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Grounds for Divorce

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Draco Malfoy’s father died at the end of 8th year. Hermione mumbled as much over breakfast, holding the paper half-folded. “Lucius has passed,” she said, like she was reading out a flat fact. The German goblin stocks have plummeted. Tomorrow there’ll be a 40% chance rainfall in East Anglia.

“Jesus,” is what Harry had to say to that. It was his answer to most everything these days. The war was over and still people kept dying. In Azkaban, in their homes, in their gardens. Earlier that week an undetonated curse had exploded, at random, on Bellywog Street, Kent, taking out fifteen people in the blink of an eye.

Jesus, had been Harry’s response then, too.

“Well,” Hermione said, and put down the paper. Ron was sat sideways on the bench, leaning into her, and slid the paper closer to himself — turning it a quarter so that he, too, could read.

Harry licked a smudge of butter off his thumb and looked over to the Slytherin table. It looked empty. Two young girls were playing a card game that had them shrieking, laughing, pushing at each other. Malfoy wasn’t there.

Harry huffed a dry laugh. He pushed his glasses up into his hair and rubbed his eyes.

They hadn’t seen much of each other that year. Once, Malfoy’s quill had fallen off his desk during a Transfiguration lecture and Harry — who’d been sitting right behind him — had picked it up, given it back. Malfoy had responded by thinning his lips, a vague enough acknowledgement.

Once, Harry had passed a hallway on the third floor and found Malfoy sitting against a wall, knees drawn up, head down. He’d been breathing unsteadily, shaking. Harry had turned right around and walked away. Once, Malfoy had asked Harry to pass him the shredded root during Potions. Harry had complied, casual enough, though his heart had beat up a storm for a good minute afterwards.

Once, Malfoy had marched over to the Gryffindor table and dropped a letter next to Harry’s dinner — flippant, almost, before he marched off, not waiting for Harry to read it. It had been from Narcissa Malfoy. It was short, the penmanship pretty. Should there be anything my family can do for you in terms of compensation, was the closing sentence, I am certain arrangements can be made.

Malfoy’s eyes had seemed to have sunk into his sockets, that month. His face had turned grey under a curtain of long, dull hair.

“Don’t suppose he’ll come back for his NEWTs,” Ron said, muffled  — his mouth close to Hermione’s shoulder.

Hermione shrugged. “He might. Others have.”

They all went quiet at that. The laughter of the Slytherin girls peaked, echoed across the hall. Harry had another bite of his toast and dropped it back onto his plate, licking his thumb again. It was a Tuesday, just any old day of the week. Would the weekend be better, he wondered idly, picking the thought apart as it came.

No, he concluded. Probably not.

***

Almost a year after graduation Harry received a formal calling card from the Malfoys’ townhouse. The family crest was heavily embossed onto the front, and on the back, someone had written:

Master D. L. Malfoy requests your presence at the above residence this coming Wednesday between the hours 13:15 and 13:30. Kindly respond with availability.

“Jesus,” Harry laughed, turning it over three more times in disbelief. He laughed out loud again, louder, standing in his hallway. “What,” he said to himself. Then again, “What!”

That night, he brought the card to dinner at Ron and Hermione’s, both of whom inspected it closely and offered theories as to what Malfoy could possibly want.

“A plan to recover his family’s reputation,” Hermione put in her bet, knocking on the table with conviction. “A thirty-step plan involving you two shaking hands and cutting a ribbon. And a joint interview with The Prophet. No! Wait! A Malfoy-funded Quidditch pitch named after you!”

“You can’t—! You can’t put in like, five bets,” Ron said, sounding blurry, happy. His wine glass was still mostly full, lips stained. Ron was always a fast drunk, a sweet one, kissing people on the cheek and telling them they were brilliant like it was imperative they knew.

That night, back at Grimmauld Place, Harry thumped softly between the walls of the hallway, unable to keep a straight line as he stumbled to his bedroom. He took off one sock, left the other one on, and managed as much as getting his jeans off before calling it a night and crawling under the sheets. He was smiling to himself, full of his friends’ jokes and the warmth of their small apartment — full of unpacked boxes, still — Hermione’s books piled high on the floor, serving as makeshift tables.

He’s gonna make a bid for your hand in marriage, had been Ron’s final guess, dead serious before he’d picked the doily off the dinner table and dramatically draped it over his face like a veil. Harry had teared up laughing at that, and chuckled at the memory still.

