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A Forward Path

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The only reason Harry found Malfoy that morning was because he tripped over him in the corridor. 

 

He’d needed a breather, space away from the staring eyes of first years that seemed to follow him wherever he went. He’d changed course down an abandoned hallway and now was sprawled out across cobbled stone, gasping and gawking back at the curled form of Draco Malfoy. 

 

Malfoy was paler than usual, upper lip and chin crusted with blood, an eye shut with an angry, swollen lid. 

 

He still had the audacity to look annoyed, “Of course it would be you,” he sighed, “Sniffing out the opportunity for another rescue, Potter? Eager to scrape away the last of my dignity?”

 

“Merlin, Malfoy,” Harry said, standing and hurrying over, “Are you alright?”

 

“Certainly, just fancied a bit of a nap in Hogwarts’ filthiest walkway.” The blond lashes of Malfoy’s remaining good eye fluttered closed, as if remaining open was too exhausting a task. 

 

“What happened?” Harry asked carefully. He wanted to reach out, to assess for damages but didn’t dare.  

 

“I fell,” Malfoy replied daintily, “silly me.”

 

“Malfoy, what happened?” Harry repeated, more authority to his voice this time. It unnerved him to see the blonď like this. Despite the destruction of his family’s reputation post-war, Malfoy had arrived for eighth year with his head held high, smooth mask of superiority in place and enough friends to level him some protection. Apparently not enough. 

 

Malfoy scoffed, “Oh hell, Potter, what do you think. Another eager band of your righteous followers wanting to play at capture the Death Eater.”

 

Malfoy’s casual tone belied his condition. Harry knew the other boy would not be lying there so helplessly if he had another choice. An icy anger built in him—he’d heard snippets of conversations, snide remarks, growing anti-Slytherin sentiments. He’d let them slide, for the most part, people were hurt, they had a right to be angry. They didn’t have a right to this

 

“Who,” He demanded. 

 

“I somehow doubt snitching will win me any popularity contests,” Malfoy replied, “ Now if you’re not going to help me, please shove off so the next lonely tosser can find me.” 

 

“Right,” Harry responded, feeling guilty, “yeah, of course. What’s happened, you can’t stand?”

 

“Buggered my knee,” Draco replied, “Some arsehole got a good kick in, locked it backwards. Tried to stand and, well, I couldn’t.”

 

“Right then,” Harry said, crouching down, “Arm around my shoulder, then use your good leg to get yourself standing, alright?”

 

Draco did as he was bid, only grumbling a little, until the two were standing. 

 

“Okay, then?” Harry asked. 

 

“Hardly,” Draco sniffed. 

 

“You want to go like this or should I just levitate you?”

 

“Like this,” Malfoy directed, “Rather not be at your mercy any more than required.”

 

“Your gratitude is really overwhelming,” Harry muttered as the two walked and hopped their way towards the infirmary. Harry was relieved that the next class had begun and the halls had emptied out. He knew Malfoy's pride could only handle so much. Harry would be late but he doubted that Professor Flitwick would comment on his tardiness. He felt another twinge of guilt at how he seemed beyond reproach these days. He was sure it wasn't a good look. 

 

“Would think you’d had enough gratitude for one lifetime,” was the laboured response. 

 

Harry wasn’t so easily baited, more distracted by the way Malfoy was guarding his midsection, clenching his teeth, wincing when they fell out of step. His injuries were apparently more severe than Harry had realised. He felt the wave of rage building again and clamped it back down. 

 

Malfoy’s arm was tight around him and sweat speckled his hairline by the time they reached the infirmary. Madam Pomfrey looked up from her desk and her mouth thinned as she assessed the injured boy. 

 

“Mr. Malfoy, this simply cannot continue,” she chided, an efficient spell transplanting Malfoy from Harry’s side to the crisp sheets of an infirmary bed, “you’ll need to name names, eventually. You’re not being a hero, you know.”

 

Malfoy didn’t respond as the matron pressed her fingers to his wrist. 

 

“Thank you, Mr. Potter, that will be all,” the matron dismissed Harry, smartly. 

 

“Malfoy,” Harry found himself saying, “I’ll take care of this. I will.”

 

“Leave it, Potter,” Draco retorted—his words were cut short with a groan as Madam Pomfrey pressed on his abdomen. 

 

The matron gave Harry a pointed look and Harry apologised, leaving Malfoy to her care. 

 

***

 

“A telling off at the next DA meeting should do it,” Harry theorised, “Just stupidity, really. There’s no room for this vigilante nonsense.” He was with Ron and Hermione in a corner of the eighth year common room, explaining the morning’s encounter. He rubbed his palms on his trouser legs in agitation. 

 

Hermione shook her head, slowly, “I’m not sure a reprimand is the best strategy, Harry. Might just make people defensive, cling harder to their beliefs.”

