Harry sat by the lake and wished he'd put up a stronger fight against Hermione's pleas that he return with them to complete his education at Hogwarts. He wished he'd accepted Kingsley's offer and joined the Aurors. He wished he'd thought things through a little better, because now he was stuck at school with no desire to be there, no desire to learn, and his friends were always off with each other, leaving him alone to wallow in misery. There wasn't even Quidditch to be played anymore.
"Friends are off snogging again, I take it," Malfoy said quietly, sitting down beside him on the dew-damp grass.
"Correct," Harry said, smiling almost against his will.
It went unsaid between them that they'd formed some kind of fragile facsimile of a friendship, one that had been forged through years of torment and hatred, one that had come into fruition upon their final year at Hogwarts during which they were both isolated from their friends and incredibly displeased with how things had eventuated. They were alone, and so they'd come together. Somehow, it worked.
Malfoy, who had managed to pick up a smoking habit when Harry wasn't looking, produced a pack from his robes and offered it to him.
"No thanks," he said with a shake of his head. "Don't smoke."
"Neither did I, once," Malfoy pointed out, taking one for himself and lighting it with the touch of his wand.
Harry side-eyed him, watched as he inhaled deeply and then let the smoke flow from his lungs. He made it look graceful, like some kind of art. Harry thought of dry ice and ballerinas and cauldron smoke.
"It'll kill you one day," he warned him. "They're not good for you."
Malfoy snickered in a quiet, harmless way, a way so unlike the cruel mocking laughter that had always been directed at Harry when they were younger. "Something's got to kill you," he said, "so why not cigarettes?"
Harry shrugged and pulled a handful of grass from the ground, began tearing it up blade by blade. "It's just sad, is all. Dying from something preventable."
"Most things are preventable," Malfoy countered, flicking ash from his cigarette to the grass. They both watched as the embers died, extinguished by the wet of the ground. "At least cigarettes are a nice way to go."
Harry, sensing he was fighting a hopeless battle, shook his head with tired amusement and said, "You're impossible."
"And yet here I am."
"Is this all because you're upset at Ginny leaving?" Ron asked, tugging his collar up so the purple bites on his neck were hidden. "Because, Harry, there are plenty more fish in the sea."
"I'm not upset," Harry said truthfully, "and I know there are plenty more fish in the sea. I just don't want to go fishing right now."
"Nice," Ron said appreciatively, "the fishing thing, nice."
"Thanks," Harry murmured as he put a textbook in his bag, "but really, I'm not upset at all. And I don't understand what you think is wrong with me."
"Well," Ron said awkwardly, biting his lip, "don't you think you spend a bit too much time with him?" There was a pause. "With Malfoy, I mean."
Harry forced his last book into his overcrowded book bag and slung it over his shoulder, staggering only slightly under its unexpected weight. "No," he said, simple and to the point.
He wanted to add something else, wanted to ask Ron if he didn't think he was spending just a bit too much time with Hermione, but he didn't. He held his tongue, scratched a hand through his hair, and started for the door.
"It's just, well, he's still Malfoy," Ron continued, following after him like a scrappy dog, "even if he's kind of renounced his evil ways."
"'Kind of'?" Harry echoed, looking over his shoulder with raised eyebrows, looking sceptical. "How did he kind of manage that?"
Ron looked lost for words but managed to say, "He's still Malfoy, that's all. How sure can you be when it comes to a Malfoy?"
"I'm sure," Harry told him, just a little too forcefully, and Ron must have heard the underlining warning because he immediately dropped the subject.
"This is bad," Harry murmured around a smile as he pried the cork from their third bottle of Firewhiskey. "This is... this is expulsion bad." The cork came away with a pop and he lifted his eyes to grin at Malfoy who grinned excitedly back, his eyes shining under the limited candlelight.
Malfoy said in a quiet, dangerously addictive voice, "This is nothing, Potter. This isn't even underage drinking. This is just – just regular drinking. It just happens to be in school."
Harry took a generous gulp from the bottle which left him with Firewhiskey down his front and then said, "Drinking on school grounds, that's generally... something bad. They don't encourage this. They'd probably... if they knew people did this they'd... they'd say 'don't do this anymore' but you'd still do it because – because you're insane." He took another drink, this time managing not to dribble it all over himself.
"Don't be such a do-gooder," Malfoy suggested, taking the bottle from Harry and taking a hearty swig. "Live on the wild side or – wait, wait – what is it? Walk on the wild side? I don't know. Here, here, have a cigarette, here." He wriggled a little so he could pry his pack from the pocket of his jeans and hand them to Harry. They were hot from how close they'd been pressed to his skin, and Harry held them in his hands as though seeking warmth.
"I don't smoke," Harry said for what was possibly the thousandth time.
"Potter," Malfoy groaned, meeting his eyes and smiling in a fluid, smooth, drunken way. He looked charming. "Please. Don't be such a – a – I don't even know, but don't be one."
"You're drunk," Harry snickered, sounding dangerously close to breaking out in giggles. "You're – you're properly drunk."
"Give in to peer pressure," Malfoy wheedled, reaching out and poking Harry in the side, making him laugh and squirm and drop the cigarettes. "Just give in. You can be cool like me."
Harry laughed and swatted his hand away. "You're not cool," he said, sounding disgustingly fond, "you're just cold and distant. That's – that's fake cool."