The night was quiet, his bed was safe, and sleep claimed him like a wave.

***

The Malfoys’ townhouse was a tall and lofty thing. Harry was to be received in the drawing room, which had high ceilings and dark wallpaper patterned with golden spades. The hearth was burning up a new fire, hot and fast, young logs crackling. There were shiny cherry-wood side tables, heavy drapes framing the windows. There was the pointed ticking of a grandfather clock in a corner.

Malfoy had him wait for ten minutes before showing up, busily and loudly coming in through a second door, hidden in one of the panels. He had his gloves in hand, was dressed in black for mourning, starched collar high against his throat.

“Sit, please,” he said, as in a greeting, motioning at an armchair by the fire. Harry didn’t sit. He watched Malfoy instead, watched him take off his robe, throw his gloves onto a table — and quickly make for the wet bar, clanking glasses, bottles.

“Or remain standing, whichever you prefer,” Malfoy added, quietly. Then, “Drink?”

Harry saw the gin being measured. “Isn’t it a bit early?”

Malfoy made a noise like they were both in on a joke. Harry didn’t know what it meant. He got a crystal tumbler handed to him all the same, and then Malfoy sank down into an armchair, grandly crossing his legs. He sipped his drink, closed his eyes and sighed. Said, “Lord, I needed that.”

The fire was too hot for the room, for the season. The grandfather clock ticked-tocked away.

Harry slowly sat down in the chair opposite. He put his drink down on the hardwood floor. “Malfoy,” he said. “Why am I here?”

Malfoy kept his eyes closed for a moment. Harry could see his heartbeat steady in his throat. Then—

“Yes. Right. Very well.” Malfoy took another short sip, put his drink away. He reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out a packet. It was small, the size of his palm, wrapped in brown paper and twine. “So,” he said, holding it out for Harry to take. “I found this.”

Harry looked at the packet. At Malfoy.

“I believe it is yours,” Malfoy added, unwavering. “Your family’s.”

Harry’s heart jumped. He took the packet. It was still warm from being held closely at Malfoy’s chest.

“I have recently come into ownership of my family’s country estate,” Malfoy explained as Harry tore at the twine, at the paper. “And while clearing out some of the old, shall we say, memorabilia, I came across this, ah . . . well, you see.”

It was a coin. Bigger than any currency he’d seen, heavier, golden. There was a depiction of a tree in the middle of it — a lemon tree, as though seen through a window. It was moving to a non-existent breeze. Around it, the letters A. Z. and S. I. P. were engraved, followed by a date, 05-05-1915. Harry frowned, not understanding. Below it, the writing said,

All hearts are fools in love.

“Amsu Zahar,” Malfoy said. He’d moved to the edge of his seat, leaned over to indicate the first of the initials with a long index finger. Harry could smell the gin on his breath. “Egyptian-born. Then, see — Samuel Icarus Potter. Your great-grandfather, if I’m not mistaken. Father’s side, obviously.” He sat back in his chair, rewarded himself with a sip of his drink. “It was a custom, you see. To give these away at weddings.”

Harry’s tongue felt thick in his mouth. He swallowed once, twice. The coin was warming in his hand.

“It's a trinket of sorts,” Malfoy continued when Harry didn’t respond. “I believe my great-great-aunt Cecilia attended.” Another sip. “Hm? Yes?”

“You . . .” Harry watched the lemon tree branches waver, its leaves fluttering. He ran his thumb over it, over the lettering. He looked up at Malfoy. “You just found this?”

“I didn’t just find it,” Malfoy said. A splotch of colour had bloomed up his neck. “I didn’t just find it. As I said, I have recently come into ownership of my family estate, and as I was clearing out some old family heirlooms, I happened upon—”

He sounded like he’d rehearsed the phrasing. Harry cut him off by standing, abruptly. “Right,” he said. He looked around the room, at the neat little things, the silver gleaming and velvet surfaces. He cleared his throat. “I can keep this?”

Malfoy blinked up at him, opening his mouth as if to say something, then stopping himself. He seemed to settle for chargined, “Well, yes. It is yours.”

“Right,” Harry said. He pocketed the coin, felt it heavy in his coat. “Thank you. I have to go.”

The colour had spread up and over Malfoy’s jaw. “I see,” he said, not moving.

