Draco stepped out of the thestral-drawn carriage and stared at the castle. It looked exactly as he’d expected it to, brilliant with light and streaming with banners and crowded with children running around. Some of them were new first-years and Muggleborns who had been turned away last year.
They were innocent of the war. But their wide eyes and sparkling laughter inspired no wonder in Draco. He walked past them with plodding steps and into the Great Hall.
The Slytherin table didn’t have as many people. But he’d known that would happen. He knew Pansy wouldn’t dare return here after the fuss she’d caused by wanting to throw Potter to the Dark Lord, and Gregory had chosen to transfer to Durmstrang, and Vincent was dead. Draco sat down in his usual seat and watched the Sorting.
Not as many new children came to Slytherin, either, only three. But who would want to, with its reputation tarnished by war? Draco clapped and felt nothing.
Then he looked across the room at the Gryffindor table, because that was what he had to do, and saw Harry Potter’s face.
Draco checked. Something in him stopped spinning, stopped leaping, and just hung there as he watched the foolish way Potter tilted his head back to stare at the enchanted ceiling, as if he had never seen it before.
A shooting star darted across the ceiling. Even though that only mimicked what was happening outside and it didn’t mean there was a shooting star in here, Potter’s face still lit up.
Draco stared, stirred and upset and not understanding. Then he turned roughly back to his own table and grabbed a spoon to stir his porridge.
Blaise made a remark about the blandness of the food compared to Italian cuisine. That was expected, too. Draco nodded and tried to lose himself in the familiar rhythms. After all, as boring as they were, they weren’t dangerous, the way that he knew instinctively Potter could be for him.
Potter acted as if the war, or his death, or the death of the Dark Lord, had changed things for him. He didn’t act affected by the trauma of the war at all. He didn’t brood the way Draco remembered him doing in fifth year, or follow Draco around trying to catch him doing Dark Arts the way he’d done in sixth, or act the part of the compulsive little hero that he’d played in third and fourth and ever since Draco could remember. He refused to be expected and normal.
It was infuriating.
Draco found himself watching Potter even in Potions, the class where he needed to have his eyes wide open. Some of the potions they were brewing were tricky, and Professor Slughorn was always looking to find fault with Draco now that his family’s standing was diminished. But he watched Potter instead.
Potter, who squinted into his cauldron and argued with Granger about the proper measures of ingredients he should add. Potter, who acted as though he had a new lease on life that led him to even using his mortar and pestle joyously. Potter, who smiled, proud of himself, the first time Slughorn pronounced one of his potions perfect.
Then Professor Slughorn turned around and shook his head over Draco’s potion. Draco bristled. His eyes locked on Potter again as the wanker glanced at him, certain that he would laugh when he saw Draco getting scolded.
But Potter only gave him a glance bright with compassion, and then went back to chatting with Granger.
It was infuriating.
Draco didn’t know why he chose the end of September to make his move. Really, he either should have done it earlier, with the way that Potter irritated him, or let it go and submerged himself into the familiar rhythms that hadn’t changed at all.
But he saw Potter get up and wander out of the Great Hall without his Weasley and Granger tails. And that was different than he ever would have done before. Potter seemed to think that no one was trying to harm him since the war, even though Draco personally knew at least three Death Eaters who hadn’t been rounded up.
Draco stood. No one said anything, although some people looked at him, the way they would have before the war. Draco declined to explain his business, and swept after Potter, trailing him through the corridors. Potter ended up going outside and sitting by the lake, his head tilted back to consider the stars. There was a peaceful expression on his face, one that said he had the time to look at the stars now.
Draco decided to disturb that peace. At least one thing was going to be the same: the contempt with which Potter looked at him.
“What are you doing here, Potter?”
“Watching the stars. Elementary Astronomy, sort of.”
Draco faltered in the middle of the step he was taking towards the lakeshore. He stared in silence at Potter. Potter sat with his head tilted even further back, so that he was catching Draco’s eye. He smiled peacefully.
“But then not really, because I probably know all these stars already and they wouldn’t help my marks in Astronomy.” Potter shrugged and faced him. “Did you come out here to watch the stars, too?”
Everything was not going according to plan. Draco salvaged what he could of his original designs. “You’re ridiculous, Potter.”
Potter blinked. This was not the time to be noticing how long his eyelashes were, but Draco did anyway. “What do you mean? I don’t think spending time outside at night is any more ridiculous than anything else I could do, Draco.”
“Did you just call me by my first name? Stop it!”
