, last year. I want to be prepared if you ever need us again.” Then, reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a familiar looking Galleon. “You still carry that around?” Harry said, his eyes wide. “Turned out to be useful last year, didn’t it?” Neville said, a slightly sharp tone to his voice. “Luna still carries hers, too. She got some of the other Ravenclaws to dig theirs out, as well, and I know I’ve got Dean and Seamus convinced.” “Neville…” Harry let out a soft laugh, rubbing the back of his neck. “Thank you,” he said. “Really. That’s brilliant.” “How’s Luna doing, anyway?” Ron asked. “Seen any Crumple-Horned

Snorkacks lately?” Neville chuckled. “Not that I know of, but she’s doing fine. We, uh…actually, we kind of dated for part of the summer…” “Did you now?” Harry said, glancing over at Ron and trying to hide his suddenly wide grin. “Yeah. Lasted about two weeks into term but…well, it’s Luna. Even I could only take so much of her,” Neville admitted. “We’re better off as friends, believe me.” “How about since then?” Ron asked, nudging Neville in the sides and winking at him. “Any other lucky ladies?” “Not a one,” Neville proclaimed cheerfully. “I’m woefully girlfriendless at the moment.” “And the other guys?” Harry asked, suddenly remembering that Ginny was going to be on the other side of the Fat Lady’s portrait (who was eying them all in annoyance, clearly waiting for them to enter the common room already). “Does Dean have a girlfriend?” Ron rolled his eyes and Harry thought he heard a soft snort from somewhere close by, but Neville grinned. “No, Dean does not have a girlfriend,” he replied. “Though… not for lack of trying…”

Harry’s brow furrowed. “Hmm.” “And what about Seamus?” Ron asked. “Has he had any luck?” “Er…” Neville’s eyes widened a bit and he looked away. “Ahh, no, not really. Seamus is also woefully…girlfriendless… Eh-heh.” “Guess we’re not missing out on much, eh, Harry?” “What are you talking about, Ron? You have Hermione now, remember?” Harry said, arching an eyebrow. “Oh, are you two finally going out?” Neville asked. “What do you mean, /finally/?” Ron said sharply. Neville looked at Harry, who coughed lightly into his hand. “Don’t suppose you could let us into the common room, could you, Neville?” he asked abruptly. “Yeah, of course, Harry,” Neville answered just as quick. “Come on.” There was a brief moment when they stepped through the portrait hole that Harry felt as if it were any other day he’d been at Hogwarts, like he was just returning from a late class or detention with Snape or Quidditch practice, even. Nobody in the room seemed to care one way or another that he was there, he could just go on through up to his room

and collapse into his comfortable four-poster bed… But then there came a loud shriek from the opposite side of the room, and Harry suddenly found his arms pinned to his sides as he was engulfed in a hug by Lavender Brown of all people. “Harry!” she cried. “Oh my goodness, Harry! And – Ronald.” She spared him a brief glare and then looked back at Harry again. “I can’t believe you’re here! It’s so good to see you!” And just like that, every pair of eyes in the room was on them, a crowd was quickly beginning to form, and Harry felt like he’d just been tossed into the lion’s den. “Er, yeah, it’s good to see you, too, Lavender,” Harry said uncomfortably, disentangling himself from the girl. He glanced around the room, and as soon as he spotted flaming red hair and bright brown eyes over by the fireplace, he pushed his way through the burgeoning crowd and headed in that direction. “Ginny. Hey,” he greeted awkwardly once he’d forced his way over to the sofa. “Hi, Harry,” she replied in the same sort of tone, though there was a soft smile on her face. “Harry…” a third voice said, which was when Harry glanced at the person

next to Ginny and felt his insides go cold. “Hey, Dean,” he said after a beat. Why was Dean sitting next Ginny? Why were they on the same couch? Why were they even anywhere in the same /vicinity/? /Why was Dean sitting next to his/– Wait. Harry let out a breath and unclenched his fists. Why was Dean sitting next to his /nothing/. He and Ginny weren’t together anymore. Ginny wasn’t his girlfriend. And anyway, hadn’t Neville said that Dean wasn’t dating anyone? /Though not for lack of trying./ Harry frowned. Still, it didn’t matter. Ginny wasn’t his anymore. Harry knew that. Actually, it really didn’t even bother him to see them sitting together… Why had he overreacted like that? “Hey, Dean,” he said again, smiling this time. “Long time no see.” Dean visibly relaxed, grinning warmly back at him. “No joke, Harry. Where’ve you been hiding? We were sure you’d come back at least once at the beginning of term!” “We’ve been busy,” Ron spoke up from Harry’s side, grinning widely. “Hey

guys!” “I see you never fail to attract a crowd,” Ginny said dryly, looking over the back of the sofa at all of the people watching them. “Clear off, you lot! It’s just Harry, not like you’ve never seen him before!” A few wide-eyed first years lingered after the crowd dispersed – /Merlin/, they were tiny, Harry was sure he had never been /that/ small and pathetic looking – but eventually they wandered away to continue whatever it was they had been doing before Harry and Ron showed up. “Sit down, guys,” Neville said, ushering Ron and Harry into armchairs by the fire. Harry had no idea where Malfoy was. He hoped he hadn’t gotten lost somewhere in the crowd… There was an awkward sort of silence for a moment, until Ginny launched herself from her seat and landed in Harry’s arms. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, kissing his cheek and wrapping her arms tightly around his back. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.” But whatever it was that had seized Harry just moments before had all but vanished now, and he gently pushed Ginny away from him, smiling at her even as she frowned at him. “We were due for a visit,” he said

simply, watching as Ginny returned to her seat, her brow furrowed. “Yeah, we were in Hogsmeade, so it would have been stupid not to come by,” Ron added, folding his arms behind his head and looking for all the world like he’d never left Gryffindor in the first place. It was so easy to just fall back into their places… “Where’s Hermione?” Ginny asked, apparently just having noticed that her friend was absent. “She stayed behind,” Ron replied. “Had some things to do.” “So, what’s been happening around here?” Harry asked, looking between Neville, Dean, and Ginny. “Anything new?” “Nothing other than what I told you,” Ginny said, her eyes narrowing a bit. “You got my letter, didn’t you?” Letter? What letter– Oh. Harry’s eyes widened “Er,” he mumbled, sheepishly scratching the back of his head. “Yeah, I got it.” Right. He’d gotten it…he just hadn’t /read/ it. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure where it was now. He’d gotten so distracted by the whole meeting-with-Snape thing… “Just…forgot. Sorry.”

“I’m sure,” Ginny said flatly. Harry looked at Ron, eyes wide, and did his best to communicate /HELP ME/ telepathically. “So, uh, how’re classes?” Ron asked quickly, and Harry sent a quick /thank you!/ along to him as well. Dean shrugged. “They’re alright. Same as always, really. Defence teacher is a bit odd this year, though.” “What does that /not/ surprise me?” Ron said, rolling his eyes, and Harry chuckled. They chatted for a while, other students drifting past now and then to see how Ron and Harry were doing, but eventually the room began to clear out until only the five of them were left. “Where’d everyone go?” Harry asked when he noticed the sudden lack of background noise. Neville glanced down at his watch. “Dinner’s started. They’re probably in the Great Hall.” “Oh.” Harry’s eyes widened. “Sorry, are we keeping you guys? If you want to go eat–” “We’re fine,” Ginny said promptly. “After all, we can eat any old time.

We only get to see you once in a blue moon.” Harry arched his eyebrows questioningly at Dean. “You heard the lady,” Dean said, grinning. “Apparently we are above the call of food.” Well, they might have been, but Draco apparently was not. He’d been subtly tugging on Harry’s sleeve with what Harry thought was increasing annoyance for the past fifteen minutes. “Still, we should probably get going,” Harry said, standing from his chair. “We have to get back to the Burrow–” Before he could finish his sentence, the portrait swung open and banged off the wall with the Fat Lady squawking loudly, and Seamus bolted through it, Justin Finch-Fletchey at his heels. “Where are they?!” Seamus asked wildly, his head swiveling back and forth as he searched the common room. “Everyone down at dinner is saying Ron and Harry are here! Where’d they go?” “We didn’t go anywhere,” Ron said, clearly amused as he waved at Seamus from his armchair. “Really, Seamus, we’re the only people in here,” Dean said. “How can you miss us?” “Shut it,” Seamus snapped halfheartedly, bounding over to where Harry

was still standing and throwing an arm around his shoulders to pull him into a quick hug. “Merlin, it’s good to see you guys!” he said gruffly into Harry’s shoulder, and either Harry had actually managed to grow some more over the summer, or Seamus was a lot shorter than he remembered. Possibly he’d just never really noticed before… Dean and Ginny were sharing amused looks when Seamus released Harry and turned to pull Ron out of his chair to give him a hug, too, and Neville’s cheeks seemed to have gone slightly pink. “Bloody hell, did you grow even more, Ron?” Seamus asked, smiling widely. “I was sure I at least reached your chin before.” “Can’t recall,” Ron said, clapping Seamus on the shoulder when he pulled away. “Good to see you, mate!” “And you!” Seamus replied, before frowning a bit. “Could have told a bloke you weren’t coming back, though. Here I am, fighting me mam with everything in me to get her to let me come back, only to find that two of our number weren’t returning! No goodbyes, no owls, nothing!” “Don’t mind him,” Justin spoke up, looking slightly embarrassed. “He’s only excited to see you both.” “Justin,” Harry greeted, shaking the boy’s hand. “How’ve you been?”

“Been alright,” Justin said, glancing over to where Seamus was still talking animatedly and smiling. “How’s the rest of Hufflepuff?” Harry asked. “Ernie and – and Zacharias?” Not that he particularly cared about Zacharias Smith, but it would have been rude not to include him. “They’re all fine. Ernie’s Head Boy, actually. Did you hear?” That was news to Harry. Fond of him as he was, Harry imagined having Ernie Macmillan as Head Boy was probably similar to when Percy had the position… But Justin didn’t need to know that. “That’s brilliant!” Harry said instead. “Who’s Head Girl?” “Padma Patil,” Justin replied. “We were all rooting for Hannah, but what can you do, yeah? Anyway, as for everyone else – well, Zacharias almost didn’t come back. You remember how his dad pulled him out last year?” Harry nodded, and Justin continued, “Well, somehow he convinced his parents to let him come back. We’re still not sure how… Anyway, we’ve all been studying together after hours – as long as we’re allowed to, that is, since we’re not really supposed to be out on our own – doing Defence stuff. Neville’s got us all carrying those coins again, haven’t you, Nev?” He grinned in Neville’s direction, and the other boy gave a sheepish smile in return.

“Wow, Neville,” Harry said in a somewhat awed tone. “You didn’t say you’d practically reformed the D.A.! Is the new teacher that bad?” “Not really,” Justin said. “Just…not as good as he could be, I guess. And after last year – I mean – well, you know… We decided it’d be best if we were prepared all the time now.” “I was actually going to owl you about it, Harry,” Neville spoke up. “If you ever need us, we’re ready to go. We know there’s a real war going on now, everybody does, and we’re ready to fight. We even agreed that we’d leave in the middle of class if you called us.” “Oh. Neville…” Harry sighed. “I couldn’t put you guys in danger like that. Look what happened in fifth year!” “Yeah, likely you would have /died/ if it had only been you three,” Neville said, glancing back and forth between Harry and Ron and obviously including Hermione in that number. “Harry, we /know/ what we’re getting ourselves into.” “We want to help,” Seamus added. “You didn’t come back to school because you’re obviously doing something about You-Know-Who, and you have no idea how frustrating it is knowing that you’re out there being helpful while we’re all stuck /here/ doing bloody homework!”

“At the very least, we’ll be here if something happens to Hogwarts again,” Justin said. “Yeah, like if Malfoy tries to let in some more Death Eaters,” Seamus said, his eyes glinting. Something pressed up against Harry, an invisible hand lightly twisted the material of the back of his robe, and Harry sighed. “That’s not going to happen again,” he said, glancing across at Ron. “So it’s true then?” Seamus asked, his eyes wide. Harry blinked. “What? I thought…” “Um…” Justin cleared his throat. “No one really knows what happened that night,” he said. “I mean, there’s a warrant out for Malfoy’s arrest, along with Snape’s, obviously, but no one knows /why/. The rumors were that he was the one who let the Death Eaters in, but we don’t know the truth. Neville, Ginny, and Luna won’t say anything about it.” He slanted a look in Ginny’s direction, frowning. “The Slytherins all insist that Malfoy’s only wanted because he was last seen with Snape,” Dean spoke up. “And…well, everyone knows why Snape’s wanted…” “But, Harry, you said it won’t happen again!” Seamus prodded. “Does that mean it’s true? How the hell did Malfoy manage that one?”

Harry shifted uncomfortably, feeling that hand at his back tighten. He hoped no one noticed the way his clothes were scrunching up… “Malfoy got mixed up in some stuff, but…um, it’s really not his fault. Voldemort – sorry,” he said quickly when everybody winced, “You-KnowWho was kind of threatening him with – ow!” “What happened?” “Are you okay?” “What was it?” “I’m fine, I’m fine!” Harry said hastily as his friends all began throwing panicked looks around the room. Well, all except for Ron who was trying to hide his grin, and Ginny who was peering suspiciously at the space behind Harry. “Sorry,” Harry said again. “Just a – a muscle spasm, that’s all.” More like a really hard pinch in the side. Harry turned his head to the side, frowning, but he only got poked for his efforts. “Anyway,” he continued, shaking his hair out of his eyes, “Malfoy’s – well, he’s not innocent, but he’s not…um…” “Harry,” Neville said, his brow furrowed, “have you…have you seen Malfoy recently or something? You sound like… Well, I mean, you’re sort of sticking up for him, you know?” “Er…” Harry shifted again, not meeting anyone’s eyes, and

coughed lightly. “You’ve seen him?” Justin’s eyes were wide. “And you didn’t turn him in?” “I told you, it wasn’t his fault. Look, if you need someone to blame for everything, blame Snape. He’s the one who – who killed… Professor Dumbledore.” Harry winced inwardly and caught Ron’s eye again, but Ron only shrugged. Well, Snape /had/ said that it was best if people thought he was really on Voldemort’s side… “But Malfoy helped him, right?” Dean asked. Harry scratched the back of his head and glanced at the ceiling. “Malfoy…was /supposed/ to do it, but in the end he didn’t…” Harry twitched as Draco pinched him again, but didn’t take back anything he’d said. It couldn’t hurt to start spreading a rumor about Draco being innocent, after all. As long as the Ministry didn’t find out where he was…hmm, and he’d probably better hurry up and tell the rest of the Order, too. Actually, apparently quite a few of them already knew. The Weasleys, Remus (and no doubt Tonks, because of that), Snape and Aberforth and therefore probably Moody… Maybe Harry wouldn’t have to tell anyone after all! Except Moody would probably want to question Draco at least eight

times under Veritaserum… “Harry!” Ginny snapped, and Harry blinked rapidly a couple of times, only to realize that everyone was staring at him. “Eh, sorry,” he said sheepishly. “Got a bit distracted… What were you saying?” “We were talking about the other Slytherins,” Seamus said, walking over to stand next to Justin. To stand awfully close to Justin, actually… “What about them?” Harry asked. “They all insist that Malfoy is innocent,” Dean said. “Said it’s a big misunderstanding. But when he didn’t come back to school… Well, Theodore Nott didn’t come back either, and everyone’s pretty sure he joined up with You-Know-Who, so the rest of the school just assumed that Malfoy did the same.” “The Slytherins are a mess without him, though,” Seamus said, and was he /leaning/ against Justin now? “Crabbe and Goyle walk around like they’re in a daze half the time. I’m surprised they haven’t started banging into the walls yet.” Ron snorted. “And that’s different from normal?” “Well, they’re even dumber without Malfoy around, if you can imagine,”

Seamus said, grinning. Harry ignored it when Draco pinched him again. “Pansy Parkinson almost didn’t come back,” Ginny spoke up. “And Harry, if you’d bothered to read the owl I sent you, you’d know all this already.” “Bitter much, Ginny?” Seamus quipped. “Shut it, you,” Ginny threw back at him, sticking out her tongue playfully. “Bloody hell, put it away, you know I’m not interested.” “Not good enough for you, am I?” Seamus leered at her. “You’re missing a few important bits, yeah.” “Wait, what’s this about Pansy Parkinson not coming back?” Harry cut in, mostly because Draco was tugging urgently at the back of his robes, but also because he was somewhat annoyed that Seamus was flirting with his ex-girlfriend right in front of him. Ron also looked a bit shocked at Seamus’ actions. No doubt because Ginny was his little sister, after all. “Oh, you didn’t hear?” Justin asked, tearing his eyes away from Seamus and looking at Harry. “They had a huge row at the train station. Pansy showed up with her trunk and everything, but apparently her mother hadn’t wanted her to come. She showed up about five minutes later and

they went at it right in front of everyone. Screaming and everything.” “Someone said that Mrs. Parkinson left her husband,” Neville added. “I asked my Gran about it and she says it was for the best, because he’s all mixed up with V-Vol…You-Know-Who, and Mrs. Parkinson always kept out of it.” “She did?” Harry asked, somewhat surprised to be hearing this. He’d sort of assumed that all of the Slytherins’ parents were Death Eaters. Of course, Draco’s mum had also kept out of it, apparently, so maybe he was wrong… Neville nodded. “Yeah. I’m not sure, but I don’t think there’s many women in You-Know-Who’s group. They probably leave it for the men. Well, I guess you’d know better than me, Harry, but aside from–” His face tightened as he spoke. “–Bellatrix Lestrange, I haven’t heard of any other women.” “No, come to think of it, I haven’t really either,” Harry said. “Never really thought of it before.” Neville nodded. “Anyway,” he continued, “last I heard, Mrs. Parkinson moved back to Spain. That’s where she’s originally from.” Spain?

Harry’s eyes widened a bit. Wasn’t that where Mrs. Malfoy was? “Pansy stayed here, though,” Dean said. “She won that fight at the platform. Her mother left in tears.” “Pansy’s a mess, though,” Ginny said softly. She was looking over Harry’s shoulder. “She’s lost a ton of weight. She’s a bit like Cho was after – well. Crying all over the place and everything.” “Of course, a lot of people cry all over the place, nowadays,” Justin said darkly. “Why did Pansy want to come back so badly?” Ron asked. “She insisted on finishing her education, I think is what it was,” Neville replied. “She was screaming about how she’d visit her mother over the winter holidays, but Mrs. Parkinson still didn’t want her to stay here. I think she was afraid her father would get hold of her first.” Harry was about to reply, the words were on the tip of his tongue and everything, but suddenly the presence at his back was gone. So instead of talking, he froze and tried to subtly reach behind him to see if Draco had just backed up or something. He couldn’t find him anywhere.

“Shit,” he muttered, whirling around and searching the room. There was no way Malfoy could leave without opening the portrait and alerting everyone to his presence, so he had to be somewhere. “Harry?” Neville asked curiously. “What’s up?” Seamus said. “Um…nothing,” Harry replied distractedly. “Just… Bloody hell, where did he go…” “Uh, where did /who/ go?” Dean asked, his brow furrowing. Ron chuckled. “Is he trying to escape?” “I think that last conversation worried him,” Harry muttered. Ginny’s eyes went wide. “So he /is/ here,” she said triumphantly. “I thought so.” “What?” Neville, and everyone else, looked completely confused. “What are you talking about?” “You know, if you’re trying to hide the fact that I’m here,” Draco said from across the room, pulling off the cloak as he spoke, “don’t you think it’s kind of dumb to talk about me in front of everyone else?” Harry crossed his arms across his chest and glared at Draco. “You,” he said flatly, “suck at being a Slytherin. You’re possibly the most

unsubtle person I know.” “I’m plenty subtle,” Draco said, turning up his nose and crossing his arms behind his head. “And there’s more to Slytherins than just being subtle. We’re sneaky, too.” “This is sneaky?” Harry asked incredulously, gesturing wildly at the armchair Draco was sprawled out in. “You should have stayed under the cloak! What were you trying to do, anyway? Were you just going to leave?” “I wasn’t going anywhere,” Draco said in a bored tone. “I just got tired of /standing/.” Harry blinked. “Oh…” “H-Harry?” Neville said, apparently the first to recover from the shock of finding Draco Malfoy in their common room. “What… What…” “What the bloody hell is /he/ doing here?” Dean said helpfully. “Er…” Harry glanced at nothing in particular out of the corner of his eye. “I did tell you he’s alright…” “You didn’t say he was /with/ you, though!” Seamus exclaimed, bug-eyed. “Really, it’s okay,” Ginny spoke up. Harry gave her a grateful look. “He’s been staying at my house since the summer.”

Dean’s head snapped around to face Ginny. “He’s been /at your house/?!” Ginny shrugged noncommittally. “So he’s not a Death Eater, then?” Justin said hesitantly. He was watching Draco carefully. When Draco noticed this, he smirked in his direction. Ron coughed. Harry shot him a glare. “Harry?” Seamus said. “Um…” “Look, let’s just get this over with,” Draco said abruptly, getting to his feet and walking over to them. “Malfoy,” Harry said warningly. “Shut up, Potter,” Draco said, and then without another word he pulled up his sleeve. There were collective gasps from around the room. Harry glanced nervously at the door, hoping no one would be returning from dinner anytime soon. “Since Potter already tried to tell you my life story,” Draco said, rolling his eyes, “you might as well know that, yeah, I’m a marked Death Eater. Surprise, surprise, I’m sure. I fled after – after that

night, though. And…um…” Draco faltered. Harry noticed he wasn’t near as calm as he was pretending to be. He looked a little pale, and he definitely sounded nervous. “And I found him,” Harry finished, glancing at Draco out of the corner of his eye. “He’s been with me since. Well, me and Ron and Hermione. You can trust – ah, well, maybe not him entirely, but you can trust me. He’s okay.” “That night…” Neville repeated. “You mean, the night you let the Death Eaters in?” Draco winced. “Yes. That night. I was supposed to return with Snape, but Dum– …Um. But I was offered protec– …You know what, it’s really none of your business,” he said abruptly. “I’m here now, that’s all that matters.” “Maybe you have Harry under the Imperius,” Neville said, his eyes narrowing. “Harry can throw off the Imperius,” both Ron and Justin said simultaneously. There was a sudden, awkward silence. Draco shifted his weight nervously. “Don’t suppose we can just Obliviate them, can we?” he mock-whispered to Harry.

“I think not,” he replied dryly. “And this is your fault, anyway. You should have stayed under the cloak.” “Oh, right, and left you to nance about looking for an /invisible person/. That would have gone over well! …Actually, it would have been horribly amusing. Damn.” “I thought you were trying to run off to visit Pansy!” “Why the hell would I do that? Nothing good would come of it; half of the Slytherins would probably run off and tell their parents I was there…” “Ah. Good point.” “I do have them occasionally.” “Alright,” Neville said suddenly. Harry and Draco both looked at him, startled. “Harry, I trust you. I don’t trust /him/, but I trust you.” “Thanks, Neville…” “I take it we’re not allowed to tell anyone about him?” Harry laughed nervously. “Um, no, that would probably not be a good idea…” “I don’t know…” Justin said doubtfully. He seemed to be edging toward the door. “Hmm,” Seamus said, peering back and forth between Harry and Draco.

“Ron, you’re in on this, too?” Dean asked. “Eh…” Ron fiddled absently with the cuff of his sleeve. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “You can trust Harry on this one. No worries.” Dean glanced at Ginny, who nodded, her eyes wide. “Okay, then,” he said, sighing. “My lips are sealed.” Harry glanced at the last two. “Seamus? Justin?” “Harry…” Justin said, in an odd kind of pleading tone. “I think it’s cute,” Seamus declared abruptly, and had Harry been drinking anything he would have spewed it all over the place. As it was, he nearly choked on his own spit. “What – /Seamus!/” Harry spluttered, feeling his cheeks burn for no apparent reason. “What the fuck, Finnigan?” Draco snapped. Seamus grinned. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Touchy, touchy!” Justin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Seamus…” “What? I only meant it was cute that Harry was being so protective of Malfoy–” “Seamus!” Harry said through his clenched jaw. “–Especially after rescuing him and everything–”

“/Seamus!!/” “He didn’t /rescue/ me,” Draco growled. “That fool Hagrid found me and handed me over to Potter, who all but dragged me back to his bedroom–” “/Did/ he, now?” Seamus cut in, smirking widely. Draco’s face slowly turned pink, starting with his nose, his cheeks eventually following, as he clenched his fists. Ron snorted, or at least Harry thought it was a snort until he turned to look at his friend only to find the other boy trying to muffle his laughter. Even Neville and Dean looked reluctantly amused. Ginny jut looked annoyed, but Harry was too embarrassed to try and figure out why. He really wasn’t even sure /what/ he was embarrassed about, actually. “That /would/ excite you, wouldn’t it,” Draco said snidely. “You probably get off thinking about two blokes together.” “Malfoy!” Harry hissed, more than ready to jump to Seamus’ defense, but whatever response he was expecting from the Irish boy, it was certainly nothing like the one he got. “Well, yeah,” Seamus said, rolling his eyes and smiling widely. “Where have you been for the last three months? Oh, that’s right,

you’ve been shacking up with /ickle Harry-kins/!” Draco bristled. “I have /not/ been…” he started to say, but then he trailed off, blinking, before his eyes widened. Ron’s eyes went wide as well, though he didn’t look quite as shocked as Draco. Harry was just confused. “Wait… Seamus – what?” “Oh.” Seamus’ grin faded, and Justin looked extremely uncomfortable. “You mean you didn’t know? “Know – /what?/” Harry asked, completely baffled. “That I’m…um…” “Gay?” Draco supplied flatly. “Queer? A flaming /homosexual/?” Seamus frowned slightly, but didn’t disagree. “Well…yeah, that. To be blunt.” “Huh?” Harry said eloquently. When had /that/ happened? Seamus definitely hadn’t been…hadn’t been…/gay/ when they were rooming together! …Right? “He likes /boys/, Potter,” Draco said, the flush on his cheeks darkening. “For God’s sake, you’d think you would have caught on by now.”

“No, I got that, thanks,” Harry snapped, flustered and annoyed and a million other things that he couldn’t distinguish at the moment. “I just – I mean – /when/?” “For awhile now, actually,” Seamus said sheepishly, not meeting Harry’s eyes. “The beginning of sixth year, at least. But I…ah, /came out/ over the summer, if that’s what you’re asking. Justin and I have been together for a little over a month now.” Harry’s gaze snapped towards Justin, who blushed magnificently and abruptly looked away. Harry’s own cheeks still felt warm and he still had no idea why. A quick glance at Draco showed that his face was still red as well, and now Harry’s face felt even hotter than before and, /bloody hell/, what was wrong with him? “Bollocks,” Seamus muttered. “I hate coming out to people. I’m sorry, Harry, I thought you already knew.” “N-no, it’s fine,” Harry said, though whether it was actually /fine/ or not was definitely still up for discussion. “I just never thought –I– I mean I don’t /care/ or anything, just… Ron, did you know?” he finally asked desperately, looking wildly at the other boy. “No.” Ron shook his head, eyes still wide. “I mean, just from today…some parts of the conversation I was wondering…but I didn’t

/know/.” “You all knew, though, right?” Harry asked, looking from Neville to Dean to Ginny and back again. Each of them nodded. “I’m the first one he told,” Dean said. “And then he told Neville, since we’re sharing a room and all.” “Pretty much everyone knows, Harry,” Ginny said. She gestured at Justin and Seamus, who Harry noticed were now tightly clutching each other’s hand. “They’re not trying to hide it from anybody.” Justin cleared his throat. “We don’t want to be ashamed of it,” he said. “It’s…part of who we are.” Draco snorted, and Harry felt like his blush has faded enough that he could safely glare at Draco again. “You’re really okay with it?” Seamus asked. “Oh – of course,” Harry said, forcing a smile onto his face. “Two guys together, no problem with that at all!” Shit, now he was blushing again. Draco crossed his arms and glowered in the opposite direction. “Ron?” Seamus said. Ron waved his hand dismissively. “Seamus, really, do you think something like that would bother me? I’m pretty sure Percy’s queer,

anyway, so I’ve probably got to get used to it.” Ginny giggled into her hand, sharing an amused look with her brother. “You’re right, he probably is! I never really thought of it before.” “Well, he’s a git, so I try to avoid thinking about him all together,” Ron muttered, smirking a bit. Harry chuckled, finally relaxing some. Ron really didn’t seem to be worried about it. He must be overreacting, then. “Good,” Seamus said, laughing in a relieved way. “I was kind of nervous there for a second.” “And really, it’s okay if you’re uncomfortable,” Justin said, tugging Seamus closer to his side. “Ernie was a bumbling mess around us for at least a week after we told him.” “He was, wasn’t he?” Seamus said, smiling up at his – Harry’s brain nearly froze over the word – /boyfriend/. “Whenever we’d kiss around him, he’d go completely red.” Seamus grinned again, and then, as if to demonstrate this, he kissed Justin right there in front of them. Draco spun around abruptly, stalking towards the portrait hole. “Potter, when are we leaving this dump? We’ve been here

for ages now!” he called back over his shoulder. Harry frowned at him. “Put the cloak back on, would you? Everyone else is due back any minute.” Draco huffed, and then with a final glance at Justin and Seamus – who were still kissing – he whipped the cloak out and disappeared beneath it. “We probably /should/ go, Harry,” Ron said, carefully keeping his eyes off the kissing couple. “Hermione will be wondering how everything went.” “Oh. Yeah, you’re right,” Harry said. “See you lot later, then!” He glanced at Seamus and Justin out of the corner of his eye, which proved to be a mistake because now he was all flushed again. Damn. “Are they always like this?” he asked Neville, who shrugged and rolled his eyes a bit in reply. “Come by again, Harry,” Dean said, standing and following them to the portrait. “And try to actually read that letter I sent you,” Ginny added. “Right, I will,” Harry promised. Of course, he had to find it first… “Bye, Harry!” Seamus called, tearing himself away from Justin long enough to wave goodbye. “I really do think you and Malfoy

make a cute couple!” Ginny squawked, Draco spat curses loud enough to hear from beneath the cloak, Harry spluttered indignantly, and Ron rolled his eyes and seized the moment to push both Harry and Draco out the portrait hole. “Oh, Harry!” Harry turned, trying to ignore Seamus’ snickering, and arched his eyebrows questioningly at Neville, who was leaning halfway out the entrance. “I’m serious about those coins,” he said, giving Harry a hard look. “If you ever need help with anything, let us know.” Harry nodded. “I will, Neville. I do appreciate that, you know.” “Alright then.” Neville grinned. “We’ll be seeing you, Harry!” The portrait shut behind him, and Ron and Harry just kind of stood there for a moment, looking a bit dazed. Draco’s head popped up beside them. “I have to admit, I didn’t see that coming,” Ron said, tapping his chin. Harry pushed a hand through his hair, breathing deeply. “Me neither,” he said. “I…don’t know what to make of it.” “I had him pegged from day one,” Draco said, lifting his chin. “Bloody obvious, if you ask me.”

“Oh, shut up, Malfoy,” Harry snapped “You were more shocked than the rest of us,” Ron added. “Should have seen the look on your face…” He snickered as Draco gritted his teeth and began stomping off down the stairs. Harry gave Ron a disgruntled look, and then set off after Draco. Who still had his hood down. “Malfoy! Malfoy, hold up, will you? Malfoy!” “Piss off, Potter!” “Okay, one, shut the hell up, and two, /put the cloak back on/!” Chapter 12 “/Belgium?/” “I knew she wouldn’t go for it.” “Shut up, Malfoy.” “Belgium, Harry?” Hermione repeated, an incredulous look on her face. “/Belgium/?!” Harry looked sheepish. “It’s the only lead we’ve got?” he offered tentatively. Hermione sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I suppose

you’re right, but I don’t – /BELGIUM/?” “Yes, Hermione, Belgium,” Ron cut in, rolling his eyes. “Snape even gave us a potion to help us get there and back.” “What potion?” Hermione asked sharply, whipping her head around to face Ron. “I absolutely refuse to let you drink an unknown potion without–” “Slughorn okayed it,” Harry said. “It’s the real deal. We /can’t/ ignore this.” “Well… I mean, I know you’re right, of course,” Hermione said, her brow still furrowed. “It just sounds very suspicious to me.” “It sounds suspicious to the rest of us, too, Granger,” Draco said snidely. “Don’t think you’re the only one who thinks it’s all complete bollocks.” “Malfoy didn’t even let Harry touch the vial at first,” Ron said, smirking a bit. “Completely blew our cover, the daft git.” Draco lifted his chin a bit. “It worked out in the end, didn’t it?” “He’s right.” Harry nodded. “At least we can move back to Grimmauld Place now.” Hermione blinked. “Well, you hadn’t mentioned that part yet!” She caught

Ron staring at her out of the corner of her eye, and when she turned to glance at him questioningly, he grinned at her. “Keep it in your pants, Weasley,” Draco said dryly, rolling his eyes. Ron sent him a rude gesture that had Hermione scolding him immediately. “/Anyway/,” Harry cut in, “Hermione, we were hoping you’d be able to…uh, help us out and…” “And plan everything for you?” Hermione finished, arching her eyebrows. “Take care of all the preparations?” “Er…” Harry grinned sheepishly. “Yeah. That.” Hermione let out a longsuffering sigh, but she smiled. “I think I can take care of all that.” “Great!” Harry exclaimed. “Snape said it would be best if we split up. We can cover more ground that way. So I guess I’ll be with Ron and–” “What?” Draco said sharply. Ron followed up with a hesitant, “Harry…” Harry paused, glancing back and forth between Ron, Draco, and Hermione, who was looking apologetic, and saw immediately where this was headed. And for some inexplicable reason, he panicked. He managed to withhold

from groaning out loud, but his shoulders slouched against his will. There was no way. He wouldn’t do it – no, /couldn’t/ do it. He would /not/ be left alone with Draco Malfoy in some secluded forest in the middle of nowhere for /two whole weeks/. “Well, I guess I can be with Hermione, then, and Ron and Malfoy–” “Harry,” Ron said again, a bit louder this time. “Be serious, Potter,” Draco said. He looked vaguely amused. Harry glanced between the three of them again. This couldn’t be happening. Desperate now, he caught Hermione’s eyes and sent her a pleading look. She merely shrugged. “Sorry, Harry.” Damn. Harry gave Draco a nervous look. Draco countered with a smirk. Harry frowned, pursing his lips. “Look, I’m not going to be the one stuck with Malfoy!” *** “I can’t believe I’m the one who got stuck with you.” “Oh, cheer up, Potter,” Draco said, as they trailed behind Ron and Hermione. It was nearly a week later, and they were making

their way to the Apparating point beyond the wards of the Burrow. “I just – why does it have to be /me/?” Harry said petulantly. “You can’t honestly have expected this to turn out any different,” Draco said, glancing skyward. “You know Granger and I would have spent the entire time trying to outwit each other, and Weasley and I would have done nothing but argued. One of us probably would have come back missing a few limbs.” He paused for a second, and then as an afterthought added, “Actually, it’s just as likely that one of us wouldn’t have come back at all…” “I don’t see why I have to be the one to put up with you all the time, is all,” Harry muttered. He adjusted the straps of the backpack on his shoulders, and sped up a little to try and pass Draco. “Please,” Draco said to Harry’s retreating back. “You know you love it.” Harry spun around to face Draco, but continued walking backwards as he spoke. “Love it?” he repeated, an incredulous look on his face. “Love /what/?” “Putting up with me, as you so called it,” Draco replied, smirking. “You like having me around. It keeps you from being a third wheel, for one.” He glanced up ahead to where Ron and Hermione were

walking. Harry twisted to look over his shoulder, and tried to ignore his friends’ clasped hands swinging between them. “I’m not a third wheel,” Harry said resolutely, turning back to face Draco. Upon finding Draco’s face suddenly only inches from his own, he yelped and tried to back away, only to trip himself and make a spectacular fall onto his rump. “Of course you’re not, Potter,” Draco said, bending over to thrust his hand into Harry’s face. “But you do like me. You’re just afraid to admit it because you’re still clinging to the belief that you hate me. It’s safer that way, right?” He arched an eyebrow, smirking. Harry blinked, staring at Draco’s outstretched hand and then at his face. He swallowed nervously, and when he grasped Draco’s hand and allowed the other boy to pull him up, he wondered vaguely why his palms suddenly felt so sweaty. “Alright there, Harry?” Ron called back to them from the top of the hill. Harry jerked his hand away from Draco’s, realizing with a start that they were just standing there staring at each other. “Fine, Ron,” he called back, wiping his palm against his trousers. He turned away from Draco, muttering out of the side of his mouth, “And I do hate

you. And if it’s not hate, it’s at least very strong dislike.” “Sure, Potter, sure. Whatever you say.” Harry could almost /hear/ the grin in his words. He clenched his teeth and blamed the afternoon sun for suddenly making him feel so hot. “Okay, are we ready?” Hermione asked once they were all gathered at the Apparating point. “No,” Harry mumbled under his breath. “What was that?” “Er. Nothing. Carry on.” Hermione looked doubtful, but she continued anyway. “Alright, here’s the potion,” she said, taking a familiar looking vial out of her bag. “Everybody knows where we’re going?” “I hope so,” Ron said, accepting the vial from Hermione. “Wouldn’t want to end up in China or something. Cheers, then.” He brought the potion to his mouth, took a deep breath, and then took a quick sip before he could change his mind. “Feel any different?” Harry asked after a few seconds. “Um… Not really,” Ron admitted. “Still, that’s a relief, yeah? Doesn’t seem to be harmful.”

“It could have a delayed reaction,” Draco said helpfully. “Shut it, Malfoy,” Harry said offhandedly. Draco shrugged. “I’m only saying…” They passed the vial around, each taking tentative sips, and once it was back to Hermione she sealed it and put it back into her bag. “Well,” she said, taking Ron’s hand and grasping it firmly. “We’ll see you over there. Be careful!” Ron gave Harry a two-fingered salute, and then with a loud crack, both of them Disapparated. Harry moved to do the same, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. “Potter, wait,” Draco said quickly, looking a bit pale. “I don’t… I mean, I still haven’t – um – can you…?” He paused, exhaling harshly through his nose, and then said, “Look, I still don’t like Apparating much and I’m not – I’m not sure if…” Harry rolled his eyes, sighing. “You want to do side-along?” Draco pursed his lips. “If you wouldn’t mind,” he mumbled, glancing away. “It’s fine,” Harry said shortly. He held out his arm, and Draco hooked his own arm around it tentatively. “Going to be my escort for the evening?” Draco said sarcastically, though the slight tremor in his voice gave away his

nervousness. Harry tensed, but Draco didn’t seem to notice. “You know where we’re going, right? You remember it? We’re not going to end up splinched over the Channel or something, are we?” “Yes, I remember it,” Harry said sharply. Draco’s comment had made his stomach do some sort of queasy flip-flop, and now he felt weirdly uncomfortable having the other boy hanging off his arm. “Though it’ll help if you concentrate on it, too.” “Will do,” Draco said, squeezing his eyes shut. Harry stared at him for a moment, feeling perplexed, and then jerked his gaze away and brought the forest they were headed to the front of his mind. “Here we go,” he said softly, and then he spun. *** There was no other way to describe it. The first couple of days of their Quest To Find The Cave were just plain…/awkward/. There were awkward attempts at conversation, awkward lulls in the awkward attempts at conversation, and, when they’d exhausted their supply of common interests (really, there was only so much one could discuss about Quidditch, and it didn’t help that it was rather a sore subject on Draco’s part), there were long stretches of awkward silence between the

two of them. /Why/ things were suddenly so uncomfortable between him and Draco, Harry had no idea. They’d been bunking together since the middle of summer, after all, so this shouldn’t have been anything different for them. Harry figured it was because he was used to having other people around. Sleeping in the same room as someone was all well and good, but having no one else to communicate with for the remaining hours of the day quickly became taxing, as he was reminded all too often why he and Draco had never been the least bit friendly towards each other in school. This didn’t, of course, explain the weeks during the summer when it had just been Harry and Draco rooming together, awkwardnessfree, at the Dursleys. But it was easy for Harry to just remind himself that he had still hated the boy at the time, despite the whole trying-to-offer-Malfoy-protection thing. Not that he didn’t hate Draco now. Because he did. There was still dislike present, at least. /Extreme/ dislike. “This is so stupid,” Draco grumbled for the ninth time that day. They were setting up camp for their third night in Belgium. “Which part?” Harry asked, because even though they’d had this conversation at least ten times in the past three days, the

heavy silence they’d been enduring for the past two-and-a-half hours was seriously starting to grate on his nerves. “All of it,” Draco spat as he tried to hammer the stake of the tent they were sharing into the ground. “At the moment, the ‘using as little magic as possible’ thing. Whose idea was that, anyway?” Harry sighed, and even though he knew Draco already knew the answer, he replied anyway. “Hermione said we don’t want to draw any attention to ourselves. We’re using enough magic as it is with the tracking spells, but if there’s a sudden burst of magical activity in such a secluded area like this, someone’s definitely going to be sent to check it out.” “Well, it’s stupid.” Harry couldn’t exactly disagree. Each day they spent in Belgium made the whole ordeal seem even more ridiculous. All this trouble for a Horcrux that might not even exist… “It’s also stupid that we have to tromp through these bloody woods all fucking day long. It’s so obvious we’re not going to find anything. A cave in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium? Such a load of bollocks. We’re not going to find any caves out here.” If Harry ever became bored enough to do the math, he was

sure he would find that one-third of their conversations was spent on awkward exchanges, one-third was spent not actually talking at all, and the final third was spent listening to Draco rant about the stupidity of their so-called mission. Unfortunately for Harry, the more Draco ranted, the more Harry believed him. And with this reluctant belief came the doubt that they’d ever find anything at all. “We could be spending our time doing much more important things,” Draco said. He stood up and wiped his arm across his brow, giving their newly erected tent a quick glance over before he went and plopped down onto the ground beside Harry. Harry jolted when Draco’s knee bumped into his thigh, and he not-so-discreetly scooted a couple of inches away. Draco furrowed his brow at him, and Harry said, “Just making room for you,” by way of explanation. Draco rolled his eyes and turned to stare into the fire Harry had managed to start. And there was that awkward silence again. This was what confused Harry. He was certain this shouldn’t /feel/ awkward, just sitting here next to Draco and not saying anything. If it were Ron, he would have been fine. Hell, if it had been Draco

three weeks ago, he would have been fine. But for some reason, he now felt trapped. He felt like the air itself was pressing down on him, weighing on his shoulders, suffocating him, stealing his breath so that he /couldn’t/ talk, couldn’t do anything but sit there and /not/ stare at Draco staring at the fire, and /not/ watch the way the dancing flames left a strange pattern of shadows across Draco’s face. His mouth was dry. He needed something to drink. “Cheater,” Draco muttered when Harry /Accio/’d his water canteen over to where they were sitting. “M’thirsty,” Harry said, drinking like he was a dehydrated man who had just emerged from a four-month misadventure in the Sahara Desert. It was another thirty minutes before either of them spoke again, and Harry only broke the silence to distract himself from the way Draco’s shoulder was touching his. The other boy had leaned back on his hands and his legs were sprawled out in front of him, and even though Harry had inched away earlier, somehow Draco’s shoulder still managed to nudge his own and it /stayed/ there. It didn’t seem to bother Draco. In fact, he looked perfectly peaceful. Maybe Harry was the only one who was feeling out of sorts. Maybe all this awkwardness was just a

figment of his imagination. Maybe there was something seriously wrong with him. “So, what other important things could we be doing right now?” Harry blurted, wincing at how unusually loud his voice sounded. Draco blinked, looking confused. “…I’m sorry?” Harry cleared his throat before speaking again. “Earlier you said we could be spending our time doing much more important things. I was just wondering what they were.” “Oh. Well, maybe not important things. Maybe just /better/ things.” Draco scowled and slapped at a mosquito that had landed on his arm. “I hate nature,” he growled. “I’ve never been stuck outside for so long like this before.” “Malfoy, it’s been three days,” Harry said flatly. “Yes, exactly.” “You were lost in the Forbidden Forest for nearly a month over the summer.” Draco’s head whipped around and he gave Harry a sort of puzzled look, before his eyes widened a little. “Oh – oh yeah. There was…/that/,” he stuttered, and it might have been the firelight playing tricks on Harry’s eyes, but he was pretty sure that Draco’s cheeks had

gone a bit pink. “And at least you have a tent this time,” he pointed out. “And…company. So it can’t be too bad.” Draco frowned. “These Muggle contraptions are pathetic. I still don’t see why we couldn’t have bought proper Wizard tents.” Because they had let Hermione do the planning and had sent Harry to do the shopping, and neither of them had thought to get tents like Mr. Weasley had had at the Quidditch World Cup. “Somehow I doubt Ron is complaining as much as you are,” Harry muttered, bringing his knees to his chest and folding his arms across the top of them. “Gee, I wonder why?” Draco said sarcastically. Harry couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped his lips, even as his mind recoiled in horror at the sudden mental images. “Oh God,” he said, laughing and covering his face with his hand. “Stop! I don’t – I /never/ wanted to think of Ron doing /that/. And especially not with Hermione!” “Gross,” Draco said, scrunching up his nose. “My brain thanks you for that lovely visual, Potter, and it would like me to inform you that it is now /scarred for life/!” He picked up a random pebble from

the ground and tossed it in Harry’s direction, scowling when the boy’s Quidditch instincts kicked in and he snatched the rock out of the air. “Show off,” Draco groused. “Can’t beat pure talent,” Harry said, smirking. Draco snorted. “Whatever,” he said. “Honestly, I was quite upset when I never received a huge box of chocolates and a carefully decorated thank-you note from you. I was the reason you even made the team, if you remember.” “My apologies,” Harry said with a slight roll of his eyes. “I can’t believe I neglected to inform you of my gratitude. I’ll get you some treacle tart when we go back home.” “Oh, that /does/ sound good. Where from? I know of this bakery in Diagon Alley – though of course, it’s probably not open anymore and the prices were fairly steep…” “I shop at this place called Mrs. Weasley’s Kitchen,” Harry deadpanned. “Very decent prices there.” “Cheap,” Draco said, grinning a little. “That’s what you are: cheap. Lucky for the Weasley girl that you two never even made it to the six-month anniversary.”

“We barely made it to our one-month,” Harry said dryly. “I’m not surprised,” Draco said. “Rooming with the likes of Finnigan, it’s a wonder you managed to snag a girl at all. You’d think something would have rubbed off on you.” Harry laughed shortly, but his smile quickly faded and he hugged his knees to his chest a little tighter. Truthfully, he’d done his best to shove that new bit of information into the deep recesses of his mind so he wouldn’t ever have to think about it again. He wanted to be able to accept it, he wanted to be /comfortable/ with it…but it wasn’t as if he was going to be rooming with Seamus again anytime soon, so really, why worry about it now? Obviously, plans like that never really worked out. And if he was honest with himself, now that he was thinking about it, Harry would have to admit that he held some sort of morbid curiosity about the whole thing anyway. Mostly questions like /Why?/ and /What’s the point; the appeal?/ were what surfaced in his mind. “It’s not like it’s contagious,” Harry said suddenly. “What’s not?” “Being like…/that/. It can’t be helped. It just…/happens/… right?”

“Fuck if I know,” Draco muttered. He seemed farther away from Harry all of a sudden, which Harry realized was because he was now sitting hunched over and cross-legged. Their shoulders were no longer touching. “It’s weird, though,” Harry said, despite the fact that it couldn’t be more obvious that Draco was uncomfortable with this topic of conversation. He seemed to shrink even more into himself, hunching over more and resting his elbows on his knees. “It is weird, yes,” Draco said woodenly. “But Seamus seems happy.” “If you can call slobbering all over dimwitted Hufflepuffs /happy/.” “It could be worse.” “Yeah?” “He could have fallen for a /Ravenclaw/ who defined happy as slobbering all over dimwitted Hufflepuffs.” Draco snorted in surprise. “Oh-ho! Bitter much, Potter?” Harry grinned, and mentally sent his apologies to Cedric. “Not really. Not anymore.” Their conversation slowed and eventually faded into silence as the last flickering flames of the fire died out.

“Come on,” Draco said eventually, standing and stretching his arms so far above his head that his spine popped. “We have a long day of doing absolutely nothing useful ahead of us tomorrow. Best get to bed.” *** “I’m beginning to think you’re right,” Harry said sullenly after they finished setting up camp the following night. “Come again?” “I’m not even sure this dark magic detector spell works–” “No wait – I need to write this down. Parchment. Where’s some parchment?” Draco made a great show of digging through his backpack. “Parchment, quill, ink, haven’t we got any?” “Come off it, Malfoy,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “I was being serious.” “So was I!” Draco exclaimed. “You’re admitting I’m right about something. Clearly a written record of this momentous occasion needs to be taken down.” “I didn’t admit you were right about anything,” Harry said gruffly. “I said I’m beginning to think you’re right.” “There’s a difference?”

“There is a difference.” “Huh. Alright then, Potter.” Draco moved to where Harry was and sat down cross-legged in front of him. “Let’s hear it.” Harry sighed. “It’s just that… I can’t help feeling like the only thing we’re going to find out here is more trees. The tracking spells seem to be working well enough, but the rest of what Hermione found? Hell, we might as well just walk around with a Sneakoscope or something.” “I doubt that would work,” Draco said dryly. “Because everything else is?” Harry retorted. “Just – /Merlin/, I must’ve been mad to agree to this. Snape’s sent us on a wild goose chase, the arsehole.” “And yet,” Draco started to say, leaning back on his hands, “we’re still going to keep looking, aren’t we?” Harry shrugged. “It’s still the only lead we’ve got…” “That’s always your excuse,” Draco said, looking away and chuckling darkly. “Yeah, the search is pointless and the spells Granger looked up are complete crap, but hey, we’ve got nothing else to do, so we might as well waste our time out here! Now as for myself? I think there’s a reason he sent us out here. And he practically told us what it was.”

“He did?” Harry asked, startled. “Wait, what? What the bloody hell are you going on about now?” “Are you serious? It was so obvious, Potter!” When Harry continued to look blank, Draco rolled his eyes and continued, “Occlumency! Both Snape and the man who may or may not have been Dumbledore’s brother said it was important, and apparently you’re awful at it.” He leaned forward, putting his face right in front of Harry’s, and said, “Let me teach you Occlumency.” Harry didn’t even need to think it over. “Hell no,” he said abruptly, shaking his head. “You think I’d make the same mistake twice? No way, if I’m going to learn Occlumency, I’m going to do it on my own.” “It’s not something you can really do by yourself, though,” Draco said, frowning. “It’s really not even /that/ difficult, but you definitely need someone to practice with.” “I’ll wait till we get back, then, and practice with Ron.” “What are you, daft? Weasley doesn’t know Legilimency!” “And let me guess, you do?” “Comes with the territory,” Draco said, making a flippant gesture. “Once you’ve got one, it’s easy to learn the other.”

“Well, I’m glad you think so,” Harry said, standing and brushing bits of grass from his trousers. “But I’ll still have to decline your offer.” “Why?” Draco demanded. “We’ve got at least another weekand-a-half out here, the /least/ we can do is make the time pass doing something /useful/. Something genuinely important, something that might /very possibly/ help you defeat the Dark Lord!” He made a convincing argument… Still… “I’ve had quite enough of people invading my mind, thanks. I’ll wait and get Aberforth to teach me...” Draco stood abruptly, hands closing into fists at his sides. “Damn it, Potter!” he shouted. “Why do you have to be so stubborn?” “What?” Harry said, startled. “This isn’t about what happened the last time you tried to learn Occlumency. I’m not going to – you don’t – I wouldn’t… You trust /Snape/!” Draco finally spat. “You can say all you want how you don’t, how you’re starting to believe I’m right about this all being a huge waste of time, but that doesn’t change the fact that you still /hope/ that we’re actually going to find a Horcrux out here! Because the /truth/, the truth is that you believe him one-hundred percent. You

/trust/ him!” Draco cried. “And he’s a /Death Eater/!” Harry stiffened. “So what?” he said darkly. “What of it? /So what/ if I trust Snape a little. So what if he’s a Death Eater. Dumbledore trusted Snape for /sixteen years/ knowing he had the Dark Mark–” “Then why don’t you trust /me/?!” Harry faltered. “That’s…that’s different,” he said. “It’s not,” Draco insisted. “You just want to believe that it is.” Draco frowned and crossed his arms. “I’m trying to help you, Potter.” “No, you’re trying to get me choose between you. You want me to say I trust you more than I trust Snape.” “Do you?” Harry paused, catching Draco’s eyes and holding his gaze for a moment. He rubbed absently at his chest. “How do I know you won’t take advantage of it?” he finally asked hesitantly. Draco smirked. “Well, I can’t promise that I won’t–” “Malfoy!” “Oh, calm down, Potter! I was only kidding.” “You were not.” “Well… I was kidding a /little/.”

Harry sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose as he weighed the options in his mind. On the one hand, they really should continue looking for this /cave/ and the Horcrux that probably was nowhere on this continent, because…well…just in case. But on the other hand, /just in case/ was looking pretty farfetched right now. The entire thing was beginning to seem completely fruitless, and if he was going to be forced to spend two weeks alone with Malfoy, he might as well get something useful out of it – no matter how uncomfortable the idea of the other boy being in his head made him. The other hand won. “Alright, Malfoy,” Harry said softly, crossing his arms and meeting Draco’s eyes squarely. “Teach me Occlumency.” Chapter 13 “Occlumency really isn’t all that different from other types of magic. It requires a certain amount of power and training, yes, but when it all comes down to it, you just really have to /want/ to do it.” “That might possibly be a problem, then…” Draco sighed. It was the following morning, and he and Harry were sitting cross-legged in front of each other beside their tent. They’d

decided to forgo searching for the Horcrux that day in favor of getting a start on the Occlumency training. “It was sort of a problem for me, too,” Draco admitted. “I wasn’t exactly willing last summer when my – when – when Bellatrix was trying to teach me. But there are ways around that.” Harry arched an eyebrow, but Draco ignored it. “Anyway, as I was saying… It’s sort of like an Unforgivable Curse, really.” Harry’s brow furrowed. “Exactly /how/ is it like an Unforgivable?” “Well…” Draco paused, considering. “Okay, for example, I gathered from something Bellatrix said, and then again during your conversation with Snape, that you tried to cast the Cruciatus curse and it didn’t work, right?” “…” Draco rolled his eyes. “It’s no big deal, Potter. And I’ll take that as a yes.” “Bellatrix said it was because I didn’t actually mean it. I didn’t honestly want to cause pain.” “Exactly! You didn’t /want/ to do it.” Harry sighed. “Well, after being subjected to it myself…” He trailed

off, rubbing his neck and staring at nothing in particular, before he directed his gaze back to Draco. “Have you ever been under it?” Draco stared at him for a long moment, hands clasped under his chin, before his eyes shifted to the side. “I’d rather not talk about that,” he said briskly. “…Alright,” Harry said after a moment. “In any case,” Draco continued loudly, “you have to mean it when you attempt Occlumency. Honestly, Potter, I wouldn’t think you’d have such a hard time with it. You managed to do the Patronus charm in third year; you threw off the Imperius curse in fourth…” He cocked his head to the side. “Snape must have really gone about it the wrong way.” For some reason completely unbeknownst to Harry, he felt his cheeks warm. It was kind of a roundabout compliment, but praise from Draco Malfoy was something Harry had really never expected to get. It made his stomach tighten in a weird way. “Did you ever manage to Occlude successfully with Snape?” Draco asked. “Occasionally,” Harry replied, thinking back to fifth year. “Okay, that’s a start, at least. I’m curious, what sort of memories did he see that made you want him out of your head?”

Harry blinked. “Well… I mean, I’m not sure I remember. He pulled up a lot of stuff from my childhood that I’d thought I’d forgotten.” “Did that bother you?” Harry shrugged. “I suppose.” “Potter…” Draco pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “Come on, you have to give me something to work with here! At least be a /little/ willing!” “I’m sorry!” Harry exclaimed. “I told you I wasn’t exactly keen on learning this.” Draco closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly let it out again. “Just try to remember,” he said testily. Harry huffed, looking away. “Look, you have to understand that half the time I was with Snape, I was /trying/ to get him to bring up certain memories. There was this dream I’d been having and… Well, anyway…” “Dream?” Draco repeated, arching an eyebrow. “It’s nothing,” Harry said. “It’s not important anymore. It was never important.” “/Potter/,” Draco groaned. “Alright, alright! Let me think…” Harry closed his eyes,

thinking back, trying to remember some of what Snape had seen… /He was sitting under the Sorting Hat, and it was telling him he would do well in Slytherin… Hermione was lying in the hospital wing, her face covered with thick black hair… A hundred dementors were closing in on him beside the dark lake… Cho Chang was drawing nearer to him under the mistletoe…/ “Oh!” Harry blinked, staring at Draco. “It was because of Cho. Snape was about to see – er…” “Oh, do tell,” Draco said, looking amused. “So, it was because of a girl, then? Makes sense.” “Does it?” Draco dragged a hand through his hair, looking slightly disgruntled all of a sudden. “As my aunt was so /kind/ to teach me, the more personal or /embarrassing/ the memory, the less likely it is you’ll want someone to see it. And while all memories are personal on some level, there are some that are just – /private/.” He gave Harry a look, smirking a bit. “Experiences with various girlfriends, for one.” Harry swallowed nervously, not liking the direction this was going. “But…that was only the one time. The other times…”

/Cedric Diggory was lying on the ground with blank eyes staring at him…/ /A hundred dementors were swooping toward Harry across the lake in the grounds… He screwed up his face in concentration… They were coming closer…He could see the dark holes beneath their hoods…/ Harry shuddered. “The other times I managed to get him out were because of…really /bad/ memories.” Draco nodded. “That works, too, but…” He shrugged. “Maybe we’ll try to avoid bad memories.” Harry looked at him sharply. “Does that mean you won’t be avoiding the embarrassing memories?” he asked warily. His eyes widened when Draco gave him an absolutely feral looking grin. “Of course not,” Draco said, raising his wand. Harry jolted. “Wait – Malfoy – don’t–!” “/Legilimens!/” /He was walking hurriedly down the hall towards Gryffindor… The portrait was swinging open, people were cheering… He was kissing Ginny and it was the best he’d felt all year… They were walking around the lake, sitting beneath one of the trees, holding hands… Ginny was smiling at him, leaning closer…/

“NO!” Harry shouted falling forward onto his hands. He was panting heavily, and his forehead was sweaty. “Ow,” Draco said plaintively, wincing as he pushed himself up from the forest floor. Harry looked at him. “Are you alright?” he asked absently, before remembering exactly /why/ Draco was on his back. His eyes narrowed. “You bastard!” he said angrily, hands closing into fists. Draco ignored him, rubbing his wrists with a concentrated expression on his face. “So you /can/ do it,” he murmured, giving Harry an appraising look. “Malfoy!” Harry spat. “That’s not the point! You said you wouldn’t–” “Au contraire, I said nothing of the sort, Potter! And if I did… well, then I lied.” “That’s it.” Harry stood abruptly. “We’re not going to do this if that’s how it’s going to be.” “Oh, sit /down/, Potter,” Draco said in a bored tone. “Don’t stomp away and have a hissy fit.” “I’m not going to–” “/Sit/,” Draco repeated, wand now trained on Harry.

Harry just rolled his eyes. “Oh, sure. Threaten me now. That makes everything better. And you want me to trust you?” He laughed shortly, crossing his arms. “Besides, we’re not supposed to be doing magic out here so you can’t–” “And what exactly do you think Occlumency is?” Draco interrupted. Harry faltered. “That’s – that’s different.” “Whatever. Sit down, Potter.” Harry frowned, looking from Draco to their tent and back. Draco watched him steadily, and after a long moment, Harry huffed and slowly sat down again. “Look, Malfoy, I don’t want you looking at memories like that. They’re /private/.” “If you don’t want me looking at them, just keep me out of your head,” Draco said smugly. Harry glowered at him. “You did it before! Obviously you can do it if you really put your mind to it.” “Is Legilimency the same?” “Pretty much. Like I said, it’s not exactly difficult to learn. The hard part is fine-tuning it.” Draco brought his hand up to his head, tapping his temple as he spoke. “You won’t get very far if people can feel you stomping around and picking things apart inside their head. You have to

practice, and you have to practice a /lot/. I’m not that good at it yet, and you can tell because you /saw/ everything that I saw. Real Legilimens can see all that /without/ the other person knowing.” Harry’s brow furrowed. “But when I was practicing with Snape, I saw everything he saw…” he said, confused. “Well, duh,” Draco said in a slightly exasperated tone. “How are you supposed to keep him out if you don’t even know he’s there? It’s a training mechanism. Trust me, Snape probably has his walls up every second of every day, and if he were really to try and invade your mind, you’d have no idea. I don’t know of anyone who’s managed to get inside Snape’s head.” “I have,” Harry’s mouth said before his brain had registered the words. His eyes widened and he slapped a hand across his mouth before it could say anything else without his permission. Draco blinked. “You…have? Really?” Harry deliberated with himself briefly, and then nodded. “But don’t ask me what I saw,” he said quickly, moving his hand. “Because I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone.” “But you did see something.” It wasn’t so much a question as it was a

statement. Harry nodded again. “Bloody hell, Potter,” Draco said, giving Harry a perplexed look. “So what you really need help with, then, is the fine-tuning part. You can keep people out easily enough, as long as you’re consciously thinking about it.” “I can?” Harry asked, bewildered. “You just had me on my /back/ not a minute ago,” Draco said, a bitter edge to his words, and then, as if realizing how that sounded, his cheeks went pink. Harry blinked and felt his own cheeks go warm. For a brief but awkward moment – and Harry was /positive/ it was awkward for both of them this time – they sat there staring at each other, before Draco cleared his throat and looked away. “What I /meant/,” he said, a little bit softer, “was that you got me out fairly quickly, and fairly /easily/ by the look of it.” “I didn’t want you seeing…” Harry trailed off, making random gestures with his hands. Draco smirked. “Yes, I /know/ what you didn’t want me seeing,” he said. “And if that’s what it’s going to take for you to keep me out, then /that’s/ what I’m going to keep looking for.” He grinned, and Harry, knowing what was coming, groaned and braced himself for

the attack. “/Legilimens!/” /Ginny was kissing him. They were out by the lake again, skipping class… Soft hands snuck under his shirt, running across his stomach and sides, trailing back and forth and back and forth… Ginny was kissing his jaw. Ginny was kissing his collar. Ginny was slowly taking off his shirt… Her mouth was moving down, down, down; they were beneath one of the trees, it was raining, nobody else was around… Ginny’s fingers traced along the top of his trousers–/ Someone yelped and the images vanished. Harry gasped, finding himself bent over on his knees, face buried against fists that were clenching the grass below him like it was his only lifeline for survival. He took a moment to compose himself, and then, recognizing that the yelp he’d heard had come from Draco, slowly raised his eyes. Draco was on his back again, but from the way his chest was hitching up and down with undisguised laughter, Harry guessed that he hadn’t done any lasting damage. “Shut up,” Harry muttered when Draco pushed himself into a sitting position. Draco merely shrugged and grinned a little, looking a bit flushed. “It’s not funny!”

“Oh Merlin, yeah it is,” Draco said, laughing again. “Damn it, Malfoy–” “Again!” Draco said, and before Harry could straighten himself out, Draco had his wand raised. “/Legilimens!/” /Ginny’s fingers dipped below the waistband of his jeans.../ Shit shit shit. /She wrapped her hand around him slowly… Harry dug his hands into her hair, gasping against her mouth as she moved her hand…/ No, don’t let him see, don’t let him see! /Harry was kissing her desperately… Ginny pulled back, grinned at him, and dropped to her knees…/ Get out, get out, GET OUT. “NO!” Harry yelled, thrusting his wand hand out blindly. Draco flew back again, landed with a loud thud and skidded a couple of feet across the grass. Harry blinked his eyes open, feeling bewildered that he wasn’t on his hands and knees again. “Er…” He winced as Draco sat up, grimacing, and tried to remind himself that he had absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. “Alright there?” he asked. “Peachy keen,” Draco grunted, rolling his shoulders. He glanced at Harry out of the corner of his eye. “Potter, what you need to try to

do is stop me before I ever even get into your head. Obviously as the memory gets more and more personal, the need to throw me out becomes greater and therefore Occluding becomes easier. But the whole point of Occlumency is to never let me in your head in the first place.” Harry sighed, rubbing his forehead. “I know, I know, it’s just – I’m not sure how…” “How to do it?” Harry nodded. “Aside from /meaning/ it… Snape told me to clear my mind.” “That’s one way to do it. People can’t read your thoughts if you’re not thinking anything at all. Though that can be a bit tedious.” Draco began twirling his wand absently as he spoke. “What I like to do is imagine a brick wall that nothing can get past. Like, it’s just blocking everything from entering my head.” He shrugged. “To each his own, I guess, but that’s something you definitely need to work on. The other thing you need to practice is keeping that wall in place at all times, so you’re ready for any surprise attacks. Because it’s not likely the Dark Lord’s going to send you an invitation with the time and place of when he’d like to plunder your brain. For instance.” Draco abruptly stopped twirling and pointed his wand at Harry.

“/Legilimens!/” “Wait–!” Harry managed to get out, before once again memories were surging to the forefront of his mind. /It was nearing the end of the year, and he and Ginny were in the Room of Requirement… They were on the couch, Harry on top of her, her arms around his neck, drawing him down to meet her…/ Bloody fucking hell. Not this one. Malfoy would /not/ be seeing this. /She was wearing a skirt, so it was easy for him to sneak his hands beneath it… He slid down her body, marveling at her soft skin and curvy build, at the flowery scent that she always had on…/ No way, Malfoy. Get the /hell/ out of my head! OUT! /Ginny smiled up at him, eyes half closed and very satisfied looking… Her cheeks were flushed, she was breathing heavily… Her hand reached out to touch the naked skin of his chest…/ NO! OUT! OUT! OUT! The ground seemed to lurch beneath Harry, tipping him forward and onto his hands and knees once more. His head was pounding now; he could barely open his eyes. Groaning, he leaned forward, meaning to rest his head against the cool grass, but he found something else entirely.

Wearily, Harry opened his eyes. This sucked. Not only did he have a horrible headache now, he also had another little problem going on further south. Damn Draco for making him relive those times with Ginny… Why was there a body beneath him? And why was it wearing Draco’s shirt? “Yo, Potter,” Draco said, and Harry’s head snapped up to find Draco’s face not far from his own. He blinked, taking in their position and finding it very familiar. He’d just seen it in his mind, after all. Harry on all fours; Ginny beneath him, aglow with the aftereffects of teenage mischief, smiling and panting. Harry liked that memory. It was one he had wanked to often. It was playing again in his mind right now, in fact. But then something terrible happened. Things shifted and blurred, and suddenly it wasn’t Ginny below him on the couch, but Draco like he was seeing him now. Forehead sweaty, face red with exertion, chest heaving for breath. It was Draco reaching out for him, Draco running a hand along his chest, trailing it further down. Further…down… Harry’s little problem suddenly became a rather /big/ problem.

“POTTER!” “What?” Harry asked, snapping out of it. He blinked rapidly, startled to find Draco beneath him. With a loud gasp he threw himself backwards, eyes wide as he goggled at Draco. “What – what happened?” “You pushed me out of your head and then fell on top of me,” Draco said, giving Harry an odd look. “What’s your problem?” “Um.” Harry’s face was burning, he could practically /feel/ the heat wafting off of him. “N-nothing. I just – that last memory…” He looked at Draco and saw the boy’s still-flushed face, and swallowed nervously. “Just – embarrassing,” Harry managed to say. “I’m – I’m gonna… Can we take a break? It’s about lunch time, isn’t it?” “Yeah, I guess it is,” Draco replied, glancing up at the sun. If he noticed anything amiss about Harry’s behavior, he said nothing of it. “We can take a break, then. We’ll continue this later.” “Actually, I think we should search more for the Horcrux this afternoon,” Harry said. “Just in case, you know? We – we shouldn’t put it off entirely.” Draco frowned. “If you say so.” “Good.” Harry nodded. “Good. Right, then. Um. I’m going to take a walk real quick. I’ll – uh – I’ll be right back.”