“Thanks,” Harry repeated, then left the room without waiting to see whether Malfoy would rise from his seat. He made for the door with a quick pace, was out and then down the stairs and away — already halfway along the quiet street before he slowed down at all.

Then he stood for a moment, waited until a man walking his corgi had passed. He took a breath — released it. Took out the coin, looked at it for a blank moment — then put it back in his pocket.

He turned on his spot and Disapparated with a theatrically loud crack, the sound of it echoing down the quiet street.

***

The opening sentence of Harry’s belated response to Narcissa read,

Thank you for your offer. There is, in fact, one request I would like to make.

“You went through my mother,” Malfoy said, voice jammed and hollow through the Floo. He sounded like he wanted to shout and was holding himself back.

“Yes, she was the one who offered.”

“She’s the—!” Malfoy’s head moved wildly in the fire as he leaned forward. “I’m the—” He took a breath. “I’m the master of the manor. I’m in charge of—”

“I don’t care, why would I care? Jesus.” Harry huffed a laugh, then, “Are you going to be difficult, Malfoy, or are you going to let me do what I need to do?”

The Floo connection went fuzzy for a moment, Malfoy’s face blinking in and out of the fire. Only snatches of his rant got through. “—nd dangerous, Potter, half the west wing is still covered in curses, the other half is crumbling in, and I will not have the death of the saviour of our known world on my bloody—”

In the end, Malfoy agreed to supervise Harry’s visit to Wiltshire that coming weekend. Harry told Neville as much later that evening, when he dropped by his cottage, having promised to help out with setting up the new greenhouse. The old one had come with the plot of land, as did the darling English garden — all fruit-trees and wildflower beds. Beyond, the ground sloped into a cobbled path that led to a small pond. There Neville had made a start on a French garden, which he grudgingly admitted to having pushed to the back of the plot in the hope that Sprout — who did not approve of the French school of landscaping — wouldn’t notice it on her next visit. So much grass, and for what! Was Neville’s pitched imitation of the professor’s argument. A sordid waste of good earth if you ask me!

But Harry liked it, he said, brushing the flat of his hand over a rosemary bush. He liked how it smelled when the wind played up.

After a few hours’ work they ended up in the kitchen, hands scrubbed pink, knees caked in mud. Harry gave him the coin for inspection and in return Neville handed him a beer. Harry remained standing, leaning against the countertop.

“It’s not like I didn’t know I had grandparents, or great-grandparents or whatever,” he explained. “Like, I knew. Of course I knew.”

“Of course you knew,” Neville agreed. He put down the coin on the table.

“It’s just . . .”

“It’s just?”

“They were alive,” Harry said, nail against the lip of his beer bottle. “And people knew them. They did things. They . . . left things behind. Things that are . . .”

“Tangible,” Neville supplied, and Harry hummed.

“Tangible,” he repeated.

***

Saturday morning was shrouded and bright, the sky lit up yellow behind a blanket of clouds. A storm was predicted for the afternoon. Outside Malfoy Manor, a family of crows migrated from the one tree to the other and back again, hopping along the iron gate in between. Again, Malfoy had him wait for a good quarter of an hour before he appeared, fussy and loud, taking off his gloves finger by finger and rummaging with the locks of the gate, insisting that he wouldn’t be—

“—in the habit of giving up my weekends to provide the public with tours around my death mansion, just to be absolutely clear.” He said weekends like it was two separate words. Week ends. His hair was shorter than the last time Harry had seen him, a neat straight cut along his jaw. He was wearing a strong cologne. It itched at Harry, made him want to retreat — move away from the cloud of it.

“I didn’t insist you come with,” Harry said. “I’d be perfectly happy to rummage around by myself.”

“And get buried under six layers of rubble? You’ll do no such thing,” Malfoy sneered, finally unlocking the gates. He pushed them open, arms wide and grand. “Allons-y,” he added, setting in a clipped pace toward the manor. Harry stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, shoulders high up by his ears. He grumbled vaguely to himself, then dropped his shoulders — followed Malfoy to the house, five steps behind.

***

The broad staircase at the entrance had once led up to a broad landing where, once upon a time, three arched windows had towered. Each had depicted various scenes in multi-coloured glass — a knight kneeling at the foot of a dame, two snakes wrapped around the trunk of a fruit-bearing tree, and a woman casting a light from the end of a luminous wand. Harry found he remembered them with shocking detail. They were gone, now — blown to pieces. Colourful shards still littered the landing.