Potter shrugged. “I will if it upsets you. I just think it’s stupid to continue to act as if we’re enemies.” He turned back to the softly lapping lake water, head cocked as if he was listening to voices that Draco couldn’t hear in it.
Draco found out he was shaking. He clenched his hands and said, “We are enemies.”
“Oh, Dra—Malfoy. Of course we aren’t.”
Everything was crashing down around him. Potter wasn’t supposed to dismiss his statements like that or refuse to be enemies or respect his wishes. “Why are you out here?” He said it in a rasp that he thought might provoke Potter to attack him from its sheer insolence alone. It was almost the only hope he had left of anything making any sort of sense.
“Because I wanted to see the stars.” Potter turned as though listening to something, snorted, and then stood up. “And to make a decision. It seems Hermione is looking for me, but at least I got the decision made.”
“What’s the decision?”
“You’ll learn at breakfast tomorrow. I would have told you tonight, but I don’t think you want to talk to me any longer.” Potter’s eyes were so bloody green and sympathetic. “So I’ll go away. Enjoy the stars and the lake, Malfoy.”
Potter wandered off, only incidentally in the direction of the school, and left Draco standing there, forlorn—
Which, the minute he thought of it, he decided he was not. He turned and stomped the rest of the way up to the school, bristling all over with the thought that Potter had played him for a fool without even intending to.
I’ll make fun of him when he presents this decision at breakfast tomorrow. He can’t ignore me in public. He’ll lose face with all those little Gryffindors who think their House exists to oppose Slytherin.
Draco choked on his breakfast, which was not something that had ever happened before, even during last year’s awful excesses at breakfast courtesy of the Carrow twins. He very carefully put down his fork before he could swallow his own tongue, and stared across the Great Hall at Potter.
Who was standing with his hands on the back of his chair, and looking around the Great Hall with an air of utter calm. People gaped at him. Draco could remember a time when all that staring would have caused a fervent flush to crawl up Potter’s face, and he would have ducked his head and retreated into decent silence and wariness. He would have flinched, would have said he was lying, would have run out of the rom, would have done anything to get away from the attention.
This new Potter didn’t seem to mind the attention. In fact, he even smiled a little as if part of him enjoyed it. Then he sat down in his chair and scooped up a forkful of sausage and began to eat.
“Mr. Potter.” Headmistress McGonagall was the first one to speak. She sounded faint. “Why did you think that we all needed to know this?”
Potter took his sweet time swallowing, at least to Draco’s eyes. Then he looked up. “Because there would be stupid rumors and gossip about it otherwise,” he said. “Everyone would think they knew something they didn’t. People are just as eager to gossip about me as ever, but this way, there’s too many witnesses for the bloody Daily Prophet to distort it into something it isn’t. Er, sorry for the language, Headmistress.”
McGonagall’s lips twitched, which made Draco twitch in turn. Always knew she was too bloody sympathetic to him. She inclined her head and murmured, “If they want to distort it, you know they will anyway. And not everyone here would tell the unbiased truth even if they had a chance.” She swept her gaze around the Great Hall, and Draco scowled as he saw more than one person cowering in front of it. Even if that was the same as ever, it shouldn’t be.
“I know that,” Potter said, with an easy shrug. He reached out and picked up a piece of buttered toast and ate it in between his words. “But at least it’s not going to happen the way it would if I had a private conversation with Rita Skeeter.”
“I would advise against that, Mr. Potter.”
“No need to tell me, Professor.”
Potter stood up and wandered out of the Great Hall, the piece of bread still clutched in his hand. As if they had only been waiting until he was gone, the others burst into motion and chatter, and Draco watched a stream of Gryffindors go to other tables, to share their own suspicions and fears and worries about Potter.
He himself didn’t move. He didn’t think he could. He simply ached with how out of the ordinary this was, how new, how unusual.
He was wondering if he could change his mind. If things could change and do more than crush him and drown him with the force of their weight.
“Good morning, Potter.”
“Hm? Oh, good morning, Malfoy.”
Draco sat gingerly down at Potter’s side. They were in the Potions classroom, waiting for Slughorn to show up, but Draco already knew this wasn’t going to be like any other morning in Potions class. For one thing, he had never sat beside Potter before.
For another, he’d never had thoughts like these racing through his head before.
He glanced up sharply when he heard the classroom door open, but it was only Terry Boot, one of the Ravenclaws in the class. He gaped at the sight of Draco sitting next to Potter, but he wisely shut his mouth and went to the other side of the classroom when Draco glared at him. That left Draco to turn back to Potter and figure out what he wanted to say before Granger came in and interrupted them.