“Sure…” Draco said slowly. Harry thought maybe Draco had finally cottoned on to the fact that something was very, very wrong. He cursed under his breath. “Right. See you.” And then without waiting for a reply, Harry took off. He walked rapidly through the forest for a good ten minutes, until he felt he was far enough away from – from everything. From Draco, from Occlumency, from Horcruxes, from all of /that/. He just needed to calm down. His brain had overloaded a bit, that’s all. “Okay,” he breathed, leaning back against one of trees when he came to a stop. “It’s alright. It’s because you were forced to think about Ginny all morning, that’s why.” He shifted, groaning at the too-tight confines of his trousers, and didn’t put up much of a fight with himself before he unbuckled the clasp and slowly lowered the zipper. “It’s because of Ginny,” he reminded himself, curling his fingers around the velvety soft skin of his cock. “That’s all. Ginny.” He brought up the memory of when they’d been in the Room of Requirement again, and when he came it was to the image of her smiling up at him. At least, he /thought/ it was Ginny. He was pretty positive. Maybe. ***

“Have a good wank, Potter?” So startling and horrifying was this simple comment when he returned to the camp that Harry actually stumbled and tripped over his own feet, falling sideways against a random tree while he stared at Draco in shock. “/What/?” he croaked, completely wide-eyed. Draco snorted. “What, you think I don’t know why you just ran off? I’ve only been torturing you with memories of your girlfriend all morning, so I’m not surprised.” Harry pursed his lips and willed his face to stop blushing. “Ex-girlfriend,” he corrected. “And shut up about it already.” “If you insist.” “I do.” “I must say, though, that I’m rather impressed with how far you got in such a short period of time–” “Malfoy!” Draco chuckled. “Sorry, sorry. Well, not really, but you know.” Harry sighed, pushing a hand through his hair. “This is so embarrassing,” he muttered. “I’m having fun,” Draco said cheerfully.

“Damn it, Malfoy!” *** It took forever for Harry to fall asleep that night. It had gotten significantly colder than the previous nights, though that wasn’t really what was keeping him up. He was getting more than enough extra body heat from Draco, and that was really part of the problem – the actual problem being a repeat of what had happened that afternoon. Harry had thought he’d done away with it, but of course the stupid thing had instead followed him to bed. It wasn’t like Harry was an innocent in matters like these. He’d lived in a dorm for six years, after all. He’d just never had such a hard time of it around /Draco/ of all people. It was rather weird. Of course, he placed the blame entirely on Draco and his methods of teaching Occlumency. They were going to practice again in the morning, and Harry definitely wasn’t looking forward to it. He almost wished they were going Horcrux hunting instead, even though they hadn’t had any luck that afternoon. Hermione had sent a message via her otter Patronus, and apparently she and Ron kept turning up empty-handed, as well. This whole trip was turning out to be a complete bust.

Draco murmured something in his sleep and rolled over so that now Harry wasn’t staring at the back of his head, but rather at the surprisingly peaceful look on his face. Harry had seen Draco asleep before, and he never failed to be amazed at just how different the boy seemed from when he was awake. He almost looked innocent, which was a word that Harry most certainly never associated with Draco “Annoying prat,” he mumbled, and then promptly turned his back on him and hoped that watching the wall instead would eventually put him to sleep. *** “/Legilimens!/” “Again, Potter!” “You’ve got to get me out faster than that!” “/Legilimens!/” “Again!” “/Legilimens!/” “Good, good, now try not letting me in /at all/.” “Again!” “/Legilimens!/” “Keep the wall up, Potter!”

“AGAIN!” Harry groaned, falling backwards onto the grass and rubbing small circles on his temple with the pads of his fingers. “Come on, Malfoy, give me a break! My head is killing me!” “Oh, suck it up, Potter!” Draco said, sitting down beside him. “We’re going to get this Occlumency thing down pat before we leave this place.” “When can I learn Legilimency?” Draco laughed shortly. “I’m not teaching you that,” he said. “You think I want you rooting through all my personal memories? Definitely not.” “You’ve seen all of mine,” Harry muttered. He was pretty certain his face was permanently red by now. Half the time Draco wasn’t even seeing stuff with Ginny anymore. Often it was just Harry by himself, in bed, late at night when nobody else was awake. Knowing that Draco had seen those memories was almost worse than knowing he’d seen Ginny half-naked. “Come on,” Draco said, hopping to his feet. “Let’s do it again.” Harry rolled his eyes and made a great show of standing up as if he were in pain. He braced himself. “/Legilimens!/”

/Harry was in bed at the Burrow, knees bent and feet planted firmly on the mattress…/ Wait… The Burrow…the twins’ room. This had to be a recent memory. /His hand was moving quickly, up down up down, images were flashing through his mind… Mostly of Ginny. Ginny laughing, Ginny smiling, Ginny winking at him, Ginny kissing him…/ Oh, shit. /But then something else snuck in. Something that he was unprepared for, to say the least… He was thinking of when they’d visited Gryffindor, and when Ginny had flung herself at him… Ginny was joking around with Seamus… Seamus was kissing Justin…/ “NO! GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!” Harry yelled, unaware he was doing so. He pushed, shoved with all his might, and suddenly new images were flashing before his mind’s eye. But they weren’t of him; they weren’t even of people he /knew/. They kept spinning by, and every so often he’d catch a glimpse of something familiar. Then, all at once, images of people he recognized tumbled out before him. /Pansy was walking toward him, her gown an absolute monstrosity, but she obviously loved it and was smiling and happy and therefore

he smiled and was happy… Blaise was smirking at him, making a snide comment about the Quidditch team… Crabbe and Goyle grimaced as they drank a sludgy, muddy looking potion… Pansy was slamming him into a wall, she was kissing him, she was wrapping her arms around his neck and holding on tight… / Okay…okay, he really didn’t want to be seeing this. /He was tossing her onto his bed, it was the middle of the day so there was no one else around, everyone else was in class… Their clothes came off piece by piece and soon they were writhing on the bed together…/ Um, Malfoy? Occlumency? Anytime now. /It was incredible, the most amazing thing he’d ever experienced. She was wet and warm and tight and he kept moving in and out, thrusting deeper and deeper…/ The exit! WHERE IS THE EXIT? It was like being trapped in quicksand. The more he tried to back away, the more he saw. The more he tried to escape, to get out of Draco’s head, the deeper he fell. He felt lost, like he’d never find his way out again, and he was really about to start panicking when finally, /finally/, there was a loud cry and Harry found himself flying backwards

and landing with a jarring thud on his back. “What the hell, Potter?!” Draco was saying furiously, the heel of his hand pressed against his temple. “What the bloody fuck was /that/? Had a good time, did you? Learn anything useful?!” “Only that sex is apparently the greatest thing in the world,” Harry muttered, pushing himself into a cross-legged position. “Ouch,” he said absently, reaching behind him to rub his back. “You weren’t supposed to see that!” Draco growled. His face was flushed pink, the color reaching all the way across his cheeks and spreading into his ears as well. He was panting heavily, his eyes were wide, and he couldn’t have looked more embarrassed if he tried. Harry gave him an incredulous look. “Well, now you know how I feel, don’t you?” “That’s – that’s not the point!” “Oh, get over it, Malfoy, it’s not that big a deal.” “YES, IT IS.” Harry rolled his eyes. “So I saw you having sex,” he said, and at once the memory surfaced again and he felt his own cheeks go hot. Okay, so maybe it was a little bit much… “Stop thinking about it!” Draco cried, ripping up a tuft of

grass and throwing it at Harry. “I’m not!” Harry exclaimed, except he /was/ and Draco knew it and Merlin on a fucking broomstick, he had never wanted to know what Draco Malfoy looked like when he was in the midst of an orgasm. Oh, wonderful, /super/, now he couldn’t get the image out of his head. Fuck. Bloody hell. Bloody fucking hell! His problem was back again. Harry frowned in the direction of his crotch, wondering just what the hell was going on with his body lately, and Draco threw another clump of grass at him. “STOP IT!” “Merlin, shut /up/, Malfoy!” Harry rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Why didn’t you Occlude sooner?” he asked. “I got lost in there, I couldn’t find my way out. It’s not like I /wanted/ to see all that.” “I /tried/,” Draco said, glowering at Harry. “You’re better at this stuff than you know.” “I can’t be that good if I couldn’t even get out again.” “Yeah, well, still…” There was a very heavy silence between them, then. Harry cast around for

things to say, but could come up with nothing that didn’t sound completely obvious. So instead he settled for: “So, you’ve had sex then?” Draco’s eyes went wide and he did an odd combination of blanching and blushing. “/Potter!/” Harry shrugged sheepishly. “I just – I didn’t know. I guess I thought you hadn’t.” Draco frowned. “No. No, I one-upped you in that department. I’ve only ever done it twice, but there you go.” “Two more times than me,” Harry grumbled. “Probably a million times less than Ron.” “/Potter/,” Draco said, scrunching up his nose. “/Yuck/. I thought we were never going to mention that again.” “Sorry.” Harry gave a sheepish grin and Draco rolled his eyes. The tension in the air gradually began to dissipate, and Harry felt his shoulders relax. “You want to give it another go?” “Eh…” Draco looked nervous. “I don’t know, I think you’ve got a pretty good handle on it now.” “Malfoy, come on,” Harry said. “Don’t let that scare you off.” “I’m not scared,” Draco insisted. “Just – oh, fine. Ready?

/Legili/–” “Wait!” Harry interrupted. Draco arched his eyebrows at him, wand still held aloft. “Let’s forget the embarrassing stuff,” Harry said, not entirely willing to subject himself to that experience again. “I need to be able to keep people out no matter what they’re looking at. Start bringing up random things.” Draco cocked his head to the side. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” he said. “Alright then. /Legilimens!/” /He was five and he wanted to play football with the other kids, but Dudley kept kicking the ball at his head so instead he was forced to watch from the sidelines… He was seven and he’d fallen off the slide at the park. Aunt Petunia gave him a glance and sneered, sending him straight to the bathroom to clean his cuts… He was eleven and he had just found out he was a wizard, and there was an annoying little blond boy in the robe shop who reminded him of Dudley…/ “Okay!” Harry said loudly, forcing Draco from his mind with much more ease than he’d been able to the day before. “Enough of that one.” “I reminded you of /Dudley/?” Draco asked, lips curling. “That fat kid you were thinking about? Who the hell is /he/ and how did I remind you

of him?!” Harry sighed. “My cousin. You've met him. Briefly,” he said. Extremely briefly; Dudley had done a fantastic job of avoiding them those few weeks over the summer. “And you were annoying and stuck up like he was. Is.” Draco gasped. “I was /not/ stuck up! I was trying to be friendly!” “Whatever, Malfoy,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “I’m not getting into this with you now. There’s no point.” “There is /too/ a point–” “Malfoy!” Harry interrupted. “Just get on with it, will you?” Draco huffed. “Fine, then,” he said. And then he…did nothing. He sat there, staring at Harry until Harry began to feel uncomfortable. “…What?” he asked, squirming a bit. “Why are you–” But before he could finish the question, the memories rushed forth and Harry realized what had just happened. Draco had done the spell nonverbally, so that Harry would be unprepared. Harry pushed him out almost immediately. “Nice try,” he said, grinning. “I’m getting better at this.” “Yeah, maybe. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my nonverbal skills.”

Draco smirked and then did it again, and it felt significantly stronger this time. /There was a face on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head, staring at him, talking to him, asking for the Philosopher’s Stone… Professor Lupin was shifting, changing, stretching in his own skin until he had fangs and claws and beady yellow eyes… Sirius was laughing with him, telling him stories about his father… Sirius was fighting for him… Sirius was falling…/ “NO!!” Harry pushed again, pushed Draco’s presence away desperately, and once again he found himself falling. He recognized the feel of Draco’s mind almost immediately, and before anything could happen he tried to back away, to pull out… But he had unintentionally stirred up some of Draco’s memories, and it felt like he had taken a wrong step backwards, lost his balance, and slipped past some sort of barrier into the deep recesses of Draco’s mind. /His father was scolding him for not being the top in his class, for losing to a Muggle of all horrid things… His father was telling him to stop talking about Harry Potter all the time… His father was telling him he couldn’t have a broom… His father was proud of him for making the

Quidditch team…/ Oh, fuck. Malfoy was going to be pissed at him again for seeing stuff like this. /His father was in Azkaban. Azkaban. Azkaban! HOW HAD THIS HAPPENED? It was all Potter’s fault, it was because of him… The Dark Lord was entering the room, it was the first time he had ever seen him face-to-face… He was going to be given the Dark Mark, it was finally time to prove himself, he would do it for the sake of his family, his father was going to be proud of him… This was an amazing opportunity, oh how he was going to prove his worth, no one else in his year had the Dark Mark, what would Pansy say? Everyone would be jealous of him…/ Harry could feel Malfoy pulling away now. The thoughts became muddled, as if there really was a wall being put in place. But this was different. This was interesting. He /wanted/ to see this. So he fought back, pushing the wall out of the way and bringing the memories forward. /The Dark Lord was threatening his family… He had to do it, he had to kill him. He’d almost killed two other people now, but it didn’t matter because they were fine. What mattered was that his parents would be murdered if he couldn’t accomplish this one simple task… It was impossible. He wouldn’t be able to do it. His parents were

going to die. He needed to get help but he had no one to go to… Aunt Bellatrix said not to trust Professor Snape… Potter was behind him. He was staring at him in the mirror. He’d seen him crying… There was so much blood around him, why was there so much blood, what was happening?… He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t kill him, he didn’t want to kill him, why should he have to do this? This wasn’t fair…/ Malfoy was fighting harder now, there was almost a desperate feel to it, but he hung on anyway. He had to see this. /Dumbledore was offering him protection. Was it really possible? Could he really be saved, could he really get his mother out of harm’s way? Should he accept it? Should he take it? Yes, do it, DO IT… Dumbledore was dead. Dumbledore was dead and it was ALL HIS FAULT… The Dark Lord was angry with him, why was he angry with him, hadn’t the task been accomplished? Dumbledore was out of the way, the Dark Lord should be happy, why was he still threatening to kill his parents?… He was in a jail cell, his clothes were torn, everything hurt and his side was bleeding, what was going to happen to him, was his mother still alive?… The Dark Lord was giving him a task. He pulled out his wand, he was pointing it at him, his lips were moving, saying a single word…/

The memory sort of splintered there, like it was a glass plane that had just been hit with a rock. It fell apart and suddenly, even though it was just a memory and he hadn’t been able to feel anything in any of the other memories, he was in pain. It was excruciating and he recognized it immediately. Hundreds of sharp knives were digging into every inch of his skin, he’d just been pushed into a pit of nails and he was being rolled around, there was electricity running through his body and he just wanted it to stop, already, STOP. And then Draco screamed, and everything went black. *** Harry jolted awake. He was lying flat on his back staring at the afternoon sky. And it was definitely the /afternoon/. When had that happened? Hadn’t it just been around noon? Weren’t they just about to break for lunch? They… Oh, shit. Harry forced himself to his knees, ignoring the throbbing, pounding ache in his head – hell, all throughout his body. Something was wrong, he shouldn’t feel like this, it wasn’t like he’d actually been /under/ the

Cruciatus curse just now, it had just been a memory and not even his own… Draco was lying just a few feet away, still out cold. They both must have passed out, then. If that was indeed what had happened. What /had/ happened? Harry was so confused. Harry frowned, slowly crawling over towards the other boy. He rested a hand on Draco’s shoulder, shaking him very lightly, and was inexplicably relieved when he saw that Draco was still breathing. That was good, at least. Harry turned away and sat heavily on the ground beside Draco. He let out a breath and pulled his knees up to his chest, resting his chin on them. His brow furrowed. What the hell had /that/ been about? Chapter 14 By the time Draco finally began coming around, night had fallen and it had gotten significantly cooler. Harry had barely moved from his position, only bothering to start a fire which he then proceeded to stare moodily at. When Draco groaned and began shifting on the grass, Harry didn’t even blink. “Bloody buggering hell,” Draco muttered, turning onto his

side and curling into a ball. “What the hell happened?” It was obvious from the soft tone of his voice that he wasn’t exactly expecting an answer. He probably thought he was alone, Harry figured. “I made you relive the Cruciatus curse,” Harry said in a level voice, his eyes still pinned on the jumping flames in front of him. “Sorry.” Draco jolted, pushing himself up onto his elbow and narrowing his eyes in Harry’s direction. “Potter?” he croaked. Harry nodded, and Draco continued, “What’re you talking about?” “Earlier. We were practicing Occlumency, remember? I invaded your mind again.” There was silence for a few minutes, and Harry finally turned away from the fire. Draco had pulled himself into a sitting position, his knees tucked up against his chest, and even beneath the shadows the firelight was casting across his face, he looked paler than usual. “What…what did you see?” Draco eventually asked, without looking at Harry. Harry shrugged. “I don’t know, Malfoy. Maybe you should tell me.” Draco visibly flinched, drawing even more into himself. “You

have to understand–” “Understand /what/?” Harry cut in dangerously. Draco swallowed thickly, but didn’t say anything. Harry took a deep breath and released it slowly through his nose. His hands twisted into the material of his jeans. “He gave you a task,” he said quietly, frown lines marring his forehead. “What was it?” “Potter–” “/What was it/?” “I don’t have to answer you,” Draco said. “You weren’t supposed to see that anyway, I /told/ you not to go trouncing through my head.” “We were practicing Occlumency, you nitwit. I couldn’t help it.” “Oh, that’s a load of bollocks, Potter! And you know it!” Draco said, finally turning to face the other boy. “You dug your claws in and you didn’t let go! I /tried/ to get you out!” “Maybe I’m not the one who needs all this practice, then!” Harry snapped. “What happened to your so-called /brick wall/?” “Oh, forgive me, apparently I had a momentary relapse and forgot exactly who it was I was dealing with!” Draco threw back at him. “The great

/Harry Potter/, able to excel in /every single bloody thing he tries/. I won’t forget it again, your Highness, trust me!” “/Trust/?” Harry repeated skeptically. “Oh yeah, let’s talk about /trust/.” “God, not /that/ again!” “Shut it, Malfoy! You want me to trust you; you’ve made that much perfectly clear. And I’ll admit you’ve been decent these past few months. Maybe even a bit helpful at times.” Harry’s eyes narrowed. “But if Voldemort gave you a task and you refuse to tell me what it is, all of that will have been a waste.” Draco pursed his lips. “It doesn’t matter what it was, I haven’t done it–” “/Yet/,” Harry interrupted. “Who’s to say you aren’t planning to do it later?” “I’m not, Potter, I swear.” “Swear all you want, it means nothing to me,” Harry said. “Tell me what the fucking task was!” “Ask me nicely,” Draco said, sneering. “Damn it, Malfoy, you’d better tell me!” Harry shouted. “I’m not playing around, this is important!” “It’s not, because I’m not going to do it so it doesn’t matter

what it was.” Harry closed his eyes, his hands clenching into fists. “Malfoy, I swear to God, you’d better tell me or I /will/ Apparate to where Ron and Hermione are and leave you here with no way to get back.” “Yeah, right,” Draco said, snorting. Harry leveled a hard glare on him. “Try me.” Draco frowned, holding Harry’s gaze for a few seconds before he cringed, his face twisting up as he ran a hand through his hair. “It’s not – you’re going to think everything I’ve been doing until now has been under false pretences, you’re not going to trust me /at all/!” “I don’t trust you now!” Harry said loudly. Draco sighed, rubbing the back of his neck tiredly. “If you’d just listened to me and hadn’t gone barging into my mind, we could have avoided all this,” he said bitterly. “Malfoy.” “Fine.” Draco took a deep breath. “The Dark Lord ordered me not to return until I had you with me.” Harry stopped breathing for a second. “…What?” “It’s not that difficult to understand,” Draco said, rolling his eyes. “I’m supposed to bring you to him.”

Harry had rolled onto his knees and pushed himself to his feet, wand thrust in Draco’s face, before the other boy had even finished talking. “What do you mean?” Harry asked, breathing rapidly. “You’re – all of this – you’re supposed to /bring/ me to him?!” “/Supposed/ to,” Draco repeated, staring hard at the fire. “As you may or may not have noticed, I haven’t done so.” “But–” “And I wasn’t planning to, either.” “How can I be sure of that?” “Come off it, Potter,” Draco said. “There have been plenty of times I could have taken off with you if I really wanted to.” “He might have given you a specific date,” Harry said warily. “He didn’t,” Draco said, rubbing small circles next to his eyes with the pads of his fingers. Harry paused for a second, and then slowly sat back down again. “I think you’d better tell me everything,” he said, wand still held level at Draco’s face. Draco huffed. “There’s nothing to tell. I told you what the task was, already.”

“So…what? Voldemort just dumped you off at Hogwarts with the promise that you’d bring me back?” “No, Hogwarts was my idea. I didn’t know where the hell else to start.” “So you /were/ planning on doing it…” “No. Yes. Well – I mean, at first, yeah,” Draco said hesitantly. “He was threatening my family again, since technically I hadn’t completed the first task, so…. But then I remembered what Dumbledore had said about protection. I realized…well, look, it’s like you said, Dumbledore was dead so the Dark Lord should have been happy with that, but he wasn’t. So I realized that no matter what I did, he was always going to keep using my family against me.” “Honestly, I’m surprised he didn’t just kill you right there,” Harry said. “I thought you didn’t go back to him after that night, but if you were actually with him… You’re lucky you’re still alive.” Draco shuddered. “Well, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant couple of weeks, you may have noticed,” he muttered. “No,” Harry said softly. “I guess not.” He lowered his wand slightly. “So, how long were you actually in the Forbidden Forest?” “About two days…”

Harry blinked. “Wait, seriously? That’s it?” Draco nodded. “After I realized that the Dark Lord was always going to be holding my parents’ lives above my head, I thought about going to see McGonagall... But I changed my mind about that fairly quickly. She’s not Dumbledore, and I don’t think she ever really liked me. Of course, the feeling was mutual.” Harry snorted, but didn’t say anything. “I was trying to figure out where to go from there and how to find you and – and I ran into this herd of…/something/. God, they were terrifying. Actually, I guess there were only about four of them, but they were absolutely hideous. These black horse – dragon – /things/. And they kept trying to come near me–” “Thestrals,” Harry interjected. “Maybe if you’re paid attention to that lesson in Hagrid’s class, you would have known what they were.” “Thestrals?” Draco’s face went a little pale. “R-right. Because of – of Dumbledore, I suppose.” “You were bleeding at the time, right?” “Um.” Draco scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, I guess I was. The injury on my side was actually from a Sectumsempra.”

Harry’s eyes widened, and Draco quickly added, “I didn’t take it full on in the chest like I did yours, at least.” Harry let out a shaky breath. “That’s why they were trying to get near you. The smell of blood attracted them.” “Yeah, well… Anyway, so it was after I ran away from them that I really got lost. Then Hagrid found me, and the rest you already know.” Harry’s brow furrowed. “Why did you come with me? Why didn’t you just take me to Voldemort?” His eyes widened a bit. “Wait, you know where Voldemort is?” “Not exactly,” Draco said slowly. “It’s unplottable and it’s under all sorts of protection charms. I was supposed to bring you to Bellatrix.” Harry frowned, but nodded. Draco continued, “Anyway, I don’t like Apparating, remember? Much less with two people. I doubt we would have gone three feet, and I probably would have splinched us, at that.” “Then how the hell did Voldemort expect you to successfully kidnap me?” Draco gave him a level look. “Potter. Use your head. It was another task he knew I wouldn’t be able to do. How many times has he or his Death Eaters had you cornered, only to let you slip loose? Do you

honestly think he believed /I/ would be the one who could actually grab you?” Harry frowned. “Yes.” “…What?” “I’ve kept you with me, haven’t I? You’re right, there’ve been an infinite number of times you could have Apparated me away.” Harry raised his wand again. “Maybe you’re just waiting for the right moment.” “Potter!” Draco said, jaw dropping open. “You can’t be serious!” “Especially with Snape reporting back to him,” Harry continued. “Snape probably knew that Dumbledore would offer you protection. He probably also knew that I would do the same. Say he told Voldemort that. So Voldemort sent you to find me, knowing that if and when you did, I would try to give you another chance.” Harry arched his eyebrows. “Remember that conversation we had about second chances? Why did you throw such a fit about it?” “I don’t have a different answer; what I told you then was the truth,” Draco said. “I honestly had no idea if my parents were alive. The Dark Lord could have used that threat against me for ages, even if they were dead, and I wouldn’t have known. So I did still consider

failing that task a cowardly act. And I knew that if I accepted your offer, then I /would/ essentially be sentencing them to death.” Draco turned so that he was facing Harry completely, ignoring the wand that was aimed at his nose. “Potter, why do you think I made no effort to leave your relatives’ house?” “Um...” “The entire time I was there, I was debating whether or not I should hand you over,” Draco said, not waiting for an answer. “But you said the house was protected, so I knew snatching you away from there probably wasn’t going to work. Then we ended up at Weasley’s, and I thought that /possibly/ I could get you out of there.” Draco paused briefly, folding his hands under his chin and lowering his eyes. “And then I got that owl from my mother.” A sort of understanding dawned in Harry, but he held his wand steady. “So you knew she was alive.” Draco nodded. “That changed things. I mean – okay, obviously I hadn’t been trying too hard to capture you or whatever, but after that… Then I found out about the Horcruxes and got all wrapped up in that mess. And now my mother’s safe and, as far as I know, still in Spain, and I assume

my father’s still – in Azkaban.” He frowned. “So, I just sort of…gave up. On the task, on the Dark Lord, on…on everything to do with /him/.” Draco shrugged. “And now here we are.” “Here we are…” Harry sighed, lowering his wand completely. “Voldemort hasn’t tried to get in contact with you?” Draco shook his head. “Not once.” He pulled up the sleeve on his left arm, baring the Dark Mark to the firelight. “I’m sure this won’t make you happy to know, but… Well, he can get to me through this.” Harry’s eyes shot open. “Sort of,” Draco amended quickly. “It links all of his – his Death Eaters to him; that’s how he calls meetings. The mark connects us all. When you touch it, it – it calls him. He just has to use Legilimency to find where you are, after that.” Draco’s eyes darted up to Harry’s scar. “He’s been in your mind before, right? That dream you mentioned…” “How did you–” “Lucky guess,” Draco said, shrugging. “But that’s what I mean. It’s that same kind of connection. Of course, you were completely unprotected, which is where Occlumency helps, but I digress. What I’m trying to say is that theoretically…he could probably find out where I am.” Harry’s eyes widened. “You mean he can just Apparate to wherever you are?!”

Draco winced. “Well…sort of. If he got into my mind and found my location. But I’ve always got a wall up! Even if it’s not perfect, at least spare thoughts aren’t trickling through.” “Malfoy!” “Potter, it’s fine, I swear!” Draco said quickly. “That’s why I was so worried that first time you grabbed my arm, though, remember? I knew if he felt it, he’d probably know it was you – it’s /never/ burned like that before, it’s the only explanation I can think of. And if he /did/ realize it was you... I was afraid he was going to come to us.” “But at that point, that would have been okay for you,” Harry said slowly. Draco’s eyes shifted to the side. “I sort of panicked,” he said shortly. “I wasn’t exactly keen on seeing him again.” Harry nodded, chewing slightly on his bottom lip. “Malfoy, Voldemort has to know that I’m with you by now. I mean, your aunt knows, Snape knows….” “That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want you going to see Snape,” Draco said. “You’re the one who revealed yourself,” Harry said dryly. “He didn’t know you were with us.”

“Well, technically, we don’t know for sure if Bellatrix knows you – er–” “Rescued you?” Harry offered, grinning a bit. Draco scowled. “Yeah, that. Because you were under the Invisibility Cloak. And if Snape is actually on your side, then he has no reason to tell the Dark Lord, right?” “I guess not,” Harry murmured. “So…we might still be alright.” Draco eyed him carefully. “Does this mean that you believe me?” he asked. Harry shot him a quick look. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Voldemort can be smart occasionally. By giving you, and I mean specifically you, this task… He had to be right about something. You’re still here, after all. And until tonight,” Harry shifted his gaze away, “I was starting to trust you. So if you /are/ actually still planning on bringing me to him–” “Which I’m /not/.” “–you could still do it. And if I hadn’t seen that memory, you /definitely/ could still do it.” Harry met Draco’s eyes again. “Do you at least understand where I’m coming from?” Draco frowned. “I guess so,” he muttered. “Does anyone else know about your…task?”

“There was no one else there when he gave it to me,” Draco said. “But that doesn’t mean he didn’t inform people after… Snape probably knows. It seemed like he did.” He scowled. “Snape always knows everything.” “That’s probably why he allowed you access to Grimmauld Place,” Harry said thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s still trying to protect you. Voldemort couldn’t get in there even if he wanted to.” “That’s stupid, Potter. He can’t possibly know that I won’t turn around and do exactly what the Dark Lord wants me to!” Harry looked at him sharply. “You just said you wouldn’t.” “And I won’t!” Draco cried. “But Snape doesn’t know that – unless he /wants/ me to turn you in because he actually IS on the Dark Lord’s side.” He paused. “…I’m giving myself a headache. Look, I’m /not/ going to go through with this. What can I do to make you believe me?” Harry glanced down at Draco’s arm still out in the open. “I don’t know, Malfoy.” *** The following morning was filled mostly with an uncomfortable silence, broken only by the occasional two-sentence conversation. They were looking for the Horcrux again, which was, as usual, turning

out to be a complete waste of time. “This is ridiculous,” Harry said around lunchtime, plopping down onto a moss-covered log and stretching his legs out in front of him. “Give it up, Potter,” Draco said, sitting down beside him. “We should practice Occlumency some more.” Harry slanted a look at him out of the corner of his eye. “I think I’ve got the hang of it,” he said. “It’s /you/ who needs the practice.” Draco rolled his eyes. “Well, we should still practice then,” he said. “Besides, neither of us is anywhere near Snape’s level. And the Dark Lord would probably still be able to get past our barriers without breaking a sweat, as well.” “I don’t think I want you in my head anymore,” Harry muttered. “I don’t want you in mine either,” Draco was quick to say. “But then you’ve already seen half of what I didn’t want you to, so it doesn’t really matter anymore.” He glanced at Harry. “What’s in your head that you don’t want to show me? I know about the Horcruxes…” /The prophecy/, Harry immediately thought. /My mum and dad dying. Cedric. Sirius, again. Dumbledore disappearing over the ledge…/

Harry shrugged. “Just some stuff.” Draco sighed. “Potter,” he said, dragging a hand through his hair. “We need to practice some more.” “We need to find the Horcrux.” “Oh, for Merlin’s sake!” Draco suddenly exploded, standing up off the log. “There is no bloody Horcrux out here! Haven’t you figured that out yet?” Harry frowned. “Look, I know it seems worthless, but we can’t chance it like that!” “No, Potter, you don’t get it,” Draco said testily. “I don’t think there’s a Horcrux out here. Granger doesn’t think there’s a Horcrux out here. Hell, even /Weasley/ doesn’t think there’s a fucking Horcrux out here!” “What?” Harry asked, brow furrowing. “What’re you talking about? How would you–” “Because they told me,” Draco snapped, crossing his arms across his chest. At Harry’s baffled look, he smirked. “Yeah, that’s right, they told /me/. Surprised, Potter?” “Wait, then what – why are we – what do you mean they don’t think

there’s a Horcrux out here?” Harry asked, looking completely confused, and not a little angry. “If Hermione thinks this is all a complete load of crap, she could have told me! If this is really just a waste of time, why aren’t we back at Grimmauld Place doing more research?” Harry stood, glaring at Draco. “What’s going on?” “Oh, so because /Hermione/ doesn’t think there’s a Horcrux out here, you suddenly believe it’s the truth?” Draco asked. “Figures.” “Malfoy,” Harry snapped. “Tell me what’s going on.” Draco sighed. “Granger thinks, and I agree with her, which just tells you what complete bollocks I think this whole set-up is, that Snape had an ulterior motive for sending us out here. We’re not really sure what it is, though. Weasley said it was obviously for me to teach you Occlumency, but Snape couldn’t have known going into that meeting that I was there.” Harry’s eyes narrowed. “So…they haven’t been looking for the Horcrux, then,” he said, not bothering to make it a question. “What, with these spells?” Draco snorted. “You must have noticed they’re crap. I think Granger made them all up.” “And you knew this.” “Obviously.”

“/Damn it/,” Harry hissed, hands closing into fists. “Fuck! This entire trip was absolutely worthless. You could have /told/ me, you know!” “But then I wouldn’t have been able to watch you cast madeup spell after made-up spell after made-up spell,” Draco said, smirking. “You get such a stupid, confused look on your face when nothing happens. Honestly, Potter, most grade school kids can figure out they’re being tricked when you don’t even get sparks after the eighteenth try.” “Shut the hell up, Malfoy,” Harry groused. “What’s the ulterior motive, then? Have they figured that out? What are they doing over there, anyway?” “Probably having an extended holiday,” Draco said, grimacing. “And we’re not really sure. Granger and Weasley have supposedly been writing back and forth with the twin Weasley dolts to see if anything suspicious is happening. In the meantime, I was supposed to teach you Occlumency.” Draco grinned, spreading his hands a little. “Mission accomplished.” Harry sank back down onto the log again. “I can’t believe you all planned this without me…” “Well, you were so sure there was a Horcrux out here.” Draco shrugged.

“Didn’t want to ruin your happy little delusional world.” Harry glowered at nothing in particular. “Personally,” Draco said, sitting down again, “I think Snape wanted you out of the way for something. Or maybe there was an attack planned against you, and he was just trying to keep you safe. If you want to believe he has a good side, that is. Snape’s a tricky bastard.” “You’re one to talk,” Harry muttered. He sighed. “Alright. Fine, then. Occlumency it is. We’ll give it a couple more days, then we might as well head back home.” “This is a pretty decent spot,” Draco said looking around. “You want to set up camp here?” “Might as well,” Harry replied. “I doubt we’ll be moving again.” Draco peered at him. “You’re taking this rather well.” Harry shrugged. “I’d rather believe there’s no Horcrux out here at all, than think that we just couldn’t find it.” “Good point.” “Alright,” Harry said, standing and brushing off his trousers. “Let’s tackle the tent.” ***

/Ginny was above him, pressing soft kisses against his neck… Her hands were moving down, lifting and sliding beneath his shirt, rubbing in small circles along his stomach… He was straining against the confines of his jeans, arching up and desperate for release…/ “Fuck, alright, alright! Get out already!” Harry yelped, pushing Draco from his mind. “Geez, why do you insist on digging up every single time I was with Ginny?” “It’s not like there was that many,” Draco said, panting slightly. “You might have noticed I’ve been recycling through them, now.” “Still,” Harry said. “It’s embarrassing.” “Then you’ll just have to get me out quicker!” Draco said, smirking. “Oh yeah?” Harry asked, lifting an eyebrow. “Get you out quicker, eh? Let’s see how well you listen to your own advice. /Legilimens!/” /Pansy was clinging to him again, even though he’d been trying to avoid her all day… He had work he needed to do in the Room of Requirement, why was she still bothering him?… She had him pushed into an alcove in the corridor, the shadows their only cover from their peers… Her mouth was on his, hard, insistent, and yet soft at the same time…/ “Blah blah blah,” Draco said, closing off his mind and giving

a fake yawn. “Easy.” Harry frowned, shifting uncomfortably. His problem was back again, unsurprisingly, but he’d gotten good at ignoring it. “I’m not trying very hard,” he said. “These aren’t exactly memories I really want to see.” “We agreed not to go digging for the serious stuff,” Draco reminded him. “But this is so redundant,” Harry muttered, absently plucking up strands of grass. He almost wished he /hadn’t/ stumbled upon that memory of Draco’s. They were both doing an admirable job of pretending things were the same, but it was blatantly obvious that there was an almost tangible tension in the air now. It wasn’t like Harry was afraid Draco was actually going to turn around and whisk him away to Voldemort. No, in fact, he was pretty certain that was never going to happen. What Harry was a bit freaked about was the Dark Mark. He could understand how it was unlikely that Voldemort was going to pop up around their campfire anytime soon, but he couldn’t help but worry. What if Voldemort was somehow watching them through Draco’s Dark Mark or Harry’s scar? Was that possible? What if he knew all about the

Horcruxes? It was difficult keeping all these memories locked away when the topic was constantly on his mind. Though, now that he thought about it, even though Draco wasn’t going for the darker memories, Harry was having a hell of a time keeping them carefully protected while at the same time trying to keep Draco away from the memories involving Ginny. So it was actually good practice. “Potter?” Harry blinked, looking at Draco. “What?” “Want to do it again?” Harry sighed. “Do we have a choice?’ Draco smirked. “Of course not,” he said, and then he was inside, probing Harry mind and trying to worm his way further. /Ginny’s mouth was around him, sucking lightly, and all he could think beyond a nonsensical string of inner mind babbling was that it was very wet and very hot… She moved up and down, her hands running–/ “Shit!” Harry cursed, throwing Draco from his mind with as much force as he could. He was panting now and he could feel the sweat trickling down the back of his neck, partly due to the afternoon heat but mostly from the exertion of keeping Draco out of his head.

Draco chuckled, bringing one knee up to his chest to rest his arms on, and letting his other leg curl underneath him. “I like that one,” he said, leering. “Your first time. You lasted all of ten seconds.” Harry’s face burned. “Shut up,” he said, shaking his head lightly to clear it. He was beginning to feel muddleheaded, like there was a permanent haze surrounding him. “Shall we do your first time?” Draco’s eyes widened. “No–” he started to say, but Harry was two steps ahead of him. “/Legilimens!/” /He was pushing Pansy onto the bed and crawling up to meet her, his heart pounding the entire way… This was it, he was finally going to do it… Oh God, it was tight. She was surrounding him completely, and it was almost too overwhelming for him to do anything but his hips were urging him to move forward. So he did. Again. And again. And then there was pleasure so intense that–/ “Damn it, Potter!” Draco hissed, his cheeks pink. Harry chuckled, though it sounded a little forced. His trousers were feeling even tighter all of a sudden. “You were saying something about only lasting ten seconds?”

“Wait till you do it, you won’t be any better,” Draco snapped, staring at anything that wasn’t Harry. His eyes looked a little bit dazed. Harry wondered if he looked the same way. “And may I remind you that you have not, in fact, done it. And I have. I’m just saying.” “I’m sure.” “Anyway.” Draco frowned. “Best keep at it, I guess. /Legilimens!/” They went back and forth as the afternoon continued, each trying to dredge up a memory more embarrassing than the last. Harry found himself reliving afternoons spent in the Room of Requirement, walks around the lake with pit stops in the trees, dark alcoves that, weirdly enough, were the same ones Draco had been backed into. He had a brief flash of an image that involved the alcove, Draco being backed into it, and Harry /pushing/ someone into it before he quickly erased the entire thing from his mind. There were kisses with tongues and tongues without kisses. There were petting hands and clever fingers, lush curves and silky hair. Ginny, though fairly tall for her age, was small and soft beneath his hands, and it made Harry ache with want that she wasn’t actually there for him to hold. He wanted to see her pretty face, framed by golden

red curls, but instead all he got was straight, blond hair that fell loose across a thin face, a too-pointed nose, and a sharp, scowling mouth. He blinked, focusing on what was in front of him, and all he saw was grey. “…What color are Pansy’s eyes?” Harry asked faintly, tilting his head very slightly to the side. “Hell if I know,” Draco replied in the same tone, tilting his head the opposite direction. “It’s just…” Harry swallowed thickly, and it didn’t occur to him to wonder just when Draco had moved in so close to him. “Ginny’s are brown. Very brown. And yours…” Harry moved in closer. “They definitely aren’t.” “Astute observation, Potter,” Draco whispered, and Harry shivered, feeling the other boy’s breath ghost across his lips. “I know what color Pansy’s /aren’t/, as well.” “Malfoy,” Harry said so quietly that it was more a movement of his lips than anything else. Draco’s tongue darted out, wetting his bottom lip. Harry’s eyes zoned in on it, following its movement. There was a memory at the forefront of his mind, a memory of Ginny

standing against him, nudging his thighs open and fitting herself neatly between. She kissed him, and the memory bent and shifted and suddenly it was Seamus kissing Justin. Harry moaned. Without waiting for further invitation, Draco moved swiftly forward and closed the distance between them. Harry would later blame it on all the memories he’d been suffering through that led to this, this dizzy, crazy moment of quick pleasure and infinite embarrassment. Draco’s mouth opened easily beneath his when he buried his hands into the other boy’s hair. It wasn’t nearly as full or easy to grip as Ginny’s, but it was soft and silky to the touch and Harry delved into it, bringing Draco as close as he could get him, one hand slipping to wrap around his shoulders. Draco wasted no time in clambering over Harry’s lap, one leg thrown on either side of his hips. On the first downward thrust, Harry gasped, squeezing the arm he had around Draco’s shoulders. On the second thrust, Harry met him halfway, grinding up against him and bringing his hand even lower around Draco’s back to hold him in place. On the third thrust, Harry realized that something was very,

very wrong, because as real as some of the memories seemed (he’d lived them, after all), he knew he had most certainly never snogged another boy on the grassy floor of the Ardennes Forest, and even if such a thing had indeed happened, Harry was certain the other boy would /definitely/ not have been one Draco Malfoy. Harry froze. For one horrible second, his entire body went completely tense and he was unable to move through the shock of what was happening. Then he was springing into action, his hands coming around to shove at Draco’s chest with a push that sent the other boy sprawling on the ground. Harry tried to stand and ultimately failed, falling back against the tree behind him, his knees feeling weak and shaking. Draco stared up at him, his own eyes wide and his cheeks furiously pink. Harry’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he finally wiped the back of his hand across it. He dropped Draco’s gaze for only a second before meeting it again. And then he turned on his heel and ran. Chapter 15

Harry didn’t stop running until his legs had turned to jelly beneath him and his lungs burned with the continued effort of sucking down gulps of air. He felt strangely numb, even as he finally stumbled forward and collapsed against the thick trunk of a tree that was at least three times the width of his own body. He didn’t bother straightening himself out, instead hunching over and balling up his fists against the rough bark. He didn’t want to think about it. About what had happened, and what it might mean. What /did/ it mean? Why had he kissed him? Or had Draco kissed Harry? Who’d moved first? Did it even matter? It was just because of the Occlumency practice, he told himself. It was all the memories it kept bringing up. That’s where the fault lay. Just like when he’d had to excuse himself to deal with a certain problem that one day, just like he’d been continuing to deal with that problem almost every night. The blame obviously belonged somewhere else, because it wasn’t /his/ fault his body had been betraying him recently. “Potter!” a familiar voice gasped out, and it was only shock that had Harry spinning around, eyes wide. Otherwise, if he’d had the strength to do it, he would have taken off in the opposite direction again. “Bloody hell, you’re quick,” Draco panted, bent over at the waist and hands

grasping at his knees. Harry watched his back heave up and down as the boy kept drawing in breaths. “I’ve had a lot of practice,” Harry heard himself say. Quidditch didn’t lend much to the physical side of things, but Harry had spent his entire childhood running away from one thing or another. He’d never really lost that speed. “What do you want?” Harry asked after a moment of letting Draco catch his breath. He shoved his hands into his pockets for lack of anywhere else to put them, and tried not to look as awkward as he felt. “Just…” Draco was still hunched over, and he waved his hand about aimlessly. He wasn’t breathing hard anymore, though, and Harry realized maybe he wasn’t the only one who didn’t think he was capable of looking his companion in the eyes at the moment. “Let’s just forget about it,” Harry said after a moment, pushing away from the tree. He was headed in the direction of their camp, but Draco’s hand shot out at him as he passed, grabbing onto his elbow. “Malfoy?” Draco straightened up, but continued looking straight ahead, rather than at Harry. “Potter…” “Look, it’s no big deal, alright?” Harry said somewhat nervously as he tried to pull his arm away. “Accidents happen and we all

make mistakes, so–” “No,” Draco said quickly, with a brief shake of his head. He turned his head further away. “It wasn’t…an accident.” Harry’s stomach dropped and an odd tingling feeling rushed down his spine. “Yes it was,” he said shakily, still trying to tug away. “Or are you saying I kissed you on purpose?” He tried to seem indignant at the thought, but mostly he just wanted to get as far away from Draco as possible. “I kissed /you/,” Draco said, finally turning to face Harry. “And it wasn’t an accident.” Harry swallowed. “Malfoy…” No way. There was no way he could be serious. Harry’s eyes narrowed slightly as he peered at him, and after a few more seconds of silence, Draco’s mouth twitched. “You little shit!” Harry shouted, yanking his arm out of Draco’s grasp. Draco burst out laughing. “I couldn’t help it!” he exclaimed, holding up his arms to shield any blows Harry might deal. “You should have seen the look on your face!” “It’s not funny!” Harry groused. He turned and began stomping back towards camp. “Oh, but it is,” Draco corrected, rushing to keep up with him.

“Merlin, Potter, you’re /way/ too easy.” “Whatever. Pack up your stuff when we get back; we’re leaving.” “We’re – wait, what?” Draco grabbed at Harry’s elbow again. “What do you mean, /we’re leaving/?” “What do you think I mean? There’s no reason for us to be out here anymore–” “Occlumency,” Draco interrupted. “You still haven’t–” “I’ve had quite enough Occlumency practice for now, thank you very much,” Harry said in a clipped tone. “Oh, come on. You’re going to let one little kiss scare you off?” “/One little/ – Malfoy, it was hardly a /little/ kiss!” Harry exclaimed. He was thankful it was getting dark out, because he was pretty sure his face had just turned scarlet. “I thought you were Pansy,” Draco said sheepishly, by way of explanation. “And I thought you were Ginny.” Except that was a lie, because Harry distinctly remembered /wishing/ Ginny was there, but being able to make the connection in his head that he was stuck with Draco instead. He sped up his pace as they walked, eager to get as far away from the forest as

possible. It was doing serious damage to his brain or something. “Potter, we’re not leaving tonight,” Draco said from a little ways behind him. “It’s getting late and it’s probably not a good idea to surprise Weasley and Granger like that. God knows what they could be doing right now.” Harry cringed, but had to concede the point. “Tomorrow then,” he said. “First thing in the morning. I’ll send them a Patronus tonight.” “Hey.” There was a hand at Harry’s elbow again, and before he really thought about what he was doing, Harry turned around and grabbed the other boy’s wrist so he would /stop touching him already/. That was a mistake. Draco gasped and stumbled back, holding his arm protectively against his chest. Harry did likewise, except he had the heel of his hand pressed against his forehead, trying to quell the sudden burning pain that sliced through his scar. “Fuck,” he muttered, eyes wide as he spun around on the spot. Draco was eyeing their surroundings nervously as well, as if he expected Voldemort to suddenly pop out from behind a bush somewhere. “Brilliant,

Potter,” he snapped, lowering his arms slightly. “Let’s just send the Dark Lord an invitation and a map while we’re at it.” “Shut it,” Harry hissed, hand falling to hover anxiously over the wand sticking out of his back pocket. Draco fell silent and they both stood absolutely still, listening to the wind rustle through the trees. “Walls up?” Harry nodded, digging into his Occlumency training. “Walls up.” “…I think we’re alright,” Draco said after a minute or so, rubbing absently at his wrist. “I doubt the Dark Lord would have noticed that.” Harry swallowed nervously. “He better not have.” It didn’t look like anyone was coming, though, so he allowed himself to breathe easier. “Come on.” Stars were starting to appear in the night sky by the time they made it back to camp. They both decided to forgo dinner, and instead set about packing things up. There was a definite heaviness in the air now, an awkward silence that they hadn’t broken since they’d been trekking through the woods. Harry puttered around, taking his time in an attempt to stall the inevitable. He made a fire and sat staring at it for a long while, because even though he could feel sleep tugging at

him, he had absolutely no desire to go to bed anytime soon. The tent, the tent he and Draco /shared/, loomed behind him like it was the guillotine, and going to bed in it was a one-way trip to DEATH. Harry shuddered. Maybe he would just stay awake the whole night… “Potter?” Draco said sometime later, his voice slicing through the silence so suddenly that Harry nearly jumped out of his skin. “What?” he snapped, though he hadn’t meant to, but he swallowed down the apology that tried to slip out of him. Draco blinked. “Um. I’m going to bed. You coming?” No. “…I’ll be there in a bit.” Draco nodded, his brow slightly furrowed, and then disappeared behind the canvas flap. Harry scooted closer to the fire, rubbing his hands and then holding them out in front of him. Maybe he should have grabbed his blanket before Draco went to sleep. The cold was starting to settle in now, and Harry wasn’t looking forward to sitting up in it all night with nothing but his t-shirt on. Draco poked his head back outside again, looking irritated. “What the

hell are you doing, Potter? If you’re trying to stay outside all night because you’re afraid I’m going to jump you in your sleep, you’re more screwed up in the head than I thought you were.” “Er.” Harry floundered. Damn. “I wasn’t,” he said lamely. “I was…enjoying the fire.” Draco gave him a flat look, and Harry winced. Then he sighed. “Alright, alright, I’m coming.” It was, quite possibly, the most uncomfortable hour-and-ahalf of Harry’s life. He was curled up in a ball on his side of the tent, knees pulled up almost to his chest and his back hunched. Unfortunately his problem was back again and, as always, it refused to leave. His cock was heavy between his legs, and every time he shifted he could feel the fabric of his pants rubbing over it. His face was flushed, his palms were sweaty, his hair was sticking to his forehead, his breaths were coming in deeper and deeper pants... This was ridiculous, he thought angrily as he glared at the wall of the tent. He was half tempted to shove his hand down into his pants to rectify the problem, but he knew without needing to look that Draco was still awake as well. And, from the sound of it, suffering through his own problems. Every so often there’d be a sharp intake of breath from his side, and Harry could hear him shifting uncomfortably under his

blankets. It was part of the reason Harry himself was so worked up. Draco didn’t snore, but usually Harry could hear him breathing deeply while he was sleeping. The silence that surrounded them now was the type that so quiet, it felt like it was roaring in his ears. Harry shifted again, trying to stretch his legs out, and was almost unable to squelch the groan that tried to leave his throat. Maybe he should just excuse himself and say he had to go to the bathroom. Except it was freezing outside, and Harry didn’t feel like having to pull on another sweatshirt and an extra pair of socks. The inside of their tent was usually comfortably warm, despite the fact that it felt almost stifling now. “…You awake?” The words came so softly that Harry debated on not answering and pretending he was still asleep. “Potter?” Harry could hear Draco shifting and rolling over. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to even out his breathing. “I know you’re not asleep, you ponce,” Draco said, and he sounded almost

amused. Harry gave in and flopped onto his back, peering through the darkness up at Draco. The other boy was propped on his elbow, staring back down at him. “What?” Harry asked testily, trying to look like he wasn’t suffering through the worst hard-on he’d ever had. Draco pursed his lips. “I’m still worked up from this afternoon,” he admitted, and it took all of Harry’s willpower not to fling another Sectumsempra at him right there. It wasn’t like Harry hadn’t known it already, but there was no need to thrust it out into the open like that! “So?” Harry said after a moment, bringing his knees up and keeping his feet flat on the ground so that his blanket wasn’t lying flat across his groin. Because, well, because it /wasn’t/ lying flat across his groin, and that was the problem. Draco frowned. “It was just a kiss.” Harry twitched. “What’s your point?” he grumbled. “It didn’t mean anything.” Harry rolled his eyes. “Obviously.” Draco hesitated. “Do you think we can…” He trailed off, arching his eyebrows and looking pointedly down towards Harry’s

crotch. It took less than two seconds for him to catch on. “/No!/” he exclaimed, trying to sit up and scoot as far away as possible. /Trying/, because Draco had apparently seen that coming and had a hand on Harry’s chest, holding the other boy in place with more strength than Harry’d thought he had. “Potter, come on!” “Forget it, Malfoy!” “Potter–” “No!” Harry struggled beneath Draco, who now had his entire forearm leaning against Harry to hold him down. “Would you just–” “That’s sick and disgusting and–” “–calm down already–” “–PERVERTED, and I refuse to–” “POTTER!” Harry ceased his struggling, staring wide-eyed up at Draco as he panted. He didn’t have his glasses on, but Draco’s face was close enough that he could see him clearly, and the fact that he was that close had Harry trying to sink as far as he could into his pillow.

“It’d be mutually beneficial,” Draco said after Harry had managed to stay quiet for an entire minute. “Are you even listening to yourself?” Harry said in exasperation. “Not really; I’m afraid I’d have to AK myself if I were.” Harry’s eyes narrowed. “This isn’t another order from Voldemort, is it?” Draco blinked. “What?” “You weren’t ordered to seduce me or something, were you? This isn’t some great ploy to eventually make me fall in love with you so you can drag me back to Voldemort’s lair? “/Lair?/” Draco arched an eyebrow. “Good God, Potter, what sort of trashy romance novels have /you/ been reading?” “I haven’t!” Harry said defensively, because the time he’d accidentally glanced at one of Aunt Petunia’s summer reading books /didn’t count/. “Bloody hell, Malfoy, get off me already!” Draco only made his body heavier. “No.” “Malfoy!” “Potter, come on, we could make it quick!” “/No!/ Is your hand broken or something? Go outside and take care of it

yourself!” “I’m not leaving the tent, it’s freezing out there!” Draco growled. “Not my problem!” “Fine,” Draco snapped, rolling off Harry and onto his back in one fluid motion. “I’ll just do it in here then.” He spat into his palm, scowled at Harry, and then shoved his hand down his pants. Harry’s eyes went wide. “/Malfoy/!” Draco didn’t reply. He just squeezed his own eyes shut, tilting his head back and spreading his knees to give himself more room. Harry gaped for a moment, watching as Draco’s teeth clenched and his hand jerked up and down beneath his trousers. “Enjoying the show?” Draco asked after a minute, cracking one eye open to peer at Harry. Harry promptly turned onto this side and pulled his blanket over his head. That didn’t help matters, because now on top of the already stifling tent, he’d made himself even hotter beneath the covers. And Draco was making /those sounds/, the ones that Harry had heard over and over in Draco’s memories, so no matter how hard he tried to keep his mind blank, he could still see with picture-perfect clarity the way Draco should look at that exact moment. His own cock throbbed

between his legs, and Harry gave up trying to ignore it and instead pressed a hand against it in a half-arsed attempt to make it /go away/. On the other side of the tent, Draco was still struggling with himself. Harry decided to risk it and lowered the blanket a bit, peeking at him over his shoulder. “Having problems?” he asked snidely, unable to help himself. Draco practically growled at him. “I – I can’t do it with someone else near me,” he said, frustration evident in his voice. Harry snorted. “No wonder you were always so bitchy at Hogwarts,” he said, rolling onto his back again. “That’s different!” Draco snapped, giving up altogether and glaring at his hand. “I had my own bed there, at least.” “Right,” Harry said doubtfully. “Damn it!” He sat up, turning his glare to Harry. “Can’t you just pretend it’s your own hand or something?” “Nope.” Draco’s eyes narrowed, and then before Harry could figure out what was going on, Draco had his hands on his shoulders to hold him in place while he straddled his hips.

“Malfoy!” “Shut up,” Draco said, and then he was kissing him. Harry’s eyes widened and his entire body froze. There was a strange sort of heat building in his belly, though, and the longer he stayed frozen, the more it flowed to the rest of his body. His cheeks felt like they were burning, his arms felt useless even though they were resting freely at his sides. Draco pulled back, staring him straight in the eyes, and Harry shivered even though he couldn’t possibly have been any hotter at the moment. He could feel the sweat dripping down his forehead and into his eyes. “Okay?” Draco asked warily. Harry spluttered. “/Not/ okay!” he exclaimed, but Draco just rolled his eyes and kissed him again, and Harry found that he could finally move his arms enough to bring them up to Draco’s chest. They didn’t exactly do what he wanted them to, though, and instead of shoving the other boy away, they pulled him closer. His hands twisted into the material of Draco’s thin shirt and held on tight as his mouth opened almost desperately into the kiss. Then Draco was sliding one leg in between his and pressing

down, and Harry gasped as his hips jerked up against his will. He found himself wrapping one leg around the back of Draco’s knee to pull him closer, and he could feel Draco’s erection pressing against his own thigh. It was the hand coming to a rest gently against his pelvic bone that had him pulling back, though. “Wait, wait, wait,” Harry said, gasping as he tore his mouth away. “/Stop/.” “/Potter/,” Draco groaned, head falling forward to rest on Harry’s shoulder. “No,” Harry said. “I’m not saying /stop/ stop. Just.” He swallowed, trying to get his breathing under control. His hands clenched where they were still holding Draco’s shirt, and he could feel the other boy’s chest heaving against his. “Just,” Harry repeated, still drawing a blank at what he was trying to say. Having another body on top of his was distracting. He wasn’t used to this weight pinning him down. Usually Ginny was underneath him. Ginny… Harry swallowed thickly. “Look,” he said, pushing Draco away slightly. “No kissing.” Draco’s entire body seemed to relax at the words. “Is that

all?” he asked. “Merlin, Potter.” “I’m serious,” Harry said. “And this is a one-time thing.” “We’ll be back in our own rooms after this,” Draco pointed out, and Harry was surprised at the feeling that swept through him at the words. He’d forgotten that he and Draco didn’t share a room anymore back at Grimmauld Place. “No kissing,” Harry said again, pushing the weird thoughts out of his mind. “No kissing,” Draco agreed. His brow furrowed. “Why, if I may ask?” Harry paused, chewing lightly on his lower lip. “Because the rest of this I can pass off as a simple physical need,” he said eventually. “Kissing makes it personal.” Draco considered this, before nodding. “I’ll take what I can get,” he said, before bending down and latching his mouth onto Harry’s collar and sliding both of his hands beneath Harry’s shirt. Harry sucked his stomach in and clenched his teeth, but Draco’s tongue was doing all sorts of wonderful things to his neck, and even though he wasn’t sure if that counted as Not Kissing, it felt too good for him to put a stop to it. “Bet you’re glad,” Draco panted against his skin, “that

Snape didn’t teach you the same way I did.” Harry grimaced. “Are you /trying/ to kill the mood?” “Is there a mood?” Draco asked, shifting so that both of his legs fell into the V of Harry’s thighs. “Thought we were just rutting like animals.” He pushed Harry’s shirt further up his chest, exposing his stomach. “Shut up,” Harry growled, and he pushed up with all of his strength, reversing their positions so that Draco was the one on his back. Draco fought back, though, apparently intent on being on top, and that was something Harry had really never experienced before: this /resistance/. They grappled for a bit, legs twisting around one another and pulling their groins together, before finally they ended up on their sides, sweating and panting, shirts half off. Draco wasted no time in shoving his hand down between them. He found the waistband of Harry’s pants easily enough, and soon his fingers were curling around Harry’s cock and pulling it free from its confines. Harry moved to do the same, hesitating only for a moment when he belatedly remembered that Draco was a /boy/. And that he had no idea what the /hell/ he was doing.

But it couldn’t be that complicated. Same thing he normally did, right? Just…a little backwards. Draco was making frustrated little sounds against his neck and thrusting his hips forward, and Harry decided to just go for it. It felt almost the same, the heavy weight of Draco’s cock against the palm of his hand. He could already feel wetness at the tip, and if Draco was as pent-up as he was, then he knew this wasn’t going to take long. It felt the same, but it /wasn’t/. Harry could sense Draco near him. He could feel the heat wafting off of Draco’s body, could feel Draco’s hair sticking to /his/ cheeks, could feel the different twists and pulls that Draco’s hand made. He could smell the heady scent of sex in the air and he could hear the needy whimpers Draco continued to make. It was completely overwhelming and exhilarating at the same time. It was rough, it was quick, it was so completely /boyish/ that it made Harry’s head spin and his cock throb and as soon as he felt Draco shudder against him, felt that telltale wetness seeping through his fingers, he let himself go and came with a harsh grunt, which somehow got swallowed up by Draco’s mouth. Harry didn’t fight it. He was too caught up in the moment to push Draco

away, though that moment was fading fast as the squelching dampness in his pants made itself known. Draco pulled back, but stayed close enough that Harry could feel every one of his panting breaths across his lips. “I said no kissing,” Harry muttered. Draco did a weird half-snort, half-laugh sort of thing. “So sorry.” The thought that they should probably clean themselves up drifted through Harry’s mind, but he was too close to sleep for it to make any sense, and by the time Draco had curled one hand tentatively behind his lower back, Harry was already gone. *** Harry was startled out of his sleep the following morning with a solid kick to his knee. He winced, blinking his eyes open and peering blearily around the tent. Draco was still asleep, one of his hands twisted around Harry’s shirt and one of his legs thrown over Harry’s thigh. He guessed that was the leg that had hit him. Their blankets were a mess surrounding them, all mismatched and crumpled. It looked almost as if a small tornado had swept through their tent. But it wasn’t a tornado, as Harry was quickly remembering, and it took

all of his willpower to get himself untangled from Draco and out of the tent before he finally collapsed on the ground and tried not to heave all of his stomach’s contents into the bushes. He was breathing harshly and clutching at his shirt, which smelled so much like /Draco/ and /spunk/ that he was sorely tempted to rip it off right there and burn it. What the /hell/ had he been thinking? “Oi, Potter,” Draco said as he stumbled out of the tent. He yawned, stretching his arms above his head, and Harry determinedly looked away from the strip of pale stomach that showed with the movement. “You sick?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. “Something like that,” Harry muttered, groaning a little as he noticed the dried come on his own stomach. The worst part was that he wasn’t actually sure if it was his or not. “Oh,” Draco said suddenly, sounding a lot more awake with just that one syllable. Harry glanced at him over his shoulder. Draco’s eyes were wide and he was staring at Harry with a sort of abrupt comprehension and, if Harry wasn’t mistaken, not a little disgust. “Well, shit.” Harry scowled. “Yes; /well, shit/,” he repeated, running a hand through his hair. “Job well done, Malfoy, I see your memory’s in top shape.”

Draco frowned. “Did we really…” he started to say, but then stopped when Harry leveled a glare on him. “Don’t ask stupid questions,” Harry snapped. “What the hell’s /your/ problem?” Draco asked, his eyes narrowing. Harry laughed, though there was no humor in it. “God, I wonder!” “Look, it’s not my fault–” “It bloody well /is/ your fault!” Harry yelled, pushing himself to his feet. “I was trying to get you to stop!” “You caved eventually; I wouldn’t have /forced/ you into it!” “You just as good as,” Harry ground out. “Put me under a /spell/ or something, I bet.” “Oh, that’s a complete load of bollocks! Don’t even try to play that card!” “I wouldn’t put it past you!” “You’d have to be a pretty crap wizard not to notice! What, forgot how to break the Imperius curse?” Draco said snidely. “Ugh, just /shut up/!” Harry finally said. “I don’t want to hear it. I’m fucking tired of being in this stupid place. Obviously it’s starting to mess with my head.”

“And mine!” Draco added, crossing his arms and glaring at nothing in particular. Harry frowned, jerking his own glare around to the tent. Unfortunately it was the only thing they hadn’t packed, though Harry wasn’t exactly keen on going anywhere near it anytime soon. “Not a word to anyone about it, understand?” Harry said as he swallowed his disgust and quickly crawled back in to retrieve his wand from the mess of blankets. “Why on Earth would I want to spread /that/ around?” Draco spat, accepting his own wand when Harry handed it to him. “I just want to forget this bloody trip ever happened,” Harry said, practically snarling as he swiped his wand viciously through the air. The tent collapsed and neatly began folding itself up. “Absolutely nothing good came from it, /and if you say Occlumency one more time I promise I won’t hesitate in cursing you again!/” he added quickly when Draco opened his mouth. Draco sneered at him. “I was just going to say that it might be a good idea if we changed clothes before we left,” he said. “Weasley’s dumb, but he’s not a complete idiot. And I know Granger will cotton on to

something within ten seconds if she sees us like this.” Harry glanced down at his rumpled shirt and stained pants before silently agreeing. He wasn’t risking /anyone/ finding out about this. *** Harry and Draco were still bickering when they popped into existence at their designated meeting place. Ron and Hermione could only share exasperated looks and sighs when they saw them. “–the fucking /hell/, Potter!” Draco was in the middle of shouting. “Were you trying to leave me or something?” “Of course not,” Harry said innocently, though the roll of his eyes said something else entirely. “I merely forgot you existed for a second.” He paused, shaking Draco off his arm, and sighed. “It was a nice second.” “Ha ha, very funny,” Draco snapped, brushing himself off. “You’re an absolute riot, Potter. Really. I’m dying of laughter. Here’s me keeling over.” “If only you spoke the truth,” Harry spat back at him. “I think they’re worse than before they left,” Ron said to Hermione in a mock whisper. She sighed, adjusting her bag over her shoulders.

“Well, what did we expect, leaving them alone for so long? That they’d be all buddy-buddy?” Harry and Draco froze, glancing over at their two new companions. “Hi!” Hermione said cheerfully, grinning widely. Ron waved a hand lazily in greeting. “I have nothing to say to either of you and this forest is pissing me off,” Harry groused. “Hand over the potion, Hermione, I want to get the fuck out of here.” “Harry!” Hermione scolded, her eyes wide. “What’s wrong with him?” Ron directed at Draco. Draco shrugged. “He found out that none of us believed the whole Horcrux bullshit cover story.” Harry scowled. “Oh,” Hermione said, at least having the decency to look a little sheepish. “Well… Aside from that small mishap, did you manage to get anything else accomplished?” “We had loads of Occlumency practice,” Draco said, smirking suddenly. “Didn’t we, Pott–” He was cut off when Harry punched him solidly in the shoulder.

“Yes,” he said tightly. “Loads of Occlumency. I’m practically a pro now.” “Well, I’d hardly say that, but–” Harry punched him again. Draco frowned, rubbing his shoulder, and instead turned to the other two. “And what about you? Heard anything from the twin Weasley dolts?” Ron’s grin dropped suddenly and Hermione looked vaguely nervous. “Actually, I’m glad you sent that Patronus when you did,” she said, “because I was going to send you one today if we hadn’t heard anything from them.” Harry looked at her, all traces of anger gone. “Hermione?” “We haven’t heard from them in three days,” Ron said. “We were exchanging owls every other day up until Wednesday.” “Do you think something happened?” Harry asked. Hermione shrugged helplessly. “We have no idea.” Harry cursed under his breath. “Then we need to get back. Fred and George aren’t the type to leave you hanging.” They quickly passed around the potion vial, Ron downing the last of it. “To the Burrow, you think?” he asked. Harry nodded quickly. “Malfoy?” he said, holding out his arm. Draco

hooked his own around it without a second thought, and there were four simultaneous /cracks/ as they disappeared from Belgium. *** Nothing seemed immediately out of the ordinary when they reappeared on the hilltop by Ron’s house. It was still quiet due to the early hours of the morning, and the sun was just beginning to creep higher into the sky. Actually… Harry shivered, glancing around nervously as an uncomfortable feeling settled in his stomach. It was almost /too/ quiet. But that didn’t make any sense. Quiet was quiet; there weren’t exactly /levels/ to measure it by. “Does it feel…/weird/ to you?” Draco whispered, and Harry belatedly realized that the other boy was still holding onto his arm, and his grip had tightened significantly. “Weird?” Harry repeated. “How do you mean?” “I don’t know…” “Do you smell that?” Ron asked suddenly, wrinkling his nose. “It…it smells almost like something’s…” His eyes widened and he spun around

widely, his face going deathly pale. Hermione gasped. “Ron!” she shouted, grabbing onto his sleeve with one hand and pointing with the other. “Look!” Harry and Draco turned around, and the uncomfortable feeling in Harry’s stomach hardened and turned to lead. In the distance, exactly where the Burrow should have been, two twin columns of thick, black smoke were swirling lazily in the air. Chapter 16 “R-Ron,” Harry distantly heard Hermione say, her voice shaking. “Ron, are you…” She laid a hand tentatively on his arm, and Harry was glad that at least she was able to move, because he was still standing frozen with shock, staring at the billowing smoke in the distance. It took some effort, but he was able to tear his eyes away when he saw Ron jerk forward, taking a single, unsteady step. “/Mum/,” he croaked, his face pasty and pale. “Ron,” Harry said quickly, shaking Draco off his arm and starting towards his friend. “Ron, listen–” But Ron was already stumbling forward, breaking free from Hermione’s

grasp as he took off down the hill. “RON!” Harry shouted, immediately sprinting after him. “Ron, /wait!/” He caught up easily enough, latching onto his shoulder and dragging him to a halt. “Let me go, Harry!” Ron cried, a desperate look in his eyes. “LET ME GO!” “No, listen to me, Ron – /listen!/” Harry said, his brain working furiously to come up with a reason that Ron’s family was okay. They /were/, they had to be. “Ginny’s at Hogwarts!” he finally blurted, saying the first thing that came to mind. It had the effect of calming both he and Ron down considerably, so that his friend was no longer struggling against him and he could suddenly think clearly. “Ginny’s at Hogwarts,” he repeated. “The twins live in Diagon Alley. Bill’s with Fleur’s family in France.” That’s right. That’s right, none of Ron’s siblings lived at home anymore. “Charlie’s still in Romania,” he finished, taking deep breaths. Ron was blinking rapidly. “But – my /parents/,” he said in a choked voice, and Harry went cold again. “I’m sure they’re alright,” Hermione said softly. Harry hadn’t even noticed her standing beside them. “They must have gotten out.”