"Oh yeah?" Malfoy said, eyebrows raised and his voice amused. "Who's cool, then? Give me an example of a cool person so I can strive to be like them or – or just kill them or something. Like, wipe out the competition."
"I don't know," Harry murmured, reaching for the bottle and trying to think. "I – I can't think of anyone. Remus, I guess."
"Remus," Malfoy repeated with zero recognition in his flat voice. "Wait – hang on, you mean the teacher from – from third year? Lupin?"
Harry nodded. Suddenly feeling solemn, he took a pull from the bottle that left him breathless.
"Can I ask why?" Malfoy asked with undisguised surprise. He made grabby hands at the bottle and Harry passed it to him. "Wasn't he a werewolf?" He paused and fixed Harry with a sobering stare. "Don't tell me you're one of those werewolf fanatics, Potter. Please tell me you don't have a stack of werewolf romance novels hidden in your trunk over there."
"Shut up, of course I don't," Harry said defensively, and Malfoy accepted that readily and took a drink from the bottle, one that made his throat shift and his Adam's apple bob. Not that Harry was watching. "I just. I don't know, I don't understand why he's cool, he just is." He froze and blinked a few times. "I mean, he was. Was, as in the past tense of is."
Malfoy let out a sad sigh and handed Harry the bottle. "I figured that."
Harry took the bottle but didn't drink, instead he held it in his hands and let the condensation wet his fingers and make him shiver. He leaned back against his bed and Malfoy, who was beside him on the floor of their dormitory, leaned back as well. Their sides fitted together, warm and solid.
"All the cool people die," Harry murmured. He began ticking names off his wet fingers. "Mum, Dad, Sirius, Remus, Tonks, Dumbledore, Fred. Even Snape, I guess. He was pretty cool in the end."
"Spies are usually pretty cool, yeah," Malfoy agreed. "It's the whole – y'know, mystery and... and allure and stuff."
"Allure and stuff," Harry echoed.
Harry took a feeble sip from the bottle, noticing as he did that they'd almost emptied it. "Nearly four down," he said. "We've done well."
Malfoy let out a tired breath and leaned a little more against Harry. His hair brushed against Harry's skin, the feeling soft and cool.
"Potter, I'm glad we don't hate each other anymore," he said with audible relief. "It's easier like this. And... I guess I've kind of gotten used to you."
Harry laughed quietly, the sound a whispered chuckle, and he said, "I thought Malfoy's didn't show emotion. Isn't that what you told me once?"
"Malfoy's are good liars," he told him with a yawn.
Harry shut his eyes and allowed himself to lean against Malfoy in return. "No you're not."
"We're concerned," Hermione told him in a low, secretive voice during History of Magic when they were supposed to be taking notes. "Ron told me you were both passed out on the floor yesterday morning... and you'd been drinking."
Harry scratched down a barely legible note about Gorglack the Great and his third wife as he grumbled, "Ron didn't have to tell you that."
"There were four bottles, Harry," Ron whispered. "Four divided by two equals two, in case you've forgotten. That's two bottles each. That's a lot of alcohol."
"It's not like we drank it all quickly," he said defensively, which was a definite lie. "And we'd had a big dinner beforehand, so it wasn't on an empty stomach."
Hermione wasn't convinced. "Two bottles on any kind of stomach is still a big deal, Harry."
"Not to Hagrid it isn't, I bet," Harry huffed petulantly.
"You're being difficult," Hermione snapped.
"And you're being ridiculous," Harry countered. He looked at Ron and Hermione, levelled them with his gaze, and said quietly, "Just because I got drunk with someone who isn't either of you doesn't mean it's time to sit me down for an intervention, okay? It was the weekend, we were celebrating, neither of us died, so why don't you both please calm down about it. You should be happy I'm happy, shouldn't you?"
Hermione looked ready to continue the discussion, but Ron met her eyes and shook his head minutely. Harry ground his teeth together and stared unseeingly at his parchment, wanting nothing more than to leave them there in the classroom and head back to the dormitory where he could ignore the world.
The morning of the trip to Hogsmeade Harry woke up to find Ron gone. Malfoy was asleep in his bed across the room and Neville was snoring solidly from behind the curtains of his bed to Harry's right, but Ron's was empty, the sheets messy and scattered, his shoes gone.
Neither he nor Hermione were present at breakfast, and Malfoy sat beside Harry and said in a tone similar to sympathy, "Left early, I guess."
"Yeah," Harry murmured. "I just..."
Malfoy didn't need to hear him say it. "Yeah," he said, and he pushed another piece of toast on to Harry's plate.
They sat quietly in the library on opposite ends of a small table, their books and things scattered messily, combining in a large pile. Malfoy hummed to himself, a quiet tune that sounded like something you'd hear at a ball, like something regal and aristocratic.
Harry paused writing his essay to look up at Malfoy, to watch him gnaw on his lip and hum and hold his quill in that weird cramped way that he was unable to force himself out of doing.
"Something on my beautiful face?" Malfoy asked without pausing, without skipping a beat, without looking away from his parchment.
"Nah," Harry said, "I'm just admiring your fine features and fair skin, m'lady."
"Quit it, I'm blushing," Malfoy scolded him in a high, girly voice. "This isn't gentlemanly of you."
