Two months after Draco Malfoy was reported dead, Harry and Ron found him tangled in Strangler Ivy on the grounds of Hogwarts.
It had already been an odd morning.
"Whose is it, though?" Seamus dropped to his knees on the new bed, feeling about as though he might find the owner under the covers. "Do you think somebody in one of the other dorms is looking for their bed?"
"They would've been kicking up a fuss in the common room." Ron had been prowling around it, eyeing it from all angles, ever since they woke up and found an extra four-poster bed next to Dean's.
Seamus flopped onto his back. All four of the boys watching held their breath in case the bed swallowed him.
He wriggled. "S'comfy. Nicer than mine." He grinned. "Maybe I'll swap."
Harry sat down on the end, running a hand over the mattress.
"If it isn't hexed in some way, then somebody must be playing a joke on the owner." Harry touched the red and gold curtains. "They might not even be in Gryffindor. Whoever it is could have transfigured the curtains."
Neville nudged one of the bedposts with his knee. "Do you think we should report it to McGonagall?"
"Nah, don't do that," Ron said. "If someone is playing a trick, that'll ruin it for them. Think about it: there's probably some Slytherin wandering around the castle right now trying to find their bed. It'd be hilarious. They could come in here and not even recognise it."
Neville looked disapproving. "What if it's not a Slytherin?"
Ron shoved Seamus over so he could flop on the bed next to him. "Bet it is. Why else would someone think it was funny to put it in here?" He stretched. "I hope it's Malf—"
The unfinished sentence hung in the air for a moment.
"We're going to be late for breakfast," Harry said at last.
"Yeah. Yeah." The other boys gathered themselves up. Seamus rolled off the bed. Ron folded his lanky limbs and caught Harry up at the door.
Ron shoved his hands in his pockets. "I don't know who to hate in Slytherin any more," he admitted. "I mean, Crabbe? Goyle?"
Crabbe and Goyle wandered around the school like lost souls this year. They never strayed an inch from each others' sides. Harry didn't think he could hate them.
It was just — weird. Harry didn't know whether he should be sorry about Malfoy being killed. He'd never liked him — he'd been an evil-minded little git. Only ... he'd been killed by the Order of the Phoenix. In a Death Eater skirmish, and it was perfectly okay for Order members to kill Death Eaters, even ones who were on their first raid. But the Death Eaters had never been Harry's classmates before.
It preyed on his mind all morning. Hermione wasn't at breakfast, and after that she had Ancient Runes, so he and Ron didn't see her until lunch. Harry pushed his food around a bit, then broke in on Ron telling her about the Mystery of the Appearing Bed. ("What were you thinking, Ron; it could have been dangerous!")
"Hermione? Do you know who actually ... you know, with Malfoy?"
She looked blank.
Harry made a frustrated sound. "Killed him. Do you know who it was who killed him?"
"Um. I think it was Kingsley Shacklebolt."
She kept looking at him. "You're thinking that it could have been you, aren't you?"
Harry shrugged and looked away.
"In the bathroom that time, when you cast Snape's curse, you could have —"
"Yes. I know."
Harry wished that he could just forget about the Sectumsempra incident. He'd forgotten it easily enough at the time; after the first moment of blood on the tiles and Malfoy's white face and cold dread twisting in Harry's stomach, he'd pushed it from his mind so well that he'd almost convinced himself that he'd done nothing to deserve the detention Snape gave him. Then in July the report had come in that Malfoy had been killed in a skirmish in London. Suddenly he was thinking about what had happened in the bathroom all the time.
Ron gave him a sideways look. "Don't worry about it too much, mate. He was being a total git at the time."
Harry blinked. "Gee, thanks. It's nice to know I would have been justified in murd—" his tongue tripped on the word "— murdering him because he was being a git."
"No! I didn't mean — well, what I mean is, he was really being a git. He cast an Unforgivable on you. That's kind of the pinnacle of git-ness, right?"
Harry took a breath. "Yeah. I suppose."
Ron thumped him on the back.
"Anyway, we knew you'd be like this about the bed," Ron said, turning back to the more comfortable conversation with Hermione. He adopted a scolding tone. "It could have been dangerous, Ron. It's probably a Horcrux, Ron."
"Shut up." Hermione was trying not to grin. "And don't talk so loudly."
Ron and Harry grabbed their bags as they finished lunch. Hermione was checking the books in her bag. She looked up. "You two have a free period, don't you? Are you going back to the library? I think we were close to a breakthrough with that text on bloodline-bound jewellery; I wish I'd been allowed to take it back to my dorm."
Ron groaned. "Hermione. The sun's shining. I haven't even seen the sun since we got back to school. I see books whenever I close my eyes. That's not normal."
She looked confused. "We only came back to school at all because the library here is the best in the world. We need to ..."
"We will," Harry promised. "After dinner we'll all go back. We're just going to stretch our legs a bit, or we'll go spare."
She hesitated. "Oh ... all right." But they noticed that she cast a longing look toward the library as she left for Arithmancy.
Ron almost exploded out of the castle doors.
"Yes! Yes!" He punctuated each step down the broad steps with a jump, then a spin at the end that nearly sent him into a fifth year Slytherin. She hid a smile under the book she was hugging to her chest.
Ron looked sheepish, settling into a normal walk. He was still grinning, though. Harry shoved him with his shoulder and grinned back. "Smooth."
Ron just sighed happily. "I don't get Hermione." He swerved around a bed of Munching Mossflowers in their path; they were grabby at this time of year. "How could she actually prefer to spend all her time with books on Dark Magic in that library? I mean, I get it, research, Horcruxes, important — but to prefer it?" He shook his head. "Definitely something not right."
"You're noticing this now?"
Ron made a face. "Well, it becomes more obvious every time she expects us to do it with her."
It was a beautiful day, even without the thought of the deathly quiet of the library as a comparison. Feathery clouds peppered the horizon, but the dome of the sky was an intense blue. There was just enough of a breeze to keep their cheeks pink.
Down the slope of the lawn, the lake glittered in the sunshine. The squid must have been sleeping, or resting deep down, since nothing disturbed the surface but the ripple of the breeze. Harry let his eyes skim over the expanse of water to the smudge of the village in the distance, and wished they'd brought their brooms.
There weren't many other students out on the grounds; most people had classes. When they slipped through the twin statues of Edwin the Ugly and Edwin the Unruly, and down into the uneven path between the herb gardens that began there, there were no others at all.
"D'you reckon this bloodline-jewellery book could really be useful?" Ron asked. "You-Know-Who would only have been able to use Slytherin-bound stuff, right? And we already know what the Slytherin Horcrux was ..."
It took Harry a moment to see why he'd stopped speaking. He looked in the direction Ron was staring, and pulled up short. It looked like — only of course it wasn't, but —
A boy sat against another ivy-draped statue. One of his knees was drawn up. His head rested on it, his shoulders slumped. White-blond hair slipped over his forehead, brushing the black robes covering his knee.
He looked up. His tired eyes lit in relief and he pulled himself to his feet.
"Oh, thank god. I have the worst headache; I think some of those curses actually hit me. I can't believe you two made it out unscathed." He looked down and made a face. "And then I stayed here too long and I think the ivy's tried to eat me. Come and give me a hand — my foot's all tangled up."
His expression grew uncertain as they stared. "Ron? Harry? You're all right, aren't you? What — what's happened?"
"Malfoy?" Harry felt silly asking, because Malfoy was right there in front of him, but ... He couldn't be.
"I ... yes?" Malfoy looked behind him, then back. "Really, what's going on? Did something else happen? Did you get hit?"
"You called me Ron." Ron sounded horrified. Apparently that had made more of an impression than the part where Malfoy wasn't dead.
Malfoy didn't seem to have an answer for this. He opened his mouth, then tilted his head to the side as though waiting for Ron to finish the sentence. "Er ..." he said eventually, when it was obvious Ron was finished.
He looked exhausted. He also looked as though he were beginning to panic.
"It's Polyjuice," Harry realised. He laughed and turned to not-Malfoy. "Whoever you are, you should have researched a bit more if you wanted to be convincing."
The boy gaped at him.
"Anybody could have told you Malfoy and Ron and I weren't friends," Harry continued. He gave the boy a speculative look and made sure that he could feel the end of his wand in his robe pocket. "If you're a Death Eater, you're not a very good one."
Not-Malfoy stared at him blankly for a moment. Then he gave a weak laugh. "This is a really stupid joke, you know. Quit it."
"Ugh." Ron shook himself. "Right, yes. Polyjuice. Whoever he is, we should take him to McGonagall."
Harry bit his lip, looking back at not-Malfoy. "We could Stun him and cast Levicorpus ..."
Not-Malfoy went pale. Harry wouldn't have said that he could when he was so pale to begin with, but now he was white. He stared at Harry and Ron, his eyes hard and furious. Harry didn't quite know what this person was trying to achieve, but he was really, really good at the expression Malfoy had worn right after Harry had insulted his mother.
Not-Malfoy drew himself very, very straight, his grip on the statue white-knuckled. When he spoke it was almost in a hiss.
"All right, I don't care what this is about. Are you listening? I don't. But if you try to touch me, I swear you won't ever be able to hold your wands again."
Harry squared his shoulders. It was difficult not to think of the boy as Malfoy — especially when he said things like that. He had to keep a refrain of dead, dead, dead running through the back of his mind.
"If you don't want to be Stunned, you're going to have to give us your wand and come along to the Headmistress's office."
The boy watched him and didn't say a word. His eyes glittered with rage; his shoulders were as tense as wire.
"Listen —" Harry said.
"I'm not going to play along, Potter."
Harry shrugged and pointed his wand. "Expeliarmus!"
"You saw it broken in front of me, you freak."
Ron tilted his head. "I don't think he has a wand. If he did, he wouldn't have been sitting there all tangled up in ivy, would he? And he probably would have, you know ... hexed us to bits before we noticed him."
Not-Malfoy didn't say anything, but looking at his expression Harry thought Ron was right. They would have been painful bits.
"All right." Harry lifted his chin. "You're going to have to walk in front of us, then."
Not-Malfoy glared slit-eyed poison at him and didn't move. After a moment Ron coughed and pointed his wand at the Strangler Ivy coiled around his foot. The vines held on stubbornly for a moment, then slithered out of the way.
The boy stepped out of the coils. He stumbled and grabbed the statue again. He straightened, not quite looking at them, and turned up the path.
Harry and Ron fell in behind him. Harry kept his wand trained on the stiff back in front of him. Ron kept his wand out too, but he looked as though he wasn't sure how seriously to take this. Harry had already lost one Death Eater in these grounds while trying to escort them to custody, though. He wasn't losing another one — no matter how tired and incapable of fighting they looked.
There was nobody in the halls when they got back inside. Harry was glad; he didn't want people to have another excuse to stare at him.
He had no idea what the boy who definitely absolutely wasn't Malfoy thought about it. He turned directly towards the Headmistress' office; he never glanced at Ron or Harry behind him, or gave any sign that he was walking at wandpoint.
When they reached the gargoyle not-Malfoy said, biting the word off, "Justice."
Ron and Harry stared at him. It was only as not-Malfoy stared fixedly at the gargoyle that Harry realised — bizarrely — that Malfoy was saying a password.
Except that it wasn't actually the password. Harry stepped around him, gave him a searching look, then said, "Self-discipline."
The boy's lip twisted in a sneer as though he blamed Harry for the wrong password, but he didn't say a word as the gargoyle ground out of the way. He stepped onto the staircase. Harry stepped up quickly beside him as he began to move. He felt Ron climb on behind them.
Harry held tightly onto his wand as they rose in the dim space. He was having sudden and horrible second thoughts. What if this boy had managed to conceal a wand, and he leapt out at the top of the staircase and cast Avada Kedavra on Professor McGonagall, sitting peacefully behind her desk? What if that had been his plan all along? Harry nudged up closer against him, hoping to be able to grab him if he made any sudden movements.
Not-Malfoy stiffened. "Back off, Potter. Didn't your aunt teach you that hands are for keeping to yourself?"
The staircase stopped before Harry could think of an answer. He knocked on the door and it swung open.
Not-Malfoy didn't make a lunge. Harry relaxed, barely.
McGonagall was standing by the bookshelf on the left side of the room, near Fawkes' empty perch. She looked up from the heavy volume in her hands, shifting it to one palm so that she could adjust her spectacles with the other hand. Her eyes focused on Malfoy (not Malfoy) and she raised her eyebrows.
"Well, this would seem to explain the roll this morning," she murmured.
"Just a moment, Mr Potter." She crossed to the fireplace and knelt before it, her knees giving alarming creaks. She threw a handful of Floo powder in and said, "Professor Slughorn's office," then leaned into the flames. They couldn't hear the conversation, but after a few moments she withdrew her head and rose. Her knees clicked again.
She turned to face them. "Professor Slughorn will be joining us in a moment, as the head of Slytherin House. I have also asked him to summon Professor Sinistra, if she should be free. I think that we will hold off explanations until they join us."
Harry chafed but kept quiet. Ron was looking around, interested. He'd only seen the headmaster's — headmistress', now — office once or twice before this. It was considerably more austere now than it had been in Dumbledore's time, but McGonagall had kept a few of the old headmaster's whirling gadgets and odd golden objects scattered around the shelves. They caught the dusty light from high windows, winking and spinning.
"Professor?" Not-Malfoy asked. He bit his lip. "Do you have a headache potion at all?"
McGonagall looked at him sharply, then took three quick steps, taking his chin in her hand. Harry tensed for a pounce (sickly green light marked the fall as the body tumbled off the Astronomy tower, spinning over and over) but the boy let McGonagall examine him.
She drew in a breath. Then she turned and transfigured a book into a chair, which she levitated behind him.
"Sit down," she said. He lowered himself with a brief look of relief. McGonagall crossed to the fireplace again and asked for the hospital wing. She stayed in there a longer period this time, and when she withdrew her head and arm she held a small bottled vial. She stood and crossed the room to give it the boy. He took it with a tiny nod of thanks and drank it down.
She returned to her desk and leaned against the front of it, regarding them all with sharp-eyed interest.
Harry had only just begun to fidget when the fireplace flared. Professor Sinistra stepped gracefully out of it.
She gave a curious glance around, then looked at Professor McGonagall.
"I believe I was summoned, Minerva."
McGonagall nodded. "I have some of your students here, as you see."
Sinistra looked back at Harry and Ron, a light furrow appearing in her brow. "I don't believe that they are, you know," she said. "Did you drop Astronomy, boys? You look a little tanned."
McGonagall clicked her teeth shut. "Your students as Head of Gryffindor, Aurora."
Sinistra tilted her head. "Oh, yes. That." She arranged herself against the far wall, giving the boys a once-over again.
The door opened a moment later, and Professor Slughorn stepped into the room.
Ron looked vaguely disappointed. "I was hoping we'd get to see him climb out of the fireplace," he whispered.
Harry was confused by Professor Sinistra's presence. He supposed he and Ron were her students — for all that he couldn't remember her coming down from the Astronomy Tower for anything other than the Welcome Feast each year — but he wasn't sure why their head of house needed to be here. Malfoy's, yes, but —
"Good god," Slughorn said, interrupting his own jovial greeting to McGonagall. "Is that the Malfoy boy?"
"No," Harry said. Everybody turned to look at him. He flushed. "Er. We — Ron and I — think it's Polyjuice."
Not-Malfoy threw him a look of utter loathing and turned away again.
"I see," McGonagall said. Then, to Slughorn, "And yes, Horace, this is the reason I summoned you. One of your ex-students appears to have re-emerged."
Not-Malfoy straightened. "One of his what?"
McGonagall clapped her hands. "I believe we will begin at the beginning. Mr Potter, Mr Weasley, your story is likely to be the shorter one. How did you come upon Mr Malfoy here?"
Slughorn transfigured himself a wide, squashy chair and lowered himself into it, his eyes fixed in fascination on the three boys. Harry couldn't help noticing that it looked a lot like the one he'd turned himself into the first time Harry met him.
"Er," Harry said. He looked around. "He was just ... sitting out in the grounds. He was all tangled up in some ivy. He doesn't have a wand."
"He's acting really weird," Ron added. "He keeps talking as though we're ... friends, or something." He shuddered. "It's really weird, Professor."
Harry chanced another look at not-Malfoy. He was still furious and tense, but he was also nervously clenching his fingers in his robes. McGonagall turned to him. "Mr Malfoy, perhaps you might tell your own story of how you came to be on the grounds?"
He opened his mouth; closed it again. "Professor, what ...?"
He stopped once more and obviously came to a decision. "I think ... a banishing spell, or something like that," he said instead. "That was sort of what it looked like, anyway. Ro — Weasley and Potter and I were out of school grounds — which I realise is against the rules, but there was a lead for ... something important, at Merope Riddle's grave in London. Only there turned out to be Death Eaters nearby. I don't think they were waiting for us; I think they were just stationed there on general principles. Yaxley took my wand and broke it, in the middle of it all, and then something hit me. I, er, think it might have saved my life, actually. There was an Avada Kedavra, too — it came right at me."
"Yes, that would explain the headache," McGonagall said absently. "I'm afraid we've not yet come to the heart of the issue, however, Mr Malfoy."
His mouth made an uncertain shape. "I thought we might not have."
Sinistra was frowning, the delicate furrow back in her forehead. She smoothed her hair back from her face and looked at McGonagall. "Do come to the point, Minerva. I realise that I don't entirely keep up with those parts of the student body who do not take my class, but surely the Malfoy boy is generally ... doing less breathing than this, these days?"
McGonagall looked irritated. "Yes, thank you, Aurora, that is the issue here." She turned to Malfoy (not Malfoy, he couldn't be; why was McGonagall treating him as though he were?) who was looking a bit greenish. "You are absolutely sure that you are Draco Malfoy?"
He just looked at her. "Yes," he said after a moment, when it became clear that she wasn't going to move on without an answer.
She leaned back, pressing her hands against the desk behind her. "I saw you die two months ago, you see," she said. Her mouth twisted. "It was something I decidedly did not enjoy. But it does give us something of a conundrum now, don't you agree?"
"Professor, he's lying," Harry said. "Why are you believing him? Nothing he's saying makes any sense. Why would we go to Merope Riddle's grave with him? And we didn't, anyway, we were here all morning — we were at breakfast. Plus Malfoy's dead. You said he was. You said you saw it. He's dead."
"My god, Potter, would you stop saying that." Malfoy glared at him. Harry stared back, challenging him.
Sinistra shifted. "How very interesting," she murmured. "I really think I would have petitioned to be Head of House years ago had I realised how exciting it was."
McGonagall gave her a cold look.
"Not that you weren't doing a sterling job," Sinistra said, unperturbed.
McGonagall turned back to Harry, Ron and the interloper. "We will, of course, have to monitor Mr Malfoy for the full hour to ensure that it truly isn't Polyjuice," she said. "But the castle certainly believes you to be alive, Mr Malfoy. Your name spontaneously appeared on the roll — albeit not on that section of it I would have expected — this morning, and the house-elves tell me that the castle has also produced a new bed in your dormitory."
Her tone more than her words triggered the small warning flag in Harry's head.
"Professor," Ron said slowly, "that can't be right. That bed the house-elves told you about — it has to be the one that turned up in Gryffindor Tower."
"Yes," McGonagall agreed. "So they told me. And I must admit that I was rather startled myself when Draco Malfoy's name appeared on the student roll under the heading 'Gryffindor House'."
She looked at Harry, who was gaping like a fish, and at Ron's suddenly thunderous scowl; then at Sinistra turning a calculating stare on Malfoy, as though he had become twice as interesting.
It was Malfoy who broke the silence.
"Professor," he said, "what house did you expect me to be in?"
"Slytherin," she said simply. Her brow creased, and she looked at him almost sympathetically. "I'm afraid you've got a bit lost, Mr Malfoy."
Harry didn't know what to think.
McGonagall had said that there would need to be a more extensive questioning session to attempt to get to the heart of the ... serious weirdness ... of everything, but that Malfoy was exhausted and had spell-backwash damage and it would have to happen after he'd had a period to recover in the hospital wing.
Then she'd had a brief discussion with Sinistra and Slughorn about whether Slughorn was happy to pass Malfoy over to Sinistra's house, and Harry could only sputter. At which point McGonagall had noticed that they were still there and had kicked them out.
They met Hermione, who listened with wide eyes and a certain amount of envy at missing the excitement. Harry was too restless to go to dinner, so they grabbed some food from the kitchens instead and traipsed back up to the boys' dorm to have a look at the bed.
"Why is she trusting him?" Harry demanded, for the third or fourth time. Hermione sat down on the edge of Malfoy's red and gold-curtained bed, tucking her robes under her.
"Hermione!" Ron looked scandalised. "You might catch something!"
She rolled her eyes. "I really don't think I'm going to catch Slytherin-ness from a bed, Ron. Especially a Gryffindor bed."
"He wasn't just a Slytherin."
"Well, I don't think I'm going to catch Malfoy-ness or Death Eater-ness either."
Harry glared at the slice of pie on his plate. He put it down on his pillow. "Either he's tricking everyone and he's not really Malfoy, in which case he's a spy," he said, marking it off on his fingers, "or — or — he is Malfoy, in which case he tried to kill the headmaster and he let Death Eaters into the school and he pretended to be dead." He balled his hands up. "I know I can't be the only one who thinks that that's slightly suspicious behaviour."
"Or the third option," Hermione said calmly. "The one that McGonagall believes: that he belongs to a different reality."
Harry let his mind skitter over that idea for a moment, as it had when the headmistress spelled it out in her office. Then he shook his head.
"That's ridiculous, Hermione. I've never heard of that."
"Well, it's not common. I mean, you can't control travel between realities, the way you can time with a Time-Turner. But it is documented."
"O mighty documentation," Ron said quietly, making a vague worshipping motion. Hermione clicked her tongue at him. He grinned.
Harry had to pause for a moment there. It was true that he hadn't realised time travel was a possibility either, until Hermione had produced a Time-Turner like a rabbit out of a hat at the end of third year. But still ... Malfoy as an alternate-reality traveller?
He really did think that Malfoy as a lying, evil, twitchy little spy who'd pretended to be dead was the more convincing image.
"He said he was a Gryffindor, though," he said, pulling out his ultimate argument. "And there's no way in the world."
Hermione made a face and took a bite of her shepherd's pie. Then she delicately sipped her pumpkin juice. "It does sound very odd," she agreed, frowning at the tray on her knees. Then, looking up, "Oh, I wish I'd been there! I'm sure you haven't told me everything that was said. It doesn't make proper sense the way you've told it."
"Oi." Ron looked offended. "It didn't make sense. He kept talking about all these things that didn't happen, and acting as though we'd been friends. It was just weird." He brightened. "Do you suppose he might be mad?"
Hermione hesitated. "It doesn't sound like a delusion, though. If it were, he would be used to people contradicting it, wouldn't he? But it sounds as though he was really shaken by people thinking he was dead." She tapped her fingers on the edge of her plate. "And it would take a lot to fool the castle about what house somebody belonged in; I don't really think it could be done. I honestly think McGonagall's probably right about this."
Then she frowned again, more sharply, as something occurred to her. "He didn't mention me, did he? You would have said if he had. He didn't mention being friends with me."
"Er." Ron looked uncertain. "D'you ... um, want to be friends with him?"
She waved that away, scowling. "I just think it's typical, that's all. Even in his own alternate Gryffindor reality, none of his friends are Muggle-born."
"See, that's proof that he's lying," Harry said. "As if we'd ever choose him over you in any reality, Hermione."
She looked a little bit pleased.
Ron flopped onto the bed next to Hermione and folded his knees up, apparently forgetting that it had Death Eater cooties on it. "You know the other weird thing?" he said. "When he talked about following a lead to Merope Riddle's grave — don't you think that kind of sounded like a Horcrux hunt? How did he even know about Merope?"
"It could have been anything," Harry said. "Just because we were thinking about checking out her grave ..."
"Maybe we should."
"Or maybe it's a trap." Harry gave him a pointed look.
Ron flushed. "Um, yeah. Right."
Hermione had gone back to puzzling over possibilities. She was chewing on a bit of her hair. "What did he say about getting cursed? When Professor McGonagall asked him how he got to Hogwarts, I mean, what did he say?"
Ron and Harry looked at each other. "A banishing spell?" Ron asked. "I think that's what he said."
"No, that's not enough," Hermione said. "Didn't he say anything else? A banishing spell isn't even a curse, it's just a hex. It doesn't specify the destination, so it doesn't have the malice necessary for a curse. But if he had a horrible headache and he was exhausted like you said, that could only have come from the backwash of malicious magic."
Harry looked at her. "Um. All right." McGonagall had mentioned spell backwash, he remembered. "I'm pretty sure he said banishing, though, like Ron said. He said he thought it saved him from an Avada Kedavra."
Hermione's eyes gleamed. She opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind and closed it again. "I just need to check something," she said, pushing aside her tray of food and pulling her bag towards her. "I'm sure I read something that ... I think I put it in here ..."
Harry would have found it spooky that she happened to be carrying the right book around if it had happened last year; even given that Hermione was Hermione. But over summer she'd taken advantage of being able to do unsupervised magic for the first time, and, in between Horcrux research, she'd learned how to cast internal expansion and lightening charms on her bag. She now kept the equivalent of a small library in there. It always put Harry in mind of vague childhood memories of Mary Poppins pulling pot plants and full-length mirrors from her bag. He remembered peeking from the corridor while Dudley watched the telly.
Well, until Aunt Petunia had noticed that Mary Poppins could fly and had banned the video from the house.
Hermione dragged out an enormous reference tome, her wrists trembling with the effort, and flicked quickly to a point about three-quarters through. She read with her eyes three inches from the minuscule text. Then she looked up, marking her place with her elbow, and let a curl of a smile slide over her mouth.
"I knew I'd read something," she said. Harry and Ron waited, but she turned back to the book again, muttering to herself, furiously turning pages. After a moment she looked up once more, blinking hair out of her eyes. "I need to go study this," she said vaguely. They watched her trail out of the room, her eyes still devouring the book. She avoided walking into the door only by some extra Hermione-sense, honed over years.
"I suppose we'll find out what that was about?" Ron asked after a moment.
"Do you ... do you think it's really him? Forget the alternate reality stuff — do you think it's Malfoy?"
"Yeah," Harry admitted. Nobody else could make his teeth hurt that way. "And I think we need to find out what he's doing here."
"Yeah, guess so." Ron chewed on his lower lip, frowning at the coverlet under his hand. Then he sat up and pushed his crumb-scattered tray away. "Bloody weird, though."
Harry gathered up his tray and left it on his bedside table. He gave Malfoy's bizarrely red and gold-curtained bed one last look as they left the dorm. It sat there, looking like any other Gryffindor bed.
Which showed that you couldn't trust appearances.
There was a babble of excited voices as they came down the stairs. It switched to silence as they stepped into the common room, and sixty expectant faces turned towards them.
Apparently dinner was over. And news of Malfoy's return had got out.
"Is it true?" Ginny demanded, bounding over to them. She looked fierce and uncertain and hugely curious. "Draco Malfoy's come back from the dead as a Gryffindor?"
Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "Um, sort of," he said. "He's back, anyway. I don't think he was ever dead."
He never knew how to act around Ginny any more. He'd expected to miss her horribly, and he did feel kind of envious when he saw her laughing and swinging arms with people who weren't him. But it wasn't like losing Hermione in third year, or Ron in fourth. He'd tried to imagine getting back together with her; defeating Voldemort and then sweeping her into his arms in a sort of mirror-image of their first kiss after her own Quidditch triumph. But it was a distant image, and to be honest, all he could really see was her punching him in the nose and telling him he had a nerve expecting her to wait around like that.
She was giving him an odd look now. "Harry?" She looked at Ron. "Well, is it true? About him coming to live in Gryffindor?"
"Worse luck," Ron said, flopping into an armchair. A second-year girl scuttled backwards out of his way.
"Why?" Dean hugged his long legs and stared at them.
"Supposedly he's from another reality," Ron said.
"Ooh!" Seamus had been standing when they came in. Now he bounced down onto his knees, his hip knocking Dean off balance. "Is that what the bed was, then? Was I lying on Malfoy's bed?"
Lavender nudged him. "Lucky thing," she murmured. Seamus stared at her for a moment, then coloured as he got it. He shifted his hip away from Dean's. Dean rolled his eyes.
"It's not true," Harry said. "He's lying, and for some reason McGonagall believed it. That's all."
"But Harry," — this time Dennis Creevey, who'd shot up to tower over his brother over the last year, and now spoke in a preternaturally deep voice that made Harry feel as though he were being told off — "how could he have faked dying? My friend's brother was at the funeral. He said it was open casket. There was a body."
Harry hadn't heard the portrait opening. He only realised somebody had come in when he saw Dennis' eyes shift beyond him.
Malfoy looked a lot better than he had when they had found him. The strained lines around his eyes — probably pain from the headache — had eased, and he no longer looked so white and shaky.
He didn't look at either Harry or Ron.
"You should watch that morbid streak, Dennis." He leaned back against the wall by the portrait hole. "That's how baby Death Eaters are born."
"You've a nerve saying that, Malfoy." Seamus sounded almost awed.
"You've a nerve coming in here at all," Harry said. He could feel his glare coming back.
Malfoy looked at him then, a vicious glance that could have been a bite. He flipped his tie in Harry's direction, red and gold stripes catching the light. "Gryffindor, Potter," he said. "They let just anyone in this house, don't they?"
There was an odd tone to that last line — as though he were quoting something. Harry had the sudden conviction that it was something Malfoy had said before, in his own reality.
Then he realised he was treating Malfoy's lie as though it were truth. He narrowed his eyes.
"Only until I prove what you're doing, Malfoy. I will. I promise I will."
Malfoy gave him one last look that conveyed, quite well, that Harry was too stupid to live. Then he turned back to Dennis.
"I'm not dead," he said. "I was never dead."
Seamus pulled himself up onto the arm of the sofa that Lavender and Parvati were sitting on, raising his chin so that he had a clear view. "So how'd you fake it, then?" he demanded. "Was there somebody else in the casket? Did you off somebody, Malfoy?"
Malfoy gave him an incredulous look. He shifted the backpack he was carrying higher into his arms, clutching it to his chest. "I never died," he said tightly. "I never pretended to die." His eyes moved to the rest of the room. "The next person who mentions my death, I swear I will cut up and feed to a Thestral."
He crossed the room and disappeared up the stairs.
Dennis blinked. Colin dropped down beside him, and they fell into a conversation of furious whispers. Colin kept looking at Harry, his face worried and determined. Harry had a terrible suspicion that he was trying to recruit his brother for a scheme to protect Harry from Malfoy and his attack Thestrals.
Ron looked at Harry. "Do Thestrals eat people?" he asked blankly. Harry stared at him.
Ginny chewed on her lip and leaned her elbow on Ron's shoulder. "He looked pissed off, didn't he?" She was gazing at the staircase Malfoy had gone up, her face twisted. "Aren't you worried he's going to hex your stuff up there or something?"
Ron's eyes widened. He leapt to his feet, dislodging Ginny so that she slipped backwards onto the chair behind him. Harry got up with him.
Ginny was right. He didn't trust Malfoy alone in the their dorm for a minute.
When they got up there, though, Malfoy was already in bed. The curtains were drawn tight around, and Harry could hear deep, even breaths. He didn't believe Malfoy could really be asleep so quickly.
He sat down on his own bed, his shoulders slumping. Ron dropped down beside him. "I forgot: he doesn't have a wand anyway," Ron said quietly.
Harry shot a doubtful look at the closed curtains of Malfoy's bed. "I still don't trust him," he murmured. Ron gave him a 'Well, yeah, obviously,' sort of look, then rolled onto his face on Harry's bed.
"This is so weird," he said into the pillow.
Harry didn't hear any sound from behind Malfoy's curtains until long after they'd all gone to bed. The muffled choke and the rustle of somebody pushing his face into a pillow disturbed him as he was dropping off. He lay there in the dark, trying to muffle his ears with a blanket; but he couldn't help imagining that he could still hear somebody quietly sobbing.
There was no sign of Malfoy when the others woke up the next morning. Harry might have thought it had all been a bizarre vision from Voldemort if it weren't for the rumpled covers on the extra bed by the window.
Seamus and Dean seemed to be more or less used to the idea now. They skirted around Malfoy's bed on their way to the bathroom without giving it a glance. Neville wasn't paying it any attention either, but then Neville was messing about with seedlings in the little window tray he'd set up, and he never tended to notice much else when he was doing that.
Ron glanced at the bed once, grimaced, then concentrated on beating Harry to the shower.
Malfoy wasn't at breakfast. Neither was Hermione; Parvati said that she'd dashed out of the dorm very early, and that she'd been speculating before that on whether or not the headmistress was likely to be an early riser. She yawned as she spoke. Hermione had apparently kept her and Lavender up the night before with muttering and half-sentences that she wouldn't explain.
Hermione slipped into their first class two minutes late, her cheeks flushed and her expression pleased.
Slughorn, who liked her, gave her a tolerant nod and ignored the lateness. Ron made an indignant face at her, and she smiled back.
Harry only noticed in a distracted way. He stirred his potion, noticing that it seemed to be a slightly different consistency to Ron's. He frowned and checked the quantities in the ingredients list again. He found it a bit hard to take his subjects seriously this year, when there were Voldemort and Horcruxes to worry about, but he suspected that if he did no work at all he'd probably be expelled. And Hermione was right: they'd come back this year because they needed the Hogwarts library if they were ever going to find the Horcruxes and face Voldemort with a chance. They couldn't get kicked out.
He added another salamander scale, then glanced up at the professor. Slughorn wasn't looking at him. He tended to pendulum in his opinion of Harry. He still showed a disturbing tendency to make a favourite of him, but he also appeared to feel personally betrayed by Harry's lack of Potions brilliance this year. He gazed at him at mealtimes with the air of somebody mourning a delinquent son.
Harry wondered whether Slughorn knew where Malfoy was; whether McGonagall had shared anything new with him.
"Could she stop looking so smug?" Ron muttered. Harry looked at Hermione, working at a desk with Dean. She was trying to concentrate on her potion, but her mouth kept slipping into a smile; she looked as though she were bursting with news of some sort. She looked up, feeling their stares, and her smile widened.
Ron made a frustrated noise and tore a piece of parchment out of his notebook.
He scrawled, What's happened? on it, then charmed it to fly low across the room to Hermione. She looked disapproving as she reached down and snagged the parchment nudging her knee, but she read it. And she replied, which Harry thought was proof that she really was bursting with her news.
Ron pushed the returned parchment flat against the desk. Harry leaned over to read it.
Professor McGonagall agreed with my theory about Malfoy.
Ron wrote, You're very, very clever. So WHAT theory? You haven't told US.