“But…” “Ron,” Harry said steadily, ignoring his own pounding heart. “Let’s just go see.” They made their way slowly down the hill, and they were about halfway there when an owl suddenly swooped down from the sky and came to halt in front of them, hovering in midair. “That’s Fred and George’s owl,” Hermione said, reaching forward and untying the letter that was bound to its leg. Some of the tension left Ron’s shoulders as they rounded the final bend and came to a stop in front of what used to be Ron’s house. “Hey, Fred, look.” “Cor, that was quick! When did our owl learn to Apparate?” Harry’s head jerked to the side, and he honestly could not have found words to describe the relief he felt at that moment. “Fred! George!” “Present and accounted for!” one of the twins, Fred he thought, said cheerfully. “How’d you all get back so quickly?” the other twin asked. “We were already back,” Hermione replied, lifting her hand that was still holding the twins’ unread letter. “Your owl found us just

over there.” “Fred!” Ron gasped out, stumbling forward and collapsing against his brother’s chest. “What’s going on? Where’s mum and dad? Why is our house gone? What happened?!” “Whoa now, calm down, Ronniekins,” Fred said, taking the boy by his shoulders and shaking him lightly. “Take a breath, already,” George added. “Mum and dad are fine. Seems they were out of the country when it happened.” “Out of – out of the country?” Ron repeated shakily. “You’re sure? So they’re okay?” “Everyone’s fine,” Fred said. “Except maybe for the ghoul,” George added as an afterthought. “So what happened?” Harry asked. “Isn’t it obvious, Potter?” Draco spoke up, stepping forward, his eyes on the still burning remains of the Weasleys’ home. “This is the Dark Lord’s work.” “’Course you’d recognize it,” George said, his eyes narrowed. “Well, it’s a little obvious,” Draco returned, unruffled. He turned, locking eyes with Harry, and added, “This is probably why

Snape sent us to Belgium.” Hermione gasped. “Do you think so?” Draco shrugged. “It was just a thought. But it’s possible.” “Why are you guys here, anyway?” Harry directed towards Fred and George. “Shouldn’t there be someone from the Order here, too?” “/We’re/ in the Order, thank you very much,” Fred said, giving Harry a feigned injured look. “Nice of you to remember.” “But if it’s a higher-up you’re looking for,” George said, “you just missed Kingsley Shacklebolt. He’s been in charge of the investigation, but he had to run back to the office.” “He left us in charge,” Fred said, grinning. “At the moment we’re trying to figure out why mum and dad left for Romania without telling anyone,” George added. “Romania?” Ron repeated, arching his eyebrows. “Yeah. Seems they decided to visit Charlie out of the blue,” Fred said. “Even though they never have before.” “And they definitely can’t afford it.” George sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Can’t afford much of anything now. They’re going to have to find a new place to

live and everything.” “They can live at Grimmauld Place,” Harry said quickly. “You know I’d never turn them away.” “Yeah, but Harry, they can’t live there forever,” Fred said. “When did this happen?” Hermione asked. “Two days ago. S’why we were delayed in replying to you,” George replied. “Two days?” Harry repeated. “Then why is it still burning?” “Because of all the old magic around, Potter,” said a gruff voice. “That’s a fire fueled by Dark Magic, and as long as it has other remnants of magic to feed off, it’ll keep burning. Didn’t they teach you anything at that blasted school of yours?” Harry felt Draco tense up beside him, and he whirled around to find Mad-Eye Moody suddenly standing there. “Where’d you come from, Moody?” Fred asked. “Didn’t even hear you stomp over,” George added. “Clearly they made the right choice in leaving you behind,” Moody grumbled. His magical eye swiveled around to look at Draco, but otherwise he didn’t acknowledge him. Somewhere in the back of Harry’s mind he noted that none of the others seemed particularly

surprised that he was even there; he guessed someone had spread the news. Moody directed his attention back to Harry. “Potter, I need a word with you.” *** They Apparated to Hogsmeade, and from there Moody led them to the Hog’s Head. “In the back,” he said gruffly, when Harry paused and tried to catch Aberforth’s eye. “Go on, before you make a scene!” Harry pushed open the door that led to the room they’d met in last time, a sinking feeling occurring somewhere near his stomach as he guessed who was waiting inside. “/You!/” Ron spat angrily before Moody had even properly closed the door. “Ron, calm down,” Hermione said softly, instantly standing at Ron’s side. “Hello, Professor Snape.” “I’ll be keeping guard out front,” Moody said, backing through the door. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at that greeting,” Snape said, nodding briefly at Moody and folding his hands in front of him, making no move to rise from his chair. “Take a seat, before you all self combust with internal rage.”

Harry didn’t move. “Why did you send us to Belgium?” he asked in a level voice, his hands closing into fists and his eyes narrowing. “To find a Horcrux, I thought I made that clear,” Snape said dryly. “Don’t tell me you had no luck?” Draco snorted. “Of course we didn’t. There was no bloody Horcrux out there!” “You’re sure?” Snape said, arching one eyebrow. Draco’s brow furrowed. “/Yes/. I’m sure.” “So, you /didn’t/ find anything,” Snape said, and it wasn’t a question. “Professor Snape, we thought there might have been an ulterior reason for you sending us out there,” Hermione said quickly, moving forward and sliding into one of the four seats across the table from Snape. “Draco and Harry practiced Occlumency most of the time we were there!” Snape gave Harry a steady look. “Would you say you’ve improved, Potter?” Harry met Snape’s gaze evenly. “I think so.” “Walls, Potter, /walls/,” Draco hissed, grabbing Harry’s sleeve. “What?” Harry asked distractedly, giving Draco a confused look.

“/Walls/, you bloody ponce! What do you think he’s doing right now?” Draco exclaimed, his cheeks turning faintly pink. “Do /not/ let him in!” “One might offer you the same advice, Mr. Malfoy,” Snape said smoothly, glancing at Draco out of the corner of his eye. The color in Draco’s cheeks deepened. “I don’t fucking /care/ about Occlumency!” Ron exploded, slamming his hands down onto the table. “And I don’t care about the Horcruxes, either! Tell me what’s going on!” Snape blinked slowly. “Is something the matter?” he asked in a slightly bored tone. “Yes!” Ron snapped. “Why is my house gone? Why were we sent to Belgium? Why are my parents in /Romania/–” “Because I sent them there,” Snape interrupted. “Or rather, Moody did. He gave them a much needed holiday, if you will, and suggested a trip to see the dragons, under the pretense that they should report back to the Order with how the training is going.” “So…they were sent away on purpose?” Hermione asked. “Would you rather I had left them in their home when the Dark Lord attacked?”

“So it /was/ Voldemort!” Harry spat, slamming his hands down onto the table beside Ron. “Oh, for Salazar’s sake, enough with the theatrics,” Snape snapped. “Sit down, would you? Let’s try to have a civilized conversation like most adults would, if you think you can handle that, Potter. Nobody’s dead, so I see no reason for you to be throwing temper tantrums like /children/.” “BECAUSE MY HOUSE IS GONE!” Ron roared, hitting the table again. “Forgive me if I’m a little /upset/!” “Ron, /sit down/,” Hermione hissed, pulling at Ron’s sleeve until he collapsed in the chair beside her. “Harry, Draco, you too.” “Why are you calling me /Draco/ all of a sudden?” Draco asked, his nose wrinkling. “You don’t need to put on an act for /him/.” He tipped his head in Snape’s direction. Hermione flushed slightly. “Fine, then,” she said indignantly. “/Malfoy/.” Draco nodded, sitting down in his own chair, and Harry scowled for a bit more before he all but threw his body into the remaining seat. “Now then,” Snape said, with a slight roll of his eyes. “Yes, I knew that the Dark Lord would be targeting your home, Weasley.”

“Then why didn’t you do anything?!” Ron exclaimed, halfrising out of his seat again before Hermione pulled him back down with an exasperated look. “I sent you away, didn’t I?” Snape asked calmly. “And what good did that do?” Harry asked, his eyes narrowing. Snape gave him a level look. “You’re alive,” he said simply. Ron scowled. “That was my /home/! We should have stayed and fought for it! We could have defended–” “He sent /forty/ of his Death Eaters,” Snape interrupted, and Harry could see that he was beginning to lose his patience. “You wouldn’t have stood a chance.” “We’ve stood up to them before–” Harry started to say. “That was pure luck and forgive me if I did not want to rely on mere chance again,” Snape snapped. “You could have had the Order on guard!” Ron said. “That would have been more than slightly suspicious,” Snape said. “And us not being there wasn’t?” Harry retorted. “Your absence can be explained in a thousand different ways, and it /has/ been. The entire Order of the Phoenix being on guard

for an attack that they /should not have known about/ puts not only my /life/ at risk, but it also risks the Order’s main source of enemy information.” Snape breathed harshly through his nose, his brow pinching downward in a look of irritation. “Is that /quite/ a sufficient explanation for you, Mr. Potter? Or would you like me to add that Weasley’s parents /knew/ about this plan and were more than okay with it?” “Wait – /they knew/?” Ron repeated, his eyes going wide. “But – they didn’t – they didn’t /say/ anything!” “Oh, Ron.” Hermione sighed. “Do you really think they would have been okay with us disappearing for two weeks if they hadn’t already known what was going on?” “But…they don’t know about Snape…” “They may not /know/, but wasn’t your mum the first person to tell us that Professor Snape might have had an Unbreakable Vow? Wasn’t she the first one who said she /believed/ that?” “I guess…” “They didn’t have much notice,” Snape spoke up again, “but I believe they would have managed to bring anything important with them.” “We could have at least /tried/,” Harry muttered, crossing his

arms and slouching in his chair. “And that is exactly why I made you sure you were gone,” Snape said. “I know your Gryffindor stupidity far too well, Potter. I wasn’t going to risk you charging headlong into a battle you wouldn’t survive.” “You don’t /know/ that we wouldn’t have won!” Ron yelled. “I don’t know that you wouldn’t have /lost/, either!” Snape snapped. “Moody knew and agreed with the entire plan, as well, Weasley! If you think I need /your/ approval for something that is already said and done and therefore no longer even of consequence, you are sorely mistaken!” “Ron,” Hermione said quickly. “Ron, he’s right. He kept us out of harm’s way, didn’t he? And no one in your family is hurt. /And/ he protected his position. The plan worked!” “I still think the whole thing is suspicious,” Draco muttered. “No one’s asking you, Malfoy,” Ron snapped. Draco’s eyes widened. “Oh sure, be petty just for the hell of it. I’m on /your/ side in this, remember?” “Look,” Harry said, before they could start arguing over nothing, “Hermione’s right. Everyone’s okay, so…”

“/And/ you managed to learn Occlumency finally, right, Harry?” Hermione said eagerly. Harry frowned. “Can we please never mention Occlumency again? I’m really getting sick of it.” Draco smirked, but Harry stomped on his foot before he could say anything. “You didn’t find the Horcrux I sent you to search for, though,” Snape said in a more level tone. Harry gave him a startled look. “Was there really one out there? Damn it, Malfoy, I /told/ you–” “Don’t blame me!” Draco interrupted, his eyes wide. “/They/ didn’t think there was one either!” “Yeah, but I wasn’t with them; I was with you and it’s /your/ fault that we didn’t go looking for it because you wanted to /look at every single one of my memories/–” “As fascinating as it is to watch you two argue,” Snape interrupted, “I’m fairly certain I got my fill of that when I was teaching you. Or attempting to teach, as the case may be,” he added, with a flat look in Harry’s direction. “In any case, there was no Horcrux in Belgium and, to my knowledge, the Dark Lord has never actually even /been/ to Belgium.

So, I’m glad you found something more…/worthwhile/ to do with your time.” He arched his eyebrows at Harry and Draco as he spoke. Harry was quite certain his stomach had just plummeted through the floor. Draco punched him on the shoulder, his face flushed pink. “Did I teach you /nothing/?” Ron and Hermione were giving them weird looks. Harry decided to just ignore everybody. “Now,” Snape said suddenly, leaning forward and placing a picture on the table. “This is where the next Horcrux should /actually/ be. If my research proves correct.” Harry leaned over the table quickly, the other three crowding in around him as they stared down at what seemed to be a simple picture of the beach. “There’s a cave off the shore there where the Dark Lord branded his first Death Eater,” Snape said slowly. “You mean this is where he gave out the first Dark Mark?” Hermione breathed, her eyes wide. “He already had a Horcrux in a cave by the ocean though,” Harry said, furrowing his brow.

“Well, no one ever said the Dark Lord wasn’t predictable,” Snape said dryly. “Though some of his more recent plans show he might finally be breaking out of this habit of setting useless traps and the like.” “Because ambushing people’s houses makes me feel so much more comfortable,” Harry muttered. Then his eyes widened. “Wait, /that’s/ why he was going to attack the Weasleys? To get me?!” Snape gave Harry an odd look. “Of course. Why else would he dirty his hands? Potter, ninety percent of the reason there’s a war going on right now is because the Dark Lord is trying to kill you, I do hope you’ve realized that.” Harry frowned. “I – I know that, but… How did he know I was /there/?” “I told him,” Snape said simply. “I have to pass him /some/ information occasionally.” “So he didn’t just…/know/. He hasn’t been trying to…?” Harry gestured at his scar. Snape furrowed his brow. “Dumbledore explained to you why that didn’t work so well last time.” “I know, I know, I just–” Harry glanced at Draco out of the corner of his eye, and of course Snape noticed. His eyes widened

almost imperceptibly. “As far as I’m aware,” he said slowly, carefully, “the Dark Lord hasn’t been using any of his…/connections/ to determine your whereabouts. He hasn’t yet realized that option is available to him.” “So he doesn’t know,” Harry said, shoulders sagging in relief. “No,” Snape replied. “Although I’m somewhat surprised you do.” He eyes slid over to Draco as he spoke, and the other boy flushed but determinedly held his gaze. “…What the bloody hell are you all talking about?” Ron spoke up. Hermione looked a mix of curious and concerned, as well. “Later,” Harry said quickly. “Professor, wasn’t he angry there was no one at the Burrow, then?” “He was. Lesser individuals placed under me were punished for giving misleading information,” Snape said. “They assumed you were still there. I didn’t bother to correct them.” “…Professor,” Hermione spoke up tentatively, looking at the picture again. “How can you be sure there’s a Horcrux here? How do you find them exactly? How did – how did /Dumbledore/ find them?” “Mostly it has to do with having a certain amount of knowledge of the Dark Lord’s past, and the majority of people don’t. I knew where he

first began branding his followers because /I/ was there. In going back to check the area, I noticed the changes in the magic and the noticeably darker seals in the cave. When you were with Dumbledore, I believe blood magic was required, right, Potter?” Harry didn’t bother to ask how he knew that. “Yeah,” he said simply. “If I’m correct, this is a little bit different.” Snape shifted his gaze to Draco again. “This seal requires someone with a Dark Mark to break it.” Draco blinked. “And you can’t do it, why?” Snape leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him. “I believe it will leave another mark, something that the Dark Lord would notice, and I can’t risk that.” “That would explain why Regulus didn’t go after that one, then,” Ron muttered. “Oh yeah, he only went after the one that would get himself killed instead,” Harry muttered back. “Voldemort would have killed him anyway, right?” Hermione asked. “Point,” Harry murmured. He glanced at Draco. “Well, Malfoy? This is probably the biggest chance you’ll get to prove you’re against Voldemort.”

Draco shot him a glare. “As much as I dislike the idea of having to prove myself to you, Potter… Alright, fine.” “You should go in three days time,” Snape said, leaning back in his chair. “How come?” Harry asked, narrowing his eyes. Snape smirked. “Because that is when that particular beach will be officially closed for the season. Most Muggles will stray away from that area regardless, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be safe.” “So we’re going to the beach now?” Ron asked wearily. Harry sighed. “Guess so.” *** They spent the next couple of days cleaning up Grimmauld Place and making sure it would be comfortable for Mr. and Mrs. Weasley to stay in. Harry thought that was a bit unnecessary, but Hermione had insisted and put all three boys, plus Fred and George when they made the mistake of dropping by one evening, to work. The result was a mostly sparkling clean house, with the exception being the rooms that were designated specifically for the Order’s use. Although, Harry noticed, none of the Order members had actually been by yet. He figured that was a good thing; he knew at this point he’d have to officially tell them

Draco Malfoy was living right under their noses, and while it was reassuring that at least /some/ of them had evidently been told and hadn’t carted the other boy off to the Ministry yet, Harry was still apprehensive about what might happen when the news was completely out in the open. The night before they were supposed to head out, Harry was in his room re-reading a book about old wizarding artifacts when someone knocked softly on the door and then, without waiting for an answer, pushed it slightly open. “Potter?” Draco whispered, sticking his head inside. “You’re not sleeping, are you?” Harry fought the urge to scream at him to get the /hell/ out of his room, and instead gave him a flat look. “My light’s on and it’s not even past midnight yet,” he replied dryly. “What do you think?” Draco rolled his eyes. “Just thought I’d ask before I came barging in,” he said. He stepped further into the room, shutting the door behind him and leaning against it. Harry swallowed and steadily ignored the way his pants suddenly seemed tighter. “What do you want?” he asked, closing his book and holding

it protectively over his lap without trying to seem too obvious about it. The way Draco’s eyes followed his movements made him aware that he’d utterly failed. “I wanted to ask you what you thought about this whole thing,” Draco said, meeting Harry’s eyes again. “About what whole thing?” “This whole cave by the ocean thing,” Draco said, starting forward and plopping down on the opposite end of the bed. “Aren’t you at all suspicious?” Harry pulled his legs closer against him, cursing the fact that he’d even let Draco into his room in the first place. He’d been avoiding him for specifically /this/ reason, and now here he was, plain as day, not three feet away from him. “Suspicious?” he asked absently. “Not really.” Draco sighed, leaning back against the footboard. “I feel like Snape’s leading us wrong again.” “No, he definitely gave us more information this time around,” Harry said. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” “Huh?”

“I think we’re being stupid, is all.” “I think you’re just nervous,” Harry said with a roll of his eyes. Draco shrugged. “Could be.” He glanced down at his forearm, and Harry noticed for the first time that he was wearing short sleeves, which wasn’t something he did very often. Or at all, really, as Harry couldn’t remember another instance like this. Harry swallowed again, trying to ignore the weird clenching thing his stomach was doing, and was about to say something else when a familiar scent wafted by. His eyes widened. “Hey, Ginny’s not here, is she?” he asked, standing abruptly and taking half a step towards the door. “/Ginny/?” Draco repeated, frowning. “No, not that I know of…” Harry’s brow furrowed. “What’s that smell then?” “Smell?” Draco asked, and then his eyes widened a bit. “Oh, that.” He pulled a crumpled piece of parchment from his pocket, smoothing it out in front of him. “It’s the latest letter from my mother. She has this scented parchment that she uses sometimes,” he said, a faint smile on his face. “…Oh,” Harry said, frowning. “Um. How is she? Your mum?”

“She’s still in Spain,” Draco said, scanning the letter once more before stuffing it back into his pocket. “She seems to be doing alright.” “That’s…good, I guess,” Harry said haltingly. He moved back towards the bed, and then remembering that that was where Draco was sitting, he made an abrupt turn and went to stand in front of the window instead. “We should probably be getting to bed soon,” he said, leaning forward and bracing his hands against the windowsill. He stared out at the scraggly looking tree in the yard as if it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. He could hear Draco shifting around on the bed behind him. The old springs squeaked as the other boy adjusted his weight. “Potter…” Harry abruptly yawned. “Merlin, I’m tired all of a sudden,” he said loudly, swallowing yet again. Why was his throat so dry? There was a pause, and then Harry heard Draco stand up. Footsteps sounded lightly across the creaky floorboards, and Harry assumed Draco was moving towards the door. He shoulders sagged in relief. “Well, goodnight, Mal–” “Potter,” Draco said again, and Harry’s heart very nearly jumped out of his chest at the proximity of the other boy’s voice. Draco

reached around, resting his hands against the windowsill outside of Harry’s, effectively boxing him in. Harry drew in a shaky breath when Draco rested his forehead against his shoulder. “M-Malfoy…” He turned around abruptly, giving Draco a wide-eyed look, and since Draco’s hands were still on the windowsill they were close enough now that their noses were practically touching. Draco leaned in, just an infinitely tiny amount closer, and his hand came up to rest on Harry’s shoulder with a touch that felt as if it could burn straight through Harry’s clothes and into his skin. Harry blinked, and when Draco went to move in even closer, Harry put a hand on his chest to hold him in place. “What’re you doing?” he asked in a low voice, trying to keep the burning in his cheeks to a minimum. Draco didn’t answer, and instead stared at him for a long moment. He finally pulled back, a smirk falling easily into place on his lips. “Night, Potter,” he said simply, turning and walking towards the door. Harry didn’t reply, didn’t even /move/ until Draco had closed the door

behind him and his footsteps has faded away down the hall, and it was only then that he was able to stumble forward and collapse onto his bed. He buried his face in the pillow, vaguely wishing that he would wake up to find that the entire trip to Belgium had been nothing more than an extremely fucked up dream. *** “Is everyone ready to go?” Hermione asked, looking around their small group for confirmation. “We all know where we’re going?” “Déjà vu,” Draco muttered, twirling his wand absently. “We’re not going near as far this time; I think we can handle it, Granger.” Hermione gave him an annoyed look. “Are you going by yourself, then?” Draco scoffed. “Of course not, are you crazy? I’m going with Potter.” “Wait, what?” Harry said, startled. Draco patted him on the shoulder. “Nothing, Potter, don’t worry about it. Same thing as always, yeah?” “Malfoy, you are so weird,” Ron said, shaking his head lightly. “Has anyone ever told you that?” “Oh, go shag your girlfriend or something,” Draco said flippantly, looping his arm through Harry’s. “We’ll just be waiting for

you at the beach.” Hermione gave Ron a disapproving look when he grinned cheerfully at Draco’s words. “Give us a minute, would you?” she said, her eyes narrowing. “We’ll meet you there, Harry, go on ahead.” Harry’s eyes widened. “But–” “You heard the girl, Potter. Off we go!” Harry sighed, closing his eyes. “Fine,” he said, and then he Disapparated them. When Harry opened his eyes again, it was to a sight unlike anything he’d ever seen. Well, he’d seen pictures of it, but he’d never actually /been/ to a beach before. It was still early in the morning, as they hadn’t wanted to try finding the cave when it was completely dark out, and the sun was just beginning to come up across the water. Harry stared, amazed, and only remembered he wasn’t alone when Draco coughed slightly beside him. “See something you like, Potter?” he said, arching an eyebrow as he released the other boy’s arm and stepped away Harry blinked, and tried not to think about how far the distance between them suddenly seemed. “I’ve just…never been to the ocean before,” he said softly, turning to look out at the water again. The beach

wasn’t very long, but it was peaceful and quiet and it was obvious there was no one else around. “Didn’t you and Dumbledore have some wild and crazy adventure at the ocean?” Draco asked, kneeling down and poking at something in the sand. Harry laughed shortly. “That was a little different, trust me,” he said flatly. “This…this is really nice.” “Isn’t it?” Draco stood up again, tossing something up and down in his hand. “My father used to bring me to the beach when I was younger. My mother didn’t like it too much – we burn very easily, comes with the fair skin – but I never cared. I haven’t been in a while though.” He looked out across the water, staring at some distant thing that Harry couldn’t see. “It’s been years, actually,” he continued, voice softer. “Before I started going to Hogwarts, even.” “You probably have a lot of good memories with your father – family,” Harry corrected himself quickly. Draco shrugged. “Well, some are better than others.” He turned toward Harry, holding out his hand. “Here.” “What is it?” Harry asked warily. Draco rolled his eyes. “It’s a horrible cursed item that I’ve

managed to hide away until just this moment,” he said dryly. “Just take it, would you?” Harry gave him a suspicious look. “You /are/ joking, right?” he asked, and when Draco gave him an irritated glare, he quickly held out his hand. Draco dropped a small shell in it, pinkish orange in color with a shiny, smooth underside. Harry stared at it. “Something to remember your first trip to the beach by,” Draco said, turning away abruptly. Harry thought his cheeks looked a little pink, but he could have been mistaken. “I…I wonder what’s taking Hermione and Ron so long,” Harry said hastily, shielding his eyes as he glanced across the water again. “Maybe they’re taking my advice,” Draco said with a leering grin. “I thought we established that that wasn’t funny?” “Bloody hell, I know, and yet we keep bringing it up.” Draco shuddered. “Still.” Harry grinned widely. “It really is nice out here.” “Perfect place for date, don’t you think?” “Yeah,” Harry murmured. Then his eyes widened and he jerked his head around, finding Draco smirking at him with crossed arms. “I mean – it’s the sort place Ginny might like to visit.” Draco’s smirk fell

and an exasperated look crossed his face. “Er, you know, once the war is over and all–” “Fucking Merlin on a bloody broomstick, are you /really/ that dense?” Draco interrupted irritably. Harry spluttered out a nonsensical reply, but before he could clarify himself, Draco had lunged forward and twisted his hands into the front of Harry’s shirt so that he could pull the other boy down to meet him. There was a part of Harry that tried to fight it. A stubborn part that was yelling at him to shove the other boy away, to push him flat onto his arse and leave him there while he Apparated away. But there was also another part of him, a much louder part that was telling him there was something strangely poetic about kissing someone on the beach while watching the sunrise together, even if it that someone was a person he really would have preferred to drag over to the water’s edge and shove straight in. In any case, he couldn’t help the way his mouth opened without any prodding from Draco at all, the way his arms easily wound their way around Draco’s waist and pulled him closer. He couldn’t help it if his cock jumped a little at the way Draco’s breath suddenly hitched, and he

certainly couldn’t help it if his mind was suddenly betraying him and replaying the events that had happened in Belgium over and over again, only this time with the rough feel of sand under his back instead of the hard floor of the tent. Draco pulled back first, gasping for breath and staring at Harry in something akin to amazement. “Well…that was somewhat unexpected,” he panted, eyes still wide. Harry blinked at him. “It means nothing,” he said shakily. “Just. The beach. It was the sunrise.” He blinked again, because whatever he’d just said really didn’t make any sense. Draco apparently thought so, too, because he was smirking now. “Yeah, I blame the sunrise,” he said. Harry frowned. And a sudden loud /crack/ informed him that his other two friends had finally decided to show up. Harry and Draco sprang apart from each other before it became obvious just how they’d been helping the time pass. “Sorry!” Hermione exclaimed, fixing her hair as she rushed over to them. “I – we forgot something and – well.”

“It’s all taken care of now, though,” Ron said as he strolled up, grinning cheekily. Hermione smacked him on the shoulder, and then finally caught sight of the ocean sparkling in front of her. “Oh, isn’t this /gorgeous/!” she said, her eyes going wide. “Wow!” “Yeah, yeah, Potter and I are tired of admiring the sunrise,” Draco said snidely. “Are we going or what?” “Right, let’s get this over with,” Ron said. He took Hermione’s hand in his and began pulling her down the beach, Draco trailing behind them. Harry moved to follow them, but then he paused for a second, glancing down at his clenched hand. Slowly he relaxed his grip, letting his fingers curl open and keeping his palm facing up so that he could stare down at the pinkish shell that was still resting there. “Potter, you coming?” Draco called back to him. Harry’s face jerked up, and he nodded absently. “Yeah, I’m coming!” he said. He took one more look at the shell, staring at it almost in confusion for a moment. Then he shoved it into his pocket and took off after his friends. Chapter 17

It occurred to Harry, as the four of them stood staring at the large, gaping, entirely creepy looking entrance into what appeared to be nothing more than an endless black tunnel, that there was no way this venture could possibly end well. Why he’d begun to think it /could/, he had no idea. “This better not be the only way in,” Draco said, crossing his arms and giving the cave a look of disgust. “No one told me we’d have to get /dirty/, I’m entirely unprepared for this! I’d have worn something of Potter’s if I knew.” “Be glad you never had to go into the Chamber of Secrets, mate,” Ron muttered. Harry nodded from beside him. “I can’t believe the only warning the beach has up is that sign,” Hermione said, complete disapproval coloring her tone. “At the very least they should have it taped off!” “What’s wrong with the sign, Granger?” Draco looked over at the battered piece of wood in question. Its white paint was peeling off, but the blaring red words that spelled out ‘DANGER: KEEP AWAY’ were still easily visible. “It gets the job done, if you ask me. Besides...” He shivered slightly, arms tightening around himself, and lowered his voice. “No one in their right mind would go down there. You can all but feel

doomsday waiting on the other end.” Harry moved towards the opening. “Guess that makes us all crazy,” he said, ducking beneath the jagged rock and taking a hesitant step inside. The ceiling was low enough that he had to keep his shoulders hunched as he went, and he rubbed absently at his scar when it tingled. “You’re mental, you realize that, right?” Draco called after him. “Chasing after bits of the Dark Lord’s soul, jumping headfirst into black holes – you’re off your rocker, Potter!” “I haven’t jumped headfirst into anything, Malfoy,” Harry threw back at him with a roll of his eyes. “I’ve barely taken two steps. Anyway, you have to come with us.” “Or at least your arm does.” Ron grinned. “Should we cut it off, spare you the trauma?” Draco gave him a baleful glare. “Mental,” he repeated. “Absolutely mental.” “You already said as much.” Harry said. “Are you done stalling yet?” “No, I’ll need another five minutes, at least.” “Come on,” Ron said, giving Draco a shove in the back. “We’re right behind you.”

“Don’t /touch/ me, Weasley,” Draco snapped, stumbling forward. “I’m perfectly capable of walking on my own.” “Then do it already!” “I’ll go when I want to go and not a moment before–” “/Malfoy/,” Harry interrupted. Draco turned to him with a furious, petulant look on his face, and Harry quickly lit the tip of his wand before holding out his other hand. “Look, see? Not that bad.” “Not that bad, my arse.” Draco ignored the offered hand, slowly taking a step forward. “It gets /smaller/, you idiot. You’ll be crawling by the time you get to the end.” Harry dropped his hand. “/We’ll/ be crawling, you mean.” He looked beyond Draco at Ron and Hermione. “You two following?” “Of course,” Hermione answered promptly, lighting up her own wand. Ron nodded. “I got last,” he said. They had Draco effectively closed in by now, and he huffed, fiddling absently with the cuff of his left sleeve. “Well, go on, then!” he finally spat at Harry, and the other boy flashed him a grin before continuing into the cave. The walls gradually closed in around them, the ceiling drooping lower

and lower and stalagmites cropping up on the ground before them the farther they went. Harry fervently hoped they wouldn’t have to make a quick escape, because there’d be nothing /quick/ about trying to get out of here. The ground sloped steeply up at one point, bringing them to a section where they had to lie flat on their stomachs to inch through. “Not that I don’t think Granger isn’t enjoying the lovely view she’s been getting, Potter,” Draco said, breaking the silence as they wiggled their way onward, “but exactly how much longer is this going to take?” He ignored Hermione’s slap at his ankle Ron’s offended squawk coming from further back. “What the hell makes you think I have any idea?” Harry replied, scowling even though no one could see it. “I’ll just pause for a moment and read this handy pamphlet and map Voldemort left behind for us, shall I?” “Yeah, do that. And while you’re at it, check and see if he left a note about what cleaning spell to use to best get /cave gunk/ out of one’s hair.” “Maybe there isn’t one,” Harry said. “Maybe gunking up your hair is Voldemort’s idea of a joke.” “Potter!” Draco sounded scandalized. “Don’t even SAY such a thing, I

can’t bear to imagine it.” He paused. “And /gunking/ isn’t even a word, you twit.” “Whatever, you’d live. You might have to change your name, unless you want to be associated with cave gunk for the rest of your life, but at least it’s not irreparably damaging.” “It’d actually be an improvement, I say,” Ron added. “Bet you’d look a right sight better than you normally do.” “You’re lucky you’re not the one behind me, Weasley, because you’d be finding my shoe in your face right about now.” “Hey,” Harry said suddenly, drawing to a stop. “I think we’ve reached the end.” “Really?” Hermione said, trying to peer over both Draco and Harry. “What do you see?” Harry hesitated, angling his wand down. “…A fairly goodsized drop.” “That’s it?” Draco asked. He sounded entirely unimpressed. “Won’t see the rest until we get down there, will we?” Harry replied, and with that he dragged himself to the tunnel’s edge. “I think there’s water, though. Why is there always water?” “So now my shoes are going to get wet, too?” Draco said. “Is that what

you’re telling me? Brilliant. Fucking brilliant, Potter.” “Shut it already, would you?” Hermione said, exasperated. “Honestly, Malfoy.” She scooted closer, crawling over the back of Draco’s legs as she did. “Can you make it, Harry?” “/Excuse me/,” said Draco. He went ignored. “Yeah, shouldn’t be a problem,” Harry said. He inched forward until he had enough room to pull his legs in front, though it took a bit of tricky maneuvering. Then, without giving himself time to change his mind, he pushed off. The ground came up to meet him much faster than he’d been expecting, jarring his legs as he landed. “Ow!” “Harry??” “Potter!” Hermione and Draco crowded at the opening, Ron stuck behind them trying to see overtop their heads. “What happened, mate, you alright?” “Fine,” Harry said, standing slowly. “I’m fine.” He glanced down and quickly wished he hadn’t as a wave of vertigo swept over him. There was no floor beneath his feet. “…Well, there’s something you don’t see everyday,” Draco

said, slipping out of the tunnel and lightly jumping down to where Harry was standing. He wobbled, grabbing onto the other boy’s arm to keep from falling, and glared at what appeared to be open air beneath them. “I don’t know what spell this is,” he muttered, sounding extremely unhappy about that fact. “Didn’t expect you to.” Harry shook him off, going over to help Hermione down. She started prodding at the air with her foot as soon as she landed. “It feels like a solid surface,” she said, leaning down and putting out her hand. “Like glass, almost.” Ron hopped down after them, promptly slipping and landing with a thud on his behind. “Bloody hell, what IS this?” “Smooth, Weasley.” “Shut up, Malfoy!” “Harry, look!” Hermione exclaimed, pointing eagerly beneath them. Harry followed the path of her finger, directing the light of his wand that way, and gasped. “Hufflepuff’s cup!” Ron and Draco were by their sides in an instant, looking down. “That’s it?” Draco said. “That’s the Horcrux you need?”

“It bloody well better be,” Harry muttered, kneeling down and trying to find some sort of opening he could get through, though he doubted he’d be so lucky. The cup was on what appeared to be some sort of stone pedestal below them, much the same way the locket had been months previous. “That water looks shallow, at least,” Hermione said softly. “No…” “Inferi?” Harry raised an eyebrow at her. “Here’s hoping.” Draco looked alarmed. “What’s this about inferi??” “Don’t worry about it,” Harry said, moving so that he was sitting cross-legged. He paused, giving Draco a considering look. “You know some fire spells, right?” “Of course.” “Might want to have them ready.” Draco blinked, looking alarmed all over again, and then appeared to take Harry’s words to heart as he began mumbling under his breath and flicking his wrist in the appropriate motions to be sure he remembered how the spells went. Harry looked back at Hermione. “What do you think?” She shook her head, a crease forming between her eyes as she furrowed her brow, and didn’t answer.

“Do you reckon that’s always been the way to get down here?” Ron asked, glancing back up at the opening of the tunnel they’d dropped from. “I can’t exactly imagine Snape crawling around like that. Not to mention You-Know-Who.” Draco snorted suddenly, and when the others glanced at him questioningly he said, “Sorry. Mental image. My father – you thought /I/ was bad about my hair.” Harry grinned, but it faded quickly. “Voldemort probably made it more difficult later. Or maybe he found it first and just had the others Apparate in.” “If that’s the case, then you’d think Snape would’ve just put the image of the place into our heads again. Like with Belgium.” Ron scowled. “Would’ve been a hell of a lot easier.” “I’m sure there are wards up preventing that, Weasley,” Draco said. “Otherwise Snape would’ve come straight here himself to make sure there was a Horcrux, don’t you think?” “Oh yeah…” “And he said something about needing a Dark Mark,” Hermione spoke up. “Except none of us needed one to make it this far, which means that there’s something in /here/ that requires it.”

They all looked around, like maybe they were hoping for the answer to just jump out at them and wave a sign around. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Harry sighed, dragging a hand through his hair in frustration. He looked down at the cup again, at the water surrounding it, and on a whim pointed his wand. “/Accio Horcrux/!” It didn’t budge, of course. “…Really?” Draco said, lifting an eyebrow in Harry’s direction. “It might have worked,” Harry muttered, even though he had known it wouldn’t. It hadn’t worked for the locket either, but Harry didn’t know of any other way to check what might be waiting for them in the dark water below. Draco glanced down. “/Accio cup/!” he shouted, but the Horcrux remained sitting on the pedestal. He switched his wand to his left hand and tried to cast the spell again. “/Accio Hufflepuff’s cup/!” Still nothing. The water splashed gently against the dais. “You’re not left-handed,” Hermione said. “Dark Mark,” Draco replied, answering her unasked question. “Thought maybe if I did it with that hand…”

She nodded and then pointed her own wand. “Well if it won’t come to us, we’ll have to get to it. /Reducto/!” “It’s not /actually/ glass, Hermione,” Harry said when, like the other spells they’d cast, hers also yielded zero results. “I don’t think any spells we know are going to get through. It won’t be that easy.” “No, I guess not.” Hermione sighed and sat down next to Harry. Ron did the same. “How did you figure out the cave, mate?” he asked. “I didn’t,” Harry replied, shaking his head. “That was all Dumbledore. There’s no way I would have made it through there on my own.” “Reassuring,” Draco muttered, as he also took a seat. “It’ll be something to do with you,” Harry said, looking across at him. “And it won’t be anything pleasant. Dumbledore had to make a blood payment for us to get into the cave last time, and that was probably the easiest part of the whole damn thing.” Some of the color drained from Draco’s face. “I’m willing to do whatever, I just – it’d be nice if we knew /what/, exactly, it was that we have to do.”

Harry nodded and absently reached out to run his hands along the invisible surface they were sitting on. It really did feel like glass, which just made it all the more strange when it looked like his hands were hovering in midair. Draco moved to do the same – and then instantly drew his hands back, as if he’d been shocked, a startled look on his face. “What?” Harry asked quickly. “You alright?” Ron and Hermione straightened, looking more alert. “Did something happen?” Hermione asked. Draco didn’t reply. Instead, he slowly lowered his left hand again, hissing when it came in contact with the barrier. “Stings,” he said shortly, his face scrunching up as he pressed harder. “And it feels different with this hand. Not hard, but like – like I’m reaching through mud or something. Ow!” He pulled his hand back abruptly; Harry saw that his palm was bright red. “Is it /burning/ you?” he asked, alarmed. “Feels like.” “Do you think that’s it, then?” Ron asked. “Malfoy shoves his hand through and then this – floor thing…it’ll go away?” Harry and Hermione looked at each other, and Harry was somewhat relieved

to see that she looked as worried as he felt. “Can you be more specific?” she said to Draco. “Does it feel like your hand is actually passing through something? Or are you just pushing against it?” “No,” Draco said slowly, with a shake of his head. “It’s definitely like I was passing through.” He moved his hand forward again and hesitated only for a second before pressing down. “The farther I go, the more of my hand it covers,” he said through clenched teeth. “My guess is – /fuck/.” He withdrew again, shaking out his hand and flexing his fingers. “…You have to do that until your Dark Mark makes it through,” Harry finished for him. Draco looked at him and nodded. “Shit.” Harry was silent for a moment, staring at Draco’s arm, and then he said, “I don’t like it.” Draco snorted. “I’m not exactly fond of the idea either, but you said yourself that it wasn’t going to be anything pleasant.” “But this…” Harry gestured helplessly at the other boy’s hand. “You could really hurt yourself,” Hermione said softly. “Well has anyone else got any bright ideas, then?” Draco asked in a sharp tone, looking at each of the others in turn. Hermione

seemed frustrated because nothing was coming to her. Ron glanced away, and after struggling with himself for a minute, Harry reluctantly shook his head. “No? I thought not. So shut up already and let me do this.” Then, before Harry could offer up any sort of additional protests, Draco took a deep breath and shoved his entire arm, straight up to his elbow, through the invisible barrier. His face instantly contorted in pain and though he was gritting his teeth in an attempt to keep back any cries that might have wanted to escape, he was unable to stop himself from letting out one strangled, cut off sound. Harry automatically reached forward, but suddenly the floor beneath them disappeared and the four of them were tumbling through open air into the chamber below. They barely had time to let out startled shouts before they landed with a large splash in the water, and Harry had a moment of pure panic as he twisted around and lurched to his feet, terrified that something would be reaching up to grab him – until he realized that his hands had already scraped against the bottom when they fell so the pool couldn't be that deep. Sure enough, when he looked down he was relieved to see that the water only came to his knees. "/Ow/,” Ron grunted as he clambered to his feet before offering Hermione

a hand to pull her up, as well. “Probably should've seen that coming.” “At least there doesn't seem to be anything in here,” Hermione pointed out, wincing a bit and rubbing her arm. She was right; the water merely rippled around them. Harry looked around at Draco, finding him still sitting on the rocky bottom and clutching his arm beneath the water. “Alright?” he asked, quickly making his way toward him. Draco glanced up and shrugged. “Fine,” he said shortly, but he still didn't stand. Harry crouched down in front of him and Draco grimaced. “Fucking burns,” he said, still using tight, clipped tones. “Was hoping the water...” Harry nodded. “Hold tight,” he said, straightening up again. “Shouldn't be much longer, then we’ll get you some potions for that.” He turned back to face the pedestal, eyeing it warily. It was taller than he’d first thought, the cup itself sitting almost at eye level, just waiting to be taken. There had to be something else... But he couldn't think of what it might be. How had Dumbledore seemed to just /know/ things? “What's wrong?” Hermione asked. “This is too simple,” Harry replied. “And with Voldemort, it's /never/

simple.” “I hardly think sacrificing my bloody arm is something most people would consider /simple/, Potter,” Draco griped. Harry shook his head. “No, there'll be more.” But /what/? The cavern they were stood in was eerily quiet. There was no need for a boat, there weren't any inferi, and there wasn't any kind of potion for the cup to be submersed in. It was just them, the pedestal, and the water splashing gently up against it. ...Wait. Harry looked again, watching the movement of the water, and then carefully turned to look at the others. None of them were moving. Everyone was standing (or sitting, in Draco's case) perfectly still as they studied their surroundings, yet there were small waves forming around the bottom of the stone column holding the Horcrux. It almost seemed to be bubbling up, like the water was starting to boil, except it couldn't be because the water was /cold/. Still… “We definitely don’t want to be in here much longer,” Harry muttered, wading over to the Horcrux. He stopped when he reached it, deliberated for a few seconds, and then decided it’d be best to just go

for it. Behind him he could hear Draco getting to his feet and sloshing closer; Ron moved to do the same. Harry braced himself, and then reached up to grab Hufflepuff’s cup. His hand went straight through it, like it wasn’t even there. “What–?” he started to say, eyes going wide, and beside him Ron groaned. “Bloody hell, you don’t think someone’s already gotten to this one, too, do you?” he asked, reaching his hand out as well and watching as it passed through the cup. “God, I hope not,” Harry said. “Unless, you know, they’ve destroyed it already. In which case, good on them.” He waved his hand through the Horcrux’s image a couple more times, noting that it felt similar to the few times he’d accidentally stepped through a Hogwarts ghost. It was like a brush of slightly cooler air passing over his skin. “Oh, shove over,” Draco said, pushing Harry out of the way with his good hand. “I can already see where this is going.” He extended his other hand, the skin of which was now an angry, blotchy red that went all the way up his forearm, and closed his fingers around one of the cup’s suddenly solid golden handles. “There, see?” he said, and Harry released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

He didn’t have time to feel relieved, though; the Dark Mark on Draco’s arm, which had already turned an ugly, poisonous looking green after being thrust through the barrier earlier, seemed to pulse suddenly, the snake writhing furiously on the other boy’s skin. Eyes widening, Harry opened his mouth to say something about it, but was quickly distracted by the way the bubbling water abruptly calmed around their legs. He looked down and unconsciously took a step back. Oblivious to all of this, Draco continued speaking, lifting the Horcrux off the pedestal as he did. “Figured it had to do with the mark aga–/ahhh/–!” Draco’s entire body jerked as he gasped loudly. The snake on his arm snapped its head around to one side and a spasm shot through Draco’s hand, causing the cup to drop from his still shaking fingers. “Malfoy!” Harry cried. Both he and Ron stepped forward as Draco’s legs seemed to give out beneath him, but they didn’t have a chance to reach him because, suddenly, the water exploded around them. Like a geyser rushing up from below, it tossed them into the air and slammed them into the same invisible barrier from before, though it seemed to be a lot lower now. Before Harry could figure out what was happening, he was falling again, landing back in the water which was

suddenly much deeper and rising still. Dazed, his head pounding, Harry clutched at the pedestal and pulled himself to his feet, coughing and spitting out foul tasting water as he looked around for his friends. “Ron!” he called, just as the other boy burst through the surface and sucked in a lungful of air. “Ron, are you okay?!” “Fine,” Ron said, sounding distracted and dragging an arm across his mouth. “Where’s Hermione? Hermione!” She came up not far from him, hand pressed against her temple as she struggled against the undercurrent now threatening to pull them all under. Ron instantly moved to help, cursing as he slipped and almost fell himself. He made it to Hermione and wrapped an arm around her waist, holding her tight as he asked over and over if she was alright. “I’m okay,” she insisted, but she had an unfocused look in her eyes and Harry noticed that her fingers came away bloody when Ron finally pulled her hand from her head. “Ron, I’m /fine/, I just – I hit my head.” “How many fingers am I holding up?” Ron asked, ignoring her protests. “/Ron/.”

“Where’s Malfoy?” Harry asked suddenly. His thoughts felt muddled, like his brain was stuffed full of cotton, and he shook his head in an attempt to clear it. The water level had reached his chest now. Ron looked around. “Malfoy?” he called tentatively. “Oi, Malfoy!” “MALFOY!” Harry shouted much louder, still clinging to the pedestal but trying to make his way around it. Water seemed to be pouring in from everywhere now, raining from above, rushing in around them, and waves were sloshing all over the place and making it hard to see. “/MALFOY/–” “Here!” he heard, and he spun around in the direction he’d just come from to see Draco stumbling towards him. “How the hell did you get all the way over there?!” “Cup,” Draco grunted, taking a final lunge toward Harry and grabbing onto the hand that was offered to him. “Fucking dropped the bloody thing, I wasn’t about to let it get away after all this mess.” He was panting and still barely seemed able to stand, so Harry copied Ron and threw an arm around his waist to steady him. Draco slung his own arm over Harry’s shoulder in return. “All present and accounted for?” Ron asked. He was looking up. “Good –

so how the hell do you reckon we get out of here?” Harry hesitated, mostly because he really didn’t want to confirm what he was pretty sure he already knew. But there wasn’t time to waste, not with the way the water level kept rising, so he lifted his hand. Not two feet above his head he came into contact with what felt suspiciously like a glass ceiling. Ron didn’t even have to fully straighten his arm to find it. He swore. “Harry...” “I know.” “This is bad.” “I /know/.” “Now what do we do?” Harry shrugged helplessly, trying to come up with something, /anything/, but it still felt like his thoughts were moving through molasses and he couldn’t string anything coherent together. “What’s wrong?” Draco asked from beside him. “The barrier’s back? I can just–” “/No/–” Harry started to say, but Draco ignored him and thrust his left arm straight up.

“You might have to give me a boost,” he was saying, but then all of a sudden he cut himself off and they watched as he pushed at the empty air. “…Well.” “What?” Harry asked quickly. “It’s – ah. Not working.” Draco tried again, then shook his head. “Nope. Just glass. Or something that feels like glass. Whatever.” “…You’re joking,” Harry said faintly, and Draco shot him an annoyed look. “Yes, because I thought it seemed like /exactly/ the appropriate time to try and get a laugh out of you.” “Bubble-head charms,” Hermione said abruptly, lifting her head from Ron’s shoulder. “Then at least we’ll be able to breathe while we figure this out.” Harry was so very glad that at least one of them was able to think under the threat of possibly having a concussion. His joy was very short-lived, however, because when they said the incantation, nothing happened. “You have /got/ to be fucking kidding me,” Draco groaned. “Can’t we do /any/ bloody magic in here?” Ron asked desperately. “Don’t suppose we could try transfiguring ourselves into

sharks or something,” Harry said. Bubble-head charms had reminded him of the Triwizard Tournament, and from there it was an easy jump to Krum and what he had done to get through the second task that year. “Better yet, somebody find me some gillyweed.” “Where’s Dobby when you need him, eh?” Ron muttered. Harry nodded. Wait. Dobby. House elves could get through most wards. Hermione’s eyes had gone wide and she looked straight at him, so Harry knew he was on the right track. “KREACHER!” he bellowed, causing Draco to wince and grumble about having his ear shouted off. The elf popped into existence mere seconds later, and Harry had never been so happy to see him. “Master is – ah!” Kreacher yelped and crouched in the center of the pedestal he’d landed on. “What – why is Master calling Kreacher /here/, Kreacher isn’t wanting to swim!” “Kreacher,” Harry said, throwing his free arm onto the pedestal and hauling himself higher up, dragging Draco with him.

“Kreacher, can you feel the wards in here?” “Wards?” Kreacher repeated. His eyes narrowed and he tipped his head to the side a bit, considering, and then nodded. “Kreacher is feeling wards.” He shivered. “They isn’t nice. Almost like–” His eyes widened. “Almost like the cave Regulus brought you to?” Harry filled in for him. Kreacher, for all that he claimed to hate Harry and dislike having him around, seemed panicked suddenly. “Is Master dying tonight? Is Kreacher going to lose another one? Oh, what will poor Kreacher do, Kreacher isn’t being able to protect /anyone/–” “Kreacher, I’m /not/ planning on dying,” Harry cut in. “But that’ll only be the case if you help us!” The water was climbing up to his shoulders now. He pulled himself higher. “We don’t have a lot of time – I need you to dismantle these wards so we can Apparate out of here!” “Dismantle the wards…?” Kreacher seemed to focus on something again, and then he shrunk back. “These is /evil/, Kreacher doesn’t know if…” “They’re Voldemort’s,” Harry said. “Just like the last place Regulus brought you.” “Master Regulus?” Kreacher said faintly. And then, in a

lower, angrier voice he added, “The Dark Lord.” “Yes.” Harry nodded his head in Draco’s direction. “And look, it’s the one you like, we have to get him out of here, too.” Draco frowned at him, but Harry ignored it. “Master Malfoy!” Kreacher cried, shuffling closer to the edge of the pedestal. “Blood of my Mistress! Oh, what a good Master you would have been, Kreacher would have–” He stopped talking abruptly before he could finish that, turning back to look at Harry. He seemed to be deliberating with himself. Harry sighed and threw all caution to the wind. “We’re trying to kill the Dark Lord, Kreacher! Voldemort, the one who killed Regulus! Don’t you want to help avenge him? I /know/ you can take these wards down, and we /need/ your help!” “We do,” Draco said shortly, though from the slightly pinched look on his face Harry guessed that it pained him to ask for help from a house elf. “Kreacher, get us out of here!” Ron and Hermione kept silent, which was probably a wise decision. Kreacher was quiet for a moment longer, and then he nodded once. “Kreacher will be needing help,” he said. “These is

complicated, and Master can’t be breathing underwater. These is going to take time, but Kreacher isn’t having time.” “Right,” Harry said. “Yes. Help. Go get Dobby.” The water reached the top of the pedestal then, pouring over the edge and covering Kreacher’s feet. The elf looked at it with wide eyes. “Go, Kreacher! Get Dobby and Apparate up there!” He pointed above them, hand coming into contact with the barrier again almost immediately as he did. Was the bloody thing getting even /lower/? “There’s – another level. So you won’t be in the water. /Hurry/.” Kreacher nodded again, and then disappeared with a crack. “First time I’ll actually be looking forward to seeing that old bugger again,” Ron said. He had his free hand braced against the ceiling, his other arm still tight around Hermione. His face had gone pale beneath his freckles. “He’ll come back,” Hermione said. Luckily her head seemed to have stopped bleeding, but she was still sagging against Ron. “They’ll manage. House elves have very strong magic.” “I don’t doubt they can get the wards down, it’s how /quickly/ they can do it that I’m worried about,” Harry muttered. After a very /long/ twenty seconds or so, another loud crack

sounded and Kreacher was back, Dobby in tow. “Ahh, Harry Potter!” he cried, jumping around from foot to foot as he watched them through the barrier. “Oh, this is bad. Bad, bad – but Dobby is coming to rescue you, Harry Potter! Don’t worry!” “Much appreciated!” Harry called back somewhat exasperatedly, because honestly, /talk later/, they were running out of time! “Just get on with it already!” Draco snapped, obviously less inclined to be friendly when possibly drowning to death loomed on the horizon. He spat out a mouthful of water and hauled himself further up onto the pedestal beside Harry, although, at this point, it wasn’t doing much good. He still had the Horcrux clutched tightly in his fist. Ron tried to maneuver around so Hermione could hang onto it, too, but she wouldn’t let go of him. “No,” she said, voice shaking slightly, and latched both of her arms around his neck and pulled herself higher that way. “Ron, I–” “No!” Harry interrupted harshly, not caring if he seemed mean or insensitive. “No, Hermione, don’t do that – we’re going to get out of here, everything’s going to be /fine/!” Ron spared him a quick glance but looked back to Hermione almost

immediately. The water lapped at their chins. “Sorry, mate, but if–” “STOP IT,” Harry said overtop of him, but Ron ignored him just as easily and instead drew Hermione even closer and kissed her fiercely. Something like despair welled up inside of Harry with startling speed and he felt Draco tense up beside him, the arm still around his neck tightening almost painfully. Harry very pointedly didn’t look at him, and instead thumped his hand angrily against that /stupid/ bloody fucking barrier ceiling /whatever/ thing and hoped that the house elves above them were actually accomplishing something with their squeezed shut eyes and clenched fists. “Potter,” Draco’s voice said in his ear. “Don’t,” Harry said shortly. “/Harry/–” “Shut /up/,” he snarled, but then the use of his first name caught up with him and against his will his head snapped around so he could stare at Draco with wide eyes. Draco gave him a weak version of his usual smirk. “Best take a deep breath,” was all he said, and then he proceeded to do just that as the water pouring in finally swallowed them completely.

Chapter 18 Harry’s lungs burned with the continued effort of holding his breath, but he ignored the demanding need for air as best as he possibly could and tried not to let panic overtake him. Dobby and Kreacher would pull through, they /would/, he only had to wait a few more seconds. Just a couple more seconds! He’d lost track of Draco when the water level had finally overcome them, and he was kind of regretting it now. If these /were/ going to be his last few moments alive (they /weren’t/, damn it), it would have been nice to have someone there beside him. Harry opened his eyes a little and peered through the murky water, trying to find the other boy. He spotted Ron and Hermione first, the two of them holding each other tightly as Ron banged uselessly again the invisible barrier holding them in. Yeah, Harry thought somewhat hysterically, having someone like that would be nice. He’d rather not die alone. Or just not die at all, /that/ would be bloody awesome. An air bubble escaped him and Harry clamped a hand over his mouth as if it would help him hold the rest inside for a little longer. He turned,

still looking for Draco, and found him just a couple of feet away, upside down in the water and alternating between kicking the barrier and casting nonverbal spells that seemed to be doing just as much good. Harry moved toward him; Draco saw him coming and flipped so he was upright again, then held out his hand. Harry didn’t even hesitate as he grasped it, gripping hard and pulling himself closer. He met Draco’s gaze and they stared at each other for a few seconds, but then all of a sudden Draco’s chest hitched. A wildly terrified look entered his eyes as, seemingly against his will, his mouth opened and all breath left him in a rush of bubbles. Draco jerked and his grip on Harry’s hand turned painful as Harry watched, shaking his head desperately, alarmed and horrified. He had absolutely no idea what to do. Suddenly there was a muffled sounding crack and a rush of movement in the water surrounding them. A small hand closed around Harry’s wrist. Harry only had time to turn his head, catching sight of Dobby grabbing Ron and Hermione, and then his eyes met Kreacher’s. There was a sharp increase in the pressure around them and pure relief washed over Harry as the elf Apparated them away.

*** They landed hard in the damp sand outside the entrance to the cave, and inhaling that first lungful of air was the greatest thing Harry had ever experienced. He coughed violently for a moment as he collapsed backward onto the ground. For a few blissful seconds, he just laid there, sucking down breath after breath and allowing his racing heart to slow and the pounding in his head to fade a bit. He absently noted that the sun was high in the sky above him; they’d only been in the cave a couple of hours, though it had seemed much, much longer. The coughing and spluttering coming from beside him broke through his daze and he rolled onto his side, watching as Draco pushed himself up to his hands and knees and apparently tried to breathe and throw up a stomach load of water at the same time. Harry forced himself to crawl over to him and rub his back, politely ignoring the fact that his gasping breaths eventually morphed into what sounded like sobs. He couldn’t seem to get enough air. “Breathe,” Harry said simply. “Breathe, you’re fine, it’s okay now.” Draco’s fingers on his right hand dug into the sand; in his left hand he was still holding Hufflepuff’s cup. Harry stared at it. They’d actually gotten it. The Horcrux. The

cup gave a weird sort of shimmer as he looked at it, and he shuddered a bit. “Harry!” Ron’s voice said suddenly, and Harry whipped his head around to find Ron staggering toward him, Hermione right behind him. And it seemed to hit Harry all at once. Shit. /Shit/. Fuck, they’d almost just died, the four of them, hadn’t they? Harry had survived the Killing Curse and yet he’d never felt closer to death’s door. They’d almost /died/, but it was over now. They were all here, they were here and alive and they had made it through this and– Harry lurched to his feet, threw open his arms, and met Ron halfway when the other boy swept forward and hugged him. “/Ron/,” he said, relief bubbling up inside him all over again. They held on to each other for a moment before Harry released him and turned to give Hermione the same treatment. She laughed weakly against his shoulder and held on tight, and then Ron threw his arms around both of them and all three of them were laughing and asking each other if they were okay. Harry felt another pair of arms wrap around his legs and he looked down to see Dobby clutching him and blubbering all over his already wet pants. “Harry Potter is alive!” he wailed. “Harry Potter is okay!

Dobby was so worried we wouldn’t be getting out in time!” “We did,” Harry said, letting go of his friends and crouching down so he could look Dobby in the eye. “Thanks to you and Kreacher. You were both brilliant.” He looked up to find Kreacher as he said it, wanting the other elf to know he was included, and saw him standing beside Draco and watching him worriedly. “Alright, Malfoy?” Ron asked, apparently having noticed as well. Draco was still on his hands and knees, staring blankly at the sand underneath him. “No,” he croaked, and then abruptly he fell onto his side and curled into himself, clutching his left wrist to his chest. “Malfoy!” Harry exclaimed, shooting forward and dropping down beside him instantly. Ron and Hermione hurried over, as well, Ron falling in on Draco’s other side with Hermione near Harry. “Draco, talk to us, what hurts?” Hermione asked quickly, sounding gentle and businesslike at the same time. Draco cracked open one eye and scowled blearily up at her. “My bloody /arm/, you daft bint, what do you think?” “Oi,” Ron said, frowning, but Hermione hushed him.

“Let me see,” she said, and Draco glared at her for a moment longer before caving to her no-nonsense tone and slowly pulling his arm away from his chest so she could see it. Harry sucked in a breath. Draco’s red skin looked worse now, obviously burned and starting to blister, but worse than that was the still slightly green look of the Dark Mark. It made Harry’s stomach churn unpleasantly. Then, he spotted the Horcrux in Draco’s hand again. “Malfoy, you can let go of that now,” he said, reaching for the cup. “/Don’t!/” Draco said loudly, abruptly, as he immediately drew his arm back to his chest. “Don’t touch it, Potter, it’s–” He stopped talking, his jaw snapping shut. Harry frowned. “It’s what?” he asked slowly, eyes narrowing. “Malfoy, what’s going on? We need to–” “It’s cursed,” Ron interrupted, leaning over Draco and staring at his arm. “Harry, his hand.” “No one asked for your input, Weasley,” Draco griped, letting out a low hiss as he clutched his own arm too tightly. “Butt out!” “No,” Ron said easily. “Also, I’m bigger than you and probably stronger. So, unless you want me to lay you out flat so we can force

that damn cup away from you, you’ll cooperate.” “Here,” Harry said, shaking off his jacket. “Wrap it in this for now. Draco hesitated and then forced himself into a sitting position, grunting and wincing a bit from the effort. He took Harry’s jacket and wrapped the Horcrux carefully into it. Harry noticed that he kept his hand covered as best he could the entire time. “Master Malfoy is needing healing salves,” Kreacher spoke up suddenly. “For the burning.” “And the pain,” Dobby added. “Dobby remembers how Master Draco is when something hurts.” “Nobody asked you,” Draco said loudly, and Ron snickered. Dobby looked momentarily cowed, but then he straightened up again and turned to Harry. “Dobby could be going to Malfoy Manor, Harry Potter. Dobby knows where the elves keep all the healing supplies and it won’t be mattering if they know Dobby is there this time.” Harry nodded. “Alright. Good. Can you meet us back at Grimmauld Place?” Dobby nodded and then Disapparated on the spot. Kreacher shuffled his feet for a moment and then said, “Kreacher is

going, too. Dobby might be needing help or he might be grabbing the wrong things and Master Malfoy needs to be having proper care and attention. Kreacher will take care of everything!” Harry couldn’t help grinning a bit. “If you like,” he said, and then before the house elf could disappear, he added, “Kreacher? Thank you. I mean it.” His grin widened. “Regulus would be proud of you, I reckon.” Kreacher looked inordinately pleased and puffed his chest out. “Kreacher will also prepare lunch for the young masters,” he said, and then Disapparated before Harry could say anything else. He turned back to Draco. “Now, show me your hand.” Draco glared mulishly. “No.” “/Malfoy/.” “Back off, Potter, it’s my hand!” Ron looked at Harry. “His fingers were bla–” “WEASLEY,” Draco interrupted. “Wait, /what?/” Harry said, alarmed. “It’s nothing,” Draco said quickly. “It’ll heal.” “But–” “Oh, honestly!” Hermione said suddenly. “You’re being ridiculous, Draco,

we’re only trying to help!” And with that she reached out, firmly grabbed Draco by the wrist and elbow, and yanked his arm out into the open. “Boys,” she muttered under her breath, before her eyes went wide. Draco made a distressed sound, and Harry felt something like ice settle in his gut. Ron gave a low whistle. “Really did a number there, mate.” “Mind your hands, Granger,” Draco said quietly. “The – the Dark Mark. Don’t touch it.” Hermione shot him a curious look, but nodded. Harry swallowed. “It’s like Dumbledore,” he said numbly, eyes glued to the blackened skin of Draco’s fingers. It hadn’t yet bled into the rest of his hand, instead fading into the harsh redness of his burn, but it would spread, Harry knew it would. He just didn’t know how quickly. “What do you mean, like Dumbledore?” Draco asked. “This happened to him?” “I think so,” Harry said, cupping a hand over his mouth. His stomach rolled uneasily. “Shit, I can’t believe I forgot about the bloody ring,” he muttered. Hermione quietly began casting what healing spells she could on Draco’s arm. “I was so caught up in the locket and the /cave/

that I forgot about the fucking /ring/.” “…Look, this isn’t a big deal,” Draco said after a moment when Harry didn’t further elaborate. He was pale, despite his words. “I’m sure it’ll go away.” “If you thought it wasn’t a big deal, you wouldn’t have minded showing us right away,” Ron pointed out. Draco glowered at him. “There,” Hermione said, pulling her wand back. “You’ll still need the salves, but that should take the edge off.” Draco looked at her in a slightly bewildered way, then glanced down at his arm and flexed his fingers. “…Thanks,” he mumbled, and when Hermione beamed at him he went a dull pink. Harry frowned. “How’s your head?” Ron asked. Hermione put her fingers to her temple and winced a bit. “I’ll live,” she said. “I can heal it when we get back.” “Speaking of, we should probably do that,” Ron said, looking around at everyone else. Harry ignored him, caught up in thoughts about the ring and the curse and Dumbledore and his black, dead looking hand– “This must have been what Snape meant when he mentioned it would leave a

mark,” he said abruptly. “You wouldn’t be able to go back to Voldemort with a curse like that on you without him noticing.” Draco, who had gone back to looking at his hand in a mix of disgust and dismay, slowly raised his head. “You think?” “Seemed kind of obvious,” Harry said. “Between that and the burn...” Draco nodded and didn’t say anything. After a moment his jaw clenched and a hard, determined look entered his eyes. He got unsteadily to his feet. “Move,” he said to the others. Harry, Ron, and Hermione stood up, the latter two backing away a bit. “What are you doing?” Harry asked. “/Move/,” Draco said again, in a tone that left no room for arguments. He leaned over and grabbed the jacket and Horcrux bundle. Harry took several steps back. Draco let the jacket unravel and Hufflepuff’s cup fell to the ground. “Malfoy, are you sure–?” With a vicious downward slash of his wand, Draco yelled, “/Avada Kedavra!/” and hit the cup with the Killing Curse. A loud shrieking sound cut through the air and a black cloud exploded

from the Horcrux and red hot pain instantly burst from behind Harry’s scar. He fell to his knees, crying out as he pressed his palm against his forehead. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Draco collapse, as well, grabbing at his wrist again, but then Ron and Hermione were in front of him blocking his view and his head hurt too much for him to focus on anything else anyway. It lasted for what felt like ages but couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. Harry gritted his teeth and tried not to cry out again. He could hear Ron and Hermione calling out to him but couldn’t make out their words. Then, as suddenly as the pain had started, it stopped. The shrieking faded and the black cloud dissipated and soon all that remained was an innocent looking golden cup. Harry slowly uncurled from where he was hunched over his knees and let his hand fall from his head with a grimace. “Bloody hell,” Ron muttered, still clutching Harry’s shoulder. “Alright, mate?” “Yeah…” Harry shrugged Ron’s hand off and scooted over to Draco. The other boy was on his back and panting, and he looked up as Harry settled beside him. “You know, for someone who was all worried about getting cave gunk in his hair, you’d think you’d try to avoid rolling

around in the wet sand,” Harry said, absently reaching out and brushing some of the hair off Draco’s forehead. He quickly realized what he was doing and yanked his hand back, clearing his throat and looking around at anything that wasn’t Draco’s face. “You okay?” he asked, and instead ended up glancing down at Draco’s arm. …Well. On the bright side, his Dark Mark was no longer a sickly green color. It was, however, now writhing about on his skin like it was actually alive. Draco didn’t answer him. “Potter,” he said urgently instead, “we need to get out of here. I can’t–” He winced just as a fresh wave of pain sliced through Harry’s scar. “He knows,” Draco said, his voice climbing higher with each word. “I think he knows something just happened, he /felt/ that, and I can’t – Potter, I can’t focus, everything fucking hurts and I don’t think I can keep him out. We need to go now before he figures out where we are!” Icy cold tendrils of fear clenched around Harry’s heart. He looked over his shoulder at Ron and Hermione, who were wrapping the cup back up in Harry’s jacket, and held out his hand. “Come on!” he said. “We’re leaving. /Now/. Back to Grimmauld Place!”