Harry watched him writing and wondered how they'd managed to end up where they were. They were friends. They were actually friends. Friends who joked and talked and hung out together and studied together and got drunk together. And as much as Harry hated himself for admitting it, they were better friends than he was with either Ron or Hermione, who were never there, who were always off with each other.
"Why didn't your friends come back to Hogwarts with you?" Harry asked before he could stop himself.
Malfoy's quill stuttered against the parchment before it came to a stop. He looked at Harry and his eyes were lost and tired.
"They didn't think they were welcome," Malfoy replied with a weary sigh. "I believe Pansy at one stage said that she was worried we'd be lynched." Malfoy smiled shakily at the comment, but Harry kept a straight face. "I guess they were just scared. Or couldn't be bothered. I know Blaise doesn't need an education, since his inheritance will take care of him."
Harry slowly nodded as he took Malfoy's words in. "Pansy?" he asked eventually. "What about her?"
"She, uh, she's married someone," Malfoy said uncomfortably.
Harry's eyes widened. "I thought – you and her...?"
Malfoy shook his head. "We never dated, if that's what you're failing to ask. We grew up together so we were always close, and our families had always intended for us to marry, but after the war her family suddenly wasn't so keen." He grimaced in a 'what can you do' sort of way. "She's married a wealthy Norwegian wizard now. Someone respectable."
"That's a bit rubbish," Harry muttered. "Did she get a say in the matter?"
"Knowing Pansy she arranged it herself. She's always been practical."
They didn't mention Goyle, who, if the Prophet was to be believed, had killed himself before he'd made it to trial.
"So," Harry began hesitantly, "if your friends were so sure they weren't going to receive a warm welcome back to Hogwarts, why'd you come? Wanted to prove them wrong?"
"No," Malfoy said quietly and carefully, "I came back because my parents wanted me to."
Harry thought of Lucius, who was likely rotting in Azkaban as they sat there, and of Narcissa, who had saved Harry's life and the lives of almost everyone on Earth with her one act. Harry had spoken for her and Malfoy at their trials, and his word had excused them from punishment. He'd made sure the court knew how Malfoy had lowered his wand on the Astronomy Tower that night, how he'd done what he did for fear of what might happen to his parents, and how he'd lied to save Harry from discovery in Malfoy Manor. Harry supposed that had been the start of their unlikely friendship.
"They think that by showing humility and nobility in the face of disgrace we'll be able to build a respectable reputation again," Malfoy recited, sounding as though he didn't share his parents' beliefs in the slightest. "So they put me on the train and sent me back here. I'm the future of the Malfoy name, after all, so it'll be me who this all benefits eventually." He allowed himself a small shrug.
Harry frowned in thought. "And do you think it's working?" he asked him. "Do you think your reputation is improving because you're at school?"
Malfoy looked at him, studied him with his grey eyes, and asked, "What do you think?"
"I think you don't really care about your reputation anymore," he answered sincerely. "I think you're just grateful to be alive and not locked up."
"And how do you figure that?" Malfoy questioned curiously.
"Because I know you," Harry replied.
"What if I'm only your friend because I want your influence to help me succeed?" Malfoy asked. "What if I'm using you?"
Harry nearly laughed. "You're not," he said with certainty. "I don't know how many times I have to tell you this, but you're a dreadful liar. Honestly, you're the worst I've ever met. There's no way you could fake this."
Malfoy couldn't hide his smile.
"He's a bad influence on you," Hermione hissed on the third floor on their way to Defence Against the Dark Arts.
Harry's eyes widened angrily behind his glasses and he demanded, "Oh yeah? How so?"
Hermione, who was red-cheeked and flustered, said, "I haven't forgotten that time the two of you got drunk and slept on the floor."
"That was one time," Harry snapped, "and it was weeks ago! That's not even – it's not relevant in the slightest! That's not being a bad influence!"
"Yes it is!" she insisted.
"No it's not!" Harry cried.
She switched tactics. "Well then, what about your recent behaviour?"
He frowned at her. "What recent behaviour?" he demanded. "I haven't been behaving like – like anything!"
"Exactly!" she shrilled. "You haven't! You haven't been doing anything, because you're never here!"
"I have so been here!" he shouted. "I'm here right now, aren't I!"
They'd stopped walking now, and Hermione spun dizzyingly to face Ron. "Ron, tell him!"
Ron, looking awkward and uncomfortable, toed at the ground and rubbed at the back of his neck as he said, "Harry, mate, it's not that you're not here, it's more that... when you arehere, it's like you're not. You know?"
"No!" Harry replied, completely dumbfounded.
"What he's trying to say," Hermione interjected heatedly, "is that you're never fully with us. Your head's always somewhere else. We just want you to join in with us again, Harry."
Harry's fists bunched at his sides and he snapped, "Excuse me for not wanting to take part in your disgusting couple-y behaviour! If I knew you were so open to threesomes I'd have suggested it months ago!"
"I beg your pardon!" Hermione gasped, pressing a hand to her chest and dropping her mouth open in shock.
Ron screwed up his nose in faint disgust. "Thanks but no thanks, mate," he said gruffly. "That's a bit... a bit much."