Hermione read it and looked up, glaring. Yes, I am, she mouthed. Ron made an urgent motion and she smirked, stirring her potion with her left hand as she wrote again. Ron snagged the note out of the air and Harry leaned over Ron's shoulder once more to read it.
Think about this. What if Malfoy really was hit by that killing curse at Merope's grave?
Ron blinked. He wrote, Then Harry has some competition for the Boy Who Lived title? Harry rolled his eyes and scrawled underneath, Gee, that would be TRAGIC.
He thought about Draco having to put up with everything Harry had had to deal with as the Boy Who Lived. He was in the middle of a fantasy about selling scorching love-triangle stories involving Crabbe and Goyle to Rita Skeeter when Hermione's answer flew back, bobbing low against their legs.
Well, yes, but that's not the point. What if Malfoy got hit by a killing curse, and by a banishing hex at exactly the same moment? What would happen?
"Why can't she just tell us?" Ron muttered. Still, he scrawled back, Wouldn't the killing curse win?
Hermione read that and looked up, shaking her head.
It's not a matter of one spell winning and the other one losing. When you combine spells their effects combine into something new. Remember what happened to Malfoy when fifteen Hufflepuffs all hexed him with something different on the train that time?
Ron and Harry shared a grin, remembering. Then Harry grimaced again. It had been so easy to know what Malfoy was in fourth year, when he was mouthing off about Cedric and Voldemort and he wasn't sleeping in Harry's dorm.
Harry answered the note this time. But it was a banishing hex. That just sends you away. If the effects were combined, wouldn't you just be a corpse a long way off?
Hermione snagged a piece of hair with her little finger, chewing on it as she started to answer. Then something popped in her cauldron and she jumped, putting the parchment down and stirring furiously. Dean, calmly stirring his own cauldron, gave the note a curious look but didn't ask.
She picked up the note again after a moment, keeping a wary eye on her potion, and finished writing. Ron had to grab twice to catch it this time; the note was too eager and kept trying to fly between his fingers.
No. They would interfere with each other, rather than both of them working. You can't kill somebody if they're not there, so the killing curse would only partially work.
Ron groaned, quietly. What are you getting at, Hermione? he wrote.
She wrote quickly this time, her head disappearing beneath her cloud of brown hair.
An Avada Kedavra is essentially a severing curse. You both know that. That's how Voldemort is able to use it to create the items we're trying to find. The severing in the caster is a lesser reflection of the severing in the victim. The curse doesn't cause any major organs to fail, it simply cuts your connection to the living world — and then you're dead. That's why it's painless and there's no damage to the body.
So what if you were severed from the world at the same time that a non-destination-specific travelling spell, like a banishing hex, hit you?
You'd be sent away, but not to anywhere in the world. It would have to be outside it. In a different world. Or a different reality.
"It's a good theory," Harry allowed when they caught up with Hermione at the end of the lesson. "But I still don't believe it."
She waved a hand. "Of course you don't. You hate Malfoy." She frowned. "Well, I don't like him either. But this theory makes more sense than that he's playing some sort of deep game. There's no benefit to it — nothing except that he sleeps in Gryffindor Tower, and there are protection spells in the walls of all the dorms to keep that from being an issue. And anyway, Professor McGonagall agrees with me."
She nibbled on her lip, swinging her bag up onto her shoulder as it started to slip. "And I don't think Malfoy's that good an actor, no matter how many silly impressions he used to do. I saw him as I came out of McGonagall's office — that was why he wasn't in Potions, I think: he had another meeting with her and Sinistra. When we passed in the hall he didn't look at me the way he used to." She shrugged. "It was like he didn't have any especial opinion of me at all — he just sort of glanced at me and nodded a bit. The Malfoy we know couldn't have done that. He would have at least curled his lip or something."
Harry only paid attention to part of this. "Malfoy was in a meeting with McGonagall during Potions?"
"I just said, Harry."
Harry hesitated for a moment. If Malfoy had been in the meeting for the last hour, he was probably getting out right about now. And he'd be on his own, and left to his own devices, for the first time since Harry and Ron had found him. All the seventh years had a free period now, so there was no chance he'd be going to class.
"Um, look, I left something in the dorm," he said. "I'll meet you guys in the library, okay?"
He slipped away before they could answer. Ron would probably be annoyed that he'd spied on Malfoy without him; but they couldn't both fit under the cloak anymore, not comfortably.
Hermione, he thought as he raced up the stairs, would just be irritated that he was skipping Horcrux research again. He understood how important that was — of course he did. But finding out what Malfoy was up to was important too. Especially if whatever it was had to do with the Horcruxes as well. Maybe the mention of Merope's grave had been deliberate; maybe he was trying to draw Harry or Ron on to betray something. Or trying to lead them on a wild goose chase; or distract them from the clues they were following now. Or lead them into a trap.
He pounded up another flight of stairs, ignoring the Hermione-voice telling him: Or maybe he's lost and he's telling the truth, Harry, honestly. Hermione was too trusting.
The house-elves had been by. The dirty dishes from the night before had been cleared away, and Malfoy's bed, like the others, had been neatly made and turned back. He didn't have a trunk at the foot of it like everybody else, and it occurred to Harry for the first time to wonder what he was doing about clothes and schoolbooks and — a toothbrush, and so forth. Not that he'd been to a class yet, so he wouldn't have needed schoolbooks, but still. Had he had to go without brushing his teeth? He hadn't asked to borrow anything. Actually, Harry couldn't imagine him asking to borrow something.
He shrugged, turning to his own trunk and rummaging in it for the cloak. Maybe Professor McGonagall or Madam Pomfrey had given him a toothbrush.
He stood, pulling the swathes of silvery material out from under a tangle of scarves and coats, and pushed the lid closed with his foot. As he turned back towards the door, the handle shifted down. Obeying a momentary impulse, he slung the cloak around his shoulders and stepped back.
Malfoy pushed the door open and slipped inside.
He looked tired. He pulled his scarf off and dumped it on his bed. Then he sat down next to it and put his head in his hands.
He stayed there for what must have been nearly fifteen minutes. It felt like an hour. Harry wanted badly to stretch and move around a bit, but he'd learned his lesson about the difference between 'invisible' and 'undetectable' on the train at the beginning of sixth year. He didn't move.
Eventually Malfoy lifted his head a little. He shifted his hands, peering through his fingers at the room. Slowly he dropped his hands, then stood.
The dorm was fairly large. It needed to be, to fit five curtained four-posters — six, now — as well as trunks and the closets around the walls. The sun didn't properly hit the wide windows until the afternoon, but cool-edged daylight already streamed through them into the room. One of Neville's plants had plastered itself to the glass, pressed up as high as it could go to make the most of the light. It cast leaf-shaped shadows against the sketch of a Hippogriff rampant that Dean had tacked up on the opposite wall at some point.
Malfoy began to prowl around the room. He stopped at each bed and examined it. He looked at the Hippogriff sketch, irritably shaking its head in an attempt to move out of the shade, then moved on to the dog-eared West Ham poster next to it. His lip twisted in a tiny smirk, and he shifted his eyes to the opposite wall, to the mass of orange tearing exuberantly about in Ron's Chudley Cannons poster. Then he looked at a spot on the wall by the door, his eyes sliding over the place where Harry stood, tensed and invisible. He turned around, scanning the room as though looking for something on the wall that wasn't there.
He shrugged and moved to the window, running his hands along the sill. One of the seedlings nudged at his hand, its leaves shivering. He stared down at it, his expression oddly blind, then dropped back against the wall. He squeezed his eyes shut again for a moment, then opened them.
"Well, fuck," he said quietly.
Harry was still blinking when Malfoy pushed away from the wall and headed for the door again, grabbing his scarf on the way.
Harry waited thirty seconds before he followed.
He caught up with the other boy on the first flight of stairs outside the portrait hole. Harry slowed and moved closer to the wall — sometimes people came dashing down, and they noticed if somebody invisible was standing in the way — and kept a careful distance behind him. They walked down multiple flights of stairs, then Malfoy branched off towards the entrance hall. He seemed to be heading for the grounds.
At first Harry thought he didn't have any special destination, other than 'outside'. Once they got out, he certainly seemed aimless enough. Harry watched him turn his collar up against the chill breeze and overcast day, and pull his scarf (Gryffindor colours, oh it was so wrong) tighter.
Harry realised that he'd been mistaken about the aimlessness when they turned a corner of the castle and found most of the seventh year Slytherins sitting or leaning against the wall in the small garden there.
A thick growth of ivy clung to the stone walls of the castle here, making the garden feel even more closed-in and secluded than it was. The greenery even bridged the gap between the wall and a low stone bench, twining over the back and base.
Pansy Parkinson was half-sitting and half-lying against the front of the bench, leaning up to talk to Millicent Bulstrode. She twisted her neck around at the sound of footsteps. She took one look at Malfoy and launched herself to her feet.
"Oh my god, Draco."
She crossed the space in less than a second, threw her arms around his neck and held on. "Oh my god, we heard, but we didn't believe it, how could you have not told us you were alive, you complete bastard."
Apparently Malfoy hadn't filled his friends in on whatever his plan was, then. But he hadn't told anyone about the vanishing cabinet last year either, had he? Not even Crabbe and Goyle, who were helping him.
Harry slipped into the space behind some shrubs, where he could see everybody's faces.
Malfoy looked stunned. He held his hands as though he didn't know what to do with them, away from Pansy, who was still clinging and sobbing against his neck.
"Um ... Parkinson?" She hiccoughed and laughed, the sound rather drowned by his scarf and by her crying. "Um ..." He carefully disengaged her hands from his neck and stepped back, eyeing her warily as he dropped them. "Thank you for, er, worrying ... I guess. I, uh ..."
He looked around the circle of faces. Crabbe and Goyle stared at him like drowning men, the hope in their faces almost painful. Blaise Zabini, leaning against the lichen-encrusted castle wall, looked cautious; Theodore Nott had also been leaning against the wall when they arrived, but he'd taken a step forward when he saw Malfoy, his face lighting up. Millicent Bulstrode was still sitting down, her face inscrutable as she looked back and forth between Malfoy and Pansy.
"I'm glad that you're back, Malfoy," Millicent said now. "Where have you been?"
He looked at her, the panicked expression on his face smoothing over a little. "I guess I really was a Slytherin," he said. "But you must have heard about ... me. You must know that I'm not him."
"Oh, come on, Malfoy," Nott said. "You don't have to play that game with us. Whatever it's about, you have to know we're not going to rat on you."
Malfoy stared at him. "Was I really some kind of pathological liar here or something? Why does not one damn person believe me?" He shook his head. "I'm not lying about this. I'm sure that we were great friends, or whatever, in this godforsaken reality. But I barely know you guys. I ..." He looked around again. "I met Crabbe and Goyle a few times when I was a kid, then again on the train in first year. I met Nott a couple of times too. But ..." He looked at the expressions surrounding him and the next part was quiet. "I don't know you."
Pansy lifted her hands, as though she wanted to touch him but didn't know how to. "Draco, you can't say things like that." She was staring at him, tear-wet eyes intense, as though she could force him to acknowledge her. "I was your girlfriend for a year, you complete prat."
Malfoy looked taken aback. "Oh. I, um ... McGonagall didn't mention that."
Nott made a slashing, impatient gesture. "Malfoy, this is ridiculous. You might be able to sell some insane story about switching realities to the teachers, but we're not idiots."
Malfoy just looked at him. "It ..." he started finally; then his head swung around. Harry had shifted to keep from getting pins and needles, and he had a horrible suspicion that his knee might have been visible for a moment.
Malfoy's eyes narrowed. "For god's sake, Potter, would you come out of the bushes?"
After a second, Harry stood up, shedding the cloak. He could feel his face heating.
Pansy and the other Slytherins were staring at him. He suspected that they'd start looking pissed off when they stopped looking shocked.
Malfoy shook his head, taking in the flushed face and the twigs clinging to his robes. "You complete idiot, d'you think I don't know how to recognise the cloak by now?" he asked. Then in the next second, before Harry had had time to process his tone (had it been fond?), "I always knew you were pathetic, but crouching in the dirt?"
"Go to hell, Malfoy," Harry said. Which was lame, he had to admit. This whole scene had been too confusing.
He turned and strode off, folding the cloak over his arm.
"I'm glad you're not so much of a Gryffindor as all that," he heard Zabini say behind him, the sound distanced by the corner of the castle between them. Then Malfoy's clipped, "Excuse me."
Harry twisted around to see; Malfoy came around the corner as he did, also on his way back to the castle. His lip twisted when he saw Harry and he sped up, jolting Harry's shoulder as he passed.
Hermione raised her eyebrows. "Harry, I'm really not sure how the fact that Malfoy hasn't told his friends anything shows that he's even more evil."
Harry scowled at his dinner. "Well, why would he pretend like that, to his friends?"
Harry lifted his hand. "And don't say, 'Because he's not pretending' or anything like that, okay?" She rolled her eyes but didn't say anything, and Harry continued. "When Ron and I were Polyjuiced as Crabbe and Goyle, in second year —"
"When you were being a cat," Ron said, shovelling in a mouthful of potatoes with an innocent air.
"— we saw how he talked to his friends. He wasn't hiding anything. It was like he thought that telling them things was the same as telling them to himself."
"He might have changed a bit since he was twelve," Hermione said.
Harry ignored the interruption. "The only time he's not told them something was when he was plotting to kill Dumbledore."
Hermione looked at him.
"Being completely evil," Harry prompted.
Malfoy was at dinner tonight, but seated far down the other end of the table — more or less as far from Harry and Ron as he could get. Harry was a little bit disgusted to see that Richard Coote and Jack Sloper — two of his team members, even if he wasn't captain this year — were trying to talk to him. There was a shy bravado in their expressions and body language that was horrible to see.
Hermione gave a furtive glance around, then moved her wand under the table, casting a sound-scrambling charm around them. The giggling conversation between Romilda Vane and a bunch of other fifth years became vague and garbled.
"I had a look at those maps of the Forbidden Forest Hagrid gave us," she said. "I know we don't have much of a lead, but I think it's worth a try."
Ron looked up, his eyes hunted. "We haven't looked into that idea about You-Know-Who's mum's grave yet."
"We're not going to," Harry said instantly. "Not when Malfoy was dropping hints about it."
"Honestly, Ron," Hermione said. "They're just spiders. We're going to have to do it some time — the Acromantula Nest is too obvious a hiding place. It's near Hogwarts, Voldemort knew about it, and it's got the best natural protection you can imagine. And it's a reminder of one of his early triumphs: framing Hagrid for his own crime."
"Just spiders?" Ron's voice was high. "A basilisk's just a snake, too. Just because you were safe in the hospital wing —"
"I was petrified, Ronald." Hermione's tone was like cut glass.
"Nobody's asking you to go and face a herd of — of disappointed teachers telling you you've failed, or whatever your ridiculous Boggart was!"
Harry shifted along the table about half a foot, sliding out of the sound scrambling spell. He could still hear the bickering, but not what they were actually saying.
Apparently Malfoy had decided that Coote and Sloper were worth talking to, at least for the length of a meal. He was telling them some sort of story, alternately lounging back in his chair and leaning forward, his eyes dark and alive. Whatever it was about, the younger boys were enthralled. Their grins skittered between nervous and devoted.
He was probably telling them improbable things about his alternate reality. Of course, I was Gryffindor Quidditch captain there. Head Boy, too. Well, they would give me those, wouldn't they, after I got twenty eight OWLs without losing a single match?
He heard Malfoy laugh, pleased-sounding, and for a moment he thought, What an arrogant tosser, laughing about his Quidditch wins, before he remembered that the Quidditch wins had only happened in Harry's head.
He flushed. Malfoy, who had until then been keeping his eyes firmly away from their side of the table, chose that moment to look around.
For half a second he was completely expressionless. Then he smiled — a tiny, cruel smile that took in Harry's flush and his scowl and the forkful of pastry that Harry had held suspended and ignored in his hand while he watched Malfoy. Then he turned back and said something to Sloper. The other boy's eyes widened as if he'd been slapped. He and Coote nervously edged along the bench.
Neville's wondering voice in Harry's ear brought him back to himself.
"Harry, is that ...?"
He looked around, following Neville's gaze.
For a moment he wondered where he knew the witch who had just come into the Great Hall. She had long blond hair caught back from her face in intricate braids, and pale blue robes which she held tightly around her away from the floor. She was tallish, and pretty in a restrained sort of way. Her lips were pale and pressed tightly together.
"Mrs Malfoy," Harry blurted, recognising her in a rush.
Conversation at the tables died away as she scanned the hall. She looked to the Slytherin table first, maybe out of habit, but Harry saw the moment she found Draco.
Something spasmed over her face, breaking the careful control.
Draco was pushing back his chair and standing. He looked tense and uncertain.
He doesn't know what she's thinking, Harry realised. The desperate hope in her face seemed obvious to him, but apparently Malfoy didn't know how to read his own mother.
Then she walked forward, quickly, almost running, the train of her robes dropping to the floor. Malfoy's face relaxed in relief that was almost painful, then Narcissa reached him and buried her face in his shoulder.
"Hello, Mother," he said. The quiet words were clearly audible in the quiet of the hall.
She pulled back a little, her fingers tight on his forearms.
"Hello, Draco." Her voice was shaky. "You look well." Her hands shifted on his arms — up to the shoulder, down to the wrist, reassuring herself of his reality. "You're alive," she added, the sound only just there.
McGonagall stood, clapping her hands. A house-elf appeared.
"You will want some time to speak with your son," she called to Mrs Malfoy in the hall below. "May I invite you to use my office?"
Mrs Malfoy drew herself up again, facing the older woman. "That would be very kind, Headmistress," she allowed.
McGonagall nodded. "Dimpy will show you the way. I will join you after the meal, if you would like to remain to discuss Draco's situation."
The Malfoys, mother and son, followed the house-elf out of the hall; nearly composed, nearly calm, if you hadn't seen them a moment ago — if you couldn't still see Draco holding his mother's arm, his grip white-knuckled.
"Bloody hell," Ron breathed.
Harry turned his head. His thoughts felt slow. He realised that Hermione and Ron had ended their sound scrambling spell.
Ron looked a bit shell-shocked himself. "D'you think she really thought he was dead?"
"He was dead, Ron, honestly," Hermione said. "Except," and she looked thoughtfully at the door Narcissa and Draco had disappeared through, "now she has a living son again. That must be ..."
She didn't finish whatever it must be, but Harry supposed he knew what she meant.
The school as a whole got used to Malfoy being alive, and wearing a red and gold scarf, more quickly than Harry expected they would. He supposed that they'd dealt with other deaths and other resurrections — and that Voldemort's had been the more impressive — but it still seemed incongruous. He found it particularly unsettling that their dorm shifted so easily to allow the addition of an extra person: an interloper, a Slytherin, a Death Eater's son.
It should have been more dramatic.
After Narcissa's visit, Draco's bed had a trunk like everybody else's — only rather nicer — and he had toiletries in the bathroom and spare robes hanging in the wardrobe. He had a wand again, too. Harry assumed Narcissa had gone to Olivander's to get him an emergency one.
He came to classes like everybody else, although Ginny said that she'd heard that he had to do tests in all his subjects to make sure that he was up to seventh year standards.
In the Gryffindor common room, some people were wary, but there was always a small knot hanging around who seemed drawn to him. Coote and Sloper apparently got over whatever Malfoy had said to them at dinner, and showed disturbing signs of hovering about whenever he'd let them. Parvati and Lavender, too, developed a habit of hanging over the back of his chair and having murmured conversations.
Harry did his best to put out of his mind that moment with the Slytherins where Malfoy had seemed to forget himself and talk to Harry as if he were a friend; just as he'd been able to put out of his mind the look of stunned betrayal Malfoy had worn for only a moment, tangled in ivy that bound him to a statue out on the grounds.
The problem was that Malfoy kept doing it.
On Wednesday morning Seamus and Dean tried to race each other to the showers. They both ended up tangled in their sheets on the floor, cursing. Malfoy laughed and slid a grin across at Ron and Harry. Then he remembered himself and his expression blanked.
On Friday afternoon Professor Flitwick, their least demanding teacher, without warning produced a viciously difficult Charms test that he said was preparation for their NEWTs. Malfoy turned to Harry and Ron to share a look of dismay. Harry almost returned it before he caught himself, by which point Malfoy had looked away again and was focusing severely on his down-turned test paper.
On Monday Ron, Harry and Hermione came down to the Great Hall to find Malfoy holding court at one end of the table. Parvati, Lavender and a group of fifth year boys were almost choking with laughter while Malfoy re-enacted the disastrous Montrose Magpies/Hollyhead Harpies match the Daily Prophet had reported on that morning. Malfoy sat up on the back of his chair, sweeping out jagged motions with his arms; as Harry and the others came in he turned to look at them. His eyes were still brilliant and alive, his mouth open in a grin. Then his face flickered into coldness and he turned back to his audience.
Lavender was collapsed backwards onto Parvati's shoulder, her breath coming in helpless little hiccoughs. She noticed the exchange and looked curious, but nobody else did.
Harry found that he wasn't as hungry as he'd thought. They were already late anyway. Ron and Hermione had got into another argument about the Acromantula Nest, up in the common room. Harry agreed with Hermione, and by this point he was itching with the desire to just go out and try his luck; but he sort of wished that Ron would agree to stay behind for this one. Harry wouldn't especially want to face a cave full of Dementors, after all; it would just be easier all around if Ron didn't come along for the spider adventure.
Ron hadn't spoken to him for four days after he had mentioned that idea.
This time looked nearly as bad. Hermione had used the words 'irrational phobia'. Ron had flushed an outraged red and spent nearly twenty-five minutes detailing why being afraid of enormous spiders who ate people wasn't irrational in the slightest and Hermione 'My Boggart is a bad grade' needed to have her head examined.
So they were late. So it was hardly worth sitting down for lunch.
Harry turned and walked out.
Ron came with him. Hermione was still smarting over the argument, so she stayed behind, seating herself beside Neville in a deliberate manner and asking him to pass the butter.
They had Transfiguration after lunch, so Harry and Ron headed to the classroom early. Harry hoisted himself onto a desk, swinging his legs.
Ron sat on the other one. He fiddled with his tie. "He's not usually funny, is he?" he asked finally. "I mean, he wasn't before — not actually funny? I know he used to make the Slytherins laugh, but ..."
Harry frowned. "D'you think he was being funny?"
"Well, that ..." Ron hesitated. "I mean, that thing where he showed the Magpies Keeper flying into his own goalpost, that was quite good."
Parvati and Lavender came in, dumping their bags and dropping into their seats, still giggling to each other. Harry and Ron slid off the desks and into their seats.
"It's not as bad as I thought it'd be — having him in the dorm," Ron said, keeping his voice low as the professor came in.
Ron gave him a warding-off gesture. "Don't say it — dangerous plans, tricking his way into the dorm, Slytherin plots; I get it. I'm just saying, is all."
The Slytherins didn't seem to know what to make of Malfoy these days.
Pansy Parkinson couldn't look at him without her lip wobbling. After which she usually did something horrible to either Nott or Zabini. Most of the other Slytherin seventh years kept their distance, watching Malfoy with a sort of wary curiosity. Crabbe and Goyle, though, were so obviously miserable that Harry found himself feeling sorry for them. They hung around the edges of wherever Malfoy was, with a stubborn determination that made Harry think of a pair of scruffy overgrown dogs, abandoned but not lost.
Malfoy shot them curious glances out of the corner of his eye, mostly. Someone must have told him that they'd been friends, but he still seemed to find it confusing.
Harry overheard Parvati asking him about it. They were working together in Potions.
"Aren't you going to talk to any of the Slytherins?"
Malfoy looked blank. He glanced at Millicent and Pansy, working at the desk across from them.
"I don't think they especially want to talk to me."
Parvati raised her eyebrows. "Because you're the wrong Malfoy, you mean? Because I think that's rubbish."
She put the stirring rod she was holding down, rolling her sleeves back where they'd slipped. "I have a theory," she said. "It's like amnesia, isn't it? You're still the same person, more or less, but you don't remember being friends with them. They still remember though." She picked up the pewter rod again. "And anyway, you still want Harry and Ron to —"
"If you finish that sentence I'll drop the snake venom on you."
Parvati looked at the vial on the desk.
Ron's yell brought Harry's attention back to his own workplace. He looked in dismay at the dragon blood he'd let slip onto the bench-top. It was bubbling and gently eating away at the surface.
He had to stay behind to clean up the mess. This meant he came out of class at just the right time to see Malfoy, leaning against a wall and rummaging in his bag, look up and notice Crabbe and Goyle hanging about the stairwell. Harry stepped back into the shadow of the doorway.
"Hullo, Malfoy," Crabbe said awkwardly.
Malfoy stared at them for a moment. Then he rolled his eyes.
He swung the bag back onto his shoulder. "Come on then, if you're coming." He started up the stairs. "Since apparently you're completely hopeless without me," he added over his shoulder.
Crabbe and Goyle shared identical pleased smiles and fell into step behind him.
"So." Hermione counted off on her fingers. "The cup, the ring, the locket, the diary, the snake, and something of Godric's or Rowena's."
They were sitting on the steps just outside the Gryffindor common room. Harry and Hermione had their backs against the bottle-green glass of the window that began here and extended down to the next floor. Harry could feel the rain pummelling against the glass on the other side. It was oddly soothing. He let it give his thoughts a rhythm as he turned over clues about Malfoy in his head, only paying half an ear to the Horcrux conversation.
Ron was stretched out over the next step, teasing Crookshanks with the sleeve of his robe. "D'you really reckon he'd use something of Gryffindor's?" he asked. He twisted around, moving his hand just as Crookshanks hissed and took a swipe at it. "Weren't Salazar Slytherin and Godric Gryffindor all about hating each other? I would have thought if You-Know-Who was so proud of being Slytherin's heir, he wouldn't want to put a bit of his soul in something Gryffindor owned."
Hermione frowned. "That's a good point, actually." She opened the notebook in her lap. "All right, I'll put a question mark next to 'Something of Gryffindor's'. We should concentrate on finding out what Rowena owned."
Ron groaned, turning back to the cat. "She would've owned heaps of stuff, though. She lived for ages."
"Not much would have been passed down, though. Not as memorabilia, I mean. I can't imagine that anybody was hoarding her teaspoons after she died, after all. No —" she tapped her list with her quill, "judging by the cup and the locket it will be something like jewellery; something precious." She looked at Harry. "The cup did look valuable, didn't it?"
"What?" Harry blinked as Ron jerked his hand away from Crookshanks again, laughing to himself. "Um, I don't remember. I think so?"
Hermione tapped her list again. "Maybe we should look at the memory a — oh honestly, Ron, don't tease him, you know he's probably part-Kneazle; he grows his claws longer when he's annoyed. He'll take off your hand." She shook her head and looked back at Harry. "Dumbledore left you his Pensieve, didn't he?"
"Yeah, he ..." Harry trailed off, his eyes narrowing as he turned to look at the portrait hole. He jumped up. "Excuse me. I have to do something."
"Harry?" Ron sounded long-suffering.
"I'll tell you later!" Harry called back, starting down the stairs. Whatever they replied, he didn't hear. He was on the next landing by then, and starting down another staircase.
He searched the library and the great hall and the part of the courtyard that was undercover, but he didn't find Malfoy until nearly dinnertime. When he did, Malfoy was curled up in a corner of the courtyard with Crabbe and Goyle, arguing determinedly about something with them.
Harry fell back. Catching him with Crabbe and Goyle was no good. He needed to get him alone.
He didn't get a chance until after dinner that night. Malfoy left the common room earlier than the rest of them. He headed up the stairs to the dorm.
Hermione and Ron had their heads buried together over a map of the Forest. Hermione looked up as he slipped away, but didn't do more than narrow her eyes.
The narrow back stiffened in front of him. Malfoy turned, bracing one hand on the stone wall of the stairwell, and looked down at him. It was a narrow space, and the curve of the stairs was quite sharp, which meant that Harry had to step quite close to Malfoy for them to be able to face each other.
"I need to talk to you," Harry said quickly; because if Malfoy spoke first he'd say something horrible and Harry would get angry and probably they'd end up hexed and stumbling down the stairs. He couldn't let that happen; he needed to ask Malfoy to do something.
Then his mind twisted away from the impossibility of asking something of Malfoy as though it were a favour, and he wondered whether he could get away with phrasing it as an order.
Malfoy looked unimpressed. "Really."
Harry flushed and shifted his feet to get a more secure balance on the stair. "I have a Pensieve," he said.
Malfoy raised his eyebrows. "Right, and an invisibility cloak and an enchanted map. You're just Super Gadget Boy, aren't you?"
Harry rolled his eyes.
"Whatever, Malfoy. I have a Pensieve that Dumbledore gave me. If you're telling the truth, then I want you to prove it. Show me a memory of this other reality of yours." He looked at the other boy directly. "Show me that you were really a Gryffindor."
Malfoy stared at him for a moment. Then he licked his lips, looking away. "You think it will prove I'm a good person if you can see that I'm a Gryffindor?" he asked. "Because that's unbelievably stupid, and really arrogant even for you." He sounded distracted, though, and Harry could tell he was thinking about it. He waited.
"All right," Malfoy said after a moment. He looked back at Harry. His eyes were narrowed, and if possible he looked even less friendly than he had before. "On one condition."
Harry's shoulders tensed, but he lifted his chin in a silent, Oh, yes?
"We do a trade," Malfoy said. "You want to see that we were in Gryffindor together? Well, fine. I want the same."
Harry hesitated. "You want proof that I'm a Gryffindor?"
Malfoy stared at him. "You really are stupider here, aren't you?" he said. He waved a hand, a quick jerking motion. "No. I want to know what —" he looked away again, as though he couldn't make eye contact. "What it was like here. I want to see a memory of the two of us."
Harry thought about it. He could do that.
"All right, then. Bring your gadget to the Room of Requirement tomorrow after dinner. I'll give you a memory."
Malfoy turned and continued up the stairs. Harry went back down, thinking hard. He didn't know what Malfoy would show him, but he was sure that he'd be able to recognise if it wasn't real. If Slughorn, a wizard with nearly a century of experience, had botched so badly his attempt to modify the Horcrux memory he'd given Dumbledore, Harry had no illusions about Malfoy being able to do it.
All he had to do now was decide what memory he'd show him in return. If Malfoy wanted to see what it had been like between them here — well, fine. Harry would show him.
Hermione fretted with her fork. "Oh, I wish I could see it!"
Ron rolled his eyes, digging into his own meal. "Poking around in Malfoy's head?" he asked, when his mouth was mostly empty again. "Rather you than me."
"Oh, but it will be fascinating." Hermione's eyes looked misty. "Another reality, Harry — seeing into another reality."
"It's just Malfoy's memories," Harry said. "It's not like I'll see world events or anything."
He moved his food around his plate. His stomach was a tight knot of nerves and anticipation.
"But that's what's so fascinating, Harry. You'll be seeing things you know, but made over anew." Hermione subsided, tapping a little rhythm out with her fork on her plate. "I'm so jealous," she admitted.
Ron patted her on the shoulder. "Harry'll tell you all about it, won't you mate," he said, rolling his eyes at Harry over her head.
"Er. Sure," he said. "Course I will. Oh!"
Malfoy had risen and pushed back his chair. Harry pushed his plate away and started to get up, then hesitated. It occurred to him that if he got up immediately, he and Malfoy would have to walk together to the Room of Requirement.
He waited two minutes, his eyes on the big clock on the opposite wall, then shoved his chair back. He swung his bag — a lot heavier than usual, with the Pensieve in it — onto his back and headed out of the hall.
"What if he doesn't look around him properly while he's there?" he heard Hermione asking Ron as he left. Ron's soothing response was too low to make out.
The room was open when he got there. Harry had a disorienting flashback to last year, pacing a groove in the floor as he tried to make it open and reveal what Malfoy was doing.
There was something seriously bizarre about meeting Malfoy here to look at Pensieve memories with him.
The Room looked fairly unremarkable. There was a fire burning in a grate, with a low table resting on a rug in front of it. A cushion sat on either side of the table.
As Harry came in, some more cushions flickered into existence, scattered protectively around the floor. He assumed that was his influence, but he wasn't sure whether it was just that he was subconsciously recalling DA meetings, or if some part of him was sure that this was going to come to blows.
Malfoy raised his eyebrows at the extra cushions but said nothing. He was standing by the fire, his back stiff.
Harry realised that he was hovering by the door, and came forward in a rush. He pulled the Pensieve out of his bag and plonked it down on the table.
It looked scuffed and dusty; nothing like the gleaming, well cared for object he'd first seen in Professor Dumbledore's cosy room. He gave it an ineffectual rub with his shirt tail, then stood again. "Should, um ..." He gestured to the cushions. Malfoy nodded and sank to his knees on the one on the other side of the little table. Harry lowered himself again, crossing his legs.
"I'll go first, then," Malfoy said. He was raising his wand to his temple almost before he spoke. Apparently he had no hesitation about which memory he wanted. He concentrated for a moment, then a silvery wisp came away from his temple with his wand. He let it coil free into the Pensieve, sinking into the surface and turning the swirls into something with a more definite shape.
"All right," Harry said. Then, quickly, "You're going in with me. I'm not leaving my body alone and defenceless with you here."
"Whatever, Potter," Malfoy said. He sounded bored, but he leaned forward without protest. Harry took a breath and followed him.
Harry stumbled as he landed. He straightened and looked around.
He was in the Gryffindor common room. The scarlet-and-gold drapes and the wide, squashy sofas were immediately recognisable. There were cheery fires burning in the three grates, and the usual sort of debris scattered around: books, cloaks, a joke wand from the Weasley twins' shop. It was all as comfortable and familiar as breathing.
What wasn't familiar was the sight of the three boys grouped around a low table near one of the fireplaces. The common room was otherwise empty. It must have been class time, or maybe a Hogsmeade weekend.
They didn't look any younger than Harry was now. Ron — who was wearing enormous black boots that Harry didn't think he'd seen before — was hunkered low on one side of the table, his knees on the floor and his elbows pinning scattered pieces of parchment to the tabletop. Harry himself sat cross-legged on another side. He was holding a sheaf of notes in his hand and chewing on his lip, his brow furrowed.
"I can't even read your writing, Draco," he said as the real Harry watched. "Is that 'hexed' or 'sexy'?"
Malfoy was stretched on his stomach along the length of a sofa drawn up to the side of the table. His chin was pressed into the worn red cushion, bringing his head down closer to the level of the tabletop. He lifted it and looked at the page that Pensieve Harry was showing him, then made a face.
"Yes, I wrote 'Dumbledore's hand prob means Horcruxes sexy'," he said. "We're looking for sexy Dark Lord soul-bits."