Potter was watching him with his chin on his hand and a faint, amused smile teasing the corners of his mouth. Draco found himself bristling, wondering if things wouldn’t change after all. But no, nothing like Potter’s announcement in the face of the Great Hall had ever happened before. Even the way that he was trying to control what the Prophet said about him instead of ignore it had never happened before. That meant he had to speak.
“Why did you decide to come out that way?”
“I decided it was time.”
“Time for what?” Draco heard his voice rising, but right now Boot was the only other person in the classroom, and Draco hoped he knew better than to come over here. For once, Potter’s fearsome reputation ought to work for Draco. Everyone except Granger would think Potter could handle a challenger like Draco on his own.
Potter paused for a second, then shrugged as if he didn’t understand what the problem was. “Listen, Malfoy. Have you ever kept a secret that feels as if it’s clawing you apart from the inside?”
Draco stared at him. Then he rolled back his left sleeve and thrust the Mark there right under Potter’s nose. “Have you forgotten what I went through when I got this, Potter?”
Potter only held his eyes and said, “No.”
Draco paused, then rolled his sleeve back over the Mark. He didn’t feel ashamed the way he would have with anyone else, but he did feel, obscurely, that persisting in his anger wasn’t the best choice. “Fine. What do you mean?”
“Everyone just kept talking about how I was going to settle down and marry Ginny Weasley and have children happily ever after,” Potter said thoughtfully. “Except Ginny herself. But her mum was going on and on about it, and I can kind of understand. She lost one son in the Battle of Hogwarts. It comforted her to think of the next generation going on.” He sighed. “And lots of other people knew that Ginny and I dated before the war, and just sort of assumed that we’d get back together.”
“As fascinating as this is, Potter—”
“So I had to show them that I want something else,” Potter went on, unshaken. “And this was the most direct way to do that.”
Draco paused again. There was an uncomfortable squirming in his stomach. He said, “So you announced you were gay because—you wanted people to leave you alone?” That was more like what he had thought, Potter causing trouble and stirring people up because he wanted the attention. It meant things were the same, that they hadn’t really changed since the war.
And even though that was what Draco had wanted confirmation of, it was inexplicably disappointing.
Potter snorted at him. “Of course not. I really am gay. But this way, everyone knows and no one can claim that they saw me dating some mysterious woman or that Ginny and I are really getting back together.”
“Instead, they’ll say that they saw you dating some mysterious man.”
“Maybe. But I plan to foil that, too. I want a boyfriend. When I find one, then the stories will be about me and him.”
Draco stared at him, shaken. Potter looked almost as if he was anticipating that. “And your boyfriend will enjoy this?”
“Well, I’ll be clear from the beginning that anyone who wants to date me is going to have to withstand the public attention. And if someone tries to ignore that and date me anyway, they’ll probably give up pretty soon.” Potter smiled to himself, an inwards-focused smile. “I need someone formidable, someone strong. This is kind of a test by fire, but at least it ensures that I’ll get someone like I need.”
“You—you want to challenge this person?”
“Yes. Dating me is going to be a challenge enough.” Potter looked right into his eyes, and his own eyes seemed to have taken on a deeper green color than Draco had ever seen. “And I want the person who dates me to know everything about me. Including the bad parts of being with the Chosen One. That’s the only honest relationship.”
For some reason, having Potter look at him like that was making Draco’s breath come short and fast. He wrenched his eyes away. “I’m not interested in dating you, Potter. I’m not gay.”
Draco whipped around to gape at him again, but at that moment Granger entered the classroom and started yelling at Potter without even noticing that he was sitting next to Draco, and Draco found himself forced away from Potter’s side.
He went about his potion-making in a daze, and completely ignored the scolding that he got from Slughorn for it.
What did Potter mean?
Unfortunately, Draco really couldn’t come up with any interpretation that didn’t match the honesty of Potter’s words. Potter would have been interested in dating Draco if he was gay.
Lying in his bed and staring up at the canopy over him, Draco had to admit that was it. Potter had shown no interest in messing with Draco’s head since the end of the war—and if he had to be honest, even before that. Potter’s methods had always been direct. Maybe he’d tried to keep secrets and tell lies of omission, but he attacked and questioned Draco and angered him in the open. And he seemed to have less interest than ever in deceiving or fooling people.