"When you're with me you're so busy being all lost in each other's eyes and holding hands and being so ridiculously in love that I could be a teapot or a hippogriff for all you'd care," Harry told them angrily, eyes flaring and chest heaving, "and that's only when you're here, because honestly that's not very often. You're always off with each other and if you think I'm just going to sit in the dormitory fucking knitting or something, you're dead wrong. So forgive me for trying to fill up the void in my life with someone who's actually there." He glared at them both, challenging them to shout back at him.
"Harry," Hermione started, her tone cautious.
"Don't," he warned her, levelling her with his eyes, "just don't." He took a deep breath and looked up the corridor towards their classroom and then back at the way they'd just come. "Tell the Professor I'm sick," he told them, and then he left.
Later that night Harry found him at the lake, sitting crouched and small by the water's edge.
"Give me one," he said as he sat down beside him, and he held out an impatient hand. "Come on, quick, before I change my mind."
Malfoy stared at him with his wide, pale eyes and white lashes, his expression entirely lost. "Come again?"
"A cigarette," Harry told him, clicking his fingers now, "can I please have a cigarette?"
"You don't smoke."
Harry laughed harshly and shook his head with disbelief, with frustration. "I know," he said, "and how many times have I had to remind you that? Just – just please, Malfoy, Draco, please."
He looked shocked and taken aback by Harry's casual use of his first name – it was just something they never did, they never called each other Draco or Harry, it just never happened – but didn't move for his cigarette pack, which Harry knew would be in his pocket.
"Potter," he said hesitantly, like he was afraid of scaring him off, like Harry was some kind of wild animal that needed to be approached with caution, "is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine," Harry lied, "I just really want to take you up on that offer of a cigarette. Actually, I think you owe me about fifty, because that's how many times you've offered me one. So – so can you please give me a cigarette?"
Malfoy frowned at him. "Something's wrong. Something's up with you. You're behaving strangely."
"Nothing's up," Harry insisted. He felt annoyance building in him, felt himself edging closer to his breaking point. First Hermione and Ron, now this. Why wouldn't anything go the way he wanted it to?
"Why weren't you in Defence Against the Dark Arts today?" Malfoy asked him casually. "Granger said you were sick, but she's never been a very believable liar."
"That makes two of you, then," Harry said with a manic laugh.
Malfoy reached out and put his hand on Harry's forearm. "Potter, something's upset you, and I'm not giving you a cigarette until you tell me what's happened."
Harry avoided looking at him. Instead he stared out at the lake and wondered if Mermaids still lived in its depths, if the squid still breached the surface sometimes. Maybe the battle had scared them off. Maybe they'd been killed.
Malfoy's fingers tightened around Harry's arm, squeezing him gently. "Harry," he urged.
"That's the first time you've called me Harry," he said numbly. He was suddenly unable to look away from Malfoy's hand on his arm, his pale fingers digging warmly into Harry's olive skin.
"Yeah, well, you called me Draco just then," Malfoy murmured. "Also I figure since we've known each other so long it's about time we got around to being on a first name basis." He cleared his throat and took his hand from Harry's arm only to offer it to him for a handshake. "Hello. My name's Draco Malfoy."
Harry snorted and met Malfoy's eyes, trying to read his expression. "This is stupid," he said quietly, but he took Malfoy's hand and shook it with his own. "I'm Harry Potter."
"Hey, Harry," Malfoy said, "you look kind of down. D'you want to share your woes with your best pal Draco?"
"You're scaring me," Harry said with a grin. "Who are you? You're not the man I know."
"Yeah, well, you're scaring me," Malfoy said, dropping the cheery act and fixing Harry with a determined expression. "You'd never ask me for a cigarette if something wasn't bothering you. So don't treat me like an idiot by telling me nothing's wrong."
"Fine," he said with a huff. "Today Hermione told me she thinks you're a bad influence – which you're not, by the way – and then she told me I'm not spending enough time with them." He rolled his eyes and snorted to express just how unimpressed he was.
"Firstly," Malfoy began, "I just refused to support your non-existent smoking habit, so I think that ought to say something about what kind of influence I am on you. Secondly, maybe she has a point."
Harry opened his mouth to agree before he realised what he'd just said.
"What?" he murmured with a frown. "I don't... wait, what?"
Looking defensive and embarrassed, Malfoy shrugged, looked out at the lake, and said, "It's just, well, we do spend a lot of time together. And they're your best friends. Maybe you should spend more time with them."
Harry blinked repeatedly. "I'm sorry, I'm just. I'm having trouble comprehending all of this. You – you want me to spend less time with you? Is that – am I understanding you correctly?"
"They're your best friends," Malfoy said simply.
"And what are you?" Harry demanded. "You're – you're not just some person – you're my friend too, you know. They don't have sole rights to my friendship." He took a breath and looked at Malfoy, who refused to return the gaze and instead continued to watch the lake. "If I want to spend all my time with you, they're in no position to tell me not to."
"They've been your friends since first year; don't you think their opinions matter?" Malfoy asked him quietly, still staring out at the water.
Harry blinked again. "Sure," he said easily, "but that doesn't mean they're right."
Malfoy's lips curved. "For someone so stupid, you're quite intelligent at times."
Harry smiled. "Thanks. For the intelligent part, not the – the stupid part."