“Harry, what’s he talking about?” Hermione asked, even as she reached out with one hand to take Harry’s and grabbed hold of Ron with the other. “I’ll explain later.” Harry put a hand on Draco’s shoulder. “For now, concentrate!” There were four loud cracks as they Disapparated, and then the beach was empty. *** As soon as the drawing room of Grimmauld Place took shape around them, Harry started barking out orders. “Ron, find some parchment and a quill, write a letter to Professor Snape,” he said while hauling Draco to his feet and leading him over to the couch. “Snape?” Ron asked, looking confused. “Yeah, tell him we have an emergency and we need to meet with him as soon as possible.” Harry turned back to face Ron and Hermione once Draco was seated. “Don’t sign it, don’t say anything about where we are. Let Snape send us back the details.” “Don’t sign it? How will he know–?” “He’ll know,” Draco said between clenched teeth. He was, once again,

gripping his arm, and each time the snake in the Dark Mark thrashed, Harry’s scar gave an answering throb. “He’ll be expecting something from us anyway, and who the hell else would be asking him for help right now?” “Not to mention he’s been grading our homework for six years,” Hermione added. “He’ll recognize your handwriting.” She shooed Ron out of the room to get the parchment, then went and sat beside Draco. “Dobby should be here soon with the healing salves.” “It’s not the burn that’s bothering me at the moment,” Draco said. Hermione nodded, gently taking Draco’s wrist and tugging at his other hand. “I know. Let go, that can’t actually be helping.” “Don’t–” “Touch the mark, I know.” Hermione looked up at him, giving him a wry smile. “You seemed pretty adamant about that before, I haven’t forgotten.” “Parchment!” Ron said loudly from the doorway. He was watching the two sitting on the couch with a somewhat perplexed look. Harry went over to help him draft the letter, though it only needed a few lines so it didn’t take them long. They were finishing writing it when it suddenly occurred to Harry that no one had come running yet to see what all the

commotion was about, which was kind of odd considering Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were supposed to be living there now. He was about to mention this, but Draco spoke first. “Do you think that the Killing Curse actually destroyed it?” he asked, using his foot to prod at the bundled up cup that Hermione had set down on the floor. Harry hesitated, glancing over at it. “Here’s hoping,” he muttered. “I mean, it doesn’t /feel/ as if… I can’t sense it anymore. If you know what I mean.” Draco nodded, and then jumped a bit when his still sopping wet clothes suddenly turned dry and warm. He blinked at Hermione as she cast the same spell on herself, then pointed her wand at Ron and Harry. Ron grinned at her. “Thanks!” he said cheerfully, and she blushed. “You should get someone to heal your head now,” Draco said suddenly. “I mean, instead of worrying over everyone else,” he hastened to add when she turned back to him with raised eyebrows. “I can do it,” Harry said. “Hedwig should be upstairs, Ron.” Ron nodded and bounded out of the room again. Harry was pointing his wand at Hermione and murmuring a

spell under his breath when two cracks echoed through the room and both Dobby and Kreacher abruptly appeared, their arms overflowing with jars and bandages and more healing supplies than they could possibly need. “Dobby has returned with the healing salve, Harry Potter!” the elf cried, dropping everything else and bringing the necessary jar over to Harry. Kreacher grumbled something under his breath and then set his own load down. He began organizing everything in neat little rows as Harry grinned at them both and took the salve from Dobby. “Thanks,” he said, watching as Dobby nearly started bouncing in excitement from his gratitude alone. “Dobby is bringing the one that doesn’t give Master Draco a rash,” he said, nodding and suddenly using a serious tone because this information was clearly of the utmost importance. Draco looked momentarily horrified, his face slowly growing red as Dobby continued talking obliviously. “When Master Draco was still practically being a baby, Master Draco tried to follow Master Malfoy through the floo. Dobby got him out right away, of course, but he was still needing the salve and then it was only making things worse! Oh, Mistress Malfoy was furious.” Dobby pulled at his ears and Harry couldn’t help snickering

at the gobsmacked look on Draco’s face. “Yes, /thank you/, that story was entirely necessary to share,” he bit out, crossing his arms over his chest. Dobby looked up at Harry. “Dobby had to iron his ears for that one,” he confided, which really wasn’t funny at all, but Draco still looked mortified at the realization that this house elf could share potentially embarrassing childhood stories of him, and Harry was just glad Dobby was able to do so without feeling the need to relive the past and punish himself all over again. “Alright, she’s off,” Ron said as he reentered the room. “Hullo Dobby, Kreacher.” “Master Weasley!” Dobby exclaimed, dashing over to shake his hand a couple times. “Dobby is going to make lunch! Is there anything Master Weasley or Harry Potter or–” He hesitated, glancing over at Draco on the couch, but then just looked back at Ron. “Dobby can make whatever you is wanting!” Kreacher made an annoyed sound and straightened up from his row of healing supplies. “/Kreacher/ is going to prepare lunch,” he said, shoving at Dobby’s arm to get his attention.

“Dobby can do it–” “Kreacher isn’t needing other elves clogging up his Mistress’ kitchen–” “Dobby can /help/–!” “Why don’t you /both/ get lunch ready, yeah?” Ron cut in, ushering them towards the door. “I’m sure we’ll all be happy with whatever you make.” Kreacher grumbled under his breath but Dobby seemed to think that was a fantastic idea, and the two of them disappeared around the corner headed toward the kitchen. They could still hear them arguing as they went. Ron let out a breath. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I’m bloody grateful they were there this morning, but I’ve already got a headache and they were starting to add to it.” “Shame,” Harry said with a grin. “Dobby was sharing embarrassing stories of Malfoy when he was a kid.” “Oh.” Ron paused. “Well now I want to call him back in here.” Draco scowled. “Ha bloody /ha/, Weasley. I don’t think so.” Hermione chuckled and held out her hand to Harry. “Here, I’ll take that. Draco, hold out your arm.” Harry handed over the salve and Draco did as told, giving Hermione an appraising look as he did before smirking a bit.

“Be still my heart, Hermione Granger, are you going to be my Healer today?” His smirk turned into more of a playful leer. “You’re not really wearing the right robes for that, you know. Haven’t you got a nurse’s uniform you can put on?” “Watch it,” Ron said, but Hermione just grinned. “Sorry, Draco, I’ve left it upstairs,” she said in a teasing tone as she carefully spread the salve over Draco’s burned arm. “Maybe I’ll slip into it later, but only if you ask me nicely.” Harry had known since his first year at Hogwarts that there were some things it was impossible to share without ending up liking each other. Evidently that truth still held even when it came to someone who had been an utter prat to you for years. Harry supposed that Draco nearly sacrificing his arm in the process of destroying a Horcrux was a fairly impressive show of good will that would go leaps and bounds toward improving his relationship with Harry’s friends. “There, done,” Hermione said. “We’ll check it again later, but I think you’ll be alright.” A tiny crease formed between her eyebrows as she finished wrapping Draco’s arm. “Well…the burn will be, anyway.” Her eyes lingered on Draco’s blackened fingers, but she didn’t say anything else.

Draco gave his bandaged arm a scrutinizing look. “Looks good, Healer Granger. I’m…much obliged.” “Anytime,” Hermione said. She seemed pleased. Ron shared a look with Harry. “Well!” he said loudly. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m knackered. Think I’ll have a quick lie-down before lunch. Join me, Hermione?” “Oh, that does sound good.” She stood and met Ron by the door, automatically reaching for his hand. That seemed to relax him a bit, and he smiled at her. Hermione returned it, then looked back around at Harry. “…I feel like my heart is still racing,” she confessed. “Like it still needs to sink in that we’re okay for the moment. We’re safe here.” Harry nodded. “I know what you mean.” “You’re alright?” The concern in her voice was familiar and comforting. “I’ll be fine,” Harry said, giving her a tired smile. Hermione nodded, and then she pulled Ron from the room. “See you at lunch, mate!” he called back over his shoulder. Draco’s eyes followed them as they left. “She actually grew up quite pretty, didn’t she?” he commented lightly. “Hermione.” He said her name

carefully, like he was testing out the way it would sound coming from him. Harry stared at him blankly. Draco noticed. “What?” he said, immediately on the defensive. “She did!” He gestured vaguely in the direction of his own mouth. “Her smile is different than I remember.” “…She did that in fourth year,” Harry said carefully, watching Draco closely. “Oh yeah.” Draco nodded, looking thoughtful. “The Yule Ball. Do you know, I didn’t actually believe that was her? I think I convinced myself that it wasn’t.” “Have you suddenly got a crush on her or something?” Harry asked abruptly, and Draco snorted. “No,” he said. He stood and stretched his arms above his head, then shot Harry an amused look. “Besides, what would you care if I did?” “…I wouldn’t,” Harry said after a beat, and Draco snorted again. Harry felt his face go warm and he scowled. “I wouldn’t! Only, she’s my best friend’s girl.” He glared. “So back off.” Draco laughed. “Oh, Potter. I’m sure my natural Malfoy charm could win out over Weasley’s ginger hair and freckles any day.” He

smirked at Harry. “But you’ve got nothing to worry about.” “I wasn’t worried,” Harry said stubbornly, because he /wasn’t/. “But – good. I don’t need you and Ron going at it when you’ve only just started getting along.” That had Draco grimacing and shuddering for effect. “Getting along with a Weasley,” he said. “Somewhere in Azkaban, my father just had a heart attack.” The unusually casual mention of his dad and his current whereabouts startled Harry a bit, but he was distracted from saying anything about it when Draco swayed suddenly on his feet and had to put a hand on the arm of the couch to steady himself. “Alright?” Harry asked, taking a step toward him. “Fine,” Draco replied with a frown, rubbing at his forehead with his other hand. His already pale skin seemed to go a shade lighter. “Liar.” Harry closed the distance between them in one long stride and helped Draco ease back down onto the couch. “It’s your hand, isn’t it?” Draco shook his head. “I’m just tired,” he insisted, shifting around until he was lying down comfortably. “And possibly in shock. I’m

delicate right now, Potter, that’s all. You’ll have to wait on me hand and foot whilst I recover.” Harry settled onto the floor beside the couch and then raised an eyebrow at the other boy. “We have house elves here now; you don’t need your own personal slave.” “But I /want/ my own personal slave.” “Yet we don’t always get what we want, do we? Shame, that.” “Well, that’s gratitude for you,” Draco said snootily. “I nearly lose my arm because of you and you can’t even be bothered to give me this one little thing in return.” Harry grinned. “I just don’t think I could pull off a tea towel as well as Kreacher, that’s all.” Draco gave Harry a long look out of the corner of his eye. “Oh, I think you’d wear it quite well,” he said after a moment, with a bit of a smirk. Harry felt his face grow warm and he didn’t reply, instead shifting his gaze away uncomfortably. Draco sighed and, after another pause, said in a guileless tone, “Sorry.” Harry’s brow furrowed. “What for?” “For all but throwing myself at you when you /clearly/ aren’t interested–”

Harry nearly choked on his own spit and his face flamed up again. “The thing is,” Draco continued obliviously, staring hard up at the ceiling, “I’m not even entirely sure why I’m doing it. Other than that I’m /bored/, maybe, and a little hard up, but it’s not as though I usually go for blokes. I mean, I guess I – in the past, you know, before everything went to shit, maybe I would’ve–” “Is now really the time?” Harry interrupted somewhat hysterically, feeling panic well up inside him. “You should be resting, this can all wait–” “But I certainly wouldn’t have gone sniffing around /you/,” Draco interrupted right back, his nose wrinkling as if the thought alone disgusted him. “You’re an annoying git and not my type /at all/, I’m sure.” There was silence for a second, just long enough for Harry to become irrationally offended, and then – “Not your type?” he repeated incredulously. “You’ve been pulling my pigtails since /first year/, Malfoy, what the bloody hell do you mean I’m /not your type/?” And whoa, hold up, he hadn’t meant to say that. Harry wasn’t even sure where the words had come from. His eyes went wide.

Draco’s gaze snapped back down to meet Harry’s, his cheeks going furiously pink as he pushed himself up to one elbow and turned to face the other boy. “I have /not/ been /pulling your pigtails/, Potter!” he snapped. “I’ve been cleverly insulting you at every turn and besting you in as many ways possible and–” “Poking and prodding and trying to get my attention or make me /jealous/ ever since I said no to you on the train,” Harry said, voice growing louder and more amused each time Draco tried to cut him off again. “You’ve probably wanted me since then, you just didn’t know it!” Draco glowered at him, trying to cover how flustered he suddenly was. “All I wanted then was – look, I just wasn’t used to being turned down like that!” he cried, and then shoved Harry’s shoulder when he snickered. “Oh, piss off, you’re twisting everything around! That’s not how it was and you know it. I was /eleven/, for Salazar’s sake!” “Oh, I don’t know…” Harry said in a teasing tone, all traces of his earlier panic gone in the face of Draco’s embarrassment. “/So/ many things are making sense to me now.” Draco made an annoyed sound, but then his eyes brightened. “Well you’re one to talk,” he said, and Harry didn’t like this new hint of

smugness he’d suddenly adopted. “Seems to me you enjoyed all the attention, even though you acted like you didn’t.” “What’s that supposed to–” “I mean, as soon as I /stopped/ paying attention to you, you got all huffy, didn’t you?” Harry paled a bit and Draco grinned at him full stop. “Didn’t like it at all last year when I had other things to do that didn’t involve spelling your shoelaces together anymore. If I recall correctly, /you’re/ the one who started following me all around the school.” He flopped backward onto the couch again, getting comfortable and letting his eyes slide shut, smirk still on his face. “Got a bit obsessed there, eh, Potter?” “The only person I was obsessed with last year was Ginny,” Harry said automatically, but he knew it wasn’t true. Unfortunately, so did Draco. “Yeah, she’s always your excuse.” “I did actually like her, you know,” Harry muttered. “A lot, at that.” “I’m sure you did.” Draco cracked one eye open to look at Harry. “Past tense, might I point out. Your words, not mine.” Harry swore. “Look, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not into…” He

gestured helplessly at Draco. “Some of your recent actions would indicate otherwise.” Harry let out a frustrated breath. “You /just/ said you’re not even sure why you’re angling for this.” And actually, what all /this/ even entailed, he didn’t know. He figured it was better that way. “You’re probably not actually into blokes either, you know?” “I think I just never considered it as a genuine possibility,” Draco said, closing his eyes again. “It’s not unheard of, obviously, but it’s also generally not as well accepted in the pureblood community and I always assumed I’d just be married off when the time was right. Likely to Pansy.” The thought made him grimace a bit. “But, when it’s suddenly shoved in front of your eyes, well. You can’t help wondering, I suppose.” This conversation was wandering back into the realm of weirdness and something that hit a little too close to home for Harry. After all, it wasn’t a concept that had occurred to him, either, until Seamus and Justin had– Harry shoved his glasses up and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes until they started to hurt, then dropped them and abruptly pushed himself to his feet. “Snape should have some idea about what to

do for your hand,” he said, opting to just go for a complete subject change rather than deal with…that other stuff. “Hopefully he’ll get back to us soon.” Draco peered up at him. “Fingers crossed,” he said after a moment. “Because it…doesn’t feel right. And it’s not just my hand, I can feel it spreading everywhere. It’s – I don’t know. Strange.” “Thought so,” Harry murmured. He chewed on his bottom lip worriedly for a moment, but there wasn’t anything he could do. “You’re alright in here?” Draco nodded. “For now. Too tired to move.” “Yeah, my bed’s calling,” Harry said, and then flushed a bit as if mentioning a bed at all in Draco’s presence was somehow suggestive. Draco snorted and rolled his eyes, and Harry scowled back down at him. “Shut up. Arse.” “Prat.” “Git.” “/Gryffindor/.” “That’s not an insult.” “Says you.” Harry gave a soft laugh and turned to leave the room. “I’ll come get you

when lunch is ready.” Draco mumbled something unintelligibly, and by the time Harry reached the door and gave him a final glance over his shoulder, he was asleep. Chapter 19 Later in the afternoon, after they’d finished eating and Harry had told Dobby and Kreacher they could go back to Hogwarts, the four of them found themselves in the drawing room again. Hermione was curled up in one of the armchairs with a book in her lap, while Ron and Draco were each trying to prove their claim that they were the best in their year at Wizard’s Chess. Harry watched them play, absently wishing there was a Muggle television here he could plop his arse in front of instead. He wanted something to do that required no concentration. Chess was beyond him at the moment, and frankly he wasn’t sure how the other two were managing to focus on the game either. He still had a headache, despite taking an hour long nap earlier, and Draco really didn’t look much better. If anything, he seemed even paler than he’d been before. Grimmauld Place was quiet around them, same as it had been since they’d arrived back that morning. Harry wondered again where

everyone was. He’d gotten used to various Order members stomping around the place when they were living here before, and the traffic level had only gone up with the addition of the Weasleys moving in the day before last. So, the silence was a little unnerving. He frowned. “Ron, where do you think your parents are?” Ron didn’t hear him; instead he watched as his knight took out one of Draco’s rooks and laughed almost evilly when Draco swore at him. “Sorry, mate, what?” he asked distractedly, making a rude gesture at Draco before looking over his shoulder at Harry. “Your parents,” Harry said again, a bit impatiently. Hermione looked up curiously from her book. “They aren’t here.” “Huh.” Ron glanced around the room as if he expected them to pop up from behind the couch. “You know, I didn’t notice. I keep forgetting they’re staying here.” “Is it unusual for them to step out for a bit?” Draco asked, frowning down at the chess board. Ron shrugged. “Who knows what they get up to in their old age, I’ve stopped paying attention. Better for my mental health.” “/Ron/,” Hermione admonished, and Ron sent her a cheeky grin.

Harry wished they would focus. “It’s just a little weird that no one’s here.” “We could floo Fred and George and ask them?” Hermione suggested, but Ron waved her off. “They probably just went out for the day, it’s no big deal,” he said. “Stop worrying.” “But they would have noticed we weren’t here this morning,” Harry said. “Your mum wouldn’t have left until we got back.” This seemed to catch Ron’s attention. “…Maybe she left a note?” “Doubt it,” Harry said, looking skeptical. Ron turned around in his seat, his brow furrowed now. “Well–” A faint rushing noise from the other room suddenly interrupted him, and then the unmistakable sound of someone moving around had Ron releasing a breath and gesturing at the doorway. “There,” he said. “The floo, that’ll be them coming back from wherever they were.” He stood up and headed toward the door, calling as he went. “Mum! That you? We were just–” But it wasn’t them and Ron stopped short again, abruptly backpedaling as the last person Harry expected to see swept into the room.

“Do I /look/ like your mother, Weasley?” Snape drawled, arms crossed over his chest and appearing for all the world like his presence in Grimmauld Place was a totally normal and regular thing. Harry’s eyes went wide behind his glasses. “Professor!” he exclaimed, and was quickly echoed by the other three. Snape surveyed the room briefly before his gaze landed on the chess board. “This is your emergency? I see the problem – Mr. Malfoy, you do realize you’re about to lose to a Gryffindor?” Draco scowled, but Harry jumped up before he could say anything. “Professor, what are you doing, you can’t be here!” he said, shooting a worried look in the direction Snape had come from. “What if someone else sees you? They could be back at any moment!” “They won’t be back for awhile yet,” Snape said, and then in a swift subject change added, “Nobody here appears to be dying.” Harry frowned. “How do you know that?” “Because I have eyes, Potter, and you’re all sitting here looking perfectly content–” “That’s not what I meant!” Snape merely raised an eyebrow at him. “You sent me a rather urgent owl,” he said. “I assumed you’d be here. You went to the

cave this morning as planned, correct?” “…Yes,” Harry said after a brief pause. He slowly sat back down again, watching Snape closely. “And the Horcrux?” “We got it.” Harry nodded towards Draco. “Or Malfoy did, anyway.” “We barely made it out of the damn place alive,” Ron spoke up. “You might have warned us! Er – professor,” he tacked on sheepishly. “I wasn’t fully aware of what exactly you’d be facing,” Snape said. He moved further into the room, finding an empty armchair and sitting down. “Where is it, then?” Harry glanced at Draco, who lifted his chin a bit. “I destroyed it,” he said. If Snape was at all surprised that they’d already gotten rid of the Horcrux, he didn’t show it. “So that’s another one down,” was all he said. “Good.” Harry looked at Draco again and this time the other boy met his eyes. Somehow, Harry knew they were wondering the same thing. “You couldn’t tell?” he asked Snape curiously.

“Tell what?” “When we destroyed it – you didn’t feel anything?” “What should I have been able to feel?” Snape frowned slightly. “It contained a part of the Dark Lord’s soul, not mine.” “Well.” Harry gestured helplessly at his forehead, and now both Ron and Hermione looked confused, too. “When Malfoy used the killing curse on the cup, it sort of…exploded. And it /hurt/ – my scar, I mean. But it’s done that before, sometimes when Voldemort is…angry, I guess. It hurt a lot in fifth year.” Snape was watching Harry carefully. “Your fifth year was when the Dark Lord was trying to use your own mind against you. He was constantly inside your head, which is something I’m certain he doesn’t do anymore. Not after it backfired on him.” “But the whole reason he could get into my head in the first place was because we have some kind of connection, right?” Harry asked. “My scar doesn’t usually hurt much anymore, now that Voldemort’s keeping out, but it did today. This morning.” He glanced at Draco. “And…so did Malfoy’s Dark Mark. We were assuming it’s because it has the same kind of connection to – you know. Him.” That finally seemed to drag some emotion out of Snape, and

a faintly startled look passed over his face. “What do you mean, it /hurt/?” he asked Draco. “The same as it does when the Dark Lord calls a meeting?” Draco shook his head, his brow furrowing. “No, it was worse.” “Has it ever done that before?” “Well…” Draco hesitated. “Yes.” He eyes slid towards Harry, and Snape noticed. “Explain,” he said tersely. Draco arched his eyebrows questioningly at Harry, and when the other boy nodded he shrugged and did as told. “Whenever Potter touches my mark, it seems to – get a bit out of control. It /burns/, so much that I have a hard time focusing on anything else. And Potter’s scar hurts, too.” “Harry, is that true?” Hermione asked, frowning. “What the hell are you doing touching Malfoy’s Dark Mark?” said Ron, looking a bit disturbed at the thought. “It’s only happened maybe two times,” Harry replied. “And by accident. But – yeah. If I get anywhere near it, my scar acts up again. Today was the worst it’s ever been, but it wasn’t because I had any contact with the Dark Mark. It was because of the Horcrux. We thought,

what with the connection to Voldemort and everything, it was because he felt that part of his soul being destroyed and then in turn…so did we…?” He trailed off somewhat uncertainly. “You’ve never felt it before when one of the Horcruxes was destroyed,” Snape pointed out. Harry frowned, thinking. “Probably because Voldemort never felt it. Until now, anyway. Dumbledore said something about how Voldemort’s soul is too mutilated for him to be able to feel when a piece gets destroyed. But maybe with less of them around, now he can?” “I suppose,” Snape said slowly. “But there’s also a chance that just because /you/ felt something, it doesn’t mean the Dark Lord did.” Draco shook his head. “No, he definitely would’ve noticed; I thought my whole bloody arm was going to fall off.” He hesitated for a moment, and then continued, “Before, I thought maybe the Dark Lord would be able to sense that I was with Potter if he felt him through the mark. That he might know it was him touching me and come looking for us.” Snape looked thoughtful as he considered everything they were saying, but Ron and Hermione were another story entirely. They had both gone

pale and Hermione in particular seemed extremely alarmed. “/Harry/,” she choked out. “Do you mean to tell me that you /knew/ about this – about the connection and you /knew/ it was possible that YouKnow-Who would be able to find you through Draco?!” Harry winced. Probably, he should have mentioned that bit to them sooner… Hermione took his silence as a yes. She made a distressed sound and covered her mouth with her hands. “And you’re still letting him hang around?!” Ron exclaimed, color abruptly filling his face as he turned a bright red that clashed horribly with his hair. “He’s – he–” “Destroyed a Horcrux for us?” Harry supplied blithely. “And nearly killed himself doing so?” Ron scowled. “That’s /not/ the point here,” he said angrily, but to his credit he turned and gave Draco a helpless sort of shrug and added, “I mean – look, no offense, mate, we appreciate it and all, but this…” He threw a hand in the direction of Draco’s left arm. “If that’s going to put Harry in danger, then we can’t–” “I get it,” Draco interrupted. “I do. You’re worried about your precious Golden Boy, it’s understandable. But like I told Potter when /he/ first found out, it’s really not as easy to find me as all that. The

Dark Lord would still have to determine my location, and I’m usually Occluding constantly to keep him out.” Hermione turned her attention back to Snape. “Professor?” Snape didn’t say anything for a moment, still looking as though he was thinking things over. He leaned forward in his seat, elbows braced on his knees, and rested his chin on his folded hands. “Draco is mostly correct,” he said slowly. “If he’s utilizing his Occlumency skills, and Potter is as well, then it’s unlikely the Dark Lord would be able to discover your location. However,” he continued loudly, just as Ron and Hermione had begun to look a little relieved, “there are also many other things he’s currently involved with that are keeping his full attention otherwise distracted. If he were to /actively/ look for you… Well.” Harry didn’t need him to finish that sentence. “…He would probably find us.” “He /is/ one of the most powerful Legilimens there is,” Snape said in a somewhat dry tone. “And if your theory is true and the Dark Lord /does/ actually notice when a piece of his soul is destroyed, then I’d say you caught his attention well and proper this morning.” “I really think he does,” Harry said. “Maybe he didn’t before because

there were so many pieces, but I think he knows when something happens to one of his Horcruxes now. He can feel it.” “What about the ring?” Ron asked. “You think he felt when Dumbledore destroyed that one?” “I’m not sure,” Harry said. “I mean, /I/ didn’t feel it, so maybe at that point he still couldn’t…” “Or maybe he did and that was part of the reason he wanted Dumbledore dead,” Draco suggested. “You’re right,” Hermione said thoughtfully. “The timing certainly is interesting.” “It’s possible,” Snape allowed. “But also unlikely. How would he have known it was Dumbledore? And if he did manage to find out…well, since Dumbledore is no longer with us, we can at least remain hopeful that he doesn’t know who did it this time.” “He’ll figure that out easily enough,” Harry muttered. Snape nodded somewhat reluctantly. “It’s probably only a matter of time,” he agreed. “But that doesn’t mean he’ll know Draco is with you. Especially if you didn’t have any contact with his Dark Mark today.” Harry shook his head. “He’ll figure that out, too, it’s got to be obvious by now. There are too many clues floating around.

Bellatrix actually /saw/ me, for Merlin’s sake. Not to mention what Malfoy’s assignment is. All signs point to us being together.” “Assignment?” Ron asked sharply. “And what’s that, exactly?” Harry winced again and Draco’s eyes slid shut as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh, well done, Potter.” “Harry?” Hermione said. “Guys…” Harry sighed. “It’s nothing. We’ve had it out already, and – Malfoy was supposed to do something, Voldemort gave him another task, but–” “Like with Dumbledore?” Ron cut in. “Yeah. Only…not /quite/ as extreme…” “Yes,” Draco drawled. “I’m not supposed to kill you, Potter, only turn you over to the Dark Lord.” Hermione went pale all over again and Ron gaped at the pair of them. “/What/?!” he shouted. “Thanks for that,” Harry grumbled, sending a glare in Draco’s direction. He got a smirk in return. “Oh, you’re quite welcome.” “Harry James Potter, I cannot /believe/ you!” Hermione said shrilly,

frowning and furrowing her brow and looking every bit like Mrs. Weasley when she was getting ready to scold one her sons. She opened and closed her mouth several times, and then gave up and threw her hands in the air. “I don’t even know what to do with you right now. How could you not /tell/ us–!” “Hermione…” Harry started to say, but she crossed her arms and turned her head away from him. “No,” she said. “Don’t talk to me right now. I can’t even look at you.” Draco raised an eyebrow. “You’re dating your mother, you realize that, right?” he said to Ron, who promptly scowled at him. “Just shut up, alright?” he said. “Are you serious? You’re supposed to /turn him over/? How the hell are we supposed to trust you now when you’ve probably just been trying to infiltrate our defenses the entire time?!” “/Ron/,” Harry tried to interrupt, but Draco spoke over him. “Do near sacrifices mean /nothing/ to you people?” he cried. “Not to mention it’s been bloody /months/ now that I’ve been with Potter and he’s FINE. What does a bloke have to do to get a little credit around here?!”

“Try being fucking /honest/ with us, you stupid–” “Potter knew! It’s not my fault he didn’t tell you!” Ron abruptly fell silent, and even Hermione glanced back over her shoulder at the lot of them. They both glared at Harry. “Er…” Harry rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “To be fair, I’ve only known a few days…” “NOT HELPING,” Draco said loudly, as Ron looked ready to start yelling again. “If you’re all /quite/ finished,” Snape suddenly cut in. “Save your petty arguments for after I’m gone, I don’t want to hear all your /whining/.” He directed a hard look at Ron. “He destroyed a Horcrux for you, Weasley, what more do you want?” “That’s not the point–” “It /is/ the point!” Snape said forcefully. “It’s the most important thing right now! Now stop this childish behavior /at once/ and let’s get back to the matter at hand.” Ron sunk down in his chair, crossing his arms with a sullen glare. “Fine,” he bit out. “It just would have been nice if someone had told us about this – /all/ of this – instead of keeping secrets.” “I wasn’t trying to keep secrets!” Harry said, bristling.

“We’ve just been /busy/ and I haven’t–” “I swear, if I was still your teacher I’d take fifty points from each of you right now,” Snape interrupted in a sharp tone. “For the last time, all of you, /shut/. /up/.” When they managed to remain in a sulky silence for a good ten seconds, Snape nodded. “Good. Now, Potter, as you pointed out, it does seem…/unlikely/ that the Dark Lord would not be able to come to the correct conclusion in regards to Draco’s whereabouts. And if he does realize you’re aware of the Horcruxes, things will undoubtedly become more problematic for the two of you. But putting that aside for the moment – this business with your scar and the Dark Mark is concerning.” He looked back and forth between Harry and Draco. “It might have had something to do with your proximity to the Horcrux when you destroyed it. Perhaps being that close to the Dark Lord’s soul triggered such reactions, in addition to whatever the Dark Lord himself may have felt.” Harry’s brow furrowed. “But what about the other times? When there was no Horcrux?” Snape frowned. “…I can’t be sure,” he said after a slight pause. “But I’ll look into it.” “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell us about any of this,”

Hermione said weakly, ignoring the exasperated look Snape gave her. “Honestly, Harry.” “I’m sorry!” Harry offered up his most remorseful look, hoping she’d take pity on him. “I meant to, I just – forgot!” Ron snorted. “Forgot, my arse,” he grumbled. Snape gave an aggravated sigh. “I give up. Was that all you needed, Potter?” he asked, annoyance coloring his tone. “I /was/ actually in the middle of something important when I received your owl, I need to get back before I’m missed.” “No,” Harry said quickly, straightening up in his chair. “No, there’s one more thing – it’s actually the main reason we wrote you, the other stuff just came up first.” “Well, get on with it,” Snape said impatiently. “Right.” Harry scooted his chair closer to the table Ron and Draco had been using to play chess, and then he hesitated. This actually was important, and Harry suddenly wasn’t sure if he wanted to know just what Draco’s injury might mean. But they needed help and Snape would have answers – hopefully – so Harry tipped his head in Draco’s direction and spoke. “Something happened to his hand. When we were in the cave.”

Snape nodded, looking unsurprised. “I did tell you it would likely leave a mark.” “Yeah,” Draco said irritably, “but you didn’t say anything about me being /cursed/.” He lifted his arm and rested it on the table, then let his fingers unfurl. Snape’s eyes immediately went wide. This alone was more worrying than anything else they had talked about so far. Snape quickly stood from his seat and crossed to where Draco was, picking up his hand and staring at it. Several long seconds passed before Draco started squirming uncomfortably. He opened his mouth to say something but Snape shushed him before he even got the chance, still eyeing his hand, and Draco subsided with a glower. Then all at once, Snape swore. “This curse is similar to the one Dumbledore received when destroying the ring,” he said. “…I take it that’s a bad thing,” Draco said faintly. Harry’s stomach clenched. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. “I…thought it might be the same one,” he said after a moment. “It looks like it. But it’s not? It’s only similar?” “If it was the same one, Draco would likely be dead by now,” Snape said

bluntly, and what little color was left in Draco’s face drained away as he swallowed nervously. “Is there anything you can do?” Hermione asked, her eyes wide. Ron nodded. “Yeah, there’s got to be /something/–” “There’s no cure,” Snape said in a sharp tone. “Or there wasn’t for the curse Dumbledore received, at least. He only survived because he was an exceptionally smart wizard and did some quick spellwork, and he immediately came to me so I could give him a potion that contained the curse to his hand. I was working on finding a cure last year, but then – well. I’ll have to start my research again.” He pulled out his wand and began waving it over Draco’s hand, muttering some kind of long, involved spell as he did. “No cure?” Draco repeated as he watched Snape work. “So, if you can’t figure something out, then this could also be – you’re saying this might /kill/ me?” Snape’s lips pressed thinly together after he finished his enchantment, and he remained quiet for a moment. “Let’s hope not,” he eventually said. Draco’s eyes widened and he stared at Snape in horrified disbelief. “This might kill me,” he said again. “You sent me to get

that /fucking/ Horcrux and you knew it might KILL me.” “There were no other options.” “/You/ were an option!” “The Order needs the information I provide them. I couldn’t risk my position.” There was something that could have been regret in Snape’s voice, but Draco clearly didn’t hear it. He just shook his head, trying again to pull his hand from Snape’s grasp, but Snape still didn’t let him go. “Draco,” he said forcefully. “I’ve a feeling the Dark Lord would have wanted this curse’s victim to survive.” Draco looked up angrily as Snape spoke. “That way he would know who betrayed him and could punish him accordingly.” “…Oh, well that makes me feel /so/ much better,” Draco snapped. Snape exhaled harshly through his nose before dropping Draco’s gaze and peering closely at his hand again instead. “The spell won’t be enough,” he muttered. “I’ll have to send you some potions, as well.” Draco scowled, but didn’t say anything further. Harry dragged a hand through his hair. Deep breaths weren’t enough for dealing with this news, he decided. He felt as though a Dementor had just accidentally drifted into the room, the way ice was

suddenly building up in his gut. “If you /can’t/ find – how long does he…?” Snape didn’t answer. “Dumbledore must have lasted at least a year,” Ron said. “But he looked terrible by the end of it,” Harry mumbled. “I’ll find the counter-curse,” Snape said. “This is something the Dark Lord came up with himself, I just have to – figure it out. It might not be as complicated as the curse that was on the ring.” He looked more frustrated than Harry had ever seen him, and he was reminded again of the Unbreakable Vow Snape had made with Draco’s mother. For some reason, it made Harry feel a little better. Snape would work it out. He’d fix this. He /had/ to; he was still supposed to be protecting Draco, wasn’t he? “A-alright then,” Hermione said nervously, before she visibly steeled herself. “Is there anything we need to do in the meantime, Professor?” “…Yes,” Snape replied after a moment. “You need to avoid leaving Grimmauld Place as much as possible.” He finally let go of Draco’s hand and abruptly turned on his heel, heading for the door. “Other than that, proceed as normal. Draco, I’ll send those potions back by owl.”

“Wait, why can’t we leave?” Ron asked. Snape paused, looking over his shoulder. “You can. And she can.” He leveled a glare on Harry and Draco. “But unless you want the Dark Lord showing up for an unexpected visit, you two need to remain here until I find out just how much he knows about what you’re doing.” Harry frowned. “What are we supposed to do until then?” “Do you know where or even what the next Horcrux is?” “...No.” “Well.” Snape raised an eyebrow. “There you go.” Harry sighed. /Research/. His favorite. Snape turned to leave, and then paused yet again. “One more thing,” he said. “Although I’m sure you’d hear the news soon enough anyway, but – the Ministry has fallen. The Dark Lord has had some of his men planted there for weeks and earlier today his Death Eaters staged a coup d'état that resulted in the Minister’s death. The Order had just been spotted in the Ministry when I took my leave.” He didn’t wait for any of them to comment on the bombshell he’d just dropped, instead sweeping out of the room in the same manner in which he’d entered. He left nothing but a stunned silence in his wake.

*** Ron was in a state of barely contained panic. “What did he mean, /the Ministry’s fallen/? There was a coup d’état? And the Order’s there – that must be where my parents went! Bloody hell, what if my whole family’s there – Harry, we have to go help!” …Okay, so perhaps not /contained/ panic at all. Hermione was trying to calm him down, but Harry couldn’t blame him; he was up and pacing about the room himself, cursing Voldemort, cursing his Death Eaters, cursing /Snape/. “This is why he had us go find the Horcrux today!” he complained, digging his hands back into his hair. “The beach will be closed, my arse. He just wanted us out of the way again!” “Harry, come on, we have to /go/!” “This is the second time he’s done this – and I thought we could trust him! He had to know this attack was going to happen, we could have /stopped/ it!” “Do you think we should Apparate straight there? Maybe we should floo in – Harry, /come on/, my parents–” “WILL BOTH OF YOU /PLEASE/ SHUT UP?!” Draco suddenly shouted, jumping up out of his seat and grabbing both of their shoulders.

“/Merlin/, it’s like you’re trying to have a conversation in two different languages – do you realize neither of you is even remotely paying attention to what the other is saying?” He shoved them in the direction of the couch. “Sit down before you hurt yourselves. Granger, explain to these two idiots why going to the Ministry is exactly what we’re /not/ going to do right now, would you?” “What?!” Ron exclaimed. “Sod off, Malfoy, it /is/ what we’re going to do–” “No it’s not!” Hermione interrupted quickly. “It absolutely is not, Ron, we’re going to stay here like Professor Snape wants us to and let the Order handle the Ministry!” “Hermione, we can’t /stay/ here,” Harry said, frowning. “They need our help!” Draco gave him an exasperated look. “They don’t need the help of a couple barely of age wizards this late into the game, Potter, don’t be thick. It’s been hours; if there was any fighting it’s probably all done by now anyway. I imagine they’re just dealing with the aftermath.” “Snape said the Order had just gotten there when he left!” Ron said angrily. “And he probably left ages ago,” Hermione said. “Honestly,

Ron, he received our owl, didn’t he? Do you think Hedwig just flew into the middle of the Ministry – into a possible /battle/ – and Professor Snape miraculously had time to take a coffee break and read a letter without anyone noticing?” Harry and Ron glanced at each other, before directing stubborn looks at the other two again. “I still think we should go,” Harry said, and Draco let out a very put upon sigh. “Snape /just/ told you why we can’t leave.” “/You/ can’t leave – Voldemort won’t be able to find me if I don’t have you tagging along like a giant homing beacon.” Draco rolled his eyes. “I have no idea what you just said, but – just shut up, Potter, alright? Snape doesn’t want me /or/ you leaving, so we’re not going to. End of story.” “Draco’s right.” Hermione took a seat beside Ron, resting her hand on his arm. “Ron, I’m sure everyone is fine. Somebody would have come for us if anything had happened to one of them, you know they would have.” Ron looked like he wanted to argue some more, but all at once the tension left his shoulders and he collapsed back against the couch. “I’m really getting sick of being sent away when something’s

about to happen.” “You and me both,” Harry muttered, crossing his arms. “He does it for your own good,” Draco said. “Otherwise, instead of stomping around here in a huff afterward, /completely safe and unharmed/, you’d be pulling your wands out at the first sign of danger and gallivanting off to Merlin knows where, only to get yourselves killed.” He propped his hands on hips and lifted his eyes skyward again. “/Gryffindors/.” “What are we supposed to do, then?” Harry asked. “I can’t just /sit/ here and act like everything’s okay!” “I could go back to kicking Weasley’s arse in chess,” Draco said, to which Ron promptly snorted. “You wish, Malfoy. I would’ve won in two more moves.” “We could make dinner?” Hermione suggested, and then flushed slightly when all three boys gave her identical incredulous looks. “I’m serious! They’re probably all exhausted and I’m sure they’ve had a more difficult day than even we did–” “That’s debatable,” Draco muttered. Hermione rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. It’ll keep our minds off things until they get back. And I know they’ll appreciate it.”

“Slight flaw in your plan, Hermione,” Harry said. “You’re assuming these two even know how to turn on a stove. I mean, this git here was raised by house elves.” He jerked a thumb in Draco’s direction, and then tipped his head toward Ron. “And Mrs. Weasley’s probably never missed a day of cooking in her life.” “Hey,” Ron said, all prepared to be offended, but then he paused. “…Wait, no, you’re right.” “Excuse you, I was not /raised by house elves/,” Draco said. “And you have to be nice to me; I’m dying, remember?” Harry’s stomach did that weird lurching thing again. “You’re not dying, shut up about that.” He peered closely at Draco. “…Are you feeling alright, though? Maybe you should lie down.” Draco waved him off. “Oh, I’m fine. Fantastic, actually. I’ve got an excellent case of /denial/ going on right now; I expect I’ll be able to make it last for awhile.” The corner of Harry’s mouth tugged upwards in amusement, despite everything. “Well then, I hardly have to be nice to you if you’re feeling fantastic.” “Thank you, Potter, your compassion is overwhelming.”

“I know, I try.” “Are we cooking, then?” Ron asked. Harry lifted an eyebrow at him. “You mean, are Hermione and I cooking? I guess. You and Malfoy can – set the table. Or something.” “Set the table?” Draco looked as if they had asked him to clean out the hippogriff stalls at Hogwarts. “You know, on second thought, maybe I /will/ lie down…” “Nice try, Malfoy,” Harry said as he stood from the couch. He grabbed Draco’s sleeve so he wouldn’t be able to escape and pulled him toward the kitchen. “You can handle it. Hermione, what should we make?” They were halfway through dinner preparations when there was a familiar rushing sound that indicated the floo was being used, and Ron’s parents trudged into the room. “Mum! Dad!” Ron cried, rushing over to them. “Are you alright? Where are Fred and George? Is everyone okay? What happened?!” “Steady on, Ron, one question at a time,” Mr. Weasley said tiredly, sinking down into one of the chairs at the table. “Your brothers are fine,” Mrs. Weasley said. She clasped the sides of Ron’s face and dragged him down so she could plant a kiss on his cheek,

then pulled back and looked him over closely. “And you? None of you were here this morning, where did you go?” “Not important, mum – everyone’s really okay?” She nodded, kissed him again, and then finally let him go. “Fred and George went back to their flat, but they should be coming back here in a bit. There were a few injuries on our side but everyone’s alive. Remus is going to have to take it easy for awhile.” Harry’s head jerked around. “Remus? What happened? Where is he?” “Here,” Remus called as he limped into the room, arm around Tonks’ shoulder as she helped him. “Wotcher, Harry,” Tonks said, looking exhausted but smiling all the same. Her hair was bright blue today. She nodded at the others in turn. “Ron, Hermione – hello, who’s this?” Her eyes landed on Draco. “Er…your cousin, actually,” Harry said. “Tonks, this is Mal – Draco.” “Maldraco?” Tonks repeated, raising her eyebrows. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” Draco rolled his eyes, arms crossed tightly over his chest. He’d shoved himself into a corner of the room when everyone entered and was looking highly uncomfortable. “It’s just Draco,” he said guardedly.

“Draco Malfoy. I’m–” “/Oh/, Aunt Narcissa’s son, duh!” She grinned at him. “Right, I’d heard you were here. Hanging around with Harry now, eh?” “It’s quite different from how they were in school,” Remus said dryly. He grimaced a bit as Tonks helped him sit down in one of the chairs. Ron turned to his dad. “I thought Harry said you weren’t going to tell anyone?” Mr. Weasley shrugged. “We told Harry that we wouldn’t tell anyone unless we thought it was necessary.” “…So, naturally, you thought it was necessary right away,” Harry guessed. He didn’t know whether to be amused or irritated by the fact, but it really only confirmed his suspicions that word had spread through the Order. “From the very beginning,” Mrs. Weasley said with a brisk nod. But then she smiled. “Draco’s been nothing but a gentleman, though, and he really hasn’t been a problem at all – you understand that we just felt more comfortable with the Order knowing, right? For your safety, as well as ours.” “And his, for that matter,” Mr. Weasley added. Draco

scowled, but didn’t say anything. “So, tell us what happened,” Hermione spoke up, leaving Harry at the stove and darting over to take a seat across from Remus. “You’re alright, truly? Oh, this is just awful. We heard the news about the Minister, I can’t believe–” “You did?” Remus interrupted, looking surprised. Hermione paled a bit and abruptly shut her mouth. “Wait a minute,” Mr. Weasley said slowly. “Since the minute we walked through the door, you’ve been acting like you’re aware of what’s happened.” A startled look passed over Mrs. Weasley’s face. “You knew to ask about your brothers.” “W-well,” Ron fumbled for words. “They’re in the Order, you’re in the Order, I just thought–” “You knew about the Minister,” Remus reminded them. Harry, Ron, and Hermione all looked at each other, and then Harry sighed. “Someone told us, we already knew.” “But this /just/ happened!” Mrs. Weasley cried. “Does this have to do with your absence this morning? Where /were/ you?” “We can’t tell you, mum,” Ron said. “We had something

important to do, that’s all.” “And then we met up with someone about an hour ago, and he told us,” Harry continued. “We know the Ministry’s fallen.” “Who?” Mrs. Weasley demanded. “It must have been someone who was there, /who/?” “Molly, leave it,” Remus said when no one offered up any sort of response. “We know they have some sort of mission we can’t be involved in, this is just another part of that.” She looked like she wanted to argue, but Harry circumvented anymore of her questions by shoving a cup of tea into her hands. “Mrs. Weasley, please sit down. You look exhausted and you’ve obviously had a rough day.” “Yes, we’ve made everyone dinner!” Hermione said, jumping up again to help Harry finish cooking. “It should be ready soon.” “Smells good,” Tonks said. “And I’m starving.” “Can you tell us what happened?” Ron asked. “What does it mean exactly that the Ministry’s fallen?” “I’m out of a job, for one,” Mr. Weasley said. Ron gave him a wide-eyed look, while Harry and Hermione glanced at each other. Mrs. Weasley rubbed his arm comfortingly.

“But…” Ron looked back and forth between his parents. “How – what will you /do/? Dad!” “We’ll manage,” Mrs. Weasley said simply. Ron didn’t appear to believe that for a second. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I just – how did we /lose/? Are there not enough people in the Order to fight back?” “What you have to understand is that there wasn’t really a battle, per se,” Mr. Weasley explained. Harry and Hermione started placing various plates of food around the table as he spoke, and he shot them a grateful look before continuing. “You-Know-Who has evidently had this planned for weeks – possibly /months/. His men have been working in the Ministry right under our noses, people I never would’ve expected to turn to the other side.” “Although some of them might claim to be under the influence of the Imperius curse,” Remus added. “And Moody suspects they’ve been using it on some of the higher-ups, as well. Most notably, the men Scrimgeour worked in close contact with. So when it came time to put their plain into action, it was all too easy for them to assassinate him.” Harry finally sat down at the table himself, frowning in confusion. “If

there wasn’t a battle, then what…?” “Kingsley realized what had happened first,” Mr. Weasley said. “He got word out to those of us in the Order who already worked at the Ministry, then Remus and the others showed up after. The plan was to get to the Minister’s office and take down the men who were there, but we were met with more…/resistance/ than expected.” “That, and it was difficult not to arouse suspicion as to what we were doing,” said Remus. “Especially as some of us–” He gestured at himself. “–aren’t normally at the Ministry.” “Didn’t help that the Head Auror was one of the people on their side,” Tonks said around a forkful of food. “Whether under the Imperius or on his own, I still don’t know. How they managed to slip that one by the lot of us…” She gave a disgusted shake of her head, and her hair melted from blue to red. “We all need to be retrained if you ask me, that’s damn well unacceptable.” “As other workers in the Ministry began noticing something was going on, they tried to stop us,” Remus said. Hermione gasped. “Stop /you/? Why?” “They can’t be faulted,” Mr. Weasley said. “When half of your department heads are supporting the people who have overthrown the

Minister – and remember, the Minister’s death wasn’t public knowledge at this point – well, then it just looks like you have a bunch of random, possibly dangerous wizards trying to get to the Minister’s office for no discernable reason. It comes across as rather a large threat, and anyone who was You-Know-Who’s man made sure everyone /not/ involved saw us as such.” Remus picked up from where he’d left off. “And since we were considered a threat, they obviously tried to impede us. It was chaos, mostly. No one had any real idea what was going on and there was panic everywhere. Meanwhile, Scrimgeour hadn’t been dead for an hour yet and Voldemort’s men were already planning a statement and announcement as to who would be Minister next.” “A statement that oh-so-conveniently named /us/ as the Minister’s assassins.” Tonks set her utensils down and slumped back in her chair. “A group of ‘overzealous Dumbledore supporters, acting out against the Ministry in a crazed show of revenge for an unfortunate incident that wasn’t even the Ministry’s fault’ is what they said, I believe.” Remus nodded. “With the explicit mention of one of them being a werewolf,” he said dryly. “Anyway, by the time we were in any position to take on Scrimgeour’s /actual/ murderers, many more

innocent people had gotten involved and the odds were fifty-to-one against us. Then the announcement was made, and there wasn’t much fighting we could do without worrying about hurting someone who was only there by accident and oblivious to what the truth of the matter was.” “So by then we just needed to get out or risk being captured ourselves,” Mrs. Weasley spoke up. She’d barely touched any of her food. There was silence for a moment as they all stared at their plates, and then Hermione asked softly, “So…what now? What does that mean for the rest of the Wizarding world?” “You can expect a fairly rapid change of regime, for one,” Remus replied. “And most people won’t even be aware that it’s all being directed by Voldemort. The amount of power he gains by having the Ministry under his thumb… It’s extremely worrying. He can change laws, add laws, monitor the floo network, control how much information gets out to the public through the Daily Prophet – the list goes on and on. We’ll all have to be extremely careful now. He’ll turn everyone in the Wizarding world against us just by making us wanted criminals.” “He can influence things at Hogwarts now, too,” Tonks added. “He can

place whoever he wants there as a teacher.” “Blimey, it’ll be like Umbridge all over again,” Ron muttered to Harry. “And,” Tonks spoke up again, “it’s pretty much guaranteed that one of the first things he’ll do is release his remaining supporters from Azkaban.” Harry’s eyes widened and darted toward the end of the table – only Draco wasn’t there. Come to think of it, he’d either been /extremely/ quiet or, more likely, he’d disappeared awhile ago and Harry hadn’t noticed. “I saw him carry a plate out,” Hermione said, and Harry felt himself go a bit red at the fact that she’d realized who he was looking for without him even having to say anything. “I should – go see if he’s okay,” he mumbled, pushing away from the table. Ron rolled his eyes and Hermione gave him an amused look. Harry ignored them both. “Will you be here for awhile?” he directed toward Remus and Tonks. “Yup!” Tonks said with a grin. “Safest place to be right now and I know You-Know-Who will have his people out trying to track us down. Plus, Moody and some of the others are supposed to be stopping by for a meeting tonight.”

Harry nodded, returning her smile. “Great, then I’ll see you both later. I just – I’ll be right back. Shouldn’t be long. Just want to–” “/Go/,” Hermione said, giving him a shove. “Ron and I will clean up.” Ron gave a squawk of disapproval that nobody paid any attention to, and Harry grinned. “Right. Thanks, Hermione!” he said, and then bounded out of the room. *** Standing outside Draco’s door a few minutes later, however, Harry wasn’t /quite/ sure why he’d felt the need to come check up on him. What if he wanted to be left alone? Maybe that was why he had left the kitchen in the first place. Maybe he needed some time to accept what Snape had told him that afternoon, to come to terms with the curse he now had. The curse that might not have a cure– Harry swiftly blocked out that line of thought and knocked on the door. He waited a few moments, but the only reply he got was silence. Was Draco not even in there? Curious, he checked the doorknob and found that it was unlocked, so he cautiously pushed the door open. Draco turned from where he was sitting on the windowsill,

raising his eyebrows when he spotted Harry. “Potter. What’s the point of knocking when you’re just going to come in anyway?” “You didn’t tell me /not/ to come in,” Harry pointed out as he stepped into the room. He made sure not to shut the door completely behind him, leaving it open just a crack. “You alright?” “Are you going to ask me that every time you see me now?” Draco asked, wrinkling his nose. “…Sorry.” Harry moved to sit down on the end of the bed. “Crazy day, though, huh?” “Tell me about it.” “I didn’t notice when you left.” “Oh, /well/. I feel loved.” Draco looked out the window again. “I didn’t feel like being there if anyone else from the Order showed up.” “Well, apparently they all know you’re with us,” Harry said dryly. “So they probably wouldn’t care if they saw you.” Draco shrugged. “Still.” “You missed an interesting bit of information.” “Oh?” “Yeah,” Harry said slowly. “Tonks – your cousin – she seems

to think that now that the Ministry is under Voldemort’s control, one of the first things he’ll do is break the rest of his Death Eaters out of Azkaban.” Draco’s shoulders tensed, but other than that he gave no sign that he’d even heard at first. “…So, my father…?” “Yep.” “He’ll try to find me.” “You think?” “Yes.” Draco turned back around again, meeting Harry’s eyes. “If hears about – what I was supposed to do…he’ll want me to go through with it.” He gave a bitter laugh. “Anything to restore the Malfoy name in the Dark Lord’s eyes.” “…He won’t have any more luck finding you than Voldemort will,” Harry said. “Not if you stay here.” He narrowed his eyes slightly. “And you’re not going to do it anyway, even if he does somehow get to you. Right?” Draco rolled his eyes. “It actually physically pains me how little you all trust me at this point.” “/Right/?” “/Yes/, Potter.” Draco grunted as he pushed himself up from the

windowsill and went to sit by Harry on the bed. Harry tried to subtly inch away, but Draco just gave him a look that said he’d noticed and thought Harry was being ridiculous. Then he smirked. “Why would I want to hand you over and risk losing all this lovely sexual tension we have going on between us?” Harry felt his face go red. “There isn’t any – you have /got/ to stop talking like that!” “Why?” Draco asked, scooting in closer. “Because!” Harry didn’t make any effort to hide his backing away this time; unfortunately, there wasn’t much room for him to go before his back hit the footboard. Draco snorted. “Now there’s a good reason.” “Malfoy, it’s been all of /three days/ since – since Belgium. I can’t–” “Oh, so I’m just moving too quickly for you?” “Yes – no – that’s not what I meant!” Draco leaned in. Harry’s eyes widened more the closer he got. “Then what did you mean?” “I–” Harry couldn’t seem to form words with Draco right in front of him like that. “It’s just – not a good idea!”

“Why not? Honestly, I could use the distraction.” “Earlier you were saying it was because you were /bored/,” Harry reminded him. “And – hard up.” He flushed again as he said it, but set his jaw determinedly and held Draco’s gaze. Draco waved his hand around aimlessly. “So there are multiple excuses. All the more reason, right?” “Malfoy…” The hand he was waving about caught Harry’s attention and he grabbed it, looking down at Draco’s blackened fingers for a moment before meeting his eyes again. “/This/ is why you’re coming on so strong right now.” “What?” Draco glanced at their hands and then yanked his back. “Yeah, what of it? I /said/ I needed a distraction.” He scowled. “It’s not going to make it go away–” “No, but at least I won’t be thinking about it for five seconds!” Draco snapped. He spun around, planting both feet solidly on the floor, and hunched over his knees, face buried in his hands. Harry fell silent. He watched the line of Draco’s back carefully and let out a soft, relieved breath when the other boy didn’t suddenly break out in sobs. After a moment he pulled his legs up so he was sitting cross-legged, and aimed for a sort of teasing smugness

when he spoke. “Five seconds? Really, Malfoy? I think it’d be longer than /that/.” Draco glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “That an offer?” Harry grinned a bit, but shook his head. “No.” “Arse.” Draco gave a noisy sigh and leaned back against the wall. “We have one brilliant night together and then you leave me hanging for the rest of forever.” “Brilliant, eh?” “Shut up,” Draco muttered, rolling his eyes. A light pink spread across his cheeks. “I was being sarcastic.” Harry nudged Draco’s thigh with his foot. “We agreed it was a one-time thing.” “I’m well aware.” “I just don’t understand–” “And neither do I!” Draco interrupted. “I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about it – it was good, right? So what’s the big deal?” “We’re just going to go in circles with this argument,” Harry said, sighing. “It’s not as though you /like/ me or anything – is it?” Harry straightened suddenly as an uncomfortable feeling bloomed

in his chest. “You /don’t/, right?” Draco scoffed. “Of course not, don’t be stupid.” Harry looked doubtful. “But just this morning–” “Potter,” Draco cut in sharply. “I said no.” For some reason, that didn’t really make Harry feel any better and he frowned. “Well then…you can manage on your own, I suppose.” “I’m not going to bring it up again.” Draco gave him a glowering look. “I’m not /desperate/.” Harry raised an eyebrow. “So, what, this is my last chance?” “Something like that.” “Well…sorry.” Harry slumped further down on the bed, and on a whim threw his legs over Draco’s. “Not going to happen.” Draco pouted. “You suck, Potter.” “Think that’s what I’m saying I’m /not/ going to do, actually,” Harry muttered, and immediately his eyes widened as he slapped a hand over his mouth. Draco shot him a startled glance, and then burst out laughing. “Oh /wow/,” he said after a minute or so when he’d finally managed to calm down. “I can’t say that’s exactly what I had in mind, but if you

want to go there–” “NO,” Harry said loudly, waving his hands in front of him. “No, no. We’re done with this conversation. /So/ done, oh my God.” Draco continued chuckling. “But it was just getting interesting!” “Done!” Harry said again. “Finished! We’re never bringing it up again!” “Fine, fine.” Draco shook his head, obviously still amused, and then all at once shoved at Harry’s legs. “What am I, a piece of furniture? Get off me, Potter!” Harry pouted and slipped even further down the bed so that he was lying on his back. “But I’m comfortable!” “The hell do I care? Get /off/.” He paused and then suddenly got a look in his eyes that Harry thought he recognized. “/Don’t/,” Harry said, holding up a finger in warning when Draco opened his mouth. “I already know where your mind is going with that one, you bloody pervert, so you don’t have to say it.” Draco harrumphed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said loftily. “Uh-huh.” They both fell quiet after that, and for a couple minutes sat

in a companionable silence. Harry stared blankly up at the ceiling, hands folded over his stomach, while Draco drummed his fingers absently against Harry’s legs. Then, after a moment, for no discernable reason, Draco groaned and collapsed sideways so that he was resting beside Harry on the bed. He shifted around until he was on his back, as well. “This has been the /longest/ fucking day,” he announced, apropos of nothing. Harry laughed softly. “It really has, hasn’t it? Can’t believe we just went to the cave this morning. It’s a bit weird.” “No,” Draco said. “/This/ is weird.” He gestured between the two of them. “How do you mean?” “I never in my entire /life/ – well. Since I was eleven, anyway –I never would have expected to end up here.” “Where?” Harry glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “On a bed with me?” Draco snorted. “Anywhere with you. Especially if it didn’t involve me hexing you six ways to Sunday.” “…Well, I’m glad we’ve gotten past /that/ particular kneejerk reaction to being around each other.”

“I make no promises; the urge still lingers and who knows what unfortunate time it might decide to raise its ugly head again.” Harry made an exasperated sound. “You’re impossible, Malfoy.” “That’s what you get for snubbing me all those years ago.” “As you said, we were /eleven/.” “Still. I really don’t know what your problem was; I was /charming/ back then.” Harry didn’t even bother trying to hide the highly incredulous look that instantly appeared on his face. Disbelieving laughter bubbled up in his chest, and while Draco tried to look affronted at Harry’s /rudeness/, soon he was laughing again, too. “/Impossible/, Malfoy,” Harry repeated, still laughing. “And also ridiculous.” “Sod off,” Draco grumbled, but he was grinning. Neither of them said anything after that, and despite knowing he should leave and go to his own room at some point so they could both get some sleep, Harry found himself too comfortable to get up. So he stayed.

Chapter 20 Harry woke the next morning to find Draco’s face far too close to his own. He let out a startled yelp and flew backwards straight off the bed, landing with a loud /thud/ on the floor. Still half asleep and now confused about where he was, he struggled to sit up and get a good look at his surroundings. Above him, Draco pushed himself up on one elbow and blearily looked at him over the edge of the bed. “The hell’re you doing, Potter?” he asked, voice still thick with sleep. Harry pushed himself to his feet and dusted his trousers off, looking around at everything in the room that wasn’t Draco. “Er… nothing,” he said, and then his eyes found the window. “Shit, it’s morning.” “Oh.” Draco suddenly sounded a great deal more alert. Harry glanced back at him to find him staring down at his bed in a bewildered sort of way. His cheeks had gone a light pink. “…Well.” “Yeah.” “We fell asleep.” “Mm-hmm.” “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“Look, I’m just going to – go.” Harry backpedaled toward the door, hoping he didn’t look as awkward as he felt. Draco nodded. “Probably best.” “See you at breakfast?” Draco nodded again, and met Harry’s eyes for the first time that morning. Harry blinked. “…Okay,” he said faintly, even though Draco hadn’t said anything. “Right.” “Good.” Harry didn’t move. Now Draco looked amused. “Breakfast, Potter,” he said, and Harry blinked again. “Right, yeah!” he said loudly, as he finally stumbled out the door. “I’ll see you.” He ran into Ron first thing in the hallway. The other boy was exiting his own room, looking back over his shoulder with a soft, private smile that Harry didn’t think anyone else was meant to see. He thought briefly about doing an about-face and trying to escape before he was noticed, but by then Ron had turned back around and was grinning in his direction. “Morning, Harry!” he said happily, and then his grin sort of froze in

place as he saw which room Harry had just come from. “…Hi!” Harry said with forced cheerfulness. His voice sounded all wrong, too high-pitched and sort of strained. Ron stared at him for a long moment while Harry shifted his weight from foot to foot, until finally he let out an exasperated sound and pushed past him. He headed down the hall to where his room was, all too aware that Ron was trailing after him, and when he got there he threw himself face first onto the bed and tried to smother himself in his pillow. “Do we need to have a talk?” Ron asked from the doorway. “No,” Harry replied mulishly, his voice muffled. He turned his face to the side and cracked one eye open to look at Ron. “Nothing happened – do we have to do this now? I’m tired.” Ron gave a knowing nod. “Didn’t get much sleep? I know how that is.” Harry took half a second to work that out, and then he bolted upright on the bed as his face flamed up. “/No/!” he cried, grabbing his pillow and whipping it at Ron. “I /just/ said nothing happened – why would you even think that?!” “Well, I don’t know, Harry,” Ron said patiently. “First you’re showering together, now you’re /sleeping/ together…”

“It was /only/ sleeping,” Harry bit out. He got up and stomped over to Ron, pulling him inside the room and slamming the door shut behind him. “And we didn’t shower together, not like /that/.” “Uh-huh.” “We didn’t! And I’m not–” Harry gestured helplessly. “/You know/.” “If you say so.” “/Ron/.” “/Harry/.” Ron gave him a look and then rolled his eyes. Then all of a sudden he looked uncomfortable. “I have to ask,” he started haltingly, “did you ever…you know…” Harry gave him a blank look. “…No?” he said, hazarding a guess. He really had no idea what Ron was trying to ask him. Ron shook his head. “No, that’s not – uh…” He gave an embarrassed huff and then visibly steeled himself before blurting, “Did you ever sleep with my sister?” “/What/?” Harry stared at him, mortified. “If that’s your /not/ subtle way of trying to prove I’m into blokes or something–” “No, no!” Ron said quickly. “Totally different topic now!” “…Oh,” Harry said. He wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not that Ron

had dropped the Malfoy issue so quickly. He gave him a wary look. “No,” he finally said, and just because Ron looked far too relieved at that, he added, “Although we did plenty of other things–” “TOO MUCH,” Ron said loudly. “I don’t need to know! Only…” He hesitated. “Harry, I have to tell you something.” Harry raised his eyebrows. “What is it?” Ron deliberated for another moment more, and then suddenly a stupid grin broke out over his face. “Hermione and I have,” he announced, looking pleased and proud of himself and embarrassed all at the same time. “Have…what?” Harry asked, brow furrowed. “Slept together!” Harry promptly choked and then quickly covered his ears. “Oh my God, Ron – if you don’t want to hear about what I got up to with Ginny, then I don’t want to hear about Hermione!” he cried. “She’s like /my/ sister!” “Sorry,” Ron said, looking anything but. He plopped down on Harry’s bed, still grinning. Harry looked at him curiously, slowly lowering his hands. “Hang on…is this a /new/ development?” Ron nodded. “Last night,” he said cheerfully.

Harry’s eyes widened. “Oh…wow.” “What?” “We just figured – never mind.” Harry managed to dredge up a smile for him. “Congratulations, I suppose.” “Thanks, mate!” Ron bounced his knees restlessly – probably still on some kind of adrenaline high, Harry figured. “Oh, also, we’re officially dating now.” Harry snorted. “I’d figured that much out for myself, funnily enough,” he said dryly, moving to sit on the bed, as well. He rested back against the footboard. “Ages ago, in fact.” “No, I mean, I finally asked her, though.” “…/Before/ you slept together, I hope,” Harry said faintly, in some strange mix of incredulousness and sarcasm. Ron didn’t notice. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Of course.” Harry laughed in slight disbelief. “You seriously never asked her before?” “Well…” Ron looked sheepish. “No. To be honest, I don’t even know what happened. She was here over the summer, you know, for the wedding and everything. And one thing led to another…” He waved a hand around absently and shrugged. “I think it was /because/ of the

wedding, actually. All that…/romance/ stuff in the air.” “You’re unbelievable.” “Shut up.” He gave Harry a pouty sort of look. “Can I really not talk to you about this kind of thing?” “I’d rather you didn’t,” Harry said honestly. Suspecting they were…doing it…was one thing, /knowing/ was another, and hearing all the dirty details was just not done. Harry actually liked being able to look Hermione in the face, thank you very much. “Who am I supposed to go to, then?” Ron whined. “Your brothers?” Harry suggested. “Definitely not,” Ron said adamantly. “They’d take the mickey out of me forever.” “Malfoy?” “He’d be even worse! Wait.” Ron paused, frowning. “He’s done it?” “Apparently,” Harry said, and when Ron raised his eyebrows in question, he elaborated, “Pansy Parkinson.” “Ohh.” Ron nodded. “Right, right.” He grinned again and punched Harry’s knee. “Now we just have to get you in the club.” Harry snorted. “There’s not exactly a line of girls waiting

outside Grimmauld Place.” Ron got a funny, shifty sort of look and Harry narrowed his eyes at him briefly before he caught on. “Oh, for the love of – there’s nothing going on between me and Malfoy!” he said exasperatedly. “/Why/ do you think that all of a sudden?” “I don’t know – you’ve been really chummy lately!” Ron said defensively. “Because we’re /friends/,” Harry insisted, and then immediately his eyes widened. “I mean–” But no. Against all odds, they kind of were, weren’t they? That whole secret-task-from-Voldemort-he-hadn’t-toldanyone-about issue aside, they’d been getting along fairly well the past few weeks. Still, the label didn’t sit well with Harry. Thinking of Draco like that…it was still too weird. Maybe he just needed to get used to the idea. He shifted uncomfortably. Ron watched him for a moment, and then shrugged. “He’s not…the /worst/ choice, I guess,” he said, though from the look on his face the words actually physically pained him to say. Harry let out a noisy sigh. “Not twenty-four hours ago you were all prepared to toss him out on his arse.” “Yeah, well…” Ron rubbed the back of his neck. “I reckon he’s had plenty of chances to tell someone what we’re doing or whisk you

away. I guess if you trust him, then I do.” Harry considered that. Then he grinned. “You need to shag Hermione more often if it’s going to put you in this good of a mood.” Ron flushed slightly, and then gave him another goofy grin right back. “I wouldn’t say no to that.” “Of course not,” Harry said wryly. “Look…I /don’t/ like Malfoy like that. I’d never even thought about that kind of thing until Seamus and Justin…” He trailed off. Ron raised an eyebrow. “But since then?” Harry didn’t say anything, and Ron nodded. “It wouldn’t matter,” he said carefully. “I dated your sister,” Harry reminded him. “I /like/ girls.” “I’m not going to argue with you about it,” Ron said, hopping up from the bed and stretching his arms above his head. “Just know that Hermione and I? We wouldn’t care.” “You’ve talked to /Hermione/ about this?” Harry asked, somewhat horrified. “/She/ talked,” Ron said. “I only listened. …She talks a lot, you know.” “It’s good to know part of it is about my nonexistent sex life,” Harry said, dragging a hand through his hair. “/Merlin/…”

“A very small part.” Ron smirked. “Suppose ours will be the more interesting topic now.” Harry shot him a flat look and Ron laughed as he clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, mate. Breakfast.” *** Harry sat down at the opposite end of the table from Draco and then instantly berated himself for doing so. They’d only accidentally slept next to each other on the same bed, it really /wasn’t/ a big deal…right? So why was he on the verge of having a panic attack? The conversation he’d just had with Ron had only thrown him even more off kilter, but who cared what he or Hermione /thought/ they’d seen; there wasn’t anything going on between him and Draco. They’d cleared that up just last night and Harry definitely wasn’t going to revisit it now. No, everything was fine. He just needed to calm down. With an almost sheepish look on his face, Harry slid over a couple seats toward the middle of the table in what he hoped was an inconspicuous manner. He probably shouldn’t have even bothered because Draco was watching him in amusement the entire time. Harry pointedly didn’t look at him, but when even Ron raised an eyebrow in his direction, Harry figured he should just count himself lucky that Hermione wasn’t there, as well.