"Oh, shut it." Harry hit him with the paper as he took it back. Malfoy rolled his eyes at him, then turned to flop onto his back on the sofa cushions.
"Ugh." Ron looked up. "You need to not say things like 'sex' and 'the Dark Lord' in the same sentence."
The real Harry, watching, lifted his eyes to the real Malfoy across the room. He was leaning on the mantelpiece behind the boys, his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes fixed on the memory playing out. He looked up when he felt Harry's eyes. He held Harry's gaze for a second, then jerked his head towards the table. "I didn't bring you here to look at me."
Harry wanted to say that Malfoy hadn't brought him here at all — Harry had brought Malfoy — but he was feeling off-kilter enough that he just turned back to the boys around the table.
Ron had gone back to staring at the mess of papers spread out before him. He shuffled them a bit, then sighed. "We're missing something," he said. "There has to be a clue to the locations somewhere here."
Harry put his own paper down. "Maybe we need to concentrate on something else. Like how we're going to destroy them when we get them." He drummed his fingers on the table. "I wish I'd asked Dumbledore how he destroyed the ring and the diary."
Dumbledore destroyed the diary? Harry mouthed, watching, but when he glanced at Real Malfoy he was still focused on the memory.
"We could try asking his portrait again," Pensieve Malfoy said doubtfully. He scowled at the ceiling, still lying flat on his back. "But he'll probably just twinkle and regret that he can't offer us tea, the way he always does."
"All right." Harry pulled a new piece of parchment towards him. "We know that the ring did something nasty to Dumbledore's hand. That could have been because it was hexed —" he shot Malfoy a quelling look as he opened his mouth, and the other boy smirked — "or it could have been a result of whatever it took to destroy it. Just getting his hands on the locket — the fake locket, I mean — meant that he had to poison himself. I'd think trying to destroy it would be even more deadly."
Pensieve Malfoy swung his legs around, pulling himself upright on the sofa. "Maybe it was so well protected because it's easy to destroy, though," he said, thinking it out.
Ron shook his head. "No, that doesn't work. Ginny tried to destroy the diary loads of times, once she realised something was wrong. Flushed it down the toilet, tried to throw it in the fire — it didn't even come out scratched."
"Oh, yeah. I forgot." Malfoy looked embarrassed. "So they're difficult to kill. Um ... that probably means it takes a ritual, right?"
"Why?" Pensieve Harry looked as confused by the leap as the watching Harry was.
"Well ... they're created by a ritual, from what we've read, and that's powerful magic. If the magic binding them together is ritual-strong, wouldn't it need an equal force to break them apart?"
Harry slumped a bit, scowling at the table. "He likes rituals, doesn't he — Voldemort? I wonder if he chained somebody to a gravestone for those ones, too?"
The real Harry shifted a bit. He wondered whether he really sounded so whiny when he talked about that kind of thing? He'd always had the impression that he was sort of ... stoic.
"Probably depended whether he had a gravestone handy," Ron said uncomfortably, after a moment.
"They don't just pop out of the ground when you need them," Malfoy agreed. "That might have been the only time he ... in a graveyard ... "
Both Harry and Ron turned to look at him as he trailed off, a look of concentration settling on his face.
"It's not, you know," he said.
"Er?" Ron looked at him, then at Harry.
"It's not the only time he's conducted a ritual in a graveyard. When my ... my aunt Bella escaped from Azkaban, I overheard ..." He looked acutely uncomfortable with the subject, but pressed on. "She wanted to know what it had been like to be there at his resurrection. Because she's, you know, completely insane about that sort of thing. About anything to do with the Dark Lord. She had my father collared in his study, and she wanted a blow-by-blow description of what happened. And I overheard — he said he didn't see the resurrection part, but she kept pushing, so he said that at least this time they'd not been stumbling around in some poky smoggy cemetery in Muggle London, like the last time the Dark Lord had called them to a graveyard for a ritual."
He looked at Harry and Ron, his expression intense. "A ritual in a London cemetery," he repeated. There was a spark of excitement in his eyes now as he stared, willing them to understand.
Harry looked sceptical. "You think Voldemort created and hid a Horcrux in a Muggle graveyard?" Then his mouth opened in realisation.
Ron got it a second later. "Holy hell — his mum's grave," he said. "Holy ... that's it. That's it."
"That's brilliant," Pensieve Harry said, his face alight.
Pensieve Malfoy's smile was radiant.
"He hated his dad, right," Ron was saying, scrabbling through the mess of papers for something. He found it and looked up, smiling and giddy. He gestured with the page of messily uneven notes, which looked like a list of some kind. "So he wouldn't hide a Horcrux there, but the grave was still important enough that he used it for the resurrection. But his mum —"
"— is his link to Slytherin," Harry finished.
"And to magic and purebloods. Plus," Malfoy added, his tone ever more animated, "she died, because when it came to it she was weak. She let herself be bested by a Muggle — his dad. So her grave would be the perfect place to show his own strength against death."
The real Harry was startled by the portrait hole swinging open. A knot of students tumbled in, laughing. They were fifth and sixth years — he recognised Colin Creevey and his brother with the others.
"Hey, you guys, you should have come!" Colin called. "It was great — it didn't rain a bit!"
Malfoy hoisted himself up onto the back of the sofa, sweeping his arms out. "Rubbish!" he said. "You're all to be pitied. You went away and missed me being absolutely brilliant."
Ron was sweeping the papers together and putting them away in his bag. He turned to face the newcomers, sitting on the bag. "He's right, you know," he said solemnly. "You all missed out."
Dennis Creevey immediately dropped to his knees in front of the fire. "What'd we miss?" he demanded.
Malfoy sighed theatrically. "Too late. Such moments of awesome grace come only once in a lifetime."
Pensieve Harry hopped up onto the sofa, laughing. Malfoy gave him a haughty look. "That's right, Harry, sit at my feet. You may learn something."
"How to be a complete wanker, maybe," Pensieve Harry snickered. He tugged on Malfoy's knee, unbalancing him so that he tumbled onto the sofa cushions, then reached over to ruffle his hair. Pensieve Malfoy made a protesting noise, scrambling to get back up.
Harry was startled by the real Malfoy tapping him on the shoulder. He turned to find Malfoy behind him, his face shuttered.
"Come on," Malfoy said. He shot a look at the sofa, where Pensieve Malfoy had got up onto the back of the sofa again, and was trying to hold Harry off through his laughter. Then he looked away again. "We're done here."
Harry nodded. He concentrated and pulled out of the memory.
Back in the Room of Requirement, he found Malfoy still on his knees on the other side of the small table. He looked pale, and there were lines of strain around his mouth. He picked up his wand and set to work retrieving the memory, spooling it carefully back into his temple.
"Your turn, then," he said, looking at Harry.
"I ... all right."
Harry was suddenly reluctant to use the memory he'd picked. It was the best choice, he'd decided, to show what it had really been like between the two of them; what Malfoy himself had been like. Only ...
"You promised, Potter," Malfoy said tightly.
He took a breath, concentrating on the memory, then lifted his wand to his temple. He watched the memory twist out, silvery coils sinking into the stone bowl. He laid the wand down again and looked at Malfoy, biting his lip.
"Malfoy, it's not ... it won't be much like ... yours was."
Malfoy raised his eyebrows. "Obviously."
Harry sighed. "Um, yeah. All right, let's ..."
Malfoy leaned toward the bowl. Harry, still feeling an uneasy churning in his stomach, followed him in.
He stumbled once more as he landed, this time on a floor that shook with the motion of the Hogwarts Express. Malfoy was standing a couple of feet down the corridor, holding the wall for balance.
"This way," Harry said. He fell into step behind Blaise Zabini, stopping with the other boy at a compartment door.
Zabini tried to slip through, only to find the door sticking. He struggled with it, a scowl marring the usual haughty expression, until eventually it was jerked out of his hands. Pensieve Harry followed what he knew to be his own invisible form into the compartment. Malfoy, slipping in behind him, ignored Zabini and Goyle who were scuffling on the seat, his eyes on the flash of trainer disappearing into the overhead locker.
"Smooth, Potter," he said, deadpan.
Harry shrugged, not looking at him.
Pensieve Malfoy — a year younger than the real Malfoy, and looking it — was snickering. Now, he stretched back over two seats, dropping his head into Pansy Parkinson's lap. She stroked his hair with a pleased expression.
Harry glanced at the real Malfoy. He was looking at Pansy, startled.
"So, Zabini," the Pensieve version said, settling more comfortably against Pansy's hands, "what did Slughorn want?"
Harry hadn't found this conversation terribly interesting the first time he heard it. He tuned it out while Malfoy sulked about his lack of an invite to Slughorn's compartment — he hadn't seriously imagined it would be fun, had he? — and watched the real Malfoy instead.
He was watching the assembled Slytherins as though they were volatile Potions ingredients: fascinating and strange, but possibly about to react with each other in dangerous ways.
"These were my friends, then?" he said.
Harry shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."
Pensieve Malfoy was sneering. "Potter, precious Potter," he said, the words black and jagged. "Obviously he wanted to look at the Chosen One. But the Weasley girl! What's so special about her?"
Pansy bit her lip. "A lot of boys like her," she said, elaborately casual. "Even you think she's good looking, don't you, Blaise, and we all know how hard you are to please!"
Harry found himself imagining Zabini stalking along a line-up of sighing Hogwarts girls, finding them all wanting. Then Zabini spat out something foul about filthy blood traitors, and Harry decided that no girl would want him no matter how good looking he was.
Pensieve Malfoy was talking about not taking classes the next year, now. Harry shivered as the old dead dead dead refrain whispered in his mind. He pushed it out. It wasn't relevant any more.
"I mean, think about it," Malfoy said, arrogant and alive. "When the Dark Lord takes over, is he going to care how many OWLs or NEWTs anyone's got? Of course he isn't ... it'll all be about the kind of service he received, the level of devotion he was shown."
The other Malfoy was listening closely. His lip curled when his younger self mentioned 'devotion', and he took a step closer; it looked like an unconscious movement. Harry wondered what he was thinking. He'd been in the school long enough now that he must have heard that he had supported Voldemort here.
Zabini rolled his eyes. "And you think you'll be able to do something for him? Sixteen years old and not even fully qualified yet?"
Pensieve Malfoy smiled. "I've just said, haven't I? Maybe he doesn't care if I'm qualified. Maybe the job he wants me to do isn't something that you need to be qualified for."
The real Malfoy turned to Harry. "What was the job?" Harry hesitated. "Tell me."
"You were supposed to kill Dumbledore."
Malfoy blinked. "How is that ...? Snape killed Dumbledore."
Harry nodded. He rubbed at the back of his neck, avoiding the other boy's eyes. "Yeah, here too. But you disarmed him. And held a wand at his throat. Only you couldn't ... you wouldn't finish it. Snape did that."
Malfoy just watched him for a second. Then he turned back to the compartment. His shoulders were tense.
The conversation had finished now, the occupants in a flurry of movement as they prepared for their arrival at Hogwarts: dragging down trunks and, in Crabbe and Goyle's case, pulling on school robes. The train lurched to a stop — Harry had to grab the door to keep from falling — and everybody but Malfoy and Pansy tramped out into the corridor
"You go on," Malfoy said to Pansy.
She dropped the hand she'd been holding out, with a stepped on expression. "Yeah, all right," she said. She dragged her trunk out, letting the compartment door slide shut on its rollers behind her.
Malfoy pulled the blinds down on the door, then turned to his trunk. The other Malfoy glanced up at the compartment where he knew Harry was hidden, then back at his younger self. Harry couldn't help tensing as he watched Malfoy touch his trunk, then spin with his wand and shout: "Petrificus Totalus!"
The thud as his body hit the floor, trapping the invisibility cloak beneath him, was almost as unpleasant the second time as it had been to live through.
Pensieve Malfoy positively crowed. "I thought so. I heard Goyle's trunk hit you. And I thought I saw something white flash through the air after Zabini came back — that was you blocking the door when Zabini came back in, I suppose?"
He was obviously talking for his own benefit, since Harry couldn't respond.
He regarded the prone form on the floor for a moment longer. Pensieve Harry was glaring. Malfoy smiled, slow and evil.
"You didn't hear anything I care about, Potter. But while I've got you here ..."
The real Harry looked away, not wanting to watch his own nose get broken. He heard the crunch of Malfoy's boot on his face, though, and he saw Real Malfoy open his mouth, a sick little catch in his throat.
"That's from my father," Pensieve Malfoy said. "Now, let's see ..."
Harry turned back in time to see Malfoy throw the invisibility cloak over Pensieve Harry's face, hiding the trickle of blood from his nose. "I don't reckon they'll find you till the train's back in London," he said. "See you around, Potter ... or not."
He turned away, grabbing his trunk and stepping heavily on Harry's invisible hand. Harry heard the ugly little noise of his fingers being ground into the carriage floor.
Real Malfoy stared for a moment longer at the part of the carriage where he knew Pensieve Harry lay. Then he turned on his heel and pulled out of the memory.
He came back to the Room of Requirement to see Malfoy turned half away. He was shivering, and as Harry watched a round silver basin appeared by his foot. Malfoy glanced at it and shuddered, pushing a hand over his mouth. He shoved the basin away and took a breath, turning back to Harry.
His face was pale, but composed.
"Do you believe me now?" he asked after a moment.
"Yeah." Harry didn't know what else to say. He sort of wanted to add: I told you my memory was different, but doubted it would help.
"Right. Good." Malfoy got up. "I'll just — I — had better —"
"Malfoy," Harry said. When the other boy turned to look at him, though, he had nothing to add to it.
"Right," Malfoy said again. "I'll see you — in classes. Or wherever."
He swung his bag onto his shoulder and left.
By the time Harry got out of the Room, Malfoy had already disappeared down one of the corridors.
Harry trailed into the common room, his feet dragging. Hermione saw him immediately and jumped up.
"What was it like?" she was asking, before he could even sit down.
He looked around, but there was no sign of Malfoy anywhere. He dropped into his seat.
"Was he telling the truth?" Ron asked, using the heel of his hand to push the fringe out of his eyes.
"Yeah," Harry said quietly. "Yeah, he showed me a memory of him and Ron and me, here in the common room. We were talking about ..." He looked around. Dean Thomas looked as though he might have been sketching Hermione from across the room — or maybe the bookshelf behind her — but otherwise, nobody was paying them any attention. Harry lowered his voice. "About Horcruxes." He looked at Ron, adding baldly, "We were friends. It was obvious."
Ron wrinkled his nose. "Damn."
Hermione was avid. "What else was different? Besides you and Malfoy and Ron being friendly?"
"Uh." Harry racked his brains. "Er, Ron had some boots on I didn't recognise. And ... I think Malfoy's haircut was slightly different?"
Ron stared at him. "You went to an alternate reality and looked at my boots."
Harry flushed. "Oh, shut up. I wasn't looking at your boots. I was looking at you telling Malfoy his idea was super wonderful brilliant."
Ron's eyes went wide. "I didn't."
Harry nodded. "Actually, it was ... kind of horrible." Hermione frowned and opened her mouth, but he shook his head at her. "Not Malfoy's memory. Mine."
Her mouth formed a silent 'O'.
Ron had obviously been thinking about something else. "So ... if Malfoy was telling the truth ... does that mean we're going to go to You-Know-Who's mum's grave after all?"
Harry let Seamus disarm him in Defence Against the Dark Arts the next morning, because he was distracting himself with thoughts about Malfoy. Seamus crowed as he helped Harry to his feet.
"Good work," Harry said, his eyes already drifting to the other side of the room where Malfoy was sparring with Lavender.
Seamus handed his wand back. "You need to wake up, Harry," he said, grinning.
Malfoy was focusing on his wand movements with an unwavering concentration. The intentness seemed to be freaking Lavender out a bit.
Harry wondered again why he'd chosen to show Malfoy that particular memory. It hadn't needed to be something that ugly. He could have shown him —
He hesitated, trying to come up with a less nasty interaction between Malfoy and himself.
He shook his head. He should have found one.
The professor called a partner switch, and Harry moved to spar with Neville. He mechanically went through the motions of a shield charm, then threw a tickling jinx.
He knew that he wasn't, but he felt weirdly responsible for that incident on the train, now that he'd made Malfoy watch it. He shook his head, dodging a Stunner from Neville.
He needed a way to balance it out.
Harry caught up with Malfoy when the other boy was on his way to Ancient Runes. Malfoy was walking down the corridor ahead, flanked by the hulking shapes of Crabbe and Goyle. He hesitated, his head half-turning. Harry put on a burst of speed and caught up.
Malfoy turned around. He looked stiff and — oddly defeated.
"Malfoy," Harry said again. Then, remembering that he'd called him this in Malfoy's memory, "Draco."
Malfoy looked startled, but he only said, "Yes?"
"I, um ... need to talk to you."
Malfoy looked blank. Then he turned to Crabbe and Goyle. "Could you guys go ahead?"
They nodded. Goyle gave Harry a suspicious glower as they left.
Harry waited till they were out of earshot. Then, "I want you to help us look for Horcruxes."
"All right," Malfoy said after a moment.
Harry relaxed. "Good." He grinned.
Malfoy didn't smile back, but he did agree to meet Harry and the others in the library in the free period before dinner.
Harry hung around outside the library, trying to look as though he were re-tying his shoelace rather than waiting for somebody. He wasn't alone, at least — there were several other students leaning against the marble pillars scattered around the large entrance hall of the library, talking to friends or tapping their feet and looking at pocket watches.
Harry straightened for the third time and saw Malfoy coming out of one of the side corridors. He was alone: no sign of Crabbe and Goyle for once.
Malfoy reached him and came to a stop, a bit abruptly.
"I thought we were meeting inside." His voice held the same odd, polite stiffness as his body language.
"Uh. We are. I was just ..." Harry waved a hand at his shoe, a bit lamely. He noticed how scuffed they were and shifted his feet. "Anyway, do you want to —?"
Malfoy followed him into the library.
Ron and Hermione were already set up at their usual table, away up behind the Music and Movement Magic section. It was on a higher level than the main library floor, but tucked away enough that nobody tended to notice them. There was a low wooden railing, smooth and age-darkened, as well as several out-jutting bookshelves, to shadow them.
Ron was in the middle of recounting something that had happened at lunch, books and papers elbowed to the side as he swept an illustration with his hands. There was a sound-scrambling charm extending a few feet out from the table, so Harry and Malfoy couldn't hear what he was saying until they were a few feet away. Ron fell silent as they came up. He and Hermione both turned to watch them.
Harry hadn't told them he was bringing Malfoy; which was part of the reason that Harry had been waiting outside for him. Ron and Hermione looked cautious, but not especially surprised.
"Hey." Harry gave a half-wave. "I, um ... I figured since Dr— um, since Draco was working on the Horcruxes in his own, er, world, it would make sense if he worked on them here, too."
He could almost see Hermione's thoughts as they crossed her face. She was wary, but she couldn't object; not when she'd been Malfoy's advocate to Harry and Ron ever since he came back.
Ron just looked resigned.
Hermione pushed a chair out with her foot. "Sit down, Malfoy, if you'd like."
He did, although he looked as though he had reservations about it. "Thank you, Hermione," he said carefully.
Hermione looked taken aback, but she didn't comment.
"Malfoy," Ron said with an awkward nod.
Malfoy nodded back; a stiffer gesture than he'd used with Hermione. He put his bag down next to his chair and straightened. He had his hands on his lap; Harry could see that he was twisting the fabric of his robes over his knees.
Harry was the only one still standing around like an idiot. He pulled the remaining chair — next to Hermione — out and sat down, dropping his bag onto the table. He cleared his throat.
"So. I, uh ... I thought we could talk about looking for this Horcrux at Merope Riddle's grave."
Ron brightened. "Like you mentioned in McGonagall's office?" he asked Malfoy. "What you were doing when you got Avada Kedavra'd?"
Harry had the thought that only in the face of spiders could Ron possibly be excited about going somewhere where he could be facing Death Eaters and Avada Kedavra.
Hermione leaned forward. "What were the three of you — you and the Harry and Ron in your own world, I mean — basing your theory on?"
Malfoy hesitated. "Well, just what you already know, really. What I told the Ha — the Potter and Weasley in my world, about overhearing my aunt Bella talking."
Ron and Hermione gave him equally blank looks.
Malfoy made a disbelieving noise and turned to Harry. "You didn't tell them? I showed you that particular memory for a reason, you know."
Well, no, Harry hadn't known. He'd been a bit too distracted by the vision of himself ruffling Malfoy's hair to pay attention to ulterior motives.
"Well, you tell them, then."
Malfoy glanced at Hermione, leaning forward with a slight frown, then at Ron, his face open and curious.
"Right." He sounded nervous. "We were, erm, talking about the ritual needed to create the Horcruxes ..."
It was a fairly short retelling. It didn't express the sheer euphoria over the discovery that Harry had seen in the memory; but he could see a gleam of excitement beginning to show in Hermione's eyes as she listened.
"Where did you read that the Horcruxes are made with a ritual?" she demanded as soon as he'd stopped talking. "We've been assuming it's a spell of some sort." She sounded a little suspicious, but mostly burningly curious.
"Oh." Malfoy was looking a lot more relaxed. He smiled. "It was in one of the books from Dumbledore's office."
Ron frowned. "We've read all those. Haven't we? Or Hermione has, anyway."
Hermione was busily pulling the books out of her bag and stacking them on the table. "Show me."
Malfoy reached towards the book on the top of the stack.
His hand went through it. Harry blinked, wondering if that had been a trick of his eyesight. Malfoy was frowning, though, and picking it up now. It seemed completely solid.
"Soul Transfusions and Other Thought Experiments," he said, reading off the spine.
"It must have a disappearing hex of some sort on it," Hermione said. She gave it a curious look and he immediately handed it to her. "We should probably be careful when we handle this one," she continued, giving him a nod of thanks. She frowned again, laying it down. "I'm glad you noticed."
"Right." Malfoy gave it one last puzzled glance, then began to sort through the pile of books until he found Enchantments Moste Foul. "Here," he said, flipping through the pages, then tilting the book to show Hermione. Ron and Harry leaned around to look too. "It's a trick footnote," Malfoy explained. "You have to try to read it backwards before it will come clear."
"Oh!" Hermione leaned closer. "I thought that was in Gnomish. I never even ..." She shot Malfoy a quick, considering stare.
He smiled, quick and flashing. "Well, that's because I'm fantastically clever."
Then he bit his lip, the smile disappearing as quickly as it had come. He avoided everybody's eyes as he leaned towards the book again and and pointed out a part halfway through the footnote. "It's here, see?"
Pansy Parkinson apparently reached some sort of boiling point after the Ravenclaw-Gryffindor Quidditch match the Saturday following.
Harry was sweaty and exultant as he trooped off the pitch with the rest of the team, the hand still holding the Snitch thrown loosely over Ron's shoulder.
He might not be captain, but Ginny was probably a better one than he'd been anyway; the Seeker really wasn't best suited to direct the flow of play. Hermione had turned down the Head Girl badge this year, and he knew that being Head Girl meant a lot more to her than the captainship had ever meant to him. And he hadn't made himself give up playing entirely. His memories of the Quidditch ban in fifth year were too awful for him to ever do that voluntarily.
Even after six years of magic, there was nothing that compared to flying.
He was grinning broadly as they approached the foot of the Gryffindor stands, where people were climbing down onto the pitch, chattering excitedly.
"... And then Pritchard nearly got that last one past me, did you see it?" Ron was saying, resting his elbow comfortably on Harry's shoulder. Well, comfortably for Ron, anyway. "I thought I was going to fall off my broom, swinging down that suddenly. Then I still thought it had got past — I swear if the breeze had been blowing in a different direction it would have slipped past my fingertips. I don't know how I got it."
"Dumb luck, big bro," Ginny said, coming up behind him and clouting him in the lower back. "And what did you think you were doing, letting that second goal in? You looked like you were meditating over the hoops!"
"Oi!" Ron tried to hit her back, but she was out of reach. "She takes this captain business far too seriously," he complained to Harry.
She'd joined the other two Chasers ahead by now. She twisted around. "Good game!" she called back, grinning. "You too, Harry!"
Harry noticed Malfoy hopping down from the stands a little way over. Ginny saw him and swerved out of the way, her grin faltering, but Malfoy didn't seem to notice her. He was frowning a bit, his face sort of pinched and unhappy. Harry noticed that he was walking away from what looked like an elated point-by-point post-game discussion among the other Gryffindors.
His first thought, the one that came by habit — that of course Malfoy must hate to see Harry win at something — was superseded when he realised that Malfoy was almost definitely used to playing in rather than watching Gryffindor's matches. He felt an odd lurch in his stomach as he wondered suddenly whether Malfoy had been Seeker on that other Gryffindor team.
But no: Harry had always out-flown Malfoy.
Still. Malfoy would definitely have been on the team in his own world. Harry had known he was good on a broom the very first time he'd seen him fly, when Malfoy had grabbed Neville's Remembrall.
Harry dropped his arm from around Ron's neck, ducking and making Ron lose his balance as he lost his elbow rest. He caught up to Malfoy.
"Dr — Draco. Hi." He still stumbled over the name, but he was determined to get it right.
Malfoy turned to face him. "Good game," he said.
Harry nodded, since it had been. "What position did you play?"
Malfoy gave him a sharp look. "Beater," he said. Then. "What about here? Nobody's mentioned ..."
"Seeker," said Harry. "Um, on the Slytherin team, obviously."
Malfoy looked startled. "Really?"
Harry looked at him. Malfoy grinned. "No offence," he said, "but the Seeker position — well, it's dead boring most of the time, isn't it?"
Harry gaped. He didn't have a chance to come up with a response, though. Pansy Parkinson had just caught them up and planted herself in Malfoy's way. Her mouth was set in a stubborn line, and her hands clenched and unclenched on the outside of the cuffs of her robe.
"You need, Draco," she said, her voice clipped, "to stop avoiding me."
Malfoy backed up a step.
He looked even more awkward than he'd been when she'd thrown herself into his arms. Harry wondered whether Draco was remembering Pansy stroking his hair as he lay on her lap, in the Pensieve memory.
She glared. "That, too. Has to go. You need to stop calling me Parkinson."
"It — look." Malfoy ran his hand through his fringe. "I know you were friends with — with him. But I'm not that Draco, Pansy."
Harry stepped back a bit, out of the range of the conversation. He didn't walk away, though.
Pansy was still glaring, but there was the hint of a tremble in her lips now. "I know that, you wanker. Well, I know that now. I don't care, though. You're Draco, and that's — why would you talk to Vince and Greg again, and not to me?"
Malfoy winced. "Pansy, I don't want a girlfriend," he said. He ducked his head; maybe in case she threw something. She was just staring at him, though. After a moment he looked up again.
"Well, obviously," she said. "I know that." Then she laughed. "My god, Draco, did you think I was trying to get into your pants?"
He frowned. "You don't need to sound as though it's so unbelievable." He looked annoyed, but he was blushing too: pale pink splotches on his cheeks.
She laughed again, stepping in close and shoving him with her elbow. "Oh, relax," she said. "I'm sure you're — uh, really hot, if you like that style." She giggled, snaking an arm though his, the giggle turning into a snicker as she tilted her head to look at his expression. "No, really," she said, smirking. "And anyway, as far as unbelievable goes — seriously, Draco, you think I don't know you better than that?"
She was kind of grabby, Harry thought. And what did she mean, really, by telling Malfoy that he was hot? Was that something friends did, usually?
He wasn't that good looking, anyway. Not compared to, say, Cedric Diggory, or Tom Riddle maybe.
Although he had nice hair.
Harry turned away. Apparently this was a Slytherin reunion of sorts, now. He was probably in the way.
Including Malfoy in the Horcrux research was easier than Harry had expected it to be. Maybe because he was in their house, so he was around as much as Ron and Hermione were. Maybe just because Malfoy was used to talking about Horcruxes, so he fell into the debates in the Music and Movement section of the library as though he belonged there.
He seemed relieved to be part of the debates again. Harry supposed that it must have been difficult to have had something active to do against Voldemort, and then suddenly to be locked out of it. Although Harry still didn't know how that had come about — the working against Voldemort bit. He wished he knew Malfoy well enough to ask something like, So, why did you decide to betray your father and shame your family?
He shrugged, uncomfortable. It didn't matter. Malfoy must have seen that it was the right thing to do.
"And I'm telling you we need to plan it properly, Ron." Hermione stared Ron down.
It was a Saturday morning, and the library was nearly empty. Pale daylight filtered through the high windows, draining the higher bookshelves of colour. Down at their table, gold-tinged torchlight still gave the wooden tabletop and the bookshelves surrounding them a deeper, richer hue. There were distant rustles every now and then as books abandoned on desks quietly Apparated back to their shelves. Madam Pince moved about down on the main library floor, casting dusting charms on the reference shelves.
Ron sighed and turned back to the stack of notes in Hermione's handwriting. He swirled them with his finger over the table top.
"We know where we're going, though," Harry said, coming to Ron's defence. "Finally. Why can't we just go?"
Hermione turned her glare on him. "Because Malfoy nearly died last time."
"Oh, right. Yeah." Harry gave Malfoy an apologetic look, across the table.
"I think it was just bad luck that there were Death Eaters there," Malfoy said. "Really. I think they were just randomly checking up on things. Although it confirms that there's something there to check up on."
"Yes, of course," Hermione said. "We still need to try to get an idea of what we're going to be facing and how to deal with it, though, before we go in. What was your plan?"
Malfoy hesitated. "We didn't have a plan as such."
Hermione rolled her eyes, pulling her notes towards her again. "Of course you didn't," she said. "How silly of me."
"Hey!" Harry was offended. "It's not as though we can't plan without you. I've planned things in the past."
She just looked at him. Harry racked his brains. "I, um ... planned how to get the Horcrux memory out of Slughorn."
"Harry. Your plan was 'Take some luck potion and see what happens'," Ron said.
Harry gave in. "All right, fine, let's make a plan. How can we possibly know what we're going to be facing, though? Other than possible Death Eaters?"
Hermione smiled, cat-like and satisfied, and pulled out a new sheaf of tightly-written notes. "Well," she said, "I've been thinking about that."
"No, look, the Inferi and the poison in the cave weren't just two different defences, they were two different kinds of defences." Ron shook his head, intent on his point. "If the cave is really going to be the pattern for all the hiding places, we need to keep that in mind. The Inferi were attacking Harry and Dumbledore, but the poison forced Dumbledore to attack himself, right?"
Hermione looked interested. "You're right, actually. So ... two defences, one active and one passive. If Dumbledore had to put his hand into a fire to get the ring, just as he had to swallow poison to get the locket; well, that would explain why his hand was burned the way it was when he got back."
They were up on the battlements of the castle today, on the stone bridge connecting the Astronomy Tower with its smaller sister tower where students kept their telescopes. The bridge was only a few paces long, but you could sit and swing your legs over the edge and see between crumbling turrets to the east end of the lake. There was an intermittant chill breeze up here, but it was fine if you wore a light cloak.
Malfoy was stretched on his stomach on the landing just above the bridge. He scratched: 'Two defences: 1 active, 1 passive,' on the parchment on the stone in front of him, underneath their other ideas. Harry was sitting cross-legged next to him, so he could read it clearly.
"What we need is a way to know what kind of defences they're going to be, though," Harry said, stretching back on his hands. "Do you think he'll use Inferi again?"
Malfoy shook his head immediately, twisting to address his words to Harry. "No, that'd be stupid. If somebody could get past Inferi once, he'd know they could do it again. He can afford to lose any one Horcrux, but not all of them. He'd have to use different defences."
"He likes patterns," Hermione said. She pulled her knees up onto the bench she was sitting on, hugging her arms around them. She looked down at Harry and Draco, and at Ron who was walking along the bridge, his arms out for balance. Ron reached the end of the bridge and dropped down to sit against the base of the stone bench. Hermione's brow creased as she thought. "The Horcruxes had to be important things," she said, "and he wanted them to be of a kind, even though he couldn't do that entirely — but he would have made them all Founder's items if he could, I bet. The hiding places, too, are significant places — a pattern again."
"Well, there wasn't any pattern in the two defences at the cave," Harry said. He was distracted, watching Malfoy play with the feathered end of his quill. He had wet it into a slick point and was stroking it absently over his lips. "The Inferi and the poison were completely different. Well, except that the Inferi came out of the water, and the potion was kind of water."
"That's it!" Hermione dropped her legs, knocking Ron's shoulder. "Harry, you're brilliant."
Harry raised his eyebrows. "Oh, yes?"
"No, really." The light of discovery was in her eyes. "The cave was protected with water magic. Dumbledore was burned getting the ring: fire magic. I'll bet whatever active defence he faced was fire-based too. The Diary was mind magic. Voldemort's own thoughts, written down as a teenager, were protecting it."
"The five elements," Malfoy said, slowly, as though trying the idea out. He smiled, stretching to look up at Hermione. "Actually, that's kind of clever."
She nodded vigorously. "It means that the defences are connected; stronger than they would be otherwise because the pattern lets them draw on the others for stability."
Ron gave Harry a pained look. "Tell me she's not excited because You-Know-Who's put up better defences than we expected," he said.
Hermione frowned. "Well, yes, obviously it would be better for us if the defences weren't drawing strength from one another." She lifted her head to look at the lake in the distance, thinking. "Still, three of them have been taken down — that makes the pattern less stable, which is probably good. And it lets us plan much better, if we're right. There are only two elements left."
"And there are three Horcruxes left," Harry said, since it didn't seem as though she was going to get to that. "There aren't enough elements, Hermione."
"Wouldn't think he'd need to put any defences on that snake of his," Ron pointed out, sitting up straight again. "For one, it's vicious as all hell, and for two, he keeps it by him all the time."
That was a point, actually. Harry began to be more interested.
"Air and earth," Harry said again. He was tired enough to simply drop his head onto the table in the library and close his eyes. He was determined they were going to get somewhere with this tonight, though. "We have to prepare for both, because we don't know which it will be."
Hermione yawned, one hand waving in the direction of her mouth but not really covering it. "Mm," she said sleepily. "Although ... still think earth is more likely."
Ron nodded. "S'a graveyard," he said. "Lots of earth."
Draco was stretched back in his chair, his eyes closed. Ron nudged him, gingerly, and he opened his eyes, shooting the other boy an evil look. Then he shook himself and propped his chin in his hands, paying attention to the conversation again.
"Would have been a much better place for Inferi than that lake," he said, proving he'd been listening after all. "Graveyard full of dead people."
Hermione looked a bit horrified. "He wouldn't want to raise his mother, though."
Draco nodded, adjusting his arms under his chin. "This is a point."