"You're welcome," Malfoy murmured. He then tore his eyes from the lake and met Harry's. He looked strangely sad, and Harry's stomach twisted painfully at the sight. "Harry, you've been friends with these people since you were children, and now you're going to lose them if you don't wake up and fix things while you can," he said, quick and serious.
Harry took a deep breath, let the smell of near-stagnant water rush through him, and he hugged his arms around his middle protectively.
"I'm not going to lose them," he said eventually. "We've been through too much together for that to happen."
"Exactly," Malfoy agreed, "you've been through too much together. Don't ruin that simply because you're too stubborn to tell them what's bothering you."
Harry stared at him with wide eyes. "Nothing's bothering me," he said, "I just don't like them forgetting me because they're so busy snogging each other."
Malfoy watched him wordlessly and Harry, usually so uncomfortable under the gaze of others, didn't mind.
"Do you think maybe you're jealous?" Malfoy asked eventually in a very small, gentle voice, and Harry blinked in surprise.
"I don't like Hermione like that," he assured him. "She's – she's like my sister. No way. No."
"That's good, but I don't mean romantically. I mean, are you jealous that they're spending so much time together without you?" Malfoy asked him carefully, and Harry felt his heart rate pick up. "You three have always been so inseparable, so it'd be understandable if you were. You should've heard the jokes we had in Slytherin about you." He smiled wanly.
Harry held himself tighter and took deep breaths. "I don't – I mean..." He bit his lip, bearing down harshly with his teeth, and tried to understand how it had taken him so long to figure it out. "I think maybe you're right. As much as I hate to admit it, since it'll only go to your already enormous head, but I think you have a point."
Malfoy ignored the playful barb. Instead he nodded like this was something he'd already known but had finally received confirmation on, and then said, "You should tell them."
"See, I was under the impression that you were smart," Harry quickly told him. "You're always like 'Potions Potions Potions Arithmancy ahh Transfiguration watch out for an O+ I left it around here somewhere' and I falsely believed that meant you had, like, some brains up there."
Malfoy ignored him. "Just tell them you feel excluded. I'm sure Granger'll figure it out and understand. Though actually if she hasn't figured it out by now I think it's her intelligence you should be questioning and not mine."
Harry swallowed until his ears popped and then looked out at the lake, at the reeds floating along the surface of the water, flattened and green. "That's going to be great fun," he sighed. "Hey guys, I feel excluded."
"You'll feel better once you've told them," Malfoy promised him. "And I know that if you don't tell them you'll only end up wishing you did."
"I hope you're right," Harry grumbled, "because I'm going to feel like an absolute twat."
With a soft laugh Malfoy climbed to his feet and brushed the grass from his robes. "Come on," he said, turning towards the castle, "it's getting dark, we should head back."
Harry followed him up to the castle across the grounds, staring up at the castle with its brightly lit windows.
"Hey," Harry said once they were inside and nearing the eighth year common room, "uh, thanks for not giving me a cigarette back there. I mean, I know I asked, but I just... I don't know what I was doing."
Malfoy bumped their shoulders together and said, "Don't worry about it, Potter. I've got your back."
Harry sat with Ron and Hermione at breakfast and they looked at him with mild surprise. Hermione cleared her throat expectantly and fixed Harry with a stern gaze.
"I'm sorry for yesterday," he told them quietly, "but there's something that's upsetting me and I think it'd be best if I just – if I just told you about it. Y'know, so that way there's nothing between us, or whatever."
Hermione's face flooded with relief. "Oh, Harry!" she cried. "I'm so sorry for yesterday as well! I shouldn't have been so forceful – I shouldn't have said those things!"
"It's okay," he assured her. He hadn't expected her to apologise, but now that she had he felt noticeably better.
Ron put down his cup of pumpkin juice and said, "I knew something was bugging you, mate. I'm glad you've decided to spill the beans."
Harry smiled fondly at his best friend who eagerly returned the gesture, then looked slightly up the eighth year table at Malfoy who was eating toast and pretending not to be eavesdropping.
"I hope you realise how uncomfortable I am right now, and how awkward it's going to be for me to admit this," Harry told them both. Hermione nodded fervently and reached across the table to hold his hand, clinging to it with affectionate desperation. "Okay. Well, basically, I'm feeling... kind of excluded. Which is – well, it's expected, isn't it? You two are a – a thing now, and I'm just. I'm still just Harry. So it's expected. I mean, this whole jealousy thing."
When he looked up from the table and met Hermione's eyes, they were wet with tears.
"Don't cry!" he squawked in alarm. "It's not sad!"
"It is!" she wailed, her fingers digging painfully into the flesh of his hand. "We've neglected you!"
"I feel rotten," Ron murmured, shaking his head in dismay at himself. "Mate, you should've told me earlier. I'd have pulled the whole 'no means no' thing on Hermione and we could've gone and played Quidditch together."
Hermione, who looked offended at Ron's comment, said, "Harry, we're so sorry."
"Don't be," Harry interjected, "it's not like I told you or anything. And you're young and in love; this is kind of par for the course, isn't it? Being inseparable?"
Ron scratched the back of his neck and shrugged lazily. "Guess so."
"We're going to fix this," Hermione announced in the same way she might have declared a new study plan. "We're going to – to make charts or – or timetables!"
"No, no, no," Harry babbled, "no charts! No timetables! I just – can we please just keep things how they are, only with more group time? Can't we be like that?"