She did turn up a few minutes later, though, face flushed and hair still damp from the shower. She greeted them all cheerfully and rested a hand lightly on the back of Ron’s neck for a brief second as she walked by, which had Ron smiling dopily after her. Harry stared resolutely at his plate and tried to pretend he didn’t know just what exactly had the two of them so pleased. “Harry, we didn’t see you again last night,” Hermione said as she fixed herself some toast. Harry nearly blurted out something along the lines of /And I bet you’re glad for that/, but he managed to restrain himself. “Everything alright? Did you sleep well?” Draco, however, did not have the same brain-to-mouth filter that Harry did. “Not half as well as you did, I imagine” he quipped. Hermione started and dropped her knife, her cheeks going a bright pink. Ron’s face went beet red and he looked at Harry accusingly. “You told Malfoy?” he hissed. “You told /Harry/?” Hermione squeaked. “I came downstairs with /you/,” Harry said to Ron exasperatedly. “When would I have had time to tell him?” “Oh yeah…”

Hermione propped her hands on her waist. “Ron!” “Oh, of course I told Harry!” Ron said, although now he looked slightly nervous. “You didn’t tell me /not/ to tell him.” “Well, you certainly didn’t waste any time!” “I couldn’t help it!” Ron cried. He looked at Harry with pleading eyes, like Harry was somehow supposed to help him out here, but there was no way Harry was getting caught up in the middle of /that/ particular argument. “/Ronald/. /Weasley/,” Hermione said, and she had that Mrs. Weasley look about her again. “There are some things that should remain /private/. I can’t believe you!” “…I think I missed something,” Draco said faintly, looking back and forth between all three of them. Harry pointed at Ron and Hermione. “These two finally–” “/HARRY!/” both of them shouted at the same time, wearing identical mortified looks. Harry held up his hands defensively and didn’t say anything further – he just raised his eyebrows and gave Draco a /look/ instead. Draco blinked. “Ohhh,” he said, and then promptly leered at Hermione. “Well, Granger, I’m impressed!” Then he paused. “Actually, no I’m not –

we figured you’d been shagging since summer. You mean you haven’t?” Hermione’s blush darkened as she whipped her head around to stare at Harry. “You /talk/ about us?” “Well, you talk about /us/!” Harry threw right back at her, and then clapped a hand over his mouth. Draco looked amused. “Oh, /do/ they?” “Well–” Hermione said, flustered. “You do,” Ron cut in. “Don’t deny it.” Harry lowered his hand. “…Not that there’s anything to talk about,” he added belatedly. It sounded weak even to his own ears. “Obviously.” “You wound me, Potter.” “Shut it, Malfoy!” Hermione blinked. “Harry?” “It’s nothing.” Harry glared down the table at Draco. “Malfoy’s just being a prat.” Draco rolled his eyes. “Yes,” he said with an exaggerated sigh. “I do that. Can’t help it. It’s an affliction I was born with.” “Good of you to finally admit it,” Ron said, grinning. “It’s the first step in the recovery process.” Draco rested his

elbows on the table and leaned forward with a smirk. “So, you manned up and finally did it, eh? Do we get details?” “/No/,” Hermione and Harry said adamantly. Ron just flushed a little and looked like he very much wished he could say yes. Draco seemed to sense that, and he nodded. “Later,” he decided. “We should raid the liquor cabinet and make a night of it. Potter can join us – do you /know/ some of the things he’s done with your sister? He’s not half as innocent as he looks, this one.” “…No,” Ron said faintly, and now he looked slightly ill. “He’s pretty tight-lipped about it all.” He sent Harry a dark look, which made Harry feel exasperated all over again because it wasn’t like Ron actually /wanted/ to know these things. “Alright, can we just move on already?” he asked impatiently. “Yes, /please/,” Hermione said, finally coming to sit down at the table. She automatically headed in Ron’s direction and then, catching herself, she turned her nose up and instead took a seat at the end of the table in the chair Harry had first sat in. Harry, Ron, and Draco exchanged amused looks. Hermione glared at them all. “/Boys/,” she muttered fiercely. “I’m so glad Tonks is here; I desperately need some

female company.” Oh, right. Harry had almost forgotten. “Did the rest of the Order show up last night?” he asked. “I think Moody did,” Ron said. “Fred and George didn’t. Probably a good thing…” “For you,” Draco said, snorting. “What about Kingsley?” asked Harry. “I didn’t see him,” Hermione replied. “Hm…well, we can ask Remus later if there’s anything we should know,” Harry said. “First things first – we need to figure out what our next move is.” “We can’t know that until we know what the next Horcrux is,” Hermione pointed out. Harry nodded. “Exactly. So we have to…work that out. Somehow.” He frowned. “We should probably do this somewhere else. In case anyone comes in. Upstairs, my room?” “Sure,” Ron said, standing and carrying his plate over to the sink. Hermione and Harry did the same, before Harry realized Draco hadn’t moved. “You coming, Malfoy?”

Draco seemed startled for a moment, but he recovered quickly. “Of course, I was just – lost in thought.” “How’s your hand?” Hermione asked, glancing down at his blackened fingers. “Well enough,” Draco replied. He clenched and flexed his fingers a few times, and then shrugged. “Snape’s potions came last night and I haven’t died yet, so I assume they weren’t poisonous. Which hopefully means that he did actually send what he /said/ he was going to send, and it’s probably doing its job.” Hermione seemed just the slightest bit exasperated. “I’m sure he did, Draco,” she said as they headed out of the kitchen. “You need to trust him a little more.” Draco scowled and flicked his wand, sending his own plate over to rest on top of the others, and then he followed them. Once they had all piled into Harry’s room, Harry shut the door behind him and made sure it was locked while Hermione quickly cast a Muffliato charm. Ron and Draco made themselves useful by plopping down on the bed and getting comfortable against Harry’s pillows. Harry just rolled his eyes when he saw them. “Okay,” Hermione said, instantly switching to teacher mode. “I think we

should make a chart, just to remind ourselves where we stand and what we should be doing.” Harry nodded and watched as she made a few complicated looking wand movements and then began writing in the air. “The first Horcrux was the diary, yes?” “That’s right,” Harry said. “And it’s already been destroyed.” Hermione marked that down, her handwriting as neat in the air as it had ever been on parchment. “Next was the…?” “Ring,” Harry supplied. “Also destroyed.” “And then the locket,” Hermione said. “Not destroyed.” “No, it’s still in my trunk.” Harry gave the trunk in question a slightly wary look. “And it can stay there for a good long while,” Draco spoke up. “I don’t really fancy going through all that again anytime soon.” “Probably not a good idea to let You-Know-Who know that we have more than one,” Ron said. “At least, not until we find out from Snape what all he knows.” “Right,” Harry agreed. “So we’ll just leave it for the time being. Next is Hufflepuff’s cup.” “Which we destroyed,” Hermione murmured, marking it in her chart. “Three out of four isn’t too bad.”

“Where is the cup, actually?” Ron asked. “Also in the trunk,” Harry replied. “I brought it up yesterday.” He studied Hermione’s chart for a moment. “Then there’s the snake. Nagini. Dumbledore was pretty certain that she’s a Horcrux.” Draco raised his hand suddenly, like they actually were in class. Harry stared at him for a moment and then rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mr. Malfoy?” Draco looked amused. “Well, /Professor/,” he started, playing along, “I’ve been wondering about that one since Snape first mentioned it. Are we sure that’s really possible? Can living things actually can be made into Horcruxes?” “According to Dumbledore,” Harry said, sounding a little uncertain himself. “Voldemort /does/ have a weird sort of connection with her, so I guess it could be true.” Draco’s grin fell. “…A weird connection,” he repeated flatly. “Really.” Hermione gave him a sharp look, and he raised his eyebrows at her in return. Harry glanced back and forth between the two of them in confusion. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “I think he can control her and stuff. I used to have these dreams…” He trailed off, not wanting to bring up the time that he’d been inside Nagini when she had attacked Mr. Weasley.

Draco was looking at him weirdly. And maybe Harry was just seeing things, but he seemed to have paled a little bit. Harry shifted uncomfortably. “…So the snake,” Ron prompted after a moment, trying to steer them back on track. “She’ll be with You-Know-Who, yeah?” Harry latched onto the new topic. “Most likely,” he said. “Snape mentioned possibly being able to help out with that one. We’ll have to ask him about it the next time we see him.” “That still leaves the unknown Horcrux,” Hermione said. “Which will probably be something of Gryffindor’s or Ravenclaw’s,” Harry added. Ron made a thoughtful sound. “Well, we know that the Ravenclaw mansion burned down back when Grindelwald was around.” Hermione looked impressed that he’d remembered that from their research and gave him an encouraging nod. “So we might be able to count her out.” Harry shook his head. “No,” he murmured. “If anything, I think it’s more likely that Voldemort found something of hers. Dumbledore said that he was pretty positive the last remaining artifact of Gryffindor’s was the sword.” “What sword?” Draco asked.

“The one Harry used to kill the basilisk with in second year,” Ron said. Draco blinked. “Oh right,” he said weakly. “That one.” “Harry, I honestly don’t even know where to start with this,” Hermione said, frustration evident in her voice. She was looking at the chart they’d just made. “We’re basically back to square one again, and I don’t know how much more reading we can do. It’s not just finding out /what/ the Horcrux is, we have to find out WHERE it is, too.” “You realize you might be better off figuring that part out first?” Draco asked. “Think about it. You have to work out its location anyway, and once you do it doesn’t matter what’s there. It’s not as if the Dark Lord has had more than one Horcrux in each…/secret hideaway/ or whatever, right? No fakes or anything.” Harry and Hermione glanced at each other. “…That’s actually not a bad point,” she said. “But I’m still not sure how to go about finding the Horcrux’s location either.” “We could ask Snape if there were any more special seaside caves,” Ron said wryly. “Maybe it’s not such a big production to get to all of them,” Harry suggested. “It wasn’t for the ring, I don’t think. And the

diary, well…” He glanced at Draco and didn’t continue. “You’d think You-Know-Who would remember that less is more,” Ron said. “Just drop the bloody thing in the ocean and be done with it.” “He’s too proud for that,” Harry said. “Which we should be /thankful/ for,” Hermione added. “We’d really be in trouble if the Horcruxes were in places that are actually impossible to get to.” Draco’s brow furrowed a bit. “What if he did do something like that, though? If he has, what–” He glanced at the chart. “–/six/ of these things, you’d think he might make one completely unattainable.” “That’s not something I want to think about,” Harry muttered. “Why six, anyway?” Draco asked. “It splits his soul into seven total pieces,” Hermione replied, and Harry nodded. “Dumbledore showed me a memory between Voldemort – Tom Riddle, at the time – and Slughorn,” he explained. “Voldemort was asking him if it would be possible to split the soul into that many parts.” “Suppose that makes sense,” said Draco. “It /is/ a fairly

significant number.” He gave Harry that weird, kind of thoughtful look again, like he was trying to work something out. What, though, Harry had no idea. And for some reason, he didn’t want to ask. He had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer. Draco suddenly looked back at the chart again. “So,” he said, “something of Gryffindor’s or Ravenclaw’s, then?” Harry hesitated. “Theoretically,” he said. “But in reality, if the sword is the only thing that’s left between the two of them, then he could have found something else that might have belonged to Hufflepuff or Slytherin instead. That’s why we were originally looking up information about /all/ of them.” Ron groaned, tipping his head back onto the pillows. “I hate to say it, but I’m actually with Malfoy on this one. We should try to find out where the hell the thing is first, and forget worrying about /what/ it is.” He sat up straight again, looking at each of the others in turn. “I think we should stop researching the Hogwarts founders and start looking up more about Tom Riddle. There’s got to be other people who knew him when he was in school; professors and classmates and such.” Hermione looked a mix of inordinately pleased and somewhat proud all of a sudden. Harry guessed she was about two seconds away

from completely forgetting her earlier irritation at Ron and snogging the living daylights out of him instead. “You’re right,” he said quickly, in an attempt to drag Ron’s attention back to him, but Hermione just spoke over him. “/Absolutely/ right, Ron, well done!” she said, grinning. “Good idea. Harry, it’s a good idea, isn’t it?” Draco snorted. “Yes, good boy, Weasley. You’ve managed to contribute something. Would you like a treat?” Harry watched Ron somewhat warily, waiting for an outburst, but Ron merely gave the other boy a sidelong glance and a raised eyebrow. “Not from you, thanks,” he said lightly, to which Draco gave a haughty sniff. “Your loss.” “I’ll live, I’m sure.” “It /is/ a good idea…” Harry said, absently twirling his wand. He was frowning, though, and Ron seemed to sense that he was leaving something out. “But?” Harry sighed. “But Dumbledore spent /years/ doing exactly that. He showed me every memory he’d collected that he thought would help me find

the Horcruxes.” “Maybe he missed something,” Draco said. “It’s as good a place to start as any, at least,” Hermione said, still looking proud of Ron. Harry didn’t really want to argue with them. And besides, it wasn’t like he had any /other/ ideas; he was as clueless as the rest of them. “You’re right,” he said finally. “That’ll be the plan, then. We have to find out more about Tom Marvolo Riddle.” *** That was easier said than done, of course. The weather gradually grew cooler as they rolled into November. As the days passed, Harry tried to make an effort to keep up with what the Order was doing. From what he could gather, they were planning to retake the Ministry, but no one seemed to want to tell him anything in any great detail. It was as though they all unknowingly agreed with Snape that he was better off left out of things. Harry liked to think that Remus was actually just very aware they were busy with their /other/ mission and had told everyone else as much, and they were therefore allowing them the space to focus on that. And, as frustrating as it was to not be included in Order business, he

knew his attention was needed elsewhere, so he tried not to fight it too much. Hermione had written to Professor McGonagall almost immediately to ask her for help with finding out more about Tom Riddle. Apparently there was an entire section of the Hogwarts library that housed only collections of student names and information, sorted into books by school years. Harry hadn’t even realized such books existed, but McGonagall had seven large tomes delivered to them within just a few days, one for each of the years Riddle had been at Hogwarts. He was squinting at one of them – specifically at a picture of a teenaged Tom Riddle standing in front of a portrait of an armed Salazar Slytherin and trying to figure out what about it seemed…/familiar/ – when the owls came. “Looks like we got a letter from Snape,” Ron said as he untied a bundle of mail from one of the owl’s legs. “At least, I think it’s from Snape, anyway.” Hermione gave a knut to the other owl and took her copy of the Daily Prophet in return before she shooed it away. Then she turned toward Ron. “What does it say?” “…Not a lot.” He flattened the parchment out on the bed he

and Harry were lounging on so they could all read it.

/He knows. Wait for further direction from me./

“Wow, don’t elaborate or anything,” Harry muttered. “Can’t risk being /helpful/.” “Harry, you /know/ he has to be careful with what he says,” Hermione said in Snape’s defense. Harry sighed. “I know. But it’s /frustrating/.” “It’s not that complicated.” Hermione glanced at the letter again, and then began flipping through the Daily Prophet. “Now we know you really can’t leave Grimmauld Place.” “That’s not the point,” Harry said with a scowl. He looked up when Draco pushed through the door into the room, carrying a cup of tea and a plate of food. The other boy blinked at the annoyed look on Harry’s face. “What?” he asked, frowning. “I was /hungry/.” Ron snorted. “It’s not you.” He waved Snape’s letter around. “Finally heard back from Snape.” Draco’s brow furrowed. “Oh,” he said. “Nothing good, I take

it?” “Of course not,” Harry said. “When do we ever get /good/ news?” “There’s a first time for everything.” “Not today there isn’t.” “Harry,” Hermione said suddenly as looked up from the paper, her face slightly pale. She didn’t wait for him to answer and just shoved the Daily Prophet into his hands. Harry looked down at the article in front of him and promptly scowled again.

*FORMER DEATH EATERS PARDONED AND RELEASED FROM AZKABAN /Ministry confirms the use of the Imperius Curse on a wide range of Pureblood families./*

He didn’t need to read the rest of it. “There it is,” he murmured. “Tonks was right.” “Clever that it’s not on the front page,” Draco commented lightly from where he was looking over Harry’s shoulder. His hands clenched tightly around the dishes he was holding. “It won’t cause immediate alarm that way; it seems less important.”

Harry glanced further down the page. Lucius Malfoy’s picture glowered up at him from a row of Azkaban photos showing the prisoners who had been let go. “Look, your dad,” Ron said, pointing from where he was sitting on the other side of the bed. “Yes, brilliant observation, Weasley.” Hermione crowded in around Harry, reading over his shoulder, as well. “This article is nothing but rubbish,” she said fiercely, sounding honestly offended. Harry rolled his eyes. “Of course it is,” he said. “They can print whatever they damn well please now.” He tossed the paper aside and rubbed at his eyes beneath his glasses before looking at Draco. “You have to let us know if he contacts you.” Draco frowned. “There’s no /if/ about it. I’m positive he will.” He sat down beside Harry, forcing the other boy to quickly pull his legs in, and fidgeted nervously. “…I don’t like that he’s out,” he said in a low voice. “With him around, it’s sure to remind the Dark Lord about me. And I don’t /want/ him focusing on me.” “I doubt he ever just /forgot/ about you,” Harry said.

“No,” Draco agreed. “But he obviously had other things going on.” He gestured in an irritated way at the newspaper. “My father… he’ll want me there. And the Dark Lord will want me back – with /you/ in hand, I’m sure.” Harry nodded and rubbed absently at his scar. He really wished that Snape had been a little more specific in the brief note he’d sent. He wanted to know whether Snape had meant that Voldemort knew about the Horcruxes, about Draco being with Harry, or worst case scenario – both. Draco picked absently at the food he’d brought up, and then gave a loud sigh. “Here, Weasley,” he said, passing him the plate. “I seem to have lost my appetite.” Ron’s eyes lit up and he accepted the plate without question, which made Hermione roll her eyes. Draco took a sip of his tea and glanced over at the book Harry had been looking at. “What are you reading?” “Nothing,” Harry said, frowning down at the page again. “Well, /nothing’s/ got you focusing awfully hard.” Draco leaned over to get a closer look, his brow furrowing a bit. “Who’s that?” “Voldemort.” Draco choked on the sip of tea he had just taken. “/That’s/ the Dark Lord?!” he exclaimed.

Harry nodded. “When he was sixteen.” “But he looks – /normal/,” Draco said in disbelief. “Nothing about him is even remotely the same now!” “Well. He kind of died and all,” Ron said. “Sort of.” “Yeah, he lost his body the night he gave me this.” Harry gestured at his scar. “And I was there when he got his new one.” Draco was still gaping at the picture. “That’s just…bloody /strange/, honestly.” He quickly downed the rest of his tea and set the cup on the floor by his feet, and then he grabbed the book out of Harry’s hands and held it close to get a better look. “So, what, were you just captivated by his dashing good looks? I can’t say that’s not creepy as hell, Potter, but if he’s more your type then I /guess/ if you ignore that he’s an evil psychopath–” “Okay, /stop/,” Harry interrupted. “And also, shut up. I wasn’t staring at /him/, for fuck’s sake.” He pointed at the picture in question, and both Ron and Hermione leaned in as well. “There’s a portrait of Salazar Slytherin in the background.” “Ah.” Draco narrowed his eyes slightly. “I recognize it, actually. It’s in the Slytherin common room. That must be where this picture was taken.”

Ron made a soft sound of realization. “Yeah, I remember now,” he said. “So do I…” Harry said slowly. But that didn’t seem completely right. There was something else about it, something Harry was sure he had seen before. He wished the young Tom Riddle would move out of the way so he could get a better look at Slytherin. As it was, he could only see the sword the man was holding and half of a shining silver shield. He thought there might be a serpent on it. Draco’s head snapped up abruptly and he pinned a hard look on Harry first and then Ron. “I’m sorry, /what/?” he asked. “There’s nothing for you two to remember, you haven’t /been/ inside the Slytherin common room.” “Er…” Harry exchanged glances with Ron and Hermione, who both looked amused. Ron also seemed more than a bit smug. “Actually, Ron and I kind of…have.” “When?” Draco demanded. “That’s such a load of bollocks, you haven’t been – /when/?!” “Oh, second year,” Ron said, idly scratching his chin. “You were there.” “I was not!” Draco said, color quickly filling his face. “I would have noticed you two idiots lurking about. How the hell did you

get in?!” “You let us in,” Harry said with a grin. Draco glared at him. “That’s not possible, Potter. Now I /know/ you’re lying.” “I’m really not!” Harry said, laughing. “It was over Christmas. You stayed at Hogwarts that year.” “I don’t buy it.” Draco crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re just having me on.” “Oh, just tell him,” Hermione said, and then she proceeded to do so herself before Harry or Ron could speak. “They Polyjuiced themselves into Crabbe and Goyle.” Draco eyes went so wide that Harry couldn’t help laughing again. “But – what – /why/?” Draco spluttered. He wrinkled his nose and continued in a highly skeptical tone, “You mean I actually /talked/ to you?” Harry nodded. “Yep.” “And I didn’t /notice/?” “Not even a little,” said Ron. “Well, that’s…” Draco trailed off for a moment, searching for words, and then his shoulders slumped and he scowled. “Pathetic,

actually,” he grumbled. “How the hell did you lot manage to brew Polyjuice potion when you were /twelve/?” “Seriously?” Ron asked. He pointedly looked across at Hermione, and then raised an eyebrow at Draco. “…Right, should have guessed that one on my own,” Draco said with a slight roll of his eyes. “Hermione the Muggle-born genius. I swear.” There was no bite or sarcasm to his words, so they ended up coming out sounding almost like a compliment. Ron blinked and Hermione looked slightly surprised. Harry looked down, trying to hide his sudden smile. “Don’t think too highly of me,” Hermione said after a moment. “I managed to halfway turn myself into a cat.” Ron burst out laughing, and Hermione reached across Harry to smack his shoulder. “You should have seen her,” he said, leaning away from her attack and grinning full stop. “She had the ears and fur – everything!” “And a tail,” Harry said, chuckling. “There was definitely a tail.” Draco smirked a bit. “Was there ever a time you /weren’t/ off having adventures while the rest of us were stuck studying?” “Not really,” Ron said.

“Maybe a week or two here and there,” Harry added. Hermione shook her head. “They’re exaggerating, Draco; I studied all the time.” Draco gave her an amused look. “Well, I don’t doubt that. Why were you even trying to get into Slyther–ow!” He cut off, grabbing his arm suddenly. Harry sat up immediately. “What is it? What happened, are you okay?” “Fine,” Draco grunted. He let out a low hiss, looking down at his Dark Mark. “It’s just the mark.” “Why?” Ron asked, frowning. He looked at Harry. “Does your scar hurt, mate?” “No…” Harry dragged the back of his hand across it anyway. “I don’t feel anything.” “You wouldn’t,” Draco said. He’d paled a little and had a worried look on his face. “This is something different. He’s called a meeting.” “With his Death Eaters?” Hermione asked. Draco nodded. “All of them. Even me – and I haven’t been contacted in months.” Harry let out a slow breath. “It’s a test,” he said. Draco looked up and

met his eyes, and Harry could tell that he’d guessed that much already. “I think you’re right,” he said. “After tonight…he’ll know for sure I’m not with him anymore.” “That’s…okay, right?” Harry asked, trying to keep the uncertainty out of his voice. “You don’t want to go, do you?” Draco stared at him for a long moment, and then let out an exasperated sigh. “Look, this is the last time I’m going to say this. To /all/ of you.” He glanced briefly at Ron and Hermione, and then turned so he was sitting facing Harry directly. “It’s done, alright? It’s over, I can’t go back to him anymore and I /don’t want to/. I made my decision months ago and I don’t think I even realized it.” Harry held Draco’s gaze the entire time he was speaking, and nearly forgot the other two were even in the room. A weird, warm feeling was blooming in his chest. He swallowed nervously at the intensity in Draco’s eyes, and saw Draco do the same before he said one more thing. “Potter, I’m yours.” Chapter 21 Harry was in his room reading when Draco burst through the door a few

nights later. He jumped at the sudden intrusion, his heart pounding in his chest as he tried to figure out whether or not he should be alarmed. When nothing seemed to be immediately amiss, he sank back against his pillows again and attempted to get his heart rate back to normal. Ever since Draco had given him his whole ‘I’m yours’ speech, Harry’s heart seemed to /like/ skittering along at an accelerated tempo if the other boy so much as walked past him. It was more than a little disconcerting, not to mention embarrassing. Not that anyone else could tell, but he wished it would stop nonetheless. Shoving those thoughts aside for the moment, Harry instead raised an eyebrow, watching as Draco glanced out into the hallway and then quickly shut the door, leaning back against it and breathing somewhat heavily. “…Alright there?” Harry asked. He briefly looked Draco over, eyes lingering on his flushed face and the way his chest heaved up and down. He had to force himself to pay attention when Draco replied. “Fine,” he said shortly, still catching his breath. “Fucking hell, I only ran up the stairs. This is pathetic.” Harry frowned. “Is it because of your hand?” “No,” Draco said without thinking, but then he paused. “…

Maybe,” he amended. “If the curse is spreading. Or I’m just tired. Haven’t been sleeping well.” “…Probably because of your hand.” Draco scowled. “You’re stuck on this thing with my hand, Potter. I have no idea – could be that, could be nightmares, could be the fact that the Dark Lord is calling meetings every five bloody minutes lately… It’s just – everything. Building up.” Harry nodded and set his book off to the side. “You’re stressed.” “Yes. That.” “I’d tell you not to be, but…I’ve yet to figure out how to accomplish that myself.” Harry drew his legs in so he was sitting crosslegged, leaving half of the bed open in case Draco wanted to sit down. “Why the hurry, anyway?” Draco grimaced, looking back over his shoulder like he thought someone might try to barge through the door while he was still leaning against it. “Trying to get away from Weasley,” he said. “Suddenly he wants to take me up on my offer to get completely sloshed so I’ll listen to him wax poetic about his sex life.” Harry snorted and looked amused. “That’s your own fault;

you never should have suggested it in the first place.” “I was just trying to rile him up about you and his sister!” Draco whined. “I made a point to mention you, didn’t I? That we’d all raid the liquor cabinet /together/? I’m not about to drink with Weasley alone!” “He’ll get over it soon enough,” Harry said, though he doubted how true that statement actually was. It had been a couple weeks now, after all, and if Ron was getting to the point where he was willing to go to /Draco/ to have someone to talk to about it all, well… Harry had a feeling Ron’s excitement wasn’t going to disappear anytime in the near future. For a moment, he almost felt bad for Draco, but it was a very quick moment. Better him than Harry, in any case. “Why does he have to talk about it at all?” Draco continued, ignoring what Harry had said and letting his head thunk back against the door. “When Pansy and I did it, /I/ didn’t go running my mouth to anyone who was available.” “Suppose it’s just what blokes do,” Harry said. Draco shot him a look that was bordering on offended, so Harry quickly amended, “Most blokes, I mean. Not all. Since – well, you didn’t. Obviously. Like you just said.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “It’s not like you were shouting your business from the top of the Hogwarts towers, either,” he pointed out. “And you weren’t all that thrilled when it came out during our Occlumency practice. Maybe we’re both just…private people.” Harry nodded. “Right. Exactly! We don’t kiss and tell, that’s all.” “Or shag and tell.” “…Or shag /at all/.” Draco laughed. “No wonder you don’t want to listen to Weasley go on about it.” “It’s not that,” Harry said. “If it were any other girl – well. Actually.” He paused. “I couldn’t much stomach him going on about Lavender, either, I guess.” “Too much for your sensitive, virgin ears?” Draco asked, smirking. Harry scowled. “Oh, shut up,” he said. “There’s probably just something wrong with us.” “Speak for yourself, Potter,” Draco said. He made a show of running his hand through his hair. “/I’m/ a perfect specimen of a human being.” Harry raised an eyebrow. “You’re too pointy to be perfect,” he said in a completely serious tone, and Draco gave a loud,

overdramatic gasp. “Excuse you. At least I know how to wear clothes that fit and my hair has seen a comb more than twice in my life,” he shot right back. “Hey, most of my clothes used to belong to Dudley, it’s not my fault!” Draco waved him off. “Whatever, Potter. You had Mrs. Weasley buy me new clothes, so there’s no excuse for you not to have your own. You’re just lazy.” “…I’d rather save my money for more important things, is all,” Harry said, pouting a bit. “And /cheap/, apparently.” “Oh, like it matters,” Harry said exasperatedly. “But seriously – do you think maybe we should have noticed something earlier?” “About what?” “About – er…” Harry swallowed. “…I don’t know. Never mind.” Draco narrowed his eyes a little, watching Harry closely. “You’re acting weird.” “I know. Sorry. I’m just…” Harry hesitated for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts, and then plowed on before he could change his mind.

“Did you ever think maybe you were doing it with the wrong person?” he asked, the words coming out in a rush. Draco blinked at him. “…No. Not really.” “But, I mean, you only slept with Pansy twice,” Harry said. “Because we were at /school/,” Draco said, in a tone that suggested this should have been obvious. “And – you know, we were young.” “When did you break it off with her?” “I can’t remember. Not too long after all that, I guess. She got very /clingy/ around then.” Draco frowned. “What’s with all the questions?” Harry ignored him. “How long did you two date?” “Officially? Half a year or so. Potter–” “So, you were with her for awhile,” Harry interrupted. “Then you shagged…and promptly broke up.” “…Not /promptly/, it wasn’t immediately after or anything,” Draco said, somewhat warily. “But yes.” Harry nodded and chewed on his lip for a moment, wondering how to say what he wanted to say without actually…saying it. “Was it a mutual break-up?” Draco snorted. “Hardly. Pansy was rather crushed, I think.

But then she claims she’s been in love with me since we were eight.” “So…was the sex mostly just a physical thing for you?” Harry asked. “And not really an – um…emotional thing?” Draco seemed to think that over, rocking back on his heels a bit as he did. “I suppose,” he said slowly. “I considered her a friend, obviously, and still do, but I guess it didn’t go much beyond that for me. I tried to feel more, but last year… I just didn’t have the energy for a relationship /and/ all that other stuff.” Harry quirked an eyebrow at him. “Usually /all that other stuff/ goes hand-in-hand with the relationship, you realize.” “Yeah, well.” Draco frowned. “I just didn’t have the energy for any of it, then. She was exhausting.” “Right. See?” Harry said. “It’s probably because she /wasn’t/ the right person!” He paused briefly, and then, finally at the part he wanted to get out in the open, he mumbled, “…Or the right /gender/.” Draco abruptly froze. “…Oh,” he said after a moment. And then he gave a sharp laugh. “I see what you’re hinting at. Terribly, might I add. You think you’ve got me all figured out, Potter?” “I’m not trying to figure you out, Malfoy,” Harry said, which was a

blatant lie. An unhealthy portion of his thoughts lately were occupied with trying to figure Draco out. “Yes, you are,” Draco said, and he was glaring at Harry now. “You think you can take the grand total of /two people/ I’ve ever done anything with and make up your mind based on that just who or what I might be into – that isn’t something /you/ get to decide, Potter!” He crossed his arms over his chest in what was purely a defensive gesture. “Or are you just trying to find an explanation? Some /excuse/ for why things happened between us, some reason it can all be blamed on me so you can pretend you didn’t want to do it without feeling guilty!” “What – no! Malfoy, that’s not what I’m–” “I mean, for fuck’s sake, Potter,” Draco continued irately, clearly not hearing Harry. “It’s not the end of the world just because you snogged a boy; you’re a teenager, these things /happen/!” Harry exhaled noisily, feeling his face go hot again. “They don’t happen to /everyone/, that’s the whole point I’m trying to make!” he snapped. “Ron saw the same thing we did, with Seamus and Justin, and it barely even fazed him!” “That’s because he has /Hermione/,” Draco said, rolling his eyes

“And I had Ginny!” Harry cried. “And yet–!” He threw a hand in Draco’s direction and then immediately caught himself, but by then the gesture was too obvious and Draco’s eyes had gone wide. Harry swallowed nervously and let his hand awkwardly fall. For a long moment, Draco stood absolutely still with his arms still tight around himself. Harry only risked glancing over at him when he heard him sigh. “You can’t compare yourself to Weasley,” Draco said. “Just because you barely use one brain between the two of you doesn’t mean you’re /actually/ the same person.” He frowned slightly, tilting his head to the side a bit. “Did he say something to you? Has he gone all super traditional pureblood suddenly?” Harry gave a humorless laugh. “No. He was very supportive, actually. It was frightening.” “That he was supportive?” “That he /noticed/.” Harry shook his head. “I didn’t think there was anything /to/ notice.” “That’s because you’re an oblivious idiot.” “Thanks,” Harry said dryly. “With compliments like that, it’s a mystery how I manage to restrain myself from jumping straight into your trousers.”

Draco gave him a faint smirk. “I’ve no idea how you keep away, honestly.” “Willpower,” said Harry. “Stubbornness,” Draco countered. “…Yeah, suppose there’s a good dose of that.” Harry dragged a hand through his hair, and then he gave Draco a long, considering look. “Okay…look, Malfoy, I think–” “HARRY!” Ron’s voice suddenly cut through their conversation, accompanied by some loud banging on the door that had Draco jumping away from it and cursing under his breath. “Shit, give me a bloody heart attack, why don’t you,” he muttered, hand pressed against his chest. “Oi, Harry!” Ron called again. “Is Malfoy in there with you? I was trying to talk to him earlier and the git practically fled the room, but it’s kind of important…” “Er…” Harry glanced over at Draco, snorting lightly when Draco shook his head vigorously. “Sorry, Ron, I haven’t seen him!” he yelled back. “Maybe he’s, uh – in the bathroom?” Draco gave him a flat look. “That’s the best you could come up with?” he hissed, and Harry shrugged.

Ron was silent for a brief moment before they heard him laugh. “Yeah, alright,” he said. “I’ll leave you two alone.” Harry’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to deny whatever Ron thought was happening, but the words stuck in his throat as they heard Ron’s footsteps fade away. Now Draco was the one who looked amused. Harry gestured at the door in frustration. “You see?” he said to Draco. “He and Hermione have got some weird idea in their head that – never mind. Forget it. Was there anything else you wanted?” A pinched, almost hurt look passed quickly over Draco’s face, but it was gone before Harry could say anything about it. He blinked, suddenly feeling absurdly guilty, but kept his mouth tightly shut around the apology that was trying to force its way out. “There was, actually,” Draco said after a beat. He walked over to the foot of Harry’s bed and flipped open his trunk before Harry could stop him. “Hey!” Harry said, scrambling to the other side of the bed so he could see what Draco was doing. “Watch it, Malfoy, the Horcruxes are in there!” “As are your old schoolbooks,” Draco said, carefully pushing things around inside as he searched for something. “And Hermione told me you have – ah! Here it is.” He reemerged, holding up a barely

used copy of /Hogwarts, A History/. Harry frowned. “Yeah, she got that for me. Why do you need it?” “Well…” Draco grunted as he pushed himself to his feet, and then plopped down next to Harry on the bed. “Remember that disgustingly handsome picture of our good friend Tom Riddle you were ogling the other day?” “I wasn’t /ogling/–” Draco spoke overtop of him. “You said you were more interested in the portrait of Slytherin he was standing in front of, and I knew I’d seen it somewhere before. Other than in the common room, I mean.” Harry blinked. “It’s in there?” Draco nodded and opened the book, flipping through a good portion of it before he found what he was looking for. “There,” he said, pointing at the right page. “It’s the picture they used on the title page for the chapter about him.” Harry leaned over to look and inadvertently caught a whiff of whatever cologne Draco had on. Or maybe it was just his shampoo. Or…well, Harry didn’t know what it was, but it was distracting and probably shouldn’t smell as good as Harry thought it did. He inhaled deeply,

realized what he was doing half a second later, and then instantly wanted to hex himself. “Now you just have to remember why you thought it was important,” Draco said. He looked at Harry, who gave him a blank stare in return because he honestly hadn’t heard a single word that had just been spoken. After a moment, Draco raised an expectant eyebrow. Harry hastily cleared his throat and looked away. “…Uh, right,” he said, cursing inwardly. /Focus/. “Let me see.” He took the book from Draco so he could get a closer look. “Is it something he’s holding?” Draco asked. “If I recall correctly, Gryffindor had the sword and shield made for him. Maybe that sword just looks similar to Gryffindor’s?” His shoulder bumped Harry’s as he looked at the book, as well, and Harry tried to pretend he wasn’t so bloody /close/. “Uh…” Harry cleared his throat. “I – no. I don’t think it’s the sword. There’s something about the shield…” He frowned. “Shit, but /what/?” They stared down at the page for a minute longer, and then Draco sighed and sat back. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” he said, standing up and stretching. Harry very carefully /didn’t/ watch the way

Draco’s jumper rode up a bit with the movement of his arms. “I’ve no idea what it could be, and you probably don’t need me here distracting you.” Harry refrained from denying that Draco was in any way a distraction, because in truth he really, /really/ was. And Harry still wasn’t sure how he felt about that. “Alright,” he said instead. “I’m probably going to bed soon, so I’ll see you in the morning.” “Fine.” Draco headed for the door. “Night, Potter.” “Night, Malfoy.” Harry’s eyes followed him as he left, and he wasn’t surprised when Draco glanced back over his shoulder, saw him watching, and smirked just as the door shut. He sighed. Merlin, he was so very screwed. *** Draco let the smirk on his face grow into a full-blown grin as he stood outside Harry’s room. Fuck, the boy was stubborn, but – “He definitely wants me,” Draco said to no one in particular. He shot a furtive glance up and down the hall immediately after, but all the other doors were shut so he was sure no one had heard him. It wouldn’t do to have the

others aware of how pleased the thought made him. Forcing the grin off his face, Draco crossed the hallway to where Weasley’s room was. Hermione had been in her own room earlier when Draco had stopped by to ask if she had a copy of /Hogwarts, A History/, and he hoped she was still there. He really didn’t want to accidentally interrupt the two of them if she was with Weasley. After deliberating with himself for a quick second, Draco decided to just man up and go for it. He could handle talking to Weasley one-on-one about…this. Really, he could. He knocked on the door. “Yeah, come in!” Weasley replied, his voice sounding slightly muffled. Draco pushed open the door. “Look, Weasley, I – ahh!” His hands darted up to cover his eyes. “/Fuck/, Weasley, a little warning next time?!” Weasley looked at him through the opening of the hideous sweater he was in the middle of pulling on. “What?” he asked, sounding honestly confused. “Freckles!” Draco said, waving an arm blindly in Weasley’s direction. “/Far/ too many freckles!” “Oh, come on.” Weasley rolled his eyes and pulled the sweater the rest

of the way over his head. “I’m sure you can handle a little skin, Malfoy.” Draco risked a glance in his direction and couldn’t help sneering at the way his hair stuck up everywhere. “What /is/ that?” he asked, lowering his hands now that his eyes were safe from naked Weasley flesh. “This?” Weasley picked at the offensive article of clothing he’d just donned. “It’s a sweater my mum made.” At the look on Draco’s face, he added, “They’re comfortable, alright? And warm. And I’m cold.” “I’ll take your word for it,” Draco said. He shut the door behind him and started to lean against it, but then he paused. “Are you expecting your girlfriend?” Weasley shrugged. “I don’t know. If she wants to come over, she will.” He blushed slightly. “I…mentioned earlier that I wanted to talk to you and she got all mad at me again,” he mumbled, and Draco snorted at him. “You’re pathetic.” “Shove it, Malfoy. What do you want, anyway?” Weasley’s eyes lit up. “Have you changed your mind? I have Firewhiskey! It’s from the twins, but I don’t think they’ve done anything to it…” “Good God, no,” Draco said immediately. “I have no interest

in hearing about your bedroom adventures, Weasley.” Weasley deflated a bit. “Fine,” he grumbled. “What, then?” Draco shrugged, crossing his arms and trying to sound casual. “I’m here about Potter.” “Oh.” Weasley looked slightly pained. “Think I might still have some of that Firewhiskey, then…” “It’s nothing like that!” Draco said, but he could feel his face go a bit hot anyway. Weasley gave him a doubtful look. “…Well, alright, maybe it is, but – what did you /say/ to him?” “What do you mean?” Weasley asked. He knelt down in front of the trunk that was situated at the foot of his bed, and dug around inside of it. “I mean…” Draco waved his hand around absently. “A few weeks ago, I think. After we slept – I mean.” Draco went a darker pink. “After we accidentally spent the night together in the same bed in a very platonic manner.” Weasley glanced back at Draco over his shoulder for a long moment, and then he sighed and turned back to the trunk. “Malfoy, can you and I just say it out loud and agree that there’s not a damn thing that’s platonic about whatever you and Harry have going on?” He found the

bottle he was searching for and made a soft, victorious sound before he stood and faced Draco again. “I’m not blind, you know?” Draco glared at him. “It’s platonic right now! And if you don’t keep your mouth shut, it’s going to stay that way!” “So…” Weasley sat down on his bed, pulling his leg up onto it so he was turned facing Draco. “You do /want/ there to be something… not platonic…between you two?” “Well!” Draco crossed his arms and scowled. He could tell the blush on his face wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “I don’t know!” Weasley raised an eyebrow as he unscrewed the top of the Firewhiskey. “I’m not going to help you if you can’t even admit it. Shit, I shouldn’t even help you if you /do/ admit it. I can’t believe we’re even /having/ this conversation.” He took a large gulp of the alcohol and promptly started coughing after he’d swallowed. “Bloody hell,” he choked out. “This stuff is strong.” Draco half hoped he would turn into a chicken or something, but it seemed the twin Weasley dolts really had left this bottle untouched. That was disappointing. Maybe smuggling their brother alcohol was exciting enough for the two of them.

Weasley was still watching him expectantly. Draco fiddled absently with the hem of his shirt and scowled some more. “Well?” Weasley asked. Draco huffed. “I just think if you get to fuck, then so should Potter and I,” he said blithely. Weasley choked again, but not because he was drinking anything. “You actually want to – do that? With Harry?” “…I don’t know, I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Draco muttered, going a bit shifty-eyed. “But other stuff?” He shrugged. “Sure. Might as well do something to pass the time around here.” Weasley opened his mouth to say something, paused, and then tossed back another mouthful of Firewhiskey. “Okay, Malfoy, here’s the thing,” he said, dragging the back of his hand across his mouth. “Harry, more than anything – well, not anything, but – he just wants to be normal. He wants all this Boy Who Lived stuff to be over with so he can get out of the spotlight, find a normal girl to marry, settle down in a normal house somewhere, and have lots of normal babies.” “Normal, as in, your sister,” Draco said, grimacing, but Weasley quickly shook his head.

“They’re never actually going to happen,” he said. “If Harry wanted to be with my sister, he would fight for her the way she fights for him.” Draco, absurdly, found himself a bit offended on Harry’s behalf. “You don’t think he’s fighting for her? All this shit with the Horcruxes and defeating the Dark Lord so the Wizarding world can live in peace – you don’t think she’s a part of that?” “No – that’s not what I meant,” Weasley said. “He doesn’t /want/ her. He broke up with her but Ginny is /still/ clinging to some fairytale belief that they’ll be reunited when all this is over. She keeps trying to get him back, but if Harry wanted to be with her then he’d /be/ with her. If it was me who You-Know-Who was trying to kill, you’d better damn well believe I’d keep Hermione by my side. She makes me stronger just by being around; there’s no way in hell I’d ship her off to Hogwarts where I couldn’t see her every day. It’d feel like a part of me was missing and I’d never be able to focus on what we’re supposed to be doing.” He took another drink after he finished talking and Draco blinked, vaguely impressed that Weasley could admit all that and not seem the slightest bit embarrassed. “Ginny is a pretty clever witch,” Weasley continued. “She’s good with spells – she could actually be useful to have around.

Harry just doesn’t want her here.” “She’s also underage.” “True. But if Harry had stepped in and said something, my mum probably would have let her stay with us.” Draco had seen Mrs. Weasley in action so doubted how true that was, but he didn’t say anything. He shifted his weight from foot to foot for a moment before moving to the chair at Weasley’s desk so he could sit down. “So, what are you saying? It’ll be some other girl?” “I’m saying he won’t go for anything with you if you’re trying to play it off as a /just sex/ kind of thing.” “What the hell does that have to do with being /normal/?” “Normal for him – minus the fact that you’re a bloke. He wants the whole relationship deal. /Everything/, not just shagging and all that.” “Did he say that to you?” Draco asked, eyeing Weasley suspiciously. “No,” Weasley said, snorting. “He denied it all entirely, which is another hurdle altogether. You being a boy doesn’t fit in with all his preconceptions of what a normal relationship is, but I think he could get over that part.” Draco sighed and tipped his head back, staring at the tiny

cracks in the ceiling for a moment. “I don’t get it. Is it a Muggle thing? Because, your family being how they are, I doubt they’d much care. And it’s got to be obvious by now that I don’t. My father, on the other hand, he’d pitch a right fit about it all – but I don’t care about that and I don’t know why Potter would. Maybe his Muggles...?” Weasley frowned, looking thoughtful. “Hermione said it’s about the same in the Muggle world as it is in ours. Some people care, others don’t. And Harry wouldn’t give a flip what his Muggle family thought, anyway.” “I suppose not… They’re a nightmare, those people.” “Yeah, not very friendly.” Weasley glanced over at Draco. “Do you like him?” Draco remained quiet for a long moment, and then he wordlessly held out his hand. Weasley passed him the bottle and Draco made a big show of wiping the rim off before he took a large gulp. He didn’t cough like Weasley had, though he winced a bit as the Firewhiskey burned its way down his throat. Then he glanced at Weasley out of the corner of his eye. “You know the answer to that, you tosser.” “Humor me.” “He’s not as…/annoying/ as I used to think,” Draco offered, and Weasley

rolled his eyes. Draco took another sip and then handed the bottle back. “I need you to stop acting like you know there’s something going on with us.” “Why’s that?” Weasley asked. “Because you’re scaring him off!” Draco snapped. “If he’s trying so hard to be /normal/ or whatever, then you hinting and being a smarmy know-it-all about something that hasn’t even happened yet is only going to make him keep denying it.” “…Oh.” Weasley seemed slightly abashed. He took a drink and passed Draco the bottle again. “Sorry.” Draco let out an agitated breath. “It’s fine,” he muttered. “Just – quit it. It’s like one step forward, five steps back whenever you say something. If you’re right – and let’s face it, you probably are. You know him better than anyone.” Weasley gave him a big grin at that, and Draco rolled his eyes. “Anyway, if you’re right, then he needs to figure all this out on his own. You stop hinting, and…” He trailed off, and then lowered his voice. “…And I’ll stop /pushing/.” He tossed back another drink. “And then maybe he’ll make a bloody /move/ already.” Weasley looked at him curiously. “…/Have/ you two – er.” He flushed.

“Have we what?” Draco asked, amused. His head was starting to feel a little fuzzy, but in a good way. And for no reason in particular, he felt like laughing. Maybe Weasley would say something funny. “Haaave you…you know.” He couldn’t seem to meet Draco’s eyes now. Draco snickered, which made Weasley scowl at him. “/You know/,” he insisted. “Have we…figured out the Horcruxes yet?” Weasley frowned. “No.” “Have we played Wizard’s Chess recently?” “No.” “Have we tried a bogey-flavored Bertie Bott’s bean?” “/No/ – Malfoy, come on!” Draco snapped his fingers. “Quidditch!” he declared. “You want to know if we’ve been playing Quidditch! Which is a stupid question, frankly, because you know we can’t leave this bloody house.” Weasley buried his face in his hands and groaned. “Not exactly the broomsticks I’m talking about, Malfoy, you utter prat,” he ground out. There was silence for a beat, and then suddenly Draco burst out laughing.

“/Weasley/,” he crowed. “Did – did you just make some sort of veiled allusion to us riding on each other’s – /ha/ – each other’s /broomsticks/?” Weasley abruptly turned a deep, tomato red. “No – /no/! That’s not – I didn’t /mean/ to!” “Oh /Merlin/,” Draco said, still laughing. “The answer to that one is obviously /no/.” He was kind of morbidly curious how Weasley would react now, though, not to mention a little past tipsy, so it seemed like a good idea to go ahead and tell him. “However–” “I’ve changed my mind!” Weasley said loudly, quickly standing up from the bed and marching over to the opposite side of the room like that would somehow stop Draco from telling him anything. “Bloody hell, it’s like with my sister all over again – I don’t want to know!” Draco grinned. “Oh, let me tell you about your /sister/,” he said. “Those two–” Weasley covered his ears before Draco could continue. “NOT LISTENING. Don’t make me hex you, Malfoy!” Draco let his grin turn into something a little more evil as he took another drink. After a second, Weasley’s face scrunched up in confusion and he lowered his hands a bit. “Hang on,” he said. “How do /you/ know all this? Do you two actually talk

about this kind of thing?” Draco shook his head, which he promptly decided not to do again because the entire room sort of swayed with him. “It was this whole thing – came up when we were practicing Occlumency. …It’s a long story.” “Oh.” Weasley frowned. “I don’t know how to do Occlumency. Maybe I should learn. You could teach me!” Draco shot him an incredulous look. “I’m /not/ going to be your training partner.” “Why not?” “Because I refuse to see you and Hermione all…” Draco waved a hand around aimlessly. “/Naked/. And stuff.” “…That’s necessary to learn Occlumency?” “It’s a training mechanism.” Weasley raised an eyebrow. “That apparently you didn’t mind using with Harry.” Draco shrugged, and Weasley gave a soft, disbelieving laugh before walking back over to snatch the bottle out of Draco’s hands. “You definitely fancy him, mate.” “I do not!” Draco cried, mostly because it was an automatic reaction to disagree with whatever words came out of Weasley’s mouth. “Why would I fancy that scruffy, specky git? You’re delusional, /Weasel/.”

“Oh, Weasel now, is it?” Weasley just looked amused. “Well then, Ferret-face, answer this for me. Would you really be in here talking to me – /me/, of all people – about this if you didn’t actually like him? And /want/ him?” “I’m sorry, did you just call me /Ferret-face/?” Draco asked, pointedly ignoring the question. “That’s /so/ fourth year, Weasley.” “Actually, I think it still fits you rather well.” Draco scowled. “I’m in here because you’re the one with the booze,” he lied. “Of course, now you’re hogging it all.” “Only because you’re already halfway pissed.” Weasley took another swig and then smirked at him. “Lightweight.” “Am not,” Draco said stubbornly. Weasley just snorted, so Draco waited for him to raise the bottle to his lips again before he blurted, “Potter and I totally snogged, by the way.” Weasley promptly spewed out a mouthful of Firewhiskey. Draco burst out laughing again. “You – you /what/?!” Weasley cried. “Malfoy!” “We /snogged/, I said!” Draco said gleefully. He stood and grabbed the bottle from Weasley’s suddenly slack fingers, and then quickly danced

away when he tried to grab it back. “Also, I stuck my hand down his pants.” Weasley gave up on the Firewhiskey and just gaped at him. “…Oh my God,” he said weakly. “And he stuck his hand down mine.” “Oh my /God/.” “It was pretty fantastic.” “Malfoy – shit, Merlin on a bloody broomstick, I said I didn’t want to – when /was/ this?” “Forever ago,” Draco replied. “Belgium. He’s treated me like I have the plague ever since.” “/Belgium/?” “…Actually, we snogged again on the day we went into the Cave of Doom. But that was it.” “It was that long ago?” Weasley asked. “I knew it, I /knew/ there was something going on with you guys!” Draco stepped up to Weasley and bonked him on the side of his head with the bottle. “Are you listening to me? There’s been nothing since! NOTHING. I’m going crazy! Do you know what it’s like to be near someone every day who doesn’t want you back?”

“Well…” Weasley gave him a smug grin as he stole the Firewhiskey back. “Not recently.” “I mean, what do I have to do?” Draco demanded. He spun away and started pacing the length of the room, forgetting about the Firewhiskey entirely now that he was suddenly focused on ranting. “I practically spelled it out for that arsehole the other day. I was pretty damn clear, wasn’t I? /I’m yours/, it doesn’t get much clearer than that!” “Yeah, about that,” Weasley said. “Maybe next time, wait until there aren’t other people in the room? The way you two were staring at each other, I was afraid you were going to go at it right there.” “You could have just left if we had,” Draco said. He crossed his arms over his chest and got a sulky look. “I should have just leaned all the way in.” Weasley watched as Draco stomped around and he smiled a little to himself. “…/Definitely/ fancies him,” he murmured. “What?” “Nothing. So – hang on.” He upended the bottle and took three long gulps, and then squeezed his eyes shut until the burn passed. “Steady on,” Draco said, as Weasley swayed on the spot. Weasley shook

his head and blinked a couple times. “Urgh,” he said, screwing the top back onto the bottle. There was still about half of the Firewhiskey left. “Remind me not to do that again.” But then he grinned. “So! This whole – hands in each other’s pants thing. That really happened?” Draco nodded rapidly. The action made him feel woozy. “Oh yes,” he said. “Definitely happened.” “That sneaky little git,” Weasley said. He sounded almost proud of Harry, despite everything. “You’d think he would at least /mention/ that at some point.” “Are you mad? He’ll probably take it to his grave.” Draco trudged over to Weasley’s bed and all but tossed himself onto it. “Nah, no way,” Weasley said, leaning up against the footboard so he was facing Draco. “I’m pretty sure he likes you, too, Malfoy. For some reason.” Draco snorted. “He hides it well.” Weasley made a noncommittal sound and then all at once seemed to notice that Draco was, in fact, lying on his bed. “…Oi. Hey! Up, Malfoy! Gryffindors only in this – this…general vicinity.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arms that was evidently meant to include the bed in its

entirety. Draco glowered at him and then did the opposite of getting up: he spread out his arms and legs and tried to take up as much room as he could. “What’s wrong, Weasley?” he asked, smirking. “You don’t like it when suspicious characters /Slytherin/ to your bed in the middle of the night?” Weasley blinked at him. And then his brow burrowed. And then suddenly he let out an unexpected bark of laughter. “That…is /not/ funny, Malfoy,” he said, in between chuckles he was trying to stifle. “Nor /clever/.” “Whatever, Weasley. I’m hilarious,” Draco said haughtily, and Weasley laughed some more until Draco couldn’t help but join in. After a minute of this, Weasley seemed to lose his balance for no logical reason whatsoever. He stumbled backwards and tried to grab for the footboard, but he only managed to create a windmill effect as he flailed his arms around and ended up falling back onto his arse on the ground. This, of course, only set the two of them off all over again until they could hardly breathe from laughing so hard. Eventually, Draco managed to pull himself over to the end of the bed so he could look down at Weasley, who was flat on his back on

this floor. “So,” Draco said. “Weasley. Tell me about your sexual escapades with Hermione.” Weasley grinned. *** Harry frowned over at his door for a moment, wondering what the hell Ron was doing at this hour of the night. Probably something with Hermione that Harry really didn’t want to be thinking about. Which was all well and good, but did they have to be so /loud/? He sighed, shifting around under his covers into a more comfortable position, and then he crossed his arms behind his head and went back to staring at his ceiling. After studying that picture of Slytherin for half an hour earlier, he still wasn’t any closer to figuring out what the hell about it was setting off his memory. It was incredibly frustrating. Maybe Dumbledore would know. Harry could take a quick trip over to Hogwarts and ask his portrait. It would definitely be nice to get out of Grimmauld Place for a bit– …Except he wasn’t supposed to go anywhere. And Dumbledore had probably seen that portrait a thousand times before.

But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be able to recognize whatever Harry was looking for. Maybe he would know more about the sword and shield; maybe he had some idea of when they’d been lost or where they’d ended up. It couldn’t hurt to ask, right? That bloody picture was the only lead they had right now, after all. Sleep was starting to creep up on Harry. He was beginning to drift off, halfway into a hazy dream of Voldemort and Dumbledore dueling with the sword from the portrait and the one that had belonged to Gryffindor, when it hit him. He bolted upright in bed, eyes wide and all traces of tiredness abruptly gone. /Of course/. *** Draco stumbled back to his own room sometime later, and the first thing he noticed was that it was bloody /cold/ because apparently he’d left his window open earlier. The second thing he noticed was the rolled up letter sitting innocently on his nightstand. The last thing he noticed was the Malfoy seal on the letter. His father’s seal.

Bugger. Chapter 22 “While I’m glad you didn’t pick up the letter without thinking, Draco, I’m a little surprised you forgot you could use your /wand/ to do it.” Draco scowled at Hermione from across the kitchen table. He was sitting hunched over, elbows propped on the table as he rubbed in what was /supposed/ to be a soothing manner on his temples. It didn’t actually seem to be accomplishing anything, though, because he still had a bloody /huge/ headache. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he grumbled. “I was a little too intoxicated to do any sort of /logical/ thinking last night. I blame your imbecile of a boyfriend.” Hermione gave him a disapproving look. “Yes, well. You can be sure I’ll be having a word with him about /that/ whenever he finally manages to drag his arse out of bed.” Draco perked up a bit. “Can I watch?” “/No/.” Hermione set a cup of tea down in front of Draco. “You most certainly cannot. Drink up.” “You’re no fun,” Draco said, and then muttered a soft,

“Thanks,” as he lifted the cup to his lips. Hermione sat down across from him, watching him somewhat warily. “What were you two even doing? I didn’t think I actually had to worry that you’d let him talk to you about…/things/.” She went a light pink as she spoke, and quickly looked away with a frown. For a moment, Draco contemplated ratting Ron out, but for some reason he found himself taking pity on Hermione instead. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We mostly talked about Potter.” She blinked at him. “Oh?” she asked, trying not to sound as interested as she clearly felt. Draco hid his smirk behind his cup. “Yeah, about what a tosser he is.” “…I’m sure,” Hermione said dryly. Draco grinned, and then both of them turned to look towards the kitchen door as they heard pounding footsteps coming down the stairs. “Morning!” Harry said when he appeared in the doorway, sounding somewhat breathless like he’d just come back from a morning jog. He was holding his copy of /Hogwarts, A History/. “Morning, Harry,” Hermione greeted, with a warm smile. “You look weirdly pleased,” Draco said.

“And you look terrible,” Harry returned. “Have a rough night?” “Something like that.” “Did you find something, Harry?” Hermione asked. “Just finally remembered, more like.” Harry put the book down on the table and flipped to the page Draco had showed him last night. “It’s the shield. I know where I’ve seen it before.” He paused suddenly, looking up at the other two. “Where’s Ron?” Draco snorted. “Probably still buried under his covers and not planning to emerge anytime soon.” Harry frowned. “Is he sick?” “No, he just drank too much last night,” Hermione said, sounding none too pleased about it. “Last night?” Harry’s brow furrowed and he glanced at Draco. “Oh, you two…?” Draco shifted a bit in his seat. “I just had to ask him something,” he said cagily, staring down into his cup of tea. “And then he broke out the Firewhiskey – it was unplanned.” Harry gave a soft laugh. “I don’t need an explanation; I’m not your keeper. I’m just surprised you two managed to stay friendly long enough

to get pissed.” “See, that’s the brilliant thing about alcohol, Potter,” Draco said. “It only takes a few quick drinks before even Weasleys become tolerable.” “Are you talking about me, Malfoy?” Ron suddenly croaked from the doorway. His skin had a pasty look to it, and he had one hand clinging to the frame – apparently to help keep him on his feet – and the other was curled into a fist and rubbing at his eyes. Draco looked at him over Harry’s shoulder and smiled a toocheerful grin. “I was telling Potter all about how we’re best friends now,” he said, and then in gleeful voice added, “You look /awful/.” Ron glowered at him. “That’s because I had to put up with you for half the night,” he said. “Oh, whatever, Weasley. You wouldn’t let me leave. I practically had to claw my way out.” “You had to /crawl/ your way out, you mean,” Ron said. “Barely took one drink before you could hardly stand.” “/I/ couldn’t stand?” Draco repeated, arching his eyebrows. “Who was it that fell straight onto his arse again?” Ron flushed. “Shut up,” he grumbled, and then he trudged over to sit

down at the table where he took one look at Harry and promptly went an even deeper tomato red. “Er…alright?” Harry asked, slightly startled. “Fine!” Ron said, his voice higher than normal. “Completely fine! What’s that, are we reading something?” He focused on Harry’s book to avoid meeting his eyes. Harry blinked at him for a moment longer before he redirected his attention to the book, as well. “Yeah,” he said, spinning it around so everyone else could see the page he'd flipped to. “This shield. Voldemort has it.” Hermione gasped while Draco choked on his tea. Ron went bug-eyed. “What?!” he exclaimed. “Harry, are you sure?” asked Hermione, frowning a little as she looked closer at the portrait Harry was showing them of Salazar Slytherin. Draco set his cup down and crowded in so he could get a better look, too. “Where the hell would he have gotten it?” “Where does he get any of this stuff?” Harry pointed out. “He probably caught wind of it somehow, stalked the person who had it originally, got friendly, buttered them up, and then killed them and had someone else

framed for it.” The other three stared at him. “...He's done it before,” Harry muttered defensively. Hermione shook her head and focused on the picture again. “How do you know he has this?” “I've seen him use it. At the Ministry, remember?” Hermione favored him with a blank look, so he elaborated, “Fifth year! After the – the Department of Mysteries thing. When he was dueling Dumbledore, he summoned a shield out of thin air. It was /this/ shield!” Now Hermione looked doubtful, and both Ron and Draco seemed to be heading that direction as well. “Harry, are you sure he wasn’t just using some kind of spell?” Hermione asked gently, which only made Harry scowl. “/No/, he wasn’t – trust me, I remember this! It was silver, the design looks the same. And…” Harry trailed off, trying to think back. “And it made a…a really strange sound when spells bounced off it. It was kind of…” He shivered a bit, and absently rubbed his arms. “I don’t know. Creepy.” “Creepy, like the same feeling you get from a Horcrux?” Draco asked.

Harry hesitated. “I can’t properly remember; it was two years ago. But it makes sense, right?” “I don’t know,” Hermione said slowly. “If this shield was a Horcrux, I don’t think You-Know-Who would have used it so carelessly. What if it had gotten damaged?” “Well, he was fighting Dumbledore, right?” Ron said. “And we all know that’s who You-Know-Who feared most. Maybe he panicked and thought he needed a shield and didn’t have time to think about what he was doing.” Harry spared Ron a grateful look, because at least he was /trying/, but now Hermione and Draco looked even more skeptical than before. “Even going up against Dumbledore, I don’t think the Dark Lord is the type to /panic/,” Draco said. “He’s a skilled dueler, not to mention /dangerous/. I think he can hold his own well enough against anyone without accidentally summoning very important bits of his soul that are supposed to be hidden away forever.” “Well, what was it, then?” Harry asked, frustration growing in his voice. “He had a shield and it looked like that.” He shoved his finger at the picture, like that would somehow help them all to see it more clearly. “Was it a spell? How did he get it to look so much

like Slytherin’s shield?” “…I don’t know any spell that actually physically summons a shield,” Draco admitted. “There’s /Protego/, of course, but–” Hermione started. “But it doesn’t produce a physical /shield/, like I just said,” Draco snapped. Hermione shot him an affronted look and he sighed, sitting back in his chair and massaging his temples again. “Potter,” he said in a more controlled voice. “Why would the Dark Lord keep a Horcrux with him? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of hiding them away?” “He keeps Nagini with him,” Harry said stubbornly. “So – you think he has two with him, mate?” Ron asked uncertainly, and Harry frowned. Great, now they /all/ thought he was jumping to conclusions. “Harry, listen,” Hermione said, reaching across the table and clasping her hand over Harry’s. “We won’t dismiss this, okay? We /won’t/, because it’s too important to sweep under the rug altogether. But you have to admit this could be a bit of a reach.” Harry set his jaw as he looked back at her. “I know what I saw,” he said, but after holding Hermione’s eyes for a moment he let his gaze drop to the table. “But I guess there would still be the matter

of /getting/ the shield, so it’s not like there’s much we can do right at this second anyway.” Hermione smiled and patted his hand. “We’ll keep it in mind,” she said, and then glanced across at Draco. “Draco has some news, too.” “Yeah?” Harry raised his eyebrows at him. “What is it?” Draco glowered at Hermione briefly before reluctantly turning to Harry. “I – got an owl. From my father.” “You – what?!” Harry’s eyes widened. “When?” “What did it say?” Ron asked. “Is he calling you back?” “I didn’t read it,” Draco said with a frown. “I didn’t want to touch it in case it activated a Portkey or something similar.” “…That’s why we have /wands/, mate,” Ron said. “Yes, well, I was drunk last night, wasn’t I?” Draco groused, glaring at Ron. “I didn’t think of that. Frankly, I was hoping it was some sort of alcohol induced hallucination.” “Where is it?” Harry asked, bringing Draco’s attention back to him. “Upstairs,” he replied. “On my bedside table. I suppose you want me to go get it?”

Harry shook his head. “I can. You stay here. You look like death warmed up, the pair of you.” He glanced at Ron as he spoke, and Ron gave him a sheepish sort of grin. Harry punched him in the shoulder. “/Invite/ me next time, you git.” Draco snorted. “We can’t invite you when you’re the one we’re talking about.” “Ha ha, Malfoy,” Harry deadpanned. When Draco lifted an eyebrow at him, though, Harry hesitated. “Wait – you’re serious?” He swung a wide-eyed look back and forth between Draco and Ron. Draco just smirked at him, but Ron slowly flushed a dull red again. “…I don’t want to know, do I?” Harry asked weakly. Ron quickly shook his head, and Harry felt his own face grow warm. “Right. Okay, then.” He backed up toward the door, looked at the two of them again, and then turned on his heel and left. “You guys, honestly,” Hermione said, just as Draco started snickering. “You shouldn’t tease him like that!” “Who’s teasing?” Ron asked. He crossed his arms over the table and buried his face against them. “He /doesn’t/ want to know. You wouldn’t believe what all Malfoy told me!” Hermione’s brow furrowed. “…That would imply there actually /was/

something to tell you.” Her eyes widened. “Is there?” She snapped her head around to look at Draco again. “What have you two done that I don’t know about?” “It would be impolite to mention it in front of a lady,” Draco said loftily, and Ron groaned. “Just – shut it, Malfoy,” he said. “I’m trying to shove that bit of unnecessary information into the dark recesses of my mind.” “Stop whining,” Draco said. He kicked at Ron’s leg under the table, which made the other boy lift his head to scowl at him. “You practically /asked/.” “I did not!” Ron cried. Hermione pursed her lips. “Alright. You and I are going to have a long talk later, Ronald Weasley.” Ron groaned again. “Weren’t you the one saying certain things should remain private?” Hermione looked torn, but Harry chose that moment to enter the kitchen again, his wand trained on the letter from Lucius Malfoy as it bobbed along in front of him, so she was saved from having to answer. “Here,” Harry said, taking a seat at the table. “I haven’t read it yet.

Figured you should first.” He directed his wand so that the letter came to a stop in front of Draco and then slowly unfurled itself. Draco watched it somewhat warily until it was completely open, and then he steeled himself, eyes closing for a second, before he leaned forward to read it. The others waited as patiently as they could, though Harry couldn’t help the way his leg bounced up and down nervously beneath the table. Draco was frowning, his brows coming together as he read. Harry hadn’t thought the letter looked that long, but Draco kept staring at it until finally Ron cleared his throat and Draco’s attention snapped back to them. “So?” Harry asked. Draco gave him a long look, and then reached out to snatch the letter out of the air. “Well, it’s definitely a Portkey,” he said, as he was rolling the letter back up again. Harry made an alarmed sound, but Draco quickly shook his head. “A coded Portkey,” he amended. “The seal is.” He pulled the hardened wax off the parchment, staring at it. “I have to say something to activate it.” Harry was sorely tempted to /Accio/ it from him, but he managed to restrain himself. Draco wasn’t going to use the Portkey. Harry knew

that. He trusted him. “Where will it send you?” he asked instead. “Father didn’t say.” “What /did/ he say?” Hermione spoke up. Draco gave a humorless laugh. “He wants me to complete my task, of course.” “You must be joking,” Ron said. “Hasn’t he realized by now that’s not going to happen? That you’re not going back?” “I think he’s under the impression that I’ve been…otherwise detained,” Draco said carefully. “He seems to think I just need a way out, so he’s chosen to provide it for me.” He glanced back at the letter in his hand, and his voice was softer when he spoke again. “He comes across as rather desperate. Bit embarrassing, really.” “Hang on.” Harry straightened up. “You’re supposed to bring me to Voldemort.” Draco raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m aware,” he drawled. “I was there when the assignment was given to me.” “No – that’s not what I meant.” He pointed at the wax seal. “You’re supposed to bring me to Voldemort. And your dad’s just given you a way to do that.” Across the table, Hermione gave a loud gasp. “Harry, /no/.”

Harry ignored her. “Don’t you think that’ll probably bring you to him?” “My father’s not an idiot, Potter,” Draco said, sounding slightly exasperated. “This will probably take me to – I don’t know where, the manor or something. I doubt he’s going to bring me straight to wherever the Dark Lord is camping out, that’s too much of a risk!” “But you just said he sounds desperate,” Harry argued. “He’s probably at the point where he’s willing to do just about anything to get back on Voldemort’s good side.” “That exists?” Ron muttered. “That doesn’t mean he’s lost all ability to use common sense!” Draco said. “On what planet does giving /anyone/ a one-way ticket to the Dark Lord sound like a good idea? He’s locked himself away somewhere unplottable for a /reason/, Potter, use your head!” “Hold on, calm down,” Hermione interrupted. She leveled a hard look on Harry. “What are you hoping for here, Harry?” Harry raised his eyebrows at her. “Seriously? It’s a chance to find out where /Voldemort/ is, Hermione. He’s probably got the snake with him – and maybe the shield, too. This is our chance to get in there and get some more Horcruxes!”