"All right." Harry blinked at the parchment in front of him, willing it to come into focus. "Earth first. Active earth defences. Trolls, golems, projectile rocks ... um, those weird grubby things with teeth Draco talked about — they weren't Nifflers, were they? Because I'm fairly sure they're not vicious."
"No, they weren't," Malfoy said, leaning over him and correcting the list. Harry nodded and read the rest of the way down. He was yawning so widely for the last few that none of the others would have known what he was saying if they hadn't gone over them so many times already.
By the time they gave up for the night, Harry found he actually staggered with tiredness when he tried to get up.
"Ugh. Quidditch practice tomorrow," he remembered. Ron blanched. Draco looked suddenly pleased. It was the first time Harry had seen him happy over not being on the team.
He remembered the Pensieve memory again — the one Malfoy had showed him. He was tired enough to decide that it was all right to reach out and ruffle the back of Malfoy's hair as they headed out of the library. Malfoy gave him a startled look, but he didn't say anything.
Harry and Ron dropped down next to Hermione on the steps of the main courtyard, which was catching the last of the day's sunshine. It was the hour between the last class of the day and dinner, and most of the student body was either in the courtyard or out on the grounds. Harry could see the little yellow figures of the Hufflepuff team practising on the Quidditch pitch in the distance.
Hermione had her nose buried in a book. She was chewing the corner of her lip, a frown of concentration pressed into her forehead. She budged up to let Harry sit down on the step, but didn't otherwise acknowledge their arrival.
Harry caught sight of Malfoy, over the other side of the courtyard. He was leaning against the wall, talking to Pansy. His hair was pale and bright in the sunshine; Harry thought he could see strands snagging against the stones of the wall when he turned his head. Harry lifted his hand in a wave, catching his attention. Draco saw him and gave a nod and a not-quite smile. Harry thought he might come over, but he turned back to Pansy.
Harry was aware that Ron was watching him. He didn't say anything, though, and Harry was content to stretch his ankles out in the sunshine and watch Malfoy and Pansy catch up on six years' worth of friendship.
He wondered why he hadn't done that. Malfoy had six years' worth of memories; Harry had only seen one. Knowing that the Harry in that world had called him Draco and sometimes ruffled his hair wasn't enough, he knew. Harry could do those, but that wasn't enough to make up for what Malfoy had lost. He needed to know more.
Ron played with a frayed thread on his sleeve, his eyes slitted almost completely closed in the sunshine, his long legs sprawled over the steps. Hermione focused completely on her book. Her nose moved closer to the page when the sunlight began to fade, but she didn't otherwise seem aware of the outside world at all.
Malfoy said something that made Pansy shriek and bury her face in his arm, her shoulders shaking with laughter.
Eventually Hermione shivered and looked up, her gaze focusing on the world around her.
"The sun's gone," she said, fuzzy and disoriented. Ron cricked open an eye.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "S'it dinnertime?" He checked the watch hanging on a chain from his pocket — a present from Charlie last birthday which had a distracting habit of roaring the hour at 3am — and shrugged. "Not for a bit. Want to go up to the common room?"
The courtyard was a lot emptier when they left than it had been while the sun shone. Draco and Pansy were still over by the far wall, though. Pansy was leaning her cheek on Malfoy's shoulder, rolling her head against him whenever she tilted her face up to speak, with a casual intimacy that was rather awe-inspiring. If completely inappropriate.
Harry gave her a frown as they left, but he didn't think either of them noticed it.
"I'm glad Malfoy's started talking to Pansy Parkinson," Hermione announced as they climbed the East Staircase.
Harry blinked. He hadn't thought Hermione had even noticed.
Ron gave her a curious look. "Didn't think you liked Pansy."
Hermione pursed her lips. "I don't. She abuses her prefect powers, and she bats her eyelashes and gets other people to do her homework for her." Ron jumped and gave her a somewhat hunted look. "And she wears too much make-up," she added primly, at which Ron relaxed. "But that doesn't mean I couldn't see that she and Malfoy were friends, here."
"She's not his real friend, though," Harry said. "Not for him. His real friends are Ron and me." Hermione shot him a look and he added, "I. Ron and I."
"Oh, honestly. There was nothing wrong with your grammar. I just meant ..."
Harry looked at her, but apparently she couldn't work out what she'd just meant. She made an impatient, casting-off gesture and dropped her hands.
"He's right, though," Ron said. He jumped over a trick step, long habit making it automatic. "I mean — sort of right. We can't be his real friends if we don't remember it. But Parkinson can't be his real friend either, when he doesn't remember it."
"Exactly." Harry jumped onto the sunken landing in front of the entrance to Ravenclaw Tower, and up onto the next stair, which was still in the process of swinging towards them. "He needs us, not just Pansy Parkinson."
Ron didn't seem to hear. He was worrying at his lip as he walked up the stairs. "The thing is, though: how did he get to be friends with us? How could he have ended up in Gryffindor at all? I mean —" he stopped, waiting for the other two to catch up. "I sort of almost like him these days. This new him, you know, who doesn't sneer at my mum or call you names." He nodded to Hermione. "But he's still Malfoy. He's kind of funny, and he's pretty dedicated to the Horcrux research, but he hasn't got —" He reddened. "You know, 'daring, nerve and chivalry,' or whatever."
They found quite a lot of Gryffindor House in the common room, playing Exploding Snap or talking in small knots. Dean and Seamus were having some sort of argument near the back fireplace, which involved Seamus throwing his arms about and making horrible grimaces, and Dean standing with his arms crossed over his chest. Neville was almost certainly out in the greenhouses at this time of day, so after a second spent looking around, Harry and the others switched directions and headed up the stairs to the seventh year boys' dormitory.
"I think I can see how he could have been a Gryffindor, actually." Hermione sat down on Harry's bed. (She never sat on Ron's, and Ron always looked the tiniest bit disappointed about it. Harry privately thought that the omission meant a lot more than the fact that she was comfortable with Harry's bed did.) She tapped her lip, thoughtful, and tucked one leg up underneath her. "He's not — I mean he doesn't, you know, seem to believe in bravery just for bravery's sake — he's too Slytherin for that. But he has got nerve, you know. Sometimes he's really stupid with it."
Ron opened and shut his mouth. He was obviously torn between denying that Malfoy had any Gryffindor qualities, and denying that 'stupid' was one of those qualities. "When?" he managed finally. "When has he had nerve?"
Hermione clasped her hands around the knee of the leg still touching the floor. "Every time he picks a fight, for one," she said. "He walks around with Crabbe and Goyle like bodyguards, but he always ends up fighting too, and he always loses; but it's like when he gets worked up he can't even think about that. He's completely reckless when he's worked up, and that's very Gryffindor."
Ron looked pained. "But it's not the same. It's not like — being brave about things because they're the right thing to do."
"There's more than one kind of courage, Ron," Hermione said quietly. Her mouth made a funny, reluctant shape. "Also, the Sorting Hat song has never actually said anything about principles."
Harry hadn't even considered it, but he supposed that Malfoy did have a reckless courage, sometimes, even though other times he weighed up his options and ran away with his tail between his legs. But whenever it was something he cared about, Hermione was right: he was stupid brave. Mouthing off about Cedric Diggory in front of a carriage full of Hufflepuffs, right after he died — that had been horrible, but also ridiculously fearless. Insulting an enormous Hippogriff, too, just because Harry was showing him up — then facing Dumbledore, agreeing to kill possibly the most powerful wizard in the world ...
"That's only one bit, anyway," Ron said. "'Their daring, nerve and chivalry', the hat said. You didn't mention chivalry."
Hermione wrinkled her nose. "Name for me one time you've been chivalrous, Ronald Weasley."
"Hey! I — knocked out a troll for you, you know."
"After you'd locked it in a bathroom with me," Hermione said. "And made me cry," she added.
Ron looked stricken. "I'm sorry about that, you know," he mumbled. "I wouldn't have ... I mean, I didn't want you to cry."
Hermione's cheeks were pink. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. But while we're on the subject, Malfoy taking Pansy Parkinson to the Yule Ball even though she was dressed like an enormous Pygmy Puff was fairly chivalrous."
"Everybody's got some qualities of the other houses, though," Harry said. He was thinking of the Sorting Hat telling him he'd do well in Slytherin, and that he had a good mind. "I mean — well, everybody knows you're smarter than any Ravenclaw. The Hat must have considered putting you there."
"That's it exactly, though." Hermione uncurled her leg and sat up straighter, the better to make her point. "I was probably more suited to Ravenclaw than Gryffindor, when I was eleven. And Neville —" she looked uncomfortable, but ploughed ahead, "well, he's great, and I know he can be terribly brave, but it doesn't come naturally; he has to really try. But the Hat put us both in Gryffindor because — well, because we both thought courage was more important than being smart, or being hard-working and loyal, like Neville is. Like he is instinctively, I mean.
"I think the way you're Sorted is only half to do with what your potential is. The other half is what you think is important. What you want to be, what drives you — because that's what's going to determine what you grow up to be."
Harry leaned forward on his elbows. "Dumbledore said something like that once," he admitted. "That it was choices that mattered, not what's in you."
Ron made a face. "I just don't — I mean, you're saying Malfoy must have wanted to be a Gryffindor, when he was Sorted. But he's Lucius Malfoy's son. Malfoys are always in Slytherin. Why would he want to be Sorted somewhere else?"
Harry was still thinking about Ron's question after dinner, when Malfoy joined them again in the library.
They weren't doing much. Hermione was double checking some facts, and Ron was quietly practising the wand movements to repel golems. They'd prepared as much as they could, realistically. Harry knew that as soon as he said, 'We're ready,' the others would agree.
"Out with it, Potter," Malfoy said. He'd been cleaning his fingernails with his quill for the last ten minutes. Now he straightened and looked at Harry. "You're staring at me. Do I have ink on my chin, or do you want to ask something?"
"You, ah — actually you do. Not on your chin, but, um ..." Harry gestured to his own cheek.
"Oh." Malfoy scrubbed it away with his thumb, flushing.
"But, um. I did want to ask you something, actually."
When he didn't continue, Draco made a head-cocking motion. Yes, and?
"You ..." Harry shook his head, frustrated. "You know you were Slytherin here, right?"
Draco looked amused. "Er, yes. I think somebody mentioned it once."
"Right. I just — we wondered —"
Ron and Hermione were looking up, watching them, by this point. At that last part, Ron made a disclaiming motion, alarmed.
"Well — did you ask to be in Gryffindor?"
Malfoy looked taken aback.
Harry flushed. "I just wondered if you knew why the Hat chose one way one time and another way the other."
Malfoy twirled the quill between his fingers, his eyes fixed on the feather tip.
"Not really," he admitted. "I've thought about it. Obviously." He looked up. "I talked to Pansy, and to Vince and Greg, and there don't seem to have been any big differences here, before my Sorting. Anything that would have made me — have changed my personality here, I suppose. I think I was still ... me."
"There really wasn't anything different?" Ron had given up practising defensive spells now. His wand lay forgotten on the table.
Draco's lip curled. "I can hardly know for sure, can I? I wasn't here to see what was different."
He looked away, the bite gone from his expression as swiftly as it had come. "The only thing I can think of is that I had a row with Father the night before I came here, and maybe that didn't happen in this world."
"You had a row with your dad?" Ron sounded as though some small foundation of his world was crashing away.
Draco shot him a look. "I know you don't argue with your father, Weasley, but that's because yours doesn't know how to."
Ron made a face and looked away. "He argued well enough with Percy," he said to the table. Then he looked up again, eyes challenging Draco through his fringe. "I just didn't think you ever rowed with yours."
Malfoy leaned back in his chair. Harry had the impression that he was trying to look nonchalant. "Well, that was the first time. Obviously not the last." His eyes flicked to Harry. "It was about you, mostly. Well, it was about you in the beginning. Father wanted me to buddy up to you. I didn't want to. I'd already met you in Madam Malkin's, and you'd basically been an enormous snob and made it clear you didn't like me much, so ..."
"Wait." Harry sat up straight. "You knew who I was in the robe shop?"
Malfoy raised his eyebrows. "You told me. When I introduced myself."
Harry sat back, his mind whirring. "Huh." He looked up to Malfoy's questioning look. "Oh — that didn't happen here. We didn't get as far as exchanging names."
Draco bit his lip. "All right, then. Uh, well I really didn't want to have to try to make you like me, so I, er, kind of told Father that he was an enormous hypocrite to want me to, and it ... escalated from there. By the end I was just shouting whatever I thought would shock him most. I didn't mean any of it — I still pretty much thought my father was never wrong. But I was —" He hesitated, then started again. "Well, and I think I was nervous about going to Hogwarts, too, so it was all even worse than it would have otherwise. I think I told him that I was going to marry a Muggle at one point." He shot Hermione an apologetic look. "It was the worst thing I could think of at the time."
He looked down, examining his thumb joint. "He took until Christmas to forgive me. The Sorting made it worse, of course. But Pansy says — well, she says that she and I weren't really friends till third year, so she's not sure, but she didn't get the impression that I was on bad terms with my father, in first year here. And —" he tilted his head at Harry. "If I didn't know about you — well, probably that fight didn't happen."
Hermione put her book down and rested her chin on her hand. "Were you still mad at your dad when you were being Sorted?"
Malfoy looked at her. "I guess?"
She smiled, triumphant. "I'll bet that's it. The Hat decided that things like — like recklessness and defiance were going to be your guiding impulses, rather than your more Slytherin qualities."
"Hang on, though." Something had just occurred to Harry. "If you already knew who I was, and it was only your dad who wanted you to be friends with me — does that mean you didn't talk to Ron and me on the Hogwarts Express?"
Draco looked instantly curious. "Something happened on the train?"
Harry hesitated. "No. No, not really." He coughed. "So how did we end up ... you know, hanging around together, then? Was it just because we were in the same dorm?"
Draco snickered, obviously remembering something. "Um, no. God. I couldn't stand you — either of you." He looked at Ron, including him in the statement. "And like I said, I remembered what a snob you'd been in Madam Malkin's."
"I wasn't a snob."
Draco rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Anyway, no."
"Then how?" This burst from Ron.
"Oh, um." Malfoy bit his lip against a smile. "Third week of classes. I was sneaking one of the school brooms out to go flying, and I ran into you two. There was — a confrontation —"
"A flaming spat, I suppose," Hermione said.
Draco flashed her a smile, his eyes bright under the pale shadow of his fringe. "One of those, yes. None of us was paying much attention to where we were, and Harry stepped right back into the Whomping Willow. Then there were branches crashing all around us. It was completely terrifying, but also exciting, the way things are when you're eleven. We fell into a tunnel under the tree; I don't know how, I've never been able to find the entrance since.
"After that we crawled for — well, it felt like ages, but I suppose the Shrieking Shack isn't really that far. That's where we ended up. Then we broke out through the boarded windows and traipsed back up to the castle. We were still sort of battered and exhausted, but completely pleased with ourselves." He shrugged, turning the quill over in his hands. "I suppose you can't do that kind of thing together and not end up friends."
Hermione was very quiet. Eventually she cleared her throat. "What about me?" She didn't look up, and her voice was mostly muffled by the pages of her book. "Obviously I wasn't a part of your death-by-tree experience. Did I have — any friends at all?" By the end she was almost inaudible.
"Well ... yes. Parvati and Lavender." Malfoy sounded nonplussed.
Hermione raised huge eyes. "You are kidding."
Malfoy smirked. "I should have said Macmillan and Finch-Fletchley," he said. "But I wasn't joking. You don't hang around with them at all, here?"
Hermione opened and shut her mouth. "You are kidding. What would — what would we talk about? How would we become friends?"
"Oh. Well, it was after you took out that troll in first year, I think. You know everybody was hanging around you for a while after that. Those two just ... stayed. They followed you everywhere, for a while. You bossed them terribly."
"After she took out the troll?" Ron asked. Hermione shut her mouth with a snap.
"Well, I could have," she said sharply. Then she smiled, irrepressibly, and gave Malfoy a far friendlier look. "I'm so glad I did."
She and Ron began to badger Malfoy for more details of what had been different in his six and a half years. Apparently Hermione, Parvati and Lavender had formed a Gilderoy Lockhart fan club in second year, which had Ron in pained paroxysms of laughter.
Harry listened, but mostly he watched Draco. He wasn't really that curious about what had happened to himself in that other world of Draco's. As far as he could see, the important things had still been true: he'd still lived with the Dursleys, still not known his parents, still had his life defined by Trelawney's prophesy. It was what it had been like for Draco in that world that he wanted to know more about.
The other boy was practically blossoming under the attention, now. Tension that Harry hadn't even noticed melted out of his shoulders as he kicked back in his chair, his grin lazy and a bit delighted. He'd begun to play up to his audience, Harry realised. The change was quite subtle, but he wasn't just answering the questions anymore: he was performing. Harry was reminded of how he'd climbed onto the back of the sofa in the Pensieve memory, giddily grandstanding to the fifth and sixth year boys while Pensieve Harry laughed at him. Or how this world's Draco had strung out the suspense for the other Slytherins in Harry's own Pensieve memory; how he'd told them just enough to make them desperately curious and envious, but not to give away anything important.
"Oh, no," Hermione was saying. "I did not take NEWT-level Divination."
"I think you thought it was your best chance of keeping Lavender from swallowing everything she read about it," Draco said. He leaned back, pushing the soft fringe out of his eyes. "You and Parvati used to give her hell about the way her brain melted in the presence of a crystal ball."
The huge clock high in the wall of the main library atrium gave a soft chime for ten o' clock. That meant Madam Pince was going to start rustling students out of the stacks and sending them off to their common rooms.
Harry cleared his throat. "There's a Hogsmeade Saturday tomorrow." The others looked at him, understanding. He finished anyway. "Nobody will notice if we're gone. I think we should go to London; to the cemetery"
"Yeah," Ron said after a moment. "Yeah. Okay."
The barman at the Hogshead gave them a knowing look when they came in and picked their way through the rickety tables to the fireplace. Their school robes were shrunken and stuffed into the pockets of their Muggle clothes — Malfoy had had to borrow his from Ron — but Harry supposed that it didn't take a great genius to recognise students sneaking away on a Hogsmeade Saturday.
He flattened his fringe over his scar, hoping Hermione's sticking spell on it would hold.
The barman was still looking at them, blue eyes uncomfortably sharp under bushy yellowed eyebrows. Then he turned away to clean a glass with a grubby cloth, pretending not to notice as Draco dropped a handful of Floo powder into the flames.
The Leaky Cauldron was almost as dim as the Hogshead, when they came out. It was crowded, though, unlike the room they'd come from, and wreathed in tobacco smoke. It was noisy, too; full of the raucous laughter and clink of glasses made by a room full of witches and wizards with no place better to be on a grey Saturday morning.
The four Hogwarts students were able to weave through the patrons and slip out the door into Muggle London without anybody noticing them. Harry had been worried that they'd be stopped by people wanting to shake his hand, or maybe by people wanting to tell Ron that they'd gone to school with his brother; or asking Malfoy how he'd come back from the dead. Malfoy's death had been fairly well publicised, after all; Harry was amazed that McGonagall had kept Rita Skeeter and her kind from bothering him at school.
"Why didn't he stop us leaving?" Hermione paused outside the dingy entrance to the pub, fretting with the strap of her bag. "He knew we were students."
"The barkeeper?" Ron shrugged. "Why should he care if students sneak off? He's not a professor. Go on, get the map out and show us where we're going."
Hermione extracted the map of London she'd brought, carefully folded and stowed in an inside pocket of her jacket.
Malfoy leaned against a window display of ladies' boots and watched her.
"You know, you're a lot more like the Hermione I know than I'd expect you to be."
Hermione looked up, her eyes narrowed.
"Shouldn't you be a bit more relaxed about breaking rules, after seven years of it?
"Oh?" Hermione raised her eyebrows. "The me in your world never broke rules?"
He shrugged, the movement awkward against the window pane. "I think you gave Umbridge some lip a couple of times, but other than that? No."
"Huh." She went back to her map.
She laid it flat against the brick divide between the Leaky Cauldron and the shoe store. Slipping the end of her wand out of her bag, she cast a discreet Notice-Me-Not charm, then used a sticking spell to hold the map up.
"The Lady Dalmadge Charitable Institution for Orphaned Boys and Girls is here." She pointed to a section of the map marked with a tiny flag in black school ink. "The nearest cemetery is here — only three blocks away. That's where they'll have buried children from the orphanage, and also nameless mothers who died on the premises, like Merope. And here —" she moved her hand over quite some distance, "is Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron. You can't see them on the map because it's Muggle. I had to ask my mother to send it to me."
Ron made a distressed sound. "Hermione, that's ruddy miles away. We're not going to walk, are we?" He hesitated. "Or maybe we can Apparate?" he said doubtfully.
"We don't know what the cemetery looks like. We'd probably be Splinched," Hermione said.
"Can't we catch the Knight Bus?" Harry asked.
Draco snorted. "Daytime, Potter."
Harry rolled his eyes. "With a 'k', not an 'n'. Knight Bus. It picks up wizards in need."
"Oh." Draco's cheeks pinked. "I think I remember Mother mentioning some kind of common — er, some kind of thing like that, once."
Ron had brightened. "Mum always told us to get the Knight Bus if we got lost, or abducted by reprobates or something, but I never got to do it. You just stick out your wand hand, right?"
The bus dropped them off in a narrow lane. The passage of time had played havoc with the cobblestones here, cracking and tipping them in crazy directions.
The sleepy-eyed young witch who had taken Stan Shunpike's place saw them off, rubbing her eyes against the daylight.
"Enjoy the fine weather," she told them, pressing the back of her hand to her cheek. The bus door had closed before any of them could respond.
Harry shivered, tugging at the sleeves of his jumper. It was fine weather only in that it wasn't actually raining. There was a dark, heavy hue to the cloud-cover that suggested it might start at any moment, though.
The tiny, cluttered cemetery was at the near end of the lane. It was surrounded by a tall, spiked iron fence, but the gate leaned open, snagged on a tree root. The tree itself grew up hard against the fence, pressing into the iron bars, and reared up to shadow an entire corner of the graveyard.
There was a nippy wind, out here in the comparative open. It played with Harry's fringe in chill little gusts. He looked around at the others, hugging his arms. Malfoy looked nervous, his eyes darting from the cemetery to the lane they'd just come down, but Harry supposed he had reason. Ron and Hermione simply looked set on their purpose.
Hermione adjusted the strap of her bag, then squeezed through the gate, the others following.
Harry looked around, his heart sinking. As cemeteries went, this one was a mess. Most of the headstones had either cracked or slipped onto their sides; or had been uprooted, possibly. Lichen crept up over the damaged and sometimes toppled plinths of angels. The paths weaving between the graves were more guesswork than anything else.
"Don't suppose you guys managed to find the grave before the Death Eaters turned up, did you?" Ron asked Malfoy, who shook his head.
"Let's spread out," Harry said. "Everyone take a corner. We'll work our way inwards till we meet in the middle."
The others nodded and moved away, picking their way through broken headstones and overgrown lavender.
It had obviously been several decades since anybody had been buried here.
There were a few signs that people still came here, though. Harry noticed china vases nestled at the feet of a few graves as he picked his way around them, blackish dry stems poking from their rims, and once he saw a fresh bouquet of lavender laid carefully on one of the newer graves, obviously picked from the cemetery itself. It wasn't flowering, but it was still fragrant and silver-green. He leaned closer and read the small plaque on the stone.
Daughter of Graham and Annette Harding
A Little Lady 'Til The End
They searched for what felt like hours. Harry's back began to ache with bending down to peer at the names scored into headstones, most of them badly obscured by lichen, or simply by time. The wind had picked up a little more, and he began to wish he'd brought a thicker jumper, or perhaps a coat.
"Guys!" Harry turned to see that Ron had straightened and was looking around. He was a lot closer to Harry now. "I've found the orphanage plot!"
Harry scrambled over, Draco and Hermione joining them.
What Ron had found was a long row of featureless graves, not distinguished from each other by any divide or even by a rise in the ground. There was a single plaque set roughly in the middle, with the words 'Lady Dalmadge Charitable Institution for Orphaned Boys and Girls' in a curlicued font engraved in the brass; but there were no individual headstones, or even a list of names.
"Oh, how pitiful," Hermione murmured.
"This is it," Harry said. He couldn't have said where the certainty came from, but it was there, lodged deep in his stomach. Voldemort had done something important here.
"It might be." Hermione sounded doubtful. "Merope probably didn't have any money when she arrived at the orphanage, so it would have made sense to have her buried anonymously in the Institution plot."
"No, it is," Harry said. "I have some sort of connection to Voldemort, right?"
Ron looked a little green. "It's not something to boast about, mate."
"Well, I do," Harry said, annoyed. "And I'm telling you, this is where he hid the Horcrux: this is where his mum's buried."
They looked at the grave for a few moments.
"So ..." Malfoy said eventually. "Do you, um ... do you think it's buried in the grave?"
"Oh god, tell me we don't have to dig up dead people," Ron said.
"Don't be silly." Hermione shook her head. "He wouldn't have dug up his own mother's bones."
Harry felt an uncomfortable lurch in his stomach. "He did his father's."
The others blanched, turning to look at the long grave again. Then Draco shook his head. "No, Hermione's right. He might not have respected his mother much for being abandoned by a Muggle, but she was his link to Salazar Slytherin. He wouldn't desecrate her grave."
Hermione took a breath. "Oh, good," she said. "Er, so, it's probably not in the grave, but if it's here it's still likely to be buried. There isn't anywhere else to put it. But I can't see Voldemort using a shovel if he ever wanted to check on it, so there must be a way to make it reveal itself. Some kind of ... password, or trigger, probably."
Draco's face went still with an idea, and he dug in his pocket. He produced a scrap of parchment and a self-inking quill and scribbled something. He passed the parchment to Harry, his face expectant.
Harry looked at the squiggle.
"Parseltongue," Malfoy explained. "He was the only one in the world who could speak it at the time — what else would he have used as a trigger password?"
Harry raised his eyebrows, looking up from the parchment. "This is a snake?"
Malfoy flushed. "Nobody said I was an artist. Just say something, you pillock."
Harry looked at the squiggle doubtfully. It had a tiny forked tongue, he saw now. He squinted, trying to imagine the messily inked body twining about itself, the tiny tongue flicking within its mouth.
"Open," he hissed.
He looked up. "Did it work?"
Hermione nodded, her eyes wide. "Maybe try facing the grave? Or saying something else?"
Something was happening, though.
Ron stumbled as the ground he stood on shuddered. Harry made a grab to pull him to safety. He missed, but Ron got the idea and tumbled backwards off the narrow path and in amongst the gravestones. Draco took several steps back, his eyes wide. Harry and Hermione crowded backwards against a worn stone plinth supporting the broken feet of an angel, instinctively grabbing each others' hands.
Soil streamed into the opening as it formed in the path, the flow of earth thinning until it was a trickle of pebbles, then nothing. The opening now was the size of a narrow doorway, the space inside it impossibly black.
Draco stepped closer, cautiously, and peered inside.
"There are steps," he reported, his voice admirably calm. "But ... there's some kind of mist in there. I can't see very far."
"Air," Hermione said, breathing out. She dropped Harry's hand. "The element of air. That's probably the passive defence."
"What's the active one, then?" Harry prowled around the shadowy entrance to stand beside Draco.
"Maybe there isn't one, after all," Hermione said. "Or maybe it's inside."
Draco kicked a few loose pebbles into the opening, watching them tumble down and disappear into the gently swirling darkness. He shrugged, pulled out his wand, and said "Accio Horcrux!" Nothing happened, and he put the wand away again. "It was worth a try," he said.
Ron moved to stand beside them, looking down at the eddying mist. "What do you suppose it does?"
"Something to keep you from getting to the Horcrux," Harry said. "Probably something painful." He looked at the opening. "I'll go."
Draco's hand snaked out and latched around Harry's arm almost before he'd finished speaking.
"Not to disrespect my own house," Draco said, "but sometimes 'Gryffindor' rhymes with 'stupid', I've noticed."
Harry tried to shake his arm out of Malfoy's grip, but the other boy was holding on too tightly. "Somebody has to go," he said. "We need that Horcrux. The mist will probably incapacitate whoever goes in, though, so there'll need to be other people out here. Once I've got the Horcrux, you can Summon my body."
Malfoy's eyes turned murderous, and Harry added quickly, "My unconscious body. I didn't mean dead."
"I'll go, then," Ron said.
Harry glared at him. "You're too heavy. And I'm lighter than Malfoy," he added. It was the first time he'd thought to be pleased about the fact that Malfoy had got taller than him sometime in sixth year.
Hermione shook her head, impatient. "And I'm lighter than you, Harry. By a lot."
For a moment he panicked. But, "No, your Summoning spell is the strongest." When she opened her mouth to object, he added, "Don't deny it: you taught me that spell, Hermione."
She bit her lip. "Let me see if I can work out what the mist is, at least."
Harry didn't think there was much point — he was going to go in regardless — but he let Hermione cast revealing charms on the entrance. After a few minutes she stepped back, tilting her head. "Well, I think it's designed to be breathed in, rather than being caustic on skin contact. I'm not sure, though."
"I don't think I can not breathe the whole time I'm down there," Harry said. "I'll try to hurry, but ..."
"One more thing," Hermione pleaded, holding up a hand as though she thought Harry was going to vault over her to get at the opening.
The others watched curiously as she found a twig on the ground and cast Engorgio on it until it was roughly the length and width of a gentleman's cane. Then she cast something Harry thought sounded vaguely familiar. He realised why when a silvery sphere flickered into life around the end of the staff. It was a bubble-head charm — or a variation on it — like the ones Fleur and Cedric had used in the Second Task.
Hermione knelt at the top of the steps and extended the staff down. They all held their breath as it nudged into the first wisps of gas. For a moment it seemed to be working, then the sphere shivered and broke apart.
Hermione pulled the staff back and straightened. "Well, I didn't really think something so simple would work," she said, but she sounded rather crushed.
"It was a good thought," Ron said. Hermione shrugged.
"All right." Harry squared his shoulders. He was nervous, now that he'd got his way. It was better that he went in than Ron or Hermione, though; or Draco, who'd already died once.
"We'll give you twenty minutes," Draco said flatly. "After that we're Summoning you out, whether you have the Horcrux or not."
Harry nodded. He was obscurely comforted by Malfoy's scowl. He had the impression that Draco had probably followed through on this kind of threat, in his old reality.
"Lumos," Harry said. The pale glow sprang into being around the tip of his wand, almost invisible in the daylight.
"Wait." Hermione pulled the Alice band out of her hair, the freed curls whipping into her face, and transfigured it into a wide band of cloth. She pushed her hair back as best she could and handed the cloth to Harry. "Tie this over your mouth. It's not a bubble-head charm, but it might help."
He nodded, tying the cloth loosely around his neck. "Thanks." She nodded back, her mouth set in a tense line.
He tugged up the cloth, fitting it snugly over his mouth. Then he stepped onto the first of the steep, packed-earth steps, leading down into darkness.
One step, two, three, four ...
Harry tensed as the first tendrils of mist coiled around his ankles. There was no effect, though. The mist simply coiled over his school shoes, as passive as an ordinary fog disturbed by somebody's passage. Hermione must be right: it was only dangerous when you breathed it in.
The light decreased at an unnatural rate as he descended; by the time his head dipped below the level of the surface, only the wandlight let him see at all. Another two steps, steeply descending, and the Lumos charm caught the swirling mist. From outside it had looked black, but now in the charm's light it sparkled white against the black of the earthen walls.
Two more steps, and his head dipped under the level of the gas. He held his breath, forcing himself not to do so much as breathe out. Even though he knew he could hold his breath far longer than this, he immediately felt stifled, as though he were drowning; as though if he didn't breathe in in the next second he truly would die.
He quickened his pace. He couldn't go too fast, though; it would be far too easy to slip and fall on these stairs, and the smooth, earthen walls gave him nothing to hold on to.
More steps; he had to be a good way below the level of the graves now. He was surprised he wasn't running into sewers, given that this was Muggle London. Another step, and another; the urge to breathe was overwhelming. Another step, and his vision was swimming, sparkling wreaths of smoke slipping out of focus against the never-ending black background.
He let out his breath; tried to hold for a moment longer; gave in and dragged air jaggedly through the soft cloth covering his mouth.
There was nothing but the air in his lungs: sweet, blessed, earthy and dark. He sagged against the hard-packed wall behind him. Trickles of dry, soft soil slid down his back, inside his collar.
It took a few minutes of dragging in air for it to sink in that the soft trickle of soil behind him meant something. His thoughts came slowly, with difficulty. The trickle hadn't stopped. There was another soft patter now, a pebble bouncing in a muffled cascade down the stairs into the darkness below. That darkness was menacing, a heavy weight, but when he pressed back there were the walls of earth again, hemming him in. They weren't solid, or safe. He could hear the sound of dirt trickling again, tiny grains, one, two, more, a small pattering rush; it would bury him alive.
He couldn't hold in a tiny choking noise, and he stumbled away into the opposite wall, slipping down a step and scraping his knee. There was no light other than the wand in his hand, a beleagured sphere of illumination that petered out at no distance at all. There was no sign of a way out. Up? Should he go up? It was so dark, though — how far down was he? Would he find daylight at the top, or a steel hatch? Would he find something waiting?
Had he come down here to escape what was waiting up there?
That brought him up short. A strange calmness replaced the terror as he realised that he didn't know. Not how he had got here, not where he was, not where he had been when he woke up that morning ... or the morning before ...
Maybe he had been born here?
He hesitated a moment more. He stared into the darkness below. Up was the obvious direction. He was far more likely to find a way out if he went up. But these were stairs, and they went somewhere. Nobody built stairs to nowhere.
The formless dark seemed to be challenging him.
Mind made up, he took another step downwards.
Two more steps, five, seven, and the panic was almost completely faded. Ten, and he impatiently pulled down the cloth covering his mouth. It didn't seem to have a purpose, except to restrict his breathing, and he was already feeling enclosed enough. Twelve, fourteen. His foot struck flat earth where he expected another step. He stumbled, grabbing for a wall which wasn't there, and fell heavily onto his grazed knee.
He got to his feet, rubbing at his knee through his jeans. He raised his wand, spilling the light ahead.
Mist wafted around the interior of a long chamber. Although he had felt constricted in the stairway, now in this wider space he felt exposed, vulnerable to the darkness behind him. The chamber was seven or eight arms-lengths across; he couldn't tell how long, as the wandlight didn't reach. The walls and floor were of smooth, packed earth, just as the stairwell had been. There was no decoration of any kind.
And he shouldn't be here.
The knowledge was sudden and absolute. The darkness here was wrong. The mist curled into new shapes, forming into faces that twisted at the edge of his sight. They were nightmares, of things he couldn't remember, but remembered the terror of. The chamber seemed longer, wider. The mist around him sparkled near in the wandlight and faded to grey further out; beyond, the darkness pressed in like something watchful and huge.