“Watch your feet,” Malfoy said, pushing aside a piece of green glass with the toe of his shoe.

His words echoed in the empty gloom of the house. Hexing marks still dotted the walls. Furniture that had been upended during a battle had not yet been righted. Malfoy guided them up a further staircase and down a dark corridor. They passed by an axe embedded in the wall, and further down, by the corresponding suit of armour.

“Like so.” Malfoy moved around a hole in the floor with a little skip of a step, holding on to a torch handle. Through the shattered beams, a glimpse of a room below could be seen.

“How long has it been empty?” Harry asked, though he knew the answer. It was just something to say.

“Oh, a day or two,” Malfoy said, lightly, flopped his gloves at the air. “Lovely, isn’t it? I call this ‘battle chic’. I could put you in touch with the decorator if you’d like, though you might be familiar with his previous works at—”

“Okay, okay. Alright.”

Malfoy shot him a quick glance, brows raised. He guided them to the right, up another staircase — narrow and close to an outer wall. Harry felt a draft coming in through the stone.

“Where are we going?”

“East wing. Attic.”

“Attic?”

“Storage.” Malfoy paused halfway up the stairs — halted Harry with a hand. He took out his wand, tapped it to what seemed like a wall but soon glowed with the outline of a small door. They had to duck to pass through, ending up in a bare-looking hallway — no carpets or furnishing, just wood panels and simple doors. A servant’s passage, he thought.

Malfoy waved his gloves about to clear the dust in front of him. They were walking again. “Cecilia never married, you see,” he began, apropos nothing. “Never moved out of the manor. She took care of her mother for most of her life, and after that — well.” Malfoy took them up another staircase, even narrower, steeper. The railing creaked when Harry held on to it.

Malfoy did not so much walk up the stairs as jogged up, his steps light. “Most of her belongings, I believe, have been preserved. If not only for the fact that she had a lovely habit of charming all that she owned to be confined to the manor.”

Harry nearly crashed into him when they reached the top floor, the stairs ending in a door rather than a platform. Malfoy took out the key-ring and began fiddling with several of the larger skeleton keys.

“Had she charmed the coin you gave me?”

Malfoy hummed, not an answer at all. Harry watched his narrow shoulders moving under his large cloak.

“Malfoy. How did you get the coin off the grounds?”

“Oh, I’m simply very talented with charms, you see.” He found the right key, opened the door, ushered them through. There was a forced edge to his voice when he added, “Barely a minute’s work, if that.”

The attic was massive. It seemed to span half the manor’s footage, divided into sections with thin, wooden walls. It smelled like history and mildew, like dust itself. Dim rays of sun slanted in, throwing the space into stark shadows. Malfoy showed him to a walled section with a plaque on the wood, a simple engraving indicating that the pile of trunks and old lace had once belonged to Cecilia Adrianna Malfoy.

The disarray of opened cases and scattered pieces of parchment — along with the disturbance in the dust on the floor — hinted at Malfoy’s own research, the time he’d spent rummaging through an old aunt’s treasury.

“In case it’s not obvious,” Malfoy said, clasping his hands behind his back, holding on to his gloves, “don’t touch anything — it might be cursed. Levitate it, check for traces, you should be able to detect a cursed item. Emphasis on should ,” he drawled. “But who am I to dictate the bar of magical competency? If you’re not sure, ask me. I’ll—”

“You’re staying?” While I—”

“Of course I’m staying, Potter, why else would I have come with you? Surely not to visit the portrait of great-aunt Xanthippe and her ten dachshunds. I say.” He cleared his throat, and again sounded like he was repeating a practised phrasing when he added, “I’d rather not be held responsible if — no, when you, with all your brash mindlessness, get yourself hexed or cursed on Malfoy grounds. Lord knows the Ministry would have an absolute—”

“Fine. Whatever. Fine. Are you just gonna stand there, though, or are you gonna help me?”

Malfoy waited for a beat before answering. “I will continue conducting my own research.”

“Okay.”

“Which will be into Cecilia Malfoy’s heritage.”

“Okay. So you will be helping.”

“It’s not called helping if you actively request to join in doing what I’ve been doing for a while now, Potter, so no, I certainly will not be helping.”