 

“What’s got you three all stony-faced, then?” Came Ginny’s bright voice from behind Harry’s wing-backed chair. 

 

Harry jumped, looking up to see Ginny and Neville, holding hands and smiling at the trio. Harry was admittedly still adjusting to the sight of the two of them together. It hadn’t hurt as much as he’d thought it would, after the war, when Ginny sat him down to softly explain how her and Neville had fallen together while Harry was away. She’d cried and he’d somehow found himself comforting her. It had chafed but it wasn’t wholly excruciating. 

 

“It's nothing,” Harry responded abruptly, and a cloud fell across Ginny's pretty features. 

 

“Oh, yeah, that’s lovely, Harry, shut us out of things, we couldn’t possibly help,” she retorted, coldly.

 

Harry scrubbed a hand over his face, “Sorry,” he sighed, “sorry, Gin, you’re right, you probably will have some insight into this. Grab a seat.”

 

The flare of anger faded from Ginny’s face as she curled up next to Ron and Hermione, Neville perching on the arm of the couch beside her. 

 

“We think…” Harry started carefully, “that some DA members are getting aggressive—physically so—with some Slytherins. You two are closer to most of them now anyway, do you know anything about it?”

 

Neville looked serious as he and Ginny absorbed the information. 

 

“Well, that’s crap,” Ginny announced, “that’s not the point of the DA at all! If they’re not going to use their powers for the common good then maybe we should just disband entirely? We only kept it running because so many students still were keen on the practical aspect of it.”

 

Hermione shook her head, “I just don’t think punitive measures will be effective, I think we have to lead by example.”

 

“We already are!” Ron spoke up, “You don’t see me whaling on Malfoy, no matter how much I might want to sometimes. He’s still a haughty little shit.”

 

“I think what Hermione is saying is that the absence of action is not exactly action,” Neville said thoughtfully, arms crossed. Harry was still unused to Neville’s quiet confidence. He barely recognised the boy any longer. 

 

“Thank you, Neville,” Hermione agreed, “we can’t just say leave the Slytherins alone. We have to reach out, to actively show that we believe in interhouse unity, that we are stronger together—all the houses, not just three quarters of them.”

 

Ron made a distasteful face that Ginny mirrored but Hermione continued, “If we want to protect them, we have to befriend them. Us especially. Like it or not, other students look up to us. We’re getting along well enough, us eighth years, even with the shared common room.”

 

“Yeah,” Ron grumbled, “because with Zabini gone to Beauxbatons and Crabbe dead, there are only like five of them left.”

 

“How convenient then, that there are five of us," Hermione quipped. "Pansy and I are already friendly—we’ve been studying arithmancy together,” she continued, ignoring everyone’s surprised expressions, “Ginny, you take Daphne, Neville, you’re with Millicent, Ron, Goyle and Harry, Malfoy, obviously.”

 

“What?” Hermione asked after a moment of stunned silence. 

 

“With them?” Ron questioned, “With them to do what?”

 

“I’m asking you to reach out to students we have known and gone to classes with for years,” Hermione scolded, “You don’t have to be their best friend, but just make an effort to be friendly. Lead by example, show other students that Slytherins aren’t pariahs. We’ll gently encourage students in the DA to do the same.”

 

Ginny and Ron continued to look dubious, but Harry saw Neville nodding, “I don’t mind Millie, really,” he said thoughtfully, “And Tarts likes a cuddle some nights.”

 

“Tarts?” Ginny inquired, her top lip twitching in bewildered disgust.

 

“Yeah, you know, Millie’s cat, Tartarus, black little fluffball that’s around here some days.”

 

“I think I know the one,” Ron remarked with forced casualness, him and Harry giving Hermione a knowing look, then grinning as the blush rose high on her cheeks. 

 

“Tarts,” Ginny echoed, nonplussed, “right.”

 

“Good,” Hermione concluded, “Then we’re agreed. Now, I’ve really got to get on with—”

 

“Agreed?” Harry cut her off, “You really think I can just walk up to Malfoy with an olive branch and a butterbeer and call it a day?”

 

“If you think he’d like a butterbeer,” Hermione replied archly, “then by all means.”

 

“That’s not what I meant!” Harry burst out, barely managing to keep his voice low, “there’s too much bad blood between us, you know that. Why can’t Ron take Malfoy, or Neville?”

 

“Because it’s Malfoy, Harry,” Hermione sighed, exasperated, “and because it’s you.”

 

“What in Merlin’s name does that mean?” Harry demanded only to find Ron leaning forward, a hand bracing on Harry’s shoulder. 

 

“She’s right, mate,” Ron confirmed, “If you want to protect him, and you want to protect all the younger Slytherins, if we've got any hope at all with this harebrained scheme—sorry, 'Mione, but really, it's a bit much—It’s got to be you.”