"Yeah, Hermione, schedules kind of creep me out," Ron said with a dramatic shudder. He began reading from an imagined chart, "2pm, couple time with Hermione. 2.30pm, chess with Harry. No way, that's just... it's rigid and unnatural. "
Hermione hummed with consideration and said, "I see your point. Okay. We'll just work on it, then." She looked at Harry and her eyes were warm. "You'll tell us if we're slipping up?"
"Yes," he promised.
"Good," Hermione sighed. "We can do this."
Harry smiled at them, feeling like they were their old selves again instead of RonandHermione plus Harry. He looked up the table to where Malfoy was, but he'd already left.
"He's ignoring me," Harry grumbled when he woke later that week to find Malfoy's bed empty and already made on the opposite side of the room. He turned to look at Ron who was lying sleepily in his own bed and he said, "I haven't talked to him in days."
"Maybe he's decided he's had enough of being a good bloke," Ron mumbled into his pillow. "He's probably off performing satanic rituals right now in the girl's bathroom. It was always just a matter of time."
Harry gnawed on his lip and tried to think if he'd done anything to offend Malfoy recently. The last proper conversation they'd had was at the lake when Malfoy had suggested Harry talk with Ron and Hermione. After that there'd been brief encounters in the common room and dormitory and in class, but nothing substantial, nothing that felt like how they had been.
"This is rubbish," Harry sighed, slumping his shoulders and rubbing his tired eyes before feeling for his glasses on the bedside table. "He's being rubbish."
"You're being rubbish," Ron said. "It's the weekend. Let a bloke get some shut-eye."
Neville grunted in agreement.
"You used your stupid map to find me," Malfoy said accusingly when Harry found him in an unused classroom on the fourth floor. "That's cheating, Potter. Dead set cheating."
"It's not," Harry disagreed, pulling a chair over so he could sit opposite Malfoy at the table he'd occupied. "It's just using the resources I have available to me. It's being thrifty, if anything."
"Thrifty, shifty, they're all the same," Malfoy grumbled, and he put down his quill on his parchment and abandoned whatever he'd been working on. "What are you doing here?"
Harry looked pointedly about at the near-dilapidated classroom. "I could ask you the same."
"Library doesn't open until 11 on a weekend," Malfoy promptly replied, then looked at Harry expectantly. "You?"
He shrugged. "Wanted to talk to you."
"We're talking now," Malfoy said.
Harry smirked at him. "Thanks, I really couldn't figure that out on my own."
"You've always been a slow one."
"So you've said."
The awkwardness fell over them slowly until Harry couldn't breathe without worrying if he was being too loud. He should have prepared some kind of speech beforehand; he should have planned what he was going to do. He felt useless.
Eventually he decided he was going to do what Malfoy had advised him to do with his Ron and Hermione issue. He was going to confront it head on.
"Why are you avoiding me?" Harry asked, and without meaning to his voice came out soft and hurt, like a girl stood up on a date. He screwed up his nose in distaste at how badly he'd managed to make a mess of things so quickly and then said, "We haven't talked properly in days."
Malfoy groaned and covered his face with his hands. "I don't want to have this conversation," he mumbled.
"Too bad," Harry told him, "because we're having it."
"Eugh," Malfoy growled, "why did I convince you addressing your problems was the best way to solve them? That was so stupid of me. Now look. You've actually taken my advice. You're doing like I suggested. This is not what I wanted. This is – you're using my own advice against me, Potter."
Malfoy was still hiding behind his hands, and Harry smiled and reached out. He took Malfoy's wrists and tugged on them gently until Malfoy's hands came away, revealing how flustered and unhappy he looked behind them.
"What's wrong?" Harry asked, keeping his voice distinctly quiet and gentle and entirely unthreatening.
"You're – you're using the therapist voice," Malfoy groaned. "You've stolen all my tactics."
Harry smiled fondly at him. "I'm trying to help you here."
"I know you are," Malfoy grumbled, "and that's what makes you so infuriating."
"I'm infuriating?" Harry repeated with wide eyes. "At least I'm making an effort to talk to you!"
"Exactly," moaned Malfoy, who promptly dropped his head to the tabletop and refused to lift it again. "You're unbelievable."
"I don't know what's happening here," Harry admitted with distress. "Is this – is this some kind of mental breakdown? Malfoy, should I be getting help?"
"Don't be stupid, Malfoy's don't have mental problems," he huffed.
"That's the biggest lie I've ever heard!" Harry guffawed. "All you are is one big mental problem. You're a mental problem wrapped inside a mental problem wrapped inside a mental problem wrapped inside a mental institution."
"Thanks," Malfoy mumbled into the table. "You sure know how to make a guy feel special."
Harry smiled a little and almost reached out to pat him on the back, but didn't. "You're one in a million, sweetie pie."
"And you're killing me," Malfoy said in an almost illegible murmur.
Harry sat there quietly for a long moment, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do in these situations. What was there to say?
"Have I done something wrong?" he asked, hating how uncertain he sounded. "Because you should tell me, if I have."
Malfoy lifted his head from the table. There was a smudge of ink on his forehead from where he'd pressed it against the parchment he'd been writing on, and his skin was a faint pink. He looked tired and sad, and Harry wanted to help him.