“Jesus,” Harry muttered, turning away, taking out his wand. He faced Cecilia’s pile of stuff. “I’d forgotten how exhausting you were.”

Malfoy tried to argue with a quick, “Beg pardon? I am not—!” but Harry waved the words away with an annoyed little gesture, one which surprisingly stopped Malfoy mid-sentence. He made a sound like he was going to say more, push back more, but fell entirely still when Harry ignored him and began levitating balls of yarn from the basket teetering on top of the pile.

For a good while, they worked in relative silence. Every now and then Malfoy would pipe up with a, “I’ve already looked through that one,” or a, “You won’t find anything there,” which Harry wouldn't respond to or acknowledge.

He took piles and cases apart, sent them out of the partition to make space, leafed through pages and pages, and inspected nicknacks that might hold a trace of his family’s history. A little box of pins had him hopeful, but it was nothing much — just some awards of a special society he didn’t know. He found a photo album that he spent an excitable two minutes paging through, but it turned out to contain nothing other than sepia pictures of a single Saint Bernard, dressed in various costumes. As a sailor, a wizard, a milkmaid.

“She must’ve known them, right?” Harry said, an hour or so in. Malfoy was investigating a long scroll of receipts, apparently regarding the purchasing of ribbons. He replied with a hmm sound. Not an answer.

“The Potters,” Harry continued. “If she went to their wedding, surely their lives were . . . They must’ve . . .”

Malfoy didn’t look up from the receipts. Harry passed his wand over a jewellery box and felt the ugly twinge of a curse wrapped around it. He avoided it and called forward a hat box tucked further back. Five other boxes tumbled down in its place.

“Old families, Potter,” Malfoy murmured, still looking at his receipts. “Cecilia probably knew them, or, well, knew of them, see, but . . . especially in those days, a wedding invitation didn’t mean much more than a—”

“Hold on . . .” Harry was holding a letter, fished out of a hat box. It was full of them, all still in their envelopes, their destination address crossed through and replaced with a hasty stamp announcing: RETURN TO SENDER.

Harry was skimming over Cecilia’s cursive handwriting, heart in his throat. “Oh. Jesus. I think — oh.”

“What?” Malfoy dropped his scroll and shuffled over in the small space, coming to stand next to Harry. His chest almost touched Harry’s arm. His cologne still clung to him, heavy.

Harry passed him the letter and reached for the next envelope. He took out the letter, scanned it, passed it on, reached for the next — read half, then changed his mind, dropped it again. He began rummaging for a date. “May,” he whispered to himself. “May, May, May . . .”

He found one dated May 4th, 1915. His throat felt tight when unfolding it.

“Dearest darling,” he began, reading out loud. “Tomorrow promises to be a lovely day. Scattered clouds, not too warm. I am happy for you, dearest one, though the . . .” He struggled with the handwriting for a moment. “Weight. Though the weight of the mistake you are about to make tolls heavy on my heart. Will you ever see reason, my darling? Will you wake up one day, and reali . . .” Harry took a breath, exhaled. “Realise that she is not right for you, and never will be? When you do, my Samuel, I will be here. I will always be here.”

Malfoy cursed, softly. Harry continued,

“Remember that summer in Bath? The brightest memory I have is of that summer. We were on the beach, and you kissed the inside of my wrist. You said you tasted the salt of the sea on my skin. Come . . . Jesus.” Harry blew out his cheeks.

“Come back to me, my Samuel,” Malfoy finished, voice flat. He moved closer, tilting his head to read. Harry could feel the heat of his body, this close, could feel his breath on his neck when he added: “Stay with me. Love, your Cece.”

Malfoy reached to tug the letter from Harry’s hand. When his fingers touched the parchment, the world around Harry warped and the floor fell out beneath them. The attic was collapsing, Harry thought for a split second, but he wasn’t falling and his feet were still planted firm. He wasn’t moving at all, in fact, his body locked and confused. And then it came: pain as bright as light shooting straight to the core of him, blinding him, fuzzing his hearing, his thinking — everything. It knocked a shout out of him — knocked him into the body doubling over next to him — then knocked him out altogether.

***

He woke up in St Mungo’s wanting to cry, wanting to kill. He’d lost something and he needed it back. He was talking before he knew what he was saying, before his eyes were fully open — struggling against whatever was binding him to the bed. His voice was hoarse, unrecognisable. “I n— I need . . .” he panted. “Where’s . . .”