“We don’t even know for sure if the shield /is/ a Horcrux,” Hermione said patiently. “And Snape said he might be able to handle the snake,” Ron added. “You were going to ask him about it, remember?” Harry shook his head. “Look, Snape has enough on his plate, we can’t rely on him for that. It’s been weeks since we’ve heard from him as it is.” Hermione still looked uncertain, and she was starting to wring her hands nervously. “What if the Portkey /does/ just take you to Malfoy Manor, though?” “Then we Apparate back out,” Harry said. “Simple.” Draco snorted. “Hardly, Potter. The wards will still be up. Hell, they’ll probably be changed to not allow anyone out. Like I said, my father isn’t /stupid/.” “He’s following Voldemort, isn’t he?” Harry snapped. “I think that’s proof enough.” Draco abruptly shut his mouth and glared at Harry, but Harry didn’t care. He turned back to Hermione. “We’ll bring Dobby with us as a precaution. And anyway, even if it does take us to the manor, it’s likely the first thing Malfoy’s dad will do is present us to Voldemort.”

“Harry...” Ron said slowly. “You know I’m on your side, I get why you want to do this, but – all this? Just for the snake?” “And the shield,” Harry said, determined not to let that get pushed aside. “Nagini is going to be the hardest Horcrux to destroy because Voldemort keeps her with him all the time. If we can get her out of the way /now/, that’s one less thing we have to worry about!” “It’ll also just make it more obvious what we’re doing,” Ron pointed out. Harry waved him off. “It’s obvious already,” he said. “And anyway, Snape says he knows.” “There are too many things we don’t have the answers for here,” Hermione insisted. “We don’t know where the Portkey goes, we don’t know how many Death Eaters might be waiting for you – this could all be a big trap!” “Hermione, we have no other leads!” Harry said. “This is what we have to deal with. We can’t just sit around here and hope answers will pop up out of nowhere, we have to actually get out there and take risks and figure this stuff out ourselves!” “That’s a shit way to go about things, Potter,” Draco finally spoke up again. “Yeah, well, I haven’t got much of a choice,” Harry said. “If

we don’t act, the war will go on forever and Voldemort will keep killing people until he’s got the entire Wizarding world under his control.” Hermione pursed her lips and looked away for a long minute, her arms crossed tightly. “…Shouldn’t we at least tell Professor Snape what we’re doing?” she eventually asked, and Harry let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “No,” he replied. “We can do this on our own. It’s better if we kill Nagini anyway, that way Snape won’t have to worry about accidentally blowing his cover.” “I still don’t know about this, Harry,” Hermione said. “But you’re right, we can’t just waste time here when an opportunity like this is presenting itself.” She straightened up, and Harry could practically see her switch over into Planning Mode. “Promise me you won’t rush off right away, though. We’re going to think this through and come up with a /plan/. We’re going to need escape routes, we have to bring Dobby in and make sure he’s okay with everything–” “Why does it have to be that elf?” Draco interrupted. “What’s wrong with yours?” Harry shrugged. “Well, nothing,” he admitted. “I think we’re finally at

the point where Kreacher might actually be /willing/ to help us.” Harry chewed on his lip for a moment. “But I’d rather it be Dobby. Just…in case.” “Agreed,” Ron said. “Less risky, that one.” He sat back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. “So. What do we do after we get there?” “Wait a minute, Weasley,” Draco said. “We can’t all go. You two have to stay here.” Ron promptly scowled. “The hell we do!” he said. “We’re not letting Harry go in alone!” “He won’t be alone; I’ll be with him,” Draco snapped. “It’s not like we’re going in with our wands blazing – this is supposed to be a subtle thing, yeah?” He turned from Ron to look back and forth between Harry and Hermione, both of whom glanced at each other and then nodded. “Right, so if all four of us show up out of nowhere, don’t you think that might be just a /tad/ suspicious?” Harry fiddled absently with his wand, turning it over in his hands as he considered what Draco was saying. “He’s right,” he said after a moment, and when Ron and Hermione immediately started protesting he spoke overtop of them. “No, he’s right! Guys, look, I’m sorry, but we can’t all just go bursting in. This has to be an undercover – thing.”

Draco nodded. “We’ll act like I’ve got Potter under the Imperius.” “Harry can throw that off,” Ron said, and Draco rolled his eyes. “Obviously,” he said. “But the Death Eaters probably don’t know that. I doubt my father does, and he’s going to be the one we have to fool.” “This isn’t going to work,” Hermione said. “As soon as you show up, your father is going to cart you off to where You-Know-Who is; there isn’t going to be /time/ to do anything else!” Ron suddenly sat up, his eyes slightly wide. “I’m coming with you,” he said determinedly. Draco made a face at him and looked like he was about to say something, but Ron plowed on. “No, you need a third person there, trust me. It can’t just be Malfoy forcing Harry around.” “Oh, for the love of – I’m not going to do anything!” Draco exclaimed. “I’m not saying you can’t come because I want to sneak Potter off to the Dark Lord. For fuck’s sake, Weasley, I thought we–” “Merlin, Malfoy, shut /up/,” Ron interrupted. “Just let me talk for a bloody minute, would you? I /know/ you don’t have an ulterior motive.” Draco subsided, but there was still a pinched look on his face. Ron just rolled his eyes at him and then turned to Harry. “I’ll go under

your Invisibility Cloak,” he said. “You need someone to stick with Dobby anyway – if there are wards the way Malfoy thinks there’ll be, then it might take him some time to get them down. And then we have to worry about whether or not You-Know-Who will be able to /tell/ they’re down. So the timing’s going to be tricky, and this way you and Malfoy can go off and pretend to be captured or whatever – you’ll be the decoy! While everyone’s attention is on you, I can search for the snake! And also be the…you know, middle person. I’ll keep you updated on what Dobby’s doing.” “That’s…” Harry blinked. “Not a /bad/ idea, actually. How are you going to keep in touch with us?” Ron glanced at Hermione like she would automatically have an answer, and she didn’t fail him. “The coins,” she said immediately. “The ones we used for the D.A. We can redo the charm on them!” Harry nodded. “Alright… Good! See? We can make this work!” “And what, you’re just going to stay under the Invisibility Cloak the entire time?” Draco directed toward Ron skeptically. “I guess,” Ron said. “You can’t /guess/, we have to know exactly what we’re doing,” Draco

said sharply. “There won’t be any room for mistakes once we’re there.” Ron let out an exasperated breath. “Alright, fine,” he said. “Then I’ll /definitely/ stay under the cloak the entire time.” “Wait, no,” Harry said suddenly. “I should be the one searching for Nagini – I mean, I can speak Parseltongue. That’ll probably help.” “Then what’s /he/ supposed to do?” Draco asked, throwing a hand in Ron’s direction. They thought about it for a moment, and then – “Polyjuice?” Hermione suggested. “Ron can go as Harry. He’ll be the one with Draco and you two will be the distraction.” Draco’s brow furrowed. It was obvious he wasn’t all that pleased with the idea, but he didn’t argue against it. “And just where are we supposed to /get/ Polyjuice Potion?” he asked. Ron shrugged. “The twins might have some. Wouldn’t put it past them to experiment with that stuff for their shop.” “Or we can always brew it,” Hermione said. Draco frowned. “But that would take–” “A month, I know,” Hermione said. “Which, honestly, would at least give us plenty of time to have a solid plan in order.”

“Do we really need that long?” Harry asked. “Malfoy’s dad is probably expecting us sooner rather than later.” Now that they actually had an idea of what to do, he wanted to jump straight into action. He was already getting antsy just sitting at the table. “We’ll need to practice…” Draco said slowly. “And where would we get the ingredients for the potion?” “Again, the twins,” Ron said. “If they haven’t got the potion, then they’ll definitely at least have the stuff to make it.” “Are they actually good at brewing?” Draco asked curiously. “I didn’t think most Gryffindors were into that.” Ron snorted. “Honestly, those two probably should’ve been put in Slytherin. You should see their shop, though – they’ve got an entire lab in the flat above it. It’s pretty impressive.” He sounded proud, and Draco actually managed to look mildly impressed. “I went in there last summer,” he said. “Just the shop, obviously – and only for about a minute. There were loads of kids there, and it was fucking loud. But it was…interesting. I suppose.” “/Impressive/,” Ron said again, grinning. “Admit it.” “What do we have to practice?” Harry asked.

Draco waved a hand at Ron. “This git being under the Imperius, of course. If anyone is going to be able to recognize whether or not someone is having their actions controlled, it’ll be the Death Eaters.” “How hard can it be?” Ron asked, his brow furrowing a bit. “Just do whatever you tell me to, yeah?” Hermione shook her head. “There’s more to it than that,” she said. “Remember when we did it in class? You’ll have to watch your facial expressions, and kind of just have a blank look the entire time. Move when Draco tells you to, follow him, do /exactly/ what he says, keeps your eyes fixed straight ahead but not really on any one thing in particular–” “Okay, okay,” Ron said hastily. “I get it.” “So, practice, then?” Draco asked. There was a faint smirk on his face, and Ron nodded, though he looked thoroughly unhappy about it. Harry looked at Draco. “And what’s your cover story going to be?” “Oh, I’m sticking with the truth,” Draco said. “As much as I can.” “…How’s that going to work?” Harry asked. “That kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”

Draco gave him a slightly incredulous look, but it was Hermione who answered. “It’s always a good idea to stick as closely to the truth as possible,” she said. “Rather than making up a bunch of details that you might forget when put on the spot.” “Plus, if someone manages to get into my head…” Draco trailed off and shrugged. “Then at least most of what they’ll see will match up. In fact, I’ll probably even let some things drift through the Occlumency barrier on purpose. Then I can just focus on keeping the /important/ bits well hidden.” Harry nodded. That made sense – or at least, if Hermione thought it did, then Harry wasn’t going to argue with her. “So…when you say ‘the truth’, though. What do you mean, exactly?” “Well,” Draco hedged, absently turning his long-forgotten teacup in his hands. “It’s – okay.” He stilled his hands and leaned forward to look Harry in the eye. “It’s going to sound like I’ve played you, Potter, because I’m flat out going to tell my father than I managed to trick your sorry arse and befriended you by playing the part of some pathetic little victim who just needed a second chance. No lies. Just the facts, as much as possible. But you can’t–”

“Malfoy,” Harry said quickly, before Draco could continue. “I get it. You’ll say a load of shit that’s going to sound exactly like what happened, and you don’t want us to second guess you.” Draco let out a slow breath and nodded. “It’s going to be convincing. It /has/ to be. It’ll sound exactly like it’s supposed to, like I’m really – betraying you. But I’m /not/.” Harry laughed a bit. “I /know/, alright?” He glanced at Hermione and Ron, before looking back at Draco. “We all do. The more convincing the act, the better.” Draco seemed relieved for a second, but he quickly let a more unconcerned look settle on his face. “Good,” he said simply. “I just wish we knew for sure where that Portkey is going to take you,” Hermione said. “I’d be much more comfortable with this if we could figure out a map of the area.” “It’ll be okay,” Harry said. “Dobby will be able to get us out.” “I don’t know, Harry,” Hermione said uncertainly. “We should be careful with how much we rely on him. What if he /can’t/ get you out?” Harry shook his head. “He and Kreacher got us out of the cave.” “Exactly!” Hermione exclaimed. “He had /help/.”

“Because he needed it,” Ron pointed out. “Kreacher didn’t have the time to do it alone. This will be different; we won’t be trying to get out right away.” He paused, and then added under his breath, “…Hopefully.” Hermione exhaled harshly. “Okay. Alright, I suppose we don’t really have much of a choice anyway. And I trust Dobby. This will be fine.” She seemed to be trying to convince herself. Harry and Ron glanced at each other and left her to it. “I’ll owl Fred and George,” Ron said as he stood up from the table. “See what they can do for us. Here’s hoping Pig hasn’t taken off somewhere.” “If he has, just use Hedwig,” Harry said. “Will do,” Ron said, grinning. “Back in a minute.” Hermione pushed away from the table, as well. “Hang on, I’m coming with you,” she said. “I want to talk to you.” Ron gave her a pained look, but she ignored it and wrapped her arm around his and practically dragged him from the room. Harry very pointedly didn’t think about just what, exactly, she wanted to talk to him about. Instead he watched Draco as he got up and went about making himself another cup of tea. “You should have some toast or

something,” he said after a moment. Draco sent him a questioning look, and Harry shrugged. “I figured you didn’t eat. But getting something in your stomach will help settle it.” He paused, frowning a little. “Or maybe there are some potions upstairs that would help. Tonks might have something–” “I’m fine, Potter,” Draco cut in, sounding slightly amused. “It’s not as though I’ve never gotten wasted on Firewhiskey before. I can handle it.” Harry shrugged. “If you say so.” “It’s not even my stomach, really,” Draco said. “Just a pain in the arse headache.” “Mm,” Harry said noncommittally. He watched Draco for a minute longer, and once he’d sat down again Harry asked, “What did the rest of the letter say?” Draco looked up sharply. “What do you mean?” “You had a look on your face,” Harry said in a neutral tone. “And you didn’t pass it off for anyone to read.” “It’s /my/ letter, Potter, it’s hardly any of your business – I said I’d tell you if I heard from him, that doesn’t mean I have to give you every bloody detail–”

“/Malfoy/,” Harry interrupted somewhat exasperatedly. “Stop, I wasn’t – I don’t want to read it. I just…” He trailed off and then shrugged, looking away. “It just seemed like there was more to it. I wanted to make sure you were – okay.” Draco shut his mouth abruptly and had the decency to look a bit sheepish as he slouched back in his chair. “Oh,” he said simply. “Well. There wasn’t anything…” He fished around for what he wanted to say, and then eventually just sighed. “It was all the usual rubbish,” he admitted. He dropped his voice to a lower tone that was a closer match to his father’s. “/Don’t let me down, do the Malfoy name proud./ Everything I’ve heard a thousand times before.” Draco hesitated as he glanced back at Harry again. “It’s just different this time knowing that I’m going in with deliberate plans to say ‘piss off’ to his face. …You know, in a manner of speaking.” Harry grinned. “Bet it’ll feel good, though.” “…Yeah,” Draco said, giving him a small smirk right back. “Suppose it will.” He took a sip of his tea, and then winced slightly and flexed his hand, frowning down at it. Harry’s eyes widened. “Is your–” Draco shot him a quelling look before Harry could get his entire question out, so he quickly shut up

and scowled down at the table. The corner of Draco’s mouth curled upwards again at his reaction. Harry caught sight of it and rolled his eyes. “So,” he said instead. “What /did/ you guys talk about last night?” Draco threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, Potter,” he said. “Trust me, you /don’t/ want to know.” Chapter 23 Over the course of the next month, while Hermione took charge of brewing the Polyjuice Potion, Draco took it upon himself to make sure Ron could adequately fake being under the Imperius Curse. They practiced up in the attic of Grimmauld Place, because it gave them more space than any of the bedrooms and was well out of the way of prying eyes and nosy ears. Draco ran Ron through every likely scenario he could think of, as well as quite a few Ron was sure would never come up. “You-Know-Who isn’t going to make me /spit-shine/ your boots, Malfoy.” “You don’t know that, Weasley, maybe the thought of it would amuse him.” They practiced every day, and when they weren’t doing that they were going over the details of the plan – or lack thereof, really. They tried

mapping out exactly what they wanted to do, but not knowing where exactly the Portkey was going to take them was becoming more problematic by the day. Hermione had tried calling the whole thing off more than once, but Harry was nothing if not stubborn. As far as he was concerned, this was the only viable step forward they had. About halfway through the month, Draco suddenly switched things up. “Okay,” he said, lowering his wand from where it had been trained on Ron. “You’re actually doing…/not/ terribly awful, Weasley. I think you might have the hang of it. Now we can move onto other things.” Ron shared a look with Harry and then raised an eyebrow at Draco. “What other things?” Draco pointed at Harry. “You need to learn how to act like him.” “And…that’s necessary, why?” Harry asked, frowning a bit. “…You must be joking.” Draco looked back and forth between the two in exasperation. “In case someone tells Draco to lift the curse,” Hermione spoke up from where she was working on the potion. “They have to think you’re Harry.” Draco nodded. “What Hermione said. It doesn’t have to be a

perfect act in this case – just convincing. It’s not as though any of them really /know/ Potter.” “So…” Ron looked uncertainly at Harry. “How to be Harry after realizing I’ve just been hand delivered to You-Know-Who… I should pretty much get angry right off the bat, yeah?” “Immediately go for your wand,” Hermione said. “Even though Draco will have it.” “Say ‘er’ a lot,” Draco added. Harry scowled. “Funny, Malfoy.” Draco grinned in an unapologetic sort of way. “Alright, alright. Here, get up, Potter. We’ll do some role-play and Weasley will copy you.” And that was how they spent the second half of the month while waiting for the potion to finish. By the end of it all, Harry thought he might actually /prefer/ going up against Voldemort rather than listening to Draco bark out order after order. Watching Draco turn Ron into a copy of himself was more than a little surreal, as well. So, he was honestly relieved when, on one cool December morning, there was nothing left to do but finally use Draco’s Portkey. “If you take more than one dose, it’ll last longer than an

hour,” Hermione said, as she hovered nervously near Ron. “Although I still think you should bring some extra with you. There’s no telling how long you’ll have to be there!” “There’s not exactly an easy way to make that inconspicuous, Hermione,” Ron said patiently, as this was a topic they’d discussed several times already. “He’s right,” Harry agreed. “We can’t just assume they’re going to trust Malfoy. They might be searched or something.” Ron nodded. “And having a flask of Polyjuice would be a dead giveaway.” Hermione frowned. “I know. I /know/, we been over it a hundred times, I just–” She looked up at Ron, smoothing her hands over his chest. “Oh, be /careful/,” she said, turning her head to include Harry as well. “Both of you. /All/ of you.” Around Harry’s knee, Dobby straightened up and puffed out his chest, giving Hermione a quick nod. “Dobby will be making sure Harry Potter and his friends stay safe!” “Where’s Malfoy, anyway?” Ron asked. “He’s taking bloody forever.” “I’m here,” Draco said, as he entered the room. Harry’s eyes went wide

when he saw him, his breath catching in his throat. Draco was dressed in a one of Harry’s nicer robes, and apparently he’d taken the time to spell the wrinkles out of them. His shoes were shiny, his shirt cuffs perfectly buttoned – he even had on his Slytherin tie. To top it all off, his hair was slicked back in a way it hadn’t been in months. Harry felt as though he’d taken a wrong step somewhere and slipped through a hole in time, somehow ending up back at Hogwarts. He hadn’t realized just how…/comfortable/ Draco must have gotten around them, because somewhere along the line Harry had gotten used to him wearing a much more casual look. It was weird to see him go back to this utter prat-like appearance, with what could have been a blonde helmet plastered to his head. Harry much preferred the softer, freer way his hair looked when it wasn’t gelled down. Draco caught him staring and raised an eyebrow. Hysterical laughter bubbled up in Harry’s chest, but he determinedly squashed it and looked away. “…Draco!” Hermione said, in a surprised sort of way. Harry was glad he wasn’t the only one who was being thrown off kilter. “My, aren’t you looking…posh.”

“Looking like a ponce, more like,” Ron muttered, and Draco glared at him. “I have to look the part, alright?” he grumbled, running a hand over his hair. Harry snorted. “Malfoy, you look like you’ve stepped straight out of fifth year. That’s not a /part/, that’s just younger /you/.” “Well, I always /was/ at the height of fashion and–” This time it was Hermione who made a sound of choked laughter, and she quickly brought her hands up to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just – oh, Draco, I forgot you used to wear your /hair/ like that!” She broke off into more giggles, soon joined by Ron and Harry’s snickering. Draco flushed a dull pink and rolled his eyes. “Okay, shut up,” he said, crossing his arms and doing his best to appear unaffected. “It’s what my father will expect!” “Dobby remembers the first time Master Draco tried to wear his hair like that,” Dobby piped up suddenly, and Draco froze. “Except Master Draco wasn’t actually using the right products, Master Draco thought all that was needed was /glue/ to be helping hold his hair together and–” “You know, we should really be going now!” Draco interrupted loudly,

just as the other three burst into unrestrained laughter. “Come on, Weasley, hurry the hell up and drink the bloody potion already!” “Right, sure,” Ron said, shaking his head and still chuckling. Harry plucked out one of his hairs and dropped it into the cup Ron was holding. They watched as it turned a pure gold color, the same way it had when they’d tested out the potion the day before. “Looks /so/ much better than Crabbe’s,” Ron said, and then he tossed it back and drank until the cup was empty. The others watched as Ron immediately winced and curled into himself, one hand clutching his stomach while the other slammed against the wall to brace himself. His skin seemed to bubble as it molded itself into Harry’s likeness, and his hair slowly bled from ginger to black. “/Ugh/,” he said when it was over. “That shit just never gets better.” He squinted at them until Harry stepped forward to hand him a spare pair of glasses. “Thanks, mate. Clothes?” “On the bed.” They turned their backs while Ron changed, and when he was finished there were two identical Harry Potters standing side-by-side. “So weird,” Draco muttered. He pulled out the Portkey.

“Alright,” Hermione said, chewing on her bottom lip. “Good luck. Be safe. Don’t do anything rash. If you think it isn’t going to work, then /get out/.” “We’ve got it, Hermione,” Harry said, double checking his pocket to make sure the enchanted galleon was there. “Don’t worry,” Ron said, reaching out to wrap an arm around Hermione’s waist. “We’ll be back in a flash.” He leaned forward, and Harry’s eyes went wide. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, sliding forward so that he cut right in between them. “Can you not?? Hello, that’s my body, Ron!” Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Draco had taken half a step forward, as well, and he was reaching out an arm like he’d intended to stop them. Draco saw him looking and abruptly dropped his arm and turned away awkwardly. “Ah – bugger, mate, sorry,” Ron said sheepishly. “Nearly forgot. That would’ve been – weird.” He glanced at Hermione, who just looked amused, and instead planted a quick kiss on her cheek. “Ha, don’t even have to lean down to do it!” “Yeah, yeah,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. He gave Hermione a quick hug, as well, and then crouched down in front of Dobby. “Up

you get, Dobby,” he said, and once the house elf had climbed onto his back, Hermione tossed the Invisibility Cloak over them. “Malfoy? Portkey?” “It’s here.” Draco held out the wax seal, and both Harry and Ron reached out to touch it. Draco took a deep breath. “We’re all ready? Good. Then here we go.” He muttered something under his breath that Harry thought sounded like Latin, and then abruptly he felt the familiar tug of the Portkey as it whisked them away. Hermione stared at the spot where they’d been standing for a long moment. Then she released a shaky breath and sat down on the bed to wait. *** The Portkey dropped them off in what appeared to be an antechamber of sorts. There was a shut door in front of them and behind them, and what must have once been white paint was now a dirty, faded brown, peeling off the walls surrounding them. Whatever house they were in, it must have been old. Harry thought he could even spot mold growing in the corners of the room. He stepped lightly forward, leaning in close to Draco and trying not to startle him. “Not the manor, then?” he breathed, as quietly as he could.

Draco gave the tiniest shake of his head and made a slicing gesture in Harry’s direction. Harry took the cue for what it was and shut his mouth, wondering what they should do next. They weren’t left waiting long, however, and not a minute later they could hear muffled voices and footsteps heading towards the door in front of them. Both Draco and Ron visibly tensed up, and Draco immediately brought his wand up and dug it into the small of Ron’s back, just as the door was thrown open. “I’m telling you, the wards went off, there’s someone–” The man speaking broke off suddenly, staring blankly at the scene in front of him for a moment, and then his lips curled into a lopsided smirk. “… Here. Well, well. Draco Malfoy. Decided to answer the Dark Lord’s call at last, have you?” He turned to the other person who had walked in with him. “Told you I felt it, Nott.” “My excitement knows no bounds,” the other man, Nott, said flatly. “Clearly this is why the Dark Lord keeps you around.” He directed a hard look at Draco, one that bordered on suspicious. “Draco.” His eyes drifted over to Ron, slowly eyeing him up and down as if he wasn’t quite sure what exactly he was seeing. Draco drew himself up to his full height and lifted his chin a

bit. “My father gave me a Portkey,” he said, and amazingly he sounded exactly like the snotty brat he’d been at school, utterly sure of himself in that way only Malfoys could be. He was practically talking down his nose at the other two, which was impressive given that he was several inches shorter than Nott was. “Ha!” the first man burst out. Harry thought he looked familiar, but was having trouble placing him. “Lucius, the stupid wanker. I tell you, he hasn’t been right in the head since they threw him in Azkaban. Giving the kid a Portkey /here/–” “He gave it to me so I could complete my task,” Draco snapped, visibly bristling over the insults to his dad. “And where is /here/, anyway?” “Eh…” The man idly rubbed beneath his chin with his wand. “Somewhere in Little Hangleton–” “/Amycus/,” Nott interrupted sharply, but Amycus – of course, Harry remembered now, he’d been on the tower that night – just waved him off. “Leave off, man, the kid brought us Potter. Must be he’s come to his senses.” “…I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Nott muttered. “The Dark Lord hardly

frequents this place anymore.” “Yeah, when’s he going to call us all out of here? It’s a fucking sty, I’m bloody well tired of it.” “Excuse me,” Draco said impatiently. “I have /Harry Potter/ here with me, shouldn’t you be letting someone know?” Nott gave Ron another slow look. “Hmm.” Draco shifted his weight. “Well?” he demanded. Harry noticed one of Ron’s hands twitch very faintly, but otherwise he kept his face perfectly blank. “We’re waiting,” Nott said, and didn’t bother offering any further explanation. “For what?” Draco asked. They ignored him. Amycus stepped up close to Ron and peered at him. “Have you got him under the Imperius, then? Heard that was one of your specialties.” Draco frowned. “Yes,” he said simply. “I hardly think Potter would have come /willingly/ just because I asked politely.” “I was under the impression Potter could resist that curse,” Nott said casually, and Draco visibly paled. Nott raised an eyebrow. “My son is in your year, if you recall.” The words were delivered in a dry,

sarcastic manner, because of course Draco knew – they had shared a dorm room for six years and known each other for half a decade before even that. “Potter hasn’t had as much practice resisting it as I’ve had using it,” Draco said after a beat, recovering quickly. “And that was years ago. I kept that old bint from the Three Broomsticks under it for /months/ last year. But I had to be sure – why do you think it’s taken me so long to get him here?” Draco fished Harry’s wand out from the sleeve of his robe. “I’ve got his wand.” “Isn’t that something,” Nott said, still using that infuriating drawl, and then he glanced back over his shoulder and added, “Ah, here we are,” just as Lucius Malfoy came striding through the door. Harry had to hand it to Draco for not having a stronger reaction to the sight of Lucius. Or any visible reaction at all, for that matter. Even Dobby had gone still as a stone on Harry’s back, barely even breathing, and Harry himself couldn’t help boggling at the man. He was barely a shell of his former self. His hair, long as it had ever been, was unkempt and tangled. His skin had a yellowish tint to it and his eyes were sunken in. There was a wild sort of light in them. “Draco,” he rasped, stopping just inside the door. “Oh,

Draco, I knew you would come. I knew you wouldn’t let me down. This is all we needed; this will restore the Dark Lord’s faith in us! You brought Potter–” He took several steps closer. “Just what the Dark Lord wanted. Yes, /yes/, everything will be as it was now.” Draco stared at him. For a long moment, it seemed to be all he could do. Then he blinked and abruptly fell back into character as he let a slow grin grow on his face. “Of course, father,” he said, and Harry actually shivered at the way his voice oozed with pride. “I did exactly as you told me to.” “Come, come,” Lucius said, backing up toward the door again. “We must present him to the Dark Lord at once.” He spun on his heel, his shabby robe flaring out behind him. “Out of my way, Amycus!” “Alright, alright, don’t work yourself into a tizzy,” Amycus said, scrambling back out of the way. “He’s not even here, is he?” “If he’s not, then we’ll /call/ him,” Lucius snarled. “Draco, come!” Draco didn’t hesitate. He gestured with his wand after his father and muttered, “Follow him,” to Ron. Ron did so, walking along as if in a dreamlike trance. Draco trailed behind, his eyes flicking to the side just once before focusing straight ahead again. Harry didn’t

miss the look, but it didn’t matter – this was where they were going to split up. From the sound of it, however, Voldemort was actually somewhere else, which kind of put a damper on /that/ particular plan. If he wasn’t there, then it was likely Nagini wasn’t either. Still, that didn’t mean Harry couldn’t do some detective work, and there was still the shield to consider. He waited until Amycus and Nott had filed out behind the others, and then he quickly slipped out the door before it shut and headed off the opposite way down the corridor. *** Lucius led them to a large parlor that was only slightly less worn down than the room they had just been in. There was a fireplace at one end, beside which sat a large, high back chair made from overwrought iron. It looked uncomfortable, but Draco could easily picture the Dark Lord sitting there, fancying himself king of the entire Wizarding world while Muggles lay dying at his feet. It was a disturbing image and Draco quickly shoved it from his mind. “Is Aunt Bellatrix here, father?” he asked instead, careful not to let any distaste show when he said her name. Lucius scowled. “No, she’s been given a placement higher

than this hellhole, though one that she hardly deserves.” That seemed to be a sensitive subject. Draco’s brow furrowed. “Is she with the Dark Lord?” “I think she would never again leave his side, if given the option,” Lucius said. “And she’s welcome there, a fact she never hesitates to flaunt in my face when we meet. I’ve been left here with /these/ worthless idiots, and meanwhile she’s all but taken over the–” He abruptly cut himself off as Nott and Amycus entered the room, glowering at them all the while. Draco noticed that Nott walked with a bit of a limp, and could vaguely recall Theo saying something about his dad being injured in that whole Ministry debacle. So, these were the ‘left behind’ Death Eaters, then. He wondered who else had gotten tossed aside by the Dark Lord. “I guess Professor Snape isn’t here either, then?” Draco asked. “No,” Lucius said in a low, angry tone. “He’s also at the manor.” Draco’s eyes widened. “The–?” “This is really Harry Potter, correct?” Lucius interrupted swiftly. He peered closely at Weasley’s face, like Amycus had. Draco almost felt bad

for the bloke, but he was admittedly doing a fantastic job of not flinching away. “We can’t have any mistakes now, Draco, you understand.” “It’s him,” Draco said. “Scar and all.” He lifted his wand and pointed it at Weasley. “Tell my father who you are and show him your scar.” Weasley gave the older man a slow blink. “Harry James Potter,” he said mechanically, and he lifted a hand to brush the fringe off his forehead. Draco thought his father might explode from barely contained joy as he stared eagerly at Weasley. “Wonderful,” he whispered. “/Perfect/. I’m going to call the Dark Lord.” He rolled up the sleeve on his left arm, but paused when Nott called out to him. “Lucius,” the other man said. “I understand your need to make haste, but I think it would prove beneficial to everyone if we take care to be absolutely certain your son isn’t trying to trick us.” Lucius whipped around to glare at Nott. “You doubt him?” he hissed. Nott appeared to be unaffected by Lucius’ attitude. “I’m merely curious as to how he did it,” he said. He raised his eyebrows as he stared down at Draco. “It certainly took him long enough.” “I had to gain his trust, didn’t I?” Draco said, going for an

affronted sort of tone. “Draco, you don’t have to explain yourself to this–” “No, father, it’s alright. I’ve nothing to hide.” Draco turned around so that he was looking at Harry – /Weasley/ – when he spoke. “The Dark Lord is smart, of course,” he said, reaching back and trying to remember how Harry had worded it all those weeks ago. “He knew exactly how Dumbledore’s mind worked, and Potter here isn’t too different. They’re all about second chances.” He sneered as he said it, and didn’t miss the slight twitch of Weasley’s mouth. Quickly, he spun around to face the others. “I only had to pretend that I wanted out of all this and needed help doing so. Potter’s hero complex took care of the rest.” “And this required six months of your time?” Nott asked. “The Dark Lord isn’t exactly known for his patience, I’m sure you’ve realized.” “You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t kill you anyway, Potter or no,” Amycus added. “He’s been in a right foul mood as of late.” Draco swallowed. Lucius’ hand clenched into a fist. “That’s not going to happen,” he growled. Nott merely tipped his head in a very ‘if you say so’ sort of way.

Draco drew in a shuddering breath. “It required time because of where Potter’s been living,” he explained. “His Muggle family had some sort of – blood protection charm over the house. After that we were with the Weasleys.” He grimaced for effect. “I could hardly get him out of there without causing mass panic. There were always loads of the blood traitors surrounding him at any given moment.” “Arthur Weasley’s home was destroyed two months ago,” Nott said. “No one knows where they’ve disappeared to, along with half of the rest of their precious /Order/.” Draco hesitated, but only briefly. “That’s because their headquarters is under the Fidelius Charm. And before you ask, no, I don’t know who the Secret Keeper is. I was only given a piece of paper that explained how to get in.” That actually seemed to startle Nott a bit, and Amycus let out a low whistle. “They actually let you in? Cor, what a bunch of mindless arseholes. Can’t get much more daft than that.” “Like I said, I had to gain their trust,” Draco said impatiently. “How exactly did you do that?” Lucius asked. His hand was hovering over his Dark Mark. Draco tried not to fidget nervously. “I befriended the whole lot of them,” he said. “Potter, his

Mudblood, Weasley. I–” Draco attempted to make it look like saying this pained him. “I said I’d help their side.” Amycus snickered. “And those do-gooder fools fell for it, of course. He’s right, that’s exactly the sort of thing old Dumby would’ve done.” “Pathetic,” Lucius said. Nott crossed his arms over his chest. “You seem to have your story in order, at least. Very well, Lucius, you might as well call him.” “Your permission is unnecessary,” Lucius said testily. His hand remained in the air above his Dark Mark for a moment longer, and then a determined look came over his face and he pressed his fingers against the inky black skull. *** Harry crept carefully along the hallway, peeking into every room he came across that had an open door. There were several more Death Eaters milling about, some Harry thought he recognized but others that were brand new faces. They all seemed to be grumbling to each other, complaining about one thing or another. Harry wondered absently if Snape was here somewhere. He kind of doubted it. Eventually he made it to a room that was free of other

occupants and he stepped inside, quietly pushing the door shut behind him. Finally, he had a moment to /breathe/. Harry let the Invisibility Cloak slip off and pool at his feet while Dobby jumped lightly off his back. “Alright?” he asked softly, and the elf nodded rapidly at him. “How are the wards in this place?” “They is strong, Harry Potter,” Dobby whispered back. “Dobby can get them down, but it could be taking a little time.” “Okay…” Harry trailed off, thinking, and he squared his shoulders as he came to a decision. “Right, I’m going to look around some more. See what I can find. Can you keep out of sight while you work on that?” Dobby nodded again, but he looked concerned. “Harry Potter is going to go off on his own?” “I can move more quickly this way,” Harry replied. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything stupid. And I’ll have my cloak on.” He pulled the enchanted galleon out of his pocket. “This is what I’m using to communicate with Ron and Malfoy, remember? Can you – I don’t know, send me some sort of sign when the wards are down? Or almost down, I guess. They noticed when we came in, I’m guessing that probably means they’ll notice when we try to leave.”

Dobby tugged at his ear as he made a considering sound. “Dobby can be making the galleon turn hot when Dobby is almost ready,” he said. “And if Harry Potter is needing Dobby before that, Harry Potter only has to call and Dobby will be there!” “Brilliant,” Harry said, grinning. “Dobby, I don’t know what we’d do without you.” “Dobby is happy to help his friends!” Dobby said, looking pleased and slightly embarrassed all at the same time. “I’m off then,” Harry said, pulling out his wand – or Ron’s, rather – and casting a Disillusionment Charm over himself just to be safe. He bent down to grab his Invisibility Cloak and wrapped it around his shoulders. “Be careful, alright?” “Only if Harry Potter is,” Dobby quipped. Harry shot him another grin and then pulled the cloak over his head before carefully opening the door so he could slip out. He only made it a few steps down the hallway before a burning pain sliced through his scar. *** Draco had half hoped the Dark Lord would be too busy to respond to the

beck and call of one of his less favored Death Eaters. Unfortunately, not thirty seconds after his father had summoned him, he appeared in the middle of the room with a loud /crack/. He was just as terrifying as Draco remembered, and it was all he could do not to back up several steps or possibly even dive behind the large chair he’d spotted earlier. Beside him, he heard Weasley’s breathing speed up and it took a second for him to remember that this was probably the closest Weasley had ever been to the Dark Lord. As inconspicuously as he could, Draco dug his wand into the other boy’s side and briefly sent a glance his way. Hopefully it looked like he was just trying to keep him under Imperius, when really Draco was just trying to offer him some sort of reassurance that he wasn’t alone here. Draco frowned. Comforting a /Weasley/, what the hell had happened to his life? Crazily enough, though, it worked. Weasley slowly let the tension relax from his muscles, and Draco saw him swallow before pointedly fixing his stare on some random object across the room. “What do you want, Lucius?” the Dark Lord said, sounding faintly annoyed. Nagini was curled around his feet on the floor, and she lifted her head to flick her tongue in Draco’s direction.

Draco gave the huge snake a somewhat irritated look. Great. Here was the thing Harry was supposed to be going after and yet Harry himself was nowhere to be found. At least, Draco assumed he wasn’t in the room, but then again he had no idea where the hell Harry had taken off to. Bloody Invisibility Cloak... “I have something I thought would please you, my lord,” Lucius said, taking two long steps forward so that he could kneel at the Dark Lord’s feet. The Dark Lord looked unimpressed. “Rise,” he said. “What is it?” He hadn’t even bothered to look around the room, Draco noticed. Both Nott and Amycus were kneeling, too, but the Dark Lord hadn’t so much as glanced their way. Lucius pushed himself to his feet. “Draco,” he said, gesturing for him to come forward. “Bring him here.” The sound of Draco’s name seemed to finally catch the Dark Lord’s attention. He turned his head slowly until he found Draco standing by the fireplace. “Draco,” he murmured, his red eyes narrowing dangerously. Draco froze. He knew what had to happen next, what they all expected him to do, but every fiber of his being protested against getting

any closer to the Dark Lord. Then Weasley shifted subtly beside him, pressing against the wand Draco was still digging into his side, and Draco released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Right. No backing out now. “My lord,” Draco said, quickly moving forward and nearly tripping over his own feet as he fell to his knees in front of the Dark Lord. “My lord, forgive me, I never meant for this to take as long as it did,” he continued in a rush. The words tumbled out of his mouth before he even had a chance to think them over, but he’d been in this situation before. Begging for the Dark Lord’s forgiveness was, unfortunately, something he was used to. It had never helped him in the past, but then again he’d never shown up with Harry Potter before. “It’s taken me this long to gain Potter’s trust; I couldn’t risk answering your summons without him catching on. I wanted to be able to present him to you, as requested.” There was silence for a long moment. Draco stared resolutely at the floor and tried to keep himself from trembling. “Leave us,” the Dark Lord said suddenly. Draco nearly looked up at him in confusion but caught himself at the last second. Fuck, seriously, where the hell was Harry? If the Dark Lord tried to kill

Weasley or something, there wasn’t going to be much Draco could do to stop him. Nagini slithered forward, winding her way between where Draco’s arms were braced against the ground. She was /right there/, if only he had time to get his wand out – but he didn’t. He couldn’t, anyway, because his body seemed to have frozen up again. “My – my lord?” Lucius said uncertainly. “I said /leave us/!” the Dark Lord repeated viciously, and Lucius, Amycus, and Nott hurried to do as he said. Lucius hesitated briefly by the door, and the Dark Lord spoke without turning to face him. “Don’t linger, Lucius,” he said in a low tone. “I’d go find Wormtail, if I were you. He could use some help figuring out that map.” “…As you say, my lord,” Lucius said, his voice shaking a bit. He sent one last look Draco’s way and then left. Draco focused all of his effort on keeping his breathing steady as he waited for the second round of silence to pass. The Dark Lord hadn’t moved, though Draco wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. At least he wasn’t going over to shove his face in Weasley’s like the others had. “Get up,” the Dark Lord softly, which just made Draco all the more terrified. It was never good when he was being quiet. Still, he

got to his feet and tried not to seem overly nervous. “He’s – he’s under the Imperius, my lord,” Draco said, forcing himself to meet the Dark Lord’s eyes briefly before he bowed his head and quickly thrust his hands out. “His wand.” The Dark Lord didn’t touch it. “Holly,” he murmured. “Phoenix feather.” He looked at it for a minute longer, and then abruptly his hand lashed out to grasp Draco by the chin. Draco gasped and instinctively tried to flinch away, but the Dark Lord held on tight. “I don’t like being kept waiting,” he said, still using that deceptively soft, silky tone. “I know – I know, my lord, I’m sorry–!” “Six months,” the Dark Lord continued. “During which I heard /nothing/ from you. You disappeared completely and don’t /think/ I don’t know exactly what you were doing with them.” “I didn’t have a choice!” Draco stammered, unconsciously clenching his blackened hand as though he was trying to hide it from the Dark Lord’s sight. “It was the only way I could make them trust me completely, it was only /one/–” “Only one?” the Dark Lord repeated, and finally the volume of his voice was starting to rise. “Only /one/? You insolent little brat, have you

/any/ idea how valuable those are to me? Do you know how difficult it is to make /only one/?!” “Yes – no – I’m sorry, no, I didn’t know!” Draco fudged, quickly losing track of what he was supposed to be saying as fear consumed him. “I thought – you’re the most powerful wizard – I thought you could–” “Make more?” the Dark Lord filled in, and when Draco didn’t say anything he gave a low, humorless laugh. “Lucky for you, I can.” He shoved Draco away and he stumbled back. Eyes wide and face pale, he could do nothing but stare at the Dark Lord in horror. The Dark Lord laughed again. “Are you scared, Draco?” Unable to speak, and not knowing what the correct answer was to that anyway, Draco could only give the tiniest shake of his head. The Dark Lord raised his wand. “You should be,” he said simply. “/CRUCIO/!” Draco crumpled to the floor as a scream ripped its way out of his lungs, his hand gripping Harry’s wand tightly. A half-formed plea ran through his head, something he tried to throw Weasley’s way as well as he could, though he knew the other boy wouldn’t be able to hear it. He had expected this, after all. He’d known it might be coming. And it didn’t mean their cover was blown.

/Don’t move/, he thought desperately, praying to all things holy that Weasley fucking stayed put. /Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move don’tmovedon’tmove–/ *** Harry let out a frustrated breath as he ducked into yet another empty room. Did Voldemort have nothing useful going on in this place? Why the hell keep Death Eaters here at all if they were all just sitting on their arses? He was about five minutes away from turning around and heading back toward wherever Lucius had led Ron and Draco. He knew from the ache in his scar that Voldemort was here by now, and if they were lucky that meant Nagini was, too. The problem now would be getting to her. Harry had tried whispering in Parseltongue in case the snake had decided to leave her master’s side, but she didn’t appear to notice or care. Nor had he heard any hissed words coming from anywhere nearby. Harry leaned back against the wall and absently rubbed at his forehead. To be honest, he wanted to get to wherever Voldemort was for more reasons than just finding Nagini. The thought of leaving Ron and Draco alone with that madman had Harry on edge. If anything

happened to them– A determined look came over Harry’s face. Right, then. It seemed his part in this was turning out to be somewhat of a waste and his friends were probably in danger. It was far past time to go. He exited the room, making sure his Invisibility Cloak was still tight around himself, and almost instantly had to flatten his body against the corridor wall as Lucius Malfoy came storming around the corner. “I should have known this would happen,” he was ranting, hands bunched into fists at his sides. Behind him, Nott followed at a slightly more leisurely pace. “Amycus had the right of it,” he said calmly, and then added in a more annoyed tone, “For once.” “But he brought him /Potter/,” Lucius spat. “He did exactly what the Dark Lord wanted him to!” “And ignored him for months in the process. Lucius, you know how he hates to be ignored.” Harry looked down the hall, but no one else was coming. He half wondered where Amycus had disappeared to, but he didn’t have long to dwell on it. Quickly, he fell in step behind the other two, keeping as silent as he

could. “Harry Potter!!” Lucius said again, waving an arm around wildly. “The key to the Dark Lord winning this war is /here/, right now, unarmed and completely at our mercy and he has the /gall/ to be unhappy about it?!” “/Lucius/,” Nott hissed, widening his strides to catch up with the other man. “Watch what you say. We don’t need /two/ dead Malfoys tonight.” Harry very suddenly forgot how to breathe. He stumbled in the hallway, his shoe scuffing against the ground loud enough to catch the attention of the two men in front of them. They stopped talking and spun around, their wands raised. Harry froze, his heart pounding wildly in his chest. After a moment, Lucius and Nott lowered their wands. “Probably a rat,” Nott muttered, turning to face front again. Lucius did, as well. “Not the one we’re looking for, though,” he said, resuming walking down the hall. Harry tried to make sense of things as he forced his feet to move so he could continue following them. Surely Lucius would be more upset if Draco was actually…? Harry swallowed, shoving the thoughts from his head. They were fine. Ron /and/ Draco were perfectly fine.

They took a turn down a hallway Harry hadn’t yet been able to investigate, and Lucius threw open the first door they came across. “Wormtail!” he barked, and a man Harry could barely stomach looking at scuttled out from behind a large table. “Malfoy!” he squeaked, wringing his hands and his eyes darting around nervously. “What – what are you doing here?” “The Dark Lord sent us to aid you,” Nott said in a bored tone. Lucius frowned down at something on the table. “I thought you said you’d made one of these before? It looks as though you’ve barely gotten any further since the last time the Dark Lord asked for an update.” Harry crept closer as Wormtail bristled. “I’ve gotten further!” he snapped. “It’s a complicated task, you know, and it’s been ages since I was in school there–” “You were there not three years ago,” Lucius interrupted. “Please, Lucius,” Nott drawled. “Peter was far too busy sleeping in the Weasley boy’s pocket to have been doing anything useful.” “Yeah, alright,” Wormtail said. “Let’s see you two try to remember all the secret passageways out of Hogwarts.” Harry’s eyes widened. Wormtail continued in a smug tone, “Oh, that’s right – you didn’t even

know they were there!” Harry inched around Lucius so he could actually get a good look at what they were doing, but he was pretty certain he had a fairly good idea of what this project entailed. Sure enough, spread out on the table they were all leaning over was what was clearly supposed to be a replica of the Marauder’s Map. *** By the time the Dark Lord ordered Draco to stand up, Draco wasn’t sure if his legs would ever actually support him again. He pushed himself to his knees and spent a few precious seconds trying to calm his panting breaths. Then, with a grimace, he made himself rise and stood as straight as he could, even going so far as lifting his chin so he could meet the Dark Lord’s eyes. “Very good, Draco,” the Dark Lord said, pale fingers running up and down his wand. “You understand why I had to do that, of course.” “Yes, my lord,” Draco said woodenly. “I don’t like punishing my followers,” the Dark Lord continued, stepping past Draco as he spoke. “But I expect things to be done in a certain manner and you disappointed me. That sort of behavior is unacceptable.”

“Yes, my lord,” Draco said again. “It’s an honor to serve you, I shouldn’t have – abused your faith in me like that.” “As long as you keep seeing things my way.” He sounded farther away now, which meant he was probably standing near Weasley. Draco let out a slow breath and hoped Weasley’s resolve held up. “Don’t mistake me, Draco, I am still pleased. After all, look at what you brought me.” Something in his voice shifted, and Draco could swear he sounded almost…happy. Which was fucking terrifying. Draco turned around and only managed to take a few steps forward before he had to stop again. “What are you going to do with him, my lord?” he asked, fighting back a wince. The Dark Lord was eyeing Weasley hungrily. “I wonder…” he said softly. He seemed to deliberate for a few seconds, and then – “Release him from the curse, Draco.” Draco hesitated, on the verge of asking if he was certain, but the Dark Lord was /always/ certain. So instead he hobbled a few steps closer to Weasley and raised his wand, making a jerky little motion with it. As they had practiced, Weasley seemed to come alive all at once. He blinked several times and took a step back, eyes going wide

as they darted from the Dark Lord to the room they were in before they finally landed on Draco. “Malfoy,” he gasped out, stumbling in his direction and patting down his pockets at the same time. “What’s this, what /happened/? Where the hell are we?” He made it to Draco’s side, still searching for his wand, and looked back at the Dark Lord with a guarded expression. “Where’s my wand?” he asked warily, and the Dark Lord chuckled. “You won’t be needing it,” he said smoothly. Weasley’s hands clenched into fists. “Tell me what’s going on,” he demanded, and then shot Draco a look out of the corner of his eyes. “Malfoy, how did we – why is /Voldemort/ here?” He said it perfectly, no tripping over any of the syllables or wincing as the name left his mouth. Draco took a moment to be relieved that they had practiced that part alone for a good hour or so. Something large and thick slid past Draco’s leg and both he and Weasley jumped. Nagini merely flicked her tongue at them as she slithered by. She curled up by her master’s side, lifting her head until she was level with the Dark Lord’s hand, which he gently ran over her scales. “You’re asking all the wrong questions,” he said. And then, still watching Weasley with a cruel sort of amusement, he tilted his head

down a bit and whispered something to Nagini. In the sharp, raspy hisses of Parseltongue. Draco felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. Shit. /Shit/. The Dark Lord was watching Weasley expectantly, and when he didn’t get any immediate reaction, his eyes narrowed. Weasley, to his credit, quickly realized the Dark Lord was waiting for him to do something and tried to recover. “What are you saying to–” he started to demand, only it was exactly the wrong thing and he realized it as soon as the words made it past his lips. His mouth snapped shut and he directed a panicked look toward Draco, but Draco was busy watching as the Dark Lord’s face tightened, his mouth drawing down into a deep frown and his eyes lighting up with a furious flare. “Draco,” he said, barely controlled anger boiling under the surface of his tone. “You said you brought me Harry Potter.” “I – I did!” Draco said, but it was no use and he knew it. Fucking snake, fucking /Parseltongue/, he hadn’t ever considered that the Dark Lord might try talking to /them/ in that language! “Malfoy…” Weasley mumbled, backing up a step. His hand

reached out to grab Draco’s sleeve, something that the Dark Lord spotted right away. “/Shut up/,” Draco hissed, but he was backing up, too, as the Dark Lord started toward them, his teeth bared in an angry snarl. “Wand!” Weasley whispered frantically. “Wand, wand, wand!” The Dark Lord raised his arm above his head. “/Draco Malfoy/,” he snarled, and Draco threw caution to the wind and shoved Harry’s wand into Weasley’s hand. Weasley didn’t hesitate. He only spared the time to mutter a quick, “Brace yourself,” to Draco before he pointed the wand straight at Nagini and bellowed, “/SECTUMSEMPRA/!” Instantly, a high pitched shrieking sound cut through the air as the spell sliced straight through Nagini and severed her head clean off. A black cloud exploded from the rest of her body, which fell limply to the floor and twitched a few times before going still. “/NOOO/!” Voldemort roared, curling in on himself at the exact moment a burning hot pain took hold of Draco’s arm. He cried out and probably would have fallen to his knees, but suddenly Weasley was there, grabbing hold of his other arm and dragging him along as he sprinted out of the room.

“Run!” Weasley yelled. “Come on, ignore it and move your feet, Malfoy, let’s go!” Draco clenched his teeth and did as told, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other as they ran down the corridor. They passed a couple other Death Eaters along the way, all of whom were clutching their own arms and looking startled. Draco vaguely wondered why they weren’t doubled over in pain, but then he realized that they farther they got from the room – and from the Dark Lord – the more the pain lessened. “Where’s Potter?” Draco asked, throwing a glance over his shoulder. No one was following them yet, which had to be some kind of miracle. It wouldn’t be long before someone noticed it was Harry bloody Potter who was running mad through the place. “How should I know?” Weasley said. “He hasn’t tried to get in contact with us yet.” “Brilliant,” Draco muttered. They ran past an empty room and Draco skidded to a stop, quickly backtracking and calling for Weasley to return. “I just need a minute,” he said, panting, and Weasley nodded. “Are you alright?” he asked, the second he got the door

shut. “Fuck, Malfoy, I know we said that might happen but I was about to – if he’d kept you under that curse for any longer–” “No,” Draco interrupted. “You did exactly what you should have.” Weasley scowled. “Which was absolutely nothing.” “Exactly,” Draco said. “Not that it mattered in the end. Bloody Parseltongue – what the hell was that about?” “Seriously.” Weasley leaned back against the wall. “I got the feeling he was telling her she could eat me or something.” “Now there’s a lovely thought.” “We probably should have been prepared for that.” “We covered every other bloody scenario,” Draco groused. He clenched and unclenched his hand a couple times, and then gingerly took a few steps toward the center of the room. “Alright?” Weasley asked again. He actually sounded worried. Draco waved him off. “Fine,” he said. “I have to be. We can’t just stay in here.” “I wonder what Harry’s doing.” Draco snorted. “I’ll tell you what he’s /not/ doing,” he said. “He’s not

off killing any great dirty snakes.” Then he paused, and his eyes widened. “/Merlin/, Weasley – you just destroyed a Horcrux!” Weasley blinked. “Yeah…” he said slowly. Then he grinned. “I did, didn’t I? Wow. Although, did you hear what he said? About–” “I really don’t want to think about that right now,” Draco cut in. “At all. And we should probably get a move on anyway.” “Right.” Weasley nodded. “We don’t want to be trapped in here if some Death Eaters come bursting in. Disillusionment Charms on, I think.” They cast the spell on themselves, and then in the middle of reaching for the door, Draco yelped and jerked his hand back. “What is it?” Weasley asked quickly. Draco grimaced. “Dark Mark,” he said. “He’s called the others to attention – probably so he can send them out to find /us/.” “Great,” Weasley grumbled, and then he carefully pulled the door open. “Hermione’s right, a map of this place would be dead useful right now. It’s bigger than I thought.” “Just go,” Draco said exasperatedly. “We have to find Potter.” *** Harry knew the instant something went wrong because his

scar all but exploded. By some stroke of fate, he had just left the room with Lucius, Nott, and Wormtail behind, so no one was there to see him when he stumbled backwards into a wall and slid to the floor. He remained curled up with his fists pressed against his forehead for a long minute before the pain abruptly faded away. Scowling at nothing in particular, he struggled to his feet again. That had felt just like– Harry froze, his eyes going wide. Just like it had when they’d destroyed the last Horcrux. He shot a quick look up and down the hall and then yanked the Invisibility Cloak off and stuffed it away. It couldn’t mean anything good if Ron and Draco had just killed Nagini on their own; there was no way they could still be fooling Voldemort. Harry needed to find them and he needed to find them /fast/. The cloak would only get in the way and their cover was well past blown now anyway. He hoped Dobby was almost finished getting the wards down. *** “Whose brilliant idea was it to leave the room again?!” Draco shouted,

as he and Weasley hightailed it down the hallway. “Shut up!” Weasley yelled back. He fired a spell over his shoulder. “It seemed logical at the time!” Not far behind them were three Death Eaters, the names of whom had escaped Draco. He and Weasley hadn’t been sneaking around for more than two minutes before they came upon them. Draco was fairly certain their Disillusionment Charms were the only reason the Death Eaters couldn’t get a clear shot off. “Besides, I’m pretty sure you agreed with me, Malfoy!” Draco scowled and ducked as a spell went flying over his head and ricocheted off the wall, making a cascade of dirt and splinters rain down on them. He spotted a corridor up ahead and sped up to get to it. “Here!” he said, and he and Weasley took a sharp right. Draco threw open the nearest door and was confronted with a set of stairs. “I’m not sure going up a level is going to help our case any,” Weasley panted. “We don’t have much of a choice,” Draco said, as the first Death Eater rounded the corner. “Go!” They pounded up the stairs and ended up in another long, dreary hallway with several doors lining the sides.

Weasley swore under his breath. “This place is a bloody maze,” he said, as they took off running yet again. “It’s nearly as big as the manor,” Draco said. Fuck, he’d do anything for a broom right now. His side was killing him and he was starting to have trouble sucking down enough air. They chose a random door on the left and ducked inside, only to find themselves staring down yet /another/ corridor. “You know, I think this house might actually be cursed,” Weasley said. Draco shot him an exasperated look. “No, really?” “I’m serious!” Weasley pulled open one of the doors and found an empty room behind it. “Watch.” He shut the door, waited for a few seconds, and then opened it again. Now there was a hallway on the other side with a single, flickering light at the other end. “…Bugger,” Draco muttered, and Weasley nodded. “It’s like that story,” he said. Draco frowned. “Which?” “Can’t remember what it was called. It wasn’t a Bard tale, though.” “Merriweather, then?”

“That’s the one.” Draco shook his head. “My mother didn’t like his work much, so I don’t know them as well.” “Mum wasn’t really a fan either,” Weasley said. “But anyway, it was something about these kids snooping around and they ended up getting lost in this big old house – I can’t remember how they got out. And there was a moral shoved in somewhere towards the end.” “Oh, well that’s useful,” Draco said dryly. Weasley rolled his eyes. “At least now we know.” “Fat lot of good it’s going to do us, too.” “Shut it, Malfoy, no one asked for your snark.” He took a step into the dim corridor. “Should we go this way?” “I suppose,” Draco said, though he looked doubtful. “The elf better hurry the hell up with those wards.” “I’m sure /Dobby/ is working on them as we speak,” Weasley said. Draco opened his mouth to reply, but he didn’t get the chance to because the Carrow siblings chose that moment to come charging around the corner. “There!” Alecto cried. “That’s them, isn’t it?” “Dark, creepy corridor it is, come on!” Draco said quickly,

and off they went. “Dark’s probably better anyway, yeah?” Weasley said. “Makes it even harder to see us. /Stupefy/!” “Given that we’re rampaging around up here like a herd of hippogriffs – /Impedimenta/! – I hardly think it matters that we’ve gone bloody chameleon.” They made it to the end of the hallway, only to find that from there it headed off in two different directions. “Split up!” Weasley said. “I got left.” “You – wait, /what/?” Draco cried. “Just go!!” Draco let out a frustrated sound and tore off down the hall on the right. “Stupid, idiotic tosser – bloody /Gryffindor/,” he muttered under his breath, before yelling back over his shoulder, “How is this supposed to /help/ us?!” Unfortunately, looking over his shoulder while sprinting was not Draco’s greatest idea, and he ended up running straight into another body while his head was turned. “/Ow/ – fuck – /Stupef/–”

“/Expelliarmus/,” Snape interrupted swiftly, catching Draco’s wand when it came flying through the air toward him. He grabbed Draco by the shoulder before he could even begin to form a coherent sentence and shoved him into a nearby room. The door slammed shut behind them. “Professor–!” Draco started to say, but Snape quickly held a finger up to his lips in a silencing gesture. He waited a few seconds until the sound of footsteps running past the door faded, and then he turned to face Draco. “What the /hell/ are you all doing here?” Draco frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “Oh, you know,” he said sarcastically. “Killing snakes, destroying Horcruxes. Sometimes they’re one and the same.” “I told Potter I would handle that,” Snape said in an angry tone. “I told you all /not to leave/.” “It’s /Potter/,” Draco said, throwing his hands up in the air. “Did you really expect him to listen? He got impatient and charged off at the first sign of an opportunity.” Snape exhaled harshly through his nose. “Where is he now? You need to get out of here – I trust you have some sort of escape plan, at least?”

Draco shrugged, his gaze shifting off to the side. “I’ve no idea where he is.” “You were /just/ with him.” “That was Weasley,” Draco muttered. “Polyjuiced.” Snape looked as though he would very much like to smack Draco upside the head at that moment. “All three of you are here,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but Draco nodded anyway and Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. “And Miss Granger?” he asked, sounding like he thought he already knew the answer. Draco was happy to prove him wrong this time. “No, Hermione stayed behind,” he said. “And she’s probably worked herself into a state wondering when we’ll be back.” There was a pause while Snape gave Draco a blank, almost bordering on surprised look. Then he jerked his head around to look at the door. “We haven’t much time. Your aunt is here, and the werewolf, as well.” “…He called them in?” Draco asked faintly, terror bubbling up in his stomach. /The werewolf/. Shit. Snape nodded. “He’s angry,” he said slowly. “The Dark Lord. You’ve really done it this time.”

“It was worth it,” Draco said. He had to keep telling himself that. “Can I have my wand back?” Snape handed it over. “I can try to buy you a little time. You need to find Potter and Weasley and /get out/.” “We’re waiting on a house elf,” Draco said. “It’s dismantling the wards.” “…Clever,” Snape admitted. “The Dark Lord would never worry about a house elf besting him. The thought wouldn’t even occur to him.” “Potter’s idea. It’s worked for us before.” Snape didn’t reply. Instead he pulled the door open and directed a cautious look up and down the hallway. “Go,” he said brusquely. “And be /quick/ about it. Greyback is tracking your scent.” Draco shuddered. “Fucking brilliant,” he grumbled, and headed back the direction Weasley had gone. They layout of the house seemed to have changed again, however. What had once been a straight path that Draco had run down now had twists and turns, and in no time at all Draco had no idea where the hell he was or how he was supposed to get back to the stairwell they’d first come up. He ended up in a large, open foyer with floor to ceiling bay windows on

one end that offered a wide view of the front lawn. Well, if nothing else, he could always dive through those, Draco thought cynically. Shouts started echoing from down one of the hallways, quickly getting louder, and Draco looked around for somewhere he could duck into. If he had to take off running again, he wasn’t sure he’d make it far. He was starting to feel like he’d been hit with a Jelly-Legs Jinx. He had just thrown himself into a corner, desperately hoping it was only the Carrows again because then he might actually have a chance of hiding in plain sight, when Fenrir Greyback strode into the room. Draco slapped a hand over his mouth in an effort to keep himself from groaning out loud, but he knew it wouldn’t matter much whether or not he made any noise. Greyback sniffed at the air, looking every bit like a wolf on the prowl. His lips curled back, baring his teeth in a yellow grin. “Kid’s in here,” he said to someone behind him, and then Yaxley stepped into view. “Wonderful,” he said, wand out in front of him. “Come now, Draco, you know this is a worthless effort. There isn’t much that can be done for you now, but if you grovel before the Dark Lord he could possibly be persuaded to let your parents live.”

Greyback snickered. “Doubtful,” he said. “The Malfoys have always been nothing but trouble.” He sniffed again, and then tipped his head in the direction of Draco’s corner. “He’s back there.” Draco’s legs gave out and he slid to the floor, just as Yaxley flicked his wand in Draco’s direction. All at once, Draco could feel the Disillusionment Charm reversing, and when he looked down at his hands they’d been returned to their usual visible state. “There,” Yaxley said. “Now why don’t you get up off your little blood traitor arse and come with me.” Draco bristled. “I’m not a blood traitor,” he snapped, using the wall for support as he clambered to his feet. Yaxley raised an eyebrow. “Could have fooled me,” he said, and then he pointed his wand at Draco again. “The Dark Lord never said we had to bring you to him alive.” “Oh, please,” Draco said. “You know that bastard will want to torture me personally.” He chuckled darkly. “I suppose I should be honored.” “You /dare/ speak about the Dark Lord like that in front of me?” Yaxley spat. Draco raised his wand. “His name is /Voldemort/,” he said, and then made

a vicious slashing motion with his wand. “/Stupefy/!” Yaxley blocked it wordlessly and immediately sent something flying back at him that Draco had to dive out of the way to avoid. “You /really/ think you can hold your own against me?” Yaxley said, laughing. “You’re nothing but a /child/.” He fired off another spell and Draco hastily threw up a shield charm, which quickly ended up under double attacks as Greyback joined the fray, as well. “/Sectumsempra/!” Draco cried, but his voice was shaky and keeping the shield charm up distracted him from aiming properly. The spell merely slashed across the side of Greyback’s face, leaving a bleeding gash high on his cheek. He lifted a hand to it, and his fingers were red when he pulled them back. Slowly, and with a low growl, Greyback turned his head back to glare at Draco. “You’re dead, kid,” he snarled, and Draco could do nothing but stare helplessly, frozen to the spot, as he lunged forward. Then suddenly two things happened in very quick succession as two different people charged into the room. “/EXPELLIARMUS/!” Harry shouted, sliding directly in between Draco and Greyback. The spell caught Greyback full in the chest and he was thrown backwards as his wand went flying. Harry snatched it out of

the air and fell into a crouch in front of Draco, quickly breaking the wand across his knee. He barely spared Draco a quick glance before his eyes settled on Yaxley, who very abruptly crumpled to the floor when a spell hit him from the other side. “THAT IS MY /SON/!,” Lucius Malfoy roared, firing off another spell at Greyback that also sent him crashing down. He stood there panting for a moment, looking at his two fellow Death Eaters that he’d just taken out, and then he turned to Draco and Harry. Harry hooked his hand around Draco’s arm and hauled him to his feet. “Alright, Malfoy?” he asked, still keeping a wary eye on Lucius, and Draco could only nod wordlessly, still utterly bewildered to see both Harry and his father there. “Draco,” Lucius whispered, taking a step toward them. “Oh, Draco, what are you doing?” Draco shifted nervously, glad that Harry still had a hold on his arm. His mind had gone blank and he suddenly couldn’t think of anything to say that would justify his actions. After a moment, Lucius sighed and dragged a hand over his face, looking resigned. “You’d better get out of here,” he said in a low tone. “They

won’t be out for long.” “They’re not dead?” Harry said. “You can’t leave them alive, they’ll know–” “/Potter/,” Lucius interrupted harshly, holding up a hand and sending him a dark look. “Don’t speak to me. I’m still debating whether or not I should drag you right back to the Dark Lord and if your irritating voice grates on my ears too much, you’re liable to tip the scales so that they’re /not/ in your favor.” Harry scowled. “They’re going to /remember/,” he insisted. “He’s right,” Draco said, finally finding his voice. “Father, he’s right, you can’t just…” Lucius gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “You underestimate me, Draco. I know how to perform a simple Memory Charm.” Draco didn’t look reassured. “But father, the Dark Lord – Voldemort – there’s no way he’s going to let this one go, you’ll be /killed/. And it’ll be because of /me/, I can’t–” “Draco.” Lucius cut in. “It’s hardly because of you. I’m the one who got my family into this,” he said bitterly. “You were nearly killed, I’ve no idea where your mother is–” “She’s–”

“/Don’t tell me/,” Lucius hissed. “It’s better if I don’t know.” Harry, who was still lingering awkwardly by Draco’s side, tugged at his arm. “We really do need to go, mate.” Draco glanced at him and then shot an uncertain look back at his father. “Come with us,” he said abruptly, ignoring the incredulous look that immediately appeared on Harry’s face. “You /have/ to,” Draco insisted. Lucius only shook his head. “Go,” he said. “Take Potter and get out of here.” “/Dad/–” “Go!” Draco looked at him one more time, and then he nodded his head once, grabbed Harry’s hand, and pulled him out of the room. They hurried down the hall until Draco felt they were far enough away, and then he had to slow down for a minute to figure out what the hell had just happened. “Uh…Malfoy?” Harry asked hesitantly, pulling at his hand. “Would you mind letting–” He was cut off when Draco unexpectedly spun around and grabbed the front of his shirt, burying his face against Harry’s neck. Harry squeaked.