He spun, feeling blindly for the entrance to the steps. A gleam of light at the edge of the wandlight stopped him.
He hesitated, frozen. There was something — he wasn't supposed to be here but there was something, something glittered, he'd come for ...
The moment of almost-purpose faded away, but the new wave of fear had gone with it. Like the blinding terror he'd felt on the stairs, it faded away, leaving him feeling wrung out.
Cautiously, he moved forward. There was definitely a glint there. At the end of the chamber there was a shelf of some kind. Something rested on it, on a dark red cloth: something golden; fat, smooth and incongruous in this dark underground hall.
Close up, it was a small cup. It was two-handled and made of what looked like beaten gold. The handles curved round and jolly. Down low, on the upward curve of the base, he could see the lightly scored face of some grinning animal: a fox, or a badger maybe.
His hands had closed around the delicate golden handles almost before he'd realised that he was reaching for it.
The next second he nearly dropped it as pain seared through him. The air he dragged in burned him, oh, so deeply, the mist rushing into his throat, his nostrils; the pain was in his lungs, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't think. He had the cup hugged to his chest, and he knew he had to drop it; that's what this was, it was the cup, for some reason it was the cup, but he couldn't think. He would die gasping on the floor of this cavern, and the cup dug into his chest, the handles cruel and sharp now. His vision was blacking out, droplets of mist sparking before his eyes.
He could no longer feel his fingers to tell them to let go.
He felt the tug in every part of his body at once. He was picked up and sent flying backwards through the air. He thumped bone-shakingly hard against the wall at the far end of the chamber, the pressure cracking the pain in his chest to dizzying heights. He dropped to the floor, sprawling. Then the tug came again, insistently. He kicked against the wall, weak with the lack of oxygen. The small shift pushed his shoulders into the stairwell, and when the overwhelming pull came again it dragged him the rest of the way. Up and up, and his shoulders scraped over the stairs, and there was dirt in his eyes and the pain in his chest just didn't stop.
Noise and light and air came in a rush. He was lying on the ground, somebody's arms coming around his shoulders. They held him upright as he coughed, hackingly, as though his lungs were broken.
"He must have hit every step on the way up. Why won't he stop coughing?" The words came from a long way off.
A cup filled with water was held to his lips. He gulped it, lifting his eyes past the hands holding it to the face above. A boy, or a young man, maybe his own age. He had fine pale hair falling into his eyes as he bent over, and a pointed, angular face. His eyes and mouth were scrunched with concern.
The boy twisted to look at somebody over his shoulder, holding the empty cup out behind him. "Hermione, more water!"
Somebody must have filled the cup again, because the boy held it to his lips. He drank again, messily, water slopping over his chin. Dropping it when it was empty, he lifted his eyes once more.
The boy was staring at him, his features tense.
"Don't go," Harry said. His voice came out hoarse, painful in his throat.
"I'm ... I won't." The boy sounded oddly blank, as though he were shocked. Threads of recollection were beginning to tickle at Harry now. He scanned the wide grey eyes; the white-blond fringe falling into his eyes as he bent his head; the sharp line of his jaw and the shape of his mouth as he hesitated to say something.
He's mine, Harry thought fuzzily. My responsibility.
"I've got you. It's all right," the boy said.
Draco, Harry thought, startled. Memory came back in a rush.
Harry blinked as the pale hair and pointed features rearranged themselves in his vision, settling back into the person he knew.
It was too confusing. Draco's eyes were still tight with worry, his arms a warm support against Harry's shoulders as he knelt on the path. Harry dropped his head against Draco's shoulder, squeezing his eyes shut, and let the rest of the world keep itself. Draco's hands moved to hold his shoulders, careful. He must have tilted his head again because Harry could feel the tickle of Draco's fringe against his own cheek. It was soft, a whisper over his skin. He pressed his face into the shoulder under his cheek and, just for a moment, wished that he never had to let go.
"You got it," somebody said. Ron; it was Ron who'd said it. He laughed. "I can't believe you got it."
Harry lifted his head, opening his eyes. His hands had attached themselves to the sleeves of Draco's jumper without his noticing. He untangled them, reluctantly, and pulled away. Draco stood, brushing at his knees, and extended a hand. Harry took it and pulled himself up.
Draco was avoiding his eyes. His cheeks looked flushed.
Harry turned to Ron. "Yeah." He dredged up a smile and lifted the cup. The handles had dug into his palms, leaving angry red marks in the skin. "I got it."
Hermione threw her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. He stiffened, but she was careful — she held herself a little away, not pressing on him. He was thankful, as his chest still felt ragged and sore. Not to mention that the bruises and scrapes he'd got when they Summoned him had begun to ache something vicious.
"Oh, Harry," she mumbled. "When the Accio didn't work I thought we'd sent you to die."
He laughed, shakily, and pushed her away. "You should have more faith," he said. "I haven't died any other time, have I?"
She sniffed, wiping at the tear-tracks on her cheek, and glared at him.
"You may be the Boy Who Lived, but you're not immortal, Harry Potter."
He rubbed at the back of his neck, looking away. "Yeah. I did notice, actually."
"We should go," Draco said abruptly. "It's getting late; we should get back to school."
"You're right." Harry shook himself. "I suppose we can Apparate now?"
"It probably won't work in the graveyard," Hermione warned. Harry concentrated, feeling the constriction in his chest for a moment — almost unbearable after the abrasive mist in his lungs — then stumbled as he snapped back to the graveyard. He caught his hand on a headstone.
"You're right. He's set anti-Apparition wards on the graveyard. We'll have to go outside the fence first."
Hermione picked up her bag and they turned toward the gate.
Harry only took one step before he knew something was wrong. He had a moment to think: Idiot, the Inferi only attacked when we tried to leave, too.
The air had turned grey and heavy around them. As Harry watched, something gathered and solidified out of the air: the shape of a bird, as big as Fawkes, but grey and misty black, with a savage beak and beady black eyes.
He spun around, seeing more — a dozen at least, forming out of the air all over the graveyard.
"Shut your eyes!" Hermione yelled. "They're Avissi. They can only see out of your eyes!"
Malfoy cursed. Harry stared for a moment, wide-eyed. One of the birds was diving for him, talons and beak extended in a rush of air. He gulped in a breath and squeezed his eyes shut, diving to the side.
The sound of talons scoring over the ground where he'd been chilled him, and he scrabbled further away, pointing his wand blindly over his shoulder and shouting, "Impedimenta!" He really, really hoped he didn't hit any of his friends.
He couldn't remember whether they'd discussed how to fight Avissi when they were talking about Air defences; he supposed they probably had, since Hermione knew about them. Either way, the Impedimenta must have worked, since he heard the thump of a light body hitting the ground.
The graveyard was a nightmare of sound and movement. Harry manoeuvred around another headstone, blind and groping. He could hear the shrieks of the birds, the violent flap of wings, and the voices of the others, shouting hexes.
This was hopeless. He'd only hit the last one because it had almost ploughed into him. Without sight, he couldn't navigate either to get out of the cemetery, or to defend against the birds. He was useless without his sight; but the Avissi were used to flying in darkness.
He threw himself into motion, cracking his eyes open at the same moment and scanning the air. One of the shadowy birds immediately wheeled and dove at him, shrieking. The talons scored over his shoulder, a slash of hot pain. Then he was rolling, his eyes closed tight as he aimed his wand at the bird, catching it as it wheeled up again.
He fell into a pattern. It was chaotic and terrifying, and he had no way of watching his friends' backs, but it seemed to work. He would dash out of cover — bruising himself on headstones and stumbling on the uneven paths — and blink his eyes open for one beat, two, then squeeze them shut again and aim for the birds that found him each time. He got more talon marks on his back and arms, and once a jagged beak digging into his shoulder, surreally painful. Most of the time he hit his target.
He tried not to look for the others each time he opened his eyes, knowing that it would give away their position to the Avissi. He was aware that Ron and Hermione were fighting over near the gate, though; almost near enough to slip through it, if they'd wanted to. Once he accidentally looked at Ron directly and had to shout out a warning, his voice ragged.
He found out where Draco was when he stumbled behind the plinth for an urn, or maybe an angel, and fell against a warm back. He put out a hand, startled.
"Don't open your eyes!" Draco said breathlessly.
Harry nodded. "Right." He moved carefully, keeping track of where Draco was. It was unbelievably comforting to feel the human warmth of somebody at his back.
"I'm going to look around the urn," Harry said. "Get ready, all right?"
Harry moved forward, the tangle of grass and weeds around the stone plinth dragging at his feet, and cracked open his eyes.
Two dark shapes, directly overhead. They wheeled, and Harry dove forward, rolling and shouting, "Stupefy."
He used the sound of Draco's own hex, shouted a moment later, to join the other boy behind another headstone.
Both birds had tumbled out of the sky.
Draco was panting. He put out a hand, touching Harry's arm and shoulder, verifying where he was. Then, "Again," he said.
They repeated the manoeuvre. Draco was doing the same thing Harry was: flicking his eyes open just long enough to locate a bird and make it turn, then casting blindly.
Harry saw the moment he misjudged.
Harry was halfway through a dash between two statues, and he cracked his eyes open to see Draco trip over the tree root he'd not seen because he was looking at the sky. He scrambled to his feet and Harry wanted to scream at him, because he should have rolled away, and now it was too late.
Three birds converged on him from different directions, their screams primal and harsh. Harry cast a wild hex but it flew wide. The birds reached Draco together, beaks gaping, claws extended.
And somehow Draco ... missed them. Harry blinked, sure that he'd mis-seen. He rolled sideways to avoid another bird and shot a Petrificus Totalus at it. It fell out of the air with a thump, but Harry was staring at Draco. It was as if he'd flickered out of existence for a moment; Harry could have sworn the Avissi had gone through him.
He was staring, dazed, after the three birds which had failed to tear him to bits. They wheeled about now, cawing angrily, and Harry shouted, "Move, damn it!"
Draco shook himself and shut his eyes, running to the shadow of another headstone. Harry quickly shut his own eyes and turned away, back to the battle.
It was nearly over. Harry heard Hermione Stun another bird, then Ron's voice over the top of hers, taking out the one swooping at her from the other direction. There was a rush of wings over his head, and Harry looked up long enough to get that one as well, hearing the crunch of bones as it veered, Confunded, into a headstone.
Harry opened his eyes, gingerly. The others were doing the same, looking ready to close them again at a moment's notice. There were no more birds in the sky, though. Ragged, feathery grey shapes were scattered around the cemetery, and Hermione had a few feathers caught in her hair, wildly tangled and attached stickily to her face where blood smeared it, but that was all that could be seen of them.
"Let's go," he said, breathing out.
He eyed Draco as they gathered in the narrow lane again. It was narrower and darker, now. The topsy-turvy cobblestones were grey and vague in the fading light. Harry shook his head. Draco must have Apparated for a moment, somehow — accidentally, maybe, given how shocked he'd looked. Harry simply hadn't heard the crack of Apparition over the noise of the battle.
He waited until the others had disappeared, one by one. Then he hugged the Hufflepuff Cup to his chest and Apparated to Hogsmeade.
Hogsmeade was almost deserted when they got back. All of the students were gone. Harry had never seen Hogsmeade without students joking and laughing in the streets, before, except in winter; and even then, there had been rugged-up students hurrying between Zonko's and the Three Broomsticks. In their wake, the tiny village seemed to have fallen into a picturesque coma. A cat washed herself on a fence. A flock of birds winged across the sky; high up and swift. Harry gave them a wary glance as they moved off over the forest in the distance.
The sun had fallen below the horizon, but the last golden streaks of sunset still caught the edges of the clouds, and stained the chimney boxes reddish-gold.
Mr Honeyduke gave them a stiff, disapproving nod as they passed him shutting up his shop. A witch walking her toad on the village green glanced at them, a knowing smile on her lips. They saw no one else, though, and then they were out of the village and on the road to Hogwarts.
Hermione shivered, pulling her sleeves down over her hands. "I had no idea it had got so late. I hope we weren't missed."
"We probably were," Draco said. "Does it matter?" His face was beginning to light, as if he were just realising it himself. "We got the Hufflepuff Cup."
Harry looked down at it, still held in both his hands as it had been when he Apparated. He'd almost forgotten it was there.
"Here." He held it out to Hermione. "You should put it in your bag."
She took it carefully, turning it over in her hands. "We did, didn't we?" She bit her lip, turning bright eyes to Draco. "I can't believe we finally did it."
"That's three," Ron said. He hung over Hermione's shoulder, eyeing the cup. "It should look nastier, don't you think? Wouldn't having a piece of You-Know-Who's soul inside it — I don't know, make it tarnish a bit?"
"It's stealth evil," Draco said. He rolled the words on his tongue, enjoying them. "Beneath this fair face lurks a darkness tarnish could never express. Let me look."
Hermione handed it to him.
"Fair face?" Ron raised his eyebrows.
Draco turned the cup over. "Badger face," he amended, spotting the faint animal features scored into the metal. "An evil badger," he added, running his thumb lightly over the gold.
He stumbled over a stone in the road, intent on the Horcrux. Harry put out a hand to catch his shoulder, and Draco swung towards him, his smile brilliant. He held the cup next to his cheek. "Fear me, for I am the Dark Badger." He adopted a harsh, sepulchral voice. "My claws are hungry; my teeth are stained with the blood of the righteous."
Hermione choked on a giggle, using a hand to push back the strands of hair that the wind had pushed into her mouth.
"You are a bit stained in the tooth," Ron said. "I didn't like to say anything."
Draco swung the cup towards him. "You do not mock the badger, Weasley." His eyes glittered. "The badger will rip you apart."
Hermione made a face, laughing again.
Draco tossed the cup from one hand to the other, watching it glitter in the last of the sunlight. The red-gold sunset gave it a spark as though it were on fire, for a moment. "Evil is messy," he admitted.
Harry watched him tossing Voldemort's butchered soul in the sunlight, his hair catching the same late golden light that made the cup gleam. There was a bounce in his step, as though he hadn't just been battling flying dark creatures. Hermione was still a mess of flyaway hair, beaded blood and dirt dotting her forehead, and Ron much the same. Harry himself felt as though he only needed to sit down somewhere and he'd never get up again. His throat rasped and there was an ache deep in his chest. The jagged beak wound in his shoulder pulled when he walked, too. Draco, though, looked as though he couldn't even feel the scratches and tears all over him.
Harry stumbled, grunting as the jolt intensified the ache below his ribs. Draco turned, his face tightening as he took in Harry's expression. Harry straightened. "I'm fine."
"Oh, for ..." Draco took two quick steps back towards him. "Let me —" He stopped himself in the middle of whatever gesture he meant to make, his face screwing up with some emotion that was gone too quickly for Harry to read it.
"Weasley!" Draco stepped back. "Deal with Potter, would you? Apparently being poisoned and then having bits torn out of him has shaken him up." He looked back at Harry, his eyelashes lowering. "Obviously a real Gryffindor would look on this as a gentle massage, but we all know that Potter's delicate."
"Oh, shut up," Harry muttered. Ron had fallen back to his side.
He gave him a concerned look. "You all right, mate?"
Draco coughed. Ron slipped a shoulder under Harry's arm. "All right, then," he said.
Harry hesitated for a moment, then relaxed into Ron's support with relief. He felt like a rag doll.
"I would have been fine," he said.
Hermione coughed something that could have been "Boys." She and Draco dropped behind as they left the road for one of the shorter paths that ran up through the castle grounds.
"Do you really think the cup itself has become tainted by the presence of Voldemort's soul?" Harry heard her ask Draco. "Or could a pure container hold impure contents?"
Harry hadn't thought much about Hermione's question of whether they'd been missed. He didn't think about it until Ron stopped, jolting Harry out of cyclical ideas for destroying the Horcrux. Harry looked up, blinking.
The small crowd of people gathered on the steps of Hogwarts, obviously in the midst of some kind of council, fell silent and turned towards them. Harry caught Professor McGonagall's eye and gulped.
"Oh my god," Draco said in a distant, horrified voice behind him. "My mother is here."
"So's mine," Ron said. "D'you think we should have ... um, left a note?"
McGonagall picked up her robes and walked down the steps of the courtyard. Harry withdrew his arm from Ron's shoulders and stepped away, ignoring the swirl of dizziness. He tried to straighten his shirt. They'd forgotten to put their robes back on after they got back to Hogsmeade.
"I assume, from your appearance, that you have not in fact been on a jaunt to Diagon Alley, Mr Potter." She let her gaze linger on each of the others, including them in the statement.
"Er. No," Harry said.
"Well, we did go to Diagon," Draco said conscientiously. "Briefly. Just not in a ... jaunty sense." McGonagall's gaze settled on him and he tried a winning smile. "Er."
"You didn't need to worry, Professor," Harry said. "Or do ... this. Really."
Besides McGonagall and Mrs Malfoy and Mrs Weasley, there was Professor Sinistra and, for some reason, the other three Gryffindor seventh year boys as well as Ginny, Pansy Parkinson and Crabbe and Goyle, all hanging back and looking awkward.
"Thank you, Mr Potter. Next time that the wizarding world's most wanted target disappears during a supervised school excursion, I shall remember not to worry."
"I told them you were probably just doing something you had to do, but they were that jittery, mate," Seamus said in a low voice, edging closer. "Malfoy's mum was nearly hyperventilating."
Draco glared at him. Seamus faltered to a stop. Draco looked at Narcissa.
If she was hyperventilating now, she was being quite calm about it. She stepped with elegant deliberation down the stairs, through the seventh years, and made her way to Draco.
"Sorry, Mother," he said.
She touched his shoulder. "Do try to remember that I've already lost you once, Draco," she said. He nodded.
Ginny was hanging on to Mrs Weasley's sleeve, trying to keep her from charging forward. She whispered frantically into her mother's ear. Whatever she was saying only seemed to make Molly's lips compress into a line, however. Eventually Ginny lost the battle, and her mother strode forward.
She planted her hands on her hips. "Ronald Weasley, if you disappear without notice again you will be eviscerated and fed to the garden gnomes." She waited until Ron had swallowed and nodded, then turned to Harry. Her face softened. "Harry, you poor lamb. Minerva, he needs to go to the hospital wing; the poor boy can barely stand."
Harry stepped back, trying to work out whether the expression in her eyes meant that she was going to hug him. "I'm fine, really, Mrs Weasley."
Ron was making sputtering noises. "I get eviscerated, and he goes to the hospital wing?" he muttered to Ginny.
"Hey, I'm a bad sister because apparently I'm supposed to watch you all the time to make sure you don't run off to fight You-Know-Who," Ginny grumbled. "And could you not do that, by the way? I really am tired of being lectured for your lack of a survival instinct."
"Excuse me?" Ron drew himself up, making the most of the good foot in height difference he had. "Was it some other bratty little seven-year-old who tried to fly off the third floor chimney on the kitchen mop?"
McGonagall clicked her tongue. "Mr Potter, Mr Weasley, Miss Granger, Mr Malfoy: you will go to the hospital wing and get Madam Pomfrey to patch you up. When she releases you you will come immediately to my office to explain why it was that you felt the need to leave school premises on an obviously dangerous mission."
"Professor, we can't say —"
"Miss Granger, I believe I told you to go to Madam Pomfrey."
Pansy ducked under her arm and tucked her hands into the front of Draco's shirt. "Did you really go off to fight the Dark Lord?"
"Oh my god, Draco, you idiot. The Dark Lord. Incredibly powerful dark wizard. Are we even —"
Whatever she was going to say was never finished. Draco paled as she spoke and took a step back. As the assembled crowd watched, his outline trembled, flickered. Then he disappeared.
Pansy dropped her hands with a yelp.
Harry took a step forward, his eyes widening —
— and Draco reappeared, slumping to his knees on the grass.
There was a moment of silence.
"Oh, Draco," Narcissa Malfoy whispered. McGonagall snapped out of her state of suspension.
"I think," she said, "that in the circumstances, it might be better if you came to my office now; before the hospital wing."
"I demand that somebody tell me what just happened to my son."
Narcissa Malfoy stood in the centre of the headmistress' office, one hand anchoring Draco at her side by his wrist.
"It wasn't Apparition," Pansy said, shaking her head repeatedly. "It wasn't. I would have heard it — I would have been side-alonged!"
Seamus, Dean, Neville and Ginny had been left behind on the steps, along with Mrs Weasley, who had gone home with an anxious look at Draco — whom Harry could have sworn she'd never thought about one way or the other, before — and a last distracted promise to Ron that there'd be a Howler if she was ever called to the school because he'd got himself lost again. Pansy had insisted on coming up with Draco, though, and had dragged Crabbe and Goyle with her. They hulked at her shoulders, looking uncertain and desperately out of place, and casting long, worried looks at Draco.
"You can't," Hermione said. "You can't ... Apparate ... at Hogwarts." Her voice trailed off as she caught McGonagall's eye.
"Thank you, Miss Granger. I believe we are aware of that." She paused, fixing her gaze on Pansy, who stared back, wide-eyed and tearful. Then she turned to Draco.
Her mouth moved uncertainly for a moment. Harry thought she might be trying to work out how to sound kindly. "Can you tell me whether this has ever happened before, Mr Malfoy?"
Draco hadn't said a word since he disappeared. He looked up now, his face blank. "I — no, I don't —"
"Yes," Harry said. "Today. You disappeared in London. I saw it happen, Draco."
Draco seemed to draw further into himself. Harry saw Narcissa's hand tighten around his wrist.
"Has it happened before today?"
Draco bit his lip. He shrugged. "Maybe? It's confusing. I don't remember the actual — I don't remember very well."
"But it's not —" Ron stopped, uncomfortable. "Look, it's not a big deal, right? He came back. It's just like — not Apparition but like it, yeah? It's just one of those things."
"Young Draco's case is different though, isn't it?" Professor Sinistra was leaning against a bookshelf, watching the proceedings. "If anybody else were flitting in and out of sight, it might be an interesting party trick."
McGonagall's stern expression intensified; Harry wondered whether she was regretting not asking Hagrid to be Head of Gryffindor House after all.
"But Mr Malfoy ..." Sinistra came forward, sidestepping Narcissa's suddenly dangerous glare. "He doesn't belong here." She touched his cheek, her eyes bright and birdlike and curious. "I do think that our reality may have recognised that, and be trying to squeeze him out."
"Is that even possible, Professor?" Hermione sounded as though she were doing her best to sound curious rather than sceptical.
"Wait," Ron said. "Do you mean — this reality's trying to send him somewhere else? Or —"
McGonagall sighed. "There is no travelling spell at work here, Mr Weasley. Professor Sinistra is saying that this reality is trying to squeeze Mr Malfoy out of existence entirely." She made a curt little motion to Sinistra, who stepped back, rolling her neck. Now with a free view of Draco, McGonagall hesitated. "And ... I am afraid it is not only possible, but very likely. I have been rather expecting something of the sort to occur, in fact. Hoping not, but expecting nonetheless."
Draco's mouth worked for a second. "And you didn't think you might warn me?" he said at last.
"Draco ..." Narcissa said softly.
Her son shrugged her off. "You didn't think that in one of those cosy meetings we had that that might have been something worth mentioning? That I was going to be killed off by this world?"
Professor McGonagall's mouth compressed into a line. "I was not certain, Mr Malfoy. Speculations would hardly have been useful to you."
"They might have stopped me from trying to make some kind of fucking effort in this world!"
"Draco!" Narcissa gave his arm a shake, and he swung towards her. Whatever he saw in her face shut him up, although he was still white with anger. "There is a way to mend this," Mrs Malfoy continued, turning to the headmistress. Her tone didn't allow the reply to be 'No.'
McGonagall inclined her head in something that might have been a nod, if she had been holding herself a little less stiffly. Harry wondered, distantly, when the last time had been that a student had sworn at her. It didn't, he thought, happen often.
"There are actions we can take. They are ... short term. I don't currently have a final solution. But —" she fixed Draco with a long look, "We will work on finding one, Draco."
"You can send me back," he said. "If this world is forcing me out, find a way to send me back to my own."
"No!" Harry didn't realise he'd spoken aloud till everybody turned to look at him. Draco was blinking at him. Harry shifted. "I just don't think ..."
McGonagall pressed a hand to her temple. "We've discussed this before, Mr Malfoy."
Narcissa made an involuntary motion, drawing Draco closer to her; he looked up at her face and winced.
"I just ..." His voice was small. "I thought it might ..."
McGonagall continued as though there had been no interruption. "There is a directed Avada Kedavra waiting for you in your own reality," she said brusquely. "Returning you, even if we knew how, would be nothing but a swift death sentence."
Pansy Parkinson had been sniffling into a handkerchief since they gathered in the headmistress' office. Now she gave a great sob and threw herself forward, catching her arms around Draco's neck. Draco let go of his mother's arm to catch her, letting out a whoosh of air at the impact. "You c-can't die, Draco!" Her voice was almost completely obscured by sobs. "We only just got you b-back!"
Draco closed his eyes for a second. Then he draped his arms around her shoulders, dropping his forehead down on top of her head. He pressed his cheek against the dark shine of her hair. "I don't want to," he said, his voice shaky.
Harry made himself look away after a moment.
Hermione coughed and turned to Professor McGonagall. "What are the actions that we can take, Headmistress? I think that — er, everybody here, would like to help, if there were something that they could do."
Her eyes flicked to Professor Sinistra, who had conjured herself some tea and was sipping it while she watched the reactions around her. She noticed Hermione's look. "Oh yes," she said. "Quite."
Draco gently pushed Pansy away and turned to face the headmistress' desk again. "Professor?" He was stiff, but no longer shouting.
McGonagall set her hands on the desk and looked at all of them. "The problem, as Professor Sinistra articulated, is that Mr Malfoy does not belong in this reality. There is nothing anchoring him here. This would not be an issue, except that there is also a disconnect between what is true here, and what is true for Draco." She drummed her fingers on the mahogany surface of the desk. "His ... memories are wrong for this reality. That is the heart of the problem, and that is what is making his presence unstable." She looked grim. "And without an anchor, that instability will be enough to push him out of existence entirely."
Hermione chewed on her lip, casting a glance at Draco. "Could he be Obliviated?"
Draco's eyes widened.
Hermione instantly looked guilty. "I'm trying to be helpful!"
"You're rather bad at it," Professor Sinistra said. She tilted her head, examining Draco again. "Unlikely to work, anyway, child. Something violent like an Obliviation would probably push him out entirely. His inner reality needs to agree with the world around him, not be obliterated."
"Which is why we will need to change the world around him," McGonagall said. She snapped her spectacles off and cleaned them with a handkerchief, before replacing them on her nose. She looked at Draco over the top of them. "Little things, only. We cannot fool reality into thinking that the things you remember really happened, but if we recreate some of the effects, we can reduce the strain between what is real and what is only real in your head. It will buy us time, I believe."
"You make it sound like I'm delusional," Draco said.
"I am helping you, Mr Malfoy." The headmistress' expression was stern again.
Draco bit his lip. "I — yes. I'm glad. I — what do I do, then? Do I need to remember things that happened?"
McGonagall nodded. "That is exactly what you need to do. Tell your friends, your mother, about events that happened in your own world; events whose effects can be replicated. They can carry out the changes while we research the issue more fully."
Narcissa spirited Draco away to the library immediately after the meeting with a quill and a long sheet of parchment, so that he could list everything that he remembered happening at the manor since he started school.
Harry, Ron and Hermione were hustled off to be patched up by Madam Pomfrey. Only Harry had been badly hurt — although Hermione had some particularly nasty scratches under a sleeve which Harry hadn't noticed was shredded. The mediwitch mended all of them in an efficient, distracted way which made Harry wonder whether the headmistress had filled her in on the more serious malady Draco had.
Ron and Hermione drifted off to dinner afterwards. "I can't believe that he could really die, now that he's been brought back," Hermione said, hanging back as they left. "After we survived the Avissi attack and got the cup, too. It seems — just really wrong, somehow."
"Well, he won't die," Harry said. He curled his fingers into fists. The vague guilt and feelings of responsibility that had been swirling around in him over the last few weeks had crystallised into a single purpose. He hadn't saved Draco last time. He hadn't even thought about whether he might be worth saving. Even after the bathroom, when he knew Draco was in trouble up to his neck, he hadn't considered it. This time would be different.
"We'll find a way to stop it," he said.
Ron ran a hand through his hair. "I hope so."
Hermione nodded. "What Professor McGonagall said about the disconnect between his reality and ours — maybe Obliviation wouldn't work, but there's got to be something like that that we can try. Something that won't expel him from our world."
She was chewing on her lip as they left, thinking it over.
Harry went to the entrance hall of the library and sat down against a pillar opposite the library doors. He folded his arms around his knees and settled down to wait.
It was well past dinnertime by the time Draco and his mother came out of the library. Harry was the only one left in the entrance hall, and the space was well lit with cheery yellow-white torches, so they saw him immediately. Harry stood and waited for them.
Narcissa still had hold of Draco's arm, as though she wasn't going to let go of him until she absolutely had to. Her face was calm, however.
She gave Harry a faintly disapproving stare. Still, considering that he had been intimately involved in her husband going to gaol, she didn't seem to bear him much rancour. Probably that had a lot to do with the boy whose wrist she held.
"Good evening, Mr Potter."
"Uh. Good evening."
"Were you waiting for my son?"
Harry nodded, his eyes on Draco. He looked tired, but a lot calmer than he had been. He gave Harry a washed out smile, slipping out of his mother's hold. "Hey, Potter. Come to pay your last respects to the dead man?"
Harry shoved his shoulder, lightly. "Don't be a wanker. You're not going to die."
Narcissa adjusted her handbag over her shoulder, smoothing down the front of her robes. "I must go, Draco. I will write you to keep you updated on what I've managed to accomplish from your list. And ..." she hesitated. "Let me know. Immediately. If anything happens." She paused again. "Please."
Harry tried to look as though he wasn't listening as Draco said goodbye. Narcissa turned away and set off towards the headmistress' office, where Professor McGonagall had said that she could use the Floo. Her shoes clicked on the smooth stone floor and her back remained straight as she disappeared around the corner.
Harry shoved his hands in his pockets, looking at Draco from under his fringe. "I mean it," he said quickly, wanting to get it out. "I'm not going to let you die."
Draco looked at him. His mouth moved into an awkward shape. Then he looked away, scuffing the toe of his shoe on the floor. "It's not that I don't want to believe you," he said. "Because I really, really do —"
"Then do." Harry took a step closer, wanting Draco to look at him so that he could convince him. "I know that researching things has never exactly been my secret superpower, but I'm really, really stubborn." Draco still wasn't looking at him, so he went on, stepping closer again. "And, actually, so are you; you're about the most stubborn person I know. You can't tell me you're going to give up on fixing this already."
Draco did look up then, his eyes flashing. "I don't give up on things, Potter."
"Right." Harry grinned, suddenly happy despite everything. "No, I didn't think you did. So ... good. Things will be all right, then."
He was really close to Draco now. "You know," Draco said, sounding just a tiny bit discomposed, "you have a bit of a saviour complex. I've noticed that."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Right," he said. "Nobody's ever said that before."
Draco laughed, and his face looked so open suddenly, and Harry was so glad all through him that Draco was there, he'd disappeared but he'd come back, that he tilted his head forward to rest his forehead against Draco's, moving just slightly to the side so that his lips brushed over the other boy's cheek.
Draco let his breath out in a surprised huff. He went still for a second, then he relaxed, laughing a bit as he stepped back.
"You're not very good at things like distance and perspective, are you?" he said.
Harry could feel his cheeks flaming. He'd just — he couldn't believe he'd just done that.
He'd kissed another boy.
"I think ... I should ... go and see if Dobby can get us anything for dinner. But, um ... I meant it, all right? We're going to —"
"Yes, we're going to save me, I got it." Draco shook his head, but more as if he were trying to clear it than to disagree. "I'll, um, try to think of a list like the one I gave Mother, of things that happened at school, tonight. If you really do want to do this."
Harry nodded vigorously. "Yeah, that's good. We'll start doing them tomorrow."
"Probably we should start looking into ways to destroy the cup, too," Draco said.
Harry blinked. "Oh. Right, I guess." He shrugged. "Voldemort's soul isn't going to get any less split, though, is it?"
Draco huffed again, softly laughing. "That's something else you're not so good at: focusing on more than one thing at a time."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh, shut up."
Draco was still snickering as Harry set off for the kitchen.
Harry was weighed down with the food an overly enthusiastic Dobby had piled into his arms. He nearly fumbled it when Ron barrelled around the corner ahead. Ron threw out an arm to catch himself at the last minute against the wall.
"Mate! Where've you been? We came looking for you."
'We' was he and Hermione. She came around the corner a moment later, puffing and out of sorts.
"There was no need to run," she said. She flopped backwards against the wall.
"Where's Draco?" Harry looked beyond them, but there was no sign of him.
"In the common room," Ron said. "With about fifty people clambering round, wanting to know if he's really going to disappear into nothing."
Harry stared. "And you thought you'd just leave him?"
"Well, that's the thing." Ron shrugged, honestly confused. "We tried to rescue him, but then he started doing these impressions of heroic ways to die —"
"Killed by a sword and leaping from a moving broom, that sort of thing."
"Right, and then he started showing how disappearing into thin air was more heroic and cool than any of them."
"The whole world would remember the Amazing Disappearing Malfoy," Hermione finished.
Harry closed his mouth. Then he opened it again. "But he was ..."
He didn't finish the sentence.
"I would have thought he'd be more bothered," Ron said. "I dunno, maybe he doesn't really get it, yet."
"He should be taking it more seriously," Hermione agreed. "It's going to be terribly difficult to find a way to save him if he doesn't appreciate that he needs saving."
Harry was aware of a rush of gratitude toward her. She was still so touchy about the idea that Draco had taken her place in his own reality, but she wasn't even stopping to consider not helping him.
"It'll be fine," he said, giving them both a smile he couldn't quite keep in. "The playing it up thing — that's just Malfoy." He shrugged. "How many times did we see him act out his terrifying Hippogriff attack in third year?"
"I suppose," Hermione said, although she was still frowning. "I just can't think why he would like that kind of attention."
"I think he likes any attention, really." Except his friends kissing him out of the blue. He didn't seem impressed with that. He fumbled the carefully balanced foodstuffs again, nearly dropping a roast chicken wrapped in a napkin.
Hermione looked contrite. "Oh! Give us some of that, we'll help you take it up."
"There's enough for the whole dorm, here," Ron said, giving the food a speculative look as he took his share.
"Dobby," Harry explained.
"Never mind." Ron grinned. "We'll find some way to deal with it."