There were lights, sounds, people. Someone put a hand on his forehead, pushed back his hair, wiped away his sweat. He didn’t want it — he moved his head to avoid the touch, groaning. He was hurting, inside and out. His very skin felt burnt, stretched too tight. He felt thirsty and dry.

Someone said his name, and a pair of hands pushed him back down as he tried to hoist his chest up off the bed. He recognised the face, or so he thought — he wasn’t sure. The only thing he was sure about was that he needed something and he didn’t know where it was and it was burning up a hole in him. He tried to lift off the bed again, got pushed back again, panted at the ceiling. Someone called for him once more, angry this time.

He tried to focus but couldn’t. He closed his eyes, sobbing. “Where . . .” He trailed off when a gasp cut through the noise, a knife through butter. His attention fizzled, snapped, focused.

Strapped to a bed on the other side of the room was Malfoy, writhing against his own restraints. His hair was matted to his face, dirty and sweaty. His eyes were wild until they found Harry’s, and the burn in the pit of his stomach licked up, demanded, shook through him. There it is, the pull said, mindless and raw. There it is, there it is.

Malfoy groaned, pulling his arm into an unnatural angle with a cry, trying to get out of bed, to go to Harry. Two blurry-faced people struggled to get him flat. Harry shouted — no words, just a cry of frustration. Then a cry, another sob.

“What is this?” someone asked loudly, voice trembling. “What is this?

Then there was a wand close to Harry’s face, the tip of it to his temple. A flash, and the room was sinking into cotton balls, the smell of burnt sugar choking him. And then nothingness, again.

***

When he regained consciousness, it was under the familiar drowsiness of calming potions. The restraints were gone. He wasn’t burning up anymore. He was sick. His bones ached, his stomach roiled. Neville was at his bedside, awake. Hermione was sleeping in a chair nearby. The room was quiet, dim.

“Hey buddy,” Neville murmured.

Harry made a sound. He tried to move, but to no avail.

“Hurts?” Neville asked, reaching for him. Harry nodded, swallowing. Neville nodded with him. “Yeah. Yeah. It’ll . . . you’ll sleep it off. They said it’ll get better. If you — sleep. For now.”

Harry turned his head. The bed on the other side of the room was empty. The sight of it made him gasp, pain peaking and pooling under his sternum. His vision blurred until the flash of a wand put him under again.

He didn’t remember much of what followed — whether it had been hours or days, what he had dreamt or what was real. He remembered Hermione washing him with a cool cloth, and he was almost certain he’d asked her something. Her answer could be heard as though it was spoken underwater, her voice muffled.

He thought he remembered Molly talking at the foot of his bed, too, but the memory morphed into the Burrow, into him in Ron’s old bed, which couldn’t be right.

Sometimes he’d wake up and it was nighttime but the room would be bright, still, buzzing with activity. At other times it’d be empty, quiet. Something of an afternoon. The few times he’d woken up in darkness Harry had shouted and shouted until someone had come to his bedside with a drink, a potion — a foul-tasting mouthful that had dragged him under in a second.

I’m dying, he had thought at one point, half awake. I’m dying.

That’s when Malfoy came for him.

It woke Harry up from the depths of his sick sleep like smelling salts. He jolted with a gasp, confused in the pre-dawn haze of his empty room. It took him a moment to see it — to understand it — but then, there it was: Malfoy, in his hospital gown, leaning heavily against the doorframe. His breathing was harsh, like his throat had closed up. His nose was bleeding over his mouth and down his throat.

There, the pull under his sternum thrummed, licking up, demanding. Needing. There, there, there.

Malfoy pushed himself off the doorframe and stumbled in, catching himself on the back of an empty bed — on a chair — making his slow journey to Harry. He looked barely there in the grey of the room, barely a silhouette against the dim walls.

Harry keened, eyelids heavy as he watched and reached out a leaden hand. Malfoy was almost close enough to take it, and when he did — cold fingers curling around Harry’s in a vice grip — it was immediate: a relief so sharp it was also a pain in its own right, like using ice to soothe a burn.