“I just need a second,” Draco mumbled. “Because I’m pretty sure that was the last time I’ll ever see my father alive.” Harry didn’t say anything; he just remained tense against Draco’s hold and seemed to be breathing as shallowly as he could. Draco lifted his head to look at him, and after a couple seconds Harry’s eyes widened. “Oh – shit, no, Malfoy–” Harry stammered. He held his hands up and tried to back up a step. “I’m not–” Draco frowned in confusion and stepped forward with him. “Not what?” Harry huffed and rolled his eyes skyward. “You’ve got the wrong Potter,” he said. Draco blinked at him, wondering just what exactly /that/ was supposed to mean, and then it clicked and his eyes went wide as he dropped Harry’s – /Weasley’s/ – shirt like he’d been burned. “Oh, for the love of – you should have said something sooner, you idiot!” Draco exclaimed, his face quickly turning pink. “I thought you /knew/!” Weasley cried, brushing off his shirt and looking at everything else in the hallway that wasn’t Draco. “I wasn’t expecting you to try to /snog/ me!” Draco’s jaw dropped. “I wasn’t going to /snog/ you, Weasley,

what the hell?!” “You were! You had a funny look in your eyes and seriously, /how didn’t you know it was me/?!” “Well!” Draco fidgeted for a second and then threw up his hands. “You seemed very – /Potter-like/, alright, I’m sorry! And you removed the Disillusionment Charm!” “I was trying to distract a bunch of Death Eaters, I figured it’d be better if they could /see/ me. Just – let’s pretend that didn’t happen,” Weasley said resolutely. “And go find the /real/ Harry so you can hang all over him instead.” “Oh, shut up,” Draco groused, and he and Weasley took off again. *** Harry dashed around a corner and cursed for the umpteenth time that day when he saw that there was only another identical looking hallway in front of him. What the hell was going on with this place? It seemed to be an endless maze and the farther he went the more lost he got. There had been several times when he was tempted to call for Dobby, but the galleon in his pocket hadn’t yet heated up and he was hesitant to interrupt Dobby while he was working. He couldn’t afford to

distract him when they needed a way out as soon as possible. The fact that he couldn’t find Ron or Draco was also really starting to worry him. He’d tried to send them a message when running around aimlessly looking for them didn’t seem to be working, but he hadn’t gotten a reply back yet. Fair enough, assuming they were probably busy trying to fight off Death Eaters like he was. At least, he hoped it was just that and not something worse. Nott’s words from earlier were still ringing in his ears and he had an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. Fuck, Harry just wanted to know what had /happened/. On a whim, he threw open one of the many doors lining the hallway and was almost disappointed when there was nothing interesting on the other side. He’d half hoped there’d be a cluster of Death Eaters there so he had something to take his frustration out on. It sounded like there were some voices coming from further down the hall, however, so he decided to investigate that instead. It was possible it could be Ron and Draco– Harry started as a sudden warmth bloomed against his leg, and he quickly remembered the galleon. He ducked into the room he’d just found and pulled it out, hoping that maybe Ron had finally gotten back

to him, but instead there was one word spelled out along the edge of the coin.

/R E A D Y/

Harry grinned. The voices were getting louder. Harry flattened himself against the wall, listening intently, but they didn’t turn out to be anyone he recognized. “Malfoy’s as good as dead,” one of the voices was saying, sounding entirely too happy about it. “Cor, it’s good to watch that bloody family fall. Lucius always did get on my nerves the way he strutted around all the time.” “Which one do you think the Dark Lord will do in first?” the second voice asked. “Does it matter? Long as they both go. Whatever the kid’s been mixed up in lately has the Dark Lord all on edge, let me tell you. That spell he cast almost sent Dolohov through the wall at our last meeting. Dolohov! And he’s been here near since the beginning! No, both of ‘em need to be offed. Then maybe things can get back to normal around

here.” “Mm… We should be trying a little harder to find them, then, don’t you think?” The first person made a scoffing sound. “The Dark Lord was going to sic Greyback on them, wasn’t he? Hell, he’s probably already found the kid and mangled him to pieces.” He gave a sharp laugh. “Might be they’ll decide to turn him into a werewolf.” “Toss him into a dungeon until the full moon,” the second person said, also chuckling. “I’m for it. It’d have to be the Malfoys’ own dungeons, of course.” “Definitely,” said the first person. “Anyway, I don’t much fancy going up against the Potter brat, to be honest. He gives me the creeps, that one. Can’t really figure out why the Dark Lord wants him so badly…” The voices faded away, but Harry remained frozen to the spot for a moment longer. Greyback was here. Abruptly, he tore himself away from the wall and slipped back out into the hallway before setting off at a dead sprint. He had to find the others. /Now/. He was through wasting time. Dobby would be able to help

now that the wards were ready to come down, he’d be able to locate the others easily– A door flew open in front of him and before Harry could even think about slowing down he found himself crashing straight into – himself? “/Ow/! Bloody hell, man, watch it!” his replica said, stumbling back into the door and immediately wincing. “Bugger – doorknob, /ow/.” “Ron!” Harry exclaimed, quickly removing his Disillusionment Charm. Ron looked up and gave him a pained smile as he rubbed at his side. “At least /you/ recognized me,” he said, which didn’t make much sense to Harry, but he was too busy feeling relieved to care. “Ha ha, Weasley, you slay me,” Draco said flatly, and when he stepped into view looking, for the most part, perfectly well and unharmed, Harry felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. “Malfoy,” he breathed. Draco only had time to blink at him before Harry was lunging forward and throwing his arms around the other boy’s shoulders. “Shit,” he mumbled. “/Shit/. I wasn’t sure if – the Death Eaters have been saying – /Merlin/, I am so glad to see you.” Draco blinked again, and then slowly brought his arms up to

circle Harry’s waist. “Oh?” he said, his voice shaking a bit. Harry pulled back slightly so he could look Draco in the eyes, absently brushing away some of the hair that had somehow managed to escape its gelled prison and fall into Draco’s face. “Are you okay?” he asked, pulling back half a step further to look him over completely. “Voldemort didn’t do anything to you, did he? No crazy werewolf gashes? You’re alright?” Draco nodded dumbly at him, and Harry let out a long breath before hugging Draco tightly again. Somewhere off to the side, Ron awkwardly cleared his throat. “I’m okay, too,” he said loudly. “You know, in case anyone was wondering.” Harry jerked away from Draco, his face instantly flaming up. “Er…” Ron ignored him and sent Draco a knowing look. “And you told me to shut up,” he said, grinning when Draco scowled at him. “Like I don’t know /exactly/ what I’m talking about.” Harry’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What…?” Ron shook his head. “Nothing. No time for small talk anyway. We’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

“…You – /I’ve/ been looking everywhere for /you/,” Harry said after a beat. “I sent you a message, didn’t you get it? Where were you guys?” “Upstairs,” Draco replied, as Ron frowned and started digging around in his pockets. Harry gaped at him. “There’s an /upstairs/?!” “Doesn’t matter now, but yes.” Ron found the galleon and pulled it out, peering at it. “…Oh. Look, you did send something,” he said sheepishly, and Draco smacked him on the shoulder. “/Idiot/.” Harry rolled his eyes. “Whatever, you’re here now. Dobby’s ready to go, so we just have to–” “THERE!” someone interrupted, and all three boys whirled around to find Bellatrix and Snape bearing down on them. Harry groaned. “Draco, you irritating little /shit/,” Bellatrix seethed. “You dare betray the Dark Lord? You have the /gall/ to choose Potter over him?!” “Well, obviously,” Draco said, doing his best to sound unimpressed. “In case you hadn’t noticed, the Dark Lord’s kind of a madman.” Bellatrix gave a furious cry and readied her wand, but Snape swiftly stepped in front of her. “Allow me, Bella,” he said, and Harry knew that

was the only chance he was going to get. “/DOBBY/!” he shouted, backing up and pulling both Ron and Draco with him. “Dobby, now, we’re ready!” Dobby popped into existence in front of them, took one look at Snape and Bellatrix, and snapped his fingers. The air around them gave a weird sort of shimmer. Before Harry’s eyes the hallway and doors seemed to melt away, leaving them standing in what appeared to be some sort of old dining room. “What did you do?” Bellatrix demanded, as the walls began shaking and chunks of wood rained down on them from the ceiling. “What did that filthy house elf /do/?!” “The wards is down, Harry Potter!” Dobby cried. “They is being the only thing holding the house up!” Harry nodded. “Time to go,” he said, and knelt down to clasp Dobby’s hand. The pressure in the air around them abruptly increased, and they Disapparated away just as the room they’d been standing in crumbled inwards. *** They reappeared right outside Grimmauld Place, and for a few seconds they could only seem to stand there in shock.

“…I can’t believe we actually made it out,” Draco said after a moment. “Can we please never do that again?” “What the hell happened at the end there?” Harry asked, moving toward the door. The last thing they needed was Voldemort popping up because they’d lingered outside too long. “Dobby, you said the wards were holding the house up?” Dobby nodded. “Yes, Harry Potter. They is the reason Dobby was taking so long.” “But what was with that…bloody /maze/ or whatever? It just disappeared – that was because of the wards? I swear the layout of the damn place kept changing.” “It did,” Ron said. “Malfoy and I figured it out. The curse must have been interwoven with the wards. We think You-Know – /Voldemort/ – nicked the curse from an old Wizarding fairytale.” Harry blinked. “Really? What, were we supposed to use bread crumbs to find our way out?” Both Ron and Draco gave him a blank look. “…Seriously?” Harry said. “Hansel and Gretel? No?” “Ah,” Draco said, leaning in close to Ron. “Muggle thing.” Harry huffed. “It had a witch in it,” he muttered. “Although…

she was evil.” “Aren’t most witches in all that Muggle stuff?” Draco asked. “Glinda wasn’t,” Harry said, but the other two just continued to look at him like they thought he’d gone mental. “Oh, come on! That one even had wizard in the /title/ and you haven’t heard of it?” “We need to get this bloke a copy of The Tales of Beetle the Bard,” Ron said to Draco, who nodded. Harry just huffed again and pulled open the door. They made it about five feet past the entrance before several sets of footsteps came pounding down the stairs. Harry looked up with a grin on his face, ready to greet Hermione, but instead it was a redheaded blur that flew into his arms. “Harry!” Ginny cried, and Harry could only stand there in bewilderment while she squeezed the breath out of him. “…Note that she can also tell which one of us is the right one,” Ron said lightly. Draco crossed his arms and scowled. Chapter 24 “Ginny!” Harry exclaimed, trying to untangle himself from her arms. She released him but didn’t step back, so she was still well within

his personal space. “Oh, Harry, I’m so glad you’re alright,” she said, as Hermione rushed past and flew straight into Ron’s – who still looked liked Harry – arms. “Hermione told me you were off doing something dangerous,” Ginny continued. “But she refused to tell me what. Is everything okay?” Harry ignored the question. “Ginny,” he said again. “What – /why/ are you here?” Ginny frowned for a moment, but then her lips quirked upward in a small smile. “Christmas is in a few days, silly. I’m on winter break from Hogwarts.” Was it really? Harry blinked, wondering how that much time had passed already, and automatically glanced at Hermione for confirmation – except she was busy peppering kisses all over Ron’s face, which was a disturbing sight since it was still /his/ face. “What took you all so long?” Hermione asked, pulling back enough to ask the question but keeping her hand wrapped around Ron’s. “I’ve been out of my mind with worry!” Dobby hopped nervously from foot to foot. “Dobby was taking awhile,” he said. “The wards was very complicated! And /dark/.”

“It wasn’t you, you did great,” Ron said, grinning down at the elf. “We just ran into a couple of snags.” “And a couple of Death Eaters,” Draco added dryly. Hermione’s grip on Ron’s hand tightened. “Did you at least – get what you went for?” Draco crossed his arms and smirked over at Ron. “Weasley killed the snake,” he said, and both Harry’s and Hermione’s jaws dropped. “That was /you/?” Harry said. “Ron, that’s – that’s amazing!” He laughed. “Well done!” “He cast /Sectumsempra/ on it,” Draco said in a wry tone, while Ron flushed slightly and looked pleased. “It wasn’t anything, really,” he said. “Malfoy was the real impressive one. He had all of them fooled, even Voldemort–” “Only because Weasley did some excellent acting, too,” Draco cut in. “The only thing he couldn’t pull off was faking an understanding of Parseltongue.” “Yeah, but you didn’t even crack when he had you under the Cruciatus,” Ron said. Harry’s eyes went wide as he spun to face Draco. “He had

you under–?!” “But /you/ even managed to stop Greyback from killing me!” Draco interrupted again, and Harry could only roll his eyes at that point because, seriously, only those two would actually try to /out-compliment/ each other. “I don’t understand,” said Ginny. “Why did you have to kill a snake?” The others went quiet and glanced at each other, and then Draco frowned suddenly. “Hang on, Potter. You knew we killed it?” “Yeah, of course,” Harry said. “I felt it.” He gestured at his scar. “You know, like with – like…last time.” He shot a guilty look at Ginny, who propped her hands on her hips and scowled. “Why can’t you just tell me what you’re going on about?” she asked, starting to sound upset. Draco didn’t even seem to notice she’d posed a question and spoke before anyone could answer. “You felt it,” he repeated. “Even though you weren’t anywhere near the Dark Lord.” “No…I wasn’t.” Harry’s brow furrowed. “I went the opposite direction you two did. What are you getting at, Malfoy?” “We had to make a mad dash out of the room after Weasley sliced the bloody thing’s head off,” Draco said. “And the farther we got,

the less my mark hurt.” He looked at Hermione, who had gone a bit pale. “The mark only hurt when I was /near/ Voldemort. I’m guessing last time it hurt because we were near – well.” He finally glanced Ginny’s way, but then turned back to Hermione almost immediately. “You know where I’m going with this, Hermione, I know you do. You’ve noticed it, too. If Potter’s scar hurt when he wasn’t near the – /thing/, or Voldemort himself…” “Look, just spit it out already. What exactly are you trying to say?” Harry asked. He didn’t like that they seemed to know something he didn’t. Hermione shook her head. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” she said, and then aimed a pointed look in Ginny’s direction. “And we can discuss it later.” Ginny threw her hands up in the air. “You lot are always so damn /secretive/!” she cried, and then jabbed a finger toward Draco. “And since when has he called you /Hermione/? What’s going on with all of you? I could help, too, you know!” “We /can’t/ tell you, Ginny,” Harry said, in a pained sort of way. “Dumbledore didn’t want me spreading it around–” “Oh, but you can tell /Malfoy/?” Ginny interrupted. “/Seriously/?”

Harry floundered for words, uncertain how to explain, but Draco just scowled. “I think I’ve earned the right to know,” he said, and Ginny gave an incredulous laugh. “Oh /really/? Earned it, have you?” She crossed her arms, glowering. “Must be nice that you were given the /chance/ to earn it.” “For fuck’s sake, Weasley – other Weasley – stop /whining/,” Draco snapped. “We don’t always get what we want, alright? You adventuring across the countryside as part of Potter’s quest to vanquish evil from the planet isn’t going to happen. Get over it.” Ginny’s eyes flared up, suddenly full of the blazing energy that Harry used to love about her. Except at the moment it was an angry energy, and a furious look quickly spread over Ginny’s face. Somewhere around Harry’s knee, Dobby whimpered. “No,” she said tightly, barely sounding in control of her own voice, and Harry abruptly realized that she was just as upset as she was mad. “Because you stepped in and filled the four-person quota right up, didn’t you? Because /you’re/ so useful – the only good thing you’ve ever managed to do was /fail/ at killing Dumbledore!” Draco immediately tensed up, but it was Ron who stepped in and grabbed

Ginny’s arm, saying to her in a low voice, “/Stop it/, Ginny. Malfoy’s more than proved himself – he’s nearly died about three separate times already and he hasn’t done a damn thing to put the rest of us in danger. You’re out of line.” “And you’re my /brother/,” Ginny said thickly. She ripped her arm out of Ron’s grip, looking betrayed, and stormed out of the entry hall. Harry made an exasperated sound. “Ginny!” he called. He took one step after her, and Draco gave him a disgusted look. “I’m going to take a shower,” he muttered, and headed up the stairs before anyone could stop him. “…Harry Potter, sir?” Dobby spoke up meekly. Harry glanced down at him. “Is Dobby being needed here anymore?” “No, Dobby, I’m sorry,” Harry said with a sigh. “You were brilliant today. Tell Kreacher I said hello, will you?” Dobby nodded, gave Harry a little salute, and then Disapparated on the spot. Harry sighed again, more in frustration this time, and took another step in the direction Ginny had gone. Then he paused. “If you’re confused, it’s because the stairs aren’t over

there,” Ron said. “They’re this way.” Harry hesitated. “But Ginny…” “Oh, Harry,” Hermione said softly. “Is that really who you want to go after?” “She’ll cool off on her own,” Ron said. “Just – make up your mind already, yeah?” He headed for the stairs himself, tugging Hermione along with him. “I’m going to go change. Don’t want to turn back into me when I’m still wearing your clothes.” “You’re so much shorter like this,” Harry listened to Hermione say as their voices faded away. “It’s a little bit weird…” He stood there for a moment, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and then all at once he swore, because who was he kidding, really? He was being ridiculous, especially considering he’d just spent half the day panicking that something had happened to Draco. Without wasting another second, Harry took the stairs two at a time and marched down the hallway until he made it to the bathroom. He could hear the water running and when he tried the doorknob, he found that it was unlocked. “Malfoy?” Harry called cautiously, as he pushed the door open. Draco’s

clothes were strewn haphazardly across the floor, like he’d stripped them off as he made a beeline for the shower without pausing anywhere along the way. The mental image of Draco’s wet and naked body made Harry’s cheeks burn, and he quickly shook it away. “What do you want, Potter?” Draco said, his voice a bit muffled. It was a question Harry suddenly had a hundred answers to, but all of them seemed to hang apprehensively on the tip of his tongue. Draco didn’t seem surprised that he was there, Harry noticed. Maybe that was why the door had been unlocked. Maybe Draco /wanted/ him there. “Are you okay?” Harry blurted, which wasn’t one of the many replies he’d been waffling over. He frowned at himself. “…I’m fine,” Draco replied after a beat. “A little sore, I guess.” Harry saw his silhouette shift behind the shower curtain, and then he grunted. “Or a lot sore, rather.” “Malfoy…” Harry leaned back against the wall as a wave of guilt washed over him. “Thank you,” he said abruptly. “I should have said it ages ago, but we really – you’ve been a /huge/ help with the Horcruxes. I don’t know how we even would have gotten the cup without you, and it’s because of you we could kill Nagini–” “Weasley did that,” Draco interrupted. “Seriously, I’m not

sure I would’ve made it out of there without him. He’s the one you should thank.” “And I will,” Harry said impatiently. “But /you’re/ the one who got us in there and close enough to Voldemort in the first place.” “Snape could have done it. I ran into him, by the way. Before he showed up with my aunt, I mean.” “Jesus, Malfoy, just take the compliment, would you?” Harry said, somewhat exasperated. “/And/ the gratitude, you git.” Draco huffed, whipping back the curtain partway so he could glare at Harry. “I don’t want your bloody gratitude, Potter. Is that all you came in here to say?” “No…” Harry mumbled, quickly distracted by the pale skin of Draco’s neck and the way the water ran in streaming rivulets over it. His eyes trailed down, following the line of Draco’s body until it disappeared behind the shower curtain. Heat bloomed in Harry’s stomach and he swallowed hard, fighting back a sudden urge to rip the rest of the curtain out of the way and jump right into the shower with him. Oh, for the love of– He wanted Draco Malfoy. Draco /bloody/ Malfoy. How the

/hell/ had that happened? Not that Harry was altogether surprised. Not at this point in the game. The prat had gotten under his skin – he’d /always/ been under his skin, actually, since the moment Harry had met him. He was just less annoying now. Or maybe it was just that Harry had finally taken the time to get to know him, to learn what was behind the haughty façade. He’d discovered more about Draco Malfoy in the past six months than he had in the /six years/ they’d been in school together. Draco was smarter than Harry had ever given him credit for. He had a sharp wit and while he was still snarky as hell, Harry now found that he was surprisingly amusing, too. He was prickly, he got riled up easily, and he and Harry would probably never see eye-to-eye on a /lot/ of different things, but maybe that was actually part of the reason Harry liked being around him. It kept things…interesting. There was still the fact that he was a boy, but it confused Harry how little that bothered him now. Perhaps it just didn’t matter. Draco was fit enough, if you liked your blokes pointy and pale. Which apparently, Harry did. He had nice hair, at least…

Harry couldn’t seem to get his thoughts under control. It was like a switch had been flipped somewhere inside of him, now that he’d…what? Admitted it to himself? /Accepted/ it? He was still staring. And Draco was starting to sound exasperated. …Wait. “/Potter/!” Harry’s head snapped up, his cheeks going bright red when he realized Draco had obviously called his name more than once. Draco mostly just looked amused, though, and also a little pleased, if Harry wasn’t mistaken. “Whenever you’re done staring,” Draco said, and Harry didn’t even try to deny that he had been. Instead, he rolled his eyes. “I’m done,” he quipped. “Good,” Draco said, disappearing completely behind the curtain again. “Then bugger off so I can wank in peace.” Immediately, Harry’s imagination went into overdrive, supplying him with a long stream of images and filling in the silence with sounds that Harry himself had caused Draco to make. His knees buckled and he was glad he was already leaning against the wall because the extra support was suddenly a necessity. Merlin, he had it bad.

“You don’t want any help?” he asked faintly. “What?” Harry cleared his throat. “Nothing. I was just – nothing. Never mind. I’ll leave you alone.” He turned and forced his feet to carry him to the door. “Hey, Potter?” Draco said, poking his head through the shower curtain again. Harry spun back around so quickly he nearly banged into the wall. “Yeah?” he asked, eagerly and just a touch breathlessly, as well, which just made Draco look all the more amused and /fuck/, how embarrassing could he get? This was /Malfoy/, there was no need to suddenly be completely pathetic around him. “You’re welcome, you tosser,” Draco said, with a grin. “Now get out of here before you hurt yourself.” Harry did as told, and promptly ran into Ron – who had finally turned back to normal, thank goodness – in the hallway. Ron blinked at him. “Er – hi,” Harry said, and then instantly wanted to smack his face his into a wall. “Er, /hi/,” Ron shot right back at him, in a teasing tone. “I

was just heading down to get something to drink for me and Hermione.” He glanced over Harry’s shoulder and then raised an eyebrow. “Déjà vu,” he said, grinning a bit. “Showering together again, eh?” Harry scowled. “/No/,” he said, and then scuffed the toe of his shoe against the ground and looked sheepish. “Mostly because I’m an idiot,” he admitted. He rubbed at the back of his neck, watching Ron carefully for signs of an impending explosion. But Ron just clapped him on the shoulder in a good-natured sort of way. “I’d try to help you out, mate, but I don’t even know how I managed to get my own love life sorted.” Harry’s face flamed up again at the term /love life/, and he shoved his hands deep into his pockets to keep from fidgeting. Ron continued, “Also, I don’t have a clue how to deal with blokes. Reckon I’d just botch things up even more.” “So,” Harry hedged. “You know, then.” Ron barked out a laugh. “Well, yeah. You’re both kind of obvious. Especially that one.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of the bathroom. “Pining for you all over the place like he does.” Harry frowned. “He hasn’t been /pining/.” “You say that because you’ve been stubbornly looking the other way,” Ron

said. “Guess you didn’t notice.” “…This is so pathetic,” Harry grumbled. He slumped back against the wall. “I don’t even know how I ended up here.” Ron didn’t say anything; he only shrugged. Harry chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. “I should have told you.” “Right you should have.” “I just – I didn’t know–” “I know.” Harry hesitated. “Did he…?” “Yep.” “/Everything/?” “Pretty sure.” Ron smirked. “Unless you’ve done anything since–” “No,” Harry cut in hastily. “No, no. Nothing.” Ron nodded, before his brow furrowed slightly. “I’m not mad about Ginny, you know.” Harry blinked. “Really?” “Nah. If you were meant to be, you’d have worked it out. At least you’re not dragging her along,” Ron said. “Besides…it was a bit weird. Knowing you two – and she’s my /sister/.” Ron blanched slightly. “I mean, not

that I want to hear anything about you and Malfoy, either, mind you,” he added quickly. “But given the choice…” Harry chuckled. “Yeah, I get it.” He frowned suddenly. “Did you really save him from Greyback?” “Well, he might’ve come up with something on his own,” Ron said, though he didn’t look much like he believed it. “But yeah. Greyback and another Death Eater were fighting him at the same time.” He leaned a shoulder against the wall beside Harry, crossing his arms. “I was glad for the opportunity, to be honest. Been wanting to get a piece of that arsehole ever since last year.” “I’m sure Bill will feel very avenged,” Harry said, giving Ron a slight grin. Ron rolled his eyes, but he looked pleased. “Yeah, yeah.” “Seriously, though,” Harry said, sobering up and meeting Ron’s gaze. “You did /really/ good today.” “Ah – it was nothing,” Ron said, but he looked proud of himself. Then he snorted. “Malfoy thought I was you,” he said. “When I came charging in. I swear he was going to kiss me after.” “…He didn’t, right?” Harry said, his eyes narrowing. Ron laughed. “Merlin, no,” he said. “But hell if I’m going to

let him forget about it anytime soon. Anyway, I’m off. Hermione’s waiting.” He waggled his eyebrows, which frankly made him look a bit ridiculous. Harry just shook his head, thoroughly amused. “Now that I’m not you anymore, she can actually show me just how happy she is I made it back alright. Cheers!” He ambled off down the hallway to the stairs, waving once at Harry over his shoulder. Harry remained where he was for a moment, listening to the oddly soothing sound of the shower running. He wondered what the next step was from here. *** Christmas passed uneventfully for the most part. They didn’t have a lot of privacy in the few days leading up to it, though, which meant that they didn’t have much of a chance to discuss what had happened in Little Hangleton. Instead, they were put to work by Mrs. Weasley, who was more than thrilled to see them venturing out into the rest of the house after spending the last month locked away behind closed doors. She had them decorating Grimmauld Place for the holiday, which Harry was happy to do because it was the sort of mindless activity that allowed him to mull over other things in his head at the same time.

He was sort of guiltily relieved to have this bit of a break, actually. It wouldn’t last long, he knew, and they couldn’t be sure Voldemort would lie low just because it was Christmastime, but Harry was pretty sure he knew what Voldemort’s next course of action was going to be anyway. “He has a map of Hogwarts,” he confided to Hermione in a low voice, as they strung garland around the ceiling of the dining room. It was one of the few moments he’d managed to grab alone with someone who knew what was going on. “Or he has Wormtail working on one, at least.” Hermione frowned a little. “Like the Marauder’s Map, you mean?” Harry nodded. “I think that’s what it’s /supposed/ to be. But I doubt Wormtail can make it on his own – he had my dad, Sirius, and Remus last time.” “He’s planning on infiltrating Hogwarts, then,” Hermione said. “Why? He already has the Ministry.” “Well…Hogwarts is the only place he ever considered home,” Harry said slowly. “And we just destroyed one of his bases of operation – according to Malfoy, the other is the manor. But neither of those are /his/.” “Hogwarts is where the majority of our magical learning happens,

though,” Hermione said. “If he takes that, then where does he expect his future followers to get an education?” “Oh, I’m sure he’d welcome all Purebloods with open arms.” “And likely teach them himself.” Hermione sounded disgusted. “I suppose he believes that way he can also control who gets in.” She was quiet for a moment as she flicked her wand, directing several wreaths to hang themselves on one of the walls. “You haven’t told the others yet?” “No…” Harry poked absently at a red ribbon, trying to get it to twist into a bow. “I’m going to let Neville know. And–” “Professor McGonagall.” “Yeah, definitely.” “And the Order.” “…I guess – we don’t know when he’s going to make a move, though. I don’t want to get everyone all worked up too far in advance, especially not when they have the Ministry to worry about.” Harry sighed, dragging a hand through his hair. “And there’s no sense having a giant battle when Voldemort can’t even be defeated yet.” Hermione hummed noncommittally. “At least tell Neville about all of the secret passageways, then.”

“I was actually thinking of sending him the map,” Harry admitted. “I just – don’t really want to part with it.” “He’d take care of it.” “I know.” “Harry…you don’t think he’ll do anything over the break, do you?” Hermione asked uncertainly. “It seems like the most ideal time. There won’t be many people in the castle right now.” “I don’t think so,” Harry replied. “The map wasn’t anywhere near finished. And – well. He might have other…/priorities/, at the moment.” Hermione shot him a quick, worried look, but she didn’t say anything. Harry knew she understood what he meant. Draco and Ron had briefly told them about Voldemort implying he would be able to make more Horcruxes, but frankly that was one chilling thought that Harry just /did not/ want to think about. He wondered if he’d be able to feel it if Voldemort went through with it, since he seemed to be able to feel every other bloody thing he did. Dumbledore had told him that it was extremely difficult to make a Horcrux, though. Maybe, /hopefully/, Voldemort would be too weak to properly manage it. How many pieces could a soul be torn into, anyway?

The front door opened and a myriad of voices talking at the same time interrupted their sudden silence. Ron came bounding into the room, his cheeks red from the cold wind despite the fact that he was bundled up in a coat, scarf, and mittens. “Hey all,” he greeted, swooping down to kiss Hermione on the cheek. “We got a tree. Didn’t have any problems, either. Where’s Malfoy?” “Your mum roped him into cookie baking,” Harry said. “His own fault, mind, for refusing to help with the decorations.” Ron snorted. “She feels bad for him, I think,” he said, as he unwound the scarf from around his neck. “Since he’s separated from his family and all that for Christmas. Reckon he’s the new lost boy around here.” He grinned. “Sorry, mate, you’ve been replaced.” “Good,” Harry said. “Six years of your mum stuffing me to the brim with food because I’m /too skinny/ was more than enough, thanks.” “Didn’t see you complaining at the time,” Ron said, sounding amused. Harry smirked. “Well of course not, your mum’s a brilliant cook.” Ron barked out a laugh, and then let it trail off. “And Ginny?” he

asked, after a moment. Harry shrugged, suddenly focused on tying another ribbon into a shoddy looking bow. “Still avoiding all of us,” Hermione answered for him. “I’m going to try to talk to her tonight.” Harry let out a loud sigh. “I’m sorry,” he said miserably. “I didn’t mean for her to get hurt in all this – that’s why I broke up with her in the first place. I didn’t want her to have to get involved. I thought it’d be safer this way.” “Not all girls like to be protected,” Hermione said softly. “I know you meant well, but Ginny would have been fine.” “…I know,” Harry said. “I know. But. I didn’t want – having her around would have been a distraction, and I didn’t think I could afford that.” “He said, as he concentrates instead on the most /dangerous/ task of hanging Christmas holly,” Ron commented dryly, and Harry glowered at him. “How was I supposed to know we’d end up sharing a house with your parents?” he groused. “Not to mention,” Hermione started to say, with a shrewd little smile, “that you’ve been quite preoccupied with Draco, as well.” Harry flushed. “That is a /recent/ thing, thank you,” he said

in a clipped tone. Ron and Hermione gave each other knowing looks. “It’s not all /that/ recent,” she said. “Have you worked it out with him yet?” Ron asked. “Not that I want details. But, you know, he seemed in a better mood. After the shower thing.” “There wasn’t a shower thing!” Harry exclaimed, his cheeks turning an even darker red. “That was just – /talking/, for Merlin’s sake.” Ron rolled his eyes and leaned in close to Hermione. “He’s such a liar; I’ve caught him coming out of the bathroom with Malfoy /twice/ now.” Hermione giggled, and Harry fumbled with his wand as he gave Ron an exasperated look. “/Just/. /Talking/,” he bit out, waving his wand jerkily to hang another wreath next to Hermione’s. The wreath shot up from its place on the table and zipped across the room so quickly that Ron had to duck to avoid being smacked in the face by it, which just made Hermione laugh even harder. “Well, when /are/ you going to come clean with him, Harry?” she asked, after she recovered. “Seriously, mate, you have to make a move at some point.”

Harry huffed, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring up the ceiling. “I will, alright? I’m just – trying to figure out /how/.” “It’s not all that complicated,” Ron said. “Oh, like you would know,” Harry grumbled. “You don’t even know how you and Hermione got together.” “Oh /really/,” Hermione said, propping her hands on her hips and raising her eyebrows at Ron, who suddenly looked very sheepish. Lucky for Ron, however, his dad entered the room before he had to offer up any sort of bumbling explanation. “You lot sound like you’re having too much fun in here,” Mr. Weasley said cheerfully, as he peeled off his gloves. “Yeah!” Ron said loudly, sidestepping around Hermione, who by this point looked more amused than anything. “Just getting into the – holiday spirit! And all. You know how it is.” Mr. Weasley clapped him on the shoulder. “Your brothers and I got the tree up in the sitting room,” he said. “Come and have a look!” They followed him to the other room, where Fred and George were busy unpacking boxes and boxes of yet more decorations. Harry thought he saw the patented Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes insignia on the side of some of

the boxes, and he wondered if he should be worried. “Oh, it’s gorgeous!” Hermione said, clasping her hands in front of her. “And so – /big/.” “Of course,” Fred said, as he straightened up and put his hands on his waist, looking up at the tree. “One crazy old dark lord isn’t any reason to slack off during the holidays.” “Here, Fred, don’t think we need this box,” George said, lightly kicking the one in question toward his brother. “Not if it’s only going to be family here.” “It’s not /all/ family,” Fred said. “Malfoy’s not family.” George snorted. “And I don’t particularly want to snog him; do you?” “Nah, I’m not really in the habit of kissing ferrets.” “What is it?” Ron asked, shooting the box a curious look. “Mistletoe,” George replied. “Of a sort,” said Fred. “One of our new products this year. It’s selling like mad!” “You’ve done something with /mistletoe/?” Ron asked. He took a wary step back. “No, definitely put that one away.” George smirked. “What’s wrong, worried you’d get caught under it?”

“Worried what you did to it, more like,” Ron shot back. “And I don’t need mistletoe to snog my girlfriend.” He pointedly wrapped an arm around Hermione’s waist. “Oh ho!” Fred said, grinning brightly and propping an arm on George’s shoulder so he could lean against him. “Look at you! He’s growing up right before our eyes, Georgie.” “Reckon he’ll be a man in no time,” George said. He raised his eyebrows in an unmistakably suggestive way, and Ron scowled at him. “If you’re going to take bets on when that will happen, then you’ve already lost,” Draco said, as he walked into the room carrying a plate of cookies. Ron’s eyes went wide and he made a panicked shushing sound, accompanied by a quick slicing gesture of his hand. Hermione squeaked out, “/Draco/!” and went pink as she darted a look around the room. Draco lifted a cookie to his mouth. “What?” he asked innocently, as Fred and George caught on and suddenly howled with laughter. Draco held out for a moment longer, but then his face broke into an amused smirk. “Don’t worry,” he said to Ron, who had his face buried in his hands. “Your dad’s in the kitchen.”

“That’s /not/ what I was worried about,” Ron grumbled. Fred and George swarmed him, Fred unceremoniously sliding between him and Hermione so he could throw an arm around Ron’s shoulder. “Ron!” he cried. “You should have told us!” “We would have gotten you a different Christmas present!” George said. “Something you could have put to better use,” Fred added. “We have a new line of handcuffs out–” “They’re easily disguised as bracelets, in case anyone asks.” “You know, like mum for example.” Harry snickered at the look on Ron’s face. Hermione just pressed her hands to her cheeks and muttered, “Oh my /God/.” Draco offered them the plate. “Cookie?” Hermione merely glared at him, but Harry took one. “These are the ones you made?” “Yes,” Draco said. “And they’re delicious.” He gave Harry a look, as though daring him to say otherwise. Harry rolled his eyes and didn’t comment as he bit into the cookie, but as he looked around the room – at Fred and George still teasing Ron, at Hermione as she huffed and apparently decided to just

ignore everyone and start decorating the tree, then to Draco who seemed far too pleased with himself – Harry thought it tasted perfect. *** When Christmas morning dawned, Harry found himself wedged between Fred and George on the sofa, watching with poorly concealed amusement as Draco bewilderedly unwrapped a lumpy looking package that could only be a Weasley sweater. “I think the world went topsy-turvy when we weren’t looking,” Fred said to George over Harry’s head. George nodded. “/Never/ thought I’d see Malfoy in one of those.” “No offense,” Fred added quickly, which Harry took to mean that /someone/ had told them about whatever the hell it was that was going on between him and Draco. He glowered briefly in Ron’s direction, and then sighed. “None taken,” he said. “I never thought I’d see it either.” Draco was staring down at the knitted garment in his hands, looking an odd mixture of touched and slightly horrified that he’d actually have to wear the thing. It was a deep navy blue, which Harry thought would suit him but also seemed like a weird color choice until Mrs.

Weasley spoke up. “I was going to make you one in green,” she said. “For Slytherin, of course. But that’s the color I’ve always made for Harry, and I didn’t think you two would appreciate matching.” George elbowed Harry in the side, leaning down to whisper, “Oh, I don’t think you two would mind all that much.” And seriously, Harry was going to kill Ron. He supposed this was some sort of payback for Draco outing Ron and Hermione to the twins, but why did he have to get caught up in the middle of it? He scowled, crossing his arms over his chest, and Fred and George snickered. “It’s lovely,” Draco said, smoothing the jumper out and showing off the silver-threaded capital D. “You really didn’t have to make me one, but thank you.” “Oh, nonsense,” Mrs. Weasley said, beaming at him. “It’s Christmas, and you looked like you could use something warm to wear, anyway.” She kept smiling at him until Draco caved and tugged the sweater on over his head, which promptly made his hair stick up everywhere. “It /is/ warm,” Draco said, and when he looked up this time there was a small smile on his face. “Thanks again, Mrs. Weasley.” “That’s a nice color on you, Draco,” Hermione said, from

where she was curled up in one of the large armchairs with Ron. “/Every/ color is nice on me, Hermione,” Draco said loftily. Hermione just rolled her eyes in response. Fred and George got up to hand out their own presents, and Ginny took the opportunity to slide onto the couch beside Harry. “I need to talk to you,” she said softly. Harry could only blink at her for a moment, because this was the first time she’d spoken to him since the incident a couple days ago. “Now?” he asked, and then could have hexed himself as a pinched look came over Ginny’s face. “I mean – now is fine, of course,” he amended quickly. “What is it?” Ginny took a steadying breath, looking away from Harry to watch what Fred and George were doing instead. “I wanted to apologize,” she said. “Oh…” Harry shifted uncomfortably. “No, Ginny, it’s not your fault–” “Just let me talk,” Ginny said brusquely. “I know I might have seemed – silly. Like I was chasing after a schoolgirl’s dream. But I think maybe it’s finally sunk in that the dream is over and we’re not going to get back together.” Harry started to protest, but she held up a hand to stop

him. “Am I wrong?” “…No,” Harry admitted awkwardly. Ginny nodded once. “Then don’t interrupt.” She turned toward him, searching his face for a moment. “…I really did like you, Harry.” “I liked you, too,” Harry said, but Ginny shook her head. “Maybe you did. But you also broke up with me.” She tucked some hair behind her ear, lowering her eyes. “I kept hoping it would only be temporary. I thought if I kept showing you I was interested – that I /wanted/ to be with you…” She gave a humorless little laugh. “Maybe it was naïve, but I thought I just had to keep you from forgetting about me.” Unintentionally, Harry caught Draco’s eye across the room. Draco was frowning at him, but he quickly looked away and started talking to George – who seemed somewhat startled to suddenly be sucked into a conversation with him – when he noticed Harry had caught him staring. Harry blew upward at his fringe and rubbed the back of his neck. “I could never forget about you,” he said, and when Ginny kept her gaze pinned to the couch cushion between them, Harry reached out to run his fingers lightly through her hair. “Look at you,” he said. “You’re

beautiful. You’re funny. You’re smart and you’re /strong/. Any bloke would be lucky to have you. /I/ was lucky.” “Damn straight you were,” Ginny said, a light smirk on her lips when she raised her head. Then she sighed. “I guess I’m just not sure where we went wrong. I don’t understand what happened.” “It’s…” Harry chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. “You were something of a fantasy to me, I think,” he finally settled on saying. “Everything I thought I needed. I had a great time with you,” he said hastily, lest Ginny thought otherwise. “Never doubt that. When I said we should break up this year, I /was/ expecting it to be a temporary thing. I imagined us growing old together, you know. Having kids and a house – all of it. And I think that was the problem. I got a bit blinded by all my dreams.” Harry let his eyes roam around the room, his gaze lingering briefly on the Christmas tree and its twinkling lights before bouncing to each different family member, soaking up the warmth and comfort they always managed to exude when they were together, even in the middle of a war. “This is what I’ve always wanted,” he said softly. “What I never had growing up. I think, somehow, that I thought I could have it permanently if I was with you.”

Ginny was silent for awhile, watching him, and then she huffed. “You’re such a daft git, Harry Potter,” she said. Harry gaped at her, but she plowed on, “As if you would ever /not/ be welcome in this family. You don’t need me for that.” “Well – maybe not,” Harry said, his eyes wide and startled at her reaction. “But it’s what I thought I wanted.” “But you thought wrong.” “I – I suppose so.” “You don’t want me,” Ginny said, and it wasn’t a question. Harry shook his head anyway. “Not as such,” he said hesitantly. “You’re more like a sister to me – you’re like Hermione, actually.” He blinked, surprised at the truth of the statement. “…At least, that’s how I feel now. I’m not really sure when it changed.” “You should have just /said/.” “I didn’t know!” Harry exclaimed. He shot a quick look around the room, but luckily no one seemed to be paying any attention to his outburst. Except maybe for Draco, who was still watching them out of the corner of his eye like he really thought Harry wasn’t going to notice. “Like I said, I /liked/ being with you. But it was almost – I don’t know.” He let out a frustrated breath. “There was a part of me that

always kept you at arm’s length, I think. It’s like I was afraid to get /too/ close. And everything with Voldemort…I just didn’t want you /involved/. I broke it off with you the second that had to become my main focus, but really – I think it was just an excuse.” Harry paused. “…I was a horrid boyfriend, wasn’t I?” he said sheepishly. Ginny held her finger and thumb very close together. “Just a smidge,” she said, but she was smiling. It wasn’t her usual smile; there was something sad behind it. But it was still a smile, and that was promising. “I’ve only just sort of clued in on a lot of this,” Harry said, relaxing back against the couch cushions. It was actually a relief to get this off his chest. “I realized that maybe what I need /isn’t/ something typical. Maybe it’s just – completely different. And totally unexpected.” His eyes drifted toward Draco again, and this time Ginny turned to see what he was looking at. “…Yes, I sort of knew that was coming,” she said slowly, and Harry’s heart skipped a beat as he snapped his head back around to look at her. “I could tell there was something going on with you two, even as early as the summer. This might sound awful, but it felt like he was moving in on my territory.” She gave a bitter laugh. “Which possibly is why I got

a bit desperate. It’s definitely why I was so short with him the other day. It’s like he’s taken my place – but then I guess it was a place I never really /had/ to begin with.” Ginny laughed again, but Harry noticed with some alarm that her voice was starting to sound thick in that way it did when girls were close to tears. “I’m jealous,” she admitted. “Of /him/.” “Did someone say something to you?” Harry asked, his voice going a bit high-pitched and nervous. “Hermione warned me when she talked to me yesterday,” Ginny said. “But I wasn’t all that surprised.” “Oh.” Harry rubbed his neck again. “I really am sorry,” he said. “This turned into such a mess. I should have been clearer with you in the beginning.” “You were very clear,” Ginny said. “I just didn’t want to let you go. I’m stubborn like that.” She pulled her feet up onto the couch suddenly, and then lifted Harry’s arm out of the way so she could tuck herself against his side. Harry hesitated only for a second before resting his arm back down around her shoulder and holding her close. “I’m sorry, too,” she whispered. “For not listening.” She waited a beat, and then added wryly, “And for apparently turning you queer.”

Harry nearly choked on his own spit. “You didn’t–!” Then Ginny’s smirk caught up to him and he scowled. “Cheeky bint,” he murmured, pinching her arm. Ginny laughed again, and for the first time it actually sounded genuine. “That’s going to be my claim to fame, Potter, so you’d best get used to hearing it.” “Wonderful,” Harry grumbled, but he was grinning, too. It faded when he looked back across the room, however, because Draco had disappeared. *** Remus and Tonks turned up again on New Year’s Eve, and they brought with them the surprising news that Tonks was pregnant. Harry grinned and congratulated them with everyone else, but somewhere in the back of his head he couldn’t help thinking it was slightly unfair that all these other people could get so much shagging in when he couldn’t even manage to get Draco to bloody /talk/ to him. He’d been avoiding Harry since Christmas, and Harry had bypassed being sympathetic toward him at all in favor of thinking he was being a ridiculous prat. Harry could guess why he was mad, after all. He knew

what it must have looked like when he and Ginny were sitting together on the couch. But every time Draco stormed out of the room as soon as Harry entered, he could feel his patience growing thinner. “He’s really getting on my last nerve,” he said to Ron, as the girls gathered around Tonks to pester her with questions. They were standing in the entranceway to the sitting room, purposely blocking the way out as Harry watched Draco talk to George – /again/ – over by the Christmas tree. Something hot and angry welled up in his chest, an unfortunately familiar feeling that he thought had gone away after last year. Since when was George this friendly with Draco, anyway? Ron noticed him scowling and raised an eyebrow. “What is it that’s got his wand in a knot?” “Oh, I’m sure he’s mad I had the gall to touch Ginny the other day,” Harry said, rolling his eyes so hard it almost hurt. “God forbid we stay friends. And of course, being the tosser that he is, he won’t even let me /attempt/ to explain.” “Well, you knew that going in,” Ron said. “That he was a tosser.” He looked amused at the entire situation, which Harry very much didn’t appreciate. “I must be out of my mind,” Harry muttered. “We’re already

having stupid fights and we’re not even /together/.” “You’ve /always/ had stupid fights, mate. That’s what you /do/.” “Yeah, but normally I don’t care!” Harry exclaimed. “This is – he won’t even /look/ at me, for God’s sake.” “So he’s a bit high maintenance,” Ron said, and Harry immediately scoffed. “A /bit/? Understatement of the century, that is.” Ron shrugged. “You’ll work it out. If not tonight, then when Ginny goes back to Hogwarts. He might finally get off his high horse at that point.” “Not bloody likely,” Harry said, and then he frowned. “Wait, tonight?” Ron gave him a faintly exasperated look. “Well, yeah. New Year’s Eve, you know? I’m planning on snogging the hell out of Hermione at midnight.” Harry’s eyes went wide. “Oh,” he said. “/Oh/. Right! Merlin, I nearly forgot.” “I have no idea what you would do without me,” Ron said, grinning. “Yeah, that makes two of us,” Harry returned. Ron laughed, before a slightly worried look washed over his face.

“…Hermione looks a little too excited over there,” he said. “Let me go grab her before she starts getting /ideas/.” He left Harry standing alone, but Remus joined him not long after. “Happy New Year, Harry,” he said, smiling and looking more content than Harry had seen him in a long time. “Did you have a good Christmas?” “It wasn’t bad,” Harry replied, which wasn’t /entirely/ true, but he didn’t really feel like having to explain the entire Draco situation. To be honest, he wasn’t sure how well it would go over. “How was yours? You were with – Tonks’ mum, right?” Remus nodded. “Andromeda,” he said, with a glance in Draco’s direction. “His mother’s sister.” “Did they take the news well?” Harry asked. “As well as could be expected,” Remus said, suddenly looking a bit sheepish. “Given that we’re – not married. Andromeda may not be your typical Pureblood, but there are still some beliefs she firmly stands by. And her husband, Ted – well. Tonks is his only daughter, so you can imagine…” Harry chuckled, not needing any further explanation than that. He could easily picture what Mr. Weasley would do when Ginny turned

up pregnant one day. The thought made him pale a bit, and he was suddenly very glad he and Ginny had never made it that far. “Well, congratulations again,” Harry said. “It’s brilliant, really. When is she due?” “Around Easter,” Remus said. “Which means she’s to stay put until then, which she’s not happy about.” “Yes, I’ve noticed they don’t like being told what to do,” Harry said dryly, gesturing in Tonks’ direction. She was sitting with Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, while Hermione still hovered nearby despite Ron’s attempts to drag her away. “It’s a lesson all men must learn the hard way, I fear,” Remus said. “Nonetheless, as long as it’s my son she’s carrying she’ll stay well out of harm’s way. Or, at the very least,” he amended, his tone shifting towards exasperation, “she won’t go seek it out. No Order business until the spring.” “…Your son,” Harry repeated, his eyes widening a bit. “It’s a boy, then?” A warm smile spread across Remus’ face. “It is,” he said. “And actually, we were wondering if – if you would be his godfather, Harry.” Harry’s jaw dropped. “Really,” he said with a laugh. “You’re

serious? You want me to be the baby’s godfather?” “We’d be honored,” Remus said. “/I’d/ be honored,” Harry exclaimed. “Remus – yes, of course! Absolutely, I’d love to!” Remus reached out and gave Harry’s shoulder a squeeze. “Wonderful,” he said, and then playfully added, “Talk to me again in a few months and we’ll discuss you being my best man.” “Another wedding?” Harry asked, grinning. “Eventually,” Remus said. “Probably after all this is over.” Harry shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re going to be a dad.” “Me neither. The last time I held a baby was when /you/ were still in nappies.” “…Thanks for that,” Harry said, flushing a dull red, and Remus chuckled. “You were a handful,” he said, and then paused. “…/Quite/ a handful, actually. I’m not sure I want to think about that.” “Oh, go on, Remus,” Harry said, amused now. “It’s only a few months of screaming and wailing. Or ten years, if he’s anything like my cousin.” Remus shuddered. “Heaven forbid.” He stepped away from

the door. “I think I’ll take my leave now, before you plant any other worries in my head.” “That’s what I’m here for,” Harry quipped. “Don’t get too smart,” Remus said, smirking a bit. “As his godfather, we’re allowed to pawn him off onto you when we need a good night’s sleep.” Harry laughed, and Remus winked at him before going over to stand beside Tonks. He absently placed a hand on the small of her back, and Harry watched as she leaned into him without even seeming to realize it. It was the same sort of casual, unconscious touching that Ron and Hermione did constantly these days. Touches that spoke of trust and familiarity. Of comfort. Of – /more/. It was the kind of touch Harry wanted to have with someone. With sudden determination, Harry looked around until he found Draco standing off to the side of the room, and their eyes met briefly. Harry wasn’t surprised Draco had been watching him – he was always watching him, Harry realized, and had probably been doing so for months. Watching and waiting for Harry to stop being so bloody /thick/. Draco’s eyes widened at the look on Harry’s face and he immediately started searching for an escape route. And since Draco taking off would

kind of ruin Harry’s plans for the evening, he was very much unwilling to let that happen. He stepped further into the room, thinking maybe he could corner Draco, except that turned out to be a mistake because Harry was promptly waylaid by Hermione throwing herself at him, and now the doorway was wide open. “Happy New Year!” Hermione said, her arms around Harry’s neck as she pressed a kiss to his cheek. Harry was momentarily distracted as he automatically returned the hug. “Same to you,” he said absently, glancing over her shoulder and trying to find a certain blonde head amongst all the ginger ones. Hermione pulled back and frowned at him. “Is something wrong?” “What? No – sorry – man on a mission, Hermione,” Harry said, growing frustrated. “Bloody hell, where did he go?” “Oh!” Hermione said, understanding dawning in her eyes. She gave him a shove back towards the door, and Harry turned around just in time to see Draco slip out. “Don’t let me keep you, then. Go!” Harry shot her a grin as he took off. “Brilliant – thanks, Hermione!” He made it out into the hallway as Draco was climbing up the stairs, and quickly started after him. “Malfoy!” he called. “Wait, hold on!”

Draco turned around at the top of the stairs and glared furiously down at Harry. “You don’t have to explain anything to me,” he spat. “I get it, alright?” “No, you don’t,’ Harry said, pausing a few steps below him. “You don’t get it at all. If you would just let me–” “Look,” Draco interrupted. “I really don’t feel like dealing with you right now, Potter. You can bother me tomorrow, but right now just – turn around. Go back to your perfect little girlfriend and her stupid perfect family and a have a bunch of perfect bespectacled, ginger babies. /I don’t care/.” He spun around and stomped down the hall, leaving Harry to scramble after him. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he said, catching up so that he could grab Draco’s arm. “/Malfoy/. Just stop for one bloody second!” “/What/?” Draco snapped, yanking his arm from Harry’s grip and facing him again. “Merlin, Potter, you’re so – I /don’t/ want to talk to you, don’t you get that?! This is–” He cut himself off, his face pink and his chest heaving as his breathing sped up. “I had thought–” And then he scowled and shook his head, before digging his hands back into his hair. “This is /embarrassing/,” he finally ground out. “I keep doing this, I

keep thinking you might – but you /don’t/. And that’s – fine. Whatever, I’ll deal with it, but I just – I can’t look at you right now without feeling…” He leaned back against the wall, letting one hand fall to his side while the other slid down over his face and rubbed at his eyes. “Like shit,” he finished hoarsely. Harry’s hands twitched and he ached to reach out to Draco, but he crossed his arms tightly over his chest instead. “Are you done?” he asked, and Draco whipped his hand away from his face to give Harry a livid, incredulous look. “Yes,” he said shortly, and didn’t seem to notice when Harry took a step closer. “So sorry, was I taking up too much of the Chosen One’s time? For fuck’s sake, Potter…” Draco shifted, and all of a sudden he just seemed to wilt as he dragged his palm over his face again. “What do you /want/?” This time, Harry had his answer ready. “/You/,” he said. Draco’s eyes shot up to meet his, wide and confused, and Harry closed the distance between them until they were standing chest-to-chest. “You stupid, daft, stubborn, /impossible/ Slytherin.” Draco’s hand lowered, hovering hesitantly over Harry’s shoulder as the anger cleared slowly from his face. Something like hope

sparked in his eyes, and Harry’s stomach did a funny sort of flip. “…That’s not an insult,” Draco said, somewhat shakily, and Harry let out a relieved breath and gave him a faint grin. “Says you,” he replied, and then he moved forward, hands reaching out to cup Draco’s face as he drew him close and kissed him square on the mouth. Draco’s mouth opened beneath Harry’s in a gasp, his hand coming down to clutch at the front of Harry’s shirt. There was the briefest moment of uncertainty on his end, a single second that seemed to stretch into hours while Harry’s heart pounded in his chest as he waited for Draco to respond, to kiss him back, to do /something/. And then Draco made a desperate sound in the back of his throat and surged up against Harry, using his grip on his shirt to pull him closer at the same time. He tilted his head to the side a bit, kissing Harry for all he was worth, and brilliant warmth shot through Harry. It filled him up and consumed him whole as he finally let every last doubt and worry fall away so he could just focus on /Draco/. On his scent and on the feel of his hair as it slid between Harry’s fingers. On this kiss. On getting even /closer/ to him. “…I’m confused,” Draco panted, his breath ghosting over

Harry’s lips as he pulled back just slightly. “I thought you and the Weaselette–” “You thought wrong,” Harry interrupted, and he couldn’t even be bothered to tell Draco not to call her that as he dove in for another kiss. Draco returned it for a moment, and then pulled back again. “It looked like you were getting back together.” “…No,” Harry said, sighing and resting his forehead against Draco’s. “That was us finalizing the break-up.” When Draco remained quiet, Harry cracked an eye open to peer at him, only to find him looking completely skeptical. “That was you breaking up,” he repeated. “Really?” “Yeah,” Harry said, frowning slightly. “Why?” “You were cuddling!” Draco said, as though this should have been obvious. “You were sitting on the couch together and you had an arm around her and you were /cuddling/. That was a /break-up/?” Harry cleared his throat awkwardly and went a bit shiftyeyed. “Er…yeah.” Draco stared at him. “…You lot are so /backwards/,” he said. “You’re mad, every single one of you. I don’t know how I put up with /any/ of you.”

“You put up with us by snogging me,” Harry said, which didn’t really make any sense but he was well past caring. He leaned forward again and Draco met him eagerly, his eyes sliding shut– Except they popped right back open almost immediately as he pulled back /again/, and Harry had to bite back a groan. “You /are/ snogging me, aren’t you?” Draco said. He sounded like he had just realized this. Harry snorted. “Well spotted,” he said. “I can do it again, in case you were uncertain.” “Oh, shut up,” Draco said. “Don’t go getting cocky.” He met Harry’s eyes. “You’ve just broken up with your girlfriend for good. And you’re kissing me.” “…That about sums it up,” Harry said with a grin. “I’ve been wanting to for /days/, but you’ve been acting like an absolute prat.” Draco’s cheeks went pink, but he did his best to pretend they hadn’t and just turned up his nose. “You might have tried a little harder.” Harry could only laugh in response. He lowered his hands from Draco’s face and wrapped his arms around his waist instead. “I suppose I could have,” he said, as Draco circled his own arms around Harry’s neck. “You put up with my idiocy for long enough.”

“It’s true, I did,” Draco said, tugging Harry closer. “I deserve an award, frankly. An Order of Merlin. First class, I think.” He didn’t give Harry a chance to reply, which Harry was perfectly fine with. Kissing was really much better than talking, anyway. A loud cheer suddenly came up through the floor below them. Harry and Draco broke apart again, both of them breathing heavily. “Midnight,” Draco murmured. “Should we – I guess you want to go back downstairs and celebrate?” “No,” Harry breathed. “I’m good. What I want…” He slid his palm over Draco’s hip, and then let his fingers slip beneath the bottom of Draco’s sweater. “Is for this to come off.” Draco gave him a slow smirk. “And suddenly you’re all impatient. I don’t really think you have the right to be, Potter. And besides, I like my Weasley jumper. Maybe I don’t want to take it off.” Harry blinked at him, and then leaned back to get a better look at what he was wearing. “…I honestly didn’t think you’d ever put that on again,” he said, laughing and wondering how he’d missed the large D on Draco’s chest. Draco lifted his chin. “It’s /comfortable/,” he said defensively. “I

might just keep it on forever, in fact.” “Hey, none of that now,” Harry said. He stepped in close again, pressing his fingers against Draco’s skin just above the waistband of his trousers. “It’s not as though I haven’t seen you without a shirt on before.” “Oh, I’m hardly worried about /that/,” Draco said, rolling his eyes. “I just don’t see why I should make this easy for you.” Another loud cheer rose up from beneath them, and Draco glanced back toward the stairs. “…We’re still out in the hallway,” he murmured. “Come on.” He pulled Harry down the hall to his bedroom, keeping a loose grip on his wrist the whole time. Harry briefly wondered what it would be like to actually hold hands with another boy, but Draco was pushing him into the room and shutting the door firmly behind them before he had a chance to find out. “You don’t think anyone’s going to come looking for you?” Draco asked, unceremoniously pulling his sweater over his head and dumping it on a nearby chair. Harry’s eyes went a little wide, but it turned out Draco was wearing another t-shirt underneath. He snorted at the look on Harry’s face. “Don’t get excited, Potter. Those just really /are/ very warm.”

“You’re going to be a horrid tease about all this, aren’t you?” Harry asked, just a touch exasperated. Draco grinned. “For tonight, at least.” Harry rolled his eyes skyward. “Would it help if I got on my knees and begged for your forgiveness?” “…Well, I don’t know about the begging part,” Draco said after a beat. “But I like the idea of you being on your knees.” Harry opened his mouth to reply, but then the implication of what Draco was saying caught up to him and his cheeks flushed a deep red. Draco laughed. “Oh, for – /breathe/, Potter, I’m only kidding. Merlin, your face.” “Shut up,” Harry grumbled, curling a hand around one of the posts of Draco’s bed and resting against it. “It’s just – that’s a bit beyond me. At the moment. For now.” Draco moved closer, letting his hands press against Harry’s abdomen as he leaned into him. “We can work up to it,” he said, giving Harry a quick kiss. “It’s not your fault you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” “I’m sorry, and where’s the line of blokes /you’ve/ been going down on?” Harry asked dryly, lifting an eyebrow.

“Well!” Draco said, ignoring the question. “This will be fun. Lots of awkward, clueless shagging. Be still my heart.” “Honestly, all I got out of that was /lots of shagging/,” Harry said, grinning. He stepped forward until Draco was forced to sit down on the bed. “And /that/ I’m perfectly okay with.” “I always knew you were a pervert, Potter,” Draco said, as Harry planted one knee on the bed alongside Draco’s hip. Harry attempted a leer, but the look Draco gave him told him he’d failed miserably and he ruined it further by laughing. “The others won’t be looking for us, you know,” he said, belatedly answering Draco’s question from earlier. “Hermione saw us leave.” Draco blinked. “So?” He leaned back on his hands, looking up at Harry, and then his eyes went wide. “Wait, does she /know/?” “…Of course she knows,” Harry said. “She’s /Hermione/.” He gave Draco a look. “Besides, you told /Ron/.” “I can’t be blamed for that,” Draco said quickly. “I was drunk. The words /your hand down my pants/ just came spewing out before I could stop them, I swear!” “/Regardless/,” Harry said, resolving to pretend he hadn’t just heard

that. “You told Ron, he told Hermione, Hermione told Ginny – oh, and Ron also told the twins. So yeah. They all know.” The corner of his mouth quirked upward. “/Thanks/.” “I’ll consider that my good deed of the year, then,” Draco said. “Now you don’t have to suffer through the painfully embarrassing act of telling them yourself.” “…The year only just started about five minutes ago, Malfoy.” “Well, mother always taught me not to procrastinate.” “And I still have to suffer through them taking the mickey out of me.” “Oh, Potter,” Draco said, tugging on the front of Harry’s shirt. “They would have found a reason to do that without my help.” Fair enough, Harry thought, as he pushed Draco down onto the bed and quickly found his mouth again. Draco arched up against him with a soft groan, and then he squirmed around until he was able to scoot farther up the bed to lie against the pillows. Harry moved with him, unwilling to stop kissing him even as he clumsily kicked off his trainers. He braced himself on his forearm, his other hand palming Draco’s hip, and when Draco’s lips parted to let him in everything instantly became /a thousand times better/ and more heated and intense and

Harry never, ever wanted these feelings to end. If any of the others were going to tease him because he’d snuck away for /this/… He let his hand slide around to the small of Draco’s back, grinning against his mouth when Draco made a very content sound. …Well, it was fucking worth it. Chapter 25 Harry spent the next couple of days split between floating along in a blissful haze and being annoyed at everyone in the house. …It was an odd combination. Being with Draco was turning out to be something of a revelation. For whatever reason, there was still some small part of Harry that was waiting for the rest of him to catch up and be appalled by the fact that he was snogging a boy. He didn’t know where this deepseated unease stemmed from – he assumed Uncle Vernon had probably said something at /some/ point that had stuck, or maybe it was just all of the Dursleys’ attitudes in general towards people who didn’t fit their very specific cookie cutter mold – but the distaste never materialized and each day Harry found himself able to ignore that nagging worry a little

better. Because a much more rational part of Harry knew there was no reason it /should/ bother him. It didn’t feel weird, and it certainly didn’t put him off – quite the contrary, actually, because Harry had never found himself actively searching for excuses to grab private time with someone else so often. Even when he’d been with Ginny, there was usually the thought lurking in the back of his mind that she was /Ron’s sister/ and he would know what they were up to if they disappeared for too long. It hadn’t stopped them, of course, but it had limited how long Harry was willing to whisk her away for. With Draco, Harry didn’t care if they spent hours locked in one of their rooms. Both Ron and Hermione knew what they were doing, and more importantly, /they didn’t care/. If anything, they encouraged it, and it was shocking how /freeing/ the whole thing was. If his best friends didn’t mind that he was dating – and he was still hesitant to even refer to it as such – not only another male, but one who had actively bullied them for a solid six years and who had, for the longest time, had an opposing viewpoint on damn near /everything/, then did it really matter how the rest of the world would take it? One of the bigger problems he was having was actually the

timing of it all. Ginny wasn’t due back at Hogwarts for another two weeks, and Fred and George were still hanging around, too, since Charlie had turned up two days into the New Year for a surprise visit. That, on top of Remus and Tonks being back – and with Tonks not really being allowed out of the house anymore in her condition – meant that Grimmauld Place was full to the brim with people. And /that/ meant that whenever Harry stepped outside of his room he was quick to run into someone, and oftentimes they would have a knowing grin on their face that tended to set him on edge. It was a vicious cycle, really. Harry would leave Draco feeling ridiculously giddy, only to have his mood turn sour when he ventured out into the rest of the crowded house. And then he would immediately feel bad, because these people were his family and most of them had nowhere else to go. They were all so bloody /supportive/ that he didn’t feel he had the right to be irritated at any of them – especially the adults, who hadn’t even been told about the new developments between him and Draco yet. And in addition to all that, there was the Voldemort issue. The one pesky little problem that refused to go away. The amount of people at Grimmauld Place continued to make it difficult

to get together with Ron and Hermione to discuss their next move. Although, Harry had to admit, he hadn’t exactly been trying too hard to make it happen, since Draco kept him thoroughly distracted. But, as the days passed, something like an itch grew steadily in the back of his mind. He couldn’t keep putting it off, he /knew/ that. He was pretty certain evil didn’t typically take extended holidays. It was adding additional guilt to Harry’s already emotionally full plate, and also making him feel anxious, which basically meant that his mood was constantly bouncing all over the place lately and he was pretty sure that soon he was going to snap and yell at someone if they so much as asked him to pass the salt at dinner. “What’s got you all tense, Potter?” Draco asked, peering at him from where he had his face buried in the crook of his elbow. They were lounging on Harry’s bed, Draco on his stomach and Harry with his arms crossed loosely over his chest, his fingers tapping restlessly against his biceps. “I’m not tense,” Harry said, frowning up at the ceiling. “Liar.” Draco propped himself up with his arm, looking Harry over. “You’re brooding about /something/. You’ve got that look on your face.”

“What /look/?” Harry asked, exasperated. “I’m telling you, I’m fine.” Draco pointed. “/That/ look. That sort of constipated, on the verge of exploding thing you’ve got going on.” Harry scowled and grabbed at Draco’s hand. “I was just – thinking,” he said, turning Draco’s hand over in his own. The eerie blackness had spread from his fingers, slowly overtaking the rest of his palm and the back of his hand. Harry’s stomach twisted as he looked at it. “…So, brooding,” Draco said after a moment, watching their hands. “Like I said.” He’d gone a bit tense himself, though whether it was because of the attention to his curse or just because of the way Harry was touching him, Harry wasn’t sure. They hit little bumps like this every so often, which Harry didn’t really find surprising. No matter how far they’d come in the past few months, trying to be intimate in a way that didn’t involve mashing their faces together was still going to take some work. They could handle the kissing, but getting Draco to open up more? Not always an easy task, and it probably didn’t help that Harry could be just as much of a brick wall at times. He’d never been very good at relationships to begin with, and this one was new on /so/ many different levels… It felt like there was a

lot they were still getting used to. “I was just /thinking/,” Harry said pointedly, “I have no idea what our next move is and we should really start figuring it out.” Draco groaned and dropped his head back down to his pillow. “Do we have to?” he asked, voice slightly muffled. He turned so he could look at Harry. “I was quite content pretending that fucker had buggered off all on his own.” Harry grinned and intertwined his fingers with Draco’s, which made Draco go a bit pink and stare at their hands again. “We can’t lounge about like lazy arses forever.” “Sure we can,” Draco said. He shifted until he was lying on his back, using his grip on Harry’s hand to pull him closer. “Anyway, we aren’t being lazy. In fact, my tongue has been getting quite a workout these past few days.” Harry moved with him, throwing his leg over Draco’s hips and pinning their still interlocked hands to the bed above Draco’s head. “Meanwhile, the rest of you is getting pudgy,” he said, using his free hand to poke Draco in the stomach. Draco gave him an affronted look. “I am /not/,” he said, narrowing his eyes when Harry’s grin only widened. “And if I am, it’s your fault. You’re the one who’s

been forcing me to live with these people. I can’t help it if /everything/ Weasley’s mum makes is good. If you put decent food in front of me, I’m going to eat it!” “As well you should,” Harry said. “You know I’m only joking.” His smile faded. “…If anything, you’re actually too skinny.” Draco rolled his eyes. “Too fat, too thin – Merlin, you’re picky.” “I’m serious, Malfoy,” Harry said, tightening his fingers around Draco’s. “You’re starting to look like you did back in the summer.” “I’m /fine/,” Draco insisted. “Shut up and kiss me before you worry yourself to death.” Harry wanted to protest, but he found himself leaning down to capture Draco’s mouth instead. It was an easier course of action, which didn’t mean it was /right/, but he knew that if Draco didn’t want to talk about it, then he wouldn’t. Harry thought maybe it was time to get in contact with Snape again, even though he was pretty sure Snape would have told them if he had managed to come up with any sort of antidote or cure. Draco pulled back and frowned at him. “You’re distracted,” he said. “I think I’m a little offended.”

Harry snorted and buried his face against the curve of Draco’s neck. “Sorry,” he said, sounding amused. “I keep thinking about other things.” “Well, quit it,” Draco groused. “It’s way too soon for you to be getting bored with me, Potter – we haven’t even had any more hand in pants action yet!” Harry’s cheeks went warm and he pulled back a little so he could look Draco in the eye. “That’s not necessarily /my/ fault,” he said. “I don’t know what’s stopping you.” Draco shifted his gaze off to the side. “I wasn’t sure it was on the table,” he said, and then he looked back at Harry with raised eyebrows. “And I don’t know what’s stopping /you/, either.” Neither did Harry, to be honest. He didn’t know if he was intentionally holding back, or if there was some other reason they hadn’t gotten that far yet. They’d done it /before/, after all, rushed and weird as it had been. And it wasn’t like he didn’t want to. He didn’t balk at the thought of it – in fact, picturing it actually made his trousers suddenly seem tighter, and he squirmed a bit. The movement caused Draco’s eyes to widen. He swallowed, flexing his

hips upward, and Harry’s breath immediately caught in his throat. They stared at each other. And then several pairs of footsteps went thundering past in the hallway, loud voices clamoring over one another, and Harry’s concentration was immediately diverted as he shot a glare at the door. Right. Maybe that had something to do with it. Draco let out a noisy breath. “I’m not sure you’re aware, Potter, but as wizards, we have this thing called a /wand/.” Harry glanced back at Draco, brow furrowing slightly as he tried to figure out if that was some kind of euphemism. Draco smirked. “/No/,” he said, apparently reading Harry’s mind. “Your actual wand. And with it we can cast these handy bits of magic called /spells/. Spells can do really useful things, you see. Like /lock doors/.” “They aren’t about to come barging in on us,” Harry said. “That isn’t the problem.” A vaguely sheepish look settled on his face. “It’s just that they’re /here/. I can’t really imagine doing – /that/ – with eight thousand other people in the house.” “Or just eight,” Draco said. “That’s still a lot! …And it isn’t eight, it’s more like – /ten/.”