Hermione shook her head at him. "You ate twenty minutes ago," she said; not disapproving, particularly, just amazed.
"Hey, I'm a growing boy," Ron said as they set off, hoisting a careful tower of pumpkin pasties in one hand.
"God, I hope not," Harry said. "It's going to be mortifying if you get any taller. You'll start resting drinks on the top of my head."
They were nearly at the portrait hole when Lavender and Parvati skidded around the corner behind them. They were out of breath, hair flying loose from plaits and sparkly hair bands.
"Is it true?" Lavender demanded as soon as she could talk. She was wide-eyed and panting. "Malfoy's really got some kind of wasting disease?"
"Is he going to die?" Parvati looked genuinely distressed.
"Oh, don't glare at us, Harry," Lavender said impatiently. "We like him. We don't want him to die."
"Well, he's not." Harry folded his arms.
"Not definitely," Hermione added, and Harry glared at her. She looked uncomfortable, but didn't back down. "Well, he might, Harry."
Hermione frowned, glancing at Parvati and Lavender again. "Why didn't you hear all about this at dinner?"
"We weren't at dinner," Lavender said. Her eyes were darting between the three of them, curiosity still obviously unanswered. "We were watching the Slytherin Quidditch team practice — they went late. Parvati," she added, nudging her friend, "wanted to watch because she has a crush on Vincent Crabbe."
"I do not have a crush," Parvati said. "I don't have crushes." She tucked the loose hair behind her ears and added, with infinite poise, "I just happen to enjoy the sight of a pair of shoulders that can fill out Quidditch leathers nicely."
Hermione was giving them the look that suggested they were from another planet. She took a breath and made an obvious effort. "Draco's ... there are problems with Malfoy belonging to a different reality," she said. "It's not anything like a wasting disease. He's just ... he might disappear and not come back. He's already disappeared a couple of times."
Lavender opened her eyes wide. "Good grief," she said after a moment. "That's awful."
Parvati took her arm. "Where is he?" she asked. "We should — would it help if we all held onto him or something?"
"We're going to find a way to fix it," Harry said firmly, before Hermione could chime in with something like, No, he's completely doomed.
"Oh. Where is he?"
Ron nodded towards the common room. He was too horrifically uncomfortable around Lavender to even talk to her, these days.
The two girls trailed past them up to the portrait of the Fat Lady; they were still holding each others' arms when they climbed through the portrait hole. Harry thought it looked uncomfortable, but it was ... their thing, he supposed. They always walked arm in arm. He shot Hermione a look, wondering whether she'd done the same in the other reality.
She was frowning, maybe thinking the same thing.
"I wonder if I could have talked her out of a crush on Vincent Crabbe, if we'd been friends," she said, still gazing after them.
Oh. Not really the same thing, then.
"I know Malfoy likes him, but I think he might be a bit crazy, actually. He's got an unstable look sometimes."
"Um, all right. I don't really see Parvati Patil hooking up with Crabbe, no matter how nice she thinks his shoulders are in — um, Quidditch leathers." Harry thought about that for a moment, and made a face. "Anyway, let's see if we can pry Draco away from his adoring audience and take this stuff up to the dorm."
Harry sat with Ron and Hermione on the outer steps of the courtyard, frowning at the quill and parchment balanced over his knees. Disconnect between what is and what D. remembers, he wrote, then circled the word 'disconnect'. Possible to connect? he wrote underneath. Then, No, no point connecting to reality where D. is Avada Kedavra'd.
Hermione was absorbed in an enormous tome she'd found in the library. Harry wasn't sure what it was about, except that she'd been extremely excited to discover it, and hadn't really looked up since. He gathered it was terribly relevant in some way, but whether to the Saving Draco research or to the research into destroying the Hufflepuff Cup, he wasn't sure. Harry couldn't personally get terribly excited over the Horcrux research at the moment, but he supposed it was good that somebody was still looking into it. If that was what she was looking into. Maybe it was actually something to do with house-elf enslavement. Maybe it was even NEWTs study. He knew Hermione still meant to pass.
Ron was poring over the list of changes-to-make that Draco had come up with. A few of them had been crossed out, because they were things which had actually happened here too, and a couple of them had been marked with question marks, because replicating the effects seemed close to impossible. There was still quite a long list there, though, and they'd only worked their way through a couple, so far.
"We should do this one next," Ron announced, circling one of the items. "The Whomping Willow. Where's — oh, here he comes."
Harry looked up. Draco and Pansy were walking down the steps from the entrance hall into the courtyard. Sunlight glinted off the two heads, bent together, as they came out of the shadow of Hogwarts; one sleek and dark, the other bright. Pansy said something that made Draco look up and laugh, teeth glinting white for a moment. He shaded his eyes against the sun, frowning and picking at something on his sleeve. Pansy knocked him with her elbow, obviously laughing at him. He said something that made her shake her head, and then set to work straightening his cuffs.
Harry felt a breathless, waiting sensation in his chest as he watched. He couldn't seem to look at Draco any more without feeling it. It was as though that accidental kiss — which hadn't even been a kiss, really, just a momentary connection of mouth and cheek — had forced something free inside him.
It didn't make any sense. He liked girls: Ginny and Cho, and maybe Luna, a little bit. That knowledge seemed awfully distant these days, though. He kept thinking about the kiss, and remembering the momentary softness of Draco's cheek under his mouth, the tickle of his fringe in Harry's eyes; the hitch in his breathing when Harry leaned close. The scent of — he didn't even know what, soap probably — certainly nothing distinctive like Ginny's floral perfume. Only he wanted to smell it again. He'd found himself leaning close to Draco when they were looking at a book together the night before, just so that he could breathe it in.
Draco had given him a wary look and budged over a bit.
"All right," Harry said to Ron, not even looking at the item he'd circled. "Let's do that one, when he comes over."
"Okay. Oh, hey, Gin."
Harry looked around to find Ginny and a couple of other sixth year girls loping down the steps from the grounds. Harry could never get their names straight, but they were something like Clarrie and Jo — or maybe Jess.
"Practice tonight!" Ginny announced as she came level with Harry and the others. "You'd better shape up, big brother — you're getting soft with all this lounging around with books." And then, "Hi, Hermione."
Hermione mumbled something that might have been some form of 'hello'. She didn't look up from her book.
Ron looked faintly nauseous at the idea that he could be the kind of person who lounged around with books. "A bit of warning might've been nice, Ginny!"
She gave him a sunny smile. "Last minute pitch allocation," she said, with unconvincing regret. "The Ravenclaw Keeper's down with doxie 'flu, so we got an extra go."
"We don't need an extra go. We're unbeaten."
Ginny gave him a disgusted look. "We've had one game, Ron. But we're going to be unbeaten, come the end of the season." She included Harry in this comment, and he gave her a weak smile.
"All right, tonight — we'll be there."
Draco and Pansy had started up the steps.
"Also," Harry could hear Draco saying, "that was far too difficult. Whoever knew Pince would be so reluctant to put a book in the restricted section? Usually she seems to think students touching books at all is some kind of sacrilege. I thought she'd be all for locking another one away."
"What I want to know," Pansy said, "is what you guys did with the spells in that book that was so horrendously inappropriate that they wanted to lock it away in your reality."
Draco grinned at her and tucked a finger under her chin. "You want to know what bad boys do with books?" he murmured.
Harry cleared his throat. Pansy looked up first, her eyes crinkling into amusement at whatever she saw in his face. "Hey, Potter," she said easily. "Cross another thing off your list."
"For we are brilliant," Draco added, slinging an arm over her shoulder, "and have braved the librarian in its lair." He shifted his gaze to Ron and added, "Number eight."
Ron leaned the parchment on his knee and crossed out the number. He tucked it into his pocket and stood up. "You want to bring your brilliance to the Whomping Willow? I thought we might brave a tree next."
"Ugh." Pansy stepped back, slipping out from under Draco's arm. "I hate that tree. I'll grab Vince and Greg and go ask McGonagall whether she's worked anything out yet, all right?"
Ginny's easy lean against the stair railing had gone tense and awkward. She reached out a hand now and snagged Jo's - or Jane's - arm. The other girl looked around, nearly stumbling down a step. "We, uh — we have to get going, anyway," Ginny said.
"Ginny, wait." Draco stopped her. "I wanted to ask you a favour. There's one of these reality-change things that would work best if you helped. Would —?"
"No. Sorry." She backed up another step, pulling Jess with her. Her friend gave her a wary glance. "I can't."
The others watched her go.
Harry glanced at Ron, who looked uncomfortable. "She's got a ... thing," he said, as though this explained anything at all.
"Oh. All right," Draco said.
Pansy was staring after Ginny with her eyes narrowed. She didn't comment, however. She said goodbye to Draco, and started back across the courtyard. Her not-quite-regulation-length school robes swished around her ankles.
Harry stood, dumping his parchment and quill next to Hermione. "You're staying here, right?" She looked up after a long moment, her eyes glazed. "Oh, right," she murmured, and looked down again. Harry decided that was the best he was going to get.
Draco, Harry and Ron headed across the grounds towards the Whomping Willow, on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Patchy cloud gave the day an uncertain air. Sunshine gave way to grey as they walked, then flickered into sunshine again a moment later. Something moved off in the middle of the forest, and a flock of black and orange birds erupted, piping shrilly. The willow thrashed a branch idly, responding to the disturbance.
Draco seemed to still be in a good mood, even after Ginny's odd rejection.
"You can laugh about braving trees, Weasley," Draco said, shading his eyes against the sun again, "but we didn't have your neat little off button when we did this. It was a lot more heroic when we thought we might be crushed to death at any second."
"Right," Harry said, shooting him a sideways look. "It was a heroic crusade to leave our names on the trunk."
"Don't mock," Draco said. "It was your idea, you know."
Harry looked at him and Draco laughed. "All right, it was my idea — but you went along with it."
Harry could believe that — he could imagine following Draco into almost anything, actually, when he looked at you with his eyes dancing like that and an enormous beaming smile that said that he'd had an amazing idea.
He didn't know what was showing on his face, but Draco's smile faltered and he looked away, pushing his hands into his pockets in the way that he only did when he was uncomfortable.
An owl wheeled over their heads. Draco stretched out his hand, and it circled to land on his wrist. It was Narcissa's — Harry had become very familiar with it in the last couple of days.
Draco unrolled the note on its leg and read quickly, then wrote something on the back of it. Probably: Am okay; not dead, given his previous notes. He wrapped it back around the owl's leg. As he jerked his arm up to throw the bird into the sky, his outline flickered, his face registering a frightened, nauseous expression. The owl staggered in the air as the arm throwing it became momentarily non-existent, then righted itself and flapped upwards, gaining height.
Harry resisted the urge to take two steps and grab Draco, and not let go until he stopped looking so white and shaken.
"Are you okay?" he asked instead. Draco ducked his head, shaking his fringe forward into his eyes.
"Yeah. I'm fine." He looked up again, the smile more strained now. His eyes flickered to Harry for a moment — Harry tried to relax the frozen, anxious expression he could feel on his own face — then he looked away, focusing on Ron. Ron looked anxious too, but maybe less alarmingly as though he were about to spring at Draco. "So, you ready to deface school property?"
Ron let him change the subject. "Baby," he said, lifting his chin, "I was born to deface school property."
Harry took a breath and made himself stop staring at Draco, waiting for him to disappear again. "Come on, then, what did we write on this tree?"
Draco pushed his hair back. "Just our initials," he admitted.
Ron looked disappointed. "Well, there were branches crashing all around us," Draco said. "Lots of them. There wasn't exactly time to be witty. Oh, and make sure you're not too neat. I'm not sure you actually finished the 'W' on yours, Ron."
Ron sighed. "So I'll be Ron Veasley, then. Come on."
Harry wouldn't have noticed Draco if one of the suits of armour hadn't tripped him as he was walking by, and made him drop his library books. He heard the snicker as he dropped to his knees to pick them up. He turned his head, peering into the shadowy window seat tucked away in an alcove in the corridor.
"Graceful as ever, Potter."
Harry peered into the alcove. "Like you've never had the castle trip you up."
Draco was sitting sideways on the window seat. He had one knee bent with his foot on the seat, and the other curled beneath it. His hair was a pale shine in the dimness, but the black school robes made him otherwise fade into the dark worn velvet of the seat behind him.
It was one of those corners the castle was riddled with; hidden away behind curtains or under stairs, with seats that were never sat in, windows that were never looked through. This one was in the shape of semi-circle, with a window seat curving around, mirroring the shape of the age-worn sill under the thick glass of the window itself; a blacker shape in the dimness.
Harry got to his feet, hugging the three library books against his chest. "What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you'd be hanging around with Crabbe and Goyle." That was what he'd said he was going to do when he left the common room half an hour ago. Harry hadn't seen any reason for him to go at all — they hadn't even been researching or studying, for once, they'd just been messing around. He hadn't thought they were being especially boring. But Draco always found some reason to go off somewhere when they were just chatting or Ron suggested a game of chess or something.
"They're still at dinner," Draco said. Harry's eyes were still adjusting, but he thought Draco's cheeks took on a pink tinge. "I'm, uh, not used to that yet."
"What, Crabbe and Goyle practically living in the Great Hall?" Harry asked, grinning.
He squeezed into the alcove and dropped onto the seat beside Draco. The other boy shifted along. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a rotten sense of personal space?" he asked, pulling his knees up against his chest.
"Right. Well, you do. It's rotten. Really. What are you reading?"
Draco was talking at random, and too quickly. Harry thought that might mean something, but he was too busy being acutely conscious of the body next to his to concentrate.
"Er, books," he said. "On rituals." He could feel the heat of Draco's knee almost touching his own. Somehow he couldn't remember how to fold his legs naturally. He shifted, which brought their knees into contact, meaning that he had to shift away again.
Draco reached out and tilted the spines of the library books towards him.
"You're reading about the structural theory of ritual magic?"
Harry coloured. "I am actually capable of reading books that aren't about Quidditch, you know."
Draco grinned, a flash of white. "I must have missed your deep interest in ritual theory."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Well, you were the one who said that ritual magic was the most powerful," he said. "I figured powerful magic was probably what we needed, if we were dealing with reality being off."
"Oh." Draco cleared his throat. "Um. Thank you."
Harry shifted again. Seriously, what else did Draco imagine he'd be getting ritual magic books out of the library for?
There was a flutter of wings, and Narcissa Malfoy's owl swooped into the alcove. It landed on Draco's wrist with a tired little hoot, then stretched out its leg.
Draco laughed, startled. "I don't even know how he gets inside the castle after hours," he said. "I think my mother must be using dark magic of some kind."
He unrolled the tightly furled parchment, reading down it. He blinked. "She's ... trying to convince McGonagall to let her come here as a teaching aide." He stared, turning the parchment over as though he expected to find a postscript that would make it make sense. He flipped it back. "My god."
Harry picked at a thread on his jeans. "Well, she's your mum."
Draco opened and shut his mouth. "You can't just — just say that as though it explains everything. My mother doesn't beg for embarrassing and undignified jobs just because she wants to keep an eye on me. She's not —"
"She loves you," Harry said. He had to turn his head away because of the fierce colour he could feel on his cheeks, but he ploughed ahead. "Stop being so damned surprised, Malfoy. She must have told you she loves you."
The silence made him look around. Draco looked carefully blank.
"I always thought she did," Draco said, not looking at him. "To a certain extent. She never made me choose, or anything. I thought that probably meant she ..."
"Between —" Draco waved his hand. The owl, which had begun to nod off, ruffled its feathers and hopped from his wrist to his shoulder, then onto the window sill. "After fourth year, when I stopped talking to Lucius. She never even mentioned it; and she never stopped me from writing to you and Ron during the holidays."
He frowned. "Although, that might have been partly because she wasn't that keen on the Dark Lord herself. I never knew, in my world, how involved she was; but I know that here, after — after Lucius went to Azkaban, and then I was killed, she cut off all ties with Voldemort and retreated into the manor. Apparently Aunt Bella kept hassling her, but Voldemort himself let her go." He looked up, a speculative gleam in his eyes. "He probably guessed that keeping a woman who'd lost a husband and a son to his cause close to him might be dangerous. Or it might be when the woman was Narcissa Malfoy, anyway."
Harry held his breath for a moment. He couldn't not ask — not when Draco had come this close to it.
"What about you? Why did you decide not to become a Death Eater?"
Draco blinked. He gave Harry an uncertain look.
"I mean — why did you choose m-me, or, or the Order of the Phoenix, whatever — over your dad?" Draco was still staring. Harry looked at him and away. "He's Voldemort's right hand man; and he's your dad. You used to talk about him all the time. You must have had to make a choice, Draco."
Draco shut his mouth, then opened it again. The owl was pecking sleepily at his hair, now, teasing out strands with its beak. He reached up and disentangled it, using the opportunity to look away from Harry as he spoke.
"I didn't — you have to understand, I didn't believe he meant for Ginny to be possessed, when he gave her that diary. I knew you and Ron believed it, and I had a huge fight with Ron, but ..." He stopped, then started again. "I believed him when he said he was Imperiused in the First War, too. He never said anything about joining another war until after You-Know-Who rose again at the end of fourth year. Then he was talking about — you know, blood purity and all the rest of it."
He used the back of his thumb to stroke the owl's head, making it shift further along the window sill. "I don't ... really know what I would have thought about it if I'd been thinking calmly. Maybe I would have thought it made sense. Maybe I would have wanted it to make sense, because it was him saying it. But I already knew, because you'd told us, that he'd been one of the Death Eaters who stood by while You-Know-Who took your wand away and tortured you. He knew you were my best friend, but he just let — he didn't even try to help you. And then he thought that I should —" He shook his head, frustrated. "I don't even know. I don't know how his mind works."
He looked up again and realised that Harry was staring at him. "Anyway, that was ages ago."
Harry smiled a bit; tried to smother it; smiled again.
He tried to sound casual. "You really did choose me."
"Because you'd been tortured." Draco looked uncomfortable. "You won on the sympathy vote, Potter."
Narcissa's owl pecked at his hair again, tangling its beak in the light blond strands.
"Ouch." Draco put his hand up, trying to free it, but the bird had now extended a foot in an attempt to untangle itself, and its claw was tangled up too. It gave a distressed hoot, unfolding one wing and flapping, and Draco winced again.
"Here." Harry leaned forward, using two hands to untangle the flapping owl. It pulled away from him with a chirp of offended dignity that reminded him of Hedwig, and moved further along the window sill. Harry still had his hands in Draco's hair, the tangled fine strands soft under his fingers. He could smell the soap and warm skin and nearness of him. He smoothed down the tangles, pushing the hair off Draco's forehead and behind his ears, not pulling back far enough to see his expression. He could feel his own pulse juddering in his wrists, the thudding of his heart almost loud enough to cover up the way that Draco's breathing sped up and caught in his throat.
He smoothed the hair behind Draco's ears for the fourth time, then moved his hands carefully down to the line of of Draco's jaw.
"I ..." Draco said. Harry leaned forward to stop him saying anything else and pressed his mouth against Draco's — just for a moment, hardly more than the moment outside the library had been. Draco sucked in a breath, the sound harsh, and opened his mouth a tiny amount. Harry shivered and pressed forward once more, a little harder, just barely sucking in the bottom lip beneath his own. Draco responded with a hand that crept up to Harry's neck, folding around his collar. Draco opened his mouth a little wider. His tongue just touched Harry's lip, and Harry heard himself make a noise — a gasp needy enough to be embarrassing if embarrassment hadn't seemed so far away, somewhere on the other side of the thrumming of his blood and the warm, smooth skin against his fingertips.
Draco arched up, the hand at Harry's collar curling around his neck, and pulled him down. His mouth moved against Harry's, a warm slide, and his fingers were a torture on the skin of Harry's neck. Harry pressed closer, needing more, god, anything. Draco's mouth was assaulting Harry's now, his tongue forcing its way inside before Harry had time to open for it. Harry groaned and pressed closer. He moved his hands to cup the back of Draco's head, holding him while they kissed, his hands sliding over the soft strands. Draco's mouth was hot under his, his tongue insistent against Harry's own, and Harry never wanted to stop this.
He had to pull back for air. He stared down at Draco, panting, his mouth sore and swollen, and watched as Draco opened his eyes. He was panting too, his mouth open, and he looked dazed. His eyes weren't open all the way, as though lifting the lids was an effort, but he didn't take his eyes off Harry's face. His hair was mussed again; worse than before.
He looked like the most incredible thing Harry had ever seen.
"Um," Harry said. He could feel a smile trying to take over his face; the sound of it was in his voice, ridiculous and beaming.
Narcissa's owl hooted softly, talons scraping on the window sill. Draco pushed himself upright, his eyes turning to the owl. A change came over his face — it sharpened into something harder and more shadowed. His mouth pressed into a line.
Harry sat up, dazed. He glanced at the owl, and back at Draco.
Draco cleared his throat. "I've said before, you have — a distance problem, Potter." His voice was a bit breathless, but it gave nothing away. He was adjusting his robes, now, and pushing the hair back behind his ears, smooth and neat once more. He didn't look at Harry.
"I ... what?" Harry ran his fingers through his own hair. It was even messier than usual, mussed by Draco's fingers. "Draco, what's ...?"
"It's not your fault," Draco said. "I know. You just — you get caught up in — and then you can't even tell when you're taking something too far." His voice was uneven now, the expressionless tone cracking a little.
Harry felt the words as though they were kicks to the stomach. Was that really what he'd been doing? Taking something too far?
Draco had kissed back; he hadn't imagined that.
"Draco, we were ..."
"It doesn't matter." Draco did turn to look at Harry now. The hectic colour was fading from his cheeks, leaving him pale and distant. "You can just forget about it, Harry. It wasn't important."
"How come you get to decide that?" Harry could hear the beginnings of anger in his voice. He pushed himself straighter, feeling at a disadvantage with his rumpled clothing and the mussed fringe falling into his eyes.
"Oh, for god's sake, Harry! You're just — you'll get it, okay, and you'll be glad. And in the meantime, just don't — don't grope me in window seats. And this won't happen again."
He stood, pulling his robes close around him as he ducked out of the alcove.
Harry sat slowly back against the seat. He touched his mouth, tender under his fingers. He felt slow, as though it would take his thoughts a while to catch up. He missed the warmth of Draco's body in the alcove. He didn't know whether he should be feeling guilty.
The owl gave a plaintive chirp, hopping from one leg to the other.
Harry roused himself and tore a strip off the parchment he'd tucked into the cover of one of the library books, for notes. He found a self-inking quill in his pocket.
He wrote: He's all right; not dead.
The owl took the proffered scrap of parchment with a shake of its head and flapped out of the alcove. Harry gathered up his books, hugging them to his chest, and followed.
The last time it had happened, Harry had been able to dismiss it. All right, most guys didn't kiss their friends on the cheek, even if they were really happy that they were alive, but still — it had been nothing, really.
He struggled with the knot on his tie, his head down to avoid looking at Draco over the other side of the dorm.
This time — he didn't even want to pretend that it hadn't happened. He'd felt alive, he'd felt on top of the world, as if his blood were singing in his veins. He wanted more than anything to touch Draco again.
"Nev, your climbing vine thing's trying to eat my curtains," Ron called, his shirt rucked up and his jumper trapping his arms as he pulled it off above his head.
"What?" Neville came out of the bathroom with his toothbrush in his hand. He hurried over. "It's not supposed to do that," he said. He started coaxing it back towards the window box. "I think somebody must have been feeding it meat."
Harry, who wasn't looking at Draco at all, noticed that he was suddenly terribly engrossed in adjusting the pleats of his robes on their hanger.
His back was to Harry, the white shirt pulled partly free of his belt. Harry imagined the six steps it would take to walk over there and curve his hands around the sharp edges of Draco's shoulder blades. To slide them up onto his shoulders and feel the whisper of hair on his knuckles, the warmth of the skin through the shirt under his hands.
It didn't matter that it didn't make sense. Harry wanted him.
Draco didn't want Harry, though. He'd said as much. Harry wanted to kiss him until he changed his mind, until he was gasping like before, wanted to tell him he was wrong; but that was stupid. 'You can't not want me, because I want you' - that was what it boiled down to, basically. He was being stupid.
It didn't matter anyway, not to what was important. Harry was going to save him, no matter what he said or what it took, and the fact that he also wanted to kiss him and kiss him until he couldn't breathe was completely irrelevant.
"I think it's been at mine, too, mate," Seamus said. He was examining his curtains. "Looks like its been licking them — all the velvet's worn away. Ugh."
"It's affectionate," Neville said, patting the pot. The plant purred a little bit.
Ron gave it a wary look. "If it tries to lick me while I'm sleeping, Neville, I swear it's compost."
Ginny marched up to Draco as they were getting ready to leave the Great Hall after breakfast. It was Saturday, and they'd saved a big task for the free morning.
She put her hands on her hips and glared.
"Um. Hello, Ginny," Draco said after a moment. He shot her brother a look, but Ron just looked pained.
"When I was eleven," Ginny said, her voice low, "your father arranged for me to be possessed by a dark wizard. I nearly died. He got inside my head, he knew my thoughts; he laughed at them. And I don't mean to ever, ever be that helpless again."
Draco had leaned back as she talked. Now he bit his lip and nodded. He dipped his head. "I know," he said. "I know he did."
Ginny's face became, if anything, fiercer.
"Every time I look at you I remember that, do you understand? Every time."
"Ginny ..." Ron said. She ignored him.
"When I was just seeing you around school, it was okay. It didn't help that you were a nasty git, but it was okay. But now you're in my house. You're in my common room and at my table and I see you all the time, Malfoy."
He just looked at her, and suddenly she looked uncertain. "But," she said. "I've decided — I need to help you."
Draco gaped at her. "What?" he said eventually.
She twisted the strap of her bag in her hand. "Well, it wasn't you, was it? I always knew it wasn't you, but ... So, yes. And you're a Gryffindor — one of us. So I've changed my mind. Whatever you were going to ask me - I want to help with it."
Watching the determined light in her eyes, the nervous way her fingers moved on the strap, Harry remembered why he'd liked her so much. He thought about that old daydream for a second — the one of swinging her up into his arms after Voldemort was dead, and kissing her in the sunlight while her bright hair fell about him. It was even more distant than before, though, like a tinny little recording of a movie.
His eyes slid back to Draco, to his partly open mouth and carefully blank face as he tried to change gears. The momentary lurch in Harry's stomach was enough to remind him of why the old daydream felt so distant.
"We were ... actually going to do that this morning," Draco said finally. He sounded cautious, but Ginny just raised her chin, so he continued. "We were going to do it without you, but you were there in my memory, so — it would work much better if you were there this time, too."
She jerked her head in a nod. "Good. Are we going now?"
Hermione had skipped breakfast to go to the library. She caught up with them just as they were leaving, puffing and weighed down with books. When Harry told her that Ginny was going to help them, she stopped.
"I'm not really needed in that case, am I?" she said. Then she looked guilty. "I mean, I know we need to find a way to help Draco, and I'd be here if you needed me, but I'm just so worried that we're going to lose that item or have it stolen. I really think that I'm close to a breakthrough in figuring out how to destroy it."
Ginny looked curious, but mostly long-suffering.
"No, that's okay," Harry said. Hermione looked briefly at the others, nodded, and hurried back the way she'd come.
Draco had shown Harry and Ron and Hermione this memory in a Pensieve, to make sure they knew what they were doing. Draco explained to Ginny as they walked, and Harry remembered snatches of the Pensieve memory.
"It said it was hungry! How could you not hear it?"
His own twelve-year-old figure stood stock still in the corridor, staring around.
"Dunno, mate. There was a bit of a hissing noise, but that was probably just the pipes."
Harry looked at Ron, his face blank. "Hissing. You mean like ... a snake? In the walls, or the pipes or something, like you said?"
The twelve-year-old Draco rolled his eyes. "You heard words, not hisses, Harry. And you can't understand snakes."
Harry blinked. "Yes, I can. I mean, it only happened once, but ... what?"
Ron was gaping at him. "You're a Parselmouth? That's not ... dark wizards are Parselmouths, Harry."
Harry hesitated. "Um. Maybe I'm not, then."
Draco raised his chin. "Even if you are, do you really think there's a great big snake wandering around because of Slytherin's heir?" He leaned on the wall behind him, crossing his arms. "Because that's stupid. There isn't any kind of enormous snake that petrifies ... its ..."
He trailed off, his eyes widening.
"Oh hell," Ron said. "Those are all extinct, aren't they? Didn't Rupert the Righteous kill the last one a hundred years ago? Tell me it's not a ..."
"Basilisk," Draco finished.
"We should have figured it out sooner, once we knew that," Draco was telling Ginny, his voice neutral. "We didn't remember Moaning Myrtle until the next night, and you'd already painted your suicide note on the wall by then."
She scowled, hugging her arms around her. "Just get to the bit where I get to blow things up."
"But what if we're wrong!" Ron yelled as they pounded up another hallway. "Mum told me to look after Ginny. If we're going in the wrong direction, she's going to die!"
"We're right!" Harry yelled over his shoulder. "I know we are! It has to be Myrtle's bathroom!"
The door slamming back against the wall framed the tableau beyond. Eleven-year-old Ginny, stick-thin and tiny, dropped the diary onto the tiles, her blank, tear-streaked face turning to them. The blankness faded as they stared, the three boys suspended in the doorway of the bathroom. Ginny gave a breathless cry, dropping to her knees on the wet floor.
"The door's open," she said. "It's too late. It's going to come up."
"Did I ... I didn't go down that time, did I?"
Draco shook his head, speeding up a bit to match Ginny's increasingly fast stride. They reached the bathroom and stepped inside. Moaning Myrtle was absent for once. Possibly she was haunting the Prefects' Bathroom again. Harry thought that she did that far too often, given that she was officially thirteen.
The bathroom looked bare — empty and clean and harmless.
Ginny viewed it through slitted eyes.
Harry walked carefully over to the sink and found the little coloured snake on the tap. "Open," he whispered, hearing the sound come out with extra harmonics. The entrance opened with a grinding sound. The space beyond was completely dark.
"Don't use complicated spells," Draco warned. "Remember we were eleven and twelve at the time."
Ginny nodded, not taking her eyes from the dark opening.
Harry, Ron and Draco turned horrified eyes to the blackness of the tunnel entrance. "You were going to go down there?" Ron breathed.
Ginny didn't look at them as she repeated, in a voice that was barely audible, "It's going to come up."
There was a slithering sound now, like dry paper on stone, and Harry, watching the Pensieve scene, could hear a whispery voice speaking a litany that grew louder. Hungry, so hungry. Must kill. Kill the little one, she let us out. Kill all of them.
"We have to close the entrance!"
Draco spun to face him. "How the hell do we do that? There's no door! There's nothing!"
Ginny struggled to her feet again, fumbling with her wand as she faced the entrance once more. She still had tears streaming down her face, and her hand trembled.
"Incendio!" she yelled, her voice breaking. Fire rolled over the entrance, cracking the bricks.
"Actually that ... might do it," Draco said. He pulled out his own wand.
Ginny held her wand in a firm grip, her fingers white. "Incendio," she said quietly, and the taps and sinks creaked under the wash of fire. "Incendio!" she said again, watching the fire wash over the sinks. "Reducto! Aguamenti!"
The row of sinks and the tiled wall were all beginning to shake, dust raining down and broken tiles falling into the entrance, smashing against the taps. Ron and Draco raised their wands too and began casting. Fire and water and destruction rolled over the far end of the bathroom, Ginny standing in the middle of it like the still centre of a hurricane. Her eyes, fierce and slitted, were fixed on the dark entrance as it began to fill up with debris and buckle out of shape, until even a Basilisk would have found its way blocked. Harry stepped forward and joined in.
When they finally stepped away, coughing in the dust, the whole far end of the bathroom was rubble.
"Wow," Ginny said after a moment. She was shaking, now. "Wow. Do you think there's a career where you blow things up?" She smiled. "Because I could do that."
Ron laughed, helpless giggles that didn't stop even after Ginny hit him on the arm.
Harry patted him on the back. He turned around to see where Draco was, but he was nowhere.
He had time to feel utter desolation before the other boy faded back into reality, shaking and coughing as he fell to his knees.
Harry dropped down beside him, holding his shoulders.
Draco looked up, his hair falling into his eyes.
"Shit," he said. "It's not working, is it?"
They were covered in dust, and splashed where pipe water had gushed out, before the pipes themselves buckled and were buried under the rubble.
The four of them trailed back up to Gryffindor Tower to wash and change.
Draco seemed to be trying to be normal again. He teased Neville's plant with the corner of his towel as he dried his hair. It shivered irritably and made a swipe at him.
Harry sat on top of his trunk. "Will you show me another memory?" he asked. "Not like that one, to help recreate an effect, but just — I don't know. Something normal."
Draco dropped his towel on his bed and sat down next to it. Ron was still in the shower. "Why?"
Harry shrugged. "I just —" He didn't want to think about Draco disappearing. He wanted to be able to think about something else for a while. "I'd just like to see."
He could tell that Draco was thinking about it. He finished drying his hair and folded the towel over his bedhead. Then he nodded. Harry got out the Pensieve.
Harry changed his mind as soon as got inside the memory and looked around.
He gave Draco a horrified look.
"Bloody hell, I said 'normal' not 'nightmarish'."
Draco smirked. "I could have brought us here at the beginning of the song. I was being kind."
Harry hugged his robes around him protectively, his eyes skating over the Great Hall. It was decorated with sparkling frost and garlands of Christmas greenery, and thronged with students for the Yule Ball.
The only more traumatising memories Harry could think of involved Voldemort or the Dursleys.
Harry spotted his Pensieve self a moment later, out on the dance floor. There were quite a few other people out there too, but Parvati's bright pink robes drew the eye.
His fourteen-year-old self was being steered in careful circles, up near the stage. Parvati's smile was bright and her grip on his shoulder looked like iron. Pensieve Harry's face was stiff. He moved like a bad puppet.
Draco snickered. "The Daily Prophet covered one of your school games once — do you remember? 'The gazelle-like grace and sleek precision of the Boy Who Lived', they talked about." He clasped his hands behind his head and grinned.
Luckily Draco had been right: they'd come in near the end of the song. The music finished and Pensieve Harry dragged Parvati off the dance floor and over to where Ron and Padma sat at one of the small tables. Ron was looking nervously between Padma and the dance floor. He greeted Harry's arrival with relief.
"Did you see Hermione?" Ron asked immediately. "I didn't even recognise her. Do you think she used dark magic?"
Padma groaned and dropped her head in her hands.
Parvati gave Ron an odd look. "She just let Lavender use charms on her hair."
"Make him shut up about her," Padma mumbled into her hands. "Please."
Harry dropped into the chair next to Ron's. Parvati, looking bored already, sat down on his other side. She leaned back a little and seemed to start up a conversation in signs with Padma behind his back. Harry hadn't noticed them doing that at the time.