Draco listened to the silence. It used to be full of snores, he thought. Greg and Vincent snored in different ways, and so did Blaise and Theo. And Pansy used to chatter during breakfast, and having Snape for Head of House was different than having Slughorn, and…
Draco squeezed his eyes tightly-shut as he accepted what part of him had always known. Things had changed since the war. Pretending they were the same wouldn’t alter his future, wouldn’t do anything but hamper him in adapting to this new world.
It was like a knife going in under his ribs, and the wound bled for a long time while he lay there with his eyes still shut and his heart beating wildly. But when the ache began to lessen, Draco found, to his surprise, that it also seemed to have purged something from him.
And there was a possibility that things could be better than they had been since the end of the war. More wondrous.
He had Potter to thank for the realization.
Draco watched Potter over the next several days. He watched him calm his friends’ ruffled feathers over the announcement, and laugh with Weasley’s sister when someone tried to insist that Potter saying he was gay was just a cover for their secret relationship. He watched Potter tilt his head back a little when an attractive boy came into the Great Hall, and some of the boys return those glances, flushing. He watched Potter cast spells and ride his broom and sit by the lake in complete contentment.
And Draco had to realize something else, something that had changed so he could acknowledge it.
He might not be gay. But he was attracted to Potter. He did want to sit next to the fire of his personality, and bask in it. And even go through the fire that surrounded him on a daily basis.
Maybe it was just that, having bathed in fire during the war, Draco honestly couldn’t imagine a life without it anymore.
He watched Potter toss his head back in laughter over a joke Weasley had told him, and realized something else: Maybe I don’t want to imagine a life without him.
Draco would never stand up in front of the Great Hall and announce what he wanted. That wasn’t him. Things had changed—he’d been forced to acknowledge that at last—but not that much.
But he was himself enough to slip out of the castle the minute he noticed Potter sitting by the lake alone after their talk. Potter glanced up at him and nodded with a calm smile, then faced the water again.
Draco sat down next to him. His hands were clenched so tightly that his arms hurt, but he reminded himself again and again that he could do this. In fact, he would force himself into it, if that was what it took.
“It’s all right, Malfoy.”
Draco started and looked at Potter, only to find him watching Draco’s hands. He reached out and gently pried the fingers out of his palm, meeting his eyes all the while.
“What do you know?” Draco whispered.
“You have something difficult to say, it looks like, and I’m your first audience for it. I don’t know why, but I am flattered.”
“And wrong,” Draco snapped, because his need to contradict Potter hadn’t changed. “My first audience was myself.”
“The first audience other than you, then.” Potter let go of his hand and leaned forwards to fasten his gaze on Draco’s face, both things that were unnerving in separate ways. “So. Tell me.”
Draco sighed out, sighed in, and said, “I’m attracted to you. And I think—I know that I’d like to date you.”
Potter’s smile was slow enough in coming to make nervousness prickle along Draco’s skin, but when it did, it was wild and wonderful and full of delight. He reached out and gently took Draco’s hand. Then he said, “Good. I’d like to date you, too.”
Draco blinked. Then he said, “No questions about why I decided this? No questions on how your friends are going to take it?”
“I reckoned there would be time to talk about that later,” Potter said. He was easing closer, and his eyes shone with the same elation as his smile. “Since we will be together for a while, right?”
Draco couldn’t help but answer the plea for reassurance that he suspected underlay those words. “Yes, of course.”
“Good. Then we can wait.”
“What do you want to do now?”
Draco’s voice came out as a breathless squeak as Potter’s cold hand landed on his flushed cheek. In some far-distant part of his mind, he decided he would have to teach Potter about Warming Charms on all parts of his body.
“I’d like to kiss you, of course,” Potter said. “And hear you call me Harry. Can you do that, Draco? Can I?”
Draco, in the end, didn’t have the words to directly answer the question. He just had to say, “Harry,” and tilt his head in a welcoming way, and Pott—Harry gripped him by the shoulders and showed him how much had changed in this little pocket of private space between them.
His mouth was warm, at least. And sliding, and slippery, and heat-sparking, and—
Draco was gasping aloud by the time Harry pulled back. Harry grinned at him and said, “I’ve never seen that before. You looking as though you’re struggling with words because of how happy you are.”
You taught me about wonder. You taught me there could be happiness and change after the war.
But they had time for Draco to say those words, too. Right then, he could only shake his head, mutter, “I’m glad I can still surprise you,” and pull Harry back into his arms.
Snowflakes were sliding down above their heads. The whole world seemed to warm and darken as Draco pressed his mouth to Harry’s and closed his eyes.
We’re going to fulfill our debts together.
Then, and later—
But most especially now.