Draco lifted an unimpressed eyebrow. “I think the real problem is that you’ve suddenly gone all bashful on me.” “Shut it, you prat, I have not,” Harry said, trying not to sound too defensive because it was entirely likely that /was/ also part of the problem. He sat up, releasing Draco’s hand and grabbing the front of his shirt instead so that he could pull him into a sitting position as well. “Now come on, we have things to do. There’ll be time for hands in pants and all that later.” “We’re probably just going to interrupt Weasley and Hermione,” Draco said, as Harry climbed off him and paused on the edge of the bed so he could straighten out his clothes. “I bet they’re doing exactly what /we/ should be doing.” “They’ve had three days to snog themselves silly,” Harry said. He looked back at Draco, who was still sitting on the bed, and rolled his eyes. “/Up/, Malfoy, let’s go!” Draco grumbled, but he eventually pushed himself up and followed Harry out of the room. “I don’t see why we can’t do this tomorrow,” he complained, as they headed downstairs. “Unless you already have some genius master plan – which I /highly/ doubt – we should use tonight to brainstorm. And /then/ meet up with the others.”

Harry paused several steps below Draco and turned around to look up at him. “Brainstorm,” he repeated, grinning. “/Right/.” “I can’t help it if I’m a healthy seventeen-year-old,” Draco said. He propped his hands on his hips and lifted his chin a bit. “I have /needs/, Potter.” “Yeah, well, they’ve waited this long.” Harry climbed back up a couple steps until he was only one below Draco, and then reached out to curl his hand around Draco’s wrist. “Once Voldemort is gone–” “/Wait/,” Draco said loudly. “I don’t like where that sentence is going.” Harry chuckled and pushed up onto his toes, craning his head back so he could plant a quick kiss on Draco’s lips. “Just trying to motivate you,” he murmured amusedly against his mouth. Draco let out a very put-upon sigh. “You are /horrid/,” he said, and then he kissed Harry again. Harry just grinned again and took a step back, letting his hand slide down to clasp Draco’s. “I try,” he quipped. “Come on.” Draco silently let himself be tugged along until they reached the landing, at which point they both let go of each other, and by the time they rounded the corner to the sitting room there was about

a foot of space between them. Harry frowned slightly as he noticed this. It wasn’t like they needed to /hide/, after all. He was halfway contemplating reaching for Draco’s hand again, but a voice broke through his concentration before he could. “Afternoon, gents!” George greeted, looking up from where he was bent over a table with Fred, various sweets and the like spread out in front of them. Harry wasn’t sure he wanted to know what exactly they were working on. Fred looked up, as well, a smirk on his face. “Out for your daily five minutes of socializing, are you?” “Please,” Draco said with a scoff. “It was at least ten minutes yesterday.” “Have you seen Ron or Hermione?” Harry asked. “Hermione’s with Ginny somewhere,” Fred replied. “Think she felt bad for her.” He directed a sort of pointed look at Harry, which quickly disappeared when George smacked him on the shoulder. “Ignore this one,” George said, taking his own advice and paying zero attention to the scowl Fred sent his way. “It’s not you two–” “Not /just/ you two,” Fred cut in. George rolled his eyes. “Seems like Ron actually knows how

to keep a lady occupied,” he said, sounding amused. “Hermione finally told him to bugger off so she and Ginny could gab and braid each other’s hair and paint their nails and do…other mysterious girly things, I’m sure. Gin was just feeling a bit lonely, is all.” Harry shifted uncomfortably, and Fred finally took pity on him. “No worries, Harry,” he said, looking back down at whatever he was working on. “She’d have been lonely even if you weren’t shagging Malfoy. You’ve got other stuff going on.” “We’re not /shagging/,” Harry said in exasperation, his face coloring. “Not yet, anyway,” Draco added, and Harry shot him a quick glare. Draco ignored him. “Where’s Weasley, then?” he asked the twins. George raised an eyebrow. “Right here.” “And here,” said Fred. “There’s probably at least one of us in the kitchen.” “And I think dad’s upstairs.” “Not sure where Charlie is–” “He’s probably one of the Weasleys in the kitchen.” “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Draco pinched the bridge of his nose. “Where’s /Ron/, you twits.”

“I’m here,” Ron said, as he stepped into the room. He was carrying a plate full of sandwiches, one of which he was currently stuffing into his mouth, and there were several glasses bobbing along in the air behind him. “Thought you’d gone into hibernation for the winter?” he said to Harry in a teasing tone. Harry scowled while Draco cracked a grin. “Potter’s hero complex got the better of him. It’s time to start doing you know what.” “You still call him that?” Ron asked curiously, taking another bite out of his sandwich. “Even after…?” Draco shrugged. “It’s his name.” Ron looked doubtful, but he didn’t say anything more about it as he handed the plate off to his brothers. Then he brightened. “This means we’ll need Hermione!” “Merlin’s pants, man,” George said. “You can’t even go an hour without seeing her.” “I can so!” Ron said defensively. “…I just don’t /like/ to.” Fred and George glanced at each other with identical smirks, and then suddenly there was a loud /crack/ and Charlie appeared in the middle of the room. “Hey all!” he said cheerfully. “Oh, sandwiches – /excellent/.”

He grabbed one off the plate, thoroughly ignoring the squawks of disapproval the other three Weasleys gave. “What are you blokes up to?” “We’re /trying/ to eat,” Ron said, but Charlie just quirked an eyebrow at the sandwich he was still holding from earlier and the tips of Ron’s ears went red. “…This one doesn’t count. It’s a pre-lunch snack.” Charlie barked out a laugh and clapped him on the shoulder. “There’s a healthy appetite. Hope Hermione’s up for keeping you in shape.” “Oh, I don’t think they’re going to have any problems there,” George said slyly. Ron groaned and shot a dark look at Draco. “Have I mentioned yet that I hate you?” “Not recently.” Draco grinned. “Besides, fair’s fair.” “That doesn’t even make any sense – /you/ spilled the beans on us first!” Draco waved him off. “Details,” he said haughtily. Harry rolled his eyes at the lot of them. “I’m getting something to drink,” he said, turning on his heel and heading for the kitchen. “Ron, Malfoy – you coming?” Ron frowned. “There are drinks here,” he started to say, but

Draco gave him an exasperated look and he caught on quickly enough. “Oh – I mean. Right. Coming.” Of course, Mrs. Weasley and Tonks were in the kitchen. “Back for more already?” Mrs. Weasley asked. She moved toward the fridge before Ron could even answer, and he made a muffled sound of protest and held up the sandwich he was still eating. Mrs. Weasley frowned. “…Oh,” she said, absently wringing her hands. “That’s a no, then.” “Wotcher, Harry, Draco,” Tonks said. “Have you seen Remus around? He was supposed to be back by now.” “No,” Harry said, his brow furrowing a bit. “Where did he go?” “He and Arthur went to meet up with Kingsley,” Mrs. Weasley replied. She looked worried, but was clearly trying to hide it. Harry frowned, wondering what was going on. “He said he had news,” Tonks said. She was sitting on a stool by the counter, her knees bouncing restlessly up and down. “But he left out the part about whether it was good or bad.” “Do you think it has to do with the Ministry?” Harry asked. Tonks scowled. “If it does, then he should have just told all of us.” She rested her hands protectively against her stomach

without even seeming to realize she was doing so. “I hate being left in the dark,” she muttered. Mrs. Weasley glanced around, searching for a distraction, and her eyes landed on Draco. “You’re looking a bit peaky, dear – are you sure I can’t fix you something to eat?” “We can’t right now,” Harry answered for him, already turning and trying to herd Ron and Draco out of the kitchen. “But thank you, Mrs. Weasley!” Finding privacy anywhere else in the house seemed to be a lost cause, so instead they headed back upstairs to drag Hermione away from Ginny. Once they’d locked themselves in Harry’s room, Ron let out a forlorn sigh and eyed the door almost wistfully. “Back to this, then,” he said. “We can’t go on holiday forever,” Harry said, already starting to feel annoyance creep up on him again. “We still have Horcruxes to find, not to mention we have to start preparing for the possibility that Voldemort is going to attack Hogwarts.” Hermione nodded as she settled onto the bed. “Did you send the map to Neville?” “Yeah.” Harry took a seat at the desk. “And I let McGonagall

know, too.” “Good,” Hermione said. “We can’t be everywhere and do everything at once; I think delegating responsibilities is the smart thing to do.” “What about the Order?” Ron asked, as he sat beside Hermione. Harry frowned, leaning forward in his chair and resting his chin on his folded hands. “We’ll tell Remus before we leave,” he said, and the other three looked at him sharply. “Leave?” Ron repeated blankly. “Leave for – /where/?” Harry took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. “I’m not sure yet,” he said. “But we can’t stay here.” “Harry,” Hermione started to say, clearly at a loss. Ron turned to face Draco. “Did you know about this?” “No,” Draco said, and he sounded none too pleased about it. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall on the other side of the bed. “This is the first he’s mentioned it.” “Haven’t been doing much talking the past few days, eh?” Ron said with a smirk. Hermione smacked him on the shoulder, and Harry felt his face go warm. “Apparently not,” Draco muttered.

“It’s not like I didn’t tell you on purpose,” Harry said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I’ve just…been thinking about it. Quietly. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea.” “And you decided it is?” Hermione asked. “When you know Draco can’t go anywhere that isn’t protected?” Draco looked faintly alarmed suddenly. “Wait, you’re not planning on leaving me here, are you?” “No!” Harry said quickly. “Jesus, Malfoy – of course not. I just. We need more /space/.” “But Grimmauld Place is huge,” Hermione said, her brow furrowing. “Yeah, and it’s also housing loads of people,” Harry snapped. Hermione blinked at him, startled at his sudden shift in demeanor, and Ron’s face went carefully blank. Harry instantly felt guilty. “…Sorry,” he mumbled, rubbing a hand over the bridge of his nose. Then he sighed. “Look, it’s not that I don’t want them here. I’m happy to give everyone a place to go, but we can’t work like this! It’s too crowded, we can’t talk freely, and – and it’d be nice if we could have a place to meet up with Snape.” He let his gaze drift over to Draco at that point, noticing that his eyes had widened a bit.

Hermione glanced back and forth between the two of them, and then she nodded. “Where do you want to go?” Harry hesitated. “…I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t know where we /can/ go.” “What about your relatives?” Ron spoke up. “It’s not…/ideal/, but would they let you use their house?” “/Not ideal/ is an understatement,” Draco said. “And didn’t Potter lose whatever protection he had there when he turned seventeen?” “We’ll probably need a Secret Keeper no matter where we go,” Harry said. “But…I don’t really fancy going back to that place, no.” Hermione opened her mouth to say something, but then she paused. “What about…” she said slowly, before frowning and hesitating again. Ron bumped his shoulder against hers. “What have you got?” he asked. “…I was thinking we might be able to use /my/ house,” Hermione finally said. “My parents are there, but it might be time to… convince them to go on holiday. For awhile.” “Why couldn’t they stay?” Ron asked. “I’ve only barely met your parents; I feel like I should introduce myself again.” “What, and tell her dad you’re shagging his daughter?”

Draco said, sounding amused. “…Well, not in so many words,” Ron muttered, while Hermione’s face went pink. She sent Draco a dark look, but he just grinned cheekily at her. “The less they know about what we’re doing, the better,” she said after a moment. “And if we’re going to stay hidden, it’d probably be best if they aren’t always leaving the house and such.” Harry rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t want to kick your parents out of their own home, Hermione,” he said. Hermione waved him off. “To be honest, I’ve wanted them to get them out of the country for awhile now. At least until all this is over.” “How do you expect to convince them they have to go?” Ron asked. “There are ways,” Hermione said shiftily, looking down at the bedspread and plucking at it nervously. “Memory charms, or…” She glanced at Draco again, who seemed to understand right away. “That’s less risky, to be honest,” he said. “/Illegal/, mind, but at least it’s easy to undo.” “Wait,” Harry said, catching on. “Wait, you aren’t thinking of–?” Hermione shrugged, looking at the bedspread again, and all

at once, Ron sucked in a breath. “/Hermione/,” he said. “You can’t use the Imperius on them! They’re your /parents/. And you don’t want to have that spell on your wand; if anyone ever finds out that you used it–” “I can do it,” Draco interrupted. Ron and Harry blinked at him, and an embarrassed look washed over his face. “…Sorry, that sounded a bit too eager,” he mumbled. “I just meant – I’ve done it before, you all know that. I can keep people under it for as long as I need to. They could still go about their lives just fine, I’d only need to tell them to go to – France. Or wherever you decide. Feed them some bollocks story and be done with it. They’ll never know the difference.” Hermione looked slightly worried, but she nodded nonetheless. “And then we can use the house,” she said. “You just need to pick someone to be the Secret Keeper.” Harry fidgeted a bit, chewing on his lower lip. Then he sighed. “Hermione, I can’t ask you to do that,” he said. “We’ll find somewhere else.” “We don’t have /time/ to find somewhere else,” Hermione insisted. “It’s like you said, we have Hogwarts to worry about now, in addition to the Horcruxes and the situation with the Ministry. And you’re right, there

are too many people here and we’re distracted, /all/ of us. It’ll be good to have a place just for the four of us, where we can focus and get things /done/ without having to worry about everyone else in the house possibly overhearing.” There was a knock on the door suddenly, which only seemed to emphasize Hermione’s point. /Timing/, Harry thought, as he got up to answer it. “Just think about it,” Hermione said. “We can make a decision after dinner.” Harry nodded and gave her a small smile, and then he pulled open the door to find Remus on the other side. “You’re back,” he said. He tried to look over Remus’ shoulder to see if there was anyone else in the hallway. “Does Tonks know you’re here?” “She does,” Remus said tiredly, and Harry looked at him again. He seemed to have aged years in a matter of hours, which couldn’t possibly be a good thing. Harry’s grip on the door tightened as apprehension crept in. “What’s wrong?” he asked quickly. “They said you were meeting up with Kingsley.” Remus nodded. “Can I talk to you for a moment?” Harry’s brow furrowed. He glanced back at the others and made a vague

‘stay here’ sort of gesture, before stepping out into the hall and shutting the door behind him. “What is it?” “Ted Tonks has been taken,” Remus said, not wasting any time in getting to the point. “That’s Tonks’ – Dora’s – father. He left for work yesterday and never turned up. Hasn’t been heard from since.” Harry drew in a slow breath. “Do they think…?” “Death Eaters,” Remus said, nodding. “Word must have gotten out that we were there. I imagine they took him in for – questioning.” He frowned and dragged a hand over his face. “We shouldn’t have gone there for Christmas. We knew it would be risky, but… She wanted to tell them about the baby.” “It’s not your fault,” Harry said. “What about – Andromeda, right?” “We’re going to bring her here,” Remus said, before backtracking and giving Harry a somewhat awkward look. “If…that’s alright, that is.” “Of course it is,” Harry said instantly. “I’d never turn anyone away.” Which was how he had gotten himself into this situation in the first place, but regardless… He shoved his hands into his pockets and stared at the floor, suddenly unable to meet Remus’ eyes. “We’re actually going to be taking off soon,” he mumbled.

Remus seemed to hear him just fine anyway, and he sighed. “I was afraid of that,” he murmured. “Thought it might be coming. Too many people here, right?” “It’s not that,” Harry lied. He looked up when Remus chuckled. “You’re a terrible liar, Harry,” he said. “Same as James was.” Harry cracked a reluctant grin. “We just need somewhere a little more private,” he admitted. “It’s hard to get our plans in order here.” “I understand,” Remus said. “Though, I’m sorry to push you out of your own house.” Harry shook his head. “Sirius meant for it to be used for the Order.” “But it’s still yours now.” Remus clasped Harry on the shoulder, and then pulled him in for a one-armed hug. “Might be a good idea to get out while you can,” he said. “Molly’s a wreck; she thinks the twins could become targets now, as well. Their shop is one of the few still open in Diagon Alley, and with Arthur being a…person of interest, shall we say – they could very well try to kidnap them for interrogation purposes, too.” “So they’re also going to move in permanently?”

“I’d say it’s very likely.” Harry pulled back and looked up at Remus. “You know we can’t tell you where we’re going.” “I had a feeling,” Remus said wryly. “I don’t like it, but I understand.” He paused, and then added, “And I’ll make sure Molly does, too.” “Thanks,” Harry said, with a smile that was really more of a grimace. “Can’t imagine she’ll be too thrilled.” “She’s just worried about her children, that’s all.” “I know… Remus, I have to tell you something. Something the Order should know, but I don’t want everyone panicking over it yet.” “Oh dear,” Remus said. “What’s happening now?” Harry told him about the map of Hogwarts that Wormtail was working on, and what he thought Voldemort’s next move was going to be. Remus’ mouth tightened at the mention of his old friend, a hard look entering his eyes. He didn’t ask any questions about where Harry had seen such a thing, for which Harry was grateful. It would be kind of hard to explain that they’d gone traipsing through one of Voldemort’s hideaways looking for his giant snake that had to be killed for reasons he wasn’t allowed to say either.

When he finished, Remus promised to let the rest of the Order know. “Except for Molly,” he said. “I’ll let Arthur break it to her. She won’t want Ginny going back, otherwise.” “That’s what I’m worried about,” Harry said. “And Hogwarts is probably an even safer place to be than Grimmauld Place. Plus, Ginny’s talented. She was in Dumbledore’s Army, just like the rest of us. If something happens, it’ll be a good thing that she’s there to help.” Some part of Harry suddenly felt like he was playing a giant game of chess, not unlike Ron had back in their first year. It was like he was getting all of his pieces in the right place, preparing for a checkmate, and Voldemort was the black queen on the other side of the board. …And wasn’t /that/ an interesting mental picture? Once Remus had disappeared down the hallway, Harry went back into his room and was immediately met with three expectant faces. “Start packing up,” he said. “We’re heading out tomorrow.” *** The following evening, Harry found himself with his arm hooked around Hermione’s as they Apparated into her old bedroom. He glanced around when they appeared, vaguely thinking that the room was slightly

more…/girly/ than he would have expected, with its pale pink curtains and matching bedspread. Then his eyes landed on the desk in the corner and the overflowing bookshelf next to it, and the corners of his mouth curved upward in a fond smile. “Alright, Harry, here’s the thing,” Hermione said brusquely, taking quick steps over to the door and making sure no one had heard them come in. “Mum and dad – they don’t actually know that I haven’t been at Hogwarts this year.” Harry blinked. “You didn’t tell them?” “Of course not!” Hermione said, turning to face him and propping her hands on her hips. “They would never understand. I’ve only told them a little about what’s going on – I don’t want them to worry.” “They’re your parents, Hermione, it’s their job to worry.” “I know, I know.” She sighed. “It just seemed – easier. Anyway, they know we’re on break now but I told them I’d be at the Weasleys’ for the holiday. We’ll just tell them there was a change of plans.” She opened the door again, gesturing for Harry to follow her. “You have a nice house,” he commented lightly, as they headed down the stairs. “Thank you,” Hermione said, smiling at him over her

shoulder. “There’s a guest bedroom across the hall from mine. You and Draco can stay in there.” She paused. “That is…if you’re comfortable with that.” She looked embarrassed suddenly, like she thought she was assuming too much. “I’m sorry, I know it’s only been a few days, I just thought – I mean, you’ve shared before–” “Hermione,” Harry interrupted, sounding amused. “It’s fine; sharing won’t be a problem.” He grinned. “Are you going to share with Ron, then?” “I suppose,” Hermione said, as they reached the first floor. She flushed slightly, but also looked pleased at the thought. “We’re going to sidestep that particular detail with my parents, though. Mum! Dad! Are you here?” “Hermione? Is that you?” a voice called out from further down the hall, and then Hermione’s mum poked her head around the corner from what looked to be the kitchen. “It is! Darling, what are you doing here?” She rushed out, wiping her hands on her apron before pulling Hermione into a tight hug. Harry recognized her from the few times she had come with Hermione to Diagon Alley, but he had never really spoken to her before. She looked like Hermione, though, and he could immediately see where Hermione had gotten her bushy hair from.

“I missed you!” Hermione said. “So I thought we’d drop by for a quick visit before classes start up again.” “We?” Mrs. Granger looked over Hermione’s shoulder, catching sight of Harry standing awkwardly a few feet away. “Oh! Goodness me, I didn’t even see you there, Harry. It /is/ Harry, isn’t it? You’d think I’d know one of my own daughter’s best friends. Where’s there other one – Ronald, right? Weren’t you staying with his family again?” “Slow down, mum, one question at a time,” Hermione said, laughing. She pulled back and waved Harry forward. “Yes, this is Harry. Ron’s coming by later, along with another friend of ours you haven’t met yet – he’s not in our house at Hogwarts, but we’ve all spent a lot of time together this year so we’ve finally gotten to know him better. I was hoping we could all stay here for a few days.” Mrs. Granger gave Hermione a knowing look. “You and three boys, hm?” she said, and Hermione rolled her eyes. “/Mum/, it’s not a big deal. We have the guest room, we can stick two people in there.” “Which two?” Mrs. Granger asked, crossing her arms and getting that familiar I’m-your-mother-and-you-can’t-fool-me-so-treadlightly look

that Mrs. Weasley had perfected. Hermione let out an exasperated breath. “Harry will stay in my room, alright?” Mrs. Granger turned her /look/ onto Harry, and he quickly backed up a step and waved his hands in front of him. “Don’t worry, I won’t – I mean, I wouldn’t /do/ anything. We’re not – I have – that is–” “Leave it, mum,” Hermione said, coming to his rescue. “He has a boyfriend and I’m dating /Ron/, remember? I know I told you about that!” Harry felt his cheeks go brilliantly hot. “/Hermione/,” he hissed, as his brain tripped over the – the /word/ she had used and tried to make sense of it. Boyfriend. She’d just referred to Draco Malfoy as his /boyfriend/. Which, okay, maybe he was. But. /Weird/. Hermione sent him a brief apologetic look and then pushed a hand back into her hair in exasperation. “/Honestly/. I’m eighteen, you’d think it’d be okay for me to have someone spend the night.” Mrs. Granger laughed suddenly, a wide smile breaking out over her face as she drew Hermione in and kissed her forehead. “You’re right, of

course, darling. You always are. I forget you’re all grown up now. Can’t help thinking you’re still my little girl. Ronald will have to stay in the guest bedroom, I can’t imagine your father would be okay with anything else, but I’m fine with Harry staying in your room.” She glanced across at Harry. “The other gentleman coming – is he the one you’re seeing?” “Er.” Harry swallowed and resisted the urge to fan his still burning face. “Y-yeah…” He rubbed at the back of his neck and had to look away from Hermione’s amused grin before he gave into the urge to throttle her. “His name’s Draco,” he said, trying to sound more confident about the whole thing. Mrs. Granger hadn’t even blinked an eye at the fact that he had a – boyfriend. So she must not mind. “Draco. Lovely! Well, I’m looking forward to meeting him,” Mrs. Granger said cheerfully. “The name sounds familiar, actually. You must have mentioned him before, Hermione.” “…Well, we sort of compete for best marks,” Hermione said, and Harry couldn’t help snorting. Hermione ignored him. “Where’s dad?” “Still at work,” Mrs. Granger said, with an exasperated sigh. “He had to take an emergency patient. Some poor child took a football to the face

this afternoon! Knocked three of his teeth right out. I was just putting his dinner away so he could have it later. Can I get you anything? How are your classes going, love?” “We’re fine, we already ate,” Hermione said, taking a seat at the kitchen table. “We’re not staying long – I just wanted to let you know I was bringing people over before we all suddenly showed up on the doorstep.” “Well, that was thoughtful,” Mrs. Granger said. She went back over to the sink, picking up where she must have left off before they showed up. “As if I would’ve turned you away /without/ the warning.” “One can never be too sure,” Hermione quipped. “And my classes are going well. They’re challenging, of course, but that’s to be expected given it’s our final year.” Harry would’ve been surprised at how smoothly the lie rolled off her tongue, but he’d learned a long time ago that she could easily channel her inner Slytherin when needed. He moved to sit across from Hermione at the table, when something outside the window caught his eye. At first he wasn’t sure what it was he saw, but as he kept looking he could only just make out a figure standing by the lamppost across the street. Whoever it was wasn’t standing directly in the lamp’s light, they were

off to the side a bit, almost as if they were trying to keep slightly hidden. Harry narrowed his eyes. “What is it?” Hermione asked, having noticed the way he’d abruptly gone still in the middle of the room. “Harry? Is there something out there?” “Some/one/,” Harry replied, taking a wary step closer to the window. Mrs. Granger leaned back from the sink, craning her head so she could get a look, too. “It’s probably just Judy Cumberbatch from next door. She usually walks her dogs in the evening.” Harry shook his head. “They’re not walking, they’re just – standing.” Although, whoever it was, they did seem to be wearing some kind of a dress. But the frame of the person seemed too large to be a woman. And – maybe that wasn’t a dress. Actually, the more Harry looked, he thought it could possibly be– Abruptly, Harry ducked out of view of the window and slid into a seat at the table instead. “They’re wearing robes,” he said to Hermione under his breath. “Hermione, I think it’s a Death Eater. I think they’re watching your house.” Hermione reached for her wand, looking startled, but Harry quickly shook his head. “Don’t,” he said. “They

can’t know we’re here. They’re probably just watching in case we /do/ show up.” “Who is it?” Mrs. Granger asked. “Friend of yours?” “…Not quite, mum,” Hermione said in a shaky voice, before visibly steeling herself. “Harry and I have to go. But we’ll be back in a bit. /Don’t leave/, okay? And when dad gets home, just stay in the sitting room. Don’t go outside.” Mrs. Granger’s eyes went wide, and she turned all the way around so she could give them her full attention. “…This is serious?” she asked, her gaze darting back and forth between the two of them before settling on her daughter. “Hermione–” She paused, taking a deep breath. “This has to do with that one – wizard,” she guessed. “The one who you said came back.” Hermione nodded and Mrs. Granger glanced at Harry, her eyes focusing on his forehead for a moment before she looked away. “Alright, well you’d better go,” she said. “Get your friends and come back. I’ll wait for your father. Are you – you’re not going to fight that person out there, are you?” “No,” Hermione said. Her voice was starting to sound unsteady again. “No, we’re going to put up a – a protection charm around the house when

we get back. The Fidelius Charm. It’ll make it so no one can find us…” She trailed off, looking down at the table. “You and dad will be fine, though,” she said abruptly. “So don’t worry.” Mrs. Granger looked like she was going to say something, but Hermione stood up before she could and tugged at Harry’s arm. “Let’s go. We need to get the others.” They went back out into the hallway so they could Apparate away from the view of the window, and they ended up back in Harry’s room at Grimmauld Place where Ron, Draco, and Charlie were waiting for them. All three of them noticeably relaxed when Harry and Hermione appeared. “There’s a Death Eater outside her house,” Harry said, forgoing any other greeting. “They must be stationing people around trying to find us.” Ron stood and reached for Hermione’s arm, pulling her close to him. “What – how do they know her address?” he asked, his eyes wide. “The Ministry,” Hermione and Charlie answered at the same time. “They keep a record of all current Hogwarts students – /especially/ anyone who’s Muggle-born,” Draco added. “Since they don’t have your birth records or anything before you start going to school in our world.”

Hermione nodded. “And with Voldemort having control of the Ministry…” Ron sighed, rubbing a hand up and down Hermione’s arm. “Are your parents alright?” “They’re fine,” Hermione said. “But I don’t want to stay away for long.” She looked at Charlie. “You’re sure you don’t mind being the Secret Keeper?” “On the contrary,” Charlie said. “I’m honored you’d even ask. I promise, I know how to keep my mouth shut.” He winked at her. “Especially around mum.” Hermione gave him a faint grin. “Alright, then let’s head back. Harry, we’ll come get you and Draco as soon as it’s safe for him to be there.” “Okay,” Harry said, nodding. “Good luck.” He watched as they Disapparated, and then turned to Draco. “So,” Draco said. “Death Eaters?” “Just the one.” Harry sat down on the bed, letting out a long breath. “And it was dark, so it’s possible it wasn’t – but I’m pretty certain. It was definitely someone wearing Wizarding robes, and they were lurking about being all shifty and the like.” “Guess it makes sense,” Draco said. “Given what we know

about Nymphadora’s father.” Harry grinned a bit. “Don’t let her hear you using that name.” Then it faded and he fell backwards onto the bed with a loud sigh. “He wants to find us because he knows what we’re after now,” he said. “He’ll try to make his way through everyone in the Order if he thinks one of them will give us up.” “But you don’t think any of them will?” Draco took a step closer to Harry, frowning slightly. “I mean – Charlie Weasley? He seems kind of…” “Like a random choice?” Harry supplied. Draco nodded, and Harry continued, “That was kind of the point. You don’t want to be obvious.” “That can backfire on you, though,” Draco said. Harry thought of Wormtail and frowned. “I know. But we’ll be okay.” Draco didn’t look as though he really believed that, but he didn’t say anything. A moment passed, and then abruptly he moved forward, all but falling on top of Harry on the bed. “They’ll be gone awhile setting up the Fidelius Charm,” he said, throwing one leg on either side of Harry’s thighs. “We could–” “Uh, /no/,” Harry said, even as his hands came up to rest on

Draco’s hips. “No, we couldn’t. What if something happens and they have to come back sooner than planned?” “Then they’ll get an eyeful, won’t they?” Draco said, right before his mouth crashed down onto Harry’s and promptly knocked any further protests from his mind. Harry’s lips parted beneath the other boy’s eagerly, and he groaned low in his throat as Draco’s tongue swept into his mouth. His grip on Draco’s hips tightened, fingers digging into the denim of the trousers he was wearing. The stray thought floated through Harry’s mind that they weren’t actually Draco’s jeans at all – that he was wearing some of /Harry’s/ clothes, and for some reason, even though it wasn’t anything unusual by this point, that fact set a fire burning in Harry’s gut and made him press up harder into the kiss. Draco pulled back from him just long enough to suck in a breath, his eyes opening partway so he could look at Harry. Harry stared back for a moment, their mouths still close enough that their lips kept brushing against each other, and then Draco dove back in, slower this time, making the kiss long and leisurely, drawing it out until Harry’s toes were curling in his shoes and he thought his brain might actually short-circuit.

“Wait, wait,” Harry gasped, breaking away and letting his head bounce off the mattress beneath him. “Malfoy, seriously, we don’t know when they’ll be back–” “Ugh, /Potter/,” Draco groaned, burying his face against Harry’s neck for a second before sitting up so he could glare down at him instead. His face was flushed, his hair disheveled, and Harry really, /really/ just wanted to kiss him again. “You worry too much, do you know that?” Draco asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “It’s not like they don’t /know/.” “…I know,” Harry said weakly. “But that doesn’t mean…” He trailed off, not entirely sure why he’d thought it was necessary to stop when Draco looked so bloody /appealing/ like this. Shit. /Focus/. Draco huffed before Harry could get his thoughts together, and the next thing Harry knew he had climbed off and was standing on the opposite side of the room. “Look,” he said, facing the window, his arms still crossed. “If you don’t want to do this–” “Did I /say/ I didn’t want to?” Harry burst out, pushing himself into a more upright position. “Fuck, Malfoy, stop jumping to conclusions. I want to, I want /you/, that’s not–” He cut himself off,

scowling at nothing in particular. Draco turned partway toward him, giving him a wary look. “…You want me,” he repeated, and Harry made a vague gesture with his hand. “Well, /yes/,” he said, somewhat exasperated. “…I knew that,” Draco said. He faced him completely, looking slightly embarrassed. “I did. You said as much before.” He fiddled absently with his shirtsleeves for a second, and then frowned when he noticed what he was doing and went back to crossing his arms instead. “I just – have a hard time believing it,” he muttered, and something in Harry’s chest squeezed painfully. “Why wouldn’t you believe it?” he asked, standing up from the bed and taking half a step forward. “Just because I’m – /pathetic/ at this sort of thing, and – and a little awkward, I guess. Or more than a little. /Very/. That doesn’t mean–” “I don’t care how pathetic you are at it,” Draco interrupted. “Don’t – that’s not what I meant. You’re still getting used to this – we /both/ are, really. If you don’t want to rush things, then fine. I /get/ that, it’s not a problem. I just. These past few months we’ve… Well.” He paused, looking frustrated with himself for not being able to put his

thoughts into words. Harry knew the feeling all too well. “… It’s just hard to wrap my head around this whole thing,” he finally said. “I mean, we could barely sit in the same classroom together for /six years/, Potter. Six years!” Draco ran a hand through his hair, looking out the window for a moment as he continued talking. “I guess sometimes I forget we’re past all that. This almost doesn’t feel /real/.” He glanced back at Harry. “In my head, I can’t help making up reasons this isn’t going to work. It’s like I’m looking for shit that doesn’t exist. But – we’re actually fine, right? Right. We are. So.” A faint blush worked its way onto Draco’s cheeks, and he shifted uncomfortably in place. “So…it’s stupid. I’m being – you should probably just ignore me.” Harry remained silent for a moment, just watching Draco, and then he gave a soft laugh and couldn’t stop the grin that quickly formed on his face. “As if you would put up with being ignored,” he said lightly. “And anyway, I can’t do that. Next thing you know, you’ll be banging on about how I’ve kicked you to the curb or some such bollocks like that, and then where would we be?” “Somewhere with our heads buried in the sand refusing to talk about it, I’m sure,” Draco said dryly. Harry chuckled, scuffed his foot against the ground, and

then abruptly blurted, “Hermione told her mum that you’re my boyfriend.” His face flushed a bright red. “Er…you know. When she was saying you’d be coming over. That’s how she introduced you.” Draco’s nose scrunched up. “Your /boyfriend/?” “Er…yeah.” “That’s…” Draco paused, fishing around for the right words to use, and then he ended up settling on, “fucking /weird/, really.” Harry laughed again, louder this time, and felt some of the tension bleed out of his shoulders. “Right? That’s what I thought!” “I suppose it’s…well. It’s true enough, but.” “I know.” “/Boyfriend/.” “You’ll get used to it.” Draco looked at him sharply, but his face softened after a moment. “Maybe I will,” he said, and then added in a lofty tone, “And maybe I won’t. I’d hate to become predictable, Potter.” “Oh, no, we can’t have that,” Harry said, grinning. “That would be boring.” Draco grinned back at him, and for a moment they just stood there grinning goofily at each other, before the sudden

reappearance of Hermione and Charlie had them attempting to school their expressions into something less ridiculous. “Okay, we should be good to go,” Hermione said, absently brushing invisible dust off her skirt. “Draco…you’re sure this will work? I remember when we practiced the Imperius in fourth year, and…” “It’ll be fine,” Draco said. “Trust me, I’ve had enough experience with it by this point.” There was a bitter edge to his voice that made Harry move closer to stand beside him. Draco’s eyes flicked toward him briefly before he looked at Hermione again. “Memory charms are still an option, if that’s what you’d rather do. But that’s… You’re actually /changing/ very specific parts of their memory and it’s difficult to undo because you have to, you know, change it again afterwards.” He frowned. “With the Imperius, in this case, we’re just going to tell your parents to believe something and they will. We’re not actually going to change anything in their head.” Hermione pressed her hands against her cheeks, her brow furrowing as she stared at the floor. “They’re both so awful,” she murmured. “But they’ll never leave otherwise.” “It’ll be alright,” Charlie said, resting a hand on her shoulder.

“They’ll understand one day. Anyway, we should get going. I’ve seen those lines at the Muggle airports; Apparating will only get us so far and we want them to make their flight.” “Was the Death Eater still there?” Harry asked, and Hermione nodded. “There are two of them now, actually,” she said. “The other one turned up after we set up the wards and the Fidelius Charm.” She gave them a wry smile. “I suppose when they suddenly couldn’t find the house anymore, they got suspicious.” “Well, they can’t all be idiots,” Draco said. He reached down to pick up his bag, and then as an afterthought he grabbed Hermione’s, too. Charlie slung Ron’s over his shoulder, and Harry picked up his own. He hesitated for a second, and then held his hand out to Draco. “Ready?” he asked. Draco stared at him, his cheeks going a light pink even as he smirked. “You mean, am I ready to go perform illegal magic on somebody’s parents and then live in their house, which I’m assuming is going to be all Muggle, for Merlin knows how long?” Harry grinned. “Something like that, yeah.” “As if I’m going to back out now, Potter,” Draco said, and he took

Harry’s hand. Chapter 26 “Okay,” Draco said, lowering his wand from where it had been pointed directly between Mr. Granger’s eyes. “That should do it.” His hand twitched slightly, and all at once Mr. Granger seemed to reanimate, as if he’d previously been in some sort of trance. Harry and the others watched him warily as he blinked several times and then looked around at his wife. “Well, we’d probably better get going, don’t you think?” he asked, and Harry felt some of the tension disappear from his shoulders. He’d been half worried the man’s voice would seem robotic and forced, but he didn’t sound as though anything out of the ordinary was happening. “You’re right, we don’t want to miss our flight,” Mrs. Granger said. She turned and swept Hermione up in a hug, pressing a kiss to her forehead before releasing her. “Oh, but – my plants!” she said suddenly, glancing in the direction of the kitchen. “I forgot to get someone to water them!” Hermione quickly reached for her mother’s wrist to get her attention. “I’ll do it, mum, no worries.”

“Nonsense, darling, you’ll be back at school soon,” Mrs. Granger said. “I’ll just ring Judy. She’s normally the one who comes over. I’m sure she won’t mind.” “Right, of course!” Hermione said loudly. “Ms. Judy – you already asked her! Don’t you remember?” She directed a pointed look at Draco, who rolled his eyes, but the wand in his hand twitched obligingly again and the concern in Mrs. Granger’s eyes faded away. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I spoke to her this morning. Well, I suppose we’re ready, then.” She stepped up beside her husband, smiling at him in adoration. “It’s been so long since we went on holiday anywhere. I still can’t believe you planned all this without me knowing!” “I’m not sure how I managed to keep it from you, myself,” Mr. Granger said cheerfully, and also completely honestly. Ron snorted lightly, but a look from Hermione quickly shushed him. “Alright, well if you’re ready, I can take you to the airport,” Charlie spoke up, and both Mr. and Mrs. Granger blinked at him. “Er – the Wizarding way. It’ll be quicker.” “Wizarding way,” Mrs. Granger repeated. “Oh, that’ll be fun!” Harry moved closer to Charlie, tugging on his sleeve and keeping his

voice low. “When you get back to Grimmauld Place,” he started to say, noticing Ron lean in on Charlie’s other side, “tell the others they need to start putting other places under the Fidelius Charm, too. Safe houses, decoys, homes of people in the Order – anything.” Charlie nodded. “To throw the Death Eaters off the scent, right? One step ahead of you, mate. Bill and Fleur are due back from France next week; I’ve already owled him about doing just that.” “Can we get Hermione’s fireplace hooked up to the Floo network?” Ron asked. “Or is that – I guess the Ministry would know about it, huh?” “They would,” Charlie said slowly. “But we might be able to get a private network going without notifying them. I’ll look into it.” “One more thing,” Harry said, as he looked across at Draco and watched him drag a hand across his perspiration-dotted forehead. “We may need you to give someone else access here. But you can’t tell anyone who.” Charlie’s brow furrowed. “Alright…” Ron took a slight step back and seemed to be holding his breath as Harry shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Who is it?” Charlie asked. “Well…” Harry hedged. “It’s – he’s–”

“Look, unless it’s a Death Eater or something–” Charlie broke off, his jaw hanging open for a second before he let out a noisy breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “/Christ/, it’s a Death Eater, isn’t it? Merlin’s saggy tits, Harry, you’ve already got one you’re keeping around, is another really necessary?” “Malfoy doesn’t count,” Harry and Ron said simultaneously, though Ron sounded far more resigned where Harry sounded forceful. “And anyway, Dumbledore trusted this man,” Harry continued. “He’s one of the few people who can really help us. We have to be able to contact him.” “Who is it, then?” Charlie asked. “…Professor Snape…” Harry mumbled, but Charlie heard him anyway and his eyes bugged out a bit. “/Snape/ – but isn’t he the one who…?” He gestured feebly in Draco’s direction. “He killed Dumbledore for Malfoy,” Harry confirmed, nodding. “Only because Dumbledore asked him to. It’s a long story, I can tell you more later if you really want to know.” “No,” Charlie said faintly. “No, no. I’ll take your word for it. Mum reckons he’s still the Secret Keeper for Grimmauld Place, anyway.”

“He is,” Ron said helpfully. “Only a couple people are in contact with him. Moody and, uh – Dumbledore’s brother.” Charlie still looked more than a little boggled. Harry cleared his throat. “Er…you might want to get Hermione’s parents to the airport.” “Right!” Charlie said quickly, latching onto the change in topic. “Right, we should go.” He herded the Grangers away from whatever conversation they’d been having with Draco and Hermione, and grabbed the bags that had hastily been packed for them. “I’ll be in touch,” he said to Harry, as Hermione said her goodbyes one more time, and then seconds later the three of them were gone. Hermione instantly looked over at Draco. “Still alright?” Draco nodded slowly. He was a bit pale. “Still alright. Would you mind showing me where I’m sleeping? Think I need a bit of a liedown.” “I’ll take him,” Harry said, planting his palm on the center of Draco’s back, right between his shoulder blades, and directing him toward the stairs. “See you guys tomorrow.” “Night, Harry,” Hermione said softly, a worried look in her eyes as she watched Draco.

Harry led him up to their bedroom, his stomach doing a little somersault when he pushed open the door and caught sight of only one bed inside. Draco stared at it, then at Harry, and when neither one moved nor offered up any sort of explanation, he said, “Oh, are we sharing?” “Hermione’s house isn’t as big as Grimmauld Place,” Harry said, by way of explanation. His face felt warm. “Er, but I can sleep downstairs,” he added quickly. “If you want. On the couch.” Draco gave him a look that said Harry was being exactly as silly as he suddenly felt. “Why are you such a daft git?” he asked, amused. Harry shrugged helplessly. “Honestly, I wish I knew.” “It’s just sleeping in the same bed,” Draco said. “We’ve done that before.” “I know,” Harry said. He toyed absently with a loose thread on his sleeve. Draco watched him for a moment, and then abruptly he rolled his shoulders back and straightened up. “Well, I’m very tired, Potter,” he said loudly. “I think I’m going to go straight to bed, and I’ll thank you not to molest me in my sleep. Because that’s all I intend to do. /Sleep/. None of what’s rattling around in your dirty mind.” “Oh my God,” Harry said. “Yeah, okay, I think I can manage

that.” “…You could argue a /little/.” “I’m sure it’ll be very difficult,” Harry said gravely. “I might have to tie my hands behind my back.” “Or maybe above your head,” Draco mused. “You know – to the headboard.” Harry stared at him. “…And we’re clearly not there yet,” Draco muttered. A knock at the door interrupted them before Harry could even begin to form a coherent thought about all that, much less a response, and Hermione poked her head through. “Just wanted to drop off your bags,” she said, handing them to Harry. “Is the room alright?” “It’ll do,” Draco said. He absently reached out to fiddle with the light switch, and then made a startled sound when the room suddenly plunged into darkness. Quickly, he turned the lights back on. “Sorry,” he mumbled sheepishly. “Forgot it did that.” Hermione grinned a bit, but it faded after a moment. “Thank you,” she said. “For helping with my parents.” She peered at Draco. “Are you sure you’re okay?” “Yes,” Draco said shortly. When both Hermione and Harry adopted doubtful

looks, he scowled. “The spell just took more out of me than I expected it to,” he said. “Everything’s fine now, honest. The spell’s done and they’ll remain under it until I take it off. Or die.” Harry’s eyes widened in alarm, and Draco snorted. “We’ll aim for the former, of course.” “Of course,” Harry agreed, nodding fervently. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Hermione said, smiling again. “Have a good night, boys.” “Night, Hermione,” Harry said. “Yes, goodnight, Hermione,” Draco repeated politely. Then he raised his voice and added, “Try not to have too much loud sex with Weasley! Remember you have /guests/ right across the hall!” Harry heard Ron give an indignant squawk a room away, but Hermione merely gave Draco a sly little smirk. “Same goes to you two,” she said. “Might I suggest a silencing spell? They really come in very handy.” “Says the expert, I’m sure,” Draco said with a grin, while Harry proceeded to die of mortification. “/Hermione/,” he groaned. “Can you not? I like to pretend you’re still virtuous and unsullied!” “Oh, Harry, really,” Hermione said, a touch exasperated. “It’s nothing

to be embarrassed about. Sex is a very natural thing, there’s no reason to–” “Oh my God,” Draco said, reaching for the door. “Quick, shut her out before she sucks all the fun out of shagging.” He practically slammed the door shut in Hermione’s face, but they could hear her laughing as she crossed the hall to her bedroom. Harry slumped back against the wall. “My /brain/,” he groaned. “Whatever happened to their, er – /extracurricular activities/ being a topic of discussion that is /off limits/?” “I’m not sure,” Draco said. “Can we please go back to that?” He held up his wand like it was a judge’s gavel. “I hereby vote to reinstate the aforementioned rule that there shall be no discussion /whatsoever/ of anything that happens behind closed doors between one Hermione Granger and one Ronald Weasley. Members of the Wizengamot in agreement, say aye!” “Aye!” Harry said quickly, raising his own wand. “Then the vote is unanimous,” Draco declared. “This rule shall officially go into effect immediately following the closure of this trial. Which is now. Meeting adjourned!” He lowered his wand, propping his hands on his hips and lifting his chin in Harry’s direction. “There,” he said haughtily. “Problem solved.”

Harry grinned and reached out with both hands, circling them behind Draco’s neck and leaning in to kiss him. Draco made a soft, surprised sound, and he blinked owlishly at Harry when he pulled back. “You are /such/ a dork,” Harry said, and Draco’s eyes promptly went from wide to narrow. “If by /dork/ you mean sexy and incredibly suave,” he said, flicking some hair out of his face. “Sure,” Harry said. “We’ll go with that. Now come on – bed.” They changed into pajamas and climbed into bed, hitting only one minor roadblock when they both tried to claim the same side. Harry eventually caved and let Draco curl up on the right side of the mattress. Harry took the left and lied there, still as he could, for about thirty seconds, before he decided to stop being ridiculous and rolled over to sling an arm around Draco’s waist. Luckily, Draco only tensed up a little bit. “…Hello,” he murmured, resting a hand on Harry’s arm. “Getting cozy, are we?” “I like touching you,” Harry admitted to the back of Draco’s neck. “Also, I like sleeping on my side and it seemed stupid to face away from you.” “Wasn’t complaining,” Draco said. Harry felt him relax in increments,

until eventually he released a long, sleepy sigh and inched backwards in Harry’s embrace. “Just don’t fling yourself out of bed in the morning when you remember who you’re sleeping next to and we’ll be fine.” Harry snorted, his breath rustling Draco’s hair. “That was an entirely different set of circumstances,” he said, tightening his arm. His fingers brushed against warm skin and he paused for a second before pressing them closer. When Draco didn’t say anything, Harry gathered up his courage and slipped them under the thin shirt Draco wore. Suddenly, his heart was pounding. All he had to do was let his hand drop a few inches lower, really. /Right there/. There was no reason not to, and nothing to be scared of. Draco wasn’t arguing. He just needed to slide his hand beneath Draco’s pants and– Draco shifted, turning his head deeper into his pillow as he got comfortable, and then he let out a quiet little snore. Harry’s shoulders slumped. Of course. With a soft sigh, he settled in behind Draco, keeping his arm snug in place and closing his eyes.

Maybe tomorrow. *** The four of them settled into a routine over the next couple of days. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most productive of routines, and instead mostly consisted of Hermione doing her absolute best to persuade everyone to /focus already/, Ron being fascinated by every single Muggle appliance in the house that his eyes landed on, Harry attempting to pay attention to Hermione – really, /honestly/! – but instead finding himself constantly distracted by Draco, who was busy showing off his limited knowledge of Muggles by happily upstaging Ron at every turn as he pointed out what each of the aforementioned Muggle appliances were. For instance: “That’s a /mi-cro-wave/,” he said early the next morning, as Ron pushed at some of the buttons on the box-like contraption. “Potter used it to make the occasional foul meal when we were at his relatives’ house over the summer.” “The meals were already made,” Harry said. “I was just heating them up.” Draco waved him off. “Whatever, they were still foul.”

“I’m not saying they weren’t, I was just clarifying that I didn’t make–” “/Foul/, Potter!” Draco interrupted. “Absolutely awful! In fact, I can’t believe you forced me to eat them.” “You wouldn’t stop whining about how hungry you were! So I fed you, and /then/ you wouldn’t stop whining about how bad the food was!” “Excuse you, I wasn’t /whining/.” “You were definitely whining.” “I wasn’t–” “Dunno, mate, have to agree with Harry on this one,” Ron interrupted. “You’re pretty good at whinging on about nonsense things.” Harry grinned as Draco spluttered, feeling his mood lift even higher than it already was. He was feeling good this morning, which was apparently what happened when he started the day with Draco sprawled on top of him. He had woken up to blonde hair tickling at his nose that morning, and it had taken him a few seconds to remember where exactly he was; a few seconds during which he’d swatted at the offending hair and Draco had grunted sleepily at him, before Harry had finally woken up enough to realize it was another body plastered against his own.

There’d been an elbow digging into his side and the body heat Draco had been generating was almost stifling, really. It had left Harry with an urge to kick all of his covers off – except he couldn’t, because one of his legs had been trapped beneath one of Draco’s and the blankets were all twisted up between them, with one side tucked firmly beneath Draco. He’d slowly taken it all in, his lips curving upward into a small smile. He was pretty sure it was something he could get used to. “/Boys/,” Hermione said, for what had to be the fifth time. “Can you /please/ pay attention?” Ron managed to tear himself away from where he was opening and shutting the dishwater (“Muggles use that to clean their plates and such,” chimed Draco helpfully. “Because, you know, they can’t use magic.”) and finally went over to take a seat at the kitchen table. “What is this we’re looking at?” he asked, frowning down at the parchment Hermione had spread out on the table. “It’s a copy of the Marauder’s Map,” Hermione said, but then her brow furrowed slightly. “…Sort of. I made it before Harry sent the map to Neville, but it’s not exact.” She pointed at the one-eyed witch that hid

the secret passageway to Honeydukes. “Obviously it doesn’t show you all the people in the castle and it doesn’t give you passwords and such. No one would ever know this is a way out of the castle from looking at this map, for example.” At those words, Draco leaned forward and squinted at where Hermione was pointing. “How is that a way out of the castle?” “Just tap the statue and say /Dissendium/,” Ron said, grinning smugly. “It leads to Honeydukes.” “And you’ve used this?” Draco asked, his eyes flicking toward Harry. Harry shrugged. “I used it to come throw mud at you in third year,” he said, and Draco gaped at him. “/That’s/ how – and you were wearing your Invisibility Cloak – that’s why your head was floating around Hogsmeade!” “Something like that,” Harry said, his own grin turning a bit smug now. Draco scowled. “And how many of these passages out are there?” “Seven,” Harry replied. “That we know of, anyway. Some don’t work anymore.” “Have you used all the ones that /do/ work?” Harry shrugged again, but before he could answer Hermione

cut in. “That’s not important right now,” she said, sounding far past exasperated by this point. “I thought we might be able to use this to help us figure out what Voldemort’s planning to do.” “Get into Hogwarts,” Ron said. “I thought we knew that much already.” “Yes, but /why/?” Hermione said. “And how?” She uncapped a red marker, which Draco and Ron looked at curiously, and started marking X’s over all the entranceways into Hogwarts. “If he was just going to march on Hogwarts, he wouldn’t need the map. If he was going to use the secret passages in, Wormtail could probably just tell him where they are. There must be something else he needs the map for.” “Maybe he wants to know who all is in the castle?” Ron suggested. “He’ll probably need to know where everyone is when he makes his move,” Harry agreed. “This map isn’t complete,” Draco said abruptly, and they all looked at him. He pointed at where the seventh floor was. “It’s missing the Room of Hidden Things.” “The Room of Requirement,” Harry said, understanding dawning. He took the marker from Hermione and added a room where it should be on the map. “My dad didn’t know about it. It’s possible Voldemort didn’t

either – until last year.” Draco winced a bit, and Harry absently reached out to touch his arm, still talking. “He could be adding it to the map.” “They confiscated the Vanishing Cabinet from Borgin and Burkes, though,” Hermione said. “So it’s not like he could use those again to get in.” Harry frowned. “Well, then maybe he wants the room for something else.” “If he wants it at all,” Ron added. “Maybe he wants to hide something there,” Draco said. “Or…maybe he already did. Maybe that’s where the last Horcrux is.” “The shield is the last Horcrux,” Harry said, and Draco rolled his eyes. “But if it’s not,” he said. “Just…a /what if/ scenario.” Harry shook his head. “I’ve been in the Room of Requirement when it’s like that – when it’s the Room of Hidden Things. I never felt anything weird like I do when I’m around one of the other Horcruxes.” “It’s a really big room, Potter,” Draco said impatiently. “It’s possible you just didn’t get close enough. And it’s called that for a reason – there’s no better place to stow something you don’t want other people to find!”

“So, what, is he trying to get it back?” Harry asked. “That doesn’t make sense!” “Actually, it kind of does,” Hermione said softly. “If there’s something there – /if/¬ – well, he knows what you’re doing now, doesn’t he? He knows what you’re after. So…” “…I don’t know,” Harry said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “It just – doesn’t sound right. There’s got to be something else he’s trying to do.” “Do you think you can charm the map to have it show other things besides people?” Ron asked. “Maybe he’s looking for something else entirely.” “Like what?” Hermione said, and Ron shrugged. “Could be anything – just look at what we’ve come across there in the past six years. The philosopher’s stone, the Mirror of Erised, and you can’t forget the Chamber of Secrets – that’s also not on the map. There could be any number of things he wants from Hogwarts.” The room went quiet for a moment. Harry sighed and pushed his hand back into his hair, wishing not for the first time that this could all just be over. Hermione got up to make herself some more tea, letting in an owl that was flapping outside the kitchen window while she was at it.

“That’s a coffee machine,” Draco said out of nowhere, when Ron stared for too long at the complicated looking thing sitting on the counter. Ron scowled at him. “Harry,” Hermione said suddenly. She was holding the copy of the Daily Prophet that had just been delivered, scanning one of the articles. “Do you think maybe we should just ask Professor Snape what Voldemort’s plan is?” Harry blinked. “…That would probably save us a lot of trouble, yeah. That is, if he knows.” “I’ve a feeling he does,” Hermione said, and she turned the paper around so they could see the article she was reading. “Because he’s just been made the new headmaster.” “Of /Hogwarts/?” Ron exclaimed, as Harry grabbed the newspaper from Hermione. “How – he’s supposed to be in hiding! He’s a /wanted man/.” “Not anymore,” Harry said, reading quickly. “Apparently /new evidence/ came to light over winter break.” He made a disgusted sound and passed the paper off to Draco. “Your dad got a mention,” he said, and Draco snatched it out of his hands before Harry had even finished his sentence. “What /evidence/?” Ron asked.

“They’ve pinned Dumbledore’s murder on Draco,” Hermione said. “And since there were…no witnesses present,” she glanced at Harry as she said this, “they’re saying Professor Snape showed up at the Ministry to submit his memories for viewing.” Ron groaned. “The bloody /Ministry/,” he said, and Hermione nodded. “Harry’s been painted as a pathological liar again,” she continued. “And they’re saying Professor Snape showed up on the tower to /stop/ Draco.” “Only he was too late,” Draco said, scowling down at the paper. “This is such rubbish!” “It’s ridiculous, is what it is,” Hermione said viciously. “There’s no explanation for why Professor Snape stayed quiet for so long, there’s no reasoning behind him becoming headmaster – people are just supposed to blindly believe all of this! And they /will/, because everyone’s too afraid to question /anything/ right now!” She sat down heavily in one of the chairs at the table, arms crossed tightly over her chest and her lips pursed. Harry and Ron shared a look, but didn’t say anything. It was best not to when Hermione got riled up like that. “They’ve made my father a /professor/?” Draco suddenly squawked. Ron’s

eyebrows shot up, and Hermione huffed. “Defence Against the Dark Arts,” she said in a singsong kind of voice, and then muttered, “/Unbelievable/.” “But – /why/?” Draco said. “I thought for sure – I mean, after what he did – I was positive he was /dead/. And now he’s…/teaching/? This means he’s in on whatever the plan is, right? I don’t – it doesn’t make any sense!” “I don’t understand it either,” Harry said, frustrated. “I’ve no idea what’s going on.” “I think we need to owl Professor Snape,” Hermione said. “You wanted to get in contact with him anyway. We’ll set up a meeting. Charlie will allow him access here, and we’ll see what he can tell us.” “Sounds good to me,” Ron said, leaning back in his chair and craning his head in an attempt to see into the living room. “So, are we done for now? Hermione, can I…?” He gestured toward the door, and Hermione waved him off with a sigh. “Just go,” she said tiredly, and Ron was out of his chair not two seconds later. Draco fidgeted for a second, looking back and forth between the Daily Prophet, Harry, and the direction Ron had gone, and then he succumbed to curiosity and set the paper down on

the table before slipping out to follow the other boy. Hermione looked at Harry with a small, amused smile. “He’s gone to eye up my dad’s new video games, I guarantee it,” she said. “Dad was showing him a bit before you two got here.” Harry snorted, and from the other room they heard Draco say, “That’s a /tele-vis-ion/, Weasley. The Muggles use it to–” “For fuck’s sake, Malfoy, I /know/ what a bloody telly is!” Harry and Hermione looked at each other again and laughed. *** A few days later, Harry found Hermione opening and closing the cabinets in the kitchen as if she thought their contents might change each time the door shut. He watched her for a moment, and then when she opened the same cabinet for the third time, he had to speak up. “…Are you looking for something?” Hermione whipped around to face him, her cheeks coloring slightly. “No, I was just–” She walked over to the fridge this time, sighing as she eyed the nearly empty shelves inside. “We need to go shopping, is all.” “Is…that a problem?” Harry asked slowly, and Hermione gave him a faintly annoyed look.

“Have /you/ got a lot of money readily available?” she asked. Harry opened his mouth to answer, and Hermione held up a hand before he could. “/Muggle/ money,” she clarified. “We can’t exactly stroll up to Gringotts to exchange our Galleons.” “Oh,” Harry said sheepishly. “Well, in that case – no.” Hermione sighed again. “I suppose we’ll just have to use my mum’s emergency credit card.” She headed into the living room where Ron and Draco were staring, enthralled, at the television. Harry couldn’t help but snicker at the display as he followed her. Draco had done his best to ignore the telly when they were at the Dursleys’ that summer, but here, now, after he’d finally let his shields down around them, he clearly didn’t have any problems letting his curiosity show. “Come on, Harry, you need to come with me,” Hermione was saying, opening the closet by the front door and pulling out her coat. Harry blinked at her. “I do?” he asked, as Hermione reached up and started searching around for something on one of the shelves. “Go where?” Ron spoke up, swiveling his head around to look at the two of them. “The store,” Hermione replied. She pulled down a wallet that

Harry guessed contained the aforementioned credit card. “And yes. I’m not going by myself, and those two obviously can’t come.” “Why not?” Ron asked, pouting a bit. “Why can’t I go to the Muggle store?” “You’d spend too much time ogling everything and we need to be discreet,” Hermione said. She picked up a pair of car keys, eyeing them thoughtfully. Harry’s eyes widened a bit. “You can drive?” “I got my license over the summer,” Hermione said, as Ron straightened up even further and leaned over the back of the couch. “I’m coming,” he said determinedly. “I won’t stare at anything, I /promise/. Can I drive?” “/No/,” Harry and Hermione said simultaneously, and Ron scowled at the two of them. “I’m a good driver!” “Didn’t you crash a car into the Whomping Willow second year?” Draco asked, finally tearing his eyes away from the television to lift an eyebrow at Ron. “That was /years/ ago,” Ron said, though his face suddenly flamed up at the memory. “And I was driving it just fine before that

happened! Wasn’t I, Harry?” “…Er.” Harry coughed, averting his eyes. “You – that is. Well...” He trailed off and shrugged, and Ron let out a big /harrumph/ and spun back around in his seat, slouching down against the cushions and crossing his arms over his chest. Hermione rolled her eyes a bit. “I’m sorry, Ron, but we have to be quick about it and Harry’s already familiar with Muggles and everything! Anyway, we’re not going to drive. The car would be too obvious.” She put the keys down and instead hooked her arm through Harry’s. “We’ll just have to Apparate. Are you ready? “I – suppose?” Harry said bewilderedly, still wondering how exactly this task had landed on him. “Have fun,” Draco said, already focused on the television again. Harry tried to see if he recognized what they were watching, but he felt a tug on his arm and Hermione Disapparated them away before he could figure it out. They landed in an alleyway beside what looked to be a small market. Hermione glanced around briefly before letting go of Harry’s arm. “I think we’re okay.”

“You could have let me cast a Disillusionment charm or something,” Harry said, resting his hand against the wall until he found his bearings. “Or given me time to grab my Invisibility Cloak. Rush much?” “…I know, I’m sorry,” Hermione said, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes for a second before pushing her bushy hair out of her face and tilting her head back to look at the sky. “I just needed to get out of there for a little while.” Harry’s brow furrowed in concern. “Everything alright?” Hermione nodded and pushed away from the wall, heading out into the street and away from what Harry had assumed was the store they were supposed to be going into. “Fine. Everything’s fine. Do you want to grab lunch real quick? There’s an excellent deli just down the way.” “Hermione…” Harry rushed to catch up with her, falling in step beside her when he did. “Are you sure we can be away for that long?” He lowered his voice, eyes darting around them. “We don’t know that they aren’t still watching the house.” “They couldn’t have seen us leave,” Hermione replied in the same quiet tone. “And without Draco, they can’t track you. We won’t stay out long, but – Harry, I just need some space to /breathe/ for a minute.”

Harry nodded, but he couldn’t help frowning. “Are you sure you’re okay? Ron hasn’t done something stupid, has he?” “Ron’s always doing something stupid,” Hermione said with fond exasperation. “But no, it’s nothing like that. Honestly, I’m just tired of being cooped up inside for so long. I feel like I haven’t properly seen the sun in months!” “Getting a little stir crazy?” Harry asked, grinning slightly, and Hermione nodded. “Very much so.” She hooked her arm around Harry’s again, smiling at him. “Also, I miss you! Lately it seems I’m always with Ron and you’re always with Draco.” Harry flushed a bit and Hermione laughed, bumping her shoulder against his. “Understandable, of course, but still. You should tear yourself away from him and talk to me more often.” “/Hermione/,” Harry protested weakly. “It’s not like I’m – /glued/ to his side or something!” “You are a bit. But it’s alright. I’ve barely had a chance at all to talk to you about the whole thing, though!” “…We don’t have to do that /now/, do we?” Hermione just gave him an impish grin and pulled him into the deli.

*** Draco managed to keep his eyes glued to the television for approximately thirty seconds before it occurred to him that Harry had just up and left him in the house alone with /Weasley/. “…Did Potter just up and leave me alone in the house with /you/?” he asked, lip curling upward in a sneer. Weasley gave him a flat look. “I’m sure you’re /really/ bothered by it,” he said, and then his eyes abruptly widened. “Hey, they left us alone! /Brilliant/.” “What?” Draco sat up, watching as Weasley jumped off the couch and dashed over to mess around with the telly. “How is that brilliant? Weasley, what are you doing? Don’t /change/ it, I’m watching that!” “You’re sitting there insulting it every five bloody seconds. And besides, I’ve got something better. Hermione’s dad was showing me – it’s this thing called a /video game/.” “Video game?” Draco repeated, his nose wrinkling. “I’m not interested. Put the other thing back on.” “No,” Weasley said simply. “We’re going to play this racing game.”

“…Does it involve racing /brooms/?” Weasley looked over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. “It’s a Muggle game, you twit.” Draco scowled. “Well, what the hell are you supposed to race with, then?” “Karts!” Weasley said cheerfully. “…/Karts/.” “Yeah. Now if only I could…get it to bloody turn /on/.” “Do you mean, like – carriages? Are they pulled by something? Not thestrals, obviously – being a /Muggle/ game and all – but...?” “No, they’re more like small cars.” “What the hell is it with you and cars?” “I like them!” Weasley said defensively. “You’ve never even been in one, have you?” “Of course not!” Draco exclaimed, as though the mere idea was offensive. The television screen flashed then, and suddenly an odd, three-dimensional looking letter N popped up. It floated around for a bit, while Weasley let out a triumphant sound and messed around some more. Draco wondered what exactly he was doing, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t want Weasley thinking he was actually maybe-possibly-kind of /interested/ in this…video game

thing. “Okay, that should do it, I think,” Weasley said, sitting back on his heels. They watched as the screen went black, and then a gold-lettered word popped up. “…/Nin-ten-do/,” Draco read, but before he could question it, the word disappeared and the television blared loudly to life with toocheerful sounding music and weird looking, cartoonish characters that vaguely reminded Draco of the old Martin Miggs comics he used to read under the covers of his bed so his father wouldn’t know. “Yes!” Weasley cheered. “It worked!” Draco frowned. “Alright, look, I’m going to need some kind of alcohol in me straight away if I’m going to attempt to play some dodgy looking Muggle game. Do you think Hermione’s parents have got anything hidden away?” Weasley looked thoughtful for a moment, and then he grinned. “Better,” he said. “I’ve still got half a bottle of Firewhiskey left.” *** “Are you sure it’s a good idea to leave those two alone together for so long?” Harry asked, as they walked back along the path to the market. Hermione shrugged, taking a sip of her drink. “They’ll be

fine,” she said. “They get along better than they’ll ever admit.” “Bit weird, really,” Harry said idly. “No weirder than the two of you dating.” “…Fair enough.” Harry sighed. “Sometimes I still can’t wrap my head around it. I mean, not that we’re – dating. But that he’s the same bloke I couldn’t stand for over six years.” “It almost makes sense, in a twisted sort of way,” Hermione said thoughtfully. “Not that I ever would have guessed, but in hindsight, well… You always did react rather…/strongly/ to each other. Oh, and last year. Don’t even get me started.” Harry flushed and tried to keep from scowling too much. “Why is it always last year that gets brought up? I knew he was up to something, that’s all! And I was right, wasn’t I? Why doesn’t anyone remember the other /five/ years before that when he couldn’t bloody well leave me alone? If anyone was harboring some sort of secret crush, it was him!” Hermione laughed lightly and patted Harry on the arm. “Does it really matter at this point? Don’t be so defensive. What’s important is where things stand now. The past is the past.” She tossed her drink into a trash bin as they walked by, and then her brow furrowed

slightly. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to get some sort of apology out of him for being such a prat when he was younger, but I’m not getting my hopes up.” Harry snorted. “Yeah, that’s likely.” He dragged a hand through his hair, looking skyward for a moment. “Sometimes I feel like things are moving too quickly between us. Except…” He huffed, feeling a mixture of frustrated and flustered. “Well, except things aren’t really moving quickly at all. And–” “Harry,” Hermione interrupted gently. “It’s still January. It’s not even been a month.” “A month?” Harry barked out a short laugh. “Hermione, it’s barely even been two /weeks/, let alone a month. But at the same time, this – the two of us – we started…” He waved a hand around aimlessly. “I don’t even know. In the fall. Forever ago. But we haven’t done anything since, and I /want/ to, but it’s all – /weird/ and I get nervous because he’s a guy, or – well, no, I /feel/ like it should be weird, or different, but it’s not, it actually seems like it could all be pretty easy, and that’s. That’s kind of – /scary/.” Harry looked at Hermione almost pleadingly, not even realizing that he’d stopped walking and was having this outburst in the middle of the sidewalk. “I mean, is this

something I should have noticed before? Should I have picked up on it at some point? This sort of thing can’t just suddenly /happen/, can it? Hermione…am I…?” He stopped, unable to say it, and He