"You're so inherently good, Potter," he said quietly. "You make me feel evil."
"Sorry," Harry said, "but I can't really help that."
Malfoy nodded. "Didn't think you could."
They were quiet, and Harry wondered if maybe he should apologise again. He was about to when Malfoy broke the silence.
"Why are you here?" he asked, looking at Harry as though he was an abstract painting he couldn't understand.
Harry said, "I told you already, I'm here to talk to you."
"Yes," Malfoy agreed patiently, "but I want to know why."
"Why I want to talk to you?"
Malfoy nodded. "Yeah. Why."
Harry blinked stupidly. "Is this – is this a trick question?" he asked nervously. "Because I'm not good with riddles. It took me ages to get past a Sphinx in the Triwizard Tournament, and looking back now, the riddle wasn't even that hard."
"It's not a trick question," Malfoy assured him, sounding sick, "I just want to know."
"Wow, okay, weird," Harry snorted, grinning at him. "I want to talk to you because you're my friend, idiot."
Malfoy took a stabilising breath and asked, "Why am I your friend?"
Harry scrunched up his nose. "Is this conversation just going to consist of you asking me 'why' and me having to explain everything? Because I'm pretty sure this is how people go insane."
"Please," Malfoy murmured, and Harry knew it was important to him to know, though Harry couldn't understand why.
"You're my friend because I like you," Harry answered. "You give me good advice, and you're funny, even though most of the time your jokes are at my expense, and you're surprisingly good company." He shrugged. "I don't usually keep track of the reasons why I like people. Sorry if that list is a little short. There are other things, I just can't think of them right now. Check back with me later."
Malfoy nodded as he accepted what Harry had said.
"Is there a reason why you're asking me these things?" Harry prompted gently, and Malfoy sighed.
"I thought once Granger and Weasley stopped treating you like a third-wheel we'd stop spending time together. You'd have them back, so I'd become useless," Malfoy admitted in a small voice. "It made sense, at the time."
Harry stared at him and Malfoy in turn stared at the table.
"You're a real idiot, you know that?" Harry muttered, astonished and taken aback.
"I know that now," Malfoy said in a self-depreciating way that made Harry's stomach flip. "Thanks, by the way. For, y'know, legitimately liking me. Not many people do these days, so I'm grateful."
"You're welcome," Harry said sweetly, and he reached across the small table to pat Malfoy's shoulder.
They were sitting in a booth at The Three Broomsticks when Hermione said, "How's Malfoy?"
Harry looked up from the little basket of breadsticks he'd been fiddling with and shrugged. "Alright," he said offhandedly. "He has a bit of a cold right now but he's fine." He paused. "Why?"
"I'm not allowed to show an interest in my friend's friend?" she asked innocently, and Harry narrowed his eyes.
"You're up to something," he said with suspicion. "I know you are."
"Don't be ridiculous," Hermione twittered. "I'm only being polite."
Harry narrowed his eyes further and she laughed nervously.
Ron took a drink from his Butterbeer and said, "Okay, I'm going to say what we're all thinking. Harry, what's going on between you and Malfoy?"
Hermione made a squeak in protest and Harry tilted his head with confusion.
"What?" he asked. "Nothing's going on. I mean, he was – he was upset for a while but we fixed things. There's nothing going on, we're fine." He smiled nervously as if to demonstrate how fine things were.
"Yes," Ron said slowly, "but when you say 'we' do you mean 'we are great friends' or 'we had some awesome sex last night'?"
Harry stared at him until he was sure his eyes were going to dry out.
"Because a guy needs clarification sometimes," Ron added.
"Ronald Weasley," Hermione hissed, "that was not the way to go about it."
Ron looked defensively at her and hissed in return, "Forgive me with not wanting to emotionally manipulate my best mate into revealing his secrets, Hermione! Sometimes a little straight-forwardness is all that's needed!"
Harry found his voice again and managed to use it. "Wait – wait – hang on," he croaked, "you think – Malfoy – you think we..."
"You've broken him," Hermione groaned, slapping Ron across the upper arm.
"Haven't," Ron argued, and then looked at Harry as though searching for signs of outward damage. "Harry, mate, you okay? Everything still in one piece in there?" he asked gently.
"W-we're friends," Harry stammered, eyes wide. "That's all! Who told you we weren't?" His chest felt tight.
"No one," Ron said. Cautiously he added, "It's just... the way you two behave around each other, that's all. It... it gives off the wrong impression, I guess – well, the wrong impression since you say I've got it wrong. Not that it's wrong in principle. It's great in principle. I'm all for equality, Harry." He pretended to wave a flag, and Harry was sure he was about to pass out.
"What Ron is trying to say," Hermione interjected in a clear and precise voice, "is that for several weeks we've been under the impression that you've been dating Malfoy. I want to make it clear that we haven't been upset about it, we've merely been concerned that you didn't feel comfortable in telling us."
"But we're not!" Harry rasped. "There's nothing to tell!"
Hermione and Ron looked at him for a very long time while Harry struggled to breathe.
"I'm not even lying!" Harry babbled. "I know it'd be predictable of me to lie to cover up the relationship but there isn't a relationship and I'm not lying about it! Stop looking at me like that! We're not! This is all false!"