Pensieve Harry didn't seem to notice now, either. He opened a bottle of Butterbeer and leaned close to Ron. "Do you think we have to stay the whole night?" he muttered.
Ron shrugged. "You probably do. You're a champion."
Pensieve Harry scowled at his Butterbeer. Parvati rolled her eyes and made a gesture to Padma that seemed to encompass Harry and Ron and a group of Beauxbatons boys over near one of the refreshment tables. Padma replied with a complicated one-shouldered shrug.
Parvati met the eye of one of the Beauxbatons boys. A moment later he was in front of her, asking her to dance.
"You don't mind, do you?" she asked Harry. Harry had stopped scowling at his Butterbeer and was now watching Cedric and Cho on the dance floor.
"What?" he said. Parvati lifted her chin at Padma and tossed her head, and her sister nodded.
"Where are you?" the real Harry asked Draco, standing beside him. Draco tilted his head towards a nearby doorway, where his fourteen-year-old self, dressed in impeccable black velvet robes, was up on his toes, craning to see around the room. As they watched his shoulders slumped and he came forward, throwing himself into the chair Parvati had just vacated.
"I've lost my date," he said.
Pensieve Harry looked away from Cho and Cedric, his face slipping into a smile. Then he frowned. "Sorry, what? You mean Susan?"
Draco gave him a withering look. "No, my other date," he said. "Obviously, Susan."
Ron kicked his chair back, looking at Draco with a grin. "How can you lose your date?"
Padma muttered something about it only happening to people who ever moved. She stood up. "Are you going to ask me to dance?" she asked. "Ever, I mean?"
Ron shook his head. She narrowed her eyes and went to join Parvati.
Draco had his coat over his arm. He began to go through the pockets.
Pensieve Harry laughed. "I don't think you're going to find her in there."
"She might have left me a note or something," Draco said, intent on the contents of his pockets. "I didn't even notice her going, you know."
Pensieve Draco was piling a small collection of badges onto the table now. Pensieve Harry picked one of them up, then cast a guilty look around. He was trying not to laugh. "You said you wouldn't do any more of these," he hissed. "The Hufflepuffs are going to kill me."
The real Harry drifted closer to the table so that he could see the badges better. One of them was flashing yellow and red alternating parts of the message:
WANTS HARRY POTTER'S AUTOGRAPH
Draco gave up on his pockets and dropped back in his chair.
"This was supposed to be my good-will gesture to Father, you know. Ask a girl from a powerful pureblood family to the Yule Ball. Now, at the next Ministry Social, Mother and Father are going to run into the Boneses and mention the ball, and Susan's parents will tell them I wasn't paying attention and lost her after dinner."
Harry gave him a comforting pat on the arm, although the corner of his mouth was twitching.
Pensieve Draco shot him a look and slumped lower in his chair, his colour rising a little.
The real Harry gave Draco a sideways look. Draco was watching his Pensieve self, his eyes narrowed.
"I lost mine, too," Pensieve Harry said, apparently in a spirit of commiseration. "So did Ron."
"How do you think Hermione and Krum even met?" Ron asked, his eyes fixed on the couple across the room.
Pensieve Harry rolled his eyes. "I can't imagine why," he added.
The real Draco leaned back against the wall of the Great Hall, watching them and the rest of the hall through half-closed eyes. Harry leaned beside him.
"It turned out Susan wandered off to get some air and curled up in one of the curtains in the Entrance Hall," Draco said. "That's what a thrilling dance partner I was — I put my date to sleep."
Harry laughed. "You went with Pansy, here," he said. "I remember watching you dancing — I couldn't believe that you could really be having fun out there, even though you both kept laughing and spinning around."
Harry watched his Pensieve self turn to Draco and mutter something. Whatever it was made Draco smirk.
The real Harry cleared his throat. "Um. Did you and he ever ...?"
Draco looked at him. He coloured. "No," he said firmly, his eyes back on the boys at the table.
"Oh." Harry watched himself swirl his finger through the little pile of badges.
"Did he want to ...?"
Harry darted a glance at him. "Did you want ...?"
"Shut up, Harry," Draco said.
The fairy lights from the grotto outside cast tiny gleams onto the floor, meeting the warm glow of the light in the Great Hall. The Weird Sisters were playing fast numbers now — Fred and Angelina spun past, dancing like killer robots. Angelina's braids spun out behind her.
Draco didn't suggest leaving, and neither did Harry. They stayed there, half watching the younger versions of themselves drooping at the small table, but mostly watching the dancers and the lights, and let the night wear on.
McGonagall's cool voice interrupted Harry as he tried to read the book propped against the jug of pumpkin juice in front of him.
"I'm told that you destroyed one of my bathrooms."
"Huh?" He looked up, brushing toast crumbs off his mouth. "Oh ... yeah, we did. Sorry."
She raised her eyebrows. "I have an extremely unhappy ghost on my hands, Mr Potter. What exactly do you propose that I tell her?"
"Oh. Myrtle, yeah. Tell her we're sorry, will you?" He snapped his fingers, remembering. "Actually, tell her it was for Draco. She likes him."
Her face softened. "I'm also told that the plan I proposed is not working as well as it could."
Harry shrugged, not wanting to look at her. "Yeah. Not yet. You don't have any new ideas, do you?"
He did look up at her then. She looked briefly pained, whether over the news or because she had to admit it, Harry wasn't sure.
"Not as yet." Her mouth compressed. "As I tell Mrs Malfoy thrice daily."
Harry was at the very end of the Gryffindor table. Hermione was in the library again, and Ron and Draco had drifted up to the other end to see if they could find blueberry muffins, which Ron had spotted the Hufflepuffs eating.
Harry chewed on his lip. "The problem is that he doesn't belong here — isn't that right, Professor?"
She nodded, supporting herself with a hip against the table. "That's correct. The plan I outlined was only ever supposed to be a temporary measure, to lessen the conflict between what Mr Malfoy knows as real and what our world knows as real."
"But if he belonged here, it wouldn't matter that his memories were weird."
"No; if this reality had a basis on which to claim him, then the tension between his memories and the world would not be enough to disrupt his life. As time passed, in fact, that tension would disappear almost entirely."
"Well, what would be a — a basis on which to claim him?"
She sighed. "We would need a point of connection with this world. Unfortunately, the only true point of connection that Mr Malfoy could have here is himself — the self of this world. And that Draco is dead."
Harry stared at his toast for a moment, concentrating on it to keep from hearing that word, dead. He could hear that Professor McGonagall was beginning to move off.
"He didn't used to be, though, did he?" Harry looked up. McGonagall raised her eyebrows in that look she gave you when she was trying not to show that she thought you were an idiot. "And he lived right here, where Draco lives now," Harry continued. "That makes it ... only really a problem of time, Professor."
Harry came out of the library at a run, the book crushed to his chest. Mrs Norris yowled and darted out from under his feet, tail bristling. Harry stumbled. He caught himself on a passing student's shoulder and pushed on.
"Watch it, Potter!" Millicent Bulstrode yelled after him.
"Sorry!" he threw over his shoulder, although he was halfway down a passage by then, so he wasn't sure that she heard him.
He was panting hard by the time he reached Gryffindor Tower. The Fat Lady made him repeat the password twice, because she complained that she hadn't quite caught that second word.
"Norwegian Ridgeback!" he gasped, his hands on his knees. She clicked her tongue but swung forward.
Most of the common room was watching something going on at the far end, so nobody turned around when the portrait hole opened. Harry inched forward until he could see. Then he retreated behind Dennis Creavey.
Hermione and Ron were backed up against the last hearth by a hysterical Moaning Myrtle. Harry had never seen her outside a bathroom before. Her floating, blue-white form looked oddly watery, as though all that time in steamy air had left her ectoplasm a bit damp. She was very out of place against the cheery orange fire beyond her.
"I'm sure the other ghosts would be delighted to let you share their ..." Hermione was saying.
Myrtle wailed again. "They wouldn't! They don't! They hate me. And now y-you people have spoiled my only r-refuge and you probably laughed, didn't you?"
"I wasn't even there!" Hermione protested.
Myrtle ignored her. "It's in r-ruins, now. It's the place where I died, but you don't care."
There was no sign of Draco anywhere. Harry backed carefully towards the door again, leaving them to it.
Once outside again, he stopped, propped against the wall. Where would he be?
The Fat Lady sniffed. "I can't imagine why you were so desperate to get inside, if you simply meant to come straight out again. Do you enjoy disturbing me, young man?"
Harry set off again, hugging the book to his chest once more.
"Good manners cost nothing!" echoed after him.
He finally found Draco in the mostly-empty Great Hall. He was sitting on the Slytherin table, swinging his legs and talking to Nott and Zabini.
Harry stopped by the door, watching them from across the hall. He hadn't quite noticed it before, but Draco's outline looked strange these days. It seemed to waver between just a bit fuzzy, and too sharp. It made him look out of place — as though he were somehow a picture that had been superimposed onto the background of the Great Hall, but wasn't really there.
How much time do we have? Really have? Is he going to just disappear over breakfast tomorrow and not come back?
The thought propelled him forward.
Nott looked around as he approached. Harry gave him a brief nod but turned to Draco.
"I need you."
He didn't realise how that sounded until he heard the little choking noise Zabini made.
Draco hopped off the table, his cheeks flushed.
"You have no subtlety, Potter," he mumbled.
Harry rolled his eyes. "We knew that. Now come on, I've found something."
Draco's eyes flicked to his face, hearing the excitement in his voice, and he picked up his pace.
In the library, Harry found an empty desk alcove and pulled Draco into it. Then he put down the book in his arms and opened it to page 537.
"There," he said, marking the place with his finger.
Draco read it. He looked up, unimpressed.
"The Transeo spell? Some kind of crossing spell?"
"Right." Harry nodded, excitement fizzing in his veins. "It's used for bridging space. It's not for actually crossing the distance, like a travelling spell. It's to link two objects that are separated in space."
"O-kay," Draco said. The clear, steady light from the Flame-Safe Torches lighting their alcove made his hair and skin look golden. He shook his head. "Tell me how this is useful? Because you're practically vibrating, so there has to be something."
Harry grinned. "Okay, so, this is the thing. I asked McGonagall, and she said the only way we could tie you to this world, so that it doesn't keep trying to push you out, would be if we could tie you to the version of you that belongs here. So if he was still alive, we could just link you two and — okay, actually that would be kind of weird, walking around linked to your other self, but you'd be alive."
Draco raised his eyebrows. Harry hurried on. "Only he's not alive. But he was, and that made me think — well, it's just time, isn't it? So I started reading about time, and one of the books said that everything has this time-path that connects it to its past and its future, and there are spells and potions and things to let you see it, if you want. So the Draco here — he has a time-path that goes back seventeen years. And if we could link you to that — link your future to his past — then that would be the same as linking you to him."
Draco opened his mouth. Then he closed it again.
Harry grinned, pleased with the reaction.
"And you think we can do that with this bridging spell?" Draco asked eventually. He sounded very, very cautious now; as if he wanted to hope but wasn't sure that he could.
"Well, I had to change it a bit. And then I needed a way to test it. And I couldn't find any of the spells they talked about that let you see time-paths, so I thought — well, you know how if you leave a book on a desk in the library, and then take your bag and walk away from it like you're leaving the library, it does that sort of Apparition thing back to its shelf?"
Draco's mouth quirked. He smiled and then bit down on it, but his eyes were beginning to shine. "You managed to link a book to another book's past?"
Harry nodded, feeling giddy. He jumped up and grabbed a book off the Harmonic Charms shelf next to him. He lined the two books up. Then he lifted his wand, pointed to the book he'd been carrying around, and said, "Transeo Tempus." Holding the wand steady, he stared at the transfiguration textbook, concentrating on imagining it as it had been an hour ago.
There was a waiting feeling for a moment, as there'd been when he tested it before. Then a twinge in his wand he felt the magic take.
He jumped up, grabbing his bag but leaving the books. "Come on!"
Draco followed him, craning his neck to look at the books behind them. Approximately ten steps away, the books both vanished. Harry and Draco hurried back.
Harry almost exploded with pride as Draco stared at the shelf. The two books were hustling and knocking each other about, pages rustling in distress, as they attempted to both fit into the one slot on the shelf.
"Oh my god," Draco breathed. "Oh my god." He looked at Harry. "Will this really work on ...?"
Harry bit his lip. "I don't know," he admitted. "The problem is — well, I linked that first book to the second one's time-path at a point not very long ago — an hour. I've tried making the period longer, but the spell fizzles out."
Draco looked less downcast than Harry had expected. "So we need a way to make the spell stronger."
He sat down again, drumming his fingers on the desk.
Harry dropped down opposite him. "I tried concentrating really hard, and, um, using emotion, the way you're supposed to with an Unforgivable." He shrugged. "It makes it go a bit further, but not much."
Draco shook his head. "No, I don't think one person will be able to do it. Time's much harder to cross than space. Let's try casting together."
It didn't work well. They practised saying the words at exactly the same time, but the two spells still seemed to interfere with each other and ended up cancelling out.
Draco chewed on the end of his wand, thinking. After a moment he noticed what he was doing and blanched, putting it down. He picked up Harry's quill and chewed on that instead.
"You know how you mentioned we might need to use a ritual?" he asked. He was looking at the quill rather than at Harry. "The other night?"
Harry shifted. He remembered the alcove and the soft slide of mouths and hands.
"Yeah." His voice came out croaky.
Draco looked up and caught his expression. He stared for a moment, his hand clenching around the quill. Then he cleared his throat, patches of colour appearing on his cheeks. "So, I — thought that was a good idea, and I started reading about ritualistic forms."
Harry had got about halfway through the first chapters of those books, then given up. The authors had apparently assumed that anybody reading them had spent their life since the age of three making a private study of advanced arithmantical space.
"Oh?" he said.
"I didn't find any ritual that would do, obviously, but — one of the books was talking about how you could use ritualistic patterns to increase the power of a spell. And because rituals usually involve more than one person — I'm pretty sure that it said that you could use things like pattern incantations to include several people in a spell."
"So then Draco found this incantation that you can use to — see, it's there — and you can use it to make some kind of framework that other people cast the spell inside."
Hermione stared at the piece of parchment in her hands. Her eyebrows were climbing to her hair. The parchment was covered in Harry's scrawl, with annotations in Draco's exuberant loops-and-tails hand.
"The incantation's mostly gibberish," Draco said, "but it's been worked out by, uh — trial and error — what's the word?"
Harry and Draco shared a glance.
"Probably," Draco said. "So, somebody worked out that these syllables and inflections would create a kind of pattern that would — you know, support the individual spells people are casting around the circle."
"There are gaps in the incantation," Harry pointed out. "And people take turns saying the spell in them. And it creates —"
"The effects of a single powerful iteration," Hermione said. She stared at them. "This is — do you know what you've done? Creating the new spell and then finding a way to amplify the effects? This is amazing."
Draco beamed. "Well, we are brilliant."
They'd found Hermione down in the Arithmancy Stacks, sitting at a desk between two towering shelves. The books and papers scattered over the desk were lit by a glow of wandlight in the dimness. With her hair mussed and ink stains on her nose, she looked like an ethereal mad professor in the middle of it.
She bent over the parchment. "It will need to be modified a bit. I don't think this part will work unless we also ... huh, no, maybe ... Oh, and we'll need a way to see what we're doing, but Professor Slughorn can probably help us there." She looked up at Draco. "It will have to be your mother speaking the central incantation, you realise? She had most nearly the same relationship with you in both worlds, and that's ... going to matter." The words trailed off as her focus switched back to the parchment. She found a quill and began scribbling in the margins.
Harry and Draco looked at each other. They shifted from foot to foot. Finally, she looked back up. Her eyes shone.
"We need to show this to Professor McGonagall."
Things moved very quickly. Professor McGonagall was sceptical at first, but Narcissa Malfoy's infinite belief in the plan more than made up for that.
Actually, Harry suspected that Narcissa would have been ready to believe in them if they'd said that they were going to save Draco with a mouse and a piece of string, but her support was crucial in hurrying the plan along. McGonagall had been willing to concede that it might work, but she'd said that playing with time — especially time and identity — was extraordinarily dangerous, and that she would not allow one of her students to be risked until the dangers had been investigated.
Narcissa's steely determination not to waste another moment might not, to be fair, have been enough to persuade her if Draco hadn't collapsed to his knees just then, his face strained and white.
"I saw you decide to do that," Ron said. They were waiting on the moving staircase, coming down from McGonagall's office. "You didn't fade out at all."
Draco raised his chin. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"It could have happened anyway," Pansy said, worming her shoulder under Draco's arm. "It's been happening all the time."
He played with a lock of her hair. "You know, you should wash this more often, Pansy. It'd be quite nice if you — ow! Damn! What do you do to your fingernails?"
She gave him a dangerous smile. "Girls' secret."
She slipped free of his arm once they came out of the staircase, going up on her toes to kiss his cheek. "I'm going to go tell Blaise and Theo that it's happening tomorrow. They're still all jealous because you don't tell them stuff anymore, Draco." She smiled. "It's terribly cute."
Crabbe and Goyle looked uncertain for a moment, glancing between her and Draco. She looked back over her shoulder.
"Oh, for god's sake. Come on, would you?"
They shrugged and fell into step on either side of her, hulking shapes framing her slim form.
The others looked after them.
"Did you know she'd stolen your goons?" Ron asked after a moment.
Draco shook himself awake. "I suspected."
"I don't like her," Harry said.
Draco stared at him. Harry bit his lip. Draco's stare intensified.
"Really?" Ron said. "She's growing on me. It's sort of like Luna. You have to get used to the bit where she's crazy, first."
Draco looked away.
Harry tried to remember what he'd been saying.
Hermione was watching him, her eyes wide and startled. When she saw that he'd noticed, she coughed and adjusted the strap of her bag.
"I need to do something," Draco said. "Someone give me something to do. Why is it going to take Slughorn a whole night to brew a potion? I'll bet he could have it ready in a couple of hours if I was still a Slytherin. Why doesn't Professor Sinistra brew potions?"
Ron raised his eyebrows. "To be honest, mate, I can't see Sinistra sitting up all night brewing a potion for one of the students in her house."
Hermione fiddled with the strap of her bag some more. "Do you really want something to do, Draco?"
"Yes!" He grasped her hands. "I have to wait until tomorrow morning and I could die in the night and I'm going crazy and ... er ..." He stopped. "Er, I mean, something to while away the, um, boredom would be good."
She gently tugged her hands out of his grip. "Well, I found a way to destroy the cup. I found it last night, actually, but it seemed sort of callous to bring it up."
He smiled, wide and a bit crazy. "I'm glad you understand that I'm far more important than the Dark Lord trying to kill us all," he said. "How do we destroy it?"
"I rejected Fiendfyre at first because if it gets out of control it destroys everything. Scholars think that it's actually alive, which ought to be impossible because Fire is one of the nine inanimate forces; but it doesn't obey ordinary rules ..."
Harry and Ron let themselves fall behind. Hermione was explaining to Draco exactly what they were going to do, and why she'd been utterly brilliant.
"Have you heard of Fiendfyre?" Harry asked Ron.
He shrugged. "Have I ever heard of anything that Hermione talks about? Half the stuff about magic that I learned as a kid, Fred and George taught me, and I had to unlearn it all once I got to school."
Harry had a brief memory of the ludicrous spell the twins had told Ron would turn Scabbers yellow. That had, it occurred to him, been unadventurous for them. They must have still been getting into their stride. If they did something like that now, they'd make sure the pretend spell actually hexed the caster's nose off, or something.
Ginny caught them up, huffing, one hand holding a broomstick. She'd obviously spotted them from the air. It was a rough day for flying — overcast and blustery, and it had been hailing earlier. Harry could still spot the odd hailstone, worn down to nubs and scattered in the leaf mulch. Ginny looked cold. Her hair was windblown and coming free of its plait and her cheeks were flushed. Although that could have been anger.
She planted her hands on her hips. "It is entirely your fault that I have a blubbing ghost coming into my dorm at night and telling me that my freckles are ugly when I'm undressing!"
"She says she's going to come every night!"
"I destroyed that bathroom for your friends, and you dobbed me in to Moaning Myrtle!"
She crossed her arms. "You're going to fix it."
"Ginny, how am I supposed to —"
"I don't care! You will! Mum is going to be completely on my side!"
Harry backed off a few steps. Ron gave him an apologetic look and settled down to bargaining.
"Um, okay," Harry said. "Hi, Ginny. I'll, um, tell them not to start without you, Ron."
Both Weasleys ignored him. Harry escaped.
He hurried to catch up with Draco and Hermione, slowing down as he neared them.
They were none of them wearing school robes for this. It was cold, and the robes were too hard to put jumpers and coats over the top of. Hermione's slight form in jeans and a huge jacket stood out against the formless bulk of the forest behind her, which was beginning to look brown and bare as the season wore on. Draco was almost a ghost at her side, light clothes and pale hair melting into the background. They weren't walking very fast, their heads tilted together in conversation. It didn't sound as though they were talking about Horcrux destruction anymore
He dawdled, trying to overhear.
"... probably is based on his Saving People thing, but that's how he connects to people," Hermione was saying. She sounded frustrated. "It doesn't mean that it's not real."
Harry couldn't make out what Draco said, but he didn't sound impressed.
Hermione started counting off on her fingers. "He saved me from a troll — we would never have been friends otherwise. He saved Ron from — well, no offence, but from you, when you insulted him on the train. Yes, you did, didn't you know? No, he ..." Harry couldn't hear the next part. Her voice became clearer as she continued her list. "He saved Sirius when he first met him. He saved Ginny, and I've always thought that that was part of why he fell for her, last year. Plus, when we went to Bill and Fleur's wedding at the beginning of the year, Harry was really nice to Gabrielle Delacour, even though he hardly ever remembers anyone, usually. But he saved her back in fourth year, during the Triwizard Tournament."
Harry tried to walk quietly. He strained to hear what Draco said in response.
"Bloody hell," Ron said behind him. He was out of breath. "You are so lucky not to have a sister, Harry, I swear."
Draco and Hermione turned around, letting them catch up.
"I thought we should do it over there, near the lake," Hermione said. "Just in case the fire gets out of control. Not that I think it will."
"So, just in the interests of information," Draco said, "what would we do if the fire were to get out of control?" Harry noticed that his mood seemed to have changed again. He was still on edge, but he'd lost the nervous energy that made him grasp Hermione's hands and talk a mile a minute.
Hermione hesitated. "Actually, maybe we should have brought broomsticks."
Ron gulped. She rallied. "Well, anyway, we can always jump in the lake."
Harry looked at the freezing, ruffled surface of the lake, grey and wintry with the reflection of the sky. "Oh, good."
"I'm sure it won't come to that."
Hermione found a flat area of ground near the lake; far enough from the edge that the grass was low and dying back, rather than long and reedy as it was on the lake shore.
She first cast a spell Harry didn't know. It created a vaguely shimmering wall between them and the castle — almost completely invisible, but not quite. Ron stepped outside it and grinned. "That's brilliant. I can't see you at all."
Hermione nodded, already concentrating on scratching out a circle on the ground. She left a trail of glowing arithmantical symbols behind her. It almost seemed pretty, like fairy lights. Then she put the cup down in the circle and stood to speak the Fiendfyre incantation.
Harry shivered, hearing the words like an unpleasant taste on his tongue. They weren't Latin, and they sounded — evil. Uncomfortable. A moment later, flames roared into life inside the circle, and Hermione stepped back. The boys all jumped a step back too. They stared.
There were beast shapes in the fire: mouths that gaped wide, eyes that rolled madly in fiery heads, claws of white flame slicing against the arithmantical barrier. The flames were spinning higher inside the circle, forming a pillar of fire, streaked with white heat.
Hermione eyed the the pillar nervously. She looked relieved when it reached some kind of upper limit and hit a boundary. Monstrous shapes immediately whirled down the pillar again, cramped wings slashing the burning air.
Harry fixed his eye on the indistinct shape of the Hufflepuff Cup, lying on the razed ground at the foot of the inferno. He thought he could actually see the moment that it crumbled and released the piece of Voldemort's soul. There was a black streak like ash tingeing the flames for a moment, then it disappeared into the fire.
"Bloody ... hell," Ron said. "How long've you known how to do this, Hermione?"
Her cheeks pinked, and she hugged her jacket around her. There was no heat from the contained fire at all. "It's not actually especially difficult to cast," she said. "It's usually restricted knowledge, though, because it's difficult to control. I, uh, stumbled on it when I was researching a Charms assignment for extra credit once."
"You're amazing," Ron said, shaking his head. Hermione tried to suppress her immediate, huge smile.
The fire was beginning to fade. Harry supposed it was running out of air. The flames weren't licking so high any more, and most of the fantastical shapes had subsided, although there was still the hint of a wing or a claw here and there. Eventually even they died away.
Ron grinned again. "That was completely awesome."
Hermione regarded the coils of fine ash that were beginning to settle in the circle. "Well, I did think it would work."
"What we should do," Ron said, "is find lots more Horcruxes. Then we can set fire to them."
Hermione crossed her arms. "You haven't grown up one bit since the time you decided it would be a good idea to steal a flying car, have you?"
"Ah ah!" Ron slung an arm around Harry's shoulder. "We. We decided to steal a car. Actually, now that I think about it, it was Harry's idea entirely."
Harry laughed and ducked out from under his arm.
"I'm a model of responsibility, you see," Ron said, adjusting the cuffs of his shirt. Then he grinned. "But you must have enjoyed that a little."
Hermione's raised her eyebrows. "Setting Voldemort's soul on fire? No, that wasn't satisfying at all."
Ron interlocked his fingers behind his head. "He is going to be so pissed off."
The smoke was dissipating now, just a lighter grey coiling at the top of the columnal prison. There was nothing but an ember or two of cooling, fused earth and stone scattered at the base — which was now a hole a good three or four feet deep.
"I hope I set the concealment screen high enough." Hermione frowned, measuring the distance with her eyes. "Smoke appearing from nowhere will be difficult to explain."
Ron craned to look back at the castle. "There's no one coming."
Harry turned to look too. Then he turned further, fear making his throat dry as he scanned the lake shore and its scattered trees.
Hermione's eyes widened. She turned around. "I thought he was ..."
Ron had gone pale under his freckles. "He must've wandered off, right?"
Harry kept scanning the trees. Why would he wander off? We were destroying a Horcrux, nobody would ...
He spotted a glint of white-blond, coming out from behind a willow a way down along the lake shore. Malfoy was walking quickly along the shore, an almost-invisible figure picking its way around rocks and other obstacles.
For a moment, the relief was so strong that Harry's knees felt weak. Then came anger, drowning out everything else.
"I'm going to kill him," he breathed.
He heard both Hermione and Ron distantly: Hermione's "Oh, thank god." Ron's "He bloody well wandered off?"
Harry was already striding after Draco.
The concealment screen felt like a ripple over Harry's skin as he passed through it. The grass was longer here near the lake, and it whipped around his shins. He heard Hermione insisting, "We can't leave the fire till it's completely gone out. Oh, for — no, Ron, stay here."
Harry reached Draco and grabbed his shoulder, swinging him around. Draco must have been deep in his own thoughts, because he stumbled, his eyes widening as he saw Harry.
"Are you out of your mind?" Harry demanded.
Draco looked, of all infuriating, unbearable things, surprised to see that Harry had followed him. Harry stared at him, shaking with anger.
"Oh." Draco tried out a smile. "All finished with the cup, then?"
"How the hell could you wander off like that? Now?"
The smile slipped and became something with an edge to it.
"Oh, come on. Did you want me to hang around while you played 'Let's Reminisce'? I don't know all your funny car theft stories, Potter." He turned his head, looking out over the lake. He couldn't turn away completely because Harry still had hold of his shoulder. "I was being considerate, if you must know." His voice was distant. Then he shifted to look at Harry again, his eyes slitting. "I realise it's a foreign concept for you."
Harry wanted to shake him until he couldn't stand upright. "Who wants you to be considerate? I thought — that you — were dead."
Draco scowled. "Of course you did. Sorry; I should have known."
He turned, dipping his shoulder to shrug Harry's hand off. Harry moved with him, reaching to grab Draco's other shoulder so that he held both. He stepped closer, their faces inches apart as he scanned Draco's expression.
"You can't walk off like that, Draco." His voice was strained. "I can't — I don't know how to stand it."
He could feel the puff of Draco's breath against his mouth in the cool air. The other boy had his eyes squeezed shut. His jaw was a clenched, set line.
"In second year, your house-elf Dobby blocked the entrance to Platform 9 3/4 to try to stop me from going back to school," Harry said. His attention was on the feather of Draco's fringe that had fallen down to touch the dark blond shadow of his eyelashes. "Ron and I borrowed his dad's flying car so that we could get to Hogwarts.
"Now you know the story."
Draco didn't say anything. Harry ducked his head, feeling his own fringe tickle his eyes. "You can't disappear," he said again; as though if he said it enough he could make it true. "You can't."
Draco made a frustrated sound in his throat. His hands came up to hold Harry's face, pulling him forward the last inches to catch his mouth. "You're impossible," he said, pulling Harry's lower lip between his teeth and nipping softly. "You don't even know what you want." His fingers clenched almost painfully on Harry's jaw, his mouth forcing Harry's open. Harry gasped, the sound desperate, and opened his mouth wider. His hands on Draco's shoulders gentled their grip, sliding to pull him closer, one slipping up to tangle in his hair.
"You don't get it," Draco was saying, in between nipping kisses at Harry's lip. His mouth slid hot along the line of Harry's jaw to his ear. "You're not even thinking. You never — never think beyond the bit where you save somebody." Harry turned his head, finding Draco's mouth again and kissing deeply, frantically. Draco moaned, pulling away to nuzzle at his neck. "You think that it's the most important thing in the world," he said, his voice muffled and breathless as he kissed and bit Harry's neck. "And then it's over and there's something else that's the most important thing in the world."
"Draco ..." Harry had the impression that Draco was telling him something important, but he couldn't think. He slid a hand down Draco's back to his waist, pulling him closer, sliding under the soft woollen jacket and tugging at the shirt tucked into his trousers.
Draco came back to his mouth. The slide of tongues and hot breath was intoxicating. Then he pulled away again to kiss Harry's cheek, to kiss his eyelids that fluttered closed at Draco's touch. "That's all it is," he mumbled, his forehead on Harry's, the fine mess of his fringe tickling Harry's over-sensitised skin. "I'm not your best friend, here. I'm — I'm the person who stamped on your face, here."
"No." Harry wasn't sure he could actually talk, but he needed to say ... he needed ... His fingers moved over Draco's lower back, under his shirt, to skin that was unbearably smooth. The other boy shuddered and leaned in, his whole body pressed up against Harry's. "That's not ..."
Draco's hands moved down Harry's back. Harry gasped, arching as Draco's cold hand pushed under his jacket, the other moving back to his neck and caressing the soft hair at the nape. Harry could die of this.
Draco kissed him again, close and hot and with a desperation like drowning, as though Harry were air and light and warmth. Both hands came up to Harry's head, tangling in his hair.
Then he shuddered and broke the kiss, his forehead resting on Harry's again for a moment while Harry panted. "It's different for me," Draco said quietly.
He stepped back, pulling out of Harry's hold.
"What?" Harry stepped towards him again, but he was already turning away.
His hands clenched uselessly as he watched Draco walk away, quick and straight-backed.
Harry's knees wobbled. He slumped against the trunk of an elm, the bark rough against his back. Draco had been telling him something, if he could think well enough to understand. But god, he just wanted —
He shook his head, rubbing at his eyes. His glasses were gone, he realised. How had he not noticed that? He dropped to a crouch, feeling about in the grass, and finally found them half-hidden in a drift of leaves. He stood, his legs firmer, and slipped them back on.
Ron was staring at him from the Fiendfyre circle.
There was no sign of smoke now, which must have been why Hermione had taken down the concealment screen. Ron stood in front of the circle, but Hermione was facing away, intent on the dead fire. As Harry watched, she half turned, shooting a look at him and then away, and tugged on Ron's shoulder.
Ron didn't seem to notice. Harry could see that his mouth was open from here. Harry stared back, his cheeks hot. The awful, sick roiling in his stomach was worse than ever.
Harry raised his hand in a small wave. Ron blinked twice.
Harry turned and started back to the castle.
Draco sat with a group of fifth-year boys at dinner. His nervous energy had come back; Harry could hear him telling them wildly improbable stories about how the Quidditch World Cup had gone in his world. The younger boys hung on every word he said, their faces bright with reflected excitement. Harry wasn't sure whether they believed the stories or not. He suspected that they weren't sure either.
"So," Ron said. He was stirring his soup, his eyes fixed on the spoon. Harry gave him a sideways glance, then looked at his own bowl, his cheeks reddening. Ron had been working his way up to saying something all through dinner.
Ron cleared his throat. "So," he said again. "You and Malfoy."
Harry ducked his head. "Not really."
Ron choked, finally looking up. "How was that a not really?" he demanded, his voice a hoarse undertone. "You were .. he was ... it seriously didn't look like not really, Harry."
Harry looked at his spoon. "He doesn't want —" He shrugged. He was embarrassed, on one level, but it was mostly lost in the ball of misery that had lodged in his insides. "Anyway, it doesn't matter," he said. He made an effort to sound firm and competent. "We just have to worry about this spell tomorrow, that's all."
He darted another look at Draco. He'd been real and warm at the lake, but in the bright torchlight of the great hall, his outline looked uncertain once more. Harry's stomach tightened further.
"How long —?" Ron started to ask.
Hermione nudged him. "Leave him alone, Ron."
He was still casting surreptitious looks at Harry as they climbed up to the common room. Hermione had gone ahead, saying that she had books to return to the library. Finally Harry stopped and looked at him. "What?"
"I thought you liked girls." Ron's mouth worked. "Ginny. You dated my sister."
Harry grimaced. "I do. I liked Ginny. I just ..." like Draco more.
Ron was still staring at him. Harry scowled. "Tell me you're not going to be a bastard about this," he said.
Ron gaped. "Of course I'm — bloody hell, Harry, you're completely smitten with somebody who could disappear into nothing at any moment and never be seen again. Of course I'm not going to be a bastard!"
"Oh." Harry's shoulders slumped. "Good."
"Yeah, well, only if we can save him tomorrow," Ron said.
They'd reached the portrait hole. Ron said the password and stepped through ahead of him. Harry was about to follow when footsteps behind made him turn.
Draco was puffing; he'd obviously had to run to catch up. Harry hesitated, his hands flexing uncertainly. Draco looked intensely uncomfortable. "I — wanted to apologise," he said. He looked at his hands. "I shouldn't have kissed you. That was stupid."