Malfoy groaned, knees buckling, and Harry held him up with a hand, tugging, saying, “Come, god, Jesus, come — here, fuck—”

It was a muddled fumbling of limbs, of Malfoy falling forward, his sweaty, bloody face sliding against Harry’s cheek – into his neck. Harry scrambled for him, hands in Malfoy’s hair, pulling on his gown, getting him into the bed with him, pushing off the sheet, groaning, sobbing. The pain was ebbing, ebbing. He needed skin — it was the skin that did it. His skin needed more skin. With his mouth open against Malfoy’s hot shoulder he felt blood rushing up and down his spine — alive.

He laughed wetly, his thigh between Malfoy’s legs. They were moving, uncoordinated, just to feel. The pull in his sternum was telling him everything was right now — would be as long as he had this. This, his clammy hand to the sweaty small of Malfoy’s back. Malfoy was mouthing at his shoulder, his neck, the line of his jaw. He rubbed their cheeks together, the rasp of his breath loud in Harry’s ear.

Eventually, they slowed, breathing heavily. Their embrace held, close and vital.

“What is this?” Malfoy whispered. He sounded wrecked. “What is this . . .”

The feel of his lips on Harry’s cheek sent a happy shiver through the pull between them. “Fuck,” Harry said. “I don’t—” He moved closer, tucking himself under Malfoy’s ear, feeling his heartbeat through the skin. “Fuck.”

“No,” Malfoy said, quiet. “No.

Harry, blissful and dazed as the hum of sickness abated, said nothing in return. He breathed in the smell of sweat and iron and that of a body after illness. He breathed in, held Malfoy closer, giving the pull what it wanted in exchange for relief. Yes, it said. Yes, here. Here.

***

Cecilia Malfoy had put a binding curse on her letters to Samuel Potter. She'd done so in hopes he’d open them, touch them — anything. But he’d sent them all back unopened and unread, and the curse had sat in the hat box, dormant. Waiting.

Very curious magic, was what the curse-breaker at St Mungo’s had called it, sitting at Harry’s bedside and sounding altogether too entertained. The fact it has held for nearly a century! A century! And it recognised you — I mean, the both of you! What were the chances? I tell you, Mr Potter, it’s very rare that a case like this comes by, let alone that it would be made available to us in such a . . .

The man’s words were hard to focus on. Harry’s attention was a short-lived thing, right now, and everything sounded too loud — their voices rough, grating. Outside, a bumblebee was knocking itself against the window, trying to get in with soft thuds against the glass.

The next day Harry was sat down for what they called a review meeting but felt more like a panic room. There were too many people in the office and not enough chairs. Harry sat in one, with Malfoy beside him and Malfoy’s solicitor beside him with three manila folders open on the table. Narcissa stood, hands tight on the back of her son’s chair. Molly paced in the cramped space as best she could. Ron lingered against a wall, Bill crowded close to the desk, and three healers stood rigid and silent next to the fast-talking head of St Mungo’s PR department, who seemed to only take cues from the chief of St Mungo’s, Dr Y. U. Muriel.

“Yuri, please,” was how he’d introduced himself to the room, taking his seat behind the desk with a wide gesture.

It took ten minutes of clipped tones and nods for the whole thing to escalate. An hour in, and Bill was red in the face and tapping a hard finger on the table to underline his words, insisting that there was, “No. Conclusive. Proof. That Mr Malfoy isn't in fact actively responsible — hasn't orchestrated the whole—”

“—I beg your pardon? My son would not willingly put himself through this—!” Narcissa, overcome with rage, struggled for words. “Self-denigration! Who would willingly bind themselves to—”

“—a whole lot of people, is who,” Molly cut her off, stopping in her pacing, “if not half the wizarding world! And you’re a fool if you pretend otherwise, Narcissa! For goodness’ sake, to have the life of Harry Potter in the palm of one’s hand—”

One of the healers attempted to come between them. “There is no evidence as of yet to confirm the lethal effects of the—”

But Narcissa ignored the healer, shooting back at Molly with a, “And what about Draco’s life in this equation, would you say? What is he, a common garden gnome? It’s a mutual bond, in Circe’s good name!”

Harry closed his eyes as the spike of a headache shot up his spine. He felt nauseous, the pull at the pit of his stomach making him confused and unsteady. It was like being at the sea — like being unable to discern the rhythm of the waves — like getting knocked down over and again with each come, each go.

His steady horizon was Malfoy’s left hand, gripping on to the arm of the chair. His fingers were long, longer than anyone’s. His skin looked dry and cracked and his knuckles looked red, irritated.