"Okay," Hermione sighed, though she didn't sound convinced. "But Harry, I urge you to look at your friendship from an outsider's point of view. Maybe then you'll be able to see what we're talking about."
Ron nodded in agreement. "Yeah, and then you can confess your big gay love to each other and live happily ever after."
Harry swallowed and choked, "I need to go."
"You should quit," Harry said when Malfoy stubbed out a cigarette in the grass and reached for another. "It's bad for you."
Malfoy looked at him and smirked, said, "Yeah, and you-"
"No," Harry interrupted. "I'm serious. You should quit."
Malfoy watched him quietly, his light eyes unreadable. "Okay," he said eventually, "if it means that much to you."
"You want my carrots?" Harry asked, pushing the offending vegetable away from the mashed potato on his plate, sectioning the orange chunks off like they were infectious. "You like them. You're sick like that."
Malfoy edged his plate beside Harry's and scooped them over. "Sure," he said, grinning. "Thanks."
"No worries," Harry murmured, smiling like a fool without any real reason.
A note landed softly on his desk during Transfiguration. Inside was a crude drawing of Harry stumbling drunkenly around the small scrap of paper and the words "Harry Potter can't handle his Firewhiskey" underneath.
Harry snorted quietly and got to work drawing an equally poor drawing of Malfoy under the influence.
"You're sending each other notes," Ron murmured quietly, watching as Harry sent the note fluttering over to Malfoy on the other side of the room. "Even you have to admit that's lovey-dovey."
"Shut up," Harry whispered.
When Malfoy's reply came it was a simple message: Let's get drunk tonight. You in?
Harry smiled to himself as he scribbled out an affirmative and sent it back.
"Honestly," Ron sighed.
Ron was with Hermione, Neville was with Hannah, and Harry tried not to think of how it looked that he was with Malfoy.
They'd been drinking and were now lying on the floor, their heads dangerously close to each other. Harry could hear Malfoy's every breath, could feel when he shifted even slightly, could smell him. They were so close, and wasn't that what Ron and Hermione had been talking about? It was the closeness.
"I'm glad you came back to Hogwarts," Harry said quietly, the words coming unbidden. "I'm glad your parents made you come."
"So am I, actually," admitted the other boy. He sounded surprised at himself. "I thought I'd hate it here, but I guess – this is stupid and you're not allowed to make fun of me for this, but I guess you make it okay."
Harry's stomach swirled again and he felt a fluttery feeling in his chest, felt warmth blossoming across his face. "I could say the same to you, too," he murmured.
A comfortable silence descended, one that was warm and easy, one that left Harry with nothing better to do than remember what his friends had said in The Three Broomsticks days earlier.
"Ron and Hermione think we're dating," he admitted. The words were whisper-soft against his lips, and he felt relief settling through him. He'd wanted to tell him for days. "They tried to get me to admit it last Hogsmeade weekend."
There was the sound of movement and then Malfoy was facing him, his eyes light and unguarded, hazy from drink. His cheek was pressed to the floor, just as Harry's was. They lay eye to eye.
"How do you feel about that?" Harry asked him before he could say anything.
"As much as I hate to agree with them, I think they might be on to something," he said quietly.
It was then that Harry made the conscious decision to hold Draco Malfoy's hand, consequences be damned. Malfoy didn't put up a fight, he didn't move his hand away, he just let Harry's fingers curl through his own. After a brief second he returned the squeeze.
"You're – you're being physically affectionate," Malfoy said quietly, looking down at their entwined hands which lay between them. "This is new."
Harry, confident and self-assured by his slight buzz, said, "We could maybe make it a regular thing. Being physically affectionate. If that's something you'd be interested in."
"Won't that cause problems for you?" Malfoy asked him, a small crease forming between his eyebrows. Harry realised with alarm that he found it ridiculously adorable.
"You're adorable," he said, the words coming out of him without his permission. "I just – I'm sorry, that was – I don't."
Malfoy stared at him.
"It won't cause problems for me," Harry told him, going back to the question. "Why would it cause problems for me?" He struggled to concentrate. The only thing he could think of was Malfoy's hand, warm and solid in his own, and the proximity between them.
"Because of things," Malfoy answered very unhelpfully. At Harry's blank expression he added, "Family things."
"I don't care about family things," he said earnestly. He remembered what Malfoy had said once, about his family and their want of a better reputation. "Unless you think it's going to be a problem for you? Maybe you're worried about your reputation?"
Malfoy snorted in surprise and smiled at him, saying, "I don't care about my reputation. You told me that, remember. And besides, there's no one in the world more wholesome and universally beloved than you, twat. You're a good thing."
Harry smiled warmly at him and let his thumb brush over the smooth skin of Malfoy's hand.
"So we're doing this?" he asked, seeking confirmation. "We're – we're going to be, like-"
"A couple?" Malfoy finished for him. "I – well, yeah, I wouldn't mind."
"Neither," Harry murmured. "I think it'd be really cool."
Malfoy shifted closer and said quietly, "That physical affection thing you offered? Think I could take you up on that?"
"Sure," Harry answered, voice hoarse and almost inaudible, because then they were moving closer and their lips were touching and Harry struggled to remember the world.
"I don't want to say I told you so," Ron said boastfully the following morning upon discovering Harry and Malfoy curled up together, asleep on the dormitory floor, "but I did tell you so."