"It's okay," Harry said quickly. Draco looked at him, then away again. He grimaced. "No, it was weak. And stupid. And — and I'm going to bed now."
He moved past Harry, careful not to brush his shoulder, and climbed into the common room. When Harry followed, Draco was already disappearing up the spiral staircase to the dorm.
It was a muffled thud that woke him. Harry cracked his eyes open, fumbling for his wand and glasses.
He cast Tempus. A quarter to midnight.
Over the way, Ron had woken too. He was sitting up, mid-yawn, a dim Lumos surrounding his wand. There were pillow-creases on his cheek. Dean was pushing himself upright too, now. Neville and Seamus were motionless shapes beneath their blankets, Seamus quietly snoring.
Draco's bed was empty. Harry had already swung his legs out of his blankets when he heard a soft curse. A moment later, Draco crawled out from under his bed.
He looked groggy. He stood up, carefully, meeting Harry's, Ron's and Dean's startled faces.
He blinked at them. "I think that I fell through the bed."
As Harry watched, he flickered again, stumbling as the hand he threw out to catch his bedpost passed through it. And Harry realised what the dim light had concealed: he was flickering constantly, his face grey. He stood in the middle of the dormitory, shaking, fading into the background and then back again.
Harry slipped out of bed, his heart racing. He made himself speak past his dry throat. "We can't wait till morning. We have to do the spell now."
Harry and Draco ran down the stairs, their feet thudding on the stone. Harry had never appreciated how far it was between Gryffindor Tower and the dungeons, before. He had hold of Draco's hand, terrified to let go even though fear was making the hold chill and sweaty. Every time Draco flickered beside him, Harry felt the nothing sensation against his palm, heard the hitch in the loud noise of Draco's breathing close beside him.
Ron had stumbled down to the common room with them, calling up his Patronus on the second try and sending it up to rouse Hermione. He and Hermione were going to fetch Pansy and Crabbe and Goyle, then meet the others at Professor McGonagall's office. Harry wasn't sure how they were going to get into the Slytherin common room in the middle of the night, but that was their problem.
His was keeping Draco with him while they ran down to the dungeons to wake Professor Slughorn.
Torches burned low around them, casting vague light and shadows on the stone. They clattered down another flight of stairs, but this one ground into motion when they were halfway down. Harry groaned as it swung around and deposited them into the wrong corridor. They turned and ran up it again, turning at the top to choose a new way down.
"Sometimes — I hate — this castle," Draco panted.
Harry wanted to reply — Draco talking meant that he was alive and warm and here — but his breath was coming short and panicky in his chest. He had none to spare for conversation. "Come on," he managed, pushing open the door to the Great Hall and running down the space between the tables. The quickest path down to the dungeons was via the passage behind the Slytherin table.
Then they were in the passage, slate grey walls around them, and there was another flight of stairs. The walls were streaked with condensation now. Finally there was the corridor where the Potions Master's suite of rooms was located. Harry knew where it was only because Fred and George had set up an April Fool's joke here once, back when it had been Snape's room.
Harry felt a jolt of panic as it occurred to him for the first time that just because Slughorn had taken over Snape's job, didn't necessarily mean that he had taken the same rooms.
Draco leaned against the wall while Harry hammered on the door. Harry threw him a worried look and hammered harder. It was wrong, Draco breathless and pale and shaking. He was always pale, but he'd never been weak before. He had energy all the time, even when he was holding himself ruthlessly still, or lounging in a train carriage and pretending to be nonchalant.
Draco's outline blurred again, and he slipped partway into the stone wall. He jerked back, bumping Harry's shoulder.
Harry knocked on the heavy oak door again. The skin on his knuckles was beginning to feel battered.
At last there were sounds of movement in the room beyond. Bolts slid across and the door opened partway. Professor Slughorn's face — tucked between a floppy cap and the collar of an enormous nightgown — peered out at them.
"Harry, my boy." he said. He yawned. "Whatever are you doing here?"
Harry grabbed his sleeve, his other hand still clenched in a death grip around Draco's. "We need that potion," he said. "The one for the Transeo Tempus spell."
Slughorn frowned. His gaze slid to Draco. "Really, boys, I told you that the Revelium potion would be ready tomorrow. This is not at all a proper time to be waking me up."
"Professor, Draco's fading now! We have to do the spell now." Harry tightened his grip on Slughorn's sleeve. "Please."
Slughorn hesitated. Draco chose that moment to stumble again, his hand almost slipping through Harry's, and the Potions Master sighed. "Oh, very well. The Revelium won't be at full strength yet, but I suppose I can decant it early."
He looked decidedly bad-tempered about the whole thing. Harry honestly didn't care, as long as he gave them the potion.
The boys stood in an agony of waiting while he let them into his private potions laboratory and used his wand to check on the progress of the blue and gold-flecked potion simmering in a cauldron at the back. They waited while he chose a vial to decant it into, selecting first one then another from a shelf of empty blown-glass bottles. They waited while he used his wand again to direct the flow into the bottle he chose, the stream of blue-gold painfully thin, taking forever to fill the bottle.
They waited while he paused, looking at them with the full vial in his hand.
"I hope that you boys appreciate the trouble I've gone to, here," he said, his eyebrows lowering.
"We do!" Draco gasped. "I'm really, really grateful. Honestly."
"Sir," Harry pleaded. Slughorn handed the potion to Draco. When he flickered and stumbled again, almost dropping it, he passed it to Harry.
"Thank you!" Harry yelled over his shoulder. Draco's shoulder knocked his own as they squeezed through the doorway out to the corridor again, and pounded back up the first flight of steps.
Running up stairs was a lot harder than running down them. Draco seemed to stumble more and more, his face growing whiter and whiter. Halfway along a corridor on the third floor he disappeared entirely and didn't appear again for several long seconds. Harry almost sagged against the wall with relief when he appeared again with trembling legs that dropped him to his knees on the stone.
After that, Harry slipped one of Draco's arms over his shoulder. Draco didn't protest. That was frightening in itself, since it meant that he felt as bad as he looked.
Fourth floor, fifth floor — another trick staircase that changed direction halfway up like a crazy game of snakes and ladders, so back up to the fifth floor again. Then finally they were at the gargoyle at the foot of the spiralling staircase to the headmistress' office.
The gargoyle moved aside at the password and they stumbled inside.
In the darkness of the stairwell, it was too easy to imagine that Draco had disappeared again, for real this time. Harry grabbed his hand, concentrating on the undeniable reality of the skin under his palm, the fingernails bitten down, the pads callused from flying.
"I might need this hand again for something one day," Draco said shakily. "If you break it, you'll have to replace it."
Harry loosened his grip, feeling sheepish.
They reached the top of the stairs, and Harry pushed the door open, causing warm light to flood the stairwell.
Ron and Hermione must have moved fast. Not only was the headmistress there, stern in a tartan dressing gown, along with Ron, Hermione and the three Slytherins, but Narcissa Malfoy and Professor Sinistra were there too. Sinistra was yawning delicately, the folds of a blue satin dressing gown held around her. Narcissa was standing in front of McGonagall's desk, her fingers clenched on the desk behind her.
As soon as Draco appeared, she rushed forward, closing her arms around him.
Harry let go of Draco's hand to avoid having his own twisted off.
His eyes found Professor McGonagall. "We have to do the spell right now."
She nodded, her gaze on Draco. Even with Narcissa's arms around him, the blurred edge to his outline was visible, along with the way he faded almost all the way out of reality every couple of seconds. "So it would seem," she said. "Mr Weasley informed me that you had gone to fetch the Revelium potion from Professor Slughorn?"
Harry pulled the potion out of his dressing gown and handed it to her. She set it on her desk, then transfigured a row of quills into small beakers.
Ron and Hermione hovered near the bookshelf, looking worried. Hermione tried to smile when she saw Harry looking at her, but it was a strained effort. Pansy was holding Goyle's arm, her face white and scared. Her nails dug into Goyle's forearm, which he endured with an occasional grimace. His eyes, like Crabbe's, were fixed on Draco, worry warring with faith in his eyes. He patted Pansy's hand, awkwardly.
Harry blinked, focusing on McGonagall. He had the impression she might have said his name several times. Her face was kind, though — or the Minerva McGonagall approximation of kind, which involved less disapproval than usual and tiny worry lines around her eyes.
Harry took the beaker she offered.
The potion looked different in the beaker than it had in the cauldron. It was lighter, more colourless — more like bluish-gold air than liquid.
Narcissa stepped away from Draco. Her face was more or less calm as she accepted the portion of Revelium McGonagall gave her. Seeing that everybody was still holding the beakers in their hands, the headmistress frowned. "Well? Drink, all of you. They're not for decoration."
Harry gulped his down. It was only a couple of mouthfuls, but he drank too quickly in his nervousness and nearly choked.
The taste wasn't nearly as foul as he was used to, with potions.
For a moment, nothing seemed to be different, and he worried that when Slughorn had said the potion 'wouldn't be at full strength' he might have meant 'wouldn't work at all'.
Then Hermione made a surprised noise. A moment later, Harry felt the change himself.
It was an itch behind his eyes: a blurriness to the world, as though the things he was looking at had become a good bit less solid. This was because they had developed odd echoes of themselves, he realised. Everything he looked at had a sense of depth. The longer he looked, the more clearly he could see the tail that stretched behind even the tiniest object, gold and shadow-flecked; paths that vanished back far further than anything in the room ought to be able to. It was most noticeable in the people, however. Ron and Hermione, against the bookshelf opposite, seemed to stand at the head of golden-dark, neverending silhouettes that stretched behind them, subtly altered the further back he looked.
"You will all need to focus on Mr Malfoy," McGonagall said calmly. "Attempting to look at everything in the room will undoubtedly give you a headache."
Harry turned to look at Draco. Instantly he saw that he was different. The path behind him was shorter than that of anything else in the room. It stopped not far behind him, and it shifted and wavered in a way the other timepaths didn't.
Draco himself was the only one who hadn't drunk the potion. He brushed his robes down, looking unnerved at the wide-eyed attention of everybody else in the room; or maybe at the way their eyes focused on the gold-edged echo-shapes beyond him.
"Mrs Malfoy, I trust that you have learned your incantation?"
Narcissa, who had been staring, stricken, at the cut-off shape of her son's timepath, snapped her head up. "Shall I begin, Headmistress?" At a nod, she moved to stand in front of McGonagall's desk once more. Her fingers folded the material of her robe, but otherwise she showed no sign of nerves.
The others drew their wands, shifting into a rough circle shape. Their formation didn't matter, Hermione had assured Harry, but they all needed to be able to see Draco.
Narcissa began to speak.
The odd, not-quite-nonsense words set a strange humming feeling to Harry's skin. He'd only seen them written down before, in the book Draco had found the incantation in. Spoken, they gave Narcissa's smooth, well-modulated voice odd harmonics.
At the first break in the incantation, Professor McGonagall raised her wand to the flickering shape of Draco's timepath and cast, "Transeo Tempus." The smooth rhythm of Narcissa's incantation picked up immediately after it, including McGonagall's spell in its own shape.
At the next break, Crabbe cast, fumbling his entry slightly. Then Pansy, then Goyle.
At his own turn, Harry raised his wand and concentrated fiercely on memories of the Draco he'd known here. "Transeo Tempus," he said, feeling the rhythm of Narcissa's incantation sweep up the spell and include it in itself.
He'd cast the spell successfully before, though, and he could feel that what he'd cast now was struggling to take. There was a prickliness to the air that he recognised as significant magic build-up — he'd experienced it before when Dumbledore and Voldemort duelled in the Atrium of the Ministry — but there was a sluggish feel to it, as though it couldn't quite find a direction.
Ron cast, then Hermione, then Sinistra. Narcissa was still incanting — Harry had no idea whether she'd reached the end of the first cycle and started again, or even if she'd been through three or four cycles by now. All the syllables were meaningless, although they all had an odd weight and significance. Almost as though they were bending the air in some way.
McGonagall began the circle again with the next casting.
Draco was fading. He stumbled, dropping to one knee for a moment before he got to his feet once more. He closed his eyes, looking sick.
Narcissa's voice faltered, and there was a momentary lurch in the flow of magic around them. She quickly started up again.
Draco swayed again, and Harry couldn't help himself. He took three steps forward and pushed his shoulder under Draco's arm, holding him upright. Draco gave him a strained, grateful look.
Harry's turn to cast. He clutched his wand, focusing on the wavering gold and shadow lines radiating between his fingers where he held Draco, and said "Transeo Tempus."
He caught McGonagall's eye. She seemed to decide that he could cast from there as easily as from further off, since she nodded at him. Her face was tight.
The sluggish, heavy feel to the air increased each time somebody new cast. Narcissa was flagging, her voice hoarse. Hermione leaned on Ron.
"Concentrate on memories of this world's Draco," McGonagall said urgently, over the rhythm of Narcissa's voice. "The spell is struggling to find a direction. Concentrate harder."
Harry closed his eyes, pressing his face against Draco's shoulder, and obeyed. He remembered Draco Malfoy as he'd last seen him, running towards the boundaries of Hogwarts, a grey shape beyond Professor Snape's running form.
"Transeo Tempus," Hermione said.
Draco Malfoy on the tower, his face sickly green in the light of the Dark Mark shimmering in the sky, his wand wavering as he pointed it at Dumbledore.
Draco Malfoy in Madam Malkin's, eleven years old, his face screwed up as he looked through the window at Hagrid, beaming with two enormous ice cream cones.
Sinistra now, "Transeo Tempus."
Harry breathed in the warmth and the scent of Draco's shoulder, his fingers tightly tangled in the material over his back. He remembered Malfoy with his Inquisitorial Squad pin, patrolling the corridors with Pansy Parkinson and Theodore Nott. Malfoy in second year, spitting Mudblood at Hermione as though the word were poison on his tongue. Malfoy in third year, keeping his end of the Slytherin table in gales of laughter as he acted out Harry fainting in front of the Dementors. In sixth year, tear tracks on his face as he stared, horrified, at Harry in the mirror behind him.
"Transeo Tempus." McGonagall's voice was hoarse, her brogue thicker than usual.
Harry held Draco with both arms now, silently mouthing along with the spell every time somebody cast, his lips pressed against the soft material of Draco's pyjamas. He could feel the other boy shivering in his hold, his body colder than it should be and only half there. Harry shut his eyes tighter.
Malfoy spinning Pansy at the Yule Ball, his smile giddy. Malfoy after the ferret incident, scrambling to his feet, his face pained and furious as he snarled at the teacher who'd turned on him. Malfoy at breakfast, his smile huge and smug as he unpacked a parcel from home, laying out sweets in a row along the table, his eyes flicking to Harry's side of the room to make sure that he'd seen.
"Transeo Tempus," and Malfoy tossed Neville's Remembrall high. "Transeo Tempus," and Malfoy offered his hand, chin lifted as he warned Harry against making friends with the wrong sort.
Narcissa's voice rose to a swell, and Harry opened his eyes and saw something beyond Draco's broken timepath. It was a long way back, but flecks of gold were gathering in the air, twining into a slender net, which became an intricate rope, falling backwards. "Transeo Tempus," Hermione said over the roaring in Harry's ears.
With a silent grace, as slow as continents, the bridging rope fell back into the distant end of the other timepath.
Draco stiffened, his eyes flying open.
Harry caught him as he crumpled, the weight shockingly real in his arms.
Narcissa had stopped speaking, Harry registered dimly. There was a low, excited hum of conversation in her place. Harry couldn't spare attention for it.
Draco opened his eyes. Harry tightened his arms, slipping to the floor until they were kneeling.
"Oh my god," Draco breathed. "It worked, didn't it?"
Harry leaned his forehead against Draco's. "Yeah."
"We're brilliant," Draco said hoarsely. Harry laughed, a cracked, dry sound. He knew that he should be getting up, should be making way for other people to reach Draco — for Narcissa to reach him — but he couldn't, not yet.
He folded Draco closer, breathing in the scent of him, feeling the sharp bones of his shoulder pressing into his arm. "You're not dead," he mumbled. He pushed his hands into Draco's hair, the strands heartbreakingly soft under his fingers, not caring how many people were watching. Draco shivered and ducked his head.
"No," he agreed.
Harry could hear Hermione talking to Professor McGonagall; Pansy giving a watery laugh at something Ron said.
"I should —"
Harry tightened his arms. "Don't go."
"What, ever?" Draco asked. There was a tremble of laughter in his voice.
Harry rubbed his face against Draco's hair. "I'm not — I just — I thought I was going to lose you," he said, almost inaudible. "Don't go yet. I can't lose you."
He heard Draco draw in a breath. Then he let it out, a puff against Harry's neck. "I really do have to get up and talk to my mother," Draco said. His voice was uneven, though, with something incredulous and happy.
Harry got to his feet, pulling Draco up with him. He stepped back, letting Draco be enfolded by Narcissa. She was white-faced and swaying with fatigue, but she laughed as she swept up her son; a low, triumphant sound
It was a bit chaotic after that. Pansy threw herself into Draco's arms as soon as she could get a clear run, hiccoughing tears. Crabbe and Goyle fought their way through to him and then just stood there, huge grins on their faces. Ron threw an arm around his shoulder and ruffled his hair, then shot a worried look at Harry and took his hand back. Hermione gave him a calm smile and shook his hand, telling him that she was glad. Professor Sinistra yawned delicately and stretched out in McGonagall's chair, watching the huddle around Draco with an uninvolved air.
Harry thought that it was noticing this last that determined McGonagall to get them all out of her office.
"Mr Malfoy." Her voice cut through the babble of voices. Draco looked at her, pushing his hair back where it had got mussed. "Before we all retire to bed — which I can assure you all will be very soon indeed — can you tell me whether you feel any effects of the link to this world's Draco Malfoy?"
Draco started to shake his head, then hesitated. "Actually, my head feels sort of full. Is that ...?" He frowned, narrowing his eyes. "Professor, did you give me detention in first year for being out of bed and talking about a dragon?"
She raised her eyebrows. It took Harry a second to realise the significance of what he'd said. Hermione was a moment ahead of him.
"You're remembering some of his memories," she said, her voice awed. She stepped forward. "That happened here — don't you remember, Harry? Oh, my. This is fascinating, Draco."
"Unexpected, certainly," McGonagall said. "Although perhaps it should not have been." She thought for a second, then came to a decision. "Under the circumstances, Mr Malfoy, I believe that you may be excused from classes tomorrow. I will inform your teachers that you need the time to grow accustomed to your extra memories."
She clapped her hands. "Now, out, all of you!"
Narcissa looked rather startled. Still, she inclined her head, preparing to leave via the Floo. It occurred to Harry that she'd been taught by Professor McGonagall too, when she was a schoolgirl. Being cowed by the older woman was probably a difficult habit to break.
Sinistra simply looked amused, but she allowed herself to be herded out with the rest of them.
"You were born under a fortunate star, I believe, Mr Malfoy," she observed as she passed. Then she paused and tilted her head. "Which reminds me. I believe that Mars will be rising just about now." She changed direction and started for the Astronomy Tower.
Ron shook his head. "She's a bit mental, isn't she?" he said. Then he slung his arm around Draco's shoulder again. "Mars is rising. That means we're going to war, right?"
Harry shivered, letting himself think for a moment about all the things that hadn't been important while they raced to save Draco — Voldemort and Horcruxes and the war. Draco met his gaze, a gleam in his eyes. "Voldemort won't know what hit him," he promised.
Draco was let off classes the next day, but none of the rest of them were.
Harry yawned all through Charms. The parchment he was supposed to be charming to fold itself into an origami man and strut about his desk was picking up Harry's weariness. It kept stopping to lean against his books, the square paper head nodding onto its chest. Then that would remind Harry of Draco, yawning his way up to the dorm last night, feet scuffing along the stone floor. He'd grin stupidly, and the little paper man would stop to blink at Harry's inkwell, swaying.
Draco found them in the first break between classes. Hermione, adjusting the books in her arms, nearly bumped into him. She looked up with a start.
"What happened to the teacher who turned me into a ferret and then tormented me?" Draco demanded.
Hermione looked at Ron, frowning. "He had his soul sucked out, didn't he?" she said.
Draco blinked, brought up short. "Oh."
"He was a Death Eater," Harry explained. "He was using Polyjuice."
Draco looked embarrassed. "Oh, right. That was Crouch? I, um — the memory was a bit imprecise. I knew it was a teacher, but I didn't connect it to ..."
Ron nudged him into movement so that they could keep going, and he fell into step with them.
"Well, the Draco here didn't know about Crouch, I don't think," Hermione said. She shot him a glance. "Your memories are still coming, then? Or," she hesitated, "not your memories, but you know what I mean."
Draco hunched his shoulders. "They feel like my memories," he said.
Hermione shifted her books. "I suppose they would," she said. "If you had, say, my memories, you'd probably be able to tell they didn't belong, because we think in different ways, and approach things in different ways. But these ..."
"Are really confusing," Draco said. He left them at the Transfiguration classroom.
After Transfiguration, he caught up with them again. Ron and Hermione were bickering about homework a few feet ahead. Draco stepped into Harry's path and folded his arms.
"Explain to me," he said, "how lashing out with a cutting curse is an appropriate reaction to finding somebody crying in a bathroom."
Harry winced. "Um."
Draco narrowed his eyes.
Harry bit his lip. "I'm really, really sorry about that. Honestly, I didn't know what the spell did. I was just so angry at you for trying to cast Cruciatus."
Draco looked blank. "I ... didn't remember that part," he admitted.
"I'm still really sorry."
Draco fell into step beside him. "Was that before or after I broke your nose on the train?" he asked after a moment.
"Damn. I was really hoping that one was your fault."
Harry laughed, startled, and Draco rolled his eyes at him. "You still nearly killed me, you berk. You're the least emotionally mature person I've ever met, you know? Only you could react that badly to somebody crying."
Draco shoved his hands into his pockets. "It ... probably wasn't very mature to try to use Cruciatus because I was embarrassed at being caught," he said after a moment.
Draco knocked his shoulder. "Shut up."
He didn't show up again until lunch, and then he was quiet. He ate, but distractedly, and he accidentally drank from Hermione's pumpkin juice at one point. She looked startled, but didn't say anything.
"What?" Harry asked eventually.
Draco looked up. "Kingsley Shacklebolt," he said after a moment. Then: "Killed me."
Harry felt himself go still.
"He's in the Order," Harry said finally. "He's a good man."
Draco kept his eyes on his plate. "All right. As long as nobody expects me to smile at him, I suppose."
Harry thought about Kingsley Shacklebolt; his impassive face, the way he held himself like a soldier. His deep, careful voice the first time Harry met him, when he commented on how much Harry looked like his father.
Harry wasn't sure that he'd be able to look at him again without wanting to hurt him.
There were eddies of movement around the hall as lunch began to break up, and people drifted away from their tables. Pansy, Crabbe and Goyle materialised out of the throng. Pansy moved aside a bowl of bread rolls, and perched on the table.
"Remembered anything interesting?" she asked Draco.
He glanced up at her, puzzled. Then his face went still. He blushed.
Pansy crowed. "I knew it." She laughed. "What did you just remember? Was it that night after the first Inquisitorial Squad meeting, when —"
Draco jumped up and grabbed her arm, dragging her away from the table. "This is a really interesting conversation," he said. "We should go and finish it over here."
Crabbe and Goyle followed them as they moved out of earshot of the Gryffindor table.
Harry turned back to the table to find that Hermione was watching after them. She felt his eyes and turned to look at him.
"Things changed, didn't they?" she said quietly. "It all happened so fast, I hardly noticed it. Not just Draco; it's ... a new formation." She made a vague gesture, impatient with herself. "I mean — it's not the group Draco remembers. That was only you three. Now it's us, and Draco, and the Slytherins, and Ginny ..."
"We're still us, though," Ron said. He shot Harry a suddenly alarmed glance. "I mean, it's not as if you like Draco better than us ..."
"Don't be a wanker," Harry said, grinning.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "You know, maybe if I'd been best friends with Parvati and Lavender, my friends wouldn't spend so much time insulting each other because they don't know how to communicate."
There was no sign of Draco in their next break. Harry left Hermione and Ron and took the long way to the Potions classroom, in case he was in the courtyard. There was a door you could take on the west side of the courtyard that led straight down, then cut across to the dungeons.
He passed Ginny on his way through the entrance hall. She was sitting in an alcove with Moaning Myrtle hovering beside her, half in and half out of the wall.
"No, see the thing is, you have to make them think that they're missing out if you shun them," Ginny was saying earnestly. "You're going about it all wrong."
She noticed Harry and lifted her hand in a distracted wave.
Harry's guess had been right: Draco was balanced on the broad back of a sleepy centaur statue in the courtyard, his head propped on the centaur's tail. He was rugged up in a scarf and coat.
He lifted his chin to look up at Harry, his smile easy and sweet.
"Hey," he said. "So, it turns out that it was only due to me that you found out you were a Parselmouth. It took you ages in my world." He stretched, pillowing his head in his hands.
Harry wanted to sit down next to him and just smile and smile at him. He had to go to Potions, though, so he said, "I guess I should be grateful, then."
Draco nodded. "You should," he agreed. "Snape must have tried to get Zabini to do the Serpensortia hex in the Duelling Club in my world, I think, but he messed it up and got a tortoise." He smiled again, his eyes drifting closed. "It was really funny."
After Potions, Draco was waiting at the door again. He grabbed Hermione's sleeve as the three of them came out.
"Why did I walk out onto the Quidditch pitch dressed as a Dementor in the middle of a game?" He shook his head, frustrated. "I keep looking, but I can't find the reason anywhere. Was it a dare?"
She detached his hand from her sleeve. "You were trying to throw off Harry's game. You wanted to make him fall off his broom."
Draco spun to look at Harry. "You fall off your broom in matches?" he asked.
"Once," Harry said. He frowned. "Didn't that happen in your world, when the Dementors walked onto the pitch?"
Draco shrugged. "Nope. You let Diggory catch the Snitch — even though I'd given you a perfect run at it by distracting the Hufflepuff Beaters — but you didn't fall."
Harry shook his head. "Well, when you dressed up as a Dementor I didn't fall. I knocked you down with a Patronus, then caught the Snitch."
"Always have to be the centre of attention, don't you?" Draco said, apparently unfazed. He stretched, pulling his arms up above his head. He wasn't in school robes since he didn't have classes, and Harry couldn't help noticing the way that his shirt pulled partially free of his belt, exposing a brief flash of skin. Draco cricked his neck, then fell in beside them.
After a second, Harry realised that he'd been supposed to answer that with something. He swallowed around a dry throat. "Um, what?"
Draco rolled his eyes. "No wonder you fall off your broom, Harry, honestly."
Harry had expected Draco to be waiting when they got out of their final lesson for the day, but there was no sign of him. He saw Pansy sitting on a low windowsill and swinging her legs, talking to Crabbe and Goyle, so he knew Draco wasn't with them.
He left Ron and Hermione and went back to the courtyard. It was grey and cold, now, and entirely empty. Harry shivered, pulling the sleeves of his robes down, and headed back inside.
Ginny and Myrtle were gone from the entrance hall, although there was a small group of second years playing marbles on the floor, in the dusty light from one of the windows.
In the corridor, he passed Professor McGonagall deep in conversation with the Grey Lady. He stopped and turned back.
"Professor? Have you seen Draco?"
The headmistress looked amused. "Have you lost him already?"
Harry shook his head and kept on.
The library was busy, with students cramming in homework before dinner. Parvati and Lavender gave him bored waves from behind teetering piles of textbooks.
Harry walked quickly along the shelves on the ground floor, looking for pale hair, then ran up the stairs to the higher levels and repeated the process.
He finally met Draco as he came out of the library again. The other boy had been going in.
Draco stopped. "I was looking for you."
"Hold out your hand," Draco said, interrupting him.
Harry stared for a moment. Then he offered his hand, palm up.
Draco rolled his eyes, impatient. "No, properly — like you're offering to shake my hand."
Harry got it, then.
He held his hand out. "Hi."
Draco looked at him narrowly. Then he took a step forward and took his hand, shaking firmly. "Hi."
They were just outside the double doors, near the first of the great marble pillars. The entrance hall was mostly empty: the only other people were two girls sitting across from each other near the far wall, absorbed in some Tarot cards that they'd laid out between them.
Draco dropped his head back against the marble pillar.
"It's sort of embarrassing that that felt so important," he admitted. Then he looked down. "You can let go of my hand now."
Harry cleared his throat, stroking his forefinger over the smooth skin and calluses of Draco's hand. "Do I have to?"
"You're impossible, Potter," Draco said after a moment. There was that odd, happy sound in his voice again, and Harry looked up so that he could see his expression. He looked uncertain, not quite smiling. Harry stepped closer, his grip on Draco's hand tightening.
"I know you said you didn't want to," he said quickly, "because you have this idea that I get carried away and kiss people that I want to rescue, then get bored once they don't need rescuing any more. But you're rescued, and I'm not going anywhere. And — I don't want anyone else. And —" He was screwing this up and sounding like an idiot, but he blundered on. "And I don't want to save you. Hell, I don't want you to ever need saving again, all right? I was terrified. I just —"
"You don't have to give my hand back."
Harry blinked at him. He felt slower than usual. "What?"
Draco's face was glowing, his smile as bright as a candle. He leaned forward, his free hand slipping up to Harry's neck, the trapped one turning in Harry's hand, lacing their fingers together. "You don't," he murmured, his mouth against Harry's cheek, "have to give my hand back. If you don't want to."
"Oh," Harry said. He could feel Draco's breath against his cheek. "I won't, then." That ridiculous smile was back in his voice. He leaned closer, and decided there'd been enough talking.
He realised that he still had questions later, up in the common room. It was empty while the rest of Gryffindor was at dinner. The house-elves had lit low fires in the hearths.
Harry and Draco had pulled one of the sofas up close to the hearth furthest from the portrait hole. Draco had then arranged himself against Harry on one of the sofas, moving him until he constituted an effective pillow; to Harry's secret delight. Harry was trying to be nonchalant about running his fingers through Draco's hair, now.
He almost didn't want to ask these questions, in case he didn't like the answers.
"Do you miss them?" he blurted. "The people in the other reality — do you miss them?"
"Yes," Draco said.
Harry moved his thumb so that the longer hair of Draco's fringe slid over it again. He concentrated on the sensation as he asked the next question.
"Do you wish you were still back there?"
Draco hesitated. "Yes. No. I don't know."
He twisted, pulling himself upright on the sofa and hugging his knees. Harry put his hands on his own knees; he didn't know what to do with them. He felt the space where Draco had been like an ache.
Draco must have heard the stepped-on quality in Harry's voice. He shot Harry a look, biting his lip.
"That Harry never snogged me in a window seat," he said.
Harry smiled because he couldn't help it. "Good."
Then he frowned. Because ... he wondered, actually. Draco had told him — or nearly told him — in the Yule Ball memory that his Harry hadn't been interested. That had been part of why Draco hadn't believed Harry was serious after what happened in the window seat, Harry knew. But Harry remembered the smile Pensieve Harry had greeted Draco with in that memory; had turned to him with, the instant he appeared.
Harry wasn't sure that Draco was all that good at reading interest.
Draco played with a loose thread on his robes. "Of course," he said, "on the other hand, you've never raced me across the Forbidden Forest on a broom."
Harry lifted his chin. "We'll go flying tomorrow." He tried not to look anxious. "What else did you do?"
Draco had a gleam in his eyes, now. "Well, we got falling down drunk in Hogsmeade once — I've never done that with you."
Harry stared at him. "They serve you alcohol in Hogsmeade?" He shook his head. "All right, we are definitely doing that."
"And you've never promised to be my slave for a month, for my birthday."
Harry shoved him with his shoulder. "Do you ever stop trying it on?"
Draco snickered, pillowing his head on his interlocked fingers. "Nothing ventured ..." He smirked, stretched full-length and relaxed as a cat, regarding Harry through slitted eyes. "Gryffindor, you know."
Harry grinned at him. "That is the least Gryffindor thing anybody has ever said."
Draco laughed. "Go and tell the Sorting Hat."
Harry dropped his head back against the sofa. "Will they ... do you think they'll think that you're dead?" He twisted his head to look at Draco.
"I don't know." Draco looked distant. "There won't be a body. And you — he — he won't give up. As long as they don't know for sure — Harry will keep looking."
Harry thought about Pensieve Harry's smile again. He cleared his throat. "Maybe — after the war, maybe we can find a way to send a message. If he knew you were safe ..." He shook his head. "They can't have you, because — because of the killing curse. But maybe we could send an owl?"
Draco looked wistful. "Yeah. Maybe."
Draco's hand was on his knee. Harry picked it up and ran his thumb over Draco's palm.
"When we go flying tomorrow, we should look at the Acromantula Nest from above," Harry said. "It's probably time we started looking for the next Horcrux."
After a moment, Draco nodded. "Mars is rising," he said, quoting Ron's words.
Harry twined his fingers around Draco's. "There's a war coming," he agreed. He lifted their intertwined hands, pressing them against his cheek for a second. "But," he added, "you're going to be here for it. And you're on my side, this time."
Draco rolled his eyes. "Yes, Harry, this is all about you."
Harry turned Draco's hand over and kissed the wrist, feeling self-conscious. "Shut up. It matters."
The other boy shivered at the contact, glancing at him: a quick slashing look from under his lashes, that caught and held. His eyes darkened, and he lowered his legs, crawling over to kneel above Harry.
Harry's breathing stilled. Draco looked at him intently, reaching out to brush his thumb over Harry's jaw. Harry tilted his face into the touch, and Draco leaned forward. Their mouths just touched; barely a kiss. Then Draco leaned closer again, nudging Harry's mouth open. Harry leaned up into the kiss; the heat and the feeling of Draco's tongue skimming his teeth, butterfly-quick.
Draco pulled back, hovering just above Harry again; less than an inch between their mouths.
"I didn't think I'd ever get to do this," Draco said quietly, the words a hum against Harry's mouth. He moved, minutely, his nose touching Harry's cheek. "I'm supposed to be dead, you know. How many people get a second chance in a new reality? And I — I left people behind, and I want — I want to see them again." He dipped his head, rubbing his nose against Harry's. "But I don't think I could." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Fuck. Harry. I don't think I could lose this."
Then he raised his head, giving Harry a warning look. His cheeks were pink. "Don't answer that."
Harry didn't even try to squash the huge smile on his face. "Um. Okay."
Draco rolled his eyes, letting his breath out. He turned, stretching his legs out on the sofa and leaning back against Harry once more. Harry shifted his arms, wrapping them around Draco's chest. He was acutely conscious of every place their bodies touched.
Harry hadn't saved Draco the first time; hadn't known he was worth saving.
Second chances, he thought.
He tightened his arms.