“The point is,” the head of PR interrupted the discussion. “Will the boy need to be persuaded to keep to Mr Potter’s side, or can we come to a short-term agreement that will be acceptable for all parties involved?”

“I’ll trust you’ll find that every party will have a wholly different idea of what an acceptable agreement looks like,” said Malfoy’s solicitor, sounding very calm, at the same time as Narcissa shot back with a—

Boy? My son is the boy but this little upstart is Mr Potter?”

Harry closed his eyes.

“Please answer the question, Mrs Malfoy, or we’ll be forced to—”

“I demand a Disentanglement.”

The three healers, as well as Bill, began talking over one another, saying, “—serious magical damage, absolutely not to be tampered with—” “—age limit, as has been established, and will not—” “—no previous data or procedures to support a positive—”

Harry’s hearing came and went. His focus came and went. Someone said something about the press, someone else added something about the ethics of the war, and when Harry opened his eyes again all he could look at was Malfoy’s hand, now hanging by the side of his chair. Like he didn’t know what to do with it.

Harry’s nauseated heart pulled at him, sickly.

“Give me one good reason,” Narcissa was saying. “Our townhouse has room enough, as well as plenty of provisions, and unlike my mad aunt’s home, isn’t cursed by centuries of—”

“Ha! As if your family is in any position to boast protection against curses—”

“Look, it's simply unethical to take young Mr Potter away from his home given what he has gone through in the past—”

“What we have all gone through, Mr Gibbons, if you’ll be kind enough to remember.”

Harry reached out to touch the pads of Malfoy’s fingers. No one noticed. It felt like touching a live wire, only there was no pain — just warmth all up his arm, and a sense of ease spreading up to his shoulders, his back.

Malfoy pressed back, let their fingers slip together. He traced a thumb to the back of Harry’s hand. The room blurred. The discussion continued somewhere miles away.

“Most unfortunate,” were Dr Muriel’s final words of the day, when a tentative plan of attack had been drawn up and grudgingly agreed upon, “but not impossible.”

Ron’s hand was heavy on Harry’s shoulder as they all shuffled out of the room. Malfoy lingered behind with his mother. Harry’s own hand, the one that had touched Malfoy’s, felt empty at his side, uneasy.

Ron squeezed his neck, pulled him into a half hug. “It’ll be okay, mate,” he said, keeping his voice low. “We’re here, okay? We’re here.”

“I’ll catch right up,” was Harry’s answer, clapping Ron’s shoulder in return. He walked a few paces back along the hallway, toward a washroom, then lingered by the doorway — watched Malfoy and his mother where they stood, a little while away. Whispering quickly between one another, all in French.

Harry waited until Malfoy noticed him, a quick glance, before pushing at the bathroom door and going inside.

He waited for a good few minutes, leaning back against the tiled wall, body aching in a vague, distant way. When Malfoy came in, he hesitated only for a moment, unsteady on his feet at the entrance. Then he strode forward, hapless, bracing his hands on either side of Harry’s head. Harry felt Malfoy’s body heat first, then all of him as he leaned into Harry — pressed himself closer, his chest a solid weight against Harry’s.

The pull hummed and then — relaxed . Malfoy groaned and Harry laughed, riding the waves of relief. Harry grabbed at Malfoy’s back, at the wool of his jumper. Malfoy mumbled a quiet Lord and rubbed his cheek to Harry’s, their stubble catching — scratching.

Malfoy smelled like hospital and sweat. They both did.

And there, still, under the roiling waves of the pull there was a dim sort of panic, a wild need to push Malfoy off, to not have the clammy weight of him pushing him against the wall. Somewhere inside of him there was a small corner of clarity that observed the sight of them — wrapped up in one another, embraced against the tiled wall — with bewilderment, with fear. Danger, it said, but the sound of it was just a whisper compared to the pull’s thundering chant of, Yes, and, here, and, yes.

“This was supposed to be over,” Malfoy said, his voice close, scratchy — hoarse. Like he’d been shouting for days.

“What was?” Harry asked, throat clicking as he swallowed.

“This,” Malfoy said. His lips moved against Harry’s cheekbone. “War. Curses. Being . . . cursed.”

“Yeah,” Harry agreed. He let Malfoy’s jumper slip from his grip, let his arms hang by his sides. “It was.”